The Ghosts of Broken Blades

by Monte Cook

Chapter Four: A Terrible Choice

Roubris had no idea what to do with the information he'd just gained. The spirit trapped in the sword leading them to the temple in the Worldwound was not that of a slain warrior, but instead a demon. Can you trust a demon? Ever? It seemed like a bad idea.

Of course, Karatha might know. But at this point, telling her that Serth was a demon also seemed like a bad idea. She would, as likely as not, demand that they turn around and go home immediately. And maybe that would be the wise thing to do, but maybe it wouldn't. Maybe the treasure Serth promised him truly lay within the black ziggurat temple at the top of the rocky spire they climbed.

"I know what you're thinking," Serth's voice said in Roubris's mind. "Well, not literally of course. I can't tell what you're thinking unless you try to speak to me with your thoughts. But nevertheless, I'm certain you're worried that the fact that I wasn't once a mortal soul means I must be lying to you. That this is a trap. I can assure you that it is not. I may not have been what you assumed me to be, but I am still in the dire situation you perceive. I am still a slain spirit trapped against my will in the weapon I once wielded in battle. And only you can communicate with me. Only you can help me. So the treasure vault hidden in the temple ahead is most assuredly real. You get paid and I get freed. That's your standard mode of operation, is it not? This is no different."

Damn it all if that didn't make sense to Roubris. Demon or man, Serth wanted to be freed. Roubris had never thought about it before, but demons must have souls like mortals, right?

He had encountered the spirits of nonhumans trapped in weapons before. Orcs from Belkzen, mostly. Helping them had practically no potential for profit, so he never actually tried. But helping Serth had the potential for the greatest profit he'd ever earned. Or so Serth said.

Serth the demon.

He didn't like the sound of that.

"Your wellbeing is of utmost import to me, Roubris," Serth said mentally. "Without you, I never get out of this. I assure you, the path ahead of us is safe."

Roubris grinned. He still had the power in this situation. He still had leverage.

"All right," Roubris said aloud. "Let's go in." Still holding Serth in his hand, he took a few tentative steps toward the rune-girded doorway that led into the temple. Karatha followed. She drew her own sword, Severance.

To Roubris's surprise, the door bore a conventional lock. He smiled sheepishly at Karatha. "I can take care of that." He put the broken sword away and pulled his set of lock picks from his pack.

"It's a temple of Deskari. We should expect a trap. Or even a curse. Wait." With a brief wave of her hand and an invocation to Iomedae, she cast a very quick spell. She nodded and folded her arms. "There is indeed a ward or something more sinister on the door. Let me take care of it."

Roubris shrugged and backed away. "Be my guest."

Karatha cast another spell. This time, the gestures and prayers were far more involved. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. A golden glow limned the door. It brightened, faded, and then brightened again before disappearing. Karatha sighed.

"It was difficult, but whatever nastiness the clerics of Deskari had in mind is now dispelled."

"And the lock?"

"You'll still need to take care of that in the conventional manner." Karatha stumbled a bit over the word "conventional." Perhaps it was the irony.

Roubris nodded and got to work. He had been picking locks most of his life. His mother had him picking simple door locks since he was tall enough to reach them. Although the lock was difficult, his success was never in question. It took time, but as far as he knew, they were in no rush.

Once he finished with the lock, the door swung open, silently.

Roubris rolled backward. His hand went for his dagger. He looked for whoever had opened the door, but no one was there.

"It was probably just designed that way," Karatha said.

He pulled out Serth again. The weapon remained silent, and Roubris decided that he was fine with that. Karatha produced a small, smooth stone attached to a tiny hook and affixed it to her belt. Within seconds, the stone shone with a light as bright as sunshine coming in through a small window. This illumination extended into the dark recesses of the windowless temple. Roubris would have sworn that within that place, the light dimmed, as if intimidated.

As plain as the outside of the ziggurat was, the interior was elaborate. A black iron grillwork covered every surface, with leering metallic faces, claws, and twisted thorns jutting out all over it at unpredictable angles. Dust and cobwebs then covered this baroque, rusting skin.

Within this dangerous-looking environment lay a single altar fashioned entirely from black iron. Unlit candelabras seemed positioned randomly about the walls, and rusting chains ending in cruel hooks hung from the ceiling in similarly haphazard positions. A wall appeared to divide the interior of the small temple into halves, with a wide iron door fashioned to slide from side to side.

Finally Serth spoke up. "Beyond that door lies the treasure I've promised you, Roubris. There's likely more in there than you and your friend can carry, I'm afraid, but nevertheless you'll find yourself an extraordinarily wealthy man once you open that door."

Roubris's mouth watered. He stepped toward the door and heard Karatha hiss through her teeth. He looked back at her. "What is it?"

"I don't know," she said. "I'm just worried."

"I'll be careful."

Roubris stepped gingerly, easily avoiding the sharp protuberances here and there on the floor and giving the hanging chains a wide berth. He got to the door. Nothing happened.

"I told you," Serth's voice said in his head. "It's safe. I want you to get to that treasure as much as you do, my friend."

Still, Roubris's instincts forced him to search the sliding door for possible traps. He envisioned something that would make the metal spikes or other adornments into deadly projectiles. But he found nothing of the sort. Not even a lock. Instead, he just had a vague notion that opening the door would also do something else in the temple. An alarm, maybe? He couldn't tell. It was just a hunch, without evidence.

He considered telling Karatha, but he was afraid that here, so close to the treasure, she would try to get him to leave without opening the door. He couldn't let that happen. Not now.

"Everything all right?" Karatha said, her voice hushed and tense.

"Yes," Roubris said with all the confidence he could muster.

"Right, Serth?" He asked in his mind.

"Correct," the spirit replied. "I assure you that it is safe to open that door and take the treasure within. It is my payment to you for freeing my spirit from this sword." His voice seemed impatient, but perhaps that was understandable considering the situation.

Roubris slid open the door.

Karatha's magical stone sent a shaft of light into the room. Amid shelves of books, idols, and odd religious paraphernalia Roubris couldn't recognize lay a lidless trunk. Gold and silver coins, jewels of all varieties, and solid bars of precious metals filled the box to overflowing. Roubris gasped with the fulfillment of his highest expectations.

Behind him, however, Karatha exclaimed in tones other than delight. Over his shoulder he saw something had appeared in front of the iron altar. A doorway of red and gold flickering light. Screams of terror and pain issued from it like a wave. Almost immediately, something began to push its way through the doorway. It seemed vaguely humanoid in that it had two arms and two legs, and was girded in blackened armor. Beyond that, it resembled a fish or a toad more than a man. This creature moved slowly, as though pushing against some unseen membrane blocking the doorway.

Once over the initial shock, Roubris said aloud, "Serth? What is that?"

No reply came.

"Serth? You promised me no traps. No danger."

"And I shall keep that promise," the creature passing through the doorway of light hissed with Serth's voice. "I will cause you no harm, Roubris."

Roubris's eyes widened. That was Serth? Suddenly, a memory came to mind. Somewhere, someone had told him that when a powerful demon is slain in the material world, it's not really dead. It's just sent back to its home plane.

Serth didn't want to be freed to go on to some afterlife. He wanted to be free to roam the mortal world again. His spirit had been trapped in the sword like so many others Roubris had encountered, but opening the gate restored him to his physical form. And now Serth was entering the material world again. Opening the door to get at the treasure also opened the gate to whatever abysmal realm had spawned the demon.

"Exactly how much is it worth to set Serth loose on the world?"

Even as Roubris stood motionless, mouth agape, Karatha sprang into action. Armed with Severance and the shield emblazoned with the symbol of Iomedae, she attacked Serth while the demon was still midway through the portal. Her blade pierced his scaly flesh, but a single swipe of one of his claws sent her staggering backward, a bloody gash marring her face.

Roubris didn't know what to do. Serth had promised him the treasure, and seemed to be willing to let him take it without issue. But that would loose him upon the mortal world to wreak unimaginable evils. Even if he could live with that, Karatha never would. She'd die before she allowed that to happen, and as he watched the mismatched battle, it seemed as though that was precisely what was about to happen.

Or, he could close the door to the room before him. It seemed keyed to the gateway. Opening the mundane door activated the otherworldly one. Closing it might deactivate it. Serth wasn't yet through the portal, but in mere moments he would be. And then all choice would be taken from him. Karatha would certainly die.

Damn it.

The farther Serth progressed through the doorway, the more his odor violated the air in the temple. Karatha staggered backward, coughing. Roubris's eyes watered. The demon's progress through the gate was slow, but that didn't stop him from lashing out at Karatha with terrible effectiveness. Already her chain shirt hung in bloody tatters and her shield was bent and broken. Still, Karatha's sword sliced across Serth's flesh again and again. Black bile issued forth from the wounds she inflicted. It seemed to only make the stench worse.

Still Roubris hesitated. So much wealth. Enough to keep Roubris in extravagant style for the rest of his life.

More thunderous blows pummeled at Karatha. Serth possessed an unearthly strength as well as razor-sharp claws. Once through the gate, he would likely be able to bite with his wide, toadlike mouth filled with teeth like iron spikes. With that hideous thing, he could bite a foe in half. Which would matter only if Karatha was even still alive at that point. Under the weight of Serth's blows, she fell to her knees, using Severance to protect herself as best she could.

"Roubris, help me." Her whisper was almost inaudible. She coughed blood.

Roubris made up his mind. His face painted with pain, he shut his eyes and slid the door closed.

But it slid only partway. He opened his eyes to see the ruddy light flickering. Nothing more. It caught Serth's attention, however. "Roubris! Don't be a fool. Take your payment and go!" The demon thrust himself against the portal with greater force. Roubris was grateful that the process of transition through this doorway took so long.

Karatha managed to get to her feet, both hands on the hilt of her sword. With all her remaining strength, she plunged it into Serth's slimy, scaly flesh.

The demon howled.

Roubris glanced once more at the glittering treasure in the room and forced the door. It still didn't close all the way, but the fiery glow faltered again.

"No!" The demon shouted. He slashed at Karatha, who toppled backward onto the floor. She landed on one of the many dangerous adornments on the metal grid.

Roubris cried out. Serth turned all his attention on him.

To his surprise, Roubris found himself calling upon Iomedae for strength. Closing his eyes again, he put all his weight into closing the sliding vault door.

At last, it gave way. The red and gold fire disappeared, and Serth's angry roar faded away as if he were falling from a fantastic height. Then it ceased entirely.

The iron door was closed. Behind it lay a hoard large enough to purchase a small town.

Roubris went to Karatha's side. He was both surprised and relieved to find her still breathing. Carefully, he brought her out of the dark temple. With only a modicum of skill, he tended to the most severe of her wounds. Eventually, he hoped, she would return to consciousness and use Iomedae's power to heal herself.

Roubris retrieved his friend's sword and broken shield. Then he went to the broken blade that had held Serth's spirit. Gingerly he touched it with a single finger and then pulled it away. Nothing happened, He lightly touched the hilt. "Serth?"

No reply. The spirit was no longer in the weapon.

After a fashion, he had kept his end of the bargain.

With the broken end of the blade, he scratched words upon the door: "Do not open." Then he tossed the sword to the floor and left, with no intention of ever returning.

∗ ∗ ∗

The road back home was long. Some of Karatha's wounds were beyond her ability to heal with magic, but she seemed confident that time would set her aright.

"I'm proud of you," Karatha said. "And grateful. You saved my life, and I know what you had to give up to do it. It must have been a difficult choice."

Roubris wasn't ready to tell her that he had prayed to Iomedae there, at the end. He would have to deal with that surprising act on his own, at least for now. Instead, he just gave his most charming smile and said, "Not so difficult, my friend."

When Karatha turned back to the road, Roubris's hand went to the leather pouch on his belt. The one that contained a handful of newly acquired, glistening jewels. He smiled even more broadly at the feel of them. A man in Roubris's line of work needed to be fast on his feet as well as quick-witted. Fast enough to duck into a room and grab a handful of choice loot before closing a door.

"Not so difficult," he repeated.

Coming Next Week: The first installment of a rollicking, all-new prequel story to the new Pathfinder Tales novel Plague of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones—now shipping from our warehouse!

As one of the primary architects of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Matter, the d20 Call of Cthulhu system, and Monte Cook's World of Darkness, as well as the author of such notable supplements as Arcana Unearthed, The Book of Eldritch Might, Dead Gods, and more, Monte Cook has left an indelible mark on the history of fantasy gaming. In addition, he has published two novels, Of Aged Angels and The Glass Prison, and his short fiction has been featured in such venues as Amazing Stories and Game Trade Magazine. For more information, visit

Art by Carlos Villa.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Carlos Villa The Ghosts of Broken Blades Monte Cook Pathfinder Tales
Sovereign Court

Now that's a right proper Rogue!

--Masterwork Vrock Picks

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

I'm very glad that both Roubris and Karatha survived this tale.

Monte Cook can write Pathfinder Tales fiction (web or otherwise) anytime he would like. And I'll eagerly read it. All.


I think that by reading this and enjoying it so much, my players just got into trouble the next time they meet an 'unguarded' treasure chest.

My favorite web fiction series so far. Well done!

The Exchange

"Do not open"? I've never seen a more tempting invitation to an adventuring party in my life!

"The Ghosts of Broken Blades" reminded me of those classic tales by L. Sprague de Camp or Roger Zelazney, where the plucky rogue gets away with something in the end. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It brought a smile to my face. Thank you.

I was very impressed with this short story. Keep the good work coming!

You can tell that it's not the first time this guy writes something up ;-)

Monte, Bravo. Bra-vo. That was really entertaining, most enjoyable to read and follow what would happen to your duo of adventurers.

I agree with other posters, you should definitely write more stories like this. You do have sir a really good talent for that!

Thanks for giving us that free pleasure.

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