Previously: Aleph draws himself up to his full height. “We will infiltrate the camp by stealth.”
Cyd raises an eyebrow. “Um, Alf. Not to knock your talents or anything, but I think a ten-foot tall metal man is going to have a hard time blending in.”
“I could make him invisible!” Nubbins pipes up. “I’ve still got enough juice for two more spells at least.” [Chapter 30: The Camp]
“A visitor to the town is also missing,” Nighthill continues. “An academic by the name of Leosin. I hear that his followers have offered a modest reward for his safe return.” [Chapter 22: A Day’s Grace]
“Right,” says Cyd, after they have all watched Cuthbert, Gerard and the prisoners out of sight, “twenty down, one to go.”
She, Nubbins and Aleph resume their progress through the camp, strolling away from the prisoners’ quarters and up towards the higher ground at the end of the valley. This late in the evening, the camp is filled with a low buzz of conversation, but not much movement. A few kobolds hurry past, carrying messages between tents; here and there, clusters of raiders cook their evening meals over small fires. Keeping their pace unhurried, the party make for the largest of the tents. Separated from the dwellings of the rest of the cultists, and with the steep eastern side of the valley at its back, this marquee commands a view of the entirety of the encampment. Two guards flank its entrance, in case there could have been any doubt as to who is inside.
A hundred feet away from the leaders’ tent, two wooden stakes have been nailed together in the shape of an X. Lashed to this framework is a man, his robes torn and stained, his head bowed.
“There,” says a low voice, two feet above and just to the left of Cyd’s head.
“Where are you pointing, Aleph?” Nubbins whispers. “You’re still invisible, remember?”
There’s a strained pause. The patch of air above Cyd’s head restrains itself from tutting. “I was referring to the half-elf tied to the wooden cross, Nubbins. The one immediately in front of us.”
“Oh. Is that Leosin, then?”
“Is everyone clear on the plan?” Cyd interrupts.
“Good,” the rogue hisses. “Then let’s get going, people, before one of these rubes realises that they’ve lost all of their other prisoners.”
She strides towards the marquee. Nubbins, meanwhile, sidles closer to the man tied to the stakes, Aleph close behind him.
Leosin is in a bad way. Every inch of his body aches; the parts of himself that he can see are covered in bruises, and there’s an ugly red weal across his chest. His eyes are shut—he’s found that feigning unconsciousness makes the cultists less likely to pelt him with insults and projectiles—but he cracks one swollen eye open as he hears soft footsteps coming his way. There’s a lone cultist standing beside him—one he does not recognise.
“Have you come to gloat?” the monk rasps.
“No,” the cultist replies. He sounds genuinely surprised “We’ve come to rescue you. I can gloat if you’d prefer, though. Um. How should I start?”
Leosin opens his other eye and squints at the robed man. “You… you’re not a servant of Tiamat?”
“Nope! I’m in disguise,” the man says proudly. “My friend over there is going to set fire to the leaders’ tent, and then I’m going to sneak you out of here.”
Leosin, who has been feeling more and more hopeful as the fake cultist explains, feels his heart sink. “I am grateful for your assistance, friend, but that is a terrible plan! The Wearers of Purple are heavily guarded. Your friend will be captured if they so much as approach that tent.”
To Leosin’s consternation, the man shrugs. “I think she’ll be OK. She’s in disguise too. Anyway, it’s too late now: there she goes!”
The man has been edging closer and closer to the stakes as he talks. Now he kneels down in the grass as if adjusting his shoes, slips a dagger from his belt, and begins sawing through the ropes that bind Leosin’s feet. Leosin watches his new ally out of the corner of his eye, not moving his head.
“Even if your friend is able to distract the guards,” he mutters, “how will we get through the rest of the camp undetected?”
“Oh, that’s the easy part!” the robed man replies. “Now, try not to move, OK? My invisible friend is about to break your handcuffs.”
There’s a muted clink. Leosin twitches in shock: a hand has just grasped his arm, pinning it to the stake. He sees something metallic flash past him and land with a soft thump in the grass at his feet. At the same time, a voice murmurs in his ear: “Can you keep this arm steady? The cultists must still believe you to be tied in place.”
Leosin nods his head fractionally. “I can, but not for long,” he admits. The beatings and the lack of food he has suffered since his capture have left him weak: even if these adventurers are able to free him, he doubts he will be able to so much as stand unaided. The invisible hand lets go of his left arm and repeats the process with his right. He feels a release as the ropes around his legs come free. The robed man straightens up, hands in his pockets.
“We must move quickly,” the disembodied voice says. “Can you walk?”
“With help, I believe I could make it out of the camp,” Leosin replies. “Forgive my asking again, but how is that to be achieved? Everyone here knows what I look like—”
There’s a shout from the marquee. glancing up, Leosin sees white smoke, and through it a thick tongue of flame.
“That’s our signal!” the robed man chirps. He touches Leosin’s arm, which vanishes. Leosin looks down: his body has disappeared. The experience of being invisible brings a wave of dizziness: with no proprioception to orient his movements, he almost falls over. The robed man gropes for his hand and, finding it, guides Leosin’s arm around his shoulders. “Come on,” he says.
Cyd forces herself to slow down as she approaches the leaders’ tent, keeping her stride purposeful and confident. This close up, the guards look mean. They’re wearing proper breastplates—not the flimsy robes of the other cultists—and they’re bristling with weapons: each has a longsword, a dagger and a crossbow. The two closest to her see her as she approaches and step smartly together, blocking the entrance to the tent beyond.
“That’s far enough,” one of them calls. “What is your business here, sister?”
His tone is brusque, but not suspicious. Well, I’ve had worse receptions, Cyd thinks.
“I have a message for the Wearers of Purple,” she says aloud. “It’s about the prisoners.” She injects enough urgency into her voice that the guards shift uneasily, exchanging glances. It’s always better to base your lies on the truth. Neither man has moved, though.
“The Wearers of Purple are not to be disturbed,” the other man says. “You can pass your message on to us and we will inform them when their meeting is concluded.”
Uh oh. “I… don’t know what the message is myself,” Cyd says, thinking on her feet. What was the name of that guard Cuthbert mentioned? Linda? Lunda? “…Luanda asked me to tell Cyanwrath to come and see her about them, that’s all.”
Now the men are frowning. “Luanda forgets herself,” the first says. “We have already turned her away once this evening. Her business can wait.”
“Oh,” Cyd says. “Well then. I’ll, err, let her know.” She turns and begins walking away, thinking furiously. She had been hoping to get inside the tent and then knock over a brazier or a lantern. There’s no way she’s kept the guards talking long enough to buy Nubs and Alf enough time to set Leosin free.
She makes as if she’s heading towards the prisoners’ bunk house, then doubles back and circles around the tent. There are great clumps of pampas grass growing here and there along the valley floor, with patches of shorter scrub between them. The nearest of these is round the far side of the tent, bisected by the bottom of the canvas. Maybe if I set it on fire, Cyd thinks wildly, it might spread inside. She glances around: the coast is clear. She kneels down at the edge of the tent and takes her tinder box from her pack.
She strikes her flint against it but fumbles the movement and drops the tinderbox. Cursing inwardly, the rogue scrabbles amongst the scratchy stalks to reclaim it. She snatches it up and strikes it again, raising a shower of yellow-red sparks. They cascade into the dry grass, which ignites with a soft whump. Orange flames blossom in the heart of the pampas grass, billowing upward and outward with astonishing speed. At the same time, the grass begins to crack and pop like corn in a hot pan.
Ah. I’d better get out of here. But then the guards come around the side of the tent at a dead run, as if this thought has summoned them. The first sees the fire; the second sees her, and his hand goes straight to his crossbow.
As soon as Aleph hears the shout, he knows that something has gone wrong. Not “fire!” but “intruder!”—Cyd has been discovered. As Nubbins walks back towards the entrance, moving slowly under the weight of the invisible Leosin, the Warforged draws his mace.
Cyd sprints into view a fraction of a second later, pursued by two guards. She’s heading straight for Aleph, her face set in an expression of grim determination. The Warforged jerks out of the way just in time and she shoots past him like one of her own arrows.
One of the guards has spotted Nubbins and is hailing him, waving his arm. “Stop her! Stop the intruder!”
Nubbins’ eyes widen in an expression of almost comic alarm. He falters, one arm crooked around Leosin’s invisible waist. He looks like he is about to launch into a waltz without a partner. “Um… I’ll try,” he calls back. He fumbles—slowly and unconvincingly, Aleph thinks—for his rapier. But the guards are not looking at him: they’re raising their crossbows, taking careful aim at Cyd’s retreating back.
Aleph moves without being aware that he is doing so. Dirt and debris explode from the earth, seemingly of their own accord, as he thunders towards the guards. The first bolt flies past him; Cyd lets out a cry of pain. Before the second man has a chance to fire, an invisible blow staves in the side of his head. For a split second he stands transfixed, blood streaming down his face, pinned in place by a force no one can see. Then Aleph blinks into existence beside him, wrenching Lightbringer out of the man’s skull, and he collapses.
The flap at the front of the big tent opens and two purple-robed figures emerge. They look immediately towards the wooden stakes where Leosin was chained just moments before. One of them, a thin woman whose head is topped with curving horns, lets out a shriek of rage.
“GO!” Aleph roars. Nubbins needs no further encouragement. He and Leosin resume their hobbling progress towards the exit. At the same time, the purple-robed tiefling flings out her hand towards Cyd and shouts out a word of power. It shoots through the air like an iron rivet, stopping the rogue in her tracks.
Aleph has no further leisure to watch how Cyd and Nubbins are faring: the remaining guard has turned to engage him, longsword in hand. The Warforged sweeps the man from his feet with a blow to the back of the legs and smashes his shield into his chest. Then he surveys the field again, assessing the damage. The guard’s cry has roused the rest of the camp: cultists and kobolds are running towards them from the tents below, their weapons drawn. Cyd is still motionless, frozen in place by the tiefling’s spell. Aleph can’t see any sign of Nubbins: he hopes devoutly that this means his brother in arms has made it out under the cover of the confusion. The two Wearers of Purple have turned towards Aleph, the light from the burning tent flickering across their faces. As the Warforged strides towards them, he recognises the half-dragon Cyanwrath, who bares his teeth in a grin.
“The Champion’s herald!” he bellows. “I did so hope we would meet on the field of battle.”
A sudden, wild hope flares in Aleph’s heart. “And I also,” he shouts back. “This is our fight, Cyanwrath, and I challenge you to meet me now in single combat, under the same terms as before.”
If he can just buy Cyd another few seconds, he thinks desperately—enough time to break the holding spell and flee… But the tiefling lays a hand on the half-dragon’s arm and mutters something that Aleph can’t catch, her eyes flicking sideways. Cyanwrath’s smile fades.
“Your challenge is spoken boldly, and I wish that I could rise to it,” he sighs. “But I must put duty before pleasure, in this as in all things.” To Aleph’s horror, he strides straight towards Cyd and puts his poleaxe to her throat. “Shall I kill her, Herald?” he calls. “Yield, and I will spare her life.”
“I will yield.” The words are wrenched out of him. “Let her go, and I will submit.”
The blue half-dragon pauses, a conflict visible in his face. The tiefling sighs.
“Cyanwrath, be reasonable,” she says. “These spies have cost us one prisoner already.”
“We had gotten all we could from the monk,” Cyanwrath replies. “His escape is no great loss.”
“That is not the point.” She spits the words. “It would be foolhardy to spare her: consider what she may have learnt.”
“Nothing,” Aleph chokes out. “We have learnt nothing. We came here not to spy, but to free Leosin.”
The silence seems to stretch. “You give me your word?” Cyanwrath says slowly.
“I swear it!”
The tiefling frowns. “The word of a heathen means—”
But Cyanwrath interrupts her. “This is a man of honour, Mondath. He wishes to give his own life for that of his friend, and I honour him for it.”
Mondath opens her mouth to reply, but he forestalls her with a wave of his hand. “What good can the half-elf do us, in any case? We depart tomorrow: we will want no prisoners on the road. And one is enough for an execution.”
His voice carries through the still air. Still frozen in place, Cyd’s face pales. The first cultists have reached the tent, now. Cyanwrath beckons two of them over and points to the rogue.
“Escort that one from the camp. She is not to be harmed.”
The sky is growing pale outside the dig site, matching the faces of the people huddled within, when a white war horse trots up to the entrance. Slumped in its saddle is Cyd.
Two figures run out to meet her.
“You’re back!” Nubbins squeaks. “We were really worried! What happened?”
“Why are you riding Beronal?” Gerard adds. “Where’s…”
He peers around. But although Cyd is riding Aleph’s steed, the Warforged is nowhere to be seen. As the rogue tumbles out of the horse’s saddle and runs to meet them, her two friends see that her face is streaked with tears.
“Cyd,” Nubbins says. “Aleph is… he’s with you, right?”
Wordlessly, Cyd shakes her head.
New reader? Read the first chapter here!
Thanks for your patience, friends! I hope you enjoy today’s post – it took us a while, but we’re really happy with how it turned out 🙂 Don’t forget to check out our original maps, side quests and classes over on DM’s Guild. And if you’ve got thoughts on the story so far, give us a shout on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments!
-Lou & Cam X
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