“Check… whether there’s any good loot over here,” Cyd says. She has frozen in place, her head the only part of her that’s visible through the dense foliage. The sewer grate gives out onto a broad river bank, along which half a dozen cultists and twice as many kobolds are picking their way, poking through clumps of marsh grass and inspecting the murky water. Several of them have looked up at the sight of her and are watching her conversation with interest.
“But there’s nothing,” the rogue continues, a manic edge to her voice. “Zilch, zippo—shoulda stayed in town, I suppose!”
Behind her, Gerard and Nubbins freeze as well as they see her hand flapping at them frantically. “Who were you talking to just then?” the cultist asks, peering into the branches.
Nubbins hums under his breath, running a hand through his hair. His image ripples and changes; in a moment, he is several feet taller, with narrower features and rounded ears. He shakes himself, settling the disguise spell evenly across his body, and strides casually out of the bush.
“Evening! Name’s Humbert,” he exclaims, doffing his feathered cap in a sweeping bow. “Humbert Cult—”
Gerard hurries out behind Nubbins and digs him in the ribs. “Hail Tiamat,” he interrupts. “We’ve been sent to—” his eyes flick around the scene, assessing the situation—”help out with the search here, same as you.”
“Wait a minute…” The cultist narrows his eyes, one hand straying towards the knife in his belt. Cyd tenses, but then his expression clears. “Oh, yeah. I remember you,” he says, turning to Nubbins. “Humbert, right?”
Nubbins grins, nodding enthusiastically.
“Would’ve recognised you sooner if it wasn’t for that stupid hat. Where d’you get that, anyway?”
Nubbins’ grin fades. “Hey!” he protests. Gerard gives him another dig in the ribs.
“Looted it from a milliner’s,” Cyd cuts in. “I said he could keep it—we didn’t think Tiamat would want it.”
“You’re damn right. The Dark Lady wouldn’t be seen dead in that monstrosity.” He shrugs. “Well, the more the merrier, I suppose. I’m not sure we need more people searching the river, but who am I to argue with the guys in purple?”
Half a foot away, Keothi and Aleph strain to make out this conversation from behind a screen of leaves and branches.
“I cannot see anything,” Keothi whispers. “And this bush is uncomfortable. Impy considers it to be overly scratchy. We should hide elsewhere.”
“I do not think that wise, Wordweaver—we would be spotted,” Aleph replies, keeping his rumbling voice as low as he can.
“I am the spymaster of Phandalin. I will not be spotted. Move aside: I see a gap in the branches behind you.” Keothi shoulders past Aleph, catching him off balance. The Warforged lurches from the bushes with a crash, giving away his position to the cultists beyond—but that, Keothi reflects as he slips through the gap, is none of his concern.
One outside the bush, he rolls onto his front, sliding into the river with barely a ripple. As the freezing water closes over his head, he congratulates himself on his superior stealth and subtlety. After a minute or so, however, he realises that he cannot breathe: this had not seemed important when he entered the water, but it is fast becoming a pressing concern. Diving deeper, the goliath swims soundlessly across the river and pokes his head above the surface on the opposite bank. He spots a bush which hangs over the water and climbs inside.
This bush is far roomier and less spikey than the first. Excellent. The only downside is that he can now see and hear nothing of the conversation on the opposite bank. Oh, well. Keothi settles himself, getting comfortable on a bed of dried leaves. Then he addresses a mental command to his familiar.
Impy. What is going on?
The imp responds with the mental equivalent of a shrug. They’re just talking. It’s boring.
Very well. Keothi leans back and closes his eyes. I am going to resume my nap. Wake me if I am needed.
“What the shit is that?!” the cultist yelps.
Aleph lies face down in the stream, metal limbs flailing against the current as he struggles to right himself. On the opposite bank, several cultists start at the sight of him, hands flying to their weapons. A cluster of kobolds dredging the river mud nearby scatter in panic.
“That,” Cyd jumps in, “is… a construct that we looted from the blacksmith!”
Nubbins and Gerard nod furiously, their smiles slightly too wide.
“We thought it might be valuable, so we grabbed it,” Cyd continues, raising her voice. “I think it’s some sort of golem—big and dumb, you know?”
Taking the hint, Aleph gets to his feet slowly, with a jerky and mechanical air. The cultist nearest to him lets out a nervous laugh. “Is it… safe?” he asks Cyd. “That axe looks pretty sharp.”
“Oh, don’t worry—I reckon they only use it to fell trees,” Cyd replies. In a burst of inspiration, she adds: “it does whatever you tell it to!”
“Oh, yeah!” Cyd is warming to her theme now. “Oi, you, golem!” she yells. “Say ‘praise Tiamat’!”
The fires of Aleph’s eyes flare, almost imperceptibly. “…Praise Tinhat,” he rumbles.
The assembled cultists, who have been watching this exchange with baited breath, burst out laughing.
“Do it again!” one yells.
“Hahaha! Get it to do a dance!”
“Yeah! Hey, golem—do a dance!”
His eyes glowing ever brighter, Aleph shuffles from foot to foot. As the cultists continue to shout instructions, Gerard turns to the man who first spotted them.
“Any news on the temple?” he asks casually.
The man shrugs. “Haven’t been there yet. Heard they barricaded the doors, which is giving our raiders some trouble. I think—”
Aleph’s ringing tones cut across the rest of his reply. The Warforged is standing on one leg, one hand on his hips and the other crooked into a u-shape.
“I am a little teapot, short and stout,” he drones. “Here is my handle and here is my—oh enough!”
With a sudden, deadly fluidity, he draws his battle axe and swings it at the cultists, bringing it round in a wide arc.
Keothi has just drifted off when he feels Impy prodding him with one diminutive claw. He groans, batting the imp away, then jerks awake properly as the sounds of combat reach his ears.
“It got interesting,” Impy informs him.
The goliath stifles a yawn and rolls out of the bush. The river bank is in chaos: the raiding party on the far bank are running towards Cyd, Nubbins, Gerard, and Aleph, who are fighting off a scrum of kobolds and cultists. Aleph sweeps his battle axe like a scythe, mowing enemies down with unusual relish. Nubbins, on the other hand, looks somewhat chagrined.
“Sorry for lying to you!” he calls as he fells yet another kobold. “I’m not really called Humbert! I mean, you probably guessed that already, but I’m still sorry!”
Keothi sighs. Clearly, the party cannot be trusted to complete even simple tasks in his absence. Gerard has been flanked by two cultists, who are menacing him with wickedly sharp, crooked knives. The goliath pulls his hand axes from his belt and launches them across the river: they take out the monk’s assailants with two satisfying thwocks. Gerard follows the direction of the axes’ flight, and does a double take as he spots Keothi on the far bank.
“How did you get over there?” he calls. A kobold flings a stone at his head; he catches it in mid-air and throws it back, hitting the creature between the eyes. “On second thoughts, you can tell me later,” he adds, ducking to avoid another projectile. “Thank you for your assistance!”
The last cultist of the group, her robes torn and bloodied, parries a swing from Aleph.
“Reinforcements—now!” she raps out, addressing a kobold beside her. The creature turns and starts to run towards town, but Cyd fells him with a well-aimed arrow before he can reach the far bank. With a wild yell, the remaining cultist rushes Aleph; he knocks her unconscious with single a blow from his shield.
Quiet falls over the river. Aleph crosses to the cultist he just hit, kneels, and feels for a pulse. Then he takes some rope from his pack and binds her hands and feet.
“Let’s stow this one in the bushes until we return,” he says. “We can question her when she awakes.”
“Good idea,” Gerard replies. “Um, next time you intend on starting a fight like that, perhaps you could give us some prior warning?”
“I will not be made to dance like a performing monkey. I may have been an entertainer in a former life, but there is a limit.”
“Of course, I understand, but—wait. You were an entertainer?”
“Besides,” Aleph continues, as if Gerard has not spoken, “we needed a captive to question, and we could not risk these cultists discovering the hidden entrance to the Keep. They needed to be dealt with. Now, come.” He stands and begins to wade across the river. “We have wasted enough time here already.”
The group scramble up the far bank and onto the main road, coughing and shielding their eyes from the snow and smoke that choke the air. The town is alive with harsh cries, running feet, and above it all the steady beat of the dragon’s wings. Once they have regained the path, they start to run. Many of the houses to either side of them are partially collapsed, blackened beams marking what little roofing remains. The party can see indistinct figures picking through the wreckage of these abandoned homes, but most of these pay them little heed—either taking them for fellow cultists in the confusion, or not caring enough about a group of townsfolk to impede their progress.
As the group reach the end of the road, however, a jet of fire flies out from between two houses, missing Aleph by inches. The party draw closer together, dropping into defensive stances. Kobolds flood out from the buildings to either side of them, blocking the road ahead. Gerard spots another firebolt hurtling towards Aleph’s exposed flank. “Aleph, on your left!” he yells. The Warforged swings his shield around just in time, deflecting the burst of flame high into the air. It streaks through the night sky, illuminating a winged kobold hovering above the party. It holds a spinning ball of fire in its hands, and as they watch it tosses its missile towards Cyd, who dives aside.
The rogue rolls to her feet and looses two arrows in the direction of the flying kobold, who cackles as they shoot past his head.
“Keep going,” Aleph urges. “We must get to the temple.” The group charge the ragged line of kobolds head on, scattering them in every direction. As Gerard, Nubbins and Keothi hew and swing at the reptilian beasts, Aleph covers Cydonie while she fires on the kobold above her. This time, her arrows find their mark: the kobold gives a shriek and tumbles out of the sky. As it falls, it hurls a final spell: an iridescent green sphere. It spatters on Aleph’s shield, drenching him with a viscous liquid that makes his armour bubble and steam, exposing the wood beneath. He roars in pain, eyes glowing white.
“Alf!” Cyd cries. “You OK? That goop looked nasty.”
“I am fine, Cydonie,” Aleph grunts. Around him, the group dust themselves off and inspect their wounds.
“You stay here,” Gerard says. “I’ll scout ahead, see what the situation is at the temple.” He hurries up the path, which slopes gently upwards towards the temple of Chauntea.
At the crest of the hill, he crouches behind a tree and surveys the scene. He is motionless for several seconds, drinking everything in, but he returns to the rest of the party at a run. “They have it surrounded,” he says, talking quietly and quickly. “They have drakes with them, and a battering ram—they haven’t breached its defences yet, but they’re close.” He glances at the worried faces around him, the same concern written plainly on his own features. “We have to go. Now.”