The Piper, the engine, the Marauder, and the Splatter Man
With the spirit of Father Charlatan put to temporary rest, I posited that we should seek out the Piper of Illmarsh before proceeding into the Nevermore. As we knew which foe we would engage with next, we returned to the prison vault to fetch the flute, suspecting that the psychic resonance of the object would provide an edge against the haunt.
When we found the pigeon-holes that held the strange objects, I noticed a change in the fused mass of holy symbols. As I picked up the chain, the symbols slid free, no longer joined and, in fact, showing no signs of having been fused together in the first place. All were made of silver, and despite their fine make, few would wish to carry them. I myself have never felt the need to display what faith I have openly, and Zivanka already carried her own spiral comet. Paffle, however, pulled at the mass in my hand and withdrew the distinctive die symbol of Nivi Rhombodazzle, that whimsical and flighty god of the gnomes. We agreed that the rest be melted and the silver sold for other uses.
Alice handled the flute for a minute, clearly trying to glean its secrets. Eventually, she shook her head. "It remembers little," she said. "The scent of mildew and rot, the sound of a baby crying — and a woman's voice. I'm sorry, it's a boy. I don't know the place; I'm afraid this country is unfamiliar to me."
The cell blocks were the last unexplored portion of the first floor of the prison, so it was there we sought the Piper's restless spirit. As we approached, we found it prudent that most of us block our ears to avoid the Piper's queer music; all except Paffle, who was able to negate its effects with his own performance. I of course had ear protection already, as any chemist or alchemist knows the importance of such when working with volatile components; the others made do with improvised plugs of wax or cotton.
The cell blocks had been gutted by the fire. Char and rust predominated the space, though the wooden cells remained mainly intact. I began to wonder when we might hear the Piper, and indeed, as we approached, Paffle turned his head as if hearing a note, then motioned to us that something was coming. All was still for a second, before the cells rattled with animate skeletal remains, the former prisoners grasping at our clothes and bashing against the bars in an attempt to escape.
With a loud humming that was audible even through our ear-plugs, two large stirges alighted on Alice, weaving inside the reach of her glaive; thankfully, they were quickly dispatched, for as Huck swung Riftsealer to bisect one, I skewered the other through the head and thorax. As I shook it free of my rapier, I followed the line of Paffle's pointing finger, seeing on the upper walkway the spectral figure of the Piper, seeing the annoyance burning in the pinpoints of light within its orbits, and I realized the gnome had countered his performance.
I broke into a run, charging for the stairs, ignoring the skeletons to either side as they reached desperately through the bars. Huck made the stairs before I could, but they groaned and splintered under his weight; he fell off the side as he tried to correct himself, and I paused at the top to help pull him up. Below, I saw flashes of light as Zivanka worked her magic against the mindless dead, and caught brief glimpses of the others following our lead, ignoring the skeletons and coming for the Piper.
Talyssa reached the spirit before I could, and my progress was hindered as two skeletons burst from the cells nearest to myself and Huck. The first clawed at me, but I was protected by my stiff vambraces, and the second closed the distance to Huck only to be destroyed by the boy's magic and blade, woven in tandem. Ahead of me, I saw Talyssa reach out for the ghostly flautist, as if to cast a spell, but the spectre caught her thin wrist in its hand, and she fell to the ground. I hurried forward, ducking past the skeleton and landing a blow on the Piper, but it was Huck who dispelled it, delivering a surge of electricity through Riftsealer and ending the undead's existence with a shriek. The skeletons immediately collapsed into mere piles of dusty bones, and I was able to stabilize Talyssa with one of the few innate magics of my people before Zivanka arrived to bring her back to consciousness.
Talyssa refused examination, saying she felt fine; while I would have preferred to check where she had struck her head in the fall, I had enough trust in Zivanka's ability to drop the matter. Inspecting the cells, I heard a faint rapping in one of them, recognizing it as a weak haunt: not strong enough to exert its will on its surrounds, but just strong enough to attempt to communicate. I reached into my pack and drew the spirit board and planchette that we had recovered from the false tomb, and the moment my fingers touched the device, the planchette jittered briefly before dragging itself across to Hello. From there, it was simple to communicate with the feeble presence that remained: it had been Paigh, dead before the time of the fire, murdered by his cellmate and only wanting to leave. The others readied themselves for trouble, while I freed the haunt by simply unlocking and opening the cell door. I placed two fingers on the planchette, which moved simply to Goodbye, and Zivanka reported that the small presence was gone.
With the second nexus haunt dispatched, we made our way to the roof to examine what may have been left at the site of Petros' death. We emerged into a watchtower, the walls lined with ballistae, cauldrons, and a search-light apparatus, all ill-maintained and worth little. The most interesting object by far was what I could only assume was the ethereal quiescence engine: a contraption that filled the tower, squatting like a large toad, hulking like a gargoyle. It was glass and steel; copper and brass; tubes and pipes and coils and gears that, under normal circumstances, would be grinding and sparking, but which was now still and silent. I followed the topmost point of the engine to a lightning rod, positioned so as to draw electricity from any surrounding storms. The machine was a true wonder, clearly assembled at this location, developed over an extensive period. No matter how dearly I would have loved to examine the device, to take it apart piece by piece and reassemble it the way I would a pen, a pocket-watch, or a music-box, we had more pressing concerns. I surveyed the room around the machine, the tools on the ground, and the view of the yard below from the ledge, and the past swam into view before me: I could see, with my strong visualisation, Petros working on this engine in the middle of the storm, a brief struggle with an assailant, and then the fall, long enough to process his impending death—
I stopped myself from imagining the sounds and sensations of the collision, suddenly feeling quite ill. Instead, I busied myself with pacing about the machine and casting my gaze outward — whereupon I espied the unusual sight of hoof-prints on the roof. I checked them more closely, and found that they were certainly equine, and furthermore, burned into the surface. It brought to mind those steeds of Abaddon, the nightmares, who canter across earth and air alike.
I was brought out of this train of thought by Paffle exclaiming that he'd found the core of the machine. Moving beside him, I saw that indeed, he had located a wire frame that held six rubies. Two of the gems shone brightly, but the other four seemed to have lost their lustre, instead resembling dull glass. The gnome posited that these corresponded to the nexus haunts — yet, again, the sixth dogged and evaded me. Before I could stop him, he pulled the small lattice free and pocketed it, though fortunately, no ill effect seemed to come of this.
Meanwhile, Huck discovered a small tray which would slide out at the press of a button. When he did so, it showed itself to be empty, spare for inscriptions of a fragment of a larger circular object, and traces of a metal I quickly identified as lead. I drew my note-book and charcoal, taking a rubbing of the inscription and studying it carefully. The markings were in ancient Osiriani, and after searching the infinite corridors of my memory, I recognized it — very faintly! — as an old, large coin, which would typically have been made of gold. Yet this had been cast in iron and fragmented, used in this eccentric device, and then removed — possibly stolen by this mysterious figure that had so troubled Antrellus.
Perhaps we could have continued our investigations into the Nevermore itself, but I wished to see Talyssa well-rested after her tangle with the Piper of Illmarsh. Therefore, we exited for the day, and after a quiet dinner, made our way to rest. As my mind whirled with the discoveries of the day, and my body ached after the fast-paced fight, I found myself with my sleeping-draught in hand before I realised I was mixing it. With it, I sank swiftly into a merciful, dreamless sleep.
Wealday, 17th of Arodus, 27°, cloudy.
Rested and refreshed, we made our way back to Harrowstone once more, knowing that only one floor remained to search. The basement, where the most notorious and dangerous criminals had been imprisoned: the Nevermore. Huck detoured past the vault, emerging with the spellbook and the hammer, saying simply that he wanted to see what happened.
Our journey downward proved to be little trouble. A mud elemental — a being from the space where the elemental poles of earth and water meet — rose from the sludge and made towards Alice, but Paffle's screech left it reeling. and a moment later, Talyssa hypnotised it and sent it retreating into the damp, never to bother us again. Once clear of the flooded areas, and as Paffle cleaned and dried our garments with a spell, we saw the grisly remains of the elevator mechanism, which had apparently fallen, crushing several people below it.
Four paths radiated outwards from the central chamber, in the cardinal directions. To the north was the Oubliette; to the south, the Nevermore; to the east, Hell's Basement; and to the west, Reaper's Hold. Finding any path as good as the others, I elected to lead us west, into Reaper's Hold. From that corridor, faced with doors to the north and south, Huck chose and opened the south door, Riftsealer at the ready.
We had barely enough time to comprehend the figure of Ispin Onyxcudgel, rising from a chair accompanied by two ghastly, chattering skulls, before Zivanka thrust her symbol high and washed the room in white light, reducing one of the skulls to mere fragments and ash. I charged recklessly into the room, skewering the other through the orbit and hurling it against the far wall with a flick of my blade, where it shattered. As it did so, the shade of Onyxcudgel bellowed in anger and vanished, its manifestation apparently linked too strongly to the skulls that had vexed and tormented him so in life.
After taking a moment to ensure the haunt was truly gone, I brushed the bits of bone from my rapier and examined the room. A hidden door, accessible with a well-hidden lock in a bookshelf that I was able to pick, swung back to reveal what had once been a hidden armoury. The maille, weaponry, and ammunition was of some small use, with Huck and Alice replacing their own garb, but the true value was in two mostly-depleted wands, and an enchanted rope of climbing.
Further down the corridor, we found more cells, each barely enough space to stand and all empty — whoever had been here had likely been released or broken free in the riot. However, the back wall of the main room had been plastered over, some time before the riot and ensuing fire; after some time picking at it Huck, Alice, and I uncovered a door, imposing and bound in metal. Paffle lit a feather from his mantle with a cantrip and pushed it through the keyhole; peering through, I saw the chilling sight of a torture chamber.
We made our way into the room, seeing the expected implements: thumbscrews, boots, and a rack, among others. The most incongruous was an elaborate iron maiden, currently open, no less threatening for it being closed. A body lay on the rack, and as I moved to examine it, Zivanka exclaimed that something was beginning to manifest. I immediately turned to the iron maiden in time to catch it start to creak open; unwilling to risk someone being drawn into the spikes, I quickly uncapped one of the haunt siphons from the false crypt, and the ghostly hands and tendrils beginning to form about the device thrashed and writhed as they were drawn into the glass canister, and when I capped it again, it glowed faintly green, flashing as if I had captured anger itself.
No longer in any danger, we examined the skeletal body on the rack. One mere damning identifier remained, protected from the flames by its magical properties: the badge of Warden Hawkran, wedged into the shattered mandible. The scene laid itself before me: Hawkran, snatched in the commotion of the riot, dragged into this chamber to be tortured — I saw that the hips and shoulders had been dislocated, the hands severed, and several keys sat within the broken pelvis — and died on this very device. The matter of how the room was entered when the door had been plastered over was solved when I found a seam in the wall beside a shelf of branding-irons; following the tunnel thus revealed took us behind the elevator shaft and towards what the plaque proclaimed to be the Nevermore.
This was a grim installation of cages, many of them yawning open uselessly. In the centre gaped an oubliette, a hideous black hole with no visible floor from where we stood. From behind me, Zivanka said, "Something is down there. Something very powerful." Huck agreed, saying it felt like his first night in Ravengrad, when he had woken to find the bloody letter on his wall. This, then, was the Splatter Man's final resting place. With this warning, we were not taken aback when the letters began appearing on the walls, seemingly written in fresh blood. They were nonsense, randomly splashed; they spelled nothing, signified nothing. Yet Paffle, from my right, let out a shriek. "It's my name!" he screeched. "It's spelling my name!" He began firing his crossbow at the nearest wall, sending splintering bolts in every direction.
Zivanka and Huck were more level-headed, taking to cleansing the area with their magic; possessed of none myself, I instead flung a flask of holy water at one of the letters. A moment later, the ghostly figure of Hean Feramin rose from the oubliette with a hideous cry, hurling magical projectiles at the majority of us; I raised my arm instinctively, but saw them dissipate against the barrier of force afforded me by one of my potions. From there, the battle was a wild mêlée of swords and spells: the crackle of Huck's electricity, Paffle's bolts, even Talyssa stepping in to send positive energy into the ghastly figure. I feared for a moment we had lost Alice when Feramin focused his barrage on her, but I saw Zivanka lay a hand on her back, renewing her vigour. We pressed the Splatter Man into a corner, focusing all of our efforts on the ghost; it was Huck who finally, furious after missing a blow, cast the spell the figure so preferred, blasting a hole through his ectoplasmic form and dispelling it, leaving the room in deadly silence.
Hean Feramin, the Splatter Man, had been defeated. The oppressive chill of the prison even felt lighter, as if he had been the strongest presence. Two nexus haunts remained: Vance Saetressle, and that mysterious, ever-taunting sixth.