Ulcers

Copyright Robert Defendi © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"We were afraid you'd do something terrible if you knew!"

"It's getting late, sir. Perhaps you should leave. There's nowhere to stay inside the village."

Manthur looked up from his ale, scanning the tavern, past the man speaking, across the unwashed populace of this little lump of a settlement. It wasn't a proper tavern as one might find in the city. No, here, as in all such communities, the tavern moved from house to house as the women brought their kegs of ale to full ferment. Tonight it was in one of the nicer peasant homes.

Light slanted in through the open doorway, the hide door tied back at an angle. The rays streamed around shutters and through slats as well. It seeped through the thousands of tiny holes in the wall, invisible until the sun hit just the right angle, but felt every time the wind blew through this tiny place. The wattle and daub could be very warm if maintained, but there never seemed to be enough time in a peasant's day to slather on the insulating mud.

"Father," Manthur said.

The peasant looked confused. "Sir?"

"I was correcting you," Manthur said. "You are to address me as 'father', not 'sir'."

With that he reached up to his neck and pulled out the heavy golden holy symbol. The one-edged ring surrounding the flame. The peasant blanched visibly. "I'm sorry, Father. I didn't know you were a witch hunter."

Manthur shrugged and dropped the chain to hang loose upon his chest. Now every eye in the room fell on him. His fellow witch hunters, simple warriors though he was a paladin, had stepped outside and Manthur looked at the grimy host of the poor and desperate and tried to make it look like he stared at the central fire pit through the thick smoke of the house interior. "Well, now you do," he said. The threat of the villagers, once something abstract, now hung heavy in the air.

He stood and walked atop moldering rushes, headed to the far side of the room where the lady of the house had tapped a keg. He took in her grimy, tattered dress, her clean scrubbed face, her filthy hands. Age thickly lined her features, probably twenty-five years. Her hair hung down from under a head scarf, just starting to gray. Her eyes were tired and a piercing blue, like light through the walls of a snow cave.

He slapped a coin down on the table she used for a bar, felt a stab of pain. He pulled his hand up and examined the large splinter embedded in his index fingertip. Black and heavy, fading to a brown, then tan discoloration where the skin bulged over it. He began worrying it out with his teeth. "Another ale," he mumbled around the finger.

She pulled a tankard for him and he turned away, still aware of all the eyes on him. They knew now he was a Knight of Lonnuso. If he didn't make them think he was leaving, and soon, he'd never make it out alive. He pulled out a heavy silver coin and tossed it to the woman. "For the tankard," he said.

He felt the eyes boring into his back as he moved for the doorway. He gambled and knew it. They might have killed a stranger without a second thought, nobility or not, but clergy? Clergy made their risk so much greater. Greater risk if he found their secret. Greater risk if they killed him. If they were brave men, he'd upped his chances of dying. He bet on cowardice.

He reached the doorway, the shadows of a half dozen men moving behind him. For a moment, he paused there, silhouetted by a dying sun, waiting for the knife. He didn't know why he paused. A gambler at heart. He'd have to do penance for that.

Then he stepped out into the crowds outside the home.

The men of the village had gathered early, they usually wouldn't have left the fields until the sun set. The sheep milled about in the lord's pen. The children had come in. The beadle had finished his evening patrol. That was what had tipped him off originally.

Three other Knights Lonnuso stood outside, tankards in their hands, bright in their mail and rich, heavy cloaks. They wore their coifs pushed back off their heads, their hair muffed from the day's constriction. They nursed their drinks.

Around them a half dozen men milled, attempting so hard to look casual they perspired from the effort. They chatted amiably, but Manthur could tell that every one of them kept their attention pinned to the knights. One man in brown leggings and an old red tunic edged closer, bald along the side of his head where a wide, wavering of scar tissue tainted the skin. His hand hovered near his knife.

The bastards. They intended to kill clergymen--they were willing to do it, right here in the open. There was no bottom to the depth of these men's sin. Manthur could feel the bile rising in his throat, taste it biting and acrid. It was a world of treachery. A world of sin.

He brushed by the man, hitting him hard with one shoulder, spilling the fellows drink and forcing him to stumble. Then Manthur blew by, his eyes locking with the other knights. They strode off and down the road, found their horses and swung up into the saddles.

Manthur turned and looked back at the villagers. Three men, led by the one with the bald scar, had half followed them. Now they stood in the road, their faces a mask of fear and anger. Desperation. Dangerous men.

The sun kissed the horizon.

It started as a low keen, a warbling sound off in the distance. At the first, Manthur could have mistaken it for a dog or a wolf, some pack animal lonely for its kin. Now it rose, stronger, fuller, all around them, a rich, ripping sound of grief and woe. A human voice, inhuman with violence and sin, a voice that no living throat could produce. A voice of the dead.

His heart pounded in his chest at the sound. He knew he was hearing the undead, the Nospheratus. His throat constricted and his eyes darted about, looking for the threat. Around him, his mean reached for swords. The ghost, the banshee, whatever it was. He could feel it around him, taste it on the air. The corruption of it kissed his skin, caused it to pucker. This was unnatural. Unnatural.

Manthur looked at the men and smiled.

"Bastards," he spat.

The scarred one threw himself to his knees, his hands clasped in front of him, his face desperate with pleading. "Please!" he wailed, his voice barely audible above the shriek of the formless dead, the unseen pounding of the ghosts. "Please! We're god-fearing folk! We've never done nuthin' wrong. We go to church every Godsday. Please! We didn't bring this on ourselves!" His voice broke with tears, with pain, with terror.

Manthur looked down coldly from his horse, ignoring the terror in his bones, knowing somehow that the dead had only barely risen, that his faith and his trust in God would keep him safe. "Yes you did," he said. "You brought this on yourselves when you didn't tell us. You should have told us at once."

"We didn't dare!" the man screamed. "We were afraid you'd do something terrible if you knew!"

Manthur shook his head. "You were right." He turned to his men. "Kill every living thing. Burn the houses and the crops." After a moment's thought, "Salt the fields." He turned and met the eyes of the peasant. "This is an Ulcer."

The Nature of Ulcers

Ulcers are perhaps the most import element of play in The Echoes of Heaven. If the party is a crusading group, Ulcers will likely be their first and primary targets. Many adventures will likely involve one in some way.

When the Savior and the Four Prophets sundered the world into Heaven, Hell and the mortal realm, it left the universe in a tiered pattern. Heaven, at the highest, is the home of God, and God does not come to mortals, all mortals must come first to God. Only when they invite Him into their hearts can he show them the way up. Always up.

But the depths of Hell strive to move up as well. The devils, the lords, the dukes, and the demons all conspire against mortality. They strive and they plot and they tempt, and when one is successful, he manages to open a wound in the fabric of the mortal realm. He manages to create Hell on earth.

An Ulcer.

An Ulcer is an infection in the fabric of Meridrin. It's a blight upon the land and the people, a vortex of sin and evil among sinners. In an Ulcer, mortals languish and die. The Nopheratus raises the dead and demons walk the earth. An Ulcer is a center of hate and evil, a nexus of two planes, where the fabric of reality thins and twists. An Ulcer is the beginning of the end. It is a wound on the face of creation.

And if it isn't healed fast, it becomes a fatal wound.

Inside Ulcers, reality breaks down. The Ulcer takes aspects out of the dreams of the former inhabitants, the demon that created it, or even those who enter. An Ulcer can be wild and unpredictable, if that's its nature, but more often the changes are subtle and one doesn't realize where they are until it's too late.

The Formation of Ulcers

No one is positive how a devil or demon creates an Ulcer, but it is known that they are connected to sin. Ulcers feed on evil and, once formed, they tend to flood with cambions or the dead. They fester and boil with foul life and a normal mortal turns from domination of the land into prey.

Ulcers begin subtly. Nothing seems untoward about the region at first. Then there is some hint. The dead rise. The animals turn feral. The sun dims.

It is in these early days that it's easiest to cleanse an Ulcer. Conversely, it's also in these early days that the inhabitants are least likely to admit something is wrong. Some of this is denial, some superstition about the naming of evil. Most of it is the honest fear about what an outsider might do when they're found out. This fear is absolutely justified.

As an Ulcer develops and enters its growth stage, the effects become more pronounced. Often there are magical quirks. Sometimes the Ulcer cloaks itself in illusion. Strange formations sometime begin to grow. The demon or being that has attached himself to the thing typically takes up residence, though he often uses disguises. The land shapes to the minds of the lord, the inhabitants or both.

If not stopped by the time it finishes its initial growth spurt, an Ulcer fully develops. At this point it becomes "permanent." Fully developed Ulcers are only rarely, if ever, destroyed. Entire branches of the Church seek Ulcers, cleansing them before they ever get this far.

One final note. Fully formed Ulcers do continue to grow. The growth stage of an Ulcer refers to its increase in power inside a fixed space. Once they fully form, they actually spread, taking in land, and corrupting the areas around. Entire nations have fallen to Ulcers. It seems inevitable that one of these will eventually devour the entire mortal realm.

There is no set timeline for the development of an Ulcer, although a week for its birth and a few months for its growth is typical.

Ulcers in Game Play

An Ulcer is the ultimate adventure site because inside a growing Ulcer there is little that can't happen. That's not to say that anything can happen in a single given Ulcer. Ulcers each have a logic and an atmosphere of their own, and once it is set they do not vary. They aren't bereft of natural laws. It's just that any law can become natural in the early days.

This allows a GM a great deal of latitude. Many types of classic RPG adventures are hard to rationalize in a realistic game. However, in an Ulcer's reality is the reality of Hell. If a GM wants to build an adventure around magical traps that are too elaborate to be built one at a time, he can put a demon with a love of the things at the center, and let them form from his will and imagination. To build an adventure around an improbable amount of riddles, make the Ulcer inside the mansion of a man who studied riddles as his life's passion. Any type of adventure is possible inside an Ulcer. Typical roleplaying adventures, romances, tragedies, comedies, hack and slay, horror. The sky's the limit.

Destroying an Ulcer

Destroying an Ulcer is known as "cleansing." As long as the Ulcer hasn't fully formed, the method of destroying one is simple: kill everything evil inside.

Unfortunately this can be trickier than it looks.

Since there is no simple way to detect evil in The Echoes of Heaven, the easiest way to destroy an Ulcer is to simply kill every living thing. Unfortunately, most people choose this path. It's the method the Church condones among the questing orders. This is not a matter to take lightly, after all. While it's possible to surgically remove the evil from an Ulcer, that evil is tricky and those willing to dedicate their lives to the hunt are relatively few. Those who wipe out entire villages rather than seeking out the core of evil tend to lead much longer lives.

Hopefully, the player characters will be made of nobler stuff than that.

Practically, it takes a pretty great evil to perpetuate an Ulcer. Most of the day to day evils of mortal life won't do it. Evil lords and grasping money lenders only rarely help anchor and Ulcer, but sometimes there is another great evil inside. It's entirely possible to destroy all the cambions and undead in a place, only to discover later that a serial killer or a demon worshiper has lived there undetected for years.

Destroying a fully-formed Ulcer is trickier. At this point, killing everything evil inside is only the first part, and the second is always unique to the Ulcer. Perhaps there is an object inside that needs to be destroyed. Perhaps there is ground that needs to be blessed or a grave that needs to be dug up and its contents burned. Every Ulcer is different and tied intimately to its nature and history. If this is a fallen monastery of the Church, the answer might be in the teachings of the monastery's patron saint. If this is the manor of a lord, it might involve the lord's dead brother. If it's a city, it might involve the founder, or the mayor, or the person who was the most charitable. Every Ulcer is different. Only investigation and empathy can find the answer.

Once they have reached or surpassed the growth stage, destroyed Ulcers disappear violently,. Typically, this consists of a rapid reduction of the Ulcer's radius accompanied by tremors and occasionally a strange magical effect. People who destroy a growth Ulcer are typically very near the heart when this happens. Anyone too deep in the Ulcer during the collapse will stay there. This means that they will end up following the Ulcer back to Hell. The amount of distance they must travel to get out depends on the Ulcer, but halfway to two thirds of the way to the original edge is a good rule of thumb. Beyond that, they can successfully dive out if they see the wall of the Ulcer approaching (or just run out if they can't). Destroyed Ulcers collapse quickly and spectacularly. There's rarely time to loot and a dead run is the best pace for escape.

Magic and Ulcers

Again, everything can change from Ulcer to Ulcer, but for the most part, they don't affect magic, except in the fact that they are more closely aligned to Hell the further they develop. A fully-formed Ulcer is probably half Hell and half mortal realm. Whether or not this affects a spell has more to do with the nature of the spell and the rules at the GM's table than any hard/fast setting traits. For most GMs, it's probably easiest to ignore this aspect in 90% of all Ulcers.

One thing that is consistent, however, is that all Ulcers are magical. Anyone with the ability to see magic can tell just by looking. At their beginnings, there might be one tiny locus for the Ulcer. When it enters its growth phase, every surface inside the Ulcer will read as magical. Also, Ulcers are corrupt. Any spell that detects corruption (detect evil, for instance) will spot the effect of the Ulcer's magical field if any part of it is in range.

A last note: Ulcers wreak havoc on divination of any kind. The simplest divinations fail where they're involved. Almost nothing can see inside (or through a magical surface in an Ulcer). Very generic divinations sometimes work, but the dampening effects of the Ulcer can even reach outside. If a killer is murdering people because he's been corrupted by the demon inside an Ulcer, no direct divinations on the killings will likely work, even if the killings happen outside.

A History of Ulcers

There are several "permanent" Ulcers in the mortal realm, most of them linked to one of the Great Fiends . . .

Continued in The Echoes of Heaven Campaign Setting.