There was a rapping at the door. Wan eyes peered through faceted glass above the knocker, saw a Butler approach within. The latch turned under a white glove.
A long-faced, tired man stood on the stoop. He clutched a battered black hat and a large medical bag, smelt of soap and whiskey.
"Dr. Rammstein?" said the Butler.
"Yes," said Rammstein. He waved his hat obligingly, "I do, ah, suppose that's me." He grinned briefly, quit.
"Master Solland has expected you for some time," said the bulter, impassive. He waved the Doctor in. "He awaits you in his study."
"Ah. Ah, wonderful."
Rammstein stepped scuffed shoes into the foyer, peered about at crystal lamps and wild taxidermy, and glass-fronted cabinets affixed to twenty-foot walls. He followed the Butler, marveled at display cases filled with biological odds and curios. He frowned at one as he passed: A mounted hand with black, noduled bones broke through crackling skin. It drew a worried turn of his lip.
"Master Solland is a collector of medical obscura, I glean?" he said, tentative, turning from the hand to examine a portrait of a grim blighter in ruffles.
"Indeed," said the Butler, not stopping.
Rammstein harrumphed softly, followed to the foyer's end, where the Butler ushered him through a tall, paneled door. Beyond lay a dark study; tall windows covered in black tarp. A selection of dim, freestanding lamps with green shades lit bookshelves, armchairs, a clawfoot desk. There sat a sickly, worn man with lumpy, lined cheeks. He wore a mauve suit.
"The Coroner, Master," said the Butler, regarding him, gesturing to Rammstein with an open hand.
The man in mauve stood. "The good doctor," he said, taking Rammstein's offered hand. "I am grateful you could make it to our distant moor."
Rammstein shook, awkwardly. "Master Solland. Not a hassle. I, ah, live not far away."
"I am glad. Otherwise my dilemma may have grown out of hand."
"Yes," said Rammstein. He trailed briefly, let his gaze flit over Solland's eyes. They were yellow, clouded.
He continued. "Despite the, ah, solemnity of these things, it is, of course, always safest to be quick about them." He tried a consoling smile. "Was the late party a relative?"
"Oh, surely not," said Solland. "I have no idea who they are, really."
Rammstein opened his mouth. "I beg your pardon, Master." His throat fluttered. "You have a corpse in the house, and you do not know who it is?"
"No. Forgive my vagueness. Not a body. Not in the house," said Solland, knitting his brow. "Multiple bodies, outside of the house."
"Yes. There is a ruin on the property, a…" he pulled his eyes to the ceiling, fluttered a gloved palm. "Tomb," he arrived, snapping his fingers. "A Tomb, as the banks would say, yes. One of the reasons I acquired this estate. Morley House, you see, is built upon an excellent bulk of proto-Idran ruins. I dabble in the obscure, and they are of valuable curiosity to me."
"Oh, yes?" prompted Rammstein. Concern lined his forehead.
"Well, you see," said Solland. "Some time shortly ago, some irritant band of delinquents decided to break into one of my ruins, and now they've gone and died inside."
"I see, ah." Rammstein looked only marginally less worried. "Did you see the bodies yourself?"
"Oh, no," said Solland. "I am rarely in the sunlight. Bad eyes, you see. My groundskeeper reported this to me. He witnessed the portal caved in, and later heard screaming within."
"I must say. This is rather atypical. Do you kno–"
"Please, Doctor," interrupted Solland. "I know really nothing else. Let us go and see what has become of the fools, yes?"
"Ah, it may be gruesome," cautioned the Doctor. *
"I suspect it may." Solland crossed to the study door, opened it. He plucked up a cane and a pair of green-tinted glasses from a stand beside. "Shall we?"
"As you wish." Rammstein replaced his hat.
Together, they passed again through the tall foyer. Solland lead, wobbling somewhat on bowed shins. Rammstein's bag clanked and sloshed gently as he followed.
Out into the grey day they went, walked aways down the gravel lane, broke off onto the purple-brown of the moorland. It was a still place, save for a sparsh rustle of lavender breeze. Undulant, low hills stretched unto the horizon.
After many minutes of hobbling ahead, Solland spoke. "Have you ever done battle with a grue, my good Doctor?"
"Ah, on occasion," said Rammstein. He pulled a pained sort of grin. "Less 'battle' than, ah, 'desperate flailing.'"
Solland chuckled wetly. "You are too modest. It's an impressively fearful organism to face, I'm aware." He pondered a moment. "I have heard tell a grue's intelligence is what makes it so terrible. Do you concur?"
"Ah, not quite." Rammstein frowned at the turf before his feet. "A grue, as we understand them, is a monster of specialized and distilled purpose," he said, carefully. "Like an insect. Its actions are simple, predetermined reaction to according stimulus. Any behavior resembling, ah, higher cognitive function is merely plague reciting rote commands to its corpus. Like a script to an actor. There is no, ah, choice."
"Yes, but have you ever read Lord Bandleton, Doctor? The organic researcher? She has made interesting inroads regarding consciousness in plague."
"No. I'll admit, I understand she's regarded as rather a boffin after, ah, all that."
Solland turned back ahead a moment. His glasses flashed amber-green in the sun. "You may be wise to, despite. Intriguing stuff."
Rammstein nodded politely. "Perhaps I will. Thank you."
They walked slow another few minutes. A band of foxglove pixies traipsed across their path, trailing light, muttering song and vague perfume. Rammstein picked his way carefully, so as not to tread on them.
Solland stopped, momently, pointed to the toppled crust of a tower on a nearby hilltop. "That," he said, "is Fort Brandtford. Curiously named, for there's no ford nearby that any can remember."
Rammstein made a sound of vague interest, switched his bag to his other hand, resumed following. "I, ah, must say," he huffed after a while. "We've got a good few miles. Your groundskeeper roams rather far."
"My estate is quite large, yes," replied the man in mauve. He said no more.
At last, they came upon a low knoll of earth with a stone portal in its face. It was choked with moss, and its front had been stove in. A sledgehammer lay beside, along with a handcart laden with plain cloths.
"For the, uh, 'swag,' I imagine," said Rammstein, nodding to it.
"Oh, no. That belongs to my groundskeeper."
"Ran off afeared, did he?" the Doctor said, setting down his bag.
"Ah. A moment, please."
Kneeling, Rammstein produced a selection of items from his bag: A red lantern, a thick glass jar labeled "tonic," several glass orbs filled with dust, and a sort of cudgel covered in tines and tiny holes. He unscrewed the hefty top of the last item, poured a deal of tonic inside. It began to sweat and drip through its metal pores.
Solland observed. "An aspergillum," he commented.
"Yes. Best to be cautious." The doctor gave his weapon a few experimental swings. It shed arcs of droplets. On the last swing, Rammstein's hat fell off. He picked it up, mumbling embarrassedly.
Next, Rammstein hooked the glass orbs to his belt. "Salt bombs," he explained. He struck up his lantern, fumbled the starter flint for a few moments. The oil flared with a white, greasy flame. He adjusted it til it no longer smoked, held the lantern up.
"Ah, follow me, but not close." He moved to the portal.
Carefully, Rammstein tread over the rubbled threshold. Within was a circular tunnel leading gradually down. Its walls were painted in a dry, chipped fresco of faded roses.
"Fascinating," said Solland. The lantern light made his glasses shine gold, struck up beastly lines from his misshapen face. "Really fascinating."
Ahead, the tunnel widened into a flat, circular chamber. Rammstein sniffed, shon his lantern about, made a face. "Ah, Master Solland, how long ago did your groundskeeper discover this, precisely?" There was an uneasy quaver in his tone.
"Oh," said Solland, hobbling forward to stand beside the doctor. A weird twitch struck his lip. "Some eight days ago."
Before them was a grisly scene. Three corpses were lain about the round room, each stewing in a plot of its own putrefaction. Flecks of dried red-brown dappled the walls and domed ceiling. A column of bloody footprints, segmented and clawed, lead down into a wider tunnel.
Rammstein choked for the smell, held Solland at bay with a waved hand. The mauve man was unfazed. "Look at those prints," he said, peeking over his lenses. "They must have encountered an eidolon. Or some chimera. Wonder if it will return." **
"Ah, back. Get back," said the Coroner, cudgel extended. "There could be plague." He crept to the nearest corpse, held the lantern to it.
It was a scraggly-haired lad, splayed out on his back. A broad, dark rent showed in his sternum. No light reflected in his open eyes. Beside lay a woodcutter's axe and a cloth satchel, spilled open. Rammstein squinted at the corpse, poked with his aspergillum. White vapor hissed from its flesh. It twitched, sloughed mats of rot from blackened bones. "This one was latent."
"Is that a hip flask, Doctor?"
"It is." Rammstein took another swig, put it back in his pocket. He leaned to pick through the dead lad's satchel.
"I'm rather surprised a professional such as you isn't inured to a bit of rot."
"Ah, well," said Rammstein, pulling a purse and a slip of paper from the bag. "I'm surprised you are."
He emptied the purse, found a few farthings. "No venturing license. These aren't professionals, I'd wager. Just some, ah, farm children." He turned over the bit of paper. His lips moved as he read.
Seeing this, Solland perked up, spoke quickly. "Well doctor, I think we've unveiled all there is, to this break-in." He hobbled over, offered an intrusive hand to help the doctor up. "I'll hire local facilities to dispose of the bodies and attempt to contact next of kin. Have a mason shut up the eidol–"
Rammstein interrupted him, frowned at the paper. "'Call to action,'" he read. "'Ten crown reward: Clear out the barrow west of Fort Brandtford. Enquire Morley House.'" He turned to Solland, rose quickly. "What, ah, is this?"
Solland replaced his glasses, leaned on his cane. "Fabrication, I'd say," he blustered. "Some rude excuse to break into my estate's antiquities."
"You've concocted, ah, a plot, haven't you!"
"I assure yo–"
"Lured poor fools to their deaths," said Rammstein, pointing with his cudgel. "So you could, ah, indulge your weird curiosities over their bodies."
"My good Doctor," said Solland. "You've misconstrued this awfully."
"I've found you out," said Rammstein. He put down the lantern, pulled an orb from his belt, threw it hard at one corpse. It burst. The plagued thing put up a burst of foul vapor, drummed its heels. Solland flinched, gave it a longing look.
Rammstein raged, his stammer ignored. "Idiations of extended life. That's what you've got, isn't it?" He tossed another orb. The last corpse clacked its jaws, lay still. "You're some awful old codger who thinks he can find a way to live after the syphilis takes him. *** I will report you at once!"
"How dare you accuse me!" said Solland.
"Easily: The human specimens, the sensitivity to light, the talk of Bandleton, the cart for the bodies. You've done a poor job hiding it. Any coroner would know."
Solland backed up the tunnel, stumbling over his deformed shins. "I thought, I…" he trailed. Rammstein seized his lantern, stormed out of the barrow after him.
They emerged onto the moor. Dead mist lifted from the stone portal behind. Solland stood, crooked and lined, leaning on his cane. Rammstein fumed, hastily shoved items back in his medical bag.
"Thought what, that I wouldn't notice? What made you think calling on a coroner was a good idea, at all?"
Solland took a slow, shuddering breath. He folded both knobbly hands over his cane, calmly replied. "I suppose I wanted to see who awaited me, were I to fail."
Rammstein sneered. "Goodbye, Master Solland."
The coroner took up his bag, looked the sickened man from toe to amber lenses. "By the look of you, I'll see you again before too long."
With that, he set off across the moor.
Corpses are trouble. Trouble, not only for their capacity to worry and grieve the living, but for their unfortunate tendency to transform into monsters. For both these grievances, folk of the Coast turn to coroners: Professional handlers of the dead. †
When there's a death, a coroner is called to make sense of it. †† They'll examine the corpse in question and fill an orderly certificate, assigning cause and manner of death; whether it was natural or unnatural; and whether it was the product of foul play. If in the event of murder, they will facilitate related investigations. This is the least of their responsibilities.
A coroner's chief responsibility is the control of plague. No corpse they examine goes untested for latent infection. ††† Those which exhibit buboes within their lungs and bone are confiscated immediately and sent to a quick cremation. Relations to the corpse may be fined for the hazard. Few will argue, for none can deny the import of public health.
But not all deaths are so handily managed. Cutters, wounded or lost beyond recovery. Soldiers, beaten by hooves into concealing mud. The poor, frozen dead and saltless in gutters. Recluses, addicts, accidents, animal attacks. All die unknown, lie, fester, give rise to deadly plague. It is a coroner's responsibility to manage them, too.
For this task, coroners command a salted arsenal for combatting the horror which is the grue. Grisodate bombs. Tonic bolts. Chains crusted in grey salt. Curious aspergilli‡ meant to crush, rend, and medicate. All these weapons lie beside more traditional doctor's‡‡ wares in a coroner's signature bag of tools.
Though combatting plague in melee is a daunting prospect, all coroners are prepared to face it. In situations involving more than one grue, coroners may be given licence to amass a posse for purposes of cleansing. ‡‡‡ In outbreak scenarios, one or more coroners may command a contingent of soldiers against the plague. In such an event, they hold status as commanding officers. In these times, they are heroes.
Any coroner can recall, though they may not wish to, the most awful instances of plague encountered in their tenure. They are not images from the plagues of legend, though. No lurking, biting skeletons; nor scuttling seas of fast, black dead. Such are blasé, to a coroner.
Instead, the worst are those that are most personal: Bloated wrecks chained by a friend in the cellar. Child grues, restrained and babied by mad parents. Embalmed corpses kept tied to beds, pristine as dolls, alive and twisting with plague. These are not simply the product of infection. They are the fruit of human minds faced with loss.
Though few would tell of it, this is the third, secreted responsibility of the coroners' trade: To remove temptation from those unable to reconcile death. All too many folk, unhinged and made desperate by loss, would refuse to recognize plague-life as alien and monstrous. Too many magicians, tempted by evident life after death, would conduct foul experiments in a mad attempt to achieve false immortality.
Without these labors, be they heroic or obscure, the Coast would be reduced to another dark age. Only by their effect does pandemic plague go averted. Only by their workers, the good coroners, does humanity remain.
This topic requires a bit of background, specifically this article.
* "Gruesome," in this case, holds a double meaning. To most, it means "grisly." To a Coroner, it describes the presence of grues.
** "Eidolon" is a term used to describe the archaic, deathless keepers of Tombs or other ancient places.
*** In addition to the obvious symptoms of said venereal disease, syphilitic folk are known to always harbor plague, regardless of medication via grey salt. The more sickly they are, the more distrusted they are, for they become monsters quickly after death. Those with congenital syphilis are truly doomed.
† "Coroner" is a corruption of "crowner," for the coin. It is a name taken from history, where coroners were once responsible for settling death dues. Such taxes are now handled by banks.
†† Every district, burrough, village, town has a coroner. Alongside sheriffs and postmen, they comprise the officious backbone of civilization.
††† It is not a pleasant test to see. Most often, a coroner will make a short cut down to the breastbone or the skull and administer a quantity of grisodate. If the stuff burbles and steams on contact with the
raw bone, plague is present therein.
‡ The aspergillum is an instrument first employed by priests-militant of Aveth, who wielded leaking maces filled with holy water. Grey salt, as a critical ingredient in such water, made these an effective tool against plague. Smaller versions of the aspergillum are also used in Avethan mass to anoint the the pious.
‡‡ Most coroners are trained doctors. The odd few are ex-cutters, used to a life of battling plague.
‡‡‡ In situations such as these, it is not unheard of for a coroner to enlist the help of several cutters from the local consortium.