In the Event of My Untimely Demise
by Robin D. Laws
Chapter Four: Reckoning
"Need I remind you?" Naphrax asked his prisoner.
Tears further wet Gaval's bloodied cheeks. "Of what?"
"Of what we know."
Jordyar jabbed the poker in Gaval's face. "You've replaced Aruhal in his comely wife's bed, haven't you?"
Gaval held his chin up. "I love Seriza, and Seriza loves me. That doesn't mean I've heard of this treasure."
"She spoke nothing of it?" Naphrax snorted.
Outrage stirred Gaval from his agonized stupor. "She and Aruhal had nothing. She'll be better off with my takings, humble as they are!"
"Liar," Naphrax spat.
Holding the poker out of sight behind him, the dwarf sidled up to Gaval, grimacing out a rotten-toothed smile. "What Aruhal did to us is not your fault, boy. But by standing in our way, feeding us ridiculous untruths, it becomes your fault. Don't you see that?"
"How many times do I have to tell you?"
"If you won't spill," Naphrax said, "we'll take the woman, and do the same to her."
Jordyar pressed the glowing poker to the prisoner's leg. Gaval screamed, the smoke of burning fabric giving way to the steam of blackening flesh.
At the window, Ontor looked to Luma, his expression asking: are we going to let this happen?
Luma waved him to silence, then reached into the citysong for the vein of venom that pulsed below the city's skin. Magnimar's settlers brought with them their Chelish tradition of settling affairs with arsenic, belladonna, and kingsleep. Luma took in this dark harmony and projected it outward, to the blood-spotted tunic worn by the howling Gaval. In this town, to hear that a man was an apothecary was to think not only of healing, but its opposite.
Luma's magic-inflamed senses confirmed it: tiny speckles of poison dotted his tunic, were ground as grime into his fingerprints. She couldn't tell what variety, with so little of it still left. But she would bet it was the kind that made an already sick man die from seeming natural causes–of pleurisy, say.
"We need him," said Luma. With a turn of her head she indicated an opposite window, not far from the second imprisoned man, the cleric Rieslan. "It will help if you can get him free–that will make it three against two."
Ontor nodded and was gone. Moments later she saw him appear at the other window. Jordyar once more laid the poker on Gaval, this time applying it to his chest. Naphrax watched with stoic attention. Fully occupied by Gaval's shrieking and squirming, neither man noticed Ontor's acrobatic contortions as he fit himself, legs first, through the tiny window. He dropped to the floor with a muffled thud that at last turned their heads, but only in time to see him draw his knife and slash open the ropes binding Rieslan. Then he bounded up to grab the holy symbol from the rafter, tossed it to the priest, and threw his knife at Naphrax. The spellcaster only barely managed to duck out of the way, yet the blade succeeded in interrupting his gesticulations and spoiling whatever spell he meant to cast.
Luma, meanwhile, shifted her awareness to another vault of the city's memory. Her mind traveled to the spires and rooftops, from the heights of the Arvensoar barracks tower to the great stone snake encircling the Hippodrome. From the mystic vibrations of these structures she pulled out the countless times they'd been struck by lightning. Converting them from past thought to present memory, she brought into being a vertical bolt of blue energy. It materialized above the dwarf, striking the crown of his bald head. He sizzled and convulsed, the poker flying out of his hands.
Naphrax started to cast a spell at her, but Rieslan, holy symbol clutched between gnarled fingers, came up behind him, chanting. He shoved his hand past the sorcerer's vest and onto his bare skin. A swirl of angry energy shunted from the old priest's fingers into Naphrax's breastbone. The sorcerer staggered back, clutching his chest, his arm going stiff.
A wolfish look came over the priest. "That sluggish heart of yours can't take another of those. Can it, Naphrax?"
"I should have killed you in Kaer Maga," said the sorcerer, sweating.
"I should have killed you in that awful tavern, the moment we met," said Rieslan.
Jordyar, his clothes still steaming slightly, staggered and reached for his axe, positioning himself for a lunge against Ontor. Luma called down another lightning bolt, striking him as before, and he dropped to one knee, panting.
Luma crawled through her window, a few last tendrils of summoned fog purling away from her. "Are we done here, gentlemen?"
Naphrax still hadn't caught his breath. "He hasn't told us."
Ontor cut Gaval's bonds.
The freed prisoner rose, quaking; Luma indicated his soiled trousers. "You terrified him. You think he wouldn't have sold out the widow in a heartbeat, if he thought it would spare him?"
Gaval struggled to form words. "I take exception to—"
Luma cut him off. "This is not a good time for you to talk."
He hung his head.
"My brother and I," Luma said, "are leaving, with Gaval. He and I have a separate matter to discuss. What the three of you do is of no concern to us. You have nothing to gain from further hostilities, and would not prevail. Are we agreed, or shall I punctuate that with a lightning bolt?"
"Agreed," grunted Naphrax. The others said nothing, so, each holding one of the quaking man's arms, Luma and Ontor withdrew–through the front door, this time.
"Where do you live, apothecary?" Luma asked.
"Above my uncle's shop, in Vista."
To the southeast lay the Seerspring Gardens, where they could hire a hansom, and get him to his home in the Summit.
"So," said Luma, "let me guess. When you began to console her, Seriza was not yet a widow."
"I would never..." Gaval tried to pull away, but she held him tight, as did her brother.
"If we ask her neighbors how often they saw you around before Aruhal died, will they tell the same story?"
Gaval slumped into her. "Very well. But I beg your discretion. Calumnize me all you like, but spare the lady's reputation."
As they crossed an intersection, Luma saw a lurker one street down, paralleling their progress. She stopped and waved Rieslan over. The river-priest hesitated, then complied, his gait sheepish. "Never was much for sneaking," he said, joining the others.
"That was Aruhal's job," said Luma, moving on. "Your old comrades have patched up their grievances, it would seem."
Rieslan fell into step, at her elbow. "It won't last. Are you sure you haven't guessed where the treasure is?"
She shook her head; lying was easier when confined to gesture alone. "When did the four of you have your falling out, precisely?"
"We learned to hate one another long before the Demonsweald. But it was after we captured the reliquary that Naphrax and Jordyar decided it would be better if Aruhal were cut out of the deal."
Luma raised her faint auburn eyebrow. "And you had nothing to do with that?"
Rieslan made a sour face. "Let's say, I absented myself from discussions."
"A sin of omission, then."
The old priest laughed. "My god hungers for the last breaths of the drowning. His moral demands are flexible."
"And how did they inform Aruhal of the new arrangement?"
"With axe and spell." The priest's chuckle suggested that it hardly needed saying.
"One more question," said Luma. "Who researched this treasure? Aruhal?"
"Another correct surmise, my dear."
They parted with him at the gardens, and rode with Gaval in the cab. As soon as he was seated, the tortured man passed out.
"You were good back there," said Ontor.
Nothing phases Ontor—not even death.
If only the others had seen it, thought Luma. Maybe Ontor would tell them. She considered asking him to, but knew it would spoil the effect.
Arriving at Derexhi House, Luma went straight to the library, which smelled of leather, wine, and her father's olibanum cologne. Muttering curses at Randred's haphazard reshelving habits, she hunted until she found the folio labeled "Acts and Legends of the Holy." Giving silent thanks for its alphabetical arrangement, she found the entry for the holy warrior Lovag, whose reliquary had so muddled her assignment. To Ontor she read aloud:
"And Lovag was betrayed by his companions, and slain. Lo, his last loyal servants did burn his body and entomb his bones, placing it in a golden reliquary. Even reduced to ashes, Lovag's passion for the justice of his great god Aroden burned bright. When the traitor priests beheld the shining vessel, he rose from his celestial rest to smite them."
"What does that mean?" her brother asked.
Luma closed the book with a thump. "It means I think we just found the treasure they've all been looking for."
In the marbled mausoleum, Luma and Ontor searched the shelves for Aruhal's name. Near the iron-gated entrance, a callow attendant held himself in a posture of bland discretion. He held in his hand the document authorizing the disinterment.
"Grave-robbing's just not the same when you have the deceased's permission," Ontor whispered.
Luma found the brass nameplate bearing the client's name. With the key supplied by the attendant, she opened the wood-paneled door to Aruhal's niche. Inside rested a large ceramic urn. Luma removed it and set it on the marble table in the middle of the crypt's vestibule, where flowers and offerings of incense were placed.
"That's not made of gold," Ontor said. "I thought the book said Lovag's reliquary was made of gold?"
Luma pulled out her sickle and bashed its hilt against the urn. The porcelain crumbled into shards, revealing the golden, gem-encrusted reliquary hidden within.
Ontor addressed the attendant. "You must have seen this when you poured the ashes in. Aruhal trusted you not to switch it?"
The crypt-keeper placed a hand over his heart. "Terrible oaths to the death-goddess bar us from such chicanery."
Again Luma opened her mind to the strain of citysong that ran thick with toxin. She wasn't sure if the spell would work on a man's ashes, but it did–they lit up with the same malicious speckles she'd perceived on Gaval's tunic.
She smiled. "Got you," she whispered.
Seriza and Gaval perched together, agitated, spines straight, on the edge of the divan in the widow's sitting room. Though the swelling had gone down on his face, Gaval still showed the signs of his beating and torture the day before. Luma almost felt pity for them. If they'd been smart, they wouldn't be here, but rather on a boat to anywhere else right this moment.
"So the dwarf was right?" Seriza said, trembling. "Aruhal did have a treasure after all?"
Luma gestured to the furniture crate she'd pressed into service as temporary transport for the urn. "As I said in my message, he left an inheritance. But we were to perform an investigation before giving it to you."
They deserved this, she reminded herself. When Aruhal discarded the saint's remains to make room for his own, he no doubt assumed it would be his erstwhile companions who'd face this fate. To be murdered for the oldest reason of all–a spouse clearing the way for a new lover–felt too cheap, too ordinary, for the complex effort Aruhal had expended for his prearranged revenge.
Luma hauled loose the crate's lid. She picked up the urn and placed it in front of Aruhal's killers, setting it down on a low table.
Seriza lit up with avarice; she squeezed Gaval's hand, squealing her delight. Her excitement overcame his wariness, and he reached out to caress the urn's lid.
Bursts of green steam vented from holes in the urn. The widow and her lover reared back as the unearthly vapor coalesced into a blob of floating ectoplasm, and then into an eerie, translucent specter in the shape of an old man. It surging through the urn and table into Gaval, where bony fingers unfurled and locked around the startled man's throat.
Gaval's skin whitened and flaked; his hair turned from brown to gray to shocking white. His face a mask of terror, he pitched over onto the divan, drained of life. The groaning spirit then turned on Seriza.
"No!" the widow shrieked, scrabbling backward on the couch. "Not you!"
Then all words were cut off by those glowing, ephemeral fingers. For a moment, the sitting room was filled with the sound of flailing limbs—and then two corpses lay on the divan.
The spirit twisted, spiraling toward Luma, who prepared herself to call down lightning against it. As it hung in the air before her, its contorted face calmed. Then the entire apparition dissipated and was gone.
Luma waited until it was clear that the manifestation had concluded, then called out to the man hidden in the hope chest behind the divan. "I thought you weren't much for sneaking."
"You detected my presence, did you?" Rieslan lifted the lid and poked his head out. He stared at the urn, still sitting on the low table.
Luma put her hands on her hips. "Do you want it? It should go back to the mausoleum, but my family wasn't hired to protect it forever. Our contract is complete."
Rieslan scratched at his beard. "Those are Aruhal's ashes in there, and not the saint's?"
"That quite diminishes its value. Still..." He reached out for the urn—then pulled up short, gazing at the shriveled corpses splayed on the divan. "You know, I think I've abruptly lost my desire for this object." He unfolded the rest of long frame out of the chest and stepped around the couch. He doffed his skullcap and bowed to Luma.
"To your health, my lady."
Then he let himself out.
When he'd been gone for a slow count of ten, the door to the kitchen swung open. Ontor, hand on the hilt of a knife, sauntered in and leaned over the two ash-skinned corpses, inspecting their terrified expressions. "So the old priest left without making a play for it, huh?"
"He's apparently learned a new appreciation for caution."
Ontor whistled. "I guess you're never too old to learn, but still—what do you want to bet that in a few days we hear reports of an old sorcerer and a bald dwarf found dead in Aruhal's crypt?"
"I won't put any money against that," Luma said, but her mind wasn't on the banter. Inside, she was already thinking of the praise she would receive when they returned home—from her father, who would give it willingly, and from the rest of her siblings, who would finally be able to see what an indispensable part of the team she was. Even they would have to admit that she'd executed the mission to perfection.
Surely they would.
Coming Next Week: A "Where are they now?" story regarding the infamous Gray Maidens of Korvosa in the wake of events from Curse of the Crimson Throne, by F. Wesley Schneider. A perfect preview for those GMs and players running Pathfinder Adventure Path #62: Curse of the Lady's Light!
If you like this story, consider picking up the further adventures of Luma and her family in Robin D. Laws' Blood of the City!
Robin D. Laws is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Blood of the City and The Worldwound Gambit, as well as the Pathfinder's Journals for the Serpent's Skull Adventure Path and the Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. In addition, he's written six other novels; various short stories, web serials, and comic books; and 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. Those interested in learning more about Robin are advised to check out his blog.
Illustration by Mike Capprotti.