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Book I, Chapter 10: Thistletop Stronghold, Part 4

Briefly Kuch Redux

They took their time. There suddenly seemed to be no rush at all.

Gloriana was conscious, but dreadfully weak, barely alive. The oracle was able to reach inward to the spirits and dissolve the link of vitality between herself and Abby. That same link had been partly responsible for Gloriana’s brush with death; as the warrior suffered Nualia’s sword strokes, some of that injury passed to Gloriana.1 Even the basic act of dismissing the mystical effect was laborious; Gloriana took a strained—but relieved—breath as the link faded. Kara knelt close by, and Gloriana was still lying cradled in Rahab’s arms. She smiled wanly up at the conjurer, then closed her eyes again and relapsed into quiet breaths, utterly exhausted. Abby moved to the doorway and stood looking out, sword and dagger in hand, alert in case the sound of battle drew still more assailants from somewhere else in the stronghold. The door immediately opposite remained closed.

After long minutes of silence and stillness, Gloriana opened her eyes again and managed to summon the spirits of health to suffuse herself and her friends. Some strength returned, and she was able to sit up, then rise under her own power. She cast her healing a second time, and though she was still seriously wounded, the bleeding had stopped as her wounds coagulated and bones reintegrated.

Rahab stood, and Kara rose to her feet as well, retrieving her bow. Abby kept watch at the door. Gloriana looked at the conjurer.

“Ghosts of the Road,” she exclaimed softly.

Rahab looked a nightmare. His hands and ash gray robes were almost entirely splattered and soaked in blood and gore, some of it Abby’s, some of it Nualia’s, most of it Gloriana’s. When he moved the sopping hem swept across the floor, painting the stone in grisly crimson. His scholar’s shoes squelched noticeably with each footfall, tracking bloody footsteps wherever he stepped. Rahab noticed Gloriana’s scrutiny and looked down at himself. A tentative squeeze at one sleeve trickled incarnadine to the stone floor. He gave up a moment later. The effort had been pointless. The conjurer sighed quietly.

“You look awful,” Gloriana said with a tired—albeit genuine—smile. Rahab looked up.

“It’s the company I keep,” he replied. The oracle reached her hand up and touched her hair, no longer soft and honey-gold, but tangled and stuck in messy carnage, streaked black with clots of dried blood. In that moment, more than anything else in the world, Gloriana desired a steaming hot bath followed by a soft bed heaped with luxurious down pillows.

Abby stepped back from the doorway, and rejoined the others. They stood in a loose cluster at the center of the room and looked around. The chamber seemed to be some kind of laboratory, oval in shape and lined in red marble now liberally coated in blood. The room was lit by four human skulls enchanted to burn with flame that gave light without heat, like the lightstones and torches the party carried. These morbidly grinning lamps were arrayed along the shelves, shining down on alembics, jars, flasks, beakers, and all manner of other containers, some filled with powders, others bubbling with liquids, and still others that were tomb to various small animals preserved in hazy yellow fluid. Books on various subjects were stacked haphazardly on the floor. Atop one workbench lay a scattered sheaf of notes, now spattered with blood. At the north end of the room, built into the wall, an ornate fountain bubbled clear, fresh water. No one moved for long minutes.

Eventually Gloriana, still wincing in pain, whispered softly to herself and her body changed, becoming warm golden light, and her liminal form drifted through Abby, bestowing further healing to the warrior and herself. When she resumed her primary state, the oracle was largely healed by the magic, as was Abby. The mystic elemental transformation had the added benefit of sloughing the gore from skin, armor, and clothing alike. Though still weary, Gloriana nevertheless felt so glad to be at least cleaner, if not exactly clean.

Rahab found a basin and filled it with water from the fountain, scrubbing his hands and face as best he could. The condition of his clothes, he reasoned, could now find remedy only in magic, either by spell of cleansing or spell of fire.

Finally, Gloriana could no longer contain her curiosity. “What . . . what happened?” she asked softly, looking at the dead body of Nualia. There was a pause. Kara remained silent. Rahab appeared deep in thought.

“We won,” Abby said simply. There was another pause, longer this time. Finally, Rahab spoke.

“You were felled,” he said to Gloriana, seeing no logical reason to speak any way other than plainly. “Kara saved you; hers was the elixir that brought you back from the brink of death. It was a near thing. Abby killed Nualia. If you had seen her final strike you would have marveled at its magnificence.”

Gloriana nodded and and looked at the others, and then she felt tears welling in her eyes. “I have no memory of that,” she murmured, then approached Kara and gave the alchemist a warm and grateful embrace. Abby was looking at Rahab curiously, intently, but the wizard did not seem to notice, nor did Kara and Gloriana, and a moment later the party returned to the business at hand, mindful that they were still potential enemies as yet undiscovered.

The adventurers took a few minutes to scan the room for the presence of magic, but besides some of Nualia’s gear, the only other item that shone to Rahab and Gloriana’s sight was the fountain at the north wall. Rahab studied it for a while and determined that the magic particular to the fountain made food or drink clean and unspoiled,2 but the wizard also felt sure that other magics might have been attached to the font at one time, or that such might be possible again.

The party turned to Nualia’s body and divested it of the breastplate, the hand-and-a-half sword, a curious medallion, and a golden holy symbol in the shape of a stylized jackal head with three eyes. In a small pouch they found a few coins of gold and platinum. Nualia’s longbow lay nearby where she had dropped it. The sword and breastplate were enchanted,3 but it was the medallion that caught Gloriana’s eye.

The pendant was a silver circle with a carved star of seven narrow points radiating from a heptagonal center. At the apex of each star point was an eldritch rune. When she did not recognize the symbol, Gloriana looked expectantly at Rahab, but the wizard shook his head to indicate his own ignorance of the device. Kara leaned close to have a look.

“I think it’s . . . a Sihedron Medallion,” the alchemist said after a tentative pause. Everyone turned to look at the elf. Kara shrugged and raised her eyebrows.

“I know a little bit about its magic, but nothing beyond that. I think the term has been in elven lore for a long time, which must be how I came across the name, but I don’t know the meaning or significance.”

“Prethedon nava diuhu adli Mieranival taspru lyal?” Rahab asked.

Kara flashed Rahab her best sardonic smile. “Ren. Eborsia vard lodra ishwen od klerom ni querburon?”4

Rahab chuckled and gave the alchemist a small, slight bow.

Kara resumed in Common. Gloriana silently mouthed “Thank you.”

“From what I do know, the medallion’s magic is generally necromantic, though it does have an abjuration that provides the wearer with resistant magic. Once a day it can bestow a minor increase in health, and if the medallion is placed on a dead body its necromancy preserves the corpse against decay.”5

“The resistance and health magic would be useful,” Gloriana remarked. Then, more quietly, “Especially the health.” She closed her eyes and a new tear traveled down her cheek. She took up the medallion and draped the leather cord around her neck. She unclasped her cloak6 and approached Kara, carefully arranging the drape about the elf woman’s shoulders.

“You saved my life. This is paltry thanks, but I hope its power will give you aid.”

“We look after each other,” Kara replied softly. “That is the power that gives us aid.” Gloriana smiled against new tears and embraced the alchemist again.

“We should get some rest,” Abby said gently. Gloriana and Kara gathered their gear and began to move to the door, leaving the laboratory, yeth hound corpse, and Nualia’s body behind. Rahab seemed once again deep in thought, absently stroking his goatee. Abby stepped close and clapped a reassuring hand on the wizard’s shoulder, and Rahab looked up, jarred from his thoughts. Abby gave him an encouraging nod, a friendly chuck on the shoulder, and then jerked her head in the direction of the door. Rahab stepped for the door, then suddenly stopped and turned to the work bench where he quickly swept up the stack of blood-stained notes, rolled them up, and tucked them into his robe. Then he turned back to the door and headed out. Abby followed.

To their collective astonishment—and no small amount of relief—everyone in the party made it back across the trapped floor without setting the deadly device off.

••••

They returned to the ground floor where they had bunked previously, and spent the rest of the day fortifying their defensive position, taking much-needed sustenance, and spending time in silent reflection. As evening drew close, they built a fire, and arranged a watch. Deeply moved by her recent experience, Gloriana took special care to embrace her friends once more in thanks and solidarity.

Abby and Kara rolled into their blankets. Rahab was getting ready to lie down and try to sleep when he realized that his gore-caked robes made a miserable nightshirt. His clothes were stiff with drying blood and the reek was beginning to eclipse the stink of sweat, grime, and exertion he had already been wearing for the last couple of days.

“Baalzebul’s bollocks,” he sighed, and then shrugged resignedly and simply disrobed down to his loincloth.

“Rahab!” Gloriana exclaimed, caught off-guard as much by the brazenness with which the conjurer bared himself as the near-nakedness itself, though it became almost immediately obvious to the oracle that the wizard’s intent was not lascivious, especially because Rahab simply ignored her outburst. Kara briefly looked up in mild amusement, and then rolled over and closed her eyes. Abby whistled once, clapped slowly several times, then lay down to sleep with a good-natured chuckle. Rahab scooped up Escher into one hand, drew a little closer to the fire, wrapped himself in his blanket, and lay down.

Exhausted, the three fell asleep in moments. Gloriana walked a slow perimeter watch that passed without incident. When it was time for Kara’s watch, Gloriana lay down and drifted into a nightmare in which she was separated from Kara, Rahab, and Abby by a stream, and no matter how hard she yelled across the water, her friends could not hear her.7

••••

Abby was beginning to think she should be allowed to sleep through the night, as well. This was the second watch in as many days when it was she who heard something happening in the stronghold, but at least this time it didn’t sound quite as monstrously large as the previous episode. It sounded like humanoids running, footsteps pounding on wood above the sound of surf. Glancing out the front door of the fortress, Abby saw a humanoid figure and a canine trying to make speed across the plank rope bridge, pursued by what looked like a dozen or more raving goblins.

It was Kuch, half-orc barbarian nature priest, and his wolf companion. Abby pushed open the door and poked her head out.

“In here!” the warrior hissed in a stage whisper.

“They’re right behind me!” Kuch called out loudly in response. So much for subterfuge. Abby drew sword and shield and stood to one side of the door as Kuch and his wolf barreled through.

“Guard!” Kuch commanded the wolf, who circled around to an ambush position while the half-orc gripped his longspear ready for a surprise thrust when the goblins poured inside. The noise of the druid’s arrival woke Kara, who rolled out of her blanket and got quickly to her feet.

“Goblins!” Abby shouted as the mob of monsters neared. She could hear their gibbering squeals and chanted sing-song. Gloriana awoke at Abby’s shout and eventually Rahab did as well, blinking into awareness. The conjurer sent Escher scurrying into the shadows at a nearby wall, and pulled a scroll from his crumpled, cast-off robes. With no time to don the blood-caked clothes, Rahab unrolled the scroll and read it. The parchment disintegrated and sorcery cloaked the wizard’s virtually naked body in an invisible carapace of magical armor.

The first and second goblin died as they breached the door, one to Abby’s readied sword, another to Kuch’s prepared spear. Kara lobbed a shock bomb over their heads and out the door; a flash of buzzing light preceded a chorus of goblin death screams as the grenadoe exploded, killing one monster in the blast and another five in the immediate splash.8 Abby took the fight to the goblins in the palisade yard, smashing one dead with her shield. Gloriana moved outside to support and noticed the blasted patch of ground and dead goblins that had fallen to Kara’s shock bomb. The grenadoe had fallen dangerously close to the stanchions of the plank rope bridge.

“Nice throw!” the oracle shouted back at Kara. “But be careful! If that bridge falls we have to swim out of here!” Kara began unlimbering her bow in response while Rahab stepped out into the courtyard and began a spell of summoning.

Fighting the mobbed goblins was like fighting the changing tide, a chaos of surging and swaying. Abby, Kuch, and the wolf struggled to maintain fighting position and control of the battle. Attacks by both groups missed as the party members defended themselves in desperation. Abby’s shield had begun to look structurally compromised, large chunks shaved away under attack.

A red-bodied beetle of appreciable size appeared out of nothing at Rahab’s summons: an insect three feet long, with grasping mandibles and three glowing red glands on its abdomen. The beetle moved into the fray and attacked a goblin, but missed, and a moment later it was surrounded and hacked to pieces, slices of red carapace splintering everywhere, and when the insect died it vanished back to its otherworldly realm instantly.

Kara fired an arrow into the goblin mob and missed. Thus the battle went for several seconds, before Abby and Kuch rallied and dispatched three more, while Rahab fired a dart of acid so precisely through the right eye of a fourth goblin that the monster’s head completely deliquesced in a bubbling mist.9 Abby smashed the last goblin dead with her shield. Her bulwark had seen better days, and now it was scarred and covered in goblin gore with the steel frame deeply marked and dented.

For a moment, peace resettled on the stronghold yard, only to be shattered seconds later by a resounding roar near the waterline below, the same monstrous sound from the previous day, followed by a great splashing in the surf that lingered before fading.

Recalling Abby’s disposal of the previous group of goblins, Rahab made a suggestion: “We might consider leaving the goblin bodies to use as chum should we need to make an escape pursued by whatever that is . . . assuming its palate includes dead goblin, of course.” Abby nodded approval of the practical contingency. Gloriana assented, though there was something about the idea that did not sit comfortably with her, however bent on the party’s demise the goblins had been. Kara’s culture had known conflict with goblinkind since time immemorial, and the alchemist did not give the bait strategy a second thought.

Gloriana took a moment to channel her healing power amongst the assembled, soothing the few minor wounds sustained in the fight. She turned to the half-orc.

“Hail, Kuch.” The druid turned to the adventurers, raising both fists in a greeting the style of which was unfamiliar to them. Accustomed as he was to all manner of animal bodies in all manner of covering—or lack thereof—Kuch was unfazed by Rahab’s lack of dress, and his barbarian sensibility saluted the idea of someone fierce enough to enter combat naked, though he was sad the body on display was so obviously bereft of half-orcish beauty.

Gloriana turned to Rahab and smiled: “Time to get dressed.” She had intended the remark as good-natured, but it came out sounding a bit like parental admonishment.

“Another day carrying your blood around as my tabard? Who could refuse?” The wizard turned his loincloth-framed buttocks to the others, and strode back into the stronghold door. Gloriana shook her head, suddenly feeling slightly cross. Rahab sat close to the campfire, retrieved his spellbook, and set to memorizing his daily complement of magic. An hour later he was ready, and only then did he don his blood-caked clothes. The deep stains had dried thick and black; if anything, the conjurer looked even more ghastly than the day before.

“As tempting as it must be, do try to refrain from eating the sanguine-soaked fibers,” he chided Escher like a resigned schoolmaster, picking up the rat and depositing him inside the folds of his robes.

They ate breakfast, and Kuch sat crosslegged on the stronghold floor and related what had happened to bring him to Thistletop with a goblin mob in tow. He had been on patrol helping Shelalu scout the wilderness to keep track of the goblin activity when he stumbled upon a group that had gathered to discuss events at Thistletop. Kuch managed to stealthily overhear the goblin conversation, and from what he could understand, some of the monsters had been afield during and after the party’s initial attack. Upon exploration, the goblins had found the body of the Big Gogmurt and his mountain lion, and one of them spied a human woman dumping goblin corpses into the surf from the palisade on the island cliff, including the body of Ripnugget. The goblins retreated, spent a couple of days gathering some of their fellows from the surrounding countryside, and returned intent on a counter-assault to seize power now that some of the most fierce goblin champions were verified dead. After successfully tracking the goblins’ erratic journey over field and through underbrush, Kuch’s luck ran out and the half-orc was discovered. The goblins gave chase, and he and the wolf ran to the only place in the area he estimated might still have allies.

Gloriana, in turn, related the tale of the assault and progress in Thistletop. Kuch nodded approval of their efforts, and raised his fists again in a gesture of encouragement upon hearing of the defeat of Bruthazmus and Nualia.

“Is there more to do?”

“Yes,” Gloriana said. “We still have some areas on the lowest level to explore.”

“I have some time,” Kuch mentioned, “before I have to return to the wild. I could help a bit.”

Abby and Gloriana nodded and thanked the half-orc for the offer. Kara remained aloof.

••••

In order to proceed the adventurers needed to disable—if possible—the hallway trap: leaping back and forth like frogs was impractical and ultimately untenable.

“Should Kara try?” Abby asked, then looked sheepish as the alchemist glanced at her. “I mean—it’s just that your balance is the best among us, that’s all. You are the quickest.”

“Abby, watching you fight over the last week—and especially over the last day—it has not been difficult to deduce that your own balance, speed, and poise are as good as any in this party.” Rahab nodded his agreement. Abby blushed and suddenly found something fascinating to inspect at her feet.

“Your armor, on the other hand,” Rahab followed up, “makes the task much more difficult. You could strip out of it, of course, but that will take time, and if we’re attacked while trying this you’ll be disadvantaged. Besides, it might compromise Gloriana’s sense of propriety.” The oracle shot Rahab an accusatory look which he ignored.

“So it has to be me, obviously,” the conjurer continued.

“The Spell of the Falling Feather,” Kara said.

“Hmm? . . . Oh, yes, of course, that will be useful if the limits of my dexterity intrude.” Rahab leaned toward Kara in an exaggerated conspiratorial gesture, wagged his eyebrows, and flashed his impish smile. “I was referring to my perception and intellect. Disabling the trap could be quite the puzzle.”

Kara crossed her arms, narrowed her eyes, and smiled coolly. “Trelen var detimilon luhavash eved kit krith Mieranival jondralalit?”

Rahab’s grin grew even more delighted and devilish. “Iks haziloon forferen. Ithik lo luhavath wenequivina.”10

The conjurer turned, rubbed his hands together a few times, then jogged energetically forward and successfully leapt across the trapped floor. He turned, and like an actor at performance, gave an exaggerated bow before exiting stage right, through the door into the laboratory.

Gloriana, Abby, and Kara snorted once and shook their heads almost in unison.

••••

Before he began his search, Rahab stood a moment in quiet stillness, out of sight of the others, looking intently at the marble floor. Nualia’s body still lay where it had fallen, and there were also two substantial bloodstains bordered by bloody footprints he knew to be his.

“Anything?” Gloriana’s voice.

Rahab snapped from his thoughts and set to examining the laboratory in precise, methodical fashion until at last he found it: a lever, hidden behind a shelf.

“Standby!” he called.

The lever moved with a click which was answered by a louder sound of gears in the hallway. Kuch’s wolf padded across, stopping on the trap plate to look back over its shoulder, then disappeared around the corner into the laboratory. Gloriana followed. The trap was disabled. The party gathered in the marble room. Gloriana took care to step around the dried blood puddles. A tiny ghostly skeleton briefly appeared over her shoulder as though leaning in to whisper something in her ear, then vanished.

While the others looked around, Rahab unfurled the blood spattered notes he had taken the day before and began to review them on the workbench: drawings and maps of Sandpoint, references to the smuggler’s tunnels, mention of something called a runewell and its use, which Rahab deduced was the pool the quasit had used to summon sinspawn. When they were ready Abby went to the door opposite the laboratory, listened, and then opened it. Before exiting the laboratory, Rahab took one of the skull lamps ensorcelled with undying magical flame, tucking it away in his backpack with a sly, secret smile.
____________________________________________

1 When Rahab was giving healing potions to Gloriana, he was, in essence, fighting not only against the basic game mechanic of dying, but also against the oracle’s Life Link ability. Gloriana would stabilize when healed, then Abby would take damage from Nualia, and some of that would pass to Gloriana, and the dying process would begin again. Saving Gloriana truly was a team effort: Rahab kept Gloriana from death, Abby had to kill Nualia in order for Gloriana to heal, and Kara had the potion that brought Gloriana out of the dying condition. That fight was a campaign highlight.

2 Purify Food and Drink.

3 Bastard Sword +1 and Breastplate +1.

4 Rahab and Kara discuss a possible recourse for more knowledge about the medallion. Interpreted from Elvish:
Rahab: “Might others among the Mierani know more?”
Kara: “Certainly. Do you have a season to journey and ask?”
The Mierani refers to the elves of the Mierani Forest who are Kara’s people. Kara’s response is sarcastic, citing the time it would take to travel the approximately 420 miles overland (roughly 280 miles as the crow flies), one way.

5 A Sihedron Medallion provides a +1 resistance bonus on all saves, and once a day can grant False Life. If placed on a corpse, it acts as a Gentle Repose spell.

6 Cloak of Resistance +1.

7 The party leveled up to 4th at the end of the session where Nualia died. Up to now I have used the Interludes to mark moments in the campaign when the party leveled up, as a narrative tool to express a game mechanic. Since this level occurs in the midst of the Thistletop Stronghold section, it makes less narrative sense to try and fit an Interlude in, as those episodes have previously taken place in moments of “down time.” Further, it has never been my intention to present an Interlude at every leveling up, but rather provide one for each of the main party members at some point, and perhaps occasionally as exposition for other aspects of the story or other NPCs. So when the party wakes up the next morning after the fight with Nualia, the mechanics of leveling up have already occurred, including an attribute increase for 4th level, and so on. Gloriana’s nightmare isn’t connected to leveling up. It just happens to be the place where I decided the footnote goes.

8 This was one of those great moments in game play involving grenade-like missiles: an on-target weapon with splash damage lands amidst a group of six clustered enemies. Bzzzzztttt!

9 Rahab’s Acid Dart is a spell-like ability that acts as a missile weapon, which is why it misses as often as it hits, because he’s making attack rolls and the die results vary. But this time he rolled a critical hit, and a single acid dart did 17 points of damage. I’ve always conceived of Rahab as affiliated with acid as an energy type, not exclusively, but as a kind of signature, so even though it was overkill on a goblin, this attack was immensely satisfying.

10 Interpreted:
Kara: “Is it any wonder humans have earned a reputation for arrogance among my people?
Rahab: “Introduce me sometime. I’ll set a new standard.”

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