“Um, Cyd?” Nubbins’ tremulous voice rouses the rogue from sleep. She yawns hugely. It’s morning, and it must have snowed in the night: sounds are muffled, and the sunlight is especially bright, bouncing back at her from the white drifts pushed up against the window and carpeting the ground outside.
“Wha’isit, Nubs?” she mumbles. She rolls over—which is when she notices the red footprints leading up to her bed.
The rogue swears, last night’s events coming back to her in a rush. They didn’t linger long in the temple after Gerard’s unsettling vision, hurrying back to the warmth and safety of the Cat & Squirrel. When they got back, they were exhausted: it had felt as though they had been wandering around nonsensical realms all night. They had staggered to their beds without bothering to undress and slept deeply, forgetting completely about—
“I think my feet are bleeding,” Nubbins quavers.
“Shit,” Cyd mutters. She flings off her covers, revealing bed sheets drenched in red. “Oh, not this again!”
Next door, she can hear banging and shouting as Atone and Gerard awake to the same discovery.
“I wish we’d never visited that stupid temple,” the rogue storms. “We’re about to go tracking a horde of evil cultists—we can’t afford to be leaving a trail of blood everywhere we go!”
“It would pose a far greater problem if our quarry were behind us.” Aleph stumps into the room, leaving bloody footprints in his wake. “Calm yourselves. I have been aware of this state of affairs for hours.”
“Only because you don’t sleep! You might have given us a heads up.”
“I anticipated this reaction. I did not want to disturb the other patrons.”
Gerard orders a bath from Eled, who sends up two huge, copper tubs filled with steaming water, but all their scrubbing and splashing only turns the suds an unpleasant shade of pink. Aleph waits in the next room while the rest of the party wash, unperturbed by the smears of blood and puddles of water now covering the floor.
“The blood is obviously arcane in nature,” he calls through the interior door. “These ablutions are pointless.”
At last, and with great reluctance, the others are forced to agree. They dry, dress, and shuffle downstairs, nodding to Eled apologetically as he stares in horror at the bloody tracks they have left behind them.
Nighthill is waiting for them outside the tavern, five sturdy horses saddled by his side. A huge cart horse, seven feet tall at the shoulder, has been set aside for Aleph.
“Well met,” the Governor says. “My scouts inform me that the path to the raiders’ camp remains clear: you should have no trouble in finding and following it.”
“Thank you, Governor,” Aleph replies. “I hope that we will soon bring your citizens home.”
The party load their packs onto the animals, and Aleph gives Nubbins a leg up into his saddle. Once the others have mounted their horses, Nighthill waves them off and they ride—with a good deal of bumping and jostling, in some cases—out of Greenest and back onto the high road.
“Gerard,” Aleph says, when they are underway. “Last night, you said that Be’He’Quin had a task he would have us perform. What did he ask of us?”
“It was—unclear…” the monk replies, putting a hand to his head. A spasm of pain creases his brow as he remembers the stream of images that assailed his mind.
“Did it have anything to do with the blood thing?” Nubbins asks, glancing down at his dripping footwear.
“I don’t think so,” Gerard says.
“Because if it did, you can tell him from me that I’m not interested and I’d like it to stop, please. It’s creepy.”
“I… I’ll pass that message along if I get the chance, Nubbins.”
With such a large force, the raiders could not help but leave a clear trail, and the group are able to follow it with ease. As evening draws in, Nubbins and Atone volunteer to scout ahead for a suitable place for the party to make camp for the night. They set off (Nubbins on foot while the tiefling soars overhead), returning a short while later to announce that they’ve found the perfect spot: a natural dip in the lee of a large hill.
It’s full dark and coming on to snow again as the party reach the site. They lose no time in making camp, pulling out their bedrolls, padding them with extra clothes, and starting a small fire. They boil tea and toast bread, as much to warm their hands as fill their stomachs. As the companions eat, the blood seeping from their feet collects into disturbing pools. They watch these puddles expand in silence as they chew.
Nubbins starts as a small image of Balasar, the head of the Enchanters’ College of Neverwinter, appears at the edge of his field of vision.
“Mission for you, Nubbins!” the tiny dragonborn says. “There’s a dig site near Greenest – our team there was driven out by cultists. Think you could investigate it instead?”
“No problem, Balasar!” the gnome replies. “I’ll look into that dig site for you: Chief Archaeologist Nubbins on the case!”
“Are you OK, Nubs?” Cyd asks, giving him a sidelong glance.
“Oh yes, Cyd. That was just secret Archaeologist stuff,” Nubbins replies, tapping his nose.
“If it was supposed to be secret, why did you answer Balasar out loud?”
“What kind of dig site are you investigating?” Gerard jumps in, curiosity piqued.
“No idea!” Nubbins says. “An archaeological one, I guess!”
“Well, yes, that’s a given, really. Most dig sites are—” Gerard frowns as his eye is drawn to a faint glow coming from behind a large outcropping of rock to their left. “Is there a light over there?” he asks, squinting into the darkness.
“That’ll be the other camp site,” Nubbins replies, matter-of-factly.
There’s a moment of complete silence. “The… other camp site?” Aleph asks.
“Oh, yes,” Atone answers. “We saw them when we were scouting ahead earlier.”
“What did these other campers look like?” Cyd asks.
Atone considers. “There were a lot of kobolds, a few humans…”
“And you thought you’d just set up camp right next door to them?!” the rogue explodes.
“Well… yes,” Atone replies, as though he is explaining something very simple to someone very stupid. “How did you think we knew it was such a good spot?”
“They all looked very comfortable!” Nubbins adds.
Before Cyd can throttle them both, Gerard steps in. “Leaving aside the issue of how we ended up sleeping next to a raider encampment, perhaps we should investigate it.”
Cyd sighs, crawling out of her bedroll with a resigned air. “Fine. I’ll go. Tony, are you any good at sneaking around?”
“I… have been known to move quietly when needed,” Atone replies, slightly uncomfortably.
“Right, then. Me, you, Feathers—” Cyd begins. She hears a cough in her head and turns. The tressym gives her a look. I’m not flying over there. They’ll shoot at me.
“No, they won’t—you’re tiny! And you can see in the dark,” Cyd reassures her.
Feathers shakes her head. I’ve never seen any of you sneak anywhere and not get shot at. I’m staying in your bedroll. She squeezes herself into the opening Cyd has just vacated and curls up.
“Fine,” Cyd mutters. “Be like that. Me and Tony—”
“And me!” Nubbins adds.
“Me, Tony and Nubs,” the rogue corrects herself, “will have a look and report back. If we die, blame Feathers for being a scaredy-tressym.”
The trio creep towards the outcrop of rock and climb it, peeking out over the top. In the dip below them, nestled in a semi-circle of large boulders, is a campfire. Four robed humans huddle around it, roasting several small birds on a spit over the flame. Nearly two dozen kobolds sit around a smaller fire nearby, eating scraps. A few of them are eyeing up the birds hungrily.
“I wouldn’t like to take on this many raiders at once if we can avoid it,” Cyd whispers. “I think we should just lie low and keep watch: if any of them leave the main group, we might be able to catch them and quiz ‘em later.”
Atone and Nubbins nod. Then Nubbins scrunches his face up, freezing in place.
“Are you alright?” Atone hisses.
The gnome nods, relaxes his face… and then lets out a huge sneeze. It echoes, bouncing off the side of the hill and rolling around the camp site. The kobolds all jump in near unison, and the cultists draw their long, curved knives, instantly on the alert. Both groups turn and look straight at Nubbins, who raises a hand in a hesitant wave.
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