Previously: Nubbins starts as an image of Balasar, the head of the Enchanters’ College of Neverwinter, appears at the edge of his field of vision.
“Mission for you, Nubbins!” the dragonborn says. “There’s a dig site near Greenest – our team there was driven out by cultists. Think you could investigate it instead?” [Chapter 24: A Trail of Blood]
Governor Nighthill’s face clouds. “Following the siege, thirty of Greenest’s citizens remain unaccounted for. The news goes that the Cult’s forces are heading south—and with them are some thirty souls who travel in chains. If you were able to liberate them, it would mean more than I can say.” [Chapter 22: A Day’s Grace]
It is drawing towards evening on their third day out from Greenest when the party see the first signs of the Dragon Cultists’ camp. The path rears up beneath their feet into a small hill, from the top of which they can see the trail twisting round and down through a steep-sided ravine. The far end of this valley is capped by a horseshoe-shaped ring of hills, from between the crags of which rises a tell-tale plume of white smoke. Lights glitter in the gathering dusk: the camp must be large, if the number of fires is anything to go by.
Aleph reins in Beronal and watches the smoke a moment. Then he nods, as if in satisfaction, and urges the war horse forward.
“How d’you figure?” Cyd replies, following him down the hill. “There must be hundreds of them down there!”
“And for once,” Aleph replies, shooting his companions a pointed look, “they have no idea we are coming. We have the element of surprise. With careful planning, we should be able to execute an ambush that will—”
As the group reach the entrance to the ravine, the Warforged is interrupted by a crossbow bolt whizzing past his head. Atone snatches it out of the air. Shouts erupt from the sides of the canyon as several cultists appear on the rocks above them, crossbows drawn.
“What was that you were saying about an ambush, Alf?” Cyd asks, smirking.
“—Never mind,” Aleph finishes heavily. Beronal rears on his mighty hind legs and the Warforged lifts his shield aloft, catching several arrows in its broad, wooden face. Cyd ducks down behind him, drawing her own bow in response.
“We’re too exposed here!” Gerard calls, riding up alongside them.
He hears the thud of heavy footsteps behind him and spins around to see the three golems marching into place across the mouth of the ravine. They lock their massive stone arms, blocking the path. Nubbins peaks out from behind them, waving excitedly.
“I’ve made us some cover,” he yells.
Atone, Cyd and Gerard all dash behind this new wall of stone, leaping from their mounts. Aleph, meanwhile, pushes Beronal forward, making for the raised ground where the cultists have made their stand. As he draws near to the ravine’s sheer, craggy side, he leaps from the saddle and onto the rocks, hauling himself upward. The ambushers’ eyes widen in shock as the paladin heaves himself over the edge and turns to face them. They shoot at him, but the sigils on his shield glow, drawing their fire. He knocks the first woman aside with a blow from his shield; the second, he beheads with his battle axe. The last man he simply shoves clean off the edge of the ravine; the unfortunate cultist tumbles to the valley floor, where Beronal tramples him beneath his powerful hooves.
Caught by surprise, the three cultists on the other side of the ravine scramble to fire on Aleph’s exposed back. That’s when Atone soars out of cover: swooping low over the cultists’ heads, he punches them with a gust of wind that sweeps them from their feet. Gerard and Cyd lean out from behind the golems to cover Atone’s attack with volleys of arrows and radiant fire.
“They clearly did not expect to meet such resistance,” Aleph calls down from the top of the ravine as the last cultist falls. “I do not think they were able to notify the main body of the camp of our presence.”
“Then we can launch a sneak attack after all!” Cyd replies. She comes out from behind the golems and saunters over to the cultist on the valley floor. “This one’s just knocked out,” she adds. “We should question him about…” The rogue trails off as a shadow catches her eye. Behind the unconscious man there is a narrow gap in the wall of the ravine, a doorway in the rock. Runes are etched along its sides.
“Didn’t the head of your College send you a message about a dig site?” Cyd asks Nubbins, beckoning him over. “Do you think this could be it?”
Nubbins peers into the dark doorway. “Ooh, maybe! And even if it isn’t,” he adds, “it might be a good place to have a rest. I’m starving!”
Atone’s stomach rumbles on cue. “I would also like some food,” he admits.
“Let’s talk to this guy first,” Cyd says, nudging the limp cultist with the toe of her boot. “Then we can check it out. Do you still have that mind-reading spell prepared, Nubs?”
As Nubbins produces his tuning fork and copper piece, Aleph climbs down from the top of the ravine and crosses to the cultist’s side. He places a hand on the man’s forehead and a pale glow emanates from his fingers. The cultist’s eyes flicker open, then narrow suspiciously. Nubbins strikes the tuning fork, producing a clear, piercing note. He nods to Cyd.
“We’re looking for the prisoners you took from the town of Greenest,” Cyd says, speaking clearly and firmly. “Where are you keeping them?”
The man growls. “If you think I’ll talk, you’re—”
“…A wooden bunk house, right up against the cliff,” Nubbins murmurs. “There are big tents around it.”
Cyd grins. “Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.”
The man looks confused, then angry. “Wait. How did you—”
The man slumps to the ground. Cyd retracts her fist and shakes it, wincing. “Ouch! You make punching people look a lot easier than it is, Ger.”
“Cyd!” Gerard gasps, looking scandalised.
“Oh, calm down, I only knocked him out,” she replies. “Now, let’s check out this cave, shall we? It can’t be any worse than the last one we explored.”
The cave entrance is narrow, but even in the evening light, it is clear that a larger space lies beyond. The party tether their horses at the entrance and squeeze through the opening into the deeper gloom within. They find themselves in a smooth-carved corridor, narrow and high-ceilinged, that ends in an enormous set of double doors. Six rooms, their entrances framed by runes, branch off to their left and right. Each archway is topped by a candle set in a shallow niche: five of these are dark, but one glows with a faint, blue flame.
“I wonder who lit that?” Cyd whispers, her expression uneasy.
“HELLO?” Nubbins calls out, “I’m here from the Enchanter’s College of Neverwinter! Chief Archaeologist Nubbins?”
His voice echoes against the cold stone, but there is no response. The gnome presses forward, peering into each room in turn. One has caved in completely, the space beyond its entrance filled with rubble. The others contain a bizarre array of furnishings: the floor of one is littered with stone cubes; another is empty save for a single statue of a warrior; a third seems to contain a small well. Cyd walks to the end of the corridor and heaves on the doors, but they do not budge.
“Can’t see a lock,” the rogue says, squinting at the runes carved into the wood. “They must be sealed by magic.”
“We can’t get in until we’ve completed the challenges,” Nubbins replies.
Cyd frowns. “What challenges?”
“I’m not sure – I was just reading what it said on the doors,” the gnome answers. “Six challenges must he face who would reveal what lies within. That’s a bit sexist.”
The rest of the group stare at him.
“You can read these runes?” Gerard asks, boggling.
“Oh, yes,” Nubbins replies matter-of-factly. “I studied ancient dwarvish in college. And orcish, goblin, primordial… They all use the same script, so they’re pretty similar.”
There is a stunned silence.
“Can you read the runes over the entrances as well?” Atone asks at last. Nubbins works his way back along the corridor, squinting at each in turn.
“Only the strong may pass this gate and kindle the fire above it,” he recites, pointing to the first entrance. “And this one says the same thing, but it’s only the wise… only the hardy… only the learned… only the quick… and”—he pauses at the rubble-filled room—”only the winsome, but I think that one’s been done already because look—the fire is kindled.” He points to the blue-flamed candle.
“So, they’re trials,” Cyd says slowly. “And when we’ve passed them, we get whatever loot is behind those doors.”
“We do not know that there is loot behind those doors,” Atone points out.
“There’s loot,” the rogue says firmly.
“Well, I’m strong, because of my gloves of giant strength!” Nubbins says, flexing his meagre arm muscles. He steps through the first entrance. Immediately, a stone wall slams down behind him.
“Nubs!” Cyd squeaks. “Are you alright?”
“…Yes.” Nubbins’ voice sounds muffled and distant. “I don’t know how to get out, though.”
Nubbins looks around the room in which he is trapped. It’s the one with the stone cubes on the floor; there are four of them, and four cube-shaped holes high up on the far wall. “Well, at least this trial seems simple,” the gnome murmurs. He takes hold of one of the cubes and tries to lift it. It does not budge. He glances down to make sure he is wearing his magic gauntlets, and blinks in confusion when he sees they are still on his hands.
“These cubes are really heavy,” he mumbles. Grunting and straining with the effort, he manages to heave one up from the floor and shove it into place in a slot on the wall. Repeating this three more times feels like it takes all of his strength; when he has finished, he flops onto the floor, utterly exhausted
In the corridor outside, the candle above Nubbins’ door ignites in a burst of blue flame.
“I think you passed your trial, Nubs!” Cyd calls, clapping.
“Oh good,” comes Nubbins’ voice, sounding weaker than before. “Can I come out now?”
“It… doesn’t look like it,” Cyd replies. The stone door has not moved. “Maybe we have to finish all of the trials before it’ll let you go?”
“I believe that I would be best placed to attempt the trial of hardiness,” Aleph says.
“And I am quite quick,” Atone adds.
Cyd nods. “In that case, I’ll try learned if you want to have a crack at wise, Ger?”
Gerard furrows his brow. “I can certainly try, though I cannot guarantee success.”
“That’s exactly the sort of wise saying you’ll probably need!” Cyd replies, clapping him on the shoulder. She puts on a sombre voice. “We can only know that we know nothing. Time is meaningless. Life is an illusion. Yadda yadda yadda.”
“Cydonie,” Gerard says, “philosophy is not a matter of—”
“Philosophy Schmilosophy! Let’s do some puzzles! It’ll be fun!”
The party all step in through their entrances, and the sound of four solid stone walls plunging to the floor echoes through the cave.
Feathers and Stabigail sit in the larger corridor, waiting for the party to return. After a few minutes, Stabigail sidles up to Feathers’ tail and surreptitiously opens her small mouth. The tressym flicks her tail away, then bats the side of the almiraj’s face with a paw.
No. She thinks, loudly, glaring at Stabigail. Stabigail can’t hear her, but seems to get the message.
She continues to look longingly at the tressym’s tail for another moment before hopping over to Nubbins’ pack, her smaller tail bouncing up and down. She crawls inside, emerging again a few minutes later with a couple of rations in her mouth. She hops back over to Feathers, drops the rations beside her, and begins to munch her way through them, seemingly unconcerned by the fact that they are wrapped in waxed paper. Feathers watches her with lazy contempt, eventually curling up and closing her eyes.
The tressym is awoken by something butting against her face. She opens one eye: Stabigail is nudging one of the rations insistently towards her. Feathers gives it a sniff, and eventually condescends to join in the snack. It’s not like I have anything better to do, she thinks.
The room Atone has chosen is empty save for a statue of a warrior in full armour, which seems to watch him as he edges inside. At the base of the statue is a lever, partially hidden behind the warrior’s huge boots. As Atone approaches it, the statue raises its immense broadsword to strike. When the tiefling backs hastily away, it lowers it again. Atone gulps, steeling himself to sprint. Eventually he makes a run for it, squeezing past the statue and wrenching the lever down as he passes.
A fast and very hard blow catches Atone on the back of the head. He throws himself out of the reach of the stone warrior, which has turned and is brandishing its sword in his direction. Pressing himself against the far wall of the room, he crouches low, the sword flashing by inches from his face.
Gerard’s room is more like a long corridor, another lever on a pedestal at its far end. The path to his goal looks clear: surely this trial is too easy? The monk looks around at the walls carefully but, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, eventually strides forwards.
He collides face first with a barely-visible wall. Flushing with embarrassment and rubbing his bruised nose with one hand, he feels his way along the transparent barrier until he finds a narrow gap, just wide enough to squeeze through. He edges forward along the corridor more slowly now, hands outstretched. He feels the next wall before he bumps into it, and the next. Before he reaches the lever, he has encountered four of them, and is going so slowly that he is sure he must be the last one still completing his trial. He pulls the lever tentatively and turns to begin the long walk back.
Aleph ponders his room. What kind of challenge is a well? Is he supposed to fish something out from the bottom of it? He peers into its murky depths, unable to see further than a few feet. After some consideration, he puts his pack on the floor and climbs over the rim of the well, lowering himself into the water.
Aleph sinks down into inky blackness for what feels like several minutes. If he needed to breathe, he reflects, this would be a trial indeed. As he reaches the bottom of the well, his feet touch a pressure plate that gives a soft click. Kicking off with his feet, he propels himself back towards the surface.
Cyd sighs in frustration. What the hell are these weird pictures? Her room contains four pillars, each topped with a shallow bowl. There are pictures carved into each column: a squiggly line, a snowflake, a waterfall, and what looks like a pile of dust.
Four pillars for the four elements? Cyd wonders. It’s the best idea she’s had so far. But which is which? Deciding to start with the most obvious possibility, she steps up to the pillar that bears the image of the waterfall and spits a gob of saliva into the bowl.
The pillar shudders and sinks into the floor. Cyd grins to herself, turning her attention to the remaining pictures. The squiggly line looks familiar. It’s a bit like a river, but she’s done water already… Suddenly, Cyd realises where she has seen it before: it’s one of the runes she saw on the door at the end of the corridor.
“A dwarvish rune,” Cyd mutters. “That’s gotta be earth, right?” She scoops up a handful of dirt from the floor and drops it into the bowl, which sinks downwards. Success! That just leaves air and fire.
Well, the snowflake can’t be fire, the rogue reasons. She steps up to the snowflake pillar and blows into the bowl, causing it to sink into the ground with the others. Feeling smug now, she squares up to the last pillar. She knows that this one is fire; what she can’t work out is why. She glares at the pile of dust, thinking hard. Then her eyes light up.
“Nubbins,” she calls through the wall. “What are the reagents for Fireball?”
“Umm, sulphur and bat guano, I think,” Nubbins replies.
Not dust, then, Cyd thinks, satisfied. Droppings. She rummages in her bag, producing tinderbox and flint, and strikes a spark into the bowl.
The final pillar descends into the ground. At the same time, Cyd hears a shunk behind her and turns to see the door sliding open.
Gerard emerges from the room opposite her, rubbing his nose. A tired Nubbins and a very sodden Aleph join them.
“What were your challenges?” Cyd asks, casually. “Mine was easy.”
“Where is Atone?” Gerard replies, avoiding the question.
A voice echoes from the room at the end of the corridor. “Guys? I think this statue is trying to kill me.”
The group peer inside the last room to see Atone pressed against the back wall, his eyes fixed on an animated statue.
Cyd sniggers. “Just run for it, Tony!”
“That’s what I did before, and it hit me! I’m staying here until my head stops throbbing.”
Aleph steps into the room, raising his axe. The statue turns and swings its sword at him, but the paladin responds with two mighty blows, severing the warrior’s arms. It flails at Atone ineffectually as he ducks past. Gerard frowns at the destroyed artefact. “That was somewhat against the spirit of the exercise, Aleph.”
Before Aleph can respond, a loud clang echoes throughout the cave. The lit candles in their niches flare as, slowly, the great double doors at the end of the corridor swing open.
“We did it!” Nubbins strides confidently towards the doors. As he reaches the widening gap, something emerges from the darkness beyond, a long and flexible tentacle that catches the light of the candles as though it is made of metal. It lashes in the gap, swatting Nubbins onto his back. The gnome yelps in surprise and pain as he is thrown clear of the opening doors. A mechanical ticking and whirring fills the space.
In the room beyond the door are two of the strangest constructs anyone in the party has ever seen. They stand 10 feet tall on spindly metal legs. Their bulbous bodies are topped by five huge, petal-like appendages of articulated metal, which spin like the blades of a clockwork fan. Cyd swears violently and Atone blanches at the sight of them, but Gerard exclaims in something like wonder.
“These look like modrons,” he murmurs. “Astounding!”
“Save your astonishment for after the fight, yeah, Ger?” Cyd gasps, sprinting towards the machines.
Nubbins has regained his feet and is frantically ducking and diving as the constructs’ tentacles spin in his direction. As the rest of the party draw level with him, one of the modrons releases a cloud of thick, white smoke from a grille in its centre. Gerard and Cyd clap their hands over their mouths but Atone draws in a deep breath of the stuff. His arms and legs tingle, then go numb, and he finds himself rooted to the spot. His eyes dart around in alarm as he tries in vain to move his limbs.
“I had read that some modrons could release a paralysing gas,” Gerard comments, ducking one of the multitude of spinning limbs scything through the narrow space, “but I had never dared hope to see it in action!” The monk straightens up within striking distance of one modron’s jointed legs and lashes out with his staff, knocking it off its feet. It hits the floor with a thud and disintegrates.
Aleph is engaged with the other construct, blocking its appendages with his shield while striking at its body. Cyd fires several arrows into the centre of its whirling tentacles, and as it swivels in her direction, the Warforged brings his battle axe round in a wide arc, biting through the metal of the machine’s casing and into the clockwork at its heart. It sags, petals drooping, before turning to dust.
As the dust that was once the modrons settles, the party can see that the room beyond contains an ornate throne on a raised dais. Behind it is an armour stand laden with equipment. Cyd’s eyes widen. “Loot!” she woops.
On the armour stand are an ornate belt and a pair of unusual-looking bracers. Cyd lifts one of the bracers free and straps it onto her arm.
“Fancy!” she exclaims, flexing her wrist. A blade shoots out from bottom of the bracer, nearly lopping off a finger. Cyd carefully slides the blade back into its sheath and removes the bracer. “Maybe we should figure out what the other one does before we put it on, though.”
A dart flies past her ear. Nubbins, who has just slipped on the other bracer, starts guiltily. “Oops! Sorry, Cyd!” he exclaims.
“I think I’ll take these, Nubs,” the rogue says, placing the bracers gently in her pack. “You should keep the belt, though! This is your dig site, after all.”
They shelter from the cold and wind in the throne room, eating a light meal and admiring their new loot. As they finish eating, however, Aleph turns his attention back to more pressing matters.
“The odds are not in our favour,” he rumbles. “If we are to infiltrate the Dragon Cultists successfully, we must find a place from which to observe their camp. We need to learn its layout, its security protocols, the comings and goings of its leaders—everything we can.”
“I might be able to help with that.” Hesitantly, Atone unfurls his great, bat-like wings.
And we’re back, with an extra-long post to make up for our two week break 🙂 We hope you enjoy it! We’ve also got some new maps up on DM’s Guild for Hoard of the Dragon Queen!