The afternoon is drawing to a close as the group returns to town, the sun descending in a red blaze over the hills to the west.
“Right!” Cyd says, rubbing her hands. “Met some mushrooms, rescued some tiny dragons, bought a painting—check, check, check. What’s next?”
“Next, we wait,” Aleph replies. “We cannot afford to quit the town again now, with the Cult of the Dragon’s attack imminent.”
“So, you’re saying we’ve got a day off?” Nubbins perks up at the thought. “Great—I’ve been meaning to ask Brem out for another drink.”
“I am saying that we should wait here, making ready for the siege and—”
“Ooh, if we’re all taking a personal day,” Cyd breaks in, “I want to look into that sigil of mine: see if I can’t figure out where it’s from.”
“Or,” the Warforged continues pointedly, “we could spend our time assisting the townsfolk as they reinforce the barricades and—”
“I’ll help you, Cydonie,” Gerard says. “Given your symbol’s resemblance to the mark of Cyric, perhaps it could lead us to some new information about the Whispering Portraits.”
Aleph trails off as the party disperse, chattering about their plans.
Brem is sweeping the last of the dead leaves from the front steps of the temple when Nubbins arrives. The brother of Chauntea leans his broom against the wall and walks down to meet him through the deepening twilight.
“Nubbins!” He offers the gnome a chilled, chapped hand to shake, then hastily draws it back into the folds of his robes. “It’s good to see you. I’m off to the Cat & Squirrel for something to warm me up. Would you care to join me?”
Nubbins beams. “I was about to ask you the same thing! I could really go for some more of that fancy elf drink.”
“The elvish battle spirit?” Brem looks uncomfortable. “That’s Eled’s top-shelf stuff. It’s a little pricier than my wages can cover, I think.”
Nubbins waves his concern away. “I’m buying! I need a drinking buddy!”
Brem needs no further encouragement, and the two men set off together towards the tavern at a brisk walk. They pass Cyd and Gerard on their way onto the main thoroughfare, heading towards the temple.
“We’re hitting the books,” Cyd says, returning Nubbins’ wave. “Make sure you keep this one out of trouble, Brem!”
Nubbins looks back over his shoulder at her, eyes wide. “I never get in trouble, Cyd. Besides, I’m going to come and help you with your research later. Brem and I are only going for one drink!”
Some time later—he isn’t sure how long exactly, but judging by the horrible taste in his mouth it must be several hours—Nubbins opens his eyes to complete darkness.
“…Hello?” his voice sounds flat and echoless. He gropes around in the dark. One hand hits hard stone. The other touches something soft, which groans.
“Owwwww…” moans a familiar voice.
“Brem? Where are we?”
Nubbins can hear Brem shuffling around beside him now. “I don’t know,” he mutters. “My head hurts. This bed is very hard…”
It is very hard, Nubbins realises. He feels around him some more: there’s a cold stone wall a few inches above his face, another immediately to his left.
“I don’t think this is a bed,” he tells Brem. “Or if it is, then someone has put it inside a stone box. Which seems like an odd place to put a bed.”
“Wait—ow—a… did you say a—? Oh, hellfire…”
Nubbins hears a grating sound, and a crack of candlelight appears to his right. A moment later, Brem slides off the box’s lid completely. The two of them sit up, blinking in the sudden light of… Nubbins squints. Candles? Yes, those are candles, illuminating a cavernous space that he has a curious feeling he’s seen before. Realisation dawns. They’re in the temple crypt, and… Beside him, Brem clutches his head.
“Ohhhh no,” he moans. “How did we end up sleeping in a coffin?”
“You hid in it a couple of hours ago,” says a voice. Whoever they are, Nubbins thinks, they’re talking far too loudly. He winces, casting around for the speaker. Brother Dwali is standing at the foot of the steps, eyeing the two drinking companions with amusement.
“Brem, you were saying that you had the perfect hiding place for when the cultists turn up,” she continues. “Nubbins, you claimed you could enchant it to make it ‘even more hidier’, if memory serves.”
“…Did I make it hidier?” Nubbins asks.
“You danced around it several times chanting ‘Hidy, Hidy, Tidy, Tidy, Gnomey, Womey, Magicky Boo’. Then you tried to play a flute and a lute at the same time.”
“I would say that you did not.” Dwali crosses to the coffin and helps the two of them climb out.
“You’re lucky it was me on the night shift and not one of the other brothers,” she adds. “I was on my way to wake you up. If you hurry, you’ll just have time to smarten yourself up before people start arriving for mid-morning prayers.”
Nubbins, who has been dozing against the side of the coffin while Dwali talks, comes to with a jerk. “We’ve been here all night? But I was meant to help Cyd with her—” he stops, looking at Brem muzzily. “Wait. If we were together all night… Brem, you’re not a lady gnome, are you?”
Brem gapes at him. “Not last time I checked. Why do you ask?”
“Just something Cyd said yesterday,” Nubbins replies, frowning. “Something about ropes… Never mind.”
“Study time!” Cyd cracks the spine on a weighty tome bearing the legend Heraldry of the Western Heartlands. Beside her, Gerard has just opened a similar volume. He leans in, savouring the smell of parchment and old leather.
“We’re not here to sniff the books, Ger,” Cyd reminds him, after several minutes have passed without him turning a page. “We want to read them.”
“Right. Yes. Of course,” the monk replies, coming back to himself with an effort. “It’s just that I have not had leisure enough for reading in some time. I have missed it.”
“Riiight,” Cyd says. “Well, we don’t have much leisure now, so let’s keep this quick.”
But after thumbing through what feels like thousands of pages of arcane symbols and heraldic devices, Cyd is no closer to the answers she’s looking for. She heaves the book aside with a sigh. “Pfft. I’m done. What’s the point of books if you can’t use them to find out anything useful?”
Gerard raises his head from his own text in surprise. “But it’s only been a watch. And I’ve learnt so much already!”
Cyd perks up. “You have?”
“Indeed! I’ve been reading up on the reasons behind Aleph’s inability to communicate with the myconids, and I believe that I have devised a way to allow him to—”
Cyd slumps again. “I meant anything useful about the Cyric symbol.”
“Oh.” The monk colours. “I may have become side-tracked. But the night is young,” he adds, “we’re only just getting started!
“You might be; I’m going to bed. G’night, Ger.”
Cyd plods back to the Cat & Squirrel, Feathers trotting alongside her. If it were easy, I would have done it by myself, the tressym remarks.
“Yeah, yeah. I know,” the half-elf grumbles. “I don’t mind the spadework, but I thought this gig would be about saving cool creatures. Not books.”
Why do you think I need you? Your weird, bald digits are good at turning pages.
“Fine. One more day of reading. But then I’m going back to investigating this sigil the old-fashioned way.” Cyd fingers the hilt of her dagger. “My hands aren’t just for turning pages, you know.”
As the group breaks up, Keothi slips away, alone, to his room in the tavern. He glides silently up the stairs and, having shut and locked the door behind him, glances around the room before pulling an ornate key from his pack. He places this key on the bed, alongside a rusty padlock. After a moment’s hesitation, he also produces a smooth, black stone, about the size of his palm, from a hidden pocket in his tunic.
“Well, Impy,” he says. “Are you ready to find out what our dark patron Be’He’Quin wants from us this time?”
“Very well, let’s see,” the goliath continues. “Though first, I should alert Halia to this development.”
Holding the pebble in one hand, he traces a short message on it with his index finger. The words glow briefly, then sink into the stone. A few moments later, a reply appears.
Thanks for the update. Is this key useful?
“That remains to be seen,” Keothi mutters. He takes a breath, inserts the key into the padlock, and turns it. There is a sound like tearing fabric, and a shimmering, grey-green oval opens in the air. Keothi regards it impassively.
“Now, Impy, we must proceed with caution here,” he pronounces. He reaches out and prods the swirling mass. “Who knows what dangers could lurk on the other side of this—”
The room warps around him, the walls and floor first stretching, then crumpling like parchment. Keothi feels a brief sensation of rushing air and fathomless space. Colours that he has never seen before, and cannot name, twist around and through him like a swarm of snakes. As suddenly as this phantasmagoria started, it ends. He stands again on solid ground, but in an alien place.
“Ah,” he says. He looks around. He is in a temple, with walls of grey-green stone. An altar stands in the centre of the space on a black dais, and around it… the goliath narrows his eyes, trying to fix the shifting architecture of this strange space clearly in his mind. The walls are wrong; they shift and crawl in the corners of his vision, stretching away to impossible vanishing points or drawing in until he feels the room is contracting around him. Yet when he looks at them directly, they are still.
There is a splash, and Keothi looks down to find that he has stepped into a pool of slimy liquid. It sucks at his foot as he jerks away, green tendrils twining around his leg. Turning, he stumbles against the obsidian dais, and starts. This altar had seemed much further away when he first entered the room, but now he is standing at its foot. It towers above him—and has it grown taller? Keothi catches himself wondering—he’s sure it wasn’t so large before. As he stares at it head on, reality reasserts itself and it shrinks to something resembling its original size. He can see the top of it now, where rest three sculptures. Leaning closer, Keothi recognises the symbol of Be’He’Quin: three open mouths, ringed with teeth, each mouth seeming to swallow three staring red eyes.
“It would not be wise to touch those,” Keothi muses. And yet his arm stretches out, almost of its own volition, towards the largest of the three gaping mouths. As soon as the back of his hand brushes against the cold stone, painful images of blood, fire, and darkness surge through his brain. He falls to his knees, chanting: “glory to Be’He’Quin, master of chaos, creator of madness and lord of the Far Realms!”
He returns to himself gradually. It could be after a few minutes; it could be many hours. There is no natural light in this temple by which to measure the passage of time. He is seated at the foot of the altar, rocking back and forth, still repeating the prayer under his breath. He shakes himself and the flow of words falters and ceases.
“Ah,” he says again. His clothes feel clammy and damp. He looks down to see hundreds of green tendrils snaking up his legs. The puddle of dark liquid has spread, flowing across the room towards him. Frozen in horror, Keothi watches as the slime engulfs his axe, pulling it free from his belt.
The schlup sound of his axe being sucked into the slime breaks the goliath out of his stupor. He staggers to his feet and runs back towards the portal. As he reaches it, he hears a whisper of parted air, and turns to see his axe flying towards his face. Without thinking, Keothi throws himself backwards. The portal engulfs him, the world stretches and distorts, and he finds himself once again in the material world. Impy is still hovering exactly where he left him, mouth open mid-laugh.
“Impy, duck!” the goliath roars. The axe shoots from the portal, missing Impy by a hair, and embeds itself in the door with a juddering thud.
Keothi lies on the floor for a moment, panting. When he has had time to collect himself, he raises his head and regards his familiar. “Impy, how long was I gone, from your perspective?”
“Half a second?”
“And yet I felt as though I was in there an age,” Keothi mutters. He climbs slowly to his feet. “It seems as though this portal leads to a temple to our patron. I do not think that I should venture through alone again.”
Aleph is waiting in the Cat & Squirrel the following evening, standing by the group’s usual table with his massive arms folded.
“Well. I hope you all enjoyed your ‘personal day’,” he says, when everyone has gathered for dinner. “I have been hard at work strengthening the barricades—all through today, and for most of last night. Cydonie,” he turns to her, eyes glowing. “I trust that you have been similarly productive?”
“There’s no need to be smug, Alf,” Cyd replies. “I’ve been working too, since you ask. Intensive academic research. Ger can vouch for me!”
“She… did read for an hour or two,” Gerard admits.
“I said vouch for me, Ger! You’re rubbish.”
“Yes, we’ve all been working,” Nubbins says, avoiding Aleph’s gaze. “Hard at work, the lot of us.”
“Oh yeah, Nubs?” Cyd smirks. “That’s not what I heard from brother Dwali! ‘One drink’ my butt.”
“I have a personal request to make,” Keothi announces, cutting across the laughter and bickering of the rest of the party.
“Is it murder again?” Nubbins asks. “We’ve already said yes to that once—Glassstaff is a bad man.”
“It is not murder. Before I reconvened with the rest of you Baldur’s Gate, I was researching my patron, Be’He’Quin—trying to understand his will. Over the course of my research, he… gifted me certain artefacts and scrolls.” Keothi’s eyes take on a hunted cast; clearly, the memories he is recalling are not pleasant. “One of these artefacts was a key,” he continues, “that opens a gateway to another realm.”
Cyd’s eyes widen as a memory hits her. “Back in the fey woods—that portal!” she exclaims. The goliath nods.
“You said it ‘wasn’t relevant,’” she says, shooting Keothi a look.
“It was not, at the time. But now that I have had the opportunity to investigate further, I—” Keothi hesitates, forcing the words out with difficulty. “After we have seen off the Cult of the Dragon, I would be grateful for your assistance in exploring the portal, and the secrets it contains.”
“We’ll help you, Keithy—no problem!” Nubbins says through a mouthful of bread. The others nod their agreement.
“Speaking of the cult,” Aleph interjects, “They could arrive at any time. We should return to the barricades and set a watch.” He raises an empty mug. “May the souls of the eighth drive us to swift retribution against our foes.”
The rest of the group all drink the toast. Cyd catches Aleph’s eye, pours some of her ale into his mug, and takes a sip on his behalf. He nods his thanks.
They are making ready to leave when a roar shatters the murmurous peace of the common room. A shadow falls across the table; then a flash of lightning sears the tavern, illuminating startled faces. From outside comes the swoop and crash of enormous wings. As one, the party look to the window.
The sound of wings draws nearer.
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