Playtest Date: November 19, 2016
Location: Elf’s Diamond Shop, Taipei, Taiwan
The town of Coventry sat high on a plateau in the Carpathian Mountains, beneath the imposing Mount Moldoveanu–known to the locals as “Snowblind Peak.” Situated near the mid-point of a long and treacherous mountain pass, the village was host to a constant supply of wayfarers. The several hundred residents who called Coventry home might hunt and even farm during the summer, but most will spend their time bartering with travelers for food and clothing. Come winter, such necessities would be worth their weight in gold.
Zenonas lifted up a flap on the covered wagon he and his four friends shared. “There it is, in the distance. The first building of Coventry. We will be there shortly.”
“And none too soon,” Dann muttered. A dark storm was brooding over the top of the nearby mountain peak. Shadows were stretching quickly down its face–far too quickly. “I don’t like the looks of that storm. There is a magical edge to it.”
Zenonas nodded in reply as he returned the flap. Their training at the Scholomance had robbed them all of any clear memories before two days ago, but it had left them with an innate intuition for the magical world. And the storm that raced down the mountain side made the hair on their neck stand as stiffly as any electrical charge.
Fortunately for them, their caravan’s four wagons reached the nearest structure of the village scant minutes before the oncoming blizzard struck. Soon they could see no further than twenty feet around of them.
“Let’s move quickly,” Zenonas announced. In the two days that the five friends had gotten to re-know each other, he’d found himself often taking the initiative and giving out instructions. “We’ll need to find shelters for both us and our horses.”
“Let’s hope they’ve stocked well on their drinks!” laughed Barcimir. He waved his favorite hat with a flourish, leaped from the wagon’s edge to the snow, and…abruptly halted. Strange sounds carried on the winds around him. Winds passing through crevices and over shards of ice often sounded like howling voices, but there was something deeper here today.
“I hear it too,” Dann affirmed, appearing next to Barcimir. It seemed as if they listened to the beginnings and endings of separate syllables on the wind, voiced at a distance by a cacophonous choir. Dann squinted in concentration; but try as he might, he couldn’t make out any specific words or language. Still, the effect was disturbing. “Whatever this new wind is, I don’t like it. Let’s move inside.”
As the others adjusted their coats and readied to approach the house proper, Zenonas was already circling the structure in search for a barn or stable. Knowing how easy it was to become disorientated and lost in a whiteout, he had grabbed a long, thin rope from the wagon and wrapped one end around a support beam, before he began circling the area via the other end.
Luckily, the stable was nearby. It was small, with only two stalls, but those would still mean relief for two of their horses. Initially, Zenonas was simply surprised that the stalls were both empty. Then, a sharp and bitter smell hit his nose–a mix of dung and blood. Within the past few days, something (or someone) had been slaughtered here. The hay had been swept and tidied, but the evidence still remained.
“Hey, I think something’s been killed in here!” Zenonas shouted into the storm. If it was to serve as a warning to the others, it came too late; for they were already knocking on the structure’s door.
Something seemed unusual to Dann as he climbed the two steps to the front door. A solid rap on the wooden planks gave not the sharp, hollow sound he’d come to expect, but a deep and muffled thud. Something hard was pressed against the other side of the door.
Memories slowly bubbled into his mind, like the broth of a slowly-simmering porridge. He remembered others in the caravan discussing the “open-door policy” of the Coventry locals. Every family could and would open their homes to needy travelers, especially in inclement weather as this. It gave them extra opportunities for trade they so desperately needed. A barricade was peculiar indeed.
“This door’s been barricaded,” he announced to the group. “I don’t know why. It’s not like this village to be unwelcoming.”
A sudden scraping and scuffling sound came from a nearby window, and a man’s head reluctantly poked its way out. “Who is it? Who are ye? Are ye alone?”
The travelers nodded. “Would you let us in? We need someplace to spend the night. We have coin.”
The owner of the house tapped his fingers nervously on the window frame, his eyes darting back and forth at the darkness all around them. ” ‘ave ye seen anything odd on yer way ‘ere? Any…dead bodies? Monsters?”
The homeowner, who the five later learned was named Ştefan, shook his head to himself. “Ye are either lost or daft, but no threat to me either way. Best to get yerselves in, and be quick about it! There ‘ave been strange ‘appenings of late…”
The window slammed shut again, and the sounds of scraping signaled a barricade being moved. Within moments, all five Scholomancers accepted into a dark and hushed peasant’s home. Meanwhile, the others of the four-wagon caravan, including the horses, were taken nearby to a larger structure with a full-sized barn.
There were two other Coventry villagers waiting inside–a woman standing by a wooden counter (Anca), and an old man in a chair by a tiny blaze in the fireplace (Iorghu).
Ştefan held a finger to his lips over a lit oil lantern. “It’s best we stay quiet this night. As I say, there ‘ave been strange ‘appenings of late, very strange–and many of us fear for our lives.”
Theirs was a simple homestead, built in the fashion of the “A-frame”; the steep roof helped prevent collapse under a full winter’s weight of snow. Each floor was a single room, decorated with handmade wooden furniture and earthenware. The house itself was a mix of slate and wooden logs, and there were extra chairs and tables pushed against the sides of the room…likely for guests in happier times. Additionally, knickknacks and baubles littered each flat surface and cubbyhole, from tea sets to wall scrolls to artisan tools and broken lanterns–rewards of trade or for trade.
But what the group couldn’t help noticing, amid all this cheery clutter, was that every entrance and window had been boarded or sealed.
“What are these latest events?” Senna asked, silent until now.
At first, Ştefan seemed uneasy to explain. “How familiar are ye with the ‘istory of Coventry?” he asked.
“A little,” Zenonas replied. “We know about the mountain and the monastery that used to be there. And some about Father Nicholas when he was still alive.”
In truth, the village of Coventry first gained its name from a monastery that once stood high near the summit of Snowblind Peak. Home to a seclusionist sect of clerics, this monastery would send a caravan down to the village every week or two.
The most beloved of those from the monastery was one Father Nicholas, who was well-known for his love of children. Short, somewhat fat, and always dressed in his red cleric’s tunic, Father Nicholas could never pass a child without giving them a candy, some fruit, or even a simple toy he’d crafted himself. His heart was eternally good and generous.
Some of the local legends surrounding Father Nicholas border on the fanciful. One tale, so it goes, tells of a particularly-harsh winter, where many had run out of food. One villainous butcher decided to lure three boys into his shop, where he dismembered them and placed their pieces in a pot, intending to sell them as ham. Fortunately, his deity had informed Father Nicholas of the evil deed, and the man was apprehended. However, Father Nicholas also said a prayer over the remains of the poor urchins, and they rose, whole and resurrected, from the pot.
Sadly, Father Nicholas was taken before his time.
One night, on the twenty-fourth day of the last month of the year, a fell blizzard engulfed the town of Coventry. Ice crystals stung like needles, sleet left marks like claws along the walls, and many swore they could hear unearthly shrieks and murmurings upon the wind.
Then, from out of the storm, new shapes appeared–horrible, twisted, and hungering. Flinging the adults aside with infernal strength, these fiends scrabbled after the wailing children, catching them up and stuffing them inside blood-soaked sacks.
But if there was to be salvation, it would not be from the monastery. A sudden and horrible earthquake unleashed an avalanche from the top of Snowblind Peak. Washing down over the stone mountain face, it completely buried both the monastery and obliterated all traces of the mountain path. The townsfolk wailed when they realized the fate of those inside.
And yet, just when all hope seemed lost, a new figure burst from the blizzard winds, riding a fiery chariot pulled by flying mares. Father Nicholas’s mighty voice rang out again above the din, and the fiends cowered in fear.
(Some versions of this story insist the Father used words that were less chaste. Whatever the truth of the matter, the winds instantly broke on his command.)
There was some idle speculation on this new Father Nicholas. Perhaps it was his soul, carrying on his love and generosity after death. Perhaps it was even the gods themselves, honoring his memory with an angel of protection. But no one argues that not a single misfortune has befallen their town since the day he first appeared. And on every twenty-fourth night of the last month of the year, on the sad anniversary of Father Nicholas’s death, his merry spirit can still be seen making its way through the sky…seated in a sleigh pulled by flying horses and shouting well-wishes to those below.
And the next morning, every child will awaken to fruit, candy, and small toys in their stockings.
Ştefan nodded. “What ye may not have ‘eard is that on every twenty-fourth night of the last month of each year, Father Nicholas’s spirit comes back to us. ‘e comes back to do the good work that ‘e did in life, visiting the children and ‘eaping up their stockings with toys and candy.”
The five heroes exchanged glances. This was one of the more colorful local legends they’d heard recently. “And…he’s done this for the past one hundred years?”
Ştefan nodded. “And ‘as been seen by many. ‘e never appears when ‘e’s being watched, and only shows ‘imself from a distance…waving from ‘is flying sleigh as ‘e returns to ‘is tomb on Snowblind Peak.
“But this year…this year, something different came instead.
“Four days ago, there was an earthquake that woke us from our sleep. No one was ‘urt, and nothing was broken…but, ye see, every door and window in the town was unbarred and wide open. Folks didn’t know what to make of that. In the end, we chalked it up to the tremors and went on.
“But the next day…the next day, each ‘ouse with livestock ‘ad one killed in the night. And not regular-killed, mind you, but with all their organs some’ow taken right out of the body, without ever breaking the skin! And we didn’t figure out where it’d all gone until all the other animals started getting ill; the organs were all inside the stomachs of the other animals! We lost nearly ‘alf our livestock before we could cut them all out.”
A sudden gust of wind howled around the house and made even the battened shutters rattle. Ştefan used this moment to compose himself, and the five travelers took turns silently eyeing each other.
Barcimir leaned over to Zenonas. “Maybe it’s better we take our chances in the storm,” he whispered quietly, but Zenonas quickly waved him off. It was a wild tale, to be sure, and perhaps one merely embellished to entertain naive visitors. It would be foolhardy to risk one’s life in a very real blizzard over simply the words of a single man.
Still, Ştefan spoke as a man who had witnessed such horrors himself. And there had been that smell of blood all about the stable.
“That still leaves two days,” Senna commented. “What else happened?”
Ştefan quickly glanced around him to make sure all exits were still barred before continuing. “Two days ago, there was an avalanche from Snowblind, a mighty one the likes of which I’ve never seen. It swept all the way to the northern edge of Coventry and buried a ‘ouse. All the men of the village pitched in to ‘elp dig the poor souls out. But when we finally got in…”
Here there were visible tears in the man’s eyes. “When we finally got in, they were already dead. Crucified to the ceiling. I’ve never seen anything like it. Something killed them, but it got in and out past a ‘undred tons of snow.”
“How many people had been inside?” Senna inquired.
“Four,” Ştefan replied. “Well…there were soon to be five. But something ‘ad carved the babe right out and taken it. We never found it.”
Ştefan took a deep, shuddering breath. “We tried to keep that one as quiet as possible–just between those who set eyes on it, ye understand. Told the rest of the town they’d been crushed by the snow. Don’t need to be scaring the children. ‘Scaring the children!'” Ştefan gave a miserable laugh. “Not that it mattered much, after yesterday morning.”
“What happened then?” Senna urged.
“Oh, nobody died or got ‘urt. Thank the gods for that. But every child under twelve woke up in a different bed, in a different ‘ouse. With a big, coal thumbprint on their forehead, black as night. And that’s what’s got everyone scared in this town tonight. Knowing something out there, something mean and cruel, can get in any time it wants.
“It sees us when we’re sleeping, and it knows when we’re awake.
“And it wants our children.”
Ştefan pointed to their heads above them. “Tonight’s the twenty-fourth night. If anything is going to ‘appen, it’s gonna be tonight. We got the two kids tucked in tight, Sergiu and Alina. Got every door and window barred in this ‘ouse, and gods ‘elp me if anything ‘appens to them while I still draw breath!”
Barcimir against leaned towards Zenonas. “You know,” he muttered quietly, “if the only thing it wants is the children, maybe we could just push them outdoors and sleep peaceably in our be–” Zenonas again quickly quieted his friend. Lack of alcohol made Barcimir irritable.
While the others continued in low tones with Ştefan, Samsara approached the old man sitting by the small fire. Perhaps he had experienced more in his longer lifetime; perhaps he knew of some other detail, however small, that could help in the future.
“You know,” the old man suddenly declared, as the lady drew near him, “my grandpappy knew Father Nicholas, when ‘e was still alive. Met ‘im as a small boy. Used to tell me every winter about ‘ow kind ‘e was; and ‘ow no one would dare ‘arm the ‘air on a child’s ‘ead, when ‘e was about.”
“What’s your take on all this?” Samsara asked. “Have you ever seen anything like this before in your time?”
“Nah, not a thing,” the old man declared. “The Father has come and gone each year like clockwork, despite some peoples’ silly notions to either trick him or catch him. Though I kept an eye out during the past few crazy days, I did. Saw a few things the others didn’t, I reckon. They told me I was just being daft.”
“The day of the avalanche. When all the other men were ‘ard at work digging out those poor souls, I looked up the mountain. Swore I could see a red glow near the top, right where my grandpappy said the monks lived. An evil red glow, if I’ve ever seen one.
“And yesterday? When all the children woke up wrong? I ‘eard something then. Something that wasn’t just mothers screaming for their children.” He nodded up again towards the direction of the peak. “I ‘eard voices there. Something whispering. Something plotting.”
“Old man,” laughed Ştefan, “you can’t ‘ear me when I’m on the other side of the room! ‘ow you gonna ‘ear anything coming from–“
“Enough!” Zenonas exclaimed, leaping to his feet and pounding the table with his gloved fist. “I’ll not simply abide here waiting for the ax to fall, and neither will you!” He pointed first at Anca. “Rouse your children and ready them. We’ll move to the same building where the rest of our caravan went, and we’ll all help you watch them. Sit around them in a circle, if we have to!” Next he pointed to Ştefan. “You will accompany me and a few of the others. We will go door-to-door in this village and convince the others to do the same. We’ll shepherd your children all together, so that if something does come, we will meet it on two feet–“
“Hush!” Dann commanded suddenly. He had frozen halfway to his feet, a finger to his lips, his head cocked in concentration. “Listen…”
Faintly at first, then growing ever so gradually, was the distinct sound of bells. Jingling, metallic sleigh bells. Bells chiming an eerie four-note melody.
“That’s ‘is sleigh,” a pale Iorghu whispered, as he gripped Samsara’s sleeve. “That’s Father Nicholas’s sleigh, all right. I’ve listened to that sound every year for the past 89 years. But it’s never been ridden so ‘ard and so fast. Whatever it is, it’s coming. “
The stillness, punctuated only by the distant tingling, stretched for an eternity.
“Gentlemen,” Barcimir finally growled, too taking his stand, “and ladies also present, of course. Prepare yourselves. It seems we are already out of time.”