The party chose to camp in the main ground-floor room of the keep as it could be most readily and solidly defended. Some old wooden benches in disuse served as makeshift barricade stacked in the doorways. They set a watch rotation, except for Rahab who needed a full night’s sleep in order to memorize his daily complement of spells. As evening drifted toward night, Abby began hauling goblin corpses out the palisade gate and dumping them over the island cliff face into the churning coastal waters below.
Lem and Gloriana conferred in the fading twilight as Abby worked. The gardener offered to take Shadowmist back to the horse’s owner in Sandpoint.
“It would be one less thing for you to worry about while you’re here,” Lem mentioned, almost off-handedly. Though he did not say as much, in truth, the gardener had had quite enough of this recent adventure. It was one thing to scuffle with the occasional goblin, a fight he was more than competent enough to manage. It was quite another thing entirely to mount assault on a goblin stronghold, particularly one supposedly occupied by some sort of demon-woman, not to mention whatever other mercenaries and affiliates still waited within chambers as yet unexplored below. It was not that he was above living by the knife, but what he really wanted was to escape Sandpoint. Too much bad history there: indenture, followed by inability to secure regular work, and the prejudices he found in the predominantly human population. Those few fellow halflings in the village weren’t integrated as wholly regarded members of the village so much as considered anything other than the servant roles in which they were largely employed. He bore no ill feelings for Gloriana and her friends per se, but from what he could tell they seemed more likely to remain in the area for the foreseeable future. Lem wanted to be somewhere else.
Gloriana sensed something deeper in Lem’s comment, but did not know exactly what, nor did she raise the question. For her part, she was exhausted, and the thought of delving deeper into the stronghold fortifications below ground—confronting whatever ills awaited there—weighed at the forefront of her concerns. She gathered there was more to this whole situation, including Lem’s presence and part in it, but at the moment it was too elusive and distant to settle with certainty, and there was something to be said for returning the horse without further delay: it would at least settle that issue, and were the renewed assault in the morning to fail, sending the animal home tonight would ensure it escaped butchery.
“Alright, Lem,” the golden-haired woman said with a smile that dissembled her weariness. “I’ll help you get the horse across the bridge. You know the way back? It will be hard to find in the dark.”
“I suspect the horse will know better than I will, truth be told, but I intend to keep the coast to my right, and that will get me there eventually.
It took a quarter of an hour to get the horse to even set foot on the rickety, gap-filled plank-rope bridge, and stretched Gloriana’s diplomatic skills and charm—normally deployed against humanoids—to their utmost, but finally she and Lem got Shadowmist across. She helped Lem onto the horse’s back, and waved as the halfling set off into the night.
Gloriana made her way back inside the palisade, then into the darkness of the keep. The adventurers ate a meager dinner in silence, and then Gloriana sat first watch.
It was Abby’s watch, in the middle, that proved eventful, though more by implication. She had sat only an hour when there was a horrifying roar of some kind, the noise of a large creature, outside the keep, beyond the palisade, and coming from below. The warrior was startled into a panicked alertness, taking up her longsword in the dim light of the fire and gasping to stifle her breath lest even its heavy draw give her away to some unknown enemy. She looked at the two doorways alternately, anticipating at any moment the arrival of something awful and monstrous. Whatever had made the sound must have been sizable, indeed, for the volume had asserted itself over the crash of waves at the island base, and past the closed doors of the keep. How her companions had not startled awake she did not know.
No further sound came, and the noise in the background remained the distant wash of waves around the base rock of the island. Abby remained poised for long minutes, but finally relaxed when nothing further happened. She stood the rest of her watch with blade drawn and resting on her shoulder. She reported the incident when Kara relieved her, and most of the elf’s watch passed without incident, until the last small minutes before dawn when the sound of splashing water erupted violently from outside the palisade. The noise was great enough that Kara noted it from within the keep: it was the sound of something very heavy crashing through surf. The alchemist waited, tense, ready, but the noise faded away and did not return.
By light the adventurers were awake, breakfasted, and Rahab had armored himself with magic. They made their way cautiously down to the stone door and its horrible façade. Gloriana invoked blessing and defense against evil powers, and empowered the adventurers with a mystery of spirit that linked their health to hers.1 Kara drank an extract of shielding, and Abby elected to forgo the use of her shield and carry in her off-hand the silver dagger Gloriana lent her, the better to offer damage to the strange hounds of yeth awaiting them.
Following the now absent gardener’s example from the day before, Abby gently and slowly drew the stone door open, inch by gradual inch so as not to cause alarm. When she had established a gap of a few inches, she peered into the room. The north and south walls were lined in twin banks of stone pillars carved with lurid displays of monstrosities feasting on humanoids. The space contained two stone fonts at the far western end, flanking a stone platform two feet high. The platform supported two braziers aflame and pouring forth a deep red smoke that drifted toward the ceiling. Standing between the braziers was a stone statue, ten feet tall, depicting a pregnant woman with the head of a three-eyed jackal, feathered wings, a serpent’s tail, taloned birdlike feet. Signs of recent rituals littered the stone floor before the platform and statue: spent candles, a copper bowl greasy with streaks of animal fat, flecks of dried blood.
Afloat near the ceiling—twenty-five feet from the floor—were two of the alien, hairless hounds, apparently asleep and all the more eerie for their manner, that of all dogs at rest: head settled calmly on forepaws, tail curled, hind legs splayed out to one side in contentment.
Abby took a deep breath, then suddenly hauled the door all the way open and plunged into the room beyond, weapons brandished. She rushed to the center of the room and shouted up at the creatures: “Come fight me, hell hounds!”
It took a significant effort of will for Rahab to keep from yelling after her that yeth hounds were not native to Hell.
Even as Abby plunged into the room the hounds of yeth were already springing to their feet. Almost in unison their toothy maws dropped open as their lean canine heads swung to face the warrior and the others.
The howling crashed down upon the adventurers in punishing waves powerful enough to raise a curling cloud of dust and tiny chips of stone abraded from the chamber walls. The noise was so loud it was almost hot. Worse than the sheer volume, however, was the quality of the sound, a timbre that sounded different to each member of the party. To Abby it was like a chorus of Riddleport murderers boldly declaring violation of one whom none would aid. Gloriana heard the shouted deprecations of those she loved having discovered she had betrayed them. In Kara’s ears sounded the death rattle of her father drawing a final, ragged breath. Rahab heard the personified cosmos laughing at him, calling him feebleminded and foolish.
But Abby, survivor’s resolve hammered from adamant, shrugged off the fearful suggestion in the magic of the howl, and the twin bastions of Rahab’s intellect and ego were simply too massive to give credence to the ridiculous idea that the cosmos actually cared, or that he could not conquer it. The conjurer smiled grimly, an expression no observer would describe as “warm.”
It was only through the most intense of mental efforts that Kara managed to reel back from the terrorizing howls and their implication. They cannot know! she shouted inside her skull. They cannot!2
Gloriana was not as fortunate.3 Something in the alien dogs’ magic broke through her powerful personality and she suddenly felt that her whole identity was inauthentic, a mere mask easily seen through. An overwhelming panic descended on the oracle with all the menace of a raptor’s shadow growing around a rabbit shuddering in a field. She turned and ran as fast as she could manage. Her hastily abandoned morningstar clattered uselessly on the stone floor of the chamber.
The hounds of yeth ran down through the air to close for combat, their clawed paws clattering menacingly on the stone as they alighted. Abby found an opening to strike a solid blow with her sword, only to find the blade rebounded with little impact off the strange, rubbery flesh of the outsider’s body. The hound’s lip curled in a disdainful growl. The other hound came to rest and bit Rahab. Blood seeped into the sleeve of his gray robe, but the conjurer resisted the fearful effect of the bite and responded with two magic missiles that slammed into the beast.
“One side!” Kara shouted at Rahab, and when the wizard stepped back the alchemist overhanded a shock bomb amidst the yeth hounds. Liquid electricity spilled and splashed, charring their skin and sending a gruesome reek sizzling into the air. The effect of the sudden burst of light in the ritual chamber dazzled one of the hounds for a few seconds, diminishing the effectiveness of its attack. Abby capitalized on the monster’s sudden hesitation and punched her silver dagger into the beast’s flank. The precious metal cut deep.
The hounds pressed their attack, forcing Rahab to retreat against the chamber wall, just barely ahead of snapping jaws. The dazzled monster of yeth could not make contact with Abby. Kara hurled a second shocking grenadoe into the melee, but this time her aim was poor, and the tumbling projectile bounced past the hound, exploding on the stone floor, and splashing electrical power onto Abby instead. The warrior cried out in pain and surprise as the arcs traced blue-white spider lines across her armored body. Kara cursed loudly in frustration and concern. Rahab managed to produce a minor healing elixir from within his robe and hurriedly drank the vial down against his recent wound.
Behind the combatants, Gloriana raced up the hallway for the stairs that led to the ground floor of the stronghold, her only thought escape.
The hound that had menaced Rahab turned its jaws on Kara while Abby continued to fight with the beast that originally challenged her. The warrior’s combat was fierce, and though the damage from her sword was diminished by the alien nature of the yeth hound, she nevertheless administered strong strikes and in a moment the combination of silver dagger and enchanted sword slew the monster.
At the rear of the chamber a figure appeared in the shadows. Kara and Rahab sighted it at the same time even as Abby turned to confront the remaining yeth hound. The monster bit Abby savagely and the blood flowed.
“More problems,” Rahab muttered. Kara was already in motion, throwing another grenadoe that exploded, lighting up the arrival: a bugbear hastily belting straps on its suit of armor. The bugbear was momentarily dazzled in the flash. Rahab, his wound only partially healed, began a summoning. Abby continued to battle the yeth hound.
Near the dais, the bugbear drew up and unlimbered a short recurve bow of laminate horn. He reached over one muscled shoulder, drew an arrow, and set it to the cord. Vestiges of Kara’s shock bomb fizzled and sputtered off the bugbear’s shins like drops of electric rain. The monster’s broad mouth drew open in a rictus of anger and the expectation of violence as its gaze settled on the alchemist.
“Iglid!” the bugbear shouted. Kara recognized the goblin word for “elf,” recognized the ancient hate behind the word. The bow creaked, the twang sounded strangely isolate above the din of the fight, and the shaft floated on the air, an iron-tipped kingfisher diving on a sculpin, riverbreak signaled in a splash of blood. Kara winced and stumbled back, shaft in her shoulder.
Rahab’s eyes remained intently focused on the geometric formula shifting before his eyes, lines intersecting with runes, circles, patterns, dimensions rotating in light, yet he still perceived the unfolding situation in the room, the arrival of yet another antagonist: a human, armored, bearing a bow and a bastard sword.
The bugbear called out in the common tongue this time: “Orik! Attack!” The newly arrived human hurried to a firing position.
Abby was still struggling against the hound of yeth, and managed to find room to maneuver away, granting precious seconds to find, uncork, and consume a healing potion. Some of her wounds knitted close under the effects of the magical drink. The bugbear dropped his bow and drew a flail, gripped the chain weapon in both hairy hands, charged on Kara, jaw agape and slavering, wide ears laid flat, great brown eyes agleam with the light of a hunter locked on prey.
Up on the ground floor, heart pounding, sweat pouring down her face, out of breath from running the stone stairs two at a time in her armor, Gloriana slowed to a halt. The oracle slumped against the keep doorway and the early rays of the morning sun painted her face in crisp orange-yellow. She felt weak. Her lungs burned. Her hands shook. Her armor seemed made of lead. Her silks draped heavy in perspiration. A spirit dragged a lock of her shining golden hair damply down over her left eye.
But the magical fear had run its course.
Ten long seconds passed. Gloriana’s breathing continued to labor. She was drawing the curse up from deep within, like washing a nugget of gold out of a stream, slowly sifting again and again until it shone in the light.
That felt better.
The oracle fought a shiver of remembered fear. “Ghosts of The Road!” Gloriana was still struggling to catch her breath, but . . . “Abby!” She turned on her heels. “Kara! Rahab!” She was running again, against the fear, against the exhaustion, back into the keep, back to the stone stairs, back down to the ritual chamber, leaving autumn dawn behind.
The incantation came to a close. Light flared at the intersection of planar membranes. Rahab opened the way.
An eruption of flame the size of a small camp blaze blossomed into existence in the middle of the room. To all appearance it was nothing more than fire, but Rahab could see the intellect within it.4
“The bugbear and the yeth hound,” Rahab said quietly to the newly summoned elemental. “Burn freely.”
The sentient blaze leapt into the fray against the bugbear but missed. Rahab did not. A bead of acid5 the size of large grape launched from the conjurer’s outstretched hand and burst against the bugbear’s wooly hide. A line of acrid smoke rose like a wick extinguished. The stench in the room was becoming noticeable. Still the monster swung its flail in great arcs, pressing the attack against Kara as if the elf was the only opponent in the room. It was all the alchemist could do to keep from being pulverized.
Abby dodged an arrow from the human archer the bugbear had called Orik, and danced into range of the yeth hound, striking a dual blow with sword and dagger and finally killing the beast.
The spiked ball on the end of the chain swung through the air whistling and rattling over Kara’s head as she ducked again, narrowly avoiding yet another crippling blow. Spittle from the bugbear’s toothy maw sprayed her even as she retreated, struggling to unlimber her own bow, seeking distance that she might bring it to bear. To have stood toe-to-toe with the bugbear was madness: the monster was seven feet tall, three hundred pounds, and seemingly made of corded muscle and rage. Abby swung a backhand sword blow against the bugbear and her sword rang harmlessly off an armor plate. The bugbear ignored both the warrior and the elemental. There was a fighting madness in his eyes.
“I will butcher you!” the bugbear screamed in fury at Kara. “The spirits of your ancestors will scream! I will shave splinters of your bones to stab out the eyes of elf children!”
The flail swung again, another hairline miss. Kara could feel the air displaced by the cruelly weighted weapon as it crushed the air. The alchemist had never seen savagery such as this.
The fire elemental launched a pseudopod of flame, but the bugbear’s armor shrugged off the attack. Kara managed to find a moment of distance and fired with the preternatural speed of the elves, but her arrow struck an armor plate and rocketed away harmlessly. Another arrow from the human at the far end of the chamber whistled into the melee and bounced off of Abby’s armor.
Rahab moved to change the dynamic of the battle. The wizard slipped around one of the columns, sighted the human archer, lifted his arms and canted a spell. Arcane chaff burst in firework brilliance around Orik and the man went blind as his vision became a field of endless, repeating parhelia. The bow tumbled from Orik’s hand and he struggled to draw his bastard sword with one hand while his other dabbed uselessly at his ensorcelled eyes.
Gloriana appeared in the doorway, her crossbow cradled in her forearms. She raised the weapon to sight, but the confusion of the battle made establishing a target difficult. She was looking down the length of the firearm when she saw the bugbear swing the heavy flail around in an arc.
This time, Kara could not escape.
The spiked ball slammed into the elf’s right side, rolling up into her armpit. There was a sickening crunch as Kara was suddenly shunted sideways under the cruel strike, her lungs crushed free of air, leaving her in pain to which she could give no voice. The alchemist fell to her knees and the stone floor swept slick with elvish blood.
“Kill!” the bugbear chanted, over and over. “Kill!” The flail whirred overhead, flicking Kara’s blood on the walls, on the floor, on Abby, into the sizzling elemental: red rain ritual of war’s thirsty aspergillum.
Gloriana dared not risk a shot into the melee. She might strike her friends. For the moment she locked her concern away, stepped to the right to open a clear line, and leveled the crossbow at Orik. Steel rattled and sent the bolt speeding across the room where it sank into the man’s shoulder. Orik gasped and stumbled forward blindly.
The fire elemental seemed of little assistance in the fight, but Abby closed on the bugbear and cut him with her silver dagger, drawing his attention. He stepped back and brought the flail around and punched the heavy head into Abby’s chest, knocking the warrior back. Abby felt all the wind flee her lungs and her eyes went wide in pain.
But it was just enough time for Kara, who retreated, shuffling weakly toward Rahab. As the wizard launched another splash of acid at the bugbear, Kara managed to drink one of her own minor healing elixirs. Her ribs were still crushed, but the liquid contained enough magic to get her to her feet and put some more distance from the bugbear. Rahab retreated a step likewise, and the alchemist and conjurer began to ascend the steps of the dais toward the monstrous statue. Gloriana busily reloaded her crossbow, aimed at Orik again, fired, and missed.
Kara now had time to drink a second healing potion, which she hastily did, and there was a second cracking sound as two of her ribs pushed back out and reseated themselves properly. She could breath again.
Once more Rahab summoned acid in a shooting dart6 that struck the bugbear full in the neck, burning away more fur and leaving a bubbling scar. The monster howled in pain and suddenly there was space, exactly the kind of momentary weakness Abby had learned to exploit so masterfully. The warrior pushed forward in a double thrust, sword and dagger sinking deep, pushing past armor plates, piercing deadly. Abby’s body slammed up against the monster, burying dagger and sword to the hilt, and the bugbear’s matted stink washed over her like something tangible. The power of her thrust pushed the bugbear back two steps before his legs failed and his massive weight crumpled in death, twitching as though still intent on slaying all the world’s elves. The bloody flail clattered to the stone floor.
Gloriana launched a third bolt into Orik’s arm, and then perhaps the haunts had seen enough: five ghostly hands appeared, hauled the crossbow from Gloriana’s grasp, and flung it across the stone floor out of reach. By coincidence Orik’s sight returned as Rahab’s spell faded. The man slumped to one knee, bleeding, and held up his good arm in supplication.
“I surrender,” Orik said behind shallow breaths. “Please.” The bastard sword rang as it dropped uselessly. The only sound in the room now was the crackling of the fire elemental awaiting Rahab’s command, and the labored gasps of those that remained alive. Gloriana looked around at her friends: all bled.
“Ghosts of the Road,” she whispered quietly, shaking her head and closing her eyes. Healing warmth welled within her and slipped beyond the limits of her skin, alighting as golden dew upon Abby, Kara, Rahab.
A few moments later the fire elemental disappeared, returning to its own realm.
They had closed the door to the ritual chamber and divested Orik of his gear: shield, sword, banded mail, bow. Gloriana excised the crossbow bolts, but the man was still weak and, though seemingly frustrated, appeared in no mood to try escape. His breathing was still ragged and pained as he sat on the floor.
“Merc,” Abby said, looking down at Orik. It wasn’t a question. The man nodded assent.
Gloriana knelt to eye-level with the sell-sword. “I can tell that you are a man of skill.”
“And honor,” Orik insisted.
“We’ll see,” Gloriana replied. “We have taken the outside and ground floor of the keep. What remains?”
“Another level below. Nualia keeps that floor, and most everyone leaves her to it. You’ve met her monster dogs,” Orik indicated with a weak gesture the bodies of the yeth hounds. “She keeps a third with her.”
Rahab stepped close and nudged the dead bugbear with a booted foot. “This was Bruthazmus, I presume?”
That was the name, Abby nodded to herself. Shelalu fought him once.
Orik nodded. “I was assigned to work with him.”
“Any other hired help?” Gloriana asked.
Orik started to shake his head, then paused. “Lyrie. I had intended to leave a week ago. I should have left, but I stuck around because of her, I guess. Spellcaster, like you,” the mercenary nodded at Rahab.
“I doubt it,” said Rahab dismissively. Orlik’s jaw tightened. Rahab met the sell-sword’s gaze coolly. “Regardless, not much of a reason to stay,” the conjurer continued in his most matter-of-fact tone.
There was a long pause. Orik finally spoke softly, “Dead?”
“Yes,” Rahab said. Orik’s jaw clenched again and his eyes narrowed. There was another long silence.
“I got the impression Lyrie was interested in someone other than you,” Rahab observed.
Orik held the wizard’s gaze a long time. Rahab’s expression remained impassive.
“Yes,” the mercenary finally answered and his shoulders slumped. “She . . . she wanted the monk. I thought maybe since I was here more than he was maybe she would . . .” Orik cleared his throat. “We haven’t seen or heard from him in a few days. I hoped Lyrie would see me . . .” the mercenary trailed off.
“Tsuto’s dead,” Rahab said evenly. Orik nodded slowly, understanding the implication. The mercenary was beginning to think that surrendering was the smartest thing he had done in recent weeks. He turned to Gloriana.
“I freely give what help I may,” the sell-sword intoned. “I wonder, will you let me leave, on my honor?”
Gloriana regarded the mercenary soberly, respectfully, though sternly. She deemed him honest, and genuine, and handsome, and a victim of his own misguided choices. She had already made up her mind.
“We will,” she said kindly, though her expression remained grave. Orik thanked her and pressed his good hand against the wound in his arm.
“What else is on this level?” Gloriana asked quietly.
“Ripnugget’s harem. There’s a chamber overlooking the water that everyone avoids, including the goblins. There’s something in there, strange beast, we all just leave it be.”
“What about the invasion of Sandpoint?” Gloriana pursued.
“I was against the plan, truth be told,” Orik said. “I needed the money, but the assault against the people of Sandpoint never sat right with me.” The sell-sword went on to describe what had been planned, and his negative assessment of various aspects therein. Orik’s information seemed consistent with what Rahab had gleaned from the documents in the war room.
“What about Nualia?” Gloriana resumed.
“She’s looking for something on the level below, but I don’t know what it is. I have little contact with her, my duties were mostly security here at Thistletop. More than that, I can’t say.”
The oracle reached out and offered Orik a hand. The mercenary took it gratefully and Gloriana helped him to his feet.
“We’ll walk you out. Obviously we can’t let you leave with your gear,” the golden-haired woman mentioned.
“I understand,” Orik replied with a tone of regret. “It’s a nice sword. Take care of it.”
Gloriana lapsed into thought. Surrounding Orik, the party marched out of the ritual room and returned to the ground floor. As they passed through the keep, the sell-sword pointed at the privy.
“You might take a closer look back there. It’s awful, I know, but I have a hunch about that place.”
As they exited into the palisade area Gloriana thought of another question. “How far has Nualia’s transformation progressed?”
Orik chewed his lip in thought. He looked at the adventurers and guessed what Gloriana was really asking. “She has a nasty looking hand, but seems largely human otherwise. You’re better off hitting her now than later, I’d guess,” and with that he nodded.
“Is she evil, or just crazy?” Abby asked.
“Pretty sure she’s evil. This whole situation stinks of trouble, you understand? I don’t know what’s down there with her, but it’s supposed to be some terrible creature. No one’s sure because no one ever goes down there but her.”
They had arrived at the rickety plank bridge passed in silence. Just as the mercenary was about to cross, Gloriana halted.
“Give me a moment to confer with my colleagues,” she said, and turned to speak with Kara, Rahab, and Abby.
“I think we should send him on his way with his gear,” Gloriana began. Kara and Abby looked skeptical. Rahab’s expression was neutral.
“He’ll need it in the wilderness to survive,” the oracle went on, “and it’s not like he has anything to come back to here. He’s not going to try to tangle with us, and his real interest here is—was—Lyrie.”
Rahab shrugged to indicate the decision was Gloriana’s. Abby and Kara deliberated longer, but eventually assented. Gloriana approached Orik and returned his sword and shield. Abby set his armor down. The mercenary looked at Gloriana and his expression brightened.
“You have my thanks. If we pass again it will be as friends,” he said.
“And it should not be in Sandpoint,” Gloriana finished. Orik nodded his understanding and gingerly suited up in his armor, sheathed his sword, took up his shield.
“I hope you find a brighter path,” the oracle offered.
“Can’t be much darker than this,” came the reply. Then the mercenary started across the bridge without looking back and disappeared into the morning wilderness on the mainland.
The party turned back inside, shutting the palisade gate, and the keep door behind them.
The privy turned out to have a secret door that hid a chest brimming with treasure: copper, silver, and gold coin in abundance; several leather pouches containing slices of malachite; a fine jade necklace; a gown of brilliant blue silk hemmed in silver cloth; an armored shirt of chain and a masterfully crafted scimitar.
Gloriana drew a fine gold chain from the chest and marveled at the beautiful gold charm it held. Shaped like a woman with a golden halo, arms outstretched, body like a dagger blade of light, two arcing wings of stylized flame: the holy symbol of Sarenrae, The Dawnflower, whose light was healing. The oracle took the necklace for herself.
The rest of the treasure they optimistically stowed away until they could pick it up on their way back to Sandpoint.
1 Oracle Life Link ability.
2 Kara missed one of her saving throws, but spent a Hero Point to reroll and was successful.
3 One of Glori’s Will saves did not go well.
4 Summon Monster II.
5 Acid Splash cantrip.
6 Acid Dart conjurer ability