The Knocking Box

by Timothy Toner

First came the Inquisition, with its fires, truths, and torture. Designed to weed out all that was evil, it replaced the devil with his brother. Despite its horrors, however, the effect of the supernatural was...devastating. Only the Church and he infernal profited from the venture, and only the Infernal knew what it was getting.

Then came the Black Plague. Its cause unknown, its deadliness all too real. The timeliness of the plague, as it swept across Europe and wiped out 1/3 the population was all too perfect. It came to see the end of the true Crusades. It came to see the end of Feudalism. It came to see the last desperate moments of a Church too glutted with power.

It was an all too human plague, slaughtering whole towns suddenly, painfully, slowly. The stench of corpses floated on soft spring breezes, and the rot of winter came a few seasons early, as the dead piled up, no hands to lay them low.

All that was supernatural laughed at the irony. None were the direct cause, but all saw the bitter humor in something so deadly, yet so quiet. Something that they, with all their braggadocio seemed impotent. The vampires marvelled at the subtlety, despite the fact that each bite carried the plague farther, the mages studied the trauma as fuel for their research, the Garou smiled on this, seemingly Gaia's revenge, surely a sign for another Impergium to be imposed. The Faerie...the Faerie in their quiet groves, drank their cool dandelion wine, and wondered where all the humans buggered off to.

Despite all this tragedy, each looked at it with a aloof indifference. One thing that was certain. Wherever they went, there would be more of them soon enough. A bit of mortality was a potent lesson for humanity, and one well worth learning.

But what they did not count on was the misery. Few human emotions are as palpable as misery, dangling and lingering on the edge of hope, despair, fear, hate, and surrender. A kiss could surfeit hate. A warm hand could assuage fear. But nothing could rival the pangs of misery, especially the misery of approaching death.

To lie in bed, your insides becoming outsides, pustules rising and bursting, is a foul way to die. No plaintive angels no sermons on elysian fields, can comfort you when your life slowly drains in sticky yellow puss.

This trauma, this incredible tragedy, magnified a thousand thousand times, compelled many in their grief to shun the afterlife. Too many, convinced that this could not be the end, that there must have been more to life, chose to linger, to brood, to seethe. They would wait until someone proffered them an accounting.

And in their quiet, invisible silence, they noticed them. Slipping into shadows. Fading into mirrors. Passing unseen through crowds. Ducking into mushroom rings. The Geists saw them, and howled for the invisible world laid out before them.

They could not touch humanity; for, after all, why would you? Humanity was miserable enough, and these dark ones had made them so. There would be an accounting, but on their terms.

And so they struck. Doing little thing, minor things, acts of malice, anger, and pain.

To the vampires, they scared off victims, making the Hunters realize that there was nothing beautiful or elegant about their state. They were animals, more craven than dogs, for now they had to chase their prey across fields and forests, and silence them quickly, lest the inquisitors or the lupines come and hunt them down properly.

To the Lupines, they were a sacrilegious nuisance. Able to touch their sacred land, their in-between world, they sullied eternal Glades with their pustulant hate, and laughed off their feeble attempts to harm. Only those with power in the spirit realm could harm the dead, and even then, they were legion.

To the Mages, they were a dangerous threat beyond imagination. They spoiled the magic in areas once rich. Only the Euthanatos benefitted, and this was enough to cause the other Traditions to band together to stop this threat. What once had been limited to remote areas was now spreading far and wide. Their attempts to create rain to feed thirsty fields brought only hail to rend crops and lightning to destroy homes. Magic was becoming all too unreliable.

To the Faeries...well, they were so hateful, these spirits who would not play, who could not be affected by potent faerie magic, who wanted nothing to do with arcadia, except to wither faerie rings and destroy Rivan bridges, that the normally playful creatures packed up their toys, and went home. It was, perhaps, the only thing the Geists did right.

As mentioned, the situation was becoming dire, especially in the North. There, far from the Church's influence, whole villages lay in silence, the people's bodies rotting, spoiling. In that place, a group of mages took it upon themselves to rid the world of this tragic menace.

To this end, they diligently labored, poring over dusty tomes for some key to drive those who remained through ignorance and fear of what lay beyond, and sheer stubborness.

Finally, after discarding the Key of Solomon as "too mainstream," they discovered a tree growing in a long abandoned church, its parishioners now meal for worms. Something about the tree seemed to drive off the spirits. It was...incredible. Having grown unchecked in the Dominion, it radiated its power. It seemed also that the church was built to cap off a source of vim vis. The wood then had leeched off it slowly, becoming readily susceptible to spells, despite the aura of dominion. By crafting a box out of this tree, the magi could fashion a proper prison for the Geists. The walls of the box would hold them soundly. A quick second layer of the magically dead wood found in graveyards made the barrier layer undetectable from afar. The box was made portable, so that anyone could carry it, wherever a Geist menaced.

Two problems still faced the Magi. One was how to get the Geists to come in the first place. To let them in, the box had to be opened, and once it was opened, the barrier seal was broken, and any Geists within would escape. The other problem was that the Geist were very sensitive to magic. They would never allow a mage to get close enough to utilize the Box.

Strangely, both solutions came at precisely the same moment. A mage just back from the Orient happened upon a neat Glamour, that could be cast on any portal. When the portal was then knocked on, anyone in the area would be compelled to open the door. Further, once the spell was cast, it lingered until anyone, mundane or Gifted, knocked. The Magi had their answer.

They modified the spell carefully, so that a mundane could merely knock thrice, and the Glamour would work on any spirits in the area, inducing them to open the box. However, the box would not actually open as much as it would puncture a hole in the inner box. Another modification of the spell compelled the opener to pass through, and close the portal behind them. They first feared the spirits would not fit, but they soon proved malleable enough.

A final spell was placed on it to prevent mundanes from accidentally opening the box, whether it be dropped or by hand. However, any with the Gift could do it easily, as well as any savagely determined mundane.

At last, the box was ready. It was so costly to fashion, and the tree so rare, that alas, only one was made. This ironically proved to be the wisest thing to happen of all.

Over the next century, the members of the covenant travelled throughout Europe, seeking out areas where the Geist ruled strong. In that amount of time, an astonishing 6000 souls were trapped in the small box. The remaining Geist, hearing of the sudden demise of their kind, fled this world, or else hid in dark holes, never to be heard from again.

Then came the difficult part. Now that these souls were caught, what then? They couldn't very well open it up, and any minor apprentice with a hint of the Gift could pop it open, expecting Chocolates. It became a white elephant, a box only equal to Pandora's. It became The Knocking Box.

The Order of the Box, as they were scoffingly called, continued to travel the land, seeking out infestations of malicious spirits. Soon, however, attrition took its toll, and at last, only one Mage survived, about to succumb to Twilight. With his last magicks, he transported himself to a Tremere mage, and begged for the Embrace. Spotting a practitioner of True magic on his knees, the Tremere could not resist, and took him on the spot, bonding him well.

The mage, Jonathan Brueck, continues to wander the world, the last guardian of a very dangerous toy. Being taken so old, he is very much senile, sometimes forgetting to feed. But he will never forget about the box. Never.

The Knocking Box seems to be an unimpressive wooden container, fashioned out of rich chestnut, with woodcuts on all surfaces. It measures six inches tall by eight inches wide by six inches deep, with a simple hinged top, without a latch.

Each woodcut depicts a scene from the origin and history of the Box. The top, the most important, explains the reason for the Box. The Grim Reaper walks through a town, its streets choked with corpses. Its staff curves into the air, and lays across the crescent moon, implying that the moon is now part of its scythe. Behind the Reaper is a walking corpse, a desiccated man, horribly hungry. Behind it is another man, his hands bound and chained by what seem to be ethereal creatures. Being dragged behind the figure in robes are three diminutive figures, chained so that they cannot even walk, and are instead pulled through the dusty road.

The side facing the opening has the picture of the discovery of the tree. So much detail is put into this one, that inferences can be made on where the old church is. The supply of vis is not exhausted, as believed.

Turning to the right, we have the fashioning of the box, a rather simple depiction of the crafstman.

Turning to the hinged side, we have the first use of the box, with the spirit sliding right into the trap, with a pleasant smile on its face.

Turning to the side face, we see a dire warning to any who would open the Box. An astonished man is driven back by the force of the souls, pouring out in anger. In the distance, all things are dying. This face, once reserved for the final triumph over the Geist, was commissioned by Brueck, lest he die or lose the box before the instructions can be passed on.

The bottom contains only the name of the box in German, and the instructions: Knock Thrice, also in German.

The box works like this: it is taken to a spot where a spirit is believe to be residing. The box is knocked on by anyone, magical or not (Mages could always use the box...since the Geists passed on, most ghosts are not as suspicious as they were). At that time, the Box unleashes its 8 die attack, difficulty six. The spirit in question rolls its Power, difficulty six. Whoever gets most successes wins. However, whatever dice the spirit spends in resisting are burned out of it, spent in the exertion. Thus, multiple use can prove to be deadly. The spirit must escape out of hearing range to avoid the effect.

Knowing how the box works also helps. Any Thaumaturgist can add his Thaum. rating to the roll to capture. Also, the vis in vampiric vitae is strong; each point of blood spent adds one more die. Raw vis also helps, at the rate of five dice per pawn of Mentem, Vim, Imageonem, and Rego Vis. Thus, with enough preparation, trapping almost any spirit can be seen as a sure thing.

What is less helpful, though, is that the box does not discriminate. It attracts the nearest spirit, whether it be friend or foe, chosen at random if they are equidistant. Once the knocking is started, nothing can stop the attempt to trap. It will even lure spirits bound to items, like talens and fetishes. Talens spirits get to resist with only dice equal to the gnosis of the current possessor. Fetishes are more tightly bound; they get to roll with the gnosis dice of the fashioner plus the wielder. Only a Garou who has sidestepped, or otherwise gone out of hearing range, may avoid losing his fetishes. Merely being in a noisy place does not help, as the sound the box makes resounds on a spiritual level. Garou, being bodily in the Umbra, are immune to the effect.

What is even worse (or better, as the case may be), is that a vampire employing Auspex 5 is susceptible to the Knocking Box. All he can resist with is his current willpower. Nobody said it would be easy...

The effect is that the box is knocked on. If anyone can see spirits, they see the affected ghost walk up to the box, and open it a crack. Then one blinding flash of light later, they're gone. On the real world, the lid seems to open and close all by itself. That's all.

A nasty toy to be sure...

Now as you see, the perfect MacGuffin for a thousand and one stories. Big baddies need to have their power torqued down, and that's where lupines come in.

As good little Vamp ST's, tho, we wouldn't dream of having the characters open it up. Nope. Not even a crack.

(If you're curious, there's really no anti-open spell mechanic. Merely look the player in the eye, and ask them, "Do you really want to open it?" three times. If they agree all three times, they've opened it. Of course, one dot of Thaumaturgy, and that puppy flies open, no warning).

If they do open the box, you have one of three (interesting, IMHO) options:

OPTION #1: Spiritual Holocaust. The Box is a ectoplasmic nuclear bomb, and opening it has released all 6000+ souls, and they're torqued! They take it out on everything around them, and the are becomes utterly dead. Physically. Magically. Umbrally. Even the Wyrm takes note of something that destroys so...efficiently.

Game effect: The place becomes a Place of Renown, a talked about site, where no one will live, and unspeakable horrors walk the Umbra. The location is dead forever, or at least until the spirits start spreading out. No plants will grow. Paint will fade and chip down to the plaster and wood, and everything just decays. Staying there costs a vampire two BP a night. Otherwise, all supernatural and mundane creature with any sense will avoid avoid avoid.

OPTION #2: The Tight Squeeze: Limited space in there. Yup. Yup. So much so that the collective unconscious off all those spirits got condensed into three or four spirit entities of great power. Instant antagonists, especially when an enemy, or gasp, a friend got caught in there, and all those twisted souls did a number on their brain. Capturing them would be...difficult.

Game Effect: Well, you let the seven deadly sins out, and one of them happened to be your best pal Morty, now Avarice. Be literary. Make each tougher and tougher to defeat, requiring more and more wits to get it right.

OPTION #3: Puree Cycle: Okay, there wasn't any room at ALL. The collective unconsciouses were completely broken down, and all that remains is the Hateful Dead, a force of supreme malevolence, roughly equivalent to (oh, let's see...the burnt spiritual power actually gets swallowed by the Box, so figuring 6000 souls, at (conservatively) 3 Power apiece, that's) 18,000 power. Wow. Unstoppable, right? Wrong.

Y'see, this is my favorite option. Get out those books on local ghost lore. Now read up well, because those mute spectres who died unavenged are going to take on a life of their own, with all that power to pour into them. Resurrection Mary, Chicago's version of the vanishing Hitchhiker, now climbs in for good. The Hull House Devil child stalks the streets, looking for revenge. The list goes on. All the ghosts, once harmless spectres, are perverted by the negative power at their disposal, power that lets them do whatever they desire.

What's even better, bring back their nemesises! Have them be virtually unstoppable. Make them wish they'd let them live!!!

Now there is a catch. Each ghost animated in this fashion has a ringer, a way of easily dispelling them. It can be as mundane as giving them a proper burial, or avenging the wrong that got them stuck there. In any even, it'll take teamwork and legwork to get the job done.

Here's an example:

The Burlington Northern is the main train line connecting the Western Suburbs of Chicago with the heart of the city. It passes right through many populous residential areas, some very affluent. Many children take the train in for school, or for just a day in the city.

Now the BN's maintenance sucks, but since the trains run like, well, trains, and since the tracks are so straight, it's easy to see and know when one is coming.

One day, the gates are stuck. The lights flash, the bars are down, but no train seems to be coming. One minute. Ten minutes. Twenty. Tempers flare, and one guy goes for it, passing around the lowered gates, making it safely.

There won't be a train for another ten minutes. The cars in the line begin honking their horns at the worrywarts too scared to cross the tracks.

Finally, a girl wearing a plaid smock, so common in the parochial schools of chicago, disengages from the pack of children, and steps out tentatively on the tracks. Seeing no train in coming, she waves the cars on. Where she stands, any train will be in plain view long before a car can cross. It's safe.

One car, two car, three cars pass. Many wave at the kind girl who's just made their day a little easier.

Then the train hits, plowing through the cars straddling the tracks. It is a freight, not an uncommon sight, and obliterates the minivan crossing the track, the mother and child never noticing until it was too late, instead focussed on that angelic face that suddenly went demonic.

Two more cars go, one careening off into the crowd of children waiting for a train that will never stop for them.

After all is done, the death toll is twenty children, four adults. What is truly sad is that no one is quite sure how it happened. The freight train engineer saw the tracks clear, the drivers saw nothing happening until it was too late. No one can seem to remember what happened to the girl, though, figuring her body now lies with those pressed against the wall.

Charges are filed against the conductor, and several families are shattered irrevocably. It is a singular tragedy.

Until it happens next week, a few stops down. The girl is Mary Elizabeth O'Malley, a girl who was walking on the tracks, when some boys began throwing rocks at her. She fell unconscious, and the boys ran off in fear of what they had done. The train that came but a few minutes later never saw her small body straddling the tracks. She was dead in seconds.

But her soul lived on...

Given the powers of Obfuscate and Chimestry, any effect is possible. Be creative.

The ringer is a sign that the boys have been punished for their actions, and a symbolic derailing of a train, whether it be real or a toy. Alternately, a girl can be saved, preventing the tragedy from happening again.

So why should the Vampires care? It is, after all, just some bad ghosts. Ghosts summon parapsychologists, and parapsychologists, noticing weird goings-on, publish findings that attract hunters. Remember, the Geist are the most powerful entity in the Box, and their original desire was to see the death of all things supernatural.

And if they're smart enough to want to use the box to trap them, ask them if they want to go through all that again.