Previously: The bandit leader looks alarmed. “Look, if I knew more, I’d tell you! Our employers kept themselves to themselves; never even saw their faces. 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.” He leans in conspiratorially. “They gave us this sunburst symbol—it’s in my pocket. I think they’re using it to scry on us, keep tabs on how the job’s going.” (Chapter 6: Greenest Keep)
By the time they make it out of the forest it is almost dark, so the party decide to camp in the Warforged village for a second night. Aleph, who is usually the first to suggest they press on, does not protest this plan; in fact, he looks pleased.
“I feel a strong connection to my people in this place,” he says, when Cyd asks him about this. “It is… strengthening.”
They sleep in one of the stone buildings in the centre of the square and, as a special treat, they light the brazier in the corner. It feels like an eternity since any of them have slept inside in a warm room; they’re all unconscious within minutes. Cyd wakes an hour after sunrise to find that Aleph and Nubbins are already up. She yawns, frowns when she sees their bedrolls are empty, and crawls from her own. Beside her, Gerard stretches and Atone sits up and rubs the sleep from his eyes.
Wincing at the chill morning air (the brazier has burned itself out in the night) the three friends head outside. They find Nubbins sitting cross-legged in the grass, surrounded by a ring of candles. He opens one eye as they approach, giving them a cheerful wave.
“G’morning, Nubs,” Cyd replies. “Um. What are you doing?”
“I’m summoning a familiar!” the gnome says proudly. “I watched Keothi do it lots of times and I think I’ve figured it out!” He pulls out his lute and begins to play a curious, lilting tune. As the others watch in sleepy surprise, a small shape begins to materialise in the centre of the circle of candlelight.
Sparks work their way up from the ground, flying back and forth as though the shape is being knitted together from pure light. Cyd can see two long ears and a fluffy tail: a rabbit? Then the sparks narrow into a point, solidifying into a pearlescent horn on the top of the rabbit’s head. As Nubbins finishes his song, the tiny ball of white fur hops into his lap, fully formed.
“Aww!” Cyd coos. “You made a uni-bunny!”
“It’s an almiraj, actually,” Nubbins says. He scoops it up and holds it out to Cyd. “Isn’t she great?”
The bunny gives Cyd an approving sniff. As Nubbins puts it down again, it bounces over to one of the candles lining the ritual circle and nibbles at the wax.
Atone gives the rabbit a confused look. “What does it—”
“She,” Nubbins corrects.
“Sorry. What does she do?”
“She’s strong and fierce, and she has a spiky horn for goring! It’s a bit like Impy’s stinger, if you think about it! Also she eats candles. I hope,” the gnome adds nervously. Behind him, the almiraj has finished off one candle already and is eyeing up its neighbour with a calculating expression.
“I think I’m going to call her Horny,” Nubbins reflects, looking at his new familiar fondly.
“Erm, no,” Cyd says, stifling a laugh. “That’s not happening. What about… Mrs Pointy?”
“Spike?” Gerard suggests.
“I do not see what was wrong with Nubbins’ first idea,” Atone chips in.
Nubbins strokes his chin, listening to these suggestions in silence. Then: “Stabigail!” he declares. “That’s her name. Shall we go and check on the horses?”
Having polished off two candles, Stabigail hunkers down and leaps onto the top of Nubbins’ hat, where she promptly falls asleep.
“Ooh, look how high she can jump!” Nubbins beams. “She’s an acrobat!”
“She’s very cute,” Cyd concedes, following Nubbins across the square to where the horses are tethered. “But she’s not exactly a war-bunny, is she?”
“No,” Nubbins says complacently. “But she is a master of stealth and infiltration.”
One of the horses nickers as they approach, causing Stabigail to topple from Nubbins’ head in surprise. She falls into a nearby bush with a soft crash.
“See! Swish! Like a ninja,” Nubbins says, waving his arms mysteriously to complete the illusion.
“Who is like a ninja?” Aleph has just appeared from between two trees, leading a huge, armour-plated warhorse. Cyd boggles.
“Woah, Alf! Where did you find him?”
“This is Beronal, spirit-steed of the Eighth Phalanx,” Aleph explains. “He appeared to me after many hours of meditation, and has accepted me as his rider.”
The rogue whistles. “Now that’s an animal companion.”
“And this is Stabigail,” Nubbins says, retrieving her from the bush and presenting her to Aleph. “She’s like Beronal, only with a horn.”
Aleph holds the tiny almiraj up to his face, inspecting her closely. “Yes. I can see that, Nubbins. She is missing her armour at present, but she is a welcome addition to our brotherhood, nonetheless. And now, we should move on,” he announces, climbing onto Beronal’s broad back. “Our quarry grow further away with each passing hour.”
“Now hold on just one minute!” It is Cyd who has spoken. The rogue is giving Aleph a dangerous look, one hand on her hip. “We just took an entire day out of our schedule to explore a Warforged village and chase after a vision in the woods. And you and Nubs got cool pets out of it into the bargain!”
“You could have one of the golems,” Nubbins suggests, offering her a control rod.
“Thanks, Nubs, but that’s not the point. I’ve got stuff to do too, so now it’s my turn: before we get back on the trail, we’re doing my side-mission.”
“Our ‘side-missions’, as you term them, were never meant to take this long,” Aleph says, sounding strained. “If we stop every time one of us wishes to pursue a personal matter—”
“—Defeat evil smugglers,” Cyd interrupts.
“—then we will never catch up to the raiders.”
“Nuh uh. I’ve worked it all out,” Cyd rejoins. “My side-mission is on the way. Remember those bandits we caught trying to kidnap faerie dragons? I did some digging, and I think that alchemist’s shop they told us about is near here!”
Aleph opens his mouth to argue further, but Cyd intercepts him. “We’ll just scout it out and then be on our way,” she wheedles. “It’ll take an hour, tops.”
“And I see that arguing about it would take longer,” the Warforged concedes. “Very well.”
Feathers jumps up onto Cyd’s horse as the party prepare to leave, rubbing her face against the rogue’s cheek in a rare display of affection.
Good work, she tells Cyd, speaking into her mind as usual. I was wondering when we’d get back to the important stuff. Can I eat that almiraj, by the way?
The abandoned alchemist’s shop sits atop a low hillock just off the trail and looks, from the outside at least, like a simple farmstead. The party tether their horses at the bottom of the hill, leaving Beronal and the golems to guard them, and walk up to the peeling picket fence surrounding the building. Close up, the place looks stranger than it first appeared. There is a sturdy-looking chest made of some sort of green metal sitting beside the front door, and a wide circle of charred grass in the centre of the neat little lawn. Aleph walks up to the door and knocks; they hear the sound echo inside the house.
“No one’s in; good,” Cyd says. “Shall we…?” she pulls out her lockpicks and waggles her eyebrows in the direction of the door.
“Should we not simply wait until the homeowners return?” Atone asks.
“Tony—urgh, weren’t you listening before? —these are evil smugglers,” Cyd exclaims. “We’re not making a house call!”
“Ah, I see,” the tiefling replies. “In that case, I believe I can assist.”
He steps up to the door and assumes a fighting stance, knees bent and legs braced. Then he breathes in, a breath deeper than his slight frame seems able to hold. On the exhale, he thrusts his arms forward, bringing the heels of his hands together. A gust of wind blasts from his open palms, hitting the door, which flexes, then splits cleanly in two down a fault in the grain. The half attached to the hinges swings open, exposing a dim space beyond.
“You never told us you could do that,” Gerard says, sounding most impressed.
Atone shrugs. “You never asked.”
The room inside doesn’t look much like a shop: there’s a pile of empty cages in one corner, a desk and chair in the other, opposite a set of stairs leading down. The party exchange glances, then head for the stairs, Aleph in the lead.
The staircase is so narrow that they have to descend in single file, so steep that Nubbins, standing at the top, is almost directly above Aleph, who has reached the bottom. In the middle, Atone winces as a tread creaks under his foot, glancing nervously around him.
“That’s odd,” he says. A glint of metal has caught his eye: there are tubes embedded in the walls to his left and right, lining the staircase. “I wonder what those are—”
As he steps off the bottom stair, Aleph feels his foot snag on something. He looks down: there’s a thin, metal wire running the length of the floor.
“DUCK!” he bellows.
Jets of fire fill the staircase. Nubbins, still at the top, scrambles backwards. Gerard, Atone and Cyd throw themselves to the floor, feeling the flames lick across their backs and singe their hair. Gerard’s leg catches Aleph in the back of the knee and knocks the Warforged off-balance. He stumbles forward one step, two—and feels something go click. The surface he has landed on gives way, plunging him into darkness.
As the smoke from the fire trap clears, Gerard gets to his feet and peers into the corridor at the bottom of the stairs.
“Aleph?” he calls.
“I am unharmed. Relatively speaking,” a voice replies. Gerard squints around; there’s no one in sight. “I may have… triggered a pit-trap,” the Warforged continues.
“Ah. There are more traps ahead, everyone,” Gerard calls.
“No kidding,” Cyd mutters.
Gerard inches forward, feeling for pressure plates as he goes. The stone passageway ends in a door; leaning forward, the monk prods it open with his staff.
A deafening roar echoes along the corridor. The room inside is lined with bookshelves, alchemical apparatus, and work tables—and at its centre is a huge, red-scaled demon. Four arms protrude from the fiend’s chest. Two are chitinous and clawed, while the other two look horribly like human arms that have been grafted onto its skin.
“Glabrezu!” Gerard yells. He charges forward, staff raised.
Beneath his heel, something goes click.
By bracing his back against one wall and his feet against the other, Aleph has managed to inch his way up the long, narrow shaft of the pit trap. He is almost back at the top when he hears the bellow of the glabrezu. A heartbeat later there’s a click, and Gerard lands bodily on top of him. Both men tumble to the ground, landing in an undignified heap.
“I was under the impression,” Aleph says, his voice muffled by Gerard’s robes, “that monks were renowned for their nimbleness.”
Gerard is profoundly grateful that in the pitch dark of the pit-trap, the Warforged cannot see his red face.
There’s chaos in the corridor above. Atone, Cyd and Nubbins are all shouting at once, fumbling with their weapons. The passageway is so narrow that no one but Cyd can get a decent shot at the thing. She raises her bow, aiming for one of its eyes. Then someone butts her in the leg, and she looks down to see Nubbins trying to squirm past her.
“Um, little busy here, Nubs,” she says.
Nubbins ignores her, peering at the roaring demon. “I don’t think it’s real, Cyd.”
“Of course it’s real! Now get out of the way!”
But Nubbins is shaking his head. “Demons can speak all sorts of languages, but this one is just roaring. And it hasn’t moved. Stabigail, go and headbutt it!”
Stabigail furrows her brow and leaps forward. As she reaches the demon, she lowers her horned head and charges all the way through its left foot. The whole creature fizzles, flickering like a candle. Nubbins looks pleased. “See! An illusion!” he says. He takes a step forward.
“NOPE!” Cyd yells, grabbing him by the collar and hauling him backwards as the pit-trap is tripped for a third time.
Atone lunges past her and jams his staff into the trap’s closing jaws, leaving a narrow opening into the hole below.
Cyd examines the edges of the trap-door carefully, soon spotting its spring-loaded reset mechanism. She unhooks the springs from their mountings and the panels fall open all the way, clunking against the sides of the pit beneath. Aleph and Gerard have begun inching their way up the smooth walls again.
“You two look ridiculous,” Cyd chuckles. She throws down a rope and helps them up.
Atone, meanwhile, glides over Cyd’s head and into the room beyond, giving the illusory demon a wide berth. After a few minutes, the rest of the party follow him. Gerard looks through the bookcases while Cyd examines some papers in a locked bureau sitting against the far wall. Many of them bear an insignia she’s been looking for for quite some time: a grinning mask with a red sunburst behind it.
“Finally!” she cries. She flicks through the papers, stopping on a map. “They’ve been using this place to store the magical beasties they steal. It looks like they’ve been transporting them from here to Elturel… I don’t know how, though.”
“I think I do,” Gerard replies. He holds up one of the books he has been reading: An Advanced Practitioner’s Guide to Teleportation Magic.
The group re-emerge from the Alchemist’s shop almost an hour later, bruised, burned, and shaken.
“Well, that was humiliating,” Cyd says.
Ahead of her, Gerard stops in his tracks. “It gets worse,” he groans. “Look at that sigil on the wall there – it’s a scrying rune. Whoever runs this operation has likely been watching our blunders.”
Cyd marches up to the wall, glaring. “Yeah, well, you better laugh it up while you can,” she growls, shoving her face up close to the tiny sigil. “Cause we’re coming for you, you no good, dirty, rotten—“
“Hey! Everyone,” Atone interrupts. He has crossed to the green metal chest and is kneeling beside it, looking thoughtful. “If the smugglers are using teleportation magic to transport their cargo, then do you think that maybe…” He swings open the lid of the chest (a look of horror flits across Cyd’s face, but for once, nothing explodes or collapses) and places a gold coin inside. Then he shuts the chest, waits a few seconds, and opens it again. The coin has vanished.
“I’ve heard of contraptions like this before,” the tiefling says. “It must be linked to another chest elsewhere. Possibly in Elturel.”
Cyd’s eyes gleam. “It’s pretty big. Maybe if I climbed inside I could—”
“Think about what you are saying, Cydonie,” Aleph cautions. “You could arrive in the centre of the smugglers’ stronghold, alone and facing unknown odds. It would not be wise.”
“I know that! But this is the closest I’ve come to catching these idiots, and I just…”
She bangs open the lid again in frustration. There’s a small piece of paper inside. With a yell of excitement, the rogue seizes it.
“What does it say,” Nubbins asks, craning over Cyd’s shoulder. Gerard and Atone, too, draw nearer, faces alight with interest. But Cyd is frowning.
“Weird. It just says: Explosive Ru—”
A cacophonous explosion drowns out the rest of her sentence. Birds take flight, and the horses at the bottom of the hill startle, as the party trigger their third trap of the afternoon.
Ooh, that was such a fun one to edit! I think we’ve all had at least one session like this, when the party seem to be made of left feet and elbows and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong 😛 Thanks for reading, friends!
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