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Book V, Chapter 18: Chamber Of The Mage
Mokmurian

By the time Rahab was willing to join the others, foreboding had transformed from Hound-coursed nightmare into low-clinging gloom, chill and seeping among the nervous reeds of sensation. But the wizard’s admonition had held: Despite the time it had taken to nullify the remains, no giant or ally had found them in the lower level, nor even ventured the chance.

Wordlessly, the conjurer joined his companions at the western doors. Abby leaned weight and leverage against the intricately meshed panels until they parted.

Beyond was fog.

••••

A voice came out of the mist, a stone giant’s intonation, but softer somehow, and expressed in the Common tongue. “Welcome. I wondered how long until you reached this place.”

Abby did not hesitate, marching quickly into the fog until she emerged on the other side. “Fifty feet!” the warrior called back. “Someone big and ugly!”

Lem’s rejoinder was all bright cheer: “They’re all big to you now!”

Kara drank and vanished. The gardener ventured into the fog. On the far side, Abby watched the stone giant weave magic, and a spell descended on the room. Lem suddenly felt a thickness pressing upon him from all directions, a weight made of water, and hidden quiet, and ancient dreams. The gardener could barely move or see.

“Seriously thick fog!” Lem shouted, and even his voice sounded slow, a tightness pressing upon his throat.

Rahab stepped to the pall and understood immediately. “A spell of coagulate humidity.”1 The wizard moved behind the dimensions and appeared on the far side of the fog.

Ensorcelled by a spell of free movement, Gloriana easily entered the morass and brushed past the static gardener. “Lem! Why are you so slow?” In a moment she stood alongside Abby and Rahab.

Reaffirmation of Lem’s First Principle: Humans are the worst.

••••

Though empty of furnishings, the chamber might have served as hall for instruction. Six great columns patterned with spiraling runes supported a ceiling at terrific height. Throughout the room stood the trappings of arcana: candles, books, scrolls, bundles of powders, alchemical equipment, containers of material components. At the western end of the room a flight of stairs rose to a wide stage piled with a mound of furs, a great chair, and a large table stacked with yet more paraphernalia. Beneath the table loomed a chest bound in iron.

Upon the dais he stood, tall, though not to the traditional extent of his people, and somehow more diminutive for it. Draped around his neck and shoulders lay a broad torc of hanging gold plates that matched similar adornments at the hem of the red cloth kilt girded about his waist. A sash or similar drape hung along left thigh. His right hand clutched a club marked with eldritch sigils about which Kara and Rahab could have lectured at length, and his bald head showed markings that might have been tattoo, or paint traced in rite as old as mountains, as strange as the pathways between stars. More gold jingled in ringlets at wrist and ankle, and showed subdued gleam as though long neglected of polish. Around the left forearm coiled a slow, shifting color that might have been the hue left behind when brightness flares and then passes from sight. Sunken eyes like pale granite showed no pupil, yet seemed to bore intently wherever their gaze fell. An irked rictus twisted stone giant expression as warrior, wizard, and oracle emerged unburdened from the conjured fog.

Mokmurian.

Abby gauged the distance, and launched. In her hand: a sliver of steel vengeance. On her arm: impenetrable moonlight on mercury. In her heart: a fire hotter than dragon breath falling on a village. On her lips: a war cry in one word.

“SANDPOINT!”

••••

The fog demanded more of Kara’s flight than normal, and she emerged from the density just as Abby’s attack fell full and fierce upon the mysterious stone giant to whom the serpentine Thassilonian enigma had led them. The sword stroke was devastating, opening a great and bloody wound on Mokmurian’s torso.2 The alchemist watched from height as the giant wove magic, deftly avoided the warrior’s follow-up with unsettling ease, and flung Abby in a great arc back toward the door. Warrior landed atop the spongy surface of the sorcerous mist.

“Telekinesis!” Gloriana shouted.

But Mokmurian was not done. Another spell bristled, and three coruscating rays of blazing light fanned into the chamber air. Lines of incandescence bored into Kara, and the oracle felt the pain deep within as her status magic reported significant injury made survivable only by virtue of the flame abjuration she had placed on her companions. Kara gasped.3

Lem finally found exit from the syrup of magic miring the entrance. Seeking the shadows, the gardener made a creeping dash for the stairs, even as Gloriana’s power began to pull some of Kara’s damage. Then the oracle cast a spell of silence that bathed the whole of the dais in auditory vacuum. The expression on Mokmurian’s face could have been nothing other than rage. Gloriana quickly ducked behind one of the columns. On the other side of the hall, Rahab invoked the power of flight and dashed behind a corresponding column in like fashion.

••••

Abby took to the air, charging from the fondue of fog, once again spanning the distance to the stone giant. Once again the attack missed.

Smoke escaping Kara’s burns became visible when it passed beyond the limits of invisibility in which the alchemist had encased herself. The illusion had not deceived Mokmurian, but it little mattered to Kara now, and she began hurling bombs, only to discover some sorcery protected the stone giant. Blistering tendrils of electricity cascaded and ran, but the damage was less than it should have been. For a moment she was about to call out to her friends, but she knew they could see, and so she switched to a different type of alchemy, hefting a ceramic globe in her hand and feeling the warmth radiating from within. When the bomb burst, fire tumbled over the stone giant, and flames licked his shoulders.

Mokmurian moved. A sudden dash in silence, a leap from the dais, and a sprint past the surprised Lem carried the stone giant beyond the limits of the silence spell. Then he vanished.

All eyes turned to Rahab. The conjurer smirked. “Dimension door. He’s in the previous room!” Magical flight carried the wizard into the air where he paused, spreading his arms. The wide sleeves of his robe rippled as he loomed in the light of a skull limned in heatless flame and borne in his left hand. A composition in complex syllables tumbled effortlessly from his lips, and a pulse distorted the air in a wave that penetrated the shell of fog. The mist remained, but the muddy effect hindering movement vanished. “The way is navigable, now.”4

Abby needed no further encouragement.

••••

In the confines of the strangely smooth room, Mokmurian seethed. He had anticipated this encounter eagerly. His preparations had accounted for contingencies, his calculations had advanced his strength, his prognostications showed victory. The lines and plots and stratagems summed to satisfaction as his work shaped the events of recent months. Even the losses of Barl and Teraktinus had served their purpose, striking out at the lands in anticipation of Thzzln’s ascendancy, and gauging response, that it might be more acutely quashed. He had not underestimated these five. The intelligence had been accurate. He knew their weakness, understood their limitations, recognized their inferiority. How then this fleeing from silence? How then this forced displacement? How then these wounds?

A shape emerged from the fog: half-elf in steel, lit by orbiting flame, sword held in challenge. Mokmurian grimaced.

“I found him!” Abby shouted.

The stone giant’s enchanted eyes saw the elf arrive next, in flight, missile hurled. New fire kindled upon flesh, new pain blossomed in nerve. He howled admonishment in his own language and pointed. The beam of arcane power struck true. Grimace became grin.

••••

Kara felt the ray, not at point of contact, but in the whole of her being, a suddenness absolute and awful. Every cell screamed as her mind suspended in a moment, the instant of realization when bird recognizes the displacing air is a pouncing cat. All her memory embroidered a tapestry she read in a glance. Time vanished . . .

. . . and resumed.

Pain. Pain . . . but also joy, a joy she had never known before.

Disintegration: The word was worse than death.

••••

Something rattled in Mokmurian’s thoughts, broke free, and tumbled away into the pit of him, splashing into dark waters and sending chill ripples of doubt to the farthest shores of understanding. Rage took him, but it howled into a wind of uncertainty like no tempest that had ever wracked the Storval Plateau: All his calculations and machinations promised victory, but he was losing.

••••

Gloriana screamed, and Rahab flew immediately to her. An instant later the oracle recovered. “Something . . . happened to Kara, but she . . .” Breaths came quick, and sweat dappled Gloriana’s flawless skin. “No, she resisted it. It has injured her, but . . .”

“But what?” Rahab asked.

“It was awful, the worst thing I’ve ever felt. The worst thing she has ever felt.”

The conjurer’s voice grew quiet. “Worse than Myriana’s lament?”

Tears welled at the corner of Gloriana’s eyes. “Something . . . some magic . . . Mokmurian . . .”

But Rahab needed no further description. He knew exactly what had befallen the alchemist.5

Lem converged on the wizard. “Get me in there.”

Rahab reached out, and he and the gardener vanished.

Gloriana wiped at her eyes, took some of Kara’s pain, and stepped into the unburdened mist, praying fiercely.

••••

Abby found combat in the smoothly shaped room difficult. Something in the tubular dimensions distracted her, or foiled proper feel of range, and her sword and shield wrecked the air, but landed nothing on Mokmurian. The stone giant used the reprieve against Kara. The alchemist managed to loose two more explosive grenadoes, but proximity to her opponent put her in danger of counterstroke, and Mokmurian was as skilled a fighter as he was a wielder of magic. Two strikes from the enchanted club landed upon Kara, even as her bombs kindled upon foe.

Rahab and Lem arrived out of nothing, the conjurer’s calculations placing the gardener in perfect flanking position against the stone giant. Knives began their deadly work. Rahab stepped out of the stone giant’s range and glanced at the southern entrance to the chamber. Reasoning their enemy’s reserve of trans-dimensional travel spells expended, the conjurer quickly summoned a wall of invisible force against any escape.

Gloriana walked the air, finding her way by magic to where Kara flew. A spell of curative power suffused the alchemist, knitting wounds, staunching blood. A second incantation tended the wounds the oracle had already drawn from her friends.

Mokmurian conjured a poisonous, fume and distributed its deadly breath over Abby, Gloriana, Kara, and Lem, only to discover the alchemist’s complete resistance to toxins nullified the cloud’s dreadful potency. Oracle and gardener felt an intense pain in their lungs, but fought through the worst. Ironically, only the warrior, whose constitution stood stoutest among that number, succumbed. Abby’s insides felt like pits to Hell.

Up to now the companions had discovered several avenues of attack with only limited effectiveness. Despite initial success, Abby’s sword and shield had contributed less dramatically than anticipated, and Lem’s knives—so often fatal—had scored few strikes of any appreciable precision. Kara’s galvanic grenadoes yielded paltry return, forcing the alchemist to switch to explosive concoctions, and thereby revealing, as if by laboratory experiment, a more appropriate element of battle.

At the center of the storm, Kara, Gloriana, and Rahab met glances and found an eye of understanding.

The next six seconds were made of fire.

••••

The alchemist retreated a short distance, slugged from a bottle, and exhaled pure flame in waves that enveloped Mokmurian and Lem, whose combat proximity rendered immersion inevitable, but whose preternatural dexterity enabled an expert dance around every rippling curtain of immolation. A ragged course of new blisters bubbled stone giant skin. Then Gloriana added her own burning column of holy power descending from on high like the righteous exhortation of a wrathful god. Mokmurian twisted with surprising quickness, avoiding the mightiest portion of envelopment, but even so, every move he made now wafted a mane of plentiful smokes into the air, and he resembled the ragged geography of a hissing caldera. The stone giant was in the act of raising a charred hand and chanting some new power when Rahab calmly evoked thermobaric doom.

Flesh became ash.6

••••

Only vaguest definition of shape remained to the column of carbonized mess some ten feet tall. Successive heats had been so intense that the stone giant flash-grafted to the smooth stone floor. The odor in the room was an assault.

They waited, just to be sure. Twin points of pale granite flashed open in the crumbling pillar of soot, and what was once a head twisted around, issuing smoke and calving charcoal. Dead eyes flared, and a voice rattled up through crisped vocal cords in a timbre that was not Mokmurian’s. The sound was at once powerful and reedy as immense, remote magic compelled wasted tissue to one last function.

“So, these are the heroes of the age? More like gasping worms to me—worms to be crushed back into the earth when I awaken the armies of Xin-Shalast, when the name Karzoug is again spoken with fear and awe! Know that the deaths of those marked by the Sihedron—the giants you have so conveniently slain for me—hasten my return, just as yours soon will. Fools, all of you! Is this all you could manage in ten-thousand years?”7

A laugh sounded from the blackened core, full and ancient and chilling, even as what had been Mokmurian’s eyes extinguished in wisps of smoke. The misshapen mass atop the column crumbled from the trunk, rolling away across the smooth chamber floor and streaking the marble in lines of powdery fuligin.

Silence once more claimed the halls of Lower Jorgenfist.


1 There were actually two spells in effect at the chamber entrance: an obscuring mist and a solid fog.

2 Abby got a critical hit for 42 points of damage.

3 Kara got hit by three scorching rays, one of which was a critical, for 57 points of damage, but luckily Glo had bestowed everyone with a resist energy: fire that soaked 30 of those.

4 Dispel magic against the solid fog was a natural 20 on the roll, for a total of 31 to dispel. The obscuring mist was still there, but movement was no longer a problem. Boom, baby.

5 Luckily, Kara’s Fortitude save against the disintegrate was successful, and she only ended up taking 15 points of damage.

6 So much fire. Kara’s dragon breath elixir did 42 points of damage, in addition to the 5 points Mokmurian sustained from residual burn of an explosive bomb the previous round. Lem had managed to apply a 5-point bleed on the giant, which then took effect just before Glo hit with a flame strike that should have been 36 oints, but Mokmurain saved for half. The last contribution was Rahab’s empowered fireball that did an additional 24 points (down from 48, because stone giants have really good Reflex saves, right? Wrong. Worst save in their repertoire, but tell that to the dice. Tell that to the fucking dice).

7 I believe this is the actual text quote from the module.

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Book V, Chapter 17: The Hounds
Lean And Athirst!

They assembled on the far side of the cauldron room, once more beyond the perimeter of miasma from the container. Kara still could not see, and her innards continued upheaval. She flailed weakly for the stone wall and wheezed at the golden fire clutching her elbow.

“I am sorry, Glori.”

The oracle made a sharp sound that might have been warning for silence. The alchemist heard ringing steel: Abby’s sword unscabbarded.

••••

Under cover of whispers:

“Undead?” the warrior asked.

“Yes,” Lem and Gloriana answered as one.

Rahab gave a hiss: “We are being scried!”

The oracle did not glance away from the creatures in the next room. “By what?”

“A stone giant.”

The party shared little doubt. Abby charged.

••••

A chill in the room clouded the warrior’s breath. Three hill giants stirred as soon as Abby crossed the threshold. Compelled by crude necromancy, they shambled gracelessly. Behind these lingered a fourth creature that had clearly been an ogre, but now lacked a head, and Rahab could tell some special magic endowed this monster with necromantic potency. As the zombies crowded the warrior their limbs jerked and flailed. The sound of rotten, chilled flesh slamming into steel filled the chamber with splatter and brittle crunch in like measure. A dry heave doubled Kara over, her stomach bereft of fuel to feed expectoration.

Lem moved deftly in support. Unable to resist, the gardener gently reached out and touched Abby on the shoulder to let her know where he was. Mirthful delight seized him. There was simply no end to his joy in the warrior’s diminution.

The others moved into position. A moment later a magic effect shimmered through them, but they all shrugged off the compulsion of fear. Gloriana looked at Rahab in alarm.

“Did that headless zombie just cast a spell?” They had given up on whispering.

Rahab nodded.

“Advanced form,” the oracle muttered.

“It is the vector by which the stone giant scries us.”

By now Abby had managed to topple one of the hill giants—despite her size—and wrought its destruction on the floor with her blade. In six seconds the brilliantly polished stone floor had become a mess.

Rahab pointed a finger and evoked a churning explosion on the remaining undead. Rotting bodies caught fire, and chunks of burning flesh blasted away on contrails in the chill air.

“My turn,” the oracle remarked. She stepped forward, past Abby and Lem, and into the midst of the room. The gardener was in the process of commanding his wand to issue scorching light into one of the walking corpses when the radiance from Gloriana’s golden fire expanded throughout the chamber. Shadows danced crazily on the wall as honey light blasted undead flesh. Another hill giant disintegrated. Then the oracle drew on the power of her elemental form and healed some of the damage she had subsumed from Abby.

Kara had begun to recover, or at least no longer felt the wrenching in her stomach. Though her vision still swam lachrymose, already the alchemist felt her faculties recovering now that she had escaped the malign fog of the cauldron. For their part, Abby and Lem turned their attention to the spectacle of Gloriana incarnate as gilded flame standing amidst the looming undead hulks like a brilliant lure that draws the moth to immolation. Her strategy had never failed to terminate undead with its simple potency, but it also never failed to make the party very nervous, placing as it did the oracle at the center of enemy attention.

The threat of holy illumination did not go unnoticed. Something trembled in the headless ogre corpse, a necromancy that thrummed against the surrounding stone. A sound like sinking in mire surged as fountains of earth erupted with violence from the floor, though the beautifully polished marble remained smooth and unbroken. Cascading showers of dirt rained down upon the room, upon the party, upon the undead. New forms stood at odd angle, and lurched back wordlessly, quick to flee the beneficent protection in which Gloriana had wreathed her friends and herself. Summoned by the headless dead’s threnodic magic, half a dozen wretched forms writhed and jerked soundlessly. No hill giants these, the naked mob stooped and clutched, each an assemblage of rotted form, exposed skeleton, grave mold. Incomplete bipeds at best, one lacked lower jaw, another had torso back-to-front, still another was crowned not with the head of a humanoid but a portion of horse’s skull, as though the spell had scrabbled components from charnel realms with no more purpose than urgency haphazard and profane.

In the wake of the summoning the last hill giant corpse slammed into the golden brightness that was Gloriana, almost as if by accident, and though she felt the shock of the assault, her form exacted its own price, burning away more flesh and bone. Unraveled by heat and purity, the dead thing crumbled in pieces.

Rahab sent a dart of hissing acid against the headless corpse. The odor in the room rapidly approached weaponization.

Lem vanished under the power of The Boots of the Panther, then reappeared seconds later as he launched a second ray of heat from the wand at the headless corpse. The attack missed spectacularly.

A golden laugh came from the light at the room’s center, a sound of chimes in sunshine. “That’s not a searing light. THIS is a searing light.” A beam of perfect radiance erupted from the oracle’s outstretched palm and cored through the dead ogre’s torso. Gloriana could see the far side of the room through the vaporized section.

••••

Kara’s sight had returned, and she quickly lofted skyward under the influence of her previous flight elixir. The alchemist could see the congregation of misshapen dead assembled on the brilliant form at room center, and she hesitated from attacking as the oracle admonished her friends to ignore the newest undead. Rahab moved into the room to get a better line of sight for spellcasting, and the headless corpse relocated with surprising, lurching speed. A fleshy arm slammed into the conjurer and knocked him back against the wall. Abby quickly stepped up to redirect attention, and carved a section of the torso away with her sword. The undead ignored the warrior, and hit the wizard a second time, even as the mage managed to conjure another acid projectile.

Unequivocally edified on the subject of incandescent magic, Lem tucked his wand away, darted easily into position, and set his knives against the headless ogre’s legs. The marks showed, no blood appeared, and what effect there was proved impossible to gauge.

In the next moment Gloriana absorbed some of Rahab’s injury, and settled another beam of furious light upon the dead ogre in a line that traveled smoothly from hipbone to shoulder. The summoned humanoid corpses vanished in showers of earth as the bisected form of the headless corpse sloughed to the floor, vanquished.

The oracle took healing from the last moments of her energy form, and when the glow vanished she stood amidst the strewn corpses in triumph. She strolled to Rahab leaning against the wall, and favored him with an audacious smile.

“I have something to make you feel better.”1

••••

At a T-shaped junction they chose to venture right. A long hallway unfolded before them. As before, the polished marble floor shone sheer against the weight of ages, and the ceiling loomed some forty or more feet above. Intricate supports of stone rose along the corridor to hold aloft the vaults, and long swathes of densely scribed runes marked multiple locations along the length. The now-familiar seven-pointed star featured prominently. At the hall’s culmination a great rubble collapse had long since curtailed the way, but a set of ornate doors in bronze marked further progress to the north. Beyond lay a strange, empty room, notable for the meticulous precision and care that must have been necessary—by dint of magic or labor—to make every surface in the chamber into a gentle arc. No irregularity of line or acute angle demonstrated itself in that place, almost as if the first indications they had noticed when they reached this level of Jorgenfist had found ultimate expression in this chamber.

Something elusive and insistent pricked at Rahab’s mind.

The overall dimensions of the chamber suggested a triangle, though without the harshness of precision corners. Patches on the stone of wall and floor hinted at intense application of heat that had distorted the otherwise significant sheen of polished marble. Lem scouted a cautious, stealthy course along the eastern perimeter, pausing periodically to listen, test the air, notice anything different. After several minutes he returned to the others, stepping out of the shadows.

“Looks fine to me,” the gardener offered.

“What did you see?” asked Gloriana.

“Smooth, with occasional scorches, but empty. We should proceed.”

They moved forward in formation. To the northwest there was a set of large stone doors that had been meticulously carved to meet floor and walls with the same smooth curve that marked the foundational shape of the room. Looking at the portals, Abby felt a strange sensation simultaneously in her head and gut. The method necessary to shape such features escaped easy discernment, and the effect was disorienting, as was the whole of the room. Without specific lines of reference clearly delineating the dimensions, the room felt at once small and large, compact and vast. The effect made the warrior’s head buzz.

As he strode into the strange room Rahab swept in all directions with his magic of detection. No signal appeared in the matrix, but the geometry of the space kept intruding on his consciousness. Lack of angles: The puzzle tickled him as an itch mid-spine, almost impossible to reach, maddening in its insistence.

By now recovered from the cauldron’s effects, Kara noted the conjurer’s expression. “What is it?”

“Do you not see it?” Rahab gestured all around.

“The room is passing strange, to be sure.”

“The implication bothers me more.”

Now Gloriana interjected: “What do you mean?” All eyes focused on the wizard, save Lem who kept ever-vigilant view against unmonitored danger.

“Spaces in The Planes,” muttered the wizard, squinting. “What is it? Spaces in The Planes . . . dimensional significance relative to zone and stratification. . . .” He pressed a hand to his furrowed forehead. Alchemist, oracle, and warrior exchanged an uncertain glance.

“No, I know this,” asserted Rahab. “Planar conditions preclude relative to certain geometries . . . the transition from curve to angle . . . necessary increments for calculating area . . . yes! Geometric exclusion invalidated by mathematical demonstration of transitive states . . . .”

Gloriana was about to offer encouraging word when the impulse died in her throat. Kara saw it, too, as did Abby. In the wizard’s eyes grew a sudden light of realization, certain as much in understanding as in awful realization.

“Oh, Hell’s below, no . . . !”

The air in the chamber above them rippled. Horror transfixed Rahab, of House Eldredshade.

••••

The oracle felt a sensation pass through her like a shudder wrought in razor blades, an immensity of displacement, violent internal pressure change. Fortune of body or mind saved her somehow, and sudden unease throttled her with understanding that no lore of her people had prepared her for the sheer, inexplicable irrationality and cruelty of the force that had transfixed her. She gasped.

The party turned its gaze upon three creatures that appeared out of nothing, lingering mid-air, their very presence inducing a visual displacement like an aura of water bending light.

The wizard finally found voice for his realization, though he managed little more than hoarse whisper: “Hounds of Tindalos!”

Such creatures referenced the canine in only the remotest sense, so alien in aspect were they that the title owed to the limits of humanoid language attempting to convey that which exceeded adequate capture. Each loomed as large as Kara, perched as quadrupeds on long, spindly legs supporting a body gaunt and sleek. The flesh of their forms—if flesh it might be—was muted grey under a coat of iridescent sheen that might have been secretion or sheath of parasitic proto-organism. Defining the limits of their form proved impossible, as the dissipation around them rippled the air and vexed the eye. The creatures were at once an indeterminate distance removed and also in immediate proximity. There were two eyes, at least, and a maw, but such features served as only the most imperfect of referents, and those orbs showed neither pupil nor iris, only an infinite depth, whirlpools of time and madness.

“We must destroy them utterly,” breathed Rahab, “lest they hunt us forever!”2

••••

Kara took to the air immediately, while Abby—naturally—charged. The distance to the creatures eluded her, however, and in closing the warrior failed to completely span the length. The strange smoothness of the room did little to abate the awful, transient, elliptical nature of such beings. Further, Abby realized that a thin strand of terror—silver-lit and spider-fine—had unsettled certainty of vector. She had never known Rahab to express fear. The tremor in his voice as he codified realization suggested some new depth of dismay not even present when they encountered a lost general in the armies of Hell. The thought hung over her like a teetering trap ready to dispense calamity at the slightest disturbance. The universe suddenly became worse.

If Rahab was scared . . . .

Something tumbled out of the air and exploded in a flare of dazzling blue-white. The scent of ozone expanded. Her sight and equilibrium regained, Kara had begun to throw.

••••

Rahab invoked a spell of magical haste upon himself and his companions. Three alien heads tendered inscrutable gaze of cosmic horror upon the conjurer with all the sleek coldness of stars reflected in pools of poison. The wizard quailed. The Hounds coursed signatures of arcana with a constancy bred beyond the limits of the cosmos. Even the appearance of the creatures owed frequently to the failures of a zealous spellcaster overreaching the constraints of experience. And was that not, in essence, the brilliant core that drove a spellcaster—any spellcaster—worth the price of ambition?

The Hounds vanished.

An oath would have sufficed in almost any instance. Now Rahab had no words. Insanity began to unfold, not in increments, but in exponents.

••••

Though she could tell something had upset Rahab most intensely, Gloriana found centering in two crucial facets: On one hand, she did not have the academic understanding of the unspeakable horror endemic to the Hounds of Tindalos. And on the other hand, her haunted sense of life told her exactly where the creatures still were, so long as they remained within a certain range of her ghosts orbiting perimeter.

“They remain here!” she rallied. “Invisible, in the southern portion of the room!”

••••

Augmented now by magical acceleration, Lem glanced over his shoulder at Rahab. “Better if we cluster!” The wizard quickly spoke a spell that shut the doors and sealed the smooth chamber. The gardener took up position on one side of Gloriana while Rahab stood on the other.

The Hounds resumed visibility. A storm of unravelling cascaded over the wizard, then through him. Two shudders clutched his bones, peeled his flesh. Somehow he held. But the third . . . .

Existence was lifelong unfolding, expansion and diminishment simultaneously correspondent within the terms of the cosmos, anchored to endpoint bound by functional fundamentals of the entirety. Vagaries, however unanticipated or baffling, nonetheless occurred within such constraints. But this was a splintering without referent. It could not be categorized. The sensation was not merely unknown; it was insufficiently served even by the description “unknown.” Ignorance was madness, and so was understanding, and neither together nor apart summed to sounding. This was water so deep that depth was meaningless.

A small portion of the wizard’s mind—more precious than any jewel—sheared away.3

••••

Gloriana’s vision swam as the sensation passed through Rahab and, by extension, through her linked magic. The assault she had weathered initially felt very much like this, except she had found some resolve to hold against it, some quality of her people that she did not entirely understand, did not question, and did naught but celebrate. By contrast, the conjurer held the line once, and a second time, but by the third assault the tunneling vibrancy proved too much for a constitution bolstered against the immensity of knowledge, less so against the vicissitudes of kinetics. For a moment the accuracy of her status spell baffled her: Everything within Rahab had suffered injury. The oracle scrabbled at her backpack.4

••••

Kara continued to hurl grenadoes, and in time enough electricity seemingly felled one of the Hounds.

“Not enough,” Rahab whispered, almost to himself.

“Cold iron or silver?” Lem barked.

The wizard shook his head grimly. “Only magic.”

With a mutter, the gardener reached for his wand of scorching light, a device he employed with success two thirds of the time. Leveling the magic item at a haze on the air, Lem quickly demonstrated one-in-three.

Gloriana voiced the words on the scroll she produced. It came out as a song, and then the tune was gone, vanished in the ash that had been the parchment. A sound expanded—thoom— in a spherical distortion that purged invisibility to a radius of twenty-five feet around the oracle. Her body began to assume some of Rahab’s pain.

The wizard dusted one of the Hounds in a shimmering cascade of sparkling sorcery, further confounding efforts to vanish and rendering the monster blind. The creature walked through the air slowly, tentatively trying to find prey by other means.

The other Hound turned an eldritch power on the alchemist now, a spell of crippling waves as empty and cold as the depths of space, an agony of limits that made each movement an age, each breath an epoch. Only by supreme effort of redoubtable will did Kara resist.5

Striding air, Abby launched another charge at the creature, and bisected it with a single, crushing strike. The portions drifted on the air amidst iridescent ichor pooling and drifting as suspended quicksilver.

Lem eventually managed a hit with a beam of light, and the third Hound finally toppled. Then Rahab stood at vantage and cast his cantrip of acid over and over again. An awful fume rose from floating gore as Hound-stuff slowly rendered into vapor from whence no regeneration might cohere. His casting took long minutes, and the companions grew restless.

“Rahab,” Abby said, “we need to keep moving. No telling when the giants above come down here looking for us.”

The wizard kept going. “Utter destruction requires transformation of remains through chemical reaction. I must do this, lest the Hounds return to hunt us again.”

“Rahab—”

“Let the giants come. They are paltry next to creatures of the Dark Tapestry. Recall the testimony of Cinderma. She named the families reluctant to venture unto this level, where Mokmurian conducts his necromancies undisturbed.” Another splash of acid appeared at his command. “The Hounds alone would serve as sufficient repellant.”

Abby frowned. “They weren’t so tough . . .”

Still another burst of acid. “You know nothing of them, Abby. Felling such forms as these only bound their knowledge to you, by which connection they would cross any vastness, transcend any time, to find you again and tear you apart. Set a watch on the door, if you must, but leave me to this. When you die, decades from now, in peace, at the end of a long and worthy life, it will be because I took the time to see the remains eliminated.”

Kara came forward and laid a hand gently on the warrior’s arm. They withdrew. Rahab continued incanting.


1 Cure critical wounds bestowed 33 points, bringing the wizard to full health.

2 The description “lean and athirst” appearing in the subtitle is a quote from Frank Belknap Long, author of “weird fiction” in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft (indeed, Long and Lovecraft were contemporaries, and Lovecraft referred to the Hounds in “The Whisperer in Darkness” from 1931). Long created the Hounds of Tindalos in his 1929 short story of the same name, and the quote “They are lean and athirst!” comes from a character describing (insomuch as it is possible) the creatures. Long’s importance to the Cthulhu Mythos and its ancillary cycles should not go unnoticed.

3 This is the Ripping Gaze attack of the Hounds of Tindalos, which they already attempted on Gloriana. Rahab successfully made his Fortitude save against two of three assaults, but he is a wizard, after all. How long could that hold out? He suffered 18 points of damage. It’s possible that my affection for the Cosmic Horror literary genre has expressed in terms that perhaps exceed the simplicity of hit point mechanics. And the wizard even spent a Hero Point to try to make that final save, but forces outside the bounds of cosmos dictated otherwise.

4 Haunted, Glo’s recovery of stored items always requires a standard action. Her ghosts are constantly moving shit around.

5 One of Kara’s feat acquisitions was Iron Will, which proved immensely fortuitous here. The Hound attacked her with a slow spell, and she rolled a terrible Will save, but Iron Will allows a reroll once a day.

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Book V, Chapter 16: Jorgenfist Caverns, The Lower Level
Cauldron

The hall split at a junction. To the east the corridor ended in a pile of rubble from an ancient collapse. The route south proceeded almost forty feet before it opened on a large room. Just before they ventured within, something caught Rahab’s eye and he turned.

Nothing.

But there had been movement, he felt certain. Some shape briefly in view, then gone, seemingly passed beyond the wall. Dimensional transposition? Illusion? He quickly cast a spell of magic detection, and the matrices showed nothing. Frowning, the wizard caught up to the others at the entrance to the large room.

Lem surveyed the area, and found it difficult to estimate the size of the chamber. The strange, curved channels at the joints befuddled accurate separation of one part from another, and the air had a curious, distorted quality that made peripheral distances seemingly recede. Refocusing in another direction righted dimensions fore, only to lose distinction in previous orientation now at lateral extreme. Light sources flickered in slick sheen that made the surfaces seem wet, an optical quality that only added to the disorienting sensation. The floor was brilliantly polished black marble like water under a night sky. A dizziness pulled at the gardener. He swallowed with difficulty and stealthy crept into the room along what felt like the perimeter. With a thought he invoked the vanishing power in The Boots of the Panther, and as he crossed the threshold the unsettled sensation within suddenly fell away as though plummeting from a great precipice. Lem’s mind spun, and he had to touch the wall to steady himself.

“Abby,” he whispered past the bile that surged in his mouth, “stay at the corner.”

At the far end of the chamber a shape moved. The gardener recognized another hill giant, expression vacant, body adorned with glowing runes.

••••

Just before she entered the room, Abby received Rahab’s spell of advanced agility, and noticed Kara blink out of view after drinking one of her concoctions. Then the warrior stepped forward and felt the sudden plunging sensation in her guts. Nausea twisted up, overwhelmed her constitution, and forced vomit onto the polished floor.

The rune-covered shape of the hill giant loomed out of the eastern shadows and began to pick up speed, thick feet slapping heavily on the marble, glazed expression vaguely aligned in Abby’s direction. The warrior charged. Halfway across the chamber she realized the giant had grown in size, and so had the dimensions of the space. Focused on her opponent, she did not notice the expressions on her companions’ faces, and she did not understand why Lem—still invisible—erupted in raucous laughter.

••••

As her blade made contact with the pillar of the hill giant’s leg the stout warrior guessed some feature of the rune magic had augmented the creature with arcane growth adding half-again its dimension. Despite a vicious attack, the giant’s ghastly, placid face betrayed no reaction.

From the shadows along the room’s northern perimeter Lem drew his wand of the scorching beam and renounced invisibility with a targeted ray of particular precision. Despite shaking with continued laughter, the gardener directed the searing attack with potency. Abby’s charge had propelled the warrior past Lem’s position, providing him with an exceptional view of the effect the chamber’s strange magic had on the warrior.

She now stood no taller than he, half-elf made halfling. A great glee took Lem, made even more abundant because the warrior clearly did not realize what had happened. As the burning line of magical energy cored a sizzling hole into rune-covered hill giant flesh—and as he blinked into view—the gardener nearly doubled with guffaws.

The hill giant swung its great club at Abby and landed solid blows that even Avenger could not entirely diminish. The shortened warrior nevertheless assessed the advantage remained hers, and—however placid—the hill giant would not last much longer.

Something emerged from a nearby wall, and Gloriana reacted with surprising swiftness, spinning in a swirl of silk, one arm extended. A short chant preceded the spell of brilliant, weaponized light that leveled against a strange shape, pot-bellied, aglow with some inner fire, a form in cast iron like a great kettle awakened to malignant sentience.

Replete in knowledge of regions beyond the Prime, Rahab recognized the thing immediately. Bane to dwarves, the scanderig originated on the Elemental Plane of Earth where it was unquenched appetite made manifest, a bloated hunger that consumed ore. The shape was vaguely bipedal, though largely spherical. The great, rotund belly gaped in a jagged, snapping maw within which sloshed molten iron. With each bite, the belly splashed luminous balloons of liquid-hot metal, as much hazard as the mandibles that spilled it. Neither fire nor poison could touch a scanderig—that dwarves sometimes called Forgefiends in the Common tongue—and acid and cold were diminished in their power to inflict injury.

The wizard called out alert to his friends, quickly appraising them of the forgefiend’s features. Then he moved into the room, felt the tumbling sensation in his innards, shook off the effect, and pointed at the hill giant. Lozenges of spiked purple erupted in fantastic parabolas that skewered the runed monster in a hail of magic. Abby leapt to one side as the great bulk collapsed almost on top of her.

The scanderig lunged with deceptive speed at Lem, great, jagged jaws of steel slamming shut with a sound to rattle the very stones. The gardener evaded deftly, dancing around syrupy streams of liquid iron, the heat of which still threatened to burn by proximity alone. Each dollop of slag that spilled on the floor quickly bubbled and cooled with abnormal speed into bulbous arrangements littering the smooth marble.

Kara moved into range and lobbed a single galvanic grenado against the rotund monster. Electricity danced across the metal shape, tracing outlines of piping at the shoulders, around the beads of the eyes.

Abby charged again, still small, and finally realized something was wrong as Gloriana and Rahab hove into view beyond the scanderig. The oracle and wizard were significantly taller than she was accustomed to, and it did not owe to the distorting sensation of the room’s strange geometry. As she brought her blade ringing against the hot metal of the forgefiend’s body, the warrior understood that some magic had overtaken her. The scanderig shuffled around on comical footstool legs, and the molten maw gaped. Liquid iron splashed as the jaws clamped shut on the warrior’s extended sword arm. Abby responded by invoking one of the magical enchantments Gloriana had bestowed before the fight began, restoring the damage instantly as the protective field vanished.1

Recognizing the utility of the ensorcelled staff plucked from the caverns, Lem wrestled with the length of nondescript wood that he had thus far carried like a barge pole, periodically abandoning in the heat of battle requiring movement, recovering it in aftermath. Now he had the staff in both hands and quickly advanced on the scanderig. The gardener swung the tool in a long arc that clattered on the metallic body. A flash of light flared along the length, then faded just as quickly as the rusting magic within discharged and erupted over the forgefiend. Pits and patina sprang up in a patch at the lower portion of the rotund back.2 Then Lem simply dropped the length of wood—now purely mundane—and quickly moved to recover his wand of the scorching ray.

Gloriana absorbed some of Abby’s lingering damage from the hill giant’s attack, and then turned her focus to her armor. Heartplate had already begun to hum, as if anticipating its wearer’s intent, and then the oracle summoned up a power from within the uncanny metal. With a thought she pushed the force outward in a wave that billowed and crashed, anathema to those with origins outside the Prime. Rivets, rust, and sections of metal blasted away from the scanderig. Again Gloriana called the power, and as it washed over the forgefiend a second time its force overcame all resistance.3 The great, kettle-round body crumpled under the assault like crushed paper. Slag bubbled and slurped onto the marble floor where it quickly solidified, holding the twisted iron wreck at angle like a grotesque sculpture in a deviant gallery.

Quiet settled on the strange chamber. Rahab stood to one side, hand extended, slowly panning around as he read the magical imprint of the place in the lattice of eldritch detection. Past the inscrutable, frustratingly familiar background signature of ancient Thassilonian magic the wizard read the heightened spell of size reduction that had washed over all of them, but which only Abby had failed to resist.

Gloriana channeled healing power for the warrior and herself.

Lem approached, the smirk on his face like a jester’s cap in the middle of solemn high mass. He walked right up to Abby and stared her in the face. Then he produced something from under his pack and quickly pulled it down around the warrior’s ears: A hat from the redcap in the tunnels. The headgear settled on Abby’s shaggy head at ludicrous angle.

“I really like being able to see you eye-to-eye,” the gardener remarked.

Gloriana turned to Rahab. “Do you think this effect on Abby will persist?” When the wizard’s devil-grin snapped wide, the oracle’s eyes widened. Oh, no. Don’t you dare.

A fire of brilliant mischief lit the wizard’s eyes and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “That depends on how long we find it funny.”

Gloriana froze, eyes locked on those of the wizard, struggling desperately not to tumble into delirious laughter.

••••

Abby strode into the northern hallway. Nothing changed. She returned to the others, still diminished, and glanced at Rahab. “It was worth a try.”

“No,” the wizard shook his head, “it wasn’t.”

“I wasn’t looking for your opinion.”

“Clearly, else you would have asked, and I could have saved you the steps.”

“I wanted to see for myself, to know for myself.”

Poised for another quip, Rahab opened his mouth, and then slowly shut it, his eyes narrowing in contemplation. Finally he nodded. “Very good, Abby.”

They group began to assemble at the exit in the southern wall. Gloriana glanced surreptitiously at Rahab and smiled to herself.

••••

Abby drew open the wooden portal, the action somewhat unfamiliar in her new dimensions. Lem could not stop grinning. Beyond, another hallway extended some forty feet before opening on another chamber. A flickering red glow danced and drifted across the polished marble surfaces, eerie light chasing sharp shadow in endless recursion. As they neared they took in more details. At the chamber’s center was a shallow firepit beneath an immense iron cauldron easily ten feet in diameter and perched on three spiked feet the girth of an elephant’s shin. The side of the great bowl was carefully etched with a seven-pointed star, and smoke rose from some unseen, bubbling turmoil within the container. A circle of scattered humanoid bones and scraps of dried flesh lay around the cauldron’s base.

Something moved through the red light at the far end of the chamber, a statue half-again Kara’s height, stone made animate by magic. In the next seconds it closed. Abby moved to meet it.

••••

Displacing more than nine-hundred kilograms, the thing was bipedal and crowned by a strange, flattened sculpture that suggested a helm of ancient style. The facial features had been chiseled to resemble a skull. It was a stone golem, as Rahab recognized only too readily. For the briefest moment the desire to declaim rose in the wizard with all the potency his immense ego could muster. Then his intellect—even more vast—assumed command. The companions had encountered enough constructs to easily understand what they faced. Moreover, the party included the redoubtable Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer, Dragon Slayer. Rahab closed his mouth and watched.

Twelve seconds later he was proved absolutely correct.4

••••

Abby helped, of course. The warrior’s sword possessed sufficient enchantment to convey damage to the arcane substance that was any animate construct, but the bulk of damage came from the alchemist. The golem just had time to strike a single blow against the warrior before Kara’s galvanic grenadoes easily, utterly defeated the thing. Chips splintered and sprang, chunks sloughed and tumbled, dust puffed and shook. A shape, a thing, a bulk of crafted rock uncoupled from sorcery in sudden reconciliation with gravity, and the crowned head rolled along the finely polished floor, coming to rest as Abby settled a warrior’s boot upon it in punctuation.

Rahab smiled in secret satisfaction, and then cast a spell of magical detection upon the room. The party stood in the entry, just beyond the edge of billowing cloud issuing from the cauldron like a serpent of smoke slinking down the sides of the great container. In the short battle’s wake a blanket of bubbling noise suffused the room. There was menace in the sound.

Lem looked at Rahab, and when the wizard shrugged, the gardener ventured forward chest high in the cauldron’s fume. In the roil, The Boots of the Panther scraped a bone, and Lem simply kicked it into the air, lifting his knee and catching the remain in deft balance so he could eye it upon his trouser.

“Definitely human,” he reported, and set his foot down so the bone rattle-rolled off his knee and back into the fog. “One of you should jump in.”

Gloriana read the layers of the only-partial-jest, and started to shake her head. Just then Abby ventured into the room, making for the opening onto another hallway at the eastern wall. The oracle felt the shudder of magic as her vital link absorbed some of the damage the warrior had sustained in the battle with the stone golem. Kara ventured forward next, and suddenly gasped. Gloriana felt the sudden change in the alchemist’s life signal at exactly the moment that Kara entered the cauldron’s mist.

A stinging sensation blasted her elven eyes, and so violent was the lachrymose effect that the alchemist could not see. Within her belly a tumult arose, violent, lop-sided, and insistent. The urge to vomit became unbearable, and Kara doubled over, expectorating violently into the ground fog that continued to roil and clutch like a greedy spirit of the swamp. Gloriana’s alarm grew as she felt the sensations vicariously through the connection of status magic her ancestors had perfected through unnumbered years at campfire, under starlight, upon The Road.

A choking cry rose from the alchemist. “I need help!”

“Kara’s in trouble!” Gloriana shouted. “Sound off!”

Lem and Rahab appeared unaffected. Abby shrugged, and perhaps that little part of her that would always be a Riddleport back-alley enforcer simply could not resist. “Maybe I’m sturdier than Kara.” The warrior reached the far side of the room and stepped beyond the limit of the fog.

The oracle realized the fog manifested as an expression of malignancy, it’s magic potent and lingering, and only Abby’s hearty resilience stood as bulwark against the toxin. As her mind raced how to proceed, she noted that the gardener and the wizard suffered no ill effect, but she would have to worry about that later.

Gloriana dashed toward Kara and became golden fire.

••••

In her elemental form the oracle required no respiration, and such advantage allowed her to traverse the area under the cauldron’s effect with ease. She reached out a liminal hand and quickly encircled one of Kara’s. “Stay close to me! We’re going to walk through.” The alchemist swayed unsteadily, but together the two women began to advance. Around their legs the fog swirled and loomed. Had she the solidity of flesh, Gloriana would have felt her jaw gritted tightly in grim resolve. She glanced back once and saw Rahab standing with left arm outstretched, reading the magical signature in the chamber. Her eyes widened.

Because the wizard’s eyes widened.

••••

The features tumbling in the arcane matrix registered with an intensity he did not initially credit. The signal alone demonstrated a power like none he had ever seen. It was a necromancy of the kind Avaxial might have recognized within the iron halls of Dis. Iterations of focus grounded the power doubly, even trebly within the upper echelons of the lattice, while tendrils of redundant death did not merely penetrate through to the lower levels, but coiled in double helix to provide the necessary grounding a resilience many devils or angels alike might have found difficult to counter. The cauldron even had auditory resonance that manifested in the wizard’s ears as a faint, dirge-like chant hinting at the Giant tongue, but clouded with the weight of ages, with the weight of misery.

Gloriana called back, her voice as golden as the fire from which it emerged, her concern a coating of pearlescent adamant ushering sentiment with absolute clarity. “What is it?”

“That,” the conjurer eventually breathed, eyes aglaze and fixed on the cauldron, “is an item of astonishing power.”

The oracle never even slowed. “Leave it!”

But the wizard did not hear, so deeply lost in concentration was he, intently memorizing the room’s position, dimensions, shape, and features, that he might simply teleport there at will, whenever he liked.


1 Abby elected to expend the energy of the blessing of courage and life that Glo had given her. As the magic disappeared, it restored 15 points of damage, completely negating the injury from the scanderig’s bite.

2 Rusting grasp hit the scanderig for 15 points of damage.

3 Heartplate has a feature called Enigmatic Alacrity that allows Glo to use the channel energy revelation as a swift action.

4 Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer. Seriously. The alchemist is the story parent golems tell little, wayward golem children to make them behave.

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Book V, Chapter 15: Jorgenfist Caverns, The Reprieve
Conna The Wise

The cave walls showed stylized figures painted in earth tones: giant-kin, mammoths, elk, wyverns. At the far end of the space was a simple altar in stone earnestly festooned with antlers, furs, animal blood, an oil lamp. A great, tanned mammoth hide covered the floor. Two corridors—east and west—connected the chamber to the larger cavern system. A gloom permeated, a weight in the air that was full of sorrow and a slow-burning anger buried deep.

The journey hither had not passed without challenge. Once Rahab had dismissed the force wall and the companions began to move, Sulaminga made a desperate attempt to catch them. The red dragon even managed to bite Gloriana as she tried to hold the back of the line while rallying the group through the corridor. When the party retreated beyond the narrows through which the dragon—despite its youth—could not navigate, Sulaminga placed her snout at the gap and filled the passageway with fire. In the end Gloriana had beseeched the spirits for a desperate power, and something ragged tore through her as her prayer was granted: A thick expanse of smooth stone sprang up and sealed the shaft,1 buying precious time and sealing the dragon away . . .

. . . in the cavern with the Erinyes.

••••

Now they gathered in the place the stone giant in the woolen tunic had called a shrine.

“Is this area safe?” Gloriana asked.

“No. This is the most dangerous of places. That is why it is shunned.” The stone giant’s voice had an unsettling quality, not malice, but grief, lachrymose thunderclouds above a tarn, a mountain weeping. “As long as you remain here you shall go undiscovered.”

Abby looked around and hefted her sword. She saw nothing besides the altar, the cave paintings, the adornments. “What makes it dangerous?”

The stone giant rested a piercing gaze upon the oracle. “That one knows.”

The warrior started to ask, but Gloriana anticipated: “It’s haunted, Abby.” The oracle could feel it in her bones. She faced the stone giant. “What happened here?”

“This is the altar where Vandarik was slain.”

“Who was Vandarik?”

“My husband.”

“Who slew him?”

“Mokmurian,” she murmured. “Our son.”

••••

A restless quiet cloaked the chamber. Lem did not glance away from the giant, not even to look at the oracle. He could sense the others, could follow the tense implication of their presence like a tremor in the air. A slight movement, an intake of breath, a shift in the eyes, any sign might prompt him across the distance in a pulse of violence.

No such impetus came.

“How are you called,” Gloriana asked quietly.

“Conna the Wise,” came the reply.

Another long pause. “Conna the Wise, I grieve with you for your husband,” the oracle offered.

“Why do you say this?”

Gloriana tensed, uncertain of her soundings in these waters. “Among my people grief is shared.”

“Then you are too weak to bear it alone. Is this the way among all you small folk? You will die here, I think.”

A volatile pause teetered among them.

“Perhaps,” the oracle admitted. “Or perhaps our ability to share grief lends us strength others fail to understand.”

Conna’s eyes glinted like slices of flint in the small lamplight. “You are far from the lands you know, small one.”

“I am called Gloriana.”

“Why have you come, Gloriana? Why do you bring war to the people of the plateau?”

“Because the people of the plateau brought war to me. Why did your son slay your husband?”

“Should you ask such a question in your mourning?”

“Someone must answer for what has happened. I thought to begin with you, but I can speak directly to Vandarik, if I must.”

“You cannot.”

“I can, and I think you know this.”

“You are not of the blood.”

“And yet I speak with the spirits.”

“There are many in this place.”

The oracle nodded. “Yes, and as of a few moments ago, still more. Perhaps some will linger. You could ask Vandarik what the new ghosts are saying about we who sent them on their way.”

Conna the Wise looked grave. “This is what comes of sharing grief: You sit at a table to which you were not invited.”

“No more than your son was invited to the lands from which you say I wander. Why else would I travel all this way? Mokmurian sent a raid to the coast. Some among my people died, some among my people were stolen away. He will answer for it. Though perhaps you think him too weak to bear his responsibility alone.”

“Do not think to twist my words against me, Gloriana. Your arts do not concern me.”

“Then what does concern you, Conna the Wise?”

“The lives of the people. I fear many foolishly follow Mokmurian, and I fear Mokmurian has fallen under the influence of one of the ancient enslavers.”

“What do you mean?” asked the oracle.

But it was Rahab who answered: “Karzoug.”

••••

The stone giant turned an inscrutable gaze upon the wizard. “You know this lord of runes?”

Rahab was sardonic. “I have reason to believe we met once, at a distance. He took something that belongs to me.”

“Your people?”

“My privacy.”

“You small folk are a mystery to me.”

Gloriana could feel something all around her, an electricity, ghostly whispers like a storm against a hut. “Conna the Wise, what do you wish for the people of the plateau?”

“That they should be free to live here and commune with the Stone at the Heart of the World as they have for millennia.”

“Then help us.”

“What will you do?”

“Liberate the people of the plateau.”

“And then?”

“Then I will mourn for your son.”

••••

The stone giant considered. “To help you I must have a promise to spare as many of the people as possible.”

Gloriana nodded. “Whomsoever is within our power to preserve.”

“Not the dragons,” Rahab suddenly offered. Conna and the others turned to face the wizard. “My spell has just ended. In the moments before she returned Milantha told me she slew the remaining dragon.”

It was as if everyone in the chamber held their breath. “Who is Milantha, that slays red dragons?” asked Conna.

“Vengeance,” answered the wizard.2

••••

The stone giant reflected for a long time. Unease gripped the companions, for each passing moment might reveal them to a patrol venturing from a different part of the caverns.

The stone giant read their malaise. “The shrine is protected against divination.”

“By what matrix?” Rahab expressed genuine interest.

“I do not understand.” She shook her head slowly when the conjurer repeated the question in the tongue of Giants. “Your practice is anathema, in the manner of my son. You ask that which cannot be told.”

“Ah,” Rahab nodded and stroked his goatee. “Sorcerer.”

Gloriana redirected. “What can you tell us?”

“Here will I sacrifice a spark such that time will change,” replied the stone giant. “We shall convene. What you do with that shall make your fate.”

The oracle angled her head. “Time?”

But Kara and Rahab understood. Time was a gift without price.

••••

Conna cast a spell and the air in the chamber distended in a pulse that collapsed back on itself. Rahab recognized the transmutation of flying; he knew it well, watched Kara employ it regularly. The power in that place—older even than the shrine itself—drew the spell in and contained it, reshaped it. Every mote on the air suddenly froze.

“Chaldira’s teeth,” Lem could barely whisper. It was a full minute before he and Abby realized the dust was still moving, almost too slow to perceive.

••••

They sat. Conna explained that Vandarik had been leader of the Karavatti. Among the people their son was smaller than usual, understood as a sign from The Stone at the Heart of the World that he would follow the sorcerer’s path like his mother. In time, however, Mokmurian was caught studying wizardry in secret, and was cast out of the tribe. Gone for many years, he returned in might, leading lamias, and gathering tribes of the people and other kin in a cause of conquest. To seize power Mokmurian slew his own father in sacrifice to unknown gods. Now the spirit of Vandarik haunted the chamber, and Conna’s presence was the only one to soothe the unquiet ghost. Even Mokmurian avoided the place. Ancient magic she could not name made it possible to tender a spell in exchange for time, the instantaneous magic acting as a kind of temporal currency. Doing so altered the rate of time within the chamber relative to that without. When Rahab inquired as to the mechanism, Conna only stared mutely, as if the query was meaningless, and—the wizard silently reasoned—to her it almost certainly was.

Rahab’s mind raced. At the center of the mystery the name “Karzoug” loomed, ten-thousand years gone, somehow only too present. Such longevity required immense power. It could be undermined, nonetheless. Eliminating components before they fully fit into the final structure would necessitate search for new components, or alteration of the architecture. Stasis was easy. It was momentum that was difficult.

The stone giant gave a basic description of the caverns, as well as the route to the fortress above, and the level below where Mokmurian made his chambers and worked taboo magic.

“Is there any way to save your son?” asked Gloriana.

“My son died when he forsook the way of the people and sought wizardry,” Conna replied starkly.

Abby trembled, jaw clenched. “Maybe things might have been different if his parents had not cast him out!”

The stone giant regarded the warrior with a curious glance. “How could he be other than what the Stone at the Heart of the World made him?”

Gloriana laid a reassuring hand on Abby’s mighty arm, but kept her eyes on Conna. “What does Mokmurian plan?”

“He seeks the return of the glory of ancient Thzzln.”

The companions shared a glance. “But that is not the glory of the people?” the oracle pressed.

“How could it be? That is the glory of the enslavers. You have three hours. When that time has elapsed, three minutes will have passed within the caverns. After that I can do no more.”

Gloriana nodded. “Let me confer with my companions.”

••••

They whispered in cluster.

“I have a scroll,” the oracle offered.

“What is the spell?” asked Rahab.

“The condensed recovery of sleep.”3

“A necromancy? Gloriana, there is hope for you yet. A most excellent proposal!”

“What does it do?” Abby and Lem asked together.

“We will sleep for two hours,” explained the oracle. “It will be as if we had a complete day’s recovery: healing, magic, renewal. Upon waking we advance on Mokmurian.”

The warrior gave a low, appreciative whistle, but the gardener was troubled. “Is it safe?”

“As safe as it can be here,” Gloriana replied.

“Can we trust Conna?” Lem pursued. “Can we even fall asleep in this place? What if it really is the most dangerous area in the caverns?”

“I think that perspective is variable,” Gloriana said. “We have little choice, and might as well take what advantage we can.”

“When we rouse,” Kara added, “we should move as quickly and as stealthily as possible, straight for Mokmurian.”

The oracle agreed. “The sooner we can deal with him, the sooner we are likely to upset the hold he has here.”

Rahab cleared his throat. “I will still require that final hour to study my spells. Do you think Conna will assume leadership in Mokmurian’s wake, should we succeed?”

Gloriana sighed. “She has conviction, and presence, to be sure. Insofar as that expresses leadership, then, yes, I think she will. And we still have to find the Sandpoint villagers. I will be glad to put this place behind us. Make ready.”

They lay down on the mammoth hide. The oracle read from the scroll, her eyes drifting closed even as she finished the words and the parchment became ash on a sourceless breeze.

••••

Rahab sat cross-legged, The Book of the Strange perched on his knees, eyes poring over the intricate symphony of spells he had penned within.

The others gathered at remove, checking gear, occasionally conversing quietly. A nervousness rippled through them like distant forks of lightning on the horizon. Though it had evidently unfolded as the stone giant had stated, they nevertheless found it difficult to reconcile nearly three hours passed with the implication of mere minutes in the caverns beyond. Fitful glances to either passage revealed nothing. For her part, Gloriana could hear the occasional howl of spirits in her ears like voices calling from a mountain side, only to fade away on dark currents of air.

Still seated, Conna lingered nearby, observing in silence. Occasionally she closed her eyes in silent fugue. After one particular episode she passed a narrow gaze between the studious wizard and the other four small folk.

“Why do you keep company with this one?” she asked, gesturing at Rahab, who remained in reverie of memorization.

Abby’s grip on her sword pommel tightened. “He is our friend.”

“He is a wizard. His path of magic is the darkness at my son’s heart. He will make your doom.”

It caught them all by surprise when Lem answered. “Do things get more stupid the taller they are?” The gardener leveled an accusatory finger at Conna. “Pay attention: There is no speculation you can produce that I have not already considered. Whatever else you think about him, that wizard is one of the reasons we are going to solve your problems. I don’t care which phantom you’ve fucked or which reject you’ve birthed, there will be a reckoning for Sandpoint, and for the beer.” Lem nodded his head in Rahab’s direction. “And that perfidious son of devil-worshippers will help make it happen. Count yourself lucky that one of the most dangerously intelligent minds around is not arrayed against you . . . yet. In seven minutes we march out of here and Jorgenfist resumes a lesson in humility.”

The subsequent silence seethed. Conna the Wise started to respond, but the gardener dropped hands to knife hilts.

“Think,” he said. “Think very carefully.”

••••

In the last few minutes of the magic the party gathered to make ready. Conna had turned to the altar and the silence of her thoughts. While Gloriana, Kara, and Lem conferred, Abby sidled up to Rahab who was carefully stowing The Book of the Strange in his haversack.

“You know about this sort of thing.”

The conjurer’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of thing?”

“Giants and their crazy beliefs.”

Rahab gave a small sigh. “Perhaps you should inquire of Kara or Gloriana—”

The warrior scowled. “I’m interested in the cold, hard version that punches you right down in the gut.”

An eyebrow lifted above faintest smile.

Abby was relentless: “It doesn’t make any sense!”

“What doesn’t?”

“Conna said the Heart of Stone—“

“The Stone at the Heart of the World . . .”

“—made her son a wizard and that’s why they threw him out, right?”

“Essentially.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. If the Heart made him just to be exiled, why was he allowed to come back? Why didn’t they just cast him out again? Why is he allowed to be in charge? Why didn’t he kill Conna, too, as well as the father?”

“Ah,” nodded the conjurer. “I see the problem.”

“Well?”

“Abby, you undertake one of the most hopeless exercises in all of sentient existence: trying to make sense of religious beliefs.”

“But what if throwing Mokmurian out led him to all this?”

“I think it probably did, as you posed in challenge earlier.”

“But the other stone giants don’t see it that way?”

“Correct.”

“Even though he has now taken over?”

“Quite.”

“But shouldn’t the Stone World protect them?”

“Who is to say the Stone at the Heart of the World did not seal their fate to fall under Mokmurian’s command?”

“Do you think that happened?”

“Do not be ridiculous! I posit one possible avenue of their thinking.”

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” the warrior groaned.

Rahab shook his head in sympathy. “It never does.”

“Then why do they do it?”

“Because it makes them feel better.”

“Even though it doesn’t make sense?”

“Especially because it does not make sense. Have you ever noticed how often things that make sense actually make people very unhappy?”

She conceded a nod. The wizard continued: “Believing something without evidence is fantasy, one fundamental to a school of magic, by the way. It is an act that makes the cosmos seem the way someone wants, not the way it actually is.”

“What magic is that?”

“Illusion,” Rahab scowled. “More addictive than pesh, more insidious than political assassination, more venomous than a purple worm sting.”

“And now the stone giants are going to let us go in there and get Mokmurian?”

“Some of them. Others will oppose us.”

“And both the opposition and the supporters think that is what the Heart of Stone wants, too?”

The wizard gave up correcting the warrior’s theological misnomers. “I suppose.”

“You’re not worried about them?”

“Not only am I not worried about them, I’m finding it difficult to devote even a modicum of energy to caring about them at all.”

“Which is why Glo does the talking?”

“Which is why . . . Glo does the talking.”

Abby smiled. “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you call her ‘Glo.’ You always say ‘Gloriana.’”

“I called her ‘Glo’ for parallel dramatic effect, Abby. I am nothing if not really fucking dramatic.”

••••

Part of the oracle’s plan included a spell of silence cast on a small pebble she could carry with her. Those moving within the radius of the magic thus made no sound, and so traversed the cavern passages with only light to betray their position. Scouting ahead, Lem discovered a patrol of stone giants accompanied by several dire bears and the two lamias. The patrol had gathered at a central, circular cavern that accessed the Jorgenfist grounds above via helical stone path corkscrewing to the surface. Lem spanned the intersection completely unobserved and with almost dismissive ease. Kara drank a concotion of invisibility and Rahab instantaneously traversed spacetime with Abby and Gloriana in tow. Once clear, the companions ventured along the perimeter path that circled to the southeast, passing a chamber profaned in the name of Lamashtu, the Demon Mother, where the lamias normally abode. Walls painted in unsettling spirals of blue and purple paint distorted perception around an altar flanked by basins thick with fresh blood. At the rear of the cave stood a massive stone carving depicting the nightmarish, three-eyed jackal visage.

Still undiscovered, the companions continued to a tunnel lined with stalactites and stalagmites demarcating a living area on either side. Two trolls squatted on their haunches in the wider corridor. At the feet of one rested a curved sword with a notched blade. Against a stalagmite close to the other leaned a cruelly pronged ranseur. Beyond the troll guards another passage bored down and away into the deep bedrock: the route to Mokmurian.

Their light sources would reveal the party’s position soon enough, and so the time for stealth had passed. Gloriana hurled the silenced pebble with all her strength, and the little missile tumbled almost perfectly between the two, green-skinned monsters.4

••••

A halfling seemed to appear out of nowhere. Hurek howled warning, but there seemed to be no sound, and his brother Durek burst alight when something small, ovoid, and full of liquid fire tumbled from overhead. More figures appeared at the intersection. A golden-haired human in a brilliant breastplate summoned a column of fire that enveloped the ranseur-wielding troll, while a half-elf encased in steel charged into Hurek with sword and shield. Another human appeared and launched a bubbling line of liquid that darted among the combatants and splashed harmlessly against a stalactite.

Durek died seconds later as still more projectiles churned oily smoke from burning troll flesh. Hurek managed to fetch the halfling two wounds, but the diminutive figure responded in kind with a dizzying assault of knives. Gouts of blood bathed speleothems like coats of melted chocolate on delicate finger pastries. The troll collapsed.

••••

Just outside the radius of the silenced pebble Rahab noticed something in his peripheral vision: Two stone giants from another tunnel to the west. The wizard executed a quick motion of ordered complexity and spoke a strange word. A pit appeared at the feet of the stone giants; both promptly plummeted with shouts of surprise that became cries of pain. Rahab nodded in satisfaction. He then faced the troll that Lem had bested and cast a series of acid conjurations on it to render regeneration impossible. For a moment, the companions stood in reprieve, but it would not be long before the shouts of injury and alarm from the stone giants might alert the larger patrol. Gloriana quickly summoned a phantom sound as distraction in the direction from whence the party had come. Her vitality link began transferring Lem’s injuries to her person as the group abandoned the silenced pebble and ventured into the corridor leading southeast.

As they moved the oracle launched a fierce whisper at Rahab. “Why didn’t you evoke a ball of fire on the trolls?”

The conjurer frowned. “Abby and Lem were right in the middle of the melee!”

“It wouldn’t have killed them.”

“I presume you are familiar with the phrase ‘damning with faint praise?’”

“But your dart of acid missed!”

Admonishing finger accompanied exasperated hiss: “Do not tell me how to do my work, and I will refrain from remonstrating you in yours, Seductress of Sandpoint!”

Invisible, in flight, and bringing up the rear, Kara’s voice descended from empty air: “Wifrith unred! Setria ghist!”5

The passageway began a gradual, winding descent.

••••

Gloriana channeled healing energy to knit Lem’s wounds that were becoming her own. Minutes passed. Neither sound nor sign of movement indicated pursuit. The tunnel coiled ever downward, and it became difficult to estimate how deep within the valley bedrock they were. Eventually the passageway leveled out and proceeded straight ahead. Features of natural cavern gave way to worked stone demonstrating notable artistry and curious joining. Where walls met floor and ceiling the angles of intersection had been polished into smooth, tight arcs. The visual effect was somewhat unsettling.

“Shaped by magic,” Rahab quietly answered the unspoken question.

Abby frowned. “Why?”

But just then neither wizard nor alchemist knew.


1 Glo spent a Hero Point to gain access to a spell she did not have, in this case wall of stone.

2 dgroo took over rolling for the Erinyes in the off-screen portion of the battle once we had moved beyond the wall of stone. Milantha promptly slew Sulaminga. Like I said: The Erinyes was an absolute beast.

3 Nap stack.

4 Because she’s haunted, whenever Glo throws or drops an object, ghosts interfere and the item is flung in a random direction. In this case it was actually a terrible throw that bounced (noiselessly) off a wall and then by sheer chance the scatter roll plaed it exactly between the two trolls.

5 Translated from Elvish: “Argue later! Move now!” The exchange between Glo and Rahab was based on an actual, in-game dialogue where I debated using fireball, but then decided against blasting two of the party members, thinking that was the kind of act that might earn a lecture, only to find Glo second-guessing the decision not to throw the fireball.

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Book V, Chapter 14: Jorgenfist Caverns, The Second Wave
The Devil And His Company

The spell unfolded. Rahab heard the words in his mind, felt them rattle from his vocal cords, saw them slam into place, one after another, within the gleaming, gyring pentacle of strange light.

“Countess of war from iron halls of Dis
Heed my call across gulfs of time and space!
In might arise with vengeance in your kiss!
At my command join battle in this place!

Your black wings an infernal silken shroud
Your gaze afire as arrows from your bow!
Master archer in Hell’s dread legions proud
Cause the blood of my enemies to flow!

Flights of flame transfix the murderous air,
The world in trembling anticipation,
Command delight in Heaven’s dread despair,
Rain fire from Hell’s damned conflagration!

Fan power as soft breath o’er quiet coals!
Seat us at your red feast of blood and souls!”1

A figure appeared in the air near the wizard. Gloriana’s eyes grew very wide.

Ghosts of the Road. She’s beautiful.

••••

Lem was back in familiar territory, a knife in each hand. He slit the tumbled ogre’s throat as casually as shutting a door in passing. Abby set her eyes on the brute on the other side of the pit, and debated whether to walk the air and close the distance. Still invisible, Kara waited to see what the creature might do, and hefted a bomb at the ready. There was a tense pause, and the three realized the ogre was not looking at them. The brute’s eyes were elevated above and behind, past the line of party members, face a canvas of uncertainty.

Warrior, alchemist, and gardener slowly turned to look over their shoulders. The silence was potent.

“Is she with us?” Abby hesitantly asked.

••••

She might have been human, except for the wings. Two great, feathered pinions spread wide, wafting languidly, lustrous black so rich and deep it might have induced drowning. Her hair was the same hue. Skin pale as a snowdrift in moonlight showed intermittent scar, bruise, or abrasion. Displayed with pride, such marks glanced out from behind or between portions or armor that clad her form: pauldron, vambrace, cuirass, fauld, poleyn, greave. The pieces were shaped from an ancient metal none among the party could name, and the intricacy of etching on each staggered aesthetic sensibility: a terrible beauty, or a beautiful terror. Elsewise she was naked, save for a drape of white cloth wet with streaks and spots of fresh blood. A longsword was belted at one hip, and in her hand she bore a longbow in composite. The weapon’s limbs were wreathed in flame, and the very string itself was a thread of living fire, the touch of which caused neither pain nor discomfort to the woman. Eyes the color of restless coals gazed upon the world with harbored vengeance, wrath unbound. She might have been human, except . . . .

Rahab smiled. “Bha’shd, thwe’ex u’ve shaw’lhur. Nonex zuym’qu’p fettheres Disonix idin asl’eedth Vyhum Ryrodth wejdeprozaz.2 A’k’zpeng ivichesh?”3

The light in her eyes was unholy. “Milantha. Ai’thenglion hish lh’ed’set?”4

Partially in clarification for his companions, partially in self-aggrandizement, the conjurer reverted to the Common tongue. “For now the ogres are guilty. I may render additional judgment on others as necessary, and so my petition must be sought unless otherwise directed. The human, elf, half-elf, and halfling you see present are friends of the court. Proceed!”

Just before she powered forward on dark wings the executioner favored Rahab with a smile of triumphant bloodlust.

A hot spike of surprising jealousy hammered home in Gloriana’s sternum.

••••

The Erinyes flew over Rahab’s conjured pit, bearing down upon the ogre. A length of material uncoiled from the vambrace at her right wrist like a whip as black as her hair, as black as her wings. She snapped it forward and effortlessly coiled it around the brute, pinning thick arms to hulking torso. The ogre struggled mightily against the restraint, but could not break free. A laugh of ancient menace issued from the executioner’s lips.5

“I guess she’s with us,” murmured Abby. The warrior was not entirely sure she believed that.

Stone giants began to arrive. Circumstances got more complicated.

••••

The first giant appeared in the eastern corridor. It came not from the barracks where the others still slept, nor did it number in the original five stymied by the magic wall, but rather it emerged from the room or passage to the south that had issued the ogres. Dressed in the traditional hide kilt and harness the party had come to recognize, it arrived in time to see the Erinyes coil a length of Infernal rope around the ogre.

The second stone giant stopped in the corridor to the north on the other side of Rahab’s wall of force. Kara recognized a female, the first among the stone-kin the party had seen. Tattoos of unknown significance arrayed across the giant’s head and cheeks, and she was dressed in a tunic of darkly dyed wool. Around her neck she wore a chain that held a gemstone in oval cut. The female pressed against the invisible wall and made a beckoning motion. Uncertain what was happening, the alchemist pitched a grenado onto the ogre in the pit even as the brute looked for some way to ascend. A howl roared up from below.

Lem and Abby noticed, as well. The warrior called out: “There are giants, both directions! Are we dropping the force wall or am I going over the pit?”

“No!” Gloriana shouted. “Stay here!” The oracle was finding it difficult to keep track of everything. She soaked a little more damage from Abby, Lem, and Rahab, and then sent the spectral fighter to the far side of the pit. A scimitar of golden mist drew blood and toppled the entangled brute at the pit’s edge.6 “Just wait!” Gloriana admonished. “Make them come to us, through our summoned allies!” She healed some of her own damage with a spell.

••••

Lem moved north, then skirted to the corridor where the stone giant stood at the wall of force. She beckoned urgently as the gardener drew near, then tapped her palms on the invisible barrier, then beckoned once more. The gardener started to say something and the giant shook her head and pointed to her ear. Lem frowned.

“Rahab! Why can’t she hear me?”

The wizard’s gaze was fixed in the direction of the pit and the developing situation beyond, but he understood without needing to glance aside. “The wall prevents transmission of sound.”

“Then how come we could hear Barl call the hags at Hook Mountain?”

“That wall did not form a perfect seal against the cavern. It was fixed at the sides, but there was some small space for air to pass above it, though not enough that the giants or ogre could move through.”

Lem shook his head. This magic business was sometimes more trouble than it was worth. He turned back to face the giant and watched as she beckoned again, and then appeared to cast a spell. Something gleamed on the stone next to her, letters in Common, lit brightly by some arcane luminescence that soon faded. Before they vanished the gardener read the words: i can help come this way

Lem inhaled at length, exhaled slowly. To the Hells with it. “I think we should let the force wall down. This stone giant says she can help us.”

••••

Milantha powered backwards on glorious wings, dragging the ogre. Abby’s eyebrows arched. The warrior knew full well how much strength it required to move giant-kin. The Erinyes evinced no strain at all, and she was laughing with delight.7 The sound shook Abby in her bones. It was the laughter of joy in battle, the cackle of violent thrill, and the warrior shivered, not because it sounded like it came up from Hell, but because she knew the feeling intimately.

The binding uncoiled and retracted seamlessly into vambrace as the executioner dropped the brute into Rahab’s conjured pit.

From his position at the rear of the group Rahab had a direct line of sight down the eastern corridor, and he had already calculated distances and vectors. The giants in the barracks still slept, but it was probably not much longer before the original group of five that had been stopped by his wall found their alternate route and began rousing their fellows.

“Gloriana?”

The oracle looked at the wizard. Rahab’s gaze did not waver. She turned her own to follow, and recognized what he intended, what he was asking. The companions had seized advantage when they first entered this area, but the fight with the kobold had taken just a little too long, and it was one minute at most before a serious contingent of opponents gathered in force. The pit would not last forever, and creatures of significant size could span it with little difficulty. Gloriana imagined she could see the mathematics at work in the conjurer’s mind.

Her heartrate accelerated. “Do it.”

Rahab cast the spell.

••••

The line of magic threaded a perfect needle, passing over Abby’s shoulder, underneath the Erinyes, and between the advancing stone giant’s legs. Silent fire erupted in the barracks.

Oh, shit, that one’s really big! The warrior was one-hundred-and-forty feet away from epicenter, and she still felt the pressure wave and the curtain of heat.

The stone giants were awake now.8

••••

A chunk of stone the size of a pumpkin hurtled into the cavern, narrowly missing Gloriana’s head. The closest stone giant on the far side of the pit hefted another missile; his kin in the barracks roused in fury, and as they spilled into the corridor the cruel burns showed on their bodies.

The oracle commanded her ghostly combatant to close on the artillerist and bring battle. For the first time since its summoning, the phantom missed its attack. Gloriana drew more of her friends’ previous injuries, and cast another spell of minor healing upon herself. Glancing once more at the devil aloft on lazily pulsing wings, the oracle angled to the northern part of the cavern near Lem. “What in the Hell’s is going on? Who is this?”

“I think this stone giant sincerely wants to help us, but we have to drop the force wall,” explained the gardener. “So . . . ” he crossed his arms and arched his eyebrows at her. “Do we drop it?”

Gloriana could not believe what she was hearing. “No!” She turned back to the east just in time to see the giants closing on her spiritual hoplite.

Lem shrugged helplessly at the sorcerer on the other side of the force wall, bent to the cavern floor, and plucked a chip of stone blasted loose when Kara set her thunderous explosives against one of the ogres. He set the piece against the nearby rock and pressed hard to mark the words: sorry humans are asses. Then he pointed at the golden-haired human who had returned to worrying about the threat from the other hallway.

The tattooed stone giant threw up her hands in exasperation.

••••

Reluctant—for the moment—to expend more bombs on distant targets, Kara unlimbered her longbow and fired at the nearest giant. Almost immediately she felt a strange relief that none among her kin in the Mierani had seen the pathetic course of the missile that failed to even clear the pit.9

Abby stepped into the air, then crossed the pit under the striding spell and closed on the giant before it could throw another boulder. Her sword struck a portion of dense leather harness and rebounded harmlessly. The warrior frowned. Still smoking from Rahab’s blazing spell, four more attackers ambled toward her. The rock-thrower dropped his missile and hefted his club, and the lead giant in the arriving contingent did the same. In the moment before they struck Abby had a brief window against the newer arrival, and turned her blade in a cut across his thigh. She held Avenger against an incoming club and shuddered under the impact, and then the first giant struck her full on the right side and pain shot through her whole body.

Rahab drew the wand that launched magical arrows of acid. Pointing the arcane tool at the stone-thrower, the wizard completed the magic and a shaft of hissing liquid scored a deep hit in skin the color of mountain granite. “Milantha!” the conjurer thundered. “This court finds the stone giants in the eastern corridor guilty!” The executioner’s smile was a shark’s maw that he felt in his mind.

By the merest unholy glance the Erinyes blighted the four stone giants from the barracks with a chill darkness that hollowed the soul, then she ascended ten feet into the air to take commanding position over the growing battlefield.

Across the pit the ghost brought shining scimitar to bear and cut a blazing wound in one of the stone giants, a cut so deep it brought the creature to its knees, and then to the floor. A second crescent of sunlit mist carved another canyon across the now exposed back.10 In the meantime, Gloriana’s link of vitality cycled, and she healed herself with another spell against the constant barrage of injury feedback. One of her haunts whispered something in her ear, and the oracle realized that she had made a mistake. The companions did need help. She rushed to the force wall and slammed her palms against it in desperate attempt to get the retreating sorcerer’s attention, though no sound could pass the barricade.

By chance the giant—Conna the Wise—saw movement in the corner of her eye, something silken, something golden. She turned to look at the human ass fitfully gesturing for attention.

••••

Lem passed Rahab as he returned to the fight. “Glo may need you to dispel the wall of force.” The remark was almost off-handed. Then the gardener stepped to the air and jogged over the pit to join Abby. As he passed the toppled stone giant he kicked the fallen creature, because he could. Then he looked down the corridor and saw. A moment later so did Abby, Kara, and Rahab.

There were two of them flying in line formation from the barracks: leathery wings, smoke coiling from long snouts, scales like cherry wine in hearthlight.

Apex predators.

••••

It was hard to reconcile the vision with the environment. The corridors in this section of cave were certainly large; they had been shaped to accommodate giants, after all. Yet the dragon wings spanned the distance, and as they cycled the tips nearly scraped stone. It was testament to both the precision and the audacity of the fliers—young though they were—that they could navigate the tunnels at all. As they swooped over the heads of the stone giants the foremost roared, shimmering the air as gullet churned red-then-white-hot.

Kara’s heart sank. Two of them? Kin to Longtooth? They must know of his demise. What banner gathers three red dragons here? By the Brightness, why?

And then things got even worse. At the back of the barracks another creature appeared: quadruped, the lower body a tawny lion, tail atwitch, the torso a beautiful human woman upright. In the eyes a quality feline, black slits in orbs of green so potent it shone yellow in darkness. Form draped in silk, bangled in gold, the lamia padded to the perimeter of the spell of silence bestowed on the chamber by Gloriana’s earlier craft. A second group of stone giants, numbering five, followed in her wake, having finally found their way around.

The alchemist despaired. Giants, dragons, lamia, still more giants: It was all too much. How to explain it all? How to encapsulate enough information such that her friends had some advantage?

Abby eschewed complexity. “Incoming!” the warrior howled.

••••

Gloriana heard her best friend, but her position in the northern passage obscured any view of developing events. Alarm shook her core, but she forced herself into a desperate calm. She had to secure this alternate avenue first, and then manage the rest. She trusted her friends. They would know what to do. In fact, they already knew what to do, and how to do it very, very well.

The female giant wove a spell and once again bestowed letters in light within sight through the invisible wall: there is little time.

Oh, I know, thought the oracle. “Everyone, fall back to me!” she shouted. “Rahab! We can fight about it later, but I need this wall down now!” Gloriana wreathed herself in protection from malign forces.

••••

Milantha drew a string of fire easily to her ear. A shaft at nock—itself a length of tongues curling orange—appeared out of nothing. The executioner sighted on the tumbled giant. When she released the flights trailed like ash on a wind. With practice born of unlimited war on battlefields of damnation she fired again, and again, three shafts in the space of a breath. Quivering rods of flame buried in stone giant flesh, the pain so intense the creature could summon no air to cry out.11

Rahab captured and analyzed it all in a spark’s lifetime. To the Hells with the giants, he reasoned. Fire is coming. The spell he cast set a moment’s aura of shimmering light around his form, an ablation of flame.12 He thought for a moment to move up behind Kara, and then he heard Gloriana’s voice, and glanced back and forth between impending conflagration and the tunnel to the north. “Milantha!”

The Erinyes’ voice entered his mind. Haya’shel ordist gos’tre’te?13

The wizard held his left hand aloft, index and little finger extended, middle and ring fingers clenched under thumb. “Zy’zydraz ver lisom’breted equetsch rozte!”14 He grimaced, and then chuckled to himself. It was almost comical. In the last thirty seconds he had passed judgement on almost everything in view. Then a flash of insight snapped his intellect into heightened guard. He was suddenly grateful he had summoned the devil, instead of attempting to bind her, because in the last thirty seconds he had passed judgement on almost everything in view. That, he realized, is the temptation. He had to admire the power, the sheer brilliance of the guile, the intricacy of the layers and agency. Despite limits of duration and application, his summoning spell’s architecture nevertheless provided another layer of protection.15

With a thought he dismissed the wall of force.

••••

Kara fired her bow again and this time scored a hit on one of the standing giants. Her second shot missed.16 Abby capitalized on chokepoint position just beyond Rahab’s conjured pit. To her right: a stone giant, upright, wounded; to her left: a stone giant, prone, seriously wounded. The warrior’s first sword stroke slew the standing opponent, her follow-through recovery finished the tripped enemy. Six seconds, two dead giants, and Abby the stop-gap halting the next wave in the assault, with two juvenile red dragons barreling pell-mell in a stone corridor below a fortress built on some ancient power. There was some sort of cat woman farther back, and a flung rock hurtled toward the warrior that she deflected with Avenger.

It was getting good.

••••

“Abby, we’re pulling back,” Lem murmured, knives held before him.

The warrior frowned. “Where?”

“To Glo, north corridor.”

“Why?” Abby’s sword dripped blood and waved a point of deadly promise in front of the oncoming enemies.

“Because it’s about to get very hot.” Blades kept ready, the gardener retreated over the pit.

••••

The lead dragon—a male aspirant to tyranny called Econtredor and a mere twenty years from the shell—roared past Abby and received a sword strike for his arrogant bypass, but he left the warrior to Sulaminga, the female, similarly aged and inclined. As he rocketed overhead, the saurian lowered his head and opened his mouth. Drawn air superheated almost instantly. A cone of flame bathed Lem, Kara, Rahab, and Milantha.

The wizard smiled, enjoying immense satisfaction at the result. Of them all, Kara suffered the worst damage, but even that was significantly diminished by dint of elven deftness and no small luck in curling away from the blast at the last moment. So keen were the gardener’s reactions and ability to read danger that Lem—quite simply—could not be caught in the blistering wave save by the most catastrophic of limitations or failures. As for Rahab, the protection of his spell easily carried away the devastating heat. The conjurer’s eyes fell upon the Erinyes hanging in mid-air, and he exulted in her display: black wings spread wide, arms held apart as though anticipating embrace, a greedy grin on her lips.

Fire on a devil, rain on an ocean: What was the difference?17

••••

Sulaminga concentrated on Abby. Fire billowed, spilling past the warrior and down into the conjured pit, nearly reaching the ogres below. The heat was intense, but the warrior found some measure of defense behind the strange and brilliant circumference of Avenger. She had weathered worse from better.18

Two incarnations of magic suddenly crashed upon Abby from behind the cordon of giants. A brace of lamias now stood in the barracks just beyond the radius of silence. The first projected a debilitating necromancy that threatened to steal vision, an effect the warrior knew Rahab had used to impressive degree against previous foes. It took everything within Abby’s being to shake off the encroaching blindness. A moment later the second lamyros sent a paralyzing compulsion against the warrior. Abby froze.19

••••

Malintha sneered contempt at Econtredor, drew her blade, and swooped in, hewing mightily. Sword-strokes to rival Abby’s tore two long rents in scaled flank, and the dragon snapped jaws shut on empty air as the executioner casually folded one wing clear of the bite. The saurian coiled to recover and reorient in mid-air.20

And that’s when two applications of Kara’s bottled lightning crackled scales, collapsed muscles, electrocuted bones, and completely overloaded a nervous system. Econtredor died on the wing and plummeted into Rahab’s pit, full weight falling upon the ogres at the bottom. One of the brutes was pinned to the chasm floor, a magically conjured spine of steel spearing straight through the heart.21

In the next breath Abby shook free of the paralytic magic.22 “Forwards or backwards?” she called out.

The Heroes of Sandpoint Choir: “BACKWARDS!”

••••

Gloriana soaked a portion of pain. Closest among the others, Rahab arrived at the northern corridor first, followed a moment later by Lem. Kara preceded Abby by a single pace. In the cavern the spirit fighter and Malintha battled on, buoyed by success, awash in the utter power of knowing they would not die, merely return to the place from whence they came covered in new glory. A magical conjuration of Sarenrae’s bliss, the gilded mist stood in serene peace, reflecting the patience of the The Everlight herself. The executioner, by contrast, reveled. Born an agent of Infernal vengeance, the Erinyes did not merely understand war. She was war.

Sulaminga began to bleed.23

••••

Gloriana was fraught. “Rahab, as soon as—”

“It’s DOWN!”

The female stone giant’s voice was surprisingly soft. “Come this way. If you can block the passageway behind you it will buy more time.”


1 This is the actual sonnet I composed for the game session as the verbal spell component for this instance of summon monster VI. Sadly, when I posted it in the MapTool chat window the formatting got screwed up. This is how it should have appeared.

2 Translated from Infernal: “Welcome, relentless executioner. I read in your armor membership in the Second Cohort of Ashen Tears.”

3 Translated from Infernal: “What is your name?” (Lit. “What name does Heaven fear?” Because there is a very significant—and powerful—difference in a True Name versus a name an outsider adopts, this particular phrase is a polite request for the latter. Even though this is not a planar binding, Rahab is observing the proper forms.)

4 Translated from Infernal: “Milantha. How shall I punish?”
Milantha is my variation on the Ancient Greek “Melantha” meaning “dark flower.” The choice of Ancient Greek as a basis for names should be obvous.

5 Rope entanglement was a critical hit, and the ogre’s attempt to burst free with strength failed.

6 Third of three attacks by the spiritual ally that successfully hit and toppled a target.

7 Rahab has the Augment Summoning feat, which means every creature he calls via summon monster has +4 to Strength and Constitution scores. Milantha’s adjusted stats were: Str 24, Dex 23, Con 25, Int 14, Wis 18, Cha 21. For 16 rounds the Erinyes was the strongest, toughest, wisest member of the party, and the second most charismatic. She was a beast.

8 This was the first casting of an Empowered fireball. 15d6. Rolled 48 points of damage, below—and within one standard deviation of—the mean. And one of the stone giants made its Reflex save. The Random Number Generator gods hate me.

9 Natural 1. This kind of thing . . . really doesn’t happen to Kara much.

10 Critical hit for 16 points of damage, and another tumble, this time on a stone giant. The follow up attack immediately hit for another 12 points. Sarenrae didn’t just send any old spirit; she sent the echo of a paladin or something.

11 46 points of damage. Counting dropping the ogre in the pit, the unholy blight on the giants, and the arrows, Milantha has already done more damage than Rahab has in this fight. Summon monster VI. The spell kind of changes at this level.

12 Protection from energy: fire.

13 Translated from Infernal: “What is the verdict of the court?” Erinyes have telepathy to a range of 100 feet.

14 Translated from Infernal: “The red dragons and lamias are guilty!”

15 Always use protection when consorting with devils, IYKWIMAITYD.

16 It’s worth remembering that Kara’s alchemical bombs are always ranged touch attacks. The alchemist has yet to find a bow that bestows the same benefit.

17 Everyone made their Reflex saves against dragon breath, reducing 34 points of damage to 17. Lem has Evasion, which nullified all damage, and Rahab’s spell ablated the heat entirely, leaving him a comfortable 103 points of potential fire damage still to cancel. And the Erinyes, well . . . .

18 Abby made her Reflex save, too! Only took 18 points of damage. The problem was what happened next . . . .

19 Fortitude save against blindness failed, so she spent a Hero Point and made the follow up save successfully. But the next spell was hold person and that Will save didn’t even come close.

20 The Erinyes is now in melee, and hit twice for 22 points of damage. Added to the 18 points that Abby did on the AoO when Econtredor flew past, the dragon is now down 40 hit points.

21 The alchemist scored two direct shock bomb hits totaling 76 points of damage. Boom. Econtredor’s falling body killed one of the ogres in Rahab’s pit. Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer, Dragon Slayer.

22 Hold person allows an additional Will save at the start of the affected person’s turn. Abby’s back!

23 Spiritual ally hit the remaining dragon for 11 points of damage. Milantha hit for 26 points.

View
Book V, Chapter 13: Jorgenfist Caverns, The First Wave
Infiltration

They gathered around the wizard. “It has a name?” Gloriana asked.

Rahab inspected the device greedily. “All devices of this magnitude have names.”

Gloriana smirked and crossed her arms. “Is The Diadem of the Swan a device of this magnitude?”

He turned his devil grin on her and his eyes were full of mischief. “It will be.”

“What does it do?” Abby stared at the sphere and its strange storm of smoke. It was hypnotic.

“It harnesses and projects umbral magic in several ways: summons, for example.”

“Summoning what?” Warrior and oracle both wanted to know.

Kara interjected: “Shadows.”

“Oh, really?” Gloriana leveled a cutting stare at the wizard.

“Entirely under control of the staff’s wielder,” Rahab parried smoothly.

“It’s a necromantic tool, Rahab.”

“Yes, and also one of conjuration, and evocation, as well.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“Would you like to debate magical categorization without context? Shall we start with conjuration? After all, healing magic is conjuration.”

The oracle frowned.

“The staff is safe in my hands, Gloriana.”

“Not the opening line of argument I would have employed.”

The wizard smiled. “You would prefer to leave it here, awaiting discovery by someone—or something— else?”

“Point taken.”1

••••

Lem expertly scaled the chute in a demonstration that made traversal look easy. Abby and Gloriana exited the cavern and walked back up on the air to the upper cave entrance. Kara drank another elixir of flight, and Rahab cast his spell of localized displacement, his remaining reservoir of dimensional steps being insufficient to the distance. When he arrived in the chamber he used his cantrip of acid to methodically establish a narrow walkway in the arthropod carpet. The companions gathered their light sources, passed through the secret door at the rear of the cave, and let the gardener scout ahead.

They found themselves in a narrow, insect-free passageway that gradually inclined to the northeast. Rocks of various sizes strewn throughout, combined with the tight space and occasional oblique orientation of the tunnel, made progress slow. Kara gave Lem an extract that bestowed vision in darkness.

The gardener came upon a series of honeycomb caverns and puzzled over the layout for a while. He sensed nothing, but the area felt like a lair, tightly woven, the kind of space where smaller creatures had advantage of movement, position, and surprise. Something tingled in his intuition. He cautiously whispered down the arcane link of messaging that Rahab had established between the five.

“Tight squeeze here.”

Abby whispered in return. “What’s going on?”

“Opening on the left. Ambush, maybe.”

“By what?”

In the darkness Lem rolled his eyes. “I don’t know; I haven’t been ambushed by it yet.”

Abby blinked. “Should we move up?”

“Yes. Going to be difficult to fight here, though.”

The warrior looked over her shoulder, jerked her head in the direction of forward progress, and set off. The others followed, alert, nervous.

Gloriana invoked protection from the sight of the undead on all save Lem, who was too far ahead for the spell’s range to come into effect. The group arrived at the dense intersection of small tunnels and tubes. Lem emerged from shadow holding a finger to his lips. Then he pointed down a nearby corridor. Gloriana had to vocalize in order to bestow protective blessings on the gardener before he began making his way into the confined space, daggers drawn.

Lem angled cautiously around an acute curve and bumped into something. He just had time to whisper “Monster” through the messaging magic, and then he stabbed, over and over and over again.

••••

Eyes still fixed on the small tunnel, Abby gave a fierce whisper: “Lem’s found something!” She braced Avenger, held her sword in the tight-but-loose fighter’s grip, and rose on the balls of her feet.

A sound reached them, slowly drawing nearer, metal scraping on stone in rhythmic surge-and-stop. The gardener appeared, dragging something.

“Never mind,” he said.2

••••

Alive, the corpse Lem had brought would have stood a little shorter than the gardener. It was a gaunt, wicked looking man with a long white beard and the pointed ears common to so many fey. In addition to a ragged, grimy pair of linen trousers, the creature wore a pair of bulky iron boots, cruelly arrayed with spikes and rivets. The weapon it had borne was an agricultural scythe that should have been too large for its small form. The tool had a length of chain by which Lem had dragged corpse and weapon to the others. Written on the body were the deep, critical wounds hallmark of the gardener’s knife work. As he drew to a stop Lem abandoned the chain and held up a strange, conical hat dyed the color of dried blood.

“Redcap,” he murmured grimly.

Kara shuddered. “Nasty.”

Lem nodded agreement.

“I doubt he’s the only one,” said Gloriana.

Abby turned and began making her way northeast along the main tunnel axis. She trod heavily, intent on making noise, her steel armor readily ringing in the close quarters. “Let’s find out.”

••••

The main redcap contingent attacked in force at another intersection. There were seven of them, and they seemed to come from every direction at once.

Abby found herself trading blows with one of the little monsters, and it was difficult to bring Avenger into play because of the tight space. By contrast, the redcap launched a series of vicious kicks with its spiked iron boots, the impact of which proved disconcertingly painful. Despite its size the fey had tremendous agility that allowed leaping attacks using the tunnel walls and rocks to boost height and distance. The warrior was reduced to a series of thrusting attacks at a target smaller than Lem yet nevertheless capable of kicking as high as her head.

Kara hurled galvanic bombs that lit the narrow tunnels in strobing blue-white. As usual, her alchemic magic proved effective, but one of the redcaps closed and sprung, metal boots landing in concert and scoring an array of punctures in the alchemist’s side. Blood dripped from seams in her leather armor.3

Lem sought to maneuver in flank when another snarling fey dropped out of a hole in the stone directly above, bristling boot soles bared in savage plunging attack. Lem turned their own tactics against them and kicked off the wall to rebound out of the way. The only one among the companions with size and adroitness to match the wicked creatures, the gardener found himself in a strange kind of combat. His opponent lashed with furious kicks, the tunnel too narrow to allow successful swings with scythe. Lem marveled: Why do they even carry a tool like that when there isn’t enough room to use it? Fey madness!

Two redcaps swarmed Rahab. Iron studs and spikes slammed into shin, thigh, ribs, and the wizard gasped as the air fled his body alongside a fair portion of blood.

Gloriana began to siphon injuries from her friends. “Everyone back up! Get them closer!” She quickly incanted a spell of healing for Rahab. It was not complete, but would have to suffice for the moment, and it helped him withdraw a few feet. The conjurer pointed at the nearest fey and spat a word eldritch, contemptuous. Arcane beam touched the redcap and instantly erased it from existence.

“Do not! Touch! Me!”

••••

Attempting to follow Gloriana’s instructions, Kara suffered a second wounding, but managed to recover an admixture of invisibility from her belt. A moment later she vanished from sight.

One of the redcaps sent up a cry in a language none of the companions understood, but the intent soon became clear as the fey battling Abby lunged past the warrior with surprising speed and made straight for Rahab. Another redcap appeared from a bolt-hole off to one side, and joined its fellow pressing the attack on the wizard. Then a third converged. More blood flowed. The conjurer clenched his jaw grimly: The drawback to disintegration was how rapidly it reshuffled threat priority. The rattling clatter of iron boots hammered on the tunnel stone, a rhythm of staccato cruelty. Rahab knew his abjuration of arcane armor could only provide so much protection before the tumultuous assault battered him to death. Pain seized lungs, ribs, limbs, belly.

And then Gloriana saved his life.

••••

How many times had she tried the charm before, or one similar to it? How many spirits had she beseeched in an effort to turn their haunted influence against foes? How many monsters had shrugged off the compulsion with savage glee, only too eager to rend in sadistic mockery of her agency?

The four-armed gargoyle had been one such. But Rahab had been there, and perhaps it was the symmetry that the spirits, in their fickleness, appreciated in that moment. As she invoked the spell Gloriana heard Ama’s voice like a wind amongst leaves: Will I still worry about your heart?

Vanquishing command shattered the minds of the three fey. Ghosts descended, clouding thought, forbidding violence.4

••••

Rahab evoked a corridor of lightning that blasted two of the redcaps into twisted coils of rigid, blistered flesh. The tunnel smelled of smoke, ozone, char. Then Gloriana quickly channeled healing power and the wizard’s mind swam in delirium of relief, of chance, of life.

••••

Kara’s explosive bombs tore another redcap to messy pieces. Abby and Lem combined to finish two more. The one remaining fey executed an acrobatic maneuver of impressive agility and ran away into the warrens, a string of unknown syllables echoing in wretched malice down tunnels of stone.

Silence descended. A chunk of redcap corpse blown free by the alchemist’s grenado slowly slurped from the ceiling with a deliquescent splat.

Gloriana and Rahab detected for magic and found no sign. Lem did not deign even cursory exploration. “They won’t have anything. Not here, anyway. Whatever they’ve collected is back there somewhere.” He gestured ruefully at the maze of narrow corridors and bends flanking the main route northeast.

“Will that one come back?” asked the oracle. “Will it bring others?”

Kara interjected: “Doubtful. Their tactics rely on overwhelming opponents. If there are any others they are even now hearing that a confrontation with us is to be assiduously avoided.”

A grin slowly dawned on Abby’s face. “Spread the word.”

••••

A whisper: “Thank you.”

She heard the slightest tremor in his voice, anthology of more sentiment than those two words ever were or ever could be.

A smile: “You’re welcome.”

Something flitted at the edge of her perception. Not now, Ama!

For the moment it was enough.

••••

The route to the northeast eventually leveled out. Lem did not know how far from the river cliffs they had come, but his best guess was nearly a furlong. The gardener had an advance of eighty feet or so on the party, and up ahead he could see the tunnel widen. The vision augmentation Kara had given him remained; thus, he advanced without light. Roughly square, the cave ahead marked around twenty feet on a side. Clutter lay strewn about: bits of bone, scattered stones, dead rats, a portion of rope, a broken weapon. Two stalagmites emerged from the cave floor near the point where the tunnel became the chamber, and hung between the natural pillars was a net hammock. Resting within lay a small, lizard-like humanoid covered in red scales and wearing a breastplate of black steel. Lem withdrew until he felt safe to whisper down the arcane channel.

“Red lizard biped. Sentry? Scavenger?” Without waiting for reply he made his move, returning to the cave junction with dagger drawn. As he started across the floor he heard a sound. Glancing down the gardener saw The Boots of the Panther standing on a small pile of rodent bones. His eyes came up.

That’s an impressive looking spear.

••••

“Do we need to kill each other?” Lem asked, all casual bravado. Twin knives suddenly cut red scales. The wounds should have been grievous. They did not even show.

Rhythmic puffing might have been saurian laughter. Then came the hiss, sibilance like lightning. The gardener got a closer look at the spear.

••••

Gloriana gritted her teeth and looked at Abby. “Let’s go. Lem’s hurt.”

Warrior, oracle, alchemist, and wizard set off at a run.

••••

“I can take that all day,” he lied.

She was a kobold called Enga Keckvia, but the gardener would never know that. “I am eager to see!” Her accent was thick, and her voice was like water poured on hot stones, a tea kettle’s rage. She stabbed him with the spear again despite his defensive movement. He was still in the fight, but this lizard queen—no bigger than he—was more than he imagined, and he would never, ever admit that.

Abby arrived in the cavern. The kobold’s tail whipped in anticipation and as the yellow eyes oriented on the warrior Lem tried to maneuver into flank. A dagger slashed along the inner arm and did not even draw blood. Saurian snout glanced over shoulder and snorted, a sound of contempt in any language.

The gardener tried bluffing behind a menacing grin. “That’s my girlfriend.” He nodded at Abby.

“Not for long.”

Still on her way in the tunnel Gloriana gasped suddenly. Now Abby was bleeding.

••••

When the alchemist and oracle arrived in the cavern what should have been the most pressing problem—the kobold busily impaling their friends—fell rapidly behind another growing concern. A corridor leading out of the cave to the east opened onto another large space outfitted as a rudimentary barracks. Numerous hides had been strewn on the floor as sleeping space, and a cluster of stone giants slumbered there. Moreover, a figure—quite awake, increasingly attentive—appeared in the corridor from some other area to the south: an ogre.

The brute began to move toward the cavern.

Gloriana executed a stroke of inspired battlefield control and cast a spell of silence down the length of the corridor in the barracks chamber. Encompassing quiet settled around the stone giants, shutting out the clamor of battle; no longer fitful, they slumbered peacefully. The oracle held a finger to her lips.

“Shhhhhh.”

••••

Rahab was the last of the companions to enter the cavern. Quickly assessing the circumstances, he cast a potent necromancy and a line of blackly luminous power injected crippling whispers of oblivion into the kobold. The saurian’s ability to bring battle diminished thrice over.5 Sensing the debilitation, Abby brought fierce assault down upon the creature, though even in the wake of the wizard’s magic Avenger seemed to have no effect. The warrior’s sword, by contrast, carved significant wounds.

Lem closed the trap and struck with his knives, and for the third time in as many attempts his blades imparted no injury. He stepped back, smoothly sheathed the weapons, and considered his next move.

With the arrival of the warrior and the wizard the kobold found cause to alter strategy. She broke from engagement with Abby, provoking a new sword wound, and moved into position at the passage exiting the cavern to the north. From a bangle at her neck the kobold plucked a small object and threw it into the room. Too late Rahab recognized it, and the full brunt of the expanding fireball was the wizard’s to soak. Pain rang a great, burning bell in his senses.

The others fared better against the magical blast,6 and Kara answered with a thrown bomb that set the kobold’s scales alight. Abby closed the distance and renewed her sword play, pressing battlecraft with stolid insistence upon her enemy. Gloriana soaked wounds from all her friends, then quickly invoked a curative incantation upon herself in counterpoise. Her ability to deploy such healing with unusual speed gave her enough time to administer a fervent blessing of augmentation on the companions.

In the eastern hallway the ogre started to jog toward the place where the noise of combat rose against a backdrop of roiling fire. Rahab glanced to his right, saw the monster incoming, and heaved choking breath against his pain. With a word the wizard conjured a pit in the passageway to hinder advance. The ogre stopped at the chasm’s edge and hurled a javelin that struck no target, then his trunk legs swept from beneath him at the precipice and he tumbled onto the array of spikes fifty feet below.

••••

Up to this point Lem had relied on his wand of scorching beams as an intermittently effective alternative to knife work. Now he made a different choice: a second wand—given to him by Rahab—that evoked the inerrant bristling missile of magic. For a moment he struggled to activate the device, and then it suddenly ushered a bulb of arcane energy into the kobold, and this time the effect seemed unmitigated. The gardener had found recourse against red scales.

Abby managed a couple of cuts, but the saurian switched tactics again. The little monster stabbed the warrior once with her spear, then shifted to a different position and unleashed a brutal sequence upon Gloriana that forced the oracle to direct another quickened spell of healing upon herself. Kara hurled two more concoctions into the fray, blasting hot angles of ionization upon a form already singed from prior attack. Still the saurian stood defiant and vicious, buoyed by some intense and furious power within.

Two more ogres appeared in the eastern corridor beyond the pit, and another javelin clattered into the cavern to no effect. New sounds came from the direction of the northern tunnel. Rahab recognized a stone giant’s voice issuing orders in the Giant’s tongue. Abby heard the commotion and jerked her head in that direction.

“Concentrate north!” she barked at the wizard, and then lunged in pursuit of the kobold.

Rahab summoned an invisible, impenetrable wall of magic and made the route impassable instead. A few moments later five stone giants appeared, stopped abruptly against a barrier they could neither see nor surmount, then began to frantically backtrack, shouting their ire. The wizard winced against his injuries, then turned his attention to the central, proximal challenge.

••••

Lem caused another particle of magical energy to leap from wand to kobold. Abby laid into the creature with another sword stroke, and another, and still another. The warrior found herself admiring the saurian’s toughness in spite of herself. It was an impressive resilience.

An ogre came hurtling over the pit, landed, and recovered in time to cut the gardener with a curved hook. Kara became invisible and realigned to face the new threat. Gloriana called a ghost warrior from the realm of unquiet memory and set it against the kobold. A haze of curved light in rich orange-gold cut the creature at the legs and knocked it hissing to the floor. Still her companions’ injuries shunted to the oracle, still she chanted healing magic upon herself.

With the brutes newly arrived, and the roaming stone giants likely seeking alternate path to the fight, urgency began to escalate. Under attack by the ogre, the gardener recognized this intimately, and understood the advantage of combining forces with Abby against the giant-kin. That was a formula that yielded results—good results—consistently. The problem was the lizard in the ointment. Gritting his teeth against the hook wound, he pointed his wand one final time and a blister of tumbling magic vectored into the kobold.

Enga Keckvia never got a chance to stand.

••••

Precious tactical advantage secured, warrior winked approval at gardener, and then stepped into place against the ogre. The brute cut wide with cruel hook, and Abby ducked smoothly under the arc, then ran her blade into the monster’s side. Another javelin darted over the pit. The warrior held up Avenger and listened to the metallic clang with deep satisfaction. As she slowly lowered the circle of magical metal she looked over the rim and silently shook her head at the ogre on the far side of the pit. Even without shared language the implication stumbled into cognition in the sluggish recesses of the brute’s brain:

Mistake.

••••

A scimitar-wielding spirit drifted effortlessly over the pit’s yawning maw, turned on the ogre fighting Abby, and cut the brute across the back of the knees. Surprise quickly turned to horror as the monster fell, rolled over, and gazed upon this attacker, this lambent thing of wisp and lamentation.

Kara immediately powered twin grenadoes into the fallen ogre. In the cavern’s confines the explosions were tremendous. Dust snowed from walls and ceiling.

Gloriana drew more pain from her friends, and healed herself once more. To her left she heard the familiar chant of Rahab casting a conjuration that bridged worlds and called an ally to aid. The oracle recognized the magic, but this time there was something else, a frisson of heat that seemed to creep through space. The incantation sounded different. The course of the words unfolded in palpable rhythm. The structure of the call surged with trenchant power that hinted at fire, and punishment, and war in the sky.

Something new was answering the wizard’s call. Something was coming.7


1 Ravenous Umbra is a staff of hungry shadows.

2 Lem’s full attack on the redcap did 55 points of damage and established a 5-point bleed . . . which killed it at the start of its turn.

3 This was one of those astonishingly rare moments where Kara actually took damage. 15 points. I’m as shocked as you.

4 Greater forbid action. It worked. It actually worked. The redcaps tenderizing Rahab could not make any attack for 11 rounds.

5 Enervation struck the kobold barbarian for 3 negative levels.

6 Rahab was the only one to fail his Reflex save. Against the fireball. Oh, the irony.

7 Kobold cavern post-mortem: Over four rounds Abby did 261 points of damage. The kobold barbarian had some damage reduction, which cancelled some of that total, and was also the reason why Lem’s knife attacks did no injury. Since the barbarian can’t be flanked, sneak attack damage never entered into it, so Lem never did enough with his blades to overcome the DR. Switching to the wand of magic missile was a very smart move on the gardener’s part. In the same span, Kara did 164 points of damage, 60 of which was those last two bombs on the tripped ogre. The silence spell on the stone giant barracks was key to holding off reinforcements, because when Kara fights it’s an artillery barrage. Glo healed 184 points of distributed damage in those four rounds, and her Toppling spiritual ally successfully hit and tripped its opponents on every attack it made. Every one.

View
Book V, Chapter 12: Spelunking
Webs And Wyverns

Kara watched Cinderma depart, then joined the others on the ground floor.

“I think we should move now,” Gloriana said. “If we keep to the range along the west we should have enough cover from the valley.”

“Leave here?” Abby was skeptical.

The oracle nodded. “Relocate and make for the caves along the river. At some point tomorrow someone will venture up and find the giants here dead, and the taiga gone.”

Lem twirled one of his knives expertly about the palm and back of his hand. “We do not want to be here when the alarm goes up.”

“Right,” Gloriana said.

“Of course, with Cinderma gone,” the gardener continued, “and the hill giants dead, they will think she did it, and go hunting for her.”

The oracle had considered the possibility. “I hate to say it, but that will buy us time, and divert suspicion from the river. With luck, by the time they start searching, Cinderma will be well to ground.”

Lem shrugged.

Rahab gestured at the doorway. “With closer scrutiny it will not be hard to determine the hill giants were not killed by Cinderma’s spear. Kara’s and my signature are all over the corpses out there, to say nothing of the battlecraft of Abby and Lem.”

Gloriana was resolute. “All the more reason to move tonight.”

“So, the caves?” Abby asked.

“We should try and find a place to camp near the river,” Kara interjected, “then move in the morning. Daylight is a disadvantage, but if we are scouting the caves we should be out of sight, assuming Cinderma was truthful.”

“I sensed no lie,” said Gloriana. “She mentioned something ‘like the dragon, but not the same.’ Any idea what that means?”

Heads shook all around. “Tomorrow may tell,” answered the alchemist.

The oracle ran her hands through her golden hair. “Gather round. I will imbue us with the spell of striding air.”

••••

After recovering Gloriana’s campfire bead, the companions marched through the winds along the western range in darkness, their light sources hidden. At least walking on air made it difficult to stumble or trip because of poor vision.

At the cliff they angled below the rim, then crossed to the far bank of dense scrubland dotting steep hills. They made camp and set watch for the rest of the night.

Rahab had the last shift in the hours before dawn. As he watched the light slowly brighten in the eastern sky he peered through a screen of hyssop and watched for movement along the rim above, the river below, and the cliff wall ahead. He could discern two cave mouths along the broad expanse, one approximately fifty feet off the water, the other some two hundred feet above that.

And then he watched a shape wing in and alight on the lowest entrance.

Wyvern. So that’s what Cinderma meant. He stroked his goatee. There will be more of them. I wonder if they are truly allied to the giants, or merely a convenient pest.

Some minutes later the wizard saw movement at the top of the cliffs. Four hill giants strode to land’s edge, urinated off the height four hundred feet above the river, then disappeared back the way they had come. Rahab crept down to the base of the hill and cautiously woke the others.

••••

“A wyvern,” the conjurer explained, “is distantly related to dragons, though not nearly so fearsome. You will recognize similar morphological features: They can fly, for example, on leathery wings buoyed by the kind of aero-mobile magic endemic to most dracoforms. By contrast with examples such as the recently vanquished Longtooth,” and here Rahab made a respectful nod to Kara, “wyverns conjure no deadly breath, nor are they as intelligent. Territorial, they convene in groups, and have a stinging tail that can deliver a potent poison. Magic of sleep or paralysis will not overcome them. It would be to our advantage to fight them within the caves where their mobility is limited.”

“How many?” Kara asked.

“I saw only the one.”

Abby was hauling Avenger onto her arm. “But there will be more?”

“Almost certainly.”

They quickly finished their breakfast, broke camp, and made for the river bank.

••••

Abby, Gloriana, and Lem strode the air, while Kara drank an extract of flying and Rahab wove his spell of the same effect. Silently they ascended toward the upper cave entrance. Dawn began to spill onto the mountains above.

Alchemist and gardener advanced ahead of the others to scout. At the mouth in the rock Kara drank a concoction that bestowed vision in darkness. She and Lem proceeded inside—there was easily room abreast— and within a short distance the tunnel plunged into gloom.

How quickly the earth obscures the mightiest light, Kara mused. In the next moment she found herself grateful that advancing did not require contact with cave surfaces.

The interior was motile. Floor, walls, and even portions of the ceiling pulsed and surged with bloated arthropods: insects, arachnids, and metameres, a living blanket of crawling, clambering, clutching angles in chitin. Such was the cumulative mass of unnumbered legs that the expanse made audible sound in faint, clicking stutter. Limited daylight at the cave mouth glistened on myriad points of exoskeleton like a gypsum desert adrift under moonlight.

Kara glanced back over her shoulder at Gloriana silhouetted against the entrance. The oracle began to enter, not yet aware of conditions in the cave as she produced her lightstone and released it to hover above and behind her head. For a fleeting moment the alchemist thought to issue some warning, but they had to proceed, and what good would it do?

The curve of illumination washed forward. Realization dawned.

Kara grimaced. Oh, Glori.

••••

Where her body could become pure, golden fire, it could also erupt in rampant, reeling gooseflesh. The oracle covered her mouth with one hand against the urge to scream and compromise what stealth they had thus far managed. It was difficult even to countenance the idea of so many crawling things. Eyes wide with horror, Gloriana looked at Kara. The alchemist shrugged helplessly, and turned to survey further up the tunnel.

At around fifty feet the passageway split. To the left a section was filled with dense webbing floor to ceiling. To the right the tunnel coiled into some kind of natural stone chute that dropped away into deeper darkness. Above, the cavern ceiling reached thirty feet in some places, and they kept to the air as they moved, leery of the vast arthropod coating.

Abby laid a reassuring hand on Gloriana’s shoulder as she brushed past, which caused the oracle to flinch in sudden alarm. The warrior grimaced and moved up toward Lem.

Having maintained a lookout on the river, Rahab entered last. As he passed into the gloom he drew forth the human skull limned in magical fire, and then saw the environs. “Lovely,” he growled under his breath.

Something came out of the webs.

••••

The thing shuddered with alarming speed from the back of the cave, and suddenly the air filled with sticky strands falling like streamers at parade. Kara and Lem deftly dropped back, dancing effortlessly around the aciniform sheets, but the effusion lingered and hung all around them.

Over her shoulder Gloriana saw something dark pass swiftly by the wound of light at the cave mouth. The oracle’s eyes got even wider, which seemed impossible. “Wyvern!” she hissed, and quickly invoked a spell of blessing on the companions. “Rahab! Do you have a wall spell?”

Abby took in the most immediate menace. To all appearances it was a spider, but of no conventional dimension: The great thing had an abdomen the size of a full-grown cow. A multitude of eyes dotted the top of the thorax among stiff hairs the diameter of writing quills. The orbs reflected shapes of light in jet black sheen.

Rahab turned in mid-air and saw the wyvern pass across the cave entrance. He did not think the dracoform had sensed them just yet, but it would not be long. The wizard encased himself in an abjuration of arcane armor, and whispered a message through the spell connecting him to his friends: “I estimate the wyvern will pick up our scent in less than a minute. If it comes alone to investigate, we have the advantage.”

Kara found herself in the midst of a drooping canopy and no movement in any direction could avoid the sticky spans. Lacking other recourse, the alchemist pulled one of her red glass bottles and quickly consumed the contents. Fire kindled in her lungs, smoke wisped from her nostrils, her tear ducts steamed. She exhaled a torrential cone of flame that tore through the adhesive mass and spilled over the giant spider. The cave interior lit wildly as strands vaporized and smoke churned. Tumbling pieces of singed spider stuff fell around her, grazed her skin, curled in her hair. It was worth it.1

Gloriana moved up in support and now the full horror of the arachnid was revealed in ghastly relief as dying flames curled around it. The spider was a shell, a dead thing rent, and within the desiccated frame lurked other spiders, common-sized, but clustered with malign purpose that drove the corpse form. The coordinated flurry of legs, the biting mandibles, the dripping venom, all were an extension of unsettling arachnid endeavor bidding the body move, eight-legged puppeteers directing eight-legged marionette.

“It’s made of spiders! Oh, gods of my mothers, it’s a dead spider MADE OF SPIDERS!”2

Lem activated his magic wand. A thin ray of superheated red light cored a smoking channel through the exoskeleton and vaporized hundreds of smaller arachnids within.

Two more cattle-sized forms scuttled from the rear of the cavern. Waves of sticky effluvia flooded the air, trapping Kara, Abby, and Rahab. Lem escaped by virtue of his preternatural reflexes, and Gloriana by luck in the shadow of the warrior’s impressive physique.

At the cave mouth leathery wings blocked out the burgeoning morning light. A wyvern landed.

••••

Horror threatening to steal her breath, Gloriana reached out and grasped Abby’s nearby shoulder to steady herself. Spirits whispered in her ears, telling ancient campfire tales of necromancy. Shudders rippled through her as ghosts manifested in the form of a beetle crawling up her cheek, a centipede curving below her jawline.

“Behind us,” she choked. “Wyvern. Help Rahab. I will blast these.”

The warrior had learned, and merely nodded. She turned her back on the spider vessels and began to struggle against the adhesive strands that threatened to hold her suspended in air. With difficulty she tore herself free and quickly closed on the saurian that shuffled into the tunnel.

Gloriana became golden fire.

••••

Kara attempted to retreat, but not before pitching an explosive grenado at the first arachnoid monstrosity. Flame and smoke burst in a sharp explosion, and the carapace came apart like a ceramic flung against stone. Thousands of spiders spilled and scattered, many of them on fire. The alchemist flew back into sticky strands and suddenly hung, trapped.

Only Lem’s movement remained unhindered in the tortuous morass of spider stuff, and as he closed on the new arrivals he recognized the ghastly, empty devouring of undeath. Whether upright in humanoid form or suffusing the usurped corpse of a web-spinner, the life-swallowing nightmare seemed the same. As he maneuvered for better position, fangs descended from the striated sheets transfixing the air. Pain burned at impalement, and lingered liquid in his veins. The gardener’s vision swam, his breath shortened, and his stomach heaved. Fighting the sensation, Lem’s head snapped up with a defiant cough that might have been a laugh, or laugh that might have been a cough.3

Rahab stepped behind the dimensions, extricating himself from entanglement immediately. He appeared behind Abby as the warrior bellowed challenge to the dracoform, invoked the speed augmentation within Avenger, then attacked in a flurry of sword and shield. The wyvern died in sprays of blood and viscera.4

Gloriana invoked a spell of unfettered motion, and easily passed through the web-strewn space. As her elemental flame drifting through Lem’s body the gardener felt instantly renewed. Then the oracle bolstered her own being with a rapidly chanted healing invocation that welled life within her. As she moved, the spider-hosts attacked with venomous fangs, but her fire form suffered no poison, and the energy backlash ripped into the undead arachnids. Light spewed from the jagged gaps in the husks. Gloriana centered her mind, called to her ghosts, and flooded the chamber with brilliance.

Chitin and webbing curled away like frost retreating under the sun.

••••

In the wake of the encounter the oracle used her wand of healing to restore herself. Abby’s assault on the wyvern had impacted the creature so fiercely that the corpse had crumpled at the cave mouth and then slid under its own weight, plummeting to the river below. Warrior and wizard waited a few minutes to see if any more saurians arrived, but nothing happened. Gloriana had already detected for signs of magic.

“There’s something back among the webs,” she remarked as Abby and Rahab rejoined the others. The wizard began to conjure acid, and as the caustic magic corroded the webbing the warrior cut it away in great sweeps with her sword. By the time it was clear, Rahab’s spell of flight had ended, and he stood on the tunnel floor. Gloriana was horrified by his proximity to the carpet of arthropods, but the wizard conjured more acid and cleared a place to stand. The lingering caustic vapors held the other insects at temporary bay in a rough perimeter not far from the wizard’s boots. The oracle shivered and turned away, grateful for seven feet of air between her and the floor. That some of the creatures were winged did not bear thinking about.

The companions discovered a cache of weapons, including a number of longswords, three warhammers, and a halberd. The hammers and one of the swords were clearly sized for giant kin. In addition, they found a human-sized suit of full plate armor, and a simple quarterstaff.

“What is it?” Lem asked.

Rahab’s eyes narrowed as he read the magical information. “The focus of a spell. Magic placed upon the staff allows the storage of another spell. In this case . . . a transmutation that accelerates the oxidation of metal to crumbling.”

“What happens once the spell is cast?”

“It becomes the mundane wooden tool it otherwise is.”

“Can it be revivified?”

The wizard’s eyebrow arched, and he was surprised by a smile. “Yes. Both spells must be restored.” He gave the gardener an approving nod.

“I’ll hold on to it. We may need rust.”

For now it was impractical to navigate the caves laden with equipment, so they stowed the remaining things of value with intention to reclaim them later. Lem oversaw the operation, directing Kara and Gloriana, occasionally complaining about their technique.

Abby and Rahab stood at the rear of the cavern. In the glow of the conjurer’s lightskull both suddenly focused on the wall. Most of the webs had been cleared away, but strands clung resolutely to the stone in some places. One tiny section, otherwise unremarkable, fluttered as though in a breeze. Warrior and wizard exchanged a glance.

A moment later they found the mechanism by which the secret portal in the stone opened.

••••

“I think we should scout the chute first,” Lem offered.

Shrugs and nods, and the others followed the gardener back to the fork in the tunnel. Lem held up a hand for silence, and to indicate the companions should remain until further sign. Then he was gone in uncanny silence.

Lem navigated the chute quickly, his superior dexterity barely registering challenge, though he recognized the others might have more difficulty without the aid of magic, or help from mundane tools. He reflected how long it had been since they had even needed a good, resilient coil of hemp, something no wanderer should be without. The Shadow Clock? No. Helping in the aftermath of the flood at Turtleback Ferry. Still, it spoke volumes that—for the present, at least—Lem and his friends seemed to have transcended rope.

By the time he reached the bottom the chute had curved and twisted several times, and he estimated the vertical distance he had descended to be some two hundred feet. He had his suspicions about where the chute would empty, and after another curve found he was right.

By the light of the torch he carried he saw a larger cavern littered with piles of bones, though encouragingly free of insects. He could not take its complete measure, but recognized the space sufficient to accommodate wyverns in lair. Then something asserted itself in his peripheral vision as torchlight fell on a glittering stone near the center of the cavern floor. Even at this distance Lem recognized a fire opal, or he was no gardener.

On impulse, he tossed his torch into the middle of the cave. It bounced and sputtered, casting orange glow haphazardly around. Movement sounded from somewhere beyond the light’s radius, a snorting exhalation through appreciable nasal columns followed by the click-scrape of claws on stone as bones rattle-scattered. There were at least two of them.

The gardener retreated rapidly back up the chute.

••••

Abby lingered near the opening, standing just above the carpet of insects, eyes intent.

“We should wait,” Gloriana whispered.

The warrior said nothing, but the oracle could sense Abby’s tension, recognized the impulse to go after Lem. Kara’s elixir of flight had ended, and Rahab had used acid magic to clear a space among the crawling mass for the alchemist to stand. Periodically he had to redirect a liquid sphere of caustic power to renew the narrow perimeter at his own feet, or near Kara’s. The air had acquired an astringent odor.

The gardener’s head popped up out of the chute and scowled at Abby. “Listen to Glo.” Lem ascended, stood in the air a few feet above the opening, and made report.

••••

“This will be easier if we just go down and kill them. Then there won’t be anything behind us.” Lem hooked his thumbs into his belt.

Gloriana looked uncertain, but Rahab nodded. “If we move fast enough, it will go quickly in our favor.” Abby started for the chute.

“Hold on,” the oracle insisted. The warrior drew up short. Gloriana turned to Lem. “What is your plan?”

“Abby and I go first. You three follow. Our arrival will make enough noise that they’ll be concentrated on us.”

“Noise?”

“We won’t be air-walking. We drop. The chute will send us like twigs over a waterfall, right into the midst of them. Northwest corner of the cavern, for reference. Lady Steelbody, here, will probably sound loudly enough to wake the giants at the valley camps.”

Abby scowled. Kara hid a smile.

Gloriana shook her head. “This is going to hurt . . . ”

“No,” the gardener countered, and strolled over to the slain spider husks. In a few moments he had cut free a section of carapace. “See? We sit on this, like a sled.”

Abby nodded and began to cut her own portion of shell. The oracle sighed wearily.

“Come,” offered Rahab. “I have an elegant way to get us there.” He extended his hands to Gloriana and Kara.

Warrior and gardener assembled at the chute. Alchemist and oracle clustered around the wizard.

“Like I said—” Gloriana began.

Rahab’s voice was uncharacteristically soft. “Cease this nonsense. When has it ever hurt?”

“I keep expecting it to,” the oracle grumbled.

“Change your expectations. When you have their exact position, tell me.”

Lem nodded, then hopped onto the carapace and dropped into the chute. After a count of five, Abby jumped in after him. The gardener had not been wrong about the noise.

••••

Kara uncorked an elixir of advanced invisibility and drank it down, and Rahab observed a fascinating cognitive dissonance holding the alchemist’s hand without being able to see it.

Seconds elapsed as Gloriana concentrated on the information her spell relayed about where the warrior and gardener were. She grimly noted their bruising and abrasions. Despite the spider carapace conveyance, Abby and Lem were still being battered around as they hurtled toward the lower cavern, and the makeshift sleds peeled apart under intense forces. Nevertheless, Lem still fared better than Abby did.5

Gloriana exhaled heavily, and nodded. “Two-hundred-and-one feet down, fifty-seven feet three-inches east northeast, exactly in line where I’m looking now.”

Rahab calculated, then carefully bent space.

••••

As it happened it did hurt this time, but only for the wizard, and only because his position at the culmination of the jaunt arrived in space occupied by one of the wyverns. On either side of one of the saurians Gloriana and Kara resumed cohesion with the present. The conjurer, on the other hand, was shunted sixty feet south by the resultant displacement variable as the probability amplitude equation reorganized. Rahab gasped. The injury was minor, but the headache hammered behind his eyes like a handful of snow eaten too rapidly.

Lem and Abby were already setting about with weapons. Saurian jaws snapped, leathery wings battered the air, and stinging tails stabbed like spears that dripped cruel venom.

When the oracle suddenly appeared so did a column of divine fire that descended on one of the monsters. The whole cavern was briefly lit in a riot of shifting light in golden-red. Kara stepped back and quickly pitched two explosive bombs against the same creature. Smoke churned. A rasping saurian roar erupted in the confines, and dust and bone fragments billowed like a sandstorm.

Abby concentrated her attack on that wyvern and struck it a solid blow. Lem maneuvered deftly into place and his knives found vital circulatory system components. The saurian crashed to the stone floor, stinging tail twitching death throes.

Rahab recovered and advanced north, a spell ripping through the remaining wyvern in a bristling lozenge of purple light. The creature swatted Abby with a wing, and Gloriana channeled healing power in a wave that swept over her friends, except for the wizard who was still out of range. Kara watched as the warrior spun on the last monster, and felled it in a single stroke.

They coughed as the churned air drifted full of motes. The lingering stench of wyverns at lair was potent and cloying.

••••

The gemstone was, indeed, a fire opal: Not the finest example of the form Lem had seen, but worthy enough. It disappeared smoothly into a pouch. “Chaldira’s teeth, that’s a lot of bones.” He gazed about at the mess on the cave floor. “How much do they eat?”

“At least it’s not bugs,” shuddered Gloriana.

The cavern was roughly star-shaped, a central space from which radiated five reaches, one being the bottom of the chute, another the cave mouth onto the river. Rahab carefully swept the area with his spell of magic detection. In the southwestern cavity he found a significant signal. He began clearing a pile of elk skulls and bones. The others approached.

“What have you found?” asked Abby.

“This,” the wizard indicated a wooden chest bound in rusted iron, “and this.” He lifted a staff in one hand. It was his height in ebony and topped with a crystal sphere the size of a ripe grapefruit. Within the glass swirled dense black smoke in a slow maelstrom.

“What is that?” Gloriana whispered.

“Ravenous Umbra.”


1 42 points of breath weapon damage. It set the webs alight, which caused 5 points of damage to Kara.

2 A deathweb.

3 Lem took 45 points of damage from two successive deathweb bites, but made all Fortitude saves against the poison like a champion.

4 Full attack under haste included two critical hits. Total damage in one round: 129 points. Pretty sure the wyvern’s ancestors felt that one.

5 Imagine luge in a full suit of armor.

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Book V, Chapter 11: The Valley Of The Black Tower
On The Natural History Of Stone Giants

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.”1

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?”2

••••

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.3

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.4

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.5

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.6

••••

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.7

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.

“Glo?”

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.8

••••

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?”

“Cinderma.”

“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.”9

••••

“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.”

“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?”

“Below . . . the fortress.”

“Unmade? Those are the enchanted kin bearing runes?”

“Yes.”

“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.”


1 It is worth noting that Kara’s father—a very important figure in the alchemist’s life— was a wizard.

2 At this point in the campaign Rahab’s rolls on Knowledge: Arcana/Geography/History/Local/Planes regularly came up in the 30s and sometimes the 40s . . . and still nothing. I was experiencing a bit of existential crisis, as I had expressly developed and played the character as one who deeply recognizes that Knowledge Is Power. Rahab’s frustration mirrored my own.

3 Hill giants are acting under some kind of haste effect tied to the runes in their bodies. The one attacking Abby missed, but the third one hit Rahab for 17 points of damage with a hefty chunk of wood.

4 This was a bad round for the party. Lem’s hit was light, Abby only managed to land one strike in a full attack, and the giants dished out 43 points of damage to the gardener, 48 points to the warrior, and 24 points to the oracle.

5 Of course, Lem did get his own back: three hits, 58 points of damage.

6 Rahab’s potion of cure moderate wounds restored 7 hit points, bringing Gloriana to 3. The oracle had previously spent a Hero Point to drop her Life Link and prevent additional damage while unconscious.

7 Giant spear critical hit for 51 points of damage. The weapon withdrawal was an additional 23 points of damage. Lem was in bad shape.

8 Glo’s Intimidate check was a natural 20.

9 After her initial intimidation on the footpath, Glo’s diplomacy checks in the tower conversation were less robust. Still, the advantage was the party’s at this point, and Cinderma talked.

View
Book V, Chapter 10: The Storval Stairs
Into The Land Of The Giants

Lem and the closest gargoyle exchanged a look. The gardener shrugged. The creature tilted its head, and then Lem simply cut it down in a flurry of steel. Clumps of clay crumbled.

The gardener addressed the pile of earth. “Pay attention!”

The two remaining gargoyles took wing and fled over the northern ridge.

A breeze drifted into the gulch and stirred little vortices of dust.

••••

Abby approached Rahab and simply bowed deeply from the waist. Then she turned wordlessly and walked away, shaking her head in wonder, and began her post-combat ritual of checking and cleaning gear.

History would fail to adequately record just how smug the wizard felt.

••••

“It’s pretty clever,” Lem admitted as they looked over the bodies. “The gargoyles arranged them like this, probably as a lure for more stone giants. They have nothing of value.” He looked around and spoke to the empty air. “Do gargoyles have lairs?”

Kara’s voice sounded above him. “They do.”

Lem crossed his arms. “We would have to search for it.”

Gloriana shook her head. “Too much time. Even this was a delay. We have to make for Jorgenfist.”

The gardener began to stride to the gulch entrance. “Let’s get the horses.”

••••

Heart pounding, Rahab stole a glance as Gloriana climbed into the saddle. He exhaled heavily.

Hell’s below.

••••

They pushed past sunset and made camp by the light of Rahab’s everburning skull and the party’s lightstones. Soon they had a small fire going and began heating strips of bacon on rocks while discussing the watch rotation.

After dinner Gloriana rose and wandered into the darkness behind an outcropping of rock. When she returned a few minutes later Abby and Kara were waiting. They stood out of earshot from Lem and Rahab at the fire.

The warrior crossed her arms. “Etku . . . ”

The alchemist mimicked the gesture and raised her eyebrows expectantly. “Meheno mor detilianalelum.”

The oracle covered her giggle with her hands. “Ren, suth penetlek, hau?”

Abby and Kara’s eyes narrowed in mock suspicion, and that made it worse: Gloriana swayed and bent in a fit of laughter she fought desperately to keep silent.

“Hau? Borva?”

Alchemist and warrior looked at one another, and began to giggle, as well. Abby shrugged, then shook an accusing finger at the oracle. “Hau . . . guhil pol.” 1

The oracle ran forward and threw an excited embrace around her friends. The three women returned to camp laughing, arm-in-arm.

••••

The next day they found another group of stone giants, also four in number, also dead. The companions sat their horses. The corpses had been gnawed upon and were perforated with multiple black spikes, each a longsword’s length and the thickness of a spear shaft. Kara recognized them.

“Manticore.”

Abby frowned. “Manticore?”

“Remember the taxidermied trophy in the entrance hall of The Misgivings?”

Indeed, the warrior did remember. “That had a scorpion’s tail.”

The alchemist nodded. “The species displays taxonomic variation. Some have stings, others spines that they can project at range. Except these are larger than average.”

“Terrific,” groaned Lem.

“Well, they would have to be, I suppose,” Rahab mused, “to fell a stone giant.”

Gloriana nudged her horse forward. “If we encounter anything I suggest we make it clear we are here to fight giants. We might secure allies.”

Kara and Rahab exchanged a glance, neither electing to tender evaluation on the likelihood of that.

They reached the Storval Stairs at sunset.

••••

Orange-gold light lazily painted the monument’s expanse. Like others scattered across Varisia, the structure loomed large. Ten millennia hung on the ruins with an ancient weight: Stones were cracked and worn; artisanal details had faded, or fallen, or eroded; vegetation had sprouted, grown, and died a thousand times and a thousand times again; portions of green had become stone, and portions of stone had become sand.

“It’s huge,” Gloriana whispered. No one answered for a while, their attention fixed on the immensity of the place. Thoughts of the Irespan in their adopted Magnimar could not help but intrude. Even the architecture shared certain similarities.

Whether by magic, astonishing industry of labor, or both, the cliff face had been shaped into a cascading array of buildings clearly sized with giants in mind. Great windows, arches, and portals dotted the superstructure. Columns, piers, buttresses, and plinths rose and projected. Lintels, spans, colonnades, and balconies breasted the edifices splayed like scree at the base of a mountain. Dominating the center was a mighty stair, fifty feet wide and flanked by an additional five feet of solid balustrade taller than a human. Four complete flights rose from base to plateau four hundred feet above. Three landings intervened, two smaller before and after the prominent midpoint space that was large enough to corral a herd of horses. Flanking the stairs to a height of two hundred feet rose a brace of colossal stone statues. Of these, the southernmost had suffered significant damage, with much of its upper portion having crumbled under the weight of ages. The northern statue, however, had demonstrated greater resilience to time and tide. It depicted a stern humanoid figure in robes holding a tome in one hand and a glaive in the other.

Stylized though it was, Rahab recognized the image immediately. He had seen the very figure at the other end of the scrying channel in Quink’s lodge six weeks ago.

••••

They organized within the cover of a copse of firs a hundred feet from the base of the stairs. Kara shared an extract of invisibility with Lem as Gloriana placed the spell of airborne striding upon them both. She also wove magic to conceal the gardener from the sight of the undead, just in case. Then the two scouts got underway.

They spotted the first hill giant perched on the shoulder of the northern statue. Clad only in a poorly tanned loincloth and cape of shaggy hides, the creature had a large club near to hand, and the monster dangled his feet casually over the statue’s edge, legs kicking lazily back and forth as though perched on a riverbank awaiting a fish to bite.

Stealthily, the invisible Kara and Lem made their way to the stairs and began ascending, walking on air the entire distance so as not to scuffle stone or raise dust. As they passed the lower and middle landings they counted seven hill giants total. Two of the brutes appeared to be involved in some sort of rock-hurling contest. Alchemist and gardener withdrew, and quickly raced back to rejoin the others.

••••

“What’s the plan?” Abby asked.

“Once we leave the trees it’s completely open ground to the base of the stairs,” observed Lem, “and there’s no cover once we start to ascend, either. Unless Kara has enough invisibility for all of us we are going to be spotted.”

Silence ensued as they chewed over the problem. Rahab tented his fingers. “Then we must postpone revelation until the last possible second.”

The others looked at him. Abby’s face broke into a huge grin. “Oh, yes!”

••••

Gloriana and Rahab cast their magical cocktail upon the party, then everyone except Kara clustered around the wizard. The alchemist drank another concoction of invisibility, followed by an extract of flight, and took to the air, angling for the middle landing where the battle would begin.

Abby set one hand on Lem’s shoulder, the other on Gloriana’s. Rahab stood opposite the warrior and mirrored the action. The oracle held her breath and closed her eyes. Just before the conjurer pronounced the words of the spell he looked Abby in the eyes: She was grinning, and the wizard could sense her quivering in anticipation.

When they appeared out of thin air on the central landing Lem and Abby were already attacking. A storm of steel fell upon the hill giants; one of the monsters died instantly, never even knowing what had hit him.

••••

The initial assault was awesome. Bombs of liquid electricity and fire fell from the sunset sky and burst among the giants in sizzling flashes and churning smokes. A pillar of golden fire coiled down from the air and slammed into two of the brutes, and then five hurtling lozenges of spiked purple energy bored furrows in crisped flesh.

Faces twisted in shock as those giants that still lived took up their clubs and looked around. There appeared to be four assailants; two of them—a half-elf and a human—chortled with glee.

••••

In complete surprise Lem retained the advantage of mobility. His knives were a blur, and the gardener painted the ancient flagstones of the landing in swathes and spatters of hill giant blood like a mad artist in the throes of creative ecstasy. Abby pressed her own attack with sword and shield. Avenger rang like a bell every time it slammed into a body or intercepted a club.

Rahab heard one of the giants howl confused warning too late to prevent disaster. Those monsters on the lower landing turned at the noise and began to pitch rocks toward the fight. Not a single effort succeeded.

Another cluster of grenadoes tumbled out of the sky: More fires burst, more blisters welted. Gloriana presented an open palm to a nearby hill giant and leveled a beam of punishing daylight straight through his torso. The creature was dead before it hit the ground, and the oracle felt an irresistible victory thrill. She turned to Rahab with a proud smile: “I didn’t summon the flame strike because of where Kara is. I can tell, exactly!”

The wizard barely arched an eyebrow. “I just calculate the bomb vectors.” He drew one of his wands and fired a missile of arcane energy at another hill giant. The magic blasted a hole into flesh.

Abby now commanded the center, executing a series of efficient attacks against the opponents surrounding her, but when Lem tried to close the jaws of the trap he failed, nearly fumbling one of his deadly blades. A string of curses sounded in the melee.

Abandoning ranged combat, the two giants on the lower landing took up their clubs and began to run up the stairs. Kara redirected her next volley of bombs against them and when the brutes emerged from the blasts they trailed coils of smoke as hair, skin, and hides combusted.

Gloriana stuck her tongue out at Rahab, sighted the approaching monsters, and shouted a chant of forbidding. The spirit magic crashed through the dimness of the hill giant mind, and the two brutes stumbled to a halt, unable to overcome the spell and attack.

Second victory: Once more the oracle spun on the wizard and boasted, “It worked!” 2

Rahab smirked, stepped to where he could sight the hampered hill giants in a line, and projected a thunderous stroke of lightning straight through both of them. The first reeled atop trembling legs, and the second died, limbs jerking wildly as the electricity spun down through the nervous system.

Lem attacked again . . . and missed again. His face twisted in fury. “Chaldira’s teeth! When did this get hard?”

“Let a real warrior handle it!” Abby laughed. The warrior proceeded to cut the hill giant down in two sword strokes, one of which severed an arm, the other nearly bisecting the torso. She was having outrageous fun.

The last brute pushed past the group and began a shuffling, wounded run up the stairs. Kara launched another explosive that splashed harmlessly in the giant’s wake. For a moment it looked like the monster would escape.

And then Gloriana summoned her second column of golden fire and consumed the monster completely.3

••••

Not a single one of the companions had suffered even the slightest injury.

In a chamber built into the cliff off the northern side of the central landing they found a hoard of goods collected on hill giant raids. Lem crossed his arms in satisfaction. “Excellent.”

“How does it look,” asked Gloriana as she strode up.

“About three thousand in silver.” The gardener gestured at a pile of argent coin. “Some nice pieces of jewelry: mithral anklet, gold crown, eyepatch sewn with a black star sapphire and moonstones, and a piece of mammoth scrimshaw.”

Kara snorted. “It’s worthless.”

Lem glanced up in surprise. “It is?”

“They carved a portion of mammoth tusk into the shape of a mammoth,” the alchemist shook her head. “It would have been better to preserve the original ivory, or shape a different image.”

Lem looked back and forth between the scrimshaw and Kara. “Worthless?” Then the gardener noticed Rahab over the alchemist’s shoulder. The wizard met his gaze and subtly shook his head.4

Lem read the gesture and played innocent. “Well, maybe we can con someone into buying it.”

“What else?” Gloriana inquired.

“Magic! . . . I think. A pouch full of potions, a quiver with some arrows, and . . . whatever this is.” Lem held up a length of silk tipped at both ends with three curved blades dangling from steel rings.

The oracle nodded. “A bladed scarf.”

Abby gawked. “Who fights with a scarf?”

“The People of the Road, I will have you know!”

“Really?” The warrior could not believe what she was hearing.

Gloriana put her hands on her hips. “Yes! It blends readily into costume or clothing, a very useful feature, especially as travelers. Only the most skilled dancers attain mastery of a weap—”

Abby burst out laughing.

The oracle was determined to continue. “—a weapon such as this! I don’t expect you to understand.”

The warrior walked away, shoulders shaking. Lem shrugged: He could see the possibilities, but why not just carry a well-hidden dagger?5

••••

Abby and Rahab collected the horses and brought them slowly to the landing. The giant-sized steps would have proved difficult for the quadrupeds, but in the time since the Storval Steps had first been built diverse smaller humanoids had added more easily accessible blocks of stone. Nevertheless, there was no speedy ascent. When they finally reached the middle landing it was dark. The party gathered the treasure for transport in the morning, unsaddled the mounts under torchlight, and made camp on the wide expanse.

Before turning in for the evening, Gloriana encased herself in magic that allowed her to speak and understand any intelligent tongue. Then she conducted a powerful ritual to communicate with the dead, a magic beyond the relationship she bore with her haunts. The oracle chanted ancient words over the corpse of the hill giant she guessed had been leader, and soon a ghostly vapor only she could see billowed from the corpse and clung low like fog.

Gloriana’s speech hummed: “I chant the first: Whom did you await?”

A shuddering voice answered, a grumble from airless lungs behind a wall of water: “None.”

“I chant the second: Have stone-kin bearing human prisoners recently passed these steps?”

“Yes.”

“I chant the third: When?”

“Two days.”

“I chant the fourth: Did they make for Jorgenfist?”

“Yes.”

“I chant the fifth: Do kin lie in ambush between here and Jorgenfist?”

“I know not.”

Gloriana relaxed and exhaled deeply. Exhaustion washed over her. The spirit link to the antechamber of death began to fade. “Be at peace,” she murmured softly.

A brief sound reached her ears, words vanishing into immeasurable distance. Gloriana grimaced.

Well, what did you expect? A pleasant response?


1 Sequence roughly translated from Elvish:
Abby: “So . . .”
Kara: “We have things to discuss.”
Gloriana: “Yes, but later, alright?”
Gloriana: “Alright? Please?”
Abby: “Alright . . . for now.”

2 There is a first time for everything.

3 Post-mortem: 24 seconds of combat saw Lem roll two 1s, but also dish out 106 points of damage. Abby was a happy war machine, putting 244 points of damage on the board. Kara also had two 1s among her to-hit rolls, which is unheard of, but she brought 188 points of chemical warfare to the table, plus an additional 30 points of splash damage, and 6 points in lingering burn. Gloriana split 121 points of damage between two flame strikes and a searing light, plus her forbid action rendered two giants incapable of attacking for 11 rounds. Rahab threw 28 points of magic missile and 41 points of lightning bolt damage, plus got the whole ball rolling with a TDPIP via dimension door.

4 This was another rare moment. Kara’s Appraisal skill is very good, but she blew this roll. Rahab, on the other hand, rolled very well. The scrimshaw was worth around 700 g.p.

5 Loot: silver pieces and some jewelry/art items worth around 8,000 g.p. overall, plus seven cure moderate wounds potions and one potion of remove disease. The quiver was an efficient quiver containing sixteen +1 undead bane arrows and one greater monstrous humanoid slaying arrow. There was also a +2 defending bladed scarf.

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Book V, Chapter 9: Uplands
Language

A day-and-a-half later they lunched in the lakeside town of Galduria where Gloriana asked the locals about stone giant sightings. She met many who claimed witness, or claimed to know someone who had, but these proved exaggerated, confused, or outright fabrication in hopes of ingratiation. Little emerged until the oracle spoke with a merchant awaiting supply and who reported an expected goods caravan now late a week with no word. The nugget was not much, but with the pressure to resume as quickly as possible the companions could only remount and make for Wolf’s Ear.

Having realized there was no way to catch the stone giants in country they abandoned overland tracking and made best possible speed to the Storval Stairs in hopes of interception. Lem now took the lead, his senses the sharpest, the quickest, the most ready. Abby rode next, with Gloriana in the middle, then Rahab, and Kara bringing up the rear. The next morning they passed Wolf’s Ear without stopping, crossing the Lampblack River at the bridge, and then turning north to follow the course along the eastern edge of the dense Churlwood. The road was in good condition; however, Rahab warned that the land after Ravenmoor would become unmitigated wilderness, and the last sixty miles to the Stairs would be more challenging.

They were gradually ascending through increasingly rugged, granite-strewn grasslands studded with intermittent firs under cerulean skies that accumulated white-silver cumulus bundles in late afternoon. Deer were plentiful, as were bighorn sheep, and half-a-day before Ravenmoor they spotted a moose on the far side of the river that eyed them with vague curiosity from atop long stilt legs. After sunset the temperature cooled considerably, and they huddled in their blankets around the fire that each watch tended throughout the night. On the clearest days they could see all the way to the dark line on the horizon where the mighty Storval Plateau towered four hundred feet above the land.

One morning Abby and Lem reined up at the same time, the gardener holding a clenched fist to signal halt and silence. They had paused on a hunting trail that snaked among a dense cluster of evergreens. The way ahead curved left and disappeared behind the trees. Warrior and gardener dismounted, and Lem took both sets of reins and began to lead the horses off the path. Abby drew her sword and braced Avenger.

“Abby,” Gloriana hissed. “What is it?”

The warrior glanced back over her shoulder and silently mouthed the word “cows.”

••••

The oracle’s brow furrowed. Cows?

Abby advanced cautiously, while off to the left Lem hitched the two horses and promptly disappeared among the trees. By the time Gloriana dismounted the gardener was already a good distance ahead, keeping the hunting trail on his right. About a hundred feet or so past the bend in the trail stood four ogres arguing in the language of giants. Three of them supported wooden barrels on one shoulder, while the fourth hefted a chest. All four held a lowing cow under one arm. Lem almost started laughing.

Gloriana quickly cast a spell augmenting the party, save Lem who was already beyond the spell’s range. Abby advanced to the turn in the trail. Kara drank an extract of flying and took to the sky directly from the back of her horse. Rahab clicked his mount to the side and swept up the free reins, then dismounted and hitched the three horses following Lem’s lead. As he neared the trees the wizard could hear the ogre voices, but could not make out the sounds with enough clarity to understand what the argument was about.

As he continued his stealthy advance the gardener got a better view of the confabulation. Each brute had a hefty club of sturdy wood at their leather belts, and they turned almost as one when Abby and Gloriana—without hope of subtlety—blundered into view around the bend in the trail.

The fight was on.

••••

Abby charged even as the ogres dropped their cattle, and barrels, and chest. The warrior fell upon the nearest with a ferocity cultivated during the days at Fort Rannick. A gaping wound appeared in the ogre torso, spilling blood and viscera like a sack of wet meal suddenly unseamed.

The other monsters began to close on Abby, fumbling for their clubs. Fallen cattle moaned miserably and flailed legs on barrel bodies in an effort to right themselves. Shafts of thick wood swung through the air, and then Avenger rang in answer, blocking the attacks.

Overhead, Kara angled for line of sight even as she consumed another elixir, reflecting for a moment how much easier it was to drink while flying than while moving on the ground where jarring impact forced imbibing at rest. The alchemist vanished.

Rahab moved along the line of trees and produced one of his magic wands, pointing the device and speaking the word of activation. A bristling globule of eldritch energy arced from the wand’s end and into one of the ogres, eliciting a surprised cry.

Then Lem appeared on the opposite side of the ogre from Abby seemingly out of thin air, and his blades wove their deadly dance of steel. The brute barely had time to shout alarm before the warrior, in turn, swept his head from his shoulders. Bloody body crumpled in the grass, and the other ogres gaped in surprise.1 Abby did not linger, but spun on the nearest monster and slammed Avenger into flabby flesh, then effortlessly turned her sword follow-through into a return attack.

In the next instant a translucent figure of misty golden light appeared in the melee and began carving swift slices in the air with a scimitar forged in a world of ghosts. A third ogre howled as fresh wounds appeared, then gurgled as the spirit toppled the brute on its back with a deftness to rival Abby’s.2 In his struggle to rise the monster exposed himself to still another twirling razor of gilded spirit-stuff. One of the remaining ogres fetched Abby a glancing blow as Gloriana closed on the combat to support her friends. The hunting trail began to puddle in red.

Out of the sky tumbled three ceramic containers that fell among the battle with such precision that the explosions scattered flame upon the ogres only, gouts of fire dancing uncannily around party members like ribbon fronds of some delicate tropical fish. The brute at the center of the burning violence collapsed lifeless, skin blackened and smoking, hair burnt completely away.3

Rahab arced another missile of magic from the wand into one of the two remaining ogres. Lem realized the fight was already over, and stepped away, casually wiping his knives clean and reseating them in their sheathes as he jogged to the chest. The gardener bent to examine the box for traps even as the ghostly sword-wielder set a flank opposite Abby, then upended the ogre and slew the monster in two swift strokes. The warrior blinked in surprise, and then a beam of unbearable light bored completely through the last brute, and it, too, died, a perfectly cauterized hole transecting flesh, bone, and organ. Abby glanced over as the beam faded from Gloriana’s outstretched palm. The oracle cracked a broad grin.4

••••

Dropped in haste at the start of the battle, the four cows lowed in pain. Gloriana carefully herded them close to Abby, then channeled healing power among all animals present, bipedal and quadrupedal alike. Without missing a beat the cattle began nuzzling among clean grass, chewing contentedly. The warrior giggled.

Lem quietly stowed a tool away and casually kicked the chest lid open. Sunlight fell on heaps of silver coin, and the gardener gave a small smile of satisfaction.

“Good work,” Gloriana said as everyone gathered around. One of the barrels apparently righted itself, and the lid began to work free as if by magic. When Kara finally prized the container open a heady scent of rich alcohol drifted on the breeze.

Rahab’s devil-grin brightened. “Brandy!”

••••

After reappearing the alchemist appraised the liquor at four hundred gold coins per barrel. Meanwhile, Lem estimated the silver in the chest at around six thousand pieces. The party declined to value the livestock.

Rahab helped Kara lift and secure the chest of coins on one of the saddles while Abby, Gloriana, and Lem carefully rolled the three barrels into the woods under cover of fallen pine branches. With luck the brandy would still be there should they return by this route. They left the ogre corpses lying on the hunting trail for corvids, vultures, and other scavengers to dine easily.

Prior to climbing back into the saddle it possibly transpired that each of the companions imbibed a portion of brandy any sommelier worth a salary would have described as “generous.”

••••

The remaining miles to Ravenmoor passed uneventfully. The isolated alpine community had little to report, and Gloriana found the people distant, reluctant, and dour. After a late lunch, the party resumed the road and left the small cluster of buildings behind, rising ever higher into the uplands before the wall of the plateau. As they made camp that evening they could see the looming cliffs grown closer. In little more than a day they would reach the land of the giants.

Rahab approached Gloriana after breakfast the next morning. “Can you conjure water?”

“Of course. Don’t worry, I was going to douse the fire once we’re ready to get underway.”

“I had another purpose in mind.”

The oracle looked surprised.

“I need a pool.”

“A pool?”

“A small one. Just enough to create a surface about the size of a handheld mirror. I thought if you filled a fissure or similar shallow in one of the granite boulders nearby . . . .” The wizard gestured at a suitable specimen.

Gloriana resettled a scarf around her shoulders. “What are you up to?”

“Divination.”

Sapphire eyes lit brightly. “Scrying?”

The conjurer nodded.

“The prisoners?”

“Quink, actually.”

She patted his arm. “Good for you. Let’s do this.”

••••

They all gathered around Rahab as he removed several thin, white hairs from a pouch on his belt.

“What are those?” Abby asked.

Rahab carefully held the strands in his left hand as he began to motion with his right over the pool of water Gloriana had provided. “Portions of Quink’s hair.”

“What for?”

Kara read the wizard’s expression and intervened. “It helps isolate the conduit of the spell to the appropriate focus.”

The warrior was nonplussed.

“It makes it easier for Rahab to find Quink,” the alchemist said.

Abby lowered her voice and leaned close to Kara. “Where did Rahab get Quink’s hair.”

“From the wreckage of his home!” The conjurer’s voice rose in irritation. “Now, hush! Let us see what we can learn about the abductees and their captors.” He leaned over the pool and peered intently at the water.

••••

The incantation of the spell alone took an hour to complete. At some point Abby lost interest and began breaking camp. Kara and Gloriana watched with professional curiosity, and Lem found himself fascinated by the whole process. The gardener’s mind whirled with possibility at the power to surreptitiously see over uncounted distance. By the time the divination was complete Rahab had gleaned important information and the sun had breasted the plateau. Morning warmed.

••••

They took up conversation on the trail.

“Could you see where they were?” asked Gloriana.

“Yes and no. I could discern their surroundings, but could not identify them, though I believe they have already reached the plateau. Their direction was unmistakably east.”

Kara raised an eyebrow. “At the Stairs?”

“Past it. They are on the Storval Plateau proper.”

“So we are already too late?” Lem wondered.

“Again: yes and no. With the information we have from Teraktinus and the other giant we know they make for the place they call Jorgenfist. We will not head them off at the Storval Stairs, but they have not escaped us yet. More importantly, I do not think they know we pursue.”

The oracle chewed her lip in frustration.

Abby turned in the saddle. “Are the villagers hale?”

Rahab shrugged. “Worse for wear owing to travel, I think. No longer in sacks, they have been transferred to caged litters. They look undernourished and disheveled. The scrying went unnoticed by the giants.”

“Was it all the prisoners?” Gloriana rejoined.

The wizard shook his head. “In addition to Quink I could see two members of the Scarnetti family, and two others.”

“Shayliss? Mayor Deverin?”

“Not among that clutch.”

Kara: “Just those five in that one location?”

Rahab nodded.

“Then they split into more than two groups. Smart.” If nothing else, Kara had to admit admiration for the wilderness acumen the stone giants had demonstrated since fleeing Sandpoint.

Abby frowned. “But what if they’re not all going to Jorgenfist?”

The alchemist was sanguine. “There is no reason to believe they have any other destination. In addition to whatever information Mokmurian desired from the raid, he clearly wanted prisoners, possibly for his magic. It makes the most sense that all the giants—and the villagers they abducted—converge on Jorgenfist.”

“How long to the Stairs?” Lem asked quietly.

Kara looked to the horizon and the line of cliffs looming there. “Tomorrow before noon. The Stairs are an ancient monument of the kind that dot Varisia.”

Gloriana looked intrigued. “Thassilonian?”

“Yes, now that we know. The steps are carved directly into the cliffs, large enough to provide giants with easy access to and from the Storval Plateau.”

“Suggesting giants figured into Thassilon’s history with some significance,” observed Rahab.

Kara met the wizard’s gaze. “I have been considering the same thing.”

The geography began to change. Abundant vegetation diminished, trees giving way to shrubs, grasses retreating in the face of lichens clinging to great stretches of stone. The surroundings seemed largely gray; sharp, craggy outcroppings reared dramatically from the landscape, leftovers from ancient erosion carving narrow, treacherous valleys and gullies of canted rock.

They lunched sparingly in the saddle. Lem glanced back over his shoulder. “I am going to ride ahead. You all make too much noise for me to be effective this close.” Without waiting for reply the gardener clucked his mount forward at a trot and disappeared into the closely crowded badlands.

••••

Lem had been right. A quarter of a mile ahead he came upon a broad gulch surrounded by promontories. Near the southeastern perimeter smoldered the remains of a campfire, and the large figure of a seated stone giant slumbered with its back to a hoodoo of basalt. Three other giants lay stretched on the ground. There was a good hundred feet or more of open, scoria-strewn sand, but the gardener had stopped without alerting anything. He carefully turned his mount and rode back to warn the others.

“There are four stone giants at a crude campsite further down this route,” Lem explained as he dismounted and handed his reins to Gloriana.

Abby drew her sword and the gardener produced his knives.

“No prisoners?” the oracle asked.

Lem shook his head. “The giants are asleep, and the campfire has gone out. No cages, no villagers. Nothing.”

The others dismounted. They took a minute to hobble the horses, then assembled on Lem.

“Alright, let me approach. At the limit of the gulch you should be fine, and it will give me an opportunity to get close and cut throats.”

Gloriana looked distinctly uncomfortable. The gardener noticed. “You think we should wake them up first and ask if they’ll happily surrender?”

The oracle sighed. “No.”

“Right.” Lem returned to his plan. “If it starts to—”

“But that doesn’t mean this is good,” Gloriana interrupted.

“Glori,” Kara placed a hand upon the oracle’s shoulder, “none of this has been good since Sandpoint came under attack.”

“Like I was saying,” the gardener resumed. “Abby? Move in quickly if it goes bad. The rest of you do what you do, but only if I am unsuccessful.” He turned and strode away toward the gulch in silence. The others followed.

••••

At the mouth of the broad space they clustered and knelt behind a jagged outcropping of wind-carved stone.

“Now,” Lem whispered, “watch and learn.”

The afternoon sun spilled a parabola of light along the dusty northern reaches of the gulch. Lem angled to his right and moved in the deep shadows of the southern rise. After a mere thirty feet even his companions could no longer detect him, save Gloriana whose magic made her aware so long as the spell sustained.

The first creature the gardener reached was sleeping on its side, one arm drawn over its eyes against the daylight. Lem neared the head, reversed his knife, and quickly plunged it into the giant’s neck. His draw tore so quickly and expertly across artery, trachea, and vocal cords that the monster would never be able to call in pain or raise alert. It would bleed out in less than forty seconds.5

Nothing happened. Instead of a river of vital giant blood there was only a bulbous clot at the cut throat like a slow, black-red ooze. The giant was already dead.

Lem panned his vision around in growing alarm. Shit.

••••

The thing that burst from the promontory was the size of a human, but it flew on bat-like wings, and its coloration was so perfectly matched to the earthen surroundings that the gardener himself could have executed no better stealth. Naked, it exhibited no visible genitalia, and it trailed a tail. Extremities ended in claws, and from its head sprouted two cruelly curved horns. Even as it swooped Lem saw two more take flight, one from the east, the other from the north. Then, just before he activated the vanishing power in The Boots of the Panther, his eyes drew up to the highest point on the ridgeline where another creature appeared, larger still against the blue sky, mighty wings uncoiling like malignant petals on a deadly bloom and powering into the air. Half again the size of the other flyers, this one also had four arms.

The gardener blinked from sight and ran.

••••

The others saw the sudden movement at the far end of the gulch. Abby launched into contingency and raced straight from cover onto the broad expanse of the ravine floor, trailing a line of dust.

“Hey, ugly!” she screamed into the afternoon, then rattled her sword against Avenger’s perfect silver surface The winged creatures reoriented on the noise and angled for a new approach, except for the larger monster who continued to rise in a slow spiral, ignoring the warrior’s arrival.

Just before she drank her extract of potent invisibility Kara warned her friends: “Gargoyles.” Then she vanished.

“Abby, wait!” Gloriana called out, then chanted the blessing of augmentation on herself and her companions. She silently cursed the warrior’s impulsive need to charge headlong into every battle. A moment later the oracle became golden fire.

Rahab encased himself in a spell of magical armor and stepped around the rock into the gulch, keeping to the southern side, trying to maintain sight lines on all the flying creatures. By now it was clear all the stone giants at the makeshift camp were dead. The wizard’s gaze alighted on the four-armed monster aloft in helical flight, and he began to consider his next arcanistry.

Seeing his companions on the move Lem felt a moment’s satisfaction that they had actually paid attention to his instructions. Still vanished, the gardener plucked the magic wand he kept at his belt and, without truly understanding the process, managed to activate the device. A line of burning energy sizzled against the nearest gargoyle.6 In an instant Lem blinked into view and the monster’s eyes turned to find the source of heat. Retreating, the gardener tried to fall back into the shadows dominating the southern half of the gulch, but it was too late. First one, then a second gargoyle landed in a cloud of dust and attacked with claws. As one of the creatures drew blood Lem realized his attacker appeared to be made of substance like stone.

Now that two of the creatures were on solid ground, however, Abby seized opportunity and charged. She slammed into a gargoyle and fetched a solid blow with her sword. Meanwhile, Gloriana began to soak a portion of Lem’s injury through her vital link, and then she called a column of divine fire down upon the four-armed monster in mid-air. Roaring flames coursed along the creature’s body, but as they dissipated the thing picked up speed, trailing smoke, and the oracle was not entirely certain her spell had inflicted much damage.

Kara drank an extract of flight and began to gain altitude. Rahab advanced another thirty feet across the ravine floor toward the battle. As he moved he invoked a minor divination of combat insight. Vectors, angles, and calculations of eldritch light appeared in his vision.

Now Lem was exactly where he did his best work: opposite Abby flanking an opponent. The gardener found that cutting the gargoyle was like plunging his knives into rocky soil, and sparks jumped from his blades as they encountered bits of flint in the monster’s body. When the creature died whatever strange magic holding it together failed, and the body crumbling into chunks like cracked clay. The gardener tried to tumble into better position against the second gargoyle, and just managed to avoid the swipe of a claw as he did so.

A third creature landed next to the warrior and attacked, but she blocked with Avenger. Lem suffered another small wound from the monster he had danced around moments before, when suddenly a hidden fourth appeared from above and drove its curved horns against the gardener’s armor.

••••

Gloriana drew more of Lem’s injury upon herself and a moment later the healing power of her energy form banished the pain. Then she looked up and saw the thing descending upon her.

It powered down at a steep angle, tucking its great wings to maximize plummeting momentum as a falcon falls on a field mouse. It must have displaced a draft horse’s mass. Four clawed hands reached to clutch and rend, and in that moment the oracle realized that no speed she possessed could foster escape from the diving horror. Desperate, she lifted her left hand, palm outstretched in gesture of refusal, and evoked powerful spirit magic of forbidding.7 Her chant of compulsion was as much to bolster her own courage as to focus the cycle of mystic energy.

“Oh, no, no, no, No, NO!”

The wave of spiritual energy washed over the four-armed gargoyle. From her vantage Gloriana could easily see the angular visage form a rictus of triumph as her spell failed utterly. Tunnel vision encroached. The oracle wanted so much to close her eyes against the impact about to tear into her, but found herself frozen in terror, unable to look away.

From somewhere behind her there echoed a muted vocalization, as though from a distant gallery in a museum. It sounded like Rahab speaking a single, strange word.

••••

The beam of arcane energy was perfect.

At the moment it intercepted the four-armed gargoyle the magic instantaneously unmade the creature. The only thing that fell on the oracle was a tiny puff of dust so fine it might have been a pixie’s kiss.8

••••

Everyone froze. Even the remaining gargoyles stared.

When Gloriana turned to face the wizard her eyes shone like azure, and her jaw dropped in complete, joyful amazement.

“Egrevenon,” the oracle said, “vuyith zeloniari.”

Kara nearly fell out of the sky; Abby almost dropped her sword.9


1 Abby’s charge attack was a critical hit for 40 points. Lem moved under the power of his new boots into a flank while maintaining stealth, then landed a critical hit for 9 points of damage plus 21 sneak attack and a 5-point bleed. Then Abby hit again—the third critical—for 39 points of damage, and that was it for the lead ogre.

2 Glo’s spiritual ally is augmented by the Toppling Spell feat, and the effect was successful.

3 And then there’s Kara. Three bombs in a full attack, the first hitting for 24 points with 15 points of splash damage to the other two ogres. The second was a critical hit for 41 points of damage with 15 points of splash damage. And the third hit for 25 points of damage, and another 15 points of splash on the proximal enemies. Dead ogre. And all of that damage misses her friends.

4 Glo’s spiritual ally scored a critical hit, tripped the ogre, then hit with a second attack on the follow up and killed it. Then Glo—wearing her red-gold breastplate with the shining blue circle at the sternum—cast searing light to produce a sunbeam laser from her outstretched palm that cored a 27-point hole in the last ogre. Alternate spell name: repulsor beam. The ogres scored one minor hit in a fight that lasted less than thrity seconds. 11th level: Where ogres get out of the way, or get steamrolled.

5 Coup de grace.

6 Scorching ray. Lem’s successful Use Magic Device resulted in 35 points of damage, including sneak attack.

7 Greater forbid action.

8 Disintegrate cast under the auspice of a true strike. OHMYGODTHISISSOGOOD.

9 This is a special footnote. It’s for everyone, of course, but includes particular information for Tron, who plays Abby Solo. What Abby, Kara, and Rahab heard in that moment was Gloriana speaking fluent Elvish, a language the oracle does not know. Way back at the end of Book III, Chapter 11, something happened that drew Tron’s attention: A scene in which Gloriana had a particular interaction with Rahab. When I first posted Book III, Chapter 11, I got a text from Tron indicating he was not sure how he felt about what he had read. Now, after all this time, I can reveal that when Gloriana asked Rahab to teach her something she was requesting instruction in Elvish. Finally, upon achieving level 11, Gloriana had a skill point available for Linguistics: Elvish, and now the oracle can speak the language shared by wizard, alchemist, and warrior (outside of Common). Rahab has been secretly tutoring Gloriana in Elvish since Magnimar, and this was the moment of revelation.

Oh, and just to make it even more interesting, what Gloriana said was: “I love you, conjurer.”

Now, is this the part where I ask how you like them apples?

(And the soundtrack song for this scene is “Magic” by The Cars, from their 1984 release Heartbeat City.)

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