The party stood before the blazing inferno, which was quickly consuming the remains of the cottage and the horrors it contained. A billowing plume of greasy black smoke rose into the afternoon sky. Our heroes watched with mixed emotions., grateful that they had rescued half a dozen of the village children, but still shaken by what they had seen inside the building now consumed in flames.
Rayne, still looking green after having suffered the Gray Jester’s empathic feeding was tending to the children. The gaggle of younglings, while free of the Jester’s control, were still far from recovered. Their complexions remained ashen and their expressions, vacant. Their eyes followed Rayne wherever she went. The charm she had cast on them had succeeded in restoring a basic level of responsiveness to the children, but only when Rayne was the one speaking.
Daethin, perhaps clued in by a subtle stiffening in Scar’s stance at his side, looked up suddenly, listening. Several of the others turned from the fire to follow his gaze to the tree-line along the Southeast edge of the clearing surrounding the lake. Hidden beneath the shadow of the densely packed trees, they saw several stooped figures heading in their direction with a gait that lay oddly between a shamble and a lope. The sounds of gutteral growls now became audible above the pop of the timber frame behind them.
“Ghouls!” Daethin’s voice dripped with contempt. “Figures. With all the carnage that took place here, they probably think of this clearing as an endless schmorgasboard. I wouldn’t be surprised if that old hag fed them like squirrels.”
Kit watched the trees, futiley trying to gain an accurate count of the numbers headed their way. “Can ghouls swim?” she asked, and after receiving puzzled looks from the group, eplained “because if they can’t, we could take refuge out on the lake.”
“Swimming for it might be a reasonable plan for you, but for those of us in steel, the water route is a bit impractical.” Eleanor chided as she loosened her mace from its hanger.
“Agreed,” said Daethin, “They can’t come for us directly while we stand in sunlight, so they appear to be moving to cut us off from the path back to town. If we make haste, we can probably get there first, and with a little luck, we will get back to town before dark.”
“Get those children moving! GO!” bellowed Piruk, and the group broke into a run, attempting to slip past the advancing ghouls before they could cut off their escape.
The party managed to reach the trail ahead of the advancing pack, and paused briefly to catch their breath.
“We’re about ten miles into this place. We should hurry, but make sure to pace yourself because we have a long way to run!” said Daethin. “and keep an eye on those kids!”
The group set off quickly in the direction of Fenwatch with the sound of the pursuing ghouls following behind. As they ran, the group strung out along the narrow track with Rayne and the children staying to the middle of the group.
After a mile or so, the forest dropped into boggy swamplands. The game trail wound between fetid pools and mires and the trees sprouted beards of moss.
“This place reeks of decay,” panted kit as she trotted along.
Lanna slowed and glanced over her shoulder. “That’s not the swamp. Behind us!”
Piruk Eleanor and Santiago whirled to look behind them. Two gnarled and twisted figures with sickly decaying skin came into view behind them. The snarled as they caught site of their quarry and prepared to dash forward.
“Ghasts!” cried Daethin, “It’s worse than I thought.”
Lanna did not hesitate. Grasping her holy symbol of Ehlonna in her sword hand, she presented it forcefully at the advancing horrors. “Unnatural things! By the power of the Woodland Queen, return to death!” The wooden unicorn talisman was bathed in a green glow, which spread to Lanna’s hand before bursting forth in a verdant light.
The ghasts recoiled at the site of the Ehlonnic symbol and fled back down the path.
The party resumed their flight, quickly covering another two miles before they were once again forced to repel the advancing undead pack. This time, Eleanor took on the task of repelling the monsters, turning them with the fury of Pelor.
At this point, the children began to slow. Though their expressions remained blank, their stumbling steps belied the onset of exhaustion.
Rayne called out, “We need to slow down or we’ll be carrying the children the rest of the way!”
The group slowed to a walk, acutely aware that the sounds of indefatigable pursuit were growing gradually louder.
Soon, a new sound drifted to the party from out of the underbrush to the East. A mixed group of ghouls and ghasts had flanked the fleeing heroes and were crashing towards the middle of their group.
The creatures burst out of the bushes rushing directly at Rayne and the children. Santiago rushed to the rescue, pummeling the oncoming horrors with a tremendous flurry of blows as Rayne attempted to usher them to safety. Lanna charged into the fray as well, but one of the beasts managed to latch on to one of the fleeing children who fainted from the shock of the ghoul’s bite.
A blast of holy vengeance from Eleanor ended the brute’s chances of a quick and easy meal. Unfortunately, the other ghouls had changed course and were continuing for the weakest members of the group, the children.
Recognizing the peril of the young ones and not wishing to lose those he had sworn to protect, Piruk hurtled forward to place his formidable maul between the children and their assailants.
As Rayne struggled to get the younglings clear of the threat, One of the powerful ghasts petrified her with its corrupting strike just as Lanna managed to turn the rest of the pack by once again summoning the holy power of the Nature Goddess.
At last, Piruk and Santiago succeeded at laying out the last remaining ghoul. Throwing Rayne over one shoulder, Piruk lead the way. Fortunately, the effects of the ghast’s foul touch were short-lived and Rayne was soon able to make her own way once again.
The group ran on, ever aware of the sounds of pursuit behind them. Soon, however, another sound began to cut through the trailing snarls. The trees ahead began to thin and the party soon found themselves on the bank of a rushing river.
A fallen tree spanned the rapids forming a makeshift bridge. Unfortunately, the spring run-off had left the log slick with moisture and moss. Daethin succeeded in crossing with little difficulty, but as Rayne attempted to lead the children to the safety of the far bank, several lost their footing and two were toppled into the rushing creek.
The sounds of the ghouls grew louder.
Piruk did not hesitate. Aided by Rua’Lanna, he waded fearlessly into the stream to take hold of one of the struggling children. Meanwhile, Kit hurled a rope to the other. Unfortunately, the swift-flowing stream was proving too much for the child, exhausted from running, and he began to slip along the rope.
Thinking quickly, Santiago leapt to the child’s rescue. Grabbing ahold of him, he stood, balanced expertly in the midst of the onrushing current.
While Rayne, Piruk and Santiago were seeing to the children, the frontrunners of the ghoul pack once again pulled into view. The thrum of Daethin’s bow alerted the group to the danger as one of his arrows found its mark in the first ghoul’s shoulder.
Again, Eleanor stepped forward, brandishing her holy symbol. “By the light of the Sun God, go back to the darkness from whence you came!” she cried. Her arm burst forth in a nimbus of holy light and once again the pursuing undead recoiled.
At last, Rayne managed to help the rest of the children safely to the far bank. With the makeshift bridge no longer clogged with frightened young ones, Kit was able to cross quickly. The heavily armored holy-warriors, Lanna and Eleanor chose to ford the river instead, relying on their strength to keep their feet against the current.
Just as the last of the party reached the far bank, the pursuing pack once again came into view up the forest path.
“Quickly now!” urged Piruk as he laid a shoulder into the log bridge, “lend me a hand with this!” Lanna and Santiago stepped to Piruk’s side and pushed against the upstream side of the log with all their might. Soon, the massive trunk began to shift under their combined effort. Then with a final heave, the trio spun the log free where it was caught by the current and pulled swiftly downstream.
“If that doesn’t stop them, it should at least hold them back for a time.” Said Piruk “but let’s not wait around to find out!”
The group set off once again at a run until they noticed that the sounds of pursuit were fading. Soon, the only sounds that remained were those of the party’s heavy footsteps and panting breath. The sounds of the fen had otherwise returned to normal. Only the occasional splash from some muck-dwelling creature, and the thrum of circling insects broke the steady shuffle of their passage.
Just as the light of day was giving way to the golden hues of evening, the group at last broke free from beneath the trees. There before them, lay overgrown pastures and gardens, and beyond the open ground, rose the ramshackle town of Fenwatch.
As the group paraded their way into the streets, work crews wrapping up a day of clearing and repairing buildings damaged by the porcine onslaught, paused in their work. The onlookers stood silent, largely expressionless, some with the faintest hint of surprise or hope cutting through the mask.
“I never thought I’d be so happy to be back here again.” Daethin muttered, as the group made their way, at last to the relative safety of the Wayshepherds’ stronghold.