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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.

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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.

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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.)

View
Book V, Chapter 8: The Chase Begins
New Boots

They gathered for dinner that evening. Struggling to stay awake, they reported on additional accomplishments of the day. Inspections revealed hooked Sihedron runes either tattooed or branded on the stone giant bodies. Kara harvested as much dragon hide from the vanquished Longtooth as she could manage. Lem quarried and catalogued gear recovered from the stone giants, including some magical items and pieces of jewelry worth fair coin.1 Abby enlisted Sheriff Hemlock in arranging five horses to help begin pursuit in the morning. Gloriana aided Father Zantus attending to villagers while Rahab made a basic account of the population. Among those missing were Mayor Kendra Deverin, the Scarnetti family, Shayliss Vinder, and Broadert Quink.

They arranged to store some items with Ameiko Kaijitsu until such time as they could recover them. Then they retired to their rooms.

“Before we turn in, you should see something,” Lem said.

Exhaustion clouded every face. “What is it?” Abby asked. The warrior’s voice sounded hoarse.

“Come.” The gardener led them to the small chamber set aside for him and Rahab. When they all clustered inside Lem closed the door. The wizard produced the illuminated skull for light. The gardener reached under one of the beds and drew forth a pair of boots, lustrous black leather tufted in soft sable fur. The toes showed curved metallic studs made of a strange black metal shaped like animal claws.

When Lem turned the boots over to reveal the soles the companions all saw the metal discs imprinted with the ancient seven pointed star.

••••

“The giants had these?” Kara asked.

The gardener shook his head. “The ruin.”

Abby blinked. “What?

“Whatever it was they did in there that blasted the floor—probably that damned horn—revealed a cavity beneath the stone. While Glo gave Teraktinus falling lessons I collected goods and found the space. I could just squeeze through. About ten feet down there was an old pouch or bundle. Inside were these.”

“Thassilon.” Rahab pronounced it as a grumble.

Lem nodded. “Exactly.” He started to ask, but the wizard was already casting the spell and reading the arcane information.

“They are, indeed, magical. Stop me if this sounds familiar, but the cycle does not orient within the haruspic lattice. It moves and transposes. It does not even abide a particular direction.” Rahab squinted. “Ridiculous.”

“So, we don’t know what it does?” asked Abby.

Gloriana groaned, “And Quink is gone.”

It turned out the wizard was not too tired to summon outrage. “Would it matter? When has he ever told us something genuinely useful? When has he actually shed light on any of this? The artifacts? The history? The magic?”

An uncomfortable silence fell on the room. Rahab exhaled long and slow. “Apologies. Conversation for another day. I am very tired.”

The warrior crossed her arms. “So . . . what should we do?”

“Try them,” Kara said. “Rahab is right. Most of what we have learned about the Thassilonian items we have discovered ourselves.” The alchemist reached out. Lem handed her the boots, and soon she had them on. She took a few steps in the small space, and spent quiet moments with eyes closed, simply feeling them around her feet.

“Very light and comfortable,” Kara said eventually. “But I do not think they do me advantage.” The alchemist bent to extract her feet. “You should give them a try, Lem.”

“Very funny. Too large,” the gardener observed.

Kara shrugged. “You might be surprised.”

Lem looked back and forth between alchemist and wizard. Rahab simply nodded confirmation. The gardener stared at the footwear for a long time. “Tomorrow. Maybe.”

Moments later they were all in their beds. Sleep was velvet gravity.

••••

The power of The Book of the Strange was such that Rahab awoke two hours later completely refreshed. He stole out of the room and took up at one of the tables in the tavern. The late crowd was subdued, thin, introspected. The wizard alternated cups of cold water and red wine as he memorized his spells; while he worked the tavern goers left him in peace. When he had completed his study most of the tavern was empty, save a few that nodded or offered a handshake in quiet gratitude as they left. Hundreds had seen the conjurer in flight over the village, vanishing and reappearing with rescued townsfolk.

Ameiko threw a rag over one shoulder, came out from around the empty bar, and leaned on the edge of Rahab’s table. “Rumor is you all leave tomorrow.”

The wizard said nothing.

“Time was I would take up a sword and join you. Then something strange happened: I found myself with a home.” The tavern keeper gestured all around her. “That home survived yesterday because of you and your friends.”

Still Rahab remained silent. Ameiko read his face and smiled. “I remember that feeling: Someone always thinks you are someone else. Have you heard what some have taken to calling you?”

“‘The Heroes of Sandpoint.’” It wasn’t quite exasperation.

She chuckled and waved a dismissive hand. “Not that. I mean you in particular.”

The wizard shook his head.

“‘The Devil Rahab.’” The tavern keeper smiled.

The conjurer betrayed nothing. Ameiko continued: “Not just here. Travelers up and down the Lost Coast Road have bandied that name around in recent weeks.”

“Is that what you think?” Rahab sipped his wine.

“I think they are trying to find a place for you here” she tapped her sternum, then tapped her head “or here, and wondering why you do not seem to fit the space as conveniently as they would like. But mostly I think it does not matter because Sandpoint is grateful for its lives and lands, and if it has a devil to thank for it . . .” she shrugged, “. . . stranger things have happened.”

The tavern keeper stood. “Thank you for saving my home, Rahab, of House Eldredshade. I expect I will be asleep when you all depart, but Bethona will be up. Help yourself to food and drink. You know your money is no good here.” At the stairs she stopped and turned back. “The village awaits the return of the Heroes of Sandpoint with our kin. I think the giants should fear the coming of the Devil and his company.”

Rahab sat alone in the tavern, enveloped in silence.

••••

Lem arrived at breakfast wearing the new boots.

Kara swallowed a piece of smoked salmon. “So they do fit.”

“Shut up.”2

••••

They made plans to try and catch the stone giants by going overland first, reassessing as they covered ground. After breakfast Rahab made his way to the end of Tower Street and Quink’s cottage. A gaping hole had been smashed into the front of the structure, and the interior was all disarray: scattered papers, tumbled furniture, shards of crockery, shattered glass. There was no way to tell at what point during the raid the sage had been abducted.

The wizard stormed through the mess into the rear of the cottage and thence to Quink’s bedchamber where he swept a few thin white hairs from a pillow and secured them in one of the pouches where he kept spell components. Then he departed as swiftly as he had arrived.

••••

Hemlock met the companions at cathedral square with mounts loaned by the populace. Father Zantus and Orik were on hand, as well, and a crowd of more than five hundred had gathered. No cheer greeted the Heroes of Sandpoint, but as they strode up those among the crowd doffed hats and stilled. A silence so immense it might have sunk a ship at sea settled over all. Intense, almost reverent gazes followed the companions.

“Gods,” Abby whispered uncomfortably. “It’s like a funeral.” The party converged on the sheriff and the mercenary.

“I am no hand at ceremony,” Hemlock said quietly. “Our hopes go with you.”

He was about to say more when a murmur rippled through the crowd, and townsfolk stepped aside as two people shuffled forward. They moved as though bearing tremendous weight, their aspect haggard and raw, and they made straight for the party. He was bearish, but leaned forlornly on the woman at his side. Each step they took was a lifetime’s journey until they finally stood before Rahab. Quivering with nerves frayed beyond limit, Ven Vinder leaned close, grief-reddened eyes seeing madness and staring straight into those of the wizard mere inches away.

Abby, Kara, and Gloriana froze. When the shopkeeper finally spoke it was barely more than a jagged whisper.

“Find . . . my . . . daughter.”

Rahab’s gaze never wavered, and his voice conveyed a simple, profound calm. “I will.”

Vinder’s wife slowly drew the man back into the crowd.

Warrior, alchemist, and oracle remembered to breathe.

••••

They climbed into the saddle. Uncomfortable at the prospect of additional drama, Abby quickly clucked her mount underway and the line of horses filed out of the square, the crowd parting as water before a ship’s bow. Still they raised no sound. When Gloriana glanced back over her shoulder, five hundred slowly raised their hands in farewell. She lifted her own in return, a single green scarf caught in the morning breeze, and then faced forward again, vision a blur.

••••

“Well,” Kara said. “That was . . . tense.” Soon they would cut due east from the Lost Coast Road and settle single file as they sought the giants’ trail, but for now they rode abreast.

“Does anyone want to tell me what that was all about?” asked Lem. “No? No one?” The gardener sucked his teeth. “Probably boring anyway.”

Gloriana looked at Rahab. “Care to explain why, instead of strangling you, Vinder asked for your help? You? Finding Shayliss?”

The wizard’s gaze fixed on the middle distance. “A stone giant knocked in the front of their home. The structural damage trapped Vinder and his wife behind rubble. They were two of the people I rescued last night using dimensional steps.”

Three sets of eyebrows went up.

“I do not expect us to kindle friendship.” The conjurer refocused on his companions. “But he knows now, with certainty.”

“Knows what?”

“That I have never lied to him, and I have the power to find her and bring her home.”

••••

Two hours later Kara found the trail. They rode in silence now, senses strained for signs of the stone giants and those they had abducted. Around them rose the Nettlewood. The alchemist reined at a stream and her horse bent its head to drink.

Kara squinted and pinched the bridge of her nose. “They have split. At least two groups, perhaps more.”

The others drew close to water their mounts, as well. “Are we closing on them?” Abby asked.

The alchemist shook her head. “Difficult to tell. They have some woodcraft, and cover their tracks well.”

Lem stretched and worked his shoulders. “Has their direction changed?”

“Still northeast.”

“So,” Gloriana frowned, “you do not think we shall catch them today?”

Kara stared into the woods in silence for a long time as the horses drank. “I do not think we will catch them in the country at all.”

••••

The alchemist elaborated when they camped that night in a clearing in the Nettlewood. “In part because of their size stone giants do not have the same circadian rhythms that we smaller humanoids tend to exhibit. With but a few hours rest they can remain on the move for two days straight. Three if they push.”

Gloriana’s face sank. “They could be on the move as we camp right now?”

Kara nodded grimly.

The oracle gave a great sigh and rubbed her eyes wearily. “And because they are splitting into smaller groups, even if we were to catch one, we might only find one or two abducted villagers.”

“Or none.” The alchemist stirred embers at the base of the campfire with a stick.

Abby shook her head. “Hell’s below, this has gone from bad to worse.”

“As much as I hate to bring it up,” Gloriana turned to Rahab, “we can still teleport to them, right?”

The wizard tented his fingers. “The problem is that we still do not know where they are. We have to know where we are going in order to teleport.”

“What about teleporting ahead of them?”

“The same problem remains. Our advantage lies in that we know the most likely place they are going, but we ourselves have never been there, and so trying to translate directly to that place carries risks.”

“What sort of risks?” Lem asked. Gloriana swallowed: She was not sure she wanted to hear this.

“By rough estimate we might appear off-target by as many as, say, two hundred miles in a random direction.”

The gardener’s eyes grew wide. “Two hundred miles! How has this worked before?”

“Because I was always teleporting us someplace I knew. In the worst case we suffer a collapse of trans-dimensional phase array synchrony.”

Kara closed her eyes and shook her head slowly, as though in pain.

“And that’s bad?” the gardener squinted.

“A cascading sequence that not only displaces us from the target location, but also inflicts potentially continuous injury as our integrity fails to resolve relative to non-space.”

“Potentially continuous?”

The wizard looked solemn. His gaze shifted, not from the fire to Lem, but to Gloriana, who sat with elbows clenched tightly around her knees drawn to her chest. “If the collapse sustains long enough it could kill us, and still deposit our corpses hundreds of miles from where we needed to be.”

The gardener looked intently at Rahab. The wizard continued, “Before you say more, the magic is very safe . . . when we know where we are going, as I have indicated.”

But it was too late. Gloriana had been right: As much as she appreciated Rahab’s honesty, she had not wanted to hear this. Not at all.

••••

Watches passed uneventfully. In the morning they discussed the journey over breakfast.

“Until it’s safer,” the oracle said, “I think we need to continue overland. Do we know anything about this region?” She looked at Kara and Rahab. The alchemist deferred.

“We are already near the edge of the Nettlewood.” The wizard brushed bread crumbs from his fingers. “Then it is approximately seventy miles of grassland to Galduria on the western shore of Ember Lake. We should resupply there or at Wolf’s Ear at the northern end of the water. From there we cross the Lampblack River and follow it north to Ravenmoor. At that point we proceed northeast to the curve of the Storval Plateau and one of the few points of access to the heights: the Storval Stairs.”

Abby was already saddling her horse. “And knowing all that we still can’t teleport?”

Rahab wrestled impulse in silence. Kara stood, laid a hand gently on the conjurer’s shoulder, and addressed the warrior: “Not yet, Abby.”

In ten minutes they had broken camp and were underway, single file, once again racing to leave behind the territories they knew as home.3


1 Loot included: +2 hide armor, +1 light pick, +1 dwarf bane heavy pick, and a warhorn of blasting (all size Large), ring of protection +1, amulet of might fists +1, silver inlaid armband, and jeweled ring.

2 The Boots of the Panther. This Thassilonian footwear resized to fit the intrepid gardener, and provides feather fall protection at all times, as well as some other features like Incredible Balance, Spring (a 15-foot-step), Claws that act as natural magic weapons, Swift Expeditious Retreat, and Swift Vanish. Some uses are limited in a day. As with all the Thassilonian stuff we’ve found there are other mysterious features that we do not understand or have not yet discovered.

3 Characters leveled up to 11th. Highlights: New die of sneak attack damage and Mobility feat for Lem; Critical Focus feat for Abby, new die of damage for bombs and Improved Iron Will feat for Kara; Blindsense revelation, increase in channels per day, and Divine Protection feat for Glo, plus new spells such as speak with dead, freedom of movement, and tongues. Empower Spell feat for Rahab, plus additions to his spellbook with summon monster vi and disintegrate.

View
Book V, Chapter 7: The Raid On Sandpoint, Part 4
On Through The Night

Gloriana and Abby rejoined the others within the tower ruin. “We have to help the village now, however we can,” said the oracle. “Kara, I need you to try and find Mayor Deverin or Sheriff Hemlock or Father Zantus, then find me so we can organize better. I am going to start working my way up Tower Street to help against the fires.” The alchemist nodded and took flight.

Gloriana turned to Abby and Lem. “Wherever you can help, whatever you can do, do it: bucket brigades, moving groups to safety, matching lost persons, anything. Wherever your strength,” she laid one hand on the warrior’s shoulder, the other on the gardener’s, “or your skill can best be put to use. You’ll know what to do.”

Abby nodded, and then jerked her head at Lem. Warrior and gardener got underway.

The oracle looked at Rahab and did not need to say anything. The wizard took to the sky. Gloriana looked around the Old Light one last time, then jogged into the air and the night.

••••

Kara found Sheriff Hemlock with a crowd trying to pour water from buckets on a burning building on Bishop Street. They made poor progress.

“Sheriff,” Kara alighted. “Have you seen Mayor Deverin?” The burly man was exhausted, sweat streaked, eyes wide. He stared at the alchemist blankly, then shook his head.

“Gloriana asked me to bring you to her.”

“I cannot leave the fire.”

The alchemist considered, then nodded. “Then I will bring her to you.” She lifted into flight again and raced away north, leaving the cluster of villagers staring dumbly.

••••

Gloriana had begun putting her orison of water creation to use. With each casting she could produce twenty gallons, and she stopped at the first burning building on Tower Street to do just that. It began to have an effect, slowly, as gushing streams poured from the air at her command. People running to and fro had diminished: largely fled or congregated elsewhere or . . . but the oracle did not want to think about that just now.

Concentrate. She summoned more water, and still more. Smoke rose hissing with each downpour, great white jets of steam clouding and roiling.

••••

Rahab’s first stop was near the top of Church Street. Hovering in the air the wizard looked down upon what had been The White Deer Inn. An ache surprised him. How many breakfasts had they enjoyed there: rich coffee and honey-drizzled porridge, hot rolls, boiled eggs, rashers of bacon, fresh fruit. Now flame had consumed so much that the first floor had collapsed on the ground floor, and the entire structure was just vague, rough shapes blackened and canted within raging red-orange.

Scanning to make sure there was no one at risk the wizard wove his spell, the arcane formula appearing in the air before his eyes in an array of brilliant blue and green lines, runes, intersecting angles, gyring shapes. At a word he erected a wall of invisible force on Cliff Street, which would make it difficult for embers to drift and kindle on nearby buildings. Anchored between two structures, the magical wall would still allow traffic along Church Street as necessary. It would only hold for one minute, but it was something, at least.

Then he began to open the way. Six seconds later the first water elemental arrived.

“Drench,” he said in Aquan, and the wave of water raced away to do just that.1

Rahab opened the way again.

••••

Wherever Abby and Lem went it was chaos. The warrior broke away to help with a cart of barrels. Having been unable to convince any draft animal to navigate the cinder-filled streets, the locals had been moving the vehicle back and forth under their own power between the estuary and the fire sites. Abby arrived and leant her strength to the endeavor. The vehicle picked up speed.

The gardener moved south in flight, before coming to ground at Salmon Street. A group of human villagers started as he descend in front of them.

“Going somewhere?” he asked, hands on hips.

No one said anything. Wood smoke made haze of the air.

Lem lifted a thumb over his left shoulder. “The docks?”

One of the townspeople glanced around at the others, swallowed, nodded.

“Useless. The giants are gone. Only thing left to do is try and save what we can. The brewery looked damage as I passed overhead.”

A cordwainer raised a hand. “The monsters destroyed it.”

“That’s what makes them monsters. Was anyone injured?”

Shrugs and glances of confusion.

“Well, let’s go find out, shall we? Someone may need our help.” He gestured, and the group began to turn, shuffling back toward Market Street. Lem sighed and shook his head.

••••

Kara landed. Gloriana had done what she could and moved on to another building. Every few seconds gouts of water sprung from the air, falling in hissing gusts upon flame.

“I found Hemlock,” said the alchemist.

The oracle kept casting. “And Mayor Deverin?”

“No sign. The sheriff would not come. He is helping fight a fire.”

Gloriana paused, then resumed: more water, more steam. Her golden locks had streaked with sweat, grime, and the humidity she was generating. “Nothing for it now, anyway. We’ll have to see to that later.”

Kara nodded. “Would you like me to keep looking?”

“See if you can help at the cathedral. It is probably a confused mess. They could use someone calm. Organizing them into small groups is best. Foodstuffs for children, any fresh water not in use for fires might help calm nerves. No alcohol. Drunk is not what anyone needs to be just now, though some are likely to argue with you. Adults tend to do better if they can be put to work on small, achievable tasks: counting heads, helping stockpile supplies, looking after children. Try to unite families. Try . . . ” She trailed off in the wake of another orison, and her head hung for a moment.

“Glori, I understand. We are doing all we can.” Kara lifted into the air and flew away.

The oracle took a deep breath, and began casting again.

••••

In the end Rahab summoned three water elementals, the maximum compliment of such beings available to him in his contingent of spells. The creatures took great delight in roaming the town and crashing upon open fires. They appeared as columns, or waves, or pisciforms of perfectly clear water, and they startled everyone who saw them; an unexpected bonus, as the townsfolk gave them wide berth, making it easier for the creatures to quench at will. The elementals rioted gleefully among the burning buildings, purest joy achieved in snuffing out flame.

Knowing the limits of the spell’s duration the wizard did not wait to track their progress. Taking flight once more he raced over the rooftops, keen eyes and ears trained on the village below. With mathematical precision he followed a route maximizing the ground he could cover with greatest efficiency.

Approaching a structure in flames the conjurer heard desperate screams from within. Rahab changed angle and vectored directly at the building. Stunned villagers on the street watched helplessly as the robed conjurer plunged out of the sky. They could only watch in horror, waiting for the crunching crash as body slammed into building.

And then, just before impact, the wizard vanished.

There was untold advantage in no longer having to abide by something so mundane as walls.

••••

Dawn over Sandpoint: smoke drifted serpentine in the air. A number of structures had succumbed to fire, and several more had suffered damage from giant-flung boulder or club, but the majority of the village stood intact. The northern portion of the town in particular had endured the most, though scattered wreckage littered throughout the municipality.

But the fires were finally out.

They had worked through the night, and now they gathered at the southwestern end of cathedral square. Gloriana had expended every healing magic available and doused countless flames. Kara had organized survivors and kept them occupied against despair. Abby had moved the water barrel cart between estuary and burning buildings at least four times. Lem had scouted the entire village in search of survivors, directing them to converge on the square or join in helping others. Rahab had translated behind the dimensions to the limit of his ability, rescuing seventeen people trapped by fire or rubble or unable to otherwise move. The companions were utterly exhausted.

“Still no sign of Mayor Deverin,” Kara reported.

“Hemlock might have seen her.” Lem did not sound particularly confident.

Kara shook her head. “I doubt it. He was fighting fires all night, moving villagers. Perhaps he saw her, but he was already at limits when I found him.”

They stood for a while in silence. No one sat on the ground for fear they might not have strength to stand once more.

Gloriana slowly dragged her hands over her face. She had pulled her hair back and tied it with a scarf. Her skin was streaked with ash, just like everyone else’s. “Does anyone know if those that did make it out have started to return?”

Heads shook. The oracle nodded wearily. “Perhaps Father Zantus can tell us.”

“It went bad at the cathedral,” said the alchemist.

Abby: “Fire?”

“Panicked press to get inside, probably when the dragon arrived . . . .” Kara trailed off.

“How many?”

The alchemist exhaled. “Four. One child.”

Gloriana’s eyes widened and she began to move. Kara stopped her with a hand on the arm. “It’s too late, Glori. Everyone else inside survived, but at some point during the height of the terror . . . it was just too many people trying to pass through too small a space in too short a time.”

Lem looked south. “Those won’t be the only losses.”

Gloriana bit her lip and cast her eyes down. “What did you see?”

“Enough.”

“Giants or fire?”

“Both.”

The oracle rubbed her face again. “I should go see.” She began to trudge slowly toward the large stone edifice, too exhausted to weep. Abby and Lem followed.

Kara faced Rahab. “Bereved Sandpoint thrist quenedon d’domoroi?”

The wizard looked gaunt. “Nehov nevdemtor.” 2

They joined the others.

••••

It was not as Rahab anticipated. Many—most, even—expressed significant gratitude. The label remained, lifted high with frequency. Hands reached out to touch, to beseech, to embrace. The wizard practiced a response that acknowledged gesture without committing to a perception unbidden, or unrealized, or insufficiently sophisticated. Exhaustion made it harder to process, easier not to care. Except later—when he examined the memory—he realized that was not the case at all. Exhaustion had made it easier to pretend it was happening to someone else. The self-deception left him uncomfortable.

Hemlock stood on the flagstones before the cathedral in conference with Gloriana. Abby loomed nearby like a bodyguard. Kara and Rahab lingered within earshot. Lem had wandered off somewhere.

“Have you seen Mayor Deverin?” the oracle asked.

The sheriff shook his head. “No sign.”

“Would she have fled, do you think?”

“She genuinely cares about Sandpoint, you know.”

Gloriana was silent a long time. “I know.”

“If she is not among the dead,” said Abby, “then the giants must have taken her.”

Hemlock wearily stepped away. “I have to try to find someone.”

The companions looked around: wisps of smoke, scattered rubble, dazed villagers. The agitation had gone, leaving shock and sorrow in the wake. Father Zantus walked among the people in an effort to maintain calm and provide comfort.

“We need to figure out who is missing.” Gloriana pressed her palms to her eyes. “Ghosts of the Road, I’m tired.”

“The giants already have a night ahead of us,” Abby mumbled.

“I know, but . . . .” The oracle gestured at the scene.

Rahab interjected: “We need a day to recover, regardless: rest, food, study. We are in no condition to pursue now. It makes no sense to take captives only to slay them on the road. The likelihood is the villagers are alive.”

Gloriana looked at the wizard. “Will you be able to teleport us?”

“It is more difficult if I do not know where I am going, but I can try.”

“Is there a case to be made for pursuing overland?”

“There is,” Kara joined. “We can track them, make sure we are pursuing the right group, stay on the trail if they split up. The closer we get may make it easier to teleport in ambush, if necessary. We might even overtake them, if we can secure horses.”

The oracle heaved a heavy sigh. “Alright. Let’s worry about that later. For now—”

Just then Lem walked up. “The Rusty Dragon is intact. Ameiko already has two rooms set aside for us.”

“Thank you, Lem. I will meet with Father Zantus to organize reuniting families. We should see about securing food supplies—”

Abby crossed her arms. “Glo.”

“What?”

“We need to rest, plan, and get on the road.”

“Abby, we still have to—”

“No,” the warrior shook her head. “You’re wrong this time. We need to rest. Plan. Get on the road. The sooner we catch the giants, the sooner we bring back the townspeople.”

The oracle blinked, mouth open.

“The fires are out,” Abby continued. “We have done what we can here. What the village needs now—from us—is their family and friends back. We are not town elders.”

The others looked on in silence. Rahab nodded at the warrior in support.

Abby uncrossed her arms. “We are the wrath against the giants.”

She turned and strode away, steel armor ringing over the thud of her heavy boots.


1 I’ve decided not to invent Aquan. I’ve got enough work cut out for me in English, with occasional inventions in Elvish, Giant, and Infernal. Besides, I’m guessing the language of the Elemental Plane of Water is probably densely variated tonal shifts and very sharp clicks: The kind of sounds that transmit well in water. I submit the reader’s imagination can conjure it more easily than I can transcribe it. Regardless, Rahab—the polyglot—is fluent.

2 Translated from Elvish: “Are we still Heroes of Sandpoint after this?”
“Seems less likely.”

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Book V, Chapter 6: The Raid On Sandpoint, Part 3
The Rise And Fall Of Teraktinus

Sheriff Belor Hemlock was having the worst day of his life.

He had evacuated his lover and her employees, then made his way through increasing numbers of panicking villagers as he moved north to the cathedral. Chaos reigned throughout the village. Stone giants ran amuck, snatching citizens into sacks or crushing them under great clubs and flying boulders. At that moment Hemlock could not see or hear it , but somewhere in the skies over the town hunted a thing of legend, a desperate whisper somehow made real, a fright story incarnate and impossible to understand. What little organization he had directed before the assault had quickly disintegrated. Some of the townsfolk had escaped, but more still remained, and anyone within the village limits was in grave danger.

He passed a young mother desperately clutching three children and trying to cower in a doorway.

“Come with me! We have to get to the cathedral!” He swept one of the children into his arms and began leading the mother and her charges to the northeast.

The townswoman cried out: “The fires!”

Hemlock stopped and turned to face her. “The cathedral is stone! It cannot burn!” Then, quieter: “It cannot burn. It is the safest place right now.”

The children gripped the woman’s skirts and pressed close. The boy in Hemlock’s arms cried hitching tears. The sheriff held his free hand out and the woman took it reluctantly, then suddenly her eyes drew up. Hemlock followed her gaze.

Four figures moved west across the sunset palette of the sky.

“Behold,” Hemock said, as much to himself as to the woman. “The Heroes of Sandpoint.”

Fears suddenly forgotten, one of the children smiled and bounced. “They’re flying, mama!”

Hemlock gestured up the street with a tilt of his head, and smiled softly, an expression few in the village truly knew. “Come. The cathedral.” The mother herded her children and quickly followed the sheriff carrying her youngest. They plunged back into the scurrying crowds.

Four figures moved west across the sunset palette of the sky, and a fifth—unseen—moved with them, her heart secretly racing with victory more brilliant than gemstones.

••••

“Can you see them?” Abby called.

Rahab pointed toward the Old Light. Three stone giants clambered up the slope of the ruined tower and quickly disappeared within the columnar remains. From their skyward route the companions could more fully survey the effect of the assault.

The mayor’s office and the barracks had suffered some fire damage, but both structures were mostly sturdy stone. Other buildings were not so fortunate. Heavy smoke rose from at least six different locations around town, and five stone giants still rambled and ransacked in the southern and southeastern portion of the village. Everywhere citizens scrambled for cover or to flee, some falling into the Turandarok estuary, some making for boats docked at Sandpoint harbor, some rampant on the streets wailing in fear. The giants carried sacks squirming with abducted villagers, and a few already made their way to the eastern waterway to cross back into the wooded marsh beyond and depart with their captives.

A sudden explosion lifted itself above the din of the terrified village.

“Smoke!” Gloriana cried. A rippling column of haze billowed from the Old Light against the setting sun.

“Dust!” corrected Lem. “They’re doing something inside, something to the earth, or stone!”

They began to adjust their angle of approach so that they would crown the eastern side of the Old Light—the tallest portion—and have vantage looking down within. The late evening light would make it difficult to discern detail, but there was nothing else to do.

As he flew Rahab drew forth one of his magical pearls and activated its power to restore a spell to his memory, electing to recall the conjured pit. Abby began to run left while Lem split right. Gloriana reached the top of the tower ruin and tried to settle into the shadow of the curved exterior. She leaned around and glanced down within.

“Glo!” the gardener shouted. “The suns’ reflect— . . . never mind.”

••••

The oracle could see a terrific displacement of dust in the well of the ruined tower near the base. Within the churning stood three great forms, each twice the height of a human. As the dust began to drift, Gloriana could see the ancient floor of the monument had been blasted away by some tremendous force. The leader among the stone giants knelt at the rubble and began picking through sundered stones as a person might sift through an apple barrel in search of an appropriate fruit. The attendant giants stood guard, clubs in hand.

Heartplate glinted in the setting sun, red-gold radiance reflecting brilliantly, a light to guide ships home. The giant guards looked up.1

••••

Gloriana had just enough time to summon a column of fire that roared from the sky into the tower ruin and crashed down upon one of the giants now gauging throwing distance. The oracle gave a worried glance over her shoulder. “Get over here!”

Abby angled into the tower from the southwest and began running down the air toward ground level, while Lem entered from the northeast and flew in support, ready to close the flank. In the rubble below the leader seemed unconcerned with anything but his search through the scattered rocks. The guards had already picked up fallen chunks, one in each hand, and now sent the stones hurtling toward the bright, shining beacon of red, gold, and blue at the ruined tower’s lip.

Gloriana ducked. She felt three great rushes of air carry past her. The fourth boulder slammed into the stone behind which she hid, the tremor rattling her teeth and making her fingertips tingle. Dust billowed around her even as the oracle began to cast another spell: a request for a warrior’s soul wandering strange, golden ghostways impossibly near, infinitely far. A shimmering, diaphanous spirit appeared in front of the leader giant bearing a blade made of sun-touched fog. Its attack rebounded off a portion of giant armor.

Abby descended on the crouched monster, but moving into position provided the leader with an opportunity to attack, and a gigantic black war pick slammed into Abby, though her armor soaked most of the damage. Still, the counterattack foiled her own initiative and her blade whistled against no more than air.

Kara flew within range and began to unlimber galvanic grenadoes on the first stone giant that had fallen victim to the oracle’s spell of fire. A dazzling attack blistered vision with blue-white fury and coursed angry burns over gray skin. In desperation the giant threw a rock into the air—best-but-hopeless guess—and the rock never even neared the invisible alchemist. The second guard launched two more missiles at Gloriana near the rim of the roof. More dust and chips of stone rained down on the tower interior.

The leader stood, war pick hefted in the right hand, something cradled in the left. Turning to engage Abby, the leader dealt the warrior two fresh injuries. They were not heavy—perhaps the stone giant had not found his fighting measure—but Abby was keen to change the circumstances. Far above, at the ruined tower perimeter, Gloriana called upon the magic of Heartplate to reestablish her link of life with Abby instantaneously,2 having been forced to abandon the magic in the desperate seconds before the dragon’s breath had descended on all of them. Then she stepped out into the air to get a better view of the battle.

The object cradled in the leader’s left hand was a stone, not a boulder for throwing but smaller, plucked from the wreckage of the tower floor. Uncertain of its significance, Gloriana guessed the giant esteemed it valuable, and so cast a spell that conjured a hand of spirit stuff to pluck and grab. The ghostly appendage darted at the leader and tried to steal the stone from the giant, but to no effect.3

The attempted theft did not go unnoticed. Gloriana had never seen consternation in a stone giant’s expression before. It brought a smile to her face.

••••

The oracle’s spirit warrior fetched the leader a small wound. Then the ground disappeared.

Rahab watched as the principal stone giant recognized the spell’s effect just in time to leap aside. The pit appeared precisely where the conjurer had wanted it, but the giant proved just quick enough. The wizard flew further into the well of the ruin, assuming an elevation alongside the oracle.

Abby capitalized on the sudden displacement of the giant, stepping into position and swinging her sword in a beautiful strike that finally made her the focus of the leader’s attention. Out of the shadows came two blades of steel, Lem arriving in flight and swiping with daggers.

The gardener missed.

A string of syllables in the Halfling language echoed up the length of the tower.

••••

Hemlock reached the square and ushered the woman and her children into the cathedral. The outbuildings had burned away completely, but the stout structure stood firm, though streaked with lines of smoke. More and more citizens pressed dangerously at the doors while Father Zantus and his acolytes tried to maintain some semblance of order and prevent a crush.

The sheriff spied an armored figure in the crowd. “You! Mercenary! What was your name?”

“Orik!” The sellsword jogged up.

“You were at the gate?”

The mercenary nodded, drawing deep breaths against exertion.

“Has it fallen?”

Leaning forward with hands on knees now. “No.”

“Start moving anyone you can out onto the Lost Coast Road and clear of the village.”

“There’s a fire. One of the buildings on the way to the gate,” Orik said.

“Take them around Tomb Street, it runs along the gate interior.”

The mercenary nodded.

“Get moving!” Hemlock returned to the southwest of the square, trying to rally villagers to flee and relieve the congestion at the cathedral. The sellsword turned to a nearby group and barked at them gruffly to follow him. They followed meekly.

At the southern end of the village some of the giants battered down the front wall of Two Knight Brewery, then invaded and begun tipping over tuns, and drinking from others. Beer spilled into the mud of Market Street.

••••

Kara’s next bomb was fire, and the giant under the most consistent assault thus far howled and raged.

Then the magic of the alchemist’s potion of invisibility finally ran its course, and Kara blinked into view.

The boulder artillery was like rainfall.

••••

The leader tried to put his back to the wall. At his belt hung a great horn culled from some terrific beast and bound in bands of brass. This he now hefted to his lips, but the action forced him to drop at his feet the stone he had hoarded. In haste to procure the instrument the leader became vulnerable.

Abby and Lem seized their chance and their attacks landed as one, sword from the right, knife from the left. Blood flowed and splattered on ruin wall, on fallen stone, on steel and flesh.

But the leader was not deterred, and placing the horn to his lips he sounded a thunderous noise that rattled dust from the walls and slammed into warrior and gardener with the force of a bull at the charge. Abby felt it in her teeth, in her bones, in her eyes. She stumbled back, and when she raised her sword she saw the blade quivering.

On the other side of the giant stood Lem, stock still, eyes wide. Blood flowed from his ears, and all around him was drifting dust and silence.4

••••

At some point Sheriff Hemlock realized that flight was now useless. The giants had seized what they came for, had inflicted desired damage, had unraveled the village to their satisfaction. Fire and stone and strength had wrought such turmoil upon Sandpoint that recovery would be months, an endeavor to mark cruel memory in the minds of all. Some kind of activity still unfolded to the west at the Old Light, but the rest of the giants seemed to have departed, taking with them some measure of captives and leaving behind terror, dismay, collapse. The dragon, too, made no further appearance that he knew for certain. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon the smokes of burning buildings churned aloft like offerings to dying light as the sky merged slowly purple, slowly indigo slowly distant and star-flung black.

The mercenary Orik reappeared and began to bark orders at another group of citizens. Utter weariness seeped into every part of Hemlock’s form, and even now he did not know if Kaye had found a place to hide once clear of the village, or had she been captured by the giants as they withdrew?

“Orik!”

The mercenary glanced up. Hemlock waved him closer. “Evacuation is lost now. Gather who you can, hale enough to lift, and begin a bucket brigade north. I will do the same south. We must try to save some portion of the village.”

“What of the giants?” Orik asked. “The dragon?”

“The giants are gone. The dragon, too.”

“Certain?”

“Yes,” Hemlock lied. “Move.”

••••

By narrowest chance only one of the stones hurled skyward made contact with the flying alchemist, and Kara’s deft dexterity rendered the impact minor, which was fortunate, for the thunderous volley that crashed against the ruined tower would have crushed a person fully struck. The noise was terrific, and those at the base of the structure suddenly found beer-barrel-sized rock plummeting earthward after rebounding from the interior. Between the blasting magic of the giant’s horn and the constant shower of stone against stone, visibility at the tower base was rapidly diminishing. There might be time for one or two more efforts, and after that the ruin would be eclipsed by an impact cloud thick enough to blot out the sun.

Gloriana moved down closer to the fight, carefully assessing Abby’s injuries via the magic of her status spell. Then the oracle channeled significant healing power to the warrior, knowing that her own pain from the sympathetic spirit link would soon prove problematic.

Rahab flew nearer, as well, and saw the leader giant preparing to blow the horn again. The wizard quickly voiced the words and marked the appropriate formula, showering the dust-laden air with brilliant, glittering motes in a coruscating snowfall that rendered the leader blind.

Abby shared a moment’s glance with Lem. Despite his deafness the gardener understood perfectly.

They closed on the principal giant like the jaws of a trap.

••••

Now it was Kara’s turn to summon the rainfall of war. Ceramic explosives tumbled upon the first of the giant guards who finally died under the burning blasts. Jets of splashing heat stung the proximal second. Looking around the giant saw his fellow expire and his raid chieftain fall against the ruin without strength even to hold his weapon. The battle was lost, and the giant took flight.

The sea splashed and churned as the great gray legs pounded across the narrow shelf of sand below the Old Light. The wider beach along the westernmost reaches of the village would provide clear ground to make for the south, then a short swim across the narrow strait between harbor and sea, and finally over the point of land and into the east to rejoin the raid-kin. Above the escarpment immediately to the east the stone giant could see rising plumes of smoke and flickering firelight against the coming night. Small ones lifted their cries to the wind, the first to know wrath descended from the plateau of the foremost like a storm. The sound should have been comforting, but now it was much like the tumult in the stone giant’s own head. Was the raid successful if the raid chieftain fell? It had been centuries since a true campaign against the smaller races, and much lore understood for so long now lay clouded by Lord Mokmurian and the taboo magics he wielded in the name of conquest for ancient memory, forgotten sins.

He glanced one last time over his shoulder at the ruin, and saw a small one ascend into the evening sky. Something bright shimmered like a star, pinpoint purple, fluctuating as it neared, velocity inescapable, trajectory inerrant. The mote of light carved pain into flesh.

••••

“Try to take the raid chieftain alive!” yelled Rahab even as he flew in pursuit of the escaping stone giant. Once clear of the tower ruin the wizard easily sighted the lumbering form fleeing over the beach. The spell of the magic missile came so easily to Rahab now it was almost like saying his own name.

As the magic struck, the conjurer called out: “Hrovb!” 5

A moment later Kara flew up alongside Rahab and unlimbered another reactive bomb, masterfully gauging the arc of the throw. Fire erupted. The stone giant stumbled to its knees as a wave rolled up on the beach and clustered foam around the great form.

“Yugm! Yugm!” 6 Two mighty hands lifted in supplication.

Alchemist and wizard descended to take charge of their prisoner.

••••

By the time Kara and Rahab escorted the stone giant back to the tower ruin Gloriana had cast a spell of stabilization upon the leader, suspending him in a state of unconsciousness against imminent death. The others had begun to secure the location, Abby helping collect the heavy stone the leader had held, Lem looting useful or valuable goods from the vanquished. They would need to work quickly; Sandpoint remained in danger.

Wizard and alchemist alighted. Gloriana converged on them.

“I’ll translate,” offered Rahab. The oracle nodded, and the interrogation of the stone giant guard began.

••••

“‘I never thought this would happen to the people of the plateau,’” the wizard related the giant’s words. “‘to be defeated by small ones such as yourself. Know this: the mighty Lord Mokmurian is a dark giant of old, come again to lead our people to glory. His magic is unlike any other, and he has mastered the ancient paths. His works have united the tribes, and we shall soon rule all the regions down to the sea, as it was in the bygone days. He will kill you, lay waste to your homes, enslave those fortunate few. See how this place has suffered? Defeating me means nothing. When a thousand of the people descend from the plateau and march as one upon your lands all will fall. Lord Mokmurian brings this. The Stone at the Heart of the World records the darkness of your doom. Lord Mokmurian’s skill in speech almost rivals yours, gold flake.’”

“The stone giant in the tower who led you,” said Gloriana, “is that Lord Mokmurian?”

“‘That is Teraktinus.’”

The oracle, wizard, and alchemist exchanged a look.

Gloriana resumed: “Is he Wmmxchk?”

If the stone giant seemed surprised at her command of the word he did not show it. “‘Yes. He said you small ones would fall easily, and that the riches you have stolen would be returned to us. He was foolish to underestimate you: a mistake. I do not wish to make that same mistake. Grant me safe passage from here and I will tell you everything you wish to know.’”

The oracle considered. She looked at her friends. Kara and Rahab remained impassive. “Where would you return?” Gloriana asked.

“‘Lord Mokmurian has established himself in a forbidden land: the Valley of the Black Tower, called Jorgenfist that guards the way to the Way Within the Stone. Our elders clamored against the name, but Lord Mokmurian is too powerful to fear blasphemy.’”

“Where is the valley?”

“‘It overlooks the Muschkal River, or may be approached from the dying light at the Storval Stairs. Lord Mokmurian dwells in the deep below the Black Tower.’”

The oracle glanced at Kara and Rahab. Both nodded. She turned back to the stone giant.

“Will Teraktinus cooperate with us?”

“‘No. Defeat means his dishonor is complete. He was a fool. You would do well to kill him.’”

“Do you know why Teraktinus chose this place to raid?”

“‘He was directed by Lord Mokmurian. Our elders know how to draw forth secrets from stone. Perhaps the stones here knew something Lord Mokmurian wants.’”

“What powers does Lord Mokmurian command?”

“‘I have only heard him address the multitudes from afar. He is said to be the rarest of all the plateau people, a child of the Stone with mastery of the ancient lords’ magic. He can make the living into rock, gird his own flesh in granite, cause the land to entomb.’”

“What forces gather under his leadership?”

“‘Dozens of the seven tribes, and lesser kin conscripted in much quantity: bone gnawers and cattle thieves, double-heads and the fire-haters. Several followers of the Mother of Monsters also support him.’”

“And the dragon?”

“‘An ally.’”

“We have slain him.”

“‘No small task, but he did not understand the humility of The Stone at the Heart of the World.’”

Gloriana adjusted one of her scarves. “Are there other settlements in danger?”

“‘I do not know.’”

The oracle considered a moment. “You have been helpful with this information. I want to let you leave. But we need to rescue the humans stolen away. What path did your raid-kin take?”

“‘Almost certainly following the Lampblack River to the Storval Stairs.’”

Gloriana nodded. Kara, Rahab, and the oracle removed to the tower ruin. The last they saw of the stone giant guard was his form disappearing to the south as night drew on.

••••

Abby crossed her arms. “The giant said we should kill Teraktinus?” They group stood around the fallen raid chieftain.

Gloriana nodded.

“So what do you think we should do?”

The oracle was impassive. “I’m going to talk to him.” She turned to Rahab. “Do you think he will speak Common?”

The wizard shrugged and looked at Kara. The alchemist considered: “It’s more likely than the others. Raid chieftains are often chosen not just for their ferocity and leadership but also additional skills that may be necessary. For example, it may be that Common was the language shared between Teraktinus and Longtooth.”

“Very well,” said Gloriana. She faced Rahab. “If we need you to translate we’ll come back. For now I’ll take Abby in case Teraktinus decides to try and fight.”

“‘Come back?’” The wizard raised an eyebrow. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to talk to him,” the oracle replied with faintest smile. “Like I said.”

••••

Gloriana stood near the unconscious raid chieftain chanting softly to herself. Ghosts had begun to churn around her, soft drifts of pale haze against the gathering night like miniature versions of the borealis illuminations in the northern reaches of the world. Her people knew many powers to safeguard the journey of the Road, to unsettle and dissipate those who would see them injured, or hindered, or outcast. Her mother and her grandmothers had taught her many things, venerable proscriptions learned from their grandmothers and their grandmothers before, and now the oracle sought one in particular, a potent phrase that inhibited the form, making it difficult simply to inhabit one’s own skin.7

She finished the chant, and the ghostly tendrils drifted from her aura and coiled around the unconscious giant, lingering as fog embraces boles in wetlands. Gloriana beckoned Abby close, and then the oracle invoked another spell, a chant of levitation. Teraktinus bobbed from the tower floor. Slowly, Gloriana walked the unconscious raid chieftain into the air, with Abby following. They rose, up and up, into the night.

Kara, Lem, and Rahab watched from the ground. By this time the gardener’s hearing had returned, though a terrific ringing still lingered.

“What is she doing?” Lem asked.

“Brilliant,” the wizard murmured, gaze following the strange procession into the darkening sky.

Realization struck the gardener. He exhaled in amazement and crossed his arms. “I would not have expected that.”

A thrill rocked through Rahab.

••••

A small curative spell brought Teraktinus awake. He flailed briefly and gasped as he realized where he was. Flanking him were two from the fight: the human and the half-elf. Two hundred feet below lay the ruin, and the village of small ones, and the great, vast darkness of the ocean, with only the air to separate him. He howled a string of syllables in the Giant tongue. Gloriana got the gist, and casually lifted her hand slightly. Teraktinus bobbed up an arm-span. A countermovement of the oracle’s hand brought him back down a comparable distance.

“Let us talk,” Gloriana smiled.

The raid chieftain stopped flailing and lapsed quiet, eyes wide, tremors of alarm rippling through his twelve-foot form.

“Teraktinus, my name is Gloriana. Your mission has failed. My friends and I have defeated your giants, your bears, and slain your dragon. We know about Mokmurian and his entrenchment at Jorgenfist, and we will venture there shortly. The advantage is ours. Please restrain yourself, or my companion here,” and the oracle gestured at Abby who lifted her sword to her shoulder, “will put the sword that bested you to work once again.”

A great hate filled the giant’s eyes, but he made no move.

Gloriana resumed. “What were you were doing here.”

It was no use: Her command had beaten him. Teraktinus trembled, the power in this golden small one more potent even than the distance to the ground.

••••

“My master wanted to find out who had betrayed the ancient lords and pay special attention to those locations.” Teraktinus’ voice rumbled and cracked around the Common tongue. The breeze blowing in from the ocean washed over them, and Gloriana’s array of silken scarves fluttered high in the wind, her blonde curls like a banner of sunlight in the darkness.

“The stones would aid in that?” asked the oracle.

Teraktinus was snide. “Lord Mokmurian can read the stones as you read script.”

“Only stones from this location or any other he may seek?”

“This is one of the locations.”

“Do you know where the other locations are?”

“No.”

“How did you know to pick the correct stones among all the others?”

Almost a sneer. “That is not how the magic works. Lord Mokmurian simply seeks stones.”

“It does not matter which ones?”

“Only so long as they have spanned great time.”

Gloriana considered this puzzle. The stone giant—farther than he had ever been from the comfort of the ready ground—refused to glance down again.

The oracle drew breath. “If I allow it, will you depart peacefully?”

Teraktinus nodded. “Yes.”

Gloriana’s eyes did not change, but she read the lie expertly. She nodded once and waved her hand.

“Then I release you.”

Teraktinus screamed the whole way down.


1 Glo’s Stealth check was a 2. The giants’ Perception check was a 29.

2 One of Heartplate’s features is Enigmatic Alacrity, like the amulet of the same name, which allows the usage of a revelation as a swift action.

3 Pilfering hand.

4 There was a Fortitude save to make against deafness. Abby made it. Lem did not.

5 Translated from Giant: “Surrender!”

6 Translated from Giant: “I yield! I yield!” Literally the words are “(I) Still! (I) Still!”

7 Glo cast a bestow curse on Teraktinus to reduce his Charisma by 6 points.

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