At the top of the stairs the ground flattened in a broad, rubble-dotted shelf running roughly southeast to northwest, but within twelve miles the expanse abutted a fierce range of sharp, snow-capped mountains that dominated the eastern horizon. The air felt more arid, while frequent winds gusted heartily, whipping cloaks and rattling sand across Abby’s shield. Still early morning, the sun had not yet lofted the mountain range, and the companions shivered in the shadowed chill.
“Which way?” Gloriana’s teeth chattered as she tried to tie her golden hair out of her eyes. Kara struggled to do the same.
Rahab scanned the range, squinting against the gusts. “Northeast.”
Abby frowned. “Into the mountains?”
The wizard nodded. “Do you recognize them?”
“Huh?” Everyone looked at the conjurer.
Rahab swept one arm dramatically in front of him. “Behold The Iron Peaks! You have seen them before, from the other side. Due east some fifty or so miles is the great, chill Storval Deep.” He turned his gaze southeast. “And if you made your way some sixty or seventy miles directly that way you would come to Hook Mountain, and beyond Skull’s Crossing, the Kreegwood, Fort Rannick . . . .” He trailed off.
Lem lifted his hands to his head. “You mean we’re back where we came from?”
“Albeit separated by two months’ time and a mountain range the area of the Churlwood.”
“Why didn’t we just teleport to Fort Rannick and set out from there?” the gardener fumed.
Kara pursed her lips. “Because we started in pursuit of the giants, in hopes of catching them before Ember Lake.”
“Alright,” Gloriana said, “Enough! Complaints about how we have proceeded thus far should be directed to me. I was the one that thought we might catch them before Jorgenfist. I was wrong.”
Lem turned to Rahab. “Do you at least know where we are going from here?”
“A shelf valley overlooking the Muschkal River.”
The oracle looked grim. “What was it Teraktinus said . . . ?”
“The Valley of the Black Tower.”
Abby frowned. “Places with names like that are never nice to visit, are they?”
They found a trail winding northeast into the mountains. On the third day they came over a pass that looked upon a wide valley below the snowline. To the southeast a line of cliffs fell to the waters of the Muschkal. At the western edge of the valley loomed a lone watchtower atop a small hill. Beyond that the trail wound down onto the windswept basin where seven large camps had been erected with all manner of tent, yurt, and crudely assembled stone shelter. Smokes rose and drifted wildly on the air, and many figures moved about, including ogres and stone giants.
At the heart of the valley, a thousand feet from the pass, stood a massive ring wall of stone fifty feet high and linking six towers. Four were crowned with conical roofs, while the fifth was a wider rectangle housing a great gate at the base. The sixth tower was the mightiest. The one for which the valley was named, the massive, buttressed spire of black stone soared twice the height of any other fortress feature and was adorned with crenellations like the knife blades of some grim god. Within the walls stood three separate buildings as well as a smooth, conical stone spire that came to a point a hundred or more feet from the ground, as if the land had sprouted an earthen thorn.
Kara seemed dazed. “By the Brightness . . . .” Suddenly the alchemist wheeled her mount. “We must find a place to camp. To proceed without magic or cover of darkness would be suicide.” Without waiting she spurred her horse along the southwestern rise of the pass, looking for suitable refuge. The others followed.
They located a small box canyon where the horses would remain out of sight and protected against the elements, and where the party could safely kindle a campfire while waiting to move. After unsaddling the animals and setting a rope at the canyon mouth, they sat around the fire for warmth and to converse. The wind whistled through the upper walls in near constant chorus. Lem worried that it would be difficult to hear anything coming, but there was nothing for it.
Kara held court. Her knowledge of giants was the most extensive among the group, and she had much to say.
“Something that has troubled me since Hook Mountain is the simple presence of stone giants in this mystery. Many giant races readily make war, but the stone-kin tend to milder disposition. They share much in common with the substance to which they feel affinity. Resolute, sturdy, deliberate, stolid: Many qualities we might ascribe to the rocks reflect in stone giant behavior, existence, way of life. While they may rouse to defend themselves quite capably, they typically show insularity and reservation. In all my knowledge of the lore compiled by elves I have never known stone giants to band for concerted war against other groups.”
Rahab drew the hood of his cloak against the wind. “If what we have begun to see is anomaly, it likely owes to some impulse external to the stone giants, then?”
Kara nodded. “An army of stone giants is unprecedented. What you saw from the top of the pass is unrecorded, certainly among the elves, and if my people do not know of it I find it hard to imagine it present in the lore of others.”
The wizard made a mental note to debate historiography at another time.
Lem raised an important point. “There was more than just stone giants in that valley, though, and we’ve fought hill giants, ogres, trolls, and even ettins to reach this point.”
“Indeed,” the alchemist agreed, “but that only makes the circumstances all the more strange. The warlike tendencies of ogres, trolls, and hill giants are unusual cultural features to attract stone giants. I mark stone giants cooperating with other giant-kin— especially on the scale in that valley—as more evidence that a larger force is at work, not less.”
Now Gloriana joined the discussion. “Mokmurian?”
“Another anomaly,” sighed Kara. The alchemist addressed Rahab specifically. “First the necromancer at Hook Mountain, and now another stone giant that practices wizardry? Have you ever heard of such a thing? Divine magic, certainly. Stone giants have ancient shamanistic traditions, and even birth the occasional sorcerer. But wizardry? The mental discipline alone demands too much dynamic perception and ascension. Stone giants are not stupid, but they are not known for the intellectual gravity required to sustain wizardry.”
Rahab stroked his goatee. Escher nuzzled out of pocket and settled in the wizard’s palm, then leaned contentedly into the proffered thumb scratching along jaw and ear line. The conjurer drew a deep breath. “Suggesting not only oddity of forces, but also triangulating somewhat on Mokmurian’s position.”
“How do you mean?” Gloriana leaned forward. Kara was nodding enthusiastically.
“Yes!” said the alchemist. “Mokmurian is no doubt a significant leader. The valley below testifies to that. But it would take an even greater power, indeed, to raise up a wizard from among stone giant culture, to have orchestrated the circumstances and directed the forces necessary for such a figure not only to achieve taboo power, but also to assume a place of leadership potent enough to send raids from the Storval Plateau to the gulf coast. By the Brightness! Forays into the uplands is one thing, but to organize and reach Sandpoint? Astonishing!”
A vision flashed in Rahab’s mind, countenance at the end of a scrying conduit: A grim figure bearing a glaive, flickering image underneath Thistletop Fortress, stair ward in stone at the base of the Storval Plateau. The wizard’s thoughts raced, and the voice of a vanquished devil screamed a single name at the end of every corridor in his mind: Karzoug.
“Wait,” Abby leaned an elbow on one knee and lifted her index finger, “are you saying Mokmurian would not have sought to become a wizard on his own?”
Kara and Rahab shook their heads simultaneously. The alchemist continued:
“It’s not that Mokmurian—or any stone giant, for that matter—has no agency of individual identity. He may very well have sought to penetrate the depths of arcanistry, even against the wishes of his tribe, but to achieve potential would require initial tutelage.” Kara looked to Rahab for confirmation, and the wizard nodded agreement. The alchemist resumed: “Sorcerers are born. Part of their power comes from intuition. They feel their way through magic. Wizards are made. They must seize the cosmos and tear its secrets free through effort, will, practice, endeavor, exploration, experimentation, even failure. Sorcerers are more spontaneous, but in the long term wizards have broader, deeper wells of power. No one works as hard to understand the cosmos than a wizard.”
Abby, Gloriana, and Lem looked at Rahab, and for a moment felt like they were seeing him for the first time. The conjurer seemed unusually subdued, absorbed in paying attention to Escher.
“Once on the path, the wizard’s only limitation is personal impulse,” Kara elaborated. “But that path begins by studying under another. Mokmurian must have been introduced to arcane potential, and then had to overcome the other facets of stone giant culture that stand in the way of such endeavor. The point of all this is that Mokmurian had help, the kind that can generate compulsion for reclusive stone giants to organize with others for war. When we first reached the Kreegwood I thought it strange that ogres—who are brutally chaotic—had similarly organized. How little I anticipated the scope yet to come.”
“But there was a lamia matriarch leading at Fort Rannick,” observed Lem.
“Yet more evidence in support of outside influence,” Kara reflected.
The gardener pursued. “So, there may be something like a lamia matriarch at this Jorgenfist place.”
“Certainly a possibility, perhaps in aid of Mokmurian, or as adjunct in some other capacity.”
“But,” Lem jerked a thumb over his shoulder, “you don’t think a lamia matriarch is behind all this, I mean.”
“I doubt it. Such a creature would have to be significantly advanced, indeed. We were not the same people we are now when we fought Xanesha in the Shadow Clock, nor Lucrecia at Fort Rannick.”
The gardener considered this, and nodded.
Gloriana recalled something. “The stone giant bodyguard in the raid said there was something important about Jorgenfist and this valley. Something about old magic and blasphemy.”
“I suspect this is where my knowledge makes way for Rahab’s,” answered Kara. The companions turned to the wizard again. He still cradled Escher.
“I can tell you what little I know from scholarship, though much of it remains speculative. There is a markedly disconcerting lack of verified information about the Storval Plateau broadly, and specific locales within, beyond geographic knowledge. I suspect that owes to historical fallout from the decline and collapse of Thassilon.” Rahab sighed. The name alone made him weary now. No culture that left artifacts—even an archaic one—could remain utter mystery, and yet somehow the world knew nothing of this strange place and its strange magic, save one who aspired to the title “sage,” but who made home in a quaint village with little access to records, or resources, or relevance, and who obfuscated more than he revealed. For a moment the conjurer entertained the possibility that Quink was actually an agent for whatever was behind all that had happened, happily interfering at nearly every turn under the guise of guidance, his capture a ruse. The thought warranted further examination. He helped Escher back into his robe pocket and then pinched the bridge of his nose as though to rouse against a weariness or discomfort.
“The mystery of the valley is very old,” Rahab resumed, “though how old is unknown. Supposedly an ancient creature dwells somewhere within. Some references suggest the creature is undead.”
There was a pause broken only by the moaning winds.
Abby spread her hands. “That’s it?”
The conjurer met his friend’s gaze. “That’s it. Frustrating, isn’t it?”
After further deliberation they decided to move after dark and attempt an assault on the western watchtower. It was less likely to have a significant force, and seizing it might provide a clearer sense of the strength arrayed in the valley as well as possible approaches to the fortress. If their effort deteriorated too dramatically, they could always flee, regroup, and contemplate alternative strategy.
Gloriana used her orison to create a large pool in a shaded area of the box canyon where evaporation would be slower, ensuring the horses had substantial water to drink while the party was gone.
Just before sunset they started out on foot for the pass.
Under invisibility and the power of flight Kara scouted the watchtower. She returned to report at least four hill giants present: two within, two on guard just outside the doorway. There was also a fire in front of the tower that could easily be kindled as a signal to the valley. Further, a taiga giant had wandered down into the camps where a revel of some kind was underway before the fortress walls. The chants and shouts of giant-kin swelled and faded, and many forms moved among the campfires dotting the valley floor. From their vantage at the pass it was roughly five hundred feet south to the watchtower, and the wind snapped their cloaks about their bodies with the ferocity of a drover’s whip.
After relaying her observations the alchemist took flight again and headed for the tower. Gloriana and Rahab took half a minute to prepare their spell cocktail for the party, including a communal abjuration against fire damage, and then the wizard stepped behind the dimensions, transporting his companions instantaneously to the watchtower base.
The first thing Rahab noticed was the blank expressions on the faces of the hill giants standing guard. Then he saw the runes: glowing blue shapes carved directly into the brutes’ flesh. One of the most prominent symbols was an unmistakable seven-pointed star. When the wizard launched an acid dart into the nearest monster the magic scored a hissing, bubbling wound.
The hill giant’s vacant expression never changed.
Lem danced behind one of the monsters and put his knives to work. There was a great deal of blood. Abby stepped up, ran her sword through the giant’s gullet, then slammed Avenger against the body. The figure crumpled, sliding off the length of her sword. It never made a sound or showed any reaction at all.
Gloriana conjured water again in the air over the signal fire, twenty-two gallons of liquid drenching the spot and extinguishing flames. A gout of white smoke began to billow, so she cast the orison again, dispersing vapors with a cloudless, extremely localized rainfall.
Rahab repositioned himself for a better line of sight and launched another caustic dart into the second hill giant guard. Acrid sizzling filled the air, augmented a second later as a grenado fell from the sky and burst with a shatter-glass blossom of lightning. Lem moved and cut; then Abby ripped a gaping furrow from left shoulder to right hip that spilled the brute’s innards onto the ground in a messy squelch. The hulking body fell over.
For a brief moment there was no other movement or sound, then the stout wooden door at the ground floor tower entrance hauled open. Three more hill giants stood within, expressions as hollow as the others, until the pale blue glow of their runes suddenly flared. When the monsters moved their speed was frightening.
Rahab recognized the hasting magic’s effect, but realized the source of the improvement had something to do with the carven runes instead of a traditional spell, grounding the power innately rather than actualizing it as transmission via independent locus. One of the giants reached Abby in a blur, but the warrior ducked beneath the mighty swing of a club. The other two moved with equal alacrity, and Rahab was not as lucky. The impact was appreciable.
The wizard translated the dimensions forty-five feet away. Kara rained more grenadoes down upon the new opponents, and Gloriana’s vitality link began to siphon the wizard’s injury slowly. The oracle called a column of gilded flame upon two of the brutes clustered closely near Abby, and great blisters erupted on the rune-covered bodies. The penetrating heat of the magic forced Abby back, and her attacks suffered as a result.
Lem had waited for the full roar of the flames to vanish before darting in and beginning to carve. The giant he threatened turned and brought his club down upon the gardener in two crushing blows. Lem staggered. The second giant slammed into Abby with a brace of strikes, as well, and the warrior felt battered in her armor. The third monster, still smoking from the oracle’s magic, pushed past the others and attacked Gloriana. Despite the magic coursing through the runes on their skin, the giants’ vacant, emotionless expressions never changed.
Rahab attempted to dispel the magic augmenting the giants, but the wizard’s incantation had no effect. He cursed. From her vantage overhead Kara quickly glanced at the valley. The last few seconds had seen more than enough fire and smoke to alert any observant creatures below, but the alchemist detected no change. The revel remained in full effect. She refocused, drifted in flight, and hurled a bomb at one of the giants. Electricity flared and jumped.
Stepping back, Gloriana made some space and summoned a ghost warrior from the realm of the spirits. The misty, golden form appeared opposite Lem and cut a deep wound into one of the monsters. The gardener capitalized on the opportunity and went into a dazzling display of knife fighting. Severed hamstrings brought the giant to its knees. Lem leapt onto the brute’s torso, stabbed a knife into flesh for a handhold, then thrust his other blade straight up. Steel penetrated jowls, powered through both palates, and drove into the base of the brain. The gardener alighted from the toppling corpse almost casually.
Abby killed the next giant with a powerful shield slam and a brutal sword slash. When the warrior turned she saw the third combatant hammer Gloriana with a mighty blow. The oracle was lifted off her feet and thrown into the dust where she lay, motionless. The spirit warrior suddenly stood stiffly, scimitar whipped upright against the shoulder at attention.
The sensation within Rahab was like sudden frost glazing water, and still his towering intellect refused to relinquish preeminence.
This is panic. I am panicking right now. This will affect my decision making, sensory perception, fine motor control. It feels like there is no time, but I need to remember that there is time. I have time.
The wizard stepped behind the dimensions.
Kara saw Gloriana fall and the image set the alchemist trembling even as she threw her next bomb. Horror magnified tenfold as she watched the tumbling spheroid sail past the giant and land almost on top of the oracle’s body before shattering on a nearby rock. The fulminating blaze spilled harmlessly into the dirt. Kara concentrated desperately, and executed the second attack with better aim. Fire poured over the giant.
Abby howled and charged the brute, exposing herself to attack. A dense length of wood slammed into the warrior’s torso, but in her rage she ignored the blow, then ran her sword straight through gut, organs, spine. The giant died, expressionless, like a puppet collapsing from severed strings.
Rahab appeared out of nothing, knelt by Gloriana, and lifted her head gently, a potion of healing already in hand. Fighting the tremor in his limbs, the wizard carefully, methodically poured the restorative concoction into the oracle’s slack mouth, then gently closed the jaw. The others converged, Abby’s lightstone spilling soft glow onto the form cradled in Rahab’s arms.
Sapphire blue eyes drifted open.
The oracle sat up gingerly, and her eyes grew suddenly wide. “Not again!” She put a hand on the wizard’s chest and smiled sadly. “I shall pay the cost of replacing this robe.”
Rahab waved a hand dismissively and found he did not know what to say. Panic receded, leaving relief, exhaustion, discombobulation. With Abby’s help the conjurer lifted Gloriana to her feet, and the oracle began to channel healing power. Near the tower entrance the golden ghost faded like grains of sand blown off a pane of glass.
Abby slowly hauled the giant bodies around an angle of the tower. Kara flew to the summit to maintain vigil on the valley below. Whether by distance, drink, or dimness, the revel in the camp remained in full swing, and no alarm had gone up, nor did any giant-kin gather to assault. They were safe, for the moment.
Gloriana fished in a pouch until she found a small bead of glass. Placing the object carefully on the damp ashes of the signal fire, she spoke a command and suddenly a pile of burning logs appeared.
“Campfire bead,” she replied to Lem’s unanswered question. “Preserve the illusion of the signal fire in case anyone in the valley gets curious.”
The companions convened within the tower. The gardener quickly explored, but found nothing remarkable. A line of stairs traversed the interior to the roof.
Rahab stroked his goatee absently. The runes had remained on the hill giant corpses, but their blue light faded in death. When he had detected for magic he recognized only residual. He thought he remembered something about rune-based magic as an aspect of Thassilonian culture, but like so many of the mysteries associated with that time and place, certainty eluded him.
After half-an-hour Kara returned to the ground floor where the others were.
“Still no change below, and nothing coming up the path.”
“We could camp here,” Lem suggested, “plan a little, start out fresh in the morning.”
Abby nodded. “Set a watch, keep an eye on the path.”
They agreed and settled down within the tower. Kara and Lem took the first watch, ascending the stairs to the roof and training their practiced, expert senses on the path to the valley below. Before going to sleep, Gloriana strode out from the tower and used her orison of water to dampen and rinse blood and viscera in an effort to hide unwanted signs.
Lem heard it; Kara saw it: In the minutes before the end of their watch they recognized the signs of something approaching. It was interesting to consider the ways in which it was like a humanoid of more familiar size. The movements were unmistakably similar, though there was a quality of slowness, almost like deliberation. The alchemist understood it was simply the range of motion over a greater distance of physical proportion that lent an illusion of reduced speed. She had seen plenty of giant-kin move and fight by now, and knew them to be just as fast as creatures of her stature.
What the gardener noted was the sound, for it, too, registered no louder than what he was used to hearing among those of normal and tall height. Something about the assumption of giant bulk twisted against the input of his senses. He expected thunderous footfalls, but as the figure advanced it made no more noise than a human might. Lem was reminded of the moose they had seen in the uplands along the Lampblack River. Curious how things of significant size could demonstrate so light a step.
“I’ll wake the others,” the gardener whispered to Kara. The alchemist nodded and began to uncork one of her flasks. Lem strode to the top of the stairs, descended a few steps, and then simply walked out into the air. The Boots of the Panther responded immediately, and the gardener drifted down. At the bottom of the tower he alighted easily and moved toward Abby’s dozing form.
Kara was airborne and invisible when the giant stopped. The creature carried a great spear on one shoulder, then slowly lowered the weapon at the ready in two hands. The alchemist realized the giant was female: The taiga she had seen on her first scout of the watchtower before dusk.
Lem had roused the others and they discussed in whispers.
“Should I go through the door?” Abby asked.
The gardener shook his head and addressed Gloriana. “This may be an opportunity for diplomacy.” He strode to the entrance and out into the firelight where he executed a strange pantomime of exaggerated movement meant to parody stealth. Then he returned inside and waggled his eyebrows confidently.
The warrior stared hard. “Lem, you idiot.”
Rapid footsteps faded outside.
The gardener’s shoulders fell. “Shit.”
Kara flew down into the tower and called out. “Taiga giant running back down the path! Do we flee?”
Rahab calculated furiously. “How far away is she?”
“I do not know! She ran as soon as Lem appeared!”
The gardener threw up his hands. “I thought she would come investigate!”
Gloriana grumbled and cast a blessing upon everyone. “We cannot let her reach the camp below!” The oracle hustled out the door. Abby followed, with Lem jogging alongside, still pleading his case.
Rahab simply stepped behind the dimensions past the tower wall.
It became a race. The taiga giant had a lead and a markedly longer stride, forcing Abby and Lem to run flat out. Kara soared in the sky, angled forward, air rushing past as she desperately tried to spot the retreating figure in the darkness. Rahab estimated, then displaced one-hundred-thirty feet down the path.
Warrior and gardener finally caught up at a curve where the giant had to slow. She had brown-gray skin, fiery red hair in multiple braids, and fangs jutting from her lower jaw. Her height towered nineteen feet, more than half again that of stone-kin. Abby tried to taunt the massive figure, but at a sprint it was difficult to make the words cohere.
Lem slowed long enough to shout: “We have you on speed! Why not stop and talk?”
By way of reply the taiga giant suddenly spun and jammed her spear straight through Lem, the knapped point pinning him to the path. The gardener remained conscious, but when the giant quickly withdrew the weapon the pain threated to overwhelm him and his vision swam. He did not need to look; he could readily feel how harrowing the wound was.
Still charging down the path, silks flying, Gloriana gasped as her status magic made her only too aware of the gardener’s injury. Slowly the damage began to siphon to the oracle, bit by bit. As she ran up she saw Rahab there with the others, and knew Kara was overhead.
“You are outnumbered and overpowered,” Gloriana panted. “Stop, and we may let you live!” The wizard began to translate, but recognition in the giant’s eyes showed she understood.
Silence descended, broken only by the wail of mountain winds and the labored breathing of the runners. In the light of Abby’s stone the taiga giant locked eyes with Gloriana. The warrior’s gauntlet creaked at sword hilt and she glanced back and forth between her best friend and the towering figure.
The oracle’s chest heaved with exertion. “Let her breathe.” It might have been on her own behalf as much for the pursued.
The great spear suddenly twirled and jammed point first into the ground. The taiga giant slowly held her hands up.
Lem collapsed on his rump. While Gloriana tended to the gardener’s significant injuries, Abby wrapped her burly arms around the maypole of the spear shaft and hauled it out of the giant’s reach.
As the oracle channeled healing to Lem she raised a query in Elvish: “Rahab, vant geluthidar?”
The conjurer detected for the presence of magic, and shook his head negative.
By now the gardener stood, bloody, but healed. The process had consumed three powerful rituals available to the oracle. Gloriana turned to the taiga giant.
“If you have any other weapons produce them now. Then we return to the tower to talk. Please make no sudden movements. My friends are very swift, and we have powerful magic.”
“Only my spear,” the giant replied in heavily-accented Common.
“Kara,” the oracle said to the air, “keep an eye on the valley as we move.” Then, addressing the giant once more, “How are you called?”
“Do you prefer to converse in Common or Giant?”
“Zrk wlwmr Rgnt.”
Gloriana smiled ruefully. “Common it is. Please walk alongside me as we move to the tower.” She turned and set off, and Cinderma joined her. Lem followed, and then Abby, spear hefted on her shoulders like a yoke the length and girth of a grown aspen. Kara drifted overhead, and Rahab brought up the rear, the only two among the group not winded.
Though built to accommodate giants, Cinderma still had to duck to enter the tower. In all the party’s encounters with the kin, they had not yet seen one as tall as she. Abby grappled to right the spear against the exterior wall, then passed inside, drawing the heavy wooden portal shut behind her. As the taiga giant sat and the others gathered around they could see the intricate array of tattoos and identifying scars on face, shoulders, arms, legs. Cinderma wore a knee-length woolen tunic bound in a great girdle of leather. Necklaces, earrings, headbands, bracelets, and anklets adorned her, showing beads, stones, feathers, and animal bones, teeth, and claws.
The taiga giant sat cross-legged. Gloriana did the same. Abby leaned against the door and crossed her arms. Kara took up observation of the valley from the tower roof, and Lem and Rahab lingered for the interrogation.
“I am Gloriana, healer and speaker to spirits,” the oracle began.
Cinderma’s eyes widened at the mention. Gloriana noted the reaction, and continued in measured, serious tone:
“Possibly you have heard of my friends and me: Some call us the Heroes of Sandpoint. We are goblin-killers, redeemers of the undead, vanquishers of demons, unmakers of golems, dragon-slayers, and conquerors of more ogres and giants than I care to count. I mention this only because I wish to trade words, and my hope is that you will be forthcoming, honest. I have no desire to kill, but I should tell you something of my companions and myself when faced with combat.”
The oracle gestured first at Lem, then Abby. “This warrior and this gardener sliced to ribbons the necromantic stone giant Barl Breakbones and those gathered with him at Hook Mountain.”
Gloriana pointed straight up toward the tower summit. “On watch above is the golem killer, the dragon slayer, whose alchemy brought death to the haughty and foolish Longtooth.” The oracle nodded at Rahab, “And here is the wizard who can disintegrate foes with a word, which very act I witnessed just a few days ago.”
With a thought the oracle suddenly became brilliant, golden fire. Cinderma flinched and her eyes widened again as she touched a collection of animal bones on a leather cord at her neck, her lips moving soundlessly. Gloriana’s voice echoed from the burning shape. “I commanded the spirits to lift the wmmxchk Teraktinus into the sky, and then let him plummet to his death when he lied to me.”
Then the fire vanished as suddenly as it had kindled, and the human with honey-gold hair sat simply, calmly, as she had when they first entered to parley. “I do not want to kill, and if you are forthcoming and honest, and ultimately agree to depart this place in peace, then you have my word, on the spirits of my ancestors, that neither my companions nor I will harm you. If you try to deceive me, however, then you have my word that you will die here, and then I will take what information I require from your corpse, for I can bend the spirits to my will. I would not wish that upon your soul. Let us converse as the living, and let our words find light. Do you understand?”
There was a long quiet as the taiga giant whispered prayers to whatever powers she revered. Finally, Cinderma stumbled around the words: “I will answer your questions as best I can. I am a hunter. I have little information.”
Gloriana nodded and smiled empathetically. “Thank you, Cinderma.”
“The hill-kin guards here were enchanted,” said the oracle. “Did you do that?”
Cinderma shook her head. “Lord Mokmurian did that, in . . . ” she hesitated. “. . . in Jorgenfist.”
“That name troubles you?”
Cinderma nodded quietly.
Gloriana gave another encouraging smile. “Where are you from, Cinderma?”
“North, near the Chavali. I was banished from my tribe.”
“None in the valley are from your tribe?”
“No. I am alone. But if I do not return to the valley by late tomorrow, my absence will be noted.”
The oracle nodded. “Why did you come here?”
“I heard the words of Lord Mokmurian.”
“And what did Lord Mokmurian say?”
“He says The People will take our rightful place and recover our claim all the way to the sea. The People shall rule, as it was in the ancient days. He has united the tribes as one. He is the most powerful of the stone-kin.”
“Where is Lord Mokmurian now?”
“Inside the fortress? Jorgenfist?”
Cinderma might have flinched, just the briefest reaction. The taiga giant nodded.
“And others are inside, as well?” pursued Gloriana.
“Yes. Harpies watch the gate, but I have never been inside. There must be other kin there, but what else dwells I do not know. The unmade come from below.”
“Below . . . the fortress.”
“Unmade? Those are the enchanted kin bearing runes?”
“Besides the gate, do you know of any other ways into the fortress?”
Cinderma shifted nervously. Gloriana monitored. “Please, Cinderma.”
“I have heard there are caves by the Muschkal.”
“Thank you. Is that where Longtooth came from?”
“No, the burning dragon lairs . . . laired . . . on the far side of the valley.”
“Have you heard what lives in the caves?”
“I have seen. They are like the dragon, but not the same.”
The oracle shifted tack. “Why would Lord Mokmurian require human captives?”
“I do not know. They are taken within, and beneath, and do not return.”
“Lord Mokmurian makes magic. Is he also a warrior?”
“He is not a hunter, but it is said that he slew his father to claim control of his own tribe, and that he makes powerful magic, and does not follow the shaman’s path.”
“From which tribe does he come?”
“The Krvtti stone-kin, but he has cast aside that name, and claims to build a tribe called Thzzln.”
Gloriana looked at Rahab, and the wizard’s eyebrows arched. Even with the Giant pronunciation there was no mistaking the word.
Cinderma continued: “I have been loyal to Lord Mokmurian, but I have no allegiance among the valley. If you let me go, I will return to my former lands and seek some place to live.”
The oracle regarded the taiga giant shrewdly. Her words felt authentic. “Will your tribe take you back?”
Cinderma shook her head grimly. “No. But I am a hunter, and so long as the spirits provide prey, I will live.” Unmistakable pride bolstered the giant’s voice.
“I ask for your word that you will depart this valley, warning no one, and not return.”
The taiga’s expression was most serious. “I swear under the spirits.”
“Thank you, Cinderma. I hope you find peace in the hunt far from this accursed place.”
A nod of silent assent.
The oracle got to her feet. “Abby, return the spear.”