Chapter 12: Once More into the Breach, Part 1

A sewer channel filled with water

“I can cast Disguise Self,” Nubbins jumps in. He strokes his chin, considering. “I will be… Humbert Cult-dragon, the human dragon cultist.”
“You should definitely leave the talking to me, Nubbins.”

“We have to go and help them,” Gerard says. He had taken off his pack but now he shoulders it again. “Open the gates.”
“Gerard, the enemy is at the gates,” Aleph points out. “You cannot ask Governor Nighthill to—”
“I wasn’t asking!”
“Actually, I’d be grateful if you would check on the people trapped in the temple,” Nighthill interjects, voice low. “But opening the gates won’t be necessary. Follow me.”

He leads them into the makeshift war room at the edge of the courtyard. The maps covering the table have proliferated since the last time the group were there, and the fire now throws its dancing light on a profusion of plans and charts tacked to the walls. A dwarf with a thickly braided red beard is scrutinising one of these plans while he warms himself at the hearth; he looks up as the group enter.

“Our castellan, Escobert the Red,” Nighthill introduces him. “Escobert, these are the adventurers I mentioned.”
The castellan’s face breaks into a grin. “Mentioned? Tarbaw here has been singing your praises. You’re no slackers, are you? To hear him tell it, you’ve driven out a horde of undead from the temple, threshed a legion of bandits and thrown up enough fortifications to keep out Asmodeus’ own army.”

Aleph bows. “We are glad to have been able to lend support.”
“Governor, you mentioned that there might be another way out of the keep,” Gerard prompts.
Nighthill nods to Escobert, who pulls a ring of keys from his pocket. “Now, what I’m about to tell you is not something we advertise, so don’t go spreading it around,” the dwarf warns them. “That sewer where you stashed the bandits you caught—” he jerks his head towards the hatch in the far corner of the room “—feeds into a river just outside the Keep.” He slides the heaviest and rustiest key from the ring and holds it out. “This opens up an old maintenance tunnel that runs alongside it. If you’re going back out, that’s the way to do it.”

He hands Aleph the key. As he leans over the table, Cyd spots Feathers behind him, curled up in front of the fire with her wings folded neatly over her back. A bowl of minced meat sits beside her.
“I should have known you’d inveigle your way into the warmest place in here,” Cyd smirks. “Thanks for looking after her, Mr Nighthill.”
“Not at all. Where she goes, you tend to follow, so I had a feeling you wouldn’t be far behind.”

Gerard is drumming his hands on the table in a complicated rhythm. “Shall we depart?” he asks.
“I must resummon Impy,” Keothi announces. “I will be ready to leave in an hour.”
“An hour? We are in the middle of a siege, man!”
Unperturbed, Keothi turns and heads out into the courtyard. “I will prepare the ritual in the great hall,” he calls over his shoulder. “I mention this in case an emergency occurs. Please do not take it as an invitation to disturb me with frivolous requests.”

At this, the monk begins actually dancing in place with suppressed impatience.
“Stop it, Ger! You’re making me fidgety,” Cyd complains. “If we’re going to be stuck here for an hour, we should spend it preparing. Mr Nighthill,” she continues, turning to the Governor, “do you have any spare robes? Ones like the cultists wear?”
Nighthill smiles. “I see what you’re thinking. I am sure that we could collect a few likely garments.”
“In that case, I think I have a plan.”

*

Gerard insists that they discuss the plan on the battlements. It’s freezing up there, the snow coiling in the wind and weaving its way through every gap in cloaks and armour, but once he has the temple in sight, the monk relaxes a little. It is still standing, doors shut and windows barred. Orange pinpricks of light dance around it as raiding parties move from house to house, but so far none has ventured towards the stone steps that lead to its arched entrance. High above all this, the dragon circles, a grim shadow against the clouds.

The group stand around a brazier, warming their hands as they talk. Once he has regained his composure, Gerard proves to be a valuable source of information.
“I have been studying these cultists for some time,” he admits, picking through the pile of robes that Nighthill has sent up for their use. He selects a few of the most plausible specimens and hands them out. “With these, we should be able to pass for cult members, at least under a cursory inspection. And there are mannerisms and phrases we can adopt that will increase the effectiveness of the deception.”

He extends one hand, fingers curled into claws. “This is the symbol of Tiamat—one finger for each of her heads.” He nods his approval as the rest of the group mimic the sign. “That’s perfect, Cyd. Good, Nubbins… though the hissing and spitting is unnecessary.”
Nubbins looks crestfallen. “I was making dragon noises!”
“I…commend you on your creativity, but if any of the cultists do approach us, perhaps you should leave the talking to me.”

“I may be the best spokesperson in any case,” the monk adds, looking at the Aleph dubiously. “The overwhelming majority of cultists are human, so you are likely to attract notice. We might be able to pass you off as a magical construct under our command, if we have to.”
Aleph nods. “I live to serve.”
“Precisely!” Gerard smiles. “Keothi and Nubbins will also stand out, though they are more human-looking at a glance.”
“I can cast Disguise Self,” Nubbins jumps in. He strokes his chin, considering. “I will be… Humbert Cult-dragon, the human dragon cultist.”
“You should definitely leave the talking to me, Nubbins.”

“Great! Now we just need to collect Keith and—” Cyd trails off as she spots Gerard staring out over the battlements, white faced. She follows his gaze eastwards, towards the gentle glow of light from the temple of Chauntea. That’s when she spots the figures massing at the temple’s doors. Above them, a plume of smoke billows into the sky.

*

Keothi has fallen asleep under a table in the corner of the great hall, his hood over his eyes. Impy drowses beside him. Neither of them stirs as the rest of the party clatters down the stairs and races to their side.
Cyd places a gentle hand on the goliath’s shoulder. When that fails to rouse him, she shakes him vigorously. “Keith! Keith! Keith! Keith!”
Keothi groans, opening one eye. “I am not asleep, Cydonie. What is the matter?”
“The temple is on fire—we have to go!”
The eye closes again. “I do not see how that is relevant to me. I must regain my arcane energies.”
Cyd pokes a finger into his ear, making him squirm sideways. “What about our friends? And the myconids?”
“…Fine. But I must rest soon.” Keothi clambers slowly to his feet. “Impy, you must come too,” he mutters, nudging his still snoring familiar with his foot. The imp wriggles away from the touch in a manner very similar to its master, shooting him a poisonous glare.

Cyd has already left, racing off with the rest of the party towards the courtyard. Keothi and Impy slump grudgingly behind.

*

Nighthill and Escobert are surprised to see the party return to the war room so soon, but one hurried explanation later and they are helping them to heave open the hatch in the floor. Gerard takes the stairs three at a time, landing with a thump in the impromptu gaol below. The bandits chained in the alcoves, who have been straining to see through the hatch, look at him anxiously.
“What’s going on up there?” their leader asks. “We heard screaming.”
“The town is under siege by dragon cultists,” Aleph replies as he joins them in the narrow space. “But the Keep holds—for now.”
The Warforged crosses to a gate in the far wall, its metal discoloured and eaten away by damp. It is almost entirely concealed by old crates and barrels, which he and Gerard begin to heave aside. While they work, Cyd, Nubbins and—eventually—Keothi climb down the stairs and into the tunnel.

The bandit leader gives the gnome a sidelong glance. “So… on the off-chance that the Keep is taken, d’you think these dragon cultists might be looking for new recruits?”
“No idea!” Nubbins answers. “We could ask, if you’d like? I know their secret sign!” He makes a claw with one hand and bares his teeth.
“Stop fraternising with the prisoners, Nubs,” Cyd says, cuffing him gently on the back of the head.

The detritus cleared away, Aleph takes Escobert’s key from his pack and turns it in the lock. The gate swings open with a screech of rusty hinges. Gerard steps through, peering into the tunnel beyond. Thick cobwebs hang from the walls and blanket the ceiling for as far as he can see, which isn’t far—the darkness is almost total, the kind that baffles the eye into imagining strange shapes and shadows to fill the void.

Keothi pulls out a mace, which flickers into bright light, and holds it aloft like a torch.
“Thank you, Wordweaver,” the monk says. He gestures into the dark. “Shall we?”

*

The tunnel is not much warmer than the battlements. There’s no wind to sweep snow into their faces, but the foetid air that drifts from the sewer is arguably worse, and the spiderwebs cling to their clothes. After a few minutes of angrily swiping the sticky strands from his face and eyes, Keothi draws his spider staff and touches it to his forehead. The spider on the end glows with a green light, and he walks up the wall and onto the ceiling, continuing his journey upside down.
“Is that prudent, Wordweaver?” Gerard asks. “That staff has a limited number of charges. If we encounter resistance, we want to be at our best.”
“I will be at my best, monk, if I do not have to constantly pick bits of web from between my teeth.”
“I only meant—” Gerard’s head jerks to one side. “Wait—did you hear that?”
“Hear what?”
“That scratching. It sounded like…” he shakes his head as he spots his companions’ blank faces. “Never mind.”

But the skittering and pattering continues, and grows louder, as they walk, until eventually no one can deny that something is following them. It—or they—keep out of sight, lurking just at the edges of the circle of light cast by Keothi’s mace. Unconsciously, the group quicken their pace. Even the goliath, safe on the ceiling, is moved to walk faster as the sounds of their unseen pursuers surround them.

Suddenly, a tiny form darts into view, leaping towards Gerard’s back. He flinches away instinctively—but not quickly enough to avoid the rat sinking its fangs into his leg. With a sharp hiss of pain, he bats the creature away with the end of his staff—but it is followed by another, and then another. As quickly as Gerard dispatches one, five more appear, leaping from the shadows and swarming over his legs. Emboldened by the scent of blood, the rats surge forward, no longer afraid of the light. Their sheer weight drags Gerard to his knees, then onto his face.

Cyd turns at the sound of a soft thud behind her: Gerard is gone, completely covered by a mass of writhing bodies. The rats’ onslaught was so quick that the monk fell almost without a sound.
“Oh, shit! Ger!” Cyd yells. She fires a volley of well-aimed arrows, but killing individuals seems to make no difference to the ferocity of the horde. Nubbins squeezes past her and plunges his hand into the seething throng.
“Ow, they’re so bitey!” he complains. His searching hand finds Gerard’s chest—the breathing already shallow and laboured—and his fingers glow as he hums a healing tune. Gerard sits up, rats pouring off him like clotted, brown water, and gasps. He struggles free from the swarm and jumps to his feet.

“We should go,” he pants. “We must… save our energy for defending the temple.”
“I understand. Stand back.” The group look up at Keothi, who regards them from the ceiling. The goliath makes a flicking motion with his right hand, and a burst of thick, poisonous slime sprays from his fingers, covering the swarm of rats. A sizzling sound fills the air as the acid eats through flesh. The horde scatters, shrieking in protest.
“Well-played, Wordweaver,” Aleph says. “But it won’t be long until the swarm gathers its courage again. Let’s move.”

The group take the final stretch of the tunnel at a dead run, almost slamming into the steel grille at the far end. A cold breeze—welcome, after the dank tunnels—hits them in the face, carrying with it the scent of smoke and ozone.
“Quick, Alf—the key!” Cyd yelps. The Warforged draws it from his pack and fumbles it into the lock, where it sticks firm.
“No, you have to—oh let me!” The rogue pushes in front of him and turns the key left and right with a professional air. “You’ve got it stuck in the mechanism,” she mutters. “Let me just…”

From behind her, the sound of scurrying feet starts up again.
“Um, Cyd…” Nubbins murmurs.
“Well aware, Nubs—let me focus!”
With a final, sharp twist, the mechanism clicks and the grille springs open. Cyd, Nubbins and Gerard pile out, tumbling from the open grate into a clump of bushes growing beside it.
“OW,” Cyd mutters, picking herself up. “There’s twigs in my shoes.”
“Is the coast clear?” Aleph asks, peering out from behind the grille. Above him, Keothi cranes his neck, trying to make sense of the upside-down overgrowth obscuring his view.
“I’ll check,” the rogue replies. She parts the branches in front of her, poking her head through into the open space beyond.

There’s another face inches from her own. The face of a man swathed in black robes. He frowns at her.
“Check what?” he asks. “What are you doing here?”

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2 Comments on “Chapter 12: Once More into the Breach, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Session 3, Post 4 – Memories of Emberfrost – Tabletop Tales

  2. Pingback: DM’s Notes: Session 4 – Tabletop Tales

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