It was quite certain. Xaven's next step would kill him.
The halfling tomb raider had been doing this long enough to know that he was standing on a pressure plate. In fact, Xaven had known of his predicament for over eleven hours now, a fact carefully measured by the notched candle to his left, now slowly burning down to a stump. During that time, he had been left to stand in as near perfect stillness as he could manage. A stretch, a sneeze, a momentary lapse of concentration—one of these things would eventually kill him. Judging by the fatigue of his aching muscles, it would be sooner rather than later. Xaven had had plenty of time to contemplate the trap's mechanism. Indeed, he had experimented with a disarmed deathplate once before, a year prior. As soon as any portion of his weight came off the plate, the ceiling arches would collapse. And judging by the placement of those arches, a hundred feet of stone corridor would come down on top of him, cascading all the way back to the entrance.
Xaven blamed himself. If he had been a split-second sharper, he wouldn't be standing in the exact spot his long-dead killer had anticipated. Admittedly, he noted with twisted pride, a split second slower and he would already be dead. Yet that particular achievement was soon to be regrettably academic.
The issue now was what would happen when he finally hit the twelve-hour mark and the candle went out, plunging him into darkness. At that point, keeping his center of balance would become exponentially harder. The candle had been left by his fellow tomb raider, Hrokon—a half-orc who should have been back seven hours ago. The reality of the situation was quickly becoming clear: that either Hrokon wasn't coming back in time, or he wasn't coming back at all. Technically, it wouldn't really matter which was the case, but the former pointed to incompetence, while the later was betrayal. Xaven had already decided that if it was a betrayal, he owed the half-orc a serious pummeling in the afterlife.
And vengeance in the afterlife would be his only option for revenge. As a successful tomb robber, Xaven had enough gold stashed away to be revived. But with his body buried under a thousand tons of rubble, his corpse would never be retrieved. This life, his first, was going to be his last on Golarion after all. Perhaps Hrokon was off somewhere spending their revival funds right now. The damned half-orc was a lot smarter than he like to let on. Admittedly, if their situations were reversed, Xaven would also have given desertion some serious thought.
In any event, Xaven estimated he had less than a half-hour to go before the candle burned its last, at which point he would have a decision to make. He could either play it out until he inevitably slipped or fainted from exhaustion, or he could pick his moment, step off the plate, and welcome the rock shower in the last of the dying light. Presently, Xaven was leaning towards controlling his destiny and stepping off, but he still hadn't come up with a sufficiently clever line for his final words.
The fact that an appropriate zinger eluded him was, for Xaven, a strong argument that he wasn't meant to let things end just yet. The halfling considered whether the ordeal was driving him crazy. Then again, debatably Xaven had lost his sanity a long time ago. Anyone who robs the dead, fully knowing they leave traps of this nature, couldn't be quite right in the head.
Yet here he was. Forgotten temples had always been one of the halfling's most cherished targets, both for their relics and for their inevitable death traps—two items that, until about eleven and a half hours ago, had been among Xaven's favorite things.
A voice came from above: "Well, the ceiling is still here. Are you down there, little buddy?"
It was Hrokon, calling from above and ahead, near the temple's entrance. Xaven stilled himself, fighting the sudden rush of excitement. Every movement had to stay under control.
The powerful half-orc slid down the carved stone ladder from the temple's foyer to the arched corridor below. He loped toward Xaven, covering the hall's hundred-foot length with remarkable casualness. But then, he knew that Xaven had disabled all the traps in that section.
"Of course I'm still here, you idiot! What took you so long?"
"Aroden's nostrils! Your shopping list was long."
"Start by bringing the water! And hurry, I'm losing my light here."
"Coming up." Hrokon dug out a tiny folded-paper cup and filled it with water from his canteen. He moved slowly now, taking care to avoid coming close enough to touch the pressure plate. Xaven had made Hroken draw a wide circle around the plate with chalk before he left. "And I got more candles too."
"Good. Light 'em up." The halfling slowly accepted the cup and brought it to his lips to drink. Sensation began to return, first to his tongue and then to his throat. "We've gotta get you building the sled right away."
"Already done, Xaven. I had a smith put it together for us."
"What? You brought someone in?" Xaven almost snorted his precious water out of his nose. "What if he starts asking questions?!"
Hroken made that strange crackling sound that passed for his laugh. "You really want to concern yourself with that kind of detail right now?" He grinned and began lighting candles, waiting for them to heat up so he could drip their wax and secure them to the floor.
"No, I guess not," Xaven admitted after some thought. "But cut me some slack here. I've been playing statue for twelve hours!"
"Easy, little buddy. We'll get you out of here shortly." Hrokon cast his gaze up at the ceiling 20 feet above. "Now stay focused. You've come this far, I don't want you bringing the temple down on both of us.
Xaven steadied himself once more. "Right. Then go get the sled and lay out the rope. Are you sure you understand the layout?"
"Stop worrying about me for once. Just focus on your part." Hrokon lit the last of the candles. "I'll be right back."
Xaven concentrated on his breathing while he waited. With four new candles, both his world and his outlook were already brighter. Minutes later he could hear Hrokon steadily working away, uncoiling a pair of thin but hopefully sturdy ropes. Once Hrokon lit a dozen more candles to line the corridor's length, Xaven could see the ropes dangling from the top of the ladder at the mouth of the temple foyer down to the flagstones of the corridor he was trapped in. From there, Hrokon carefully laid rope all the way back to the edge of the chalk line. The half-orc then made a further trip topside, returning with his final item, a flat rectangular board with four wheels and a handle.
As he returned he asked, "I still don't see why the better plan isn't to just substitute a big rock for your weight on the deathplate."
"Believe me, I thought about it," answered Xaven, "But it won't work—that split second of too much or too little weight will set the scale off. It's a crazy risk."
Hrokon rolled his eyes. "And this plan of yours is much more sane."
Xaven ignored him, squinting his eyes as he appraised the sled. "Have the wheels been oiled like we talked about?"
"Spin 'em. Let me see."
Hrokon patiently spun each wheel for Xaven, one at a time. Xaven had to admit they looked pretty damned good—especially for a custom job made in the middle of the night. If this worked, Xaven would have to give a sizable tip to Hrokon's smith, and not just to shut him up.
"Nice work, Hrokon."
"You know, for a minute or two there, I kinda thought maybe you weren't coming back for me. Maybe you just grabbed the altar chest and left."
Hrokon let loose with his crackle laugh once more. "Really? I'm hurt."
"Never crossed your mind?"
"Of course it did, but then I thought to myself: ‘how will I get to see if Xaven's idea might actually work?'"
"So you did think about deserting!"
"Xaven, do you think maybe we can tend to your insecurities after we get us out of this deathtrap?"
"Okay, okay. Let's go over the timing once more."
Hrokon repeated the final steps once more for Xaven as he pulled out a pair of manacles from his pack. He knew by now that the halfling trusted no one, even at the best of times. "When I hear the ‘ready,' I count to three. On three exactly, I whip the horse team and we race as fast as we possibly can. There's a bit of a downward slope from the entrance, actually, so we'll get a good start. You ready?"
"I've been ready for twelve hours," Xaven said, slowly holding out his left arm for the manacle.
"Good," said Hrokon, snapping one clasp around Xaven's wrist and then the other to the sled's metal handle. The key was left in the lock. "Now don't miss the sled with your jump off the plate or you'll lose your arm."
"My arm?" Xaven snorted. "Hrokon, if I miss the sled, the Pathfinders will be digging up my pulverized skeleton a hundred years from now."
The half-orc grinned. "Then don't miss it." He paused. "You've been still an awful long while, Xaven. Your muscles won't react quite like they should."
Xaven grit his teeth. "I won't miss. You just make sure the horses accelerate to a gallop right out of the gate. How many did you get?"
"Eight. I already told you, I got everything on the list. They're good ones too—Andoren breeds, mostly."
"Alright then, let's do this. Head topside and call me for the countdown when you're in position."
And then Xaven was alone again. He breathed and sweated in the newly bright corridor. That's all he had done for the last twelve hours, but apparently he still had more sweat to give. He hadn't told the half-orc how poor the odds were that his plan would actually work. If the ceiling came down all at once, it wouldn't matter how fast the horses were.
But if there was anything Xaven knew, it was how trapsmiths worked, and temple engineers always had a flair for the dramatic. The ceiling would come down in sections. If he could just stay ahead of each chunk, it was possible he could make it to the bottom of the ladder in time.
The half-orc's shout reverberated down the hall. "I'm in position. The horses are ready to run!"
Xaven used to really enjoy working with traps...
Xaven closed his eyes, then slowly opened them again. This was it. He sucked in a breath to respond, hoping his throat was up to it.
"Ready!" he called. "Go!"
At first he wasn't sure the half-orc heard him. Then he heard the count.
Xaven dove for the sled. If he was too early, he was dead. If he missed it, he was dead.
The sled shot forward as soon as Xaven crashed down on its wooden bed. He clawed for the handle with both hands and felt a tear in the sockets of his arms.
Pulled by the horse team above, the ropes connected to the sled had gone taut instantly, and the sled was now flying down the corridor. Rather than rolling across the ground as planned, it bounced off the flagstones. A half-moment later, Xaven's world became infinitely smaller as a cascade of granite blocks suddenly fell from the ceiling in massive chunks. The deadfalls exploded right behind him with a shock wave of deafening force.
Xaven's sled flipped over. The halfling hung on for his life. He was still flying forward, the stone floor scraping his back raw as he slid. As best he could determine, he was fractionally ahead of the falling rock. A split-second later he was enveloped by a cloud of dust, and could see nothing.
There was a huge crash as the sled smashed into the end of the hall, slamming straight into the ladder. At the same instant, the ceiling directly above Xaven came loose and began to fall apart above him. Even the walls gave way.
Still dragged by the unseen horse team, the battered sled shot upward toward the hole in the ceiling. The sudden torque wrenched Xaven's hands free from the handle, but the heavy manacles dragged him behind the sled like a rag doll. He flew up the shaft through a hail of falling rock.
Once the sled reached the now-disintegrating foyer, it changed direction for the second time, this time shooting out the temple entrance. With his right hand, Xaven flailed at his shackled wrist, catching the key in its lock long enough to turn it and release himself from the sled. He was vaguely aware that his left shoulder had dislocated and his muscle had torn. Worse, now free from the flying sled, Xaven came crashing down on the temple's outer steps, breaking what felt like every remaining bone in his body. Behind him, a geyser of dust exploded outward as the temple entrance collapsed into rubble. The dust enveloped him once more, filling his lungs and sending him into a fit of spasmodic coughing.
Somehow, Xaven didn't seem to mind. His inability to breathe was a testament to the fact that his lungs had not been crushed in the rockfall. He would hurt—for a very long time—but he would live. His coughs were part laughter.
Hrokon arrived a few minutes later, racing up the hill on foot.
"You alive, little buddy?"
Xaven's head was the only thing he could manage to turn toward the half-orc. "Where are the horses?"
"I'd say lost forever. Once we got a good clip, I jumped off of the wagon and let 'em go—didn't want my weight to slow it down."
Xaven smiled. "You jumped off a wagon pulled by galloping horses going down a hill? Not bad."
There was an awkward silence as Hrokon dug through his pack for his healer's kit. He wasn't much of a doctor. "You know, Xaven, one of these days you'll decide you can trust me."
Xaven lay on his back, looking up at the rising sun while his pain washed over him.
Hrokon had a point. If not for the big half-orc, Xaven would be dead. Since he wasn't, perhaps this was a fine time to start reevaluating some things. Sensing awkwardness, Hrokon changed the subject. He rummaged through his kit, producing the emergency potion. "Here, drink this. It should get you well enough for us to get back to Yanmass and find a decent healer. We just made a lot of noise—could be there's somebody around to hear it, in which case we'll want to be well away by the time they arrive. Tell me where you stashed that chest from that altar in the first room, and I'll get it loaded up. You work on getting that mud out of your lungs."
"Right." Xaven coughed, suddenly appreciating that their job was still far from over. "I hid it for us just over there before we went back inside." He motioned to a copse of pine and eucalyptus further down the slope, away from the shattered temple. "Under the blackened boulder."
"Good." Hrokon clapped Xaven on the shoulder and headed off to collect the spoils, leaving his kit with the halfling. Xaven, for his part, lay still, slowly flexing fingers and toes as the potion gradually brought feeling back to the numb and buzzing digits. He closed his eyes.
He was going to be okay. More than okay, in fact—he was going to be rich. From behind the trees, he could hear Hrokon loading the altar chest onto a horse. It was forward thinking on the half-orc's part to have brought an extra steed beyond the team Xaven requested. The half-orc really was smarter than anyone gave him credit for—including Xaven. He would make a worthy partner. And maybe, in time, a friend.
Xaven heard hoofbeats and rolled onto his side. Farther down the slope, Hrokon was riding away at full gallop, the altar chest strapped securely behind him on the saddle.
Xaven gave a choking laugh. "Smarter than anyone gave him credit for," indeed. Xaven had clearly taught the half-orc better than he'd thought. Yet thanks to Hrokon, Xaven was still alive. He'd even left the halfling his kit, which looked to have just enough food and water for him to make it back to civilization. Perhaps, all things considered, it was a fair trade.
Xaven lay his head back, closed his eyes, and listened to the retreating sounds of his partner.
Coming Next Week: A dapper gnome and a swashbuckling sample chapter of Robin D. Laws' upcoming Pathfinder Tales novel, Blood of the City!
Michael Kortes is the author of numerous Pathfinder adventures, including "A History of Ashes," "Entombed with the Pharaohs," "The Haunting of Harrowstone," and more. His previous Pathfinder fiction includes "The Burn Run" in Pathfinder #7, collected in The Compass Stone: The Collected Journals of Eando Kline.
So is this supposed to be before or after Entombed with the Pharaohs?
Cool! I didn’t expect people to actually make the connection with Xaven and Rhokon, who first appeared as NPC’s in “Entombed” – I thought it was a pretty obscure reference. But you (and others) spotted it right out of the gate.
Yes, this story is about an earlier time in the pair’s history. Xaven’s unusual hobby will further wear away at his personality. He will even change his appearance, shaving off his hair and tattooing his bald head. At some point he will also start collecting souvenirs from the various traps he disables over the years and become the Xaven in “Entombed”. The complex on-and-off partnership between Xaven and Rhokon will develop and they will eventually, for a time, both join up with an outfit called Her Majestrix’s Expeditionary.
But none of that has to be known to follow or enjoy this particular tale. I just have a soft spot for these two guys and I was happy for the chance to work them into a short story. Thanks for reading!
Oh and thanks guys (especially for the encouragement to write adventures) – and thanks to James Sutter who, for the very few of you who don’t know this secret, is the real mastermind behind the Pathfinder fiction.