The next morning they rode out of Sandpoint, six miles over southwest country roads to a wide spit of land that curved east-north-east into the sea. The dawn had begun in heavy fog that dissipated moodily by midday, but the sky remained overcast. The air was chill. As they neared The Misgivings Gloriana’s hauntings became more agitated.
First had been the unexplained breeze that softly tossed her rich golden curls yet the air around was still. Eventually Gloriana had been forced to tie her hair back with a length of silk. Next was the distant sound of a woman’s voice, as though from a field in a valley far away, that only the oracle could hear. Last came the visions, noticeable to all, including Gloriana’s horse who began to toss and shuffle nervously. The images were varied, little ghosts that appeared around her head, at the shoulder, or dancing around the saddle; figures like beasts of the field, or birds on the wing, or darting fish; silver-white gossamer shapes that might have been faces but never quite resolved.
Gloriana could feel their touch as they drifted across her skin, an ethereal rustle like dust from moth wings settling on a drop of rain. She got gooseflesh, and the air around her churned as spume tossed on windswept rocks. The horses made the last turn in the road around a copse of tamarack and The Misgivings loomed ahead on the cliff edge three hundred feet above the ocean. Abby and Lem looked over at Gloriana just at that moment and the oracle’s eyes had gone completely red, showing neither iris nor pupil, but only a glimmering sheen the color of a sunset. Then the vision was gone and the haunts drew away from Gloriana as the ebb flees a beach.
In the sudden stillness that followed the only sound was the distant crash of the sea. Then a flock of ravens burst from the long grasses in fluttering black, cawing ancient accusation in the forsaken places of the world.
A dirt lane meandered past a ruined structure on the right and continued on to the foreboding manor house in decay at cliff’s edge. The party sat their horses under the expanse of dark cloud. A faint rustle of wind rose and hissed through the grasses, dragging dead leaves to and fro. The ravens wheeled sharply overhead and arced back to a larch left of the road. They settled grotesquely among the branches and their black eyes peered down.
“What do you suppose that was?” Abby nodded her head in the direction of the ruined structure to the right.
“Servants’ quarters,” Kara, Lem, and Rahab answered in unison, then glanced at one another in mild surprise.
“Shall we start there, then?” the warrior mentioned as she dismounted. The others followed suit. Abby unlimbered sword and shield and began to make her way slowly forward. The outbuildings had suffered a significant fire long ago that had left little standing except for the occasional pitted timber, a few blackened stones, and the remains of a well at the rear of the structure. The ruin was some fifty or so feet from the manor house.
Rahab and Gloriana stepped forward and each invoked the power to detect magic. Gloriana’s posture was relaxed but ready, both arms extended, palms up, as though waiting to receive an embrace, and her eyelids fluttered as the waves of power rippled around and through her. Next to her stood Rahab, angled on the line with left leg fore, left arm crooked as though to hold an object for scrutiny, posture erect and eyes wide open to read the intricate geometries of arcane energy others could not see. The two spellcasters waited ten seconds, twenty, half a minute: Nothing.
“There is some kind of background magic radiation,” remarked Rahab, “but no specific field or function to isolate. Strange.”
Gloriana nodded agreement. Abby was making her way through the ruined structure, slowly approaching the cylinder of the well. Kara stood on the perimeter, bow in hand and arrow nocked, while Lem cautiously advanced, keen halfling eyes searching for anything out of the ordinary, any secret long concealed when the structure collapsed.
Gloriana joined Abby at the well; the two women gazed down into the shaft and saw only darkness. The oracle placed a spell of illumination on a nearby pebble and dropped the stone into the well. Abby watched the bulb of light fall, strike murky water, and dim as it gradually receded into depths. Rahab finished hitching the horses to a section of burnt frame and stepped forward to join the others.
The wizard did not have to say anything; they all saw it. The larch branches were now filled with ravens, and more had alighted on a birch the other side of the lane. Atop the manor the broken rail sections on the widow’s walk were now aflutter with black-feathered wings. Two hundred shining eyes like pearls of night watched remorselessly.
Kara, Rahab, Gloriana, and Abby stood back as Lem inspected the front door. The halfling had started by leaning close and listening for a full minute, but detected only the remote roar of the sea. He then drew from a pocket a small lens of convex glass and spent another several minutes scouring the door at the jamb, the handle, the hinges, the sill front, and then put on a dextrous display of shimmying up one side of the frame entirely unaided. After examining the lintel Lem was satisfied there was nothing unpleasant engineered into the mechanism. He dropped soundlessly back to the ground.
“Gardener my ass,” Abby’s mouth turned up at the corner in a wry smile. Rahab’s teeth showed a wicked devil grin. Lem pulled on the door handle and it did not move.
“Alright,” Gloriana said, and stepped forward. She produced the large, crested key of iron they had found on Craesby’s body and then handing it to the halfling, who received it without ceremony and tried it in the lock. It turned with some effort.
“Rusted,” the gardener said then pocketed the key.
“Lem,” Gloriana said softly, her hand outstretched.
The halfling looked at her for a moment, then he silently drew the key and handed it back to her.
The portal creaked noisily as they pushed it open. The sound was answered by an irate, gravelly call from some of the accumulating ravens in the branches behind then. Inside was a wide entrance hall. Ancient floorboards were warped and stained with years of dripping water, and the scent of mold hung thick and cloying. Only the windows seemed out of place, the glass new and intact.
There was a monster inside.
“Taxidermied,” remarked Kara. They were clustered around the doorway looking in. The light was poor given the overcast sky and the gloomy interior, but Abby’s lightstone was already hovering, and Rahab drew his torch. The alchemist could see the creature was immobile, frozen in a snarl, and covered in a thick layer of dust, the kind of coat a living being would be unlikely to suffer.
“Manticore,” Rahab observed. The size of a horse, the monster’s body and head were nevertheless that of a great lion, though much more red in fur than the cat of the savannahs. Great saurian wings sprouted from the withers, preserved in fold so as to allow space for foot traffic. Curving over the creature’s back was a segmented scorpion’s tail that ended in a mighty sting.
Gloriana murmured and opened her eyes to the blighted veil, but detected no undead in the immediate vicinity. Lem ventured forward delicately, scanning the floor for tiny wires or other trigger mechanisms. The others moved in behind the halfling. The passage was twenty feet wide and extended all the way to the rear of the house more than seventy feet away. A staircase on the right of the entryway ascended into darkness. Several doors lined the hall on either side.
Suddenly Gloriana spun around, silken scarves twirling. “What was that?”
“What was what?” asked Rahab.
“I thought I . . . just for a second . . . never mind.” The oracle shook her golden locks.
The conjurer detected for magic once more and still there was only the background pulse, faint, like the light at the edge of the horizon just before dawn. As he swept the pulse increased and collected on an object mounted at the north wall. It was an antique bell-pull fashioned from the mummified head of a monkey at the top of a long, dust-coated cord. Rahab observed an abjuration, and after a few moments discerned the spell of alarm affixed to the bell-pull. It was an old device common among users of magic who attained a certain measure of luxury: Instead of an actual bell to summon servants, a simple pull of the rope activated magic that made a noise.
Kara, meanwhile, was examining the stuffed manticore. To her practiced eyes the monster was clearly real, and had been stitched and preserved expertly, though the passage of decades had marked the trophy with water stains and patches of mold, or sections damaged by vermin. She leaned close, wrinkling her nose at the musty smell, and thus was inches away when something erupted out of the stuffed creature, massive, fast, and wreathed in flame. The precision and grace of Kara’s elvish reflexes saved her.1 The burning thing flew by at great speed. The alchemist discerned the ghostly, flickering shape of a manticore seemingly made of flame. A stinger of fire lashed at Kara, who barely dodged aside, and an instant later the fiery shape was gone, leaving only the taxidermied trophy exactly where it had been, seemingly unchanged, still coated in dust, still perched immobile.
It took the briefest moment for her thoughts to decompartmentalize, and then Kara screamed.
The others whirled. “Kara!” shouted Gloriana. They closed around her, Abby standing armed and ready, a dagger already balanced in Lem’s hand. The alchemist was breathing rapidly, her eyes wide.
“What happened?” asked Rahab.
“You didn’t see it?” the alchemist gasped, voice shaking. Gloriana supported her with an arm under her elbow.
“See what?” Rahab again.
“I felt its heat, then suddenly it was gone! Yuelralana bavaleth! A ghost!”
Abby and Lem were looking around for some target, but the dim and musty hallway seemed unchanged. Gloriana gently brushed a lock of flaxen hair from Kara’s face and gave a reassuring smile.
“What did you see?”
Kara gulped air and patted her sternum with a trembling hand. “It was a manticore, but made entirely of flame. As I inspected the trophy it suddenly emerged and attacked. I felt the heat from the fire as it passed! Then it just vanished.”
Rahab was already detecting magic again, sweeping the corridor with his arcane gaze. Lem scurried efficiently around the base of the stuffed creature searching for some kind of trigger or trap, but found nothing. There were no signs of fire on either trophy or hallway, nor did the air smell of smoke. The entryway appeared just as it had when they first set foot.
Rahab spoke: “I detect nothing. No illusion. No magic.” He shook his head in puzzlement.
Abby approached the trophy from the side. Gloriana invoked the magic of her vitality binding among the party, then nodded to the warrior. Abby plunged her sword directly into the stuffed beast, right along the lateral ribcage, through to where the heart would have been. Dust billowed and straw protruded from the wound, but that was all. The warrior aimed a hearty blow at the legs, splitting the preserved skin to no appreciable effect. When Abby strode around to the front still nothing happened.
The party waited several minutes while Kara regained her composure and for something to else to occur, but nothing came to pass.
They made their way through a door into a narrow corridor, and then through a second door to a large room in the northwest. The chamber was in a state of ruin. Mold had taken much of the floor and crept up along the walls. The air smelt of mildew and damp, and the only item of note was a large pianoforte near the door where they entered. The instrument had been grand at one time, but now showed signs of extensive wood rot, neglect, and decay.
As they filed into the chamber Rahab cast a spell of messaging upon the party members, that he might stay in whispered communications with them even over great distance. The others began to spread out, looking around cautiously.
“Harken,” the wizard said. The others stopped and looked back at him. “Do you hear that music?”
Abby and Gloriana exchanged a curious glance, and Kara looked concerned. Lem tilted his head to listen, but no one heard aught save the creak of decaying floorboards, the muffled whine of a breeze vortexing in an old chimney.
The conjurer raised his hand to cast another spell of magic detection, and the others looked on as his eyes suddenly rolled back in his head, his mouth fell slack, and his body shuddered violently in some fit.
Rahab heard the music swelling vivace from the pianoforte, a catchy but discordant Varisian tune, and suddenly before him there appeared a woman who stood close and took him in a passionate embrace. She was beautiful: dark-haired with intense eyes like pools of ebony, her body voluptuous and her smile bright. Her grip was like ice, and Rahab felt himself drawn around the parlor floor in a dance he could not escape. The tune drove their steps, and as they twirled the wizard’s gazed in wonder and horror as the woman’s face began to change. An expression of terror crossed her visage and her skin turned ashen. A line of purple bruises appeared around her throat as though caught by invisible, strangling hands. Still her hold on Rahab did not relent, and the icy cold of her embrace chilled the wizard to the core. The woman’s rich eyes bulged obscenely and her tongue protruded as she gasped in strangulation until at last, still dancing, the woman’s body crumbled into dripping fragments in the conjurer’s clutches. Rahab shut his eyes and tried to cry out but found he had no voice, as though all the air in his lungs had frozen. At last the music faded away and the wizard stood where he had started. The others were looking at him in alarm, and all the strength fled him as though each step of the dance had been a mile’s march, each moment in the spectral woman’s arms a day’s toil.
Rahab collapsed against the chamber wall, slumping unceremoniously to the floor with a gasp of utter exhaustion.2 In a moment Gloriana and Kara were by his side while Abby guarded the door and Lem kept watch along the windows. The oracle gently eased Rahab to a sitting position. The conjurer’s head lolled wearily as he looked at the honey-haired woman. His skin was wan and his eyes half-lidded.
“I feel terrible.”
Gloriana mopped at his forehead with one of her scarves. “What happened?”
“You did not see it?”
Honey-gold locks shook negative. Kara looked on, her expression grave. The others had seen nothing more than Rahab standing still, eyes shut, quavering in silence until he gasped and fell.
“I think . . . I just danced with a ghost.”
Kara unstoppered her waterskin and passed it the wizard who took it with trembling fingers. Weakly he gulped. Gloriana pulled his eyelids up to look at his pupils, then felt his pulse at the neck. The blood raced as though from tremendous exertion. After a few minutes she patted his shoulder.
“Borderline exhaustion, but otherwise you are well, Rahab,” the oracle gave an encouraging smile. “Let’s get you to your feet.”
Kara and Gloriana hooked arms under his shoulders and helped the wizard stand. He was breathing heavily, but his strength was returning. He nodded his thanks. The oracle scanned for magic in the room, but saw no change.
“Can you describe what you saw?” asked Kara.
Rahab related the event, his powerful intellect holding the memory with crystal precision and clarity.
“The Foxgloves are not Varisian, yet you are certain she appeared as a woman of the rovers?” Gloriana queried.
The conjurer nodded. “She was one hell of a dancer.”
“Rahab, you are not dispelling my notion that you have horrible taste in women.”
“My taste is exceptional.”
Gloriana raised an eyebrow.
“And so are the women.”
There was a long pause, and then Gloriana laughed gently, once, and shook her head.
They destroyed the pianoforte. It was normally the kind of thing that Rahab would have opposed as an appreciator of the historical, the beautiful, the cultural, and the valuable, but the instrument was already ruined beyond salvage, and Abby felt very strongly about wrecking things somehow connected to the haunted experiences befalling two of the party members. Before it’s final moments Lem scoured the instrument for some sign, and finding none finally shrugged, whereupon Abby went to work with her sword. In minutes the music lover from Riddleport had dismantled the device in spectacular fashion.
Rahab was slowly eating a peach from his rations, mustering his strength, and as he did so he sighed: “As painful as it is to admit, I am at a loss. Illusions or similar magic should appear to the spell of detection, yet no indication arises. There is some mystery here I am presently unable to encompass. Gloriana, I defer to you.”
The oracle looked at him. “Well. I wager that was not easy to say,” she whispered with a small grin. Rahab shooed her away with a wave of his hand and took another delicate bite of the peach.
Gloriana cloaked herself in a spell to hide from the undead. She did not say so but the events escaped her explanation as well. She had extensive experience with spirits; they had been with her since her twelfth summer. The forces in the manor house, however, she could not yet understand, though clearly the place was in the grip of an insidious spiritual turmoil. Still, it felt satisfying to know that Rahab was likewise ignorant.
Lem was already listening at the door that exited the music room, and the halfling signalled that he heard nothing. Abby opened the door and her lightstone shone upon the old water closet beyond that housed a copper washtub long since painted in a patina of fractal blue-green. A furtive scratching sound suddenly rattled across the metal, and a vermin the size of a goat scrambled out of the tub, long claws clattering as its blind, tumor-laden, pestilent head darted back and forth in irritation. Gloriana shrieked suddenly in revulsion.
Abby grimaced, aimed, and skewered the rat on her swordpoint. The animal burst in a shower of pus and ooze, its cancerous form slumped lifelessly to the warped plank floor.
“That’s awful,” the warrior intoned as she looked at the filth coating her sword. All manner of slime and viscera and fluid seemed to accumulate on the blade. She slapped the steel on the edge of the washtub with a dull ring, then rasped the length of the sword down, and flipped it over, repeating the draw to cleanse the weapon as best she could.
They stood a moment listening to the creaking of the house, the faint shuffle of waves at the base of the cliff far away. The next door led to a narrow hallway that opened onto a dusty room occupied by a long couch.
The party filed cautiously into the room. It registered as particularly significant to Kara and Rahab when Abby suddenly said, “Did you hear that?”
Lem was caught off-guard when Abby suddenly loomed over him, eyes wide in panic, and muttering in a distressed voice: “Let’s go!” Her gauntleted hands reached out toward the halfling and Lem danced back out of the way in surprise. Abby had dropped both her sword and her shield, and her head now whipped back and forth in alarm, menaced by some unseen threat.
When they entered the room Lem had noticed a sudden disturbance in the dust along the floor in front of the disused hearth. Footprints appeared, churning motes into the air, though there passed no figure that he could see. The gardener drew a dagger and stepped quickly. The dust swirled around him. His quick eyes traced the path toward Abby.
“Whatever it is,” Lem called out, “it’s headed for Abby! I hope it dances better than the last one!”
Kara, prompted by the halfling’s movement and outburst, saw for herself the footprints appearing in the accumulated dust making their way across the floor. She drew a flask from her bandolier and hurled it to the floor where the footprints were headed. The flask shattered and the chemicals burst in a flash of flame, but did not catch, and the footprints appeared unmolested, passing through the flame without regard. Rahab drew the wand that bestowed the spell of the electric grasp, readied it, and was secretly relieved that he and Kara were not the only ones seeing and hearing things that escaped explanation.
At exactly that moment Abby was overcome, and approached Lem, reaching out to him and bidding him to follow. The halfling recoiled. The warrior’s face distended in sudden panic, her head whirled left and right in distress, desperately looking for something. Lem ducked back in range and suddenly launched a slap at Abby, and to his fortune the warrior had already turned the other way such that the halfling’s stroke missed entirely and he would not have to face her retaliatory wrath. Then Abby seemed to slow and wither, as though the panic passed. The footprints stopped and the remaining dust stood unstirred.
An uneasy silence closed in. “What happened?” Gloriana asked, alarmed at the frequency with which the question arose since the party breached the threshold of the manor.
Abby’s eyes were still wide with alarm. She knelt to retrieve sword and shield. When she stood it was clear she struggled with some deep-seated unease.
“I was filled with memory that was not mine,” the warrior finally said quietly, and a shudder overtook her as she recalled. “In it I recognized something horrible in the basement of this place and my . . . my husband . . .” Abby’s voice faltered and her eyes shut as she struggled to untangle the usurper memories from the reality of her own mind. “There was something about . . . what I thought was my husband . . . and then I was overcome by an undeniable urgency to take . . . to take what I thought was my child—to take Lem—and flee the house.”
Kara and Gloriana looked on in concern. Lem’s lips pursed and his eyes were flint. Rahab feverishly scoured his historical knowledge to link what Abby described to record, but his effort to anchor the narrative found no purchase in the unsounded bay that was the mystery of that place.
The wizard glanced at the oracle. “What should we do?” he asked quietly.
Gloriana leaned close. “I think the house is haunted,” she said conspiratorially.
Sarcasm had always ranked among Rahab’s most ready abilities: “No shit?”
The oracle favored him with a cutting look. “There are many kinds of hauntings. That is what makes them so difficult to confront, to change, to satisfy. I am uncertain how to proceed. And so are you, I might add.”
After a pause, the conjurer raised his hands and said, “Point taken.”
The doorway in the south of the room opened on the large space at the back of the manor that was the opposite end to the entry hall. A large table scarred with years of use and misuse stood there. Five chairs in disrepair were arranged haphazardly around, but the dominant feature was the eastern curve of wall that housed four lofty stained-glass windows rising from floor to fifteen-foot ceiling. The windows looked out on the ocean, but the intricacy of the stained-glass combined with the dust of decades obscured any view.
Each great, grotesque panel depicted a different monstrosity rendered in angular mosaic of chromatic silica. The stylization was such that the menacing creatures appeared to emerge from a seven-sided box. One showed a gnarled tree with twisted and gruesome burls like a face distorted in anger. In another an immense bird took flight against a sky of blue and gold. The third window showed a blending of beast and humanoid, a thing with the lower body of a prowling lion and the naked torso and head of a woman, beautiful, snarling, and terrible. The last window image was a mighty cephalopod spearing watery depths, tentacles adrift, red eyes gleaming like volcanic vents on the ocean floor. The muted, overcast light filtered through the stained-glass windows scattered in blotches of vaporous, emetic color on the parlor floor.
From inside the house the party could not see that the congregation of ravens outside had grown larger still. Their numbers now lined the roof, now filled larch and birch to capacity, and had begun settling on the ruined planks of the outbuildings. Their beaks gaped, their eyes darted, their feathers rustled in a breeze that rose like a poisonous exhalation from the very foundation rock itself.
1 Kara’s Reflex save roll was a natural 20.
2 Rahab’s Will save roll was a natural 20.