The party purchased a couple of riding horses, a pony, tack, and saddlebags from the Trading Post merchants. Taliesin opted to walk in one of his beast forms as the group set out from Hommlet, bearing northeast toward the wooded hills where the Temple of Elemental Evil was said to be. Felicity talked excitedly about her new pony as they traveled. The terrain as they drew farther from the village became less swampy and the vegetation sparser. Copses of trees alternated with low-rolling hills, making travel somewhat more pleasant than the path toward the Moathouse had been. Still, they felt more exposed as they crossed the clearings toward the wooded areas.
They were just finishing a rest when Taliesin and Besilana noticed a pair of large, hairy creatures with feathered faces around vicious beaks coming out of a nearby stand of trees. The beasts made a hoot-snuffling noise as they emerged from the thicket, likely drawn to the travelers by the scent of horseflesh!
Without hesitation, the paladin drew Starsong and charged the closer owlbear. The bizarre creature hoot-roars in pain as the enchanted sword drew first blood. The druid shapeshifted into a brown bear and charged the wounded beast, biting it on the shoulder and raking his claws across the bird-like face.
Predictably, the enraged creatures attacked back. The wounded one tore into the paladin with hooked beak and claws, while its companion took a chunk of druid-bear flesh out of Taliesin. Besilana bellowed at the owlbear, spittle flecking at the corners of her mouth as the curse of vengeance replaced reason. She swung her blade down viciously and again the beast’s blood splashed the ground.
Felicity finally shook off the shock of the sudden appearance of the strange creatures. “Bad bear-owl-thing!” she scolded as she placed healing hands on Besilana. Furnok likewise shook off his surprise and positioned for a shot on the wounded owlbear. His arrow shattered on the creature’s beak, and the rogue gritted his teeth. Taliesin’s attacks were foiled by the pain of his own injuries, so the druid spent some spell energy to start healing himself. The owlbears continued trying to eat their targets. Besilana took a bite on the arm, but Taliesin was ravaged so badly that he lost his bear shape, reverting to his natural elven form.
Besilana continued to hammer at the heavily wounded owlbear, but only managed a glancing blow against the tough beast. Felicity chanted for holy fire from on high, and her prayer was answered as the sacred flame lanced down onto the monstrosity’s head. The bright light seared the nocturnal eyes, and Furnok tried to take advantage of its distraction. Unfortunately, the shortbow misfired and snapped his fingers as the arrow flew wide of its target, and he looked down at his weapon, disgusted.
Taliesin transformed into a spider, and bit the injured owlbear with venomous fangs, finally bringing it down. As it fell heavily to the ground, the other beast roared in rage and laid into the faux-arachnid, nearly destroying the druid’s spider form in the space of a heartbeat. With the object of the curse’s vengeance slain, Besilana shook off the rage and half-stumbled over the fallen owlbear to get a shot in at the remaining one, calling upon Ehlonna to smite the monster. Starsong flared with radiant energy as she sliced the owlbear in the flank, blooding it for the first time. Felicity’s attack prayer struck down with more holy fire, which was good because Furnok was still struggling to stick an arrow into anything.
The spider-druid jumped onto the owlbear and bit down on his neck, piercing the shaggy hide there and injecting venom into the wound. The owlbear hoot-roared weakly then tried to finish the spider, knocking Taliesin out of his wildshape and nearly killing him! Besilana attempted to make the most of the owlbear’s fixation with the spider, but it shoved her back callously with one massive feathered paw. Felicity’s prayer burned down into the owlbear’s back, and Furnok continued to miss.
Taliesin cast thunderwave at the beast, and as it stumbled back from the spell, the druid retreated. Unfortunately, the enraged monstrosity blindly pursued the elf. Fortunately, the paladin came up from behind and finally managed to cut the owlbear down.
Taliesin propped himself up against a tree, barely conscious. “Gods, Sin. Are you okay? Because you don’t look okay,” said Furnok.
“Just need a few more minutes,” said the druid, noticing the nigh-panicked horses and pony. He busied himself with calming the mounts, as the others settled back in to rest a while longer to recover.
“I feel bad,” said Felicity. “Shouldn’t we like, use the bodies for something? I mean we’re out here killing the woodland creatures. Shouldn’t their deaths mean more?”
Furnok shrugged. “I don’t think these things are part of the ‘natural’ world, Lis.”
“They certainly aren’t normal in this forest. They were crazed hungry,” said Taliesin.
The rogue walked over to Besilana. “Did the curse take hold?” he asked gently. “I couldn’t tell.”
She nodded. “At least I didn’t have a body of water to jump into this time.”
The rogue chuckled drily. “Thank the gods.” After a beat he added, “What does it … feel like?”
“The anger just gets to be too much for me, and I just … surrender to it. I just want to kill whatever’s hurt me, no matter what else is going on.” The half-elf smiled thinly. “Luckily, that’s often what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Not so different from those creatures, really,” Taliesin said, his tone worried.
Furnok nodded, his expression sympathetic. “Well, we know to keep an eye on you now, and we can probably adjust our tactics – such as they are – to compensate. Focusing fire seems a sound strategy, anyway.” He grinned, which improved Besilana’s smile into something more genuine. Felicity looked grim as they discussed the curse, but the look vanished swiftly.
The rogue collected a claw and some feathers from one of the owlbears. “Guess the travelers’ tales are true. Things are stirred up out here.”
Taliesin nodded. “We must keep it from spreading into the Gnarley. The balance in that forest is very carefully managed. Something like this would cause damage that could last for centuries.”
“It’s really sad to see it happen” Felicity said as she went about planting seeds from the box she had begun to utilize for that purpose.
“They probably have a den somewhere nearby,” said Besilana.
“They could, sure,” said Furnok.
“Neither owls nor bears tend to allow too many others in their territory, unless they are cubs. And it’s not really the season for that,” said Taliesin.
“So what are owlbear cubs like?” Felicity asked. “Could we train one for a pet? Make it nice unlike its parents? Oh oh oh oh! We could name him Owliver! I could teach him to give bear hugs.”
“I was more thinking that there may be remains of prior victims there, in need of consecrated burial,” said Besilana.
“Oh … so no pet owlbear?”
“These are abominations, Felicity,” said the druid. “It’s possible they are incapable of producing cubs.”
“And probably beyond domestication,” added Besilana.
“Well, with that attitude!” cried Felicity.
The half-elf chuckled at the outburst. “Though, if anyone could tame an owlbear, it’d be you.”
“It could be wonderful! Have you seen baby owls? Adorable!”
“They can’t be as adorable as you are,” said Besilana, causing the halfling to giggle and blush.
“Think you could track them back to their … nest? Cave?” Furnok asked Taliesin.
“It’s possible. They leave a big mess in their wake,” said the druid.
Felicity whispered to herself, “I almost hope there aren’t babies. I couldn’t kill one.”
Once they’d caught their breath, the party followed Taliesin’s hound form as he tracked the owlbears. They ranged a little farther south of their intended track, but eventually came to a close stand of trees that had had an honest-to-gods bear-sized nest built among the trunks. Large branches were interlaced in a rough circle littered with feathers and fur … and more macabre trinkets. Bones, stray hide, and even half a humanoid skull lay strewn about the owlbear nest. The shredded remains of leather armor had been tossed to the side.
“They’ve been here a while,” Taliesin surmised. “Six months or more. Whatever is doing this has been doing it that long.” The druid sighed.
“Wow, fur-owls have pretty dirty nests,” said Felicity. “I guess it makes sense. See any eggs?” She and Besilana poked around the nest, but didn’t find any eggs.
The paladin removed a small blanket from her pack and started gathering the humanoid bones she found into it. Taliesin noticed what she was doing and said, “I’ll help you bury them if that’s what you wish, Besi. Where are you thinking to do it?”
Besilana looked around and noticed a spot under a shady tree nearby. “That looks good,” she said, pointing. Taliesin shifted into a badger and began to make a hole for the bones.
“I’ll perform the funerary rights to Ehlonna,” offered Felicity. She planted seeds on the burial mound and prayed for blessings over the dead in accordance with her faith.
After the impromptu funeral, they poked around the nest for anything else of interest. Besilana extricated the leather armor fragments. “Here, look at this.” She pointed to a symbol painted on it – a symbol associated with the Temple.
“Shat out the back of an owlbear,” said Furnok. “Can’t think of a more fitting punishment.”
“At least the unfortunate creatures did some good too,” said Taliesin.
Felicity sighed. “Too bad they came right at us.”
The druid shrugged. “They needed to eat. Sometimes in nature the predator makes a lethal mistake. Death is part of the natural order. A very big part, really. It’s not something to like, but druids grow to accept and understand it.”
Furnok nodded. “Shall we try to get a few more miles in today?” he asked. Besilana nodded.
Taliesin stopped his babbling and looked at the rogue. “Sounds like a good idea.”
“I’m going to call you Professor Taliesin,” said Felicity. “It feels fitting.”
“Professor? Nothing as formal as that. We are more like students than teachers.”
Felicity giggled at his worldly words. “We’re certainly learning something out here! Like I had never seen a fur-owl…. OH MY GOSH! Does that mean…” she dropped her voice to a stage whisper. “There are owl sized bears!? WITH FEATHERS!?!”
“Yes,” Furnok deadpanned.
“One flew right by not twenty minutes ago,” said Taliesin. “Didn’t you see it?”
“I think that’s what a snipe looks like,” added Besilana.
“Snipe? That’s an odd name for something so neat. Can we go looking for one?” asked the halfling.
“I’ll point them out as we travel, how about that?” said Taliesin.
“If you call them right at sundown, they’ll come right to you,” said Besilana, lying about as well as a child.
Felicity’s eyes were wide with excitement. “Are they that abundant? Oh my how have I missed it!? I would name him Bear-Bearington, and I’m sure he would be the best little bear-owl ever! First a cat-horse and a horse-cat and a bear-owl and now owl-bears and … What’s next? Rat-frogs? Ew” she made a face and muttered, “No. Rogs? … FRATS!”
The party resumed their journey toward the Temple of Elemental Evil. The afternoon wore on and as evening approached, they decided to make camp while there was still sunlight. They had just gotten a campfire going when they saw a contingent of nine armed men coming around a treeline nearly a hundred feet away. The group noticed the adventurers as well, and immediately reached for weapons.
A man in platemail at the rear of the contingent started barking orders and readied a heavy crossbow to fire. He loosed the weapon at Besilana, but fortunately her scale armor protected her from the bolt. Furnok scurried to take cover among the trees near the camp, and from a hidden position he fired at the nearest guard. The distance proved too great, and he cursed as his arrow fell short.
“Well that’s a surprise” Felicity said, praying a blessing upon her companions.
The four men on the front line advanced, firing a volley with their shortbows but hitting nothing. The next four men came up behind them and follow suit with crossbows but likewise missed their targets. Besilana readied her shield and marched toward the line, bellowing a challenge. Taliesin cast a spell that coated his skin with thick bark then transformed into a dire wolf and loped ahead of the paladin.
The bandit leader advanced behind his line and drews a bead on the dire wolf, his bolt grazing the faux beast’s barkskin. Furnok ducked behind the trees again and fired another shot from hiding. The rogue’s arrow appeared in the left-most bowman’s neck and the man fells dead.
Felicity followed in Besilana’s wake and began praying, which conjured a spectral longsword with an alicorn hilt to appear beside the captain. She mentally directed the spiritual weapon to attack, but it struck only the heavy platemail. He likewise evaded her sacred flame.
The front line dropped their bows in favor of axes and went after the wolf. As they closed, Taliesin noted that they had Temple emblems on their tabards. Two distracted the man-beast, while the third sliced the druid deep! The crossbowmen strafed left, two focusing on the wolf, and the other two on Besilana. Only one bolt in four found its mark, and that in the dire wolf’s hide.
The paladin advanced on the crossbowmen and struck one down as a scythe would tend to wheat. Taliesin spent some spell energy to heal then bit one of the axemen. The bandit leader dropped his crossbow and pulled a greatsword from his back, advancing on Besilana. She brought her shield up to intercept his overhead chop, and shoved his larger blade aside with her magical one.
Furnok fired from hiding again, slaying another of the bandits engaged with the druid. Felicity’s spell-sword danced after the leader, but still couldn’t penetrate his armor. Her next prayer, however, evoked a bolt of blazing light that struck truly and lit the bandit captain up like a tree during Yule. The cleric blinked in surprise at how effective the spell had been. As he recoiled from the blast, the remaining axemen continued failing to kill the dire wolf.
The crossbowman farthest from Besilana backed away from the melee and fired a bolt into Felicity’s side. The halfling flinched but managed to maintain concentration on her bless spell. The two bandits engaged with the paladin pulled scimitars and tried to kill her. She managed to block only one of their slicing blades, and then glared curse-fueled hatred at the man who had cut her. Starsong nearly cut the man down in a single slash, but he managed to keep his feet as his blood stained the ground.
Taliesin ripped out the injured axeman’s throat and snarled at the remaining bandit beside him. Furnok’s next arrow ended the man and freed the druid to turn his attention to the paladin’s melee. The bandit leader found a couple of holes in Besilana’s raging assault on his minion and struck her twice. The second slash cut quite deeply, but the curse caused a single-minded fixation on seeking vengeance on the lesser bandit. Only the man’s death could release her.
Felicity’s floating longsword managed to strike the bandit leader, while the little cleric channeled Ehlonna’s divine energy to preserve her half-elf friend’s life with healing light. Both of the bandits harrying Besilana sliced her with scimitars and Felicity was struck by another crossbow bolt. The paladin retorted by putting her blade through her target’s heart and as the curse released her, she pivoted to face the bandit leader.
Taliesin got to the man first, the druid’s jaws closing on the armored leg and tearing his quarry from his feet. The sturdy son of a bitch regained his feet in a moment and efficiently struck Besilana down, cleaving through her torso and not slowing down as he cut into the dire wolf. The paladin’s wooden blade fell into the grass from unfeeling fingers.
“Shit!” said Furnok, takes hidden aim at the scimitar-man. In his panic at seeing Besilana fall, however, his shot flew wide. “SHIT!” he repeated in frustration.
“NO!” Felicity shrieked in alarm. The spectral sword struck the bandit leader again as the halfling leaped toward the half-elf and placed her hands upon the chest wound as she fervently pronounced the syllables of a powerful healing spell.
Besilana didn’t even have time to swear before the bandit minion tried to put her right back down again, slashing her in the arm with his scimitar! She did regain her feet quickly, scooping Starsong from the ground as she arose and cutting the man down with an expert flick of her wrist. Meanwhile, Felicity took a crossbow bolt to the leg. Taliesin batted the bandit leader’s sword aside with his paws and got his sharp teeth around the man’s head. He closed his jaws, and the armored warrior fell. Furnok finished off the last bandit with a well-placed arrow, and the adventurers’ ragged breathing was the only sound remaining.