Sunday, April 13, 2014
Doctor Sandorius and The White Death
This is a narrative based on a role-playing session we had using the Savage World rules. It will be a short game, probably only two sessions total. It is the prologue to a longer campaign I am planning to run later this summer. The main character is Doctor Sandorius, the long-lived sorcerer and alchemist and his ongoing battles against the dreaded Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.
The Black Brunswicker
“You have cheated me, Sandorius! That is why you won’t die peacefully in your sleep.”
Sandorius came painfully awake from his fitful sleep. He breathed in deeply and the cold air seared his lungs.
It was still Russia, not the Other Realms of which he had been dreaming. He looked around the small ravine where he had sheltered for the night with a dozen or so other stragglers from the wreck of the Emperor’s Grand Army. He looked at the bodies of the others who were not moving, knowing they would never move again. They were dead, like so many others.
He tried to focus on the man addressing him, his eyes straining in the weak light of the early winter dawn. The man was dressed in a black hussar’s uniform with a death’s head badge on his fur cap, like the ones that the Army of Brunswick wore. But this man was no Brunswicker, not even a German. Then the thought came to Sandorius that the stranger was likely not even human. Sandorius noticed that despite the falling snow, not a single flake seemed to light upon the stranger.
“Who are you?” Sandorius asked.
“I am he who one does not see until one’s last day. You have put off our meeting for far too long, through your… conjurer’s tricks.” Here a slight smile played on the stranger’s lips and his small mustache quivered with his own mirth. “As I am sure you have already guessed, it is she who has put a stop to your tricks- her powers have grown quite strong since you finished your ...tutoring. It is lucky for you that I found you before she did. She had a much more difficult ending for you than I shall give.” The stranger drew his sword and the sound filled Sandorius with a dread he had rarely felt.
“There is no more waiting, my friend. No tricks can stay me now, you’re time is at an end. But now that you are at the end, look back on your many years and ponder how you have wasted them. She was the only one you loved, and when she betrayed you, you spent all those years, two centuries and more, seeking nothing but vengeance. You loved no one, never really helped anyone, and in the end, led the nation you helped to found into this disaster, solely for the chance to destroy her-“
“But she is evil incarnate!” shouted Sandorius.
“And who was it that put her first steps on that path….”
Before the stranger could finish, there was a shout from woods beyond the ravine. A soldier was charging towards them with a large sword raised above his head.
The stranger sighed and said, “Well, it seems you have cheated me again. Not with a trick this time, but a sacrifice. You shall owe someone a great debt.”
With that the stranger slowly backed away from Sandorius and disappeared into the swirling snow.
No longer seeing the stranger, the soldier slowed and lowered his weapon. He was young and handsome and his face was still open, even after all the horrors that he had assuredly seen in this campaign. He wore a heavy felt coat fringed with fur and a tall, square-topped lancer’s cap on his head. His sword was large and ancient and he bore in his two hands.
“I am Captain Andrzej Milna of the 12th Polish Uhlans. Who are you sir?”
“Doctor Sandorius, with the Ruritanian Division, attached to Prince Leopold’s staff.
“Oh,” Milna’s face dropped, showing he knew of the fate of the Ruritanians. “I fear, sir, that no many of that Division are at liberty. Prince Leopold was wounded and captured at Krasnoi, and...
“…And most of his troops are dead. I was there, Captain.”
“A brave and honorable people, the Ruritanians.” Milna offered in an ingratiating manner. “Many of their officers are descended from Prince Radziwill’s Poles who liberated that country from the Turks after Vienna. I am told I even have cousins amongst them. Poor, it is said, but proud… as all us Milnas are. Proud but poor…
“Captain, I thank you for saving my life but how did you come to be here?”
“Ah…I was part of those who broke free from Krasnoi with Marshal Ney. My sergeant and I are leading the van, such as it is. I scouted ahead to see if there were any Cossacks in the woods here. Lucky for you I did or else you would have been skewered. He appeared to be Brunswicker, a volunteer with the Russians I take it?”
“I think he came from further afield than Brunswick. Wait - you saw him clearly then?”
“Of course, I think he saw in my eyes that I have no more patience for these sneaking partisan tactics.”
“You poor young man,” Sandorius sighed.
“Oh no, sir. I am quite used to this sort of thing. My sergeant is a woodsman of the White Forest and he has taught me well. We shall see you home safe and sound, never fear for I have every intention to survive. You see, I became a father six months ago and I must see my son.” Here he pulled a locket from his coat and showed Sandorius the miniature inside, a pretty young woman holding a fine baby.
Sandorius sighed again and said, “Come Captain, let us rejoin your men.”
They walked out of the ravine towards the road. The road was covered with the debris of the army, dead horses, shattered wagons, broken caissons, abandoned cannon and the dead.
As they approached, there was a sudden cry from behind one of the overturned wagons.
They rushed over and saw a young woman whose arm and lower leg were trapped and crushed under overturned vehicle. She was heavily pregnant.
When she saw them she gasped out a desperate stream of words, mostly German and French with some words from other languages that were less evident.
Milna said, “I think she said her husband was an officer, killed in battle, she was hoping to somewhere safe to have the baby. The wagon overturned last night and the driver ran off. She’s been trapped all night.” Milna swallowed hard, “She says the baby is coming.”
"What?" said Sandorius blankly.
Milna looked at Sandorius expectantly, “Well, Doctor. Do something.”
“I am not that sort of doctor.”
That was when they heard the wolves.
How the Brigadier Fought a Vampire
Now I do not say that I, Brigadier Etienne Gerard of the Hussars of Conflans, was the only man to come out Russia with laurels but there were so precious few successes from that campaign that it is only right that I tell you of the one for which I am responsible.
It was late November, just after we had got past old Kutuzov at Krasnoi when the Emperor noticed he was one Marshal short, that being Marshal Ney who was commanding the rear guard and had been cut off.
So I was called into the Emperor’s presence.
“Ah, here is the man to do the trick,” he cried. “Gerard, my old comrade, I want you to find my lost Marshal Ney. If you can do that you will have the thanks of the whole Army! That red head of his is worth a division, no, a corps! We have word he was offered three times to surrender and turned them down each time. Most of his men have fallen but he has broken out. He must be saved!
“We have a few sleds taken from the Russians. Gather the best men from the Light Cavalry you can and go and find Marshal Ney. Immediately!”
"My Emperor, surely saying 'best men' and 'the light cavalry' in same sentence is a redundancy!"
Here the Emperor sent me off with a hearty laugh and a comradely clap on the shoulder.
Now, his was just the sort of thing to raise my spirits, which had gotten a bit low of late since I was afoot, trudging along like some dashed infantryman - my dear Violette having been left back in the stables at Orsha and my remount having died a few days previously. So it I jumped at this chance.
There were only four sleds, miserable things with scarce space for a couple of men each. But the Russian ponies that drew them were strong for this sort of work and used to running in the cold. In but a short time, my sergeants, Oudin and Papilette, had gathered a few volunteers and off we went.
We drove well into the night, our way light by lanterns. We drove cross country, paralleling the road which was crowded with abandoned wagons and carts. The few Cossacks we encountered ran off at the first shots we fired, curs that they were. A band of angry peasants we saw off with a couple of hard knocks with our sabers.
Having a good nose for things, just as a bleak grey dawn was breaking, I sensed we were nearing our goal. It was then I saw a large carriage broken down by the side of the road, a single dead horse still in the traces. Ordinarily such a sight would be beyond notice but in this case, atop the roof of that carriage was a most delightful vision. A young woman, whose shapeliness could not be hidden by her voluminous coat, was waiving piteously to me and calling out in a surprisingly strong voice. Of course, I directed our course to her.
As we reached her, she cried in perfect Parisian accent, “Ah Monsieur, have mercy upon me, a poor performer abandoned in this terrible country. As you see, our last horse has died and my friend, General Ducotel, set off for aid but I fear he is lost.”
“I fear you may be right, your friend undoubtedly must be dead if he failed to return to such a lovely vision as you. Either that or he was an infantryman. Come dear lady, have no care, I shall return you to safety, although we must make a brief detour to rescue a Marshal of France.”
In a moment, I fetched her down from her perch, she being far from averse to being encircled by my strong arms. In a moment we were off again and I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about my delightful cargo.
Her name was Madame Geneses and she said that she was an opera singer, a soprano, who had lived in Moscow for several years, the Russian nobility having an understandable yearning for French culture. With our retreat, her position became untenable and she had relied upon the unreliable infantryman, Ducotel, to escape the city. I noted to myself that she said nothing of a Monsieur Geneses and I was loath to mention this omission.
Her spirits rose in my company, for whose would not, and soon she raised her voice in an aria that echoed through the snow-bound woods. Now I am one who does not disdain the opera but this was hardly the time or place for it. I asked her to desist but then I noticed her heaving décolletage and thought who am I to deny the young lady the balm of music after so difficult a night.
We had just passed through a ravine filled with bodies of poor souls who had frozen during the night when suddenly before us was the spectacle of an uhlan officer with a flaming brand in one hand and an ancient sword in the other, fending off a pack of ravenous wolves.
These creatures retreated as we approached, cringing at the sound of Madame Geneses' high notes. My sled came to a stop next to the young Pole, for this is what he proved to be. I greeted him warmly as befit a comrade in the light cavalry but he brought me up short. He indicated a nearby wreck where some grey-haired civilian worked near a bundle of furs.
“There is a lady here giving birth to her child. Dr. Sandorius is trying to aid her but she is trapped beneath the wagon and we could use some aid.
With this I turned to Madame Geneses and said, “Well Madame, perhaps you could…”
She stared at me with consternation upon her face and said, “Why in heaven’s name would you think I, the great Madame Geneses, would have the faintest idea of how to deliver a child, mewy, puking runts that they are.”
"Well Madame is a...Madame. Surely such things come naturally to women." With this, I deposited her with the doctor and returned to the matter of the wolves.
Now here was the strange thing, the wolves we had seen upon arrival had not retreated far and we could see that they had been joined by several more. In fact the woods seemed to team with them.
We skirted the edge of the hick woods, hearing their baying. Finally, I could bear no more. I leapt onto the horse drawing our sleigh and cut the trace ropes. I then charged into the woods, hoping by my actions to frighten the creatures by a bold front.
I had not gotten more than a few yards within when I beheld the queerest of sights. Several pairs of wolves were moving through forest. However, these were no ordinary wolves, they were huge, bigger than a man, and all strode on their hind legs as naturally as if they were taking a walk upon a promenade. They turned toward me and I could see the mad looks in their eyes and their blood-dripping fangs were fully exposed. They advanced toward me.
“La!” I said as I drew back may saber for the first blow.
The Rear Guard
The Marshal knew he should be satisfied, having broken free by back roads, they had gained the main road, the main body of the army should only be a few miles ahead. However, the brief respite he had allowed his men proved to be their undoing. The Cossacks had returned and he could see clouds of them riding towards them in the morning gloom.
He made sure the men were ready. Only three small companies stood in the line, but they were in good formation with muskets loaded and bayonets fixed.
“Hold your fire until I give the order. The more we kill in the first waive, the sooner the rest will lose heart.”
The first two charges came in separately and uncoordinated. The fire of the men was steady and few Cossacks even reached the line. Those that did died quickly on the points of his men’s bayonets.
There were no further charges to his front. Instead, the surviving Cossacks gathered themselves and began moving into the woods to his left. He shifted his men to cover that direction.
A short time passed and the Marshal thought they might have given up. Soon however, he detected movement among the trees. Instead of Cossacks coming out of the woods, a large pack of wolves, the largest the Marshal had ever seen, charged, their howling sending a shiver up his spine.
“Those are damn big wolves,” cried one of his men.
“And are you a kitten to be frightened by a mean little dog? Fire!” shouted the Marshal
The volley crashed out and those wolves not killed ran back to the woods.
Then he saw more wolves but these were, impossibly, walking on two legs. They appeared some mix of human and wolf. Again a terrible shiver went up his spine. Then he noticed a man walking calmly in their midst. He was tall and a gaunt with a pale bald head.
The Marshal put his musket to his shoulder and fired. The ball struck the man squarely in the head and he fell over.
In a moment however, the man sat up and then began to stand up.
“Damn” said the Marshal.
The Peasant Soldier
Sergeant Soroka wondered if Pan Milna had been killed. The Pan Marshal had order Pan Milna to lead the troops back to the army. They had stopped on reaching the main road, with a stream before them, a bridge with some missing planks spanned it. The stream looked frozen but Soroka knew such appearances could be deceiving. Pan Milna had gone across to see if there were any Russians ahead. He had been gone some time. Soroka had heard strange noises, like a baby crying, coming from across the stream. If Pan Milna was dead, that would bad. Young Panna Milna made him swear to keep her husband safe when they left Poland and you can’t break your promise to a great lady like Panna Milna lightly.
A messenger came from the Pan Marshal telling them to begin crossing the stream. Soroka ordered some of the men to shift the planks on bridge to form a walkway for them. He didn’t trust the ice on the stream. He ordered the rest of the men to form up. Maybe he would find Pan Milna after they crossed.
One of the men called out and pointed to the woods. A pack of very large wolves were rushing out from it.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, thought Soroka. Those are not ordinary wolves. His grandfather had told him about the great wolves, the hounds of Satan, that came out in the worst of winters.
The wolves were out of range of the muskets but not for his Austrian rifle. He took careful aim at the beast leading the pack and fired. The bullet punched through the animal’s head and struck into wolf following close behind. Both tumbled into the snow.
“You see, a bullet will kill a wolf, no matter how big. Just wait until they get close enough for it to count,” he called out to the men. At least they are not werewolves he thought with relief.
As he reloaded, the pack grew closer. He ordered the men to fire and a well-timed volley brought the rest of the pack down.
Behind them however, he saw several more large creatures but these were charging on their hind legs.
Shit, he thought as he reached into his haversack for the box of silver bullets.
At first Sandorius had tried to get the woman out from under the wagon. He tried to change the earth below her into something more malleable so he could get her out. But his spells had been growing ever weaker the longer he remained in Russia. Still, he concentrated and in a few moments, the mud below her leg had moved enough that he could get the limb out from under the wagon.
He realized that he would not have the time or strength to do the same for her arm. The woman cried while the opera singer wimpered as she held the woman’s hand.
He peered down and saw the crown of the child’s head emerging. Around him there were shouts and the sound of distant gunfire came to his ears. He glanced over to see Milna holding off the wolves with his ancient sword.
Suddenly, the woman cried fiercely and the child began to emerge. Sandorius tried desperately to remember a brief lecture regarding child birth he attended at Hermanstadt but that was a century ago.
He placed his hands gently around the child's head. Sooner that he realized, he held the child in his hands and it began to cry.
“I think you need to cut the cord, now,” the opera singer gulped. He did so with a bayonet that was laying in the snow nearby. Then he grabbed the singer’ fur muff to wrap the child in.
“You have a daughter,” he said to the woman. A faint smile played on the woman’s lips before her eyes fluttered and opened widely, lifelessly staring at him.
“Remarkable, she stayed alive long enough to give the child life,” the singer said.
Milna was calling for him to hurry, there were more wolves coming from the woods. Sandorius saw a pack was swarming around some of the sleighs.
Another pack of the huge wolves was running towards them from the other side of the road, only the frozen stream separated them.
A strong foreboding gripped his heart then. In the woods beyond the stream, he saw a large enclosed sleigh glide to halt silently at the top of a rise. Several figures exited it.
One was her.
She looked directly at him. Even at this distance, he felt the hatred boring into him.
The baby cried. He looked down at the helpless little being in his arms and said, "You shall be called 'Elizabeth,'" He looked over to the Countess, "And may she make the name worthy of the goodness she brings into the world...."