Last time: 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 breaks free of the tunnel’s grasp. Atone wrenches himself forward, scrabbling desperately upwards. 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.
For a while, everyone is silent, sucking in great, grateful lungfuls of air. After a few minutes, Cyd begins to snigger. The sound builds and builds until the rogue is almost crying with laughter, flopping over onto her side and pounding the ground with one fist.
“Do you require more air?” Aleph asks her uncertainly.
“Hah hah hah! Hoo, boy,” Cyd wipes her eyes and, finally, gets back to her feet. “I’m fine, Alf. I was just thinking what a stupid way that would have been to die! Some adventurers we are! Whoo!”
“I… fail to see the joke.”
“Ah, you had to be there, really. Stuck in a flooded tunnel behind a golem’s butt—”
But this mental image proves too much for Cyd. As she gasps and splutters, the others survey the cavern around them. It is small, high-ceilinged, and suffused with a pale, blue light. On the other side of the narrow spit of land on which they sit, the floor slopes down into a shallow lake, its silty bed studded with anemones and silver-shelled clams. The cave walls, which are rough and jagged, curve upwards like a dome, but the roof is hidden in darkness, obscured by the same black fog that hung over the forest outside.
“It looks like the cloud is coming from up there,” Nubbins says, head craned back. “Atone, can I borrow your staff of Spider Climb?”
Meanwhile, still snorting to herself, Cyd leans over the edge of the lake. A glint catches her eye and she plunges in a hand, seizing hold of a clam with a particularly beautiful shell. She squints along the line of its two valves, trying to see what’s inside, then gives up the attempt and places it back into the water, where it swiftly scuds away.
“Hey, Nubs,” she calls. “Didn’t you say you needed a pearl for a spell you wanted to try? Nubbins?”
When she receives no response, Cyd looks up and around. Nubbins is halfway up the wall, Atone’s staff clutched in one hand, his tiny face alight as he clambers towards the ceiling.
“Look, everyone: I’m a spider!” he squeaks, his voice raising echoes from the rocky walls.
“Nubs! Wait a second!” Cyd shouts after him. “We don’t know what’s up there! Oh, for god’s—Atone, could you fly up and throw a rope down for the rest of us?”
The tiefling, who is watching Nubbins’ progress with a bemused expression, takes a long cord from his pack and does as Cyd asks. It feels good to stretch his wings again after the narrow confines of the tunnel; he soon outpaces the gnome, soaring towards the cloud with practiced ease.
As he reaches the edge of the darkness, Atone slows, putting a hand out before him to feel his way. After a few feet, he touches rough stone. He is groping along the ceiling, searching for a place near the far wall where he can make the rope fast, when to his surprise the rock beneath his fingers disappears. He reaches upwards—is the ceiling higher here? But his hand touches nothing but empty air.
“There’s a hole in the ceiling,” he calls down to the others. “I think it might lead through into another cavern.”
He squeezes through, and something… shifts. One moment he is perched on the ground of the upper cavern and the next he is falling.
This doesn’t make any sense, Atone thinks wildly, turning cartwheels in the air in a vain attempt to right himself. I’m falling… up.
The thought helps him to orient himself. Beating his wings frantically, he manages to slow his descent (ascent?) until he is hovering in the middle of the upper cave.
A moment later, he hears a yelp from below as Nubbins makes the same discovery as he just has. Atone floats towards the source of the sound; as the gnome flies past, legs flailing, he reaches out and catches him by the arm. Nubbins’ momentum almost drags them both off balance, but Atone braces himself, spreading his wings like a parachute, and together they reach a kind of equilibrium, bobbing gently in mid-air.
“What in the name of Oghma is going on up there?” Gerard’s voice echoes through the cave. In reply, Atone allows the coil of rope he is holding to unspool, lowering it carefully through the hole and into the space below. He hears a distant splash as it hits the water of the underground lake.
“Climb up, but go carefully,” the tiefling replies. “Gravity in this place appears to be somewhat different to what we are used to.”
“What’s that supposed to me—aaargh!” Cyd, who started shimmying up the rope as soon as it reached the ground, has just made it through the hole to find that she is suddenly hanging upside-down. She loses her grip and tumbles, spinning, up into the darkness. But her scream tails off as her momentum slows: rather than smashing into the ceiling of the cavern above, she finds herself floating in the middle of the cave.
“Whoa,” she mutters. “‘Somewhat different’, Tony? That was an understatement.”
Atone doesn’t answer her immediately. He has worked out that by beating his wings and moving his legs in a swimming motion, he can propel himself left and right. He is currently making his way cautiously towards the area of the cavern where the black cloud is at its thickest, Nubbins in tow. There is something glowing in the heart of the darkness. Something big.
“Keep close to me, Nubbins,” Atone mutters. This darkness must be magical: he can barely see a foot in any direction. Wordlessly, Nubbins nods.
The tiefling edges forward a little, then a little more. Then, all at once, he sees it. And realises that ‘glowing’ was the wrong word. The thing at the centre of the cloud seems to suck light in rather than giving it out. It looks, Atone thinks, like a picture of a planet he saw in an almanac once: a perfect sphere hanging in the centre of an elliptical ring. And like a planet, it draws everything around it towards it; even as Atone watches, he can feel himself being pulled inexorably forward.
“Well, I guess now we know what was making the gravity go weird,” Nubbins gulps.
“What’s making the gravity go weird?” Cyd calls from a few feet away. “I can’t see anything!”
“We’ve found a… thing,” Atone replies, trying to shuffle away from the slowly-rotating shape. “It’s glowing, but in reverse. And it’s cold,” he adds, noticing for the first time the chill that is seeping through his robes and straight into his bones. “Really cold.”
“Is it alive?” Cyd asks, voice tinged with puzzlement. She wriggles towards Atone’s voice, straining to see for herself.
As if in response, a strand of darkness whips out through the cloud, catching her a stinging blow across the cheek. She gasps, feeling an icy fire well up inside her where the shadow touched her skin. In the centre of the cloud, the ring shivers apart into a mass of tentacles, reaching hungrily towards Nubbins and Atone. The tendrils lash out like whips, each strike as cold as frostbite.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the rogue yelps. “Ger, Alf, you might want to hurry!”
Gerard, who has just climbed up through the hole, is immediately almost smothered by a thicket of shadowy vines. They wrap around him, a spider’s cocoon, and where they touch his flesh he feels the bite of a cold too intense to belong to any living thing. His strength draining from him, the monk focuses his mind and launches a burst of radiant energy from his closed fist. The golden flame tears through the tendrils and they recoil, hissing and smoking like fat in a hot pan.
“Light! It hates light!” Gerard calls weakly. His face and chest are covered in black welts.
“Did you hear that, Alf?” Cyd roars. “We need some paladin smiting up here, stat!”
There’s silence. And then, from over to Cyd’s left comes a panicked gasp.
“I dropped the rope,” Atone groans.
In the cave below, Aleph is making slow progress.
“I am almost there,” he mutters, searching for another handhold on the craggy wall. He finds one and pulls himself up with a grunt, rising another few feet. “My progress would be considerably faster,” he adds, in an undertone, “if I were fortunate enough to have a rope.”
With an almighty effort, the Warforged wrenches himself up the last stretch of wall. Pressed against the roof of the cave, he can feel the strange gravity that the others spoke of, drawing him upwards. It gives him the boost he needs as he pulls himself slowly along the ceiling, swinging hand over hand from one rocky outcrop to the next.
Eventually, his hand clenches the edge of the hole and he hauls himself through. He feels the moment when his centre of gravity shifts and launches himself upwards, drawing Lightbringer as he falls. He plummets headfirst towards the thing in the centre of the room, mace glowing.
Gerard pauses in his barrage of energy bolts as he sees a white flare emerge from the hole in the floor. The light shoots towards the darkest part of the cloud and, for a moment, appears to be engulfed by it. Then the cloud shatters in a burst of blinding radiance. The monk shields his eyes, feeling himself thrown back and up by the force of the blast. He’s expecting to hit the hard stone of the floor or a wall, but to his surprise, he lands on something soft.
He opens his eyes. He is lying on soft, springy grass; the air smells of earth and summer pollen. Blinking in astonishment, the monk stares around him.
The rest of the party are scattered nearby, still stunned from the blast. They seem, somehow, to have landed in a meadow. A ring of trees surrounds a space of grass and wildflowers. Gerard feels something cold touch his hand and jerks away. A spherical stone is lying in the grass beside him, its surface dark and swirling with strange shapes. He freezes: it is the gem from Be’He’Quin’s vision. Hurriedly, he sits up, opening his mouth to alert the others.
“Leave me in peace, Cyric. Whatever form you take, I will not beg you for my life.”
The musical voice makes Gerard start. He pauses, mouth still open, and looks behind him. At the other end of the clearing is a white horse with a golden horn. It is surrounded by blood that looks like quicksilver, and weighted down by chains.
“Ohmygod.” Cyd is sitting up too, now, and staring at the creature with wide eyes. “It’s a unicorn!”
“No,” Gerard says slowly, piecing it together in his mind as he talks. “It—she—is a nature spirit.” He turns, addressing the creature. “Excuse me, but are you Kamerynn?”
“Think about it,” the monk explains, looking at his companions with shining eyes. “When we spoke to Kaax, he told us that the last thing he remembered was that he was talking to Kamerynn when they were both surrounded by darkness. Cyric must have trapped her here!”
“He did,” the unicorn says. “And set a void elemental to guard my prison. But are you truly known to Kaax?” she asks, watching them with narrowed eyes. “Did he send you to help me?”
“I am afraid that Kaax is trapped as you are, my lady,” Aleph rumbles. “We found him bound inside a painting. But he told us of you, and asked us to find you if we could.”
The unicorn gives a hollow laugh. “Well, found me you have, though I am afraid your efforts will avail you little. The wards sealing me here are strong.”
“We can heal your wounds, at least,” Aleph replies. He crosses to Kamerynn and lays his hands on her flank. This close to the unicorn, he can see that her body is criss-crossed with dozens of tiny cuts. As his glowing hands pass over her, her wounds knit together, returning some of the lustre to her pale coat.
“And we can try to break your bonds,” Gerard adds. The chains binding Kamerynn are made of the same black, shadowy substance as the void elemental, he notices. Centring himself, the monk raises his fists and fires four targeted bolts of radiant energy at the shackles around the unicorn’s fore and back legs; the manacles shatter, dissolving into black dust that scatters in the air.
As the chains disintegrate, a rumble shakes the clearing, causing the group to stagger.
“What was that?” Nubbins cries.
Kamerynn’s amber eyes widen. “The void elemental you killed must have been what was tethering my prison to the material plane,” she says, speaking rapidly. “Now that it is gone, this pocket realm will soon collapse. We should move swiftly.” She raises herself up onto her forelegs, but they buckle under her weight. “Go,” she urges the group. “While you still have time!”
“Not without you,” Gerard replies. “We will carry you, if need be. But how do we leave?”
Kamerynn gestures with her nose to something behind them. “The same way you came in. Whether or not the wards will allow me to accompany you, however, remains to be seen.”
Turning, the party see a shimmer in the air like a green heat haze, just at the edge of the clearing.
“Great,” Cyd mutters. “Another portal.”
They lift Kamerynn between them and carry her towards the green doorway, but soon find themselves pushed backwards as if by a strong wind, each step harder than the last.
“I feared this would be the case,” the unicorn sighs. “I am loathe to ask you this, but if you truly wish to help me escape, you must destroy my physical form.”
There’s a shocked silence. “But won’t that… kill you?” Gerard asks.
Kamerynn tosses her head dismissively. “Temporarily. The real question is whether any of you would be willing to host my spirit until my body is restored.” She paws the ground with a hoof, suddenly looking embarrassed. “I realise that this is a lot to ask. If one of you were to bind my soul to your own, you would have only my word that I would not attempt to dominate your body—”
“Ooh, I’ll do it!” Cyd interrupts. “Pick me!”
“Are you sure, Cydonie? We know nothing of the possible side effects of this procedure,” Aleph says.
Cyd shoots him an incredulous look. “The side effects will be that I have a unicorn in my head, Alf. A freaking unicorn! Of course I’ll do it!”
“Then we should waste no more time,” Kamerynn replies. “Come kneel by me, child.” She lowers her head to the ground, and Cyd places a hand on her side. Aleph steps forward, battle axe raised.
“I swear that I will do all in my power to return you to your corporeal form,” he says. He brings his axe down across Kamerynn’s neck with swift precision, and her body melts away into the silvery blood on the grass.
At the same moment, Cyd collapses. The rest of the party race to her side, but she is already sitting up as they reach her, rubbing her forehead. She opens her eyes and, for an instant, they are golden and luminous as Kamerynn’s horn. Then she blinks, and the moment passes.
“That wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be,” she mumbles, rubbing her head. “I think it worked, though. She’s all here. She’s locked herself away in my head somewhere.”
“And you are well?” Aleph asks, his eyes flaring anxiously.
“I’m all good, Alf,” the rogue smiles. “Killer headache, though. Now, let’s get out of here.”
Indeed, the clearing is beginning to collapse before their eyes, the trees blurring and wavering like shapes seen through water. They pause long enough for Gerard to stow the black gem in his pack (he picks it up with the hem of his robe to avoid touching it with his bare hands) and then dash through the shimmering barrier.
They find themselves back in the forest at the entrance to the cave system, the low light of evening slanting straight into their eyes through the trees.
“That was a strange encounter,” Gerard muses. “Be’he’quin’s vision led both Aleph and me to things we had been seeking. Is Keothi’s god trying to help us?”
“And is his help something we can afford to accept?” Atone adds.
The others shiver in the chilly dusk, and say nothing.
Thanks for reading, everyone! I had a lot of fun editing this one, especially the anti-gravity hijinks! If you’re wondering who Kamerynn and Kaax are, by the way, check out chapter 7 and chapter 8! And if you have questions about Be’He’Quin, this chapter right here will clear things up for you 🙂