Propped on his black toenails, Fumbus craned to see the bearings on the pretty brass compass. He swiveled an expectant grin back and forth between the wizard and the wayfinder, not sure which face was harder to read. Colder still was the reinforced door before them...though not for long. The fuse on the goblin’s bomb was hissing shorter, apparently outside Ezren’s notice.
“Through here?” Fumbus hoped.
Ezren opened his mouth to answer—too late. The fuse’s hissing was sucked into that exciting split-second silence before detonation. Then the bomb and Fumbus’s eyes blossomed red all at once. A concussive ripple showered the companions in sparks and shards. The door had blown ajar, the iron frame bent and peeled widest at the goblin’s height. Ezren would have to squeeze.
The wizard shook the soot out of his white hair. “I suspect so,” he coughed.
“The previous inscription led here,” Ezren admitted, ducking sideways through Fumbus’s opening. “But I hoped it wasn’t the last.” He ignited a torch mounted inside the door and looked around. “Oh,” he sighed, letting his staff and compass droop.
The door had been reinforced for good reason. It guarded a haphazard treasury, its golden texture illuminated in piles spread under the torchlight. Half-hazard, more like—the reflective glow made up only the left side of the chamber. Nesting comfortably in its midst was a chest larger than Fumbus, who thought it odd that so many coins lay outside the container. It was as if it had burst its seams. An impressive find to be sure, but the long-faced longshanks looked hungry for something else.
“Mushrooms?” Fumbus offered helpfully. He’d collected them for their brewing potential, but they made a swell snack in the meantime.
Ezren only arched an eyebrow at the blue fungi in the goblin’s outstretched palm.
“Isn’t brain mold after all,” Fumbus reassured him. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Never mind,” the wizard said. “It seems we’ve traced the writing to its underwhelming and predictable conclusion.”
“Drawings,” Fumbus reminded him for the tenth time.
“Er, yes.” Ezren pointed at the cords of tokens around Fumbus’s neck. “Like those, I suppose?”
The little alchemist patted the tokens, each scratched with runes to depict his formulas. Their satisfying clicks were music to his ears. Ezren had tried persuading him that symbolic pictures and “writing” were the same thing, but the goblin knew better. “Exactly,” he said, and swallowed more mushrooms.
He noticed then that he was stuck. Slime stretched between his foot and the flagstones. He wasn’t sure if it was reagent residue from his bomb or drool dripped while he snacked.
Ezren had begun pacing in the meantime, ignoring all distractions any shorter than the wayfinder open in his hand. He let it lead, thinking out loud, “The inscriptions disappeared with each reading. Ending here? Yet there’s no…affirmation.” He paused, stepping back to take in the whole chamber.
“Not mine after all,” the goblin muttered to the string of goo hanging from his fingernail.
“Fumbus, what does the light in this chamber remind you of?”
“Someone’s spit, though.”
“Huh?” Fumbus followed Ezren’s back-and-forth gestures comparing the glowing side of the room to the shadowy side. “Oh. It’s like that face the Master of Spells prays to.”
“Indeed…” Ezren mused. He resumed his pacing, this time straight toward the shadowed half. “A striking duality. Perhaps a clue that all is not what it seems. Because, point of fact, the coordinates don’t end at that door, but—” His next step triggered a faint, metallic ring that echoed around the empty slot in his wayfinder. He froze as if afraid, thrilled in fact, and spoke an incantation. A familiar blue glow spread in response, illuminating an unseen ledge and the zigzag of stone steps leading up to it. The glow’s source was a new inscription, and even Fumbus marveled at how much larger and longer it was than the previous puzzles.
“Hmm…” the wizard purred proudly. “I can read the writing on the wall.”
“Drawings,” Fumbus corrected him.
Ezren gave no argument, already ascending the first landing on his way to the ledge. Fumbus had been fascinated to watch him decipher the other inscriptions, but the ritual had grown repetitive. He was suddenly less concerned with the meaning behind the magic and more interested in the mucus carpeting the chamber floor. It coated the gold coins like paste. When one yielded to his tugging, he became suspicious whether it really was a coin at all, but rather some kind of shed scale. He prepared to bite it to find out for sure, then stopped with his cheeks spread wide.
The chest was smiling at him.
He blinked and looked again. No, it had been his imagination. The golden trim around the lid followed a curved pattern, maybe even meant to resemble a sneering creature, but he was sure it was resemblance only. Pretty sure.
From the ledge, Ezren gave a triumphant shout. “A conjurer’s imprint! Of course. It’s the same inscription, traveling each time. Relocating...”
Fumbus now had his nose close to the mucus trail, sniffing and tracking it. Soon he stood knee-deep in sticky coins. The chest was even larger up close; he could almost see his reflection in its viscous sheen.
He yelped then, high-pitched and giddy, because the chest’s golden lips parted and a pink tongue lashed out. Long and twisted like a wet blanket, it snapped in the goblin’s face and sent him stumbling backward.
Not his imagination!
Illustration by Juan Miguel Lopez Barea from Pathfinder Lost Omens: Pathfinder Society Guide.
The chest shuffled toward him with eerie silence, as if it would maintain its camouflage. Without taking his eyes from the creature, Fumbus called to his companion. Ezren only hushed him back. This inscription was longer, more complex than the others, and he needed time to unravel it. Fumbus cursed the human’s unassailable focus.
The creature noticed it, too. It must have decided Ezren himself was extremely assailable as a result, because it changed course, crawling toward the stairs on at least eight tentacles.
Fumbus admired its cleverness. To disguise itself and then prey on the distracted wizard? Maybe it was more intelligent than he assumed. He knew from experience what a second chance could mean to a misunderstood monster. A possible future flashed before his goggles: shaking tentacles with the creature; taking it in; feeding it pickled whatevers; definitely requiring it to wear a bell; putting its sticky mucus to good alchemical use…
But now the creature slithered up the stairs, almost close enough to grab Ezren from behind. Fumbus downed an elixir, which tasted like that feeling when your foot falls asleep, and leaped over the creature onto the second landing. It reached for him and he pelted it with bombs almost faster than he could light them. Each stuck first and exploded second, like orange geysers erupting on the creature’s hide. But tongue and tentacles kept whipping.
“Drawings…” Ezren muttered up on his ledge.
The creature turned toward the unsuspecting wizard again, craning like an actual chest on stilts.
In a panic, Fumbus prepared something different, injecting a spongy pellet with a rolling chemical mixture. The sponge instantly swelled four times larger and hardened in reaction, now a brittle shell filled with something hot and hungry. Even so, the goblin risked a delay and even an accidental discharge: He hid the ball behind his back and whistled at the creature, hoping it would take the bait.
It did. Mouth open wide to expose not treasure or goodies, but rows of jagged teeth, it flicked its tongue and stretched its pseudopods at Fumbus...who moved. Like a toad with a fly, the creature snatched Fumbus’s bomb from midair and stowed it in its chest-mouth. First the split-second silence; then it stretched wide with a muffled pop. Its tentacles shuddered. Its tongue spilled out like steaming entrails, shriveled and white with acidic burns. Its body oozed off the stones and down the stairs.
Fumbus sucked his teeth mournfully. “Not so smart, I guess.”
“Oh, that seems a bit harsh,” Ezren said, turning away from the wall at last. “Though I do owe you my thanks.”
The goblin shrugged and fiddled with his dogslicer, both pleased and embarrassed.
The wizard’s wrinkled scowl softened into a smile and he pointed. “Drawings.”
Fumbus clutched his formula tokens. “Huh?”
“Drawings! You were right after all. The inscription isn’t an affirmation or command, but a combination lock. Read the runes wrong and they relocate, growing longer. But shuffle them correctly and…”
One by one he touched his staff to the magically bright symbols, but in a seemingly random order. Each glowed brighter as he did, until the entire inscription had been activated. It shifted then, rearranging in the order Ezren designated. The arched pattern swirled and bled together until the runes were gone, merged into a single shape: a yawning portal. A milky film of magic disguised where it led, but Fumbus had a feeling it wasn’t to the other side of the wall.
That metallic ring echoed off Ezren’s wayfinder again. He studied it, nodded resolutely, and clapped it shut. “Right. On we go! But maybe less noise on the other side, eh, Fumbus? Never know what creatures might be lurking.”
The goblin opened his mouth to reply...and filled it with blue mushrooms instead.
About the Author
Andrew Bud Adams learned to dungeon crawl before he learned to walk. Today, he plays in far too many game campaigns, including two run by his own kids. A fan of literary retellings, his work has appeared in short story anthologies and in the Malifaux universe by Wyrd Miniatures. When not spotting mimics or teaching college writing, he can be found on Twitter at @andrewbudadams.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.