The Crimson Gloaming

This is a continuation of the story started in Dinner with a Lich.

Horresbin leads the way into a long, squat building with stone foundation and timber supports. Inside, twenty long tables with built-in benches fill the majority of the interior, with a serving bar set off to one side, establishing this place as the commissary for this small population. While the surfaces appear spotless and well-maintained, a stench of stale decay and embalming fluid permeates the air. In the far corner, two zombified thri-kreen stand vigil over a hatch on the floor. Horresbin gestures to them, and they step aside. He lifts the hatch, exposing steep wooden steps leading into the darkness below. “You may wish to provide yourself with some light.” The ghoul suggests.

Newton considers casting his prepared daylight spell, knowing it may deter the denizens of this wretched abyss, but decides instead to save it for a more relevant endeavor. He casts light upon his holy symbol, letting it shine brighter than any torch he could produce, and illuminates the darkness below. The stairs continue below the building for some forty feet before reaching a bare stone floor with a slight sheen, suggesting the presence of a thin layer of some as-yet unidentified fluid. “Lead the way.” The cleric says with a nod.

Horresbin descends the steep staircase, with Newton reluctantly in tow. As the putrid stench becomes ever stronger, Newton steadies himself on the wall to avoid collapsing and tumbling down the treacherous stairs. His vision blurs slightly, a result of his mixture of hunger and the supernatural drain on his strength at the hands of the shadow, Sliven. The overwhelming smell only intensifies this instability.

He reaches the solid stone floor without incident, but does not rejoice at the fact, as his thoughts are stolen by the hideous scene that awaits him. The low-ceiling of this sprawling chamber is held aloft by thick, stone columns separating fastidiously organized stacks of dismembered humanoid body parts, all in various states of decay. One stack contains arms from donors ranging from human to gnoll to thri-kreen, while another stack contains the accompanying legs. Torsos and heads rest in deep shelves and hang from wires suspended from the ceiling. Vats and barrels cluster together, filled to the brim with further examples of horrid butchery. Most prominent, though, are largely unmodified bodies, with all or most of their limbs. They lay stacked, covered in thick linens that show only their approximate frame, or with nothing at all.

The piles and shelves create their own walls in the chamber, giving it the feeling of a morbid, suffocating maze of carnage. Every inch is covered in a grey slime, oozing and pooling around the bodies. The source of the slime emerges into view from behind a collection of vats: a ten-foot long slug-shaped creature composed of quivering slime. Its surface seems to be entirely composed of the same sludge coating its surroundings, but vague shapes resembling the limbs and entrails that fill the room can be discerned through the murky mass. It rears up to a stack of arms, revealing a long, thick proboscis and six double-jointed humanoid arms which seem so fragile when connected to the bulk of the creature itself. It delicately rearranges the stack, all the while coating each limb with a generous layer of slime produced from its proboscis.

“Do you know what this place is?” Horresbin queries.

“Yes.” Newton replies. “We called them ‘corpse vaults’ when we found them in the Luminous Mountains

“Indeed, during your hunt for the dubiously named ‘Luminous Mountain Ghoul.’”

Tim Craddock has a tendency to inspire interesting nicknames wherever he goes.”

Newton remembers back to that fateful and terrible autumn in 2060. He and his fellow Undead Hunters had uncovered Father Craddock’s perverse dealings with undeath, causing the monster to seek shelter in the obscurity of the sparsely populated Luminous Mountains to the North of Roche. His activities became far more reckless than they had been in the preceding years, spreading terror among townsfolk for hundreds of miles. The title of “ghoul” was obviously inaccurate, as Craddock was using the gathered corpses for his sinister creations, rather than consuming them. For the lay-people, though, the distinction made little difference when confronted with wide-scale desecration and theft of the deceased.

Whenever the Hunters managed to track Craddock down, he slipped away before they arrived. The horrors he left behind, though, still remain in Newton’s nightmares. The first of these “corpse vaults” came as such a hideous shock to the younger Hunters – Newton included – that they opted to simply destroy the entire structure without investigating further. The following half-dozen, though, desensitized them to the hideous depths to which Craddock had sunk, and hardened their resolve to put an end to his reign of terror. Now, as Newton faces the first such repugnant collection in almost 12 years, he calls back these memories to strengthen him. Sadness, though, comes with it, knowing that two the companions that were by his side then are now so twisted by the same evil.

“What do you think of it?” Horresbin presses on.

“I think eight cannon powder kegs should fix this place right up.” Newton replies. “Make sure to get the supports.”

“Do you see the harmony of the Naras-Timal in this?” A gentle voice questions from behind a bank of shelves to his right.

Newton turns just as Chimmetz slithers into view. Her voice is smooth and almost human, but Newton’s keen familiarity with the undead detects the faint internal echo. As she rounds the corner, he can’t help but be struck by her lovely visage. While Horresbin’s whole appearance is a battlefield of rotten flesh and twisted anatomy, her face seems as if it had been perfectly transplanted on her monstrous form. She exists as a singular example of the measure of finesse that Craddock possesses, but seems to leave out of most of his other creations. The spell is broken, though, when the remainder of her – or perhaps more precisely, its – patchwork body is taken into consideration.

Newton balks at the question. “I fail to see the ‘harmony’ inherent in a pile of stolen and desecrated flesh.”

“Consider the journey it has taken to reach this state.” Chimmetz lifts the severed head of a gnoll from the shelf and inspects it. “Conception, birth, life, growth, death. Now, it shall transcend.”

“I think you mean ‘pervert’. That order of events you gave is part of a cycle, one which is broken by the blasphemy you propose. What you are holding was meant to pass back into the world to be reborn.”

“Life. My point is that life is a prerequisite.” The slime-slug approaches as they speak, and Chimmetz places the head in its grasp. It meticulously covers the item with a fresh layer of slime and returns it to the shelf. “This is the essence of the Naras-Timal. Undeath cannot surpass life, or it will destroy its own mechanism for growth.”

“Yes, I’ve heard this all before.” Newton grumbles. “Has it occured to you, though, that what you propose is not sustainable? Forget for a moment that the negative energy required for this is unnatural and not intended to exist in this world-”

“It is an imposed imbalance that is being corrected.” Chimmetz interjects.

“Forgetting that,” Newton continues with a scowl, “you have to know that without an end to undeath, the materials you’ve stolen for your dark creations cannot be returned to be re-energized with life, thereby stalling your process. Collapse of this society is inevitable, and we can only pray it occurs before it gets too far.”

“Bravo.” Horresbin says, with a hint of amusement.

“If we’re to continue this compelling conversation,” Newton suggests irately, “I would like to request a new setting. The ambiance here is not quite fitting.”

“It’s perfectly fitting, cleric.” Horresbin snarls.

“If you are to go,” Chimmetz begins, lifting the chain of the amulet she wears around her neck, “I have a gift to grant you first.”

“I’ll pass.” Newton responds without hesitation.

His eyes widen, though, when a zombie emerges from behind Chimmetz. To most others, it would appear to be an unremarkable human zombie, with its jerky movements and loose flesh. Newton, though, cannot mistake the face, the hair, the frame, or anything else for he knew this body well, perhaps more than any other. He knew it because it was once his. It’s the body of Newton of Peloria; the body he buried in the hallowed grounds of Roche.

Newton staggers back from his own animated corpse, and steadies himself against one of the stone pillars. He stares at the shambling cadaver, begging it to be a trick of the light, but gets no such reprieve. Horresbin and Chimmetz watch him silently, unmoved by his horror. Newton straightens up and glares at the heartless monsters. “This is the future of your world.” he proclaims, “Petty revenge taken to mock the living, burning a hole in what is left of your souls. A sad fate for the beautiful, the honorable, the valiant, and the humble.”

“Which of those splendid descriptors would you apply to this one?” Horresbin sneers.

Newton ignores the taunt and casts a forlorn eye on the pitiful zombie. “Even now you fail to see the truth of what you’re doing.” He approaches his desecrated counterpart while uncorking a flask of holy water.

“That will hardly suffice.” The ghoul mocks. “Why not display your divine connection? You can destroy it with a single word. Do it, old friend. Destroy it.”

Newton pauses, and glances at the fallen paladin. His twisted former friend stands at the ready, claws outstretched in anticipation. He wants to bait me into overstepping my bounds. Newton observes. Despite all his posturing, he won’t disobey Craddock’s orders unless I make the first move. He turns his attention back to the zombie. “Perhaps one day. For now, I only wish to clean him of some of this evil.” He pours the contents of the flask out on the passive creature. The holy water flows down the side of its face and down its chest, burning the defiled flesh like acid. Under the control of Chimmetz, it does not react. “You will find peace, old friend.”

The holy water does its job quickly, leaving the zombie scarred, but largely unaffected. “Pathetic.” Horresbin snarls. “Such a pointless gesture.”

Newton sighs, knowing that may be true. He wishes he had the power to bathe everything in here with Pelor’s light until only dust remained. He would call down a pillar of light from the Heavens themselves to burn this town and all its foul undead inhabitants from existence, if only he could. He would gladly die now if it meant that Craddock and his abominations were destroyed in the process, never to infect the world with their ugly touch again. But that’s not the case, so Newton remains calm. I will endure this. I will have my day. He promises himself. He sighs again. “What else do you wish to show me, to prove your way is better?”

Chimmetz slithers between Newton and the unfortunate zombie. “The gift. Will you accept it?”

“No.” Newton replies with solid certainty. “Tell Craddock he can keep his little prize for now.”

“It is not from Father Craddock,” Chimmetz contends, “it is a gift from Jenny Krysa.”

Newton stares at the wight in disbelief. The creature’s face shows no hint of duplicity, but he simply refuses to believe it. No. This is a game. He thinks to himself. They would not have told me this if it were true. No, they seek to crush my spirit with lies and half-truths. Well, two can play this game.

Newton slumps his shoulders, as if defeated. “I… see. Even those I have trusted the most have betrayed me.” He does his best to convey hopelessness. A simple task, considering there really is little to hope for at the moment.

“It is no betrayal, I assure you.” Chimmetz murmurs gently. “It is a passion she hopes to share.”

“No,” Newton continues his charade of despair, “she was merely a lure cast out for Craddock’s vengeance. And for her part, she has succeeded in trapping me here.”

“Oh, come now,” Horresbin grumbles, “such a simple revelation is hardly sufficient to warrant this despondence. Where is the sour, defiant cur I’ve come to enjoy? What do you care what some dumb child does?”

“You underestimate the magnitude of the shocks I have endured today. I thought… there was still hope for her.” Newton feels a twinge of quite real sadness at his own statement. I suppose I’m a better actor than I give myself credit for.

“You’re weak.” the ghoul seethes. “This is not the strong will I expected. Father Craddock’s interest in you is clearly misplaced.”

“You will understand.” Chimmetz soothes Newton. She indicates to the amulet once again. “Please, you will take this now?”

“No, I still cannot see how your vision of life and undeath is to be maintained in balance.” Pelor, please protect my misguided friends and see them safe. I will see if I can stall long enough to find a way to regain my freedom. He looks back at the shambling remains of his old body. “But for now, I am your rapt prisoner. What else do you wish to show me of the Naras-Timal?”

Horresbin leaves while Chimmetz guides Newton deeper into the labyrinthine depths of the corpse vault. The zombie follows closely, like a loyal servant awaiting commands. They first approach the slug-like monstrosity, which Chimmetz calls a fleshkeeper. It is a creation of Father Craddock’s intended to keep dead flesh fresh until it is ready to be crafted into another form. Next came the grotesque necrosis carnex, a horrid amalgam of rotting flesh bound to twisted limbs. It ambles into view from round a corner on all four of its awkward appendages. Father Craddock created it to act as a healer for other undead. Newton grimaces at the use of the word “healer” in this manner, and he breathes a sigh of relief when the creature finally moves on, as its mere presence disturbs him greatly. Finally, a serpent-like abomination of bone emerges stealthily from a recess in the ceiling, both ends crowned by a skull with burning eyes. The creature appears to be composed of a series of linked torsos whose moving ribs propel it forward. Chimmetz introduces it as a serpentir, a guardian of unhallowed places. Father Craddock created them to protect the corpse vaults from intruders. This one moves quickly to attack Newton, but Chimmetz sends it away before a blow is struck.

“My apologies.” Chimmetz states. “I forget sometimes that many of my kin are naturally predisposed to attack the living. I have not acted as guardian for a living being since Jenny left.”

Newton wonders for a moment if Jenny ever saw a corpse vault on the inside. They spoke in vague terms during their lessons, but it never occurred to him until now what sort of effect a place like this would have on a child’s mind and personality. Jenny spoke fondly, too, of Chimmetz “The Mud Snake,” but seeing it now in the flesh fills Newton with sorrow for the person that could love this thing. Behind its lovely voice and reassuring words, Newton senses an uncaring, hollow shell of a creature. Does it actually understand why these things elicit trust and love, or does it simply mimic the words and mannerisms of a truly empathic creature?

As the tour continues, the stacks of bodies near the back of the chamber begin to thin out, leaving excess room for further “stock”. Newton’s rumination halts at the sight of something quite unexpected among these fresher additions: a fallen illithid wrapped in thin linen. Its rubbery skin shows signs of some dessication, and its sunken eyes sit deeper than Newton remembers in those of its kind he encountered some months ago, but it otherwise looks physically undisturbed, as if resting. For a moment, Newton fears it will suddenly stand and turn its mind powers upon him, but it remains motionless, dead.

“An illithid!” Newton sputters.

“Yes.” Chimmetz slithers next to the cleric and looks upon the monster’s corpse. When it becomes apparent Newton is expecting further elaboration, the wight continues. “It approached Father Craddock recently, proposing an arrangement. As you can see, the arrangement was not satisfactory.”

“What was the proposed arrangement?”

“I did not ask, and Father Craddock did not tell.”

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The Crimson Gloaming

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