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Book VI, Chapter 6: The Gilded Cage
Burn, Baby, Burn! Disco Inferno!

With the help of Gloriana and Kara, Abby purchased a befitting dress, deft and deadly. Entirely in crimson silk, it had a high neck and no sleeves, revealing the warrior’s powerful arms and their scars. At the top of the sternum a small, diamond-shaped cutout loomed like an eye over the expanse of red swooping into a pleated skirt, the hem of which fell above the knee. For her feet: Red leather sandals laced to the top of the calves. An appointment with a stylist had produced a single shock of stark blonde highlight through the warrior’s classically short hair, like a spark of lightning.

Abby looked at her friends. “How is it?”

Kara and Gloriana shared a glance, then burst into smiles. “Abby, you look fantastic!”

“I don’t know . . .”

The alchemist clasped the warrior’s hands. “You’ll see.”

“This isn’t usually . . . .”

“That’s part of the fun!” the oracle chirped. “Something new!”

Calloused hands smoothed red fabric, and an uncertain frown threatened.

“Abby,” Gloriana admonished. “All those instances to which you think you are unsuited, and your skill shines forth every time. A pity Vale isn’t here.”

The warrior blushed at the speed of teleportation, sending Kara and the oracle into giggles.

“Well,” Abby asserted, “I’m not going without a dagger.”

The alchemist smiled and brandished an ornamental scabbard with highlights in polished copper set with several gemstones. “We had a feeling you would say that.”

••••

Kara wore several layers of long, diaphanous, elf-spun cloth the color of sea foam, draped both to conceal and to suggest. Ribbon of silver sat gently on her brow, glistening with gems like new frost. Tall, lithe, precise, masterful, the alchemist seemed to radiate argent light, the breath of stars.

Lem was a shape in black, from doublet to breeches and boots, sable stark against a face in relief, and when he strode his movement was halfling-by-way-of-cat. He, too, ventured under arms, their sequester so expertly rendered as to make nakedness sufficient camouflage, now concealed even more skillfully in tenebrous raiment.

For the wizard: Trousers and boots of ebony, tunic of red, all in glistening leather, a devil’s uniform, scandal intended. Circumference of magical metal upon his head framed dark eyes like pools of smoked wine.

And the oracle?

Gloriana wore the halterneck in yellow and purple.

••••

Kara sidled up to Rahab and motioned with her eyes. “Well?”

No answer.

The alchemist smiled, patted the wizard on the shoulder, and strode away.

••••

They gathered funds in platinum to comprise bail or bribe, and Rahab instructed Escher on the dispensation of same should the companions find themselves so inhibited as to prevent tendering the coin in either capacity.

Then they set out for The Gilded Cage.

••••

A warm night in late spring, in the City of Monuments:

“We are not!”

“Oh, come on, Glo. If we stand in line, it’ll be ages before we get in. After everything that’s happened, we’ve earned this, and I’m not waiting two hours for drinks!”

“Abby! We can’t cut in front of everyone else!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Glo.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Glo, I guarantee they will let us in, and as much as some in line will object, I bet even more of them will be excited—genuinely—about it.”

“No one likes to be cut out of line, Abby.”

“They will tonight.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve worked doors before.”

“Where?”

“Riddleport.”

“They have clubs like The Gilded Cage in Riddleport?”

“Oh, fuck no!”

A beat.

“Abby’s right, Glo. Trust me: They want us in there so badly that we won’t have to pay for a single outrageously-priced drink once we’re inside.”

“None of that is an excuse to barge the line!”

“Let’s put it to vote—”

“We are not putting it to vote!”

“But, Glori! The dancing!”

A sigh.

“I’m surprised you haven’t voiced an opinion about this.”

Devil-grin.

“Oh, forget it. Fine. Let’s go.”1

••••

As usual, the line to enter the most prestigious club in Magnimar was long. Bustling patrons huddled in clusters, vaunting arrays of fashion, striking poses. Colors on display rivaled the dancing lights of magical provenance flashing at variegated crystal windows, and the sound of sorcerous music thundered against the walls, thumping the proximal street with muted rhythms. At the coveted entrance loomed two door wards of impressive caliber, the one a half-orc, the other a dwarf, impeccably dressed, and between them enough presence to paralyze wyverns in flight. Theirs was the admission or the rejection, and though many had tried, none in the city could testify with surety to success in swaying evaluation via charm, coin, spell, or flesh.

A ripple shuddered up the line, a whisper that became a murmur that became open voice, a shiver electric.

••••

As they neared, hands clutched and fluttered, butterflies frantic at the blossom. Sound surged and receded. A shape detached from the queue and arms draped around the wizard’s neck. Voice made of dusk breathed haze.

“Take me inside, Devil Rahab.”

A hand gently looped the conjurer’s elbow, drawing him away. Dusk faded back. All gazes on line held, irises lit with the madness of the moth spiraling on flame.

••••

For all her desire to broach the doors, Abby felt a flush of embarrassment that storm-surged her sense of adventure. She looked away, and then upon, fraught between impulses, elastic vibration rebounding between kinetic adoration.

Somehow, Kara managed to make amazement look like cool remove. The effect was immediate, and intense. Elfendom alone would captivate, an alchemy of misled presumptions, mystification cloaked in certainty, wax around a wick. Coupling such quality to the appearance of sanguine chill set candle alight among the crowd. Heat increased.

Gloriana absorbed everything with practiced expertise, though inside a sentiment both weary and rising screamed at the sky, bidding the line return home and celebrate their own lives, paper bird of celebrity consigned to pyre, not in remorse but in reflection. Then slithered another thought, coiled and powerful, flickering tongue gauging heat, capturing light with emerald orbs. Kindness bid metamorphose, pupa become chrysalis and thence to winged glory aloft on dusted wings of worship. Should she not? And should she not?

Nearing the famed entrance, Lem drank in spectacle, proffering a roguish smile, unbalanced only when he saw the halflings—free—numbered in line. Some favored him with a gaze, some returned disregard, and some waited to see. The interaction surged not within fertile soil, but the stranger air of humanoid atmosphere, a space he knew and did not, familiar and alien at once. When he searched for understanding he saw their individual masks, like his own, inscrutable despite what should have been obvious connection, mirrors made from the same glass, only to discover light at different vectors making piecemeal illumination.

The companions reached the head of the queue. Whispers and gazes surged like fire taking grass denied a decade’s rain. Cries beseeched the favor of one, or another, or all.

Abby met two titans, and even though she was clearly armed, they parted, precisely as she and the gardener had guessed. Invitation appeared in splayed arms, eyes never quite abandoning the five, nor the bustling line behind. The crowd’s gaze followed, beatific as beloved pets, hungry as coursing predators.

Thunderous beat spilled forth, impelling, heavy, borne upon waves of magic shaped in bardic thaumaturgy. Scent washed over them, rich and sweating, the aroma of movement and alcohol, elation and desperation, smoke and sex.

The companions broached a curtain of silver beads, and before them lay the main floor writhing with dancers. To the far right loomed the stage, and the musicians thereon, each bent to a particular instrument compelling soundscape. Was there vocalist, or more than one? Multiple harmonies rebounded. Pulsing lights from some illusionist’s narcotic dream lanced the air in hypnotic patterns, and the floor was obscured by a conjured ground fog that surged like sea.

Five came into view, painted in wild illumination, setting light to the fuse of a new thrill. Neither did dance falter nor music abate, but a nascent urgency hurtled forth, building and boiling, and no glance could avert for long. The Heroes of Sandpoint had arrived, and with them their luminous jewel, whom no crown could honor, much less contain.

••••

Word began as tiny rivulets, but within the hour the entire city was under deluge. Another bell gone and the line to enter the fabled club stretched three streets, while yet more who could not afford the fee gathered in hopes of merest glimpse. A contingent of city guard arrived, and it was not entirely clear—even amongst the constabulary—that the force was there to maintain order or to see the famous adventurers for themselves. By the time news reached Lord Mayor Haldemeer Grobaras, Magnimar was already alive with the knowledge, and the magnate’s thrill was matched only by his fury at learning so late.

••••

There emerged a half-elven woman not quite Abby’s height. She was dressed in a frock that revealed almost everything about her legs, and surmounted by a great fan of feathers or spikes about her neck and head. Without word she gestured, turning smoothly into the fog. Upon one of the raised perimeter levels there stood a marble table and mahogany chairs to which the woman led them, before vanishing into throbbing light and sound. The Heroes sat, and soon a muscled server arrived clad only in a silken kilt and bearing a tray. A bottle of green glass fountained foaming wine into crystal tulips.

Five glasses lifted, five chimes drowned in the pulse of music, five splashes of angelic liquid burst on five tongues. It quickly became difficult to determine if lights led sound, or sound led lights. It became so difficult that it ceased to matter.

••••

Immune as she was to the power—if not the taste—of the sparkling beverage, Kara took to the dance floor not long after. The alchemist’s shoulders slithered, and her lithe form quickly found resonance in other dancers. Sea-green drifted on mist. The crowd pressed close, as if proximity alone might convey some of her grace to their own expression. It was not yet the tenth evening bell, and already portions of clothing began to shed.

Lem turned to Abby, their conversation a near-shout. “Want to dance?”

“No!”

“Come on, Abby!”

“I want to drink!”

The gardener swept his arm around. “There’s a field of people out there that would love to meet you!”

Abby supped a long draught. “Anyone touches me, gets punched!”

Lem’s eyes bloomed as he drained his own glass. “There’s a field of people out there that would love to get punched by you!”

Gloriana leaned forward. “I never figured you for a dancer, Lem!”

The gardener shot the oracle a glance that needed no translation, and Gloriana laughed.

••••

Luminaries began to arrive. Among them numbered no small faction surprised to discover that—for that night at least—admission was not easily achieved, and a half-orc and a dwarf vetting entrants were not as readily swayed as custom might otherwise dictate. Of those who secured entrance, the vast majority found their fortunes unimproved, for the environment of sound, light, and chemical rendered meaningful discourse almost impossible for those hoping to capture attention.

••••

Many were those who desired to swim in waters, sounding strength, or skill, or mind. Fantasy knew no limits. Yet the pinnacle, the command, belonged to one alone, to blonde light shaming all coruscating effects ensorcelled in service to the atmosphere of that place. Her presence electrified entirely, neither patron nor staff immune. It was not merely her, but the realization of her in the context of legend. Servers could not help but stop and ask if she needed anything, alike in their desire to capture a simple moment of her attention, hoping that a request for more sparkling wine might somehow translate into a night of recognition, or passion, or just a smile made memory. So, too, the patrons, eager to capture some portion of her gaze, or touch, some fleeting infinity in which they might lodge imagination of perfection. Some she favored with a word, and others she deflected with a glance, and in the pulsing hum many felt the shivering sense that they had fallen in love with something like death, and yet come away alive.

Some found courage to approach. More still were those who cast glances of envy, or lust, or even malice. At times the oracle found impulse to laugh at the absurdity of it all, especially that those seeking her favor did not want to see him, and those seeking his favor did not want to see her, and yet both factions posturing eagerly to be seen.

She raised crystal flute to lips and poured an explosion upon her tongue, her gaze sweeping the dance floor. Darting lights vectored through dissipative blur, luminous mosses upon branch of beat and melody. Sweat-slicked bodies in motion showed panting flesh, expressions insistent and concealed.

In a murky, fog-shrouded pool between light her arms came up and settled around his shoulders. The oracle felt his hands upon her hips. Their proximities collapsed amidst dizzying color drifting madcap. Haze of fog and haze of drink mingled in cotton-shrouded rhythm. Heat lingered everywhere, and the whole club seemed to fade. Sound pounded down, persistence and insistence, time sequestered at the core between them, some strange collision of divinity and wizardry, recursively meshing with the beat, only to eclipse it.

He did not know what to make of it when the specter of his analysis sat back, laughed, and poured itself a drink.

Now they commanded the dance floor, not for his presence, but for hers, and a secret part of her relished it. Perfectly capable of her own sentiment, she scattered ghosts in delight, and watched a bead of sweat travel from his hairline to his brow.

“Are you warm?” It was difficult to tell in the sound and light and fog, but the devil-grin was hers now, and how had he heard? Too loud, the music-scape, but he found her voice, or felt it through her breath, or her heartbeat, not a magic spell of detection, and not like anything he could catalog. Thus their conversation, little portions inserted among beats pounding fog, shaking flesh.

“I—”

“—later—”

“—help—”

“—say—”

The song ended, and the band began another. Never stopping, the dance merely changed states.

••••

Lem disappeared sometime after the first morning bell. Abby sought the gardener to no avail, only to discover that, in the conjured fog and magic lights, it was also unclear where Kara was. The warrior made for the door, floored someone who laid a hand on her, and stumbled into the cool air, angling for home.

••••

Prelude tumbled against frame and timber, intensity expanding to include the structure, the route. At his room she pushed him, and he fell onto the bed, and somehow the door shut. Then she was on top of him. Afterthought had been the spell that purged drink’s dizziness, leaving only the whirling haze of them, heady, hungry, quivering. Ghosts tried to intrude, their clamor vanquished in an instant, swept away on a hurricane of ascendant pulse. Moment became next, velocity of breath reciprocating, a curve of acceleration, veldt cat striding then running then overtaking. Each to the other welcome and welcoming, startled to discover themselves startled, and they could not have slowed if the turning of the world had depended upon it. They would not have wanted to.


1 Soundtrack suggestions for this chapter: Depeche Mode, “Just Can’t Get Enough;” KC & The Sunshine Band, “Give It Up;” The Romantics, “What I Like About You;” Wild Cherry, “Play That Funky Music;” The Commodores, “Brick House;” Hot Chocolate, “You Sexy Thing;” Madonna, “Ray of Light;” Deee-Lite, “Groove Is In The Heart;” Ray Charles, “Shake A Tail Feather;” Erasure, “Oh L’amour;” Prince, “Delirious;” Kenny Loggins, “Footloose;” Starship, “We Built This City;” E.G. Dailey, “One Way Love (Dance With The Dead Remix);” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk;” The Trammps, “Disco Inferno;” Kool & The Gang, “Celebration;” The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling;” Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen;” Young MC, “Bust A Move;” Billy Idol, “Dancing With Myself;” Wang Chung, “Dance Hall Days;” Men Without Hats, “Safety Dance;” Blondie, “Rapture;” The Go-Go’s, “Head Over Heels;” Eddy Grant, “Electric Avenue;” Lionel Richie, “Dancing on the Ceiling;” Pointer Sisters, “Jump (For My Love);” DeBarge, “Rhythm of the Night;” Tina Turner, “What You Get Is What You See;” Lilian Axe, “Show A Little Love;” Roxette, “Dressed For Success”

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Book VI, Chapter 5: Anathema Archive
Library Pass

Abby and Gloriana stood looking out over the Valley of The Black Tower. A rattling wind descended from the perimeter peaks, ushering dust devils on brief journeys of mischief.

“We should camp in the tunnels,” the warrior said. “Safe from the rocs.”

Gloriana sighed. “Close to the other artifact.”

“Rahab seems to think this one is worse. And anyway, he’s going to need time to see if he can get it open.”

“I know.”

“What is it? Glo?”

“I don’t want him to get it open.”

A lull passed.

“Who heals us?”

The oracle looked at the warrior. “What?”

“Who heals us?”

“I’m not s—”

“You do. You heal us.”

Gloriana went quiet.

Abby continued: “Who fights for us?”

The oracle watched closely.

“I do. Lem does. Kara does. We fight for us. Who solves riddles for us?”

Gloriana drew a slow breath. “I know.”

“I know you do. We fought, and you healed, and now we have a riddle to solve. Let him solve it.”

“Abby, this riddle may be . . . something we cannot fight, or heal, or solve.”

The warrior regarded her best friend at length. “All the things we’ve seen: a barghest, ghouls in the farmlands, a murder cult, ogres, a drowning village, a faerie ghost, a dragon burning Sandpoint . . . have we ever not faced them? You think we’re about to start running now?”

“No, but Karzoug—”

“I bet this Karzoug fucker is worried.”

“Why?”

“Because we are coming.”

The warrior turned and strode for the fortress gate, a blade of black thunder at her hip, a circle of impenetrable moonlight on her back. And what the bard-spawned tales had failed to capture was that she was not simply the bearer of such things, she was the blood and the steel and the torn sky.

She was the black thunder, the impenetrable moonlight.

••••

They set camp in the chamber where the Sandpoint prisoners had been held. Abby and Gloriana built a fire and prepared dinner. Rahab and Kara pored over the locked scroll at some remove. Lem scouted stealthily through the halls and chambers of the first level, just to make sure there were no surprises from a month before. It was like a journey through a long-abandoned warehouse or museum. Here were the blast marks from Rahab’s fireball, the rippled stone from dragon breath. Here were the dried bloodstains of fallen ogres or stone giants. Here were empty caverns where torches had once burned, or cooking pots bubbled, or lamias had performed profane worship to Abyssal powers. Halfway through his circuit, the gardener understood the fortress reaches were not empty, after all, but inhabited by something vast and potent, a silence like judgement, an air like a tomb. He stopped. How long had it been since he had planted something in soft loam, coaxing shoots of sunlit green with offerings of moisture? He thought of roots, twisting down into darkness, bereft of leaf or bloom, tendrils in the cold domain of the worm, veins of the burial kingdom.

The silence slipped around him.

••••

“At this point,” Kara mused, “I suppose the question is: What was the theoretical foundation behind the development of the scroll?”

Rahab wearily rubbed his face with his hands. “I might hypothesize at length, but without reliable lore or more time to study and experiment any such effort is academic, at best. Is the artifact even Thassilonian?”

“The symbols on the exterior support that, at least . . . ”

“Do they?”

“Do they not?”

“And just like that we’re already swimming circumferentially in abstract waters.”

“What else would they be, if not Thassilonian?”

“This is an artifact of significance. I would categorize it as ‘immense’ just to start. I don’t give a fuck how special Thassilon thought it was, we are talking about the kind of thing that would make them tremble . . . and probably did. The locks might be Thassilonian, but that does not make the item inside theirs any more than saying its current proximity makes it ours.”

Into the subsequent silence Kara ventured: “You are frustrated.”

“To a degree commensurate with the artifact itself.”

“Settle not into seductive fantasies of revenge as remedy to vexation.”

The wizard sighed. “Well deployed, as ever.”

Kara resumed. “So . . . seven locks?”

“Of course.” Hell’s below, I am bored of Thassilon’s aesthetic!

The alchemist grew quiet, and then slowly looked at the wizard. Rahab’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“No, it’s silly—”

“What?”

“It’s ridiculous!”

“Is it?”

“What if . . . no, surely not.”

The conjurer waited.

“What if . . . what if it’s just zero . . . zero . . . zero zero zero zero zero?”

Rahab was surprised by his own laughter. “Sadly, the runes are not numbers.”

“Well, how should I know?” Kara asked around her own mirth. “I cannot read it! Thus, what lies before us?”

The wizard drew ink, quill, and parchment from his haversack. “I will write it down in Elvish, as a precaution.”

The alchemist nodded and leaned over his shoulder as he began. “Interesting . . . .”

••••

Abby brought portions of food as the two continued working. Both had sheets and quills now, the expanses covered in complex diagrams, numbered arrays, words written and scratched out and written again, iterations of rotational arrangement exploring possibility.

The warrior set the food quietly down and strolled away without interrupting. She could hear the conversation, conducted entirely in Elvish, simultaneously combative and collaborative, and it made her feel better, as though a buffer against the malignancy that seemed present since finding the scroll. Abby returned to the fire and sat with Gloriana and Lem. The meal passed largely in silence, the gardener having reported no further inhabitants of the upper cavern level.

“Strange,” Gloriana mused.

Abby spoke around a mouthful. “What is?”

“Nothing else here.”

“Well,” Lem said, “it has only been a month.”

“Not even animals in the valley.”

“Rocs,” commented the warrior.

“Animals smaller than cattle would be fine. Not even a meal for the rocs.”

“Makes you wonder . . . ”

“What?”

“What the rocs have been eating.”1

“Well, it’s still . . . ”

The gardener lifted a portion of food to his mouth. “You, of all of us, must feel it.”

The oracle conceded a nod. It would be some time before the wild things of the world came back to inhabit the valley. No longer howling in void, the spirits of the place were nonetheless undiminished, stalking now, a brooding shoal of ghosts, bleak stewards of desolate memory.

••••

It was near the eleventh late bell that Rahab began to see the combination, the logic behind it, the relationship of symbol to symbol, thought exercise dormant for more than ten-thousand years. He quietly bent to talk it through with Kara.

“That follows. I see no flaw in the solution.”

“That does not mean there isn’t one,” the wizard ruminated.

“No, but it’s not like you to doubt your own intellect.”

“It’s not my intellect I doubt.”

“What then?”

“The thing itself. It is like—”

“Yes. And yet I deem your reasoning sound.”

“One way to find out.”

A pause. “You’re excited.”

“Yes.”

“And frightened?”

A whisper: “Yes.”

“I, too.”

“We should tell the others.”

Quietly: “Yes. She should be here.”

“We may need them.”

Kara nodded and smiled.

The conjurer looked over at the campfire. Lem had taken first watch. Abby and Gloriana lay in their blankets, shapes at peace in the flickering gloom, shadows against the cavern wall.

“Rahab?” The alchemist touched his forearm.

He turned back to her. “Tomorrow. I have an idea, and we should rest.”

••••

The wizard explained over breakfast.

“Do you think the librarian can help us?” Abby asked.

“I do not know,” replied Rahab, “but I think it would constitute error to depart not having consulted the librarian’s assistance.”

Kara nodded. “Last night when you said you had an idea, I wondered what it was. I think you are right.”

Gloriana sighed. “I suppose it helps to know as much about a doom as possible.”

“So, we’re opening it in the library?” Lem scratched his head.

“I think we should open it here, and then take it into the library,” replied the conjurer.

“Wait,” the oracle held up a hand. “Why?”

“Because of the library’s dimensional lock.”

“But . . .” Gloriana grappled with theory, “. . . doesn’t it make more sense to open it within a dimensional lock, rather than without?”

Rahab only remained looking at her. Realization dawned in the oracle’s eyes. “Oh.”

The conjurer nodded. “If it goes wrong, we cannot leave.”

Abby interjected, “But, we left before.”

Again the wizard was silent, still meeting Gloriana’s gaze, and so Kara stepped up. “Do you recall how long it took, Abby?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“And how long does it take when Rahab moves us?”

“Pretty fast . . . ”

“Because it happens out of time.”

“That’s what I said.” The warrior looked at Lem. “Right? That’s what I said?”

The gardener smirked. “‘Pretty fast?’”

Gloriana drew a long breath. “Let’s just get this over with before . . . ”

“Glo?” Abby looked concerned.

The oracle shook her head.

“Gloriana?” asked Rahab. “What do your ghosts tell you?”

“What?”

He repeated the query softly.

“Well . . . ” the oracle stumbled. “I’m not sure. They are not often clear . . . wait . . . ” she leveled a gaze of cerulean razor upon him. “When did you suddenly care what the haunts had to say?”

“Gloriana, I do not understand your ghosts, but I would be a fair fool to ignore the possibility that they may connect to some experience, perspective, or knowledge that might aid us.”

The oracle crossed her arms.

Hells below. “I do not dissemble.”

“This is one of those times that doesn’t make me feel better.”

“What shall I say?”

Even Abby’s eyebrows climbed several elevations. The oracle gaped. “Who are you and what have you done with Rahab?”

A pause in which his breath increased, his heart pounded. “Very well. Shall I reclaim? Having advanced my own augmentation I now stand as the foremost intellect in Varisia, and perhaps on Golarion, equaling our esteemed alchemist in raw ability and exceeding her in both ambition and perspective. I am a storm of the brain supercharged with bolts of ego, and I have gazed upon the workings of an artifact greater than the civilization laying meager claim to it. I am the most dangerous mind you know, and I would turn that to unmaking a resurgent malevolence unwilling to evolve, seduced as it by the canniest illusion of all: That it is a simple matter to return to an earlier time. I am willing to admit candor to any present, confident that truth is the mightiest antidote to the phantasms we all risk in our diminishment. I seek the most advantageous knowledge to enhance probability of beneficial success in our circumstance, including query of those spectral atavisms with which you share consciousness, or transience, or both. Confident in my ability to discern, I will discard their nonsense as readily as I integrate their acumen, and still readily hold the counsel of those assembled here superior to some howling ether!”

Stillness. The wizard felt a hand on his shoulder, powerful, gauntleted. At his ear a familiar voice: “Welcome back.”

••••

Rahab laid the scroll on the cave floor, rotated the seven locks to orient on a particular sequence of symbols, and there was a soft sound like a door latch. The wizard waited a moment, and then drew on the great rods. Once the scroll cleared the sheath, they could see the adamantine cylinder separate from the item itself. It looked almost mundane, or as mundane as the remarkable star metal could appear.

“So far, so good,” Kara said quietly.

“Wait . . . ” Lem’s expression conveyed much. “That’s it?”

“That is the locks,” countered the wizard. “The locks are the least of our problems.”

The gardener held up two hands. “Fine, fine.”

Rahab inhaled deeply. “Before I unfurl this, I will ask you all to make every effort not to read anything, nor gaze upon what may be revealed within. In fact, it is probably best if, for the next few moments, you look away.”

Hands touched dagger hilts. “If you think we’re going to lose track of you and this thing, you’re very much mistaken.”

“Then watch me, and not it.”

Lem nodded. Abby rolled her shoulders, strode straight to the wizard, and once again laid a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. Kara went to his other side. Gloriana took up position directly opposite him, eyes on his, a blue he would never forget.

“We’re here,” she whispered.

Rahab nodded, and pulled the rods slowly apart.

••••

Something fluttered to the cave floor. The wizard’s eyes alighted upon a field of text, expanses of runic calligraphy shaped with care and grace and madness in another age, and even as he looked, the symbols swam and shifted. Shapes dissolved, ran, and resolved anew in other forms. Positions transposed, horizontal lines became vertical, then reverted back again. At first black, the ink changed colors, revealing blood-rich reds, hallucinogenic purples, electric greens, whale-dream blues. Rahab needed no spell. The power was astonishing, and it struck him like an ocean of lightning, wave after wave. A voice that was—and was not—his own howled inside his skull, scripture made sound, a noise like laughing while drowning.

And then it was gone. He looked upon the great, soft curve of parchment coiled about two great rods of brass. He had closed the scroll, and had no memory of doing so.

••••

“What did you see?” Gloriana asked softly. Rahab had not so much sat down as collapsed, the scroll resting across his knees, eyes aglaze. The oracle had read his vital signals through her spell of status, and the information sent a shiver of concern rattling through her bones.

The conjurer exhaled long. “It is difficult to describe. The form is mutable.”

“Of Chaos?” asked Kara.

The wizard shook his head, and the others did not know if he answered in the negative, or could not answer at all.

“Images, or text?” the alchemist pressed.

“I am not sure it matters.”

Abby next: “What do we do?”

Lines of sweat had formed on the wizard’s brow, and he managed a weak smile. “I need a moment . . . and a stiff drink.”

The warrior looked apologetic. “We don’t have—”

“Here.” Lem proffered a skin, unsealed. The scent of wine lingered, and the conjurer received it gratefully. He drank long and deep, gasping at the end as he handed the bladder back to the gardener.

“My thanks.”

The gardener shrugged. “Next round’s on you.”

Abby again: “Something happened, Rahab.” The warrior pointed at a bundle upon the stone floor.

“They fell out when you began to unfurl the scroll,” Kara explained. “We left them alone, but I would be lying if I said we did not see them.”

“They are not of the scroll,” the conjurer began. “They must have been stored within.”

Gloriana knelt alongside him. “Why?”

“Safekeeping, perhaps? Let me . . . ” He cast a spell and read the information for a few moments, before nodding and releasing the magic. “They are potent, certainly, and we should examine them. I believe we shall be able to do so without fear.”

“What about the artifact?” Lem wanted to know.

“Our next step should be consulting the librarian, after we assess these.” He began to sort through the bundle, then looked at Gloriana. “I think you will find these very interesting. They are quite delicate. Unprotected by the same power investing the scroll, they have not aged well. It is a wonder they remain intact at all.”

The oracle slowly began to pore over the pieces, and her breath quickened. She looked at Rahab. “You weren’t kidding.”2

••••

The conjurer returned the scroll to its adamantine sheath while Gloriana took care to gently store the fallen bundle safely in her scroll case, save one.

“Rahab?”

The wizard looked up. The oracle gently handed him the last page.

“An arcane spell?” he asked, curious that he had missed it.

Gloriana shook her head, and gave a small smile. “Thassilonian.”

He took it carefully, began to read, and burst out laughing.

••••

“What is it?” The question was the oracle’s, but it might have come from any of them.

When Rahab finally found his breath, he said, “The words to bypass the trap at the library entrance.”

“Here, in the scroll, the whole time?”

The conjurer nodded. The simple security of it was excellent, and absurd. Exhausted, he laughed again.

Kara, Abby, and Lem shared a congratulatory look. Gloriana leaned close to the wizard, her voice a teasing whisper. “This doesn’t count toward a good reason to open the scroll.”

“Oh, yes, it does,” he countered.

“You didn’t know it was in there. We were going to have to keep using the walking wind to get in there. The great transporter: Unable to get into the ancient library without help. Must sting.”

His chuckles unabated: “Sting accepted.”

Her voice a tickle at his ear: “Hah!”

Whispered: “Gloriana, if you keep this up, I’m going to kiss you right in front of the others.”

She drew back, but she was laughing. He felt renewed.

••••

They arrived at the eastern hallway and the great bronze door. Kara and Rahab could not help but shudder at the memory. It should have been enough knowing the words of passage, but they felt nervous nonetheless.

“Wait,” Lem said. “How do we know this will work?”

“In the ontological sense? We do not,” replied Rahab. “I suppose it is possible that ancient Thassilon had the kind of perverse sense of humor to write misleading instructions as a way to blind later generations, but given what I have seen of their culture, I do not credit them with that kind of forethought.”

Kara raised alarm. “Yet Thassilon has demonstrated enduring sophistication.”

“But not that kind.”

“What is ‘that’ kind?” Gloriana asked.

“To have vision that far into the future is to imagine a time in which one’s own greatness does not exist. The challenge ancient civilizations so often fail to meet is not producing something that merely endures, but rather producing something that meets—and has merit in—an age bereft of that ancient civilization, or even its memory. The pitfall of greatness is the assumption that such greatness represents an endpoint in time, rather than a moment on continuum.”

The alchemist’s interest was piqued. “The culture of the elves is ancient, and yet has relevance, and even prominence . . . .”

“Suggesting that the ancient culture of the elves has not fallen victim to the same limits of thinking. Why do you think that is?”

Lem sighed. “All this just to get through the door?”

Kara ignored the gardener. “You presume that my perspective matches your own theory. Yours is not the only hypothesis.”

“True,” the wizard shrugged, “but mine is more likely to be accurate.”

“Do you know no bounds?” the alchemist marveled.

“The statement represents my extensive study of history. So there are competing theories, fair and well. Your own ego remains intact.”

“I do not—”

“Oh, yes, you do.” The wizard stepped close and his voice plunged. “Oh, yes you fucking do.”

Gloriana felt a momentary surge of something she could not name, surprising, alarming, strangely heated, shattered and still solid. Alchemist and conjurer squared off for a moment, until Kara finally nodded.

“You are correct,” she admitted.

Rahab’s jaw worked. “No shame accumulates from admission of one’s own investment, Kara. I am not trying to win some contest, I am trying to unravel the mystery before us.”

Came the counter: “You are trying to do both.”

It was the wizard’s turn to nod. “Very well.”

The gardener was not satisfied. “But you said Mokmurian did not have the scroll, and yet Mokmurian did have a means to access the library without setting off the trap.”

Rahab turned. “That is what we understand given the information available to us. For example, it may be other writs explain the ward. Or, it may be that Mokmurian was in communication with Karzoug, or whatever masquerades as Karzoug, who might have knowledge of the protocol.”

“But you think you’re right that Mokmurian did not have this artifact, and that somehow indicates either his limits or the severity of the scroll itself?”

“Correct.”

“Why?”

“Because my reasoning is superior.”

Lem sighed. “Fine. You should have the honors, then,” and stepped out of the way with a flourish.

“Of course,” replied Rahab, and cleared his throat, “unless anyone else speaks Thassilonian?”

That gave Gloriana an idea.

••••

Rahab spoke a phrase in a language none of them understood, and the fantastic bronze door opened silently. They waited for the blazing advent of malevolent light, and when it did not come they recognized the rattling sound of the librarian going about its ceaseless duties within the chamber beyond.

“Excellent!” The wizard was genuinely happy. He glanced at Gloriana, who crossed her arms.

“This changes nothing about the decision to open the scroll.”

“That is the greatest danger of artifacts, Gloriana.”

The oracle gave an expectant, guarded look.

“Their most significant power is creating a need to be invoked.”

The companions strode inside.

••••

“How may I assist?” came the metallic voice in Draconic.

The conjurer could not resist an opportunity to show off, and responded in Thassilonian. “We seek information about an artifact.”

The librarian switched languages seamlessly.

••••

“It is called The Anathema Archive,” replied the librarian, with no more inflection than naming a species of bird.

Unversed in Thassilonian, the others turned to gauge Rahab’s reaction. The thrill of genuine surprise took them. It was, after all, so rare to witness the wizard in the throes of complete disbelief.

“Would you . . . be so kind as to repeat that?” gasped Rahab.

“The scroll you present is called The Anathema Archive. It is—”

“It is,” the wizard interrupted, “a thing out of time.”

The hermeto-mechanical brain cycled through another set of whirs and clicks. “Please clarify the designation ‘out of time.’ Thorassic records in cross-reference outline—”

Rahab waved impatiently. The librarian paused.

“By all the devices of Hell . . . .” The phrase came in the common tongue.

“Rahab?” Kara looked concerned. Gloriana remained silent, her mind feeling the patterns of the wizard’s life signal in her spell, spikes and spirals of intense emotion that alarmed her, and excited her in equal measure.

“I know this thing,” the wizard stroked the scroll in its adamantine case. “I have studied some of its history, only I did not know . . . .”

Kara waited, and then: “What?”

“Anathema Archive: A legendary name, a source of divination, but I did not realize it transcended foundational valence.” His simmering eyes fell upon distant, shivered horizons. Gloriana read the riot of his mind, not thoughts understood, but thunderstorms at remove, pounding the landscape of nerves with torrents, and strikes, and rattling explosions. For a moment she considered abandoning the spell’s link: An intimacy too intense threatened to part the clouds and shine a beam of sun that did not merely illuminate, it penetrated.

Hastily Rahab spun on the librarian. “Is it Thassilonian? The Archive? Is it Thassilonian in origin?”

“Would you like me to deliver all relevant works pertaining to the provenance of The Anathema Archive? Scholarly treatises in the number of—”

“No!” A shout, another wave. “That alone tells me more than the scribblings here! Thassilon laid claim to it, and possessed it no more than The Black Monk! Hah!” He spun on his companions, eyes agleam in devil-fire. “Do you know what this means?”

Lem shook his head in mild disgust. Abby tendered honestly: “No?”

“The Anathema Archive no more belongs to Thassilon than the very air they would no doubt have claimed! Do you not see?”

An exchange of confused looks.

“My friends! We now hold a thing Thassilon could not master, neither in its age, nor in ours!”

“Rahab—?” began Gloriana.

He sprang to her and clasped his hands about her shoulders. She felt his pulse in her spirit sense, too fast, a kettle near-to-bursting. “This is the first tangible advantage we have!”

She smiled full of sadness. “Is that your assessment, or the artifact’s insistence?”

Stunned silence.

••••

Later, gathering in the cave anticipating teleportation, Abby and Gloriana stood close.

“It will be alright, Glo.”

“How do you know?”

The warrior shrugged. “Just a feeling.”

“I wish I had your feeling.”

“Glo?”

“Yes?”

“Something good is about to happen.”

The oracle found a smile. “What’s that?”

“We’re going home.”

Gloriana laughed. “Yes.”

“Something else, too.”

The oracle waited.

“We’re going to The Gilded Cage.”


1 Urge . . . to expound . . . problems . . . of fantasy megafauna ecology . . . rising!

2 The separate, supplemental parchments turned out to be eight divine scrolls, plus a special ninth (see the main text). The scrolls were greater restoration, heroes’ feast, order’s wrath, regenerate, resurrection, scrying, symbol of stunning, and true resurrection, all at 17th level. That’s . . . a pretty astonishing collection of very serious magic.

View
Book VI, Chapter 4: Artifact
Handle With Care

“It’s over?” Lem’s brow furrowed.

Abby nodded. “That’s one for the girls.”

The gardener arched an eyebrow. “We’re keeping score now?” And then: “Wait, this teams me with Rahab? Horseshit.”

The warrior gleefully stuck out her tongue.

••••

The conjurer slowly settled to the stone floor as the last firefly motes of an ancient nightmare gyred to oblivion on the chill air. Rahab drew a breath, strode to the oracle incarnating flesh from fire, and gave her a mischievous smile.

“I regret missing it.”

A solemn light shimmered in her eyes. “The Black Monk has been redeemed.”

In contrast, a devil’s spark: “Power.”

“We’ll have to disagree.”

“Yes, let’s.”

“Only you could make that sound filthy.”

The conjurer folded his arms. “Nonsense! I have every confidence you could make it sound filthy, too.”

A gentle, crackling chuckle shook her brain, powdered-pepper soup and black bread, campfires and tambourines.

••••

“So,” Abby draped an arm on Rahab’s shoulder, “what was it?”

“What was what?”

“The Black Monk that Glo just totally annihilated!”

“How should I know?”

“You’re the expert!”

“First of all, I am quite certain that—in matters of necropathy—my appreciable knowledge nevertheless falls short of Gloriana’s. Secondly, I didn’t even see it. It was less than vapor by the time I breached the chamber. Abby, at this point, you know more about The Black Monk than I do.”

The thought delighted the warrior and she patted her obnoxious friend affectionately. Rahab rolled his eyes.

Lem sighed. “Can we focus, please?”

“What’s your hurry?” Abby smiled. “We won! Well . . . we won.”

“You’re enjoying this.”

The warrior paired thumb and index finger across a narrow space, and then winked.

The gardener sighed and turned to Kara and Rahab. “Bookworms! What are we looking at?” He swept a hand over the three items they had gathered. In addition to the scroll, they had discovered a belt and a ring.

“He’s the bookworm,” the alchemist parried. “I’m more of a lab rat.”

“I’m about to be pest control. Everyone! Shut up! . . . What are these?”

The wizard cleared his throat. “The girdle’s enchantment is similar to that investing Abby’s Belt of the Red Ox.”

“To mutual degree?” asked Lem.

Rahab snorted.

“What’s that one called?” Abby perked up.

The wizard shrugged. “I do not know.”

“Huh?”

The conjurer leveled a stare at the warrior. “Abby, there is no trans-planar archive maintaining appellations bestowed by spellwrights on every object, nor even consistency among crafters as to the use of names at all. Further, with time and the vagaries of ownership, names—such as they are—may change.”

“Then how did you know about that staff we found? And Bolt?” She tapped the blade at her hip.

“Lore.”

Once more visible, Kara stepped forward. “Also, Abby—in the case of some items—the nature of the magic within may reveal the name, if the crafter elected to include it in the design.”

The warrior scratched her neck. “So, some things have names and some don’t?”

“Correct,” the alchemist returned.

“But there’s no rules for it?”

Rahab shrugged. “Well, items of significant power always have names.”

“Why?”

“Because,” the oracle intervened, “to have identity is to have power.”

Alchemist and wizard nodded agreement.

Abby thought for a long time. “Could something with power give itself a name?”

“We’ll make a wizard of you yet,” Rahab smiled.

“Oracle,” corrected Gloriana.

Kara shook her head. “You’re both wrong.”

The gardener sighed loudly and indicated the other items. “Hello? Remember the rest of this stuff?”

••••

As it happened, the ring proved a curiosity.

“Strange,” mumbled the wizard, turning the jewel in his hand. It was hefty iron, dull and worn with age, and crowned with a device depicting the curved horns and ovine proportions of a ram’s head.

The gardener leaned closer. “What is it?”

“A ram.”

“I can see that. What does it do?”

Rahab looked askance. “That is what it does.”

“It becomes a sheep? That’s ridiculous!”

“It generates a shaped, concussive force for structural displacement.”

“Why can’t you just say ‘battering ram?’”

“Why can’t you understand that I did?”

Deep breath. “So . . . worth anything?”

“In the current market, I estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand.”

Lem nodded appreciably. “This conversation is improving. Will we need it? The ring, I mean.”

“No.”

“No? Just like that?”

“Lem, when was the last time I needed to break down a door to get past it?”

“Someone else might—”

“Who?”

“Abby?”

The wizard rolled his eyes.

“Glo, then.”

“The fire woman who can cast a spell to become fog? Really?”

Lem was quiet, and then dropped the ring into a pouch. “Or we could just try to find a buyer and see if we can get six thousand for it.”

“Five.”

“You’d get five. Well, no, you’d get three . . . you’d . . . you’d get punched in the face. This is me.”

••••

Rahab stood in partial trance, hand outstretched over the great scroll, reading the arrays and angles, structures of power, geometries of energy. When he finally released the spell he looked shaken.

The others looked on curiously. Gloriana’s eyes narrowed, and she evoked her own magic of detection. The backlash almost knocked her to the floor.

••••

“What in the Nine Hells is it?”

Rahab exhaled deeply. “I do not know.”

“Have you ever seen a signature like that?”

“The cauldron in the caverns.”

Gloriana groaned. “Oh, that makes me feel much better.”

Kara looked on. “The school is the same?”

The wizard pinched the bridge of his nose as if to relieve a pain. “No.”

“What is its provenance? . . . Rahab?”

“All of them.”

It was rare to see the alchemist blanch.

••••

“Two artifacts,” Kara fretted. “This is troubling.”

The oracle glanced across the room to where Rahab stood alone in silent thought. The alchemist followed her gaze.

“You needn’t worry.”

Gloriana spun. “Kara, don’t lie to me.”

Elven grace showed even in the slumping of shoulders. “Well, at least one of them is harder to move. And still our troubles advance.”

“How?”

“Setting aside your lover’s ambitions—”

“He is not my lover.”

Alchemist fixed oracle with a look. “Glori . . . don’t lie to me.”

••••

They gathered in council.

“Do we know what it is?” Abby sounded hopeful.

Oracle, alchemist, and wizard shook their heads as one.

Not precisely crestfallen: “Oh.”

Scanning everyone in silence, Lem munched on a biscuit1 retrieved from rations, secretly wistful for a portion of honey.

Rahab drew breath. “I have a suggestion.”

“No.”

The wizard blinked. “That was fast.”

“Nope.”

“We should take this item.”

“Absolutely not.”

“We will need it.”

“For what?”

“I do not know.”

“And yet insist we must take it. An artifact, Rahab. Do you know the word in Varisian?”

The wizard shook his head.

“Decthazut. The literal translation is ‘fallen.’ Do you know why? Because these are things not made in this world. Because they descend from immense powers, they are ‘fallen’ from elsewhere, and they mean ruin. The merest touch might invoke it.”

Abby took a couple of steps back.

The oracle resumed: “Nor do you know what it is and what it does.”

“Correct,” admitted the conjurer.

“Not exactly making a good case for taking it.”

The wizard met her gaze, but said nothing.

“This is not like you, Rahab.” Gloriana’s eyes suddenly widened. “It’s almost like an act of faith . . . ”

“Does that alarm you?”

“I . . . admit that . . . it does.”

“As it likewise alarms me.”

“And that’s a reason to take it?”

“Gloriana, our course marches ever closer to significant confrontation.”

Abby joined: “Like Fort Rannick?”

And now Kara: “Abby, I have a feeling that whatever is coming will make Fort Rannick seem like a training exercise.” The alchemist turned. “Glori, I fear the implication of what Rahab advocates, and yet I think he is right. Whatever this thing is, we will need it. Something terrible looms. We may need something terrible of our own.”

A sadness filled the oracle. “That’s an awful way to approach the world.”

The alchemist evinced her own melancholy. “I do not disagree.”

After a silence, Gloriana fixed Rahab with a penetrating gaze. “You do not want it for yourself?”

“Of course I do!” Despite the mood, a chuckle rippled grimly through them. The wizard continued: “But my desire for its potency—at present—does not eclipse my perspective of our need against imminent danger.”

“Imminent?”

“A day? A year? A decade? We yet lack sufficient knowledge to accurately project.”

“A decade doesn’t feel imminent,” Lem countered.

“Not to us, but in the reckoning of a magical empire that was supposed to have been dead and lost for ten-thousand years?”

The oracle sighed. “This is bad.”

Rahab was somber. “Yes.”

Another silence fell. After a while, the wizard rallied: “It does have an advantage over the cauldron.”

The others looked on expectantly.

Rahab nodded at Kara. “As you asked: its provenance.”

The alchemist understood. “All schools. And what of its power?”

“The matrices showed foundation and expansion . . . and no ceiling.”

“None?”

“The framework simply vanishes past the ninth cyclic.”

The alchemist closed her eyes. Gloriana recalled what her own magic detection had revealed.

“Ghosts of The Road . . . .”

••••

They held a brief discussion about resting or relocating, though came to no consensus. Abby and Lem began a more comprehensive search of the chamber. Kara flew back up the shaft to keep an eye on the tower interior and the view on the yard from the doorway. Oracle and wizard lingered together.

“Another factor to consider—” Rahab began.

“I’m getting a little tired of your factors.”

“Leaving it garners us nothing, and makes it available for someone—or something— else to find.”

“Gods of my mother, I knew you were going to do that.”

“What would you have me say, Gloriana? That there’s a benign solution to this dilemma?”

“Yes!”

In his eyes blossomed surprise that felt like pain. “I will not lie to you.”

She took his hands in hers and drew near. “What if I need you to?”

The wizard’s mind spun. This must be what Kara meant.

Gloriana’s head dipped. “I’m sorry, Rahab. I’m tired. I got hit by a giant bird today.”

Nodding, he gently kissed her forehead. “We may not need it.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.

“Thank you.” They regarded one another, and then she sighed. “Now, go get it, because we’re probably going to need it.”

His brow furrowed and his jaw worked soundlessly, and apparently that was the correct response. He began the slow walk to the scroll lying on the icy stone. Hell’s below. Kara may be right.

••••

They relocated outside, into the sun, and thence from the yard onto the plateau, away from the carnage of battle. It felt good to escape the chilled tower depths, and they lounged, eating a quiet lunch from their rations.

Lem stood and brushed his hands together. “So, we’re taking the Cylinder of Doom, or whatever it is?” He nodded where the object lay in the dust next to Rahab.

“Shouldn’t we put it on something or . . . something?” Abby asked.

The wizard shook his head. “Abby, no power of Golarion could damage this object.”

“The sand won’t scratch it?”

“My spell of disintegration wouldn’t scratch it.”

The warrior looked over at Glo. “Ok, now I’m worried, too.”

“You are right to be,” Kara added.

“Well,” Lem shrugged, “no time like the present to look at it, I suppose. Will you need to kill cats, or virgins, or . . . ?”

But Rahab had already begun to examine the scroll, unceremoniously, upon the very dust of the expanse. “About its physical expression I was incorrect.”

The gardener crossed his arms. “Amazing! I like hearing that.”

“Of all the things about which you’d relish my making errors, this should not be one of them. As I was saying . . . at first glance I took the scroll to be without casing. Yet the design is remarkable, which should come as no surprise. The rods are sheathed in a tube of adamantine, here.” He pointed.

Kara shook her head slowly. “Look how it manipulates light. From a distance . . . ” She trailed off in wonder.

“The tube appears as the parchment itself, yes. As I said: remarkable.”

Lem smirked. “The paint job is remarkable?”

Gloriana had reached a limit. “Lem?”

The gardener turned.

“Help,” she continued, “or shut up.”

Lem’s fingers tightened on knife hilts. The oracle’s gaze never wavered. “What else, Rahab?”

“An arrangement of interconnected disks—rotationally activated and marked in Thassilonian runes—distributed at intervals over the tube.”

“Combination locks?” Kara asked.

“Yes.”

“Any other defenses?”

“Besides the super-valent object itself?”

“Yes.”

“Not that I have discerned by examination or magic.”

“Can you unlock it?” asked Gloriana.

“I believe so, though it will be a process of some time.”

Lem spoke. “I could try to open it.”

“You are welcome to do so.”

“But you don’t think I can.”

“I have no idea how you will fare. What I do know is that my own calculations will require patient effort. Kara, I would welcome your assistance.”

The alchemist smiled. “Just like old times, translating Ironbriar’s journal.” The memory seemed an eternity gone.

“Wait,” the gardener objected, “is there some risk opening the locks?”

The conjurer nodded. “Of course.”

“It’s trapped.”

“I do not know.”

“Magically, I mean. Not mechanically, but some kind of spell.”

Rahab lingered on the repetition. “I . . . do . . . not . . . know.”

“I thought your magic tells you that sort of thing!”

“It does.”

“Well?”

“It can reveal much, and help us greatly, which does not change the fact that this object is the most powerful thing any of us has ever encountered. It should tell you something that Mokmurian—the tyrant-mage in charge of the resurgent expeditionary strike force of an empire ten-millennia dead— did not have it in his possession. I might cast spells at it all day and still not plumb its secrets, much less guarantee that opening the locks won’t result in death, or the cessation of the sun, or a reordering of time. Simply picking it up in the chamber might have set in motion powers and calamities we do not yet perceive.”

Lem lapsed into silence. Rahab turned his gaze on all of them. “Understand, we have discovered something unlike anything yet in our experience. The Mother of Oblivion? Avaxial? Myriana? Chaff before the hurricane of a magical creation such as this.”

“But The Black Monk held it,” countered Gloriana cautiously.

“Did it?”

“Yes, Abby and I saw it.”

“You misunderstand my question. I was not asking if The Black Monk bore the scroll. I was asking you—asking us— to consider the possibility that the real danger in The Black Tower was not The Black Monk at all. I ask you to consider the possibility that The Black Monk was the servant in that chamber, and not the master.”

A sober silence followed, into which Abby eventually tendered quiet observation. “I’ve noticed something about the scroll.”

The others looked at the warrior with a mixture of surprise and curiosity.

“Since we found it . . . we’ve been fighting.”

They glanced at one another, and then down upon the artifact. Gloriana’s voice was almost a whisper.

“Fuck.”


1 On occasion I use British English conventions, and on other occasions I do not. This is an example of the latter. Biscuit here refers to ingots of buttermilk dough seated in cast iron and lovingly warmed to pale gold in an oven. And now I’m hungry. Damnit.

View
Book VI, Chapter 3: The Black Tower
Let The Sun Shine In

The fundamental problem was not altitude. Gloriana was well-ensorceled against a fall. No, the fundamental problem, obviously, was the gargantuan fucking raptor. So: Remove the raptor. Simple. The wizard pawed at a scroll case.

••••

Lem executed a set of maneuvers made all the more elegant by performance mid-air. The harpies clawed uselessly at the space he had previously occupied, even as he aligned opposite Abby and cut a third opponent. The other bird-women clustered on the warrior, and found her steel armor a remarkable bulwark. Abby ignored them, and charged through the air at the roc absconding with Gloriana, but the god-eagle’s titanic pinions carried it quickly out of reach. Lem sighed.

I just got here.

Struggling, the oracle reckoned the bird’s grasp nothing short of astonishing. A stone giant—a pentad of stone giants—would not have matched such strength. Reaching deep within, Gloriana invoked the memory of all those Souls of The Road who had eluded danger in the wild places of the world. She gasped a spell to break free.1

On the roc flew, its grasp unrelenting, crushing air from Gloriana’s lungs. Her vision swam, and—desperate—she became golden fire, the flames momentarily easing her injury.

In the air above Jorgenfist, a vast shape powered skyward, carrying a gilded comet.

••••

In the dust storm, Kara overhanded a small container, perfectly intersecting the roc’s flight. When the bomb burst, the alchemical concoction within stole sight, and the giant creature’s scream of panic rippled across the stone walls of the fortress. At the longhouse door Rahab had just finished casting his spell of precision when the frantic bird suddenly flailed on the wing. A shadow careened across the yard as the blind roc lost altitude and slammed into the fortress wall. Scrabbling for security, mighty talons flexed and Gloriana fell free and bounced off the stone surface with a pained gasp. Then her magic reasserted and she righted in mid-air, getting her bearings and watching the bird settle on the fortress yard in a squawking flurry of feathers.

The oracle quickly cast another spell, and a golden curve of light coalesced. She bid the blade against the blind avian, but in the panicked flutter the stroke missed.

Some distance away, a swarm of harpies quickly relocated around Abby, and the warrior found herself amidst a chaos of claws, feathers, and the strange, crooning wail of mind-song. Further hampered by the dust raised by roc wings, visibility rapidly deteriorated.

Lem watched everything unfold, evaluating and understanding with a tactical mastery almost as remarkable as his preternatural dexterity. He noted the harpies collecting ineffectually around Abby, saw the temporary disarray among the rocs, and assessed the dispositions of his friends. The gardener knew what was coming. He flew deftly through a gauntlet of harpy attacks and settled into fighting stance in front of Rahab.

The wizard’s attention lay elsewhere. Relieved to see Gloriana free of the roc’s talons—and the offending avian seriously incapacitated—Rahab sighted on a second god-eagle angling for attack. Words of power spilled from his lips, and a beam of death lanced the sky. The companions had seen this before, and awaited the spectacle of complete disintegration.

Huh, thought Lem. That didn’t . . . .

In the din of battle, no one heard the wizard’s muttered curse.

••••

To be sure, the spell inflicted some injury, and the roc squawked complaint, veering off and resuming circle of the black spire’s summit. Nonetheless, surprise took the other party members. The wizard understood, of course, that the vagaries of magic dictated even the mightiest spell might fall short, and a creature with the constitution of a roc stood a better chance than most. Retreating into the longhouse, the outcome tasted bitter to Rahab nonetheless.2

Gloriana planned her next move, remaining in fire form and supplementing her defense once more with the charm of elusive mobility. Then she turned her attention to the third roc, still high overhead, uninjured and gleaming-eyed. She began to wave her arms and call out.

••••

Lem had been right. The harpies darted from the air, barreled past the gardener, and drew up on either side of Rahab, claws slashing. The wizard began to bleed, and once more the strange, crooning song churned. Kara, Lem, and Rahab fought through the opioid hum.

The alchemist flew from the longhouse door into the yard to maintain better line-of-sight on the rocs, who remained the most serious threat. Even the blinded one fluttering about on the ground vectored enough sheer mass to crush any one of the companions venturing too close. Looking up at the spire summit, Kara puzzled over the raptor circling there. Rahab’s unsuccessful spell had fetched the creature some injury, but certainly not enough to take it from the fight, yet it seemed in no hurry to rejoin the fray.

The third roc, on the other hand, took the bait, and dove at Gloriana.

••••

The battle settled into two separate fronts. Within the gloom of the longhouse Rahab and Lem confronted three harpies. Amidst sunlit dust, Gloriana, Abby, and Kara faced two more harpies, and the three rocs, though by this point only one of the massive avians remained a full participant.

The alchemist pitched another blinding bomb at the diving bird, and though the attack struck true, the effect did not, so Gloriana changed the dynamic with a column of divine fire. A hostile squawk of pain wrenched the yard. The oracle followed up by directing the spiritual blade she had summoned against the creature.

Something arrived at the back of her mind, a voice gentle and mischievous and wise.

Your boyfriend is hurt.

He is not my boyfriend!

He needs to eat more! Look how skinny he is!

Ama—

I cannot wait to tell Liliana. She will be so thrilled! She has always wanted—

AMA!

Injuries accumulated sixty-three-feet-nine-and-one-half-inches away, inside the abandoned longhouse.

••••

Rahab considered how it was not so much he and Lem battling the harpies inside the dining hall, as it was he simply offering a target, and Lem maneuvering to inflict damage as the harpies swarmed. Improbably, the wizard had produced the club he carried so as to provide a melee dynamic upon which the gardener could capitalize. To suggest that Rahab presented a threat in hand-to-hand combat was absurd, but the speed of the harpy mob did not grant him sufficient time and space to cast spells either offensively or defensively. He even tried to step behind the dimensions, but the winged bird-women overtook the distance with terrible speed, and it was only too clear their intent to grant no reprieve, to reduce the conjurer to ribbons. He grimaced, but his logic was sound, and thus the club. Fresh blood ran. Rahab found himself calculating the likelihood of staying conscious long enough for Lem to carve his deadly path through the three harpies.

••••

Curiously, the plunging roc did not seek out the source of its most recent injury and instead attacked Abby. The course of the dive allowed the warrior an opportune strike. Bolt thundered, tearing an immense wound in the god-eagle, forcing the creature to veer in pain. Kara began to hurl galvanic grenadoes at harpies, while Gloriana’s link of life began to apportion small healing to the distant Rahab. Abby flew forward.

Blood and feathers began to rain on the yard as the warrior hacked harpies into mist.

••••

Lem was doing good work. The process was slower than he was used to, of course, but one of the harpies was already dead, at least. Rahab had elected a posture of complete defense, and while it was clear that he had some basic understanding of the cudgel, he was also bleeding. The bird-women pressed with vicious enthusiasm, and though the gardener expected Gloriana’s healing magic had begun its rudimentary exchange, the fight in the longhouse was beyond her range to revitalize in quantity. Urgency spiraled. Twin blades tore wounds in feathered flesh, and a second harpy had weathered enough, fleeing desperately through the doorway.

Lem let her go.

Later, reflecting on the fight, the gardener would tell himself the urgency had been preservation of the integrity of an effective party, and not saving the life of a human, let alone a Cheliaxian.

••••

Lem slew the last harpy, while out in the yard Gloriana’s golden scimitar of light administered enough damage to the third roc that it, too, retreated to the spire’s summit, leaving only the blind one hobbling about squawking its alarm. Abby descended and turned her attention on the sightless raptor. By the time Rahab emerged bloody from the longhouse, the god-eagle was close to death, and the wizard’s projectile of inerrant magic felled it in the dust.

High above, the two remaining rocs circled and watched, wounds raw, golden eyes seeing everything in perfect detail. The companions gathered.

“I had that,” Abby scowled at Rahab.

“Never any doubt.”

“You and Lem,” she shook her head. “You two do this all the time.”

The wizard pressed hand against a sopping section of bloody robe and winced his way through words. “Abby . . . you are the mightiest warrior in Varisia’s recent memory . . . the mightiest I have . . . ever known.” A pause for breath. “For . . . fuck’s sake . . . your precedent is . . . uneclipsed . . . .”

Abby exhaled slowly and fixed Rahab with a stony stare. “Walk it off.”

Gloriana intervened, and began healing magic.

••••

They turned their attention to the top of the spire.

“Do we need to worry about them?” the warrior asked.

“I don’t think so,” replied the oracle. “They have had enough.” As she tendered verdict, her linking power erased the last small portion of Rahab’s wounds, and then she resorted to one of the healing wands against her own pain.

The Heroes of Sandpoint reconvened in the longhouse.

••••

“From the harpies?” Gloriana asked.

Lem held a ring in his hand, turning it this way and that. “Five of them.”

“Rahab?”

The wizard had already identified the enchantment. “Abjuration of deflection, moderate strength. I bear their equal, but those of you without should avail yourself.”

Kara, Gloriana, and Lem had found new magical rings.3

••••

Gloriana: “The spire?”

A wizard’s nod.

“The Black Tower?”

“The same.”

“It doesn’t look so bad . . .” mused Abby.

Lem crossed his arms. “That’s because it’s covered in giant bird shit.”

Once more they strode into the yard, past the corpse of the roc, into the shadow of The Black Tower.

••••

Doors of thin, charcoal-black stone opened with unsettling ease and eerie quiet beneath a brace of leering, lichen-riddled gargoyles. Gloriana had reestablished certain magics to augment herself and her companions, and a chill drifted over the adventurers as the portal yawned. Morning sun lanced into the chamber, glistening brightly on a rime-coated the interior. Kara took flight while the oracle stepped upon the air, gaining a few feet of elevation.

As they made their way inside, Rahab scanned for signs of magic. The others cast their gaze upward where the tower interior rose beyond the limits of intruding sunlight to define.

The wizard shook his head. “Nothing.”

Along the far curve of the chamber loomed a dais at some fifteen feet, accessible via twin staircases. At the center of the floor another shape showed beneath laminate ice, a circle of metal set into the stone, and fitted with an ornate handle opposite ancient hinge. Kara turned her attention overhead, and flew up to gauge the ceiling, only to discover remnants of what must have been another floor, and beyond that, yet another. After a quiet scan, the alchemist returned.

“The interior rises through multiple floors that have long since crumbled away,” came the voice from the air. “I did not reach the summit, but estimate the distance at two hundred feet, if not more.”

“No rubble,” Lem countered.

Abby shrugged. “Cleared by the giants, maybe.”

“Maybe. So, nothing up?”

Kara replied in the negative.

“Trapdoor it is,” the gardener regarded the panel. “Abby? Think you can—?”

The warrior gripped the ring and hauled the portal open.

Lem brushed ice crystals from his hair and eyebrows. “Right.”

••••

A circular shaft bored deep into the plateau, vertical descent lacking steps or ladder. Chill thrust up from the darkness, drawing their breath in clouds. Gloriana plucked a copper coin from a pouch and bestowed upon it a spell of light, then cast the piece into the abyss. Nimbus tumbled away in silent seconds before ringing and rattling out of sight, strange strobe flashing in depths of black stone.

“About seventy feet,” Lem murmured.

Abby peered intently. “Can’t make out any real detail. Maybe something in the center.” She shook her head.

The oracle chanted communal prayer against injurious cold, and the brittle temperature around them retreated somewhat. Then she augmented Abby with air striding, and the warrior started down into gloom. Gloriana followed about ten paces behind. Lem waited at shaft’s edge, content to drop straight down with the ring of the falling feather once warrior and oracle reached bottom. Rahab endowed himself with a spell of flight, intending to follow the gardener. Invisible, Kara flew into the shaft in Gloriana’s wake.

Abby emerged in a large, circular chamber. Her lazily orbiting lightstone cast chill illumination in compliment to the coin that now lay quietly to one side of a stone sarcophagus on a central dais. At the eight cardinal points of the chamber perimeter loomed a broad alcove, each occupied by a great slab of stone. Movement caught Abby’s eye, and the warrior watched as the humanoid shape drifted out of the shadows. Twin points of green light flared.

Gaunt and terrible, the figure was the height of a human, and wrapped almost entirely in lengths of aged burial linen. It did not ambulate, drifting instead some inches above the floor via magic. Bandaged arms clutched a massive scroll wound around two great, brass rods the length of barrel staves. A sound reached the warrior’s ears: rhythmic, staccato, and echoing, a dead voice reciting memory in tongue Abby did not know. Green flared again, briefest parhelions bereft of warmth, like anemic sun through swamp fog.

Abby did not need Rahab’s confirmation.

The Black Monk.

••••

As the creature floated toward the warrior the temperature in the room abruptly declined further, though Gloriana’s magic bulwarked against the weaponized cold. A ripple of fear penetrated Abby, unbidden, gossamer, a spell made of last, shuddering breaths croaked on deathbeds.

The warrior shook her head and the sensation passed, but almost as quickly there arrived a second, proximal and intense. Some magic began to overcome the warrior’s very armor, a creeping heat, pushing under breastplate like a sting, coursing over vambrace and pauldron as a predatory serpent slithers upon a rock. Abby closed her eyes as lines of improbable sweat began to trace her muscled flesh in the ambient chill. An ache formed in her bones as the heat pulsed, and then wavered, and vanished. She opened her eyes once more, scant seconds having passed, and the sickly green flare of light jumped again in the gloom. Her breath caught, and then the warrior was once more herself, once more the survivor, once more the fighter.4

The stuttering mumble did not abate, a sound from a jaw that did not move, an echo among gravestones.

Abby braced Avenger and inhaled a deep breath of arcane acceleration, spanning distance in a blur. Bolt launched a crunchy line of dust aloft.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” the warrior taunted.

Dead eyes fell upon her, colder than the very air, awful and penetrating.

And then Gloriana arrived in the gloom, and became sentient fire.

••••

Still invisible, Kara flew into the chamber. Everywhere shone the slick sheen of paper-thin ice coating black stone, and then an impulse slammed into the alchemist, a fear, a cracking in the glass of the mind. Kara stopped mid-air, paralyzed, prisoner of the terror in her own awareness. All she could see was a lightscape of flame, onyx agleam, panic in black.5

At shaft’s edge, Lem drew his knives, stepped into emptiness, and plummeted. His ring wrought its magic, and changed the universe, demanding that gravity bow its mighty head. As the gardener fell safely into the chamber, his awareness reeled under an assault of horror, but he managed to keep his most precious power: movement.

Rahab drew a scroll from the case at his belt and flew after Lem. As the wizard neared the chamber below he heard the rhythmic chant, the hollow rasp of a stone sealing a mausoleum, and he recognized a drone in Thassilonian.

The green light! The green light! The green light! The green light! The green light!

••••

The Black Monk lashed out at Abby with a speed that surprised the warrior. Great scroll still clutched to chest like a precious treasure, one linen-wrapped arm dashed again and again upon Abby’s armored frame. The blows seemed deceptively soft, but the pain that surged in muscle and bone wracked as heavily as any as she had weathered in a lifetime of battles. It took her breath away, and then the dead thing drifted by as if unconcerned. Abby managed a riposte that tore cloth and spilled sand, but her eyes swam with lingering agony.6

Hovering near the curve of wall, The Black Monk rotated and once more surveyed the icy chamber from the dead sockets of a canted skull, looming just behind Gloriana. The oracle smelled the dust of ages, the staleness of a long desiccated grave. She could have reached out and touched it.

So that is just what she did.

••••

Proximal invocation of magic inevitably drew provocation, and The Black Monk reacted. Bandaged arm lashed into a shape of golden fire, issuing injury, but when the withered appendage retracted it emerged aflame, brilliant tongues licking quickly from forearm to elbow: undead, just as Gloriana had known, and now the creature had fallen into her trap. Burning linen drifted away and a tremor rattled through a veneer of age-petrified flesh.

For the briefest moment, the oracle paused. At the center of a shape in fire the will to summon magic fought against The Black Monk’s attack. The effort to maintain necessary connection from caster to spirits—an aspect Rahab described in terms of the mathematics of concentration, and a limitation Kara bypassed by seating the connection of power within the mechanism itself, thereby courting loss only in the distribution of the device—risked outcome for conduit in close combat. Pain threatened to disconnect the oracle’s brilliant voice calling songs to her ancestors, threatened to mute their response in kind. Shrouded undead set itself alight for the chance to nullify a spell on realization’s verge; oracle tossed a desperate die of conjuration in counter. Time slowed, perhaps curious for a closer look.

A shape in fire hesitated, and then cocked its head.

Power descended upon the circular chamber, upon the frozen black stone, upon the grim dead thing. An age in that place had vanished and not seen such power. A song of healing funneled down from the voices of unnumbered ancestors into a touch of flame that might have been a caress to release a lover from pain. For the first time in ten millennia unsettled death had a memory of heartbeat, of coursing blood, of nerves alive.

And then the gloom knew dawn.

••••

Abby gaped. Tiny motes of burning dust drifted on the air, fading slowly to nothing. If the great scroll had made a noise when it tumbled to the stone she had not heard it. It was as if the warrior’s ears were filled with a song made of light.

There was simply no Black Monk anymore.7 Not even sections of linen remained.

Lem drifted to the floor, knives poised, and Rahab flew into the chamber, a spell at the ready.

Silence.

Abby smiled at Glo. “They do know how to shut up.”


1 Liberating command provided a +20 bonus to Glo’s Escape Artist check to wrest free of the roc’s grip. Nope.

2 Rahab’s disintegrate spell did 99 points of damage. Ninety-nine. I know I shouldn’t complain, because the base Fortitude save on a roc must be somewhere around +382 or so, and I should have anticipated reduced likelihood of efficacy, but, damnit . . .

3 Rings of protection +2 proved to be an upgrade for three of five party members.

4 Abby had to make two Will saves. The first one she made easily. The second required spending a Hero Point.

5 Kara failed her Will save and was paralyzed with fear for three rounds. Which would normally be bad . . .

6 Abby got hit for 51 points of damage. Glo’s shield other spell transferred 25 of those to the oracle.

7 Glo cast a spell in threatened space, provoking an attack of opportunity from The Black Monk, which hit for 18 points and forced a Fortitude save against mummy rot. Glo made the save handily. But because she was casting a spell, she had to make a Concentration check to successfully complete the magic without losing it. The DC for the check was a 34.

Glo rolled a 38.

Then she had to make a melee touch attack against The Black Monk to complete the spell, and she missed. So she spent a Hero Point to reroll . . . and got a critical hit. The Black Monk then had to make a Will save against the heal spell, at a DC of 22, which it failed. And, of course, healing spells against undead deal damage, and in an instant The Black Monk was reduced to 1 hit point.

And then Glo activated her Quick Channel ability and . . . just . . . vaporized it.

Whole fight lasted just under 2 rounds.

View
Book VI, Chapter 2: Unfinished Business
Return To The Valley Of The Black Tower

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.”

“Given what?”

“Something I made.”

“Magic?”

“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.”

“What kind?”

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.”

“How?”

“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.

“Wands?”

“They carry the same spell, a full complement in each.”

“What is—?”

“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!”

“Really?”

“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.

“Rocs.”

••••

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.

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Book VI, Chapter 1: The Book Of The Strange
Alchemical Golem

The feast to celebrate the return of the villagers abducted from Sandpoint did not simply rival the Swallowtail Festival, it eclipsed it, and then passed into legend. Citizens as far away as Magnimar came to the fire- and siege-ravaged townscape to join the occasion. The event never really ceased from day to day. Participants merely faded away to rest while those waking from recovery stepped seamlessly in to continue proceedings. There were speeches, and songs, and dances, and cheers on every street, in every standing building, and from every face. And when Ven Vinder was reunited with his only living child the noise in that moment alone shook rafters. Mayor Deverin resumed her office, Father Zantus ordered the cathedral doors thrown open and showered blessings upon all. Faces in the crowds appeared again and again: Sheriff Hemlock, Ameiko Kaijitsu, Bethona Korwin, Broadert Quink, Sava the Armorer, Cyrdak Drokkus, Amille and Allerghast and Aron and Verra Barrett. Every smile bore tears, joy, amazement.

The wine did not run out until day four.

••••

A townhouse living room in a major Varisian coastal city:

“Highlight of the whole thing,” Lem chuckled, “was Rahab having to teleport back on the second day to get the horses.”

“Yes, but he didn’t miss anything!” Abby shook her head.

“Well, obviously. It only takes a few seconds,” the gardener harrumphed. “All those Sandpointers gathered around him like a spectacle at the fair . . . .”

“Does inebriation affect your teleportation accuracy?” Kara feigned innocence.

Rahab smirked. “I was perfectly sober, as well you know.”

“Yes, then. Later you were not.”

“True,” the wizard returned. “A facet I no longer expect you to appreciate.”

“I remember.”

“The vagaries of that capacity are as numerous as the stars.”

“Elves are more adept than most.”

“Ah, excellent! Now that is the sweet, juicy taste of someone else’s ego ascendant. Join me, won’t you? Up here, in the rarified air of being so-much-better than almost everyone else?”

A chorus of laughter and ribbing rounded the room. The alchemist was so rare a mark, after all.

••••

Spring night still carried a chill as Abby and Gloriana made ready for bed in their room on the second floor of the townhouse. The warrior’s ritual including placing Avenger face down on the panels such that all she had to do was roll over, reach down, and tumble upright to stand ready, shield braced.

Gloriana quickly slid under her blanket with a shuddering breath. “I wonder if Rahab could make an enchanted blanket that stayed warm all the time, so that bed was never cold first thing.”

From across the room, Abby rose on one elbow and flexed a bemused eyebrow at the oracle. The warrior’s constitution was a thing of near-legend now. Bards in taverns levied songs about shrugging off boulders in flight, and the like. Gloriana stuck out her tongue.

“Anyway,” Abby chortled and settled back after blowing out the candle, “you handled it well.”

“The festival? It was very gratifying, but I worry the expenditure and effort might have been better directed—”

Exasperated breath: “NOT what I was talking about.”

“Well . . . what then?”

“You didn’t seem jealous at all. I’m proud of you.”

A sigh. “The situation with Mayor Deverin is complicated. I worry that her plans for the coming—”

“Hells’ below, Glo, you are not this dense!”

A pause. “Evidently I am, since I clearly don’t understand what you’re trying to say. What are you talking about?”

“Shayliss. And Rahab. Ven hated him, but now that Rahab has returned his only daughter alive from giant captivity it may change things. Might want them to marry. She’s very pretty, and anyway, Vinder may feel that she’s safer with Rahab than anywhere else.” Abby paused, considering her own words, as if surprised that she had said them. Then she shrugged. “Nah, I’m sure it’s not a thing. Won’t even come up. Forget I mentioned it. Goodnight.”

In the darkened bedroom Gloriana almost became pure fire.

••••

Alone, two joined battle at breakfast.

“Actually,” the alchemist mused pleasantly, “she figured it out all on her own. Our Abby is no fool, Glori.”

The oracle frowned. “I know.”

“I can only imagine that Lem knows, too, if not by his own acute perception then certainly in conversation with his battle-mate.”

“Oh, I know.”

Kara bit into a slice of orange. “Of course, now that she does know it won’t be long until—”

A groan. “I know!”

“—we shall have to have a night out, just us three. We can get dressed up, find someplace exciting to go—”

“Ghosts of The Road . . . .”

••••

Eager for news of her homeland, the alchemist left shortly after her meal, departing atop Urdrenn to rendezvous with a contingent of Mierani rumored to be passing through the region. Abby had ventured to the stables in company, remaining to see to the mounts now that they were back in Magnimar. There was no sign of Lem.

Rahab stood in the living room nursing a cup of hot tea and gazing absently into the fire.

“How did you sleep?” Gloriana asked.

The conjurer gave a grim chuckle. “Surprisingly well, for only two hours. The magic is remarkable, and I admit it is nice to return to these walls.” He gazed around. “And yourself?”

The oracle made a noncommittal motion. “The festival was . . . .”

“A bit much?”

“A bit.” Not exactly a smile, not quite a grimace.

The wizard regarded her in silence. “Perhaps,” he offered, “they needed something to take their minds from recent trauma. Perhaps it felt good simply to have something to celebrate.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Rahab, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounded like empathy.”

He rolled his eyes. “It pleases you to imagine me alien or interloper in fundamental features of personhood.”

She smiled. “You make it easy. Sometimes.”

The conjurer took a skeptical sip of tea. “I suppose I do.”

“Not everyone is an idiot.”

“True enough. Most of them are merely average.”

“Rahab . . . .”

“Yes, yes. I should have more care, especially since I have a request.” He set his cup down.

“What is it?”

A deep breath. “I need . . . help.”

Gloriana smiled, a brightness in and of itself, a gesture to lighten burden and to quicken pulse. The wizard attempted a stern expression. “My admission is earnest.”

“I know. I just like hearing you say it.”

After a pause: “The Book of the Strange—”

“Yes?”

“—has a defect.”

“The alchemical golem.”

“Its very own integral assassination feature.”

“I am sure everyone would be willing to help.”

“With the full range of the book’s abilities available to me—”

Somehow she was standing right in front of him. “Rahab? You don’t have to make a case before the court. We are your friends. We want to help.”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

A shimmering heat had snuck upon them, and then the front door slammed and Lem’s voice crashed upon the living room like a stone through glass.

“Where is everyone?”

••••

The gardener dusted his hands on his breeches as he entered the room. Gloriana turned.

“Where were you?”

“Out.”

Rahab quietly picked up his tea cup and sipped.

“Out where?” the oracle pursued.

“Out. You know? The city? Magnimar? It has been some time.”

The wizard had refocused on the fireplace. “Nice to be back, isn’t it?” he murmured.

“It is. See?” Lem gestured at Rahab as he strode for the stairs. “He knows.” The gardener disappeared above.

Gloriana turned back to the conjurer. “What is he up to? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

An arched eyebrow: “Gloriana, in matters of humanoid behavior, I imagine very little I could tell you that you do not already know.”

She dragged her hands through her golden hair with an annoyed breath, then started for the stairs.

“LEM!”

••••

The next morning they gathered, save Kara, who was unforeseeably delayed due to her meeting with the Mierani.

“We could teleport to her.” Rahab’s voice was uncertain.

“We will be fine,” soothed Gloriana.

“Her expertise against constructs is like none I have ever known.”

“Hey, magic man,” Abby clapped a gauntleted hand on the wizard’s shoulder, “I’m about to put on a show of expertise that will make even you take up arms.”

Narrowed eyes. “Doubtful. But, I am grateful for the sentiment in support. Well,” a breath, “let us away.”

The four friends exited and strode out into the street. Citizens watched them go with quiet whispers and searching glances. Gloriana had given up trying to correct the reference to “Heroes Hearth,” and there was now no tavern in the City of Monuments lacking songs or stories of the Heroes of Sandpoint. When they passed through the gate onto the Lost Coast Road the guards eyed them with mixtures of suspicion, resentment, surprise, and awe.

They made their way to a broad section of field. The sun shone bright, slowly peeling dew away from the newly green grass.

“Is this far enough?” Abby looked back at the walls.

“I think we won’t set light to the city,” answered the oracle.

Lem was cheerfully macabre. “Now setting ourselves alight, that’s a different story!”

“Rahab?” the oracle faced the wizard. “What can we expect?”

“Fire, certainly. As to other elements, I do not know. I feel Kara’s absence explicitly in this regard. She might advise us better.”

“I thought you were supposed to know all about this kind of stuff!” the gardener crossed his arms.

“The depth of my knowledge, Lem, would dizzy you to plumb, but only a fool presumes all knowledge from within the limits of their own.”

The gardener snorted.

The warrior rolled a monumental shoulder. “But it will be a sword fight, right?”

“It will, because my magic is likely to be ineffective. Moreover, I will almost certainly be the golem’s focus. No matter what I do, where I move, it will seek me out.”

Lem already had his knives drawn and was spinning them absently. “You’re not in this, in other words.”

“As little more than target? Not really.”

Gloriana laid a hand on the wizard’s arm. “We’re here.”

The conjurer swallowed. “I will cast the spell here. The portal should appear at this line,” and he marked a portion of grass with the toe of his boot.

“How wide is the opening?” Abby asked.

“As any common door in the townhouse.”

The warrior nodded to Lem and they took up flanking positions on an extra-dimensional portal that did not yet exist. The oracle began to chant songs of The Road, verses against fire, against crippling fear. She lifted words of hope, of endurance, of faith in friendship on journey. Melodies of speaking and understanding she wove alongside harmonies of motion and preparation.

Rahab held The Book of the Strange before himself and cast the spell of opening upon the last page.

••••

The wizard had a second’s glance to take in details of the room beyond, a small affair appointed in comfortable rug and sturdy furnishings with extensive shelving. At the table sat a blasted form, humanoid, crisped, tendrils of smoke rising to cloud the air.

A shape moved into view, and Rahab began to back away. It was larger than he remembered.

••••

As the figure rattled forth, Gloriana shouted parley. “Guardian! We mean you no harm! We wish to know your purpose, and the purpose of the room!”

A thing shambled from a strange space in nothing. It loomed half again Abby’s height, perhaps more, and constituted a frame of stained copper housing glass chambers and ampoules of various sizes and shapes. Each container sloshed with liquids none there could name, and atop the vaguely bipedal form glistened a clear dome housing a humanoid brain. Metal joints whined and clicked, and vents issued toxic smokes in dizzying colors. Two appendages suggesting arms ended in complex arrangements of splints, struts, gears, and syringes parodying fingers. A mouthless sound hacked the air with a voice like liquid bubbling under heat, or bottled electricity dropped on crystalline eggshells. Each word jerked as though lashed to the very air with iron hooks, jarring accompaniment to the stutter-stride of tripod-tipped, reverse-jointed legs puncturing the greensward for position.

“Destroy owner of book!”

Armature raised amid a crackling that frosted ambient humidity in tiniest snowfall. Something ovoid launched into the air and impacted Rahab at center torso, bursting open in a shower of bristling rime that glazed across red silken robes. Sudden icicles formed by the intense freeze shattered laterally and tore bloody lines across Gloriana’s arm and cheek. Eyeless, the construct advanced, and there could be no doubt as to its target.

Abby and Lem attacked.

••••

Each hit the warrior and gardener landed upon the creaking, shuddering form rent some internal mechanism or sluice, spilling jets of alchemical fluid like blood, only for the substance to splash with icy chill or stunning electricity. Neither blade-wielder could discern whether this was feature or flaw, but the implication was clear: No end to this battle unfolded without injury for everyone. The arcane forces binding the construct guarded against the full impact of even Abby’s mighty new blade, and the precision strikes that made Lem so deadly in combat did not spill vital fluid necessary to shorten the encounter.

“Shit,” the warrior grimaced, but there was nothing for it. She gritted her teeth and hammered at the figure once more, sword-and-shield, and again, and again. The gardener danced deadly in counterpoise, deft blades finding joints, scarring copper, shattering glass, severing lines. Some damage began to accumulate, but each exchange cost the battle pair, with new injury in the form of acid. Some occult cycle to the fluids resulted in random elemental expression each time.

Rahab had an idea, and stepped behind the dimensions . . .

••••

Gloriana felt the accumulation of ice, lightning, and acid in her bones like voices of the dead insisting vitality before pitiless tribunal of time. The feedback of essential magic coursed minor healing among all assembled, and she chanted a poem of life against the bitter, sapping sleepiness of winter night. The spell suffused them, even as she became sunlit-fire.

••••

. . . and appeared just next to Abby. The effect was exactly as he predicted: From present vantage, the alchemical assassin could not now see the wizard. Rahab’s laureate understanding of inter-, extra-, and trans-dimensional dynamics had easily allowed him to travel behind the portal without actually going through it, and now the opening acted as a complete blind against the construct’s perception. He began to formulate his next spell.

The golem torso and brain-dome spun counter-co-axially, and the syringe-tipped arms jabbed at air with the fury of an overturned insect.

A glass rain of noise: “Identify owner of book!”

Appendages stabbed at Abby in a flurry of misplaced purpose, and bursts of energy scattered over the warrior like paints hurled in the studio of a drunken artist. Acid hissed and spun tendrils of smoke, and electricity raised the warrior’s hair and clenched muscles in spasms of torment. When the waves of pain hit Gloriana, she howled in rage.

“It was supposed to be cold, you fucking machine!”

The construct reoriented momentarily on the oracle, and Abby stepped into the opportunity, hips leading hands. The sword fetched a dent, and then she set Avenger against the noxious marionette and tried to force it into retreat.

She might as well have pushed against the earth itself.1

••••

At least the splash back was fire, and the magic protecting the warrior easily absorbed the heat. Lem had watched the exchange with his usual calm. Because the combatants had all shifted somewhat, he needed to relocate to maximize attack effectiveness, and he quickly trilled the sensation in his mind that hummed up from his feet as The Boots of the Panther made a single, sliding step into three times the distance. Too easy. Reflexes to shame a jungle cat uncurled beneath the obvious attack that the golem made.

Copper whipsawed into him and ampoules of liquid burst open, spilling blistering cold over his face and neck. Nosebleed froze in a ghastly, jagged crimson column, and he saw stars. Magic from Gloriana’s most recent spell carried the chill away, but the shock of bodily impact remained buzzing around in the gardener’s teeth, jaw, ears. He managed to plunge but one knife into his opponent, and only the once. In six seconds Lem had gone from offense to defense.2

Observing from the intransitive side of a panel in space that displaced no mass, Rahab recognized their opponent was no ordinary alchemical golem—a fearsome creation in and of itself—but that it had been formed with additional magical augmentation. Whomever had shaped this monstrosity had done so specifically with intent to assassinate wizards. The conjurer swallowed hard, cast his spell, and flew backwards into the air to take up commanding height on events.

In the field below a machine made of copper, glass, and arcane murder turned and oriented precisely on his position.

••••

Gloriana exchanged health for injury among all her friends once more, settling the pain down deep in the place within that allowed her to heal without sacrificing concentration on everything else that was happening. Then she pushed back from the warmth at the center of her heart, at the center of her memory. Healing expanded over her friends and herself. She retreated another step as she cast the spell to walk the air.

The golem ignored the pillar of gilded flame and raised an arm at angle. Just before it conjured launch, Abby and Lem closed their deadly pincer. The gardener settled a vicious stroke across a section of fragile tubes in glass that sprayed acid and puffs of frost.

And then the warrior’s assault fell full upon the construct, an awesome blow hauling the full weight of Abby and her armor behind every seething desire she had to breathe just one more breath and ensure from her friends the same. Arcs of electricity jumped across the copper frame in ragged, staggering gasps, and a fountain of snowflakes vaulted skyward. A globule of alchemical fluid projected with perfect precision into Rahab’s center of mass, sending lightning blisters across silken robes. The wizard felt his heart shudder. Tripod-tipped legs jittered for better line of sight on the aerial target, displacing just east of the warrior.

Struggling against the flailing riot in his nerves, Rahab looked upon the new damage Abby had so adroitly administered and calculated reactions, vectors, radii. When he tried to voice warning, his jaw would not comply, and he had to summon a scream from within to push up through neurological short and burst into the air in a wail of pain, of denial, of the unconquerable will to reject submission to power’s mere artifact.

“When it ceases function the golem will explode!”

Abby looked up, heard the warning, and turned back to face the metal monster. “Do your worst.”

Bolt thundered, and in the echo, Avenger was a radiant reflecting dish expanding shockwave in a blast that flattened vegetation for twenty feet in all directions.

••••

Rahab was right. Acid bloomed and rolled over the warrior and the gardener as the metal frame collapsed and crumpled. For Lem, the caustic bubble was simply inconvenient, and he reversed into a back handspring that carried him out of harm’s way. Abby was not so lucky, but Avenger helped shield against a portion of the torrent. Hissing smokes drifted from the indelible surface as minutest deposits of organic material slowly vaporized.

Gloriana began more healing.

••••

Rahab surprised everyone with effusive thanks, articulating the extent and nature of his gratitude with practiced concern and genuine attention to his friends. They gathered at the arcane doorway to look.

Abby was nonplussed. “It’s a room.”

“So . . .” Lem grappled with vision, “it’s like our haversacks?”

The wizard wavered. “It shares similarities, but even now I see signs that this does not represent extra-dimensional space.”

Three heads turned. “What?”

“I think the doorway is a gate, rather than a point intersection of accessible null-space expansion superposed on present dimension. The room you see beyond is not outside, but rather somewhere else, in actual dimension.”

The warrior looked thoughtful. “So . . . it’s kind of like . . . teleportation?”

Equally unexpected were both the bright smile and the hearty hug.

••••

The oracle: “You’re going in there?”

The wizard nodded.

“It is safe?”

An infernal laugh. “Almost certainly not! But not for the reasons you may suspect. The danger is not in the dimensional differential, but in the possible positional differential.”

The oracle frowned and glanced at Abby, who was poking around the golem’s ruin with swordpoint. She turned back to face the conjurer. “Rahab . . . what the fuck does that mean?”

“It means I will not vanish, or be snatched to some unreachable place, or similar. The danger lies in where that room actually is. It may be on Golarion. It may be on another plane. It may be a closet in Nessus at the center of the Ninth Hell.”

“Ghosts of The Road—”

He held up his hands. “The contingent is unlikely. I invoked it for illustrative purposes. But, I would be lying if I said I knew where it actually is.”

“The room isn’t in the portal?”

“Correct.”

“But the portal is not determined by the room.”

His eyes brightened to a degree she had not previously credited, and the realization filled her with both wonder and sadness. His voice lowered. “Gloriana, if you have some objection to me kissing you right now, please tell—”

She placed a palm on his chest. “Alright. Wait. Gods of My Mother, I’m glad Kara isn’t here!”

“Why? I think she would find this fascinating and invigorating!”

It is possible the oracle’s eyes closed as her head shook silently, and so minutely as to be almost indiscernible. “Be careful. Please.”

“Have you ever known me to be anything other?”

“Yes. Yes, I have, you arrogant jackass!”

He winked over a devil’s grin, and then stepped toward the portal. Abby and Lem looked up from the construct wreckage and watched. Gloriana held her breath.

The Book of the Strange cradled carefully in one hand, Rahab moved from brilliant spring daylight into the portal, stood framed for a few seconds as he looked around, and then vanished.

••••

Her eyes told her he was gone, but in the spell of status she could still feel his heartbeat, steady, strong, slightly elevated.

••••

Curiosity in a door: deeply polished and darkly stained wood with a pristine handle and five carefully crafted, strangely delicate hinges in brass. Well-oiled—or magically augmented—the portal moved soundlessly, effortlessly, yet felt thick and solid to the touch. Rahab could no longer see his friends in the field outside the city of Magnimar. He stood alone in the quaint chamber, little more than a small study. An oppressive odor of burned flesh and paper filled the air. The wizard wrinkled his nose.

The Book of the Strange remained open in his hands, and gazing upon it he felt renewed confidence that he had not dangerously sequestered himself, and that the key to event and condition lay readily in hand.

An expanse of superbly woven rug in dark blue wool covered the floor; at center loomed a familiar seven-pointed design in crimson. Atop that stood a sturdy, well-crafted desk ornamented with wide feet, and, behind that, the chair of incinerated repose was luxuriously upholstered. Against one wall rested a lushly cushioned couch and a small end table. Improbably, not a single furnishing showed slightest damage. Expanses of shelving lined every free wall space, even flanking the wooden door and above the lintel. Whatever texts had rested there now lay as little more than scattered ash. Rahab registered irritation. How had the violence of the golem’s attack damaged specific components so precisely and yet left untouched the broader integrity of the chamber, especially given the nature of splash effect he had witnessed only minutes before?

Refocusing, the conjurer returned to the door, and opened it with ease.

••••

Gloriana, Abby, and Lem had started for the place the doorway had been an instant after Rahab vanished, only to stop in their tracks when the portal appeared exactly as before, framing the wizard against the backdrop of the furnished room. Rahab smiled.

“Care to come in? I regret the odor. I shall have to give the room a thorough cleaning.”

The oracle stepped forward. Warrior and gardener shared a glance, and lingered behind.

••••

“Well, he was naked,” Gloriana said as she stood upright from the corpse.

“Indeed.”

“That doesn’t surprise you?”

Rahab raised an eyebrow. “Should it?”

“It doesn’t strike you as strange? Sitting at a desk, naked?”

“No?”

The oracle opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and shook her head.

The wizard scowled. “Anything else?”

“He was burned.”

The aridity of an ancient desert: “You . . . don’t . . . say.”

“And he died protecting something. Oh, now you’re interested.”

The conjurer approached the body and drew his dagger. The oracle looked aghast as the wizard began to carve smoking chunks from the corpse.

“Rahab!”

“What?”

“We don’t know anything about him!”

“Indeed, including whether he had any relatives who would object to butchery of his roasted corpse. Are you worried about receiving a sternly-worded letter of complaint?”

“It won’t be me who receives the letter.”

“Neither will it be me.” He returned to task, and after a few minutes drew forth an object curiously preserved against the superheated alchemical attack.

“Is that—?”

“Yes.” He carefully set the tome on the desk and opened to a page. Lines of writing shifted and danced before his eyes, assuming no discernible shape, yet always on the verge of recognition. Wherever he looked the text swam and morphed like nothing he had seen.

“What is it?”

“Magic. Magic underneath more magic. Magic I cannot read. Clever. Devious, even. If the man still lived, I would compliment his ingenuity . . . ”

The oracle brightened.

“. . . and then blast him for my inconvenience.”

••••

An additional scan for other magic in the room showed only the lingering effects of the alchemical assassin’s attack on the occupant and whatever other books had occupied the shelves. The conjurer lowered his hands and frowned, then turned with a sigh to the oracle.

“Any idea how long he has been dead?”

“About five minutes.”

“Hmmm.”

“What?”

“Actually, at this point I merely gather information. Anything else?”

“He was tall, with interesting bone structure.”

“Interesting in what way?”

“Well . . . it’s familiar somehow, and unfamiliar at the same time.”

Rahab raised an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes. “Nothing is going to be exact about this. He got blasted by a golem!”3

“Point taken. Does the structure give you any ideas? The familiarity?”

“He was not a Soul of The Road.”

“And not a half-elf? Elf?”

“No.”

“So that intersects with the unfamiliarity, suggesting something alien to our experience yet somehow connected.”

“O . . . k?”

“What does that make you think of?”

The oracle held a long silence. “Thassilon.” The word was like regret.

He nodded. “Azlanti.”

“Oh, come on! We can’t know that!”

“Quite right: we cannot.”

“You think he was Thassilonian?”

“I hypothesize he was Azlanti. The two overlap without necessarily constituting inextricable qualities.”

“I’m going to regret this, but . . . who are the Azlanti?”

“’Were;’ little evidence suggests they still exist.”

“That’s what you meant a few weeks ago by ‘lost.’”

“Just so. They were progenitor humans that predate Earthfall. Their descendants are likely responsible for the development of important contemporary civilizations.”

“Such as?”

“Cheliax, for one.”

Crossed arms. “Uh huh.”

Rahab shook himself. She had always been radiant, but when skeptical?

Breathtaking.

••••

They exited the room into bright morning sun. Abby smiled. Lem rolled a copper coin back and forth on the knuckles of one hand.

“Learn anything?”

The wizard nodded at the gardener. “Some, and we found a spellbook. More mystery remains.”

“Of course it does.”

“I will be taking advantage of any time we have to investigate further, and to continue my creative work.”

Everyone snapped to attention. The walk back to the city gates was one long shopping list.


1 Bull rush! . . . Nope.

2 Lem tried to use The Boots of the Panther to make a 5’-step that executes a full 15’ distance. He made an Acrobatics check to successfully avoid the golem’t attack as he moved, and absolutely nailed the roll with a critical success . . . and got hit anyway for 22 points of physical damage and 6 points of cold (which Glo’s communal resist cold nullified). The gardener managed one hit for 23 total points, including sneak attack (otherwise it wasn’t getting through DR), and since bleed and strength damage were useless, activated a bonus to his armor class. The alchemical golem was an asshole.

3 Full disclosure: CSI: Magnimar’s Heal check was actually quite good to determine the things she did.

View
Book V, Chapter 23: Set Them Free
Dragon's Hoard

“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?”

“I do.”

“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.”

“What 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.

“Rahab?”

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.”

“Gloriana Gildentress.”

“Are you well?”

“Well enough.”

“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.”

A silence.

“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.”

“The giants—”

“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.”

Abby blinked.

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Oh, my!”

“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.”

Laughter renewed.

••••

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.”

“Why?”

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.

“Bolt.”

“That’s what it’s called?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“How?”

“A wall of stone.”

“Ah,” the alchemist nodded, “on this level, or below?”

“This level.”

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 then?”

“Why me?”

“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.

View
Book V, Chapter 22: A Walk On The Wind
Regrouping

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.”

“Nope: Prisoners.”

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.”

Contemplative silence.

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.”

“I know.”

“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.”

“Correct.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Underground?”

“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?”

“That’s different!”

“How?”

“That’s magic!”

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.

View
Book V, Chapter 21: Heal
Love And Other Ghosts, Renewed

Rahab passed the next six hours in conversation with the clockwork. Among the construct’s languages there also included the Iron Tongue of Dis and All The Hells. The wizard began by quizzing the librarian on the proportions of the room, analyzing dimensions, ranges, and geometries. Further query led to the revelation that extra-dimensional travel within the library was impossible, and though the clockwork did not know, the conjurer hypothesized that extradimensional travel into the chamber from without was also prohibited. The proportion and quality of magic enveloping the space almost certainly ensured it. There also followed careful discussion about the extent of the catalog, subjects therein, the method of ordering, and similar esoterica. At one point Rahab had to explain that Escher posed no threat to the precious collected materials. The entire conversation took place on the far side of the library so as not to disturb his companion’s sleep.

But at least I can converse without recourse to spell! It was the smallest victory, but in his blindness it felt triumphant indeed.

••••

Among the others, Abby awoke first, as she often did. Rahab heard heavy footfalls approach, the soft ring of steel over creak of leather.

“Good morning.”

Abby knelt next to where the wizard sat with his back to the marble wall. “How’d you get over here?”

“With difficulty.”

“What happened?”

“I woke up blind. And then I discovered that the librarian speaks languages other than Thassilonian?”

“Like what?”

“Draconic and Infernal, to name but two. There are others.”

“You’ve been up all night talking to the thing?”

“Extracting information.”

“What have you learned?”

“Much, and much more yet to learn. We should take some time today to make further inquiries.”

“We need to find the prisoners.”

“When that is complete, then.”

“When that is complete, you will teleport them home.”

“Abby, I regret being the one to tell you this, but I’m BLIND!”

“You can’t teleport blind?”

“I cannot read my books to memorize the spells!”

“Oh. Right.” A weighty silence followed. Finally: “I learned something, too.”

The wizard inclined his head. “Pray tell.”

“Fighting in that room with the strange curves and no edges: It was difficult to get the distances right.”

“Mayhap also your magical diminishment contributed?”

“Maybe,” the warrior mused, “but I was thinking about the fight with the Hounds, and then Mokmurian, and I figured out some things about the spacing, the distances, and focusing in battle.”

“Go on.”

“Avenger is always there. I’m so used to it that I almost forgot, but in those two fights I wasn’t using the shield in the same way. I was looking out, do you know what I mean?”

The wizard rolled his head back and forth against the wall.

“I mean, I was trying to figure out the battle from all the distances and everything: the curves, the strange feeling that the walls disappeared on either side whenever looking straight ahead. I was trying to build the room in my mind, instead of starting from my own view.”

“I begin to understand,” Rahab murmured.

“The fight isn’t out there coming at me. I need to remember the fight starts at me.”

Rahab lingered in silent thought. Then: “Avenger is always there.”

“Exactly.”

“Yesterday’s events served as reminder and redoubling of first principles in your martial skill.”

“Yes. I think.”

“Let us all strive for such renewal.”

Abby looked over her shoulder to where the others had begun to rouse. “C’mon,” she slid an arm around the conjurer and began to help him stand. “Let’s go see what the others learned.”

As they strolled arm-in-arm Rahab suddenly laughed and groped along her improbable arm and shoulder.

“Abby! Your stature returned!”

••••

The warrior seated the conjurer in one of the chairs. Lem voiced sympathy that Abby’s size had reverted to its normal, inferior state, then began to hand out rations for a cold breakfast. Gloriana greeted everyone, hugged the burly warrior, then linked arms with Kara and led the alchemist around to the northern arc of the room, away from the others.

“What is it?” Kara whispered. “Is Abby well?”

“Abby is fine. The magic wore off. She is back to size.”

“Why lead me here? Where are the others?”

“We will rejoin them shortly. I needed to speak with you alone, first.”

“Is something wrong?” Kara suddenly whipsawed her head, the panic of blindness finally become too much to hold at bay with her own, incredible will.

“Shh. Shh. Everything is fine. I’m here. I need to tell you something, and I have to whisper it, and then we can go back to the others.”

The alchemist slowly calmed. “What is it?”

“Something the haunts told me. Now, listen . . .”

Gloriana’s lips at Kara’s ear shaped air into light, thought into warmth, love into vision.

••••

The alchemist stood still for a long time. She faced the gentle curve of the library’s wall. It was difficult to see, not because she was blind, but because sight had returned, and with it tears to fill her eyes.

Gloriana draped her arm around Kara’s shoulder until the elf finally remembered human custom and turned into the oracle’s embrace.

“That is a potent magic,” the alchemist ventured when her quiet weeping finally waned.

Gloriana nodded gravely.

Kara looked around, eyes lingering on the lights, the furnishings, the marble, the well of lore, the clockwork librarian about its duties, the faces of her friends. “Does your manifestation of the spell require privacy?”

“No, but it is new, and I was not entirely sure . . . what it might do.”

“The feeling is . . .”

“Yes.”

“I was your test subject, then?”

“No. You are my friend.”

“Ah. Rahab has been . . .”

Gloriana sighed. “I was afraid that if I tried it, and his sight did not return . . .”

The alchemist nodded. “I am delighted to confirm the magic’s efficacy.”

The oracle squeezed Kara’s hands. “I am so glad,” and her smile was a sight to behold.

The alchemist returned the gesture, and then looked across the room at the others. “It is still a risk.”

“I think the return of his vision will—”

“That is not what I mean.”

A pause. “I know.”

“A sensation like that . . . Glori, if I had never even known you, and you restored me from blindness, and it felt like that . . . I think I might fall in love, and that is no trivial thing for an elf.”

The oracle said nothing.

“When you cast it, do it here, as you did with me. I will engage the others in conversation.”

“It is just healing.”

“Glori, you are about to return a faculty that allows him to read, to study, to learn, to engage with magic, to realize his power.”

Again, the oracle said nothing.

“And that is after how he already feels . . .”

“It is just . . . healing.”

“It is more than that, and you know it.”

Gloriana glanced at the long table.

Realization struck the alchemist, exothermic and chain-reacting, bringing a smile to her face, silver to the oracle’s gold. “By The Brightness! Glori! You’re not worried about him.”

“I . . . I don’t—”

“You have nothing to fear. You are the strongest human I have ever known. And I think Rahab knows that, too.”

“He is—”

“Yes,” Kara nodded, “he is. You two are going to be fine.” She left the remark there and slowly began to walk to the others, gazing around at everything, and finding it all beautiful.

••••

“Why are we at remove?”

A gentle hand at his chest startled him, and another caressed his cheek. “I want to tell you what the ghosts said.”

In his ears pulsed a hum. Wit he found absent, cynicism departed, sarcasm abandoned. “Something good?”

“Yes.” A scent of rain-touched jasmine, and roses, and faintest campfire carried the word. Hum became heartbeat. She shared a story, a song, a haunted dream that was ancient, immense memory greater than the language it inhabited. The sound had heat.

And then she was there, eyes azure, all he could see. Gloriana leaned closer, or Rahab did, and when it happened they were only two people, and the only two people for thousands of miles around, the only two people in all the world.

View
Book V, Chapter 20: Library
Blind

Abby and Lem were already leaning into the great bronze panel under all their strength as oracle, alchemist, and wizard crossed the threshold. The door closed with agonizing slowness and eerie quiet. When it finally latched the five held collective breath, waiting for some sign.

There was a sound, but it came from the room, not the doorway.

“What is it?” Rahab whispered, one arm entwined in Gloriana’s, the other hand clutching Ravenous Umbra.

“A broken toy,” muttered Abby.

Alchemist and wizard spoke together: “What?”

“She’s right,” the oracle offered softly. “It looks vaguely like a humanoid, shaped in metal and clockwork, and it has difficulty walking.

Lem had kept his eye on the door, just in case. Finally satisfied that closing the portal prevented the arrival of another light howler, the gardener turned to see. “It’s a construct, I think.”

Again, Kara and Rahab: “Hostile?”

The noise of whirring gears and metal on stone neared and stopped. A voice echoed in unknown language, vibrations rattling within ferrous chambers bellowed by copper lungs.

“No,” Abby said, “just incomprehensible.”

“Not exactly,” murmured Gloriana.

Rahab patted the oracle’s arm happily. “You have magic of translation.1 Excellent! What did the construct say?”

The oracle carefully relayed: “‘Which volume of lore would you like me to retrieve for you? There are currently twenty-four thousand four hundred and ninety-one volumes, scrolls, pamphlets, and unbound manuscripts available. Please indicate your wish by author, title, subject, or date of acquisition by the Therassic Monastery.’”

The grip on her arm suddenly increased tenfold, and her heart broke a little.

“Lore?” A tremor took the wizard’s voice. “Twenty-four thousand four hundred and ninety-one volumes of lore? Where are we, Gloriana?” His face twisted and turned frantically, sightless eyes desperate and useless.

For a long time the oracle did not want to answer. The warm glow from numerous crystal lanterns fell gently over the circular room. Long wooden tables and comfortably appointed chairs surrounded a great, central shaft descending deep into the brilliantly polished marble floor. Within the cylinder ranged wide, sturdy shelves, and not a single space stood empty of parchment, book, scroll, text, or illuminated page. The construct waited with eternal patience.

Abby caught Gloriana’s eye. Do you want me to tell him?

The oracle shook her head sadly. “I am sorry, Rahab,” she sighed. “It is a library.”

Anguish incandescent.

••••

The wizard’s grasp on Gloriana’s arm became a trembling claw. “What do you see?”

In her experience as a healer, as an adventurer, as a Soul of The Road, the oracle had heard many sentient creatures beg. Sometimes they begged for money, sometimes for mercy; sometimes they begged for a kiss, sometimes they begged for forgiveness; sometimes they begged for relief from pain, or the return of their dead child, or for a quiet moment in which to die. Rahab’s question tore all the way through her, shrugging past an echelon of mischievous haunts as a whale through water. The query landed in her heart with a weight to drag her into the very stone below her feet, and it was made of relentless agony that threatened to become its own restless ghost.

“I can describe the room, if you like.” Her voice sounded hundreds of miles away.

“Please . . . ” he whispered, and he suddenly seemed ancient, and bent under terrible burden.

Abby swallowed hard. Lem’s jaw worked, and he looked away in silence.

••••

The oracle gave quiet account of what she could see.

“The well . . .” murmured Rahab.

“Yes.”

“The volumes there . . . .”

“Yes.”

A croak: “The—the construct . . . .”

Gloriana leaned close to Rahab’s ear, and he felt the question more than he heard it, gentle, warm, and soft. “What would you like me to ask?”

The flood of cognition and emotion threatened to overwhelm, as if thought was an experience heretofore unknown, and now he stood lost within the vaults of the mind, frightened by all the possibility of loss, where he had never felt such fear before.

This is what it feels like to go mad.

••••

Kara still linked to Gloriana’s other arm, and the oracle felt movement. A quick glance showed the alchemist’s free hand carefully walking along one of her belts, pausing periodically as though a creature tracking scent. After some hesitation, Kara plucked a vial free from a leather loop and held it forth. Gloriana was nonplussed.

“Take the vial and give it to Rahab,” said the alchemist. The oracle carefully cradled the container and maneuvered it to the conjurer’s blind grasp.

The wizard’s voice was a shudder. “What is it?”

“Yetretiarmedem. Soosh ulvor drinom muthandiatar,”2 Kara replied.

“Your magnificence is unequaled among the Mierani!” Greedily the conjurer drank the potion, and when realization of the clockwork librarian’s language became clear he could not decide if this was better or worse.

“What is this place?” Rahab whispered to Gloriana to translate through her magic. Thus began a conversation among three parts that did not sum to a whole.

Clicks and buzzes responded. “This is the library of the Therassic monastery.”

Rahab to Gloriana to the librarian: “Who last ventured into the library?”

“A stone giant called Mokmurian.”

“The door’s abjuration requires a password to transcend?”

“Yes.”

“What is the word?”

“I do not have that information.”

“What manner of being emerges when the door is breached without the proper word?”

“A shining child.”

Giddiness a riot now in the wizard’s stomach. He felt ridiculous, unbidden mirth shaking him: not delight, but fragility; the mind’s desperate defense against insanity. He fought against the sensation, and still the spears of blindness stabbed in torment. Focus. Think of a question. Work THROUGH this. THINK!

“The door’s abjuration: Is it a feature of Mokmurian’s magic?”

“No. The abjuration predates Mokmurian.”

“How old is it?”

“I do not have that information.”

“Describe your knowledge of the library.”

Gloriana frowned and turned to the wizard on her arm. “It does not hurt to say ‘please,’ Rahab.”

Blind eyes blinked above a psychotic grin. “The construct has no ego to wound, Gloriana. Its consciousness is imposed externally by the magic that binds it, and does not exist independently. You might as well petition one of your burning rays, or one of my evocations of fire.”

In the subsequent silence a sightless head waited, then bobbed. “Librarian?” Eventually the oracle took up the translation.

“How may I assist?”

“What do you feel when I address you?”

Whirring gears churned. “I do not understand your query. Please rephrase.”

“What emotion do you experience when I speak to you?”

Noises again, clicks and pauses and hums, a longer silence. “Would you like a catalog of those texts discussing the subjects of sensation, emotion, and perception?”

“No. Your response has illustrated my point.” Strained visage angled blindly in Gloriana’s direction, something tragic and grotesque in the movement.

The librarian buzzed: “Are you a visiting scholar?”

“I am,” Rahab replied after forcing back a mad laugh, “or I would be, had I not been struck blind by the library’s security system!”

The clockwork helpfully suggested petitioning a member of the order for redress of any difficulty. That portion of the conjurer’s mind not teetering on collapse found some strength not to weep, or rage, or howl.

“Librarian,” the wizard resumed, enunciating with distinct tremor, “describe your knowledge of the library.”

“I maintain catalog of titles, subjects, authors, dates of acquisition, and cross-references of same. I also know the locations of all materials in the library, organized according to methods established by the Therassic order.”

Rahab beckoned into emptiness. “Abby, display Avenger to the librarian.” Then, after a moment: “Please.”

The warrior looked skeptical, but did as bidden. The wizard resumed his questions through Gloriana: “Do you recognize this aegis?”

“No,” the librarian chirped.

“Do you recognize this carapace?” A clumsy pat fluttered at Gloriana’s shoulder.

“No.”

“Regard the halfling’s boots. Do you know them?”

“No.”

Rahab flailed at his pack, knelt, and struggled to pull The Book of the Strange free from the interior entirely by feel. He held the tome aloft like a priest at ritual. “Librarian, do you recognize this book?”

“I have seen it before, but do not know its author, subject, or date of publication. It is not part of the catalog.”

“Under what circumstances—and with whom or what—did you see this book?”

“One claiming ownership of that book came to peruse the library’s lore.”

“When?”

Clicks and clatter accompanied some measure of calculation. When the clockwork responded, the reply made no sense, not even through the magic of translation.

Gloriana laid a hand on the kneeling wizard’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”

“I do not know. The inability of the magic to translate suggests that the meaning does not correspond to the words.”

Abby shook her head. “Not getting any clearer, Rahab.”

Kara raised her own blind visage in announcement: “It means that the words are recognizable, but there is no meaning that corresponds to understanding in Glori and Rahab. The librarian cites a calendar to which we have neither access nor reference.”

The warrior looked at Lem, and the gardener just shrugged and shook his head.

Rahab pursued: “Librarian, was the book’s owner human?”

“Yes.”

“Did the owner use the book while in the library?”

“Yes.”

“In what manner?”

“Some magic of the book allowed the owner to make copies of several volumes in the catalog.”

“By what method?”

“I do not have that information.”

The conjurer lapsed into silence, eventually struggling to return The Book of the Strange to his backpack. After a few moments Abby could stand by no more, and strode to help. Rahab’s ragged rictus flashed once more. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” The warrior looked up at Gloriana, but the oracle only gave a sad smile.

As the wizard gingerly resumed his feet, Gloriana slipped her arm once more around his. Rahab continued. “Librarian, for what purpose did the stone giant Mokmurian venture here?”

“He requested texts.”

“On what subjects?”

“History of Thassilon.”

“Exclusively?”

“Yes.”

“And he took the books hence?”

“No. He made copies.”

“By hand?”

“By magic.”

“Can you name the spell or method?”

“I do not have that inf—”

But the wizard was already waving irritably. “Yes, yes, of course.”

••••

Rahab stood silent, head bowed. Gloriana could feel his pulse hammering along the length of his arm, and his whole body shivered.

“The shield, the armor, the boots, and the book I referenced previously:” the conjurer resumed. “Do you have lore relating to them?”

Whirs, clicks, a faint whine: “No.”

“Do you have a basic primer on the Thassilonian language?”

“We have forty-seven different works related to fostering Thassilonian language development in children.”

“Please retrieve the two most comprehensive of such works.”

Those with sight watched the clockwork librarian scuttle to the well’s edge and navigate down and around with all four limbs, a strange, spider-like sculpture in metal on errand.

Rahab leaned close to the person he could feel but could not see. “By what mechanism does the construct locomote?”

“He—”

“Why do you assign it masculine gender?”

The oracle started. “I . . . don’t know. I—”

“Never mind. Its movement . . .”

“ . . . It . . . walks on two legs, but has some difficulty. It has suffered some damage, I think.”

“Damage, or decay?”

“Perhaps both?”

“The condition of the metal: Polished? Patina? Scratched?”

“Yes. Signs of wear. What are you thinking?”

“I suspect it is ancient, as is the chamber in which we now convene, if only I could see it! The librarian is a relic of Thassilon and this ‘Therassic order.’ More than ten-thousand years have gone, and even a construct may decline, with time.”

“Have you heard of this ‘Therassic order?’”

“Against all likelihood.”

“Research?”

“Conversation with Quink.”

Gloriana quietly nodded as if to say, Of course.

The grip at her arm tightened. “Gloriana. My vision . . . Kara’s— . . . your healing magic . . . can . . . is there . . . ?”

The wizard felt her voice at his ear, quiet, mournful, yet still sunlit. “I am sorry, Rahab. I can do nothing right now, for my power is greatly diminished with our efforts. Have hope. Tomorrow I converse with my ancestors.”

His reply, ragged and rent: “I . . . all is . . . how—?”

Her whisper became a snowfall’s softness, and a smile he could not see wrapped around words only he could hear. “Do not worry: My ancestors like you.”

••••

They rested for a bit. Gloriana led Kara and Rahab to one of the long tables and seated them in two of the upholstered chairs. Abby and Lem walked a perimeter looking for concealed secrets. Down in the well the librarian made slow progress around the shelves.

Warrior and gardener reported back. “Nothing.”

“I have lost track of time,” Kara said, “and that is disconcerting. How long has it been since we broke camp?”

“You mean at the river,” asked Lem, “or in Conna’s Mausoleum of Weirdness and Necrophilia?”

“The river.”

The gardener closed his eyes and folded his arms. After a minute’s silence he speculated: “Gauging precisely while underground is impossible, but let’s call it the second afternoon bell.” He glanced around with a shrug. Abby nodded agreement.

“Can we stay here?” Gloriana wondered.

The warrior frowned. “What about the giants?”

“And the prisoners,” added Kara.

“It has been some time since we left Conna,” reasoned the oracle, “and still nothing has ventured down to follow us. They fear Mokmurian, and his magic, and his domain.”

The gardener scratched his chin. “I suppose it’s also possible they think we made a full circuit of the level above, and then escaped back through the cave system the way we came in.”

Kara’s blind head tilted. “Hit and run?”

“It’s how I would wage a small unit fight against a camped army.” Lem found his stride. “Stay at the perimeter, pick off the outskirts, find the weak point, penetrate for maximum damage, retreat into the shadows. I bet that valley is running wild with giants right now, patrolling for something that isn’t there.”

“That still leaves the villagers, though,” Abby sighed. “What if the giants have decided to take revenge on the prisoners?”

“I do not think so,” the oracle countered. “The kidnapped villagers are a direct result of Mokmurian’s order to Teraktinus and the war band. If Lem is right and they think we have fled, they will await Mokmurian’s word, and in the meantime keep watch on the valley. If, on the other hand, they think we ventured down, then likely they await news of our defeat. I think that—as long as the giants do not know what has happened—the villagers are alive.”

The warrior crossed her brawny arms. “There are a lot of ‘ifs’ in there, Glo.”

“No, I feel this: The prisoners are alive. Tonight we recover our strength, and tomorrow we help Conna reclaim command of the valley. Then we find and secure the villagers. With the giants subdued or dispersed, removing the Sandpointers to safety should be easier.”

Metal clattered on stone, gears whirred, ratchets clicked. The clockwork stopped at Gloriana and held forth one book and one scroll. When Abby reached to retrieve them she found the librarian’s grip undiminished.

The warrior glanced at oracle and wizard. “What’s going on?”

Rahab’s head twisted back and forth furiously and his hands clutched the chair arms. “What do you see?”

“The construct brought something, but won’t let it go.”

The wizard put hands to his temples. “Ah, yes. Gloriana must take them.”

“Why?”

“It was she who delivered my request. The librarian’s magic only comprehends the request as hers, not as having translated from me.”

The oracle approached the clockwork and gently reached for the items. When her hands closed around them, the metallic fingers withdrew gently. “Thank you,” she said. The clockwork made no reply, but only resumed its vigilant wait. Gloriana gently placed the works on the table in front of Kara and Rahab, and a gloom overcame her as she watched the wizard scrabble to touch them, hand trembling along a book spine, hefting the weight.

“Expertly bound,” he murmured, holding his ear close as he opened the book and listened to the flutter of pages past his thumb. “The condition feels superb. There must be some . . . some additional magic here, something that limits or displaces the entropy of time.” A stagger to his words prompted grave looks from warrior and oracle. The gardener shuffled uncomfortably.

“Gloriana, if you please?” the conjurer intoned, then angled toward the sound of softly ticking gears. “Librarian? Do you ever venture out of this chamber?”

“No.”

“Did Mokmurian demonstrate fluency in the Thassilonain language?”

“Yes.”

“Literacy as well?”

“Yes.”

“Are there any maps of this structure, including the library and other portions of the Therassic monastery, within the catalog?”

“No.”

The wizard announced to the air: “Does anyone else have any other queries at present? No?” He addressed the clockwork via Gloriana once more: “That will be all for now.”

Whirrs and clicks in answer: “Simply ask again if you need anything.” The sound of metal footsteps on stone tapped out of earshot.

Rahab suddenly felt an immense exhaustion that made the overnight in burning Sandpoint luxurious by comparison.

••••

They gathered around the table. Abby and Lem perched cross-legged on the surface, and Gloriana dragged another chair nearby.

“The furnishings are humanoid sized,” the oracle observed.

“The Therassic monks,” began the wizard, “were mostly human, though other humanoid species congregated among their number, as well. The monastery was not likely built with giant-kin in mind, or at least not those portions set aside specifically for the order. Recall Conna’s concern. Little suggests that giants in the Thassilonian Empire occupied positions other than servitude, at best.”

Lem had begun to find his present enemy’s circumstances increasingly complex, and he hated when that happened. Digging deep enough into Thassilon would reveal—the gardener suspected—its whole sordid history rife with humans and their sins. Why could they not do the decent thing and simply stay dead?

Abby frowned. None of this made any sense. “Why are giants flocking to the service of some sort of Thassilonian tyrant, then?”

“There are always those who seek to serve tyranny,” Gloriana exhaled sadly, “imagining themselves exempt from the worst excesses and indignities. The most dangerous illusion in autocracy is the complacent imagination that whatever befalls thee shall not befall me. It is one of the oldest lies we tell ourselves.”

Across the table, a blind wizard nodded emphatically.

The warrior sounded indignant: “Why do we tell ourselves lies?”

“The path of least resistance,” offered Kara, useless eyelids shut against stimuli no longer detectable. “Confronting lies—one’s own, especially—is one of the most difficult things for a sentient being to do.”

“I hate lying,” Abby grumbled.

Rahab cackled, a sound not entirely secured to stable cognitive surface. “Careful that in asserting such you do not embody the very quality you despise.”

“I am not.” Gauntleted fists settled on the table with all the quiet of a rhinoceros at the charge.

“Alright,” Gloriana cooed. “We are all tired, and at our limits.”

The wizard refused to let the moment pass. “Abby, much as I admire you and value your friendship, one of the boldest lies any of us tells is that we eschew lies ourselves. We all lie, in some fashion or another.”

Lem leveled a dagger gaze. “Don’t lay that human shit on me.”

Abby’s own challenge stepped past that of the gardener. “That means you, too, Rahab, and yet I have never known you to lie to me.”

Again the unsettling chuckle as blind eyes gazed upon nothing. “Perhaps that is because to others I make every effort of honesty, and in turn lie only to myself.”

A tense silence descended. Kara broke the mood. “This is the kind of discussion I would much rather have at the townhouse in Magnimar, on a rain-soaked night, after the second cup of wine, and everyone’s bed within stumbling distance.”

Gloriana reached out and gently clasped the alchemist’s hand in thanks.

••••

They camped in the library. Some debate arose as to setting a watch, but eventually the nervous assertions of Rahab, Kara’s muted aloofness, and calm placation on the part of Gloriana suggested that little else in the valley was likely to pass the trapped portal and catch them unawares.

Rahab awoke in two hours regardless, under the influence of The Book of the Strange. He sat up helplessly in his blanket on the marble floor of the library, his back and limbs stiff. A slow terror crept in his heart. He dared not move. Abby had helped him lie down and settle, and he did not know where in the chamber he was. He had a vague sense that the others were near, and that to his right loomed the well of lore, but neither offered enough certainty to settle trepidation. He kept waiting for his eyes to adjust, but the darkness never changed, and remembered realization was a wave of despair. Escher emerged from his pocket and nuzzled against the conjurer’s hand, a small but powerful comfort.

In a soft voice Rahab began to recite basic principles of arcane spell lore, lessons long inscribed in his mind through study and practice. For an additional degree of challenge, he conducted the exercise in the language of dragons, forcing as firm an intellectual rigor on his sanity as he could muster.

A sound reached his ears, shuddering metal, and a disembodied voice in darkness. Words tumbled out of nothing, each uttered in Draconic, each a thunderbolt launched into the unquiet depths of the wizard’s awareness.

“How may I assist?”3

Hope was the possibility of dawn, however hidden by cloud.


1 Gloriana had a tongues spell active.

2 Translated from Elvish: “Comprehension. Assuming my count is correct.
Kara gave Rahab a potion of comprehend languages. Like finding water in a desert.

3 It turns out that among the clockwork librarian’s languages was Draconic. Rahab had the ability to conduct unmitigated conversation the whole time, but he did not think of it because he was fighting a desperate rear-guard action against going crazy.

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