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Book III, Chapter 5: The Battle of Seven's Sawmill, Part II

Justice

In his role as a City Justice of Mangimar, Magistrate Ironbriar had carefully crafted a façade of propriety, duty, and legal scholarship respected throughout the city and Varisia. His name graced important decisions and opinions on record in the Pediment Building. He was sought for advice and argument relating to issues of law at nearly every level. Not a single social season passed without his presence on guest lists of important fêtes and functions. Not only prestige, but wealth also he had amassed, and he enjoyed luxuries of enviable couture, delectable foods, majestic property, great deference and fear from the populace. During all that time he had also been an active leader of the cult of murder. For years Seven’s Sawmill had stood as the site on which to meet with unholy associates, plan dark deeds in service to Father Skinsaw, and lead cultists in blasphemous rituals of secret murder. His work in profane killing was as precise, meticulous, and effective as his tenure on the Justice Court. Save for the close knit, secretive associates in the cult, a city of sixteen thousand souls passed each day without knowledge of Ironbriar’s bloody service to the god of murder.

The magistrate had been present at a feast to watch seven guests—lured under pretense of celebration—writhe in agonized death throes having dined on poisoned victuals. He had personally drawn his war razor across the throats of twelve victims in the city to empty their lifeblood. Ironbriar once held a drunk boatswain underwater unto drowning, and he had pushed a citizen from a balustrade near the summit of the seacleft, then watched the body plummet three hundred feet to crushing conclusion. He had organized, overseen, and dispatched fellow cultists to slay by garrote, by blade, by bludgeon, by fire, by toxin, by beast, by magic. Halfings, humans, dwarves, elves, and others beside had all fallen to his machinations at one time or another. Neither beggar nor noble, neither merchant nor military, neither native nor foreigner stood excluded from his designs, and he had seen murdered the guilty, the innocent, the evil, the good, the aged, the young, the infirm, the hale, the fortunate, the disadvantaged, adults and children.

In the twisted nightmare of Ironbriar’s soul it was all so very clear: During the last year his unholy communions had elicited approval. He knew with certainty that she had come as Father Skinsaw’s representative, dispatched by the very murderer god’s secretive hand to join at the magistrate and commit crimes against the world. She was cunning, creative, beautiful, ingenious, bloodthirsty, powerful. Magnimar—and, indeed, all Varisia—would tremble at the unknown horror in its midst, without recourse, hopeless as a victim stumbling blindly down an alley only to find the way bricked up, the practiced steps of a killer closing inexorably from the darkness behind. Together they would explore new paths of bloodshed: Ironbriar and Xanesha.

And yet, there was now this strange invasion, all the more mysterious and upsetting for arising seemingly out of nowhere. Seven’s Sawmill had long been inviolate, the perfect place in the city to gather membership, plot slaughter, and conduct the awful rites of the Brotherhood of the Seven. The masquerade was absolute: A small, old mill in the industrial section of the city, lost among the frenetic daily activity of Magnimar. Recent murders had gone unsolved, leaving only the haunted, unknown menace of the symbols carved on the corpses. Only the cult’s membership knew the purpose of the mill. There was no cause for discovery; dissemblance had long remained eminently effective. Nothing had changed.

Nothing had changed, the magistrate reflected, except the arrival of Xanesha. But there was no time to pursue that thought. Ironbriar stood at the top of the stairs and gazed down on one of the interlopers. It was a woman, short sandy hair held back with a simple ribbon, dressed in an impressive gown of chainmail, sword in hand, and upon her left arm a brilliant, shining silver shield with a seven-pointed star device that gave the city justice pause for its similarity to another symbol he had come to know. Beyond the warrior woman he knew his subordinates were battling others, and he knew these others had brought magic. He knew that if they had ascended this far into the mill, unbidden, that blood had already been shed below, and that these were no mere faction from the city, neither guard nor vigilante group. A nervous thrill shook him as he opened his mouth, spoke a spell of compulsion, and sent its potency down upon the warrior woman.

“Won’t you help me kill the traitors who arrived with you?”

••••

A kind of fog seemed to billow inside Abby’s mind. Sound was suddenly thick and distant. The glow from her lightstone dimmed somehow. She struggled to remember what she was doing, where she was. Sorting through her thoughts was like dragging a great ship’s anchor across wet sand. From the haze in her brain emerged a throbbing insistence, not exactly clear, but unremitting.

Won’t you help me kill the traitors who arrived with you? That was the thought, that was it. The traitors, those duplicitous curs that had led her astray so many times, led her into danger, threatened her survival at every turn. The elf betrayer and the halfling churl, untrustworthy people from strange lands with mysterious motives. The humans, too, had tricked her. The man was a servant of devils and the golden-woman was as practiced a seducer as she had ever encountered. If she were to survive then they would have to die. It was the only way she could escape.

Abby started to turn and thus did not see the rictus of triumph form on the face of he who had asked, in a perfectly reasonable manner, for her help.

Her eyes took in the chaos of battle filling the hallway. One of the traitors in particular caught her eye. It was the human man, and then Abby blinked and the fog in her mind broke as under a warm sun and a refreshing breeze.1

••••

Ironbriar’s satisfaction faded as quickly as it had arrived. The warrior continued to turn, spinning on her heel and suddenly surging up the stairs toward him. He saw the sword gripped fiercely in hand, saw the sheen of silver light reflected on the pristine shield, saw the intense fire in the warrior’s eyes. His enchantment had failed.

“Help!”Abby called out as she ran the steps two at a time, her powerful legs driving the weight of her body, her armor, her weapons, her equipment, her survivor’s iron will to close with her enemy, her true enemy. Still shaken from the magical effects, her attack did not reach the elven man dressed in the dark brown robe. She watched the figure step back and unfold a war razor. The movement was almost casual, but utterly sinister.

Kara’s superior senses heard Abby’s plea, and the alchemist moved quickly up the hallway, deftly navigating the fallen bodies. At the base of the stairs she looked up and saw her friend just below the landing, and beyond an elf menacing the warrior with a narrow, deadly blade. Kara pitched a galvanic grenado underhand and watched in satisfaction as the small, ceramic container arced perfectly over Abby and burst directly on the robed figure, spilling a riot of rampant lightning in such fury as to induce involuntary muscle spasms.2

At that moment Lem ducked under the sweeping attack of another war razor, but Gloriana was not so lucky. Her opponent sliced a stinging wound open on her shoulder. More attackers appeared at the top of the stairs in support of the brown-robed elf. The mill was practically alive with razor blades.

And then it was Rahab’s turn to wield new magic.

••••

The conjurer’s tongue finished the phrase and his hands completed the complex somatic design. Lines of color assembled and intersected before his eyes, forming a circle within a pentagram bathed in glowing runes. The form seemed to tumble away, and the scent of tobacco filled his nostrils with sudden intensity.3

An instant later the turning sigil faded and the power of the spell surged over Abby, Kara, Lem, Gloriana, and himself. All other action in the hall seemed to slow dramatically. The masked attackers suddenly moved as though suspended in honey, every motion labored and languorous. Rahab thrilled at the sensation, and even more so at the actualization of newfound power.4 When he stepped forward in support of Gloriana he marveled at how the very dust motes in the air seemed sluggish.

Gloriana’s spirit blade hovered in air, a glistening arc of golden light that struck like steel, and it descended upon a nearby mask-wearer, drawing blood. Her own attack followed immediately, the heavy spiked head of her morningstar bursting upon the man’s skull as a stone shatters a melon. Under the effects of Rahab’s magic she found another opening to attack almost immediately, where her usual martial skill was not yet sufficient to the task. The oracle executed a return stroke in the other direction, and this time the weapon tore up into the skull from below the jaw. The mask remained on, sloshing and shifting like a sack of soup as it carried the corpse’s pulverized skull to the floor.5

“Lem!” Gloriana shouted. “Will you get upstairs?” Then, recognizing the mounting damage she was sustaining through her companions, the oracle abandoned the link of life to Rahab out of necessity.

The gardener needed no further prompting, and raced up the hallway to help Abby and Kara.

••••

Ironbriar’s allies were arriving quickly, and he stepped back to allow them access to attack. As he did so, he reached into the haunted place within and shouted murder with his mind. A distortion rippled outward and washed over the party. To Gloriana it felt like a stab of hopelessness. To Abby it felt like a scream that robbed her breath. It conjured in Lem’s mind the raw brutality of a slaver’s chains. For Kara and Rahab, it was simply crushing pain.6

Nevertheless, the magistrate’s effort had required concentration that left him vulnerable, and despite her injury, Abby capitalized on the advantage, stabbing the elf in the thigh with her longsword.7 Two mask-wearers stepped forward and interposed between Abby and their master. One of the assailants fetched the warrior a vicious swipe with a war razor. In return, Abby cut him down with two swift sword strokes, then crushed the other man’s chest with Avenger, killing him just as quickly. She stepped into the top floor hallway and, finding her opponents suffering a strange slowness of movement, seized opportunity and put her blade through the belly of a third mask-wearer.8

“Come this way!” the warrior called back to her friends.

One of Kara’s concotions sailed past Abby and exploded in another crackling blast of electricity that leapt across two more members of Ironbriar’s cult. Renewed war razor attacks against warrior and alchemist proved fruitless as the two women could easily read the sluggish assaults and avoid them with seemingly enhanced agility.9

Now at the limits of damage she could sustain, Gloriana cast a spell of potent healing upon herself and felt immediately renewed, allowing her to soak up the pain that still troubled Kara, Lem, and Abby. The gardener charged forward, leapt up to the wall and sprang off to propel himself past the others on the stairs and tumble into the hallway beyond. Misjudging the distance, Lem found himself sprawled on his back, pain shooting up his spine, staring straight up into the eyes of Justice Ironbriar weaving a spell.10

“Won’t you please help me kill these intruders?” a voice asked in Lem’s mind. He rejected the suggestion. Later he would wonder if he had done so because such an idea was antithetical to his sentiment, or because his passion for independence was such that if he were to undertake such a task, he wanted to do so on his own terms, not at another’s behest.

••••

Abby slew another cultist, and another. Kara bit the cork from a flask of red liquid, gulped the contents, and then opened her mouth and belched a gout of flame upon two enemies to her left. Smoke began to fill the hallway from burnt tunics and singed wood.

More cultists ran down the upper hall to join the fray. Abby and Kara both sustained additional wounds. Lem struggled to stand, narrowly avoiding the attack of the elf in the dark brown robe, only to find his opponent retreating behind a pulse that distorted the air. This time the agony was Lem’s to endure, and the gardener nearly doubled over. Ironbriar slipped into an open doorway and slammed the portal shut behind him.

“See my power?” Lem shouted. “Run while you can!” Then the discomfort sucked the air from his lungs and he nearly collapsed. A moment later more cultists were upon him, whirling war razors and slicing cuts into flesh. Despite his bravado, the gardener felt a potent tinge of despair.

Then Gloriana reached the top of the stairs and cast another spell of healing against the new damage her friends were suffering. Kara hurled another grenado into a cultist and ushered him to electric death. Abby redirected to support Lem and cut two more mask-wearers down. For the moment, the party was alone in the hallway with the bodies of those they had slain. Lem nodded at the door to indicate the path of Ironbriar’s flight.

“Where is he?” Gloriana called. She channeled healing spirits among her friends to further staunch their wounds, and Lem felt better.

“Went this way!” replied Abby. “Watch out behind us!” The warrior kicked the door open and stepped into the room beyond, followed by Lem. Back in the hallway Kara retrieved another brew, this time a potion of healing, and quickly drank it down. Now that some space had opened up, Rahab reached the top of the stairs and detected for signs of magic in an effort to track Ironbriar’s movement, but saw only the signals from his companions and the masks on the dead cultists.

••••

Long ago the cult had undertaken augmentations to the sawmill. Two secret passages and a secret chamber had been added to the floor plan, and only a few members of the cult at the highest level knew of their existence. Ironbriar had consecrated the room as the Chamber of Pain. Here he kept the faces of murder victims flayed from the skull and stretched on wooden frames with leather lanyards, preserving the momentous agony of expression the dying had felt in their waning moments.

Many opportunities over many years had afforded the magistrate the precision necessary to make use of the secret passageways with accuracy and skill. Having slammed the door behind him, Ironbriar quickly released the catch and secreted himself away in the hidden passage, carefully and expertly closing the paneling behind him. To anyone entering the access space—even most other members of the cult—the small room would appear as a simple storage. Already the sounds of battle faded behind and Ironbriar made his way to the Chamber of Pain. Once inside he whispered a quick spell and cloaked himself in magic of invisibility. A moment later he had accessed the second secret passage and was already on his way to the end room on the mill’s uppermost floor where he could make more effective use of his disappearance to effect a sudden and devastating surprise attack on these hated attackers. As he moved he silently wondered who they were, how they had come to the mill, and what they knew.

••••

In the small room Lem and Abby cast about but there was no sign of the escaped magistrate. The gardener bent close to the wall, searching with eyes, ears, and the tips of his fingers. He was sweating, and his leather armor was stained with blood, some of which was his own. “Must be something,” he mumbled as he explored urgently.

Abby ducked back out into the hall and pointed with her sword toward the other end. “We need to make sure that behind us is clear.” Without awaiting reply she trundled off, stepping over and around bodies.

“Lem!” Gloriana called. “Should I go with you?” Kara and Rahab had already begun to follow Abby.

“No!” replied the gardener, still scrabbling to find the secret door he knew to be there. Gloriana hesitated a moment, then ignored Lem’s instruction and stepped into the room to help.

••••

At the other end of the hall Abby found another room, and another five cultists lying in ambush. They rushed as one, but Abby was still too swift under the effects of Rahab’s magic, and she lopped the head off of one of the attackers. Kara appeared in support and blasted another lightning vial into two others. One fell, smoking and twitching. Rahab cast the magic of the electric grasp from his wand, and managed to clutch a fourth cultist by the wrist, successfully discharging the energy.

War razors landed harmlessly on Kara’s leather armor, Abby’s chainmail, or slid uselessly across Avenger’s surface. Warrior and alchemist were simply too swift for the cultists’ attacks, and their own counterattacks wrought havoc upon their opponents.

By now Lem had uncovered the secret panel that gave access to a low passageway behind the wall. He and Gloriana crept forward as swiftly as possible, emerging moments later in a small room decorated with gruesome images of horror: Human faces cut from the skull and stretched over frames, frozen forever in expressions of agony. There was still no sign of Ironbriar, and Lem was already at work trying to find what must have been yet another secret route out of the macabre chamber. Gloriana could hear sounds of battle nearby, but was uncertain of the direction and distance from the secret passageway.

“We must hurry,” the oracle urged.

“This is fantastic workmanship. Feel free to find the mechanism yourself. Anytime you like.” Lem’s rejoinder was part frustration, part irritation.

“Keep working at that and you’ll be as good as Rahab.”

“No cause to be insulting.” Lem’s fingers continued to explore along the wall and just then discovered the latch. A panel clicked open slightly and Lem was already hauling it back. Gloriana followed the gardener into another low passageway. The oracle had to stoop as she struggled along.

In the other room the combat continued. Abby and Kara each killed another cultist, when suddenly the elusive Ironbriar blinked instantly into view as he uttered a spell of cancellation. The protective blessings on Abby were brushed aside.11 The companions could see that Ironbriar was now masked like his fellows, though his covering was more hideous, more intricate in its patchwork design, and where the other masks were cloth, his was cruelly crafted from flayed human skin.

••••

From the other side of the secret passageway it was easy to discern the mechanism and method. Lem activated the switch without delay, already moving, his hands once more drawing his dagger and war razor as skillfully as a court juggler. When the gardener emerged from the uncovered space he found himself immediately behind the recently revealed Justice Ironbriar. The gardener’s reaction was almost instinctive: He stabbed his dagger into the magistrate’s lower back at the kidney.

“Wretched halfling!” Ironbriar moaned as he stepped to one side. Gloriana emerged in Lem’s wake and tried to bring her morningstar to bear, but missed. The magistrate shouted a strange series of words and invoked a magical compulsion that targeted both the oracle and the warrior. Both women ignored the magic’s effect. Rahab recognized the enchantment of confusion, and the effect’s origin in the hideous mask that Ironbriar wore.12 The conjurer cast his own magic of dispelling, and the energy crashed through one of the magistrate’s spells.

Kara suddenly found herself in melee, drawing her longsword to confront a cultist attacking her. Lem tumbled to one side of Ironbriar opposite Gloriana, awaiting the oracle’s move to close the flanking maneuver and maximize the opportunity to attack. A moment later the golden-haired woman stepped forward and attacked, once more bringing the weight of her morningstar full upon her opponent.13 As her blow struck home she noticed an object clutched in the magistrate’s hand: A small carving depicting an implacable black shield highlighted by a brilliant starburst.

Norgorber, the oracle realized.

Abby found herself pressed by two more cultists, and while one of them fetched her a stroke of the war razor, the warrior in turn put her blade through the other cultist and slew him without ceremony. In the midst of the hectic and chaotic combat, Ironbriar tried a last compulsive gamble, invoking magic of suggestion upon Abby. Once more, the warrior resisted the effect in a supreme moment of will.

In the next moment the world collapsed upon the magistrate. Kara threw a final galvanic grenado that blasted Ironbriar, and then Rahab directed a beam of magical green light directly upon the murder priest’s form. The magistrate wilted under the very weight of his own clothing and armor.14

Moving with magically enhanced speed, Lem and Gloriana acted. The gardener sliced several vicious cuts into Ironbriar. The oracle called upon the spirits to snatch the symbol of Norgorber from the magistrate’s grasp, but the unholy servant managed to retain his hold on the focus of his desperate, blasphemous power.

But it was Abby who ushered the battle of Seven’s Sawmill to its close. The warrior isssued three quick movements in succession designed to threaten and confuse her opponent. The result could not have played into Abby’s hands more fortuitously. Ironbriar attempted to sidestep the warrior’s fury by moving to one side, and as he did so he exposed himself irrevocably. Suddenly the warrior spun full circle on her heel, her body pirouetting perfectly in a motion Gloriana briefly envied. The arc of Abby’s blade coursing through the air to meet the magistrate’s neck in perfect synchrony. Ironbriar’s head separated cleanly, tumbling to the floorboards and rolling quickly into one corner of the room. Abby’s steel whipped a line of crimson across the walls like an artist signing a masterwork.

••••

Abby leaned on her sword, the point firmly thrust into the wooden floor, the blood of her enemies still running red down its length. The warrior’s shoulders heaved with exertion under mail, and sweat poured down her forehead. Gloriana gradually lowered the weight of her morningstar and replaced the weapon at her belt. Her golden curls fell around her face like a shroud as she did so. Lem was already wiping his deadly blades clean on the robes of the fallen magistrate with business-like efficiency, but the motion was as much to maintain his weapons as it was to hide the tremble in his muscles from the pain and effort the battle had cost him. Kara, likewise, cleaned her own sword and carefully replaced it in its scabbard. Smoke—as from a distant, muted fire—curled from the alchemist’s mouth and nostrils as she did so, the residual power of her flaming breath mixture slowly burning itself out. Rahab, still in pain from Ironbriar’s magical malice, leaned against one of the walls and surveyed the battle’s aftermath: Dead cultists lying like oblations to their own beheaded master stilled by Abby’s battlecraft. Gradually the wizard sunk to a sitting position. Abby eventually lowered herself painfully as well.

No one said anything for a long time. They rested, listening for further signs of menace, but the only noise was the rumbling of the mill machinery churning below. Autumn sunlight drifted into the room through the grimy window and showed countless motes adrift on the air. Rahab’s spell of haste faded, and they all felt their heartbeats momentarily surge against their ribs, then slowly thunder down to a more regular hammering of exhaustion. Two minutes passed, the silence sundered only by the gasping of breath. Lem moved to the window and shoved it open. Air from outside slowly filled the room, bringing the vague chill of the season borne upon the damp odor of the river delta in collision with the sea.

Eventually Gloriana implored the spirits in a whisper, and healing power rose within the gathered party. The sensation was slow and sweet, like gently heated honey oozing lazily upon the tongue. The air from outside seemed momentarily fresh, and a sound echoed improbably against the thrum of the mill: A piercing gull’s cry.

The oracle looked at Abby. “What happened at the base of the stairs?”

“I bet Rahab knows,” Abby answered coyly. The conjurer appeared lost in thought.

Gloriana resumed: “I bet he does, too. That’s why I’m asking you.” She gave a weak laugh.

Abby chuckled in turn. “He cast some spell on me.” The warrior indicated the headless body of the magistrate with a nod of her head. “Tried to convince me to fight you, instead of him.”

“I am pleased, then,” the oracle responded, “that you resisted the magic’s effect.”

“It was Rahab that helped me break through,” Abby said with a wan smile. The others looked from warrior to wizard in surprise. For his part, the conjurer regarded Abby carefully, his gaze intent and serious.

“When I turned around I saw you, and I knew that you had always been honest with me,” the warrior addressed the conjurer directly, “even when it meant being an ass. It was as if I could hear your logic. The spell tried to make me see my friends as deceivers, but experience had only ever shown you to be wholly, brutally honest. You always told me the truth, no matter how much it might hurt. Even Sandpoint has treated me different because I am a half-elf, yet the village often tries to pretend it does no such thing. But you never lied to me, Rahab. And the magic was telling me that you had lied.

“So I knew: The magic was wrong.”

There was a pause, and then the wizard gave a small, soft smile that Gloriana swore was genuine affection. Struggling to his feet, Rahab approached Abby and held out his hand. She took it, and the conjurer helped her to her feet. They looked one another in the eye for a long moment, and then slowly embraced, leaning upon one another in mutual support under the fatigue of battle. The gesture was clumsy for Rahab, but earnest to a degree that was simultaneously unfamiliar, puzzling, uncertain, not unwelcome. For Abby the motion was practiced, and no less earnest. Gloriana and Kara smiled. Lem regarded the communion with curiosity.

When they parted Abby smiled and clapped the wizard on the shoulder. “You’re still an arrogant ass.”

Rahab’s familiar devil-grin returned. “Palpable relief.”

Even Lem smiled then.
_______________________________________________________

1 Abby failed her Will save against Ironbriar’s Suggestion spell. She spent a Hero Point to reroll, and her second effort was successful.

2 Kara scored a critical hit with this attack. Her shock bomb inflicted 25 points of damage on the magistrate and launched an additional 8 points of splash damage upon two cultists standing to either side of Ironbriar. Lightning strikes.

3 The material component listed for Haste is a shaving of licorice root. The prominent flavor and odor associated with licorice candy and other foodstuffs is actually aniseed. By contrast, licorice root is often used as a flavor additive for tobaccos, hence my choice for Rahab’s sensory experience instead of, say, ouzo.

4 This was the first time Rahab cast Haste.

5 So, yeah. Gloriana’s Spiritual Weapon hit for 3 points of damage. Her first attack with the morningstar then scored a critical hit for 22 points of damage. Now under the effects of Haste, she received an iterative attack that hit for another 13 points. Needless to say, her opponent did not survive.

6 Negative energy channeled by Ironbriar hit for 8 points of damage . . . except for Kara and Rahab, who both failed their Will saves and took 17 points. If you have a wizard’s Hit Dice, this kind of damage is . . . unpleasant.

7 Abby’s Attack of Opportunity earned Ironbriar 9 points of damage.

8 And the hits keep coming. Abby did 20 points of damage in two sword strokes, which killed the first opponent, then administered a critical hit with her shield that killed the other cultist, then stepped 5’ and struck a third cultist for another 10 points of damage with her hasted iterative attack.

9 Oh, yeah . . . Haste also provides an Armor Class bonus.

10 Lem did not have a good Tumble check.

11 Ironbriar’s was acting under an Invisibility spell. When he “attacked” Abby, the Invisibility was cancelled. His attack was casting Dispel Magic. The Protection From Evil and Bless spells on Abby were cancelled by Ironbriar’s magic, but the Haste and Bear’s Endurance remained.

12 Ironbriar used a spell-like ability of his mask to cast Confusion, but Gloriana and Abby both resisted successfully.

13 This episode may have been one of the greatest melee sequences Gloriana’s ever had in the campaign. She was hitting regularly, and this time her strike did 11 points of damage.

14 Kara’s bomb hit for 14 points of damage, and almost immediately thereafter Rahab cast Ray of Enfeeblement, striking Ironbriar successfully and draining 5 points of strength.

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