Previously: A short while after stepping through the portal, Cyd and Aleph emerge into a clearing ringed with stones, a campfire at its centre. The fire is being tended by several giant, floating jellyfish. Aleph and Cyd look on, too astonished to move. One of the creatures notices them: it turns a pale shade of green and wafts towards them, its eye stalks swivelling from Cyd to Aleph and back again.
Hello, a voice echoes inside their minds. What are you?
“We are travellers from another realm,” Aleph answers.
“What are you?” Cyd asks them.
The one who addressed them first turns pink. We are us! Would you like to sit and eat with us? We do not get many visitors. The last pair of travellers to pass this way are remembered only in stories.
[Chapter 23: Through the Portal]
Content Note: this week’s chapter contains horror themes.
Atone soars over the camp, enjoying the wind playing across his wings. It’s vast: hundreds of cultists—kobolds and humans—move between two groupings of tents. At the entrance to the camp, the valley narrows, creating a natural chokepoint at which an imposing watchtower has been erected. There’s another at the far end of the camp, heavily armed raiders manning the platform at its apex. The tiefling swoops a little lower, examining the layout of the site in more detail. The lower half of the valley is where most of the kobolds have pitched their tents; further in, the tents are larger and seem to house mostly humans. A huge marquee sits in front of a cave mouth at the far end of the valley: that must be the where the leaders are housed. Atone also spots the wooden bunkhouse that Nubbins pulled from the mind of the raider they interrogated; it’s tucked in at the base of the cliffs near the human end of the camp.
“Do you think that reading prisoners’ minds is ethical?” Atone asks as he swoops in to land in the stand of trees where the rest of the party are concealed. The group all jump at the sound of his voice.
“Oh, sorry!” Atone had forgotten he was still invisible. “It’s me. Atone.”
“Yes, thanks, Tony. I think we’d all figured that out,” Cyd snaps. She had started so convulsively when he spoke up from behind her that she had almost fallen off the branch she was perching on.
His face heating, Atone relates what he saw of the camp. Aleph nods, the fires of his eyes banked and reflective.
“It is just as our captive told us, then. We are outnumbered. In which case, distraction and deception are our allies.” The Warforged draws himself up to his full height. “When I fought in the Battle of Emberfrost, I was not above using such tactics on the field of war. We will infiltrate the camp by stealth.”
Cyd raises an eyebrow. “Um, Alf. Not to knock your talents or anything, but I think a ten-foot tall metal man is going to have a hard time blending in.”
“I could make him invisible!” Nubbins pipes up. “I’ve still got enough juice for two more spells at least.”
“Then we should try to conserve your arcane energy,” Gerard replies, frowning. “We may have need of it later.”
Cyd has seated herself on a rock, resting her chin on one clenched fist. “What if,” she says, puzzling it out as she speaks, “Atone flew back in and set fire to that big tent? While they’re all panicking, we could sneak in, rescue the prisoners and—”
“There were people inside that tent!” Atone exclaims.
“Cultists!” Cyd shoots back. She throws up her hands. “Oh, come on! You’re not going to get all ethical about a bunch of evil, stinky—”
“They’re still people. I cannot simply set them on fire!”
“Enough,” Aleph says, in a low rumble that cuts across the argument. “You will give away our position. No one need set fire to anything. Atone’s powers of flight will be invaluable simply as a means to get into and out of the camp unhindered and keep us apprised of the raiders’ activities. With his assistance, we will have a distinct advantage.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Cyd muses. “Alright, fine. No setting people on fire. Happy now, Tony? …Tony?”
There’s silence. Suddenly, the dense clump of trees they’re hiding in feels a little less cramped. Gerard reaches out a hand; the space where the invisible tiefling was standing moments before is… empty. Then a burst of light and heat flares in the air, scorching Gerard’s fingers. He snatches his hand back, and a charred note drifts to the ground.
“What on earth…” Sucking his injured hand, the monk stoops and picks up the note.
SINCEREST APOLOGIES TO THE ‘HEROES OF THE HOUR’, it reads, BUT THE DARK LADY HAS OFFERED QUITE AN INTERESTING DEAL IN RETURN FOR MY BRIEF INTERFERENCE. YOUR FRIEND WILL BE RETURNED ONCE THIS UNFORTUNATE BUSINESS IS OVER. ATONE AND I HAVE A FEW THINGS TO DISCUSS IN ANY CASE.
The note is signed only with an odd sigil: three inverted triangles arranged in a long, fang-like spearhead.
“Hold on,” Cyd says, squinting at the note over Gerard’s shoulder. “The Dark Lady? As in Tiamat? And what’s that pointy thing?”
Gerard does not reply straight away; he is busy mastering the dead weight of dread in his stomach. “The symbol of Asmodeus,” he whispers.
There’s a pause, and then everyone begins talking at once.
“Asmodeus?” Nubbins squeaks. “But isn’t he a—a demon?”
“A devil. They’re very different, Nubbins.”
“Devil, demon, who cares? Why is he getting involved!?”
“QUIET,” Aleph says. There’s a finality to the word that brooks no argument. “Gerard. You recognised the symbol. Tell us what you know.”
“Tiamat is currently trapped in the Nine Hells, Asmodeus’ domain,” Gerard says. His face has gone white. “His power far exceeds hers. To enlist his help, she must have had to bargain away something substantial.”
“She’d make a deal with the devil just to get in our way?” Cyd asks. Her tone is sceptical, but she looks rattled. “What are you looking so pleased about, Alf?”
“We have made Tiamat angry,” Aleph replies. “Clearly we are on the right path. We should proceed to the camp as planned.”
“But we’re a tiefling down!” the rogue says. “And if Tiamat’s devil friend stole Tony away, who’s to say he won’t grab one of us, too?”
Gerard shakes his head at this. “The chances are remote. Atone’s lineage must be Asmodean: that’s likely why the Archfiend had power over him. I do not think he could do the same thing to us.”
“You think he couldn’t, or you know he couldn’t?” Nubbins asks nervously.
“It matters little,” Aleph interjects. “If Tiamat disapproves of our efforts, that is a sure sign that they are working. We should press the advantage.”
“OK.” Cyd begins pacing between the trees. “I have my disguise kit, and Nubs can make himself look like a cultist with magic. Gerard, you look kind of culty already. No offense. That leaves you, Alf. If Nubs uses up another spell to turn you invisible—”
“As Gerard suggested, it may be best to keep that spell in reserve,” the Warforged replies. “I have another notion. What if I were to conceal myself in another realm?”
The others look at him blankly. Then Gerard frowns. “Surely you don’t mean to hide inside Wordweaver’s portal to the temple of Be’He’Quin?”
“That is exactly what I intend.”
“The temple where we got caught in a rain of blood?!” Cyd bursts out. “Alf, that place is insane. You’d go mad!”
Aleph bridles a little. “I believe my mental fortitude is equal to the challenge,” he says. “If I wait within the temple then you can re-open the portal once you are inside the camp. You will be able to release me in the centre of the raiders’ stronghold, where I will be of most use.”
“Don’t do it, Alf,” Cyd repeats. “It’s horrible in there.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Gerard says. “But remember that time moves more slowly on the other side of the portal: for Aleph, the few seconds before the portal sealed behind him would feel like hours. If he is truly wedded to this course of action, at least he would have plenty of time to change his mind if things became too… strange.”
Nubbins is pulling the portal key and padlock from his bag. “It’s your decision,” he says, handing them over.
“I appreciate your concern,” Aleph says solemnly, “but it is unnecessary.” He turns the ornate key in the lock, and there is a ripping sound as the grey-green expanse of the portal opens in the air before him. “See you on the other side,” the Warforged says as he steps through.
The temple is much as Aleph remembers it—which is to say that it is strange and shifting, and somehow resists his efforts to see it clearly. He crosses, as steadily as he can, to the great black altar at its centre and positions himself at its base, arms folded.
Can it be? A voice, high and excited, echoes in Aleph’s mind, making him jump. He spins around, reaching for his battle axe, only to relax as he spots a familiar shape. A large jellyfish is floating in the air behind him, its eye stalks swivelling. Can it be? the creature repeats. My cloister has long told stories of the walking armour and his friend, who brought us the gift of the Baliset on the Day of No-Moon, but I never dreamt that I would see him with my own eyes!
Aleph feels his spirits lift. He has stumbled across something he was never expecting to find in the temple: a friend.
“Yes, my companion and I did visit your tribe,” he confirms. “Though for us, the encounter took place scant days ago.”
The jellyfish turns a fetching shade of green. For us, it has been decades. To meet you in person is a great honour. Please, allow me to make you a gift.
The creature raises two of its tentacles; a shimmering light appears in the space between them. For several minutes it shapes and moulds the light as if were clay. Aleph soon recognises the object that is beginning to take shape: it is a baliset very like his own, carved from a skein of silvery light. The jellyfish finishes the instrument and offers it to Aleph. Play it and remember us!
“I will,” the Warforged replies, taking it and making a low bow. As he straightens up, he catches sight of the altar out of the corner of his eye and feels suddenly chilled to the core, as though a shadow has fallen across him. He never remembered the temple being this cold before.
“Perhaps we could sit awhile and play together,” he suggests to his new friend. The creature’s colour fades from green to pale blue.
I cannot stay in this place, it says regretfully. It is… chaotic. Dangerous. It would be unwise to linger here, but you would be most welcome to accompany me back to our camp!
Aleph shakes his head. “I must stay here,” he says. “I have a task to fulfil.”
Then for your sake, my friend, I hope it is a short one, the jellyfish replies. Farewell!
It drifts through the portal opposite the altar and vanishes from sight.
It leaves a deafening silence in its wake. Aleph did not remember the temple being so quiet, either.
“Doubtless I will not be waiting long,” he says, speaking to the empty air and immediately feeling foolish for having done so. He goes to lean against the altar, but some deep-rooted instinct warns him against it. Instead, he starts to pace around the room in a wide circle. At first, he looks around him as he walks, but the walls and ceiling seem to seethe with a shifty, seasick motion that makes him unwontedly nauseous. Before long, he has restricted himself to staring at the floor.
One hour becomes three, becomes five.
Aleph looks up again as the light begins to fade. Is it evening already? He shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts. It was already evening when you left, he reminds himself. And besides, there is no window in the temple through which to mark the passage of time. Why is it getting so dark, then? Aleph stares around him. The shadows have definitely thickened. He squints through the gloom, his vision crawling with grey-black lines.
Something is moving in the shadows.
For a hopeful moment, Aleph wonders if it could be his jellyfish friend, back to check on him. But no: this thing, whatever it is, is far too big, its body immense and swollen like a pregnant spider. It skulks along the perimeter of the temple, and as Aleph tracks its movements, he sees that it is dragging something: a weapon, maybe, or a body. His hand tightens on his mace.
“Show yourself, beast,” he shouts. He is aiming for a commanding roar, but his voice sounds hollow in his own ears. The monster halts its shambling movement and turns towards him. At the same time, Aleph draws Lightbringer and thrusts it forward, illuminating the creature with the mace’s glow.
A monstrous owlbear crouches before him, its feathers matted and filthy, its eyes glinting malice. Caught in its curved talons is a small, humanoid figure—one on whom Aleph’s eyes refuse to focus—pale as death.
“This—this cannot be,” Aleph whispers, the words wrenched unwillingly from his lips. The gnome—for that is what the figure is—is wearing an all-too-familiar feathered hat.
The owlbear takes a lumbering step towards Aleph, Nubbins still pinned beneath its claws. The Warforged stumbles backward, Lightbringer falling from his slack fingers. The mace crashes to the floor, its light extinguished. The beast springs at Aleph—and just as its claws reach his throat it vanishes, winking out of existence as suddenly and completely as though it had never been.
A convulsive shudder runs the length of Aleph’s body. He drops to his knees, scrabbling on the floor for Lightbringer.
“Nubbins? Nubbins!” he shouts. He grabs up the mace and lifts it high, filling the temple once again with pale light. Nubbins’ body has vanished along with the owlbear.
“It was a dream. A waking dream. Nothing more,” the Warforged mutters, no longer caring that he is talking to himself alone. He cannot shake the conviction that Nubbins is in danger.
As he climbs unsteadily to his feet, something rushes past him on his left. He whips around, only for the same thing to happen on his right. Soon the dim temple around him is teeming with running figures. Aleph spins in a wide circle, Lightbringer out before him. Warforged are rushing past him, waving shields and great swords, their mouths open in silent cries. A familiar face catches his eye, and then another. Another impossibility, though a more welcome one: Aleph is surrounded by the Eighth Phalanx, his brothers in arms. Not a dream. A memory, Aleph thinks. This is the Eighth at the height of their power, as they were on the day Emberfrost fell.
Instantly, as if his thought was the trigger for it, the Warforged around him start to stagger and fall. A force that Aleph cannot see threshes them like wheat, ripping through their ranks with the force of a tsunami. He watches, horror-struck, as his brothers rush headlong into death. Leaving him alone, just like before.
“No,” Aleph chokes out. And before he can stop himself, he is running too, sprinting alongside his brothers towards destruction.
By the time he sees the altar, it is too late for him to stop. He smashes into it at full speed, the force of the blow jarring along his entire body. He throws up his hands reflexively as he makes contact—and as he touches the black marble, images flood his mind.
Huge smokestacks loom on the horizon, choking the sky with ash. Before them stand queues of Warforged, winding onwards for as far as Aleph can see. There must be thousands of them—tens of thousands. Aleph spots himself in the crowd, and Vessel beside him, but it is as if he is looking down on the scene from somewhere high above it. The Warforged are walking into the factory, where some huge machine is at work.
“One of you challenged me. Now all will pay the price.”
A chorus of voices sing these words, cold and mocking. They sound close at hand; Aleph looks around, trying to identify their source.
A five-headed dragon soars out between the columns of smoke. “Your souls are forfeit,” Tiamat croons. “I offered them to Asmodeus long ago. A little bargain we made. Go now, and serve your queen.”
Aleph feels terror squeezing his throat. The temple has shown him the past, and possibly the present. Could this be the future? Abruptly, his perspective changes. He is within the factory itself, near the head of one of the long queues. The monstrous machine towers above him, a huge piston topped by a row of spinning metal staves that churn endlessly up, down and round. Each time the staves rise, they carry wisps of something golden and gossamer-thin with them, the strands glittering faintly in the smoggy gloom before they are sucked into the cylindrical piston. As the Warforged ahead of Aleph reaches the front of the queue, one of the rods descends and touches her, almost gently, on the top of the head.
It carries her soul out with it. Aleph sees the moment that it leaves his sister’s eyes, which go cold and dull as an empty grate. The golden thread of her soul rises up and away, and the machine swallows it. It is his turn next. The metal staff descends towards him. With an animal yell of pain and terror, Aleph wrenches his hands away from the altar.
Scant seconds after Aleph vanished into the portal, it vomits him out again. He sprawls fall length on the ground; Nubbins, Cyd and Gerard race to his side.
“Alf! Are you alright?” Cyd kneels beside him. “What happened?” The Warforged is muttering something under his breath, over and over again.
“I cannot. I cannot. I cannot stay there,” Aleph says, his voice almost a moan. “Do not ask me what happened. What I saw.”
“It’s OK,” the rogue says, “you’re OK.” Her tone is calm, for Aleph’s sake, but his panic is catching. With their strongest fighter down and night falling over the camp, they are fast running out of options. “It’s OK,” she says again. “We just need a new plan. That’s all.” She’s not sure who she’s trying to convince.
Join us again next week for chapter 31!
Well, that, friends, was an emotional rollercoaster to write! I managed to freak myself out pretty comprehensively with some of those temple scenes! Thank you for your patience while Cam and I worked through our various hospital trips and doctor’s appointments last week. Cam is now back to his old self again 🙂 and we should be able to get back to a regular update schedule (barring any more surprise visits from the kidney stone fairy, that is!)
In the meantime, do check out our original maps, side quests and classes over on DM’s Guild. And if you enjoyed today’s post, let us know in the comments!