Warning: this week’s post contains blood and horror themes.
Fitful flashes of lightning splinter across the sky behind them as the party run towards the keep. A light snowfall has started up, extinguishing the many fires that have broken out across town. A north-easterly breeze sweeps snow and smoke across their path in waves, forcing them to shield their faces from the stinging flakes and acrid fumes. They are sprinting past the last row of houses before the steep ascent to Greenest Keep when a scream halts them in their tracks.
The sound, which cuts across the moaning wind and pattering snowfall, thrills them all with a strange horror. As Aleph casts about for its source, a red light blazes from the upstairs window of a house to their left. The scream dies away as the light fades.
Aleph makes immediately for the house door, which is loose and swinging on its hinges.
“With me,” he raps out. “The raiders—”
But the group have all reached the same conclusion, and follow Aleph inside without a word.
To their surprise, the room they enter is empty, and does not appear to have been ransacked. A wooden table has been pushed up against the far wall, exposing two ritual circles neatly chalked onto the bare floor. There’s a door off to the right; a staircase in the opposite corner of the room leads upwards. Keothi sniffs the air.
“Transmutation magic,” he comments. “And necromancy.”
“We should tread carefully,” Aleph mutters. “Whatever fell deed has been committed here, its perpetrator is likely still inside.”
He crosses to the door and pushes it open, revealing another room and another table, this one stacked with an orderly row of books. Gerard walks in behind Aleph and picks one up at random.
“A Treatise on the Necromantic Arts,” he reads. “That doesn’t bode well.”
“We should look upstairs,” Aleph says grimly.
“I’ll sneak up first—check it out,” Cyd offers.
As she places one foot on the bottom step of the staircase, a tremendous creak echoes through the house, followed by a crack as the floorboard splinters under her weight. Cyd leaps backward, then turns and gives the rest of the group a sheepish grin. “Sorry,” she mouths.
Now that their presence has been announced, the rest of the party follow a few steps behind her as she continues up the stairs.
Cyd walks slowly, acutely aware of the sound of her own breathing. She’s no coward, but she felt a lot better about going in first when she thought she could be sneaky about it. As she nears the top of the stairs, her foot skids in something wet and she looks down to see a trickle of blood dripping from the top step. She pauses, wrinkling her nose, and now she can hear it, too—a steady pat pat pat that is the only sound in the house.
Steeling herself, she rounds the last bend of the staircase in a rush and emerges on the upstairs landing. There, she spots the source of the blood. The two bodies are human: one male, one female. If Cyd had to guess, she’d say they were a couple. They are bound hand and foot, and their throats have been slit.
“Guys…” she whispers. Or tries to, at least; it comes out as more of a squeak. Aleph lumbers up the stairs behind her and halts at her side, regarding the scene in silence. There are footsteps in the blood, leading away from the bodies and through a door to the left. The Warforged nods towards them, beckoning the rest of the party onwards.
The door opens on well-oiled hinges to reveal a larger and more complex ritual circle glimmering wetly in the light from several candles. This one isn’t drawn in chalk. A suit of armour lies in the centre, gauntlets crossed over the breastplate.
Slumped against the opposite wall is another Warforged.
Aleph stands in the doorway, his eyes frozen like two flames encased in amber. The stranger Warforged is lying in a dark pool of his life’s blood, his head sagging on his chest. He looks up as Aleph’s shadow falls across him.
“It…worked. My brother… you have just witnessed… history.”
He splutters as more blood spurts from his mouth. Aleph kneels beside him and places a glowing hand on his chest, knitting up the worst of his wounds.
“I did not expect to see another of my kind so far from home,” Aleph says. His tone is level, but his eyes remain strangely still. “Tell me, brother, what happened here?”
The Warforged grasps Aleph by the arm, pulling himself upright. “Victory! I have solved it. The Emberfrost Alliance will return ten thousand strong and reclaim what is ours!”
“You speak of Emberfrost?” Aleph leans forward, a hint of eagerness in his voice. “That is my homeland, too. You say you know how to return?”
The Warforged shakes his head. “Others work on reopening the portals. I was charged with reforging our armies. And I have succeeded!”
Aleph turns. The rest of the party are clustered in the doorway, staring transfixed at the ritual circle. The suit of armour is moving, groping with its arms as though it is feeling its way through darkness. A thin voice oozes from the visored helmet. “Cold…We are so cold…”
Cyd shrugs off her winter cloak and hands it to Nubbins, who hurries to drape it over the pathetic figure.
“How do you feel now?” he asks it kindly.
“We cannot feel…” the armour whispers. “Help…”
The gnome’s brow creases in concern. “Help you? How?”
“…Free us…” the response is barely louder than a sigh.
Supporting the construct with his arm, Nubbins raises it into a sitting posture. Its helmet turns to and fro, a dim light where its eyes should be flickering uncertainly. It freezes as it spots the corpses in the hallway.
“What are we doing over there?” it asks. “What happened to us?”
“What have you done?” Aleph asks the stranger.
He does not appear to hear. He rises, with some difficulty, to regard his work. “It is beautiful,” he murmurs. “A new Warforged. And they said it wasn’t possible.”
Aleph puts one hand on the hilt of his battle axe. “That is no Warforged.”
“NO!” the stranger yells, lunging forwards. Aleph pushes him back against the wall, where he struggles vainly against the hand pinning him in place.
“This is not the way, brother.” Aleph sounds almost mournful. “Emberfrost stood for peace, for equality, for compassion.” He pauses, gazing into space. “It was a home built by the homeless, founded by slaves so that they would have a place to be free. It cannot be reforged on the back of murder.”
“It cannot be reforged without troops,” the stranger counters. “We must increase our numbers. These two humans have been given a greater purpose—their sacrifice will restore the birth right of an entire people!”
“They are suffering. I must end their pain.”
“Then you will destroy our salvation! We need an army if we are to retake our home. Everything I have done, I have done for Emberfrost—”
“No end could possibly justify this means!” It is Gerard who has spoken. The monk steps into the room, face pink with indignation. “These people were innocent, and your cause is only tainted by their deaths.”
The Warforged lets out a strangled cry. “And what of the innocents of Emberfrost? Where were you when our citizens were slaughtered in the streets? When all the armies of Eberron came to knock down our gates—where was your morality then?” He rounds on Aleph. “The phalanxes of Emberfrost died defending our ideals—did their valour mean nothing? Where were you, brother, if you cannot see that some prices are worth paying to honour their sacrifice?”
The frozen flames in Aleph’s eyes shatter into terrible life. “I WAS FIGHTING BY THEIR SIDE,” he roars. “I was the wall that stood between Emberfrost and its foes. I fought as my brothers fell. When all had perished, I fought alone. I fought on in their name so that the values they died for might outlive them! I believed the city would endure in the memories of those we saved.
“But I see I was mistaken. Emberfrost and the principles it was built on died that day. With them.”
He turns away in disgust, releasing the Warforged, who slumps against the wall. There is utter silence. “You were defending the portals?” the stranger mumbles, after a moment.
Aleph places an arm across his chest, hand open. “Artillery, Light—Eighth Phalanx.”
The other Warforged bows his head. This time, he does not try to intervene as Aleph raises his axe, wreathed in burning light, and brings it down on the neck of the suit of armour. At last, its sickly motions cease.
“May the souls of the eighth guide you to your resting place,” Aleph intones.
“I…am sorry,” the stranger says at last. “I will do no further harm to the people of Greenest.”
“We should turn him over to the authorities,” Gerard says. “His crime is not ours to absolve.”
Aleph nods. “I agree.” He turns to the stranger. “Come with us to the keep. Help protect the town against the siege and make restitution for your crime. You can start by telling us what you were doing here. Who are the Emberfrost Alliance?”
“A coalition who work to restore our lost homeland,” he replies. He points to a side table at the far end of the room, on which stands a sheaf of documents. “Those papers contain a map to the location of our outpost.”
As Aleph picks up the papers, a small wooden disk drops from between the pages. He stoops to pick it up, holding it gingerly between thumb and forefinger.
“This is the insignia of the seventh phalanx,” he says.
“I found it during my research.” The other Warforged nods towards Aleph’s shield, with its thirteen circular grooves. “I believe that its rightful place is with you.”
Aleph unslings his shield from his back and presses the insignia into one of the empty spaces. It glows briefly and sets in place.
The stranger follows the party downstairs in silence, though after an exchange of nervous looks between Gerard, Nubbins and Cyd, the group reach an unspoken agreement to let him walk ahead of them. A gust of smoke and snow rushes in as they open the front door. The biting wind carries with it the sounds of shouting, the clash of weapons, and, most ominous of all, the distant swoop of returning wings.
They sprint up the last stretch of ground between the house and the keep, expecting at any moment to see the dragon’s deadly shadow fall across their path, or to feel its excoriating lightning at their backs. The battlements of the keep are lined with archers, filling the night with a rain of arrows to rival the snow falling thick around them.
As they draw nearer, they see Governor Nighthill standing at the gates of the keep, one arm in a sling, the other holding a sword. He gestures to them, hurrying them along. As soon as the last of the group has passed through the crack of space between the reinforced doors, they swing to with a thud. Nighthill nods to a couple of guards, who release the portcullis in front of the door. A loud clang echoes across the courtyard as the heavy iron grill locks into place.
Nighthill turns to them, then, a grim smile on his face. “Some of my advisors had given you up for dead. I am glad that I ignored them.”
Gerard pushes to the front of the group. “Are we the last to arrive? Are the rest of the townsfolk safe?”
Nighthill’s face falls. “We weren’t expecting them to send in a dragon. We thought we’d have an hour at least before their foot soldiers breached the barricades, but—”
But Gerard has stopped listening. His eyes rake the crowds of people clustered in the courtyard again and again. One face is missing.
“Saph,” he says, interrupting the Governor. “Where’s Saph? Did she make it inside?”
“And Brem,” Nubbins adds anxiously. “I can’t see him, either.”
“As I was saying, not everyone reached the keep,” the Governor finishes heavily. Those on the eastern edge of town were cut off by the dragon—they’ve been forced to barricade themselves inside the temple of Chauntea. We’re… not sure how long they can hold out.”