By Kevin Kulp
Here’s an adventure seed to use alongside of (or instead of) A Corpse Astray from the Swords of the Serpentine core book. This adventure seed should fill one or two game sessions, and the supporting characters here can be integrated into ongoing plots in your game. Due to space limitations you’ll want to fill this adventure in during your own play, adding clues, supporting characters, adversaries, and complexity.
Please don’t read farther if you’re a player, or you will find yourself spoiled.
A corrupt commander of the City Watch is being stalked by a penanggalan, a monstrosity in the shape of a (mostly) bodiless woman who sniffs out and devours sin. She is starting to systematically kill and consume his corrupt associates and partners, drawing ever close to the commander himself in the same way that a wild animal circles its prey. Unwilling to involve the Watch due to a fear that his own crimes will be exposed, the commander instead hires the Heroes to find and exterminate her. Whether they do, or whether they spare her and expose the corrupt Watch Officer instead, depends on their actions and decisions during the adventure. Although combat can occur, this isn’t a combat-heavy adventure; the drama is the heroes making difficult decisions when they realize the human who hired them is more monstrous than the actual monster.
Watch Commander Antonio Teldi handles the Night Watch (pp. 334-335) in Harbor Approach (p. 311), the district of Eversink filled primarily with piers, shipping warehouses, and Mercanti mansions. A great amount of smuggling and other illicit crimes comes through Harbor Approach, and Teldi is arranging or getting paid off for almost all of it. Major thieves’ guilds have him on their secret bribe lists, as Commander Teldi has the authority to steer his Watch officers away from night-time illegal operations.. or towards illegal operations that haven’t yet bribed him sufficiently. His men hate him for being high-handed, politically connected, and mostly incompetent, but they don’t know that Teldi is corrupt. Teldi sure wants to keep it that way; one hint of his many, many illegal activities and his house of cards will collapse in a bonfire of public shame and scandal. Luckily there isn’t much violent crime in Harbor Approach, something Teldi has nothing to do with but gets credit for anyways.
The Mercanti merchant Lara Marano co-owns Marano’s, a small Harbor Approach storefront that uses vinegar, salt, and herbs to make some of Eversink’s finest pickles. Lara and her wife Sialia employ about twenty commoners for cooking and delivery; Lara runs the operation during the day, and Sialia (reputedly a night owl) watches the property overnight so that they don’t need to pay for extra mercenary guards. They’re unlikely to be robbed; Marano’s pickles are much-loved, and anyone who tried to hurt the merchants would face the wrath of many elite chefs across the city.
Unknown to anyone except her wife Lara, Sialia is also a penanggalan (pp. 236-237), a cursed monstrosity who each night separates her head and her dangling viscera from her body cavity and rises into the darkness to feed on sin and depravity. In this regard her role is one of vigilante; even as she feeds on the cruel and corrupt, she works to keep Harbor Approach safer and a better place to live. After all, she lives there too! She’s a monster but not an unthinking one. She has recently run across Teldi’s many corrupt operations and is planning on destroying him. Before she does, she plans to kill and destroy as many of his associates as she can, to make him fear her – and that fear will make his sin and shame taste all the sweeter.
Commander Teldi doesn’t know what’s killing his various confederates and criminal associates, but he’s terrified of it. Worse, he can’t turn the problem over to the Watch because it would only be a matter of time before an officer connects him to the victims. Better, he thinks, to hire outsiders and pay them well for their success and silence.
Scene 1: The Offer
Lead-out: Scene 2 or Scene 4
In scene 1, Commander Antonio Teldi of the City Watch arrives in plain clothes to hire the Heroes for a monster hunt and extermination.
Why he comes to these Heroes depends on their Allegiances. If anyone has 1 or more ranks of Ally: City Watch, that’s reason enough. If not, 1 or more ranks of Ally: Thieves’ Guilds might imply that Teldi’s less reputable contacts recommended the Heroes as people who were trustworthy. Find a reason to explain his approach.
Teldi will explain that in the last week there have been two different but unusual break-ins and murders in Harbor Approach. He fears it is an inhuman monster, and he’s not sure that’s something a Watch officer should face; their job is arresting criminals and keeping order, not fighting creatures of the night. So as not to alarm them, he is coming to the Heroes for quiet assistance in this matter, and he can pay them (2-3 Wealth apiece) for their trouble out of personal funds and a Watch slush fund if they find and slay the murderer, whether it is a monster or not. He’ll lend them a Badge of Office (p. 170) with two pool points of Favor: City Watch, good for this adventure.
Note that these details are true (and won’t set off Liar’s Tell), but there’s also a huge amount that Teldi isn’t telling: that he knew the victims due to illegal connections, that he has covered up his involvement at the crime scenes, that he’s scared, and that he has secret wealth that he hopes to flee with if everything really goes sour. Regardless, Teldi genuinely intends to pay the Heroes their reward for killing the monster; he’s dealt with powerful people enough to know that you don’t cheat them, ever.
Design note: You can change, eliminate, or add to these murder scenes as you like. The goal is to send the Heroes to find clues to the murderer, and as they do so discover that all the people murdered were particularly bad folks, and that all had a link to Commander Teldi. If you also want a game with a more wicked monstrosity, you can change the penanggalan to make her much less sympathetic.
Teldi explains that the two murder scenes are as follows, all committed in the last two days:
- A powerful and badly-scarred woman is killed in her cheap apartment, stabbed by more than half a dozen of her own weapons a night or two ago.
- The second floor of a grain warehouse, where a young man working at night was set on fire early this morning.
He chooses not to give them much more information, telling them to draw their own conclusions. Teldi will give the Heroes the addresses of both locations in Harbor Approach; the stabbing is closer.
The crime scenes haven’t been examined by the Watch yet since Teldi is keeping it quiet, and he encourages the Heroes to tell him if they think they aren’t up to the job. He emphasizes that they don’t need to worry about how or if the crimes are linked, he and the Watch will take care of that. Just find and kill that monster!
Commander Antonio Teldi
Impressive, apparently competent, secretly corrupt
Use the stats for Watch Commander in the rules, with the following changes.
Special Abilities: The “Allies” and “Summoning” special abilities only functions if Teldi has not been revealed to his fellow officers as corrupt.
Description: Teldi looks the very model of a smart, well-presenting Watch Commander – good posture, direct gaze, and a confident commanding tone. He uses these tricks to hide his cowardice and greed.
Scene 2 (optional): Enemy Interference
Lead-in: Scene 1
Lead-out: Scene 3 or Scene 5
If you have enough time in your game session for an optional encounter, one of the Heroes’ enemies hassles them as they travel across the city towards Harbor Approach. This could be a group of snide nobles, irritated City Watch, or any Enemy faction you wish. This encounter has nothing to do with the main plot and serves to remind players that Enemies exist for a reason. Make this encounter interesting and memorable, but short, as befits a flavorful side encounter.
Scene 3: Stabbing
Lead-in: Scene 2 or Scene 5
Lead-out: Scene 4 or Scene 6
This murder took place in a seedy apartment two nights ago; locked from the inside, the door was broken down when Commander Teldi found her last night and has since been jammed shut. The Heroes are let in by a landlord who will also answer simple questions. In the single room a strong and heavily scarred woman lies on the floor, pierced by a half-dozen different weapons. There is surprisingly little blood.
- The landlord (or another neighbor) reports that her name was Zarra. She was an outlander mercenary who settled in Eversink a few years ago. She wasn’t a nice person; she had a job as muscle for someone powerful and important, she broke limbs and cracked heads, but never seemed to have any fear of getting arrested. She paid her rent on time and drank extensively. (any Social ability)
- Zarra worked for someone in the government or City Watch who was also running some business on the side; Zarra’s job was picking up extorted protection money for them, and for extorting protection money from regular businesses as well. No one knows exactly who she worked for because she never discussed her employer. (Scurrilous Rumors)
- Items in the apartment are smashed; Zarra put up a fight. There are no footprints other than her own. Her body is covered with punctures and strange abrasions, as if being strangled or restrained by some sort of cable. There’s a mark on the ceiling that looks like a bloody mop was thrown against it during the fight, when Zarra briefly managed to fling her attacker upwards. (Tactics of Death)
- Zarra was drained of blood before she was impaled by any weapon, probably from the strange punctures on her body. (Leechcraft)
- The weapons she has been impaled by are her own favorite weapons from sheaths around the apartment, weapons chosen by her to be terrifying as well as deadly. She also has her favorite blackjack shoved into her mouth. Someone was trying to send a warning. (core – Felonious Intent or Skullduggery)
- Each of the weapons has a faint stickiness of dried blood on it; the blood smells vaguely like vinegar. Similarly, there is a patch coating the closed and locked window. (Vigilance)
- There are several blood-matted long red hairs clinging to Zarra’s clenched hands. (Felonious Intent or Vigilance)
- If befriended, a neighbor says she saw something weird in the sky two nights ago, something that looked like a cluster of fireflies. No one else nearby reports hearing anything other than a muffled thumping that they thought was Zarra falling down drunk. (Trustworthy)
- The landlord didn’t see who found Zarra and broke open her door, but was alerted to the problem by a watch commander (Teldi) early this morning who told him to keep this quiet and keep the room secured until agents of the commander arrived. Maybe the Commander broke down the door himself, he doesn’t know, but SOMEONE owes him a new door! (any social ability)
- Hidden under a desk drawer is a notebook where Zarra tracks her extortions and collections. It’s written in a code that can be read by anyone with ranks in Skullduggery. The name of the person she works for is not on there, but anyone checking it again after Scene 7 will notice that Zarra expanded her territory and asked Murano’s Pickles for protection money last month for the first time.
- Zarra has no ghost; anyone with Spirit Sight seeking it out senses that somehow, someone has already created a funerary statue of her. It’s unclear who, but probably the same person who found her body. (Spirit Sight)
- (Only if the Heroes ask) There are old folktales of a monster that looks like a human woman during the day but which separate their head and organs from their bodies at night, flying through the night with trailing viscera as they look for sin and blood to drink. They twinkle like fireflies while on the hunt. Called penanggalans, they can only shrink their swollen organs enough to fit back into their body by soaking them in vinegar. (Forgotten Lore or Know Monstrosities)
- (Only if the Heroes ask) The only way to kill a penanggalan permanently is to destroy their empty torso while the head is away. (Know Monstrosities)
Scene 4: Montage
Lead-in: Scene 3 or Scene 5
Lead-out: Scene 3 or Scene 5
Between the two murder sites, run a single travel montage (p. 260) of moving across Harbor Approach: have one player say something that goes wrong, have a second player make it worse, then ask a third player to resolve it. Before or after this, casually mention a food cart selling deliciously fresh fried fish on a stick, along with the vinegary scent of the best pickles in town (Marano’s pickles). Make the food vendor as entertaining as you like if anyone stops to grab lunch. The mention of the pickles shouldn’t be obvious but becomes important as foreshadowing after investigating Scene 5.
Scene 5: Poisonous Fire
Lead-in: Scene 2 or Scene 4
Lead-out: Scene 4 or Scene 6
This murder took place last night on the upstairs offices of a grain warehouse, where at first glance it appears a young man working at night was somehow set on fire amidst a variety of discarded alchemical vials.
In truth, this office is rented by a middle-aged criminal named Belto (no known family name) who works for a thieves guild connected to poisoners and assassins. Belto contracts with corrupt alchemists across Eversink to make illegal and deadly alchemical poisons. He uses this space to repackage and label the poisons, and then sells them himself in Sag Harbor’s secret Night Markets. He does so with the knowledge and consent of Commander Teldi, who is paid handsomely for not interfering.
Belto was murdered in the wee hours of this morning when Sialia, in her form as a penanggalan, squeezed up through the floorboards. She dodged the vial Belto threw at her in panic, entangled him in her intestines, and drained his blood. Then she used her prehensile intestines to empty nine vials of alchemical poison into his throat; after she left, the chemicals reacted badly with each other, setting the corpse on fire and largely incinerating his upper torso.
- There is the faint tang of vinegar in the air, oddly out of place. It’s not pure vinegar; there are aromatic salts and herbs mixed into the scent as well. (core – Vigilance)
- The corpse is burned terribly from an acidic internal fire that started in the throat and stomach, but he was dead and completely drained of blood by the time the fire started. The blood was drained from numerous puncture wounds; no blood spatters the floor or walls. (Leechcraft)
- The internal fire was started by mixing many alchemical poisons, at least nine, all poured down his throat after he was dead. Sticky dried fluid coats the outside of the discarded vials; it smells like blood mixed with vinegar. (Leechcraft)
- These empty alchemical vials are labeled with the names of deadly potions, all in the victim’s handwriting, as if being readied to be put out for sale (Leechcraft, Skullduggery, or Ally: Thieves’ Guild)
- Tracks on the floor (and on the ceiling of the floor below) seem to indicate that something squeezed through a crack in the floorboards somehow and then moved across the room, leaving a sticky trail behind. The trail looks almost like intestines and organs instead of feet. (Felonious Intent or Tactics of Death)
- (If asked) The warehouse foreman can confirm that deliveries arrive and depart for Belto almost daily. While the foreman never sees Watch officers nearby, once a month a woman matching Zarra’s description arrives to pick up a satchel. (any social abilities)
- Hidden in the room is an incomprehensively coded scroll written over many months, legible to someone with ranks of Skullduggery. Translated it tells of money coming in from sales of poisons, and money going out to alchemists, politicians, and Watch officers. No names are given other than Belto’s, although payments to Zarra (and thus Teldi) can be identified by the day she’d arrive to pick up payments. (Skullduggery)
- Belto’s ghost is present, but his will was broken by the fight with the penanggalan and it is currently ranting and hard to understand as it tries to pull out its own intestines and internal organs in horror. It can confirm anything Belto knew, assuming someone with Spirit Sight is patient and soothing with it (which may require a Trustworthy spend or spending Sway to restore its lost Morale). If asked Belto’s ghost can describe the monstrosity that killed him, a hideous red-haired woman’s head with a nose ring and prehensile dangling intestines. (Spirit Sight)
- There are old folktales of a monster that looks like a human woman during the day but which separate their head and organs from their bodies at night, flying through the night with trailing viscera as they look for sin and blood to drink. They twinkle like fireflies while on the hunt. Called penanggalans, they can only shrink their swollen organs enough to fit back into their body by soaking them in vinegar. (Forgotten Lore or Know Monstrosities)
- (Only if the Heroes ask) The only way to kill a penanggalan permanently is to destroy their empty torso while the head is away. (Know Monstrosities)
Scene 6: The Cleaners
Lead-in: Scene 5
Lead-out: Scene 4 or Scene 7
Right when the investigation in Scene 5 starts to become boring, the Heroes hear feet on the stairs and the door to the office is kicked open. Six men and women are there, the leader of which is Leardo, a heavy man about as broad as he is tall. He’ll demand to know who the Heroes are and will demand for them to leave if they don’t want trouble.
Leardo is a commoner who works for the same thieves’ guild who employed Belto. He’s hostile and aggressive unless he recognizes any of the Heroes (2+ ranks of Ally: Commoners or Ally: Thieves’ Guilds), or unless one of the Heroes calms him down (perhaps by spending a point of Charm or Trustworthy, or by pretending to be from the City Watch). He and his brutes are there to clean out any sign of illegality from the murder site.
If the Heroes can get Leardo to talk instead of fight, he’ll ask “Who are you working for? Is it Teldi? We pay that worm a lot of money so that exactly this doesn’t happen. He BETTER make it right.” Once they have Leardo’s trust (or have defeated him and his group), he can confirm that Belto paid Zarra every month to get protection from the City Watch, as engineered by Watch Commander Teldi. He’s grieving Belto and doesn’t have any patience for a corrupt Watch officer who doesn’t live up to his end of a crooked bargain.
Use game statistics of “Brutish Lieutenant” for Leardo, and of “Brute” for his 5 assistants.
- Belto was paying protection money to Watch Commander Teldi, who is completely corrupt. (core – any social ability)
Scene 7: Epiphany
Lead-in: Scene 3 or Scene 6
Lead-out: Scene 8 or Scene 9
By the time they have investigated the second murder site and dealt with Leardo, the Heroes should know the following:
- The Heroes were hired by Watch Commander Teldi to destroy the monstrosity and nothing else.
- Teldi is exceptionally corrupt, and is personally extorting money from criminal enterprises in Harbor Approach in exchange for Watch protection.
- Teldi is scared and probably hired the Heroes because both victims were associated with him and were killed to send him a message. He didn’t want honest Watch officers to catch wind of his crimes.
- The murderer is a red-haired penanggalan and must soak her viscera in vinegar to fit it back in her body.
- The faint scent of vinegar wasn’t normal vinegar either; the scent was reminiscent of exceptional food. It actually smells like the delicious pickles available at many food carts around the city.
- Penanggalan are said to sniff out and devour sin and wickedness.
The heroes are likely to take one of two paths at this point: track down the penanggalan or confront Teldi.
Finding the Penanggalan
The one clear clue to the monstrosity is the scent of highly unusual vinegar.
There are several sources of vinegar in Eversink, including a guild in Sag Harbor who make it in bulk. The only source with that unique scent, however, and the only real source in Harbor Approach, is a family business that runs Murano’s Pickles (core – City Secrets or Ally: Mercanti). The delicious scent of Murano’s Pickles matches the same unique quality found in the scent at the crime scene. While they are in food stalls all over the city, the best source of their vinegar brine would be the business itself. Proceed to Scene 8.
Teldi works the Night Watch and sleeps during the day in a Harbor Approach apartment. He talks a good game but is easily intimidated by anyone who threatens him with revealing his secret. He’ll only fight if forced, preferring for others to fight his battles for him. The murder of Zarra, his hand-picked enforcer for more than three years, has shaken him and he is considering making a run for it.
If the Heroes confront him, he’ll deny it at first, check to see if he can have them arrested and then killed in custody, but ultimately he’ll try to buy them off with his illegally earned savings (kept at a bank). He suggests paying 5 Wealth per Hero for their silence. Once they agree to his offer and leave him alone, he’ll go get his money and make a run for it, buying passage on the first ship out of Eversink. If the Heroes kill him, they’ll likely have to deal with the problems that come with murdering an apparently good Watch Commander.
Scene 8: Murano’s
Lead-in: Scene 7
Murano’s Pickles is nestled near the docks in a secluded section of Harbor Approach. Lara Murano and her wife Sialia own the well-cared-for building; there’s a kitchen and manufacturing area where the pickles are made, and a shipping and warehouse area where supplies are unloaded from boats and where full barrels of pickles are shipped out to customers around the city. Lara handles paperwork in a small office, and above the office is the couples’ home. Sialia spends her day supervising the pickling process and handling quality control. Murano’s has been around for three generations, but the quality of their pickles became spectacular once Sialia married into the family. She reputedly has a nearly supernatural sense of smell and taste, enough that she’s fine-tuned the recipes exquisitely. And yes – those pickles are delicious.
At night time the factory closes and the workers go home. Several paid guards patrol the property, and Lara and Sialia head upstairs to their cozy home. If a Hero breaks in, the only odd thing about their home is the barrel of pickling brine that sits next to a straight-backed chair in their bathroom. That’s where Sialia’s body sits at night while her head and intestines are out hunting.
If met during the daytime, both Lara and Sialia are kind, busy, extremely competent businesswomen in their late 40s or early 50s. Lara knows her wife’s secret and would die to protect her despite having no combat skills whatsoever. Similarly, Sialia would die to protect Lara – and if the Heroes hurt Lara while trying to destroy Sialia’s body, the penanggalan will do her best to destroy the Heroes.
- If approached during the day, pretending to be an important customer can get the Heroes a tour of the factory, and they can meet both Lara and Sialia (a friendly but private red-haired woman with a nose ring, in her late 40s.) (Command, Nobility, Trustworthy, or Ally: Mercanti)
- Spying into their home will reveal the vat of pickle brine in their bathroom – possibly with Sialia’s body sitting next to it, depending on the time (Skullduggery)
- Penanggalans don’t have to kill to feed; if they feed primarily on sin, their victim stays unconscious for a few days before slowly returning to their old self. (Forgotten Lore or Know Monstrosities)
- Gaining Lara’s trust will let her take the Heroes into her confidence, if she feels it’s a matter of life and death. Lara explains that her wife is trying to eliminate a corrupt Watch Officer and his network, because no one else seems to want to. (core – Trustworthy)
Sialia Murano, Penanggalan
Vigilante, nightmarish, just trying to get along in the world, a spectacular cook
Defense — Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 2 (sorcerous resilience), Health 10 per Hero
Defense — Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 2 (unbreakable hunger), Morale 5 per Hero
Offense — Warfare: +2; Damage Modifier +2 (fanged maw and blood-slurping sharpened tongue)
Offense — Sway: +1; Damage Modifier +1 (convincing)
Abilities: Malus 18
Special Abilities: Fluid (cost 6), Monstrous Ability (cost 3), Flight, Regenerate (cost 0 – regenerates entirely at the end of a scene if her headless body has not been destroyed)
Misc: Alertness Modifier +2 (scents blood and sin only), Stealth Modifier +2
Refresh Tokens: 7
Description: Sialia is a penanggalan, a cursed woman who can monstrously detach her head from her torso, flying through the night with her stomach and entrails dangling beneath her, the organs twinkling like fireflies in the darkness. When she does so she leaves her headless body behind in her home.
Sialia hunts wickedness — and the more dire the sin, the tastier her meal. She squeezes herself up through the floorboards, moves around the room using her intestines as tentacles, and slurps her victims’ fresh blood through her long, sharpened, tube-like tongue. She gains memories and secrets from these victims, and she may bargain with those secrets if her life is put in danger.
Upon returning to her home, she must soak her organs in vinegar to let them shrink enough to fit back into her body. In human form, she carries a faint scent of vinegar. Luckily, she makes pickles for a living.
Destroying Sialia’s head in combat only inconveniences her briefly. The only method for truly destroying a penanggalan is to place broken glass into her body’s neck cavity while she is away, or by burning her headless body so that she has nowhere to return to.
In playtests the Heroes met the Muranos, learned that Sialia started hunting Teldi when Zarra demanded protection money from them, learned that Sialia doesn’t have to kill to feed – but that she feels she’s keeping everyone safer if she does. The Heroes then faked Sialia’s death and used the knowledge she accumulated to take down the corrupt Watch Commander.
What happens in your own game is up to you and the players. Want a big fight? Have Sialia be far more wicked, have the Cleaners be murderous, or have Teldi be less of a coward. Want social change in Eversink? Have their exposure of Teldi’s crimes significantly improve Harbor Approach. In a game about the consequences of heroic actions, this is the Heroes’ chance to make a difference.
Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.