“So . . . ” intoned Abby. She sounded skeptical, her gaze fixed on the narrow stone pathway that wound down toward the pool. Cavern moisture had made the steep surface as treacherous as rain-slick glass. Four ghouls in little more than rags had ascended with precarious caution, giving the party enough time to slay them easily at their discretion. Now the adventurers had to descend, and Rahab estimated the plunge to the water below at one hundred feet or more judging by the time it had taken for the last ghoul to fall from the pathway and splash into the pool.
“Ideas?” Abby followed up. She looked at the others.
“I should go last,” offered the wizard, already thinking of the Spell of the Falling Feather.
The gardener had taken a knee and was scrutinizing the slope of the path carefully. He stood and put his hands on his hips as he turned to the others.
“It’s going to take time, and caution. Nothing else for it. And we’ll be hares under hawk-skies the whole time we’re out there.” Lem gestured back over one shoulder.
The warrior exhaled loudly in frustrated worry. She was thinking about the suit of chainmail she wore: forty pounds of painstakingly-crafted metal. On the battlefield she could move with a dancer’s grace in her skin of steel, but plunging into water of unknown depth—even at her fighting strength—was more than she wanted to test.
“Lem, you go first,” Abby said.
The gardener’s expression gave every indication that he was not amused. Neither was Abby. She made a shooing gesture as though it might speed Lem on his way.
“Abby,” Gloriana said gently, “don’t condescend. Rahab already has that well enough in hand.” She turned to the gardener. “Lem, your poise is clearly better than ours. Would you mind scouting ahead? I will follow some measure behind, and then Abby, followed by Kara. Rahab will wait with his magic in case of emergency, and then descend when clear.”
Lem chewed his lip for a moment, squinting at both Gloriana and Abby, arms folded. “Fine,” he muttered. “You should remember that no matter how well this goes for me, each of you outweighs me several-fold.”
“You also have a lower center of balance,” Rahab remarked. “We might consider crawling as the ghouls did. It will make a difference.”
Lem began making his way gently along the wall. There was at least three feet of width at this point, but it was difficult to tell if it narrowed anywhere further along. When he passed the first significant curve Gloriana advanced onto the pathway.
At first the oracle seemed at ease. She moved cautiously, but with some confidence, and made her way around one quarter of the cavern’s circumference. Then, in the blink of an eye, her boots slipped on dampness, whipping her legs from under her while her arms flailed uselessly. She landed hard on her rump and backpack, and began to accelerate uncontrollably toward the path’s edge. Some forty feet ahead of her on the path, Lem could only look back helplessly as the oracle careened over the edge in a flurry of multicolored silk like some exotic forest bird dropped by a sling stone mid-flight. A harrowing yell escaped her lips as the solidity of the stone path escaped her desperately clutching fingers.
Rahab cast his spell in an instant.1 A swirling spiral of symbol-patterned energy only the wizard could see coiled around Gloriana and her speed collapsed to near nothing almost immediately.
Everyone—especially Gloriana—resumed breathing.
“It’s going well so far,” Rahab remarked dryly.
“Don’t let her go!” Abby cried.
The wizard started to say something, then decided it was neither the time nor place to effectively educate the warrior on the workings of this particular spell, so he ignored the admonition.
Gloriana had regained a small measure of composure, though she could feel her heart racing. She invoked her own magic and the spirits stopped her fall completely.2 She hovered near the stone wall of the cavern, motionless, and waited for her frantic breathing to slow. Then she began to rise at a gentle pace until she reached the ledge from which she had fallen. She reached out and placed her hands on the stone to push herself around, still hanging in mid-air, further down the pathway until she drew level with Lem.
The gardener reached out and helped the levitating oracle onto the section of pathway where he had stopped. There was a stone door set into the wall into which a keyhole had been masterfully manufactured. Once on firm ground she turned to look up at the light above where her friends were gathered, and she kept foremost in her mind the magic of levitation in case someone else fell.
Abby’s turn: The warrior sheathed her sword and slung her shield on her back, then lowered herself on all fours and began crawling forward, chainmail scraping noisily on stone. Almost immediately her hands slipped and suddenly it seemed she would plummet as Gloriana had. The warrior made a mighty effort to grab at the stone path and it was by the slimmest margin that her great strength prevented disaster.3 The rest of her journey was slow, fraught, and intense, but eventually she arrived at the door where Lem and Gloriana stood. By that time Abby was exhausted, the adrenaline crash leaving her drained and her muscles twitching. She sat with her back against the wall, feet drawn up cross-legged, and closed her eyes. Her body was drenched in chilled sweat.
Kara went next, and availed by her elvish dexterity, drew up to the door after a lengthy but otherwise uneventful crawl. Rahab followed, and whether by luck, the precision of his calculating mind, or previously unrealized balance, he, too, succeeded on the precarious journey. By the time they were all gathered together nearly a full hour had passed under slow, nerve-wracking pace. They took a few minutes of refreshment from their waterskins and rations. Eschewing conversation, they sat in silence, listening to the churning waters of the pool below them.
Rahab detected for magic on the door and discerned no signal. Lem and Abby took turns listening at the stone portal, and heard nothing. When the warrior tried to push the door open, it moved the slightest bit and then stopped against a lock. No matter her exertion, the burly warrior could not force the door open. The party looked at Lem.
“What?” he asked blankly.
Gloriana arched her eyebrows. “Lem, you can cease this ruse.”
“I am a gardener!”
“Of course, and some day we will rejoice when you help us face the daunting challenge of seeing hydrangea through a harsh winter. Until then, do you think you could go to work on the fertile soil of the lock, please?”
Rahab chuckled and Kara hid a smile. Abby was standing next to Gloriana and favoring Lem with a look that seemed to say, Well?
Lem’s eyes narrowed. “I have no idea what you are talking about. Even if I did know, I am presently bereft of the proper tools for this particular task, not that I know what tools those would be, nor how to employ them.” He paused and returned stares with equanimity. Eventually his shoulders sagged a little. “It’s a very well-made lock.”
Gloriana’s eyebrows went up again.
“What about before, at the front door?” Abby sounded annoyed.
“Oh, that?” Lem fished the small magnifying lens from a pouch. “Yes, this is handy, to be sure. I use it to inspect for aphids.”
“Fortunate for us the manor entrance was aphid-free,” Gloriana smirked. The gardener pursed his lips, carefully stowed his lens back in its pouch, then looked back up.
“As I said, it’s a very well-made lock.”
“Hell’s below,” Abby sighed miserably, and her gaze turned back to the helical path that had nearly killed her. A fear tugged at her heart.
It took the better part of another hour for all five to make their way slowly, crawling and clutching at the slick stone before they arrived at the top and into the tunnels. Backtracking toward the spiral staircase that had admitted them, they found another passageway turning south and then west. At the end was a long cave that reeked of rotten flesh rising from a clutter of carcasses on the rough stone floor. Something large fluttered out of the darkness towards Abby, and as it passed into the radius of light from her stone the adventurers saw a great bat, leathery wings propelling it silently and swiftly to attack. It was the size of an ox.
The warrior’s reflexes reacted masterfully and even as the bat swooped she was in motion, three short running strides and a quick leap, longsword emerging from the scabbard and flowing seamlessly into a broad sword stroke that rent a mighty wound across the creature’s furry body. She delivered a backhand swat with Avenger that rang solidly across one wing. The bat wheeled away and swooped back. It tried to bite Abby with its great fangs but the warrior held her shield up in defense.
Kara managed to shoot the beast with an arrow, and Rahab landed a dart of acid, but it was Abby’s second attack that finished the creature off with a vicious swallow-tail cut that severed both wings and sent the bat crashing to the stone floor where it twitched silently in death throes.4
They searched the cave and Rahab attuned for sign of magic. “There,” the wizard indicated a pile of corpses toward the rear of the cave. Digging through the bodies was gruesome work, and among the dead they found numerous bits of clothing in the Varisian style. The reek was awful. Gloriana passed some of her silk scarves to the others to use as makeshift masks over nose and mouth. Still the atmosphere was oppressive. Once they had scattered the rotting corpses they stepped back out of the cave where the air was less foul. After gasping their fill of air they returned and found the indications Rahab had noted.
One of the bodies was that of a man in the late stages of decay and with only one arm, though it was impossible to tell if that was a condition that had predated his death. The man had been large in life, but now was a wretched, shriveling sack of moldering bones in desiccated skin. Using Gloriana’s spear and Abby’s sword as makeshift poles they managed to drag the corpse closer to the cave entrance. The remaining hand bore a pearl ring that looked valuable, and a belt pouch contained a hefty handful of gold coins. In a ruined scabbard Abby discovered a prized longsword expertly forged from adamantine, the brutal metal that fell from stars. Rahab plucked a shapeless hat from the corpse’s head and withdrew into the tunnel to inspect it more closely. In a few minutes he had divined its magic.
“A hat of disguise,” the wizard said, passing the chapeau to Gloriana.
“What does it do?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. The wearer may pass in another’s guise, within certain limitations. The hat’s magic is such that it, too, can merge as part of the disguise. It is a most useful tool. Any one of us might find it helpful, should we ever need to pass unremarkably among watchful eyes. Here, let me demonstrate,” and Rahab took the hat back and fitted it to his own head. As he did so Gloriana gasped and the others gaped. Where the wizard had stood was now the oracle’s apparent double: Golden locks, brilliant eyes, tattoos, even her height, weight, and the silks and steel breastplate she wore. The russet hat had become an azure scarf tied around the temples.
“You see?” Rahab’s baritone voice emerged from the “other Gloriana’s” mouth.
The oracle reached out and snatched the blue head scarf away. It became a hat, and there stood Rahab once more, tall, lean, dark-haired, devil-grinning. The oracle stowed the hat in her backpack then looked at the wizard.
“Don’t do that again.”
“Next time I’ll play Abby.”
“Try it, magic man.” The warrior pressed the adamantine longsword she had plundered up over her head and then down to her shoulders, flexing her impressive biceps and triceps as she did so.
“You can at least see the potential utility of such a device, I trust?” Rahab resumed.
“As well as the potential mischief,” Gloriana said. “How would you like it if I disguised myself as you?” She jabbed her index finger against the conjurer’s sternum.
Rahab flashed his impish smile once more. “A most powerful and alluring temptation.”
“Abby?” Gloriana stepped back and swept her hand in a gesture from warrior to wizard.
The warrior punched Rahab’s lights out.
Gloriana helped the wizard regain his balance. Abby had actually pulled her left cross enough so that Rahab did not lose consciousness. Instead, the conjurer’s vision flashed bright white for a moment and he stumbled backwards, shades of Ven Vinder’s store cellar those weeks ago.
Lem sulked in silence. When the gardener saw Abby throw her punch, he assumed the others had finally recognized the perfidy endemic to Chelliaxians and had drawn one of his knives to help finish the job. Suddenly a firm hand restrained him at the shoulder. He looked back and the alchemist was shaking her head.
“They are working it out,” Kara had murmured softly.
“I can fix it so they don’t have to work it out.”
Kara shook her head again.
“You’re not serious?” the gardener gave a brief laugh, then saw the alchemist’s expression. “Chaldira’s teeth, you are serious.” Lem sighed and sheathed his dagger.
Gloriana was speaking a soft word of magic and Rahab’s vision cleared, the ringing in his ears faded, and the split in his lip knitted together seamlessly. The wizard could still taste the blood on his tongue as he held his jaw in one hand. The pain had gone, but the memory was vivid. There was a long silence, the oracle watching Rahab watching Abby watching calmly in return.
“Evidently,” the conjurer said at length, “I failed to accurately convey the limits of the magic in the hat.”
“Go on,” Gloriana encouraged.
Rahab’s gaze never left Abby. “The disguise provides appearance but cannot provide mannerism or speech, for example. It is not a perfect match, and the possibility in image is vast within certain limits of humanoid variability.”
“You could have chosen to appear as a stranger, in other words,” the oracle said.
Gloriana patted Rahab on the chest and gave him a cheerful smile. “I think you’re right: It is a useful item! How do you feel?”
“Rahab—” the oracle began.
The warrior interrupted. “Glo, it is well. We will do this. Stand aside.”
“Glo, I knew what I was doing then, and I know what I am doing now. Rahab, step up.”
“Abby, we are not fighting amongst ourselves, and that is final,” Gloriana insisted, and now the oracle stepped away from the wizard and confronted the warrior.
“That is not fair, and you know it, Glo. You gave me leave. Now step aside. I know what I am doing. Trust me.” Abby’s voice dropped to a quiet murmur that only the oracle could discern. “Remember what you said? ‘We look out for each other.’ How can we do that if we do not have trust? Trust me. Trust Rahab.”
Gloriana blinked in surprise, but after an uncertain pause stepped aside.
Abby made a show of setting the adamantine blade against the tunnel wall. Empty-handed, she waved Rahab forward. “Step up. Have you ever been to Riddleport?”
The wizard shook his head, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I did that to make a point. Now make your point in return. Shipmates settle disputes this way in Riddleport sometimes. Go ahead.” Abby hooked her thumbs into her girdle and stood calmly, eyes open. Bereft of contempt, her expression showed a measured patience. Rahab looked on warily, then something occurred to him.
“You already know I have neither strength nor skill to match you,” the conjurer said quietly.
“That is something to think about, isn’t it?” The warrior’s voice was conversational. The wizard slowly stepped closer. Abby raised her chin slightly.
Rahab threw a right. It landed just beneath Abby’s left cheekbone, delivered inexpertly, slapping noisily against flesh and rebounding. The wizard’s knuckles stung and he rubbed them with his left hand. White impressions on the warrior’s cheek suddenly flushed red as blood flowed back into the tissue. Abby never even flinched.
Gloriana was watching with one hand at her mouth and the other nervously rubbing her temple. I hate this place, she reflected sadly. It is like a poison.
Abby nodded and lightly clapped Rahab’s shoulder, offering a sympathetic smile. “You ever want to learn to ring someone’s bell, I can show you.” Then she retrieved the adamantine longsword and set the blade on her shoulder.
“Come,” she said, speaking to everyone, but looking at Rahab and offering another nod of encouragement. “I have an idea about that door.”
Her boots echoed down the tunnel.
They traversed the perilous pathway for a third time, and again it took the better part of an hour. As before, Lem went first, followed by Gloriana, then Abby, Kara, and Rahab. While waiting for the others to crawl down gardener queried oracle.
“Why does Abby get to hit Rahab?”
“Because you were not going to hit Rahab, you were going to bleed him, and he was going to blast you.”
“I could have taken him.”
“The fact that you cannot—or will not—perceive that Abby was not going to ‘take him’ tells me you missed the whole point of how we resolved both your dispute and this more recent one.” Gloriana was growing tired and irritated.
“Lem, Abby is going to get to hit you in a minute if you don’t let this go. Rahab is not your enemy. Do you remember when he apologized to you? You don’t know him as well as I do yet, but the fact that he apologized—without having to be told—is a giant leap forward in his character. Rahab is an ass, yes, but he is not your enemy. Your enemy is something else in this place,” and Gloriana gave a halfhearted wave to indicate their surroundings, “and I am fairly sure it wants to eat you. It already left you for undead once. You want revenge? Let’s find your real enemy and deal with it.”
The gardener lapsed into silence. The others crawled down slowly. This was beginning to feel like the longest day of the oracle’s life, including the time she nearly died.
Abby went to work on the stone door with the adamantine sword she had found, using it as a makeshift pick. She had explained the virtues of the star metal, how its hardness—when properly forged—exceeded that of stone. Though not ideally shaped for the labor, the sword was nonetheless chipping easily into the portal, showering pieces and stone dust readily about. The others looked on, impressed. As she grew more confident, Abby broadened her strokes and began gouging larger furrows in the door. Periodically she stopped to kick accumulated chips off the path into the pool, and that gave Gloriana an idea.
The oracle drew forth a sunrod from her backpack, cracked it soundly against the stone wall, and pitched it in a gentle overhand into the water, watching the glow descend into a tiny mote. She could barely make out the silhouettes of the four dead ghouls in the pool, but other than that the water looked clear.
When she turned back around Abby had already punched a hole in the door. The warrior was grinning now: There was something very satisfying about wrecking the portal with the sword. The breach was still minor, but it was only a matter of time before the right hand side that held the locking mechanism cracked and fell away. The door never stood a chance.
The passageway beyond was another tunnel into the cliff bedrock, and of all the horrific stenches they had encountered in this haunted place thus far, the toxic fume that oppressed the air here was the worst. It would have been bad enough if it was the scent of decayed flesh, but this was somehow worse, like skin and entrails that had rotted, then been eaten, then vomited up once more over the leavings of chamber pots in a heated room. The privy in Thistletop Stronghold would have seemed like a spring meadow in wildflower bloom compared to the nightmare vapors that brought tears to the party’s eyes and forced all of them to fight violently against a monumental urge to retch.
The tunnel wound around to the left from northeast turning southwest and opened up into another cave, this one smaller and appointed in ghastly décor that previous chambers could not match. Where the others had merely contained discarded carcasses and scattered piles of bone, this had order. This had attention to detail. This had design.
A rickety table of warped pine stood in the center, its damp surface heaped with detritus: Bottles of glass and ceramic in various states of fullness, scraps of cloth, crumpled papers, strips of wretchedly tanned leather, a rusted length of chain, a cat-o-nine-tails stiff with dried blood. Against the far side of the table leaned a filled picture frame, the subject of which artwork could not be seen from where the adventurers presently stood.
Facing the painting was a large leather scroll wing chair stained with smears of blood. A smaller wooden table sat against the southern cave wall and supported an uneven pile of plates and other tableware polluted with slabs of rotten meat. Bulging white maggots crawled and festered among the necrotic flesh. At the western extreme the cave wall had overgrown in a monstrous palette of fungus fifteen feet in diameter. The growth was so green it was almost black, and it dripped with strands of wispy effluvium that quivered and bubbled. A tumescent eruption of particularly obscene aspect blossomed with rash-like ridges and tumorous bulbs from the center of the fungal tapestry. The shape of this section was almost humanoid, and what must have once been an artful and precious puzzle box lay in smashed ruin just below the protuberant malignancy.
A figure sat in the chair, dressed in noble finery now stained by blood and viscera. As the party rounded the tunnel into the cave, the figure looked up and its eyes grew wide in wicked recognition and sinister glee. It rose swiftly, ash-grey body standing lean and angular in bloody motley, arms flung wide in gesture of perverse welcome.
Aldern Foxglove’s eyes had gone milk-white and when he opened his mouth to speak his prehensile tongue darted snake-like among teeth arrayed like razors.
“You!” The former noble’s voice rasped like dirt falling on a coffin lid, and the adventurers already knew whom he addressed. “You have come to me! I knew my letters would sway you! Come and embrace me, my love! Let us consummate our hunger!”
Even recoiling in horror Gloriana felt a great sadness. Ghosts of the Road. Aldern, what has become of you?
“Oh, Aldern,” Gloriana murmured softly, “we will do what we can to see you on your way.”
Abby was in motion, dropping her adamantine blade and drawing her magic longsword as she skirted the wooden table in three confident steps. She fetched the thing that had been Aldern a stout blow. Kara drank an extract of shielding magic and moved to one side for a clear line of fire. As she did so she glanced at the massive fungal eruption on the western wall and thought, Shorthool blia do galan vedek ospoliamormadav? 5 Lem had no desire to get close, and flipped a dagger in his hand, then pitched it at range, but the blade missed and buried in the leather chair.
“Skinsaw Man, I presume?” Rahab remarked, but since he already knew the answer he elected not to await response and launched his inerrant missile of magical energy into the manor’s lanky, undead host. Aldern looks different from the other ghouls we have seen, the wizard realized.
Gloriana clenched one of her fists and golden-white sheets of radiant power coursed through the room, blistering the Skinsaw Man’s already dead skin. Sickly smoke curled up from within the ruin of his clothes, and suddenly something in his visage changed. A look of fear and regret seemed to pass over the monstrous face, and the figure stumbled back slightly. The voice that called out seemed to shed the grating rasp of undeath and sounded almost pitiful, almost human.
“Please, you have to help me! I cannot stop the Skinsaw Man from coming!” In the chaos of battle the oracle recognized Aldern Foxglove, the person, momentarily free of damnation, sincere, frightened, desperate, forlorn. A sob wrenched its way from behind razor teeth.
Rahab’s next spell was a ray of enfeeblement. Skinsaw Man shuddered and slumped as the necromancy took effect. Abby, Lem, and Kara hesitated, glancing at Gloriana for guidance. The oracle closed her eyes briefly and her body became golden fire. She stepped slowly forward, shedding light throughout the cave, and as she passed the others she whispered sadly, “End him.”
Nearing Skinsaw Man Gloriana crooned, “Dear Aldern, I am so sorry for this pain that has befallen you. We will do what we can to ease your passing.”
The ghoulish face looked up, creamy eyes trying to focus on the brilliant vision approaching. “I knew you would help me.” Resignation had softened his undead voice. “She said she would save me from The Seven, but she did this to me. I am so sorry. I could not help myself.” The perverse glee had fled his aspect, replaced by sorrow and desire for release.
Still Abby, Lem, and Kara hesitated, caught up in the tragic horror and awaiting Gloriana’s leadership. For his part, Rahab could not understand why they delayed. It was obvious the oracle was distracting the Skinsaw Man, and she had whispered for them to finish the monster while she held his attention. What further instruction did they need? The conjurer launched a dart of acid that missed. Baalzebul’s bollocks!
Gloriana’s reached out to touch Aldern and her power washed over his undead form, blistering a ragged wound across his chest. The oracle saw his expression change, twisting and hardening, and the lanky body drew up to its full height once more. The gritty, earthen, graveyard sound returned in his voice and unholy light flashed behind the cataract blankness of his eyes.
Skinsaw Man resumed control. “I wonder how your murder will shape the world.” He drew from a sash a war razor, flicking it open and dropping his long tongue along the blade’s length to lick nourishing blood from its steely spine. The edge flashed at the burning body and passed through, but the healing power of the fire restored her almost fully, and a backlash of retributive energy coursed over the monster even as he struck. Skinsaw Man shook with new pain.
Still Abby did not attack, though she did step up behind Gloriana in support. Lem fumbled for his shortbow but still did not have a good shot now that the oracle had moved close to the monster. Kara hurled a bomb and alchemical fire erupted in a smoking flash that set light to the enemy’s velvet jacket. Another of Rahab’s acid darts streaked through the air and struck successfully this time, sizzling a caustic line on one of the monster’s arms.
The oracle reached to touch the undead once more and this time the Skinsaw Man seized the vulnerable opportunity.6 His war razor flicked again, slicing through golden fire which did some small damage, but burned him in return.7 Gloriana’s hand alighted on the undead and a brilliant flash lit the room almost to the point of blindness. In the next moment the energy form faded and the oracle stood simply, dressed in colorful silks, profoundest sadness in her eyes.
Aldern Foxglove, late of Magnimar and late of The Misgivings, would never again find love. Now finally a corpse, the body of the doomed noble collapsed back into the leather chair, burned-out eye sockets smoking with residual power from the shining, gorgeous, purifying flame that had been the last thing he saw, that had finally freed him from so much pain.
Rahab let out a slow, relieved breath. “Thanks for the horses.”
Gloriana stood quietly before the vanquished foe, a single tear upon her cheek.
1 This campaign has given me a new appreciation for feather fall, too. As Dingleberry pointed out to me, the dice in this situation were noteworthy. Gloriana’s Acrobatics check was a 6 on the d20. She spent a Hero Point to reroll, and that d20 came up 1. When various penalties for slick surface, armor, and so forth were factored in that made her final Acrobatics roll a -1. Gloriana does everything in style, including failure.
2 Levitate. Gloriana used the stone pathway and cavern walls to push herself around to the doorway. Ironically, it was after she fell off the pathway that she became the person in the least danger. The rest of the party still had to navigate on foot.
3 We had to make three rolls (or Take 10) in order to navigate the slick pathway without plunging to a possible watery doom. Abby couldn’t Take 10 because her armor and weight penalties would have meant she would not succeed. So Abby rolled, and her first roll was a spectacular failure. She spent a Hero Point to reroll, and was successful. Her second and third rolls were also successful. Kara and Rahab both had armor, weight, and dexterity such that they could both Take 10.
4 Critical hit with the longsword for 24 points of damage.
5 Translated from Elvish: “What vileness feeds the growth of that abomination?”
6 Gloriana is making an unarmed attack which provokes an Attack of Opportunity.
7 As an undead, Aldern/Skinsaw Man was actually hurting himself every time he touched Gloriana in her positive energy form. There is something poetic and tragic about it, in a way, as though the part that was Aldern was trying to hasten his own release from the pain of being the Skinsaw Man.