“I have to admit,” Lem said with a faint smile, “it’s brilliant. And I’ll slit the throat of the first person who tells Rahab I said that.”
The gardener and the oracle were seated at breakfast, cradling cups of coffee. An hour-and-a-half earlier Lem had surprised Gloriana by offering to go check on Rahab at the Foxglove townhouse where the wizard had secluded himself the evening before. The oracle had silently debated accompanying the gardener, but developing trust required demonstrating trust, and so offered her thanks instead. Lem had returned and joined Gloriana for the morning meal.
Gloriana sipped. “What’s brilliant?”
Lem finished his buttered roll and brushed crumbs from his fingers. “What Rahab did at the Foxglove townhouse.”
Gloriana groaned inwardly and shut her eyes as if against a pain. Not in the least did she want to know. Neither could she in good conscience proceed without knowing. “Tell me. Lie if you have to.”
Lem chuckled gleefully and leaned forward, lowering his voice. “He disposed of the bodies. The faceless stalkers that masqueraded as Iesha and Aldern? He got rid of them. Entirely.”
This did nothing to reassure the oracle. “Do I want to know how?”
“Like I said: brilliant. He used his magic, of course, the nefarious son-of-a-devil-worshipper. Acid. He can cast the spell all day, all the time, apparently. Called it a ‘cat trap.’”
“Cantrip,” Gloriana corrected automatically.
“Exactly. He was finishing up when I arrived. He had found an old cauldron on the property and just . . . dissolved the bodies inside it. Said he started last night, that it took three hours because the spell isn’t that big. I guess that’s why he didn’t mention it at the mill. Did you realize stalkers have no skeletal structure? I had to stop him from dumping the cauldron in the garden, though. Would have ruined the soil. For someone so intelligent he’s profoundly ignorant about some basic things. Anyway, I helped him dump the cauldron into the alley gutter. Gods, it smelled awful.” The gardener wrinkled his nose at the memory, but he was still shaking his head in amazement.
Gloriana reflected a moment, sipped again, and decided the news wasn’t exactly as bad as she had expected. A moment later, that realization seemed just as sinister in implication. Lem continued.
“He even used the spell to scour the floor in the kitchen where we killed them. There’s some discoloration on the stone, but not that most would notice. It’s like no fight ever happened there. He could command riches in disposal fees working for assassins. Brilliant!” The gardener gave another appreciative chuckle and drank from his own cup.
Gloriana exhaled a long, slow breath. Lem’s endorsement was not the kind of improvement in relations between gardener and wizard that she was hoping for, but at least they hadn’t fought. The idea of both Lem and Rahab working together for nefarious purposes . . . a small shudder crept down her spine and across the room some candles in a niche in the tavern wall snuffed out for no apparent reason.
“Well,” she said after a pause, and another long sip of coffee, “there’s a case to be made to Abby about moving into the townhouse, at least, now that the stalkers are . . .” she struggled to find the right word. “. . . gone.”
Lem turned reflective now. “It would be nice to have a place with some greenery, imminent winter notwithstanding. At no cost, too. We’ll have to buy new clothes, of course.”
“Naos District isn’t the Lowcleft, or hadn’t you noticed? Abby walking around up there— living there—people will talk, and maybe the guard shows up to find out exactly what we’re doing. She can’t be walking around looking like a Riddleport enforcer anymore than Kara can appear as someone that just walked out of a year in the wilderness. As for you . . . .” Lem trailed off.
“What about me?” Gloriana set her coffee cup down and fixed the gardener with a firm stare.
Lem weighed his response for a moment. “Carnival’s in town?”
“My people have traveled far to bring you this:” The oracle issued Lem a rude gesture implying sexual proclivity for livestock. She rose and strode to the stairs, returning to her room, and as she did so all the remaining candles in the tavern extinguished, leaving Lem alone with the other customers grumbling in the sudden dimness.
By the tenth morning bell Rahab had returned to The Fat Cat. The party gathered in the tavern once more. Gloriana noted the wizard’s expression and the light in his eyes: eager, powerful, dangerous. As he sat, the conjurer seemed distracted, occasionally angling his head as though listening for something.
Kara and Abby joined them at table, and ordered fresh coffee. Lem arrived last having taken a stroll outside to cool his head, only to discover that his coin pouch was somehow heavier than when he had left.
Abby glanced around at the others. “The tower?”
Gloriana nodded. All eyes turned to Rahab in expectation of a history lesson. The conjurer was staring into the middle distance and said nothing. There was a long silence.
The others looked at one another, momentarily puzzled. Kara finally nudged the wizard, “Brelm theed oondrel?”
Rahab started slightly. “Taunomij. Apardiandol nuarbatil ko shivo. Chenedrem evequa?”
“Is something wrong?” The alchemist returned to the Common tongue. “You seem preoccupied.”
“I am still getting used to the effect of one of my new spells.”
Everyone looked on curiously. “Ah,” Kara’s evinced genuine interest. “What have you discovered?”
“An important divination,” replied Rahab eagerly. He leaned forward and clasped his hands together on the tavern table to confer with his colleague. “It detects attempts to scry upon me and my vicinity.”
Abby looked skeptical. “You think someone is spying on us?”
“Not at present. The magic indicates nothing.”
“I meant in general,” the warrior returned.
“Time will tell.”
“Rahab, that’s paranoid!”
“Cheliaxian,” Lem observed, as if that explained everything.
“If you are quite finished,” Rahab’s caustic glance switched back and forth between Abby and Lem, “you might take a moment to appreciate the elegance of the magic involved. The spell lasts a full day and its power is such that I have an opportunity to determine direction, distance, and image of anyone scrying upon me, or those in my proximity.” He sat back and folded his arms across his chest, obviously very pleased. Escher peeked out of a fold in the wizard’s robe and seemed to mimic the gesture with tiny paws.
Kara gently steered the conversation back on topic. “We were talking about the tower.”
“It is commonly called The Shadow Clock,” resumed Rahab. “Largely a ruin, widely expected to collapse at any moment, and generally shunned by the populace, there have been some ten or so adventurous individuals who have risked its dangers in recent years to see what lies within. All have died.”
“How?” the alchemist pursued.
“No one knows for sure. The steps that traverse the interior have been dubbed ‘The Terrible Stair.’”
Gloriana looked doubtful. “No one knows?”
Rahab explained further: “The corpses were found outside, near the base of the structure. All showed signs of extensive crushing damage: jellied bones, massive bruising, lacerations.”
“They fell?” Abby interjected. The conjurer only shrugged.
“You said the tower is avoided,” Gloriana noted. When Rahab nodded confirmation, the oracle added, “Convenient for a secret cult of murderers.”
It was Kara and Abby’s turn to nod agreement.
“What about this Shadow area where the tower is?” Abby asked.
“One of the most dangerous areas of the city,” Rahab said, “so named for its constant presence beneath the ruin of the Irespan which renders that portion of Magnimar almost constantly removed from direct sunlight. The district is actually called Underbridge, and there have probably been more ill deeds committed in that place than in all the other districts combined.”
Not for the first time—nor the last—the warrior thought of Riddleport. “Smuggling?”
“Positively respectable by comparison. Underbridge gambling dens host wagers on everything from cards to animal fights to mortal combat among sentients. The district is a popular place for murder, the most brutal kinds of theft, assault, sexual predation, abductions, slave-taking.”
“Magnimar does not hold slaves,” Kara objected with growing concern.
“But Cheliax does,” replied Rahab quietly.
“Magnimar traffics slaves to Cheliax?” The alchemist’s voice harbored disbelief and outrage in equal measure. Several customers in the tavern looked over at the sudden outburst. After an awkward pause the alchemist leaned back in to the conversation.
When the murmur of the tavern had resumed Rahab continued. “No, and yet the rumors abound: People go missing, mysterious vessels leave the Underbridge smuggling ports and sail down the coast, around the cape, then south to the empire. Remember, too, that Cheliax is among the mightiest nations ever to petition Infernal patrons. Those that do not end up in chains are often sacrificed in diabolic rites.”
Lem’s face showed barely concealed rage. Abby looked weary; Gloriana, sad. Kara’s expression was one of horror. “Curse your intellect! You are not heartless, Rahab! How can you recount such things so impassively?”
The wizard remained cool and left the query hanging for a long time. “Perhaps I will tell you one day,” he murmured softly, his gaze never breaking.
There was a long silence at the table. Kara leaned glumly back against the tavern wall. Gloriana cleared her throat and looked at Rahab. “Any more you can tell us about the tower?”
“The Shadow Clock is not among my areas of expertise,” the wizard admitted with another shrug. “I know what many in the city know. Whatever we choose to do, I can only guess we should go prepared for exploration and combat alike.”
They broke to make ready. While the others gathered gear, Gloriana went out into the city to make inquiry of Magnimar’s citizens in an effort to uncover more information. She related what she discovered as the adventurers made their way into Underbridge.
“There’s a betting pool on the tower’s collapse?” Still upset about the conversation at the inn, Kara’s indignation only increased at Gloriana’s news.
They stood in the mud of the street looking up at the Shadow Clock’s ruin rising one hundred eighty feet from the misery of the slum into the darkness of the Irespan’s vast, broken cover. The great remains of the bridge loomed immense and inviolate, save for the passage of time inexorably eroding stone into dust borne upon seasonal winds. At this vantage the enormity of the engineering marvel impressed itself upon awareness with even greater power. The very blocks of stone that formed the once bridge were greater in size than some of the wealthier homes in The Summit, and many sections appeared seamless, as though they had been shaped wholly from extant stone by virtue of magic or some supreme and predominant will. The support pillars lofting skyward were mighty, windowed towers of size that shamed the Arvensoar. The chill of autumn seemed amplified within the shadow of that place.
Abby chuckled grimly. “No surprise. We are our own best sport. Some day the tower will collapse, kill tens of people, maybe a hundred, and make someone rich. Misery always draws a gamble.”
Lem wasn’t looking at the tower, but at the surrounding neighborhood instead, eyes ever alert for lurking dangers. The gardener had long since silently vowed to paint the streets in blood before slavers absconded with him. He noted hovels of barely secured wood crammed together street after street, block after block. A single spilled lamp might sweep firestorm through the entire district, and the fact that such had not yet happened was as astonishing as the extent of the squalor. On their way to the tower the adventurers had passed a dead body lying in the middle of the mud. The body had been stripped entirely of its rags and left naked. How long before . . . ? Lem began to contemplate, and then decided to abandon the thought. As much animosity as he had for humans, he was content to leave them merely deceased.
Kara’s eyes widened as she stumbled on another sudden realization. She looked at Rahab. The wizard caught her glance.
“No dogs,” the alchemist whispered.
The conjurer nodded: “A few, perhaps. Those wily enough to survive. Cats, too. It is dangerous even to be a rat here.” Escher’s whiskered face peeked out from the wizard’s robe, gave a dismayed squeak, then disappeared into safety. “Disease is rampant,” Rahab made a vague gesture indicating the surroundings. “Murder for rags, for a crust of bread. Exploitation. Abuse. Theft, extortion, gang wars. The pesh trade lives here in soaring ecstasy and ruinous degeneration alike. There have been nights when corpses afloat offshore rivaled number of boats in the water. To live here is . . .” he paused, his face somber. “Well . . . .”
Kara’s was aghast. “How can the city allow this? Do they nothing?”
Gloriana’s face grew sad and stern. Abby looked grim. Lem seemed to regard the environs as vindication of his theories on humanity, though the slum was home to more than just humans. Rahab was aloof.
“We have work to do.” The oracle’s voice was resolute, and she stepped forward, leading the others slowly toward their objective.
Lem scouted the perimeter at the base of the tower. The limestone structure rose precariously above, leaning slightly, worn with time and showing gaps where whole sections of masonry had plunged away to the district below. The clockwork had frozen at the mark of the third bell, though of morning or afternoon was lost forever to history. At the summit there was a great, gaping hole in the structure where age and weather had conspired to collapse an entire portion of wall. Perched atop the spire stood a decaying stone statue depicting a humanoid figure with bird wings.
There was only one entrance at the ground level. Lem returned after ten minutes. “Not that it matters, but I’d wager we’re safer here than anywhere else in the district.”
Abby turned to Gloriana. “What was the other thing you found out? Shapes in the tower?”
The oracle nodded, her honey-locks somehow still radiant in the gloom of the Irespan. “Supposedly something has been spotted around the base—larger than any person. There was talk of a serpent, as well, though whether the shape and the serpent are the same, no one could say. Some people claimed the angel statue has moved, changing shape, or stance. Who can say what is true?”
A long silence passed, and then Abby drew her sword and braced Avenger on her arm. “We’re about to find out.” The warrior’s boots squelched in the mud as she forged toward the door.
Rahab cast cantrips of resistance upon everyone, and then Abby was opening the great wooden door at the tower’s base. The planks had long since warped in the seasonal variation and salt air of the coast, and the warrior leaned against the portal with all her weight and muscle in order to push it partially ajar. Squeals of protest erupted from the rusted iron hinges, and as dust billowed from within Gloriana kept to herself the knowledge that the city government had officially sealed the tower for safety: They were breaking the law merely by opening the door.
The interior was dry and dusty, and the vast expanse of the ground floor opened onto a massive, hollow column rising into darkness above. What faint light there was showed countless motes on the air. The stones of the ground floor were littered in fallen plaster and rubble ranging in size from pebbles to chunks as large as oxen. What had once been offices or other chambers of utility—six in number—lined the square perimeter, open to view as the doors that granted ingress were long since destroyed by time and weather. At the base of the northern wall was the mighty, precarious wooden ascent that reached unseen reaches above: The Terrible Stair. At the limits of vision, toward the summit, the great wooden structure of the belfry criss-crossed the interior. Suspended from the ancient structure were four great, bronze bells.
Gloriana asked the spirits to reveal the presence of magic in the chamber, and then something erupted from the rubble in the northeast corner of the room, moving at breakneck speed, bearing down upon them, a horror in patchwork.
The thing was half-again the height of a human, and immensely strong. It’s forward momentum was such that the ruined wagon behind which it had lain in wait hurtled through the air as delicately as a child’s toy flung in frustration. As the planks of the wagon came apart from the force of the attack the party saw—in the gloom—the monster that rushed upon them.
Its nine-foot-tall body was a strange conglomeration of jumbled parts harvested from both cattle and humans. The culled cuts had been stitched together with leather thread. A sickly smell of decaying flesh emanated as the thing approached, summoning to mind the nauseating memory of the air in the chamber below The Misgivings where the Skinsaw Man had held court. Rags of sack-cloth draped across the terribly distorted humanoid shape. Around the monstrous waist was tied a length of shipping rope as thick as Abby’s wrist, and three rotting human heads crudely hung as gruesome trophies from this wretched girdle. The creature’s head—if head it could be correctly called—was too large in proportion. A collection of humanoid parts sewn together with utter disregard for a tailor’s mastery, the visage resembled nothing so much as a grotesque mockery of some hellish infant, jaundiced eyes agog and rotating wildly. Uttering no sound save the rush of its form, the monster closed quickly, and in its massive grip was clutched a scythe, not for agriculture, but of the kind specially shaped for war. As the thing neared it appeared all the more horrible, imposing, preternaturally swift for its size, a construct of profane artistry.
Stunned by the vision, Abby watched as it bore down upon her. She could only lift Avenger in vain hope of staving off the terrible swing of the creature’s weapon. Gloriana gaped. Lem knew he had to close the distance and provide a flanking presence to heighten both his own and Abby’s ability to attack, but he was momentarily captivated by the horrific vision in motion. Kara worked frantically to unlimber a bomb.
As a practiced student of arcana Rahab recognized the thing immediately. While the creature moved—swift, murderous, brutal—the conjurer found himself surprised and not a little proud to calmly observe:
“They have a flesh golem.”
A moment later Rahab shouted frantic knowledge to his companions in the desperate seconds before the monster’s attack arrived.
“Beware it’s frenzy! It is immune to magic and has no vital structure!” The conjurer quickly cast a spell of haste upon himself and his fellows.
The scythe descended.
At first Abby could barely credit her senses. The impact of the weapon suggested not just strength, but astonishing power. Cold steel pierced her armor, drawing blood, and the force of the blow hurled her to the side as if her own strength and the weight of her gear were nothing. That she maintained her balance and stood upright was testament to her mastery of combat. Dust churned as her boots slid across the floor as though on ice.
Lem was already in motion, tumbling quickly around the monster, fully expecting to arrive in perfect position to deliver a cruel strike despite the wizard’s warning that the golem had no vulnerability to precision damage. In the end, it mattered not, as the gardener’s acrobatics failed. The golem was simply too fast, whipsawing the scythe in a vicious reverse directly from Abby’s body. The warrior’s blood traced an arc in the air as the weapon caught Lem in mid-tumble and swatted him fifteen feet away, rolling among the rubble and struggling to stand. When the gardener regained his posture he suddenly felt faint, and knew the sudden slickness under his leather jerkin was his own blood. In the gloom he saw that the monster’s blow had launched the gardener further away than from where he had started.
Abby stepped up and struck the creature a heavy blow with her sword, followed by a stunning bash with her shield. The attacks rebounded harmlessly, almost mockingly.
Kara circled to her left and found an opening immediately after Lem’s failed maneuver. Her arm pitched forward in practiced overhand, and the small ceramic that tumbled through the air found its target perfectly. There was a shattering sound as the missile impacted upon the golem, and then a deafening bang and billowing smoke. Abby, in proximity to the monster, felt the explosive pressure wave expand past her. Sudden fire erupted on the golem’s body, licking up the monster’s torso and issuing oily black smoke. The warrior nearly retched. Under the influence of Rahab’s spell she realized that the flames from Kara’s bomb were causing the golem some difficulty. It’s arms flailed uselessly at the fire and its horrid visage whipped back and forth, goggle-eyed with an expression of fear.
Gloriana’s magic took a portion of Abby and Lem’s pain, and after the shock, the oracle cast a blessing upon her fellows. She moved forward into Abby’s wake in support.
Lem tried to achieve advantageous battle position once more, but the bloody wound from the golem’s scythe was hampering his maneuverability. The gardener did manage to get into place opposite Abby, behind the monster, but just barely, and only because Rahab’s magic had augmented his movement. Meanwhile Abby put her mind to the attack, and successfully placed the edge of her blade against the monster, only to find what should have been a solid blow seemed somehow mitigated by the combination of awful flesh and bloated magic. A moment later she ducked behind her upraised shield as a dart of Rahab’s hissing acid bored into the creature from over her shoulder. The stench was thick, almost overpowering.
The flames from Kara’s new explosive grenado coursed over the golem’s torso and arms, crisping the motley flesh before Abby’s eyes. Smoke churned and billowed up into the tower, and the monster reeled like a sluggish drunk. Where its initial attack showed stunning, menacing speed, now it lumbered: Each motion—whether footfall or burly swing—dragged against an unseen weight. The flames flashed unsettling yellow and orange light upon the ragged, rubble-strewn scene.
Kara wasted no time: A second explosive grenado spun through the air. In the heightened state of movement caused by Rahab’s spell of haste the alchemist could read every detail of the jar as it tumbled through the air. She noted the sheen of light from Abby’s glowstone running like fresh water off the sides of the bomb. Every pit and crevice in the waxed cork stoppering the device stood out. The silver leaf design embossed on the shell—from the kit Gloriana had gifted Kara—caught the light on a turn. When the bomb struck the golem, the alchemist could even see the specific shards separate under the budding pressure wave as the chemicals inside joined in violent concert. A second bloom of fire spilled forth, expertly managed by the alchemist’s magic and expertise so as not to encompass either Lem or Abby in proximity to the target. New flames erupted on the monstrous patchwork baby head, blackening the flesh.
Gloriana absorbed more of Abby’s and Lem’s remaining pain, then invoked the spirits to bestow a spell of strength upon the warrior. Within her armor, Abby suddenly felt her muscles ripple, almost as if in complaint that she was not in that moment swinging her sword or bashing with her shield. A surge of power suffused her skeleton, heated her blood, strained against the limits of her mail. For just a fleeting, impulsive moment Abby was tempted to abandon her weapons and begin tearing the golem apart with her bare hands. Then her survivor’s mind regained control and she realized her otherwise excellent magical sword was nearly useless due to the eldritch nature of her opponent.
The golem had lost its orientation, and swept the scythe in wild, cataclysmic swathes that showered sparks as the blade struck the stone floor or bits of rubble strewn about. The flames coursed over almost the entire golem now, the leather stitches burning away and dropping slabs of carbonized flesh to the ground. As the golem moved, Abby found opening to close the distance, and siezing the opportunity the warrior stepped forward, abandoning her magical blade and drawing her second longsword expertly in the interval. This was her reserve, the weapon she had liberated from The Misgivings, an edge forged in adamant and thus dismissive of the magic that reduced harm to the golem. The sword whipped past Avenger and across the monster’s back, and in her spell-powered speed Abby had time to watch the giant thing slowly fall, stumbling over uneven ground, collapsing in a sprawl of burning flesh that lit the ground floor in smoky, hideous light.
Moments ticked away and nothing happened. Rahab’s spell wore off, and the party felt a more familiar experience of time reassert itself. Abby sheathed her adamantine blade and bent to retrieve her magical sword. Dust whirled in the air as the churning blaze of the golem’s remains guttered. The stench was foul.
“Ghosts of the road, Kara! That was amazing!” Gloriana called out in the echoing space.
The elf stood looking at the fallen ruin of the golem. Another grenado was cradled in her left hand, at the ready, while a column of greasy smoke coiled up into the tower above. A slow, quiet smile emerged on the alchemist’s lips.
“Your new ability avails us serendipitously,” commented Rahab. “Had I known, I would have worried less. Kara Silverleaf, Golem Killer. Vabaniasheen skomiar.” The wizard’s familiar devil-grin grew broad.
Lem sat down heavily on a block of rubble, his breathing somewhat labored despite the healing that Gloriana’s spirit magic had worked during the fight. When the oracle stepped close to offer additional assistance the gardener waved her away. “I’m alright. Just need to catch my breath.” Lem regarded the fallen monster with a mixture of awe and revulsion.
Rahab was already detecting for magic, and his gaze alighted on the scythe the monster had dropped, as well as one of the rags that had fallen away from the golem during the fight. The conjurer nodded and Kara set the scythe against the wall of the tower next to the door into the ground floor. The rag was not a rag at all, but a cloak that had been layered into the cloth draped over the construct. This the alchemist took and put into her backpack for later perusal.
Abby stood in the center of the floor looking up into the dimness of the tower rising above. Her half-elven eyes noted nothing. The fight with the monster did not appear to have stirred further activity. In the meantime Gloriana used the wand of healing taken from Justice Ironbriar to heal the injuries she had usurped from her companions. Then she approached Rahab and indicated the defeated golem with a gesture.
“Crushing damage. Jellied bones. Lacerations.”
The wizard nodded, and then pointed at the stairs. “It remains possible that some of those deaths were actual falls.”
Abby and Lem set about searching the ground floor. The rooms with collapsed ceilings and destroyed doors yielded no discoveries. It was not until the warrior returned to the central chamber that she found an old leather bag cast to one side that contained gold and silver coins, as well as a ring and a mirror of silver. Gloriana quickly stowed the valuables away in her haversack.
An uncertain quiet had descended on the tower once more. The companions gathered together at the center of the chamber, lit by Abby’s lightstone and Rahab’s magical torch. All eyes fell upon the rickety wooden staircase rising along the north wall into the dimness of the tower above. It did not take a carpenter’s eye to readily discern the sections of wood corrupted by age and mold, or missing entirely, and not a single length of railing to be seen along the entire traverse.
The Terrible Stair awaited.
Rahab went last in anticipation of the need for the magic of the falling feather. Kara drank her mutagen to enhance her elven dexterity. Abby took the lead, sword drawn, Avenger braced. The warrior’s solid form encased in forty pounds of armor made each footstep on the ancient stairs creak and moan. The precarious staircase swayed alarmingly under the party’s advance. Even Lem’s starling-light movement imbued no confidence. For safety they kept at least ten feet of distance between one another. Eventually Kara eschewed ground-based progress entirely and drank an alchemical formula that gave her the power of flight, followed by another that rendered her invisible. Unseen, Kara stepped off the staircase into air, and began a slow, cautious airborne ascent into the reaches of the tower above.
Recognizing the value of the alchemist’s approach, Gloriana beseeched the spirits for magic of levitation. A moment later, she, too, steped from the staircase into unsupported air, and the enchantment of her spell carried her gradually, slowly, safely aloft. Unlike Kara’s freedom of flight, the strictly vertical limits of Gloriana’s spell required her to make her ascent close to the stair and walls so that she could use those surfaces as necessary for any lateral changes in position.
Lem, Abby, and Rahab remained on the unstable stair, gingerly, nervously making their way up. At times they had to reach a long leg forward to span a gap in the steps, at others they had to jump. Lem’s height might have been disadvantage except for his expert dexterity. When distances seemed too far for his short legs, the gardener craftily ran to the tower wall and used it to leap otherwise prohibitive distances. Abby’s great strength availed her in all jumps. Rahab’s marked lack of physical prowess did not, and his journey was especially slow and fraught. The limits of weight they estimated on any given section of stair made it impossible for Abby to stand near the wizard and help him along. By the halfway point the conjurer was sweating from anxiety and exhaustion, his heart racing, pulse pounding in his ears. The warrior looked back in sympathy, her face haloed in the soft light of the illuminated stone hovering near her head. She recalled only too vividly the treacherous, slick stone ramp the adventurers had four times barely navigated in the cavern below The Misgivings, and her own particular difficulties there. Rahab looked up into the expanse rising above, wished briefly for an opportunity to rest, and knowing there was no such luxury due the time limits on his companions’ spells resolutely put the thought from his mind and resumed his shaking steps with a quick, dismissive wave to Abby. The warrior turned and nodded to Lem to proceed. Gloriana resumed her rise on the air. Unseen, Kara soared upwards in arcane flight.
The air changed somehow, some density shift they all noticed, at once silent and also rich with the sound of a rushing mass. All eyes looked up to see one of the massive bells plummeting from above, trailing fragments of wood, bits of rope, stirred dust.
The bell rang once as it struck the interior tower wall, rebounding in its own reverberation and colliding directly on top of the stair section where Abby and Lem stood. The impact tore away a massive section of The Terrible Stair, producing a shower of splinters as wooden planks and supports disintegrated spectaculalrly. Rahab watched warrior and gardener execute a desperate leap even as the falling bell struck, and by astonishing chance both managed to avoid being completely pulverized by seven tons of hurtling bronze. Lem’s movement was so adroitly executed that he actually found a fraction-of-a-second’s foothold on the rapidly plunging bell that propelled him to the far side of the gap. By contrast, Abby’s effort was a simple, straightforward dash and jump, and she landed with a heavy crash that sent the already trembling stair into new paroxysms. Warrior and gardener collapsed on the decaying planks of the other side, covered in dust and splinters. Both lay bloody and gasping in the adrenaline surge. A moment later the path of the bell concluded resoundingly at the bottom of the tower in a second soundwave that sent shivering ripples back up the length of the structure. The intensity of the noise nearly matched the damage the falling object had inflicted upon both the party and the tower, and for a few moments everyone dreadfully wondered if this would indeed be the afternoon the structure collapsed on the district around it.
Gloriana, still hovering near a wall, glanced around in renewed panic. “Kara!”
“I’m here,” the alchemist’s voice seemed muted in the still rippling air as the bell’s death tone continued to resound. She had darted to one side in mid-flight and felt the mass of air pushed aside as the enormous weight displaced its way earthward.
“Rahab?” Gloriana gyred, suspended in mid-air, and saw the wizard. If he pressed himself any closer to the wall the conjurer would join his own material inextricably with the stone at an elemental level. The torch in his hand trembled, though with sound wave or terror she could not tell.
“I live,” Rahab replied weekly.
Gloriana spun once more, her silks twirling in the air, gaily contrasted with the gloom and danger of that place. Her gaze found the light from Abby’s stone. Warrior and gardener had fallen, sprawled across one another on the wooden steps, alive. Abby’s gauntleted left hand rose slowly, lifting Avenger’s brilliant shining surface, and the warrior showed a thumb of affirmation. In the desperation of her leap Abby had managed to hold onto her sword and shield, and was as amazed by that as the fact that her significant strength had propelled her in all her armor and gear across a gap of more than ten feet.
Lem gained his feet, felt the tremors in his knees, and sat back down with an exhausted sigh. “I hate this place.” His head throbbed, his muscles ached, his temple bled, his body quavered. For a moment he thought he might vomit. “I’m pretty sure this place hates me.”
Just then Gloriana gasped in pain as her link of life received Abby’s and Lem’s wounds. A moment later she channeled the power of the healing spirits and soothing washed over them all.
Proceeding presented a new challenge. Abby and Lem were already on the correct side to ascend, Kara was still capable of flight, and Gloriana’s spell of levitation continued unabated. Rahab, on the other hand, was trapped behind and below the new gap. The conjurer found it particularly ironic that a wizard was now trapped by circumstances of geography, especially a conjurer—a magic specialization that included travel in its purview. If he wasn’t in the middle of an uncharacteristic panic he probably would have laughed.
Despite the normally unflappable wizard’s effort at regaining composure, Gloriana could read the situation and the emotion as expertly as ever, even in the flickering dimness of Rahab’s torch shining lonely against the stone wall below. With a whispered word of prayer she beseeched the blessing of levitation on the conjurer, and Rahab felt his feet lift gently off the steps. His arcane mind recognized the effect and he sighed in relief. Somehow the elusive, eldritch power of magic resonated in his emotional awareness with greater comfort than solidity of wood.
He looked up into the oracle’s eyes. “Heartfelt thanks.” Escher poked a whiskered nose out and squeeked once. “From both of us,” Rahab added.
Gloriana flashed her most winning smile, genuine, somehow all the more bright against the gloom of the tower interior. Renewed by the healing, Abby and Lem had already begun making their way upward once more. Kara soared again, still unseen, keeping quiet to try and recapture any element of surprise. No one spoke the thought that someone or something up above might have dispatched the bell just as easily as age and decay. Rahab followed the oracle’s example and began to ascend, using his hands along the wall and winding stairs to aid any lateral movement. Gloriana waited until he was level with her, and then they proceed together, she showing him the most advantageous way to make use of the magic.
A soft elven voice whispered out of the air next to wizard and oracle. “I will go ahead to see what lies above,” and before anyone could object, the air displaced slightly as the invisible Kara flew away.
Slowly they advanced. As they rose they noticed the tower narrowing, and soon the limit of vision showed the scaffolding and remaining bells. They also saw The Terrible Stair exit through a gap in the wall to the exterior of the building.
“I can’t decide which is better:” Lem remarked to Abby in a hushed tone. “Falling to death inside the tower, or outside the tower.” A moment later his glance fell on one of the remaining three bells in their rigging, and saw the faceless stalker perched atop the beams, spine-like claws flexing in anticipation.
I hate this place, he thought again.
“Stalker on the bell!” Lem called in warning. Knife and war razor flashed effortlessly at the ready in his hands. The stalker on the crossbeam made a foolhardy leap into the air and onto the stair behind the gardener. The steps shuddered under the impact, but the monster’s arrival allowed both Abby and Lem opportune attacks, and warrior and gardener scored solid hits on the spongy, fleshy red mass. A second stalker appeared from the walkway outside.
Here again were the monsters of Abby’s nightmares. Where Lem’s moments of unease conjured images of ghouls, and Gloriana struggled with visions of Nualia, or the haunted spirits that attended her, the warrior saw the rippling, obscene flesh of these bloodsucking mimics. Her sword lashed out in a fury of power. The first strike carved a chunk from the stalker’s torso and sent it quivering into the abyss below. Her second attack seamlessly followed the first, this time cleaving down through the right shoulder into what should have been any humanoid’s ribcage. The soft sensation of the cut was all the more unsettling: It was like slicing into jelly. Nonetheless, the damage was real.
Lem used the opportunity to sneak his own attack against the stalker, and his dagger bit deep. A fountain of blood spewed forth as the spongy mass of the monster collapsed, pitched left into the open space, and plunged silently into emptiness. The staircase seemed relieved at the discarded weight. The gardener grinned at Abby. The warrior returned a momentary scowl.
Still hovering, Gloriana gave a shout. “Remain inside!” Then she invoked blessing upon her companions.
Still invisible, hovering somewhere near the bell cross beams, Kara held a grenado in either hand, searching for the perfect opportunity to throw into the confines of the battle on The Terrible Stair. She looked at the last member of the party and saw Rahab entering the familiar incantation that summoned a creature from some other reality to assist in battle.
The second faceless stalker slid forward past the narrow doorway and slashed its spines across Lem’s exposed back. The gardener grimaced in pain and sucked a painful, gasping breath, fighting to maintain his footing. The wooden staircase shuddered.
Kara seized the opportunity to throw one of her bombs. The moment the small ceramic globe left her hand she blinked into view as the magic of invisibility sacrificed itself to an identifying attack. The bulb pitched through the air and crashed against the back of the second faceless stalker. There was a brilliant flash of electricity, a sharp crackling sound, and the smell of ozone filled the air as lines of bottled lightning traced blue-white rivers across the creature’s flesh.
Gloriana allowed her levitation to bring her level with Abby. In her peripheral vision the warrior saw the shimmering flutter of the oracle’s silks hover into view like a pennant caught on a battlefield breeze. The golden-haired woman reached out her hand and touched Abby gently on the shoulder, summoning a shield of spiritual power like an additional sheath of armor to protect the warrior further from the attacks soon to be arrayed against her. Images only Gloriana saw in that moment danced on the air: A trio of ghostly figures walking solemnly hand-in-hand around a roadside campfire.
Floating next to the oracle Rahab finished his incantation. The conjurer opened the way, and suddenly a new creature appeared out of thin air behind the second faceless stalker menacing Lem. The companions all saw it: diaphonous wings, yellow-and-black markings, jointed legs, compound eyes. It was a wasp.
It was also the size of a horse.
Lem hopped from the stair to the interior tower wall, then rebounded off his feet and hopped behind Abby even as the warrior moved forward to press the attack against the second stalker. There was not enough time to process the realization fully, but Abby knew, somewhere deep down, that the giant wasp now flanking the stalker had arrived at Rahab’s behest. Perhaps she was momentarily distracted, but her sword swing and shield bash failed to connect with the faceless stalker. However, the creature was forced backwards a few steps, and seeing its opportunity against the party members limited, the monster chose to strike out at the nearby wasp. It stabbed one set of hand spines into the giant insect’s thorax. Seemingly implacable, the wasp merely twitched mandibles and antennae. If Abby had to guess, she would have said the insect was annoyed. Childhood memories of fleeing irritated wasps plunged a column of chill fear into her heart. For the briefest, most fleeting moment, Abby almost felt sympathy for the faceless stalker. Almost.
Another shock bomb descended on the stalker from among the crossbeams. Blistering shatter-glass shards of electricity surged violently in the gloom, and the stalker’s senses were dazzled by the sudden sensory overload. The wasp attacked a second later, abdomen contorting forward, but the distraction of Kara’s bomb attack disoriented the insect. Rahab, however, was not so affected, and his spell of magical energy lanced forth in an arc, inerrantly conveying a spiked, purple egg of arcane force into the stalker.
Gloriana’s life link healed some more damage from Lem, and then the oracle cast a protective field against malevolent powers upon the gardner to further augment his defenses.
Abby renewed her attack, and her blade flashed in a bright arc lit by her own lightstone. The metallic sheen on the sword becames lick with blood in the next instant as what could only vaguely be called a head separated from the stalker’s body. As the spongy form collapsed in a rubbery heap a third stalker stepped onto the interior staircase landing from the outside walkway to take the former’s place. Abby had an immediate opportunity, but her second sword swipe clanged off the stone wall as the third stalker ducked and slashed with its spines. Avenger blocked the counter-assault expertly, and the stalker’s spines hissed menacingly across the indelible, brilliant silver surface.
For whatever reason the third faceless stalker seemed not to have noticed the giant wasp just aft of the rickety wooden landing. The insect rose up from the shadows, wings humming, framing the stalker in Abby’s vision.
Oh, here it comes, the warrior just had time to think, and then the summoned creature surged forward, abdomen curling. A stinger the length of Abby’s arm transfixed the faceless stalker through the center of the torso and stopped mere inches shy of the warrior’s nose, a single, clear, grapefruit-sized globule of venom poised like a soap bubble before dropping away into the darkness below. The wasp drifted calmly, expertly back on gossamer wings and its abdomen uncurled. The faceless stalker simply slid off the stinger and plummeted limply to the ground far below.
Then the landing and uppermost six-foot section of stairs—slowly decaying under years of neglect—could sustain the shifting weight and force of combat no more.
This time, the direction was backwards. Lem’s preternatural dexterity allowed him to react first. The gardener felt the structural failure in his feet, and he executed a backwards somersault to land on a more stable area as the wood splintered and disintegrated. Abby half-turned and pushed off with her mighty legs, rocketing through the air in the glow of her own trailing lightstone. She landed without Lem’s grace, but safely nonetheless, though again the stair groaned its protest. Gloriana and Rahab hovered nearby. Kara still flew above, resting on the air near the crossbeams. The giant wasp buzzed down to come alongside Rahab, antennae twitching, ready to aid the one who had called it from some distant elsewhere. As it neared Gloriana recoiled instinctively, watching in equal parts fascination and fright as the triangular head loomed close, regarding her with glossy compound eyes. Then it passed her by and alighted effortlessly upon the stone wall, tarsal claws finding purchase on the rough surface. The wizard beamed.
Gloriana drew her wand of healing and began to apply its restorative magic to herself. A quiet settled over the tower interior. Abby could hear the whistle of wind at the doorway leading outside, and she concentrated on not looking down over the splintered edge of the staircase. The adventurers’ breathing gradually slowed.
Abby and Lem stood looking at the empty space between their portion of stair and the doorway to the walk outside.
“Any ideas?” the warrior asked.
Gloriana quickly motioned to Rahab, and the two reached to the wall and reamining staircase structure, pulling themselves to the solidity of the steps. A moment later the oracle’s levitation magic ended, and they settled on the steps, quickly moving to put some distance between themselves as the stairs creaked and shifted with the new weight. The giant wasp scuttled silently along the stone wall following Rahab, its transparent wings twitching occasionally. Kara alighted on the crossbeams supporting the remaining bells, and this section of wood groaned in sympathy with the staircase. She lifted off back into the air almost immediately, and hovered once more, shaking her head and pulling another extract from her bandolier.
“Rope?” Lem suggested.
Kara nodded from above and pointed to one of the crossbeams. “Let’s hope it holds.”
Abby shrugged out of her backpack and began to unlimber a long coil of rope while the alchemist drank a second extract that renewed her flight. When both women were ready, the warrior tossed one end of the rope up to Kara and the party members watched as the alchemist secured the length to one of the crossbeams in such a way as to make it easier to swing to the opening in the wall that led to the exterior walkway.
“I’ll go first,” Abby offered, her voice calm. Foremost in Rahab’s mind was the spell of the falling feather. A moment later his magic of summoning faded and the giant wasp vanished, returned to its native plane. The wizard was chagrined. If nothing else, perhaps the insect might have ferried one or two of them to the doorway. The idea of swinging across the gap, aloft above one hundred and fifty feet of emptiness on only strength of hands did not fill the conjurer with confidence. He reflected for a moment on the absolute absurdity of monsters inhabiting a structure such as this: To what advantage? A crushing fall was as deleterious to faceless stalkers as it was to humanoids. Unless imbued with some power of flight, to take up residence in this place was madness. Yet here such monsters had been. Rahab had the unshakable feeling that this was not over yet, and he was already exhausted.
Abby had sheathed her sword and slung Avenger over her shoulder. Now she gripped the length of rope in her hands and leaned her weight back to test the resilience of the crossbeam. The wood creaked, but held. Then, before she could spend any more time thinking about it, she hauled up on the rope and leapt out into the emptiness where the top of the stair had been. The pendular vector swept the warrior around in an arc even as she drew herself up on her powerful arms. Her boots alighted on the doorway and she reached around the stone portal frame, stepping onto the walkway outside, only to find it just as rickety as The Terrible Stair, with the added difficulty of buffeting winds sweeping underneath the vastness of the Irespan. There was a long pause as she made sure of her footing, then whipped the end of the rope back into the tower interior. Lem reached out and grabbed it, making ready to execute his own swing.