I took an overdose of fin de siècle Gothic fiction and wrote this, more as a finger exercise than anything else. Put it in a hex somewhere near the sea.
Advance warning: some of the themes addressed here are pretty heavy, even if they are approached rather obliquely, just as they are in the fiction that inspired it. Please use with appropriate care.
The Tower: It stands on a hilltop, shining white in the distance, visible for miles around. The land around is thickly forested. No-one goes there now, though the forest is dotted with the overgrown ruins of farms and villages, showing that the hills were once densely inhabited. The woods have an evil reputation with the locals, who avoid the place, especially after dark.
The Rumours: In the villages that cling to the riverside, the people are happy to talk about the tower on the hill, though never without first making signs to avert the attention of evil spirits. They say a sad old lord used to live alone there, until the day he rode along the sea cliffs the morning after a storm and found a beautiful girl cast up by the waves on the beach, more dead than alive and surrounded by broken timbers. He took her home, and she became his ward, and then his wife. She seemed to give him new joy in life, and one by one he called his old friends to live with them: a priest, a doctor, and an artist. Then one midsummer the whole household was found dead and dangling from the rafters - all save the lady, who had vanished without trace. After that nothing went right in the villages around the white tower. Soon the farms were all abandoned, and the forest came.
The Woods: By day the woods are harmless enough, and in the spring and summer they are thick with wild roses. Often a woman can be heard singing in the distance, though no amount of searching will ever find her. By night travellers will repeatedly glimpse swaying, broken-necked figures hanging from the branches out of the corners of their eyes, though these disappear when looked at directly. When the wind blows through the woods by night, it carries the sounds of crashing waves, screaming men, and shattering timbers, as though a shipwreck was happening just over the hill.
For each hour spent in the woods by night, there is a 1-in-3 chance of an encounter with a random ghost. Roll 1d6:
- Bianca, the maid, weeping uncontrollably as she dabs her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief, her broken neck jerking disturbingly with each heaving sob.
- Giuliano, the gardener, and Alberico, the doctor, locked in a feverish embrace, trying to kiss each other with heads that dangle from broken necks.
- Ortensia, the cook, dressed up in her best gown, roaming the woods and calling out: 'Lucia! Lucia!' Stiff coloured ribbons tied around her throat imperfectly conceal her broken neck.
- Jacopo, the chaplain, striding through the forests in his black soutane, his shattered neck almost, but not quite, held upright by his high and rigidly starched white collar. He holds a sealed letter out stiffly before him, the word Lucia just visible on the envelope.
- Giustino, the artist, craning his broken neck and sketching feverishly with paper and charcoal at something only he can see.
- Lord Orazio, brandishing a bleeding dagger, rushing through the night wild-eyed and howling: 'She is MINE! Mine only! Mine always! I found her! She belongs to ME!'
If any attempt is made to interact with the ghosts, it will instantly become obvious that what seemed like human forms were nothing more than a trick of the moonlight, their voices merely the moaning of the wind.
Approaching the Tower: One stumbles upon it suddenly, right in the middle of the wood. Its white stone walls are still strong and clean, untouched by overgrowth, in marked contrast to the condition of all the other ruins in the woods. Its wooden doors have rotted almost to nothing. The stables, servant's quarters, and other outbuildings are now mere heaps of mossy stone.
- An immense serpent lazes on a rock nearby, huge and almost unkillable, covered in gorgeous, multicoloured scales. It will attack only in self-defence, but if any group of people try to enter the tower it will rear up and spit a stream of venom straight into the eyes of whichever of them has the lowest Charisma score. Unless dodged, this venom will cause permanent blindness unless treated with healing magic or washed away promptly with salt water and/or milk. (Any healers in the party will know this.) The snake can be distracted by giving it live prey to eat: the larger the animal, the longer it will spend eating it. A rabbit might buy you a minute, whereas eating and digesting a horse will occupy it for an entire day.
A Note on Ghosts: Unlike the ghosts in the forest, the ghosts in the tower are completely physical. (They are not zombies: the actual corpses of all these people are still mouldering in their graves.) Their pale bodies can be cut down with mundane weapons, although they do not bleed and are weirdly resistant to harm. If 'killed', they reform the following midnight unless the tower's enchantment has been undone. Unless otherwise noted, none of them can leave their respective rooms.
A Note on Dreams: Anyone who attempts to sleep within the White Tower will be tormented by horrible nightmares of shipwrecks, serpents, stabbing daggers, strangling roses, hanging bodies, and staring eyes, and will wake up feeling more exhausted than they were when they first went to sleep. Sleeping under these conditions will not allow the recovery of lost hit points or spells.
Ground Floor: The main doors lead into a great semi-circular room hung with faded scarlet tapestries depicting hunts, tournaments, and battles, with a grand flight of white stone stairs leading up. A doorway at the back leads to a warren of kitchens, one of which contains a trapdoor covering a rusted iron ladder leading down into darkness. The sound of a woman weeping echoes down from upstairs.
First Floor: A single room dominated by a huge table and an immense fireplace. Seven frayed ropes hang from the rafters, swinging lazily back and forth even when there is no breeze. White stone stairs lead up to the second floor.
- The ghost of Bianca, the maidservant, haunts this room, weeping endlessly as she tries to wash the bloodstained floorboards with her tears. Her labour is useless: scrub how she might, the stained timber remains as scarlet as ever. Her skin is pale and her neck is obviously broken. She clutches an elaborately embroidered handkerchief in her calloused hands.
- If questioned, Bianca responds only with incoherent torrents of self-reproach: 'They made me! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I loved her so much! But they all forced me to! Oh, if only I had been stronger! Oh, this is all, all, all my fault!'
- Bianca has a knife hidden up her sleeve, and will fight to the death to avoid parting with her handkerchief, the one token she has left of Lucia's love. If she can be persuaded that giving the handkerchief to the PCs will help Lucia find peace, however, then she will hand it over, although not without kissing it several hundred times first.
branch off a central landing. A narrow flight of stone stairs continues upwards.
Master Bedroom: This room belonged to Orazio and Lucia, and is still haunted by the ghost of Lord Orazio. Its walls are lined with bookcases, weighed down with ponderous legal and scholarly tomes, some of them of great value. From the open window, it is possible to smell (although not see) the sea. Behind a wooden screen, painted with images of sea birds, stands a huge white marble bath.
- Orazio's ghost paces around the room on an endless patrol, his grey old head swinging alarmingly from side to side on its broken neck. In his hand he clutches his grandfather's dagger, still stained with Lucia's blood. From time to time he mutters: 'Lucia! Lucia!' and 'Faithless! Faithless!' under his breath.
- If he sees the PCs, Orazio will demand to know what they are doing in his house, and will ring the bell for the servants (who, obviously, do not come). He becomes agitated if anyone points out his unnatural condition, or that of the tower. If Lucia is mentioned, even obliquely, he accuses them of being her lovers and attacks in a frenzied rage. Any wounds he inflicts with his dagger, even the slightest scratch, will just keep bleeding and bleeding until proper medical attention is given or the victim dies.
- Orazio's power is this: if he gives a direct order to a single PC, they must save or obey it to the best of their ability. Orazio can only give orders that conform to his understanding of gentlemanly behaviour: 'leave my house' or 'restrain this trespasser' are fine, but 'murder your friends' or 'slit your own throat' are right out. Anyone whom he has wounded with his dagger receives no save against this ability.
- If the bath is filled with salt water (e.g. from the lake or the pit), then anyone bathing in it will regain half their lost hit points. Full immersion will also heal blindness caused by the serpent's venom or bleeding caused by Orazio's dagger. Its magic will function only once for each PC.
This room was occupied by Alberico,
the doctor, and was the site of his illicit liaisons with the gardener, Giuliano,
whose ghost still haunts the room. Its cluttered shelves and wardrobes are almost invisible beneath the masses of flowering rosebushes
which grow across the walls, floor, and ceiling, filling the room with an overpowering floral scent, regardless of the time of day or year.
- Giuliano's ghost lurks unseen amidst the rose bushes, which grow through and out of his beautiful, pale body. He cannot speak for the roses that grow from his mouth. He hungers for warmth, and nourishment, and life.
- For every minute that PCs remain in the room, they must save or sink into a drowsy stupor, lulled by the scent of the roses. As they lie in this state, rose vines will stealthily curl around them and impale them with a hundred thorns, drawing off blood to feel Giuliano. The more blood he drinks, the more he will stir amidst the vines, making it easier for the PCs to spot him, and to see that he is clearly still too weak to break free from the roses that pin him to the walls. If attacked, he defends himself with clouds of soporific pollen, and with walls and waves of lashing thorns.
- If Giuliano drinks more than two gallons of blood in a single day, he becomes strong enough to break free. (This much blood loss would kill two ordinary people, but spread between six it would just leave them feeling woozy and weak. Alternatively the PCs could feed him an animal from the forest, or the hairy thing from the pit under the house.) He can also be freed by cutting through the roses that bind him using either Orazio's dagger or Ortensia's cleaver. (If severed with normal blades, they regrow as fast as they are cut.)
- If freed, Giuliano will stagger upstairs to the Study, and seize Alberico in an urgent embrace. More rose-vines will erupt from both men's bodies, binding them tightly together, and soon there is nothing but a mass of roses to mark the place where they once stood. Cutting through them will reveal no trace of either man, and they will not reform the following midnight. With Giuliano gone, the roses in this room become normal flowers, and will promptly wither if out of season.
- A trunk under the bed contains Alberico's medical supplies, including plenty of bandages (which will be useful if anyone has been cut with Orazio's dagger), and bottles of saline solution (which are handy for washing the eyes of anyone hit by the venom of the serpent).
This room was shared by the chaplain, Jacopo, and the artist, Giustino. It is easy to guess who slept where: one half of the room is hung with sombre colours, with a tiny shrine
to a miserable-looking saint in one corner, while the other half is scattered with paints and half-finished clay models, with expensive clothes
in extravagant fabrics flung heedlessly across the bed and over the backs of chairs. Giustino's clothes
and Jacopo's holy icons
could both be very valuable to the right buyer. Their ghosts are not here, haunting the chambers above.
- Hidden under the pillow of Jacopo's bed is a silk bag containing a stash of passionate love letters addressed to Lucia by Jacopo, interspersed by terrible (but obviously heartfelt) attempts at erotic poetry. Each page has been torn neatly in half.
Third Floor: This floor has the same layout as the one below, but instead of three bedrooms the central landing opens onto a library, a study, and a chapel. A set of spiral stairs, wound claustrophobically tight, twists upwards to the fourth floor.
Library: This room is full of bookshelves and cabinets of curiosities, packed with trinkets from far-off lands, some of them of considerable value. A writing desk sits by the window.
- One wall is dominated by a large painting of Lucia, signed by Giustino. It depicts her seated by an ornamental lake, surrounded by roses, with the White Tower itself clearly visible in the background. She holds an embroidered handkerchief - recognisably the same one used by Bianca - and looks very, very beautiful, if somewhat vacant. Anyone with an above-average Wisdom score will be able to tell at a glance that the painter was obviously in love with his subject.
- On the desk is an open book, a bestiary of strange creatures from many lands. It has been opened to a page describing 'syrens, wicked spirits of the ocean, beauteous of body but void of soul, whose songs draw men to madness and destruction.'
- In the locked drawer of the desk are legal papers drawn up by Orazio, petitioning a local (and now long-dead) magistrate for divorce from Lucia on the grounds of her 'infidelity and promiscuity', 'unnatural practises', and 'neglect of her marital duties'. The papers are complete, but have not been signed or sealed.
This room smells strongly of poppies
. It is haunted by the ghost of Alberico,
the doctor, who fusses endlessly with his books and potions
as he tries, uselessly, to come up with an adequate diagnosis of Lucia's nature and his own bizarre condition. As he works he takes regular gulps from the bottle of laudanum
that rests on the table, using his free hand to physically hold his head up by the hair as he does so to allow himself to swallow despite his broken neck.
- Alberico is extremely resistant to the idea that he is dead, and will come up with quite insanely convoluted 'rational medical explanations' to account for his situation. He will insist that he could leave this room if he wanted to, but that his work is much too urgent to wait. If confronted with irrefutable evidence that he is dead he will suffer a massive nervous breakdown, chug down the whole bottle of laudanum, and collapse in a narcotised stupor for 1d8 hours. When he wakes up he will carry on with his work as though nothing had happened.
- More rational than the other ghosts, Alberico will freely admit to having plotted to murder Lucia. 'Quite a disruptive influence, she was. Threw the whole household out of order. A thoroughly abnormal type - something wrong with her nerves, no doubt. Everyone agreed by the end. Desperate cases require desperate solutions!' His memory of the event itself is blurry, but he remembers hearing Lucia singing 'a song that sounded like the sea', and seeing Lord Orazio plunge his grandfather's dagger into her chest in a desperate attempt to shut her up.
- Alberico's desk is covered in masses of case notes, documenting his fruitless attempts to diagnose Lucia's nature. He will happily allow the PCs to consult these, although he will not allow them to be removed. Anyone looking through the notes will notice that Alberico has idly sketched Giuliano's face dozens of times in the margins. Anyone who has seen Giuliano in the second bedroom will recognise the face as his, but if questioned Alberico will insist that the face is of 'no-one in particular. Just idle doodling, I'm afraid...'
- Alberico will violently resist any attempts to meddle with or remove his case notes, and if the PCs persist he will grab a large bottle from a shelf and smash it open, releasing a buzzing cloud of furious insects whose stings induce rapid swelling and unbelievable, crippling pain. They are hard to fight with normal weapons, but smoke (e.g. from the second-floor fireplace) or any kind of strong air current (e.g. the wind on the roof) will soon disperse them.
- Alberico's power is this: during combat, he will look at a random PC each round, mutter a brief diagnosis of them based on their current behaviour (e.g. 'shouting too loudly - probably hysterical', or 'face looks flushed - probable heart condition'), and make a swift note in his pocket book. This diagnosis will then become the truth, causing those who fight against him to swiftly dissolve into a mass of physical and mental infirmities. (Note that Alberico can't use this power aggressively, by e.g. diagnosing someone with a fatal heart attack: he genuinely thinks he's just observing what's already there.) If Alberico is defeated, or his pocket-book is destroyed, these induced conditions disappear.
- If Alberico is reunited with Giuliano (see Second Bedroom, above), the PCs will be free to read and take his notes at their leisure.
Chapel: This cold, severe-looking room is hung with icons depicting bleeding saints and martyrs, posed in various expressive attitudes of agony. The ghost of Father Jacopo, the chaplain, kneels in silent meditation before the altar. His bowed head makes his broken neck horribly obvious, making him look rather martyr-like himself.
- Jacopo's power is this: if anyone enters the chapel, Jacopo rises and turns his stern gaze upon them. The intruder will instantly become overcome with feelings of hysterical shame and self-loathing, and will subject themselves to increasingly extravagant forms of self-harm until they are physically pulled from the room, while Jacopo watches silently with an expression of mingled pity and contempt.
- If Jacopo is confronted with either the love letters from the third bedroom, or the erotic drawings of him from the studio, his composure disintegrates and his gaze loses all its power. He begins kicking up a storm of poltergeist activity, throwing the heavy bronze candlesticks around the room while howling about how Lucia bewitched him into vice and sin.
- If Jacopo is defeated, anyone examining the altar will discover the true object of his veneration: a golden reliquary containing a nude drawing of Lucia, stolen from Giustino's studio. The reliquary is beautifully engraved with patterns of flowers and vine leaves, and would be of great value to any church with a relic worth putting in it.
This wide-open, barely-furnished room was converted into Giustino's studio
, on account of the brilliant light that shines in through its huge windows
. It is littered with half-finished statues
, and the walls are covered with layer upon layer of charcoal sketches
drawn with a hasty, urgent hand. The older ones beneath are mostly of beautiful young men, but the newer sketches pinned on top of them are all of Lucia. A hidden folder in a locked drawer contains a sheaf of erotic sketches
of Father Jacopo, obviously drawn from life. A flimsy-looking ladder
leads up to a trapdoor on the roof.
- The ghost of Giustino haunts this room, labouring endlessly at a clay sculpture of Lucia. He begins work each day at dawn, periodically breaking off his sculpting to consult his sketches, until at midnight he looks his sculpture over, realises his failure, and tears it down with a howl of anguish. He starts again the following morning.
- If his work is interrupted, Giustino will become furious and order his unfinished statues to animate and attack. They are sad, clumsy, lumpen things, but there are quite a lot of them and they carry on fighting until they are smashed to pieces.
- Giustino's power is this: whenever he looks at a person, the way that he sees them will become the truth of them for as long as his gaze remains fixed upon them. Giustino's gaze is not false, exactly, but it tends to simplify people almost to the point of caricature: so a strong woman would remain strong while he looked at her, but would become almost incapable of anything other than feats of strength. In game terms, whomever he is currently looking at keeps their highest ability score and halves all the rest until he looks away.
Roof: The wind blows strongly here, a continuous torrent of air that smells of salt and sounds like the roaring of the sea. PCs who don't tie themselves onto something risk being blown clean off the roof and falling sixty feet to the ground below. From up here the lake is clearly visible, sparkling like a clear blue jewel among the remains of what were once the tower's gardens.
Basement: This crumbling subterranean warren of storerooms and wine cellars is the hunting ground of the ghost of Ortensia, the cook. Quite the maddest of the ghosts, she roams the cellars with her cleaver in her hand, snarling to herself.
- Upon seeing the PCs, Ortensia will mistake whichever of them has the highest Charisma score for Lucia (regardless of gender) and launch herself forwards to attack, howling a volley of misogynistic abuse - 'Whore! Bitch! Temptress! Slut!' - as she does so.
- As she 'dies', she will stare up pitifully at the PC she has mistaken for Lucia, and use her last breath to whimper brokenly: 'Why? Why choose her? Why couldn't it have been me?'
- If the PC whom she has mistaken for Lucia shows her any kind of affection, she will throw her cleaver away and collapse into floods of helpless tears, apologising over and over again for her part in Lord Orazio's murder plan. Soon afterwards she will attempt to kill herself if not prevented.
- One of the wine cellars contains a small fortune in rare wines, although without Ortensia's help it will take a thorough search to reveal it.
Sub-Basement: Lord Orazio's grandfather, Giovanni, oversaw the construction of the White Tower and was buried down here, among its foundations. PCs who come down here will hear him tap-tap-tapping on the inside of his tomb with his bony fingers. If they dig him up, he will rear up in his ragged winding-sheet and begin clack-clack-clacking with his ghastly yellow jawbones. (Unlike the other inhabitants of the White Tower, Giovanni is very much a corpse, not a ghost, and he stays dead if destroyed.) By signs and gestures he will attempt to indicate his frustration with the current state of the tower, and his desire for its inhabitants to be put to rest. If asked how, he picks up a rock and scratches twelve words onto the wall: FREE THE GIRL FROM THE WOOD. FREE THE WOOD FROM THE GIRL.
Giovanni is nothing but a literal bag of bones, and would be no use in a fight either as an enemy or an ally. If the PCs free Lucia after digging him up, however, then as he collapses back into death he uses his last conscious moment to ensure that he falls pointing to a particular stone in the wall. PCs who remove this stone will find a stash of antique gold coins buried behind it, hidden by Giovanni to be used in his family's hour of need.
Under the Foundations: Beside Giovanni's grave is a deep, damp pit, descending down into the wet earth. It is inhabited by some awful scrambling creature with thin, hairy limbs and yellow gnashing teeth, which will come scrabbling from its hidden holes to cut ropes, douse lamps, and murder intruders. At the very bottom of the pit are three feet of salt water, a mass of hair and bones of indeterminate origin, and a rock on which someone with beautiful handwriting has scratched the words Still so very far above the sea. Hidden behind this rock is Lucia's wedding ring, which would bring quite a price if it was cleaned up a bit.
The Lake: It is surrounded on all sides by masses of dense undergrowth, making it very difficult to find unless the PCs have either worked out its position relative to the tower using the painting in the library, or seen it directly from the roof. Here Lucia stumbled, singing and bleeding and dying, after Orazio's attempted murder. Sea nymph that she was, she merged herself with the water of the lake, and gradually with the water table of the whole forest. The lake is obviously freshwater, fed by hidden subterranean springs, and yet it tastes as salty as the sea.
Anyone who spends more than a few minutes by the lake will hear a woman's voice murmuring, softly: 'Give me back to myself'.
To undo Lucia's literal and metaphorical murder, any five of the following objects must be thrown into the lake:
- Bianca's handkerchief.
- The painting from the library.
- The divorce papers from the library.
- Lord Orazio's bloodstained dagger.
- Alberico's case notes.
- The drawing from Jacopo's reliquary.
- Giustino's unfinished clay statue of Lucia.
When one object is thrown in, the water in the lake begins to churn.
When two objects are thrown in, the water in the lake takes on the colour of blood.
When three objects are thrown in, the outline of a woman can be glimpsed below the surface, although anyone diving down finds only stones and weeds.
When four objects are thrown in, Lucia's bleeding corpse can be seen lying at the bottom of the lake, very cold and very pale and very dead.
When five objects are thrown in, Lucia's eyes snap open and she rises, dripping and shuddering, to the surface.
The Rivals: If Bianca, Ortensia, Jacopo, Giustino, and/or Orazio are still 'alive' when Lucia rises from the water, they will instantly be aware of her resurrection and come rushing from the tower, screaming that she is theirs and theirs alone. If the PCs stand in their way, the ghosts will attack them furiously to get to Lucia: otherwise they will fight among each other until only one remains. Lucia will smile indulgently at her final 'suitor', and kiss them on the forehead, causing them to drop dead on the spot with a rapturous expression on their face. Then the serpent slithers over and eats them.
Unbroken Wings: Once the suitors are dead, Lucia will call the serpent to her, and merge with it, becoming a vast, undulating sea snake with a woman's face. As she does so, her necklace and bracelets will snap and fall from her body. Her coral-red lips open, pouring forth a song that fills the forest with the sounds of the sea. Then she dives down into the lake and is never seen again.
The left bracelet bears a green jewel. Anyone who wears it can breath water as though it was air.
The right bracelet bears a blue jewel. Anyone who wears it can drink salt water as though it was fresh.
The necklace bears a white jewel. Anyone who wears it will never be harmed by any sea creature except in self defence.
Aftermath: With Lucia gone, the White Tower begins to crumble. Its unquiet ghosts dissipate. Decades catch up with it in a matter of months. Within a year it is nothing but a heap of tumbled stones.
Once word spreads that the forests are no longer haunted, a distant relative of Lord Orazio will ride in and assert her ownership of the whole area. She visits the site of the tower, and takes a strange liking to the lake beside the ruins. Soon afterwards, she adopts a rose and serpent as the symbol of her house.
For years afterwards, fisher-folk along the coast claim to sometimes hear a woman's voice singing over the waters, especially on the mornings after storms. But Lucia does not return.