Renewal reigned after night’s rest and the new healing power Gloriana had discovered.1 Kara and Rahab joined a celebratory adand, and afterward neither could stop gazing around. The two stood at the brink of the great well and looked upon a collection of lore with a pedigree more than ten-thousand years old in nearly twenty-four-and-a-half thousand volumes, each a diamond mine’s worth no diamond could ever purchase.
Lem stood atop table, leaning one arm on Abby’s shoulder. The gardener glanced at Gloriana. “The new magic is nice: Rahab can see, but it shuts him up.”
The oracle turned her silent smile away.
Sure. The “magic.”
“First thing first: Conna.”
“We should collect as much lore here as we possibly can. Better to venture forth armed.”
Lem watched the conversation go a few rounds, then sighed loudly. “No one is going anywhere,” and he jerked a thumb over one shoulder at the great bronze door, “until we can figure out how to leave without going blind.”
Kara smiled. “Perhaps we might address more than one problem at once.”
A focused, specific lore search designed to capture several important pieces of information—including a password for the door—was prescribed, to be conducted by Rahab with Gloriana’s help.
“Can’t we just take the books we need and go?” Abby asked.
The conjurer shook his head. “There is significant magic here that prevents or slows aging. Removing anything is likely to cycle the balance of time almost in an instant.”
Kara exhaled loudly. “Everything suddenly becomes more than ten-thousand years old.”
“We would be transporting dust,” the wizard lamented, “and more’s the pity, because some of the examples I’ve seen just from a glance at the well’s edge . . . magnificent! Take the binding on a particular volume there, first layer of shelves, the leather dyed purple. Now, that . . . .”
Behind them, Lem had begun crawling all over the bronze portal, hoping to find something to aid them from this side.
“How do we begin?”
“I have requested of the librarian a list of broad topics.” Rahab crouched over pages of blank parchment, quill and ink at hand. “We depart with notes, and return at our leisure in the future to conduct more thorough research. For now, I think we have time for but three subjects, and only the most rudimentary outlines.”
The oracle smiled.
The wizard paused. “No words I have would capture my thanks.”
“If there were some—”
Another smile. “There is.”
Realization. “Ah. Yes. Well, that was—”
“Yes. It was. Are you ready?”
Rahab took up his quill, and could not look away from her gaze. “Librarian!” he called out in Draconic.
Whirring clicks approached.
“As per my previous instructions regarding the following topics: Karzoug, Runelord of Greed; Xin-Shalast; and Rune Magic. Bring basic précis. Begin.”
The wizard could write at speed without sacrificing form, line, or legibility, and he made the notes first in Draconic and then in Common as easily as breathing.
“Like I said,” Lem sighed, “it’s a terrible door.”
“And you didn’t find a password?” Abby asked.
Oracle and wizard shook their heads. The warrior drew her sword.
Gloriana reached out and placed a hand on Abby’s arm. “Wait. I have an idea.”
“Roles reversed: There is a remarkable poetry to these last twenty-four hours.”
“You should write it someday.”
“I have never considered myself a poet . . . .”
“Perhaps you lacked the right muse.”
“Ah, now, you see, this is precisely—”
She reached out and touched a finger to silence his lips, then slowly withdrew it. He remained mute, and then, in Draconic: “Librarian!”
“Ask,” she began, “about that collapse in the wall to the south.”
“It used to be a door?” Lem asked. “Was it trapped, too?”
“It used to be another passage, at least. Whether it had a door or whether the door was trapped the librarian could not say.”
The gardener squinted. “What exactly did—”
Rahab rolled his eyes. “‘I do not have that information.’”
“Right. So there’s no way to know if simply going that way won’t trigger either the trap at the bronze door, or another trap located that direction.”
“Wait,” Abby interjected. “So . . . explain it to me again?”
“The spell,” Gloriana began, “is similar to the air striding, but more powerful. It allows us to become as the air, not merely walk upon it.”
Kara and Rahab were nodding. “Excellent.” They glanced at one another and laughed. The wizard graciously extended his hands.
The alchemist nodded, an excited light in her eyes, and turned to the warrior. “We become vapor, Abby, moving as fog, or the very wind itself. However heavy the tunnel collapse, the tiniest crevice would allow air to pass, and we make our way out.”
The warrior bore an expression of significant intensity. “Can’t we just teleport out, or, you know, do the dimension dance, or whatever it is?”
Rahab shook his head. “The magic on the chamber prevents it.”
Gloriana was suddenly startled by a thunderbolt, followed by a secret, immense, righteous thrill.
A whisper: “Will we be able to transform back? Will we become us again?”
“Of course, Abby. The process takes less than a minute in either corporeal direction.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Does it scramble you up?”
The alchemist gave a quizzical smile. “No. In fact, you are unlikely to feel markedly different, but you will understand that you move differently, and will be able to take advantage of that.”
“What if there’s a storm, or something?”
“Well, what if the giants capture us in a bottle?”
“Now you are being ridiculous.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Do you know, Abby, that right now, you sound just like Glori when Rahab is about to teleport us somewhere?”
The alchemist felt new appreciation for how the wizard saw much of the world.
“Before we begin, we should discuss some eventualities,” Rahab mentioned.
Kara raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”
“Whither do we collect? Do we maintain our status just to escape the room or beyond? What strategy in rally should we enact should either the route prove impassable or the magic prevent our exit save by the trapped door?”
Gloriana thought deeply. “I will leave the spell active for its duration, unless circumstances should change significantly, which I do not foresee. What say you?” Her glance took in the alchemist and conjurer, who nodded agreement.
The oracle continued: “I think we should make our way around to the chamber where we first encountered Mokmurian, collect the materials and goods we need, then return to the level above and locate Conna. There we present our victory, and see how to proceed.”
Lem sucked his teeth. “And if we cannot escape the room under the spell?”
The oracle nodded. “Then I see no other recourse but to open the bronze door, and fight another shining child, unless we can all pass before the arrival of said monster, and in closing the door seal the trap once more.”
Rahab stroked his goatee. “Do you anticipate some deception or betrayal from Conna?”
“No . . . but perhaps we should venture forth in the knowledge that we do not truly understand what may unfold when she learns her son is dead, or for that matter, how the remaining host may react.”
“What do we need to collect from the audience hall?” asked the gardener. They reviewed the items.
“What’s really going to happen,” Abby wondered, “when Conna sees her son is dead? Is this just going to be over?”
“Not likely to be so simple,” replied Gloriana, “but I think we merely need circumstances to align with our own purpose. Diminishment and dispersal of the army, and location and safeguarding of the abducted are the priorities.”
A silence ensued. “Very well,” the oracle resumed. “Let us ready.”
Abby asked to go last.
The journey through the collapsed tunnel was strange, indeed, for two reasons in particular. The first was the nature of the movement itself. It had taken half a minute to assume the gaseous form allowed by the mighty spell Gloriana had enacted. Once in that state, they had to overcome the part of their mind that explicitly rejected the idea they could move through spaces of typical impassibility. Of all of them, Kara and Rahab fared best, not only for immense knowledge, but also experience with such things as altered states and unusual methods of transportation. Gloriana found trust in the magic of her ancestors, and Lem quickly embraced the possibility of completely unfettered movement just as he had with the Trans-Dimensional Point Insertion Protocol.
Abby was profoundly relieved to discover it did not hurt, and spent the whole time worried that reconstituting in solidity would result in her face on backwards or arms where her legs should be.
The second curiosity was a very specific moment of displacement that shuddered through all of them some tiny distance into the rubble. Rahab would later explain that as the point where they crossed the dimensional lock on the chamber.
There was no additional trap.
They reconstituted in the ancient hall Mokmurian had claimed as a study. Abby and Lem began to collect the items for transport. As Gloriana passed the large table she noticed something and motioned to Rahab.
“Interesting,” the wizard mumbled. “How did we miss this before?”
The oracle shrugged. “What does it say?”
Rahab invited the others to gather around with a wave. “Musings of an ex-stone giant transmuter.” A devil-grin, and then he began to translate from the Giant tongue. “‘Who were the ‘Illuminated?’ Heroes of Xin? Later? Enemies of the Runelords, though unclear if they later fell and joined them.’”
“Does that mean anything to anyone?” Kara looked around intently. “What else?”
The conjurer returned to the parchment. “References here to weapons and great magics, including . . . hmm . . . .”
“Including what?” Gloriana pursued. “Rahab?”
The wizard folded his arms, and punctuated with pauses. “Including armor . . . and a book . . . and boots. Also a bag of some kind, possibly a backpack.” A glance at Lem. “There are gloves named in concert with the boots. A trident? A helm or hat? And . . . oh, let us see, what else? Of course! . . . A shield.”
Everyone looked at Abby. Abby looked at Avenger.
Rahab continued. “That reference has an addendum: ‘Scouts report a shield bearing a star seen in the company of rumored heroes among the small folk.’”
Someone gave a low whistle.
“We’ve been spied upon,” Lem grimaced.
“We knew that,” noted Kara.
The wizard nodded. “The scrying, although it seems other methods were employed, as well.”
Abby frowned at Mokmurian’s severed and blasted head. “Who’re you calling ‘rumored?’”
Gloriana suppressed a smile. “Is there more?”
“There is, indeed, including a dragon and a blade,” Rahab said.
Lem held up his hands. “Wait. What about the reference to the gear?”
Kara: “What about it?”
“Too much coincidence: It’s clearly about our stuff!”
Gloriana deployed her matronly smile. “We don’t really know who these items—”
“Oh, yes we do,” the wizard interjected. “Lem is right.” Conjurer and gardener exchanged a single nod. “The Book of the Strange is mine.”
Abby tapped Avenger. “I don’t see anyone else’s name on it.”
An oracle’s eye-roll: “Abby, I don’t see your name on it, either.”
“Well . . . I’m the one who has it now.”
Lem leveled a stare at Gloriana. “Are you saying you’d happily part with Heartplate if someone came along and claimed it?”
“Really,” the oracle parried, “we are getting ahead of ourselves. I simply meant—”
“I thought so.”
“You know nothing about it, Lem!”
“And you do?”
Kara sighed. “Children . . . .”
Rahab clasped his hands behind his back and hung his head. “Do you want to hear about the dragon and the blade, or not?”
Oracle and gardener glared a moment, and possibly a face was made, before attention returned to the conjurer, who cleared his throat. “‘Let the dragon keep the blade to hoard for now. He fears the black metal. It may be connected to the Illuminated, but not an item of true power. Rumors of the heroes Karzoug fears: related. . . ?’”
A silence. Gloriana: “More?”
Rahab shook his head. They still had not discovered the password to circumvent the trap on the bronze door.
In the end, Gloriana ventured the chant of communion with the dead, only to find Mokmurian’s ghost had already passed beyond the realm where such magic abided.2
The companions girded themselves in a host of spells, and they made their way back to the long, coiled passage that had granted them access to the lower reaches. Lem scouted ahead, and nearing the top heard sounds of distant battle. More proximal noise revealed deep, gravelly voices shouting. He returned to his friends.
“We’re close to where we killed the trolls. There are stone giants shouting, and beyond them is a fight.”
Abby drew her sword, braced her shield, and flexed her mighty legs.
“Wait,” cautioned Kara, and handed something to Rahab. The wizard looked at the small vial and nodded, then invoked a spell of flight. When he drank the liquid, he vanished.
Hovering unseen above the argument, Rahab listened intently. Conna the Wise faced three other stone giants and a lamia. The leader among the opposition was named Galenmir, as far as the wizard could tell, and the heart of the conflict was Galenmir’s insistence that Conna stand aside, while the matron countered that there was no point in trusting Mokmurian to lead if he could not fight his own battles.
“We stand with the Warlord!”
“What claim to the title has he who cannot stand himself?”
“You do not know what transpires!”
“I know enough to respect the word of my son, who bid us all remain at this stratum, that he might demonstrate his leadership.”
“Our kin lie dead in the halls, and two dragons besides, and you would hesitate where Lord Mokmurian would act!”
“And you would betray Mokmurian’s command!”
The temptation to conjure an apocalypse in acid was so great the wizard had to clench his fists near-to-bleeding in order to resist. He whispered down the magical link to the others. “Conna fights a war of words with others loyal to Mokmurian. I suspect the moment for a demonstration is now.”
In the darkness of the passageway, that demonstration turned into golden fire and began to stride forward holding the severed head of a petty tyrant.
She had evoked the magic of all languages, and as she came into sight she held the head as high as she could. “Mokmurian is no more!”
Four stone giants fell to their knees. The lamia fled. For a few precious seconds, the leader in the Valley of the Black Tower was a queen made of gilded flame.3
1 Characters had leveled up to 12th.
2 Read: Made his Will save. Nice trick, for a dead guy.
3 Glo’s Diplomacy check came in at 38, and her follow up Sense Motive check was a critical success, swelling Hollywood strings and all.