Previously: Keothi’s lips twitch in a rare smile, his eyes fixed on something above Gerard’s head.
“No,” Gerard raps, trying to pull him back from the brink. “Look at me, Wordweaver.” He reaches for another roll of gauze, but as he does so there’s a catch in Keothi’s breath, and the goliath goes still. [Chapter 18: The Long Night, Part 3]
“Perhaps Mr Kobold could watch over the prisoners until we pass back this way,” Atone suggests.
“At the very least, the lure of coin may hold him to his word,” Aleph rumbles. [Chapter 25: Mr Kobold]
“I am Cahthiph,” the stranger Warforged says. “Cavalry, Heavy: Thirteenth Phalanx. But you may call me Bouncer.” [Chapter 40: The Fall of Emberfrost]
Before Emberfrost fell, Bouncer was a door guard at the Hearth and Road Inn, near the city’s eastern wall. This explains his odd name, which does not surprise Aleph at all; the Warforged are a literal-minded people.
“I volunteered for the emergency reserves when we were besieged,” he tells Aleph. “I was manning the walls on the day the city fell. When the order went out to fall back to the evacuation portals, I was almost the last one through.
“The Thirteenth were more fortunate than your phalanx, brother. Fully two-thirds of us escaped unharmed, along with most of the Fifth and the Ninth. We survivors built a village here.”
“We have seen it,” Aleph tells him eagerly. “We passed through this way not three days ago, though it was abandoned when we arrived. And we saw nothing of… this.” He gestures at the enormous crater, the rows upon rows of items and artefacts laid out in a neat grid.
Bouncer nods slowly. “You missed our brothers and sisters by hours, then—they departed for Elturel only recently. While the village was inhabited, our battlecasters kept this memorial hidden. We did not want to draw undue attention to ourselves, or to alarm the native humans who lived in these parts. And we wished to preserve the sanctity of the place, in memory of the fallen. With no more battlecasters, however, the illusion could not be maintained. The spells must only just have faded.”
Listening to the two Warforged talk, Nubbins feels as though he is seeing the crater again for the first time. The uniform rows of objects take on the aspect of gravestones, the flowers growing between them the well-kept borders of a cemetery.
“They asked me to come with them,” Bouncer is saying, “but my place is here. The memorial must be tended to, the old gateway guarded. It is another kind of door duty, I think; a job for which I am well suited.” His eyes flash like a shower of sparks, the same way Aleph’s do when he finds something funny. Nubbins doesn’t think he’ll ever get Warforged humour.
“Um, Mr Bouncer,” he says, making him a little bow, “Is everything here part of your memorial? Only, I’ve been looking for a lightning elemental like that one over there and I was wondering if I could…”
He trails off, embarrassed to finish the question. It feels a lot like asking to rob a grave. But Bouncer glances towards the pyramid and shrugs.
“You are welcome to take it, if you have the means. Its housing has been broken since we came to this plane. My siblings and I managed to contain it within four conductor rods”—he gestures to four metal pylons that surround the pyramid in a tight square—“but it remains dangerous.”
“Th—thank you!” Nubbins exclaims. He wasn’t expecting his next mission to be this easy! “So, I’ll just… grab it now, then?”
He hurries over to the crackling tower of lightning, hardly daring to believe his good fortune. It is only as he draws closer to the pyramid that he realises the problem. Its entire surface is wreathed in lightning, coiling and writhing around it like a snake. As the gnome walks between the nearest of the two pylons, a tongue of white flame leaps from the pyramid and lunges at him, striking his hand.
“Ow!” he yelps, stumbling backwards. This is going to be trickier than he thought.
The rest of the party surround the pyramid warily, keeping well back from the conductor rods.
“Well, we can’t just pick it up and carry it back to Greenest.” Cyd says at last.
“Bouncer said that it was dangerous, and defective,” Aleph rumbles. “Perhaps you had better leave it alone, Nubbins.”
The gnome scratches his head. “I can’t do that—I might never find another one!”
He steps forward again with a thoughtful air, drawing his ice axe from his belt.
“Careful,” Cyd warns.
“I’m just going to try something,” Nubbins replies. “The lightning elemental is meant to be inside the pyramid, right?”
Another whip of lightning lashes out at him as he walks back towards the elemental, but he is ready for it this time. He sidesteps the crackling bolt, raises his axe high above his head, and slices it in half.
There’s a sound like a match being extinguished in a vat of icy water. To Nubbins, it feels as though his axe has passed through something no more substantial than air, but the lightning elemental thrashes and shrinks back.
“Got it!” he shouts triumphantly. “Now, if we can just make it go back into the pyramid then we can carry it back to Greenest.”
“The pyramid is broken,” Cuthbert points out. “I’d wager that’s how the elemental escaped in the first place.” Nubbins follows the line of his pointing finger and sees with dismay that the sorcerer is right: the stone structure has a deep crack along one side.
“Well, we’ll just have to tire it out then,” he says desperately. “It can’t attack us if it’s asleep!” More fronds of lightning are flying towards him, forcing him to dance on the spot to avoid being struck. He hits another one with his ice axe, producing another hiss of steam. A bolt of golden flame roars past him and he turns to see that Gerard has joined the fight. The monk narrows his eyes and releases another, sending it flying into the heart of the column of lightning. On Nubbins’ other side, Aleph strikes; there is no sound as he swings his psionic blade, but the air seems to reverberate with a static charge that makes the gnome’s hair stand on end.
As the invisible blow lands, the lightning elemental rears up and begins spinning like a cyclone, sparks of electricity flying from it in all directions. There’s a sharp crack, a strong smell of ozone, and a shockwave that sends the party flying. Cyd is the first one back on her feet. She draws a dagger from her belt and flings it at the elemental, which is already retreating. With a final hiss, it disappears into the pyramid like water spiralling down a drain.
“Now!” Nubbins yells. “We need to fix it now!”
But though the elemental has withdrawn inside, the broken pyramid still crackles and thrums with energy; no one can get close. The group hover around it, reaching out with uncertain hands that stop just shy of touching the stone.
“Oh, good grief. You’re all hopeless.” Cuthbert flicks his fingers and a ghostly blue hand appears beside the pyramid, seizes it, and carries it to Nubbins, depositing it at his feet. The gnome scrabbles in his pack for his tinker’s tools, and within minutes has applied a thick layer of solder to the crack, sealing it up. The crackling light that wreathes the pyramid gradually fades. The gnome steps back and admires his handiwork.
“I do not think that will contain it for long, Nubbins,” Gerard says. “Metal conducts electricity.”
“It’ll do for now,” he replies. Still, he picks the pyramid up with care, and wraps it in his spare cloak before stowing it in his pack.
“That was well done,” a voice calls. Bouncer is swinging his way towards the party along a row of cogs and sprockets. As he draws closer, they can see that he is gripping something in one fist.
“I think that you should have this,” Bouncer says when he has reached Aleph’s side. He opens his hand: in his palm is a small wooden disc, ‘XIII’ carved into its surface. “For your shield.”
Aleph’s eyes brighten. He clasps the wooden insignia to his chest before placing it into the empty slot on his shield, where it glows and sets in place. “Thank you, brother.”
“No thanks are necessary,” the other Warforged replies. “Its place is with you.”
“Come with us,” Aleph says suddenly. “You have done noble work preserving this memorial, but it is a lonely task. You say your friends have left for Elturel; we are travelling that way ourselves. Let us bear you with us. We have a spare horse.” He gestures to the great shire horse that Governor Nighthill loaned them, which they have been using to carry their supplies since Aleph began riding Beronal.
Bouncer takes a long time to consider Aleph’s offer; so long, in fact, that the rest of the party begin to wonder if he has even heard it. Eventually, however, he gives a ponderous nod. “Perhaps it is time I served Emberfrost in other ways.”
When the party join the rescued townsfolk at the top of the crater to resume their journey, they have another companion in tow. Despite his old injury, Bouncer sits atop the shire horse with the ease of a former cavalryman, only needing the addition of a few ropes to keep him securely on his mount.
Aleph is gladder than he can say that Bouncer has chosen to accompany them. He has been hoping to speak to him alone ever since he first saw him at the bottom of the crater, and yet now that they are riding side by side, Beronal and the shire horse trotting along well behind the rest of the party, he finds that he does not know how to begin. He is brought up short, not for the first time, against the expanse of time that separates him from the Emberfrost of his memories. The day of the fall divides Aleph’s life completely in two, sundering his life in Emberfrost from his life now as irrevocably as a blade sunders flesh. But that sheer line of division has jagged edges; the thought of exploring it again fills the Warforged with unwonted hesitancy.
It is Bouncer, in the end, who breaks the silence, several miles along the road back to Greenest. He turns in the saddle before he speaks.
“It brings me great joy to see you, brother,” he says softly. “I had thought that the Eighth phalanx had met the same fate as the First.”
“I was never able to learn anything of the other phalanxes after the fall,” Aleph admits. “The First all perished, then? I sorrow to hear it.”
Now it is Bouncer’s turn to hesitate. “I think it likely,” he replies. “In truth, they were never accounted for. Most believe that they must have been wiped out to a man. But there was so much chaos, that day. Perhaps some of them survive, as you do.”
There’s a pause. “You said that you were on the walls that day,” Aleph comments.
Bouncer nods. “I was there when I heard the order to retreat. I remember that it came earlier than planned. An enemy vanguard had broken through the Western gate—no one knew how. They made straight for the scheduled locations of the evacuation portals, before those portals had even been opened. We were forced to fall back to defend them.”
Aleph feels a shiver ripple through him. He leans forward. “Do you mean to say that—”
He is interrupted by a shout from up ahead.
“That sneaky little—Alf! Get over here”
“Cyd?” Aleph urges Beronal into a canter until he has caught up with the source of the disturbance. Cyd is standing at the foot of a hill, her expression stranded somewhere between amusement and irritation. “I wish Tony was here to see this,” she says, waving a folded sheet of parchment in Aleph’s direction.
“What has happened?” Aleph says. Even as he asks the question, he thinks he can guess the answer. He recognises this hill: the marks of an old fire pit, the shredded remains of a length of rope. “This is where we left those prisoners,” he answers himself. “In the care of that spurious kobold. I see that they have escaped.”
“Not just that,” the rogue replies. “‘That spurious kobold’ has left us a little note; look.”
The note is short and to the point. It reads:
Fed the stupid humans for ages. Not sure if you’d survive without my directions, so you probably have died. If alive, happy to take half payment for help. – Mr Kobold
Aleph reads it over in silence, against a background of Cyd’s incredulous laughter. “It is no more than I expected,” he says when he has finished.
The convoy camp in the same spot where the party first encountered the opportunistic Mr Kobold, rising early the next morning to continue their journey. Greenest is only hours away now, and if they ride quickly, they will arrive by nightfall.
There’s a perceptible lightening of the mood as they draw closer to their destination. It’s not just the townsfolk who are eager to return; Greenest has become a haven to the whole party, and they are as keen to see their friends in the town as they are to inform Governor Nighthill of their success. Nubbins thinks happily of Brem and Dwali, and Gerard finds his cheeks growing warm whenever anyone mentions Saph’s name. Before long, everyone is straining their eyes for a first glimpse of home.
In the end, though, they almost miss the first farmstead because its fields and outbuildings are empty of people, the farmhouse dark and almost indistinguishable against the grey evening sky.
“Everyone must be in bed,” Nubbins says as they ride past, a little disappointedly.
In contrast, the town itself is soon visible despite the dark, its houses lit by a ruddy glow that suggests warm hearths and roaring fires. The party feel their spirits rising as they draw nearer, and yet there is something different about the town that none of them, at this distance, can quite place. Were the streets this bright when they left? Greenest is glowing like a carnival right now, or one of the big cities on the Sword Coast. It doesn’t look like a small town of less than a thousand souls.
The sense of strangeness increases as they near the end of the road. Behind the wreckage of the old barricades that once protected the entrance to the town, the party can see another light: a diffuse, blue glow.
“What…” Nubbins strains to see over the barricades, trying to make out the source of the unnatural radiance. “…is that?”
It is Greenest Keep. Only now it is encased in a dome of pale blue light.
“What in the nine hells is going on here?” Cyd says slowly. She steps forward, but Aleph lays a hand on her arm, halting her in her tracks.
“Wait. There is someone in the shadows.”
There’s a man standing in the lee of one of the blockades. He is tall—enormously so—and broadly built. A frightening and imposing figure, but Cyd feels recognition catch in her throat at the sight of him.
Cuthbert and Leosin stiffen, their hands flying to their weapons.
“Undead,” the monk says grimly. “Don’t let it touch you.”
Cyd lays a hand on Leosin’s arm.
“No!” Nubbins cries, his voice choked. “That’s not an undead. That’s—”
“Hello again,” says Keothi.
New reader? Check out the first chapter here!
Hi all! We’re back from our holiday and getting back into the swing of regular posts 🙂 Stay tuned for the next one! By the way, if you want to know more about the fall of Emberfrost, Chapters 11, 40, and Aleph’s backstory on our Meet the Characters page should help!
Thanks for reading, friends – we really appreciate it! 🙂
-Lou & Cam X
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