by Just Jae
Skrie and her friends save villagers from the hands of cultists.
Saving the Villagers
The next day dawned gray and cloudy. A chilling breeze blew over the hills from the west.
"Trail mix?" whined Garack. "Can't we make a fire and make us a hot breakfast? At least heat the water for tea. I ain't heard nothin' all night. We should be safe enough."
"No," said Skrie and Malusk in unison.
Getting an early start, the group walked south through the hills toward Nemeademore. They followed the road as it sloped down into the valley to the east. A league or so from the village, a valley opened to the east. It was filled with grassy fields, small groups of various trees, and smoke from a farmhouse further in the hills. Pushing through the grass and bushes in the mountains west of the road, they looked for a vantage point to see the village. One of the last near the road, a low hill looked like a good candidate.
Stopping along an animal track, Garack drew a map of the village, pointing out where the villagers were held at night and where the guards and priests slept.
"During the day, they have 'em all working in the ruins, here," he said, pointing to a block he had drawn to the south. "At night, they lock 'em in a couple of the homes, here."
The group stayed well west of the village and moved south through the grass and sparse woods. As they approached a tall hill, Garack stopped them again.
"If you're going up the hill, be careful," he said. "Ever since they captured them soldiers, they've had a guard on duty up there."
Skrie crept up the hill staying well hidden in the high grass. Seeing the guard half-asleep, the halfling managed to surprise and kill him. She found a small brass horn, about two hands long, with an odd script inscribed on it among his meager possessions.
Signaling her companions, the rest of the group joined her at the top of the hill. Garack pointed out some of the buildings and what or who would be located in each. The center of the village was dominated by an old tower, partially destroyed but somewhat repaired. While they watched, a guard walked from the backside of the tower and continued his patrol.
After observing the village, the group moved further south onto a smaller hill where they could observe the lower section of the town. During the day, they watched as several guards patrolled the area but saw no sign of the villagers.
The guards herded two groups from the temple to two buildings on the village's east side as dusk approached. Guarded by several people dressed much like the other guards, the party watched the villagers as they were herded into the two buildings Garack had pointed out. Malusk reported one guard patrolling each building. The rest of the guards dispersed into several of the village huts.
When it was dark, a man exited the tower and lit a bonfire in the center of the village. This seemed to be a signal to the conclave. Guards and cultists gathered around the fire as the man, wearing gaudy robes, talked. While the Skrie couldn't hear everything being said, at regular intervals, she heard the gathered men all say, "All hail The One."
"How long does this nonsense go on?" the halfling asked Garack.
"Long enough we can get to the other side of the village," he replied.
They crept toward the broken stone buildings Garack had drawn on his map. Two tombs were partially buried in the ground. The gray stone buildings stood almost man-height, with steps leading several feet into the ground. Outside one, a broken statue of a woman in a flowing gown lay in pieces on the ground, only the torso and legs still intact. Opposite her was a statue of a man wearing plate armor holding a sword and shield, the head and one shoulder missing.
Skrie spotted a man silhouetted in a doorway as they passed the temple. He appeared to have his back to them, so she hurried the group into the grass and trees to the east, counting on the darkness to cover their passage. Watching a hill that could shield them from the cultists in the village, the halfling noticed a cave on the side of the hill, its guard having caught her attention.
They sneaked around the hill to surprise him as he watched the forest to the east. As they approached, the guard turned towards them, having heard a noise from the brush.
"Halt," he said. "Come out of the brush you."
Malusk, assuming he was the one the guard heard, ran from the tree he'd hidden behind to the side of the hill, hoping to draw the guard away from the others.
His ruse worked. The guard fired his crossbow at the half-orc but missed in the low light. Drawing his mace, he moved around to where Malusk hid. The group surprised him with their first attack, and he collapsed.
Sneaking into the cave, Skrie stayed clear of the small campfire in the entry. A half dozen paces into the tunnel, she faced a fork in the path. Choosing the right tunnel, she crept forward and heard a voice call out.
"Hallo, hallo, can you help us?"
The cleric rushed forward, finding two soldiers.
"Thank you," said the man. "My name is Jorge. This," he pointed to his unconscious companion, "is Jackson. Them guards give us a sweet drink that put us to sleep. I spit mine out the last time. Jackson was supposed to do the same with his, but he might'a swallowed more than I did."
Examining the men, Skrie noted that they were dehydrated and hungry. She passed water and trail rations to Jorge.
"Eat. Drink," the cleric ordered. "Your friend, Jackson, is it? seems to be okay except that he's sleeping off the effects of whatever they put in the drink."
"How long do you think you've been here?" asked Theren. Skrie had called out to her friends when she realized they'd found the two guards that survived the ambush they'd discovered a few days prior.
"I think we been here for two, maybe three days. There was three of us, hunting for Fort Bridale up near Suncall. Four people attacked us. I seen Mitch go over the cliff with one of 'em, then they beat us unconscious. Next thing I know we're tied up here. Been working these ropes every chance but they keep us knocked out."
"Let's move everyone t' th' fire," said Malusk. "That way we can defend the whole cave if'n they change th' guard any time soon. 'Sides, we ain't looked t' see what's on th' other side, yet."
"I think guard change just happened," said Garack. "I wouldn't expect a patrol for another couple of hours, at least."
"Good," said Skrie. "Let's make sure no one stumbles over the body outside."
After moving the dead guard, Malusk appeared in the cave with an armload of weapons and armor.
"Thought ye might 'preciate these," he said, dumping the items at Jorge's feet.
The man's face lit up.
"Ah, yer a gem, ye are," he said as he donned the pieces, asking the half-orc for help tightening the buckles.
"Yer welcome," came the reply.
"Jackson should wake up soon if he didn't get too much of that drink," said Skrie. "Garack, since you used to be with this crew," Jorge looked over at their stray, "I'm going to leave you with the soldiers, here, while the rest of us explore the other tunnel."
"Look, if they come looking you might be able to bluff them long enough for us to help," replied the halfling. "It's time for you to put your money where your mouth is. If you want me to trust you, prove that I can."
Garack looked at her, then gave a sharp nod.
Lighting her lamp, Skrie followed the left tunnel as it twisted around and began to climb. It opened into a large cave where they saw eight children sleeping.
"We'll need to move these kids," said Malusk, "or rescue the villagers and move 'em all. I don't think we can carry all the kids unless we make several trips."
"Let's go back and tell the others," said Skrie.
Back at the fire, the cleric told the three men what they'd found.
"We need to rescue the adults before we can get the kids out of here," she said.
"Me and Jackson'll stay and guard th' kids," said Jorge.
"Excellent," replied the halfling. "Garack, I want you here with them, again just in case you need to bluff the cultists."
"All right," he sulked.
"We need a diversion that'll keep 'em from comin' over here," said Malusk.
"Oh, I know," said Theren, turning to Garack. "You said there's livestock here, right?"
"What would happen if we let them loose and they run through the village?" the mage's eyes twinkled.
"I like it," said Skrie.
"Me too," echoed Malusk.
Leaving Garrick and the two soldiers, with the children, Malusk, Skrie, and Theren sneaked through the hills to check out the village. While Theren kept watch from the top of a small hill, Skrie crept closer to the first building where the villagers were being held. Spotting two guards, the halfling stayed in the shadows.
Seeing one guard leave the building side and go after the animals, the cleric took advantage of the situation. Approaching the back door of the building, she found it tied shut with rope. Peeking through a gap in the door, she saw a small light and several villagers resting. Knocking lightly, she untied the rope and entered the home.
"My name's Skrie," she announced in Hin. "Jorund sent me to help you, in Janna's name," she continued, showing one of the women the crystal Jorund gave her. "We found your children. They are safe but in a drugged sleep. We need to go, now."
They followed her from the building and into the woods. Sending the group toward Theren, Skrie continues to the second hut, trusting Theren to take them to the cave with the children. Making her way to the next building where villagers were held, Skrie repeated her second home.
"How do we know we can trust you?" demanded one rather large man.
"You don't," Skrie shot back, "but if you want to take your chances with these fellows for another day, you're welcome to stay. I'm taking whoever wants out of here to where the kids are being held, then we're off to find a safe place."
Looking around the room, she shook her head and moved toward the door. The villagers, including the belligerent chap, followed her back to the cave where they checked on their children, then collapsed in exhaustion.
"I'm Mayze," said a woman approaching Skrie. "I want to thank you for what you did."
"You're welcome," answered the cleric. "You're still not safe, though. As soon as a guard checks the buildings, they'll be looking for you."
"Oh, they won't check until after sunrise," said the woman. "Do ye have food an' water fer us? They been stingy wi' us."
"Aye," said the cleric, looking through hers and Malusk's packs.
The halfling scrounged enough to make a hot meal for the former captives, albeit skimpy.
"Sorry the pickings are so slim," apologized the cleric. "We'll need to hunt to feed us all properly."
"It's more'n we had," she replied.
"We'll keep watch fer th' night," Malusk said.
"I've slept enough for a day or two," said Jorge. "I'll take the first watch."
"I owe you an apology," the big man who had doubted Skrie said. "I'll take a watch, too."