Previously: Saph sidles up to Gerard. “Did I hear you were studying Draconic?” she asks.
“Yes, I have been trying to learn. I’m not bad at the script, but the spoken language is tricky. It’s the lack of—”
“—fire-resistant vocal cords!” Saph jumps in. “I find that, too!” She stretches hugely, clearing her throat.
“Would you like a study partner, by any chance?” she asks, in the best draconic Gerard has ever heard from humanoid lips.
Governor Nighthill stops short as he sees Jardar lying on the floor.
“I heard the commotion,” he says. “I take it the interrogation did not go well?”
“It did not,” Aleph replies. “Councilwoman Jardar is in league with the Cult of the Dragon.”
Nighthill sighs. “What do you propose we do with her now?”
“Keep her bound and gagged until we can question her further,” the Warforged answers. “She is a powerful mage, capable of casting with no more than a spoken word.” [Chapter 22: A Day’s Grace]
“But Keith! You were—you are—we hadn’t—” Cyd trails off into astonished silence, joining the rest of the party.
“Yes,” Wordweaver says into the quiet. “But as you can see, I am better now.”
“Wordweaver,” Aleph says at last, “we are all very glad to see you again, but how can this be? Greenest is not a wealthy town. Who donated the diamonds necessary to resurrect you?”
His asking is a courtesy: it is obvious to the paladin, if not to everyone else, that a resurrection spell is not what has happened here. The clearest sign of this is that Wordweaver still looks, well, dead. His skin is grey, his limbs crawl with arcane sigils, and his eyes… His eyes are swirling black vortices—no whites, no pupils.
“No diamonds were needed,” Wordweaver replies. The infinite black spirals that have replaced his eyes betray no hint of emotion, but he shifts from foot to foot as he speaks. “It was thanks to the intervention of Be’He’Quin, my generous patron, that I have returned to life.”
There is a collective intake of breath. “I know enough of Be’He’Quin to suspect that he would not bestow such a gift without asking for something in return,” Gerard says gravely. “At what cost has he granted you this boon?”
Wordweaver’s shifting intensifies. “Yes. Well. Shall we change the subject?”
“My bargain with Be’He’Quin is my business!” the goliath answers, suddenly defiant. “The only thing you need to know is that I am still myself, and in full control of my actions. Most of the time.”
Gerard blanches. “Most of the time?”
Keothi affects not to hear him. “Come,” he calls. “We need to talk. A lot has happened while you have been away.”
“No kidding,” Cyd mutters.
They bid goodbye to the rescued townsfolk before following Wordweaver into Greenest.
“I’ll see everyone safely to their homes,” Cuthbert promises, leading the bedraggled column of ex-prisoners away. He darts a sceptical look at Wordweaver as he departs.
“I will accompany him,” Leosin announces. Then he lowers his voice. “Are you sure you will be alright with that… thing?”
“That thing has a name, you know,” Cyd replies. “He’s Keithy, and he’s our friend.”
“We’ll be OK, Leo,” Nubbins confirms. “He doesn’t bite. Do you, Keothi?”
The goliath shakes his head. “No. Now, we should hurry. It is past curfew, and we should not be caught out of doors.”
“Curfew?” Aleph asks, but the goliath has already turned and strode off into town. The route he takes them on is circuitous, and involves much sneaking behind houses and darting down alleyways. He gives the braziers that now illuminate every street corner a particularly wide berth, once dragging the party through a hedgerow to avoid one. This turns out to be the last straw for Cyd. She stops on the other side of the hedge, pulling twigs from her hair and clothes, and glares at Keothi.
“Tell us what’s going on or I’m not moving another step!” she pants.
Keothi shrugs. “Fine. Jardar has taken over the town. You see, I was right not to trust her.”
“But we captured Jardar,” Nubbins says blankly.
Aleph hangs his head. “Governor Nighthill told us that he would struggle to contain such a powerful adversary. We should have taken better precautions.”
“Yes,” Wordweaver agrees. “Like killing her when you had the chance. I know that she colluded in the ambush that led to my death,” he adds, somewhat reproachfully. “I would have thought that you would have avenged me by now.”
“What’s with the forcefield around the keep?” Cyd asks, pointedly ignoring Wordweaver’s last comment.
“A protective barrier. No one has been in or out since the town fell, six days ago. I believe Nighthill is still inside.”
“And the braziers?”
“You should avoid them.”
This proves increasingly difficult, however, as the party resume their halting journey. Despite the roundabout route, it’s soon obvious to them all that they are heading for the temple of Chauntea, which looms above the other buildings at the eastern edge of town. It is particularly brightly lit, and as the group reach the end of the street leading up to its double doors, they see why: the entire building has been ringed with cast-iron braziers, blocking both entrances.
Keothi sighs. “I should have expected this. The rebels are hiding in here. No doubt Jardar wishes to keep them under close observation.”
“Because they’re easier to see this way?” Nubbins asks, screwing up his face in thought. Idly, he kicks a pebble towards one of the braziers; it bounces off with a hollow clang.
With a roar, flame erupts from all of the braziers at once. Nubbins yells and starts back. The flames rise into the air and meet there, swirling together into a vast cloud of fire… which begins to move. Gerard stares. He can make out individual shapes within the flames, moving together like a murmuration of starlings.
“They’re some sort of fire creatures,” he gasps. As if on cue, the cloud descends; within seconds, they are engulfed.
The creatures are tiny, malevolent imps composed of pure flame, with pointed ears and thin, sharp noses. They bite and nip like stinging insects, breathing little gouts of fire onto the party’s faces and shoulders.
“Water!” Aleph roars, “Douse them with water!”
Nubbins grabs hold of his waterskin and empties it over the imps pecking at his face and hat. They hiss at him angrily, but do not cease their attack. Hacking at them with his ice axe is more effective: the freezing weapon seems to extinguish the fire creatures, conjuring up great clouds of steam that soon obscure the entrance to the temple and everything around it. Through the artificial mist, the gnome can see Keothi vaporising the creatures with bolts of black energy and Gerard swatting them out of the air with his quarterstaff.
For a while, he can’t hear anything except an almighty hissing, as of a hundred fires all being put out at once. When the noise and the steam finally clear, the braziers are dark.
“We should get inside,” Wordweaver says. The goliath’s face is pocked with tiny burns, but they are healing even as he speaks, the red weals fading to pink scar tissue and then vanishing completely. Nubbins opens his mouth to ask how he’s doing it, then thinks better of it. Keothi doesn’t seem to want to talk about his back-from-the-deadness, or the powers that have come with it.
They run in a body up to the temple doors, which creak open at their barrage of knocks.
“Is anyone else feeling déjà vu?” a familiar voice asks.
“Saph!” Gerard shouts, “you’re safe!” His face has gone very pink.
A blue eye appears at the chink in the door. “Yes, but you won’t be if you don’t keep it down. Come in!”
Saph grins broadly at the assembled party once they are all safely inside, but her cheerful expression sobers as they start to question her about what has happened in their absence.
“It’s pretty bad,” the silver-haired elf admits. “Jardar took the town almost as soon as you’d left—I think she was waiting until you were out of the way. The day you set off, I finally went on that research trip to Candlekeep I’d been putting off. By the time I got back, everything had changed: braziers everywhere, the keep all shielded, and fire mephits attacking anyone who got out of line.”
“Oh, so that’s what they’re called,” Gerard says. He pulls out his pocketbook and jots a short note.
“Brem, Dwali and I organised a resistance of sorts,” Saph continues. “Putting the braziers out, trying to find out where Nighthill was and what had happened up at the keep—that type of thing.”
Nubbins’ face lights up. “Are Brem and Dwali here?”
Saph’s expression clouds. “They were arrested yesterday. It’s just been me here since then.”
“Well, that’s grim,” Cyd says. “I hope Bert and the others made it back OK.”
“I doubt the mephits will have given them much trouble if they were just returning to their homes,” Saph replies. “It’s people straying too near the keep that Jardar really hates.”
“How have you managed to evade her grasp?” Aleph asks.
“I’ve been hiding,” Saph replies, flashing a brief smile. “Look, I’ll show you.”
She crosses to the trapdoor that leads down into the temple’s crypt, now concealed beneath an old rug and a desk.
“It’s not just this,” she explains, climbing down the ladder into the dank space below. The crypt looks smaller than Nubbins remembers it, but other than that it’s the same: a coffin on a stone platform in the middle of the room, the walls lined with bookcases and candles in brackets. Only there’s something missing, he realises.
“The hole!” he says. “The one leading down to where the myconids live! Where’s it gone?”
“Good eye!” Saph replies. “It’s here.” She walks over to the far wall of the crypt—and then straight through it.
Nubbins jumps in surprise, but now that Saph has revealed the trick to him, he can see it for what it is. The back wall becomes semi-transparent, and he realises that the reason the crypt looks smaller than it did before is because it is: an illusory wall conceals the far end of the room. Beyond it are three bedrolls, the hole leading down to the myconids’ home, and a desk strewn with papers.
“Home sweet home,” Saph says. “I’ve been working on a way to disrupt the forcefield around the keep”—she gestures to the pile of books and papers heaped untidily upon the desk—“and I think it’s almost done! Once I’ve worked that out, we can plan how to rescue the Governor and the others.”
“We should rest, and tend to our wounds, before we discuss this any further,” Aleph announces. The wooden parts of his armour are scored with hundreds of burns. “Let us resume this conversation tomorrow morning.”
He has no sooner finished speaking than the party are unfurling their bedrolls and settling in for the night. Bad though the situation is, their lack of sleep is currently worse.
“Gerard. Psst! Gerard! Wake up!”
“Whuh—what time is it?” Gerard blinks. It’s dark in the crypt, except for a thin slice of moonlight coming from a lightwell in the ceiling. It falls across Saph’s face, making her white hair shine silver.
“Early. Or late. Depends on your perspective, I suppose.”
The monk sits up, rubbing gritty sleep from his eyes. “What do you need?”
“I need you to come with me. Alone.”
That wakes Gerard up completely. He feels his face heat. “Um, of course!” he says, scrambling to his feet. “Err. Why?”
Saph laughs at him. “Come with me and you’ll find out!”
She leads him into the fey woods on the outskirts of town, refusing to answer any of his questions as they hurry along through the cold air.
“Just a little further,” is all she will say when he urges her to explain. “We need to be far away from prying eyes.”
When they reach a clearing deep within the forest, she stops so abruptly that the monk almost bumps into her.
“Now turn around,” Saph says commandingly.
Wondering at all this secrecy, Gerard does as he’s asked. He waits. There’s a rustling sound behind him. Saph’s woollen dress sails over his head and lands in a crumpled heap in the grass. It’s followed a moment later by her shift and stockings.
“Um. Saph…” Gerard falters. His blush has spread over his whole body, making the back of his neck prickle uncomfortably and the hairs on his arms stand on end. “What are you—?”
“I wasn’t going to! What is going on?”
“Just…this is something I think you need to see.”
Gerard really doesn’t know how to respond to that. He’s casting about for a reply when a voice that’s low and gravelly and doesn’t sound like Saph at all says: “Alright. You can look now.”
Slowly, he turns. Standing before him, the moonlight glinting off its scales, is a fully-grown silver dragon.
“I haven’t been entirely upfront with you,” the dragon—Saph, Gerard realises, with a wave of shock—says. “My name isn’t Saph. It’s Saphirithrix. I thought it would be easier to show you.” The silver crest on her head droops unhappily. “Don’t be angry.”
It’s a full minute before Gerard can feel anything other than amazed. When he is master of himself again enough to speak, he finds that his answer is not to the purpose at all: “So that’s why you’re so good at draconic!”
This raises a startled laugh from the dragon. “Yes. Sorry for the deception.”
Pulling himself together, Gerard asks: “why would I be angry?”
The crest droops further. “I would be. The siege, the abductions, those bandits kidnapping fey creatures. There’s plenty of times this town could have used a dragon on its side.”
The thought had not even occurred to Gerard, but now that it does, he finds that he knows his answer. “You must have had your reasons. Good ones, I assume.”
“Well, yes,” Saph replies. “I was told to keep a low profile. I’m not here solely on my own behalf, you see. The Council sent me.”
“Of Metallic Dragons. We’ve been monitoring all this Dragon Cult activity and truth be told, we’re a little concerned.”
“I tried to help where I could in my elven form,” Saph continues. “After you got back with those prisoners, I started to wonder if I should have done more. I could have—”
“Don’t do that to yourself,” Gerard interrupts. “You did what your council asked of you—and no one could accuse you of shying away from the fighting. Revealing your true form would have alerted the cult that the Metallic Dragons were on to them. That could have done more harm than good.”
“You have a point,” Saph admits. She pauses. “And that’s one of the reasons I’d like you to keep my identity between us two, for now. I will tell the rest of your party, I promise you. But not yet.”
A silence falls between them then, though not an uncomfortable one. Saph shines in the moonlight, so bright that it almost hurts Gerard to look at her. Her crest moves slightly in a light breeze. She clears her throat with a noise like shifting mountains.
“So, I think there’s just one more thing we need to discuss.”
“What’s that?” Gerard asks.
“Do you want a ride?”
The ride is terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. Saph’s scales are too smooth and shiny for Gerard to find easy purchase on them, so he spends the entire flight plastered to her back, gripping her crest as though it is a life raft. The view is dazzling—the fields and towns below them a tapestry of lights to rival the lights of stars and moon—but he catches only fleeting glimpses of it, spending most of the journey with his eyes firmly closed.
When Saph finally lands, back in the clearing where she first revealed herself, Gerard practically falls from her back, his legs shaking. He feels as though he could kiss the solid, wintry ground.
“Well? What did you think?” the dragon demands.
“That was… quite the experience,” the monk replies, voice wavering. Already he’s regretting not being braver. An aerial view of the Greenfields must be a sight afforded to few! Maybe Saph will take him again sometime, if he can screw up the courage to ask her.
“I need to change back now,” Saph tells him. “Would you turn around?”
Now he knows what he is listening for, Gerard can hear the moment that Saph changes, the whoosh of air sucked into the sudden space left by her shrinking form. He’s marvelling at the physics of it when there’s a polite cough from behind him.
“Gerard, could you pass me my dress, please?”
With a start, the monk realises that it’s lying beside him. He pushes it towards Saph with one foot rather than risking a glance around.
“Thanks.” There’s a rustle. Then: “Alright. I’m decent.”
This time, when Gerard turns around, Saph is back in her elven form. She shoots him a shy smile. He looks down and sees that she is holding something out to him, folds and folds of fabric in a rich, dark blue. They look soft and warm.
“I got you a present,” she tells him. “I thought you might like a little souvenir from Candlekeep.” She shakes the blue fabric out and Gerard sees that it is a thick cloak, with a hood and two deep pockets. “Scholar’s robes!” Saph reaches into the pockets and produces a pair of leather scroll cases. “This one holds parchment, and this one holds ink,” she explains. “They’re enchanted, so they’ll never run out.”
Gerard feels his eyes widen. He’s heard of enchanted robes like this, but never dreamed of owning one himself.
“Th—thank you. I do like it. Very much.”
Saph’s smile widens. “I’m glad. And now we should probably be getting back, before the others start to think we’re up to something.”
Despite the threat of the cult and Jardar’s treachery, as the two friends start back towards Greenest Gerard’s heart is singing in his chest. A secret! One that’s just between him and Saph. For the first time in his life, the monk of Oghma is in possession of knowledge that he does not want to share.
Check back soon for the next chapter!
I really enjoyed writing this chapter. That’s probably because Gerard is my character, so I also really enjoyed playing it! Gerard’s scene with Saph was one of the very few that our DM did genuinely conceal from the other players – we played it through after the rest of them had left. So, team, if you’re reading this: surprise!
Thanks for reading, friends – we very much appreciate it! 🙂
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