The Lopper, the sixth nexus haunt, and the liberation of Harrowstone
The spirit of Hean Feramin, the Splatter Man, had been slain, and it had been a productive day wuthin Harrowstone. Knowing we likely had two powerful spirits left to destroy, we decided to leave, rest a night, and pursue other investigations into the mysterious figure of Auren Vrood. This individual had clearly done much about Ravengrad, and anything we could uncover about him would be useful in determining what the Whispering Way's plans might be.
With the aid of Paffle, able to talk to animals as is the gift of the gnomish species, Zivanka began to question a family of local ravens, her reasoning being that they may have been unsettled by Vrood's familiar. After several minutes of back and forth, with Paffle making all manner of avian vocalisations and motions, the gnome suddenly swept a peacock feather from his mantle and presented it to the largest bird in the manner of a gift; amidst the happy cawing that resulted, he shared what he had learned:
- The "not-a-raven" was known to the local birds; it had spent a good amount of time in the area and left before the "bad feeling in the air";
- It had come to Ravengrad, looked at everything, and found the prison of much interest (the birds themselves tended to avoid the place);
- It brought with it a man who rattled when he walked, carried trinkets, and used magic;
- The raven spoke to the local birds in their own tongue, but with a strange accent;
- The man had spent a lot of time on the roof by the "lightning box";
- The local birds had not seen the "not-a-raven" since the large storm where Petros had died;
- The man had come from "the road that goes around the lake" (the eastern road to Tamrivena);
- He never "roosted" in the town, but instead in an abandoned carriage house;
- He kept to himself, talking only to his "not-a-raven" and his "pet rock" (a stone of sending?)
- He left the same way he had arrived, mounted on a "horse of shadow and flame" (almost certainly the nightmare whose hoof-prints had been burned into the roof)
We made our way to the carriage house, long abandoned on the outskirts of the town. There was little to find; there were signs of former human occupation, but not many. The smell of sulphur lingered in the air, the tell-tale hoof prints were by the door, and the only sign of activity was a rat, vivisected upon a plank of wood. The incisions were precise, and the grim work was professional — perhaps Vrood had medical training (I should consult the records at the University to see if he may have attended at some point). Alice laid two fingers upon the grim trophy, stating that she felt from it a feeling of boredom, as if the vivisection had merely been a means of passing the time. Apparently Vrood had been here many days, though the nightmare had not. As we left, Huck shuddered, saying that Riftsealer "didn't like the place".
We finished the day, as had become the custom, with a meal at the Lorrimor estate. Kendra seemed to be getting used to the absence of her father, though I never felt truly at ease in my memory. I have been occupying myself, body and mind, with his last work, but perhaps I should allow myself time to properly mourn my beloved friend. It may help me to relax.
Oathday, 18th of Arodus. 28°, cloudy.
We returned to that dreadful institution, and made our way back down to the lower level with the aid of the magical rope. The mud elemental, apparently figuring we were more trouble than it wished to tangle with, slunk away from Alice as she descended first, not to bother us further.
From there we moved to the Oubliette, knowing that Vance Saetressle's spirit likely lurked there. The oubliette itself yawned in the centre of the floor, covered with a thick wire grate to which a burned rope was attached and surrounded by cages that, as we entered, manifested the silvery ectoplasmic figures of men in guard uniforms. They moaned and grasped at us as we approached, but we made our way towards the pit nonetheless.
"He's here!" Alice announced, moving to place the pit within reach of her glaive and swinging the weapon at one of the ghostly guards. As she sliced through it, it dissipated, leaving behind only traces of ectoplasm smeared on the bars of its cell. A moment later, the grate swung open and the ghostly figure of the Lopper rose from the pit, laughing in manic glee and swinging the axe into Alice's hip. The blood rose from the wound in a fine mist, and the Lopper breathed it deep.
As I saw the red mist rising, I felt it — that presence, clouding the emotional centres of my brain. Something lurked deep inside my temporal lobe, awakened by the strong presence of blood: something I had not felt in a long time, first at Fifthstones and later at sparse moments, always fleeting, but now, it was awakened from dormancy. I swallowed hard and tried to snuff the uncanny feeling, but it clouded my vision and weakened my arm, as if I were possessed. When I stabbed at the guard grasping at my back, I missed wide, and the limb felt leaden. And— gods above, I heard something laughing.
I saw Paffle begin to hum and dance; I saw Huck move in to swing at the Lopper and merely catch air. I forced myself to act slowly, breathing deep and deliberate, as I examined the figure. Undead, obviously incorporeal. Draining life with each touch, aerial mobility, clearly in command of the ectoplasmic guards (I swatted at one trying to clutch my sleeve) — everything fit the patterns of a wraith, those hideous spirits that create spawn from those they slay. Time seemed to slow as I saw its legs, distended and broken, hanging limp and useless under the hips and swaying with every swing of the axe. My eyes followed them to the grate in the floor, with the rope still tied to it — a rope burned to cinders. The last moments of Saetressle revealed themselves to me thusly: he had fallen into the pit, and the rope, his only form of escape, had burned away, consigning him to a slow death, alone in the darkness.
Perhaps something of the fear of that great fire still lingered. Risking my own safety, I grasped the flask of alchemical flame in my pack, thrust my fist into the Lopper's ghostly face, and clenched my fist with enough force to shatter the glass. And shatter it did; the accelerant quickly ignited, and both my hand and the wraith's head were alight with dancing fire. As I wrenched back my hand, smothering the flame, I saw Saetressle's wraith shriek and swing wildly at me; I stepped back on instinct, and realized my mistake when the guard in the cell behind me grasped the laces of my vest and yanked me back hard against the bars. Pain shot through the left side of my chest, and I felt the lung collapse as I was slammed backwards a second time. So blinding was the pain, I barely registered when Paffle and Zivanka begin yelling that something else had positioned itself in the doorway, and craning my neck I saw a decapitated skeleton, swinging an axe of its own.
Shaken by the fire, Saetressle's wraith fled through the far wall; I managed to wrest my arm from the spiritual guard and hurl a second flask as it departed, its scream shrill through the stone room. Huck and Alice swung at it as it fled, further wounding it, a particularly strong blow from Alice nearly severing one shattered leg; Zivanka's channelling light filled the room, but faded an instant later as Paffle was flung into her by the skeleton. The gnome turned his face up towards me, grasping at the leg of my trousers, and I took it to be an action taken out of fear, but instead, he was attempting to magically heal me! Yet even as I felt the sharp change in pressure as my pneumothorax corrected itself and my breathing levelled, the skeleton swung its axe into his back, making his eyes bulge and his step falter; though through it all, he danced on.
While I was still adjusting to my newfound breath, I heard the grate slam shut as Alice kicked it back into place, and them her hand was on my shoulder. "We are close, docteur," I heard her say, and I was finally able to wrench myself from the ectoplasmic grip and bury my rapier in the undead guard's ribs to the hilt; with a final snuffed moan, it imploded. Where there had been five guards before, there were now only two, and they vanished as Zivanka's light flooded the air again. Alice turned from me and swung her glaive down into the skeleton, smashing its bones across the floor, and a sudden silence fell. The Lopper still lurked in the wall, and all we could do was wait for him to emerge.
Emerge he did, his axe held high, and he swung it in a brutal arc towards Paffle, but the gnome's quick shuffling dance steps carried him out of the way. Even as the spectral axe sank into the floor, everybody focused on the wielder, and it was Talyssa's crossbow bolt that dealt the final blow. Sometimes, the weakest effects ripple the most powerfully.
The pit contained a few items of small value. A fine sword, an enchanted mace, a stone of alarm, and a ring of keys. Evidently, the headless skeleton had been one of the guards. All but one of the gems in the small metal lattice now shone brightly, the last ever vexing me.
After gathering what bodies remained for proper consecration, we returned to the ghost of Vex with our dessicated cargo. She at once begged of us to reveal the fate of her husband; Paffle was the one who chose to do so, breaking the news gently and handing over the Warden's badge. I remained silent, as my own "bedside manner" was rather more lacking.
The shade sighed in relief, and once again we saw a vision play out on the walls around us. Vex, alive, stood by the elevator mechanism, demanding it be lowered. "My husband is down there!" she was crying. "We must save him!" A guard tried to lead her away, but she seized a mace from his belt and struck the mechanism, causing the platform to fall with a dreadful crash and the sound of crushing bodies. As the guards dragged Vex away to be locked in her sunroom, another yelled, "They're climbing the ropes!" The last thing the warden's wife saw before the doors slammed shut was a pair of guards pouring a cauldron of alchemical fire into the pit, and seconds later, the prison was aflame.
The sound of the doors slamming shut ended the vision, and the ghost of Vex knelt on the floor weeping in mourning and relief. She clutched at the hem of Zivanka's skirts, begging the girl to send her on to the Boneyard, and when she did so, the shade departed with a peaceful sigh. As she did so, the wire lattice twisted, folded itself in half, and fell, all six brilliantly-shining rubies lying inert.
As I gathered them, the pieces fell into place. Vex had not been a murderer after all, yet she was the sixth nexus haunt all the same, taking the place due to her misguided guilt in thinking she had killed her husband with the platform. What a cruel twist of fate for her, and what a predictable outcome had lurked beneath my very nose!
As I stood ruminating on this, a sudden pressure in my ears alerted me to a barometric shift. We all looked about the room as the pressure of the facility seemed to shift and release, an oppressive weight lifting from us all. When we stepped out into the midday sun, the dark clouds that had lurked above Harrowstone were themselves gone, and when I held my hand to the light, the six rubies glittered a brilliant red against the pale blue of my palm.
Harrowstone was freed from its haunts. Now, at last, there was time to mourn, time to celebrate, and time to prepare for what lay ahead.