The intruder stepped out of the shadows. I stood, shocked by several simultaneous realizations.
Foremost was that he had employed magic to read my thoughts, thus causing my momentary dizziness and his echoing of my unspoken notion. My irritation with the Decemvirate paled in comparison to my outrage at the violation.
"You will never guess who I am." The intruder's voice was a sneer behind his golden mask.
Locking my gaze to his jaundiced eyes, I made a silent inventory of my weapons: riffle scrolls before me, the Shadowless Sword at my hip, and Arnisant at my feet. Yet for the moment, my most powerful weapon might be a sharp tongue. "Prince Kasiya of Osirion."
He choked. "How—?"
"You wear the funereal garb of the royal family of Osirion, with the addition of a few rather gaudy accessories." The latter caught my interest: the miniature chariot had to be a magical conveyance, and by the durable bindings—one crocodile hide, the other the skin of a large blue-skinned reptile—I inferred Kasiya's books contained arcana or similarly rare material. To my knowledge, Kasiya had not been a spellcaster when we last met. Of course, to his knowledge, neither had I.
"So my attire made it all too easy for you to guess my mortal identity. Still, you can hardly deduce the nature of my incredible return from death and entomb—"
"How could you possibly—?"
"You are smothered in the traditional burial ointments and herbs, yet not of sufficient quantity to disguise the stench of a ghoul or ghast. You are obviously tangible, so you cannot be a spectre, wraith, or ghost. You speak articulately, so your mental functions are no worse than they were in life. And let us be frank, Kasiya: You were never lich material."
"Prince Kasiya!" he sputtered, bloody flecks forming around the rim of his mask's mouth. He struck the table with such force that he left the impression of his fist in the mahogany. "You will address me as 'Your Highness.'"
As he raged, I slipped a pair of riffle scrolls into my coat pockets. I did the same again and put a third pair in my hands before he regained his composure.
"You are no longer a prince, Kasiya. You are a corpse, a carcass, a cadaver—a casing of dead flesh. You have sunk lower than the grave, become more common than dust. 'Kasiya' is too much name for you."
"You, a mere count, dare speak to me with such insolence? You should bow to the ground and grovel for mercy, for I have bided my time for decades, mastered the arts arcane, plotted every calculation for the singular purpose of—"
"Revenge." I yawned into my palm, holding the riffle scroll between my fingers like one of those loathsome cigars with which Radovan used to annoy me. It was, I thought, a rather good semblance of nonchalance—so long as Kasiya did not notice the trembling of my fingers. "Vengeance is the common motivation for your ilk."
"Again you say 'common'!?" Kasiya sputtered. "And my ilk?"
"Vampires are as susceptible to pride as... well, as susceptible as princes. Dead ones."
Kasiya raised a bandaged hand to trace a symbol in the air. I recognized the gesture as the beginning of an incendiary invocation. As he cupped his hands around a growing spark, I dropped a riffle scroll and snatched another from my pocket. Its pages snapped across my thumb. I felt the arcane tingling of my counterspell wash away his nascent fireball.
"Not in the library," I admonished him. While he glowered, I dropped the expended scroll and slipped another into my hand. "After all, you too were a Pathfinder, once."
Kasiya's halting breath gurgled and broke into such a repugnant sound that it took me a moment to recognize it as laughter. "You hide your fear well. I had forgotten that you too enjoy some excess of pride."
His words struck like a dash of cold water. Either Kasiya had been spying on me for hours, or else—
No, I refused to believe my artless Osirian nemesis had gulled me with an impersonation of a member of the inner circle. Besides, it was inconceivable that a vampire could infiltrate the Decemvirate. Or so I prayed.
"You mentioned revenge," said Kasiya, rising confidence in his voice. "Tell me, Chelaxian, what in your infernal empire is a fit punishment for a man who betrays a prince and leaves him for dead?"
"Your implied accusation is false on both counts."
"How do you mean 'false'?"
"First, I did not leave you for dead; you were in fact dead. Second, I did not leave your remains; I returned them to your royal brother, whose noble hospitality I repaid by withholding the true account of your treachery."
"Enough," said Kasyia. "It is time to make you suffer."
"In that you have already succeeded with your tiresome posturing."
Kasiya lifted the blue-bound book hanging from his girdle. He twisted open the latch and revealed the contents. In an instant I recognized the weird writing and detestable illustrations.
"The Lacuna Codex!"
"Ah!" Humor returned to Kasiya's sepulchral voice. "At last I surprise you."
In the hands of a powerful wizard, the rituals contained in the Lacuna Codex could alter the course of history. They were weapons so dreadful that the last prince of Ustalav hesitated to unleash its powers, perishing at the hands of Tar-Baphon before the hero Arnisant finally sacrificed himself to imprison the Whispering Tyrant. After recovering the Codex from that prince's tomb, I entrusted it to the Decemvirate.
And now Kasiya had it.
"What do you think of me now, Count Jeggare? With such power in my grasp, do I still amuse you?"
"Read me a bit."
"Anywhere will do. Perhaps that caption under that rather disgusting illustration."
"You test my patience."
"Surely you can read ancient Thassilonian," I said. "If not, this tome is of no more use to you than to a blind beggar."
I raised a riffle scroll, but before I could place my thumb upon its edge, Kasiya leaped over the table and struck me full on the chest.
His icy hand pressed down upon my heart. I slapped the golden mask from his face.
Where once Kasiya's face had been a study in Osirian beauty, it was now a patchwork ruin. The brown skin, once lustrous, now resembled a patch of moldering leaves through which writhed livid worms. His teeth floated in his lumpish jaws, irregular except for the prominent fangs peculiar to blood-drinkers. As I watched, his crooked nose wriggled back into place after my strike had flattened it against his cheek.
Kasiya lashed out again, tearing open my shirt. There on my chest lay the outline of his hand, white fading to the natural hue of my flesh.
"You life essence should be mine. How—?"
I had an inkling of the answer, but the time for badinage had passed. "Arnisant!"
The hound did not stir from his place near my feet. For an instant I felt the panic of imagining he were dead, but his chest moved, and I heard the steady groan of his snore.
Kasiya let out another horrid gurgle. "Your pet will not wake until you are dead. When I have finished with you, I shall let him dine on your corpse."
I snapped a riffle scroll. Kasiya drew an eldritch sign to ward off my spell, but I had not aimed at him.
My magic peeled away the enchantment that kept Arnisant asleep. I pointed at Kasiya. "Arnisant, hands!"
With a scrabble of claws on the floor, Arnisant leaped. Kasiya grasped the hilt of his khopesh while fending off the dog with his empty hand. He shouted and drew back the hand, one finger short.
Kasiya slashed his khopesh toward Arnisant. The blade missed, but he pummeled the hound with the weapon's butt. Arnisant fell back, choking on the putrescent finger. He coughed it up, and the gray appendage dissolved into slime on the floor.
I dropped the expended scroll and drew the Shadowless Sword, thrusting at Kasiya's exposed face.
He fell back with inhuman speed, yet my swift blade scratched his cheek. Black ooze welled up on his mottled skin.
I struck again. He grabbed at my blade, but I withdrew before he could capture it in his unholy grip.
Kasiya retreated, but only one step. He whirled the khopesh above his head, bringing it down in a blinding arc. I stepped back scarcely in time to avoid destruction. The heavy blade splintered my chair.
I unleashed another riffle scroll. Its magic tingled through my sinews. Poised for another attack, Arnisant uttered a querulous whuffle as he felt the spell affect him too.
Kasiya flew toward us, but now Arnisant and I matched him in alacrity. The vampire's sword struck empty air where I had stood an instant earlier. Arnisant blurred behind Kasiya, harrying his heels.
I circled the table, attacking Kasiya's exposed face at every opportunity. His parries struck hard against my blade, but they were hasty—he still feared attacks to his face and eyes. He feinted a leap onto the table but turned instead to cut at Arnisant.
"Arnisant, out!" Kasiya's blade scored a shallow cut across the hound's hip as Arnisant ran back. I stabbed deep into Kasiya's ham. His lunge faltered, but he staggered forward, recovering as abominable energies repaired his severed ligaments.
I pressed the attack. Kasiya retreated into the library stacks. With his free hand, he swept books from the shelves. They crashed over me, the dust of decades blinding me.
The creaking of a high shelf alerted me to the danger I could no longer see. Pushing books through the nearest shelf, I snaked through the towering stack even as it fell upon its neighbor. The massive shelves cascaded one against the other as I rolled back toward the tables at the center of the room. I turned to witness the ruin of the windows as the last stack fell against them, shattering the stained glass.
Beyond the broken window, the pink of dawn colored the eastern sky.
I repressed the impulse to taunt Kasiya. He still had time to kill me, if I were careless. Taking another riffle scroll in hand, I watched the open window, ready to slow his escape with a frost spell. Nothing moved above the roiling dust. Instead, I heard a crackle of flames from the direction of the door.
Kasiya released the fireball. As it flew toward me, it grew from the size of a pea to the circumference of a pumpkin. I leaped for Arnisant, trying to knock the dog flat on the floor.
The blast swept us both across the room.
My head rang with the explosion of dust. Burning pages flapped around us like fiery birds landing on a charred beach.
Kasiya stood before the door, unperturbed by the explosion. Retrieving his mask, he favored me with an ugly, eel-like smile. "This is the first of your punishments, Count Jeggare. Do not dare to hope that it shall be the last."
As he spoke, his features melted. So too did his flesh and garments, dissolving into a greasy cloud that seeped beneath the crack of the repository door.
Scrabbling to my feet, I grabbed the door handle and pulled. Locked.
Heedless of the flames rising around me, I collected my satchel and as many of the materials as I could find in the wreckage of the table. Happily, the scroll I required was one of those I recovered in the debris. I discharged its magic to open the door and stepped out of the smothering smoke into the cool air of dawn.
The hue of "Fire!" rang across the grounds of the Grand Lodge. Servants and Pathfinders poured out of the nearest buildings. A few lugged buckets, demonstrating the efficiency with which they had learned the menial lessons taught to burgeoning Pathfinders—lessons that I, by virtue of my noble birth, had been spared.
"Venture-Captain, you are injured." Timon thrust his bucket into the arms of another man and produced a handkerchief to press against my temple. By his fearful grimace, I saw he was glad of any excuse not to approach the inferno.
I took the handkerchief, grateful for the gesture but uncomfortable at the touch of a servant.
A Pathfinder, I reminded myself. Timon was not always a servant. I shuddered to imagine myself set down so low, a humiliation I had experienced recently. A growing light from the sky arrested my attention.
Another fireball fell toward us. Illuminated in its glow, Kasiya rode upon his now full-sized chariot, drawn by a pack of flying saluki dogs. Beside me, Timon gasped but stood paralyzed by fear.
Frantic, I fumbled with my satchel, eyes searching for the right scroll. My fingers found it, my thumb pressing against its unbound edge, and the blaze engulfed me.
Coming Next Week: Blood and waves in the final chapter of Dave Gross's "Killing Time."
Enjoying this story so far? Check out even more adventures of Radovan and Varian in the new novel Queen of Thorns, available now!
Dave Gross's adventures of Radovan and Count Jeggare include the Pathfinder Tales novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns; the novellas "Husks" and "Hell's Pawns"; and the short stories "A Lesson in Taxonomy," "A Passage to Absalom," and "The Lost Pathfinder," all available at paizo.com/pathfindertales. He also co-wrote the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch with Elaine Cunningham, and has written novels for the Forgotten Realms as well as short stories for such anthologies as Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. Dave is the former editor of magazines ranging from Dragon to Star Wars Insider to Amazing Stories, and is currently a writer for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.
Illustration by Carlos Villa