“Stunned” was not a quality Gloriana would have credited to the inscrutable visage of a stone giant, but how else to describe the emotion reflected in the four faces before her? Two also showed fear, and a third, anger. The fourth demonstrated immense sadness coupled to granite resolve.
Moving under unseen weight, Conna slowly regained her feet. “You see?” she challenged the other stone giants in a voice like boulders tumbling down a mountainside. “He was not strong enough to defeat these small folk. He was not strong enough to lead!”
The other party members arrived. In the air above, Rahab tensed. Galenmir struggled up, scrabbling for the heavy pick he wielded in war. Abby was a coiled spring of violence unreleased, and Lem balanced twin daggers in palm as easily as a juggler displayed pins. Some phrase spilled from stone giant lips, and only the invisible wizard and the ensorcelled oracle understood.
“Your disloyalty led us to this!” And then Galenmir attacked.
Conna the Wise interceded with the speed that always seemed so unlikely in a creature that size. A spell flashed. From his vantage, Rahab nodded approvingly. The elegant conjuration had demonstrated eminent effectiveness in his own repertoire on many occasions, and the sorceress deployed its coruscating brilliance with fluid expertise. Fifty-thousand motes of metallic light rippled, and Galenmir stumbled against the cavern wall, blind. For the briefest moment, the conjurer felt a twinge of sympathy.
Abby and Lem were just about to end the stone giant’s life when a voice emerged from fire, a sound of command, mournful and brilliant and undeniable: “STILL! Our battle was with Mokmurian, and it is finished! We have no desire for war with the giants, though we are prepared to defeat you, if we must!”
Another magic crashed upon Galenmir, and he found himself unable to move, the oracle’s command insurmountable. Abby and Lem assumed flanking positions while the other two stone giants quailed. Gloriana and Rahab heard Conna’s plea.
“Seat your loyalty with me, Galenmir, and let us return our people among the paths of eternal Stone. Unshade your eyes. See Mokmurian’s deception.”
The mighty pick clattered to the cavern floor.
Gloriana’s fire faded as she neared. Great stone giant hands reached forth and gently cradled the severed head. The silence was vast.
Conna whispered something, and the oracle had to lean close to hear it. “I hope it was quick.”
A solemn nod: “He fought well.”
“That he could do.”
“What chance that this sign will disperse this madness?”
“That is my intention.”
“How can we help?”
“My kin I can sway. Tell me, Gloriana: Do you now grieve for my son?”
“And yet he would have seen you defeated, and not grieved.”
“And that is why he lost.”
“I still do not understand you.” A silence unfurled. Then: “The remaining threat lies with the harpies, the lamias, and The Black Monk who still resides beneath the spire.”
“We shall face them. They will flee, or fall.”
Conna gazed upon her dead son. “I do not doubt.”
And Gloriana knew they had won.
Abby nonetheless kept sword unsheathed; Lem’s knives remained in hand.
“We seek the prisoners stolen from Sandpoint at the coast,” the oracle said.
Conna nodded. “They are quartered nearby.” She relayed directions.
Gloriana resisted the urge to reach out and comfort the sorceress. She turned instead to Galenmir. “Our quarrel lies not with you, nor with your kin.”
“My kin lie slain in the caverns!”
The oracle’s tone never wavered, her volume never lifted. “They stood against us in our vengeance.”
“Mokmurian ordered my home attacked, my kin stolen away.”
“His word was law.”
“Ever the insistence of those unwilling to admit complicity.”
Galenmir had no reply.
“Find such peace as you might, stone giant. Learn well. No further blood need shed, certainly not on his account.”
“You have slain a son of the Stone at the Heart of the World—”
“No. We have slain many sons of the Stone at the Heart of the World, by blade and fire and lightning, and no reach of this valley can defend against our wrath for a war we never sought! In time, you will come to know the manner in which you were deceived. Look to your sorceress. Listen to the Stone.”
“What do you know of the Stone?” Galenmir howled.
Gloriana voiced nothing, only lifted wide her arms. Her beautiful visage became a skull, and a tumult of ghosts made maelstrom in the air. Shapes whistled and darted, animal forms, psychopompos, distortions of grief and anger. Galenmir could not see, but he heard the shouts of fear from his fellows. Against the noise he lifted great, grey hands to head, until the oracle lowered her arms and the storm passed.
They found accord, such as it was.
The chamber at the southern arc of the cavern level was not far from the room where the companions had first breached Jorgenfist and fought the kobold. Roughly shaped like a segment of orange, the expanse had a far wall housing multiple cells sealed with mighty trellises of iron held in place by sheer weight. Several stone giants in service to Conna stood watch, and parted when the adventurers strode into the room. Within the cells lurked some twenty humans, a few injured, all ragged in clothing and aspect.
As Gloriana neared she effortlessly channeled healing power in a wave that washed over the prisoners, restoring them in the space of a breath. A score of faces turned to witness the arrival of the Heroes of Sandpoint.
Glowing skull cradled in his left hand, the wizard easily stepped behind the dimensions and stood instantly among the abducted like a vision from dream or nightmare. Silent gazes lifted in wonder, among them a woman who witnessed eyes lit with devil fire in a visage of power, a countenance of laughing, brilliant, blasphemous insight.
A hand reached out. “Shayliss. It is time to go home.”
In two minutes the conjurer freed the prisoners from the cells. Abby passed a waterskin among them. Shayliss Vinder crowded close to Rahab, who stood now to one side in grim silence. Broadert Quink thought to join conversation, saw the wizard’s expression, and relocated to Gloriana, who expertly diverted the befuddled sage to Kara.
The oracle turned to one of the assembled. “Mayor Deverin.”
“Are you well?”
“I am glad to hear it.”
“It seems you were right about the giants.”
A wave of dismissal. “Sheriff Hemlock will be delighted at your return.”
“That he lives fills me with joy.”
“As his presence does for the village.”
“When last you saw it,” ventured the mayor, “how fared Sandpoint?”
“Stricken, but with a will to survive, and renew.”
“A credit to her citizens.”
“And to those who died.”
Shadow descended. “How many?”
“Twenty-nine, by our reckoning.”
“More the fires, actually. The giants shall trouble you no more. While you are here you stand under our protection. One allied with us now exerts her influence upon the host in dispersal. Tomorrow morning we shall return you to Sandpoint.”
“Too great a distance for one morning, I fear.”
The oracle leveled an even stare. “Not for a wizard.”
Another silence. “Placing these people in danger again would make me remiss in my duties.”
“Fortunate for you, then, that traveling with Rahab ensures safe arrival.”
“The prospect of such magic—”
“Need not concern, for we are masters of the craft. Be assured: By this time tomorrow you shall stand in familiar environs, and may begin assessing how to rebuild.”
“We should all like to see home very much.”
Gloriana nodded, and waited, and eventually leaned close, choosing whisper. “This is the part where—for the sake of political expediency, if nothing else—you thank us for saving your sweet ass.”
Three weeks in captivity had not expunged from Mayor Deverin the knowledge of how to smile against impulse.
Abby was incredulous. “We’re going to leave them here? We just found them!”
“A temporary respite. They are in no danger—” Gloriana began.
“Horseshit,” snorted Lem.
“Fine. They are in markedly less danger than they were ten minutes ago.”
“Glo, this thing with Conna taking over is no sure bet. All it takes is one rogue giant, or a lamia in a bad mood, or an ogre too stupid to know better, to wander down here and turn this chamber into a slaughterhouse.” The gardener gazed at the assembled humans, and shrugged. “Actually . . . fine by me.”
The oracle frowned. “The detachment of stone giants assigned by Conna will ensure the villagers’ safety.”
“And ensure they do not wander,” added Kara. “They stand . . . well, sit . . . terrified of their guardians.”
“Then we shall reassure them.”
It took a few minutes to counsel the recently freed about their new status, the need for rest in anticipation of travel, and the impetus to remain quietly sequestered in the stone chamber while the Heroes of Sandpoint ventured out to see to the pacification of Jorgenfist. Once safety had been fully established, preparations would get underway to return the villagers to their homes. The oracle held sway, quickly ameliorating alarm, commanding attention, and gently dissuading attempts to embrace her, or even invoke her name in worship. Throughout the speech Mayor Deverin wore a practiced and placating smile that would have repelled water. At crowd’s edge, Shayliss stood at Rahab’s side and looped her arms through one of his, leaning her head against red silk.
But the wizard was looking at Gloriana.
They transformed into vapor and coursed the perimeter corridor until they reached the central access to the surface. When they burst into sunlight, they found the central area of the fortress largely empty save for the strange spire of black and alien stone. In the walls beyond, the valley teemed with giants and giant-kin dismantling tents and pavilions, extinguishing campfires, and trundling slowly northward in loose lines. There was no sign of harpies at roost or on the wing, and whither vanished the lamias none could guess.
Angling east, the companions made best possible speed on a magically conjured wind that carried them to the eastern limits of the valley. In the mountain range they spent the better part of an hour locating the cave that had been home and hoard to Longtooth, whose red-scaled corpse they left smoking at the village he had tried to burn.
They reconstituted, and stared.
Abby exhaled long and slow. “So . . . how much, do you think?”
“The total will take some time to tally. But we’re looking at copper in the vicinity of . . .” Lem spread his hands in a gesture of near-helplessness estimation, “. . . three hundred thousand?”
“Three hundred thousand?”
“Well,” Kara cautioned, “that is but three thousand in gold.”
The alchemist followed up: “Though, to be sure, it does represent a sizable displacement of coin.”
“And the rest?” Gloriana inquired.
The gardener fluttered air past his lips. “The silver numbers more than twenty thousand, at least. I can’t tell about the gold until we separate it all out. There is some platinum as well, and again, it will take time to isolate and count.”
“And yet more, still,” Kara breathed.
“Indeed. That right there is a water opal, and one thousand in gold, at minimum. Dragons make this easy.”
Rahab stroked his goatee. “They like to settle the most precious items atop the field of coin.”
The others looked at the wizard, who continued: “A curiosity of the draconic ego: Collect a hoard of coin and sprinkle it with the finest prizes. It acts as a constant reminder of their superiority.”
Gloriana grinned. “Until they meet an alchemist!”
“Many an alchemist has fallen to a dragon,” Kara murmured.
“So, anyway,” Lem stepped into the mood, “that blue one is a diamond, and fifteen-hundred, easily.”
Abby looked puzzled. “I though diamonds were white.”
“Clear, Abby. The word your looking for is ‘clear.’ Diamonds come in variety of colors, actually.”
“He’s right,” nodded the alchemist. “Variations in the structure of the stone, as well as the presence of impurities, can alter the hue of a diamond.”
“Blue is impure?”
“Yes,” Kara wavered, “but in this case that’s a good thing. It adds to the value.”
“Impurity . . . adds to the value?”
“People are weird.”
Behind the warrior, a wizard nodded so emphatically his head risked falling off and rolling away.
Gloriana could restrain her question no more. “What’s that one?”
The gardener raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “That . . . is a black opal.”
“Correct. About eight-thousand-pieces-of-gold worth of ‘oh, my,’ I think.”
A murmur rumbled quietly through the group.
Kara shook her head in wonder. “Longtooth had good taste.”
The conjurer reflected: “They usually do. The reds, in particular. A dragon is a combination of ancient intelligence and preternatural aesthetic appreciation coupled with a blend of greed, breathtaking ego, and desire to dominate, all within a casing of steel-hard scale powered by elemental magic.”
Gloriana deployed a grin so vital it threatened to rival the jewels on display, and she opened her mouth to say something.
Rahab snorted intercept: “No, I am not jealous, and I reject categorically the implication.”
The oracle giggled, and so, it seemed did the warrior. The wizard’s eyes narrowed. Giggling intensified. Kara was subdued.
Lem edged closer to the mound of coin and treasure. “There is yet more. A scattering of other gems, lesser varieties, it looks like, but abundant. And then there are these.” He plucked a shape in silver from the pile, scattering coins. “Five, at least, plus another over there in platinum, unless I miss my guess.” The gardener hefted the idol. “Pure: five-hundred, easily.”
At the edge of the trove was a tapestry of ancient work depicting the Jorgenfist courtyard and various monastic figures engaged in some form of ritualistic combat. The crowning artifact was, as Lem noted, a sculpted figure of fierce aspect bearing a glaive, formed entirely from platinum.
“Five thousand,” the gardener exhaled.
Rahab darkened the mood. “Karzoug.”
“Is it going to spy on us, too?” asked Abby.
“Not once we sell it, or melt it down,” Kara countered.
“I am currently under no magical observation,” the wizard remarked. “It may be nothing more than art, and not a conduit for scrying.”
“Art?” the warrior inquired.
Lem shook his head. “I assume he means as a general category, rather than actual estimation.” Rahab confirmed the gardener’s hypothesis with a nod. Lem continued: “The value is in the metal.”
“Although,” reflected the wizard, “it may also have historical importance as a representation of a bygone culture, depending on its origin and age.”
The gardener squinted. “There is no market for historical antiquities in an era and place that doesn’t even recognize there are historical antiquities sitting right under their fucking—”
Rahab held up his hands. “Point, point.”
“What about Quink?” Gloriana asked.
Lem and the conjurer burst out laughing.
Golden indignation: “What?”
With two unable to respond, Kara intervened. “Glori, I suspect Rahab and Lem feel that, whatever Quink’s admirable—”
Doubled over now.
An elf’s patience: “—whatever Quink’s admirable qualities, unlikely to stand chief among them is any particular wealth. Negotiation with him would necessitate an entirely charitable donation of pure platinum somewhere in the vicinity of five-thousand gold coins.”
A long pause as gardener and Rahab slowly caught their breath. Gloriana waited, fists planted on hips . . .
“To The Hells with that, let’s get the money.”
Rahab conducted a scan of magical detection . . .
. . . and found no signals.
Alchemist and conjurer exchanged a glance. Not bloody likely. A vigorous search by hand through armfuls of coin followed. Eventually Lem found a length of black-on-black.
“The blade,” mused the wizard, “from Mokmurian’s notes.”
Gloriana looked puzzled. “Why wasn’t it on top with the other prizes?”
“He feared it.”
Abby took the sword from the gardener and unsheathed it. When the weapon came free of the scabbard it immediately signified itself in the wizard’s matrix of detection. Kara knew the material, naming it sartosis steel, and encompassing a property to disrupt the breath of dragons.
Rahab explained the enchantment on the scabbard that masked magical discernment. Then, with time to examine the weapon—including the peculiar sine wave inscribed on the length—the conjurer readily recognized it. He passed it back to Abby.
“That’s what it’s called?”
The warrior held the weapon aloft and gazed upon its length, black metal so deep it seemed to drink light, and marked by a curious ribbon of brightness from hilt to the base of the foible. “What does it do?”
Rahab took a breath to consider. “It thunders.”1
By the time they returned to the fortress a small skirmish had erupted between disparate giant-kin factions, but Conna’s command and the presence of the Heroes of Sandpoint quickly nullified the event and the valley exodus resumed. Gloriana’s willingness to expend healing magic for those injured helped with both dispersal and improving—somewhat—the sentiment against small folk. Later that evening the oracle had retrieved her campfire bead from the perimeter tower where it all began, and the slow line of giants continued moving into the Storval dusk.
Gloriana and Kara made their way from the chamber where the villagers rested through the great corridor that looped the first underground level beneath Jorgenfist. They conversed entirely in Elvish.
“With what do you need help?”
“I plan to seal the route leading to the reaches below.”
“A wall of stone.”
“Ah,” the alchemist nodded, “on this level, or below?”
A pause broken only by footsteps in the otherwise empty halls.
“Unless,” the oracle resumed, “you think it more effectively deployed below?”
Kara considered. “To be honest, I had not calculated in either direction. I was unsure why you had asked me along.”
“My thinking was that, if we place the wall up here, it might look like there is no real passageway to the areas beneath us. It might be enough to discourage closer search.”
“Against what possibility?”
“Something returning: a giant, an ogre, a lamia.”
The alchemist clasped her hands behind her back in silence for a while, which the oracle did not fail to notice.
“What is it?”
“Well,” replied Kara, “my understanding was that many of the fortress inhabitants already knew additional cavern depths existed.”
“You don’t think a wall would stop them?”
“On the contrary, I think a wall of stone would go significant lengths to preventing a curious creature skulking about on its own. If anything returns in force, however . . .”
“They’ll simply excavate through.”
The alchemist gave a sympathetic smile. “They are stone giants, after all.”
They continued in silence for some distance, until the oracle resumed the conversation: “I still think the effort worth it. Perhaps all we need is defense against the lone wanderer.”
“I agree,” Kara nodded.
Gloriana sensed more. “Yet you still have some reservation?”
“Not about sealing the passage into the lower reaches.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why ask me to join you in this endeavor?”
“Why wouldn’t I ask you? You are my friend, and an excellent advisor on magical matters!”
“Glori,” the alchemist smiled, “expertise in the magic of placing walls to command routes of movement properly belongs to Rahab . . . and you know it.”
“There is nothing wrong with seeking the perspective of my friend!”
“And Rahab is not your friend?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do . . . and I don’t, Glori.”
The oracle sighed.
Kara smiled. “May I tender observation?”
“No. No you may not.”
Silver laughter like bells in a forest valley echoed down the corridor.
Rahab made the first teleportation shortly after daybreak. The villagers of Sandpoint were going home.2
1 Bolt is a =+3 thundering called longsword augmented by the effect of the sartosis metal that disrupts breath weapons if the creature in question fails a saving throw. This thing . . . I mean . . . .
2 End of Book V. Screen wipes to black. Cue up the 2010 release “Sunset Cruise” by Miami Nights 1984 to play over the credits, the text of which appears in angular neon pink and electric blue above the image of a red 1983 Lamborghini Countach LP500 S on a wireframe field that disappears into the horizon.