The fundamental problem was not altitude. Gloriana was well-ensorceled against a fall. No, the fundamental problem, obviously, was the gargantuan fucking raptor. So: Remove the raptor. Simple. The wizard pawed at a scroll case.
Lem executed a set of maneuvers made all the more elegant by performance mid-air. The harpies clawed uselessly at the space he had previously occupied, even as he aligned opposite Abby and cut a third opponent. The other bird-women clustered on the warrior, and found her steel armor a remarkable bulwark. Abby ignored them, and charged through the air at the roc absconding with Gloriana, but the god-eagle’s titanic pinions carried it quickly out of reach. Lem sighed.
I just got here.
Struggling, the oracle reckoned the bird’s grasp nothing short of astonishing. A stone giant—a pentad of stone giants—would not have matched such strength. Reaching deep within, Gloriana invoked the memory of all those Souls of The Road who had eluded danger in the wild places of the world. She gasped a spell to break free.1
On the roc flew, its grasp unrelenting, crushing air from Gloriana’s lungs. Her vision swam, and—desperate—she became golden fire, the flames momentarily easing her injury.
In the air above Jorgenfist, a vast shape powered skyward, carrying a gilded comet.
In the dust storm, Kara overhanded a small container, perfectly intersecting the roc’s flight. When the bomb burst, the alchemical concoction within stole sight, and the giant creature’s scream of panic rippled across the stone walls of the fortress. At the longhouse door Rahab had just finished casting his spell of precision when the frantic bird suddenly flailed on the wing. A shadow careened across the yard as the blind roc lost altitude and slammed into the fortress wall. Scrabbling for security, mighty talons flexed and Gloriana fell free and bounced off the stone surface with a pained gasp. Then her magic reasserted and she righted in mid-air, getting her bearings and watching the bird settle on the fortress yard in a squawking flurry of feathers.
The oracle quickly cast another spell, and a golden curve of light coalesced. She bid the blade against the blind avian, but in the panicked flutter the stroke missed.
Some distance away, a swarm of harpies quickly relocated around Abby, and the warrior found herself amidst a chaos of claws, feathers, and the strange, crooning wail of mind-song. Further hampered by the dust raised by roc wings, visibility rapidly deteriorated.
Lem watched everything unfold, evaluating and understanding with a tactical mastery almost as remarkable as his preternatural dexterity. He noted the harpies collecting ineffectually around Abby, saw the temporary disarray among the rocs, and assessed the dispositions of his friends. The gardener knew what was coming. He flew deftly through a gauntlet of harpy attacks and settled into fighting stance in front of Rahab.
The wizard’s attention lay elsewhere. Relieved to see Gloriana free of the roc’s talons—and the offending avian seriously incapacitated—Rahab sighted on a second god-eagle angling for attack. Words of power spilled from his lips, and a beam of death lanced the sky. The companions had seen this before, and awaited the spectacle of complete disintegration.
Huh, thought Lem. That didn’t . . . .
In the din of battle, no one heard the wizard’s muttered curse.
To be sure, the spell inflicted some injury, and the roc squawked complaint, veering off and resuming circle of the black spire’s summit. Nonetheless, surprise took the other party members. The wizard understood, of course, that the vagaries of magic dictated even the mightiest spell might fall short, and a creature with the constitution of a roc stood a better chance than most. Retreating into the longhouse, the outcome tasted bitter to Rahab nonetheless.2
Gloriana planned her next move, remaining in fire form and supplementing her defense once more with the charm of elusive mobility. Then she turned her attention to the third roc, still high overhead, uninjured and gleaming-eyed. She began to wave her arms and call out.
Lem had been right. The harpies darted from the air, barreled past the gardener, and drew up on either side of Rahab, claws slashing. The wizard began to bleed, and once more the strange, crooning song churned. Kara, Lem, and Rahab fought through the opioid hum.
The alchemist flew from the longhouse door into the yard to maintain better line-of-sight on the rocs, who remained the most serious threat. Even the blinded one fluttering about on the ground vectored enough sheer mass to crush any one of the companions venturing too close. Looking up at the spire summit, Kara puzzled over the raptor circling there. Rahab’s unsuccessful spell had fetched the creature some injury, but certainly not enough to take it from the fight, yet it seemed in no hurry to rejoin the fray.
The third roc, on the other hand, took the bait, and dove at Gloriana.
The battle settled into two separate fronts. Within the gloom of the longhouse Rahab and Lem confronted three harpies. Amidst sunlit dust, Gloriana, Abby, and Kara faced two more harpies, and the three rocs, though by this point only one of the massive avians remained a full participant.
The alchemist pitched another blinding bomb at the diving bird, and though the attack struck true, the effect did not, so Gloriana changed the dynamic with a column of divine fire. A hostile squawk of pain wrenched the yard. The oracle followed up by directing the spiritual blade she had summoned against the creature.
Something arrived at the back of her mind, a voice gentle and mischievous and wise.
Your boyfriend is hurt.
He is not my boyfriend!
He needs to eat more! Look how skinny he is!
I cannot wait to tell Liliana. She will be so thrilled! She has always wanted—
Injuries accumulated sixty-three-feet-nine-and-one-half-inches away, inside the abandoned longhouse.
Rahab considered how it was not so much he and Lem battling the harpies inside the dining hall, as it was he simply offering a target, and Lem maneuvering to inflict damage as the harpies swarmed. Improbably, the wizard had produced the club he carried so as to provide a melee dynamic upon which the gardener could capitalize. To suggest that Rahab presented a threat in hand-to-hand combat was absurd, but the speed of the harpy mob did not grant him sufficient time and space to cast spells either offensively or defensively. He even tried to step behind the dimensions, but the winged bird-women overtook the distance with terrible speed, and it was only too clear their intent to grant no reprieve, to reduce the conjurer to ribbons. He grimaced, but his logic was sound, and thus the club. Fresh blood ran. Rahab found himself calculating the likelihood of staying conscious long enough for Lem to carve his deadly path through the three harpies.
Curiously, the plunging roc did not seek out the source of its most recent injury and instead attacked Abby. The course of the dive allowed the warrior an opportune strike. Bolt thundered, tearing an immense wound in the god-eagle, forcing the creature to veer in pain. Kara began to hurl galvanic grenadoes at harpies, while Gloriana’s link of life began to apportion small healing to the distant Rahab. Abby flew forward.
Blood and feathers began to rain on the yard as the warrior hacked harpies into mist.
Lem was doing good work. The process was slower than he was used to, of course, but one of the harpies was already dead, at least. Rahab had elected a posture of complete defense, and while it was clear that he had some basic understanding of the cudgel, he was also bleeding. The bird-women pressed with vicious enthusiasm, and though the gardener expected Gloriana’s healing magic had begun its rudimentary exchange, the fight in the longhouse was beyond her range to revitalize in quantity. Urgency spiraled. Twin blades tore wounds in feathered flesh, and a second harpy had weathered enough, fleeing desperately through the doorway.
Lem let her go.
Later, reflecting on the fight, the gardener would tell himself the urgency had been preservation of the integrity of an effective party, and not saving the life of a human, let alone a Cheliaxian.
Lem slew the last harpy, while out in the yard Gloriana’s golden scimitar of light administered enough damage to the third roc that it, too, retreated to the spire’s summit, leaving only the blind one hobbling about squawking its alarm. Abby descended and turned her attention on the sightless raptor. By the time Rahab emerged bloody from the longhouse, the god-eagle was close to death, and the wizard’s projectile of inerrant magic felled it in the dust.
High above, the two remaining rocs circled and watched, wounds raw, golden eyes seeing everything in perfect detail. The companions gathered.
“I had that,” Abby scowled at Rahab.
“Never any doubt.”
“You and Lem,” she shook her head. “You two do this all the time.”
The wizard pressed hand against a sopping section of bloody robe and winced his way through words. “Abby . . . you are the mightiest warrior in Varisia’s recent memory . . . the mightiest I have . . . ever known.” A pause for breath. “For . . . fuck’s sake . . . your precedent is . . . uneclipsed . . . .”
Abby exhaled slowly and fixed Rahab with a stony stare. “Walk it off.”
Gloriana intervened, and began healing magic.
They turned their attention to the top of the spire.
“Do we need to worry about them?” the warrior asked.
“I don’t think so,” replied the oracle. “They have had enough.” As she tendered verdict, her linking power erased the last small portion of Rahab’s wounds, and then she resorted to one of the healing wands against her own pain.
The Heroes of Sandpoint reconvened in the longhouse.
“From the harpies?” Gloriana asked.
Lem held a ring in his hand, turning it this way and that. “Five of them.”
The wizard had already identified the enchantment. “Abjuration of deflection, moderate strength. I bear their equal, but those of you without should avail yourself.”
Kara, Gloriana, and Lem had found new magical rings.3
Gloriana: “The spire?”
A wizard’s nod.
“The Black Tower?”
“It doesn’t look so bad . . .” mused Abby.
Lem crossed his arms. “That’s because it’s covered in giant bird shit.”
Once more they strode into the yard, past the corpse of the roc, into the shadow of The Black Tower.
Doors of thin, charcoal-black stone opened with unsettling ease and eerie quiet beneath a brace of leering, lichen-riddled gargoyles. Gloriana had reestablished certain magics to augment herself and her companions, and a chill drifted over the adventurers as the portal yawned. Morning sun lanced into the chamber, glistening brightly on a rime-coated the interior. Kara took flight while the oracle stepped upon the air, gaining a few feet of elevation.
As they made their way inside, Rahab scanned for signs of magic. The others cast their gaze upward where the tower interior rose beyond the limits of intruding sunlight to define.
The wizard shook his head. “Nothing.”
Along the far curve of the chamber loomed a dais at some fifteen feet, accessible via twin staircases. At the center of the floor another shape showed beneath laminate ice, a circle of metal set into the stone, and fitted with an ornate handle opposite ancient hinge. Kara turned her attention overhead, and flew up to gauge the ceiling, only to discover remnants of what must have been another floor, and beyond that, yet another. After a quiet scan, the alchemist returned.
“The interior rises through multiple floors that have long since crumbled away,” came the voice from the air. “I did not reach the summit, but estimate the distance at two hundred feet, if not more.”
“No rubble,” Lem countered.
Abby shrugged. “Cleared by the giants, maybe.”
“Maybe. So, nothing up?”
Kara replied in the negative.
“Trapdoor it is,” the gardener regarded the panel. “Abby? Think you can—?”
The warrior gripped the ring and hauled the portal open.
Lem brushed ice crystals from his hair and eyebrows. “Right.”
A circular shaft bored deep into the plateau, vertical descent lacking steps or ladder. Chill thrust up from the darkness, drawing their breath in clouds. Gloriana plucked a copper coin from a pouch and bestowed upon it a spell of light, then cast the piece into the abyss. Nimbus tumbled away in silent seconds before ringing and rattling out of sight, strange strobe flashing in depths of black stone.
“About seventy feet,” Lem murmured.
Abby peered intently. “Can’t make out any real detail. Maybe something in the center.” She shook her head.
The oracle chanted communal prayer against injurious cold, and the brittle temperature around them retreated somewhat. Then she augmented Abby with air striding, and the warrior started down into gloom. Gloriana followed about ten paces behind. Lem waited at shaft’s edge, content to drop straight down with the ring of the falling feather once warrior and oracle reached bottom. Rahab endowed himself with a spell of flight, intending to follow the gardener. Invisible, Kara flew into the shaft in Gloriana’s wake.
Abby emerged in a large, circular chamber. Her lazily orbiting lightstone cast chill illumination in compliment to the coin that now lay quietly to one side of a stone sarcophagus on a central dais. At the eight cardinal points of the chamber perimeter loomed a broad alcove, each occupied by a great slab of stone. Movement caught Abby’s eye, and the warrior watched as the humanoid shape drifted out of the shadows. Twin points of green light flared.
Gaunt and terrible, the figure was the height of a human, and wrapped almost entirely in lengths of aged burial linen. It did not ambulate, drifting instead some inches above the floor via magic. Bandaged arms clutched a massive scroll wound around two great, brass rods the length of barrel staves. A sound reached the warrior’s ears: rhythmic, staccato, and echoing, a dead voice reciting memory in tongue Abby did not know. Green flared again, briefest parhelions bereft of warmth, like anemic sun through swamp fog.
Abby did not need Rahab’s confirmation.
The Black Monk.
As the creature floated toward the warrior the temperature in the room abruptly declined further, though Gloriana’s magic bulwarked against the weaponized cold. A ripple of fear penetrated Abby, unbidden, gossamer, a spell made of last, shuddering breaths croaked on deathbeds.
The warrior shook her head and the sensation passed, but almost as quickly there arrived a second, proximal and intense. Some magic began to overcome the warrior’s very armor, a creeping heat, pushing under breastplate like a sting, coursing over vambrace and pauldron as a predatory serpent slithers upon a rock. Abby closed her eyes as lines of improbable sweat began to trace her muscled flesh in the ambient chill. An ache formed in her bones as the heat pulsed, and then wavered, and vanished. She opened her eyes once more, scant seconds having passed, and the sickly green flare of light jumped again in the gloom. Her breath caught, and then the warrior was once more herself, once more the survivor, once more the fighter.4
The stuttering mumble did not abate, a sound from a jaw that did not move, an echo among gravestones.
Abby braced Avenger and inhaled a deep breath of arcane acceleration, spanning distance in a blur. Bolt launched a crunchy line of dust aloft.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” the warrior taunted.
Dead eyes fell upon her, colder than the very air, awful and penetrating.
And then Gloriana arrived in the gloom, and became sentient fire.
Still invisible, Kara flew into the chamber. Everywhere shone the slick sheen of paper-thin ice coating black stone, and then an impulse slammed into the alchemist, a fear, a cracking in the glass of the mind. Kara stopped mid-air, paralyzed, prisoner of the terror in her own awareness. All she could see was a lightscape of flame, onyx agleam, panic in black.5
At shaft’s edge, Lem drew his knives, stepped into emptiness, and plummeted. His ring wrought its magic, and changed the universe, demanding that gravity bow its mighty head. As the gardener fell safely into the chamber, his awareness reeled under an assault of horror, but he managed to keep his most precious power: movement.
Rahab drew a scroll from the case at his belt and flew after Lem. As the wizard neared the chamber below he heard the rhythmic chant, the hollow rasp of a stone sealing a mausoleum, and he recognized a drone in Thassilonian.
The green light! The green light! The green light! The green light! The green light!
The Black Monk lashed out at Abby with a speed that surprised the warrior. Great scroll still clutched to chest like a precious treasure, one linen-wrapped arm dashed again and again upon Abby’s armored frame. The blows seemed deceptively soft, but the pain that surged in muscle and bone wracked as heavily as any as she had weathered in a lifetime of battles. It took her breath away, and then the dead thing drifted by as if unconcerned. Abby managed a riposte that tore cloth and spilled sand, but her eyes swam with lingering agony.6
Hovering near the curve of wall, The Black Monk rotated and once more surveyed the icy chamber from the dead sockets of a canted skull, looming just behind Gloriana. The oracle smelled the dust of ages, the staleness of a long desiccated grave. She could have reached out and touched it.
So that is just what she did.
Proximal invocation of magic inevitably drew provocation, and The Black Monk reacted. Bandaged arm lashed into a shape of golden fire, issuing injury, but when the withered appendage retracted it emerged aflame, brilliant tongues licking quickly from forearm to elbow: undead, just as Gloriana had known, and now the creature had fallen into her trap. Burning linen drifted away and a tremor rattled through a veneer of age-petrified flesh.
For the briefest moment, the oracle paused. At the center of a shape in fire the will to summon magic fought against The Black Monk’s attack. The effort to maintain necessary connection from caster to spirits—an aspect Rahab described in terms of the mathematics of concentration, and a limitation Kara bypassed by seating the connection of power within the mechanism itself, thereby courting loss only in the distribution of the device—risked outcome for conduit in close combat. Pain threatened to disconnect the oracle’s brilliant voice calling songs to her ancestors, threatened to mute their response in kind. Shrouded undead set itself alight for the chance to nullify a spell on realization’s verge; oracle tossed a desperate die of conjuration in counter. Time slowed, perhaps curious for a closer look.
A shape in fire hesitated, and then cocked its head.
Power descended upon the circular chamber, upon the frozen black stone, upon the grim dead thing. An age in that place had vanished and not seen such power. A song of healing funneled down from the voices of unnumbered ancestors into a touch of flame that might have been a caress to release a lover from pain. For the first time in ten millennia unsettled death had a memory of heartbeat, of coursing blood, of nerves alive.
And then the gloom knew dawn.
Abby gaped. Tiny motes of burning dust drifted on the air, fading slowly to nothing. If the great scroll had made a noise when it tumbled to the stone she had not heard it. It was as if the warrior’s ears were filled with a song made of light.
There was simply no Black Monk anymore.7 Not even sections of linen remained.
Lem drifted to the floor, knives poised, and Rahab flew into the chamber, a spell at the ready.
Abby smiled at Glo. “They do know how to shut up.”
1 Liberating command provided a +20 bonus to Glo’s Escape Artist check to wrest free of the roc’s grip. Nope.
2 Rahab’s disintegrate spell did 99 points of damage. Ninety-nine. I know I shouldn’t complain, because the base Fortitude save on a roc must be somewhere around +382 or so, and I should have anticipated reduced likelihood of efficacy, but, damnit . . .
3 Rings of protection +2 proved to be an upgrade for three of five party members.
4 Abby had to make two Will saves. The first one she made easily. The second required spending a Hero Point.
5 Kara failed her Will save and was paralyzed with fear for three rounds. Which would normally be bad . . .
6 Abby got hit for 51 points of damage. Glo’s shield other spell transferred 25 of those to the oracle.
7 Glo cast a spell in threatened space, provoking an attack of opportunity from The Black Monk, which hit for 18 points and forced a Fortitude save against mummy rot. Glo made the save handily. But because she was casting a spell, she had to make a Concentration check to successfully complete the magic without losing it. The DC for the check was a 34.
Glo rolled a 38.
Then she had to make a melee touch attack against The Black Monk to complete the spell, and she missed. So she spent a Hero Point to reroll . . . and got a critical hit. The Black Monk then had to make a Will save against the heal spell, at a DC of 22, which it failed. And, of course, healing spells against undead deal damage, and in an instant The Black Monk was reduced to 1 hit point.
And then Glo activated her Quick Channel ability and . . . just . . . vaporized it.
Whole fight lasted just under 2 rounds.