When caught stealing in the crusader nation of Lastwall, veteran con man Rodrick and his talking sword Hrym expect to weasel or fight their way out of punishment. Instead, they find themselves ensnared by powerful magic, and given a choice: serve the cause of justice as part of a covert team of similarly bound villains—or die horribly. Together with their criminal cohorts, Rodrick and Hrym settle in to their new job of defending the innocent, only to discover that being a secret government operative is even more dangerous than a life of crime...
Chapter 3: A Conversation Through Bars
Rodrick's experience of the nations around Lake Encarthan had given him the impression that it was a land of timbered buildings and towering trees and dirt floors, so he'd expected Vellumis to be basically an immense fort.
It was with great surprise, then, that he turned his head to see a gleaming city of marble domes, immense archways, glistening white walls, and elaborately carved eaves. While Vellumis didn't match the majesty of Absalom, or even his home city of Almas, it was without a doubt a real city, and Rodrick felt himself begin to relax for the first time in weeks. Yes, he was a prisoner, and if he couldn't talk his way out of his predicament, Hrym would have to freeze a great number of noble crusaders to allow Rodrick to escape. But still, this was a city, the kind of place where he was most at home, the kind of place where great things could happen, the kind of place where fools and their money could be most expeditiously parted.
The cart curved around the outskirts of the city until it finally approached a domed fortress of stone surrounded by a high wall. "The Bastion of Justice," the guard said. "Some of the best dungeons in all of Lastwall down there, I'm told."
Rodrick thought about that. "Best... as in... most pleasant for prisoners? Or best as in most effective at destroying a prisoner's will to live?"
The guard just smiled.
The gates opened, and the cart rolled into a courtyard full of military bustle: crusaders training, grooms doing things to horses, people running to and fro with urgency. The clash of steel on steel, the clang of hammers shaping metal, the smell of forge fires—Rodrick found it all terribly depressing. They were so organized. How could anyone stand it?
A crusader with a round helmet jammed on her head approached, frowning. "Do you have a prisoner for us?"
The captain nodded. "One for Underclerk Temple, I think."
The crusader whistled. "Really? Let me see." She climbed up onto the cart, and instantly drew her sword, leveling it at Rodrick. "Why does the prisoner still have a weapon?"
The captain sighed. "Because his sword is sentient and magical and promised to murder anyone who tried to disarm his master."
"It's true," Hrym said. "Except he's not my master. We're partners. He's the junior partner, really."
"No one needs to murder anyone," Rodrick said. "This is just a misunderstanding, and it can all be worked out. I'm a fighter for the side of good myself, mainly, just fallen on hard times lately."
The official nodded slowly, but didn't sheathe her sword. "Yes. One for Temple, indeed. Sir, you do realize you're in the middle of Vellumis, a city of battle-hardened crusaders?"
"I've noticed, yes. Lovely city, too. Much nicer than I expected."
"Will you hand over the sword, so we can talk without quite so much... tension?"
"It's not up to me, I'm afraid. Hrym, would you like to go with this nice crusader?"
"No," Hrym said.
Rodrick gave an apologetic shrug. "Sorry. He can be very stubborn."
The woman rubbed her jaw with her free hand. "All right, then." She shouted "Clear the courtyard!" in a booming voice, and then sat staring at Rodrick for three full minutes, the force of her attention entirely withering his attempts to dazzle her with a charming smile. After the courtyard had emptied of all personnel, including the big priest and the friendly-ish spear-carrier, the crusader leaned forward and cut the ropes tying Rodrick's feet. She stepped out of the cart and beckoned him to follow. Rodrick struggled upright and climbed out of the cart, his hands still bound in front of him, but both resting on Hrym's hilt.
She led him through deserted hallways of dark stone and down spiraling stairs, deep into the Bastion of Justice. "Not very well staffed, are you?"
"Everyone is avoiding the area until I have you secured, so if your sword does anything... inadvisable... casualties will be minimal."
"Good for everyone else. Not so good for you."
She shrugged. "Rank has its drawbacks."
"What if I froze you solid and we ran away?" Hrym said.
"Your wielder would be filled with crossbow bolts the moment he poked his head outside," she replied.
"Ah. That's what I thought," Hrym said.
"Here we are," she said eventually, gesturing.
"Ah," Rodrick said. "Yes. Only the best dungeons for me."
∗ ∗ ∗
Rodrick didn't need long to explore his new home: a small room of bare stone with straw thrown on the floor, furnished only by a bench carved from a single piece of wood, so there were no nails to pry loose or legs to break off to use as weapons. Before he had time to become too bored, a guard opened the barred door and let in a gray-haired, sour-faced man carrying a black bag.
"Hello," Rodrick said. "What's in the bag?"
"Tools of the trade."
"You aren't a torturer, are you?"
The man barked a laugh. "Depends on who you ask. I'm a chirurgeon. Mostly I cut off infected arms and legs to keep the rot from spreading, but I'm just supposed to see if you're healthy or not."
"If you try to give him a sleeping draught or harm him in any way, I will bring terrible destruction down on this place," Hrym said.
The man frowned. "A talking sword, they said. I thought they were playing a joke. Oh well. Doesn't matter to me. Swords never need tending on the battlefield, at least not from me. Stand up, would you, and stick out your tongue?"
Rodrick had undergone the occasional physical exam in the past, and this was less invasive than some: the doctor listened to his heart and lungs by pressing an ear to his chest, peered into his mouth and ears and nostrils, made Rodrick cough, prodded at his gums, asked him disgustingly personal questions about his recent bowel movements and whether he had any pain when he passed water. For the most part, Rodrick answered honestly.
"All right, I'm done." The doctor picked up his bag, which he'd never even opened.
"What's the verdict?" Rodrick said.
The man shook his head. "You don't pay me. Why should I tell you?"
A guard let the chirurgeon out, and closed the door, and that was all that happened, for a while.
∗ ∗ ∗
"I could pick the lock, if there was a lock." Rodrick examined the door of the cell. "The door seems to be sealed by magic, which isn't very sporting."
"Rodrick, I can freeze the bars and you can break them with a kick."
"True. A bit loud, though. Might bring the guards running."
"So I'll freeze them, and you kick them as well."
"I see a few flaws with that plan."
"You're softhearted, Rodrick. You should be more like me. I don't have any heart at all, soft or otherwise."
"Even if the prospect of indiscriminate murder didn't give me pause, I'm still hoping for a more elegant solution than destroying the Bastion of Justice and bringing the wrath of the entire nation of Lastwall down on us. They can be quite persistent, I understand, and I'd rather not be pursued across the continent. Though I accept that as a tactic of last resort."
The door at the end of the hall opened with a squeal of rusty hinges. Rodrick wondered if the door made that noise naturally or if they'd worked on it with dirt and sand and steel wool to create the right ominous tone.
A short, stout woman of middle age walked down the hallway at a brisk, no-nonsense pace. Her skin was dark brown, her hair curly and cropped short, with a great deal of gray mixed in with the black. She wore vaguely official-looking black robes with baggy sleeves, and carried a burlap sack in one hand. Rodrick thought she looked rather matronly, until she stopped outside the bars and smiled at him; then she looked more like someone who might eat her young, if the need arose. "My name is Underclerk Temple. I am a humble servant of the Bastion of Justice, and I've been chosen to oversee your case."
In Rodrick's experience those who described themselves as humble servants were usually neither—they tended to be zealous priests or power-mad dictators—so he nodded politely. "Very pleased to meet you. I hope we can straighten this out. It's all just a misunderstanding, really."
"Oh? You didn't try to steal a horse from a group of crusaders?"
"I did, but there were mitigating factors—"
"You needed the horse to escape the consequences of an earlier crime, yes, I heard. I don't think there's any misunderstanding. It's a simple case, hardly worthy of my attention. I don't usually bother meeting with horse thieves. I concern myself with a better caliber of criminal. But word reached me of your supposed exploits in the Lake of Mists and Veils, and of course about your wondrous sword, and my curiosity was piqued."
"My wondrous sword and I are happy to answer any questions you might have."
"Oh, I may have some later, but I spent much of last night in correspondence with some associates of mine in Andoran and Absalom—we have magic mirrors, much faster than relying on couriers to carry letters—and I think I have a full understanding of your capabilities and history. I haven't found much in the way of confirmation regarding your claim to have defeated a demon lord, but there's a certain amount of circumstantial evidence, and I have assurances that you at least believe your story to be true."
"I'm either a hero or a madman, then?"
"The difference between those two can be very slight," Temple said. "I don't think you're either one, personally. You're a thief, a confidence trickster, and an opportunist who occasionally does the right thing, when there's no more profitable alternative available. You also have a loyal friend who happens to be a magical sword as dangerous as an ancient white dragon."
"Pleased to meet you," Hrym said.
"Oh, good. I was afraid you might say, 'Ice to meet you,'" Temple said. "I loathe puns. But, yes, it's... interesting to meet you, too, Hrym. We don't usually lock prisoners up with their weapons, but I suppose in this case you qualify as a prisoner, too."
Hrym harrumphed. "Are you a wizard, then? Can you stop me from doing the things I do? Because if not, you should be aware I'm a prisoner for only as long as I consent to be a prisoner. Otherwise I'm just a guest in very poor accommodations."
"I am a simple bureaucrat," Temple said. "My talents are organizational, not arcane. Here, Rodrick, catch." She tossed something small and glittering through the bars, and Rodrick snatched it from the air without thinking. He opened his palm and looked down at a ruby the size of his thumbnail.
"Usually I'm the one bribing my guards, not the other way around."
"Burrow," Temple said, and Rodrick screamed as the ruby sank into the flesh of his hand with a sensation like a thousand biting insects swarming across his palm. The gem moved under his skin, and he clamped his other hand tightly around his wrist, but it did no good: he felt the gem slide beneath his gripping fingers and watched as it traveled under the skin along his inner forearm, past the crook of his elbow, scurrying over his bicep and vanishing beneath the sleeve of his shirt. He could still feel the ruby moving, like a chip of swallowed ice moving down the throat, but this icy sensation traveled to his shoulder and then down into his chest, stopping in the vicinity of his heart—at which point the sensation vanished entirely.
Hrym was shouting from the bench: "Rodrick! What's wrong? Should I kill everyone?"
"I wouldn't," Temple said mildly. "That gem is... let's say... an encouragement to good behavior."
"She gave me a ruby, Hrym." Rodrick stared at his palm, which no longer hurt, and which was entirely unmarked. "It crawled under my skin like a burrowing insect and scuttled next to my heart."
"I told you having a heart was a weakness," Hrym said.
"I always thought you meant that metaphorically." Rodrick rubbed at his chest, the banter coming weakly and automatically.
"Metaphorically too. Let me guess, Underclerk Temple: if Rodrick disobeys, the gem will, what—explode into crystal fragments, shredding his heart?"
"Not technically accurate, but practically accurate, yes. Disobedience equals death."
"And if, say, I flung an icicle through your heart right now, and blew a hole in the wall, and Rodrick and I ran off?"
"That would be rude. It also wouldn't help. If I don't speak a particular phrase each morning, the gem will do its work regardless. Killing me now would sentence Rodrick to death tomorrow."
Hrym chuckled. "This is a promising development, Rodrick."
He stared at the sword. "I... disagree. Weren't you listening?"
"Yes, but you weren't, or at least, not closely enough. If she's threatening you with death, that means they aren't planning to put you to death."
"I'm not sure slavery is preferable to death, Hrym." He still had his hand over his heart, trying not to think of crystal shards ripping him apart from the inside.
Temple clucked her tongue. "No, no. You misunderstand. It's not slavery at all. Think of it as community service. In your home country of Andoran, some minor offenses are punished not with beatings or fines or years in a dungeon, but simply by making the guilty party clean up horse dung on the streets or scrape barnacles off naval ships for a few weeks, yes? This is a similar situation. You will assist me with certain projects, and after a certain period, you will be set free, your debt to society paid. The program is quite enlightened and civilized. I have concluded that you'll be more useful to Lastwall alive than you would be dangling at the end of a rope."
"Ah," Rodrick said. "I see. You want to hurl my body into the teeth of some horrible problem you don't dare risk one of your own people on. Or is it more interesting than that? Perhaps you want me to embark on some mission that no legitimate member of Lastwall's government can undertake. If I succeed, I get no credit, and if I fail in some spectacular way—well, I'm just a rogue criminal, and your government can't be blamed for my reprehensible actions."
"What a marvelous grasp of the situation!" Temple said. "Of course, there's no reason it can't be both. I can already tell working with you will be a delight. Would you like to meet the rest of the team?"
"You mean I'm not the only luckless bastard you've roped into this scheme?"
"No, merely the latest. I'll let you out of the cell, but I'll need you to sheathe Hrym in this." She held up a long scabbard made of green crystal.
"I've had less attractive accommodations," Hrym said.
"But not more restful." Temple tapped a ring on her finger against the crystal, which rang like metal. "This scabbard is made of rare skymetal, brought at great expense from Numeria."
"I knew a man with a skymetal chainmail shirt once, and saw it turn an arrow as big as a spear fired from a giant's bow—it would have pierced plate mail." Rodrick frowned. "Of course, the impact still cracked all his ribs, and one of those punctured his lungs, but still, I was impressed. The shirt wasn't made of green crystal, though."
"Probably adamantine," she said. "This is made of noqual, and though it looks like crystal, it can be forged like iron. Noqual has fascinating properties—mainly the suppression of magic. When we sheathe Hrym here, he'll fall asleep, more or less."
"I don't like the sound of that," Hrym said.
"Nor I," Rodrick agreed.
Temple shrugged. "Consider my situation. I'm trying to make an enforceable bargain with a pair of desperate criminals. I can compel Rodrick's good behavior with that gem, but you, Hrym, are a trickier beast to reckon with. Threatening Rodrick seems to make you behave... but can I count on that to work forever? In this sheath, you can do no harm. You'll be returned to Rodrick when you're needed to help him with a mission. In the meantime, you won't be bored, and I won't have to worry about you burying the Bastion of Justice in a mountain of ice because you're offended that Rodrick stubbed his toe."
Rodrick shook his head. "Why should we believe you? What's to stop you from selling Hrym off, or presenting him as a gift to some high-ranking crusader?"
"Know this, Rodrick of Andoran." Temple leaned forward, her dark eyes fixed on his face. "I will never lie to you. Our relationship depends on my absolute power over your life and death, and that relationship renders most lies unnecessary. I may not tell you the whole truth, but anything I do tell you, you can believe. If you consent to put Hrym away in this scabbard for now, you will be reunited with him later—sooner than you think—and in the meantime, I'll introduce you to the other recruits, and explain the particulars of your new situation."
Rodrick touched his chest. He couldn't feel the ruby, but he knew it was there. "Hrym, our choices seem to be either going along with the esteemed underclerk's plans, or dying in a courageous but pointless last stand."
"I wouldn't die," Hrym said. "But I would be trapped at the center of a mountain of magical ice. Killing everyone would be satisfying, but the consequences would be boring."
"I have one stipulation, Temple. I assume these little errands you want me to run will be dangerous?"
Temple shrugged. "For someone with your skills? Not very. But accidents do happen."
"In the event of my death, Hrym is to be offered retirement on a pile of gold coins, not an eternity of dreamless sleep in a magical scabbard."
"And if I refuse?"
"Everyone has to die someday, Temple," Rodrick said. "If my day has come, I would at least have the satisfaction of taking you with me."
Temple nodded. "Very well. I'll make that amendment to your agreement. You'll have a chance to review the contract." She slid the scabbard through the bars of the cell.
Rodrick took it—the sheath was heavier than it looked—and knelt by the bench. "We'll figure something out, Hrym."
"We always do. Worst case, we can just do what she says. Perform a few tasks, and then take our freedom."
"You believe her?"
"I do. She has a trustworthy face."
"I thought all humans looked alike to you."
"Stop stalling," Hrym said. "At least in that sheath I'll get a moment's peace from your prattling."
Rodrick slid Hrym into the scabbard, which was too long for him but otherwise a good fit, and then passed him through the bars.
Temple tucked the scabbard under her arm like it was a rolled-up broadsheet. She spoke a word of magic and the cell door swung open. She beckoned, and Rodrick followed her out. He briefly considered hitting her over the head, grabbing the scabbard, and fleeing, but it was idle speculation. It was possible she was lying about the gem, but it was hardly a risk he was willing to take.
Temple took him down the familiar corridor, then through a nondescript wooden door and down a spiraling stone staircase that descended below the earth, every landing lit with a magical glowing orb. "The Bastion must be quite well funded," he said. "Most places just use lanterns."
"Ah, but with a single word I can extinguish all these lights, or cause them to flare to blinding brightness, or even to explode in cascades of fire. We're very conscious of security here in the Bastion." She didn't sound threatening at all, which was somehow even more threatening.
After taking the rest of the descent in silence, they reached a heavy door of oak banded in iron, also lacking a keyhole. Temple pressed her hand against it, and the door swung inward.
Beyond was something between a spacious apartment and a palatial office. Amazingly, natural light suffused one corner of the room, which at first Rodrick took to be magic, but then he realized there was a light well: a narrow shaft running all the way from the surface to these subterranean depths, shining on a small plot of flowering and leafy plants. The floor was stone, but liberally covered with rugs. The walls were hung with a strange assortment of items: a broken sword, the stuffed head of an orc with unusually prominent fangs, a horned iron helmet with a star-shaped hole in one side. A desk was set up against one wall, beside an apothecary's cabinet full of hundreds of small drawers and a shelf filled with volumes and scrolls. In the middle of the room there were several chairs and settees arranged around a low wooden table. There was even a kitchen of sorts: a woodstove with a teakettle on top, a cabinet full of cups and dishes, another full of dry goods, a large stone basin, and even the handle of a water pump. There was a hallway not far from the light well, with closed doors on either side and one at the end, open to reveal a set of bunk beds. This was a fully contained set of living quarters, then. As far as barracks went, he'd seen worse.
Rodrick took in the surroundings at a glance, but he spent more time looking over the people, though he tried not to make his examination obvious. The most striking of the group was a devilkin woman perched on the edge of the desk, looking entirely human apart from her crimson skin and dark blue lips. She was quite shapely, and dressed to show it off in high boots, tight breeches, and a blouse unlaced halfway down her cleavage. She had long black hair bundled into a ponytail, a pretty face, bright eyes, and a smirk that was several degrees beyond "insufferable": she looked immensely pleased with herself, and as if you should be pleased with her, too, if you had any sense.
Standing in a corner behind her was a tall man wearing a heavy brown winter cloak despite the warmth of the room. His skin was the color of curdled cream, and judging by the gauntness of his face, he must be calamitously thin and cadaverous under that cloak. His eyes were the same muddy brown as his clothing, though the whites were more like yellows: Rodrick thought of piss in a snow bank. The man looked ill, but also like he'd been ill for a very long time, and was getting along fine despite it.
The others sat by the low table, one lounging in an armchair, and the last sitting stiffly upright on a bench against the wall. The lounger was a woman of perhaps twenty-five with the features of someone from Jalmeray or the Impossible Kingdoms—dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair—but dressed in Inner Sea garb, a pale blue blouse and skirt over dark leggings and boots, with a sheathed dagger at her waist. The last was an old man in a baggy shirt with ink-stained cuffs and the attentive and acquisitive eyes of a crow, wearing a pair of pince-nez spectacles. Even so, he looked less like a scholar and more like one of those hard, sinewy old men you saw in the country, who could heave hay bales and slaughter cows all day long and still have energy left over to chase away perfectly harmless trespassers with a pitchfork.
"Welcome," Temple said, "to the first meeting of the Lastwall Volunteers."