The next month saw a flurry of work, and by the end of it Rahab had advanced extant artifacts and crafted new ones. He had begun to uncover the secrets of The Book of the Strange, and he had taught himself to read and speak Thassilonian.
“I have a gift for you,” the wizard intoned quietly. They stood in the first floor hallway, alone.
Gloriana’s eyes lit.
A cough. “To the others I have already given theirs.”
“Something I made.”
“Yes. A particular conjuration contained within a jewel. One to each of my friends. Appropriately coordinated, I think. This is for you.” He held out his hand. In his palm lingered a brilliant gemstone, the size of a ripe olive, facets and angles the color of coals at the base of a fire.
“Rahab . . .” she took the jewel carefully, “. . . it’s beautiful.”
“May it serve you . . . actually, my hope is that it never need serve you. A strange sentiment to bestow with a gift, now that I reflect. Why do I suddenly find this difficult to explain?”
She took his hand in hers. “What does it do?”
“It summons an elemental.”
He laughed. “Fire, of course! I tendered Earth to Lem and Water to Kara, naturally. To Abby, Air. You need merely crush the jewel to complete the summoning. Its integrity will collapse readily when you need it. If you need it. The elemental will serve you, and you alone, in such capacity as you may require.”
Standing very close now: “Thank you, Rahab.”
“Gloriana, I—” and if there were more to say it did not come, because in the quiet of the hall her arms were already draped around his neck, and she was already kissing him.
Kara knocked politely at Rahab’s study, then entered when he bid admission. Alchemist and wizard conversed in Elvish.
“I have heard the tale of the fight with the alchemical golem from the others. I welcome your account, should you like.” She smiled as he indicated a seat.
“I suspect my version unlikely to inspire. Abby and Lem conducted the bulk of the work destroying it, and Gloriana kept us hale. I served primarily as a distraction.”
Kara smiled. “‘Bait’ was the word Lem used.”
“He is not wrong,” snorted the conjurer. “No spell I might employ was likely to succeed. Your presence would have been most valuable.”
“I thank you that you think so, and regret that I was delayed. Your study of The Book proceeds? What news?”
He eagerly perched at chair’s edge. “I have uncovered many aspects. It is a dizzying artifact, to be sure.” He began outlining features, discoveries, hypotheses.
“Appropriate for a dizzying intellect,” she laughed.
“It is a potent tool.”
“I would never have assumed otherwise.”
He redirected. “What did you learn of the Mierani?”
“Much.” She grew quiet, her gaze on distant horizons.
He regarded her at length. “I would be remiss in failing to offer my expert perspective, knowledge, and advice.”
She gave an Elven smile. “As would I, in turn, regarding your budding relationship with Gloriana.”
It surprised her when he laughed. “Indeed.” A thoughtful pause. “I have advanced Encircling Theorem, Kara.”
“Your intellect is equal to anything, Rahab, but you venture now in territory where the heart must guide more confidently.”
“It would betray my heart to abandon my mind. It would be an act of self-delusion to imagine the sentiment expressed in one metaphor independent of the reality manifest in the other.”
“That is an important insight. And yet love has a way—”
“To presume at this point—!”
“Presage, not presumption, Rahab. Have you ever been in love?”
The wizard thought of ten-thousand words to say on the subject, and found satisfaction in none of them.
A knowing nod. “Have care.”
“It is power.”
“Not a source of my fears.”
She stood and settled a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It is like nothing you have ever known, Son of Cheliax. Time will pale. Infinity will diminish.”
“I have witnessed others in throes. Power? A mundanity, by many accounts.”
Kara nodded. “That . . . is almost certainly how it snares you.” She departed the study with a smile.
He sat in quiet thought for a long time.
Lem met Rahab at The Sundown where the wizard had already ordered two ales. To the gardener he passed the favored earthy brown, keeping for himself the preferred golden bitter. Clinking mugs, they each drank a hearty draught and exhaled in deep satisfaction.
“Thanks,” offered Lem. “What’s on your mind?”
A pause. “I have another gift for you.”
The gardener’s eyes narrowed. “After the elemental gem, and presented here, away from the house, away from the others? Now I’m suspicious.”
Rahab shrugged. “As you wish. The gift is here.” He unfolded a bundle of satin on the table between them, revealing two narrow lengths of wood, each delicately carved with arcane symbols and tipped with a conical cap of lead.
“They carry the same spell, a full complement in each.”
“An augmentation for your daggers.”
“My daggers are already magically augmented.”
“This supplements that. The spell lends heft to the strike. Your blades will feel no different in hand, but will land upon foes with greater impact.”
“Their current magic already does that.”
“To a degree.”
“This will increase it?”
“Not the likelihood that the strike lands. That remains dependent upon your own skill. The injury itself increases, should an attack succeed.”
Lem considered the wands. Around them bustled the tavern, and they drew inevitable glances. The Heroes of Sandpoint had fame now, a more advanced and complicated variety, the kind that inevitably diverged from their own understanding, and insisted irrepressibly on amendments of fancy, intrigue, and sometimes even aspersion, over which the companions could marshal little editorial command. That Rahab could display—in the midst of a busy tavern—a brace of magical wands demonstrated not only the extent of the fame, but also that such could hold at bay as readily as draw close. The gardener took another long drink of ale.
“Rahab . . . are you suggesting that I am ineffective as a combatant in our party?”
The wizard sighed heavily and drank from his own mug. “Far be it from me, Lem, to evaluate you on matters of armed combat, in which your expertise exceeds mine by many factors. What is indisputable, however, is the fact that you are—all other things being equal—small.”
“I am exactly the right size. It’s the rest of the world that is wrong.”
“And in such disproportion the effectiveness of your blows falls slightly less than those of your comrade in battle. The magic in these devices goes a distance to remedy that disparity.”
“I need nothing of the kind. I have a mind to show you, right now.” When Rahab did not react, the gardener switched tack. “Are you fucking Glo, by the way?”
The wizard sighed again and drained his drink. “Lem, the battles that are coming are only going to get harder. The days of goblins and ghouls are behind, however many you could unseam with little more than a glance.”
“So that’s a ‘yes?’”
“I heartily encourage you to take up this line of conversation with Gloriana. Do let me know how it goes. Elsewise, seeing as you do not need the wands, I suspect someone of your resourcefulness will have little difficulty finding a buyer for them.”
The wizard rose and departed. Lem ordered another ale, and sat drinking, looking at the magic items. His expression easily discouraged celebrity-seekers.
Gloriana, too, gave gifts, bestowing a ring in platinum to each of her companions. Worn as a spell focus, the rings linked the oracle’s power to shield another from harm beyond the basic link of life. At her command a channel of power siphoned half an injury from the one so wounded at the moment it occurred. Not a spell she could sustain for any significant time without counter healing, of course, nor one she could reasonably maintain among all others at once, given the vicissitudes of battle, but as safeguard for Abby and Lem, certainly, it increased survivability at the forefront of combat.
More still was the magic in which they girded themselves, from the new shirt of subtle chain links easily concealed under Lem’s tunic to the host of scrolls Rahab collected and scribed in bolstering his appreciable accumulation of spell formulae. Not without purpose, their crafting and trade constituted no small part of preparation for a return to The Valley of the Black Tower, where they had unfinished business.
Over dinner at Heroes Hearth they conversed.
“Will any giants have returned?” Abby speared a portion of beef on a fork and wolfed it down.
Gloriana shook her head. “I think Conna was successful.”
“So what does that leave? Harpies?”
“And lamias,” mentioned Kara.
A bite of roasted potato this time. “I did not see any at the end, as we gathered the villagers to return to Sandpoint.”
The alchemist shrugged. “They may have reinvested, or simply hidden. A source of power at that location is highly desirable for ones such as lamias.”
Rahab nodded silent agreement.
“What about this ‘Black Monk?’” Kara turned to the wizard.
A sigh. “What little lore I have remains largely unexpanded since our investment of the valley. Likely ancient, The Black Monk is certainly powerful, easily a power preceding Mokmurian’s.”
Abby looked uncertain. “Is it an actual monk?”
“In the martial sense? I do not honestly know. Possibly, but it is also likely a conduit for significant magic, at the very least, if not an actual practitioner.”
“Thassilonian?” Gloriana folded her arms in a gesture the wizard had come to find distractingly attractive.
“I regret,” he exhaled, “that I do not know. We increasingly encounter the relics—or servants of the relics—of Thassilon. Yet we would abandon intellectual rigor to assume every encounter originates or affiliates with that ancient empire.”
The oracle slumped. “I still feel like we don’t understand any of this any better.”
Rahab scowled. “Agreed. This vexes me to a degree I had hitherto underappreciated.”
The warrior’s eyes narrowed. “Meaning?”
“Meaning,” and he took a brooding sip of wine, “that I wish to see Thassilon destroyed. Again. And that is alarming, because it means destroying history, destroying artifact, lore, culture. That I am drawn to so antithetical a sentiment suggests I have lost some perspective of control, and find such disconcerting.”
Kara glanced swiftly between Gloriana and Rahab, then forced back a nearly overwhelming smile. Oh, my wizardly friend, you are so delightfully doomed.
Nonplussed, Abby stood ready to depart. “We’re not taking the horses?”
Rahab looked mildly surprised. “Can you think of a reason to do so?”
“We may need to ride somewhere!”
“Well, I don’t know. What if we need back-up transportation in case the teleport doesn’t work?”
The wizard’s expression said everything.
Warrior chagrined: “Hey, remember who helped the most with the alchemical golem!”
“I would sooner forget my Cheliaxian heritage.”
Abby glanced at the door. “So, no horses?”
Rahab had a realization, and suddenly wished that Gloriana was there as witness. “If you like, we can take Sparky with us.” He laid a friendly hand on her shoulder.
Abby ruminated. “It might be dangerous.”
The wizard nodded.
Quietly somber: “We had to hide the horses last time in the canyon.”
“It would pain us all if harm came to them in the course of the risk we willingly assume in pursuit of our goals.”
The warrior sighed. “But—!”
“Nothing prevents you from navigating the streets of our adopted Magnimar magnificently horsed. Legends will incorporate the image of the mightiest warrior in the region astride the most resplendent of steeds, patrolling as guardian of the City of Monuments.”
She was quiet a long time. Then: “Does that come with a salary?”
They arrived in the first level of underground caverns, in the room that had been prison to the kidnapped villagers of Sandpoint. Darkness pervaded. Producing light, they quickly made their way to the perimeter corridor until they came to the central pit that gave access to the surface. A wide, stone path coiled up to the promise of sunlight and fresh mountain air. Lem took point, and into morning radiance the gardener advanced as a being unseen.
In the wake of an encampment of giant-kin the vast central yard of the fortress expanded in a silence as large as the plateau. Lem paused, feeling the air, trying to find some sound beyond the distant whisper of wind among the perimeter peaks half-a-mile away. The massive ring wall blocked view on the valley plain where camp smokes had lingered a month before, home now only to tumbling alpine dust. The five towers, irregularly spaced, loomed in sunlight, and the great black spire just north of the central pit stabbed like a spike of malice into crisp spring blue.
A dread peace hovered everywhere, doing nothing but make the gardener nervous.
“It’s quiet,” he carefully whispered down the conduit of communication magic Rahab had established. The wizard waited patiently.
“Too quiet,” Lem followed.
Still standing on the curved path Rahab nodded at the others. Abby slowly drew Bolt and braced Avenger.
“Wait,” came the gardener’s admonition, “there’s something . . . ”
Music? A song of some kind, voices on the air, faint at first, growing in volume and force. If it had words they were unintelligible, and the harmonies coiled intricately, making it difficult to isolate an individual singer. Lem recognized only that the sound came from above, among the towers, and then the magic hit him and his friends.
Rahab shook off the enchantment with all the scornful disdain his astonishing intellect and fantastic ego could muster. Likewise, Gloriana and Abby bent their will and repelled any compulsion. Kara, lone among those with more expertise about the source of the spell, struggled where she should not have had to, and only through monumental effort managed to shake off the charming tendrils that had begun to tickle her brain.
Lem would have succumbed. There was something in the quality of the chant that was unbearable and irresistible. It was like no sound he had encountered, all the more alluring in its exoticism, as the discovery of a precious stone heretofore uncatalogued, cradled in trembling palms, hinting at riches, the eye a prisoner to beauty. Lem would have succumbed, but for Gloriana.
The oracle, as ever, stood ever mindful of those entrusted to her. The spell of protection that she had placed upon Lem prior to ascending the spiral path forced the droning call into repose, and the gardener retained his senses. In seething realization, his hands gripped knife hilts.
Some distance behind, in the shade of the pit, Kara whispered into the messaging magic. “Harpies.”1
Lem made for a large building to the northwest, a broad structure unsealed. As he crossed the fortress yard, he discerned shapes atop the towers on all sides, a collision of biped and bird, topped by some sort of wild mane. In his haste to make cover there was little time to take full measure of anything else. Passing into shadow, the gardener scanned the interior for movement. Two massive tables dominated either side of a firepit long cold after a month’s absence. Scattered around the floor were the remains of kegs. He recognized the Two Knight Brewery label of on a section of sundered stave. Insult upon injury: The stone giants had not merely sundered village beer production, they had robbed what little remained. No hell conjured punishment sufficient to redress such ignominy . . . .
Lem stepped from the detritus and a deeper shadow loomed, massive, stinking, wooly. Why he had not seen it before taunted his thought. Great, furred skull swung wide, snout sniffing heavily, grunted growl blew heavily into air thick with scent: heavy, earthen, mushrooms and berries and fish and rain-soaked ferns. The gardener froze, and fought a silent battle against sheer panic. By whatever mechanism or chance the dire bear had not discovered his aroma, and he began to retreat, aching step at a time, a journey of years to cross an arm’s span. Before him a wall of fur, blowing blasts in the dense gloom, entourage of giants too much to command or too ensconced in a feeding place to be goaded into relocation. Lem could not even whisper his discovery, lest the merest change in the air betray his position. A maw that size could swallow him entirely in a bite.
The others made their way quickly from the pit into morning sun. Movement along the walls and tower heights swept at peripheral vision, shapes plunging on vengeful winds resolved into birds on the wing, the air given talons, feather-borne bitterness filling the emptiness left by the giant exodus.
“Those aren’t harpies!” Gloriana cried out.
Wide turn became dive, plumed expanse became angled vector. A shadow the size of a sail freighter fell upon the yard.
Abby’s jaw dropped. “They’re huge!”
Rahab was grim.
Myriad menace incarnated diverse forms. Stirges hummed in humid swamps, ogres plundered rock-strewn hills, ancient dead lingered in cold tombs. Many plucked the strings of fear, coaxing shivers from the coiled depths of awareness desperately trying to imagine a cosmos quaint and obliging. Among such catalog, distinctive pedigree assumed grand and resonant throne in the heart, casting doom upon the mind, demanding candid assessment of cosmic indifference wrought in a power to bear gullet-bound megafauna effortlessly aloft. Thus, the roc, which raptor plucks elephants as the owl snatches field mice.
Air distorted and pressure displaced as a portion of the sky fell. The fortress yard became a cloud of dust and a screech sheared the valley with resonance no thunderbolt ever conjured. Upon the Heroes of Sandpoint fell the winged death, the god-eagle.
At center ground Gloriana stood, ever-bright, a glinting, golden point in space, focus for eyes that could read patterns in rhinoceros hide at sixteen miles . . .
Just before he stepped, Rahab had a thought.
Fuck the harpies. This is serious.
That sensation again, expanse without limit, space filling spaceless-ness. She had thusly traversed a dozen times, yet the experience never abided familiar. Each instance was a surprise, and perhaps that was what frightened her, and perhaps therein also lay the thrill.
The longhouse interior was mote-shot gloom. She arrived with the wizard in the same instant they left, of course; Rahab delighted in playing fast-and-loose with fundamental aspects of spacetime. Nevertheless, she felt relief. Talons the length of an ox-team swept emptiness where—moments ago—a Varisian morsel had lingered temptingly. Feathered leviathan powered skyward once more on a churned hurricane. The yard disappeared in a cloud of dust, and conversation was useless as the roc’s rage echoed shrill through all the valley. So she kissed him, a dash on the cheek, fleeting thanks, and as the screeching faded, another sound resumed somewhere above the yard and dust: The feather-song of harpies crooning mind-foam, lurid and flensing.
In the shadows of the longhouse something moved behind them, a weight wild, fur and breath and claws, a lumbering bulk earthbound, mighty. Gloriana sighed.
Everything is just . . . bigger now.
A bear on the ground, a bird in the sky, dust all around, sunlit place to die.
Given the choice between ursine and avian, Abby preferred the former, for convenience, if nothing else. Experience, too, informed her decision—such as it was—and a shape in steel crossed a giant’s feast hall in seconds. A sword called Bolt cut air, cut fur, cut flesh. Stealth had strutted opening act; now it exited with a flourish, yielding stage to blade and blood.
The bear responded in kind, and Gloriana’s magic apportioned some of the bite to herself. Lem maneuvered and took up his role, daggers cutting and piercing. Great, slopping puddles of hot red spattered the longhouse floor.
An elvish voice sounded out of nothing. “There are five harpies along the top of the wall, inbound, and there are three rocs!” In the space of the warning Abby fetched the bear multiple sword-strokes, and Lem cut the left femoral artery. Four-thousand pounds collapsed with a huffing groan.
“Somebody close the door!” Lem shouted.
In the end the portal remained open. Glorian began a litany of spell-casting, prayers to ancestors on The Road, abjurations, the wind-stride. Lem took flight on a new power invested in his armor, and Abby did likewise. Invisible, Kara unlimbered ceramic globes in each hand, hovering above the longhouse floor, ready to rain violence upon anything broaching the doorway. For the moment the structure prevented access by anything larger than the harpies, but the alchemist had little doubt that three eagles with wingspans the width of Sandpoint’s entire east-west axis could make short work of the structure to pluck tidbits within. A grim perversity produced involuntary Elven chuckle: We wouldn’t even feed one of their chicks.
Gloriana reflected on the fact that—at present, at least—none among them had yet suffered injury: Unusual start to a day in the life. “What’s the plan?” she yelled.
Abby left the felled bear behind and flew into position at the longhouse door. “Ready,” she said; then, with a glance at the oracle, “Glo, I could use that spell against evil.” The golden Varisian quickly complied, and Rahab likewise shielded himself with a similar ward against entropic forces. Lem joined Abby at the door.
“It’s time!” the warrior shouted, and darted into bright Storval sun. The rocs had removed to a greater height, but the harpies swooped in from diverse angles. The distance to cover was too great, and so Abby coiled back and launched Bolt in a hefty overhand. The blade tumbled through the air, and the closest harpy easily banked aside, but an instant later the magic in the sword returned the weapon readily to the warrior’s hand. In a moment Abby and Lem coiled through air thick with feathers and the haunted croon of the bird women.
Gloriana became golden fire and followed warrior and gardener into the yard, quickly uttering a magical command against three of the harpies, bidding them to still. Only one of them suffered the compulsion, alighting on the longhouse roof with a frustrated scream. The other two quickly swooped to the attack on either side of the brilliant oracle, though they could not capitalize, and so the figure in flame evaded injury.
A fourth harpy barreled into the flying gardener and tore bloody shreds in Lem’s skin. Abby darted down to the oracle’s altitude and took up position against one of the harpies. Bolt darted into feathered mass and shrieks marked the drawing of blood. For a moment the encounter poised in no favor, neither side advantaged.
And then something fell out of the sky. A shadow grew over the entire fortress. Abby just had time to recognize the immense mass, fast and dangerous. Bolt carved a line of black against the day, blade striking true, and then a brilliant sliver of sunshine was jerked skyward to the sound of a scream.
1 Rahab scored a natural 20 on his Will save. Glo and Abby did fine. Kara blew hers and had to spend a Hero Point. Lem blew his save, but Glo had placed a protection from evil on him just prior, so the charming song had no effect.