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Book III, Chapter 11: Taking the Measure of Magnimar
Scenes From The City Of Monuments

Determining next steps meant more time and research. With the magical crafting complete, Rahab turned his attention to investigating more information about the Sihedron rune, the Sihedron ritual, the nature of greed as an experience and cultural concept, and Thassilon, paying special attention to any possible connections between such topics. He had little success.1 As an additional project, he and Kara met each day in the alchemist’s ground floor study to work on deciphering Justice Ironbriar’s journal from Seven’s Sawmill. Occasional outbursts of exasperated cursing in Common and Elvish periodically sounded therein.

Foxglove Townhouse ground floor windows remained boarded up.

Winter settled upon the city. Proximity to the ocean meant only periodic snow, but when it came it blew furiously, and daily temperatures were such that each morning required cracking the ice at the top of water barrels, or struggling to maintain footing when walking anywhere in Magnimar. The sun shone little, for a near-constant gloom of low cloud hugged the coast. Citizens went about their days and nights somewhat subdued, and, in districts such as the Lowcleft, street corners that were normally alive with jugglers, minstrels, and other performers stood largely empty. The bustle of business declined in the Bazaar of Sails somewhat, and work days started later and ended earlier all over the city. To the extent it was possible, everyone steered clear of the city guard who, by dint of duties outside, often demonstrated even more irascibility, intimidation, corruption, and disregard for the law than normal.

Rahab’s latest set of robes was midnight blue.

On the other hand, taverns everywhere were packed to capacity, and then some. Sales of mulled wine, heavy stouts, black bread, hot stews, shepherd’s pie, and fish pie accounted for almost all public house transactions. Two weeks after New Year’s Day rumors of a citywide tobacco shortage began, and there was a rush on remaining supplies that poured coin into smoke merchants’ coffers. Four weeks after that, tempers throughout the city had grown noticeably shorter, brawls were on the rise, and the black market for flake, twist, plug, and leaf alike had smugglers and thieves wheeling and dealing.

Abby caught a cold and spent four days feeling generally miserable.

Besides the weather and the tobacco shortage, city gossip included the mysterious disappearance of Justice Ironbriar, some kind of horrific accident at Seven’s Sawmill, and an apparent violation of the ordnance mandating closure of The Shadow Clock. The former had generated conspiracy theories of every stripe, from mundane murder to elaborate accounts of embezzlement and espionage. An interim justice had been elevated to the office until the question of Ironbriar’s status could be definitively determined. With this move came new accusations of graft, fraud, obstruction, and malfeasance from the poorest sections of Beacon’s Point to the wealthiest halls of the Alabaster District. Lines dividing those who lamented Ironbriar’s disappearance and those who welcomed it blurred so significantly that many advanced both sentiments, just in case.

Lem secretly planted spring bulbs in a cemetery outside the city walls.

Seven’s Sawmill had apparently been closed indefinitely when prospective lumber buyers arrived one morning and discovered all the workers gone and signs of some terrible accident within. According to some, the mill had been the site of a sacrificial pact to conjure unholy powers and bring ruin on the city and its people. According to others, the ritual had instead been meant to visit devastation on hated Korvosa, and soon word from the east would announce Magnimar’s rival falling to plague, war, and unrest. An unprecedented age of prosperity for the City of Monuments was expected to begin at any moment. And according to still others, the mill’s closing meant improved prospects for rival businesses on Kyver’s Islet, and good riddance.

Gloriana gradually accumulated a network of informants in various districts.

As for rumors about The Shadow Clock, conventional wisdom held that a foolhardy glory-seeker following in the footsteps of past adventurers broke into the tower, began the daunting climb to the pinnacle, only to be crushed when one of the ancient bells finally broke its moorings and flattened the anonymous explorer. Word from Underbridge was that residents in the slum heard the crash and ring of the bell’s fall, and that before the city guard shut the tower once more passers-by could glimpse the bell’s outline at angle through the doorway. Reports of lights and fires near the top of the tower on the evening of the bell’s fall were dismissed as the addled imaginings of those in pesh withdrawal.

Kara flash-melted a cast iron pot while working on some research.

On several occasions during the winter months inquisitive Naos District residents stopped by the townhouse expecting to meet Iesha and Aldern, only to find the door answered by a guarded halfling, a half-elf ruffian sellsword, an inscrutable elf, an imperious human with a rat on his shoulder, or a charming woman with honey-gold hair. In general, meetings with the latter went better than meetings with any of the former. Local gossip accumulated, until finally Gloriana could no longer reasonably maintain the ruse about the Foxgloves being away on travel and lending their home to “friends from Sandpoint.” When a portrait-painter that had, in the past, been commissioned by the Foxglove family knocked to see if there was any new work in the offing, the oracle brought him inside, made him some tea, and told him the Foxgloves were dead. She explained the townhouse had been left to her and her companions in gratitude for past assistance and friendship. She made it sound like the truth. Unannounced visits dropped off dramatically. Neighborhood gossip did the opposite.

Winter crept slowly by.

••••

“You don’t seem surprised,” Lem said as he and Gloriana made their way up the avenue from the Temple of Sarenrae. They passed a frozen fountain at a small square and turned right onto a side street.

“I don’t understand how your feet are o.k. Can you even feel them?” The oracle clutched her cloak about her and looked unenviously at the gardener’s barefoot stride over the frozen cobblestones.

“You really don’t know anything about us, do you? We live like this all our lives. Our feet are tougher than boot heels. The hair keeps them warm. It’s clearly a superior adaptation!”

“You don’t worry about . . . stepping in something?”

“No, because I watch where I’m going, a skill that seems to have eluded most humans.”

“Well, you’re not fooling me,” the oracle mumbled through cloudy breath. “I’ve seen you warm yourself at the fire plenty of times.” They stepped around an ox-cart being loaded with clay jars, then past the teamster arguing with the jar merchant over delivery fees.

Lem shrugged. “The halfling system has flaws in other areas, I’ll admit. Back to the question at hand, though—”

“No, I’m not surprised,” Gloriana interrupted. “Back in Sandpoint Father Zantus told me much the same thing the priestess of Sarenrae just did: Whatever evil has inhabited The Misgivings, it will require significant effort and power to eliminate.”

They sidestepped into a narrow alley shrouded in afternoon shadow. The oracle felt the chill like a razor through her cloak, and she groaned unhappily. Halfway down the winding, uneven alley floor a figure emerged from a doorway niche. A knife appeared.

“Yer coin, now! Or tobacco. Easy there! Hand it over, quick and quiet.” The mugger’s eyes darted nervously.

She wasn’t in the mood; nevertheless, Gloriana started to raise her hands in placatory attempt to settle the situation as peacefully as possible.

Lem, it turned out, was also not in the mood. Kukri and dagger flashed effortlessly into view. “Hey, shitheel! Here’s your chance to run away so you can tell your friends about the stupidest thing—and the smartest thing—you did today.”

There was a pregnant pause. Moments later oracle and gardener resumed their walk, the faint sound of desperate footsteps retreating into the distance.

“So, anyway,” Lem went on, his blades disappearing underneath his cloak, “I figured temples here would have that kind of power, surely.”

“The problem is convincing them to devote the time, effort, and resources to The Misgivings. It’s just not important to them right now.”

“But it’s part of the territory Magnimar governs, right?”

“True, but—in a way—our own success is working against us on this. We neutralized the threat, however temporarily, and indicated as much to Sandpoint. If Magnimar asks Sandpoint about it, Mayor Deverin is likely to say there’s no problem at all, and that’s good enough for Magnimar, I’d wager. But that’s assuming anyone of sufficient status in the city even thinks to ask, which doesn’t seem likely just now.” As they emerged onto the street from the alley Gloriana stopped and gestured in the direction the robber had fled. “The city has a few crises of its own.”

Lem snorted derisively. “That one is the city’s own making.”

“At least it’s a shortage of tobacco, and not food.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this ‘shortage’ started as a rumor by the tobacconists as a way to drive up profits.”

“I wouldn’t either, but whether accidental or engineered the effect is the same.”

A tavern door slammed open and a figure sprawled on the street. A stream of invective from inside the doorway followed, accentuated by raucous laughter. Lem stepped around, Gloriana stepped over, and neither broke stride.

The gardener looked up at the oracle. “So, you knew Zantus couldn’t do anything about the haunting, but you went ahead and told the mayor the situation was under control? Why?”

“It was under control. That was an accurate statement of circumstances at the time, given the limits on all of us, Sandpoint included. It was also what the mayor needed to hear in order to smooth the path for us as we resumed the investigation and came here. We didn’t need trouble coming and going.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand diplomacy a bit more. It’s a lot like gambling.”

“More than you know.”

They turned onto the street leading to the townhouse.

“We could knock a temple official over the head, drag them to the mansion, make them see . . .” Lem suggested helpfully.

“Not likely to have the intended effect, I think.”

“I will never understand humans.”

“Lem! The cleric we talked to was a halfling! How did you not notice?”

“I was talking about you and Mayor Deverin! . . . Also Sheriff Hemlock . . . Rahab, too, obviously . . . Abby sometimes . . . that bard that plays at The Silver Starling . . . most of the watch . . . .”

••••

On another evening, the companions sat around the dining table. Abby stared glumly at the bowl in front of her. “Potato soup. Again. I’ve forgotten what a tomato even looks like. Do you remember back at the Festival of the Swallowtail? They had that wine with orange and lime slices?”

“Try drinking more,” Rahab mumbled into his mug of stout.

Abby was not in the mood to banter. “That won’t help me remember.”

The wizard frowned. “Not the point.”

Kara turned to Gloriana. “What progress in your investigation?”

The oracle was thoughtful for a while, so Abby took up the question. “Well, we managed to talk to a few people on the list we found at the tower. Before that, we weren’t really making much headway.”

Gloriana was nodding agreement, and now she chimed in: “All those encounters seem to have one thing in common: Each individual with whom we spoke eventually referred to another individual on the list, even though we never showed or mentioned having that list. And they all said essentially the same thing, accusing the other person of being particularly greedy.”

They mulled this information in silence for a while. The connections in this mystery eluded them, as if the ship of their progress tacked ever against the wind, charting small forward motion only by way of great lateral sweeps.

“What about you two?” Abby asked, glancing between Kara and Rahab. “How goes the cipher?”

The alchemist groaned and the conjurer winced as if in pain.

Three pairs of eyebrows shot up almost as one. Warrior, oracle, and gardener exchanged a glance. “Problem?” Gloriana asked.

A long silence ensued. Kara looked at Rahab, and the wizard regarded the alchemist in turn.

“Our efforts are beginning to—” the conjurer began.

Kara interrupted. “It’s hellacious. It hurts my head just thinking about it! Even with the augmented magic Rahab crafted for us both,” and here the alchemist tapped Starfall Hemisphere Coalescing on her brow, “the cipher is driving me to thoughts of violence.” She sighed as if under a great weight.

Rahab exhaled slowly, and then began to expound: “Consider: Each character—either number or letter—in the underlying information is ciphered as a code consisting of two other characters and one other number, and all letters and numbers in the cipher come from three different languages: Elvish, Common, and Infernal. At least we have managed to determine the underlying language is, in fact, Elvish.”

Kara took up the narrative in solidarity: “Rahab did that. My native tongue and I didn’t even see it until he proposed we test that structure. Now we have to take groupings of letters and numbers in Common, Elvish, and Infernal, map any letter/number shifts—because Ironbriar used number-letter-letter, letter-number-letter, and letter-letter-number iterations—and then test what the underlying letter or number in Elvish might be relative to the overall hypothesized structure of the journal. Once we are fairly certain, we can then go through and match codes to underlying characters and finally peel this thing apart. And we are doing all this without the original one-time key that Ironbriar used to build the cipher, and who knows where that might be? We are making progress, but tiny moments of success have yet to outweigh the mind-numbing tedium and frustration of the process.”2

The alchemist let out a great breath and massaged her temples slowly. Another silence descended upon the table. If pressed, Gloriana, Lem, and Abby might have admitted that just listening to the description made them a little dizzy.

Rahab broke the silence: “Kara, your contribution has been invaluable. Your skill in alchemy has ordered your thinking such that you remember patterns and sequences with a mastery few will ever know. Deciphering this journal is a monumental task in and of itself; we must also keep track of what we decipher. You have made that tracking possible.”

Gloriana felt a surge of pride and glee so bright that she wanted to dance. A radiant smile came to her lips and she leapt up and hugged them both simultaneously, one with each arm. Kara and Rahab suddenly found themselves listing at awkward angles in the oracle’s embrace.

“Well, I’m glad someone is enjoying this,” Kara said drily.

Still joyful, Gloriana relased them. “Do you need help? I’ll make tea! This will be fun!” she danced away to the kitchen.

Rahab called after her. “Hells below! No!” Then, softer, his expression drained: “With thanks for the thought and its intent.” Gloriana stopped, performed a happy pirouette in place, undimmed in her enthusiasm.

“We are closing on completion,” the conjurer explained, “but it will take some days yet. There is a little more catalog and cross-checking to be done tonight, and then we must rest and resume in the morning.” Kara was nodding agreement. Rahab contined: “When we have finished this endeavor I will have to content myself with victory, and set aside as simple inconvenience the impossibility of resurrecting the vile Ironbriar just so we can blast him to death again.”

The alchemist had steel in her voice: “You and me both.”

Rahab stood and took his bowl into the kitchen to clean, then wearily made his way to the study, settling himself once more among the papers, charts, diagrams, notes, and tests he and Kara had brought to bear on the cipher with all the power their impressive minds could muster. The alchemist joined him a few minutes later. She had opted for a final mug of stout for the evening, even as she lamented the paltry effect it would have in soothing her resistant system.

••••

When Rahab retired to his room he was caught completely off guard. Gloriana sat on his bed. Exhaustion on the wizard’s face gave way to surprise, then confusion. The oracle rose in a swirl of colored silk.

“What—” he started to ask, and then Gloriana was standing right in front of him, so close he could smell her complex scent, and he realized that he had never noticed it before. It was like raindrops cooling on jasmine and roses, with faintest, melancholy notes of sandalwood or campfires. Her eyes gazed deeply, unwaveringly into his. She placed her hand on the door and slowly, gently pushed it closed. In the candlelight her whisper was a diamond beam: brilliant, flawless, and unbreakable:

“I want you to teach me something.”
______________________________

1 Knowledge skill rolls revealed nothing. Frustrating.

2 Allow me to fully disclose and admit—to any mathematicians, cryptographers, and cryptanalysts (professional or amateur), as well as the general reader—that I’m inventing this cipher purely out of imagination. I have no real-world skill or meaningful understanding in cryptography, so if the cipher’s description has your Bullshit Detector going off, I acknowledge that completely. I can only humbly plead that you consider some suspension of disbelief in the service of fantasy instead of a treatise on all the ways the cipher (and its ignoramus author) is wrong. Now, in terms of play, it ended up taking eighteen in-game days to figure out the cipher, requiring multiple skill checks with Rahab rolling and Kara assisting. Keep in mind that at this point—through a combination of stats, level, and magic items—Rahab and Kara now have Intelligence scores of 23 (where 10 is average). It should have been Bletchley Park, but sometimes the rolls just do not go the players’ way. Eventually they did, but it took a long time.

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Book III, Chapter 10: Winter Workshop
Making Magic

The first freeze arrived a week later and Magnimar woke to icicles hanging from eaves and treacherous footing on frosted cobblestones. The companions had moved into Foxglove Townhouse now that they possessed the deed. The ground floor windows were still boarded up. Gloriana and Lem discussed repairs.

“I’ll see what I can learn. It may be harder now that the weather’s turning,” the gardener said.

“Try to get a decent price. And hire someone legitimate.”

“Do you want to come along and hold my hand?”

“Sorry. I was trying to offer help.”

“You grew up in a caravan wagon at campfires. What do you know about glazing?”

Gloriana started to bristle, then suddenly had a realization: “Actually, that makes me wonder why Kara isn’t a part of this conversation?”

“Good question,” the alchemist said. She had just come downstairs to the living room, and stood in the doorway, observing.

Lem shook his head, still looking at Gloriana. “She grew up in a forest.”

“Fair point,” Kara rejoined, stepping into the room. “It’s unlikely I would know anything about amorphous soda-lime silicates in a transitional state.”

Lem stared. “What?”

“You know:” the alchemist said. “Glass.”

Gloriana crossed her arms and regarded the gardener with a smirk of significant self-satisfaction. Kara’s expression was cool.

Another pause. “You can make glass?” Lem asked.

The alchemist gave a dismissive wave. “Not with my current tools. It requires a furnace of sufficient size that can produce enough local temperature somewhere around the melting point of iron.”

Lem narrowed his eyes. “Fine. I’m going.” He stared at Kara. “Coming?”

Kara’s face brightened and her voice was cheerfully enthusiastic. “No, thank you! I have some things I need to do here. I’m sure you can handle it. Try to get a decent price, and hire someone legitimate.”

As he exited Lem raised both hands in rude gestures for oracle and alchemist.

••••

The gardener returned several hours later and found Kara in the ground floor living room diligently sorting items in the alchemy kit Gloriana had given her. There was no sign of the others.

“Where is everyone?” Lem asked, blowing on his hands and rubbing them together as he stepped closer to the cheery blaze in the hearth.

The alchemist did not look up from where she was expertly using tweezers to delicately transfer small cubes of an iridescent solid into a jar. “Glori went out to hear the word around the city and buy some essentials for the house. Abby is relocating our horses to a more convenient stable in this district. Rahab is upstairs in the new laboratory space. What did you learn?”

“Glazing costs are absurd,” sighed Lem.

“So, no luck, then?”

“Oh, I found someone willing to visit tomorrow and quote a price. I’m just anticipating an outrageous mark-up.” He turned his back on the fire to warm his other side, and looked at the alchemist deeply concentrating on her work. “Are you listening?”

“Mmm-hmm.” The reply was vague.

Lem’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms. “Anyway, I lifted his purse on my way out of the shop, so if we hire this one we’ll make a little back.”

“That’s nice,” Kara murmured, eyes never leaving her task.

Lem sucked his teeth. “Is there any wine?”

“. . . Interesting . . .”

Lem rolled his eyes and walked into the kitchen. Two minutes later he had a filled cup and headed upstairs to bother Rahab.

“Sounds good,” the alchemist eventually said to the empty room, head still bent to her work.

••••

“An extra five hundred in gold,” Lem said, setting a sack heavy with coin on Rahab’s workbench.

“I’ll add it,” the wizard reached for a quill, jar of ink, and the ledger he kept for the party’s collective accounting.

There was a long pause broken only by the scribbling of pen on paper. Eventually Lem spoke again: “You’re not going to ask where it came from?”

Rahab was matter-of-fact. “The bounty on the head you found at The Misgivings.”

“Chaldira’s Teeth! How did you possibly know that?”

“You’ve had the thing secreted away for weeks. Magnimar is the only place in the region likely to have the kind of resources not only to post such a bounty, but also to pay it out in the event someone comes to collect. The city is also large enough and corrupt enough to have the kind of underground required to actually get any money out of the system because the extent of decay on the head would give the government plenty of excuse to insist it was beyond reliable identification and thus avoid making payment at all. Most likely you made contact at a tavern near the Bazaar of Sails, or at the market itself. An intermediary working for the Princess1 was able to broker coin for the head, minus a fee. What I don’t know is whether or not you were offered a warning, a job, or both. Regardless I guess they claimed something like twenty-five percent. Given the most likely bounty for a bandit of note in this area, I suspect you walked away from the deal with around six-hundred gold pieces. By your reporting I have logged five-hundred for our collective funds, suggesting that the next several rounds of drinks are on you, Master Gardener.”

Lem eventually remembered to shut his jaw. He stared hard at the conjurer. “Magic?”

Rahab shook his head. “I have lived here, remember? At some point every spell-caster in a major population center gets approached by both the government and the criminal element.” The wizard reflected a moment. “Often it’s the same contact.”

“Are you going to tell Gloriana?”

“To what end?”

Lem nodded once, slowly, then departed the room. Bothering Rahab had not been nearly as amusing as he had anticipated.

••••

Some days after their victory over Xanesha, the party had managed to liquidate much of the loot and gear they had accumulated, and were able to begin the process of arcane crafting that had been a recent goal since Rahab’s ascendancy to the skill.2 In addition, Kara dedicated effort and time to brewing potions for the party’s benefit, while the companions also scoured merchants and purveyors of magical items in search of still other specialty instruments to supplement their growing catalog of treasures.

The wizard locked himself away for many eight-hour days in the second-floor room converted into laboratory space, emerging occasionally to brew another kettle of hot tea, eat a few bites, or shuffle off to bed. Kara assumed the ground floor study as her workspace. As they came and went about their own business, the other party members would occasionally hear complex chanted phrases of magic, or the chime of small arcane tools on metal, or explosive bangs, or catch the odor of strange concoctions in process. On one occasion, a disquieting purplish mist billowed lightly from beneath the laboratory door frame and crept along the corridor, drifting down the stairs almost like water, only to dissipate before it collected below.

At the end of one late day, Rahab awaited the return of the others from their dinner at a nearby tavern. When the group entered, the conjurer drew near and wordlessly held out to Gloriana a particular work that had required four full days to carefully craft. It was a narrow circlet of thin silver etched with stylized images of swans. Dotted around the band’s circumference were five half-carat gemstones: three red spinels, two orange carnelians.

Abby, Kara, and Lem gathered around, and Gloriana’s eyes grew wide as she delicately received the work. “Rahab! You . . . made this? What is it?”

“I call it The Diadem Of The Swan. A bird of regal bearing seemed fitting to illustrate the elevation this adornment bestows. It will take a short time—perhaps no more than a day—to become accustomed to the sensation.”

The wizard gently took the circlet from the oracle’s hands and held it above her golden locks, then lowered it slowly, like a court official crowning an empress. As the band touched Gloriana’s brow the oracle felt a surge of magnificence well up within her, cascading behind her eyes and plunging all the way to her toes, as though her bones suddenly became a great, rushing waterfall whose sound was a chorus of cheers and adulation echoing in an amphitheater. In an instant she knew that, were she to return to her clan’s caravan in this newfound power, leadership of the Journey Council would be hers to take at will. With that knowledge came the complex understanding that many in camp would fear her, many would love her, and some would come to hate her.

“Ghosts of The Road!” she gasped as a shudder shook her frame. “It’s . . . !” Her eyes watered and she shut them against the sensation of magic coursing through her. To describe the experience seemed folly. “Rahab!” she finally shouted in astonished joy. “It’s the most . . . purple . . . ever!”

Her exultation seemed to suffuse the room in light. The air around her shimmered in luminous waves. Tiny, vaporous spirits geysered into being around Gloriana’s shoulders and head, assumed the elegant shape of swans, and took flight in slow-motion, their graceful forms agleam in honeyglow tones that shone in relief against the dark wood of the ceiling like stars drifting in the night sky. To the others Gloriana seemed suddenly more commanding, more righteous, more haunted, more beautiful, more lambent than they had heretofore known.

Rahab’s teeth flashed in a great laugh. “I can assure you there is still more ‘purple’ to be had when next our fortunes allow further crafting.”

Over subsequent weeks, the wizard approached each of the companions in turn with newly created items of magical power that they had requested. Among these works was the leather belt called Prowling Cat, adorned with a buckle of pure silver in the shape of a stalking feline. This he gave to Lem, remarking “A Cat for a Gardener, to help prey on pests.”

To boost Abby’s strength, Rahab crafted The Belt Of The Red Ox, a wide girdle of thick bull leather stained deep crimson and linked with four hefty buckles of brass and steel.

For Kara’s request the conjurer built Hilianu Darnathval Hishfohalm, roughly interpreted from Elvish as Starfall Hemisphere Coalescing. “Voathish,” the alchemist said in thanks, and then—looking over the adornment—softly murmured, “Brayhoom. Tasseriadai brayhoom.”3

And finally Rahab bestowed on his own brow a narrow band of gold etched with magical runes interspersed with two chips of lapis lazuli and two small amethysts. He named the headband Encircling Theorem.

To these treasures were added others, some crafted by the wizard, some bought with gold from arcane merchants, some from Kara’s alchemy, until the party’s money was much depleted. When the crafting effort was finally finished, the wizard was thin and haggard, pale from too many hours locked away from the winter sun. His beard had filled in thick and brushy, his short slicked hair had grown disheveled. Exhausted though he was, the conjurer was already speculating on future creations and increasing levels of power.4

After a full day of rest, Rahab bathed, shaved back to his impish goatee and moustache, cut and combed his hair, and took his coin purse and a bottle of good wine to a brothel of note for an evening of sufficient debauchery.

••••

It was the fourth morning bell when the wizard stumbled back inside the door of the Foxglove Townhouse, shaking snow off his boots. To his surprise, he found Abby sitting alone in the kitchen cradling a mug of hot tea by the emberlight in the hearth.

“What are you doing at this hour?” Rahab asked, blinking blearily.

The warrior shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep. Felt like tea.” She sipped from the mug. “Run out of coin, did you?”

“Actually, no.” Rahab sank wearily into a wooden chair next to his friend and closed his eyes. “The madam insisted I leave.”

Abby chuckled good-naturedly. “Rahab,” she teased with a gentle shake of her head, “what did you do?”

The wizard’s grin was utterly exhausted and utterly triumphant. “Many delightful things, and all were enthusiastically received and reciprocated. But those were not why I was asked to leave.”

“What happened?”

Rahab opened his eyes. “In between bouts, I was caught talking to several workers about organizing a Prostitute’s Guild.”

Abby coughed into her mug, and then began to laugh. “You did what?”

“It is an eminently logical and morally superior initiative,” the wizard remarked, “as any fool can see. Where the occupation is illegal it should be made legal, and where it is legal it should be protected just as readily as shopkeepers, bookbinders, stonemasons, or any other profession. As it stands, pimps and other procurers often harm the workers they are supposed to protect, to say nothing of predation and exploitation by customers of reprehensible character. Theft, abuse, neglect . . . it all happens, and prostitutes often have little recourse. If they organized in guilds they could oversee their own work, set standards of practice and cost, establish training, enlist priests for healing and disease prevention, retain security for personal protection, seek representation in matters of government and jurisdiction, implement pensions to sustain those no longer able or desiring to work, and enjoy legal support in redressing injury.”

Abby shook her head in amazement. “You’ve really thought this through.”

“I’ve had the idea for years, though surely I am not the first. Of course, procurers are opposed to the suggestion because it effectively eliminates the extortion and tyranny many of them practice. Hence, half-an-hour ago, a heavily-muscled dwarf and a human with a knife asked me to leave while I still had all my teeth. And organs.”

Abby was laughing again. “You don’t think you could have defeated them with your magic?”

“Unknown. Even if I could, it would just be taken out on the women with whom I spoke, perhaps in coin, perhaps in blood. Leaving peacefully lessened the chance some harm might come to the workers from the madam or her thugs.”

Abby’s mirth settled into somber reflection. She well knew of countless similar circumstances back in Riddleport. She handed her mug to the wizard. “Here. I’m impressed, Rahab.”

The conjurer received the proffered tea sluggishly but gratefully. “As I said, I suspect others have had the same idea. It is not particularly genius.” He sipped and sighed contentedly.

“That’s not what I meant.”

Rahab regarded the warrior. “What did you mean?”

“Well,” Abby struggled a bit with the sentiment. “It’s just that . . . I think we—that is, Glo and Kara and me—maybe Lem, too, I’m not sure—anyway, I guess we thought, you know . . . you just . . . went for sex. Not many would think about helping out the way you mention. I’m surprised . . . coming from you . . . I’m not sure what to think . . . .” She trailed off with a vague gesture.

“It’s not a zero-sum game, Abby. Improving the lives of the prostitutes benefits them, and it also benefits their customers, and their communities. Their profession is perfectly honorable. In fact, it is probably more honorable than many others. An organized presence would go a long way to changing ignorant and antagonistic perceptions.”

The warrior blinked. “I’ve never heard you like this.”

“Perhaps the night’s events have affected my faculties.”

“It’s nice, Rahab. You should try it more often.”

The wizard’s eyes closed again.

Abby continued, a sly smile on her lips. “If Cheliax could witness this right now they’d wonder where they went wrong. Then they’d execute you.”

“An ignorant oversimplification of Cheliax, Abby. You are better than that. Besides, I am clearly a superior example of that ancestry.”

Renewed laughter. “Is that what you tell the prostitutes?”

“Not at all. I prefer to demonstrate that with action rather than words, although there is some excellent vocal communication throughout, to be sure.”

Now Abby had both hands pressed over her mouth to stifle her guffaws, lest the noise wake the others in the house.

“I thank you for the tea,” Rahab said, opening his eyes and struggling to his feet. His devil-grin flashed. “Ecstatically destroyed, I am to bed.” He turned and headed for the stairs. The warrior watched him go with a mix of disbelief, humor, and rekindled admiration. She turned to the kettle to prepare another mug. The kitchen hearth embers glowed low, looming red pebbles spilling waves of slow heat onto the quiet flagstones.
_____________________________

1 The Princess of the Markets, the crime lord who oversees Varisia’s largest place of commerce.

2 The extra feat Rahab took at 5th level was Craft Wondrous Item. This is the first opportunity he has had to make use of it.

3 This is one occasion in which I am leaving the translation of Elvish to the imagination of the reader.

4 The magic items: The Diadem of the Swan is a Headband of Charisma +2. Prowling Cat is a Belt of Dexterity +2. The Belt of the Red Ox is a Belt of Giant Strength +2. Starfall Hemisphere Coalescing is a Headband of Vast Intelligence +4. Encircling Theorem is a Headband of Vast Intelligence +4. In addition, Rahab also crafted the following: Bracers of Armor +2 for himself, a Pearl of Power 1 and a Pearl of Power 2 for himself, a Cloak of Resistance +2 for Glo, a Cloak of Resistance +2 for Kara, a Belt of Dexterity +2 for Kara, an Amulet of Natural Armor +1 for himself, and a Handy Haversack for himself. The party also bought some other items from merchants, including some healing wands, armor and weapons, and Rahab spent money to purchase numerous scrolls and transfer them into his spellbooks. Insert appropriate assembly/crafting montage music for this narrative section.

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Book III, Chapter 9: A Long Way Down to the City
9.8 Meters Per Second Per Second

The shuddering death throes in Xanesha’s coils finally stilled. The summit was a mess: Floor and walls spattered in blood, chests along the perimeter charred. A few tiny flames from Rahab’s fireball still burned feebly on the top of the walkway at the section of fallen wall. Abby and Kara struggled to haul the lamia matriarch’s corpse back from the edge of the collapse, and then everyone sat down in exhaustion.

Rahab searched in his backpack and came up with a wineskin. He drank deeply, then passed it to Gloriana on his left, and slowly the vintage made its way around to all the companions. They imbibed in silence, the only sound the whistling of the wind and their own labored breathing. The late afternoon sun was beginning to make its way to the horizon.

“Getting back down is going to be interesting,” Lem remarked after a while.

“Later,” Gloriana waved a hand weakly. “Later, please.” She had shut her eyes and leaned back against the wall. Almost her entire experience in the tower, from entry to summit, had been one of pain.

Rahab gingerly struggled to his feet, glancing down at the ruin of his robe with a sigh. “If I didn’t know better, I would suspect the monsters we fight were part of a conspiracy by the Tailor’s Guild. Bah! Let us see what we can learn here, at least.” The wizard strode forward and cast a spell to detect the presence of magic.

“The spear,” he murmured, his eyes partially glazed as he read the arcane information in the shifting symbols and patterns the others did not see, “which will come as a shock to no one. Her snakeskin tunic. The mask, of course. She wears a medallion, too, and the faceless stalker wears a necklace of fireballs, or I am no wizard. There is magic in one of the chests, as well: The last one on the right.”

Lem gathered the items from the bodies as the conjurer noted them, then inclined his head toward the wall. “I’ll get started on the chests.”

“Rahab,” Abby called, walking over slowly. “I found this.” The warrior held out a crumpled piece of paper. Rahab raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

“What is it?”

“A letter, I think,” Abby answered.

“You think? Can you not read?”

“Of course, but I thought—”

“Abby, at least some portion of my genius lies in recognizing the abilities and strengths of others. I do not keep company with idiots. I am surprised you think yourself unequal to helping us unravel the mysteries vexing us. I estimated the sum of your person greater than mere swordplay. Was I wrong?”

Abby blinked in surprise, and then slowly smoothed the paper with her gauntleted hands. While Lem carefully began inspecting the chests for traps, the warrior started to read aloud, uncertainly at first, but with growing confidence. Kara stepped close. Rahab bent his head to listen, stroking his goatee in thought, nodding encouragement to the warrior. Gloriana could not help but smile quietly to herself, recalling the conjurer’s words to her on that night before they left for Magnimar: I am always learning, Gloriana.1 The oracle glanced at the wizard and felt . . . glad.

Abby narrated:

“My sister—

I trust your little band of murderers is doing well, gathering the greedy souls for our Lord’s rise? Has Magnimar proved to be as sinful as you had hoped? It may interest you to know that my plan to nurture greed here in this backwater has blossomed—the quality of greed in a soul is so much more refined when it is given the proper care. Are you still simply carving the Sihedron on them as they expire? How crude! My method of marking is so much more elegant. In any event, I’m sure that your plans for harvesting greed when and where you can find it “in the wild” are progressing well enough—I just hope that your raw, ungroomed, and likely inferior victims don’t interact poorly when mixed with the purity of my subjects. If you tire of your little project there, know that you’re always welcome to come to Turtleback Ferry and serve as my assistant, little sister! Our plans to take control of Fort Rannick will have to wait until after winter, but once we have it there will be plenty of room for you if you wish to take me up on my generous offer.

Oh! Before I forget! Have you managed to harvest that lord-mayor yet? By all accounts, he might just be the cream of the crop in Magnimar—his soul might even rival several of my hand-grown harvest!”2

“There is no signature,” the warrior intoned. She carefully folded the letter, looked up, and handed it to Rahab, who received it with a friendly wink and a smile of genuine affection. Abby blushed with unexpected pride.

Gloriana clapped a hand each on the shoulder of warrior and wizard, then winced as the motion troubled the pain in her torso from the battle wounds that still lingered. “This is getting more sinister by the moment,” the oracle wheezed. Rahab and Abby turned to help steady the honey-haired woman. Gloriana continued: “Rahab, any ideas about who Xanesha’s sibling is? Or the ‘Lord’ that was mentioned?”

The conjurer shrugged. “No, but reference to Turtleback Ferry suggests that we may need to travel.”

Kara groaned: “We just got here! And anyway, I am not sure we are ready, if this fight was any indication.” The alchemist swept her hand over the scene.

Abby agreed. “We got lucky.”

“Perhaps, but I do not perceive cause for alarm just yet,” the conjurer returned. He looked directly into Abby’s eyes. “Why is that?”

The warrior looked uncertain a moment. She reasoned it must have something to do with the letter and Rahab’s encouragement. “Winter.”

A devil’s grin grew broad on the wizard’s face. “Excellent!”

Abby smiled.

“The letter mentions delay due to the imminent season,” Rahab resumed, turning to address Gloriana and Kara as well. “Such time may avail us, allowing an advance in our power, the acquisition of new equipment and materials, opportunity to train and better ourselves.”

“Where is Turtleback Ferry, and this ‘Fort Rannick?’” Abby asked.

“Some two hundred forty miles to the east-northeast, as the crow flies, and they are both in the mountains. Winter will be harsh enough at the lower elevations. When the heavy snows set in very little will be moving up there without the aid of significant magic. I suspect we have time.” Rahab held up an index finger in warning. “For the present we have more pressing concerns! We must take stock here, reach the city below, take some rest, and begin preparing in detail. There will be much to do. Master Gardener? What have you learned?”

All eyes turned to Lem. The halfling was leaning against the wall next to the line of chests, lightly brushing the fingernails of his right hand against his leather jerkin. All seven containers stood open, locks breached, lids propped carefully back like a museum display. No one had heard a sound.

••••

The array of treasure stood before them. They had gathered the items looted from Xanesha and the stalker and placed them near the chests to get a better sense of what they had found.

“Do not forget the scythe at the tower base,” Kara reminded them, “and this cloak.” The alchemist was pulling the garment from her backpack.

“At a quick estimate, I’d say there’s . . .” Lem gave a vague shrug, “. . . fifty-thousand coins.” The first five chests were filled with small leather and cloth pouches brimming with copper, silver, gold, and platinum. “Not sure of the actual count, but it probably totals somewhere around three thousand in gold value.” The gardener’s grin was that of the cat that ate the canary.

“And, let’s not forget these,” Lem continued. He gestured at the sixth chest. Inside lay several pieces of bejeweled gold and silver: bracelets, necklaces, earrings. Scattered among the pieces were a number of loose gemstones: two uncut opals, a few small pearls, three cut spinels in black and red, and a single kite-cut yellow topaz the size of a beetle. “What do you think, Kara?”

The alchemist regarded the collection thoughtfully. “Four thousand?”

“I was going to say forty-five hundred,” Lem smiled. “Let’s split the difference: forty-two fifty. Regardless, the liquid value sitting here is more than seven thousand gold pieces alone.”

Abby gave a low whistle. Gloriana looked at the wizard. “Rahab?”

“I can make some guesses about the magic items, with Kara’s help, of course.” He gave one of his slight bows from the neck, the kind that no one ever felt sure was honorific, mockery, or both.

“Dubrin nimihondubri,”3 said Kara. The conjurer began to cast spells and the alchemist consulted with him in quiet tones.4

••••

In addition to the treasure, the magic items, and the letter, they also found a list of names, some of which had been crossed off. Rahab took this and folded it next to the other document. Evening had come to Magnimar, and it was already cold in the tower. In the city below lamp, candle, and hearth lights began to appear. The last boats were docking or anchoring in harbor.

“It’s later,” Lem said. “I’m not too worried about myself, but how do the rest of you get down?” The gardener stood at the collapsed wall and looked at the walkway. The proximal section had blackened, but the flames were out and the the remaining lengths that led to the clockwork room below looked intact, if not sturdy.

“This is your area of expertise,” Abby remarked. “Make a recommendation.”

Lem turned to Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab. “What is our magic compliment?”

Both alchemist and oracle shook their heads. Rahab held up a single index finger by way of count.

“All right.” The gardener turned back to look outside. “Well, we could stay here, but it’s going to be cold overnight, and we don’t have much to keep a fire going. I mean, the chests . . . maybe . . . but we’d have to break them apart. I think we should try for the clockwork room, at least, where it is more sheltered, and reassess from there. I’ll go first.”

When they were ready, laden with every bit of treasure they could manage, Gloriana’s magical haversack filled to its limit, Lem made his way out onto the walkway. It appeared the initial section had become charcoal only on the surface, and his weight held. He advanced in the gathering gloom, the wind whipping treacherously, and signalled Abby to follow. The warrior outweighed each of the others in turn, and if anything was going to happen it was most likely when she moved. Rahab stood poised to cast his spell in the event of something catastrophic.

A quarter of an hour later they had all managed to gather in the clockwork room with everything they had liberated from the summit. The journey had not been pleasant, but it was at least successful. Save for Abby’s lightstone and Rahab’s torch, the tower was now in darkness.

They gathered together against one wall to confer. Lem held court: “The next part is the real danger, what with gaps in the stair.” The gardener rubbed the scab on his shin where fourteen-thousand pounds of forged bronze had abraded his leg on its way to an inevitable resolution of gravitation. He looked at the others: Abby in full armor, Rahab of merely average physical strength, Gloriana still in pain from the battle, and everyone in the party burdened with treasure.

Lem shook his head. “No. Not tonight. We’re here, and need to make the best of it.” He looked at Kara. “In the morning, you can brew another potion to fly?”

The alchemist nodded. “Yes, but it will only work for me.”

“Fine. Gloriana, will you be able to summon magic of levitation?”

It was the oracle’s turn to demur. “Only for three of us.”

Lem glanced at the conjurer. “Rahab?”

“I will have sufficient magic to make up any differences.”

“Very well. Then we need to try and find as much comfort as we can in here tonight, and hope the tower doesn’t collapse. I don’t think we’ll need to set any watch. Nothing is coming up the tower.”

They gathered what rations they had and dined by torchlight on biscuits, jerky, nuts, dried fruit, and the remainder of Rahab’s wine. With no way to safely kindle a fire, they wrapped themselves in their cloaks as best they could and huddled together for warmth. Abby had stowed away her lightstone and Rahab had wrapped his torch in cloth; neither device shed any warmth anyway. The ghostly glow of the moon shining delicate phantom light on Magnimar barely pierced the darkness underneath the Irespan. The doorway to the exterior framed a few faint stars in the sky. Perhaps it was just as well the adventurers felt such exhaustion, for despite their uncomfortable bedding, they soon fell asleep, sheltered by one curve of wall from the winds that howled strange lullaby throughout the night.

••••

“Abby!” Gloriana’s eyes widened. The warrior looked up from where she squatted behind the rusted clock mechanism. Through the doorway to the tower exterior the vague light of dawn slowly crept. The room was cold and the adventurers’ breath collected in little bursts of momentary fog.

“What?” Abby sounded annoyed at the interruption.

Gloriana made an insistent, alarmed gesture. Abby frowned and waved a hand in dismissal.

“Someone might see!” the oracle hissed.

“You mean Rahab? Or maybe Lem?” the warrior countered, and gestured to the far side of the room. Gloriana glanced over her shoulder. Wizard and gardener stood some distance apart, each facing the wall, leaning back slightly, legs braced, thin streams of liquid splattering down upon the planks at their feet.

Gloriana looked away quickly.

“Glo,” Abby was shaking her head in disbelief, “how did you ever survive growing up in a caravan community? Literally everyone does this, literally every day. Hell, I bet even Kara does it.”

The oracle did not seem to find Abby’s joke funny, striding away in exasperation instead. Abby shrugged, finished, stood with relief, and began to resettle her clothing and armor.

••••

An hour later Rahab had memorized his spells and the adventurers gathered near the last portion of exterior walkway snaking down to the interior access. The chill settled in their bones and Kara shivered visibly. Gloriana embraced the alchemist to join their mutual heat to advantage.

“Thank you,” Kara said through chattering teeth, and after a couple of minutes nodded to indicate she was ready to proceed.

“Well, the easiest way is simply to drop from here,” Lem reasoned.

Kara was in the act of drinking her extract of flight, and Gloriana had just begun prayer to the spirits for the spell of levitation when Rahab strode without ceremony through the door and stepped off the platform into open air, one hundred fifty feet above the ground. It took everyone by surprise. Gloriana gasped, Abby’s eyes grew wide, Lem did a double-take. Kara blinked once, not certain of what she had just seen. In the next instant the companions rushed to the edge to look over, and there was Rahab, red-wine robes fluttering as he drifted gently earthward in no more danger than a dandelion pod on the faintest summer breeze.5

“Huh,” Lem murmured. “He didn’t seem as confident yesterday on The Terrible Stair.”

“There’s no bell falling on us this time,” Abby commented, then stepped out into the air herself, allowing Gloriana’s levitation magic to take her slowly down. The others followed suit.

••••

Rahab was waiting for them at the base of the tower. They collected the magical scythe from inside the door, and walked away in the direction of the Dockway. Within a few minutes Gloriana urgently insisted they stop for a moment at a crooked alley, and further insisted all four others post themselves at either end, on lookout, with their backs to her.

Standing next to Abby, Lem asked the warrior, “What are you giggling about?”
_________________________________

1 Hey, even Rahab can get a good roll on a Charisma check occasionally

2 The text of this letter is slightly different than that detailed in the Rise of the Runelords module series. I have made the reference to winter delay because of the passage of time in the next several chapters. The module presumes the adventurers will make their way very quickly to Turtleback Ferry after the events in Magnimar. I had a long conversation with dgroo about this issue. I find such speed problematic because, at current leveling pace, the party would reach 20th level in a little less than one in-game year. Epic journeys of heroes—Odysseus, Aragorn, Paul Muad’Dib, Nell from The Diamond Age, Morn Hyland—draw part of their power because of the time that it takes for events to unfold. Going from 1st level to 20th in less than one in-game year rubbed me the wrong way, despite what appears to be the adventure path design. So I convinced dgroo to include an interlude over the winter months in which behind-the-scenes stuff could take place—plotting, planning, research, and the like—with resumption of the adventure full of encounters in the game world’s spring. Hence the letter reads a little different than the published component in the modules. Surely some monsters must have to deal with winter at times.

3 Roughly translated from Elvish: “Let’s see what we can see.”

4 For the cinematic effect when reading this scene, I suggest cueing up “Money” by Pink Floyd from their 1973 release Dark Side of the Moon. Turn it up and start from the section break. Final accounting of the gathered loot: scythe +1 and Cloak of Elvenkind, as well as 155 g.p. worth of gold and silver coins, plus a silver ring and silver mirror, all from the golem. From Xanesha’s trove: 3,040 g.p. in coin across the spectrum, plus 4,200 g.p. worth of jewelry and gemstones. Magic items from the summit: 4 potions of Cure Moderate Wounds, a Scarab of Golembane, a Ring of Jumping, a small-sized kukri +2, Necklace of Fireballs Type III (with 4 × 3d6 gems, 1 × 5d6 gem, and 1 × 7d6 gem), a Snakeskin Tunic, a Medusa Mask, and the spear that had wreaked such havoc on us was an Impaler of Thorns.

5 Feather Fall.

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Book III, Chapter 8: The Shadow Clock Summit
. . . And Snakes

By rope, by extract of flight, and by Gloriana’s reapplied spell of levitation the companions eventually crossed the gap to the exterior walkway. Like The Terrible Stair, the outside walkway was narrow, missing planks of brittle wood, and entirely without railing. The wind shifted and whistled dramatically, grabbing at their clothes, whipping their hair, chilling them, and generally adding to the treachery of their passage. Looking up they could see the walkway rising up around the tower exterior. Gloriana shouted above the wind to wait a moment, then applied a spell of strength to Abby, followed by small orisons of fortune to everyone in the group against the chance of slipping and falling. Then they resumed.

As they went, Rahab gazed out on Magnimar beneath and stretching to the southwest. It was afternoon when they began their invasion of the tower and save for Underbridge in its nearly perpetual shadow, the districts of Dockway, Beacon’s Point, and Keystone stretched broad under golden autumn sunlight. Rainclouds loomed on the horizon, alternating dark grey and bright silver against the day. Flecks of gyring white coursed the sky as the city’s gulls swept in endless patrol. On the glittering water drifted fishing boats and cargo ships and barges about the business of the day.

They came to another door leading back into the tower. Abby poked her head inside for a quick assessment and saw ancient iron machinery, gears and axles, lengths of hanging chain, cogs, all in a ruin of rust long since shuddered to a halt. She stepped inside the room and the warped planks of the floor made for uneven footing. The others followed, relieved for a moment to be out of the cold wind.

Though it was far too late to approach without making a sound, they nevertheless remained hushed. Abby looked at Rahab as the wizard entered with his magically lit torch.

Clockwork? the warrior mouthed. The wizard nodded, and Abby returned the gesture. There was another doorway nearby, once again leading outside to another exterior walkway, this time to the tower summit. Without waiting for anyone to lose nerve, Abby strode purposefully to the next walkway and began the final ascent. Lem followed immediately behind, then came Gloriana, Kara, and finally Rahab.

The last portion of crumbling plank ended at the top of the structure where an entire section of wall had long since fallen to the ground one hundred and eighty feet below. At the pinnacle of the tower’s arched roof stood the angelic statue, sculptural details weathered and decayed to vagueness. Opening before them was the final room, a space some thirty feet or so in diameter, paved in narrow, worn stones littered in gull droppings. Against one wall were lined seven wooden chests bound in iron or steel. A stack of wooden cages stood nearby, and three ravens hopped and cawed inside. Inside one of the cages a corvid had drawn a length of bright yellow silk the companions immediately recognized.

Gloriana began to detect for the presence of magic when suddenly two creatures appeared out of thin air.

••••

Roughly the size of a human, the two beings were muscled, covered in reddish-blue scales, and sprouted a variety of dangerous-looking spines from limbs, torso, and head. Mouths of sharp teeth opened in a hostile hiss, glittering yellow eyes narrowed in anticipation of combat.

Abby waited for no instruction, merely stepped forward to the nearest monster and swung her sword, but the creature danced deftly out of range. She attacked a second time and again the thing evaded, giving a hissing cackle of mockery. The warrior realized there was something wrong. Some effect made it difficult for her to swing properly, in time, with the right form. It almost felt as if the monster knew what movement she was going to make before she made it.1

From Gloriana’s upraised hand sprang a beam of sizzling light that burned a black scar upon the second creature, causing it to recoil, hissing in pain. The oracle stepped into the room off to one side to allow the others entry.

Lem moved to join the fight, dagger and war razor at the ready, tumbling and dodging to find an advantageous angle of attack behind the creature Gloriana singed with her spell. As he did so, the monster appeared to draw something from a small chain around its neck, then cast it at the floor amidst the group. An instant later the chamber blossomed in explosive fire. Lem dove forward and rolled away from the blast while Kara took to the air inside the summit room and flew near the ceiling. Abby crouched behind Avenger at the last moment before the flames engulfed her, and Gloriana whirled to face the wall in desperation. Rahab recognized the effect and managed to step back out onto the precarious walkway as a gout of flame issued past him, singing his eyebrows.2 A moment later he reappeared at the gap in the wall and stepped into the room.

From her height, Kara unlimbered a shocking grenado and pitched it against the monster closest to Abby. Electricity flared violently, but somehow the monster seemed unaffected.

For his part, Rahab was growing alarmed. There was something distinctly problematic—beyond the physical danger—about these monsters, and it bothered him to the very depths of his intellect. For it was obvious—to Rahab, at any rate—what the creatures were meant to be, but equally certain was the fact that these beings were not actually what they appeared. Lesser students of arcane, planar, and Infernal lore would have guessed the opponents as hamatulas, or “barbed devils” in the vernacular, but the conjurer knew better. Certain distinctive features indicative of the precise ordering of Hell’s vastness were noticeably absent. Rahab knew his devils, and these were not hamatulas.

Yet what should have been comforting realization reasserting the awesome integrity of his profound intellect instead generated worry, precisely because he did not know what these beings were. It was as if they were masquerading as hamatulas, doing a job sufficient to fool almost anyone . . . except for a Cheliaxian conjurer raised and tutored by a house with centuries of Infernal ties and skilled diabolism. Something was definitely, distinctly misleading here, and an instant later the realization dawned: illusion.

The wizard stepped forward and raised both arms. The sleeves of his wine-red robe fell back and his fingers splayed. A light grew in his eyes as he loudly voiced the chant of dispelling and sent the magic crashing down upon the creature nearest Abby, only to react in shock as the powerful spell did nothing. Rahab tried a different tactic, calling loudly to the room:

“Vomgyled Rahab vex Eldredshade Wo’thkahd. L’hon dyrdraghadz jom’shedj Disinaxath: Balmurinin nidiur atk’tresh’dezet chyryr gy’azeshekt hnevedstiaxu thushoon g’byriniox!”3

The others looked over at the wizard as he shouted in a language none of them recognized. Smoke from the fiery blast that had singed all of them moments ago still lingered in the air, but each saw all too clearly when a brutal spear point erupted from below the conjurer’s sternum in a fountain of blood. Behind Rahab a shadow loomed.

••••

“Hello, Rahab of Eldredshade,” came the voice behind him, full of menace and as cruel as the sudden pain that tore through with such force that it nearly knocked the wizard unconscious. “I am Xanesha. It is unfortunate that I am not collecting pride today.” The words were spoken in Common.

Rahab looked down and saw the spear point emerging from his robes, dripping slowly with his own blood. It was eerie the degree to which he noted the details. For a moment he was able to fretfully search his awareness for Escher’s sign of life, and though the pain allowed no sense of relief, the conjurer nonetheless recognized that his familiar was still alive. A moment later the jagged barb of dark, bloody wood ripped unceremoniously backward from Rahab’s wound and a second wave of enormous agony clawed at his nervous system. The wizard collapsed to his knees, vainly placing his hands over the gaping injury, watching with macabre interest as his fingers ran slick with crimson. Even though he could not see it, he knew that the corresponding hole in back was even larger. How it had missed his spine he could only wonder, how he was still conscious an equal mystery.

The others had all seen the massive shape suddenly appear at the instant the cruel weapon pierced Rahab. At first Abby and Lem thought it was a humanoid woman. Flowing, curly-black locks draped around a face wearing a golden mask of cruel aspect and adorned with serpent motifs. The upper body was draped in a skintight tunic that appeared to be made of blue-grey snake scales, and the supple arms gripped the longspear, preparing for another strike. But Gloriana and Kara had the better view of this new arrival calling herself Xanesha. Oracle and alchemist saw that the woman’s body did not continue on two legs, but emerged from a great length of coiled green serpent the diameter of a wine barrel. All told the creature was twelve feet long, mask to tail. Gloriana had heard tales of such creatures called lamia: The upper part appearing as a human woman, the lower part as a lion, but this configuration recalled no story she knew from her people. The oracle did, however, at last realize who the “snake lady” was to whom the ravens had referred.

Kara, on the other hand, recognized from her own magical research that this was, indeed, kin to the lamias, and all the more terrible as a matriarch among those monsters. The alchemist was already preparing another shock bomb even as she shouted to the others from her vantage above, “A lamia matriarch! Immune to powers of the mind, and she has illusions and charms!” Then she dropped the grenado.

Xanesha’s golden mask turned up to regard Kara with a sinister hiss. A moment later the bomb exploded, and the alchemist saw her mistake.

••••

The grenado fell short. Kara had misjudged the distance, and in so doing she ushered the weapon right between Rahab and Gloriana. Instead of arcing blue-white lightning against Xanesha, the device angled awkwardly, exploded in mid-bounce, and crackled in a splash over the wizard and oracle in equal measure.4 The alchemist cursed loudly in Elvish. Rahab was finding it difficult to breathe.

Abby was already bounding across the room, ignoring the creature she had been unable to strike before. Gloriana’s link of life took a small portion of Rahab’s extensive injury upon herself, and a moment later she summoned a scimitar from the ghosts and sent it to attack the spiny monster she and Lem had initially damaged. The curved blade landed a blow.

Somehow Rahab managed to turn on his knees so he could see Xanesha. Realizing he was too close to cast spells without drawing an attack, the wizard tried to make himself as compact as possible, adopting a defensive posture and summoning a brilliant spray of shining dust to coat the lamia matriarch and prevent further invisibility. The spell died on his lips as blood pooled in his mouth.5 New tremors of pain shook him at every movement. A spoken word sounded, partially muffled behind the golden mask, and Xanesha’s form suddenly shifted. There seemed to be two lamia matriarchs in the doorway, interchanging places back and forth as though seen through angled glass.

Then Abby was there, interposing herself between Rahab and Xanesha, sword arcing. Both matriarchs reacted with serpent’s speed and blocked the warrior’s attack with the haft of the longspear, though which was the actual monster and which the illusion Abby was not sure she could tell. The resistance shook her sword arm so violently she nearly dropped her weapon. At least the monster had switched attention for the moment. Out of the corner of her eye Abby could see Rahab struggling weakly to remain conscious and aware. There was an awful lot of blood on the stone floor.

Lem, in the meantime, recognized that Xanesha’s position in the doorway prevented him from entering that fight for the moment, so he concentrated on the spiny creature before him, first with dagger, then war razor. Both weapons struck home. Whatever this thing was, its flesh was real, unlike the one Abby had been battling, which he now realized was some illusion. Gloriana’s spiritual weapon added another wound to the monster immediately after Lem’s attacks.

The oracle focused for a moment, beseeched the spirits, and took a step closer to the blurring, oscillating Xanesha, hoping to draw the matriarch’s attention away from Rahab as Abby had started to do. The channeled power of the healing ghosts flowed outward, washing over all her friends and excluding her enemies. Near her, still crouched on his knees, Rahab’s wounds began to knit closed from the inside out. A moment later Gloriana gently placed her hand on the blood-slick back of Rahab’s robe. She cast a spell of powerful healing magic, and a surge of life brought the wizard to his feet once more, entirely renewed, wounds closed, organs whole, blood restored. Though he was still sticky in his own gore, his ashen pallor had gone, and his eyes looked clear. On second thought, Gloriana considered, his eyes look clear . . . and murderous.6

Xanesha’s implacable, cool golden mask angled up at Kara once again. A single green gemstone was seated upon the brow of the covering, and the alchemist watched as it glowed briefly. A power crept over her, stiffening her limbs and joints for a moment, but Kara shook off the effect.7 Xanesha hissed in annoyance and the images of her lower body coiled and shifted in the doorway where she still held command.

The alchemist responded with a power of her own, this time throwing a special concoction she had recently learned to brew. It was a mixture that contained the power to dispel magic such as Rahab could command in spell form. The jar shattered on the blurring Xanesha forms, and one of them winked out an instant later, earning another hiss of displeasure. The lamia matriarch was clearly visible once more, easily identified and precise to pin down. Abby grinned and flexed her arms expectantly beneath her mail.

Rahab seized the opportunity, once again casting defensively so as not to invite another spear strike as he worked his magic. This time a shimmering green ray of power burst from his outstretched finger, but while his spell was successfully activated, the wizard could only watch in disgust as Xanesha drew herself up on her coils, and arced her snake’s trunk in a loop through which the beam passed harmlessly and out the doorway beyond.

Abby struck again, once, twice, a third time. The matriarch dodged the first sword and shield blows, but the last connected, shearing off scales and drawing red blood. Gloriana redirected the focus of her ghost blade against Xanesha, then summoned another beam of searing light that bored a smoking hole into the matriarch’s right arm. Xanesha howled in pain, then spun her longspear upon the oracle stabbing twice and opening horrific wounds that bled darkly onto Gloriana’s silks. The oracle barely had time to abandon the link of life with her friends,8 and the matriarch felt grimly satisfied to hear the beautiful golden-haired woman issue a scream of agony all her own.

Lem finally dispatched the spiny monster he had been fighting with a vicious double attack, simultaneously striking neck and kidney (or where he imagined such an organ might be, if this creature had one), only to watch as the body collapsed to the stones, rippling and distorting, becoming the lifeless, spongy red gooey flesh of another faceless stalker. Over the gardener’s shoulder he saw the illusory fiend close on Abby and attempt to attack the warrior from behind, only to miss, not that the gardener imagined it would have mattered if it had hit.

From her place fifteen feet above the battle, just below the final peak of the tower’s interior, Kara realized that Gloriana was in grave danger. She hesitated a moment, eschewing attack to see if she needed to fly to the oracle’s aid.

Rahab stepped back beyond the range of the longspear, raised his hand, and pointed past the matriarch. He spoke words of power and the interior of the tower was suddenly lit by blazing light as a churning ball of weaponized fire bloomed outside, roiling and engulfing Xanesha. The fireball’s expansion stopped just short of Abby, and the warrior felt her breath momentarily stolen away as oxygen in the immediate vicinity was consumed to feed the magic. A wind made of heat blasted her short hair back, vapor that had been her sweat curled up from her head, shoulders, and arms, and her eyeballs dried out in an instant. As tears resumed a moment later to restore the equilibrium in her organs of sight Abby was actually grateful that Rahab had been the one to cast the spell: She had every confidence in his genius to measure exactly the distance such destruction could be invoked and still not harm his companions . . . that one time in the kitchen of The Misgivings notwithstanding.

When the flames dissipated there was smoke curling from Xanesha’s body, wafting up in wisps from charred snake scales, and licks of flame burned in what remained of her hair.9 The serpentine body writhed and the golden mask turned on Rahab. A hissing sound in a language the wizard did not recognize made the matriarch’s feelings—if not exactly explicit—readily guessable.

The conjurer stared back cooly and smirked. “Yedli.”10 The condescension in his voice was unmistakable.

Abby launched more sword strikes at Xanesha and landed another hefty blow. Gloriana’s spirit scimitar floated through the air and slashed at the matriarch, but missed, though it bought the oracle precious time to step out of reach and summon her last spell of healing upon herself. Her pain was still immense, but it abated somewhat, and the bleeding stopped, at least.11 Seeing the oracle out of immediate danger, Kara redirected her gaze upon Xanesha once more and side-armed another shocking grenado directly into the metal of the mask. Electric rain drizzled down the monster, leaving sparks and coils of tiny lightning tracing the geometry of the matriarch’s scales along the serpent’s length. 12

Lem resolved to join the fight with the snake woman. He feinted right, then leapt left, tumbling and rolling to arrive at Xanesha’s side. As he came upright on the balls of his feet he found himself looking at the spear point in motion and watched in grim fascination as it tore into his leather armor and opened a gaping wound in his chest, withdrawing with a slick squelch and syrupy pop of blood that joined Rahab’s and Gloriana’s gore on the stones of the summit room.13 By way of answer, the gardener stabbed at the snake body with his dagger and nicked the matriarch only slightly.

Xanesha tried another spell. Turning her mask upon Abby, the lamia spoke words of magic and gently requested that the warrior set herself to killing the healer among the party the way a friend would ask for help cooking a meal. Abby exerted a supreme effort of will to shake off the magical suggestion, and Xanesha shouted what could only have been a curse, the attitude of which no language barrier could obscure.14

Rahab had just begun his concerto in fire. Weaving a new spell the conjurer brought into existence another ball of flame, this time a perfect sphere the rich color of embers collected at the base of a hearth. Compared to the fireball, this sphere was a mere five feet in diameter, and its glossy surface shifted with licking flames that appeared almost as if trapped behind thin glass. The magic rolled along the ground under the wizard’s command, and he moved it deftly into the space occupied by the lamia. Fresh smoke and the smell of burning snakeskin filled the air.15

Throughout these moments the remaining spined fiend had been making attacks against Abby, Gloriana, and Lem alternately, to no effect, because by now it was obvious to all that the creature was merely a figment of magical trickery.

Abby started to swing her sword once more, even as a final spell of searing light erupted from Gloriana’s hand, and another shock bomb descended from above. The next thing that happened was that Xanesha—lamia matriarch, secret manipulator of Magnimar’s Skinsaw Cult, lover and deciever of the deceased City Justice Ironbriar as well as the merchant Chaden Kelimon, and practitioner of the Sihedron ritual in the harvesting of souls—died.
_______________________

1 Abby’s attacks on the monster required two Will saves, both of which she failed spectacularly.

2 Necklace of Fireballs. Everyone in the party made their Reflex saves, and so only took 8 points of damage.

3 Roughly translated from Infernal: “I am Rahab of House Eldredshade. Hear my words in the Tongue of Iron: Take your images and leave or your incarnation on this plane is forfeit.”

4 Kara missed. Shock bomb splash damage was 9 points to Gloriana and Rahab who both missed their Reflex saves to reduce the injury. Rahab was down to single digit hit points now, after the fireball, the spear through his midsection, and the electric shower.

5 Rahab is casting Glitterdust on the defensive to prevent an Attack of Opportunity. He failed his concentration check and lost the spell, but at least he didn’t get attacked.

6 Glo’s life link took another 5 points of damge from those who had been hurt, then she activated a quick channel as a move action following a 5-foot step. That provided everyone with another 10 hit points back, including herself. Finally she cast Cure Serious Wounds on Rahab for another 23 hit points, returning him to full health.

7 Successful Fortitude save against a petrification attack from the magical mask.

8 32 points of damage in one round against Glo. After all the other damage she had been soaking through Life Link, even after a channel heal, Glo was now down to one hit point. For those keeping score at home, so far, Xanesha is kicking the party’s ass.

9 Fireball. 25 points of damage, but Xanesha did make her Reflex save (of course) and only took 12. I’ll take it.

10 Infernal: “Worm.”

11 Cure Serious Wounds on herself for 18 points of healing.

12 The only reason I’m not constantly reporting the damage Kara does with her bombs is that it’s pretty consistent. At this level, her bomb attacks tend to hit for 16-22 points of damage or so, and she hardly ever misses. Kara is easily the single most effective combatant in the party.

13 Failed tumble check and Xanesha’s Attack of Opportunity hits Lem for 13 points of damage.

14 Abby had to spend another Hero Point her to make her Will save.

15 Flaming Sphere hit Xanesha for 9 points of damage.

View
Book III, Chapter 7: The Shadow Clock
Ladders . . .

“I have to admit,” Lem said with a faint smile, “it’s brilliant. And I’ll slit the throat of the first person who tells Rahab I said that.”

The gardener and the oracle were seated at breakfast, cradling cups of coffee. An hour-and-a-half earlier Lem had surprised Gloriana by offering to go check on Rahab at the Foxglove townhouse where the wizard had secluded himself the evening before. The oracle had silently debated accompanying the gardener, but developing trust required demonstrating trust, and so offered her thanks instead. Lem had returned and joined Gloriana for the morning meal.

Gloriana sipped. “What’s brilliant?”

Lem finished his buttered roll and brushed crumbs from his fingers. “What Rahab did at the Foxglove townhouse.”

Gloriana groaned inwardly and shut her eyes as if against a pain. Not in the least did she want to know. Neither could she in good conscience proceed without knowing. “Tell me. Lie if you have to.”

Lem chuckled gleefully and leaned forward, lowering his voice. “He disposed of the bodies. The faceless stalkers that masqueraded as Iesha and Aldern? He got rid of them. Entirely.”

This did nothing to reassure the oracle. “Do I want to know how?”

“Like I said: brilliant. He used his magic, of course, the nefarious son-of-a-devil-worshipper. Acid. He can cast the spell all day, all the time, apparently. Called it a ‘cat trap.’”

“Cantrip,” Gloriana corrected automatically.

“Exactly. He was finishing up when I arrived. He had found an old cauldron on the property and just . . . dissolved the bodies inside it. Said he started last night, that it took three hours because the spell isn’t that big. I guess that’s why he didn’t mention it at the mill. Did you realize stalkers have no skeletal structure? I had to stop him from dumping the cauldron in the garden, though. Would have ruined the soil. For someone so intelligent he’s profoundly ignorant about some basic things. Anyway, I helped him dump the cauldron into the alley gutter. Gods, it smelled awful.” The gardener wrinkled his nose at the memory, but he was still shaking his head in amazement.

Gloriana reflected a moment, sipped again, and decided the news wasn’t exactly as bad as she had expected. A moment later, that realization seemed just as sinister in implication. Lem continued.

“He even used the spell to scour the floor in the kitchen where we killed them. There’s some discoloration on the stone, but not that most would notice. It’s like no fight ever happened there. He could command riches in disposal fees working for assassins. Brilliant!” The gardener gave another appreciative chuckle and drank from his own cup.

Gloriana exhaled a long, slow breath. Lem’s endorsement was not the kind of improvement in relations between gardener and wizard that she was hoping for, but at least they hadn’t fought. The idea of both Lem and Rahab working together for nefarious purposes . . . a small shudder crept down her spine and across the room some candles in a niche in the tavern wall snuffed out for no apparent reason.

“Well,” she said after a pause, and another long sip of coffee, “there’s a case to be made to Abby about moving into the townhouse, at least, now that the stalkers are . . .” she struggled to find the right word. “. . . gone.”

Lem turned reflective now. “It would be nice to have a place with some greenery, imminent winter notwithstanding. At no cost, too. We’ll have to buy new clothes, of course.”

“Why?”

“Naos District isn’t the Lowcleft, or hadn’t you noticed? Abby walking around up there— living there—people will talk, and maybe the guard shows up to find out exactly what we’re doing. She can’t be walking around looking like a Riddleport enforcer anymore than Kara can appear as someone that just walked out of a year in the wilderness. As for you . . . .” Lem trailed off.

“What about me?” Gloriana set her coffee cup down and fixed the gardener with a firm stare.

Lem weighed his response for a moment. “Carnival’s in town?”

“My people have traveled far to bring you this:” The oracle issued Lem a rude gesture implying sexual proclivity for livestock. She rose and strode to the stairs, returning to her room, and as she did so all the remaining candles in the tavern extinguished, leaving Lem alone with the other customers grumbling in the sudden dimness.

••••

By the tenth morning bell Rahab had returned to The Fat Cat. The party gathered in the tavern once more. Gloriana noted the wizard’s expression and the light in his eyes: eager, powerful, dangerous. As he sat, the conjurer seemed distracted, occasionally angling his head as though listening for something.

Kara and Abby joined them at table, and ordered fresh coffee. Lem arrived last having taken a stroll outside to cool his head, only to discover that his coin pouch was somehow heavier than when he had left.

Abby glanced around at the others. “The tower?”

Gloriana nodded. All eyes turned to Rahab in expectation of a history lesson. The conjurer was staring into the middle distance and said nothing. There was a long silence.

The others looked at one another, momentarily puzzled. Kara finally nudged the wizard, “Brelm theed oondrel?”1

Rahab started slightly. “Taunomij. Apardiandol nuarbatil ko shivo. Chenedrem evequa?”2

“Is something wrong?” The alchemist returned to the Common tongue. “You seem preoccupied.”

“I am still getting used to the effect of one of my new spells.”

Everyone looked on curiously. “Ah,” Kara’s evinced genuine interest. “What have you discovered?”

“An important divination,” replied Rahab eagerly. He leaned forward and clasped his hands together on the tavern table to confer with his colleague. “It detects attempts to scry upon me and my vicinity.”

Abby looked skeptical. “You think someone is spying on us?”

“Not at present. The magic indicates nothing.”

“I meant in general,” the warrior returned.

“Time will tell.”

“Rahab, that’s paranoid!”

“Cheliaxian,” Lem observed, as if that explained everything.

“If you are quite finished,” Rahab’s caustic glance switched back and forth between Abby and Lem, “you might take a moment to appreciate the elegance of the magic involved. The spell lasts a full day and its power is such that I have an opportunity to determine direction, distance, and image of anyone scrying upon me, or those in my proximity.”3 He sat back and folded his arms across his chest, obviously very pleased. Escher peeked out of a fold in the wizard’s robe and seemed to mimic the gesture with tiny paws.

Kara gently steered the conversation back on topic. “We were talking about the tower.”

“It is commonly called The Shadow Clock,” resumed Rahab. “Largely a ruin, widely expected to collapse at any moment, and generally shunned by the populace, there have been some ten or so adventurous individuals who have risked its dangers in recent years to see what lies within. All have died.”

“How?” the alchemist pursued.

“No one knows for sure. The steps that traverse the interior have been dubbed ‘The Terrible Stair.’”

Gloriana looked doubtful. “No one knows?”

Rahab explained further: “The corpses were found outside, near the base of the structure. All showed signs of extensive crushing damage: jellied bones, massive bruising, lacerations.”

“They fell?” Abby interjected. The conjurer only shrugged.

“You said the tower is avoided,” Gloriana noted. When Rahab nodded confirmation, the oracle added, “Convenient for a secret cult of murderers.”

It was Kara and Abby’s turn to nod agreement.

“What about this Shadow area where the tower is?” Abby asked.

“One of the most dangerous areas of the city,” Rahab said, “so named for its constant presence beneath the ruin of the Irespan which renders that portion of Magnimar almost constantly removed from direct sunlight. The district is actually called Underbridge, and there have probably been more ill deeds committed in that place than in all the other districts combined.”

Not for the first time—nor the last—the warrior thought of Riddleport. “Smuggling?”

“Positively respectable by comparison. Underbridge gambling dens host wagers on everything from cards to animal fights to mortal combat among sentients. The district is a popular place for murder, the most brutal kinds of theft, assault, sexual predation, abductions, slave-taking.”

“Magnimar does not hold slaves,” Kara objected with growing concern.

“But Cheliax does,” replied Rahab quietly.

“Magnimar traffics slaves to Cheliax?” The alchemist’s voice harbored disbelief and outrage in equal measure. Several customers in the tavern looked over at the sudden outburst. After an awkward pause the alchemist leaned back in to the conversation.

When the murmur of the tavern had resumed Rahab continued. “No, and yet the rumors abound: People go missing, mysterious vessels leave the Underbridge smuggling ports and sail down the coast, around the cape, then south to the empire. Remember, too, that Cheliax is among the mightiest nations ever to petition Infernal patrons. Those that do not end up in chains are often sacrificed in diabolic rites.”

Lem’s face showed barely concealed rage. Abby looked weary; Gloriana, sad. Kara’s expression was one of horror. “Curse your intellect! You are not heartless, Rahab! How can you recount such things so impassively?”

The wizard remained cool and left the query hanging for a long time. “Perhaps I will tell you one day,” he murmured softly, his gaze never breaking.

There was a long silence at the table. Kara leaned glumly back against the tavern wall. Gloriana cleared her throat and looked at Rahab. “Any more you can tell us about the tower?”

“The Shadow Clock is not among my areas of expertise,” the wizard admitted with another shrug. “I know what many in the city know. Whatever we choose to do, I can only guess we should go prepared for exploration and combat alike.”

They broke to make ready. While the others gathered gear, Gloriana went out into the city to make inquiry of Magnimar’s citizens in an effort to uncover more information. She related what she discovered as the adventurers made their way into Underbridge.

••••

“There’s a betting pool on the tower’s collapse?” Still upset about the conversation at the inn, Kara’s indignation only increased at Gloriana’s news.

They stood in the mud of the street looking up at the Shadow Clock’s ruin rising one hundred eighty feet from the misery of the slum into the darkness of the Irespan’s vast, broken cover. The great remains of the bridge loomed immense and inviolate, save for the passage of time inexorably eroding stone into dust borne upon seasonal winds. At this vantage the enormity of the engineering marvel impressed itself upon awareness with even greater power. The very blocks of stone that formed the once bridge were greater in size than some of the wealthier homes in The Summit, and many sections appeared seamless, as though they had been shaped wholly from extant stone by virtue of magic or some supreme and predominant will. The support pillars lofting skyward were mighty, windowed towers of size that shamed the Arvensoar. The chill of autumn seemed amplified within the shadow of that place.

Abby chuckled grimly. “No surprise. We are our own best sport. Some day the tower will collapse, kill tens of people, maybe a hundred, and make someone rich. Misery always draws a gamble.”

Lem wasn’t looking at the tower, but at the surrounding neighborhood instead, eyes ever alert for lurking dangers. The gardener had long since silently vowed to paint the streets in blood before slavers absconded with him. He noted hovels of barely secured wood crammed together street after street, block after block. A single spilled lamp might sweep firestorm through the entire district, and the fact that such had not yet happened was as astonishing as the extent of the squalor. On their way to the tower the adventurers had passed a dead body lying in the middle of the mud. The body had been stripped entirely of its rags and left naked. How long before . . . ? Lem began to contemplate, and then decided to abandon the thought. As much animosity as he had for humans, he was content to leave them merely deceased.

Kara’s eyes widened as she stumbled on another sudden realization. She looked at Rahab. The wizard caught her glance.

“No dogs,” the alchemist whispered.

The conjurer nodded: “A few, perhaps. Those wily enough to survive. Cats, too. It is dangerous even to be a rat here.” Escher’s whiskered face peeked out from the wizard’s robe, gave a dismayed squeak, then disappeared into safety. “Disease is rampant,” Rahab made a vague gesture indicating the surroundings. “Murder for rags, for a crust of bread. Exploitation. Abuse. Theft, extortion, gang wars. The pesh trade lives here in soaring ecstasy and ruinous degeneration alike. There have been nights when corpses afloat offshore rivaled number of boats in the water. To live here is . . .” he paused, his face somber. “Well . . . .”

Kara’s was aghast. “How can the city allow this? Do they nothing?”

Gloriana’s face grew sad and stern. Abby looked grim. Lem seemed to regard the environs as vindication of his theories on humanity, though the slum was home to more than just humans. Rahab was aloof.

“We have work to do.” The oracle’s voice was resolute, and she stepped forward, leading the others slowly toward their objective.

••••

Lem scouted the perimeter at the base of the tower. The limestone structure rose precariously above, leaning slightly, worn with time and showing gaps where whole sections of masonry had plunged away to the district below. The clockwork had frozen at the mark of the third bell, though of morning or afternoon was lost forever to history. At the summit there was a great, gaping hole in the structure where age and weather had conspired to collapse an entire portion of wall. Perched atop the spire stood a decaying stone statue depicting a humanoid figure with bird wings.

There was only one entrance at the ground level. Lem returned after ten minutes. “Not that it matters, but I’d wager we’re safer here than anywhere else in the district.”

Abby turned to Gloriana. “What was the other thing you found out? Shapes in the tower?”

The oracle nodded, her honey-locks somehow still radiant in the gloom of the Irespan. “Supposedly something has been spotted around the base—larger than any person. There was talk of a serpent, as well, though whether the shape and the serpent are the same, no one could say. Some people claimed the angel statue has moved, changing shape, or stance. Who can say what is true?”

A long silence passed, and then Abby drew her sword and braced Avenger on her arm. “We’re about to find out.” The warrior’s boots squelched in the mud as she forged toward the door.

••••

Rahab cast cantrips of resistance upon everyone, and then Abby was opening the great wooden door at the tower’s base. The planks had long since warped in the seasonal variation and salt air of the coast, and the warrior leaned against the portal with all her weight and muscle in order to push it partially ajar. Squeals of protest erupted from the rusted iron hinges, and as dust billowed from within Gloriana kept to herself the knowledge that the city government had officially sealed the tower for safety: They were breaking the law merely by opening the door.

The interior was dry and dusty, and the vast expanse of the ground floor opened onto a massive, hollow column rising into darkness above. What faint light there was showed countless motes on the air. The stones of the ground floor were littered in fallen plaster and rubble ranging in size from pebbles to chunks as large as oxen. What had once been offices or other chambers of utility—six in number—lined the square perimeter, open to view as the doors that granted ingress were long since destroyed by time and weather. At the base of the northern wall was the mighty, precarious wooden ascent that reached unseen reaches above: The Terrible Stair. At the limits of vision, toward the summit, the great wooden structure of the belfry criss-crossed the interior. Suspended from the ancient structure were four great, bronze bells.

Gloriana asked the spirits to reveal the presence of magic in the chamber, and then something erupted from the rubble in the northeast corner of the room, moving at breakneck speed, bearing down upon them, a horror in patchwork.

••••

The thing was half-again the height of a human, and immensely strong. It’s forward momentum was such that the ruined wagon behind which it had lain in wait hurtled through the air as delicately as a child’s toy flung in frustration. As the planks of the wagon came apart from the force of the attack the party saw—in the gloom—the monster that rushed upon them.

Its nine-foot-tall body was a strange conglomeration of jumbled parts harvested from both cattle and humans. The culled cuts had been stitched together with leather thread. A sickly smell of decaying flesh emanated as the thing approached, summoning to mind the nauseating memory of the air in the chamber below The Misgivings where the Skinsaw Man had held court. Rags of sack-cloth draped across the terribly distorted humanoid shape. Around the monstrous waist was tied a length of shipping rope as thick as Abby’s wrist, and three rotting human heads crudely hung as gruesome trophies from this wretched girdle. The creature’s head—if head it could be correctly called—was too large in proportion. A collection of humanoid parts sewn together with utter disregard for a tailor’s mastery, the visage resembled nothing so much as a grotesque mockery of some hellish infant, jaundiced eyes agog and rotating wildly. Uttering no sound save the rush of its form, the monster closed quickly, and in its massive grip was clutched a scythe, not for agriculture, but of the kind specially shaped for war. As the thing neared it appeared all the more horrible, imposing, preternaturally swift for its size, a construct of profane artistry.

Stunned by the vision, Abby watched as it bore down upon her. She could only lift Avenger in vain hope of staving off the terrible swing of the creature’s weapon. Gloriana gaped. Lem knew he had to close the distance and provide a flanking presence to heighten both his own and Abby’s ability to attack, but he was momentarily captivated by the horrific vision in motion. Kara worked frantically to unlimber a bomb.

As a practiced student of arcana Rahab recognized the thing immediately. While the creature moved—swift, murderous, brutal—the conjurer found himself surprised and not a little proud to calmly observe:

“They have a flesh golem.”4

••••

A moment later Rahab shouted frantic knowledge to his companions in the desperate seconds before the monster’s attack arrived.

“Beware it’s frenzy! It is immune to magic and has no vital structure!” The conjurer quickly cast a spell of haste upon himself and his fellows.

Everyone accelerated.5

The scythe descended.

••••

At first Abby could barely credit her senses. The impact of the weapon suggested not just strength, but astonishing power. Cold steel pierced her armor, drawing blood, and the force of the blow hurled her to the side as if her own strength and the weight of her gear were nothing. That she maintained her balance and stood upright was testament to her mastery of combat. Dust churned as her boots slid across the floor as though on ice.

Lem was already in motion, tumbling quickly around the monster, fully expecting to arrive in perfect position to deliver a cruel strike despite the wizard’s warning that the golem had no vulnerability to precision damage. In the end, it mattered not, as the gardener’s acrobatics failed. The golem was simply too fast, whipsawing the scythe in a vicious reverse directly from Abby’s body. The warrior’s blood traced an arc in the air as the weapon caught Lem in mid-tumble and swatted him fifteen feet away, rolling among the rubble and struggling to stand. When the gardener regained his posture he suddenly felt faint, and knew the sudden slickness under his leather jerkin was his own blood. In the gloom he saw that the monster’s blow had launched the gardener further away than from where he had started.

Abby stepped up and struck the creature a heavy blow with her sword, followed by a stunning bash with her shield. The attacks rebounded harmlessly, almost mockingly.

Kara circled to her left and found an opening immediately after Lem’s failed maneuver. Her arm pitched forward in practiced overhand, and the small ceramic that tumbled through the air found its target perfectly. There was a shattering sound as the missile impacted upon the golem, and then a deafening bang and billowing smoke. Abby, in proximity to the monster, felt the explosive pressure wave expand past her. Sudden fire erupted on the golem’s body, licking up the monster’s torso and issuing oily black smoke. The warrior nearly retched. Under the influence of Rahab’s spell she realized that the flames from Kara’s bomb were causing the golem some difficulty.6 It’s arms flailed uselessly at the fire and its horrid visage whipped back and forth, goggle-eyed with an expression of fear.

Gloriana’s magic took a portion of Abby and Lem’s pain, and after the shock, the oracle cast a blessing upon her fellows. She moved forward into Abby’s wake in support.

Lem tried to achieve advantageous battle position once more, but the bloody wound from the golem’s scythe was hampering his maneuverability. The gardener did manage to get into place opposite Abby, behind the monster, but just barely, and only because Rahab’s magic had augmented his movement. Meanwhile Abby put her mind to the attack, and successfully placed the edge of her blade against the monster, only to find what should have been a solid blow seemed somehow mitigated by the combination of awful flesh and bloated magic. A moment later she ducked behind her upraised shield as a dart of Rahab’s hissing acid bored into the creature from over her shoulder.7 The stench was thick, almost overpowering.

The flames from Kara’s new explosive grenado coursed over the golem’s torso and arms, crisping the motley flesh before Abby’s eyes. Smoke churned and billowed up into the tower, and the monster reeled like a sluggish drunk. Where its initial attack showed stunning, menacing speed, now it lumbered: Each motion—whether footfall or burly swing—dragged against an unseen weight. The flames flashed unsettling yellow and orange light upon the ragged, rubble-strewn scene.

Kara wasted no time: A second explosive grenado spun through the air. In the heightened state of movement caused by Rahab’s spell of haste the alchemist could read every detail of the jar as it tumbled through the air. She noted the sheen of light from Abby’s glowstone running like fresh water off the sides of the bomb. Every pit and crevice in the waxed cork stoppering the device stood out. The silver leaf design embossed on the shell—from the kit Gloriana had gifted Kara—caught the light on a turn. When the bomb struck the golem, the alchemist could even see the specific shards separate under the budding pressure wave as the chemicals inside joined in violent concert. A second bloom of fire spilled forth, expertly managed by the alchemist’s magic and expertise so as not to encompass either Lem or Abby in proximity to the target. New flames erupted on the monstrous patchwork baby head, blackening the flesh.

Gloriana absorbed more of Abby’s and Lem’s remaining pain, then invoked the spirits to bestow a spell of strength upon the warrior. Within her armor, Abby suddenly felt her muscles ripple, almost as if in complaint that she was not in that moment swinging her sword or bashing with her shield. A surge of power suffused her skeleton, heated her blood, strained against the limits of her mail. For just a fleeting, impulsive moment Abby was tempted to abandon her weapons and begin tearing the golem apart with her bare hands.8 Then her survivor’s mind regained control and she realized her otherwise excellent magical sword was nearly useless due to the eldritch nature of her opponent.

The golem had lost its orientation, and swept the scythe in wild, cataclysmic swathes that showered sparks as the blade struck the stone floor or bits of rubble strewn about. The flames coursed over almost the entire golem now, the leather stitches burning away and dropping slabs of carbonized flesh to the ground. As the golem moved, Abby found opening to close the distance, and siezing the opportunity the warrior stepped forward, abandoning her magical blade and drawing her second longsword expertly in the interval.9 This was her reserve, the weapon she had liberated from The Misgivings, an edge forged in adamant and thus dismissive of the magic that reduced harm to the golem. The sword whipped past Avenger and across the monster’s back, and in her spell-powered speed Abby had time to watch the giant thing slowly fall, stumbling over uneven ground, collapsing in a sprawl of burning flesh that lit the ground floor in smoky, hideous light.10

••••

Moments ticked away and nothing happened. Rahab’s spell wore off, and the party felt a more familiar experience of time reassert itself. Abby sheathed her adamantine blade and bent to retrieve her magical sword. Dust whirled in the air as the churning blaze of the golem’s remains guttered. The stench was foul.

“Ghosts of the road, Kara! That was amazing!” Gloriana called out in the echoing space.

The elf stood looking at the fallen ruin of the golem. Another grenado was cradled in her left hand, at the ready, while a column of greasy smoke coiled up into the tower above. A slow, quiet smile emerged on the alchemist’s lips.

“Your new ability avails us serendipitously,” commented Rahab. “Had I known, I would have worried less. Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer. Vabaniasheen skomiar.”11 The wizard’s familiar devil-grin grew broad.

Lem sat down heavily on a block of rubble, his breathing somewhat labored despite the healing that Gloriana’s spirit magic had worked during the fight. When the oracle stepped close to offer additional assistance the gardener waved her away. “I’m alright. Just need to catch my breath.” Lem regarded the fallen monster with a mixture of awe and revulsion.

Rahab was already detecting for magic, and his gaze alighted on the scythe the monster had dropped, as well as one of the rags that had fallen away from the golem during the fight. The conjurer nodded and Kara set the scythe against the wall of the tower next to the door into the ground floor. The rag was not a rag at all, but a cloak that had been layered into the cloth draped over the construct. This the alchemist took and put into her backpack for later perusal.12

Abby stood in the center of the floor looking up into the dimness of the tower rising above. Her half-elven eyes noted nothing.13 The fight with the monster did not appear to have stirred further activity. In the meantime Gloriana used the wand of healing taken from Justice Ironbriar to heal the injuries she had usurped from her companions. Then she approached Rahab and indicated the defeated golem with a gesture.

“Crushing damage. Jellied bones. Lacerations.”

The wizard nodded, and then pointed at the stairs. “It remains possible that some of those deaths were actual falls.”

Abby and Lem set about searching the ground floor. The rooms with collapsed ceilings and destroyed doors yielded no discoveries. It was not until the warrior returned to the central chamber that she found an old leather bag cast to one side that contained gold and silver coins, as well as a ring and a mirror of silver. Gloriana quickly stowed the valuables away in her haversack.

An uncertain quiet had descended on the tower once more. The companions gathered together at the center of the chamber, lit by Abby’s lightstone and Rahab’s magical torch. All eyes fell upon the rickety wooden staircase rising along the north wall into the dimness of the tower above. It did not take a carpenter’s eye to readily discern the sections of wood corrupted by age and mold, or missing entirely, and not a single length of railing to be seen along the entire traverse.

The Terrible Stair awaited.

••••

Rahab went last in anticipation of the need for the magic of the falling feather. Kara drank her mutagen to enhance her elven dexterity. Abby took the lead, sword drawn, Avenger braced. The warrior’s solid form encased in forty pounds of armor made each footstep on the ancient stairs creak and moan. The precarious staircase swayed alarmingly under the party’s advance. Even Lem’s starling-light movement imbued no confidence. For safety they kept at least ten feet of distance between one another. Eventually Kara eschewed ground-based progress entirely and drank an alchemical formula that gave her the power of flight, followed by another that rendered her invisible. Unseen, Kara stepped off the staircase into air, and began a slow, cautious airborne ascent into the reaches of the tower above.

Recognizing the value of the alchemist’s approach, Gloriana beseeched the spirits for magic of levitation. A moment later, she, too, steped from the staircase into unsupported air, and the enchantment of her spell carried her gradually, slowly, safely aloft. Unlike Kara’s freedom of flight, the strictly vertical limits of Gloriana’s spell required her to make her ascent close to the stair and walls so that she could use those surfaces as necessary for any lateral changes in position.

Lem, Abby, and Rahab remained on the unstable stair, gingerly, nervously making their way up. At times they had to reach a long leg forward to span a gap in the steps, at others they had to jump. Lem’s height might have been disadvantage except for his expert dexterity. When distances seemed too far for his short legs, the gardener craftily ran to the tower wall and used it to leap otherwise prohibitive distances.14 Abby’s great strength availed her in all jumps. Rahab’s marked lack of physical prowess did not, and his journey was especially slow and fraught. The limits of weight they estimated on any given section of stair made it impossible for Abby to stand near the wizard and help him along. By the halfway point the conjurer was sweating from anxiety and exhaustion, his heart racing, pulse pounding in his ears. The warrior looked back in sympathy, her face haloed in the soft light of the illuminated stone hovering near her head. She recalled only too vividly the treacherous, slick stone ramp the adventurers had four times barely navigated in the cavern below The Misgivings, and her own particular difficulties there. Rahab looked up into the expanse rising above, wished briefly for an opportunity to rest, and knowing there was no such luxury due the time limits on his companions’ spells resolutely put the thought from his mind and resumed his shaking steps with a quick, dismissive wave to Abby. The warrior turned and nodded to Lem to proceed. Gloriana resumed her rise on the air. Unseen, Kara soared upwards in arcane flight.

The air changed somehow, some density shift they all noticed, at once silent and also rich with the sound of a rushing mass. All eyes looked up to see one of the massive bells plummeting from above, trailing fragments of wood, bits of rope, stirred dust.

••••

The bell rang once as it struck the interior tower wall, rebounding in its own reverberation and colliding directly on top of the stair section where Abby and Lem stood. The impact tore away a massive section of The Terrible Stair, producing a shower of splinters as wooden planks and supports disintegrated spectaculalrly. Rahab watched warrior and gardener execute a desperate leap even as the falling bell struck, and by astonishing chance both managed to avoid being completely pulverized by seven tons of hurtling bronze. Lem’s movement was so adroitly executed that he actually found a fraction-of-a-second’s foothold on the rapidly plunging bell that propelled him to the far side of the gap.15 By contrast, Abby’s effort was a simple, straightforward dash and jump, and she landed with a heavy crash that sent the already trembling stair into new paroxysms. Warrior and gardener collapsed on the decaying planks of the other side, covered in dust and splinters. Both lay bloody and gasping in the adrenaline surge. A moment later the path of the bell concluded resoundingly at the bottom of the tower in a second soundwave that sent shivering ripples back up the length of the structure. The intensity of the noise nearly matched the damage the falling object had inflicted upon both the party and the tower, and for a few moments everyone dreadfully wondered if this would indeed be the afternoon the structure collapsed on the district around it.

Gloriana, still hovering near a wall, glanced around in renewed panic. “Kara!”

“I’m here,” the alchemist’s voice seemed muted in the still rippling air as the bell’s death tone continued to resound. She had darted to one side in mid-flight and felt the mass of air pushed aside as the enormous weight displaced its way earthward.

“Rahab?” Gloriana gyred, suspended in mid-air, and saw the wizard. If he pressed himself any closer to the wall the conjurer would join his own material inextricably with the stone at an elemental level. The torch in his hand trembled, though with sound wave or terror she could not tell.

“I live,” Rahab replied weekly.

Gloriana spun once more, her silks twirling in the air, gaily contrasted with the gloom and danger of that place. Her gaze found the light from Abby’s stone. Warrior and gardener had fallen, sprawled across one another on the wooden steps, alive. Abby’s gauntleted left hand rose slowly, lifting Avenger’s brilliant shining surface, and the warrior showed a thumb of affirmation. In the desperation of her leap Abby had managed to hold onto her sword and shield, and was as amazed by that as the fact that her significant strength had propelled her in all her armor and gear across a gap of more than ten feet.

Lem gained his feet, felt the tremors in his knees, and sat back down with an exhausted sigh. “I hate this place.” His head throbbed, his muscles ached, his temple bled, his body quavered. For a moment he thought he might vomit. “I’m pretty sure this place hates me.”

Just then Gloriana gasped in pain as her link of life received Abby’s and Lem’s wounds.16 A moment later she channeled the power of the healing spirits and soothing washed over them all.

••••

Proceeding presented a new challenge. Abby and Lem were already on the correct side to ascend, Kara was still capable of flight, and Gloriana’s spell of levitation continued unabated. Rahab, on the other hand, was trapped behind and below the new gap. The conjurer found it particularly ironic that a wizard was now trapped by circumstances of geography, especially a conjurer—a magic specialization that included travel in its purview. If he wasn’t in the middle of an uncharacteristic panic he probably would have laughed.

Despite the normally unflappable wizard’s effort at regaining composure, Gloriana could read the situation and the emotion as expertly as ever, even in the flickering dimness of Rahab’s torch shining lonely against the stone wall below. With a whispered word of prayer she beseeched the blessing of levitation on the conjurer, and Rahab felt his feet lift gently off the steps. His arcane mind recognized the effect and he sighed in relief. Somehow the elusive, eldritch power of magic resonated in his emotional awareness with greater comfort than solidity of wood.

He looked up into the oracle’s eyes. “Heartfelt thanks.” Escher poked a whiskered nose out and squeeked once. “From both of us,” Rahab added.

Gloriana flashed her most winning smile, genuine, somehow all the more bright against the gloom of the tower interior. Renewed by the healing, Abby and Lem had already begun making their way upward once more. Kara soared again, still unseen, keeping quiet to try and recapture any element of surprise. No one spoke the thought that someone or something up above might have dispatched the bell just as easily as age and decay. Rahab followed the oracle’s example and began to ascend, using his hands along the wall and winding stairs to aid any lateral movement. Gloriana waited until he was level with her, and then they proceed together, she showing him the most advantageous way to make use of the magic.

A soft elven voice whispered out of the air next to wizard and oracle. “I will go ahead to see what lies above,” and before anyone could object, the air displaced slightly as the invisible Kara flew away.

Slowly they advanced. As they rose they noticed the tower narrowing, and soon the limit of vision showed the scaffolding and remaining bells. They also saw The Terrible Stair exit through a gap in the wall to the exterior of the building.

“I can’t decide which is better:” Lem remarked to Abby in a hushed tone. “Falling to death inside the tower, or outside the tower.” A moment later his glance fell on one of the remaining three bells in their rigging, and saw the faceless stalker perched atop the beams, spine-like claws flexing in anticipation.

I hate this place, he thought again.

••••

“Stalker on the bell!” Lem called in warning. Knife and war razor flashed effortlessly at the ready in his hands. The stalker on the crossbeam made a foolhardy leap into the air and onto the stair behind the gardener. The steps shuddered under the impact, but the monster’s arrival allowed both Abby and Lem opportune attacks, and warrior and gardener scored solid hits on the spongy, fleshy red mass. A second stalker appeared from the walkway outside.

Here again were the monsters of Abby’s nightmares. Where Lem’s moments of unease conjured images of ghouls, and Gloriana struggled with visions of Nualia, or the haunted spirits that attended her, the warrior saw the rippling, obscene flesh of these bloodsucking mimics. Her sword lashed out in a fury of power. The first strike carved a chunk from the stalker’s torso and sent it quivering into the abyss below. Her second attack seamlessly followed the first, this time cleaving down through the right shoulder into what should have been any humanoid’s ribcage. The soft sensation of the cut was all the more unsettling: It was like slicing into jelly. Nonetheless, the damage was real.17

Lem used the opportunity to sneak his own attack against the stalker, and his dagger bit deep. A fountain of blood spewed forth as the spongy mass of the monster collapsed, pitched left into the open space, and plunged silently into emptiness. The staircase seemed relieved at the discarded weight. The gardener grinned at Abby. The warrior returned a momentary scowl.18

Still hovering, Gloriana gave a shout. “Remain inside!” Then she invoked blessing upon her companions.

Still invisible, hovering somewhere near the bell cross beams, Kara held a grenado in either hand, searching for the perfect opportunity to throw into the confines of the battle on The Terrible Stair. She looked at the last member of the party and saw Rahab entering the familiar incantation that summoned a creature from some other reality to assist in battle.

The second faceless stalker slid forward past the narrow doorway and slashed its spines across Lem’s exposed back. The gardener grimaced in pain and sucked a painful, gasping breath, fighting to maintain his footing. The wooden staircase shuddered.

Kara seized the opportunity to throw one of her bombs. The moment the small ceramic globe left her hand she blinked into view as the magic of invisibility sacrificed itself to an identifying attack. The bulb pitched through the air and crashed against the back of the second faceless stalker. There was a brilliant flash of electricity, a sharp crackling sound, and the smell of ozone filled the air as lines of bottled lightning traced blue-white rivers across the creature’s flesh.

Gloriana allowed her levitation to bring her level with Abby. In her peripheral vision the warrior saw the shimmering flutter of the oracle’s silks hover into view like a pennant caught on a battlefield breeze. The golden-haired woman reached out her hand and touched Abby gently on the shoulder, summoning a shield of spiritual power like an additional sheath of armor to protect the warrior further from the attacks soon to be arrayed against her. Images only Gloriana saw in that moment danced on the air: A trio of ghostly figures walking solemnly hand-in-hand around a roadside campfire.

Floating next to the oracle Rahab finished his incantation. The conjurer opened the way, and suddenly a new creature appeared out of thin air behind the second faceless stalker menacing Lem. The companions all saw it: diaphonous wings, yellow-and-black markings, jointed legs, compound eyes. It was a wasp.

It was also the size of a horse.19

Lem hopped from the stair to the interior tower wall, then rebounded off his feet and hopped behind Abby even as the warrior moved forward to press the attack against the second stalker. There was not enough time to process the realization fully, but Abby knew, somewhere deep down, that the giant wasp now flanking the stalker had arrived at Rahab’s behest. Perhaps she was momentarily distracted, but her sword swing and shield bash failed to connect with the faceless stalker. However, the creature was forced backwards a few steps, and seeing its opportunity against the party members limited, the monster chose to strike out at the nearby wasp. It stabbed one set of hand spines into the giant insect’s thorax. Seemingly implacable,20 the wasp merely twitched mandibles and antennae. If Abby had to guess, she would have said the insect was annoyed. Childhood memories of fleeing irritated wasps plunged a column of chill fear into her heart. For the briefest, most fleeting moment, Abby almost felt sympathy for the faceless stalker. Almost.

Another shock bomb descended on the stalker from among the crossbeams. Blistering shatter-glass shards of electricity surged violently in the gloom, and the stalker’s senses were dazzled by the sudden sensory overload. The wasp attacked a second later, abdomen contorting forward, but the distraction of Kara’s bomb attack disoriented the insect. Rahab, however, was not so affected, and his spell of magical energy lanced forth in an arc, inerrantly conveying a spiked, purple egg of arcane force into the stalker.21

Gloriana’s life link healed some more damage from Lem, and then the oracle cast a protective field against malevolent powers upon the gardner to further augment his defenses.

Abby renewed her attack, and her blade flashed in a bright arc lit by her own lightstone. The metallic sheen on the sword becames lick with blood in the next instant as what could only vaguely be called a head separated from the stalker’s body.22 As the spongy form collapsed in a rubbery heap a third stalker stepped onto the interior staircase landing from the outside walkway to take the former’s place. Abby had an immediate opportunity, but her second sword swipe clanged off the stone wall as the third stalker ducked and slashed with its spines. Avenger blocked the counter-assault expertly, and the stalker’s spines hissed menacingly across the indelible, brilliant silver surface.

For whatever reason the third faceless stalker seemed not to have noticed the giant wasp just aft of the rickety wooden landing. The insect rose up from the shadows, wings humming, framing the stalker in Abby’s vision.

Oh, here it comes, the warrior just had time to think, and then the summoned creature surged forward, abdomen curling. A stinger the length of Abby’s arm transfixed the faceless stalker through the center of the torso and stopped mere inches shy of the warrior’s nose, a single, clear, grapefruit-sized globule of venom poised like a soap bubble before dropping away into the darkness below. The wasp drifted calmly, expertly back on gossamer wings and its abdomen uncurled. The faceless stalker simply slid off the stinger and plummeted limply to the ground far below.23

Then the landing and uppermost six-foot section of stairs—slowly decaying under years of neglect—could sustain the shifting weight and force of combat no more.

••••

This time, the direction was backwards. Lem’s preternatural dexterity allowed him to react first. The gardener felt the structural failure in his feet, and he executed a backwards somersault to land on a more stable area as the wood splintered and disintegrated. Abby half-turned and pushed off with her mighty legs, rocketing through the air in the glow of her own trailing lightstone. She landed without Lem’s grace, but safely nonetheless, though again the stair groaned its protest.24 Gloriana and Rahab hovered nearby. Kara still flew above, resting on the air near the crossbeams. The giant wasp buzzed down to come alongside Rahab, antennae twitching, ready to aid the one who had called it from some distant elsewhere. As it neared Gloriana recoiled instinctively, watching in equal parts fascination and fright as the triangular head loomed close, regarding her with glossy compound eyes. Then it passed her by and alighted effortlessly upon the stone wall, tarsal claws finding purchase on the rough surface. The wizard beamed.

Gloriana drew her wand of healing and began to apply its restorative magic to herself. A quiet settled over the tower interior. Abby could hear the whistle of wind at the doorway leading outside, and she concentrated on not looking down over the splintered edge of the staircase. The adventurers’ breathing gradually slowed.

Abby and Lem stood looking at the empty space between their portion of stair and the doorway to the walk outside.

“Any ideas?” the warrior asked.

Gloriana quickly motioned to Rahab, and the two reached to the wall and reamining staircase structure, pulling themselves to the solidity of the steps. A moment later the oracle’s levitation magic ended, and they settled on the steps, quickly moving to put some distance between themselves as the stairs creaked and shifted with the new weight. The giant wasp scuttled silently along the stone wall following Rahab, its transparent wings twitching occasionally. Kara alighted on the crossbeams supporting the remaining bells, and this section of wood groaned in sympathy with the staircase. She lifted off back into the air almost immediately, and hovered once more, shaking her head and pulling another extract from her bandolier.

“Rope?” Lem suggested.

Kara nodded from above and pointed to one of the crossbeams. “Let’s hope it holds.”

Abby shrugged out of her backpack and began to unlimber a long coil of rope while the alchemist drank a second extract that renewed her flight. When both women were ready, the warrior tossed one end of the rope up to Kara and the party members watched as the alchemist secured the length to one of the crossbeams in such a way as to make it easier to swing to the opening in the wall that led to the exterior walkway.

“I’ll go first,” Abby offered, her voice calm. Foremost in Rahab’s mind was the spell of the falling feather. A moment later his magic of summoning faded and the giant wasp vanished, returned to its native plane. The wizard was chagrined. If nothing else, perhaps the insect might have ferried one or two of them to the doorway. The idea of swinging across the gap, aloft above one hundred and fifty feet of emptiness on only strength of hands did not fill the conjurer with confidence. He reflected for a moment on the absolute absurdity of monsters inhabiting a structure such as this: To what advantage? A crushing fall was as deleterious to faceless stalkers as it was to humanoids. Unless imbued with some power of flight, to take up residence in this place was madness. Yet here such monsters had been. Rahab had the unshakable feeling that this was not over yet, and he was already exhausted.

Abby had sheathed her sword and slung Avenger over her shoulder. Now she gripped the length of rope in her hands and leaned her weight back to test the resilience of the crossbeam. The wood creaked, but held. Then, before she could spend any more time thinking about it, she hauled up on the rope and leapt out into the emptiness where the top of the stair had been. The pendular vector swept the warrior around in an arc even as she drew herself up on her powerful arms. Her boots alighted on the doorway and she reached around the stone portal frame, stepping onto the walkway outside, only to find it just as rickety as The Terrible Stair, with the added difficulty of buffeting winds sweeping underneath the vastness of the Irespan. There was a long pause as she made sure of her footing, then whipped the end of the rope back into the tower interior. Lem reached out and grabbed it, making ready to execute his own swing.
_______________________

1 Roughly translated from Elvish: “Still with us?”

2 Roughly translated from Elvish: “Apologies. My thoughts were elsewhere. What was the question?

3 One of Rahab’s spell selections upon attaining 7th level was Detect Scrying. He memorizes it every day and casts it first thing in the morning. It lasts 24 hours, does all that he mentioned, and yes, he is that paranoid.

4 Full credit to the spirit in which this was uttered goes to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film of 2001, in which Boromir, played by actor Sean Bean, utters the memorable, deadpan line: “They have a cave troll.”

5 Just a brief moment to extol the virtues of Haste. This is one of the all-time greatest spells in the history of high-magic fantasy role-playing games. This spell is so good that Gloriana will later acquire a similar spell of her own and put it to masterful use augmenting the party’s abilities.

6 This is a new bomb type Kara has learned how to manufacture as a result of achieving level 7: the explosive bomb. The bomb hit for 21 points of damage and set the golem on fire, which also caused a slowing effect. Pay close attention: Kara is about to get her victory on.

7 Ah, damage reduction. Abby hit the monster twice for 28 points of damage, which actually came out to be 18 points of damage. Lem was struggling to maneuver (rolled a 1 on the d20), and Rahab actually managed to hit with a magical acid dart fired into melee, adding another 8 points of damage. The acid dart ability is a class feature of conjurers, and specifically ignores spell resistance, which is the only reason it was even effective.

8 Gloriana cast Bull’s Strength on Abby.

9 This is a new feat of Abby’s: Step Up. When opponents take a 5-foot step, Abby automatically takes a 5’ step to stay in close combat with them. This occurs as an immediate action. Now, anyone in close combat with Abby can’t simply move to an advantageous position as a free action. It is now easier to get into a fight with Abby than it is to get out of a fight with her.

10 This is the fight where Kara earned the name “Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer.” Sure, the rest of the party contributed a few points of damage here and there, and Abby’s 13-point sword stroke finished the fight, this time unmitigated because the adamantine weapon ignored the golem’s damage reduction. But it was Kara that was the ultimate hero in this situation. Her bombs ignored the golem’s magic resistant and construct qualities, and also set the monster on fire, which had the added effect of slowing the creature. In a single round, the golem went from rapid-fire damage dealer to sluggishly vulnerable target. Kara’s bombs did 36 undiminished points of direct damage to the creature, plus an additional 12 points of subsequent fire damage as it burned. From a player standpoint, as soon as we realized we were facing a flesh golem, we got really anxious, because suddenly Rahab, Lem, and Abby were less effective. Then Kara stepped up and turned the tide of the fight in a single round. Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer.

11 Roughly translated from Elvish: “Masterfully done.”

12 It turns out the scythe was a scythe +1 and the cloak was a Cloak of Elvenkind. The cloak is what accounted for why the golem was so well camouflaged when we first entered the tower.

13 As a half-elf, Abby has low-light vision. Kara has this same ability, but she was helping Rahab see to storage of the magic items in anticipation of leaving the tower.

14 Halfling parkour.

15 More halfling parkour. This moment is best imagined in slow motion, with an extended sountrack break that resumes with a massive downbeat/guitar chord/vocal scream the moment Lem’s feet touch down on the far side stair.

16 Abby and Lem each took 23 points of damage from the falling bell, but their successful Reflex saves meant they achieved the leap to the far side of the section of disintegrating stair. Next round Glo received their pain in mid hover, then channel healed to alleviate the damage.

17 Abby, the Survivor Warrior, in a fight with the monsters that nearly killed her once before. Her attack of opportunity did 11 points of damage, and Lem’s did another 2 points. Then Abby’s first direct power attack did another 15 points of damage. Her follow up was a critical hit, that did another 30 points of damage. She and Lem were flanking the monster at this point.

18 Lem’s flank attack allowed him to do sneak attack damage, so his initial strike (post-Attack-of-Opportunity) did 2 points of damage, followed by an additional 14 points of sneak attack. Faceless stalker number 1 never had a chance. It basically leapt from the bells into a kill box. Lem got the finishing blow, and Abby was slightly annoyed, because she was the one who got the critical hit and had been responsible for 56 points of damage to the monster already. But then, that’s Lem: Never where you expect him to be, causing trouble, stealing things, and taking credit. And still insisting he’s “just a gardener.”

19 First use of Summon Monster IV. Take a moment to try and appreciate all the wasps you’ve ever seen in your life. Now imagine them the size of Clydesdales.

20 The stalker did 10 points of damage to the wasp. It’s not that the wasp doesn’t register the attack, but I figure that summoned monsters—since they don’t really die anyway, they merely blink out and return to their plane of existence when they sustain enough damage—probably aren’t bothered too much by discomfort in the world to which they are summoned. Also, way to go, Faceless Stalker: Now you’ve made the wasp angry. Wasp’s are notorious in their anger, and this wasp displaces 454 kilograms.

21 Magic Missile. I know I keep mentioning this, but surely this is yet another in a long line of absolutely great spells. Seriously. It’s Magic Missile. Also, 13 points of damage. The levels when Rahab is doing Abby-kinds of damage are still a ways off, but 13 points for a 7th level wizard on a 1st level spell? •buffs fingernails on lapel• Yes, please.

22 Seriously, Abby was kicking so much ass in this fight. It was a beautiful thing to watch her attack rolls appear in the MapTool chat window. This was a second critical hit, for a total of 28 points of damage, and after Rahab’s spell and Kara’s shock bomb, that was it for the second stalker. Now serving customer number 3!

23 Yeah, baby! Summoned giant wasp scored a critical hit with the stinger and killed the third stalker. This is a great moment in a wizard’s career: A summoned monster proves its worth by vanquishing a foe the spell-caster probably could never have bested in melee combat itself. I was high on the awesomeness.

24 These Reflex saves were . . . I believe the technical term is “fucking amazing.” The whole sequence on The Terrible Stair was one cinematic scene after another: Lem and Abby’s previous leap as the bell fell, Abby in full fight mode, Lem’s parkour, Kara in flight, Gloriana and Rahab rising through empty space on magic, a giant wasp rising like an attack helicopter from the gloom. Put on some kickass soundtrack music and turn it up.

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Fourth Interlude
Book III, Between Chapter 6 and Chapter 7

Something was wrong.

The ravens arrived bearing not messages, but rather a length of yellow silk that smelled of a human. Protocol was to send a single bird with a message, never all three at once and never without some written note. The recent murder harvest of the merchant Chaden Kelimon had been the only charge of present concern. The rest of the list remained, of course, but Xanesha’s progress was intentionally gradual. That the underlings considered such method in league with their god of secret murder served to bolster her power and position in the organization. Ironbriar’s allegiance, bloodthirst, and ardor were simply a bonus. The capstone in her wall of deceit was that none of the cult seemed to realize they were doing her bidding.

She drank wine mixed with human blood in a flute shaped from the tibia of a dwarf. The yellow silk the ravens had borne was touched faintly by some power she did not trust, like a memory somehow alive, a recollection of magic that tasted vaguely like stew of rabbit, smelled like road dust and horseflesh, sounded like lamenting viols and the creak of wagon wheels. The sensation conjured faint alarm and distant envy.

Xanesha coiled up and drew herself erect, then slithered across weathered stone and worn wood. Long in decay, the tower had a view out on the whole of The Shadow—that expanse of city slum perpetually covered by the vastness of the Irespan ruin—through a section of upper structure that had fallen away many years ago. It was evening, the distant sun approaching the western horizon red and languorous. Late day chill sent tendrils of cool air throughout Magnimar, and she felt it in the interstices of her scales with a tiny shiver.

She drank again and considered sending one of the stalkers to investigate the mill. She also considered sending one of the ravens back, perhaps with a message, perhaps simply with the silk. Still, too, she considered assuming one of her many guises as a citizen of Magnimar and setting out to see for herself, crossing cobbles and dirt, adopting the strange, intermittent, unbalanced-yet-deft stride of bipeds. Was it time to consume the cult, drink their blood, absorb their pain and fear under flaying knife and tearing teeth? Much remained to do in this city, many souls yet to harvest for the master’s need. Did she need the ragged murderers anymore?

Xanesha looked at the ravens in the cage, settled peacefully, sated on worms, feathers a sleek black so deep it was blue. Atop the crude wooden bars she had tossed the yellow cloth with some disdain. Occasionally one of the birds would bob a sleek black beak up and nudge the textile through the slats as if reasserting a fondness.

She could wait. Her brood had known millenia of waiting, coiled in humid darkness, designing the agony of millions on the path to revocation of a curse so ancient that trees in bloom when it had been uttered now lay as stone. Below, across the Shadow and into the districts beyond, the city kindled lamp, candle, and hearth against arriving dusk. Woodsmoke drifted on the air, and behind it ocean salt, and behind that came the scents of kine, pig, fish; cat, rat, dog; human, halfling, elf. The wind whipped up the ancient, crumbling tower, and as it passed through the opening at the top of the structure it fluttered the yellow silk insistently in the lamia matriarch’s peripheral vision.

Something was wrong.

••••

After dinner Rahab left the others at The Fat Cat and made his way to Naos District and the Foxglove townhouse. He moved quickly, eyes sharp, stride purposeful, wine-red robes whipping in the autumn wind that churned off the water to the north. In his left hand he bore his enchanted torch, a flickering flame that was light-without-heat, illuminating his path up the winding tunnels and colonnades that traversed the Seacleft. When he emerged a few blocks north of the Arvensoar he found himself on a narrow side street. Upper reaches of nearby buildings blushed faintest pink for a moment in the last light of the day’s sun. The sky above was streaked with hearth smoke and cloud that powdered the purple cloth of nearly night. Tiny star flecks began to appear, glistening faintly, mighty kin too distant to mock the minor lights of mortals set against a nighttime not yet fully settled upon the city.

Two figures emerged from the shadows, but any hope of catching the wizard unawares fled immediately. Rahab’s right hand came up, robe sleeve drifting back, and just above his upturned palm he deliberately conjured a hissing liquid suspended by hydrostatic tension in a perfect sphere. Smoke rose acrid from the magic, and his eyes lit with a menace as caustic as the corrosive threat he dreamed real. The two figures quickly, silently parted to either side like parade review, and Rahab passed wordlessly between them. The cutpurses hurried on.

Many of the structures in this district employed wrought iron work of skilled aesthetic. The wizard passed under an intricate trellis suspended above street level and from which dangled vines holding green and spry for the last few weeks before first freeze. Windows here and there showed the wavering yellow, white, and blue of decorative lamps from behind the ice-like distortions of real glass. Rich red fire in flambeaux and braziers of blackened metal lit the broader thoroughfares. Rahab turned a corner and the sharp steel clop of a shod horse clicked rhythmically toward him, the rider in wealthy merchant’s finery, feathered hat bobbing. Rising from the south side of the street was a short set of stone stairs that led to the next street level, and the conjurer took these two at a time.

His mind whirled. Though he remained aware of his surroundings and kept intently to his path, the Chelliaxian’s eyes raced over visions seen by no other. Lines intersecting, forming geometric patterns, surrounded by symbols in the language of dragons, perhaps the oldest of all languages. Numbers rendered the mathematics of possibility and quickly gave way to still more complex calculations describing curves, angles, planes, intersections, shapes static and dynamic, intricate formulae, elements in dimensions three, four, and still more iterations deep. Every aspect of the images was vivid and liminal with eldritch power that was like light and yet also like light’s absence. A thrill raced through the conjurer, at once chill and warm, hurried and languid. He knew what he had wrought, could see its precision, understood its measure, reckoned its effect. There remained only to write it down and seal it into readiness forever.

Rahab practically tore open the garden door into the darkness of the Foxglove townhouse, then quickly slammed it shut behind and locked it with the keys Gloriana had given him. In the closeness of the residence the torchlight seemed intense. Ignoring the doorway into the kitchen and the bodies that still lay there, he strode up the stairs to the top floor. Moments later he had set candles upon a desk and ink to quill. His spell book lay open to a blank page. In the still solitude of contemplation the walls of the townhouse gradually faded, followed by the city itself, and then all the world, leaving the conjurer suspended in a nimbus of light amidst darkness incalculable. Rahab’s breathing came rapid and his hand trembled above the clean expanse of paper. In his ears thundered the roar of his pulse, drowning the noises of the city, hushing gulls on the wing, silencing the bark of dogs, settling the wind. The murmur of life submerged within the conjurer as in the very fiery blood of the earth itself. Time did not so much slow as become forgotten, an aspect of the cosmos wrapped in arcane cloth and archived in silent vaults secret even to gods.

And then Rahab touched quill to page and began to render his understanding. The night tore open and poured power into the world.1
______________________________________

1 Characters reached level 7.

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Book III, Chapter 6: What the Ravens Told
Sawmill Aftermath

Rahab carefully scrutinized the objects on the floor before him, his hand outstretched as he bathed the items in eldritch power, attempting to unlock their secrets. He had found a small bowl—perhaps for sinister ritual of The Brotherhood of the Seven, or perhaps merely for mundane purpose—and into this container he poured a small measure of wine from a skin he carried. The conjurer now gently stirred the wine almost absently with a feather, slowly working magic to reveal the items on the floor to his mind.

Justice Ironbriar’s mask was obviously magical, akin to those worn by the other cultists, but more powerful, for it also offered its wearer the ability to cast a spell of confusion upon foes. The magistrate had also carried an enchanted short sword, and upon his arm an ensorcelled buckler. Finally, the chief murderer in The Brotherhood had a wand of healing magic. A shirt of excellent mail shaped from the renowned metal mithril covered Ironbriar’s torso underneath brown robes. The party also found a devious crossbow small enough to be held in one hand and readily concealable. To Kara’s discerning eyes the bolts for the weapon appeared poisoned. The unholy symbol of the god Norgorber had remained clutched in Ironbriar’s death grip.

The tally of cultists fallen to the party’s assault numbered twenty-one. From these Abby gathered a pile of masks for destruction. While Rahab spent time identifying the items, the others gave the mill a thorough search.1 Eventually Gloriana took the wand while Kara donned the mithril shirt.

The mill office held little beyond a desk, chair, and footlocker that Lem opened with disdainful ease. Inside the container were a variety of historical books, sea charts, and etchings of coastal rock formations and similar surveys. On the office wall hung a small painting depicting a city carved from a gigantic frozen waterfall. Kara esteemed the quality and guessed the value at two hundred gold coins. The companions also discovered a beautifully worked leather-bound tome emblazoned with serpents of green and red artfully intertwined. Rahab knew what it was in an instant: A spellbook no doubt belonging to some unfortunate victim of the cult. He glanced through the pages quickly and thrilled to see a number of spells not yet in his own collection. The wizard carefully tucked the spellbook away in his own knapsack, giddy at the prospect of new power.

The footlocker also contained another book in quarto, worn with years, but still in excellent condition. The work was titled The Serpent’s Tain: Fairytales of the Eldest. Lem gave a low whistle of appreciation.

“You recognize it?” Kara asked.

“That book,” began the gardener, “would probably fetch five hundred gold coins to an astute buyer, or I am no gardener.”

In a rare display, Rahab eschewed the opportunity for sarcastic remark regarding the vagaries of Lem’s trades and eagerly took up the tome in practiced hands. “Excellent,” he murmured. The conjurer secured the remaining books and charts back in the footlocker and elected to transport it all away for further review, while Kara removed the painting from the wall and carefully wrapped it in some canvas, tying it with rope. Gloriana took the late magistrate’s magical buckler, and then engaged in brief conversation with Lem.

“You should take this,” the gardener indicated the magical short sword.

The oracle seemed uncertain. “You don’t want it?”

“I’m more effective with my dagger and razor. The sword feels a bit too big, and anyway, it’s not as easy to smuggle into a tavern, is it?”

“Alright.” Though her tone was skeptical, Gloriana nevertheless accepted the short sword and looped a scarf through the scabbard ring, then draped the blade over one shoulder.

The last item they discovered had been carefully concealed underneath the workdesk. It was a journal or ledger with entries marked in a bewildering mix of characters, symbols, and numbers. Rahab thumbed through the pages while Kara and Gloriana looked on over his shoulders.

“Some of that is Elvish,” the alchemist remarked. “And Draconic? Strange. The characters are there, but they’re not words, and they are interspersed with numbers.”

Rahab was nodding agreement. “Infernal, as well. See here?” His index finger tapped a particular marking.

“If it’s not words, what is it?” Gloriana asked.

The conjurer shook his head and frowned. “I’m not sure. A cipher of some kind, using structures from languages but not as referents to those languages. There may be a key scribed herein somewhere, or among the other documents we have seized. Regardless, this will take some time to decode.” He tucked the ledger away in his robe with an affectionate admonishment to Escher not to chew on the paper.

On the top level Lem found a trapdoor in the ceiling and there was a narrow wooden ladder that could be placed to ascend outside. As Lem began climbing, something slipped out from under his tunic and tumbled softly to the floor at Gloriana’s feet. She bent and discovered one of the masks worn by the cultists, deliberately lifting the sinister headgear at the end of her index finger. The gardener froze mid-climb. Abby and Kara looked on in surprise. There was a long, awkward silence punctuated only by the hushed wheeze of Rahab’s barely-restrained laughter.

Gloriana’s gaze met Lem’s. The oracle raised an eyebrow. Lem cleared his throat.

••••

On the roof of the sawmill the companions discovered a small rookery housing three ravens and a measure of seed. Tiny tubes of hollowed bone had been carefully tied to the legs of each bird in order to convey miniscule messages over distance. Accustomed to some presence besides their own, the ravens began to bob and caw at the Lem’s arrival. By the time the others had gathered atop the mill the sleek, black-feathered birds were crooning and hopping in their cages.

The companions gazed out over Kyver’s Islet and the rooftops clustered densely thereon. Autumn noon was glistening on the Yondabakari delta, and across the flow sat the expanse of Magnimar. Many half-timber buildings lined the opposite shore, interspersed with structures completely made of wood, flowing right-to-left, south-to-north, down to the extensive, spiderlike fingers of the docks extending from Beacon’s Point into the Varisian Gulf and cradling all manner of waterborne vessel. Masts and sails, oars and nets, and an array of hulls dotted the water, going about the day’s business or awaiting the arrival of same. Gulls wheeled overhead, borne on sea breezes and squawking their incessant search for food. The density of Keystone faded grey into the east toward the prominent rise of the Seacleft. In the haze of the autumn day and the ocean air the spike of the Arvensoar impaled the sky, and to the northeast, the broad, immense, almost alien architecture of the Irespan loomed more massive than any single structure of the city, seemingly more than the metropolis itself. Amidst all that space and structure strode and lurked the citizens of Magnimar, and beneath the companions the sawmill stood as wooden tomb to the membership of The Brotherhood of the Seven scattered and heaped in death.

Gloriana approached the makeshift rookery to get a closer look at the tubes on the ravens, but she could see they were empty. “I was hoping they contained some message,” she mused despondently. “Who knows how long it will take to decipher the ledger?” She turned to face Rahab, who stood reflective.

Kara stepped forward. “I have an idea,” the alchemist murmured. In a moment she opened her backpack and produced a corked vial. “An elixir to commune with beasts of water, land, and air.2 Liberated from Thistletop. I had little notion it would prove useful, but these birds may have a tale to tell.”

“Kara!” Gloriana grabbed her in a fierce embrace.

“Well remembered,” Rahab nodded approvingly at the alchemist.

“You’re going to talk to the ravens?” Abby sounded skeptical.

Kara shook her head. “Not I. It makes the most sense for Glori to use it. Her skills at communication exceed mine. The potion’s effects will only last for a minute.”

“How much ‘skill’ is she going to need?” Lem’s tone was biting. “They’re birds.”

Gloriana ignored the gardener and received the vial from Kara. “What do I do?”

The alchemist looked momentarily surprised, then bemused. “Drink it, silly!”

Before taking the potion, Gloriana opened one of the sacks of seed and cupped a handful. The ravens responded instantly, hopping, cawing, heads cocked, black eyes shining. With a questioning glance at Kara, the oracle uncorked the bottle and drank the liquid down. Pungency permeated her sinuses, stinging her eyes. The taste was not unpleasant, but she was hard-pressed to describe it.

She blinked several times. “Now what?”

Three rasping, fragmented voices erupted from the cages. “Food now! Food now!” Wings fluttered, scattering bits of black feather. The ravens hopped about. “Food now! Fly! Food now! Fly!”

Gloriana broke into a broad grin and her eyes widened. She looked at her companions. “I can hear them!”

Kara nodded encouragement. Rahab stroked his goatee, evaluative. Abby looked on curiously.

Lem stood at roof’s edge, looking at the city vista, unimpressed: “I can hear them, too, Glo. They make more noise than Abby in armor falling on a goblin playing the sackbut.”

“No, I mean I can understand them! They’re talking!”

“What are they saying?” Abby squinted at the ravens as if adjusting her view might somehow admit her to the conversation.

“They want food.”

“Food now! Food now!” The ravens bobbed and circled on their spindly claws. Gloriana began to realize that it was not that the birds suddenly had command of her language. In fact, the ravens were still cawing, crooning, barking, rattling, but she somewhow recognized the noises, and knew that when she spoke, the magic effected the same for the birds. The others merely heard the oracle speaking as she always did, and ravens vocalizing as nothing more than the birds they were.

Her confidence growing, the oracle nodded assertively. “Yes. They want food.” She looked at the others and beamed.

“Truly a conversation for the ages.” Rahab, ever a study in sarcasm.

••••

Gloriana held out her hand and the ravens pecked seed greedily. “Hello! I’m Glori!” The oracle’s voice was bright. “Do you have names?”

Rahab rolled his eyes. Lem’s jaw clenched slightly. Though the gardener appeared to be ignoring the proceedings, his ears were attentive.

Each of the ravens quickly vocalized their identities, multiple times, interspersed with requests for seed. Gloriana narrowed her eyes. The potion granted communication, not necessarily understanding, and the sound of the raven names translated strangely in her mind. She struggled a moment to clarify the sounds, and then realized that, unless the seed ran out, the birds’ names were not particularly important to her goal.

“Is this your home?”

“Home! Food! Home! Here! Food!”

“Where do you go?”

“Tower! Lift fly say!”

Say. Say. Gloriana struggled in thought. “Messages?”

“Yes yes! Say say!”

“Who recieves the messages?”

“Snake you!”

The oracle sighed. Snake you? Snake you? Who is you? Me? Snake me? She turned to Rahab. “What do you think ‘snake you’ means?”

The others heard the ravens cawing in responsive chorus. Gloriana heard: “Snake you! Snake you! Snake you!”

The wizard regarded the oracle for a moment, then shook his head in exasperation. “Gloriana!” Rahab spread his hands. “Context?”

“The ravens take messages to a tower. They identify the individual receiving them as ‘snake you.’” It was the oracle’s turn to spread her hands. She also flashed her most winning smile.

Rahab frowned and gave an accusatory tilt of his head. “Save it for the birds.”

“Rahab,” Gloriana’s voice reverberated like a candied bell shaking loose a snowfall of sugar.

“Gloriana, give me a moment, if you please.” The wizard was unmistakably irked. “I’m working off the translation of the transcript from this convocation of great minds.” He stroked his goatee absently and his gaze fell on the middle distance. “‘Snake you.’” Rahab murmured the words slowly, as if tasting them, testing them. Then he glanced at Kara, then at Abby. “Ask your advisory council if the recipient is ‘snake anyone-else-gathered-at-present.’”

The oracle turned to the ravens and posed the question. The frisson of transition when she spoke her thoughts and realized the birds were hearing language and concepts in their own mode of communication buzzed in Gloriana’s brain. The magic was powerful, and not entirely pleasant. She noticed a few of her haunts manifested in the air briefly as bursts of ghostly feathers that disappeared in the sunlight. The ravens croaked their responses, and the oracle fed them some more seed that they quickly plucked from her outstretched palm through the wooden slats of the rookery.

“It’s hard to explain,” Gloriana began, turning back to Rahab and the others. ‘Three you two not you not snake you snake three,’ I think? I can hear it, I’m just not sure I fully understand it.”

But Rahab was already nodding. “Say the word ‘woman,’ back to them.” He paused, lifted an instructive finger. “Say ‘woman’ or ‘lady.’”

The explosion of affirmative vocalizations in response to Gloriana’s question had her nodding. Her glance returned to Rahab. “’Snake lady.’ What is a ‘snake lady?’ Wait, do they think I am a snake lady? What does that mean?”

“No. ‘Snake’ is an identifier specific to the recipient at the tower. ‘Lady’ or ‘woman’ is the thing you have in common.”

“They’re pretty smart,” Gloriana beamed again and fed the ravens more seed.

Rahab turned away and rolled his eyes again.

“Not that smart,” Lem mumbled, his back still turned, eyes still focused on the cityscape. “They think you’re a lady.”

••••

The conversation with the ravens came to a close with Gloriana requesting a favor of the birds. The oracle gave one of her colorful scarves to the ravens and asked the avians to fly in the direction of the tower to show the way. The companions watched the black birds take wing, bright yellow scarf trailing on the wind, a silken beacon fluttering north-northwest at speed.

“The Irespan,” Kara said after awhile.

Standing next to the alchemist, Rahab slowly shook his head.“Underbridge. There’s only one tower that could be: The Shadow Clock.”

The others could not mistake the wizard’s tone. Abby looked concerned. “What is the Shadow Clock?”

“A place of dying.”

••••

Abby, Kara, and Rahab were preparing to transport the items they had found in the sawmill, including a sackful of cultist masks Abby and Gloriana were intent on destroying. To this collection the oracle had decisively added the mask Lem had attempted to smuggle on his person. Now she and the gardener stood alone in one of the sawmill’s dim, dusty hallways. Gloriana had cast magic beckoning a spirit that shed light to shimmer above them as they conversed.

“Heroes sometimes wear masks, and we don’t consider them evil when they do!” Lem protested. His voice was low and edged.

Gloriana gave a sympathetic smile that was also insistent and reproachful. “I know you tread a line between light and shadow, Lem, but these masks are true evil and cause nothing but pain. Do what you think you must, but know that I will not shine my radiance on those who willfully dwell in such darkness.”3

The gardener regarded the oracle for a long time, jaw set, eyes flint. “No healing magic.”

This time the oracle’s smile was sympathetic and sad.

Lem was not finished. “Yet you still heal Rahab.”

“I know this is hard to believe given his personality, but Rahab has not actually aligned himself with evil.”

“He’s Chelliaxian! It’s practically the definition of the word!”

“Lem—”

“No!” Lem’s voice rose in anger. “They keep slaves! They worship devils!” The gardener’s hand flexed on the hilt of his dagger.

Gloriana remained cool yet firm. “Lem, I have no doubt the injustices of your past—injustices I would undo if I could—show all that is wrong about Chelliax. And I also know you are smart enough to realize that such injuries do not capture the entire possibility or potential of a people, no matter how grave. You want the world to treat you as free, correct?”

The gardener said nothing. His eyes burned. Gloriana continued. “In order for the world to do that it has to get past misconceptions it has about halflings, at the very least, and I know you’re already too familiar with how wrong, how prevalent, such misconceptions are. The same indignity of misconception about someone else helps nothing. The evils of Chelliax are real, but Rahab is not a practitioner of them.”

“He seems to know a great deal about Hell,” Lem countered, smoldering.

“As befitting a scholar, and as someone shaped—but not entirely defined—by his background. But I am confident he worships no devils. Think about it: In the time you have known Rahab, has he ever seemed like the kind of person who would worship, well, anything? I mean other than himself? I find it encouraging that he has become a part of this group.”

Lem lapsed into a long silence. Gloriana clasped her hands in front of her. “Lem, this thing with the mask . . . what’s really bothering you?”

The gardener finally spoke, staring away into the distance down the hall. “We can’t just leave that place back there. It’s unfinished. Those . . . ‘things’ . . . waiting in their darkness. Waiting to consume.”

“Here?”

“The Misgivings.”

Gloriana nodded and her expression showed its own grief, its own resolve. “It weighs heavily on me, as well. I promise you, we will return to that place and set right what has wronged it for so long. We need some time to gather our strength, deal with these more immediate threats, unravel this mystery. But we will return there one day and set those souls free.”

“Destroy the shells, you mean” the gardener insisted. “There are no souls there to free.”

Now the lengthy pause was Gloriana’s. “On that perspective . . . well, perhaps that is a discussion for another time. My promise remains true, Lem. We will return, working together.”

Another gap in the conversation arrived. The thump of the mill machinery rattled mutely against a distant part of the structure. Finally the gardener spoke. “I see why Rahab keeps referring to the impressive diversity of your ‘diplomacy.’ Alright, Glo. No need to get touchy about the mask. I’m just trying to get the job done, which I can do better with your help. No mask needed.”

Gloriana knelt and hugged Lem. The gardener did not return the embrace, though neither did he push away. When the oracle drew back, she smiled again, friendly, encouraging.

“Come. Let’s join the others.”

••••

“There’s just one more thing before we leave,” Rahab remarked.

Abby already knew what the wizard was going to say. “Bodies,” she murmured, looking around at the wake of the combat.

The conjurer swept an arm around to indicate the scattered carnage of dead cultists. “To be frank, this kind of scene is not entirely unfamiliar in Magnimar, but to be on the safe side, it’s probably best to dispose of them in some way, if at all possible.”

Gloriana looked uncertain. “Shouldn’t we inform the city authorities?”

Abby and Kara said nothing. Lem couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Rahab laughed. “My dear,” the wizard intoned, “for all your skill and charisma, you are sometimes charmingly naïve. Perhaps I was unclear in our discussion yesterday, but Ironbriar—whose corpse now lies on the top floor— is a city authority.”

“That’s not entirely disadvantageous. How’s this for naiveté? Anyone with his status and position has, if not outright enemies, at least ambitious competitors. Someone in the city can benefit from learning that Ironbriar is both affiliated with an evil cult and dead.” The oracle cocked an eyebrow at the wizard.

“Indeed,” Rahab assented. “Well-played, and we are in accord, especially because there is no way to keep Ironbriar’s disappearance quiet for long. Still, speaking advantage, surely there is something to be said for revealing the information at a time most beneficial to us?”

“We’ll make a diplomat out of you yet, Rahab.”

“I’ll put that remark down to the exertion and excitement of combat.”

The oracle looked at the rest of the party. “Alright, so what do we do?”

The alchemist was looking at the floor. The rumble of mill machinery thrummed up through the planks. “The river is the obvious choice.”

“Weigh them down,” Lem and Abby said simultaneously, then looked at one another. Lem winked. Abby returned a nod.

“Hope the tide carries them some distance out to sea, long enough for the ocean and its creatures to digest much of them,” finished Rahab. The wizard did not voice his other idea for disposal, reasoning it would take too long, and so kept further thoughts to himself.

It took a little over an hour to gather all the bodies, wrap as many as possible in sections of canvas, and weigh the bundles down with machinery chains. Abby’s muscles strained as she rolled each corpse into the churning mill wheels on the lower level which shunted the dead into the river spray below. The party kept the corpses of two cultists and the late City Justice Ironbriar hidden away in the office for proof when it was time to reveal what had happened. There was little else they could do. Extensive bloodstains marking nearly every floor of the facility remained testament to the battle, but there was nothing else for it.

The companions cleaned themselves up as much as possible in an effort to minimize attention on the journey back through the city. Kara handed the painting to Lem to carry, and helped Rahab trundle along with the footlocker between them. Abby walked alongside with the sack of masks. As the group strolled, Abby and Kara chatted, Lem kept an expert’s eye on the environment and people, and Gloriana and Rahab took counsel together.

“Ironbriar’s magic of compulsion should not have worked on Abby,” the oracle insisted.

Rahab nodded. “Agreed. You had protected her with your own power. Yet the magistrate’s spell nearly did work. The evidence is irrefutable.”

Irritation marked Gloriana’s voice: “How?”

“I can outline some basic theories,” the conjurer admitted, “but I was hoping you might have better insight. Ironbriar was a servant of philosophically aligned powers, not an arcanist. This is your area of expertise.”

“Hearing you admit the limits of your knowledge is unusual.” Gloriana had not intended the remark to sound quite so accusatory, and she tried to recover quickly. “I am sorry, Rahab. I did not mean that as a barb.”

The conjurer regarded the oracle coolly. Then after a moment he made a dismissive gesture with his free hand. “I am confident in what I know, and among my vast knowledge is recognition of my limits. The measure of foolishness is directly proportional to insistence on knowing that which is not known. You cast no barb.”

The oracle gently placed a hand on the wizard’s forearm. “Thank you.”

“What say you, then?” Rahab continued.

“The only thing I can think of is that he was operating under some influence of Norgorber, or at least that god’s more highly-placed servants.” Gloriana said the name in hushed tones nearly lost in the noise of the bustling city around them. “That somehow the evil power allowed the magic to threaten. I don’t know.” She gave a gesture of frustrated helplessness. “What do you think?”4

“That seems as plausible a hypothesis as any. Ironbriar died with the unholy symbol clutched in his hand.” The wizard shrugged.

“That almost makes it worse, somehow,” observed the oracle. “Not just the evil of mortals, but aligned with evil gods, as well.”

The two finished the walk back to The Fat Cat in subdued silence.
____________________________________

1 The cultists masks were all Skinsaw Masks. The wand was that of Cure Moderate Wounds with 10 charges. The buckler and short sword were both +1, and Ironbriar’s mask was a Reaper’s Mask, which is like a Skinsaw Mask except it can also cast Confusion.

2 Potion of Speak with Animals.

3 This exchange actually took place in a forum discussion between the players. When possible I try to incorporate actual role-playing moments and conversations from game sessions or game chat.

4 So, it wasn’t until later that we all realized Ironbriar’s initial spell of magical compulsion on Abby should never have even required a saving throw because Glo had place Protection from Evil on Abby at the beginning. By the time of this writing, it was much too late, and the Hero Point was long since erroneously spent. Every game has its errors, mistakes, misses, and ultimately it’s no harm done, but it’s still the kind of thing that would bug me from a narrative consistency standpoint, so I had to address it. It’s interesting how such realizations challenge a writer to create story that explains what should not have happened.

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Book III, Chapter 5: The Battle of Seven's Sawmill, Part II
Justice

In his role as a City Justice of Mangimar, Magistrate Ironbriar had carefully crafted a façade of propriety, duty, and legal scholarship respected throughout the city and Varisia. His name graced important decisions and opinions on record in the Pediment Building. He was sought for advice and argument relating to issues of law at nearly every level. Not a single social season passed without his presence on guest lists of important fêtes and functions. Not only prestige, but wealth also he had amassed, and he enjoyed luxuries of enviable couture, delectable foods, majestic property, great deference and fear from the populace. During all that time he had also been an active leader of the cult of murder. For years Seven’s Sawmill had stood as the site on which to meet with unholy associates, plan dark deeds in service to Father Skinsaw, and lead cultists in blasphemous rituals of secret murder. His work in profane killing was as precise, meticulous, and effective as his tenure on the Justice Court. Save for the close knit, secretive associates in the cult, a city of sixteen thousand souls passed each day without knowledge of Ironbriar’s bloody service to the god of murder.

The magistrate had been present at a feast to watch seven guests—lured under pretense of celebration—writhe in agonized death throes having dined on poisoned victuals. He had personally drawn his war razor across the throats of twelve victims in the city to empty their lifeblood. Ironbriar once held a drunk boatswain underwater unto drowning, and he had pushed a citizen from a balustrade near the summit of the seacleft, then watched the body plummet three hundred feet to crushing conclusion. He had organized, overseen, and dispatched fellow cultists to slay by garrote, by blade, by bludgeon, by fire, by toxin, by beast, by magic. Halfings, humans, dwarves, elves, and others beside had all fallen to his machinations at one time or another. Neither beggar nor noble, neither merchant nor military, neither native nor foreigner stood excluded from his designs, and he had seen murdered the guilty, the innocent, the evil, the good, the aged, the young, the infirm, the hale, the fortunate, the disadvantaged, adults and children.

In the twisted nightmare of Ironbriar’s soul it was all so very clear: During the last year his unholy communions had elicited approval. He knew with certainty that she had come as Father Skinsaw’s representative, dispatched by the very murderer god’s secretive hand to join at the magistrate and commit crimes against the world. She was cunning, creative, beautiful, ingenious, bloodthirsty, powerful. Magnimar—and, indeed, all Varisia—would tremble at the unknown horror in its midst, without recourse, hopeless as a victim stumbling blindly down an alley only to find the way bricked up, the practiced steps of a killer closing inexorably from the darkness behind. Together they would explore new paths of bloodshed: Ironbriar and Xanesha.

And yet, there was now this strange invasion, all the more mysterious and upsetting for arising seemingly out of nowhere. Seven’s Sawmill had long been inviolate, the perfect place in the city to gather membership, plot slaughter, and conduct the awful rites of the Brotherhood of the Seven. The masquerade was absolute: A small, old mill in the industrial section of the city, lost among the frenetic daily activity of Magnimar. Recent murders had gone unsolved, leaving only the haunted, unknown menace of the symbols carved on the corpses. Only the cult’s membership knew the purpose of the mill. There was no cause for discovery; dissemblance had long remained eminently effective. Nothing had changed.

Nothing had changed, the magistrate reflected, except the arrival of Xanesha. But there was no time to pursue that thought. Ironbriar stood at the top of the stairs and gazed down on one of the interlopers. It was a woman, short sandy hair held back with a simple ribbon, dressed in an impressive gown of chainmail, sword in hand, and upon her left arm a brilliant, shining silver shield with a seven-pointed star device that gave the city justice pause for its similarity to another symbol he had come to know. Beyond the warrior woman he knew his subordinates were battling others, and he knew these others had brought magic. He knew that if they had ascended this far into the mill, unbidden, that blood had already been shed below, and that these were no mere faction from the city, neither guard nor vigilante group. A nervous thrill shook him as he opened his mouth, spoke a spell of compulsion, and sent its potency down upon the warrior woman.

“Won’t you help me kill the traitors who arrived with you?”

••••

A kind of fog seemed to billow inside Abby’s mind. Sound was suddenly thick and distant. The glow from her lightstone dimmed somehow. She struggled to remember what she was doing, where she was. Sorting through her thoughts was like dragging a great ship’s anchor across wet sand. From the haze in her brain emerged a throbbing insistence, not exactly clear, but unremitting.

Won’t you help me kill the traitors who arrived with you? That was the thought, that was it. The traitors, those duplicitous curs that had led her astray so many times, led her into danger, threatened her survival at every turn. The elf betrayer and the halfling churl, untrustworthy people from strange lands with mysterious motives. The humans, too, had tricked her. The man was a servant of devils and the golden-woman was as practiced a seducer as she had ever encountered. If she were to survive then they would have to die. It was the only way she could escape.

Abby started to turn and thus did not see the rictus of triumph form on the face of he who had asked, in a perfectly reasonable manner, for her help.

Her eyes took in the chaos of battle filling the hallway. One of the traitors in particular caught her eye. It was the human man, and then Abby blinked and the fog in her mind broke as under a warm sun and a refreshing breeze.1

••••

Ironbriar’s satisfaction faded as quickly as it had arrived. The warrior continued to turn, spinning on her heel and suddenly surging up the stairs toward him. He saw the sword gripped fiercely in hand, saw the sheen of silver light reflected on the pristine shield, saw the intense fire in the warrior’s eyes. His enchantment had failed.

“Help!”Abby called out as she ran the steps two at a time, her powerful legs driving the weight of her body, her armor, her weapons, her equipment, her survivor’s iron will to close with her enemy, her true enemy. Still shaken from the magical effects, her attack did not reach the elven man dressed in the dark brown robe. She watched the figure step back and unfold a war razor. The movement was almost casual, but utterly sinister.

Kara’s superior senses heard Abby’s plea, and the alchemist moved quickly up the hallway, deftly navigating the fallen bodies. At the base of the stairs she looked up and saw her friend just below the landing, and beyond an elf menacing the warrior with a narrow, deadly blade. Kara pitched a galvanic grenado underhand and watched in satisfaction as the small, ceramic container arced perfectly over Abby and burst directly on the robed figure, spilling a riot of rampant lightning in such fury as to induce involuntary muscle spasms.2

At that moment Lem ducked under the sweeping attack of another war razor, but Gloriana was not so lucky. Her opponent sliced a stinging wound open on her shoulder. More attackers appeared at the top of the stairs in support of the brown-robed elf. The mill was practically alive with razor blades.

And then it was Rahab’s turn to wield new magic.

••••

The conjurer’s tongue finished the phrase and his hands completed the complex somatic design. Lines of color assembled and intersected before his eyes, forming a circle within a pentagram bathed in glowing runes. The form seemed to tumble away, and the scent of tobacco filled his nostrils with sudden intensity.3

An instant later the turning sigil faded and the power of the spell surged over Abby, Kara, Lem, Gloriana, and himself. All other action in the hall seemed to slow dramatically. The masked attackers suddenly moved as though suspended in honey, every motion labored and languorous. Rahab thrilled at the sensation, and even more so at the actualization of newfound power.4 When he stepped forward in support of Gloriana he marveled at how the very dust motes in the air seemed sluggish.

Gloriana’s spirit blade hovered in air, a glistening arc of golden light that struck like steel, and it descended upon a nearby mask-wearer, drawing blood. Her own attack followed immediately, the heavy spiked head of her morningstar bursting upon the man’s skull as a stone shatters a melon. Under the effects of Rahab’s magic she found another opening to attack almost immediately, where her usual martial skill was not yet sufficient to the task. The oracle executed a return stroke in the other direction, and this time the weapon tore up into the skull from below the jaw. The mask remained on, sloshing and shifting like a sack of soup as it carried the corpse’s pulverized skull to the floor.5

“Lem!” Gloriana shouted. “Will you get upstairs?” Then, recognizing the mounting damage she was sustaining through her companions, the oracle abandoned the link of life to Rahab out of necessity.

The gardener needed no further prompting, and raced up the hallway to help Abby and Kara.

••••

Ironbriar’s allies were arriving quickly, and he stepped back to allow them access to attack. As he did so, he reached into the haunted place within and shouted murder with his mind. A distortion rippled outward and washed over the party. To Gloriana it felt like a stab of hopelessness. To Abby it felt like a scream that robbed her breath. It conjured in Lem’s mind the raw brutality of a slaver’s chains. For Kara and Rahab, it was simply crushing pain.6

Nevertheless, the magistrate’s effort had required concentration that left him vulnerable, and despite her injury, Abby capitalized on the advantage, stabbing the elf in the thigh with her longsword.7 Two mask-wearers stepped forward and interposed between Abby and their master. One of the assailants fetched the warrior a vicious swipe with a war razor. In return, Abby cut him down with two swift sword strokes, then crushed the other man’s chest with Avenger, killing him just as quickly. She stepped into the top floor hallway and, finding her opponents suffering a strange slowness of movement, seized opportunity and put her blade through the belly of a third mask-wearer.8

“Come this way!” the warrior called back to her friends.

One of Kara’s concotions sailed past Abby and exploded in another crackling blast of electricity that leapt across two more members of Ironbriar’s cult. Renewed war razor attacks against warrior and alchemist proved fruitless as the two women could easily read the sluggish assaults and avoid them with seemingly enhanced agility.9

Now at the limits of damage she could sustain, Gloriana cast a spell of potent healing upon herself and felt immediately renewed, allowing her to soak up the pain that still troubled Kara, Lem, and Abby. The gardener charged forward, leapt up to the wall and sprang off to propel himself past the others on the stairs and tumble into the hallway beyond. Misjudging the distance, Lem found himself sprawled on his back, pain shooting up his spine, staring straight up into the eyes of Justice Ironbriar weaving a spell.10

“Won’t you please help me kill these intruders?” a voice asked in Lem’s mind. He rejected the suggestion. Later he would wonder if he had done so because such an idea was antithetical to his sentiment, or because his passion for independence was such that if he were to undertake such a task, he wanted to do so on his own terms, not at another’s behest.

••••

Abby slew another cultist, and another. Kara bit the cork from a flask of red liquid, gulped the contents, and then opened her mouth and belched a gout of flame upon two enemies to her left. Smoke began to fill the hallway from burnt tunics and singed wood.

More cultists ran down the upper hall to join the fray. Abby and Kara both sustained additional wounds. Lem struggled to stand, narrowly avoiding the attack of the elf in the dark brown robe, only to find his opponent retreating behind a pulse that distorted the air. This time the agony was Lem’s to endure, and the gardener nearly doubled over. Ironbriar slipped into an open doorway and slammed the portal shut behind him.

“See my power?” Lem shouted. “Run while you can!” Then the discomfort sucked the air from his lungs and he nearly collapsed. A moment later more cultists were upon him, whirling war razors and slicing cuts into flesh. Despite his bravado, the gardener felt a potent tinge of despair.

Then Gloriana reached the top of the stairs and cast another spell of healing against the new damage her friends were suffering. Kara hurled another grenado into a cultist and ushered him to electric death. Abby redirected to support Lem and cut two more mask-wearers down. For the moment, the party was alone in the hallway with the bodies of those they had slain. Lem nodded at the door to indicate the path of Ironbriar’s flight.

“Where is he?” Gloriana called. She channeled healing spirits among her friends to further staunch their wounds, and Lem felt better.

“Went this way!” replied Abby. “Watch out behind us!” The warrior kicked the door open and stepped into the room beyond, followed by Lem. Back in the hallway Kara retrieved another brew, this time a potion of healing, and quickly drank it down. Now that some space had opened up, Rahab reached the top of the stairs and detected for signs of magic in an effort to track Ironbriar’s movement, but saw only the signals from his companions and the masks on the dead cultists.

••••

Long ago the cult had undertaken augmentations to the sawmill. Two secret passages and a secret chamber had been added to the floor plan, and only a few members of the cult at the highest level knew of their existence. Ironbriar had consecrated the room as the Chamber of Pain. Here he kept the faces of murder victims flayed from the skull and stretched on wooden frames with leather lanyards, preserving the momentous agony of expression the dying had felt in their waning moments.

Many opportunities over many years had afforded the magistrate the precision necessary to make use of the secret passageways with accuracy and skill. Having slammed the door behind him, Ironbriar quickly released the catch and secreted himself away in the hidden passage, carefully and expertly closing the paneling behind him. To anyone entering the access space—even most other members of the cult—the small room would appear as a simple storage. Already the sounds of battle faded behind and Ironbriar made his way to the Chamber of Pain. Once inside he whispered a quick spell and cloaked himself in magic of invisibility. A moment later he had accessed the second secret passage and was already on his way to the end room on the mill’s uppermost floor where he could make more effective use of his disappearance to effect a sudden and devastating surprise attack on these hated attackers. As he moved he silently wondered who they were, how they had come to the mill, and what they knew.

••••

In the small room Lem and Abby cast about but there was no sign of the escaped magistrate. The gardener bent close to the wall, searching with eyes, ears, and the tips of his fingers. He was sweating, and his leather armor was stained with blood, some of which was his own. “Must be something,” he mumbled as he explored urgently.

Abby ducked back out into the hall and pointed with her sword toward the other end. “We need to make sure that behind us is clear.” Without awaiting reply she trundled off, stepping over and around bodies.

“Lem!” Gloriana called. “Should I go with you?” Kara and Rahab had already begun to follow Abby.

“No!” replied the gardener, still scrabbling to find the secret door he knew to be there. Gloriana hesitated a moment, then ignored Lem’s instruction and stepped into the room to help.

••••

At the other end of the hall Abby found another room, and another five cultists lying in ambush. They rushed as one, but Abby was still too swift under the effects of Rahab’s magic, and she lopped the head off of one of the attackers. Kara appeared in support and blasted another lightning vial into two others. One fell, smoking and twitching. Rahab cast the magic of the electric grasp from his wand, and managed to clutch a fourth cultist by the wrist, successfully discharging the energy.

War razors landed harmlessly on Kara’s leather armor, Abby’s chainmail, or slid uselessly across Avenger’s surface. Warrior and alchemist were simply too swift for the cultists’ attacks, and their own counterattacks wrought havoc upon their opponents.

By now Lem had uncovered the secret panel that gave access to a low passageway behind the wall. He and Gloriana crept forward as swiftly as possible, emerging moments later in a small room decorated with gruesome images of horror: Human faces cut from the skull and stretched over frames, frozen forever in expressions of agony. There was still no sign of Ironbriar, and Lem was already at work trying to find what must have been yet another secret route out of the macabre chamber. Gloriana could hear sounds of battle nearby, but was uncertain of the direction and distance from the secret passageway.

“We must hurry,” the oracle urged.

“This is fantastic workmanship. Feel free to find the mechanism yourself. Anytime you like.” Lem’s rejoinder was part frustration, part irritation.

“Keep working at that and you’ll be as good as Rahab.”

“No cause to be insulting.” Lem’s fingers continued to explore along the wall and just then discovered the latch. A panel clicked open slightly and Lem was already hauling it back. Gloriana followed the gardener into another low passageway. The oracle had to stoop as she struggled along.

In the other room the combat continued. Abby and Kara each killed another cultist, when suddenly the elusive Ironbriar blinked instantly into view as he uttered a spell of cancellation. The protective blessings on Abby were brushed aside.11 The companions could see that Ironbriar was now masked like his fellows, though his covering was more hideous, more intricate in its patchwork design, and where the other masks were cloth, his was cruelly crafted from flayed human skin.

••••

From the other side of the secret passageway it was easy to discern the mechanism and method. Lem activated the switch without delay, already moving, his hands once more drawing his dagger and war razor as skillfully as a court juggler. When the gardener emerged from the uncovered space he found himself immediately behind the recently revealed Justice Ironbriar. The gardener’s reaction was almost instinctive: He stabbed his dagger into the magistrate’s lower back at the kidney.

“Wretched halfling!” Ironbriar moaned as he stepped to one side. Gloriana emerged in Lem’s wake and tried to bring her morningstar to bear, but missed. The magistrate shouted a strange series of words and invoked a magical compulsion that targeted both the oracle and the warrior. Both women ignored the magic’s effect. Rahab recognized the enchantment of confusion, and the effect’s origin in the hideous mask that Ironbriar wore.12 The conjurer cast his own magic of dispelling, and the energy crashed through one of the magistrate’s spells.

Kara suddenly found herself in melee, drawing her longsword to confront a cultist attacking her. Lem tumbled to one side of Ironbriar opposite Gloriana, awaiting the oracle’s move to close the flanking maneuver and maximize the opportunity to attack. A moment later the golden-haired woman stepped forward and attacked, once more bringing the weight of her morningstar full upon her opponent.13 As her blow struck home she noticed an object clutched in the magistrate’s hand: A small carving depicting an implacable black shield highlighted by a brilliant starburst.

Norgorber, the oracle realized.

Abby found herself pressed by two more cultists, and while one of them fetched her a stroke of the war razor, the warrior in turn put her blade through the other cultist and slew him without ceremony. In the midst of the hectic and chaotic combat, Ironbriar tried a last compulsive gamble, invoking magic of suggestion upon Abby. Once more, the warrior resisted the effect in a supreme moment of will.

In the next moment the world collapsed upon the magistrate. Kara threw a final galvanic grenado that blasted Ironbriar, and then Rahab directed a beam of magical green light directly upon the murder priest’s form. The magistrate wilted under the very weight of his own clothing and armor.14

Moving with magically enhanced speed, Lem and Gloriana acted. The gardener sliced several vicious cuts into Ironbriar. The oracle called upon the spirits to snatch the symbol of Norgorber from the magistrate’s grasp, but the unholy servant managed to retain his hold on the focus of his desperate, blasphemous power.

But it was Abby who ushered the battle of Seven’s Sawmill to its close. The warrior isssued three quick movements in succession designed to threaten and confuse her opponent. The result could not have played into Abby’s hands more fortuitously. Ironbriar attempted to sidestep the warrior’s fury by moving to one side, and as he did so he exposed himself irrevocably. Suddenly the warrior spun full circle on her heel, her body pirouetting perfectly in a motion Gloriana briefly envied. The arc of Abby’s blade coursing through the air to meet the magistrate’s neck in perfect synchrony. Ironbriar’s head separated cleanly, tumbling to the floorboards and rolling quickly into one corner of the room. Abby’s steel whipped a line of crimson across the walls like an artist signing a masterwork.

••••

Abby leaned on her sword, the point firmly thrust into the wooden floor, the blood of her enemies still running red down its length. The warrior’s shoulders heaved with exertion under mail, and sweat poured down her forehead. Gloriana gradually lowered the weight of her morningstar and replaced the weapon at her belt. Her golden curls fell around her face like a shroud as she did so. Lem was already wiping his deadly blades clean on the robes of the fallen magistrate with business-like efficiency, but the motion was as much to maintain his weapons as it was to hide the tremble in his muscles from the pain and effort the battle had cost him. Kara, likewise, cleaned her own sword and carefully replaced it in its scabbard. Smoke—as from a distant, muted fire—curled from the alchemist’s mouth and nostrils as she did so, the residual power of her flaming breath mixture slowly burning itself out. Rahab, still in pain from Ironbriar’s magical malice, leaned against one of the walls and surveyed the battle’s aftermath: Dead cultists lying like oblations to their own beheaded master stilled by Abby’s battlecraft. Gradually the wizard sunk to a sitting position. Abby eventually lowered herself painfully as well.

No one said anything for a long time. They rested, listening for further signs of menace, but the only noise was the rumbling of the mill machinery churning below. Autumn sunlight drifted into the room through the grimy window and showed countless motes adrift on the air. Rahab’s spell of haste faded, and they all felt their heartbeats momentarily surge against their ribs, then slowly thunder down to a more regular hammering of exhaustion. Two minutes passed, the silence sundered only by the gasping of breath. Lem moved to the window and shoved it open. Air from outside slowly filled the room, bringing the vague chill of the season borne upon the damp odor of the river delta in collision with the sea.

Eventually Gloriana implored the spirits in a whisper, and healing power rose within the gathered party. The sensation was slow and sweet, like gently heated honey oozing lazily upon the tongue. The air from outside seemed momentarily fresh, and a sound echoed improbably against the thrum of the mill: A piercing gull’s cry.

The oracle looked at Abby. “What happened at the base of the stairs?”

“I bet Rahab knows,” Abby answered coyly. The conjurer appeared lost in thought.

Gloriana resumed: “I bet he does, too. That’s why I’m asking you.” She gave a weak laugh.

Abby chuckled in turn. “He cast some spell on me.” The warrior indicated the headless body of the magistrate with a nod of her head. “Tried to convince me to fight you, instead of him.”

“I am pleased, then,” the oracle responded, “that you resisted the magic’s effect.”

“It was Rahab that helped me break through,” Abby said with a wan smile. The others looked from warrior to wizard in surprise. For his part, the conjurer regarded Abby carefully, his gaze intent and serious.

“When I turned around I saw you, and I knew that you had always been honest with me,” the warrior addressed the conjurer directly, “even when it meant being an ass. It was as if I could hear your logic. The spell tried to make me see my friends as deceivers, but experience had only ever shown you to be wholly, brutally honest. You always told me the truth, no matter how much it might hurt. Even Sandpoint has treated me different because I am a half-elf, yet the village often tries to pretend it does no such thing. But you never lied to me, Rahab. And the magic was telling me that you had lied.

“So I knew: The magic was wrong.”

There was a pause, and then the wizard gave a small, soft smile that Gloriana swore was genuine affection. Struggling to his feet, Rahab approached Abby and held out his hand. She took it, and the conjurer helped her to her feet. They looked one another in the eye for a long moment, and then slowly embraced, leaning upon one another in mutual support under the fatigue of battle. The gesture was clumsy for Rahab, but earnest to a degree that was simultaneously unfamiliar, puzzling, uncertain, not unwelcome. For Abby the motion was practiced, and no less earnest. Gloriana and Kara smiled. Lem regarded the communion with curiosity.

When they parted Abby smiled and clapped the wizard on the shoulder. “You’re still an arrogant ass.”

Rahab’s familiar devil-grin returned. “Palpable relief.”

Even Lem smiled then.
_______________________________________________________

1 Abby failed her Will save against Ironbriar’s Suggestion spell. She spent a Hero Point to reroll, and her second effort was successful.

2 Kara scored a critical hit with this attack. Her shock bomb inflicted 25 points of damage on the magistrate and launched an additional 8 points of splash damage upon two cultists standing to either side of Ironbriar. Lightning strikes.

3 The material component listed for Haste is a shaving of licorice root. The prominent flavor and odor associated with licorice candy and other foodstuffs is actually aniseed. By contrast, licorice root is often used as a flavor additive for tobaccos, hence my choice for Rahab’s sensory experience instead of, say, ouzo.

4 This was the first time Rahab cast Haste.

5 So, yeah. Gloriana’s Spiritual Weapon hit for 3 points of damage. Her first attack with the morningstar then scored a critical hit for 22 points of damage. Now under the effects of Haste, she received an iterative attack that hit for another 13 points. Needless to say, her opponent did not survive.

6 Negative energy channeled by Ironbriar hit for 8 points of damage . . . except for Kara and Rahab, who both failed their Will saves and took 17 points. If you have a wizard’s Hit Dice, this kind of damage is . . . unpleasant.

7 Abby’s Attack of Opportunity earned Ironbriar 9 points of damage.

8 And the hits keep coming. Abby did 20 points of damage in two sword strokes, which killed the first opponent, then administered a critical hit with her shield that killed the other cultist, then stepped 5’ and struck a third cultist for another 10 points of damage with her hasted iterative attack.

9 Oh, yeah . . . Haste also provides an Armor Class bonus.

10 Lem did not have a good Tumble check.

11 Ironbriar’s was acting under an Invisibility spell. When he “attacked” Abby, the Invisibility was cancelled. His attack was casting Dispel Magic. The Protection From Evil and Bless spells on Abby were cancelled by Ironbriar’s magic, but the Haste and Bear’s Endurance remained.

12 Ironbriar used a spell-like ability of his mask to cast Confusion, but Gloriana and Abby both resisted successfully.

13 This episode may have been one of the greatest melee sequences Gloriana’s ever had in the campaign. She was hitting regularly, and this time her strike did 11 points of damage.

14 Kara’s bomb hit for 14 points of damage, and almost immediately thereafter Rahab cast Ray of Enfeeblement, striking Ironbriar successfully and draining 5 points of strength.

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Book III, Chapter 4: The Battle of Seven's Sawmill, Part I
Brotherhood of the Seven

They returned to The Lowcleft and The Fat Cat to rest, confer, and gather more information, if possible. Rahab pointed out that, with the Foxglove property deeds in their possession, there was nothing to stop them occupying the Foxglove townhouse in Naos.

“No.” Abby was adamant.

Rahab was uncharacteristically nonplussed.

“We’ve already paid for the night at the inn,” Gloriana interjected. “We can discuss it further another time. It will be nice to sleep elsewhere tonight, don’t you think? Come, Rahab,” and the oracle draped an arm around the wizard’s elbow. “I’ll buy you an ale. Let us get some dinner.” She had removed the hat of disguise and resumed her normal appearance, and was already leading the conjurer down the cobbled street in the direction of the Seacleft. The others followed. Gloriana cast a quick glance back over her shoulder at Abby and gave a small smile when the warrior silently mouthed, Thank you.

••••

Dinner was hearty cream of potato soup garnished with thick slices of bacon. Since Gloriana had mentioned it Rahab had felt a compelling urge he found difficult to ignore and so ordered a golden, hoppy ale, crisply bitter under a foamy head. Gloriana selected the same. Lem was resolute that he was not going to allow himself to be influenced by the pernicious Chelliaxian’s behavior, and then the barmaid placed the mug of beautiful ale before the conjurer and the gardener promptly, groaningly ordered his own. What cruel humor of life that someone from a devil-worshipping, slaveholding race of human scum would have such consistently good taste in food and drink! The gardener took some small, secret comfort in the fact that even as a halfing—or perhaps especially as a halfling—he seemed to be treated no different from any other customer in The Fat Cat’s crowded and boisterous tavern.

Abby ordered a red wine, drank it in one throw, and immediately requested a second which she nursed with brooding and subdued deliberation. Kara ordered sack, drinking four of them by meal’s end and showing no sign of debilitation whatsoever.1 After dining, Gloriana mingled in the crowd to see if she might uncover more information about Seven Sawmill and any connection to Foxglove or recent events. Her efforts were not without some success, and though little was revealed about the mill itself, the oracle did learn that a Justice of the City called Ironbriar had been witnessed at the Kyver’s Islet, though in what context was unclear. News of more slayings within the city proper continued, their manner similar to those perpetrated by the Skinsaw Man. The enigma of Thassilon’s symbology lingered at the fringe of her understanding and awareness, elusive and troubling.

Back at table, Gloriana related what she had learned. The five party members leaned in close to confer in the candlelight.

“I recognize Ironbriar’s name,” commented Rahab in hushed voice. “The City Justices occupy positions of significant power within Magnimar. They rule over disputations of law, oversee the courts, and are an integral part of the municipal bureaucracy. I suppose it is not impossible that one of his station would have personal business with the mill such that he would appear there, but it strikes me as unusual.”

“Perhaps he owns it?” Kara suggested.

The wizard shrugged dismissively. “Even so, an important civic figure such as he would surely have a servant or clerk to handle dealings there.”

“A lover?” Abby proposed.

“Nothing says passion and amorousness like sawdust, grime, and noisy machinery.”

“Maybe the danger excites them,” the warrior countered.

The wizard considered, then shrugged again. “If that were the case, I can think of more interesting locations to indulge such thrill, but variation ever abides. Tell me, does Riddleport prefer ‘the fuck industrial?’”

Abby flipped the conjurer a rude gesture, smirked, and gave an exaggerated shake of her head. “Rahab, you haven’t lived.”

“Ha! Excellent!” cackled the wizard.

Gloriana spoke up. “I am inclined to agree with Rahab. It strikes me as odd that someone in a position of power such as Ironbriar’s would have business at a sawmill requiring personal appearance. Indeed, this is someone in a very public occupation, yet there is little account for his time at the mill, other than occasional sightings? Something is suspicious.”

“What is your plan?” Kara resumed.

“We pose as representatives from Sandpoint seeking to buy timber.”

Rahab raised an index finger. “Sandpoint has a sawmill.”

“The blades are being replaced,” Gloriana parried smoothly.

“They are?”

Gloriana rolled her eyes. “The story doesn’t have to hold up in court, constable! It just has to get us in the door.”

A knowing smile distorted Rahab’s lips. “I do so enjoy the variety that your ‘diplomacy’ displays.”

The oracle ignored the remark. “I will act as the buyer. Rahab, you will appear as my advisor. Abby is my bodyguard, and Lem and Kara are attendants in my employ.”

Lem’s expression appeared momentarily stony, but the gardener said nothing.

“You will have to divest your arms and armor,” Rahab cautioned.

“Why?”

“What need does a canny merchant have for cuirass and morningstar, especially with so fearsome a bodyguard in tow?” The conjurer gestured at Abby.

“I’ll have to hide them as best I can with silks.”

“You anticipate diplomatic negotiations to deteriorate quickly, I gather.”

Gloriana’s smile was a charming razor. “Well, you will be in attendance, after all.”

Lem laughed. Kara smiled into her mug. The wizard started to retort, and after a long pause, raised his eyebrows in surprise that he had no witty riposte readily at hand. He lifted his own mug in salute and offered no further debate.

Gloriana brought the discussion to a close. “Be ready in the morning. We make for the mill after breakfast. Rahab you will have to lead.” The party rose from the table to disperse to their rooms. As they edged through the crowd to the stairs the wizard took Gloriana’s elbow and delayed her a few strides.

“What do you suppose Abby’s objection is to staying at our recently acquired urban property?”

“Faceless stalkers.” She noted Rahab’s blank expression. “The Old Lighthouse? You weren’t there, Rahab. Those things nearly killed her.”

The wizard nodded realization. “Leave it to me,” he asserted with an authoritative nod, and gave Gloriana’s shoulder a reassuring pat.

The oracle did not like the sound of that at all.

••••

At half the ninth morning bell they drew up to Kyver’s Islet at the western edge of Magnimar. Rahab had told them what to expect as they made their way through the city to the industrial area: Densely packed buildings desperately vying for what little space was available on the islet, all trying to make use of the Yondabakari River to power wheels and drive machinery. Hence most of the structures were mills of some variety. They could hear the noise as they got closer, and by the time they crossed the large bridge from the Keystone District they had to raise their voices considerably in order to be heard. The cacophany was compounded by horse drawn carts trundling materials and supplies to and from the islet. The shod horses and iron-rimmed wheels sounding on cobblestones made casual conversation almost impossible. Clearly out of place among the laborers, the party drew curious glances as they made their way. Gloriana assumed the lead, Rahab at her elbow, Abby immediately behind, Kara and Lem in tow.

Seven’s Sawmill was four stories, built on massive wooden pilings and ringed on one level with a rickety-looking wooden boardwalk. Four water wheels churned in the Yondabakari’s powerful flow, sending a haze of wet mist into the air. The grind of the wheels was matched by the roar of saws only partially muted from inside the building.

Gloriana quickly established the link of life between herself and her friends, and the group approached the walkway, then down a set of exterior wooden steps to a door near water level. The oracle knocked and Rahab gestured impatiently, pointing to his ears and shaking his head. Gloriana hammered the wood again, this time with more force. Eventually the door swung open. A man stood in the frame. Behind him churned machinery, gears, and wheels.

“Good morning!” Glo shouted. “I wish to speak with the mill master!” She could already sense something was wrong, as could Rahab, who noted the man was not dressed in laborer’s clothes, but a suit of leather armor draped in a stylized tunic of red cloth. The man leaned closer to Gloriana and inclined his ear with an exasperated expression.

Glo shouted again. “The mill master!”

The man shook his head and shouted in return. “Not here! Come back later!” He started to close the door, but Gloriana attempted to interpose herself.

“If you please, who is the master, and what time do you suggest I return?”

The man paused, and finally rolled his eyes in resignation, then stepped aside nad and gestured for Gloriana to step inside. As she did, the man attempted to pull the door shut behind her, but Abby was alert and deduced the intention. Shouldering past Rahab the burly warrior got her foot in the door, then ducked her mighty shoulder into the man’s chest, displacing him backwards from the door.

Gloriana was attempting to shout explanation that her entourage was still outside, but already noted two other figures inside the mill, dressed similarly in leather armor and red tunics, like no uniform ever worn for working timber. She felt a sinking sensation inside: Circumstances were already turning grim.

The three men in red reached back and drew hooded masks over their heads. The coverings were stylized to depict a deformed humanoid visage made of patchwork and dominated by a single, bulbous eye. From their belts the men drew war razors, flicking them open and suddenly slashing viciously at Abby and Gloriana. The oracle was struck by one of the narrow blades and winced in pain.

From his vantage in the doorway Rahab saw the attack and drew a wand at his belt. He looked back over his shoulder at Lem and Kara and shouted, “Trouble!”

Lem wasted no time. In a moment his dagger was in hand, and he rolled forward, executing a handstand on the lowest wooden step before tumbling expertly around the wizard and Abby. When he sprung up he was behind one of the assailants and, with a sinister grin, thrust his blade into the man’s thigh. Abby’s sword sprang from scabbard and went straight into an arcing cut against another opponent, fetching him a significant wound. Gloriana hauled her mornginstar forth and struck the third man a heavy blow.

It became immediately clear that the footing on the lower mill floor was precarious. The heavy spray from the water wheels had coated the boards in treacherous damp. Even Lem’s magnificent dexterity was challenged as his assailant attempted to shove the gardener toward the crushing path of one of the wheels. Lem skillfully evaded, but the maneuver gave the man room to shift to more advantageous position from in between Gloriana and the gardener.

The second tunic-wearer slashed the oracle a nasty wound, and the third stepped against the interior wall and held a hand outward in a gesture of magical power. A pulse distorted the air and washed over the party, carrying a chill that clung to their insides and bubbled darkness behind their eyes. It should have been impossible to hear anything but shouting in the cacophany of that chamber, but each party member distinctly discerned a baleful whisper of murderous intent in their minds. Pain blossomed. Abby, Gloriana, Lem, and Rahab shook off the worst, but outside on the steps Kara staggered under the effect of the sudden surge.2

“Nai! Alamnith mox sapad?”3 The alchemist reeled and slumped against the mill exterior. A moment later she drew her longsword and edged inside past Rahab. The wizard activated his magic wand and an arc of electricity leapt from the instrument onto his open hand, crackling and turning like a galvanic serpent coiling around a branch.

Thus began the Battle of Seven’s Sawmill.

••••

Lem was highly mobile during the fight. He established a flanking position with Abby against the tunic-wearer by the wall, and a moment later the warrior cut the man down with an expert sword stroke. Gloriana’s power began to heal the others by drawing their injuries to herself. In response, she briefly closed her eyes and whispered something only the spirits could hear. Her body transformed into brilliant, golden fire. Warmth suffused her and washed away her own pain. Anger, like the glow of her form, billowed brightly within her.4

She shouted challenge at the men in tunics. One of them responded with an attack that missed, the other sought escape and attempted to rush past the party, but Abby felled him abruptly and unceremoniously. Kara thrust her sword into the remaining enemy, and Rahab made his way inside and attempted to lay his ensorceled hand upon the man but missed. The wizard’s progress was hampered by the sippery conditions.5

“Wait!” Lem suddenly shouted, seeing Kara’s successful attack and hoping to intimidate the remaining figure. “Don’t kill him! Let Glo torture him!” The gardener moved to the doorway to prevent escape. Abby hesitated a moment awaiting further development or instruction from Gloriana.

The oracle’s fireform continued to heal her against the damage she usurped from her friends. Meanwhile she battered the last tunic-wearer with another crushing strike that ladled blood across the wall and floor. In a desperate move this last opponent slashed at Rahab and successfully cut the wizard’s knee, drawing crimson and splitting the threads. Kara, still enraged from the unseen magic that harmed her moments before, stepped forward and simply thrust her longsword straight into the man’s sternum, pinning the now lifeless body to the wood of the wall.6

Gloriana’s energy form faded and she channeled the healing power of the spirits for herself and Rahab. The wizard was hopelessly smoothing the fabric around the slice in his robe in irritation.

“Baalzebul’s bollocks!” he barked at the corpse next to him. “This was new!”

••••

A quick search of the three bodies came up with some gold coins, and the three masks. They were clearly kin to that worn by the Skinsaw Man in the cave under The Misgivings. Gloriana and Abby swept them into a sack for later disposal. There seemed nowhere else to go on the lower level, so they returned outside, up the steps to the wooden walkway, and worked their way around to the other side of the structure. The mill’s location at water’s edge made it easy to maneuver without being spotted from either the nearby street, or from across the delta at Keystone’s perimeter. Incessant noise from the machinery had masked sounds of battle.

At the rear of the building they found another door, this one locked. Gloriana cast magic of protection upon Abby and Lem, as well as advantageous blessing upon the whole party. Lastly, she summoned a new power, and as she touched Lem and Abby, a wispy, pale vapor seemed to rise from their shoulders, resolving into the shape of a bear lifting itself onto two feet to scan the horizon. A moment later the images were gone, and new stamina infused warrior and gardener.7 Kara drank an extract of shielding, and Rahab cloaked himself in the armor of the mage.

Lem produced two small, narrow metal tools and deftly unlocked the door in seconds. Abby pushed the portal open, stepped inside, spotted a nearby figure in leather armor and red tunic, and thrust her blade without ceremony. Gloriana was next through the door and again brought new magic to bear, this time from her outstretched palm: A golden beam of blinding light focused on the tunic-wearer and seared a smoking scar upon his flesh.8 Lem added insult to injury with a dagger cut to the man’s side.

Overwhelmed and alone, the man turned and ran, drawing his horrid mask over his face, and shouting for help as he stumbled up a set of narrow wooden interior stairs. The room he fled appeared to be some sort of loading area with chains, pulleys, ropes, and hooks to raise and lower timber to and from the upper floors. Even here the churning of the wheels and hum of the saws rattled the boards.

“We’re going up!” Abby wasted no time in pursuit. She caught the fleeing stranger midway up the steps and slew him with a sword thrust. The others followed, and at the top of the stairs they found themselves at the intersection of two short, perpendicular hallways. Doors opened at either end and shouting signalled the arrival of more figures in nightmare masks. War razors flicked into view as boots thundered upon the floorboards.

The narrow space in the hallway changed the dynamic of battle, making it more difficult for Abby to fully engage her power and skill. Her first attack at the nearest assailant failed, cutting no more than deep gouges in the walls. Gloriana summoned a scimitar from the spirit world and directed its attacks against another attacker, but its attack, too, failed to land. Lem’s agility and size availed him more as the gardener was able to effectively maneuver among the arriving enemies, expertly dancing behind one of them and scoring a deep wound with his blade in the man’s lower back.

But the man spun in turn, cursing loudly and delivering his own vicious swipe with a war razor across the gardener’s forehead.9 A flap of skin folded down and blood poured into Lem’s eyes and down his face. Another attacker set upon Gloriana and struck her a brief wound. Kara executed a masterful throw around the corner from the top of the stairs into the hallway, directing the projectile precisely against one of the masked assailants. A sizzling blast of electrical energy covered one of the enemies in the narrow space and cast the battle in a strange relief of strobing shadows.

Abby pressed forward and reasserted her battle footing. A thrust skewered one of her opponents mortally, and as the body fell she stepped again and swept Avenger right to left in a crushing blow that slew another enemy between the hammer of the shield and the anvil of the mill wall. Gloriana hefted her morningstar against still another attacker and struck stoutly, even as she received some of the pain Lem had only seconds before suffered. The healing magic drew the fold of the gardener’s forehead back and knitted the wound closed. Lem felt renewed, and dodged around another masked assailant, putting his dagger deep into the man’s groin. As the victim howled and doubled over, Lem sliced open the man’s throat with his off-hand weapon. Crimson gurgled from underneath the mask and the corpse slumped to stain the floorboards. The party had advanced enough that Rahab could take the top of the stairs and see the hallway. He launched a lancing missile of hissing acid into another mask-wearer. Abby was now a few steps from one end of the hall and could see through the open door another set of steps rising to the next level of the mill. Though the path ahead was clear, the enemies arriving from the other hall gave her pause.10

“Upstairs?” she called back to Glo.

Before the oracle could answer, one of the masked attackers channeled injurious energy over the party. Pain descended on all of them, but Gloriana felt the worst as her own agony compounded from the suffering of her friends. The oracle’s spirit blade cut down her immediate opponent even as the link of life took the ache from her companions and returned to them surcease in kind. Grimacing, Gloriana extended her palm and direct another beam of blazing light onto another target. Smoke from singed cloth and flesh began to fill the passage. Lem moved against the victim of Gloriana’s spell and drew blood with a cut once, twice. For a moment it seemed that the party was gaining the upper hand, well on its way to command of the hallway.

Then a figure appeared at the top of the next set of stairs Abby was guarding, and the battle shifted once more against them.
_________________________________________________

1 When I write this story hour, I envision (or guess) at certain characteristics and traits of the various characters. Since I only know one of the characters with any real certainty (Rahab), I have to try to write the others based on how I perceive them played, or on something their players have mentioned, written, or otherwise indicated. But occasionally I have to invent something whole cloth and hope that it fits, awaiting confirmation or rejection from the player in question and editing as required. All of which is a long introduction to say I had decided—for no good reason at all—to characterize Kara Silverleaf as a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. This is an object lesson in why it is important to do a little bit of game-based study before committing to some narrative ideas. According to Pathfinder, alchemists have Poison Resistance as a class feature, which almost by definition means they will never be booze lightweights. It turns out Kara’s liver is bonded in adamantium, or has a healing factor like that of a gruff Canadian mutant super soldier. The other lesson, of course, is how such discoveries often help shape writing in a genuinely rewarding manner.

2 The Skinsaw cultist (we didn’t know that yet, but were starting to get a pretty good idea) had channeled negative energy against the party, much as we had witnessed Glo do with positive energy many times before. Everyone made their saving throws and took reduced damage, except Kara, who took the full six points, and it caught her very much by surprise because she couldn’t even see what had started.

3 Roughly translated from Elvish: “Ow! What the fuck was that?”

4 Glo’s life link absorbed 14 points of damage from everyone else, and she activated energy body to heal herself for 11 points.

5 There was a lot going on in this fight. There was a Reflex saving throw required to navigate this level due to the slippery floor. Room to maneuver was limited. One of the cultists tried to make an escape and provoked attacks of opportunity from three party members, which proved excessive anyway since Abby slew him in one. Gloriana, never the stoutest melee combatant (though Rahab, obviously, is the worst), scored two solid hits of 9 and 10 points of damage with her morningstar.

6 Kara scored a critical hit.

7 I believe this was the first time Glo cast Bear’s Endurance in the campaign.

8 And I think this was the first time she cast Searing Light.

9 The return stroke on Lem was a critical hit for 9 points of damage.

10 This was quite the single round of combat. Abby hit one cultist for 19 points and killed him, then immediately followed with a shield bash that hit critically for 14 points on a second cultist, killing that one. Glo hit a third cultist for 14 points with her morningstar, while Lem scored a critical hit with his dagger for 13 points on a fourth cultist, followed by an off-hand attack for another 5 points that finished the job. Rahab even managed to score a hit firing into melee with his Acid Dart ability and did 4 points of damage.

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Book III, Chapter 3: Breaking and Entering
The Familiar Face of the Recently Dead

The structure was three stories, a contemporary style of half-timber with four gables, and from the street the ground floor windows appeared boarded up. A small alley off the avenue gave access to the rear of the building dominated by a walled garden leading to the main entrance. Rising over the bricks of the wall like a deciduous guardian was a black cherry tree long since surrendered of its summer fruit and bereft of many leaves in the late autumn. The sky was growing dark, and the surrounding neighborhood shone with window lights of candle, hearth, and magical illumination. The street hosted late evening foot and carriage traffic. As the adventurers regarded the alley a wealthy dandy stumbled into Abby, his finery in some disarray as he demonstrated the demeanor of one already drunk, and when the stout warrior firmly shoved him away the man lurched against a nearby building, propped himself on one arm, looked dreadfully serious for a moment, and bent at the waist to vomit profusely on the paving stones. Kara and Lem regarded the spectacle coolly. Gloriana ignored the intrusion and gestured with her chin at the alley.

“Just walk like we belong, or are expected,” the oracle said quietly. The party made their way across the street and into the alley where a wrought iron gate of simple but elegant design confronted them at the exterior garden wall. Lem stepped forward and produced one of the keys liberated from the corpse of the Skinsaw Man in the caverns beneath The Misgivings. The tool was iron, adorned with a single opal at the bow, and fit the gate perfectly, turning without so much as a squeal. They assembled in the garden where the lawn was still green and a narrow path of stone snaked gently toward a stout wooden door. In the upper center of the portal a bronze lion’s sculpted maw gripped the ring of a knocker. Here, too, the ground floor windows were boarded with fresh planks, though upstairs fenestrations showed domicile lights against the encroaching dark.

Gloriana cast a spell of detection, scanning the garden for signs of the undead, then toward the house itself. Such was the power of the spirits guiding her vision that the oracle’s perception was able to penetrate the walls of the house itself and examine the interior. Her spell revealed nothing. Lem approached the door and applied the iron key once more. The lock clicked open and the door swung inward. Rahab cast a minor spell of resistance on everyone while Gloriana activated the link of life between herself and the others.

They looked inside and the light of Abby’s stone shone upon a small foyer and a second closed door. Lem stepped forward and opened the second portal upon a scene that rendered everyone stock still in surprise. Silverware clattered on ceramic plates as the two figures seated at dinner looked up at the party in shock. The woman was raven-haired, the man lanky, and both were dressed in fashionable finery. No one in the party could mistake them: Iesha and Aldern Foxglove.

Lem stumbled on his words. “Uh . . . may we come in?”

••••

“How did you get in?” Iesha said as she huriedly rose from the table, her expression alarmed. Aldern followed suit, stepping close to his wife.

“Please,” the nobleman pleaded, “don’t hurt us! We have a little money. Take it!”

The adventurers stood, clustered in the doorway, in a state of shock. Abby, uncertain how to proceed, planted her gauntleted hands on Gloriana’s back and unceremoniously shoved the oracle forward into the dining room. The Foxglove’s flinched.

Gloriana took a moment to gather herself, smoothing her skirt and using the time to concentrate on the magic of her detection spell. Still there was no indication of undeath in the house.

The oracle cleared her throat. “So sorry to intrude!” she began brightly, and offered a soothing, friendly smile. “Aldern! I understood you were not in town.”

There was a nervous silence. Aldern and Iesha exchanged confused glances. “I’m sorry,” the nobleman said in consternation, “have we met?”

Gloriana forged ahead, trying to buy time to find answers and keep control. “And, milady Iesha, you look much better than last we met.”

“Thank . . . thank you? And you are?” There was puzzlement all around. No one felt on firm footing.

From behind Abby, still standing in the small foyer, Rahab murmured toward the oracle: “Go ahead. Tell them who you are.” Lem took the opportunity to expertly secret the keys from The Misgivings into Gloriana’s hand without being observed. The oracle’s fingers clasped them gratefully.

“I do apologize. As I mentioned, I thought the house was unoccupied and that I and my friends could stay here. I have the keys we were given.” The oracle held up the keys Lem had bestowed. “I am Gloriana, of course. We met in Sandpoint, but it was during the busiest part of festival, so I am not surprised you don’t remember.”

“Did Mister Craesby give you those keys?” Iesha asked, obviously still confused, evidently trying to work through the muddle of busy noble memories to find the possibility that she and her husband had extended an offer of residence to someone at the autumn festival.

“He did,” Gloriana smiled again, disarming. Behind her, Rahab bent his head slightly, mumbled a few words of power, and held out his left hand. He was standing behind Abby and in the cramped space of the townhouse foyer his action was hidden, so he could cast his spell of magic detection and scan without scrutiny. The incantation showed nothing.

Iesha and Aldern looked at one another again. Reluctantly, the noblewoman turned back to Gloriana. “Will you sit for dinner?” She gestured to an empty seat at the dinner table.

“I would be delighted to join you, milady, with thanks. My companions are gathering our gear outside and will join us shortly. This is my associate, Mr. Gardner.” Gloriana indicated Lem, who gave the bow he had learned during indenture.

Aldern continued to observe from where he stood, saying nothing. Iesha stepped toward a nearby door. “I shall bring you a plate. Please sit.”

“Thank you,” Gloriana said, and drew a chair out from the dining table. Lem followed suit and they sat, allowing space for Abby and Rahab to enter the room. The narrow foyer was now occupied solely by Kara, who was carefully shutting the entry on the garden behind her.

Risking a surreptitious glance at Lem as if to say, Maintain the ruse for now, I guess, Gloriana turned to Aldern who stood regarding the arriving party with continued mistrust. “How long have you been back in Magnimar, milord?”

Aldern paused long before answering slowly. “Some time.” The nobleman’s voice was subdued and strained. He scratched nervously at his jaw. Iesha returned from the adjoining kitchen with two plates and set them before Lem and Gloriana. Steam rose from rabbit and peas, a dish Gloriana recognized from the Varisians. Abby was shuffling her formidable frame around to the other side of the table as Rahab stood back against a wall in an effort to allow Kara room to step inside. Iesha’s expression had changed from uncertainty to irritation, but she restrained herself.

Gloriana tried to keep the conversation going, hoping for something that might reveal insight into the mystery before them. “As we arrived we noticed the damage windows on the ground floor. Have you had trouble with vandals?”

“A storm,” Iesha replied curtly.

“Unfortunate. In addition to his skills as a gardener, my friend here,” and once more Gloriana indicated Lem in the seat next to her, “also devotes his talent to carpentry. Perhaps he could take a look?”

Iesha seemed to brighten. “Excellent! Please step through to the kitchen where the damage was greatest.”

“Uh . . . yes. I should take a look,” Lem murmured, and glanced at Gloriana in alarm. The oracle shooed him up from the table urgently. The two shuffled from their chairs, the food before them untouched, and Gloriana placed a hand on Lem’s shoulder, murmuring a brief prayer to the spirits asking protection.1 Abby, who had begun to take a seat, reversed herself, and followed Lem and Gloriana into the kitchen. Aldern moved in behind the warrior suddenly, quick to the step, and once inside the kitchen slammed the door shut, closing off Rahab and Kara from the rest of the adventurers.

Iesha and Aldern became something else.

••••

A sudden, sinking nervousness arced through Abby like lightning when she heard the kitchen door close behind her. She began to turn, and the motion felt as though her legs mired in the muddy fear of nightmares. The Foxgloves rippled, their bodies shifting, shuddering, distorting. The clothing they wore lost distinction, becoming first vague patches of color before blending entirely into a caul of quivering, wet, rubbery red flesh. Chill fear pierced the warrior’s heart. In the vague, whorled features of the humanoid frame before her she recognized the creatures like those at The Old Light in Sandpoint that had nearly sent her to the grave.

Abby ripped sword from scabbard in chime of steel and shrugged her shield from over her shoulder, the magic of the device enchanted to alight more rapidly upon her arm. The kitchen space was tight, precluding swings and forcing Abby to thrust the point of her weapon into the faceless stalker before her. The blade seemed to pass into the creature’s crimson mass like a spoon into boiling sugar.

Neither had Lem been idle, his expert hands producing at once war razor and dagger, and his skilled fighting perception guiding him into position opposite Abby behind the stalker the warrior had punctured. Rapid, whipsaw cuts across what would have been the lower back on any humanoid rent deep wounds that oozed some kind of viscous essential fluid.

The horror of the combat deepened in a moment as the nightmare thing advanced on Abby down the length of the blade upon which it was still skewered. Claws like cactus spines reached menacingly for the warrior in an attempt to grasp and draw. Whorls of deeper red on the creature’s vague head twisted obscenely in anticipation of sucking blood, but Abby interposed Avenger against the grapple, though the stalker’s claw did carve a wound on her sword arm.

The thing that had masqueraded as Iesha swept menacing arms in Lem’s direction, but the gardener dodged easily. A moment later, Abby’s pain became Gloriana’s, and the warrior’s arm showed no wound. The oracle winced as the stripes appeared on her own forearm, but she gritted her teeth and summoned a spirit in the form of a curved blade of hazy smoke the color of sunlight. The scimitar sliced silently through the air and bit into the stalker attempting to walk up the length of Abby’s sword, shearing off a quivering lump of flesh that deliquesced on the kitchen floor like fallen jelly. The oracle drew her morningstar and closed to assist.

Outside the kitchen, Kara and Rahab glanced at one another as the sudden sounds of conflict echoed dully from beyond the closed door. The alchemist produced an extract of magical shielding and downed it quickly, while the wizard drew from his belt the wand that allowed him to discharge electricity by touch. Kara reached for the door and tried to push it open, but it stopped against some weight beyond. She and Rahab never made it into the fight.

••••

In the chaos of combat Abby did not even notice that she was shaking. A dread hung too closely upon her mind, dragging against her normal equanimity in battle like barnacles on a ship’s hull. It had only been a few days since the encounter with the faceless stalkers at the old lighthouse ruins in Sandpoint, and now here she was, locked in close battle with the monsters once more, claw and sword. The survival instinct, primal and foremost, rose in Abby as a giant wave from the ocean’s depths curls inevitably upon the shore. She would not succumb. Hers was the bulwark, the standing resistance, the blade and shield, the line that signalled neither retreat nor surrender. She pushed against the faceless stalker with the mass of Avenger, upsetting the creature’s balance and opening an opportunity for Gloriana. The oracle stepped close and brought her morningstar overhead in a great, plunging strike. The heavy bludgeon crashed upon the enemy. In the next moment, Abby withdrew her sword and sidestepped, then reasserted her attack in a thrust of ruin that transfixed the stalker in front of her and continued on to pierce the second monster as well. Like slabs of wretched beef, the two creatures slumped weightily to the kitchen floor, dragging a kettle and ladle noisily to the boards.

Gloriana began the process of magical healing upon herself and Abby as the warrior opened the door to admit Kara and Rahab to the scene. The dead monsters carried nothing: Even their clothes had been illusion, and thus neither valuables nor purpose nor allegiance could be gleaned from the corpses. After a brief search of the ground floor Lem reported nothing else of note

Rahab looked upon the twisted, moist forms collapsed on the floor.

“That’s what you missed at the Lighthouse,” Gloriana nodded at the bodies. Abby had removed to the dining room, away from the scene. The wizard stroked his goatee absently.

“Hmm,” he murmured. “An efficacious foe. I have heard it said such creatures occasionally align with organizations or individuals requiring spies and infiltrators.”

“The Brotherhood of Seven?” Kara asked.

“Unclear. It could be anyone, including the Thieves’ Guild of Magnimar. Without further evidence such speculation is idle.”

Over the next twenty minutes they searched all three floors of the townhouse. The rooms throughout had been ransacked. Gloriana and Rahab detected no signs of magical power. The last room was the master bedroom. Kara noted the fireplace.

“Lions,” the alchemist remarked.

“Craesby’s keys,” Rahab nodded in turn. Gloriana drew the keys they had liberated from the former caretaker of The Misgivings and cautiously approached the fireplace where two stone carvings of lion heads adorned the mantle. In the open mouth of one of the cats she saw a keyhole, and quickly matching the lion-headed key to the lock, unlocked a compartment masterfully secreted within the mantle’s construction. Inside was a cloth bag, a shallow wooden case, and a thin leather-bound ledger.

Just as they were about to examine the contents of the compartment more closely there echoed a noise from outside on the street, some passing group of citizens joined in song, or laughter, or some uproarious conversation.

“Look these over,” Gloriana told the others, indicating the items in the compartment. “Come see me when you’re done. I’m going downstairs to maintain a ruse in case anyone comes to the door.” With that, she drew forth the hat of disguise and donned the magical item, whereupon it became a tortoise shell comb and the oracle’s appearance became that of Iesha. The effect was instantaneous, and not a little unsettling. Rahab’s eyes narrowed and an involuntary shudder crept down his spine as memory of a haunted dance gripped him. Just before she stepped through the door Gloriana caught the wizard’s glance.

“You see?” she remarked. Rahab frowned, then gave his practiced bow from the neck, acknowledging the oracle’s point.

••••

The cloth bag held some two hundred platinum coins, while the case contained legal documents, including the deeds to Foxglove Manor and the townhouse where they presently stood. Rahab perused the ledger and presently realized it was some kind of record of the past three months. A dozen entries were labeled Iesha’s Trip to Absalom, and included notations indicating payments of two hundred pieces of gold for each trip remitted to B7 at Seven’s Sawmill. The wizard recognized the location. It was on Kyver’s Islet at the far western end of the city, and when they all gathered downstairs to discuss their findings, the party agreed the sawmill was their next point of investigation.
_________________________________________________________

1 Protection From Evil.

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