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Episode 3.2 - The Apple Tree

25 May 2008

After their encounter with Hunter, our three heroes spend several weeks resting and healing their wounds. During this time they stock up on weapons (they manage to acquire a a black market assault rifle and rig up custom flame throwers), and continue setting up surveillance systems at the area's ancient mystical hotspots and around the Birchland Manor. Terry drives alone to the Old Stone Ring to set up a camera. While working on it, he suddenly hears a deep, booming voice, as if coming from below ground. 'I smell Hunter,' it booms. He sees a stonelike hand pushing up from below the earth in the middle of the ring. The work done, he quickly sprints back to the car and heads back to the manor. Rip reads up on Hunter and the other old powers referred to in the old poem, but finds only vague information about three old nature gods that were worshipped in the area, in the times of the Celts or even before.

Then, one day, Rip wakes up, and getting out of bed he sees a blooming apple tree in the back garden. This would not be unusual but for the fact that there didn't used to be a tree there. He takes a closer look, but sees no other marks or tracks, so he goes back inside to read the newspapers and wait for the others to be about. A couple of hours later Terry wakes up. He also sees the tree through his window, and also sees something else: someone is lurking in the woods behind their garden fence. He calls Chris on his mobile, and asks him to bring up a pair of binoculars. Chris, working in the gym, complies. Taking a closer look they discover it is a man, wearing a black robe.

They call Rip, who goes out in the garden to create a diversion, while Terry and Chris circle around to capture the man. This they manage to do easily. When confronted, the man says nothing. He's armed with a silver dagger, which they confiscate. They take him into the dungeons below the manor in order to intimidate him, but he still won't speak. Terry tries to force open his mouth, to make sure that he's got a tongue to speak with in the first place. At that moment they hear a voice inside their heads. It says: 'We do not speak. We are the Listeners.'

Rip has encountered the Listeners in his research. They're an ancient order of people who have forsaken speech in order to gain telepathic skills, and listen to the voices that others do not hear. They're supposedly devoted to fighting evil. When asked again about what he's doing there, the voice replies: 'We heard the tree.' So what exactly is the tree? 'We do not know.'

The man doesn't seem like a threat so they let him go. He returns to the apple tree. A wind has begun to blow. And suddenly there seem to be more and more apple blossoms blown by the wind. More than could possibly be torn from the tree. It looks like snow falling. They discover that their mobile phones aren't working, nor is the manor's internet connection. They ask the Listener about what he hears, and the voice replies: 'The agony of many, growing louder.' Suddenly he turns to leave. Chris follows him. But just as he has cleared the corner, the other two see the ghostly figure of a woman gliding towards them.

It is definately a ghost, and it doesn't look happy. It takes a swing at Terry, who dodges it, and returns with a swing... which passes right through the ghost. Rip slips inside, while Terry keeps the ghost occupied, dodging its furious swings. Rip tries to desperately find some way of killing a ghost in his books, but the only thing he finds that should harm any unembodied spirit is something called the Blade of M'rent'h'ros, which is said to be in the possession of the Listeners!

He then runs after Chris and the Listener, while Terry, who hears Rip calling after Chris, decides to do the same. The ghost gives chase for a little while, but then apparently gives up. Meanwhile, Chris has followed the Listener a good way down the road. And the apple blossoms are everywhere, floating with the wind like snow. There is not a soul to be seen. Suddenly another ghost, this one male, comes gliding up the road.

Rip, just running up behind them, calls out to Chris to use the Listener's silver dagger, which he still carries. It is not the fabled Blade, however, as it passes right through the ghost. The ghost takes a swing at Chris. It's hand passes right through him, but he feels as if ice cold claws were tearing through his flesh. They run away, following the Listener who is already a good way in front of them. Terry is now right at their heels, and manages to avoid the ghost, which again gives up the chase soon. They catch up with the Listener, and again ask about what he hears. 'Torment. And the name of Matthew Connor. In the graveyard,' the voice in their heads says.

It's worth looking into, so they head for the old cemetery. The listener, however, continues down Cavalry Street, towards Stonewall Church. On their way they see another couple ghosts, but manage to stay clear of them. In the graveyard they see no ghosts, but several more of the robed men. They begin searching for a grave marker by the name of Connor, and by luck Rip stumbles upon it quite soon. He lived in the 19th century, it seems. The only other inscription on the gravestone is an odd poem: 'Once in a decade, but always unseen / One dead, one alive, one lost in between / The blood of three to save them that sinned / and were swept away by the appleblossom wind.'

The Listeners also see the inscription. Instantly they turn and leave, southwards, in the direction of Stonewall Church. The blood of three? Which three? Could it be the three of them, or could it possibly have something to do with the three ancient powers they've been running into recently? The one lost in between could refer to Rip, but what is the dead one? On a long shot they each cut a small wound on their arms and spray a little blood on the grave. Nothing appears to happen. But another ghost is coming up to them. This one speaks. 'What are you doing to my grave?' it demands.

They inquire why the ghosts are trying to harm them. Connor replies: 'You're good as dead already. You're stuck here. You cannot leave this world.' They decide to leave the ghost, who doesn't seem quite as aggressive as the others, but not friendly either, in the cemetery and follow the Listeners. They find them in Stonewall Church, a whole dozen of them, huddled together, standing silently. They ask about the Blade, to which the voice in their heads replies that it belongs to the Listeners, and only they will use it.

The three are at a loss as to what to do now. Since there is no one about, they decide to go looting, and acquire more survaillance equipment, occult supplies and even a couple of expensive cars. They try driving out of town just to see what happens, but soon the falling petals begin to get thicker and thicker, so that they can't see where they're going and are forced to turn back.

They research the public library for any records of Matthew Connor. They discover that he was the leader of a mysterious cult or fraternity, all the members of which died on the same day under mysterious circumstances. It seems a good bet that the ghosts that roam the town are the ghosts of those cult members.

When they return to see what the Listeners are up to, they discover them ready to venture out, the man leading them brandishing the Blade. They follow the Listeners, and witness them confront a ghost. A slash from the blade leaves a gash, what looks like a real wound, on the ghost, which turns and flees. But this is getting them nowhere. Every ghost they face flees, and they don't yet know if it is even possible to actually kill them.

When they talk to the Listeners about the situation, saying they are stuck in this eerie reality, the voice of the Listeners reply that the only way out is by saving the sinners, like the inscription on the gravestone said, and they would gladly remain here in order to punish sinners. When asked if they know why the cult members were damned, the voice replies that they were cursed for trying to bind the spirit of an apple tree. Our heroes are not as willing to remain in limbo, and Chris approaches their leader, trying to grab the Blade, but the other Listeners are all around them with daggers in hand. They back off, and decide to go back to talk with Connor instead.

They find Connor again at his grave. He again says that they are stuck here, and will soon join the other ghosts. When asked whether he would not want to be saved, he says it is impossible. 'The dead do not bleed,' he says. Is that what the inscription means? That they need the blood of a ghost, a living person, and... Rip, not quite either? They tell Connor about the Blade, which can cut spirits like corporeal flesh. He is interested, even if doubtful.

Obtaining the Blade from the Listeners would be too difficult, so Connor approaches them, and allows himself to be cut. They then retreat, and head back to the manor, and the apple tree, which appears to be the cause of it all. Rip and Chris (since Terry is not quite human) also cut themselves, and together with Connor they drip blood on the tree. Instantly the ghost, the tree, and the blossoms disappear. Their watches tell them that an entire day has passed, but the clocks in the manor tell them that not a moment has passed since the petals first began to fall and the eerie wind to blow.

GM's Notes

This session was inspired by a blooming apple tree outside my window, and also the fact that I happened to have paper figures of ghosts and cult characters handy. The synopsis turned out surprisingly long, even though not a lot actually happened. I need to learn to edit them a bit better.

Once again I designed this session at the last minute. I had all the parts of the scenario planned pretty well, except for how to guide the players from one part to another. So I had the crucial clue, but really no good way of ensuring that they got its meaning. Which meant that the last part of the session was a little more tedious than I'd have hoped, the players pondering over what they should do. But overall it was good fun, I think.

I had originally thought that there would be a climactic battle between the player characters and the Listeners over the Blade, but in the end it was getting too late for it and they thought of a decent way of getting the ghost cut without possession of the Blade, so it worked out OK. I still think there haven't been many really successful battle scenes in this game, whether it is the fault of the rules or my scenario design, I'm not sure. (Both are probably to blame.) But it's the story that's most important, after all.