Dancing by the Witch's Moon
Dear Vertius, Librarian of Throal,
In the name of Lochost, who frees our minds to seek out the new thoughts, I greet you.
I have been gathering naming systems for the Moon lore. The temple cleaners here in Toron gave me a delightful list. The villagers have a name for each of the 13 lunar cycles. When I asked for stories explaining the names of the Moon periods, they directed me to the oldest man in the village, a retired ostler named Dember. His story took place during a full moon in Teayu, which they call the Witch's Moon. Although it doesn't shed light on moon names, I know someone will want to hear it.
"It was the first year after our kaer had emerged. I had taken to walking in the moonlight. Everybody missed something in kaer life. The sun, the stars, the wind. For me it was the Moon. I had learned the names of the moon cycles from my great-grandfather Fritz, a wonderful man who knew much lore and could tell chilling stories.
"It was a Witch's Moon, everything white and silvery, and the frost just beginning to silver every tree, stone, and blade of grass. At first I hadn't noticed her walking beside me. When I did, I noticed two things: one, with her pale blue eyes and fawn pale hair she was beautiful; two, she was transparent. She looked so lonely. Desolate, you might say. Then she raised her head and howled a loud high scream of gibberish. I knew she wanted to speak, but some Horror magic was stopping her.
"She motioned that she wanted to dance. I had never heard of spectral dancers, and so I began to dance. Her motions, which must have been so painful, were beautiful. It hurt my spirit to dance with her. We danced on and on in the moonlight. I tried to break free, but she held with a grip born of absolute need. Her eyes reflected back the moonlight, and in that silvery light I somehow began to know her life.
"She had been a member of my kaer, when it first sealed up. Her lover, a young strong beautiful man, had been sealed away in another kaer. One night Astendar came to her in a dream and showed her the way through the kaer's defenses. She ran wildly into the night, across frost-covered grass lit by the Witch's Moon. She saw him.
"But it hadn't been Astendar who had spoken to her. It had been a Horror that wanted to make them spectral dancers. The Horror transformed them. She hadn't seen him since.
"For a moment she knew that I knew her pain. Then she dissolved into the moonlight, and I fainted with exertion. I hope that wherever she is, Astendar has answered the prayer I've made every night for 40 years, that she be with him."
In the sign of Ink,
Orichalcum, that priceless combination of the five Elements of Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Metal, figures prominently in the literature of magic. One cautionary tale comes from the doubtful "Magus Baronwyn," now discredited as a scholar of magic but still widely read for entertainment.
According to Baronwyn, one Magus Donalain found a magical treasure called Aralda's Hook. (Baronwyn offers no description of the alleged Hook, and no other source mentions it.) Donalain tried to use the Hook without first binding it with orichalcum.
"He froze in position, eyes wide, hair on end," writes Baronwyn. "His nose bled and his fingernails split. Hairs on his forearm withered and burned. In a trice he shot upward, thirty feet or more, then plunged to the ground with equal force, rebounding in high arcs several times. Thunder cracked around him, lightning played, winds whirled him up and down, and three eyeblinks would miss it all.
"Donalain screeched so loud as to wake a statue. At the noise, the Hook carried him aloft to the eagle's height, a dot, a speck to eyes below. There Hook and mage burst aflame, and a second sun burned the sky. It vanished, nor hair nor flake of skin of Magus Donalain was seen after, nor Aralda's Hook. Hearken, student, to the teachings of Baronwyn, who guards you from catastrophe!"
The reader must judge the likelihood of this account.
There was once a princess named Ekana (which in High Theran means Fate or Necessity). She was the most beautiful of all women born to the noble house. The court poet, named Sirakh (which in High Theran means Gift), wrote,
When this poem was discovered during a search of Sirakh's room, Sestoris sentenced the insolent commoner to a horrible fate. First court torturers pulled out his tongue, that it might not speak licentious poetry, and then they tarred and feathered him so that he might resemble a bird (in mockery of his verse). On the day of the wedding of Sestoris and Ekana, powerful magicians placed a spell on Sirakh that he would rise into the air, hover, and slowly starve for his forbidden love.
Many said that Ekana returned his love, but hid it, afraid that she would suffer the same fate.
Centuries later, a princess was born to the royal house, and oracles named her Helene (whose name in High Theran means Favored One). She was a magnificent beauty, and as she grew, many remarked on her similarity to the legendary Princess Ekana. Her father forbade her to speak with any of the palace staff, afraid that Ekana's spirit had been reborn in her, and that she might suffer the same fate. He arranged her wedding, and although she did not love her betrothed, she went through the ceremony.
At the feast that followed, a large black bird flew into the hall. Many arrows pierced it, but it did not cry out. It picked up the princess and carried her away. Many believe that the force of love kept the poet alive until he could give the gift of love to the princess. May they be happy in their aerial realm!
Villages like Selwyn dot the fringes of the Badlands: clusters of one or two hundred people on two dozen farmsteads, squat hay silos and granaries, a forge, a few temples, and the ubiquitous tavern. Citizens here live in constant low-level misery punctuated by episodes of terror: raids from Badlands monsters, Horror-inspired psychological torture, and the mundane fright of a bad crop year. However, the Horrors never destroy these villages, for a deserted village has no one left to feel fear.
Often a Horror promotes misery by fomenting inter-village hostility. These rivalries have no rational cause, for in depopulated Barsaive few villages need compete for resources or fear conquest by a neighbor. Yet agents of cunning Horrors provoke continual alarm among villagers. They tell grisly stories of the "inhuman" residents of some nearby town, fanatics who "don't value their lives as we do ours" and would gladly sacrifice themselves in assaults on local citizens. Right-thinking villagers must prevent this threat by attacking first. So petty skirmishes occur often.
When the adventurers stop in Selwyn, they must pay exorbitant prices for food, lodging, and equipment, and no one acts friendly. The residents may well try to speed their departure from town with smudge pots and pitchforks.
Why? A safe distance from town, a farmer named Donwyn Lenthraleit catches up to the party and apologizes for the Selwynians' rudeness. She tells them a tale that explains the townspeople's attitude.
"The Scourge changed us in many ways," she begins, "but the worst change comes in our distrust of onetime friends. When the questor Ramallyn visited Selwyn kaer, these seven decades past, he brought joyous news of the new dawn. Our grandparents returned to the light and renewed old bonds of friendship. The next spring they established Ramallyn's Feast in the questor's honor. Laden with bread and cheese and wine, villagers from miles around gathered to drink, to dance, and above all to tell stories. Through stories, we awaken hope.
"At the first feast, however, one story brought no hope. A round, red-cheeked man named Whorton spoke of a Horror that had found his kaer years before. `It fed on us day by day,' he said, `a few of us in body, all of us in mind. It flooded our tunnels with blood to the level of our knees, just to hear us scream.'
"Children listened in fascination, adults in fear. `How did you survive?' they asked. With an awful smile Whorton said, `We didn't.'
"He said the families in his kaer had tried to avoid the Horror by brewing a cauldron of poison and drinking together. `But even death cannot stop some Horrors,' he said, now grinning, `for they can make things of the self-killed. Husbands, wives, children. . . .'
"Here a villager, Dornan the smith, accused Whorton of frightening his children, and struck at Whorton in anger. Whorton calmly reached out and snapped Dornan's neck. Then, as people screamed and ran, he smiled again and walked away. His parting words were, `Enjoy your feast. We will.'
"While the frightened people debated what to do, they felt a sudden weariness. All who had drunk the wine or eaten bread soon fell fast asleep. When the survivors awoke, they found the bones of friends and companions scattered about.
"They formed parties to hunt the countryside. No one found Whorton or any of his kind, but they knew, and we still know, that among us live the cadaver men.
"Perhaps they inhabit the next village, or the one in the valley. Until we know, we treat our neighbors as enemies. This is the madness the Horrors brought on us."
A Cadaverous Village?
Donwyn's tale may puzzle the characters. Known cadavers cannot impersonate living beings, except possibly invalids who share their extreme pallor and penetrating odor. A cadaverous village, if one could imagine such a miserable place, would presumably differ strongly from its neighbors. Perhaps the tale's cadavers are a particularly lifelike group, heretofore unknown, whose apparent friendship (presumably in conjunction with drugged liquor) lures unwitting victims.
Or perhaps the legend merely justifies Selwynian aggression. The characters may encounter a Selwynian raiding party heading to another town they know nothing of. The raiders may accept the characters into their group, given an adequate demonstration of strength. Otherwise, the worried Donwyn asks the characters to shadow the raiders and stop them from doing "something rash."
The story's development depends on whether the legend is true. If the gamemaster decides the legend is false, a rumor promoted by the corrupt human agents of some intelligent Horror, the heroes should stop the raiders, track down the agent, expose him, and restore harmony between villages.
But the legend may be true. The raiders may enter a town and find, not hostility, but extreme friendliness. This suspicious behavior may disguise murderous intent by lifelike cadaver men (and women and children), who lure unsuspecting travellers into their homes or inns, then pounce in the night and devour them. On the roadside or in a dump outside this village, the heroes might notice old, gnawed bone fragments that appropriate Talents, Skills, and magic can identify as human.
Instead, the kindly villagers may be innocent humans. Some local magical effect protects them from the Horror-inspired distrust of their neighboring towns. For instance, the bones of a long-dead questor like Ramallyn may drive away all agents of the Horror. Selwynians do not return this open-mindedness, and so the raiders may browbeat the wary heroes with horrific legends about this "too-friendly place" long before they reach it.
In a devious twist, the gamemaster may decide the cadaver men are as unconscious as their victims. The Horror that created them increases their torment by having them believe they live normal lives. Having befriended a traveller, they black out, and when they wake up, they have his blood on their lips. Heroes who survive the encounter must decide whether to "put them out of their misery" (hardly heroic in the conventional sense) or try to find a cure for their cadaverous condition. This may involve a favor from a Passion, a magical item that resurrects the dead, or (for heroes of very high Circles) a quest to defeat the Horror that blighted the villagers.
For these "lifelike cadavers," use the Cadaver Man statistics on page 288 of the rulebook.
EARTHDAWN, Barsaive, and all Barsaivean names are trademarks of FASA Corporation.
No challenge to these trademarks is intended.