Abby and Gloriana stood looking out over the Valley of The Black Tower. A rattling wind descended from the perimeter peaks, ushering dust devils on brief journeys of mischief.
“We should camp in the tunnels,” the warrior said. “Safe from the rocs.”
Gloriana sighed. “Close to the other artifact.”
“Rahab seems to think this one is worse. And anyway, he’s going to need time to see if he can get it open.”
“What is it? Glo?”
“I don’t want him to get it open.”
A lull passed.
“Who heals us?”
The oracle looked at the warrior. “What?”
“Who heals us?”
“I’m not s—”
“You do. You heal us.”
Gloriana went quiet.
Abby continued: “Who fights for us?”
The oracle watched closely.
“I do. Lem does. Kara does. We fight for us. Who solves riddles for us?”
Gloriana drew a slow breath. “I know.”
“I know you do. We fought, and you healed, and now we have a riddle to solve. Let him solve it.”
“Abby, this riddle may be . . . something we cannot fight, or heal, or solve.”
The warrior regarded her best friend at length. “All the things we’ve seen: a barghest, ghouls in the farmlands, a murder cult, ogres, a drowning village, a faerie ghost, a dragon burning Sandpoint . . . have we ever not faced them? You think we’re about to start running now?”
“No, but Karzoug—”
“I bet this Karzoug fucker is worried.”
“Because we are coming.”
The warrior turned and strode for the fortress gate, a blade of black thunder at her hip, a circle of impenetrable moonlight on her back. And what the bard-spawned tales had failed to capture was that she was not simply the bearer of such things, she was the blood and the steel and the torn sky.
She was the black thunder, the impenetrable moonlight.
They set camp in the chamber where the Sandpoint prisoners had been held. Abby and Gloriana built a fire and prepared dinner. Rahab and Kara pored over the locked scroll at some remove. Lem scouted stealthily through the halls and chambers of the first level, just to make sure there were no surprises from a month before. It was like a journey through a long-abandoned warehouse or museum. Here were the blast marks from Rahab’s fireball, the rippled stone from dragon breath. Here were the dried bloodstains of fallen ogres or stone giants. Here were empty caverns where torches had once burned, or cooking pots bubbled, or lamias had performed profane worship to Abyssal powers. Halfway through his circuit, the gardener understood the fortress reaches were not empty, after all, but inhabited by something vast and potent, a silence like judgement, an air like a tomb. He stopped. How long had it been since he had planted something in soft loam, coaxing shoots of sunlit green with offerings of moisture? He thought of roots, twisting down into darkness, bereft of leaf or bloom, tendrils in the cold domain of the worm, veins of the burial kingdom.
The silence slipped around him.
“At this point,” Kara mused, “I suppose the question is: What was the theoretical foundation behind the development of the scroll?”
Rahab wearily rubbed his face with his hands. “I might hypothesize at length, but without reliable lore or more time to study and experiment any such effort is academic, at best. Is the artifact even Thassilonian?”
“The symbols on the exterior support that, at least . . . ”
“Do they not?”
“And just like that we’re already swimming circumferentially in abstract waters.”
“What else would they be, if not Thassilonian?”
“This is an artifact of significance. I would categorize it as ‘immense’ just to start. I don’t give a fuck how special Thassilon thought it was, we are talking about the kind of thing that would make them tremble . . . and probably did. The locks might be Thassilonian, but that does not make the item inside theirs any more than saying its current proximity makes it ours.”
Into the subsequent silence Kara ventured: “You are frustrated.”
“To a degree commensurate with the artifact itself.”
“Settle not into seductive fantasies of revenge as remedy to vexation.”
The wizard sighed. “Well deployed, as ever.”
Kara resumed. “So . . . seven locks?”
“Of course.” Hell’s below, I am bored of Thassilon’s aesthetic!
The alchemist grew quiet, and then slowly looked at the wizard. Rahab’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
“No, it’s silly—”
“What if . . . no, surely not.”
The conjurer waited.
“What if . . . what if it’s just zero . . . zero . . . zero zero zero zero zero?”
Rahab was surprised by his own laughter. “Sadly, the runes are not numbers.”
“Well, how should I know?” Kara asked around her own mirth. “I cannot read it! Thus, what lies before us?”
The wizard drew ink, quill, and parchment from his haversack. “I will write it down in Elvish, as a precaution.”
The alchemist nodded and leaned over his shoulder as he began. “Interesting . . . .”
Abby brought portions of food as the two continued working. Both had sheets and quills now, the expanses covered in complex diagrams, numbered arrays, words written and scratched out and written again, iterations of rotational arrangement exploring possibility.
The warrior set the food quietly down and strolled away without interrupting. She could hear the conversation, conducted entirely in Elvish, simultaneously combative and collaborative, and it made her feel better, as though a buffer against the malignancy that seemed present since finding the scroll. Abby returned to the fire and sat with Gloriana and Lem. The meal passed largely in silence, the gardener having reported no further inhabitants of the upper cavern level.
“Strange,” Gloriana mused.
Abby spoke around a mouthful. “What is?”
“Nothing else here.”
“Well,” Lem said, “it has only been a month.”
“Not even animals in the valley.”
“Rocs,” commented the warrior.
“Animals smaller than cattle would be fine. Not even a meal for the rocs.”
“Makes you wonder . . . ”
“What the rocs have been eating.”1
“Well, it’s still . . . ”
The gardener lifted a portion of food to his mouth. “You, of all of us, must feel it.”
The oracle conceded a nod. It would be some time before the wild things of the world came back to inhabit the valley. No longer howling in void, the spirits of the place were nonetheless undiminished, stalking now, a brooding shoal of ghosts, bleak stewards of desolate memory.
It was near the eleventh late bell that Rahab began to see the combination, the logic behind it, the relationship of symbol to symbol, thought exercise dormant for more than ten-thousand years. He quietly bent to talk it through with Kara.
“That follows. I see no flaw in the solution.”
“That does not mean there isn’t one,” the wizard ruminated.
“No, but it’s not like you to doubt your own intellect.”
“It’s not my intellect I doubt.”
“The thing itself. It is like—”
“Yes. And yet I deem your reasoning sound.”
“One way to find out.”
A pause. “You’re excited.”
A whisper: “Yes.”
“We should tell the others.”
Quietly: “Yes. She should be here.”
“We may need them.”
Kara nodded and smiled.
The conjurer looked over at the campfire. Lem had taken first watch. Abby and Gloriana lay in their blankets, shapes at peace in the flickering gloom, shadows against the cavern wall.
“Rahab?” The alchemist touched his forearm.
He turned back to her. “Tomorrow. I have an idea, and we should rest.”
The wizard explained over breakfast.
“Do you think the librarian can help us?” Abby asked.
“I do not know,” replied Rahab, “but I think it would constitute error to depart not having consulted the librarian’s assistance.”
Kara nodded. “Last night when you said you had an idea, I wondered what it was. I think you are right.”
Gloriana sighed. “I suppose it helps to know as much about a doom as possible.”
“So, we’re opening it in the library?” Lem scratched his head.
“I think we should open it here, and then take it into the library,” replied the conjurer.
“Wait,” the oracle held up a hand. “Why?”
“Because of the library’s dimensional lock.”
“But . . .” Gloriana grappled with theory, “. . . doesn’t it make more sense to open it within a dimensional lock, rather than without?”
Rahab only remained looking at her. Realization dawned in the oracle’s eyes. “Oh.”
The conjurer nodded. “If it goes wrong, we cannot leave.”
Abby interjected, “But, we left before.”
Again the wizard was silent, still meeting Gloriana’s gaze, and so Kara stepped up. “Do you recall how long it took, Abby?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“And how long does it take when Rahab moves us?”
“Pretty fast . . . ”
“Because it happens out of time.”
“That’s what I said.” The warrior looked at Lem. “Right? That’s what I said?”
The gardener smirked. “‘Pretty fast?’”
Gloriana drew a long breath. “Let’s just get this over with before . . . ”
“Glo?” Abby looked concerned.
The oracle shook her head.
“Gloriana?” asked Rahab. “What do your ghosts tell you?”
He repeated the query softly.
“Well . . . ” the oracle stumbled. “I’m not sure. They are not often clear . . . wait . . . ” she leveled a gaze of cerulean razor upon him. “When did you suddenly care what the haunts had to say?”
“Gloriana, I do not understand your ghosts, but I would be a fair fool to ignore the possibility that they may connect to some experience, perspective, or knowledge that might aid us.”
The oracle crossed her arms.
Hells below. “I do not dissemble.”
“This is one of those times that doesn’t make me feel better.”
“What shall I say?”
Even Abby’s eyebrows climbed several elevations. The oracle gaped. “Who are you and what have you done with Rahab?”
A pause in which his breath increased, his heart pounded. “Very well. Shall I reclaim? Having advanced my own augmentation I now stand as the foremost intellect in Varisia, and perhaps on Golarion, equaling our esteemed alchemist in raw ability and exceeding her in both ambition and perspective. I am a storm of the brain supercharged with bolts of ego, and I have gazed upon the workings of an artifact greater than the civilization laying meager claim to it. I am the most dangerous mind you know, and I would turn that to unmaking a resurgent malevolence unwilling to evolve, seduced as it by the canniest illusion of all: That it is a simple matter to return to an earlier time. I am willing to admit candor to any present, confident that truth is the mightiest antidote to the phantasms we all risk in our diminishment. I seek the most advantageous knowledge to enhance probability of beneficial success in our circumstance, including query of those spectral atavisms with which you share consciousness, or transience, or both. Confident in my ability to discern, I will discard their nonsense as readily as I integrate their acumen, and still readily hold the counsel of those assembled here superior to some howling ether!”
Stillness. The wizard felt a hand on his shoulder, powerful, gauntleted. At his ear a familiar voice: “Welcome back.”
Rahab laid the scroll on the cave floor, rotated the seven locks to orient on a particular sequence of symbols, and there was a soft sound like a door latch. The wizard waited a moment, and then drew on the great rods. Once the scroll cleared the sheath, they could see the adamantine cylinder separate from the item itself. It looked almost mundane, or as mundane as the remarkable star metal could appear.
“So far, so good,” Kara said quietly.
“Wait . . . ” Lem’s expression conveyed much. “That’s it?”
“That is the locks,” countered the wizard. “The locks are the least of our problems.”
The gardener held up two hands. “Fine, fine.”
Rahab inhaled deeply. “Before I unfurl this, I will ask you all to make every effort not to read anything, nor gaze upon what may be revealed within. In fact, it is probably best if, for the next few moments, you look away.”
Hands touched dagger hilts. “If you think we’re going to lose track of you and this thing, you’re very much mistaken.”
“Then watch me, and not it.”
Lem nodded. Abby rolled her shoulders, strode straight to the wizard, and once again laid a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. Kara went to his other side. Gloriana took up position directly opposite him, eyes on his, a blue he would never forget.
“We’re here,” she whispered.
Rahab nodded, and pulled the rods slowly apart.
Something fluttered to the cave floor. The wizard’s eyes alighted upon a field of text, expanses of runic calligraphy shaped with care and grace and madness in another age, and even as he looked, the symbols swam and shifted. Shapes dissolved, ran, and resolved anew in other forms. Positions transposed, horizontal lines became vertical, then reverted back again. At first black, the ink changed colors, revealing blood-rich reds, hallucinogenic purples, electric greens, whale-dream blues. Rahab needed no spell. The power was astonishing, and it struck him like an ocean of lightning, wave after wave. A voice that was—and was not—his own howled inside his skull, scripture made sound, a noise like laughing while drowning.
And then it was gone. He looked upon the great, soft curve of parchment coiled about two great rods of brass. He had closed the scroll, and had no memory of doing so.
“What did you see?” Gloriana asked softly. Rahab had not so much sat down as collapsed, the scroll resting across his knees, eyes aglaze. The oracle had read his vital signals through her spell of status, and the information sent a shiver of concern rattling through her bones.
The conjurer exhaled long. “It is difficult to describe. The form is mutable.”
“Of Chaos?” asked Kara.
The wizard shook his head, and the others did not know if he answered in the negative, or could not answer at all.
“Images, or text?” the alchemist pressed.
“I am not sure it matters.”
Abby next: “What do we do?”
Lines of sweat had formed on the wizard’s brow, and he managed a weak smile. “I need a moment . . . and a stiff drink.”
The warrior looked apologetic. “We don’t have—”
“Here.” Lem proffered a skin, unsealed. The scent of wine lingered, and the conjurer received it gratefully. He drank long and deep, gasping at the end as he handed the bladder back to the gardener.
The gardener shrugged. “Next round’s on you.”
Abby again: “Something happened, Rahab.” The warrior pointed at a bundle upon the stone floor.
“They fell out when you began to unfurl the scroll,” Kara explained. “We left them alone, but I would be lying if I said we did not see them.”
“They are not of the scroll,” the conjurer began. “They must have been stored within.”
Gloriana knelt alongside him. “Why?”
“Safekeeping, perhaps? Let me . . . ” He cast a spell and read the information for a few moments, before nodding and releasing the magic. “They are potent, certainly, and we should examine them. I believe we shall be able to do so without fear.”
“What about the artifact?” Lem wanted to know.
“Our next step should be consulting the librarian, after we assess these.” He began to sort through the bundle, then looked at Gloriana. “I think you will find these very interesting. They are quite delicate. Unprotected by the same power investing the scroll, they have not aged well. It is a wonder they remain intact at all.”
The oracle slowly began to pore over the pieces, and her breath quickened. She looked at Rahab. “You weren’t kidding.”2
The conjurer returned the scroll to its adamantine sheath while Gloriana took care to gently store the fallen bundle safely in her scroll case, save one.
The wizard looked up. The oracle gently handed him the last page.
“An arcane spell?” he asked, curious that he had missed it.
Gloriana shook her head, and gave a small smile. “Thassilonian.”
He took it carefully, began to read, and burst out laughing.
“What is it?” The question was the oracle’s, but it might have come from any of them.
When Rahab finally found his breath, he said, “The words to bypass the trap at the library entrance.”
“Here, in the scroll, the whole time?”
The conjurer nodded. The simple security of it was excellent, and absurd. Exhausted, he laughed again.
Kara, Abby, and Lem shared a congratulatory look. Gloriana leaned close to the wizard, her voice a teasing whisper. “This doesn’t count toward a good reason to open the scroll.”
“Oh, yes, it does,” he countered.
“You didn’t know it was in there. We were going to have to keep using the walking wind to get in there. The great transporter: Unable to get into the ancient library without help. Must sting.”
His chuckles unabated: “Sting accepted.”
Her voice a tickle at his ear: “Hah!”
Whispered: “Gloriana, if you keep this up, I’m going to kiss you right in front of the others.”
She drew back, but she was laughing. He felt renewed.
They arrived at the eastern hallway and the great bronze door. Kara and Rahab could not help but shudder at the memory. It should have been enough knowing the words of passage, but they felt nervous nonetheless.
“Wait,” Lem said. “How do we know this will work?”
“In the ontological sense? We do not,” replied Rahab. “I suppose it is possible that ancient Thassilon had the kind of perverse sense of humor to write misleading instructions as a way to blind later generations, but given what I have seen of their culture, I do not credit them with that kind of forethought.”
Kara raised alarm. “Yet Thassilon has demonstrated enduring sophistication.”
“But not that kind.”
“What is ‘that’ kind?” Gloriana asked.
“To have vision that far into the future is to imagine a time in which one’s own greatness does not exist. The challenge ancient civilizations so often fail to meet is not producing something that merely endures, but rather producing something that meets—and has merit in—an age bereft of that ancient civilization, or even its memory. The pitfall of greatness is the assumption that such greatness represents an endpoint in time, rather than a moment on continuum.”
The alchemist’s interest was piqued. “The culture of the elves is ancient, and yet has relevance, and even prominence . . . .”
“Suggesting that the ancient culture of the elves has not fallen victim to the same limits of thinking. Why do you think that is?”
Lem sighed. “All this just to get through the door?”
Kara ignored the gardener. “You presume that my perspective matches your own theory. Yours is not the only hypothesis.”
“True,” the wizard shrugged, “but mine is more likely to be accurate.”
“Do you know no bounds?” the alchemist marveled.
“The statement represents my extensive study of history. So there are competing theories, fair and well. Your own ego remains intact.”
“I do not—”
“Oh, yes, you do.” The wizard stepped close and his voice plunged. “Oh, yes you fucking do.”
Gloriana felt a momentary surge of something she could not name, surprising, alarming, strangely heated, shattered and still solid. Alchemist and conjurer squared off for a moment, until Kara finally nodded.
“You are correct,” she admitted.
Rahab’s jaw worked. “No shame accumulates from admission of one’s own investment, Kara. I am not trying to win some contest, I am trying to unravel the mystery before us.”
Came the counter: “You are trying to do both.”
It was the wizard’s turn to nod. “Very well.”
The gardener was not satisfied. “But you said Mokmurian did not have the scroll, and yet Mokmurian did have a means to access the library without setting off the trap.”
Rahab turned. “That is what we understand given the information available to us. For example, it may be other writs explain the ward. Or, it may be that Mokmurian was in communication with Karzoug, or whatever masquerades as Karzoug, who might have knowledge of the protocol.”
“But you think you’re right that Mokmurian did not have this artifact, and that somehow indicates either his limits or the severity of the scroll itself?”
“Because my reasoning is superior.”
Lem sighed. “Fine. You should have the honors, then,” and stepped out of the way with a flourish.
“Of course,” replied Rahab, and cleared his throat, “unless anyone else speaks Thassilonian?”
That gave Gloriana an idea.
Rahab spoke a phrase in a language none of them understood, and the fantastic bronze door opened silently. They waited for the blazing advent of malevolent light, and when it did not come they recognized the rattling sound of the librarian going about its ceaseless duties within the chamber beyond.
“Excellent!” The wizard was genuinely happy. He glanced at Gloriana, who crossed her arms.
“This changes nothing about the decision to open the scroll.”
“That is the greatest danger of artifacts, Gloriana.”
The oracle gave an expectant, guarded look.
“Their most significant power is creating a need to be invoked.”
The companions strode inside.
“How may I assist?” came the metallic voice in Draconic.
The conjurer could not resist an opportunity to show off, and responded in Thassilonian. “We seek information about an artifact.”
The librarian switched languages seamlessly.
“It is called The Anathema Archive,” replied the librarian, with no more inflection than naming a species of bird.
Unversed in Thassilonian, the others turned to gauge Rahab’s reaction. The thrill of genuine surprise took them. It was, after all, so rare to witness the wizard in the throes of complete disbelief.
“Would you . . . be so kind as to repeat that?” gasped Rahab.
“The scroll you present is called The Anathema Archive. It is—”
“It is,” the wizard interrupted, “a thing out of time.”
The hermeto-mechanical brain cycled through another set of whirs and clicks. “Please clarify the designation ‘out of time.’ Thorassic records in cross-reference outline—”
Rahab waved impatiently. The librarian paused.
“By all the devices of Hell . . . .” The phrase came in the common tongue.
“Rahab?” Kara looked concerned. Gloriana remained silent, her mind feeling the patterns of the wizard’s life signal in her spell, spikes and spirals of intense emotion that alarmed her, and excited her in equal measure.
“I know this thing,” the wizard stroked the scroll in its adamantine case. “I have studied some of its history, only I did not know . . . .”
Kara waited, and then: “What?”
“Anathema Archive: A legendary name, a source of divination, but I did not realize it transcended foundational valence.” His simmering eyes fell upon distant, shivered horizons. Gloriana read the riot of his mind, not thoughts understood, but thunderstorms at remove, pounding the landscape of nerves with torrents, and strikes, and rattling explosions. For a moment she considered abandoning the spell’s link: An intimacy too intense threatened to part the clouds and shine a beam of sun that did not merely illuminate, it penetrated.
Hastily Rahab spun on the librarian. “Is it Thassilonian? The Archive? Is it Thassilonian in origin?”
“Would you like me to deliver all relevant works pertaining to the provenance of The Anathema Archive? Scholarly treatises in the number of—”
“No!” A shout, another wave. “That alone tells me more than the scribblings here! Thassilon laid claim to it, and possessed it no more than The Black Monk! Hah!” He spun on his companions, eyes agleam in devil-fire. “Do you know what this means?”
Lem shook his head in mild disgust. Abby tendered honestly: “No?”
“The Anathema Archive no more belongs to Thassilon than the very air they would no doubt have claimed! Do you not see?”
An exchange of confused looks.
“My friends! We now hold a thing Thassilon could not master, neither in its age, nor in ours!”
“Rahab—?” began Gloriana.
He sprang to her and clasped his hands about her shoulders. She felt his pulse in her spirit sense, too fast, a kettle near-to-bursting. “This is the first tangible advantage we have!”
She smiled full of sadness. “Is that your assessment, or the artifact’s insistence?”
Later, gathering in the cave anticipating teleportation, Abby and Gloriana stood close.
“It will be alright, Glo.”
“How do you know?”
The warrior shrugged. “Just a feeling.”
“I wish I had your feeling.”
“Something good is about to happen.”
The oracle found a smile. “What’s that?”
“We’re going home.”
Gloriana laughed. “Yes.”
“Something else, too.”
The oracle waited.
“We’re going to The Gilded Cage.”
1 Urge . . . to expound . . . problems . . . of fantasy megafauna ecology . . . rising!
2 The separate, supplemental parchments turned out to be eight divine scrolls, plus a special ninth (see the main text). The scrolls were greater restoration, heroes’ feast, order’s wrath, regenerate, resurrection, scrying, symbol of stunning, and true resurrection, all at 17th level. That’s . . . a pretty astonishing collection of very serious magic.