Previously: They take the horses—who have stayed tethered where the party left them the night before, grazing on the weeds growing up from the valley floor—but leave the golems behind.
“They’d only slow us down,” Nubbins says regretfully, patting one of them on its massive stone arm as he rides past the entrance to the dig site. [Chapter 33: …And into the Caves]
A tiny image of Balasar forms at the corner of Nubbins’ field of vision and addresses him.
“Hashem has just arrived at the dig site to debrief you, Nubbins. Cheerio!”
Nubbins smiles. And then he stares.
“That’s great,” he replies. “Um, Balasar? Would you be interested in some black dragon eggs?” [Chapter 38: Dilemmas]
Gerard and Nubbins walk to the dig site together, the gnome taking three steps to each of the human’s long strides.
“That was a wise notion about the eggs,” Gerard says to the tiny figure trotting at his side. “We might never have reached a decision without your intervention.”
They find Hashem loitering just inside the entrance to the cave, glancing about him expectantly. His face lights up as he sees Nubbins, who gives him an answering grin. It is good to see his friend again.
“Chief Archaeologist,” Hashem says, making Nubbins a formal bow.
“Head Researcher,” Nubbins replies, shaking his hand.
“My my, how far we’ve both come! It doesn’t seem so long ago that we were students, sneaking into the High Enchanter’s office and stuffing his desk full of”—Hashem breaks off as he realises that there’s another person present—“Ahem. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Gerard!” Nubbins beams. “He’s one of my adventuring friends. Gerard, Hashem!”
“I’ll leave you two to catch up,” Gerard says. “I’d better let the townsfolk know where we’ve been all this time!”
While Gerard talks to the former prisoners hiding inside the dig site, Nubbins tells Hashem about the artefacts he found there. It doesn’t take long, but there’s a relentless wind whistling down the ravine that cuts through muscle and sinew to strike cold into their very bones, and both men are shivering before they are through. Hashem draws a hip flask out from a pouch at his belt and gives Nubbins a significant look.
“Now, Nubbins, can you keep a secret?” he asks. “This little beauty”—he waves the flask enticingly—“is Zozo’s liqueur. Fire wine. It fell off a merchant schooner at the docks last week, and it is just the thing for weather like this.”
Nubbins frowns. “It doesn’t sound like that merchant takes very good care of their things,” he says. “They should tie down their crates more carefully.”
To Nubbins’ confusion, Hashem digs him in the side and winks. “The soul of discretion, as always! That’s what I like about you!” The enchanter pulls another, smaller bottle from a pocket, drinks half of it, and passes it to the gnome. “We need to have a little palate cleanser beforehand,” he explains. “This is a protection from fire potion, to counteract the more… extreme effects.”
Nubbins gulps the little potion, following it up with a grateful swig from the hip flask. The liqueur inside is red and orange as a hearth fire, and steams in the freezing air. It is thicker than Nubbins expected, and tastes of cinnamon and smoke. It warms the gnome right through, as though a fire has been kindled in his own belly.
“Mmm,” he murmurs, smacking his lips. “That’s good!”
Gerard, who has at that moment emerged from the dig site, eyes the flask with interest.
“Try some!” Nubbins offers eagerly, thrusting it into the monk’s hands.
“Wait! You’ll need—” but Hashem’s warning comes a fraction of a second too late: Gerard has already tipped the flask back and poured a generous measure straight into his mouth.
The effects are instantaneous. Nubbins has seen Gerard blush many times before, but now the monk’s face goes as red as if he has been baking under a summertide sun at noon. He rips his waterskin from his belt and squeezes it into his open mouth, but only a dribble emerges. Nubbins almost thinks he hears the water sizzle as it hits Gerard’s tongue.
“Ah—Ah—Ah!” It seems all that the monk is able to say.
Nubbins is stammering out an apology when he catches sight of Hashem. The Head Researcher is biting his lip to keep himself from laughing.
“Just like old times!” he mouths. Then, aloud, he says, “Now, shall we go and see about these dragon eggs?”
The cave complex feels warm compared to the frigid air outside, though the air is so dank and muggy that the rise in temperature hardly comes as a relief.
“Balasar will be meeting us down there,” Hashem explains as Nubbins and Gerard lead him deeper into the warren of tunnels. “He wants to see the eggs for himself, and I think he has another commission for you, Nubbins—something he’s keeping close to his chest.”
They find the rest of the party more or less where they left them, Cuthbert still flicking stones at the far wall of the cave, Aleph and Minerva still sitting with their backs to one another in pointed silence.
“Thank god you’re back,” Cyd says, not troubling to hide her relief at having someone to talk to again. “How are the golems doing?”
Gerard feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. Beside him, Nubbins looks similarly crestfallen.
“Oh no! I KNEW there was something different about the dig site!” he says, smacking a hand to his forehead.
“The golems are gone,” Gerard answers weakly. “The cultists must have stolen them on their way back through the ravine.”
“Gone,” the rogue says. “And you didn’t realise this until just now? Surely the townsfolk said something about it?”
“They must have been hiding inside when it happened,” Gerard replies. “And I was too… distracted to notice.”
“Poor golems,” Nubbins says. “And just when they were getting the hang of our barbershop quartet, too.”
Cyd, who seems to find this a good deal funnier than either Nubbins or Gerard, snickers. “Oh, they’ll be fine, Nubs. And the cultists won’t get much joy out of them—we’ve still got their control rods! I can’t believe you didn’t notice, though!”
Hashem has not been listening to this conversation at all: all of his attention is reserved for the dragon eggs, three black obelisks clustered, immense and almost immoveable, in a bed of straw. At last he speaks, cutting across Cyd’s chuckles.
“Elminster’s balls. They’re huge!”
“Aren’t they just. And what do you think of the eggs?” Cyd replies, smirking.
Minerva lets out a bark of surprised laughter, but Hashem is still lost in wonder, and does not hear her.
“Balasar will hardly believe this,” he murmurs. He takes a marble from his pocket, kneels down and places it on the ground, a few paces from the rest of the party.
A moment later, there’s a bang and a flash of bright light. A blueish hole has opened just above the marble, and out of it climbs High Enchanter Balasar.
“Hello, hello!” He gives the party a cheerful wave, then stops short as he catches sight of the eggs. “Mystra’s tits! Absolutely magnificent!”
Cyd catches Minerva’s eye and giggles.
The eggs are so large and so heavy that it takes three of them to move each one from the nest to Balasar’s portal. Even then, they must roll them along the ground—picking them up would be impossible, even if they were not as fragile as bone china. The progress of each egg is accompanied by a grotesque sound of sloshing albumen that makes Minerva’s gorge rise.
“And you give me your word that the eggs will not be harmed?” she asks Balasar again, as she helps him and Nubbins to roll the first egg through the swirling blue vortex.
“Madam, you may depend upon it,” Balasar says jovially. “We can’t hatch them, of course—we don’t have the facilities—but it’s certainly not in our interests to destroy them! And kept carefully, in a dormant state, they could provide us with some fascinating insights into draconic embryonic development! Why, I imagine we’ll get research papers out of this that’ll make the College of Conjurers positively green with envy!”
He continues to wax lyrical about dragons and research and such nonsense, but Minerva has stopped listening. Satisfied on the most important point, her thoughts have turned to what she ought to do now. Now that the cultists have moved out of the Greenfields, she doubts the intelligence she’s gathered from them will be much use to Governor Nighthill. But she does know where they’re going next, and she’s sure to find someone on their route willing to reward her for her efforts. She crosses over to where Cyd is helping Gerard and Cuthbert to move the second egg.
“Well, I’m off,” she announces. “I’ve got bounties to collect and secrets to sell.”
“Thanks for all your help with the eggs, Minnie!” the rogue replies. “Where will you go?”
“Naerytar, I imagine. Where these dragon cultists go, criminals and chaos seem to follow—and that’s what puts food on my table, you know!”
Aleph does not notice Minerva leave. He is standing with his back to her, deep in conversation with Hashem about an object close to his own heart.
“You see we have taken a prisoner,” he says, gesturing to the bound and unconscious Cyanwrath.
“Yes. Um, well done.” Hashem, who looks like a man unused to the ways of adventurers, sounds somewhat nervous.
“He is honourable, though he serves our enemy. I would see him stand trial for his crimes, if such a thing were possible. Unfortunately, there is no gaol in the Greenfields strong enough to hold such a foe.”
The researcher’s expression clears. “Oh, you’d like us to take him back to Neverwinter!” he says. “Well, Balasar won’t love the idea, but it’s the least we can do after you made us such a generous gift. He is—still unconscious, isn’t he?”
Aleph inclines his head gravely. “He is. And will not waken for some time, I imagine.”
“Good, good. In that case, I’m sure we’d be happy to help.”
As it turns out, Balasar seems not at all perturbed by his new draconic prisoner.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he says vaguely when Hashem raises the subject. His eyes are roving about the cavern. Eventually, he spots who he is looking for. Nubbins is almost completely obscured by the third and final egg, which he is rolling, with Cyd and Gerard’s help, into the portal. The gnome has been looking uncharacteristically downcast since the loss of the golems, but he brightens visibly as the High Enchanter beckons him over.
“Hashem said you had another job for me!” Nubbins says as he joins the group at the back of the cavern.
Balasar smiles broadly. “Indeed I do, Nubbins. Tell me: have you ever heard of a ‘rail-way’?”
Aleph, who had begun to tune out of this conversation, turns to look at the High Enchanter with renewed interest. “They are common in Khorvaire, though I have never seen one here,” he finds himself saying. “Their carriages run on lightning, as I understand, and can travel many times faster than by horsepower.”
Balasar glances at the Warforged in surprise. “I didn’t know you were from Eberron. So much the better: I’m sure Nubbins will benefit from your expertise! Yes, the rail-way is a system of lightning-driven carriages,” he continues, turning again to Nubbins. “Each carriage has a sort of a box with a lightning elemental inside to make it go, and as your learned friend points out, the technology to create them does not exist outside of Eberron. But, here’s the thing: we’ve heard rumours from travellers that some of that technology has made it through to Faerun—through a portal in this neck of the woods, actually.
“Now, if we were able to create a railed-way of our own, it would be a feather in the College’s cap, and no mistake. And if the technology really is here for the taking, then you’re the man to do it!”
The cave seems very, very quiet once Hashem and Balasar have taken their leave. The five remaining party members unconsciously draw closer together, finding that the dim and muggy cavern seems suddenly more threatening than it did before.
“NOW can we get the hell out of here?” Cyd asks. “I feel like I’ve been in these caves a lifetime—and I spent most of the trip unconscious!”
“There is only one task yet remaining to us,” Aleph rumbles. And, amid loud groans from Cyd and Cuthbert, he continues: “I would have thought you would be glad of it, Cydonie, since it involves your favourite activity.”
Cyd breaks off mid-sigh, her eyes lighting up. “The chest!” she says jubilantly. “We still haven’t looted the acid chest!”
The chest lies where they left it in the black dragon chapel, its lid hanging askew where Aleph wrenched it free. It is brim-full of shining things—silver cups and platters, necklaces of gold, and even the occasional gemstone set into a broach or adorning a button—but as soon as she sees this glittering hoard, Cyd’s animated features become sober again.
“This must be some of the loot they nicked from Greenest,” she says. The party stare at the riches in silence. While prosperous enough, Greenest is not a wealthy town. It is obvious to everyone that the contents of this chest must represent the villagers’ most precious treasures: things that they scrimped and saved to buy, or have handed down for generations with anxious care.
Aleph grasps the chest by its wrought-iron handles and heaves. It is heavy, but not so heavy that he cannot lift it.
“We will bear it back with us,” he says, speaking for them all. “I am sure that the townsfolk will be glad to see it again.”
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