Geeks Distributed

Book IV, Chapter 8: Strategy For Offense
Prelude To Assault

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.

“About what?”

“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.”

“Do what?”

“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.”

“I know.”

“Whatever else you might think of me, Abby, do not make mistake me for a child.”

“I don’t.”

“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?”

A shrug.

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.

Fifth Interlude
Book IV, Between Chapter 7 and Chapter 8

The brute thundered in the hall, an immensity near to bursting the confines of the corridor, pacing in barely contained frenzy, reeking breath betraying consumption of human flesh. Here was a dull mind of crude malice driving a form of fury and power, at revel in slaughter, in the spray and splash of blood, in the screams of the broken and ruined.

Legs slightly too short for the brute’s massive torso rippled with muscle. Sheaths of crudely tanned leather encased the shins, leaving the great, flat feet to slap heavily on stone with each step. An enormous girdle of leather studded with points of thick brass was hung with skull of human, elf, and dwarf. The loin drape was dotted with battle gore. Shoulders brushed against the passage walls, rippling arms hung near to dragging massive knuckles across the floor, leather bracers ensorcelled against attack circumscribed forearms the diameter of dinner plates. One hand clutched the haft of a great war hook enchanted as bane against humans, and when the curve of the steel struck stone it kindled sparks like motes of bloodlust. Atop the trunk, a thick neck supported a head like a boulder and maned in greasy black hair. A wide mouth housed a purple tongue and teeth that sheared bone as though bread. Inadequate to contemplative observation, two glaring eyes of black searched ever for bloody combat. At the peak of battle rage the orbs glinted red like restless coals stirred in dark hearths. The brute towered eleven feet and spanned nearly a human’s height across the chest. His name was Jaagrath Kreeg.

In the dimness of his brain crude thought grappled with bloody desire. He quivered with impulse to rush down to the lowlands and dizzy the region with carnage. The conquest of this human outpost had slaked his thirst for violence initially, but now the days had become weeks, and the yearning to destroy welled within him still. Butchery though it had been, he desired still more. Human lands yet remained to howl in pain and terror at the coming of Jaagrath and his kin. As he roamed the halls and grounds, he imagined—to the limits of his paltry capacity—further expedition of bloody imposition.

Yet—insomuch as he could know the emotion—a kind of fear constrained him, and here the dimness of his cognition struggled to understand the intricacies of purpose in that place. However much it had been his desire, he knew that seizing the outpost had been possible because of her, and it was her that he could not understand, and it was her that he feared. She named herself Lucrecia. That sounded human, and such was the guise she adopted, though at the roots of his fundamental cunning Jaagrath recognized—albeit imperfectly—that she was most assuredly not human. Yet her nature he could not name, and this uncertainty was as much the source of his discomfort as the exhibitions of power she periodically made to assert her dominance among the ogres.

He hated her, as he hated all that was not ogre, all that was not his being, and—in the deepest parts of battle rage, when the fury of blood and bone and butchery most strongly took him—perhaps he even hated himself. As he stalked the conquered place he grasped at fantasies of Lucrecia’s destruction as a child grasps at butterflies in a field, fruitless and fascinated. Who was she to command the Kreeg? What was she? Not even Dorella, who could cast magic, had been able to say, and in what passed for culture among ogres, Dorella was considered quite sophisticated, indeed.

He made for the room they had transformed into a kind of larder, and then stalked the fortress in a restrained fury, gnawing on a human arm.



Gloriana awake startle upright now suddenly sound rain on roof faint moth trembling on blade of grass soft breeze among dandelions under moonlight. Now rattle now soft snore abed. Shape and line and weight friend in darkness gently rising gently falling adrift in ancient magic called sleep called dream.

Thick darkness deep. Sightless. High moon hidden in dress of cloud in cloak of rain. Water chorus drumming board and plank and post and mud. Lingering spring chill. Gooseflesh.

Vision begins. Slow stark line of light. Distant or close indeterminate now soundless now soon to hum. Light line no illumination chamber corners undefined floorboards indistinct no shape of beds of friends of space. Growing. Glow distorts billowing waving cloth luminous moving unfelt gust.

Inn room gentle expanding light. Now Abby. Now Kara. Ribcage quiet rise quiet fall breathe under blanket deep sleep. Undisturbed. Vision unfold ripple coalesce sharpen. Woman campfire wagon road sky stars treeline. Woman.

Grandmother. Five years dead.

Father’s mother. Cauldron. Rabbit stew. Bubble languid flicker fire gentle smoke shuttle weave loom of night sky. Now sprinkle rosemary bits of green snowfall on food. Scent remembered powerful present.

Grandmother glance. Faint smile sad.

Glenna. Pet name.

Gloriana mouth open tongue imperfect teeth uncertain no words voice sound catch quick throat silence only no answer.

Glenna, you wander far. I made stew, and Kolyna has pumpernickel bread. I would pour some for you, but you are not here with us at the campfire.

Gloriana voice find finally small distant star point in darkness. Faint. “Ama.” Pet name.

Sad smile stir gentle cauldron salt pinch. You wander far. When we gather to dance and sing you are not here.

“I am.” Struggle. Insist. Silence room too large. “I am there.” Tears well.

We worry, Glenna. Your father worries and your mother worries and I worry. All the camp.

Hands face. Nod. Understanding looms wave on horizon distant stormcloud sky. Thunder and rushing and winds. Swans dolphins lizards wolves elk burst leap flick howl run. Root to stem to branch to bud to leaf to flower to pollen to bee to honeycomb to field to root. Rain becomes sun. Sun becomes rain. Stone becomes sand.

I know they worry for your safety, but that is not why I worry. I worry for your heart. I can hear, even at this distance. Did you know that? Many in camp don’t know, but they are not where I am, have not been where I have been, have not seen the place where road and horizon are no different.

Soft croak a day a week a year a thousand years of memory and song and season. “Ama.”

You wander far. That has always been the way of things like this. When you come to the place where the road and the horizon are no different, will you find this was your choice, or not your choice? Will you find that it became your choice in time, or that in time you were chosen? So rarely we know with certainty.

Planet turning in immeasurable vastness small in greatness in smallness. Gloriana damp vision blur.

You wander far, and the road is all the roads, those we have known, those we have not known and yet still trod. And now, granddaughter, I will watch you dance. I will hear you sing. Will I still worry about your heart?

Fade. Hum to quiet. Darkness. Rain.

I am coming with you.


1 Party members leveled up to 8th.

Book IV, Chapter 7: The Last Of The Black Arrows

“We should make for Turtleback Ferry,” Jakardros murmured.

The surrounding area had grown quiet except for the crackling of the fire slowly consuming the barn. Kara kept watch in case the flames threatened the forest, but with the dampness and muddy ground before the treeline, the alchemist was cautiously optimistic that the greater Kreegwood would not catch light. Abby and Rahab moved south into the woods to retrieve the horses. Lem lingered nearby, skeptical, watchful eye turned upon The Black Arrows.

Gloriana regarded the one-eyed veteran with sympathy, but she shook her golden locks. “Soon. We must rest a moment, take stock, gather ourselves and our resources. We have all endured horror here, yet there remains much to do. Why don’t we begin by returning the equipment that obviously belongs to you?” The oracle started toward the chest the companions had seized from the basement.

Kaven flashed a ready grin and hastened alongside her. “Let me give you a hand with that. I haven’t had a chance to thank you personally. I’m Kaven.”

Gloriana looked mildly amused. “Yes, I heard.” She began to sort through the remaining goods in the container.

“Tell me,” the youth continued, “what’s a beauty like you doing with this motley bunch?”

The oracle leveled a cool, piercing gaze at Kaven. “Leading them.”

Kaven’s smile faltered, and Gloriana began stacking pieces of armor in the youth’s arms. She placed a hand on one shoulder and the other on an elbow, turned the young man, and pushed him gently in the direction of his comrades.

Some minutes later The Black Arrows had donned their liberated gear. Kara wordlessly returned the bow of electric magic to Jakardros. The veteran had recovered an old, worn eye patch from his belongings, and slid the cloth over the ragged socket of his maimed face. Gloriana knelt and tended to Shelalu as Abby and Rahab returned leading the mounts.

“Can you walk?” the oracle asked the ranger.

Shelalu nodded. Lem and Gloriana helped the elf stand. “If we remove about three miles to the southeast,” the ranger winced, “we can find a good campsite near fresh water.”

The stout man called Vale stood looking at the house, battle axe hefted on his burly shoulder. “What about this place?”

Kaven’s handsome features hardened: “Burn it.” Agreement passed among the assembled. Gloriana nodded to Rahab and once more the wizard reached across the immeasurable gulf between the planes, summoning a small fire elemental, no larger than a harvest pumpkin, a creature of living flame, a conflagration with intelligence, purpose, and sentience. It shifted in different shapes, now a rolling ball, now a small pillar, now a circle, now a gyrating humanoid form, and always made entirely of fire, brilliant yellow-orange that curled, twisted, swept, drifted. The creature gleefully raced along the porch, coiled up the posts, crossed the lintels, traversed the roof. By the time it returned to its realm the house was ablaze in concert with the barn.

Abby and Gloriana lifted Shelalu atop Marigold, and the weakened Jakardros into Pentacle’s saddle. Vale and Kaven insisted on marching, though their pace was slow. Gloriana climbed up on Sparky behind Abby, and Rahab joined Kara on Urdrenn. Lem led the way on Cinnamon. In a couple of hours they had camped near a stream, and nightfall showed the distant orange glow of the burning farmstead lingering above the shadowed outline of surrounding forest.


Kara leaned against a tree trunk, scanning the woods in the direction from whence they had marched. The occasional crepuscular animal strolled or darted, but no sign of pursuit appeared.

Jakardros instructed Kaven to walk a careful perimeter at the campsite, and the young man paused now and again to bend close to the ground, searching for tracks or other sign of passage that might signal further threat, ogre-kin or otherwise. Meanwhile the veteran kindled a camp fire with wood Abby and Vale gathered. The mountain lion rested close by, occasionally pressing its head against Jakardros’ hand or knee in the manner of a house cat. Rahab sat next to Shelalu, the two conferring softly in Elven. Lem accompanied Gloriana to the stream to refill everyone’s waterskins. As they bent to the task, they took quiet counsel, keeping their voices low.

“Did you notice—?” the gardener began.

The oracle held the mouth of a waterskin in the stream. “Kaven?”


“Left forearm, just below the elbow.”

Lem nodded. “I didn’t see the tattoo on Vale or Jakardros, though.”

“Nor I.”

“What do you think?”

Gloriana lapsed into silent thought. Finally, she said, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Lem narrowed his eyes in concentration. “Could be nothing. Maybe the kid just likes the dice. If the Paradise really did sink, maybe it doesn’t even matter.”

The oracle considered this. “At any rate,” she said, “don’t mention anything for now.”

They finished collecting water and returned to the campfire.


After sunset they settled into a dinner of jerked meat and hard tack. Vale stretched his great long legs with an aching groan, and Kaven sat next to Gloriana with all the subtlety of a teenager at a first spring dance. Jakardros seemed anxious to remain close to the wounded Shelalu, yet remained aloof, uncertain, dour. The veteran reached out occasionally to scratch the mountain lion under the chin or around the ears, but otherwise stared long into the campfire, quiet under weight of memory. For her part the ranger kept silent, as well, huddled in her blanket and moving gingerly when she moved at all.

Gloriana ventured conversation. “You mentioned the possibility that you are the last of The Black Arrows. What did you mean?”

Vale, Kaven, and Jakardros abode in melancholy silence. Finally the veteran spoke, his voice ragged with lament and recent horror, firelight flickering in his eyes. “There were five of us on patrol out of Fort Rannick, gone five days, scouting the northern reaches of the Kreegwood which is sometimes hunted by ogres come down from Hook Mountain. But we found nothing, and so returned . . . .” He trailed off. To say more seemed beyond his endurance.

Vale took up the tale: “We found Fort Rannick in the hands of ogres who had somehow overrun the stronghold while we were away on patrol. Some treachery delivered the fortress into the hands of the very enemies against which it has stood for more than a century.” The big man ran a weary hand over his bald head, his dark skin glistening.

“You could not gain entry?” Abby asked.

Vale shook his head. “It was clear that the force was too large for us to openly assault. Fort Rannick had suffered structural damage. Without numbers, there was nothing we could do.”

“How many ogres were there?” asked Gloriana.

“Dozens, at least,” the burly man resumed. “In my years as a Black Arrow I have never known them to organize so effectively, and in such numbers. We saw no sign that any of our comrades had escaped. Jakardros led us away, intent on reaching Turtleback Ferry, perhaps to raise levies, or at least send word for aid.” Vale shook his head vaguely, his gaze fixed on the middle distance. “I don’t know.”

Now Kaven spoke: “We made for the road, but were ambushed by the Grauls.”

Kara was quizzical: “’Grauls?’”

“Those . . . things . . . at the farmstead. That is—was—their name.”

“You knew them?” Abby asked.

Kaven gave a grim chuckle, bitter with recent memory. “No. They told us, more than once. Kept saying how we would ‘feed the Family Graul.’ If you did not find Dal and Landron, then, well . . . .”

A long silence settled on the gathering. Gloriana closed her eyes and wordlessly prayed solace and rest for the spirits of all those, known and unknown, who had fallen prey to the Grauls. When she opened her eyes, she offered quiet condolence to The Black Arrows for the loss of their friends and comrades-in-arms.

“The ogres at Fort Rannick,” asked Rahab, “are they kin to the Graul?”

This time Vale resumed. “No. They are fully ogre, and stronger, better equipped, not as . . . ” he shook his head once more, searching for the word.

“Degenerate?” offered the conjurer.

“Yes, though I find myself surprised to say so about ogres.”

Kara interjected: “The force remained at Fort Rannick?”

“Last we knew,” Kaven said. “It has been a ten-day or more since we fled there.”

Vale suddenly leaned forward, an intense light in his eyes, an eagerness to his demeanor. “While captive I spent time thinking about ways to retake the fortress. It is possible, with a force greater than five, and would require using less well-known ways into the keep, and perhaps some siegecraft.” He looked around at the others, his gaze partly encouraging, partly expectant, partly pleading.

The companions made no reply. Gloriana redirected: “How far is Fort Rannick?”

“A day’s ride from Turtleback Ferry. I can draw a reliable map of the grounds and interior.”

Without prompt Rahab searched his backpack, and soon passed the fighting man a portion of paper, quill, and vial of ink. “Make haste to do so tomorrow.”

Receiving the items, Vale nodded his excitement. “You’ll help?”

Gloriana was evasive. “I can reveal that we were sent from Magnimar to this region to investigate the loss of contact with The Black Arrows. The situation is grave.” She brushed a length of golden curls out of her eyes. “Do you think this assault is merely staging for an invasion of Turtleback Ferry?”

Kaven and Vale glanced at one another and shrugged in tandem. “Possibly,” the big man said.

When Jakardros spoke everyone glanced over in surprise. “This turn of events has caught us off-guard. We do not know the extent of what has happened, nor what our enemy intends. Ogres and other giant-kin have long threatened this region. The Black Arrows was established specifically to counter such incursions, and in more than a century has never been vanquished. Fort Rannick was betrayed.”

“You’re certain? Could they not simply have organized a superior force?”

Kara and Rahab interjected simultaneously. “Ogres do not organize.” Alchemist and wizard glanced at one another in mild amusement.

Jakardros nodded agreement. “Exactly so,” he said. “They must have been led by someone—or something—subtle and cunning . . . .” Again the veteran trailed off, profoundly weary and haggard with shock. The mountain lion purred low and nuzzled the man’s ribs.

Silence drew careful cloak over the group, save for the crackle of the campfire in the night air. No stars glinted among the canopy of trees, for the cloud cover remained, and the scent of rain lay heavy on the air. Before they set watch Gloriana drew Rahab aside.

“I think we should return to Turtleback Ferry, plan a course of action from there.”

The wizard nodded agreement, then went to his bedroll. The last thing Gloriana did before the group settled in for the night was channel the day’s remaining healing power among all assembled, restoring everyone’s health, including the mountain lion.


The next morning dawned gray and cool, and Kaven just managed to rekindle the campfire before a light rain began to fall. Rahab sought shelter underneath Pentacle to study his spellbook. Kara and Vale distributed a rudimentary breakfast, while Abby and Lem saw to the horses. Shelalu remained aloof from Jakardros. The air between the ranger and the one-eyed man was thick with something guarded, heavy, and fraught. The mountain lion padded back and forth between the one-eyed man and Gloriana, nuzzling them and twitching its tail.

The oracle approached Abby, keeping her voice subdued. “What do you think is going on?” The oracle glanced to where Shelalu and Jakardros lingered in uncomfortable silence.

Abby glanced over for a moment, then returned to affixing harness with a shrug.

“Abby!” Gloriana’s whisper was urgent.

“What? This is your area, not mine. I could challenge them to single combat, loser has to confess a secret . . . .”

Gloriana remained determined. “Shelalu called him ‘father.’”

The warrior shook her head in mild annoyance and dropped her whisper to match the oracle’s. “Maybe that’s because—just guessing—he is her father?”


“Glo, I genuinely don’t know! Why not ask them?” She regarded the oracle intently. “Are you asking me because I’m half-elf?”

Gloriana’s eyes widened in alarm. “No! No, of course not! I just thought . . . .” The oracle paused and drew a long breath. “There is no way I can explain that won’t sound awful, is there?”

“Pretty much no way,” the warrior answered.

Gloriana stammered. “I’m—I’m sorry, Abby. You’re right.”

The warrior was silent for a while, then nodded slightly. “Thank you. This isn’t like you, Glo. What’s bothering you? What’s this about?”

“I don’t know. It feels like there is something going on, underneath all this. The events in Magnimar, The Black Arrows, Fort Rannick, Shelalu, the ogres, the Paradise and the mysterious Lady Lucrecia, all of it. I just can’t see what it is.”

“You should talk to the puzzle solvers.” The warrior raised her eyebrows and inclined her head in the direction of Kara and Rahab.

“I wanted your perspective. We’re all in the puzzle, so we’re all puzzle solvers.”

Abby continued buckling tack. “Only be careful,” the warrior suggested, and now her face looked grave. “With families . . . it’s never what it looks like on the surface, and it rarely gets better the deeper you go.” She lapsed into silence. Contemplative, Gloriana went to gather her gear, packing slowly and paying close attention to the ghostly visions clustering the air around her.


Lem knelt, affixing his blanket to the exterior straps of his rucksack, using the task to conceal careful observation of Kaven. The puzzle of the gambling tattoo on the young Black Arrow pricked at his brain. The tattoo itself implied nothing more than penchant for games of chance. Perhaps more than any of the others, Lem knew the varied and intricate geography of life often described as iniquity at best, criminal by default. Yet simple vice bothered the gardener no more than flecks of blood on whiskers as the cat devours the mouse. In another circumstance Lem might have found some kinship with the young woodsman, Kaven’s humanity notwithstanding. Now, however, something was wrong: The tattoo and The Black Arrow did not fit. He could feel that down at the very heart of his luck.

To hell with it, Lem thought, and stood, sweeping his rucksack onto his shoulders. He strolled toward Cinnamon, and as he passed Kaven he remarked, offhandedly, “I think someone has been messing around where someone shouldn’t have.”

The handsome youth looked distinctly non-plussed, and ventured the uncertain smile of the foreigner suddenly addressed in an unfamiliar language.

Lem leveled a penetrating stare, then shrugged. “Sorry. I mistook you for someone with a brain.” Then the gardener hauled himself into the saddle, leaving Kaven glancing around in confusion.


They made their way slowly through the denseness of the Kreegwood, intent on rejoining the road to Turtleback Ferry. The rain fell, light but steady, though the canopy of trees provided some shelter. With his health restored, Jakardros took a scouting lead an eighth of a mile ahead. Gloriana dismounted Marigold and walked alongside Shelalu, conversing with the ranger in low tones.

“When we met in the wilderness on the way here you said your travels were taking you in our direction . . . .” The oracle left the invitation open.

“I sought him,” Shelalu said, and nodded in the direction of the woods ahead where Jakardros scouted. “I had heard that contact with The Black Arrows had been lost. The signs I found led to the house in the woods.”

“That is why you went ahead of us yesterday morning.”


“It is difficult between you two.” The oracle did not phrase it as a question.

“Yes. He—” The ranger scowled.

“Your father?”

Shelalu sighed. “My father died when I was a child. Many years later, a young adventurer came to the Mierani Forest, the land of my people, of Kara’s people. Did you know that I knew her family? Not well, but they were important. No matter,” the ranger gave a vague wave. “This young adventurer was Jakardros, and when he came to the Mierani he offered my people help defeating a force of ettercaps serving a green dragon. The battle was difficult, and Jakardros was injured. A priestess of Desna named Siantia nursed the young man back to health, and they fell in love, as sometimes happens between elf and human. They married, though the union was not without difficulty.” She lapsed reflective.

After a while Gloriana quietly mused: “Siantia was your mother.”

“Yes. Jakardros became my foster father. He and my mother were happy together, I think, but there was a doom on the Mierani, and the green dragon returned in wrath. Though my people eventually vanquished the agulta vabam,1 my mother fell. Jakardros left, just disappeared one day, without word. I still do not know why. In time, with experience, I sought him out.”

“To confront him.”

Shelalu nodded. “Though now I have found him and do not know what to say, what to do.”

“He is concerned for you.”

“He shows otherwise.”

“It can be difficult. Sometimes survivors feel guilty that they lived when their loved ones died, and the burden of this feeling can cloud understanding, or obscure the way through anguish.”

“Such is not our way.”

“It’s a strange thing about ways,” Gloriana gave a small smile, almost as if she were reminding herself, as well, “how often they merely lead us to unfamiliar territory, and then we must find another way in order to make progress.”

“That sounds very human.”

The oracle’s quick laugh was bright, a sound of genuine mirth, like a momentary sunbeam piercing the clouds overhead and melting away the horror of recent days. Shelalu could not help but smile. Even Gloriana’s laughter was beautiful.

The two women lapsed into contemplative quiet, content to take in the sound of rain on leaves.


Kaven started the journey flirting with Kara, only to find the alchemist disinterested and silently dismissive. Next, he tried Abby, until the warrior made it quite clear that she was unimpressed. He even attempted to engage Shelalu briefly, but the ranger transfixed the youth with a glare as piercing as her bowshot. So Kaven wound up once again alongside Gloriana, all smiles and wit. The oracle admitted to herself that the handsome young man was not unskilled, and she responded playfully, yet remained cognizant of the atmosphere of mourning still present among The Black Arrows. She remembered, too, the tattoo of a hooked, seven-pointed start that the roguish youth bore, and so kept herself on guard behind banter.

Over the course of the journey, Gloriana made certain to spend some time with each of The Black Arrows, gathering impressions and information. She found Jakardros haggard and forlorn, deeply wounded by recent events, like a relic of the past, fragile and pitted with time. Vale seemed stolid and soldierly, a good-natured core at the center of a fighter’s hardness. And as for Kaven, it was clear the man was afire with the vigor of youth, his mind on adventure and the pursuit of sensual delight.


Vale strode alongside Abby. The warrior glanced down from atop Sparky.

The burly man stammered and cleared his throat. “Take a look.” He held out the map of Fort Rannick he had been composing. Abby dismounted and led Sparky by the reins, taking the proffered document carefully in her other hand. Vale’s depiction was excellent, clearly marked, easy to understand. The big man began to point out features of the schematic and to ask for Abby’s strategic perspective.

Several lengths behind, Gloriana watched the interaction, unable to contain a gleeful grin. Kara caught sight of the oracle, and rode close.

“What is it?” asked the alchemist.

Gloriana, in hushed delight: “It’s cute!”

Kara glanced forward where the oracle’s attention lay. Recognition dawned.


By late afternoon the companions returned to Turtleback Ferry and resumed their rooms at Bottom’s Up, securing additional accommodation for The Black Arrows. Whispers began among the locals at the sight of the previously absent woodland guardians, though the villagers kept such rumblings to themselves, venturing neither to confirm nor deny anything of substance.

The party gathered erratically for dinner, and The Black Arrows joined them, the meal passing largely in silence. Moody memory lingered among them all, of differing provenance, yet united by the nightmare of the Graul farmstead.

The rain fell.

1 Roughly translated: green death.

Book IV, Chapter 6: The Kreegwood Vorpalsaw Massacre, Part III

Abby collapsed against a post, breathing heavily. The others looked around at the carnage. Blood soaked the packed earth of the barn floor, splattered across the door frame and supports, dotted the walls. Portions of stinking viscera clotted near fallen bodies. Motes drifted.

Gloriana approached Rahab. “We need to help Abby,” the oracle murmured quietly.

“The spell’s effect will soon pass. Give her a moment to rest. Let us see what we can find.” The wizard began to detect for signs of magic, while the others gathered. Soon they had looted Mammy’s corpse of a potion, three magic wands, and a spellbook, all of which Lem grimly liberated from folds in her enormous flesh.

It did not take long for Rahab to determine the array. “Two of those I shall keep,” he remarked, looking at the slimmer lengths of carefully shaped wood. “The third,” and he gestured at the one they had all seen inside the house, the one topped with a small severed hand, “we might exchange for coin or some other item of value.”1

“It is horrible,” Gloriana shuddered.

“A potent device. It bestows the spell of the vampire’s touch.”

“Someone will want it?”

“It is an expression of power. Someone will always want it.”

Kara examined the draught. “Another curative.” The alchemist handed the potion to Gloriana, who stored it away. “She must have taken others recently,” the elf continued, indicating the hulking body. She looked at Rahab who was carefully flipping through the pages of the spellbook. “A good find?”

The conjurer was noncommittal. “There are a few additions I will incorporate into my own library, but her knowledge did not exceed my own. She evinced a preference for necromancy . . .” and he pointedly glanced at Abby and Kara, “. . . obviously.” The alchemist gave a weary nod.

A few minutes later Abby stood. With the spell of exhaustion faded the warrior looked renewed, if disheveled from the near constant state of battle since their arrival at the monstrous homestead.

“Better?” Gloriana asked with a smile.

Abby nodded, then glanced at the doors at the rear of the barn. “We should continue looking. There may be more.”

The oracle’s brow furrowed. “Do you think there’s a . . . father?”

Rahab snorted derisively and swept an explanatory hand over the scene. “Look at the morphological catastrophe on display. Of course there’s a father. It’s almost certainly one of the brothers.”

The oracle shuddered again. Kara was tired and angry. “Does the human in them not resist the degeneracy of the ogre at all?”

A slight sigh escaped the conjurer’s lips as he raised his hands in a gesture of mild helplessness, or perhaps resignation. “Lehemion virurk nar shusun gow lo kedwithtel.”2

Gloriana stood near, looking out onto the barnyard, listening. She realized that the mountain lion was missing.


Before proceeding, Abby waved to Rahab and they strode into the yard, retrieved the chest of goods, and brought it inside the barn, setting it close to the interior doors. Lem made his way back up to the catwalk to retrieve his bow and set himself at an advantageous height in the event of further battle. Gloriana accompanied him, conscious that the reach of her healing power could cover the distance to her companions below. Then Abby squared up to the portals and the others hushed. The warrior drew her sword.

“Get ready. Watch behind us,” she said, then nodded at Rahab. The wizard cast his cantrip almost casually, and the inner doors drew open at his command. In the same moment, the gardener opened the catwalk entry. The remainder of the barn yawned before them, murky, festooned with something thick and silver-dark.

“By all the gods,” Abby whispered.


In the spill of light from the warrior’s glowstone it was difficult to take the measure of the space. The ceiling was obscured, and the floor appeared sunken, as though descending into a depression, some funnel or irregular bowl of earth vacated to uncertain depth.

From their vantage oracle and gardener realized the catwalk proceeded around the remaining perimeter, but that moving would pose challenge. At each corner of the walkway was a space sealed off with rusted iron bars forming a kind of padlocked cage. In the southeastern cell languished three cramped, humanoid figures, chained to frame timbers by iron manacles.

But it was spiderwebs that dominated the chamber, draped in multiple layers, floor to ceiling, blanketing the walls, coating the ground, each sticky strand the diameter of a jib sheet.

For a moment, no one moved, and then a sound reached Abby’s ears. Rahab and Kara heard it, too: Barking dogs, and a distant bellowing from outside the barn, back among the woods, drawing closer.


Lem moved forward, trying to find suitable footing amidst the sweep of webs, and straining to discern details. The three caged figures appeared human, gaunt and wan, dressed in ragged shirt-and-braes or loincloths, likely prisoner for some days.

“They’re not ogre-kin,” he whispered sharply, hoping the sound carried below, but reluctant to give more voice. Gloriana moved on Lem’s heels, and quickly realized the sickly state of the men in the cage. The oracle summoned healing power and reached out, through the bars, bathing the figures in honey wine light. Their strength appeared somewhat renewed and their eyes brighter, though she risked no more healing until she could determine just what was going on.

Kara pulled the cork on yet another extract and drank it down. Magic roared through her system, and she felt a heat behind her eyes. Her pupils dilated and shifted, and the very lining of her eyeballs reordered itself to capture new wavelengths of radiation. The darkness around her cleared into defined, monotone depth.3 Still under the effect of a previous elixir of flight, Kara took to the air once more, rising up to the level of the catwalk on the northern side of the barn.

“Noise outside!” Abby’s whisper was violent like Lem’s. Rahab seized the initiative and cast his cantrip of portal manipulation once more, commanding the exterior doors behind the party to close. The darkness of the interior deepened, and the conjurer retrieved his magical torch. He could hear the noise from the distant woods coming closer, and had a good idea of what was coming.

A shadow shifted in the barn ceiling, and Abby, Lem, and Gloriana slowly craned their necks in unison to look aloft. Out of the darkness descended a shape moving over strands of webbing on eight staccato legs with a dexterity that should have been impossible in a creature of that size.

A thought dragged its way up from the depths of Abby’s brain with protracted insistence: Way too big. Way, way too big.


As Rahab turned he saw the glow of their light sources glinting off the massive carapace, reflected in bright points among black pools of multitude eyes that hovered above flexing mandibles. Its thorax and abdomen alone were the size of an elephant, and its fangs the length of Abby’s sword.

Lem quickly glanced back at Gloriana for guidance. The enormous arachnid did not appear to be doing anything at present, though even just perched on a tangle of webbing its immensity radiated threat. The massive monster bobbed slightly atop jointed legs the length of mizzen-masts, and the oracle felt a chill sweat begin to form on her skin. The spider was, quite simply, the biggest she had ever seen, perhaps the biggest creature of any kind in her memory, easily dwarfing the Hell-spawned barghest in the dungeons beneath Thistletop, the dire bat in the cavern foundation of The Misgivings. Gaze riveted on the monster, she did not see the hundreds of tiny haunts that sprang to life upon her shoulders and back, but she felt them, their scuttling, segmented appendages trickling down her neck, beneath her tunic, along the length of her spine. A shudder of profound discomfort shook her, and for a moment her voice failed her, and she could only nod desperately by way of answer to the gardener’s unspoken query.

Lem read the gesture and crept forward to the cell, wisps of webbing clutching at his metatarsal hair, his armor, his eyebrows. He produced his tools and began to work the padlock as quickly as he could, the sound of metal clicking against metal resonating like a thunderclap in his ears, behind the blood that hid risen to pound a rhythm against the interior of his skull. Though in present position there was no way the spider could reach him with its fangs, it would be no challenge at all to reach one claw forward and simply brush the gardener from the catwalk as a tavernkeep sweeps crumbs from the counter. The padlock clicked open, and the gardener slipped past the rusted gate to try his hand against the first set of manacles.

The prisoner in chains looked down at the halfling with one good eye. His voice croaked a weak whisper: “Who are you?”


Abby had readied herself to attack the spider should it pass within range, but it just loomed, fangs dripping, latticework of black eyes glinting in the glow of her lightstone. And anyway, the spider’s great reach easily outclassed her own. For the monster to come within range of her blade would mean she would have long already been within its horrific grasp.

Hovering near the catwalk, Kara unlimbered the bow she had taken from the trove in the house basement. With her supply of grenadoes depleted, she had to rely now on more conventional weaponry, but the density of webs in the air space made it difficult to establish line of sight on the spider, despite the creature’s huge size.

By now Gloriana had identified the arachnid, and her whisper was hoarse: “Ogre spider!” Called such not for affinity with giant-kin brutes but rather the vastness of its size and the viciousness of its disposition, the creature was a legend around her people’s campfires, a warning about venturing too far from the roadside. The oracle carefully stepped back, slowly so as not to startle, and she began to hum low in a chant of magic that roused the spirits around her. A resonant noise built in sympathy from the very air, a chorus of unseen voices that began to call, shout, and yell. The noise grew, the sound of a company of soldiers giving war cry as they beat swords against shields in anticipation of battle.4

“Friends!” Gloriana called out, finding voice above whisper at last. “Those spirits are mine! Take care against the poisonous spider, and have no fear!”

This last seemed almost farcical. Next to the titanic arachnid, the illusion of warriors gathering for battle invoked so little alarm as to be negligent, at best, and then the mood descended into momentary absurdity as Rahab answered the oracle’s warning:

“Venomous, not poisonous.”

Gloriana was too tense to tell the wizard where he could deposit his pedantry.


By now Lem had freed two of the prisoners, the haggard man with one eye and a larger man of more impressive physicality. The gardener glanced back at Gloriana. “If we could heal them, we might just get these men out of here,” he called, and turned to the last set of manacles. The two freed men were struggling to help one another stand in their weakened condition. The last man, eyes brimming with desperate hope, was younger, leaner, perhaps handsome by human standards, with a brashness that shone through despite his predicament.

Abby adjusted her position, resettled her shield, and forced herself to remain mindful of the warrior’s weapon grip: tight but loose. In the air Kara managed to establish some line of sight toward the eastern wall where the glittering chitin loomed. The alchemist knew lore of the ogre spider: a paralytic bite, the grim poison Lem and Abby had suffered on separate traps in the ogre-kin house, the ability to project its entangling web over great distance. Her anxiety felt as immense as the barn in which they waited, but then Rahab uttered something else that made her giggle with absurd madness.

“We appear to have found the source of the trap poison.” The wizard’s tone was droll, and for all his arrogance, there was something comforting in his ability to maintain sarcastic understatement in direst circumstance.

Outside, beyond the barn walls, gruff, brutish, dull voices called: “Where’s Mammy?” “Don’t know! Get that elf bitch!”

The rest of the family had arrived.


Even as he worked the last manacles open with his tools, Lem could read the signs of ambush. “The spider is waiting!” he yelled, and the manacles parted, spilling the handsome man free. “It’s waiting for the others out there! We should move back into the first room!”

Abby never took her eyes off the beast. “Should we try and provoke it?”

Gloriana was aghast. “Ghosts of the road, Abby, no!” The oracle moved forward to help pull the released prisoners back along the catwalk. “Hurry,” she urged. “Follow me.” The three struggled to follow. She led them along the catwalk, through the narrow doorway into the entrance room, and down to the chest Abby and Rahab had carried from the house. Throwing the box open she drew forth the battle axe within. The largest prisoner stepped forward, slick with perspiration, trembling as muscle power slowly returned in the wake of the oracle’s healing magic. His fingers closed around the axe haft with knowing familiarity. Gloriana turned back to the chest and hurriedly handed out more gear.

The spider moved.


Abby was startled by the speed, and then cursed herself that she should be. It was an arachnid, after all, and she had never known such creatures to be sluggish. Still, the sheer immensity of the thing . . . but no, it was as fast as any cousin of familiar size, and only by desperate reflex did she interpose Avenger in time to block stabbing fangs. A scrabbling rasp sounded as the mandibles clattered across the brilliant silver surface, and the warrior felt a tickling sensation as wiry hairs brushed against her cheek.

Too close, she thought grimly.

The twang of bowstring sounded from the air above as Kara fired. Arrow sped true, striking one of the massive leg joints, and a sudden flaring burst of shimmering electricity strobed and crackled. Tiny, brief lines of jagged, erratic lightning coursed over the spider leg contours, then winked out.5 A similar flaring effect momentarily traced skeletal designs on the bow in surging blue-white, before fading as the string’s oscillations slowed.

Rahab heard more noises outside: barking dogs and harsh, urgent conversation. The wizard began to calculate the mathematics that opened the way.


Lem drew his bow and fired a shot at the spider, hitting easily. It was, quite literally, shooting at the side of a barn. The arrow clattered off a particularly dense piece of carapace.

On the ground, Abby still had no reach, and so tried to draw the monster’s attention away from her friends. The warrior began to shout challenges and insults, decrying the arachnid’s lack of appropriate parentage and casting aspersions on its leg count.6

“Abby!” Gloriana ran up from where she had been doling out equipment to the freed prisoners. The oracle passed a vial to the warrior, clenching her own fingers around Abby’s fist to emphasize the point. “Take the fight to the spider.”

The prisoners closed ranks, struggling into their gear, still weak, but ready to help. The largest man stepped protectively in front of Gloriana. Rahab saw the gesture and a wry thought arced deliciously around his brain: It is you that needs to stand behind her, idiot.

Kara fired again, and more electricity flared. The spider lunged once more at Abby, and this time the fangs were too much, stabbing past the warrior’s defense and inflicting a strong wound that bubbled with venom. A swoon of pain and dizziness came over her, but she stood firm, steadying her legs, reasserting her grip, fighting the toxin.7

The exterior barn doors crashed open and cries of alarm shook the rafters as the ogre-kin stared in shock at the pudding remains of the matriarch they loved and feared.

Rahab completed his spell and and the servant appeared: A diminutive, wiry shape with a sprite-like aspect, no larger than Lem and much thinner. The head was ovoid, surmounted by a set of small horns, long pointed ears, and a nose like a spear point. Bright eyes glinted mischievously. Spindly fingers flexed and clutched, and leathery wings bore the otherworldly creature aloft. A grin of perverse glee showed an array of sharp fangs, and its entire coloration was brilliant orange-red, even its teeth. A corona of constant flame poured over its body, shedding flickering light in all directions. In the common tongue it was called a mephit, and it was as unpredictable as the flame from which it was actualized.8

The small oblong head angled to face Rahab, and the wizard gave a smug smile. “Child of the eternal fire, welcome! Your enemies are the spider and the ogre-kin and their hunting dogs,” the conjurer said calmly. The mephit grinned wider, then gyred in the air, its very body burning away strands of spiderweb. At the top of its spiral it stopped, cupped twig-thin fingers under its chin, and blew a deadly kiss of flame that spilled forth in a cone over the spider, the surrounding silk, the wall of the barn.

Rahab stepped back from the spider’s room into the barn’s entry space and locked eyes with one of the newly arrived ogre-kin framed in the barn entrance.

“I see one!” the brute yelled. “They killed Mammy! THEY KILLED MAMMY!”

The battle began in earnest.


A cruel, grunting voice commanded the ogre-kin back. “First kill the elf, then the other ones! We get them!” The brute in the doorway threw a glance of hatred at the companions, then reluctantly retreated into the barnyard where a flurry of activity showed shapes of dog and ogre-kin passing swiftly back and forth.

Lem appeared out of the darkness at Rahab’s elbow, a stealthy shape carrying death in two blades. “I’m going to bleed him from the shadows,” he murmured to the wizard, then disappeared again into the interior darkness at the barn’s perimeter.

Abby slammed back the potion Gloriana had given her and felt the power of flight lift her off the ground. She crossed the airspace to the burly prisoner in front of Gloriana. “Go help the others!” she yelled at him in slight irritation, then darted in the air to her left, closing with the spider.

Another arrow whistled overhead from Kara’s assault, this time a vengeful strike that blasted one of the arachnid’s eyes, extinguishing it in a burst of tiny lightning.9 Segmented legs flailed wildly with the pain, thrashing among the webs and against the barn posts. The entire building swayed and creaked with the impact, and a shower of dust descended. The fire started by the mephit’s breath had begun to catch, moving among the spider silk with growing intensity, strands curling away like candle wicks. As the monster shuffled to escape the pain Abby saw her chance and fetched the creature a stout blow with her sword. The arachnid reacted with incredible speed and ferocity, sinking its fangs into her once again, pulling her down out of the air, and this time the dose of venom was too much to resist. Toxin burned, darkening Abby’s vision, and a sickening weakness overcame her, seizing her joints and slackening her muscles.10

The fire mephit spun in mid-air, burning in joy, and spider webs crisped as the little red frenzy flew to and fro. A spindly arm projected a burning beam of fire that cored through tangles of silk and into barn boards. The wood caught light and set the impish arsonist cackling with a sound like fire rustling in autumn leaves.

Rahab began another spell of summoning, once more weaving complex patterns in the air with his hands as his arcane eyes revealed magical geometries. Lem continued sneaking toward the barn entrance, looking for an opportunity to attack an ogre-kin, a dog, perhaps one of the humans depending on how circumstances unfolded.

Still uncertain, the prisoners hesitated, until Abby settled the tactical situation once and for all. The warrior swooped to her left, summoned the power of haste enchanted into her magical shield, and then launched forward, arm extended, sword point driving among the pebble beach of spider eyes. Steel pierced carapace with a crack, drove into the softness beneath, and ichor fountained as the massive legs flailed their death throes.11 A portion of catwalk tore free under the spasms, a crossbeam splintered, and burning segments of silk rained like infernal confetti at a blasphemous parade. The darkness of the barn interior waned as flames coursed up support posts, along the walls, over the spider’s dying body. Abby never lost momentum in flight, merely turning as she tore her sword free, then rocketing through the doors, past Mammy’s bloated corpse, and into the daylight of the barnyard. “This way!” she shouted.

Kara appeared from the back room, dipped down for a better line on the doorway to the barnyard, and fired an arrow past Abby’s hurtling, armored form. The missile slammed into one of the ogre-kin brutes with a sizzling flash that elicited a howl of surprise and alarm.

“Secure supplies, and assemble on the warrior woman!” the one-eyed prisoner shouted at his two fellows. He gestured at the chest Gloriana had rifled to rearm the captives. “Move out!” The burly warrior and the brash youth snapped to order, hefting the box and jogging for the exit. As they passed the oracle, the roguish one winked flirtatiously at the golden-healer.

Gloriana ignored the gesture, closed her eyes, and took some of Abby’s pain. Then she reached out along the spiritual link between herself and the warrior. Her eyes flew open, pupils dilated, and a haunt coalesced in the air before her face, appearing as a kind of ghastly skeletal mask that momentarily overlaid her beautiful features. Rippling power traveled down the connection like an eel through water, and Abby felt a sudden surge, a churning in her blood fighting to reject the spider venom that still burned within. Sweat erupted on her forehead, chills suddenly racked her, and she vomited in mid-flight. Another pulse in her blood suddenly cleared her vision, and though an ache rattled her head and her body shook with exertion, the burning of the spider venom no longer spiked inside. She rolled over in mid-air and glanced past her boots to where Gloriana stood in the barn. Gods, Glo, Abby thought, how did you do that?12

Then the warrior drew up in a hover and looked on the battlefield below.


The first thing Abby realized was that—in addition to the two ogre-kin and their pack of hunting dogs—there were two other combatants. She knew them instantly. One was the mountain lion, and the other was Shelalu Andosanna. The fight was not going well for either. Both showed multiple wounds as the dogs circled and lunged, and the ogre-kin menaced them with their hook weapons. The elven ranger fired a desperate bow shot just as a hound leapt at her, and the arrow transfixed the canine’s throat, killing it in mid-pounce. Then she tried to retreat. Another lunged, and the mountain lion intercepted it, yowling and scratching, cat killing dog.

But the assault was too much, and more hounds overwhelmed Shelalu and the feline as the ogre-kin urged and cheered.


Satisfied that the back of the barn was now sufficiently afire, the mephit casually flew into the entry space even as Rahab finished his second summoning. Once more the channel between resonant spheres on different planes of reality ushered a servant into the wizard’s presence. An orb of soft, warm light the size of a harvest pumpkin appeared, darting and hovering.13

Rahab hailed the archon. “Welcome, embryonic empyrean! Your enemies are the ogre-kin and their dogs.” The orb of light flew to the barn doorway and twin rays of brilliant power erupted like beams of sunlit crystal, striking one of the half-breed brutes. Smoke rose from grave wounds, and the ogre-kin howled in pain.14

The mephit followed suit, swiping at the same creature with burning claws, raising ragged red welts. Perverse giggles sounded in the barnyard, and Rahab’s eyes lit with devilish delight. He drew the wand of magic missiles from his belt, then strode forward into the barnyard.


Lem emerged into daylight, then quickly ducked to his right among a clutch of long grasses in the shadow of the barn. His knives balanced loosely in his hands, and he scanned for an opportunity to maximize surprise and begin cutting.

Abby turned in the air and angled down on one of the dogs menacing Shelalu. The warrior descended in might and slew the canine in a single stoke.15 Surprise quickly turned to grateful relief in the elven ranger’s expression.

“Abby!” she gasped. The warrior answered with an encouraging nod and turned to interpose herself between the remaining assailants.

Gloriana took more of Abby’s wounds and escaped the barn, looking back over her shoulder. Flames licked and sprouting among split timbers, spilling dark smoke into the sky. She returned her attention to the battle in the barnyard, watching as the freed prisoners dropped the chest and closed on one of the ogre-kin. The burly fighting man stepped directly and swung his battle axe in a crushing arc that split the ogre-kin’s skull. The roguish youth redirected to the last hulking degenerate and struggled to find a line of attack. Intending to follow, the one-eyed man suddenly drew up short and stared in amazed alarm at Abby, the mountain lion, and the elf ranger clustered in defense against the dogs. His mouth fell open in shock, and when he called out his voice trembled.


The ranger glanced over and her eyes widened in sudden disbelief. “Father?”

Gloriana and Rahab exchanged a look.



Kara continued to rain arrows on the last ogre-kin, each shot sizzling with bursts of electricity. The brute managed to swipe an ogre hook into the archon, but the sphere of light stood firm. Rahab launched a sliver of yellow radiance from his wand. The ogre-kin howled and swatted in all directions, beset in seamless sequence by fire, weaponized light, arrows of lightning, and magic. In the confusion, Lem appeared and sank his knives deep into the monster’s lower back.

The last of Mammy’s gruesome offspring exhaled a ragged final breath and slumped to the ground.


Abby executed a superior swallowtail cut and felled the last two dogs. For a moment the only sound was everyone’s labored breathing and the crackling of the fire that had begun to consume the barn. Flames leapt wildly now, riotous and quick.

The one-eyed prisoner quickly glanced at the nearby corpse of the last ogre-kin, then at Lem. “Good work, little man,” he croaked.

Lem made a show of twirling his knives back into their sheaths, meeting the man’s eyes with a steely gaze. “Which,” the gardener drawled, “liberating you from captivity, or defeating your foe? Just glad I did not confuse my humans and ogre-kin. Easy to do from down here.”16 Without waiting for reply, Lem spun on his heel and strode away.


The one-eyed man stared in a daze for a moment, and then shook his head and quickly raced over to Shelalu. Abby was already helping the ranger to lie down on the grassy mud. Multiple wounds leaked elven blood on the ground, and the one-eyed man quickly knelt at her side, his face a mask of worry. Gloriana approached, drawing the wand of healing and using its magic to stabilize the ranger’s wounds. Shelalu drew a deep, relieved breath, her eyes fluttering in weary pain.

“Will she live?” the one-eyed man asked, clutching desperately at the oracle’s arm.

“She will. Fear not. We will see to her care. She is our friend.”

“Then I am yours, and all the more in your debt, for her life and for releasing me and my companions.”

Gloriana gave a comforting smile. “We must regroup. Remain with her.” The oracle turned to Abby. “Can you and Kara check for other threat?”

The warrior nodded and—still under the effect of the potion—took to the air to join the alchemist. The two women conducted a brief aerial patrol, and having sighted no further enemies, landed once more. Rahab bowed to the mephit and archon a moment before the magical servants retreated across the gulf of translation and returned to their worlds.

Then Abby and Kara joined Lem, Rahab, and the other freed prisoners gathering around Shelalu. The mountain lion padded nearby, rubbing affectionately against the one-eyed man, tail twitching. They stood around looking at one another, slowly coming down from the intensity of battle. Gloriana rubbed her eyes, a gesture of profound exhaustion. Until she could properly assess the extent of everyone’s injury and prepare appropriate healing, much of their damage would linger.

“Shelalu, what happened?” the oracle asked.

The ranger nodded weakly, eyes closed. “I found those two ogre-kin in the woods with their hounds. They chased me here. I couldn’t outpace the dogs. Are there more in the house?”

Abby sat cross-legged next to Shelalu and patted the ranger gently on the shoulder. “We cleared it.”

“Did you find any more of my men?” one-eye asked. He held one of Shelalu’s hands in two of his own, gently, as a curator carries an ancient porcelain.

Lem’s eyes glittered. “Probably. It was a little hard to tell.”

The freed prisoners exchanged a baleful glance.

Gloriana laid a hand on the gardener’s shoulder and addressed the three strangers. “Perhaps we should start over with proper introductions. I am Gloriana Gildentress, and these,” she swept her arm around, “are my friends.”

The one-eyed man looked mournful. “I am Jakardros Sovark.” He nodded in the direction of the burly fighting man, “This is Vale Temros, and this,” he indicated the rogueish youth, “is Kaven Windstrike. And if what you say is true, then it is quite possible we are the last of The Black Arrows.”

Behind them, the barn burned.

1 The wands were magic missile, ray of enfeeblement, and vampiric touch.

2 Translated: “Ogres are not the only creature intimate with degeneracy.”

3 Darkvision extract.

4 Gloriana is casting ghost sound. She has done this before, in the smuggler’s tunnels beneath Sandpoint. This time she conjured the sound of 28 human soldiers pscyhing themselves up for battle.

5 The bow is a shocking burst weapon.

6 Genuinely from my notes about the content of Abby’s insults to a giant spider, a creature with no Intelligence score. All it does is eat, and swim, and make little baby sharks . . . uh . . . no, wait, that’s not it. “You’re gonna need a bigger rolled-up newspaper.” It’s possible I’m getting my references mixed up.

7 Abby made this Fortitude save.

8 Summon monster IV, fire mephit.

9 This was a critical hit, 21 points of damage with an additional 3 points of shocking burst.

10 Abby did not make this Fortitude save.

11 Even in her envenomed state, Abby scored a critical hit on the giant spider for 30 points of damage, killing it in one stroke.

12 So, Abby failed her third saving throw against the spider venom’s effects, missing the roll by a very small margin. Then Glo did something really interesting: She spent a Hero Point to add 2 to Abby’s roll, and asked that the effect be transferred through the oracle’s Life Link ability. Dgroo ruled that cool enough to work, and Abby made the saving throw. I think this is the first time in game that our group has made use of a Hero Point in that fashion.

13 Summon monster III, lantern archon.

14 The lantern archon scored a critical hit with its light ray attack: 11 points of damage (the second ray only did 2 points). Still, it always gives me a thrill when one of Rahab’s summoned creatures does well in battle.

15 This was another critical hit for Abby.

16 Actual text of in-game comment provided to me during the game session by quixote71.

Book IV, Chapter 5: The Kreegwood Vorpalsaw Massacre, Part II
Basement And Barn

They returned to the ground floor. Outside the door to the dining room, Abby looked grim and took Gloriana by the arm.

“Glo, put your hand on my shoulder, and follow me closely. Stay focused on me, understand? On me.”

The oracle nodded mutely, eyes wide. Abby led them to the kitchen, and, as quickly as possible, steered Gloriana to the staircase leading down. The others followed dutifully, relieved to pass through the room with all speed. At the bottom of the stairs they found themselves in a tight space with three doors: left, right, center. Lem detected no sound from the doors to either side of the short hallway, but a sound like scraping came from behind the door directly in front of them. The gardener searched for traps and found none. He waved Abby forward.

At the moment the warrior kicked in the door a brilliant glow lit the hall behind as Gloriana transformed into pure, golden fire. Streams of rich, shining light poured into the square room beyond, illuminating a floor of hard-packed earth littered with bones. There was an ogre-kin inside, yet another hulking brute in a tunic and patched overalls, and wearing a sheath of animal hide armor. He was notable for a malformed jaw, murderous eyes glinting dully, and some kind of growth at the neck. Two donkey rats1 attended him.

Rahab reacted quickest and conjured a pit in the northwest corner of the room. One of the capybaras fell in as soon as the floor disappeared beneath its feet. “Caution at the pit’s edge!” the wizard warned. The chasm left the chamber with with an L-shaped portion of standing room approximately ten feet wide on the east and south sides only. The closer one got to the pit, the more the ground sloped to vertical, until the event horizon of gravity overcame the friction of proximal floor.

Lem darted into the room, deftly skirting the edge of the newly conjured precipice and keeping to the wall. The gardener began slashing at the ogre-kin with his twin blades. Kara waited for a better opportunity, and Glo stepped past Abby. The oracle lost her footing almost immediately, tumbled, and slipped over the edge of the pit, but the magic in her ring of the falling feather activated instantly, and she drifted slowly, gradually, harmlessly to the bottom, thirty feet below the floor of the room where the donkey rat waited. The little rodent lunged, forcing a defensive reaction from the healer, who blasted a line of searing light into the creature. “He was serious about the pit!” Gloriana yelled up the shaft to her friends.2

The ogre-kin called for “Chuckles” and “Drooler” to attack, then drew his ogre hook and lunged for Lem in sudden fury, a spray of spittle showering the air as the cruelly curved weapon swept side to side. The gardener ducked under the blade, but the remaining capybara—perhaps Chuckles, possibly Drooler—bit Lem in the leg. In the pit, the other donkey rat tried to clamp jaws on the glowing, elemental form of the oracle once more, but missed.

Then Abby got into the fight. Back in Magnimar, the warrior had periodically spent time practicing technique with Avenger, and during such training had discovered a property of the shield’s magic previously unknown. Once a day, the warrior could tap some kind of power within the strange metal disk that had an effect like Rahab’s spell of haste, though its duration was but a fraction of the time. She did so now, and a single step brought her upon the ogre-kin, whom she assaulted in a sequence of three strikes, scoring two hits and forcing the monster back against the far wall. Unfortunately her attack took her to pit’s edge, and she teetered at the end, fighting for balance, and dancing away from a fall.3

Kara seized her chance, flew into the room, and hovered over the open maw of the pit, hurling an electric bomb at the ogre-kin as she moved. Sizzling lightning burst around the monster and filled the room with the smell of ozone, which was an odd relief from the putrefaction dominating the air in the house.4

Rahab drew his wand of magical missiles once again, stood in the doorway, and launched a shard at the ogre-kin. The inerrant power arced between Abby and the hovering alchemist, bored into the brute, and killed him without ceremony. The lifeless body crumpled to the ground, a single, narrow wisp of smoke curling up like a snuffed candle.

Meanwhile, Lem battled the capybara, finding it more challenging than he would have given credit for; while the rodent may have been small to everyone else in the party, it most certainly was not small compared to the gardener. He only managed a superficial cut with one of his knives. The donkey rat, in turn, bit him again, its wide front teeth scissoring painfully into his leg.

At the bottom of the pit, Gloriana had drawn her morningstar and closed for melee, as there was little room to do elsewise in the ten-foot-by-ten-foot space. Her attack failed to strike as the nimble animal sprung about with surprising agility. “How long does this pit last?” she shouted at Rahab somewhere in the room above her, and then she yelped in pain as the capybara nipped a chunk of flesh from her forearm. The injury looked like a portion of glowing honey being torn away from a column of fire.

Abby maneuvered for better balance now that the ogre-kin was dead, and brought her sword down in two quick, successive strokes against the donkey rat menacing Lem. From her vantage thirty-five feet directly above Gloriana, Kara held her arm out and simply let go of another galvanic projectile. The glass orb plummeted straight down and crashed open on the capybara’s back. The rodent died at Gloriana’s feet in a crackling burst of electric death. The oracle blinked at the craze of afterimages floating in her vision.

Rahab was summoning the power of the missile wand when he heard Gloriana’s call. A slice of shimmering radiance arced among his friends once again and struck the donkey rat between Abby and Lem. “Thirty seconds!” he shouted back down the pit. The oracle drew healing from her energy form until the golden fire reached its limit and faded away. Restored to her normal form, Gloriana gave a small sigh, leaned against the pit wall, and waited for Rahab’s spell to end.

This last capybara was sturdy, indeed, having outlasted its fellow rodent and the ogre-kin. It fetched one last bite from Abby’s thigh before the warrior—swift and methodical—knocked it back with Avenger and then transfixed it with her sword. She planted a boot on the corpse and drew the blade free. Lem was already sheathing his weapons and searching the brute’s body. The room had no other exits.

“Armor’s good quality,” the gardener was saying. “Filthy, but cleaned up it would fetch a price. Potion here, and an amulet.” He set the small items aside.

Rahab’s conjuration ended, and the bottom of the pit slowly rose level with the floor of the room, bringing Gloriana and the other dead rodent up. The oracle uncrossed her arms and walked over next to the wizard.

“That elixir is a curative,” Kara said, looking over Lem’s shoulder. “You can tell by the color diffraction of the light.”

“Uh huh. What about these?” The gardener jerked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the amulet and armor.

Gloriana brushed gently past Rahab and held her arm out to feel any spiritual resonance. “The armor and the amulet radiate magic,” she observed after a pause. Abby began to pack the items to carry away while Lem continued his search of the ogre-kin. In the pocket of the overalls he discovered a tin sealed in wax. Drawing his dagger with a quiet metallic click, the gardener set the point to furrowing the wax along the seam. The others had gathered around, looking over Lem’s shoulder as he pried the tin open.

“Gah!” Kara jerked back. Gloriana held a hand over her eyes and stepped away. Rahab’s eyes narrowed. Abby was shaking her head.

“They really do take to brutality,” observed the conjurer, “with gleeful enthusiasm, and seem to happily eschew refinement—even in their violence—for an absurdity of wantonness. Remarkable.” He clasped his hands behind his back and turned away, repelled by the inelegance as much as the senselessness.

The tin contained severed noses, likely human, eight in number.


The gardener shut the tin. “You know, to the right collector those might—”

Kara, Abby, and Gloriana in perfect synchrony: “No.”

Lem regarded them for a moment, then left the container behind. As they returned to the short hallway the gardener nudged Rahab and the two lingered to converse.

“A bandit’s head was acceptable,” Lem whispered, “but noses aren’t?”

The wizard looked mildly amused.

“What?” the gardener pressed.

“It’s quaint you think the bandit’s head was acceptable.”

“We got the bounty, didn’t we?”

“You may recall some objection was raised, mitigated perhaps by dint of the cranium in question belonging to a wanted criminal.”

“You, of all people, know as well as I do that ‘criminal’ is a murky concept.”

“I do, indeed.”

“But the others don’t know it?”

“You surprise me, Lem. Of course they do.”

“Then what was that about just now?”

“I presume you have noticed the level of disgust this place can inspire? Consider the context: With no way to know the relative moral provenance of those formerly possessing nasal integrity—never mind the likelihood those same people ended up an ingredient in some familial repast—surety of payment under just aegis declines precipitously. That, in turn, makes you hard-pressed to convince the others. Your suggestion might be mistaken for alignment with the cruelty on display.”

There was a quality like stone in the gardener’s voice: “I don’t give a fig what happened to those people. If they were human, they were guilty.”

“Not an argument likely to advance your pecuniary proposal in Gloriana’s eyes, nor in Abby’s for that matter. Nor even in Kara’s, I suspect.”

“You don’t seem very bothered.”

“I am not the others. Also, insofar as it is possible to achieve objectivity, I have a reliable idea of what you think about me, some idea of what you suspect about me, and a very detailed idea of what I know about me, and thus I am better triangulated to the truth.”

Lem’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Has anyone ever told you—”

The wizard cut him off with a wave of the hand. “A hazard of possessing an intellect as prodigious as mine.”

“Anyway,” the gardener resumed, “I was only exploring a financial alternative.”

Rahab arched a sly eyebrow. “I, for one, note your concern for our monetary prospects.”

“What was it you said back at Grobaras’ office? ‘Possibility?’”

“As ever, Lem.”

“You oversized folk are all mad. Especially you, Rahab.”

The wizard’s snorted chuckle seemed genuine, a moment of starkly contrasted humor against the horror of that place. They shut the door behind them.5


Two portals remained. Abby elected the one in the south wall of the basement landing. It opened onto a cluttered room packed with old crates, farm equipment pitted with rust, and dusty furniture in disrepair. In the southern corner of the western wall stood a set of double doors. They detected no magic, and Lem found no traps.

Abby started to haul one of the portals open, when Rahab lifted his hand and spoke a word in the language of wizardry. The swollen doors scraped open under invisible compulsion, creaking against rusted hinges, untouched by any hand.6

Abby looked back over her shoulder in surprise. The others showed similar expression.

“How long have you been able to do that?” Gloriana asked the conjurer.

“Since age five.”

Abby strode up to Rahab, eye to eye, her face very nearly pressed against his. “Why haven’t you been doing that before?” The obvious, trap-finding implications of the spell—and the notable absence of the cantrip heretofore—was having an effect on the warrior’s composure.

The conjurer remained cool: “I was under the impression the party felt confident that Lem had things well in hand.”7

For a moment, Abby was stunned. Then her jaw quivered. Gloriana interceded quickly and smoothly, drawing the warrior away.

“I’m going to pummel him,” Abby hissed.

“No. Tempting . . . but no,” the oracle soothed, her voice calm, a placating hand on the warrior’s forearm. “You are going to lead us through this, and I am going to have a talk with him.”8

Abby took a long, calming breath, and then looked past Gloriana at the wizard. “You can do that consistently, as often as we need?”

Rahab nodded.

“Then you’re on door detail from here on out, magic man.”9 She spun swiftly on her heel to face the open portal. Her lightstone revealed a hallway ten feet wide and twenty feet long to the west, culminating in a second set of closed double doors.

They gathered at the end of the hall and Abby and Lem listened for noise. When they heard nothing, the warrior nodded at Rahab, and he cast the charm of opening once more. Swollen and warped, the doors groaned open, and a pall of steam billowed forth. The roughly rectangular space beyond was sizable, forty feet to the west, and nearly the same distance north-to-south. The ceiling hung with varying lengths of damp green strands, and the floor was awash in puddles of mud and pools of water. Fungi and molds stood out on every surface in small patches or great swathes, a riot of red, yellow, green, blue-black, purple, white, orange, and brown. Set in the north wall, almost entirely eclipsed by clusters of moist growths, was a door. A shape moved in the darkness, shuffling forward in a susurrus like rain drops penetrating a tree canopy.

Where everything else they had fought in the house had been predominantly bipedal and—if not humanoid— then at least human-ish, this was something else entirely. It rose nearly twenty feet, towering like some alien tree in a malignant grove. It displaced more than three thousand pounds, with a columnar body of dense, veined, fibrous stalk that locomoted on three prehensile roots with the diameter of beer barrels. A mane of broad green leaves surmounted a circumference of ropy tendrils bristling with green buds or vine-like coils. The thing’s reach was easily more than ten feet, and atop the trunk was a diverse cluster of fungal pods, caps, and spores, almost like a head. Nestled among this array was a tri-form orifice, the most animal-like feature visible, with soft pink interior and three parabolas of hooked teeth. The mouth opened and closed rhythmically as the monster shuffled forward. Kara knew the thing instantly.

“Tendriculos!” she gasped. “A corruption of nature by foul magic! Beware! It can paralyze!”

Lem slammed both doors shut, and an urgency rose in his voice. “That thing is not going anywhere, but we need a plan!” A slithering, gentle push tested the doors from the other side.

“Back up!” Gloriana called. As she retreated, she made ready to transform her body into an elemental fire of spiritual energy.

As he, too, stepped back toward the previous set of double doors, Rahab also made preparation to cast a spell should the creature breach. Abby moved to support Gloriana while Kara retreated behind Rahab and drank an extract of shielding magic. Lem darted behind Abby and the oracle, drawing his bow.

The doors at the end of the hallway shuddered open. The shambling plant-thing bent and coiled, squeezing its massive body into the passage. A tendril darted forward with alarming speed, snaking toward Abby. The warrior ducked the attack, and Gloriana became honey-white fire.

The oracle chanted the Lament of the Grandmothers, and a pulse of sound burst on the trunk, rustling the monster’s leaves, but to little other effect. Rahab rendered the complex gesture and words of his spell, and the tunnel erupted in an array of glittering particles like sunlit steel confetti falling on a swamp tree. The tendriculos whipped violently in an effort to escape the spell’s effect, to no avail. A shimmering dust coated vine, leaf, and stem, and the thing was now blind. The wizard stepped back five feet.

“Back up, people!” Abby shouted, strangely reticent to make a move. From the rear of the group Kara hurled a ceramic globe that shattered in smoke and fire among the fungoid summit of the monster. Strange flames made blue and green by the combusting material guttered and churned, lighting the hallway in ghastly, wavering hues.

Lem fired an arrow into the central trunk. The missile landed with a muted thud. Tendrils thrashed out in all directions, aimless, violent, random. Abby held Avenger in defense and escaped the assault unscathed. Gloriana was not as fortunate, and a thorny whip opened a darkness against the fire of her cheek. In return, the oracle summoned a spirit blade that cut into the burning fungal crown, sending a spray of ignited spores scattering to the floor. A moment later the lambent power of her transformed body healed her injury.

“Abby!” Gloriana shouted in alarm. “It’s blind! Why aren’t you hitting it?”

The warrior closed for battle, and lopped off a flailing tendril with her sword. Rahab sent a dart of acid into the tendriculos, and then Kara settled the matter with another grenado, a bulb of electric herbicide that sent the immense thing into shuddering death.


They healed, and searched the room, wading through slime and water to the door in the north wall that led to a small, low-ceilinged chamber. The only thing therein was a large chest that gave a signal of magic. Once Lem had searched for traps, and Rahab opened the container with his cantrip and they tallied the findings.

At the top was a beautifully made longbow in the composite style, radiating magic. There were two additional mundane bows of quality workmanship, a normal longsword and a magical rapier, three quivers of arrows, suits of studded leather and chainmail armor, and a magical ring. Beneath these were additional riches: an agate-studded gold ring, a silver necklace with emeralds, a pair of magical suede gloves studded with pearls, a ruby-inlaid cloak clasp shaped from the scale of a red dragon. The base of the chest was layered in copper, silver, and gold coin.

Despite the pressing uncertainty of the elusive Mammy, they nonetheless took time to see what they could learn about the trove. The gloves were enchanted to snatch arrows mid-flight, while the rapier, hand-, and battleaxe were ensorceled with common battle enhancement. The ring enhanced defense, as did the suit of studded leather armor. The magic bow was a work of particular refinement, augmented for attack and bearing the power to bestow an electric shock to arrows that struck home. Kara took this latter, as well as the ring, and Rahab donned the gloves. They carried the rest out in the chest, Abby and the wizard hefting it between them.


The last door in the basement opened on a room purposed for leather tanning. The companions stared wordlessly, and then Abby simply closed the door.

Gloriana’s whispered, low and hoarse. “I am going to expunge this place, once and for all.”

They made their way back upstairs and outside.


The skies were still overcast. The mountain lion stood from a crouch as they emerged. Their relief on leaving the house was palpable. The big cat approached Gloriana, rubbed past her, mewled.

Abby and Rahab set the chest down in the grass beyond the porch, and the adventurers made ready to advance on the barn. They were halfway across the open space when the ramshackle doors burst wide open, spilling hay dust and flecks of rotten grain into the day.

A croaking voice crept from the shadows in the barn: “Get ‘em, boys!”



An ogre-kin with three arms stood framed in the doorway. Two of the limbs were thick with muscle, while the third was a thinner, clutching appendage that groped and wandered, seemingly independent of the monster’s will. The vestigial member jutted from the left rib-cage, underneath the superior arm. This was Hograth.

Two more figures lurched and strutted to either side, lingering behind posts, just out of direct vision, lying in wait, hints of lumbering bodies and ogre hooks: Jeppo and Sugar.

Behind them loomed the corpulent bulk of Mammy, naked and terrible, folds of fat showing signs of injury knitted by healing magic. Her short, broken-column legs drifted effortlessly off the ground as an enchantment of flight lifted her free of gravity. Black toenails curling around like snail shells hung down, and her hideous hair wavered as though alive. The bloody slurry of some recent, horrifying meal splattered her pendulous breasts and voluminous belly. A slow series of five exact versions of the ogre-kin matriarch drifted and interchanged in the air indicating a defensive illusion designed to confuse attackers and lead enemies astray. Casting a spell, she cackled with wicked glee.

A transmutation crashed upon the party members, dragging at their limbs, their bodies, their blood, even their breath. Through effort of will Abby, Lem, Gloriana, and Kara shook off the effects. Only Rahab, whose mighty intellect failed him in that moment, succumbed. The wizard’s movement dwindled, each footstep a labor, each effort twice the time it would normally require.10

Lem charged straight into the barn and attacked Hograth with his knives. As he moved, a small object sailed overhead, and the gardener realized it was one of Kara’s bombs. The projectile struck one of the interchanging images of Mammy and exploded violently. One of the duplicate shapes disappeared, but the others remained, maniacal laughter shaking bits of hay from the loft.

Abby, anticipating the flanking maneuver the three ogre-kin fighters would almost certainly try, advanced to just inside the barn door alongside Lem, but turned her attention immediately upon Jeppo, and rapped her sword edge across his misshapen chest, drawing blood.

Gloriana quickly moved up in support, invoking a blessing against malign forces upon Abby.

“Mammy’s gonna make a delivery!” the ogre-kin matriarch chortled with all the mirth of a stone shattering glass. The images moved in concert, twirling, intertwining, separating. It was dizzying to look upon, and then suddenly the ground beneath oracle, gardener, and warrior became slick with magic. Lem and Gloriana fought desperately to maintain their balance, arms flailing, bodies contorting. Abby was simply too much steel vectored over too little friction, and her boots shot out from underneath her, sending her prone. Four Mammys gyred into the barn rafters, trailing malicious laughter.

Jeppo rounded on Abby with an overhead ogre hook, and missed, and Hograth fared no better. A battlefield absurdity briefly occurred to the warrior, a laughable thought begging for attention, intrusive and undeniable, and the warrior almost giggled as she considered how falling out of the way of weapons might be as legitimate a tactical maneuver as any. At the southern edge of the small patch of magically greased ground the brute Sugar loped around a post and swung his ogre hook at Lem, but the gardener’s compact form and frantic dance of balance foiled the attack.


Thirty feet.

Rahab struggled to take in the scene. Overhead the sky drifted grey-on-grey, clouds thick with moisture moodily churning in slow parade, seemingly indifferent to the mountains, the forest, the butchery of this place, the desperate battle of the barnyard. The sights and sounds around him blurred slightly, moving just a little too quickly for his perception to accurately gather under the effects of Mammy’s spell, and he suddenly understood with a previously unguessed intimacy how his own enemies must feel when he and his companions acted through the empowered lens of his own haste magic. The realization struck him twice in quick succession, first as an illumination of magical relationships through reciprocal counter-influence of transmutational principles, and second—wondrous and disarming—via a perceptual shift in which the wizard began to conceptualize what it might be like for someone else to feel subject to his power.

In front of him, Lem and Abby locked three ogre-kin in melee combat while Gloriana supported them with ghost-born spellcraft. When Mammy’s spell of enchanted grease made footing unsure the combat dynamic changed abruptly. To his right Kara was readying to move into the barn in an effort to maintain sight of the ogre-kin matriarch whose flight had carried her up into the barn interior and away from the door. Every movement around him was an almost comic flutter of kinetic intensity, not because of its acceleration, but because the spell constraining him had collapsed his ability to match perception to actuality relative to time’s behavior within the system of this space on this world in this reality. It almost hurt to exist this slow, every portion of the wizard’s being screaming to move, straining against sorcerous energy that had isolated his momentum from the environment.

It was thirty feet to the barn entrance, to where his friends had begun their next fight for life, their next fight for their desires, their next fight to exert control—illusory or otherwise—amidst the implacable vastness of existence. Thirty feet, and it felt endless.

Then the conjurer’s words of power crashed through the barrier, and his heart jumped as an expression of eldritch geometries reunited perception, movement, and time.11


Lem elected to relocate. Almost casually, he dove, tucked into a mid-air roll, and somersaulted beyond the spell-slick ground. As he regained his feet the gardener swiped a left backhand at Jeppo’s thigh in afterthought. He missed, but the maneuver was dazzling, and the hulking ogre-kin’s slow-witted, violence-crowded mind struggled to understand the difference between where the halfling had been and where the halfling was now, and why.

Lem turned slowly and made eye contact with Jeppo. Still clutching his knife, the gardener held up his right hand and counted off by raising his fingers as he spoke: “Worthless. Weak. Timid.”12 Jeppo’s distorted mouth snarled, and his hulking frame shook with tremors of anger. The ogre-kin responded with his own backhand, eschewing his weapon and fetching Lem a blow across the face with a clenched fist. Blood welled in the gardener’s mouth.

As Kara passed into the barn interior she looked up and spotted Mammy’s images flickering among the rafters. The alchemist jerked a vial from her belt, pulled it open with her teeth, spat the cork away, and gulped the liquid down. She vanished from sight.

Abby struggled to slide from the greased area and stand up on normal ground, her effort leaving her open to an opportunistic attack from Jeppo. The ogre-hook slid by the warrior without contact. Once on her feet, Abby brought her own weapon to bear with fearsome accuracy, and struck the grunting brute down. As his body collapsed, she spat once, then tendered verdict: “Ugly fucker.” Something in the air shifted behind her, and—without even looking over her shoulder or shifting position—she simply lifted her left arm to position Avenger at her back, and expertly intercepted Hograth’s attack.

Gloriana still stood in the middle of the ensorceled floor. With a quick step she could easily reach the corner of the area and escape the slickness. It was a simple movement, requiring placement of one foot on the affected region before clearing the space, and her foot just slipped, sending the oracle sprawling, supine. Two haunts—miniature visions of Varisian dancers with tambourines—flourished in the air momentarily, and the sound of a fiddle that only Gloriana could hear echoed briefly vibrant. The healer grunted from the shock of the fall, sighed, and cast a spell of blessing on her friends to aid them in the battle.


Mammy’s eyes gleamed like slices of obsidian as she looked down upon the one she regarded most hatefully.

“Fuck you, elf bitch!” she howled from among the twisting images, sending a hex of blindness down upon the alchemist in a conduit of malice and rage. Kara felt the magic descend upon her in a wave, and fought a brief, desperate battle against the effect, managing to use her mental command as a barrier.

Rahab resumed pace for the barn, drawing a scroll from his belt case as he went, unfurling the parchment and scanning the lines quickly. He read the words in a quiet, calm voice, and his hands pulled away from the scroll as it hovered for a moment, the precisely drawn symbols and markings turning from ink-black to glowing orange with an inner fire. Even as the reading completed and the magic unleashed, the scroll itself caught fire and fluttered into ashes as eldritch smoke wisped into the sky. The conjurer watched the scroll’s power cycle against the area of slickness on the barn floor, only to disappear with no effect. Never breaking stride, the wizard advanced for a better view of the structure’s interior, taking stock of the remaining ogre-kin, including Mammy overhead.13

With Jeppo down, Hograth and Sugar remained. Lem targeted the latter, dodging and tumbling evasively to come up behind and slice his knives into the ogre-kin’s vulnerable flank. Blood flowed.

The invisible Kara drank a second extract, this one reestablishing her power of flight, and then she soared up into the rafters near Mammy. As she drew level with the ogre-kin matriarch the alchemist could see two catwalks along the south and north walls, each accessed from the ground by a steep ramp. The catwalks ended at the east wall, each sealed with a door into some space beyond. A glance at the ground from her height vantage showed another set of double doors below, at the back of the barn. Scattered hay and old canvas spilled startled motes that soon drifted lazy, like schools of fish in the sea.

Having regained her feet, Abby found her battle rhythm, and now she stepped between Hograth on her left and Sugar on her right, once again summoning the power of haste imbued into her shield. She cut hard to her left in a vicious blow that spilled the three-armed ogre-kin open at the side, innards vomiting onto the barn floor, steaming and wretched. The monster slumped lifelessly, eyes rolling back, uttering no sound. Without hesitation Abby whipsawed in reverse, blade carving a deep wound in Sugar, and then landed a heavy strike with Avenger, followed by a final overhand sword stroke that sliced down into the ogre-kin’s clavicle and splintered through ribs like a mangonel stone dropped down the rungs of a siege ladder.

Gloriana struggled to her feet, wobbling with just enough time and balance to send a spirit of disruption against Mammy’s defensive illusion. Ancestral power drew the images to themselves, and then faded away to their realm, carrying the false visions along to nothingness.14 The ogre-kin matriarch hovered, alone once more, three more of her misbegotten children dead on the ground below. Her croaking voice began to wail, a growing sound, like steam building to escape a bottle.

“You killed my boys!” Her teeth gnashed, blood and spittle flecked and flew from her lips. The immense girth of her swayed mid-air, naked, trembling. Wail became scream, and the rafters shook fresh dust into the air. “YOU KILLED MY BOYS!”

A beam of black energy came down and painted Abby in necromantic pall. The warrior fought the spell’s effect, but it was no use, and as she sank under a crushing exhaustion, she looked up and saw the hatred in Mammy’s eyes bearing down upon her. In an instant Abby felt the energy fall from her as a wet cloak lies cast aside within shelter.15 Her armor felt like slabs of stone, her sword a tree trunk, even Avenger —however magically light and agile—seemed a circle of pure weight. A desperate sigh escaped the warrior’s lips, a crushed breath struggling for release.

Rahab was still on the move. At the barn entrance he carefully skirted the edge of greased ground, and though the going was slick, he managed to find firmer footing on the far side. He pulled another scroll from the case at his belt, unfurling it as he went. When he reached the barn interior the wizard read the text, unfolding the magic within. A series of patterns and symbols flickered in his vision, lit by eldritch power, coursing, turning, moving. The geometry of targeted precision revealed itself to the conjurer, and wherever he focused he saw lines and vectors superimposed on the environment, revealing forces of gravity, and vectors and angles for directed attacks.16

Lem quickly ascended the ramp to the catwalk near where Mammy hovered. As he reached the top, he slashed out with one of his knives and drew blood, drawing back at the last moment against a precipitous fall. Corpulent flesh quivered. An instant later Kara blinked into view as the effects of her invisibility elixir ended when she launched an attack, hurling an explosive bomb that shattered over the ogre-kin matriarch in a shower of fire and smoke. Flames leapt up, carrying away the black lattice of hair atop the head. Abby, struggling against exhaustion, followed on Lem’s heels and swung a sword strike past the catwalk’s edge. Despite the magic affliction, the warrior managed to hit Mammy, but the effort took everything out of her, and left her gasping, the muscles in her arms and legs twitching with exertion, fighting to hold the warrior upright.

Gloriana slowly, gingerly cleared the slick ground, unlimbering her crossbow as she went. She drew careful bead and fired, then listened as the bolt whistled into darkness and thudded against barn wood with a mocking rattle.

“Come over here, elf bitch!” Mammy howled from among the flames, and her enormous bulk closed on Kara, swiping one black-nailed hand against the alchemist. Magical energy transferred, leaping like tiny tendrils of ebony lightning, and Kara’s eyes widened in recognition before the necromantic power took hold. She could feel her body seizing, rebelling against her own will, locking defiantly into contortions of immobility. Though magic flight kept her hovering, the alchemist froze, mouth open in a horrified grimace, tongue lolling, limbs rigid with paralysis.17 A reeking stench wafted, carrying faint memory of distant corn fields under autumn moon, of scarecrows trembling with a taste for the flesh of farmers.

Rahab looked up from below, watched Mammy render Kara helpless, and lifted his arm. The words came easily and his hand produced a beam of shimmering green light that struck the ogre-kin matriarch. As the ray coalesced it seemed to unfold in a complex array of gyring circles spinning in containment around Mammy’s horrible expanse.18 The conjurer smiled cruelly.

“Try blinking away now,” Rahab mocked. Mammy drifted away from Lem and Abby’s reach.

Gardener and warrior began unlimbering their bows.


Gloriana hefted her crossbow onto one shoulder and hastily recovered a scroll of her own with her other hand. The oracle hastily read the words aloud, becoming the conduit for ghosts to reach from their realm and across the space to Kara above. A faint, foggy glow drifted around the alchemist, restoring movement the way moisture softens stale bread, and Kara’s head snapped up as her body flailed with renewed vigor.19 A grenado of dispelling appeared in hand, and soon took flight to burst against Mammy’s bulk, but the magic liquid failed to quench the flight ushering the bloated, burning matriarch to and fro.

Another howl of rage and retribution throttled its way out of Mammy’s lungs as she sailed upward once more, beyond the level of the catwalk to near the peak of the ceiling. The ichor of death flowed down in a pulse that spilled over the companions. Lem, Gloriana, and Rahab felt the worst of it, seeping beneath armor, clothing, and skin like rime spearing still water, snatching breath and numbing vitality.20 Lem heard a whisper of malign memory scrabble forth from the graveyard of the past, a silent scream taunting him to return to a darkness he had already escaped months ago.

Rahab had been trying to aim one of his sizzling darts of magically conjured acid when the sensation clutched at him. He felt his breath catch, and his eyes dim momentarily, and the effect drew his arm off course such that the launched bolt augured askance, bursting with a hiss upon a canvas bale. He stumbled forward a few steps, fighting pain, seeking better line of sight and silently shouting integrations and differentials in the vastness of his mind as an exercise to anchor life.


Lem’s first arrow buried itself in Mammy’s trunk-like thigh with a flatulent sound like a fallen branch slurping beneath a bog. Abby’s shot subsequently went wide as she struggled against the powerful draw of the bow, her weakened state fouling her aim. Abandoning further missile attempts, the warrior elected to slump back down the ramp to the barn ground.

Following the awful wave of necromancy, Gloriana gasped a second time as the pain tearing at her companions became her own. Even as she slammed another bolt to the stock of her crossbow she pushed outward with the healing power of her ancient people, and the soothing sensation rippled among her friends, chasing the darkness of the necromancy away, closing wounds, easing discomfort.21 Anxious to bring the fight to an end, she hefted the tiller against her shoulder, sighted once more toward the barn pinnacle, and squeezed the trigger. Bow string shuddered the length of the crossbow, and Gloriana realized she had fired with her eyes closed. When she opened them she saw the butt of the bolt had never seated when she cocked the weapon, and the projectile stood canted off the stock, unfired, impotent.22

“Shit!” the oracle castigated the crossbow, the bolt, the string, the air itself.

Kara brought herself level with the matriarch once more. The stench of Mammy burning was almost a weapon in itself, and the alchemist lifted an arm across her nose as she hurled another dispelling bomb against her opponent. This time the ceramic crashed open and sprayed its magical formula to precise and powerful effect, washing away Mammy’s flight as rain sweeps dirt from a stone. The great, flaming bulk began to drift to the ground, howling rage at her most hated foe once again. As she descended, the foul monster ushered a desperate spell of diminution upon Kara,23 but the alchemist resisted the magic.

It was the last thing Mammy ever did.


Lem saw his chance when the crisped obesity settled past the catwalk. Rahab and Gloriana looked on in surprise as the gardener dropped his bow and simply leapt out into the air from the catwalk. As he sailed out from the ledge he drew his enchanted war razor, intent on swiping at the matriarch’s neck as he fell.

The aerial attack did not go quite as planned.

But it mattered not. As Mammy settled to ground, Abby was waiting. Lem managed to turn his failed assault into a tumble that righted without injury, and as he stood in a cloud of dust he had time to watch the silver stabbing steel of Abby’s sword split first the air, then the matriarch’s skull.

Still burning, Mammy’s awful, inbred immensity collapsed in a great, rippling shudder, flesh spilling like a rotten fruit sloughed from the tree, skull asunder, no more to inflict her malignant fecundity upon the forest.

1 Capybaras.

2 As graceful as ever, Glo stepped into the room and promptly failed her Reflex save at pit’s edge to avoid falling in (the pit perimeter is sloped). However, one of her recent acquisitions in Magnimar was a ring of feather falling, for just this sort of eventuality, so she took no damage. When she reached bottom, the capybara in the pit attacked. She cast searing light on the defensive and struck her opponent for 16 points of damage.

3 Kind of a lot happened in just this one six-second period. Abby activated her shield-based haste effect, took a 5-foot step, executed a full attack on Hucker (the ogre-kin), hitting him twice. The shield slam allowed her to make a bull rush, which she did successfully, pushing Hucker back five feet. Her final sword blow missed, and she ended her turn on the edge of the pit, requiring a Reflex save to avoid falling in, which she barely made.

4 Business as usual for Kara: Ranged touch attack with the alchemical bomb successful for 22 points of damage and 2 rounds of the dazzled effect.

5 Perspective on the creative writing process: Almost the entirety of this conversation did not happen in-game, and is invented for narrative purposes and character development. Lem’s observation that initiated the discussion, however, was lifted directly from my notes about that game session. The gardener really did suggest the potential of monetary reward for delivering a tin of severed human noses to a collector. Lem is an integral, critical part of the party, working to help it reach its objectives, and like every other member of the group, he has some hidden waters, some ambiguous psychological landscape, some latent darkness that adds to his dynamism, complexity, and depth.

6 Rahab had switched out one of his four typical cantrip memorizations for open/close. In a trap-filled environment, it proved somewhat helpful, though the spell is ineffective against locks or heavy obstructions.

7 Rahab is an asshole.

8 But Gloriana is helping him get better.

9 In my defense, I was largely unaware of how useful the cantrip could be, and also I really did think Lem had the skills to pave the way. Further, the cantrip isn’t a true substitute for Disable Device, it can only open the objects that may trigger a trap, but the trap may remain. It is difficult to choose just four cantrips, and at higher levels more powerful spells tend to draw more attention. I would have gladly saved Abby and Lem—and by extension Gloriana—the damage of some of the traps we encountered, but this was a case of reading the cantrip description late into this portion of the adventure and realizing its utility after we were halfway through the building. From a narrative standpoint, this one is hard for me, too, because Abby and Rahab have a healthy respect for one another, and a burgeoning, genuine bond. We all let our friends down from time to time, and it sucks, plain and simple.

10 Will saves all around to resist Mammy’s slow spell during the surprise round! Everyone but Gloriana spent a Hero Point, and everyone but Rahab saved successfully. So the character with the most advantageous Will save progression in the party spends a Hero Point and still fails the Will save. Bleah.

11 Limited to a move OR standard action due to the slow spell, Rahab spent the entire round casting dispel magic, successfully freeing himself to resume normal action.

12 During our game session, the actual words were “You guys are a bunch of worthless, mangy, bad guys.” I hope quixote71 will forgive me the indulgence of changing this according to the following logic: I’m not entirely convinced ogre-kin would find the labels “mangy” and “bad guys” insulting, and I think Lem would know that. In fact, they might enthusiastically take pride in such epithets, and as Lem was attempting to taunt them and buy time for Abby to stand and get back in the fight, I tried to think of the kinds of things ogre-kin might find insulting.

13 Mammy cast blindness on Kara, and the alchemist made her saving throw. Rahab used a scroll of dispel magic on the grease spell Mammy had erected earlier, but the caster level check failed to cancel the magical slick.

14 Dispel magic was successful against Mammy’s mirror image.

15 Mammy hit Abby with a ray of exhaustion, and the warrior failed the saving throw. This is a pretty nasty piece of necromancy, reducing Strength and Dexterity by 6, movement is reduced to half speed, and prevents running or charging. If you’ve been paying attention to how Abby operates, well, this is just about one of the worst things with which you could affect her.

16 Scroll of true strike.

17 Ghoul touch.

18 Mammy had previously escaped via dimension door. Rahab used his previously cast true strike to ensure the dimensional anchor spell hit Mammy, preventing any extradimensional movement.

19 Scroll of remove paralysis. We used a lot of scrolls in this fight.

20 Mammy unleashed some kind of negative energy attack, and though it hit all of us, Gloriana, Lem, and Rahab failed their Will saves. The damage was 14 points.

21 Glo’s channel healing restored 17 hit points. This was a big boost for everyone at this point in the fight.

22 Yep, this was a 1 on the d20 attack roll.

23 This really was an intense fight all around. Mammy cast reduce person on Kara, but the alchemist made her save. The matriarch really hated Kara, and with good reason. The alchemist was a true bane.

Book IV, Chapter 4: The Kreegwood Vorpalsaw Massacre, Part I
Mammy's Boys

Some ten miles from the bastion of Fort Rannick lay the deepest part of the Kreegwood where maple, oak, elm, and birch clustered among spruce and pine varietals, looming over ground blanketed in lesser celandine, honeysuckle, five-fingered ivy, and mountain stones host to red-tinged patches of yellow-green and gray lichens. The light grew fainter among the arboreal cover, and with the gradual increase in elevation the air thinned subtly, as if the very trees were intent on snatching breath instead of exchanging it. Elk were plentiful further to the south, moving quiet and proud through the region closer to the river, but in this portion of the woods their numbers dwindled. Ravens occasionally crossed the skies above, gibbet caws haunting aloft the whirl and whisper of the wind. After nightfall the spectral call of owls drifted among the bole and branch, spurring vole, mouse, and rabbit to flee in vain from the white-feathered death descending in claws. Residents of Turtleback Ferry or the hamlet of Bitter Hollow kept to the southernmost reaches along the water when they had to venture into the Kreegwood at all, taking care to go neither alone, nor after dark. Word of the vanishings had long permeated the region like a wisp of fog creeping among rushes, difficult to encompass and undeniably chilling. Newcomers, transients, and adventurers that braved the thick forest far from the road or waterways frequently disappeared, and whispers painted lurid pictures of faceless, bloody predation. When the laconic Black Arrows could be persuaded to comment they simply suggested that listeners keep clear.

A bird winging its way above the Kreegwood from Claybottom Lake toward the Storval Deep would sweep over ever more densely clustered trees. Copses would blur into forest until the observant avian might discern among the cascade of branches a small clearing in which stood two structures of rough-hewn wood. With little cause to linger the bird might continue unhindered and unconcerned. Were it eagle then its majestic eyesight might bore down from the heights and briefly capture certain ornamental details in that clearing such as the hanging cluster of rudely lashed bones chiming graveyard notes in forest breezes. Were it sparrow it might hear distant barking dogs, and were it wren it might dart aside the foulness of an oily, fatty smoke from a column of stones abutting one side of the construction to the west. Yet on their way north toward the mountains the scions of free flight might tender that clearing very little consideration indeed: apparent in one moment, gone in the next.

The big cat led them to that clearing.


Lem and the mountain lion crept through the trees. Pressed for answer an observer would have struggled to name one stealthier than the other. They parted around a maple to which a crude scarecrow had been lashed. Its scatter-stick body and tattered rags were distinguished most by a weather-stained humanoid skull, though of what species the gardener felt at no pains just then to guess, for his eyes scanned a break in the forest ahead where two rough wooden structures rose. To the east was a barn that had known neither varnish nor paint, and atop which the parabolic roof canted and slumped such that the building seemed to lean against the land more than standing from foundation. To the west squatted an edifice of two stories that in generous light might pass for a house. The whole of it was crudely-hewn planks abundant with gap, fissure, and knothole, and though numerous windows lined the visible sides, all were shuttered, or boarded up from the inside. Between the two ramshackles stretched an expanse of recently planted corn in uncertain rows, short stalks young and pliant green.

Lopsided movement caught Lem’s keen eye. At the edge of the corn field lurched a figure he estimated at eight feet tall. A tunic of ragged brown woolen cloth draped from shoulders to groin, but barely concealed an expanse of vaguely orange flesh showing curve of muscle and irregular angularity of underlying bone. From his hidden vantage one hundred fifty feet away Lem could see the figure’s left hand had six fingers, and atop the thick trunk of torso bobbed a misshapen, oblate head canted slightly down to the right under the asymmetric weight of lumpen, tumorous growths sprouting wiry hair. The slowly loping shape could only have been kin to the ogre-man lying dead among his dogs some two miles behind. He was called Crowfood.

The gardener rejected whatever designs of parley or diplomacy he imagined Gloriana may have harbored. Drifting around another tree trunk, Lem nocked arrow to his compact bow and drew when he guessed the creak would be lost in a turn of the wind. In his peripheral vision the mountain lion was already moving, seemingly in slow motion, pads propelling tawny shape silent as death over the soft turf in ambush. Lem released.

The arrow struck home between the ogre-kin’s shoulder blades, just beneath a mullet of black, brushy hair. A noise of surprise and pain wailed out of the corn field as Crowfood whirled, demanding that the air produce that which was responsible for such sensation.1 From a makeshift belt of hempen cord the monster lifted an ogre hook: part agricultural tool, part food utensil, part weapon. Lem was already setting his second arrow to bowstring.

“It’s on!” the gardener called back into the forest, and then he fired again. He saw the path of the arrow and knew it true. He saw the sleek leonine form emerge from the line of trees in full pounce. He saw the whiskers curling back as the big cat’s jaws spilled wide to howl violence at the ogre-kin. He saw in the corner of his eye his friends emerging at a run from their hiding places in the trees.

The second arrow landed in the target’s belly, and Crowfood roared fury as it spotted Lem—bowstring still humming—at forest edge. Just then the mountain lion appeared and leapt upon the ogre-kin, raking bloody groves across arm and ribs before landing deftly and already starting its turning run to build momentum and propel another attack. Crowfood ignored the cat and set off across the cornfield, bearing down on Lem, a line of drool trailing from his mouth as he swung the ogre hook back and forth.

In the woods Kara took to the air, the magic of her extract of flight lifting her from the ground and carrying her up and toward the clearing. As she flew she plucked a round glass grenado from her bandolier. Her thumb brushed the silver leaf embossing on the smooth, curved exterior, and her alchemical senses could almost feel the hum of the bottled electricity inside.

Rahab spoke a spell and manifest acceleration came crashing down upon Abby, Gloriana, the alchemist, and himself. Time dilated. The sensation never failed to thrill. The conjurer watched a drop of condensation on a nearby branch slowly detach itself, and in the time it took for the perfect sphere of water to hit the ground he had already reached the edge of the clearing sixty feet away.

Crowfood fell upon Lem, whose distance ahead of the others had prevented inclusion in the range of Rahab’s spell. The ogre hook landed heavy against the gardener’s leather armor, scarring it and drawing blood beneath.

Abby was in motion. In Lem’s peripheral vision the circle of Avenger blurred like a coin of argent skipping across ocean waves. Then the warrior crashed into the ogre-kin and smote him with her longsword. In her wake ran Gloriana, pain arriving down the vital link from Lem’s wound even as she summoned blessing on her friends from the ghosts that attended her.

The gardener’s bow fell uselessly aside, and twin knives whipped into view. Lem carved a single crimson crescent across Crowfood’s belly. A gout of blood fell like a wet sack upon the soil, and then a sound of shattering glass gave way to a hissing hum of electricity washing over the ogre-kin’s deformed head. Lem stepped out of the way as the monster collapsed forward under its own weight, blackened visage smoking in death. The gardener looked up and watched Kara settle into a resting hover thirty feet in the air directly above. The alchemist winked.

The others gathered close, and the mountain lion circled near, tail twitching impatiently. They scanned the area. A raven rose into the air squawking, winging past the roof of the barn and over the trees to the northeast. From the makeshift chimney at the side of the house rose a sluggish coil of greasy smoke into the gray of the sky. Both structures were quiet.

Rahab’s spell faded. The sensation was always somewhat disorientating, a disjointed moment of transition when all around them that had been slow resumed its normal speed, as if it was not the magic that was ending, but the world that was catching up. Lem bent to search the ogre-kin’s corpse while Kara circled overhead in a slow turn scanning for signs of activity from the barn or house, but there was nothing. The gardener found several items of note in a satchel made from an animal bladder: two potions, a ring, an amulet. Gloriana collected them for later evaluation.

The companions elected to start at the house. Lem and Abby moved together, while Rahab and Gloriana flanked, both reaching out with their power to detect the presence of magic. Kara remained in flight, slowly drifting and bobbing along at the rear, her feet hovering a mere foot from the ground. The mountain lion padded along, but circled nervously at a distance as the house neared, and it howled once to announce its refusal to enter.


Examination of the building exterior showed just how difficult it was to separate dilapidation over time from crudity of initial construction, though architectural stability was less a concern than the ornamentation they observed. A rocking chair stood underneath the porch eaves which were decorated with three grim wind chimes.

“Those look like . . . ” Abby began, but her voice trailed off with realization.

“Yes,” Kara replied quietly, as though reluctant to speak louder for fear it might cause the chimes to reverberate. Each was a collection of patchy down, bits of glass, small stones, and various hollow bones, all of which were undeniably humanoid.

Having grown up in a culture of . . . complicated . . . aesthetics, Rahab was somewhat more inured to the morbidity on display, but he did not even remotely underestimate the threat the chimes suggested. “No sign of magic as yet,” he reported in muted tone. The wizard’s eye looked upon the pine pillars supporting the sagging porch roof, and each was carved in crude representations of manticores, or large humanoids butchering smaller humanoids with thick, wide blades, or skewering them on pikes to suspend over flame. Perched on one of the pillars just under the eaves was a moth the size of a shovel head, its phantom-dusted wings and thorax painted in complex pattern of white-on-grey. Columns of ants coursed over the porch, following complex patterns of chemical cartography. The air hinted at foul odors within the house: sweat, urine, rotting meat.

Then Abby stepped forward, sword in hand, Avenger braced, and the house attacked.


The warrior’s boot landed on a plank near the only visible entrance and there was an abrupt click.

Alarm rocketed through Lem’s consciousness and he started to call warning, but it was too late. A length of polished bone, sharpened to cruel point and affixed to a flexible wooden pole suddenly whipped down from concealment in the porch roof and slammed into Abby with potent force. Though her breastplate absorbed most of the impact, the pain was insistent nonetheless, and the blow rocked the warrior back. Save for the gardener, whose keen senses had warned him just an instant before, everyone jumped at the sound. The spike trap retreated and reset. Gloriana took Abby’s pain as her own, and a short time later everyone resumed breathing.

The moth fluttered its wings momentarily, rotated slightly, and resettled under the eaves. Quiet returned. Lem glanced at Abby and sucked his teeth judgmentally, shaking his head. Still grasping her sword, the warrior flipped the gardener a rude gesture. Gloriana took the opportunity to channel healing among herself and her friends, relieving any damage.

All eyes turned to Lem who interlaced his fingers, stretched his arms out, and flexed in anticipation. He knelt close to the porch and began to search for the trigger.

“Right. I have it,” he murmured after a moment. His deft fingers worked a slim metal tool underneath a warped plank. “Now, this should disarm the trigger.” The others took a generous step back. By way of illustration, Lem tapped his fist against the plank, only for the trap to whip down and forward once more, though the others were clear of the danger.2

The gardener was nonplussed. “Huh.” He scratched his chin a moment in reflection, then looked over one shoulder. Abby cocked her head in accusation. Gloriana raised an eyebrow. Kara continued to scan around in the event of ambush. Rahab looked at the façade for alternative routes inside, and the mountain lion paced back and forth, unspoken urgency in its brilliant eyes driving them on the unrevealed errand to this place.

“Wait, just wait.” Lem bent to the task again, and the seconds ticked away. Eventually he sighed, cut one of the bones from its frayed leather strip in a nearby wind chime, and jammed the ossiferous length under the plank. “There,” he sat up. “It’s jammed. Just the same, step here or here.” He reached up and pushed on the door handle. The portal opened onto darkness with a creak, and a sickening miasma drifted forth. As one they turned their heads away, or lifted sleeve to nose, and their eyes watered.

“Ghosts of the road,” Gloriana whispered. “That’s awful!” It was reminiscent of the foul air they had encountered in the Skinsaw Man’s cavern. The oracle fought her gag reflex.

Rahab took a few seconds to touch each of them on the shoulder as he bestowed a cantrip of resistance to his companions. Gloriana summoned power of endurance for Abby and Lem, then a ghostly shield of spiritual essence around herself. Kara remained hovering a foot above the ground. Just before they proceeded, Gloriana also bestowed a charm of increased strength on Lem. Then Abby set her jaw and stepped forward once more.

The entry room was approximately forty feet wide and fifteen feet deep. The ceiling overhead was a scant ten feet, and save for the little daylight at the doorway or seeping in from gaps in the walls, there was no illumination. Another door exiting the room was in the middle of the north wall. At the eastern end of the room was a cold fireplace piled with ash that had spilled onto the warped wood of the floor. A badly cured bearskin rug occupied a portion of the planks near the north wall. In the northwestern corner sat a sofa only faintly discernible in the dimness.

“Brightness find us,” Kara exhaled in horror as she floated inside. “There is cattle leather there, but also elf and human skin!” Her eyes widened as she looked on the sofa. Gloriana looked away, faintly ill.

Determined to press forward and resolve the nightmare of the place all the sooner, Abby advanced toward the other door as the rest gathered inside.

The house attacked a second time.


The floor caved under the warrior’s feet, the planks simply bursting with a loud snap, and Abby plummeted into darkness amidst a shower of splinters and dust. The distance was not great, only a couple of feet taller than the warrior herself, but the floor at the bottom of the crudely dug pit bristled with lengths of wood sharpened into stakes and thrust into the ground at various angles. Upon these the full weight of Abby in all her gear crashed, and she felt the points of rough wood penetrate her belly, legs, and arms. She cried out in surprise and pain, and then waves of nausea and a dizzying sensation washed over her. The pit was almost completely dark, but the burning sensation in her blood made Abby realize the stakes had been coated in poison, and in desperation her mighty constitution fought against the toxin’s effects.

At the lip of the gaping hole in the floor, just a few feet away, the fire of wounding tore through Gloriana and she grimaced against the agony. The others were already acting quickly. Lem set his pack down and unlimbered rope which he fed into the hole, while Rahab drew forth his enchanted torch of heatless fire, holding the brand over the pit to help illuminate the situation. Abby stood, grabbed hold of the rope, and soon climbed out, her breath coming in shallow gasps as her body tried to reject the poison. Once upright, she drew forth her own glowstone and released it to hover above her head for more light. Gloriana stepped close to inspect Abby’s wounds while Kara drifted down into the pit in slow flight to hover and take a sample of the poison on the stakes for alchemical research.

“The worst is passed,” the oracle said softly to Abby, her vision distant as she listened to the spirits whispering.3 “Your body has rejected the poison.”

Abby nodded, a sheen of sweat on her brow. She adjusted her grip on her sword, hefted Avenger, and looked at Lem.

“Maybe you should lead.”

The gardener nodded.


Satisfied it was safe to proceed, Lem opened the door and looked into the space beyond. They stood at the corner of two hallways met at right angle, one branch leading due north, the other extending west. Just beyond the corridor intersection, in the west wall of the northern corridor was a set of wooden stairs going up, and just beyond that were two doors on opposite sides of the passageway. The northern hallway ended in a third door.

Looking west the corridor progressed perhaps twenty feet and ended in yet another door. Save for a small spill of light from Abby’s stone and Rahab’s torch, the hallway was dark. He heard no sound save for the creaking of the inexpertly assembled timbers that formed the house. The close, thick air was a constant assault on the nose. The gardener had come rapidly to the conclusion that it might be best to simply burn the entire place to the ground.

They proceeded to the left. Lem took his time, carefully advancing as he determined the way was safe, free of tripwires, loose plates, weak planks, scattered shards of glass, or murder holes. At the western door he listened cautiously while the others held their breath. A sound of movement came from beyond the thick, rough wood, some kind of shifting weight, rustling of cloth, or trickle of water. A search for traps on the door revealed nothing, and the gardener looked back and gave sign, then stepped aside to allow Abby access.

The warrior kicked the door violently in, and the companions met Mammy and three of her boys.


Enduring the atmosphere in the house up to that point had been, to put it mildly, challenging. Now it became almost untenable. Waves of nausea swept over them as their senses took in the room. A chandelier shaped of humanoid and ungulate bone hung from a rusty iron ring in the ceiling. Fat candles of indeterminate tallow burned smokily, sending black wisps against circular stains long since carbonized on the ceiling. Largely empty, the room spanned twenty or so feet east-to-west, and perhaps thirty north-to-south. Directly opposite the door to the room stood a table next to a large easel bearing a grisly canvas splattered in abstractions of gore. Pots, pestles, palettes, jars, and hollowed humanoid skulls littered the work surface, each dark with brown, red, grey, and black paints rendered from seeped blood, pressed organs, or ground flesh, and there could be little doubt as to what kind of creatures had died in terror and agony to unwillingly supply such materials. The variety of artistic utensils all had handles of bone and brushes of humanoid hair. Cast casually among the media was a comb formed from the lower mandible of a human skull, and tangles of wiry black hair clogged the teeth as grass springs from cracks in stones. Splotches and runs of visceral paint coated the table legs, surface, and across much of the room’s floor. At the base of the eastern wall sat eight wooden buckets brimming with filth: congealed mucus, discarded organs taking to rot, runny excrement. Fat flies buzzed and circled in disquieting chorus. Propped against the north wall were three crude coffins without lid. Each was occupied by a form almost too wide for the oblong boxes, long of limb, stout of body, squat of frame, grey of skin, abundant of deformity. The mouths of the corpses had been sewn shut with lengths of hair.

But that which conjured the most horror could only have been queen of this ghastly place. She was perched atop a wide bed squatting in the southwestern corner of the chamber, its expanse sinking under the great weight of her. A tattered red drape stained with years of blood could barely wrap around her immense, billowing form. Adipose tissue emanated from her in rolling waves of quivering grey. Black nails speared from the ends of columnar fingers that clutched a wand of twisted wood surmounted by the severed hand of a gnome, or perhaps a halfling, or perhaps a human child. Her lips and eyes were equally black, and the strands of course hair on her head clung and twined in the manner of an epiphyte clutching the branches of a bald cypress in a swamp. From amongst the layers of flab her facial muscles managed to contort her mouth into a malign rictus of intermittent teeth. She spoke, her voice the sound of a kettle slowly boiling fat.

“Get ‘em, boys. Bring Mammy her luncheon.”


The corpses ejected from the upright coffins in a sudden lurch, then began to shamble forward, closing on Abby, their only sound the shuffling of misshapen feet on the floorboards. The warrior wasted no time, stepped among them to draw the battle center upon herself, and quickly struck twice, once with sword, once with Avenger. The onslaught of blade and shield quickly felled one of the monsters. Lem took up his most effective fighting role opposite Abby, flanking opponents to subvert their defenses, and his knife blades began slicing pieces of dessicated flesh from a second shambler.4

“I think they’re undead!” Abby shouted back over her shoulder to Gloriana.

No shit! Lem thought, working his blades in their deadly dance.

The oracle stepped into the room, aghast at what she saw, and all the more determined to end this place. “You’re learning!” she yelled in response. Then the golden light of spiritual power suffused her and blasted outward in a wave of energy that ripped through the remaining two walking corpses. Death-grey flesh burned away like paper in flame.

Kara was next to enter the room, still in flight, and her alarm was a coil of revulsion the likes of which she had heretofore never known. The alchemist’s response was more instinctual than strategically considered. She hurled an explosive bomb at the corpulent form on the bed. A burst of noise, smoke, and fire sent a shock wave through the chamber that tumbled buckets of ordure onto the floor and scattered containers of gory paint from the table. The splashing fire from the device washed over one of the nearby undead, and a new odor fouled the air as first the bed, then the sarong, and then Mammy herself caught fire.

With most of the party crowding the doorway into the room, Rahab had little vision of the wider battle from where he still stood in the hallway, but he could see something attacking Abby, and line-of-sight was all he needed. The wand of magical missiles that he had claimed from an opponent wizard underneath Thistletop months ago finally came to use as he pointed it and commanded a tesselated flake of energy into the zombie. The undead ogre-kin finally found the true death it had been relentlessly denied for years.

Still ablaze, and all the more horrifying for the fact, the grossly fat form of Mammy rose sluggishly off the bed as she invoked a spell of magical flight. A sustained, ululating howl began to pitch from her maw, and she aligned her own magic wand in Kara’s direction. A spectral shape of ectoplasm shaped like a hand drifted through the air and alighted on the alchemist. The magic’s touch was as cold as a winter grave, and pain like needles of ice penetrated the elf’s body, snatching the breath from her lungs. Despite the flames licking at her garment and body, the ogre-kin matriarch’s flesh blossomed with necromantic vigor.5 Raspy with the effort to escape from lungs up through six hundred pounds of flesh, Mammy’s terrible voice emerged from the billowing smoke that was beginning to creep about the room.

“Eat you raw! Tear your fucking flesh, elf bitch! Tear all of you! Shit your brains tomorrow for glue!”

Satisfied with the diminished threat of shuffling dead, Abby spun on Mammy, backhanding Avenger’s silver-bright surface into the ogre-kin body with a fat slap. The doughy rippling sent shivers down Abby’s spine, and for a moment the appalling odor in the room threatened the warrior with emesis, but she managed to keep her stomach calm and her hand on her sword.6

Lem smoothly moved to his right, behind the last animate corpse still smoking from the area effect of Kara’s bomb. The gardener buried both blades at the base of the monster’s spine, and tore out from the center, opening two cavernous rents that spilled dust and dessicated innards on the floor, putting an end to Mammy’s “boys . . .”

. . . the undead ones, at least.


The link of life began transferring Kara’s injury to Gloriana, who prepared a spell of counter magic in the event the ogre-kin matriarch tried the same attack again. For her part, the alchemist kept up the artillery assault, lobbing a galvanic grenado and scoring another hit. Blue-white bursts of sputtering electricity threw shadows in grim relief against the walls, floor, and ceiling, dazzling Mammy with blinding pain.

With the undead felled, there was room for Rahab to step inside the doorway. Recognizing another spell-caster immediately, he turned his wand’s power on the corpulent monster and compelled another shard of magic into the fat expanse of flesh. Then he heard a growing sound behind him: the sound of heavy footsteps hammering across wooden planks echoing down the corridor from some other part of the house.

“Company coming!” the conjurer shouted above Mammy’s stream of invective.

The ghostly hand floated in the air, menacing Kara once more, and Gloriana raised her hands and asked the spirits to intercede against the magic, but there was no reply.7 Again the eldritch appendage brushed the alchemist, delivering a new spell. Kara recognized the effect as the sensation spilled over her, and from his vantage Rahab understood what was happening, as well. The alchemist closed her eyes and bent her will in a supreme effort against the debilitating invasion, and a second later it was as if the magic had never happened.8

Mammy howled incandescent rage at Kara: “Fuck you forever!”

Movement in the conjurer’s peripheral vision caused Rahab to glance over his shoulder as another ogre-kin—this one apparently alive, though no less unnerving in deformity—barreled around the corner at the end of the hall.

Abby found her stance, and struck the floating ogre-kin matriarch with sword and shield, and Lem tumbled expertly into position on the other side, still able to attack the monster due to limits on elevation owing to the height of the ceiling and Mammy’s immensity. The gardener scored a wound with one of his knives. Disgust welled in him, as his proximity enveloped him in a stench of stunning dimension.

Gloriana continued to appropriate the damage done to Kara, and brought her morningstar to bear in melee, but the sheer assault on the senses that was the room made it difficult to engage, and in the tight quarters her strike went wide for fear that she might hit one of her friends.

Rahab watched the bulky, stump-legged form of another member in Mammy’s increasingly expansive and incestuously improbable family race up the length of the hall toward him. The creature held an ogre hook out to the side against the hallway wall, digging a long, splintered gouge out of the wood as it advanced. Despite the additional friction, the monster seemed to be picking up speed, and it was muttering a bloodthirsty chant in guttural, broken Common the whole way.


It was unclear whether “Lucky” was a name or an adjective, and anyway it didn’t really matter to the conjurer, who was casting a new spell. Intent on slowing the advance and robbing the new antagonist of some muscular power, Rahab directed a thin green beam of magic energy down the hallway.

The spell missed.9

Baalzebul’s bollocks! That thing is practically the width of the hall! But vector analysis would have to wait as the wizard took a nervous step back and slammed the door to the room shut between himself and Lucky.

Smoke still rose from the burns on her body, and her shift was all but gone, revealing the extent of thick, rolling fat around Mammy like a cocoon of flesh. Realizing help was at hand, the ogre-kin matriarch lifted her voice once more in another, rasping yell: “Get in here, idiots!”

Then she vanished.


There was just enough time—a brief portion of a second—in which Rahab and Kara shared a glance as they both recognized the spell Mammy had invoked to flee, and then the door to the room disintegrated.

Lucky had built momentum as he thundered down the passageway, slamming into the wood with all his weight, might, and anger. The force carried the door away from the frame as easily as rending paper. With no time to get out of the way, Rahab was standing directly in the path of the projectile portal, and Gloriana was standing just aft of the wizard. Lucky, driving the door before himself like a bow wave, lifted the conjurer and the oracle off their feet and deposited them back on the floor again a further five feet into the room. They were uninjured, but very surprised.

At the corner in the hallway behind Lucky another ogre-kin appeared, bulky, brutish, panting wet breaths of murderous exertion as it made its way toward the adventurers in the room.

Abby was already in motion even as the door burst clear and Lucky charged in. She stepped precisely into an angle of attack that intersected the ogre-kin’s lumbering rush, almost as if the Lady of Valor herself had asked for a demonstration of martial superiority. In that moment the warrior was deadly, beautiful, perfect. Her sword arced in an almost musical whir. Avenger spun in the candlelight, a shining silver moon of mysterious metal resonant with magic. Lucky was dead before he—or the door—hit the ground.

All right, Rahab silently admitted. THAT was impressive. Next to the warrior Gloriana could only stand in a kind of shock, jaw agape, eyes wide.10

Abby took a single step forward and interposed herself between Rahab and the next ogre-kin that was even now stepping through the doorway. She brought Avenger around and held it up before her. Behind the rim of the brilliant shield her eyes glinted like steel, daring the monster to try something . . . anything . . . anything at all.

Lem dodged between strides of the newly arrived ogre-kin’s squat legs and stood up effortlessly behind, spinning his knives on his open palms. Gloriana blinked as more of Kara’s pain became her own, and suddenly realized the gravity of the accumulated injury she was sustaining. She cast a spell of intense healing upon herself.11

Kara spun in mid air, still flying, and Rahab stepped to his left, casting the cantrip that detected magic and sweeping the sensory range in a wide swath, hoping to find some sign of the ogre-kin matriarch that had escaped: nothing.

Maulgro—another one of Mammy’s boys, and most recently arrived in the room—swung an ogre hook at Abby. The warrior easily shunted the attack aside with Avenger and then ran her blade straight through the monster’s gut and out the spine. Then she used the broad surface of the shield to hammer the bulky ogre-kin from the sword in a swift, smooth motion, almost casually, like separating a portion of beef from a skewer.

Like his brother Lucky, Maulgro was dead before he crashed to the floor.12


Gloriana resorted to the wand of minor healing magic to restore the damage she had usurped from Kara. Rahab continued his search for signs of magic and found nothing. They were keen to move quickly. The room was horrific, and Mammy was still alive somewhere, for all they knew, and perhaps even now rallying for revenge. Lem found a closet door in the northeast part of the room, opened it, then closed it again almost instantly.

“What is it?” Kara asked.

“Nothing. Linens. Leathers.” He coughed once.

The alchemist furrowed her brow. “Leathers?”

Lem looked at the alchemist pointedly. “Skin.” Kara’s face blanched. “We should move,” the gardener urged.

Stepping past the array of corpses soon to attract still more flies, they gathered in the hallway and began to make for the other corridor.

“What happened back there?” Abby asked. “Where did—” The warrior’s expression suddenly wrinkled in disgust. “Where did ‘Mammy’ go?”

“She translated with a spell through a dimensional doorway,” Rahab said curtly. “I’ll explain later.”

They turned the hallway corner, stepped past the stairs ascending to the second floor, and assembled at the doorway in the western wall of the north passage. Lem began to check for traps.

“Wait, friends. Just a moment,” Gloriana said. She bent her head and closed her eyes briefly as her magic coalesced and then emanated outward. When she opened her eyes her vision could now capture the spiritual signs indicating the presence of the undead. She turned a full circle in the hallway, sweeping the house as Rahab had done when seeking magical signal. Like the wizard, she, too, found no sign of creatures from the necroclade.

Lem gave the sign and Abby opened the door onto a small storage area littered with refuse, including bones. They closed the door and moved to the next one at the north end of the hall. The portal was already opened on a square room with a bed. The gardener made a quick search, finding only the bones of an ogre-kin infant. “Nothing,” he reported as he emerged, dusting his hands together.

The next door, on the east, opened to reveal the dining room.

The house attacked a third time.


Abby rolled. Despite the bulk of her armor and equipment, she managed to move effectively, if less gracefully than Lem or Kara would have. She remained crouched at the end of her roll, unwilling to rise. Her heart pounded in her chest, and chill sweat rolled off her neck and down her back, over her shoulders, between her breasts. The air still rang with the sound of quivering steel. From the hallway, the others could hear the warrior muttering.

“Lem goes first. Lem goes first. Lem goes first. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Lem goes first. Lem goes first. Lem goes first . . . .”13

Already the trap was resetting, and the companions watched as three scythe blades arranged on a wooden frame propelled by a powerful spring retracted against the interior of the dining room wall.

Lem slowly, deliberately reached up and scratched one eyebrow as they listened to the ratcheting sounds of the trap mechanism tumbling back into place. He opened his mouth to say something, paused, thought better of it, and then carefully selected some tools from the pouches at his belt.

Abby reluctantly stood, and took in the room’s grisly details. A massive table some fifteen feet in length dominated the center of the chamber, oriented north-to-south. It was draped in a crude table cloth of erratically stitched leather, the texture and thickness of which suggested human skin, which the warrior frantically denied by insisting repeatedly to herself that she did not want to know what the material was. Eight chairs of wood and bone ringed the table. A centerpiece of tarnished silver held a rotting human head, and the whole space smelled of putrefying flash. A chandelier crafted housing multiple unlit candles and crafted from bleached animal and humanoid skulls hung from the ceiling. There were two other doors in the room in the east wall, at the northern and southern corners.

“How’s it coming?” Abby asked quietly, eyes on the room, the query directed to Lem.

“Uh . . . good, good.” The sound of steel tools clicked and scraped from the doorway. Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab looked on from the passage. The procedure continued for some minutes. Abby felt the bile rise in her throat, and forced herself to focus on the other two doors, trying to shut out the vision of the table.

More clicking. “Um . . . let’s see . . . .”

Abby again: “What in the Nine Hells are you doing over there, Lem?”

“Almost got it.” Another click. “There. Uh . . . yes. I mean no.” The gardener stood and put his hands on his hips. No one moved. Lem eyed the section of floor that triggered the scythe blades as if it mocked him. Abby glanced back over her shoulder, then rolled her eyes in equal parts exasperation and trepidation.

“Fuck. Fine. Just keep an eye on the other exit.”

At the doorway, Lem unlimbered his short bow with a look of mild annoyance. Abby moved to the southern door in the east wall, skirting the room perimeter to keep as much space between herself and the table as possible. She listened a moment, heard nothing, and opened the door. The light from her stone spilled onto a musty kitchen and larder. Against the far wall hung an array of leather smocks and cleavers of copper and steel. A butcher block at room’s center was black with countless days of bloody use. Crockery and baskets along the walls held severed fingers, toes, hands, and feet. Slabs of unnamed meat hung from hooks on chains. An open doorway in the north wall looked like it led to a set of stairs descending into darkness. The sound of buzzing flies was maddening, and Abby watched as a cockroach the length of her thumb scuttled across the butcher’s block, antennae twitching. The stench hit the warrior like a block of stone launched from a trebuchet. She reeled and retreated, shutting the door behind her.14

Returning to the northern door, Abby noticed a gap in the planks of the wall containing two metal levers. Probing the space with a dagger, she reached in when she decided it was safe and lifted the lever on the right. There was a loud click at the door into the hallway, and the others took a step back. When nothing happened, Lem gingerly advanced to find the scything blades had been deactivated.

“Nice work,” he said grudgingly. Abby ignored him, and tried the second lever. Another heavy mechanical click sounded at the northern door, signalling the disarmament of a second blade trap.15 The others crowded into the room and moved to where the warrior waited. As she made her way, Gloriana cast several orisons of purification about the dining room in a desperate effort to diminish the atmosphere even just a little, but to no effect.16

The next room was L-shaped and occupied the northeastern corner of the ground floor. Little objects of carved wood and bone littered the floor amidst scattered whole and partial carcasses of small woodland animals. Crude shelves along the walls held skulls of various shapes and sizes, and almost every available surface had been scrawled with strange, messy drawings in blood long since blackened.

“Are those—?” Gloriana’s eyes widened in alarm.

“Toys,” Rahab finished. “I gather this is the playroom.” The wizard’s voice was subdued.

“Ghosts of . . . ” the oracle began, and could not even finish the oath, turning away to hide the tears of horror and sadness that had begun to well in her eyes.

Lem and Abby rejoined the others after a cursory search. “Look, there’s a set of stairs going down in the, uh . . . kitchen . . . over there,” the warrior said haltingly, her throat dry, gesturing to the southeastern door. “Or there are the stairs up back in the hall.”

“Pick one,” Gloriana rasped. “Please.” She had turned her back on the playroom and fixed her eyes firmly on the floorboards, which seemed the least awful feature in the immediate vicinity.

“Up,” Lem said. Kara and Rahab nodded agreement. Abby was secretly relieved, even if it meant different horror. At least it postponed a return to the kitchen.


At the stairs Lem bent to the task of searching for traps. He had already decided that the ogre-kin were only half the problem with this place, and fully expected more nefarious devices to hinder their progress and inflict injury at every turn. The others let him advance in stealth, awaiting his signal to proceed. He reached the top of the stairs safely, turned, and silently beckoned the rest of the party. Abby started after the gardener, with Gloriana behind her, then Rahab, and finally Kara whose power of flight allowed her to ascend the stairs without setting foot on them at all.

The short hallway on the first floor17 ended at two doors, one on the west, one on the east. Lem took his time listening for signs of activity, and finally satisfied, he shrugged in the glow of Abby’s lightstone to indicate the choice of doors was up to the others. Abby pointed to the western portal with her sword, and Lem nodded. In the next second the warrior kicked the door open and strode inside. A large room spread out to the south before them. Seven large, crude beds dressed in foul linens and moth-eaten blankets cluttered the space. The walls were hung with humanoid skulls to which deer antlers had been affixed. Some of the macabre decorations had been placed upside down, while others were arranged around the perimeter as posts for candles. Against the western wall was a single, large wooden chest bound in rusted iron. Gloriana detected for magic, silently shaking her head when she found no sign. They approached the container.

Lem produced his tools once more and set to work. His probes felt something along the seam between lid and sides, and after a few minutes with file, hook, pin, half-diamond, and s-rake, he carefully separated the trigger from the wheel of the trap. The gardener reseated his tools and lifted the lid.

The house attacked a fourth time.


There was a short rush of steel speeding through air, followed by another sound, a wetter sound, soft and squelching. Lem let the chest lid fall with a loud crash, leaned slowly back, and drew his arms up to his chest. A sudden gush of blood sprayed crimson on the box, wall, and floor.

“I don’t feel so good,” the gardener murmured, his eyelids fluttering, and then he slumped over.

A moment later consciousness returned in a sudden rush, followed by awareness of intense pain in his forearms. He realized Abby was holding him up, and he looked down at his appendages. The wounds were already closing, and the agony was already fading, but his astonishment was undiminished, for the severity of the wounds had almost severed his hands at the wrists. He looked up at Gloriana, and once again she had appropriated another’s pain through the spiritual bond of her magic.18

A trembling weakness suffused Lem, and it felt as if his ribcage was collapsing under its own weight. He closed his eyes and focused intently on simply breathing. A minute passed, then another. He could hear the oracle invoking the power of the healing wand she carried to abate her injuries which had been his. His breathing returned to normal, though he was sweating and shaking, and when he looked at his wrists again they were scarred, but whole.

“Exactly what I thought: blade trap,” he coughed weakly. “Poisoned, too. Good thing I disarmed it.”19 Abby helped him to his feet.

“Do you need to sit for a bit?” Gloriana asked, stowing the wand away. The gardener glanced at the nearby beds in disgust.

“I think I’d rather be poisoned,” he gasped, and a fit of coughing took him. Abby hammered on his back with a gauntleted hand. “All right, easy! Easy, hammer hands! I just need to catch my breath.”

Kara lifted the lid of the chest to reveal the knife-sharp blades in the lid glistening with Lem’s blood. She busied herself once more with collecting a sample of the poison still coating the steel. The gardener wasn’t sure how he felt about this casual disregard for his vital fluids, nor the disproportionate interest the alchemist seemed to show in her toxins relative to his well being.

Kara was shaking one of her narrow glass vials with the newly collected poison inside. She had added some other ingredient and watched the color shift in the light from Rahab’s torch. She tendered verdict, expertly clinical: “Ogre spider poison.20 Unpleasant. You’re fortunate, Lem.”

“That’s me: Lem the Fortunate. Been nothing but good fortune since we entered this place. Where’s that damn cat? I’m tempted to kick its furry ass.”

Rahab and Abby chuckled, and the warrior clapped the gardener on the shoulder in a friendly gesture. Gloriana placed a tender hand against Lem’s cheek as though caressing a lover. The oracle closed her eyes and summoned the haunts to reveal the presence of any more poisons in the gardener’s system, and the ghosts whispered words only she could hear. “All clear,” Gloriana reported, opening her eyes, withdrawing her hand, and favoring Lem with a sympathetic smile.

“I am fairly certain this is the same substance coating the spikes in the entry pit,” Kara remarked, eyes still fixed on her sampling vial, genuine fascination tinting her voice. “I wonder how the ogre-kin harvest it?”

Lem shook his head in mild disgust, then decided to ignore the alchemist, and shuffled to the chest, eyeing the spent blades coldly. A glance inside the box revealed a roughly stitched leather sack. He reached to take it, only to recoil suddenly. The house held many horrors, but this one gave even his hardened psyche pause. The sack leather showed several patches of thick, curly metatarsal hair.

The gardener exhaled quietly. “Fuck.”

Halfling skin.


In the end Rahab employed his rarely-used dagger, and Abby helped with her sword point, to lift the sack clear of the chest, and then to upend its contents onto the floor. Some two hundred and fifty coins or so spilled about in denominations of copper, silver, and gold. They gathered the money and transferred it to their own packs. As for the seventeen severed fingers that had also been in the sack, they elected to leave those behind.

The only other room on the upper floor was across the short hallway. It proved to be some kind of workshop, cluttered and disorganized but clearly used with regularity. The adventurers detected no magic, but the work benches and tables were replete with alchemy tools, as well as trap assembly components. There were also several complete sets of thieves’ tools in well-oiled leather pouches. Lem carefully compared them with his own, selecting a few choice pieces to add, and wrapping the others in his pack for later resale.

That left the kitchen, and the basement.

1 Lem scored a sneak attack with his shortbow in a surprise round. His subsequent initiative roll for the start of the initiative sequence landed him at the top of the rotation, allowing him to shoot Crowfood twice before anything else happened. Take a moment to imagine these moments in the style of a slow-motion film sequence: a densely forested damp landscape under cloudy skies, Lem in dramatic closeup as he draws string to ear and fires, the arrow in flight alternating with frames of the big cat in motion, now racing through trees, now bounding a fallen log, now pouncing in freeze frame. For a good soundtrack to this sequence, I recommend “Protectors of the Earth” by Two Steps From Hell from the 2008 album Legend.

2 Lem’s record on Disable Device rolls has been mixed, which is to be expected, given random number generators and regression to the mean.

3 This house was rough on everyone, but Abby took a particular beating. The events marked an important sequence in the evolution of the party: Recognizing the need to let Lem take the lead with his stealth, perception, and device-disabling abilities. Gloriana cast detect poison on Abby, but by this time the warrior had made her successful Fortitude saving throws. The fall onto the spikes had dealt 15 points of damage, but other than that and a woozy feeling, she was still very much in the game. But it puts into perspective what the party was walking into: We’d moved a total of fifteen feet and Abby had already taken 21 points of damage, and we hadn’t even fought anything inside yet.

4 It’s worth noting here that Lem has several levels of ranger, and one of his favored enemies is undead, the origin of which is his own brush with undeath in the farm fields southeast of Sandpoint. Mammy’s three “boys” in the room were, in fact, ogre-kin zombies.

5 Mammy had a wand of vampiric touch and was using spectral hand to deliver the necromancy. Kara was hit for 17 points of damage. I believe that is the first serious damage the alchemist has suffered in a considerable time.

6 Abby made a full attack—sword, shield, sword—and only hit with Avenger. Her last sword stroke was a 1 on the d20, but she made the roll to keep from fumbling her blade. Role-playing games are so often an interesting journey through numerical probability, one moment to the next.

7 Glo had readied a dispel magic counterspell against Mammy’s spell action, but the caster level check just wasn’t good enough. Fickle, fickle haunts.

8 This time Mammy was casting bestow curse through the spectral hand, but Kara made a successful Will save. Both she and Rahab recognized the spell with accurate Spellcraft skill checks.

9 Ranged touch attack for ray of enfeeblement. Wizard’s attack progression, fer fuck’s sake. I don’t remember what I rolled, but it must have been abysmal.

10 This is another moment that I love. I think of it as the kind of scene that culminates contemporary film trailers. A building beat and musical intensity punctuates flash cuts of Lucky bursting through the door in a bull rush that drives Rahab and Gloriana back, and there’s Abby, already moving, and the film goes into slow motion as her attack precisely intercepts the vector of Lucky’s movement. In one round she hits him with two sword strokes and a shield bash. Lucky never had a chance. Wipe to black screen and “Coming Soon.”

11 Cure serious wounds for 23 points. Somewhere else, beyond sight of the players, Mammy—who had escaped via dimension door spell—was still taking lingering fire damage from Kara’s initial explosive bomb.

12 Seriously. I know tron sometimes grumbles about how the dice rolls go, but when they’re good Abby is fucking awesome.

13 So, remember how Lem was going to go first? Sometimes Abby acts impatiently. Or perhaps sometimes her player acts impatiently. I decline to speculate further.

14 The smell was so bad it required a Fortitude saving throw, which Abby made successfully.

15 That’s right: Abby disabled two traps in the house.

16 Purify food and drink was a nice idea, but in the end what we needed was something that worked on really tough stains.

17 Second floor. First floor up from the ground floor. Never mind.

18 Take a moment to think about this. Through Life Link Gloriana takes 5 hit points of damage from an ally, which restores 5 hit points to the person originally wounded. This happens every round she has the link established, and per person so linked, so long as there is hit point damage in effect. In Logan’s truck on the roads of Canada Rogue asks, “When they come out . . . does it hurt?” Wolverine regards his hand on the steering wheel and quietly says, “Every time.”

19 Yeah, no. At least he made the Fortitude save against the poison. The blades did 12 points of damage and nearly sliced off his hands. Gloriana had to use the wand of cure light wounds four times to heal the damage she had soaked from Lem.

20 Damage to Strength and Dexterity.

Book IV, Chapter 3: Over The River And Through The Woods
Like A Cat In A Trap

It was three miles to the local wooden bridge spanning the Skull River. They crossed to the western bank, Lem in the lead, followed by Abby, then Gloriana, then Rahab, and finally Kara. The horses slurped along the muddy trail, ears flicking for sounds in the woods to other side. Gloriana summoned the link that bound her spiritual sense to the lives of her companions. The feeling always caught her briefly by surprise, a sudden surge within like the moment a storm bolt touches a lone tree in a tempest, a shivering spark telling her that her friends were alive, present, vital. She drew sharp breath and Marigold nickered softly. Unseen by the others, a haunt leapt into being nearby, then faded just as quickly.

The persistent drip of water escaping leaf and branch gradually emerged as the companions left the rushing of the river behind and moved deeper into wilderness. The heavy rains had dimmed birdsong, and the gentle, muted clink and creak of harness drifted into the trees, over grasses, around stones. The trail rose and fell with the land, but the geography ever ascended. At breaks in the tree-line the riders could lift their eyes and see the jagged peaks of the Wyvern Mountains coiled like the tail of their namesake some fifteen miles on the horizon. Great lengths of cloud, as if tatters of some grey god’s garment, clung to the slopes and settled on the lands below.

At the stinger-end of those mountains lay the great expanse of the Storval Deep, its bitter-blue chilled waters bounded on the southern edge by the monumental and menacing engineering of Skull’s Crossing, and perhaps ten miles before that was the mountain fortress of Fort Rannick, stronghold of The Black Arrows.

Then a high, scratching howl melted out of the woods to the west. When she heard it, Abby glanced up at the expanse of trees and pulled on Sparky’s reins. In a few moments the doughty warrior would make a choice that would set them all on the path to carnage.


“Big cat. Wounded.” Lem had led Cinnamon after Abby while the others reined to a stop on the trail behind. “We should keep clear. It will be unhappy.”

Atop Urdrenn, Kara cocked her head in concentration, silently wishing Shelalu was there to help with exactly this sort of circumstance. Eventually she rendered verdict: “Mountain lion.”

Abby started to nudge Sparky into the forest. “It needs help. Let’s go.”

Rahab’s jaw fell open and he shook his head in disbelief. Gloriana looked as though she was about to say something, but Abby was already moving.

Lem quickly intervened. “Wait. Chaldira’s teeth, Abby, wait!” The gardener slipped from Cinnamon’s back and passed the reins to the oracle to hold. He jogged forward and darted in front of Sparky, causing the horse to startle for a moment and giving Lem the time he needed. A second later he disappeared into the underbrush, leaving silence in his wake.

Deeper into the woods he found the mountain lion. Taking in the details in a single glance, the gardener slipped back undetected to report to his companions.1


Everyone jumped slightly as Lem emerged from behind a spruce trunk. He was already talking as he took Cinnamon’s reins from Gloriana and climbed into the saddle:

“Mountain lion, just like Kara said, paw caught in a bear trap.”

Abby nodded, resolute, and clucked Sparky forward once more. Lem exchanged a glance with Gloriana. The oracle looked uncertain, and the gardener shrugged in kind, then turned Cinnamon to follow. The healer followed close behind. Rahab shook his head once more: This is foolish. Then he sighed and gently touched Pentacle’s neck, and the sorrel fell into line. Kara brought up the rear.

Away from the trail, progress slowed somewhat as the horses navigated the brush, branches, and rolling ground of the deeper woods. In a few minutes they arrived at the edge of an oval clearing thick with new spring grass. Lem dismounted, handing his reins once more to Gloriana, and then the gardener took up posistion at the perimeter, hiding expertly among the great, gnarled jumble of roots plunging deep into the moist soil at the base of a soaring elm. He unlimbered his compact bow and nocked an arrow to the string.

At the moment that the others drew up in a line at the southern edge of the clearing, Rahab and Kara both heard a distant chorus of energetic barking coming from the northeast among the trees bordering the clearing. At the base of a birch tree they could see the trapped mountain lion, left front paw caught in a vicious trap sized for a much larger animal. Its shimmering coat of pale yellow contrasted against the angry crimson of blood on its leg, and its whiskers distorted as it howled pain and fear at the forest. The companions could see evidence of other violence on its body, small wounds, though from frenzied escape through the dense growth or from weapons was impossible to discern at this distance.

“Hold!” Kara gave a fierce whisper. “Dogs!”

Lem began skirting the clearing perimeter to the left, keeping to the treeline and the brush, all but invisible, bow at the ready.

“’Dogs’ you say?” Gloriana spoke out loud, momentarily confused.2

Though not yet visible, the dogs seemed to be closing, and behind them came another sound. When Abby heard it, she turned to the others.

“Is that . . . is that singing?”

Kara and Rahab nodded acknowledgment, and both bore an expression of concentration. Abby felt uncertain. Something was not right, and there was an undercurrent of chaos she felt in all this. Gloriana seemed displaced, Lem had disappeared into the forest, scouting the perimeter. Wizard and alchemist appeared lost in some form of esoteric calculation beyond her own understanding. It was in precisely these kinds of circumstances that her own resolution had always carried her through to survival. The lion at the far side of the clearing was hurt, and in need of aid, and the simplicity of it appealed to that portion of the warrior that valued directness, eschewing the confounding mathematics of Rahab’s thirst for power, or Gloriana’s recursive and mutli-layered labyrinths of personality and motivation.

“To the Hells with it,” she murmured, and kicked lightly at Sparky’s ribs. The horse started from the treeline and across the rainslicked glade. The motion caught everyone’s eye, and for a moment they looked upon the mounted warrior as she emerged from the forest, resplendent in armor, Avenger’s great circle of brilliant, unmarred silver braced on her left arm, head aloft and scanning for danger, eyes bright, muscled from in the state of relaxed tension every combatant knew instinctively as the very essence of existence, in battle as in life.

She looked like a general at the head of an unseen army.


Several things happened at once:

Eight dogs emerged at the northeastern perimeter of the meadow some two hundred yards away, and catching Abby’s scent on the wind, they renewed their barking with intensity.

Behind the dogs loomed a figure in the shadow cloak of the forest, not yet distinct, but clearly bipedal, a shuffling bulk moving purposefully in the wake of the hounds.

Still on horseback, Rahab cast a spell to encase himself in invisible armor of wizardry. Gloriana moved up alongside Abby, and got a better view of the trapped mountain lion. Even at that distance the oracle realized that—in addition to the damaged paw—the animal had a weapon injury on its back, and evidence of bite marks lined its flanks. Kara remained at forest edge, still uncertain. From his camouflaged vantage, Lem understood that the dogs and the figure driving them were ahunt, and that the big cat was the prey. He made a decision, and dwelled not at all on its paradoxical nature.

“Friends,” the gardener, still hidden, called to his companions, “no reason to get in the way of a good hunt!” Then he broke from cover and raced across the meadow toward the cat, though his skill in stealth was such that even on open ground he remained essentially unseen.

From the shadowy expanse of trees behind the dogs a voice emerged, gruff with growl and grumble, harsh with practiced years of casual and unthinking violence. It spoke a thickly accented and broken Common.

“I hunts cat! You go or I hunts you!”

Kara and Rahab looked at each other, expressions of alarmed recognition passing between them. “Virurk,” they said simultaneously.3

Gloriana, unwilling to abide the injury before her any longer, reached out with her spiritual power and bridged the distance between herself and the trapped mountain lion. In a moment, the restorative power of the spirits coursed the link and healed some of the cat’s injuries.4 She held her hand out, almost as though to scratch the mountain lion’s ear, though the animal was still hundreds of feet away. As she did so, she made effort to draw the animal’s attention, meet its frantic gaze, and make clear that connection to her meant health. A moment’s calm came over the animal, and as the pain abated it emitted a favorable murmur that, in a smaller cat, would have sounded as a purr. Realization overcame Gloriana.

“That is not a wild cat!” the oracle called suddenly. “It is companion to someone!”

The guttural forest dweller emerged from the trees. A foot again taller than Kara, it was mostly naked save for a thickly woven breechclout. It’s stocky body was contorted with muscle and bulky with a protruding gut. Thin, arrow-point ears stood out almost perpendicular from the pear-shaped head which held two cruel red eyes, a splayed nose, and a broad mouth from which protruded a jagged range of gapped, dully-pointed teeth. From an otherwise smooth head sprouted sparse ropes of wiry hair like the leaves of the last, desperate tubers struggling for life in a barren field. Pillar legs less than the length of the torso gripped the ground with curling toes the thickness of clenched fists, and the right arm ended not in a hand but a single, great, multi-jointed finger. The figure’s left hand loosely clutched a wooden spear topped by a broad-bladed, crudely-hammered head of iron flecked with blood and rust.

Rahab and Kara glanced at one another again. Though neither spoke this time, each had revised their appraisal, categorizing the emerged monster not strictly as ogre per se, but rather ogre-kin, the misshapen and malignant offspring of ogres that forced themselves on humans. The variability of such creatures produced an array of shapes and sizes, and held in common only a tendency toward cruelty and brutality.

Lem arrived at the mountain lion, and the animal regarded the gardener warily, its body much healed by Gloriana’s magic, but its paw still trapped in the leghold. Lem’s brow knitted in concentration, debating yet more proximity to the big cat, and the likelihood thereby of claws. Trying to keep the mountain lion in sight, and the dogs and monster in view as well—especially now that he was quite close to them, indeed—the gardener lifted his voice to his companions in general, and Gloriana in particular.

“Focus on diplomacy!”

Rahab climbed down from the saddle, and Kara—already anticipating what was coming—retrieved her extract of shielding and drank it down.

Midway across the glade, Abby drew her sword and spurred Sparky forward, churning wet, grassy earth in a thunder of hooves as she broke away from Gloriana’s side. A moment later her blade arced through the moist morning air, trailing water droplets to crash down upon the ogre-kin shoulder, drawing blood and a howl of pain.

By this point in the morning, Rahab had ceased being surprised at how events were unfolding.


“Ghosts of the road!” Gloriana cursed in surprise, and exasperation swept over her like a blast of heat from a furnace. “We’re using Abby-style diplomacy today!” she called out in rueful response to Lem, and then kicked at Marigold’s flanks and set off across the field after the warrior. As she rode, she called into the spectral realm, and a curved blade of dreadful vapor and haunted light sliced into being against the ogre-kin’s back.

The monster yelled a guttural command and the hunting dogs leapt into action, circling and menacing, jaws snapping in a roiling chorus of growls and barks. A sudden thrust marked the path of the ogre-kin’s spear as it jabbed up at Abby atop her horse, answering her sword charge with a wound in kind. Pain rattled beneath her breastplate and shook her within.

Nearby, in the cover of the brush, Lem darted forward, set his bow and arrow down, and began to work at the bear trap. “Chaldira’s teeth!” the gardener muttered to himself, “what am I doing?” He expected at any moment to feel claws or teeth tearing into his body beneath the leather panels of his armor. A moment later the mechanism sprang open at the behest of his expert hands, and the big cat happily leaned against the halfling, brushing shoulder and flank and flicking its tail. Sweating, Lem took the gesture—insofar as he was willing—as a good sign, or at least not an overtly hostile one.

“Ride?” the gardener tried, clutching at his bow and arrow once more. To his surprise, the mountain lion seemed not only to understandand, but also to agree, and it crouched. Gingerly he swung a leg over the animal’s back. What. Am. I. Doing?

Kara rode forward, Urdrenn at a gallop, and soon within range she unlimbered a galvanic granado. Rising in her stirrups, she pitched the weapon underhand against one of the dogs attacking Abby and the resultant burst of crackling light killed the hound in a twitching instant.

“You killed my dog!” the ogre-kin’s voice rattled in rage.

From his position at the southern edge of the glade, Rahab lifted his right arm, spoke the words of power, and launched a raging bolt of lightning from his fingertip in a devastating path that transfixed two of the other dogs, leaving them little more than curled twists of tightly stretched flesh, blackened and smoking.5 Everyone blinked against the sudden patches of negative space drifting in their fields of vision.

Abby dismounted, spun to her left with arm outstretched, and slapped Avenger against Sparky’s flank, sending the horse bolting out of the way and clear of immediate danger. Continuing her spin, she brought her sword around against the ogre-kin once more in a side cut that drew blood, then stepped around to force the monster to reorient.

As she rode up to the unfolding fight, brilliant yellow-gold locks standing on end from the lingering ionization in the air after Rahab’s spell blasted past her, Gloriana felt the surge of pain travel down her spiritual link with Abby from the warrior’s wound. She dismounted, stepped to the side of one of the remaining dogs, and held out her palm to send a beam of searing golden light against the ogre-kin. A terrible burn appeared on the monster’s belly, though the golden ghost scimitar failed to land an attack.

Shouting a threat that was not immediately comprehensible to the companions, the ogre-kin insisted he was going to “tell mammy!” even as he resumed attacking Abby with the cruel spear. The three dogs still alive snapped at the warrior’s legs, but all the attacks came to nought, and Abby expertly interposed Avenger in the spear’s path. The ogre-kin turned to flee, exposing his back to the warrior’s attack of advantage, and she fetched the monster another wound. One of the dogs raced away at its master’s heels.

“We have to catch him!” Lem shouted as he suddenly appeared out of the treeline, clutching wildly to the mountain lion’s undulating shoulders as the big cat burst forward in pursuit. With no saddle, and no stability of the spine present in load-carrying ungulates, the gardener could only hang on in desperation, and he knew that he had no more influence over the animal’s impulses than he did in dictating terms to the weather.

Kara never slowed, her form lean and curved over Urdrenn’s back as the horse powered into the trees after the fleeing ogrekin. Rahab, still afoot, relied on the powerful reach of his magic, sending one of his signature purple orbs of spiked energy on inerrant course against the monster. The spell navigated around branches and boles as fluidly as an owl on the wing under moonlit, striking true and blasting another wound onto the creature. Then the wizard turned to Pentacle’s saddle and began to haul himself up.

Abby leapt after her foe, evading the biting jaws of the dogs that still menaced her, and her sword blade was a stabbing line of wet steel in the damp forest air. The precision of its ensorcelled point burst from the ogre-kin’s sternum in a gout of blood, and three-hundred and fifty pounds of brute crashed into the undergrowth without further vocalization.

Still gritting her teeth against the wound she gradually leeched from Abby, Gloriana redirected the ghost blade against one of the dogs, but the agile hound ducked clear. Invoking the Lament of the Grandmothers, she shouted power6 at the animal and a rippling wave distorted the air and shuddered through its fur.

Lem abandoned the mountain lion’s back, tumbling gracefully into a fighting stance and drawing his blades as he moved, coming to rest in flanking position against Abby’s battle stance, and slew one of the dogs threatening the warrior with whip-swift efficiency. Two ropes of lifeblood arced from the hound like game fish breaching water against the line. Behind him, in the trees, the lion caught the fleeing dog and brought it down to die, powerful paws tearing silence from the hound’s momentary yelp.

Abby’s sword and shield slammed death into the two remaining dogs she faced. Only Gloriana’s opponent remained, and between the spirit blade and the mighty swing of her own morningstar, the animal was soon pulped. The link of life drew the remainder of Abby’s wound to the oracle, who had begun to sweat with the exertion and tension of the battle. A quiet descended on the meadow. Overhead, the mantle of cloud drifted grey and thick, and the spring air lingered cool as the ambient moisture collected in droplets on leaf and branch, armor and weapon, living and dead.

As Rahab rode up, and Kara circled back, the warrior and gardener were cleaning their blades on the fur of one of the fallen dogs. The mountain lion suddenly appeared, and before Lem could react, gently closed jaws on the halfling’s sleeve and tugged toward the northern woods.

“The cat’s trying to tell us something,” he remarked, and was surprised at how convincingly calm his voice sounded with his arm lying effectively within the ambush predator’s mouth.

Gloriana approached the mountain lion and then channeled healing magic into the elastic space between herself and the big cat, and the vaporous healing suffused the both of them like a gentle, cozy drink imbibed on a cold day, gradually seeping warmth through the length of oneself to shiver away a chill.

The mountain lion growled pleasantly and its tail twitched. The action allowed Lem to pull free, and the gardener quickly moved to the body of the dead ogre-kin. A quick search came up with a finely crafted belt and the breechclout itself, which unfolded to reveal a well-worn blanket sewn with five patches depicting a crest.

“That is the crest of the Black Arrows, however crude,” remarked Rahab, even as he stretched his hand out and invoked magic. “And the belt is magical. Likely empowering for physical strength, in the manner of that which I have crafted for Abby, though not, I think, as powerful.”

“Collecting crests?” Gloriana asked.

“Like notches on an axe handle,” Abby observed, and the oracle nodded in a gesture of sudden recognition.

Rahab stroked his goatee. “Or a child’s collection of coins, or toys, or similar.”

“Mammy?” Kara asked. The wizard nodded and looked grim.

The mountain lion had been pacing, tail flicking nervously, and now it gave a low, protracted whine, bright eyes fixed on the party.

“We’re wanted elsewhere,” Lem said. The companions glanced around for a moment, and then Lem took Cinnamon’s reins and tied them to a branch. The others followed suit with their own mounts, and even before they were done the big cat turned and ran ahead, a sleek and tawny shadow among the green.

1 Lem, stealth rolls, the usual, etc. The master at work.

2 Poor Glo. Her perception skill checks have a long history of being mediocre at best, which is interesting for someone with as much social perspicacity as she has.

3 Translated from Elven: “Ogre.”

4 This is a new feat that Gloriana took: Reach Spell, which allows her to deliver touch spells (in this case, cure light wounds) over a distance exceeding the range of touch.

5 Rahab memorized lightning bolt that morning, instead of fireball.

6 Not sure, but I think this may be the first time Gloriana has used the sound burst spell. It’s a potential 8 points of sonic damage, with a chance to stun! Glo rolled 1 point.

Book IV, Chapter 2: Gathering Intelligence
A Night On The Town

In the close air of the tavern the jostling crowd loomed loud, brash, jocular. The companions ate a supper of cabbage soup, bread, and raw onion, then took up their ales as Gloriana drifted into the crowd. Lem soon followed, and found a vocal rabble gathered around a heated game of drum,1 whereupon the gardener shouldered himself in between a human tree-feller and a wiry gnome tanner. Kara and Rahab meandered slowly, upright, reserved, like patrons in a gallery surveying strange artifacts from distant lands. Abby resolved to stand guard at the barrel, eyes on her friends and the room.

A ragged human figure appeared before Gloriana, stout, shorter than the oracle, arrayed in animal hides and furs and bearing a mug of ale. An impressive beard and frantic shock of hair framed a weathered face. Wild, pale eyes stared unsettlingly from wrinkled caverns of flesh.

“No one believes me!” the trapper shouted suddenly, then pressed his mug to his lips and drank deeply, painting his moustaches with foam. Gloriana watched carefully.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“No one believes me!” the trapper repeated vehemently, blowing beer-laden spray. He lifted a calloused finger and pointed vaguely toward one wall. “Over the lake . . . and trouble! Him! I know . . . I seen! I seen.” This last in a dropped whisper that all but disappeared in the tavern noise.

Gloriana, patient: “What did you see?”

The trapper swayed. “Bayden he is. I know him not . . . only heard that, y’see? Leads the Arrows, he does, and now and again across the water for no good, I warrant. No one believes me.”

“I believe you,” the oracle’s voice was earnest, her gaze serious, her posture that of the one reliable and earnest compatriot every drunk yearns to find in a crowd of strangers.

“You, yes. I know! I seen the man. Bayden.” He shook his head in a kind of daze, his eyes glassy, red, and unfocused. “He been there, sure!”


Wild eyes fixed on no vision. Momentarily forgotten, his mug tipped and spilled a foamy measure upon the planks, uncounted addition of varnish long rendered upon the tavern treads. Eventually the trapper peered up into Gloriana’s eyes with a sudden ferocity and fear, as though some haunt of her own suddenly menaced his aura. The oracle had to lean close to hear the trembling whisper, and the stench of beer was as a cloud crowning a mountain.

“Across the lake. Whitewillow.” Then the trapper swayed back against the bar, tottering, gaze whirling in desperate command for stable footing, legs already in mutiny. Gloriana helped the man stand. His mug had gone, lost to the floor and kicked elsewhere. The oracle pointed him in the direction of the door, and the cooling rain, and as the trapper stumbled away he called back to his confessor.

“In the swamps I seen! Across and back. Any might tell!” He careened off another tavern-goer, then was gone into the night. Gloriana offered a silent prayer to the spirits to see the man safely home, aware that in its sodden state the very thoroughfare threatened drowning to the unwary or incapacitated.

On a pass near the hearth Kara made as if to warm herself, pausing to listen to two figures at the wall drinking sullenly and shaking their heads glumly at a catalog of mutual miseries.

“Been weeks,” murmured the first, who had only one eye, the right side of his face a mess of scar tissue long whitened in the years since some woodland beast wrought destruction upon his visage. By way of emphasis, the man jabbed his index finger against the chest of the other. “Weeks since the Arrows provisioned. Delben said as much.”

The other, who stank of fish, took a melancholy sip. “No sign?”

“None,” the cyclops sighed. “Dour they may be, yet vigilant, also, and they stand ready at the mountain. I sleep better for it. We all do, I daresay. Weeks, and no word.”

“The rains,” the fishwind offered without any real conviction.

“Hmph,” snorted the cyclops. “Unseasonably bad, but when have the rains ever stopped such as them? No, this is ill business, I reckon. Something come down from the mountain in the night, or else they are stolen away on some errand, and left us to the mercy of the wilds.”

The fishwind drank deep, nodded sagely. “No mercy there.”

“None. The pass without Black Arrows. I shudder.”


“And worse, I should think.”

“Then I am grateful for the rain, may it hide us.” The fishwind drank again.

“Alas, for me,” the cyclops groaned into his own mug. “It makes the stench of you wetter and heavier.”

Rahab made a complete circuit of the common room and drew up at the barrel where Abby stood, legs braced, like memorial statuary.

“Cast your eyes,” the wizard began softly, “to the middle of the room.”

Abby glanced over Rahab’s right shoulder. “Which?”

“Towhead.” The conjurer sipped at his mug, grateful for the bitter hops rising in his sinuses. The tavern was raucous in a way that amused him, but its odor was the gathered miasma of damp, dense, unwashed flesh.

“I have him.”


Abby focused and saw the tattoo in the flickering of the candles: a star of seven severe, hooked points. Not overly large, it sat just revealed at the edge of the man’s trapezius. The towhead stood with fellows at loud revel.

The warrior reached down, cautiously turning Avenger to face the barrel such that the star at aspis center was hidden from view. Rahab sipped again, nodded, and turned to navigate the crowd once more, seeking Gloriana. He found her at the bar chatting merrily with the halfling Yad Berthandy and a gnome toolwright whom she introduced as Destwil Byulenenek. The wizard nodded curtly and leaned on the bar, inclining his head slightly to the oracle. In the din his near-whisper tickled Gloriana’s ear.

“Behind you. The boisterous blonde.” With that, Rahab pushed away from the counter and began making his way toward Lem. The oracle turned and saw the man to whom Rahab had referred, and a moment later the tattoo he bore. She turned back to the bar to excuse herself and found little need. Yad was already filling new orders for drink, Destwil had struck up other conversation, and anyway, neither had shed any real light on the mystery that had led the companions to this remote and rainy Varisian lakefront.

Rahab took a few moments to watch the game. Imprecations sounded as vehemently and frequently as cheers, and if Lem’s pile of silver was any indication, the gardener was holding steady. The wizard sidled around to the opposite side, behind some other spectators, and waited. Lem looked up presently, and Rahab merely inclined his head very slightly in the direction of the tavern center, and then was already moving away.

The gardener read the signal expertly. On pretext of bowing out of the game and gathering his coins, Lem made a show of ruefully sweeping silver into a purse and sullenly withdrawing. The game continued unabated as he turned and swept the tavern, his keen eyes seeing immediately what Rahab had indicated. Lem noted, too, Abby’s stance and how the warrior fixed on the flaxen-haired rowdy as though he were an opponent in battle. Realizing her eventual intent, the gardener began to move back to the barrel.

Rahab joined Kara near the hearth and they passed quiet words in Elven, then stood watchfully against the eastern wall. By that time, Gloriana had decided to get a closer look. She made her way from the bar toward the rowdy group in the middle of the common room. Contriving accidental collision, the oracle lured the towheaded man to look around in surprise, and she seized the opportunity.

“Apologies!” Gloriana glanced about in feigned exasperation at the press of bodies. “Barreled fish have more room!” Her smile dawned broad and bright, drawing the young man’s wobbly grin in return. Before he could begin the flirtation she detected was imminent, she seized conversational initiative and made a show of glancing at the man’s shoulder.

“Oh! What an interesting tattoo!”

The change in the towhead’s demeanor caught the oracle off-guard. An expression of great shock froze his features before giving way as he blushed scarlet. Nodding dumbly, the man’s smile emerged again only weakly, apologetically, and then he began to sidle away from Gloriana toward the tavern door.

From her position near the barrel table Abby read the man’s intent and reached down to recover Avenger. Lem, in turn, read the warrior’s purpose, and set his hand on her knee.

“Wait. Let me. Follow when he leaves.”

And then the gardener disappeared.2


Lem emerged from the common room into darkness and rain. The amount of mud was almost hard to countenance. Ahead, the man with the seven-pointed tattoo retreated into the gloom as quickly as he could navigate the mire after a few mugs of ale. Otherwise, the narrow hamlet lanes were empty. The gardener set off in stealthy pursuit.

At the stable the young man quickly—if a little clumsily—mounted a sturdy plow mule and began to click his tongue to coax the beast forward into the weather. No sooner had he emerged from the shelter than Lem was there, reaching up to grab the bridle and arrest the mule’s progress.

“Hey! I saw you talking to my girlfriend back in there.”

So surprised was the young man by the gardener’s sudden appearance and challenge that—already unnerved—he quickly lost his balance and fell noisily into the mud. He sat up quickly, sputtering and anxious.

“No! I didn’t! I don’t even know them!” Blinking through the mud caking his face he attempted to focus on Lem, his eyes desperate and alarmed.

The gardener released the mule’s bridle and held up his hands in pacific gesture. “A jest. What I’m really interested in is your tattoo. Remarkable design, good quality. Where does one acquire such artistry?”

The young man clamped a hand over the mark on his shoulder. A sullen frown appeared on his face. The mule idled nearby, heedless of the incessant rain.

“Is that what this is about? I’m not the only one who has one. Bother someone else!”

“Calm,” Lem replied. “I’m just curious. May I buy you a drink? We can talk it over.”

“I don’t want trouble. I’ve been keeping it hidden, as instructed,” the man said, a measure of alarm trembling his voice. “I haven’t talked to anyone! I did as I was told, understand? Not even my wife knows. Go tell them I did nothing wrong.” He drew his knees under himself, preparing to rise.

Lem changed tactics and made a show of slowly drawing his curved knife, the one specially shaped and weighted to chop limbs or neck. “If you don’t want trouble then all you have to do is tell me where you got that tattoo, and you can go home to see your wife again. No one needs widowing tonight.”

A steely belligerence came over the man, and for a moment it looked like—curved knife or no—he was about to fight.

And then his eyes fell on the looming shape emerging from the rain behind the halfling, and all courage fled.3


For a moment the only sound was the drumming rattle of rain striking steel breastplate. The man knelt in the mud and stared. She was formidable, positively striated with muscle, and encased in armor of finely crafted steel. A sword was belted to her waist, and slung on her back was a broad, circular shield. From his angle the man could not make out her features, and the effect was all the more intimidating, for she stood with arms crossed deliberately like an avatar of doom sent by a god to punish all secret transgressions.

“Please,” the man began. “I have talked to no one! Please!” He held out his hands in supplication.

“Good,” Lem said, switching approach once more. “You have done well.” By now the gardener was soaked and his patience was wearing thin. “All you have to do now is tell us what we want to know, and you can go home to anonymity, and your wife. Anything you divulge will remain secret, I can assure you, but it will be easier for everyone if you just tell us, or else my friend here will have to make some adjustments to your skeletal system.” Lem jerked a thumb over his left shoulder to indicate the hulking figure of Abby standing under a curtain of rain relentlessly pelting her armor.

In the end, it seemed a relief to the man to finally reveal what he had dutifully hidden all winter.


They trudged back to Bottom’s Up, drenched. Behind them the man had remounted his mule and fled into the darkness. “It’s a good thing you arrived when you did,” proclaimed Lem. “I might have killed him.”


“Do you believe him?”

“By all the gods, Lem, let’s just get inside!”

“It’s your shout.”

“It’s your shout, or I tell Gloriana about how it went when you tried to scare him into talking.”

“The human in you comes out at last.”

“Which is lucky for you. You were well on your way to learning nothing.”

“He was just about to talk.”

“What he was just about to do was fight or run. Probably try to fight first, then run when you started cutting, and then he would have bled out in the mud.” They arrived at the tavern and the warrior hauled the door open. The noise of the rain outside collided with the din inside. Abby glanced pointedly at Lem. “No-thing,” the warrior articulated it as two words. She and the gardener huddled into the common room, vainly trying to shake off the damp and mud. They marched straight past the barrel where the others had gathered and took up positions in front of the hearth.

Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab relocated. The alchemist faced away from the group, listening over one shoulder, keeping an eye on the room. Lem signaled a passing Berthandy for another round of ale.

“We’ve learned more,” Gloriana said after the drinks arrived.

Abby looked miserably wet, but at least she was warm now. “So did we.” She rung at the sleeves of her tunic, and a line of water spilled onto the floorboards.

The oracle gestured with her mug. “You go first.”

Lem drew a long drink and smacked his lips. When he spoke it was low, just enough to be heard by his companions, but otherwise lost in the tavern noise beyond. “The man we followed said the tattoo was a mark of admission. There was a barge called Paradise on the lake last year, before winter. Gambling and prostitution. He called the proprietor ‘Lady Lucretia,’ and said access required a fee and getting a tattoo of a seven-pointed star. Apparently the place broke mooring and drifted downriver, sinking sometime after first freeze. Word is Lucretia went down with the barge.”

Gloriana nodded. “That confirms what I heard, as well, though I learned no more about the Black Arrows, nor this person Bayden, nor Whitewillow. The general sentiment around here seems to be mixed between indifference to the sinking of the Paradise and relief that it happened. The barge and Lady Lucretia had a . . .” The oracle paused, searching. “. . . reputation.”

Around them the tavern noise seemed unabated. Kara sipped her ale, but it was no use. However hard she willed, it never transformed into sparkling wine in the mug. They had secured rooms on the first floor above the tavern, but how she was to find peaceful rest with volume like this the alchemist did not know.

Gloriana looked at Rahab. “What do you think?”

The wizard arched an eyebrow. “I think ‘backwater’ is a kindness.”

An expression of weariness overcame Gloriana. Rahab nodded, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed his own exhaustion. “Very well. We have two mysteries. The first is our official dispatch: the truant Black Arrows. The second is the jumbled mix of Lady Lucretia, the Paradise and its fate, and the business of seven-pointed stars.”

At the mention Abby glanced down at her shield against the tavern wall. Rahab continued.

“It remains to be seen if they relate, though it seems highly improbable the Arrows are—or were—ignorant of the barge and its services, to say nothing of the sinking. For the present,” the conjurer rolled his eyes and swept his arm to indicate the ruckus in the common room, “the surprisingly delicate and prudish residents of Turtleback Ferry are unlikely to provide further insight. I suspect we have a journey to Fort Rannick in our very near future, and suggest we get some rest under a roof, if for no other reason than the sudden shock of shelter might induce renewed enthusiasm for the morning.”

They retired to their rooms. Sleep came, unexpectedly deep.


Morning dawned grey, steady rain gave way to intermittent drizzle. After a disappointing breakfast the companions ventured into the thoroughfare.

Abby and Kara went to meet Shelalu at forest edge, while Gloriana took Rahab and Lem to seek conference with Maelin Shreed, mayor of Turtleback Ferry and local chief priest in service to Erastil, god of the hunt, god of the harvest, god of the trades. Shreed agreed to meet the three in the stone temple they had seen at the eastern end of village center. The structure rose, crude standing stones and arches reflecting the simplicity espoused by the culture of the deity. Dressed in thickly-stitched furs, Shreed looked more wild-man-of-the-woods than civil official. The symbol of the bow-and-arrow roughly carved from a chunk of wood hung about his neck.

“Good morning,” Gloriana began. The mayor made no reply, only stared back evenly. The oracle glanced quickly at her companions, then resumed. “My name is Gloriana Gildentress, and these are my friends, Lem Gardener and Rahab, of House Eldredshade. We are late of Magnimar, dispatched by His Honor the Lord Mayor to inquire after the absence of the Black Arrows as has been reported.”

Shreed inclined his head slightly to acknowledge he had heard, but said nothing. Gloriana waited, raising her eyebrows eventually. “Is there anything you can tell us?”

“The Arrows get supplied every four weeks or so. Near a month overdue now. They usually stay at the Turtle’s Parlor, come down in small groups from Fort Rannick.”

“How many are there at the fort?”

“A hundred, perhaps? I’ve never been up there.”

“What do you think has happened?”

Shreed shrugged. “Rain washed out the pass?”

“Rangers? Washed out?”

Shreed looked impassive. “A concern, is all. We need the trade, and many here feel safer knowing the Arrows patrol. Now they no longer seem to be around.”

“The mountains are dangerous.” Gloriana folded the question into the statement.

“Ogres,” the mayor nodded. “Giants.”

The oracle mirrored the gesture in reply. “The Black Arrows help keep this region safe.”

“Erastil keeps it safe. The Black Arrows are simply fired from his numinous bow.”

Gloriana could almost hear Rahab rolling his eyes off to her left. “We heard something about a barge called Paradise sunk a few months back, around first freeze?” the oracle tried.

“Tragedy,” Shreed mumbled, “but probably for the best.”

“For the best?”

“Iniquitous vessel, I fear. Erastil sent it to the depths.”

“With a Lady Lucretia?”

“I do not know.”

“What is the best route to the fort?”

“If you follow the trail out the village to the north, leads up the banks of the Skull River, crosses a bridge and thence toward Skull’s Crossing. Fort Rannick is before the old dam, off the west bank.”

“What is Whitewillow?”

“What some folks call the area across the lake in the Shimmerglens. Haunted, some say.”


Shreed nodded.

“Any reason for someone to go over there?”

The mayor shrugged. “I do not know. I would not want to venture.”

Gloriana regarded him with a penetrating stare. Shreed’s expression in return was flint.

“Mayor Shreed—”


Gloriana tried a smile, gentle and sympathetic. “Maelin. My friends and I, including three others—Abby Solo, Kara Silverleaf, and Shelalu Andosana—will make for Fort Rannick to see what can be learned. Rest assured we will keep you informed of what we discover about the Black Arrows that the region may feel safe.”

The mayor made no reply.

“Well, if there is nothing else, then,” Gloriana said, already stepping toward the line of steps leading back down to the hamlet center, “we shall be on our way.” Rahab and Lem followed. The gardener cast a glance over his shoulder at the mayor as they exited, his gaze measured and scrutinizing.

In town center Gloriana drew up. Lem and Rahab gathered close. The wizard looked around at the start of the day, tradespersons on their way to work, carts fruitlessly pushed against the sucking mud, dogs ambling among the occasional ox. Smokes drifted up into the grey. Everyone was dressed in furs, leathers, wools, all stained with grime and weather. Two ragged men stood behind a far stall stacked with antlers and game skulls. Tanners moved under bundles of hides. Somewhere in the distance the ring of hammer on anvil echoed faintly.

“I find it hard to believe that no one seems to know what has been happening,” Gloriana grumbled and crossed her arms. She looked at Rahab. As he gazed on the hamlet the wizard’s expression was pure, cool contempt.

“A frontier village,” the conjurer began, turning his attention to the oracle, “cutting its life from unforgiving wilderness at the base of a mountain range teeming with hostile giant-kin, perched on the border of not one but two supposedly haunted forests . . . .”

Gloriana eyes slowly widened as Rahab’s incision built momentum, the sneer in his voice as sharp as the ghostly blades her magic could summon:

“You heard the hushed and petty admonitions tendered by hearthlight in the tavern. Are we to take as truth the notion that a wilderness community of hearty souls given to hard-drinking nights in vain hopes of dulling their miseries are so delicate, so refined to courtly esteem, so beatific in aspect that mere body art sets them swooning?”

Lem’s shoulders had begun to shake with suppressed laughter. Rahab’s eyes lit with devil-spark and he showed his teeth.

“Of course they know what’s happening, Gloriana! Half of them are in on it! Lem and Abby established as much in four sodden minutes last night during a hearing before a court of stabled ungulates! Those not currently marked with Sihedron star remain silent not in ignorance, but complicity at best. In all the years your people have wandered the world’s roads, have you ever encountered a community this small that did not know even the most intimate and sinister secrets of all therein? And yet we seem to have stumbled upon the one shit hole in all Avistan genuinely scandalized by something so innocuous as tattoos?”

The oracle broke in: “It is not the tattoos, it is what the tattoos imply!”

“Precisely my point! The people here engaged in nothing more than common pastime, only to find something much more potent and complex beneath the surface. Now they are not just relieved the Paradise has sunk, they are positively grateful, and given to self-righteous pronouncement as a kind of pathetic totem against what has happened among their own. Only now their insurance against the wrath of the mountain suddenly disappears, and they stand at the foot of a landslide they cannot see coming. Xanesha’s purview in Magnimar was greed, Gloriana. Every person on the list we recovered exemplified avarice, and—lo and behold!—in the hinterlands appears a barge that hosts gambling at the very intersection of humanoid industry and natural resources culled for coin, demanding allegiance as an entry fee.”

Gloriana kept her arms crossed and clenched her jaw, silent and rueful. Rahab’s words felt uncomfortably close to the mark.

“Turtleback Ferry’s best and brightest keep silent not because they do not like you. They keep silent because they like you, and they fear the truth risks your judgment of them. And they are right!” This last resounded in whisper.

A long quiet descended upon the three of them in the muddy thoroughfare. Gloriana and Rahab held gaze, Lem looking back and forth at either, waiting to see what would transpire. Finally the oracle spoke.

“Fort Rannick?”

“Fort Rannick. If we are lucky, then the Black Arrows are as aloof as the villagers say, and may actually give us more honest insight into what has happened.”

“If they still live.”


“You are such an ass sometimes, Rahab.”

The wizard nodded. “I gather it feels worse when I am also right?”

“Come,” Gloriana growled, and began to ford through the mud.

“Gloriana!” Rahab called. The oracle stopped and turned. “Have you ever known me to lie to you?”

Honeyglow curls framed a face evincing strength, command, perception, depth, majesty. “That is no excuse.”

“I do not offer it as such. Truth is might. To find truth—in all its complexity and power—I would unravel the very substance of existence itself, and remake the universe.”

“You would find me there still, as watchful as ever, uncowed.”

“And I would know the reordering to be better for it.”

Gloriana turned once more and trudged toward the tavern. Rahab followed. Finally Lem moved. They wore silence like an armor.


Abby and Kara waited in the common room. Gloriana approached, looking puzzled.

“You did not find Shelalu?”

Abby shook her head, and Kara held out a folded paper. The oracle started to reach for it, but Kara leaned past and presented the note to Rahab, who received and unfolded it. Gloriana saw the wizard’s name inked on the back.

“Shelalu has gone ahead and will meet us at Fort Rannick,” the conjurer intoned as his eyes quickly scanned the written lines. Then he folded the paper away into one of his belt pouches.

“We should get on our way, too, then,” Abby mentioned, and the others nodded. They gathered their gear and made for the stable to retrieve their mounts.

As she climbed into the saddle, Gloriana considered how Shelalu had seemed guarded and reticent about the subject of the Black Arrows on the journey to Turtleback Ferry. Now the ranger had slipped away in the early hours, leaving only cursory communication. The oracle found herself puzzled by Shelalu’s dissemblance, and also by the curious feeling prompted by the knowledge that the ranger had left her note specifically for Rahab.

The companions rode slowly out of town, taking the trail north to horror.

1 I imagine drum as—basically—lansquenet. The term ”lansquenet” derives from a label for German mercenary foot soldiers during the 15th to 17th centuries C.E., as well as a kind of military drum employed by same. Hence, in Golarion (or at least Varisia), the game is “drum.”

2 This circumstance illustrates the level of skill Lem has in a number of areas. His Stealth check was a 38 (on a 20-sided die). If you’ve ever met someone and wondered if they truly are as good as the stories, well . . . Lem is that good. At this level, a 38 on the Stealth check is as near to magical invisibility as I calculate it is possible to achieve without actual magic, and Lem does it in the middle of a boisterous tavern that is wall-to-wall with people, no Dark Lord’s ring necessary. There are ghosts that don’t infiltrate as well as Lem.

3 On the other hand, in the wake of his spectacular 38 Stealth check, Lem’s Intimidate roll was a 4. Bolstered by booze or sturdier than he first let on, the man was not cowed by the halfling with the kukri. And then Abby arrived with an Intimidate roll of 19. This is particularly juicy because Abby has the worst Charisma in the party, but that’s chance for you, and it makes for a great scene, and adds another interesting dimension to the beloved warrior.

Book IV, Chapter 1: Days In The Wilderness

Having abandoned the impassable mud of the meager road to Whistledown, the companions now rode single file, hunched over in their saddles, cloaks drawn close, a downcast line of bedraggled travelers advancing slowly and miserably under steady downpour. Wartle lay two days behind, the simple lodging house there sentimentally transformed into royal abode chiefly by memory of a blazing hearth and barrels of passable beer. Even the horses seemed diminished by the incessant rain, heads carried low, manes sopping, ears laid flat. The continuous whisper of precipitation falling on leaf and puddle, the sloshing and sucking of horse hooves navigating inundated fields, the occasional grumble of complaint—these marked the journey.

Abby glanced back over her shoulder at Gloriana, hoping to glean but a moment’s uplift from the radiant cheer that seemed everpresent in the oracle’s demeanor. The sight of her friend took the warrior by surprise. Gloriana’s namesake tresses hung limp and dark, soaked completely through and trailing like vines. The first few, bright spring days on the road had been pleasant enough, and the oracle relished the travel, at home once more in slowly drifting landscape. But wagons, at least, offered some shelter. Now, on horseback and under the sky, the aura of golden warmth that seemed characteristic of the bright beauty absconded behind perpetual grey and a damp so irrevocable it would have daunted fish.

“Looking good, Glo,” Abby tried, and immediately regretted it. She was a miserable liar, even with best intentions, and any skill in flattery tended to arise in surprised accident rather than crafted calculation.

The oracle made no response and her eyes remained fixed on her hands clutching Marigold’s reins. She felt a chill on her skin, the same rain-induced discomfort that afflicted them all. Nights at camp Rahab conjured magical fire upon damp logs that blazed fitfully and tendered gouts of smoke more than real warmth. Even their rations were soggy. Gloriana could summon spiritual power and transform herself instantly into a glowing, golden fire, but even this potency had limitations, and in less than a minute the effect would fade, exposing her to the rain once more.

Abby turned forward in her saddle and sulked quietly atop Sparky. More than any of the others the warrior bore the misery with fortitude, in part due to her own prodigious toughness, in part to perspective honed in a childhood surviving Riddleport’s dangers. Nonetheless, the very environment seemed intent on wearing them all down, and when her friends suffered so, too, did she, frustrated that no effort of her mighty constitution could alleviate the particular burden on her comrades.

Ahead of the warrior rode Lem on Cinammon, the sure-footed chestnut pony native to the islands in the Varisian Bay. Having abandoned the search for reasonably navigable passage, the gardener turned his keen senses to the challenge of discerning possible dangers in the unpleasant conditions. The road to their right was utter morass, but the rain-slick fields offered little better terrain. Periodic thickets had to be circumvented, a heavy mist clung all around, and the line of mounts made progress at one of two speeds: “slow,” and “yet slower, still.” The gardener caught Abby’s attempt at banter, and he snorted slightly to himself, rubbing a hand across several days’ stubble on his cheek.

“Think it will rain?” Lem riposted.

Sloppy hoof-falls his only answer. The gardener sighed. Just as well.

Behind Gloriana rode Rahab upon the sorrel mare Pentacle. The wizard found some small refuge in complex thought encompassing theories of magic, rules of spellcraft and casting, hierarchies of planar societies and cultures, mathematics mundane and esoteric, anything— anything at all —to keep from dwelling too long on the misery of past days in the saddle. While reviewing ratios of transpositional variance relative to substrate arcane waveforms the conjurer happened to look up and to his left. A figure was emerging from behind a cluster of common vervain.

“Perhaps,” the wizard began sluggishly, then with growing enthusiasm as recognition lit his eyes “our wilderness fortunes verge on improvement.” He summoned a wan smile and drew Pentacle to a halt. Behind him Kara reined up on Urdrenn.

“Amtu!” Rahab called as the figure neared and lifted a hand in greeting. “Kes yuliembros gwind.”1

At the sound of the wizard’s voice the others turned in the saddle.

Shelalu Andosanna approached, smiling.


The evening was still wet, but Shelalu had led them to a prominent granite outcropping topped with turf and several dogwood. In the lee of the rise the ranger kindled a campfire from wood Abby and Lem collected. Rahab and Kara unsaddled the horses and gave the animals a welcome brush down. Gloriana set a pot under a jutting edge of the outcropping to collect rainwater for cooking.

When she was satisfied with the size of the fire, and with the portion of additional wood set nearby to dry for later fuel, Shelalu turned to the party.

“Disrobe.” Her voice was matter-of-fact.

Lem cocked his head as if he hadn’t heard, and Abby and Gloriana looked uncertain.

The ranger explained: “Get out of your wet clothes and lay them on the rock. As it absorbs heat from the campfire it will dry them.” Shelalu knelt and began unfolding a bundle of wild root vegetables she had collected along the way, selecting a number to bake once sufficient embers had accumulated.

Never one to be embarrassed about such things, Rahab disrobed entirely and began arranging his clothes against the stone.

Gloriana started to say something, then turned away quickly to face the clouded gloom. She fidgeted, then looked at Abby and Kara.

The warrior shrugged and began extracting herself from her equipment. Glistening in moisture, it seemed the whole of her was rippling muscle encased in an expanse of lean, warm skin arrayed in scars that kept the calendar of her experience.

Wordlessly, Kara and Lem began to methodically undress as well, placing damp articles of clothing upon the outcropping face as Rahab and Abby had done. Soon the stone surface appeared in colorful, soggy patchwork.

Gloriana contemplated her boots intently. Finally she lifted her head and strode her sodden silks resolutely around a curve in the outcropping, blanket thrown over one shoulder. From beyond the line of rock erupted a brilliant glow like a flare of sunlight mirrored in topaz. It faded after nearly a minute, and then the oracle reappeared, shuffling and swathed in her bedroll, bundle of soaked clothes clutched in hand.

Within a few minutes they all sat, blanket-shrouded, watching vapor rise languidly from the banners of their clothing on the rock face under the growing heat of the campfire. Shelalu tended the fire with a stick, and eventually rolled the root vegetables near a cluster of coals. The pot of water near the flames began to boil, and the ranger tossed a tied leather bag to Kara. As she drew open the strings the alchemist inhaled a waft of rich, dense aroma.

“Coffee!” Kara busied herself with adding grounds to the water, and in minutes they had fresh brew, and a dinner of baked vegetables, jerky, and dried fruit. The rain had become a light sprinkle, and the lee of the outcropping provided almost complete protection. In the radiance of the campfire Gloriana’s hair slowly began to bloom in a riot of frizz like a golden milkweed pod. The oracle drew her blanket over her head in a makeshift shawl.

“You’re far from the coast,” she remarked to Shelalu.

The ranger nodded. “So are you. Do you know that the region buzzes with tales of the Heroes of Sandpoint?”

Rahab sucked his teeth moodily at the mention of the title. Shelalu seemed not to notice, and continued enthusiastically: “Your exploits are told and retold throughout the area. I traced word back to Magnimar and heard you were on your way to Turtleback Ferry. Business takes me that direction and I set out hoping to meet you. I wonder if I might join you on the journey? Safety in numbers, and all that.” She smiled.

Gloriana and Abby returned the expression. “Of course!” the oracle replied.

Kara’s response was warm: “Imarin hevethlu, ermenethlon.”2

“My thanks,” Shelalu smiled.

After dinner the exhaustion of days in the rain finally overcame them, and—grateful for Shelalu’s wilderness knowledge—they settled in to sleep and take turns on watch. Drier conditions made marked difference. For the first time in days they found real rest.


The ranger’s presence improved the journey significantly. Her skills helped them navigate more effectively, even as the terrain became more difficult. She guided the harvesting of food along the way, supplementing the small game they bagged with wild mushrooms, greens, and spices. Campsites improved, as well, with better ground, better shelter, better sight lines.

Shelalu explained that, in the wake of the party’s victory at Thistletop more than five months past, the goblin tribes in Sandpoint’s environs fell into disarray. They still posed the occasional threat to lone travelers, but their old internecine conflicts had resumed and the various groups retreated to their own. The ranger went on to note how the star-wound murders had stopped thanks to the efforts of the companions, and told how the region steered clear of Foxglove Manor, though few—if any—needed encouragement in that regard, for ill omen had long hung over the place in the minds and dreams of many. Shelalu expounded at length on the esteem with which the general populace, especially in Sandpoint proper, held the adventurers.

On the move again, Abby and Rahab rode in reserved reflection. Gloriana happily carried on conversation with the ranger, while Lem listened close and attempted to untangle the skein of sentiment he felt about the village. Was he, too, a Hero of Sandpoint? To be sure, he was reckoned in the accounting, but was his name quick to the lips at toasts? Gloriana would always take center stage in the hearts of the villagers, he knew. What of the others? Kara was exotic and thus alluring, which meant Sandpointers had little appreciation—if any—for who the alchemist truly was, though he had to admit the limits of his own knowledge on the same subject, however unburdened by sentiment. Abby, as half-elf, might as well have been cursed. The village held the warrior welcome to sacrifice for the good, and heartily cheered her for such, but never was she as readily embraced, always hailed more in company of her friends than alone, save by a few. Strangely content to cultivate reputation as mystery, or menace, or both, Rahab disdained “hero,” yet hunger for power necessarily intersected opinion and perception at some point, surely? As for himself, Lem found waking nights occasionally in conundrum: Was he gardener among a village of thieves, or thief among a garden of villagers? Magnimar felt freer, yet members of his people still settled in Sandpoint. Why? Survival? Choice? At least the soil was good in both locales.

Switch-backing through dense clusters of Avistanian buckthorn, the oracle cheerfully asked Shelalu’s about Turtleback Ferry.

“It is like Sandpoint in some ways. Smaller, of course,” the ranger offered, sidling carefully around a bush. “A water town, though on a lake instead of the ocean. It is remote . . . trading post as much as fishing village. A place for hunters, trappers, wilderness people, and the families such individuals form.”

When Gloriana inquired about Fort Rannick, she noted with curiosity that the ranger demurred. “Fort Rannick sits to the north of Turtleback Ferry,” Shelalu eventually said, her voice lower. “Long has it guarded the passes into the Iron Peaks, and many rangers have joined the illustrious ranks of the Black Arrows. No lord commands them, no charter binds them. Theirs is a duty . . . .” She lapsed into silence, her boots whispering passage through the grass.


The land rose slowly, almost imperceptibly. They left Whistledown behind and skirted the northwestern bank of Lake Syrantula, crossing the winding Skull River at the riverport of Ilsurian, and thence into the thick tooth of the Ashwood. Shelalu kept them moving as close to the eastern bank of the river as possible, and despite the density of the trees the ranger insisted they push to make speed. The woods seemed hushed, weighted with the recent damp, and the companions felt curiously moved to make conversation only at hushed volume. Rahab expounded rumor: Ashwood was supposedly haunted, and humanoids reportedly prowled, sometimes upright, sometimes in the shape of beasts. Shelalu nodded support, though neither she nor the wizard could confirm the veracity of such tales. Rahab explained that occasional excursions of clergy—in service to the hunting god Erastil—patrolled the forest fringe, ostensibly to keep such threats from some of the small settlements in the region.

During her portions of nightly watch, Gloriana walked a slow perimeter and made effort to ignore the occasional haunt that sprung into the nearby air: Tiny, gleeful phantoms of animal aspect and fanged grins, hopping, tugging at her scarves, clambering across the field of her golden curls, and always eerily silent.


On the eleventh day they emerged haggard from the Ashwood into the hamlet of Turtleback Ferry. Lem and Rahab appeared scruffy and unshaven, Gloriana had wrapped her golden locks in a silken scarf in the seafarer style, Kara had pulled her flaxen hair back into a ponytail, and Abby’s short mop tousled wildly. They were all spattered with mud, and so, too, their mounts, leg, shank, and belly.

Shelalu stopped, and the others reined up. “You go ahead,” the ranger said, and waved the others toward the collection of thatched and wooden roofs arranged haphazardly before them to the west on a low corner of land jutting into Claybottom Lake. “I prefer to stay here,” indicating the forest with a nod.

“Duthlas faru, ermenethlon,”3 Kara said.

Gloriana started to raise objection and invite Shelalu to join them, but the ranger had already turned back into the woods, moving into the shadow under the canopy and out of sight moments later.

“She will be fine, Glori,” the alchemist offered quietly as she nudged Urdrenn toward the village. With a skeptical glance back into the treeline, Gloriana gently guided Marigold forward. The others drew in line behind, and slowly they emerged from the trees along the muddy path leading west into the village.

Just then the clouds bestowed upon the land yet another offering of rain, and soon the slopping trudge of horse hooves competed with the hissing rattle of water drops on vegetation. They passed outlying planted plots where locals raised potato, turnip, cabbage, carrot, and leek. A pen of fat pink hogs happily splashed in a growing expanse of mud. The occasional villager criss-crossed the mire of what passed for thoroughfare, throwing furtive, suspicious, or bored glance at the newly arrived companions. Gloriana waved once to no reaction.

At the center of the village lay a wide, amorphous expanse of mud radiating sodden pathways spiderlike among the timber buildings. On the east loomed a building of some religious significance, one of the few structures made entirely of stout stone, and accessible by a wide arc of steps leading up a small rise.

“Look no further,” remarked Rahab drily. Under the cowl of his robe the wizard’s gaze rested to the left upon a ponderous construction at the south curve of village center. Over the building entrance hung a weathered wooden sign depicting two stylized halflings, tumbled forward, faces down, fundaments up, goggle-eyed in drunken stupor.

Gloriana was droll. “Charming.”

The wizard smirked. “This must be Bottoms Up.4 Our choice is this or an establishment known as The Turtle’s Parlor, somewhere else in the majesty of this cosmopolitan reach.”

“Which has the better drinks?” Lem asked.

“This one.”

“This one it is!” The gardener dismounted and led Cinnamon around to the stable space at one end of the structure. Abby and Kara followed. Gloriana looked at Rahab, and the wizard made an exaggerated, sarcastic gesture with both hands as if to say, After you. The oracle dismounted and Rahab glanced around the ragged hamlet once more, gently shaking his head.

“Pathetic,” he sighed softly.


Even though she had never been there Abby knew the place instantly. She had weathered countless moments in similar venues as messenger, muscle-for-hire, or simply in search of her own untidy surcease. There were certain universal qualities that often manifested in drinking dens, and Bottoms Up would have been at home as much in Riddleport as it was in the remote frontier. Bloodshed was almost certainly a regularity, commonly by fist, occasionally by knife. Any night might be reliably divided into two periods: boisterous and unconscious, the former dominant until the latter claimed command in the wee hours. The warrior knew instinctively that the food here was cheap and never the reason anyone darkened the door. An odor suffused the very wood of table, wall, and beam, hinting at decades of beer spilled, beer consumed, beer expectorated. Several shaggy dogs moved deflty about the crowded common room, tails wagging happily, wet noses probing for dropped or flung morsels. Behind the bar, atop a high shelf, lay a gray cat gazing upon the chaos with glittering yellow eyes half-lidded and aloof. Patrons wore the weight of years spent laboring in all weather: hands calloused, scars aplenty, intermittent dentition. Abby flexed her gauntleted hands into fists. She felt familiarity, and also the sharp-edged quiver of battle-readiness. Her practiced eyes scanned the room, noting the many knives at belt and boot, the swagger and stance of those given to fighting first and asking questions never. A slight smile appeared on Abby’s lips. She knew the place.

Out of the haze of tobacco smoke appeared a halfling drying her hands on a stained apron. Without ceremony she climbed on top of a nearby table, lifting one foot atop the slumped back of an unconscious patron, standing like a conquering hero. “Welcome!” she called cheerily above the din, apple-red cheeks glowing brightly in the candle- and hearth-light.

“Hello!” Gloriana shouted back with a smile.

“Berthandy Kesker!” The woman introduced herself. “Welcome to Bottoms Up! My husband Yad is around someplace.” She waved vaguely at the commotion behind her. “What can I get you?”

“Do you have sparkling white wine?” Kara asked brightly. Berthandy nodded as if the question was obvious.

“For me as well,” Gloriana nodded.

“Red for me,” Abby said.

“Krar!” Lem shouted, and tapped the index finger of his right hand against the little finger of his left. Berthandy touched the little finger of her left hand underneath her chin twice in quick succession by way of answer, then she turned to Rahab.5

The wizard had been surveying the room, and now he smirked knowingly and asked for ale almost too quietly to be heard. Berthandy hopped down from the unconscious patron’s back, and disappeared into the crowd. Abby had already begun sidling over to find a place to stand, and appropriated an upended wooden barrel as makeshift table. Soon Berthandy returned bearing five stout mugs, then departed with a handful of coin.

The companions looked at the drinks on the barrel. Rahab laughed and laughed.

Ales, all of them.


Kara turned to look for Berthandy, but Abby stopped her with a gentle hand on the alchemist’s shoulder.

“Ale is what they have. Welome to the frontier!” The warrior gave a big grin. She touched mugs with Lem and Rahab, then drank heartily. Kara regarded the vessel before her with the expression of someone rudely denied expected fulfilment of a happy anticipation. Eventually she took up the drink and sipped tentatively. Gloriana followed suit.

Outside, the rain fell on Turtleback Ferry. Evening became night. Candlelight bloomed in village windows tiny and wan against the darkness. A single red-eyed loon turned over the dimpled lake, gray-green head slung low over the water, its cry reminding the world that to live long is to know ghosts, and to realize that every one of them is of your own making.

1 Roughly translated from Elven: “Hail! You are far afield.”

2 Roughly translated from Elven: “You are most welcome, sister.” The term in this case is honorific, not an actual identification of familial relationship. Elf greets elf, all children of the Brightness.

3 Roughly translated from Elven: “Abide carefully, sister.”

4 Again: Not my title.

5 Translated from Halfling: “Ale!” Lem’s gesture indicates he desires a large mug, and Berthandy’s gesture of response acknowledges the request.

Book III, Chapter 14: Departure
Unto The Road

Another three weeks passed when a courier from the lord mayor’s office called upon Foxglove Townhouse once more. This time the request was for all the party members to attend, and they were admitted to the mayoral chambers with all speed.

Grobaras appeared immaculate, if a bit harried. A scatter of papers littered the top of great desk and his brow was furrowed as he paged through them, occasionally making note of something with a quill and ink. As the adventurers filed into the chamber the lord mayor looked up and brightened. Gloriana recognized the expression was carefully practiced, and wondered what other sentiment lay just beneath the demeanor.

“Ah, yes, and there you are,” the lord mayor began. “Come. I have wine.” He clapped his hands and a servant soon entered bearing a silver tray and six silver goblets, and a crystal decanter with a ruddy liquid. The servant carefully measured out portions. Grobaras took his goblet without ceremony and drank, and with a vague gesture invited the others to do the same.

“I regret this is not social,” and he fixed them with a scrutinizing, lidded gaze. The adventurer’s waited calmly, but expectantly. With a sigh, the lord mayor continued: “Something has come to light, and I thought it might be of interest to you. Do you know Turtleback Ferry?”

“Yes,” Rahab said before anyone else could speak. The lord mayor coolly ignored the wizard, eventually pursing his lips in slight annoyance when no one ventured anything further, and resumed.

“Turtleback Ferry has lost contact with our most distant holding of Fort Rannick near Hook Mountain. The . . . ” Groabaras searched for the right word, “‘irregulars’ known as the Black Arrows watch the pass into the mountains, and have apparently sent no word for some time.” The lord mayor shrugged dismissively. “Such matters are . . . distant, but a concern nonetheless, of course.” To the assembled it sounded as if Grobaras was trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. “Turtleback Ferry is part of Magnimar’s region and we must attend!” He punctuated the next with three deliberate thumps of the table. “We. Must. Attend. Naturally I thought of you.” A broad, not entirely friendly smile formed on his lips.

In contrast to Gloriana’s puissance, this sort of conversational maneuvering led Abby to impatience. “What exactly do you need?” the warrior asked bluntly.

“A portion of funds has been set aside as payment for those with the skill and verve to venture into the eastern wilds and make accurate report. Discover, discern, inform, and collect. Simplicity itself!” The lord mayor leaned back in his sumptuous chair and spread his arms as though explaining a child’s game.

“What funds?” Lem asked.

“Gold in the amount of one thousand pieces,” Grobaras quipped.

The gardener appeared distinctly unimpressed.

“Please allow us a moment to confer,” Gloriana suggested brightly. Grobaras nodded, tented his fingers, and watched carefully as the adventurers withdrew to a southern corner of the office and huddled to converse in hushed tones.

“Where is Turtleback Ferry?” Gloriana whispered to Rahab.

“Roughly three hundred miles as the crow flies,” the wizard replied quietly. “It will take more than a week on horseback, assuming the wilderness is not completely trackless. We might also go by river, but it will probably take longer.”

“A thousand is paltry,” Lem murmured.

“The letter from Xanesha’s sister pointed to the region,” Gloriana rejoined quietly. “That area is our next move.”

“For a thousand?” Lem crossed his arms.

“Trust the investigation will uncover more,” Rahab winked.

The gardener’s suspicions rose. “What’s your interest in this?”

“Possibility, Lem. As ever . . . possibility.” The wizard’s devil-grin flashed.

“Who are the Black Arrows?” Abby whispered.

“Later,” Rahab replied with a wave of his hand.

Gloriana motioned and they returned to the lord mayor’s desk. Grobaras observed warily.

The oracle began crafting a calculated lie. “Lord Mayor, we are, of course, eager to help, yet the course of our investigations lies elsewhere, I fear. Turtleback Ferry is a long distance . . . .”

“A thousand gold coins!” Grobaras rejoined, as though he had not delivered thirty times that amount in gratitude mere weeks before.

The oracle’s smile resembled that which a mother bestows the surly child.

The lord mayor sucked his teeth pensively. “The city’s limits on funds are non-negotiable, I fear. However, I might—might, you understand!—supplement from personal monies should the report return with good news for this office . . . .” He left the sentiment hanging.

Gloriana read the implication. “With whom do we make contact?” Grobaras stood heavily and extended a plump hand which the oracle took to confirm negotiations. The lord mayor seized the opportunity to kiss the back of Gloriana’s hand.

Satisfied he had seized advantage, the lord mayor continued: “Well, you’ll need to meet with these Black Arrow fellows.” He held up both hands as though disavowing any association. “Near to brigands, actually. How they came to feature in the region mystifies this office, though I suppose in areas lacking sophistication even ruffians must seem regal.” Grobaras heaved a heavy sigh. “You understand.”

Abby tensed, and Gloriana held the warrior’s hand and squeezed tightly as if to say, I know, I know. Just let me finish this. “We are away to make preparations and will depart in two days. Look for word!”

“I will!” the lord mayor’s reply was full of self-satisfaction as he clasped his hands over his belly. The party silently filed out of the great chamber, through the outer galleries, and into the spring morning.


They rode out of Magnimar two days later, not on the Lost Coast Road as they had traveled many times, but on the great road that bordered the northern bank of the Yondabakari River, winding its way ever eastward against the flowing course of the mighty waterway. Unlike the vast, treacherous marshes of The Mushfens that dominated the southern Varisian coast, the road before them stretched wide through hearty grasslands dotted with copse, thicket, and boscage. The morning of their journey started cool and dew clung to the grass like tiny, bulbous spiders of glass. The expanse of road easily accommodated them as they road abreast.

“Now is later,” Abby looked over at Rahab.

“And later is now,” the wizard assented. “Very well. The Black Arrows are an organized group of soldiers with skills in woodcraft. Extant for many decades now, they operate as border defense in the region where The Storval Deep divides the Wyvern Mountains and the Iron Peaks, making their base of operations at Fort Rannick in the shadow of Skull’s Crossing.”

“Mercenaries?” Abby asked.

“No. They rally and act of their own volition in service to the region. Technically the area where they operate falls under Magnimarian jurisdiction, but such things are often unclear, especially the further away from the major centers one travels, and the region of Turtleback Ferry and Fort Rannick are far, indeed.”

Kara’s curiosity was piqued. “Korvosa lays claim to the area?”

Rahab made a curious gesture with one hand hovering above his saddle horn, wavering around the rotational axis of his wrist slightly to one side, slightly to the other. “Yes and no. Officially the area falls under Magnimar’s jurisdiction, hence our dispatch from Lord Mayor Grobaras. When tensions reach particularly difficult levels between the two cities, they both lay claim to the area in an effort to bolster the impression of their influence. Neither makes particular effort, however, to enforce any real presence in the area. Whatever the habitations there, make no mistake: We go to the wilderness.”

“The lord mayor did not seem to think much of the Black Arrows,” remarked Abby.

Rahab only shrugged. Gloriana interjected: “That has more to do with cosmopolitan disdain than any actual assessment of the organization. If we hadn’t proven so useful to the maintenance of his own life and security of his position, I suspect he might view us similarly.”

The oracle glanced first at Rahab, and then at Lem. “Well, not all of us, perhaps,” and she winked at Abby and Kara.

Abby was not ready to let the discussion go. “But you said they have been active for decades. They must be competent.”

“Indeed,” nodded the conjurer. “They are well regarded as border defense, according to accounts.”

“What menace threatens the region?” Gloriana asked.

“The mountains abound with all manner of creature, I gather, though members of the giant races races feature prominently. Ogres are reportedly plentiful in the lower areas, and in the higher elevations hill giants and other varieties appear.”

“Where you find ogres there also abide trolls,” mused Kara.

Abby reflected in silence for awhile, then a resolute expression settled upon her brow. “But they’ve gone silent. Presumably they have some regular contact in the region, and now . . . .”

“An unusual circumstance,” agreed Rahab, absently stroking his goatee. “They do not necessarily communicate with Magnimar, but Turtleback Ferry is the nearest settlement with whom they would maintain regular contact. That such has ceased is cause for concern.”

“Maybe it has something to do with Xanesha’s relatives,” Lem muttered darkly.

Rahab nodded gravely, and they rode on in silence for a while. Eventually the shining glimmer of Magnimar disappeared behind them as the winding road interposed stands of trees and undulations in the terrain. Intent on making good distance the first day, they ate a lean lunch of jerked beef and hard tack in the saddle, the first of many such meals to come.

Afternoon hours slowly ushered the sun on its course to the western horizon. To either side of the road new spring grasses rose in bright, hopeful green. They passed a stand of rhododendron not yet in bloom. A hornbeam stood solitary on a distant rise, like a silent sentinel of the greensward. Darting passerines of diverse color flitted in the air clutching bits for nests or seeking food. High above soared a hunting hawk: distant, mute, vigilant, perfect. Small groups of deer maneuvered among the shrubs and stands of trees, racing away at the horses’ approach, or else lifting elegant necks to gaze in poised curiosity at the passage of these five strange beasts.

Evening found them settling at camp some way off the road under cover of a broad gathering of elm trees. They kindled a fire, hobbled the calmly grazing horses, and settled down to watch the dwindling daylight. Overhead the tree branches gave brief glimpses of encroaching darkness arriving cloudless and deeply purple.

“In several days,” Rahab offered, “we arrive in Wartle. Whistledown lies another three or four days beyond through the southern Sanos Forest. From thence we turn northeast toward the Skull River that will eventually bring us to Turtleback Ferry. The country grows wilder in the latter portion of our journey. The welcome luxury of Foxglove Townhouse might as well be a thousand miles behind us.” He tapped the ground beside him and gazed at the campfire. “For now our beds are the earth, our roof the open sky, our walls the wilderness.”

Gloriana’s smile showed mirth and melancholy inherited from a hundred thousand songs lifted skyward on a hundred thousand nights.

“The Road,” she observed simply.1

1 End of Book III. Screen goes to black and “Gypsy Road” by Cinderella from their 1988 album Long Cold Winter plays over the credits. Continued thanks to Cranapple, dgroo, Dingleberry, quixote71, and Tron who continue to light this game afire in the playing and the telling.


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