Last time: “Perhaps Mr Kobold could watch over the prisoners until we pass back this way,” Atone suggests.
“At the very least, the lure of coin may hold him to his word,” Aleph rumbles.
“All the same to me,” Cyd says. “So long as Atone doesn’t do the bargaining.”
“I still do not see why we couldn’t have spent the night in the spot Nubbins and I found,” Atone says mildly. “I am sure Mr Kobold would have been happy to stand watch for us.”
The rest of the party ignore him, trotting along in sullen silence. It is deep into the night now and they are all hungry, saddle-sore, and exhausted.
“Or I could scout ahead again and find us a new place to—”
“No,” Cyd growls.
But after they have ridden for another hour, it becomes clear that they will have to find a spot to camp soon. The air around them is growing darker; glancing up at the sky, Cyd realises that the moon and stars have vanished, obscured by thick clouds. It becomes harder and harder to make out the raiders’ tracks, even for those of them whose eyes are used to the night. For Gerard, the darkness is near-total.
“If we continue in these conditions, we risk losing the trail,” Aleph says at last. The horses have begun to whicker nervously. Abruptly, the Warforged turns his off the track and dismounts, setting his pack down on the ground. “We should rest here tonight.”
It is far from ideal. Without being able to see what—or who—is around them, they cannot risk lighting a fire. Aleph holds the horses’ reins while the rest of the group hunker down in their bedrolls, huddled together against the cold. They sleep only poorly, waking with every icy gust of wind, each shriek, hoot and growl from the night animals that slink past or swoop by overhead.
They awake at dawn, gritty eyed and irritable, to a pleasant discovery.
“My feet have stopped bleeding!” Nubbins announces.
Cyd raises her hands skywards. “Oh, thank the gods. I don’t think I could handle another scorpion attack.”
Stretching out the kinks in their sore muscles, the group crawl out of their bedrolls and examine their surroundings.
The raiders’ trail is visible again, a wide swathe of muddy footprints leading away to the south. The party’s makeshift camp stands near the edge of a forest, and it is only now, in the grey daylight, that they realise why they almost lost the trail the night before. The tops of the trees are engulfed in a storm cloud so dark it is almost black, a thick smog that lowers over the entire forest, dimming the light of the morning sun.
“Well that doesn’t look ominous at all,” Cyd mutters.
Gerard is staring at the cloud with an expression of horrified fascination. “I recognise this place,” he says slowly, “from the vision I saw in the temple of Be’He’Quin. There’s something in the forest that Be’He’Quin wants. Something he wanted Wordweaver to retrieve for him.”
Nubbins glances at Aleph. “We should find out what it is. Do we have time?”
The Warforged hesitates. “Your desire to fulfil Wordweaver’s last wish is to your credit, Nubbins, but consider: it may not be wise to lend Be’He’Quin our aid. We have no way to be sure that his goals align with our own—they may even be opposed.”
“It can’t hurt to look!” the gnome protests. “We can just ask the people in that village if they’ve seen anything weird.” He points: a cluster of houses stands at the furthest edge of the woods, partially hidden amongst the trees.
“Anything weird besides the black death cloud, you mean?” Cyd asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Very well,” Aleph concedes, with reluctance. “But let us move quickly.”
The village is small—only a few dozen houses arranged in a rough circle around a central square. The horses swish their tails as they approach, evidently unnerved by being so close to the cloud that looms over the forest.
But even without the shadow hanging over it, there would be something strange about this hamlet. The sense of wrongness creeps over Gerard gradually; then it hits him: all of the houses are identical, no window boxes, welcome mats or flowerpots to tell one home from the next. From its unpainted wooden door to its neatly thatched roof, each one is the clone of its neighbours—and all of the windows are dark.
Nubbins marches up to the first house and knocks, but there is no answer—no sound at all, in fact, save the snorting of the horses and the party’s own footsteps, muffled by the dense foliage around them and yet still far too loud. After a minute or more of silence, Aleph tries another door. Nothing.
Atone begins to look concerned. “Have they all left?”
“Maybe they’re in the tavern,” Nubbins replies, sounding unconvinced.
They move deeper into the village, heading for the town square. Nubbins can’t see it at first—it’s screened by the trees—so he is surprised, when the group reach it, to find that three bigger buildings stand at its centre. They are constructed from large, even bricks of pale stone; each of them is windowless, with a wide arch at the front and a sloping roof of golden shingles. Aleph walks out from between a pair of houses and stops dead at the sight of them, his eyes flaring.
“I recognise these buildings,” he murmurs. “They are built in the style of Emberfrost, of my people.” He crosses to one of them and places his hand on the sun-coloured stonework. “Warforged builders made these bricks. The craftsmanship is unmistakeable.”
“Admiring the architecture, Alf? And here was me thinking we were in a hurry,” Cyd says. But the Warforged is too amazed to bridle at her sarcasm. Nubbins joins him by the nearest of the buildings, reaching out his own small hand to touch the stone. “What does it mean?” he asks.
“It means that my people survived Emberfrost,” Aleph replies, his tone reverential. “This must be the Alliance outpost that Vessel spoke of. I had dared to hope that a handful, perhaps, still lived. But this was an entire Warforged settlement. There can be no doubt.”
“Um, if this place was full of Warforged,” Atone says, interrupting Aleph’s reverie, “then where are they now?”
They enter the first of the structures together as if by mutual agreement, but without anyone speaking another word. The whole party seems to have caught some of Aleph’s awe: they cross the threshold of the strange building as if it is holy ground. It is like a warehouse inside, crates and barrels stacked in precise rows from floor to ceiling. Three figures stand motionless at the far end of the room.
“Hail!” Aleph calls to them. When no reply is forthcoming, he walks closer to discover that they appear to be three very life-like stone sculptures.
“Do you think they’re like that thing Vessel made?” Cyd asks, her face setting. “Some poor human bastards whose souls have been bound to statues?”
“I know what they are!” Nubbins pipes up. “Golems! Some of the wizards in the Enchanters’ College have them. It’s OK,” he adds to Cyd, who is still giving the figures an odd look. “I don’t think they have souls. They just follow orders.”
Aleph’s eyes flicker. “People said the same thing of Warforged, once,” he says. “Still, whatever their nature, these beings do not seem to be suffering as Vessel’s construct did. How can we communicate with them, Nubbins?”
“They don’t really talk,” the bard says thoughtfully. “I mean, the ones in the College would answer questions, but only if you had their control rod.”
“Then we should search for theirs,” Aleph concludes. “Perhaps then they will be able to answer our questions themselves.”
Nubbins and Aleph investigate the second building together, leaving the rest of the party to search through the boxes in the warehouse. This one is some sort of arcane workshop, though it looks no different from the first structure from the outside. On one side of the room stand several golems in various stages of completion (Aleph looks away from them hastily); a bookcase and a crowded work table have been pushed up against the opposite wall. Someone has covered the floor between them with chalk-drawn circles, inscribed with runes and sigils.
“The Warforged who lived here seem to have been engaged in research similar to Vessel’s,” Aleph says, surveying the scene. “I only hope that they did not imitate his methods.”
“Why are all the Warforged we meet trying to make constructs?” Nubbins asks him.
“When the creation forges were destroyed, the art of building new Warforged was lost,” the paladin replies. “Evidently, the Emberfrost Alliance believe that it can be rediscovered. And that the undertaking is worth the effort.”
“Not at any cost.”
Nubbins crosses to the bookcase and runs a hand along the spines of the leather-bound tomes. He recognises a few of the authors—not that he has read many of them, but if you spend enough time with wizards, it’s hard not to pick up a thing or two about books.
“Golems, golems,” he murmurs. “Aha!” A relevant volume catches his eye and he hefts it from the shelf. Wedged in alongside it are three stone wands. “I’ve found the control rods!” he calls to Aleph.
“Well done, Nubbins,” Aleph answers. “I will trust you to speak with the golems, since you know more of such beings than I.” He kneels on the ground, at the centre of one of the chalk circles. “I intend to meditate here for a time: I feel my connection to my brothers more strongly in this village than in any other place I have visited in this realm.”
When Aleph finishes his meditation, some quarter of an hour later, and joins the others in the warehouse, he finds that Nubbins has lined the three golems up in a row by the door. As Aleph watches, the gnome points at the golem on the left, wielding its control rod like a conductor’s baton.
“Go!” he squeaks. The golem hums a note, perfectly in tune. Nubbins points at the second, who joins in, two tones higher; he is followed by the third, who jumps up another two tones to form a perfectly harmonised chord. Nubbins completes the set by singing a fourth note, before gesturing for all of the golems to stop. He turns to Atone. “See? I told you we could set up a barbershop quartet if I taught them the notes!”
“It appears you were correct, Nubbins,” Atone concedes. “I owe you a gold piece.”
“Ignore them,” Cyd says to Aleph. “They’ve been at it since you left. Here,” She hands him a small wooden disk. “I found it on top of one of the crates. I think it might be part of your shield.”
Aleph takes the wooden insignia and inspects it carefully. “This is indeed the sigil of the fourth phalanx of Emberfrost,” he says, placing it into one of the grooves on his shield. “Thank you, Cydonie.”
At long last, the party walk over to the final building, their new golems in tow. Judging by its appearance, it was once an office of some kind: a table takes up most of the centre of the room, papers still scattered across its surface. Gerard gathers them up and passes them to Aleph, who examines them intently.
“The Warforged who lived here were on the same errand as we are,” he says at last. “These notes speak of their search for a treasure hidden in the forest: a stone of uncommon power.”
“The gem from Be’He’Quin’s vision,” Gerard interjects. “Did they find it?”
“They were forced to abandon this settlement when the raiders laid waste to the area,” Aleph replies, sorting through the papers. “They departed in haste to join another band of Warforged, in a city called Elturel. I would imagine that they halted their search for the gem at the same time.”
“All the more reason for us to check out the forest, too,” Nubbins chirps. He holds up the control rods and waves them at the three golems. “I think you should come with us,” he says. “We’ll need all the help we can get!”
The group hitch their horses in the village square, pushing deeper into the woods on foot. The trees are close-set and the fog hanging over the canopy makes the atmosphere within dim and stifling, but they move swiftly, heading for the middle of the cloud. The further they go into the forest, the clearer it becomes that it does have a middle: the dark mist swirls around them in circles of ever-decreasing size, like ripples on the surface of a lake.
After a while, they notice the ground sloping downwards as they walk, as though the cloud has deformed the landscape around it like a physical weight. The shallow slope continues until the party reach a clearing, where the ground suddenly gives way all at once, plunging down into a sinkhole. Dark fog pours from the mouth of this hole, spewing up into the canopy like a fountain.
Curious despite herself, Cyd walks to the edge of the pit and stares inside. It is not just dark down there: it is impenetrable, a solid wall of shadow that baffles even her night vision.
“Magic. Gotta be,” Cyd says. She picks up a stone and drops it into the pit. A few seconds later, a faint plop can be heard. “And there’s water down there. Figures.”
“We could send a golem down,” Atone suggests.
“I will go,” Aleph replies. “I do not need to breathe, and I can use Lightbringer to guide my way.” He draws an ornate mace from his pack; it glows white at his touch.
“Be careful, Alf,” Cyd calls after him as he lowers himself into the hole.
The seconds lengthen into minutes, stretching taut, as the party wait for Aleph to return. Cyd has just opened her mouth to volunteer to go after him when they hear a splashing from the bottom of the hole. A few minutes later, the Warforged drags himself back over its lip and into the clearing.
“It is a tunnel; it leads to an underground cave,” he reports.
“I saw a cave in the vision,” Gerard says thoughtfully. “How much of the tunnel is underwater, Aleph?”
The Warforged pauses. “I… was not paying attention. I could not have been submerged for longer than a few minutes, however.”
“Alf,” Cyd says, placing a hand on his arm. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we need to breathe a tad oftener than that. A minute here or there could make quite a bit of difference.”
“I am aware of your inconvenient respiratory functions, Cydonie, yes,” Aleph replies stiffly. He thinks for a moment. “I am sure it was not longer than two minutes.”
Nubbins takes a deep breath and holds it in as the others continue talking.
“I, for one, am willing to take the risk,” Gerard says. “Aleph, perhaps if you followed behind the rest of us, you could lend aid if an emergency does occur?”
Behind him, Nubbins takes a huge gasp of air. “Was… that… two… minutes?” he gasps, as his face slowly returns to its normal colour.
“OK,” Cyd says, ignoring Nubbins. “Everyone who needs to breathe goes down first, and Alf brings up the rear. Does that work for everyone?”
“I have one additional suggestion,” Atone says. He takes a control rod from Nubbins and points it at one of the golems, who climbs ponderously down into the hole. “If we send a golem down first, it can widen the tunnel ahead of us.”
Once the golem has disappeared from sight, the group lower themselves carefully down into the inky blackness. Atone, who is first, takes a deep breath as he feels the chilly water touch his toes. Steeling himself, he ducks below the surface and begins to swim, following the tunnel round. It tightens rapidly, though the water does not recede; he can feel his wings pressing tight against his back as the passage winds up and around. Soon he is not swimming but crawling, pulling himself forwards with his hands as the tunnel constricts around him like a snake’s throat.
He hardens his nerves, fighting back a wave of claustrophobia and panic. And then he rounds a bend to find the way before him blocked. Something kicks him in the face: with a thrill of horror, he realises that it is the golem, wedged in the tunnel ahead. Atone takes hold of one of the golem’s legs and shoves. Nothing moves. Behind him, he feels Gerard’s hand on his own leg, urging him onward. He can’t so much as move his head to look behind him.
The tiefling pushes again, harder this time. Still nothing. Nausea mounts in his throat; his lungs are starting to burn. In a few seconds, he knows he will lose the battle with his own reflexes and be forced to breathe in, and then he will drown. Gerard’s grip on his leg tightens, becoming painful.
With the last ounce of his strength, Atone pushes the golem again—and there is a sudden crunch, more felt than heard, as the construct at last breaks free of the tunnel’s grasp. The way is clear again and Atone wrenches himself forward, scrabbling desperately upwards as he follows the golem out of the tunnel. Seconds pass with agonising slowness. Water surrounds him; the tunnel holds him in its throat. And then he emerges, gasping for air, onto a narrow spit of land. He is in a cavernous space, lit with an eerie glow.
He pulls himself free of the tunnel’s mouth, then leans over it to help his companions. Gerard, Cyd and Nubbins flop out of the hole, soaked, ashen-faced and gasping. A moment later, Aleph follows at a more leisurely pace.
“That… was a long two minutes, Aleph,” Gerard splutters, through relieved breaths.
Ooh, editing that last scene made me claustrophobic! Thanks for reading, friends! By the way, if you’re wondering who Vessel and the Emberfrost Alliance are, Chapter 11 will clear things up for you 🙂