Chapter 16: A Handy Clue

"Looks like someone picked this place clean," Bishop was running his eyes over a cluster of shelves and several large chests, the contents of the former strewn all over the floor, the latter having been busted into to. "Someone with no finesse on looting. Adopting the old grab and go it looks like." He reached his foot out and gave a light kick to Carrin's rear. "Sound familiar?"

"Please," she retorted, rubbing her round behind, "I'm way better than these buffoons. I could swipe everything in a place like this and be gone again before anyone figured I was here."

"Skill difference aside," I told them both, "We are not looters and we are certainly not here to rob these people. The gods know they've had enough misfortune this day, let alone the tragedy of thievery to add atop it."

"Stealing is a tragedy?" Carrin asked mirthfully.

"Sometimes it is my dear," Cassandra answered her with a gentle smile, "The theft of a single object can have terrible repercussions throughout many lives, causing panic and chaos."

"Though we seek the Heartstone Gem," Sol pondered, "And return it to Arundel if it is indeed here. What would you call that? Stealing or…borrowing indefinitely?"

"Neither. If things had been different, I would have asked before taking any action."

"Not much use in that anymore," Bishop noted.

Searching throughout the complex led to little use, every nook and cranny had been torn open, items of sparse value littering the floors. We came across what looked to be personal quarters, a library, and a hallway leading deeper into the temple, passing numerous bodies of robed men and the hulking remains of their verbeeg guard. The hallway, lined with more books ended with a dark stairwell, leading into the depths of the mountain.

Reaching the bottom of the steps yielded another passageway, winding around, entering a long hallway, lined with sarcophaguses. And at the end of this sprawling walkway, stood another five priests, bearing the same tattered appearance and wild expressions. As if this wasn't unsavory enough as it was, easily seven verbeeg guards were flanking them, weapons out and at the ready.

"We heard the commotion above, contemptible invaders!" screamed one priest, "The sounds of our brethren being slain reached us even here! You shall not walk away from this place with your lives for your crimes and…"

"We mean no harm!" I shouted out, holding my hands up, "We are not here to fight! We are here under peaceful intentions!"

"Lies murderers! You seek to destroy all that we have worked to build! You shall not escape from these halls until our brothers are…"

"Hold!" boomed a new voice, silencing the babbling of the delusional man. Out from behind the shielding girth of the grim-faced verbeeg stepped another man, hooded and robed, looking far less frayed than his cohorts. He ventured a few steps forward, eying us carefully. From under his hood, his face was hardened and firm as he gazed out at us.

"Brother Huvart," one of the more disheveled priests screeched, piercing us with a glare of pure wrath, "Why have us stop?! We must strike them now, whilst they are spewing their lies! They have desecrated our shrine and slain our own! Our brethren cry out to be avenged!"

"Look closer my son," the scrutinizing cleric answered him soothingly, "They carry no smell blood or death upon them and their colors are not the same as the heretics that did this to us. And those that defiled this place spoke no words to us, they only brought with them swift silent devastation. However…" now he faced us, "Outsiders," the stern man looked over all of us with deep examination, "You claim you are not apart of the dark force that has slain many of us, yet why are you here? This is a hidden shrine, far from any settlement and off the paths of all roads, so how did you find this place and why did you enter?"

"My good sir," I apologized, humbly bowing, "Let us explain. My name is Dominic Hugos, and these are my friends and associates. We are a band of traveling exorcists, dedicated to ridding the world from the scourge of undead, among other evils that plague good people."

"There are no undead in this place adventurer, though evil we have in abundance here."

"So we have seen. But we actually have come here on a mission. You see, we are from Kuldahar, one the Ten Towns, charged with searching for a missing artifact, one that…"

"The Heartstone Gem," Huvart surmised. "I see, so you too sought to rob us of our most sacred of artifacts," he accused, looking to grow irritated at the discovery of our intent.

"One moment," I hastily interrupted, "Allow me to explain our situation fully. My party and I have only recently arrived in Icewind Dale, searching for folks in need of our assistance. In our search we learned that the township of Kuldahar was besieged by unknown evil forces, so we set out and journeyed to it."

"With no small amount of hardships," Sol interjected.

"Indeed. We arrived to find a nameless faceless evil was causing the good people living there no end of strife, but the Arch-Druid of Kuldahar could not discern who or what was causing the conflict, as whatever is responsible has taken measures to protect itself from scrying. The Heartstone gem would be able to pierce this shroud and reveal the evil to us, allowing us to track it down and see it vanquished. Though despite our need, we had no intensions of coming here to merely steal from you. I was raised with better manners than that, and I was taught to ask before taking."

Huvart listened and was quiet; no doubt attempting to discern whether or not what I spoke was truth or fiction. At last, he stepped forward, bowing his head.

"I believe your words outsider. Your cause is a noble one, though your efforts shall be halted here. We have no stone to take any longer."
"So you guy's did have it?" Bishop concluded pointedly, "Tucked away somewhere back here?"
"Yes, it was a sacred relic for our shrine. But the interlopers came, slaughtering all who stood in their way and took the gem from its resting place. We had never seen their like before and we do not associate with many outside our walls, so how they knew of the gem, I do not know."

"If I was to hazard a guess," Sol speculated, "Than I would say that you have met the very evil we are seeking to combat. In order to keep itself hidden from prying eyes, it needed to remove any possible means of others detecting it. That gem would have been a prime target."

"Yes, that seems likely; I have no doubt that you are correct. Those that came attacked us ruthlessly, pillaging our temple as they breached our defenses, searching feverishly. They took much from us but when they seized the gem, they left at once, as if they had found what they sought. They even knew about the inner cave where the Gem was housed…"

"May we see this place? Cassandra politely asked, bowing, "Perhaps we can better understand the events if we were to see it for ourselves." Brother Huvart scanned us all, biting his lip.

"Where the gem lay is a hallowed place where only our most loyal of brothers may tread…but…this day has taken much from us...And at the very least, you wish to assist if you can. Very well, follow. A warning however; we have suffered much this day and we will not be victims of more treachery. Our guards shall follow and punish any deceit with swift death."

"You needn't worry about us, my good sir," I assured him heartily, "We are only here to lend you our aid. Lead on."

And so we went, following the high priest further into his now shattered shrine and temple. As we went deeper, passing hallways and what looked to be tombs along the walls, we saw other survivors, priests, acolytes and monks, all forlorn and silent. They were moving bodies about, their fellow comrades as well as their fallen verbeeg guardians, respectfully laying them out in neat rows, saying hushed prayers. When we passed, their eyes came up, spearing us, their loathing and mistrust near palpable, no doubt if we had been unescorted, they would have attacked us in rage.

"Do not blame them," Huvart saw their glares as well, "even peaceful men can be driven to the edges of sanity and tolerance in such terrible moments, their anger is simply lashing out at which they don't recognize."

"I am deeply sorry for this distress," Cassandra apologized, "We know you have suffered much and our intrusion has only made matters worse for you all."

"No, stricken with grief as we are, we are the faithful disciples of our gods, following their ways of peace. Attacking strangers is contemptible and something that we should not do. Especially those that are willing to help, to right the wrongs in these mountains…I sense that you too serve the gods," Huvart noted of our priestess, "Of which god or goddess do you follow my lady?"

"I serve the Morning Lord," Cassandra answered, "His radiance is an example of light in a world full of shadows. I hope to spread his teachings to as many as I am able while I do good on our journeys."

"Indeed…perhaps you would say a prayer for this place before you depart. It would do much to ease our suffering to hear such words of kindness and vivacity."

"It would be my honor."

"And you too," he now turned towards Sir Victor who plodded alongside us, "You also have the mark of a holy soldier. What faith do you serve sir?"

"Don't waste your breath with him," Bishop informed the priest nonchalantly, "He doesn't talk. As quiet as a…"

"Tyr…" spoke a foreign and authoritative voice, one that I can honestly claim I had never heard before. Though unknown as it was, the hollow resonance left no doubt as to who had spoken. We all turned, looking at the towering iron behemoth that stood behind us.

"Did…did he just…say something?" Sol asked, looking bewildered and flabbergasted.

"Well," said I, mustering as much good cheer as I could, "If that isn't the first good thing I've heard all day. Good to hear from you, old friend." There came no answer at this, only a shrug, which I was not surprised to see. The mood around us was that of pure astonishment, at least until we all felt a bit of an angry presence gather around us.

"That's bullspit," Bishop growled, sounding quite cross, "We're the people he's been traveling with for years and he never makes a peep with us. Then this guy who he met today asks him something and suddenly his vow of silence or whatever is over and gone out the window. What…?" he glared at our hulking paladin sourly, "We're not holy enough for you to even converse with? We're just gutterslime that's not even worth opening your mouth for?" The silence that followed was full of tension as no reply came.

"Vic?" Carrin asked timidly, perhaps troubled by the possible truth as to what Bishop had said. At least until Sir Victor laid a heavy hand on Carrin's shoulder, prompting her to stare upward into his hidden face.

"I have my reasons," came echoing out of his helmet visor, and he spoke no more. With the stunning revelation that our friend paladin could actually converse, we continued following Huvart into the inner sanctum of the shrine. This deified area was a vast cave, a platform of rock surrounded on all sides by a deep gorge, a dull glowing light coming from the chasms below. And like the rest of the temple, bodies lay strewn about, though here more than anywhere else, the number was far greater, clustered around an adorned plinth situated across the chamber.

"Gods," Carrin murmured, "The fiends…"

"Yes," Huvart agreed grimly, "The same thought entered our minds as well." He then pointed across the chamber, over the strewn mound of bodies, to a section of the cave wall that had been hollowed out, leaving a smooth stone pedestal. "That is where the gem resided until it was stolen from us. The beasts that did this came with terrible magic and numbers, and we were all but helpless. Though they did not leave this consecrated place without casualties," he then gestured to a few corpses, piled in an undignified heap off to one side of the slaughter. "Though the numbers we lost compared to theirs is far greater."

We tentatively entered, spreading out, looking over the scene closely, trying to ascertain all that we could. I joined Cassandra by the bloodstained bodies of the intruders.

"Talos," she noted, "These are the colors and garb for Talonian priests. Fanatics…" Nothing riled Cassandra up quite like priests of dark faiths; I saw a similar expression in her face when we had confronted Lysan of the Auril faith.

"Gracius," I heard Sol exclaim from across the room, "Just look at the size of that indentation; this Heartstone gem must be enormous…like a small pumpkin!"

I meanwhile, focused my attention on the perpetrators, carefully turning their misshapen bodies over, to see if they possessed any other distinguishing marks that might yield a piece of the confounding puzzle we were faced with. When I flipped the third, a light crisp chime tingled my ears, something made of glass striking the stone floor. I reached around, trying not to winch as I rummaged in the pocket of the dead man, wondering all the while how Carrin managed to do the same thing so often with a straight face, when my fingers wrapped around cold glass and I drew my hand back.

"Well well," I mused aloud, "What do we have here?"

"What's that you got there Dom?" Carrin asked, at my side a moment later, looking over my shoulder, leaning in.

"A vial," I answered, staring at the crystalline container I held, peering beyond the glass of the small bottle, "full of some sort of…liquid…I'm not sure as to what though…" Everyone gathered around me, staring at my find. Sol took the vial, swishing the liquid within about, eyeing it carefully.

"Interesting…Not a potion, I'm fairly certain." With a gentle tug, the wedge of cork stopping up the narrow neck of the vial popped free, Sol taking a brief sniff. He wrinkled his nose quite quickly. "A bitter aroma…And yet familiar…I can't remember what though, but I'm sure I've smelt something similar to this before."

"A clue maybe?" Carrin pressed, "I mean, these guy's had it," lightly nudging the dead man with the tip of her boot, "So…maybe it means something?"

"I hope so," I told her, "As we have few leads to follow right now."

"If you have seen enough," Brother Huvart stood beside us, looking and sounding tired and depressed, "Then I must ask that you depart. We have much to do to rebuild this place and our dead need to be buried."

"Of course. Though we could assist you with that task, if you wish," I offered him, though he only shook his head.

"Thank you but no, we are their brothers and the task falls to us alone. I only ask that if you manage to track down those responsible for this, then please, for all those slain here, see to it that their deaths are fitting and send each and every one of their tainted and malicious souls to the Abyss to burn for their deeds."

"We are not hired assassins my good sir," Sol informed him, "But if the guilty party is indeed a despicable villain who caused such suffering needlessly, then rest assured that we shall see justice done and your people avenged."