“I can easily return for you,” Rahab said.
Lem shook his head. “No, I’ll stay. I have to keep ahead of the spring weeds, and anyway, I’m not in the mood for a meeting with another human.” The two men stood beneath the newly budding branches of the yellow birch near the back gate of Foxglove Townhouse.
“In this case I share your sentiment,” grumbled the conjurer.
“You don’t get along?”
“Quink is that rare kind of intellect: Just knowledgeable enough to be dangerous without actually being helpful.”
“You don’t get along.”
“Supposedly the foremost scholar on Thassilon in Varisia: How is it then—I ask you!—that we have had more contact with the relics of that fallen empire than he has? Our investigation has uncovered more about Thassilon and its mad magic than any theoretical exercises he has conducted. The man could use a good dose of field work.”
“He sounds like an ass.”
“Of the first order.”
“That’s why I’m surprised you don’t get along.”
“I will miss the ale and games at The Hagfish.”
“I shall raise a mug for you.”
Lem fumbled in a belt pouch for a handful of silver. “While you’re there, run a line at drum for me.”
The wizard held up his hands. “I shall not stand proxy for your poor understanding of basic odds.”
“Shows what you know. The odds aren’t important.”
“That is patently fallacious.”
A sharper’s grin: “You just need to know how to cheat.”
Rahab blinked. “Hmm. Presumably the advantage turns when it is your deal?”
Lem nodded. “The real trick is managing the wagering when the cards are not in hand.”
Expert fingers began clutch-counting coins. “So, let’s say fifty—”
“I can teach you some basic techniques.”
“Next you’ll be promoting illusion magic. Declined. Petition the others.”
The gardener frowned. “They already refused.”
Kara casually adjusted the drape of one of her bandoliers. Abby grinned like a child discovering candy for the first time. Gloriana paced and chewed at the corner of a thumbnail. Rahab and Lem entered the living room.
“Ready?” asked the conjurer.
“Ready!” The warrior practically shouted. The alchemist gave a steady nod. Gloriana met Rahab’s eyes and her glance seemed to say, We could always go by horse.
“Want us to bring you back anything?” Abby asked Lem.
The gardener thought a moment. “See what they’ve planted in window boxes around town. I want to make sure mine are the better selections.”
“Shall we send your greeting to anyone?” Kara grouped on her friends for the spell. “Sheriff Hemlock?”
“Oh, by all means,” Lem’s lips curled. “Give my regards to the jailer.”
The alchemist chuckled.
Rahab laid a gentle hand on one shoulder of oracle and warrior, and then Kara did the same opposite him.
Gloriana, suddenly urgent: “Wait!”
The conjurer raised a curious eyebrow.
“Where? In Sandpoint, I mean. I need to know.”
The devil-grin dawned, full of mischief. “How about the common room of The White Deer Inn?”
The oracle sighed. “Must you?”
Rahab laughed. Abby grinned.
“Ghosts of the Road, let’s just get this over with,” Gloriana gulped. She looked at Lem. “Back in a day.” I hope.
The gardener lifted one hand in farewell. The others returned the gesture, resettled contact, and then Rahab spoke a word and they were gone.1
Alarm and uproar seized The White Deer Inn as those inside shrieked and stumbled for cover or escape. Rahab’s satisfaction was immense.
Gloriana opened her eyes, managed her most winning smile, and lifted her voice above the panic. “Hail, good people!” The rout shuddered to a halt as realization dawned. In a moment the crowd surged with a mixture of wonder and cheer. The shout went up welcoming the return of the Heroes of Sandpoint, and soon word began to ripple through Sandpoint.
Four minutes after their arrival Abby, Kara, Gloriana, and Rahab held court at a table of honor. An adoring populace bought them drinks, and villagers streamed through the main door, threatening the room’s capacity. The oracle regaled the throng with tales.
A burly figure shouldered in view. “I suppose it could only have been you.”
“Sheriff Hemlock!” Abby raised her mug in greeting.
“Welcome back. Where have you been?”
“Slaying giants and fighting sea monsters,” Gloriana winked. The sheriff’s eyes narrowed and the oracle rose and leaned close. “When we have an opportunity I must speak with you and Mayor Deverin.”
Hemlock drew back in slight concern. Gloriana smiled again. “I bring word of assistance.”
“I shall explain. How about now?”
The sheriff crossed his arms. “Come with me. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you.” Gloriana turned to her friends. “Back soon, then to Quink’s.”
Abby looked annoyed. “Wait, what do we do?” The press of bodies in the tavern jostled near.
“Be yourselves!” Then the oracle disappeared into the crowd and out the door.
Warrior looked at wizard and grimaced. “I was afraid she was going to say that.”
Rahab leaned close and flashed a conspiratorial wink. “Let us stall for time by getting them to buy another round.”
“Ah, Gloriana Gildentress. Always a pleasure.” Mayor Deverin resumed her chair and indicated for the oracle to take a seat on the other side of the desk.
“What’s this about ‘assistance?’” Hemlock asked. The sheriff assumed his usual post in the mayor’s office against the eastern wall, arms folded, eyes piercing.
Gloriana settled into a chair. “I have little precise information at this point save to warn you that an attack is being planned on Sandpoint.”
Perhaps Mayor Deverin’s frosty smile wavered a moment. Perhaps it was a trick of the light.
“By all the gods, what is this?” Hemlock groaned.
The oracle resumed. “In recent travels safeguarding Varisia my companions and I have uncovered a plot to attack the town.”
“What kind of attack? When? What is going on?” Deverin’s hands slowly clenched on the desk in front of her.
“As I said, much remains unknown to me at present, save that this attack refers to an organizer known merely as ‘M.’”
“Oh, what nonsense!”
“I assure you, Mayor Deverin, it is anything but that. The attack is likely to be carried out by giants.”
Hemlock’s fists thudded onto the mayoral desk as he leaned close. “Giants? What in the Nine Hells are we supposed to do about giants?”
Gloriana gave a genuine, sympathetic smile. “That’s where my friends and I come in.”
Deverin voice might have soured milk. “The ‘Heroes of Sandpoint?’”
“Something like that.”
“And just when is this mysterious attack supposed to take place?”
“Possibly in one month. Or not at all. But better safe than sorry.”
Hemlock’s jaw dropped open. “You don’t expect us to just sit here and wait for it to happen?”
Gloriana rose in a swirl of vibrant silks. She flashed another brilliant smile. “You have time to ready yourself and the citizens in your care.”
“This is outrageous!” Mayor Deverin stood in fury. “You appear by some devilry out of thin air and then have the audacity to issue threats in this office?”
“Mayor Deverin, the giants and this ‘M’ are the threat. I encourage you to undertake preparations for evacuation should it be required. Other duties call me away for the present, but you needn’t worry.”
Sheriff Hemlock’s breath rumbled like a bear roused prematurely from sleep. “Needn’t worry? Are you mad?”
“Far from it. My friends and I shall return in Sandpoint’s defense. You have at least a month to ready, perhaps more, but in the meantime—should emergency arise—you may reach us at Foxglove Townhouse in Naos District of Magnimar.”
Mayor Deverin shook her head incredulously. “I’m to take that as comfort?”
Gloriana stopped in the office door and rested one hand lightly on the jamb. “Take it as you will. But it may help to consider: All the stories? The bard songs? The tales about us?”
Hemlock and Deverin stared.
“They’re all true.” And then the oracle was gone.
It was another hour before Gloriana managed to extract her companions from the audience of supporters at the inn. A detachment of the increasingly drunk—or particularly devoted—followed the five until they turned onto Tower Street in the direction of Brodert Quink’s home. The hut hove into view in the shadow of the Old Light. Abby suppressed a shudder of memory.
Gloriana turned to the wizard. “Be nice to Quink, Rahab.”
“Do you think he would notice?”
As it happened, Quink was pleased to see them.
“I trust you realize your legend grows?” The older man’s voice drifted from another room as he collected cups for tea and set a kettle to boil. Kara and Abby busied themselves clearing papers and other miscellany in an effort to find seating. Rahab nosed among stacks of tomes.
“Indeed,” Quink continued as he emerged drying his hands on a tea towel. “And not just here in Sandpoint! Stories of your exploits make their way along the Old Coast Road with frequency. Songs and poems have been added to the repertoire.” He clasped his hands cheerfully.
Gloriana smiled indulgently and said nothing.
Rahab came upright and clasped his hands behind his back. “My books.”
“Ah, yes!” the sage lifted a finger. “I have them . . . uh . . . somewhere.” Quink rummaged. Rahab lingered aloof, bored.
“I confess I did not delve into them over much,” the old man murmured as he shifted several texts in his search. “One of them concerned necromancy. Quite detailed. Dark subject matter, to be sure.”
The wizard spoke at Quink’s back. “Oh, really?”
Gloriana glared and crossed her arms. The sage turned. “Here they are. Just as you left them. I made some notes, if you’d care to consult them?”
Rahab accepted the books. “Much too erudite for me, I’m sure.” The conjurer’s smile was cat cornering mouse.
Quink seemed not to notice. “Come now, my fellow. I’m sure you’d pick it up as you went along. Ah, tea!” He disappeared through the doorway into the other room once more.
Gloriana closed on Rahab. “Be nice!” she hissed.
“If I was not being nice you would know it.”
Abby watched the exchange in mild amusement. Quink returned and poured tea. Everyone found seats.
“Now,” the sage said, eyes twinkling. “What do you have for me?”
They began with the breastplate from the treasure trove of the stone giant necromancer at the summit of Hook Mountain. As Kara unwrapped the cloth Quink’s eyes grew very wide, indeed.
The alchemist tensed. “Do you recognize this metal?”
Quink held up a hand to signal silence, bolted out of his seat, and darted from the room. Sounds of emphatic search reached the companions, then a dull thud and an exclamation of mild pain.
“I’m fine! I have it!” The old man emerged once more clutching a book. Abby cleared the tea tray so he could set the text on the small table and they gathered around. On the page they saw a careful line drawing unmistakably rendering the armor. Text in the Thassalonian language surrounded the image.
“Heartplate!” the sage breathed. “I never dreamed this existed. Can it be?” He leaned close to the armor, and beckoned for a candle. Kara and Rahab fetched light.
“See the text? This speaks of Heartplate, the carapace rendered in what the Thassilonian’s sometimes referred to as ‘red gold.’ Truly?”
“This ‘red gold,’” Kara pursued, “if this is the same armor, I believe it to be an alchemical composition as elusive as the empire itself. Stuff of legend.”
Quink’s eyes lit. “That would make sense. Much of Thassilon’s might harnessed or invented magics no longer practiced. I do not doubt they might construct material similarly unknown in our time. Remarkable!”
“What is Heartplate?” asked Gloriana.
“According to the text it was built under the guidance of a significant religious figure important to Thassilon, though what position—or indeed, person—I do not know. A high priest of some kind? It may be that our terminology aligns poorly with the concepts as they practiced or categorized them. The armor was supposedly crafted for a sect of religious warriors, perhaps attached to this figure, perhaps otherwise affiliated. Sadly, unraveling the mysteries of Thassilonian theology is as murky an endeavor as everything else about the culture.”
Rahab shook his head very slightly.
Quink forged on. “Heartplate supposedly possesses powers commensurate with servants of divine powers, though to what order I cannot say. The text speaks of varieties of incarnations of the armor, different pieces, different forms, but all scholarship with which I am familiar has heretofore suggested that none of it exists. Yet this seems to be a piece, and a prominent one. Astonishing!”
Gloriana looked concerned. “Is it good?”
Quink squinted. “I’m not sure I understand your question.”
“Does this represent early Thassilon, or the later period that descended into iniquity?”
“Ah, I see, yes! It is difficult to say for certain, as the references in the text do not make explicit any particular time periods, or at least none we might translate relative to our own time. Some works have painted Thassilon evil as a whole, though I believe the different eras are philosophically distinct. My best guess is that Heartplate dates to the earlier time, especially given how little information there is.”
“So, you think this is an artifact of benevolence?”
“Well, perhaps not so specific as that, but not evil, I would say. Have any among you worn it?” Quink scanned them in turn.
Gloriana deflected. “Do you foresee danger in doing so?”
The sage reflected in silence for a long time, gazing almost reverently at the brilliantly polished piece. “No . . . ?” He spread his arms somewhat helplessly.
The oracle bit her lip and regarded the breastplate. Quink seized the opportunity and turned to Kara. “Tell me more of these anomalies you mentioned. Such information could be invaluable to Thassilonian scholarship!”
The alchemist could not help but smile. “Have you ever heard of celestial mithral? Or anamnesis?”
While Kara and Quink conferred, Gloriana motioned Rahab to one side and lowered her voice.
“I’m going to try on the armor.”
“Logical way to proceed.”
“And I do not want you in the room when I do.”
The wizard suddenly found himself utterly bereft of commentary, analysis, or remark. He blinked.
The oracle continued: “I want you to wait outside. I’ll send Abby to fetch you when we know more.”
“I . . . I do not understand.”
“Please, Rahab. Whatever else you think of Quink and his knowledge, I need to have access to it for a few minutes, just as I will need access to your knowledge in the future.”
“If you think—”
“What I think is that this is not about you. This is about finding out more information that helps us understand what we are dealing with, but in order to do that— this time—I need to confer with Quink alone, and I need it to happen without editorial, silent or otherwise.”
The conjurer mouthed mutely.
Gloriana’s gaze never wavered. “Please.”
When Rahab eventually found his voice it was faint. “I’ll just collect my tea.”
“Thank you, Rahab.”
The hut door closed behind him. He tried to drink from his cup and found his hands shaking.
Abby leaned close as Gloriana approached. “Where’d Rahab go?”
“Said he needed some fresh air.”
“He’s going to miss this?” The warrior ran one hand over the fuzzy mat of new hair slowly returning to her head.
The oracle fixed her best friend with a resolute glance. “Abby?”
Realization: “Want me to get him when you’re ready?”
Gloriana placed an affectionate hand on a forearm that had the strength to pull apart a wagon wheel. “Thank you.”
“Are you alright?”
“I am. I’m going to try on the armor.”
The warrior gave an encouraging nod. “We’re here.”
“That’s how I know it’s going to be fine.”
In the musty close quarters of Brodert Quink’s living room Kara and Abby lifted the breastplate onto Gloriana’s torso as the sage looked on expectantly, hands clenched in anticipation of some mighty revelation. The warrior expertly fastened the masterwork clasps, each motion smooth and practiced, and the sound of the mechanisms resonated so securely, so satisfyingly, it was as if the armor expressed approval.
“For the first time in thousands of years,” Quink trembled, “Heartplate girds once more.” He held a palm to his forehead. “I shall need a brandy after this, I think.”
“How does it feel?” Abby asked.
Gloriana paused and considered the sensation. The weight was lighter than she had expected, almost as though the metal hefted itself. Yet something lingered, something at the edge of perception, fleeting, a bird hesitant to alight on a branch.
“It’s so light,” the oracle breathed.
Kara only nodded, elven eyes bright. No one realized that their voices had uniformly hushed.
“There’s something else . . . I don’t know . . . it feels . . . ” Gloriana’s voice trailed and she shook her head. A moment later she invoked a short prayer of guidance. The elusive sensation remained, something anticipatory, as in the moment just before rainfall. There might have been a faint hum, perhaps no more than her imagination, but a warmth within her pulsed for a moment, and seizing it, she radiated waves of golden light that limned everything in the room.
The hum became the whine of metal singing in a thunderstorm.
The surge of power that suffused the oracle was not dissimilar to that she had felt when she first donned The Diadem of the Swan. Glancing down she saw the circular depression at center torso brighten, the blue shining intensely with an inner light, and she gaped when the familiar seven-pointed star faded, only to be replaced by a device she knew all the more intimately: the angelic ankh of Sarenrae, the Dawnflower, goddess of sunlight, healing, and compassionate redemption. The image flared white-gold against the rich, shining blue, almost too brilliant to see. The room seemed to dim by contrast, and rays of blue and gold erupted lance-like and needle-fine from the armor’s brilliant surface. Gloriana’s vision became a riot of ghosts.2
“Remarkable! Truly remarkable!” Quink leaned back in his chair and sighed. “How did you ever come to discover this?”
Abby related most of the tale concerning the Battle of Hook Mountain as Gloriana sat in the breastplate, quietly overcome in the wake of the sensations that had surged around her. Thoughts crowded her mind, precluding speech. Tea had been abandoned, brandy produced. The sage remarked at several points during the warrior’s recounting, asking Abby to recall in greater detail, or turning to Kara for additional information.
“Actually, Rahab could probably—”
Gloriana suddenly looked up wide-eyed. She and Abby locked gaze.
“On it!” The warrior leapt to her feet and made for the door.
“Oh?” Quink looked confused. “I thought he was here, I must have lost him in my amazement. Whither has he gone?”
Spring sunshine flooded the living room.
“Rahab!” Abby spread her arms wide.
“Am I paroled?” the wizard asked quietly.
The conjurer waved curtly. “Is there anything I should know?”
“We were just telling Quink about finding this Heartplate and the battle and everything. He keeps asking about Sihedron-this and Thassilon-that, you know. We thought maybe . . . uh . . . you might remember some things . . . from the fight . . . and after.” The warrior gave a half-hearted, half-hopeful shrug.
“Well?” Rahab gestured at the hut. “Let us not keep the man waiting.”
Quink poured Rahab a brandy and quizzed the conjurer on details of Hook Mountain. The wizard added a few notes to what had already been told, but commented that Abby and Kara were certainly more than qualified to relate relevancies. Abby sat next to the conjurer and nodded continuously. Kara noted that Gloriana seemed lost in reverie once more, head bowed slightly as if listening to something no one else could hear.
“That’s what happened, alright.” Abby asserted. An awkward silence collected.
The alchemist was confused. For all her perception, some dynamic had escaped her, and so she returned to fundamental alchemical protocol: review materials, initiate reaction, observe results. “Rahab?”
The wizard glanced over.
Kara nodded encouragingly. “The book?”
Rahab started to sip his brandy thoughtfully, then simply downed the entire snifter in a hearty gulp. Quink’s eyebrows rose. “We recovered something else related to Thassilon,” the conjurer began, reaching for his haversack. He drew forth the mysterious tome and held it up in the light.
The sage’s alarm redoubled.
“This is simply astonishing!” The old man drained his own glass. “I shall fetch more. How can this be?” He rose and made for the kitchen doorway, mumbling the whole way.
Rahab sat very still. Gloriana stirred and looked around. The wizard’s gaze remained upon the doorway. Slightly bored, Abby exhaled loudly and shuffled her feet, interlaced her fingers.
When Quink returned he had brought the bottle. Pouring himself a generous portion he resumed his seat. “Do you know this work?”
Rahab merely waited.
“That is The Book of the Strange! It was recorded as lost a millennium ago.”
Still the wizard waited.
“Unmistakably so, that is The Book of the Strange. It has shuffled from wizard to wizard throughout history.”
“I am its new owner,” offered Rahab.
Quink drank. “It is a most powerful artifact. Thassilonian, obviously, as you must realize. You found this with the stone giants?”
The conjurer shook his head.
“But in some proximity?”
Now a nod.
“Strange that you should discover it and Heartplate so near to one another, in time if not so much in place. I believe the tome and the armor originate from roughly the same era, or at least found intersection as recorded in some sources. One theory holds that both items were kept by a group aligned to common cause during the earlier eras of Thassilonian history. My theory, actually.” Quink gave a nervous smile. “Interestingly, The Book of the Strange has more presence in history since the fall of the empire than items such as Heartplate or Avenger.”
Abby looked up.
Another gulp of brandy. “At least seven mages are recorded as possessing, or at least interacting with, The Book of the Strange since Thassilon’s decline. The last was said to be Malek Golono, more than one thousand years gone.”
Rahab finally commented. “I know that name.”
“Significant?” Kara asked.
“An important wizard.” The conjurer offered nothing further.
“Indeed,” Quink took up the thread. “Not, perhaps, the greatest in his day, but a magician of notable reputation, to be sure.”
Kara glanced at Rahab again as if expecting more. Gloriana remained silent. The alchemist felt a moment’s annoyance. “This Book of the Strange appears to have affiliation with an alchemical golem. Does that have some Thassilonian connection you recognize?”
“Why, no,” the sage replied. “What is the nature of this affiliation?”
Kara looked at Rahab expectantly, but received only silence. The alchemist’s jaw set tightly. “Rahab?”
“Unclear at present,” said the wizard after long pause.
Quink drank more brandy. The sage had not offered anyone else a refill.
Gloriana gave to Quink the large Sihedron medallion they had recovered from the giant form at the entrance to the Hook Mountain cave system.
“Ah, an excellent example of the type! Mine to study?” A certain glimmer lit the old man’s eyes.
The oracle smiled expertly. “With our thanks for your continued help.”
“I am honored to do so, my lady. Its size is so unusual!”
“It was on a giant.”
“How very disconcerting!”
Suddenly there was a chanted phrase and the room filled with impenetrable mist.
Steel rang as Abby drew her sword. “What’s happening?” Visibility had been reduced to nearly nothing.
From the fog Rahab’s voice emerged. “We are being scried. Wait a moment.” Another string of complex syllables sounded in the wizard’s croon. “I failed to dispel the sensor.”
“Scrying?” Quink’s voice was all alarm. “Oh, my! Whatever is happening?”
“Where is it coming from, Rahab?” Gloriana asked. She began her own incantation of dispelling when the sound of the wizard’s voice indicated direction. Nothing happened. “No,” she grumbled.
The sage sounded desperate. “Why would someone want to scry me?”
“We are leaving!” Rahab called.
“I can’t see the door,” complained Abby. “What is this fog?”
“My doing,” replied the wizard, “Find your way out. Move, people!”3
It was by no means a graceful exit, but the companions soon stumbled onto Tower Street. “Our thanks for the help!” Gloriana shouted back at the hut in the confusion.
A befuddled voice issued from a blanket of mist filling the doorway. “What? Wait! We haven’t recorded these rev—!”
But Rahab had already bridged the sixty-mile distance between Sandpoint and Magnimar.
1 Teleportation: The only way to fly.
2 Glo channeled positive energy, and this action activated Heartplate. The armor provides a baseline +2 bonus, and has some other features that help Gloriana with things like healing, taking certain actions in combat, feat augmentation, and the like. Not all features of the armor have been revealed, though Gloriana is more familiar with Heartplate’s capabilities than the other party members are, in much the same way that the secrets of Avenger are mostly Abby’s.
3 As soon as his detect scrying spell alerted him to what was happening, Rahab produced a scroll of obscuring mist and activated it in hopes it might foil some of the invasive perception.