As Nameless stared down blankly at Krystin holding his hand, the World’s Greatest Navigator, Malachi, wearing another fabulous hat, approached the returning adventurers. Speaking in a low voice, he said, “Unfortunately, the Princess has fallen ill. Nothing that rest and time cannot heal, but it means we are delayed in our journey for at least a few days.”
Before anyone could express any frustration, Malachi buoyantly offered, “We can, however, use the time to our advantage. Nearby lies Hempstead Keep, abandoned twelve years ago, but rumored to still have the Black Lute. With me as your guide and you doing what you do best, we could recover this wondrous magical instrument! What do you say?”
Moog grimaced at Malachi and immediately walked away and toward the bar. Snow would have bolted, too, except that Krystin had taken hold of Snow’s hand. With one hand held by Snow and one held by Nameless, the little girl was now swinging and playing between the two disconcerted adventurers.
Undeterred, Malachi related that a catastrophe of some sort had befallen the Keep, and the few surviving citizens had left twelve years ago. Stories portray the Keep ruins as haunted, and no one goes there anymore. One of the survivors, however, happened to be living in Barabis, and the party could meet and talk with him. Sensing little enthusiasm, particularly from Baffin, and seeing that they needed to recover from their search of the haunted orphanage, Malachi suggested the adventurers rest and think over his proposal.
In the morning, Nameless, Snow, and a hay-covered Baffin decided to take up the mission to explore Hempstead Keep and to visit the survivor on their way. Moog, however, was ill, so Krystin stayed behind to care for the goliath. Also, Snow had received a note written by Ophelia that the eladrin sorceress had to depart suddenly and would be gone until the next morning.
So the small party of Nameless, Snow, Baffin, and Malachi set out for the edge of town to meet with the survivor, Mr. Harwick. There, they found a fifty-ish looking man sitting on his porch, and though dispirited and obviously worn down by the tragedy, Mr. Harwick agreed to tell his story.
“Terrible things happened there twelve years ago,” he whispered hoarsely. After pausing to steady himself, he spoke more strongly and in a voice rising with emotion, “I was eighteen and freshly married then. No one knows what really happened, but I saw people turned into savage beasts, and they began eating everyone in the keep. The beasts went about howling and killing and rending the bodies to shreds!”
Harwick shook slightly as he recalled the horrific images. Quietly he uttered, “There was nothing I could do. I ran away. I never knew what happened to my bride …”
“You should have saved your bride, that’s what you should have done!” Baffin peevishly exclaimed. Nameless and Snow glared at the bard.
Stung, Harwick heatedly replied, “I tell you there was no way I could have gone in there and come out alive. Those monsters were everywhere! Killing everyone around! I would have died if I had tried to fight them.”
After a few moments to calm down, Harwick softly asked, “Are you really going to the Keep?” After an affirmative nod from the party, he brokenly continued, “Please. F-f-find my bride … go to my house and check the cellar … f-f-find out wha-what happened to her.” He paused again, and more steadily, requested, “Find her wedding ring and bring it back to me.” Tears fell from Harwick’s eyes.
“You mean do the job you should have done,” muttered Baffin under his breath. Sharp of hearing, Nameless turned to Baffin and gave him a look that clearly meant “Shut-the-hell-up!”
Through further conversation, the party learned from Harwick that thousands of people used to live in the Keep, and though unlikely, possible survivors might include Tiren, a wizard; Lord White, ruler of the Keep; Lord Mayor, who would be fortified within the guard house; and anyone holding out at Saint Lucian’s Church, a church of Pelor. The traumatized man also described these persons and locations, as well as the location of his former house.
Afterward, Harwick generously served breakfast to the party, and Baffin was a most ungracious guest, eating everything he could in a slow and dawdling manner and taking a jug of Harwick’s wine for the day’s journey. When Baffin began to methodically eat apples one by one from a bowl that had the only remaining food on the table, Nameless snapped them all up and gulped them down to bring the meal to a merciful end.
Once on the road, Malachi guided the party south, and after many hours, they passed a chest high gate with a warning sign “Cross at your own peril.” Curiously, the party also discovered horse and wagon tracks not a few days old. Malachi informed everyone that, unfortunately, an occasional trader, not knowing the tragedy at Hempstead Keep, still made the trip unaware of the danger.
After about twelve hours of travel and in the late evening, the party reached the outlying former farmlands of the Keep, and soon, they found the remains of the trader, his dead horses, and his wagon. Suddenly bounding and crashing into the party, ghouls knocked Nameless and Baffin to the ground, and the beasts slashed away at the three adventurers. As usual, Malachi slipped behind some rocks to hide, but unexpectedly, he darted into the fight at a few opportune moments for several well-timed strikes. The battle was a bloody struggle, and though the party survived, everyone was severely injured.
Concerned about being out in the open at night, the party quickly resumed their journey to reach the Keep. A fine white ash covered the road, but everyone eventually realized the ash was actually a gruesome layer of bone dust. Legends of the King of Ghouls, ex-arch of Orcus, and his White Kingdom stirred uneasily in their thoughts. Could the beasts Harwick described actually be ghouls? Could the citizens of the Keep have been transformed into ghouls? Thousands of ghouls?
During their journey, the party encountered shattered and ruined farmhouses, with holes in the roofs, doors ripped apart, and windows smashed open, but they also found a boarded up farmhouse. Desiring a place to rest and get out of sight, the adventurers examined the house and discovered that a family had taken refuge inside and was trying to hold out against the ghouls roaming the countryside. The man, his wife, their two children, and his father had not eaten for days, and fortunately, Baffin had taken a large sack of dried meat from the dead trader’s wagon. The bard dropped the sack and let the hungry family eat as much as they wanted.
The family, at the behest of the man’s father, was trying to return to the Keep, because the father, who had fled twelve years ago, wanted to know what had happened and if he could return to his home in the Keep. The trip turned disastrous when the ghouls set upon them, and the family barely managed to shelter themselves inside the farmhouse. The man’s brother, however, was killed.
The terrified and exhausted family pleaded for the adventurers to help them get across the nearby hills, where they would be safe from the packs of ghouls and could flee back to Barabis. As the party wrangled with what to do, the man suggested the party could draw the attention of the ghouls and act as a distraction while he and his family ran away. Baffin countered that the party could help the family, and especially the father, reach the Keep to fulfill the father’s wish to see what happened. The father immediately lost control of his bladder and clearly no longer desired to see the Keep. Nameless privately brought up the possibility of going along with the man’s plan, but instead, turning the family into the distraction while the party quietly slipped away.
Getting nowhere, Nameless invoked the question, “What would Vennman do?”
“Arrgh,” thought Baffin. What would Vennman do? I know exactly what he would do. He would help the innocent against evil. That’s what he would do. Damn, I don’t know if I can sacrifice myself like Vennman did. What do I have to gain by all this? Which of my friends is going to die next? I’m not sure I have any friends left anyway, now that Vennman is dead. Nameless? He just asked about feeding this wretched family to the ghouls while we sneak away.
What would Vennman do? Fine. I know what to do. Yes, Nameless, to honor his memory, as you say, I will do what Vennman would do.
“Okay, Nameless. I agree. To honor Vennman’s memory, let’s get the family safely out of here,” the bard wearily concluded.
Wasting no time, the party and family stole out of the house and, with shadow magic from Nameless, stealthily approached a field that led to the safety of the hills beyond. With the ongoing help from Nameless and trying to stay in a group, everyone quietly and carefully moved forward. Snow and Nameless gradually recognized the furtive movements of creatures hiding in the field – no doubt ghouls waiting in ambush. Abruptly, Snow stumbed directly into a ghoul with a muffled crash, and responding to the noise, several of the monsters rose up and charged toward their prey!
Snow, Nameless, Baffin, and even Malachi in a few instances desperately fought the ghouls to protect the fleeing family. When the man, husband to the wife, fell under the claws of a ghoul, Baffin made a difficult decision to help secure the rest of the family, rather than go to the man’s aid. The poor man died shrieking while the ghoul ripped away in a frenzied feast.
Snow had cleared the way forward, and while she led the surviving family members to the hills, Nameless and Baffin finished off the last few ghouls. The bard, filled with a burning rage barely held in check, immediately went to the dead man and took all his valuables and personal effects: 6 gold, a wedding ring, and a Pelor necklace. Heavily beaten and battered, the party returned to the shelter of the farmhouse they had just left, boarded it up, and spent an uncomfortable night on watch for prowling ghouls.
The next morning, the adventurers made for the Keep and decided to check first the house of Tiren, the wizard. Perhaps he was sufficiently powerful to ward off the ghouls. The party passed more fields, then small houses all in shambles, before reaching the outer walls of the Keep. Smashed doors gouged by claws, bloodstains on buildings and the ground, crumbling and broken stone walls, random bones scattered about, and bone dust thickly covering everything … a formerly prosperous and healthy town lay completely in ruins.
The party entered Hempstead Keep through the east gate, the closest to Tiren’s house, and the debris of bones became nauseating from the sheer number of crushed and gnawed skulls, rib cages, thigh bones, etc. Sighting a pack of ghouls to the north, the adventurers noiselessly slipped across the street and hugged the shadows. Eventually, the party ducked inside a building to try to cut through the city without being exposed on the streets. Inside, they surprised a lone ghoul that ran out the back, and they gave chase but could not catch it.
Realizing the noise would draw more attention, the party quickly moved onward toward Tiren’s house. Needing to head north and west, they cut west through a few buildings but reached a dead end alley. Rather than head back to the street, they attempted to cut north through the building there, but after listening at the door, they heard movment inside.
Altering their plans, the party climbed a drainpipe to reach the second floor, and after walking down a hallway to a large window on the other side of the building, they could see no way to exit from the window without being seen by the ghouls they had originally sighted. So they turned around to climb the drainpipe to the roof.
Snow, being the best climber, went first, and she immediately slipped from the pipe and fell to the ground below. A pack of ghouls, bursting from the door on the first floor, instantly pounced on her.
To be continued next session …