Prologue: Outside the Halls of the Dead
As the night wind gusted and howled, the iron-shod portal of the Minari family’s villa rattled ominously. Hidden in the doorway's shadows, a group of men furtively labored, the weather’s vagaries concealing their stealthy entrance. Dark cloaks billowed in the wind as they readied themselves for the grisly task ahead of them.
The lock opened with a metallic click and the intruders rushed into the dark courtyard beyond. The frantic screams of the place’s inhabitants could barely be made out over the mournful cry of the wind.
Within the lands of the Free Cities, few groups are more reviled than those who do the unpleasant labor of embalming the dead. Considered pariahs, defiled by their contact with the deceased, their unclean company is feared by the superstitious commoners and avoided by the fastidious nobles. Cast out from society, the embalmers dwell apart from the folk of the city, dwelling in the shunned hamlet known as the Place of the Outcasts.
Despite the disgust and superstitious fear that surrounds these folk, no one evades the embalmers’ company forever. Only the truly destitute are buried without any preparation whatsoever, and the burghers and gentry all eventually come to the dreaded halls of the embalmers. Despite the stigma of their trade, some embalmers become quite prosperous: Catering to the city’s nobility, the Minaris are such a family.
Opening: "Bad Men are Killing Everyone!"
The player characters are returning to town, delayed long past nightfall by unusually foul weather or similar troubles, when a small child suddenly darts out of the darkness. The frightened lad, filthy and clad in torn nightrobes, desperately pleads for their aid: His family has been attacked by "bad men"!
Those questioning the frantic boy may learn that "bad men" broke into his family’s villa and began "killing everyone!" None of the bad men saw him, so he climbed over the wall and got away. He will beg the player characters to come and save his family. If the characters are willing to help, the child runs toward the villa, worry for his family lending speed to his steps.
Those calming the child somehow may learn more: He is named Davyth Minari, the youngest child of the Minari family of embalmers. They have a villa in the Place of the Outcasts, where their home and workshops are.
The Minari Villa
(Encounter One: Entrance and Guardian)
The Minari family’s villa is surrounded by a stout wall, with a good lock on the door and shards of pottery on top to discourage intruders. Within the walls, a large structure houses their business, with their family housed above. Although the villa is rather large, years of weather and decay have cracked and damaged its wood and pried at its stonework: The Minari are successful embalmers, but they are not wealthy.
Approaching the villa, the player characters are likely to notice that the villa’s outer gate is ajar: The lock was damaged when the intruders broke in. Within the courtyard, a group of the Roekill Bandits wait in ambush, tasked to ensure that no one interrupts the brigands in their murderous raid. Armed with a motley assortment of cast-off gear and weapons looted from previous victims, no two of these men match.
The Roekill Bandits are ruthless highwaymen known to prey on travelers near the city, each one a vicious killer. They generally avoid coming so close to town, however: Only a truly remarkable prize could tempt them to risk capture that way.
If brought down alive, these brigands may be intimidated into revealing their group’s true goal: A wealthy (and secretive) patron hired them to seize a corpse from the embalmer’s workshop. The remains in question are those of Lord Lockeburn, a favored counselor to the Crown. After they are embalmed, his remains will be interred in the great cathedral on Regency Boulevard, far beyond the reach of mere bandits. While Lockeburn’s corpse is being embalmed, however, it is vulnerable.
It is possible to get the upper hand over the bandits by asking Davyth about where he climbed the wall: The cracked stonework there makes it an easy climb, and the pottery shards warding the top broke off long years ago. Characters using this route to secretly enter the villa may sneak past the Roekill sentries. Alternatively, the bandits are more easily spotted from the inside of the courtyard, so the player characters may wish to mount an ambush of their own.
Unfortunately, Davyth is likely to flee into the darkness while the player characters duel with the brigands. He will not be found again if this occurs.
The Chamber of Preparation
(Room Two: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge)
After entering the workshop of the embalmers, the characters will find a cool workroom, filled with tables. Within, several small braziers burn aromatic woods, filling the chamber with a pungent odor and flickering reddish illumination. The wood’s scent is vaguely irritating, like burning cedar chips, but the nauseating stench of death proves even more potent.
Many of the bloodstained tables hold bodies, each shrouded to keep insects off. Undeterred by the braziers’ pungent smoke, hundreds of flies buzz back and forth, making concentration almost impossible for anyone in the room. They are especially drawn to large vessels that stand by each table. These sealed containers hold entrails and other tissues removed from the corpses as part of the embalming process. These containers are emptied regularly, the material within treated as wastes, but several filled jars await removal.
This chamber of death holds more than remains. One of the Minari family members, a girl named Evena, hid from the vicious bandits and concealed herself among the corpses here. If the player characters discover her hiding place beneath a shroud, they will need to quickly convince the outcast girl that they aren’t with the highwaymen, or the terrified maiden may tear into them with a gore-encrusted knife.
The Ablution of the Departed
(Room Three: Trick or Setback)
Several large ceramic tanks dominate this room, each approximately the size of a bathtub or sarcophagus. Each contains a mixture of preservative oils, herbs, and alcohol used in the embalming process, and a few hold partially prepared corpses. Large storage jars and barrels hold various herbs and unguents used to anoint the dead.
One of the bandits has ransacked this room. A hideously-scarred rogue named Evrard One-Ear, he was told that precious spices and golden amulets lay hidden here, treasures meant for the burial of Lord Lockeburn. In his search, the brigand has dumped out jars of distilled alcohol, torn through stacks of linen shrouds, and shattered barrels of fragrant oils, leaving the chamber a jumbled mess. Spilled liquids, shredded cloth, tumbled corpses, upended furniture and shattered crockery make the footing treacherous and movement difficult.
Unfortunately for the foolish One-Ear (along with anyone nearby), he is likely to drop the torch he’s holding and reach for his sword the moment that someone confronts him. The fool’s reflexes are far faster than his ability to reason, for flammable liquids cover much of the floor and have even run into adjacent hallways. In seconds, the area will become a raging conflagration: One-Ear is likely to be the first victim of his unwitting booby-trap. Aggressive characters who rush in to offer battle may share One-Ear’s doom, sliding and tripping on the slippery floors and trapping themselves in a chamber of raging flame.
Only a Fool Fights in a Burning House
(Room Four: The Climax)
The remaining Roekill Brigands had taken the other family members hostage and were torturing them to extort the locations of any additional valuables that are hidden in the embalmers’ home and work areas. The stubborn family of embalmers refused to yield, even as they broke Master Embalmer Gralden Minari’s legs and beat his wife Doela unconscious. Even Master Minari’s loyal apprentice has been savagely beaten, but refused to talk.
The bandits’ cruelty was cut short when they discovered the building was on fire. Grabbing the treasures that they had already found, they abandon their hostages and began searching for an escape. Unfortunately, they are likely to encounter the player characters first. Throwing down their loot, they draw their weapons and furiously attack those who interfered with their plans.
These men are not haphazardly armed minions, like the bandits in the courtyard. Instead, they are well-equipped leaders among their bloodthirsty gang. Their leader, Thulhok, is a vicious half-breed, a short, ferret-like barbarian raised in the lowest gutters in the land. He boldly risks attacks from his enemies’ front line in attempts to get behind them and tear into their leaders with his jagged-edged falchion.
Thulhok’s followers are little better. To a man, they are hateful predators without honor or compassion. Their word means nothing to them, and they would gladly surrender if it gave them a chance to slip a hidden blade into their enemy’s back.
(Of course, this encounter will be very different if the player characters flee the site immediately when the fire breaks out, or if they avoid letting the fire catch in the first place. Characters who stop the fire entirely may surprise the bandits while they are still tormenting their victims, while those who flee are likely to miss the bandits altogether.)
"Save My Family!"
(Encounter Five: Rewards and Revelations)
The Minari family is tied up upstairs, battered and broken. They will plaintively call for help, coughing and choking as waves of heat and billowing smoke slowly fill their chambers. Only heroes of true mettle will dare face the spreading fire to save them. Master Minari is too injured to walk, while his wife is unconsious from her beating. Their apprentice embalmer, Berent, is feeble, but can help player characters trying to haul his master and mistress from the smoke-filled villa.
(If abandoned by the player characters, the Minaris will certainly perish as the inferno spreads to engulf the entire villa.)
As they try to escape, his voice filled with pain, Master Minari will beg his rescuers to save his son, Davyth. If they try to assure him that his son escaped, he will argue that they are wrong, his son is in a hidden strongroom in the villa, where they keep their valuables. He is quite adamant about this, and will beg his rescuers to at least look. The secret room is off of the villa’s solar, below the family’s chambers, in the only part of the villa not yet engulfed by the flames. The hidden door is part of a wooden wall painted with images of various saints; it can be opened by pushing hard at the top of the wall.
The Secret Room
Those that dare reenter the burning structure should easily find the secret room, where Davyth is hidden, along with the family’s valuables. Those expecting the boy that summoned them to save his family may be in for a shock, however: Davyth is dead, and has been for years. After he fell from the villa’s wall, his remains were preserved with all of the embalmer’s skill and lovingly placed in a tiny coffin, kept in the family’s strongroom. A small coffin sits in the hidden chamber, Davyth’s image painted on its lid.
When the invaders stormed the villa, the boy’s spirit arose and climbed over the wall to get help: What the characters encountered was merely Davyth’s ghost.
The remains of Lord Lockeburn have also been hidden here, secured against would-be thieves. Those rescuing his corpse from an unwanted cremation will earn the gratitude of his powerful noble family.
The leader of the bandits, the vile Thulhok, has correspondence incriminating his patron, Sir Kareth Sherewin, the "gentleman" that instigated the bandits’ raid. Long suspected of associating with necromancers and heretics, the notes are grim evidence that Sir Kareth planned to use necromantic arts to draw the deepest secrets of the realm from the dead lips of Lord Lockeburn. Thulhok was expected to destroy these letters, but he kept them against betrayal by his "noble" patron. If Thulhok somehow survives the scenario, he is likely to face an unpleasant fate, for a wise man doesn’t betray those who dabble in the dark arts.
If the player characters were enterprising enough to grab other valuables from the strongroom, Master Minari will reward them handsomely. Despite the loss of his family’s livelihood, he knows what is truly important, and will richly reward those who rescued his family from the flames.
Embalming in Ancient Times
While many people are familiar with the ancient Egyptian practices of mummification, later funerary practice is largely ignored. In reality, most cultures practice some sort of preservation of the dead, even if it’s only intended to keep the remains presentable through the funeral rites and burial (or cremation).
In the Middle Ages, embalmers were not ordinarily vilified as this presented, but in some other parts of the world, they have always been seen with revulsion. The average european was not embalmed, being placed in the churchyard to decay: After a few years, their bones were sometimes exhumed to make room for new bodies. This practice led to the construction of massive ossuaries and catacombs, such as the ones beneath Paris, France.
Prior to the use of preservative chemical injections (in the late 1700s) in Europe, bodies were preserved by removal of some of the internal organs (evisceration), after which they were bathed in alcohol or oils and the tissues were packed with moisture-absorbing herbs. The bodies were then wrapped in tarred or waxed shrouds, which sealed them against corruption. Those remains that were undisturbed by tomb robbers or other vandals have often been found well preserved centuries later. (This means of preservation is what was represented by the details of the Minari family’s business.)
Of course, other cultures had even more sophisticated means of preserving their dead. The Chinese, for example, have produced preserved bodies that remain intact and pliable over 2,000 years after they were first interred.