Geeks Distributed

Book I, Chapter 9: Thistletop Stronghold, Part 3

Nualia

Abby in the lead, the party made their way back down to the room where they had fought Bruthazmus and the yeth hounds. Abby looted a healing elixir from the dead bugbear. Gloriana guessed that the statue of the jackal-headed pregnant figure represented Lamashtu, The Demon Mother. The party regrouped and resumed their exploration of the level.

At the end of a long hallway they found a door that opened on a large cave-like expanse with a low ceiling. The cavern looked out onto the Varisian Gulf, and the air was heavy with the smell of sea salt. The crash of waves about the rock island echoed off the walls and the stone was slick with moisture. Something moved out of the shadows, fast and dart-like, the size of a human, but shining slick and wavering in nauseating display. It was on them in moments: it was mostly blue and composed largely of tentacles. Gloriana had precious seconds to invoke blessing on the party and then she leapt back as a sinewy tentacle grasped at her, coming away with one of her silk scarves.

The others were in motion to support, but Abby was closest, and she swung her sword, striking the squid-like columnar body of the beast a staggering blow1 that drew ichor and splashing sea water in equal measure. The monster made no sound, but swayed under her attack. It was difficult to take the full measure of the creature for it appeared to have no eyes, and thus where its attention was at any given moment remained a mystery.

Rahab had summoned a spell of electricity from a magic wand2 and now stepped forward to discharge the spell against the strange cephalopodic menace. There was a sharp shock as the conjurer pressed his hand against the cylindrical body and transmitted the spell, but for his trouble the wizard was suddenly raked across the face and neck by a tentacle covered in hooked papillae. Blood coated the conjurer like a mask and Rahab stumbled to one side.

Gloriana fetched the monster a stout strike with her morningstar and Abby plunged her sword all the way through the columnar form, then followed by slamming her full weight against the back of her shield like a battering ram. There was a squelching sound and the rubbery thing toppled in a spray of ink. Its tentacles twitched for a few long seconds, but it was dead.

“What was that?” Abby asked looking at Rahab’s bloodied face. The wizard had tilted his head back in a vain attempt to slow the bleeding. Gloriana approached with her wand of healing magic.

As the oracle healed the wizard Rahab shrugged. “No idea. An abberation,” he said to the warrior, wiping his face clean on his already bloody sleeve. Abby raised a curious eyebrow at the wizard, more than a little surprised that he didn’t know what the monster was.3 Rahab ignored her look.

The adventurers quickly searched the cavern, discovering the dessicated corpses of several goblins, as well as an old storage area containing disused barrels, discarded junk, and refuse. They returned to the hallway and continued further into the island rock, arriving at another door that proved to be the entrance to Ripnugget’s harem.

There were four goblinwives inside and they never had a chance. In a matter of seconds Abby decapitated one, gutted a second, and smashed a third, moving swiftly between strikes with power, skill, and grace that dominated the fight.4 Kara threw a shock bomb that electrocuted the fourth goblinwife, and the fight was over in less than a quarter of a minute. Rahab and Gloriana had scarcely even moved.

The party found another passageway that led to a series of small prison cells as well as a torture room; neither areas were occupied. A side passage connected to some living quarters, likely those of the mercenary Orik and the magic user Lyrie. Returning to the previous passage the adventurers discovered that it eventually returned to the ritual room where they had fought Bruthazmus and the yeth hounds. The group guessed it must have been through this route that the bugbear and Orik had arrived for combat.

There remained but one route left to take: a set of stairs leading down to what Orik had reported was the lowest level of the fortress. They took a moment to gather themselves before heading down to the area presumably occupied by the architect of the region’s recent miseries: daughter of a dead priest in the midst of trading her earthly form for the skin of a demon.

The stone stairs descended into darkness once more lit only by the magical light stones and enchanted torches the party members carried. At the base of the stairs was a heavy stone door scarred by recent blows of hammer and chisel. The portal lay open slightly. Abby put her ear close to the opening and listened for long seconds, but heard nothing beyond. In a deft display, Abby managed to slide through the gap in the door, armor and all.

The room beyond was rectangular. Two columns supported the ceiling, and the walls held a total of four alcoves. Each alcove housed a stone statue of a tall, lean man with an almost predatory aspect, dressed in ornate robes, twin topknots draped behind the shoulder, and clutching a book and a lavishly decorated glaive. There was evidence that this area marked an older part of the island’s interior structure. The statues showed wear and damage, and dust and soot lay thickly over the room except for an area down the center of the chamber that had been disturbed by repeated, recent foot traffic.

The others cautiously followed Abby into the room. They gazed about for several minutes. Gloriana tried to guess at any religious significance to the statues, but was uncertain. Their provenance also eluded Rahab and Kara. When the wizard invoked his magical power to detect arcanistry the room appeared unremarkable. Gloriana produced a scroll of magic that eliminated fear and read it quietly to herself; as she did, the mystic writing faded and drifted from the parchment like smoke rising from a candle, and soon after the paper itself disintegrated as easily as ash in a breeze.

When nothing happened, the party moved through the room to the door in the opposite wall. Abby drew the portal open and looked upon a short hallway with an alcoves midway along either side. Like the chamber, the alcoves held statues of the figure in robes bearing a glaive; though these likenesses were cast in bronze, they, too, showed signs of age, pitted and stained with ancient patina. After ten feet or so the hallway ended and there appeared to be two doors opposite one another. The adventurers detected no sound. Abby stepped forward.

Very quickly things went wrong.

The moment she reached the middle of the hallway there arose a sudden rattling ring of heavy iron falling on stone as two portcullises crashed down from the ceiling at either end of the hallway, caging Abby in the short corridor directly amidst the two alcoves. There was a grating sound followed by a rhythmic clicking noise of brass and steel gears interlocking in movement behind some thickness of stone. Abby, whose gaze had turned to assess the trap, now looked to the statues on either side as the glaives they carried rose in the arms on unseen internal mechanism. It was not hard for all to see—Abby within the trap, the others excluded without—what was coming.

Abby leapt back to the portcullis that blocked the way back to her friends, and she grappled with it. Her vital and potent muscles strained against the great, rusted iron lattice, but the grate only rattled mockingly, secured fast against the passageway not only by significant weight, but also by some mechanism within the trapworks itself. The ratcheting sound from the statues escalated and the glaives were now poised over the narrow space like the executioner’s axe waiting to descend and dispatch. Abby had no other recourse. She dropped prone, hauling her large shield across her back, neck, and head as much as possible, and trying to make her armored and formidable body very small.

Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab looked on in growing alarm. The oracle lunged against the portcullis and in desperation cast a spell against malign forces5 upon Abby. Kara sloughed off her pack and began to frantically uncoil the length of rope secured to the outside, though she was at a loss as to what to do with it.

Rahab’s eyes fixed hawk-like on the perilous space between the enclosing portcullises: his razor-lightning intellect was furiously assessing the situation, simultaneously gauging the imminent danger and hypothesizing on threats in the trap not yet revealed. Sagacious and certain, Rahab correctly guessed what was still to come, and an instant later he made ready a spell.

The ratcheting sound gave a final tick, seemingly louder and more severe than the previous chorus, like a judge uttering solemn verdict in a court.

Twin glaives scythed down mercilessly.

By chance, both weapons landed on Abby’s shield, shivering splinters of wood and biting deep, but the bulwark held and kept Abby from harm for the moment. With implacable precision and mechanical indifference, the glaives and statue arms that bore them began to reset. The sound of ratcheting gears began ticking again. Still the portcullises remained down and locked.

“Is there a mechanism?” Gloriana shouted urgently. The oracle herself was looking for some trigger or device on her side of the portcullis.

Rahab was still poised to cast a spell, but he called out to Abby, as well. “Can you break something? Hit something? Dislodge something?”

Abby got up to a knee and looked around inside the caged hallway, but like Gloriana, she saw nothing to move, activate, or do. She drew her sword and hefted it in both hands, turning to one of the statues: if she could just break one of the weapons . . .

She swung and connected solidly with the shaft of the glaive just below the blade, a stout blow that reverberated back into her sword and numbed her forearm all the way to her elbow. A tiny portion of bronze on the glaive shaft chipped away. Abby could see the other metal—different colored and far more durable—revealed underneath. The integrity of the trap weapon appeared uncompromised. Abby’s heart sank as the ratcheting stopped again, and then the glaives descended, and this time she could not recover her shield to try and protect herself. Both blades struck her full on the armor, one on the breast, one on the back, and while the weapons did not cut through the sturdy metal, their force was sufficient to injure nonetheless as the impact pushed the rings of steel through the padded jerkin underneath and into her flesh. Abby gasped in pain.

“Can you get off the floor?” Rahab yelled.

Abby reached for a portcullis, the far one this time, and as she did so, the floor beneath her simply gave way, a trapdoor dropping open.

But Rahab was ready. He spoke a short syllable and Abby’s sudden fall under the weight of her own armor, gear, and body changed dramatically.6 Her plunge slowed, and she was able to reach out and grab the far portcullis, hold on, and not plummet into the yawning pit that gaped beneath.

The trap now changed. After a moment, another ratcheting sound began and the floor slowly righted itself, resuming its cover of the pit. When the floor was level once more the portcullises retracted into the ceiling, and the passageway looked clear and open as it had when the adventurers first arrived. The statues returned to rest as well.

“Forwards or backwards?” Abby called out.

“Forwards!” Gloriana returned.

Abby reacted instantly and leapt beyond the line where the far portcullis had closed. She landed with a roll and came up on one knee even as the heavy iron grates slammed down once more. But this time, Abby was on the other side, clear, and a moment later the portcullises raised again.

“The floor’s the trigger,” Rahab remarked dryly. Seconds passed and the passage was open again.

Abby stood and looked around. She leaned close to both of the doors at the end of the trapped corridor, but heard nothing. She looked back at the others.

“There’s not much room,” the warrior called.

“Pick a door,” Gloriana answered. “We’ll have to follow as best we can, and file behind you.” Abby nodded, and turned to the door in the north wall. She drew her sword, braced her shield, and started to push against the portal even as Gloriana was making a running start to try and leap the distance over the triggered floor.

Kara and Rahab watched as the oracle dashed forward, planted her right foot, and pushed off. The haunts had other ideas, however, and Gloriana’s effort proved poor as ghostly white wisps in the shape of phantasmal knotted rope formed in a tangle about the golden-haired woman’s lower legs. Though the images did not truly impede her progress, the effect on her perception and expectation was dramatic, and she felt she had failed even before she leapt. It was only by the sheerest luck7 that her trajectory actually carried her clear of the trap. Gloriana did not land so much as crash, stumbling and staggering against the wall, struggling for balance, silk scarves and honey-blond locks whipping madly about in a riot of color and noise.

Rahab raised an ironic eyebrow. Truly a woman descended from a line of great dancers.

Abby shoved the door open and stepped into the full blasting force of a yeth hound baying.

••••

Between the party’s struggle with the trapped passageway, the shouting, and Gloriana’s comic leap, there had been ample noise alerting the chamber occupants of impending attack. The yeth hound padded forward and opened its slavering jaws, drawing in a great breath. When the door slammed open it dropped into a crouch and howled mightily into the opening. The sound was like something solid.

This time, however, each of the adventurers was stalwart against the magic, and though the din carried frightful implication, the party shrugged off its effects and kept pressing forward.

Following the hound’s sonic assault came an arcane effect that sent a shiver into Abby’s enchanted sword. The warrior clutched desperately at the hilt as the blade wavered and rippled,8 but in the end it remained whole and stood true when the magic passed. Abby looked past the yeth hound and saw the woman that had cast the spell: tall, lean, with shock-white flowing hair that framed a haughty, beautiful face of intense, penetrating, cold-yet-furious expression. Her armor was a shining breastplate, in her right hand was an ornate hand-and-a-half sword, and there—extended in spellcasting gesture—was her left hand, a sheath of disquieting blister-red flesh overmuscled against her thin frame and tipped with jagged black claws: a living gauntlet shaped in the Abyss.

Nualia.

First thing’s first, Abby thought, and stepped forward swinging her blade in a powerful arc that dropped steel across the yeth hound’s withers. The sword rebounded alarmingly, and though she had done some damage, Abby knew the monster’s magical skin had absorbed the majority of the blow. Nevertheless, Abby’s advance into the room gave Gloriana room to step forward as she invoked the power of the spirits in blessing upon herself and her comrades.

The hound bit Abby savagely in the leg, ducking under the warrior’s braced shield and drawing blood. Nualia set her sword down behind her, leaning the blade against the chamber wall, and drew a long bow. She fired an arrow at Abby, but her shot missed. Throughout the fight Nualia’s expression remained focused, yet betrayed a seething outrage directed at the adventurers, as though her thoughts alone might wound.

Back beyond the trap, Kara gulped down her special mutagen concoction and maneuvered into position to leap. Rahab took a moment and brought his immense powers of concentration to bear, combing the vast archive of his mind and locating the magic he had just cast, recovering the visual impression of its formula9 as though tracing the light pattern imprinted on the interior of the eyelids when lightning flashes in a storm. The formula for the falling spell reseated itself in his working memory.

Kara ran forward and jumped. Gracefully the elf—who almost seemed to ignore the weight of equipment worn and carried, and even her that of her own body—arced over the trapped floor and landed successfully on the other side with the deftness of an acrobat.

Abby changed tactics, dropping her shield in order to draw the silver dagger she still carried on loan from Gloriana. She thrust her sword at the hound again, and struck, but the point of the blade barely pierced flesh. Another arrow fired by Nualia sailed past Abby, and Gloriana chanted another spell, summoning to herself the wisdom and strength of the spirits in order to augment her ability to fight.10

Rahab could only wait: the space ahead, beyond the trap, was occupied by Kara who even now was urging the others forward. “Move up!” the elf commanded. Abby and the hound of yeth traded attacks that missed, but Nualia finally found her mark, and an arrow pierced Abby’s right side, though it was Gloriana who felt much of the pain through her spiritual link of shared health she maintained with the warrior. In response the oracle channeled her healing power and the arrow shunted from Abby’s side while the honey-haired woman’s own agony diminished.

The hound found an opening and savagely tore into Abby, inflicting a serious wound that erupted bloody and ragged. The magical effect of the monster’s bite washed over Abby and this time her resolve did not hold. She shuddered involuntarily, shaken, suddenly uncertain on her feet.11 Gloriana gasped in sympathetic pain as a portion of the wound linked through her mystic bond, and once again the oracle summoned the healing magic to wash over herself and her friends, desperately knitting wounds closed against the onslaught of their enemies.

Kara was growing frustrated and she suddenly grabbed one of Gloriana’s silk scarves and yanked backwards even as the elf stepped forward, expertly executing in combat the castling maneuver of the chessboard. Now closer to the fray, Kara produced a vial of alchemical fire12 and hurled it forward.

The alchemist’s throw was a failure. Kara cursed her recent luck even as the vial left her hand, slipping uselessly from her fingers and falling directly at her feet. The small ceramic jar burst and barely singed Abby, the hound, and herself in flaming liquid. Kara cursed silently to herself, more in anger than pain.

Abby continued to strike at the yeth hound, and succeeded in hitting with the silver dagger, opening a real wound on the side of the beast’s head. Gloriana—conscious that Rahab was excluded from helping because of the bottleneck in the doorway—knew she needed to clear the entrance. If she could just get to one side . . . and suddenly, inspiration struck as images of her family dancing at camp rose in her mind. She raised her arms out to her side, rose up on one foot, and kicked her other leg out and back in again, performing fouetté en tournant and then immediately into an elegant grand jeté to one side of the chamber.

Or, at least, that’s what she had intended.13 Gloriana grunted in pain as the wind was knocked out of her, and the oracle found herself prone, arms and legs splayed, face on the stone floor, lying exactly in the doorway and continuing to prevent Rahab from joining the fight. A single tiny phantom appeared over one shoulder, and though she could not see it—face down as she was—she could feel it giggling hysterically.

Another arrow whistled and missed, and Nualia abandoned her bow, taking her bastard sword up again. Her demonic arm glistened as her two-handed grip tightened on the hilt. Kara drank an extract of shielding. Abby struck at the hound, again and again, landing blow upon blow and finally felling the monster, and without missing a beat the warrior stepped over the fallen corpse to close with Nualia. Gloriana rolled to one side into the newly available space and began hauling herself to her feet. The doorway was clear. Rahab was already jumping.

But Nualia did not strike at Abby. Slipping instead to one side, the nascent demon daughter closed the gap between the fighter and the oracle, and brought her sword around in a cruel strike. Abby could only watch, recognizing the martial technique, forced to admire the expertise of its execution even as she gaped in horror at what she was helpless to prevent.

Gloriana regained her feet just as Nualia’s sword stroke arrived. The blade crashed into the oracle’s skull, Gloriana’s neck buckled terribly under the force, and blood sprayed in the air carrying bits of glistening bone and locks of golden hair. Gloriana collapsed immediately in a growing pool of blood, eyes closed, body limp.

Rahab landed past the trap just in time to see the cut and watch the oracle crumple like a discarded sack. Blood poured from Gloriana’s brutal wound, staining the stone floor in deep, slick, pulsing red. Understanding crystallized in the wizard’s mind, and suddenly Rahab felt a strange sensation: an emotion intrusive, insistent, uncomfortable, alarming.

Gloriana was dying.

••••

Kara had drawn her own bow and one of the few magic arrows she had, but as she stepped into a firing position the movement exposed her to an opportunistic strike that Nualia did not fail to take. Blade still wet with Gloriana’s blood, the bastard sword pierced Kara with cruel point, and the elf cried out in pain.

Abby attacked furiously, and struck the dead priest’s daughter with sword and dagger. Nualia responded in kind and fetched a return cut on Abby. Blood was beginning to splatter-paint the floor of the chamber in macabre tones. Rahab quickly cast a dart of acid at Nualia, but his spell missed, sizzling uselessly against the wall. Realizing that his arcane attacks were, for the moment, uncertain, the conjurer turned his mind to something more effective and immediate.

Kneeling at Gloriana’s expiring body, Rahab carefully searched inside the folds of his robe for a potion he kept close at hand. Around him was all the chaos and noise of battle: Kara’s arrow lanced through the air while Abby and Nulia clashed sword against sword, blade against armor, steel against flesh. Heavy was the combatant’s breathing while grunts of effort and groans of pain filled the spaces between the ringing of metal and the susurrus of weapons slicing through the air. Rahab felt the wind against his cheek as a sword stroke narrowly missed his own skull, but he paid it no mind.

The wizard uncorked the narrow vial. Slowly, cautiously, steadily he lowered the tiny container with his right hand as his left gently cradled Gloriana’s broken skull with the delicate touch of an antiquarian holding an ancient ceramic. The oracle’s blood soaked his hand, his sleeve, the knees and lower length of his robe. His gaze was intent on the vial he held so precisely. Still the battle raged around him, so close he could feel drops of Abby’s sweat and the displaced air of hurtling weapons, so close it threatened to jostle the potion away or slay the wizard outright at any moment. Still Rahab ignored it. The vial alighted on Gloriana’s lips like a kiss, and then the conjurer tilted the glass quickly and decisively, emptying the precious liquid down the oracle’s throat.14

Medicine never his trade, Rahab nonetheless made an educated guess that the healing potion was the right thing to administer. Some of the blood flow was staunched, and he could feel the magic of the potion knitting skull fragments back together beneath the cradle of his hand, but he realized that the one vial was not enough.

Kara nocked another magical arrow and fired, scoring a hit. Abby pressed her vicious attack, plunging both sword and dagger into Nualia just as the warrior had done earlier against Bruthazmus. Nualia staggered, her mounting injuries becoming grave, but she was still dangerous, and successfully answered Abby’s attack with a sword stroke of her own.

Rahab pulled another healing potion from his robe. It was his last. He carefully repeated his previous effort and poured the vital elixir into Gloriana’s unconscious form. The magic took effect once more, and Rahab felt the solidity of Gloriana’s skull renewed in his hand, but the oracle was still motionless, her eyes remained shut, her breathing labored shallow. A realization rocketed through the wizard’s mind like an arrow made of diamond shot from a sun-carved bow: he did not know what to do. He had reached Gloriana as quickly as possible. He had expended every healing potion at hand. He had done all he could to help the dying woman gathered in his arms, her honey-gold hair matted and sticky with crimson, and now no formula came to mind. No mathematical insight into the structure of the cosmos offered recourse. Neither knowledge, nor skill, nor spell he possessed held promise of preservation. A keen misery silently, secretly, relentlessly pierced him.

Gloriana was still dying, and he did not know what to do.

••••

Kara fired her last magic arrow and watched with a sinking heart as it went wide of the mark. She looked to her left and saw Rahab kneeling, coated in blood, cradling Gloriana’s dying form.

This is it, the alchemist thought with striking, haunted clarity, the same sensation she had felt as she held her father and watched him draw his last breath. Abby, it must be you . . .

And perhaps the cosmos heard, for who else would most suitably hold the line of survival except one whose very existence was a measure of what it meant to survive?

Abby, it must be you . . .

And it was.

••••

There was something perfect in Abby’s sword stroke, some quality that elevated the martial to art, some magnificence that generals on the field would have wept to see. It was as if Iomedae in her Heaven had leaned down and whispered a mighty secret of righteous battlecraft into Abby’s ear at the moment of her swing, and there was nothing left for Nualia to do but die.

••••

In an instant Kara was kneeling next to Rahab, desperately pouring one of her own healing potions into Gloriana’s slack mouth. There was a long moment of agonizing silence.

Then the oracle’s eyes slowly opened. Lying next to Gloriana, Nualia’s eyes slowly closed.15
_____________________________________________

1 Abby hit for 17 points of damage in one blow. She’s third level at this point.

2 Shocking Grasp from the wand found earlier.

3 A tentamort, but none of the party members knew that. Our various Knowledge rolls did not avail us for this fight. Regardless, the thing went down in just two rounds of combat. We were beginning to appreciate Abby’s growing confidence and capability as a warrior.

4 Abby was in fighting form in the combats with the tentamort and the goblinwives. Both battles were over in two rounds, and Abby dispatched 75% of the goblinwives almost as afterthought. There’s a certain simple elegance in the classic fighter, and when the dice come up well Abby can dominate a battlefield beautifully.

5 Protection From Evil.

6 Feather Fall. There’s an interesting thing to consider about Feather Fall. We know that—in a vacuum—objects fall at exactly the same rate regardless of mass: the “feather” falls at the same rate as the human and the elephant and the blue whale. Granted, Abby was falling in atmosphere, but the underlying gravitation is unchanged as “feather Abby” and “standard mass Abby” are both subject to the same gravitational field of the planet Golarion. Given friction (air resistance), it makes sense that “feather Abby” reaches terminal velocity sooner than “standard mass Abby,” but the rates are still the same. Perhaps the way to think about Feather Fall is a magic that alters the gravitational field of the planet, since changing mass has no effect on rate. Changing gravitation has implications, as well, of course (if Golarion’s gravitation changes, even just locally, wouldn’t we see differences in the gravitational relationships of the planet and, say, horses, or fortresses, or all the world’s water, or everything that wasn’t nailed down?). Perhaps, in a world with elves and dragons and magic spells, it’s actually better not to dwell too much on things like the consistency of physics and implications thereof.

7 Luck in this case was spending a Hero Point. Even with the Hero Point, Gloriana’s jump roll just barely achieved the target number.

8 Abby’s sword has been the target of more Shatter spells than the tableware in a fantasy role-playing game Greek restaurant.

9 Given the effectiveness of Feather Fall in helping Abby, Rahab felt it worthwhile to spend a Hero Point to recover that recently cast spell, since both Kara and the conjurer still had to translate the trap.

10 Divine Favor.

11 Abby was Shaken for 1 round by the yeth hound’s bite.

12 Plain old alchemist’s fire, not one of Kara’s bombs.

13 Gloriana was attempting an acrobatic maneuver. There have been quite a few 1s rolled recently. This was one of them.

14 Rahab spent a Hero Point to pour the Potion of Cure Light Wounds into Gloriana for seven points of healing. She was still dying, but her demise was at least momentarily delayed.

15 It was a day of Hero Points. Kara spent a Hero Point for an extra action to administer her own Potion of Cure Light Wounds to Gloriana, which brought the oracle to 0 hit points exactly. Gloriana recovered life at the moment that Nualia died.

Comments

dgroo Desert_Son

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.