The cave walls showed stylized figures painted in earth tones: giant-kin, mammoths, elk, wyverns. At the far end of the space was a simple altar in stone earnestly festooned with antlers, furs, animal blood, an oil lamp. A great, tanned mammoth hide covered the floor. Two corridors—east and west—connected the chamber to the larger cavern system. A gloom permeated, a weight in the air that was full of sorrow and a slow-burning anger buried deep.
The journey hither had not passed without challenge. Once Rahab had dismissed the force wall and the companions began to move, Sulaminga made a desperate attempt to catch them. The red dragon even managed to bite Gloriana as she tried to hold the back of the line while rallying the group through the corridor. When the party retreated beyond the narrows through which the dragon—despite its youth—could not navigate, Sulaminga placed her snout at the gap and filled the passageway with fire. In the end Gloriana had beseeched the spirits for a desperate power, and something ragged tore through her as her prayer was granted: A thick expanse of smooth stone sprang up and sealed the shaft,1 buying precious time and sealing the dragon away . . .
. . . in the cavern with the Erinyes.
Now they gathered in the place the stone giant in the woolen tunic had called a shrine.
“Is this area safe?” Gloriana asked.
“No. This is the most dangerous of places. That is why it is shunned.” The stone giant’s voice had an unsettling quality, not malice, but grief, lachrymose thunderclouds above a tarn, a mountain weeping. “As long as you remain here you shall go undiscovered.”
Abby looked around and hefted her sword. She saw nothing besides the altar, the cave paintings, the adornments. “What makes it dangerous?”
The stone giant rested a piercing gaze upon the oracle. “That one knows.”
The warrior started to ask, but Gloriana anticipated: “It’s haunted, Abby.” The oracle could feel it in her bones. She faced the stone giant. “What happened here?”
“This is the altar where Vandarik was slain.”
“Who was Vandarik?”
“Who slew him?”
“Mokmurian,” she murmured. “Our son.”
A restless quiet cloaked the chamber. Lem did not glance away from the giant, not even to look at the oracle. He could sense the others, could follow the tense implication of their presence like a tremor in the air. A slight movement, an intake of breath, a shift in the eyes, any sign might prompt him across the distance in a pulse of violence.
No such impetus came.
“How are you called,” Gloriana asked quietly.
“Conna the Wise,” came the reply.
Another long pause. “Conna the Wise, I grieve with you for your husband,” the oracle offered.
“Why do you say this?”
Gloriana tensed, uncertain of her soundings in these waters. “Among my people grief is shared.”
“Then you are too weak to bear it alone. Is this the way among all you small folk? You will die here, I think.”
A volatile pause teetered among them.
“Perhaps,” the oracle admitted. “Or perhaps our ability to share grief lends us strength others fail to understand.”
Conna’s eyes glinted like slices of flint in the small lamplight. “You are far from the lands you know, small one.”
“I am called Gloriana.”
“Why have you come, Gloriana? Why do you bring war to the people of the plateau?”
“Because the people of the plateau brought war to me. Why did your son slay your husband?”
“Should you ask such a question in your mourning?”
“Someone must answer for what has happened. I thought to begin with you, but I can speak directly to Vandarik, if I must.”
“I can, and I think you know this.”
“You are not of the blood.”
“And yet I speak with the spirits.”
“There are many in this place.”
The oracle nodded. “Yes, and as of a few moments ago, still more. Perhaps some will linger. You could ask Vandarik what the new ghosts are saying about we who sent them on their way.”
Conna the Wise looked grave. “This is what comes of sharing grief: You sit at a table to which you were not invited.”
“No more than your son was invited to the lands from which you say I wander. Why else would I travel all this way? Mokmurian sent a raid to the coast. Some among my people died, some among my people were stolen away. He will answer for it. Though perhaps you think him too weak to bear his responsibility alone.”
“Do not think to twist my words against me, Gloriana. Your arts do not concern me.”
“Then what does concern you, Conna the Wise?”
“The lives of the people. I fear many foolishly follow Mokmurian, and I fear Mokmurian has fallen under the influence of one of the ancient enslavers.”
“What do you mean?” asked the oracle.
But it was Rahab who answered: “Karzoug.”
The stone giant turned an inscrutable gaze upon the wizard. “You know this lord of runes?”
Rahab was sardonic. “I have reason to believe we met once, at a distance. He took something that belongs to me.”
“You small folk are a mystery to me.”
Gloriana could feel something all around her, an electricity, ghostly whispers like a storm against a hut. “Conna the Wise, what do you wish for the people of the plateau?”
“That they should be free to live here and commune with the Stone at the Heart of the World as they have for millennia.”
“Then help us.”
“What will you do?”
“Liberate the people of the plateau.”
“Then I will mourn for your son.”
The stone giant considered. “To help you I must have a promise to spare as many of the people as possible.”
Gloriana nodded. “Whomsoever is within our power to preserve.”
“Not the dragons,” Rahab suddenly offered. Conna and the others turned to face the wizard. “My spell has just ended. In the moments before she returned Milantha told me she slew the remaining dragon.”
It was as if everyone in the chamber held their breath. “Who is Milantha, that slays red dragons?” asked Conna.
“Vengeance,” answered the wizard.2
The stone giant reflected for a long time. Unease gripped the companions, for each passing moment might reveal them to a patrol venturing from a different part of the caverns.
The stone giant read their malaise. “The shrine is protected against divination.”
“By what matrix?” Rahab expressed genuine interest.
“I do not understand.” She shook her head slowly when the conjurer repeated the question in the tongue of Giants. “Your practice is anathema, in the manner of my son. You ask that which cannot be told.”
“Ah,” Rahab nodded and stroked his goatee. “Sorcerer.”
Gloriana redirected. “What can you tell us?”
“Here will I sacrifice a spark such that time will change,” replied the stone giant. “We shall convene. What you do with that shall make your fate.”
The oracle angled her head. “Time?”
But Kara and Rahab understood. Time was a gift without price.
Conna cast a spell and the air in the chamber distended in a pulse that collapsed back on itself. Rahab recognized the transmutation of flying; he knew it well, watched Kara employ it regularly. The power in that place—older even than the shrine itself—drew the spell in and contained it, reshaped it. Every mote on the air suddenly froze.
“Chaldira’s teeth,” Lem could barely whisper. It was a full minute before he and Abby realized the dust was still moving, almost too slow to perceive.
They sat. Conna explained that Vandarik had been leader of the Karavatti. Among the people their son was smaller than usual, understood as a sign from The Stone at the Heart of the World that he would follow the sorcerer’s path like his mother. In time, however, Mokmurian was caught studying wizardry in secret, and was cast out of the tribe. Gone for many years, he returned in might, leading lamias, and gathering tribes of the people and other kin in a cause of conquest. To seize power Mokmurian slew his own father in sacrifice to unknown gods. Now the spirit of Vandarik haunted the chamber, and Conna’s presence was the only one to soothe the unquiet ghost. Even Mokmurian avoided the place. Ancient magic she could not name made it possible to tender a spell in exchange for time, the instantaneous magic acting as a kind of temporal currency. Doing so altered the rate of time within the chamber relative to that without. When Rahab inquired as to the mechanism, Conna only stared mutely, as if the query was meaningless, and—the wizard silently reasoned—to her it almost certainly was.
Rahab’s mind raced. At the center of the mystery the name “Karzoug” loomed, ten-thousand years gone, somehow only too present. Such longevity required immense power. It could be undermined, nonetheless. Eliminating components before they fully fit into the final structure would necessitate search for new components, or alteration of the architecture. Stasis was easy. It was momentum that was difficult.
The stone giant gave a basic description of the caverns, as well as the route to the fortress above, and the level below where Mokmurian made his chambers and worked taboo magic.
“Is there any way to save your son?” asked Gloriana.
“My son died when he forsook the way of the people and sought wizardry,” Conna replied starkly.
Abby trembled, jaw clenched. “Maybe things might have been different if his parents had not cast him out!”
The stone giant regarded the warrior with a curious glance. “How could he be other than what the Stone at the Heart of the World made him?”
Gloriana laid a reassuring hand on Abby’s mighty arm, but kept her eyes on Conna. “What does Mokmurian plan?”
“He seeks the return of the glory of ancient Thzzln.”
The companions shared a glance. “But that is not the glory of the people?” the oracle pressed.
“How could it be? That is the glory of the enslavers. You have three hours. When that time has elapsed, three minutes will have passed within the caverns. After that I can do no more.”
Gloriana nodded. “Let me confer with my companions.”
They whispered in cluster.
“I have a scroll,” the oracle offered.
“What is the spell?” asked Rahab.
“The condensed recovery of sleep.”3
“A necromancy? Gloriana, there is hope for you yet. A most excellent proposal!”
“What does it do?” Abby and Lem asked together.
“We will sleep for two hours,” explained the oracle. “It will be as if we had a complete day’s recovery: healing, magic, renewal. Upon waking we advance on Mokmurian.”
The warrior gave a low, appreciative whistle, but the gardener was troubled. “Is it safe?”
“As safe as it can be here,” Gloriana replied.
“Can we trust Conna?” Lem pursued. “Can we even fall asleep in this place? What if it really is the most dangerous area in the caverns?”
“I think that perspective is variable,” Gloriana said. “We have little choice, and might as well take what advantage we can.”
“When we rouse,” Kara added, “we should move as quickly and as stealthily as possible, straight for Mokmurian.”
The oracle agreed. “The sooner we can deal with him, the sooner we are likely to upset the hold he has here.”
Rahab cleared his throat. “I will still require that final hour to study my spells. Do you think Conna will assume leadership in Mokmurian’s wake, should we succeed?”
Gloriana sighed. “She has conviction, and presence, to be sure. Insofar as that expresses leadership, then, yes, I think she will. And we still have to find the Sandpoint villagers. I will be glad to put this place behind us. Make ready.”
They lay down on the mammoth hide. The oracle read from the scroll, her eyes drifting closed even as she finished the words and the parchment became ash on a sourceless breeze.
Rahab sat cross-legged, The Book of the Strange perched on his knees, eyes poring over the intricate symphony of spells he had penned within.
The others gathered at remove, checking gear, occasionally conversing quietly. A nervousness rippled through them like distant forks of lightning on the horizon. Though it had evidently unfolded as the stone giant had stated, they nevertheless found it difficult to reconcile nearly three hours passed with the implication of mere minutes in the caverns beyond. Fitful glances to either passage revealed nothing. For her part, Gloriana could hear the occasional howl of spirits in her ears like voices calling from a mountain side, only to fade away on dark currents of air.
Still seated, Conna lingered nearby, observing in silence. Occasionally she closed her eyes in silent fugue. After one particular episode she passed a narrow gaze between the studious wizard and the other four small folk.
“Why do you keep company with this one?” she asked, gesturing at Rahab, who remained in reverie of memorization.
Abby’s grip on her sword pommel tightened. “He is our friend.”
“He is a wizard. His path of magic is the darkness at my son’s heart. He will make your doom.”
It caught them all by surprise when Lem answered. “Do things get more stupid the taller they are?” The gardener leveled an accusatory finger at Conna. “Pay attention: There is no speculation you can produce that I have not already considered. Whatever else you think about him, that wizard is one of the reasons we are going to solve your problems. I don’t care which phantom you’ve fucked or which reject you’ve birthed, there will be a reckoning for Sandpoint, and for the beer.” Lem nodded his head in Rahab’s direction. “And that perfidious son of devil-worshippers will help make it happen. Count yourself lucky that one of the most dangerously intelligent minds around is not arrayed against you . . . yet. In seven minutes we march out of here and Jorgenfist resumes a lesson in humility.”
The subsequent silence seethed. Conna the Wise started to respond, but the gardener dropped hands to knife hilts.
“Think,” he said. “Think very carefully.”
In the last few minutes of the magic the party gathered to make ready. Conna had turned to the altar and the silence of her thoughts. While Gloriana, Kara, and Lem conferred, Abby sidled up to Rahab who was carefully stowing The Book of the Strange in his haversack.
“You know about this sort of thing.”
The conjurer’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of thing?”
“Giants and their crazy beliefs.”
Rahab gave a small sigh. “Perhaps you should inquire of Kara or Gloriana—”
The warrior scowled. “I’m interested in the cold, hard version that punches you right down in the gut.”
An eyebrow lifted above faintest smile.
Abby was relentless: “It doesn’t make any sense!”
“Conna said the Heart of Stone—“
“The Stone at the Heart of the World . . .”
“—made her son a wizard and that’s why they threw him out, right?”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. If the Heart made him just to be exiled, why was he allowed to come back? Why didn’t they just cast him out again? Why is he allowed to be in charge? Why didn’t he kill Conna, too, as well as the father?”
“Ah,” nodded the conjurer. “I see the problem.”
“Abby, you undertake one of the most hopeless exercises in all of sentient existence: trying to make sense of religious beliefs.”
“But what if throwing Mokmurian out led him to all this?”
“I think it probably did, as you posed in challenge earlier.”
“But the other stone giants don’t see it that way?”
“Even though he has now taken over?”
“But shouldn’t the Stone World protect them?”
“Who is to say the Stone at the Heart of the World did not seal their fate to fall under Mokmurian’s command?”
“Do you think that happened?”
“Do not be ridiculous! I posit one possible avenue of their thinking.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” the warrior groaned.
Rahab shook his head in sympathy. “It never does.”
“Then why do they do it?”
“Because it makes them feel better.”
“Even though it doesn’t make sense?”
“Especially because it does not make sense. Have you ever noticed how often things that make sense actually make people very unhappy?”
She conceded a nod. The wizard continued: “Believing something without evidence is fantasy, one fundamental to a school of magic, by the way. It is an act that makes the cosmos seem the way someone wants, not the way it actually is.”
“What magic is that?”
“Illusion,” Rahab scowled. “More addictive than pesh, more insidious than political assassination, more venomous than a purple worm sting.”
“And now the stone giants are going to let us go in there and get Mokmurian?”
“Some of them. Others will oppose us.”
“And both the opposition and the supporters think that is what the Heart of Stone wants, too?”
The wizard gave up correcting the warrior’s theological misnomers. “I suppose.”
“You’re not worried about them?”
“Not only am I not worried about them, I’m finding it difficult to devote even a modicum of energy to caring about them at all.”
“Which is why Glo does the talking?”
“Which is why . . . Glo does the talking.”
Abby smiled. “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you call her ‘Glo.’ You always say ‘Gloriana.’”
“I called her ‘Glo’ for parallel dramatic effect, Abby. I am nothing if not really fucking dramatic.”
Part of the oracle’s plan included a spell of silence cast on a small pebble she could carry with her. Those moving within the radius of the magic thus made no sound, and so traversed the cavern passages with only light to betray their position. Scouting ahead, Lem discovered a patrol of stone giants accompanied by several dire bears and the two lamias. The patrol had gathered at a central, circular cavern that accessed the Jorgenfist grounds above via helical stone path corkscrewing to the surface. Lem spanned the intersection completely unobserved and with almost dismissive ease. Kara drank a concotion of invisibility and Rahab instantaneously traversed spacetime with Abby and Gloriana in tow. Once clear, the companions ventured along the perimeter path that circled to the southeast, passing a chamber profaned in the name of Lamashtu, the Demon Mother, where the lamias normally abode. Walls painted in unsettling spirals of blue and purple paint distorted perception around an altar flanked by basins thick with fresh blood. At the rear of the cave stood a massive stone carving depicting the nightmarish, three-eyed jackal visage.
Still undiscovered, the companions continued to a tunnel lined with stalactites and stalagmites demarcating a living area on either side. Two trolls squatted on their haunches in the wider corridor. At the feet of one rested a curved sword with a notched blade. Against a stalagmite close to the other leaned a cruelly pronged ranseur. Beyond the troll guards another passage bored down and away into the deep bedrock: the route to Mokmurian.
Their light sources would reveal the party’s position soon enough, and so the time for stealth had passed. Gloriana hurled the silenced pebble with all her strength, and the little missile tumbled almost perfectly between the two, green-skinned monsters.4
A halfling seemed to appear out of nowhere. Hurek howled warning, but there seemed to be no sound, and his brother Durek burst alight when something small, ovoid, and full of liquid fire tumbled from overhead. More figures appeared at the intersection. A golden-haired human in a brilliant breastplate summoned a column of fire that enveloped the ranseur-wielding troll, while a half-elf encased in steel charged into Hurek with sword and shield. Another human appeared and launched a bubbling line of liquid that darted among the combatants and splashed harmlessly against a stalactite.
Durek died seconds later as still more projectiles churned oily smoke from burning troll flesh. Hurek managed to fetch the halfling two wounds, but the diminutive figure responded in kind with a dizzying assault of knives. Gouts of blood bathed speleothems like coats of melted chocolate on delicate finger pastries. The troll collapsed.
Just outside the radius of the silenced pebble Rahab noticed something in his peripheral vision: Two stone giants from another tunnel to the west. The wizard executed a quick motion of ordered complexity and spoke a strange word. A pit appeared at the feet of the stone giants; both promptly plummeted with shouts of surprise that became cries of pain. Rahab nodded in satisfaction. He then faced the troll that Lem had bested and cast a series of acid conjurations on it to render regeneration impossible. For a moment, the companions stood in reprieve, but it would not be long before the shouts of injury and alarm from the stone giants might alert the larger patrol. Gloriana quickly summoned a phantom sound as distraction in the direction from whence the party had come. Her vitality link began transferring Lem’s injuries to her person as the group abandoned the silenced pebble and ventured into the corridor leading southeast.
As they moved the oracle launched a fierce whisper at Rahab. “Why didn’t you evoke a ball of fire on the trolls?”
The conjurer frowned. “Abby and Lem were right in the middle of the melee!”
“It wouldn’t have killed them.”
“I presume you are familiar with the phrase ‘damning with faint praise?’”
“But your dart of acid missed!”
Admonishing finger accompanied exasperated hiss: “Do not tell me how to do my work, and I will refrain from remonstrating you in yours, Seductress of Sandpoint!”
Invisible, in flight, and bringing up the rear, Kara’s voice descended from empty air: “Wifrith unred! Setria ghist!”5
The passageway began a gradual, winding descent.
Gloriana channeled healing energy to knit Lem’s wounds that were becoming her own. Minutes passed. Neither sound nor sign of movement indicated pursuit. The tunnel coiled ever downward, and it became difficult to estimate how deep within the valley bedrock they were. Eventually the passageway leveled out and proceeded straight ahead. Features of natural cavern gave way to worked stone demonstrating notable artistry and curious joining. Where walls met floor and ceiling the angles of intersection had been polished into smooth, tight arcs. The visual effect was somewhat unsettling.
“Shaped by magic,” Rahab quietly answered the unspoken question.
Abby frowned. “Why?”
But just then neither wizard nor alchemist knew.
1 Glo spent a Hero Point to gain access to a spell she did not have, in this case wall of stone.
2 dgroo took over rolling for the Erinyes in the off-screen portion of the battle once we had moved beyond the wall of stone. Milantha promptly slew Sulaminga. Like I said: The Erinyes was an absolute beast.
3 Nap stack.
4 Because she’s haunted, whenever Glo throws or drops an object, ghosts interfere and the item is flung in a random direction. In this case it was actually a terrible throw that bounced (noiselessly) off a wall and then by sheer chance the scatter roll plaed it exactly between the two trolls.
5 Translated from Elvish: “Argue later! Move now!” The exchange between Glo and Rahab was based on an actual, in-game dialogue where I debated using fireball, but then decided against blasting two of the party members, thinking that was the kind of act that might earn a lecture, only to find Glo second-guessing the decision not to throw the fireball.