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Book IV, Chapter 20: Return to Whitewillow
Waking From Nightmare

Gloriana quickly cast a spell to remove the magical fear that gripped Lem even as the sorcerous silence in which she had previously shrouded the gardener ran the course of its duration. Lem stuttered to a halt, grumbled, and went back to retrieve the knives he had dropped in the panic to flee. Blades recovered, the gardener made straight for Rahab, footsteps soundless on cold stone.

The wizard read the unstated intent: “No, I did not throw you. You will have to take that up with the other human.”

Lem considered for a moment. Whatever else he thought of the Cheliaxian conjurer, the gardener had to admit he had never known the wizard to lie, and he could not decide if that made him even more disagreeable. Spinning, he strode to the oracle. The glimmer of reluctance he had felt just before the battle with the wight receded and a new anger rose within.

Gloriana understood what was coming. Lem approached, daggers drawn, and as opening gambit the oracle elected to channel healing power among her companions, knitting wounds, easing pain.

••••

Abby, Kara, and Rahab stood out of earshot watching the figure of the oracle and gardener in tensely heated conference.

“How do you think it’s going?” the warrior whispered. “Should we do something?”

The alchemist shook her head. “They are working it out. I once told Lem the same thing about you and Rahab. We have to trust them.”

The warrior glanced at Kara in surprise. “Strange. I once told Glo almost exactly the same thing about Rahab and me, also. In fact,” she faced the wizard, “these things seem to come up quite a bit where you’re concerned.”

If Rahab’s arched eyebrow could have made a sound it would have scoffed. The wizard returned his attention to the conference at remove.

Unsatisfied, Abby pressed: “Why did she throw him?”

The conjurer interjected: “With Lem ensorcelled in a spell of silence she reasoned putting the gardener in proximity to the necromancer would inhibit our opponent’s ability to cast spells with vocal components. In addition, Lem’s journey over the distance was more significantly hindered by the size of the steps than yours.”

Abby puzzled over this for a moment, and then said, “The stone giant moved.”

The wizard shrugged agreement. “Her strategy was valid, even if her execution left something to be desired. It is interesting: I cannot decide if her decision not to consult Lem beforehand was truly inspired social management, or tremendous blunder.”

Kara crossed her arms. “That’s probably why Glori’s the diplomat, and you’re . . . not.”

The meeting between oracle and gardener bested more than twenty minutes.

••••

Abby could not help herself and approached the oracle. “Everything fine?”

Gloriana began another round of healing magic. “’Fine?’” The oracle turned the word over, like tasting a sweet, trying to determine if it was hot with cinnamon, or bright with mint, or shielded a soft center. “Hmm.” Power billowed out and washed over all of them, gentle, warm, comforting. “Has anything in this group ever really been ‘fine?’”

An icicle of alarm dripped chill down the warrior’s spine.

Gloriana read her friend as masterfully as she had the gardener. “If it makes you feel any better, Abby, I do not think he’s going to murder me.”

“You smoothed it out?”

“Well, I admitted I was wrong not to consult with him. Time will tell if that counts toward ‘smoothing’ anything.”

The warrior considered this. “Good thing it was you, then, and not Rahab.” She smiled, expecting consensus, but the oracle caught her off-guard.

“I’m surprised at you, Abby. As long as you’ve known Rahab, you’ve known he does admit when he is wrong. The hard part is getting him to realize when he is wrong.”

“Because he’s an ass?”

“Because he’s so often right. A brain that brilliant gets so used to being right that it becomes easy to assume that’s the normal state of things. But Rahab is brutally, beautifully honest, maybe in ways the rest of us aren’t.”

“What about Lem?”

“Lem . . . bears a burden of great rage, and a great deal of it is legitimate. Rage has its own seduction.”

Abby nodded, silently admitting to herself the conversation had moved somewhat beyond her ken. “I understand why you did it. You were trying to help against the necromancer.”

Gloriana stared hard at the floor, then looked the warrior in the eye and said, “Do not be too quick to take my side in this. I was going to throw you.”

••••

Lem discovered a secret alcove beneath the throne at the eastern end of the cavern. The group gathered to go over what he found.

“Most of this looks like equipment taken from Fort Rannick.” The gardener had organized the treasure into piles. “Recent acquisitions. Then there’s this: loose valuables. Not likely from Rannick. Finally there’s this,” the gardener flipped back a corner of oiled cloth to reveal something metal beneath.

Kara gasped.

••••

The final tally did, indeed, include much from Fort Rannick’s late garrison: Clusters of magic arrows numbered among the occasional suit of minor magical armor or sword with a basic enchantment.

“The raid on Rannick must have started from here,” Lem guessed. “They left a huge force occupying the fort.”

Rahab nodded. “A small contingent returned here to report and bring spoils. The necromancer,” and the conjurer glanced over at the corpse of the stone giant, “is the most obvious candidate for leadership . . . here, at least. Curious to see stone giants working with ogres and a hill giant.”

Abby looked interested. “How do you mean?”

Rahab deferred to Kara, who explained: “Traditionally, the varieties of true giant and giant-kin tend to keep to their own. That the ogres organized was strange enough. To find them aligned with stone giants is alarming. However isolationist, stone giants are not known for the kind of evil in which the ogre or the hill giant revels.”

“Reinforcing what we have suspected for some time: Something of significant power lies behind all of this.” Rahab stroked his goatee contemplatively.

The mundane treasure included some gemstones of varying quality, size, and type, as well as smaller pieces of art or craftwork, mostly silver and gold objects that would weather storage in a mountain cave. Kara and Lem conferred on appraisal. Smiling, the gardener nodded in satisfaction. “Close to ten-thousand!”

Abby raised an eyebrow. “In gold?”

“Obviously!”

“But this isn’t from Rannick?” asked Gloriana.

The gardener shook his head. “Not unless The Black Arrows were running some sort of contraband operation we don’t know about. Some of this is older, and probably comes from a variety of different places around the region.” Lem turned to Rahab. “What about the stone giant?”

“A few items, including a wand you and I should discuss. His necklace incorporated a Sihedron medallion. I will look over his spellbook which, naturally, I expect to find focused on necromancy.”

Lem nodded and then looked at the bundle of oiled cloth he had discovered at the bottom of the secret treasure compartment. “Which leaves this. Kara? Care to let us in on what’s got you so interested?”

••••

The unwrapped cloth revealed a breastplate of remarkable design and craft. Constructed of a strange alloy, the armor shimmered with an iridescent array of brilliant gold and copper tones. At the sternum was a circular depression nearly a handspan in diameter that showed a seven-pointed star upon a field of rich cerulean.

Rahab’s lips twisted wryly. “Now why does that not surprise me.”

“I believe,” the alchemist explained, “this breastplate consists of an alloy so rare as to be legendary. Mythic.” Kara shook her head in amazement.

“You know the piece?” asked Rahab.

“I do not, but everything that I can see in the substance of the armor suggests an alloy that I did not even know existed, save in tales. I believe it is celestial mithral—”

The wizard looked puzzled. “Celestial mithral?”1

Kara nodded. “According to dwarven lore, Torag Forge-Lord seeded the cosmos with special veins of mithral during the Age of Creation, deposits particularly blessed by Torag’s divine power. What difference this metal has from standard mithral—if such term even applies—are unknown, at least to me. Dwarves are tight-lipped at the best of times, especially with elves, but in thousands of years of alchemical magic practice even the most skilled among my profession have never truly attested to encountering celestial mithral.”

“Yet you think it is in this armor?”

“Only because of the presence of the other component: anamnesis.”

“’Remembrance?’” The wizard’s bafflement increased.

“Or ‘recollection.’ The name is ironic in that, to the best of alchemical knowledge, Golarion little recalls—if at all—the exact nature of this other substance, for it, too, is a metal out of myth. Supposedly capable of taking on powerful enchantments, the most recognized—that is to say, most rumored—attribute of anamnesis is its fantastic golden copper color . . . this color . . . a quality that shows iridescence when alloyed with celestial mithral. Note the effect in light. Whatever else anamnesis is, it is ancient and occult. The process of combining these substances is likewise unknown. Many would doubt their existence entirely, yet even at a glance I can see no other explanation for this material. I am familiar with hundreds of metallic forms, and like Avenger, this is not among them. I daresay we look upon a substance not seen in Golarion for an age, if not more.” The alchemist traced a trembling hand over the breastplate.2

Eventually Rahab’s devil grin appeared. “You realize what this means? In this very moment you may have advanced to the foremost ranks of alchemy. If you are correct you can lay claim to identifying a sample of a previously fantastic alloy, rendering real what has heretofore resided in myth!”

Stunned silence.

“Kara,” the wizard sounded gleeful, “you just wrote yourself into history!”

••••

Rahab cast his spell of magic detection and spent a minute or so staring at lines and runes drifting in his sight, magical information revealed as emanation from the armor.

“As suspected,” he murmured, “it is significantly powerful. Its aura reminds me of Avenger’s, and that of the book we found on the ogre sorceress in Fort Rannick. The breastplate is a relic of ancient Thassilon.”

The other treasure momentarily forgotten, the companions clustered around for a closer look.

“Can you tell anything else about it?” asked Gloriana.

“Like much of that bygone culture it remains elusive, for the present.” The wizard continued to read the shapes of light that shifted and spun. “Qualities of Thassilon’s magic register generally, and then somehow fail to resolve.” He shook his head. “Frustrating.”

“Perhaps it has something to do with the gods?” suggested Gloriana.

Rahab rolled his eyes. “Then the ‘gods’ need to get out of my way.”

Bemused, the oracle crossed her arms. “I suppose you think you could do better?”

The wizard turned the frame of magic detection with his hands to read the arcane information from a different angle. “They had better watch their asses.”

This sort of discussion always made Abby nervous. “Alright, well, look, I mean— let’s just . . . maybe we should try it on?”

Rahab shrugged and gestured at the armor. Gloriana and Kara helped the warrior out of her own carapace and into the breastplate with the seven-pointed star.

“Well?” Lem asked.

“It’s very comfortable,” Abby replied. “Easy to move in, and light . . . amazingly light.”

The conjurer continued to observe under the lens of his spell, carefully watching vectors, pulses, waveforms. “Do you detect any other properties?”

The warrior appeared to be feeling for something, eyes closed, moving through martial exercises. In the light the breastplate’s brilliant palette of polished copper and luminous gold shone under a shifting sheen of iridescence thinner than a dragonfly wing. The armor was stunningly beautiful, but after a time the warrior opened her eyes and settled. “Nothing.” She began unfastening the intricate and expertly designed latching mechanisms so she could return to her own armor.

Kara carefully wrapped the Thassilonian breastplate back in the oiled cloth for safe transport.

••••

They searched the remaining areas of the cave system. Neither the hags nor the ogres nor the hill giant had anything of note, but they recovered some items and equipment from the frost wight that had been Lamatar Bayden.

“We have to return him to Myriana,” Gloriana said.

Lem rested hands on hips. “The whole thing?”

“She said even just part would be enough to restore him.”

“You think he’s coming back from this?”

“I do not know, but we have to try.”

Steel rang as a knife unsheathed. “How about the head?”

••••

“We could try and descend now, but it will be very difficult,” Lem said. “Unless Rahab can magic us all there?”

The wizard shook his head. “The range exceeds that remaining to me today.”

The gardener nodded. “Then we’re here. In the morning we should set out as early as possible. The sooner we recover the horses and get underway the better.”

They settled around the forge to take advantage of the heat. Abby sat next to Rahab as they wrapped themselves in their cloaks. The warrior leaned close and whispered.

“Glo said she was going to use her magic to throw me instead of Lem!”

Rahab’s expression showed a mixture of exhaustion and the frayed patience of the instructor waiting for the pupil to arrive at a moment of insight. The warrior was nonplussed.

The wizard gave a resigned chuckle. “Abby, look at you: A tower of muscle shrouded in steel. That spell has certain limitations. You were too heavy.”

No one slept particularly well, but any rest was better than none.3

••••

Shortly after dawn they reached the horses, relieved to find them alive. Mounting quickly, they rode for the foothills bordering the Storval Deep, turning east-southeast toward Skull’s Crossing, then southwest to Fort Rannick where they overnighted. The next morning the weather finally broke, the cloud cover gradually peeling away, welcome sunlight slowly beginning to dry the saturated land. Riding along the Skull River they observed the water level and flow had normalized, but they did not stop at Turtleback Ferry, bypassing the village on their way to the Wicker Walk.

Later that afternoon they met with Yap in the forested reaches outside Bitter Hollow. The pixie reported no traffic into the Shimmerglens.

“Help mistress?” Blue wings fluttered.

Gloriana nodded, somber.

“We go?”

“We go.”

They skirted the village and made their way south into the gloaming, into nightmare.

••••

The desolation around the pool was unchanged. Cast by Myriana’s breathtaking lament, splintered bits of ivory-colored willow lay scattered over the once-green grass. Overhead the moon rode high on the dark, ghost-white sliver like the tear of a god fallen on black velvet sky. The silence was immense, as if the entire region held its breath, terrified to draw the attention of the spirit wandering galleries of torment, returning to each chamber over and over again in hope of finding love not torn asunder.

Gloriana became golden fire. Grasping snow-white locks, the oracle lifted the head they had carried all the way from Hook Mountain.

“Myriana,” she said softly, “we have returned with your lover, freed from undeath. Lamatar awaits.”

From the depths of the pool erupted phantom light, beautiful, dreadful. The ghost-nymph coalesced and floated near. All but Gloriana averted their eyes, and when Myriana began to weep the companions could do nothing but the same.

••••

Afterwards it was difficult to say exactly what had happened. Bright light suffused everything, and then faded slowly, revealing two figures, no longer wrought in horror, but whole and hale and new. Impossibly stunning, she gently brushed his cheek, and then was gone. He remained, now an elf with features unmistakably like those that had belonged to the once-captain of The Black Arrows. Already the land changed, a wave of color billowing out from the pool, renewal rippling through tree, leaf, soil, stone, water. Blooms formed, buds appeared, wounds healed, banishing the twisted devastation under the night sky. A lone deer bounded effortlessly across the clearing, regal head held high, a herald of woodland restored.

Weeping abated, grief diminished. Within each of the companions bubbled a feeling like waking fresh from troubled sleep to find a land washed clean after a storm.

“Lamatar?” Gloriana asked.

“Do I know you?” the elf replied. Seemingly ageless, he stood unashamed of his nakedness, soft argent hair framing a graceful countenance. He was like a silver tree facing her avatar of burning gold.

“In a way,” the oracle answered. “We returned you to Myriana.”

Quiet tears escaped his eyes, gentle as soft rain. “I could not save her. I could not protect her, as I could not protect the fortress.”

“Rannick lies in enemy hands no longer. We have retaken it, and even now one of The Black Arrows stands on watch there.”

The silver elf considered this for a time. “I feel relief to hear it, though my memory of such things feels borrowed. My thanks are insufficient for what you have done.”

“Can you tell us what happened here?”

“Not clearly. I think I returned from the wilderness to find the fortress fallen. Not knowing they would follow, I fled here, unwittingly leading the monsters to my love. They tore her apart before me, and save for waking here all after that is vague nightmare, shapes in darkness, dreams of death. Those fragments belong to someone else, now.”

“You are Lamatar Bayden, captain of The Black Arrows.”

“I find little familiar in your words. Perhaps I was. Henceforth I shall be Lamden, and my memories shall be all that the Shimmerglens tell.”

A silence passed. The silver elf clasped his hands lightly behind his back and turned to gaze up at the crescent moon in still reflection. Eventually Gloriana spoke once more.

“Myriana’s spirit had been corrupted, but when we returned you here she was freed of the misery that twisted her and Whitewillow. She worked powerful magic of reincarnation, the likes of which I have never seen, nor would have thought possible.”

Lamden gave a faint smile. “I see only the land as it is in this moment, and in this moment is the whole of time for the land.”

“Do you want us to lead you to Fort Rannick?”

The elf’s expression acquired a certain melancholy. “Do you not understand? As my love was before, so now am I a part of this place. Its protection falls to me, and I could no more leave than could the trees.”

“Then you will need your armor and weapons to defend it. We brought them from Hook Mountain.”

Lamden shook his head kindly. “No. Such were the tools of another time, another being, and they bequeath to you. In my veins are the waters, in my lungs the mists and wind. Where I walk springs new grass, and where I rest grow new trees. My eyes and ears and thoughts course the realm with the deer and the fox and the hawk on the wing. Any who venture here with ill intent shall find the very land arrayed against them, but you here before me shall find refuge. Springs shall flow fresh to quench your thirst, and fruits shall fall ripe from the branch into your outstretched hand when you hunger. Bowers shall arch overhead when you sleep, and birdsong will wake you refreshed in the morning.”

A sudden smile brightened Gloriana’s face, a smile of the road, of nights spent under stars at crackling campfires haloed in song. “It cheers our hearts to see this place restored. We look forward to returning some day. Please look kindly on the pixie, Yap, who sought us for aid. His heart was ever devoted to healing here.”

“He shall be favored. Go well in your travels.”

Perhaps they blinked, or perhaps there was some trick of light, but suddenly the companions stood alone in the clearing under the faint and distant moon. Around the pool had sprouted six new willow saplings.

••••

They spent two more days in Turtleback Ferry, helping how they might with continued flood recovery. Here, too, locals began talk of heroes, of deeds to alter the course of fate, of acts no two individuals could verify each other had truly seen. Gangs of children followed the companions around mud-choked roads, the bolder among them asking for a token, or demonstration of strength or skill, or the casting of a spell. Some villagers crowded close for a glimpse, a touch, a word; still others moved quickly along with nervous whispers or wary glances. Singly or in groups the companions were invited to homes for meager meals the villagers struggled to prepare in the wake of lost supply. At some point every party member received marriage proposal and plea to take someone away to a dreamed utopia.

The two casks of ale Gloriana and Rahab had brought to Bottom’s Up had not even lasted until the companions’ return, but the inn made significant cleaning progress with magical help from the oracle and wizard. The Keskers opened the upstairs rooms to the companions. At night, lying down to sleep, they could smell the stagnant flood reek lingering in the timbers. With the end of constant rain it suddenly felt like proper spring, and structures in Turtleback Ferry propped open doors and windows, eager to catch fresh breezes and warm sun.

For their last night’s meal in the village Rahab used his dimensional walk to usher his friends and their food to the roof of the inn where they could dine in peace, free of villagers begging audience, coin, or blessing. Arrayed like curious rooks, they ate in silence for a while, watching the sunset over the lake.

“Tomorrow?” Abby turned to the wizard, a look of unmistakable excitement in her eyes.

Rahab nodded. “Three translations: The first will teleport four of us, the second shall return me here, and the third will bring me and whomever remains.”

“How long will it take?”

“Within one standard deviation of eighteen seconds. In subsequent days I will make return journeys to teleport the horses.”

“Will that be more difficult?”

“Easier than teleporting people.”

“Because they’re stronger?”

Devil-grin flashed in twilight: “Because they do not complain, or editorialize about the process, or bother me to ‘go again.’”

Gloriana proffered the conjurer a rude gesture, and when Kara, Abby, and Lem giggled she did the same to them, which only set them to more laughter.

After another silence Abby asked, “Do you think the Kreeg are vanquished?”

“Possibly,” offered Kara. “Certainly they will not menace this region for a long time. Their numbers must be significantly diminished.”

“Regardless, The Black Arrows must be reinforced,” said Gloriana, “and the villages in this region do not have the personnel.”

“The Black Arrows must be reformed,” the gardener corrected.

Abby swallowed a piece of salted fish. “Do you think Magnimar will send anyone, Glo?”

The oracle sighed. “Eventually. The city would hate to cede any territory—even if only in theory—to Korvosa. That will require some sanctioned presence, though I do not think the lord mayor will make haste.”

“Is there anything we could do to help?”

Gloriana mused in silence for a while. “I am not sure yet. Perhaps we will find a solution while in Magnimar. In the meantime we have much to do ourselves.”

“Are we going to talk to Quink?”

“We are. We also need to do some work. Rahab?”

“In the next several weeks we shall consult on the construction of new magic items, or the augmentation of existing ones. Those treasures we have looted that we do not wish to keep we shall arrange to liquidate for funds—buyers permitting—to supply our crafting or purchasing. Further, we should attempt to penetrate more of the mystery that has eluded us these months. Such will inform our next move. And, we have research to conduct, as well . . . independent of the ‘sage.’”

“Really, Rahab,” needled Gloriana with a smile, “professional jealousy seems beneath you.”

“Jealousy occurs between rivals. If I ever encounter any of those, I will let you know.”

Villagers passing in the mud streets outside Bottom’s Up heard new rounds of laughter from the roof.

••••

After sunset the air quickly grew cool, and so Rahab stepped behind the dimensions with each of his friends, appearing inside the inn on the first floor. They went downstairs to place an order for hot tea, which supply the Kesker’s had not entirely lost, then they gathered upstairs in the room shared by Abby and Gloriana.

“Are we any closer,” Lem asked, carefully cleaning a fingernail with the point of one of his daggers, “to understanding what’s going on? Ogres and now stone giants? All that business back in Magnimar? It’s all connected, right?”

Rahab nodded. “There is a new piece.”

“What is it?” Kara raised an eyebrow.

“A note I discovered tucked away in the pages of the necromancer’s spellbook.” He produced a section of paper the size of a hefty tome and began to unfold it. By the time it was spread completely open it was twice the size of a folio.

“That’s a note?” Lem’s eyes widened.

The wizard was dry: “It is if you stand more than twelve feet tall.”

“Is that the language of giants?” Gloriana traced some of the ink lines on the page.

Rahab nodded. “It reads thus:”

Barl—
Latest contact with Teraktinus indicates he has narrowed the search—he believes a human town called Sandpoint could hide what my lord seeks. Teraktinus will lead several of the people as well as the dragon on a raid into the town some time after four full lunar cycles. When they return they may be pursued and I may need your ogre slaves to aid in Teraktinus’s retreat to Jorgenfist. Be ready to return at my command.
—M

“Ghosts of the road,” the oracle sighed. “Do any of those names mean anything to anyone?”

“I surmise Barl to have been the necromancer,” Rahab replied. “The hag who bargained mentioned ‘Breakbones,’ perhaps mere referent, but likely part of Barl’s name. Stone giant appellations often follow that style. At a guess I suspect ‘M’ may be Mokmurian, the name provided in brief conversation with the lamia matriarch Lucrecia. As for Teraktinus and Jorgenfist, I do not recognize those.”

Lem shook his head. “Nor do I.”

“Then I shall add those to our subjects for upcoming research.” The wizard began refolding the giant note.

Kara looked troubled. “Do you think this ‘Mokmurian’ is another stone giant?”

“Possibly,” Rahab shrugged. “Difficult to say at this point. Why?”

“He refers to the ogres as slaves. Stone giants are not given to slave-taking.”

“Maybe it’s another kind of giant?” Abby suggested. “Like that hill giant?”

The wizard shook his head. “This giant appears literate, ruling out almost one-hundred percent of all hill giants, ever.”

“Fire?” Kara offered. “No. Not likely. Cloud, perhaps?”

“We are now tossing darts at a target we cannot even see,” Rahab crossed his arms. “Without more evidence any such speculation is specious.”

“Do we have time?” Abby chewed nervously at her lip.

“I think so. Four full lunar cycles is at least four months, and I suspect this note was dispatched to the necromancer prior to the worst of the winter, which was heavy enough in Magnimar. Nevertheless, in the next month we will need to remain vigilant.”

Gloriana brushed curls of gold from her eyes. “Maybe we should go straight to Sandpoint instead.”

“Eventually,” the wizard said, “but for now Magnimar will serve us better. We must prepare. Ready first, then move. Sitting in Sandpoint waiting for an attack about which we know very little, indeed, gives the advantage to our enemies.”

“Do you think they really have a dragon?” Kara’s voice reflected a rarely expressed fear.

“At present I see no reason to interpret that as anything other than a legitimate reference to such a creature.”

“By The Brightness,” the alchemist murmured. “What chance does Sandpoint have?”

The wizard seemed surprised. “With us there? Significant. Let us not get ahead of ourselves. Firstly, we do not yet know what intends to march on Sandpoint. Secondly, we know nothing about this dragon, neither age nor type, though no dragon should ever be underestimated. As Abby has reminded us, it might even be a name for something else entirely: a weapon, a magic, a different monster entirely. That is not to say there is no cause for concern, but our priority upon return should be our own augmentation, including adding to our knowledge. We are best when prepared.”

A long silence ensued. Gloriana glanced at the wizard and saw Rahab rubbing his eyes. “I know how you feel.”

“I confess to weariness,” the conjurer mumbled, “weariness about this constantly elusive thing that returns again and again in violence only to fade into the unknown even as we repel its assault.”

“The mystery no longer intrigues?”

“Mysteries may be plumbed. This is more like mischief, as stupid as it is inelegant.”

The oracle gave Rahab a sympathetic smile. “Perhaps the days ahead will reveal more.”

“Perhaps. For now I am to bed.” He rose and bid good night to his friends. One by one the others, too, relinquished the field to exhaustion. Still unaccustomed to the wizard’s power to instantly move vast distances, the idea of a long journey home—and all its attendant exhaustion—loomed large. All that had transpired in recent weeks still weighed on their hearts. A journey of more than three hundred miles had brought them to the horror of the Graul farm and the crisis of The Black Arrows. Kaven’s betrayal and the death of a friend lingered fresh in the mind. Retaking Fort Rannick had pushed them to previously unknown limits of ability, cohesion, life. From rain to flood to the nightmare of Whitewillow even the land seemed an opponent to overcome, and through it all lumbered a host of monstrosities serving some fell purpose. The journey of new scars had seen battle and heartbreak in such measure that it became impossible to separate one from the other, and still they felt no closer to understanding the forces behind all they had witnessed. Every victory, every found relic of a bygone civilization, every scrap of plan or stolen conversation or piece of information summed to no value they could recognize.

And now Varisia itself had begun to change. What had been ignorance became whisper until it could remain hushed no longer. From the western coast to the wilder interior minstrels, poets, raconteurs, sailors, troupes, travelers, and everyone in between took to tavern, salon, boards, or public space with tales about five heroes traversing the land committing deeds grim and triumphant. Where this company arrived, the stories insisted, so, too, did tremors to shake existence itself, and the resultant tumbled fruit tasted as people had not known for many lifetimes.

Under a clear night sky slept a lakeside village troubled by dreams of a future in which it would find the journey back to where it had been impossible. On the far side of the water a curious sensation crept through the marshland, peaceful yet hinting at a silver menace that warned away all those unprepared to face the spiral madness of a region touched by otherworldly green. Farther north, in badland boltholes, brutal giant-kin had already begun to invent a name for the vision of steel-clad war they would invoke to discipline wayward offspring for generations to come. In a deep cavern farther still, a malicious mind brooded over intrigue, magic, and thoughts of ascendant conquest.

In a once-rowdy inn-and-tavern subdued by flood recovery it was enough, however, that it finally felt like genuine spring, and a pentad found sleep untroubled, save for one. Abby lay on her bed staring into darkness.

“Glo? You awake?”

The oracle made a wordless sound, a sluggish, muted reply from the murky verge of sleep.

Weighty pause crumbled under excitement chasing warrior around a circadian maelstrom, and giggles shook a bed frame. “We’re going to teleport tomorrow!”

Gloriana was wide awake now.4


1 Oh, there’s all kinds of stuff Rahab does not know.

2 Kara’s Knowledge roll was pretty much as high as she could achieve at this level.

3 Overall loot included around 9,700 g.p. worth of gems and art pieces, plus a bunch of magic arrows (including some +1 giant bane variety), a suit of studded leather +2 light fortification, +2 belt of dexterity, boots of the winterlands, wand of enervation with 12 charges, +2 headband of vast intelligence, +1 chain shirt, +1 icy burst composite longbow, cloak of elvenkind, +1 longsword. More on the breastplate to come.

4 End of Book IV. Screen wipes to black. Turn the sound up and play “Without Love” by Black ‘N Blue from their 1985 album Without Love over the credits.

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Book IV, Chapter 19: The Battle Of Hook Mountain
Trans-Dimensional Point Insertion Protocol

Kara and Rahab flew overhead searching for the horses, descending to round them up and walk them slowly back to the clearing. The stunning panic was gone, leaving only the general dread that lingered in the area. Yap reappeared, fluttering nearby, anxious.

“May Yap help you?”

Gloriana faced the pixie. She had been crying. Ghosts of the road, we’ve all been crying. “Yes, Yap. I need you to return to the Wicker Walk and keep humanoids from coming here.”

Yap turned a somersault, then stopped, nonplussed. “How does Yap do that?”

“Just talk to them. Stay in flight, out of reach, and warn them away. Don’t threaten, that may make them angry. Just tell them to stay away from Whitewillow and the Shimmerglens. It’s not safe. Otherwise stay out of sight in the forest.”

“What will you do?”

“We are going to Hook Mountain to find Lamatar and return him to your mistress. We may need your help when we get back.”

Yap barrel-rolled and clapped. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou! You will heal mistress! Yap loves you!” The pixie spun and raced away into the gloom, headed north.

The eerie silence returned and held sway.

••••

Horses herded, fallen weapons recovered, the companions stood and looked out over the ruin of the clearing.

“Lem? Can you lead us back to Bitter Hollow?” the oracle asked.

“No problem.” The gardener was subdued, staring out into the darkness.

“Rahab, do you know how to get to Hook Mountain?”

The wizard nodded.1 “I estimate two-and-a-half days on horseback. Our route will take us past Fort Rannick and Skull’s Crossing. The challenging part will be in the mountains. The region is difficult, and not just because of the ogre presence.”

In the poor light Gloriana did not see the wizard wince. “When we get to Bitter Hollow let’s take a little time at the inn and get you familiar with the place. We may need to return with Lamatar very quickly, and you’re just the teleporter to do it.” She gave him a smile.

“Good idea,” and then he grimaced.

Alarmed, the oracle stepped close. “Are you hurt?” The others formed a defensive circle. Gloriana had cast a spell of status on Abby, Kara, and Lem, but . . . Of course the spell told me nothing. The ones I cast it on weren’t injured. Pay attention, Gloriana!

Rahab reached into his robe and drew forth Escher. In the light of the glow skull they could see the rat was ragged, fur disheveled, sides heaving with exertion. Drying blood flecked his whiskers and forepaws.

“Ghosts of the road!” The oracle opened Rahab’s robe and saw the bloody patch of shredded skin just below the wizard’s sternum, raw and ragged.

“I don’t understand,” Abby lamented, looking over Gloriana’s shoulder. She met Rahab’s eyes. “Why?”

“The blame is not Escher’s.” The rat squeaked weakly in Rahab’s hand and angled his head to nuzzle one of the wizard’s fingers. “He exhibited more intelligence than I could muster, trying to get away from the terror of Myriana’s anguish.”

Gloriana smiled sympathetically. “Here.” The oracle gently reached out and placed one hand on the rat, the other on the conjurer’s chest. She could sense the wizard’s heart hammering behind his rib cage as she softly murmured the healing spell.2

••••

It was very early morning by the time they returned to Bitter Hollow. They breakfasted at the inn, taking their time. Rahab sat in silence with a cup of coffee looking over the common room, familiarizing himself with details, making other patrons nervous. Then they got on the road again, electing to bypass Turtleback Ferry and make straight for Fort Rannick.

Gloriana reined Marigold slightly, allowing Pentacle to draw alongside. The oracle had to rummage in her backpack for some time. Her haunts kept moving things around. Finally she drew forth a scroll and held it up.

Rahab looked at it with interest. “Is that the one you went to the temple of Sarenrae to purchase?”

The oracle looked somber. “A chant to raise the dead.”3

Rahab’s eyes widened. “That is a very powerful incantation. Very expensive.”

“More than you know,” she returned.

He regarded her in silence for a long time. “I do not doubt,” he said eventually.

“Anyway,” Gloriana resumed, “I’m going to keep it here,” and she tapped the scroll against a cylindrical container of brass on her belt. “Got it?”

“I understand.”

“Oh, and Rahab?”

The wizard inclined his head slightly.

“Myriana and Lamatar? Their love is genuine.”

The wizard mused, then held up his hands and gave the slightest smile. “Point taken.”

By the time they reached Fort Rannick they had been awake for more than twenty-four hours. Sleep came easily.

••••

Snow fell on the frozen mountain side. They had left Fort Rannick behind in the early morning, passed Skull’s Crossing, and by mid-day were winding their way among the Iron Peaks. The rain had turned to snow soon after the ancient Thassilonian dam.

“If this is spring weather I am no alchemist,” Kara murmured.

“Something foul is at work,” agreed Rahab. “I suspect even now we make our way to find out what it is.”

Beyond the foothills to the east stretched the expanse of the Storval Deep reflecting ice-black under the overcast sky. The horses advanced slowly under the accumulating snow, and the riders had wrapped themselves in their camp blankets. When they reached the base of Hook Mountain it was clear the horses could go no further.

“That lee of rock back a short ways should provide enough shelter,” Lem said. “They’ll make it through the night if we drape them in our blankets.”

Gloriana’s face wrinkled. “What about us?”

“We’ll be climbing. Hope we’re headed for a cave, or something.”

Abby dismounted, and the others followed suit. Rahab collected reins and blankets, and led the horses back to the shelter. He hobbled them in a close cluster to maximize shared warmth, then draped them in the blankets. When he returned to the group Kara was gone.

“Scouting,” Abby answered the unasked question.

When the alchemist’s voice sounded everyone started briefly. Her invisibility took some getting used to.

“There is a winding trail the ogres probably use. I think there may be a cave further up, but I did not fly that high.”

“Good work,” Gloriana was huddled next to the warrior, her arms clenched, teeth chattering.

Lem led them up the mountain.

••••

Despite the conditions they made appreciable pace. The gardener found a good route with plenty of navigable rock not yet shrouded in snow or ice. They only had to scramble in a few areas. The biggest problem they encountered on the way was the giant spider.

A huge field of snow exploded under the dashing trapdoor attack of the arachnid. Sandy brown and covered in wiry hairs, the spider dwarfed the one they had fought at the Graul farm by half again, at least.

Kara recognized the scuttling giant. “Tarantula!”

Gloriana screamed.

••••

Lem was struck by a hail of barbed hairs as rigid as arrows. His armor prevented all but a few from penetrating, and he gritted his teeth against the burning sensation that coursed through him. Rahab cast a spell and took flight, while Kara drank another extract and did the same. Standing next to Gloriana, Abby had been caught by surprise and could only gape as the oracle informed the world of just how upset she was with a piercing, sustained F#5.

The gardener struggled to get his shortbow nocked and fired. In the frigid, blowing conditions it was difficult to maintain proper form on the bowstring, but one of his arrows did score a hit. From the air overhead came an object hurtling through the snowfall. It struck the spider and exploded in a flash of fire and smoke that was quickly carried away in the wind.

Abby lurched into the snow field, activating the hasting magic of Avenger and striding as best she could over difficult terrain. Her path took her within range of the spider’s enormous reach and titanic fangs speared the warrior, injecting a strength-sapping venom that acted quickly. Abby swung her sword and tore a great piece of carapace from the thorax, but she sagged under the toxin’s effect almost immediately.4 The spider moved with uncanny speed, looming over Abby, fangs descending once more.

Gloriana began to draw injury from the warrior. She called a column of divine fire down from the sky. Great smoke wafted up from the spider as hairs and carapace incinerated.5 Kara threw a second explosive and left the chitinous corpse twitching in the snow.

Abby gasped, leaning on Avenger and her sword. Her breastplate felt five hundred pounds heavier. Lem made his way over to the warrior. “Is there any reason we shouldn’t use this?” He held up a restorative potion he carried.

“Yes!” Gloriana made her way over the snow to Abby and began to cast a litany of spells. Lem shrugged, and stowed his potion away. Moments later the toxin was magically scrubbed from the warrior’s system and her strength had been restored. Finally she was healed back to fighting form. The oracle had to shuffle in knee-deep snow to put her back to the spider’s corpse, especially when Kara flew down to take a sample of venom from the glands behind the chelicerae.

Abby: “You alright, Glo?”

“Giant spider. Enormous. No. No no no no no.”

••••

It was late afternoon by the time they reached the cave entrance. Through the whirling snow they could just make it out along the eastern mountain slope below the summit. The companions crouched behind a large snow drift, shivering.

“Bet it’s warmer in there,” Abby’s said behind rattling teeth. “We should go see.”

Lem angled around the bank. “Back as fast as I can.”

The remaining four huddled for warmth. In three minutes the gardener returned. “Two Kreegs, armed and armored. Let’s do it.”

In the swirling snowstorm they could safely activate their array of preparatory magic without alerting the ogres at the cave entrance. Abby and Lem were about to move out when Rahab clapped a hand on their shoulders.

“I have an idea.”

Abby had been right: It was fun.

••••

Rahab slipped through dimensional interstices and appeared instantaneously next to the northernmost ogre, bringing Abby and Lem with him. At the instant of arrival, warrior and gardener attacked in concert. Sensing something in its peripheral vision the other ogre looked over and gawked: Its fellow guard was gone. In its place stood a human, a half-elf, and a halfling. For some reason the snow at the cave entrance was covered in a massive red stain.6

••••

The second ogre did not live long enough to wonder what had happened.7 Gloriana and Kara arrived out of the wintry blast to find Abby standing over the corpse, drawing her sword from its torso. Lem’s knives dripped crimson like paint across the cave threshold.

“Where’s the other one?” Gloriana asked. Rahab flashed a devil-grin and stepped aside like a circus ringmaster introducing the next act. The blood spatter on the snow had fountained more than fifteen feet against the wind. The oracle’s jaw dropped open.

“Let’s get inside!” shouted Kara above the howl of the storm.

••••

The cave entrance spanned some thirty feet and advanced another forty or more, narrowing gradually as the access went east to west. Entry was dominated by two enormous features: The first was bones; the second, a statue.

Clearly the ribs of some immense creature, the bones lined the procession, set into the stone and rising nearly twenty feet high along either cave wall. They were ancient, weathered, and discolored. Now that the party no longer stood in the direct blast of the mountain wind, they advanced cautiously, already a fraction warmer. As they moved, Rahab regarded the bones.

“Blue dragon,” the wizard murmured. The others stopped, glanced warily from the bones to wizard to cave corridor.

“How can you tell?” Abby whispered.

“While possessing many basic similarities, the various dracoforms have numerous distinctions, including some within the musculoskeletal system. These belonged to a blue dragon, and an ancient one by the size.”

Now Gloriana leaned close. “Was this a dragon lair?”

The conjurer shook his head. “Unlikely, given the size of the cave system, and besides, the chromatic blue is typically a tyrant of more arid regions. No, the bones were brought here and arranged like this. See? The spacing is wrong to provide the necessary thoracic support and cavity for dragon anatomy of that size.”

A long silence passed. The companions eyed one another as Rahab mused.

“So . . . ” Abby finally interjected, “. . . should we keep moving?”

“What? Oh, yes, of course. It just made me think, that’s all.”

“About what?”

“An ancient blue dragon is a creature of tremendous power, and dragons rarely die of old age. Did you know that? So, unless they were scavenged from carrion, whatever harvested these bones, well . . . that must have been an astonishing battle.”

••••

The statue stood at the end of the long entry corridor, just before the actual caverns began, against the southern wall. Towering forty full feet, it was mixed media: Black stone fissured from centuries of temperature variation encased in gilded armor of occult provenance and strange, gem-encrusted design including a full helm with the stylized visage of a sneering, fanged fiend. A great medallion hung around the statue’s neck depicting a seven-pointed star with which they were all now quite familiar.

Once more the others looked at Rahab and the wizard simply shook his head at the unasked query. They left the mystery of the statue and ventured forward into the cave proper.

••••

Lem advanced a little way, then came back and reported that the corridor angled west-northwest before opening on a cavern at the intersection of four tunnels.

“Something ahead,” the gardener whispered in the light of Abby’s stone. “Ogres, I think, and maybe something else. A giant? I’m not too familiar with the varieties. We should lure them with arrows.”

The warrior nodded. “Draw them into the corridor, cut them down.”

They made ready.8

••••

The contingent at the intersection included the hill giant Lunderbud, ten feet tall and a thousand pounds of belligerence and questionable hygiene. Three members of the Kreeg supported him, and in a chamber to the south were six additional ogres.

Lem stealthily took position, nocked, sighted, and fired. He also missed. Lunderbud shouted something only Rahab understood, but it was not difficult for the rest of the party to guess what it was.

The battle at Hook Mountain began in earnest.

••••

The hill giant charged and the Kreegs with him launched javelins at the retreating Lem, then fell in alongside their lumbering cousin. The missiles flew wide and the gardener shouted a taunt back in Common. Kara pitched a grenado among the four brutes and the tunnel lit with an explosive flash that set giant and ogres howling in pain. Rahab had a wand that cast a spell to impair strength, and now he spoke eldritch words and directed a beam of energy from the tool into the nearest ogre. The creature’s grip on its cruel war hook sagged.

Gloriana had a good line of sight and summoned another column of raging fire, a pillar of angry red, orange, and gold that roared down from the tunnel ceiling and enveloped ogres and giant alike. Smoke churned and into the confusion stepped Abby, taking position at the front of the group, defending her friends, sword in hand, shield braced, still giddy from the feeling of traveling behind space and time. Before her stood three members of the Kreeg ogre clan and an attendant miscreant, and the monsters were already losing.

She casually lifted her sword blade and tapped the point against the hide chest piece of the ogre directly in front of her. “You fuckers sure are ugly!”

The warrior was having a wonderful time.

••••

The next few moments were fraught with combat. Lem took a hit from an ogre hook while Abby blocked her attacker with Avenger. The tunnel lit up with three explosions in quick succession, each one bursting like thunder against a cliff side, and one of the ogres fell dead. Abby skewered her opponent with her sword and kicked its body off her blade to crumple in a pool of its own blood. Gloriana tried to bestow a curse upon the hill giant, but the dullard managed to somehow resist the magic. Perhaps it was too stupid.9

Rahab’s mighty intelligence calculated furiously, measuring angles and distances of the tunnel, pinpointing the positions of ogre and hill giant, factoring the sound of additional enemy voices moving toward the intersection from the south. He waited, poised, precise, patient.

••••

Lem abandoned his bow and attempted to resume stealth at the tunnel periphery. Between Abby and Rahab’s light sources and the periodic explosions of Kara’s bombs, there was enough chaotic illumination to enhance his chances, and the gardener vanished into shadow.

Lunderbud had just enough sensibility to recognize much of his pain had come from the golden human, and just enough idiocy to step past the steel half-elf in an effort to crush his opponent with the massive hammer he bore. Abby cut a severe gash across his right torso, but the hill giant pressed forward. Gloriana ducked and avoided the worst of the hammer strike, but could not escape all of it. The pain was stunning. As she stumbled to one knee she caught a glimpse of six more ogres arriving at the intersection, ready to fall on the group with savage ferocity. Her heart faltered a moment: The force of new ogres might be enough to push the companions back, and if they got pinned at the turn of the tunnel . . . .

The intersection became fire.

••••

At the moment the last of the support ogre force arrived Rahab cast his spell. The fireball bloomed and the surrounding air was compressed by the expanding pressure wave. Patches of snow clinging to the companions’ armor and clothing vaporized instantly, and the ambient temperature spiked. Struggling to stand, Gloriana watched as the field of ogres disappeared, starting from the back, a raging inferno rolling over them in the cave confines.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the fireball was gone. Only Lunderbud and one Kreeg remained standing, sizzling, hairless. On the tunnel floor six twisted, charred, vaguely-bipedal shapes choked the tunnel with smoke like incense at offering.

Abby, Gloriana, and Kara looked back over their shoulders. The wizard’s smirking gloat would have been visible from space.10

••••

Abby spun, sword cut a viper’s strike. Blood hissed into the piles of carbon further up the tunnel. Staggering, Lunderbud reached a shaking hand out and grabbed Gloriana by the shoulder. The oracle whipped around, anger flashing in her eyes, the air dancing with wispy shapes, and her voice barked a spell. Another column of fire descended.

The hill giant became a statue in ash.

“Keep your filthy fingers off of me!” The statue crumbled. Little motes of ember floated lazily in the tunnel. As she dusted soot off her shoulders the oracle glanced at Rahab.

The wizard guffawed. “So satisfying, isn’t it?”

••••

Lem emerged from the shadows and fixed the remaining ogre with a grin. “You realize you’re the only one remaining, right?”

The Kreeg fled. Kara sent a bomb tumbling after it and the companions hustled quickly in pursuit. Gloriana became golden flame, healing her injury.

Rahab glanced to the south as they passed the room from whence the six ogres had come. He guessed the chamber served as a crude forge. They hurried on, following the northern tunnel a short distance until it ended at a junction.

To the west was a long series of shallow, humanoid-sized steps cut into the stone leading up a gentle slope some forty feet to an oblong cavern that served as some kind of shrine. At the rear of the cavern stood a small statue depicting a pregnant woman with the head of a three-eyed jackal: the now familiar image of Lamashtu, demon goddess of monsters. A still figure kneeled in supplication before the shrine.

To the east stretched a gigantic chamber open to the overcast evening sky. A central ramp rose gradually toward the rear of the cavern, carved in giant-sized steps between two wide ledges on either side and terminating at a great throne of stone. A figure sat upon the throne, giant, with an angular face and jaw. A similar figure stood like a statue on the northern ledge. The twisting winds at mountain summit whipped so as to prevent snowfall within the chamber. The last ogre had fled into the eastern reach where it waited, weapon in hand.

Kara drank an extract of invisibility, this one augmented with additional magic that would maintain the illusion even while attacking.11 Lem took up a position in hiding against the northern wall. Gloriana arrived at the junction and looked either way. Something about the figure kneeling at the shrine caught her attention, and realization dawned.

“What—?”

The kneeling figure lifted its head.

••••

The oracle’s voice sank to a whisper. “Ghosts of the road.”

The figure got to its feet and turned slowly. Tall and gaunt, it wore a crown of shining iron in five slender points atop a stringy mane of shock-white hair hanging limp about a face the color of a frozen corpse. The right hand clutched a longbow and a longsword hung at its belt. Where the left hand should have been sprouted five segmented icicles in the shape of fingers. The figure’s eyes shown with a faint light of brittle, glacial blue, and the mouth twisted open in a rictus of hate. It was dressed in a shirt of fine chain links over some kind of uniform.

“A frost wight,” breathed the oracle. She called to her friends: “You must not let it touch you! I will deal with this! You must face the threat from the other chamber!”

Gloriana stepped into the western expanse and onto the first, shallow step leading up toward the shrine. The wight began to advance. Without taking her eyes off it, the oracle addressed Lem in the shadows. Her voice was low, clear, measured: “This creature is undead. You know what that means. If it turns my body . . . kill me.”

Something formed in Lem’s heart, small but growing, a snowdrop opening to winter sun. No quip fell from his tongue. He swallowed, and for a moment could not find his voice. Never before had the prospect of slaying a human daunted him, not after what their race had done to him and his kin. Neither did he lament destroying the undead, having witnessed and understood only too well the sinister damnation of that condition. Yet the oracle’s instruction settled on him with an ocean’s weight.

Human? Undead? What did either matter? He was the hunting shadow, razor unbound, and the loss of fruit to early frost disturbed his conscience more than spilling blood. Six months ago he would not have given the prospect of slaying Gloriana a second thought. Now it unsettled him, and that gave him pause.

••••

Abby had already squared up facing the eastern cavern while Rahab approached. The warrior had no idea where Kara was. She heard the first part of Gloriana’s warning, but her attention quickly shifted.

The figure on the throne moved and a voice rumbled from the far end of the chamber, thick and rattling like stones tumbling down a mountain side. Abby did not know what it said, but the statue on the ledge came to life, and the Kreeg grinned through crisped flesh.

The party was about to be flanked. The warrior settled into a deeper stance. “More enemies coming. Glo, you need to kill that thing behind us! Now!”

••••

The wizard quickly recognized the two figures beyond the ogre in the eastern cavern: stone giants.

Rahab made an immediate decision and cast a mighty spell. A wall of invisible, impenetrable force sprang into existence just beyond Abby, completely sealing off the eastern chamber.12 The wizard clapped the warrior on the shoulder.

“Those are stone giants. That,” and he indicated the western shrine with a nod, “used to be Lamatar Bayden, captain of The Black Arrows. Recognize the uniform? Nothing is coming through the barrier I have conjured for another minute, at least. One thing at a time.”

••••

Still in her form of golden flame, Gloriana directed a beam of brilliant light against the frost wight, staggering the undead’s advance with a white-hot flash point that sizzled and churned steam.. Even so, the oracle knew she must absolutely remain the focus of the creature’s attack, equipped as she was to most effectively deal with a horror such as this.

“Myriana sends her love!”

She seemed to have secured Lamatar’s attention.

••••

Still invisible, Kara began firing her bow, and it was as if arrows began appearing out of thin air. Lem likewise unlimbered his bow and began firing at the wight. Both Kara and the gardener had to pause between volleys in order to make sure they were not hallucinating: Abby had sheathed her sword, slung Avenger on her back . . .

. . . and drawn her bow.

“Shake the dust off that thing and let’s get to it!” shouted Lem. Alchemist, gardener—and warrior—were soon firing into the western chamber, scoring hits. Lem glanced over his shoulder as he bent to draw anew, and saw the Kreeg and one of the stone giants standing a mere ten feet away, utterly stymied by Rahab’s invisible wall. Lem flipped the giant a rude gesture and resumed firing.

Torso now sprouting a number of arrows, the wight nocked its own bow and targeted Gloriana. No familiar twang accompanied the shots. Instead the string shed a fine shower of frost that drifted like powdered sugar in the air, but all three arrows missed, passing overhead and rattling against the tunnel wall where they burst in thin shells of black ice on the stone.

Rahab cast another spell and sent a spiked lozenge of purple blasting into the wight, the magic tearing away chunks of uniform and frozen flesh. Then Gloriana transfixed the undead with another beam of brilliant energy that vaporized a gaping hole completely through the torso. The wight staggered and gave a crescendo shriek that sounded like iron snapping under intense cold. The companions could see the stone steps behind the undead through the smoking gap in its chest.13

But it was Lem’s final arrow that felled the monster. By way of celebration the gardener turned, faced the stone giant at the invisible wall, and fired a provocative missile that rebounded harmlessly off of mid-air, but elicited an anticipatory flinch nonetheless. The gardener laughed and danced a few steps of a traditional halfling reel.

••••

Gloriana’s golden fire faded and she resumed her normal form. A voice bellowed from the eastern cavern.

Rahab frowned. “One of the stone giants just called for the aid of hags. Get ready!” He began moving back toward the intersection where the ash piles were. Unseen, the invisible alchemist boldly moved ahead and turned to scout deeper into the cave system to the west. Abby stowed her bow and Lem melted into the shadows.

••••

Kara found herself in an irregular chamber after a turn in the tunnel. A reeking odor of scattered carrion filled the cave. Dead animals hung from crudely spun twine or draped across raggedly lashed wooden racks. Filth clung along some of the walls, and a nook to the north housed a sputtering fire beneath a great, bubbling cauldron. Three figures dressed in rags turned as one. One stood eight feet tall, gaunt body encased in wart-covered skin the blue-black shade of iron. Long, clutching fingers tipped with rust-red claws curled and uncurled expectantly. The other two were shorter and thinner, with skin a sickly green. Equally hideous, all three faces contorted in perverse glee.

Outside the cave Rahab could not yet see what Kara witnessed, but he suddenly heard a burst of horrid cackling that bound down the stone tunnel with a menace to kill peaceful slumber for days to come. Three voices lifted into the air with all the softness of a mace shattering glass. Alone in knowledge of the Giant language, this is what the wizard heard:

“Grethalga-love, see you there?”

“Briselda-love, I do, beware!”

“Larastine-love, an elven hare!”

“Briselda-love, young and fair!”

“Grethalga-love, mete so sweet?”

“Briselda-love, a sweetmeat treat!”

“Larastine-love, bones to beat!”

“Briselda-love, a heart to eat!”

A second lightning storm of cackles raised the hair on Rahab’s arms. “Kara!” he warned, “they can see you!”

••••

The alchemist backpedaled in alarm, chucking an explosive grenado at the nearest hag. The projectile set the crone on fire, churning an even more vile stench. The hags loped forward into view.

Gloriana brought up the rear, summoning a spirit blade as she went. Abby gritted her teeth, swung around the turn in the tunnel, and brought her sword down on the hag that Kara had set alight. She realized all three crones moved in near-perfect synchrony, arms swaying and lifting, torsos bobbing. The warrior knew enough to recognize the casting of some spell.

That’s probably not good.

Lem tumbled into action, past the first hag’s legs, and coming upright with his blades. Briselda began to bleed black blood. At that moment, the crackle-glass chant tearing from ragged throats came to conclusion, but neither gardener nor warrior understood what had happened.

In the intersection, however, the invisible Kara was suddenly trapped in a similarly invisible cube, a ten-foot cell made of implacable magical force as strong and resilient as the wall that Rahab had conjured at the northern junction against the giants.14 Panic gripped the alchemist.

••••

Just before the hag’s spell completed, Rahab finished his own. Power surged in his eyes and his sight augmented. He could see Kara, as clear and plain as if she had no illusion upon her at all.15 As the fight with the crones had gotten underway, the wizard had recognized that the coven had joined in a communal casting. A moment later he realized exactly what had transpired.

He also realized he could do something about it.16

••••

No one expected the hags to bargain, and so everyone paused, momentarily off-guard, when the tall crone shrieked in Common, “Do not hurt I beseech! Our help to you within reach!” The green hags cackled and nodded, and no one felt in the least bit confident about the turn things had taken.

Abby could not believe what she had just heard. “How?”

“Grant escape to we three crones! We aid your fight against Breakbones!”

Rahab called out: “Abby!”

The warrior glanced over her shoulder.

“They’ve trapped Kara with a spell.”

Abby faced the hag once more and suppressed a shudder of revulsion. “Release our friend.”

Briselda gurgled: “Call thee back the setting sun! Then be the jailing spell undone!”

Abby looked at Rahab again. The wizard shook his head once. The warrior turned back to the hag.

“Wrong answer.”17

••••

Gloriana sent the spirit scimitar against Briselda in the next moment and the blade cut the hag down.

“Lem,” the oracle said, “you’re about to get really quiet. Take the fight to the spellcasters.” Then, just before she cast her spell of silence on the gardener, she added, “Not Rahab.”

Abby stepped past the fallen hag and advanced on one of the green crones, striking a fierce cut with her sword. Hideous cackling echoed off the walls. The warrior was beginning to realize that such was the hags’ response to bane or boon alike.

Lem’s acrobatic movement settled him into excellent position opposite Abby. He put his knives to work. Larastine’s blood was green. The remaining two hags clustered on the gardener and their claws descended. It was no less disconcerting to witness the crones chortling in complete silence. Lem’s blood was still red.18

Rahab turned back to where he alone could see Kara trapped in the middle of the intersection by—apparently—nothing. Then he stepped between dimensions and appeared within the confines of the magical trap right next to the alchemist. “Shereden lyliarev hin shuthron.” 19 Kara took the proffered hand, and an instant later she and the conjurer stood beyond the limits of the hag’s sorcerous cage.

“Olni.”

“Hevethlu.” 20

Kara fired an arrow into Larastine. Rahab struck Grethalga with a small spell of acid.

••••

Gloriana began taking Lem’s wounds. Abby slammed into Larastine with Avenger, immobilizing the hag against the wall where the warrior could easily drag her sword in a horizontal cut that severed the crone’s head from body. Lem spun, leapt, landed, and cut Grethalga across the lower spine. The last hag died, cackling, in silence.21

••••

Gloriana waved her hands in signal to Lem to return to the north tunnel junction in preparation. When the gardener stealthily crept out of range, taking the spell of silence with him, the others regrouped. The oracle continued to gradually soak up Lem’s wounds through the power of her link.

“Do we just go when the wall comes down?” the oracle asked Rahab.

The wizard nodded. “Start by targeting the last ogre. Assuming it has not been magically healed, it should not last long.” He recalled his spell of the magic missile using one of his enchanted pearls. A moment later Kara appeared as the extract of advanced invisibility wore off. The companions started up the tunnel for the junction.

••••

Beyond the magic wall stood the Kreeg, weapon ready. One of the stone giants had climbed back on the northern ledge and taken up a position overlooking the length of the stepped ramp. The second stone giant now stood to the north of the throne at the eastern end of the chamber.

Rahab stepped back against a curve in the tunnel, just beyond the range of the silencing spell Gloriana had placed on Lem. For the benefit of the others he held up his hand and counted down the last five seconds of the magic wall’s duration on his fingers, then pointed and blasted a spiked egg of purple energy into the Kreeg. The ogre fell dead.

The others were about to spring into action when a ball of fire erupted in the junction around alchemist, warrior, and gardener. Protected by one of Gloriana’s spells, Kara and Lem came away unscathed. Abby was only slightly burned, and already everyone was moving into the long eastern chamber. Lem followed on the warrior’s heels as they scrambled up the first of the four-foot steps.

The giant at the back of the chamber barked an order at his fellow, who bent and picked up two rocks the size of harvest pumpkins from a pile at his feet. He hurled one quickly at Gloriana, and had it struck the oracle fully the rock would have carried her away as bloody paste. She lurched in pain.

Rahab had heard the giant’s command to attack the spellcasters first, so he conjured a pit directly under the pile of stones. The stone giant avoided falling in, but could only watch helplessly as his collection of ammunition sunk thirty-feet into the ground, out of reach.22

At the rear of the chamber the other stone giant lifted into the air under the influence of a spell of flight. Then it invoked magic of fear upon Abby and Lem, but the duo resisted the effect. Kara and Rahab exchanged a confused glance. A stone giant . . . wizard?

The alchemist consumed her last extract of flight and took to the air. Sensing the advantage, Gloriana employed a chant of dispelling, and the arcane giant crashed to the ground, cursing. The spirit blade attending the oracle now dispatched across the distance and began to attack.

By now Abby had pushed her way forward, closing on the stone giant wizard. As he neared, she could more fully appreciate the creature’s size. Ogres had been hefty brutes, and the size of the trolls was appreciable, though mediated by stooped stance. This, however, was a true giant and at her full height the warrior barely reached the creature’s waist. She realized that the creature’s skin was not actually stone, but flesh, though at a distance it shared coloration so indistinguishable from common granites that the eye was easily fooled. Naked save for a skirt and a necklace of unknown significance, the giant appeared hairless and heavily muscled, while his angular skull reinforced the impression of a stone carving. An expression of stern resolve darkened by sinister intent lent him a grim aura. Abby hammered Avenger into the creature’s leg, and though it was obviously flesh and bone, it felt like striking a mountain slab.

The next few moments in the battle were a hectic back-and-forth, giants and party struggling for superior position, exchanging attacks. Lem was a flurry of deft movement, but even the gardener had difficulty with the impressive reach available to opponents that stood twice Abby’s not insignificant height. Rahab spoke complex words and hasting magic descended upon all in the party, save Kara who was too far out of range. Time dilated. Electricity bursts from the alchemist’s galvanic grenadoes sent dazzling strobes rebounding around the chamber. Abby and Lem’s cooperative strategy drew blood, but the giants gave as good as they got, and in the space of seconds Gloriana was absorbing pain from multiple sources. The arcane stone giant channeled a burst of power that transfixed Lem and Rahab and set both coughing blood.

“Necromancer!” The wizard spat a crimson gob on the cavern floor, gritted his teeth in smoldering anger, and cast a new spell. The familiar bloom of energy expanded around the arcane stone giant, but instead of fire, took the form of a roiling sphere of hissing acid forty feet in diameter.23

The necromancer sent Rahab a spell in return, and the conjurer was nearly struck blind, but managed at the last moment to push back against the spell and resist its effect. The stone giant’s angry expression gave way to distress as his fellow suddenly collapsed, bleeding out, granite-gray body a patchwork of knife and sword wounds. Desperate retreat ensued.

Abby moved in pursuit, but even under the magical haste, Lem would have to scale each giant-sized step up the ramp in order to match distance. Gloriana quickly expanded healing warmth through herself and her friends, then cast another spell on the gardener. Lem was plucked up in the air with a surprised shout, and suddenly hurled the length of the chamber as though flung from a mangonel. He slammed into the arcane stone giant to the surprise of both, then tumbled to the ground and, cat-like, landed expertly on his feet. The gardener looked a bit dazed.24

Abby ran up and angled around the other side of the arcane stone giant. Sword, shield, and knives drew much blood. The giant struggled to cast another spell, achieving momentary reprieve when the magical fear finally penetrated Lem’s defenses and sent the gardener fleeing in a sorcerous panic. The same effect failed against the warrior, however.

The spell was the last thing the necromancer did.

A small spheroid tumbled through the chamber air and burst upon the giant. Lightning blazed.25


1 I think this was my first roll of the campaign in the 40s. Knowledge: Local. Something very satisfying about the number coming up that high.

2 Why doesn’t Life Link transfer Rahab’s injury via Escher to Gloriana? In his panic at Myriana’s presence, the rat tries to burrow away, tearing at Rahab who does not resist because he’s semi-stunned himself by what’s happening in the clearing. Escher doesn’t do enough damage to activate the Life Link (less than the minimum 5 points), and then Myriana is gone, temporarily placated by Gloriana. Escher stops panicking. It hurts, but was never serious enough to kick Gloriana’s power into action, and warrants no more than a cure light wounds to heal.

3 During the brief jaunt back to Magnimar, Glo bought a scroll of raise dead.

4 Abby failed the Fortitude save against the spider venom and took 2 points of strength damage, but she also scored a critical hit with her sword for 30 points of damage.

5 Flame strike is a new addition to Glo’s arsenal, hitting for 34 points of damage, and the spider failed its Reflex save. Glo really does not like spiders.

6 This is the Trans-Dimensional Point Insertion Protocol (TDPIP). Using either the dimension door spell or Dimensional Steps, Rahab transports Abby and Lem into position from hiding, instantaneously. Abby and Lem each took a 5’ step, establishing flank. Abby hit multiple times in a full attack, including a critical hit, for a total of 81 points of damage. Lem hit multiple times in a full attack, including a critical hit, for a total of 38 points of damage including sneak attack, plus a 4-point bleed. Because Lem scored a critical hit while flanking that activated a paired feat shared between Abby and the gardener—Outflank—allowing Abby an AoO which hit for another 18 points of damage. In the very first moment of initiative round 1 Rahab, Abby, and Lem instantaneously crossed a hundred-foot distance in a blinding snowstorm on the top of a mountain and reduced the first Kreeg ogre guard to -39 hit points. The Trans-Dimension Point Insertion Protocol is real, baby.

7 Round 2 went like this: Rahab hit the ogre with a ray of enfeeblement from a wand, Abby hit for another 72 points of damage, including critical. Lem set the flank and hit for 19 points, including sneak attack, plus a 4-point bleed. Guards successfully neutralized. Nothing inside ever heard a thing.

8 So why not use TDPIP every fight? There are limits on the amount of trans-dimensional travel Rahab can do in a given day, and he likes to keep some reserve for emergencies, so it’s not the kind of thing that can be used every time. It was supremely effective closing the distance to the cave. Now that the party is in the caverns, the enemy has less open ground advantage.

9 Glo using the Reach Spell feat to cast bestow curse. The hill giant made its Will save. Yes, you read that correctly. Poor Glo. I’m not sure that spell has ever actually worked. Not once.

10 Ok, so every so often, one of these comes up really big. Six ogres vaporized in one fireball. Luckily Rahab is the kind of guy unlikely to let something like this go to his head . . . .

11 Extract of greater invisibility.

12 First appearance of wall of force in the campaign. It proved to be huge.

13 Glo’s searing light spells combined for 61 points of damage, Rahab’s magic missile did 17 points, and the arrow volleys accumulated for another 55 points of damage.

14 Kara was trapped in a forcecage. Her Reflex save was terrible, and she spent a Hero point to reroll, and that failed, too.

15 See invisibility.

16 Huge Spellcraft success meant Rahab recognized the casting of forcecage, and now he could see Kara thanks to the spell he had just cast.

17 Forcecage is listed as dismissable. To this day I still do not know if the hags could not or would not dismiss the spell. Rahab called bullshit either way.

18 This is a pretty dangerous thing for spellcasters: a rogue at the center of a silence spell. Lem dished out some very solid damage from flank, and is high enough level now that he, in turn, cannot be flanked. That said, they still hit him for 35 points of damage.

19 Translated from Elven: “Have us out of here momentarily.”

20 Translated from Eleven: “Thank you.” “[You’re] welcome.” This is why Rahab keeps some Dimensional Steps in reserve.

21 Lem killed Grethalga with a critical hit.

22 One of Rahab’s best ever uses of the conjure pit spell.

23 Fireball with the Elemental Spell feat becomes an acidball in Rahab’s hands. 33 points of damage, but the giant saved for half. What is it with all the giant-sized creatures making Reflex saves. Since when?

24 Glo cast telekinesis to create her own, somewhat-less-precise version of the Colossus/Wolverine “Fastball Special.” The problem, of course, is that Lem also took damage, even though the stone giant did, as well. Technically the giant got an AoO on Lem as he hurtled within range, and he hit the gardener with something called an “earthbreaker,” the name alone implicating serious problems if you’re a halfling on an uncontrolled airborne vector. I have elected to leave that part out, because if the giant actually made contact, why wasn’t Lem launched out the cavern through the open ceiling like a home run at Rogers Centre? I think this is one of those moments where the mechanics actually fail to capture what’s happening in the game. But Glo did get the gardener to the enemy.

25 This whole section is somewhat compressed. There was a lot going on. Lem and Abby combined in flank against the necromancer giant for 66 points of damage plus a 4-point bleed. Kara had multiple bomb hits for 54 points total, the last 26 of which killed the giant. Some other stuff happened, including the giant doing some damage beyond its spells, but the end result is the same.

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Book IV, Chapter 18: Nightmare In The Shimmerglens
Love And Other Ghosts, Redux

Turtleback Ferry was still suffering in the wake of the flood, though the waters had receded significantly. A morass of mud had conquered much of the western village. Several buildings had sunk into the ground or collapsed entirely. Wreckage lay strewn about, many portions more had washed away into Claybottom Lake, sunk to the depths or else drifting as flotsam.

Gloriana met with Mayor Maelin Shreed, explained in brief terms the reinstatement of the dam’s working systems, and omitted any mention of powerful devils and ancient magic. Shreed turned over a thousand coins in gold for their assistance, and once more expressed gratitude for their contribution to the safety of the village.

When the party gathered at The Turtle’s Parlor they found it still in use as refuge for the displaced. Their lone room had already been ceded to other villagers. With no space to converse in relative privacy they relocated to the stable where still more townsfolk had taken shelter alongside mules. In a hay-strewn corner stall they joined their own mounts and gathered to plan.

“What next?” Abby asked. She held a handful of straw and Sparky nuzzled close, happily chewing. The other horses clustered, and soon the warrior found herself penned. She giggled. The rest of the party was no longer even visible.

“I am not sure,” Gloriana admitted. “But I suspect Hook Mountain is our next move.”

“Good,” Abby’s voice came from behind a wall of horseflesh. “I’m ready to finish the Kreeg, once and for all.”

A silence ensued during which not one among them doubted the warrior’s ability to effect the full realization of that statement.

“Still,” the oracle shrugged, “it would be nice to get news to Magnimar. Update the lord mayor.” She sighed. “I guess that will have to wait.”

“No, it won’t.” The conjurer smiled.

“Mayor Shreed said he would dispatch someone at earliest opportunity, but it will take a ten-day, at least, to reach the City of Monuments, and another to return with any word.”

The smile grew broader, more impish. Gloriana shook her head in disbelief. He’s enjoying this. Finally, in exasperation: “What?”

“I can take you to Magnimar . . . right now, if you like. We could even go straight to the lord mayor’s office, but I have a feeling that would cause . . .” he paused, selecting his phrasing, “. . . more trouble than it is worth.”

Everyone stared at the wizard. Even Abby’s head poked up over a field of withers.

Kara’s eyes suddenly grew wide. “Vod! . . . Dianarthanadath?!” 1

Rahab began to laugh.

••••

“You’ll be alright?” Gloriana asked.

They had relocated to the northeastern hillock behind the village and the privacy of the tree line there, leaving Rahab back at The Turtle’s Parlor to see about the possibility of a storage shed as temporary bunk for Kara, Abby, and Lem.

“Since when are you worried about us like that?” Abby crossed her arms in mock indignation. Kara and Lem followed suit in jesting solidarity, and all three fixed Gloriana with glances of good-natured accusation.

The oracle blushed. “I’m— I’m not worried.”

“Yes you are,” Kara smiled reassuringly. “You’re worried about you. There’s nothing to fear, Glori. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Rahab said there’s a possibility it might not work right. He said something about—I don’t know . . .” she sighed miserably, “. . . ‘Caris dismemberment imprecation’ something-or-other.” She dropped her hands at her sides, flustered.

“’Coriolis displacement imprecision?’”2 It was the alchemist’s turn to sigh, and she closed her eyes for a moment, head shaking ever so slightly. Dya Rahab. Hilodi “vesh” nyanin iastav? 3 “It’s fine, Glori. It’s like his dimensional step, only the scale is much larger. Rahab knows what he’s doing, about this you can be absolutely certain. You will arrive safely.”

Smiling cheerily, Lem couldn’t resist: “What’s the worst that happens? You arrive in a brothel?”

“Shut up, Lem,” Kara’s voice never lost its bright, sylvan tone, her eyes never left Gloriana’s.

The oracle looked at Abby. The warrior smiled, shrugged. “Come on, Glo. It sounds exciting. Lem and I are the only ones who haven’t tried it yet. I bet it’s fun.”

Gloriana nodded, more in attempt to make herself believe Abby than anything else. “We should be back in a couple of days. We need to see the lord mayor, make some purchases—”

“Yes,” Abby nodded sarcastically, “we were there during planning, remember? We’ll help out with clean-up around here, if we can, take care of any other preparations. We’ll be ready when you return.”

Rahab was making his way up the hill to rejoin them. Gloriana glanced over her shoulder, then turned back and quickly, fiercely embraced Abby, Kara, and Lem.

“Ready?” the wizard said.

Gloriana tried to nod casually. Rahab held out his hand.

••••

“Welcome home.” The wizard’s voice sounded almost bright. Gloriana opened her eyes and there they stood in the ground floor living room of Foxglove Townhouse. The room was cold, and their breath blew quick cloudbursts.

She turned to look at Rahab. He regarded her with surprising gentleness. “Are you well?”

“What? Oh, sorry!” She released the wizard’s hand which she hadn’t so much grasped as crushed.

A small smile appeared at the corners of the conjurer’s mouth. “I shall return in a moment.” He walked into the kitchen. Gloriana remained standing in a partial daze, listening to the sound of clattering and rummaging.

When he reappeared Rahab carried two pewter goblets from the cabinet. He handed one to the oracle. Gloriana lifted the vessel to her lips and tasted crisp, clear, chilled wine from their stores, exactly the kind she favored. It had been weeks since she’d had it, weeks since they set out on the road to the east and their adventures there, and as the crystal-pale vintage washed over her tongue it was like tasting the wine for the first time. She drank a long draught.

Rahab drew on his own goblet, enjoying the rich red he had selected for himself and smacking his lips appreciatively. “All stores in order, I am pleased to report. Aside from the chill, it’s as if we never left.”

The oracle slowly lowered her vessel. “Do you ever get used to that?”

“In time.”

“Why does it feel like that?”

“You find the sensation unpleasant?”

“Not exactly . . . and that’s part of what bothers me. I keep expecting it to be unpleasant, and then it’s . . . not. Instead it’s just . . . strange.”

Rahab elected not to share that—as the caster and focus of the magic—the sensation was even more intense for him.

Gloriana drank again. “So, that’s different from the other thing?”

Understanding dawned and the conjurer nodded. “Ah! Yes. Dimensional stepping is a different operation, and effects a different range. What we just accomplished was teleportation. Much more powerful. Consequently, it demands a greater magic.”

“How much more range?”

“At present I can instantaneously translate as much as a thousand miles.” He sipped again, smiled again. “With a single word.”

“All of us?”

“Not yet. When I have had time to attune more power in mastery of my magical ability then I will be able to teleport the whole party. For now I am limited to . . . ” he pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes in estimation. “ . . . four, including myself.”

Gloriana drained her wine. She headed for the kitchen to pour a second goblet, suddenly, secretly, selfishly delighted. At the doorway she stopped, looked back.

“Rahab?”

The wizard turned.

“You said Avaxial offered you anything you desire.”

The wizard waited.

“Will you tell me what it is?”

Rahab regarded her for a long time. He was suddenly more afraid than he had ever been in his life. Black Magga, the scorpion construct’s aura, the simple presence of the pit fiend: All paled compared to the enormity of this thing he was afraid even to name.

“Perhaps someday,” he said quietly. “There are two things, and I resisted in part because I knew the fiend had no power to grant either.”

••••

In Gloriana’s hands the mayoral seal gained them immediate access to his lordship that very afternoon. The oracle informed Grobaras of what had transpired in the Turtleback Ferry region, within certain limits of discretion. Alternating between rapt attention on the golden beauty and frazzled distraction over his own comfort and popularity, Grobaras was shocked and dismayed to learn of the circumstances surrounding Fort Rannick, though with no small disdain he attributed the presence of a traitor to the uncouth quality he assumed of The Black Arrows in general. Gloriana recommended the promotion of Vale Temros for his unwavering service and tenacity, and the lord mayor waved his hands dismissively and said, “Yes, yes, of course, but would that not require finding their missing commander?”

It was a fair point. The lord mayor furthered his previous offer of additional appreciation and reward should their investigations continue to uncover more information and contain additional threats. Gloriana asked about mustering some Varisian troops to support the Rannick choke point until further notice. Grobaras demurred.

When wizard and oracle departed it was after sunset.

••••

Stripped down to trousers and halter, Abby had spent the better part of the next morning making most of the villagers involved in clean-up feel utterly inadequate to the task. Muddy, sweaty, and positively rippling with muscle, the scarred warrior hauled, lifted, pushed, heaved, winched, loaded, dragged, and chucked debris, equipment, and supplies like some hero from legend. By lunch she had rendered every skeptic and chauvinist sullenly mute, and had acquired an unofficial group of supporters among many of the women of Turtleback Ferry who were already discussing weight-lifting regimens and battle training.

Kara had brewed flights of minor healing potions and wandered among the people tending to basic first aid. She was greeted with cautious curiosity. To the best of her ability the alchemist pushed aside the grossly unsubtle glances and whispers that trailed her.

Lem operated in a largely supervisory role, especially with regard to the village humans.

During a lunchbreak a small group of children raced through the mud, skidding to a halt in front of the warrior. “Miss Abby! Miss Abby!” In the manner of all excited youth they made the two words one.

The warrior dragged a great, calloused hand over the stubbly baldness of her sweating head and looked at them. They stared back, wide-eyed. She was even bigger up close.

“Yes?”

The leader was a girl of ten years. “We found a leprechaun and he says something is wrong and can you help us?” The sentence was almost one word, as well.

Abby spit a cherry pit onto the ground and squinted at the gaggle, looking for signs of mischief. Naturally. Now I really need Glo. She sighed, and heaved herself on her feet. None of the children moved.

“I’ll follow you?” the warrior suggested. The girl smiled, turned, and led three other pairs of legs in a churning blur toward the northwestern end of town. Before setting off Abby looked around for Kara or Lem, but, seeing neither, loped along in the children’s wake, her great strides sucking mud. Everyone she met moved readily out of her way.

The children led the warrior over the western bridge to the edge of the Kreegwood on the promontory of land at the northern bank of Claybottom Lake. The girl lifted an arm and pointed solemnly to a nearby tree.

The humanoid creature propped against the bole looked exhausted, waifish, and stood no more than two feet in height. Long, pointed ears stood out on either side of big, expressive eyes red-rimmed from crying. From its back sprouted two long, elegant, gossamer wings the envy of every butterfly that had ever lived. The creature’s overall color scheme was shades of blue, though it wore a tunic of forest green, seemingly shaped from plucked leaves that had lost none of their verdant pliability and sheen. Abby did not know much, but she guessed it was probably male, definitely fey, and anymore than that would have to wait for Kara, Lem, or Rahab to say.

The diminutive creature saw the burly woman approach, and diaphanous wings slowly fluttered. Abby stopped and spread her hands to show she was unarmed, a largely useless gesture, as her fists alone could punch through the side of a barn.

The fey had a voice that reminded her of insects among reeds at sunset. “Help Yap, yes? Help Yap?”

“Yes?” tried the warrior.

“Wonderdone! My mistress is ill! Very ill. Death would have been a kindness!” Fresh tears appeared, ran down the tiny face, dropped to the ground. “Help, please! The land sickens with her heart and cannot be cleansed until her misery abates! She is beyond my help. You are friends with her human lover, yes? He would not want this! I can lead you. The trees, the water, the frogs, the flowers, the nixies, the land! All sick. Please help!”

Abby’s head swam. “I will help. I have friends. Let me go get one of them and we will talk, yes?”

The wings quickened and slowed, quickened and slowed. “Yes!”

“Wait here,” Abby gestured, then began to back away, shooing the curious children as she went.

“Get back to your families, and keep away from the . . . leprechaun,” she cautioned. She felt sure that was the wrong word, but it did not matter. The children raced away into the muddy streets, arms waving, hair flying. Abby felt momentarily weary watching them, then shook her head and set off in search of Kara.

••••

The alchemist looked slightly alarmed. “It’s a what?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Vrivenekliar?” 4 The warrior gave a helpless shrug.

“A leprechaun?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I need you. You’ll know what it is.”

Kara’s eyes narrowed. “Alright. Show me.”

“Should we get Lem?”

Kara shook her head matter-of-factly.

“But he knows a lot about nature things, too, right?”

“I would happily consult Lem about perennial selections for an herb garden and the best cover to use when setting up a bloody ambush in a grove. Fey are notoriously fickle and troublesome, Abby. I’m not entirely confident Lem is the best choice to open negotiations with a fey in distress. By The Brightness, I wish Glori was here for this.”

“That’s what I said.”

They started for the western bridge.

••••

Kara spotted the fey as they approached. Still out of earshot she stopped and looked at Abby. The warrior drew up and returned the glance expectantly. “Well?”

Hushed: “It’s a pixie. Tyurun? Understand?”

Abby whispered in reply. “Right. Is that bad? What do we do?”

The alchemist exhaled long and slow. “Dithda tyurunum danyarid. Vemu zelon ewithbeli.” 5

Abby frowned. “I don’t think so. Vonirio vasmar tyurunum athequendion.” 6

Kara relented, and warrior and alchemist approached the tree. From it’s vantage on a low branch came the pixie’s humming voice once more. “Help Yap?”

Abby looked at Kara again. “What’s ‘Yap?’”

“Yap is his name.”

Yap lifted off the branch and turned an aerial somersault, brilliant blue butterfly wings fluttering furiously. “Yap! Yes! Help my mistress! Please! Friends! Child of the trees!” The pixie beckoned to Kara.

The alchemist advanced a few cautious steps. “Your mistress needs help?”

“Yes! She is sick!”

“Where is she?”

“Whitewillow! They did terrible things to her!”

“Who is ‘they?’”

“The red woman and her bone-chewers!”

“When?”

“Days past! Whitewillow no longer grows and flowers and returns to the earth. It is ill, as my mistress is ill! Time fails!”

Kara held up her hands in a placatory gesture. “We have a friend who is a healer. Her magic is powerful.”

“Will she help?”

“Yes, I think we can convince her.”

“Come quickly!”

“Our friend returns tomorrow. Then we will come. There will be five of us. Her,” the alchemist pointed at Abby. “Myself. The healer. A halfling. A wizard.”

“Yap waits!”

“Yes. We will meet you here and go with you to Whitewillow.”

“Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!” The words strung together so quickly it was hard to hear them as anything but a buzz.

“My friend here said you mentioned your mistress’ lover?”

“Lamatar! The bone-chewers took Lamatar away! My mistress lies heartbroken. The wound on the land is as great as the one in her heart!”

“Who is your mistress?”

“Myriana! Return quickly!” Yap spun in the air and darted away into the cover of the trees.

Kara recognized all of those names.

••••

Berthandy and Yad Kesker labored in the ruin of the ground floor of Bottom’s Up. No longer flooded, the waterline showed dark on the tavern wall less than an inch below the ceiling, and a fine layer of mud covered everything. Some of the furniture was salvageable, but most of it would have to be replaced having swollen, split, or simply disappeared out the windows on its way to Ilsurian eighty miles downriver. The floorboards had warped and torn, or simply shredded into wet splinters under any weight. Mugs, cups, plates, utensils, Berthandy’s taste in art: all wrecked. Every last cask of ale was ruined. The entire inn smelled of stagnant dampness. Yad collected piles of detritus to discard while Berthandy pushed morosely at the moist earth with a broom. Both were grime-streaked and, by now, far too exhausted even to weep anymore. A collection of villagers long loyal to Bottom’s Up had gathered to help.

When Gloriana and Rahab instantaneously appeared out of thin air in the middle of the common room the villagers started and screamed, bolting outside in a panicked, tumbling rush.

••••

“That’s a terrible way to arrive.” Gloriana slogged dutifully through the mud in search of the others. “Why couldn’t we have gone to the northeastern hill instead of giving everyone a fright?”

“I told you: I don’t know the location as well. It makes the most sense to target the areas I know best. It’s not my fault these provincials are unused to magic such as mine. Besides,” Rahab was nonchalant, “the kegs should help.” They had bought two casks of ale from a tavern in Magnimar as small gesture to Turtleback Ferry. They left the barrels sitting atop the mud in the common room at Bottom’s Up.

“See?” the wizard indicated up the street. “The alarm has brought our companions.” Abby had appeared at a run from behind a building further east, Avenger and sword at the ready. When she saw the oracle and wizard she staggered to a stop, shoulders slumping. The warrior waited.

Gloriana hugged her sweaty friend with delight, and then stepped back, silk scarves clinging unceremoniously to Abby’s powerful frame. “Sorry,” the oracle murmured, dragging bright cloth back to herself.

Kara and Lem jogged up together. “Told you,” the gardener was saying smugly. “There wasn’t that much yelling when Black Magga attacked.” Gloriana moved to embrace them as they arrived, as well. Lem received the gesture coolly.

“Welcome back,” Kara said. “How did it go in Magnimar?”

“Less well than I would have liked.” Gloriana quickly recounted some of the meeting with Lord Mayor Grobaras. “Regardless, it looks like Hook Mountain is our next place to investigate.”

Abby, Kara, and Lem were silent. The warrior shook her head. “Actually, Whitewillow is next.”

Gloriana’s eyebrow arched in surprise.

••••

Bitter Hollow was a village approximately the size of Turtleback Ferry situated at the southeastern bank of Lake Coal where the Wicker Walk crossed the waterway and linked to the road south of the Kreegwood. On their way there, Yap fluttered and buzzed about the air in conversation with Gloriana, filling in some details after Abby and Kara had explained what transpired while the oracle and wizard had been in Magnimar. As the lights of Bitter Hollow came into view that evening, Yap cautiously ducked away into the nearby woods at Gloriana’s recommendation. The companions took rooms at the small inn and met over drinks in the common room. It was still raining.

“Myriana and Lamatar,” the oracle sighed over her mug, secretly disappointed it did not contain chilled white wine. “Why do I have the feeling we’re not going to find the captain of The Black Arrows ready to return to duty after all?”

Abby took up the thread. “The bone-chewers . . . that’s ogres, right?”

“Seems likely,” nodded Kara.

“And the red lady?”

“Lucrecia.” Rahab sounded confident.

“So that had to have happened before we got to Rannick.”

“Of course,” the wizard nodded.

“Lamatar went to Whitewillow, and sometime between our rescue of The Black Arrows at the Graul farm, Lucrecia and the ogres took him away.”

“And did something terrible to Myriana,” offered Gloriana glumly.

Lem rolled a copper coin back and forth on the knuckles of his left hand, contemplative. “What are we walking into? Yap’s a pixie, after all. Trustworthiness and honesty are not exactly high on the list of fey virtues. And remember: Myriana’s a nymph.”

No one had an answer. Gloriana slept poorly that night, awakened periodically by ghosts dragging at her hair or whispering frightful things in her ears.

••••

The Shimmerglens proved difficult terrain for all except Yap. Swampy ground required picking their way carefully through boggy regions, across lumps of grass, under spidery trees, around standing pools of indeterminate depth. They had to dismount almost immediately, leading their horses by the reins. Whitewillow was some twelve or so miles southeast of Bitter Hollow and inland from the western bank of Claybottom Lake another three miles. As the day wore on an ominous sense of gloom crept around them like mists in the mire. The rain, though light, never ceased.

“There,” Rahab said. The others looked in the direction to which the wizard nodded. “The tree for which the area is named. We now stand upon the edge of Whitewillow.”

Yap turned a nervous loop nearby. “Yes, yes, yes!”

The great, spindly tree sprouted from among a cluster of brambles. The soft bark was pale, and the broad, drooping canopy had lines of sparkling leaves that shone like ivory under moonlight.

“See?” Yap whispered gravely.

As they passed the willow they saw the other side showed some kind of damage, boughs twisted and stained with some kind of blotchy darkness, narrow leaves twisted, ragged, and fallen across the ground. A sudden shift in the tree’s shadow drifted unnaturally across the marshy ground, and they heard a sound, far away, like a distant moan, echoing the pixie’s word: “See?” It was like a lament, or warning.

To the west the sun disappeared behind the tree line.

••••

The deeper they went into Whitewillow, the more they saw, and the less they could avow with certainty. Clutching claws resolved into tree branches, then back again when passed. Abby’s lightstone and Rahab’s glow skull no longer shone torch-bright, but only glimmering wan and ghostly now. No sound of woodland creatures penetrated the gloom which seemed to have a kind of substance, sticky and thick. More and more the vegetation appeared not just damaged, but altered and sinister. Lem had turned Cinnamon’s reins over to Abby as he carefully selected their path through the boggy reaches, and all of them fought to keep their mounts calm.

They came to a pool that harbored neither insect nor algae nor amphibian. Gloriana detected for the presence of poison and Rahab detected for magic. Though no toxin registered the wizard reported an eldritch power.

“Where?” Abby asked. It felt wrong to raise her voice above a whisper.

“Everywhere.” The wizard frowned. “It’s . . . oily.”

Kara’s eyes were wide. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” The conjurer shrugged helplessly.

“You see,” hissed Yap “what Whitewillow has become? This is because of what has happened to my mistress!” They carefully navigated around the water.

Farther on they came to a broader clearing, but could not see the ground for a thick mist that covered the area and clung around their knees and Lem’s waist. A shadow loomed, just at the edge of their pale light sources.

“Ghosts of the road,” breathed Gloriana.

Derelict, leaning, and miles inland, it was a medium-sized cargo ship, the kind that ran up the waterways from Magnimar to the Varisian interior. Yap had never seen it before.

••••

A hushed conference:

“I detect undeath,” admitted the oracle, “but it’s everywhere, and that’s not how the magic works.”

Rahab looked nervous, and that made everyone else nervous. “All places aligned with fey have some underlying magic, for fey themselves have a partially magical essence. But the sensation here is wrong. It should not feel like this.”

“What should it feel like?” Abby asked. For a moment the warrior—ever capable—seemed like a twelve-year-old at a campfire listening to ghost stories.

“Strange, unsettling, but . . . ” the wizard shook his head, “. . . poetic? Melancholy? Not—” An expression of exasperation crossed his face.

“Murdered?” Kara whispered. Rahab nodded.

They moved on, skirting the clearing, avoiding the ship, their legs parting mist only to have it close again immediately in their wake.

••••

Still deeper into Whitewillow they encountered a parade. It emerged from the trees, and Abby saw it first: A line of translucent forms from the south, moving slowly. The party managed to maintain their wits, and backed slowly away as the procession advanced, but Abby stood riveted. Gloriana softly cast a spell of protection on the warrior, but they could only stand and watch and hold their breath.

The shapes resolved out of mist: satyrs, griggs, nixies, sprites, none afoot; all drifted through the air scant inches above the ground, blank eyes fixed forward, expressions of terror frozen on strange fey faces, faces that should have been beautiful, or mischievous, or cavorting. They advanced on Abby, parted around her as water bypassing a stone, and then disappeared into the woods from whence the companions had come.

As one they resumed breathing. Yap had clasped onto Kara’s back, eyes wide with fright, wings aflutter. As they rejoined Abby, Gloriana could sense her haunts were more unsettled than ever.

“The wound here is . . . ” the oracle began, and there were tears in her words, “. . . so cruel. We must do something about this. We must.”

A few moments later they entered the heart of Whitewillow.

••••

It was another clearing, at the center of which stood a pool ringed by willows that had twisted and withered. A haunted wind blew through the place, disturbing the companions hair and clothing, but affecting the vegetation and water not at all. Beneath the surface of the pool something glowed, distorted, vaguely spherical, lending eerie radiance that loomed from beneath the wasted willows.

Yap fluttered back. “My lady is here. I dare not go closer.”

Kara drank extracts of flight and invisibility. Gloriana invoked a spell allowing her to walk through the air, not in flight, but rather traversing groundless space as though on solid surface. Then she cloaked herself in the same protective magic she had placed on Abby minutes before. Lem moved along the perimeter of the clearing, knives drawn, stealthy. Rahab conjured magic of flight and rose five feet above the boggy terrain.

The glow erupted from the pool, bathing the clearing in harsh light. A voice awash in pain and rage fell on them, and all became nightmare.

••••

Lem had the briefest moment to think, Gods! She’s more beautiful than—, and then he was struck blind. In that same moment, Kara lost her sight, as well.7

Abby retained vision, but was transfixed by what she saw, and her sword dropped uselessly to the ground. Only Gloriana and Rahab were able to maintain discernment.

A haggard torso that faded to smoke was flanked by two ghostly arms torn free at the shoulder and hanging as though still trying to rejoin the trunk. A fray of wild hair once shining ebony now danced ghost-white like threads of spider silk in water. Her eyes were hollow wells of horror, and her mouth gaped in a permanent scream. For all her terror, there was still something heartrendingly beautiful at the very essence of the figure, something that should have been the joy of all woodland realms: birdsong in spring, fresh waterfalls among wildflowers, love in sunlight. Now it lay suspended in a state of restless death, agony without release.

Myriana.

••••

Oracle and wizard came to the same realization: She is a ghost, and Gloriana knew this was no haunt like her own, but a malevolence with the will to transform the very land, a force of torment to make even the earth despair. Whatever horror happened in that place had shaped the nymph’s voice into thunder that rattled the companions’ skulls fit to split stones.

“You failed him! You failed all of us! You let them take him to their lair!”

Eyes rolling wild, the horses pulled free and bolted into the treeline. Within Rahab’s robe Escher burrowed, desperate to escape the soundwave of pure anguish, but the wizard hardly noticed, even when the rat’s tiny claws pushed past cloth and began to tear into flesh. The sight of Myriana, aglow and raging in the dark crowded all the conjurer’s thoughts. The vision before him was astonishing, awesome in beauty, awful in horror. His mouth went dry and he shook in mid-air, his flight suspended. Somewhere, off in the distance, he heard Gloriana’s voice calling out.

“Myriana! We are not the ones who failed you! We have come to help!” It was a single note of gold in the symphony of phantom-white tearing Whitewillow apart. Gloriana activated her energy form.

The undead nymph raced across the clearing and descended upon the oracle, howling as she came.

“He’s dead! I can’t bring him back! Why can’t I bring him back?” A great, wracking sob tore through the night, flattening and then splintering the ring of willows. Augmented by the magic inherent to the nymph, the grief that tore through the companions was like no tragedy they had ever known.

Abby fell to her knees, weeping. Lem’s sight returned and he dropped his knives, covering his face, tears a river on his cheeks.8 Kara could suddenly see, and in her soul she heard the last whispered breath of every tree that had ever died. Rahab gasped at the power washing over him, stunned to find that—instead of soaring ecstasy—it was shattering his heart.

Only Gloriana managed to smile through her tears, a gesture of profoundest empathy, of ultimate understanding. Better than all of them, the oracle recognized Myriana’s lament. She knew. She held out her arms, offering embrace, and died a little bit as she whispered:

“Sister.”9

••••

“Let us help you.”

The phantom gale whipped through the companions, but Gloriana found herself in an eye of stillness. With Myriana this close the oracle should have been permanently blind, but the two women regarded one another for a moment as equals, spirit-kin bound to a world of unsettled ghosts.

The nymph’s wail tore the night: “Will you find him and bring him to me? I can bring him back if you return some part of him to me!”

“Lamatar?” Gloriana’s heart raced. She felt immense compassion and intense fear. Here before her was the terrifying fate that the oracle had contemplated on the verge of life in Papa Grazuul’s presence.

Gloriana was not afraid to die. Gloriana was afraid to die and become this.

“YES! Bring Lamatar to me!”

Gloriana was unsure how much longer she could sustain the interaction. The very air was in pain. “Where is he?”

“Hook Mountain!”

“We shall find him!”

The gale transcended, becoming so loud that it was silence. “Return Lamatar to my embrace, or I shall eat the land and churn you to bones!” The ghostly glow surged, threatened to overwhelm, and then faded, finally winking out. Night rushed in, with only the torch-points of lightstone and glow skull to light the way.


1 Translated from Elven: “No [way]! . . . Teleportation?!”

2 The teleport spell has a small percentage chance to land off-target.

3 Translated from Elven: Oh, Rahab. Couldn’t leave it at “safe,” could you?

4 Translated from Elven: “Leprechaun?” Remember that Abby speaks Elven, too. Every conversation between Kara and Rahab she’s ever overheard, she’s understood . . . the words, at least, if not necessarily all the content.

5 Translated from Elven: “Pixies are full of mischief. It might be a trick.”

6 Translated from Elven: “I think its need is genuine.”

7 This was not yet the full-on beauty-induced nymph blindness, but a preliminary effect. It lasted only one round, but it definitely kept everyone at bay.

8 On the round that Kara and Lem got their sight back Myriana sobbed. Abby and Lem failed their Will saves and were stunned for an additional two rounds, inconsolable in grief. Myriana was like nothing we’d ever encountered.

9 Glo’s Diplomacy checks throughout the encounter were outstanding (one of the rolls was a 38, for example), but—for me—what really shines is Glo’s (Dingleberry’s) recognition of that single question: “Why can’t I bring him back?” As an oracle, Glo is haunted. “Why can’t I bring them back?” is a question she lives with every day.

View
Book IV, Chapter 17: Hydro Facility Maintenance
Well, I See Yer Problem Right Here . . . .

Lem just shook his head in amazement. Abby and Gloriana embraced Kara as one. Rahab smirked and gave the slight bow from the neck that few ever felt confident to describe as wholly respectful, wholly mocking. The alchemist seemed slightly embarrassed by all the attention.

While Abby and Lem posted at the entrance against additional intrusion—unexpected, but cautious—Gloriana began to channel more healing to help the warrior recover against the injuries from the construct.

That left Kara and Rahab. The wizard stepped close and his face lit up with a devil’s grin.

“Rahab, inethlim—” Kara began.

“Ah, iryn. Kara Ashrejentleveth, Ekob Yomtar. Prevethlu chu da dingremen. Vakt. Renren vakt oadiryanaman. Korthnemedon.” The wizard rubbed his hands together gleefully and a wicked chuckle escaped his lips.

The alchemist started to protest, and then simply laughed. It was an elven laugh, silver-sweet and ancient. Kara leaned to plant a friendly kiss on Rahab’s cheek in the manner of humans.

“Hukmorahd,” she smiled.

“Predekt,” Rahab replied, delighted, and gave the small bow once more. Kara wondered a moment how much the gesture included an aspect of self-mockery, and how much the gesture was made in self-awareness.1

••••

When the wizard detected for the presence of magic in the room he was startled by the wall.

“Hell’s below,” he quietly marveled. Gloriana noticed and joined the wizard. When she cast her own spell her eyes widened as the aura washed over her. Her perception teetered a moment, threatening to overload.

“What in the world is that?”

“I do not know. Transmutation, as I’m sure you have noticed, but it’s power exceeds anything I’ve encountered, and I daresay anything you’ve encountered likewise. Fascinating.”

Carved into the stone was an intricate scale model of Skull’s Crossing dam, complete with actual human skulls set into the floodwall corresponding to the large stone sculptures visible from the headwater basin. Each skull had points of wear, smooth, slick, and shiny, as though they had been handled over and over again for long forgotten years.

Kara observed her friends and stepped near. “What is it?”

Rahab stared in silence, a keen light not without unsettling quality in his eyes. Finally Gloriana turned to the wizard and gently linked her right arm with his left. He started and looked at her, and she gave an encouraging smile, nodding in Kara’s direction.

“Yes, well, it— Uh, it obviously represents Skull’s Crossing. Present in the model is transmutation magic of significant power, far exceeding any gathered among us, even cumulatively.”

The alchemist nodded and peered intently at the model. “Does the waveform isolate to the model itself, or ground to the environment?”

Finding his stride: “Coterminous.” He scratched absently at his goatee, eyes narrowing in thought. Escher’s whiskered face peeked out of the wizard’s robe and gave a tiny squeak before retreating once more. Gloriana quietly released the conjurer’s arm and listened close.

“The skulls,” Kara inquired, “match the carvings on the floodwall, I gather?”

Rahab nodded. “Indeed. Flood controls! See? The model is the mechanism by which the dam operates!”

“The magic links superstructure and panel?”

“Yes! Manual and automatic control. The very dam runs from this room.” Rahab quickly glanced at the fallen construct still smoking from the alchemist’s bombs, then back to the model. “Fascinating!”

“Do you think the construct was connected to the operation of the superstructure?”

“Unclear. Perhaps nothing more than guardian. Given the age of Skull’s Crossing, it’s entirely possible the construct was a much later addition by some arcanist entirely unrelated to this place. If it is even a thousand years old I estimate it young compared to the dam. If we could take control of the panel . . . .”

“It does not work?” Kara’s eyebrow rose.

Gloriana continued to listen, but was giggling very quietly to herself. Though communicating in the Common tongue, by now alchemist and wizard were speaking a completely foreign language, and she was bemusedly lost.

“The magic is present,” replied Rahab, “but the geometry of the spell has degraded with time. The matrix connecting the spell’s architecture to the dam itself has folded.”

Kara was nodding. “It lacks a resource of sustainability.”

“Oh, yes. Something this powerful would need to act instantaneously or else require some kind of maintained power. An energy source: Perhaps a lifeform.” He lapsed into silent thought.

“Could it be restored?”

“I don’t see why not. The dam’s failure endangering the valleys below the Storval Deep owes to the course of the magic. It has waned beyond the failsafe in recent days. Remarkable.”

“What happens when the entire spell architecture collapses?”

“The lower Skull River reaches will drown. The Storval Deep will reshape the geography in this region for a hundred miles or more.”

Now Gloriana interjected. “Turtleback Ferry?”

“Will cease to exist.”

The oracle looked grave. “How do we fix it?”

Another long silence ensued and Kara and Gloriana watched Rahab expectantly. He stared at the model, still holding his magic of detection arrayed against the wall. His eyes glazed over as he read patterns and forces the others could not see. In his mind coursed the mathematical calculations to which his understanding had access, and he marveled at them, then marveled further still at the geometries beyond his power, looming at the perimeter of the sorcery like towering monuments, ancient and terrible and shrouded in shadow.

Gloriana felt a surge of relief when she saw the wizard’s face break into its mischievous devil-grin. Immediately she also felt a surge of worry.

••••

Abby and Lem began to haul skulls from the double doors at the southern end of Grazuul’s chamber. The clattering noise was disturbingly loud and gruesome, and Gloriana cast her spell of magical detection again to take her mind off the sound. The incantation revealed nothing.

When they were clear Abby pushed the doors open. The warrior’s lightstone shone upon a narrow chamber with two curved alcoves, one each at eastern and western ends. An ancient portcullis of rusted iron enclosed each niche. Affixed to the wall beside them was some kind of winch. A circle of runes glowed with faint orange light on the floor of each alcove. To the west the runes were covered in a pile of crimson ash. To the east the alcove held what appeared to be the corpse of a great creature.

Rahab’s eyes grew very wide.

••••

Had it stood the monster would have towered twice Kara’s height. What must have once been incredibly muscled and rippling flesh clung taught and desiccated against an impressive, alien skeletal frame. Great, leathery wings that would have spanned more than twenty feet curled and shriveled. The whole of it was wasted ruin from prehensile tail to vicious claws to the array of horns on its head. Alive, it would have exhibited a vibrant red coloration that now stood muted and subdued, as though coated in decades of dust.

Gloriana was about to ask Rahab what was going on when the thing in the alcove suddenly lurched, a single clawed hand trembling weakly. The reaching gesture suggest plea, but even in the creature’s spent state the movement implied an incredible menace, ancient and powerful. A slow fire grew in the black eyes, deeper red than any in the party might have imagined in nightmare. Though stretched thin to rattling, the voice from beyond the portcullis had resonance that did not just touch the ears but penetrated to the core of being. The sound was terrible, and set the hair on their bodies quivering.

“Gzax’hakt! Gzax’hakt iv tu’ushere’stheethsh . . . .”

Gloriana realized that everyone except Rahab had taken an involuntary step back. The companions looked at the wizard, and it did not take much to see the obvious recognition in his eyes. When she finally found her voice the oracle could make it sound no greater than a shivering whisper.

“What is it?”

Rahab exhaled slowly.

“A devil.”2

••••

They had withdrawn to Grazuul’s chamber and Abby had shut the doors once more. Now they clustered around the wizard in a nervous press.

“A devil?” Gloriana asked.

Lem was furious. “I knew it!”

“It is a pit fiend.” Rahab was too cool. The oracle found it unnerving.

Kara’s eyes widened in alarm. Abby looked between wizard, alchemist, and oracle with concern and frustration.

“What does that mean?” the warrior finally asked.

Rahab tented his fingers. “Pit fiends are among the most supreme of the Infernal hierarchy. Save for the arch-devils themselves, few in the Hells can lay claim to such preeminence.”

Abby was skeptical. “It didn’t look—”

“No,” the wizard shook his head. “It didn’t, did it? I hypothesize it is trapped by the same transmutation magic powering the dam’s system.”

“The source,” Kara exhaled quietly.

“Just so. I surmise it was paired with some other life force in the opposite alcove, likely another devil, and when that burned out the system began to fail.”

“How long—?” Gloriana’s voice broke.

Rahab shrugged. “A decade? A millennium? More? I can ask it—”

“Wait.” A gentle hand on the wizard’s forearm. “What was it saying?”

“Offering a devil’s bargain.”

Abby: “That’s bad, right?”

“A more nefarious legal instrument you will not find in all the cosmos.”

The warrior’s voice sounded very small. “Oh.”

“I don’t believe this!” Lem was quivering.

Gloriana, suddenly: “Stop it! This isn’t helping!”

Lem drew one of his knives. Rahab looked at the gardener. “Whatever else you may think of me and the culture of my origin, Lem, I know you are not so stupid as to disregard my expertise in this area. For a moment try to imagine the ways in which my knowledge can avail us, and ignore the urge to ascribe ulterior motive.”

The gardener kept his knife drawn. “You admire that thing, don’t you?”

“Only the power it contains that I have not yet achieved. I also recognize its limitations, which I desire to transcend. Rest assured, Lem: I have no more inclination to serve the Hells than I do to serve anything other than my own titanic ego.”

“If that’s supposed to make me feel better—”

“How you feel is what advantage you make of the circumstances, and therefore entirely up to you.”

Anger and fear had begun to boil in Gloriana, and the oracle was silently grateful when Kara interjected.

“Hold on,” spoke the alchemist. “You said you could ask it. Does that constitute entering into a bargain?”

“No. Talking is simply that, and nothing more, though the simplicity of that perspective is exactly the kind of weakness the masters of Hell exploit to trap the unwary.”

Abby felt a little dizzy. “So, does that mean we should or should not talk to it?”

“Fear not,” and Rahab’s smile was smug, unsettling. “I am not easily captured by rhetoric.”

“What about arrogance?”Gloriana was irritated, nervous, and genuinely interested.

“Interestingly, that is both advantage and disadvantage.”

The oracle groaned.

The wizard shrugged. “Such is the nature of these situations. There is no interaction with a devil—especially not one as powerful as a pit fiend—that does not involve significant danger. We were at mortal risk even just opening the doors to that chamber, though of course we could not have known. But we are not without strength, and the fiend is greatly diminished by its magical imprisonment. Our position is excellent.”

“What do we do?” Abby asked. Gloriana nodded support. All eyes bored into the wizard, and he seemed to take immense delight that now the class was suddenly very interested to know what was on the final examination.

“We could find out more,” he mused, “though I feel confident we already have the basic information we need. Further conversation with Avaxial—”

Gloriana grabbed the wizard by the robes. “You know its name?”

Lem threw his hands in the air as if to say, See?

Rahab suddenly looked very grave. He reached up slowly and took Gloriana’s hands in his own, carefully prizing his robe free from her grasp. Something in the way he gently-but-firmly pushed her arms away hinted at a seriousness sometimes missed behind sardonicism.

“Sorry,” Gloriana murmured.

A pause. Then: “Avaxial is—or rather was — a general in the service of Dispater, the arch-devil who rules Dis, Hell’s second layer. His command encompassed twenty-nine legions of barbazu and at least three legions of cornugons with a detachment of osyluths. According to lore, Avaxial disappeared more than eight-thousand years ago, though whether on errand for Dispater or for some other reason has never been accurately catalogued. Indeed, there are several treatises speculating about his disappearance alone.”

Abby leaned in. “The thing in there is a general, as well as a high-ranking devil?”

Rahab nodded. “All pit fiends occupy such positions, at the very least. Try to understand,” and he looked around at all the companions. “No matter how drained, how compromised, how constrained, the being in the next room is a thing of terrible power. Released and in full command of its capabilities, Avaxial could destroy the mother of oblivion we fought at Turtleback Ferry without a second thought, and he ranks among the lower echelons of pit fiend ascendancy.”

There was a long silence. Abby summed up the general mood.

“Shit.”

••••

“We’re back to ‘what do we do?’” observed the oracle.

Rahab tented his fingers again. “If my surmise is correct—and I see no reason to think otherwise—the skull-shaped floodgates on the dam wall maintain equilibrium of flow from the Storval Deep to the Skull River. Restoring the energy source to the magical architecture of the transmutation spell governing Skull’s Crossing should allow the automated flow control systems to recover and restore proper hydrodynamics.”

Kara was nodding. Gloriana looked at the alchemist with some alarm. “That all follows, Glori,” the elf said matter-of-factly. Then she turned to the wizard. “What source would you need for full restoration?”

“Of that I am less certain—”

Several sighs sounded.

“—However!” resumed the conjurer, undeterred. “I have an elegantly simple means to find out. If it works, the lower reaches of the Skull River live on in relative peace. If it does not work, then at least we have more information than we did before.”

“Since I already know I’m not going to like it, I’m not going to ask what your plan is,” said Gloriana.

Rahab nodded sagely. “For the best. Kara?”

The alchemist regarded the wizard. “Control model?”

“If you please.”

Kara returned to the room where they had battled the construct.

••••

Abby stood ready with sword and shield, Lem with knives.

Gloriana huddled close to Rahab in hushed conversation. “I have very little healing left.” She regarded the wizard a moment. “How are you so calm?”

The conjurer smiled. “Under no circumstances should anyone other than me engage Avaxial in conversation.”

“Goes without saying.”

“Does it?”

“And anyway, you’re the only one that speaks Infernal.”

“Gloriana, you do realize—” Rahab saw the glimmer of brief mischief in her eye and broke off.

She could not help but grin. “It’s particularly delicious when your titanic ego just walks into—”

Rahab hastened to the double doors. “Everyone ready?”

••••

The syllables that spilled from Avaxial as the companions reentered the room felt like a snowfall of hot steel. Rahab listened carefully and appeared to consider. The others remained nervously silent. The wizard turned to Gloriana and nodded.

The oracle opened her last conduit of healing to the spirit world, extending its reach to the pit fiend.

The devil’s transformation was alarming. Muscle and flesh restored, wings unfurled in leathery fullness wrapped like a cloak, the hollowness that had rested so corpse-like on Avaxial’s form retreated. Far from whole, even this elementary renewal restored the fiend to astonishing degree, and as it stood it’s immense bulk filled the alcove behind the portcullis completely, straining against some invisible barrier.3 Gloriana had to fight to remind herself that Rahab said it was the magic holding the devil prisoner, and not the iron, which looked flimsy enough to rend in a heartbeat.

“Ith’v’hex gzick’chretsch lhuhlu’ul.” 4

The oracle knew the words were for her, and she shuddered. Even their sound felt unclean.

The pit fiend’s eyes regarded the reaction with satisfaction, and flames seemed to dance in the black orbs like fire behind smoked glass. Claws flexed, and teeth the size of daggers split in a grin that combined perverse joy with such cruelty the lamia matriarchs would have averted their eyes, Skinsaw Man would have quaked.

Then Rahab began the words of his spell, and in an instant Avaxial understood.

Two rooms away Kara heard the devil’s howling and felt her heart quiver with sheer, violent terror utterly undiminished by thick walls of ancient stone.

••••

The summoned dire rat appeared for the briefest instant behind the western portcullis within the circle of effect for the massive magic of Skull’s Crossing. Then it vaporized.

Avaxial’s scream of pain washed over Rahab and the room dimmed despite the wizard’s glow skull and Abby’s lightstone. When the illumination reasserted itself the pit fiend was gone. Twin smokes, one in each alcove, drifted lazily to the ceiling in a candle-thin line, and the runes on the floor glowed brilliant orange. The scent of brimstone would have roused the dead.

••••

They were nearly thrown completely off their feet by the sudden rumble that roared up from within the very stone of the dam around them. Thunderous, thrumming vibration coursed through the superstructure. Even Lem’s extraordinary dexterity was challenged. The sensation seemed to come from everywhere at once.

Kara’s voice echoed in a shout over the roar. “Something’s happening!”

“Come!” Rahab waved for retreat.

“What happened?” the oracle demanded.

“Later!” The wizard swayed for the doors behind Abby and Lem. He had started to feel numb from the constant tremble in the stone around them.

Kara met them at the door to the control room. “The lower mandibles on the skulls in the model have opened!”

Rahab shouted above the rumble. “Outside!”

The companions struggled up the stairs.

••••

On the dam walkway they could see what had happened. Each great, stone skull on the floodwall had opened its lower jaw, allowing five distinct, controlled flows of water down into the basin at the Skull River headwater. The section of dam that had crumbled above the easternmost skull—allowing the unregulated surge from the Storval Deep to threaten the region below—was slowly abating its flow as the rest of the hydro works resumed proper operation. The sound of water and the rumble of the dam roared around them, and a fine mist sprayed up from below to mix with the rainfall.

“Is that good?” Abby shouted.

Rahab was smiling. Kara called back. “It looks right!”

“So it’s fixed?”

“So it would seem!”

“And the devil?”

The alchemist glanced at Rahab, and when he made no reply, turned back to Abby. “Consumed by the magic of the mechanism to power the restoration!”

Abby strolled over and clapped a gauntleted hand firmly around Rahab’s shoulders. “Well done, magic man!”

“We should cover those doors again!” Lem was already jogging back toward the structure.

“Right!” The warrior loped after him, followed by Gloriana.

Kara hung back and approached Rahab. She lowered her voice, though she was still shouting above the din. “That’s what happened to the pit fiend, right? It’s gone?”

Hair beginning to soak in the rain, Rahab stared back at Kara and made no reply. Concern dawned on the alchemist’s face. “Rahab?”

“So it would seem!”

“Rahab!”

“I will not lie! This is magic the likes of which I have never seen! I take the cinders in the alcoves as good sign, but I cannot answer for certain that the creature is utterly gone! Powerful outsiders may be harnessed as sources for magic, yet the ascendant peerage of Hell are notoriously hard to extinguish!” The wind whipped droplets of water from his nose, earlobes, eyelashes.

“Did he say something? He said something, didn’t he? Rahab?”

“We should get inside, help the others!” The wizard turned to go, but Kara grabbed him and stared straight in his eyes. Her flaxen hair clung wet against the delicate, precise elven frame of her face.

“Yes!” the wizard relented. “He said something! There is nothing we can do about it now! As honest as I can be—and you know I would not varnish truth—the pit fiend is gone! We can only go forward, Kara!” He pulled away and jogged for the structure interior.

Kara glanced once more over the dam surface, and then followed. She felt no wiser about all that had happened—not just at the dam, but all of it since Sandpoint—and the thought was deeply disquieting.

••••

It took about ten minutes to reassemble the pile of skulls before the now-closed double doors leading into the trap room. Twenty minutes after that they had descended through the ettin cavern to the basin where they mounted their horses and turned south. Already the river level was changing, less insistent, narrower, coursing with old familiarity down into the valley.

By nightfall they were back at Fort Rannick where they clustered around a blazing hearth in one of the rooms, slowly drying out. Vale cooked a tomato soup and served up steaming bowls with slices of hearty black bread the ogres had somehow ignored in the larder. There was no ale.

Over the meal Gloriana updated The Black Arrow about what had happened at the dam. The big man could supply little information in support, save that the center of ogre presence had long been Hook Mountain, further to the northwest in the Iron Peaks. If there was still investigation to be done into the organization of the ogres, he guessed it would take them there.

••••

After the others had retired to their rooms Gloriana remained behind with Rahab in quiet conversation. Combs tucked away in her knapsack, the oracle’s hair had dried in a wild golden mane.

“So, what happened?” Her voice was soft.

The wizard remained quiet a long time, staring into the fire. Gloriana patiently respected the silence. Eventually he spoke.

“To the best of my understanding, the alcoves acted as a point of containment for living things harnessed as power for the ancient device. The western point had burned through the being there, leaving the near-carcass of the pit fiend in the eastern point. By supplying the western point with a summoned life form I believe I recycled the power in the structure, restoring normal operation to the dam.”

“But the rat and the devil were destroyed.”

“Yes.”

“So, how much power is available?”

“I do not know, though I would guess a pit fiend would provide an immense source.”

“But the dam might fail again?”

“In time it almost certainly will.”

“No way to know how much time?”

Rahab shook his head. “The Skull River valley is safe, for now. That may be a decade, or a century, or who knows? I suspect the western point also contained a pit fiend previously, and that powered the dam for a very long time, indeed. With yet another pit fiend consumed I imagine drowning will be the least of the worries in the Skull River valley for quite some time.”

“Why the dire rat?”

“That was a guess. I started with the lowest level of the summoning spells available to me on the chance that the briefest spark of a living being was all that was needed to cycle the process. I was right.” The conjurer did not sound boastful at all, rather distinctly matter-of-fact.

“What did he say? Avaxial?”

Rahab turned to face her. They were seated cross-legged in front of the blaze, and all else around them was shadow. A tiny point of firelight danced in the oracle’s eyes, too small to reveal the intense sapphire blue the wizard knew them to be.

“As we reentered the room he offered me anything I desired, including knowledge of ancient Thassilon.”

Her voice grew very soft now, and she realized she was afraid of what Rahab might say next. “Were you tempted?”

“Of course!” Then the conjurer laughed, an honest mirth, and the sound banished Gloriana’s worry. In the gloom she smiled in spite of herself.

“The temptation is unavoidable, for temptation is part of the very essence of devils. It exists within them at an elemental level, and radiates from them as heat from flame, as light from sun. The danger of Infernal temptation is less in its presence and more in the person so tempted. It is up to the individual to reject temptation. That is why what some refer to as ‘falling’ is considered so terrible. To take up a devil’s offer is not an act of succumbing.”

As their hushed dialogue had unfolded neither was aware in that moment just how close they had leaned to one another. Rahab’s voice was near to a whisper.

“It is an act of embracing.”

The oracle remembered to breathe. “What did he say to me when I healed him?”

The wizard turned back to look at the fire again. “’Advantageous decision.’ He addressed you in a specific way.”

“How?”

“I would translate it as ‘brightmorsel.’”

Gloriana turned these things over in her mind and likewise faced the fire. “He was trying to tempt me, too.” It was not a question.

“Indubitably.”

“Why did he not address me in Common?”

“In the hopes it will be counted for me I will now admit that Avaxial’s intellect almost certainly surpassed mine. He surely guessed that—in dealing with us, at least—I was the target he most needed to conquer. He must have known I counseled you and the others on how to proceed, how to reduce your own vulnerability, and he must have deduced that Kara and I had deciphered—to some degree—the dam’s operation. He was addressing you, but he was speaking to me.”

“At the end, as the magic took hold, he screamed.”

The shape of Rahab nodded in the firelight.

“What did he say then?”

“He vowed vengeance on me, and upon someone or something called ‘Karzoug.’”

“Do you know what that name means?”

“I regret that I do not.”

Gloriana suddenly realized how tired she was. She got slowly to her feet, then laid a gentle hand on Rahab’s shoulder. “Well, he vowed in vain, at least.”

She was at the doorway to the long hall when she heard the wizard’s reply. “Gloriana, a devil as cunning and powerful as Avaxial is the kind of creature that plans contingencies of vengeance eons before its own demise.”

A slow, mournful ache stirred within the oracle then, one she did not entirely understand. It was only later, when she awoke in the wee hours, that she realized what Rahab had implied when he described Avaxial as addressing her but speaking to him.

Any influence the devil had been trying to seize with her was incidental. The devil had really been tempting Rahab the entire time.5


1 I have elected not to translate this interaction and, instead, leave the conversation between Kara and Rahab to the reader’s imagination.

2 The devil’s opening statement translated from Infernal: “Free me! Free me and I will reward you!”

3 Glo channel healed for 21 points. Not enough to fully restore the fiend, but I figure after however many uncounted years it’s suddenly in a lot better shape visually, if nothing else.

4 Keep reading to find out more about this.

5 Party members advanced to level 10.

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Book IV, Chapter 16: The Scrag And The Arachnid In Bone
Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer

The stairs opened onto a cavernous room, cold and damp, the walls continuously decorated in the predominate motif of the dam. A great pool dominated the floor, allowing only a five-foot perimeter to maneuver. Once ornate, the feature was caked with yellow slime and green fungus, lending the entire room a sickly feel. Light sources diffused erratically off the water surface, scattering amoeboid patterns on the walls and ceiling. The swamp stench in the place was thick, cut with a distinct hint of carrion. At the southernmost part of the room had been heaped a large mound of animal and humanoid skulls, piled higher than Abby or Kara1 and blocking a large set of double doors.

Alone, Lem felt confident he could have scouted the entire area unmolested, but at present there was simply no way to move the others in sufficient stealth, although Rahab’s magical “jump” appeared to be entirely silent. Nevertheless, all but Kara needed some light, and any such source was alert enough. There was something wrong, though, and he paused a moment, halting the remaining party members on the stairs behind him. He realized that they were now below the level of the lake to the north, and the air felt humid, with a surprising warmth. The gardener felt as though the heaviness of the chamber atmosphere masked something, reminding him of the way the most basic traps worked: simple, obscure, dangerous.

After a minute he glanced back and saw the expectant looks of the others, but without something specific to tell them there was nothing else to do. Stealthily he crept forward and moved immediately right as he stepped off the stairs into the room. Abby followed and moved left.

The trap sprung the moment Gloriana entered.

••••

As the thing broke the surface of the water Lem had just enough time to gauge the depth of the pool at somewhere around five times his height.

It was very large and very fast, leaping from the murky depths in an immense shower of water and fungus. It was a kind of pale blue-green color, troll-like in aspect, hunched forward to conceal the full extent of its height which might easily be twice that of an elf. A figure of lithe and terrible strength, it incorporated something distinctly aquatic in its features. Along its back sprouted several arrays of spines, and between its digits splayed webbing. Along the jawline and at other places such as the elbows hung fin-like fans of cartilaginous material showing near-translucence. Some patterning to the rubbery flesh suggested scales neither entirely piscine nor reptilian. The creature boasted no hair, and instead of dark black eye-sockets there glowed a dull sheen of pale yellow from goggling, bulbous spheres. Clutched in the great grip of one hand was a length of slick metal topped with a triple-pronged spear. As it roared the creature’s voice blasted a spray of foul breath and droplets that soaked the pool’s edge and Gloriana with it.

Pain shattered the oracle’s perception. She had little time to even register the wall of water erupting before her when the agony slammed her eyes shut and knocked the air from her lungs. When her watering eyes opened once more it was to the sight of the trident withdrawing, blood running thickly from three wounds.2

Some remote portion of her awareness heard Lem’s voice as though across a great distance. “Glo! Watch out, it’s got a trident!”

••••

“A scrag!” Kara cried, pushing past Gloriana and Abby and trying to find room to stand at the pool’s perimeter. “Aquatic troll!” The alchemist slammed back3 an extract of magical shielding.

Still on the steps Rahab used one of his sorcerous pearls to restore the magical missile among his memorized repertoire of spells. He stepped up behind Gloriana and seeing her wound felt a frisson of fear and rage. Then his adamantine intellect reestablished control and returned his attention to the fight. “Grazuulu vahkh?” 4 Gleaming eyes rolled and focused upon the wizard, confirming his suspicions. Rahab wondered why the thing was even armed.

The oracle stepped back and cast the spell of fervor on herself and her friends. What she had not anticipated was the speed and dexterity with which the scrag maneuvered. Rahab could only watch in horror as triple tines transfixed Gloriana a second time, and she could not even scream. It was already too much effort to simply exhale in desperate gasp.5 The oracle noticed a sympathetic wound briefly appear on the monster’s own torso corresponding to her own, and a second later it began to repair of its own accord.

Vicious magic, she realized, and in the hands of a creature that can regenerate . . . .

A second later the trident struck again. Gloriana’s vision blurred, and she buckled. The briefest realization arrived like a single song note piercing silence: She was dying, and this time there was no peaceful, centered calm. The prospect suddenly terrified her, but not for the reason it did most mortals.6

••••

For the second time that week Abby rescued her best friend.

Amidst the confusion of battle and the constant crash of water came the echo of Avenger slamming into rubbery troll flesh. Something about the mysterious quality of the ancient, ensorcelled metal lent an insistent quality to the attack. To describe it as a ringing did the resonance injustice, for the trembling, wavering eruption rebounding in that chamber had an insistence that would have given primordials hammering rivets of star stuff into the cosmic architecture pause. A spray of droplets blasted away from Grazuul’s body in a fine mist.

It was not a noise. It was a sound. 7

••••

Rahab vocalized a spell and coalesced a beam of focused energy that sapped strength, but the attack missed and the wizard cursed under his breath. In front of him, Gloriana desperately channeled healing at the brink of collapse and brought her vision back into focus, pained though it was. When Grazuul seized the chance to interrupt her magic and stabbed the trident toward her, the oracle stepped aside to avoid the attack and expertly finished invoking the spirits of her ancestors to restore even more health within. Then she lashed out with an attack of her own, anger casting a ghost-vision of a skull over her beautiful visage as a beam of searing white-gold burned a scorching line across the pale corpse-blue belly of her enemy.8

Lem realized that position was never going to be to his advantage in a fight with something situated in the water, so there was nothing left to do but add what he could. He moved to the edge of the pool and brought his preternatural reflexes to bear maintaining perfect balance on the slick stone at water’s edge. His knives blurred silver in the strangely dancing light and he carved five fresh cuts across Grazuul’s left arm and ribs.9

All of this descended on the scrag in the space of a few seconds, but for Grazuul, the Ripper-in-the-Water, the Skulltaker General, there was suddenly only one point of focus. One among the meal bit with a distinct fury, even lacking fire. He had no choice but to pay attention to the thing in steel.

The trident dropped into the water and great, looming arms descended on Abby like twin pythons. The warrior found herself crushed, Avenger pressed against her and pinning her left arm, her right free but with little room to swing. Immense strength battling her own might began to drag her toward the edge of the pool, and the stench of the rubbery flesh against her reeked of dampness and death. If drowning had a scent, this was it.

Gloriana seized the opportunity and cast a magic ancient among her people, a spell of moving on, a chant that called the wanderer to resume the Road.10 Power surged within Abby and the warrior’s survivor instinct kicked in as she set her boots against the monster’s hipbone, then pushed.

It was not enough.

Absurdly, Abby was surprised at how warm the water was.

••••

Kara had produced the longbow enchanted with electricity that had once belonged to Jakardros, and now the alchemist moved along the eastern perimeter of the room in desperate search for a shot. She could see the great blur of the scrag beneath the water’s surface, the churning as Abby struggled, but there was no clear line, and an arrow entering the water would lose momentum dramatically. Further, her magic could not control the electric energy of the bow, posing the additional problem of shooting lightning into water such that it endangered not only Grazuul, but her friend, as well. She felt helpless.

Rahab focused on the mass in the water and brought down another spell to render the scrag blind. The creature shrugged it off.

Gloriana channeled more healing power, and then summoned a ghost. The manifestation appeared in the water, a woman who had lived and died more than two hundred years prior. She was tall and arrayed in plate armor of a style known to a certain sect of paladins of Varisia’s southeastern reaches in the days when they met and moved in secret, servants of Sarenrae eluding Cheliaxian authorities. The spectral blade she bore was a scimitar, the weapon most closely associated with the Dawnflower. The visor on her helm was up, and in the murky, shifting light and spray of water all could see the ghost’s face was a vision of beatific life one moment, and a stark skull the next, each visage shifting seamlessly from one form to another. Displacing no mass, the ghost glided as easily through the water as if it were air, and her curved sword struck as swiftly as a falcon on the wing.11

••••

His effectiveness limited by distance and position, Lem made a decision, one that he would review later as both fruitful and foolhardy. He glanced at Gloriana: “I take back all those things I said about you.” Then the gardener stepped off the edge and plunged into the pool, almost casually. He found it difficult to swim with knives in his hands, and now his clothing soaked, and the weight of his leather armor bearing down. Holding his breath, he let the water close over him and settled down close to where Grazuul held a struggling Abby under the surface. Light from the warrior’s stone—still drifting about her head even as she fought to free herself and reach the air—shone as an eerie brightness that made the darker depths of the pool all the more inky.

Moving against the weight and drift of the water, Lem found it easier to stab than slash, and now he had the scrag’s flank.

••••

Abby burst through the surface with a heaving gasp and scrabbled against all the weight of armor and gear to grab hold of the pool’s edge. Lem did the same in the next second and together warrior and gardener helped one another take hold against drowning. Sloshing water slowly settled as Gloriana and Rahab crouched at water’s edge.

Looking back into the pool no one could see Grazuul. There was simply too much blood saturating the water.12

••••

“It’s still regenerating,” Kara said as she slowly maneuvered back toward the others, arrow nocked and still trained on the water.

“I’ll get him,” Abby said, and before anyone could object she released her grip on the pool’s edge and descended into the warm murk once more. With her great strength and the water’s buoyancy she managed to drag the motionless monster up to the surface and the pool perimeter.

Gloriana and Rahab had helped Lem out of the water, and now assisted Abby. The warrior maintained a grip on Grazuul’s limp arm, and slowly began hauling the thing from the water with the aid of the others. When the creature’s torso hung on the stone, Rahab stepped back and began to conjure acid, over and over again, until the horrible life force of the scrag could overcome no more.13

••••

“Disgusting,” Lem grumbled, looking down at his soaking form coated in a thin layer of slime from the pool. Abby sat in similar condition.

“Going to be miserable until we’re dry,” the warrior muttered.

“Going to be miserable after we’re dry, too.”

While Rahab rendered the scrag’s body into sludge Gloriana stood at water’s edge and detected for the presence of magic in the room.

“The trident is magical,” she called out. As I already knew.

Abby set her mouth in a grim line. “Hell’s below, I’m already wet anyway.” She shuffled over and slid back into the pool, returning a moment later with the weapon. She set it on the stone and exited, with effort, once more.

When he was finished with corpse disposal, Rahab crouched to take a closer look at the trident. “Adamantine, with a basic magical enhancement. Ah! Vicious.”

Yes, it is, thought Gloriana.

“What is that?” Abby asked.

The conjurer looked up. “A kind of retributive augmentation. It enhances the wound it delivers at the cost of a similar, though lesser, wound to the wielder. In the hands of a troll it becomes truly cruel, as the cost to use it is negligible with time. Cunning.” He glanced at Gloriana. She met his gaze, and began to cast minor healing spells on herself.

••••

Doors in the western wall led to another chamber, this one narrower but longer, and also featuring a pool. Gloriana cast a spell of light on a copper coin and tossed the currency into the water. The illumination revealed a tunnel in the pool’s depth that connected back into the room where they had fought Grazuul. Finding nothing else of interest, they returned to the main chamber and looked to the east where another door led further into the dam structure.

Abby opened the portal, glanced within, and charged.

••••

How to describe the thing? Its shape was scorpionoid, its substance bone, or rather the conglomeration of many bits of bone, some large and whole, some small and fragmented. This was no carapace, but the whole of the thing itself, and what should have been prohibitive rigidity evinced alarming quickness and poise. Numerous humanoid skulls arrayed in the form like horrific parasites set as watchers. Curved menacingly over the back of the abdomen loomed the segmented bone tail tipped with a long shard of tibia filed to spear-point sharpness. The creature—if creature it was—loomed as large as an ox cart.

As Abby closed the stinger lashed down and true. The warrior felt a pain like heat begin to course from her shoulder, and a sickness churned in her belly, white flashes of crystalline bright bursting like snowflakes in her eyes. Her sword stroke failed and she reeled, for the closeness of the thing now filled all her mind with thoughts of poisonous doom. Abby trembled.14

Lem followed the warrior into the room, saw the strange monster, and fled. He did not cry out, his throat constricted and unable to voice the overwhelming fright that billowed in unseen fog from the thing in the chamber.

“Lem!” Gloriana called in confusion as the gardener bolted past her toward the stairs leading up to the top dam level.15

She stepped into the room and saw. The fear descended on her, miasmic, enveloping.

••••

Suddenly understanding, the oracle bent her will against the effect, proving more successful than Lem had been. Then Gloriana summoned a ghost blade to attack the scuttling form. Blue-gold ectoplasm sliced the air, struck bone, and vanished harmlessly in an instant.16

Abby turned to flee in the gardener’s wake. Great pincers descended.

Their grasp was crushing.

••••

Once again Gloriana invoked the road song of liberation, and once again it availed Abby not. The oracle watched in horror as the stinger descended on the grappled warrior and injected venom once more. Abby’s mighty constitution fought off the toxin for the moment, but she gasped in terrible agony as the claws began to ratchet tighter.

Kara breached the doorway and moved past Gloriana. For a moment she groped at her bandoliers helplessly for elixir, bomb, something, anything that might aid in the fight, and the fear threatened to overcome her. Slim, dexterous elven fingers scrabbled without purchase across vials and bulbs of ceramic and glass. With tremendous effort she mastered herself, forced a deep breath, reacquired calm. She blinked once, and carefully focused on plucking the desired grenado from its sheath.

Rahab reached the room, saw the thing, and terror shattered his perception. In the next moment he was fleeing after Lem.17

••••

“Ghosts of the road!” Gloriana cried. In the clutches of the thing Abby struggled again to break free, and again failed. The oracle took some of the warrior’s pain and then invoked a spell banishing fear upon herself, and extending the effect to Lem and Rahab through the doorway. Wizard and gardener drew up short before the stairs, hearts racing, breath shallow, and turned. They looked angry. As they returned, resolute, Lem drew the wand of scorching magic he had tried against the ettin while Rahab flexed his fingers at the prospect of invoking magic.

As they crossed the threshold the gardener moved into the southwestern corner of the room, pointed the wand and called forth its magic.

Nothing happened.

Then Rahab bookended the moment by casting a strobing starburst of purple that had no effect on the thing whatsoever.18

“Baalzebul’s bollocks!” The wizard grimaced. “It’s not undead, it’s a construct!”

••••

However impressive her sheer might, Abby could not escape. The bone scorpion’s strength was magically augmented to astonishing power, and its punishing grasp bore down on the warrior inexorably.19

Something exploded in the air nearby, an intense surge of flashing, sizzling electricity that spider-webbed all over the construct’s frame in two dazzling explosions. The warrior could feel gooseflesh as the hair on her arms whipped upright like summer grass in a breeze, and a heavy scent of ozone filled the air.

Kara Silverleaf was finally in the fight.20

••••

Two sounds predominated in that chamber, punctuated by a staccato third. The first was the scuttling bulk of the giant scorpion as its legs maneuvered on stone. The second was the scraping steel of Abby struggling to free herself from the construct’s clutches. The third was the shatter-shock of Kara’s galvanic grenadoes blasting bone into dust.

Then, over the din, Gloriana’s voice, clear, bright as the gold in her hair, the gold in her light.

“Sorry, Lem. This is going to be loud.”

From her vantage Gloriana had the giant bone scorpion in line for a spell, but unfortunately the position the gardener had taken up in the room put him directly in the conical path of the effect, as well, and when the magic unfolded it crashed over construct and halfling alike. The sonic erupted, and Lem could see the pressure wave make its way through the air as a distortion, then his teeth rattled in his socket, his discolored hair blasted back, his skin rippled.

When he opened his eyes his ears were ringing and he tasted blood on his upper lip as it trickled gently from his right nostril. Every noise in the room was very far away, safely sheltered behind curtains of invisible wool. Lem glanced at the thing dominating the room, poised predatory over Abby’s desperate struggle.

If the construct had felt any of Gloriana’s spell, it gave no indication.21

••••

In the next few seconds Lem dodged into position at the construct’s anterior and sliced his knives across raw bone, flinging a few chips free and impacting the thing in no other way. Abby’s effort to escape came likewise to naught, and now the claws had her completely pinned on the chamber floor, the right pincer slowly closing around her neck. The warrior felt blood as the edge cut into her skin, but she resolutely refused to close her eyes. She stared into the empty eye sockets of one of the grim skulls nested between the punishing forelegs, defiant, willing it to recognize that she would never look away from death, that oblivion would find her forever facing forward. Abby’s jaw clenched.

“Come on, you fucker.” It was a whisper made of iron.

There was a very bright light.

••••

When the splotches of drifting negative space on her eyesight eventually faded Abby could see the claws had fallen open in release and the entire structure of the giant bone scorpion had settled to the ground in a heap. Smoke drifted up from skeletal interstices and heavy splashes marked the abdomen where sudden, intense ionization had charred calcium into black chalk.

When Rahab’s admiring voice sounded in the silence it was as if the room had been holding its breath and finally remembered to exhale.

“Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer.”22


1 For reference, Abby (half-elf) and Kara (elf) are the second tallest, and tallest members of the party, respectively.

2 Surprise round. Glo got hit for 20 points of damage.

3 Things Writers Think About: I originally typed “The alchemist shotgunned an extract of magical shielding,” but that’s one of those things that seems inappropriate as a reference given the late medieval/early renaissance fantasy world setting. “Crossbowed” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

4 Translated from Giant: “Papa Grazuul?”

5 A second hit for 20 points of damage.

6 Another hit, this time for 31 points of damage. In 12 seconds Wet Papa Grazuul did what a fortress full of ogres could not accomplish in an hour. At this moment Glo was at 0 hit points.

7 Abby’s attack was actually three: sword, shield, sword. For descriptive purposes I’ve elected just to focus on the shield strike in this moment because it’s an important weapon in Abby’s arsenal, and also because it’s an item of dgroo’s creative imagination that pays tribute to his love and appreciation for Cap and Marvel. The total attack included a critical hit, and summed 72 points of damage. Assemble and shit!

8 Never count Gloriana out of a fight. Quick channel healed herself for 16 points, then a defensive cast succeeded allowing her to cast cure serious wounds on herself as a swift action under the Combat Healer ability for another 20 points. Then a searing light spell hit Grazuul for 21 points.

9 With blessing of fervor Lem was able to make five attacks, all of which hit, two of which were critical. Unfortunately, due to position, he could not add sneak attack damage. Total was still 23 points. Keep in mind that Grazuul is regenerating. Nevertheless, in two rounds he’s taken 116 points of damage.

10 Liberating command which gives Abby an immediate attempt to make an Escape Artist check against the successful grapple. Unfortunately Abby’s roll was poor, and the Hero Point she spent to reroll didn’t help.

11 Spiritual ally. Dingleberry was very specific about the appearance of this spirit. The ally hit Grazuul for 5 points of damage. Glo’s channel heal was 13 points to each party member.

12 Lem’s decision was not an easy one to make, and he barely made his Swim check, but it put him in masterful position with an established flank. He used blessing of fervor for an extra attack and stabbed four times for a total of 58 points of damage plus a bleed.

13 Acid splash cantrip, once a round until Grazuul was well and truly finished.

14 The monster’s presence produces a fear effect. Abby failed her Will save and gained the Frightened condition. Stinger injects a venom.

15 This was a Spellcraft check to determine the source of Lem’s fear. Unsuccessful.

16 Spell resistance.

17 This was all initiative round 1. Lem failed his Will save, fled. Abby failed her Will save, got grappled, took 33 points of damage. Glo’s liberating command failed to help Abby at all, then spiritual weapon was useless against spell resistance. Kara had double-moved so could take no other action, though she did make her Will save, as did Gloriana. Rahab, best Will save in the party, blew his roll, spent a Hero point to reroll, and promptly blew that one as well. Off to a rousing start.

18 Lem’s Use Magic Device failed, so he spent a Hero point, and failed again. Rahab’s magic missile did not penetrate spell resistance. How’s the fight going so far?

19 Abby made a total of four attempts to break free of the grapple. Every one of them failed by significant margin.

20 First shock bomb did 34 points of damage, second did 24 points. Spell resistance doesn’t count because the alchemist’s bombs are a supernatural ability, not spell or spell-like.

21 “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel PITY, or REMORSE, or FEAR! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!” – Reese, The Terminator, 1984. Gloriana cast soundburst and it did 2 points of damage. Neither Lem nor the construct were stunned.

22 Third shock bomb for 28 points of damage, fourth shock bomb for 26 points of damage. Total damage Kara did to the scorpion: 112 points. Total damage the rest of the party did cumulatively: 2 points (good job, Glo: “I loosened it!”). Going back over my notes my jaw is still agape. The elf is bad-ass. Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer.

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Book IV, Chapter 15: Crossing The Skull
Dam It

Kara and Lem crouched at the ogre corpse:

“It’s Kreeg, I think,” mused the alchemist. “Not the degenerates from the farm, but full ogre.”

“Not from Rannick, though, right?”

“Well, it might be one of the ones that fled at the very end, made for the river, fell in . . . .” She did not sound confident.

“It would have shown up downstream before today, though.”

“Good point.”

“Which means it’s more likely it was in the river today, maybe even while we were still riding in the forest.”

Kara nodded. “Suggesting it came from further up the Skull River.”

“Back toward the dam Rahab mentioned. It’s been crushed, see?”

“Yes.”

“So the river floods, a monster appears, and the body of a crushed ogre washes up.”

“Rahab was right: Something is wrong at the dam.”

“You think that thing broke through?”

“Rahab could say better. He indicated it was from the Abyss.”

“Well, he would know, the son-of-a-devil-worshiper.”

“The Abyss is not the Hells.”

“It’s all the same to me.”

They rose and began to make their way back to what remained of the village.

••••

Mayor Shreed stood talking to Gloriana among the throng.

“I cannot thank you enough. The whole village is grateful. Erastil shone his grace upon you today and sent you as an arrow from the Quiver of Good Deeds. An offering will be made, corn, squash, and fish. You will come and receive blessing. All will—”

A villager ran up hugging his small son tightly—one of the children rescued from the ferry—and pressed a plucked wildflower into Gloriana’s hand, bowing multiple times as he backed away, tears of gratitude lost in the rainfall.

The oracle seized the interruption. “Thank you, Maelin, we were happy to help. We should first see to the safety of the townsfolk and finding shelter. There is still much danger.”

“Well, yes, but Erastil—”

“These people need dry clothes, warm fires, roofs against the rain, and food, at the very least. Some of them may need healing, and an accounting of who survived and who was lost must be taken. I can help you get that process started, but first I need to know what happened.” She gave an encouraging smile. “Please.”

The mayor dragged one rough, abraded hand across his forehead. “Well, I . . . it was mid-morning when Olbaddah docked at the west jetties and came to tell me the lake was rising. Within an hour those jetties were submerged. It just got worse from there. What was that monster? Erastil would not abide such abomination. Do you think it will return?”

“Set it aside. Now is the time for helping the village recover.” She glanced over and saw Abby and Rahab approach. “Can you start helping with the villagers? Abby, see who needs healing and try and collect them all in one location if they can move. Rahab, please take an inventory of everyone and see if you can collate who is missing.”

The warrior clapped the wizard on the shoulder and they set off into the crowd. Gloriana turned back to Shreed. “What else can you tell me?”

“For the lake to rise so quickly I can only guess that Skull’s Crossing burst, but now that the water level is slowly receding perhaps it was not completely destroyed.”

“So as long as there is damage at Skull’s Crossing, Turtleback Ferry is in danger?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Maelin. Let me help my friends with the townsfolk and then we must make for Skull’s Crossing. Perhaps we can be of use there as we were here.”

“Erastil make the road green under your feet.”

Leave the Road—green or otherwise—to me, she thought, but only smiled in reply.

••••

Kara and Lem rejoined the others and reported about the ogre corpse. The companions spent the rest of the day helping in what remained of the village. By nightfall healing had been expended, the lost named, and shelter found among the remaining buildings. Lem spent an hour in the rain with a small cake of soap scrubbing himself of ichor. It washed off his skin, and he managed to scrape most off his armor, but his hair color remained tarnished. Gloriana thought he would simply have to let it grow in, cutting the blue-gray parts off as new black follicles developed.

The ground floor of Bottom’s Up had completely flooded, and the first floor had suffered partial damage, so the party relocated to The Turtle’s Parlor in the northern part of town. It was already in use as emergency shelter, and the companions had to share a single, small room. Gloriana insisted on paying, and further insisted that the villagers need not.

As custodian of the companion’s pain, everyone encouraged the oracle to take the one bed. Gloriana shared with Abby so the warrior would be refreshed for the day ahead. Lem used his haversack as a pillow and his cloak as a blanket, bedding down directly in front of the door. Anyone trying to get in would have to get through him first. Kara and Rahab rolled into their cloaks upon the remaining floor space. Magical light sources were stowed away. Elsewhere in the inn came the sound of human bustle, hushed voices, the occasional sob lamenting the loss of a loved one.

“Are we still going to Whitewillow?” the wizard asked into the darkness.

“Whitewillow,” replied Gloriana, “will have to wait. We need to find out what happened at Skull’s Crossing. Perhaps we can repair some of the damage. What can you tell us, Rahab?”

“The dam is massive and ancient. Its architecture shares similarity with many of the great ruins across Varisia.”

“Like the Irespan?”

“Just so. I suspect it is a relic of ancient Thassilon, which makes it interesting not only as historical curiosity, but also as connected to our own recent circumstances, what with our discovery of so many things connected to the Sihedron rune and its variants.”

In the gloom Abby reached down off the bed and laid her fingers lightly on the surface of Avenger. The conjurer continued:

“The dam’s flow control is automated, or at least has been in the past. Its system of water locks has helped maintain the status of the Skull River draining from the Storval Deep. From today’s events I gather something about those locks has failed.”

Lem asked, “How can the dam be automated?”

“Magic, or else ancient Thassilon had technological expertise far surpassing present day. The structure’s proximity to both the Iron Peaks and the Wyvern Mountains means it has long since fallen under the influence of the giant-kin in the region. A clan of trolls has resided there for many years: the Skulltaker tribe.”

“Lovely,” Kara brooded.

“Maelin—” said Gloriana, “uh, Mayor Shreed—has offered us a thousand coins in gold to see what we can do at the dam.”

“Paltry.” The gardener did not conceal his contempt.

The oracle was too tired to fight about it. “The village just flooded, Lem. Try to see the other rewards.”

“Oh, I’m trying, Glo.”

The oracle sighed. A long silence ensued. Then: “I asked if the village could afford to send anyone with a message to Magnimar about what has happened.”

Rahab: “And?”

“They agreed, though it will obviously take some time. We may be finished by the time any news reaches Grobaras, or by the time any word returns.”

“When we get back from Skull’s Crossing we can review that issue,” the wizard offered.

“What do you mean?”

“Do not worry about it. Plenty to occupy us until then.”

More silence. Kara nodded off.

Eventually Rahab spoke again: “The journey to the dam is unlikely to be free of incident. The road will take us past Fort Rannick. We should probably overnight there.”

Wide awake, Abby stared into the darkness and said nothing.

••••

The route to Fort Rannick passed easily enough, though a light rain continued to fall, and Kara, Rahab, and Lem discussed the weather, all agreeing that it seemed unusually consistent—and overly wet—for spring. The companions quizzed the conjurer about the nightmare they had battled, and found Rahab willing to answer some questions, strangely reluctant about others. They dismounted inside the southeastern gate, stabled the horses, and went into the keep’s main entrance. Temros Vale was inside, collecting pieces of equipment and furniture irreparably broken for firewood. The stench in the keep hit them like a sack of stones.

The companions shared lunch with Vale in one of the wall towers where the air and interior were cleaner. They told The Black Arrow what had happened in the village, but the big man had no news of Skull’s Crossing, save that giant-kin raids from the Hook Mountain area had to pass through the neck where the structure was. He added that there were also trolls with which The Arrows had occasionally tangled, confirming what the party already knew.

In the afternoon the companions once again helped around the keep. The clean up was slow going, and the pyres in the yard still smoldered. They bunked crudely in the devastated guest rooms once more, all except for the warrior.

Afterwards, lying together on the pallet in the wall tower, Vale traced a finger over some of Abby’s scars.

“By the gods, you’ve been in some fights. I do not have nearly the marks.”

“Many of these are from before I met Glo. Her magic helps against scarring.”

“Where were you before you met her?”

“Riddleport.”

Vale whistled low, understanding. After a while: “Do you think the monster you all fought came from the dam?”

The warrior nodded. “Rahab says it lives—or lived—in the lake beyond.”

“The Storval Deep? I have never heard of this ‘Black Magga,’ nor have I heard any of The Arrows mention it. Not even Captain Bayden.”

Abby smiled. “Rahab knows more than all of you lot put together. Probably more than all the people in this region put together.”

Vale snorted dismissively.

“It’s true,” she laughed.

A long silence passed. “He is not an easy man to like.”

Abby considered. “Rahab is definitely an acquired taste. But he’s my friend.”

“Hmph”

She raised on one elbow. “He’s my friend. Now come here.”

••••

Just after dawn the party took leave of Vale and Fort Rannick. Along the trail to Skull’s Crossing Kara regaled them with stories and lore of trolls. She could little conceal the disgust in her voice.

“They sound a lot like ogres,” observed Abby.

“Worse. They are utterly fearless and never run, never cease attacking until they or their opponents are dead. Also, they regenerate. Even a small portion cut from the monster may become a full, functioning troll. You have to destroy them completely with fire or acid to prevent them coming back to life,” Kara grumbled.

Four pairs of eyes turned to Rahab. He was grinning like a devil.

••••

At midday they emerged from the tree cover along the road parallel to the Skull River and reined up at the southern end of the basin below the gorge.

“Ghosts of the road!” Gloriana whispered, her eyes wide. No one moved.

High above them towered the mighty Skull’s Crossing, more than three hundred feet high and aptly named for the vast and plentiful carvings adorning the structure’s immense wall. The dam spanned the entire gorge, nearly a quarter-of-a-mile, save for a gap toward the eastern end where a portion of stone had broken away. Through this rend poured the cold blue waters of the Storval Deep, the high mountain lake suspended between two equally notorious ranges: the Iron Peaks on the western shore and the Wyvern Mountains on the east. The cascade hammered down into the basin that formed the headwaters of the Skull River, and the area at dam’s base had flooded considerably, though it was clear that, at least for the present, the structure still held back the Deep. It was not hard to understand that, should the remainder of Skull’s Crossing fail, then Turtleback Ferry, and all other settlements along Claybottom Lake and the lower river would be doomed.

“Definitely Thassilonian,” Rahab nodded quietly.

Kara inclined her head slightly forward. “What is that structure at midpoint?”

The wizard nudged Pentacle forward. “That is where we will find answers, I suspect.”

••••

Along the western edge of the basin they discovered a winding set of broad steps carved into the stone of the gorge wall and ascending some three hundred feet to what looked like a cave. Hundreds of wooden stakes had been set along the stairs, many topped by skulls of animal and humanoid variety. Each such trophy had been marked with a rune, sometimes burned, sometimes marked in charcoal, sometimes painted in dried blood, and all resembling a stylized humanoid skull.

“Welcome to Skulltaker territory,” Rahab remarked drily.

“Why don’t I scout ahead?” offered Kara. She drew two elixirs from her bandoliers and quickly quaffed them. The alchemist vanished from sight and a moment later Urdrenn nickered quietly as an invisible weight left her back. The others remained mounted, waiting in silence.

A few minutes later Kara’s disembodied voice startled them from the air. “The cave entrance is a bit below the top of the dam and there is another entrance at dam level. There are five ogres on the dam itself, west of the central structure, using great mauls to hammer at the stone.”

Lem’s brow wrinkled. “They’re demolishing the dam?”

“It does not look they are making any headway. I am not sure at what purpose they toil.”

“Any sign of life within the cave?” asked Abby.

“Not that I could detect.”

The oracle dismounted and began to lead Marigold to a nearby tree. “Let’s get moving.”

••••

With the horses secured at the basin’s westernmost edge, they began to ascend the Skulltaker steps. Lem stealthily crept ahead to lie in ambush. Abby led the others, followed by Gloriana, Rahab, and finally Kara who remained in flight and invisible. When they were some thirty feet from the cave entrance they readied themselves for battle with an array of magic.1

Lem made his way forward, disappearing into darkness. Abby waited half a minute, then advanced, the others falling in behind her. The warrior proceeded some thirty feet into the passageway, emerging into a larger cavern and startling a creature within.

••••

The thing had an ogre’s body, albeit larger, and topped by two heads, each sporting tusk-like fangs jutting from an underbite. Crudest animal hides lashed together formed the most rudimentary loincloth, and the bulky torso was painted in garish paints in pattern of affiliation at which the party could only guess. In each hand the creature clutched a large flail of iron. Independent of one another, the creature’s heads shouted cacophonous collision of syllables none but Rahab recognized.2 This was the ettin GorgerChaw, one personality calling for help, the other declaring intent to kill.

Thirteen feet of two-headed giant moved surprisingly quick, as Abby discovered when a flail slammed into her left hip. In the light of her stone, the warrior noticed another ettin arriving from the passage leading out of the cavern to the north. This was BiteSly, mate of ChawGorger.

For some time now Lem had carried a magic wand in his inventory, and now he drew it. The gardener had been studying how Gloriana and Rahab used the devices, and felt confident he understood the basic mechanics enough to fool the thing into behaving as it would in the hands of a spellcaster. He poised the device and muttered a word or two that sounded vaguely like something oracle or wizard might say. A spark flared briefly, utterly spoiling his stealth as bright light flared around him and then disappeared once more. A thin smoke drifted lazily from the tip of the wand, and the gardener’s cover had been compromised.3

Under Avenger’s power of haste, Abby set sword and shield to work on GorgerChaw, landing first blade, then bash, then blade, and blade yet again. Blood flowed from bulk, and twin heads howled in pain. The warrior stuck her tongue out at the brute.4

Gloriana began to absorb Abby’s injury, and also cast the spell of fervor on her friends, augmenting their ability to fight, defend, move. Behind her, Rahab stepped forward and extended his arm, pointing his right index finger. A hissing dart of acid the length of a crossbow bolt launched precisely over Abby’s right shoulder so close she could smell the acrid pungency and see the boiling burn as the missile bored straight into ChawGorger’s torso.

Churned to rage now, GorgerChaw set upon Abby with furious blows. The cavern resounded with raucous clamor as each flail rebounded off Avenger’s flawless surface. SlyBite loomed near, also bearing flails, pendulous breasts naked and painted. The air was loud with howls in the Giant tongue.

Lem abandoned the wand idea and tumbled effortlessly into position behind ChawGorger. His dagger tore a gaping wound along the ettin’s inner thigh from knee to groin, and a gout of femoral blood splattered on the cavern floor like a rotten melon dropped from a tower onto flagstones.5 GorgerChaw died without ceremony, crumpling in a mighty heap that kicked up dust and forced Abby to dance back lest the full weight collapse upon her. Lem looked over the fallen bulk at the warrior and shrugged innocently.

In response, Abby turned on BiteSly, barreling past the ettin in an attempt to establish flanking position. SlyBite swung her left flail but Abby ducked under the attempt, set her footing, and reversed her sword blade straight through the ettin’s kidney. Wails of pain echoed.

Eager to try a trick bestowed upon her by the ghosts, Gloriana summoned her weapon of spiritual power and set it upon BiteSly. The glowing scimitar sliced across the monster’s shins and the magic suddenly overcame the ettin’s balance, toppling her onto her back. No sooner had she landed than a burst of flame and smoke signaled Kara’s grenado exploding on flesh. Desperately, SlyBite tried to stand, and Abby and Lem closed like a vice.

There was an awful lot of blood.6

••••

Gloriana continued to absorb the initial flail wound inflicted upon Abby while the others made a quick search. The cave system consisted of the larger cavern where the battle had taken place, and a smaller nest area where the ettins slept. Finally, another passageway led north and turned east out of the gorge to access the top of Skull’s Crossing.

The search of the nest was unpleasant, but fruitful, yielding appreciable measures of gold and silver coin, a velvet pouch containing six pearls, a phylactery, and a scroll tube carved from ivory inset with strips of jade. The tube contained three scrolls.7 They stowed these away for later inspection, and quickly proceeded.

Lem took point hiding in the shadows of the cave exit. Rainwater had pooled on much of the upper walk, and bits of rubble lay strewn about the dam, remainders of ancient—though minor—damage to the massive structure. The gardener gauged the width of the walk at nearly sixty feet, and at the midpoint loomed a kind of segmented tower formed of skull-shaped domes. To the north surged the chilled waters of the Storval Deep, and to the south the dam slope dropped away more than three hundred feet to the basin. A cluster of four ogres stood a short distance away, swinging mauls at the walkway under the barking leadership of a fifth, larger ogre.

Too late Lem spotted Abby and Gloriana advancing into view at the cave exit, and just like that, stealth failed. The lead ogre glanced up and howled alert, snapping the other brutes to attention. Then he began unlimbering a bow to take advantage of the distance. The other ogres began to approach, almost casually, hefting their mauls. The oracle directed her spiritual scimitar to attack, and then invoked a prayer of protection upon her companions.

Abby charged the nearest creature and slammed into it with a hefty sword stroke. The others began to gather in anticipation of the bludgeoning, while at the back the lead ogre was preparing to draw and fire. Just then Gloriana’s mystic sabre sliced at his legs and he, like the ettin before, tumbled to the ground with a surprised grunt.

A second later it got very hot.

••••

Rahab’s fireball exploded at the back of the ogre group, enveloping the fallen leader and three others in a churning flame that burned away hair, skin, animal hide.8 Insult to injury arrived the next moment as one of Kara’s galvanic bombs burst in dazzling sizzle over one of the brutes.

Lem took to foot, tumbled past a feeble ogre swipe, and carved a canyon from buttock to kidney that slew the hapless brute. “One down!” the gardener chirped happily.9

The leader finally got his bow drawn despite the strips of charred flesh hanging from his forearms, and launched a missile at Lem, but the nimble gardener was simply too smooth and merely turned his head to allow the arrow harmlessly past.

Gloriana’s spirit sword attacked the leader twice. Each wound it opened glittered momentarily with blue-gold ghost stuff that faded as quickly as it appeared. This time, however, the magic failed to topple the ogre. She augmented the spell with a new casting, calling into existence a shimmering figure of light, vaguely humanoid, features indistinct, with appendages that might have been feathered wings. In its hands it bore a weapon of light, long and edged. The blade rose and fell, spilling new blood.10

Seeing the accumulation of attacks threatening the leader, Abby pushed past the cluster of ogres and charged, intending to cut the head from the serpent. All her weight fell behind the sword thrust that transfixed the brute, and the monster coughed up a gasping dollop of blood that sprayed across Avenger’s surface. It could no longer even vocalize. There was simply too much damage.

Rahab arced magic into one of the other ogres, and Kara made a rare fumble of her next grenade, sending it past the group to explode against the stone of the dam, but even then the splash back of fire and blast wave slew one of the injured creatures.

The leader died in the next moment, felled by Gloriana’s spectral blade. A beam of near-blinding light from the oracle’s outstretched hand killed another ogre. Abby slew the last with a sword stroke.

••••

Gloriana took the opportunity to channel healing among herself and her friends until everyone was restored. A quick search of the ogres revealed nothing of value. Kara voiced her suspicion that these were members of the Kreeg clan, late of Fort Rannick.

Abby looked down on one of the corpses. “On your way to Hell, tell what’s left of your kin I’m coming.”

••••

It was more than five hundred feet to the structure at the dam’s midpoint. They walked the distance carefully, keeping an eye for additional threats. The expanse was wide open with no place to hide save the building, but they felt wary all the same. A fierce chill whipped across from the Storval Deep. The structure neared. Facing them was a great humanoid skull carved from stone without the lower mandible. The eye sockets appeared to serve as windows into the building interior, though there was no door as such in the skull itself. Instead, sections of flat wall on either side of the skull contained a set of double doors, also shaped wholly from stone. Lem tested for traps, but found none, though it proved irrelevant. Try as she might, even with her prodigious strength Abby could not move either set of portals the slightest amount.

“Too heavy,” the warrior gasped, hands on her thighs. Lem and Gloriana both offered to help, trying to leverage their own strength in addition to Abby’s, but it was no use.11

“Unbelievable.” Sweat beaded on Abby’s forehead, washed quickly by the rain. “Should I use my other sword?” The adamantine lockpick had availed them before in the cavern beneath Foxglove Manor.

Lem was already scrambling up the face of the giant carved skull toward one of the eye-socket window. “No. Give me a moment.” He moved as deftly as a spider and soon disappeared within. A second later he reappeared and gave an “all-clear” sign. Abby began to climb, and though her grace was not the gardener’s, her strength more than made up for it.

From inside the warrior called back to the others in a whisper loud enough to be heard at the bottom of the basin. “Can you climb up here?”

Gloriana looked at Rahab. “After you.”

The wizard turned to Kara. “Back in a moment.” He reached out, took Gloriana’s elbow, and the two of them vanished. A second later the conjurer reappeared alone, and repeated the process with Kara.12

Lem shook his head. “That’s cheating.”

••••

In the chamber Gloriana once more reestablished the blessing of fervor on herself and her friends. The walls of the vaguely-trapezoidal room were thick with some sort of green fungus hanging in long ribbons like bunting. Large clumps of the stuff had been gathered in several places on the floor like nests. Lem unlimbered his bow and listened at the door. Wordlessly, the gardener signaled the presence of something beyond. Abby drew her sword as quietly as possible. Just before the warrior nodded at Lem to proceed, Gloriana leaned close to Kara and whispered softly in the alchemist’s ear:

“Did that feel strange to you?”

••••

Unlike the massive exterior portals, the interior doors were extremely thin slices of stone once adorned with iron long since rusted away. Lem pushed the panel open just enough to see into the room beyond. The area was littered with debris, streaks and pools of drying blood, and the bodies of three dead ogres that had suffered significant dismemberment. More fungus hung throughout, and the domed ceiling arced thirty feet above. The motif of carved skulls in various sizes continued across all the walls.

But the most pressing feature was the four trolls.

Had they stood completely upright each would have towered fourteen feet, but troll posture stooped forward to create the illusion of shorter stature. Their bodies created a strange sense of mass despite the wiry length encased in sickly green skin. Broad shoulders supported great arms dangling all the way to the ground with enough muscle to tear through steel like bread. Sharp claws and a toothy chevron mouth made quick work of flesh. On either side of a long, narrow nose were two eye sockets of solid, inky blackness, and the angular head swiveled on a bandy neck. An explosion of wiry hair erupted backward from the skull crest before hanging limply like rotten moss, and though large in size, the whole body suggested a dangerous agility. The ogre corpses in the chamber lay testament to the savagery and relentless violence of the troll, fearsome among all giant kin.

Lem sighted an arrow with such stealthy expertise that the bow did not even creak against the draw, and was already knocking a second missile, and then a third as the arrows sped on target. The troll lurched and spun, too fast for such size and all the more menacing for it. In the desperate seconds before all four monsters could apprehend what was happening the companions attacked fiercely, struggling to seize dominance of the battle as quickly as possible.

The gardener’s arrows struck significant wounds, and Kara hurled an explosive bomb that showered fire and force on two of the trolls. Rahab launched a dart of magic acid that penetrated deep into troll torso, hissing and churning with injury the remarkable power of the monster could not repair. Abby stepped into the room, her lightstone shedding illumination, and cut the first troll down with a massive overhead slice that split its rubbery skin from shoulder to groin. Gloriana summoned a spiritual ally into the room and it, too, attacked successfully.13

But the remaining trolls were on them instantly, a flurry of clawing and biting terrifying to behold. Abby found herself battered by the creature Kara had set alight, and it howled a kind of rasping growl as its arms swung left and right. The darting, knife-edge mouth tried to tear great chunks of flesh loose as the monster moved with slick speed and sinister grace, all the more horrible because it was now limned in flame, and though it could not repel the burning, it pressed the attack without fear.

Lem dropped his bow and dodged between the two closest trolls that menaced Abby. His skill at maneuver eluded the razor-quick claws that swept and clutched, and then he brought his knives to bear, opening wounds and drawing troll blood. Rahab moved into the room now, finding space to the right, and again his conjurer’s affinity for acid bored a smoking hole of caustic magic through the neck of the troll that had injured Abby. The lithe, looming mass of rubbery green crumbled in a heap at the warrior’s feet, acrid smoke rising from a wound its life force could not defeat.14

Abby pressed her attack upon the next troll, sword and shield hammered again and again, cutting and crushing a third monster to death. The last troll lunged at Lem to rend and bite, but failed to catch the agile gardener, and Gloriana’s golden ghost fetched the monster a solid strike with its spirit blade. Then the oracle called another spell, just the weapon this time, and the gleaming scimitar of light cut the troll across the back of the legs, knocking it prone.15 Because the position of the spiritual ally crowded the troll on one side, it allowed Lem to maneuver deftly to the other and seal the monster’s fate with a knife draw across the throat, practically decapitating it.16 The gardener flashed a sign of victorious cooperation at the ghostly figure.

In the subsequent silence they stood a moment and listened for sounds of approaching threat. Satisfied the battle was over, they searched the room. The fight had lasted less than twenty seconds.

••••

Exploration carried them through the rest of the structure at the top of the dam. They found little else, except a small treasure cache beneath a loose stone in another room. The contents included a cracked emerald, a gold comb designed to resemble a behir, and a pair of perfectly clean gloves of delicate pink lace that smelled faintly of lilacs. They took these for later examination.17

In a room with a southern view overlooking the basin below they found another set of stone doors that had been painted in runes of dried blood.

“It is the language of giants,” Rahab remarked.

“What does it say?” asked Gloriana.

“’Below dwells Wet Papa Grazuul. All hail Wet Papa Grazuul!’”

“What does that mean?”

The wizard turned to her in slight surprise. “How should I know?”

“You’re the one with lore about Skull’s Crossing!”

“I can translate the words. That does not mean I have the entire context or knowledge behind the words. If this is to be believed, then something dwells below with the title ‘Wet Papa Grazuul,’ and those who would revere such a thing choose to signal their allegiance in text of blood. Likely this was written by the trolls, and therefore whatever ‘Papa Grazuul’ is I deem it unlikely to hold us in particular esteem. Beyond that I cannot say.”

“Fine. I just thought maybe you might . . . know something.”

“The appellation means nothing to me. Anyone?” The wizard glanced around at the others who shook their heads. “We are unanimous in our ignorance, then.”

They descended into the dam.

Papa Grazuul was waiting.


1 Glo’s pre-cave buffing included: protection from evil on everyone; shield of faith on herself; bear’s endurance on herself, Abby, and Lem; bull’s strength on Abby and Lem; communal resist energy: fire on the party. Rahab’s pre-cave buffing was cat’s grace on Abby; mage armor on himself. Kara’s pre-cave buffing included: extract of shield and extract of expeditious retreat on herself (invisibility and fly were still up); extract of fire breathing to Abby; extract of haste to Lem. This kind of magic cocktail will feature increasingly as the party advances in their adventures.

2 Rahab is the only party member that speaks Giant.

3 I believe this is the first time Lem has tried Use Magic Device on a wand he’s carrying: wand of scorching ray. He attempted a sneak attack, blew the roll pretty badly, burned a charge, and promptly fell out of stealth.

4 Abby hit for 15, 7, 15, and 14 points of damage, totaling 51 in one full attack.

5 It’s happened before. Abby starts things off with 51 points of damage, Lem moves in to set the flank, scores 5 points of knife damage supplemented with 19 points of sneak attack damage, and claims the kill.

6 Bad day to be an ettin. Glo’s Toppling Spell feat succeeded in knocking the ettin supine, then Kara’s bomb hit for 24 points of damage, and when she tried to stand, the combined Attack of Opportunity damage from Abby and Lem was 50 points with a 4 point bleed. Next!

7 693 gold pieces, 1,240 silver pieces, six pearls at 100 gold each, the case at 300 gold, phylactery of positive channeling (that eventually went to Glo), and arcane scrolls of cone of cold, hold monster, and telekinesis.

8 The longer I play this game the more I wonder why I ever thought fireball/lightning bolt were some kind of super-weapon. Damage roll on this was 22 points (below average) and far, far too many creatures of large size with lousy save progressions made their Reflex saves. Frustrating.

9 Critical hit with the dagger for 7 points.

10 Glo’s first casting of spiritual ally. Her spiritual attack spells have been largely effective.

11 This was just one big series of 1s on Strength checks all around.

12 Dimensional steps. So much fun.

13 This opening round was superb. All three of Lem’s arrows hit a single troll for a total of 12 points of regular damage and 39 points of sneak attack damage, plus a 4 point bleed. Kara hit a second troll for 28 points that also set it on fire, and the splash damage from the bomb hit Lem’s target. Rahab hit Lem’s target with an 8 point acid arrow, and then Abby stepped into the room and full-attacked hitting the troll for 24 points, which killed it, and then her two follow up attacks did an additional 53 points of damage to the already dead creature (tron insisted on rolling the remaining attacks). Glo’s spiritual ally attacked the troll Kara had hit for 8 points of damage.

14 Critical hit with conjurer’s acid dart ability for 15 points of damage.

15 Another successful Tumbling Spell spiritual weapon. She had a very solid run with the spiritual spells in the Kreegwood region.

16 Lem attacked the prone troll with a flank, using blessing of fervor for an additional attack for a total of four attacks. Regular damage summed to 10 points, plus 42 sneak attack and a 4 point bleed. Deadly.

17 Emerald at 400 g.p., comb at 850 g.p., gloves of swimming and climbing.

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Book IV, Chapter 14: Mother Of Oblivion
Floodwater Fight

Gloriana woke in the early morning and emerged into the hall from one of the guest rooms where she had sheltered. It was quiet, and the oracle had to wait for a full minute in the gloom as a great host of haunts swelled and drifted around her, tugging at her curls, scarves, and hems. Had they witnessed it the others might have seen a shimmering in the air, a distortion that made Gloriana indistinct, but they were still chambered, and the oracle felt relief her friends did not witness the opera of ghosts. Bearing the horror of the previous day’s events, the visions were frightful. When the howling finally drifted into silence Gloriana took another minute to quell her trembling before finally making her way outside.

The rain still fell, not intense, but not abating. As she emerged from the main entry she glanced across the sodden yard at the curtain wall to the east and saw Abby leave a tower doorway, followed by Vale pulling on his tunic. The oracle smiled quietly to herself, and pretended not to notice as she walked carefully through the mud to the smallest pyre.1

••••

Vale had elected to stay at the fortress where he still felt his duty lay, and Rahab, in turn, had somehow elected not to remonstrate with the big man in a lecture entitled: Remaining at Rannick: A Study in Stupidity. There were a few small tasks the party could manage before departing, simple things that might provide help to The Black Arrow in their absence. With the aid of Rahab’s acid splash and prestidigitation, and Gloriana’s orison of water creation, the companions managed to clean one room in the fortress of blood and gore, making a more welcome retreat for Vale as he resolved to spend his time repairing, reordering, and cleaning to the extent possible.

“It may be that additional threats deeper in the mountains do not yet know that Fort Rannick has been liberated,” Gloriana explained. “That is no guarantee of safety, of course, but it may be that, for the moment, you remain in peace. Of course, should new threat appear, I can only encourage you to make the best of your escape and find your way to Turtleback Ferry. Better you live and the fortress fall again. In the coming months and years this place will need you.”

The big man nodded solemnly. “Rannick isn’t much to claim right now, anyway.”

“Heed my words,” insisted the oracle. “We will do what we can to find Bayden. Focus on staying safe and working in small steps for now. Leave the uncertain future far away in your mind.”

Kara and Lem had collected the horses from the forest camp to the southeast, and now Gloriana finished lashing a makeshift urn to Marigold’s saddle. She had found the container among the destruction, and used it to collect ashes from the still-smoldering pyre containing Shelalu’s, Jakardros’, and the cat’s cremains. A thick wooden disk sealed with wax served as lid. Like Rahab regarding Shelalu’s necklace, the oracle had secretly decided to return the cremains to the Mierani someday, knowing the gesture was only small, hopeful it would serve some purpose of healing.

She did not tell anyone of her fear that she might see the elven ranger again.

••••

Abby and Vale regarded one another in silence, then the warrior hauled herself into the saddle atop Sparky. “Watch out for yourself,” she said with a faint smile. The Black Arrow’s gaze followed as Abby turned the horse and led the others out the southeastern gate. Lem fanned out to the left and clucked Cinnamon up ahead to keep sharp watch on the surrounding forest.

“Turtleback Ferry,” Gloriana called back to the big man. Then Rahab and Kara fell in behind the oracle and they, too, trotted out of Fort Rannick under rainfall. Behind them in the yard churned three great columns of smoke rising into the cloud cover like pillars to hold aloft the sky.

••••

The oracle noticed that when Fort Rannick was out of sight the companions seemed to loom a little larger in the saddle. They kept watch, but did not fear to allow the horses bold movement, as though the Kreegwood had finally relinquished the power to strike fear. By the time they reached the riverside Gloriana was singing a song of her people, a song of The Road.

••••

“The river is high,” Kara remarked.

“Too high,” Abby answered back. “Lots of debris.”

Riding point, Lem watched a large tree branch bobbing downstream, felled from a mighty oak somewhere miles behind them to the north. “The rain wouldn’t have raised the water this much. Moving faster, too!”

The alchemist kept close watch to her left and within a quarter of an hour realized the danger.

“It’s rising!” she called.

Rahab glanced back over his shoulder at the grey sky still ushering rain onto the land. “Something must be wrong with the dam.”

“What dam?” Gloriana asked. She had tied her hair back with a scarf against the damp.

“Skull’s Crossing to the north, at the point where the river emerges from the Storval Deep. If the river rising this fast is not due to the rain, then something has failed at that dam.”

Kara’s alarm sounded quickly: “Turtleback Ferry is in danger!”

Lem was already kicking at Cinnamon’s ribs. “We must make the bridge before the flood claims it!”

In a moment they were galloping hard, mud spraying high as hooves churned the ground.

••••

They found the bridge intact, though the water continued to rise. Racing across, they turned south toward Turtleback Ferry. Abby worried that by the time they reached the village the horses would be spent, but there seemed little alternative.

Half an hour later they rounded a rock outcropping and their destination came into view.

Turtleback Ferry was drowning.

••••

Already the southwestern and southern portion of the village were largely lost to the encroaching lake. The town square was under a foot of water lapping at the steps leading up to the stone temple of Erastil. Ground floor windows of Bottom’s Up had begun flooding. The docks were gone, and many of the single-story buildings were soon to disappear. Debris floated everywhere: tables, cloth, buckets, barrels, fruit. At the general store a rickety ferry toppled and shifted against the side of the building, rattling loudly. A woman and a group of children cried out as they clung to the vessel in desperation. At the western edge of the village one lone building emerged from the wash, only the first and second stories visible. Anguished villagers loomed in the windows, trying to comfort one another, calling for help, crying in terror. Here and there a rooftop hosted a person or small group who could only watch as doom encroached. Those who had escaped to the east stood and pointed, howling their fear, or else raced back and forth frantically among their fellows trying to take inventory of family and friends. Chaos reigned.

••••

Lem spurred Cinnamon forward, dismounting smoothly at water’s edge, and the stout pony quickly hustled for higher ground. By dint of extract and spell Kara and Rahab took flight, confident that Urdrenn and Pentacle would make their way from the waters. From the vantage of the air, alchemist and wizard spotted something moving in the water among flooding buildings. Disturbed from whatever water-side lair it normally occupied, the creature was serpentine and smoothly fast, fifteen feet of rippling reptile with a patterned back and a belly the color of indigo so deep it might have been black. It moved purposefully toward the ferry and its hapless passengers.

Golden curls tumbled free as Gloriana hauled away her scarf. The oracle rummaged in her haversack while nudging Marigold forward, and as she produced a scroll she looked up. “Abby! Come here! I have something for you!” The warrior arrived a moment later and slid expertly from Sparky’s back, then slapped the horse’s rump to send it to safety.

“Here!” She drew her sword.

The oracle read the spell from the scroll. As first the words, then the scroll parchment itself disappeared in a flash of magical fire the incantation spilled out and over Abby, the oracle, and Marigold. The horse snorted in alarm, unused to the sensation, and then whinnied nervously as Gloriana urged the animal forward, whereupon it discovered its hooves standing firm atop the water.2 Marigold shook her mane in alarm.

Abby splashed forward and found the rising lake beneath her feet as solid ground. Fortunately, the warrior adapted to the magic more readily than the horse, and soon she was making her way over the water.

“Lem!” Gloriana called. “Come to me!”

Kara lined up a shot and hurled a small spheroid into the water. The bulb struck the snake and flashed a buzzing blast of electricity over the reticulated scales. Coils twisted in the water as the reptile jerked back and panned its trapezoidal head left and right in search of prey. Kara’s magic prevented the grenado from lighting up every other living thing, villager and friend alike, in contact with the water.3

By now Lem had spotted the incoming beast and knocked an arrow, firing true. His second shot missed, and already the constrictor had recovered, racing toward the ferry. The gardener abandoned his bow and drew his knives. “It’s a big snake!”4 he called, then headed for the water.

Rahab flew steadily forward, angling for a rooftop past the general store whence a girl of about twelve years had managed to clamber, only to find herself momentarily free of flood waters yet still trapped in the midst of danger. The wizard glanced back at the looming snake and cast a potent spell that crashed through the reptile’s defenses. The creature was struck blind, and a moment later the conjurer arrived at the rooftop.

••••

Abby ran over the top of the water and sliced a gaping wound into the barrel-thick body. The blind constrictor whipsawed around, trying to capture the warrior in crushing coils, and in so doing exposed itself to Lem’s double blades that opened another deep, bleeding wound. The snake made a reverse stroke but could not find the gardener, though Lem had a new problem now, finding himself in water to his armpits.

From the east came Gloriana’s exasperated shout.

“Damnit, Lem!”

In between knife strokes the gardener shot the oracle an insouciant smile.

••••

Marigold was not at all happy about the new state of mobility, and Gloriana found it difficult to maintain control of the horse despite murmured reassurances. Eventually the horse sidled up to the ferry, and now the occupants turned to stare at this new wonder.

“Hello, children,” Gloriana began in a bright-but-soothing tone. “This is Marigold the magic horse, and she can walk on water. Who would like a ride?” Her smile was every benevolent mother’s, and haunt-drawn scarves drifted like a mantle of color beneath the sunburst of her golden hair. Grateful villagers would later swear they saw a break in the clouds admit a single sunbeam down upon the mounted oracle.

The introduction was interrupted by the woman in the ferry resuming a frantic scream as the giant constrictor looped near.

••••

Abby’s next sword stroke severed the snake clean through, and the twitching segments began to drift away on creeping crimson flood waters.5

“You first, honey.” A golden vision atop some kind of celestial equine reached a comforting hand out to the youngest child in the ferry. Through a haze of tiny hiccups and tears, the youth found himself lifted clear of the vessel and settled into a warm embrace of jasmine, roses, and the promise of safety. Out of the rain came the voice again, calm, steady, reassuring. “Marigold will take us to shore.”

••••

Rahab landed on the rooftop next to the general store and extended his hand to the girl. The youngster, Tabitha, looked scared.

“We remove to dry ground,” the wizard said, and the girl reluctantly took his hand. She expected to be lifted into the air by the flying man, but instead, they vanished instantly . . .

. . . and reappeared in the same moment forty feet away on safe land among the other villagers. A startled noise and ripple of whispers transfixed those nearby. Rahab released Tabitha’s hand and prepared to take flight once more when he noted the girl’s expression.

“Now, now,” the conjurer raised a cautionary finger. “Do not vomit.” Then he soared back into the air.

••••

Gloriana could safely transport three children at once on Marigold, and now she wheeled toward shore. As they trotted, she glanced back over her shoulder. “I will be back in just a moment. If you see my friend—the flying man in blue robes—you may go with him. We are going to get you all to safety.”

The horse made for shore, whinnying complaint and tossing its head. The oracle deftly lowered children to the cluster of displaced villagers. “Help them find their families!” the oracle called to the adults, already reining Marigold to return. “Keep clear of the water!”

With the constrictor dead, Lem moved back toward land and recovered his bow. As he approached the newly deposited children he made shooing motions. “Everyone got all their fingers and toes? Let’s move back. The golden lady will bring your friends.”6

The gardener glanced to his right and saw a desperate human woman bearing down on him in frantic run. Too late he realized what was happening, and as she tried to scoop him into her arms the gardener struggled vehemently.

“No no no No NO! Halfling! Not a child! Over there! Let me go!”

••••

From her vantage in the sky Kara spied something moving in the lake to the northwest, sweeping quickly toward the lone building still above water at the western edge of town. At first she thought it was a particularly large tree that had been felled by the flood, but it was too fluid, too sleek, too dynamic for driftwood, and a chill transfixed her.

“Something’s coming!” the alchemist shouted to her friends. “By The Brightness, it’s huge!”

Abby charged across the water top in the direction of the far west building. Avenger was a circle of brilliant silver glistening with rainfall as she moved.

••••

Rahab flew back to the general store and hovered expertly above the tottering ferry. Only two children remained, along with the woman. One of the girls, Kimi, gazed in wonder at the airborne wizard.

Once again the conjurer extended his hand. “Would you like to show your friends a magic trick?”

The girl’s eyes could grow no wider. She gave a slow nod.

Rahab and Kimi vanished.7

••••

Out of thin air: “—of course, it’s not really a trick in the sense of illusion magic which I’m confident you recognize as a vastly inferior school of arcana. Traversal bypassing n-dimensional space and time! The equation is really quite elegant . . . .”

New gasps sounded as dazzled villagers once again saw Rahab appear from nothing with another rescued child. Many villagers scattered in alarm, even as the conjurer chatted pleasantly and Kimi’s joyful giggles sounded.

Abby happened to glance back at that moment. Rahab released the girl’s hand and was about to fly away when—in a moment the warrior felt certain the entire party would have paid genuine gold to see—Kimi suddenly threw her little arms around the wizard’s legs in a great hug before dashing off to join the other children in shelter. Rahab blinked in surprise, utterly unequipped to deal with the complexities of one of the most occult powers in the cosmos: children.

••••

Gloriana hoisted the last child from the ferry onto Marigold’s saddle in front, and then helped the woman climb on behind. It was suddenly difficult to maneuver the horse.

“Not so tight,” the oracle wheezed. “My dear, it’s—” A gasp. “—please. You’re—” Another gulp. “—safe. Let . . . !”

Marigold side-stepped, champed, and once more whinnied protest at her own unwilling violation of basic physics.

“Mari, just go!” Gloriana managed. Soon the shore and its desperate villagers neared. This had all gone much smoother in her mind when she first formulated her plan.

“Lem!” she called against the woman’s crushing grip. “Get over here!” By now the gardener had escaped the villager’s mistaken embrace and was already jogging in Gloriana’s direction.

The woman tearfully thanked the oracle as she slid off Marigold and helped the last youth down. The other villagers clustered nearby cheered the horse-borne angel of gold and silk that had appeared like sun after a storm and delivered the children of Turtleback Ferry from danger.

••••

From the deep rose something ancient and awful.

••••

At first Kara could scarcely credit her senses. The size of it! Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rahab fly into view. She glanced at the wizard and realized from his expression that he recognized the monster, and that they—the party, Turtleback Ferry, the very countryside—were in grave danger.

It was a mass of rippling flesh, vaguely pyramidal and larger than any single building in the entire village. From what seemed to be the creature’s base sprouted eight great tentacles of disparate girth and length, each covered in rows of powerful suckers, and several crowned by some sort of glaring ocular organ. From the pinnacle of the bloated body surged a long neck, reptilian, prehensile, lunging. At the end of the neck perched the monster’s head, something from deep water, long and angular, owing form to fish and lizard alike, with a powerful toothed maw large enough to swallow two draft horses simultaneously. A pair of hideous, gleaming red eyes shone with cruel intelligence, and the whole of the creature blended all the colors of crushing water: blue with green with black. It moved as easily through the lake as a bird through air, and even at this distance Kara could sense the sheer malignancy of it, potent and lingering like the flood that heralded its arrival.

Aiming at the lone western building that still stood above the water, the monster surged forward, parting liquid in a bow wave that easily swamped several drifting rowboats.

••••

Great was the store of knowledge to which Rahab had access, and vast was his expertise on multiple subjects, not least of which included those creatures sometimes categorized as originating “Outside,” that is external to the Prime Material Plane. It was a common misconception among mortals born to the Prime that theirs was the ancient reality, but the conjurer knew better. He knew that the extensive turbulences beyond spanned eons uncounted and within dwelt all manner of power strange, elusive, maddening. Gazing upon the monster Rahab recognized it from lore and from his knowledge of the diverse, complex planes.

He knew that Varisian legend told of a monster that humans called Black Magga dwelling in the bitter cold of the Storval Deep. According to some, simply witnessing the creature rise from the waters made recounting the tale impossible because black blood would well from the throat of any who dared give voice to the memory.

He knew that many attributed violent storms to the arrival of Black Magga who supposedly used such tempests to pull victims into the depths, whereupon they might be devoured or transformed through hideous magic into vermiform horrors lurking in the waters.

He knew of claims that Black Magga’s nature encompassed such blasphemy as to render divine magic used against it entirely inert, and that should anyone somehow find a way to cut the heart from the beast and bathe in its blood they would become invulnerable to the power of the gods.

He knew all of these legends and others beside, and he knew that the truth of the creature was much, much worse.

Flying over the flood-wrecked village and gazing upon the slick mass of death bearing down from the northwest, Rahab knew fear.

••••

Kara gained altitude. So did the conjurer. At a break in nearly-submerged rooftops Abby saw Black Magga, too.

What the fuck is THAT? Nevertheless, the stout warrior hefted sword and shield, advanced on the surface of the lake to what was once the western village edge, and shouted challenge at the thing.

From his vantage in the air the wizard heard the call and winced. “Mother of oblivion!” he croaked loudly in warning. “Here from the Abyssal realm, it is favored of Lamashtu, The Demon Queen who births monsters! The creature is ancient, older than some beings laying claim to the title ‘god,’ and it possesses great resistance to magic! Beware its breath!”

Eyes wide, Kara quickly drank the mutagen that enhanced her physical abilities. Back at the shore Lem scrambled onto Marigold’s saddle behind Gloriana, and the two set off at best speed toward the approaching horror. Already the renewed screams from the western building reached the oracle’s ears, an echo of those rising behind as villagers on land spied the new threat.

Black Magga loomed, casting the westernmost building into shadow. The great plesiosaurian head swung low, gaped, and belched a foul smelling smoke the color of soot over Abby.

A fugue descended on the warrior.8

••••

“This is very bad!” Rahab shouted from the air as he witnessed the attack. He cast the spell of blinding dust and watched as the glittering particles of magic showered down on the rubbery blue-green mother of oblivion. The monster did not even take notice, and the conjurer silently cursed.

Kara circled and launched a bomb. It burst in a shower of electricity, and writhing tentacles swatted at the air and water. Black Magga turned her great head and fixed her glare on the alchemist. For a moment, Kara had the terrible sense that she was being sized up, and she could not decide what was worse: To be judged a threat or to be judged insignificant.

Abby fought through the fog in her mind, struggling to find some sense of herself in her surroundings, and finding it difficult to remember why she was even here. In her frustration she stumbled forward and swung her blade in a vicious arc, striking a nearby tentacle and cutting a hefty chunk of rubbery flesh, but in her haze the movement carried her closer to the mother of oblivion, and the creature turned its attention from Kara to clamp mighty teeth shut around Abby’s torso. The pain was staggering,9 and she still did not understand what was happening, or why.

On horseback, Gloriana dug out a potion of flight and handed it back to Lem, who quickly gulped the contents down, stood in the saddle, and leapt into the air, skimming low over the water to hide his movement as he angled around the westernmost building, maintaining stealth. The oracle spurred Marigold forward, desperately trying to get Abby in sight. The horse was not doing well, still disoriented by how the water was behaving, and feeling the stark terror of all animals in the presence of something so monstrous and predatory as the thing rearing out of the water.

Black Magga reoriented on Kara again, and from her gullet rumbled ancient words in the language of dragons, an inflection and dialect that was old when the surface of Golarion was still cooling. An immensity of magical power flooded the alchemist’s mind and she felt a weight descend on her will like a curtain of lead eclipsing a window. The mother of oblivion issued a command in the Common Tongue, and the word escaped past razor teeth with the sound of water pouring into a scalding cauldron.

“Still.”

Kara could do nothing but obey.10

••••

A moment’s clarity punctured the uncertainty howling in Abby’s brain and she swatted at Black Magga’s body. The blow was minor, and the great blubbery mass drifted back. Somehow, Abby managed to step into the gap, and attacked again, and again, and again, but only landed a hit with the last, too foggy of mind to focus her initial attempts. Some kind of ichor erupted from the wound, but the tension and mass of the rubbery flesh was so great that the rend seemed to close immediately.

Rahab blasted the writhing mass with a ball of magical fire that evaporated water in a forty-foot diameter. When the gout of flame cleared the mother of oblivion was utterly unaffected.

“The rest of you better get in this!” the wizard howled. He was shaken. One of his more potent spells had been shrugged off as less than a nuisance. He could sense the monster’s power, and he trembled at the menace—and the allure—of it.

Gloriana took some of Abby’s pain even as she dismounted and urged Marigold to return to shore. The horse needed no further encouragement. The oracle noted Kara suspended, inactive, in the air some seventy feet above, and she begged the spirits to curse the mother of oblivion with an affliction her people used to hex those who intended harm. The magic fizzled and died. Gloriana was horrified.11

From around the westernmost building Lem zoomed just above the waterline and he barrel-rolled as a great tentacle swatted the air, but he judged the distance incorrectly and the rubbery mass slammed into him with breathtaking force. The mother of oblivion became a shuddering mass of activity, splashing great surges of water as tentacles wavered and crashed, the sea monster head leaning down to bite Abby once more. Lem was batted out of the air and into the water with a terrific blow, only to find himself launched skyward in a geyser as the flight magic carried him aloft once more. Abby was bleeding heavily, her mind without purchase, her will befuddled, her body dying.12

Black Magga drifted slightly back once more.

••••

In the air above the drowning village Kara hung, hovering in magical flight, a prisoner in her own body. She could do nothing but watch and adhere utterly to the command of the monster. Her brain echoed with the hissing word repeating over and over again, allowing no other thought, no counter impulse.

At water level, Abby’s confusion finally gained the upper hand and she brought her own blade against her own body. Gloriana was crying with absorbed pain, with the terrible vision of her best friend inflicting self-harm, with the desperation of her party’s impotence against this monstrosity from the water. Only the day before they had carved a swath of bloody victory through the fiercest ogres the region had known to reclaim a fortress from captivity. Now they were being crushed as easily as insects under a boot.

Rahab drew forth one of his magical pearls and used it to recall the spell of glittering dust. “Gloriana!”

The oracle looked directly overhead where the wizard flew.

“Kara is under mind control, and Abby suffers the effects of magical confusion! If you can dispel, do so!” He launched the coruscating magic against the rubbery mass once more, and once more Black Magga shrugged it away as nothing. In desperation the conjurer looked about for something —anything— that might alter the course of the battle: a lure to draw the mother of oblivion away, or an object to force her withdrawal. A sudden sensation coursed through him, and his powerful mind recognized the effect: A field of distortion around the creature bent space and time in such a way as to impede dimensional translation.

She is coterminous with the Ethereal, and usurps interstitial positioning! Devils in Hell, her very essence subverts the mathematics of trans-dimensional migration! A crushing gloom threatened his will. We . . . we cannot triumph here . . . .

Gloriana took more of Abby’s and now Lem’s pain, and then she glanced at the westernmost building. All those inside had gathered at the second floor windows in helpless terror. Black Magga might at any moment shift weight, or whip a tentacle, and tumble the structure into ruin. The inhabitants’ surrender suddenly kindled in the oracle a righteous anger. She howled at the villagers inside. “Get the fuck out of the building! If you can swim, swim!”

Reaching deep within herself, Gloriana extended her magic of protection to envelop Kara some seventy feet above. It was a desperate move requiring much of her magical reserve, and even as she felt the spell wash over the alchemist at that distance she knew it had failed.13

Her bitterness was hard as mountain stone. “It didn’t work, Rahab!”

••••

But now it was the gardener’s turn, and he was a dynamic whir of blades against rubbery flesh. His first great slice struck something important just below the surface of the thing, some sac of vitality containing a viscous fluid necessary to Black Magga’s being. The stuff burst on him in a gout, a foulness and reek like no other, putting to shame even the powerful stench of the ghouls he hated above all other undead. The taste of it was in his mouth, the slime of it coated his skin, the sticky vitriol of it turned his brilliant black hair blue-gray.

Yet his blade bit deep, indeed, and the ichor slurped and spurted into the water where it coalesced in globules the size of wine barrels, bobbing grotesquely.

“Slimefucker!” Lem howled at the mass, and then watched in amazement as Black Magga began to withdraw. So stunned by this turn was he that the gardener almost missed an opportunity to cut the monster again, but cut he did, slicing a single shuddering sucker tip from a tentacle and staring in horror as the ring of flesh slunk jelly-like into the lake.14

Stinking sheen of blue-green clouded Claybottom Lake with milky effluvium as the mother of oblivion submerged and moved away to the south. Fish and waterfowl fled in all directions.

Rahab watched in stunned silence, flying down thirty feet closer to his companions, unable to account for the monster’s removal, save perhaps that the creature had decided to seek easier prey elsewhere. He guessed that would mean doom for some settlement further down the lake, or along the Skull River into Lake Syrantula.

Above him, Kara suddenly shook her head and snapped out of the monster’s magic. She held her elevation, eager for a target, her heart pounding and emotion seething within, equal parts rage and fear. Her own will had been usurped by the power of another. The violation felt profound.

Standing atop the rising lake Abby babbled incoherently.15

••••

Kara, Rahab, and Lem remained airborne for a couple of minutes, scouting for sign of the mother of oblivion’s return, but saw nothing save the bloated body of a single ogre washing from the Skull River into the lake to the north. Abby’s senses returned when the magic of confusion faded, and Gloriana used her power to channel healing and restore the warrior and Lem to full vitality.

It was another twenty minutes to escort to safety the last remaining villagers trapped in the westernmost building and elsewhere on rooftops. Gloriana had retrieved Marigold and rode back and forth on the water-walking horse to ferry persons ashore. Rahab helped with the use of dimensional traversal, and pretty much everyone agreed they would rather have gone with Gloriana.

••••

While Kara and Lem headed to inspect where the ogre body had washed into an eddy, Rahab landed beside Abby on a hill overlooking that portion of the village that remained clear of lake water. For the time being it appeared that the level had stopped rising, though much flooding remained. As Gloriana arrived below with the last rescued villager, the gathered survivors of Turtleback Ferry erupted in a chorus of cheers. Tossed hats scattered in the air. Applause and tears of joy resounded from all assembled, and already her name had become a chant: “Glori! Glori! Glori!”

Abby looked down at the jubilant celebration and her shoulders sank. “Of course,” she quietly shook her head.

Rahab glanced over.

“Abby, my friend,” said the conjurer, and he threw a sympathetic arm around her shoulder, “worship is a condition that diminishes both the worshiper and the worshiped.”

After a while Abby said, “They love Glo.”

“They think they love Gloriana.”

Abby decided not to lock philosophical horns with Rahab just then and let that pass. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“What bothers me is that it doesn’t bother Gloriana more. Recall that some of these are the same villagers who elected to relinquish whatever power lies in their greed to feed Lucrecia and Xanesha’s master, which is how all this got started . . . for us, anyway. They’re happy to be alive—a perfectly reasonable sentiment—and it’s always easy to turn to the beautiful in thanks, in hopes of catching beauty’s attention.”

“Glo is more than that.”

“Exactly.”

Another silence. Eventually Abby turned to the wizard. “That’s what you meant: ‘They think they love Gloriana.’”

Rahab had kept a supportive arm around Abby the whole time. His own gaze lingered on the oracle making her way among the villagers to see after their health, all the while trying to politely maneuver through those that mobbed her.

“They’re in love with the idea, with the vision of the golden woman on the waterborne horse.”

“They don’t know her like we do,” Abby murmured. The conjurer nodded.

Another long silence passed between them. Finally the warrior reached her own arm out to encircle Rahab’s shoulder in turn.

“That little girl seemed to appreciate you.”

Rahab looked pleased. “She will be a powerful wizard someday. Mark my words.”

Abby laughed. Arm in arm, they made their way down the hill toward the cheering.


1 The party leveled up to 9th overnight at the fortress after the battle. Having written an interlude for every member to mark some previous levels, I am electing, for now, to make a footnote observing advancement. It may be that I resume interludes at points that seem narratively relevant, but time will tell. Highlights this time around: Lem’s sneak attack advanced and he and Abby took the Outflank feat. Kara discovered an extract called Infusion, allowing extracts to be used by others. Gloriana’s channel ability advanced and she took the Toppling Spell feat. Rahab got 5th level spells: teleport and wall of force. He also got the Augment Summoning feat. 9th level is a good one.

2 Scroll of water walk.

3 Magic is nice in that if you have to explain something that utterly defies the laws of physics, like electricity not running wild in the water, you can just say, “Magic!”

4 Nightbelly boa constrictor.

5 Another day, another Abby critical hit (40 points of damage).

6 Lem’s Diplomacy check with the frightened children was not bad for someone with . . . less-than-cordial sentiment about humans.

7 Ok. I’m really proud of this use of dimensional steps. It’s great in battle, eminently useful, but I love gaming moments where it gets used in non-battle or unconventional circumstances, and I was really pleased with Rahab being able to help out (it’s also possible he was showing off. A bit).

8 Abby rolled a 25 on her Will save . . . and still failed. She suffered 2 points of Wisdom damage and became confused as the spell of the same name for 5 rounds. We were off to a great start.

9 Abby’s attack was a critical hit for 30 points, and luckily the magic of her sword bypassed the mother of oblivion’s damage reduction, but in turn, Abby got hit by an Attack of Opportunity for 42 points of damage, almost half of her hit points in a single strike.

10 Dominate person spell and Kara’s Will save was terrible, and so was the follow up roll from the spent Hero point. For those keeping track at home, so far the only two party members who have affected the mother of oblivion in any way have now been impeded by significant spells.

11 Glo cast a Reach Spell of bestow curse and watched as Black Magga’s spell resistance completely defeated the magic.

12 Damage all over the place. Lem got hit for 34 points, Abby for another 24 and requiring a Fortitude save to resist energy drain, which she made, but the warrior was in bad shape regardless. In retrospect, I suppose this fight is designed to remind the players that sometimes you have to flee.

13 Reach Spell of protection from evil to give Kara a new save against dominate person at a +2 bonus! Yay! . . . Kara rolled a 12.

14 Lem had a big moment here. His first attack hit for 23 points (including sneak attack) and establishing a 4 point bleed. Black Magga started her turn by bleeding that 4 points, and elected to withdraw. This presented Lem with an Attack of Opportunity, successful for another 15 points.

15 At least she was no longer hitting herself with her own weapons.

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Book IV, Chapter 13: Aftermath
Scenes Of Devastation

Silence fell on Fort Rannick broken only by the soft rustle of rain in the yard.

••••

Abby and Gloriana embraced in mutual gratitude, deep affection, exhausted support. They passed no words, the effort too much to muster, the act too insignificant to capture the moment. So drenched in sweat and blood were they that neither could feel the gentle fall of the other’s tears on her neck.

Rahab watched them in silence, struck dumb by how profoundly glad he was that oracle and warrior lived. The crushing cost of so much magic, so much battle, and so much pain overcame him, and as he leaned against the wall he closed his eyes against the soft blurring in his vision.

The power of flight delicately suspended Kara in mid-air as lightly as a dandelion aloft on a breeze. She found the hazy middle distance most welcome, that range of sight where haunted images could only hint at the margins, where the mind could capture precious respite from experience.

Lem remained near the main door. He had meant to track the retreat of the few remaining ogres, but his eyes had quickly glazed. Endurance ebbed. As he lowered himself to a clear stretch of stone he felt a pang of melancholy that, just then, he lacked a small plot of good soil with blooms awaiting inspection and an ale to measure sunset.

They remained like that for a long time.

••••

When the magic of the pit restored the floor Vale got slowly, painfully to his feet, then shuffled gingerly past ogre corpses and around the corner to join the others. Kara descended from flight at elixir’s end.

Slowly they found their voices. “Thank you” and “Are you well?” gave way to “I don’t believe it” and “Did you see that?” Gloriana embraced each of her companions in turn, then did it again. Kara and Rahab joined adand1 and shared quiet words in Elven, the language itself a kind of dirge for a fallen friend. Abby lifted Lem off the ground in a bear hug, then favored Vale with a smile. Everyone ventured into the rain to escape the battle stench and to feel something clean on their skin.

In the milling and mingling Lem and Rahab met. They passed a cautious silence, and then slowly shook hands with a single, approving nod.

“Not bad, for a human.”2

The wizard cracked a genuine smile. It was enough.

••••

Back inside Gloriana used the last healing wand, a procedure that drained the device entirely.3 They assembled at the corner of the hallway to confer and plan, but once again found themselves gazing at the fortress interior in silence.

The hallway was a ruin: Ogre corpses strewn like wreckage in the hurricane’s wake. Here lay a severed arm, there a leg, there a head. The floor was sticky with blood, the walls were splattered with gore. Fallen weapons and spent ammunition canted at angles of aftermath. Lingering smolder wisped thin smokes into the air. They found the remains of Shelalu, Jakardros, and the mountain lion and removed them to the entry, away from the carnage of brutes. Linens from storage served as shrouds.

“We should search the rest of the grounds,” Gloriana said quietly.

“They’re gone,” answered Lem.

“All the same, we might find . . . we need to know what happened.”

Vale’s face was grim, haunted. “No.”

Rahab was uncharacteristically subdued. “Better to know.”

Bitterness in the big man’s voice like a great weight: “Is it?”

The conjurer glanced at a soft drape of linen outlining form in repose, a stark white amidst all that bloody mess. “Yes,” he said quietly.

“You search,” Abby nodded to the others. “I’ll get started on some clean up.”

Vale fell silent and went back outside.

Gloriana watched the man leave and turned to her companions, laying a hand each on Kara’s and Rahab’s forearm. “I’ll stay with him for a while and catch up later. Stay together. Stay safe.” She moved to follow The Black Arrow.

Lem exhaled slowly. “I assume we’re here for the night?”

“We’re not going anywhere in present condition,” replied the alchemist.

Rahab nodded down the hall “Start here, work our way up.” He and Kara began picking their way carefully around the slaughter.

The gardener lingered a moment, hands on hips, staring. He gave a low whistle. “Chaldira’s teeth,” he marveled. “We do good work.”

••••

In room after room more recent carnage had been applied to previously existing indignities. Again and again they found craftwork made kindling: furniture, tapestry, weapons, tools. In the chamber where Gragavan Kreeg died the walls were awash in the ogre’s poetry scrawled crudely in the blood of Black Arrows. Rahab declined to translate.

The eastern portion of the hall was divided into multiple guest rooms that might be temporarily reclaimed. It would not be luxury, but these chambers had only suffered damage where other areas had been places of butchery. Some type of bedding could be recovered for a night’s rest, at least.

Gloriana caught up with Kara, Lem, and Rahab on the first floor.

“He has lost much,” the oracle answered the unvoiced question, “but he is hardy. He needs time. What have you found?”

By way of reply Rahab opened a door into the corner tower revealing the former chapel. A marble altar had been heaped with six human corpses, and it was not entirely clear that lower bodies matched upper. From trophy antlers on the walls hung organs or sections of flayed human skin. Stag points were corked with eyeballs or severed heads. A crude painting in blood on the altar wall suggested a vaguely canine visage with three stylized eyes.

Silence. The wizard closed the door.

••••

After a rest to recover some of her impressive strength, Abby methodically hauled ogre bodies—and body parts—into the yard and collected them in a pile. It was grim work; nevertheless she found a certain meditative calm in trudging back and forth, in the slow creep of progress. The horrors of the fortress interior remained, of course, but at least some of the areas were clearer. She had no illusion, however, that any real improvement had occurred. It would take weeks, perhaps months to restore fortress integrity and render it habitable for a defense force again, if one could even be mustered.

When she finished the warrior stood in the rain a while and let it soak her hacked hair. Then she used her dagger to slowly, carefully shave the rest of her head. It was just easier that way.

••••

Not all was horror. The companions looted multiple items of magic and treasure from the ogres, things that would go a long way to restoring much consumed or lost during the assault, or to augment their already worthy arsenal.4

In one of the upper rooms they found a smashed wine cabinet that had a hidden compartment containing a wooden coffer, a pair of soft leather boots in olive green, and a tiny jewelry box.

Lem examined the containers, and finding no traps, skillfully unlocked each using tools from his kit. The coffer held dozens of parchment sheets. Gloriana grabbed a handful and passed them to Rahab, then another to Kara. Wizard and alchemist set to reading.

“Sonnets,” observed Rahab with a measure of surprise. “Love poems written by Lamatar Bayden to someone named Myriana. Not bad, actually.”

“Lamatar?” Gloriana puzzled. “I’ve heard that name, in the tavern in Turtleback Ferry. Who is it?”

“Lamatar Bayden is —was, perhaps—the captain of The Black Arrows.”

Kara was curious. “Not Jakardros?”

The conjurer shook his head. “A platoon leader, I suppose. No, the commander of The Black Arrows has been Bayden for some five years, at least.”

Gloriana was cautious. “Have we . . . ?”

“I do not know,” Rahab said. “We would have to ask Vale. It will be difficult, as the bodies of The Black Arrows have suffered significant destruction.” Gloriana found herself silently wishing that the keep’s defenders had all died before the butchery had begun, and then haunted by the likelihood that they had not.

“And this ‘Myriana?’” asked the oracle.

The wizard lingered over some of the poems for a while, silently scrutinizing. “Uncertain, but I gather she resides in Whitewillow, or is somehow associated with that place. The sonnets may be a clue to Bayden’s movements. He seems to have visited there often. His boots,” and Rahab glanced at the olive green footwear, “are ensorcelled to make movement easier in swampy environments.5 He probably uses those to traverse Whitewillow and it’s environs.”

“What is Whitewillow?”

“A section of the Shimmerglens—dense marshland—on the far side of Claybottom Lake.” The wizard scratched absently at his goatee. “Interesting, given the nature of the place.”

“What do you mean?”

Rahab returned the parchments to the coffer. “The Shimmerglens are a region of Varisia particularly close—for lack of a better word—to The First World. Few enough venture to such locations without very good reason, fewer still of insufficient power to handle the magic potency of such places.”

Kara made a low sound of amazement. Gloriana looked back and forth between alchemist and wizard: “What is The First World?”

Kara nodded at Rahab. “This is your area of expertise.”

The conjurer expertly gauged Gloriana’s expression. “Just a summary, then, shall I? The First World is an atavism, a proto-generative plane primarily characterized by chaos, though with an emphasis on forested and mountainous regions. Think of it as a world in which the chaos of what we abruptly call ‘nature’ manifests in constant dynamism. Coterminous with both the Prime Material and Shadow planes, some lore holds The First World is an experiment by gods in early planar architecture, though the temporal problem of such characterization presents glaringly, of course. It is inhabited primarily by fey.”

“Is it evil?”

“In the interest of avoiding extended debate . . . No. Not as you tend to understand the concept.”

The oracle thought long. “Is it dangerous?”

“Exceedingly.” The conjurer nodded approvingly. “A much better conceptual question, by the way.”

“Then what was Bayden doing there?”

When Lem interjected it took everyone by surprise. He had opened the small jewelry box and discovered a silver locket, and within that a lock of silky hair the color of dense storm cloud.

“A nymph,” the gardener murmured.6

••••

Kara was appreciative. “Lem’s right. That is nymph hair.”7

“How can you tell?” Gloriana asked.

“Note the strangeness of it,” the alchemist nodded at the lock in Lem’s hand. “It has an allure, does it not? Something that draws the eye?”

“It’s beautiful,” the oracle murmured.

“Just so. I feel it, as surely as do Lem and Rahab. It is difficult to express, some yearning to touch the softness, to envelop one’s self as though in a welcome coat on a winter morning. That is the power of the nymph, an echo of the First World.”

The oracle’s voice sounded far away, lost in memory. “The children of the forest. Camp elders always warned us not to stray too far into the woods unattended in our youth.”

“Your elders were wise, for the power of the nymph is considerable.”

“Do you think she was helping Bayden against the region’s ogres?”

The wizard rejoined the discussion. “Given the sonnets, I think it far more likely he was merely under her power—”

“In love,” interjected Kara.

With significant force of will the conjurer mastered the urge to expound. “Regardless—”

“It’s possible.”

Rahab seemed frozen until he eventually blinked. “Very well. I allow it is possible the emotion was genuine—mutual, even—but that does not necessarily mean they were allied.”

“Perhaps,” Gloriana considered, “Bayden was away at the time of the invasion. He may be unaware of what has transpired here.”

“Again: possible.”

The oracle’s expression brightened momentarily. “He may be safe with Myriana!”

Lem, Kara, and Rahab exchanged a glance. “For various values of ‘safe,’” the wizard commented.

••••

They found a map room with multiple examples of the form in good condition. Rahab took some choice works and secured them in a map case that he slung alongside his haversack.

“Those belong to The Black Arrows,” Gloriana scolded.

“What Black Arrows?” The conjurer glanced around pointedly.

“Rahab.”

“I will consign these excellent pieces neither to predation nor neglect. The most responsible thing to do is take them.”

“That’s stealing!”

“That is archival preservation of knowledge. Should The Black Arrows somehow rally from what appears to be complete and utter desolation, and should they demand the return of maps that aren’t even of this region then I will consider any offers they make, weighed against the counter-proposal that I helped retake that which they demonstrated themselves unable to defend in the first place.”

Gloriana suddenly felt very tired and her voice sank to a near-whisper. “Do you think they’re really all gone?”

“I see nothing to suggest otherwise. Vale is the last, I think. A thing happened that has not transpired in some generations: Ogres organized in concerted effort at the behest of some other power, perhaps the lamia matriarch, perhaps her superiors. There is something much greater at work. I suspect Fort Rannick was simply in the way.”

The oracle ran her hands wearily through her golden hair.

••••

They found the uppermost chamber in the principal watchtower. The clapper in the alarm bell had been torn free and used as a bludgeon, then replaced with the corpse of a Black Arrow.

They found the long ascent to the giant eagle aerie within the north cliff wall. At the summit lay bits of eggshell, feathers, blood. One giant eagle corpse had been left, and Kara guessed the ogres ate the others. Those birds not slaughtered outright had probably fled, longstanding allies of The Black Arrows dispersed to the wilds from whence they came so many generations ago.

They found the curtain wall variously damaged and populated with the occasional body. The perimeter towers showed likewise, as did the outbuildings in the yard.

••••

While the others explored further, Rahab perused the list of names recovered from Lucrecia. Some of the names the wizard knew to be residents of Turtleback Ferry. Pieces of the puzzle had begun to link: old Thassilon, runes, the lamia matriarchs, Magnimar, this region, the concept of greed. He still did not know all that was going on, but felt certain that a force much greater than mere ogres lay behind it, moving pieces as a master enthroned at the chess board. Many questions remained unanswered, not least of which was just who were the wizard and his friends: pieces, observers, or the opponent?

••••

After another rest, Abby began helping Vale with Black Arrows, assembling a separate pyre from the brutes. Vale indicated that a crypt had been present since the early days, but that as long as he had been a member the organization chose the pyre for funerary rites. The big man insisted that Kaven’s body be rendered with The Black Arrows and not the ogres, and if any among them had objection they did not raise it.

Gloriana directed a third, separate pyre be erected for Shelalu, Jakardros, and the cat. With Vale’s blessing, the party took those useful items of magic,8 and Rahab made certain to rescue Shelalu’s locket, silently vowing to return the item to the Mierani some day.

Extra oil from storage was poured on furniture wreckage kindling. When the pyres were finally lit, they burned for days.

••••

“Captain Bayden’s alive?” Vale looked shocked.

“We don’t know,” cautioned Gloriana. “We intend to find out.”

“He is a great man. He could lead the rebuilding! Many would join him.”

“One thing at a time. What can you tell us about him?”

“He would never have allowed the fortress to fall. I assumed he had died early in the assault, and with him the spirit to hold against the ogres.”

“Did he ever leave?”

“Fort Rannick? Of course. Scouting. Interceptions. Supply in Turtleback Ferry. He often roamed the area.”

The oracle looked keen. “Roamed?”

“He would travel in the region. He called it ‘communing.’ Said it made him closer to the realm he was charged to guard.”

“And the far side of Claybottom Lake? Did his communing ever take him there?”

“The Shimmerglens? I guess.” Vale shrugged. “He always went alone.”

“How often did he venture?”

“Once a month, at least, gone for a week, usually. Do you think he was away when the ogres came?”

Gloriana laid a sympathetic hand on the big man’s shoulder. “If he still lives, we will find him.”

••••

Vale elected to bunk in one of the curtain wall towers least affected by the ogre presence. He was about to lie upon the makeshift pallet he had assembled when the door opened to the rain. Turning, he saw Abby.

The warrior walked straight up to him, her eyes never wavering. Vale started to say something, but she took his hand wordlessly. Then she kicked the door closed behind her and got down to the serious business of celebrating how good it felt to be alive.


1 Translated from Elven: greeting. Literally the word is “contact;” in this case it refers to an elven cultural tradition similar to shaking hands or bowing. Both parties touch palms with the elder or more respected person palms down, the younger or less established person palms up. Then both parties lean together and touch foreheads with eyes closed. Length of time in contact indicates the amount of formal respect and recognition between individuals, and participants may exchange words and phrases of emotional resonance pertinent to the individuals. Elves do hug, but the gesture occurs among lovers as prelude to, and during, sexual intimacy. Those elves that befriend other races among whom embracing has broader contexts learn to recognize the hug as a gesture that can mean friendship, attraction, familial connection, and simple joy. Kara is long since accustomed to Gloriana’s penchant for embracing, for example. In this instance, Rahab is actually making a gesture of significant respect to his friend by recognizing her cultural norm instead of presuming his own. “The wizard?” I hear you say. Yes. The battle at Fort Rannick was intense and profound, so much so that even an arrogant ass could not come away from the experience unchanged. Rahab isn’t reversing. It’s probably more accurate to describe it as deepening.

2 Is there a part of that movie that isn’t quotable?

3 The very last wand of cure light wounds completely drained for 109 points, mostly to Abby, with the remainder for Vale and Glo.

4 There was a lot of loot. Rather than go into all of it here, I’ll mention some highlights: handy haversack, wand of acid arrow, belt of giant strength +2. We kept some items, sold others. We also found a magical book with a Sihedron symbol on the cover. More on that later. Much more.

5 Boots of the mire.

6 Lem’s primary occupation as a rog—sorry, gardener— is supplemented with a few levels of ranger. His Knowledge: Nature roll came up quite good.

7 Of course, Kara’s Knowledge: Nature roll also tends to be really good, too.

8 This included things like Jakardros +1 shocking composite longbow, now back in Kara’s possession.

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Book IV, Chapter 12: Assault On Fort Rannick, Part 4
The Last Desperate Moments

By the time he heard Lem’s admonition, Vale had already jumped across the pit to fight alongside Abby.

The warrior had gotten a running start and leapt back to the other side, immediately closing on the ogres. Her armor was streaked with blood, her chopped hair wisped occasional smoke, sweat dragged soot in corpse-paint shapes on her face. In her right hand: A gore-coated blade on course to expunge the Kreeg line forever. In her left hand: A perfect circle of mystic metal, unmarred for all its battle experience and silver-bright like lunar fire. The hallway was littered with the corpses of ogres in various states of dismemberment, and when the remaining brutes saw Abby coming they very nearly blanched. On the other side of the pit she had been just another target for javelin or arrow. Now she was on this side.

As he stepped up to support her right flank, Vale understood to the very core of his being that if he was going to die in that place then he wanted to do so fighting by her side.

••••

Gloriana continued to absorb Abby’s wounds, continued to feed healing energy back to her companions. The spirit sword lunged at the lead ogre and struck it down. The creature did not even have time to cry out, and the oracle was already churning more spirits, her voice rising to a shout, demanding the attendance of souls, as many as she could muster, such that the air around her shimmered with the frenzy of haunted forms. Her body shook with so much power that she barely noticed one of the spirits that appeared was Iesha. Sound upon sound grew: chants, cheers, war cries, the rattle of spears against shields, the tremor of horse hooves, battle horns, a bloody host gathered for combat. Every ghost Gloriana enlisted joined its resonance to the clamor, swelling behind the oracle and then braking over the hallway battlefield as a wave on shoals.1

••••

Above the fray Kara drifted on a current of magical flight. From one of her belts the alchemist recovered the minor healing wand with which she had been entrusted. She felt pain all over. Muscle ache lingered in the wake of the shocker lizards convulsive energy blasts. She had weathered two fireballs, and now the ogres had begun shooting arrows. Her armor deflected some of the missiles, her extract of shielding sheathed her in magical power that repelled others, and still an occasional shaft would draw blood. But the deepest pain was the enormity of all the violence, all the torment of loss that scarred in ways no blade or bludgeon could. Kaven, the betrayer, barely across the threshold of adulthood; Jakardros, seasoned veteran of an august fighting force, father recently reunited with his daughter; the mountain lion, loyal and non-judgmental companion; Shelalu, wise woodland daughter, friend, ermenethlon:2 all dead. The very fortress itself, built as bulwark against the monsters of the mountains, had become a place of dying. The sense of it was all around, like the gritty sweat slime coating her skin, byproduct of struggle through fire and blood. Kara touched the wand gently against her wrist and felt the thrill of the healing magic easing some small measure of pain, but she knew the heavier wounds would linger long.

Yet she was an alchemist, a shaper of the very stuff of existence who understood at the most fundamental level what it meant to summon hidden power from even the smallest, simplest, most ordinary thing. The little point of peace the wand bestowed was enough to continue living just a few more seconds, to be reminded that the deeper pains of the heart tell us just how alive we really are.

••••

Upstairs Lem entered a short hallway, crept stealthily along the edge, and silently marveled that the ogres, in their bulk, could navigate these narrower spaces at all. He came to a set of double doors, listened carefully, and proceeded.

The gardener pushed his way into a room with a large table surrounded by a number of chairs, perhaps a dining hall or council chamber. Another door gave access to a smaller room from whence an arrow slit looked out on the fortress yard below. Lem counted twelve more ogres assembled some distance from the main entrance, curiously hesitant to rally and attack. Two particular brutes seemed provisional leaders, and though he could not understand what they were saying, it was clear the ogres were locked in heated argument. The gardener unlimbered his shortbow, his grin a rictus of anticipation.

The assault on Fort Rannick had been underway for twenty-seven minutes.

••••

Rahab sent another shard of magic into ogre flesh. Gloriana absorbed more damage from Abby and used her own wand to counter the injury. The ghostly scimitar continued to hack at targets, a useful addition to the companions’ fighting power.3 Above and slightly behind, Kara continued to apply her minor wand of healing in piecemeal recovery against recent wounds.

But it was Abby, with support from Vale, that wreaked the most havoc on the other side of the pit. Another significant blow felled another hapless ogre, then she shuffled to her right and slammed Avenger into a second opponent, forcing the creature back through the door in the west wall that gave access to the bunk barracks where Vale and Lem had sought temporary respite immediately after Shelalu’s death. The ogre tried hopelessly to retaliate, but as it stumbled back under Abby’s assault the momentum carried the creature crashing through furniture.4 Vale kept pace with the warrior, swinging his axe in measured strokes, gouging flesh and drawing blood.

Abby stabbed her longsword over the top of Avenger’s curve and finished the ogre. With a quick glance around for other threats she nodded to Vale and they returned to the hallway. Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab looked haggard but holding. Another momentary peace settled in, and Abby gave a quick thumbs up. The oracle returned the gesture. Warrior and Vale took up ready positions just north of the corner, waiting.

••••

Lem was having fun. From his vantage the gardener took careful aim, sighting on one of the ogres in the yard. He released and quickly ducked aside. There was a faint cry of alarm, and when he peeked he saw one of the creatures gesticulating while the others looked around in confusion. The two leaders continued to argue, oblivious. Already knocking another arrow, Lem remained undiscovered. He sighted on a different ogre this time, but had to delay release a few moments because giggling would have spoiled his aim.

••••

Little by little Gloriana’s life link returned Abby to full health while the oracle counteracted the damage to herself with the wand of healing she carried. The spirit scimitar reached the limits of the magic’s duration and vanished. Kara, too, finished healing herself. The seconds ticked by.

Abby looked back up the hallway at the others. “How are we doing on magic?” The glance that Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab exchanged told the warrior everything she needed to know.

“And where in the Hells is Lem?”

••••

Another arrow, another hit, another ripple of pained puzzlement in the ogre platoon, and still the leaders argued, and still Lem remained hidden.

••••

“The pit will disappear in twelve seconds,” Rahab remarked. The conjurer did not mention that when the spell elapsed the restoration of normal floor level would bring into view not only those ogres that had fallen in, but also the bisected corpse of Shelalu. The ranger happened to have fallen in the section affected by the spell. At time of casting, necessity dictated targeting that area.

The sensory magic Gloriana employed to monitor the health of her companions told the oracle that Lem was alive, above her, and situated a little to the south of where she was. He was still wounded, but active, mobile, and otherwise functional. She had enough information to guess that he was not in any immediate danger, and guessed that upstairs was clear of enemies.5

“We should regroup,” Kara offered from the air.6

Gloriana agreed, and started toward the staircase. At the bottom step she stopped, leaned over another dead ogre, and inclined her head up. “Lem! Get down here!”

••••

Lem had his third shot lined up, and the chance to shoot one of the leaders was too enticing an opportunity to ignore any longer. This little exercise in sowing chaos had proven an amusing game. Despite having already shot two different ogres, the platoon seemed unable to muster the perception, intelligence, organization, or impulse to address the mystery of who was shooting, and from whence came the missiles.

How has a species this stupid managed to survive? the gardener mused.

Bowstring twanged. Lem felt satisfied right up to the moment when twelve ogre heads turned their gaze directly on the first floor arrow slit.

The fortress yard erupted in a unified shout of ogre fury.

Shit.

••••

There was no answer. The oracle glanced back at Rahab, who raised a quizzical eyebrow, and then reached into a belt pouch and drew forth a pearl.7 While he concentrated on the gem, Gloriana turned back to the stairs. She was about to call out again when Lem rounded the landing at breakneck speed.

“Here they come!”

Gloriana tensed and began to backpedal, eyes fixed on the stairs.

“Not there!” the gardener shouted. “There!” He pointed toward Abby and Vale.

Everyone scrambled.

••••

“How many?” Kara asked.

Lem still had his shortbow ready and was looking for a suitable position of stealth. “Twelve.”

Abby braced her shield. Vale hefted his battle axe.

Rahab looked up from his pearl and shouted at the distant fighters. “Drop back a bit!”

Abby glanced over her shoulder. “Why don’t we make our stand here, at the turn?”

For a moment the wizard could scarcely believe he had to explain this to Abby, of all people. “Because they can flank you through the bunk room!”

“I don’t think they’re that smart!” she called back.

Rahab blinked in surprise. “For fuck’s sake, Abby! Why test that hypothesis?”

The warrior and Vale fell back. Once more, Rahab conjured a pit, this time toward the southern end of the hallway, choking the main approach. A second later Gloriana added the final touch by covering the area with an illusion of normal, level floor.8

An ogre rounded the passageway corner at the head of a mob. Lem recognized his most recent sniping target. The creature carried a club and a javelin, and wore a leather necklace from which dangled several severed human hands: Karly-Lop Kreeg, the collector.

••••

Lem fired his shortbow and hit Karly-Lop again, except this time the gardener was able to retreat into the shadows and resume stealth without discovery. Furious, the ogre fixed his eyes on the closest target and launched his javelin. Brutal trajectory carried the weapon straight into Abby, punching through armor, flesh, muscle.9 The Kreeg barked an order in Giant, and one of the other ogres advanced, stepped onto what seemed solid ground, and disappeared with a surprised yelp.

Rahab smiled with satisfaction. When the very next ogre did exactly the same thing the wizard was forced to reconsider his dismissal of Abby’s previous assertion.10

A fourth ogre appeared and hurled another javelin at the forefront fighters but missed, and the companions at the back of the group stepped casually aside to allow the missile to hurtle past.

••••

Once more Gloriana took Abby’s pain. The oracle was exhausted, but the spirits granted her yet another ghost blade and she set it quickly against Karly-Lop. The magical weapon drew blood.

While Rahab began summoning, Lem fired his shortbow again and scored another hit. Kara flew forward to take up position in the air behind Abby. It was not until the alchemist set arrow to bowstring that Gloriana, Rahab, and Lem realized she must be out of bombs.

••••

Their position on the near-side of the pit forced Abby and Vale to continue holding until some threat came into range, and Karly-Lop was perfectly willing to take advantage of stationary targets. The Kreeg took another javelin from a nearby ogre and flung it into Abby once more. Other ogres appeared from around the corner and added their own missiles to the fray, but luckily those missed.

The spiritual weapon harrying Karly-Lop attacked twice this time, a quick succession of efficient slices that opened new wounds on the brute. The last vestige of the war sounds Gloriana had summoned earlier faded, leaving only the grunting yowls of the ogres, the labored breath of combat, the cries of pain as injuries accumulated on both sides of the battle. The oracle reached once more beyond the veil and produced still another spirit blade that quickly joined its match. Another dram of pain crossed the gulf between Abby and Gloriana.

The warrior had enough waiting and charged, taking to the air where she knew the pit’s edge to be and landing among the ogres. One of the enemies scored a hit with a hook as she reached the other side, and in her peripheral vision the warrior noticed a fat ogre sheltering in the bunk room doorway: Jolly Kreeg. The corpulent thug swiped at her and missed. Abby braced Avenger against the ogres on her left.

Rahab gulped. So much for forcing them to come to us.

Kara targeted an ogre at the easternmost extreme of the hallway’s end and fired. When the arrow impacted it flared blue-white and spider lines of electricity scuttled over the creature’s skin.

With Abby on the other side of the pit engaged in melee, Lem abandoned his sniping position and advanced up the hallway to another door in the west wall, hoping to find a flanking route that would bring him into deadly partnership with the warrior. He ducked into the room beyond and found disarray, two long tables lined with benches and another exit in the far wall. He put his bow away and drew his knives.

Rahab’s newest summon appeared. The height of an elf, its muscled humanoid torso was topped with the head of a lean, regal canine. Eyes aglow with some planar effervescence, it bore a two-handed sword. “Your enemies are the ogre filth and any allies they may claim,” Rahab instructed the extra-planar creature in Draconic.

The hound archon instantly teleported into the very midst of the fray on the far side of the pit.

••••

Under a flurry of attacks by unseen assailants bearing glowing scimitars Karly-Lop elected to withdraw back into the open doorway at the southernmost point of the hall, and once there noticed the discarded bow of his fallen kinsman Gragavan. As he bent to pick up the weapon he spotted something else further up the hallway: the decapitated head of Jaagrath Kreeg. Karly-Lop would not have been unique in his family feeling genuine relief the Monster was dead.

The two ogres in the pit struggled to find room in the ten-foot square space. One of them attempted to climb but the confines were too awkward and he made no progress.

Kara carefully selected another arrow from her quiver. Her leather armor bore more than a few battle marks and drops of her own blood. Bandoliers draping her torso hung nearly empty, testament to the complete commitment of alchemical resources she had made since breaching the waterfall just beyond the walls of the fortress. Streaked with grime and sweat, her pale hair was pulled back save for a single narrow bang that kept dropping over her right eye. The alchemist knocked the arrow without glancing from her chosen target, and as she drew string to ear her lithe poise evoked generations of Mierani elves whom legend said were born bearing bows.

In the din of battle the ogre never would have heard, much less understood, the single word Kara quietly breathed as she fired the killing shot: “Ermenethlon.”11

••••

Rahab conjured a dart of acid and directed it into another ogre across the pit. The creature yelped and cursed the wizard, who responded in turn with a cruel laugh and a series of insults in the brute’s own language, though he soon abandoned the effort when it became clear the ogre could not keep up with the complexity of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax at the polyglot conjurer’s command.

The illusion masking the pit vanished at the instant Vale leapt. Perhaps he had misgauged the distance, or misremembered where the edge was. Perhaps the sudden visual change in hallway geography distracted him, but whatever the reason the big man simply did not make the span, and as he fell on top of two ogres at the shaft’s culmination he guessed that his life was at its end.

Except that fatalistic resignation gave way to startled incredulity. The fall hurt, but Vale Temros was a sizable fighter clad in armor and carrying weapons. Already injured from their own falls, the ogres were crushed dead under the impact of The Black Arrow. As he got achingly to his feet atop the corpses he glanced around and began to laugh: Chance was absurd.

••••

Lem breached the next interior door. What had been the keep kitchen was now a wreck of broken cookware, scattered debris, and smashed furniture. Pressing farther the gardener entered an adjoining pantry almost entirely looted of any foodstuff. The narrow chamber was also a dead end. His quest for an alternate route to outflank the ogres ended at a single, untouched barrel of pickles in brine. Lem silently cursed.

••••

Chance was, indeed, absurd. Two more ogres rounded the corner, and one of them barreled unwittingly over the pit’s edge, even without the illusion to hide the hazard. Vale felt the rush of air coming down on him and had the briefest instant to react. He bent his knees and braced his battle axe on the corpse beneath him, butt against breastbone, spike directly upward. When gravity resolved the ogre’s descent Vale was severely crushed and momentarily lost consciousness, but not before he had the satisfaction of watching his axe point emerge from the now dead creature’s back like a skewer through a suckling pig.

The hound archon tried to swing its two-handed sword in great arcs, but the quarters were too tight to make effective use of the weapon. It did manage to strike once, administering a minor wound to one of the opponents.12

Jolly slammed into Abby with his club, and another ogre added to the injury with a hook. Though she had started this latest combat fully healed, conditions had changed in mere seconds. She no longer had Vale at her side. It was not clear whether the strange dog-headed figure had suddenly appeared in her aid, but she guessed it had something to do with Rahab, though how effective it might prove remained uncertain. The warrior was now pressed on two sides and with the pit at her back she was effectively surrounded. The ogres were practically on top of her, all with superior reach, and though there had been a brief span of rest before this attack she had now been in a state of near-constant battle for the better part of half-an-hour. A tremendous pain sent shockwaves through her when she inhaled: One of her ribs was broken. Underneath her armor her shirt clung soaking wet and not because of perspiration. She did not pause to consider how much longer she could continue, but she did understand that at that moment she needed to move.13

So Abby brought Avenger to bear. Her opening sword strike amounted to little, but she hammered the great, round shield into Jolly with all her might, powering from her legs and forcing the great mass of the ogre back. The fat brute tottered and scrabbled for better footing, but Abby kept pushing, each footstep a precious break in the killing zone into which she had leapt. When she had displaced the ogre beyond the threshold of the bunk room she found herself in better position to reassert her combat skill. This time her sword struck true and Jolly howled pain and frustration.

Gloriana said nothing, and any who glanced at the oracle at that moment would have seen her beautiful face set in steady, albeit exhausted, resolution. Sapphire eyes surveyed the unfolding battle situation, carefully directing two shimmering scimitars of eldritch spirit stuff in concerted attack upon Karly-Lop.14 To all appearances the oracle remained in critical command of herself and at the guiding center for her companions. What none could see was just how alarmed she was, a spike of fear like an icicle at the core of her heart. She did not know where Lem was, and Vale had fallen into the pit. Rahab was churning through the last few attack magics he had, while Kara had resorted to martial weaponry now that her alchemical reserves were almost spent. The amount of restorative magic remaining to Gloriana was limited entirely to the wands now, and both she and her friends were wounded. And Abby?

Abby stood on the verge of death. Gloriana almost felt relief when the jolt of shared pain transferred a portion of her own health to the warrior. But in order to effect greater healing she needed to be able to see Abby, and at that moment her best friend had fought her way out of sight into the bunk room. The distance was ten feet, but the span of the pit might as well have been ten miles.

“Rahab!” She made the wizard’s name an imploring scream.

The conjurer whirled, suddenly rattled by what he still could not bring himself to admit was among his greatest fears: that Gloriana had been mortally wounded. When he saw she still lived his relief was indescribable, and as he looked in her eyes he guessed her urgency.

“Over there?” He posed the question with a note of care Gloriana did not expect.

The oracle nodded, and her voice momentarily choked with emotion. “We’re in trouble. Abby’s in trouble!”

Rahab needed no further explanation and was already casting his spell. Amidst the chaos of the battle—the clash of weapons, the cries of pain, the scent of blood, the desperate struggle—the wizard quietly pronounced the appropriate syllables and gently caressed the oracle’s cheek.

Gloriana took flight.

••••

As she soared over the pit the oracle had a moment to glance at Vale. The big man had regained consciousness and was slowly extricating himself from beneath an ogre corpse. He looked awful.

Gloriana bid her spiritual blades press their ruthless attack on Karly-Lop, and press they did. The collector grunted as fresh wounds appeared on leg and torso.15 The oracle landed on the far side of the pit, drawing attacks of opportunity from nearby ogres. A mouth clamped on one arm, grinding bones and tearing flesh. A hook scraped across her back, spilling blood, but the moment was now Gloriana’s.16

Her healing spells were gone, but she reached out with all her heart to the ghosts, closing her eyes, begging for a chance. When she opened them, Gloriana was looking directly into the face of her grandmother.

Ama winked once, knowingly, and vanished. Power spanned the distance from the oracle to Abby.17

••••

The warrior felt a surge of healing, and grinned death at the fat ogre. Avenger slammed home, rippling corpulent flesh like water. The longsword thrust deep, spearing vital organs and causing the brute to drop his club as he clutched at the wound and tried to keep his guts on the inside.18 More ogres appeared in the bunk room through the other door that gave access to the keep entryway.

In the hall Kara plucked a ceramic globe from one of her bandoliers. She regarded it for a moment: the smooth sheen of the glaze, the silver leaf embossing, the wax seal. It was an explosive bomb, and save for a single elixir of fire-breathing on her belt it was the last weapon in her alchemical arsenal.

Kara gave it to Karly-Lop, setting the collector on fire.19

••••

Lem raced back the way he had come, cursing the entire time.

••••

Jolly elected to reach for his dropped weapon, an action indistinguishable from choosing to die.

Two ogres spilling into the bunk room arrived in time to see the human warrior single-handedly slay her fourth Kreeg of the day.20 Gore-spattered and trembling with furious exertion, when she turned to face them she looked like death incarnate. The pair of brutes stopped short, wavered, and broke.

••••

Lem ran up next to Rahab.

“Can you get across?” the conjurer asked.

“I can.” Dual knives appeared and the gardener took off for pit’s edge. His leap was framed against the coruscating sugar burst of glittering particles that Rahab conjured in a cascade over Karly-Lop. When Lem’s hair-topped feet touched down safely on the far side of the pit the collector Kreeg was blind, and then Gloriana’s spirit blades cut the brute down.21

••••

When the oracle activated her healing wand it was the last charge. The energy flowed, some of her pain faded, and then without further ceremony she dropped the item to the floor. In the space of a second it had become a simple stick, powerless, its journey at an end.22 Two ogres closed on Gloriana, weapons ready, murder in their eyes. She knew she would not be able to escape in time, and so she reached into her belt and drew forth a single vial of liquid. She looked back at Rahab and held it aloft as though a trophy of victory, some precious artifact liberated from a lost trove.

“Here it is,” she said. Her last healing potion.

The wizard understood instantly. A vision of memory shunted aside spell formulae and arcane calculus: Rahab in Nualia’s chamber below Thistletop desperately administering an elixir of life to the fallen oracle.

Gloriana gave the wizard a gentle, sad smile that was achingly beautiful. His heart caught in his throat.

••••

Kara downed the elixir of fire-breathing—the last crafted resource she bore—then exhaled a gout of flame on an ogre. Lem followed close and swiped blades into the creature’s legs, stumbling it.

••••

When Gloriana turned back to face her imminent attackers her smile remained, a gesture of calm defiance. Time slowed. The roar of battle faded and hushed. Two ogre hooks rose. Every detail around shone pure as crystal in morning sun. She lived a lifetime in an instant, and felt no fear.

A shout shattered the moment.

“Get away from her, you son-of-a-bitch!”23

Abby burst from the bunk room and the two ogres finally met a fury more fearsome than Jaagrath Kreeg’s.24

••••

Three ogres remained in the keep, but they had already lost. The clatter of weapons falling to the stone floor sounded the rout. One of Gloriana’s spirit scimitars cut a fleeing brute down, Lem slew the second, and Rahab’s last acid dart melted the face off the third. Through the shattered frame of the main doors the companions could see a few ogres that had held back turn and flee the fortress grounds.

The gardener set one foot on an ogre corpse. “And don’t come back!”

••••

Drawing exhausted breath, Gloriana and Abby regarded one another.

The oracle’s face broke into a huge grin.

“I love you.”25


1 Remember: It’s not spell-level that counts. It’s presentation. This is ghost sound, a 0-level orison. As a way to intimidate the ogres, Glo is creating the illusion that there are 32 additional warriors spoiling for battle.

2 Translated from Elven: sister. It’s worth noting here that Kara and Shelalu are not actually related by blood. The alchemist employs the term as a way to acknowledge not just the friendship but also the explicit connection shared via membership as elves of the Mierani.

3 Glo’s spiritual weapon struck for 10 points. Her ghost scimitar scored quite a few hits during the assault. It proved quite effective.

4 When she’s not cutting them down with the sword, or battering their brains with the shield, Abby is bull-rushing enemies to keep them off-balance.

5 The ogre Lem attacked when Abby went after Dorella eventually gave chase into the mist, ran past the gardener, and ended up dead among those Abby began killing once the sorcerer was finished.

6 As good a moment as any to note that this is when Kara starts to spend increasing portions of any combat airborne. I find it interesting. There comes a time in many fantasy role-playing games where character power level begins to really open up the Z-axis on the battlefield landscape.

7 Rahab is using his level 2 pearl of power to recall the create pit spell.

8 Gloriana uses minor image to create the illusion that there is no pit.

9 The javelin toss was a critical hit: 30 points.

10 Illusion-covered pit trap: The ogres fell for it . . . literally.

11 This is now initiative round 28.

12 The vagaries of dice: That hound archon only hit once the entire fight, for 8 points of damage.

13 Though she started the fight at maximum health, at this point Abby has 10 hit points . . . out of 90.

14 Two more hits with spiritual weapon, 8 points and a critical strike for 13. At this point even the haunts are in the fight.

15 Another two hits from the spiritual weapon, including another critical, totaling 21 points of damage. As a melee combatant Gloriana has never excelled, but there’s something about the image of weapons summoned from the spirit realm to do her bidding inflicting significant damage, as though some among her haunts are the ghosts of warriors.

16 Glo got hit for 10 points and then another 19.

17 Glo spent her last Hero Point to recall a 4th level spell: cure serious wounds augmented by the Reach Spell feat. Abby was healed for 30 points from 20 feet away.

18 Abby hit with shield for 10, and the sword was another critical hit for 42 points of damage. Jolly was still alive, but not by much. And Abby wasn’t done yet.

19 Kara’s last bomb. Sensing a trend? She hit the Kreeg for 23 points, set him on fire, and did 11 splash damage to another nearby ogre.

20 When Jolly reached for his club it gave Abby an AoO. Critical hit. 40 points. Boom.

21 The entire Fort Rannick assault deserves a soundtrack I have failed to catalog, with hope that readers will cue up their own selections they feel resonate best. For this moment, however, may I suggest something like Berlin, “Like Flames,” from the 1986 album Count Three & Pray? Lem draws his knives and as he leaps the pit the action goes into slow motion, camera angle directly behind the gardener framing him mid-air against the firework burst of Rahab’s glitterdust spell. High-definition resolution rapidly zooms in on a single mote of magic, metallic facets rotating gently downward, intercut with Lem’s descent at matching pace. As the gardener’s first foot touches down cut back to the mote alighting in ultra close zoom on the lens of Karly-Lop’s eye. Music continues to the crescendo coda as camera rapidly zooms back out to twin scimitars glowing with spectral power slicing directly at camera into a wipe cut. Oh, and by the way, the spiritual weapons hit Karly-Lop with another critical hit for 14 points, and the killing blow was an additional 7.

22 The last charge in the wand of cure moderate wounds healed Glo for 13 points.

23 My all-time favorite action movie is Aliens. One of my favorite actors is Sigourney Weaver. One of my favorite fiction heroes is Ellen Ripley. I’ve been waiting to write that line for a long time.

24 First attack: critical hit, 37 points, instant kill. 5-foot step. Second attack: critical hit, 44 points, instant kill. In my mind this is the point in the campaign that bards in Varisia got their shit together and started composing epic poems in Abby’s honor. A. God. Damned. Goddess.

25 I’ll just leave these here:
Total damage Abby dealt in the assault, start to finish: 876 points
Total damage healed by Glo in the assault, start to finish: 527 points at least (does not include healing done in rest breaks)
Total critical hits scored by the party: 21
Total shocker lizards slain: 16
Total ogres slain: 29
Total Kreegs slain: 8 (ogres with fighter, barbarian, or sorcerer levels)
Number of party members that dropped below 0 h.p.: 1 (Abby vs. the lizards)
Number of party members that dropped to single digit h.p.: 3 (Abby, Glo, Rahab)
Number of party deaths: 0
Number of NPC deaths: 3
Number of surviving Black Arrows: 1 (Vale Temros)

At assault’s end Kara had used all her alchemical bombs, elixirs, and mutagens. Glo had spent all her energy body uses, all her spells, all her channel energy uses, all her Hero Points, and all charges in a wand of cure moderate wounds. Kara, Abby, Rahab, and Lem had used all their healing potions.

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Book IV, Chapter 11: Assault On Fort Rannick, Part 3
To Kill The Kreegs

They had looked back, all but Abby. For her part the warrior was still fighting Gragavan, head down, feet apart, shoulders square, grip tight-but-loose. Perhaps it was a feature of her battle experience, but the warrior was able to filter the chaotic noise of combat. She had heard the roar and the scream, but her fight was right in front of her, and to succeed she needed to set some sounds aside, and so she did not turn. But all the others had looked back.1

Kara wailed, a sound of purest pain that dwindled to a choked whisper.

Vale stumbled, regained his footing, and lowered his head with new resolve to reach the others.

Lem swallowed, his throat tight, the pain of his wounds momentarily distant, all too aware that what had just happened might have been his own fate only moments before.

Eyes wide, Rahab was as stone but for the subtlest tremble, a distant ripple of emotion that intellect could not convince, that mathematics could not resolve, that magic could not assuage.

And Gloriana wept so deeply that she could not find her voice, so one by one her haunts solemnly appeared and lifted up the gentlest lament on her behalf.

It was all of a moment, and when the moment was gone the battle still raged.

••••

Abby hit Gragavan once, and then a second time, and the violence was sufficient to kill the charnel poet. Even as the body collapsed, she cut a third time, killing Gragavan even more.2

The Monster turned in the hallway and began lumbering toward the companions. The pain of events was almost too much to bear, but Gloriana knew they were running out of time. Choking through her tears she touched Kara’s arm.

“We have to move.”

The gesture was enough. Kara blinked, saw the brute advancing, and stepped around the corner to the west past Gragavan’s body. She quickly quaffed her mutagen. Lem quietly ducked into an open doorway on the western wall and found himself in a long room lined with bunk beds sized for humans. He hid in the shadows and drank a potion of healing. Vale followed suit, losing the gardener in the gloom, and consuming his own potion against a catalog of injury.

Rahab set his jaw, gestured, spoke the appropriate phrase, and conjured a pit in the middle of the hallway between the party and the Monster. Then he stepped around the corner after Kara. Meanwhile Gloriana’s power drew some of her friends’ pain, and she prepared a counterspell in the event the witch reappeared.

The sudden appearance of a pit the width of the hall and some thirty feet deep gave Jaagrath pause, even in his rage. He bellowed something in Giant, then took a short run and leapt the pit, his awesome strength easily clearing the distance. When he landed he attacked Abby, and something wonderful happened.

The Monster dropped his weapon. Not only had he missed, but the violence of his assault struck the wall with such force that it dislodged his own tool of war and sent it clattering to the floor. Behind him, drawn by roared summons, another ogre appeared from the stairs, promptly misstepped, and tumbled head first into Rahab’s pit, reaching the nadir with a painful crunch.3

From their vantage around the corner Kara and Rahab realized they stood in the entryway of the fortress. To the south stood the hefty, double wooden doors opening onto the yard. A great lock was set into the panels, but neither alchemist nor wizard could guess whether the mechanism was engaged. Yet as one they spied the heavy wooden bar set to one side, and immediately moved to lift it into place.

Lem emerged from shadow, returned stealthily to the hallway behind Jaagrath, and once again his knives flurried bloody. He landed three precise strikes, but realized that the advantage he typically enjoyed when paired with Abby against an opponent was absent. Through some awareness or power of his rage the Monster simply defied the critical damage the gardener could often bring to bear. “He cannot be flanked!”4 Lem shouted.

The warrior seized her chance and launched an intense attack. Her hips angled her full weight into every strike, her cuts were swift and sure, her shield quivered as it slammed time and again into the Monster’s bulk.5 The first blow cut a gaping wound in Jaagrath’s chest. The second shook his bones. The third was a work of art: A direct thrust straight through the midsection and emerging just left of the spine. Abby shouted risen Hells in the Monster’s face as she whipped the sword free and splattered a rope of ogre blood along the wall in an arc eight feet long. Jaagrath looked suddenly unwell, and his left knee buckled momentarily.6

Gloriana took a portion of her friends’ pain, then concentrated and called her spirit blade back from the stairs. The haunted weapon floated effortlessly over the conjured pit and struck the Monster’s back like a silver-gold serpent, drawing fresh blood. To this the oracle intended to add a spell, but Jaagrath’s long arms made his reach treacherous, and invoking magic at this distance risked damage she could ill afford. She cast her spell defensively, and just then the haunts mocked her effort.

“Fuck!”

By the main doors of the keep, Rahab smiled in spite of their circumstances. He always felt a frisson of pleasure when Gloriana’s perfect composure slipped and revealed something more interesting underneath.7

Dorella Kreeg appeared in the hallway, backed carefully from the pit’s edge, and cast a spell at Abby. For a moment an oppressive sleepiness descended on the warrior, something slow, thick, and suffocating. It was only through a mighty effort that she shook off the effects of the magic.8

Somewhere in the halls above a bell began to ring.

••••

The rage still boiled his blood, and subtlety of thought had never been the Monster’s strong suit. He bent his great form to pick up the fallen ogre hook, and Lem, Gloriana, and Abby seized their chance. The gardener’s expertise with the knife rarely deserted him, and this time was no different. Gloriana failed to hit with her morningstar, but Abby saw a brilliant opportunity, and quickly sliced through vital tendons in Jaagrath’s exposed leg, forcing the Monster to one knee. Jaagrath snatched up his weapon and brought it in a swift side stroke against the warrior. Avenger absorbed the blow’s edge, but the brute strength behind it hammered her mercilessly nonetheless. Still, she held her ground.9

Gloriana—nearing the limits of her healing capacity—had to abandon her link of life with the others, reserving only one precious connection with Abby. A trickle of the latest pain settled upon the oracle.

At the main doors two of the physically weaker party members actually managed to heft the stout bar into place on its iron brackets, sealing the two portals against the outside. As the barrier slammed down Kara and Rahab heard the distinct tone of Avenger rattling off of the Monster’s face. Abby’s shield slam rocked the great skull around to expose the crouching Kreeg’s neck now suspended for the briefest seconds at the level of the warrior’s shoulder. The longsword rose . . .

. . . and fell . . .

. . . and then Abby was laughing in pure, righteous, triumphant joy. She leapt upon Jaagrath’s headless form and knew nothing but the intensity of that moment. Lem, Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab could only watch in awe.10

She was dancing.

••••

Lem sheathed his knives, glanced over his shoulder, and spotted Dorella. He began unlimbering his short bow. “How long on the pit?” the gardener called.

“A minute and a half!” came Rahab’s reply.

Vale emerged from the bunk room, still wounded, though a bit less gravely since the potion. He slipped past Lem and around the corner, joining alchemist and wizard.

Gloriana turned to the conjurer. Her breath came in shallow gasps from all the pain, but her face never wavered in its resolve. “Rahab, the witch is back, just beyond the pit. Take her down!” The oracle redirected the spiritual scimitar back up the hall against Dorella, and the ghostly weapon inflicted a minor cut, drawing a sharp sound from the ogre. Then Gloriana cast another spell of major healing upon herself. At the other end of the hall the witch began to weave magic, and Lem fired his bow. The arrow struck home, but Dorella pushed past the wound and completed her spell. An invisible wave of power washed over gardener, warrior, oracle, and Vale. Gloriana and the burly Black Arrow shook free of the effect, and Abby was still protected by an abjuration the oracle had bestowed before they started their assault on the fortress proper,11 but Lem was less fortunate. The gardener’s face softened, his eyes glazed over, and his grip on the bow slackened. He began to murmur.

“There’s not today for table when I two gumption fish if now. For example! Pipe it orange turn night into sailing wafers . . . .”

Something pushed against the main doors, but the bar held. Abby stepped off of the Monster’s corpse and moved into the entrance, gulping her own healing potion as she went. “Something’s wrong with Lem. The witch made magic a moment ago.”

“Is he moving?” Rahab asked.

“Just standing there babbling.”

“A spell of confusion, most likely. In his current state there is nothing I can do for him, and he is unlikely to be harmed unless new threat appears. We must reevaluate in a moment.”

Kara listened in, and then asked a question: “What’s going on back up the hallway?”

With the effects of the potion now in her, Abby was breathing a little easier, and the glow of victory over Jaagrath still clung to her like moth dust. “The witch is there, no sign of any other ogres right now, those in the hall are dead. We need ranged attacks.” The warrior suddenly glanced around. “Where’s Shelalu?”

A haunted expression overcame the alchemist. “Gone.”

Abby started, eyes wide, and Kara strode quickly away, past the corner, and into the hall. Warrior looked at wizard, but Rahab only nodded grimly, and then began to cast his own spell. Sudden, profound sadness shot through Abby’s battle joy, a brilliant starry sky transfixed by a bright point falling, burning away against the atmosphere of night.

••••

Gloriana glanced quickly at Vale.

“You’re badly hurt,” she said. The big man grimaced but said nothing. The oracle continued: “Stay out of the hall, past the corner here, and stick close to Abby.” She reflected that, unless some others had managed to escape the fall of Fort Rannick, Vale was the very last of The Black Arrows. She sighed sadly.

In the hallway Kara advanced past the incoherent Lem, closed within range, and hurled a grenado at Dorella. It struck with a loud bang. Gloriana took some more of Abby’s injury, cast an abjuration on Lem, and continued to direct the spirit blade against the witch. The magic brought the gardener out of his confusion, and he carefully stowed his short bow, drew his knives once more, and moved up the hallway toward the pit. His expression suggested murder. At precipice edge he easily vaulted across the expanse, using the wall as spring point to propel him over the gap. On the other side he tucked into a roll, slipped easily past the witch, regained his feet, and slashed her with his knife.12

Casting on the defensive, Dorella managed to elude Lem’s attack of opportunity, and then she sent another fireball coursing down the hall to erupt at the corner. This time the results were significantly less deadly, and Gloriana, Kara, and Vale all came away with only minor injury. Then the witch dodged into a room on the east side of the hall.

The main doors rattled under another weighty slam, but the bar held. Bellowing voice sounded outside.

••••

Abby glanced from the main doors to the hallway and back. “Glo? Do you need me to come that way?”

Gloriana’s gaze never left the end of the hallway. “The witch is still alive. She ducked out of the hall.”

Abby blinked and shook her head, then, after a pause: “Yes or no?”

“No.”

The warrior turned back to the main doors and waited. Vale took up position on Abby’s right and hefted his battle axe to his shoulder.

Rahab opened the way. A sentient orb of bright light appeared in the air before the wizard. “Your enemies are any ogres and their allies,” the conjurer addressed the archon in the language of dragons. The levitating orb then floated into the hallway, hovered over the pit with ease, and promptly issued two shining beams of power down upon the ogre therein. Rahab used his pearl of power to restore the spell of the magical missile, then stepped into the hallway.

The blessing of fervor upon the party faded. Gloriana became golden fire again, and used the elemental power of her new form to continue healing herself against the damage that still lay heavy on them all. Kara remained waiting on the south side of the pit, while on the north side Lem looked in the doorway through which Dorella fled. A moment later the witch vanished from sight, and the door to the room slammed shut under no apparent impetus.

New movement drew the gardener’s attention to the stairs. Another ogre appeared. Brutish like its fellows, this one bore an extra feature: One half of a bear trap was secured in place of a lower jaw lost to some nameless accident. This was Harlock Kreeg, the Hookmaw. In his hand he carried the ubiquitous ogre hook, and as he reached the bottom step he easily had the reach to swipe at the hovering lantern archon. The weapon passed through the body of light and the pumpkin-sized celestial vanished back to the Heaven from whence it had come. Lem used the distraction to close for battle, fetching the Hookmaw three quick knife wounds. Accurate though he was, the damage was significantly less than when he could act in concert with Abby.

“This is going to take awhile!” the gardener shouted back down the hall to anyone who might be listening.

Back at the main entrance the barred doors rattled mightily once more, and held.

••••

The sounds of fresh melee reached Abby’s ears. “Glo?”

“Yes?”

“Should I be here or there?”

“I don’t know! There’s a new ogre past the pit!”

Abby muttered something under her breath and raced back to the hallway. Activating the haste magic of Avenger once more the warrior executed a titanic leap at the pit’s edge and landed squarely on the other side, sword drawn, shield braced, ready for battle. It was the simplest of things to turn and make a swallowtail cut across Harlock’s torso. Blood fountained high enough to splash the ceiling of the stairwell.13

Rahab cast a spell that protected himself against fire and advanced toward the pit he had conjured half a minute prior. Seeing the wizard approach, Lem pointed at a door in the east wall and called out: “Spellcaster inside that room. I think she turned invisible!” Then the gardener tumbled past Harlock and now that Abby was in the fight Lem’s blades could cut deep against the weak spots of his enemy. The Hookmaw suffered new, debilitating wounds. When the brute managed to lash out at Abby he did inflict some damage, but the warrior slew him seconds later with a succession of sword and shield strokes.

For a moment, the briefest calm settled on the hallway. Kara quickly drank an extract of flight while Rahab cast a spell allowing him sight that cut through the illusion of invisibility. Lem and Abby began to form up on the door behind which Dorella had retreated when Vale’s voice sounded from past the pit and around the corner.

“The main doors won’t hold! They’re coming through!”

Gloriana turned to the Black Arrow and gestured frantically. “Get back here! Move!”

Rahab called from near the pit. “Gloriana, come to me! We are moving soon!”

Kara looked at the wizard. “Can you and Glo traverse the pit?”

“Naturally.”

Without delay the alchemist took flight, crossing the pit readily and remaining airborne. At the corner, Vale hurried forward and Gloriana moved to intercept. As the big man passed through the glowing form he found himself healed by contact with the restorative energy.

“Rahab, we’re coming!” Oracle and Black Arrow hastened toward the conjurer, reaching him just as a mighty sound of splintering wood thundered around the corner they had so recently fled. Guttural, brutish voices barked over the ringing of steel.

The wizard stepped between Gloriana and Vale and placed a hand on their respective shoulders. For no reason she could reasonably explain the oracle closed her eyes. When she opened them she was standing with the others on the far side of the pit. The hint of strange sensation lingered, elusive, perplexing. Gloriana voiced a call to the haunted world and suddenly she and her companions were plunged into a veil of storm-gray mists that reduced the range of vision almost completely.14

“That will cover us for a moment,” she murmured.

A strong, dark-skinned hand clenched the wizard’s robe in a powerful grip. Vale’s face resolved out of the fog and leaned menacingly close bearing a stern and unsettled expression. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”

“I make no promises,” the conjurer said drily.

••••

Hovering aloft at an elevation of ten feet, unable to see even her friends below, Kara drew forth a potion of healing and drank it down. Meanwhile, Lem began to make his way stealthily up the stairs under cover of the new spell effect. He almost bumped into another ogre at the top of the steps before pulling himself up short, still hidden from the creature’s vision. He prepared an attack calculated to maximize the element of surprise.

Back at the bottom of the stairs Abby felt her way forward until she bumped into Rahab with Avenger. The wizard arched an eyebrow.

“Good, it’s you,” the warrior whispered. “What do we do about the invisible witch?”

Bemused, Rahab replied at normal indoor volume. “The illusion will wear off in a few minutes, or if she attacks. As far as I know she’s trapped in that room, unless she can travel trans-dimensionally.”

From the far end of the hallway the companions heard the arrival of a group of ogres.

••••

Almost entirely forgotten, the ogre that had fallen in the pit had been climbing steadily—if laboriously—up the walls of the shaft, listening to the intruders moving around and speaking their weak, alien language. Anticipation of battery and murder filled the creature’s mind, and it finally scrambled over the top, ready to kill. The ogre found itself in a some kind of cloud that reduced vision to a few feet at best, and when it paused to try and get its bearings it slipped at the sloped edge of the shaft, plunging back into the pit with a howl of frustration and pain.15 The companions jumped at the sudden noise from somewhere nearby in the mist.

The other ogres that had breached the main doors heard their fellow’s cry, and stopped, on guard. Ahead of them the hallway disappeared in some sort of smoke that hung still as spider silk in the absence of a breeze. Where the strange phenomenon had come from they could not guess, except perhaps that it was some effect of the sister witch who could command eldritch powers such as this. They knew the invaders were somewhere beyond, but for the moment had no idea how to proceed. The stench of the weaklings—especially that of the elf—reached their noses, tantalizingly close.

Rahab invoked the armor of wizardry upon himself. Beyond the veil of mist the ogres startled, and then waited once more in agitation. The haze remained impenetrable.

Gloriana reached out with healing warmth and bathed her companions in restorative power. Slowly but surely, minute by minute, the oracle’s magic was knitting their wounds closed, negating burns, abating pain. “Are we going up or back? What’s going on?” she asked the mist, and now she was whispering, too, as if that might somehow provide additional foil against the ogres she guessed were less than thirty feet away.

Abby drew alongside Rahab. “I’m going after the witch,” she confided. “Rahab, you follow me. Vale, you move up after us.” There was no answer until the Black Arrow realized the others could not see him nodding.

“Got it,” the burly axe-wielder said.

Abby kicked open the door. Still she could not see much.

••••

At the top of the stairs Lem could hear noises below as his companions planned something, but he was just far enough around the turn of the midpoint landing to make out what was going on. The ogre in front of him was within striking distance, poised, waiting for something to emerge from the obscuring mist. The gardener dared not utter a sound for fear of losing his advantage, but he was locked at impasse, waiting for something to indicate attack or retreat, knowing no such sign would come because his own companions did not even know where he was, nor the most effective way to inform him.

To the Hells with it. Lem attacked.

••••

The gardener’s strike came at the instant Abby kicked open the door one floor below. The warrior burst into the room; Lem’s knives carved vicious troughs in ogre flesh. For a moment the creature knew exactly where he was, but then the rogue faded back into the mist and disappeared as quickly as he had come. The gardener was already making his way back down the stairs, returning to his companions now that he could hear some trouble underway. He kept his bloody blades ready, anticipating an enemy to emerge from the dense vapors at any moment.

Gloriana’s elemental form faded as she drew its last portion of healing power into herself. Rahab began to cast another spell of summoning. Vale shuffled carefully forward.

Fire exploded all around them once more.

••••

Dorella winked into view just at the edge of Abby’s reduced perception the moment the fireball erupted. There was some magical effect on the witch, but Abby had neither adequate view nor sufficient knowledge to know what it was. The fireball engulfed the warrior, washed over Rahab in the doorway, and expanded against Gloriana, Kara, and Vale just beyond. Even Lem found himself pursued by flame, having arrived at the bottom of the stairs at that precise moment.

New burns appeared on everyone except the gardener and the wizard.16 The fireball had the additional effect of burning away Gloriana’s conjured mist. Line of sight suddenly returned. Abby and Rahab looked upon five identical Dorella Kreegs shifting amongst themselves at the far end of a narrow office. The wizard recognized the illusion immediately. Out in the hallway Gloriana, Vale, Kara, and Lem suddenly saw the ogres beyond the pit; the ogres, in turn, spotted the intruders. The brutes gave a yell, and one charged forward, lost his footing, and fell into the pit, landing atop the previous victim and crushing him unceremoniously to death.

Rahab’s spell of summoning completed, and a giant centipede appeared near his feet. “Ignore the arthropod!” the wizard called to his friends, and one yard of scuttling segments darted forward at the images of the witch. One of the Dorellas winked out. The conjurer sent a spiked orb of purple energy hurtling for the second time that day, and the magic blasted into the actual witch.

Gloriana stepped into the narrow room and directed the spirit scimitar to attack the shuffling images. Another illusion disappeared, leaving three. Then Abby dispatched three quick strikes with sword and shield and fortune favored each as the attacks landed true on the genuine Dorella. All three images bled from multiple wounds now.

Kara flew over the pit in the hallway and casually dropped a bomb down it’s length. The grenado exploded on the newly fallen ogre, killing it instantly. Smoke churned up from the hole in the floor. From his vantage Lem had no immediate melee target, so once again he unlimbered his bow. In the cluster beyond the pit one ogre seemed to exert some authority. This was the avaricious Mincktuck Kreeg, and he had a bow of his own which he now employed to shoot at Kara, though the arrow went wide. This gave Lem an opening, and unlike the ogre, the gardener aimed true.

Back in the room Dorella targeted Abby with magic of dispelling Rahab and Gloriana knew only too well. The warrior’s ward against evil dissipated instantly, but she paid little heed. Another sword stroke bit deep in the true witch once more. The giant centipede sank envenomed fangs into another Dorella illusion, and that mirage, too, vanished. Only two figures remained, one a mere deception, and Rahab banished this with his own incantation of dispelling. The witch was defenseless.

Abby drew on Avenger’s haste magic for the final time that day, stepped forward, brought her full might to bear with each swing, and finally split Dorella’s skull to the breastbone.17

••••

Kara began tossing bombs into the cluster of ogres, alternating between explosive and galvanic varieties to sow as much damage and confusion as possible. Her strategy was working.

Lem called toward the narrow eastern room: “How are we doing?”

“She’s dead!” replied Abby.

“I’m resuming my post on the stairs!” Once again the gardener stowed his shortbow and drew his blades. At the midpoint landing he crept to a corner and sank into shadow, ready to ambush any enemy that might approach from above or below.

Mincktuck knocked and fired thrice, but only one arrow found its target. Three more ogres completed the small force itching to cross the gap and close for melee.

The giant centipede scuttled into the hallway. Gloriana was not typically bothered by insects and other vermin, but the sheer size of this one made her flesh crawl. She shuddered out of the way and healed herself with a charge of the minor wand. Then she bid the spirit sword venture across the pit to target Mincktuck with a single, efficient cut.

Rahab followed the centipedes, took aim at the avaricious ogre, and sent two beams of dazzling yellow heat toward the mark. One ray struck, scorching a cleanly cauterized wound along Mincktuck’s bow arm.

By now Abby was fully alive in the heat of battle, and, flush with victory, she charged back to the hallway and taunted the ogres beyond the pit with offensive gestures. Perhaps it was the broad smile she bore, or simply the abundance of hatred the creatures felt, but the warrior’s attempt at intimidation came to naught.18 She was even forced to duck as yet another ogre arrived from around the corner, hurling a javelin at her.

Taking full advantage of her superior position, Kara either-handed a grenado and pitched them against Mincktuck and one of his fellows. The greedy Kreeg died in an explosion of fire and smoke.19 An attendant ogre howled in pain from the bomb’s proximal effects.

All this time Vale had been watching from near the eastern door, and seeing yet another Kreeg fall was beginning to restore his hope. “That’s right!” he shouted across the gap as Mincktuck’s body slumped forward and slid into the pit like a sack of vegetables tumbling into a river.

Lem called out from around the midpoint landing: “Abby, what are you planning on doing?”

The warrior looked briefly puzzled, squinted in the direction of the gardener’s voice, and shouted reply: “I’m going to kill the other other ogres! What kind of question is that?”

At the edge of hearing, Rahab could just make out the voices of ogres in the yard beyond the now-splintered main doors. He could not make out the words, but there was no mistaking the sound of an argument. Uncertain what that might portend, the wizard drew one of his magic wands and used it to send a bright shard of magic slicing into another ogre.

••••

Lem was starting to grow impatient. The fight below was still largely at range, and he did his best work up close. While he could appreciate the strategic containment Rahab’s conjured pit provided, what he really wanted right now was a big, fat target caught between himself and . . . anyone at all, really. All he required was a body that provided some kind of threat as distraction for an enemy, and then he could get started on the truly deep body work: thoracic spine, kidneys, femoral arteries.

“Vale!” the gardener shouted, “make yourself useful and get up here!” Then he darted away up the stairs to the first floor, quick and quiet as a shadow.20


1 Shelalu—ranger from the Mierani Forest, guardian of the southern Varisian coastal wilderness, and friend to the Heroes of Sandpoint—suffered two successive critical hits from Jaagrath, an ogre with barbarian levels who was raging. We were too far away, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He just destroyed her.

2 Actual note from my records. Abby had another strike remaining in her full attack, and so she rolled it anyway, despite the fact that her first two hits had killed the Kreeg. When the dice came up a success, she rolled damage and announced that she “killed him even more.” It’s a good turn of phrase. And we were angry.

3 And here was momentary reprieve. Jaagrath had a critical failure on his attack roll and then blew the Dexterity roll to hold onto his weapon. The very next ogre in line failed the Reflex save at pit’s edge and fell in straightaway. Love that spell.

4 For those keeping track at home that means Jaagrath has at least five barbarian levels. Gah!

5 It’s a fairly good rule of thumb: If the opponent is 11 feet tall, and almost as wide . . . power attack.

6 By the end of all this you’ll understand why Abby was a goddess of the battlefield that day, and this is just one of the reasons. Her first attack hit for 30 points, her second an additional 16, and her last was a critical hit that carved out another 23. Six seconds, 69 points of damage, good night! Want more? Keep reading, baby. Keep reading.

7 The spiritual weapon hit for 10 points! On the other hand, Glo failed her roll to cast on the defensive spectacularly. So she spent a Hero Point to reroll, and promptly failed that roll just as spectacularly. Spell gone. Despite his personality, Rahab’s reaction to Glo’s outburst is not actually cruel, but—amazingly enough—empathetic. He well knows the risk of using magic under such duress, and the consequences of failure. And he likes it when she talks dirty.

8 First Will save failed, so Abby spent the Hero Point and made the second roll. Close. And yet, it’s very “Abby,” very much in her role as the survivor.

9 Jaagrath picks up his weapon and provokes an AoO from the nearest adventurers. Lem hits easily for 7 points. Glo’s effort misses, but Abby takes the opportunity to get in another critical hit, this time for 42 brilliant, beautiful, glorious points of damage. Jaagrath still manages to attack her for 28 points, but nothing’s going to stop her now. She has him right where she wants him.

10 A goddamned goddess.

11 Glo put a protection from evil on Abby before they started up the stairs from the cave tunnels.

12 He really does make it look easy.

13 Natural 20 on the Jump check, in armor. Then, once she’s landed she rolls two more natural 20s for the threat and critical hit confirmation, hitting Harlock for 40 points of damage in one blow. Seriously, at this moment Abby is now winning the assault on the ogres at Fort Rannick almost single-handedly.

14 Obscuring mist. All vision suddenly got reduced to 5’.

15 Yep. The ogre climbed 30’ and ended its movement at the pit’s edge, requiring a Reflex save to avoid falling in, which it failed, promptly plummeting right back down again, taking 11 more points of falling damage.

16 Everyone made their Reflex save this time, amazingly. Damage was 14 points. Lem took nothing due to Uncanny Dodge, and Rahab had protection from elements: fire active.

17 Two hits for a total of 39 points. For those watching the scoreboard, Abby has now killed three of the Kreegs, including their most fearsome member, and has joined forces with Lem in vanquishing a fourth. On top of that, a good portion of the lesser ogre “grunts” have fallen under her assault as well

18 Up to now, Abby has been the dominant presence on the battlefield. She attempted an Intimidate and rolled a 1. Wth the worst Charisma in the party, the net result was a 0, possibly the first 0 on a die roll we’ve seen. But we still love her.

19 Score one Kreeg for Kara! But then you knew she wasn’t going to walk away from this thing without points on the board.

20 This is now initiative round 19.

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