Previously: “What’s this?” Cyd demands, holding out the sunburst emblem.
Nubbins joins in. “And why are you stealing tiny dragons?”
The bandit leader pauses for a moment. “It’s the mark of the men who hired us.”
Aleph places one hand on his axe. “We will need more information than that. Elaborate.”
The smuggler looks alarmed. “Look, if I knew more, I’d tell you! Our employers kept themselves to themselves. Very secret. About a month ago, they came to us, said they’d pay five hundred gold for each rare beast we could catch. A thousand if it was magical—pixies, unicorns, that kind of thing.” [Chapter 6: Greenest Keep]
Keothi shrugs. “Jardar has taken over the town. You see, I was right not to trust her.”
Aleph hangs his head. “Governor Nighthill told us that he would struggle to contain such a powerful adversary. We should have taken better precautions.”
“What’s with the forcefield around the keep?” Cyd asks.
“A protective barrier. No one has been in or out since the town fell, six days ago. I believe Nighthill is still inside.” [Chapter 42: The Other Dragon]
Content note: this week’s chapter contains some gore and animal cruelty.
There’s next-to-no natural light in the temple crypt, so the party sleep late the following morning. Aleph lets them do it: they need the rest, and with Jardar hiding behind an arcane forcefield, they have no way of retaking the keep yet in any case. He climbs back up to the temple proper and uses the time both to patch up his armour and to reminisce with Bouncer about their lives in Emberfrost, back when the city was young and full of promise.
At some point in the night, the two Warforged see Saph and Gerard emerge from the crypt and sneak away. They return a few hours later, looking furtive. From some heavy-handed hints that Cyd has dropped in the past, Aleph thinks that he can guess what they have been doing. He decides that it is probably best not to press them about their absence.
A few hours later, a hammering at the temple doors announces the arrival of Cuthbert and Leosin. Both men are covered in red, shiny burns on their faces and necks, the marks of a run-in with the fire mephits.
“The townsfolk all made it back safe,” Cuthbert says when Aleph asks him. “The fire-wasps didn’t attack us till we were almost at the temple, but there’s thousands of the little buggers about.”
“They seem to be patrolling the streets,” Leosin adds.
Aleph nods. “Wordweaver told us that a curfew was in place.”
“Well, I’m going to stay put for now then,” Cuthbert replies. “It doesn’t take a diviner to guess that you lot are about to get yourselves in trouble. When you need healing, come back this way and I’ll fix you up.”
“Direct any injured you meet to the temple as well,” Leosin chips in. “We’ll establish a field hospital here, in case the fighting spills out into the town.”
There’s a bang behind them, and the four men turn to see Saph emerging from the trapdoor down to the crypt, her face flushed with excitement. There’s a leaf in her hair, which Aleph elects not to mention.
“Big news!” she announces. “Come down here—I’m going to wake the others!”
“I’ve found it!” Saph tells the assembled party, most of whom are still bleary-eyed and yawning. “A weak spot in Jardar’s barrier. It’s around the side of the keep, not far from the sally port. There’s strong illusion magic coming from that area: my best guess is that Jardar built an escape route for herself in case anyone managed to break through her defences, then cloaked it so no one else could find it.”
“So you think there might be a way through into the keep on the other side of the barrier?” Cyd asks.
Saph nods. “Probably an illusory wall or something, like we’ve got here.” She gestures to the fake crypt wall behind which the party spent the night. “You’ll have to find it on your own, though. I can get you through the forcefield, but I’ll need to stay on the outside and hold it open till you get back.”
“Won’t that leave you exposed to the mephits?” Nubbins asks anxiously.
“You’ll just have to be quick!” Saph grins.
Feathers leaps up onto Cyd’s shoulders and coils around her neck. It’s as good a plan as any, she tells Cyd. Whenever you’re ready.
Cyd glances at her in surprise. “You’re coming with?”
Naturally. The Governor is a friend to the fey and deserves to be rescued. Also, last time we went to the keep, he gave me chicken giblets.
And so, leaving Bouncer, Leosin and Cuthbert behind to manage things in the temple, the group set out. It is broad daylight when they emerge onto Greenest’s main thoroughfare, and they’re all shocked at how silent the town is. The main street is all-but deserted. The Cat and Squirrel, normally filled at this hour with merchants and farmers enjoying their lunch, is empty, its windows shuttered. The market square feels like a ghost town.
“Jardar will be made to pay for what she has done to this place,” Aleph rumbles, eyes flaring with anger.
Keothi bristles. “What about what she did to me?”
“You seem to have recovered from that on your own,” the Warforged replies. “Well, to an extent, anyway.”
“Can we move on?” Saph asks. “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves and you two”—she gestures to the bulky Warforged and Keothi, the 7-foot tall revenant with swirling black eyes—“are pretty much the definition of ‘conspicuous’.”
“We can in a minute,” comes a voice from the level of Saph’s chest. She looks down. Nubbins is gazing at the provisioner’s store on the other side of the square. “I want to buy something first,” the gnome says.
Saph squints, trying to see what has caught his eye. Then she spots the crossbow hanging just inside the window. “Nubbins, that’s almost as big as you are,” she says. “And do you even know how to—”
But Nubbins has already bounded into the shop. He emerges a few minutes later with the massive crossbow slung over his back.
“Has he ever used a crossbow before?” Saph whispers to Gerard. The gnome is now strutting along at the head of the group, looking dangerously close to overbalancing.
“Not that I have seen,” the monk admits.
After that, the party make good time. The road leading up to Greenest keep is deserted; they meet no one, not even one of the swarms of fire mephits that patrol the rest of the town. At the base of the hill on which the keep stands, Saph turns off the path and leads the group around towards the sally port, keeping close to the shimmering blue barrier that encases the entire hillside like a bubble of blown glass. She stops below an overhang of rock, just out of sight of the main gates. Through the barrier, the party can see a patch of grassy hillside, bare and nondescript.
“It’s here,” she announces.
Cyd prods the barrier dubiously. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Saph roots around in her bag, producing a tinderbox, a bunch of dried herbs, and a clay bowl. “Now, I need to concentrate.”
The ritual is not as dramatic as the one Saph used to attempt to free Kaax from his painting prison. She burns the herbs in the bowl and wafts the smoke towards the barrier, muttering under her breath. At first, the party think that nothing is happening. The barrier does not vanish so much as clear, its blue sheen fading like steam from a fogged-up window.
“Go now,” Saph hisses, in a pause between incantations. “I’ll hold it like this till you get back.”
Aleph leading the way, the group push through the now transparent forcefield, which feels light and slightly slimy to the touch. It parts to admit them like a skein of water.
They spread out once they are on the other side, looking for the secret entrance.
“Saph said that it might be an illusory wall,” Gerard reminds them, “So perhaps we should feel around for—”
He stops speaking as his arm disappears into the hillside up to the shoulder.
“Ah. Never mind.”
Once Gerard has unwittingly revealed the illusion, everyone can see it: a doorway-sized section of the hill becomes semi-transparent, revealing a dark corridor beyond.
“Excellent work, Gerard,” Keothi says. “Now, let us continue. I am eager for vengeance.”
The rest of the party exchange glances. “Um, Keith,” Cyd says. “Did you know that your eyes swirl faster when you’re angry?”
“I do not see how that is relevant.”
“Not relevant, per se. Just creepy.”
The passageway smells damp; Feathers wrinkles her nose as she pads inside. The corridor terminates in a wooden door, braced with iron, but with a lock that’s no match for Cyd and her picks. It swings open on well-oiled hinges that belie the air of disuse that pervades this part of the keep. Peering around it, Cyd lets out a soft cry. The room beyond appears to be some sort of laboratory—two sturdy worktables are cluttered with specimens, flasks and alembics—but that is not what has arrested her attention. There’s a metal grating set into the far wall, a door leading into a cell no bigger than a closet. Slumped within, on a bed of filthy straw, is Governor Nighthill.
Pausing only to check for tripwires, Cyd races to the cell door, a lockpick already in her hand. The rest of the party follow, equally alarmed. Nighthill’s face is ashen and his eyes are closed.
“Mr. Nighthill?” Cyd asks, her voice small. He doesn’t stir.
“He’s breathing,” Gerard says after a moment, “but badly hurt.”
He and Cyd step carefully into the cell and pick the Governor up between them, holding him gently as a sheet of glass. As they lift him clear, they see for the first time that the straw beneath him is stained red.
“His arm,” Nubbins murmurs. Nighthill’s right shoulder terminates in a bloody stump.
The party stare, stricken. As Gerard and Cyd lay Nighthill on one of the worktables, Aleph steps forward and places a hand on the red wreckage that was his arm. His fingers glow, and the wound begins to knit together.
“He must’ve lost a lot of blood,” Cyd says. “Feathers, do you think you could take a message to the temple and—Feathers?”
Turning, the rogue sees that Feathers is standing on the other worktable. The little tressym’s back is arched, her tail a rigid, angry line. She’s staring at something on the table, her teeth bared in a snarl. Cyd edges towards her, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
There’s a faerie dragon stretched out on the table, its tiny body so small that Cyd didn’t notice it before. Someone (Jardar, Cyd thinks, with venom) has sliced it open and removed its internal organs. Cyd can see some of them now, ranged beside it in neatly labelled glass jars. There’s something pinned beneath the little corpse: a sheet of paper. Her gorge rising, Cyd tugs it free. It’s a flyer decorated with a gaudy—and familiar—symbol: a black mask against an orange sunburst.
Madam Malva’s Marvellous Interplanar Circus, it reads. Magical creatures the likes of which you have never seen!
And below, scrawled in pen, three extra words: Enjoy the specimens.
“Feth, are you OK?” Cyd asks. Feathers seems lost for words.
This—this is, she says to Cyd. She pauses, her fur standing out all over her body. I have to go. The Faery Queen needs to hear about this.
So saying, she bounds from the worktable and back out into the corridor.
“Feth, wait!” Cyd calls desperately. But the tressym is already gone.
Cyd is all for pursuing Feathers, but the rest of the party persuade her to let the tressym go.
“She loves you, Cyd,” Nubbins says consolingly. “She’ll come back when she’s ready.”
“And tressym are as intelligent as humans—maybe more so,” Gerard points out. “I am sure she will have no difficulty in finding you when she is ready to return.”
“But she’s all alone!” Cyd wails. Still, she allows herself to be led away from the hideous worktable without much resistance. She knows, really, that Feathers can take care of herself. And if the tressym really needs to go back to the Feywild then there is little Cyd can do to stop her.
There’s another door at the far end of the laboratory, just beyond the cell where Jardar was keeping Nighthill. The lock proves no more difficult for Cyd than did the first one; she inches the door open a crack and peeps out at what lies beyond. A familiar sight greets her eyes.
“It’s the sewer where we chained those faerie dragon smugglers,” she whispers. “The one below the war room. Weird: I don’t remember seeing a door down here before.”
“No doubt this dungeon laboratory is a new addition to the keep,” Aleph says grimly. “That, or Jardar used her magic to conceal it from us the last time we were down here.”
“Are the smugglers still there?” Nubbins asks, jostling Cyd for a better view through the crack.
“I can’t see… Nubbins, stop pushing me!”
The door swings outwards with a creak, and Cyd tumbles into the dank tunnel, closely followed by Nubbins. There’s a shout, and two armed men appear from the end of the passage.
“Yes,” Cyd confirms, “They’re still here. Shouldn’t you two be chained up?” she asks the leader of the bandits, drawing her bow.
It’s five against two, and the two are not particularly well armed, so the fight is brief. No sooner has Aleph stepped over the smugglers’ slumped bodies, than he hears a soft whistle coming from the end of the tunnel.
“Psst. Psst! Is anyone there? We need some help!”
Nubbins’ eyes widen. “I know that voice!” He rushes past Aleph and down the passage to the alcoves in the wall where the smugglers were once chained. In their place, looking pale and tired but very much alive, are Brem, Dwali and Escobert.
“BREM!” Nubbins squeaks, embracing his friend. “We were really worried about you guys!”
Brem winces, clearly still tender from his bonds, and the gnome hastily relaxes his grip.
“Never mind about us,” Escobert mutters urgently. “How is Tarbaw? Did you find him?”
“Governor Nighthill is stable,” Aleph replies, “though his wounds are serious. The sooner we get him out of this place, the better.”
Nubbins fills the three prisoners in on what they have missed during their incarceration while Cyd unlocks their manacles. As soon as the last chain clinks to the ground, Gerard eagerly motions towards the laboratory door.
“There’s a way out through here. Can you walk?”
As it turns out, they can—although Escobert has a pronounced limp and Brem needs to lean on Cydonie’s arm. Back inside the laboratory, Gerard and Aleph pick up Governor Nighthill’s unconscious form and together, they make the slow and halting journey up the short corridor and back through the illusory entrance in the hillside.
Saph is still chanting under her breath when they emerge from the forcefield around the keep, her eyes screwed shut in concentration. She opens one eye, then both, looking at them all in surprise.
“Did you defeat Jardar already?” she asks. “I didn’t hear any explosions.”
“We will be going back into the keep momentarily,” Aleph tells her. “We emerged only to deliver these wounded friends into your care.”
Saph’s face lights up as she sees Dwali, Brem and Escobert stumble through the barrier.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes!” she says. And, turning to the party. “I knew you’d come through!”
“We haven’t. Not yet,” Aleph replies. “So far we have succeeded only in getting the governor and his advisors out of Greenest Keep. Our work will not be finished until they are able to re-enter it. Through the front door, this time.”
Check back soon for the next chapter!
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