They travelled for over an hour in the morning sun. Fudin led the way, carefully scouting the path ahead, pointing out the best trails, and keeping his eyes turned to the horizon. Nes followed closely behind him, mounted upon his spoiled camel, Reginald. A parasol shaded him from the sun. The heat didn’t seem to bother them. Bree couldn’t see a bead of sweat between the three. Behind Nes walked Santon. He chatted happily with her the entire way, commenting on their surroundings, gossiping about their fellow travelers, and mocking the Sahadine brothers. Though he glistened with sweat, he seemed used to it, and paid the heat no mind. Bree on the other hand, did. The sun was nowhere near its apex and she was baking. Her hair was matted with sweat, her clothes were soaked, and she already had a headache from the heat. How could anyone live in this blasted heat? It was killing her!
When Fudin finally raised a hand, signaling them to stop, she was overjoyed. When he spoke quietly, telling them the monastery should be just over the last ridge, she almost swooned. “Thank the Drunken Lord!”
“Well,” Santon said nonchalantly, “what are we waiting for?”
Nes shook his head. “We should plan the best – “
“No.” Bree cut in. “I need to get out of the sun. Let’s just go.”
Fudin shook his head. “You don’t know what dangers could be lurking – “
“You heard the lady.” Santon said with a smile. “Let’s go.”
Bree frowned. If Santon agreed with her it must be a bad idea. She shrugged, deciding she didn’t care. She let Santon lead her over the ridge and across a small clearing, to the ruined, crumbling monastery. It wasn’t until she stood in the shade of it’s toppling walls that she even began to pay attention to her surroundings. She pulled out her water skin and drank from it deeply. Finally, she wiped the sweat off of her brow with her sleeve and looked around.
They stood in a huge promenade littered with bits of debris ranging from tiny rocks to enormous hunks of masonry. Two huge fallen sections of the western wall had collapsed. Bree and Santon had entered through the southernmost of these holes, while Nes and Fudin had entered through the northernmost one. The roof was little more than a few bricks which leaned precariously atop the few jagged pillars still standing. At the end of the hallway were two alcoves as well as a massive, partially collapsed archway that opened up into what looked like a chapel. The eastern wall, no more than forty feet away, was long and solid, broken by only a few open doorways.
Fudin looked both ways, cautiously. He reminded Bree of a bird or a deer, alert for danger. She smiled. He probably wouldn’t like her analogy. Come to think of it, did they even have deer here? He crept forward. Nes followed close behind, leaving Reginald at the gaping holes in the outer wall. Santon walked behind them, calmly, seemingly without a care in the world. Bree smiled and joined him.
Fudin neared the stairs to the chapel, and glanced back and forth. Nes wandered to the left alcove with Fudin eyeing the area before him suspiciously.
Santon shook his head and walked up to the second alcove before bowing. “After you, my lady.”
Bree scoffed but entered the room without responding.
She stood in a debris laden chamber which appeared to have once held a shrine or altar of some sort. Whatever it was had been smashed decades ago. Behind it was a huge, bas relief statue of a muscular man with a pointy beard gesturing towards a large mountain in the background. He looked concerned.
Santon leaned in over her shoulder. “That’s the Pale Mountain.” he said, gesturing at the sculpture. “It is the site of many foul legends.”
Bree eyed the man closer. She didn’t recognize him, but he was depicted in the manor that the faithful of Sarenrae often showed their saints. “This man must have been quite important.” she mused. “I don’t know who he is, though.”
“I’m not surprised.” Nes said with a slight tilt of his chin. “It is Vardishal. He’s a rather obscure regional saint. It would take someone quite learned to recognize him.”
Bree scowled at him then turned to the other nave.
“I meant nothing ill,” he explained with a huff. “I was merely pointing out the differences in our education.”
A similar statue adorned the eastern alcove, in this case with the bearded figure appearing on a hilltop to a group of robed pilgrims. His palms were held out before him and he seemed to be assuring the onlookers that he meant them no harm. The pilgrims around him were heavily worn down and some appeared to have been purposely broken. Those whose faces were whole bore expressions ranging from from awed to horrified.
“Who was Vardishal?” she asked.
Nes smiled. “They say he was a Templar of the Five Winds; a powerful group of genies from antiquity. Legends say that they defeated a great evil hundreds of years ago, near Pale Mountain, in the Brazen Peaks. It is not far from here. They have not been heard of in centuries, of course, but peasants occasionally attribute minor miracles to them still; the healing of the sick, prevention of droughts, the turning of a windstorm, that sort of nonsense.”
“He looks dangerous. I’m not sure I would want to meet him.”
“Most men of note were.”
In between the two alcoves stood a newer looking stele. Bree rubbed her hands along it’s carved letters, translating from Kelesh as she did, “A ghost of unholy mein was purged from this place by Theodophus Estrovan, servant of Aroden, 4691 A.R.”
“Little more than twenty years ago,” Santon mused. “I wonder what happened here.”
“A battle.” Fudin stated. “I can sense it, though no sign remains.”
“A battle?” Bree asked. “Over what?”
Nes shook his head. “No one knows what happened here, nor why Kelmarane fell.”
Fudin sniffed the air deeply. “It was a slaughter, whatever the cause.”
Nes nodded. “No one survived.”
Santon turned away from the trio and started down a wide set of ceremonial steps leading into the dilapidated chapel. “Enough talk. You’re depressing me.”
Bree smiled then stood to follow him. She ducked below a fallen, dried out timber, and stood, looking around curiously. The chapel was cavernous. A vibrant red and orange sunburst of Sarenrae still stood behind a film of rusted rainwater and dirt along the northernmost wall, overlooking a collapsed altar. Between the stairs upon which Bree stood and the altar were dozens of old, marble benches, many overturned and even more broken into two or more pieces. A wide walkway bisected the pews, leading directly to the raised altar. A grotesque, boulder-sized candelabra made of gnoll skulls and rotting heads hung from the rafters in the center of the chapel. Bree frowned. It couldn’t be very old.
” ‘Ware!” Fudin called.
The knotted rope suspending the gnoll skulls jumped and jerked as a runty little creature dressed in crude furs scrambled down from above to get a foothold on the swaying heads. A pugwampi.
“Bitter brew.” Bree held her buckler and scimitar before her. At her side, Santon drew his greatsword from its sheath upon his back.
The pugwampi let out a squeaky laugh before casting it’s hands in a rude gesture at Bree.
“Cayden’s codpiece!” she muttered in disgust. “I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it does.”
Santon laughed. “What a dirty little beast!”
From all around them tiny arrows flew by, striking Santon in the leg, and tearing through the sleeves on Nes’ robes. A half dozen little pugwampi scurried about on the rafters, chittering to each other and laughing maniacally.
“The southeastern corner!” Fudin shouted. He pointed at an interwoven mish-mash of soiled tapestries, tablecloths, and altar runners that resembled a giant wasps nest just as two more pugwampi scurried out from inside of it.
Bree glanced around frantically as more tiny arrows whizzed by her, one of which struck her in the leg. “Froth and foam!” she shrieked, more angry than anything, as a dribble of blood poured from the wound.
“Come on!” Santon shouted. He ran towards a rickety looking wooden ladder.
Bree frowned. It didn’t look very safe, but she had no ranged weapon, and neither did Santon. A trio of arrows scraped past her face, one of which caused blood to drip down her cheek.
“Ugh!” she cried. “That’s it!”
Lightning crackled behind her, knocking stone from the ceiling above. A pugwampi screamed while the others yipped in anger.
“No, Fudin!” Nes cried over the cacophony. “You’ll bring the whole chapel down!”
Bree sheathed her sword and slowly clambered up the ladder behind Santon. Beneath her the ladder creaked and swayed, but held.
As Santon neared the top a hysterical laugh resounded across the room. Bree looked up to see a pair of pugwampi push the ladder away from the rafters. It leaned precariously for a moment, but luck was not on their side.
Santon leaped from the ladder, for the rafters, and Bree began to fall. She reached out for something, anything and grabbed onto Santon’s foot. Santon struggled to hang onto the rafters. The pugwampis cackled in delight, drew a jagged looking dagger each, and approached Santon’s hands.
“Climb!” he called. “NOW!”
Bree looked up, and gasped. She scurried up awkwardly over Santon who, thankfully, was too worried to make any lewd comments.
The pugwampi lunged down with their daggers just as Bree managed to grab onto the rafters. Santon screamed as they cut through his flesh, impaling his hands onto the wood he clutched to. He let go. As he fell the daggers tore out of his hands. He landed with a great crack, atop a marble pew. His impact broke it in two.
Bree grunted, and pulled herself up, onto the rafters. She wobbled and glanced down. Santon did not move. Fudin was climbing up a rope to the pugwampi nest in the far corner, and Nes was aiming his wand at a rope that appeared to be connected to the gnoll-skull chandelier. Flame poured from the wand, lit the rope on fire and caused the grotesque decoration to crash to the ground.
Slowly, Bree drew her scimitar, slicing her belt off as she did so. “Broken tankard!”
The pugwampis laughed.
She gritted her teeth and stepped forward. One of the pugwampi lunged at her, digging its dagger into her foot, straight through her boot.
She sliced downwards with her blade and severed the creatures hands from its body. It shrieked in pain before running back and forth, in a panic, between her and the other pugwampi. She swayed, blood pouring from her foot, and inched ahead.
Beneath her, the beam cracked, and then buckled, sending her and the two pugwampi careening to the ground. They landed in a tangled heap atop Santon. Bree rolled off of him, then crushed the two pugwampis beneath her bleeding foot. She turned to Santon, who bled from his mouth and hands. She dug around in her pack, pulled out one of the potions provided to her from Father Zastoran, and poured it down Santon’s throat. He coughed, then sputtered, and then stood as the wounds upon his hands closed.
Bree offered him a hand up. Behind them, pugwampi screamed and lightning crackled.
“Thanks,” Santon said through gritted teeth.
A hush fell over the chapel. Bree looked around for any sign of enemies.
From the makeshift nest in the corner a tiny ball of armor crawled out. It was a pugwampi, covered from the tips of his ears to the ends of his toes in thick, gore encrusted plate armor. Upon it’s helmet sat a crown of gnoll teeth and in its hands it gripped a small warhammer, much too big for its tiny body. It stood upon the rafters, let out a shrill laugh, and then jumped down to the ground. It landed with a clang. It reached up one of its hands and then closed it.
Bree’s buckler let out a loud crack then fell to the floor in pieces. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me!” she growled.
The pugwampi king laughed, raised its warhammer high, and charged forward. He was fast. Too fast. He crashed into Bree’s calf, leading with his warhammer, causing Bree to shout in pain and fall to the ground. The pugwampi continued on and, behind her, Santon howled in pain. Bree struggled to get up while Fudin dove overtop of the oncoming pugwampi. He cleared the jump without difficulty, but landed in a pile of rubble and slipped. The pugwampi turned back towards Fudin and raised his warhammer to the ceiling.
Nes drew his wand and aimed it at the vicious, little creature. “Spitfire!”
The wand’s tip glowed, but fire burst forth from it in the wrong direction, sending flames roaring at Nes himself. He shrieked as his robes went up in flames.
Fudin rolled, causing the pugwampi king to narrowly miss his head and strike a marble pew instead. It shattered in an explosion of stone shards which flew out in all directions. Fudin growled and clutched at his face.
The crowned pugwampi laughed.
Santon picked up a stone and hurled it at the pugwampi. It clanged uselessly against his armour. Bree finally staggered to her feet and both she and Santon crept forward, blades drawn. Santon lunged forward first, and the pugwampi dove to the side, rolling away like a ball. Bree slashed with her sword but struck his armour. Santon thrust downwards, but the pugwampi rolled again, sending Santon’s blade into the floor instead.
The pugwampi was up in an instant, charging at Bree with his warhammer. Bree tried to dodge to the side, but slipped in her haste and tumbled to the ground. The pugwampi king tripped over her body . His force sent the two of them tumbling across the room.
Bree’s head cracked against pews, debris, and the pugwampis armour, but she managed to keep consciousness. She struggled to her feet, dizzy, desperately looking for her scimitar before the pugwampi charged her again.
Where was it? She braced herself, expecting the crash of a warhammer against her calves at any second, but it never came. Slowly, her vision righted itself and the room stopped spinning. The pugwampi king lay in a pool of his own blood, with Bree’s scimitar protruding from a small gap in its armour between it’s helmet and breastplate.
“Well done, Bree.” Santon groaned from across the room.
“I meant to do that.”
Fudin wiped stone and grit from his eyes while Nes muttered to himself angrily about losing another fine set of robes.
“Fudin!” he called out. “Fetch me another – “
“He can’t even see, Nes!” Bree grumbled at him, cutting him off.
“Oh. Quite right. Never mind, Fudin!”
Bree shook her head as Nes trudged out of the ruined chapel, the remains of his fine silken robes dangling off of him like vines. Cayden’s codpiece! Would she have to see him naked every day?
She looked around the chapel. Its once brilliant glass paned windows were shattered, its benches broken, its altar defiled and smeared with excrement. Pages from the holy text of Sarenrae, The Birth of Light and Truth, lay scattered about the pulpit. Corpses of pugwampis, animals, and the heads of gnolls marked everything with gore. What once had been a holy site had become a desecrated, macabre, pile of filth.
Bree frowned. “We need to clean this place up.”
Fudin, finally able to see and breathe clearly, shook his head. “Best finish searching the grounds first. We know not what else lurks within these walls.”
Santon nodded. “We can return later, to set this place right.”
Bree sighed. They were right. She looked sadly around the room that must have once spread faith and hope throughout the region. How far it had fallen…
It had suffered decades of abuse. It could wait a few more hours. She would be back.