by Robin D. Laws
The weirdness of the creature's distant cries washes over the prisoners like a crashing wave. The elves have arrayed themselves behind them. With swords outstretched, they impel the captives into the newly revealed inner chambers of the Ironroot.
Gad and Vitta are working their way to point position when Dualal chimes: "Not you, good dog. Nor you, halfling. You seem like you might be of more specialized use. You two, with the beards—you go first."
She points a glossy nail at the two brothers, Tlivush and Tliuka.
Tlivush, the elder one, threads his fingers together and begs: "We are brothers, milady. Let him stay back, and I'll bear the brunt of whatever risk—"
"Human, you should know your place by now. As a measure of my vexation, your brother shall walk ahead, and you'll hang back."
The elves hold lanterns for the humans. The final Ironroot Vault reveals itself as a succession of twisting tunnels. Every surface is wooden, whether covered in bark or exposed and lacquered. Feathery roots reach down from the ceiling. Thicker ones provide overhead passage for skittering mice.
When the vault branches, Tliuka wanders for the closest fork.
"Hold up!" Vitta shouts.
"What?" says Dualal.
"Up in the root structure," she says, pointing above Tliuka's head. "There are glowing sigils painted in the roots. A glyph trap."
"Go the other way," Dualal commands.
Shoulders hunkered, Tliuka complies.
"This isn't right," Vitta says to Gad. "I should be up there, not that poor serf."
"Got an argument that doesn't explain who you are?" Gad asks.
Vitta grimaces. She goes back to checking the ceiling and walls as best she can from the back of the shuffling scrum. The passage curves, slopes down, and curves again. They come to a set of roots, forming a rough staircase leading a dozen steps down. Vitta edges her way to the front of the crowd.
"Let the selected human walk the steps alone," calls Dualal.
Tliuka freezes on the first stair.
"Walk lightly, my brother," Tlivush calls.
One by one, Tliuka traverses the steps. He hits bottom and moves on down the corridor.
A grate of sharpened poles drops from the ceiling. It falls with speed and force, knocking Tlivush first to his knees and then flat against the floor. The poles impale him. He gasps and writhes. Vitta bounds up but there's nothing to be done.
"Tliuka!" his brother cries.
Dualal bares her teeth at him. "Silence, thrall, or we'll dig a grave for two!"
Tliuka dies at Vitta's feet.
The portcullis bars their way. Dualal parts the group to inspect it. She rattles it, orders her men to chop at it with swords. It resists their blows.
"Halfling," she says, "you seemed to know to look for traps, before. If you can find us a way through this, you'll be rewarded."
Vitta looks not at the portcullis, but at the ceiling and nearby walls.
"Ingenious," says Vitta, squinting in the lantern light. "Though woven—or is it grown?—from roots, vines, and twigs, it still obeys the rules of winch and pulley. This tough fiber here is like the chain, and this notch is where you secure it. The weight-plate here, that Tlivush stepped on to trigger it: bark and wood. All of it still living. Or, if you prefer, ensorcelled into an eternal semblance of life. And this spiral of branches here, that duplicates the actions of a spring. Pulled tight, it imprisons a great measure of force. It is that captive force, when suddenly released, that made it fall so fast, and impaled poor Tliuka."
Dualal sucks air between her fey-white teeth. "At another time, halfling, your disquisition might be interesting. Can you raise it up, and prevent it from falling?"
"I could, but will I?"
"What do you mean?"
"Will you let all of us go, unharmed, when you get what you seek?"
"You will be of little use then."
"Yes, that's why I ask."
"You'd be wise not to test me."
"Do you want this up, or not?"
"I swear, you all shall be safely dismissed."
"On your blood and the blood of your lineage?"
Dualal stiffens. "Yes, creature." She gestures to Gad. "Save for this one. In him I see the potential for longer service."
Gad sees a vituperation form on his comrade's lips.
"Don't worry about me, Vitta," he says. "Accept her pledge, for you and for the others."
"Give me a boost then," she tells him.
He hoists her up. She hauls at a vine. The wooden grate lifts up, slipping wetly free of Tlivush's impaled corpse. The prisoners groan as it rolls into view.
Vitta rearranges roots, ties a knot around a protruding burl, and leaps down to tear chunks of wood from the weight-sensing mechanism.
"You have rendered it safe?" Dualal asks her.
Vitta brushes bark dust from her palms. "I have."
∗ ∗ ∗
They turn a corner and the howls grow in pitch and frequency. Other sounds join its plaintive, angry wails. The unseen thornbeast roars, snorts, and slavers. A succession of thumps and frantic scratching noises suggest a creature struggling to escape.
Gad speeds up, intending to be the first to see it. A small cool hand lands on his shoulder, pulling him aside. It's Dualal.
The creature is within view now. Gad sees it over Dualal's shoulder. It is an ever-shifting thing, a mass of muscles, hide, quills, and teeth. It is a body arranged entirely around a deep, clashing maw. Its gums are granite; its teeth, serrated ivory. Green spittle sprays from its gullet; it reeks of new-mown hay. Hundreds of jagged thorns protrude from its back and the outer surfaces of its limbs. Blood-red fruits, compounded from bulbous drupes, dangle from its plated hide. It is like the frothing, charging issue of an impossible mating: part porcupine, part lion, part boulder, part bramble. The thornbeast is growth gone wrong, life defined as pure predation.
A web of verdant energy forms a seal between the passageway and the beast's imprisoning chamber. Seeing Dualal, the thornbeast dashes toward it, and is stopped short. It stomps and bucks and froths.
At the very center of the web hangs an opal the size of a fist.
"Stand back, all of you," she calls, face fixed on the gem.
The prisoners pell-mell chaotically out of the way. Vitta follows in their wake, though more cautiously, alert for traps they failed to trip on the way in. The elves step back only a few paces. Gad presses himself into a depression in the wall, between two trunklike columns.
"Join me in the chant, good elves!" she cries. Together they draw their arms away from their bodies, hands twisted into arcane shapes. She leads the ritual. An ancient, breathy ululation sings from her lungs. Her retinue joins her, harmonizing. The green, imprisoning web flickers.
The thornbeast grows still, as if calmed by elfsong. Meekly, it retreats to the far corner of its cell.
Dualal plucks the opal from the air.
The web vanishes.
The creature blinks. It realizes that it is free.
Gad's throat constricts.
The creature opens its own, shrilling out its bloodthirsty anticipation.
Dualal reaches into her pack for her wand, readying herself to kill the thornbeast, just as she did its lesser cousin, back in the forest.
Gad steps from the alcove.
"Get back!" Dualal shrieks.
Gad reaches for her.
She clutches the opal tight. "You've come to steal the gem!" she realizes.
"No," Gad corrects. "I've come to steal this." He snatches the wand from her hand.
The amber elf leaps at him. Ready for his lunge, Gad pivots, throwing him. He lands at the thornbeast's clawed, titanic feet.
Dualal's elven retinue draws swords. Gad gets out of their way by pushing Dualal into a wall. The warriors rush to engage the thornbeast. It already has Amberelf's right leg caught tight in its jaws. It ragdolls him back and forth, dashing his skull against the hard wooden wall of its cell.
Dualal stutters her incomprehension. "The wand? I need that to quell the beast."
"I'm not sure it'll work on that thing, and, more to the point, don't care," Gad says.
She struggles to get at her sword hilt but it's wedged between her back and the wall.
"The wand?" she continues. "You came to steal the wand?"
With deft fingers Gad unbuckles her scabbard. "Yep."
"The wand. Not the gem?"
"Nope." Buckles loosened, he pulls the entire apparatus—sword, scabbard, and belt—from her.
"But it's priceless! Invaluable beyond measure!"
"Maybe to your insane dreams of conquest. But I don't know where I'd fence that. Whereas this remarkable wand of yours, unique on Golarion as far as I can tell —why, I have a buyer in Nerosyan lined up to pay a hundred thousand on the spot."
Behind them, the thornbeast devours Dualal's men. It crunches through bone and snaps off limbs.
Blinded by fury, Dualal scarcely notices. "You have betrayed me," she hisses.
"You enslaved me first, so it all comes out in the wash."
He pushes away from her, sword in one hand, wand in the other. She tries to pull her dagger. It stays stuck in its sheath. She withdraws her hand, pulling threads of glue with it.
"You remember the glue trap, back there?" Gad says. "Vitta saved some for you."
"The two of you... confederates?"
"Elves aren't the only ones who plan ahead."
"But—but you are my dog!"
"Ruff ruff," he says, backing up.
Once around the corner, he turns and sprints. An ill-cast spell whizzes overhead, scorching vine leaves, singeing his hair. He turns to point the death wand back at Dualal, having no idea what it might do to an elf rather than a thornbeast. She stops, flattening herself against a wall. He scuttles back to the preplanned point.
He nods to Vitta. Her expression fuses mock innocence with self-satisfied serenity.
She slashes a vine. The portcullis slams down, leaving Gad and Vitta and the press gang on one side, the elves stuck with the thornbeast on the other.
"Better go," he tells Vitta. "She still has spells."
"I forgot to mention," the halfling says, "the portcullis coated with some kind of magic retardant. Impervious to spells."
"Forgot to mention?"
"A randomly captured thrall can't seem too knowledgeable," she says.
The sounds of carnage flow down the passageway as the thornbeast finishes off Dualal's retainers.
Dualal surges to the wooden portcullis, jutting her pale fingers through it. Ignoring Gad, she pleads her case to Vitta: "Let this up! Quick! The creature's coming!"
Vitta puts hands on hips. "It'll hold. For awhile."
"But I promised you a safe dismissal!"
"Our freedom was never yours to grant."
Dualal looks back with terror as the ripping and tearing sounds subside. "This is not in the prophecy!"
"I can't help you with that one," Gad says.
"But the thornbeast—it will run a-feasting through the Shudderwood, and perhaps beyond!"
"Three minutes ago," he says, turning his back on her, "that was a price you were willing to pay."
They are well into in the excavated passageway when they hear the beast pounce, all grunts and scrabbling claws. To her credit, Dualal barely looses a scream.
They surface expecting to find the prisoners waiting for them, seeking guidance back to civilized parts. Instead, the freed thralls are already gone.
"Hnh," Vitta says. "They didn't trust us."
"In fairness," says Gad, "no one ever should."
Vitta nods her agreement. Without further repartee, they set out for Nerosyan, and the
hundred thousand that awaits them there.
Coming Next Week: Dark smoke rising from the plains and a farmer with a troubled past in Robert E. Vardeman's "Plow and Sword."
Robin D. Laws is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel The Worldwound Gambit—also starring Gad—and six other novels, as well as various short stories, web serials, and comic books, plus a long list of roleplaying game products. His novels include Pierced Heart, The Rough and the Smooth, and the Angelika Fleischer series for the Black Library. Robin created the classic RPG Feng Shui and such recent titles as Mutant City Blues, Skulduggery, and the newly redesigned HeroQuest 2. His previous fiction for the Pathfinder campaign setting includes "Plague of Light" in the Serpent's Skull Adventure Path. Those interested in learning more about Robin are advised to check out his blog.
Art by J. P. Targete.