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Book I, Chapter 7: Thistletop Stronghold, Part 1

The Gardener

Two days passed in Sandpoint during which the party rested, recuperated, resupplied, reexamined. Gloriana expended healing spells to flush the quasit venom’s remnants from Abby’s system and restore the warrior to fighting poise. Though their recent experience had made them stronger, their development was tempered by the knowledge that the course of the threat to Sandpoint was far from decided. Though the town was no longer in immediate danger from the tunnels beneath, the party had yet to confront the mysterious Nualia and her remaining forces.

Gloriana bought a breastplate of stout steel to replace the scale mail that, while useful, limited her movement somewhat and weighed her down. She bought another morningstar as well, cold-forged of iron in anticipation of future battles against demonic forces, and for her hand she procured a gauntlet spiked with steel barbs as a last line of defense when circumstances of combat or the whimsy of haunts divested her of weapons.

Rahab transcribed new spells of fire1 into his spellbook. Kara bought a stone similar to Abby’s, imbued with continual magic flame and enchanted to hover at the level of the head, out of the way yet a source of constant and reliable illumination. Gloriana followed the elf’s example and purchased likewise.

The druid Kuch departed for the wilderness to assist Shelalu in tracking the goblins.

On their way to consult with Mayor Deverin about next steps, the group met a man on horseback galloping up in a flurry of mud. The man dismounted quickly, holding the reins as the horse tossed its head. Rahab and Gloriana recognized Thed Forthright, local farmer and horse trader occasionally seen about town and tavern. It did not require courtly dimensions of political skill to discern the grave worry in Forthright’s face as he gasped, without greeting, “Help!”

Gloriana replied, “Calm yourself. Take a moment. Tell me what’s wrong?”

Forthright’s consternation seemed to ease somewhat, if only briefly. “I had a horse to sell. A prize, mind! Sturdy, fit for war. Ash gray with black in the mane. I came to town yestereve to talk price with a man like to buy. When I got back home my farm was wrecked and overrun, and Shadowmist gone!”

“We are of the watch,” reassured Gloriana. “We can help.”

“Thank you, watchlady. I was coming to see the sheriff.”

“He’s away just now. We can help,” Gloriana reiterated, more gently, but with a confidence that seemed to settle Forthright more.

“That horse is a prize, I know. I would pay to have it returned. Please. I have some gold from my business. I can offer 300 coins.”

Progress in the conversation and any nascent investigation was abruptly interrupted as two other townsfolk—irregulars occasionally enlisted to the Sandpoint watch—strode up leading a bay bearing one in the manner of a prisoner. As they drew near the party saw that the figure laid belly-down across the saddle in binds was a halfling.

Thus the oracle, the wizard, the alchemist, and the warrior met the gardener.

••••

“Heroes of Sandpoint!” exclaimed one of the newly arrived watch volunteers on seeing the assembled; Gloriana offered good morning in return. “Fortune is with us to meet you! We have apprehended a murderer!”

There was a long pause in the cool autumn sunlight. Gazes turned to the trussed occupant of the saddle. The prisoner’s mouth was gagged tightly in cloth. The halfling’s eyes were intense and focused, regarding all those gathered as if to commit every face present to a memory of particular severity.

“What is happening, exactly?” Gloriana asked, and her glance around included the watch volunteers, the horse they led, and the prisoner tied atop.

“He killed a farmer outside of town,” spoke the volunteer leading the horse and indicating the halfling with inclined head. “We found him at the Forthright stead, and the whole place torn up and looted. We think he killed Thed Forthright.”

“Except he obviously didn’t,” Kara spoke quietly and the farmer himself stepped into sight around the steed that had brought him. Present all along, Forthright’s face showed mystification at the news that he was not only deceased but in the presence of his own murderer.

The volunteers started as though suddenly roused from sleep and seeing the farmer for the first time. “Forthright! Alive! Then . . . then, who did he kill?” again indicating their captive.

Rahab raised a hand to shield his eyes as though suddenly afflicted by a pain, and shook his head behind the gesture. Kara would later remark to the wizard that she did not think it possible for a human to roll the eyes to the extent Rahab had managed.

Gloriana had stepped to the horse and removed the gag from the halfling’s mouth. The prisoner spoke:

“Unbind me!” There was venom in his words. “I am past weary of this, and you humans who continue to visit it upon me.”

The volunteers evinced severe and growing embarrassment at the realization that they had collected not a murderer but rather their own ignominy. Gloriana was at work loosening the halfling from his bonds. The lean figure slid from the saddle to his feet and stepped easily underneath the arch of the horse. If his gaze could fell timber then the volunteers would have taken up new post as kindling for any tavern fire.

“We’ll handle it from here,” Gloriana said, trying to move the volunteers along.

“This is not over,” the halfling menaced at the volunteers. “I’ll have satisfaction in an apology, and compensation, too!”

“Sorry, sir,” one of the volunteers was saying; then, quieter: “We thought you killed Thed Forthright.”

The halfling made a move forward with clenched fists; Gloriana stepped between the newly released and the newly chastened.

“Coins to me,” the halfling was adamant. “Gold, you understand? Your apology and recompense!”

Gloriana got the volunteers moving with a slap on their horse’s rump before the circumstances degenerated into combat, financial or otherwise.

“This is not over!” the halfling called again after the departing volunteers. An awkward silence descended. The halfling, displaying equal anger and resolution, appeared to contemplate the stairs up to the Mayor’s office. His breathing was the measured but intense labor of one in outrage.

Into the pregnant pause stepped the farmer Forthright, still uncertain, and his recent assuaging given over to renewed worry: “My horse . . . Shadowmist . . . .“

Rahab sighed softly to himself. Not yet the tenth morning bell, it was already a long day.

••••

“Lem Gardener,” the halfling said in response to Gloriana’s query. The oracle noted Lem’s guarded sensibility, particularly toward Rahab. Perhaps, she mused, half-serious, they’ve already met?

“Gloriana Gildentress,”she responded with her best smile. Lem seemed no more at ease.

“I know. I’ve seen you about town recent days. You and them,” by gesture indicating Kara and Abby and Rahab. Gloriana introduced the others in turn. They had all stepped to one side of the muddy thoroughfare, the trip to the Mayor’s office in temporary reprieve.

“What happened?” Gloriana continued.

Lem hesitated. “I saw the horse.”

Thed perked up. “Gray? Like stirred ash?”

Lem nodded and the farmer’s expression brightened. “I’ll pay fair coin for return of that horse.”

“Goblins,” Lem finished simply, and Gloriana noted to herself how Lem had simply bypassed any accounting of how he had come to be at the Forthright farmstead. Thed looked horrified. Horseflesh was a recognized staple of the goblin diet.

“Where?” Abby asked.

“Eight or ten,” Lem offered, “to the east along the coastal woods.”

“Can you show us the path they took?” Gloriana asked.

Lem looked around at the others. “I’m good for six of them. You want to help? Come on. We’ll make some money.” Gloriana was caught momentarily off guard as Lem assumed a leader’s prerogative, a condition she was more used to managing, or at least negotiating. Rahab smirked. The Halfling stepped to the road and was underway. The others followed, leaving Forthright behind.

Gloriana called back to the farmer over her shoulder with a reassuring smile, “We’ll be back soon!”

Outside of town Lem and the others moved along the northern Lost Coast Road.

“We should check the Nettlewood,” Lem remarked.

Abby saw the dagger at Lem’s belt but was uncertain whether it was primarily tool or weapon in the halfling’s hands.

“What do you do in town, Lem?” asked the warrior.

“Gardener. Just like the name says.”

Abby cast an alarmed glance back at Kara and the others. Rahab appeared not to be paying attention, lingering as he did at the rear of the group, hands clasped behind his back like a landholder on countryside jaunt to admire scenery. Gloriana attempted to recapture some initiative.

“We’re pleased to meet you, Lem. Thank you for your help.” The gardener regarded the oracle with an expression that suggested they were helping him, not the reverse. Another awkward silence ensued. Kara observed that Lem’s pace was resolute, yet for its rigor his footfalls made little sound in stark contrast to the booted steps of the others, and especially the ringing steel chorus that was Abby on the move.

Mindful of the circumstances of their meeting, Gloriana spoke again, hoping to find common ground: “The unpleasantness of the recent hour aside, in my experience, the volunteers of Sandpoint watch have good intent.”

Lem’s affect changed yet again. His response, while not exactly acid, was definitely not amenable: “I’m sure they have good intent as far as you’re concerned, human.”

Rahab, who had, in fact, been paying very close attention indeed, decided Lem wasn’t as stupid as he looked.

Their progress began to slow. Abby had moved into the lead, unconsciously accelerating against Lem’s stride, but they had left the road in anticipation of the goblins’ movement, and the terrain was becoming difficult. Abundant brush thickened ahead of them, transforming direct progress into increasingly deliberate slalom. At moments of stillness in the breeze they could hear the distant shore somewhere to the north, beyond the thickets, but when Abby nearly walked full into a cluster of stinging nettle, Kara advanced to the front of the column.

“I’m glad Shelalu isn’t here to see us blundering about,” the alchemist murmured to herself, and began a more careful advance, picking her way past nettles, avoiding patches of poison ivy, and generally demonstrating more adept understanding of woodcraft. Occasionally she would stoop to pluck up a mushroom, clump of moss, or leaf and inspect it for usefulness in future concoctions.

In two more hours the group had encountered truly daunting thickets, rising in dense green walls to heights crowning overhead, like corridors and antechambers in some strange, faerie, woodland mansion. They ate a small lunch in the speckled shadows cast upon the ground therein.

Kara had found a narrow dirt lane that snaked amidst the walls of the thicket. “Goblin path,” Kara whispered. The group drew close and proceeded forward in as much quiet as they could muster. Lem resumed the lead, Abby behind, followed by Gloriana, Rahab, and Kara. Forest branches and the dense thickets filtered autumnal sunlight like sugar grains through a sieve, making a dimness of brightest midday.

Their progress led them directly to a curiosity: nestled directly into the thicket wall was a shaped wooden door complete with handle, hinges, and frame. With no alternative, they stepped close, and Lem carefully examined the portal, then nodded when he ascertained its relative safety and drew the door open. Abby stepped “inside.”

Beyond was a complete enclosure of bramble and packed earth, a tunnel sloping gently down and broadening into a wider space, the dimness now genuine darkness lit by the glowing stones hovering about Abby, Glo, and Kara. Rahab had produced his magical torch, as well. Abby had an instant to recognize four goblin-dogs already racing toward them. Her longsword, recently liberated from the monster Korovus and glamored for combat, rang out of its sheath. She charged at a crouch and stabbed the first goblin-dog, eliciting a yelp of pain. With a word Rahab launched from his hand an inerrant, violet, spiked egg of magic energy that wove through the air and struck a second goblin-dog.

Lem, suited in his size to the tight space, unlimbered his dagger and hurled it forward to bury to the hilt in a third antagonist. A flurry of jaws descended on Abby at the fore; some her armor turned, still others found purchase and drew blood. Gloriana invoked blessing of battle and Kara drank one of her mysterious elixirs to speed her escape2 should the situation warrant.

In the next moment Abby renewed her attack and slew one of the goblin-dogs with her sword. Lem produced another dagger, previously unseen on his person, and tumbled forward expertly, resuming his feet as deftly as a starling alighting on a branch. The gardener thrust the blade into a goblin-dog. Gloriana found room to maneuver and struck with her morningstar to some effect. Kara brought her own longsword into play, limited like Abby to thrusts in the narrow confines. What should have been a fighting space advantageous to the goblin-dogs ended as tomb for the beasts. Seconds later the party was wiping clean its weapons on the fur of the felled creatures, then making their way further into the bramble hallway.

They had not proceeded far when the brush shook and a chilling scream filled the air in presage to the big cat that padded into view. Bigger than a wolfhound, its long body and tail were tawny pale.3 Subtle gray-green eyes regarded the party with savage intent and the mouth curled open to reveal severe teeth. It’s movement was so swift and silent they had no time to ready defense. Great clawed paws swiped down upon Abby and the crushing jaws closed around her upper arm. Ears laid back flat, the lean head shook Abby vigorously and blood fountained like red rainfall on the bramble walls. Abby went pale, stumbled to one knee under the animal’s weight. Gloriana could see that the warrior was in grave danger.

“Abby! Fall back!” The oracle invoked the spirits of healing and channeled the focus into her companions. Abby felt partially restored. Lem reached out and slashed a small stroke across the beast’s withers. In response, the animal rendered once more its haunting scream and turned on Lem, proceeding to batter the halfling back and forth between paw strikes as easily as a hearthcat toys with a mouse. Lem bled profusely. From somewhere further in the thicket came a goblin voice, and Kara could hear it issuing commands to “Tangletooth,” who she gathered was the ambush predator presently tenderizing the party.

Rahab ushered another magic blast of purple light into the cat, allowing the briefest moment for Abby to withdraw and fumble a healing potion open. She threw her head back and drained the liquid in desperation.

A goblin appeared, dressed in furs and cured hides, adorned in feather dressings and drapes of bleached animal bone. The goblin’s voice was a sing-song of babbling, chattering, and yelling. In the tumult of battle Kara could just distinguish the goblin calling out instructions to the big cat: “Fuaghfr agrvravwoofweej Gogmurt slathbafboolocksmav!

Gogmurt, thought Kara. Shelalu named him. The Big Gogmurt. One of the goblin heroes. His cat is as least as much menace.4 She looked at Abby and Lem, both bloodied and battered, fierce rake lines crisscrossing their forms as testament to the course of the battle thus far.

The goblin weaved its arms in what everyone recognized was some kind of spell. The bramble shoots and entwining roots that made up the walls of the lair suddenly animated in a grasping, clutching mass surrounding Rahab. Though his dexterity was respectable Rahab was not fortunate against the druid magic and suddenly the conjurer found his legs atangle5 in vines, roots, and branches that hampered his movement in the already confining space.

Gloriana directed her healing power once again while Kara managed to move into the wider space beyond the cat, barely escaping injury as she dodged a swipe of the animal’s paw. She underhanded a fragile globe that shattered on the goblin’s breast, splashing lightning liquid in a great flash that left the gibbering monster smoking and scarred and disoriented.6

With the uncanny cunning of all cats, the lithe bodied feline turned its great length in the tunnel and punctured Gloriana with a vicious bite that sank deep and rent muscle to the bone. The honey-haired woman screamed and the cat answered in kind like a cultist exultant in ritual.

For his part, Rahab spent valuable seconds merely moving, struggling to untangle himself and advance past the goblin spell’s area of effect. The effort left him breathless with strain, sweat dotting his brow in the close air of the thicket tunnel.

Abby closed with the great cat and dropped back to one knee to give herself room for a heavy swing, lowering her center of gravity to press the full might of her muscle and mass7 behind the blow, and her strike was solid and true. She fetched a merciless hit across the feline’s side and it howled and twisted in pain as the long blade ripped open pelt and cracked bone. Gloriana struck with her morningstar and landed a hefty attack as well, but it was the gardener, in the end, who finished the beast with a dagger thrust under the lower jaw, through the palate, and into the brain. The big cat flailed briefly and died.

The goblin cried out in rage, then fled, but not before Abby had a chance to strike at its retreating form, and her sword landed home. A moment later, the diminutive monster seemed to melt into the bramble wall of the thicket, and disappeared. Lem’s quick eyes saw the goblin reappear a moment later behind them, attempting to run away.

“There it goes! There it goes!” shouted Lem. “Get it!”

Gloriana healed again, the spirit song in her mind reaching out and washing over the others. Kara noticed an open space off to one side littered with half-eaten animal corpses, bones, and other detritus. Rahab sighted the escaping goblin and reached out his left hand, marking a complex pattern in the air with fore and little finger while his middle and ring finger rubbed against his thumb, drizzling a fine dust of ground mica. The conjurer’s voice chanted arcane speech that was simultaneously eldritch mathematics and philosophical commands issued to the very cosmos.

The air around the fleeing goblin burst into light: cascading ribbons of shimmering glow that boreal peoples called aurora, ghostly, shifting, and shot through with motes of gleaming reflection so bright no mortal eye could bear its iridescence.8 The goblin was blinded, and shrieked in fright.

Abby gave chase, crashing into the area of magical entanglement like oxen trampling weeds in a field. “In a moment,” she called after the goblin through gritted teeth, “I’m going to kill you!” It was a promise she had made before, in fog-shrouded alleys and raucous waterfront taverns of villainous Riddleport where blood was valued cheap and knife work on people was easier to secure than employment gutting fish.

Lem’s smaller form, however, fared less well in the entanglement spell, and the halfling stopped short. In compensation he produced still another dagger from his seemingly endless supply and pitched the blade overhand down the hallway where it pierced the goblin’s shoulder.

Gogmurt’s strategic decision—to bind the hallway in a spell of clutching foliage—now turned against the goblin who foundered and stumbled in blindness among the surging roots and twisting branches, caught by its own spell. Abby fell on the monster and hammered him with her shield.

“Gogmurt yield!” the goblin shrieked in Common. “Gogmurt yield!”

Abby pressed down with her shield, pinning the creature, and Gogmurt went limp. Rahab’s spell of glittering, blinding light faded, leaving only the softer glow of illumination from the party’s lightstones, and the goblin’s sight returned. The wizard retrieved his torch from where it had fallen.

Interrogation followed. Lem preferred to ask questions at knife-point, but Gloriana approached with gentler diplomacy. The goblin did not respect such niceties and cursed her for a weakling and called her a whore. The oracle’s demeanor changed. She drew a long breath, and her expression hardened, the light in her eyes shifting from warm to cold. A shadow in the air seemed to pass over Gloriana’s face, like a mourning veil made of smoke. For an instant Gloriana’s beautiful visage appeared to the goblin as a leering skull wreathed in dark fog before the image faded. Lem leaned in close and the tip of his dagger touched the soft flesh of the goblin’s neck. Gogmurt felt moved to confess.

••••

The goblin druid provided valuable information. The farmer’s horse had been taken to Thistletop Stronghold which was nearby. Gogmurt had opposed the theft of the horse, but “she” had insisted, and “her” will was unopposed. Kara, Abby, Gloriana, and Rahab exchanged a knowing glance, confident that “she” could only mean Nualia.

Gogmurt indicated the path to Thistletop, as well as disposition of fortress defenses: war chief Ripnugget and his guard, a bugbear and two humans (one of whom was “magic like you,” meaning Rahab) on one of the lower levels. Finally there was the “angry lady” whom the goblin described as having a “torn up belly and fiend’s eyes.”

“What of her arm?” Gloriana asked.

“Yes, yes, yes!" Frantic nodding. "A fiend’s arm!”

The only way into the fortress was a bridge spanning the narrow ocean channel, and no alarm had been raised. The horse was on the menu for tonight’s feast, but not yet slaughtered and butchered.

Satisfied, Gloriana nodded, and Lem brought dagger pommel down on Gogmurt’s head, knocking the goblin unconscious. Abby bound the monster in rope to prevent escape while Rahab and the others pored over items looted from the druid. Underneath the hide tunic the goblin had worn a suit of elegantly crafted leather9 that was clearly not goblin make. Lem took this for himself. Six elixirs there were, also: two of healing, two that allowed communication with wild beasts of field and forest, and two that bestowed upon the imbiber the shape of a common tree to hide in plain sight among the wilderness landscape.

Lastly, the goblin had borne a wand of magic to summon fire at hand,10 and a cloak to guard against misfortune.11 These, also, the party took.

The group waited for a few minutes, gathering resolve and discussing strategy. In the end, though they valued a stealthy approach, they recognized that only Lem had sufficient dexterity to accomplish such a feat with any success. He did not voice it, but Rahab recognized that Lem was more than a little acquainted with “alternative” means of supplementing a gardener’s income.

With nothing left for it but frontal assault, they rose, unlimbered arms and readied magic, and made their way down the tunnel to where it emerged in the open air at a low coastal bluff. A crude rope and plank bridge spanned a narrow gap between the bluff side and a nearby island. On the far side of the bridge rose Thistletop Stronghold, a motte-and-bailey structure of stout wood and staked palisade. Crude banners splatter-painted on ill-cured hides hung along the wall proclaiming goblin occupation. Smoke from cooking fires drifted from the keep and over the spiked perimeter to hover hazily above the sea spray that thundered around the island’s rocky base. They crossed the rickety bridge and found the fortress gate swung open with a sturdy push.

The time was late afternoon. Goblins awaited.

••••

The ground-level force of the stronghold proved vicious and determined, but ultimately the adventurers triumphed. It was evening when the battle finished, and the trampled mud of the courtyard, as well as the interior of the keep, was awash in goblin blood. Spent arrows and other missiles stuck rigidly from timbers of palisade and keep alike. Crude furnishings had been overturned in the fray, foodstuffs and supplies scattered hither and yon. A kettle of boiling bones had been knocked from a cook fire, spilling its mess slick and grisly upon the keep’s main hall floor. Hacked corpses lay about, including that of the unusually tall goblin war chief, Ripnugget. The war chief had ridden to battle on the back of a giant lizard the length and girth of a cow, and the saurian mount, too, was dead on its back, legs curled, sticky tongue drooping slack from ridged mouth like discarded rope. The party was exhausted.

They took a long moment to catch their breath, anticipating counter attack from deeper within the keep at any moment, but it did not come. Canvasing the ground floor they found the warchief’s room which featured a large bed crowned with an unlikely headboard: satyrs cavorting in a forest, finely carved and obviously hauled to the place by looting goblins, its craftsmanship suggesting an artist with patience and skill and likely from a nearby farmstead.

They found a meeting room. They found a set of stone stairs leading underground. They found a small closet the residents had converted to a privy, wherein the stench would have felled a vulture perched on a manure wagon.12 They found a magic wand that created minor illusions13 and this was apportioned to Lem.

In the courtyard was a door that had been boarded up, behind which they heard muffled movement. Abby put her champion’s strength to the task and soon tore the boards free amidst the groaning of iron nails ripped from lumber. The door opened to reveal the occupant, a panicked horse of beautiful stature and regal bearing, gray like cloudcover: Shadowmist, late of Thed Forthright’s stables. Gloriana set to soothing the animal with soft coos, gentle touches of the hand, a proffered carrot from her own rations. The destrier snorted and nuzzled the golden-haired woman, allowing itself to be led out into the courtyard under Gloriana’s graceful hand, away from the detritus of battle where it had some room to amble.

“How in The Nine Hells did they convince that animal to pass over the bridge?” Rahab wondered aloud.

“Gogmurt, maybe?” speculated Kara.

Rahab shook his head in wonder. “Remarkable.”

“We’ll come back for the horse after we’ve checked the rest of the keep,” said Gloriana.

Rahab glanced at the oracle, his skeptical expression pronounced. “I see. And when we make exodus, dear lady, how do you propose we—noticeably bereft of any druid—entice the horse to re-navigate that precarious passage?”

Gloriana flashed her most winning smile. “Rahab,” she scoffed cheerily. “It’s me.”

••••

The group assembled at the stairs in the rear of the keep’s interior.

“I’ll take a look,” Lem offered, almost casual. Then he held a finger to his lips, and a moment later disappeared down the steps in silence. At the bottom of the stairs he found an unlocked door, and proceeding through came to a planning room. The halfling returned to the others and beckoned them forward. Rahab produced his torch, for the way below was cast in darkness.

Rahab and Kara set to examining the contents of the room. A large table dominated the center of the chamber, heaped with maps and notes, expended ink vials, discarded quills, extinguished candle stubs, sealing wax, lengths of marked string, grains of sand. The cartography was of the region, showing lengths of coastline, woodlands, interior lands and farmsteads including some marked over with inked Xs, and several iterations of Sandpoint illustrated with strategic arrows and annotations. The conjurer quickly turned to the notes and began thumbing through them with efficient synoptic evaluation.

“Indications of an imminent second raid on Sandpoint,” Rahab murmured and Kara stepped close to look over the wizard’s shoulder. The others gathered around to hear. Rahab turned to another page. “Sinspawn . . . more goblins . . . recruitment of distant tribes from beyond the Nettlewood . . . far afield . . . hmm.” The conjurer stroked his goatee in thought. Another page: “The whispering beast.” He looked up at the others. Gloriana shook her head in uncertainty; Abby gave a helpless shrug.

“The whispering beast,” Rahab muttered to himself, his gaze drifting to the middle distance. The others looked at him expectantly. The wizard cast his mind back to the notes plundered from Tsuto Kaijutsu’s corpse in the tunnels below the glassworks. His preeminent mind scoured the archive of memory, alighting upon a name: Malfeshnikor. Was this the whispering beast? The hypothesis tantalized him, but he was not yet confident of its veracity.

“What—?” Abby began, but did not finish. On the far side of the war room a door suddenly crashed open and a narrow, coruscating beam of magical energy projected forth and struck Abby. The fighter felt an oppressive weight descend upon her, and she realized her strength was failing. For a moment she felt as if the mass of her own armor would crush her. She closed her eyes, clenched her muscles tightly, and lifted her voice in a cry of rage. The sensation passed;14 her strength returned.

There was no time to reflect. Still on the attack, a slim figure stood in the doorway incanting magic and a second spell fell immediately upon Abby. Her sword suddenly vibrated with the fury of a tuning fork struck upon an anvil. The warrior could barely hold the weapon, so fierce was the shivering of the blade that it numbed her arm. It took everything she had to maintain her grip, and she had a moment of clarity in which she could see the magically endowed steel bend like a flower wilting under desert heat. Then the effect passed. The sword remained intact and appeared straight and true.

What seemed at first to be one interloper appeared now as five that stepped forward in unison, their every movement an exact and reciprocating duplication. Five figures, one appearance: a human woman, cloaked and hooded, white tunic graying with grime, a wand clutched in her left hand. The five figures seemed to shift and interchange their position in space. Rahab recognized the illusion frequently called The Mirror Image, a charm from one of the disciplines of magic he disdained.

Lem stepped to the attack and stabbed a dagger blade into the abdomen of the nearest wizard-woman, only to find her unharmed. One of the images disappeared. Abby had watched and focused her concentration, trying to strike at what she guessed was the heart of the images, and her sword struck flesh. The woman with the wand cried in pain. Rahab retrieved his own wand and invoked its power: his hand crackled in a nimbus of electricity.15

The attacker spoke for the first time. “You killed him!” Her voice broke with sobs and tears streaked the faces of the four images before the party. “You killed him! I’ll see your guts draped as garlands on the gates of Abaddon!” She pointed her wand and it produced a flashing missile16 of energy that blasted into Abby who winced in pain.

Lem tumbled deftly behind the images and held his dagger in readiness. “Did we kill him?” the gardener queried the other adventurers. Despite the chaos of the fight and being caught off-guard, it did not escape Gloriana’s notice that Lem had said “we” instead of “you.” She counted that a small step on the road to improved relations.

Abby pressed the attack but this time her efforts were spoiled by the illusion guarding the woman. Lem proved more successful: his dagger found the true mark, burying deep and eliciting a gasp of agony. The images staggered as one and blood darkened all the tunics. Rahab reached into the illusory mix and brushed his hand against a solid form, discharging his spell of electrical damage. The wizard-woman had time for a last desperate blast from her wand; this she directed again at Abby, but it was not enough. The warrior thrust her blade full into her attacker’s body. Blood spurted and the wizard-woman gurgled in death throes, sinking to her knees. The illusions faded and she slid off of Abby’s sword with a deliquescent slurp. A ragged, shuddering breath escaped her, followed by a stream of thick blood that choked her last words.

“You . . . ” she tried, and then expired, her eyes wide and blank, staring sightlessly now in unfulfilled accusation at the boots of her opponents.

The room grew very quiet and still. Gloriana murmured a quiet prayer and Abby felt herself healed somewhat. In the flickering of the lightstones and Rahab’s torch the adventurers stared mutely at the dead woman.

Lem broke the silence. “Did we kill him?” he asked again, the question a mix of genuine curiosity and macabre humor.

“That depends on who she meant,” Rahab answered genuinely. “We’ve killed quite a few things recently.” The conjurer nonetheless had an idea whom the woman had meant, though he did not offer his suspicion.

The group recovered some items of small value from the body, including three coins minted in rare platinum and a silver comb. Gloriana claimed the cloak which was like unto that they had found on Gogmurt.

The fight had seemed even more grim than some recent combats, cast as it was in the very real grief the woman had expressed, however malign her affiliation. The event proved prelude to still more gruesome and heavily dreadful imagery. The next room was empty but for crude drawings on the walls in dried blood and mud showing violence by goblins and the towering figure of an immense goblinoid looming over a stylized Thisteltop Stronghold. A further passage led deeper into the fortress foundation within the island rock. At the terminus was a single stone door carved with images of distorted monsters clawing their way from the rent wombs and bellies of pregnant women of diverse humanoid races.

When she leaned close to listen at the door, Abby heard a sound from the room beyond despite the thickness of the stone. The door had been expertly made and fitted, and by careful effort Lem was able to open it just wide enough to peer within without raising noise. The others retreated from the door so as not to betray their light sources to anything beyond the portal. Lem’s eyesight took a moment to adjust before spotting a creature not standing on the floor but afloat in mid-air at one-and-a-half times the height of a human. The sizable beast was quadrupedal, canine in aspect, yet bereft of fur. Lem estimated its presence at four feet to the shoulder and displacing four hundred pounds; nevertheless the monster seemed gaunt and sinister. It moved as a dog despite its paws not touching the ground, and when it turned Lem could see the eyes glowed deep red. The gardener held his breath, afraid he had been spotted, but the hovering dog strolled away on air to a far corner of the room, seemingly ignorant of the surreptitious halfling. Slowly, stealthily, Lem withdrew and gingerly pushed the door closed, taking long minutes so as not to grate stone on stone.

He padded back up to the others. “Some kind of dog,” Lem whispered as the others knelt and leaned close. “Large as a human, it walks on the very air, and its eyes are red like fading coals. No fur, not like any dog I’ve ever seen.”

“A yeth hound, I’d venture,” whispered Rahab in reply.17 All eyes turned to the conjurer. In the flicker of the torchlight Rahab held a brief, hushed symposium: “A creature from outside the Prime. A hunter. Vulnerable to silver and utterly fearful of sunlight, it is nevertheless a fearsome thing. Beware it’s great howl which induces magical fear and is powerfully loud. Those with affinity for philosophies simplistically categorized as ‘righteous’ will find the monster’s bite a potent conduit of opposing energy labeled in equally simplistic terms as ‘evil.’ Their capability of flight makes fighting them difficult to combat in melee, though perhaps in the confined space of these underground chambers such advantage will avail them less.”

Abby was surprised. Rahab’s account had been brief . . . for Rahab.

What to do? The adventurers conferred in whispers and eventually elected to retreat to the ground level, fortify their position in the keep, set watch, and rally to explore further in the morning. Cautiously they withdrew.
________________________________________________

1 Flaming Sphere, Burning Hands.

2 Expeditious Retreat Extract.

3 Meet Tangletooth, listed as a “fire pelt” and sometimes described as a leopard. It is possible my affinity for the Mountain West region of the United States has influenced my decision to render Tangletooth instead as a puma concolor.

4 Note that internal expressions of thought are generally assumed to occur in the native language of the referent character, in this case Elvish which I have, in turn, rendered in English for the benefit of narrative clarity. Those instances in which I have not provided translation are to encourage the reader’s own imagination about the narrative.

5 Gogmurt is a druid casting Entangle. Spell DC was a 13. Rahab’s Reflex Save was not a 13.

7 Kara’s shock bomb ability causes a dazzling effect on the target, in this case for three rounds.

7 Abby was using her newly acquired Power Attack feat and struck for 18 points of damage in the one hit.

8 Glitterdust, one of Rahab’s second level spell selections.

9 Leather Armor +1.

10 Wand of Produce Flame.

11 Cloak of Resistance +1.

12 Full credit for inspiring this turn of phrase goes to a quote by the character Johnny Burns in the season 3 episode “I Am Not The Fine Man You Take Me For” of the HBO television series Deadwood (2006). The full quote by Burns in the referenced episode is the marvelously evocative, “That’d knock a buzzard off a shitwagon.”

13 Wand of Silent Image with 5 charges.

14 Abby spent two hero points successively in order to make two separate Fortitude Saves: the first against the incoming Ray of Enfeeblement, and almost immediately following a second roll against a Shatter spell against her sword.

15 Wand of Shocking Grasp.

16 Wand of Magic Missile.

17 Rahab rolled very well on his Knowledge: Planes skill check.

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