The main entrance to the keep is a hive of activity. Carts, crates, horses and people flow through the heavy wooden gates in a seemingly endless stream. Aleph and the others join the queue, passing beneath the heavy portcullis and into the courtyard beyond.
Governor Nighthill is easy to spot: he stands in the centre of the chaos, issuing the occasional order in a carrying voice. The tide of wagons and townsfolk breaks around him like a river parting around a rock. The Governor catches sight of the looming figures of Aleph and Keothi and hails them, pointing to an outbuilding at the edge of the courtyard. The party follow him inside, depositing their cart with its load of prisoners by the door.
Within, a warm fire crackles behind a large table covered with maps. Nighthill seats himself at the head of the table, inviting the group to do likewise. Feathers immediately settles in front of the fire.
“As you can see, we’re making ready for the Cult of the Dragon’s arrival,” the Governor says, gesturing wearily towards the commotion outside. “The Keep will withstand a siege, but it’s about the only building in town that can. We’re moving as many of the townsfolk inside as we’re able. My advisors estimate that we have a day, maybe two, before the cultists strike.” He sighs, passing a hand over his brow. “But enough of that for the moment. I see you’ve brought prisoners; do you have good news to go with them? Has the trouble with the fey been resolved?”
“It has,” Aleph replies. “The miscreants outside were attempting to abduct the faerie dragons who dwell in your woods. Now that we have apprehended them, the fey will continue to bless your harvest.”
For the first time since they’ve seen him, the Governor’s expression relaxes. “That is good news. And sorely needed, too. Thank you, adventurers. I am, once again, in your debt.”
The Warforged bows. “Is there a place that we might use to question the men we have captured?” he asks. “We have not yet established their motive.”
“Hmm. We are a small town—I’m afraid we don’t even have a gaol.” Nighthill considers the question. “We could house them in the sewers beneath the keep, I suppose. There are a few sets of manacles down there that we use on the rare occasions when we have any prisoners.”
He crosses to a hatch in the floor in the far corner of the room and tugs it open, revealing a steep set of stairs. Then he leans out at the door of the building and issues an order to the guards stationed outside; within minutes, the bare-legged bandits are being marched through the room. They seem relieved to see the fire, and reluctant to leave it behind as they reach the narrow staircase, but one look at Aleph’s glowing eyes and they think better of lingering.
“I would like to speak with your magic advisor, Governor Nighthill,” Keothi announces, as soon as the hatch has closed on the last of the shivering men.
Nighthill looks puzzled. “You mean Councilwoman Jardar? By all means. Her office is behind the barracks, on the first floor. I believe she is there now.”
“Good.” Keothi turns to the party. “I will assist with interrogating the prisoners, but then I must attend to my own business.”
“Is it secret spy business?” Nubbins asks, face alight with excitement. “If it is, count us in!”
The goliath winces. “It is… not secret spy business. I do not know what you are talking about, Nubbins. You may accompany me if you wish, however. Though for the record,” he adds, “I would prefer that Gerard remain behind. He is a newcomer to our party and I do not trust him.”
Gerard’s cheeks redden. “I’m right here, Wordweaver!”
“Yes. That is the problem.”
Nubbins pats Gerard on the shoulder. “I trust you, Gerard!”
“You trusted a bandit not to hit you with—” Gerard stops himself. “Thank you, Nubbins.”
The group bid Nighthill farewell and troop down the stairs into a narrow tunnel, filled with broken crates and other detritus. An iron fence separates the ground where they are standing from a gutter filled with flowing sewage. Cyd holds her nose, and even Keothi glances around in distaste. The prisoners have been manacled to alcoves cut into the wall, each one just large enough to sit in.
Nubbins pulls out his lute. “I’ll cast Zone of Truth,” he announces. “Then they won’t be able to lie to us!”
“That’s a terrible—huh.” Cyd stops, frowning, as her ears catch up with her mouth. “That’s actually a good idea, Nubs. Let’s try it.”
The lute’s strings glow with a warm light as Nubbins plays a slow, sinuous melody. Three of the bandits relax visibly, their eyes losing focus. Only the leader grits his teeth, resisting the spell’s influence.
“You can stop that racket,” he says. “We’ll talk—and gladly, too, if it’ll earn us our freedom from this stinking hole.” He narrows his eyes at Aleph. “Freedom is an option here, right?”
The Warforged looms over him. “That is for the court of Greenest to decide, fortunately for you. Consider this interview a chance to redeem what little honour you had.”
“It’s also a chance to convince us to put in a good word for you,” Cyd interjects. “The Governor owes us a favour or two.”
The leader shrugs. “Fair enough. I’m in no position to argue. What do you want to know?”
Gerard steps forward. “Who do you work for?”
“And what’s this?” Cyd demands, holding out her sunburst emblem.
Nubbins joins in. “And why are you stealing tiny dragons?”
“Do you know a mage named Glassstaff?” Keothi adds. The rest of the party look at him quizzically.
“If we are all asking questions, then I would like to check.”
The bandit leader pauses for a moment, processing this barrage of questions. “In order: no idea; it’s the mark of the men who hired us; we were paid to; and never heard of him.”
Aleph places one hand on his axe. “We will need more information than that. Elaborate.”
The man looks alarmed. “Look, if I knew more, I’d tell you! Our employers kept themselves to themselves. Very secret. Never even saw their faces—they all wore masks like the one on that symbol your friend has. I heard a rumour they were operating out of an abandoned alchemist’s shop outside of town, but we never went there ourselves.
“About a month ago, they came to us, said they’d pay five hundred gold for each rare beast we could catch. A thousand if it was magical—pixies, unicorns, that kind of thing. It sounded like an easy job, so I said yes. Ask my crew if you think I’m lying.” He leans in conspiratorially. “They gave us one of those sun symbols, too—it’s in my pocket. I think they’re using it to scry on us, keep tabs on how the job’s going.”
Cyd rifles through the bandit’s pockets and pulls out a disk marked with a sunburst emblem, like hers, but carved from stone.
“I detect divination magic on that artefact,” Keothi says.
“Uh-oh,” Cyd mutters. She roots in her pack, produces one of the pairs of trousers taken from the prisoners, and bundles the stone disk up inside it.
“Do you think that will help?” Gerard asks, raising an eyebrow.
Cyd shrugs. “Can it make it worse?”
Their interrogation concluded, the group are quick to leave the stench of the sewers behind them. Governor Nighthill nods at them as they hurry back through the map room and out into the courtyard. Only Aleph lingers behind, waiting until the door has clicked shut behind the rest of the party before approaching the map table.
“Governor,” he says. “May I make a suggestion as to how these prisoners may be of use to you?”
“Of course,” Nighthill replies.
“There is a colony of sentient fungi, myconids, living under the temple of Chauntea. They have the power to animate the dead.”
“Yes, Brother Dwali briefed me on the situation. What is your suggestion?”
“If the dragon cultists outnumber your own men, you could execute the prisoners and ask the myconids to raise their corpses to fight alongside you.”
Nighthill looks up from his work with a start. “Not the most palatable idea.”
“I was built for war, Governor,” Aleph replies. “You might say that I am designed for the contemplation of unpalatable ideas.”
“It is worth considering, I suppose,” Nighthill says, slowly. “I would prefer for them to stand trial, but if we find ourselves in dire straits…” he trails off, then straightens. “Let us hope it does not come to that.”
Aleph catches up to the rest of the group as they enter the main hall of the Keep. Pushing open the large wooden doors reveals a circular room bustling with people. Townsfolk eat at long benches, while guards stack crates and barrels of food and drink against the walls. At the far end of the room, a large staircase spirals upwards to the next floor, into a room filled with bunks and storage chests. A couple of the militiamen who helped build the barricades are polishing armour and sharpening swords. They wave to Aleph as the group pass into the corridor.
In a room at the end of the hall, a short-haired, blue-robed woman is working at a desk, nearly hidden behind several piles of books. She doesn’t look up as the party approaches.
“Councilwoman Jardar?” Keothi asks.
“Yes. What do you want?” She says absently.
The goliath clears his throat. “I have heard reports that a mage named Glassstaff has recently been seen in Greenest. Do you know of him?”
Gerard holds up a staff of pale blue glass. “We have something of his.”
Jardar eyes the staff with interest. “And you would like my help in identifying it?” she says, reaching out a hand. “It would be my pleasure.”
“No. We know how the staff works. It is Glassstaff himself that I seek,” Keothi states, his voice a calm deadpan. “I intend to murder him.”
Jardar stops, arm still outstretched. “I… see. Well, much as I might be inclined to facilitate the murder of someone I’ve never met, this mage is in fact someone I’ve never met, so I am unable to shed any light on his whereabouts. Mages don’t all know each other, you understand.”
There is a long pause. “Very well,” Keothi says eventually. “Let us know if that situation changes.”
“Of course,” Jardar replies. “Now, if that is all, I should return to my work.”
Keothi’s usually impassive face creases in frustration as the party leave the keep.
“Jardar was my single remaining lead,” he says. “I am unsure as to how to proceed.”
“We’ll find him, Keith,” Cyd says, laying a hand on his arm.
The goliath’s frown deepens. “Perhaps.”
Read the next chapter, ‘The Picture Gallery’, here!
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