As the party approached the Temple area, the vegetation was disconcerting – dead trees with a skeletal appearance, scrub growth twisted and unnaturally colored, all unhealthy and sickly looking or exceptionally robust and disgusting. The ruins of the Temple’s outer works appeared as dark and overgrown mounds of gray rubble and blackish weeds. Skulls and bones of humans and humanoids gleamed white here and there amidst the weeds. A grove of some oddly stunted and unhealthy looking usk trees still grew along the northern end of the former Temple compound, and a stump of a tower jutted up from the northeast corner of the shattered wall. The leprous gray Temple, however, stood intact, its arched buttresses somehow obscene with their growth of climbing vegetation.
Everything surrounding the place was disgusting. The myriad leering faces and twisting, contorted forms writhing and posturing on every face of the Temple seemed to jape at the obscenities they depict. The growth in the compound was rank and noisome. Thorns clutched, burrs stuck, and crushed stems either emitted foul stench or raised angry weals on exposed flesh. Worst of all, however, was the pervading fear which seemed to hang over the whole area – a smothering, clinging, almost tangible cloud of vileness and horror. Sounds seemed distorted, either muffled and shrill or unnaturally loud and grating.
The heroes’ eyes played tricks. They saw darting movements out of the corners of their eyes, just at the edge of vision; but when they shifted their gaze towards such, of course, there was nothing there at all. They could not help but wonder who or what made the maze of narrow paths through the weedy courtyard. What sort of thing would wander here and there around the ghastly edifice of Evil without shrieking and gibbering and going completely mad? Yet the usual mundane sounds of their travel were accompanied only by the chorus of the winds, moaning through hundreds of Temple apertures built to sing like doomed souls given over to the tender mercies of demonkind, echoed by macabre croaks from the scattered flapping, hopping, leering ravens.
As they passed through the gates, they saw that all ground in and around the walls was overgrown by six-foot-high weeds, so observation is restricted to fifteen feet in any, except on the remains of the road and path. In those two areas, weed growth was scattered and shallower. The pale blue uskfruit growing on the trees was small, misshapen, and splotched with angry red patches.
There was no doubt; they had come to a place of ineffable Evil. Still, it was most certainly a place for high adventure and untold treasures. It was time to ready spells, draw weapons, check equipment, and set forth into the maze of peril that awaited them.
“I don’t know what I expected,” Besilana said, taking in the sight. “But this is definitely worse.”
“This … This is a terrible place,” said Felicity. “Do you think it is a curse of the cult that has twisted it so?”
“Has to be,” said Furnok.
“‘Tainted’ doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said Taliesin.
“‘Desecrated’ seems closer, cousin,” said Besilana.
“I would plant things here but I fear anything put into the ground would rot faster than it could grow,” said Felicity.
“Shall we check the perimeter?” asked Furnok. “Seems like they’d post some sort of guard on the surface.”
“That was my thought as well,” said Besilana.
“Yes, I agree, scouting is a good idea,” Felicity echoed.
Taliesin frowned. “We are going to have to deal with what is spoiling the land before we can heal it. Starting with a quick look around seems as good an idea as any.”
“Do you have an animal guise that’s small and swift?” the paladin asked.
“A few,” said the druid. “Nothing that flies though. That requires quite a bit more skill. With all this overgrowth it would be nice to get a higher vantage point.”
“Should we start North along the wall?” asked the rogue.
“Ok. I’ll check it out,” said Taliesin, shifting into a cat and climbing the wall to get a better view.
“Kitty!” said the halfling in a whisper-shout.
“Hush, Felicity,” Besilana said, with no iron in her voice.
The druid. moved northward a few feet and then looks back to the group impatiently. The others followed, and Furnok chuckled. “I’d have scouted,” he said bemusedly to the others on the ground.
Rounding a stand of trees north of the Temple, they came across the ruins of an outer building, some sixty feet to a side, and perhaps two stories tall before parts of it had collapsed. Taliesin dropped off the wall and quietly circled the structure. While he did that, Besilana moved toward the doorway, peering into the dusty darkness within. She didn’t see anything of note, and a few moments later, the druid came around the far corner and transformed back into an elf.
“Very strong smell of rats here,” he said. “Probably a nest. I don’t see any humanoid tracks.”
Besilana nodded. “It may be wiser to leave them be, then.”
Felicity frowned at the ground. “Maybe you should stay a cat, with rats around.”
Furnok raised an eyebrow at the halfling’s comment, then addressed Taliesin. “Can you … shift back and forth like that for the whole time you’re using your … what did you call it? Wildshape?”
“It drains me every time I use it,” said the druid. “I’ll have to rest every so often if I try to do it too much.”
“Ah. Might be better to conserve it, then. I know you like to show off, but … we could get murdered at any moment. I’d rather have a bear.” The rogue grinned.
“Or a zebra…” said Felicity.
Furnok pinched the bridge of his nose, trying not to laugh. “Yes. Or a zebra.”
“I get your point,” said Taliesin. “A druid of my circle sometimes doesn’t realize they are even doing it. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the stronger you can become. I’ll refrain for now unless absolutely necessary.”
The halfling’s expression became sad. “I didn’t get to pet you when you were still a kitty.”
“Dirty,” said Furnok, giving Felicity a lascivious look. She gasped in faux shock and looked up at the rogue. He chuckled then glanced at the tower to the northeast, his expression sobering. “That looks like trouble.”
“So, should we be thorough and search this building,” asked Taliesin, indicating the squat structure beside them. “Or skip it and move on?”
“I’m inclined to leave it be, at least for now,” said Besilana.
“Is no one confused about what’s IN the building here?” Felicity said, clearly dying of curiosity.
“Smells like a rats’ nest,” said the druid with a shrug.
“So … Rats?” guessed Furnok. “I still remember the last time we had to deal with a swarm of those beasts. Pass.”
“Kitty-sin could take them I’m sure…” Felicity muttered.
“But we should look into the tower,” said Besilana, putting a hand on the halfling’s shoulder.
“Let’s proceed then,” said Taliesin. “The wrongness of this place is already causing a sick feeling in my gut.”
The group moved past the outbuilding and headed northeast. The jagged stub of a large tower stood up from the razed walls. Eight small black birds were perched on the tower top, about twenty-five feet up. One heavy door prevented entry on the ground level, barred and chained shut from the outside. Arrow slits were visible on either side of the door. As they drew near, the ravens squawked and took flight. As soon as they were clear of the perimeter of the tower, they grew much larger and descended!
Taliesin shift into a tiger and made ready to bite one of the black birds as soon as they were within reach. Furnok pulleds his bow and fired an arrow, winging one of the ravens, but not dropping it. The unkindness descended, pecking Taliesin bloody, mortally wounding Furnok, and beating on Besilana’s shield and armor before flapping away adroitly. The paladin decapitated the raven Furnok had shot, and the druid bit one of his attackers before it could escape, but the damned bird stayed aloft. Felicity pulled the healing kit from her bag and set to work on the rogue’s injuries, and he regained consciousness. The druid regenerated a little, and then readied to bite another bird. The bloody cycle repeated until only three ravens remained, and the feathered fiends left Besilana bleeding on the ground before they flew back to their perch atop the roof of the tower.
“Gods’ blood,” Furnok swore, as Felicity spun and began to patch up the paladin. Taliesin stayed in his tiger form a moment longer, tail lashing in agitation. Once Besilana was conscious the rogue said, “I suggest a tactical retreat.” The half-elf moaned in agreement, and her companions helped her limp away from the tower. The party took shelter in the tall grass against the western wall, hoping their presence would go uninvestigated.
“And those were just birds?” Furnok continued to complain.
Taliesin regained his natural form while they rested. “I’ve never understood why dark arts are capable of being so much more powerful. Doesn’t seem right in a world where Ehlonna reigns.”
“Look around,” said the rogue. “This is not Ehlonna’s house.”
“You speak truth, Furnok,” said Besilana. “This place is an affront in her eyes.”
“This is a nightmare made real,” said Felicity.
“And yet it is here, within Ehlonna’s reach one would think,” said the druid.
“Chief said that the heroes who threw down the temple had to seal it rather than destroy it,” Furnok reminded his companions. “Maybe that is why Ehlonna cannot touch it directly.”
“Logic would say it has to be something like that. It’s just odd to consider that She has limits.”
Furnok chuckled ruefully. " If the gods of Good were omnipotent, bad things could never happen to good people."
“I understand your reasoning, but you did not grow up as I did. In the forest, Ehlonna might as well be all powerful. All I am saying is that it is not something I am used to.”
“Ah, perspective. Sobering. Painful at times,” said the rogue, his tone flat.
“Well, we don’t know it cannot be cleansed by her light if we don’t try,” said Felicity. “For we are Ehlonna’s light reaching into this darkness.”
Taliesin nodded at the cleric’s words. “Yes, we are here to make a difference. I don’t intend to let this place stand any longer than necessary.”
“I wonder what the first heroes did to seal it, and what they couldn’t do to bring it low…”
“We will have to be stronger.”
Besilana broke her silence. “And if we’ll have to break that seal to scout this place.”
Furnok whistled through his teeth. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Indeed I do.”
“I fear, if the cult has returned, someone is already trying to beat us to that,” said Felicity.
“I would hope the seal is already broken,” said Taliesin. “Imagine if it is still intact and still causing all of this desecration.”
The rogue glanced south, toward the Temple. “May not have to imagine for too much longer.”
Besilana nodded with some gravity before her expression brightened. “If we’ve all recovered, we should be back at it, yes?”
Furnok regained his feet. “Aye. This blood isn’t going to bleed itself.” The half-elf laughed at that, and he smiled at her.
“If we can stop the bleeding in time, there’s always more where that came from,” said Besilana.
“Oh, if the blood leaks I’ll patch you up!” said Felicity.
The party made its way back over to the tower and the corpses of the giant ravens. The survivors – looking like regularly-sized ravens once more – squawked down at them from their perch, but showed no interest in a rematch. The heroes considered the barred, chained, locked door to the tower more closely.
Taliesin kept an eye on the avians while Besilana moved to dismantle the door. With a heavy swing of her magical blade, the paladin cleaved straight through the chain, which clanked heavily to the stone stoop.
“Nice,” said Furnok. “Let me take a crack at that bar.” The half-elf nodded and stepped aside. The rogue applied pressure just so with his crowbar, and the heavy timber slipped from its iron brackets. He kissed the iron tool before slipping it back into his belt. “All right. That should do it,” he said, making way for the paladin. Without further ado, Besilana forced the door open.
Entering by the door, they saw low stone walls, a little over waist-height, leading from the exterior wall to support columns. These served to channel entrants through a passage some eight feet wide. Several men waited within with weapons ready to repel invaders.
“Greetings,” said a man in plate mail from behind the line of swordsmen in ring mail. Then, to his men, he said, “Kill them.”
Felicity cast shield of faith to protect Besilana, and a pair of archers on stairs that wound up the left wall fired at Furnok from the stairs. One of the arrows nearly hit the rogue, but he quickly gestured and spat out the command word to abjure a shield. In response, Furnok took cover behind the right side of the doorway and fired back. His arrow caught in his target’s chainmail, and he swore. Besilana entered the tower, and a pair of spears flew at her from behind the front line. One of the missiles caught her in the leg and pierced her leg. The paladin winced, then mantled over the half-wall to attack the man who’d attacked her, as her curse dictated. Taliesin covered himself in barkskin, ran into the tower, and then shifted into a brown bear. The spearmen tried and failed to murder Besilana and the bear.
The leader in plate mail hung back and held his greatsword ready. Felicity called upon Ehlonna for aid and bolstered her allies with increased vigor. The archers fired at the bear, and one arrow pierced the druid’s protective spell. Furnok fired back again, and dropped one of the archers one with an arrow the eye. The man screamed as he tumbled down the stairs. The studded-leather-clad man who had hit Besilana with a spear pulled a longsword and tested her defenses, which were strong. A moment later, the paladin’s sword flashed and her opponent fell dead, and with her foe fallen, she clawed her way back to her senses.
Another defender pulled another spear and advanced to the half wall, grazing the bear with his thrown weapon. The druid roared and lunged at the nearest swordsman, sinking sharp teeth into his shoulder. Then he took another spear in the side, while the leader in plate advanced on Besilana. His greatsword came down heavily, but her shield was there to meet it both times. Felicity prayed for a spiritual weapon, and a sword of force appeared behind the spearman threatening Besilana. With a thought, the halfling cut the man down, and narrowly failed to scorch the leader with sacred flame.
The remaining archer fired at the halfling, but the arrow stuck in the door jamb beside her. Furnok shot the other spearman, his arrow taking the man in the chest. The sergeant circled his companions, pulling one of their spears on the move and lobbing it at Besilana. She contemptuously picked it out of the air with a swipe of her sword. Her head momentarily clear, the paladin attacked the leader, scoring a hit and smiting the man with holy light.
One of the swordsmen quit the fight against the bear to come after Besilana next, but she defended against the lesser warrior easily. Only one of the swordsmen managed to strike Taliesin, but the druid lost his spell from the pain of his collected injuries. In response, the bear roared and finished off the swordsman he’d already wounded, spending a thought – and some spell energy – to heal himself a bit.
The leader struck Besilana twice in quick succession, spilling her blood and activating Starsong’s curse. Felicity’s next spiritual weapon strike clattered off her target’s armor, though her sacred flame burned the man. Taliesin managed to avoid another arrow from the stairs, while Furnok struggled to return fire. The lightly armored sergeant drew his longsword and sliced the druid twice. The bear stood up on his hind legs and dropped onto the wounded swordsman over the half wall, taking a bite out of his neck before swatting at the sergeant.
The paladin fended off the next couple of greatsword swings, but if not for Felicity’s timely healing magic, she likely would have fallen. “Aw, c’mon!” the swordsmen complained as the bear they had killed became an elf for a moment before revert to a fully healed bear again. Taliesin ripped the sergeant into a couple of pieces, then grinned widely at the swordsmen as blood dripped from his teeth. The leader struck Besilana once more, but was too slow to parry her counter attack. She cursed him in Elvish as she was showered by his arterial spray.
The last swordsman glanced around and noticed he was alone against the heroes except for the archer on the stairs. “If I surrender, will you spare my life?” he said, eyeing the adventurers warily.
“We swear it,” Besilana told him.
“Chico, you’re on your own,” muttered the swordsman, dropping his weapon.
Taliesin gave the man a brief nod, then charged up the stairs to menace the archer.
“Chico! Renounce your evil ways!” Felicity demanded.
With large sharp teeth in his face, the archer dropped his bow, hands raised, eyes wide, and hoping to all the gods, good and bad, that the bear won’t eat him. Furnok bound the bandits, then turned to his companions. “What are we gonna do with these guys?”