“I think the stone guardian was fascinating,” says Nova, “but is there anything to it at all? It seems to just be walking around there.”
“I think it’s a doorwarden,” says Amaya. At her cousins’ blank looks, she explains that doorwardens are constructs originally invented by elves, typically set to guard a place and bar entry to or exit from that place. “But what is he guarding?” she asks.
“The circles?” Canter suggests.
“Probably,” agrees Nasti.
Amaya shrugs. “Could be.”
“But there was nothing IN the circles … at least that we could see,” says Nova.
“Maybe that is its purpose. To make sure they stay empty,” says Canter.
“Should we try to find out what they are?” says Amaya.
“Let’s ask the cards!” enthuses Nova.
She sits down at the desk and starts reading her fortune. A minute or so later, her shoulders sag. “Huh. They got nothin’. Might be because I pushed my powers too far yesterday. I guess we do it the hard way.”
“Shake the trees,” says Nasti.
The cousins return to the balcony and descend the stairs into the large room occupied by the yeth hounds, hoping to use the maze-like containment magic to keep them safe. When Amaya’s boots hit the floor, the fiendish canids take their feet and growl loudly.
Nasti reacts by striking two of the yeth hounds with electricity, and one of the fiends howls loudly, shaking the cousin’s resolve. Amaya pushes past her fear and heads into the room sticking near the walls to avoid crossing the glowing barrier. Unfortunately, though the magic apparently keeps the fiends contained, it does nothing to prevent them from attacking those who come too near. The half-elf is bitten and feels a wrongness seeping into the wound. Then the monster tears her from her feet, and she narrowly avoids the gnashing jaws of a second fiend.
Nova moves up near the half-elf and strikes the nearest yeth hound with a ray of frost. Nasti positions herself to scorch the fiends threatening Amaya with burning hands. The tiefling evades the third hound’s teeth and rethinks her bold positioning. With the reprieve granted by her cousins’ magic, Amaya regains her feet and slays one of the hounds. After that, the ladies seize the momentum and finish the creatures off without any further trouble.
“You guys okay?” Amaya asks.
“Just fine,” says Nova. “Nice swording there.”
Nasti nods. “Got a little slobber on me. You?”
Amaya waves her off and the cousins proceed to the edge of the pit on the west side of the chamber. “Hello?” the half-elf calls down to the doorwarden.
“Half-elven,” the doorwarden greets her in a voice like falling rocks. It does not stop its circuit of around the glowing circles as it speaks.
“So, um, what are you doing?”
“What is your duty?”
“Intruders? From where?”
The doorwarden gestures at the circles, and Nasti says, “Things come out of those magic circles from time to time?”
“Not since I began my charge,” the construct rumbles.
“That’s how good he is at it,” the tiefling says to her cousins, but mostly for him to hear.
“How long has that been?” says Nova.
“A long time.” The doorwarden pauses in a way that seems almost thoughtful. “What year is it?”
“4720,” says Nasti. “Absalom Reckoning,” she adds quickly.
The stone guardian nods once. “In that case, it has been over eight hundred years.”
“Can you tell us about the people that brought you here?” says Nova.
The stony gaze falls upon Nasti, and she can feel it looking at her horns.
“Hi,” she manages, waving her left hand (the four-fingered one)
After a long moment, the doorwarden seems to take in her other features as well as her companions. Then it responds to Nova’s question. “Perhaps. First, tell me. I heard fiendish howling. And now it has been silenced. Your doing?”
“That’s right. I’m not like them.” She’s assuring herself of it as much as she is the warden.
“And the bugbears yesterday.” It gestures to the far ledge.
“Yeah,” says Amaya.
“Mm… Very well. I was ordered by the Thulkarr to guard this chamber against intrusion during the battle that destroyed most of Slaughtergarde. I remain here until the Thulkarr orders me otherwise.” The cousins recognize “thulkarr” as an elven military title.
“How long has it been since you last saw the Thulkarr?” asks Nasti.
“Over eight hundred years. It is nice to speak with fiend slayers, no matter their peculiar ancestry.”
“And this ‘shattered gate’ that Nambrakh was looking for… can it be brought back into service? Not that we want to. We want to KEEP it from happening.”
“Possibly. That is beyond my expertise because I have not seen the gate myself.”
The tiefling nods and turns to her cousins. “I feel like we should let him keep doing what he’s doing, yeah?”
“Yeah,” says Amaya.
“I wish there was a way to free him. Do we know any Thulkarrs?” says Nova.
“We’ll put a pin in that, yeah,” says Nasti.
“Alright. But the minute we find one…”
“Do you know anything about the Temple?” Nasti asks the doorwarden.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to,” the construct says.
“Or those mirrors over there?” asks Nova.
“The mirrors? Ah, I believe those were communication devices.”
“Ah. So, what is Slaughtergarde?”
“The demon lord’s fortress.”
Canter and Nasti, simultaneously: “Demon lord? Which demon lord?”
“I will tell you as it was told to me. Over eight hundred years ago, the blind dwarf sage Thermeskor had a vision of a mountain weeping blood. Elf mystics found their meditations interrupted by similar scenes. Finally, a celestial army encamped in Elysium received a loathsome but ultimately useful visitor – a jealous lieutenant of the Demon Lord Mu-Tahn Laa.
“This creature revealed his former master’s plans to the celestials: to transpose part of the Abyssal layer known as the Mountains of Sorrow Beyond Measure with a portion of Golarion – the area that became known as the Valley of Obelisks. The celestials, in turn, hastily moved their host to the Material Plane and worked with the mortals there. Humans native to the valley began erecting black obelisks at the direction of their priests, often with the aid of dwarves and elves.
“When Mu-Tahn Laa transposed his fortress – known as Slaughtergarde – to Golarion, he found an army of elves, dwarves, humans, and angels waiting eagerly to cast his invading force back to the Abyss. Upon realizing the scope of the forces arrayed against him, the demon prince ordered his armies forward into battle. I was placed as a sentinel over the summoning pit in the Laboratory after its denizens were routed by elven forces.”
“Why am I just now hearing about this?” says Nasti.
“I infer that this place is still somehow on Golarion unless you are planar travelers?” says the doorwarden.
Nova shakes her head. “We come from the Valley of Obelisks.”
“Or got here as soon as we could,” says Nasti.
“But I’ve never heard of a demon fortress anywhere around here,” says Nova.
“Mm. Troubling,” rumbles the doorwarden.
“Those books I found may have something about it,” says Nasti, “but I can only read them for short periods of time. Abyssal isn’t good for the mind.”
“Especially your mind,” says Canter.
She nods. “Especially.” Her familiar favors her with an appraising stare before resuming his usual unaffected demeanor.
“So those drow were hoping to find a working portal to the Abyss,” says Nova with a shudder.
“And so was Nambrakh,” says Nasti.
“If there are more pieces of Slaughtergarde that remain in the world, such is possible,” agrees the doorwarden.
“Well, THIS escalated quickly,” says Canter.
“An invasion by the dark elves is always talked about to scare people. But if they can ally with a demon army it would be catastrophic,” says Nova. “We need to do something. Warn someone.”
“Back to town, then?” says Nasti.
Nova nods. “I don’t think there is any more to find here.”
“For now, at least, for sure. Those circles are giving me the low-grade creeps anyway. In a good way, unfortunately.”
“We need to get those notes translated,” says Amaya. “Maybe my sister Lira can help.”
The doorwarden nods. “Remain vigilant.”
“Thanks,” says Nasti. “I’m sure you’ll do the same!”
“We’ll be back with a Thulkarr!” says Nova. “Maybe not tomorrow, but I know you are very patient.”
Amaya salutes the doorwarden with her sword, and the trio makes its way back to town.
* * *
They arrive back in Sumberton in the middle of the afternoon, hobgoblins in tow. They get some curious glances from the people in the streets, but Amaya gets the goblinoids squared away with the recruiter that Tajic promised to speak with. Then the half-elf sends a message to her youngest sister with a dinner invitation.
That evening, the Amirri household is quite full. “Hey cous-es,” Lira says. “Nice to see you all again. Been studying WAY too much and needed the break.”
“Yeah, you don’t want to hurt your brain like that,” says Nasti.
“I know, right?”
“Lira! Good to see you!” says Nova, giving her youngest cousin big hugs.
“Heya, Floaty. How’s Jamil?” That question is far too innocent.
“As serious as ever.”
“I could be serious,” Lira tells no one. Tajic clears his throat.
“Yeah, right,” says Amaya.
“Psh,” Lira says to her older sister, sticking her tongue out.
“Please don’t,” says Nasti.
Lira winks at the tiefling. “Serious about that boy’s-” Tajic clears his throat more loudly.
“Music,” Nasti supplies smoothly.
“S’anyway. Not that you need an occasion, but…” says Lira sweetly.
“Yes, it is unusual to see you so often,” says Selvala, bringing food to the table. She notes Nasti leaning against one wall with buttered bread and says, “You can sit at the table, love.”
“I’ll be there in a minute, thanks,” says the tiefling.
“So, yeah, about that,” says Nova. “We have some concerns that we need to share.”
“Oh?” says Tajic.
“What do you know about dark elves?” says Amaya.
Tajic’s eyebrows raise. “Little and less. Why?”
“Okay, here goes. Dark elves are searching through the vestiges of an ancient demon fortress to look for active portals to the Abyss … here in the Valley.”
“Lolwut,” says Lira, using an elven term for incredulity. “Now THAT’S a tall tale.”
“I know right? But it’s true,” says Nasti. She suppresses a shudder and finally sits down.
“We killed two drow earlier,” says Amaya soberly.
“That … is a lot to take in,” says Tajic. Selvala hovers nervously, piling food onto everyone’s plates.
“Nasti tried talking to them, and they insulted Nova,” says Amaya.
“You spoke with them?” Tajic says. Nasti nods and he asks, “What did they say?”
“That they came from a place they called the Temple, and that they wanted to open a portal. Mostly there was a lot of very dangerous flirting.” Tajic blinks at that and Selvala pales. Lira oohs, then covers it with a cough. “They were disgusting,” the tiefling adds, after a beat.
Tajic doesn’t seem entirely mollified by that. “Okay,” he says.
“I was … what did they call me? Chattel?” says Nova.
“They’re supposed to be slavers, right?” Lira says to Tajic, who nods. “So, if they enslave humans…” She stops explaining stuff that everyone already gets.
“And they called Nasti ‘Blessed.’”
“Well, if they like demons, that makes … sense,” Lira finishes lamely. “I’m so sorry, Nastassia.”
The tiefling nods, eyes locked on her plate. “Sometimes I feel like a purple mirror. People see themselves in me. Thank you, though, Lira.”
Lira chews on one cheek. “Okay, I get why you’d tell Dad, but why am I here? I’m only an apprentice.”
“’Cause you get a map,” says Nova.
“What’s this now?”
“We found something that might clue us in on other locations. But it’s in a language we don’t recognize. We need your training and your smarts.”
“Buhhh,” says Lira. “H’okay, lemme see, I guess.”
Nasti digs the notes out of her satchel and lays them out on one of the only unoccupied spots on the table. Lira tilts her head and picks the map up to avoid getting gravy on it.
“Please tell you’ve learned to read,” Amaya says.
“Nice try, Meathead,” Lira retorts. “Someday you’ll understand humor, but not yet.”
“Can’t this wait until after dinner?” asks Selvala, fretting.
“Er, sure, Mom,” says Lira, chagrined. She hands back the parchment, shaking her head with a shrug at Nasti. The tiefling tucks it away, hiding her scowl behind a napkin.
In an undertone, Lira says, “If the Boss doesn’t know it, I’d ask Chendrea. And I’d probably ask her first anyway. Boss is so cranky.”
“I thought about asking her, first, but there’s no telling WHAT she’d ask for in return,” says Nasti. Lira shrugs and nods. “Would rather keep it in the family if I can, you know.”
“Except you want the army alerted. Correct?” says Tajic. The old man is no fool.
“Yup,” agrees Amaya.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Nasti.
“We will have to see this Laboratory for ourselves,” he says in his Professional Voice. “See if anything else can corroborate what you’ve heard.”
“Your new irregulars could guide you there no problem,” says Nova. “That’s where we got them.”
“Perhaps, but may not want to involve them if we want the threat taken seriously. That’s an experimental unit, after all.”
“Okay. Well, we can show you too of course.”
“I didn’t mean me, Nova. We have agents who specialize in information gathering and threat assessment.”
“Oh. Right. Lots of specialized folks in the army. That’s convenient.”
“Amaya, show me your map,” says Tajic. She supplies it to her father, who makes a mental note of the location before handing it back.
“Please tell your agents to be nice to the big guy there,” says Nova. “He’s an ally. Specifically made to protect us from demons.”
“What do you mean?” says Tajic.
“There is a giant stone man there. He patrols one of the rooms – well, more of a pit – and can tell you all about the war eight centuries ago where all these portals were created.”
“A doorwarden,” says Amaya.
“What’s a doorwarden?” says Lira.
“The construct we saw in the Laboratory,” says Nasti. “He’s keeping dangerous things from coming through the gates.”
“Speaking of which, there’s also a gate there that’s been destroyed but possibly fixable? We couldn’t tell,” says Amaya.
“A gate?” says Tajic.
“Like a permanent portal to the Abyss,” says Nasti. “And as much as I want to continue this discussion, there IS pie. And Selvala’s pie is more important.” She smiles at her aunt, who returns it gratefully.