She places her hands on the ground and begins to chant, speaking words of power that reverberate around the sun-dappled space. A charge begins to build in the air, like the pressure before a storm.
There is silence after Saph has spoken. Gerard is the first to break it. “I’m sorry, I think I misheard you. I thought for a moment there you said that Kaax was inside that picture.”
“That’s exactly what I said.”
Nubbins peeks behind the frame. “That can’t be right, Saph. It’s too thin!”
“Did you ever think it strange that so little is known about Oghma’s children?” Saph asks Gerard.
“I have sometimes wondered about it,” the monk admits. “Accounts of their birth and early years abound, but beyond that, they simply disappear from the records.”
“They didn’t disappear,” Saph says, “they were kidnapped!” She pauses, brow furrowing. “Or godnapped, I suppose… Demi-godnapped?” Noticing that she has the group’s attention, she dismisses the issue of terminology with a wave of her hand and continues.
“Many of Oghma’s children dedicated themselves to the mastery of a single branch of knowledge, spreading out across the world to various houses of learning. While they were scattered, each of them was approached, tricked, and ultimately trapped, by Cyric, the god of deceit.”
“Hey! That’s the guy from my symbol!” Cyd interjects, waving her sunburst emblem in the air. “Doesn’t Oghma hate him, Ger?”
“They are natural enemies, yes,” Gerard replies. He fishes in his bag, producing his pocketbook, and begins to scribble furiously as he walks. “So, Cyric trapped Oghma’s children in a painting. That does sound like him.”
Saph beams. “In dozens of paintings, actually. They’re known as the Whispering Portraits. It’s all quite exciting!”
“And you didn’t mention any of this before because…” Cyd gives Saph a sideways glance, tipping the statement over into a question with an arch of one eyebrow.
“I wasn’t certain the painting I was looking for was even in Greenest. I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”
Cyd’s eyebrow rises higher. “That was—”
“A wise precaution,” Gerard breathes. His eyes have gone as round as cartwheels. “If I had known the significance of this find beforehand and it had eluded us, I’m not sure I could have borne it!” He turns to Saph. “You said that you had a theory about this painting. Would you share it with us?”
“Thought you’d never ask,” Saph says. “Come with me!”
The elven scholar leads them back to the fey woods, chattering nonstop as they hurry through the green half-light. “I’ve been researching a ritual that I think could be used to free the demigods from the Whispering Portraits,” she explains to Gerard. Her voice drifts back to the others in snatches on the breeze: her excitement has translated itself into a frantic pace that even the fleet-footed monk is struggling to match.
“I’ve set up everything we’ll need in a clearing a little further in. Kaax dedicated himself to the study of the natural world when he was free, so my hope is that conducting the ritual in woodland will make it easier to summon him.”
Gerard breaks in. “Wait, you want to perform this ritual right now?!”
“Why not? I’ve drawn the summoning circle, we’ve retrieved the painting, and—” she flashes Gerard a grin “—I have five dashing heroes to defend me while I perform the rites.”
“Do you… expect… you’ll need… much defending?” Cyd puffs, drawing level with them with an effort.
“Cyric himself has been trapped in his own realm for centuries,” Saph replies, “but he may have left behind traps or other safeguards to prevent Kaax from being freed. Oh, we’re here!”
Momentum carries Cyd and Gerard forward a step or two before they realise that Saph has come to a dead halt at the edge of a clearing. A summoning circle has been etched into the dirt and decorated with vines and wild flowers.
“Not bad, huh?” Saph says. As the rest of the party traipse into view, she kneels in the centre of the circle, places the painting on the ground before her, and lights a candle.
“How can we assist?” Aleph asks.
“Watch my back. Keep an eye out for anything unusual. I suspect there may be a few nasty surprises in store for anyone who tries to break Cyric’s curse, and I’ll need all my attention for the ritual itself.”
The group draw weapons and fan out around the edge of the clearing as Saph closes her eyes. She places her hands on the ground and begins to chant, speaking words of power that reverberate around the sun-dappled space. A charge begins to build in the air, like the pressure before a storm.
Keothi shifts in place uneasily. There’s a crack like thunder, and a thick fog rolls across the clearing. From within the roiling white clouds comes a skittering; then several enormous spiders dart into view, their heavy bodies hanging down between tapering, spindly legs. They charge at Gerard, who dispatches one with his staff before leaping backwards to avoid the mandibles of another. Aleph cleaves a third in half with a sweep of his axe. The bodies of the fallen spiders melt into the floor in a mass of thick, black tar.
Gerard inspects the end of his staff—now covered in a sticky, evil-smelling goo—with interest.
“This is unlike anything I’ve seen before,” he comments. “Perhaps these spiders were apparitions, sent by Cyric?”
Cyd rolls her eyes as she fires a pair of arrows into the swollen abdomen of the nearest spider, which collapses into a black puddle. “You think, Ger?”
Before Gerard can reply, a low buzzing fills the clearing. Three wasps, each easily five feet long, descend on the group, their stingers dripping venom. Cyd dives to the ground as a wasp descends on her. It brushes past her, burying its stinger deep into Nubbins’ shoulder. The gnome reels, the force of the impact nearly knocking him off his feet.
“I’m hit! I’m hit!” He clutches his shoulder, eyes wide. “Do you think it laid its eggs in my arm?” he whimpers.
Gerard ducks below the stinger of another wasp. “While it is true that the stings of some insects are adapted ovipositors, Nubbins, in this case I think it unlikely that—”
But Nubbins has stopped listening as a thought occurs to him. “Does this mean I’m going to be… a father?” he gasps.
Cyd finds time between firing off volleys of arrows to shoot Nubbins a look of utter incredulity. “No! Nubs, that’s not how that works!”
“Cydonie is right,” Keothi adds, flinging a throwing axe that hits a wasp right between the eyes. “Even if the insect had used you as a hatching ground for its spawn, the grubs would likely have eaten you when they emerged.”
Nubbins’ face pales, but he grits his teeth. “As a dad-to-be, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”
“Um, Alf?” Cyd calls. “I think the wasp venom may have… affected Nubbins. Could you lay on hands?”
Aleph spins, cutting a wasp down in mid-air. “Hold on, brother,” he calls to Nubbins, striding towards him. Before he can reach the gnome, there is a great crashing of branches to his left and an enormous owlbear leaps from the treeline, its claws scything towards Aleph’s breastplate. The Warforged staggers backwards, the creature’s cruel beak snapping closed inches from his face. For a moment, Aleph looks stunned. Then, with a blood-curdling yell, he lifts his axe and charges this new threat.
“DIE, FIEND! DIE!” he howls, raining down blows on the beast’s flank with a barbarian’s ferocity. It soon collapses into a tar-like puddle, but Aleph continues to swing his axe at the ooze for several seconds before he regains his composure. He comes to himself to see Saph looking at him through one eye.
“Ritual’s done,” she says cheerfully. “What was that about?”
Aleph’s hand moves reflexively to a small dent in his armour, buckled iron over splintered wood. “I have encountered owlbears before. I would rather not talk about it.”
A flash of green light bursts from the painting, flooding the clearing and burning off the last of the fog. Saph leans over it, touching the canvas with two fingers as though feeling for a pulse.
“Did it work?” Gerard asks.
“Something about it feels… different,” Saph says, uncharacteristically hesitant. “But I can’t see Kaax anywhere.”
… Where am I? Everything is dark…
The voice comes from nowhere, echoing in the group’s heads as though the speaker is trapped at the bottom of a well. Nubbins yelps, and even Keothi stiffens in surprise.
Saph is the first to reply. “Kaax? Don’t be alarmed; we’re friends. We’re here to free you.”
Free me? There is a pause. I am… trapped?
“You have been imprisoned in a painting by an evil god,” Aleph rumbles. “We are here to release you. Can you move towards us, wherever you are? I might be able to help.” The Warforged places his hand on the painting, and a warm glow spreads from his fingers.
Kaax’s voice feels louder when it resumes. I can feel your presence, but I… I cannot move. There is no space here, no direction. Where am I? Where is Kamerynn?
“You are outside the town of Greenest, Kaax,” Gerard says, rooting around in his pack for his pocketbook. “Who is Kamerynn?”
A spirit of the Earthmother. I was talking with her about her battles with Kazgoroth when a… darkness surrounded me. I cannot remember… I hope that she has not come to harm.
“We will look for her,” Gerard promises. “She may have witnessed what happened to you. If Cyric has trapped her, too, then you have my word that we will do everything within our power to help her.”
Aleph nods. “Where can we find this Kamerynn?”
“I can keep talking to Kaax, do some research,” Saph offers. “I’m sure we can narrow it down!”
“Perhaps your connections in Candlekeep might assist us,” Gerard suggests, the excitement in his voice barely disguised.
“Yeah!” Nubbins adds. “We could go there now—Candlekeep is great for books and knowing things!”
“It is the best place in the world for knowing things.” Saph smiles wistfully. “I am lucky to have access, but I’m afraid that my welcome there does not extend to guests. Without a rare book of your own to donate—or a substantial financial contribution—the great library’s doors would be closed to you.”
Gerard looks crestfallen, but nods in acceptance.
“We would not have time to make the journey, in any case,” Aleph points out. “The cultists could launch their attack on the town any day now. We must remain in Greenest.”
“Then it’s settled!” Saph says. She picks up the painting, tucking it carefully under one arm. “I have some errands to run in town, so I’ll set off tomorrow evening.” She notices the look of yearning on Gerard’s face and adds, “I promise I’ll write to you the minute I learn anything interesting!”
As the group leave the clearing, Nubbins casts a last, melancholy glance back at the spot where the giant wasps fell. “How will I become a father now?” he sighs.
Cyd pats him on the head. “Don’t worry, Nubs, you’ll figure it out. And if you’re having trouble, I can always find you a nice gnome lady to show you the ropes.”
“What do ropes have to do with it, Cyd?”
“A lot more than you might think, for some people.”
Saph begins to cackle. She catches Cyd’s eye, and soon both of them are at it, their laughter startling the birds roosting in the trees overhead. Nubbins looks from one to the other, but his expression—confused and a little wounded—only sets them off again. They’re still gasping and hiccupping with the last dregs of mirth as they reach the outskirts of town.
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Lou & Cam