Eleint 8, 1479, Year of the Ageless One
A terrified scream tore through the silence that shrouded the town of Hluthvar like a veil.
On the tower’s rooftop, Deb looked down and saw a solitary figure—a human woman—running in terror. She was running down one of the dirt streets that made up one of several “spokes” that formed the wheel-shaped town of Hluthvar.
Below, the others had just finished preparing themselves for the day when they heard the scream outside. Immediately, weapons were drawn. Everyone rushed outside while Therand ran upstairs to join Deb.
Deb quickly scanned the surrounding area near the tower just as Therand made it to the top. Two miles to the southeast, Deb could still see the large murder of crows circling above the road that led south to Asbravn. He had seen them earlier, while the sun’s rays were still barely peeking over the Sunset Mountains to the east.
That was nearly an hour ago. The crows were still there and he didn’t like the looks of it.
“What do you make of it?” Therand asked. He too, looked around to make sure there were no other unexpected encounters.
“Not sure, but it can’t be good.” Deb said as he turned his attention back to the woman running frantically down the street below. She looked like she came from the direction of the town’s center. From his vantage point, he could make out the large gaping chasm that was left of what was once the town’s center.
When he first saw it yesterday from an upper-story window in the jailhouse, he couldn’t believe what he saw. It looked like the center of town had been swallowed up by a gaping hole. What was left of a large building—either a temple or a fortress—had fallen into the chasm. Other buildings nearby seemed to have faired better, though many stood precariously at the chasm’s edge.
“Look, there!” Therand said, pointing to an area behind the woman.
Deb looked and spotted four ghouls gaining ground on the woman. They were chasing her like wolves on a hunt for a fresh meal.
The ghouls were fast. Like those they’ve fought since they arrived in Hluthvar, these ghouls were leaping from rooftop to rooftop. The closest one was running on the roof of a long building.
Deb knew it would only be a matter of seconds before the creature would leap upon the woman below it, so he took aim and fired.
The ghoul’s leg nearly buckled as Deb’s arrow buried itself deep into its thigh. A quick second shot also tore clean through the leg of another ghoul on the street just below the first one. Both shots did what Deb expected them to. The ghouls suddenly slowed down to barely a limp.
For the moment, the woman seemed safe.
Suddenly, he and Therand both heard the woman scream again as she looked back and spotted two more ghouls quickly making their way towards her.
Therand saw a ghoul leap on top of the roof of a nearby building that may have served to store supplies for the town. It quickly sprinted across the roof. Then, incredibly, it leaped and cleared over twenty feet to land on the edge of a house’s rooftop.
Therand fired his bow and struck the creature just as it landed. Quickly knocking another arrow, Therand fired again. His arrow pierced the creature’s arm, nearly severing it at the elbow.
Lo-kag, along with Ang, ran in the direction of the woman.
Winslow and Caldreas were also making their way towards the woman when they spotted two ghouls nearby. One was on top of a roof. The other was on the ground, running faster than any humanoid possibly could.
Caldreas quickly brought a spell to mind and cast it on the ghoul on the roof. The spell broke through the undead’s mental defense, forcing it to imagine its worst fear. It clutched its head, then shrieked in terror as if some imagined assailant was attacking it.
Deb, having trained well in coordinating his attacks with those of his allies, saw an opportunity and shot the ghoul Caldreas had just casted a spell against.
Without skipping a beat, Caldreas then shot and struck the same undead with a well-placed magic missile to the thing’s head destroying it instantly.
Meanwhile, the woman ran past Ang who just made it to the street. He saw the two ghouls far behind her, limping along, desperately trying to catch up to their prey.
The woman ran up to Lo-kag and Winslow. Both noticed that she was human, perhaps in her mid-twenties. She was disheveled and looked as though she hadn’t eaten for days. Under normal circumstances, Winslow thought she might have been quite attractive to gaze upon. He mentally thanked the fact that Amanautor’s order had no restrictions regarding celibacy—although being a noble of Cormyr meant that he should take a bride from the other noble families and not marry beneath his station.
“Please,” the woman screamed in shear terror. She began to sob uncontrollably. “Help me!”
Lo-kag ran towards the street where Ang stood. Together they formed an impenetrable wall of death no undead could pass without being torn to pieces.
“Do not fear, Goodwoman,” Winslow said with a gallant nod. “You are now safe. I am Sir Winslow Crestkeeper the Third, noble of Cormyr. Upon my word, I will protect you or die trying.”
The woman—if she even heard the paladin—didn’t slow down, instead running towards the safety of the nearby tower.
Back on top of the tower, Deb saw the fourth ghoul quickly making its way towards where Winslow was standing. He wasn’t sure if the paladin had spotted it. Nevertheless, he took aim and fired, striking the creature in the leg and slowing it down.
Ang and Lo-kag both stood their ground waiting for the two ghouls farther down the street to make their way towards them both.
Caldreas, seeing the undead thing rushing towards Winslow, shot it with a magic missile. The spell blew out a chunk of flesh from its shoulder but it hardly reacted to the attack.
The first two ghouls, the one on the rooftop and the other one on the street, picked up speed as they made their way towards the awaiting barbarian and fighter. The one on the rooftop reached the edge of the roof and launched itself at Ang some thirty feet away. Ang anticipated the attack and was ready to confront the foul undead.
The attack never happened.
Ang heard a loud WOOSH, followed by the wet sound of a body slamming into the ground in front of him. Ang blinked in disbelief. The ghoul, which moments before was hurtling through the air at him, was lying on the ground—in two pieces. Apparently, Lo-kag had stepped up next to him a second before and with a powerful swing, had cleaved the ghoul in two while it was in midair.
The other ghoul, just a short distance away, saw what happened. Rather than confront the two deadly foes before it, the ghoul turned and noticed the lone paladin standing just on the other side of a stone wall that ran the length of the street.
It leaped, easily clearing the stone wall. It landed on the other side and leaped again straight at Winslow. The paladin tried to block the incoming ghoul with his shield but the full weight of the undead struck his shield with enough force to knock him down. His head struck the ground hard, while his shield arm went limp.
Winslow felt as if his chest was on fire. Blood—his own—splattered against his face as the ghoul clawed at his chest tearing through magical links as if they were made of paper. Bleeding profusely, Winslow fought to keep conscious as the intense pain threatened to overcome him.
Deb was quick to react. As soon as he saw the ghoul on top of Winslow, he pulled back his bowstring with all the strength he could muster. He then let loose an arrow that struck the undead in the leg, striking it with enough force to throw it off of the wounded paladin.
Therand followed suit, striking the undead with an arrow that tore a hole through its chest. It fell to the ground and never got back up again.
Caldreas walked up to Winslow and helped him to stand back up. Winslow thanked the wizard then proceded to walk towards the remaining ghoul.
The last ghoul hissed in anger at the sight of the paladin coming at it. It crouched on all fours, like some wild animal ready to pounce on its next meal. With a feral growl, it leaped straight for the paladin—its clawed hands outstretched in front of it.
It never reached the paladin.
Deb, who had momentarily lost sight of the last ghoul behind a small cottage, kept his bow aimed at where he suspected the ghoul would be. He saw Winslow move in the direction where he last saw the undead thing. Trusting his instincts, he never took his eyes off of the paladin.
As soon as he saw the ghoul come into view, he took his shot. His arrow took flight and sped towards his target.
Winslow, with his shield before him, raised his sword and was ready to strike down the ghoul leaping at him. But before he could attack, the ghoul was suddenly struck by an arrow that zipped past his left ear, burying itself in the thing’s leg and knocking it down to the ground.
The paladin knew the ghoul was dead…again. He hoped it would stay that way. He then turned and looked back at Deb, who was barely visible on the top of the tower behind him. He saluted the ranger in gratitude.
With the battle won, everyone regrouped inside the tower. Winslow healed himself and thanked Amaunator in prayer. However, he wished his god could grant him the healing power to do more. If only he could heal the zombie plague that may, at that moment, be coursing through his body. Winslow knew that only time would tell—a full day, in fact—whether or not he had contracted the disease.
The group then questioned the woman who said her name was Breeanan, a citizen of Hluthvar. She said that she believed she may be the only survivor left in Hluthvar.
Months ago it seemed, Zhentarim soldier attacked the town. Many died defending the town but in the end, Hluthvar fell to the invaders who came from the direction of Darkhold, a known stronghold of the Black Network. Though many in Hluthvar were taken prisoner and marched off to Darkhold, many were also kept prisoners in town.
Breeanan then spoke of how nearly two tendays ago, she and her daughter Sahra awoke one night to the screams of Zhentarim soldiers. Looking out from her home, where she and her daughter were allowed by the Zhentarims to continue living, she was horrified to see a horde of undead attacking every Zhentarim in sight. The ghouls didn’t spare anyone, attacking Zhentarims and Hlutvarian citizens alike.
For almost three days, the screams continued. Then suddenly it stopped. For almost a full day, she and Sahra continued to hide in the root cellar of her house. She was too afraid to even peek outside to see if it was safe enough for the two of them to escape. Eventually, when they both felt safe enough to come out of hiding, they made their way through the town, hiding whenever they saw signs of undead nearby. Eventually, they were captured by several ghouls. She feared the worst but was instead taken back to the lair of the ghouls’ master—Vrikus.
Vrikus’s lair was what remained of The Halls of Justice, the town’s only temple and one built for the worship of Bahamut, the dragon-god of justice. The temple had collapsed into a massive sinkhole that appeared under the town’s center soon after the undead horde’s attack.
In Vrikus’s lair, Breeanan said she and her daughter were held prisoner, but for how long she didn’t know. But by Bahamut’s blessings, she managed to escape when…
As everyone listened to the woman, Lo-kag became suspicious of how calmly Breeanan was telling the others what had happened. To Lo-kag, her story seemed scripted— or rehearsed. He looked at everyone else and noted how Caldreas too, seemed suspicious of the woman’s tale.
Lo-kag had had enough.
He walked to Breeanan and stood in front of her. He towered over her. “Your story reeks of lies, woman!” Lo-kag said with a tone that could have stopped an owlbear in its tracks.
The intimidating sight of the armored goliath in front of Breeanan was too much for her. Breeanan’s lips trembled in fear. She then burst into tears and collapsed to her knees.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry,” the woman said as she continued to cry uncontrollably. “You’re right. I haven’t been honest with all of you!”
Winslow tried to comfort the grieving woman. “Speak, Goodwoman,” Winslow said. “Speak truth, and you will find us more than capable of helping.”
Breeanan went on to confess that she was sent by Vrikus to lure the adventurers out of the tower and back to the ghoul lord’s lair. The ghouls chasing her were not going to harm her but were commanded by Vrikus only make her plight all the more convincing.
“What about your daughter Sahra?” Ang asked. “Did you make her up?”
“No! By Bahamut’s blood, no.”
“Then where is she?” Deb asked.
“And no more lies,” Caldreas added. “If we are to help you, then we must be able to trust you.”
Breeanan told about how she and her daughter were captured by ghouls and brought before Vrikus. The ghoul lord held them both hostage for days, threatening to turn them into foul undead servants who would do his bidding for all eternity. But the arrival of the adventurers changed everything. Vrikus sent ghouls to feast upon the newcomers, or turn them into undead. But the ghoul lord didn’t expect the adventurers to be as skilled as they were.
So, instead, Vrikus sent Breeanan as bait to lure them back to his lair. To ensure that Breeanan would do as commanded, Vrikus kept Sahra locked up in a small cage near him promising to personally slay the young girl if she failed in her task.
The group was sickened by what they had heard, but no one doubted the woman this time.
“Breeanan,” Winslow said. “Your plight is now our cause. As a paladin of the Keeper of the Sun, my sword now serves you. You will soon be safely reunited with your daughter. This I swear.”
“How many ghouls are there?” Deb asked.
“There are more than I count,” Breeanan replied. “Although I overheard Vrikus ordering another ghoul to send one hundred ghouls towards Darkhold.”
Therand couldn’t believe how many ghouls there were in Hluthvar. “What we need now is a plan.”
Deb turned to his friends. “I have an idea.”
Everyone gathered in a circle and listened to the halfling outline his plan.
It sounded simple enough. Since Vrikus expected Breeanan to lead them into a trap, that was exactly what they were going to do. Walk into a trap.
They would follow Breeanan into the edge of the pit at the center of town. Once there, the ghouls that lay in ambush—nearly a dozen as the woman claimed—would attack. The adventurers would then lead the ghouls away from the pit, towards the tower, and fight them there. Meanwhile, Breeanan would return to Vrikus and ask for her daughter’s freedom—as the ghoul lord had promised. Once her daughter was safely with her, Breeanan would flee back to the tower to rejoin the others.
Winslow questioned whether or not Vrikus would keep his word—considering his being an undead. No one knew for certain but hoped he would keep his word to the woman.
“We are sorely outnumbered,” Winslow warned. “But I have a suggestion. We speak to the Zhentarim prisoners. Give them the opportunity to fight for their freedom.”
Deb was catching on. “That is the best idea you’ve ever had!” Deb said.
The group then made their way back to the jailhouse and freed the three Zhentarim soldiers. They offered them a proposition. If they were to fight alongside the adventurers, they would earn their freedom. Although, they were warned not to head to Darkhold because of the horde of undead that they knew were probably already terrorizing the dark stronghold.
The Zhentarims were willing to give up being soldiers for the Black Network if they could have equal share of any treasures found. Everyone agreed to their request. Some even offered to pay them in gold if they gave up their evil ways as Zhentarim soldiers.
Winslow went further by offering the three soldiers full pardons by the crown of Cormyr if they returned with him to the Forest Kingdom. There, he said, they could live their lives as free men or perhaps even serve in the King’s army if they were deemed trustworthy.
The soldiers were open to all of their suggestions.
The Zhentarim soldiers were given back their shields and swords, but not their crossbows. Those, the group agreed, would be returned when their mission was complete. They were also warned that any treachery on their part would be met with a swift and deadly response. The soldiers, who said their names were Taerin, Leoneiros, and Arroway, knew that the skilled adventurers could easily carry out their threats.
So, with the group now stronger by three, they gathered their equipment. With Breeanan leading the way as planned, they all followed her towards the center of Hluthvar.
Everyone knew they were walking right into a deadly trap.
Winslow, Ang, Lo-kag, Deb, Caldreas, Therand
Breeanan (citizen of Hluthvar), Taerin, Leoneiros, and Arroway (former Zhentarim soldiers)