Roubris held the broken longsword in both hands, his mouth agape as it spoke to him.
"It took you long enough, Roubris."
Roubris heard the sword's voice in his head, like how the moon at midnight would sound if it could speak.
"How do you know my name?" Roubris was no stranger to talking weapons, but this was the first time one seemed to know more about what was going on than he did.
"I've been watching you. You've been traipsing all over this battlefield rescuing the dead souls of those trapped in the weapons they wielded. Well, I'm just such a soul."
The tarnished sword had been designed for a warrior with large hands. If it were whole, Roubris would likely have had difficulty lifting it, but most of the blade was missing. Even though the sword's voice was only in his head, Roubris spoke aloud. "What's your name?"
"And you know your situation? You remember the battle?"
This was all very odd. For the first time, Roubris's prepared speech about how the spirit of one that falls in battle is sometimes trapped in a weapon that has slain a foe held no importance. Serth already knew all about that. He knew he was trapped in the sword, and that Roubris's special talents could help him.
"Well, I can arrange to have you sent to your proper afterlife, Serth. I can assure that you get your just reward."
"And what do you need in return, young Roubris?"
Serth's tone suggested to Roubris that he knew very well what was needed. "Serth, how do you know so much? Trapped spirits so rarely do." In fact, they never did.
"Is that really important? You're here to get me to tell you some secret that will earn you a handful of gold coins. Payment for services rendered, correct? Isn't that really the issue here?"
In fact, it was. Roubris was unnerved, but ultimately he was not a particularly curious man. Despite the fact that he dealt with the supernatural on a routine basis, he really didn't care about the nature of spirits or the afterlife beyond what he needed to ply his trade. He had never even questioned the source of his special ability. Was it necromantic magic? Some psychic gift passed down from a distant ancestor? A blessing from the gods? A curse? Were the spirits even there at all until he came along, or did his ability somehow summon them back? It didn't matter. All that concerned him was that it worked and that he got paid for using it. "All right, Serth. You know the routine. Do you have something for me that will cover my expenses? Restoring a trapped soul isn't an easy business. It doesn't come cheaply."
"Ah, there's the Roubris Chor I was expecting. Excellent."
Serth's slick, dark voice continued on in Roubris's mind. "My friend, I value my destiny very highly. I am eager to escape my unfortunate imprisonment here. So much so that I am willing to tell you about a treasure hoard well beyond the half-full coin pouches you used to get. What value to me are such things now?"
"A temple treasury, my friend. I don't know the exact value, but it is surely the equivalent of tens of thousands of gold coins, as sure as I'm talking to you now. It's some distance away, but I'll guide you."
"Were you a priest when you were alive, Serth?"
"Something like that. Rest assured that the temple with this treasure has been sitting empty for quite some time. No one there will prevent your entry."
"You wouldn't lie to me, would you, Serth?" Spirits trapped in the weapons he found rarely tried to deceive him. Too much lay at stake to risk it. But there was something about Serth's voice, his all-too-ready and all-too-knowledgeable demeanor. Every warning bell in Roubris's head was ringing with a loud peal.
"What value would there be in lying to you? If you get no payment, I am denied my freedom, right? I value that liberty more than you can know, Roubris. I am willing to pay highly for it. Besides, the temple treasury is what I have to offer. Even if I wanted to offer you something less, I could not. Either way, it hardly matters to me in this form. My concerns are now far less terrestrial."
True, thought Roubris. Serth's grasp of the situation certainly seemed logical and straightforward. He likely had a great deal of time to dwell on it. In the end, this was all quite refreshing compared to the coercion and convincing Roubris typically had to do when speaking with a spirit in a discarded weapon. And if the treasure hoard was even half what Serth claimed... If it was even a quarter or a tenth, it was still the greatest payment he had gained for the rescue of a single soul.
"Well, Serth, why don't you tell me where we need to go?"
∗ ∗ ∗
Roubris carried Serth through the busy city streets wrapped in burlap. People passed by him carrying baskets of fresh bread loaves, sacks of flour, or other items purchased in the nearby market. No one paid him any attention, which was just fine by him. Even the lovelier ladies that he saw did not prompt him to stop and chat, as would normally be his way.
Well, the sight of one young woman with sparkling green eyes did encourage him to stop, bow, and smile, but when she ignored him he did not pursue the matter.
When Roubris reached the steps of the temple of Iomedae, he straightened his tunic and brushed the dust from his pants and boots. When he opened the door he paused, reverently, and then walked silently inside. The weapon throbbed in his hands, but he heard nothing.
Karatha walked up to him, wiping her hands on a rag. She wore an atypical smock covered in brightly colored stains. She'd clearly been painting something. "Roubris, how good to see you. Another weapon already?"
Roubris spoke quietly. "Yes. Can we put it in the sacred storage area, like we normally do?"
Karatha furrowed her brow. There was no such area, and it was nothing they normally did. Roubris raised his eyebrows and motioned his head slightly to the right. Karatha, wise as ever, caught at least a portion of his meaning. "Yes, of course."
The two of them walked to a small vestibule where Roubris placed the wrapped sword on a bench. Then the two of them left that area and went back into the main chapel, Roubris closing the door behind them.
"What's going on?" Karatha asked.
"I wanted to talk to you, and I didn't want the sword to overhear."
"Coming from anyone else, those would sound like the words of a madman," Karatha said with a smirk.
Roubris rolled his eyes and gave a wry smile. "Seriously," he told her, "this weapon is different. It's smart. It knows things."
"You mean the spirit trapped inside is smart and knows things."
"Yes, yes. Whatever. You know what I mean."
"What kinds of things does it know?"
"When I found it, it knew its situation, which is usually not the case. Plus, it knew that I'd be looking for it, and what you and I could offer it."
Roubris rubbed his chin. "Yes, I suppose so. But it's also a bit unnerving. I don't like it when things are out of the ordinary."
Karatha nodded. "I understand. Well, let's see about sending the soul to its proper afterlife, and then it won't matter anymore."
"Well, we can't. Not yet."
"He hasn't led me to my... reward yet. It's a long journey, apparently, and he has to guide me."
Karatha just nodded and stared, not asking the obvious question: then why was he here?
"The treasure is apparently in an old abandoned temple. I don't know much about such things, Karatha. I was wondering if you would accompany me. Or rather, us. I'd feel safer. I could make a special donation to your church on your behalf once we find the gold to compensate you for your time and trouble."
Karatha smiled warmly. "Very generous of you, Roubris. But what temple is this? How far away is it?"
Roubris realized then that it never occurred to him to even ask what god or gods the temple represented. "I'm not exactly sure. I'll try to get the details."
"Well, obviously, I cannot consider defiling the temple of any of the gods of light or justice in any way, nor could I in good conscience allow you to do so either. And I couldn't be gone from my duties here for more than, say, two weeks."
Roubris nodded. He hoped that Serth wasn't going to lead him to such a temple, either. That would be awkward. "I'm led to understand that the temple is abandoned."
"All right. I understand. I'll find out."
"Please do. Once we know, I'll accompany you if I can. Some time on the road could offer us a good opportunity to talk in depth."
Karatha would want to work on him, attempting to get him to see the ways of Iomedae. She was always encouraging him to think about concepts like justice and honor. It's not that he could see no value in such things, just that rigid definitions of either or both sometimes became... inconvenient. Still, talking with her about such things wasn't really all that arduous. She wasn't overbearing about it. And even if she was, it would be a small price to pay for her aid. Roubris was worried—those warning bells were still tolling in his head.
So, however, was the sound of tens of thousands of gold pieces jangling as they cascaded all around him like some beautiful rain shower.
Roubris thanked his friend and fetched Serth. He removed the burlap wrap and held the sword by the pommel. He didn't speak aloud, but kept the conversation entirely in his mind. "Serth?"
"What?" The oily voice sounded annoyed.
"The temple where the treasure is—whose temple is it?"
"It's important. I can't steal from the temple of a benevolent deity."
"You won't be stealing from anyone. The temple is long abandoned."
Roubris sighed. "I know. But before that, what god was the temple's patron?"
"No 'benevolent deity' to be sure. That should be enough for you."
It was. "And how far away is it? We have only a couple of weeks or so."
"That should be fine if you procure some decent horses."
Roubris nodded. Serth was in a foul mood. He found the voice in his head unpleasant. "Thanks, my friend. We'll hopefully make it quick and get you to where you're going."
Serth didn't reply.
∗ ∗ ∗
The first day's travel north took them into a land of rolling hills and isolated copses as they headed toward towering, snow-capped peaks. The horses Karatha procured had been expensive, but even Roubris's untrained eye could see that they were of quality. The day's ride was quiet and the roads lonely, which they agreed was for the best. Neither Roubris nor Karatha was thrilled to ride into the unruly land of Ustalav with its feuding nobles and the dangers of the Hungry Mountains looming above and ahead of them.
After a brief stay in a public house found at a crossroads, they continued on. They proceeded through narrow mountain passes and rocky ravines, over majestic hilltops and down deep gullies, always keeping to the road. The days grew dark. On the third day a storm steeped on the horizon. By that evening, it plagued them with wind and rain. Even after they coped with its torments and it passed them by, the sky remained overcast and grim, as if scarred by the storm. Serth remained tucked into Roubris's saddle, silent. Karatha asked Roubris a few questions now and again about how he felt when he helped the trapped spirits. He told her he didn't do it for the feeling, he did it for the payment.
"People who do good deeds because it makes them feel better about themselves just display a different kind of selfishness," he told her on the fifth day of their journey. "Even if they're not doing it for money, they're doing it to get something they want."
She nodded, then countered. "That might be a consequence, but it's not always the motivation. Some do good and spread justice for its own sake."
Roubris chuckled. "That might be what they say, but people can't truly be selfless. There's no such thing as selflessness. It's right there in the word. If you're a 'self' you can't be selfless. It doesn't even make sense. No one does anything that doesn't benefit them in some way. It just doesn't make sense."
Before she could respond, the dark morning sky filled with angry shrieking and the dull fluttering of large wings. Roubris looked up to see a horrific creature looming above them on batlike wings of flesh. It was like a worm, and like a slug, and yet like neither. Multiple mouths screamed promises of destruction. Multiple eyes glared with malevolent intent.
There was nowhere to run. No time to escape.
Coming Next Week: Monstrous battles and philosophical quandaries in Chapter Three of Monte Cook's "The Ghosts of Broken Blades."
As one of the primary architects of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Matter, the d20 Call of Cthulhu system, and Monte Cook's World of Darkness, as well as the author of such notable supplements as Arcana Unearthed, The Book of Eldritch Might, Dead Gods, and more, Monte Cook has left an indelible mark on the history of fantasy gaming. In addition, he has published two novels, Of Aged Angels and The Glass Prison, and his short fiction has been featured in such venues as Amazing Stories and Game Trade Magazine. For more information, visit montecook.com. .
Art by Carlos Villa.