They’re covered in blood; the kobolds are yipping in fear and the cultist clutches his head as though there’s something unspeakable trapped inside his skull and he’s trying to prevent it from getting out.
“The ceiling was… the ceiling was bleeding,” the man gasps. “And the hands! Hands everywhere! Was that hell? Am I dead?”
Keothi closes his eyes, focusing. “Half a dozen at the front of the temple—those are the ones Gerard saw with the battering ram. Twice that number at the back. There is a lot of smoke… I believe they are attempting to set fire to the back doors.”
The party are gathered in an empty house a few metres from the temple grounds. Everyone but Keothi is watchful and anxious, dividing their attention between the goliath’s face and the view from the window: the temple, the low wall that surrounds it, and a lot of grey smoke. They sit in plain sight as they talk; the raiders have already emptied this place of its meagre contents and there’s no risk they’ll return.
“What else does Impy see, Wordweaver?” Aleph asks.
Keothi’s head turns fractionally from side to side as he follows the motions of his familiar. “There is a third group, too—three humans, four kobolds, and two drakes—patrolling the perimeter of the building. The group at the back are not very good at setting fires,” he adds. “Should Impy assist them?”
“Good gods, no!” Gerard replies quickly.
“Where are the patrollers now?” Aleph says, ignoring this exchange.
“Hmm… They have just turned onto the western side of the building, walking clockwise.”
“Instruct Impy to remain invisible and follow them at a safe distance. We must keep track of their position.” There is no arrogance in the Warforged’s tone as he issues this order. He has assumed command of the group almost without realising it, his days as a soldier lending an authority to his voice and a weight to his opinion that the others know better than to ignore. Now, he considers the situation, his eyes dim and contemplative.
“Their numbers are overwhelming. We cannot fight them all at once,” he concludes. “We will wait until the patrollers are at their furthest point from us, at the south-eastern edge of the building, and then strike the party at the front. Our window of opportunity is a narrow one, but if we move swiftly, we can dispatch them without alerting any of their colleagues to our presence.”
“We could gain entry to the temple afterwards and plan our next move from there,” Gerard suggests.
Aleph looks around the party, meeting the eyes of each person in turn. They all nod their agreement.
“Good. Then we move on Wordweaver’s signal,” he confirms.
The group wait, tense and silent, for what feels like an age. Eventually, Keothi blinks his eyes open and motions for them to follow him. They leave the house and make their way towards the temple grounds. When they reach the wall, they press themselves up against it and creep, single file, towards the opening in front of the temple’s front doors, painfully aware of the army of dragon cultists just on the other side of the stonework.
Most of the party have to crouch to remain out of sight, but being only three feet tall, Nubbins doesn’t even duck his head. Cyd’s eyes widen as he saunters along ahead of her.
“Nubs, your hat!” she hisses. “It’s too tall. You’ll—”
On the other side of the wall, one of the cultists turns, frowning, as he sees a feather bobbing jauntily along, seemingly suspended in mid-air. “What the hell? Is that a—”
“NOW!” Aleph yells. He vaults over the wall and cuts the cultist off mid-sentence, axe glowing with fury as it strikes him down.
Gerard and Keothi immediately follow suit. The raiders on the other side of the wall drop their battering ram as the pair charge them; the monk and the warlock set to work with staff and axe, felling cultists and kobolds alike. Two kobolds turn and flee, heading with speed in the direction the patrol group took just seconds before.
Meanwhile, Nubbins, too short to hurdle the low wall, is running towards the break in the stonework. He collides with one of the fleeing kobolds as she dashes past the temple’s front steps, tripping her up. Both gnome and kobold hit the ground with a pair of surprised yelps; recovering faster than his enemy, Nubbins knocks her out with the haft of his hand axe. The last kobold rounds the corner of the temple and is racing up its eastern face when he crumples to his knees, felled by Cyd with a timely arrow.
“Report, Wordweaver,” Aleph raps out. “Where is the patrol group?”
Keothi closes his eyes and frowns. “Coming this way. We have perhaps one minute before they turn the corner and see us.”
“Quick! Let’s hide these bodies,” Cyd whispers. She picks up a kobold and tows it towards an abandoned cart. Nubbins helps her; together, they heave the fallen kobolds and cultists into the bed of the cart, covering them hastily with an old tarp. Aleph and Gerard drag the remaining corpses behind the temple wall.
“Thirty seconds,” Keothi says, his face as impassive as ever. Aleph picks up the battering ram and pounds on the temple doors as hard as he dares.
“We come as allies,” he calls through the keyhole. “Grant us entry; we mean you no harm.”
There’s a couple of muffled thuds and a scraping sound, and an eye appears at the keyhole.
“Oh, thank the gods! It’s you lot!” a voice says. “Hang on a second…”
The eye disappears and there are some more scrapes and thuds, then the sound of moving furniture.
“15 seconds,” Keothi reminds everyone. “Would you like me to count down?”
The great double doors creak open. As one, the group rush inside, pushing past a startled Dwali. Aleph shoves the doors closed behind them and leans on them.
“Hi Dwali,” Nubbins gasps. “I’m really glad you’re OK and also you might want to lock the doors again because some cultists and drakes are coming round the corner!”
“On it.” Dwali swings a heavy bolt back into place with a resounding clang. Cyd hops up onto an overturned crate and applies her eye to the keyhole. Outside, the patrol group are staring around them in puzzlement.
“…here the last time we came round…” Cyd hears one of them say. “Maybe Cyanwrath called them away?
The rogue jumps back down. “They didn’t see us!” she reports. “It was a close call, though!”
As Aleph and Dwali re-barricade the doors, Gerard and Nubbins squint into the dim interior of the temple, scanning the faces within.
“Brem!” Nubbins shouts as he spots his friend. The Brother of Chauntea is talking with Myconid by the altar. There’s a half-elf with them, a woman with long, white hair whom Gerard recognises instantly. He rushes over.
“Saph! You are alright! I am glad to see you—”
Saph turns, her face lighting up in a grin. “Gerard! Yes, I am—”
“I wasn’t sure, you see—the temple, when I—that is, when we—”
“Oh. Right. Well… good.”
Gerard realises, suddenly and with a flush of embarrassment, that he is standing closer to Saph than he ever has before. He steps back, clearing his throat.
“Thank you for coming to help,” Saph says. She smiles archly. “Pretty brave, crossing a town full of cultists.”
“It—I—It wasn’t—” the monk stammers.
“Oh yeah, and it was all Ger’s idea,” Cyd chips in as she and Aleph join the group. She winks at Gerard. “He was dead brave—saw the smoke and insisted we leave straight away.”
“Then it sounds like we all owe him especial thanks,” Saph replies. She gives Gerard a hug; Gerard turns scarlet, and briefly forgets how to move his arms. He winces as Saph touches one of his many cuts and bruises and she draws back, frowning.
“Those look painful,” she says. She pulls a pair of healing potions from her satchel. “Would these be of use?”
The monk is still having trouble forming complete sentences, so Nubbins takes the potions on his behalf. “Thanks, Saph!” he says, stowing them in his own pack. “These are the ones that taste like berries!”
“You are most welcome!” Saph rubs her hands together. “Now, do you need any help fighting off the cultists?”
Cyd blinks. “I didn’t know you were handy with a weapon, Saph!”
“Oh, I’m not. First time for everything though, right?”
The group exchange glances. Gerard pats Saph awkwardly on the shoulder. “There is indeed a first time for everything,” he says, “but perhaps, in this case, the middle of a siege is not it.”
Saph shrugs, though she looks slightly disappointed. “That makes sense, I suppose. Well, let me know if you change your mind!”
As Saph bustles away, Cyd begins to snigger behind her hand. Gerard gives her a look. “…What?” he asks.
“Gerard, I believe you may need to—what is the human phrase?—obtain a chamber,” Aleph offers.
The monk’s blush deepens. “I have no idea what you mean,” he says stiffly. “Do we have a plan?”
Cyd nods. “We do! It’s pretty much the other plan again: while those guys out the front are distracted, we’ll rush back out and surprise them! Also, we’re going to ask the big mushroom guy—”
Myconid, Myconid corrects her.
“—We’re going to ask the big myconid guy to bolster our numbers with a few of his walking corpses! Actually, come to think of it,” Cyd muses, turning to Myconid, “you must be pretty good in a fight yourself. Fancy coming along?”
My place is here, it replies. I will assist you with the undead, if you wish, but this is not my fight.
The rogue raises an eyebrow. “This is your home, right? Sure sounds like it’s your fight.”
Myconid does not answer.
“In order for the myconid to create new undead, we will need to obtain more corpses,” Keothi says into the uncomfortable silence that follows. “I have a plan on this score, one that involves the portal key given to me by my patron.”
“Because that’s worked out so well in the past,” Cyd interrupts. Keothi ignores her. He takes the key and a padlock from his pack and passes both to Impy.
“Impy will open this portal underneath the bodies of the raiders we ambushed outside,” he explains. “They will fall in, Impy will close the portal and return here, and then I will go in and retrieve them. It is quite simple.”
“Not all of the raiders are dead,” Gerard points out. “Some of them I only knocked out.”
“I do not see how that is relevant.” Keothi waves his hand in dismissal and his familiar vanishes, heading up towards the roof of the temple, where he slips out through a vent.
Down below, Gerard still has concerns. “Wordweaver, I believe you mentioned that time passes differently within your portal,” he pursues.
“Yes. A few seconds on this plane feel like several hours in the Far Realms.”
“Time enough, in other words, for the cultists I incapacitated to regain consciousness.”
Keothi yawns. “I do not see—”
Outside the temple, Impy swoops down from the roof. The patrol group are still standing outside the front doors, scratching their heads and puzzling over the abandoned battering ram. Impy snorts under his breath. Mortals: they’re all such imbeciles. He gives them a wide berth as he flies over to the cart where the bodies are hidden and worms his way in through a gap in the tarp. There’s a brief, green glow as the portal yawns open in the bed of the cart. As Keothi predicted, the bodies of the cultists and kobolds fall through before it snaps closed.
Impy nods in satisfaction and flies to the other side of the wall to repeat the process with the corpses hidden there. He puts the key back into the padlock and turns it. This time, however, there’s a catch. As the portal opens, a cultist and several kobolds stumble out of it, their eyes wide and terrified. They’re covered in blood; the kobolds are yipping in fear and the cultist clutches his head as though there’s something unspeakable trapped inside his skull and he’s trying to prevent it from getting out.
“The ceiling was… the ceiling was bleeding,” the man gasps. “And the hands! Hands everywhere! Was that hell? Am I dead?”
His wittering has drawn the attention of the patrol group; Impy realises that he had better beat a hasty retreat. The last of the raiders—the dead raiders, that is—have been swallowed up by the portal; as it closes, Impy zips up to the roof and back inside.
“—the point of this conversation.” As Keothi finishes speaking, Impy reappears at his side, key and padlock in hand. “And now, if you’ll excuse me a moment,” the goliath continues. He reopens the portal (much to the astonishment of Dwali and Brem) and walks through.
The strange temple takes less getting used to this time—the dais is still there, with the black stone altar and the trio of idols. One human and two kobold corpses lie at its base. Keothi moves towards them—and stops, staring at the wall behind the altar. Was it a giant window last time? He walks over to it and looks out. The temple seems to be built atop a sheer cliff which plummets down to… Keothi squints. At first, he took the writhing landscape at the foot of the cliff to be the sea, but no sea is that colour.
At the bottom of the cliff are thousands upon thousands of disembodied hands, crawling over each other in a desperate and unceasing struggle. As the goliath watches them, their motion ceases, every hand becoming still. One of them turns and points up at the temple with its index finger; another follows suit, and then another. Over the space of a few seconds, a ripple crosses the mass of crawling hands until all are pointing upwards. Keothi isn’t sure why, but he has the definite sense that they are pointing at him.
A wave of revulsion and fear washes over him. He turns away, seizes three of the corpses and, as quickly as he can, drags them back through the glowing portal.
From everyone else’s perspective, Keothi reappears a moment after he left, now with three bodies in tow. He places them in front of Myconid before turning to the group.
“It is not immediately pressing, but we should explore the realm beyond the portal soon, I think,” he informs them. “Things in there are becoming…unusual.”
“We would be honoured to help, Wordweaver, when we have time to spare,” Aleph replies. “For now, we should prepare the next phase of our attack.”
“Yes,” Gerard adds, with a meaningful look at the goliath. “According to Impy, some of the raiders we ambushed emerged from your portal awake. If we don’t move now, we will lose the element of surprise.”