Geeks Distributed

Book V, Chapter 2: Return To Sandpoint
Of Artifacts And Thassilon

“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.”

“Very droll.”

“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.”

“I see.”

Expert fingers began clutch-counting coins. “So, let’s say fifty—”

“No.”

“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.”

“For what?”

“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?”

“Rahab.”

“Very well.”

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.

Heartplate awoke.

••••

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.

“Rahab—”

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.

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Book V, Chapter 1: Tell The Truth
Overheard At Tavern

On a late spring evening in Magnimar a citizen might elect to visit a particular three-story tavern in the upscale Naos district. Tucked away on one of the narrower streets northeast of Starsilver Plaza, the establishment was called The Sundown, notable for its upper level views overlooking the city and the waters of the northern Arcadian Ocean. Warmer months saw patrons commence evening revelry to the spectacle of the sun disappearing beyond the western horizon.

Having procured wine, the patron might navigate gregarious throng to locate a prized seat on the upper floor, and thus note a proximal table where a party of five engage in some kind of discussion: part argument, part story telling. Unable to resist eavesdropping, the patron would overhear a lithe and arcane elf, a human of surpassing charisma, a half-elf evincing significant brawn, a deft halfling with eyes that miss nothing, and another human of devilish aspect and hauteur. It would be the simplest matter to listen and learn the names.

••••

“As the only one with perspective unpolluted by the biases of tall folk, it falls to me to give account,” said Lem. He indicated the others with a pointed finger. “And anyway, I was the first to realize something had gone wrong.”

Eyes rolled, heads shook. Undaunted, the gardener continued. “I was in the front garden watering the new lupins, which I notice no one has yet complimented.”

“They haven’t even bloomed,” Kara remarked drily.

“When they do, you’ll understand why I selected the varieties I did.” The gardener faced the alchemist. “You, of all people, should understand this.”

An eyebrow arched. “Because I’m an elf?”

“Because you understand how things work with . . . whatever it is you do.” He waved a hand vaguely.

Kara’s eyes narrowed.

“And because you’re an elf,” finished Lem. “Anyway,” he swept them in a glance, “I was in the front garden when I heard the explosion.”

“We all heard the explosion,” Abby mocked, then threw a sidelong giggle. “Well, almost all of us.”

“Yes, but I was outside. Outside? With the sensory limitations of tall folk I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate this.”

Abby snorted derisively.

Lem spread his arms. “The explosion rattled the windows. It woke the neighbors!”

The warrior lowered her cup of wine and leered. “Then being outside didn’t matter, did it? I’ve got your ‘sensory limitations’ right here, Lem.”

Gloriana entered the fray: “You don’t even know the neighbors! How would you know if it woke them?”

“You all are losing the plot.” The gardener gulped ale. “I dropped the watering can and ran inside, rallied the rest of you, then led the charge up the stairs. When I got to Rahab’s study it was obvious he was trying to close the portal to the Nine Hells he had opened. Like I wouldn’t notice.” The gardener leveled an accusatory stare. The wizard looked faintly amused.

Lem resumed: “Naturally, that sort of thing was never going to end well, and though hellfire spilled from the portal and burned our resident Cheliaxian, he probably hasn’t learned his lesson. My reflexes kept me safe, obviously, and I was able to kick the back of Rahab’s knees—”

The conjurer guffawed and rolled his eyes. “Really, Lem, this is ridiculous.”

The gardener forged ahead. “—kick the back of Rahab’s knees, toppling him and breaking his concentration, thereby shutting the portal to another dimension.”

“Plane,” the wizard sighed. “Fantasize all you like, Lem, but it costs nothing to demonstrate accuracy in terminology, even when lying.”

Gloriana was droll. “Especially when lying.”

Lem bristled. “Brimstone fogging your brains, both of you. I saved us. Chaldira’s teeth, I saved the city. If whatever devil Rahab was consorting with got loose who knows what it might have done?”

Kara gave an audible sigh, and Abby drank wine in desperate defense against a fit of laughter. Lem jerked a thumb in the wizard’s direction. “When it was over, Rahab was so addled he didn’t make sense and then tried to bluff his way out of what he’d done by suggesting we come here to discuss, ply us with drink, compromise our ability to see through his schemes. Luckily my natural immunity to human perfidy keeps me on point at all times!” Lem raised his ale and scanned the others over the rim of the mug, awaiting the imminent praise that was so obviously due.

••••

Kara sipped her wine.1 “As someone who actually saw what happened and—more importantly—comprehends it, allow me to rectify understanding.”

Lem opened his mouth to object, but the alchemist maintained momentum. “Lem was, indeed, outside at the time of the explosion.”

The gardener sat back and closed his mouth, but the suspicion in his eyes did not diminish in the least. Kara continued.

“I recall distinctly when he came inside. He was at a run, and the first thing he shouted as he came through the door was that the explosion was my fault.”

Objection renewed: “That’s not—”

“I remember that!” Abby smiled cheerfully.

The alchemist nodded. “‘Kara blew herself up!’ Your words, Lem.”

The gardener sucked his teeth. “Explosions do seem to be your bailiwick. Even more than Rahab, which is not a low bar.”

Kara shrugged. “Admittedly. It says something, however, that your first assumption would be succumbing to my own explosion.”

Lem drank and if he made any comment it disappeared surreptitiously into his mug.

“Having heard the noise I refuted Lem’s accusation simply by emerging from the laboratory.” She looked pointedly at the gardener. “Abby was already headed upstairs when we fell in line. Lem was actually third to arrive: shorter legs.” The alchemist bestowed upon the glowering gardener a sweet smile.

“Rahab was framed in the doorway to his study, and he looked shocked. When he turned around he had an injury, something minor, but he looked upset, and suggested we adjourn here for a drink to calm his nerves. How are you now, by the way?” Kara offered the wizard a sympathetic glance. “Was it a spell gone wrong?”

Rahab’s expression was acid. “Now who’s making assumptions?”

“The distortion in the air?” replied the alchemist. “I remember my father showing me something like that once: Arcane intrusion field establishing link between spaces and times, correct? It was obviously one of your summoning spells, but what went wrong? Why did the summoned creature attack you?”

“No summoned creature attacked me because I summoned no creature.”

“Embarrassment does you no credit,” Kara rejoined. “Failure in experimentation is foundational to the advancement of knowledge, as you well know.”

The wizard pursed his lips in annoyance. “My only failure was ascertaining the nature and measure of the threat. Though I am beginning to regret it, I suggested we remove to discuss exactly what happened and what I discovered.”

Lem raised his mug. “A portal to the Hells?”

Gloriana interjected. “Don’t be silly. Kara’s explaining.”

“I can explain!” The conjurer could scarce credit his ears.

“Let her finish, Rahab!” chided the oracle. “Go ahead, Kara.”

“Thank you, Glori. Rahab, this is important to review, especially since Glori missed it all.”

The oracle’s eyes widened. “I did not!”

The others in unison: “Yes, you did.”2

“Now wait a moment—!”

“You never left the ground floor,” said Kara. “Did you even notice when Lem came running in yelling?”

The gardener squinted, planted one fist on his knee, the other elbow on the table, and stabbed a finger in the alchemist’s direction. “I was not yelling. I was rallying the team!”

“For all the good it did,” Rahab frowned. “Gloriana never even joined.”

The oracle shot a withering glance at the wizard. “Don’t forget who healed you.”

“How could I? It was all over and we were almost ready to head out the door.”

Kara leaned to touch Gloriana gently on the forearm. “It’s alright, Glori. You missed it. Now, as I was saying—”

Gloriana slumped in her chair and crossed her arms. “Oh, shut up, Kara.”

••••

Abby face took on a solemn intensity as she intervened. “As the first person to reach Rahab, I can tell you what really happened.”

All eyes turned to the warrior. She took a swig of wine and hushed her voice dramatically.

“Rahab was dying.”

The wizard wearily held the palm of one hand across his face.

Abby explained. “Lying in the study doorway, bleeding out, he would have been gone seconds later if I hadn’t arrived days ahead of Lem.”

The gardener scratched his face or perhaps proffered a rude gesture.

“There was smoke, and flames, and a monster standing over Rahab, ready to land the killing blow.” The warrior found her stride. “It was strangely armored, and obviously a serious threat to someone delicate like Rahab, but it hesitated when I appeared. We saluted one another as honorable warriors, and drew our weapons—”

Kara looked incredulous. “Abby, what are you talking about?”

Lem turned in his seat and signaled for another ale. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard this week.”

The warrior kept talking. “—trading blows up and down the stairs, near perfect match for each other. We did not understand one another’s language, but we spoke combat fluently, and needed no words!”

With a look of concern Kara reached over, picked up Abby’s wine cup, and cautiously sniffed the contents. “I think she’s been drugged.”

The warrior summed up. “I managed to force the monster back through the magic thing that Kara knew about once, and then it vanished. It will have to tell its tale of defeat to its fellows back in the other world. Not something either of us is likely to forget.”

Abby took her cup back from the alchemist’s hands and drank long, staring into the middle distance. As afterthought she added: “Oh, and then I helped bandage Rahab, bringing him back from the brink of death.”

The wizard’s exasperated sigh was titanic.

••••

“Precluding further nonsense, I shall now explain precisely what happened back at the townhouse.” The conjurer exhaled. “I was upstairs in the study—”

Abby: “I already said that.”

Rahab raised his voice over the interruption. “—examining the book we liberated from the Kreeg sorceress at Fort Rannick, as I have each night since we returned. I have discovered much.”

“Such as?” asked Gloriana.

“Much that would baffle you all, with the possible exception of Kara. The book shares similarities with tomes prized for their great capacity to contain spells. This particular example, however, evinces aspects beyond even those appreciable achievements. Simply having the work in my possession sustains me with minimal rest.”

“What does that mean?” the warrior asked.

“It means he can finally sit a watch when we’re in the field,” Kara smirked.

The wizard twitched. “There are additional features I shan’t belabor.”

Lem’s addressed his mug in a subdued tone. “Small mercies.”

“But the salient feature for discussion this evening is the room.” Rahab leaned forward on his elbows, eyes devil-bright.

The alchemist grew excited. “The arcane intrusive distortion!”

“The realm of the metal warrior?” Abby remained nonplussed.

Lem regarded the others as if they had all gone mad, punctuating each word with a tap on the table. “Portal. To. The Hells.”

For the briefest of moments Rahab considered a spell of weaponized fire. Mastering himself, he resumed: “The book contains a magic largely unknown to me—to all of us, and indeed Golarion, I wager—though it has some familiarity we have come to recognize.”

“Thassilonian?” asked the oracle.

“Just so. Some kind of extra-dimensional space, or at least an extra-dimensional doorway to some other space as yet unverified, and the book is the access. Which is precisely what happened when I unlocked the chamber.”

The warrior’s eyes narrowed. “And this magical room explodes? That doesn’t seem like a very good idea.”

“No, Abby, closing the ‘door’ to the room appears to suspend time within. When I opened the way, time within the space realigned with the present location.”

Abby blinked.

“Time started again,” the wizard offered, “and the alchemical golem trapped therein finished its act of blasting. The resultant eruption billowed into the townhouse through the extra-dimensional transition.”

Gloriana raised her eyebrows. “That’s what we heard?”

The warrior squinted at the oracle. “What do you mean ‘we?’”

“I healed Rahab’s wound!”

“Yes, after I carried him down the stairs.”

“He walked downstairs under his own power!” Kara frowned. “The golem barely scratched him. He was more scared than hurt.”

Lem wiped foam from his upper lip. “How do we know this isn’t some clever cover for devil worship?”

Rahab’s voice suddenly rang like steel on stone. “Enough!” A thrill rippled through the surrounding crowd and voices hushed as tavern-goers turned to stare.

“When I opened the room I erred,” Rahab explained in a softer tone as hubbub gradually resumed around them. “Assuming the alchemical golem was a feature of the magic—a guardian or servant, perhaps—I declared ownership of the book, not realizing until too late that in the ancient past the golem had been dispatched to slay the tome’s owner.”

Lem burst out laughing. “You unlocked the magic and nominated yourself for assassination in the same breath, and didn’t even know what you were doing? Next round’s on me!” The gardener’s face crinkled in delight.

“The golem attacked,” said Rahab, “wounding me somewhat, certainly not mortally, and certainly not frightfully, and then I simply closed the book and sealed the extra-dimensional transition, trapping the construct once more.”

Gloriana looked worried. “Can it escape?”

The conjurer shrugged. “Not without magic to travel extra-dimensionally, or some other means of access, such as knowledge of the principles actualized in the book itself.”

“I thought you knew all about this kind of thing,” said the oracle. “Dimensional spaces, or something? You transported us instantaneously from Turtleback Ferry!”

“Almost certainly to everyone’s delight there are, of course, limits to my knowledge. The principles of the extra-dimensional transition I understand. What I do not yet know—and nevertheless feel confident to discover—is whether the room itself is extra-dimensional or merely elsewhere within this matrix of dimensional alignment. And as I mentioned, there is more to the book even than that. I stand at the shore of understanding this artifact. Further soundings will chart the depths.”

Kara’s expression was grave. “An alchemical golem is a potent foe, Rahab.”

The wizard’s jaw tightened as he nodded, suddenly contemplative. ”I know.”

“I always knew your ego would get you into trouble,” Gloriana quipped, then immediately regretted it. She tried a small smile. The mood had turned.

“What happens next?” asked Abby.

The conjurer took up his ale and drank deep. “I will continue my study. The other features I have discerned remain available to me, and for now I will keep the room closed until I learn more and am ready to confront the assassin construct.”

“We’re here,” the warrior said, lifting her wine in a small toast of solidarity. Rahab nodded thanks. A silence followed. The tavern crowd loomed and shifted around them, The Sundown interior a haze of tobacco smoke and buzzing with the din of drink and communion.

••••

Eventually Lem turned to Gloriana. “Care to tell your version?” Four smirking faces regarded the oracle.

“No,” she sulked.

••••

On a late spring evening in Magnimar a citizen might elect to depart a particular three-story tavern in the upscale Naos district. Head spinning with alcohol and snatches of overheard conversation like something from nightmare, the patron might make for the street, silently vowing to quit drinking.


1 It’s worth noting at this point that, since party members are 10th level, Kara has immunity to poisons. She can’t get drunk. For the alchemist, alcohol is just for the taste and social camaraderie now. If you’d like to have an argument about whether alcohol should be considered a poison, take it elsewhere. I’m not interested. It’s a toxin. The research is in. It happens to be a toxin I enjoy, but it’s still a toxin.

2 Glo’s Perception check to hear the explosion one floor up in the very house where she stood was abysmal. Appalling. Abominable. Awful. Atrocious. Pretty much all the negative “A” adjectives.

View
Book IV, Chapter 20: Return to Whitewillow
Waking From Nightmare

Gloriana quickly cast a spell to remove the magical fear that gripped Lem even as the sorcerous silence in which she had previously shrouded the gardener ran the course of its duration. Lem stuttered to a halt, grumbled, and went back to retrieve the knives he had dropped in the panic to flee. Blades recovered, the gardener made straight for Rahab, footsteps soundless on cold stone.

The wizard read the unstated intent: “No, I did not throw you. You will have to take that up with the other human.”

Lem considered for a moment. Whatever else he thought of the Cheliaxian conjurer, the gardener had to admit he had never known the wizard to lie, and he could not decide if that made him even more disagreeable. Spinning, he strode to the oracle. The glimmer of reluctance he had felt just before the battle with the wight receded and a new anger rose within.

Gloriana understood what was coming. Lem approached, daggers drawn, and as opening gambit the oracle elected to channel healing power among her companions, knitting wounds, easing pain.

••••

Abby, Kara, and Rahab stood out of earshot watching the figure of the oracle and gardener in tensely heated conference.

“How do you think it’s going?” the warrior whispered. “Should we do something?”

The alchemist shook her head. “They are working it out. I once told Lem the same thing about you and Rahab. We have to trust them.”

The warrior glanced at Kara in surprise. “Strange. I once told Glo almost exactly the same thing about Rahab and me, also. In fact,” she faced the wizard, “these things seem to come up quite a bit where you’re concerned.”

If Rahab’s arched eyebrow could have made a sound it would have scoffed. The wizard returned his attention to the conference at remove.

Unsatisfied, Abby pressed: “Why did she throw him?”

The conjurer interjected: “With Lem ensorcelled in a spell of silence she reasoned putting the gardener in proximity to the necromancer would inhibit our opponent’s ability to cast spells with vocal components. In addition, Lem’s journey over the distance was more significantly hindered by the size of the steps than yours.”

Abby puzzled over this for a moment, and then said, “The stone giant moved.”

The wizard shrugged agreement. “Her strategy was valid, even if her execution left something to be desired. It is interesting: I cannot decide if her decision not to consult Lem beforehand was truly inspired social management, or tremendous blunder.”

Kara crossed her arms. “That’s probably why Glori’s the diplomat, and you’re . . . not.”

The meeting between oracle and gardener bested more than twenty minutes.

••••

Abby could not help herself and approached the oracle. “Everything fine?”

Gloriana began another round of healing magic. “’Fine?’” The oracle turned the word over, like tasting a sweet, trying to determine if it was hot with cinnamon, or bright with mint, or shielded a soft center. “Hmm.” Power billowed out and washed over all of them, gentle, warm, comforting. “Has anything in this group ever really been ‘fine?’”

An icicle of alarm dripped chill down the warrior’s spine.

Gloriana read her friend as masterfully as she had the gardener. “If it makes you feel any better, Abby, I do not think he’s going to murder me.”

“You smoothed it out?”

“Well, I admitted I was wrong not to consult with him. Time will tell if that counts toward ‘smoothing’ anything.”

The warrior considered this. “Good thing it was you, then, and not Rahab.” She smiled, expecting consensus, but the oracle caught her off-guard.

“I’m surprised at you, Abby. As long as you’ve known Rahab, you’ve known he does admit when he is wrong. The hard part is getting him to realize when he is wrong.”

“Because he’s an ass?”

“Because he’s so often right. A brain that brilliant gets so used to being right that it becomes easy to assume that’s the normal state of things. But Rahab is brutally, beautifully honest, maybe in ways the rest of us aren’t.”

“What about Lem?”

“Lem . . . bears a burden of great rage, and a great deal of it is legitimate. Rage has its own seduction.”

Abby nodded, silently admitting to herself the conversation had moved somewhat beyond her ken. “I understand why you did it. You were trying to help against the necromancer.”

Gloriana stared hard at the floor, then looked the warrior in the eye and said, “Do not be too quick to take my side in this. I was going to throw you.”

••••

Lem discovered a secret alcove beneath the throne at the eastern end of the cavern. The group gathered to go over what he found.

“Most of this looks like equipment taken from Fort Rannick.” The gardener had organized the treasure into piles. “Recent acquisitions. Then there’s this: loose valuables. Not likely from Rannick. Finally there’s this,” the gardener flipped back a corner of oiled cloth to reveal something metal beneath.

Kara gasped.

••••

The final tally did, indeed, include much from Fort Rannick’s late garrison: Clusters of magic arrows numbered among the occasional suit of minor magical armor or sword with a basic enchantment.

“The raid on Rannick must have started from here,” Lem guessed. “They left a huge force occupying the fort.”

Rahab nodded. “A small contingent returned here to report and bring spoils. The necromancer,” and the conjurer glanced over at the corpse of the stone giant, “is the most obvious candidate for leadership . . . here, at least. Curious to see stone giants working with ogres and a hill giant.”

Abby looked interested. “How do you mean?”

Rahab deferred to Kara, who explained: “Traditionally, the varieties of true giant and giant-kin tend to keep to their own. That the ogres organized was strange enough. To find them aligned with stone giants is alarming. However isolationist, stone giants are not known for the kind of evil in which the ogre or the hill giant revels.”

“Reinforcing what we have suspected for some time: Something of significant power lies behind all of this.” Rahab stroked his goatee contemplatively.

The mundane treasure included some gemstones of varying quality, size, and type, as well as smaller pieces of art or craftwork, mostly silver and gold objects that would weather storage in a mountain cave. Kara and Lem conferred on appraisal. Smiling, the gardener nodded in satisfaction. “Close to ten-thousand!”

Abby raised an eyebrow. “In gold?”

“Obviously!”

“But this isn’t from Rannick?” asked Gloriana.

The gardener shook his head. “Not unless The Black Arrows were running some sort of contraband operation we don’t know about. Some of this is older, and probably comes from a variety of different places around the region.” Lem turned to Rahab. “What about the stone giant?”

“A few items, including a wand you and I should discuss. His necklace incorporated a Sihedron medallion. I will look over his spellbook which, naturally, I expect to find focused on necromancy.”

Lem nodded and then looked at the bundle of oiled cloth he had discovered at the bottom of the secret treasure compartment. “Which leaves this. Kara? Care to let us in on what’s got you so interested?”

••••

The unwrapped cloth revealed a breastplate of remarkable design and craft. Constructed of a strange alloy, the armor shimmered with an iridescent array of brilliant gold and copper tones. At the sternum was a circular depression nearly a handspan in diameter that showed a seven-pointed star upon a field of rich cerulean.

Rahab’s lips twisted wryly. “Now why does that not surprise me.”

“I believe,” the alchemist explained, “this breastplate consists of an alloy so rare as to be legendary. Mythic.” Kara shook her head in amazement.

“You know the piece?” asked Rahab.

“I do not, but everything that I can see in the substance of the armor suggests an alloy that I did not even know existed, save in tales. I believe it is celestial mithral—”

The wizard looked puzzled. “Celestial mithral?”1

Kara nodded. “According to dwarven lore, Torag Forge-Lord seeded the cosmos with special veins of mithral during the Age of Creation, deposits particularly blessed by Torag’s divine power. What difference this metal has from standard mithral—if such term even applies—are unknown, at least to me. Dwarves are tight-lipped at the best of times, especially with elves, but in thousands of years of alchemical magic practice even the most skilled among my profession have never truly attested to encountering celestial mithral.”

“Yet you think it is in this armor?”

“Only because of the presence of the other component: anamnesis.”

“’Remembrance?’” The wizard’s bafflement increased.

“Or ‘recollection.’ The name is ironic in that, to the best of alchemical knowledge, Golarion little recalls—if at all—the exact nature of this other substance, for it, too, is a metal out of myth. Supposedly capable of taking on powerful enchantments, the most recognized—that is to say, most rumored—attribute of anamnesis is its fantastic golden copper color . . . this color . . . a quality that shows iridescence when alloyed with celestial mithral. Note the effect in light. Whatever else anamnesis is, it is ancient and occult. The process of combining these substances is likewise unknown. Many would doubt their existence entirely, yet even at a glance I can see no other explanation for this material. I am familiar with hundreds of metallic forms, and like Avenger, this is not among them. I daresay we look upon a substance not seen in Golarion for an age, if not more.” The alchemist traced a trembling hand over the breastplate.2

Eventually Rahab’s devil grin appeared. “You realize what this means? In this very moment you may have advanced to the foremost ranks of alchemy. If you are correct you can lay claim to identifying a sample of a previously fantastic alloy, rendering real what has heretofore resided in myth!”

Stunned silence.

“Kara,” the wizard sounded gleeful, “you just wrote yourself into history!”

••••

Rahab cast his spell of magic detection and spent a minute or so staring at lines and runes drifting in his sight, magical information revealed as emanation from the armor.

“As suspected,” he murmured, “it is significantly powerful. Its aura reminds me of Avenger’s, and that of the book we found on the ogre sorceress in Fort Rannick. The breastplate is a relic of ancient Thassilon.”

The other treasure momentarily forgotten, the companions clustered around for a closer look.

“Can you tell anything else about it?” asked Gloriana.

“Like much of that bygone culture it remains elusive, for the present.” The wizard continued to read the shapes of light that shifted and spun. “Qualities of Thassilon’s magic register generally, and then somehow fail to resolve.” He shook his head. “Frustrating.”

“Perhaps it has something to do with the gods?” suggested Gloriana.

Rahab rolled his eyes. “Then the ‘gods’ need to get out of my way.”

Bemused, the oracle crossed her arms. “I suppose you think you could do better?”

The wizard turned the frame of magic detection with his hands to read the arcane information from a different angle. “They had better watch their asses.”

This sort of discussion always made Abby nervous. “Alright, well, look, I mean— let’s just . . . maybe we should try it on?”

Rahab shrugged and gestured at the armor. Gloriana and Kara helped the warrior out of her own carapace and into the breastplate with the seven-pointed star.

“Well?” Lem asked.

“It’s very comfortable,” Abby replied. “Easy to move in, and light . . . amazingly light.”

The conjurer continued to observe under the lens of his spell, carefully watching vectors, pulses, waveforms. “Do you detect any other properties?”

The warrior appeared to be feeling for something, eyes closed, moving through martial exercises. In the light the breastplate’s brilliant palette of polished copper and luminous gold shone under a shifting sheen of iridescence thinner than a dragonfly wing. The armor was stunningly beautiful, but after a time the warrior opened her eyes and settled. “Nothing.” She began unfastening the intricate and expertly designed latching mechanisms so she could return to her own armor.

Kara carefully wrapped the Thassilonian breastplate back in the oiled cloth for safe transport.

••••

They searched the remaining areas of the cave system. Neither the hags nor the ogres nor the hill giant had anything of note, but they recovered some items and equipment from the frost wight that had been Lamatar Bayden.

“We have to return him to Myriana,” Gloriana said.

Lem rested hands on hips. “The whole thing?”

“She said even just part would be enough to restore him.”

“You think he’s coming back from this?”

“I do not know, but we have to try.”

Steel rang as a knife unsheathed. “How about the head?”

••••

“We could try and descend now, but it will be very difficult,” Lem said. “Unless Rahab can magic us all there?”

The wizard shook his head. “The range exceeds that remaining to me today.”

The gardener nodded. “Then we’re here. In the morning we should set out as early as possible. The sooner we recover the horses and get underway the better.”

They settled around the forge to take advantage of the heat. Abby sat next to Rahab as they wrapped themselves in their cloaks. The warrior leaned close and whispered.

“Glo said she was going to use her magic to throw me instead of Lem!”

Rahab’s expression showed a mixture of exhaustion and the frayed patience of the instructor waiting for the pupil to arrive at a moment of insight. The warrior was nonplussed.

The wizard gave a resigned chuckle. “Abby, look at you: A tower of muscle shrouded in steel. That spell has certain limitations. You were too heavy.”

No one slept particularly well, but any rest was better than none.3

••••

Shortly after dawn they reached the horses, relieved to find them alive. Mounting quickly, they rode for the foothills bordering the Storval Deep, turning east-southeast toward Skull’s Crossing, then southwest to Fort Rannick where they overnighted. The next morning the weather finally broke, the cloud cover gradually peeling away, welcome sunlight slowly beginning to dry the saturated land. Riding along the Skull River they observed the water level and flow had normalized, but they did not stop at Turtleback Ferry, bypassing the village on their way to the Wicker Walk.

Later that afternoon they met with Yap in the forested reaches outside Bitter Hollow. The pixie reported no traffic into the Shimmerglens.

“Help mistress?” Blue wings fluttered.

Gloriana nodded, somber.

“We go?”

“We go.”

They skirted the village and made their way south into the gloaming, into nightmare.

••••

The desolation around the pool was unchanged. Cast by Myriana’s breathtaking lament, splintered bits of ivory-colored willow lay scattered over the once-green grass. Overhead the moon rode high on the dark, ghost-white sliver like the tear of a god fallen on black velvet sky. The silence was immense, as if the entire region held its breath, terrified to draw the attention of the spirit wandering galleries of torment, returning to each chamber over and over again in hope of finding love not torn asunder.

Gloriana became golden fire. Grasping snow-white locks, the oracle lifted the head they had carried all the way from Hook Mountain.

“Myriana,” she said softly, “we have returned with your lover, freed from undeath. Lamatar awaits.”

From the depths of the pool erupted phantom light, beautiful, dreadful. The ghost-nymph coalesced and floated near. All but Gloriana averted their eyes, and when Myriana began to weep the companions could do nothing but the same.

••••

Afterwards it was difficult to say exactly what had happened. Bright light suffused everything, and then faded slowly, revealing two figures, no longer wrought in horror, but whole and hale and new. Impossibly stunning, she gently brushed his cheek, and then was gone. He remained, now an elf with features unmistakably like those that had belonged to the once-captain of The Black Arrows. Already the land changed, a wave of color billowing out from the pool, renewal rippling through tree, leaf, soil, stone, water. Blooms formed, buds appeared, wounds healed, banishing the twisted devastation under the night sky. A lone deer bounded effortlessly across the clearing, regal head held high, a herald of woodland restored.

Weeping abated, grief diminished. Within each of the companions bubbled a feeling like waking fresh from troubled sleep to find a land washed clean after a storm.

“Lamatar?” Gloriana asked.

“Do I know you?” the elf replied. Seemingly ageless, he stood unashamed of his nakedness, soft argent hair framing a graceful countenance. He was like a silver tree facing her avatar of burning gold.

“In a way,” the oracle answered. “We returned you to Myriana.”

Quiet tears escaped his eyes, gentle as soft rain. “I could not save her. I could not protect her, as I could not protect the fortress.”

“Rannick lies in enemy hands no longer. We have retaken it, and even now one of The Black Arrows stands on watch there.”

The silver elf considered this for a time. “I feel relief to hear it, though my memory of such things feels borrowed. My thanks are insufficient for what you have done.”

“Can you tell us what happened here?”

“Not clearly. I think I returned from the wilderness to find the fortress fallen. Not knowing they would follow, I fled here, unwittingly leading the monsters to my love. They tore her apart before me, and save for waking here all after that is vague nightmare, shapes in darkness, dreams of death. Those fragments belong to someone else, now.”

“You are Lamatar Bayden, captain of The Black Arrows.”

“I find little familiar in your words. Perhaps I was. Henceforth I shall be Lamden, and my memories shall be all that the Shimmerglens tell.”

A silence passed. The silver elf clasped his hands lightly behind his back and turned to gaze up at the crescent moon in still reflection. Eventually Gloriana spoke once more.

“Myriana’s spirit had been corrupted, but when we returned you here she was freed of the misery that twisted her and Whitewillow. She worked powerful magic of reincarnation, the likes of which I have never seen, nor would have thought possible.”

Lamden gave a faint smile. “I see only the land as it is in this moment, and in this moment is the whole of time for the land.”

“Do you want us to lead you to Fort Rannick?”

The elf’s expression acquired a certain melancholy. “Do you not understand? As my love was before, so now am I a part of this place. Its protection falls to me, and I could no more leave than could the trees.”

“Then you will need your armor and weapons to defend it. We brought them from Hook Mountain.”

Lamden shook his head kindly. “No. Such were the tools of another time, another being, and they bequeath to you. In my veins are the waters, in my lungs the mists and wind. Where I walk springs new grass, and where I rest grow new trees. My eyes and ears and thoughts course the realm with the deer and the fox and the hawk on the wing. Any who venture here with ill intent shall find the very land arrayed against them, but you here before me shall find refuge. Springs shall flow fresh to quench your thirst, and fruits shall fall ripe from the branch into your outstretched hand when you hunger. Bowers shall arch overhead when you sleep, and birdsong will wake you refreshed in the morning.”

A sudden smile brightened Gloriana’s face, a smile of the road, of nights spent under stars at crackling campfires haloed in song. “It cheers our hearts to see this place restored. We look forward to returning some day. Please look kindly on the pixie, Yap, who sought us for aid. His heart was ever devoted to healing here.”

“He shall be favored. Go well in your travels.”

Perhaps they blinked, or perhaps there was some trick of light, but suddenly the companions stood alone in the clearing under the faint and distant moon. Around the pool had sprouted six new willow saplings.

••••

They spent two more days in Turtleback Ferry, helping how they might with continued flood recovery. Here, too, locals began talk of heroes, of deeds to alter the course of fate, of acts no two individuals could verify each other had truly seen. Gangs of children followed the companions around mud-choked roads, the bolder among them asking for a token, or demonstration of strength or skill, or the casting of a spell. Some villagers crowded close for a glimpse, a touch, a word; still others moved quickly along with nervous whispers or wary glances. Singly or in groups the companions were invited to homes for meager meals the villagers struggled to prepare in the wake of lost supply. At some point every party member received marriage proposal and plea to take someone away to a dreamed utopia.

The two casks of ale Gloriana and Rahab had brought to Bottom’s Up had not even lasted until the companions’ return, but the inn made significant cleaning progress with magical help from the oracle and wizard. The Keskers opened the upstairs rooms to the companions. At night, lying down to sleep, they could smell the stagnant flood reek lingering in the timbers. With the end of constant rain it suddenly felt like proper spring, and structures in Turtleback Ferry propped open doors and windows, eager to catch fresh breezes and warm sun.

For their last night’s meal in the village Rahab used his dimensional walk to usher his friends and their food to the roof of the inn where they could dine in peace, free of villagers begging audience, coin, or blessing. Arrayed like curious rooks, they ate in silence for a while, watching the sunset over the lake.

“Tomorrow?” Abby turned to the wizard, a look of unmistakable excitement in her eyes.

Rahab nodded. “Three translations: The first will teleport four of us, the second shall return me here, and the third will bring me and whomever remains.”

“How long will it take?”

“Within one standard deviation of eighteen seconds. In subsequent days I will make return journeys to teleport the horses.”

“Will that be more difficult?”

“Easier than teleporting people.”

“Because they’re stronger?”

Devil-grin flashed in twilight: “Because they do not complain, or editorialize about the process, or bother me to ‘go again.’”

Gloriana proffered the conjurer a rude gesture, and when Kara, Abby, and Lem giggled she did the same to them, which only set them to more laughter.

After another silence Abby asked, “Do you think the Kreeg are vanquished?”

“Possibly,” offered Kara. “Certainly they will not menace this region for a long time. Their numbers must be significantly diminished.”

“Regardless, The Black Arrows must be reinforced,” said Gloriana, “and the villages in this region do not have the personnel.”

“The Black Arrows must be reformed,” the gardener corrected.

Abby swallowed a piece of salted fish. “Do you think Magnimar will send anyone, Glo?”

The oracle sighed. “Eventually. The city would hate to cede any territory—even if only in theory—to Korvosa. That will require some sanctioned presence, though I do not think the lord mayor will make haste.”

“Is there anything we could do to help?”

Gloriana mused in silence for a while. “I am not sure yet. Perhaps we will find a solution while in Magnimar. In the meantime we have much to do ourselves.”

“Are we going to talk to Quink?”

“We are. We also need to do some work. Rahab?”

“In the next several weeks we shall consult on the construction of new magic items, or the augmentation of existing ones. Those treasures we have looted that we do not wish to keep we shall arrange to liquidate for funds—buyers permitting—to supply our crafting or purchasing. Further, we should attempt to penetrate more of the mystery that has eluded us these months. Such will inform our next move. And, we have research to conduct, as well . . . independent of the ‘sage.’”

“Really, Rahab,” needled Gloriana with a smile, “professional jealousy seems beneath you.”

“Jealousy occurs between rivals. If I ever encounter any of those, I will let you know.”

Villagers passing in the mud streets outside Bottom’s Up heard new rounds of laughter from the roof.

••••

After sunset the air quickly grew cool, and so Rahab stepped behind the dimensions with each of his friends, appearing inside the inn on the first floor. They went downstairs to place an order for hot tea, which supply the Kesker’s had not entirely lost, then they gathered upstairs in the room shared by Abby and Gloriana.

“Are we any closer,” Lem asked, carefully cleaning a fingernail with the point of one of his daggers, “to understanding what’s going on? Ogres and now stone giants? All that business back in Magnimar? It’s all connected, right?”

Rahab nodded. “There is a new piece.”

“What is it?” Kara raised an eyebrow.

“A note I discovered tucked away in the pages of the necromancer’s spellbook.” He produced a section of paper the size of a hefty tome and began to unfold it. By the time it was spread completely open it was twice the size of a folio.

“That’s a note?” Lem’s eyes widened.

The wizard was dry: “It is if you stand more than twelve feet tall.”

“Is that the language of giants?” Gloriana traced some of the ink lines on the page.

Rahab nodded. “It reads thus:”

Barl—
Latest contact with Teraktinus indicates he has narrowed the search—he believes a human town called Sandpoint could hide what my lord seeks. Teraktinus will lead several of the people as well as the dragon on a raid into the town some time after four full lunar cycles. When they return they may be pursued and I may need your ogre slaves to aid in Teraktinus’s retreat to Jorgenfist. Be ready to return at my command.
—M

“Ghosts of the road,” the oracle sighed. “Do any of those names mean anything to anyone?”

“I surmise Barl to have been the necromancer,” Rahab replied. “The hag who bargained mentioned ‘Breakbones,’ perhaps mere referent, but likely part of Barl’s name. Stone giant appellations often follow that style. At a guess I suspect ‘M’ may be Mokmurian, the name provided in brief conversation with the lamia matriarch Lucrecia. As for Teraktinus and Jorgenfist, I do not recognize those.”

Lem shook his head. “Nor do I.”

“Then I shall add those to our subjects for upcoming research.” The wizard began refolding the giant note.

Kara looked troubled. “Do you think this ‘Mokmurian’ is another stone giant?”

“Possibly,” Rahab shrugged. “Difficult to say at this point. Why?”

“He refers to the ogres as slaves. Stone giants are not given to slave-taking.”

“Maybe it’s another kind of giant?” Abby suggested. “Like that hill giant?”

The wizard shook his head. “This giant appears literate, ruling out almost one-hundred percent of all hill giants, ever.”

“Fire?” Kara offered. “No. Not likely. Cloud, perhaps?”

“We are now tossing darts at a target we cannot even see,” Rahab crossed his arms. “Without more evidence any such speculation is specious.”

“Do we have time?” Abby chewed nervously at her lip.

“I think so. Four full lunar cycles is at least four months, and I suspect this note was dispatched to the necromancer prior to the worst of the winter, which was heavy enough in Magnimar. Nevertheless, in the next month we will need to remain vigilant.”

Gloriana brushed curls of gold from her eyes. “Maybe we should go straight to Sandpoint instead.”

“Eventually,” the wizard said, “but for now Magnimar will serve us better. We must prepare. Ready first, then move. Sitting in Sandpoint waiting for an attack about which we know very little, indeed, gives the advantage to our enemies.”

“Do you think they really have a dragon?” Kara’s voice reflected a rarely expressed fear.

“At present I see no reason to interpret that as anything other than a legitimate reference to such a creature.”

“By The Brightness,” the alchemist murmured. “What chance does Sandpoint have?”

The wizard seemed surprised. “With us there? Significant. Let us not get ahead of ourselves. Firstly, we do not yet know what intends to march on Sandpoint. Secondly, we know nothing about this dragon, neither age nor type, though no dragon should ever be underestimated. As Abby has reminded us, it might even be a name for something else entirely: a weapon, a magic, a different monster entirely. That is not to say there is no cause for concern, but our priority upon return should be our own augmentation, including adding to our knowledge. We are best when prepared.”

A long silence ensued. Gloriana glanced at the wizard and saw Rahab rubbing his eyes. “I know how you feel.”

“I confess to weariness,” the conjurer mumbled, “weariness about this constantly elusive thing that returns again and again in violence only to fade into the unknown even as we repel its assault.”

“The mystery no longer intrigues?”

“Mysteries may be plumbed. This is more like mischief, as stupid as it is inelegant.”

The oracle gave Rahab a sympathetic smile. “Perhaps the days ahead will reveal more.”

“Perhaps. For now I am to bed.” He rose and bid good night to his friends. One by one the others, too, relinquished the field to exhaustion. Still unaccustomed to the wizard’s power to instantly move vast distances, the idea of a long journey home—and all its attendant exhaustion—loomed large. All that had transpired in recent weeks still weighed on their hearts. A journey of more than three hundred miles had brought them to the horror of the Graul farm and the crisis of The Black Arrows. Kaven’s betrayal and the death of a friend lingered fresh in the mind. Retaking Fort Rannick had pushed them to previously unknown limits of ability, cohesion, life. From rain to flood to the nightmare of Whitewillow even the land seemed an opponent to overcome, and through it all lumbered a host of monstrosities serving some fell purpose. The journey of new scars had seen battle and heartbreak in such measure that it became impossible to separate one from the other, and still they felt no closer to understanding the forces behind all they had witnessed. Every victory, every found relic of a bygone civilization, every scrap of plan or stolen conversation or piece of information summed to no value they could recognize.

And now Varisia itself had begun to change. What had been ignorance became whisper until it could remain hushed no longer. From the western coast to the wilder interior minstrels, poets, raconteurs, sailors, troupes, travelers, and everyone in between took to tavern, salon, boards, or public space with tales about five heroes traversing the land committing deeds grim and triumphant. Where this company arrived, the stories insisted, so, too, did tremors to shake existence itself, and the resultant tumbled fruit tasted as people had not known for many lifetimes.

Under a clear night sky slept a lakeside village troubled by dreams of a future in which it would find the journey back to where it had been impossible. On the far side of the water a curious sensation crept through the marshland, peaceful yet hinting at a silver menace that warned away all those unprepared to face the spiral madness of a region touched by otherworldly green. Farther north, in badland boltholes, brutal giant-kin had already begun to invent a name for the vision of steel-clad war they would invoke to discipline wayward offspring for generations to come. In a deep cavern farther still, a malicious mind brooded over intrigue, magic, and thoughts of ascendant conquest.

In a once-rowdy inn-and-tavern subdued by flood recovery it was enough, however, that it finally felt like genuine spring, and a pentad found sleep untroubled, save for one. Abby lay on her bed staring into darkness.

“Glo? You awake?”

The oracle made a wordless sound, a sluggish, muted reply from the murky verge of sleep.

Weighty pause crumbled under excitement chasing warrior around a circadian maelstrom, and giggles shook a bed frame. “We’re going to teleport tomorrow!”

Gloriana was wide awake now.4


1 Oh, there’s all kinds of stuff Rahab does not know.

2 Kara’s Knowledge roll was pretty much as high as she could achieve at this level.

3 Overall loot included around 9,700 g.p. worth of gems and art pieces, plus a bunch of magic arrows (including some +1 giant bane variety), a suit of studded leather +2 light fortification, +2 belt of dexterity, boots of the winterlands, wand of enervation with 12 charges, +2 headband of vast intelligence, +1 chain shirt, +1 icy burst composite longbow, cloak of elvenkind, +1 longsword. More on the breastplate to come.

4 End of Book IV. Screen wipes to black. Turn the sound up and play “Without Love” by Black ‘N Blue from their 1985 album Without Love over the credits.

View
Book IV, Chapter 19: The Battle Of Hook Mountain
Trans-Dimensional Point Insertion Protocol

Kara and Rahab flew overhead searching for the horses, descending to round them up and walk them slowly back to the clearing. The stunning panic was gone, leaving only the general dread that lingered in the area. Yap reappeared, fluttering nearby, anxious.

“May Yap help you?”

Gloriana faced the pixie. She had been crying. Ghosts of the road, we’ve all been crying. “Yes, Yap. I need you to return to the Wicker Walk and keep humanoids from coming here.”

Yap turned a somersault, then stopped, nonplussed. “How does Yap do that?”

“Just talk to them. Stay in flight, out of reach, and warn them away. Don’t threaten, that may make them angry. Just tell them to stay away from Whitewillow and the Shimmerglens. It’s not safe. Otherwise stay out of sight in the forest.”

“What will you do?”

“We are going to Hook Mountain to find Lamatar and return him to your mistress. We may need your help when we get back.”

Yap barrel-rolled and clapped. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou! You will heal mistress! Yap loves you!” The pixie spun and raced away into the gloom, headed north.

The eerie silence returned and held sway.

••••

Horses herded, fallen weapons recovered, the companions stood and looked out over the ruin of the clearing.

“Lem? Can you lead us back to Bitter Hollow?” the oracle asked.

“No problem.” The gardener was subdued, staring out into the darkness.

“Rahab, do you know how to get to Hook Mountain?”

The wizard nodded.1 “I estimate two-and-a-half days on horseback. Our route will take us past Fort Rannick and Skull’s Crossing. The challenging part will be in the mountains. The region is difficult, and not just because of the ogre presence.”

In the poor light Gloriana did not see the wizard wince. “When we get to Bitter Hollow let’s take a little time at the inn and get you familiar with the place. We may need to return with Lamatar very quickly, and you’re just the teleporter to do it.” She gave him a smile.

“Good idea,” and then he grimaced.

Alarmed, the oracle stepped close. “Are you hurt?” The others formed a defensive circle. Gloriana had cast a spell of status on Abby, Kara, and Lem, but . . . Of course the spell told me nothing. The ones I cast it on weren’t injured. Pay attention, Gloriana!

Rahab reached into his robe and drew forth Escher. In the light of the glow skull they could see the rat was ragged, fur disheveled, sides heaving with exertion. Drying blood flecked his whiskers and forepaws.

“Ghosts of the road!” The oracle opened Rahab’s robe and saw the bloody patch of shredded skin just below the wizard’s sternum, raw and ragged.

“I don’t understand,” Abby lamented, looking over Gloriana’s shoulder. She met Rahab’s eyes. “Why?”

“The blame is not Escher’s.” The rat squeaked weakly in Rahab’s hand and angled his head to nuzzle one of the wizard’s fingers. “He exhibited more intelligence than I could muster, trying to get away from the terror of Myriana’s anguish.”

Gloriana smiled sympathetically. “Here.” The oracle gently reached out and placed one hand on the rat, the other on the conjurer’s chest. She could sense the wizard’s heart hammering behind his rib cage as she softly murmured the healing spell.2

••••

It was very early morning by the time they returned to Bitter Hollow. They breakfasted at the inn, taking their time. Rahab sat in silence with a cup of coffee looking over the common room, familiarizing himself with details, making other patrons nervous. Then they got on the road again, electing to bypass Turtleback Ferry and make straight for Fort Rannick.

Gloriana reined Marigold slightly, allowing Pentacle to draw alongside. The oracle had to rummage in her backpack for some time. Her haunts kept moving things around. Finally she drew forth a scroll and held it up.

Rahab looked at it with interest. “Is that the one you went to the temple of Sarenrae to purchase?”

The oracle looked somber. “A chant to raise the dead.”3

Rahab’s eyes widened. “That is a very powerful incantation. Very expensive.”

“More than you know,” she returned.

He regarded her in silence for a long time. “I do not doubt,” he said eventually.

“Anyway,” Gloriana resumed, “I’m going to keep it here,” and she tapped the scroll against a cylindrical container of brass on her belt. “Got it?”

“I understand.”

“Oh, and Rahab?”

The wizard inclined his head slightly.

“Myriana and Lamatar? Their love is genuine.”

The wizard mused, then held up his hands and gave the slightest smile. “Point taken.”

By the time they reached Fort Rannick they had been awake for more than twenty-four hours. Sleep came easily.

••••

Snow fell on the frozen mountain side. They had left Fort Rannick behind in the early morning, passed Skull’s Crossing, and by mid-day were winding their way among the Iron Peaks. The rain had turned to snow soon after the ancient Thassilonian dam.

“If this is spring weather I am no alchemist,” Kara murmured.

“Something foul is at work,” agreed Rahab. “I suspect even now we make our way to find out what it is.”

Beyond the foothills to the east stretched the expanse of the Storval Deep reflecting ice-black under the overcast sky. The horses advanced slowly under the accumulating snow, and the riders had wrapped themselves in their camp blankets. When they reached the base of Hook Mountain it was clear the horses could go no further.

“That lee of rock back a short ways should provide enough shelter,” Lem said. “They’ll make it through the night if we drape them in our blankets.”

Gloriana’s face wrinkled. “What about us?”

“We’ll be climbing. Hope we’re headed for a cave, or something.”

Abby dismounted, and the others followed suit. Rahab collected reins and blankets, and led the horses back to the shelter. He hobbled them in a close cluster to maximize shared warmth, then draped them in the blankets. When he returned to the group Kara was gone.

“Scouting,” Abby answered the unasked question.

When the alchemist’s voice sounded everyone started briefly. Her invisibility took some getting used to.

“There is a winding trail the ogres probably use. I think there may be a cave further up, but I did not fly that high.”

“Good work,” Gloriana was huddled next to the warrior, her arms clenched, teeth chattering.

Lem led them up the mountain.

••••

Despite the conditions they made appreciable pace. The gardener found a good route with plenty of navigable rock not yet shrouded in snow or ice. They only had to scramble in a few areas. The biggest problem they encountered on the way was the giant spider.

A huge field of snow exploded under the dashing trapdoor attack of the arachnid. Sandy brown and covered in wiry hairs, the spider dwarfed the one they had fought at the Graul farm by half again, at least.

Kara recognized the scuttling giant. “Tarantula!”

Gloriana screamed.

••••

Lem was struck by a hail of barbed hairs as rigid as arrows. His armor prevented all but a few from penetrating, and he gritted his teeth against the burning sensation that coursed through him. Rahab cast a spell and took flight, while Kara drank another extract and did the same. Standing next to Gloriana, Abby had been caught by surprise and could only gape as the oracle informed the world of just how upset she was with a piercing, sustained F#5.

The gardener struggled to get his shortbow nocked and fired. In the frigid, blowing conditions it was difficult to maintain proper form on the bowstring, but one of his arrows did score a hit. From the air overhead came an object hurtling through the snowfall. It struck the spider and exploded in a flash of fire and smoke that was quickly carried away in the wind.

Abby lurched into the snow field, activating the hasting magic of Avenger and striding as best she could over difficult terrain. Her path took her within range of the spider’s enormous reach and titanic fangs speared the warrior, injecting a strength-sapping venom that acted quickly. Abby swung her sword and tore a great piece of carapace from the thorax, but she sagged under the toxin’s effect almost immediately.4 The spider moved with uncanny speed, looming over Abby, fangs descending once more.

Gloriana began to draw injury from the warrior. She called a column of divine fire down from the sky. Great smoke wafted up from the spider as hairs and carapace incinerated.5 Kara threw a second explosive and left the chitinous corpse twitching in the snow.

Abby gasped, leaning on Avenger and her sword. Her breastplate felt five hundred pounds heavier. Lem made his way over to the warrior. “Is there any reason we shouldn’t use this?” He held up a restorative potion he carried.

“Yes!” Gloriana made her way over the snow to Abby and began to cast a litany of spells. Lem shrugged, and stowed his potion away. Moments later the toxin was magically scrubbed from the warrior’s system and her strength had been restored. Finally she was healed back to fighting form. The oracle had to shuffle in knee-deep snow to put her back to the spider’s corpse, especially when Kara flew down to take a sample of venom from the glands behind the chelicerae.

Abby: “You alright, Glo?”

“Giant spider. Enormous. No. No no no no no.”

••••

It was late afternoon by the time they reached the cave entrance. Through the whirling snow they could just make it out along the eastern mountain slope below the summit. The companions crouched behind a large snow drift, shivering.

“Bet it’s warmer in there,” Abby’s said behind rattling teeth. “We should go see.”

Lem angled around the bank. “Back as fast as I can.”

The remaining four huddled for warmth. In three minutes the gardener returned. “Two Kreegs, armed and armored. Let’s do it.”

In the swirling snowstorm they could safely activate their array of preparatory magic without alerting the ogres at the cave entrance. Abby and Lem were about to move out when Rahab clapped a hand on their shoulders.

“I have an idea.”

Abby had been right: It was fun.

••••

Rahab slipped through dimensional interstices and appeared instantaneously next to the northernmost ogre, bringing Abby and Lem with him. At the instant of arrival, warrior and gardener attacked in concert. Sensing something in its peripheral vision the other ogre looked over and gawked: Its fellow guard was gone. In its place stood a human, a half-elf, and a halfling. For some reason the snow at the cave entrance was covered in a massive red stain.6

••••

The second ogre did not live long enough to wonder what had happened.7 Gloriana and Kara arrived out of the wintry blast to find Abby standing over the corpse, drawing her sword from its torso. Lem’s knives dripped crimson like paint across the cave threshold.

“Where’s the other one?” Gloriana asked. Rahab flashed a devil-grin and stepped aside like a circus ringmaster introducing the next act. The blood spatter on the snow had fountained more than fifteen feet against the wind. The oracle’s jaw dropped open.

“Let’s get inside!” shouted Kara above the howl of the storm.

••••

The cave entrance spanned some thirty feet and advanced another forty or more, narrowing gradually as the access went east to west. Entry was dominated by two enormous features: The first was bones; the second, a statue.

Clearly the ribs of some immense creature, the bones lined the procession, set into the stone and rising nearly twenty feet high along either cave wall. They were ancient, weathered, and discolored. Now that the party no longer stood in the direct blast of the mountain wind, they advanced cautiously, already a fraction warmer. As they moved, Rahab regarded the bones.

“Blue dragon,” the wizard murmured. The others stopped, glanced warily from the bones to wizard to cave corridor.

“How can you tell?” Abby whispered.

“While possessing many basic similarities, the various dracoforms have numerous distinctions, including some within the musculoskeletal system. These belonged to a blue dragon, and an ancient one by the size.”

Now Gloriana leaned close. “Was this a dragon lair?”

The conjurer shook his head. “Unlikely, given the size of the cave system, and besides, the chromatic blue is typically a tyrant of more arid regions. No, the bones were brought here and arranged like this. See? The spacing is wrong to provide the necessary thoracic support and cavity for dragon anatomy of that size.”

A long silence passed. The companions eyed one another as Rahab mused.

“So . . . ” Abby finally interjected, “. . . should we keep moving?”

“What? Oh, yes, of course. It just made me think, that’s all.”

“About what?”

“An ancient blue dragon is a creature of tremendous power, and dragons rarely die of old age. Did you know that? So, unless they were scavenged from carrion, whatever harvested these bones, well . . . that must have been an astonishing battle.”

••••

The statue stood at the end of the long entry corridor, just before the actual caverns began, against the southern wall. Towering forty full feet, it was mixed media: Black stone fissured from centuries of temperature variation encased in gilded armor of occult provenance and strange, gem-encrusted design including a full helm with the stylized visage of a sneering, fanged fiend. A great medallion hung around the statue’s neck depicting a seven-pointed star with which they were all now quite familiar.

Once more the others looked at Rahab and the wizard simply shook his head at the unasked query. They left the mystery of the statue and ventured forward into the cave proper.

••••

Lem advanced a little way, then came back and reported that the corridor angled west-northwest before opening on a cavern at the intersection of four tunnels.

“Something ahead,” the gardener whispered in the light of Abby’s stone. “Ogres, I think, and maybe something else. A giant? I’m not too familiar with the varieties. We should lure them with arrows.”

The warrior nodded. “Draw them into the corridor, cut them down.”

They made ready.8

••••

The contingent at the intersection included the hill giant Lunderbud, ten feet tall and a thousand pounds of belligerence and questionable hygiene. Three members of the Kreeg supported him, and in a chamber to the south were six additional ogres.

Lem stealthily took position, nocked, sighted, and fired. He also missed. Lunderbud shouted something only Rahab understood, but it was not difficult for the rest of the party to guess what it was.

The battle at Hook Mountain began in earnest.

••••

The hill giant charged and the Kreegs with him launched javelins at the retreating Lem, then fell in alongside their lumbering cousin. The missiles flew wide and the gardener shouted a taunt back in Common. Kara pitched a grenado among the four brutes and the tunnel lit with an explosive flash that set giant and ogres howling in pain. Rahab had a wand that cast a spell to impair strength, and now he spoke eldritch words and directed a beam of energy from the tool into the nearest ogre. The creature’s grip on its cruel war hook sagged.

Gloriana had a good line of sight and summoned another column of raging fire, a pillar of angry red, orange, and gold that roared down from the tunnel ceiling and enveloped ogres and giant alike. Smoke churned and into the confusion stepped Abby, taking position at the front of the group, defending her friends, sword in hand, shield braced, still giddy from the feeling of traveling behind space and time. Before her stood three members of the Kreeg ogre clan and an attendant miscreant, and the monsters were already losing.

She casually lifted her sword blade and tapped the point against the hide chest piece of the ogre directly in front of her. “You fuckers sure are ugly!”

The warrior was having a wonderful time.

••••

The next few moments were fraught with combat. Lem took a hit from an ogre hook while Abby blocked her attacker with Avenger. The tunnel lit up with three explosions in quick succession, each one bursting like thunder against a cliff side, and one of the ogres fell dead. Abby skewered her opponent with her sword and kicked its body off her blade to crumple in a pool of its own blood. Gloriana tried to bestow a curse upon the hill giant, but the dullard managed to somehow resist the magic. Perhaps it was too stupid.9

Rahab’s mighty intelligence calculated furiously, measuring angles and distances of the tunnel, pinpointing the positions of ogre and hill giant, factoring the sound of additional enemy voices moving toward the intersection from the south. He waited, poised, precise, patient.

••••

Lem abandoned his bow and attempted to resume stealth at the tunnel periphery. Between Abby and Rahab’s light sources and the periodic explosions of Kara’s bombs, there was enough chaotic illumination to enhance his chances, and the gardener vanished into shadow.

Lunderbud had just enough sensibility to recognize much of his pain had come from the golden human, and just enough idiocy to step past the steel half-elf in an effort to crush his opponent with the massive hammer he bore. Abby cut a severe gash across his right torso, but the hill giant pressed forward. Gloriana ducked and avoided the worst of the hammer strike, but could not escape all of it. The pain was stunning. As she stumbled to one knee she caught a glimpse of six more ogres arriving at the intersection, ready to fall on the group with savage ferocity. Her heart faltered a moment: The force of new ogres might be enough to push the companions back, and if they got pinned at the turn of the tunnel . . . .

The intersection became fire.

••••

At the moment the last of the support ogre force arrived Rahab cast his spell. The fireball bloomed and the surrounding air was compressed by the expanding pressure wave. Patches of snow clinging to the companions’ armor and clothing vaporized instantly, and the ambient temperature spiked. Struggling to stand, Gloriana watched as the field of ogres disappeared, starting from the back, a raging inferno rolling over them in the cave confines.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the fireball was gone. Only Lunderbud and one Kreeg remained standing, sizzling, hairless. On the tunnel floor six twisted, charred, vaguely-bipedal shapes choked the tunnel with smoke like incense at offering.

Abby, Gloriana, and Kara looked back over their shoulders. The wizard’s smirking gloat would have been visible from space.10

••••

Abby spun, sword cut a viper’s strike. Blood hissed into the piles of carbon further up the tunnel. Staggering, Lunderbud reached a shaking hand out and grabbed Gloriana by the shoulder. The oracle whipped around, anger flashing in her eyes, the air dancing with wispy shapes, and her voice barked a spell. Another column of fire descended.

The hill giant became a statue in ash.

“Keep your filthy fingers off of me!” The statue crumbled. Little motes of ember floated lazily in the tunnel. As she dusted soot off her shoulders the oracle glanced at Rahab.

The wizard guffawed. “So satisfying, isn’t it?”

••••

Lem emerged from the shadows and fixed the remaining ogre with a grin. “You realize you’re the only one remaining, right?”

The Kreeg fled. Kara sent a bomb tumbling after it and the companions hustled quickly in pursuit. Gloriana became golden flame, healing her injury.

Rahab glanced to the south as they passed the room from whence the six ogres had come. He guessed the chamber served as a crude forge. They hurried on, following the northern tunnel a short distance until it ended at a junction.

To the west was a long series of shallow, humanoid-sized steps cut into the stone leading up a gentle slope some forty feet to an oblong cavern that served as some kind of shrine. At the rear of the cavern stood a small statue depicting a pregnant woman with the head of a three-eyed jackal: the now familiar image of Lamashtu, demon goddess of monsters. A still figure kneeled in supplication before the shrine.

To the east stretched a gigantic chamber open to the overcast evening sky. A central ramp rose gradually toward the rear of the cavern, carved in giant-sized steps between two wide ledges on either side and terminating at a great throne of stone. A figure sat upon the throne, giant, with an angular face and jaw. A similar figure stood like a statue on the northern ledge. The twisting winds at mountain summit whipped so as to prevent snowfall within the chamber. The last ogre had fled into the eastern reach where it waited, weapon in hand.

Kara drank an extract of invisibility, this one augmented with additional magic that would maintain the illusion even while attacking.11 Lem took up a position in hiding against the northern wall. Gloriana arrived at the junction and looked either way. Something about the figure kneeling at the shrine caught her attention, and realization dawned.

“What—?”

The kneeling figure lifted its head.

••••

The oracle’s voice sank to a whisper. “Ghosts of the road.”

The figure got to its feet and turned slowly. Tall and gaunt, it wore a crown of shining iron in five slender points atop a stringy mane of shock-white hair hanging limp about a face the color of a frozen corpse. The right hand clutched a longbow and a longsword hung at its belt. Where the left hand should have been sprouted five segmented icicles in the shape of fingers. The figure’s eyes shown with a faint light of brittle, glacial blue, and the mouth twisted open in a rictus of hate. It was dressed in a shirt of fine chain links over some kind of uniform.

“A frost wight,” breathed the oracle. She called to her friends: “You must not let it touch you! I will deal with this! You must face the threat from the other chamber!”

Gloriana stepped into the western expanse and onto the first, shallow step leading up toward the shrine. The wight began to advance. Without taking her eyes off it, the oracle addressed Lem in the shadows. Her voice was low, clear, measured: “This creature is undead. You know what that means. If it turns my body . . . kill me.”

Something formed in Lem’s heart, small but growing, a snowdrop opening to winter sun. No quip fell from his tongue. He swallowed, and for a moment could not find his voice. Never before had the prospect of slaying a human daunted him, not after what their race had done to him and his kin. Neither did he lament destroying the undead, having witnessed and understood only too well the sinister damnation of that condition. Yet the oracle’s instruction settled on him with an ocean’s weight.

Human? Undead? What did either matter? He was the hunting shadow, razor unbound, and the loss of fruit to early frost disturbed his conscience more than spilling blood. Six months ago he would not have given the prospect of slaying Gloriana a second thought. Now it unsettled him, and that gave him pause.

••••

Abby had already squared up facing the eastern cavern while Rahab approached. The warrior had no idea where Kara was. She heard the first part of Gloriana’s warning, but her attention quickly shifted.

The figure on the throne moved and a voice rumbled from the far end of the chamber, thick and rattling like stones tumbling down a mountain side. Abby did not know what it said, but the statue on the ledge came to life, and the Kreeg grinned through crisped flesh.

The party was about to be flanked. The warrior settled into a deeper stance. “More enemies coming. Glo, you need to kill that thing behind us! Now!”

••••

The wizard quickly recognized the two figures beyond the ogre in the eastern cavern: stone giants.

Rahab made an immediate decision and cast a mighty spell. A wall of invisible, impenetrable force sprang into existence just beyond Abby, completely sealing off the eastern chamber.12 The wizard clapped the warrior on the shoulder.

“Those are stone giants. That,” and he indicated the western shrine with a nod, “used to be Lamatar Bayden, captain of The Black Arrows. Recognize the uniform? Nothing is coming through the barrier I have conjured for another minute, at least. One thing at a time.”

••••

Still in her form of golden flame, Gloriana directed a beam of brilliant light against the frost wight, staggering the undead’s advance with a white-hot flash point that sizzled and churned steam.. Even so, the oracle knew she must absolutely remain the focus of the creature’s attack, equipped as she was to most effectively deal with a horror such as this.

“Myriana sends her love!”

She seemed to have secured Lamatar’s attention.

••••

Still invisible, Kara began firing her bow, and it was as if arrows began appearing out of thin air. Lem likewise unlimbered his bow and began firing at the wight. Both Kara and the gardener had to pause between volleys in order to make sure they were not hallucinating: Abby had sheathed her sword, slung Avenger on her back . . .

. . . and drawn her bow.

“Shake the dust off that thing and let’s get to it!” shouted Lem. Alchemist, gardener—and warrior—were soon firing into the western chamber, scoring hits. Lem glanced over his shoulder as he bent to draw anew, and saw the Kreeg and one of the stone giants standing a mere ten feet away, utterly stymied by Rahab’s invisible wall. Lem flipped the giant a rude gesture and resumed firing.

Torso now sprouting a number of arrows, the wight nocked its own bow and targeted Gloriana. No familiar twang accompanied the shots. Instead the string shed a fine shower of frost that drifted like powdered sugar in the air, but all three arrows missed, passing overhead and rattling against the tunnel wall where they burst in thin shells of black ice on the stone.

Rahab cast another spell and sent a spiked lozenge of purple blasting into the wight, the magic tearing away chunks of uniform and frozen flesh. Then Gloriana transfixed the undead with another beam of brilliant energy that vaporized a gaping hole completely through the torso. The wight staggered and gave a crescendo shriek that sounded like iron snapping under intense cold. The companions could see the stone steps behind the undead through the smoking gap in its chest.13

But it was Lem’s final arrow that felled the monster. By way of celebration the gardener turned, faced the stone giant at the invisible wall, and fired a provocative missile that rebounded harmlessly off of mid-air, but elicited an anticipatory flinch nonetheless. The gardener laughed and danced a few steps of a traditional halfling reel.

••••

Gloriana’s golden fire faded and she resumed her normal form. A voice bellowed from the eastern cavern.

Rahab frowned. “One of the stone giants just called for the aid of hags. Get ready!” He began moving back toward the intersection where the ash piles were. Unseen, the invisible alchemist boldly moved ahead and turned to scout deeper into the cave system to the west. Abby stowed her bow and Lem melted into the shadows.

••••

Kara found herself in an irregular chamber after a turn in the tunnel. A reeking odor of scattered carrion filled the cave. Dead animals hung from crudely spun twine or draped across raggedly lashed wooden racks. Filth clung along some of the walls, and a nook to the north housed a sputtering fire beneath a great, bubbling cauldron. Three figures dressed in rags turned as one. One stood eight feet tall, gaunt body encased in wart-covered skin the blue-black shade of iron. Long, clutching fingers tipped with rust-red claws curled and uncurled expectantly. The other two were shorter and thinner, with skin a sickly green. Equally hideous, all three faces contorted in perverse glee.

Outside the cave Rahab could not yet see what Kara witnessed, but he suddenly heard a burst of horrid cackling that bound down the stone tunnel with a menace to kill peaceful slumber for days to come. Three voices lifted into the air with all the softness of a mace shattering glass. Alone in knowledge of the Giant language, this is what the wizard heard:

“Grethalga-love, see you there?”

“Briselda-love, I do, beware!”

“Larastine-love, an elven hare!”

“Briselda-love, young and fair!”

“Grethalga-love, mete so sweet?”

“Briselda-love, a sweetmeat treat!”

“Larastine-love, bones to beat!”

“Briselda-love, a heart to eat!”

A second lightning storm of cackles raised the hair on Rahab’s arms. “Kara!” he warned, “they can see you!”

••••

The alchemist backpedaled in alarm, chucking an explosive grenado at the nearest hag. The projectile set the crone on fire, churning an even more vile stench. The hags loped forward into view.

Gloriana brought up the rear, summoning a spirit blade as she went. Abby gritted her teeth, swung around the turn in the tunnel, and brought her sword down on the hag that Kara had set alight. She realized all three crones moved in near-perfect synchrony, arms swaying and lifting, torsos bobbing. The warrior knew enough to recognize the casting of some spell.

That’s probably not good.

Lem tumbled into action, past the first hag’s legs, and coming upright with his blades. Briselda began to bleed black blood. At that moment, the crackle-glass chant tearing from ragged throats came to conclusion, but neither gardener nor warrior understood what had happened.

In the intersection, however, the invisible Kara was suddenly trapped in a similarly invisible cube, a ten-foot cell made of implacable magical force as strong and resilient as the wall that Rahab had conjured at the northern junction against the giants.14 Panic gripped the alchemist.

••••

Just before the hag’s spell completed, Rahab finished his own. Power surged in his eyes and his sight augmented. He could see Kara, as clear and plain as if she had no illusion upon her at all.15 As the fight with the crones had gotten underway, the wizard had recognized that the coven had joined in a communal casting. A moment later he realized exactly what had transpired.

He also realized he could do something about it.16

••••

No one expected the hags to bargain, and so everyone paused, momentarily off-guard, when the tall crone shrieked in Common, “Do not hurt I beseech! Our help to you within reach!” The green hags cackled and nodded, and no one felt in the least bit confident about the turn things had taken.

Abby could not believe what she had just heard. “How?”

“Grant escape to we three crones! We aid your fight against Breakbones!”

Rahab called out: “Abby!”

The warrior glanced over her shoulder.

“They’ve trapped Kara with a spell.”

Abby faced the hag once more and suppressed a shudder of revulsion. “Release our friend.”

Briselda gurgled: “Call thee back the setting sun! Then be the jailing spell undone!”

Abby looked at Rahab again. The wizard shook his head once. The warrior turned back to the hag.

“Wrong answer.”17

••••

Gloriana sent the spirit scimitar against Briselda in the next moment and the blade cut the hag down.

“Lem,” the oracle said, “you’re about to get really quiet. Take the fight to the spellcasters.” Then, just before she cast her spell of silence on the gardener, she added, “Not Rahab.”

Abby stepped past the fallen hag and advanced on one of the green crones, striking a fierce cut with her sword. Hideous cackling echoed off the walls. The warrior was beginning to realize that such was the hags’ response to bane or boon alike.

Lem’s acrobatic movement settled him into excellent position opposite Abby. He put his knives to work. Larastine’s blood was green. The remaining two hags clustered on the gardener and their claws descended. It was no less disconcerting to witness the crones chortling in complete silence. Lem’s blood was still red.18

Rahab turned back to where he alone could see Kara trapped in the middle of the intersection by—apparently—nothing. Then he stepped between dimensions and appeared within the confines of the magical trap right next to the alchemist. “Shereden lyliarev hin shuthron.” 19 Kara took the proffered hand, and an instant later she and the conjurer stood beyond the limits of the hag’s sorcerous cage.

“Olni.”

“Hevethlu.” 20

Kara fired an arrow into Larastine. Rahab struck Grethalga with a small spell of acid.

••••

Gloriana began taking Lem’s wounds. Abby slammed into Larastine with Avenger, immobilizing the hag against the wall where the warrior could easily drag her sword in a horizontal cut that severed the crone’s head from body. Lem spun, leapt, landed, and cut Grethalga across the lower spine. The last hag died, cackling, in silence.21

••••

Gloriana waved her hands in signal to Lem to return to the north tunnel junction in preparation. When the gardener stealthily crept out of range, taking the spell of silence with him, the others regrouped. The oracle continued to gradually soak up Lem’s wounds through the power of her link.

“Do we just go when the wall comes down?” the oracle asked Rahab.

The wizard nodded. “Start by targeting the last ogre. Assuming it has not been magically healed, it should not last long.” He recalled his spell of the magic missile using one of his enchanted pearls. A moment later Kara appeared as the extract of advanced invisibility wore off. The companions started up the tunnel for the junction.

••••

Beyond the magic wall stood the Kreeg, weapon ready. One of the stone giants had climbed back on the northern ledge and taken up a position overlooking the length of the stepped ramp. The second stone giant now stood to the north of the throne at the eastern end of the chamber.

Rahab stepped back against a curve in the tunnel, just beyond the range of the silencing spell Gloriana had placed on Lem. For the benefit of the others he held up his hand and counted down the last five seconds of the magic wall’s duration on his fingers, then pointed and blasted a spiked egg of purple energy into the Kreeg. The ogre fell dead.

The others were about to spring into action when a ball of fire erupted in the junction around alchemist, warrior, and gardener. Protected by one of Gloriana’s spells, Kara and Lem came away unscathed. Abby was only slightly burned, and already everyone was moving into the long eastern chamber. Lem followed on the warrior’s heels as they scrambled up the first of the four-foot steps.

The giant at the back of the chamber barked an order at his fellow, who bent and picked up two rocks the size of harvest pumpkins from a pile at his feet. He hurled one quickly at Gloriana, and had it struck the oracle fully the rock would have carried her away as bloody paste. She lurched in pain.

Rahab had heard the giant’s command to attack the spellcasters first, so he conjured a pit directly under the pile of stones. The stone giant avoided falling in, but could only watch helplessly as his collection of ammunition sunk thirty-feet into the ground, out of reach.22

At the rear of the chamber the other stone giant lifted into the air under the influence of a spell of flight. Then it invoked magic of fear upon Abby and Lem, but the duo resisted the effect. Kara and Rahab exchanged a confused glance. A stone giant . . . wizard?

The alchemist consumed her last extract of flight and took to the air. Sensing the advantage, Gloriana employed a chant of dispelling, and the arcane giant crashed to the ground, cursing. The spirit blade attending the oracle now dispatched across the distance and began to attack.

By now Abby had pushed her way forward, closing on the stone giant wizard. As he neared, she could more fully appreciate the creature’s size. Ogres had been hefty brutes, and the size of the trolls was appreciable, though mediated by stooped stance. This, however, was a true giant and at her full height the warrior barely reached the creature’s waist. She realized that the creature’s skin was not actually stone, but flesh, though at a distance it shared coloration so indistinguishable from common granites that the eye was easily fooled. Naked save for a skirt and a necklace of unknown significance, the giant appeared hairless and heavily muscled, while his angular skull reinforced the impression of a stone carving. An expression of stern resolve darkened by sinister intent lent him a grim aura. Abby hammered Avenger into the creature’s leg, and though it was obviously flesh and bone, it felt like striking a mountain slab.

The next few moments in the battle were a hectic back-and-forth, giants and party struggling for superior position, exchanging attacks. Lem was a flurry of deft movement, but even the gardener had difficulty with the impressive reach available to opponents that stood twice Abby’s not insignificant height. Rahab spoke complex words and hasting magic descended upon all in the party, save Kara who was too far out of range. Time dilated. Electricity bursts from the alchemist’s galvanic grenadoes sent dazzling strobes rebounding around the chamber. Abby and Lem’s cooperative strategy drew blood, but the giants gave as good as they got, and in the space of seconds Gloriana was absorbing pain from multiple sources. The arcane stone giant channeled a burst of power that transfixed Lem and Rahab and set both coughing blood.

“Necromancer!” The wizard spat a crimson gob on the cavern floor, gritted his teeth in smoldering anger, and cast a new spell. The familiar bloom of energy expanded around the arcane stone giant, but instead of fire, took the form of a roiling sphere of hissing acid forty feet in diameter.23

The necromancer sent Rahab a spell in return, and the conjurer was nearly struck blind, but managed at the last moment to push back against the spell and resist its effect. The stone giant’s angry expression gave way to distress as his fellow suddenly collapsed, bleeding out, granite-gray body a patchwork of knife and sword wounds. Desperate retreat ensued.

Abby moved in pursuit, but even under the magical haste, Lem would have to scale each giant-sized step up the ramp in order to match distance. Gloriana quickly expanded healing warmth through herself and her friends, then cast another spell on the gardener. Lem was plucked up in the air with a surprised shout, and suddenly hurled the length of the chamber as though flung from a mangonel. He slammed into the arcane stone giant to the surprise of both, then tumbled to the ground and, cat-like, landed expertly on his feet. The gardener looked a bit dazed.24

Abby ran up and angled around the other side of the arcane stone giant. Sword, shield, and knives drew much blood. The giant struggled to cast another spell, achieving momentary reprieve when the magical fear finally penetrated Lem’s defenses and sent the gardener fleeing in a sorcerous panic. The same effect failed against the warrior, however.

The spell was the last thing the necromancer did.

A small spheroid tumbled through the chamber air and burst upon the giant. Lightning blazed.25


1 I think this was my first roll of the campaign in the 40s. Knowledge: Local. Something very satisfying about the number coming up that high.

2 Why doesn’t Life Link transfer Rahab’s injury via Escher to Gloriana? In his panic at Myriana’s presence, the rat tries to burrow away, tearing at Rahab who does not resist because he’s semi-stunned himself by what’s happening in the clearing. Escher doesn’t do enough damage to activate the Life Link (less than the minimum 5 points), and then Myriana is gone, temporarily placated by Gloriana. Escher stops panicking. It hurts, but was never serious enough to kick Gloriana’s power into action, and warrants no more than a cure light wounds to heal.

3 During the brief jaunt back to Magnimar, Glo bought a scroll of raise dead.

4 Abby failed the Fortitude save against the spider venom and took 2 points of strength damage, but she also scored a critical hit with her sword for 30 points of damage.

5 Flame strike is a new addition to Glo’s arsenal, hitting for 34 points of damage, and the spider failed its Reflex save. Glo really does not like spiders.

6 This is the Trans-Dimensional Point Insertion Protocol (TDPIP). Using either the dimension door spell or Dimensional Steps, Rahab transports Abby and Lem into position from hiding, instantaneously. Abby and Lem each took a 5’ step, establishing flank. Abby hit multiple times in a full attack, including a critical hit, for a total of 81 points of damage. Lem hit multiple times in a full attack, including a critical hit, for a total of 38 points of damage including sneak attack, plus a 4-point bleed. Because Lem scored a critical hit while flanking that activated a paired feat shared between Abby and the gardener—Outflank—allowing Abby an AoO which hit for another 18 points of damage. In the very first moment of initiative round 1 Rahab, Abby, and Lem instantaneously crossed a hundred-foot distance in a blinding snowstorm on the top of a mountain and reduced the first Kreeg ogre guard to -39 hit points. The Trans-Dimension Point Insertion Protocol is real, baby.

7 Round 2 went like this: Rahab hit the ogre with a ray of enfeeblement from a wand, Abby hit for another 72 points of damage, including critical. Lem set the flank and hit for 19 points, including sneak attack, plus a 4-point bleed. Guards successfully neutralized. Nothing inside ever heard a thing.

8 So why not use TDPIP every fight? There are limits on the amount of trans-dimensional travel Rahab can do in a given day, and he likes to keep some reserve for emergencies, so it’s not the kind of thing that can be used every time. It was supremely effective closing the distance to the cave. Now that the party is in the caverns, the enemy has less open ground advantage.

9 Glo using the Reach Spell feat to cast bestow curse. The hill giant made its Will save. Yes, you read that correctly. Poor Glo. I’m not sure that spell has ever actually worked. Not once.

10 Ok, so every so often, one of these comes up really big. Six ogres vaporized in one fireball. Luckily Rahab is the kind of guy unlikely to let something like this go to his head . . . .

11 Extract of greater invisibility.

12 First appearance of wall of force in the campaign. It proved to be huge.

13 Glo’s searing light spells combined for 61 points of damage, Rahab’s magic missile did 17 points, and the arrow volleys accumulated for another 55 points of damage.

14 Kara was trapped in a forcecage. Her Reflex save was terrible, and she spent a Hero point to reroll, and that failed, too.

15 See invisibility.

16 Huge Spellcraft success meant Rahab recognized the casting of forcecage, and now he could see Kara thanks to the spell he had just cast.

17 Forcecage is listed as dismissable. To this day I still do not know if the hags could not or would not dismiss the spell. Rahab called bullshit either way.

18 This is a pretty dangerous thing for spellcasters: a rogue at the center of a silence spell. Lem dished out some very solid damage from flank, and is high enough level now that he, in turn, cannot be flanked. That said, they still hit him for 35 points of damage.

19 Translated from Elven: “Have us out of here momentarily.”

20 Translated from Eleven: “Thank you.” “[You’re] welcome.” This is why Rahab keeps some Dimensional Steps in reserve.

21 Lem killed Grethalga with a critical hit.

22 One of Rahab’s best ever uses of the conjure pit spell.

23 Fireball with the Elemental Spell feat becomes an acidball in Rahab’s hands. 33 points of damage, but the giant saved for half. What is it with all the giant-sized creatures making Reflex saves. Since when?

24 Glo cast telekinesis to create her own, somewhat-less-precise version of the Colossus/Wolverine “Fastball Special.” The problem, of course, is that Lem also took damage, even though the stone giant did, as well. Technically the giant got an AoO on Lem as he hurtled within range, and he hit the gardener with something called an “earthbreaker,” the name alone implicating serious problems if you’re a halfling on an uncontrolled airborne vector. I have elected to leave that part out, because if the giant actually made contact, why wasn’t Lem launched out the cavern through the open ceiling like a home run at Rogers Centre? I think this is one of those moments where the mechanics actually fail to capture what’s happening in the game. But Glo did get the gardener to the enemy.

25 This whole section is somewhat compressed. There was a lot going on. Lem and Abby combined in flank against the necromancer giant for 66 points of damage plus a 4-point bleed. Kara had multiple bomb hits for 54 points total, the last 26 of which killed the giant. Some other stuff happened, including the giant doing some damage beyond its spells, but the end result is the same.

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Book IV, Chapter 18: Nightmare In The Shimmerglens
Love And Other Ghosts, Redux

Turtleback Ferry was still suffering in the wake of the flood, though the waters had receded significantly. A morass of mud had conquered much of the western village. Several buildings had sunk into the ground or collapsed entirely. Wreckage lay strewn about, many portions more had washed away into Claybottom Lake, sunk to the depths or else drifting as flotsam.

Gloriana met with Mayor Maelin Shreed, explained in brief terms the reinstatement of the dam’s working systems, and omitted any mention of powerful devils and ancient magic. Shreed turned over a thousand coins in gold for their assistance, and once more expressed gratitude for their contribution to the safety of the village.

When the party gathered at The Turtle’s Parlor they found it still in use as refuge for the displaced. Their lone room had already been ceded to other villagers. With no space to converse in relative privacy they relocated to the stable where still more townsfolk had taken shelter alongside mules. In a hay-strewn corner stall they joined their own mounts and gathered to plan.

“What next?” Abby asked. She held a handful of straw and Sparky nuzzled close, happily chewing. The other horses clustered, and soon the warrior found herself penned. She giggled. The rest of the party was no longer even visible.

“I am not sure,” Gloriana admitted. “But I suspect Hook Mountain is our next move.”

“Good,” Abby’s voice came from behind a wall of horseflesh. “I’m ready to finish the Kreeg, once and for all.”

A silence ensued during which not one among them doubted the warrior’s ability to effect the full realization of that statement.

“Still,” the oracle shrugged, “it would be nice to get news to Magnimar. Update the lord mayor.” She sighed. “I guess that will have to wait.”

“No, it won’t.” The conjurer smiled.

“Mayor Shreed said he would dispatch someone at earliest opportunity, but it will take a ten-day, at least, to reach the City of Monuments, and another to return with any word.”

The smile grew broader, more impish. Gloriana shook her head in disbelief. He’s enjoying this. Finally, in exasperation: “What?”

“I can take you to Magnimar . . . right now, if you like. We could even go straight to the lord mayor’s office, but I have a feeling that would cause . . .” he paused, selecting his phrasing, “. . . more trouble than it is worth.”

Everyone stared at the wizard. Even Abby’s head poked up over a field of withers.

Kara’s eyes suddenly grew wide. “Vod! . . . Dianarthanadath?!” 1

Rahab began to laugh.

••••

“You’ll be alright?” Gloriana asked.

They had relocated to the northeastern hillock behind the village and the privacy of the tree line there, leaving Rahab back at The Turtle’s Parlor to see about the possibility of a storage shed as temporary bunk for Kara, Abby, and Lem.

“Since when are you worried about us like that?” Abby crossed her arms in mock indignation. Kara and Lem followed suit in jesting solidarity, and all three fixed Gloriana with glances of good-natured accusation.

The oracle blushed. “I’m— I’m not worried.”

“Yes you are,” Kara smiled reassuringly. “You’re worried about you. There’s nothing to fear, Glori. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Rahab said there’s a possibility it might not work right. He said something about—I don’t know . . .” she sighed miserably, “. . . ‘Caris dismemberment imprecation’ something-or-other.” She dropped her hands at her sides, flustered.

“’Coriolis displacement imprecision?’”2 It was the alchemist’s turn to sigh, and she closed her eyes for a moment, head shaking ever so slightly. Dya Rahab. Hilodi “vesh” nyanin iastav? 3 “It’s fine, Glori. It’s like his dimensional step, only the scale is much larger. Rahab knows what he’s doing, about this you can be absolutely certain. You will arrive safely.”

Smiling cheerily, Lem couldn’t resist: “What’s the worst that happens? You arrive in a brothel?”

“Shut up, Lem,” Kara’s voice never lost its bright, sylvan tone, her eyes never left Gloriana’s.

The oracle looked at Abby. The warrior smiled, shrugged. “Come on, Glo. It sounds exciting. Lem and I are the only ones who haven’t tried it yet. I bet it’s fun.”

Gloriana nodded, more in attempt to make herself believe Abby than anything else. “We should be back in a couple of days. We need to see the lord mayor, make some purchases—”

“Yes,” Abby nodded sarcastically, “we were there during planning, remember? We’ll help out with clean-up around here, if we can, take care of any other preparations. We’ll be ready when you return.”

Rahab was making his way up the hill to rejoin them. Gloriana glanced over her shoulder, then turned back and quickly, fiercely embraced Abby, Kara, and Lem.

“Ready?” the wizard said.

Gloriana tried to nod casually. Rahab held out his hand.

••••

“Welcome home.” The wizard’s voice sounded almost bright. Gloriana opened her eyes and there they stood in the ground floor living room of Foxglove Townhouse. The room was cold, and their breath blew quick cloudbursts.

She turned to look at Rahab. He regarded her with surprising gentleness. “Are you well?”

“What? Oh, sorry!” She released the wizard’s hand which she hadn’t so much grasped as crushed.

A small smile appeared at the corners of the conjurer’s mouth. “I shall return in a moment.” He walked into the kitchen. Gloriana remained standing in a partial daze, listening to the sound of clattering and rummaging.

When he reappeared Rahab carried two pewter goblets from the cabinet. He handed one to the oracle. Gloriana lifted the vessel to her lips and tasted crisp, clear, chilled wine from their stores, exactly the kind she favored. It had been weeks since she’d had it, weeks since they set out on the road to the east and their adventures there, and as the crystal-pale vintage washed over her tongue it was like tasting the wine for the first time. She drank a long draught.

Rahab drew on his own goblet, enjoying the rich red he had selected for himself and smacking his lips appreciatively. “All stores in order, I am pleased to report. Aside from the chill, it’s as if we never left.”

The oracle slowly lowered her vessel. “Do you ever get used to that?”

“In time.”

“Why does it feel like that?”

“You find the sensation unpleasant?”

“Not exactly . . . and that’s part of what bothers me. I keep expecting it to be unpleasant, and then it’s . . . not. Instead it’s just . . . strange.”

Rahab elected not to share that—as the caster and focus of the magic—the sensation was even more intense for him.

Gloriana drank again. “So, that’s different from the other thing?”

Understanding dawned and the conjurer nodded. “Ah! Yes. Dimensional stepping is a different operation, and effects a different range. What we just accomplished was teleportation. Much more powerful. Consequently, it demands a greater magic.”

“How much more range?”

“At present I can instantaneously translate as much as a thousand miles.” He sipped again, smiled again. “With a single word.”

“All of us?”

“Not yet. When I have had time to attune more power in mastery of my magical ability then I will be able to teleport the whole party. For now I am limited to . . . ” he pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes in estimation. “ . . . four, including myself.”

Gloriana drained her wine. She headed for the kitchen to pour a second goblet, suddenly, secretly, selfishly delighted. At the doorway she stopped, looked back.

“Rahab?”

The wizard turned.

“You said Avaxial offered you anything you desire.”

The wizard waited.

“Will you tell me what it is?”

Rahab regarded her for a long time. He was suddenly more afraid than he had ever been in his life. Black Magga, the scorpion construct’s aura, the simple presence of the pit fiend: All paled compared to the enormity of this thing he was afraid even to name.

“Perhaps someday,” he said quietly. “There are two things, and I resisted in part because I knew the fiend had no power to grant either.”

••••

In Gloriana’s hands the mayoral seal gained them immediate access to his lordship that very afternoon. The oracle informed Grobaras of what had transpired in the Turtleback Ferry region, within certain limits of discretion. Alternating between rapt attention on the golden beauty and frazzled distraction over his own comfort and popularity, Grobaras was shocked and dismayed to learn of the circumstances surrounding Fort Rannick, though with no small disdain he attributed the presence of a traitor to the uncouth quality he assumed of The Black Arrows in general. Gloriana recommended the promotion of Vale Temros for his unwavering service and tenacity, and the lord mayor waved his hands dismissively and said, “Yes, yes, of course, but would that not require finding their missing commander?”

It was a fair point. The lord mayor furthered his previous offer of additional appreciation and reward should their investigations continue to uncover more information and contain additional threats. Gloriana asked about mustering some Varisian troops to support the Rannick choke point until further notice. Grobaras demurred.

When wizard and oracle departed it was after sunset.

••••

Stripped down to trousers and halter, Abby had spent the better part of the next morning making most of the villagers involved in clean-up feel utterly inadequate to the task. Muddy, sweaty, and positively rippling with muscle, the scarred warrior hauled, lifted, pushed, heaved, winched, loaded, dragged, and chucked debris, equipment, and supplies like some hero from legend. By lunch she had rendered every skeptic and chauvinist sullenly mute, and had acquired an unofficial group of supporters among many of the women of Turtleback Ferry who were already discussing weight-lifting regimens and battle training.

Kara had brewed flights of minor healing potions and wandered among the people tending to basic first aid. She was greeted with cautious curiosity. To the best of her ability the alchemist pushed aside the grossly unsubtle glances and whispers that trailed her.

Lem operated in a largely supervisory role, especially with regard to the village humans.

During a lunchbreak a small group of children raced through the mud, skidding to a halt in front of the warrior. “Miss Abby! Miss Abby!” In the manner of all excited youth they made the two words one.

The warrior dragged a great, calloused hand over the stubbly baldness of her sweating head and looked at them. They stared back, wide-eyed. She was even bigger up close.

“Yes?”

The leader was a girl of ten years. “We found a leprechaun and he says something is wrong and can you help us?” The sentence was almost one word, as well.

Abby spit a cherry pit onto the ground and squinted at the gaggle, looking for signs of mischief. Naturally. Now I really need Glo. She sighed, and heaved herself on her feet. None of the children moved.

“I’ll follow you?” the warrior suggested. The girl smiled, turned, and led three other pairs of legs in a churning blur toward the northwestern end of town. Before setting off Abby looked around for Kara or Lem, but, seeing neither, loped along in the children’s wake, her great strides sucking mud. Everyone she met moved readily out of her way.

The children led the warrior over the western bridge to the edge of the Kreegwood on the promontory of land at the northern bank of Claybottom Lake. The girl lifted an arm and pointed solemnly to a nearby tree.

The humanoid creature propped against the bole looked exhausted, waifish, and stood no more than two feet in height. Long, pointed ears stood out on either side of big, expressive eyes red-rimmed from crying. From its back sprouted two long, elegant, gossamer wings the envy of every butterfly that had ever lived. The creature’s overall color scheme was shades of blue, though it wore a tunic of forest green, seemingly shaped from plucked leaves that had lost none of their verdant pliability and sheen. Abby did not know much, but she guessed it was probably male, definitely fey, and anymore than that would have to wait for Kara, Lem, or Rahab to say.

The diminutive creature saw the burly woman approach, and diaphanous wings slowly fluttered. Abby stopped and spread her hands to show she was unarmed, a largely useless gesture, as her fists alone could punch through the side of a barn.

The fey had a voice that reminded her of insects among reeds at sunset. “Help Yap, yes? Help Yap?”

“Yes?” tried the warrior.

“Wonderdone! My mistress is ill! Very ill. Death would have been a kindness!” Fresh tears appeared, ran down the tiny face, dropped to the ground. “Help, please! The land sickens with her heart and cannot be cleansed until her misery abates! She is beyond my help. You are friends with her human lover, yes? He would not want this! I can lead you. The trees, the water, the frogs, the flowers, the nixies, the land! All sick. Please help!”

Abby’s head swam. “I will help. I have friends. Let me go get one of them and we will talk, yes?”

The wings quickened and slowed, quickened and slowed. “Yes!”

“Wait here,” Abby gestured, then began to back away, shooing the curious children as she went.

“Get back to your families, and keep away from the . . . leprechaun,” she cautioned. She felt sure that was the wrong word, but it did not matter. The children raced away into the muddy streets, arms waving, hair flying. Abby felt momentarily weary watching them, then shook her head and set off in search of Kara.

••••

The alchemist looked slightly alarmed. “It’s a what?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Vrivenekliar?” 4 The warrior gave a helpless shrug.

“A leprechaun?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I need you. You’ll know what it is.”

Kara’s eyes narrowed. “Alright. Show me.”

“Should we get Lem?”

Kara shook her head matter-of-factly.

“But he knows a lot about nature things, too, right?”

“I would happily consult Lem about perennial selections for an herb garden and the best cover to use when setting up a bloody ambush in a grove. Fey are notoriously fickle and troublesome, Abby. I’m not entirely confident Lem is the best choice to open negotiations with a fey in distress. By The Brightness, I wish Glori was here for this.”

“That’s what I said.”

They started for the western bridge.

••••

Kara spotted the fey as they approached. Still out of earshot she stopped and looked at Abby. The warrior drew up and returned the glance expectantly. “Well?”

Hushed: “It’s a pixie. Tyurun? Understand?”

Abby whispered in reply. “Right. Is that bad? What do we do?”

The alchemist exhaled long and slow. “Dithda tyurunum danyarid. Vemu zelon ewithbeli.” 5

Abby frowned. “I don’t think so. Vonirio vasmar tyurunum athequendion.” 6

Kara relented, and warrior and alchemist approached the tree. From it’s vantage on a low branch came the pixie’s humming voice once more. “Help Yap?”

Abby looked at Kara again. “What’s ‘Yap?’”

“Yap is his name.”

Yap lifted off the branch and turned an aerial somersault, brilliant blue butterfly wings fluttering furiously. “Yap! Yes! Help my mistress! Please! Friends! Child of the trees!” The pixie beckoned to Kara.

The alchemist advanced a few cautious steps. “Your mistress needs help?”

“Yes! She is sick!”

“Where is she?”

“Whitewillow! They did terrible things to her!”

“Who is ‘they?’”

“The red woman and her bone-chewers!”

“When?”

“Days past! Whitewillow no longer grows and flowers and returns to the earth. It is ill, as my mistress is ill! Time fails!”

Kara held up her hands in a placatory gesture. “We have a friend who is a healer. Her magic is powerful.”

“Will she help?”

“Yes, I think we can convince her.”

“Come quickly!”

“Our friend returns tomorrow. Then we will come. There will be five of us. Her,” the alchemist pointed at Abby. “Myself. The healer. A halfling. A wizard.”

“Yap waits!”

“Yes. We will meet you here and go with you to Whitewillow.”

“Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!” The words strung together so quickly it was hard to hear them as anything but a buzz.

“My friend here said you mentioned your mistress’ lover?”

“Lamatar! The bone-chewers took Lamatar away! My mistress lies heartbroken. The wound on the land is as great as the one in her heart!”

“Who is your mistress?”

“Myriana! Return quickly!” Yap spun in the air and darted away into the cover of the trees.

Kara recognized all of those names.

••••

Berthandy and Yad Kesker labored in the ruin of the ground floor of Bottom’s Up. No longer flooded, the waterline showed dark on the tavern wall less than an inch below the ceiling, and a fine layer of mud covered everything. Some of the furniture was salvageable, but most of it would have to be replaced having swollen, split, or simply disappeared out the windows on its way to Ilsurian eighty miles downriver. The floorboards had warped and torn, or simply shredded into wet splinters under any weight. Mugs, cups, plates, utensils, Berthandy’s taste in art: all wrecked. Every last cask of ale was ruined. The entire inn smelled of stagnant dampness. Yad collected piles of detritus to discard while Berthandy pushed morosely at the moist earth with a broom. Both were grime-streaked and, by now, far too exhausted even to weep anymore. A collection of villagers long loyal to Bottom’s Up had gathered to help.

When Gloriana and Rahab instantaneously appeared out of thin air in the middle of the common room the villagers started and screamed, bolting outside in a panicked, tumbling rush.

••••

“That’s a terrible way to arrive.” Gloriana slogged dutifully through the mud in search of the others. “Why couldn’t we have gone to the northeastern hill instead of giving everyone a fright?”

“I told you: I don’t know the location as well. It makes the most sense to target the areas I know best. It’s not my fault these provincials are unused to magic such as mine. Besides,” Rahab was nonchalant, “the kegs should help.” They had bought two casks of ale from a tavern in Magnimar as small gesture to Turtleback Ferry. They left the barrels sitting atop the mud in the common room at Bottom’s Up.

“See?” the wizard indicated up the street. “The alarm has brought our companions.” Abby had appeared at a run from behind a building further east, Avenger and sword at the ready. When she saw the oracle and wizard she staggered to a stop, shoulders slumping. The warrior waited.

Gloriana hugged her sweaty friend with delight, and then stepped back, silk scarves clinging unceremoniously to Abby’s powerful frame. “Sorry,” the oracle murmured, dragging bright cloth back to herself.

Kara and Lem jogged up together. “Told you,” the gardener was saying smugly. “There wasn’t that much yelling when Black Magga attacked.” Gloriana moved to embrace them as they arrived, as well. Lem received the gesture coolly.

“Welcome back,” Kara said. “How did it go in Magnimar?”

“Less well than I would have liked.” Gloriana quickly recounted some of the meeting with Lord Mayor Grobaras. “Regardless, it looks like Hook Mountain is our next place to investigate.”

Abby, Kara, and Lem were silent. The warrior shook her head. “Actually, Whitewillow is next.”

Gloriana’s eyebrow arched in surprise.

••••

Bitter Hollow was a village approximately the size of Turtleback Ferry situated at the southeastern bank of Lake Coal where the Wicker Walk crossed the waterway and linked to the road south of the Kreegwood. On their way there, Yap fluttered and buzzed about the air in conversation with Gloriana, filling in some details after Abby and Kara had explained what transpired while the oracle and wizard had been in Magnimar. As the lights of Bitter Hollow came into view that evening, Yap cautiously ducked away into the nearby woods at Gloriana’s recommendation. The companions took rooms at the small inn and met over drinks in the common room. It was still raining.

“Myriana and Lamatar,” the oracle sighed over her mug, secretly disappointed it did not contain chilled white wine. “Why do I have the feeling we’re not going to find the captain of The Black Arrows ready to return to duty after all?”

Abby took up the thread. “The bone-chewers . . . that’s ogres, right?”

“Seems likely,” nodded Kara.

“And the red lady?”

“Lucrecia.” Rahab sounded confident.

“So that had to have happened before we got to Rannick.”

“Of course,” the wizard nodded.

“Lamatar went to Whitewillow, and sometime between our rescue of The Black Arrows at the Graul farm, Lucrecia and the ogres took him away.”

“And did something terrible to Myriana,” offered Gloriana glumly.

Lem rolled a copper coin back and forth on the knuckles of his left hand, contemplative. “What are we walking into? Yap’s a pixie, after all. Trustworthiness and honesty are not exactly high on the list of fey virtues. And remember: Myriana’s a nymph.”

No one had an answer. Gloriana slept poorly that night, awakened periodically by ghosts dragging at her hair or whispering frightful things in her ears.

••••

The Shimmerglens proved difficult terrain for all except Yap. Swampy ground required picking their way carefully through boggy regions, across lumps of grass, under spidery trees, around standing pools of indeterminate depth. They had to dismount almost immediately, leading their horses by the reins. Whitewillow was some twelve or so miles southeast of Bitter Hollow and inland from the western bank of Claybottom Lake another three miles. As the day wore on an ominous sense of gloom crept around them like mists in the mire. The rain, though light, never ceased.

“There,” Rahab said. The others looked in the direction to which the wizard nodded. “The tree for which the area is named. We now stand upon the edge of Whitewillow.”

Yap turned a nervous loop nearby. “Yes, yes, yes!”

The great, spindly tree sprouted from among a cluster of brambles. The soft bark was pale, and the broad, drooping canopy had lines of sparkling leaves that shone like ivory under moonlight.

“See?” Yap whispered gravely.

As they passed the willow they saw the other side showed some kind of damage, boughs twisted and stained with some kind of blotchy darkness, narrow leaves twisted, ragged, and fallen across the ground. A sudden shift in the tree’s shadow drifted unnaturally across the marshy ground, and they heard a sound, far away, like a distant moan, echoing the pixie’s word: “See?” It was like a lament, or warning.

To the west the sun disappeared behind the tree line.

••••

The deeper they went into Whitewillow, the more they saw, and the less they could avow with certainty. Clutching claws resolved into tree branches, then back again when passed. Abby’s lightstone and Rahab’s glow skull no longer shone torch-bright, but only glimmering wan and ghostly now. No sound of woodland creatures penetrated the gloom which seemed to have a kind of substance, sticky and thick. More and more the vegetation appeared not just damaged, but altered and sinister. Lem had turned Cinnamon’s reins over to Abby as he carefully selected their path through the boggy reaches, and all of them fought to keep their mounts calm.

They came to a pool that harbored neither insect nor algae nor amphibian. Gloriana detected for the presence of poison and Rahab detected for magic. Though no toxin registered the wizard reported an eldritch power.

“Where?” Abby asked. It felt wrong to raise her voice above a whisper.

“Everywhere.” The wizard frowned. “It’s . . . oily.”

Kara’s eyes were wide. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” The conjurer shrugged helplessly.

“You see,” hissed Yap “what Whitewillow has become? This is because of what has happened to my mistress!” They carefully navigated around the water.

Farther on they came to a broader clearing, but could not see the ground for a thick mist that covered the area and clung around their knees and Lem’s waist. A shadow loomed, just at the edge of their pale light sources.

“Ghosts of the road,” breathed Gloriana.

Derelict, leaning, and miles inland, it was a medium-sized cargo ship, the kind that ran up the waterways from Magnimar to the Varisian interior. Yap had never seen it before.

••••

A hushed conference:

“I detect undeath,” admitted the oracle, “but it’s everywhere, and that’s not how the magic works.”

Rahab looked nervous, and that made everyone else nervous. “All places aligned with fey have some underlying magic, for fey themselves have a partially magical essence. But the sensation here is wrong. It should not feel like this.”

“What should it feel like?” Abby asked. For a moment the warrior—ever capable—seemed like a twelve-year-old at a campfire listening to ghost stories.

“Strange, unsettling, but . . . ” the wizard shook his head, “. . . poetic? Melancholy? Not—” An expression of exasperation crossed his face.

“Murdered?” Kara whispered. Rahab nodded.

They moved on, skirting the clearing, avoiding the ship, their legs parting mist only to have it close again immediately in their wake.

••••

Still deeper into Whitewillow they encountered a parade. It emerged from the trees, and Abby saw it first: A line of translucent forms from the south, moving slowly. The party managed to maintain their wits, and backed slowly away as the procession advanced, but Abby stood riveted. Gloriana softly cast a spell of protection on the warrior, but they could only stand and watch and hold their breath.

The shapes resolved out of mist: satyrs, griggs, nixies, sprites, none afoot; all drifted through the air scant inches above the ground, blank eyes fixed forward, expressions of terror frozen on strange fey faces, faces that should have been beautiful, or mischievous, or cavorting. They advanced on Abby, parted around her as water bypassing a stone, and then disappeared into the woods from whence the companions had come.

As one they resumed breathing. Yap had clasped onto Kara’s back, eyes wide with fright, wings aflutter. As they rejoined Abby, Gloriana could sense her haunts were more unsettled than ever.

“The wound here is . . . ” the oracle began, and there were tears in her words, “. . . so cruel. We must do something about this. We must.”

A few moments later they entered the heart of Whitewillow.

••••

It was another clearing, at the center of which stood a pool ringed by willows that had twisted and withered. A haunted wind blew through the place, disturbing the companions hair and clothing, but affecting the vegetation and water not at all. Beneath the surface of the pool something glowed, distorted, vaguely spherical, lending eerie radiance that loomed from beneath the wasted willows.

Yap fluttered back. “My lady is here. I dare not go closer.”

Kara drank extracts of flight and invisibility. Gloriana invoked a spell allowing her to walk through the air, not in flight, but rather traversing groundless space as though on solid surface. Then she cloaked herself in the same protective magic she had placed on Abby minutes before. Lem moved along the perimeter of the clearing, knives drawn, stealthy. Rahab conjured magic of flight and rose five feet above the boggy terrain.

The glow erupted from the pool, bathing the clearing in harsh light. A voice awash in pain and rage fell on them, and all became nightmare.

••••

Lem had the briefest moment to think, Gods! She’s more beautiful than—, and then he was struck blind. In that same moment, Kara lost her sight, as well.7

Abby retained vision, but was transfixed by what she saw, and her sword dropped uselessly to the ground. Only Gloriana and Rahab were able to maintain discernment.

A haggard torso that faded to smoke was flanked by two ghostly arms torn free at the shoulder and hanging as though still trying to rejoin the trunk. A fray of wild hair once shining ebony now danced ghost-white like threads of spider silk in water. Her eyes were hollow wells of horror, and her mouth gaped in a permanent scream. For all her terror, there was still something heartrendingly beautiful at the very essence of the figure, something that should have been the joy of all woodland realms: birdsong in spring, fresh waterfalls among wildflowers, love in sunlight. Now it lay suspended in a state of restless death, agony without release.

Myriana.

••••

Oracle and wizard came to the same realization: She is a ghost, and Gloriana knew this was no haunt like her own, but a malevolence with the will to transform the very land, a force of torment to make even the earth despair. Whatever horror happened in that place had shaped the nymph’s voice into thunder that rattled the companions’ skulls fit to split stones.

“You failed him! You failed all of us! You let them take him to their lair!”

Eyes rolling wild, the horses pulled free and bolted into the treeline. Within Rahab’s robe Escher burrowed, desperate to escape the soundwave of pure anguish, but the wizard hardly noticed, even when the rat’s tiny claws pushed past cloth and began to tear into flesh. The sight of Myriana, aglow and raging in the dark crowded all the conjurer’s thoughts. The vision before him was astonishing, awesome in beauty, awful in horror. His mouth went dry and he shook in mid-air, his flight suspended. Somewhere, off in the distance, he heard Gloriana’s voice calling out.

“Myriana! We are not the ones who failed you! We have come to help!” It was a single note of gold in the symphony of phantom-white tearing Whitewillow apart. Gloriana activated her energy form.

The undead nymph raced across the clearing and descended upon the oracle, howling as she came.

“He’s dead! I can’t bring him back! Why can’t I bring him back?” A great, wracking sob tore through the night, flattening and then splintering the ring of willows. Augmented by the magic inherent to the nymph, the grief that tore through the companions was like no tragedy they had ever known.

Abby fell to her knees, weeping. Lem’s sight returned and he dropped his knives, covering his face, tears a river on his cheeks.8 Kara could suddenly see, and in her soul she heard the last whispered breath of every tree that had ever died. Rahab gasped at the power washing over him, stunned to find that—instead of soaring ecstasy—it was shattering his heart.

Only Gloriana managed to smile through her tears, a gesture of profoundest empathy, of ultimate understanding. Better than all of them, the oracle recognized Myriana’s lament. She knew. She held out her arms, offering embrace, and died a little bit as she whispered:

“Sister.”9

••••

“Let us help you.”

The phantom gale whipped through the companions, but Gloriana found herself in an eye of stillness. With Myriana this close the oracle should have been permanently blind, but the two women regarded one another for a moment as equals, spirit-kin bound to a world of unsettled ghosts.

The nymph’s wail tore the night: “Will you find him and bring him to me? I can bring him back if you return some part of him to me!”

“Lamatar?” Gloriana’s heart raced. She felt immense compassion and intense fear. Here before her was the terrifying fate that the oracle had contemplated on the verge of life in Papa Grazuul’s presence.

Gloriana was not afraid to die. Gloriana was afraid to die and become this.

“YES! Bring Lamatar to me!”

Gloriana was unsure how much longer she could sustain the interaction. The very air was in pain. “Where is he?”

“Hook Mountain!”

“We shall find him!”

The gale transcended, becoming so loud that it was silence. “Return Lamatar to my embrace, or I shall eat the land and churn you to bones!” The ghostly glow surged, threatened to overwhelm, and then faded, finally winking out. Night rushed in, with only the torch-points of lightstone and glow skull to light the way.


1 Translated from Elven: “No [way]! . . . Teleportation?!”

2 The teleport spell has a small percentage chance to land off-target.

3 Translated from Elven: Oh, Rahab. Couldn’t leave it at “safe,” could you?

4 Translated from Elven: “Leprechaun?” Remember that Abby speaks Elven, too. Every conversation between Kara and Rahab she’s ever overheard, she’s understood . . . the words, at least, if not necessarily all the content.

5 Translated from Elven: “Pixies are full of mischief. It might be a trick.”

6 Translated from Elven: “I think its need is genuine.”

7 This was not yet the full-on beauty-induced nymph blindness, but a preliminary effect. It lasted only one round, but it definitely kept everyone at bay.

8 On the round that Kara and Lem got their sight back Myriana sobbed. Abby and Lem failed their Will saves and were stunned for an additional two rounds, inconsolable in grief. Myriana was like nothing we’d ever encountered.

9 Glo’s Diplomacy checks throughout the encounter were outstanding (one of the rolls was a 38, for example), but—for me—what really shines is Glo’s (Dingleberry’s) recognition of that single question: “Why can’t I bring him back?” As an oracle, Glo is haunted. “Why can’t I bring them back?” is a question she lives with every day.

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Book IV, Chapter 17: Hydro Facility Maintenance
Well, I See Yer Problem Right Here . . . .

Lem just shook his head in amazement. Abby and Gloriana embraced Kara as one. Rahab smirked and gave the slight bow from the neck that few ever felt confident to describe as wholly respectful, wholly mocking. The alchemist seemed slightly embarrassed by all the attention.

While Abby and Lem posted at the entrance against additional intrusion—unexpected, but cautious—Gloriana began to channel more healing to help the warrior recover against the injuries from the construct.

That left Kara and Rahab. The wizard stepped close and his face lit up with a devil’s grin.

“Rahab, inethlim—” Kara began.

“Ah, iryn. Kara Ashrejentleveth, Ekob Yomtar. Prevethlu chu da dingremen. Vakt. Renren vakt oadiryanaman. Korthnemedon.” The wizard rubbed his hands together gleefully and a wicked chuckle escaped his lips.

The alchemist started to protest, and then simply laughed. It was an elven laugh, silver-sweet and ancient. Kara leaned to plant a friendly kiss on Rahab’s cheek in the manner of humans.

“Hukmorahd,” she smiled.

“Predekt,” Rahab replied, delighted, and gave the small bow once more. Kara wondered a moment how much the gesture included an aspect of self-mockery, and how much the gesture was made in self-awareness.1

••••

When the wizard detected for the presence of magic in the room he was startled by the wall.

“Hell’s below,” he quietly marveled. Gloriana noticed and joined the wizard. When she cast her own spell her eyes widened as the aura washed over her. Her perception teetered a moment, threatening to overload.

“What in the world is that?”

“I do not know. Transmutation, as I’m sure you have noticed, but it’s power exceeds anything I’ve encountered, and I daresay anything you’ve encountered likewise. Fascinating.”

Carved into the stone was an intricate scale model of Skull’s Crossing dam, complete with actual human skulls set into the floodwall corresponding to the large stone sculptures visible from the headwater basin. Each skull had points of wear, smooth, slick, and shiny, as though they had been handled over and over again for long forgotten years.

Kara observed her friends and stepped near. “What is it?”

Rahab stared in silence, a keen light not without unsettling quality in his eyes. Finally Gloriana turned to the wizard and gently linked her right arm with his left. He started and looked at her, and she gave an encouraging smile, nodding in Kara’s direction.

“Yes, well, it— Uh, it obviously represents Skull’s Crossing. Present in the model is transmutation magic of significant power, far exceeding any gathered among us, even cumulatively.”

The alchemist nodded and peered intently at the model. “Does the waveform isolate to the model itself, or ground to the environment?”

Finding his stride: “Coterminous.” He scratched absently at his goatee, eyes narrowing in thought. Escher’s whiskered face peeked out of the wizard’s robe and gave a tiny squeak before retreating once more. Gloriana quietly released the conjurer’s arm and listened close.

“The skulls,” Kara inquired, “match the carvings on the floodwall, I gather?”

Rahab nodded. “Indeed. Flood controls! See? The model is the mechanism by which the dam operates!”

“The magic links superstructure and panel?”

“Yes! Manual and automatic control. The very dam runs from this room.” Rahab quickly glanced at the fallen construct still smoking from the alchemist’s bombs, then back to the model. “Fascinating!”

“Do you think the construct was connected to the operation of the superstructure?”

“Unclear. Perhaps nothing more than guardian. Given the age of Skull’s Crossing, it’s entirely possible the construct was a much later addition by some arcanist entirely unrelated to this place. If it is even a thousand years old I estimate it young compared to the dam. If we could take control of the panel . . . .”

“It does not work?” Kara’s eyebrow rose.

Gloriana continued to listen, but was giggling very quietly to herself. Though communicating in the Common tongue, by now alchemist and wizard were speaking a completely foreign language, and she was bemusedly lost.

“The magic is present,” replied Rahab, “but the geometry of the spell has degraded with time. The matrix connecting the spell’s architecture to the dam itself has folded.”

Kara was nodding. “It lacks a resource of sustainability.”

“Oh, yes. Something this powerful would need to act instantaneously or else require some kind of maintained power. An energy source: Perhaps a lifeform.” He lapsed into silent thought.

“Could it be restored?”

“I don’t see why not. The dam’s failure endangering the valleys below the Storval Deep owes to the course of the magic. It has waned beyond the failsafe in recent days. Remarkable.”

“What happens when the entire spell architecture collapses?”

“The lower Skull River reaches will drown. The Storval Deep will reshape the geography in this region for a hundred miles or more.”

Now Gloriana interjected. “Turtleback Ferry?”

“Will cease to exist.”

The oracle looked grave. “How do we fix it?”

Another long silence ensued and Kara and Gloriana watched Rahab expectantly. He stared at the model, still holding his magic of detection arrayed against the wall. His eyes glazed over as he read patterns and forces the others could not see. In his mind coursed the mathematical calculations to which his understanding had access, and he marveled at them, then marveled further still at the geometries beyond his power, looming at the perimeter of the sorcery like towering monuments, ancient and terrible and shrouded in shadow.

Gloriana felt a surge of relief when she saw the wizard’s face break into its mischievous devil-grin. Immediately she also felt a surge of worry.

••••

Abby and Lem began to haul skulls from the double doors at the southern end of Grazuul’s chamber. The clattering noise was disturbingly loud and gruesome, and Gloriana cast her spell of magical detection again to take her mind off the sound. The incantation revealed nothing.

When they were clear Abby pushed the doors open. The warrior’s lightstone shone upon a narrow chamber with two curved alcoves, one each at eastern and western ends. An ancient portcullis of rusted iron enclosed each niche. Affixed to the wall beside them was some kind of winch. A circle of runes glowed with faint orange light on the floor of each alcove. To the west the runes were covered in a pile of crimson ash. To the east the alcove held what appeared to be the corpse of a great creature.

Rahab’s eyes grew very wide.

••••

Had it stood the monster would have towered twice Kara’s height. What must have once been incredibly muscled and rippling flesh clung taught and desiccated against an impressive, alien skeletal frame. Great, leathery wings that would have spanned more than twenty feet curled and shriveled. The whole of it was wasted ruin from prehensile tail to vicious claws to the array of horns on its head. Alive, it would have exhibited a vibrant red coloration that now stood muted and subdued, as though coated in decades of dust.

Gloriana was about to ask Rahab what was going on when the thing in the alcove suddenly lurched, a single clawed hand trembling weakly. The reaching gesture suggest plea, but even in the creature’s spent state the movement implied an incredible menace, ancient and powerful. A slow fire grew in the black eyes, deeper red than any in the party might have imagined in nightmare. Though stretched thin to rattling, the voice from beyond the portcullis had resonance that did not just touch the ears but penetrated to the core of being. The sound was terrible, and set the hair on their bodies quivering.

“Gzax’hakt! Gzax’hakt iv tu’ushere’stheethsh . . . .”

Gloriana realized that everyone except Rahab had taken an involuntary step back. The companions looked at the wizard, and it did not take much to see the obvious recognition in his eyes. When she finally found her voice the oracle could make it sound no greater than a shivering whisper.

“What is it?”

Rahab exhaled slowly.

“A devil.”2

••••

They had withdrawn to Grazuul’s chamber and Abby had shut the doors once more. Now they clustered around the wizard in a nervous press.

“A devil?” Gloriana asked.

Lem was furious. “I knew it!”

“It is a pit fiend.” Rahab was too cool. The oracle found it unnerving.

Kara’s eyes widened in alarm. Abby looked between wizard, alchemist, and oracle with concern and frustration.

“What does that mean?” the warrior finally asked.

Rahab tented his fingers. “Pit fiends are among the most supreme of the Infernal hierarchy. Save for the arch-devils themselves, few in the Hells can lay claim to such preeminence.”

Abby was skeptical. “It didn’t look—”

“No,” the wizard shook his head. “It didn’t, did it? I hypothesize it is trapped by the same transmutation magic powering the dam’s system.”

“The source,” Kara exhaled quietly.

“Just so. I surmise it was paired with some other life force in the opposite alcove, likely another devil, and when that burned out the system began to fail.”

“How long—?” Gloriana’s voice broke.

Rahab shrugged. “A decade? A millennium? More? I can ask it—”

“Wait.” A gentle hand on the wizard’s forearm. “What was it saying?”

“Offering a devil’s bargain.”

Abby: “That’s bad, right?”

“A more nefarious legal instrument you will not find in all the cosmos.”

The warrior’s voice sounded very small. “Oh.”

“I don’t believe this!” Lem was quivering.

Gloriana, suddenly: “Stop it! This isn’t helping!”

Lem drew one of his knives. Rahab looked at the gardener. “Whatever else you may think of me and the culture of my origin, Lem, I know you are not so stupid as to disregard my expertise in this area. For a moment try to imagine the ways in which my knowledge can avail us, and ignore the urge to ascribe ulterior motive.”

The gardener kept his knife drawn. “You admire that thing, don’t you?”

“Only the power it contains that I have not yet achieved. I also recognize its limitations, which I desire to transcend. Rest assured, Lem: I have no more inclination to serve the Hells than I do to serve anything other than my own titanic ego.”

“If that’s supposed to make me feel better—”

“How you feel is what advantage you make of the circumstances, and therefore entirely up to you.”

Anger and fear had begun to boil in Gloriana, and the oracle was silently grateful when Kara interjected.

“Hold on,” spoke the alchemist. “You said you could ask it. Does that constitute entering into a bargain?”

“No. Talking is simply that, and nothing more, though the simplicity of that perspective is exactly the kind of weakness the masters of Hell exploit to trap the unwary.”

Abby felt a little dizzy. “So, does that mean we should or should not talk to it?”

“Fear not,” and Rahab’s smile was smug, unsettling. “I am not easily captured by rhetoric.”

“What about arrogance?”Gloriana was irritated, nervous, and genuinely interested.

“Interestingly, that is both advantage and disadvantage.”

The oracle groaned.

The wizard shrugged. “Such is the nature of these situations. There is no interaction with a devil—especially not one as powerful as a pit fiend—that does not involve significant danger. We were at mortal risk even just opening the doors to that chamber, though of course we could not have known. But we are not without strength, and the fiend is greatly diminished by its magical imprisonment. Our position is excellent.”

“What do we do?” Abby asked. Gloriana nodded support. All eyes bored into the wizard, and he seemed to take immense delight that now the class was suddenly very interested to know what was on the final examination.

“We could find out more,” he mused, “though I feel confident we already have the basic information we need. Further conversation with Avaxial—”

Gloriana grabbed the wizard by the robes. “You know its name?”

Lem threw his hands in the air as if to say, See?

Rahab suddenly looked very grave. He reached up slowly and took Gloriana’s hands in his own, carefully prizing his robe free from her grasp. Something in the way he gently-but-firmly pushed her arms away hinted at a seriousness sometimes missed behind sardonicism.

“Sorry,” Gloriana murmured.

A pause. Then: “Avaxial is—or rather was — a general in the service of Dispater, the arch-devil who rules Dis, Hell’s second layer. His command encompassed twenty-nine legions of barbazu and at least three legions of cornugons with a detachment of osyluths. According to lore, Avaxial disappeared more than eight-thousand years ago, though whether on errand for Dispater or for some other reason has never been accurately catalogued. Indeed, there are several treatises speculating about his disappearance alone.”

Abby leaned in. “The thing in there is a general, as well as a high-ranking devil?”

Rahab nodded. “All pit fiends occupy such positions, at the very least. Try to understand,” and he looked around at all the companions. “No matter how drained, how compromised, how constrained, the being in the next room is a thing of terrible power. Released and in full command of its capabilities, Avaxial could destroy the mother of oblivion we fought at Turtleback Ferry without a second thought, and he ranks among the lower echelons of pit fiend ascendancy.”

There was a long silence. Abby summed up the general mood.

“Shit.”

••••

“We’re back to ‘what do we do?’” observed the oracle.

Rahab tented his fingers again. “If my surmise is correct—and I see no reason to think otherwise—the skull-shaped floodgates on the dam wall maintain equilibrium of flow from the Storval Deep to the Skull River. Restoring the energy source to the magical architecture of the transmutation spell governing Skull’s Crossing should allow the automated flow control systems to recover and restore proper hydrodynamics.”

Kara was nodding. Gloriana looked at the alchemist with some alarm. “That all follows, Glori,” the elf said matter-of-factly. Then she turned to the wizard. “What source would you need for full restoration?”

“Of that I am less certain—”

Several sighs sounded.

“—However!” resumed the conjurer, undeterred. “I have an elegantly simple means to find out. If it works, the lower reaches of the Skull River live on in relative peace. If it does not work, then at least we have more information than we did before.”

“Since I already know I’m not going to like it, I’m not going to ask what your plan is,” said Gloriana.

Rahab nodded sagely. “For the best. Kara?”

The alchemist regarded the wizard. “Control model?”

“If you please.”

Kara returned to the room where they had battled the construct.

••••

Abby stood ready with sword and shield, Lem with knives.

Gloriana huddled close to Rahab in hushed conversation. “I have very little healing left.” She regarded the wizard a moment. “How are you so calm?”

The conjurer smiled. “Under no circumstances should anyone other than me engage Avaxial in conversation.”

“Goes without saying.”

“Does it?”

“And anyway, you’re the only one that speaks Infernal.”

“Gloriana, you do realize—” Rahab saw the glimmer of brief mischief in her eye and broke off.

She could not help but grin. “It’s particularly delicious when your titanic ego just walks into—”

Rahab hastened to the double doors. “Everyone ready?”

••••

The syllables that spilled from Avaxial as the companions reentered the room felt like a snowfall of hot steel. Rahab listened carefully and appeared to consider. The others remained nervously silent. The wizard turned to Gloriana and nodded.

The oracle opened her last conduit of healing to the spirit world, extending its reach to the pit fiend.

The devil’s transformation was alarming. Muscle and flesh restored, wings unfurled in leathery fullness wrapped like a cloak, the hollowness that had rested so corpse-like on Avaxial’s form retreated. Far from whole, even this elementary renewal restored the fiend to astonishing degree, and as it stood it’s immense bulk filled the alcove behind the portcullis completely, straining against some invisible barrier.3 Gloriana had to fight to remind herself that Rahab said it was the magic holding the devil prisoner, and not the iron, which looked flimsy enough to rend in a heartbeat.

“Ith’v’hex gzick’chretsch lhuhlu’ul.” 4

The oracle knew the words were for her, and she shuddered. Even their sound felt unclean.

The pit fiend’s eyes regarded the reaction with satisfaction, and flames seemed to dance in the black orbs like fire behind smoked glass. Claws flexed, and teeth the size of daggers split in a grin that combined perverse joy with such cruelty the lamia matriarchs would have averted their eyes, Skinsaw Man would have quaked.

Then Rahab began the words of his spell, and in an instant Avaxial understood.

Two rooms away Kara heard the devil’s howling and felt her heart quiver with sheer, violent terror utterly undiminished by thick walls of ancient stone.

••••

The summoned dire rat appeared for the briefest instant behind the western portcullis within the circle of effect for the massive magic of Skull’s Crossing. Then it vaporized.

Avaxial’s scream of pain washed over Rahab and the room dimmed despite the wizard’s glow skull and Abby’s lightstone. When the illumination reasserted itself the pit fiend was gone. Twin smokes, one in each alcove, drifted lazily to the ceiling in a candle-thin line, and the runes on the floor glowed brilliant orange. The scent of brimstone would have roused the dead.

••••

They were nearly thrown completely off their feet by the sudden rumble that roared up from within the very stone of the dam around them. Thunderous, thrumming vibration coursed through the superstructure. Even Lem’s extraordinary dexterity was challenged. The sensation seemed to come from everywhere at once.

Kara’s voice echoed in a shout over the roar. “Something’s happening!”

“Come!” Rahab waved for retreat.

“What happened?” the oracle demanded.

“Later!” The wizard swayed for the doors behind Abby and Lem. He had started to feel numb from the constant tremble in the stone around them.

Kara met them at the door to the control room. “The lower mandibles on the skulls in the model have opened!”

Rahab shouted above the rumble. “Outside!”

The companions struggled up the stairs.

••••

On the dam walkway they could see what had happened. Each great, stone skull on the floodwall had opened its lower jaw, allowing five distinct, controlled flows of water down into the basin at the Skull River headwater. The section of dam that had crumbled above the easternmost skull—allowing the unregulated surge from the Storval Deep to threaten the region below—was slowly abating its flow as the rest of the hydro works resumed proper operation. The sound of water and the rumble of the dam roared around them, and a fine mist sprayed up from below to mix with the rainfall.

“Is that good?” Abby shouted.

Rahab was smiling. Kara called back. “It looks right!”

“So it’s fixed?”

“So it would seem!”

“And the devil?”

The alchemist glanced at Rahab, and when he made no reply, turned back to Abby. “Consumed by the magic of the mechanism to power the restoration!”

Abby strolled over and clapped a gauntleted hand firmly around Rahab’s shoulders. “Well done, magic man!”

“We should cover those doors again!” Lem was already jogging back toward the structure.

“Right!” The warrior loped after him, followed by Gloriana.

Kara hung back and approached Rahab. She lowered her voice, though she was still shouting above the din. “That’s what happened to the pit fiend, right? It’s gone?”

Hair beginning to soak in the rain, Rahab stared back at Kara and made no reply. Concern dawned on the alchemist’s face. “Rahab?”

“So it would seem!”

“Rahab!”

“I will not lie! This is magic the likes of which I have never seen! I take the cinders in the alcoves as good sign, but I cannot answer for certain that the creature is utterly gone! Powerful outsiders may be harnessed as sources for magic, yet the ascendant peerage of Hell are notoriously hard to extinguish!” The wind whipped droplets of water from his nose, earlobes, eyelashes.

“Did he say something? He said something, didn’t he? Rahab?”

“We should get inside, help the others!” The wizard turned to go, but Kara grabbed him and stared straight in his eyes. Her flaxen hair clung wet against the delicate, precise elven frame of her face.

“Yes!” the wizard relented. “He said something! There is nothing we can do about it now! As honest as I can be—and you know I would not varnish truth—the pit fiend is gone! We can only go forward, Kara!” He pulled away and jogged for the structure interior.

Kara glanced once more over the dam surface, and then followed. She felt no wiser about all that had happened—not just at the dam, but all of it since Sandpoint—and the thought was deeply disquieting.

••••

It took about ten minutes to reassemble the pile of skulls before the now-closed double doors leading into the trap room. Twenty minutes after that they had descended through the ettin cavern to the basin where they mounted their horses and turned south. Already the river level was changing, less insistent, narrower, coursing with old familiarity down into the valley.

By nightfall they were back at Fort Rannick where they clustered around a blazing hearth in one of the rooms, slowly drying out. Vale cooked a tomato soup and served up steaming bowls with slices of hearty black bread the ogres had somehow ignored in the larder. There was no ale.

Over the meal Gloriana updated The Black Arrow about what had happened at the dam. The big man could supply little information in support, save that the center of ogre presence had long been Hook Mountain, further to the northwest in the Iron Peaks. If there was still investigation to be done into the organization of the ogres, he guessed it would take them there.

••••

After the others had retired to their rooms Gloriana remained behind with Rahab in quiet conversation. Combs tucked away in her knapsack, the oracle’s hair had dried in a wild golden mane.

“So, what happened?” Her voice was soft.

The wizard remained quiet a long time, staring into the fire. Gloriana patiently respected the silence. Eventually he spoke.

“To the best of my understanding, the alcoves acted as a point of containment for living things harnessed as power for the ancient device. The western point had burned through the being there, leaving the near-carcass of the pit fiend in the eastern point. By supplying the western point with a summoned life form I believe I recycled the power in the structure, restoring normal operation to the dam.”

“But the rat and the devil were destroyed.”

“Yes.”

“So, how much power is available?”

“I do not know, though I would guess a pit fiend would provide an immense source.”

“But the dam might fail again?”

“In time it almost certainly will.”

“No way to know how much time?”

Rahab shook his head. “The Skull River valley is safe, for now. That may be a decade, or a century, or who knows? I suspect the western point also contained a pit fiend previously, and that powered the dam for a very long time, indeed. With yet another pit fiend consumed I imagine drowning will be the least of the worries in the Skull River valley for quite some time.”

“Why the dire rat?”

“That was a guess. I started with the lowest level of the summoning spells available to me on the chance that the briefest spark of a living being was all that was needed to cycle the process. I was right.” The conjurer did not sound boastful at all, rather distinctly matter-of-fact.

“What did he say? Avaxial?”

Rahab turned to face her. They were seated cross-legged in front of the blaze, and all else around them was shadow. A tiny point of firelight danced in the oracle’s eyes, too small to reveal the intense sapphire blue the wizard knew them to be.

“As we reentered the room he offered me anything I desired, including knowledge of ancient Thassilon.”

Her voice grew very soft now, and she realized she was afraid of what Rahab might say next. “Were you tempted?”

“Of course!” Then the conjurer laughed, an honest mirth, and the sound banished Gloriana’s worry. In the gloom she smiled in spite of herself.

“The temptation is unavoidable, for temptation is part of the very essence of devils. It exists within them at an elemental level, and radiates from them as heat from flame, as light from sun. The danger of Infernal temptation is less in its presence and more in the person so tempted. It is up to the individual to reject temptation. That is why what some refer to as ‘falling’ is considered so terrible. To take up a devil’s offer is not an act of succumbing.”

As their hushed dialogue had unfolded neither was aware in that moment just how close they had leaned to one another. Rahab’s voice was near to a whisper.

“It is an act of embracing.”

The oracle remembered to breathe. “What did he say to me when I healed him?”

The wizard turned back to look at the fire again. “’Advantageous decision.’ He addressed you in a specific way.”

“How?”

“I would translate it as ‘brightmorsel.’”

Gloriana turned these things over in her mind and likewise faced the fire. “He was trying to tempt me, too.” It was not a question.

“Indubitably.”

“Why did he not address me in Common?”

“In the hopes it will be counted for me I will now admit that Avaxial’s intellect almost certainly surpassed mine. He surely guessed that—in dealing with us, at least—I was the target he most needed to conquer. He must have known I counseled you and the others on how to proceed, how to reduce your own vulnerability, and he must have deduced that Kara and I had deciphered—to some degree—the dam’s operation. He was addressing you, but he was speaking to me.”

“At the end, as the magic took hold, he screamed.”

The shape of Rahab nodded in the firelight.

“What did he say then?”

“He vowed vengeance on me, and upon someone or something called ‘Karzoug.’”

“Do you know what that name means?”

“I regret that I do not.”

Gloriana suddenly realized how tired she was. She got slowly to her feet, then laid a gentle hand on Rahab’s shoulder. “Well, he vowed in vain, at least.”

She was at the doorway to the long hall when she heard the wizard’s reply. “Gloriana, a devil as cunning and powerful as Avaxial is the kind of creature that plans contingencies of vengeance eons before its own demise.”

A slow, mournful ache stirred within the oracle then, one she did not entirely understand. It was only later, when she awoke in the wee hours, that she realized what Rahab had implied when he described Avaxial as addressing her but speaking to him.

Any influence the devil had been trying to seize with her was incidental. The devil had really been tempting Rahab the entire time.5


1 I have elected not to translate this interaction and, instead, leave the conversation between Kara and Rahab to the reader’s imagination.

2 The devil’s opening statement translated from Infernal: “Free me! Free me and I will reward you!”

3 Glo channel healed for 21 points. Not enough to fully restore the fiend, but I figure after however many uncounted years it’s suddenly in a lot better shape visually, if nothing else.

4 Keep reading to find out more about this.

5 Party members advanced to level 10.

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Book IV, Chapter 16: The Scrag And The Arachnid In Bone
Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer

The stairs opened onto a cavernous room, cold and damp, the walls continuously decorated in the predominate motif of the dam. A great pool dominated the floor, allowing only a five-foot perimeter to maneuver. Once ornate, the feature was caked with yellow slime and green fungus, lending the entire room a sickly feel. Light sources diffused erratically off the water surface, scattering amoeboid patterns on the walls and ceiling. The swamp stench in the place was thick, cut with a distinct hint of carrion. At the southernmost part of the room had been heaped a large mound of animal and humanoid skulls, piled higher than Abby or Kara1 and blocking a large set of double doors.

Alone, Lem felt confident he could have scouted the entire area unmolested, but at present there was simply no way to move the others in sufficient stealth, although Rahab’s magical “jump” appeared to be entirely silent. Nevertheless, all but Kara needed some light, and any such source was alert enough. There was something wrong, though, and he paused a moment, halting the remaining party members on the stairs behind him. He realized that they were now below the level of the lake to the north, and the air felt humid, with a surprising warmth. The gardener felt as though the heaviness of the chamber atmosphere masked something, reminding him of the way the most basic traps worked: simple, obscure, dangerous.

After a minute he glanced back and saw the expectant looks of the others, but without something specific to tell them there was nothing else to do. Stealthily he crept forward and moved immediately right as he stepped off the stairs into the room. Abby followed and moved left.

The trap sprung the moment Gloriana entered.

••••

As the thing broke the surface of the water Lem had just enough time to gauge the depth of the pool at somewhere around five times his height.

It was very large and very fast, leaping from the murky depths in an immense shower of water and fungus. It was a kind of pale blue-green color, troll-like in aspect, hunched forward to conceal the full extent of its height which might easily be twice that of an elf. A figure of lithe and terrible strength, it incorporated something distinctly aquatic in its features. Along its back sprouted several arrays of spines, and between its digits splayed webbing. Along the jawline and at other places such as the elbows hung fin-like fans of cartilaginous material showing near-translucence. Some patterning to the rubbery flesh suggested scales neither entirely piscine nor reptilian. The creature boasted no hair, and instead of dark black eye-sockets there glowed a dull sheen of pale yellow from goggling, bulbous spheres. Clutched in the great grip of one hand was a length of slick metal topped with a triple-pronged spear. As it roared the creature’s voice blasted a spray of foul breath and droplets that soaked the pool’s edge and Gloriana with it.

Pain shattered the oracle’s perception. She had little time to even register the wall of water erupting before her when the agony slammed her eyes shut and knocked the air from her lungs. When her watering eyes opened once more it was to the sight of the trident withdrawing, blood running thickly from three wounds.2

Some remote portion of her awareness heard Lem’s voice as though across a great distance. “Glo! Watch out, it’s got a trident!”

••••

“A scrag!” Kara cried, pushing past Gloriana and Abby and trying to find room to stand at the pool’s perimeter. “Aquatic troll!” The alchemist slammed back3 an extract of magical shielding.

Still on the steps Rahab used one of his sorcerous pearls to restore the magical missile among his memorized repertoire of spells. He stepped up behind Gloriana and seeing her wound felt a frisson of fear and rage. Then his adamantine intellect reestablished control and returned his attention to the fight. “Grazuulu vahkh?” 4 Gleaming eyes rolled and focused upon the wizard, confirming his suspicions. Rahab wondered why the thing was even armed.

The oracle stepped back and cast the spell of fervor on herself and her friends. What she had not anticipated was the speed and dexterity with which the scrag maneuvered. Rahab could only watch in horror as triple tines transfixed Gloriana a second time, and she could not even scream. It was already too much effort to simply exhale in desperate gasp.5 The oracle noticed a sympathetic wound briefly appear on the monster’s own torso corresponding to her own, and a second later it began to repair of its own accord.

Vicious magic, she realized, and in the hands of a creature that can regenerate . . . .

A second later the trident struck again. Gloriana’s vision blurred, and she buckled. The briefest realization arrived like a single song note piercing silence: She was dying, and this time there was no peaceful, centered calm. The prospect suddenly terrified her, but not for the reason it did most mortals.6

••••

For the second time that week Abby rescued her best friend.

Amidst the confusion of battle and the constant crash of water came the echo of Avenger slamming into rubbery troll flesh. Something about the mysterious quality of the ancient, ensorcelled metal lent an insistent quality to the attack. To describe it as a ringing did the resonance injustice, for the trembling, wavering eruption rebounding in that chamber had an insistence that would have given primordials hammering rivets of star stuff into the cosmic architecture pause. A spray of droplets blasted away from Grazuul’s body in a fine mist.

It was not a noise. It was a sound. 7

••••

Rahab vocalized a spell and coalesced a beam of focused energy that sapped strength, but the attack missed and the wizard cursed under his breath. In front of him, Gloriana desperately channeled healing at the brink of collapse and brought her vision back into focus, pained though it was. When Grazuul seized the chance to interrupt her magic and stabbed the trident toward her, the oracle stepped aside to avoid the attack and expertly finished invoking the spirits of her ancestors to restore even more health within. Then she lashed out with an attack of her own, anger casting a ghost-vision of a skull over her beautiful visage as a beam of searing white-gold burned a scorching line across the pale corpse-blue belly of her enemy.8

Lem realized that position was never going to be to his advantage in a fight with something situated in the water, so there was nothing left to do but add what he could. He moved to the edge of the pool and brought his preternatural reflexes to bear maintaining perfect balance on the slick stone at water’s edge. His knives blurred silver in the strangely dancing light and he carved five fresh cuts across Grazuul’s left arm and ribs.9

All of this descended on the scrag in the space of a few seconds, but for Grazuul, the Ripper-in-the-Water, the Skulltaker General, there was suddenly only one point of focus. One among the meal bit with a distinct fury, even lacking fire. He had no choice but to pay attention to the thing in steel.

The trident dropped into the water and great, looming arms descended on Abby like twin pythons. The warrior found herself crushed, Avenger pressed against her and pinning her left arm, her right free but with little room to swing. Immense strength battling her own might began to drag her toward the edge of the pool, and the stench of the rubbery flesh against her reeked of dampness and death. If drowning had a scent, this was it.

Gloriana seized the opportunity and cast a magic ancient among her people, a spell of moving on, a chant that called the wanderer to resume the Road.10 Power surged within Abby and the warrior’s survivor instinct kicked in as she set her boots against the monster’s hipbone, then pushed.

It was not enough.

Absurdly, Abby was surprised at how warm the water was.

••••

Kara had produced the longbow enchanted with electricity that had once belonged to Jakardros, and now the alchemist moved along the eastern perimeter of the room in desperate search for a shot. She could see the great blur of the scrag beneath the water’s surface, the churning as Abby struggled, but there was no clear line, and an arrow entering the water would lose momentum dramatically. Further, her magic could not control the electric energy of the bow, posing the additional problem of shooting lightning into water such that it endangered not only Grazuul, but her friend, as well. She felt helpless.

Rahab focused on the mass in the water and brought down another spell to render the scrag blind. The creature shrugged it off.

Gloriana channeled more healing power, and then summoned a ghost. The manifestation appeared in the water, a woman who had lived and died more than two hundred years prior. She was tall and arrayed in plate armor of a style known to a certain sect of paladins of Varisia’s southeastern reaches in the days when they met and moved in secret, servants of Sarenrae eluding Cheliaxian authorities. The spectral blade she bore was a scimitar, the weapon most closely associated with the Dawnflower. The visor on her helm was up, and in the murky, shifting light and spray of water all could see the ghost’s face was a vision of beatific life one moment, and a stark skull the next, each visage shifting seamlessly from one form to another. Displacing no mass, the ghost glided as easily through the water as if it were air, and her curved sword struck as swiftly as a falcon on the wing.11

••••

His effectiveness limited by distance and position, Lem made a decision, one that he would review later as both fruitful and foolhardy. He glanced at Gloriana: “I take back all those things I said about you.” Then the gardener stepped off the edge and plunged into the pool, almost casually. He found it difficult to swim with knives in his hands, and now his clothing soaked, and the weight of his leather armor bearing down. Holding his breath, he let the water close over him and settled down close to where Grazuul held a struggling Abby under the surface. Light from the warrior’s stone—still drifting about her head even as she fought to free herself and reach the air—shone as an eerie brightness that made the darker depths of the pool all the more inky.

Moving against the weight and drift of the water, Lem found it easier to stab than slash, and now he had the scrag’s flank.

••••

Abby burst through the surface with a heaving gasp and scrabbled against all the weight of armor and gear to grab hold of the pool’s edge. Lem did the same in the next second and together warrior and gardener helped one another take hold against drowning. Sloshing water slowly settled as Gloriana and Rahab crouched at water’s edge.

Looking back into the pool no one could see Grazuul. There was simply too much blood saturating the water.12

••••

“It’s still regenerating,” Kara said as she slowly maneuvered back toward the others, arrow nocked and still trained on the water.

“I’ll get him,” Abby said, and before anyone could object she released her grip on the pool’s edge and descended into the warm murk once more. With her great strength and the water’s buoyancy she managed to drag the motionless monster up to the surface and the pool perimeter.

Gloriana and Rahab had helped Lem out of the water, and now assisted Abby. The warrior maintained a grip on Grazuul’s limp arm, and slowly began hauling the thing from the water with the aid of the others. When the creature’s torso hung on the stone, Rahab stepped back and began to conjure acid, over and over again, until the horrible life force of the scrag could overcome no more.13

••••

“Disgusting,” Lem grumbled, looking down at his soaking form coated in a thin layer of slime from the pool. Abby sat in similar condition.

“Going to be miserable until we’re dry,” the warrior muttered.

“Going to be miserable after we’re dry, too.”

While Rahab rendered the scrag’s body into sludge Gloriana stood at water’s edge and detected for the presence of magic in the room.

“The trident is magical,” she called out. As I already knew.

Abby set her mouth in a grim line. “Hell’s below, I’m already wet anyway.” She shuffled over and slid back into the pool, returning a moment later with the weapon. She set it on the stone and exited, with effort, once more.

When he was finished with corpse disposal, Rahab crouched to take a closer look at the trident. “Adamantine, with a basic magical enhancement. Ah! Vicious.”

Yes, it is, thought Gloriana.

“What is that?” Abby asked.

The conjurer looked up. “A kind of retributive augmentation. It enhances the wound it delivers at the cost of a similar, though lesser, wound to the wielder. In the hands of a troll it becomes truly cruel, as the cost to use it is negligible with time. Cunning.” He glanced at Gloriana. She met his gaze, and began to cast minor healing spells on herself.

••••

Doors in the western wall led to another chamber, this one narrower but longer, and also featuring a pool. Gloriana cast a spell of light on a copper coin and tossed the currency into the water. The illumination revealed a tunnel in the pool’s depth that connected back into the room where they had fought Grazuul. Finding nothing else of interest, they returned to the main chamber and looked to the east where another door led further into the dam structure.

Abby opened the portal, glanced within, and charged.

••••

How to describe the thing? Its shape was scorpionoid, its substance bone, or rather the conglomeration of many bits of bone, some large and whole, some small and fragmented. This was no carapace, but the whole of the thing itself, and what should have been prohibitive rigidity evinced alarming quickness and poise. Numerous humanoid skulls arrayed in the form like horrific parasites set as watchers. Curved menacingly over the back of the abdomen loomed the segmented bone tail tipped with a long shard of tibia filed to spear-point sharpness. The creature—if creature it was—loomed as large as an ox cart.

As Abby closed the stinger lashed down and true. The warrior felt a pain like heat begin to course from her shoulder, and a sickness churned in her belly, white flashes of crystalline bright bursting like snowflakes in her eyes. Her sword stroke failed and she reeled, for the closeness of the thing now filled all her mind with thoughts of poisonous doom. Abby trembled.14

Lem followed the warrior into the room, saw the strange monster, and fled. He did not cry out, his throat constricted and unable to voice the overwhelming fright that billowed in unseen fog from the thing in the chamber.

“Lem!” Gloriana called in confusion as the gardener bolted past her toward the stairs leading up to the top dam level.15

She stepped into the room and saw. The fear descended on her, miasmic, enveloping.

••••

Suddenly understanding, the oracle bent her will against the effect, proving more successful than Lem had been. Then Gloriana summoned a ghost blade to attack the scuttling form. Blue-gold ectoplasm sliced the air, struck bone, and vanished harmlessly in an instant.16

Abby turned to flee in the gardener’s wake. Great pincers descended.

Their grasp was crushing.

••••

Once again Gloriana invoked the road song of liberation, and once again it availed Abby not. The oracle watched in horror as the stinger descended on the grappled warrior and injected venom once more. Abby’s mighty constitution fought off the toxin for the moment, but she gasped in terrible agony as the claws began to ratchet tighter.

Kara breached the doorway and moved past Gloriana. For a moment she groped at her bandoliers helplessly for elixir, bomb, something, anything that might aid in the fight, and the fear threatened to overcome her. Slim, dexterous elven fingers scrabbled without purchase across vials and bulbs of ceramic and glass. With tremendous effort she mastered herself, forced a deep breath, reacquired calm. She blinked once, and carefully focused on plucking the desired grenado from its sheath.

Rahab reached the room, saw the thing, and terror shattered his perception. In the next moment he was fleeing after Lem.17

••••

“Ghosts of the road!” Gloriana cried. In the clutches of the thing Abby struggled again to break free, and again failed. The oracle took some of the warrior’s pain and then invoked a spell banishing fear upon herself, and extending the effect to Lem and Rahab through the doorway. Wizard and gardener drew up short before the stairs, hearts racing, breath shallow, and turned. They looked angry. As they returned, resolute, Lem drew the wand of scorching magic he had tried against the ettin while Rahab flexed his fingers at the prospect of invoking magic.

As they crossed the threshold the gardener moved into the southwestern corner of the room, pointed the wand and called forth its magic.

Nothing happened.

Then Rahab bookended the moment by casting a strobing starburst of purple that had no effect on the thing whatsoever.18

“Baalzebul’s bollocks!” The wizard grimaced. “It’s not undead, it’s a construct!”

••••

However impressive her sheer might, Abby could not escape. The bone scorpion’s strength was magically augmented to astonishing power, and its punishing grasp bore down on the warrior inexorably.19

Something exploded in the air nearby, an intense surge of flashing, sizzling electricity that spider-webbed all over the construct’s frame in two dazzling explosions. The warrior could feel gooseflesh as the hair on her arms whipped upright like summer grass in a breeze, and a heavy scent of ozone filled the air.

Kara Silverleaf was finally in the fight.20

••••

Two sounds predominated in that chamber, punctuated by a staccato third. The first was the scuttling bulk of the giant scorpion as its legs maneuvered on stone. The second was the scraping steel of Abby struggling to free herself from the construct’s clutches. The third was the shatter-shock of Kara’s galvanic grenadoes blasting bone into dust.

Then, over the din, Gloriana’s voice, clear, bright as the gold in her hair, the gold in her light.

“Sorry, Lem. This is going to be loud.”

From her vantage Gloriana had the giant bone scorpion in line for a spell, but unfortunately the position the gardener had taken up in the room put him directly in the conical path of the effect, as well, and when the magic unfolded it crashed over construct and halfling alike. The sonic erupted, and Lem could see the pressure wave make its way through the air as a distortion, then his teeth rattled in his socket, his discolored hair blasted back, his skin rippled.

When he opened his eyes his ears were ringing and he tasted blood on his upper lip as it trickled gently from his right nostril. Every noise in the room was very far away, safely sheltered behind curtains of invisible wool. Lem glanced at the thing dominating the room, poised predatory over Abby’s desperate struggle.

If the construct had felt any of Gloriana’s spell, it gave no indication.21

••••

In the next few seconds Lem dodged into position at the construct’s anterior and sliced his knives across raw bone, flinging a few chips free and impacting the thing in no other way. Abby’s effort to escape came likewise to naught, and now the claws had her completely pinned on the chamber floor, the right pincer slowly closing around her neck. The warrior felt blood as the edge cut into her skin, but she resolutely refused to close her eyes. She stared into the empty eye sockets of one of the grim skulls nested between the punishing forelegs, defiant, willing it to recognize that she would never look away from death, that oblivion would find her forever facing forward. Abby’s jaw clenched.

“Come on, you fucker.” It was a whisper made of iron.

There was a very bright light.

••••

When the splotches of drifting negative space on her eyesight eventually faded Abby could see the claws had fallen open in release and the entire structure of the giant bone scorpion had settled to the ground in a heap. Smoke drifted up from skeletal interstices and heavy splashes marked the abdomen where sudden, intense ionization had charred calcium into black chalk.

When Rahab’s admiring voice sounded in the silence it was as if the room had been holding its breath and finally remembered to exhale.

“Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer.”22


1 For reference, Abby (half-elf) and Kara (elf) are the second tallest, and tallest members of the party, respectively.

2 Surprise round. Glo got hit for 20 points of damage.

3 Things Writers Think About: I originally typed “The alchemist shotgunned an extract of magical shielding,” but that’s one of those things that seems inappropriate as a reference given the late medieval/early renaissance fantasy world setting. “Crossbowed” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

4 Translated from Giant: “Papa Grazuul?”

5 A second hit for 20 points of damage.

6 Another hit, this time for 31 points of damage. In 12 seconds Wet Papa Grazuul did what a fortress full of ogres could not accomplish in an hour. At this moment Glo was at 0 hit points.

7 Abby’s attack was actually three: sword, shield, sword. For descriptive purposes I’ve elected just to focus on the shield strike in this moment because it’s an important weapon in Abby’s arsenal, and also because it’s an item of dgroo’s creative imagination that pays tribute to his love and appreciation for Cap and Marvel. The total attack included a critical hit, and summed 72 points of damage. Assemble and shit!

8 Never count Gloriana out of a fight. Quick channel healed herself for 16 points, then a defensive cast succeeded allowing her to cast cure serious wounds on herself as a swift action under the Combat Healer ability for another 20 points. Then a searing light spell hit Grazuul for 21 points.

9 With blessing of fervor Lem was able to make five attacks, all of which hit, two of which were critical. Unfortunately, due to position, he could not add sneak attack damage. Total was still 23 points. Keep in mind that Grazuul is regenerating. Nevertheless, in two rounds he’s taken 116 points of damage.

10 Liberating command which gives Abby an immediate attempt to make an Escape Artist check against the successful grapple. Unfortunately Abby’s roll was poor, and the Hero Point she spent to reroll didn’t help.

11 Spiritual ally. Dingleberry was very specific about the appearance of this spirit. The ally hit Grazuul for 5 points of damage. Glo’s channel heal was 13 points to each party member.

12 Lem’s decision was not an easy one to make, and he barely made his Swim check, but it put him in masterful position with an established flank. He used blessing of fervor for an extra attack and stabbed four times for a total of 58 points of damage plus a bleed.

13 Acid splash cantrip, once a round until Grazuul was well and truly finished.

14 The monster’s presence produces a fear effect. Abby failed her Will save and gained the Frightened condition. Stinger injects a venom.

15 This was a Spellcraft check to determine the source of Lem’s fear. Unsuccessful.

16 Spell resistance.

17 This was all initiative round 1. Lem failed his Will save, fled. Abby failed her Will save, got grappled, took 33 points of damage. Glo’s liberating command failed to help Abby at all, then spiritual weapon was useless against spell resistance. Kara had double-moved so could take no other action, though she did make her Will save, as did Gloriana. Rahab, best Will save in the party, blew his roll, spent a Hero point to reroll, and promptly blew that one as well. Off to a rousing start.

18 Lem’s Use Magic Device failed, so he spent a Hero point, and failed again. Rahab’s magic missile did not penetrate spell resistance. How’s the fight going so far?

19 Abby made a total of four attempts to break free of the grapple. Every one of them failed by significant margin.

20 First shock bomb did 34 points of damage, second did 24 points. Spell resistance doesn’t count because the alchemist’s bombs are a supernatural ability, not spell or spell-like.

21 “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel PITY, or REMORSE, or FEAR! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!” – Reese, The Terminator, 1984. Gloriana cast soundburst and it did 2 points of damage. Neither Lem nor the construct were stunned.

22 Third shock bomb for 28 points of damage, fourth shock bomb for 26 points of damage. Total damage Kara did to the scorpion: 112 points. Total damage the rest of the party did cumulatively: 2 points (good job, Glo: “I loosened it!”). Going back over my notes my jaw is still agape. The elf is bad-ass. Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer.

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Book IV, Chapter 15: Crossing The Skull
Dam It

Kara and Lem crouched at the ogre corpse:

“It’s Kreeg, I think,” mused the alchemist. “Not the degenerates from the farm, but full ogre.”

“Not from Rannick, though, right?”

“Well, it might be one of the ones that fled at the very end, made for the river, fell in . . . .” She did not sound confident.

“It would have shown up downstream before today, though.”

“Good point.”

“Which means it’s more likely it was in the river today, maybe even while we were still riding in the forest.”

Kara nodded. “Suggesting it came from further up the Skull River.”

“Back toward the dam Rahab mentioned. It’s been crushed, see?”

“Yes.”

“So the river floods, a monster appears, and the body of a crushed ogre washes up.”

“Rahab was right: Something is wrong at the dam.”

“You think that thing broke through?”

“Rahab could say better. He indicated it was from the Abyss.”

“Well, he would know, the son-of-a-devil-worshiper.”

“The Abyss is not the Hells.”

“It’s all the same to me.”

They rose and began to make their way back to what remained of the village.

••••

Mayor Shreed stood talking to Gloriana among the throng.

“I cannot thank you enough. The whole village is grateful. Erastil shone his grace upon you today and sent you as an arrow from the Quiver of Good Deeds. An offering will be made, corn, squash, and fish. You will come and receive blessing. All will—”

A villager ran up hugging his small son tightly—one of the children rescued from the ferry—and pressed a plucked wildflower into Gloriana’s hand, bowing multiple times as he backed away, tears of gratitude lost in the rainfall.

The oracle seized the interruption. “Thank you, Maelin, we were happy to help. We should first see to the safety of the townsfolk and finding shelter. There is still much danger.”

“Well, yes, but Erastil—”

“These people need dry clothes, warm fires, roofs against the rain, and food, at the very least. Some of them may need healing, and an accounting of who survived and who was lost must be taken. I can help you get that process started, but first I need to know what happened.” She gave an encouraging smile. “Please.”

The mayor dragged one rough, abraded hand across his forehead. “Well, I . . . it was mid-morning when Olbaddah docked at the west jetties and came to tell me the lake was rising. Within an hour those jetties were submerged. It just got worse from there. What was that monster? Erastil would not abide such abomination. Do you think it will return?”

“Set it aside. Now is the time for helping the village recover.” She glanced over and saw Abby and Rahab approach. “Can you start helping with the villagers? Abby, see who needs healing and try and collect them all in one location if they can move. Rahab, please take an inventory of everyone and see if you can collate who is missing.”

The warrior clapped the wizard on the shoulder and they set off into the crowd. Gloriana turned back to Shreed. “What else can you tell me?”

“For the lake to rise so quickly I can only guess that Skull’s Crossing burst, but now that the water level is slowly receding perhaps it was not completely destroyed.”

“So as long as there is damage at Skull’s Crossing, Turtleback Ferry is in danger?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Maelin. Let me help my friends with the townsfolk and then we must make for Skull’s Crossing. Perhaps we can be of use there as we were here.”

“Erastil make the road green under your feet.”

Leave the Road—green or otherwise—to me, she thought, but only smiled in reply.

••••

Kara and Lem rejoined the others and reported about the ogre corpse. The companions spent the rest of the day helping in what remained of the village. By nightfall healing had been expended, the lost named, and shelter found among the remaining buildings. Lem spent an hour in the rain with a small cake of soap scrubbing himself of ichor. It washed off his skin, and he managed to scrape most off his armor, but his hair color remained tarnished. Gloriana thought he would simply have to let it grow in, cutting the blue-gray parts off as new black follicles developed.

The ground floor of Bottom’s Up had completely flooded, and the first floor had suffered partial damage, so the party relocated to The Turtle’s Parlor in the northern part of town. It was already in use as emergency shelter, and the companions had to share a single, small room. Gloriana insisted on paying, and further insisted that the villagers need not.

As custodian of the companion’s pain, everyone encouraged the oracle to take the one bed. Gloriana shared with Abby so the warrior would be refreshed for the day ahead. Lem used his haversack as a pillow and his cloak as a blanket, bedding down directly in front of the door. Anyone trying to get in would have to get through him first. Kara and Rahab rolled into their cloaks upon the remaining floor space. Magical light sources were stowed away. Elsewhere in the inn came the sound of human bustle, hushed voices, the occasional sob lamenting the loss of a loved one.

“Are we still going to Whitewillow?” the wizard asked into the darkness.

“Whitewillow,” replied Gloriana, “will have to wait. We need to find out what happened at Skull’s Crossing. Perhaps we can repair some of the damage. What can you tell us, Rahab?”

“The dam is massive and ancient. Its architecture shares similarity with many of the great ruins across Varisia.”

“Like the Irespan?”

“Just so. I suspect it is a relic of ancient Thassilon, which makes it interesting not only as historical curiosity, but also as connected to our own recent circumstances, what with our discovery of so many things connected to the Sihedron rune and its variants.”

In the gloom Abby reached down off the bed and laid her fingers lightly on the surface of Avenger. The conjurer continued:

“The dam’s flow control is automated, or at least has been in the past. Its system of water locks has helped maintain the status of the Skull River draining from the Storval Deep. From today’s events I gather something about those locks has failed.”

Lem asked, “How can the dam be automated?”

“Magic, or else ancient Thassilon had technological expertise far surpassing present day. The structure’s proximity to both the Iron Peaks and the Wyvern Mountains means it has long since fallen under the influence of the giant-kin in the region. A clan of trolls has resided there for many years: the Skulltaker tribe.”

“Lovely,” Kara brooded.

“Maelin—” said Gloriana, “uh, Mayor Shreed—has offered us a thousand coins in gold to see what we can do at the dam.”

“Paltry.” The gardener did not conceal his contempt.

The oracle was too tired to fight about it. “The village just flooded, Lem. Try to see the other rewards.”

“Oh, I’m trying, Glo.”

The oracle sighed. A long silence ensued. Then: “I asked if the village could afford to send anyone with a message to Magnimar about what has happened.”

Rahab: “And?”

“They agreed, though it will obviously take some time. We may be finished by the time any news reaches Grobaras, or by the time any word returns.”

“When we get back from Skull’s Crossing we can review that issue,” the wizard offered.

“What do you mean?”

“Do not worry about it. Plenty to occupy us until then.”

More silence. Kara nodded off.

Eventually Rahab spoke again: “The journey to the dam is unlikely to be free of incident. The road will take us past Fort Rannick. We should probably overnight there.”

Wide awake, Abby stared into the darkness and said nothing.

••••

The route to Fort Rannick passed easily enough, though a light rain continued to fall, and Kara, Rahab, and Lem discussed the weather, all agreeing that it seemed unusually consistent—and overly wet—for spring. The companions quizzed the conjurer about the nightmare they had battled, and found Rahab willing to answer some questions, strangely reluctant about others. They dismounted inside the southeastern gate, stabled the horses, and went into the keep’s main entrance. Temros Vale was inside, collecting pieces of equipment and furniture irreparably broken for firewood. The stench in the keep hit them like a sack of stones.

The companions shared lunch with Vale in one of the wall towers where the air and interior were cleaner. They told The Black Arrow what had happened in the village, but the big man had no news of Skull’s Crossing, save that giant-kin raids from the Hook Mountain area had to pass through the neck where the structure was. He added that there were also trolls with which The Arrows had occasionally tangled, confirming what the party already knew.

In the afternoon the companions once again helped around the keep. The clean up was slow going, and the pyres in the yard still smoldered. They bunked crudely in the devastated guest rooms once more, all except for the warrior.

Afterwards, lying together on the pallet in the wall tower, Vale traced a finger over some of Abby’s scars.

“By the gods, you’ve been in some fights. I do not have nearly the marks.”

“Many of these are from before I met Glo. Her magic helps against scarring.”

“Where were you before you met her?”

“Riddleport.”

Vale whistled low, understanding. After a while: “Do you think the monster you all fought came from the dam?”

The warrior nodded. “Rahab says it lives—or lived—in the lake beyond.”

“The Storval Deep? I have never heard of this ‘Black Magga,’ nor have I heard any of The Arrows mention it. Not even Captain Bayden.”

Abby smiled. “Rahab knows more than all of you lot put together. Probably more than all the people in this region put together.”

Vale snorted dismissively.

“It’s true,” she laughed.

A long silence passed. “He is not an easy man to like.”

Abby considered. “Rahab is definitely an acquired taste. But he’s my friend.”

“Hmph”

She raised on one elbow. “He’s my friend. Now come here.”

••••

Just after dawn the party took leave of Vale and Fort Rannick. Along the trail to Skull’s Crossing Kara regaled them with stories and lore of trolls. She could little conceal the disgust in her voice.

“They sound a lot like ogres,” observed Abby.

“Worse. They are utterly fearless and never run, never cease attacking until they or their opponents are dead. Also, they regenerate. Even a small portion cut from the monster may become a full, functioning troll. You have to destroy them completely with fire or acid to prevent them coming back to life,” Kara grumbled.

Four pairs of eyes turned to Rahab. He was grinning like a devil.

••••

At midday they emerged from the tree cover along the road parallel to the Skull River and reined up at the southern end of the basin below the gorge.

“Ghosts of the road!” Gloriana whispered, her eyes wide. No one moved.

High above them towered the mighty Skull’s Crossing, more than three hundred feet high and aptly named for the vast and plentiful carvings adorning the structure’s immense wall. The dam spanned the entire gorge, nearly a quarter-of-a-mile, save for a gap toward the eastern end where a portion of stone had broken away. Through this rend poured the cold blue waters of the Storval Deep, the high mountain lake suspended between two equally notorious ranges: the Iron Peaks on the western shore and the Wyvern Mountains on the east. The cascade hammered down into the basin that formed the headwaters of the Skull River, and the area at dam’s base had flooded considerably, though it was clear that, at least for the present, the structure still held back the Deep. It was not hard to understand that, should the remainder of Skull’s Crossing fail, then Turtleback Ferry, and all other settlements along Claybottom Lake and the lower river would be doomed.

“Definitely Thassilonian,” Rahab nodded quietly.

Kara inclined her head slightly forward. “What is that structure at midpoint?”

The wizard nudged Pentacle forward. “That is where we will find answers, I suspect.”

••••

Along the western edge of the basin they discovered a winding set of broad steps carved into the stone of the gorge wall and ascending some three hundred feet to what looked like a cave. Hundreds of wooden stakes had been set along the stairs, many topped by skulls of animal and humanoid variety. Each such trophy had been marked with a rune, sometimes burned, sometimes marked in charcoal, sometimes painted in dried blood, and all resembling a stylized humanoid skull.

“Welcome to Skulltaker territory,” Rahab remarked drily.

“Why don’t I scout ahead?” offered Kara. She drew two elixirs from her bandoliers and quickly quaffed them. The alchemist vanished from sight and a moment later Urdrenn nickered quietly as an invisible weight left her back. The others remained mounted, waiting in silence.

A few minutes later Kara’s disembodied voice startled them from the air. “The cave entrance is a bit below the top of the dam and there is another entrance at dam level. There are five ogres on the dam itself, west of the central structure, using great mauls to hammer at the stone.”

Lem’s brow wrinkled. “They’re demolishing the dam?”

“It does not look they are making any headway. I am not sure at what purpose they toil.”

“Any sign of life within the cave?” asked Abby.

“Not that I could detect.”

The oracle dismounted and began to lead Marigold to a nearby tree. “Let’s get moving.”

••••

With the horses secured at the basin’s westernmost edge, they began to ascend the Skulltaker steps. Lem stealthily crept ahead to lie in ambush. Abby led the others, followed by Gloriana, Rahab, and finally Kara who remained in flight and invisible. When they were some thirty feet from the cave entrance they readied themselves for battle with an array of magic.1

Lem made his way forward, disappearing into darkness. Abby waited half a minute, then advanced, the others falling in behind her. The warrior proceeded some thirty feet into the passageway, emerging into a larger cavern and startling a creature within.

••••

The thing had an ogre’s body, albeit larger, and topped by two heads, each sporting tusk-like fangs jutting from an underbite. Crudest animal hides lashed together formed the most rudimentary loincloth, and the bulky torso was painted in garish paints in pattern of affiliation at which the party could only guess. In each hand the creature clutched a large flail of iron. Independent of one another, the creature’s heads shouted cacophonous collision of syllables none but Rahab recognized.2 This was the ettin GorgerChaw, one personality calling for help, the other declaring intent to kill.

Thirteen feet of two-headed giant moved surprisingly quick, as Abby discovered when a flail slammed into her left hip. In the light of her stone, the warrior noticed another ettin arriving from the passage leading out of the cavern to the north. This was BiteSly, mate of ChawGorger.

For some time now Lem had carried a magic wand in his inventory, and now he drew it. The gardener had been studying how Gloriana and Rahab used the devices, and felt confident he understood the basic mechanics enough to fool the thing into behaving as it would in the hands of a spellcaster. He poised the device and muttered a word or two that sounded vaguely like something oracle or wizard might say. A spark flared briefly, utterly spoiling his stealth as bright light flared around him and then disappeared once more. A thin smoke drifted lazily from the tip of the wand, and the gardener’s cover had been compromised.3

Under Avenger’s power of haste, Abby set sword and shield to work on GorgerChaw, landing first blade, then bash, then blade, and blade yet again. Blood flowed from bulk, and twin heads howled in pain. The warrior stuck her tongue out at the brute.4

Gloriana began to absorb Abby’s injury, and also cast the spell of fervor on her friends, augmenting their ability to fight, defend, move. Behind her, Rahab stepped forward and extended his arm, pointing his right index finger. A hissing dart of acid the length of a crossbow bolt launched precisely over Abby’s right shoulder so close she could smell the acrid pungency and see the boiling burn as the missile bored straight into ChawGorger’s torso.

Churned to rage now, GorgerChaw set upon Abby with furious blows. The cavern resounded with raucous clamor as each flail rebounded off Avenger’s flawless surface. SlyBite loomed near, also bearing flails, pendulous breasts naked and painted. The air was loud with howls in the Giant tongue.

Lem abandoned the wand idea and tumbled effortlessly into position behind ChawGorger. His dagger tore a gaping wound along the ettin’s inner thigh from knee to groin, and a gout of femoral blood splattered on the cavern floor like a rotten melon dropped from a tower onto flagstones.5 GorgerChaw died without ceremony, crumpling in a mighty heap that kicked up dust and forced Abby to dance back lest the full weight collapse upon her. Lem looked over the fallen bulk at the warrior and shrugged innocently.

In response, Abby turned on BiteSly, barreling past the ettin in an attempt to establish flanking position. SlyBite swung her left flail but Abby ducked under the attempt, set her footing, and reversed her sword blade straight through the ettin’s kidney. Wails of pain echoed.

Eager to try a trick bestowed upon her by the ghosts, Gloriana summoned her weapon of spiritual power and set it upon BiteSly. The glowing scimitar sliced across the monster’s shins and the magic suddenly overcame the ettin’s balance, toppling her onto her back. No sooner had she landed than a burst of flame and smoke signaled Kara’s grenado exploding on flesh. Desperately, SlyBite tried to stand, and Abby and Lem closed like a vice.

There was an awful lot of blood.6

••••

Gloriana continued to absorb the initial flail wound inflicted upon Abby while the others made a quick search. The cave system consisted of the larger cavern where the battle had taken place, and a smaller nest area where the ettins slept. Finally, another passageway led north and turned east out of the gorge to access the top of Skull’s Crossing.

The search of the nest was unpleasant, but fruitful, yielding appreciable measures of gold and silver coin, a velvet pouch containing six pearls, a phylactery, and a scroll tube carved from ivory inset with strips of jade. The tube contained three scrolls.7 They stowed these away for later inspection, and quickly proceeded.

Lem took point hiding in the shadows of the cave exit. Rainwater had pooled on much of the upper walk, and bits of rubble lay strewn about the dam, remainders of ancient—though minor—damage to the massive structure. The gardener gauged the width of the walk at nearly sixty feet, and at the midpoint loomed a kind of segmented tower formed of skull-shaped domes. To the north surged the chilled waters of the Storval Deep, and to the south the dam slope dropped away more than three hundred feet to the basin. A cluster of four ogres stood a short distance away, swinging mauls at the walkway under the barking leadership of a fifth, larger ogre.

Too late Lem spotted Abby and Gloriana advancing into view at the cave exit, and just like that, stealth failed. The lead ogre glanced up and howled alert, snapping the other brutes to attention. Then he began unlimbering a bow to take advantage of the distance. The other ogres began to approach, almost casually, hefting their mauls. The oracle directed her spiritual scimitar to attack, and then invoked a prayer of protection upon her companions.

Abby charged the nearest creature and slammed into it with a hefty sword stroke. The others began to gather in anticipation of the bludgeoning, while at the back the lead ogre was preparing to draw and fire. Just then Gloriana’s mystic sabre sliced at his legs and he, like the ettin before, tumbled to the ground with a surprised grunt.

A second later it got very hot.

••••

Rahab’s fireball exploded at the back of the ogre group, enveloping the fallen leader and three others in a churning flame that burned away hair, skin, animal hide.8 Insult to injury arrived the next moment as one of Kara’s galvanic bombs burst in dazzling sizzle over one of the brutes.

Lem took to foot, tumbled past a feeble ogre swipe, and carved a canyon from buttock to kidney that slew the hapless brute. “One down!” the gardener chirped happily.9

The leader finally got his bow drawn despite the strips of charred flesh hanging from his forearms, and launched a missile at Lem, but the nimble gardener was simply too smooth and merely turned his head to allow the arrow harmlessly past.

Gloriana’s spirit sword attacked the leader twice. Each wound it opened glittered momentarily with blue-gold ghost stuff that faded as quickly as it appeared. This time, however, the magic failed to topple the ogre. She augmented the spell with a new casting, calling into existence a shimmering figure of light, vaguely humanoid, features indistinct, with appendages that might have been feathered wings. In its hands it bore a weapon of light, long and edged. The blade rose and fell, spilling new blood.10

Seeing the accumulation of attacks threatening the leader, Abby pushed past the cluster of ogres and charged, intending to cut the head from the serpent. All her weight fell behind the sword thrust that transfixed the brute, and the monster coughed up a gasping dollop of blood that sprayed across Avenger’s surface. It could no longer even vocalize. There was simply too much damage.

Rahab arced magic into one of the other ogres, and Kara made a rare fumble of her next grenade, sending it past the group to explode against the stone of the dam, but even then the splash back of fire and blast wave slew one of the injured creatures.

The leader died in the next moment, felled by Gloriana’s spectral blade. A beam of near-blinding light from the oracle’s outstretched hand killed another ogre. Abby slew the last with a sword stroke.

••••

Gloriana took the opportunity to channel healing among herself and her friends until everyone was restored. A quick search of the ogres revealed nothing of value. Kara voiced her suspicion that these were members of the Kreeg clan, late of Fort Rannick.

Abby looked down on one of the corpses. “On your way to Hell, tell what’s left of your kin I’m coming.”

••••

It was more than five hundred feet to the structure at the dam’s midpoint. They walked the distance carefully, keeping an eye for additional threats. The expanse was wide open with no place to hide save the building, but they felt wary all the same. A fierce chill whipped across from the Storval Deep. The structure neared. Facing them was a great humanoid skull carved from stone without the lower mandible. The eye sockets appeared to serve as windows into the building interior, though there was no door as such in the skull itself. Instead, sections of flat wall on either side of the skull contained a set of double doors, also shaped wholly from stone. Lem tested for traps, but found none, though it proved irrelevant. Try as she might, even with her prodigious strength Abby could not move either set of portals the slightest amount.

“Too heavy,” the warrior gasped, hands on her thighs. Lem and Gloriana both offered to help, trying to leverage their own strength in addition to Abby’s, but it was no use.11

“Unbelievable.” Sweat beaded on Abby’s forehead, washed quickly by the rain. “Should I use my other sword?” The adamantine lockpick had availed them before in the cavern beneath Foxglove Manor.

Lem was already scrambling up the face of the giant carved skull toward one of the eye-socket window. “No. Give me a moment.” He moved as deftly as a spider and soon disappeared within. A second later he reappeared and gave an “all-clear” sign. Abby began to climb, and though her grace was not the gardener’s, her strength more than made up for it.

From inside the warrior called back to the others in a whisper loud enough to be heard at the bottom of the basin. “Can you climb up here?”

Gloriana looked at Rahab. “After you.”

The wizard turned to Kara. “Back in a moment.” He reached out, took Gloriana’s elbow, and the two of them vanished. A second later the conjurer reappeared alone, and repeated the process with Kara.12

Lem shook his head. “That’s cheating.”

••••

In the chamber Gloriana once more reestablished the blessing of fervor on herself and her friends. The walls of the vaguely-trapezoidal room were thick with some sort of green fungus hanging in long ribbons like bunting. Large clumps of the stuff had been gathered in several places on the floor like nests. Lem unlimbered his bow and listened at the door. Wordlessly, the gardener signaled the presence of something beyond. Abby drew her sword as quietly as possible. Just before the warrior nodded at Lem to proceed, Gloriana leaned close to Kara and whispered softly in the alchemist’s ear:

“Did that feel strange to you?”

••••

Unlike the massive exterior portals, the interior doors were extremely thin slices of stone once adorned with iron long since rusted away. Lem pushed the panel open just enough to see into the room beyond. The area was littered with debris, streaks and pools of drying blood, and the bodies of three dead ogres that had suffered significant dismemberment. More fungus hung throughout, and the domed ceiling arced thirty feet above. The motif of carved skulls in various sizes continued across all the walls.

But the most pressing feature was the four trolls.

Had they stood completely upright each would have towered fourteen feet, but troll posture stooped forward to create the illusion of shorter stature. Their bodies created a strange sense of mass despite the wiry length encased in sickly green skin. Broad shoulders supported great arms dangling all the way to the ground with enough muscle to tear through steel like bread. Sharp claws and a toothy chevron mouth made quick work of flesh. On either side of a long, narrow nose were two eye sockets of solid, inky blackness, and the angular head swiveled on a bandy neck. An explosion of wiry hair erupted backward from the skull crest before hanging limply like rotten moss, and though large in size, the whole body suggested a dangerous agility. The ogre corpses in the chamber lay testament to the savagery and relentless violence of the troll, fearsome among all giant kin.

Lem sighted an arrow with such stealthy expertise that the bow did not even creak against the draw, and was already knocking a second missile, and then a third as the arrows sped on target. The troll lurched and spun, too fast for such size and all the more menacing for it. In the desperate seconds before all four monsters could apprehend what was happening the companions attacked fiercely, struggling to seize dominance of the battle as quickly as possible.

The gardener’s arrows struck significant wounds, and Kara hurled an explosive bomb that showered fire and force on two of the trolls. Rahab launched a dart of magic acid that penetrated deep into troll torso, hissing and churning with injury the remarkable power of the monster could not repair. Abby stepped into the room, her lightstone shedding illumination, and cut the first troll down with a massive overhead slice that split its rubbery skin from shoulder to groin. Gloriana summoned a spiritual ally into the room and it, too, attacked successfully.13

But the remaining trolls were on them instantly, a flurry of clawing and biting terrifying to behold. Abby found herself battered by the creature Kara had set alight, and it howled a kind of rasping growl as its arms swung left and right. The darting, knife-edge mouth tried to tear great chunks of flesh loose as the monster moved with slick speed and sinister grace, all the more horrible because it was now limned in flame, and though it could not repel the burning, it pressed the attack without fear.

Lem dropped his bow and dodged between the two closest trolls that menaced Abby. His skill at maneuver eluded the razor-quick claws that swept and clutched, and then he brought his knives to bear, opening wounds and drawing troll blood. Rahab moved into the room now, finding space to the right, and again his conjurer’s affinity for acid bored a smoking hole of caustic magic through the neck of the troll that had injured Abby. The lithe, looming mass of rubbery green crumbled in a heap at the warrior’s feet, acrid smoke rising from a wound its life force could not defeat.14

Abby pressed her attack upon the next troll, sword and shield hammered again and again, cutting and crushing a third monster to death. The last troll lunged at Lem to rend and bite, but failed to catch the agile gardener, and Gloriana’s golden ghost fetched the monster a solid strike with its spirit blade. Then the oracle called another spell, just the weapon this time, and the gleaming scimitar of light cut the troll across the back of the legs, knocking it prone.15 Because the position of the spiritual ally crowded the troll on one side, it allowed Lem to maneuver deftly to the other and seal the monster’s fate with a knife draw across the throat, practically decapitating it.16 The gardener flashed a sign of victorious cooperation at the ghostly figure.

In the subsequent silence they stood a moment and listened for sounds of approaching threat. Satisfied the battle was over, they searched the room. The fight had lasted less than twenty seconds.

••••

Exploration carried them through the rest of the structure at the top of the dam. They found little else, except a small treasure cache beneath a loose stone in another room. The contents included a cracked emerald, a gold comb designed to resemble a behir, and a pair of perfectly clean gloves of delicate pink lace that smelled faintly of lilacs. They took these for later examination.17

In a room with a southern view overlooking the basin below they found another set of stone doors that had been painted in runes of dried blood.

“It is the language of giants,” Rahab remarked.

“What does it say?” asked Gloriana.

“’Below dwells Wet Papa Grazuul. All hail Wet Papa Grazuul!’”

“What does that mean?”

The wizard turned to her in slight surprise. “How should I know?”

“You’re the one with lore about Skull’s Crossing!”

“I can translate the words. That does not mean I have the entire context or knowledge behind the words. If this is to be believed, then something dwells below with the title ‘Wet Papa Grazuul,’ and those who would revere such a thing choose to signal their allegiance in text of blood. Likely this was written by the trolls, and therefore whatever ‘Papa Grazuul’ is I deem it unlikely to hold us in particular esteem. Beyond that I cannot say.”

“Fine. I just thought maybe you might . . . know something.”

“The appellation means nothing to me. Anyone?” The wizard glanced around at the others who shook their heads. “We are unanimous in our ignorance, then.”

They descended into the dam.

Papa Grazuul was waiting.


1 Glo’s pre-cave buffing included: protection from evil on everyone; shield of faith on herself; bear’s endurance on herself, Abby, and Lem; bull’s strength on Abby and Lem; communal resist energy: fire on the party. Rahab’s pre-cave buffing was cat’s grace on Abby; mage armor on himself. Kara’s pre-cave buffing included: extract of shield and extract of expeditious retreat on herself (invisibility and fly were still up); extract of fire breathing to Abby; extract of haste to Lem. This kind of magic cocktail will feature increasingly as the party advances in their adventures.

2 Rahab is the only party member that speaks Giant.

3 I believe this is the first time Lem has tried Use Magic Device on a wand he’s carrying: wand of scorching ray. He attempted a sneak attack, blew the roll pretty badly, burned a charge, and promptly fell out of stealth.

4 Abby hit for 15, 7, 15, and 14 points of damage, totaling 51 in one full attack.

5 It’s happened before. Abby starts things off with 51 points of damage, Lem moves in to set the flank, scores 5 points of knife damage supplemented with 19 points of sneak attack damage, and claims the kill.

6 Bad day to be an ettin. Glo’s Toppling Spell feat succeeded in knocking the ettin supine, then Kara’s bomb hit for 24 points of damage, and when she tried to stand, the combined Attack of Opportunity damage from Abby and Lem was 50 points with a 4 point bleed. Next!

7 693 gold pieces, 1,240 silver pieces, six pearls at 100 gold each, the case at 300 gold, phylactery of positive channeling (that eventually went to Glo), and arcane scrolls of cone of cold, hold monster, and telekinesis.

8 The longer I play this game the more I wonder why I ever thought fireball/lightning bolt were some kind of super-weapon. Damage roll on this was 22 points (below average) and far, far too many creatures of large size with lousy save progressions made their Reflex saves. Frustrating.

9 Critical hit with the dagger for 7 points.

10 Glo’s first casting of spiritual ally. Her spiritual attack spells have been largely effective.

11 This was just one big series of 1s on Strength checks all around.

12 Dimensional steps. So much fun.

13 This opening round was superb. All three of Lem’s arrows hit a single troll for a total of 12 points of regular damage and 39 points of sneak attack damage, plus a 4 point bleed. Kara hit a second troll for 28 points that also set it on fire, and the splash damage from the bomb hit Lem’s target. Rahab hit Lem’s target with an 8 point acid arrow, and then Abby stepped into the room and full-attacked hitting the troll for 24 points, which killed it, and then her two follow up attacks did an additional 53 points of damage to the already dead creature (tron insisted on rolling the remaining attacks). Glo’s spiritual ally attacked the troll Kara had hit for 8 points of damage.

14 Critical hit with conjurer’s acid dart ability for 15 points of damage.

15 Another successful Tumbling Spell spiritual weapon. She had a very solid run with the spiritual spells in the Kreegwood region.

16 Lem attacked the prone troll with a flank, using blessing of fervor for an additional attack for a total of four attacks. Regular damage summed to 10 points, plus 42 sneak attack and a 4 point bleed. Deadly.

17 Emerald at 400 g.p., comb at 850 g.p., gloves of swimming and climbing.

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Book IV, Chapter 14: Mother Of Oblivion
Floodwater Fight

Gloriana woke in the early morning and emerged into the hall from one of the guest rooms where she had sheltered. It was quiet, and the oracle had to wait for a full minute in the gloom as a great host of haunts swelled and drifted around her, tugging at her curls, scarves, and hems. Had they witnessed it the others might have seen a shimmering in the air, a distortion that made Gloriana indistinct, but they were still chambered, and the oracle felt relief her friends did not witness the opera of ghosts. Bearing the horror of the previous day’s events, the visions were frightful. When the howling finally drifted into silence Gloriana took another minute to quell her trembling before finally making her way outside.

The rain still fell, not intense, but not abating. As she emerged from the main entry she glanced across the sodden yard at the curtain wall to the east and saw Abby leave a tower doorway, followed by Vale pulling on his tunic. The oracle smiled quietly to herself, and pretended not to notice as she walked carefully through the mud to the smallest pyre.1

••••

Vale had elected to stay at the fortress where he still felt his duty lay, and Rahab, in turn, had somehow elected not to remonstrate with the big man in a lecture entitled: Remaining at Rannick: A Study in Stupidity. There were a few small tasks the party could manage before departing, simple things that might provide help to The Black Arrow in their absence. With the aid of Rahab’s acid splash and prestidigitation, and Gloriana’s orison of water creation, the companions managed to clean one room in the fortress of blood and gore, making a more welcome retreat for Vale as he resolved to spend his time repairing, reordering, and cleaning to the extent possible.

“It may be that additional threats deeper in the mountains do not yet know that Fort Rannick has been liberated,” Gloriana explained. “That is no guarantee of safety, of course, but it may be that, for the moment, you remain in peace. Of course, should new threat appear, I can only encourage you to make the best of your escape and find your way to Turtleback Ferry. Better you live and the fortress fall again. In the coming months and years this place will need you.”

The big man nodded solemnly. “Rannick isn’t much to claim right now, anyway.”

“Heed my words,” insisted the oracle. “We will do what we can to find Bayden. Focus on staying safe and working in small steps for now. Leave the uncertain future far away in your mind.”

Kara and Lem had collected the horses from the forest camp to the southeast, and now Gloriana finished lashing a makeshift urn to Marigold’s saddle. She had found the container among the destruction, and used it to collect ashes from the still-smoldering pyre containing Shelalu’s, Jakardros’, and the cat’s cremains. A thick wooden disk sealed with wax served as lid. Like Rahab regarding Shelalu’s necklace, the oracle had secretly decided to return the cremains to the Mierani someday, knowing the gesture was only small, hopeful it would serve some purpose of healing.

She did not tell anyone of her fear that she might see the elven ranger again.

••••

Abby and Vale regarded one another in silence, then the warrior hauled herself into the saddle atop Sparky. “Watch out for yourself,” she said with a faint smile. The Black Arrow’s gaze followed as Abby turned the horse and led the others out the southeastern gate. Lem fanned out to the left and clucked Cinnamon up ahead to keep sharp watch on the surrounding forest.

“Turtleback Ferry,” Gloriana called back to the big man. Then Rahab and Kara fell in behind the oracle and they, too, trotted out of Fort Rannick under rainfall. Behind them in the yard churned three great columns of smoke rising into the cloud cover like pillars to hold aloft the sky.

••••

The oracle noticed that when Fort Rannick was out of sight the companions seemed to loom a little larger in the saddle. They kept watch, but did not fear to allow the horses bold movement, as though the Kreegwood had finally relinquished the power to strike fear. By the time they reached the riverside Gloriana was singing a song of her people, a song of The Road.

••••

“The river is high,” Kara remarked.

“Too high,” Abby answered back. “Lots of debris.”

Riding point, Lem watched a large tree branch bobbing downstream, felled from a mighty oak somewhere miles behind them to the north. “The rain wouldn’t have raised the water this much. Moving faster, too!”

The alchemist kept close watch to her left and within a quarter of an hour realized the danger.

“It’s rising!” she called.

Rahab glanced back over his shoulder at the grey sky still ushering rain onto the land. “Something must be wrong with the dam.”

“What dam?” Gloriana asked. She had tied her hair back with a scarf against the damp.

“Skull’s Crossing to the north, at the point where the river emerges from the Storval Deep. If the river rising this fast is not due to the rain, then something has failed at that dam.”

Kara’s alarm sounded quickly: “Turtleback Ferry is in danger!”

Lem was already kicking at Cinnamon’s ribs. “We must make the bridge before the flood claims it!”

In a moment they were galloping hard, mud spraying high as hooves churned the ground.

••••

They found the bridge intact, though the water continued to rise. Racing across, they turned south toward Turtleback Ferry. Abby worried that by the time they reached the village the horses would be spent, but there seemed little alternative.

Half an hour later they rounded a rock outcropping and their destination came into view.

Turtleback Ferry was drowning.

••••

Already the southwestern and southern portion of the village were largely lost to the encroaching lake. The town square was under a foot of water lapping at the steps leading up to the stone temple of Erastil. Ground floor windows of Bottom’s Up had begun flooding. The docks were gone, and many of the single-story buildings were soon to disappear. Debris floated everywhere: tables, cloth, buckets, barrels, fruit. At the general store a rickety ferry toppled and shifted against the side of the building, rattling loudly. A woman and a group of children cried out as they clung to the vessel in desperation. At the western edge of the village one lone building emerged from the wash, only the first and second stories visible. Anguished villagers loomed in the windows, trying to comfort one another, calling for help, crying in terror. Here and there a rooftop hosted a person or small group who could only watch as doom encroached. Those who had escaped to the east stood and pointed, howling their fear, or else raced back and forth frantically among their fellows trying to take inventory of family and friends. Chaos reigned.

••••

Lem spurred Cinnamon forward, dismounting smoothly at water’s edge, and the stout pony quickly hustled for higher ground. By dint of extract and spell Kara and Rahab took flight, confident that Urdrenn and Pentacle would make their way from the waters. From the vantage of the air, alchemist and wizard spotted something moving in the water among flooding buildings. Disturbed from whatever water-side lair it normally occupied, the creature was serpentine and smoothly fast, fifteen feet of rippling reptile with a patterned back and a belly the color of indigo so deep it might have been black. It moved purposefully toward the ferry and its hapless passengers.

Golden curls tumbled free as Gloriana hauled away her scarf. The oracle rummaged in her haversack while nudging Marigold forward, and as she produced a scroll she looked up. “Abby! Come here! I have something for you!” The warrior arrived a moment later and slid expertly from Sparky’s back, then slapped the horse’s rump to send it to safety.

“Here!” She drew her sword.

The oracle read the spell from the scroll. As first the words, then the scroll parchment itself disappeared in a flash of magical fire the incantation spilled out and over Abby, the oracle, and Marigold. The horse snorted in alarm, unused to the sensation, and then whinnied nervously as Gloriana urged the animal forward, whereupon it discovered its hooves standing firm atop the water.2 Marigold shook her mane in alarm.

Abby splashed forward and found the rising lake beneath her feet as solid ground. Fortunately, the warrior adapted to the magic more readily than the horse, and soon she was making her way over the water.

“Lem!” Gloriana called. “Come to me!”

Kara lined up a shot and hurled a small spheroid into the water. The bulb struck the snake and flashed a buzzing blast of electricity over the reticulated scales. Coils twisted in the water as the reptile jerked back and panned its trapezoidal head left and right in search of prey. Kara’s magic prevented the grenado from lighting up every other living thing, villager and friend alike, in contact with the water.3

By now Lem had spotted the incoming beast and knocked an arrow, firing true. His second shot missed, and already the constrictor had recovered, racing toward the ferry. The gardener abandoned his bow and drew his knives. “It’s a big snake!”4 he called, then headed for the water.

Rahab flew steadily forward, angling for a rooftop past the general store whence a girl of about twelve years had managed to clamber, only to find herself momentarily free of flood waters yet still trapped in the midst of danger. The wizard glanced back at the looming snake and cast a potent spell that crashed through the reptile’s defenses. The creature was struck blind, and a moment later the conjurer arrived at the rooftop.

••••

Abby ran over the top of the water and sliced a gaping wound into the barrel-thick body. The blind constrictor whipsawed around, trying to capture the warrior in crushing coils, and in so doing exposed itself to Lem’s double blades that opened another deep, bleeding wound. The snake made a reverse stroke but could not find the gardener, though Lem had a new problem now, finding himself in water to his armpits.

From the east came Gloriana’s exasperated shout.

“Damnit, Lem!”

In between knife strokes the gardener shot the oracle an insouciant smile.

••••

Marigold was not at all happy about the new state of mobility, and Gloriana found it difficult to maintain control of the horse despite murmured reassurances. Eventually the horse sidled up to the ferry, and now the occupants turned to stare at this new wonder.

“Hello, children,” Gloriana began in a bright-but-soothing tone. “This is Marigold the magic horse, and she can walk on water. Who would like a ride?” Her smile was every benevolent mother’s, and haunt-drawn scarves drifted like a mantle of color beneath the sunburst of her golden hair. Grateful villagers would later swear they saw a break in the clouds admit a single sunbeam down upon the mounted oracle.

The introduction was interrupted by the woman in the ferry resuming a frantic scream as the giant constrictor looped near.

••••

Abby’s next sword stroke severed the snake clean through, and the twitching segments began to drift away on creeping crimson flood waters.5

“You first, honey.” A golden vision atop some kind of celestial equine reached a comforting hand out to the youngest child in the ferry. Through a haze of tiny hiccups and tears, the youth found himself lifted clear of the vessel and settled into a warm embrace of jasmine, roses, and the promise of safety. Out of the rain came the voice again, calm, steady, reassuring. “Marigold will take us to shore.”

••••

Rahab landed on the rooftop next to the general store and extended his hand to the girl. The youngster, Tabitha, looked scared.

“We remove to dry ground,” the wizard said, and the girl reluctantly took his hand. She expected to be lifted into the air by the flying man, but instead, they vanished instantly . . .

. . . and reappeared in the same moment forty feet away on safe land among the other villagers. A startled noise and ripple of whispers transfixed those nearby. Rahab released Tabitha’s hand and prepared to take flight once more when he noted the girl’s expression.

“Now, now,” the conjurer raised a cautionary finger. “Do not vomit.” Then he soared back into the air.

••••

Gloriana could safely transport three children at once on Marigold, and now she wheeled toward shore. As they trotted, she glanced back over her shoulder. “I will be back in just a moment. If you see my friend—the flying man in blue robes—you may go with him. We are going to get you all to safety.”

The horse made for shore, whinnying complaint and tossing its head. The oracle deftly lowered children to the cluster of displaced villagers. “Help them find their families!” the oracle called to the adults, already reining Marigold to return. “Keep clear of the water!”

With the constrictor dead, Lem moved back toward land and recovered his bow. As he approached the newly deposited children he made shooing motions. “Everyone got all their fingers and toes? Let’s move back. The golden lady will bring your friends.”6

The gardener glanced to his right and saw a desperate human woman bearing down on him in frantic run. Too late he realized what was happening, and as she tried to scoop him into her arms the gardener struggled vehemently.

“No no no No NO! Halfling! Not a child! Over there! Let me go!”

••••

From her vantage in the sky Kara spied something moving in the lake to the northwest, sweeping quickly toward the lone building still above water at the western edge of town. At first she thought it was a particularly large tree that had been felled by the flood, but it was too fluid, too sleek, too dynamic for driftwood, and a chill transfixed her.

“Something’s coming!” the alchemist shouted to her friends. “By The Brightness, it’s huge!”

Abby charged across the water top in the direction of the far west building. Avenger was a circle of brilliant silver glistening with rainfall as she moved.

••••

Rahab flew back to the general store and hovered expertly above the tottering ferry. Only two children remained, along with the woman. One of the girls, Kimi, gazed in wonder at the airborne wizard.

Once again the conjurer extended his hand. “Would you like to show your friends a magic trick?”

The girl’s eyes could grow no wider. She gave a slow nod.

Rahab and Kimi vanished.7

••••

Out of thin air: “—of course, it’s not really a trick in the sense of illusion magic which I’m confident you recognize as a vastly inferior school of arcana. Traversal bypassing n-dimensional space and time! The equation is really quite elegant . . . .”

New gasps sounded as dazzled villagers once again saw Rahab appear from nothing with another rescued child. Many villagers scattered in alarm, even as the conjurer chatted pleasantly and Kimi’s joyful giggles sounded.

Abby happened to glance back at that moment. Rahab released the girl’s hand and was about to fly away when—in a moment the warrior felt certain the entire party would have paid genuine gold to see—Kimi suddenly threw her little arms around the wizard’s legs in a great hug before dashing off to join the other children in shelter. Rahab blinked in surprise, utterly unequipped to deal with the complexities of one of the most occult powers in the cosmos: children.

••••

Gloriana hoisted the last child from the ferry onto Marigold’s saddle in front, and then helped the woman climb on behind. It was suddenly difficult to maneuver the horse.

“Not so tight,” the oracle wheezed. “My dear, it’s—” A gasp. “—please. You’re—” Another gulp. “—safe. Let . . . !”

Marigold side-stepped, champed, and once more whinnied protest at her own unwilling violation of basic physics.

“Mari, just go!” Gloriana managed. Soon the shore and its desperate villagers neared. This had all gone much smoother in her mind when she first formulated her plan.

“Lem!” she called against the woman’s crushing grip. “Get over here!” By now the gardener had escaped the villager’s mistaken embrace and was already jogging in Gloriana’s direction.

The woman tearfully thanked the oracle as she slid off Marigold and helped the last youth down. The other villagers clustered nearby cheered the horse-borne angel of gold and silk that had appeared like sun after a storm and delivered the children of Turtleback Ferry from danger.

••••

From the deep rose something ancient and awful.

••••

At first Kara could scarcely credit her senses. The size of it! Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rahab fly into view. She glanced at the wizard and realized from his expression that he recognized the monster, and that they—the party, Turtleback Ferry, the very countryside—were in grave danger.

It was a mass of rippling flesh, vaguely pyramidal and larger than any single building in the entire village. From what seemed to be the creature’s base sprouted eight great tentacles of disparate girth and length, each covered in rows of powerful suckers, and several crowned by some sort of glaring ocular organ. From the pinnacle of the bloated body surged a long neck, reptilian, prehensile, lunging. At the end of the neck perched the monster’s head, something from deep water, long and angular, owing form to fish and lizard alike, with a powerful toothed maw large enough to swallow two draft horses simultaneously. A pair of hideous, gleaming red eyes shone with cruel intelligence, and the whole of the creature blended all the colors of crushing water: blue with green with black. It moved as easily through the lake as a bird through air, and even at this distance Kara could sense the sheer malignancy of it, potent and lingering like the flood that heralded its arrival.

Aiming at the lone western building that still stood above the water, the monster surged forward, parting liquid in a bow wave that easily swamped several drifting rowboats.

••••

Great was the store of knowledge to which Rahab had access, and vast was his expertise on multiple subjects, not least of which included those creatures sometimes categorized as originating “Outside,” that is external to the Prime Material Plane. It was a common misconception among mortals born to the Prime that theirs was the ancient reality, but the conjurer knew better. He knew that the extensive turbulences beyond spanned eons uncounted and within dwelt all manner of power strange, elusive, maddening. Gazing upon the monster Rahab recognized it from lore and from his knowledge of the diverse, complex planes.

He knew that Varisian legend told of a monster that humans called Black Magga dwelling in the bitter cold of the Storval Deep. According to some, simply witnessing the creature rise from the waters made recounting the tale impossible because black blood would well from the throat of any who dared give voice to the memory.

He knew that many attributed violent storms to the arrival of Black Magga who supposedly used such tempests to pull victims into the depths, whereupon they might be devoured or transformed through hideous magic into vermiform horrors lurking in the waters.

He knew of claims that Black Magga’s nature encompassed such blasphemy as to render divine magic used against it entirely inert, and that should anyone somehow find a way to cut the heart from the beast and bathe in its blood they would become invulnerable to the power of the gods.

He knew all of these legends and others beside, and he knew that the truth of the creature was much, much worse.

Flying over the flood-wrecked village and gazing upon the slick mass of death bearing down from the northwest, Rahab knew fear.

••••

Kara gained altitude. So did the conjurer. At a break in nearly-submerged rooftops Abby saw Black Magga, too.

What the fuck is THAT? Nevertheless, the stout warrior hefted sword and shield, advanced on the surface of the lake to what was once the western village edge, and shouted challenge at the thing.

From his vantage in the air the wizard heard the call and winced. “Mother of oblivion!” he croaked loudly in warning. “Here from the Abyssal realm, it is favored of Lamashtu, The Demon Queen who births monsters! The creature is ancient, older than some beings laying claim to the title ‘god,’ and it possesses great resistance to magic! Beware its breath!”

Eyes wide, Kara quickly drank the mutagen that enhanced her physical abilities. Back at the shore Lem scrambled onto Marigold’s saddle behind Gloriana, and the two set off at best speed toward the approaching horror. Already the renewed screams from the western building reached the oracle’s ears, an echo of those rising behind as villagers on land spied the new threat.

Black Magga loomed, casting the westernmost building into shadow. The great plesiosaurian head swung low, gaped, and belched a foul smelling smoke the color of soot over Abby.

A fugue descended on the warrior.8

••••

“This is very bad!” Rahab shouted from the air as he witnessed the attack. He cast the spell of blinding dust and watched as the glittering particles of magic showered down on the rubbery blue-green mother of oblivion. The monster did not even take notice, and the conjurer silently cursed.

Kara circled and launched a bomb. It burst in a shower of electricity, and writhing tentacles swatted at the air and water. Black Magga turned her great head and fixed her glare on the alchemist. For a moment, Kara had the terrible sense that she was being sized up, and she could not decide what was worse: To be judged a threat or to be judged insignificant.

Abby fought through the fog in her mind, struggling to find some sense of herself in her surroundings, and finding it difficult to remember why she was even here. In her frustration she stumbled forward and swung her blade in a vicious arc, striking a nearby tentacle and cutting a hefty chunk of rubbery flesh, but in her haze the movement carried her closer to the mother of oblivion, and the creature turned its attention from Kara to clamp mighty teeth shut around Abby’s torso. The pain was staggering,9 and she still did not understand what was happening, or why.

On horseback, Gloriana dug out a potion of flight and handed it back to Lem, who quickly gulped the contents down, stood in the saddle, and leapt into the air, skimming low over the water to hide his movement as he angled around the westernmost building, maintaining stealth. The oracle spurred Marigold forward, desperately trying to get Abby in sight. The horse was not doing well, still disoriented by how the water was behaving, and feeling the stark terror of all animals in the presence of something so monstrous and predatory as the thing rearing out of the water.

Black Magga reoriented on Kara again, and from her gullet rumbled ancient words in the language of dragons, an inflection and dialect that was old when the surface of Golarion was still cooling. An immensity of magical power flooded the alchemist’s mind and she felt a weight descend on her will like a curtain of lead eclipsing a window. The mother of oblivion issued a command in the Common Tongue, and the word escaped past razor teeth with the sound of water pouring into a scalding cauldron.

“Still.”

Kara could do nothing but obey.10

••••

A moment’s clarity punctured the uncertainty howling in Abby’s brain and she swatted at Black Magga’s body. The blow was minor, and the great blubbery mass drifted back. Somehow, Abby managed to step into the gap, and attacked again, and again, and again, but only landed a hit with the last, too foggy of mind to focus her initial attempts. Some kind of ichor erupted from the wound, but the tension and mass of the rubbery flesh was so great that the rend seemed to close immediately.

Rahab blasted the writhing mass with a ball of magical fire that evaporated water in a forty-foot diameter. When the gout of flame cleared the mother of oblivion was utterly unaffected.

“The rest of you better get in this!” the wizard howled. He was shaken. One of his more potent spells had been shrugged off as less than a nuisance. He could sense the monster’s power, and he trembled at the menace—and the allure—of it.

Gloriana took some of Abby’s pain even as she dismounted and urged Marigold to return to shore. The horse needed no further encouragement. The oracle noted Kara suspended, inactive, in the air some seventy feet above, and she begged the spirits to curse the mother of oblivion with an affliction her people used to hex those who intended harm. The magic fizzled and died. Gloriana was horrified.11

From around the westernmost building Lem zoomed just above the waterline and he barrel-rolled as a great tentacle swatted the air, but he judged the distance incorrectly and the rubbery mass slammed into him with breathtaking force. The mother of oblivion became a shuddering mass of activity, splashing great surges of water as tentacles wavered and crashed, the sea monster head leaning down to bite Abby once more. Lem was batted out of the air and into the water with a terrific blow, only to find himself launched skyward in a geyser as the flight magic carried him aloft once more. Abby was bleeding heavily, her mind without purchase, her will befuddled, her body dying.12

Black Magga drifted slightly back once more.

••••

In the air above the drowning village Kara hung, hovering in magical flight, a prisoner in her own body. She could do nothing but watch and adhere utterly to the command of the monster. Her brain echoed with the hissing word repeating over and over again, allowing no other thought, no counter impulse.

At water level, Abby’s confusion finally gained the upper hand and she brought her own blade against her own body. Gloriana was crying with absorbed pain, with the terrible vision of her best friend inflicting self-harm, with the desperation of her party’s impotence against this monstrosity from the water. Only the day before they had carved a swath of bloody victory through the fiercest ogres the region had known to reclaim a fortress from captivity. Now they were being crushed as easily as insects under a boot.

Rahab drew forth one of his magical pearls and used it to recall the spell of glittering dust. “Gloriana!”

The oracle looked directly overhead where the wizard flew.

“Kara is under mind control, and Abby suffers the effects of magical confusion! If you can dispel, do so!” He launched the coruscating magic against the rubbery mass once more, and once more Black Magga shrugged it away as nothing. In desperation the conjurer looked about for something —anything— that might alter the course of the battle: a lure to draw the mother of oblivion away, or an object to force her withdrawal. A sudden sensation coursed through him, and his powerful mind recognized the effect: A field of distortion around the creature bent space and time in such a way as to impede dimensional translation.

She is coterminous with the Ethereal, and usurps interstitial positioning! Devils in Hell, her very essence subverts the mathematics of trans-dimensional migration! A crushing gloom threatened his will. We . . . we cannot triumph here . . . .

Gloriana took more of Abby’s and now Lem’s pain, and then she glanced at the westernmost building. All those inside had gathered at the second floor windows in helpless terror. Black Magga might at any moment shift weight, or whip a tentacle, and tumble the structure into ruin. The inhabitants’ surrender suddenly kindled in the oracle a righteous anger. She howled at the villagers inside. “Get the fuck out of the building! If you can swim, swim!”

Reaching deep within herself, Gloriana extended her magic of protection to envelop Kara some seventy feet above. It was a desperate move requiring much of her magical reserve, and even as she felt the spell wash over the alchemist at that distance she knew it had failed.13

Her bitterness was hard as mountain stone. “It didn’t work, Rahab!”

••••

But now it was the gardener’s turn, and he was a dynamic whir of blades against rubbery flesh. His first great slice struck something important just below the surface of the thing, some sac of vitality containing a viscous fluid necessary to Black Magga’s being. The stuff burst on him in a gout, a foulness and reek like no other, putting to shame even the powerful stench of the ghouls he hated above all other undead. The taste of it was in his mouth, the slime of it coated his skin, the sticky vitriol of it turned his brilliant black hair blue-gray.

Yet his blade bit deep, indeed, and the ichor slurped and spurted into the water where it coalesced in globules the size of wine barrels, bobbing grotesquely.

“Slimefucker!” Lem howled at the mass, and then watched in amazement as Black Magga began to withdraw. So stunned by this turn was he that the gardener almost missed an opportunity to cut the monster again, but cut he did, slicing a single shuddering sucker tip from a tentacle and staring in horror as the ring of flesh slunk jelly-like into the lake.14

Stinking sheen of blue-green clouded Claybottom Lake with milky effluvium as the mother of oblivion submerged and moved away to the south. Fish and waterfowl fled in all directions.

Rahab watched in stunned silence, flying down thirty feet closer to his companions, unable to account for the monster’s removal, save perhaps that the creature had decided to seek easier prey elsewhere. He guessed that would mean doom for some settlement further down the lake, or along the Skull River into Lake Syrantula.

Above him, Kara suddenly shook her head and snapped out of the monster’s magic. She held her elevation, eager for a target, her heart pounding and emotion seething within, equal parts rage and fear. Her own will had been usurped by the power of another. The violation felt profound.

Standing atop the rising lake Abby babbled incoherently.15

••••

Kara, Rahab, and Lem remained airborne for a couple of minutes, scouting for sign of the mother of oblivion’s return, but saw nothing save the bloated body of a single ogre washing from the Skull River into the lake to the north. Abby’s senses returned when the magic of confusion faded, and Gloriana used her power to channel healing and restore the warrior and Lem to full vitality.

It was another twenty minutes to escort to safety the last remaining villagers trapped in the westernmost building and elsewhere on rooftops. Gloriana had retrieved Marigold and rode back and forth on the water-walking horse to ferry persons ashore. Rahab helped with the use of dimensional traversal, and pretty much everyone agreed they would rather have gone with Gloriana.

••••

While Kara and Lem headed to inspect where the ogre body had washed into an eddy, Rahab landed beside Abby on a hill overlooking that portion of the village that remained clear of lake water. For the time being it appeared that the level had stopped rising, though much flooding remained. As Gloriana arrived below with the last rescued villager, the gathered survivors of Turtleback Ferry erupted in a chorus of cheers. Tossed hats scattered in the air. Applause and tears of joy resounded from all assembled, and already her name had become a chant: “Glori! Glori! Glori!”

Abby looked down at the jubilant celebration and her shoulders sank. “Of course,” she quietly shook her head.

Rahab glanced over.

“Abby, my friend,” said the conjurer, and he threw a sympathetic arm around her shoulder, “worship is a condition that diminishes both the worshiper and the worshiped.”

After a while Abby said, “They love Glo.”

“They think they love Gloriana.”

Abby decided not to lock philosophical horns with Rahab just then and let that pass. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“What bothers me is that it doesn’t bother Gloriana more. Recall that some of these are the same villagers who elected to relinquish whatever power lies in their greed to feed Lucrecia and Xanesha’s master, which is how all this got started . . . for us, anyway. They’re happy to be alive—a perfectly reasonable sentiment—and it’s always easy to turn to the beautiful in thanks, in hopes of catching beauty’s attention.”

“Glo is more than that.”

“Exactly.”

Another silence. Eventually Abby turned to the wizard. “That’s what you meant: ‘They think they love Gloriana.’”

Rahab had kept a supportive arm around Abby the whole time. His own gaze lingered on the oracle making her way among the villagers to see after their health, all the while trying to politely maneuver through those that mobbed her.

“They’re in love with the idea, with the vision of the golden woman on the waterborne horse.”

“They don’t know her like we do,” Abby murmured. The conjurer nodded.

Another long silence passed between them. Finally the warrior reached her own arm out to encircle Rahab’s shoulder in turn.

“That little girl seemed to appreciate you.”

Rahab looked pleased. “She will be a powerful wizard someday. Mark my words.”

Abby laughed. Arm in arm, they made their way down the hill toward the cheering.


1 The party leveled up to 9th overnight at the fortress after the battle. Having written an interlude for every member to mark some previous levels, I am electing, for now, to make a footnote observing advancement. It may be that I resume interludes at points that seem narratively relevant, but time will tell. Highlights this time around: Lem’s sneak attack advanced and he and Abby took the Outflank feat. Kara discovered an extract called Infusion, allowing extracts to be used by others. Gloriana’s channel ability advanced and she took the Toppling Spell feat. Rahab got 5th level spells: teleport and wall of force. He also got the Augment Summoning feat. 9th level is a good one.

2 Scroll of water walk.

3 Magic is nice in that if you have to explain something that utterly defies the laws of physics, like electricity not running wild in the water, you can just say, “Magic!”

4 Nightbelly boa constrictor.

5 Another day, another Abby critical hit (40 points of damage).

6 Lem’s Diplomacy check with the frightened children was not bad for someone with . . . less-than-cordial sentiment about humans.

7 Ok. I’m really proud of this use of dimensional steps. It’s great in battle, eminently useful, but I love gaming moments where it gets used in non-battle or unconventional circumstances, and I was really pleased with Rahab being able to help out (it’s also possible he was showing off. A bit).

8 Abby rolled a 25 on her Will save . . . and still failed. She suffered 2 points of Wisdom damage and became confused as the spell of the same name for 5 rounds. We were off to a great start.

9 Abby’s attack was a critical hit for 30 points, and luckily the magic of her sword bypassed the mother of oblivion’s damage reduction, but in turn, Abby got hit by an Attack of Opportunity for 42 points of damage, almost half of her hit points in a single strike.

10 Dominate person spell and Kara’s Will save was terrible, and so was the follow up roll from the spent Hero point. For those keeping track at home, so far the only two party members who have affected the mother of oblivion in any way have now been impeded by significant spells.

11 Glo cast a Reach Spell of bestow curse and watched as Black Magga’s spell resistance completely defeated the magic.

12 Damage all over the place. Lem got hit for 34 points, Abby for another 24 and requiring a Fortitude save to resist energy drain, which she made, but the warrior was in bad shape regardless. In retrospect, I suppose this fight is designed to remind the players that sometimes you have to flee.

13 Reach Spell of protection from evil to give Kara a new save against dominate person at a +2 bonus! Yay! . . . Kara rolled a 12.

14 Lem had a big moment here. His first attack hit for 23 points (including sneak attack) and establishing a 4 point bleed. Black Magga started her turn by bleeding that 4 points, and elected to withdraw. This presented Lem with an Attack of Opportunity, successful for another 15 points.

15 At least she was no longer hitting herself with her own weapons.

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Book IV, Chapter 13: Aftermath
Scenes Of Devastation

Silence fell on Fort Rannick broken only by the soft rustle of rain in the yard.

••••

Abby and Gloriana embraced in mutual gratitude, deep affection, exhausted support. They passed no words, the effort too much to muster, the act too insignificant to capture the moment. So drenched in sweat and blood were they that neither could feel the gentle fall of the other’s tears on her neck.

Rahab watched them in silence, struck dumb by how profoundly glad he was that oracle and warrior lived. The crushing cost of so much magic, so much battle, and so much pain overcame him, and as he leaned against the wall he closed his eyes against the soft blurring in his vision.

The power of flight delicately suspended Kara in mid-air as lightly as a dandelion aloft on a breeze. She found the hazy middle distance most welcome, that range of sight where haunted images could only hint at the margins, where the mind could capture precious respite from experience.

Lem remained near the main door. He had meant to track the retreat of the few remaining ogres, but his eyes had quickly glazed. Endurance ebbed. As he lowered himself to a clear stretch of stone he felt a pang of melancholy that, just then, he lacked a small plot of good soil with blooms awaiting inspection and an ale to measure sunset.

They remained like that for a long time.

••••

When the magic of the pit restored the floor Vale got slowly, painfully to his feet, then shuffled gingerly past ogre corpses and around the corner to join the others. Kara descended from flight at elixir’s end.

Slowly they found their voices. “Thank you” and “Are you well?” gave way to “I don’t believe it” and “Did you see that?” Gloriana embraced each of her companions in turn, then did it again. Kara and Rahab joined adand1 and shared quiet words in Elven, the language itself a kind of dirge for a fallen friend. Abby lifted Lem off the ground in a bear hug, then favored Vale with a smile. Everyone ventured into the rain to escape the battle stench and to feel something clean on their skin.

In the milling and mingling Lem and Rahab met. They passed a cautious silence, and then slowly shook hands with a single, approving nod.

“Not bad, for a human.”2

The wizard cracked a genuine smile. It was enough.

••••

Back inside Gloriana used the last healing wand, a procedure that drained the device entirely.3 They assembled at the corner of the hallway to confer and plan, but once again found themselves gazing at the fortress interior in silence.

The hallway was a ruin: Ogre corpses strewn like wreckage in the hurricane’s wake. Here lay a severed arm, there a leg, there a head. The floor was sticky with blood, the walls were splattered with gore. Fallen weapons and spent ammunition canted at angles of aftermath. Lingering smolder wisped thin smokes into the air. They found the remains of Shelalu, Jakardros, and the mountain lion and removed them to the entry, away from the carnage of brutes. Linens from storage served as shrouds.

“We should search the rest of the grounds,” Gloriana said quietly.

“They’re gone,” answered Lem.

“All the same, we might find . . . we need to know what happened.”

Vale’s face was grim, haunted. “No.”

Rahab was uncharacteristically subdued. “Better to know.”

Bitterness in the big man’s voice like a great weight: “Is it?”

The conjurer glanced at a soft drape of linen outlining form in repose, a stark white amidst all that bloody mess. “Yes,” he said quietly.

“You search,” Abby nodded to the others. “I’ll get started on some clean up.”

Vale fell silent and went back outside.

Gloriana watched the man leave and turned to her companions, laying a hand each on Kara’s and Rahab’s forearm. “I’ll stay with him for a while and catch up later. Stay together. Stay safe.” She moved to follow The Black Arrow.

Lem exhaled slowly. “I assume we’re here for the night?”

“We’re not going anywhere in present condition,” replied the alchemist.

Rahab nodded down the hall “Start here, work our way up.” He and Kara began picking their way carefully around the slaughter.

The gardener lingered a moment, hands on hips, staring. He gave a low whistle. “Chaldira’s teeth,” he marveled. “We do good work.”

••••

In room after room more recent carnage had been applied to previously existing indignities. Again and again they found craftwork made kindling: furniture, tapestry, weapons, tools. In the chamber where Gragavan Kreeg died the walls were awash in the ogre’s poetry scrawled crudely in the blood of Black Arrows. Rahab declined to translate.

The eastern portion of the hall was divided into multiple guest rooms that might be temporarily reclaimed. It would not be luxury, but these chambers had only suffered damage where other areas had been places of butchery. Some type of bedding could be recovered for a night’s rest, at least.

Gloriana caught up with Kara, Lem, and Rahab on the first floor.

“He has lost much,” the oracle answered the unvoiced question, “but he is hardy. He needs time. What have you found?”

By way of reply Rahab opened a door into the corner tower revealing the former chapel. A marble altar had been heaped with six human corpses, and it was not entirely clear that lower bodies matched upper. From trophy antlers on the walls hung organs or sections of flayed human skin. Stag points were corked with eyeballs or severed heads. A crude painting in blood on the altar wall suggested a vaguely canine visage with three stylized eyes.

Silence. The wizard closed the door.

••••

After a rest to recover some of her impressive strength, Abby methodically hauled ogre bodies—and body parts—into the yard and collected them in a pile. It was grim work; nevertheless she found a certain meditative calm in trudging back and forth, in the slow creep of progress. The horrors of the fortress interior remained, of course, but at least some of the areas were clearer. She had no illusion, however, that any real improvement had occurred. It would take weeks, perhaps months to restore fortress integrity and render it habitable for a defense force again, if one could even be mustered.

When she finished the warrior stood in the rain a while and let it soak her hacked hair. Then she used her dagger to slowly, carefully shave the rest of her head. It was just easier that way.

••••

Not all was horror. The companions looted multiple items of magic and treasure from the ogres, things that would go a long way to restoring much consumed or lost during the assault, or to augment their already worthy arsenal.4

In one of the upper rooms they found a smashed wine cabinet that had a hidden compartment containing a wooden coffer, a pair of soft leather boots in olive green, and a tiny jewelry box.

Lem examined the containers, and finding no traps, skillfully unlocked each using tools from his kit. The coffer held dozens of parchment sheets. Gloriana grabbed a handful and passed them to Rahab, then another to Kara. Wizard and alchemist set to reading.

“Sonnets,” observed Rahab with a measure of surprise. “Love poems written by Lamatar Bayden to someone named Myriana. Not bad, actually.”

“Lamatar?” Gloriana puzzled. “I’ve heard that name, in the tavern in Turtleback Ferry. Who is it?”

“Lamatar Bayden is —was, perhaps—the captain of The Black Arrows.”

Kara was curious. “Not Jakardros?”

The conjurer shook his head. “A platoon leader, I suppose. No, the commander of The Black Arrows has been Bayden for some five years, at least.”

Gloriana was cautious. “Have we . . . ?”

“I do not know,” Rahab said. “We would have to ask Vale. It will be difficult, as the bodies of The Black Arrows have suffered significant destruction.” Gloriana found herself silently wishing that the keep’s defenders had all died before the butchery had begun, and then haunted by the likelihood that they had not.

“And this ‘Myriana?’” asked the oracle.

The wizard lingered over some of the poems for a while, silently scrutinizing. “Uncertain, but I gather she resides in Whitewillow, or is somehow associated with that place. The sonnets may be a clue to Bayden’s movements. He seems to have visited there often. His boots,” and Rahab glanced at the olive green footwear, “are ensorcelled to make movement easier in swampy environments.5 He probably uses those to traverse Whitewillow and it’s environs.”

“What is Whitewillow?”

“A section of the Shimmerglens—dense marshland—on the far side of Claybottom Lake.” The wizard scratched absently at his goatee. “Interesting, given the nature of the place.”

“What do you mean?”

Rahab returned the parchments to the coffer. “The Shimmerglens are a region of Varisia particularly close—for lack of a better word—to The First World. Few enough venture to such locations without very good reason, fewer still of insufficient power to handle the magic potency of such places.”

Kara made a low sound of amazement. Gloriana looked back and forth between alchemist and wizard: “What is The First World?”

Kara nodded at Rahab. “This is your area of expertise.”

The conjurer expertly gauged Gloriana’s expression. “Just a summary, then, shall I? The First World is an atavism, a proto-generative plane primarily characterized by chaos, though with an emphasis on forested and mountainous regions. Think of it as a world in which the chaos of what we abruptly call ‘nature’ manifests in constant dynamism. Coterminous with both the Prime Material and Shadow planes, some lore holds The First World is an experiment by gods in early planar architecture, though the temporal problem of such characterization presents glaringly, of course. It is inhabited primarily by fey.”

“Is it evil?”

“In the interest of avoiding extended debate . . . No. Not as you tend to understand the concept.”

The oracle thought long. “Is it dangerous?”

“Exceedingly.” The conjurer nodded approvingly. “A much better conceptual question, by the way.”

“Then what was Bayden doing there?”

When Lem interjected it took everyone by surprise. He had opened the small jewelry box and discovered a silver locket, and within that a lock of silky hair the color of dense storm cloud.

“A nymph,” the gardener murmured.6

••••

Kara was appreciative. “Lem’s right. That is nymph hair.”7

“How can you tell?” Gloriana asked.

“Note the strangeness of it,” the alchemist nodded at the lock in Lem’s hand. “It has an allure, does it not? Something that draws the eye?”

“It’s beautiful,” the oracle murmured.

“Just so. I feel it, as surely as do Lem and Rahab. It is difficult to express, some yearning to touch the softness, to envelop one’s self as though in a welcome coat on a winter morning. That is the power of the nymph, an echo of the First World.”

The oracle’s voice sounded far away, lost in memory. “The children of the forest. Camp elders always warned us not to stray too far into the woods unattended in our youth.”

“Your elders were wise, for the power of the nymph is considerable.”

“Do you think she was helping Bayden against the region’s ogres?”

The wizard rejoined the discussion. “Given the sonnets, I think it far more likely he was merely under her power—”

“In love,” interjected Kara.

With significant force of will the conjurer mastered the urge to expound. “Regardless—”

“It’s possible.”

Rahab seemed frozen until he eventually blinked. “Very well. I allow it is possible the emotion was genuine—mutual, even—but that does not necessarily mean they were allied.”

“Perhaps,” Gloriana considered, “Bayden was away at the time of the invasion. He may be unaware of what has transpired here.”

“Again: possible.”

The oracle’s expression brightened momentarily. “He may be safe with Myriana!”

Lem, Kara, and Rahab exchanged a glance. “For various values of ‘safe,’” the wizard commented.

••••

They found a map room with multiple examples of the form in good condition. Rahab took some choice works and secured them in a map case that he slung alongside his haversack.

“Those belong to The Black Arrows,” Gloriana scolded.

“What Black Arrows?” The conjurer glanced around pointedly.

“Rahab.”

“I will consign these excellent pieces neither to predation nor neglect. The most responsible thing to do is take them.”

“That’s stealing!”

“That is archival preservation of knowledge. Should The Black Arrows somehow rally from what appears to be complete and utter desolation, and should they demand the return of maps that aren’t even of this region then I will consider any offers they make, weighed against the counter-proposal that I helped retake that which they demonstrated themselves unable to defend in the first place.”

Gloriana suddenly felt very tired and her voice sank to a near-whisper. “Do you think they’re really all gone?”

“I see nothing to suggest otherwise. Vale is the last, I think. A thing happened that has not transpired in some generations: Ogres organized in concerted effort at the behest of some other power, perhaps the lamia matriarch, perhaps her superiors. There is something much greater at work. I suspect Fort Rannick was simply in the way.”

The oracle ran her hands wearily through her golden hair.

••••

They found the uppermost chamber in the principal watchtower. The clapper in the alarm bell had been torn free and used as a bludgeon, then replaced with the corpse of a Black Arrow.

They found the long ascent to the giant eagle aerie within the north cliff wall. At the summit lay bits of eggshell, feathers, blood. One giant eagle corpse had been left, and Kara guessed the ogres ate the others. Those birds not slaughtered outright had probably fled, longstanding allies of The Black Arrows dispersed to the wilds from whence they came so many generations ago.

They found the curtain wall variously damaged and populated with the occasional body. The perimeter towers showed likewise, as did the outbuildings in the yard.

••••

While the others explored further, Rahab perused the list of names recovered from Lucrecia. Some of the names the wizard knew to be residents of Turtleback Ferry. Pieces of the puzzle had begun to link: old Thassilon, runes, the lamia matriarchs, Magnimar, this region, the concept of greed. He still did not know all that was going on, but felt certain that a force much greater than mere ogres lay behind it, moving pieces as a master enthroned at the chess board. Many questions remained unanswered, not least of which was just who were the wizard and his friends: pieces, observers, or the opponent?

••••

After another rest, Abby began helping Vale with Black Arrows, assembling a separate pyre from the brutes. Vale indicated that a crypt had been present since the early days, but that as long as he had been a member the organization chose the pyre for funerary rites. The big man insisted that Kaven’s body be rendered with The Black Arrows and not the ogres, and if any among them had objection they did not raise it.

Gloriana directed a third, separate pyre be erected for Shelalu, Jakardros, and the cat. With Vale’s blessing, the party took those useful items of magic,8 and Rahab made certain to rescue Shelalu’s locket, silently vowing to return the item to the Mierani some day.

Extra oil from storage was poured on furniture wreckage kindling. When the pyres were finally lit, they burned for days.

••••

“Captain Bayden’s alive?” Vale looked shocked.

“We don’t know,” cautioned Gloriana. “We intend to find out.”

“He is a great man. He could lead the rebuilding! Many would join him.”

“One thing at a time. What can you tell us about him?”

“He would never have allowed the fortress to fall. I assumed he had died early in the assault, and with him the spirit to hold against the ogres.”

“Did he ever leave?”

“Fort Rannick? Of course. Scouting. Interceptions. Supply in Turtleback Ferry. He often roamed the area.”

The oracle looked keen. “Roamed?”

“He would travel in the region. He called it ‘communing.’ Said it made him closer to the realm he was charged to guard.”

“And the far side of Claybottom Lake? Did his communing ever take him there?”

“The Shimmerglens? I guess.” Vale shrugged. “He always went alone.”

“How often did he venture?”

“Once a month, at least, gone for a week, usually. Do you think he was away when the ogres came?”

Gloriana laid a sympathetic hand on the big man’s shoulder. “If he still lives, we will find him.”

••••

Vale elected to bunk in one of the curtain wall towers least affected by the ogre presence. He was about to lie upon the makeshift pallet he had assembled when the door opened to the rain. Turning, he saw Abby.

The warrior walked straight up to him, her eyes never wavering. Vale started to say something, but she took his hand wordlessly. Then she kicked the door closed behind her and got down to the serious business of celebrating how good it felt to be alive.


1 Translated from Elven: greeting. Literally the word is “contact;” in this case it refers to an elven cultural tradition similar to shaking hands or bowing. Both parties touch palms with the elder or more respected person palms down, the younger or less established person palms up. Then both parties lean together and touch foreheads with eyes closed. Length of time in contact indicates the amount of formal respect and recognition between individuals, and participants may exchange words and phrases of emotional resonance pertinent to the individuals. Elves do hug, but the gesture occurs among lovers as prelude to, and during, sexual intimacy. Those elves that befriend other races among whom embracing has broader contexts learn to recognize the hug as a gesture that can mean friendship, attraction, familial connection, and simple joy. Kara is long since accustomed to Gloriana’s penchant for embracing, for example. In this instance, Rahab is actually making a gesture of significant respect to his friend by recognizing her cultural norm instead of presuming his own. “The wizard?” I hear you say. Yes. The battle at Fort Rannick was intense and profound, so much so that even an arrogant ass could not come away from the experience unchanged. Rahab isn’t reversing. It’s probably more accurate to describe it as deepening.

2 Is there a part of that movie that isn’t quotable?

3 The very last wand of cure light wounds completely drained for 109 points, mostly to Abby, with the remainder for Vale and Glo.

4 There was a lot of loot. Rather than go into all of it here, I’ll mention some highlights: handy haversack, wand of acid arrow, belt of giant strength +2. We kept some items, sold others. We also found a magical book with a Sihedron symbol on the cover. More on that later. Much more.

5 Boots of the mire.

6 Lem’s primary occupation as a rog—sorry, gardener— is supplemented with a few levels of ranger. His Knowledge: Nature roll came up quite good.

7 Of course, Kara’s Knowledge: Nature roll also tends to be really good, too.

8 This included things like Jakardros +1 shocking composite longbow, now back in Kara’s possession.

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