For many peaceful decades, a grand castle stood on rocky cliffs in the wilderness foothills a ten-day caravan ride from the capital city. Rich mines tunneled into the hills; vast stretches of coniferous forest offered inexhaustible natural wealth. Below the castle’s overlook was a pleasant town on the edge of a shimmering blue lake – a vacation-spot for well-to-do nobles of the capital city. Several villages tamed small patches of the wild, near to mines or in the rich green forest. Tradesmen and artisans found their work rewarding and well-rewarded – along the lake-shore a prosperous trade route came from the capital in the west and led to distant cities in the east. Considerable wealth and commerce followed this road. Miles to the south, where the forests gave way to open grassy fields, fertile soil gave a bounty of grain, vegetables, and healthy livestock to farmers and ranchers.
A sudden crisis brought ruin to all this. Undead rose in frightful numbers – zombies and other creatures overwhelmed the castle, infecting victims into their ranks and spreading rapidly into the town and the villages. The local militia fell to the undead and became part of its growing horde. Survivors fled to the forest, but no defensive towers or walled settlements could hold back the mindless evil that followed them. Only at the farms on the open grasslands did the survivors manage to establish a defensive position that held – a makeshift enclave which seemed to be at the periphery of the undead creatures’ hunting range.
Swift runners carried a plea for help. The royal family, and wealthy lords and landowners, answered immediately with crusades against the undead at the castle. Regiments of imperial knights, battalions of lords’ private soldiers, missions of clerics, mercenaries and privateers – all rushed from the capital city and civilized lands to stamp out the undead. Very few of them came back.
Months passed. Survivors held the enclave to the south, slowly building its defenses and temporary structures into permanent ones. Devastating losses of men and equipment at the castle led the nobles to abandon their quest to claim or reclaim the castle and its surrounding lands. Imperial troops quarantined the infected territory until it was discovered that the undead were not spreading further than a dozen kilometers from their source. With population centers and the capital to the west in no danger, the army went home.
No longer a safe conduit for trade and travel, the main road was blocked off where it entered and left the afflicted lands. A long, inferior detour was marked into hilly, boggy terrain along a wide southern arc. Many travelers and merchants chose instead to find alternate routes.
* * *
It is twenty years later. The undead infestation remains, arbitrarily confined to the local region and growing only by new victims it claims. The enclave, known as RIDDLEY’S CROWN, is the only safe haven north of the weedy trade road. The homesteads beyond the enclave walls are abandoned. Zombies wander the grasslands, several gangs always shambling about. The forest is a dark and dangerous place, entangling lost villages and strange places within. The town and original road are distant memories, and the shimmering lake is a festering swamp. Sometimes visible from the enclave, the distant castle is grey-green from weathering and overgrowth.
Title to the castle and surrounding lands passed first to distant relatives of its lost nobility. Over time, ownership floated between wealthy lords of the capital city – payment on a debt; a gift of whimsy or jest; lost in games of chance; or purchased for a token sum to have as a novelty or superfluous title. The current owner is Lord Oakesworth, a wealthy patron who diverts a small portion of his vast fortune to maintaining an administrative proxy in Riddley’s Crown, as well as supplying the outpost with food and supplies. Oakesworth is seldom aware that he even owns the territory, so far removed from civilization as it is. He has no interest in what treasures may be lost in the region, or who holds title to any structures or features outside of Riddley’s Crown.
It is stories of lost wealth and abandoned property that draw adventurers to these tormented lands, particularly when jobs are scarce in the cities of the west. The wilderness and the castle are said to be rich in lost weapons, armor, magic items, parcels of land, and other valued treasures forfeit by their previous owners and free to be claimed – if one can best the shambling legions of zombies, skeletons, and other horrors. Riddley’s Crown is the outpost where fortune-seekers start their hunt for riches. It is also the place where most are seen alive for the last time…