Malusk shook Skrie awake. Seeing Garrick huddled in front of the fire brought her out of her nightmare and into full wakefulness.
“I ran as fast as I could to find the villagers,” Garrick said, his voice strained, “but I was too late. I found Mayze and several of the hunters dead, along with two of the cultists. Further on, several other villagers had been downed by arrows. One of the cultists was stalking them, but I killed him. I don’t know how many of the villagers got away.” He stopped and took a drink from the flask Malusk offered him.
“Oh, gods,” said Skrie, praying to her goddess for the villagers’ souls.
“Then I headed northeast,” continued Garrick as if not hearing the halfling, “to find the other group of trackers. I found their path and followed into what looked like an old battle ground.”
“That must be the Valley of Irewick that Mayze mentioned before they headed out,” said Theren.
“There were bones and pieces of metal sticking up from the ground for as far as I could see. I followed the cultists until I found one of them dead. That is when I saw the walking skeleton coming for me,” his eyes widened at the memory. “It had a sword! And was wearing scraps of armor and a helmet. I pulled a broken spear from the ground and beat the thing to pieces, literally,” a haunted expression crossed his face. “I wasn’t going any deeper into that place so I headed back to the village.”
“They burned the village,” said the mage.
“When I got to there it was buzzing,” Garrick’s eyes were unfocused as he told his tale. “They’d dug up most of the graveyard by then, and I saw that shadowy thing raise three bodies from the graves,” he shuddered. “It already had three or four skeletons standing nearby. I saw several of the cultists come from the mausoleum area and talk to the priest. He wasn’t happy. I thought he was going to strike them down, but instead they started hauling supplies from one of the buildings.”
“They must have salvaged what they could before putting the village to the torch,” said Skrie.
“After that I figured I’d come to find you. You weren’t on the hill and there was no trace of you leaving. I figured you took to the road or got west of the road so that’s what I did. I picked up your trail later but then lost it several times. After it got dark I didn’t want to stumble through the woods so I got on the road, looking for you and calling out at the hills and possible campsites along here. So glad I found you. I am not an outdoorsy person; better suited for the alleys and taverns of a town, you know.”
“Ye done well,” said Malusk, reassuring the man.
“I needed to find you because they’re coming after you. Several of the walking dead are on the road, and more, with cultists in the woods, all coming this way. I heard them say something about locating it if they get close enough.”
“‘It’?” asked the cleric.
“I don’t know,” said Garrick, “but whatever it is, they seem to think they can track it, and with it, you.”
“Tha’s all we need,” growled Malusk.
“It gets better,” said Skrie.
All eyes turned toward the cleric.
“You woke me out of a dream,” she said, “or a vision, I’m not sure which. There was the box, the one we took from the cultists. A misty figure of a tall elf woman, dressed in armor appeared. It said, ‘Hold! You must return the key that was taken. This far from my place of rest I have little time. The guardians will waken and ravage this land if the key is not returned. The evil ones know where it is. They are coming for it. Take it to sacred ground to prevent them from finding the key. Take it west, to sacred ground.’ Then I saw an image of a building, possibly a temple, on a hill. It was ancient.”
Deciding they must move in the darkness, Garrick and Malusk broke camp while Skrie and Theren did their best to prepare themselves for the trek through the dark. Heading west through the forest, the trees gradually thinned out to meet a grassy plain. They then turned south. As the first light of dawn appeared, they came upon a small hill with a building sitting at its crest.
“That’s it,” said Skrie. “That’s the temple from my vision.”
Ancient graves surrounded the mound. Moving carefully and with great respect, they passed more graves as they walked up the hill toward the small building of weathered stone with a tile roof.
The structure was intact except for the doors and window forms, which had long since rotted and fallen to the ground. The main room was empty, with four stone benches built into the side walls and a large altar opposite the entrance. Hallways extended from each side of the altar.
Following Skrie’s guidance, the party walked down the left hall, which ended in a stairway leading into darkness. Following Malusk, the halfling lit a torch as they reached the foot of the stone steps. A large room with two rows of sarcophagi illuminated before them. A few coffins had images of warriors with armor, shields, and swords carved into the lids. At the far end of the room stood a large raised platform flanked by two braziers. On the back wall hung a brass mural depicting an elf woman in armor on one side and an armored man on the other. Between them was a battleground filled with undead.
Skrie placed the silver box they had recovered from the cultists on the dais and prayed to her goddess. As she began, a misty form appeared.
“Hold!” said the spirit. “You must return the key that was taken. This far from my place of rest I am weak and have little time. The guardians will awake and ravage this land if the key is not returned. The evil ones know where it is. They are coming for it.”
“Who are ‘they’?” asked Skrie.
“They know you have it, they follow it.”
“They follow, you must return the key,” the ghostly figure faded from sight, leaving an image of the ruins at Nemeadamore.
“Well, that just tears it,” said Skrie. “Not only do we have more undead looking for us, we have to go back into the middle of the cultists.”
“If th’ undead and cultists are lookin’ fer us along th’ road,” said Malusk, “we might get past ’em by going well west o’ the road, like we been doin’. They may not be many, if any, of ’em left at th’ village.”
They traveled south along the border of the forest and grasslands. When they reached the hills west of the village, they turned back east to find a small river gorge and a cave to rest for the day. Malusk and Garrick bedded down for a much-needed sleep as Theren and Skrie finally had a moment to examine the items they had acquired during their adventure.
Sorting the mundane and magical items, they put the non-magical items in a sack. They turned their attention to those few that were infused with magic.
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