Previously: “Behind me!” Aleph yells, swinging his shield from his back. As he hefts it aloft, the insignia on the front ignite with a white light that seems to draw the archers’ fire. Arrows and crossbow bolts curve towards the shield, altering their course in mid-air. [Chapter 18: The Long Night, Part 3]
“The Champion’s herald!” Cyanwrath bellows. “I did so hope we would meet on the field of battle.”
“And I also,” Aleph shouts back. “This is our fight, Cyanwrath: meet me in single combat.”
“Your challenge is spoken boldly, and I wish that I could rise to it,” the half-dragon sighs. “But I must put duty before pleasure, in this as in all things.” [Chapter 32: Out of the Frying Pan…]
The party search Mondath’s chambers in near-silence, Gerard keeping watch by the door in case their fight was overheard. Nubbins and Minerva drag the tiefling’s body and those of her guards into the storeroom, hiding them behind a wall of dilapidated packing crates. When they return, the state room looks almost normal again. The only clue to the combat that took place there so recently is the empty frame of the floor-length mirror propped in one corner. Cuthbert has summoned a ghostly blue hand to sweep the last few shards of glass into a wooden chest beneath Mondath’s writing desk.
“Ooh, was there anything good in there?” Cyd asks, eyeing the ornate box.
“Nothing of value,” Aleph replies. He had been hoping to find his missing shield and Lightbringer, his mace, within the chest, and had been sadly disappointed to find it empty save for a few scraps of parchment.
“Well, that’s not strictly true,” Cuthbert corrects. He spreads one of the sheets of parchment out on the desk. It’s a map of the Greenfields, with several settlements circled in red. An arrow has been drawn in along the Trade Way, passing through Beregost to the west before turning north. At the bottom of the page, someone has penned a note in a small, neat hand.
You must bring everything to Naerytar, without exception. Split up to avoid attention but keep to the main roads—half of you should travel through Baldur’s Gate, the other half through Elturel.
Praise Tiamat. – R
“Who’s R?” Cyd asks.
“Probably Rezmir,” Cuthbert replies. “She’s another one of the purple-robes: a half-dragon. I think the places marked in red are the towns the cultists have raided,” he explains, pointing them out. “Look: there’s Greenest.”
Nubbins leans over, standing on his tiptoes to see the map better. “What does the arrow mean?”
Cuthbert grins. “That’s where they’re going next.”
What is less clear is where the party are going next. Their excitement over the map quickly gives way to frustration as they realise that Mondath’s chambers are apparently a dead end.
“Will we have to go back through the stirges again?” Nubbins whimpers. He still has a few faint, pink scars on his arms and neck from the creatures’ proboscises. He pats down the walls for the hundredth time, as if hoping that a hidden door will have appeared since he last checked.
Cyd grimaces, thinking of her run-in with the gas spore. “Believe me, Nubs, I’m not looking forward to it either, but it doesn’t look like we have another option.” The rogue gets unwillingly to her feet. “Come on, everyone.”
“We’re leaving already?” Minerva asks. She has been scraping bits of gold leaf off the frame of the mirror with her dagger and hasn’t been listening to the conversation. “Then if it’s all the same to you lot, I think I’ll take one of these rugs before we go. Just the thing for keeping the draft out of my tent.” She tugs the woven mat in the centre of the room free from beneath the desk and begins rolling it up, revealing, as she does so, a square of wooden planks set into the floor.
“A trapdoor,” Aleph rumbles. “Excellent work, Minerva.”
The elf looks up from where she has been stuffing the rug into her pack. “What?”
Cyd carefully oils the trapdoor’s hinges before swinging it open. There’s a ladder leading down into a dim corridor, lit by torches set into brackets on the walls.
“Nubbins, can you make me invisible?” Cyd whispers. Nubbins nods, placing a hand on her arm. The rogue vanishes from sight instantly.
“Back in a sec,” she hisses. She climbs through the hatch, keeping her footfalls light so as not to raise so much as a creak from the wooden rungs of the ladder.
The floor of the lower corridor is of carved rock rather than packed earth, and yet it is warmer down here than anywhere else in the cave complex. Cyd wonders briefly if there is an underground spring or volcano nearby. She pads off down the passageway, straining her ears for any sound of life. It soon widens into an immense room, more than twice the size of Mondath’s chambers, with a stone altar at its centre and a vaulted roof. Candles heaped up around the base of the altar and the pillars that hold up the ceiling shed a flickering light, by which Cyd can see the blue half-dragon, Cyanwrath, kneeling in prayer. He is surrounded by guards, but they keep well back from the altar, standing around the walls of the room in respectful silence.
Cyd takes a second to thank the gods that she’s invisible before creeping further into the chapel. The floor is tiled in marble, the walls painted with motifs of black dragons in various attitudes: flying, rearing to strike down prey, or paying obeisance to a five-headed monstrosity that must be Tiamat. The rogue circles the altar warily, keeping as close to the far wall as she can without bumping into the guards. To her right, a stone archway flanked by torches frames a flight of shallow steps leading downwards. Cyd is making her way towards it when a breeze at her back makes her turn.
There’s another staircase behind her, the complete opposite of its neighbour: narrow, unlit, and heading steeply upwards. Cyd squints at it. As far as she can remember, it points in the direction of the central cavern. She hesitates a moment, torn. Then, her mind made up, she hurries towards the second staircase.
“Cydonie? Cydonie? Do you require assistance?” Aleph has stuck his head through the trapdoor and is hissing Cyd’s name as loudly as he dares when he feels a tap on his shoulder.
“Behind you, tin-man.”
The Warforged starts, banging his head on the edge of the hatch. There’s a sound of stifled giggles from over his left shoulder.
“We were growing concerned,” the Warforged says, a tad stiffly. “If that was a prank, it was not a very amusing one.”
“Sorry, Alf.” Cyd pops into view, looking contrite. “But it wasn’t a prank. Well, tapping you on the shoulder was, but I was only behind you in the first place because I found a secret tunnel!”
After they have lowered the trapdoor shut, Cyd tells the others about the black dragon chapel and who she found there. “The narrow stairs led all the way back up into the main cavern,” she finishes. “Everything up there seemed deserted, so—”
“The eggs must be nearby,” Aleph finishes. He looks triumphant.
“We’ll just need to get through Cyanwrath, then,” Nubbins quavers. The memories of his fight with the half-dragon are still unpleasantly vivid.
“You will not have to face him alone this time, Nubbins,” Aleph reminds him gently. He looks around at the rest of the group. “We should make use of the intelligence Cydonie has gathered. If we split up, we can catch Cyanwrath and his men in a pincer movement.”
“Sounds good to me,” Cyd replies. “I’ll take Mini and Ger back around if you wait here with Nubs and Bert.”
“Cuthbert,” the sorcerer interjects.
“That’s what I said!”
Everyone nods their agreement.
“Wait!” Gerard hisses, as Aleph moves towards the trapdoor. “How will we know when you are in position, Cydonie? We will need a signal to attack.”
The rogue pauses, one foot out of the door. “Good point, Ger. I think I’ll shout ‘attack’. That should do the trick.”
The wait for Cyd’s signal feels lengthy. Aleph spends it caught between hope and despair. If there is any chance that his shield and weapons are still within the cave complex, he tells himself, this is where they will be. But what if they aren’t? What if they have been taken already, shipped off to Naerytar to swell Tiamat’s hoard? His shield is a living memorial to all who fought for Emberfrost, and the mace Lightbringer once belonged to Keothi, the only memento of his dead comrade-in-arms that he has. The thought of being permanently parted from either of them makes him feel diminished, as if, in losing them, he has lost part of himself. The Warforged’s thoughts veer back and forth in this way for some time, until the motion of his restless mind makes him seasick.
At last, a distant shout interrupts his musings. His legs spring into action before the rest of him, propelling him into the temple a good few seconds before his conscious mind realises that Cyd has given the order to attack. Gerard, who was quicker on the uptake, is ahead of him, Nubbins behind. The guards fumble for their swords as the party stream into the room, thrown into confusion by the two fronts that have unexpectedly opened before them. Within seconds, the chapel is filled with cries and chaos.
But Aleph has eyes for only one foe. He spots Cyanwrath immediately: the tallest figure in the room, the half-dragon is also the most commanding, his soldier’s bearing and unwavering self-confidence drawing the eye as much as his stature. And there is something else, too, that draws Aleph’s attention, a tug deep in the heart of him that makes him pivot towards Cyanwrath instinctively, even before he has fully recognised him. There is something on his back, a wooden disc visible just above his shoulders. Then Cyd looses an arrow that curves in mid-air to fly towards the half-dragon, and Aleph’s suspicions are confirmed: Cyanwrath is wearing his shield. Cyanwrath turns, then, and sees Aleph. He opens his arms as if to embrace the Warforged, his eyes glittering.
“Herald!” he booms. “It seems we will get our duel after all! Or was your challenge an empty one?”
There is no time after that for further words. Roaring in fury, Aleph charges Cyanwrath head on. He closes with him in an instant, swinging his invisible blade at the half-dragon in a wild rage. Cyanwrath sidesteps the thrust with ease, raising his great sword above his head to deliver a devastating riposte. His sword bites deep into Aleph’s heartwood, but the Warforged does not slow or falter. He returns the blow with interest, and as his psychic blade passes through Cyanwrath’s chest the half-dragon stumbles, his yellow eyes fogging over with pain.
Sensing his weakness, Aleph withdraws the blade and raises it again, ready to deliver the coup de grace. But at the last moment he hesitates; reversing the sword, he drives the pommel into Cyanwrath’s head, knocking him out cold.
Silence falls in the chapel. Looking around him, Aleph sees that his companions have made short work of the guards, who lie sprawled around the altar. In the sudden quiet, the Warforged kneels by Cyanwrath, first to retrieve his shield, then to feel for a pulse. Cyd shoots Aleph a questioning glance.
“He spared Nubbins’ life, and yours. It is only right that I do the same for him,” Aleph says, answering her unspoken question. “We will take him prisoner, and in time he will stand trial for…”
The Warforged trails off. He has seen something at the foot of the altar: a metal chest, just long enough to hold a sword—or a mace.
Getting abruptly to his feet, Aleph crosses to the altar in two strides and seizes the box in one hand. Cyd glances at him in surprise, which deepens to alarm as he grasps hold of the lid and begins to prise it open. Aleph pays her no heed. Lightbringer could be inside. He has to see.
“Alf—wait!” the rogue cries. But it is too late: with a final effort, the Warforged wrenches the lid free. There’s a hissing sound, as though the chest were full of serpents. Thick, greenish gas gushes from the open lid, filling the room.
Thanks for reading, friends! This one took us a long time to write – hopefully it was worth the effort!
-Lou & Cam X
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