Rahab woke early and spent a quiet hour pouring over his spellbook, memorizing the day’s complement of magic. Then he cast the day’s first spell: The divination that alerted him to attempts to scry his vicinity. That accomplished, he made his way downstairs in search of something to eat. The tavern of Bottom’s Up was empty save for a few drunks that had passed out and been too much trouble to lift bodily from the building. There was no sign of Berthandy Kesker or her husband Yad. Light rain against the tavern sounded faintly.
Abby was leaning against the bar, eating a piece of smoked fish. She watched the wizard approach in silence. When he neared, she held out the small plate and Rahab wordlessly took a portion. The warrior returned the plate to the bar and motioned for the conjurer to follow.
They walked out into the mist and mud. Under the cloudcover the early morning gloom seemed even deeper, but Abby released her lightstone to hover about her head like a companion firefly. The gentle glow bounced brilliant off a thousand tiny water droplets charting course to the ground as though the air around the warrior was a cascade of diamonds that abandoned their solidity to merge with the mud, a fortune never to be grasped save by the land itself. Rahab strode alongside, and the two made deliberate pace through the village lanes. The wizard pulled his hood up over his head.
“Has Glo talked to you?” the warrior asked, looking straight ahead.
“Your magic of opening at the farmhouse.”
“’Farmhouse?’ Quaint. The likelihood that ruin ever produced agriculture by anything other than accident is so exceedingly small as to be indistinguishable from zero. And no, she hasn’t. Why?”
“Good. I’d rather do this without her, actually.”
“Settle the problem.”
Rahab stopped; Abby followed suit. They turned and silently regarded one another in the rain for a while. Finally Rahab spoke.
“Are we to engage in fisticuffs again? If so, we should arrange wagers against myself around town first. That way we can earn a little money on the inevitable outcome.”
Abby’s smile betrayed a weariness. “Rahab, I want to talk.”
The wizard turned and resumed walking. “Very well.”
Warrior stepped alongside. “You had magic the whole time to open doors in that deathtrap, and it wasn’t until we had already stumbled through most of the place that you thought to use it.”
Rahab was quiet for a some paces, hands clasped behind his back. “You imagine my earlier intervention with the cantrip of opening might have saved you some measure of pain.”
“The thought had crossed my mind. What surprises me is that you didn’t imagine it.” She fixed Rahab with a clear, unwavering, evaluative gaze. “Or did you?”
“I admit that I did not. When Lem first joined us and began to showcase his talent for . . .” the wizard shrugged, “. . . ‘creative security countermeasures’ at The Misgivings, I understood that such fell under his purview. Was I mistaken?”
“Not necessarily,” Abby consented. They stopped again, and the wizard’s cowl turned to face the warrior. He reached up and drew the hood back, meeting her stare with his own. Passing villagers would have observed that Abby was slightly taller than the conjurer—who was not short—and her physical might easily outstripped the lanky man. Her power was muscles, precision training, the indomitable heart that strove always to live just one more precious second. His power was reality-altering magic, the frightening mind that wielded it under impulse to transcend even unconventional concepts of might. To the warrior, Rahab was arrogant and dangerous, and to the conjurer, Abby lacked self-confidence and relied too easily on instinct. And yet what a passerby might miss was that which they held in common: a slowly developing, complex friendship of mutual respect. Perhaps they also shared the degree to which that puzzled and surprised them both.
“Yet,” Rahab observed cautiously, “you think I should have intervened nonetheless—and earlier—when it became clear that our progress suffered.”
“It’s about survival,” Abby said quietly.
The conjurer regarded her for a long time. “Very well.”
The wizard waved a dismissive hand. “I will remember it in the future.”
“Whatever else you might think of me, Abby, do not make mistake me for a child.”
“No? Sometimes I wonder. You and Gloriana . . .” He shook his head and his lips pursed as he gazed away over squalid village rooftops under curtains of rain.
“What?” A gentleness touched the warrior’s voice. “Rahab?”
It was some long seconds before the wizard answered. “You are not above reproach.”
Abby considered this with a slow nod. “I never said otherwise. Come. Let’s get out of the rain, magic man.” Warrior clapped wizard on the shoulder in a friendly gesture.
Rahab fell in step alongside Abby, lifting his cowl and clasping his hands behind his back once more. The early day of Turtleback Ferry was beginning: Fishers headed to the lake and their nets, merchants to marketplace stalls or shops, laborers to their toils. A rooster crowed in the distance.
“Does it bother you?” inquired Abby after some paces.
“Actually, it does, because it was you—_you,_ Abby—who insisted on venturing ahead of Lem into the dining room against your earlier and more intelligent impulse to cede exploratory leadership. You acted against your own survival, and then admonish me! What of your own complicity? I have an impulse to . . .” Rahab trailed off and his jaw slowly unclenched.
“You are right, Rahab. We both have things to remember.” The warrior’s expression was thoughtful.
“Though, I admit,” continued the conjurer “to having preferred confronting this discussion with you directly, over getting lectured by Gloriana.”
Abby laughed, her cheeks appling beneath eyes lit brightly, the outburst drawing glances from nearby villagers. “In that you two are more alike than you know.”
Rahab’s eyes narrowed.
“Anyway,” the warrior continued, “that’s not what I was asking about.”
The conjurer frowned. “What then? Speak plainly.”
“I meant: Does it bother you that Kaven flirts with Glo?”
The wizard’s puzzled expression suggested the possibility he was considering this for the first time. “Don’t be ridiculous.” Rahab’s brow furrowed. “Why should it?”
The warrior shrugged. “No reason.”
By the time they had returned to Bottom’s Up the other party members had gathered to eat a breakfast of buttered bread and smoked fish. Yad Kesker brewed fresh tea and brought two more mugs for warrior and wizard. The Black Arrows appeared soon, joining the others for a quick meal.
Afterwards, Gloriana went to update Mayor Shreed. Lem and Rahab declined to accompany her, while Kaven offered the opposite which the oracle expertly deflected. The gardener remained with Abby and Kara at the tavern discussing more strategy for an assault on Fort Rannick with The Black Arrows. Rahab kept quiet, listening, his mind whirring with calculations, striving to penetrate the mysteries that had brought them here and which seemed to point inevitably to the stronghold in the foothills.
Gloriana found her conversation with the mayor of Turtleback Ferry unproductive and alarming. In his surprise at the revelation of Rannick’s fall Shreed suddenly seemed out of his depth, acquiring genuine fear. When the oracle asked what contingenicies the village had prepared in the event of such an emergency, the mayor’s reply was a frantic whisper suggesting the entire village flee southward. Gloriana’s efforts to reassure the man met with unstable success. She hastily scribbled a note of progress to be dispatched at earliest opportunity from Turtleback Ferry to the office of the lord mayor in distant Magnimar.
Back at Bottom’s Up Kara inquired of The Black Arrows about recruiting more members to bolster any effort at retaking the stronghold, but Jakardros explained the limits of such prospect. Though sometimes robust, recruitment had always been erratic, and membership in The Black Arrows had a very high mortality rate as the first—and only—line of defense against predations from giant-kin in the region below the Storval Mountains. Typically, the most skilled members were often adventurers or those who had survived war or monsters. Most inhabitants in the region—however hardy—had little battlecraft, and were more likely to die before contributing meaningfully to the fort’s liberation.
“We are the last,” the veteran summed up, “and with your help it must be us, or else the frontier falls.”
Kara looked at Rahab sitting in silence, eyes devil-bright and penetrating. The wizard met the alchemist’s gaze in wordless conversation. In her heart, Kara felt a deep and sudden chill, a bloom of ice unfolding beneath a brittle winter wind so ancient it had been called countless names and forgotten them all. It was the same sensation as when she first recognized that her father was dying, when he himself had known but not yet admitted as much to the Mierani. A vision rocketed through the alchemist’s mind: The companions on the trail to the fortress, moving single file toward a descending storm.
And suddenly Kara knew with terrifying certainty that one of her friends was going to die at that stronghold.
Vale brought up the possibility of using the aerie, either as staging ground or to enlist the assistance of the giant eagles that lived there and who helped The Black Arrows patrol the region. Abby asked how feasible that might be, given the loss of the fortress. Would the birds even be alive, or would they have remained to risk the ogre threat without the help of the rangers? The burly man admitted that he did not know, and conceded the likelihood that any attempt to retake the structure would almost certainly have to rely on what ability, initiative, and skill the ten of them alone—including Shelalu and Jakardros’ mountain lion— could muster.
Abby agreed. “We must assume a ground assault. How can we take best advantage of surprise and your knowledge of the region?”
The two warriors passed long hours intently planning.
Two days later they set off for the mountains with the rudiments of a strategy. The Black Arrows knew of a secret passage through the cliff face the fortress abutted, accessed by a cave hidden behind a waterfall. The natural tunnel system was inhabited by clutches of shocker lizards, but if those could be circumvented then the assault on Fort Rannick was more likely to maintain the advantage of surprise.
The journey into the foothills, past the density of the Kreegwood to the west, was overshadowed by rain. Great swathes of lenticular cloud drifted down like a blanket of sky draped over the mountains. Spring lightning leapt behind the bulbous waveforms of the clouds, haunted messengers bearing conspiracy among the gods of the firmaments. The woods seemed strangely empty.
As they rode, Gloriana took the opportunity to speak quietly with Jakardros.
“Shelalu is well regarded. Her skill in woodcraft has helped defend the regions of the western coast against the goblin menace for a long time.”
Jakardros kept his eye focused rigidly ahead, but he grunted. “Her skill does her proud.”
“And you?” the oracle asked delicately.
“I suppose. Yes. I think she is . . . she would have . . . it is good. She has done well.”
They spoke for half an hour, and Gloriana tried several gambits to move the veteran toward reconciliation with his foster daughter, but Jakardros seemed to have acquired even grimmer aspect, stony and removed, like a stoic mourner in a funeral train. Perhaps the thought of the upcoming assault—and its success or failure—lingered oppressively. Finally the oracle broached the matter directly.
“I know what it is to linger with ghosts. Jakardros, the time to renew your relationship with your daughter is now. Shelalu’s physical wounds have healed, but she has a lingering injury that my power cannot touch. I do not need to know why you left her, but she does. I sense in you a similar wound. The difference is that she has centuries, but as a human you do not. Now is the time to heal, here, on the doorstep of your home and your duty and the honored memory of your comrades-in-arms. Like this land, your heart writhes under the lashing storm, and so does hers. Shine the warmth of the sun on them.”
Jakardros was silent, but Gloriana could sense him quivering under immense emotion. Tears welled in the veteran’s eyes, and for a moment it seemed to the oracle that a lifetime of her own haunts somehow paled in comparison with the torrent of pained memory that broke over the grizzled man. He broke away on his long legs, pacing alongside Shelalu, touching the ranger gently at the elbow. He leaned close, his face a mask of regret and anguish, and passed halting words through a voice hitched in sorrow, too quiet for the oracle to hear. A moment later Gloirana’s heart quickened with a vision she had never before witnessed: the weeping of an elf. Spirits leapt in the air around the oracle, a riotous aura, shimmering and ancient, and when Shelalu and her foster father suddenly embraced it was like the tolling of a crystal bell no longer locked away from a world that had forgotten the purity of its sound.
Later that day on the trail the elven ranger would approach the oracle and take the golden-haired wanderer in a vital hug, whispering a thousand thanks. “I will forever be in your debt, Gloriana.”
It took two days to reach the area near Fort Rannick, and they camped in the northeastern reach of the Kreegwood about a mile and a half from the stronghold proper. During the next two days Kara scouted the fortress from the air under the influence of her potions of flight and invisbility. She returned each time to a grim campsite. Too close to the enemy, they had eschewed a campfire, and thus had nothing to counter the incessant rain. Occasional lightning tore shatterglass patterns on the gray background.
Kara reported what she had seen, and they folded her observations into a general discussion of tactics for assault.
“The fortress sits grim at the base of the mountainside where two sheer cliff faces meet. The walls are fifteen feet high and show damage, pitting, cracks, fallen stone. Some of the damage is old.” The Black Arrows nodding confirmation. “But there is ample recent from the ogre assault, and the ogres are there, to be sure, in force. There are two gates, northeast and southeast, and the former is completely collapsed. The brunt of the assault must have taken place there. Each gate is guarded by two ogres—not ogre-kin, but true breed, powerful and vicious.”
“The Kreeg,” Vale offered. “As long as there have been Black Arrows, there have been the Kreeg.”
Kara noted the name and continued. “Another two ogres patrol outside the wall, south to north and returning again. They stop periodically to argue with one another, or hurl stones at some random target. The yard beyond the wall is active with another eight or ten who seem to make a single story building at the southwestern interior their base.”
The Black Arrows suddenly laughed as one, and the party looked on them in surprise. “That is the new barracks,” Vale explained behind a big grin, “and the place is a death trap. If it ever caught fire, well . . . ” and he trailed off. Kara looked pointedly at Rahab.
“Certainly a possibility,” the conjurer murmured. “If we could strike from surprise, we might eliminate a number of them at once.”
“Would it burn in this weather?” Abby asked.
Rahab’s gaze was a razor. “I can burn it.”
“We’d have to get you in there, or close enough to target the interior,” the warrior replied, and the wizard nodded vaguely, almost inattentive, his mind a blur of calculations.
Kara resumed her scouting report. “The main keep lies to the northwest, squat, sturdy, and dark. Likely the bulk of the ogres are there, or the leadership.”
Jakardros joined again: “The ground floor is guest quarters, kitchen, larder, storage. The first floor is the chapel, war rooms and map archives, and the commander’s quarters. The second floor is the tower interior.”
“South of the wall at the western cliff face,” the alchemist resumed, “a waterfall plunges from the heights into a pool and river at the base.”
It was Kaven’s turn to contribute. “That water comes down from snowmelt in the Wyvern Mountains, and it is bitter cold. It feeds into the moat, then down to the creek that empties into the river we paralleled on our journey here. The waterfall covers a cave entrance that leads into the tunnel system behind Fort Rannick.”
“And that,” Vale took up, “is the likeliest path for our assault. The tunnels will lead us to a secret entrance in the basement of the fortress. We make our way up to retake the floors.”
Now Gloriana took up the discussion. “The tunnels—you said something lives there?”
Vale nodded. “Shocker lizards.”
The oracle, nonplussed: “What are shocker lizards?”
The alchemist brushed away a lock of sodden hair that had fallen in her face. “A reptile with a biology that generates an electrical current. Singly, the charge is enough to stun its prey, a minor jolt at most to anything larger than a piglet.” Kara paused. “The problem is when they gather. In numbers, they can synchronize their electrical fields and generate stronger pulses. You’ve seen Rahab’s magic that creates a bolt of lightning? Two or more shocker lizards can generate a similar effect, every fifteen seconds or so.”
Abby’s brow furrowed. “Why do The Black Arrows allow a nest of those in their tunnels?”
Jakardros shrugged. “It was thought they would keep the tunnels safe—or safer, rather—acting as a kind of deterrent. When we have to venture in there we burn bitterbark, which grows commonly enough around here. They find the smoke and odor distasteful, and retreat out of range.”
There was a period when the only sound was the rain hitting the tree canopy.
“Lightning? Every fifteen seconds?” Lem sounded incredulous. “How is that possibly the best route into the fortress?”
“If we are to seize surprise” Vale countered, “then the tunnels are the best strategic option.”
“Full of reptilian stormclouds,” the gardener objected.
Jakardros’ mouth formed a thin, tense line and his jaw trembled. The veteran’s eyes were flint. “What choice do we have, halfling?” He struggled to keep his voice low. “How many of our men are captive, or more likely, dead in the ruins? The gate destroyed, the grounds trespassed by our oldest enemy, The Black Arrows all but gone? We march the road to the walls and bloody them in our death, or we go through the tunnels and take all the opportunity for surprise available.”
Lem’s eyes narrowed and his fingers twitched. Gloriana quickly interceded. “You know the ground, Jakardros. We take the tunnels.”
Into the subsequent uncomfortable silence Kara posed a question: “And the shocker lizards? How much bitterbark would we need?”
The veteran shrugged. “Enough to burn for fifteen minutes, or so. Perhaps more? We need to produce sufficient smoke.”
After a long silence, Rahab spoke: “Gather enough.”
Kara turned to the wizard. “What is your plan?”
“I have magic to make a platform on which the bark may burn,” Rahab intoned, “and can control its movement. It will precede us, as a censer in a ceremony.”
“Very well,” Kara said. “That accounts for the shocker lizard variable. What else?”
“Within the keep proper we should move hard and fast,” said Abby. “No chance for the ogres to rest. If we have surprise, we must not give them a chance to organize or regroup.”
“If we find more of our comrades-in-arms,” Jakardros said, “we should release them and join their numbers with ours, should they be in fighting fitness. The more we bring to bear on the ogres, the better.”
“So long as such efforts do not slow us down,” the warrior interjected.
“What else?” Kara prompted. Another silence. “Rahab? What are we missing.”
The wizard shook his head vaguely. “Almost certainly something, but we have a plan and it is fairly solid. We should proceed.”
The alchemist turned to the warrior. “Abby?”
Kara turned last to The Black Arrows, merely raising an eyebrow by way of interogative. Jakardros was grim and silent, Vale stoically nodded approval, and Kaven fidgeting with nervous energy.
“Very well,” Kara said. “Prepare yourself. Unless something else changes, we go tomorrow before dawn. First watch, get ready. Everyone else try to get some sleep, if you can.” She gave no voice to the foreboding in her heart, the strange sensation that was more than just anticipation of the assault. She could not take its measure, neither to strategize in counterpoise, nor name it and mollify its worry.
In the rain sleep came fitful and incomplete for all.
It was toward the end of her watch that Kara realized Kaven—who had ventured on a wide patrol in the woods—had not returned. She woke Jakardros and Abby, whispering cautiously.
“Kaven is missing. I go to look for him.”
The warrior and the veteran sat up quickly, blinking in the rain and reaching for their weapons. Jakardros moved to wake Shelalu and Vale while Abby positioned herself at a nearby tree and waited. The sudden activity in camp roused Rahab, but Gloriana and Lem remained asleep. Tail twitching, the mountain lion gave a low growl. From the northwest came a sound behind the rain, movement through the forest, and crude voices mangling the Common tongue in brute tones.
The wizard crept close and touched the halfling lightly on the shoulder. Lem’s eyes flew open and his blades were in his hands with astonishing speed. “Trouble,” whispered Rahab.1
As Kara moved, she saw Kaven running through the forest in the direction of the cold campsite. She had consumed elixirs to maker herself invisible and assume the power of flight, and from her vantage in the air near the canopy she palmed one of her galvanic grenadoes. Back in camp the others scrambled to readiness as the sound of the ogres approached in pursuit.
The youth burst from some undergrowth voicing a stage whisper: “Ogres chasing me!”
Knowing the limitations of her own ability at stealth, Abby abandoned pretense. “Where?” she called out loudly enough to carry her voice into the surrounding trees. Her blade was drawn and she had Avenger braced, her legs poised to charge.
Jakardros found it difficult to wake Gloriana, now shaking her shoulder vigorously. Rahab interrupted the veteran by grabbing the oracle at the wrist and hauling her bodily, unceremoniously upright. “Rise,” the wizard whispered in the darkness. The oracle’s response was ragged with incomplete sleep: “What in the Hells is going on?”
Several things happened at once.
When the first ogre appeared out of the darkness, it took one of Lem’s arrows to the sternum, howling in surprise and pain, and the halfling remained masterfully hidden as he sniped, never leaving concealment. Abby’s lightstone whirled in the darkness and rain as the warrior emerged from behind the tree. She made a short run across the grass and slammed into the ogre in surprise attack, landing a mighty assault that set the brute reeling reeling on trunk-like legs. A second ogre followed the first, looking about in confusion. The monsters bore javelins and large clubs worn slick with years of powerful grip and blood-spattered bone crushing.
Vale threw a hand axe and that buried heavily in the second ogre’s torso. Kaven dove under a fallen tree. Jakardros and the mountain lion stayed close to Shelalu, and Gloriana joined her mystic connection to Abby’s life.
“Rahab?” the oracle asked, still groggy and uncertain. She blindly threw a spell of illusion into the woods before her, conjuring the sound of some great saurian beast that gave a hissing roar, an ancient sound of slavering jaws and snapping teeth. The sudden noise startled Kara in the air, and the alchemist momentarily panicked, looking around for the source, before she realized it was a trick of magic, one she knew Gloriana had employed before. But whatever the oracle’s intention with the ghostly sound, it never had opportunity to manifest because what followed was Abby in purest form.
The warrior attacked a second time, and the first ogre fell under her sword. Abby stepped to the second brute and a few seconds later it, too, died. The rain fell, mixing with ogre blood splashed across her blade and shield, running red rivulets to the muddy grass. Vale crossed, planted one heavy boot on an ogre corpse, and levered his hand axe free, grinning at Abby as droplets slicked his bald head in a sheen.
“The Black Arrows could use someone like you,” he offered.
The warrior leveled an even gaze at Vale but kept to herself the sentiment that—at present—there did not seem to be a Black Arrows organization in any meaningful sense. “I’ve got a job,” she deflected.
“You may put away your illusion,” Rahab murmured, and the oracle cancelled her spell a moment later.
“Can barely see anything,” Gloriana replied. “What happened?”
The wizard knelt and fumbled momentarily in his pack, and then stood, sudden illumination cutting into the rain-swept darkness. In his left hand he loosely cradled a token liberated from Nualia’s chamber beneath Thistletop long months ago: a human skull wreathed in flame2 that spilled flickering light without heat across the campsite. The wizard suddenly seemed very Cheliaxian: resplendent, powerful, sinister, touched by the Infernal.
Rahab was coy: “Kaven brought back two ogres for Abby to play with. She’s finished now.”
The ethereal tones of Kara’s voice came down from the air above: “I will scout to see if there are any more.”
Kaven’s head poked out from under the fallen tree into the twin circles of light from Abby’s stone and Rahab’s skull. He looked up and saw Lem crouched atop the log, carefully stowing his shortbow.
“Don’t worry,” the halfling chirped, “we won. Tell us what happened.” There was a faint edge underneath Lem’s cheery sarcasm, something made of suspicion and steel.
The youth began to explain as he emerged and the others gathered. “I was doing a wider circuit on watch. Suddenly they were on me. I didn’t even hear them.”
Gloriana gave a sympathetic smile. Standing next to her, eyes alight, Rahab leveled a piercing gaze at Kaven and opted not to voice skepticism about a woodland warrior surprised in a forest.
Kara returned a few moments later, still in flight, still invisible. “Nothing else. I don’t think the noise of the fight carried to the fort. We remain—for the moment—undiscovered.”
Lem gave a big smile. “That worked well! We should send Kaven out again. Maybe we can lure the whole force two at a time, and dispatch them that way.”
The youthful Black Arrow did not appear amused, and his jaw clenched as he glared at the halfling. Lem exuded cool equanimity tinged with disdain.
Jakardros tried to redirect. “This is probably a regular patrol. Eventually they will be missed.”
“How long?” asked Abby.
The veteran thought a moment. “Difficult to say. I would guess that in no more than three or four hours it will be obvious to the remaining Kreeg that two of their number are missing.”
For a long minute the only sound was the rain, and then Abby spoke. “Then we go.”
“Now?” Kaven sounded doubtful.
1 Lem startles awake to see Rahab looming over him in the darkness of a storm. Subsequent seconds could have gone very, very differently than they did.
2 This is a human skull enchanted with the same magic that makes an everburning torch. Up until now, the wizard had used an everburning torch for illumination, but this marks the point in the campaign where he began using the everburning skull.