Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
"I never want to hear another fiddle for as long as I live!" -Corwin Silvernail
The power of music is arguably one of the most ancient and influential forms of magic known to man. Songs can inspire courage, fear, joy, and lust. Melody captivates, charms, and compels. There are numerous legends detailing the power of music reaching beyond the boundaries of death itself; an ornate flute with the power to call back the souls of the deceased, a set of immense war drums which signal the demise of all who hear its terrifying din, an ivory harp capable of temporarily reuniting the living with their deceased loved ones.
One such story of particularly unsettling flavor is that of the Black Fiddle. After hundreds of years of telling and retelling, legends of this unholy instrument are sparse and spotty; even learned scholars of necromancy are prone to question their validity. Some tales depict a cracked fiddle crafted from wood of such a deep brown hue that it appears almost black; emitting a particularly dull, flat tone when a bow is drawn across the strings. Other stories tell of a large, blood-red violin of elegant craftsmanship with an almost perfect timbre. Still another legend tells of an ancient lyra; crafted from bone and charred to a dull ebony.
Notwithstanding the varied physical descriptions, the stories all tell of the same effect while the fiddle is played; the music of the fiddle causes the bodies of the dead to rise and do the bidding of the one playing the instrument. The strength of the dark magics animating the corpses is in direct proportion to the quality of music played. A fledgling fiddler might be able to summon up and control a shambling corpse or two, whereas a moderately talented musician could use the tool's evil power to call forth and command an assortment of skeletons, zombies, or ghouls. In the hands of a master fiddler, the instrument could be used to call forth and control the most powerful of the undead; ancient ghosts, dormant spirits, and sinsister shades long at rest.
The power of the fiddle is purportedly limited to be effective only at night; with the crowing of the cock before dawn's first rays, all the dead make their way back to their tombs and places of rest. The fiddle also cannot create undead from nothing; the deceased to be summoned must be fairly close. Hence, this is basis for the legendary image of the lone fiddler, playing and dancing through a graveyard in the light of the moon; the ground erupting around him as the deceased claw their way up into the night air and join in his frenzied dance.
In truth, there have been numerous "Black Fiddles" throughout the ages. In the end, all have turned out to be ordinary musical instruments with no arcane power whatsoever. What is almost unknown, however, is the existence of a chipped bow strung with human hair. When this bow is drawn across a string instrument to create melody, dark forces are unleashed. Because of its nature, the dark bow has been overlooked again and again; countless times, those who coveted the necrotic powers of the Black Fiddle would go to gruesome extremes to claim the tool, only to overlook the accompanying bow which was the true source of the dark energies.
The dark forces housed within this relic are very hard to control. If the player of the instrument wanes in their concentration or music, they may lose control over those they have awakened from death's slumber. Falter badly enough, and the dead may actually turn on them. There is a story of a sage who's ambition was greater than his talent; he attempted to use the Black Fiddle call forth a powerful spirit from beyond the grave. Although the summoning was successful, he was not able to maintain the concentration necessary to control the phantasm. It is said to have dragged him, alive and screaming, down into an earthy tomb.
To initiate the magic within the bow, its string must be smeared in fresh human blood. Otherwise, it appears as a normal, albeit a bit battered, musical bow for all practical purposes. Once the bow has been smeared, the evil energies within awaken for another night...
1. The Errand
Ivan Wintersun, a local sage who seems to dabble in just about everything that might turn a profit, hires the PCs to retrieve some items from a woman named Selena Gelfand in a nearby town. It is only a day's journey or so, but recent reports of bandits in the area have made most people leery of travel. Both the journey there and back are fairly eventful, but nothing big enough to sidetrack or derail the PCs for too long; several encounters with an assortment of bandits and highwaymen. Selena Gelfand is the widow of a prominent wizard who was an associate of Ivan's. After news of her husband's death, Ivan began correspondence with Selena to request whether he might procure any arcane-related books, scrolls, or items the deceased wizard may have left behind. Ivan gives the PCs a substantial sum of money to forward to Selena, although it is not nearly as much as he'll pay them for services once they have returned. The wizard's entire library is packed into three large chests; all locked. The PCs are entrusted with the keys, as well as directions not to lose or damage their contents. If they wish to see the contents, Selena has no problem with allowing them to (carefully) look through them.
The chests are filled with piles and piles of parchment containing scribbles and notes on various arcane spells and effects. There is also a leather pouch filled with a number of pink glass beads, a number of tomes and volumes in various states of deterioration, an old fiddle, a number of charts and maps depicting various astrological arrangements, about half a dozen blood-red candles, a number of scrolls, a chipped brown bow, the tooth of what appears to be a dragon, a bag of dried seeds, and several bottles of a strange orange powder. The candles, the tooth, the seeds, and several of the scrolls appear to display some magical properties. The rest of the items (including the bow) appear to be quite mundane. Overall, nothing of particular interest.
If asked about the items, the widow may mention that her late husband had been a dealer of arcane oddities. Aside from his journals and notes, the items being transported are what is left of his inventory; items that he had managed to acrue but was never able to sell.
The journey back should hold some minor challenges for the PCs to deliver the chests intact, but nothing too strenuous.
Upon return, Ivan takes possession of the chests and pays the PCs the agreed amount, sans a penalty if items are missing or damaged. He will be particularly upset if the dragon tooth, powder, or fiddle is missing. Otherwise, Ivan will be very happy to see everything accounted for; he will summon for "Hash" Gunderford. Hash is the town simpleton, who when not rattling out a tune on his old, battered mouth harp, earns the occasional copper as a courier for Ivan and several others. Ivan will then shoo the PCs out so he can begin digging through his newest acquisitions.
2. Strange Hauntings
Once the PCs complete the trip and deliver the goods, the adenture may seem completed, but in fact is just beginning. Starting a day or two after their trip, the PCs begin to hear rumors of odd occurences around town. At first, the encounters are relatively minor; after several days, however, the occurences become more disconcerting. On consecutive days, the following occurrences take place:
- Alabaster Croon, One of the local jewelers, claims he was robbed; there was no sign of forcible entry into his shop, but some valuable jewelry was stolen. The evening which the purported robbery took place, the jeweler remembers being awoken briefly by the faint sounds of music wafting up from the street below. When he looked out the window, he caught the flicker of a shadow disappearing in the torchlight at the end of the empty street.
- Arwin Maldoon, a local sage and vendor of the arcane, is found one morning; lying unconscious in the gutter with his robes torn to rags. When he finally awakens, he starts babbling about needing to "leave this place at once". Entirely incoherent, he will babble on about "long dead kinsmen", "the kiss of death", and "the stench of the grave". The old sage takes to his bed and isn't seen again for days. The next people hear of him, he has packed up and moved to the coast.
- Corwin Silvernail, a dashing young dandy, runs screaming into the local tavern late one evening. His face and torso are spattered with blood pouring from a hole where his ear used to be. Hysterically, he will recount a tale of being attacked by a hideous, fanged humanoid creature that stank of moldering graves. Right before he was attacked, he remembers hearing the faint sound of music wafting through the alley; the sad, flat melody of a lone fiddle.
With a bit of snooping around, the PCs may discover that the victims of these first several attacks have one thing in common; they were all on bad terms with Ivan Wintersun. The jeweler had a long-running spat with Ivan over an ornate necklace that Ivan had commissioned, but there had been a heated argument over the final cost. ("Why yes; that was stolen!") The sage who left town had been a direct competitor of Ivan's; he had been known to publicly ridicule Ivan on a number of occasions. Corwin is currently courting the vivacious Alysia Rhyes; a young woman who Ivan had previously confessed great affection for. When Ivan was unable to make good on a necklace he had promised her, Alysia spurned his love in favor of Corwin's fine features.
As the clues fall together, the PCs may remember that a fiddle was one of the items Ivan had acquired; perhaps there was more to this fiddle, and Ivan, than meets the eye? If the PCs fail to connect the dots, another piece of information should sufficiently raise their suspicions; they will be approached by "Hash" Gunderford, who sometimes did odd jobs for Ivan. He will tell them about strange occurrences at Ivan's shop.; "I done seen 'im make a swarm o' dead, dried out toads hop round his room, jes by playing an ol' fiddle!"
At any rate, whether or not the PCs investigate Ivan, the attacks and occurrences intensify; becoming more serious:
- A woman out gathering wood reported hearing the most alluring music coming from the old cemetery about a half mile out of town late one night. Shortly thereafter, she heard a series of low moans as a large number of creatures lumbered through the forest towards her. Naturally, she didn't stick around to see what they were.
- A merchant, walking home late from his shop, encounters his deceased young daughter, dead for six months, standing in the middle of the street. When he approaches her, she whirls around and runs away; towards a side alley where an eerily beautiful melody can be heard being played on a fiddle. Following her, he finds The alley to be an empty dead end. When he turns to exit, he is enveloped in darkness. When he awakens, he is lying in the old cemetery, his body covered in scratches and bites, and his purse missing.
- The bodies of several late-night revelers are found slain the next morning. All appear to have been partially devoured by some animal. Nearby is another more body. This, however, is not freshly slain; rather, it is the partially decomposed corpse of a farmer who was laid to rest in the cemetery several weeks ago. Several residents in the vicinity can report that, the night before, they had heard a terrifying, yet beautiful melody filling the night air before suddenly stopping.
- A cottage on the outskirts of town was broken into; most of the residents were brutally slain, save for a young boy found cowering inside a barrel behind the house. He will relate that, the evening before while he was outside relieving himself, he heard a strange and haunting melody, then a smashing noise and the sound of muffled, gurgling screams mixed with grunts and snarls. He had just managed to crawl inside the rain barrel when something that stank of rotted meat shuffled past.
If the occurrences continue past this point without the PCs' intervention or at least their interests piqued, move to section 5; Dance of Death.
3. The Confrontation with Ivan
Ivan has indeed discovered the secret of the Black Fiddle. With some rough talent and a bit of luck, he has figured out how invoke the dark forces to some extent; animating a couple corpses, and even summoning a ghoul. His main intention is to find a suitable buyer for the instrument, although he couldn't resist trying out the powers of the fiddle for his own gain. The attack on Corwin went a bit too far, Ivan had simply meant to frighten the young fop, but the ghoul got out of his control. Ivan realizes that the fiddle is both powerful and dangerous; while he finds it fascinating, he also knows that he needs to sell it rather quickly. The only problem is finding a suitable buyer. He has sent correspondence via Hash to several wizards who might have an interest in such an item, but has heard nothing back yet.
If the PCs confront Ivan, he will initially deny all accusations. If pressed, however, he will reveal that one of the items the PCs returned from the Galfands appears to have some sort of strange power; the fiddle can animate corpses. He explains all the attacks were simply him trying out the item in question; he meant no real harm. "Aye, I summoned a shade to make off with that necklace, but it was mine in the first place! I paid the agreed price, and then after he finishes it, Alabaster goes and tells me the price is double what I had paid! And Arwin Maldoon, let me tell you; the town is better off with the likes of his sort. He deserved to be run out of town. I'm really sorry about Corwin; I hadn't meant for the thing to attack him, only give him a good scare."
However, Ivan knows nothing about the more recent attacks. In fact, he has not been able to invoke the fiddle's power after the attack on Corwin. Nevertheless, he is loathe to part with it without some profit. He will try to convince the PCs to perhaps help him sell it to some necromancer, splitting the profits. As a last resort, he will agree to hand the fiddle over to the party if they keep this all under their hat. As a bargaining chip, Ivan knows a bit about the fiddle's history and properties (although he is not aware that the true power resides in the bow).
Naturally, the fiddle will appear as a normal old, battered fiddle to the PCs, as that is what it actually is. Without the dark bow, the fiddle is useless. The PCs may realize that a bow accompanied the fiddle; if they demand the bow as well, Ivan will retrieve a chipped, black bow. At this point, observant PCs may notice that this bow is different from the one originally delivered. Ivan will insist that this is the only bow in his possession. With the threat of the PCs' accusations hanging over his head, Ivan may even allow the PCs to search his shop. However, no other bow will turn up.
4. Interlude: The Bard
The true dark bow, at this point, is now in possession of "Hash" Gunderford. When Ivan first discovered the properties of the bow, Hash was present to see some of the startling effects; as Ivan screeched out a couple notes, a jar of dried toads began rattling around the tabletop as the tiny carcasses reanimated. Almost immediately, Hash became fixated on the instrument.
Most of the town folk recognize that, despite being an idiot, Hash does indeed have some talent for music with his banged up mouth-organ. What no one realizes is that Hash is actually Rothsherion Covington; one of the finest bards in all the land. Originally a composer and court musician of legend, he made the brash mistake of wooing Duchess Arloren; wife of Duke Voltari. When he was discovered, Rothsherion was stripped of all his wealth and honors, and slated for death. Managing to escape, Rothsherion fled to this small, unremarkable town and assumed the identity of Hash; the simple-minded courier.
When he saw what the bow could do, Rothsherion realized he must have it. After tailing Ivan for several days, Rothsherion came upon his opportunity. After the incident where Ivan was unable to maintain control over the ghoul, the sage panicked and temporarily hid the fiddle and bow up in an ancient fir tree south of town. It was a simple matter for Rothsherion to swap the bow with one he had filched earlier.
Once he had the bow, pilfering a fiddle was simple. That evening, Rothsherion stole out to the cemetery and tried out his newly acquired instrument. He was truly a master musician, and the power of the bow responded to his talent as it sang out under his skilled strokes. The ground itself seemed to convulse and beat in response to his melody. Suddenly, the earth seemed to explode in a number of places as it spewed forth a macabre assortment of corpses in various stages of decomposition; all who seemed to rise of their own volition to join the ghastly dance. Rothsherion laughed wildly as the intoxicating power of the bow flowed out of him; the dark spirit of death was his to command.
The first several evenings the dark instrument is in his possession, Rothsherion is mainly experimenting with it; learning how to work the dark magic and control his undead minions. This is the source of the latter encounters in part 2. Rothsherion learns that, with his talent, he can actually control the undead from a good distance; he doesn't even need to see them to influence their actions. During this time, he begins to formulate a scheme. A plan of revenge, it involves destroying the forces of Voltari and taking all the spoils, including the duchess, for himself. The cemetery has several hundred bodies at his command. However, he needs many more in order to accomplish his plans...
5. Dance of Death
The chain of occurrences continues to grow more terrifying. Townsfolk fear to venture outside after dark. Everyones' nerves are on edge; the sound of a fiddle's twang is enough to send people scurrying. Over the next several nights, the following events take place:
- The PCs are attacked by several shadows; during combat, they can hear the faint sound of a fiddle. At the same time, there is quite a commotion out in the street nearby; several townsfolk are being attacked by an army of ghouls and skeletons. The next morning, Ivan Wintersun is found dead. There is nary a scratch on the body, but the skin is blackened and a look of horror is frozen on the corpse's face. In addition, several dozen townsfolk are unaccounted for.
- Late one evening, many people (including the PCs) are awakened by numerous attacks throughout town; the walking dead are everywhere! The PCs will have to pick and choose their fights, as no matter who they go after, there will always be someone else being attacked. Again, the faint music wafting in from the forest east of town...
Eventually, the PCs will get the clue to head towards the source of the music. As they approach the source of music, they will be besieged by the occasional undead creature; the encounters getting a little more frequent as they draw nearer to the music.
In the middle of a clearing in the forest are the remains of an old, forgotten mausoleum in horrible disrepair. Cavorting within the main chamber is Hash, playing the fiddle in a frenzied dance. He looks a bit different from when the PCs last saw him. Standing at least a foot taller, his eyes have sunk deeply into their sockets, and his entire frame has become almost impossibly thin. In the pale moonlight, he seems to take on the likeness of death. Surrounding him is an assortment of the walking dead; ranging from ancient skeletons to many of the recently slain. He will be aware of the PCs approaching, and his minions will be ready for them.
Over the last several days, as Rothsherion has gained mastery over the instrument, its corruptive forces have in turn been transforming him into a creature of the night. He is actually at the point now where he can control the dead without even needing to play the fiddle. This may cause problems for PCs who approach with the plan to magically damper his music. However, he still needs to play the fiddle to create more undead; it will be a couple more days before this power becomes innate. In addition, Rothsherion now has the capabilities of a greater undead monster. Depending on your game and difficulty level, this might include abilities such as flight, a corrupting touch, hypnotic stare, and resistance to certain types of damage.
If the PCs manage to destroy Rothsherion, all the walking dead will slowly crumple and collapse onto the ground. More powerful undead will silently make their way back to their original burial sites and disappear into the ground. Both the fiddle and bow are intact; the PCs can try to sell the instrument, destroy it, or do whatever they see fit with it. It also turns out that the poor, simpleminded Hash did have some wealth after all; under a floorboard in his dilapidated shanty, the PCs can find a good sum of jewelry and gems, as well as the trappings of a court-level troubador.
If any PC with significant musical talent tries to use the instrument, the intoxicatingly dark energies will eventually work to corrupt and transform him into a powerful undead creature. In the beginning, the PC will develop a dislike for daylight. This will quickly evolve into a disdain for other people; preferring the company of the dead over the living. After a week or so, the PC will come entirely under the control of the dark bow; developing a burning hatred for all living creatures.
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? Responses (11)-11
Now that my campaign is coming to a close, I'm sifting through some of the remnants. I never got to run this adventure, due to the story arc diverging a bit towards 'high seas' encounters and the like. I was slightly disappointed; I kinda like the flavor of this one and wanted to see how something like this would pan out with my group.
At any rate, if anyone ends up running it, let me know how it goes.
And yes; the soundtrack for this adventure was to be Camille Saint-Saens' 1874 'Danse Macabre'.
Very well done.
This was quite an interesting read. I think I'll have to work this into one of my games some time. Some of my players have a habit of solving enigmas earlier than planned, so I'll probably add a few more red herrings to throw them off Rothsherion's trail.
Perhaps a band of thieving vagabonds outside of town who were slighted by Ivan, and love to play music?
Well done! There is both an item and a plot here though, you might want to consider making the bow into a sub of its own. If you do not I will not hold that against you. There always is the chance of two mediocre subs instead of a good one.
Over to the content; How do we kill these undead? Did I miss that, or are they just generic zomies? I like how the submission flows trough relatively big chunks of text without bogging down and I liked the plot itself.
Was this intended for a homebrew, or are you GMing in another setting? One last nitpick. You mentioned ghouls, I thought ghouls are alive, not undead?
Thanks. Ah; my gaming system is showing through (D&D 3.5)... in that system, zombies, skeletons, and ghouls are all at the low-powered end of the spectrum for undead.
I tried to keep the submission fairly generic to be useable across systems, but in my campaign, most of the undead outside of the final showdown would have not been too challenging; a town overrun with high-powered undead on that last night probably would have wiped out my PCs before they ever got to that final encounter. I was planning for the big combat to come when they had to contend with the lichified Rothsherion and a couple dozen minions of varying power.
Yeah, this is a homebrew. I'm just sifting through the aftermath, seeing if there is anything worth submitting.
Again pretty standard stuff, item of great power and evil falls into the wrong hands, there is a red herring and the heros must do battle with the villain wielding the item....but wait all is not as it seems the villain has been altered by the item to become a super villain!!! A classic really...
But again startibartfast you have done it with style. Well done.
It looks like a great way to motivate my fairly neutral characters with a simple financial hook and then getting them embroiled in a more long running campaign against a corrupted undead villain.
Thank you very much for the work. I'll report back in a couple of days when I have run it in 4e. I'll have to track down a copy of Danse Macabre too(perhaps just play the intro to Jonathan Creek).
This would be a fun one to pull on some PCs who've grown fairly attached to a particular town, perhaps even their "home base". I might try running it one day.
What if someone used this to summon a dead relative of theirs?
Now this is great too! Lots of nuance and possibilities, plus the ever popular undead.