The early morning sun had barely peeked over the eastern horizon as Sif made her way through long shadows across the town square. The village itself was coming awake as goodwives pushed their sleepy-eyed children out the door to begin the day’s chores. The usual sounds of cock’s crow and the occasional dog bark were joined that morning by something unexpected. Floating lightly upon the morning breeze was the sound of a hauntingly beautiful melody as if the world’s saddest fiddler were out playing his bow to catgut in a dirge for the day to come. Who the mysterious player might be was unguessed but the music, though mournful, was not unpleasant.
Sif was off to the General Store to shop for coloured feathers and amber beads- Ysabot had reported the evening before that these had just arrived in stock, as she decorated her staff and hair plait with black raven feathers.
The storekeep and a local gaffer chated idly near the front counter talking about the strange music, which had apparently been heard across parts of town since before dawn, speculating as to who could be the source. The storekeep’s wife stocked shelves while their young girls ran around playing chase. Sif once again eyed the suit of fine plate armor that stood near the door, wondering what kind of coin it would take to get the storekeep to part with it; not that she wanted it particularly “Too heavy” she thought, but she had heard the store owner
mention that it had belonged to his wife’s long-deceased grandfather from back when he fought for the Crown.
As one of the young girls opened the cellar door to fetch a pail of water for her mother, Sif hear heard the small child’s voice suddenly exclaim with delight, "Grammy?!” to which the storekeep’s wife patiently explained, “No, dear. You know Grammy and Grampy passed on from the fever last winter. She’s not waiting in the street for you.”
Out of the corner of her eye Sif noticed that the arm of the suit of armor seemed to shift and slightly raise, as if it had been dislodged and the whole thing was about to fall over forward, but she was distracted from further investigation by the sound of the heavy, slow tread of bare feet climbing the wooden porch and the look of delight still on the young girl’s face as she shouted, “It is Grammy!” .
As the suit of armor clattered to the floor at her feet she saw standing in the doorway the worm-eaten corpse of what was once a gray-bearded old man, and she could only think to herself “And this must be Grampy.”
Then the screaming began. With her maul at home, Sif drew her longsword and stepped between the corpses and the now retreating girl. With a powerful swing she lopped its head right off. The second corpse staggered forward however, and its claw-like fingers tore deep into the flesh of Sif’s arm, forcing her second blow to miss completely. Panic started to rise as it’s other arm grabbed her throat, and rotten teeth gaped open inches from her face.
A red mist descended over Sif’s eyes and reversing the grip on her sword, ripped upward into the jaw knocking the thing backwards. As it tottered to remain on its feet she took her blade in both hands and smashed its skull to fragments. It slumped to the floor.
Staggering she moved forward to the front door, gasping for air. Around her she could hear distant cried and screams around the village.
Across from her in the centre of the square the stray dog, Old River was standing in front of the wooden Gazebo, beneath which the local children had made him a hay and blanket filled den. He was snarling at a shrubbery with bared fangs, while behind him three children of no more than five or six years old played with wooden swords. One of them ran to River’s side, challenged and threatened something with the wooden sword, and then with a giggle and a shriek went back to his excited friends. Behind her a chorus of terrified screams erupted from the upper floor of the Store.
Meanwhile Christov had just got dressed, and out of his bedroom window he could see one of the upended tree trunks that served as Posting Poles for the community of Ravengro. Once per week Pevrin, the son of Zokar the proprieter of the Laughing Demon posted a weekly newsheet, notices from the Mayor or Sheriff, and any other news of import. One such pole was situated just across the covered bridge, next to a hedge. On top of this now was stood Pevrin, a full 6-8 feet above the ground. Christov’s view lower down was obscured by the hedge but the lad was obviously trying to evade something below. Trouble.
Christov grabbed his weapons, though he was still unarmoured apart from a padded leather jerkin. Ysabot, already awake early for once was eating downstairs, saw him rush out with weapons, and followed.
The pair rattled across the covered bridge and saw the posting pole just ahead. Pevrin was crouched at the top of the pole trying to stay out of reach of two clay-encrusted skeletons that swiped at him with jagged claws. His stack of posting notices lay scattered on the ground. Standing nearby was another skeleton,this one armored in a rusted breastplate. A frayed noose dangled from its broken neck, and a cracked leather eye patch covered one eye. The other two skeletons likewise had the remains of nooses hanging from them.
The armored skeleton moved towards Christov, who smashed into it with both weapons. The other two ceased their attentions at the pole and approached. However Christov quickly cut the leader down, and although he received a wound from one of the others the fight was quickly over. Relieved, Pevrin scrambled down the pole.
“Get home” said Christov, “Lock yourselves in upstairs.”
“I know these” said Ysabot, “These were a trio of Highwaymen hanged some years ago. Their leader wore an eyepatch and was called Kuchega or something. They still tell stories about him, though it was before my time. The description fits though.”
“Hmm” said Christov, and for the first time the two heard the eerily haunting music. “Let’s head into the village and see if anything else is up.”
As they the appraoched the Silk Purse they could see Quess hanging out of an upstairs window, her cleavage displayed magnificently. “There’s your friend” Ysabot said, nudging Christov. They could see that outside the main door their eight guards were drawn up in a semicircle, and seemed to have put paid to half a dozen or more walking dead which were lying dismembered or smashed on the ground.
“Christov! Christov sweetie” called Quess. Christov looked up, trying not to look at her breasts. “Stay here and help defend my establishment. Your little friend can help too. I’ll pay you both well!”
As they paused they could hear other sounds of disruption around the village. It was a quick descision.
“I’m sorry madame but you appear to be well defended. Others may need our help more. Good day!” said Christov, and the two hurried on.
Near the Gazebo they saw Old River still snarling at the bushes, and approaching they saw a withered corpse, its legs smashed by some defender’s weapon, crawling towards the dog and children. The thing was easily despatched without effort. As Ysabot patted the dog Christov scooted the children home. Then they heard Sif.
When she heard the screams from upstairs Sif cursed and turned round- it appeared that the family had fled upstairs for safety. She pelted up the wooden stairs into a long corridor, along which she could see an open door with members of the family inside.
This appeared to be a master bedroom , still dark and shuttered from the previous night’s repose. Near a single candle huddled the storekeep and his entire family , with only a few streaks of the dawning light leaking through the heavily curtained window. As the storekeeper pointed wordlessly one of the little girls screamed, and Sif noticed an area of deeper shadow appeared to engulf her. Shouting she stepped forward and wrenched the child backwards, and swept her sword through the darkness. It simply cut through air.
As furniture was upset and people retreated Sif, found herself engulfed by the darkness, and fealt the icy touch of the thing seemingly seeping away the very life from her. It seemed that her weapons had no effect. Sif briefly considered leaping through the shuttered window and chancing the fall down onto the street, but rejected this in favour of retreating backwards towards the stairs. She slashed and shouted as she did so, as she could not think of anything else to do.
As she neared the stairs the corridor suddenly lit up, but seeing nothing she continued to cut in front of her.
“Oh stop panicking Sif it’s us” said Ysabot. “What’s the matter?”
The group advanced back towards the bedroom, and this time Christov illuminated the whole room with a spell. As he did so he thought he saw a sliver of darkness flee out behind one of the shutters, which Ysabot then flung open, letting in the growing daylight.
“Look, let’s get our stuff and see what’s going on here” she said, “It’s no good you getting killed without your weapons and gear”. Quickly they made their way back to Kendra’s as they did so noticing Trestleblade and Kurt smashing down a lone walker with halberd and warhammer; it appeared that the Guard were moving about, trying to destroy any of the undead interlopers.
As they armed themselves they instructed Kendra and Milly to shutter and lock up, and then secure themselves up in attic, preferably taking the ladder up with them. As they emerged from the house the fiddle music was still playing, and they deduced that it was coming from the north. Christov suggested that they arouse the priests at the Temple of Pharisma,and so the quickest way to do this was to go back across the covered bridge and then then straight up the road which led to the Restlands.
As the trio raced along the road they saw Brother Rufio, sitting down on a verge with a small cut across his forehead, and looking much disheveled but otherwise none the worse for wear. He was wearing his padded jerkin, pot helm and small shield, and was armed with a light mace.
“Rufio” said Ysabot, " If all goes well today I might treat you to a gear upgrade. Been in the wars?" Rufio looked up and smiled faintly; he seemed to get on fairly well with the reputed Witch.
“An acolyte of Pharisma doesn’t have spare cash for worldly things. But today has been something of a trial I’ll admit.” he said, mopping his brow.
Rufio explained that he had been heading north towards the Restlands. In between gasps for breath, he explained that Father Grimburrow and the two gravediggers had headed up into the cemetery early in the morning before the eerie music had started: they were preparing a mauseleum for a funeral to be held later in the afternoon.
“Unfortunately they’ve not returned. About twenty minutes ago a group of walking dead overran the temple and killed Sister Sigridt” he shook his head, and wiped his sleeve across his face. “I…I tried to save her but we got seperated and I just heard her screams. And then I had to flee; I came to the town for help but I fear they have their own problems.”
Rufio explained that he had to get to the cemetery to alert Father Grimburrow and bring him back. Christov suggested he accompany them, which he agreed to with relief.
As they passed Councilman Muricar’s home however they heard a disturbance from within. The stately home of the Councilman stood to their right among the trees beside the road. Several of the lower windows were broken out and the occasional scream issued from within followed by the sound of shattering glass and breaking furniture. The group raced over, and inside saw the aged noble stood on a landing hurling flowerpots, stools and whatever else came to hand at the strange figure below him.
This was in the form of a wealthy man dressed in the finery of several decades ago – but its flesh was composed of the what Christov had previously identified as ectoplasm. The shape bore a vague resemblance to the Councilman himself.
When the Councilman caught sight of the group he shouted in a raspy, fear-choked voice, “Help me! I didn’t do it! He thinks I’m my father!” Christov and Sif rushed forward, and the figure quickly succombed to a powerful blow from Sif’s new maul. Before the Councilman could stutter out his thanks Christov was already heading back out the door; the others turned and followed.
As they rushed up the hill towards the Restlands they encountered the odd walking dead, which being vulnerable and alone were quickly cut down. Around them they could see odd figures shambling about, or the sounds of desperate combats.
The source of the day’s trouble seemed to lie ahead at the Restlands, and the volume of the eerie playing grew louder as they approached. The cemetary hill grew out of the moor like a well-tended garden of stone, rising beyond its gates past row upon row of headstones to a low hill crowned by a circle of ancient tomb vaults.
The fiddling floated over the cemetery much louder than elsewhere in town and achieved an almost manic quality. Everywhere across the cemetery tombstones lay tumbled over and the earth churned where things that ought lie still struggled to emerge from the cold ground. Yet atop the hill a single figure could be seen capering around, jumping to and fro in time to the music.
“There” said Christov and pointed. As the group rushed along the path they were delayed only slightly by a foul creature which emerged from a stand of brush -obviously once a wolf, its skin hangs in ragged strips from it moldering hide with ribs showing through the gaps in its bloated, putrid flesh. It died quickly, though not without savaging Sif to the extent where she needed a healing spell from Brother Rufio.
As they hit the Ancestor’s Walk they struck up towards the cluster of aged stone vaults standing atop the hill overgrown with creepers and high wild grass. It seemed thst this portion of the cemetery was older and received less tending than some of the other areas.
Barely visible in the tall grass were a number of headstones,cracked and crumbling with age and canted at wild angles from their long years exposed to the elements. Dancing among them like a vision out of a fever dream was a female form, with flowing blonde hair-obviously living, not undead. She was barefoot with long, lithe limbs and wearing a tattered and stained shift and the ragged remains of what looked like some sort of restraining jacket, obviously no longer restraining her.
In her arms she held a narrow-bodied gypsy fiddle which she played energetically as she danced about. Her face was the very picture of transported bliss as her eyes danced with gaiety and unbidden laughs actually burst forth from her mouth from time to time. With a shock Ysabot realised that she was actually a very pretty elf.
Though the elf may have been the image of grace and joy, the effects of her playing could not be denied, as rotten and skeletal arms continued to rise from the ground around her, clawing their way to the surface as they swayed in perfect time with the frenetic music.
In a cluster they surged forward, and as they did so a number of rotting and skeletal forms lurched towards them. Christov and Rufio stepped forward to engage them, while Ysabot reached for the flasks of holy water she had brought.
Quickly realising that the elf was the source of the problem, Sif ran off to the left, avoiding the majority of the undead forms. Finding a vantage point she readied her bow and fired a shot at the elf, and had the satisfaction of seeing her keel over backwards.
Moments later however her satisfaction turned to horror as the elf got up again, and started playing. From her position Ysabot noted that while she wasn’t playing however, the dead had ceased to rise.
Christov seemed locked in an impossible combat against numerous undead: while he could cut them down, more always seemed to appear, and occasionally he would take a wound. He could not keep this up forever, and eventually Brother Rufio fell down, clawed at by one too many skeletal hands. Ysabot ran her options through her mind.
Sif had meanwhile discarded her bow and lifted her maul, and ignoring all other targets raced across the lines of graves towards the fiddler. She almost made it, but already wounded from her previous encounter she was knocked to the ground. Her attackers shambled towards Christov, who seemed rooted to the spot and unable to act decisively.
Ysabot pulled out a scroll and read it, with no discernable effect. However she started moving through the horde of undead toward the fallen Sif, and unbelievably they seemed to ignore her. Kneeling down she grabbed one of Sif’s potions and poured it down her throat. Coughing she struggled instantly back to consciousness. Ysabot helped her up. "The fiddler. Ignore everything else. " Sif nodded, and grabbing her maul raced toward the crypts among which the lithe elf was now dancing.
As the elf emerged from around a vault Ysabot smashed her on the back of the head with her staff, and she fell to the ground. Sif was hot on her heels but had to deal with a couple of skeletal forms.
As before, the figure got quickly to her feet and started playing again, and this time some of the more inactive undead started to move toward Ysabot too.Ysabot rushed forward, and finally managed to trap the elf in the narrow avenue between two adjacent stone vaults- however, both had a handful of undead figures hot on their heels.
Luck was finally with them however. Again Ysabot managed to knock the elf down, and this time Sif jumped on top of her and wrenched the fiddle from her hands. The effect was instant, and rotten forms all over Ravengro collapsed to the ground at once.
The two trudged back towards Christov,both secretly amused that for once Christov had blown his icy exterior and appeared to have lost it in a berserk rage. “Don’t worry Christov we’ve saved you” said Ysabot tactfully. Using one of Brother Rufio’s bag of scrolls she cast a spell which brought him back to consciousness. Sif noticed that she pocketed a couple of them inside her coat before handing the bag back.
While much of the graveyard was a mess Christov noticed that the door to a nearby mauseleum had been blocked in with a fallen tree trunk and a pile of broken tombstones. On the ground were pairs of horseshoe shaped footprints. He frowned.
Ysabot and Rufio looked at some of the skeletons in this location. “A lot of these are wearing Scarzani tatters” said Ysabot.
“Hmm, these graves in the middle here are called the Scarzani graves” said Rufio. “They were buried here as an act of charity many years ago. Some sort of tragedy I gather.”
Sif and Christov had started pulling away the blockage at the door, and were calling inside. They were rewarded by muffled responses, which encouraged their efforts. After tem minutes they had managed to clear the gate, and Father Grimburrow and the two grave wardens emerged.
The elf girl was still unconscious, but the old priest revived her. As he did so one of the wardens made a surprising remark.
“My word, I recognise her. I’ll never forget.” The others looked toward him curiously.
“I was only a lad of sixteen summers” he replied, “When we came on the Scarzani camp. Horrible it were-all massacred: except her. She was at on a log, staring at the ground. She were famished and sunburned- I think she’d sat there for several days. But she were daft. Said nothing, did nothing. Led like a child.”
“Anyway we piled the bodies on a cart, and they were decently buried up here. The girl was nursed back to health, but she was empty like, and never spoke. Eventually one of the Councilmen paid out of his own pocket like, for her to be sent to a proper hospital where she could be looked after. We never heard any more of her.” He scratched his head.
“And why is she back here then? And what about those hoofprints?” asked Sif.
“We’ll probably never know. The Whispering Way perhaps? A Demon? No idea really.” said Christov.
“This fiddle may be worth quite a bit to…er… non necromantic scholars in Lepidstadt” suggested Ysabot.
“I don’t think Keryn should play it that’s for sure” said Christov.