Neh-Thalggu, Bone Men, Conspiracies, and Revelations, by Dr. Henrik Klein
Spirits seemed to lift among my new companions as we left the prison walls. Strange it feels to write of them as such; however, the nature of academia means occasionally working with those whose strengths cover your own shortcomings. Indeed, Alice is much stronger of arm than myself; Zivanka and Talyssa wield magic that I cannot; and Paffle's stature allows him a different perspective — also, as irritating as they are, his songs are useful. As for Huck, the boy has a certain naïve optimism that I admit grates upon me, but it is difficult to begrudge him it. I feel I have spent too long of late in groaning halls and whispering tomes; perhaps his more cheerful and simplistic outlook will be good for me to consider.
Zivanka suggested we follow another lead we had — that of the madman, Antrellus. His tracks from the fountain were old, but with the assistance of Talyssa's python familiar, whom she finally introduced as Sir Hiss, we were able to follow them through the nearby woods. The forest was filled with old growth; the kind in fables, where the trees themselves seem to tell their own stories. After an hour of trekking, it began to grow dark, though my watch stated it was still some hours before twilight; glancing upward, I saw that the feeble light struggled to reach between the branches above.
We then came upon a small shack, connected by a rope bridge to a small house in a large tree. Huck moved for the door; feeling the back of my neck prickle, I grasped his shoulder to stop him. The trap was well-hidden, but it was there; I — or someone I was? — had seen many of them before. I took a large stone and threw it onto the ground before the door. It sunk quickly into the ground, dragging with it the netting and leaf litter that had hidden the gaping pit beneath it. Huck whistled appreciatively as he stood at the edge and peered down at the sharpened stakes lining its floor, then edged around the trap and made his way through the door. I must admit, I felt a small amount of pride in myself, having allowed him to dodge such a well-disguised pitfall, but my good spirits were lowered somewhat when, as we filed into the small shack, Paffle called out directly to the madman, as if to bring him right to us!
As his words rang out across the bridge, the door to the tree-house flew open, and there stood the man, his eyes and hair wild, his knotty hands aiming a crossbow at Huck, who was nearest to the bridge. He demanded to know who and what we were, asking if we were with 'the Way'; I responded in the negative, but he did not seem to calm at all until Huck said he was a farmer. "I can trust a farmer," the madman said, operating on some strange internal logic. "You can come across." As if an afterthought, he added, "The rest, too, if you trust them." He made a movement out of sight (by the motion of his shoulder, apparently pulling a lever), and as we made our way across the swaying rope bridge, I glanced back, seeing an axe poised to drop down, striking whoever came through the door unbidden.
The tree-house was small, cramped, and filled with junk; clearly Antrellus was a hoarder of everything cast-away by the more fortunate. Of more personal interest to me were his notes, nailed and pinned into every available inch of wall, connected by lines of charcoal and string. They were a haphazard and disconnected lot, written on the backs of records, of old sales receipts, and of discarded correspondence. Zivanka, read one, connected to a larger sheet marked Church of Pharasma. Lepidstadt University was there, too. One page, with a large question mark, read Professor Lorrimor. Antrellus paced, as best as he could with us all crowded in, apparently unable — or unwilling — to remain still.
A small voice came from near my thighs; I recognized it as Paffle, trying to speak quietly. (To his credit, it was several decibels below his normal volume, though still barely secret; however, the madman seemed not to notice.) The gnome pointed out that the notes had been encrypted once, but the code had either been abandoned as they fell into nonsensical ramblings, or had ascended linguistically to a cipher scholars would take years to crack. Indeed, as I bent closer to examine them (I already had to stoop due to the low ceiling of the place) I could see the rudimentary alphabetical cipher devolve into an incomprehensible mass of symbols, with no rhyme or reason to be found.
Antrellus asked several pointed questions about our relationship to the Whispering Way; my visible hatred of the mention seemed to assuage him somewhat, and he relaxed, though did not still his movements. He was emaciated and feverish, his words pitched and his face drawn; he ranted about a "bone man", an agent of the Whispering Way who met with people on the road from Thrushmoor and wore bones like armour — "But I found his familiar, and drowned it!" he exclaimed with a kind of manic glee. I glanced at Zivanka at this moment, and her eyes met mine; she too, then, understood that this had been the fate of the bird Eronel. I desired greatly to examine the man, but he would not stay still; I suspected there may be a parasitic infection causing his erratic manner, but it was impossible to tell without a closer inspection. Alice managed to get a hand on his shoulder, and drew back a moment later, her eyes wide. She shifted to stand beside me, and spoke in a low voice, in Hallit, which she knew I spoke, as if to keep a message secret. Her words were chilling: in attempting to psychically read him, she instead received only a vision of blackness punctuated by unrecognized stars and constellations, and a feeling of spinning endlessly in a space void of anything. The words Dark Tapestry did not translate as clearly in the less civilized tongue, but we both recognized that terrible void for what it was.
As Antrellus continued to rant at whoever seemed most likely to listen, which at that moment was Huck, I noticed a mark on his chest. It was a tattoo, partly overgrown with hair, but still recognizable: a scarab with an eye on its back, bearing a spiral within. The Esoteric Order of the Palatine Eye! I interjected, cutting off Huck, and, fixing the man in my stare, intoned the words, "Ab Sek, Abet Sahu", and knew instantly that I was on the right path, as Antrellus rubbed his forehead in confusion and replied, as if recalling the words with great effort, "Sek Ahmet Thul Khof. You're from the Order, then?" Not wanting to be denied this opening, I lied to the man, and said that I was; he seemed ready to believe me, after all. He scratched at a spot on the back of his neck, and I saw something bulging and moving just beneath the skin — undoubtedly the cause of his affliction.
I bade him sit, and he finally did; instantly, he fell asleep, as though his body had been going through the motions of wakefulness without realizing. No sooner had Zivanka and I moved in to inspect him than he began to seize and convulse, his body shaking and his limbs flailing. The bulge at the base of the neck began to undulate, moving towards the atlas. Alice grasped the man from behind, holding his arms still, and I forced his head forward, exposing the curve of the spine to Zivanka, who was already grabbing pins and pliers from her bag. I reminded her of the major nerves to avoid severing; she nodded grimly and made the incision, thrusting her forceps into the wound and removing a horrifying larval creature, a foot long and wriggling as it expired, exposed to light and air.
Horrified, she dropped it; I picked up the thing and placed it in a specimen jar to examine later. Unfortunately, Antrellus was dead by now, and a quick examination revealed the cause to be internal decapitation. The creature had severed the cervical vertebrae in its thrashing, and had been moving towards the brain when extracted. Sighing, I shook my head; Zivanka closed the man's eyes, and Paffle spoke: "I'm going to ask what we're all thinking: what is that thing?!"
"A brain collector," Huck said before I could answer; surprised, I made a note to ask him about that later. To elaborate further, I provided more detail about the neh-thalggu, aberrant creatures from alien worlds, travelling planets in order to harvest brains for unknown means. Paffle asked what it was doing here, but for that I had no answer. Due to Zivanka's expert removal, the specimen was in excellent condition; with a quick inspection, I knew it would make a fine addition to my own wunderkammer, and decided to begin the process of preservation that night.
While the others went through the man's junk, I perused the notes on the walls. I found little of use, but did find the name of this bone man — Auren Vrood, described as a 'dark rider' of the Whispering Way. (Petros used these words as well — is this a descriptor or a title?) Lines like veins connected him to Thrushmoor and Illmarsh. Petros' name was linked to the University, where another piece of paper was pinned, marked and underlined: Akashic Society. Huck found a set of trap-making tools, and Paffle found the man's crossbow, but there was nothing else of interest. Huck and Alice carried the man's body outside, laying him in the wagon hitched to the mule Molly, and we made our grim way back to Ravengrad.
A ghastly sight we must have made, a procession of six leading a mule-cart with an indistinct figure covered by an old blanket! Indeed we drew much attention from the few townsfolk still about at the late hour, but thankfully those with me refused to answer any questions, instead insisting we see the sheriff. Caeller came to us soon enough, and his presence was enough to make the provincials leave, muttering to themselves. I feel nothing we do will disperse their rumours and falsehoods until Harrowstone is dealt with — and then I can leave this miserable and superstitious place, and rest my eyes.
Caeller was disturbed greatly by the body of Antrellus, but believed our version of the events that led to its creation, especially after I showed him the specimen I had taken. I offered him the jar to examine, but he seemed hesitant to touch it, or even look at it overlong, and indeed seemed queasy when I began to explain the reproductive cycle of the beast (a shame, as it is a fascinating topic). His face was not creased with worry at the implications of this, but taut with horror. Thankfully, as he explained, nobody else in Ravengrad had exhibited the same symptoms as Antrellus, meaning that further infestations were unlikely.
Zivanka took the body of Antrellus into the care pf the church, saying that she would likely be working late into the night, and would meet us at the estate in the morning. Huck expressed his need for a drink, and Talyssa went with him to the Laughing Demon. I desired a quieter location in which to work after the events of the day, and returned instead to the Outward Inn, with Paffle and Alice following shortly after.
I began the process of preserving the specimen, injecting it throughout with alcohol before positioning it carefully in the jar. I pried the mouth open, exposing the teeth and throat, and curled the thing's tail above it. The effect was dramatic — this was no foetal piglet or lamb, the unfortunate result of some congenital defect or barnyard accident, but a predatory parasite, poised and ready to devour the brain. It stared blindly back at me, bloated and heavy against the bottom of the jar, and I set it behind the desk, away from eyes and light both.
I made my way downstairs and managed to get the proprietress' attention from Paffle long enough to purchase a glass of the local liquor, a sweet yet astringent spirit made of fermented cherries. The gnome was attempting to persuade her to sell him more alcohol than she was willing to provide, all the while bustling around and taking care of various chores — at the time I left with my glass, he was fetching well-water for the dishes.
With my scarf across my lap, I selected a point near the latest addition and began carefully expanding it, adding to the rich tapestry of botanicals the beginning of an edelweiss cluster. The familiar work was a balm to my active mind, and as the first flower took shape, I felt a pleasant stillness settle through the corners of my consciousness, soothed by occupation and alcohol. Upstairs, I heard Alice finish her bath and dress again, but instead of crossing to her room, as I had expected, she instead came downstairs, apparently not ready to sleep yet herself. Paffle was by this point sweeping floors with a cantrip, but the proprietress yet refused him a third glass.
Perhaps Alice has an interest in embroidery, perhaps she was simply surprised to see me doing 'woman's work', or perhaps she merely wished to keep her enemies close, as it were, due to her clear distrust of me. Whatever her reason, she took the chair closest to me, and I occasionally felt her watching my face or my hands even as she worked on her own craft: brush calligraphy, a poem of some kind, though I did not pry by reading it. She spoke not a word to me, nor I to her; we instead shared a silence broken only by Paffle's bustling and flattery. Finally, as I finished the third flower and packed my things back into the enchanted haversack I had claimed as my own, the proprietress relented, giving the gnome a small glass of brandy as a nightcap and shooing him away.
It was at that point that I noticed the serpent sliding quickly across the floor of the common-room, ignoring Paffle and heading directly for Alice and myself. I felt a brief alarm, before I recognized the unique black and red banding as Sir Hiss, the companion of Talyssa. The creature did not appear distressed, as I would expect were the woman in danger, but it did seem to want something; having acquired my attention, it turned for the door and looked briefly back, in a strangely anthropomorphic gesture I would not have thought likely of a lower reptile. After Alice retrieved her glaive and Paffle drank his hard-won tipple, we followed the creature back outside, and across to the monument.
Talyssa was there, supporting Huck, who was swaying slightly; immediately I knew he was merely heavily intoxicated, though apparently sobering quickly. The cause of this was immediately apparent, for slumped at the foot of the monument was the corpse of Gibs Hephanus.
While Paffle went to fetch Zivanka from the temple, I pulled away my glove and checked the man's vitals. There was no pulse, nor sign of breathing, and the cause of death was immediately apparent: his throat was cut, leading to rapid exsanguination. Inspecting the wound, I determined that it had been inflicted from behind, with a short cutting implement, like a dagger or a knife — or, I realized, noting the empty leather case at the body's belt, a razor. Rigor mortis had not yet set in; he was slumped at the foot of the monument, his eyes staring at the emptiness of the Boneyard, and in his blood were writ two letters large on the pedestal: K E.
Any relief I felt at the realization that it was not my own name being spelled out in blood was quickly overshadowed by not only the headache that began as a whisper and grew swiftly to a roar, but also my immediate concern for Kendra. I pressed down the brief sensation of panic; after all, the Splatter Man's modus operandi was to only kill after the victim had discovered their entire name. At this rate, we had plenty of time before he made his decisive blow — but then, more would die to fuel his campaign of terror.
Zivanka arrived presently, and was able to confirm what I had suspected. Huck, sobering, accompanied myself in searching the area for any sign of the ill deed; Alice split off to search independently. It was she who found the culprit: one of the deputies of Ravengrad, the man Vrodish. He was supposed to be on patrol; instead, he was unconscious in the grass nearby, and there was little doubt in my mind that Gibs had died at his hand, for near his bloody sleeve and hand lay the murder weapon: the victim's razor, its edge still faintly wet with gore. It glistened, red and damning in the gibbous moon, and as I stared, I felt some dark influence dance tantalisingly out of reach of the corners of my mind, urging me to—
I squashed the idea, locking it away. There were more important things to do. I uncorked the smelling salts I carried in the pocket of my coat, waving them under the man's nose until he woke with a start, clearly confused as to his whereabouts. To his reckoning, he had started patrol, and must have suddenly fell asleep. I watched Alice as he said these words; she seemed to believe him, as did Huck (though that boy would believe the sky to be green, if you told him such!) Deputy Tresselblade came by presently, and sent for Caeller while Vrodish began to fret over his circumstances — after all, it is not every day one wakes to find himself accused of a murder!
Caeller was understanding of the situation, though regretful. There was sadness in his eyes as he told Vrodish he'd have to keep him jailed for the time being, until this entire matter were resolved. He took the razor, despite that whispering urge to keep it; I had to shut my eyes with some force to clear the nagging thoughts. My mind was overburdened indeed: with knowledge, with restless action, and with the burdensome weight of my own secrets.
At least one of these, I could avail myself of. As I made my way back to the inn, I fell into stride alongside Zivanka, so promising and observant. "Perhaps it is time to clear the air," I said, apropos of nothing; she glanced up at me, startled by my sudden words, but then nodded.
"There are enough secrets in this town," she agreed. "I will prepare a spell for the morning." As she parted for the temple, doubtless with ever more work to do, I allowed myself a small smile: she remembered my calculated flair for the dramatic, after all.
Moonday, 15th of Arodus. 29°, clear.
With my resolve set, I cleared my throat to gather attention over breakfast at the Lorrimor household. I first announced that there were certain secrets being kept, that needed to be brought to light before one's conscience could be eased. Zivanka looked knowing; Alice, suspicious; and Paffle bore an expressio of guilt as he began slowly emptying his pockets of several boiled sweets I recognized as being lifted from my belongings while I was otherwise occupied. I pressed on, emphasising that there were far deeper matters than some pilfered humbugs, as I began to remove the dyes from first my hands, then my face. Finally, I removed the lenses from my eyes, placing them back in their vial, and stared around the table, my true countenance exposed to their shocked expressions.
I explained somewhat of my nature: of the cycle of reincarnation, the memory retention across lifetimes, and the limited communication with these past selves. I informed them of some of the more unique aspects of my physiology, such as the lack of friction ridges and umbilicus, the higher body temperature than that of a healthy human — and, of course, the unsettling colour, or lack thereof, of my blood, which I demonstrated perhaps a touch dramatically, by slicing one of the superficial veins of my forearm and offering the limb to any who wished to see the transparent liquid. Paffle leaned forward, as if enthralled by the demonstration; however, I noticed Talyssa shift backwards, adjusting the brim of her hat in what she likely thought was a surreptitious gesture. She spoke nothing, yet the others all had much to say.
Huck seemed to take the revelation in remarkable stride. He was from a border town, he explained, and saw many a group of travellers and Pathfinders seeking adventure and fortune. By his reckoning, I was far from the strangest being he had seen — though how much he focused merely on my alien appearance over my perplexing nature is uncertain. Alice was more obviously surprised, and I must confess to being pleased by this, her inquisitiveness had borne strange fruit, after all. After gathering herself, she stated that she was merely pleased I was not some manner of devil, and followed by expressing her sympathies — "To be denied the peace of death is a great tragedy," she explained (this surprised me; of the few people I had revealed my nature to, many had commented on other aspects of it, rather than the despair-inducing fact that I would never see the Boneyard). Zivanka, already knowing, instead lay a hand across the wound in my arm to close it, and as I buttoned my sleeve again, Paffle spoke, placing his pilfered sweets back in his pockets as he did so.
"Unfortunately," he said, his large eyes glittering like a cat facing down a bowl of cream, "you're now the most interesting person I've ever met. You must have so many stories to tell!" Before he could hound me further, Kendra cleared her throat, and I focused on her, ignoring Paffle practically climbing over the table to look more closely at my hands.
"Father was always very careful when he spoke about you. He avoided mentioning dates as much as possible, but something never added up. He spoke as if he'd known you for far longer than I thought was possible." She was smiling, a sort of wistful expressed that misted at her eyes and tugged at her jaw — the same expression Petros had worn so many times, and I was struck once again by how much of his likeness she carried. "I'm sure there's plenty more to say, but I'm sure Harrowstone will be easier to take on without the weight of such a secret."
I nodded in agreement, shaking Paffle off my sleeve long enough to finish buttoning the cuff. However, now freed from the restriction of my fake irises, I focused my sight of Talyssa. She hid something; I was certain of it — the only question was whether it would prove to be a detriment.