A furlong from the road, Skrie found a spot they could plan the rescue.
“Their fire is here,” the cleric drew a rough map in the dirt. “The prisoners are tied to trees, here, here” she marked two ‘X’s on either side of the camp. “The best part is,” she continued, “I can free the prisoners if you distract the guards. I bet if I free the Hinfolk first, they’ll help us take these guys down.”
Malusk looked at the sketch.
“What’s over here?” he pointed to the arc Skrie had drawn between the captive groups.
“A boulder,” answered the halfling. “You distract the guards while I free the Hin, then I’ll get the humans.” She watched Malusk as he thought about her plan.
“How close are th’ trees over here?” he asked, pointing to the edge of the camp.
“Ten, maybe fifteen orc paces.”
“Gimme a count.”
“Fifty,” replied Skrie. “That should be enough time for me to get into place, then free at least one Hin, and slip him my extra dagger. He can help me get the rest.”
“Theren?” asked Malusk.
“What should I do?” asked the elf.
“Keep the baddies busy while Skrie gets us reinforcements.”
“That,” said the mage with a grin, “I can do.”
A fifty-count later, Skrie was behind a halfling prisoner.
“My name is Skrie,” she whispered in the Hin language as she cut his bonds. “Of the Tripfoot clan of Blackford. My friends and I are here to free you” at that instant, she heard Malusk enter the clearing and the cultists scramble for weapons. “Here’s a dagger. Help me free the others.” The cleric pressed her spare dagger into the halfling’s hand and moved to the next captive.
Before she reached the humans, two cultists were dead at the hands of one of the Hinfolk, and the remaining two had been put under the influence of a sleep charm. They were disarmed and bound. Skrie managed to calm the young Hin before he killed all their captors.
“They killed me pa!” the young fellow sobbed as the cleric pulled him away from one of the corpses.
“I know how ya feel,” she said, speaking in Hin. The cleric took a deep breath to calm the anger that threatened to bubble to the surface. “But we need answers,” she continued in Common. “We can’t help your kinfolk if’n we don’t know what we’re walking into.”
“Yer walkin’ into a hornet’s nest, tha’s what,” said one of the humans.
“Aye,” chimed in another.
“Tell us wha’ ya know,” said Malusk.
The villagers began talking at once.
“There’s a bunch o’ ‘em.”
“I counted at least five, mebbe ten.”
“They’s a priest an’ a mage wit’ ‘em.”
“One of ‘em is black as coal.”
“I seen robed fellers an’ armored ‘uns like these here.”
“Them cultists took all our kids and hid ‘em in another building.”
“It was a cave, I heared.”
“I heard the cultists talkin’ about looking for somethin’ special.”
“They’s looking for treasure.”
“They be defilin’ our ancestors, is what they doin’.”
“We’re from Nemeademore,” said one of the halflings. “I’m Jorund,” he pressed a quartz crystal into Skrie’s hand. “Show this to any of the villagers,” he said. “Tell ‘em Jorund said to help you, ‘In Janna’s name.’ They’ll do what they can.”
Turning to the prisoners, Malusk bound them, then began stripping them of weapons. One of their captives carried at least half a dozen well-balanced knives and other blades.
The prisoners were awake when the sun had set, and the rabbits were fully cooked. Skrie could tell when they woke. The armored fellow glared at them, refusing to speak. When the half-orc got in his face, he began chanting.
“The One sees all, The One knows all, Hallowed be The One. The One will purge the blasphemers from this land. All who follow The One shall be Enlightened. Those that refuse will be destroyed. There is only The One. Follow no other, and you shall be Enlightened.”
“I’ve heard enough,” said Skrie, “gag him.”
“With pleasure,” replied Malusk, ripping a length of cloth from the man’s tunic. The half-orc wadded up the fabric and shoved it into the guard’s mouth when his chanting started again. The man continued mumbling and straining at his bonds, hoping to break free.
The tiny cleric turned to the robed man. He pretended to be sleeping until Malusk threatened violence.
“I have no problem letting the villagers have you,” she said. The man’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “We can do this the hard way or the easy way, you talk and tell us what we want to know and we’ll see how it goes for you. Start chanting and my friend here,” she patted Malusk’s arm, “will slice your head from your body. Understand?” She tipped her head to one side.
He nodded, and she removed the gag. The man looked at them, concern in his eyes.
“Okay, now, just wait!” he said, talking fast. “I just want to say, first off, I’m not with these guys.”
“Really?” asked Skrie raising an eyebrow.
“Look, I was hired to guard some priests on a pilgrimage. I didn’t know they were raging lunatics and fanatics. I was going to slip away as soon as we got to a large enough town, but the places we stopped kept getting smaller and smaller.” He licked his lips. “Can I have some water, please. What was that you stuck in my mouth, the guard’s snot rag?” he eyed Malusk. “That was some nasty piece of cloth you had there. Hey, can I have some water? And some food? If there are any of those rabbits I could use part of one. We haven’t eaten all day and I was looking forward to a nice juicy piece of rabbit.”
Malusk pointed to the pile of rabbit bones lying near him as he picked his teeth with a dagger. The man’s face fell.
“Too bad, I really wanted some rabbit. Can I have that water, or some wine, or ale, yes a nice wine might be good, and some jerky, and some dried fruit, if you got it? I am really hungry.”
“We’ll see how nice, or not, we will be after you answer our questions,” said Skrie. “What are you doing out here?”
“Wow,” he said with a cough, “that rag was really dry and nasty tasting, could I have some of that water? I can barely talk with being knocked out and then getting a nasty old rag stuffed down my throat. And some food, fruit, jerky, anything you might have to get that nasty taste out would be welcome.” Malusk gave him a drink from one of the canteens the bandits carried.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” he simpered. “Can I have another please? Thank you so much. I could really use some food though, being knocked out when you are starving cannot be good for someone.”
“Answer the question,” Skrie growled, kicking him. “What’s your name?”
“Okay, okay,” he whined. “I just had to get rid of that taste and quench my thirst first. My name, is Garrick.”
Skrie looked at him skeptically.
“Look, I was hired to be a guard for this pilgrimage. So yesterday I was guarding one of the buildings when that big guy,” he gestured toward the proselytizing guard, “runs up and says ‘come on.’ He has these other two ‘true believers’ with him, so I thought we were going to help one of the bosses or something. Noooo! Instead we are chasing some escaped villagers. Somehow a bunch of folks broke loose and took off for the hills. They know this place much better than we do so it took us a while to catch up with them. They split up so me and one of the priests went after one group and the other two went after the other. We caught six of them and the priest guy was beating them, but I told him to stop. I said they can’t work if you injure them, but he just glared at me. When we met up with the other guys, they didn’t have anyone with them. The big guy said that the others will ‘not be a problem.’ I noticed that he and the other priest were covered in blood.”
Garrick looked around at the group.
“Look, I am not a woods kind of guy. In a city, I’m good. I can get around, take care of myself, you know. But out here in the woods, not me! You know there are things out there that will eat you? Don’t have that in the city. Oh, sure, some guy might want to slit your coin pouch, or your throat, but I can see him a block away. Not here, there are trees, and bugs, and things that will eat you.”
Skrie felt the man was truthful but holding something back.
“How did you get mixed up with this group?” she asked.
“I was drinking in a dive outside Thornewick when a guy came in with a job offer,” Garack said with a shrug. “He said needed people to guard some priests on a pilgrimage. I signed up since I was out of coin and, er, needed to get out of the city. The only thing was you had to be human, no Helfs, Halfies, or Horcs, he said.” The man looked at his captors and shrugged.
“When we started out, there were four guards and six priests. At each little town, they’d hire a few more guards, and we’d split off into groups, three priests, then two. Finally, there was only one priest in my group, a few disciples and true believers, like that guy,” he hitched his head at the glaring guard. “And some minor priests, acolytes, I think they call them.”
“Tell me about the bigger towns,” prompted Skrie.
“They’d keep a low profile in towns, no preaching. They’d visit old temples, graveyards, and libraries if there was one. Not sure what they were looking for, but it was always in the old books, the older the better. In the smaller villages and communities though, they went on and on about The One. Hey, I don’t believe in much, but I put my penny at the shrine of Tymora, Cyric, Helm, or whoever I need the blessing of that day. But, some of these true believers and acolytes would get mad when the villagers rejected the teachings. That’s when things got nasty. If there was a particularly rebellious crowd, questioning The One, or outright denouncing them and telling them to leave, something would always happen. Someone would get sick, or the crops would fall to blight, or insects. The priest would claim that it was ‘the will of The One’ and if the village would repent the illness or whatever could be cured by The One. It was a lot of goblin-poo if you asked me. I think an acolyte or Believer poisoned the fields or the water, and the priest had the antidote, but who knows, maybe it was The One.”
“Doubtful,” replied Theren. “I believe it was as you said, poison, and the priest had the antidote.”
“Then there were the other things. Anytime we came to a roadside shrine or shelter tended to by a temple, the acolytes would destroy it, calling it evil, blasphemous, and all that. Me, I don’t think a small shrine to Chauntea, Oghma, or Torm can be evil.”
“Indeed,” said Skrie. “What’s happening in the nearby village?”
“Things changed when we got here. Not long after we arrived another priest and an old wizard showed up. Everything changed. No more being nice to the villagers, they were all rounded up and put in two of the homes under guard. The priest was ecstatic though. He was so happy to have found this little mudhole and the ruins to the south. He was so mad at that guy,” he shot a dark look at the other captive, “and one of the other acolytes. They burned the village priest and head man. I thought the priest was gonna to kill ‘em both over it. Come to think of it, I never did see that Believer again,” Garrick stopped, thoughtful for a moment. “But the truly crazy one is the wizard. He may not be a Believer, but he is after something and is using them to find it. I don’t think he is in it for The One, but he wants something that they can help him find.”
“How many of them are there?”
“Not very many, maybe four more guards besides us, plus a few Believers and acolytes.”
“What about the kids,” asked the cleric. “Do you know where the kids are being held?”
“No, I never saw the kids. I don’t think they trusted me enough to guard them. If they had, I would have taken those kids out of there. Can I please have some food now, and some more water? But if you DO have some wine I would like some of that. It is going to get very cold tonight.”
Skrie reached into her pack and gave Garrick some trail mix and more water. Looking over the jewelry, they didn’t find anything special about it.
“Hey,” said Garrick, glowering as Skrie inspected one gold ring. “That’s mine. It’s personal and I want it back.”
The group packed up to find another campsite, just in case another group of cultists came looking for the present group.
“Hey,” repeated Garrick, “if we’re sleeping outside tonight, I need my clothes back and my boots. It’s gonna be cold and maybe wet, and I don’t want to die out here.”
“Don’ worry,” said Malusk, “ye’ll will be warm ‘nough sleepin’ right next to me.” The half-orc grinned down at a frowning Garrick.
The group followed the road for the next two ‘marks but moved through the woods to the west side.
“You know,” said their captive, “if we walked on the road we would have a much better time and wouldn’t be stumbling over these limbs and struggling through all this brush.”
“If you don’t shut up,” replied Skrie, “I’ll tell Mal to gag you again.”
Garrick was silent for a few moments.
”It would be so much easier if you just untied my hands so I could steady myself.”
“I really was going to slip away as soon as we got near a town big enough to hide in, but this last place was even smaller than some of the others.”
Garrick clamped his mouth shut.
“That’s better,” said Skrie. “Mal, if he utters another peep, gag him, please.”
“With pleasure,” the half-orc grinned.
They finally found a small stream and followed it up into the hills out of sight of the road. The group made a cold camp, fashioning a lean-to in the trees. Theren slept on one side, Garrick in the middle, and Malusk on the other. Skrie spent the night in the tree above her friends. The man spent a restless night, waking Malusk several times—he heard something coming in the woods, he had to relieve himself, or just tossing and turning.