41 – Death Mask

The thick layer of dust on a seamless stone floor blossomed up into the air as Branwhyn landed feet first into the catacombs. Slow to settle, the age-old layers of dust drifted through the lone spear of sunlight that illuminated a small sliver of the otherwise pitch-black tunnel network. It was clear that no one had been down here in many years. That was good, it meant his investigation was unlikely to be disturbed. It might also be a bad sign, signaling that there was nothing of value or interest in the catacombs below Grimwick. Caught between the siege being laid by Blacktongue Brecken and the doom that Thane Egil had placed upon he and Corinna, Branwhn was left grasping at straws for a way to resolve the escalating violence, or at least have a means of leveraging an escape for he and his ward when everything went south.

Branwhyn, Check’s his gear w/ Supply (2, 7, 5+2), Weak Hit. +1 Momentum (+4), -1 Supply (+1). Gather Information w/ Wits + Auger (9, 4, 6+3+1), Strong Hit. +2 Momentum (+6). I have no idea what we find down here, so we ask the Oracle. Action/Theme – Remove Bond. I take this to mean Branwhyn finds a way to remove the bond between Spirit and Ruler.

Pulling the torch from his pack, along with flint and steel, Branwhyn took note of how sparse his supplies had become. Ever since rescuing Corinna from Breckin’s clutches, he’d been on the run, attempting to stay ahead of the vengeful bandit. He would need to find a way to resupply in Grimwick if possible, if not he wouldn’t be able to run much further. With a shake of his head, he focused on the problem at hand, finding a way to protect Grimwick from enemies without and protect them from the corrupting influence within.

Holding the torch to the side, so as to not utterly destroy his night vision within the catacombs, Brawhyn moved slowly forward, each step blossoming the thick layer of dust on the floor. On both walls were carved bowers where the dead slept eternal. Stacked four high, the leathery preserved remains of generations past lay in their eternal rest. Who were they? Too old to be Ironlanders. Were these preserved corpses what remained of the Builders? But if so, why had he never found similar burial chambers in other Builder dwellings?

Passing one long corridor after another, the extend of the catacombs quickly became clear. They extended far beyond the bounds of Grimwick. With a deep breath and unfocused his eyes, letting them see the magics that swirled and ran throughout the Ironlands. But it was not his sight that was unveiled, it was his hearing. From behind, he heard the death rattle of a dying man, the creaking of old bones, the exhaled groan of pain as aged joints bending. Those sounds came not from the realm of mortals though, whatever ebb and flow of magic existed here manifested as sound. Turning, Branwhyn had the impression the sounds came from above and he guessed they would be loudest wherever Thane Egil was. There was a second, fainter set of noise a thin stillness of muscle and sinew turning to dust under the weight of time, the slight tap of bone on stone as the last bit of decayed flesh gives way beneath. Where that stillness of sound led, that is where Branwhyn needed to go. He turned and set his steps to delve deeper into the catacombs.

Delve: Ancient/Barrow (Troublesome). Delve the Depths w/ Wits (6, 7, 5+3), Strong Hit. Progress 3 of 10 & Opportunity. Find a Hidden Path. Prepare, +1 Momentum (+7)

Reaching his free hand towards the wall, letting his gloved finger tips brush along the seamless stone, Branwhyn closed his eyes and focused his ears on the small sound that waited on the other side of the mortal veil. A crackling of the torch, enflamed by a current of air, pulled Branwhyn into the immediate moment. A cross-current of air had taken the torch for a moment. Taking a few slow steps backward, it happened again. The shaman turned slowly and found he was in one of many long hallways of seamless stone, interrupted only by the carved out bowers for the dead. The current of air pulled at the torch again and Branwhyn felt it on his face. Following the unseen touch of wind, he peered into the nearest bower, between leathery preserved remains of the dead. There was a catch, a imperfection – hidden in shadow and behind the dead – amidst otherwise flawless stone. Reaching in, Branwhyn triggered the catch with a gloved hand. Between a pair of carved out bowers, the seam of a door appeared in the wall – perfect stone opening on silent hinges – and slid open to reveal a corridor that lay behind.

The thin stillness of noise did not come from behind the hidden passage though, so Branwhyn followed it only a little way. Fortunately, the passage didn’t wind very far from corridor and ended at a swift moving underground river. Crouching beside Branwhyn looked to where the water disappeared into the rockface. If his bearing were correct, it would lead out into the south flowing river they’d been traveling on since leaving Twin Rivers. There was here, a possible – if dangerous – escape from Grimwick. Retracing his steps, Branwhyn worked the catch again and was pleased to find it closed the passage once more. He marked the place in his mind as firmly as possible and – as reverently as possible – disturbed the rest of the dead by unfolding one of their crossed arms creating an irregularity to further mark the spot.

Delve the Depths w/ Wits (2, 2, 2+3), Strong Hit w/ Match. Progress 6 of 10 & Opportunity: Aspect of History. +1 Momentum (+8). Action/Theme: Aid/Battle, I’m going to take this at face value and say that Branwhyn finds something to aid him in his current battle. Thematically this is the wrong time, so we are going to punt this forward to the end of the Delve.

The echo of Branwhyns footfalls were his only company as he descended deeper into the winding tunnels. A growing pain in his calves reminded him that he wasn’t fully recovered from the magically induced sickness he’d contracted when summoning the Elder Wolf to attack Brecken’s camp. A sudden dry cough – likely due to the layer of dust throughout that sprung into the air with every step – left him winded and he paused to rest. It gave him a longer moment to study the catacombs around him. They’d changed slowly without his notice. No longer with the dead stacked like cord wood, here each had been given their own rest. They also slept with the remains of tools, probably the implements of their work in life. None of the tools would be of use any longer, their hafts and handles ravaged by time had long since vanished into the dust around his feat. What remained seemed to have been made with copper, now coverened in a green patina. A precious few bits of jewelry did remain though, revealed by the occasional tell-tale winking of gold worn as a stud in the ear or from a looped bracelet around wrist or ankle.

The path Branwhyn followed was leading him past those who were considered more important in life. If it ended with a bond to Thane Egil, there might be some insight into who he had been in life. More importantly, Branwhyn hoped for a revelation to what bound the spirit in death.

Delve the Depths w/ Wits (7, 6, 1+3), Miss. Reveal a Danger: Ancient Disease or contagion. Failure track tick, 13 of 40. Previously, we used a Debility to function as a disease. I’m going to do the same here and treat it like Wounded though we’ll be calling it Grave Cough, because Dad jokes. Delve the Depths w/ Wits (3, 1, 5+3), Strong Hit. Progress 9 of 10 & Opportunity: A place to scavenge, forage, or hunt. That is kind of a weird one, so I’m going to Locate Object and if successful roll this in with the Match above into the final room. Locate Objective w/ Progress (3, 2, [9]), Strong Hit. Forward +1. Resupply w/ Wits (9, 8, 5+3+1), Weak Hit. +2 Supply (+4), -2 Momentum (+6).

Making ready to move again, the dry cough returned once more. Reflexively covering his mouth with the back of his gloved hand, he didn’t see the splatter of blood amidst his spiddle when he pulled the glove away. Forcing a slow deep breath, he moved onward.

How the dead were laid to rest changed once again. Turned vertically, the bowers became alcoves; no longer did they lay in eternal sleep, instead they stood in constant vigil. Folded hands rested upon corroded copper swords and desiccated empty eye sockets looked out from behind masks of bone that only hid the upper portion of the head, leaving clear the leathery rictus grins of their countenance.

“Were you guards?” Branwhyn wondered aloud. “Are you here to keep me out? Or keep what lies beyond trapped within?” One question perhaps too many, he coughed again, a spasm of his lungs which he again blamed upon the carpet of dust through which he walked. Ahead of him, the thin stillness of a sound beckoned him to the only door he had encountered. An arch set in the tomb, the round stone that once served as a door lay broken on the ground. Stepping gently through the rubble, he found the burial chamber within.

Made of the same seamless stone, the square walled interior held neither carving, alcove, nor any exit save the one that Branwhyn had used to enter. At first appearance, Branwhyn thought he’d found a crypt designed to honor its occupant far above the stacks of sleeping dead that lined the corridors. The chamber was dedicated to one individual, their rounded stone sarcophagus dominating the center of the room. Around the edges of the room were stacks of the possessions of life, most had been ravaged by time to a useless state. At the head of the sarcophagus was a small plinth though and what lay atop it was what interested Branwhyn. A funerary mask of beaten gold.

An instinct told him to take his time in this room. He began with the time ravaged grave goods. To his surprise, there were a number of items of use. A finely woven rope, not made of hemp or any other material he was familiar with, but instead a soft smooth almost fabric which he had no experience with. Several of the preserved jars contained honey, still sweet and good despite the countless years that had passed when they were sealed. A few small tools that with care could be made usable again along with a few pieces of gold and silver jewelry that he might trade with in the future. This tomb had already been disturbed, this spirit was already restless, and so Branwhyn took what was no good to the dead but might be of use to him.

Finished with his search of the grave goods, Branwhyn once more turned to the sarcophagus in the middle of the room and saw it with new eyes. It was not designed for peaceful rest, the dimensions were too small. The occupant within would have to be contorted uncomfortably or have had their limbs broken to lay within. The lid also didn’t rest on a lip, but was simply a massive weight pressing down on whomever had been interned inside. The grave goods then were not to be of use to the occupant, but instead the good things of life that were now forever out of reach.

That left the golden mask upon the plinth, it must have been formed to a face at one time, but had clearly been smashed. Glancing back at the broken entrance, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Nazmi – the ancient healer woman – had told him that that the first settlers of Grimwick had explored these catacombs. They’d broken open the only door they’d found, likely expecting treasure within or perhaps something that might be of help them. They had been refugees seeking refuge from the Skuld, now living in a harsh, unfamiliar, and unforgiving new land. Too impatient to search as Branwhyn had, they focus on the mask of gold. An object of art and wealth, worth nothing to those with empty bellies and seeking shelter against the killing cold. They’d smashed it, with a hammer or a stone, flattening it on the plinth, breaking the mask, and possibly the prison. They’re act of reckless destruction had somehow released the ancient spirit. In turn it might well have saved the community, its familiarity with surviving in the Ironlands would have been wisdom itself to those unfamiliar with the barren terrain. In turn, the line of Thanes suffered a possessing curse. Some might call that a fair trade.

The narrative was too convenient, Branwhyn realized. If the possessing spirit were the criminal or tyrant he supposed, then why was its rule described as fair? Hard and strict, but fair, were the words that Nazmi had used. Had its long incarceration tempered it somehow? Or was that the work of melding with a line of noble Thane’s who cared for their community? Too many questions, too few answers. Coughing again onto the back of his hand, Branwhyn kept his focus on the golden Death Mask. Closing his eyes briefly, at the edge of his hearing he could just make out the thin stillness emanating from the mask, the release of the last breath seeming to escape from unmoving gold lips. This Death Mask was the fulcrum, now he just needed to figure out how and where to leverage it.

Escape the Depths w/ Wits (3, 2, 4+3), Strong Hit. +1 Momentum (+7).

Taking the battered Death Mask of gold, Branwhyn tucked it into his satchel. It was time to leave the catacombs and find his point of leverage. He retraced his steps in haste, taking only a brief moment to mark again the tunnel that led to the underground river. The escape might yet serve him, but not yet. Soon after, he found himself beneath entrance. The sliver of light had grown as the sun had moved, now he stood in a rectangle pool of light. Extinguishing the nearly spent torch, he jumped and grabbed hold of the lip of stone with his gloved hands. Leaning on the strength of the bear-spirit that lingered in his chest, he pulled himself up out of the pit and back into daylight.

He found a trio of Grimwick’s Wardens waiting for him, “You’re to take me to Thane Egil?” The guess proved to be a good one. He went willingly since that kept him free of their grasp. Belatedly, he wished that he hadn’t left his spear at the healer’s home. Alas, he had thought the weapons length would make it a liability in the catacombs.

The trio of Wardens brought Branwhyn, not to the Thane’s longhouse, but to the front gates of Grimwick. They were open, creating frame for the blasted scrag land that existed outside Grimwick’s walls. Wardens – fully armed and armored – stood atop the walls and to either side of the open gate. Thane Egil was there too, dressed not in armor but finery meant to speak to his power and authority. Branwhyn thought that moving with vitality despite appearing to be a walking corpse spoke of power and authority without any need of raiment, but he was not a Thane and had no wish to be.

“I going to keep you as a hostage.” The scraping of dry stones that came from the Thane’s mouth could only loosely be called a voice. “If the Blacktongue attacks, I will kill you, denying him his prize. If you try to resist or escape, I’ll kill your daughter. He’ll accept this, because a month from now, I’ll turn you out like wild game for him to hunt. The land around Grimwick is sparse and there is little to forage. He will not be able to keep his army in the field here. Only a small force to hunt you when the time comes. That will be a guard against the breaking of his word since by the time he can strike at you, he will not have the force of arms to threaten my home.”

Swallowing the dry lump that had welled up in his throat, Branwhyn stared at the walking corpse, looking directly into its sallow eyes. “No, no you’re not going to do that.” He sounded tired even to himself. The laying a gloved hand on the satchel at his, drew Egil’s sharp, focused gaze. “If you harm me, Corinna, or hold us against our will, I will destroy you. Then we can all die together.” It was a bluff, certainly Branwhyn could find a way to destroy the mask, but not before Egil and his guards could draw and use weapons against him. The only question was if the corpse-like Thane would call his bluff.

Face Danger w/ Shadow (4, 9, 2+2), Miss. Burn Momentum, Weak Hit. I’m going to count that as Progress on reviving Corinna, since keeping her alive is necessary to having her wake up. Progress 8 of 10. Momentum Reset (+1), due to the Debility. -1 Spirit (+1). Endure Stress w/ Heart (6, 3, 6+2), Strong Hit. +1 Spirit (+2), -1 Momentum (+0).

A hateful consuming emptiness raged in Egil’s eyes. “My first impression of you was correct,” His voice fell deadly quiet. “You are not to be trusted.”

“We don’t have to like each other, but we should work together to keep Grimwick safe from Brecken.” The dry cough undermined the strength of his statement and the flecks of crimson on the back of his gloved hand gave Branwhyn pause. He couldn’t linger on the implications of coughed up blood, not and persuade Egil to action. “You’re plan wouldn’t work anyway. You don’t know Brecken, he might agree; but he’d order the attack once he returned to his camp. My defiance weakened him, he can’t be seen to have anything less than absolute control.”

The wan hate-filled eyes studied the shaman quietly for a long moment. Glancing out the gate, Egil saw Brecken and a bodyguard of bandits approaching. “What do you suggest?”

“Make him the offer you just told me. It sounds good.” Branwhyn stifled a cough and swallowed down the bile that came up with it. “He’ll make a show of displeasure but ultimately he’ll agree. He’ll take the time to lay his plans for a siege, but that will buy us time as well. I’ll slip out of Grimwick by night, travel south by river. At the next circle, I’ll beseech them to send aid, or at least vessels for your people to escape.”

Secure an Advantage w/ Wits (3, 1, 2+3), Strong Hit. +2 Momentum (+2). That is Progress on protecting Grimwick, 10 of 10. Fullfill your Vow w/ Progress (8, 8, [10]), +2 xp. Fulfilling this Vow will count as helping Nazmi – the old healer – and thus be Progress on Reviving Corinna 9 of 10.

“Your daughter will . . .” The Thane began, but Branwhyn cut him off with the simple gesture of tapping his gloved fingers against the satchel that carried the Death Mask. Egil changed his demand mid sentence, “. . . will go with you if she is fit to travel, but I’ll send my own messenger to seek aid.”

“Agreed.” Branwhyn tilted his head towards the Thane, a show for the Grimwick Wardens who watched and listened, a show of respect to their Thane as if he’d made the shaman concede a point of contention.

Together, they turned to face approaching entourage. At the fore was a strikingly short man, a dwarf, with broad shoulders and dressed in chainmail. His black hair had retreated utterly from his head but had regrouped into a prodigious black beard that was streaked grey with ash. He stuffed a dried leaf into his pipe as he passed underneath the gate. Dark, intelligent eyes flicked back and forth between Branwhyn and Thane Egil. Opening his mouth to accept the stem of the pipe revealed teeth and tongue, stained black from whatever leaf he smoked.


Journey to Ragged Coast [Extreme] – 6/20

Branwhyn ap Hugh Bonds: 11
Health +3 Spirit +2 Supply +4 Momentum +2
Edge: 1 Heart: 2 Iron: 1+1 Shadow: 2 Wits: 3 XP: 19/25

Grave Cough

[Paths]: Sighted+, Ritualist+;
[Rituals]: Augur, Bind, Sway, Visage, Ward
[Companions] Kindred (Corinna) – Shield-Kin;

Active Vows:
Kingmaker [Epic] 3/40
Break the Power of the Broken’s Apostle [Extreme] – 5/20
Mentor Corinna [Extreme] – 7/20
-Rival [Monster Within] – 5/20
Find the Heir of Twin Rivers [Formidable] – 2/10
Renew Twin River Southern Trade Route [Dangerous] – 8/10
Winter Meeting at the Seven Strong Men [Dangerous] – 0/10
Revive Corinna [Formidable] – 9/10
Protect Grimwick [Dangerous] – 2 xp.

Threat: Corruption in the North – 3/10

Failure Track – 13/40

Bonds: ???, ???, ???, Esyllt the Herbalist, Ironhold of Crow’s Perch, Björn Blacksmith of Greybrook, Valknut, Ironhold of Twin Rivers, Ironhold of Greybrook, Priestess Indirra of Wolves Haven, Old Gray [wolf]

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