The room at the far end of the dig site is crammed with people. The twenty ex-prisoners are sleeping huddled together on the stone dais at the back of the room, some holding one another for warmth, others wrapped up against the cold in cloaks. One man is curled up on the seat of the throne in a foetal position, his grey face just visible over a pile of rags. Everyone here has lost someone, and the room is as crowded by the people who are absent as by those who are actually here.
The gap left by Aleph, in particular, seems to yawn wide enough to swallow the entire cave and all of its inhabitants whole.
Just inside the double doors, Cuthbert and the monk, Leosin, are conferring in low voices with Cyd, Nubbins and Gerard. The group of adventurers sit as far as they can from the sleeping townsfolk, planning their next move.
“The execution Cyanwrath mentioned was originally meant to have been mine,” Leosin says, his tone grim. “It was to take place at dawn: your friend will be safe until then, at least.”
Nubbins stares down the long central corridor of the cave. The slice of gully he can see at the far end is pale-grey—and brightening. “We should hurry, then,” the gnome says.
Leosin gets to his feet, gritting his teeth against the pain of his bruised limbs. “I agree. If we move now, there should yet be time.”
“Leo, you say ‘we’, but you’re in no state to be rescuing anyone,” Cyd says. The others turn to look at her in surprise: she has been uncharacteristically quiet since she returned alone from the Dragon Cultists’ camp an hour earlier. After telling the others what had happened, she had lapsed into a silence so complete that her friends had begun to worry. “We appreciate the offer and everything,” the rogue adds, “but you look like death on legs. No offense meant.”
The monk raises a hand in a gesture of protest, winces as the movement makes one of the cuts across his chest twinge painfully, and lowers it again. “I can still give you some information that may prove useful to you,” he says instead. “Before I was captured, I was hiding in a cave at the far end of the valley, directly above the campsite. It will give you an excellent view of the cultists’ movements, and it is an easy climb from there into the camp itself. I will lead you to it, at least.”
It’s slow going. To reach the cave, they must leave the valley by the same way that they entered it, leaving the path to pick their way carefully up the southern side of the ravine as it slopes steeply upwards. They take the horses—who have stayed tethered where the party left them the night before, grazing on the weeds growing up from the valley floor—but leave the golems behind.
“They’d only slow us down,” Nubbins says regretfully, patting one of them on its massive stone arm as he rides by.
Urging their mounts as much as they dare, the party ride carefully along the lip of the valley, following it as it curves into the horseshoe-shaped ring of hills that half enclose the cultists’ camp. Here, they steer their horses into the treeline, staying as far from the two watchtowers as they can.
“It’s here,” Leosin says, after a few minutes. They dismount in silence and creep towards the edge of the cliff.
Despite the earliness of the hour, the encampment below is in a state of high activity. Hundreds of kobolds are folding tents, dousing cooking fires, and loading wagons full of crates and boxes. Each time another wagon is filled, a pair of human cultists heave one of the folded tents over the contents, lashing it to the sides of the cart like a tarpaulin to keep off the worst of the drizzling rain.
“They’re striking camp,” Leosin murmurs. “Let’s move now, while they are distracted: go quickly, and one at a time.”
Before any of the others can reply, the monk turns and drops over the edge of the ravine. Nubbins lets out a small gasp, but as the group crane their necks to peer over the edge they see that Leosin has landed, cat-like, on a narrow ledge some fifty feet below them. He looks up and beckons them to follow him, before disappearing from view.
“‘Go quickly,’” Cyd grumbles, rummaging in her pack. “That’s easy for him to say – he moonlights as an acrobat, apparently.”
She produces a length of rope, secures it to a tree stump with a clever slip knot, and slides gracefully down. Nubbins and Cuthbert follow, with Gerard bringing up the rear. He pulls the knot free and leaps down as Leosin did. From the vantage point of the ledge, he can see a narrow slit in the cliff face, invisible from above and below.
“Monks,” Cyd mutters, as Gerard joins the rest of the group inside the cave. “Show-offs, the lot of you.”
The cave is small but dry, and as Leosin promised, it commands a clear view of the entire campsite whilst also hiding them completely from sight.
“Well, he’s not in my old digs,” Cuthbert says, lounging against the side of the opening. “There aren’t any guards stationed at the bunkhouse, and there’s no one on the scaffold, either.”
Cyd comes up to stand behind him, scanning the valley with her forehead wrinkled in concentration. “I can’t see him,” she concludes. She turns back to the others, her eyes wide. “You don’t think they’ve—”
“There would be a body,” Leosin says quickly. “No, if we can’t see him then they must have hidden him somewhere. In one of the wagons, perhaps?”
Cuthbert jerks his head to the right where, just behind the leaders’ tent (its canvas now blackened with soot) is a far bigger and darker entrance than the one within which they are currently concealed.
“Or in the caves,” he says.
Aleph’s back hurts. After he summoned Beronal to take Cyd out of the raiders’ camp, Cyanwrath had shackled his arms and legs with heavy chains, blindfolded him, and led him… somewhere. The Warforged remembers a floor of compacted dirt giving way to rock, a series of stone stairs, and a feeling of damp, stale air that suggests that he is underground. Eventually, he had been forced to his knees against a pillar of rough stone and chained to it. Then his captor had departed, clashing what had sounded like a metal gate shut behind him.
That had been several hours ago, by Aleph’s reckoning. Since then, he has been trying to glean what he can about his prison, first listening for guards (though there is something else here besides him, judging by its snuffling and panting Aleph thinks it is likely an animal), then standing up to see if he might free himself by lifting his chains over the top of the pillar (an idle hope—it seems to stretch all the way to the ceiling).
He has just started to test the strength of his bonds when he hears the door to his gaol slam open. Rapid footsteps draw nearer, and his blindfold is ripped from his eyes. Mondath is inches from his face.
“Tell me who you work for,” she hisses.
“That is no secret,” the Warforged replies. He glances around Mondath, surveying the rest of the room out of the corners of his eyes. She is angry, and in her fury, she has made a mistake. “I came here at the behest of Tarbaw Nighthill, the Governor of Greenest…”
Aleph speaks slowly, trying to buy himself as much time as possible. He is indeed underground, he sees—probably in the caves at the back of the camp—chained to a pillar in some sort of metal cage. The room is empty aside from him, Mondath, and three drakes, who show very little interest in him.
“Governor Nighthill asked me to look into some citizens of his who were missing—”
Mondath cuts him off impatiently. “So you say. But what of Leosin? He was sent by the Harpers. Do you honestly expect me to believe that you and he have no friends in common?”
The Warforged takes his time replying. Now he is looking for weaknesses, flaws in his prison that he can turn to his advantage. There’s a jagged piece of rock protruding from the pillar to which he is chained, close to the floor.
Slowly, Aleph raises his eyes to Mondath’s face. “Believe what you wish. That is the truth.”
A cruel smile twists the tiefling’s lips. “It matters little. One hour from now, your head will be on the block: your paymasters can learn nothing from a corpse.”
Aleph makes her a mocking bow as she stalks from the room. Behind her back, he has already shifted his chains, stropping them against the sharp rock. One hour is all he needs.
The party wait for as long as they dare before leaving the cave, wanting to give themselves the best chance they can of reaching Aleph unseen. Eventually, the kobolds finish packing up the tents and supplies in the upper half of the valley and move on to the more thickly clustered tents below, leaving a clear path between the caverns at the back of the camp and the cave where the group are hiding. Cyd winds her rope over her arm and gathers the rest of the group by the entrance turning to address them.
“Right, everyone,” she says. “This rope isn’t long enough to get us all the way to the ground, so we’re going to have to do some free-climbing. I’ll go first, then Ger, Bert, and Nubs. Leo, pull up the rope once we’ve all made it down, will you?”
Leosin nods. “I will keep watch until you return,” he says. “Gods speed.”
Cyd secures the rope and begins shimmying down it as quickly as possible: the longer she takes, she reasons, the more likely she is to be seen. It’s all going fine until the rope runs out and she tries to take hold of an outcropping of rock that snaps off in her hand. She swings wide from the cliff face, tries to anchor her feet more firmly, and slips, scramble-falling the last ten feet in an undignified panic.
As she rolls behind a stand of pampas grass, a thud and a muted curse inform her that Gerard has fared little better on the climb down than she did. Cuthbert announces his arrival moments later with a longer and more inventive stream of curse words. When he joins Cyd and Gerard behind the bush, his arms are scuffed and scratched, and the knees of his trousers torn.
The three adventurers wait in silence, trying to quiet their ragged breathing.
“Where’s Nubs?” Cyd whispers after a few minutes.
She peaks around the side of the bush—and lets out a huff of frustration. Nubbins is still only halfway down the cliff face, picking his way with infinite care.
“Nubbins!” the rogue hisses. “Can you hurry it up a little? We’re on the clock here!”
The gnome cranes his head to look down at her and gives her a thumbs-up. Then, to Cyd’s surprise, he touches the feather in his hat with one hand and lets go of the rope with the other. Far from plummeting the last fifty feet to the valley floor, however, the gnome drifts to the ground like an autumn leaf, swaying gently in the early morning breeze.
At the bottom of the ravine he dusts himself off, adjusts his hat, and turns to the others, who are all glaring at him.
“Nubbins, when did you learn that spell?” Gerard asks.
The gnome shrugs. “Oh, ages ago.”
“And you never mentioned it before because…?”
“I only just remembered I knew it! It was pretty useful just then, wasn’t it?”
“I’m sure it was,” Cyd replies through gritted teeth.
Wasting no more time, the group hurry across the now-deserted eastern end of the valley. The raiders’ erstwhile campground is pockmarked with extinguished campfires and the holes left by tent pegs. Cyd smirks as she catches sight of the charred lump of pampas grass that marks the place where the leaders’ tent once stood. Behind it, the entrance to the cave complex is a dark and jagged archway cut directly into the cliff face.
“Can’t see any guards,” Cuthbert mutters. “Let’s go.”
“Would you mind providing some magical illumination?” Gerard asks him, as the cool dimness of the cave envelops them. The sorcerer frowns.
“Why? Don’t tell me one of you clowns can’t see in the—oh.”
There’s an awkward pause, followed by a flare of light.
“Who goes there?”
Four guards emerge from behind a barricade a few feet ahead, their crossbows trained on the pebble that Cuthbert has just illuminated with golden light.
“And this is why I don’t travel with humans,” the sorcerer sighs. Without thinking, he lobs the pebble straight at the cultists, who flinch, dazzled by the glare.
Cyd follows it up with a volley of arrows. She can’t see where they land—the light is too bright for that—but by the yelps and cries that follow, she assumes that each has found its mark.
The pebble lands on the floor behind the barricade, throwing up crazy shadows that dance across the walls and ceiling. Gerard sprints towards it—the light source is the only thing he can see in the cave—and vaults over the barrier. It’s like fighting in a theatre, he thinks: the pebble rolls this way and that beneath the guards’ feet, underlighting each in turn with a ghastly yellow glow. Gerard fights one handed, using his free arm to shield his eyes from the constantly shifting glare. As Nubbins fells the last guard with a single well-aimed blow from his hand axe, he gives Gerard a pitying look.
“It must be really hard being a human.”
“I have never been anything else, Nubbins, so I have no point of comparison.”
“Come on,” Cyd pants, drawing level with them. She scoops the glowing pebble up from the ground and tosses it to Gerard. “If any of the cultists outside heard that, we’d better get going.”
But the party hear no sounds of pursuit as they continue, and no footsteps or voices coming from deeper in the caves.
“Where to next, Bert?” Cyd whispers.
“Cuthbert,” Cuthbert replies. “And it’s straight on. Before my daring escape, the cultists were forcing us to excavate some kind of dungeon at the back of the complex, next to the kobolds’ barracks. It had a locked gate, manacles hanging from the walls—the works. It’s where I’d put a prisoner. Especially if that prisoner was seven feet tall and made of iron. Mind the drop.”
Casually, Cuthbert flicks his fingers. An invisible hand takes hold of the back of Nubbins’ collar, lifting him aloft. For a moment, the gnome’s legs pinwheel over empty space. Then the sorcerer pulls him backwards and plants him on solid ground. Just in front of Nubbins, the cave floor ends abruptly in a ten-foot drop. Below, the tunnel widens and—softens? Gerard squints. There are purple mushrooms covering the cavern floor.
“Fascinating,” he murmurs.
“Welcome to the fungus garden,” Cuthbert says. “Now, we have to be careful here. There are stairs, but—”
There’s a click. The party turn as one to see that Gerard has put one foot on the first of the broad stone steps. He stares back at them, his face reddening.
“—but they’re trapped,” Cuthbert finishes.
The step tilts under Gerard’s foot. Suddenly, he is standing not on a flight of steps, but at the top of a smooth, stone slide.
“Whoa-aaah!” Flailing his arms, the monk tumbles into the fungi carpeting the cavern below.
His first thought is that the mushrooms broke his fall, at least. His second thought is that mushrooms shouldn’t move this much. Around him, the fleshy, purple stalks are beginning to writhe. Abruptly, one of them lashes the monk across the face, stinging like a whip. He sucks in a sharp breath.
“Violet Fungi!” he calls up to the others. “Indistinguishable from the—ouch!—harmless, edible variety when resting, but potentially deadly when—ow!— provoked.”
In the tunnel above, Cyd throws up her hands. “We don’t have time for this, Ger!” she yells. She unslings her bow and fires and arrow into the squirming purple mass. “Aleph could be being tortured right now—or worse!”
Gerard grips a tendril in his fist and tears it free in a shower of lilac spores. “I am aware of that,” he cries, punching one of the fungi in its central stalk. “I did not intend to—”
His rejoinder is cut short as something metallic flies through the air, wraps around the central stalk of the nearest fungus, and wrenches it from the ground. Gerard whips around in surprise: there’s a figure standing in the gloom further along the tunnel. It holds a broken chain in each hand, and its eyes glow with pale fire. Above, Cyd grins.
Join us again next week for another chapter!
Thanks for reading, everyone! I had lots of fun with this one 🙂 If you enjoyed it too, please do leave us a comment, or give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook – we really appreciate it!
We’ve also got a new guild/class up on DM’s Guild: the Sheerpeak Wrangler Tribe. The Sheerpeak are a goliath tribe who live at such a high altitude and in conditions of such extreme cold that even other goliaths consider them to be pretty hardcore.
If playing a regular, garden variety goliath strikes you as too tame then these bare-knuckle barbarian powerhouses might be for you.