Hannah dropped from her broomstick, her robes and hair soaking wet from condensation and low-flying clouds.
Her heart was racing. That had been the first time she'd ever been on a broomstick outside of class. She'd been so focussed on getting a good mark from Madam Hooch (and on not dying) that she hadn't really noticed that flying was fun.
The hamster floated in front of her in front of a sheer stone face in a large rock.
"You want me to follow you?" she asked. It nodded. The hamster beckoned, then floated through the rock.
Some people would find that strange or impossible, but some people hadn't had to run through a seemingly-solid masonry wall at King's Cross.
She shrugged and walked through the wall. As soon as her hand touched the stone, it turned... not quite translucent. She could still see the wall, but she could also see a tunnel behind it. It was like one of those optical illusions; depending on how you looked it at, it was either a woman with an unfashionable hat or a bowl of fruit.
Hannah shook her head and walked in.
Milo sat in the darkest corner of the dark tavern, the Hungry Hungry Hippogriff, and pulled his hood down so it covered his face, adjusting the several dozen straps, buckles, and scarves dispersed about his outfit for maximum effect. He was covered head-to-toe, save for a small area around his jaw and neck that his hood didn't cover, but he'd made sure to paint them in red whorls and twists like tattoos.
A Monk sat on the floor nearby, probably meditating about inner perfection and diamond minds and the usual trash that high-Wisdom classes got up to. A couple of dwarves were talking seriously about the goblins that had overrun their mines. The barman looked like he had a deep, dark secret that he'd take to his grave unless someone could make a moderate Diplomacy check to get it out of him.
He'd missed taverns. They'd been such a staple of his life—like shoes—that he hadn't really realized how important they were until they were gone. Not that he really ever drank, or talked to people, or ate anything that weren't his Everlasting Rations. That wasn't the important part of a tavern.
No, the important thing, the really, crucially, irreplaceable thing were the people.
Specifically, the people dressed in strange, faraway clothing sitting in dark corners.
Milo was only sitting for a few minutes when the doors slammed open. He didn't look up. That was part of the trick. Instead, he waited for the light to flicker over him, and glanced up disinterestedly—maybe too disinterestedly?—at the newcomers.
There were only three of them, and that was surprising. There were supposed to be four.
He recognized two of them, but he knew who the third was.
He hardly had time to blink before they were sitting next to him.
"Greetings, stranger," said one, a gnome.
"There are other tables," Milo said in his lowest, raspiest voice.
"True, true. But we couldn't help but notice you were watching us. And I don't recognize your clothing. Perhaps you could tell us where you're from?"
"I could. But why should I?" Milo asked, still not looking up.
The newcomer sighed. "Fine, fine. Relkin, your turn."
The one Milo didn't recognize (Relkin, presumably) spoke.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
Whoa. Milo had never been subjected to a Diplomacy check that powerful. He almost replied 'Myra! City of Light! City of Magic!' reflexively. Instead, he reminded himself that, technically, Diplomacy only worked on NPCs.
"Excuse me!" the Monk from the floor said, standing up and walking over to Milo.
"This is none of your business," Milo growled. It fell flat, though, without any Intimidate to back it up.
"No, I think I've got something to say," the Monk said angrily. "I've been waiting here for four hours for a party of adventurers to show up and help me avenge my dead master. This is my tavern. Who are you to come in here and poach my adventurers?"
Milo sighed. He hadn't expected this. But then, he'd never been on this side of the quest-giving experience before.
"Do you really want to do this?" Milo asked, still sitting down.
"If you don't leave," the Monk growled, "I'm going to kick your backside from the Clockwork Nirvana to the Ever-Changing Chaos. I'm level twelve, you know."
"Try me," Milo said.
"Haaaaaai-yeee!" the Monk shouted, charging at Milo barefisted.
"You might want to rethink that last one," Milo said.
The Monk paused. "Why?"
"You're not proficient with unarmed strikes. Minus four to attack."
"What tripe is this? Of course I'm proficient. I'm a Monk."
"Monks," Milo said in the sing-song voice of one reciting from memory, "are proficient with club, crossbow (light or heavy), dagger, handaxe, javelin, kama, nunchaku, quarterstaff, sai, shuriken, siangham, and sling," he said. "Unarmed strike is nowhere on that list."
The Monk frowned. "You're right," he said, finally. "Damn. But I don't need my fists to beat you into a bloody pulp," the Monk said, breaking a table leg off of a chair.
"For a Monk, you don't know much about Monks, do you?" Milo said. He hadn't meant for it to go this far, but the Monk left him no choice. He had to break out his secret weapon. This battle was about to get existential. "After all, is it not written, 'know thyself, and thou knowest the best way to beat in another's face?'" Milo said. "Or something like that, anyway?"
"Of course! True wisdom is in knowing yourself—thyself, whatever—and my Wisdom is through the roof! Haaaaaai-yee—"
"Ah, but you don't know yourself, do you?" Milo said, still sitting. "Because it takes a Knowledge check of ten plus the Hit Dice of a creature to recognize it, meaning it is a DC 11 check to identify a human." Milo grinned wickedly. "But it is impossible to make a check higher than ten without training. Tell me, o wise Monk, how many cross-class skill ranks have you invested in Knowledge (Local)?"
The Monk dropped the table leg and stared at his own hand in horror. "What am I?" he shrieked, looking at himself as if he'd never seen a human before—and, in a manner of speaking, he hadn't. As far as he was concerned, humans were unknown and unknowable. He broke into a cold sweat, and started to shake. Then he fled through the door, screaming at the top of his lungs.
Milo looked back at the party sitting around him.
"Sorry about that," he said. "Some people never know when to—"
Milo pulled off his hood.
"Hey, guys," he said to Gerard, Zook, and... the new one. "I thought you were dead."
"We could say the same for you!" Zook said. "But you know how it is; some Wizard Wished us back to life in exchange for getting his cat familiar down from a treant, that sort of thing. You wouldn't believe how many times we tried to contact you with a Sending or bring you back with a True Resurrection—hang on. If you're here, how is..." Zook turned to look at the Bard. Then back at Milo.
Then he narrowed his eyes.
"True Seeing," he cast.
"No, I'm really me," Milo said. "It took a deus ex machina or two to get me here, but I'm here."
"So..." Gerard said slowly. "Dost this, perchance, makest thou an NPC?"
"Nope. At least, I don't think so."
"Oh, thank gods," Gerard said. "I hate doing that voice. I can never tell if it's supposed to be 'thou' or 'thee.'"
Milo glanced at the Bard, Relkin. She was hard to read behind her presumably-massive Charisma bonus and her feathered, wide-brimmed red hat, but she seemed to be deep in thought.
"Look, guys," Milo said. "I need your help."
"Of course you do," Zook grinned. "When have we ever met someone in a tavern who didn't need our help?"
"You're sure you're not an NPC?" Gerard asked.
"Pretty sure. So here's the thing: Boccob sent me back here to hunt someone down. But I've only got three days, starting about four hours ago, meaning we really have to hustle."
"That's ridiculous," Zook said. "Of course, as a divine being, he's clearly beyond our understanding," he added quickly, "but why would a god need someone found? They're practically omniscient. Boccob the Uncaring knows exactly where your target is."
"That was my thinking too," Milo said. "I think he doesn't actually want her found. I think he wants to get me and her in the same room together, sixty-eight hours from now. I already tried locating her with magic, but she seems to be under the effects of a Nondetection spell or something similar. She's a witch named Bellatrix—"
"Myra," Relkin interjected. "City of Light! City of Magic!" she added half-heartedly.
"Oh. Is she not hiding, then?"
"Don't know. This is the first I've heard about her. But we've been getting foreshadowing about shady goings-on in Myra (CityofLight!CityofMagic!) for ages now. But, since that Wizard who brought these guys back to life was on the other side of the continent, it's taken us a while to get back. And there were all these sidequests to do, MacGuffins to find, mysteries to solve, dungeons to raid... up until last week, when there was nothing. The quests dried up, and suddenly we were moving like lightning. Until now. You're the first notable NPC we've met in a week. Coincidence? I think not."
"I'm not an NPC," Milo bristled. "But your reasoning seems sound. Besides, there's... someone else I have to see in the city."
"Just one question," Relkin said. "What the hells is a witch?"
Hannah crept deeper into the cave. She wasn't exactly sneaking or anything, but it seemed almost impossible to walk into a mysterious hidden cave without creeping. She found herself wishing she'd brought a torch; she had her wand, of course, but didn't dare use it. Stupid underage magic rules.
Still, if only she could see...
As soon as she thought it, the hamster on her shoulder disappeared, and the walls and floor of the cave, just barely visible before, were highlighted in a web of silvery lines.
"Cool," she whispered, walking more confidently now.
The cave opened up into a little square room hewn out of the rock and earth, supported in places by neatly-sawn timber beams and posts. There was a wooden table in the centre of the room, an overstuffed armchair in the corner, and the walls were all lined with shelves and drawers.
"Hello." It was Milo's voice. Hannah whipped around, but couldn't see him. Of course, she couldn't see much of anything in the darkness beyond the silvery outlines. "If you're hearing this, it means your Christmas present detected you were thinking I was dead. If this is a ploy and I'm planning a—" the voice cut out briefly, then picked up again with a slightly different cadence. It was a little like listening to a poorly dubbed Japanese cartoon. "—daring comeback, I'll leave a note on that table explaining everything. However, failing that, I've made certain contingency plans. Presumably, my death means the world—" the voice cut out again. Hannah frantically ran her hands over the table, trying to find Milo's note. "—the world has fallen to You-Know-Who. Or a housecat got in a lucky hit. This shelter contains everything you need to run an—" there was another pause, longer this time. "—Dammit, I need to speak more concisely. Twenty-five words is a ridiculously short message to leave, and I've only got one more Magic Mouth—"
There was no note. Still, that didn't mean anything, right? It didn't mean he was dead. It just meant, as he'd said, that she thought he was dead. Which was absolutely jumping to conclusions. Right.
He was probably enjoying his summer in... well, in wherever it was he went during the summer. She wondered where that was.
"—Come on, 'twenty-five' is a compound modifier, not two words! Anyway. This shelter contains everything that Cog could make, or that I could mail—" Another pause. "Or that I could mail-order that might be necessary for whatever the current emergency situation is. There are spare wands, non-perishables, money, grappling—" Another pause. "—Argh. You get the idea. Look around. There's also an armchair in the corner and a set of wizard chess so you can talk about—the weather and get your spells back. There's also some copies, sans illustrations, of some school textbooks that I thought might be useful. The hamster—knows where to find the other twelve identical shelters I built. I know I said your Christmas present was going to be fun rather than—rather than useful, but I couldn't resist. You probably also noticed that the hamster can project images of rooms when you're in the dark, but—it only works in places that someone who's been within 60 feet of the pin have seen, and only you can see the image." There was a pause. A real one, as if Milo was hesitating before continuing, not one of the weird ones. "If—you're not running for your life, and he didn't go down fighting or suffer existential failure, please take care of my rat, will you? Happy—Christmas, Hannah Abbot."
And then there was silence.
"So, what's the plan?" Zook asked.
Milo slid a piece of paper across the table. "We'll need everything on that list, but I don't have any money." He'd had to tear the sheet out of Thamior's spellbook just to make the shopping list.
Zook scanned the sheet.
"Why do we need five tower shields?" he asked.
"I guess it's only four since Wellby's not here," Milo said. "Where is he, by the way?"
"He wasn't with us when we were resurrected," Gerard said. "We assumed at first that he chose to stay in the afterlife, but we've since heard that he might be in Myra, City of Light! City of Magic! We don't know why, though. He's not responding to our messages."
Milo and Relkin exchanged a look.
"Bellatrix has access to a... permanent-duration at-will domination spell with an implausibly-high DC," Milo said. "She got him."
"How do you know that?" Zook asked.
"She didn't kill him when she killed you two," Relkin said. "He was also the last one alive. She's from another plane, so she'd need a local guide. Rogues have infamously poor Will saves. He's also in the same city she is, and he's not returning your messages. He would if he was able."
"So. All we need now is four fast horses to get to the city," Milo said. He could take another Phantom Steed, but he wanted to conserve his magic as much as possible. He wasn't really certain what to expect, and wanted to be prepared for anything. And besides, he couldn't fit all four of them on the back of a single horse, magical or not.
"Horses won't get you there in time," Relkin said. "Fortunately, I have better."
Hannah found a pile of curious foot-long iron rods in one of the shelves labelled, in that same weird silvery outline, a 'sunrod—glows when struck.' She wondered what struck meant in this case. Was it in the sense of how someone might strike a match? Or did she have to kick it or something? Or maybe the sunrods had to engage in collective bargaining and refuse services as a bargaining ploy? She knew Milo's definition of certain words differed, somewhat, from the norm.
She decided to go with the first option, and struck one, like a giant match, against the wooden table. As soon as she did, the tip—which turned out to be made of gold—began to glow brightly, illuminating the room. Wherever the light touched, the silvery lines disappeared.
She rooted around in the drawers until she produced some blank paper and a quill, and placed them on the table. Then she looked at the hamster pointedly.
"Right," she said. "I think you'd best draw where the rest of these little hideaways are."
It was a chaotic, gaudy mess in the shape of a sailing ship—sans sails. The hull and deck were carved and painted in a variety of seemingly-random swirly patterns and shapes. On the side, painted in bright silver, was its name: S.S. ROLL FOR INITIATIVE.
A complicated mechanism resembling a waterwheel was mounted on the rear, spinning like a Fighter with Combat Reflexes, Improved Trip, and a spiked chain surrounded by kobolds who had never read page 137 of the PHB.
And the whole thing moved like Hasted lightning.
"What is this monstrosity?" Milo shouted over the wind as they shot down the river.
"It's a boat," Relkin said.
"What... what makes it go?"
"Zombies," Relkin said with aplomb, steering the ship down the winding river.
Milo choked slightly. "Zombies?"
"And a gaggle of skeletons. There's a couple of zombie crocodiles in the hold turning a crank," Relkin said. "Good strength-to-HD ratio, and the river is just lousy with them. Some of the more complicated machinery is actually haunted, with a couple of skeleton squirrels Hauntshifted in as poltergeists. The ballistae mounted on the sides self-load the same way, but someone has to actually aim and fire them. I'm working on that bit, still."
Milo frowned. Theoretically, an undead poltergeist could make simple machinery move, like making a clock run backwards. But he'd never heard of anyone... weaponising it. The rule was only there to add a certain flavour to haunted houses.
"How could you justify spending so much of your wealth-by-level on a method of transportation?" Milo asked. "Everyone knows that not even a high overland speed lets you break the one-encounter-per-trip rule."
Theoretically, there were supposed to be random encounters with hostile monsters every so often while travelling, but nobody, not even the monsters themselves, had time for that. Random encounters were a waste of time for all involved parties. However, since they couldn't have travel through dangerous wildernesses just be safe, a compromise of sorts was reached: any trip through the wild, of any length, would have exactly one random encounter.
"True," Relkin said. "But I didn't actually spend anything on this. I made it."
"Oh, please," Milo said. "You don't expect me to believe you put that many ranks into Craft (Shipbuilding), Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering), and, for that matter, Profession (Sailor)? Is this like that time you decided I should have a higher Charisma than Constitution?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Relkin said woodenly. "I had nothing to do with that decision. And besides," she added in a more normal tone, "I didn't waste any ranks in any of those skills."
"Bardic Knack and Jack-of-all-Trades, combined with some lucky ability rolls. I have a high skill bonus in every skill. You see the art on the deck?"
"It's... hard to miss."
"Well, artistic crafts like Craft (Woodcarving) and (Abstract Art) let you make high-value works of art from low-cost raw materials, so when I have some free time, I throw on another coat of paint. At last count, there's fifteen thousand gp in masterwork paintings layered on top of each other on this boat for when I decide to sell it when I learn Teleport. That number is only going up."
"Impressive. I once brewed a magical potion in a completely different magic system from ours without a feat," Milo said.
"You must be very proud. I once buffed a donkey to the point where it killed a hill giant without taking any damage."
"Only a hill giant? Hmph. I foiled the plans of an immortal, evil mastermind with a first-level spell."
"I can add my Charisma to attack," the Bard said. "Three times. And once to damage."
"I made a headband that gave me seven feats using only a second-level spell."
"Mirror Move? Way ahead of you." Relkin fished an amulet out from her red coat and dangled it in front of Milo. "In a few levels I'll get access to the whole Sorcerer/Wizard spell list."
"Oooh, so you'll be almost as good at magic as a Sorcerer? I tremble at the thought. In seven levels I'll get access to the whole Cleric spell list and the Wizard list—without sacrificing any caster levels."
"I can cast spells without preparing them."
"So can I," Milo grinned. "And I'm a Wizard."
"Well, I get better saves and more hit points per level than you."
"Bah! If it comes down to your hit points, you've already lost."
"I can craft any item at one-third price!'
"I can craft magic items at one-sixtieth of their value!"
"Lot of good you did with it. You haven't got a single magic item on you. In fact, aside from that spellbook and those black robes, you don't have anything."
"I have a mother, and that's more than you can say."
Relkin cocked her head sideways slightly and looked at Milo. "So?" she asked.
"If you have to ask—" Milo narrowed his eyes, staring at the reflection of the setting sun in the water ahead. "That's not a reflection."
"You see it, too?" Relkin asked. She reached behind him and pulled on a rope, ringing an alarm bell deep within the ship. She slammed forward a lever marked 'REVERSE' and drew a weird, crystalline sword from her hip.
Milo dived for cover behind the gunwale as a cloud of superheated steam buffeted the ship. His Reflex save was garbage; had he been caught in that blast he would have died for certain. Even if he'd made his save there would have been nothing left but a pair of smoking boots. Relkin stood behind the wheel looking unharmed; clearly, she'd managed to munchkin her way into getting Evasion somehow.
There was a roar that Milo's ears didn't so much hear as suffer through as the monster surfaced.
Its wide, streamlined shell was covered in jagged, silvery protrusions that caused the light to dance in a beautiful, mesmerizing way that looked a little like the reflection of light on the water. A long, snakelike neck reached out of the water, ending in a scaled, crested head and a mouth lined with several dozen rows of razor-sharp teeth; still steaming from the breath attack earlier.
The Dragon Turtle slammed into the Roll for Initiative, shattering the mermaid figurehead and sending splinters flying across the deck.
Its sea-green eyes scanned the deck and looked straight at Milo. Then it opened its mouth again, ready to send forth another blast of superhot steam.