The feast to celebrate the return of the villagers abducted from Sandpoint did not simply rival the Swallowtail Festival, it eclipsed it, and then passed into legend. Citizens as far away as Magnimar came to the fire- and siege-ravaged townscape to join the occasion. The event never really ceased from day to day. Participants merely faded away to rest while those waking from recovery stepped seamlessly in to continue proceedings. There were speeches, and songs, and dances, and cheers on every street, in every standing building, and from every face. And when Ven Vinder was reunited with his only living child the noise in that moment alone shook rafters. Mayor Deverin resumed her office, Father Zantus ordered the cathedral doors thrown open and showered blessings upon all. Faces in the crowds appeared again and again: Sheriff Hemlock, Ameiko Kaijitsu, Bethona Korwin, Broadert Quink, Sava the Armorer, Cyrdak Drokkus, Amille and Allerghast and Aron and Verra Barrett. Every smile bore tears, joy, amazement.
The wine did not run out until day four.
A townhouse living room in a major Varisian coastal city:
“Highlight of the whole thing,” Lem chuckled, “was Rahab having to teleport back on the second day to get the horses.”
“Yes, but he didn’t miss anything!” Abby shook her head.
“Well, obviously. It only takes a few seconds,” the gardener harrumphed. “All those Sandpointers gathered around him like a spectacle at the fair . . . .”
“Does inebriation affect your teleportation accuracy?” Kara feigned innocence.
Rahab smirked. “I was perfectly sober, as well you know.”
“Yes, then. Later you were not.”
“True,” the wizard returned. “A facet I no longer expect you to appreciate.”
“The vagaries of that capacity are as numerous as the stars.”
“Elves are more adept than most.”
“Ah, excellent! Now that is the sweet, juicy taste of someone else’s ego ascendant. Join me, won’t you? Up here, in the rarified air of being so-much-better than almost everyone else?”
A chorus of laughter and ribbing rounded the room. The alchemist was so rare a mark, after all.
Spring night still carried a chill as Abby and Gloriana made ready for bed in their room on the second floor of the townhouse. The warrior’s ritual including placing Avenger face down on the panels such that all she had to do was roll over, reach down, and tumble upright to stand ready, shield braced.
Gloriana quickly slid under her blanket with a shuddering breath. “I wonder if Rahab could make an enchanted blanket that stayed warm all the time, so that bed was never cold first thing.”
From across the room, Abby rose on one elbow and flexed a bemused eyebrow at the oracle. The warrior’s constitution was a thing of near-legend now. Bards in taverns levied songs about shrugging off boulders in flight, and the like. Gloriana stuck out her tongue.
“Anyway,” Abby chortled and settled back after blowing out the candle, “you handled it well.”
“The festival? It was very gratifying, but I worry the expenditure and effort might have been better directed—”
Exasperated breath: “NOT what I was talking about.”
“Well . . . what then?”
“You didn’t seem jealous at all. I’m proud of you.”
A sigh. “The situation with Mayor Deverin is complicated. I worry that her plans for the coming—”
“Hells’ below, Glo, you are not this dense!”
A pause. “Evidently I am, since I clearly don’t understand what you’re trying to say. What are you talking about?”
“Shayliss. And Rahab. Ven hated him, but now that Rahab has returned his only daughter alive from giant captivity it may change things. Might want them to marry. She’s very pretty, and anyway, Vinder may feel that she’s safer with Rahab than anywhere else.” Abby paused, considering her own words, as if surprised that she had said them. Then she shrugged. “Nah, I’m sure it’s not a thing. Won’t even come up. Forget I mentioned it. Goodnight.”
In the darkened bedroom Gloriana almost became pure fire.
Alone, two joined battle at breakfast.
“Actually,” the alchemist mused pleasantly, “she figured it out all on her own. Our Abby is no fool, Glori.”
The oracle frowned. “I know.”
“I can only imagine that Lem knows, too, if not by his own acute perception then certainly in conversation with his battle-mate.”
“Oh, I know.”
Kara bit into a slice of orange. “Of course, now that she does know it won’t be long until—”
A groan. “I know!”
“—we shall have to have a night out, just us three. We can get dressed up, find someplace exciting to go—”
“Ghosts of The Road . . . .”
Eager for news of her homeland, the alchemist left shortly after her meal, departing atop Urdrenn to rendezvous with a contingent of Mierani rumored to be passing through the region. Abby had ventured to the stables in company, remaining to see to the mounts now that they were back in Magnimar. There was no sign of Lem.
Rahab stood in the living room nursing a cup of hot tea and gazing absently into the fire.
“How did you sleep?” Gloriana asked.
The conjurer gave a grim chuckle. “Surprisingly well, for only two hours. The magic is remarkable, and I admit it is nice to return to these walls.” He gazed around. “And yourself?”
The oracle made a noncommittal motion. “The festival was . . . .”
“A bit much?”
“A bit.” Not exactly a smile, not quite a grimace.
The wizard regarded her in silence. “Perhaps,” he offered, “they needed something to take their minds from recent trauma. Perhaps it felt good simply to have something to celebrate.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Rahab, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounded like empathy.”
He rolled his eyes. “It pleases you to imagine me alien or interloper in fundamental features of personhood.”
She smiled. “You make it easy. Sometimes.”
The conjurer took a skeptical sip of tea. “I suppose I do.”
“Not everyone is an idiot.”
“True enough. Most of them are merely average.”
“Rahab . . . .”
“Yes, yes. I should have more care, especially since I have a request.” He set his cup down.
“What is it?”
A deep breath. “I need . . . help.”
Gloriana smiled, a brightness in and of itself, a gesture to lighten burden and to quicken pulse. The wizard attempted a stern expression. “My admission is earnest.”
“I know. I just like hearing you say it.”
After a pause: “The Book of the Strange—”
“—has a defect.”
“The alchemical golem.”
“Its very own integral assassination feature.”
“I am sure everyone would be willing to help.”
“With the full range of the book’s abilities available to me—”
Somehow she was standing right in front of him. “Rahab? You don’t have to make a case before the court. We are your friends. We want to help.”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
A shimmering heat had snuck upon them, and then the front door slammed and Lem’s voice crashed upon the living room like a stone through glass.
“Where is everyone?”
The gardener dusted his hands on his breeches as he entered the room. Gloriana turned.
“Where were you?”
Rahab quietly picked up his tea cup and sipped.
“Out where?” the oracle pursued.
“Out. You know? The city? Magnimar? It has been some time.”
The wizard had refocused on the fireplace. “Nice to be back, isn’t it?” he murmured.
“It is. See?” Lem gestured at Rahab as he strode for the stairs. “He knows.” The gardener disappeared above.
Gloriana turned back to the conjurer. “What is he up to? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
An arched eyebrow: “Gloriana, in matters of humanoid behavior, I imagine very little I could tell you that you do not already know.”
She dragged her hands through her golden hair with an annoyed breath, then started for the stairs.
The next morning they gathered, save Kara, who was unforeseeably delayed due to her meeting with the Mierani.
“We could teleport to her.” Rahab’s voice was uncertain.
“We will be fine,” soothed Gloriana.
“Her expertise against constructs is like none I have ever known.”
“Hey, magic man,” Abby clapped a gauntleted hand on the wizard’s shoulder, “I’m about to put on a show of expertise that will make even you take up arms.”
Narrowed eyes. “Doubtful. But, I am grateful for the sentiment in support. Well,” a breath, “let us away.”
The four friends exited and strode out into the street. Citizens watched them go with quiet whispers and searching glances. Gloriana had given up trying to correct the reference to “Heroes Hearth,” and there was now no tavern in the City of Monuments lacking songs or stories of the Heroes of Sandpoint. When they passed through the gate onto the Lost Coast Road the guards eyed them with mixtures of suspicion, resentment, surprise, and awe.
They made their way to a broad section of field. The sun shone bright, slowly peeling dew away from the newly green grass.
“Is this far enough?” Abby looked back at the walls.
“I think we won’t set light to the city,” answered the oracle.
Lem was cheerfully macabre. “Now setting ourselves alight, that’s a different story!”
“Rahab?” the oracle faced the wizard. “What can we expect?”
“Fire, certainly. As to other elements, I do not know. I feel Kara’s absence explicitly in this regard. She might advise us better.”
“I thought you were supposed to know all about this kind of stuff!” the gardener crossed his arms.
“The depth of my knowledge, Lem, would dizzy you to plumb, but only a fool presumes all knowledge from within the limits of their own.”
The gardener snorted.
The warrior rolled a monumental shoulder. “But it will be a sword fight, right?”
“It will, because my magic is likely to be ineffective. Moreover, I will almost certainly be the golem’s focus. No matter what I do, where I move, it will seek me out.”
Lem already had his knives drawn and was spinning them absently. “You’re not in this, in other words.”
“As little more than target? Not really.”
Gloriana laid a hand on the wizard’s arm. “We’re here.”
The conjurer swallowed. “I will cast the spell here. The portal should appear at this line,” and he marked a portion of grass with the toe of his boot.
“How wide is the opening?” Abby asked.
“As any common door in the townhouse.”
The warrior nodded to Lem and they took up flanking positions on an extra-dimensional portal that did not yet exist. The oracle began to chant songs of The Road, verses against fire, against crippling fear. She lifted words of hope, of endurance, of faith in friendship on journey. Melodies of speaking and understanding she wove alongside harmonies of motion and preparation.
Rahab held The Book of the Strange before himself and cast the spell of opening upon the last page.
The wizard had a second’s glance to take in details of the room beyond, a small affair appointed in comfortable rug and sturdy furnishings with extensive shelving. At the table sat a blasted form, humanoid, crisped, tendrils of smoke rising to cloud the air.
A shape moved into view, and Rahab began to back away. It was larger than he remembered.
As the figure rattled forth, Gloriana shouted parley. “Guardian! We mean you no harm! We wish to know your purpose, and the purpose of the room!”
A thing shambled from a strange space in nothing. It loomed half again Abby’s height, perhaps more, and constituted a frame of stained copper housing glass chambers and ampoules of various sizes and shapes. Each container sloshed with liquids none there could name, and atop the vaguely bipedal form glistened a clear dome housing a humanoid brain. Metal joints whined and clicked, and vents issued toxic smokes in dizzying colors. Two appendages suggesting arms ended in complex arrangements of splints, struts, gears, and syringes parodying fingers. A mouthless sound hacked the air with a voice like liquid bubbling under heat, or bottled electricity dropped on crystalline eggshells. Each word jerked as though lashed to the very air with iron hooks, jarring accompaniment to the stutter-stride of tripod-tipped, reverse-jointed legs puncturing the greensward for position.
“Destroy owner of book!”
Armature raised amid a crackling that frosted ambient humidity in tiniest snowfall. Something ovoid launched into the air and impacted Rahab at center torso, bursting open in a shower of bristling rime that glazed across red silken robes. Sudden icicles formed by the intense freeze shattered laterally and tore bloody lines across Gloriana’s arm and cheek. Eyeless, the construct advanced, and there could be no doubt as to its target.
Abby and Lem attacked.
Each hit the warrior and gardener landed upon the creaking, shuddering form rent some internal mechanism or sluice, spilling jets of alchemical fluid like blood, only for the substance to splash with icy chill or stunning electricity. Neither blade-wielder could discern whether this was feature or flaw, but the implication was clear: No end to this battle unfolded without injury for everyone. The arcane forces binding the construct guarded against the full impact of even Abby’s mighty new blade, and the precision strikes that made Lem so deadly in combat did not spill vital fluid necessary to shorten the encounter.
“Shit,” the warrior grimaced, but there was nothing for it. She gritted her teeth and hammered at the figure once more, sword-and-shield, and again, and again. The gardener danced deadly in counterpoise, deft blades finding joints, scarring copper, shattering glass, severing lines. Some damage began to accumulate, but each exchange cost the battle pair, with new injury in the form of acid. Some occult cycle to the fluids resulted in random elemental expression each time.
Rahab had an idea, and stepped behind the dimensions . . .
Gloriana felt the accumulation of ice, lightning, and acid in her bones like voices of the dead insisting vitality before pitiless tribunal of time. The feedback of essential magic coursed minor healing among all assembled, and she chanted a poem of life against the bitter, sapping sleepiness of winter night. The spell suffused them, even as she became sunlit-fire.
. . . and appeared just next to Abby. The effect was exactly as he predicted: From present vantage, the alchemical assassin could not now see the wizard. Rahab’s laureate understanding of inter-, extra-, and trans-dimensional dynamics had easily allowed him to travel behind the portal without actually going through it, and now the opening acted as a complete blind against the construct’s perception. He began to formulate his next spell.
The golem torso and brain-dome spun counter-co-axially, and the syringe-tipped arms jabbed at air with the fury of an overturned insect.
A glass rain of noise: “Identify owner of book!”
Appendages stabbed at Abby in a flurry of misplaced purpose, and bursts of energy scattered over the warrior like paints hurled in the studio of a drunken artist. Acid hissed and spun tendrils of smoke, and electricity raised the warrior’s hair and clenched muscles in spasms of torment. When the waves of pain hit Gloriana, she howled in rage.
“It was supposed to be cold, you fucking machine!”
The construct reoriented momentarily on the oracle, and Abby stepped into the opportunity, hips leading hands. The sword fetched a dent, and then she set Avenger against the noxious marionette and tried to force it into retreat.
She might as well have pushed against the earth itself.1
At least the splash back was fire, and the magic protecting the warrior easily absorbed the heat. Lem had watched the exchange with his usual calm. Because the combatants had all shifted somewhat, he needed to relocate to maximize attack effectiveness, and he quickly trilled the sensation in his mind that hummed up from his feet as The Boots of the Panther made a single, sliding step into three times the distance. Too easy. Reflexes to shame a jungle cat uncurled beneath the obvious attack that the golem made.
Copper whipsawed into him and ampoules of liquid burst open, spilling blistering cold over his face and neck. Nosebleed froze in a ghastly, jagged crimson column, and he saw stars. Magic from Gloriana’s most recent spell carried the chill away, but the shock of bodily impact remained buzzing around in the gardener’s teeth, jaw, ears. He managed to plunge but one knife into his opponent, and only the once. In six seconds Lem had gone from offense to defense.2
Observing from the intransitive side of a panel in space that displaced no mass, Rahab recognized their opponent was no ordinary alchemical golem—a fearsome creation in and of itself—but that it had been formed with additional magical augmentation. Whomever had shaped this monstrosity had done so specifically with intent to assassinate wizards. The conjurer swallowed hard, cast his spell, and flew backwards into the air to take up commanding height on events.
In the field below a machine made of copper, glass, and arcane murder turned and oriented precisely on his position.
Gloriana exchanged health for injury among all her friends once more, settling the pain down deep in the place within that allowed her to heal without sacrificing concentration on everything else that was happening. Then she pushed back from the warmth at the center of her heart, at the center of her memory. Healing expanded over her friends and herself. She retreated another step as she cast the spell to walk the air.
The golem ignored the pillar of gilded flame and raised an arm at angle. Just before it conjured launch, Abby and Lem closed their deadly pincer. The gardener settled a vicious stroke across a section of fragile tubes in glass that sprayed acid and puffs of frost.
And then the warrior’s assault fell full upon the construct, an awesome blow hauling the full weight of Abby and her armor behind every seething desire she had to breathe just one more breath and ensure from her friends the same. Arcs of electricity jumped across the copper frame in ragged, staggering gasps, and a fountain of snowflakes vaulted skyward. A globule of alchemical fluid projected with perfect precision into Rahab’s center of mass, sending lightning blisters across silken robes. The wizard felt his heart shudder. Tripod-tipped legs jittered for better line of sight on the aerial target, displacing just east of the warrior.
Struggling against the flailing riot in his nerves, Rahab looked upon the new damage Abby had so adroitly administered and calculated reactions, vectors, radii. When he tried to voice warning, his jaw would not comply, and he had to summon a scream from within to push up through neurological short and burst into the air in a wail of pain, of denial, of the unconquerable will to reject submission to power’s mere artifact.
“When it ceases function the golem will explode!”
Abby looked up, heard the warning, and turned back to face the metal monster. “Do your worst.”
Bolt thundered, and in the echo, Avenger was a radiant reflecting dish expanding shockwave in a blast that flattened vegetation for twenty feet in all directions.
Rahab was right. Acid bloomed and rolled over the warrior and the gardener as the metal frame collapsed and crumpled. For Lem, the caustic bubble was simply inconvenient, and he reversed into a back handspring that carried him out of harm’s way. Abby was not so lucky, but Avenger helped shield against a portion of the torrent. Hissing smokes drifted from the indelible surface as minutest deposits of organic material slowly vaporized.
Gloriana began more healing.
Rahab surprised everyone with effusive thanks, articulating the extent and nature of his gratitude with practiced concern and genuine attention to his friends. They gathered at the arcane doorway to look.
Abby was nonplussed. “It’s a room.”
“So . . .” Lem grappled with vision, “it’s like our haversacks?”
The wizard wavered. “It shares similarities, but even now I see signs that this does not represent extra-dimensional space.”
Three heads turned. “What?”
“I think the doorway is a gate, rather than a point intersection of accessible null-space expansion superposed on present dimension. The room you see beyond is not outside, but rather somewhere else, in actual dimension.”
The warrior looked thoughtful. “So . . . it’s kind of like . . . teleportation?”
Equally unexpected were both the bright smile and the hearty hug.
The oracle: “You’re going in there?”
The wizard nodded.
“It is safe?”
An infernal laugh. “Almost certainly not! But not for the reasons you may suspect. The danger is not in the dimensional differential, but in the possible positional differential.”
The oracle frowned and glanced at Abby, who was poking around the golem’s ruin with swordpoint. She turned back to face the conjurer. “Rahab . . . what the fuck does that mean?”
“It means I will not vanish, or be snatched to some unreachable place, or similar. The danger lies in where that room actually is. It may be on Golarion. It may be on another plane. It may be a closet in Nessus at the center of the Ninth Hell.”
“Ghosts of The Road—”
He held up his hands. “The contingent is unlikely. I invoked it for illustrative purposes. But, I would be lying if I said I knew where it actually is.”
“The room isn’t in the portal?”
“But the portal is not determined by the room.”
His eyes brightened to a degree she had not previously credited, and the realization filled her with both wonder and sadness. His voice lowered. “Gloriana, if you have some objection to me kissing you right now, please tell—”
She placed a palm on his chest. “Alright. Wait. Gods of My Mother, I’m glad Kara isn’t here!”
“Why? I think she would find this fascinating and invigorating!”
It is possible the oracle’s eyes closed as her head shook silently, and so minutely as to be almost indiscernible. “Be careful. Please.”
“Have you ever known me to be anything other?”
“Yes. Yes, I have, you arrogant jackass!”
He winked over a devil’s grin, and then stepped toward the portal. Abby and Lem looked up from the construct wreckage and watched. Gloriana held her breath.
The Book of the Strange cradled carefully in one hand, Rahab moved from brilliant spring daylight into the portal, stood framed for a few seconds as he looked around, and then vanished.
Her eyes told her he was gone, but in the spell of status she could still feel his heartbeat, steady, strong, slightly elevated.
Curiosity in a door: deeply polished and darkly stained wood with a pristine handle and five carefully crafted, strangely delicate hinges in brass. Well-oiled—or magically augmented—the portal moved soundlessly, effortlessly, yet felt thick and solid to the touch. Rahab could no longer see his friends in the field outside the city of Magnimar. He stood alone in the quaint chamber, little more than a small study. An oppressive odor of burned flesh and paper filled the air. The wizard wrinkled his nose.
The Book of the Strange remained open in his hands, and gazing upon it he felt renewed confidence that he had not dangerously sequestered himself, and that the key to event and condition lay readily in hand.
An expanse of superbly woven rug in dark blue wool covered the floor; at center loomed a familiar seven-pointed design in crimson. Atop that stood a sturdy, well-crafted desk ornamented with wide feet, and, behind that, the chair of incinerated repose was luxuriously upholstered. Against one wall rested a lushly cushioned couch and a small end table. Improbably, not a single furnishing showed slightest damage. Expanses of shelving lined every free wall space, even flanking the wooden door and above the lintel. Whatever texts had rested there now lay as little more than scattered ash. Rahab registered irritation. How had the violence of the golem’s attack damaged specific components so precisely and yet left untouched the broader integrity of the chamber, especially given the nature of splash effect he had witnessed only minutes before?
Refocusing, the conjurer returned to the door, and opened it with ease.
Gloriana, Abby, and Lem had started for the place the doorway had been an instant after Rahab vanished, only to stop in their tracks when the portal appeared exactly as before, framing the wizard against the backdrop of the furnished room. Rahab smiled.
“Care to come in? I regret the odor. I shall have to give the room a thorough cleaning.”
The oracle stepped forward. Warrior and gardener shared a glance, and lingered behind.
“Well, he was naked,” Gloriana said as she stood upright from the corpse.
“That doesn’t surprise you?”
Rahab raised an eyebrow. “Should it?”
“It doesn’t strike you as strange? Sitting at a desk, naked?”
The oracle opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and shook her head.
The wizard scowled. “Anything else?”
“He was burned.”
The aridity of an ancient desert: “You . . . don’t . . . say.”
“And he died protecting something. Oh, now you’re interested.”
The conjurer approached the body and drew his dagger. The oracle looked aghast as the wizard began to carve smoking chunks from the corpse.
“We don’t know anything about him!”
“Indeed, including whether he had any relatives who would object to butchery of his roasted corpse. Are you worried about receiving a sternly-worded letter of complaint?”
“It won’t be me who receives the letter.”
“Neither will it be me.” He returned to task, and after a few minutes drew forth an object curiously preserved against the superheated alchemical attack.
“Yes.” He carefully set the tome on the desk and opened to a page. Lines of writing shifted and danced before his eyes, assuming no discernible shape, yet always on the verge of recognition. Wherever he looked the text swam and morphed like nothing he had seen.
“What is it?”
“Magic. Magic underneath more magic. Magic I cannot read. Clever. Devious, even. If the man still lived, I would compliment his ingenuity . . . ”
The oracle brightened.
“. . . and then blast him for my inconvenience.”
An additional scan for other magic in the room showed only the lingering effects of the alchemical assassin’s attack on the occupant and whatever other books had occupied the shelves. The conjurer lowered his hands and frowned, then turned with a sigh to the oracle.
“Any idea how long he has been dead?”
“About five minutes.”
“Actually, at this point I merely gather information. Anything else?”
“He was tall, with interesting bone structure.”
“Interesting in what way?”
“Well . . . it’s familiar somehow, and unfamiliar at the same time.”
Rahab raised an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes. “Nothing is going to be exact about this. He got blasted by a golem!”3
“Point taken. Does the structure give you any ideas? The familiarity?”
“He was not a Soul of The Road.”
“And not a half-elf? Elf?”
“So that intersects with the unfamiliarity, suggesting something alien to our experience yet somehow connected.”
“O . . . k?”
“What does that make you think of?”
The oracle held a long silence. “Thassilon.” The word was like regret.
He nodded. “Azlanti.”
“Oh, come on! We can’t know that!”
“Quite right: we cannot.”
“You think he was Thassilonian?”
“I hypothesize he was Azlanti. The two overlap without necessarily constituting inextricable qualities.”
“I’m going to regret this, but . . . who are the Azlanti?”
“’Were;’ little evidence suggests they still exist.”
“That’s what you meant a few weeks ago by ‘lost.’”
“Just so. They were progenitor humans that predate Earthfall. Their descendants are likely responsible for the development of important contemporary civilizations.”
“Cheliax, for one.”
Crossed arms. “Uh huh.”
Rahab shook himself. She had always been radiant, but when skeptical?
They exited the room into bright morning sun. Abby smiled. Lem rolled a copper coin back and forth on the knuckles of one hand.
The wizard nodded at the gardener. “Some, and we found a spellbook. More mystery remains.”
“Of course it does.”
“I will be taking advantage of any time we have to investigate further, and to continue my creative work.”
Everyone snapped to attention. The walk back to the city gates was one long shopping list.
1 Bull rush! . . . Nope.
2 Lem tried to use The Boots of the Panther to make a 5’-step that executes a full 15’ distance. He made an Acrobatics check to successfully avoid the golem’t attack as he moved, and absolutely nailed the roll with a critical success . . . and got hit anyway for 22 points of physical damage and 6 points of cold (which Glo’s communal resist cold nullified). The gardener managed one hit for 23 total points, including sneak attack (otherwise it wasn’t getting through DR), and since bleed and strength damage were useless, activated a bonus to his armor class. The alchemical golem was an asshole.
3 Full disclosure: CSI: Magnimar’s Heal check was actually quite good to determine the things she did.