Previously: “The purple-robes will kill us if we lead you to the eggs!” the kobold yelps.
For the first time since initiating this interrogation, Aleph feels he may have stumbled upon something useful. He leans forward. “What eggs?” [Chapter 34: One Thing After Another]
Nubbins wiles away the time by using one of his scrolls of sending to write to Balasar about the dig site. The message he scratches out glows white-hot as the enchantment takes effect, and the parchment crumbles to ash. From the smoke, a tiny image of Balasar forms.
“Excellent work, Nubbins.” the image says. “I’ll send Head Researcher Hashem there now to complete our investigation.” [Chapter 35: Back to the Far Realm]
The gas is thick as smog; in seconds, the entire room is shrouded in a green haze. Aleph can hear coughing. Then a dim form emerges from the miasma: Gerard. The monk’s exposed skin is red and blistered. With one hand, he holds a corner of his robe over his mouth; with the other, he drags Cyanwrath by the collar.
“It’s acid!” the monk splutters.
Aleph feels panic rise inside him. “Go. I will get the others out.”
Not needing to breathe, The Warforged is less vulnerable to the effects of the gas than are the rest of the party. Still, now that Gerard has pointed it out to him, he can see the green mist eating away at the metal plates that cover his body. He hurries across the room to where he last saw Cyd, struggling to see through the choking fumes. He pictures the moment before he opened the box in his mind: the rogue had been standing by one of the pillars at the edge of the temple, her brown eyes wide with alarm. A dark shape looms out of the fog, a smaller form crumpled at its base. Cyd is unconscious when Aleph reaches her, but a pulse still hammers faintly in her neck.
The Warforged picks her up and slings her over one massive shoulder, then jogs towards the shallow staircase on the other side of the altar. As he reaches the stone archway above it, he catches sight of Cuthbert and Minerva, stumbling off in the opposite direction. They are carrying Nubbins between them; the gnome’s face is pale, his eyes closed.
“To me!” Aleph shouts, and they pivot, making for the light of the Warforged’s glowing eyes.
The gas is a good deal thinner on the steps, and by the time Aleph has reached the bottom it has dissipated almost completely. He lays Cydonie on the ground, where the air is clearest, and glances around quickly to see where they have emerged. He is standing in another corridor, quite a bit wider than the one by which they entered the temple. Gerard is ahead of him, slumped against the wall, while Cuthbert and Minerva are bending over Nubbins a few feet away.
Further on, the passage widens into a large, low-ceilinged space. One wall of this room is of sanded stone; on the other side, bars fence off a dark space where work on the cavern appears to have halted. The floor beyond these railings is of rough and uncut rock, and the ceiling drips with stalactites.
As Aleph kneels by Cyd to heal her burns, he hears a screech of metal. He looks up: a gate has opened in the barred fence. From the cavern beyond spring a pair of snarling guard drakes, their leashes held by two winged kobolds. Cuthbert groans.
“Can we skip this part and go straight to the bit where you surrender?” he asks the bigger kobold. “I’m getting really sick of this.”
In answer, she hurls a stone that hits the sorcerer in the side of the head.
“Have it your way, then.”
A couple of kobolds and drakes aren’t much of a threat, even with two of the party out of action. Those who are still conscious ready their weapons with a weary air, eager to finish this desultory fight as quickly as possible. Cuthbert looses a bolt of white-blue energy that fells one of the kobolds immediately, while Gerard and Minerva charge half-heartedly towards their new adversaries. Gerard is the first to reach them. He turns towards one of the guard drakes and draws back his fist to deliver a knockout blow.
It never lands. Without warning, a rugose tentacle whips out from beyond the railings, seizes the drake around the middle, and withdraws. Gerard hears a yelp of surprise and has a fleeting impression of flailing claws and limbs, and then the drake is gone. He turns towards the iron bars; the cave beyond is far larger than he had first thought. Its roof is saggy with stalactites, bulbous growths that hang from the ceiling like tumours.
As Gerard squints into the gloom, an eye opens in the centre of one of these polyps of rock and blinks at him. He starts. Now that he can see the eye, the mouth is likewise revealed to him, a drooping slit in the rock filled with needle-like teeth. Fragments of scale and bone are still visible between those teeth, though nothing else of the guard drake remains.
The monk boggles. Now that he has seen the monstrous creature, he cannot unsee it. It hangs in the centre of the cavern, and the stalactites and veins of rock that cover the ceiling are its limbs. At this moment, Gerard feels a voice, rough as sandstone, intrude on his thoughts.
The first Aleph knows about any of this is a scream of pure horror from Gerard, who has stopped stock still at the entrance to the fenced-off area of the cavern and is staring at something within it. Before the Warforged can follow his gaze, the human sends a volley of golden fireballs between the railings, attacking an unseen foe. At the same instant, Aleph hears another scream—this one inside his mind.
Something long, rough and snakelike rushes out from the open gate and seizes Gerard around the waist.
Then Aleph feels a crushing pressure around his own chest and looks down to see that another tentacle has its hold on him. He struggles, but in vain; it is like being grappled by a mountain. He feels himself dragged through the air, into the dimness of the cavern beyond the bars. What he finds there frightens even him. A roper, its one eye bleary and red, has seized all of his companions who are still conscious in its tentacles.
The second kobold takes one look at this unfolding scene and flees back towards the chapel. She has almost reached the steps when a long tendril flies towards her, wraps around her leg and yanks her, shrieking, into the air. With a grinding, sucking sound, the roper reels the kobold in towards its gaping mouth. Appalled, Aleph averts his eyes.
For the second time today, he feels panic spread its tendrils through him. Nubbins and Cyd are unconscious, and defenceless. If this beast thinks to prey on them, too… It cannot be allowed to happen. The tentacle that grips him begins to retract, drawing him towards the creature’s maw. Aleph swings his invisible sword at it, to no effect—the roper does not seem even to notice. Time for a different approach. When the Warforged can see the spittle that flecks the thing’s lipless mouth, he draws back one foot and kicks it, heavily, in the teeth.
The blow connects with a sound like splintering rock. This time the creature’s scream is both angrier and more intense than before. It drops Aleph and he falls to the ground with a crash.
You are not food! Spiky metal not food!
Dangling in mid-air several feet away, realisation hits Gerard like a thunderbolt. “You want food? Is that it?” he shouts. “We can bring some to you. Just put us down!”
The creature raises the monk until he is level with its bleared eye.
Tricksy food. Food makes deal?
“Yes!” the monk says, desperately, “a deal is what I propose. There are several dead guards in the next room over. Let us go, and we will return with them.”
There is a long pause. The immense eye narrows.
One of you.
Gerard hesitates. But his position—dangling inches from the monster’s jaws—is not one from which to argue. “Very well,” he says. “And you must give your word to release the others as soon as I return.” There’s a sound in his head like tectonic plates grating together. If he had to guess, he’d say the thing is chuckling.
Go quickly, little food.
With that, Gerard is lowered to the ground. He sprints immediately for the gate, expecting at any moment to feel a clammy tentacle snake around him and drag him back again in a cruel game of cat and mouse. But he gains the exit and then the corridor beyond without difficulty. He dashes past the prone forms of Nubbins, Cyd and Cyanwrath, resisting the urge to stop and tend to their wounds. He will do them no good if he revives them, only for them to be eaten by the stalactite-monster in the next room.
The gas that had filled the black dragon chapel has dissipated now, revealing the bodies of Cyanwrath’s men where they lie spread around the altar. Their clothes and skin are pocked with acid burns, but Gerard doesn’t think the beast will be picky. He grabs two of the soldiers by their legs and hauls them towards the corridor, trying not to look at them. He would not treat the bodies of the dead—even those of his enemies—in this way could he avoid it. Sooner the dead than the living, he thinks.
Minerva’s automatic assumption is that the monk, having gotten them into this mess in the first place, has now saved his own skin at their expense, so she is mightily relieved to see the little man come back again with two bodies in tow. The roper is less impressed. It blinks balefully at Gerard and waves its tendrils, shaking Minerva about like a rag doll.
But the monk, to do him justice, holds his ground. “I have shown that I am in earnest, and now you must do the same,” he says. “Let my friends go.”
The beast wavers. And then, slowly, it lowers Minerva and the others to the cavern floor.
There. Now bring more! MORE!
The flow of bodies speeds up with more people to help carry them. Aleph sets about healing Cyd and Nubbins while the rest of the party shuttle to and fro between the black dragon chapel and the insatiable creature in the cave. Minerva shoots Gerard a poisonous look as she brushes past him on her way to the altar.
“Did it never occur to you,” she says icily, “that when the beast addressed you the first time, it was asking a simple question? If you’d kept your head, you could probably have convinced it to eat the kobolds and leave us be.”
Gerard’s face turns scarlet, but he does not reply.
The roper’s mood improves considerably after it has eaten the bodies of Cyanwrath’s guards, one by one. The group turn away in disgust from the horrifying rending and crunching coming from its mouth, but are relieved to see its tendrils slowly retract. At last, the sounds of feasting cease and the monster looks in their direction once more.
Good food. Sleep now.
And with ponderous slowness, it inches away across the ceiling of the cavern.
Back out in the corridor, Aleph is bringing Cyd and Nubbins up to speed.
“No fair!” the rogue exclaims. “I keep missing all the good stuff!”
Nubbins, who turned quite pale at the description of the rock-creature, does not look as though he agrees.
“I’m just glad everyone’s alright,” he says. “Has… has it gone now?”
“It is leaving as we speak,” Aleph confirms. “Though it may take some time.”
Cyd is already getting to her feet. “So, onwards and downwards?”
“We should secure Cyanwrath first,” the Warforged replies. The unconscious half-dragon is still lying against the wall of the passageway, his breathing shallow.
While Aleph binds the prisoner’s hands and feet, Cyd and Nubbins venture—timidly, in Nubbins’ case—through the gate to observe the aftermath of the battle they missed. The roper is still visible; it has shuffled into a corner of the cave, where it appears to be sleeping, its monstrous eye closed. Every now and then one of its tendrils twitches lazily, as if it is dreaming. The rogue and the bard both give it a wide berth as they creep deeper into the cavern; there are bones littering the ground around the creature’s nest, and they shudder to think what a narrow escape the rest of the party had.
The warmth that Cyd noticed on this level of the cave complex grows more intense the further in they go, until the air becomes so muggy it almost steams.
“I think there must be a hot spring down here, Nubs,” Cyd whispers, leading the way around a great, grey stalagmite. “That, or… oh.”
“…Oh.” Nubbins agrees. It is all either of them can say. Behind the stalagmite, nestled in a bed of dirty straw, are three huge black eggs.
“We must destroy them. It is the only option.”
“That’s what people always say when they’re not willing to consider the alternatives!”
“The alternatives? Such as hatching a brood of monsters?”
Nubbins sighs. Aleph and Minerva have been at it for what feels like a tenday, trading arguments that have long since turned to insults. At first, he, Cyd and Gerard had joined in the conversation, offering their opinions (Cuthbert has spent the entire debate pointedly flicking stones at the far wall of the cave), but now everyone has faltered into silence save the Warforged and the elf, who seem as though they could keep going for another tenday more.
“You don’t know that they’ll grow up to be monsters—they’re just eggs!”
“Black dragon eggs, Minerva. We cannot take the risk!”
“With proper care and attention—”
“And I suppose you think that you are the one to provide it?”
“So what if I do?”
“Look, Minnie,” Cyd says, trying to sound reasonable. “I love magical creatures as much as the next person, but you have to admit that Alf has a point. Black dragons don’t have the best reputation, and if we leave these eggs to hatch, they might come back to bite us—literally.”
“Or the people of Greenest, or any of the villages near here,” Aleph adds. “You must think of someone other than yourself and—”
“I AM thinking of someone other than myself, I’ll have you know! I’M thinking of these defenceless baby dragons!”
Nubbins watches this exchange in listless silence. He doesn’t know what the right thing to do about the dragon eggs is, but this argument doesn’t seem to be doing anything to help decide matters. And then a new voice speaks across the quarrel, one that only Nubbins can hear. A tiny image of Balasar forms at the corner of his field of vision and addresses him in satisfied tones.
“Hashem has just arrived at the dig site to debrief you, Nubbins. Whenever you’re ready!”
Nubbins smiles. And then he stares.
“That’s great,” he replies. “Um, Balasar? Would you—I mean, would the Enchanters’ College—be interested in some black dragon eggs?”
Everyone in the cave looks at him.
“Was that a sending spell, Nubs, or were you just talking to yourself?” Cyd asks.
“I was talking to Balasar,” Nubbins answers, speaking quickly. He’s excited now that he has hit on a possible solution to their problem. “I was thinking: we can’t take care of the eggs, but I bet my College could! They’re all really powerful wizards and they love to research things. Maybe they could do research on the eggs, and keep them safe?”
“That strikes me as a reasonable compromise, Nubbins,” Aleph replies at length. “If you vouch for the prudence and skill of your colleagues, then I am satisfied that they will treat the eggs with due caution. Minerva,” he turns to the elf a little formally, “what say you?”
“IF your Mr. Enchanters’ College will give me his word that the eggs won’t be harmed,” Minerva says stiffly, “then I say go ahead.”
Nubbins thinks about this. “Well, I’ll ask him the next time he sends me a message, but we might have to wait a little while. It usually takes a few days before—”
“Sweet Mystra, YES!!”
Balasar’s sending is so loud and so emphatic that it cuts Nubbins off mid-sentence, making the gnome’s ears ring.
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