Gripsholm

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Fluff

Let's say that you follow the great abandoned railway lines north, into the shadowed forests of Kolmarden - for whatever reason. Aside from the occasional weary logging team, you don't see a soul for hundreds of miles. That's what an old friend of mine told me. The snow, the cold - it begins to get to you, and your food is running out. You might stumble upon the old downed barbed wire and fences of the safari park, the rotting, cheery models of giraffes and elephants - hell, the fool even said he thought he caught sight of one of the great apes they used to keep caged there, a monstrous shape lumbering away through the white fog. But he was quite mad, of course, because...well...


Listen to me. I'm not that damned drunk. If you make it north, to the ruins of a picturesque little town...dead bodies on the streets where they dropped mustard gas. On the edge of the town, a great lake, thick ice shimmering in the light. On the far edge of the lake...a castle, a red-bricked castle, with towers and blue patina-ed roofs. Crows perched in the barren tree-tops, chasing away the gulls. Like something out of a fairy tale.


My friend - damned fool! - saw a light in the highest tower. He walked out across the ice. Don't - for Christ's sake, don't - walk out across the ice. If you must stray close to Gripsholm, do it at night. The Kraka brothers are afraid of the dark, he said. They locked their gates at dusk. Only the crows can get in and out.


There are three Kraka brothers. Soldier, thinker, and priest. They wrap their shoulders in the downy, decaying black feathers of crows that have died. The Priest, who is youngest, speaks to the birds in the courtyard of the castle each dawn. The Thinker locks himself in the observatory and immerses himself in the books he's gathered there, to prevent the Soldier from burning them for fuel.


They gave my friend his first square meal in months - a great sizzling, thick meaty gull stew - and showed him to a room. An old museum piece of a bedroom, with the chamber behind a fallen scarlet-rope cordon and brass plaques explaining the history of every collapsed chest-of-drawers and vase. And they locked the door behind him, and in the morning they cut his leg off at the knee to eat it.


They weren't bad people, my friend said. The oldest brother, the Soldier, would fall into rages, maddened by his hunger and his savage diet, and beat the other two. The Thinker had a great love of jazz, and the Priest spoke of the beauty, of the great intelligence of the crow, and the wisdom he had found communing with them. All three of them were lonely, and when the time came to cut off his leg, they let him choose which one. He picked the left. After it was done - the Priest and the Thinker holding him down as the Soldier drove saw into bone - the Priest bound up the wound with surprising skill, in the hope that he wouldn't die.


Days in delirium; he didn't know how much blood he lost. As he recovered, the Kraka brothers would return to see him, one at a time, and chat about nothing. My friend was aware that they found him diverting; secretly, he began to hope that he could turn one of them against the others, perhaps even persuade them all to let him go. His hopes were dashed one morning when the Thinker, as kindly as possible, asked him whether he would be more willing to lose an arm or his other leg. My friend tried to attack the Soldier as he brought in his food for the day, but he was weaker than he'd thought and was struck to the ground. For the next three days, the door remained locked - as if he'd disappointed them.


He was never quite certain how they'd begun on their twisted path; why they'd first tasted human meat. The Thinker spoke warmly of their father - a man whose corpse, it seemed, had been devoured by the crows after he fell down in the snow. For certain, the primitive, religious sense of consuming and being consumed seemed tied up in the brothers' thinking. One evening, from his tower window, my friend watched the Priest lift up the tiny black body of a crow that had died, and with a harsh shriek, he began to consume it.


In madness and despair, my friend prayed. He would do anything, he said, to get out of this. He began to dream of hurling himself out of the storeys-high window, smashing himself to pieces on the snow below.


The next morning, the three brothers came to see him together. They apologised for the way they'd treated him, and they stressed how much they'd enjoyed his company. They would have asked him to stay a little longer, but they felt he would be wanting to return home to his children. The Soldier helped him to his feet, and the Thinker pressed a crutch into his hand. He'd carved it himself, he said - black feathers hung from the pommel.


They let him walk awhile in the courtyard, trying it out, the crows watching from the roof. Quietly, they slipped away back into the castle and closed the door behind them. My friend, not believing his luck in escaping these madmen, hobbled out through the gates.


It was only when he was halfway back across the frozen lake that he noticed the trail of footprints in the snow, heading in the opposite direction, back towards the castle; four people. Two of them children. And he realised - he'd been released because they'd found replacements. New guests; fresh meat. A light, burning in the tower.


True? Hell, I don't know if it's true. By the stump where his leg used to be, though, I'd say it's a good bet to stay away from Gripsholm.


Aims

I really think cannibalism/neo-gothic can be done in a more idiosyncratic way than they're usually presented. I also think there's a great deal of fun that could be had with a quest in which the player gets captured by the three brothers and threatened with imminent dismemberment - it could come down to a life-or-death struggle, sneaking out of the castle, or, most interestingly, attempting to turn them against each other by appealing to any one's personality. The PARPG manifesto would work very well with that individual, low-key conflict.

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