The Birth of a Warlock
The doctor is in. It’s good you came to me as soon as you did. It appears that your affliction is in its early stages. Let me see… low fever, shortness of breath, burning sensation… yes these symptoms are congruent with an illness I have dealt with many times. Treatment should be fairly simple and effective. Just give me a moment to… ah here we are. Go ahead and take a swig from this vial if you please. Yes, I know it tastes awful, but make sure you get the proper dose. Trust me it’ll help. Now, I’d like you to stay here awhile while I monitor your condition. We should start to see positive results soon. How about a story while we wait?
It was in the spring of 1325 AC (After Conjunction) that I arrived in the bustling village of Oakvale. Sweet birdsong drifted on a gentle breeze and greeted me as I strode down the cobblestone road. The peasantry scurried about, sparing sideways glances at my approach with narrowed eyes, before turning back to whatever had previously occupied their attention. Strangers were always welcome in Oakvale as the village was an important stop along the Blue Blood Road and saw it's fair share of travelers. And yet, my presence unsettled many of the villagers, for it bore ill tidings. Plague doctors often received such hospitality.
My name is Vattier de Vivocaro. Upon my arrival in Oakvale, I was a lad with 20 winters to my name, most of which had been spent as a practitioner of medicine, with a full endorsement from Kingsport's College of Medicinal Sciences. Over the course of my studies I had become quite a proficient physician. My curriculum had included lessons on anatomy, alchemy, pharmacology, epidemiology, and traumatology. I could identify the names and medicinal properties of a number of alchemical reagents at a glance or waft. I could distill alcohol to a point where even the most staunch alcoholic could not stomach it. I could diagnose almost all known conditions after a brief period of examination, and I even learned a few life saving, emergency procedures. So thorough were my studies that my knowledge and expertise quickly rivaled that of my most accomplished instructors, and yet for all my intelligence, I had not a drop of wisdom.
When word reached Kingsport of a strange disease that had appeared in the village of Oakvale, the Arch Chancellor Weatherall and her advisors all agreed that the situation must be dealt with, and I leapt at the opportunity to put my considerable medical prowess to good use. Upon my arrival in Oakvale, roughly a week later, I was quickly directed towards the Abbey of Dawn’s Radiance, where several patients who suffered from this mysterious affliction were seen to by monks of Pelor. Near the center of Oakvale, just beyond the abbey’s imposing stone walls, I could see the exquisite masonry and stained glass of the cathedral. At my approach, the large wooden doors parted, and several monks emerged from the abbey. Abbot Eanfled, an elderly, balding man clad in plain robes, greeted me with a grim countenance, placing a fist over his heart and bowing his head slightly, performing the salute of Dawn. I nodded curtly in response and asked him to fill me in on the situation.
“The Halflilngs brought this pestilence to Oakvale.” He assured me. His voice held equal parts sorrow and scorn. Apparently during the previous winter, the first cases of the baffling disease had arrived in Oakvale, sheltered by a halfling merchant caravan that had traveled from the East, along the Blue Blood road. It is likely that the procession came from the Commonwealth of Iona on behalf of the Distant Horizons Trading Company, though I never learned of the caravan's actual origin. The merchants had set up temporary shops on the outskirts of Oakvale, but it wasn't long before several sickly halflings made their way to the abbey's entrance seeking aid.
“In all my years, I’ve never encountered an ailment that divine magic could not combat.” admitted the Abbot. I shook my head knowingly, and reassured him that my methods were of a more mundane nature. He offered a small smile and thanked Pelor for sending someone so capable, but I could hear the doubt in his words. He led me across the immaculate temple grounds, past the daunting cathedral, and towards the infirmary where I encountered the disease for the first time.
The infirmary was a series of large, plainly decorated, and modestly furnished rooms. The architecture was that of simple stonework, and the air was thick with the smell of burning incense, melted wax, and dust. Numerous beds lined the walls, some occupied by heavily bandaged, moaning individuals. Robed figures made their way about the infirmary, their heads bowed in silent prayer. I briskly made my way to the nearest cot to begin my examinations.
Beneath their bandages, one could discern ghastly red rashes across the patient's gaunt visages. They all exhibited intense fevers and complained of severe itching and burning sensations across their bodies. My first impression was that excessive scraping had rendered the epidermis of each patient raw and scabbed. Upon further inspection, it was clear that the degradation of their skin was a symptom of the infection itself, and not of incessant scratching.
“Are you a giant bird?” questioned a sickly halfling child, referring to the beak of my mask. Her green eyes grew wide, and she curiously reached out towards the end of the beak, before quickly withdrawing and letting loose a cry. It pained her to stretch her arms which were covered in red splotches.
“Lay still child. Yes, I’m a bird. I flew down from the peaks of the Eventide Mountains. What’s your name?” I asked, gently urging the child to lay back down.
“Rosie… Are you here to help me and my family?” she asked between cries of pain. Tears streaked her face, and hope lingered in her reddened eyes.
“That’s right Rosie. I’m here to help you all get better.”
“It hurts. It burns.” she whimpered.
“I know. I’ll take care of everything. I’m a smart bird afterall.” I exclaimed, flapping my arms comically. Rosie giggled briefly before wincing in pain, and falling into an uncomfortable slumber.
I had never beheld symptoms quite like the ones I witnessed that day, which made diagnosis quite difficult. Eventually I concluded that this malignant infection was likely a new strain of leprosy, though it shared similarities with a number of other ailments, including influenza and consumption. Many of the villagers took to calling it “Flesh Bane” and I felt the name was rather fitting.
Eanfled, and the monks of the Abbey of Dawn’s Radiance continued to invoke the divine power of Pelor by praying over the patients. I sought after a more practical approach and began concocting ointments in an attempt to combat the symptoms, while also researching similar diseases and afflictions as a means to discover other treatment options. After roughly a week of treatment and prayer, none of the patient's conditions had improved.
To their credit, my ointments somewhat eased the suffering of the patients, but did little to actually combat the disease itself. And as the days wore on, I became increasingly aware of my inability to produce said ointments in sufficient quantities. Most of the infected by this time were deliriously feverish and many of the red splotches across their bodies had blackened and given way to hideous necrosis. To make matters worse, it was rumored that several other cases of Flesh Bane had surfaced within the merchant caravan, and even among Oakvale villagers who had done business with the caravan.
I exchanged words with Eanfled, explaining that Flesh Bane's resistance to treatments both divine and mundane, meant that it was simply beyond our power to cure. He sighed deeply, his eyes heavy with tears, but conceded my point.
“I will request assistance from my university. Perhaps with the combined efforts of the Abbey of Dawn’s Radiance and the Kingsport College of Medicinal Sciences, a cure might be discovered.” I exclaimed, in what was likely a vain attempt to comfort the Abbot. The old man nodded, explaining that he had already sent word to his Holiness, Augustus Arkham IV, the Arch Bishop of the Theocracy of Emerdawn. Apparently the Arch Bishop had already sent aid from Mournlight, and the Baron of Fairwind had been ordered by holy edict to assist Oakvale in their time of need. I thanked Eanfled, and set about writing letters to the Kingsport College of Medicinal Sciences, informing them of the situation, and requesting their aid.
Within a fortnight Flesh Bane had spread to a significant portion of Oakvale. The abbey's infirmary and grounds were full of patients who suffered from varying degrees of Flesh Bane. The poor souls with late term Flesh Bane could not even be recognized by close family members. Much of the cartilage in their faces, such as that found in the ears and nose, had withered away completely. Some had even lost the ability to speak as the disease had devoured their tongues.
Shortly thereafter, the Divine Crusaders, sent by Agustus Arkham IV, arrived in Oakvale, accompanied by soldiers sent by the Baron of Fairwind. In the procession, I caught glimpses of physicians from the Kingsport College of Medicinal Sciences and my heart swelled with optimism and pride. The Grand Cleric of the Divine Crusaders, Amelia the Resplendent, greeted Abbot Eanfled and exchanged words in a hushed tone. Her silvery armor glinted in the sun, and her crimson cape seemed to drift in an unfelt breeze. She quickly performed the Salute of Dawn, and Eanfled instructed all the monks of the Abbey of Dawn’s Radiance to line up. They all did as they were told, though I seemed to be the only one who noticed the grave look on Eanfled's wrinkled visage as he joined the line.
Amelia the Resplendent let loose a piercing whistle, and at the Grand Cleric's command, several physician's from the College of Medicinal Sciences emerged from the ranks of the Divine Crusaders. Hooded and cloaked, with unsettling beaked masks about their faces, these figures had meticulously covered every inch of themselves in thick robes and leather adornments. Like vultures, the doctors circled the concerned monk, their hands occasionally igniting with arcane energies used for more thorough examination. Several monks were violently pulled to the side, including the elderly Abbot. Amelia the Resplendent, then turned to address those monks who had been singled out by my colleagues.
“Loyal souls of Pelor, the Guiding Radiance. You are under the affliction of Flesh Bane, a disease without cure. You, along with any patients your temple has been harboring, are hereby quarantined within the Abbey of Dawn’s Radiance. By Pelor's grace, your souls will find him upon your passing. Pelor be with you.” Ameila saluted and whistled sharply for a second time. This time, both the regiment of Divine Crusaders, and the soldiers of Fairwind drew their swords and advanced. The monks scattered and rushed further into the temple grounds, though Eanfled, in his haste, tumbled to the ground and was nearly trampled by his brethren.
I could hardly move. This was all wrong. When I finally composed myself, I quickly sprinted towards the nearest Divine Crusader and violently shoved him to the ground just as he was about to plunge his blade into the Abbot who lay on the ground, wounded, begging for his life, and unable to move. Shaking with rage, I quickly retrieved the sword of the fallen Divine Crusader and clumsily bore it at any who would dare approach.
“Get the fuck back!” I screamed, brandishing the sword with all the grace my untrained arms allowed. Amelia the Resplendent wordlessly approached me, her immaculate war mace glowing with divine light. She issued a quick command to the soldiers and crusaders that had surrounded me, telling them to withdraw. They quickly obliged and I was left to face down the Grand Cleric of the Divine Crusaders.
“Your dedication to saving these poor wretches is admirable but misguided.” She said simply. In a swift and fluid motion she quickly disarmed me and sent me reeling to the ground. A moment later I was held aloft by my throat. Amelia's expert, vice-like grip offered no chance of escape, and allowed no air to pass into my lungs. I struggled in vain while she continued her monologue.
“Flesh Bane is an infectious and resilient disease. Quarantine is the only way to ensure it does not spread. Oakvale is a small price to keep the rest of Emerdawn… no, the rest of Nexus safe from this plague.” She released her grip and I crumpled to the ground, gasping for air.
“This one is infected as well.” she said, pointing her war mace towards my prone figure. “Make sure he is quarantined within the temple grounds as well. Let him know the suffering of those he claims to help.” A soldier of the Barony of Fairwind approached me and struck his boot violently into the side of my head, and I quickly lost consciousness.
I awoke several hours later in the temple grounds next to the corpse of Eanfled. Over the next few days, my condition worsened as did the conditions within the abbey. None of the infected were allowed beyond the temple grounds, and those few who tried to breach the imposing stone walls were quickly put to the swords of the crusaders. Over the following days supplies began to dwindle and the once prosperous abbey was now a prison of death and decay. We were all shambling corpses in the eyes of Flesh Bane, and food for the infestation of rats that stalked the muddy grounds.
The Baron's men would occasionally breach the quarantine in order to survey the conditions, but were quite weary of the inhabitants, for Flesh Bane was known to be highly contagious. I think I truly lost hope the day I saw a young, disfigured halfling child approach a soldier begging for food. The soldier, fearing the blight, offered only cold steel through her chest. “One more meal for the rats” I mused casually as I eyed the skeletal child who's rotten flesh clung loosely to brittle bones. There was something familiar about the lightless green eyes that stared up at me.
On the last day of my previous life, I remember dragging myself to a horse trough. My throat burned with what I assumed was thirst, though perhaps it was simply the plague eating away at my esophagus. As I knelt to take a drink from the dark, slimy trough, I noticed that my reflection had adopted a hideous visage that was quite unfamiliar to me. The gaunt, ghoulish figure that stared back at me from the water's surface could hardly be considered human at all. Balding, and glassy eyed, the abomination ran a hand over it's face, noticing that large chunks of it's nose, ears, and cheeks had withered away completely. Much of the ghoul's outer layer of flesh had begun to slough from its body, or give way to wretched necrosis. It was in that moment that exhaustion, granted my troubled mind the merciful darkness of oblivion.
My memory of the next sequence of events is hazy as I was continually drifting in and out of consciousness. I remember at nightfall being lifted up from the ground by heavily armored individuals. I was tossed onto a large pile of rotting corpses, and I faintly recall the feeling of a thick liquid pouring over most of my body. Several torches burst into life all around me. My surroundings were briefly illuminated and I realized the mound of corpses was haphazardly stacked within the abbey’s central courtyard, just below the imposing cathedral. This place, which was once bustling with life, now held only the misery and pain of countless souls. I could feel the rats gnawing at my flesh as words were exchanged among the guards. Shortly thereafter the torches were tossed onto the pile of corpses. The flames rapidly engulfed the mound of bodies, and though the pain was intense, I could not even manage to scream. But through the crackling of the bonfire I could hear an unfamiliar voice inside my head.
“You stand on the precipice of oblivion, but even now it is not too late. Pledge your soul to me and I will grant you a second chance at the life that was taken from you. While living in the world of mortals, you will live unlike any other. A different providence, a different time, a different life.” The harsh, gravelly voice was difficult to describe. It held within it's tonality an authoritative quality that demanded respect. I extended my withered arms through the raging inferno in a vain attempt to find the source of the voice.
“Do we have an accord, Vattier?”
“Yes, I pledge my soul to you.” I gasped, my throat filling with smoke and ash from the smoldering corpses beneath me. A faint sound of joyous laughter resonated within my mind, and then darkness took me.
I opened my eyes and rubbed them in disbelief. I was no longer in Oakvale, midst the smoldering remains of my fellow Flesh Bane victims. Rather, my sight beheld a vast graveyard, bathed in a faint glow of moonlight. A thick mist permeated the purgatorial cemetery, accompanied by a deafening silence that pressed in from all directions. The vaporous dance of the pallid mists was broken by the dark tombstones and crumbling monuments that dotted the landscape. I took several tentative footsteps towards the closest grave marker and knelt before it. I brushed at the moss covered stone until a name surfaced. “Vattier de Vivocaro” I knew then that I had died. It was an oddly comforting thought.
As I knelt before my own grave, I noticed a faint orange glow from the corner of my eye. Startled, I turned to see the luminous figure of a spectral rat perched atop an adjacent grave marker. It eyed me briefly before scurrying down the side of the tombstone and through the pale mists. I rose to my feet and closely trailed the orange light as it bobbed and weaved through the sickly fog. For several silent minutes we traversed the seemingly endless tombstones of that damnable cemetery. Eventually the ground began to steadily rise beneath my feet, and upon cresting the hill, we came to an eldritch dais of carven stone upon which rested a large black tome. My luminous guide scaled the stone podium and patiently sat next to the dark book, scrutinizing me through its empty, lifeless eyes.
I approached the podium, my charred hands eagerly reaching for the curious volume. My intentions were encouraged by my guide who sat up on its haunches and prodded the book with it's nose. As my hands drew nearer, the ancient and unfamiliar symbols on the book's cover began to glow with an uncanny light, much like the flames of my makeshift funeral pyre. The most prominently displayed symbol, an upside down equilateral triangle, made of three line segments that extended past their own intersections, shone brighter than any other. I could feel an unfathomable power emanating from the Obsidian Grimoire, and as my hands made contact with the book, I could sense that same ancient power flowing into my mind. I lifted the book from the podium and found that it was nearly weightless. As I leafed through the pages, I noticed that many of them were blank, and yet I could sense untapped power within each sheet.
Suddenly, light erupted all around me in such a manner that I fancied the sun had risen, though it was clearly still night. I was surrounded by a fire like luminescence that seemed to spread through the fog in a prismatic dance. Once my eyes adjusted to the light, I was able to see individual orbs of light converging on the hill. Each of the spectral rats was ablaze with infernal power, and intent on gathering about the stone dais from which I had received the eldritch tome. Soon I was joined by a writhing mass of ghostly vermin, clamoring upon each other in a twisted, nightmarish performance. The abysmal assemblage soon began to take on a monstrously large and vaguely humanoid shape.
The new denizen of the accursed cemetery resembled a colossal, bipedal rat. Bulging muscles rippled across it's figure, beneath sparse patches of wild fur. It's beastly, hairless tail drifted about like a serpent poising to strike. Four horns were situated atop it's head, two of which jutted skyward while the others curved back towards the creature. The towering monster turned to face me, and I was greeted with the visage of my new master. No flesh or cartilage resided upon the demon's face, the only hint of vitality being the piercing red lights emanating from the eye sockets of the enormous rat's skull. Upon the skull's forehead was the prominent symbol of the upside down triangle I had seen on the book I now held. The massive being raised one of it's claws to point at the book I clutched to my chest. I took a few startled steps away from the daunting creature whose crimson eyes burned into my own. I quickly leaned against a crumbling monument for support.
“Your soul belongs to me, and so my powers belong to you. Go fourth Vattier, and study the gifts I have given you so that you may better serve the will that is Vermes.” As the demon's speech resonated through the graveyard and wormed it's way into my mind, I recognized the gravely voice as the same one I heard upon my funeral pyre. I was too stunned to respond properly, and instead shook my head and muttered the word 'please' over and over. I held out the tome to the creature as tears welled in my eyes.
“I don't want this.”
Vermes simply lifted his right claw and snapped his fingers. In an instant my body was wracked with pain. The sensations were such that I dropped the tome and fell to my knees. I looked at my arms and torso, where most of the pain seemed to be focused. To my horror and disgust, the skin on my arms and chest began to disolve, as if acid was slowly eating it away. The spread of the decay was unnaturally fast, and I would have been reduced to a mere puddle had Vermes not ceased the demonstration. The demon snapped it's fingers again and the advance of the necrosis halted. I shakily stood to my feet, raising the book in front of my head and cowering behind it, before a sudden realization washed over me.
“It was you. You brought Flesh Bane to Oakvale. You…”
“Go Vattier, and do not disobey me”. Darkness took me once again and I bid the phantasmal graveyard farewell.
I awoke in an empty field at midday a few miles down the Blue Blood Road from Oakvale, clad in my physicians uniform, and clutching my new book to my chest. Official records indicated that Vattier de Vivocaro died in Oakvale to an incurable disease, along with well over half of the town’s population. I found it difficult to dispute those claims. I still bore the marks of Flesh Bane, and the burns from the pyre, beneath my mask. Were it not for my plague doctor’s attire, I fear that my hideous visage would have forbidden me from even the most basic of social interactions. What skin that had not been devoured whole was dry and cracked like stale bread, and I have found that burnt, rotting flesh makes for a poor conversation starter.
Over time I have been able to reveal certain secrets held within the tome Vermes left me. The book serves as a conduit through which I may channel the powers of my demonic patron. The more I delve into the secrets of the Grimoire, the more I can sense the true depth of the power that has been granted to me, and it seems I have only barely scratched the surface. These powers are typically used in the service of my master whom I dare not disobey. The scars and deformities I bear are testament to his wrath.
My patron has largely remained silent, and I do little to disturb that silence. When he does deign to speak to me, it is usually to order me to perform some abhorrent task. If Vermes desires to test the infection rate of a new disease, I corrupt the local water supply. If he wishes to compare the lethality of various strains, I infect individuals accordingly. My supposed role as a journeyman physician from the Kingsport College of Medicinal Sciences allows me to carefully monitor the progress of the very diseases I inflict. Unwitting townsfolk graciously thank me for my services, never suspecting that I am the catalyst of their heinous afflictions. The irony is not lost on me. Perhaps this is why Vermes chose me to be his servant.
My name is Vattier de Vivocaro, physician of the Kingsport College of Medicinal Sciences, casualty of the Flesh Bane Epidemic of Oakvale, and servant of the Plague Demon Vermes. Once I was naive and hopeful, but nothing cures naivety like a strong dose of reality. But enough about me. Tell me, how are you feeling? I apologize for the paralysis spell I cast on you, but I couldn’t have you running off to warn the other villagers. The “medicine” I gave you should have worked its way through your system by now. Let me see… hmm yes, red rashes along large portions of the epidermis, and your fever seems to have increased dramatically. You’re progressing wonderfully. Truthfully one of my finest subjects. I’m sure the necrosis will set in soon. Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to take good care of you. The doctor is in.