Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A ghost story

Happy Halloween!

So I've been thinking about starting a Patreon for writing short stories  (which then have an adventure about the site or monster they involve appended to the end).   Its a new concept I've been toying with.  One thing it requires though is not just a skill in game writing but also short story writing (and those are two very different skill sets).  To that end,  here is the first half of a short story that will be my inaugural test of this concept.

Part 1

Gerrard was an easy going man so he ignored the offensive connotations to the remark. He leaned back in his host’s finely crafted chair, putting undue strain on the joints and threatening to scuff the floor. He may be easy going, but Gerrard knows how to push his host’s buttons.

"There is no need to be ashamed if you have no wine fine enough to match the bottle of '68 I brought from the Duc's personal estate".  Gerrard put extra-emphasis on the word "personal" to imply a great value of having the Duc's favour, as if he were important at the royal court. He wasn't, but he also knew that the minor provincial nobility surrounding this table were both ignorant of courtly affairs and too prideful to admit it.

Alexandre, his host, momentarily scowled before quickly regaining his composure. "While I would not hope to imply a vicomte such as myself could match the private reserve of a duc, I do have wines more than equal to those he would send out as gifts to those himself.  I merely did not wish to cause any embarrassment.  For you see, my finest wine has a rumoured curse about it and I would not want a guest in my home to accrue shame should they lack the courage to partake"

Gerrard's face was unmoved, but his easy going nature was switching to cold and calculating logic. His fame and status came from his reputation as a dashing explorer engaged in feats of high adventure. While he held no personal truck with concepts like honour, his financial well being and access to creature comforts required he maintain that facade.  But his reputation is not based on false deeds.  He had indeed been to both exotic foreign lands and the dark forgotten corners of this one. He knew first hand not all curses were superstitions.  All of this took but the barest flash of time to work out in his mind.  He had fallen into a trap by his own errors, but he would prefer to risk a possible curse than a definite loss of lifestyle.  The sight of the young baronet at the end of the table caused a flickering of spite to burn into his thoughts.

"Alexandre! I could not abandon you to face a curse alone! Why if my host insists on taking such a foolhardy risk upon himself, do the rules of hospitality not require I join him?" asked Gerrard, deliberately misinterpreting Alexandre to imply the host wished to taste the cursed wine himself, "but at least tell me of this curse that we shall face together?"

Alexandre blanched.  He too saw the young and ambitious Pierre at the end of the table. Pierre was newly arrived with an inherited title to a tiny, destitute estate and the obvious gleam of avarice in his eyes for Alexandre's wealth. Vicomte is not a hereditary title and Comte Papineau was a fickle romantic who abhorred cowardice, despite the county's dire need of those with managerial acumen Alexandre knew this would endanger his own position should the upstart Baronet spread news of this conversation. "I may as well spread the misery to that social vulture" thought Alexandre with a fatalistic resignation "And what of you Pierre? Will you join us on this test of courage? or will you retreat while I describe the foul tale to our county's fine visitor?"

"Boorish and blunt, lacking subtlety" thought Gerrard of Alexandre's clumsy maneuvers. "You do me a great honour Vicomte!" declared Pierre "Alas in my current station I have but poor table wines to contribute.  For me to partake in this event without a suitable offering of my own would be shameful."

Gerrard shifted uncomfortably at Pierre's response. It is not that the Baronet was either particularly artful or clumsy in his response, more that he felt the need to avoid drinking a fine wine at all.  Pierre seemed to be young and ambitious.  Young people were prone to disregard supernatural warnings, and ambitious sorts would not lightly risk status for fear of them unless there was some stronger evidence than tales to scare disobedient children. Had Gerrard erred? No. It was these provincial yokels who were wrong.

"The curse?" prodded Gerrard

Alexandre cleared his throat and began:

It began over a half century ago,  on a dusty impoverished estate of a local baronet, in fact it was the same estate Pierre has since inherited. Then it was owned by the Baronet Gilles Dampierre, an old man without heir.  One day he returned from a sojourn to the east with a young and beautiful bride named Rebecca. Most suspected she was probably misled by Gilles with tales of a wealthy estate, and that she was probably anticipating becoming a widow of high wealth in short order given his advanced years. The local folk thought it was hilarious, that Gilles was a sly dog and her a fortune-seeker who got what she deserved.

But she seemed not unhappy with her surroundings, even though she herself had to plant when Gilles had to let his servants go over the winter, he was quite destitute. Gilles was in great spirits and she seemed the ever affectionate bride. When Gilles died 5 years later their estate was in quite a different financial situation. She had a green thumb beyond compare, that dusty hillside had become overgrown with grapevines. Its harvest was bountiful and money began to fill the widow's coffers. The estate produced not only large quantities of wine, but of a flavour far surpassing any other local wines.

Gerrard interrupted "So she was accused of witchcraft."

"Naturally" said Alexandre

"And then they burned her alive" concluded Gerrard

Alexandre chuckled "Of course not! We use drownings here. She burned herself alive as part of setting her estate ablaze that none of our envious hands should ever enjoy the fruits of her labour. Such was the curse she screamed from her balcony before the roof collapsed in flame. But when the estate lands and remaining belongings were auctioned off later,  it turned out several dozen bottles of her final vintage survived. They have since gathered a rather ominous reputation. It is said she will return from the grave to kill any who partake of her wine. So far there have been rumours of six opened bottles and six unexplained deaths.  Do you dare risk a seventh bottle?"

Gerrard did quick mental math. Several dozen bottles, only six deaths. The deaths were all from people who took a bottle for themselves alone and thus could have been drunk. It is possible only those six bottles have been opened, but Gerrard was willing to take the risk giving what was at stake for him. "Fear not Alexandre, I shall not desert you in your quest to prove your courage"

Alexandre stood up and fumbled in his breast pocket for a key. He walked towards the bookshelf and unlocked a small cupboard at its base. He could be heard moving several small items before relocking the cupboard.  When he stood up and turned around he was holding a dark green bottle with a singed label and a great mass of malformed wax dripping down the neck as far as the heel in some spots.

"It seems to have been near the fire, that may have damaged the seal." said Gerrard "it could have turned to poison"

Alexandre "Oh? I must admit I know little about the storage of wine. For the rest of my stock, that is the domain of my servants"

"If the seal is broken then the wine has been exposed to the air for some decades.  Ignoring the loss of flavour, it can be quite deadly.  This may well be the source of the rumoured curse. Any already intoxicated individual imbibing an unsafe bottle alone would likely be found dead by morning. That bottle may be better used as a conversation piece, there is no bravery in knowingly drinking poison after all" concluded Gerrard.

"There does seem to be enough extra wax that the seal is still intact" interrupted Pierre " while your explanation seems likely for the cause of the curse you are in luck with this particular bottle. You both have the opportunity to both enjoy such a vintage and prove your courage against the curse".

"I fear no curse" said Alexandre with renewed conviction, his spirits obviously buoyed by the recent insights.  Gerrard however glared silently at Pierre's destruction of his social escape route which would have allowed him to save face. Had it been intentional?

When Alexandre inserted the screw,  no blood spewed from the cork.  When the bottle was opened, it emitted no unearthly moan.  Only wine poured forth into a glass and no distant wails were heard as it was let to breathe. The three men sat in silence for half an hour. Pierre picked at the crusts of bread still on his plate, using them to swab up bits of duck fat.  Alexandre had poured water for himself and Gerrard to rinse their mouths with, and Gerrard simply stared out the window in to the darkness. The crackling fire in the hearth the only background noise.

Finally Alexandre spoke,  "I suppose it has had enough time to breathe, shall we Gerrard?".  Gerrard nodded and the two took mouths full of water and swished about before spitting into their mugs.

"I do hope it lives up to the positive half of its reputation" mused Gerrard.

 Alexandre silently poured two glasses of white wine.  Gerrard was visibly taken aback.

"You expected red no doubt? with its associations with blood and vampires and other ghoulish terrors?" asked Alexandre, a satisfied smirk upon his face.

"I suppose I did" said Gerrard in an unusually honest response.

The two raised their glasses in a silent toast before each taking a sip.

Alexandre smiled "Delightful!" he exclaimed "it is a perfectly sweet dessert wine which.." then paused as he noted Gerrard's face.  Gerrard was frowning.  "What has you behaving as such in the face of such a generous treat?" asked Alexandre with a growing hint of annoyance "Surely you do not pretend I exaggerate the traits of my gift to Pierre?".

"The wine is exquisite, by far the best I have ever had the privilege of tasting" said Gerrard dryly.

"Then you are merely feeling distraught about how much more generous a wine offering I have provided? Instead be joyous at the generous..uh..generosity you have received" said Alexandre with a rising level of smugness in his voice.

Gerrard nodded silently, but that was not his concern.  The wine had been cooked in fire and stored in a cupboard for decades.  Wine did not last forever, especially not in such conditions.  There was no earthly way it could maintain such a brilliant flavour.  Gerrard felt doom approaching deep in his bones.

Part 2

The remainder of the evening involved some small talk about local issues and a few mildly amusing anecdotes. The steam seemed to have been let out of the conversation as the bottle was shared between Gerrard and Alexandre.  Gerrard was quite happy to wrap the evening up, his sense of unease growing.  He tapped into some of his less reputable tricks to slide some silverware up his sleeve and pocketed a container of salt. Every noise and gust out wind outside tensed his muscles.

As the fire burned low, Gerrard picked up a candlestick and retired to his guest suite. It was a well furnished and cozy little room with a single east facing animal horn window. It had a small single bed covered in thick wool blankets, a small vanity with a built in washbasin, and a cross hung above the door.

“I suppose I had better get started” said Gerrard as he took stock of his options. He looked under the bed and smiled as he pulled out a brass chamberpot. Tucking it under his arm he checked the drawers of the vanity and removed a neti pot, a candle, and a mostly empty inkpot.  Gerrard scanned the room again looking for anything else he may have missed. “This will have to do” he said as emptied his pockets onto the floor.  A container of pilfered salt, a silver place setting, 5 silver coins, a gold cross necklace, and a single vial of holy water that he has ensured is always on his person since the vampire incident of seven years prior.

Gerrard started by carefully pouring a line of salt along the bottom of the door and then moved over to repeat the process by the window.  It was there he noticed his breath was visible, and the faint hint of moving moonlit shadows against his window.  Gerrard steadied his breathing and carefully lined salt under the window in what he assumed was the nick of time, for small dots of frost appeared on the window alongside what Gerrard swears looked like the shadows of small human hands.

The window’s latch began to slide up on its own, so Gerrard began hammering the silverware between the window and the ledge with the bedpan, preventing the window from swinging inward. The window rattled slightly, and then the bent and mangled cutlery seemed to flash with a small spark. There was an audible hiss and the warmth returned to the air.  As he hurried over to the door he heard Alexandre rising from his own room and shouting about the commotion.

Alexandre was only a few paces outside Gerrard’s door muttering obscenities when he let out a blood curdling scream.  Gerrard took the wooden cross from above the door and wedged it into the latch.  Alexandre reached Gerrard’s door and tried in vain to pull it open  “Help! It is her phantom! Help me!” he pleaded.  Gerrard held the door shut, despite all rules of honour and hospitality.  Alexandre screamed loudly once more before there was a thud as a body hit the floor.  Gerrard moved away from the door as once more a chill descended over him.  The door rattled briefly and the cross began to smoulder.  The chill quickly departed.  Gerrard once more scanned his room for he knew this was not over.

Gerrard withdrew a drawer from the vanity and smashed it upon the ground.  He quickly scooped the pieces into the chamberpot along with a dry hand towel from the wash basin. He crumbled the extra candle into the chamberpot and carefully lit the detritus with the failing light of his candlestick.  He heard the slow squeak of iron nails being pulled from wooden planks on the floor above his room as small plumes of plaster dust began dropping from the ceiling.  Gerrard placed the neti pot into the fire and lay upon the ground, watching the smoke pool upon the ceiling and listening to the noise.  Gerrard watched for nearing half an hour, the chamberpot fire was but glowing coals when Gerrard heard the plank snap and saw the smoke funnel into the growing hole above him. Gerrard then carefully poured the single vial of holy water he carried into the neti pot, causing it to hiss and let out puffs of steam as it began to boil.

There was an inhuman scream on the floor above and the sound of breaking planks ceased. For a brief moment there was silence, but it was sound followed by a great wailing and the sound of breaking furniture.

“It appears our phantom has the temper of a poltergeist” said Gerrard in a muttering tone “but I don’t suppose there is enough holy water to boil until morning”. He was talking to no one in particular, but he found it calmed his nerves to do so. The next speaking Gerrard did was not to calm his nerves.. To the contrary, the low monotone noises he uttered caused him to feel both a growing anxiety and terrible pain behind his eyes.

The water boiled for nearly forty five minutes, and the spirit took five more to notice the absence.  But the work resumed, with a much faster pace.  Gerrard saw the skeletal hands rend and tear a larger and larger hold in the ceiling.  Gerrard held out his small golden cross in his ink stained hand as he lay in bed half under the covers. Down from the ceiling floated a partial human skeleton, surrounded by the spectral image of an angry young woman.  The phantom slowly floated towards Gerrard with a look of annoyance on its face, always keeping its gaze from looking directly at Gerrard’s small cross.

With a sudden burst of speed Gerrard threw a handful of silver coins from his left hand directly at the ghost.  It instinctively flinched away and then turned back with a snarl as Gerrard flung back the covers from the bed.  The mirror from the vanity had been removed and painted with occult runes from the monument of Nagal-Khish,  and as soon as the spirit gazed upon its reflection it disappeared, and only its reflection remained.  Gerrard quickly covered the mirror once more and broke it with a blow from his elbow.  Under the covers he heard the screaming of the phantasm as it found itself unable to escape its prison of mirror shards.

Gerrard noticed he was bleeding from his elbow,  a superficial cut but it was ruining his shirt.  He used his pillow to apply pressure to the cut and waited for morning’s light to banish the spirit back to the realm of the dead.  With the crow of the rooster he knew he had survived another day,  but that the spirit would return at dusk.

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