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Book I, Chapter 12: Thistletop Stronghold, Part 6

The Whispering Beast

They reassembled in the room with the curious pillar. Rahab administered a cantrip of resistance to everyone; Gloriana gave Abby a protective invocation against evil.

The conjurer spent a minute studying the magical resonance of the pillar, determining that the power present was his own area of mastery: conjuration. The next step was searching the pillar’s physical surface. Gloriana spotted two small slots near eye-level, and Abby realized that there was a hollow space beyond: the pillar was a convex stone door. Goriana called upon the spirits to try and read the runes carved on the sides of the coin shapes, a kind of magic she had learned from Rahab, but her effort was in vain.1 Kara drank a potion whose magic augmented the understanding of languages.2

“It is definitely a language,” the alchemist observed, “but it . . . eludes the magic of the potion, somehow. It is . . . ancient or perhaps very obscure, like a cipher. It has qualities that imply a theme, however. See how some of the runes seem to gather or hoard some of the other runes? It may have something to do with accumulating wealth or greed? Chelliax reveres a devil—” Kara suddenly broke off and looked at Rahab.

“An archdevil, actually,” the wizard interjected evenly. “Mammon, The Countless, Treasurer of Hell, Lord Minister of the Infernal Exchequer. But those runes are neither Chellish nor the alphabet of The Iron Tongue. This device has some other affiliation.”

Gloriana indicated the slots. “Coins?”

“Gold, I should think,” Rahab replied.

“Naturally.” Gloriana produced two gold pieces and passed one to Abby. The women took up a postion either side of the pillar. “Together,” the oracle said. Abby nodded her head once, twice, and thrice, and as one she and Gloriana let the coins slip from their fingers. There sounded a click and then a heavy grinding of stone on stone. The pillar began to sink slowly into the floor. The adventurers stood back a safe distance until it settled flush, revealing a wide hall beyond with three sets of double doors: north, east, south. Abby made her way around to each set, listening for sound, and hearing nothing. At the southernmost doors she waved to her companions, indicating they should approach. The warrior pointed at the doors.

There was no handle or other apparent means of levering the panels. At the center of the doors was a carved symbol that looked familiar: seven-pointed star, similar to the Sihedron Medallion. Gloriana held the pendant to the symbol on the door expectantly, but nothing happened.

“North it is,” Abby said. They relocated, and opened the doors.

There were shadows.

••••

The undead were on them almost before they could react. Rahab only just managed to fire an acid dart, but it missed.3 The conjurer was keenly aware that Gloriana’s power to harm undead was confined to a certain number of times in a day, and that she must already be approaching that limitation in the wake of the previous battle. Kara drank a shielding extract, and then the shadows were attacking.

Gloriana and Abby both fell victim to the draining touch of the murky undead, and the weakness descended upon the two women once more. The warrior had not acted against the oracle’s counsel this time; it was just circumstance of proximity. Abby tried to retaliate with a sword cut and again the enchanted steel passed harmless through the darkness.

Gloriana had two reserves of power left and she expended one now, blasting the brace of shadows, but the wave of energy was not enough to overcome them. In desperation she called upon the spirits to grant her another chance, and her plea was answered. She channeled again immediately—her last chance of the day—and again the undead were torn by the radiance.4

The shadows, however, were not defeated yet.

Gloriana’s heart sank, but she defiantly stood her ground. “I can do no more,” she announced. “You must destroy them before they kill me and I return as one of them.”

Now it was Kara’s turn, and the alchemist was already imbibing the bubbling red glow of her fire-breathing liquid. She opened her mouth and exhaled a firestorm over the two shadows, burning away the fragments of darkness. The fight was over.

••••

“Return as one of them? You failed to mention that little detail earlier.” Kara gently chided.

“I should have said something,” Gloriana assented. “I was hoping we had defeated all of them, but, yes, if anyone dies as a result of their power, that soul returns as a shadow. A fight with even one such creature can very quickly become a doom among many.”

Abby shuddered.

“Alas, my magic of restoration is also expended, or I would return your strength and mine, Abby. I will be able to help tomorrow.” The warrior nodded understanding, but she felt lost with her brawn compromised so, and worried how her ability to fight would be hampered.

Rahab was giving the room a once-over for signs of magic. The chamber was small, but it had a dais against the north wall with a minor throne perched atop. A ghostly figure sat there orating in a strange language. Kara’s gout of fire had washed over the individual during the fight and left it seemingly unharmed and likewise unaware. The phantasm appeared as a man of severe aspect, holding a book in one hand upon which shone the increasingly recognizable seven-pointed star.

“It’s an illusion,” Rahab sneered, reading the magical resonance with his spell of detection, “linked to the throne itself. That language is ancient—it must be—but I do not know it. Perhaps it is a vocalization of the runes on the pillar. Regardless, I suspect this is some sort of communication: a sermon to the faithful of some religion, perhaps, or instructions from a sovereign to subjects.”

“Or a warning?” Kara mentioned. The wizard nodded.

“Quite possibly. The image bears the symbol on Gloriana’s medallion, a motif we have seen in abundance on this level of the fortress. There is something else here, however. Another magic, another source, I think.” Rahab was concentrating on his spell, reading its subtleties and clues.

“What is it?” asked Gloriana.

“I don’t know. It is difficult to place. It somehow defies isolation.”

“There is much here that does, it seems,” Kara reflected. Rahab was still concentrating on his spell, but he silently agreed. The conjurer turned and walked carefully back into the hallway with the three sets of doors, continuing to focus his spell in search of magic.

“The southern doors show radiance,” he commented. “Abjuration. Nothing on the doors to the east.”

The party moved to the last portals and proceeded through. Inside was another oval room with three grisly worktables upon which lay saws, drills, knives, leather straps, tubes of glass, steel clamps. There were bones scattered about, some animal, some humanoid, and many stains of blood long-since dried marked the surfaces.

Abby felt disquiet. “What is this place?”

“It’s an arcane surgery,” Kara said, and all eyes turned to the elf. “Living creatures are modified with magic and these tools.”

“Modified how?” Gloriana asked, though she was not entirely sure she wanted to know.

“Extra limbs, augmented vision, skin like iron, poison for blood, tails, wings, horns. Many features may be added—or removed, or changed—depending on the magic involved and the desires of the surgeon.”

“Awful,” murmured the oracle.

“The tools are actually a very fine set,” the alchemist commented. “Those pieces there, in the sectioned leather pouch. Excellent craftsmanship. In the hands of a healer they would be worthy instruments.”

“They have administered much pain,” Gloriana said.

“Sometimes pain is a part of healing,” replied Kara, and the oracle knew this to be true. The golden-haired woman approached the worktable and carefully rolled the slotted pouch closed and buckled the cylinder, then stowed it in her backpack. As she did so, something glinted at the edge of her vision, and she looked under one of the tables at the object there. The size of a dinner plate, the flat metal disk had a handle on one side. Gloriana picked it up and turned it over, revealing the image of the seven-pointed star in gold upon a field of silver and surrounded by seven gemstones.

“I think we may have found a key.”

••••

The disk proved to be the way through the southern doors, indeed. After Rahab applied a cantrip of resistance to everyone, Abby took the disk from Gloriana and fitted it to the corresponding indentations on across the central seam of the doors. Once set, the warrior discovered the key turned easily, and a deep boom sounded, rippling away like an animal fleeing fire in the forest. The heavy doors began to open outward with a great, slow grinding.

The room on the other side was brightly—though eerily—lit. In the center of the space was a large, blazing firepit that gave off a foul odor like burning hair. Covering almost the entirety of the eastern wall was a massive carving of the now familiar seven-pointed star, fifteen feet in diameter and ancient. Two alcoves set in the southern wall sheltered more of the glaive-bearing statues.

The adventurers began to enter the room.

And then the thing that paced—the thing imprisoned in the chamber for uncounted years—attacked.

It was time to feed.

••••

Something strong and sharp and invisible suddenly slammed into Abby and she cried out in surprise and pain, her body jerking violently to one side. Blood welled under her armor, running slick and warm down her left side, and her vision wavered briefly with the agony. At that moment the thing appeared, revealed out of nothing right next to her, its jagged, hooked blade stuck in Abby’s side, wet with Abby’s blood.

It was immense: eleven feet tall, at least, and monstrous to look upon. A long-snouted and sharp-toothed head like a skull surmounted the lean, muscled, bipedal figure that towered over the party. The thing had hollow, unblinking, red-rimmed eyes of malign and hungry gaze, and its body was draped in filthy grave wrappings at the feet, wrists, and loin. It smelled of old bone marrow. What Abby had first thought was a weapon was actually one of the horror’s six serrated claws, each a sword’s length.

Rahab’s eyes widened in recognition. A barghest, and it has shed its skin. Oh, this is very bad.5

Kara hurled a shock bomb at the thing and scored a hit, causing some damage, but more importantly the electrical burst briefly dazzled the monster, momentarily diminishing its ability to successfully see targets. Abby swung her sword, but the horror’s claw was still lodged painfully in her side and a wave of nausea came over her; despite her proximity the warrior failed to land her blade.

Rahab cast a spell and an airburst of glittering pinpoints, like diamond dust drifting through sunlight, rained down on the barghest’s eyes. A howl went up from the thing and it ripped its claw free of Abby’s body as it stumbled back a step, shaking its long skull, rubbing the back of its hands against its eye sockets to no avail. The thing went blind.6 Gloriana shouted a mystic command,7 and four or five spirits manifested as phantasmal mouths above her shoulders mutely mirroring the movement of her own mouth.

“Halt!” the oracle shouted, but the horror, though blinded, still possessed a formidable Hell-spawned will and the compulsion had no effect.

In sightless fury the barghest slashed the air with wild swings of scythe-like claws, but it could not see to strike, and the sparkling nimbus of dust that coated the thing prevented it from turning fully invisible and regaining the advantage. Abby ducked away from the claws.

The next seconds were critical. Kara’s second shock bomb attack was as true as the first, and electric liquid poured over the monster painfully. Rahab launched an acidic dart sizzling into the horror and melting a dripping scar into its flesh while Abby plunged her enchanted sword into the monster’s body in a vicious thrust. Gloriana issued another magical command, but again the monster resisted. It flailed uselessly at the air again.

Like a violent lightning drumbeat keeping time Kara threw a third shock bomb, alternating hands and issuing another galvanic blast upon the horror. The monster jerked erratically under the successive bomb blasts, and Rahab added to the strange dance by firing another caustic dart straight into the thing. Acrid smoke mingled with the burning-hair smell in the room, making the atmosphere doubly oppressive, but the damage to the monster was accumulating as parts of its form were torn away. This time, however, Abby’s attacks missed catastrophically, her muscles greatly reduced from the shadows draining power, though she did manage to retain her grip on sword and shield. Once more Gloriana attempted a charismatic command of magic, and once more it failed. By now the barghest had shaken off the blinding effect of Rahab’s spell, but it still could not capitalize on invisibility. It raked claws at Abby, missed, nearly stumbled into the room’s firepit, and barely recovered with a backhand swipe that slashed across the warrior’s legs. Abby gritted her teeth against the pain.

For a fourth time Kara pitched a shock bomb into the monster, precisely shattering the grenadoe upon its throat for another vital hit. The conjurer, too, had found his target, speeding a third acid dart that bored into the horror’s torso like a drill coring ice. Abby fumbled another sword stroke, but managed to hit with her shield, though the magical toughness of the barghest shrugged off the blow as if it was nothing. Gloriana now brought her morningstar to bear, but like the warrior, she, too, was weakened from the shadows’ attacks, and could not make her strike land.

The feeding had not gone at all as the horror had anticipated. It tried a new tactic, crossing its serrated claws in front of its chest and casting a nefarious charm against the sword-bearing woman before it.

“Kill that one,” rasped a voice like sand against brass. Unblinking eyes turned their gaze to indicate Kara. Abby felt a strange, heavy compulsion descend upon her, a suggestion almost off-handed, an enticing desire to act in support of a friend in need. But then her survivor’s mind broke through the magic. The warrior shook her head.

“Kill you,” she whispered through her pain in reply. For a moment the towering thing and Abby locked gazes, and in the opening Kara overhanded a final bomb that was the horror’s ruin. There was a sudden buzzing flash, a low moan, and the barghest crumpled under its own great weight.8 Abby fell to her knees and a curtain of blood poured out from under her armor, running red down her side.

••••

“I’m alright,” Abby said with labored breath.

“Except you’re not,” the oracle replied pointedly, kneeling to take a look at the warrior’s wounds. The horror had inflicted significant damage. It required five uses of the magic healing wand to restore Abby to fitness. When Gloriana finally helped Abby stand, the warrior was hale, though still weak. She looked at the others.

“What did we just fight?”

“A barghest,” Rahab answered, “and an old one, judging by its size and appearance. I think this was the whispering beast to which the war room notes referred, and I think this room was its prison.” The conjurer stood looking at the fallen monster. He felt wonder that the party had triumphed so handily, and he also felt the thrill of power from that triumph. It was intoxicating.

“They are born in Hell,” the conjurer continued, “though they are not devils. You wouldn’t think so to look at them, but they are related to goblinkind. Their most common form is more canine, going about on four legs, but they translate to the Prime in order to feed, whence they acquire power. When they have fed enough they shed their skin.”

“What happens then?” Gloriana asked.

“They become this,” Rahab indicated the monstrous corpse.

“That’s horrible,” the oracle suppressed a shudder.

“Indeed. More so than you guess, even, for I deem that—weakened as we are and still nascent in our ability—this Infernal’s strength greatly exceeded our own.”

“We were lucky,” Kara said.

“Perhaps. Nevertheless, our own power grows.” Rahab stared off into the middle distance, and soon his devil grin appeared, as though the wizard savored some secret treat, delicious and rare.

Abby, Kara, and Gloriana exchanged a look. Kara changed the subject.

“We should search the room. Come, Rahab,” and the alchemist clapped a hand on the wizard’s shoulder. His eyes refocused. Soon he and Gloriana were scanning the room for magic, and they found it in abundance. In the northern corners of the chamber were two iron racks stacked with candles that did not seem to melt and which resonated with magic. The candles had been enchanted with sorcery similar to the lightstones: they produced candlelight without heat, and would never extinguish. Rahab immediately saw the possibility, and scooped thirty of their number into his pack, his mind already arranging them in a library he had not yet built.9 Kara took the other thirty candles. Tucked away in one of the alcoves was a backpack that radiated magic, as well. Upon inspection it revealed its secrets: inside was a magical space larger than the backpack’s limits would normally allow,10 and it already contained treasure.

Abby pulled the object from the backpack and held it aloft. It was a shield made entirely of shining silver metal, but the substance was like no steel she knew. It was extremely light weight: a large shield made completely of steel in this size would have been too heavy to lift, much less wield, but this perfectly circular aegis felt lighter than her own bulwark. It felt so light, and was so well-balanced, that Abby suspected she would be able to throw the item as a missile weapon.11 At the center of the reflective surface was etched a seven-pointed star, but this insignia was slightly different than those seen heretofore. Rahab confirmed the shield was enchanted, and suggested that the limits of the item’s power were not yet entirely revealed. Abby braced her arm through the straps and marveled at the feel.

Gloriana took time to transfer gear from her backpack into the magical container. When she lifted it to her shoulders, she discovered that even with all her equipment inside, the haversack only weighed about five pounds. She was grateful for the reduced burden.

The party spent a few more minutes exploring the chamber, but there was little else to see. They had reached the limits of Thistletop Stronghold. They made their way wearily out of the room and returned to the tide pool where they labored to harvest the meat of the giant crab, which proved to be messy work. In the fortress stores they had found a large waxed cloth—likely used as a sheath for delicate supplies against damp—and used it to wrap and transport the meat. Nevertheless, by the time they made their way back up the stairs, they were dripping. Gloriana had not considered it possible for Rahab’s gruesome garments to assume still greater grisly aspect, but now the blood-black stains of the wizard’s robes glistened slick under a new coat of giant crab oil.

They crossed the plank rope bridge for the last time, cutting it behind them to inhibit reclamation and reestablishment of the stronghold. Autumn afternoon was drifting into evening, the surrounding forest colors a beautiful riot of red and yellow, orange and green. The breeze from the sea was cool and tugged at their cloaks. The adventurers had gone in search of a missing horse, and had found the malign enemy of the village that had adopted them. They had charged the gate. They had defeated each champion. They had scattered the forces and allies of the region’s goblinkind. They had penetrated the fortress depths to reveal and confront the horrors within, and they had conquered them. It had been three days of battle, blood, and death, one very nearly their own. To the south and west, along the Lost Coast Road, lay the fishing village of Sandpoint. Already taverns and inns were pulling the first pints in anticipation of the work day’s end. Already hearth fires were being stoked against the looming night, and suppers were being prepared to welcome fishers and fruit sellers, friends and family, children and elders. A quiet settled all around like the sigh of the land finally free of an uncomfortable burden.

“Let’s go,” Abby finally said, and her face broke into a wide grin. “I want crab for dinner.”12
_______________________________________

1 Read Magic, which she had learned from Rahab. Poor Glo. I can’t imagine that was a pleasant instruction. She just wants to learn the spell. Rahab prepares a short lecture series:
Parte the First: An Abbridgedde Hystory of the Developement of the Moste Necessary and Foundationall Appryhenshion of Magicke Language in Rune, Symbol, Etchynge, Diagramme, Formula, and Speeche. Day 1.
Parte the Seconde: Tecknyques Elymentary and Advanced of the Readynge of Magicke. Day 2.
Parte the Thirde: Pracktickum and Progresse. Days 3 and 4.
“I don’t feel tardy,” indeed.

2 Potion of Comprehend Languages.

3 One of Rahab’s great challenges with Acid Dart is that, because of how initiative order sometimes shakes out, he’s often firing into melee. “But, Desert Son!” I hear you say, “it’s a ranged touch attack!” Yes, yes it is. It’s nevertheless a 4-point penalty on attack rolls, and it’s an attack roll from a wizard, which is a character class whose Base Attack Bonus exists in a state of prolonged infancy. On the plus side, as a Conjuration School class feature, Acid Dart does ignore spell resistance (as distinct from the spell of the same name). And, of course, its coolness and level of stylistic bad-assitude are beyond measure.

4 Gloriana caused 10 points of damage to the shadows. She spent a Hero Point to immediately take another standard action and channeled again for an additional 8 points of damage.

5 Rahab recognized a greater barghest, but we did not know Malfeshnekor was an advanced elite greater barghest, ostensibly a Challenge Rating of only 7 because he’s imprisoned in the room and limited to that fighting space, but still, for a party of four 4th level characters who have suffered strength drain and are down to our last few spells, this monster was more than capable of redecorating the cell walls with a fresh coat of paint from the Sherwin-Williams® Adventurer Blood line (high gloss, not matte).

6 I suspect most campaigns have these moments of realization, but this one was mine: the instant in which I came to truly appreciate the power of Glitterdust in the arsenal of the wizard. Malfeshnekor blew his Will save and suddenly he couldn’t see to hit and he couldn’t make use of invisibility. For years my limited vision has seen wizards primarily as damage-dealers: Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Magic Missile, Finger of Death, Meteor Swarm, etc. Since playing one, I realize that they occupy a much more dynamic, broader utility role: in addition to damage, there are the various Wall spells, Dispel Magic, Monster Summoning, movement-related magic, counterspelling, attribute bolstering . . . and Glitterdust. This spell (including Malfeshnekor’s missed save) changed the fight.

7 Command.

8 And then there are fights like this. I don’t know if Dgroo—our eminent GM—adjusted Malfeshnekor at all to make the combat a little easier (and if he did, he saved our assess), but this fight was amazing. Though Abby struggled, she ended up doing one of the things that she does best, which is fight as a kind of defensive focus of attention that occupies enemies while the rest of the party dishes out damage. Each round Kara and Rahab were 100% accurate, five for five and three for three, respectively. Malfeshnekor had some bad rolls, Abby took a beating of 26 points of damage, almost all of our spells and elixirs were expended, but no one else suffered any kind of injury whatsoever, and in the end we defeated the barghest. We fought the big bad monster, it took nearly everything we had, left us bloodied and spent, but we won. It was a fantastic climax to a fantastic adventure section.

9 I love little game details like this. These are essentially Everburning Torches in candle form, with the appropriate light radius adjustment. This is the kind of magic item that is largely useless from a mechanics/combat/dungeoneering standpoint: torches and other continually lit objects have much better radius for illumination. But a candle that gives light but doesn’t burn? That’s exactly the kind of magic item perfect for a wizard to use in a library full of books, scrolls, parchments, maps, codices, and art. Rahab doesn’t have a library . . . yet . . . but when he does, he’ll already have 30 perfect game details with which to light it.

10 Handy Haversack.

11 We determined this is a +1 Large Shield but also that there is some deeper magic to the item, as well, though what that is remains unknown. There is some indication that the weapon can be thrown given its weight and balance.

12 Optional: for the cinematic ending effect, cue up “Be Good To Yourself” by Journey (from their 1986 Raised on Radio album), and turn up the volume. Go back and read the last paragraph and Abby’s last comment. Hit play just as you finish reading the word “dinner” and imagine a cut to a black screen and the credits roll on Book I.

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dgroo Desert_Son

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