Friday, November 17, 2017

Whisper and Void Excerpt: Battle in a Graveyard

Mini-Musings


-There's a new Penny Dreadful for sale on Drive Thru RPG, Jurassic Faux. If you needed some dinosaurs running around and causing trouble in your version of Malifaux. Plus, I'm sure there are some Fae in here, also. Here's the synopsis. 

The University of Malifaux is launching an expedition into the Wildlands, the primordial forest that sprang up around the ruins of Nythera when Titania was released from her prison. The purpose of the expedition is to gather biological samples for further research, but one of the professors has his eye on a specific prize: the fabled Malisaurus Rex.

Unfortunately, the Wildlands are more dangerous that the University expected, and the Malisaurus Rex is very, very hungry...

Jurassic Faux is a challenging One Shot adventure for the Through the Breach roleplaying game. It requires the Core Rules to play.

-A patch for the Bad Things Happen app was pushed out on the 13th. It fixes a ton of the known issues. I'm not going to copy and paste the whole list here. Go ahead and check it out.



-We don't actually know what's going to be sale on Black Friday, yet, which is odd. We do know one thing that will be there, however, and that's the alternate Rasputina box featured in the image above. I like it a lot. Don't know if I'll be able to pick it up, but it's very cool. Plus, the Krampus counts as a Snowstorm, making it so you don't have to buy another box to have this key critical piece for Raspy crews.

-I've been plugging away at my novel (you can follow my progress on the NaNoWriMo page here.) As I've been working on it, I've been letting my Pandora (the music app, not the master) wander through some new inspiration music and pulling pieces out into a Spotify playlist. It's called Malifaux Musings. Follow the link and, if you have a song that you think really embodies the spirit of Malifaux, it'd be cool if we all built this together. 

-Speaking of doing things together, what little forward momentum we had on the Patreon account has kind of stalled. The page is here, and I'd like you to really consider chipping in and helping out. I'm not asking for a lot. If you have an extra dollar a month, I'd love to have it to help expand Malifaux Musings. As always, I appreciate the hell out of everybody who has contributed so far. 


***

Whisper and Void

A Death Marshals Story


By: Adam Rogers

Author’s note: This section occurs between chapter 1, detailing Burns’ recruitment and training, and chapter 3 when his recruiter teaches him the magic to use his casket. 

Chapter 2


Vinton wasn’t the worst of the lot, not by a long stretch. He wasn’t easy, mind you. I couldn’t tell you how many of my bones he ended up breaking, but I’m sure he’d tell you every one of them was a lesson. He had the very annoying habit of letting you know, every time you failed, how easily avoidable your discomfort should have been. “Oh, you didn’t notice that rune scribed in the door frame? Hmm, if you had, perhaps your arm wouldn’t currently be on fire. Let that be a lesson to you: the enemy will never face you on your terms. They will lay traps. They will stab you in the back. They will try every underhanded, sidewinding trick a man’s ever pulled on another man before they stand and face you, for you are Justice come to end them. Now, quit your belly-aching, put yourself out, and reset to position one.” The difference between Vinton and the others was that you got the impression, from time to time, that he actually wanted you to succeed rather than just gaining grim amusement from your suffering.
               He came to us one hot summer evening when we were dragging ourselves back to our barracks and the sweet oblivion of the four hours they allotted for us to sleep. He pulled a half-dozen cadets out of line, myself among them, and took us towards a horse cart resting on the drillfield grounds. “You lot have a job tomorrow morning. Do it well, and you’ll get double food ration in the evening. How does that sound?”
               The beige, flavorless gruel that served as our “rations” weren’t quite the enticement we had hoped for, but all of us knew better than to turn down an instructor. We reluctantly nodded, but a cadet with more attitude than sense stepped forward anyways. “What’s the job?” he asked, disregarding the warning looks everyone else was shooting him.
               Vinton smiled. “Nothing too difficult or dangerous, Burns. You’re just going on bag duty.”

***
               Bag duty. It was a euphemism with which we were all familiar, as the groans elicited by Vinton’s announcement would testify. Malifaux is an old city, you see, even though our arrival in it is relatively new. Who or whatever built the place did so a long time ago and lived, worked, and died there just as we do. And when one of their own died, the city’s residents had to do something with the bodies. In one of the numerous parallels between their culture and ours, the dead of ancient Malifaux were interred in cemeteries scattered across the city, their final resting places marked with gravestones inscribed with names and dates in their own, indecipherable language. These cemeteries were sprinkled throughout the city, often in places that defied logic. More than a few of the early explorers were following what appeared to be a major thoroughfare through the heart of the city, only to discover that it dead-ended in a graveyard right where they expected to find a hub connecting several side streets. The logic of this city’s Neverborn architects never ceased to baffle.
               Normally this would just be a nuisance of navigation, but Malifaux was not a normal city. Instead, it was a city filled with people who spontaneously manifested magical abilities they didn’t know how to control, and some of them learned to manipulate the dead for their own ends. No two necromancers ever seemed to use the same methods, but the need for corpses was a recurrent theme. You can’t raise a dead body without some bodies to work on, after all. More inexperienced Rezzers had an even greater need, as they were only just learning to control their power and their early experiments often ruined the corpse without yielding anything useful. A lot of them start out working on animals, but for whatever reason they all seem to move on to people, which presents a problem. They needed a lot of raw materials for their craft, and you can’t exactly pick up a new dead body at the store when you need one. Many a burgeoning necromancer has turned to serial murder, of course, but that takes skill and craft that most don’t possess to do it undetected for long. No, it was easier if you had a supply of corpses ready to hand. Thus, we learned to keep an eye on any human corpses, making these Neverborn cemeteries too tempting a target for your average necromancer to ignore and too dangerous a threat for us to overlook.
Whenever we found one, a detachment from the Marshalls would be sent to “sanctify” the site. This process involved digging up often dozens of ancient graves, buried beneath hard-packed soil that hadn’t been disturbed in centuries. Once the body was exhumed, the heads of the bodies were removed, bagged (thus, bag duty), and shipped to a crematorium. With no intact skull, the body was ruined for most practices, which was good enough for us. If the crew doing the job was particularly dutiful, the bags were catalogued so the ashes could be returned to their proper resting place afterwards. When we farmed the work out to laborers from outside the Guild, however, they usually ended up dumping them somewhere and forgetting them. Thus, cadets were often given the job instead. If we shirked on doing it properly, we could at least be lashed afterwards.
The graveyard we were assigned was located in the western slums, tucked behind a warehouse whose broken windows glared at us like angry eye sockets while we worked. There were a dozen of us that day, muttering imprecations against our instructors and their relatives while driving our spades and pickaxes into the earth. We had abandoned our woolen uniform tops in the hot summer sun, leaving them slung over the side of the cart we’d checked out from the academy to transport our tools. It raised a few eyebrows when Elizabeth Heffron had joined us in disrobing, but none of us had much time or use for modesty anymore. This particular cemetery was about an acre and filled with easily a hundred graves, so we knew this was going to be a multiple day job. I didn’t mind the work, since it meant having a day free from the shouts of “encouragement” our instructors often chose to lather on us. Many of the others, however, would gladly have driven their picks through Vinton’s abdomen rather than digging up another wooden box.
It was midday when I first saw something out of the corner of my eyes. It was nothing but a flicker of movement at the edge of my vision, but I still reflexively spun in place, scanning near the wrought iron fence surrounding the graveyard for any sign of what had drawn my attention.
There was nothing there.
“The hell you doin’, Burns?” shouted Mobera from the grave next to mine. He flashed his wide, easy smile from his dark-skinned, sweat soaked face. It was all I could see of him at the moment, as he was currently standing in the bottom of the almost six-foot hole he’d dug. “You’re not wearing out, are you? It’s barely past noon!” The Abyssinian had taken a personal interest in giving me a hard time from the first day of our training. I never knew why, but I’d always suspected that the open secret that Vinton had recruited me personally probably had something to do with it.
“Of course not, Alton,” I shot back, “You know I only really get into a rhythm after the first six hours of work, anyways.”
He’d laughed at that. “Well, from what I can see, I could go for a bit of your ‘rhythm’ myself. Looks like about the level of effort I’d expect from a –“
“I saw something, you pain in the ass,” I cut him off. “Something on the outside of the graveyard. Felt like it was watchin’ us.”
Without another word, he hefted his massive frame up and out of the hole to stand next to me. We both scanned the perimeter slowly, the only sound coming from the other work crew and from his idly dusting his hands off on the front of his work-slacks. “I don’ know, Burns,” he finally said. “I don’t see anything. You sure you don’ got heat stroke? I know you got a delicate constitution, an’ all.”
I was about to let him know exactly where he could shove his opinion of my constitution when a shout came from the other side of the graveyard. We whirled in place, ready to find that the enemy I’d imagined was standing there waiting, only to spot another cadet waving sadly for the others to come lend a hand. They’d struck a coffin, and this one was made of marble rather than wood.
These were the bane of our existence. They were solid stone, weighed a ton, and getting them hauled out of the hole without special equipment was nearly impossible. Whenever we found one, activity ground to a halt camp-wide as everyone took the opportunity to suggest a solution. Some favored smashing through the lid with sledgehammers, though our superiors frowned on that. If a convenient tree was nearby, we could rig up a pulley and all work together to haul it out. Otherwise, it fell to the strong-men like Mobera to get a pry bar into the side and force the lid off. Given that it was in the middle of an open field with no trees, this one looked like it would require the third option.
Mobera, not one to complain (or at least knowing I’d call him on his BS if he did) grabbed a crowbar and jumped in immediately, trying to dig around the side of the coffin lid to find an edge where the tool would fit. The rest of us took the opportunity to stop for a break, relocating to the small bit of shade being cast by our cart. We passed around a waterskin, making sure the trio of cadets standing around the grave saw us doing it (and earning a few hateful glares in the process.) I had just taken a long pull from the neck and passed it off when I saw the flicker of movement again. I froze, my arm partially outstretched towards Heffron, as I saw a shimmer move stealthily from behind one granite tombstone to another about 50 yards away from me. It was creeping towards Mobera and the others.
“Hand it over, ye bastard. The hell’s your problem?” Heffron asked, snatching the partially-proffered waterskin away in irritation. “Ye look like yer passin’ a kidney stone!”
I raised a finger to shush her, which of course just led to a longer string of angry Irish brogue being sent my direction. I turned, fumbling inside the cart for the double-barreled rifle I knew was stored there, when I heard Mobera shout in triumph from inside the grave. He’d apparently gotten the lid loose. His triumphant shout was followed immediately by a scream that ended in a wet, choking gurgle. Those of us near the cart whirled in place, watching as a nearly eight-foot tall skeleton wrapped in the dry, desiccated remains of what had once been its skin forced its way from the bottom of the grave. Its right hand and the wicked black talons it ended in had impaled Mobera through the chest, lifting his two hundred pound frame into the air as easily as a mother lifting a babe. We could see the long, curled horns sprouting from its head and the torn, rotten remains of a pair of bat-like wings sprouting from its back and knew immediately what this thing had once been: a Nephilim.
Many of the natives in Malifaux can pass as humans in the dark or from a distance if you don’t look too closely. Of course, if you do get close enough to spot their nearly translucent skin or the black, spidery veins that web beneath the surface, it’s probably too late already. Others, however, take on forms from our nightmares. The Nephilim fell into the latter category. From birth they resemble demonic cherubs with black horns, claws, and cloven hooves emerging from their violet skin. They grow rapidly, sprouting wings that make them uncannily resemble a devil from one of the more graphic literary versions of hell. The largest stand nearly nine feet tall and can smash through the side of a brick building if they take a mind to it. And, much to our surprise, someone seemed to have crammed the massive frame of one of these creatures into this marble coffin at some point in the city’s distant past.
For a second, as the behemoth rose to its full height and tossed the now limp form of Mobera onto the ground next to the grave, we froze. It was only an instant, but it was long enough to let the creature haul itself over the side of the grave, moving with a speed that would have seemed impossible even when the thing was alive. A moment later it unfurled to its full size and charged another pair of cadets, slashing them to ribbons with its talons. As I pulled the rifle to my shoulder and fired a shot into the beast’s rotten shoulder, I could already see it was too late for the pair on the ground. One was trying to hold his guts inside his eviscerated torso while the other was lying senseless near the bloody remains of his severed arm.
The shot only served to get the creature’s attention. It turned towards me, dropping into a crouch and releasing a long, raspy breath that I would later realize was its attempt to bellow a challenge through the decayed remains of its vocal chords. I knew I had a chance to end this before any more harm was done. I sighted the beast’s head down the length of the rifle barrel, timing the shot so I pulled the second trigger between breaths as I’d been trained. At that range I couldn’t have missed, but the shot was fouled as something impacted me from behind, hitting me in the shoulder and sending sharp pain shooting through my back. The rifle jerked up and the second barrel discharged uselessly over the creature’s head. I feared at that moment that I had killed us all.
               With another raspy bellow, the ancient Nephilim charged. I dropped to a knee and rolled beneath the swipe of its talon as it smashed into the side of the corpse cart, reducing it to kindling. I turned, expecting to see the heads we’d collected rolling randomly across the pavement. Instead, I found a cloud of half a dozen of the nearly decayed skulls hovering in the air over the shattered remains of the vehicle and the thrashing, violent Nephilim skeleton.  The other Marshals and I watched with stunned fascination as they twisted and spun in place, shaking like dogs trying to get dry, and cast off the burlap shrouds we’d wrapped around them. It dawned on me then what must have struck me from behind. With my stomach churning, I twisted against the turf, trying to dislodge one of the heads that had latched on and was gnawing its way into the meat of my shoulder. A part of me reeled in horror, but shock helped shove that part into a corner until the present crisis was resolved. There would be time for horror later.
I rolled, using the ground as a wedge to dislodge the damned thing’s jaws from my back, and turned to see something that looked like a human’s rotted skull chattering its yellowed teeth at me from the ground. It started to rise up, hovering with magical force towards my eyes, but I brought the stock of the rifle around and smashed it into the thing’s temple. The viscous black remains of its brains spilled onto the hard-packed dirt, rendering the rest of the head inert.
I came up to a knee, watching as my fellow cadets tried to ward off the flying skulls. Heffron was closest to me, trying to extract one with a lengthened snout and sharpened, canine teeth from her thick, curly mane of hair. Her instructor had given her trouble about that hair since the first days of training, but she’d stubbornly insisted on keeping it, pointing out that Lady Justice had famously long red hair that trailed almost to her ankles. We’d pointed out that she was also a supernaturally skilled swordswoman, as opposed to a cadet who had barely fired a gun before these first few months of training, but she’d kept it anyways. As I charged forward, swinging the rifle like a club and sending the lupine abomination flying towards the smashed remains of the corpse wagon, I guessed she’d have it cropped down almost to her skull tomorrow. Assuming she survived, of course.
               “What the hell is doing all this?” she said, a slight hint of panic creeping through despite her efforts to regain her composure. I had my suspicions, but there was no time to relay them to her.
               “The ammo box,” I growled, scanning frantically for the extra rifle ammunition. Across the clearing, I watched another cadet fly bodily through the air after the skeletal Nephilim had picked him up and hurled him effortlessly. “The reloads! Where’d they land!”
               “There! By the wheel!” she shouted a moment later. I saw in an instant that the box of shells had tipped over on its side, spilling the contents across the ground. I mentally thanked whoever might be listening that they had avoided falling into a puddle from the morning rainstorms, as that would surely have ruined the powder. I sprinted forward, crouched at the waist, until I reached one of the red cylinders on the ground. I snapped the breach open on the rifle, draping it over my arm as I jammed the rounds home. A blur of motion appeared on my left and I flinched, preparing to throw the rifle into the way to block the blow I was sure was coming, only to see Heffron had grabbed a spade and was using it to smack one of the heads out of the air. The thing would have bitten through a good portion of my face if she hadn’t, and I nodded my thanks as she turned towards where the thing had landed and jabbed the blade of the shovel through the bridge of its nose.
I turned and started scanning the graveyard for who or what was controlling these creatures. There are few hard and fast rules with necromancy, but I knew whoever was doing this hadn’t had time to animate them properly. That took preparation, usually some kind of ritual, and we had only just dug these bodies out of the ground. This felt like more of a quick-and-dirty job, and I knew exactly how to end that. Unfortunately, I needed to spot the bastard to do it. With a satisfying snap, I closed the rifle’s breach and brought it up to my shoulder, scanning the graveyard from behind the pitiful cover of a wagon wheel propped up on half of its broken axle.  As I searched frantically for any sign of a target, Heffron dropped in behind me.
               “What’re ye doin’, ye daft fool?” she shouted, tugging at my shoulder, “The damned thing’s right over there! Shoot it!”
               I was irritated by the distraction, but there wasn’t time to shove her away. A sudden raspy bellow from my right told me that the Nephilim skeleton had spotted us and was preparing to charge. Heffron gave a final exasperated sigh and stood, readying her shovel like a broadsword. At best it might annoy the thing, but it might buy me another half-second to find…whatever I was looking for. I heard the pound of the thing’s heavy hooves against the ground as it came towards us, and I was preparing to turn and waste one of my shots to try and put it down, when I found my quarry. A shimmer, like a heat mirage, was crouched down behind one of the tombstones. Without stopping to think if maybe my eyes were playing tricks, I fired what could have been the last shot of my life at the image. It exploded with a red spray that turned an incredulous bearded face my direction before slumping to the side, senseless. 
               The flying skulls dropped, clattering against the ground with a horrible sound I’ll hear in my nightmares for the rest of my life. The nephilim creature gave one final, frustrated bellow before falling apart itself, its momentum carrying it all the way to the wagon wheel and sending it rolling. I closed my eyes, as many of the thing’s aged bones broke down all the way to dust from the impact.
“Jaysus, Burns,” Heffron muttered a moment later, breaking the stunned silence. “Ye coulda told me. I nearly soiled myself.” I couldn’t answer, could barely hear her over the sound of the blood pounding in my ears. With shaking hands, I lowered the rifle to the ground as Heffron walked over to the Nephilim’s skull, shattering it with a solid blow from her shovel. “That’s fer me friends, ye great bastard.”
               It was a sentiment I would come to know well.

***
               Clean-up from the assault took the rest of the afternoon. Heffron (once again properly dressed) had flagged down a carriage and made her way back to the Guild Enclave while the rest of us remained to tend to the wounded. We lost three that day, though it could have been much worse. Mobera actually survived, though the doctors ended up replacing his right arm and some of his insides with steam-powered prosthetics to repair the damage. Within an hour, Heffron returned with a trio of Death Marshalls that included Vinton to search the site for any other signs of what the necromancer had been up to. I stood to join them when they arrived, giving Mobera a comforting pat on his uninjured shoulder. I expected the three senior officers to order me to back off and leave the investigation to them, but Vinton turned and spoke to them quietly as I approached. After a moment he turned my way and gave an encouraging nod, waving me to accompany him.
               “This,” he began, “This was obviously not what I expected when I sent you here. There had been rumors, of course, but every cemetery in the city is supposedly haunted by vengeful spirits or robbed at night by some wannabe Burke and Hare types. Most of it turns out to be nothing.”
               “This wasn’t nothing,” I said, looking down at the dead Resurrectionist.
               “Quite so,” he grimly agreed. I knew it was the closest to an apology I was going to get, and I didn’t push it.
               We hadn’t bothered to move the dead necromancer’s body, other than to check that he was really deceased (namely, by separating his head from his neck) and relieve him of any weapons. It was rare but not unheard of for a Rezzer to have some kind of magical failsafe to bring him back to life sometime after his passing. Other than that, we were content to let him bake in the summer sun. None of us had much desire to stash him somewhere or cover him with a tarp. Truth be told, if a vulture had come down and started pecking at the man, we’d have offered it a swig from our flasks to help wash the meal down.
               He didn’t look like a murderer, I had to admit. Now that he was dead, he looked like a hundred other homeless men I’d passed in the streets. He had a scraggly, oily mop of salt and pepper hair with an unkempt beard to match it. His clothes were roughspun and gray, having spent too many nights sleeping on the ground or in a sewer. He had shoes, which put him ahead of some in his position, but they were falling apart and had obviously been repaired several times. In contrast, I could see from his straight, white teeth that he most likely hadn’t been living this way all his life. At some point in the not too distant past, this man had a normal existence. He’d most likely had a home to go back to at night, people that he cared about. Most do, until the voice starts to whisper to them. It always starts out small, but over time drives them to greater and greater acts of depravity until, finally, everything from their old life is left behind. When we found his hovel an hour or so later, leaning pitifully against the side of the abandoned warehouse, we found an old, yellowing picture of a young woman inside. It was stained with oily handprints from frequent handling. Was it a wife? Girlfriend? Daughter? I never found out, never even learned his name. It didn’t matter. Once they turned, once they started listening to that voice in the back of their heads, their old identity became unimportant, anyways. With any luck, the woman had just woken up one day to find him gone with no explanation. It was far more likely, however, that the voices had driven him to kill her.  
               We knew it was his home from the writing scrabbled on the walls. Most of it was nonsense phrases involving bones. The bones were calling to him. He could hear the song of bone. Soon he’d join their dance. That kind of thing. In the reports we’d file later, this led to us calling him Bone Man. The words were written into the soft, rain rotted wood with whatever he had been able to find. Chalk. A stone. Blood. He was agnostic to his medium. Any doubt whether we were in the right place disappeared when I rooted through the man’s bed roll, waving away the cloud of fleas that sprang into the air as soon as I touched it. There was a book there, an old leather-bound journal with every page covered in the Bone Man’s willowy handwriting. The script on the walls was downright sensible compared to the blasphemies recorded in that tome. I shut my eyes reflexively and slammed the book closed, knowing what this had to be.
               “Sir,” I said, holding the journal towards Vinton as he stood in the doorway. “I’ve found a grimoire.”
               Without a word he crossed the room towards me, taking the book into his own hands and nodding. Grimoires were often books, but they could be anything. The words weren’t really important, so much as the way reading them organized your mind or guided you to a particular mental state. They were a focus, a way for mortal minds to grasp and manipulate the energies of magic without a natural talent. In theory, anyone who spent enough time studying one could learn the spells contained therein, though I certainly didn’t fancy spending any time indulging in the Bone Man’s mad ramblings. Still, Vinton looked at the book with some interest.
               “Well done, Burns,” he said, “This conjurer used a number of effects we’ve never seen before. They’ll be interested in examining this back at the home office. I’d say you’ve more than earned yourself a commendation, today.” His wry smile reminded me that, of course, there are no such commendations in the Marshall service, but I took the rare compliment for what it was.
               “I’ve never heard of one that could do what he could do,” I answered, “Animating that many of them from a distance in that short of a time? And making himself invisible?”
               Vinton nodded. “He was a rare talent, no doubt about it. You and the other cadets are lucky to still be alive. I’ve heard of some powerful necromancers who could pull off some of those things, but not all at once. And I have to confess, the invisibility is a new one on me.” He sighed. “They’re learning all the time, and they seem to be getting stronger.” He shook his head, looking down at the book again. “All the more reason to study this carefully so we’ll be ready next time, eh?”
               I couldn’t muster enough false cheer to answer him, so I stood for a moment in the remains of the madman’s world, swatting idly at the fleas I knew it would take weeks of bathing to get rid of. Finally, Vinton broke the silence. “Well, in any case, time for you to get back to the cemetery and rejoin the others.” I looked at him in confusion as he gave me an innocent look. “The job’s only half done, Burns. You still have the rest of those graves to dig up. Now that you’ve started, you have to finish. A job that’s worth doing is worth doing right, you know.”
               I locked eyes with him for a moment, waiting to see if he was joking, but of course he wasn’t. With a snort of irritation I turned and tromped out the door.
               “You’ll want to hurry,” he shouted after me, “You don’t want to be caught in one of Malifaux’s cemeteries after dark. Bad things can happen!”

               No, Vinton wasn’t the worst of the lot. But he sure as hell wasn’t the best, either.