Previously: Nubbins tunes his lute in preparation for the journey ahead, looking idly over the side of the cart. An elf is lingering nearby, and he smiles at her.
“Hello! Another passenger to Greenest?” he asks.
“Hello, tiny man-gnome-thing” the elven woman replies, squinting at him myopically. “Yes, I am heading that way. I’m Minerva.” [Chapter 1: On the Road]
“So, let me get this straight,” Cyd says, pacing the narrow confines of the cave. “While I was out, Alf sprouted glowing tattoos that transported us all to the Far Realm, where Be’He’Quin gave him an invisible sword?”
“The sword was left there for me to find; Be’He’Quin himself was not present. But yes, that is an accurate summary.” Aleph looks down at his arms as he speaks. The markings have stopped glowing, but they are still visible, as if he has been branded with them.
Cyd whistles between her teeth. “Do me a favour, Alf: next time something like that happens, wake me up.”
“I sincerely hope that there will not be a next time.”
“Can we move on?” asks Cuthbert, who is keen to put the Far Realm and all its strangeness as far behind him as possible. “Before we left that dungeon, one of the kobolds said something about eggs. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d like to find out what he meant.”
There’s a chorus of reluctant agreement. Everyone knows that they cannot afford not to investigate further, but no one really has the appetite for a second journey into the cave complex.
“We’ll just find out what eggs they’re hiding in there, smash them, and run,” the sorcerer says. “It’ll take a couple of hours, tops.”
The rest of the party follow him back out of their hiding place and onto the lip of rock, where they crouch to avoid any passing glances from the camp below. It’s almost completely deserted now, save for a handful of figures in hunting gear standing around a campfire at the base of the cliff, immediately beneath the party. They are eating and talking, their tents still pitched and their gear unpacked.
“Stragglers?” Gerard whispers.
“I think not,” Leosin replies. “The others all left hours ago; this group must be staying put.”
“Well, we’ll fight them if we have to,” Cyd says grimly. “Hit me with that Feather Fall spell, Nubs.”
She jumps from the ledge and, at a word from Nubbins, drifts slowly to the ground. As she falls, she draws her bow in readiness. The figures around the campfire watch her descent, but make no move. And as her feet touch the valley floor, Cyd spots a face among them that she recognises.
The elderly elf steps forward. “Oh, it’s you,” she says cheerfully. “Funny coincidence, eh?”
“What are you doing here?” Cyd yelps. “Why would you join the cultists?”
Minerva laughs. “Join them? Oh, heavens, no—I’ve been spying on them. Posing as a hunter. Seemed like the thing to do, and now I’ve got all sorts of intel to take back to old Governor Anthill.”
“Nighthill,” Aleph corrects her, joining the group. “Well met, Minerva.”
“But where have you been all this time?” Cyd asks, forgetting manners in her confusion.
“Oh, here and there,” the elf replies vaguely. “I followed up a few bounties. Saw that dragon attack Greenest—dreadful business. When those cultists left, I thought I’d follow them, see what they were up to. Now, how much do you think old Nightshade will pay for this intel I’ve gathered?”
“Never mind that,” Cyd pursues. “What are you doing hanging around with this lot?” She jerks a thumb at the other hunters, who are looking on curiously.
“Um, we’re not dragon cultists,” one says. “We just sold them furs and meat.”
“This is the third time we’ve seen you scale that cliff face over there and sneak through the camp,” another chips in, sounding amused. “If we were cultists, don’t you think we would have attacked you by now?”
“I—” Cyd’s face goes scarlet.
“We’ve heard that the cult’s leaders are keeping eggs of some sort in the cave complex,” Gerard says, to cover Cyd’s embarrassment. “If any of you wish to assist us, we are going back in to investigate now.”
Most of the hunters shrug and return to what they were doing, but Minerva’s eyes light up. “Sounds like fun. I’m game!”
There are no guards hiding at the mouth of the caves this time, which the party take as a good sign.
“There must not be any left,” Nubbins says.
“Or those remaining have fallen back to defend the eggs,” Aleph answers. He turns to Cuthbert. “Where would you suggest we begin our search?”
The sorceror points to where the path branches on their right. “We were never taken down that way, but I once saw Mondath and Cyanwrath walking down there together. I’d guess there was something important down there.”
The passage narrows as it curves around, so much so that the party are forced to walk in single file. About fifteen feet in, it branches in two. Cyd sneaks down the right-hand fork, but returns a minute later, shaking her head.
“Just a storeroom,” she whispers. “A few empty crates, but no eggs.”
The room at the end of the left-hand passage seems no different at first. It bears the marks of having been emptied in a hurry: overturned boxes litter the floor, along with detritus from the camp and a few broken bottles.
“Our entrance to these caves this morning was not exactly subtle,” Gerard says. “Perhaps they have moved the eggs, anticipating our return.”
Nubbins scratches his head. “I don’t think those kobolds would have given us away.”
“Nubs, not everyone we fight is as honourable as you,” Cyd responds, rolling her eyes.
“That’s not what I mean! They said the purple-robes would kill them if they talked – there’s no way they would tell them that we found out about the eggs!”
“There’s a door here,” Minerva announces to the room at large. “I’m going to open it.”
The creak of the rusty hinges brings an end to the party’s squabbling. As one, they all crane to look into the corridor Minerva has just revealed. It curves around to the right, and there’s light spilling onto the ground from whatever room lies beyond. Light, and the moving shadows cast by pacing feet.
Everyone immediately begins to act as though they are playing a game of charades.
“Do you think they heard us?” Minerva mouths, pointing at the shadows, then back at the party, and cupping her ear.
Cyd makes a walking motion with her index and middle fingers and pantomimes putting her ear to an invisible door. “I’ll go and check,” she mouths back.
“WHY IS EVERYONE WHISPERING?” Nubbins asks.
Five angry faces freeze him into silence.
Cyd tiptoes down the corridor, keeping her back pressed to the wall. As she inches closer to the orange light, she hears low voices.
“—have obviously returned. Go and alert Cyanwrath. We must call for reinforcements and—”
Cyd coughs loudly. “Yep,” she shouts, “they heard us!”
She springs into the room, which is lavishly decorated with rugs and damask hangings. A full length mirror hangs on the far wall, just behind Mondath, her mouth open mid-sentence. The tiefling is flanked by six large guards, one of whom has already strode forward to execute her order.
Cyd takes all of this in over the course of a second as she raises her bow, nocks an arrow, and fires. The arrow flies towards Mondath, but one of her guards is quick to interpose himself between his mistress and the blow. The shaft hits him in the chest and he falls. She hears a scuffle in the corridor behind her and Gerard and Aleph shoot into the room, closely followed by Nubbins, Cuthbert and Minerva.
Aleph charges forward, gripping the bladeless sword in both hands. The guards eye this new foe in confusion, even derision—that is, until the Warforged swings the hilt up and round and the heat-haze shimmer passes straight through one man’s torso. His laughing face crumples into a grimace of agony and he claps his hands to his ears as though to deaden an awful sound. Blood begins leaking from his eyes, and Aleph feels a thrill of horror. Somehow, dispatching his enemies with a steel edge is a far less disturbing experience.
Minerva evidently feels the same way. “Here, watch where you’re swinging that thing,” she calls. “I don’t trust a weapon that doesn’t have a pointy end, myself.”
She is engaged with two guards at once, a short sword in one hand and a knife in the other and as she speaks, she drives her dagger through one hapless woman’s neck, as if emphasising her point. Behind her, Gerard, who is throwing punches left and right, briefly wonders if he ought to feel affronted.
Then the monk hears a word that settles on him like a chain, holding him in place. His eyes flick upward to see Mondath, a crooked dagger in one hand, an iron rivet in the other. An arrow hits her in the arm and she staggers, uttering a low curse, but does not falter.
“She’s got Gerard!” Nubbins yells. He runs at the tiefling, but she summons a shield that bounces the gnome backward with a wave of her hand.
Cuthbert sends a bolt of orange flame arcing into Mondath’s chest, and Gerard stumbles free from the curse that was locking him in place. The tiefling’s eyes go wide as she is blasted off her feet. She slams into the mirror, which shatters into fragments, glass pattering down around her like rain as she falls, lifeless, to the floor.
Thanks for reading, friends! And did you get our clever visual pun in the title image. Minerva is named after the goddess of wisdom, whose symbol is… an owl! Geddit? Yeah, it wasn’t that clever…
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-Lou & Cam Xxx