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Twisted Tales: The Children's Crusade
by Darren Maclennan
An adventure plot which can be used in any fantasy or horror campaign
This adventure is designed primarily for a "standard" fantasy world where magic is somewhat common. In a low fantasy world, it becomes far more horrific and disturbing, but the effects will need to be toned down for it to be believable. For more modern fantasy-horror, subtlety will be vital. For example, the children should not be recognisably undead unless very closely examined. Otherwise, this adventure can be used widely with little adjustment. No special character types or personalities are needed, except that the players should have some affiliation to the town in question, to ensure their motivation.
There have been strange portents for the last two weeks. Somebody came in and told his story to whoever would listen, about having seen figures walking through the forest at night, leaving behind bits of rotted human flesh. The kicker to this story is that the bits left behind were child-sized. A few minor officials have disappeared, and the two events wouldn't be linked if it weren't for the fact that their corpses were left covered with bits of decaying flesh. And children's toys have been found all over the city, some of them thirty years old.
The player characters can do all of the poking around they want; as a matter of fact, if they're lucky, or do enough searching, they'll come across groups of two or three zombie children, most of whom seem to be wandering without specific direction. Killing them is easy. If they bother to check the bodies, they'll notice that they're wearing fashions from some thirty years ago, and that somebody has been taking care of them - the clothing is relatively clean, and has been stitched. The question is, who resurrected them? And why?
Before the characters have a chance to think about it, a few zombie children run past them, their bodies magically animated to move quickly. Keeping up with them will require the shedding of any heavy armor or encumbrance that the characters have. They won't arrive there ready for combat, which is not necessarily a good thing. The zombie children have swarmed to a single spot in town and are currently tearing somebody apart with their teeth. It's not pretty. A few town guards are desperately trying to pull them off, but wind up needing rescue themselves. As for their victim, he disappears under the flailing bodies. If somebody tries magic (or something similar), the zombie children seem to sense it, and bump into the magic-user enough to disrupt any major spell. (If they do get off a spell, they don't kill nearly as many zombies as they like, they set near-by buildings on fire and/or damage them several, and have to answer to the town guard for what they did.)
The zombie children abruptly disperse once their victim is down to bloody bones, fleeing in all directions. Attempts to catch them will only net one or two of them - and to boot, the characters are aware that the children are still around, and probably massing for another attack. They can hunt them, if they want. Most of them are in the sewers, where they subsist on rats and various vermin. If the PCs are interested, they can descend into the sewers to hunt them down one at a time. They won't be very successful, since the children can disappear through grates that the average PC won't be able to get into. Sadistic GMs can enjoy themselves by suddenly throwing two or three waves of the children at the PCs, from all directions, and then causing lanterns to burn out, throwing everything into a confused melee in the dark.
The town guard will attempt to fight the zombies. When the zombie children strike again, the PCs will notice the town guard double-timing it to the place where the zombie children are striking. Both the town guard and the PCs will be too late to see another man torn to shreds, although they will get to watch the town guards chop down the remnants of the zombie children that didn't quite make it. The dead man is a retired captain from the city's army, and has served in it for most of his life. Of course, they won't find this out unless they ask - and even then, they're going to have to poke around, since the city guard just wants to go home without taking questions from nosy adventurers, for whom they have very little respect or time.
The attacks of the zombie children continues. The PCs can continue to try to clean out the sewers, which'll work in a very limited fashion, or they can attempt to figure out the motives behind the attacks, which will eventually yield results. If the GM wishes, the revelation about their behavior can come from a local record-keeper who's identified the clothing and identities of the zombie children.
The men being killed are related. The two that have been killed were a captain of the guard and a member of a secret cabal that eventually wound up taking control of the city's government some twenty years ago, during a messy war with another city. The fact that there was a war some twenty years ago may come as a surprise to the PCs, who perrhaps weren't really aware of the city's history until now. Any check of the city's history will reveal that it was a minor, year-long war that turned remarkably vicious with - drum roll - the slaughter of a small army's worth of children. The children themselves were a "children's crusade", sent to the other side as a ransom/guarantee for peace. On their way there, they were set upon and slaughtered by what were assumed to be the opposing city's forces. This insult kept the war going until it was won, bloodily, by the home side. But nobody ever knew who had killed the children.
The children have a sponsor that the PCs are going to have to find to solve this mystery. A wizard found the corpses of the children after they'd been killed, and gathered them together - but something else had already reanimated them. He simply kept them together and brought them away from the scene of the massacre, leaving only tiny clues as to where the bodies of the slain went. In the intervening twenty years, he took care of the children, slowly growing more and more insane as time passed.
Is the wizard responsible for the zombie children? In a sense, yes. But the truth is much, much stranger.
What happened some twenty years ago is this: A young child - let's call him Muele - was gifted in a particular fashion - from being touched by a god, or being born with natural magic talents - and immediately began to recruit youths when he hit the age of eight or so, forming a rough "army" from orphans, youth gangs, apprentices and so forth. Before too long, he had enough people to accomplish his plan.
Muele was fairly patriotic towards his home city, and wanted it to win the war. Having read through earlier accounts of massacres in a book that his parents gave him - one designed to portray his home city as the victim of unjust treatment and wanton massacre - he realized that the best way to win a war was to give his home city a cause, and a cause was best created with a massacre. Two days worth of planning resulted in a small army's worth of children going into the wilderness, towards the other city.
Muele's next step was to magically transport the children into a subdimension where they would remain children forever, leaving their physical bodies behind in the real world. Before trasnsporting himself into that subdimension, Muele mutilated the bodies with "phantom" swords and spears and left them to rot.
Meanwhile, the kindly old mage in question - let's call him Elide - found the remnants of the children. The phantom swords had left a healthy amount of remnant magick in the bodies of the children, with the result that they were animated. Elide was stunned by the massacre, but his mind completely snapped when the children got up and followed him away. All that was left were a few bodies that hadn't been animated, which were found by Muele's home city. That gave them the cause they needed, which enabled them to win the war.
Elide did what he could for the children, bringing them back to his home and learning everything that he could about necromancy. In the meantime, he also attempted to discover who had been responsible for the massacre. With Muele and the children gone, Elide began his own exploration. Within five years, he'd discovered the men that he'd thought were guilty, in the opposing town. Within two years, he'd killed fifteen men who were responsible for sending assassination teams against the home city. But when Elide interrogated their spirits, he realized that they hadn't been responsible. Elide made the same leap of logic that Muele had; the home city had killed their own children in order to win the war. That kind of treachery demanded a specific kind of vengeance.
So, after a few years of magically training the children to survive on their own, Elide sent them against the people that he believed ordered the massacre. By this time, Elide's insanity was strong enough that he didn't care about whether the men he was killing were guilty or innocent.
The killings will continue until the PCs find Elide, who's in the city and ministering to the worst wounds of the zombies. The evidence chain is fairly simple to establish - some of the zombie children's limbs have been stitched on with a rough kind of twine that's only available in a particular part of the city. (Plus, if the characters injure - but don't kill - one of the zombies, they'll see the zombie child again with its wounds stitched. That'll suggest to them that somebody is repairing them.) Alternatively, studying their attack patterns or careful tracking will soon narrow down a geographical origin.
Of course, there's going to be obstacles to get through in order to find Elide. For one thing, the town guard has posted a large bounty for anybody who can bring in the zombie children, alive or dead. Most of the people going after the children are types that you wouldn't poke with a ten-foot stick, and they're not interested in sharing the bounty - so any legitimate interest in finding out who's directing the zombies is going to mistaken for a twisted sort of claim-jumping. Imagine a three-way fight between the PCs and two rival gangs of zombie-killing thugs, which is joined in by a horde of ravenous zombie kids about halfway through and you'll have an idea of what could happen.
Elide actually has his headquarters in an abandoned mansion near a river, or a nearby water feature; the sewers have a number of outlets there, as well as easy access to the entire sewer system. Elide will have installed a few primitive traps, but his work is solitary; finding him isn't a problem. Elide will be a tough opponent, but he can be taken down. He'll be unable to bring the zombies to his own defense, since manipulating them requires complete mental concentration.
If the characters interrogate him, he'll reveal what he knows, including the site of the original massacre - and he even hands the characters a magical talisman that'll let the characters summon and control the zombies. The zombies will disperse if they sense a threat to themselves, Elide suggests - or as the characters will find out if Elide is dead - but if they're led to the site of their death and buried, their torments will end and the world will be put right again. This isn't quite true, of course, but it leads the PCs to Muele.
When enough of the zombies show up at the massacre site, Muele will transport them and the PCs into his dimension, where the children are. The children are not happy, having grown into adulthood in spiritual form, yet still children in their social habits. Most of them have lost their original self-image in this dimension and cannibalize each others, resulting in them looking like strange combinations of body parts, stuck together in a misshapen fashion. Once the PCs enter, they may start seeing bits of their own bodies as part of the children. The children are surly, confused and most likely hostile; however they also find little joy in this strange world and if told about the events surrounding their deaths in the real world, they will most likely wish to return.
Eventually, the PCs will also find Muele, who is so lost to his own image as to be unrecognisably human. If you want him to be a sympathetic figure, have him appear as nothing more than a misty image of a brain, two eyes and a spinal column. Alternatively, he can be as horrifying a parody of a human as you desire. Naturally, the time in this dimension has also warped Muele's mind - he has become totally obsessed with his powers and the images he can control with them. Describe the setting as various different worlds blurring past, confusing and disorientating the players, all created and destroyed in the blink of an eye by Muele's talents. Muele's abilities are enhanced here, but he isn't a god; the worlds themselves are mostly illusion, with the few solid bits changing shape to fit Muele's new vision.
Muele may also use his talents to attack or slow down the PCs, if you feel the need to add more obstacles. Throw distorted versions of monsters that the players have fought before - individual goblins blur into a single mass of goblinoid arms, eyes, and weapons, while a dragon is nothing but a moving smear of scales and the world-ending blast of a breath weapon. Give the characters their impression of the monsters, rather than actually describing what they are, and reduce or increase their power depending on how the players react. Bravery and courage will result in a swift death for the phantasmal creatures; fleeing and regarding the monsters as invincible will result in them becoming more powerful. Toss them enough combat to keep them happy, then have them top a rise and find Muele's home.
When confronted with the player's knowledge, Muele will proudly defend his actions, believing firmly that the glorious victory he created for his home town was worth any price or deception. How he reacts to the PCs depends on their intentions. If they are hostile or openly declare their intentions to destroy his fiction and bring the truth to light, Muele will become angry and may attack them, possibly calling on the other children for help, providing a climactic battle scene if you need one. If you want a more subtle climax, Muele can be talked into letting the children return and the truth come out; he will be content to stay in his dream world. However, to do this the PCs must convince Muele (and perhaps themselves) that exposing the horrible, ugly truth is better than perpetuating a more pleasant, more glorious and more epic lie. The only compromise which preserves the lie and lays the zombies to rest is to bring the children back but then silence them. Since this will almost surely require killing them, neither the children nor good PCs will be very happy with this solution.
If the PCs manage to convince, defeat or otherwise subdue Muele, he'll cheerfully allow the PCs to bring the children back to the real world, and then leave to his own devices. After that point, things proceed on their own. The children return to their bodies, which promptly mend themselves and become alive again. (Even burned bodies resurrect themselves, which will cause a bit of comment.) Muele remains behind, content to drift in a web of ennui and random creation. The children themselves will have aged twenty years mentally without having aged physically at all. Also, a lot of them will have side effects left over from having been in a spiritual dimension, including various natural magical abilities; eventually, they may replace the government that was once blamed for their deaths.
For the moment, however, the children are a constant reminder of the now clearly meaningless bloody slaughter of the opposing town twenty years ago, a fact that the town aren't altogether happy about remembering. Some will try and recompense their guilt by lauding the children; others would rather have them out of sight and out of mind. There is likely to be similar mixed attitudes towards the PCs. Whatever the outcome, things will be very interesting in the town in the near future, and there should be plenty of opportunity for further adventures.
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