The wet branches and tangled undergrowth of Backar Forest slowed Ella as she ran, snagging at her muddy tabard and catching on the crossbow strapped to her back. Her breath came in short, ragged gasps as she paused to free herself. Although the sharp briars pricked her fingers, she ripped free and pushed on, her heavy steps churning the mud underfoot until she finally broke from the thicket. A shower of dislodged rain further soaked her hair, following the blonde curls wetly stuck to her face and bringing the taste of her own tears to her mouth. Despite the rising fear in the pit of her stomach, the girl’s senses felt sharper and more alive than ever. As she ran, she could smell the scent of pine on the damp breeze, the earth and leaves of the forest floor, and even the wet leather and metal buckles of the straps holding her armor and weapons in place. All a stark reminder she still lived. And yet, behind her, she could also hear the delight of the ghouls pacing her over the rain, tirelessly closing in, ready to feed on her flesh, or worse—make her one of their own.
With that thought spurring her on, Ella sprinted down a little-used game trail, her hopes lifting as she made faster progress. The path led downward, towards the gorge and river, where she hoped to quickly cross, despite the flood—anything to put an obstacle between her and the undead. But she misjudged the steep descent in the fading light. Her left foot suddenly slipped on the angled hillside, sliding through a layer of rain-slick pine needles that sent her crashing to the ground. Her momentum rapidly carried her downhill, bursting through the treeline and over the edge of a high ridge overlooking the flood waters of the swollen Nosam River, thirty feet below.
Awash in a mudslide, Ella grabbed for anything to slow her fall down the sharp embankment. She blindly latched onto a thin sapling ten feet down, but the grip twisted her shoulder at an awkward angle against the hard edge of her breastplate, bringing her to a painful, jarring stop. Something popped in her shoulder, wrenching an anguished cry from her lips, audible even over the churning water below. Along with the noise of her descent, it clearly alerted her pursuers. Ella could already hear them scrabbling down the same muddy slope, but with far more caution than she could have spared. Hanging from the trunk of the sharply-bent tree, she braced herself against the embankment and looked up at three sets of feral, red eyes gleaming in the dark. The indrawn hiss of their laughter made sport of her predicament, but one of the ghouls already picked its way down the slope to reach her.
Looking down, Ella debated letting go and taking a chance on swimming for the other side, but she knew her armor would weigh her down. And, tired as she’d become, she’d only drown in the strong current as the river claimed her. Holding on with her injured arm, she reached down to free the mace belted at her waist, preparing to defend herself as the ghoul drew closer. She could already smell its carrion stink, despite the heavy downpour. A grin of eagerness spread across its face when it spied her arming herself, almost as if the ghoul relished her defiance. Like a pack of wolves, the others circled around to the other side, lowering themselves through the remaining saplings with an unearthly grace they could never have managed when alive.
“Get away!” Ella shouted, trying to summon enough courage and intensity to make the ghouls hesitate or back off. But they weren’t so easily dissuaded. One of the monsters paused to gnaw through a short tree limb, holding it as a makeshift weapon while the others drew near. Initially, Ella didn’t understand the threat until the first ghoul reached for her. She swung her mace to drive it back, but the other thrust the splayed tree branch to blind and impede her. Ella batted it aside just in time to see the third reaching for her wounded arm in an attempt to pull her up. Her adrenaline surged as she swung again, smashing the creature’s claw against a rock with a satisfying crunch of bone. The ghoul gnashed its teeth in pain and pulled away, its hateful eyes promising a much worse retribution when they claimed her.
“There is no escape, priestess.” The first ghoul hissed the words in the common-tongue. “We’ll have our fill even if you fall. Water cannot drown us, so we don’t fear the river. We’ll find your body no matter where it lies.” Ella stared back at the ghoul, a frantic terror starting to take root as she grappled with the certainty of her death. She couldn’t deny the ghoul’s words. They would have her one way or another. She looked down at the raging water again, imagining a death by drowning to be preferable to the claws and teeth of such monsters. At least if they found her lifeless body, she’d be beyond caring.
As she leaned out over the river and prepared to let go, a key-shaped pendant slipped free from her tunic and breastplate, suspended from a gold chain around her neck. It gleamed with a permanent radiance, provided on the day she passed her final rites and became a faithful acolyte of Abadar. The holy symbol inexorably drew her eyes, mocking her final moments.
“Please don’t abandon me! Not now…not like this…” she pleaded. But the words sounded hollow, even in her own ears. Her sin locked her away from her god. The justiciars had told her so. And the Master of the First Vault would never again hear her prayers. After all, it was she who abandoned him, forsaking her vows to steal from the church treasury. In the eyes of his Lawgiver she was nothing more than a common thief now. And if she wanted to change that, she’d have to undo her crime.
The ghouls leaned in again. She could smell their growing stink as they swayed back and forth, perched on bowed saplings like ever-patient vultures. They would come from both sides now. She had no way to fight them off.
And then she heard the growl. Not from one of the ghouls. But an animal growl, like that of a dog or wolf. She looked up in unison with her attackers at the ridgeline. In the weak light, she made out the figure of not only a large dog, but also a man. His bow thrummed, and one of the ghouls jerked under the impact of an arrow buried in its chest all the way to the black fletching. The beast lost its grip on the tree and plummeted into the river. Seizing the opportunity, Ella pushed off from the bank, using her own bowed sapling to swing herself into another of her tormentors. The ghoul never saw her coming. She lashed out with both feet, connecting solidly with its midsection. The monster held on, but the added force of Ella’s blow uprooted its small tree. The sapling tore away from the eroded hillside, dumping the ghoul into the river before it could drag her along.
With a snarl, the last of the ghouls—the one who’d spoken—began scrambling up the slope in an attempt to reach the newcomer. The man’s dog positioned itself to intercept the monster, delaying the ghoul long enough until another arrow found its mark. It wasn’t a killing shot, but the ghoul recognized it couldn’t overpower the rescuers in time. With a gleam in its eye, it turned instead for Ella again, launching itself to take them both into the river. But Ella saw it coming. She pushed off again, swinging her tree in the other direction. The ghoul sailed past, reaching out to mark her cheek with a dirty claw before disappearing into the flood. The scratch stung and began to burn, making her muscles go rigid and lock in place. The paralysis tightened her wounded arm’s grip on the sapling. But, much like the ghoul she’d attacked, her tree started to uproot from her abuse, lowering even further towards the river. She heard the man call out above, probably urging her to climb higher or switch to another tree. But she had no way to respond. The sapling pulled free and she dropped into the roaring dark.