They came upon another crooked figure in a field. Abby and Kara nocked arrows and fired. The alchemist’s shot went wide of the mark, but the warrior’s sped true, and buried loudly into flesh.
A scream of agony tore through the air: Not the howl of a hungry ghoul enraged, but the rending cry of a living person in pain.
Realization dawned on Gloriana, overwhelming and absolute, as if all sound had rushed out of the cosmos and left only voiceless horror.
“No!” the oracle cried as she dismounted and raced forward in desperation. Abby, too, leapt from horseback and followed at a run. Gloriana nearly crashed against the body slumped in ropes from the support posts. The illumination from her torch and Abby’s lightstone showed a woman dressed in kirtle and blouse and sturdy farm apron, wearing years of life in the sun, years working fields alongside family, years bearing children and burying children. Her eyes were milk-white, her skin slick pallid grey, but she was still human, not yet claimed by the disease ushering her to undeath. Abby’s arrow had cleanly transfixed the woman’s torso: A warrior’s shot, implacable as mountain stone, irreversible as time.
“No no no no,” the oracle moaned and tears welled up in her eyes, spilling forth. Ghostly white wisps like steam from a frozen river filled the air around her, rising gently and coalescing into the shape of a faint bird that flapped its wings slowly and faded into darkness. Gloriana drew her dagger and began to hurriedly cut the ropes, trying to support the body gently at the same time in vainest hope that something might still be done, but as the woman’s form crumpled to the ground the oracle knew it was too late.
Abby looked on, flustered and downcast. Gloriana’s quiet sobs sounded behind the rustling breeze among ruined stalks.
“Glo,” the warrior said quietly. The oracle paid no heed as she held the body close, tears spilling gently onto the dead woman’s face like soft rain. “Glo,” Abby tried again, and placed a supportive hand on the oracle’s shoulder. The honey-haired woman softly crooned a Varisian lament for those who no longer tread the Road. Kara and Rahab approached slowly, leading the horses.
“Glo, this is not your fault. I shot her.”
“I had the power to prevent this,” Gloriana replied through tears, her voice aching. “I did not look into the veil to see what hid there.” Her wavy curls drifted as she shook her head against the understanding. “I could have prevented this.”
“You could not have known,” Abby replied quietly.
Gloriana looked up in anger, sudden, sharp, and rising, as brilliant as the golden light her body became when transformed into energy, as shining as dawn on the still waters of an alpine lake. “Ghosts of the road, Abby! I could have known, don’t you see? It was within my power to know, but I did not look and I did not tell you!” The oracle could not see for renewed tears. “May the spirits forgive me.” Her voice sank again.
Kara stood at remove next to Rahab. The alchemist turned to the wizard, noting the signs of cognitive struggle in his expression as he looked upon Abby, Gloriana, and the dead woman.
“Rahab,” Kara said quietly, just out of hearing from the warrior and the oracle. The alchemist affixed a stern gaze upon the conjurer, a gaze she had learned in years under her father’s tutelage. “Primbartheen. Vard. Agrus. Lamnid.” 1
Rahab remained in silent thought. Kara turned back to look at Gloriana and Abby.
The warrior tried to sound as gentle as possible: “Will she become a ghoul?”
Gloriana had laid the body supine, folding arms across belly and placing two copper coins over the eyes. The spent arrow shaft still rose obscenely from the corpse. Gloriana gripped it in sudden rage and snapped it off at the ribs, then cast it away as though it were poison. She breathed hard, still wracked with tears. When she finally rose she shook her head. “No. Her death . . . came before the disease could claim her. I do not know what tradition her people keep.”
“Then our best course,” Kara said, moving a few steps closer, “would be to leave her for her people to tend. They will know what to do. Come, Glori. We still have work to do.”
The oracle did not respond, only moved slowly toward her horse. Rahab held out the reins. As she mounted, she looked around at her friends. “Take no action until I give word.” Then she said a brief prayer and closed her eyes; when she opened them again she perceived the veil, and still her tears came, silent and steady, rain on road.
Midnight approached. They found another scarecrow near the edge of one of the fields to the east. Gloriana concentrated on it and detected no taint of undeath. Abby noticed the figure was smaller than others they had encountered. She put away her bow, dismounted, and drew her sword and shield. Kara kept an arrow nocked. Rahab took the reins of the warrior’s horse.
The warrior approached the scarecrow warily. “Hail!” she risked shouting. The figure on the posts stirred. As Abby neared she realized it was a child.
Or a halfling.
“Gods!” Abby suddenly cried out, and ran toward the body lashed to the frame. “It’s Lem!”
The others spurred their horses quickly forward as the warrior cut the ropes to free the gardener. Gloriana dismounted quickly and cast a spell of healing on the dazed gardener. In the glow of Abby’s lightstone the oracle saw the wan, drawn pallor of Lem’s skin, the waxy complexion and bits of milky crust accumulating around the eyelids that indicated the early stages of ghoul fever.
“Lem?” Gloriana asked urgently. The gardener was awake, but unfocused, unresponsive. The oracle retrieved her waterskin and poured precious liquid into his mouth. Abby helped ease him to rest on the ground.
“Is it too late?” the warrior asked.
Gloriana shook her head. “No, but he is very weak, and injured.” She drew open Lem’s shirt at the neck and the bite wound showed sickly and ragged in the light, crusted with blood and pus. “He will need all his resilience to hold out against the disease. It is still in its early stages, but we must get him to Father Zantus.”
“What about the rest of the area?”
“Yes, we cannot leave until we have cleared as much as we can. We must prevent any further incursion.” Gloriana chanted two restorative prayers over Lem.2 A warm glow passed over the gardener, and his eyes fluttered twice, then opened as he drew a ragged breath. His complexion improved slightly and he began flexing his fingers. The oracle took the wand of healing magic and used it to close Lem’s wounds.
“We found you!” Abby insisted.
Kara had approached, leaving Rahab with the horses. “What happened, Lem?” the alchemist asked.
The gardener took another long drink of water, nodding curt thanks at Gloriana. “I heard you were leaving town. I followed.”
Kara and Abby exchanged a confused glance. Lem resumed: “I lost track of you the other day . . .” He looked suddenly uncertain. “I think it was the other day . . .”
The gardener seemed to slip into a fugue, then shook his head. “I have been avoiding contact out here as best I could, trying to find you. Before dawn I saw you . . . thought I had caught up. But it wasn’t you. It was . . . .” Lem passed a hand over his eyes against the memory. Gloriana and Abby helped him to his feet.
“I walked right into them.”
“Can you remember anything else?” the warrior asked. “Which way did they travel?”
“No. After that . . . no. Everything aches,” Lem rubbed his shoulders and winced.
“The ghouls bit you and left you here,” Gloriana said. “You are suffering their fever. We have to get you to help.”
“I feel a little better.”
“Not for long. Stay with us, and we will get you the healing you need. We have to finish our sweep of the fields to make sure there are no more ghouls. They have been attacking the people in this area. After that we make for Sandpoint and healing.”
Lem said nothing, but Gloriana thought she saw the gardener’s eyes narrow in the torchlight, though she could not be sure. Lem reached down under his trouser leg to the dagger he kept at his medial shin, then looked at the others. “Well?”
They remounted their horses; Abby pulled Lem up behind her. Gloriana once again opened her sight to the blighting and they resumed their journey northwest along the perimeter of a harvested wheat field.
A sudden pain shuddered through Lem’s body, rising from deep inside. It was a sensation of creeping insistence and sinister menace, as though his lungs were slowly filling, not with water, but something else that threatened to steal breath. It was cold, and granular, and it terrified him in a way he had not previously known. It felt like soil filling up within: Not warm loamy ground at the foundation of a good garden, but cold, sodden earth of the grave, drifting and spilling as dead hands pushed it away, clawing up from a place entombed. The gardener swallowed hard, and a thought rang in his mind like the tolling of a miserable bell: I was getting out. Gods damn you all, I was getting out.
They found more scarecrows. They found more ghouls lashed to posts and these they destroyed when Gloriana had given the word. They found another infected human, not yet made monster.
When they cut the man free he collapsed. Gloriana and Abby lifted him partly upright, and his head lolled. The oracle cast a spell of restoration to help the man fight against the sickness, and though the man was momentarily strengthened, the disease remained.
“. . . hiding in Hambley’s barn . . . my wife . . . ” the man’s voice faltered. “My wife . . . out here. Lettie. They took her . . . .”
Abby looked at Gloriana, but the oracle would not meet her gaze.
“Show us where the barn is so we can stop this,” Gloriana said softly to the man.
He extended a trembling arm. “Hambley Farm. West. I am Horan . . . of Greenfield Farm. My Lettie is out . . . please.”
“Shhhh,” Gloriana whispered, her head leaning forward such that her curls drifted down around her face to hide the tears on her cheeks. “We need to get you some help from Sandpoint, Horan. Come.” She reached her hand out and with Abby lifted the fevered man gingerly onto Rahab’s saddle where he slumped against the horse’s neck. The wizard led from on foot with the reins lightly in hand.
“Rahab,” Gloriana said, “if he starts biting, let me know.”
“I will consider it.”
Not another hundred yards and three more howls of hungry rage rattled from the broken stalks of a harvested cornfield. Figures in patched farm clothes leapt through the moonlight, sharp teeth agleam, long tongues dangling like perverse flags.
“Do it!” Gloriana called out as her spirit-sight read the blighted veil. Abby fired a shot from her bow and the missile struck home.
Lem scrambled down from behind Abby. “How do we fight these?” the gardener shouted.
“From a distance is better,” the oracle replied. Rahab began casting a spell of summoning and Kara drank her extract of shielding. The warrior continued to fire arrows, scoring a second hit, then a third. Already she had slain two of the ghouls.
“Back up!” Abby cried as still more monsters appeared loping and grimacing from the fields. Gloriana dismounted and a moment later became pure energy, golden, luminous, vibrant, anathema to everything undead. The wizard’s spell summoned a giant frog the size of a human. The goggle-eyed beast was deep green streaked with bright yellow and limned all-around with a subtle light the way mist shines when transfixed by a sunbeam.3 The amphibian immediately attacked: Muscular tongue the girth of an anchor chain snared a ghoul mid-leap, hauling the undead to the ground in a stout grapple.
Another ghoul closed with Abby but missed, and the warrior dropped her bow and unlimbered her brilliant silver-bright shield with practiced ease. The giant frog drew the ghoul close to bite, but the monster struck the summoned amphibian in turn. Kara unlimbered her own bow and began firing from horseback. Abby maneuvered opposite Lem who had crept deftly among the hewn cornstalks and now she and the gardener flanked one of the ghouls. The warrior’s sword arced and struck a glancing blow, but the distraction was enough that Lem’s precision attack went unseen. Dagger ripped deep into the undead at the kidney, driving across the spine and severing the great nerve. The ghoul crumpled and expired.
Gloriana channeled golden power outward and the three necrophages in range were bathed in sanctified light that blistered sickly-grey flesh. Rahab arced a purple spiked lozenge of arcane force into a fourth ghoul bounding from the side and the blast ripped through its torso, dropping it unceremoniously into a furrow.
The remaining monsters lasted no more than a few seconds as Lem and Abby combined to dispatch them, and the oracle’s body resolidified so she could bring her morningstar to bear, crushing the skull of the last undead. Rahab’s giant frog vanished back to the otherworldly plane from whence it had arrived.
There was little time to recover. In the distance a shape loomed in the moonlight, squat and broad and angle-roofed: Hambley Farm. As they neared Rahab could see the giant stone shape that dominated one of the barn corners. Called The Stone Warrior, the famed monolith was an ancient statue from ages past.
“Let’s burn it,” Abby suggested abruptly. Gloriana looked suddenly shocked and Kara frowned.
“Abby! A family lives here! The barn is part of their livelihood!” the oracle chided. In the torchlight it was difficult to recognize that Gloriana was trembling in anger and regret.
The warrior lapsed into silence and stared into the distance.
“We should see what awaits,” Lem ventured, “then make a decision. Let me see what I can find.” The gardener snuck into the darkness beyond the party’s light sources. Gloriana stood by Rahab’s horse and checked on Horan. The fevered farmer had fallen unconscious.
Lem returned a few minutes later. “Let’s burn it,” he said simply, nodding at Abby. Gloriana whirled around.
“There’s something inside the barn, shuffling around,” Lem offered quietly before the oracle spoke. “It will force the fight out into the open, and may give us an advantage.”
Gloriana opened her mouth but Kara interrupted: “Glori, given everything we have seen, anything moving at the farm is likely ghoul. You said this place is livelihood to a family, but I fear the family is already lost. If this farm is to see life again then we must destroy the taint to make way for restoration. In agriculture it is sometimes necessary to set fire to fields that new crop may grow.” The oracle looked at the alchemist with growing sadness.
The gardener coughed suddenly and spat a great line of phlegm roughly onto the ground, a clutching pain raking his chest from the inside. Gloriana’s mind raced and her head suddenly hurt with the monstrousness of it all: Lem’s and Horan’s illness, the families in the area made corpse-eaters and become plague upon their own farmlands, a new menace on Sandpoint’s doorstep mere weeks after conquering a previous threat, villagers butchered by some predator seeking Gloriana, and a still-living woman slain by mistake in ghoul-haunted moonlight.
“Lem,” Gloriana said, her voice cracking with rage. “Stand close.” The oracle drew a scroll of divine magic and read its contents, the page fragmenting and blowing away in the night breeze as the magic unfolded and encased the gardener in a power that blinded his presence to the sight of the undead.4
“Scout the rest of the farm. Return and tell us what you find. You have ten minutes,” the oracle said softly. Lem hesitated. “Well? What are you waiting for?” Gloriana demanded. “On with it before I change my mind!” Wispy-white sprites appeared momentarily in the air around her, then faded like frost under warm breath.
Lem’s glance was unreadable. The gardener turned and jogged away in silence, his joints aching.
Beyond the barn Lem found the farmhouse, and his lithe form easily allowed him access through a ground-floor window left open when the Hambley family had become undead. A few minutes later he made his way back to the others at the perimeter.
“Five in the barn, three in the house beyond,” Lem reported as he rejoined the radius of light. “There is nothing left of who they were. There is something else in the house, like a ghoul, but different. Where the others are merely lean, this one is somehow more . . . ” he struggled to find the right word, “ . . . looming.”
The others looked to Gloriana but she gave no answer, her hand gently caressing Horan’s hair as the farmer slumbered in fitful pain on Rahab’s horse.
Abby hefted sword and shield. “Lem, light the barn. We move.”
The gardener nodded and received the flask of lamp oil that Rahab had passed to Kara. “I will bar the doors to contain them if I can.” Once more Lem slipped away. Abby began to make her way toward the barnyard. The others fell into step behind. Rahab had hobbled the horses in the field, and Gloriana used her power to establish the link of vitality between herself and her friends.
Lem easily snuck to the barn and managed to lift the great plank into place barring the main doors. Then the halfling crept around to the back where a low window gave access. He crouched in the darkness, listening to the muffled sounds inside: the scrape of claws on wood, the slavering of tongues, the sharp click of teeth, gurgling growls. In a moment he had struck sparks from flint and steel onto the pitch-rags of a torch. As the brand blazed he pitched the oil flask through the window. The sound of the container shattering echoed loudly in the night. In the next instant the gardener overhanded the torch through the window and immediately turned to run, expecting to hear the heavy rush of air as the oil caught fire.
But the sound did not come. Instead, a shape appeared at the window and suddenly vaulted through with a blood-curdling cry. Lem glanced over a shoulder as he ran and saw the loping form in pursuit, humanoid but scrabbling along on all fours, long tongue sliding greedily over sharp teeth agleam in the moonlight. Lem turned, drew a dagger, and swiped as the monster neared. He missed. The gardener grimly realized the torch must have missed inside the barn.
In the yard Abby and Kara took up position between the stone monument and the farmhouse. Gloriana moved close to the warrior as Rahab cast a spell of resistance upon the oracle. The wooden barn door suddenly rattled, then a moment later ghouls appeared at the front barn windows. Abby waited while Kara fired an arrow and struck her target. The conjurer launched a dart of magical acid as the ghoul dropped to the ground and the caustic missile lanced through the monster’s face, felling it.
Lem ducked and ran again, pushing hard to sprint just barely ahead of the ghoul in pursuit.5 He rounded the barn corner and into the light of the party’s torches and stones. The barn plank burst suddenly under pressure from within and the doors spilled open, admitting more ghouls into the dirt of the yard. Gloriana channeled holy power and two of the undead howled as golden light poured over them. The alchemist abandoned her bow and hefted one of her incendiary bombs at the necrophages in the doorway. Sudden fire burst in the air and two ghouls flailed, guttering and screaming.
Now the barn caught fire.
A ghoul bounded at Rahab and suddenly the wizard was struck by a set of grime-caked claws. A horrid shudder rippled through the conjurer’s body and he felt something inside suffusing his muscles with a chilling darkness. The ghoul looked on in delight, dead-white eyes pale and milky and malicious. Rahab cried out faintly, his throat fighting to give expression as his feet stumbled backwards. Then, just as quickly as it had come, the sensation passed,6 leaving the wizard wan, shaken, and sweating. He managed to retreat a few steps and launched an acid dart into his foe. The sizzling line peeled the ghoul open at the torso and destroyed the undead.
Gloriana unlimbered her crossbow and fired a bolt into another ghoul. Kara noticed that the door of the farmhouse had suddenly flown open and new figures were emerging into the yard to the left. Abby stepped closer to the barn and hacked one ghoul down with her sword, then crushed another with her shield in a backhand smash that burst the skull like a melon. The oracle stepped a little closer to Rahab and the wizard felt his wound heal slightly under the magic of her vitality link.
As he turned the corner Lem suddenly shifted direction and slashed wide with his dagger, wounding the ghoul that pursued him just as it emerged from around the barn wall. It retaliated hungrily, but missed as the gardener deftly ducked and danced away. Kara threw another fire bomb at the new group of figures at the farmhouse, but her throw was off-target and she only managed to administer a small splash of fire to one of the undead. The alchemist began fumbling for a vial of her special red liquid.
Gloriana channeled power once more, blasting all the ghouls in range with light. Lem continued to shred the monster at the barn corner with dagger cuts and stabs as the growing fire flickered up the frame and façade. Abby turned to the ghouls from the farmhouse and killed another with an overhand swing that cut through the torso, shattering ribs and bursting innards.
The alchemist found herself menaced by the creature Lem had singled out for mention in his scouting report. It was some kind of ghoul, clearly, with a mouth of razor teeth and cloudy eyes, but it seemed somehow taller and more potent than its fellows. It wore a long footman’s coat with burnished brass buttons that glinted in the firelight. Kara dodged a swiping attack and uncorked the bottle in her hands, throwing the red liquid into her mouth haphazardly. A moment later she leaned forward and exhaled a gout of flame that coated the lanky corpse-eater in a small inferno.
Rahab seized the opportunity and launched another acid dart into the midst of the melee. His magic struck true, carving a gruesome, bubbling canyon in the lanky ghoul’s throat and the monster collapsed in a misshapen heap near the alchemist’s feet.
Lem continued to administer slices and stabs, now to the upper arm, now to the thigh, now to the lower back. Gloriana fired a second crossbow bolt but the shot missed, disappearing into the darkness beyond the barn. Abby charged the last ghoul, impaling the undead on her sword, pinning the monster to the burning barn wall.
Then the only sound was the crackling chorus of the fire rising in tongues of red and orange. Abby and Lem stepped back from the billowing heat, framed in silhouette against the darting glow. Rahab breathed heavily and pressed a hand against his chest where the ghoul had raked him. Kara retrieved her bow. Gloriana looked about in misery. The gardener leaned forward, rested his hands on his knees, and vomited.
The party searched the lanky ghoul’s corpse and found a large iron key bearing a crest that Gloriana recognized. She had seen the symbol weeks ago on the heraldry of Aldern Foxglove and his servants, and upon the ring the noble had given her as a token of his admiration.
They ventured into the farmhouse and found the place every bit the horror the sawmill had shown in Sandpoint. Bloody streaks and stains were everywhere. A dog’s broken and torn carcass was cast on the stairs. A man’s corpse draped across the table in the kitchen, naked to the waist, a ragged wound in the shape of a seven-pointed star carved brutally in the skin of his chest. A spit had been employed to pin a folded, bloodstained parchment to the body. Gloriana did not move, her eyes shining blackly in the flickering torchlight, her expression rigid, gone beyond fear and sadness into a place of haunted, smoldering fury.
Rahab plucked the spit from the body and retrieved the note. Once again, the exterior had been scrawled in bloody address to the oracle. The wizard unfolded the parchment and read the message in silence:
Take the fever into you, my love. It shall be the first of my gifts to you. –Your Lordship
Rahab folded the note and passed it to Kara. The alchemist elected to stow the parchment away. There was a long, still silence.
Gloriana turned and walked out of the farmhouse into the night, her boots rattling the bloodstained planks of the floor.
1 Roughly interpreted: “Don’t. You. Say. A fucking. Word.”
2 Two lesser restoration spells, one allowed Lem to recover 4 points of Constitution, the other 3 points of Dexterity.
3 Summon monster II brought a celestial giant frog.
4 Hide from undead.
5 Lem is executing a double move.
6 Rahab succeeded at the Fortitude save against paralysis only by spending a Hero Point.