Geeks Distributed

Book VI, Chapter 4: Artifact

Handle With Care

“It’s over?” Lem’s brow furrowed.

Abby nodded. “That’s one for the girls.”

The gardener arched an eyebrow. “We’re keeping score now?” And then: “Wait, this teams me with Rahab? Horseshit.”

The warrior gleefully stuck out her tongue.

••••

The conjurer slowly settled to the stone floor as the last firefly motes of an ancient nightmare gyred to oblivion on the chill air. Rahab drew a breath, strode to the oracle incarnating flesh from fire, and gave her a mischievous smile.

“I regret missing it.”

A solemn light shimmered in her eyes. “The Black Monk has been redeemed.”

In contrast, a devil’s spark: “Power.”

“We’ll have to disagree.”

“Yes, let’s.”

“Only you could make that sound filthy.”

The conjurer folded his arms. “Nonsense! I have every confidence you could make it sound filthy, too.”

A gentle, crackling chuckle shook her brain, powdered-pepper soup and black bread, campfires and tambourines.

••••

“So,” Abby draped an arm on Rahab’s shoulder, “what was it?”

“What was what?”

“The Black Monk that Glo just totally annihilated!”

“How should I know?”

“You’re the expert!”

“First of all, I am quite certain that—in matters of necropathy—my appreciable knowledge nevertheless falls short of Gloriana’s. Secondly, I didn’t even see it. It was less than vapor by the time I breached the chamber. Abby, at this point, you know more about The Black Monk than I do.”

The thought delighted the warrior and she patted her obnoxious friend affectionately. Rahab rolled his eyes.

Lem sighed. “Can we focus, please?”

“What’s your hurry?” Abby smiled. “We won! Well . . . we won.”

“You’re enjoying this.”

The warrior paired thumb and index finger across a narrow space, and then winked.

The gardener sighed and turned to Kara and Rahab. “Bookworms! What are we looking at?” He swept a hand over the three items they had gathered. In addition to the scroll, they had discovered a belt and a ring.

“He’s the bookworm,” the alchemist parried. “I’m more of a lab rat.”

“I’m about to be pest control. Everyone! Shut up! . . . What are these?”

The wizard cleared his throat. “The girdle’s enchantment is similar to that investing Abby’s Belt of the Red Ox.”

“To mutual degree?” asked Lem.

Rahab snorted.

“What’s that one called?” Abby perked up.

The wizard shrugged. “I do not know.”

“Huh?”

The conjurer leveled a stare at the warrior. “Abby, there is no trans-planar archive maintaining appellations bestowed by spellwrights on every object, nor even consistency among crafters as to the use of names at all. Further, with time and the vagaries of ownership, names—such as they are—may change.”

“Then how did you know about that staff we found? And Bolt?” She tapped the blade at her hip.

“Lore.”

Once more visible, Kara stepped forward. “Also, Abby—in the case of some items—the nature of the magic within may reveal the name, if the crafter elected to include it in the design.”

The warrior scratched her neck. “So, some things have names and some don’t?”

“Correct,” the alchemist returned.

“But there’s no rules for it?”

Rahab shrugged. “Well, items of significant power always have names.”

“Why?”

“Because,” the oracle intervened, “to have identity is to have power.”

Alchemist and wizard nodded agreement.

Abby thought for a long time. “Could something with power give itself a name?”

“We’ll make a wizard of you yet,” Rahab smiled.

“Oracle,” corrected Gloriana.

Kara shook her head. “You’re both wrong.”

The gardener sighed loudly and indicated the other items. “Hello? Remember the rest of this stuff?”

••••

As it happened, the ring proved a curiosity.

“Strange,” mumbled the wizard, turning the jewel in his hand. It was hefty iron, dull and worn with age, and crowned with a device depicting the curved horns and ovine proportions of a ram’s head.

The gardener leaned closer. “What is it?”

“A ram.”

“I can see that. What does it do?”

Rahab looked askance. “That is what it does.”

“It becomes a sheep? That’s ridiculous!”

“It generates a shaped, concussive force for structural displacement.”

“Why can’t you just say ‘battering ram?’”

“Why can’t you understand that I did?”

Deep breath. “So . . . worth anything?”

“In the current market, I estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand.”

Lem nodded appreciably. “This conversation is improving. Will we need it? The ring, I mean.”

“No.”

“No? Just like that?”

“Lem, when was the last time I needed to break down a door to get past it?”

“Someone else might—”

“Who?”

“Abby?”

The wizard rolled his eyes.

“Glo, then.”

“The fire woman who can cast a spell to become fog? Really?”

Lem was quiet, and then dropped the ring into a pouch. “Or we could just try to find a buyer and see if we can get six thousand for it.”

“Five.”

“You’d get five. Well, no, you’d get three . . . you’d . . . you’d get punched in the face. This is me.”

••••

Rahab stood in partial trance, hand outstretched over the great scroll, reading the arrays and angles, structures of power, geometries of energy. When he finally released the spell he looked shaken.

The others looked on curiously. Gloriana’s eyes narrowed, and she evoked her own magic of detection. The backlash almost knocked her to the floor.

••••

“What in the Nine Hells is it?”

Rahab exhaled deeply. “I do not know.”

“Have you ever seen a signature like that?”

“The cauldron in the caverns.”

Gloriana groaned. “Oh, that makes me feel much better.”

Kara looked on. “The school is the same?”

The wizard pinched the bridge of his nose as if to relieve a pain. “No.”

“What is its provenance? . . . Rahab?”

“All of them.”

It was rare to see the alchemist blanch.

••••

“Two artifacts,” Kara fretted. “This is troubling.”

The oracle glanced across the room to where Rahab stood alone in silent thought. The alchemist followed her gaze.

“You needn’t worry.”

Gloriana spun. “Kara, don’t lie to me.”

Elven grace showed even in the slumping of shoulders. “Well, at least one of them is harder to move. And still our troubles advance.”

“How?”

“Setting aside your lover’s ambitions—”

“He is not my lover.”

Alchemist fixed oracle with a look. “Glori . . . don’t lie to me.”

••••

They gathered in council.

“Do we know what it is?” Abby sounded hopeful.

Oracle, alchemist, and wizard shook their heads as one.

Not precisely crestfallen: “Oh.”

Scanning everyone in silence, Lem munched on a biscuit1 retrieved from rations, secretly wistful for a portion of honey.

Rahab drew breath. “I have a suggestion.”

“No.”

The wizard blinked. “That was fast.”

“Nope.”

“We should take this item.”

“Absolutely not.”

“We will need it.”

“For what?”

“I do not know.”

“And yet insist we must take it. An artifact, Rahab. Do you know the word in Varisian?”

The wizard shook his head.

“Decthazut. The literal translation is ‘fallen.’ Do you know why? Because these are things not made in this world. Because they descend from immense powers, they are ‘fallen’ from elsewhere, and they mean ruin. The merest touch might invoke it.”

Abby took a couple of steps back.

The oracle resumed: “Nor do you know what it is and what it does.”

“Correct,” admitted the conjurer.

“Not exactly making a good case for taking it.”

The wizard met her gaze, but said nothing.

“This is not like you, Rahab.” Gloriana’s eyes suddenly widened. “It’s almost like an act of faith . . . ”

“Does that alarm you?”

“I . . . admit that . . . it does.”

“As it likewise alarms me.”

“And that’s a reason to take it?”

“Gloriana, our course marches ever closer to significant confrontation.”

Abby joined: “Like Fort Rannick?”

And now Kara: “Abby, I have a feeling that whatever is coming will make Fort Rannick seem like a training exercise.” The alchemist turned. “Glori, I fear the implication of what Rahab advocates, and yet I think he is right. Whatever this thing is, we will need it. Something terrible looms. We may need something terrible of our own.”

A sadness filled the oracle. “That’s an awful way to approach the world.”

The alchemist evinced her own melancholy. “I do not disagree.”

After a silence, Gloriana fixed Rahab with a penetrating gaze. “You do not want it for yourself?”

“Of course I do!” Despite the mood, a chuckle rippled grimly through them. The wizard continued: “But my desire for its potency—at present—does not eclipse my perspective of our need against imminent danger.”

“Imminent?”

“A day? A year? A decade? We yet lack sufficient knowledge to accurately project.”

“A decade doesn’t feel imminent,” Lem countered.

“Not to us, but in the reckoning of a magical empire that was supposed to have been dead and lost for ten-thousand years?”

The oracle sighed. “This is bad.”

Rahab was somber. “Yes.”

Another silence fell. After a while, the wizard rallied: “It does have an advantage over the cauldron.”

The others looked on expectantly.

Rahab nodded at Kara. “As you asked: its provenance.”

The alchemist understood. “All schools. And what of its power?”

“The matrices showed foundation and expansion . . . and no ceiling.”

“None?”

“The framework simply vanishes past the ninth cyclic.”

The alchemist closed her eyes. Gloriana recalled what her own magic detection had revealed.

“Ghosts of The Road . . . .”

••••

They held a brief discussion about resting or relocating, though came to no consensus. Abby and Lem began a more comprehensive search of the chamber. Kara flew back up the shaft to keep an eye on the tower interior and the view on the yard from the doorway. Oracle and wizard lingered together.

“Another factor to consider—” Rahab began.

“I’m getting a little tired of your factors.”

“Leaving it garners us nothing, and makes it available for someone—or something— else to find.”

“Gods of my mother, I knew you were going to do that.”

“What would you have me say, Gloriana? That there’s a benign solution to this dilemma?”

“Yes!”

In his eyes blossomed surprise that felt like pain. “I will not lie to you.”

She took his hands in hers and drew near. “What if I need you to?”

The wizard’s mind spun. This must be what Kara meant.

Gloriana’s head dipped. “I’m sorry, Rahab. I’m tired. I got hit by a giant bird today.”

Nodding, he gently kissed her forehead. “We may not need it.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.

“Thank you.” They regarded one another, and then she sighed. “Now, go get it, because we’re probably going to need it.”

His brow furrowed and his jaw worked soundlessly, and apparently that was the correct response. He began the slow walk to the scroll lying on the icy stone. Hell’s below. Kara may be right.

••••

They relocated outside, into the sun, and thence from the yard onto the plateau, away from the carnage of battle. It felt good to escape the chilled tower depths, and they lounged, eating a quiet lunch from their rations.

Lem stood and brushed his hands together. “So, we’re taking the Cylinder of Doom, or whatever it is?” He nodded where the object lay in the dust next to Rahab.

“Shouldn’t we put it on something or . . . something?” Abby asked.

The wizard shook his head. “Abby, no power of Golarion could damage this object.”

“The sand won’t scratch it?”

“My spell of disintegration wouldn’t scratch it.”

The warrior looked over at Glo. “Ok, now I’m worried, too.”

“You are right to be,” Kara added.

“Well,” Lem shrugged, “no time like the present to look at it, I suppose. Will you need to kill cats, or virgins, or . . . ?”

But Rahab had already begun to examine the scroll, unceremoniously, upon the very dust of the expanse. “About its physical expression I was incorrect.”

The gardener crossed his arms. “Amazing! I like hearing that.”

“Of all the things about which you’d relish my making errors, this should not be one of them. As I was saying . . . at first glance I took the scroll to be without casing. Yet the design is remarkable, which should come as no surprise. The rods are sheathed in a tube of adamantine, here.” He pointed.

Kara shook her head slowly. “Look how it manipulates light. From a distance . . . ” She trailed off in wonder.

“The tube appears as the parchment itself, yes. As I said: remarkable.”

Lem smirked. “The paint job is remarkable?”

Gloriana had reached a limit. “Lem?”

The gardener turned.

“Help,” she continued, “or shut up.”

Lem’s fingers tightened on knife hilts. The oracle’s gaze never wavered. “What else, Rahab?”

“An arrangement of interconnected disks—rotationally activated and marked in Thassilonian runes—distributed at intervals over the tube.”

“Combination locks?” Kara asked.

“Yes.”

“Any other defenses?”

“Besides the super-valent object itself?”

“Yes.”

“Not that I have discerned by examination or magic.”

“Can you unlock it?” asked Gloriana.

“I believe so, though it will be a process of some time.”

Lem spoke. “I could try to open it.”

“You are welcome to do so.”

“But you don’t think I can.”

“I have no idea how you will fare. What I do know is that my own calculations will require patient effort. Kara, I would welcome your assistance.”

The alchemist smiled. “Just like old times, translating Ironbriar’s journal.” The memory seemed an eternity gone.

“Wait,” the gardener objected, “is there some risk opening the locks?”

The conjurer nodded. “Of course.”

“It’s trapped.”

“I do not know.”

“Magically, I mean. Not mechanically, but some kind of spell.”

Rahab lingered on the repetition. “I . . . do . . . not . . . know.”

“I thought your magic tells you that sort of thing!”

“It does.”

“Well?”

“It can reveal much, and help us greatly, which does not change the fact that this object is the most powerful thing any of us has ever encountered. It should tell you something that Mokmurian—the tyrant-mage in charge of the resurgent expeditionary strike force of an empire ten-millennia dead— did not have it in his possession. I might cast spells at it all day and still not plumb its secrets, much less guarantee that opening the locks won’t result in death, or the cessation of the sun, or a reordering of time. Simply picking it up in the chamber might have set in motion powers and calamities we do not yet perceive.”

Lem lapsed into silence. Rahab turned his gaze on all of them. “Understand, we have discovered something unlike anything yet in our experience. The Mother of Oblivion? Avaxial? Myriana? Chaff before the hurricane of a magical creation such as this.”

“But The Black Monk held it,” countered Gloriana cautiously.

“Did it?”

“Yes, Abby and I saw it.”

“You misunderstand my question. I was not asking if The Black Monk bore the scroll. I was asking you—asking us— to consider the possibility that the real danger in The Black Tower was not The Black Monk at all. I ask you to consider the possibility that The Black Monk was the servant in that chamber, and not the master.”

A sober silence followed, into which Abby eventually tendered quiet observation. “I’ve noticed something about the scroll.”

The others looked at the warrior with a mixture of surprise and curiosity.

“Since we found it . . . we’ve been fighting.”

They glanced at one another, and then down upon the artifact. Gloriana’s voice was almost a whisper.

“Fuck.”


1 On occasion I use British English conventions, and on other occasions I do not. This is an example of the latter. Biscuit here refers to ingots of buttermilk dough seated in cast iron and lovingly warmed to pale gold in an oven. And now I’m hungry. Damnit.

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