One hundred years ago, Heaven's Dish was an agricultural nexus, and their orchards were among the most fertile in the world, producing bountiful harvests of apples and walnuts. But now the small town seems to be entering its twilight years: the crop is a quarter of what it used to be, and few merchants make the long journey for a crop of apples that is no longer large or dependable.
The citizens have resorted to making trips to the Pilgrim's Road in order to sell their stunted apples. The Road is studded with Pilgrim's Lodges, and the largest among these (such as Tanderys' Lodge) have small fields where merchants may sell their goods. In fact, it was in one of these marketplaces that Falessa first heard of Heaven's Dish. Eventually, she and newlywed husband would move there to escape the dangers of the city, and start a family away from the hustle-and-bustle.
And by 'dangers of the city' I mean demon-hunting paladins, and when I say "hustle-and-bustle" I mean human sacrifices. And by "start a family", I mean "start a family". Let's meet the them, shall we?
One of the most powerful members of the Cult of Zala Vacha is a man named Razjiok “Devilfoot” Lavei (pronounced RAH-zhee-ock lah-VEY) who as is renowned for his mastery of infernal sorcery as he is for his athletic prowess (especially jumping). Currently, he is in the Abyss studying with the demon Fescariot the Breaker.
Fescariot's epithet stems from his fondness of breaking spines and/or trampling limbs. Fescariot is a scholar among demons. Together with Razjiok, he is writing an Eschatorium, which vaguely analogous to a graduate school thesis among the infernal echelons. Specifically, it is a detailed proposal for a method to end the world. He will present in front of the fully-manifested, thrashing corpus of Zala Vacha in person to petition for their approval (and resources). He is a little nervous about the prospect (understandably).
Razjiok is tall, well muscled, and possessed a narrow chin. His eyes and hair are brown. He is arrogant, clever, and prone to bouts of stress, depression, and insomnia. He shuns alcohol.
He's also an incorrigible racist, and takes special pleasure in cutting out the hearts of elves and dwarves. Despite his athleticism, he walks with a limp from an injury given to him by a barbarian named Granderblack. In fact, he almost died when he battled the huge northman. He was only saved by the timely intervention of Fescariot the Breaker, who managed to break the huge warrior's back over his knee. On his belt, Razjiok carries Demonbiter, Granderblack's axe, which grants two abilities: it does extra damage to demons, and it grants the wearer the ability to fight on despite lethal blows.
Although Razjiok cherishes his family, he is ultimately selfish—he would not die for them. He would suffer for them, but not die. Razjiok is completely convinced that he will someday bring about the divine apocalypse that will kill all of the world's gods and usher in a more balanced age, free from the tyrannies of heaven.
It has been a while since Falessa Lavei was the chief torturer for the Cult. Back in Garashino, she enjoyed her occupation so much that many of her peers couldn't stand to watch her work. Way too much enthusiasm. She loved her job (creativity, self-management, blood), but she wasn't really into this whole doomsday thing. But where else is a sadist going to find work? In fact, she would still be turning thumbscrews in a dungeon if Razjiok hadn't asked her to marry him. She refused at first, of course.
Stheriax's offspring actually have seven hundred mothers before they are born. After thirteen days of pregnancy, the apocalyptic god-fetus devours its mother's heart and must move to the next womb. It's a long, complicated doomsday plot that never succeeded, despite several attempts. Falessa didn't want anything in her womb! She just wanted to torture guildmasters and dukes in peace.
The marriage itself was a simple but loving affair where, to everyone's surprise, the normally shy Falessa danced for a few songs and even Razjiok drank a glass of wine. The ceremony was marked by the sacrifice of a nineteen-year-old girl and was conducted by Oshugoth, the Drinker of Marrow. The honeymoon lasted four nights and took place in one of the Karramoor mansions, which the owners had graciously vacated for the occasion. The honeymoon was cut short, however, when Razjiok was summoned to Mondaloa (something about needing to lead an army of zombies).
Middle-age and childbearing have made Falessa a bit thicker than she once was, but she still has a confident, alluring demeanor. She has curly black hair and light brown eyes. She prefers to dress in conservative, black dresses with a gold coin hung around her neck. (The coin is a symbol of of the god Garashino, who she still thinks fondly of, though she mocks him in her prayers.)
Before the marriage and while she was still head torturer, Falessa 'convinced' an archdruid named Godai to craft a marriage gift for Razjiok. It was a scythe called Root Talker. The scythe, when pointed at an enemy, would cause the opponent's skin to violently convert to plant-stuff. Roots would erupt from the victim's body and quickly seek the ground. If the person stood still, the roots would get an anchor. If the roots got an anchor, they would pull the victim facedown onto the ground, and dig in fully. If the roots dig in fully, the victim will be painfully transformed into a small, warped blackberry bush.
The scythe works great on peasants and sleeping people. And she loved the blackberries. But when Root Talker completely failed to kill (or even slow) the barbarian juggernaut Granderblack, Razjiok gave the weapon to his daughter, Zozo. Henceforth, he would rely on a more direct weapon (none of this scepter/scythe/katar nonsense that the other cultists seemed to adore).
Marriage has mellowed Falessa enormously, and she hardly misses the days spent pulling teeth out of a weeping wizard's mouth. While Razjiok's conversion to fatherhood has been incomplete, Falessa has grown to cherish her two children (as well as herself). In fact, she has contemplated running away from the Cult for the sake of the childrens' safety. Or at least to send the children away. Perhaps to the Abyss, where agents of enemy gods don't lurk around every corner. She has already been forced to dispatch one assassin, and Zozo was once held hostage by druids, possibly sent by Godai, who yet lives (she should have killed him when she had the chance!)
Falessa is capable of summoning demons as well as casting some extremely painful spells.
Additionally, she is protected by two potent artifacts. The Murder is a set of black iron daggers, each made from a single piece of iron and shaped like crows. If thrown in the air, the daggers are capable of flying through the air to where they are directed. The autonomous flight only lasts for a few minutes per day, but during this time the dagger will hunt and kill enemies of the user. When the couple was exchanging vows, Razjiok linked the daggers to himself and his wife. The largest dagger represents Razjiok, and as long as the crow's eyes are open, it signals that Razjiok is alive. The second largest dagger represents Falessa, and her life is linked to the crow's eyes in exactly the same way. Razjiok made similar daggers when each of his children were born. The daggers will grow as long as the child does, and the eyes will remain open as long as each of them remain among the living. She keeps her dagger on her at all times, and the others are kept under her bed.
Falessa's other protection is a gift from another wedding attendee, Rasghura the Skin Dancer. The gift is a demonic Bloodsight Rune, carved into Falessa's chest between her breasts. If Falessa's blood ever touches the Bloodsight Rune, Razjiok will immediately be alerted to the details of the event. Although Rasghura lost the power of prophecy long ago, she seemed certain that some greatness would come from the Laveis. But perhaps she was just tipsy from angel tears. She drinks too much of the stuff, sometimes.
Zozo is Razjiok's and Falessa's fifteen-year-old daughter. Her actual name (which she loathes) is Zonavela. She is willowy and has the same brown hair and dark eyes as her father. Her hair is usually in a rough mop (she refuses to brush it) and she wears bandanas to cover he empty eye sockets. The bandanas are complicated whorls (very similar to blue paisley) that only vaguely resemble eyes. Her mother makes the bandanas. Zozo has been blind for almost two years. Eleven months ago, Rasghura the Skin Dancer appeared at the family's doorstep in one of her dark moods, drunk on ambrosia and elf blood. She demanded Umariel, the newborn, in exchange for the 'transaction' she gave at the wedding (presumably referring to the Bloodsight Rune). When Razjiok and Falessa refused, she took Zozo's eyes. The Skin Dancer would have taken the girl's entire face if Razjiok hadn't cut off the demoness' head and thrown it in the fireplace.
Later, in the Abyss, Rasghura was punished. Six times was she entombed in molten lead (poured by a grim-faced Razjiok), and six times were her entrails devoured by Scalusa-Cunex, the Tapeworm Lord. As a result, she hates Razjiok and his family. The feeling is mutual. Still, whenever Razjiok passes her in those hallways of writhing ashes, she is always careful to glare at him through his daughter's eyes. And on every birthday since then, Rasghura has sent a gift to Zozo: a pair of preserved eyes, taken from a dog. After her father removed the curses plaguing the eyes, he had a hole drilled throuch each crystallized dog eye at Zozo's request. Now, the girl wears four glassy dog eyes on a necklace that includes other round stones. She has sworn to add Rasghura's eyes to the necklace someday.
As for Zozo, she has adapted poorly to blindness. She stumbles along, using the Root Talker as a staff (the blade is wrapped in cloth for her safety). She has no desire to learn to use the scythe as either a weapon or a walking stick. She prefers to inch along, wrapped in thoughts of self-pity. She has redoubled her her dedication to the dark arts, and is now a feverish student of demonic magic. Her interest in Zala Vacha has increased, and she talks frequently of the Glorious End of Gods. Despite, or perhaps because of, her blindness, she has learned the art of divination and astral travel at an extremely early age (although she has learned little else) and has already developed a penchant for voyeurism.
The last eleven months have marked Zozo's passionate descent into darkness. Falessa thinks that the sacrifice of innocents should be a calculated, cerebral act, while her daughter sometimes seems to be consumed with whatever peculiar anger or frustration that only affects teenagers. Zozo is eager to perform her first human sacrifice, and offer up a struggling soul to the gnashing maw of a dead god. Oh, teen angst.
Zozo used to be a different sort of girl. She actually know many jokes by memory, and was fond to telling bad puns around the dinner table. She had a great sense of comedy, her parents agreed. But these lighthearted moments are rare, now. Having one's eyes plucked out by Rasghura will do that to a person. Her mother, however, just wants her to enjoy being a child. Lords Below, why can't she just get a boyfriend?
Recently, Zozo's snooping led her to discover her mother's secret alcove, where she found something shocking: a fifth black crow dagger, fully grown. The crow has one eye opened, and one eye closed. This dagger represents Velsus, her older brother, who was given to Zala Vacha shortly after he was born to fulfill a demonic contract that Razjiok make early in his career. No one in the family knows his fate (although Fescariot the Breaker might know a thing or two).
Discovering that her parents were using their offspring as demonic currency caused something of a breakdown in Zozo. I won't go into detail, except to say that it is fortunate that Zozo wasn't trained in more dangerous magic when she lost control. It was a dark moment for the family.
The scene ends like this: Zozo is sitting on the kitchen floor. She is hugging her mother, while tears stream down her cheeks. She is apologizing, again and again. She is rocking herself back and forth. There is blood on her smock, and on the floor. Four crow daggers hang in the air, and a drop of warm blood drips down the point of one of them. Far too big for the kitchen, Fescariot the Breaker stands outside, looking in through the hole where he ripped the window out of the wall. He clears his throat and apologizes. He is sorry, but Razjiok couldn't come tonight. Her husband will be here as soon as his studies permit.
In the other room, a cluster of men in farm clothing stand around the cradle, chanting a hymn to Felcoroth, the Corpulent Pillar, on behalf of the youngest member of the family.
The youngest daughter's name is Umariel. She's almost two years old. There's not much to say about her, except that she already has some scars, rarely cries, and she loves to eat blackberries from the bushes around the house. Her favorite word is "juice".
The Cult of Zala Vacha
The family of Razjiok wouldn't be left unguarded. Twenty-eight cultists tend to the sprawling orchards around the huge house. The cult often sends their new recruits here to do some hard work and be indoctrinated more fully into the mysteries of Zala Vacha before their final appointments elsewhere. The cultists live in a workers' camp in the middle of the orchard, and attend mass every midnight in the barn. While most of them are initiates, some of them have advanced enough in their studies to begin learning black sorceries. A couple of them are here to lay low for a while, too. A man named Huscor Blaine is in charge of the neophytes as well as the apple harvest. He is a fat, imperious man with a well groomed salt-and-pepper beard. He's usual punishment for disobedience is to hang the offender upside down from an apple tree overnight. He has a heavy Londersheeni accent and is eager to “quit the apple-whore's errands and start the devils' work.”
There are four knights that live in the guest house next to the barn. They are led by a man named Gordog Liego. Gordog is a big man, and a powerful fighter. He uses an orcish name, tells people that he is half-orcish (he's not), and insists that his men use orcish salutes when replying to his own. Although the men keep their blackened plate armor in the barn, they are quick to don it if they think they might need it. Gordog has cultivated a long, tripartite goatee, and frequently smears ashes under his eyes to look more intimidating. He is a fool, but he is utterly loyal to Zala Vacha and the Lavei family. Although they all attend midnight mass together, he and Huscor Blaine avoid each other.
The town of Heaven's Dish is only four miles away. The people there have always had some suspicions about the family that bought the old Kedd orchard (they paid in gemstones and brought all their own workers), but they were generally content to stop at gossip.
Six years ago, the Cults' policy toward Heaven's Dish was altered. At the urging of Huscor Blaine, the Cult of Zala Vacha has decided that they will begin recruiting within the town.
Farmers who join the Cult can expect to get rain even in during droughts. The rain will be brief, torrential, and a little bit salty, but what else can you expect when the rain is sent by Mragurgur, the Beast of Black Trenches? Those who go far enough to take their first vows might even be rewarded by the sudden disappearances of their enemies.
Attendance at the Church of Garashino has been low ever since the monk's quarters burned down last summer, and only old Father Toshen still conducts mass. Instead, many people are going to the town hall at nights to hear unrelated sermons with titles like, “Your Immortal Soul”, and “The Problem With Gods”. Note that the people don't connect these sermons (or the Cult) with Falessa Lavei or the people living at the old Kedd place. Many nights, you can find Gordog Liego outside the Drunken Skunk tavern, smoking with Gali Lacrin, the head of the Town Watch. And mayor Josep Helehan is visited on some nights by a girl ghost with a scythe but no eyes, who tells him terrible things about the Church of Garashino. His son, Coric, has seen the same spirit, but he claims that the ghost only asks him friendly questions, like how his day was.
Hooks, arranged roughly by party level.
I recommend picking your two favorites and blending them.
1 - Probably Up To No Good. Upon arriving in town, the players are approached by Father Toshen, who wants them to investigate whatever takes place in the Town Hall at midnight. This could actually be a very lame scenario, since the cult isn't really up to anything wicked right now. Alternatively, the PCs could fight their way though the cultists and their abominations only to find that the end-boss is a mother and a daughter. This might be fun if you want to lecture your players about morality, I guess.
2 – Why Couldn't You Fall in Love With the Flower Shop Girl? The party is approached by Coric Helahan, who has fallen in love with the 'ghost' that visits him at night. He wants the party to find her remains so that he can pay to have her resurrected. "This is obviously a good idea because she's really cute," he explains. The first meeting between Zozo and the boy she's been spying on goes a little awkwardly when he discovers that the 'ghost girl' never died and actually has spooky powers. I imagine this one ending with dinner in the Lavei's kitchen while Coric is tied to a chair. Turns out, Razjiok is very bad at small talk, and needs the party to keep the conversation going. This one can lead into any of the other ones where Falessa asks the party to do something. I wanted to end on this one, because it's the only one that might actually have a happy ending. I like happy endings.
Plus you can have an awkward cultist dad, two embarassed teenagers, and an amused mother trying to cover up the sounds of a Gentle Beast weeding the garden. "Could you get the guitar from the barn, dear? We could use a little music. And when you're there, tell Gordog to stop rough-housing with his men."
3 – A Druid Never Forgets (He Just Goes Mad). Falessa hires the PCs to investigate some strange happenings. The trees of the forest seem to be marching (very, very slowly) on her orchard, and her trees won't stop drying up and dying. This is caused by Godai, the archdruid who made Root Talker, who has finally caught up with her after all these years. Godai is semi-insane and fully furious. By the time the PCs reach the mad druid and hear the truth of things, they've already had to cut through a forest's worth of the druid's friends (both flora and fauna).
4 – Karma is a Barbarian. Granderblack, the paraplegic barbarian who almost killed Razjiok, has finally tracked his old foe to the town of Heaven's Dish. He seeks revenge on Razjiok and also wishes to recover his axe, Demonbiter. He spent years recuperating from a broken spine in Dvala, and has lost his entire fortune to unscrupulous healers. Now, he just really, really wants to kill something. He'll constantly grumble about how a demon broke his back. He shows up in town and starts killing townsfolk and cultists both. He might even hack his way up to Falessa. If Falessa sees that Granderblack is accompanied by the party, realizes that she is outnumbered, and tries to reason with the barbarian. But the barbarian cannot be reasoned with, and will slay Falessa if the party doesn't interfere. Should they even interfere? She's done some pretty terrible things.
Of course, once her blood touches her demonic Bloodsight rune, Azjiok will have a snapshot of the scene. He might even take a break from his all-nighter to teleport back home. If Fescariot the Breaker tags along, the party will get to watch him break Granderblack's back again.
5 – Karma Never Forgets a Barbarian (or Whatever). Combine the two paragraphs above, with Granderblack and Godai working together. What side are the PCs on? Either way, they'll probably have to fight some townsfolk.
6 – Just a Concerned Mother. The party is approached by Falessa. Zozo has run away to join the Cult, and the Cult refuses to return the girl. Falessa was told, “She's fifteen now. Zozo's old enough to decide for herself which demon lord she wants to serve.” Falessa tells the party everything (well, not everything), and begs them to bring Zozo back home. Try to get her before she cuts out anyone's heart, if possible. But it has to be done in secret. The girl has to see all of her companions die in order to realize what a bleak life it is to be a nameless cultist. Heroes can just kill you whenever they want! Then Zozo has to escape from the party in a convincing way. If you can cast some illusions of wrathful angels, all the better. Just scare the girl straight-edged. Bonus points if you can get her to stop wearing black all the time.
7 - The Road to Hell is Paved With. . . Well-intentioned pilgrims have stolen Umariel. They reasonably assumed that the child was going to be sacrificed after seeing the baby on a flat stone surrounded by black-robed cultists. Now they have barricaded themselves into a Pilgrim's Lodge and are under siege by the forces of darkness (Falessa), who just wants her baby back. If the players can survive a three-day assault by demonic forces, they might be able to figure out what is so special about this baby. Is it prophesied to save the world from Zala Vacha or something?
8 - The Bird in the Box. A powerful creature named Velsus is causing some havoc elsewhere in the world. Attempts to scry on the creature instead only show a black dagger shaped like a crow, locked inside of a box somewhere. Someone must seek out this dagger and see what relation it has to the creature. And then, kill it.
9 - Definitely Up To No Good. Exactly as above, except that the Cult is planning to sacrifice the entire town in order to summon Dread Zocorioth, Who Devours the Sun. Of course, many of the apple farmers don't know this, and will fight against the party interfering in their business. Meanwhile, Falessa, Gordog, and Huscor are sneaking around, killing villagers and blaming it on the PCs. With every villager that dies, the red vortex in the sky grows larger and larger. . . Once X villagers have been sacrificed, the portal opens. And the portal won't fully close until the party destroys the summoning circle in the orchard.
10 - Dad's Doomsday. Razjiok and Fescariot have gotten the approval and resources they needed to carry out their eschatorium and possibly bring about the end of the world. Someone must take his family hostage and ransom them for a powerful macguffin that Razjiok needs to complete the doomsday machine. Before the exchange can happen, Fescariot the Breaker shows up to kill the Lavei family, explaining that once everything that Razjiok loves has been destroyed, he'll be able to fully dedicate himself to Zala Vacha and the Apocalypse, and his corruption will be complete. After the NPC negotiator accuses Razjiok of sending Fescariot, he agrees to traverse the Blackstone Labyrinth as a gesture of good faith. The Labyrinth is a testing ground for adventurous petitioners, and so the PCs will have a chance to design a dungeon maze that will hopefully defeat (or at least weaken) the end boss before he reaches their chamber. Razjiok will attempt to double-cross the party at the last moment as soon as he can teleport his family to safety. That's why he agreed to come in the first place, and that's why he's the end boss. He brought a fake macguffin, of course, and the party must still stop the doomsday machine that he set into motion. This plot would be extra conflicted if the party has already had a chance to have dinner with the guy (see #11).
11 – The Lesser of Two Evils. The party is approached by Rasghura, the Skin Dancer, in the guise of an angel. She tells the party about all the wicked things the Lavei family has done, and gives them all the tools they need to defeat them. She'll even help. She intends to collect Zozo's face, of course. Depending how this goes, the party will either have to face Rasghura or Azjiok + Fescariot.
12 – The Other Lesser of Two Evils. The party is approached by Falessa, who wants to kill Rasghura and end the threat against her family. She worships demons, and is tired of having to cover her house in wards against infernal forces. The irony annoys her, and perhaps she can recover her daughter's eyes from the corpse. She'll even help. This will involve, at the very least, summoning a demon and might even entail a trip to Rasghura's nympharium on the shores of the Writhing Sea, in south Hell.
13 - And I'm taking the kids! The party is approached by Falessa, who has decided to quit both the cult and her absentee husband. However, her first attempt at this has failed, and she needs help to recover her children. Umariel is being held in the house by Huscor Blaine. Zozo is with her father, studying at the Chained Towers that hang over the Slithering Pit in the Abyss. She has since recanted her ambitions, and wants to leave the place. The Chained Towers are full of enough powerful demons to kill the PCs a hundred times over, so a direct assault is not advisable. While her father is reasonable enough to let Zozo leave ("She doesn't want to be here. Come. I'll even show you another way out.") he also enjoys killing anyone who smells of "heroism". The demon Fescariot is much less reasonable, and he is never far from Razjoik.
The quest can include rescuing Umariel from the orchard, rescuing Zozo from hell, or both. Falessa can provide them with disguises, passwords, and passage to the Abyss (a ladder beneath the orchard, over a mile long).
Fun things that can happen in the Chained Towers: (1) The party is approached by screaming cultists who need help killing a Cathedral Beast that they created moments ago but have lost control of. The PCs will also have an opportunity to create and release some Cathedral Beasts of their own to cause some havoc. (2) Free an angel, which will blow their cover but give them an ally. (3) Some cultists have been condemned to a painful death after presenting an unacceptable eschatorium to Zala Vacha (they had a really stupid plan to end the world), and Vadregore, the Architect of Carrion, wants suggestions on how to kill them. (4) After witnessing Quangth, the Slouching Worm, steal some spellbooks from the smaller library, they'll have a chance to steal some books or turn him in (and watch the fireworks). Note that if they steal some books with Quangth, he will hang out with the party afterwards, and try to tag along.
I tried to humanize these people. They have hobbies and gardens, despite being part of an evil doomsday cult. I don't think it detracts from their efficacy as evil cultists at all, and I don't think motherhood has made Falessa forget how to skin a man. If anything, it makes it more terrifying when she does. The party might only gradually learn about the family's history, so it will be all the more dramatic when the family finally throws on their black robes after you've shared cornbread with them.
But don't treat them like good guys, either. They're all bad people who love each other. Even Zozo wouldn't hesitate to stick a dagger in your beloved PCs ribs. And her parents would do much worse than that, and have fun doing it.
The Laveis are humanized bad guys (the opposite of faceless masses of grunting orcs you sometimes see). Perhaps too much so. If your party wants a kick-down-the-door adventure with goblins and goombas, then you probably won't enjoy dinner at the Laveis. If you want to see your party brainstorming how to beat a combat encounter without killing the bad guys—for no incentive at all—just so they can treat the NPCs like real people, then you might want to pull up a chair.
Also, Stheriax should probably just get a dog.