by J. C. Hay
There are only a few things I hate worse than people who betray my trust. One of those, sadly, is being suspended by my wrists. I looked at my surroundings—the room was obviously in the same dilapidated building I'd been in before, or at least one with a similar decorating style. My shoulders throbbed where my weight tugged on them. They'd bound my arms behind me, and then lifted me until my feet barely scraped the floor. It served as an effective deterrent to escape attempts—without something to brace my feet against it hurt too badly to try and untie the knots. Arduga and Elias hung in similar straits on either side of me. Elias did, at least. Arduga's dead nerves and rubbery joints meant he probably wasn't as uncomfortable as those of us who hadn't yet crossed over.
My mouth tasted like rust, and I wondered again why people have to beat you after you've surrendered. Then again, in their shoes I'd have done the same thing. I spat, the bloodstained gobbet hitting the carpet with a wet splash that did nothing to improve my mood, but at least my mouth tasted better. I opened my mouth to say something to Elias, and then the door opened.
Corus Fen strode into the room like a conquering hero. His bulk was covered in embroidered finery that would have been perfectly suitable to any king or prince. He had a couple of guards with him—in case we had escaped, I supposed. Sounded like he didn't even trust his own to be competent. Then again, having met Tylar, I wouldn't trust his people either.
Fen tossed a leather journal on the floor in front of Elias. Even in the dim light, I recognized the symbol tooled into the cover. I'd seen the Glyph of the Open Road once before, drawn for me by a dangerously handsome (and unfortunately fickle) Pathfinder who'd passed through town when I was still just a tavern girl learning to pick pockets. I turned my head toward the false zombie and gaped. At a nod from Fen, one of the guards shook Elias awake. "Are you a Pathfinder? Is this yours?"
Elias produced a groan worthy of any zombie and nodded. Fen gestured to the guards. "Cut him down. Now, damn your eyes! I don't want his arms hurt."
Without paying Arduga or me another glance, they lifted Elias up in their arms and carried him from the room. Before the door shut, Fen finally paused and looked back at us. "I'll decide what to do with you two later," he said. "Sorry to leave you hanging." He gave a wet laugh, amused by his own wit, and shut the door behind him.
My mind raced at the revelation. Elias, a Pathfinder? He certainly didn't match the descriptions I'd heard; tales of swashbuckling adventurers or cunning orators. I made a mental note to question him about it later. Doing that, however, meant I needed to get myself free, and then free him before Fen saw him to whatever horrid fate awaited him.
After I killed Tylar, of course. A girl has to have priorities.
I took a few deep breaths, trying to prepare myself for the pain. It didn't help. I threw my body backward and flipped upside down. For a moment, all my weight pressed down into my shoulders, threatening to rip my arms from their sockets. I tangled a foot in the line and tensed up, which helped with the pressure, and gave a little slack to the rope around my wrists. A bit of twisting and I felt my hand slip inside the rough grip of the cord, almost enough to work free. I threaded my body through the loop of my bound arms so I could tug the knot with my teeth. This time, it came undone easily and I dropped to the floor with a sigh of relief.
I rubbed my tingling wrists in an effort to get some feeling back in them and took assessment of the situation. They'd searched me well enough to find my spare knives, which left me nothing but my wits. Given how easily I'd let Tylar sucker me in, that didn't give me much in the way of hope.
"Don't leave me, Omaire. You can't just leave me." Arduga sounded pretty desperate, whispering in as soft a voice as he could muster.
I smiled and took a step toward the door, just to watch him thrash about on his rope before I went to untie him. "Of course I'm not going to leave you. I need your help to get out of here." I went back to my rope and hoisted myself up enough that somebody might think I was still tied. Then I screamed.
Arduga looked at me, confused, then terrified and angry in equal measure. I kept screaming. "The ghoul's free! Don't let him eat me! Help!" He took a step toward me, arms outstretched to clamp over my mouth.
The door opened, and one of Fen's goons looked in. He saw Arduga coming for me, drew a sword, and rushed in to the rescue. He didn't get far. I dropped down next to him, yanked his dagger out of its sheath and buried it in his throat.
I smiled at Arduga as the guard collapsed between us. "Thanks for the help."
"I don't appreciate being involved in your deceit. I have a reputation to uphold." He gestured at his tattered finery, then laughed. "Okay, grab his steel and let's get out of here."
"We can't leave Elias here." I tugged the short sword out of the guard's twitching hand. Bigger than I liked, but I wasn't about to go digging for the dagger.
"Why not? This is all his fault anyway. As I see it, it's what's comin' to him."
I narrowed my eyes, which was usually enough to cow the ghoul back into line, but this time his resolve remained strong. "I'm not risking my neck for him," he said. "If you want to, that's fine, but you're on your own. You know where to find me."
"Any place where the bodies are fresh and the stench is high."
He grinned. "Exactly. See you around, Omaire." His rolling gate carried him across the room, through the open door and out. I followed him into the hall, which looked to be the mirror of the one Tylar and I had broken into—window at one end, stairs down at the other. Arduga went to the window, looked out, then clambered through without saying another word.
That left the stairs for me, and I slipped down as quietly as I could. I'd made it halfway when I heard a familiar voice approaching.
"Fen's going to be busy with the Pathfinder for the rest of the night. I suppose I should make certain his friends aren't bored without his company." The voice chuckled, and another offered some words of encouragement that I didn't try to hear.
Tylar came around the corner onto the staircase and spotted me right as I charged.
I'm not big, but his off-balance stance and surprise, combined with my coming at him from above, sent him toppling back down the steps to the landing. I had enough time to recognize we were in some sort of dilapidated foyer before Tylar threw me off and scrambled to his feet.
"Ah, you're here. Saves me having to come upstairs. Thanks." He gestured, and the goon he'd been talking to rushed forward.
I dropped and rolled, and the thug missed me. He overextended, expecting resistance, and I popped up to one side of him and jammed the short sword point-first into the back of his knee. The goon fell, clutching his useless leg, and I vaulted over him.
"Oh Tylar, that's not how you think this is going to go, is it? You aren't smart enough to lead—you're a follower. Of me, Fen—whoever you think can get you something. You sure as the Hells don't have the stones to grab it for yourself."
He charged, enraged. I leapt, but his arms caught me and dragged me in close. His face leaned in to mine, breath hot on my skin and stinking of wine. "What, no insults now, girl? You don't have anything clever to say? You can't jump past me like you did Ekhar there."
I smiled. "I never wanted to get past you. I wanted to be inside your guard." I slammed my knee up into his privates, and his grip loosened as he howled in pain. He bent over, and I snatched the dirk from his belt and drove it up through the bottom of his mouth. Tylar stared at me a second in dumb surprise, and I smiled.
"What do you know. I guess you had the stones after all."
As he tumbled to the floor, a familiar sound clinked from within his purses. I checked, and grabbed the antidote vials for Jaros. There were a couple of small gems in the purse as well, but they fit better in mine. I retrieved and cleaned Tylar's dagger as an afterthought—a long, thin-bladed thing more suited for stabbing than cutting. Nice craftsmanship, and utterly wasted on Tylar, even before his death.
I slipped as quietly as possible out of the foyer, expecting at any moment someone would find the bodies, or even that Ehkar would raise some kind of alarm, but nothing happened. Up ahead, from behind a thick wooden door, I heard Fen's thick voice, sounding amused. "You never tire of the questions, do you Pathfinder?"
Torture. My stomach clenched. Without waiting, I grabbed the door's knob and flung it open, hurtling through with my blade raised.
Fen sat at one end of a long table piled with food, eating everything within reach of his hands. Midway down the table sat Elias. The sausage in his hand didn't look much like torture, unless you had a problem with grease. A handful of bored-looking guards rested in the corners of the rooms and eyed the spread enviously. I goggled.
Fen looked toward me and laughed, with no sign of surprise. "You're free. Excellent. I wondered if you might be so clever."
"More clever than Tylar, but so's a rock." I stepped forward and gestured with the dead thief's dagger. "What's going on here?"
Elias cleared his throat. "It seems Master Fen was thrilled to hear I was a Pathfinder. He insisted that I come down and interview him, so that when he becomes the biggest crime lord in Mechitar, his progress will be adequately documented. It's a unique opportunity to get his side."
I shook my head. "Make sure you include the part where one of his lieutenants plotted to kill him, and a common thief took care of the problem." I tossed Tylar's stiletto on to the table.
Fen laughed. "You've got spirit too, girl. Interested in taking his place?"
"Work for me. You'll get a percentage of everything the men under you take." He gestured at the table. "And the food's good."
I scratched my head, confused as to how this was going. "And I'll have to sleep with one eye open, waiting for a knife in the dark. No thanks."
Fen nodded. "A shame. You've killed a few of my men and disrupted my business, girl. But you've also rooted out a traitor for me. I'll call us even." His eyes suddenly went cold, and the mask of his hospitality drained away. "Don't cross me again, though. I'd hate to think I made a mistake. I might have to correct it." He jammed the point of a knife into a sausage, and a spot of grease spurted out. When he placed it in his mouth, the mask was back. "Take care."
I knew a dismissal when I heard one. I had just stepped out onto the street when Elias caught up with me. I glared at him. "Pathfinder."
He nodded. "You could be too, if you were interested. Jaros is always hunting for fresh talent. You've certainly got the persistence." He smiled, the expression disconcerting on his rotten countenance.
It wasn't a terrible idea, might even get me out of the city for a time. More importantly, it would get me out from under Fen's nose. The Pathfinders obviously operated with some leeway if they allowed an eccentric like Elias. I rubbed my chin. "I'll think about it. I know where to find you."
I walked off, leaving him behind. I thought about the purse in Jaros' warren of books, and the vial of antidote in my pocket, and smiled. What had he called it? A dealer in information. Maybe a change in career wouldn't look too bad.
Coming Next Week: Liane Merciel follows a fallen paladin on his way to atonement or death in the Worldwound in "Certainty."
J. C. Hay is the author of numerous short stories and poems for such anthologies as Book of All Flesh (Eden Press), Up Jumped the Devil (PS Publishing), and Dark Faith (Apex Book Company), as well as a chapter in the Prodigal Sons Pathfinder's Journal in Pathfinder Adventure Path #33. For more information, visit his website at jchay.com.
Art by Gerald Lee