Previously: The beholder explodes in a burst of yellow dust. Cyd is covered in the fine, pollen-like powder, which seems to instantly insinuate itself between the folds of her cloak, into her mouth and up her nose.
“That was a gas spore,” Nubbins says, his voice high. “They look like beholders, but they’re really mushrooms that are pretending. They’re very poisonous.” [Chapter 34: One Thing After Another]
“Surely you don’t mean to hide inside Wordweaver’s portal to the temple of Be’He’Quin?” Gerard asks.
“That is exactly what I intend,” Aleph replies solemnly.
Nubbins pulls the key and padlock from his bag. Aleph 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. [Chapter 30: The Camp]
By the time the party manage to drag Cydonie back to their hiding place at the top of the valley, the yellow veins of the gas spore have spread from her eyes across her face and neck. She isn’t coughing anymore, but her breathing has become wet and choked, as though each breath she draws comes through a layer of silt. Her movements are increasingly sluggish; Aleph has to carry her back up to the cave where they left Leosin, lashing her to his back with a rope so she will not fall while he climbs. It was still dark when they departed, but now the sun has risen almost to the zenith, leaving everyone in the party feeling terrifyingly exposed.
As Aleph hauls Cydonie over the lip of rock and drags her hastily through the narrow entrance to the cave, Feathers trots up to meet them.
What happened to you? she asks Cyd, giving her a delicate sniff.
“Your concern is touching,” Cyd mutters. It’s mercifully dark in the cave. She curls up on the floor and shuts her stinging eyes; remaining upright feels like too much of an effort right now.
“If I die, Alf,” she wheezes, “I want you… to have… my ioun stone.” She fishes a faceted, pink gem out of her pack and tosses it towards the Warforged, where it starts to orbit his head.
“Hey! That’s my ioun stone!” Nubbins squeaks, grabbing the gem and stuffing it into his pocket. He darts Cyd a reproachful look.
“You weren’t using it,” the rogue says dismissively.
“You are not going to die,” Aleph says. “You will, however, have to resist the poison for another eight hours. I must replenish my spiritual energy before I can restore you to health.”
“Oh… great,” Cyd gasps. “I’ll just tell… the spores to hold off… until then, shall I?”
Nubbins frowns, thinking. “The myconids said that inhaling hot steam could help ease your breathing,” he says at last.
“Then we’d better get a fire going,” Cuthbert replies. “Looks like we’re in for a long night.”
The steam from the pot of water they boil does indeed ease Cyd’s laboured breathing. Before long, she slips into a shallow sleep, tossing and moaning as the spores work their way through her system. The day limps by like a wounded animal. Aleph sits motionless at the cave mouth, gathering his thoughts and his strength. Feathers curls up at Cyd’s feet and sleeps. Gerard and Cuthbert try to do likewise, without much success—the slice of daylight that slants in through the cave entrance bisects the space in such a way that there seems to be nowhere either of them can lie down where it does not get into their eyes.
Nubbins wiles away the time by sending word to Balasar about the dig site. This takes him some time and no small amount of concentration: the scrolls of sending he brought with him from the Enchanters’ College have a limit of twenty-five words per use, and he is not used to being concise. He considers a long while, alternatively sucking the nib of his quill and muttering under his breath. Eventually, he scratches out:
Dig site investigated: passed tests, found treasure! Now using as hiding place for ex-prisoners we rescued from cultist camp. Come see!
He pauses, counting on his fingers, then adds: Love, Chief Archaeologist Nubbins.
Satisfied, he rolls the scroll up. The words he has written glow white-hot as the enchantment takes effect, and the parchment crumbles to ash. From the smoke, a tiny image of Balasar forms.
“Excellent work, Nubbins.” the image says. “I’ll send Head Researcher Hashem there now to complete our investigation. Don’t go getting into trouble with those cultists, you hear?”
The enchanted smoke has just dissipated when all light in the cave is extinguished, as suddenly as though the sun itself has been put out. Nubbins yelps, thinking for a moment that an enormous animal must have blocked the cave mouth. Over to his left, he hears Leosin exclaim and Aleph get to his feet.
“What’s going on?” the gnome calls.
“I… am not sure,” Aleph replies.
Nubbins can see a little light, now: a greenish, greyish light that has an oddly familiar quality to it. At first, he thinks that the entrance to the cave must have reopened a fraction to let a slit of daylight in, but then he realises that the light is coming from Aleph, who—
“Friend,” Leosin says to Aleph, his tone cautious. “What are those markings on your arms?”
Aleph’s arms are covered in glowing sigils, snaking over and under one another in a pattern that baffles the eye. The Warforged looks down at himself in surprise.
“I am not sure,” he says again. “Nubbins, wake Gerard and Cuthbert. We should…”
He trails off, staring at something on the ceiling. At the same time, Nubbins feels a gust of unseasonably warm air blow across his shoulders. Something has changed in the texture of the darkness. Following Aleph’s gaze, Nubbins sees not the blank blackness of the roof of the cave, but a tapestry of unfamiliar stars.
“I recognise none of these constellations,” the Warforged says. “Wherever we have been transported to, it is not a place with which I am familiar.”
Nubbins knows that is not true, though he can’t quite articulate why. He squints at the grey-green runes on Aleph’s arms, and that’s when it hits him.
“Aleph,” he says. “Your markings are the same colour as Wordweaver’s portal. Do—do you think we’re in the Far Realm?”
When Aleph does not reply, Nubbins crosses to the dark forms of his sleeping companions and shakes them gently.
“Gerard! Cuthbert! Aleph has magicked us all to the Far Realm!”
“Nubbins, please leave me al—what?” Gerard sits up, glancing around sharply.
“We do not know that is what happened,” Aleph protests. But as his eyes adjust to the dim light, Nubbins’ assertion seems increasingly plausible.
The party are sitting inside a ring of black stone obelisks in the middle of a dark and featureless wasteland. They are seated on what seems at first to be pebbles, but which turn out—when the Warforged picks up a handful of them and feels them writhe beneath his fingers—to be millions upon millions of black beetles, their carapaces hard and shiny as buttons. Such absurdity exists in only one place that Aleph knows of.
“I have spent longer in the Far Realm than any of you,” he says, reluctantly. “I did feel, during my last visit, that the place had… marked me, in some wise. Perhaps it is that connection that has drawn us here today.”
“Any idea when it’ll un-connect, then?” Cuthbert asks. His tone is sarcastic, but he looks nervous. “Only, all my stuff’s on the material plane and I’d hate for someone to nick it while I’m gone.”
“We have no choice but to wait and see,” Leosin says. He crosses his legs and shuts his eyes, assuming an attitude of meditative contemplation.
Aleph begins to pace in a circle around the inside of the ring of stones, feeling the unpleasant crunch of the beetles under his feet. After a moment, Gerard joins him.
“What if our appearance here is not random?” the paladin asks the monk. “You said that Be’He’Quin had a mission for Wordweaver, that when Wordweaver died, that mission passed to us. Could this be part of his plan?”
The monk makes a noncommittal gesture. “Perhaps. Though I am not sure how we would—good lord! What is that?”
Aleph looks up with a start to find that their circuit was in fact a spiral. They are in the centre of the circle of obelisks, and there is something there that neither of them noticed before: a huge slab of black granite with something protruding from its centre.
The two men draw closer. It appears to be the hilt of a sword.
“Don’t touch it,” Gerard warns.
“I must,” Aleph says softly. “It is meant for me. I am sure of it.” He reaches forward and draws the hilt from the stone. There is no blade, though the indent from which he has pulled the hilt free is the shape of one, narrow and sharp-edged. And it is far heavier than it should be, Aleph realises, hefting it in both hands; it certainly handles like a sword.
The Warforged gives the hilt an experimental swish. There’s a shimmer in the air where the blade should be, like a heat haze. He tests the edge of this disturbance against his finger, but hastily withdraws his hand. The invisible blade has not cut him—at least, not physically—but touching it sent a searing pain through his head that seemed to send his thoughts running in all directions.
Aleph balances the sword gingerly across his palms, filled with unease. His own weapons were taken from him and now Be’He’Quin has offered him a new one, a strange weapon from a strange realm. It is an implicit gift, but he is not sure he ought to accept it. The real question, he reflects, is what the Mad God is likely to want in return.
“The appearance of this sword seems suspiciously timely,” Gerard says, as if reading Aleph’s thoughts.
“It is,” the Warforged agrees. Reaching a decision, he buckles the hilt carefully onto his belt. “Nonetheless, I am in no position to refuse it.”
As soon as he speaks, he feels a sickening lurch, like the falling sensation that sometimes startles a dreamer on the edge of sleep. The bizarre landscape of the Far Realm flashes past the group as if they are flying away from it at speed; with a jolt, they find themselves back in the cave above the dragon cultists’ camp, late afternoon sunlight spilling in through the opening. Cuthbert huffs out a sigh of relief. Leosin opens one eye, nods in satisfaction at his return to the material plane, and resumes his meditation.
Aleph crosses immediately to Cyd, who has slept all the way through the party’s brief excursion to the Far Realm, and kneels beside her. He places his hands on her forehead and a white glow pours from his fingers, chasing the veins of yellow from the rogue’s face. She groans and stirs, opening her eyes for the first time in eight hours. Crowding close, Nubbins and Gerard both see that her breath is even again, and her eyes clear.
“How are you feeling?” Nubbins asks her.
“Better.” Cyd smiles blearily. Then she swipes at the side of her head: a black beetle has just emerged from behind her ear.
“What’d I miss?” she asks.
Thank you for your patience, everyone! I hope you enjoy this week’s post 🙂 If you have thoughts, let us know in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter – we love hearing from you! And, as always, do check out our pay-what-you-want side-quests, maps and classes over on DM’s Guild.
See you next week!