With the sun now fully behind Thaur’s ancient woods, the trails become even darker, with most of the way ahead pitch black. In the last hour, the Ashen Rains have grown heavier.
Just as the acolytes have given up hope of reaching shelter, they come across the outskirts of Afterlife. Strangely no lights are visible within the walled village.
Hesitantly, the acolytes enter the town and look around. At first, Afterlife appears to be long abandoned, with many of the town’s buildings empty and overgrown. After a more thorough investigation, the party finds a scattering of remains. Although some are too old or rotten to determine when or how they died, those found inside are obvious victims of violent struggle and bloodshed. Furthermore, Afterlife’s main gates have been torn from their hinges.
Uneasy, but nonetheless requiring shelter, the acolytes find a large, two-story building with a wrap-around balcony. Two sets of stairs proceed up to the second floor. Entering the building, they find that it appears to be some sort of inn. Talius and Taeric attempt to start a fire, but all of the available materials are too damp to catch. Even Ishmael’s psychic fire is unsuccessful.
As such, the party goes searching for fuel sources.
Inside the remnants of a small general store, they locate some thickened, low-grade promethieum.
The acolytes close the inn’s top floor from the elements and attempt to dry out.
While the others warm up, Talius scans for any vox signals. Searching for some signs of life, he finds only static.
As the acolytes settle in for the night, a thick fog blankets the village. The group’s meagre lighting penetrates only a few feet out from the mouldy windows and into the darkness outside.
With some of the acolytes on the edge of sleep, the party begins to hear the faint sounds of a bell ringing, far in the distance. The sound is deep and rich, even miles away, but it tugs at their minds. The sound makes the party uneasy, almost physically unwell. They wonder who could be sounding it so far away – so deep into Thaur’s wilderness.
Ishamael especially feels some sort of presence, but before he can locate it with his mind, he’s overwhelmed by a foul stench. The air chills around the acolytes, frosting their breaths. The bell’s ringing grows loud, pounding its way into their skulls.
At the vox set, Talius continues scanning through the channels, believing that the fog may be preceding some kind of attack. Slowly, countless channels of static turn to agonizing screaming. Strangely, none of the rest of the party seems to notice.
Preparing for the worst, the acolytes form a plan. With the group’s two Mournful Guard companions, Taeric runs back to the general store, finding a series of saws and axes with which to destroy the inn’s stair cases. Meanwhile, Nelix rigs tripwires on the building’s entryways.
As quickly as possible, they limit all access to the second floor. They draw their weapons and prepare to face whatever enemy may come.
After a few tense minutes, the bell simply stops, leaving a lingering, eerie silence and the sound of distant rain.
The fog dissipates.
Thankfully, the rest of the night passes uneventfully.
As the next morning comes, the acolytes realize that there’s no escaping the black rains. The storm is constant and unyielding. The acolytes debate waiting until evening, but they have no choice but to press on. This time, however, they fashion a crude covering for their wagon.
The party continues down more of Thaur’s lonely and overgrown trails – each one looking like the previous – tangled and dark. But now, large puddles and pools have begun to form. The small paths and old roads are quickly overtaken by thick, rich mud.
After a few hours of gruelling travel, the rains seem to let up a little. Still, they have taken their toll.
The acolytes’ carriage passes through what was perhaps once a small clearing or pasture – now a swamp. Thankfully, the main trail is raised slightly above the surrounding land. Even in the worst sections, the water is no more than thigh deep.
As they begin to pass through, the acolytes feel the temperature rapidly cooling again. Soon another thick fog envelops all.
In the utterly still air, another bell rings out. It’s distant, but most of the acolytes are convinced that it is sounding from numerous directions simultaneously.
Again, Ishamael feels its touch the strongest and is immediately overcome with the need to vomit. He empties the contents of his stomach on the wet grass below the carriage. In the psyker’s small pile of rejected stomach contents, he makes out the faintest movement – maggots – dozens of maggots squirming and writhing.
Now, for even those without the psyker’s gift, the noise from the bell builds to a nauseating barrage.
In a split second, the tall grasses and shrubbery around the party turns black and decays, shrivelling to the ground. A smell that can only be described as rotting meat assaults their senses.
Talius takes charge. Pushing the carriage’s driver aside, he and Taeric put the wagon’s large equines to flight. As fast as the beasts will move, the carriage begins its escape from the swamp.
Then, the bell becomes a shrill keening and ghostly apparitions fill the air.
Terrifying, whirling apparitions whip around the fleeing group like a spectral hurricane.
Through the dense fog and the terrifying, bewildering display around them, the party catches glimpses of dozens, if not hundreds of figures shambling forth from the surrounding forests.
Taeric instinctively seizes his lasgun and begins firing at the shambling masses.
A moment later, a single bolt of purple-white lightning slams into the ground beside the carriage with a monumental crack.
With it, the swirling menace and figures are gone.
The fog has lifted instantaneously, replaced with darkness and pounding rain.
Talius refuses to slow the carriage, putting as much distance as possible behind them.
As such, the party finds find the outskirts of Hope’s End within a half day.
The village itself is a gated hamlet found in a decently sized clearing. Surrounded by a large palisade wall made from nearby trees, the village looks well defended.
Firelight and torchlight are visible from within, casting outlines of the sentries patrolling atop the walls. Tracks leading to the front gate look recent.
There’s some kind of commotion going on inside the walls – with a rabble, discussion, or argument filling the air.
The party debates the merits of various approaches – be it stealth, direct violence, or a more subtle method. Ultimately they decide to hide their armour and proceed in through the front gates.
From atop the wall, the sentries see them approach. After a brief conversation, they convince the men that they have come from a far away Thaurian settlement.
Allowed inside, they find the village in a fairly good state of repair. There’s a few dozen houses, a few merchant stalls, a stable, and even covered storage yards filled with various crates, barrels and animal feed. Furthermore, the sentries are dressed in certain pieces of Mournful Guard armour. Still, the party is unsure of their allegiance.
At the centre of town, they spot where all the village’s commotion is coming from – a group of locals wielding torches have surrounded a home. The mob yells about some kind of pestilence and that those inhabiting the house have brought the dead down upon them all. The mob appears to be getting unruly, possibly on the edge of violence.
The acolytes split up, dispersing into the crowd as a few of their companions store the carriage and horses.
Moving deeper into the mob, the acolytes spot a group walking in quickly from the village centre – three Mournful Guard – one clearly in charge. The leader stands a good few inches above his comrades. With closely cropped hair and scarred face, it’s plain to see that his life has not been an easy one.
As this new group approaches the mob, the unruly villagers quiet down and make room.
The leader appears to calm the masses – dispelling the claims of pestilence as simple rumours. The supposed Mournful Guard prepare to enter the home.
Nelix offers his medicae services, but the Guard ask him to keep his distance.
The small group emerges a few minutes later. The Mournful Guard discuss amongst themselves for a short while before their leader addresses the crowds again. He claims that the rumours are false, and asks the gathering to disperse.
Thankfully, they listen – and slowly depart.
Breathing a sigh of relief, the leader of the Mournful Guard collects himself. Then, he approaches Nelix again.
As such, some of the other acolytes make themselves known.
It’s clear that the leader has already recognized them as outsiders.
The leader introduces himself as Talmon Corren, Chief Warden of the Mournful Guard. Seemingly believing the acolytes’ cover story, he invites them back to his station house to hear of their journey.
As they go to leave, Corren talks to his subordinates again, telling them to burn the house down and exile the sick. The orders don’t faze him the slightest.
Corren’s station house is a simple building of wooden timber construction. Wrought iron bars and bone ornamentation decorate the windows and doors. Entering, the Mourful Guard store their gear and set a pot of recaf upon their wood-burning hearth.
The acolytes recount false details of their journey before slowing prying into Hope’s End.
Corren explains that a pestilence plagues the land – just as much as the dead. No one is sure of the cause, but it’s deadly.
Furthermore, Corren details Hope’s End’s fight against the dead – explaining that what the acolytes have heard is true. Hope’s End is winning their fight, but barely. Corren and his Mournful Guard burn as many of the creatures as they can, but every week their numbers continue to grow. Supposedly, the Ashen Rains are only making it worse, as every day, more and more bodies wash to the surface – swelling the dead’s numbers.
The situation has grown truly dire, as Thaur’s meagre trade routes are now undefendable and its roads too dangerous for scouts or dispatch riders.
When the acolytes inquires about the dead’s origins, Corren explains how some greater force drives them. He doesn’t know their source, but he describes where he saw them first – the Great Ossuaria, around when the first orbital bombardments fell a decade ago.
He informed the Eulogus Askelline in the days afterwards, but none would listen. As a result of Corren’s perceived insanity, he was silenced and exiled.
The dead did not rise in force until many years later.
Many Thaurians believed it to be an omen – a curse finally coming to claim these lands. Others lost their minds and even began worshipping the risen dead – seeing it as the Emperor’s rebirth – a gift for their decades of service and faithful vigilance over their interred charges. Many retreated off into the dark woods to follow these foul beliefs.
The sane, like Corren, broke away from the incredulous Eulogus Askelline and retreated behind independent, walled communities.
However, now almost all has been claimed by darkness.
Corren explains that Hope’s Ends neighbours to the east and west are gone – only a few places such Hope’s End and the Adepta Sororitas Monestary at Maraic hold out – but Corren doesn’t know how they currently fare. As a result, those in Hope’s End dare not venture out, especially to the lands around the forsaken Ossuaria.
Explaining the unlikelihood of survival on their journey from distant lands, Corren reveals that he knows that the acolytes aren’t who they say they are.
Ishamael and the others concede their charade, identifying themselves as members of the Inquisition rather than native Thaurians.
Corren is surprised that the Inquisition has actually returned, even though he reveals that it was he who finally convinced Calziel and the Eulogus to call for aid.
Confused, the acolytes inquire about how that could be so – especially considering Lord Calziel’s testimony about Corren’s corruption, heresy, and betrayal.
Corren states that it was Calziel who exiled him and his men originally and that the Eulogus Lord believes that Thaur and proper Imperial governance can still exist as it once did.
Corren claims that Calziel’s rumours were nothing but desperate attempts to have Hope’s End silenced forever, lest others know that Thaurians’ best chances at survival are to be found without the Eulogus.
The acolytes debate Corren’s allegiances and pry deeper into his story. Nonetheless, the Warden claims loyalty to the Emperor.
As the acolytes discuss how to proceed, a distant bell begins to sound.