The sun flashes from above. The heat, once merely draining, becomes scorching! The companions can barely open their eyes and they can feel their skin searing… Will anyone come up with the right answer, before they are all basted in a hot oast?
With a parched croak, Rolen cries out, "Sun!" The light dims, and the doors to the room of spring open wide.
Rolen and Temeraire dart through the door and move to opposite sides of the room, but it is shadowy and unoccupied. The corner of the room had collapsed from the invasion of a massive tree root. The riddle, too, has been destroyed. The rest of the group, save for El'lirian guarding their backtrail, enters the room to see Temeraire kneeling to examine the rubble in the corner. A skeletal hand protrudes from the fallen stones, grasping something. The investigator reaches ever so carefully to touch the hand, and the spirit of an old dwarf manifests suddenly and begins pacing back and forth across the room, paying no attention to the adventurers.
The spirit mutters under his breath, concentrating hard. Eloquin approaches it and calls out, "WHO ARE YOU, SER DWARF?"
"No need to scream, youngster. I'm the guardian of the shrine of Vymera, obviously. Why are you here?" It seems that the poor dwarf does not know he has been crushed under tons of stone and dirt and irony. After waiting for a couple seconds for an answer, the dwarf seems to forget speaking to Eloquin and returns to his pacing and grumbling. "How did that riddle go? I'll never teach poor Turl the secrets of the shrine if I canna remember them meself. How did it go?"
"What are you trying to remember, old-timer?"
"Who? What? How did you get in here?"
"We answered the riddles!"
"Well, you haven't answered this riddle, and now I've gone and lost the answer. I wish I could remember it, but every time I think I'm close, this hideous beastly screeching echoes through my mind and I lose my train of thought." He recites the riddle to the room of spring. Eloquin blinks once, shakes his head in pity, and barks out the answer with a bit of a laughter.
"Well, you're true riddlers and no mistake. May your days be long upon Vymera's earth. Now I need to go find Turl and give him his Nameday gift. Do you see? I carved a guardian for him -" he looks down at his empty, spectral hands, confused. "Now where did my carving go? I can't miss the poor lad's Nameday! He'll never forgive me!" The old dwarf begins to panic, sobbing.
Temeraire calls out, "Guardian of Vymera! Turl, your kinsman, sent us to you. Is this what you seek?" The dwarf spirit turns and sees the tiefling gesturing towards the bony hand that reaches up from the stony rubble with something grasped tight in its fist.
"I – wait, what happened to me? Am I… am I…" he hiccups through the last of his tears and gives a heavy sigh. "I'm dead, aren't I?"
"I think so, good spirit. I think so," Temeraire replies with a note of tender solemnity.
"Well, then. That's that. Are ye honorable folk? Bah… Vymera would not have let you come this far if ye weren't. Will ye do a favor for an old dwarf? Take me carving to Turl, tell him how sorry I am, and teach him the secrets? Will you swear?"
"By wind and water, by ice and fire, by earth and sky and sea, I swear it will be done." A warm glow, much like the radiance of healing magic, lights the room from the skeletal fist. All the companions turn to the source of light, and see the fingers open and hand the figurine to the tiefling. A cool breeze like a sigh of relief ruffles their hair and when they turn back, the spirit is no more.
The allies make their way deeper into the undertunnels of the shrine. Rolen and Temeraire dart into a long, dark room lined with intricately-decorated scarecrows. The rest of the group approaches, and while the pair suggests caution, Ward the Tomeheart charges forth with abandon! Almost drowned out by the clank of stomping metal on stonework is a sharp snapping CLICK! Crystals beneath the scarecrows wink into glowing life as the scarecrows show their true purpose: each scarecrow represents one of the past guardians of this ancient shrine.
As the figures lurch into eldritch life, Eloquin murmurs the words of a spell and skitters up the wall and onto the ceiling with spidery dexterity. The guardians rake at the companions with stone-tipped wooden claws, and no attacks faze them. Swords slash them, but do not slow them. Magic burns them, but still they keep coming. They rend and tear at the tomeheart, and the mystical automaton finally collapses under their aggression. Narrows and Narrows, trapped in one corner, fight for their lives against two of the guardians. All the while, the wizard studies them from the ceiling.
"The secret to their life is in the crystals! Destroy them, and the magic will cease."
El'lirian darts forward and smashes the hilts of his swords down onto one of the glowing stones. It shatters, and one of the guardians locks up, frozen in place as its magic dies. One after another, the travelers destroy the crystals and the scarecrows finally halt. Izkierka shudders, the horrible foes reminding her of childhood nightmares, and launches a bolt of magical fire into each. With the last of the scarecrows smoldering into a pile of ash, the adventurers look worse for wear. They slump down against the walls and floor to catch their breath. Temeraire and El'lirian make their way around the room, bandaging their wounds. The tiefling sings a soft hopeful reel as he moves about the room, invigorating his allies.
After a few minutes to catch their breath, the group continues. They follow a long passage for several yards before finding another section caved-in like the spring room. This time, though, there is no tree. Instead, there are the marks of huge clawed paws in the dirt, along with the stench of rotting meat. El'lirian squats down and runs a finger along the edge of the track, gauging the size of its maker. "The ghost spoke of screeching in the night, yes?"
"Aye, screeching so loud and awful it disturbed even the rest of the dead. Literally."
"These tracks are from no natural beast – they come from a hideous monstrosity made by their kind in the long ago." The elf ranger spits out the words and jabs two fingers at Eloquin and Nimozoran. "I have made it my mission to rid the world of such monstrosities. We must slay the owlbear."
"Owlbear? OWLBEAR? Wouldn't it be better as a pet? It sounds ADORABLE," Izkierka exclaims.
"ADORABLE!?" Eloquin replies. "Set your scaly mind on this: giant bear, with the head and eyes and beak and talons of an owl, both cunning and full of rage at its unnatural state."
"But fur and feathers together sound snuggly and awesome."
Following the smell the adventures find themselves in a large cavern scattered with half eaten rotting corpses. The scouts hear a pained retching sound from behind them, and turn to see the sorceress holding her hands to her mouth and shuddering. Temeraire rushes to her side, pulls forth a large handkerchief, and helps her clean up.
"Okay… not so adorable after all."
At the far end of the cavern, beyond an expanse of lower terrain, the huge feathered beast slumbers in a nest. El'lirian nocks an arrow, stretches his bow tight, and creeps forward across the cavern towards the sleeping beast. An arrow pierces the beast's hide and it lurches up and stands on its hind legs and bellows an ear piercing screech. Izkierka takes a deep breath and screams right back at it, loosing her draconic birthright, a gust of lightning breath that races forth and sets the beast's feathers to smoking. Eloquin nails it with darts of magical force. Rolen leaps across the expanse and buries his rapier down through the creature's thick neck, and it collapses with a shudder that slams the elf into the wall.
The group finds a small hoard of shiny things buried in the owlbear's nest. Armor, coins, an ancient arcane dagger, and a small box bound in silver and carved all over with tiny images of Vymera. Temeraire handles it ever so gently and works its locking mechanism open. Immediately the stench of rot and guano is overwhelmed by the earthy aroma of loam and sunshine and growing things. The relic is filled with rich, fertile earth that will speed the establishment of a new community for the followers of Vymera driven out of Stonebridge.
"Which way to the Wayward Wanderer? We can go back through the shrine, or we can go out the way the owlbear got in."
"I am NOT looking at those scarecrows again. EVER."
So the party clambers out of the owlbear's burrow beneath a gnarled root of a large oak tree. Stepping out into the bright sunshine of a smoldering field, a shadow passes over them as of something huge temporarily blocking out the sun. Heavy footfalls are heard coming up behind the group. They turn around, and standing before them is yet another shocking sight.
A humanoid figure clad in black plate armor. Once the armor was pristine and of the highest quality steel. Now it is covered in grime and blood, rusted and dented. A pair of large stag antlers have been affixed to the helm, causing the figure to tower nearly eight feet in height. The figure unsheathes a massive greatsword, once lovely and silvered but now tarnished and stained with blood. Not all of it is dried and crusted, either. Pointing a gauntleted hand towards the party the figure speaks. The voice seems like two voices speaking at once: the deep rumbling voice of a man mixed with the rasping harsh voice of a woman.
"Hand over the relic or die!"