At the midpoint of the central hallway was an old, ragged throw rug. Abby stood on one side of it, Gloriana the other. Lem leaned against the wall and propped one foot back, arms folded. Kara stood behind Abby, looking up the hallway ruefully at the shape of the manticore. Rahab waited behind Gloriana, his eyes fixed on the gloomy mosaic of stained-glass at the hallway’s eastern end.
“Lift it up,” Abby said to Gloriana.
“You lift it up.”
“I need you to lift it in case there is something underneath, that way I’m ready.” The warrior braced her shield and pointed at the rug with her sword for emphasis.
“If there is something underneath it’s not likely to be the kind of thing a sword thrust will settle, is it? In that case, it should be you that lifts it up so that I’m ready. Right?”
“Wrong. No matter what it is, it needs to pay attention to me first so the rest of us can bring it down. So you lift it.”
Lem looked up the hallway to the right. Kara appeared not to be paying particularly close attention. The gardener turned to look left, and at first thought Rahab was similarly otherwise occupied, but noticed the wizard’s head shaking back and forth, very slowly, very subtly.
“I’ll lift it,” Lem said, stepping away from the wall.
Gloriana relented, “Alright, I’ll lift it.” She sighed, motioned for everyone to stand back except Abby, and gingerly used the point of her shortspear to burrow under the edge of the rug. The oracle held the spear at the very butt, and slowly lifted the throw aside. Abby poised with sword and shield, eyes intent. Kara had turned to look on, as had Rahab, their expressions inscrutable.
The rug revealed a large stain beneath, permeating the very grain of the floorboards with a thick hue of dark bruise blue, sickly swamp green, and moist tarry black. A strain of mold had bloomed in a spiral of clusters unmistakably shaped like humanoid skulls, sockets hollow, grinning teeth revealed.
Gloriana nodded at the mold stain. “Now why doesn’t that fill me with confidence?”
Kara opened the door in the north wall next to Lem, revealing a set of narrow stairs down to the basement. “We have to descend regardless. We can deal with it later, if we must.”
Abby led the way. The large room at the bottom was a kitchen with a great, oversized fireplace and pantry shelves in disarray. It was here that Rahab nearly blasted Lem into cinders.
Kara drank her mutagen. Gloriana cast a spell of protection on Abby. Lem had been making his way around the room’s perimeter, searching for something, anything to clarify events, when he came upon a wide vertical crack in the wall. A thin, shrill chorus of many small voices brayed from the fissure. The gardener tumbled up onto the broad kitchen table, turning a backward handstand as he did so, expertly reaching the height as the rats poured forth.
It was a swarm, a river of furry, writhing forms, not giant-sized like the monster they had killed on the ground floor, but normal rats, and all the more horrible for it. Hundreds moving in a rush as a single entity, swift, flowing, and ravenous. Lem had the briefest moment to launch an attack, a thrown dagger that disappeared uselessly in the mass an instant later.
Kara threw a firebomb and missed, the clay globe shattering against the wall, but the splash of flame did eliminate a few of the rats as they surged into the room. Still the swarm pressed relentlessly forward.
Until Rahab stopped them. The conjurer extended his right hand, pointed his index finger, and uttered a word of power. In the next instant a bloom of weaponized fire expanded from nothing, billowing and hissing as it evaporated ambient moisture, becoming a sphere of raging inferno that encompassed the rat swarm entirely and left it little more than a wedge of ash on the stone floor.1 Unfortunately for Lem the spell also blossomed around him, and he spun to dive under the kitchen table to escape the worst of the flames. When he stood up, smoke wisps curled delicately from his hair and clothing, and his expression was dazed. A moment later the burn transferred to Gloriana and she exhaled a sharp breath of pain.2
The air in the room had grown close in the wake of the spell, and a rushing noise faded in the party’s ringing ears. The kitchen table now provided some illumination as it began to burn. Gloriana produced the wand of healing magic and in a few seconds the restorative spells faded her burns from raw to clear skin. All eyes turned to Rahab.
“How long have you been able to do that?” said Gloriana, eyes wide.
“A couple of days,” shrugged Rahab.
Gloriana flashed a wicked grin and stowed the wand. “That was good work.”
“No.” Lem’s voice quivered and his jaw clenched. “You almost killed me, you piece of shit.” The gardener held another dagger in his hand, knuckles turning white in a fierce grip.
“Lem,” Kara said, “it was an accident. My own firebomb nearly splashed you—”
“No,” the gardener shook his head again, once, his eyes never leaving Rahab’s. “You even think of doing that again, I’ll cut your throat, wizard.” The dagger blade gleamed in the light of the tabletop slowly taking flame, an accusation in steel.
The conjurer held Lem’s stare with his own. He could measure the distance, and his brilliant brain already knew the most likely and efficient attack: Thrown dagger to catch him off-guard and give Lem time to close the gap, then another dagger—probably that blade he kept lower back under the hem of his tunic—striking low to cut the hamstring and force the wizard down, then the return stroke to the jugular. What Rahab could not calculate was whether his dart of acid would be accurate enough to blind or kill the gardener before the knife fell. The wizard’s reply was steady as stone: “If I do that again, you won’t—,”
“Enough!” Gloriana stepped between them, voice rising. “Both of you! This is ridiculous. Rahab obviously wasn’t trying to hit you, Lem—”
“Taking his side, human?” Still the gardener stared at the wizard.
Gloriana’s gaze turned flint. “No, Lem, I just take your pain instead.”
Abby could swear she felt the room temperature drop.
The oracle paused, and a new venom entered her voice. She slowly, carefully lingered on each word with heavy menace: “And my name, Lem . . . is Gloriana. Now let me finish.”
She turned her withering glance: “Rahab, you will exercise more caution. I know you are smart enough to accurately calculate your magic. You had better start doing it. Kara, that goes for you, too.” She stepped back to sweep both wizard and gardener in her sight. “Whatever bad blood, whatever misunderstanding, whatever it is that has the two of you looking for an excuse, it ends now, understood? We look out for one another. So start looking out, both of you, or I’ll tether your souls among my haunts for an afterlife of misery.”
The ensuing silence was absolute.
It was Rahab who spoke first, surprising everyone. “Gloriana is right. Lem, I apologize that I did not take greater care.”
“As do I,” Kara said.
Lem’s expression had cooled. He masterfully re-sheathed his dagger without looking. “It is always safest to proceed with caution. I certainly will.”
The party got ready to resume their exploration. When the wizard was not looking, Lem glanced at Rahab once more and shook his head in grudging acknowledgment: Brass. Fucking. Balls.
Some days later, back in Sandpoint, Abby would approach Gloriana: “Glo? Did you mean that? About taking Rahab’s and Lem’s souls for your haunts, I mean. Can you really do that?”
The oracle, serious as stone: “Do you really want to know?”
Abby, after thinking about it for a long time, and just before walking away: “No. Not today.”
1 Fireball. Boom, baby.
2 Unfortunately, due to the confined space, the Fireball got Lem, and he did not make his Reflex save. The Fireball did 13 points, which was enough to kill the rat swarms, and damage Lem. A moment later, Gloriana’s Life Link healed Lem and transferred the damage to her.