Sunday, June 19, 2011

Over the river and through the woods

The next morning at dawn the group reassembled at the church. Trask and Magda arrived first, soon followed by Brother Michael, Bottoni and two townsmen, Blanke and Gruber. Trask shared the information he had learned the previous day in the marketplace. Blanke and Gruber wanted to delay the expedition for a few days. They felt sure they could persuade more of the townsmen to join them, but Brother Michael pointed out that the moon was waxing and would be full in a few days. At that time the werewolves would be at their most powerful. It was imperative, he said that the monsters be found and destroyed soon. Bottoni and Trask agreed, and so it was the group departed Eppstein for the forest that morning. Each man had a musket and a long hunting knife except Brother Michael whose religious vows would not allow weapons. He carried a stout club which he cheerfully insisted was a walking stick. He had also provided Trask and Bottoni with silver bullets and a clump wolfsbane each. Given the short distance they had to travel it seemed reasonable that they would be able to take care of the business and return to town by nightfall.

The stream leading into the forest was located without difficulty, but the forest itself gave even a hardened campaigner like Trask pause. It was dark and brooding and very old. He had a strong feeling that, somehow, the land itself didn't want him here. Bottoni had already started walking toward the forest so Trask shook off such foolish notions and fell in with him. Within ten minutes of entering the woods it was almost as if the sunlit meadow they had stood in so recently didn't exist. They were in an alien world lit only by what little sunlight filtered through the trees. They followed the stream that would lead them to the mayors lair until it branched into two. Knowing not what to do they chose to follow the right hand branch and pressed on. After an hour of of following the twists and turns of the stream over very rough ground the group was feeling lost. Blanke, standing apart from the others and smoking his pipe called back to the group "There is a cabin over there!".

The group prepared their weapons and then advanced cautiously on the cabin. It was small and neat with a well thatched roof, and looked completely out of place in this grim landscape. To one side stood what looked like a small beekeeping and honey processing operation. "Careful lads, anything goes" said Trask. He advanced and pounded on the door while the others covered him. The door opened and the captain was completely taken aback. There stood a young lady with a most striking mane of golden curls. Trask could think of nothing to say but "What are you doing here?"
"Why, I live here." She replied.
Recovering somewhat from his suprise, Trask asked "Where are your parents".
"Oh, they're back in town. I live here with a family of three bears."
Trask wasn't sure if the girl was mocking him or if she was mad. Anything could happen in a place like this. Uncertainly he asked "What would bears want with a young girl like you?"
She smiled sweetly and said "I help them to gather and process the honey."
"Can't they do that for themselves?" he said, not believing he was still talking to her.
She held up her hands, shrugged and said "Bears have no thumbs".
Sensing it was time to move on, Trask ventured a last question "Have you heard of any brigands living in this forest?" "Or werewolves?" said Brother Michael.
"There are no such thing as werewolves, silly" said the young girl as Trask bid her a hasty good day and backed away from the door.

It was too late in the day to return to the fork in the stream so the group pressed on deeper into the forest. As they walked into a glade they noted the sun was going down. Gruber started whistling "Anything Goes", a popular tune of the day. Trask turned on him and hissed "Stop that!" between clenched teeth. Just then Brother Michael scanning a dense grove of trees ahead said "There! There 's the beast!" Blanke leveled his musket, fired and missed. The werewolf, for such it was, sprang from cover and ran straight at Brother Michael. Gruber fired his musket and struck the beast full in the chest. It stumbled and rolled on the ground but sprang up as quickly as it had fallen and lunged at Gruber.

Brother Michael was blocking Bottoni's line of fire so the little Italian drew his long knife and waded into the melee. An unearthly howl was heard from the woods beyond the glade answered by another from the woods behind them. There was no time to lose, so Trask and Blank drew their knives and attacked while Brother Michael looked for an opportunity to strike with his club. The men struck the monster repeatedly to no effect while Gruber died under it's fangs and claws.

Finally a lucky strike by Trask found a vital spot in the werewolf, and it shuttered and fell to the ground dead. Almost at the same moment, another just like it appeared from behind a low hill just behind them and two more, larger and standing upright came out of the wood in front of them. In a moment, all three were among the hunters in a storm of fangs and claws. Trask died first, and then Blanke.

 Bottoni fighting heroically and with great skill lasted but a few moments longer. Brother Michael, a saintly man but no warrior, gasped for breath as he flailed away at the monsters to no effect. They cornered him and as he prepared to meet his end yet another werewolf bounded out of the woods and finished him.

Having heard nothing from Trask for months, the Elector sent a man to the district to check on his progress. During his search the man rode through the countryside near the great forest. The farms in that area were abandoned and there was no commerce on the roads. He stayed a night in the town of Eppstein at an inn called the Slaughtered Ox. It was a dismal place, and noone there had heard of the man Trask.

Note: Mike and I played this game using a new (to us) set of rules for Gothic Horror called Chaos in Carpathia. Mike was the werewolves and I was .....lunch. Fifty odd years of watching monster movies should have helped me understand that attacking a werewolf with a hunting knife was not a recipe for success. Still, lots of fun and I suspect there will be similar adventures from time to time in this troubled corner of Holstein.   

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Information, the hard way

Trask, Brother Michael and the others worked out their plan of campaign in the church that afternoon. The pastor would not participate because he was terrified of the mayor's wife, but Brother Michael persuaded him to contribute the silver candleholders from the altar. He and Bottoni would spend the evening melting them down to fashion musket balls for the hunt. The landlord's daughter would not go with the hunters but she agreed to provide sufficient food and drink for the expedition. Bottoni proposed forming the men of the town into a militia but Brother Michael had already explored that possibility and had found only two reliable men willing to join them.  Trask was sure that the three of them and the two townsmen were more than sufficient to bring a rogue small town mayor and his overbearing wife to heel, but his companions were certain that the mayor and his wife were servants of the devil and more powerful than Trask knew. The captain resisted arguing the point because he was tired of hearing about it. He would find the mayor the next day and put a bullet in him, man or beast. Then he would return to civilization as quickly as possible. All this talk of devils and monsters was fraying his nerves.

 It remained only to determine where the mayor and his band were holed up. Brother Michael agreed to question the pastor and the two reliable men on that point while Magda would return to the Slaughtered Ox. The young admirers of the mayors wife tended to frequent the inn of an evening, drinking and posturing. She would listen to their conversations for clues. Trask decided to loiter in the market square to see what he could learn there. The group agreed to meet back at the church at dawn to share what they had learned.

Trask had not been in the market place very long when he saw the two young men who had been watching him at the inn that morning walk into the square in the company of a third man. The two seemed to defer to this third individual. The captain was in a foul mood with all the talk of bogeymen, the lousy food and the surly bumpkins. On an impulse he decided the third young 'gentleman' was the ringleader who would surely have the information on where the mayor was hiding.
"You, sir!" the captain called out to the bumpkin in his best parade ground voice "Stand fast. I wish to speak to you." The young man stiffened as if he had been slapped, and his hand went to his sword hilt.
"You're a long way from home, stranger. Be glad I have business elsewhere or I would remind you of your manners."
The sneering tone of his voice and the smirking faces of his companions was the wrong side of enough for Trask. His blade was in his hand as if of it's own will. "Draw your steel, sir" he snarled "Defend yourself!"
The ringleader and his two companions all drew, but as the leader moved forward to meet Trask the others hesitated. Trask's instinct told him this young thug would have to die to bring the rest of his gang to heel. He noted the other two trying to gather the courage to join the fight, so he made it quick. His opponent made a ham handed overhead cut, which the captain parried easily. A quick back and forth slash set the ringleader stumbling back and a straight thrust to the chest put him on the ground. With one eye on the other two men Trask pointed his sword at the throat of the dying ringleader. "Where is the mayor hiding?" he said. The wounded man glared back, his face distorted with rage and pain and something else. Something unnatural. "She will avenge me!" he snarled,  and then he died.
Trask looked up at the other two thugs, who hadn't moved to help their leader. "Drop your blades, or defend yourselves!" he said. Both men dropped their swords and stood still, thoroughly cowed. The captain questioned them about where the mayor and his wife had gone and they gave up their location immediately. There was a stream that entered the forest about two miles south of the town. Follow that stream for a mile into the forest and one would come to the mayor's lair. Trask's instinct had been right. The loss of their leader had taken the fight out of them. "See to your friend" he said and walked away toward the inn.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The plot thickens

Trask woke late again the next morning. He had been awake late into the night trying to organize the meager facts at his disposal into a coherant whole. Finally, he had drifted off into a fitful sleep haunted by strange dreams. He came down to the common room, ordered his breakfast and considered the strange sense of forboding that had weighed on him since he came to Eppstein. The note had said he was in danger but he was used to that. This was something else. There was something uncanny about this whole district. The sooner he wrapped this business up and returned to Ardoberg, the happier he would be. While eating his breakfast, Trask casually observed the others in the room. The landlord and his daughter were trying too hard to act as if nothing was amiss but the other two men were more interesting. They appeared to be lingering over their coffee at the other end of the room but they were clearly here to keep an eye on him, and were doing it badly.  The pair were young, wore swords and were dressed in a shabby rural imitation of gentlemen of fashion. he had noticed others like them the previous day swaggering around the village market square in ones and twos. He considered amusing himself by confronting the men but decided it would serve his purpose better if he seemed not to notice their observation mission.

At midday Trask made his way through the market square to the back of the church. There he found the landlord's daughter, a burly monk and a small dark man. Before Trask could speak the monk usered the group through the back door into the church. The monk bolted the front door and then strode back to the group beaming a cheery welcome. It occurred to Trask that this was the first smile he had seen since entering Eppstein.

"My name is Brother Michael, and I am most pleased to welcome you to our town, Captain. (My God, thought Trask, what kind of accent is that?) We are faced with a dire situation and we can use all the help we can get.  My order, The Irish Christian Brothers, has a unique mission. The Devil's servants are many and he seduces them to his service by tempting them to embrace occult practices. These soldiers of Satan take many forms. My Order is dedicated to hunting them down and destroying them. This benighted corner of Europe seems to be a center of such activity, and so, well, here I am. Magda, (nodding toward the landlord's daughter) you have met. This gentleman is Bottoni. He comes to us from the Vatican. He has slain more of the Devil's disciples than any other man I know. Mother Church sends him to help resolve particularly difficult situations, and I fear our situation is particularly difficult."
Trask looked at Bottoni. The man was slightly built. His clothing was plain and practical, but of a high quality, and his manner was formal. The most striking thing about the man was his eyes. They were dead, like those of a soldier who had seen too much. Such men killed easy and died easy. He would be useful in a fight but would bear watching lest his recklessness put them all at risk.
Brother Michael spoke again, breaking the reverie Bottoni's apearance had sent Trask into.
"The troubles of this unfortunate town began when the Mayor married an impoverished noblewoman from back in the hills. We know now that this woman was one of the Devil's servants and she lost no time in seducing her new husband into the occult. This woman is a werewolf, a human who can change into a wolf. A werewolf is no ordinary beast. They are much larger and more powerful, and they thirst for human blood. The murders in this area were certainly done by this daughter of the devil, and now she and her husband have vanished into the forest along with several of the young men of the town who were drawn into her wicked practices. We must hunt down and slay this woman and her followers before her cult spreads."

Trask was bemused by this eccentric Irish monk and his tale of monsters and devils. He didn't doubt this woman was a bad one who had drawn her husband and a few of the local bravos into a life of brigandage, but he seriously doubted that she could turn herself into some sort of monsterous wolf. He had heard such tales when he was in short pants and he even had heard foolish adults repeating such nonsense, but he had never in all his travels seen such a thing. Still, the disorder had to be suppressed. The group spent the afternoon discussing ways and means. With the Mayor gone, there was noone in a position of authority in the town. The mayor's wife, when she had been in residence, had exercised quite a lot of influence on the young men of the town. The swaggering young buffoons with swords at their hips were her admirers. Life had been increasingly difficult in the town since the mayor left and these young bullies had filled the vacuum left by his departure. Trask wondered if the pair watching him at the inn were in contact with the Mayor and his wife.    


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Holstein hospitality

It was well after midnight when Captain Trask arrived at the Slaughtered Ox, Eppsteins only inn. Like the rest of the town, the inn was dark and the doors were locked. Trask was bone weary after a long day in the saddle and in no mood to be inconvenienced further by these yokels. He hammered on the inn door until the landlord appeared at the second floor window. "I'm here on the Elector's business. Open up!" snarled the captain, and one look at the stranger told the landlord that the topic wasn't up for discussion.
Once inside, Trask's demand for food was met with a bowl of warmed over porridge and the worst beer he had ever tasted. "Won't be recommending this place to the folks back home" he mused as he finished up his meal. A good nights sleep and he'd be ready for business.

It was almost noon when the Captain awoke. "Getting too old for this" he muttered to himself as he stretched to loosen up his stiff muscles. Downstairs the inn already had a few of the locals loafing about. Trask ordered a breakfast of chops, which was served to him by the landlords daughter. He tried to open a friendly conversation with her, as gathering information was always the first step in settling these local disturbances. The girl barely acknowledged his gesture and hurried away when her father glared at her.

After his meal Trask relaxed a bit and observed the landlord and the few patrons hanging around. He noticed that no one was even looking in his direction and the volume of their various conversations had dropped off since he had entered the room. He strolled over to a pair of locals and ventured a friendly introduction, which was met with stony silence. Trask's patience, never his strong suit, was wearing thin, so he confronted the landlord at the bar. "As I told you last night, I'm here on the Elector's business. Now I will ask questions and you will answer them." The interrogation of the landlord was fairly unproductive. He was a frightened man. He knew nothing of the murders but several dangerous inmates had escaped from an asylum a few miles outside of town several months ago and were thought to be living in the forest. Perhaps they were responsible.

During the hour Trask spent with the landlord the other patrons had drifted away one at a time until the place was empty. He decided to spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the village to get a feel for the place. The rest of the villagers were no more helpful than the loafers at the inn. They barely responded to his inquiries and seemed quite frightened. He did manage to learn that the mayor had run off several weeks before and no one could say who was in authority in Eppstein. When the sun started to go down the streets of the village emptied quickly. Trask made his way back to the inn to the sound of doors and shutters being closed and barred. His evening meal was a repeat of the midday experience. The patrons kept their distance, spoke in low tones and pointedly ignored him. When the landlord's daughter appeared to clear off the table after his meal he was suprised when she discreetly slipped a note to him. Stepping outside as if to take the air, Trask read the note.
"Meet me tomorrow at midday behind the church. You are in great danger." 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Holstein by Moonlight

Captain Trask rode alone along the forest track. The moon cast a ghastly light through the trees that seemed to draw in on him like a malevolent living presence. Trask carried the Elector's commission to restore order in the most God forsaken corner of the principality. Southeastern Holstein was mountainous, heavily forested and remote; the people living there superstitious, ignorant and deeply suspicious of outsiders. The very end of the earth.

 Trask was the Elector's 'fixer'. When a district fell into disorder and the local authorities failed to address the issue, indeed were often at the center of the problem, Trask would be dispatched. Ruthless enforcement of the Elector's will by any means necessary was his specialty.  Still, the folk up in these hills were a strange, clannish lot. This would be a tough nut to crack.

A few weeks ago reports started reaching the Elector's court of an outbreak of killings in the region. Peasants in their fields and travellers on the roads had been savagely murdered. At first the nature of the killings had led people to believe the victims had been taken by wolves, which are common in the forests of the region, but several witnesses had caught glimpses of figures running upright back into the forest. So, it was brigands then, but why? Reports said that no property had been taken in any case. A feud, perhaps. Those were common enough among these barbarians, but the reports all described extraordinary savagery in the killings. Probably exaggerations. In their isolation from the civilized world these yokels developed vivid imaginations.

Trask decided to dismiss these morbid thoughts for the time being, as they seemed to be making the forest darker and the track narrower. Just a few more miles and he would arrive at the village of Eppstein, roughly in the center of the troubled area. A hot meal and a bed would settle his nerves and he could start his investigation in the morning.