With the help of Gloriana and Kara, Abby purchased a befitting dress, deft and deadly. Entirely in crimson silk, it had a high neck and no sleeves, revealing the warrior’s powerful arms and their scars. At the top of the sternum a small, diamond-shaped cutout loomed like an eye over the expanse of red swooping into a pleated skirt, the hem of which fell above the knee. For her feet: Red leather sandals laced to the top of the calves. An appointment with a stylist had produced a single shock of stark blonde highlight through the warrior’s classically short hair, like a spark of lightning.
Abby looked at her friends. “How is it?”
Kara and Gloriana shared a glance, then burst into smiles. “Abby, you look fantastic!”
“I don’t know . . .”
The alchemist clasped the warrior’s hands. “You’ll see.”
“This isn’t usually . . . .”
“That’s part of the fun!” the oracle chirped. “Something new!”
Calloused hands smoothed red fabric, and an uncertain frown threatened.
“Abby,” Gloriana admonished. “All those instances to which you think you are unsuited, and your skill shines forth every time. A pity Vale isn’t here.”
The warrior blushed at the speed of teleportation, sending Kara and the oracle into giggles.
“Well,” Abby asserted, “I’m not going without a dagger.”
The alchemist smiled and brandished an ornamental scabbard with highlights in polished copper set with several gemstones. “We had a feeling you would say that.”
Kara wore several layers of long, diaphanous, elf-spun cloth the color of sea foam, draped both to conceal and to suggest. Ribbon of silver sat gently on her brow, glistening with gems like new frost. Tall, lithe, precise, masterful, the alchemist seemed to radiate argent light, the breath of stars.
Lem was a shape in black, from doublet to breeches and boots, sable stark against a face in relief, and when he strode his movement was halfling-by-way-of-cat. He, too, ventured under arms, their sequester so expertly rendered as to make nakedness sufficient camouflage, now concealed even more skillfully in tenebrous raiment.
For the wizard: Trousers and boots of ebony, tunic of red, all in glistening leather, a devil’s uniform, scandal intended. Circumference of magical metal upon his head framed dark eyes like pools of smoked wine.
And the oracle?
Gloriana wore the halterneck in yellow and purple.
Kara sidled up to Rahab and motioned with her eyes. “Well?”
The alchemist smiled, patted the wizard on the shoulder, and strode away.
They gathered funds in platinum to comprise bail or bribe, and Rahab instructed Escher on the dispensation of same should the companions find themselves so inhibited as to prevent tendering the coin in either capacity.
Then they set out for The Gilded Cage.
A warm night in late spring, in the City of Monuments:
“We are not!”
“Oh, come on, Glo. If we stand in line, it’ll be ages before we get in. After everything that’s happened, we’ve earned this, and I’m not waiting two hours for drinks!”
“Abby! We can’t cut in front of everyone else!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Glo.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Glo, I guarantee they will let us in, and as much as some in line will object, I bet even more of them will be excited—genuinely—about it.”
“No one likes to be cut out of line, Abby.”
“They will tonight.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve worked doors before.”
“They have clubs like The Gilded Cage in Riddleport?”
“Oh, fuck no!”
“Abby’s right, Glo. Trust me: They want us in there so badly that we won’t have to pay for a single outrageously-priced drink once we’re inside.”
“None of that is an excuse to barge the line!”
“Let’s put it to vote—”
“We are not putting it to vote!”
“But, Glori! The dancing!”
“I’m surprised you haven’t voiced an opinion about this.”
“Oh, forget it. Fine. Let’s go.”1
As usual, the line to enter the most prestigious club in Magnimar was long. Bustling patrons huddled in clusters, vaunting arrays of fashion, striking poses. Colors on display rivaled the dancing lights of magical provenance flashing at variegated crystal windows, and the sound of sorcerous music thundered against the walls, thumping the proximal street with muted rhythms. At the coveted entrance loomed two door wards of impressive caliber, the one a half-orc, the other a dwarf, impeccably dressed, and between them enough presence to paralyze wyverns in flight. Theirs was the admission or the rejection, and though many had tried, none in the city could testify with surety to success in swaying evaluation via charm, coin, spell, or flesh.
A ripple shuddered up the line, a whisper that became a murmur that became open voice, a shiver electric.
As they neared, hands clutched and fluttered, butterflies frantic at the blossom. Sound surged and receded. A shape detached from the queue and arms draped around the wizard’s neck. Voice made of dusk breathed haze.
“Take me inside, Devil Rahab.”
A hand gently looped the conjurer’s elbow, drawing him away. Dusk faded back. All gazes on line held, irises lit with the madness of the moth spiraling on flame.
For all her desire to broach the doors, Abby felt a flush of embarrassment that storm-surged her sense of adventure. She looked away, and then upon, fraught between impulses, elastic vibration rebounding between kinetic adoration.
Somehow, Kara managed to make amazement look like cool remove. The effect was immediate, and intense. Elfendom alone would captivate, an alchemy of misled presumptions, mystification cloaked in certainty, wax around a wick. Coupling such quality to the appearance of sanguine chill set candle alight among the crowd. Heat increased.
Gloriana absorbed everything with practiced expertise, though inside a sentiment both weary and rising screamed at the sky, bidding the line return home and celebrate their own lives, paper bird of celebrity consigned to pyre, not in remorse but in reflection. Then slithered another thought, coiled and powerful, flickering tongue gauging heat, capturing light with emerald orbs. Kindness bid metamorphose, pupa become chrysalis and thence to winged glory aloft on dusted wings of worship. Should she not? And should she not?
Nearing the famed entrance, Lem drank in spectacle, proffering a roguish smile, unbalanced only when he saw the halflings—free—numbered in line. Some favored him with a gaze, some returned disregard, and some waited to see. The interaction surged not within fertile soil, but the stranger air of humanoid atmosphere, a space he knew and did not, familiar and alien at once. When he searched for understanding he saw their individual masks, like his own, inscrutable despite what should have been obvious connection, mirrors made from the same glass, only to discover light at different vectors making piecemeal illumination.
The companions reached the head of the queue. Whispers and gazes surged like fire taking grass denied a decade’s rain. Cries beseeched the favor of one, or another, or all.
Abby met two titans, and even though she was clearly armed, they parted, precisely as she and the gardener had guessed. Invitation appeared in splayed arms, eyes never quite abandoning the five, nor the bustling line behind. The crowd’s gaze followed, beatific as beloved pets, hungry as coursing predators.
Thunderous beat spilled forth, impelling, heavy, borne upon waves of magic shaped in bardic thaumaturgy. Scent washed over them, rich and sweating, the aroma of movement and alcohol, elation and desperation, smoke and sex.
The companions broached a curtain of silver beads, and before them lay the main floor writhing with dancers. To the far right loomed the stage, and the musicians thereon, each bent to a particular instrument compelling soundscape. Was there vocalist, or more than one? Multiple harmonies rebounded. Pulsing lights from some illusionist’s narcotic dream lanced the air in hypnotic patterns, and the floor was obscured by a conjured ground fog that surged like sea.
Five came into view, painted in wild illumination, setting light to the fuse of a new thrill. Neither did dance falter nor music abate, but a nascent urgency hurtled forth, building and boiling, and no glance could avert for long. The Heroes of Sandpoint had arrived, and with them their luminous jewel, whom no crown could honor, much less contain.
Word began as tiny rivulets, but within the hour the entire city was under deluge. Another bell gone and the line to enter the fabled club stretched three streets, while yet more who could not afford the fee gathered in hopes of merest glimpse. A contingent of city guard arrived, and it was not entirely clear—even amongst the constabulary—that the force was there to maintain order or to see the famous adventurers for themselves. By the time news reached Lord Mayor Haldemeer Grobaras, Magnimar was already alive with the knowledge, and the magnate’s thrill was matched only by his fury at learning so late.
There emerged a half-elven woman not quite Abby’s height. She was dressed in a frock that revealed almost everything about her legs, and surmounted by a great fan of feathers or spikes about her neck and head. Without word she gestured, turning smoothly into the fog. Upon one of the raised perimeter levels there stood a marble table and mahogany chairs to which the woman led them, before vanishing into throbbing light and sound. The Heroes sat, and soon a muscled server arrived clad only in a silken kilt and bearing a tray. A bottle of green glass fountained foaming wine into crystal tulips.
Five glasses lifted, five chimes drowned in the pulse of music, five splashes of angelic liquid burst on five tongues. It quickly became difficult to determine if lights led sound, or sound led lights. It became so difficult that it ceased to matter.
Immune as she was to the power—if not the taste—of the sparkling beverage, Kara took to the dance floor not long after. The alchemist’s shoulders slithered, and her lithe form quickly found resonance in other dancers. Sea-green drifted on mist. The crowd pressed close, as if proximity alone might convey some of her grace to their own expression. It was not yet the tenth evening bell, and already portions of clothing began to shed.
Lem turned to Abby, their conversation a near-shout. “Want to dance?”
“Come on, Abby!”
“I want to drink!”
The gardener swept his arm around. “There’s a field of people out there that would love to meet you!”
Abby supped a long draught. “Anyone touches me, gets punched!”
Lem’s eyes bloomed as he drained his own glass. “There’s a field of people out there that would love to get punched by you!”
Gloriana leaned forward. “I never figured you for a dancer, Lem!”
The gardener shot the oracle a glance that needed no translation, and Gloriana laughed.
Luminaries began to arrive. Among them numbered no small faction surprised to discover that—for that night at least—admission was not easily achieved, and a half-orc and a dwarf vetting entrants were not as readily swayed as custom might otherwise dictate. Of those who secured entrance, the vast majority found their fortunes unimproved, for the environment of sound, light, and chemical rendered meaningful discourse almost impossible for those hoping to capture attention.
Many were those who desired to swim in waters, sounding strength, or skill, or mind. Fantasy knew no limits. Yet the pinnacle, the command, belonged to one alone, to blonde light shaming all coruscating effects ensorcelled in service to the atmosphere of that place. Her presence electrified entirely, neither patron nor staff immune. It was not merely her, but the realization of her in the context of legend. Servers could not help but stop and ask if she needed anything, alike in their desire to capture a simple moment of her attention, hoping that a request for more sparkling wine might somehow translate into a night of recognition, or passion, or just a smile made memory. So, too, the patrons, eager to capture some portion of her gaze, or touch, some fleeting infinity in which they might lodge imagination of perfection. Some she favored with a word, and others she deflected with a glance, and in the pulsing hum many felt the shivering sense that they had fallen in love with something like death, and yet come away alive.
Some found courage to approach. More still were those who cast glances of envy, or lust, or even malice. At times the oracle found impulse to laugh at the absurdity of it all, especially that those seeking her favor did not want to see him, and those seeking his favor did not want to see her, and yet both factions posturing eagerly to be seen.
She raised crystal flute to lips and poured an explosion upon her tongue, her gaze sweeping the dance floor. Darting lights vectored through dissipative blur, luminous mosses upon branch of beat and melody. Sweat-slicked bodies in motion showed panting flesh, expressions insistent and concealed.
In a murky, fog-shrouded pool between light her arms came up and settled around his shoulders. The oracle felt his hands upon her hips. Their proximities collapsed amidst dizzying color drifting madcap. Haze of fog and haze of drink mingled in cotton-shrouded rhythm. Heat lingered everywhere, and the whole club seemed to fade. Sound pounded down, persistence and insistence, time sequestered at the core between them, some strange collision of divinity and wizardry, recursively meshing with the beat, only to eclipse it.
He did not know what to make of it when the specter of his analysis sat back, laughed, and poured itself a drink.
Now they commanded the dance floor, not for his presence, but for hers, and a secret part of her relished it. Perfectly capable of her own sentiment, she scattered ghosts in delight, and watched a bead of sweat travel from his hairline to his brow.
“Are you warm?” It was difficult to tell in the sound and light and fog, but the devil-grin was hers now, and how had he heard? Too loud, the music-scape, but he found her voice, or felt it through her breath, or her heartbeat, not a magic spell of detection, and not like anything he could catalog. Thus their conversation, little portions inserted among beats pounding fog, shaking flesh.
The song ended, and the band began another. Never stopping, the dance merely changed states.
Lem disappeared sometime after the first morning bell. Abby sought the gardener to no avail, only to discover that, in the conjured fog and magic lights, it was also unclear where Kara was. The warrior made for the door, floored someone who laid a hand on her, and stumbled into the cool air, angling for home.
Prelude tumbled against frame and timber, intensity expanding to include the structure, the route. At his room she pushed him, and he fell onto the bed, and somehow the door shut. Then she was on top of him. Afterthought had been the spell that purged drink’s dizziness, leaving only the whirling haze of them, heady, hungry, quivering. Ghosts tried to intrude, their clamor vanquished in an instant, swept away on a hurricane of ascendant pulse. Moment became next, velocity of breath reciprocating, a curve of acceleration, veldt cat striding then running then overtaking. Each to the other welcome and welcoming, startled to discover themselves startled, and they could not have slowed if the turning of the world had depended upon it. They would not have wanted to.
1 Soundtrack suggestions for this chapter: Depeche Mode, “Just Can’t Get Enough;” KC & The Sunshine Band, “Give It Up;” The Romantics, “What I Like About You;” Wild Cherry, “Play That Funky Music;” The Commodores, “Brick House;” Hot Chocolate, “You Sexy Thing;” Madonna, “Ray of Light;” Deee-Lite, “Groove Is In The Heart;” Ray Charles, “Shake A Tail Feather;” Erasure, “Oh L’amour;” Prince, “Delirious;” Kenny Loggins, “Footloose;” Starship, “We Built This City;” E.G. Dailey, “One Way Love (Dance With The Dead Remix);” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk;” The Trammps, “Disco Inferno;” Kool & The Gang, “Celebration;” The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling;” Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen;” Young MC, “Bust A Move;” Billy Idol, “Dancing With Myself;” Wang Chung, “Dance Hall Days;” Men Without Hats, “Safety Dance;” Blondie, “Rapture;” The Go-Go’s, “Head Over Heels;” Eddy Grant, “Electric Avenue;” Lionel Richie, “Dancing on the Ceiling;” Pointer Sisters, “Jump (For My Love);” DeBarge, “Rhythm of the Night;” Tina Turner, “What You Get Is What You See;” Lilian Axe, “Show A Little Love;” Roxette, “Dressed For Success”