Having defeated the gnolls, and very eager to be far from that site before any more happened along, our heroes press on. Another few days of hard travel pass, as they battle dense undergrowth, rugged terrain, and an increasingly difficult trail. Ahead, they see that the forest seems to thin, and speed up. Perhaps they are soon to be free of this place. If Alar is correct about where they are, they will find themselves on the High Reach Moor. They break from the thick woods at the bottom of a steep and rocky slope. But, they are not clear of the Heldast Wood. Instead, they have stumbled down into a large glen. For hundreds of paces in all directions, the land is fallow. Bare mud and gravel, hardy and altogether ugly weeds, and barren trees extend away from them.
The blight seems to completely fill a crude splotch of land, ringed by steep ridges and naked granite. The edges of it are jagged, but the overall shape seems to be an oval. The denuded trees are covered in a sickly lichen, long since stripped of small branches and even bark. They are gleaming skeletons of once-proud trees. Here and there, the low places in the glen are full of a black muck, almost like tar in appearance. The air holds the smell of rot and death, with an underlying caustic tang, likely from the pits of muck. It is Nithauk whose sharp eyes pick out a metallic gleam in the heart of the glen, while the others are largely pondering whether or not to skirt the blighted area and climb back of the ridge. Accompanied by Mikal, who never seems to question a gamble, they start out towards the glimmer Nithauk sees. The rest follow, some with more reluctance than others. Cuts and Alar, in particular, seem loathe to set foot on the blighted ground.
All of them notice, as they cross the muddy ground, that the sun seems muted here. Perhaps there is a haze in the air? Something that diffuses the midday light, at least. As they reach the center of the forbidding glen, they can all clearly see the half-buried, skeletal remains of demi-humans. Elf, dwarf, human… a sizable group… fell here long ago. The exposed sections of bone are bare and dry, betraying how long they have been here. Bits of rusted metal and rotted leather are visible as well, the long decayed remnants of armor and weapons. They are, it seems, standing in a graveyard of sorts. The glimmer seen by Nithauk is now obvious to them all. A bastard sword is sunk blade-first into the muddy ground, about half its length. Despite the predation of time and the elements, there is not a spec of rust on it. In fact, the blade bears a faint glow. Closer inspections reveals actual gold inlay on the pommel and cross-guard, while the grip is wrapped in the finest bronze-colored hide. The blade itself seems crafted of some golden alloy, or perhaps a highly polished bronze. A nobleman’s weapon, and clearly enchanted. Nithauk grasps the hilt and heaves the weapon free of the muck.
Or ties to. Instead, his muscles strain and bulge, and the sword slides a few inches up. At the same time, the glen darkens still further, to a twilight gloom. A chill breeze sweeps over the dead trees, leaving our heroes shivering in their summer garb. An eerie keening sound, unnatural and most definitely not the wind, fills the air. All around them, the ground heaves and splits open. A hand here, a head there… corpses, to all appearances… clawing their way from the earth. The undead. A dozen or more of the long-dead bodies, preserved by vile necromantic magic and animated by some evil intent, heave up from the muddy earth and surround our heroes. Even more terrifying is the ghostly form that takes shape floating above one of the largest of the black pools. The keening sound rises in volume and pitch, and seems to literally coalesce into the form of a hovering, malevolent spirit. The wraith advances on them as well.
The battle descends almost instantly into confusion. The cohesion that has marked their fighting style in the past evaporates in the face of so terrifying and implacable a foe. Not even The Anthalp Vast held horrors like this. Alar climbs a tree and sets arrow to bow string. Cuts surges forward from the rear, only to be faced by a trio of the walking dead and separated from his allies. Nithauk scrambles to stay clear of the zombies, flinging knives and seeking some vulnerability in their rotting flesh. Ezio calls on the Divine power Kord, and radiant power emanates from his holy symbol. The nearest zombies, as well as the advancing wraith, recoil from the divine energy, but not for long. Mikal invokes his battle songs, but the undead seem less impressed than most foes.
Kane Raziel also finds himself less effective at first, as the zombies seem incapable of fear. A telekinetic shove proves effective enough at dumping one into the nearest black pool. Mikal mimics this tactic, tripping one up and sending it splashing in. The pools prove shallow, a foot or so deep at most, but seem to visibly slow the already shambling creatures. avoids fancy tactics, and does not rely on intimidation here. His axe rises and falls with grim purpose, as he wades directly into the thickest part of the battle. At first, this seems to be effective, but as the battle wears on, the barbarian finds himself tiring and slowing. The wraith’s mere presence seems to drain all who draw near of vitality, sapping the strength from their limbs and the will from their hearts. All around it, our heroes find themselves increasingly sluggish, weakening in both resolve and vigor.
Slowly, they manage to dispatch the zombies. Cuts drives them into the black pools repeatedly with his shield, and then cleaves at them with his sword. Alar is dragged from his tree by one of the zombies, and is forced to sprint away, still firing arrows as fast as he can. Scir falls, and neither Nithauk or Mikal are far behind. Desperately, Ezio lashes out with another prayer, washing the wraith with holy fire. This seems to push back the darkness a little, and return some vigor to his allies. It seems it may not be enough, as zombies grab the cleric and hold him in place. The wraith turns its malevolent gaze on the cleric, and Kane beside him, advancing. Its chilling arau spills over them, even as Nithauk and Mikal struggle to regroup. Alar revives Scir, and Cuts advances. Even gathering their second wind, and battling back from the brink, they are hampered. The very air itself seems to smother them, weaken them, pull at their will and resolve.
Kane reaches out with a spell, engulfing one of the zombies on Ezio in fire. Nithauk’s well-placed dagger flips end over end to splits rotten skull and finish it. Cuts smashes another to the ground with his shield, and Scir’s axe cuts it clean in two. With a defiant shout, Ezio calls on Kord once more, lashing the wraith with yet another blast of holy fire. This time it does not shrug off the assault, but recoils and collapses in on itself. The shrieking sound it made when it formed is heard again, but this time it fades away on the wind. The last of the zombies falls to the earth, felled by Mikal’s dagger. The chill fades before the summer breeze, the sun burns through the haze, and the glen brightens considerably over the next few minutes. Above the glowing sword, a new apparition forms, suffused with light and without any hint of menace.
Bleeding, exhausted, gasping for breath, our heroes listen in wonder as the being speaks. It introduces itself as the soul of Sir Kelthim Farthane, paladin of Erathis and Lord of Farandale. An evil curse, enacted by a dying cultist, had trapped him here to die of his own injuries. His men were slain around him, as the fallen enemy rose again as undead. Though the cult was destroyed, it came at tremendous cost. Killing the dark and twisted creature, the last remnants of the cult leader’s soul, has broken the curse. Kelthim is free to rest in the embrace of his goddess. He bids them peace and fortune, and asks only that they give a proper burial to the remains of his slain companions. His possessions he bids them carry to his living descendants, if indeed any remain. Or, if the items will aid their cause, to wield them towards good and just ends. With that, the apparition fades, and the fallow glen is just another forgotten graveyard in the forest. No more evil blight, no more dark curse. In time, the forest will reclaim this place, as Alar can already sense.
They spend a handful of days at the difficult task of exhuming the remains of the paladin’s companions from the muddy ground. More than a dozen men in all, including the paldin himself, fell here. The cultists, turned to zombies by the curse, crumble to dust with its end, burned out by the necromantic magics. In addition to the golden bastard sword, they find a few other items of worth have survived the decades. A sturdy oaken shield, a silvered dagger of unique design, an ornate scroll tube, a single metal bracelet, and a very nice piece of jewelry. They also find a large amount of coin, untouched by the passage of time or the elements, totaling over 200 gold in value.