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?”
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!”
“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.”
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.