Two Pieces of Tarnished Silver

by Erik Mona

Chapter Four: Across the Plain of Pools

Korm woke from fitful dreams at the touch of Aebos's massive hand upon his shoulder, shaking him gently. "It's been four hours," the cyclops said softly. "It's your turn to stand watch. A good thing, too. I just caught myself dozing off."

Korm rubbed sleep from his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. Across the small expanse of flat ledge on which they'd camped the alchemist Epostian Creeg lay upon his fine bedroll, snoring softly. Beyond Creeg the mountain fell away into an inky darkness that filled the goblet of the valley, pierced only by the distant glow of the burning building at the center of Juval's realm. Everything here looked exactly as it had when Korm had finally fallen asleep, and if not for his friend's testimony he would have sworn less than an hour had passed. He certainly didn't feel well rested.

As Korm roused himself, Aebos sat beside him and unfurled his sleeping pad. He looked to the roiling skies. "I've seen a swarm of shadowy avian creatures pass overhead three times since you and Creeg went to sleep. I couldn't tell if they were the same creatures or different flocks. As you scan the mountain for danger, don't forget to look up."

Korm nodded, casting a casual glance to the sky. Far above, the clouds roiled without sound, but he saw no sign of the creatures. In a way, he almost looked forward to encountering them. If Aebos's bird-things had been circling for a meal, he'd find out soon enough. And that, in a way, brought comfort. He knew how to fight. That was the same no matter the circumstances. A sword in the hand brought a sense of certainty and control, if nothing else. If he could maintain control, they would stay alive. Deal with the demon. Get back to the ship and the safety of land.

If he did it right, they'd also be rich.

"I'll watch out for your birds, but my biggest concern is facing off against the demon with Creeg at our side," Korm said quietly, his eyes on the sleeping form of the alchemist on the other side of their camp. "If Iranez thought he could have handled Juval alone, she would have sent him alone. She could even put dozens of guards at his back, and yet she didn't trust him to get the job done. You saw how puffed up and angry he got at breakfast. He's going to say something that'll get us killed, I can feel it."

"He is an exceptional cook," Aebos offered.

"Perhaps the lady tires of his food, and has sent him here to get rid of him?"

Aebos chuckled. "Too elaborate. Surely she could just have him thrown overboard. It's Iranez I'm worried about. When this is all over, and we return with the treasure, who's to say that she'll simply let us accompany her back to Quantium? She could just as easily have us killed."

Korm pursed his lips and exhaled a slow blast of air, as if deflating. "That's tomorrow," he said. "In order to solve tomorrow's problem, we've got to make it through today."

Aebos smiled. He pulled his woolen covers over his shoulders, closed his heavy eyelid, and lay still. He began to snore before Korm had finished belting on his sword.

Korm circled the camp with soft steps, casting his eyes into the darkness in search of lurking danger. Finding nothing, he heaved himself upon the boulder near Epostian Creeg and did his best to let his mind wander while at the same time keeping a vigilant eye on the mountain—and the sky. His thoughts turned to the chilling tales he'd heard of demons from pilgrims riding the rivers of his youth, fleeing the crusade lands of the north where a rift in reality allowed the fiends access to the world. They spoke of vile appetites and perverse cruelties. Demons were beings of ineffable evil. They thrived on the sight of their enemies' blood. And the greatest of demons were legendary beings in their own right. The sages spoke of them in the same breaths that conjured ancient dragons.

And now they were about to go face to face with one of them. He trusted Aebos, of course. He knew his sagacious companion would let him do the talking, and wouldn't say anything to unduly arouse the demon's ire. And if things did go to shit, he knew Aebos could back him up in the ensuing battle. Creeg, on the other hand, was a risk on both counts. Given his ego, he seemed almost pathologically destined to say something upsetting, and the man had thus far proven dangerous to absolutely nothing beyond lobsters and unborn aubekan chicks. A look at the slight form of the alchemist sleeping below him confirmed that Creeg offered no physical advantages to their chance of success. Korm chuckled at the enormous rucksack next to Creeg. He'd have to pull something awfully impressive out of that bag of his to prove his worth, Korm thought.

But why wait to find out what it would be? Korm eased himself off the rock and stepped softly to the bag. With the precision of a master tomb robber disabling a trap, the swordsman gently lifted the bulky satchel, flinching at every tiny clink from the glass bottles and containers within. Creeg didn't seem to notice, and slept on.

Korm returned to the boulder and began rummaging through the rucksack. He withdrew a slim leather case hinged at one end and fastened at the other with a simple clasp. This he opened, revealing a medical kit with three crude metal syringes and a length of leather cord. Small loops of material built into the case's interior held several ampoules filled with colored liquid. The kit and its contents looked shabby and well used.

Korm next removed a small, cylindrical glass jar from the bag, raising his eyebrows as he recognized Creeg's ubiquitous golden spice within. Although he could not deny that the flakes added to the flavor of the meals they seasoned, they also brought a monotony to each dish that was starting to tire him. That said, Aebos loved the stuff, and would surely suffer from a scheme that deprived him of it forever. The perfect solution seemed obvious.

Korm placed the jar of golden flakes into his beltpouch. This way he could use it to get back into Aebos's good graces a month from now after Korm inevitably got them into trouble again.

It was an investment.

Aside from cooking supplies, some dried meats, and numerous tubes of alchemical liquids Korm couldn't hope to identify, Creeg's bag contained several samples of narcotic drugs that shed troubling light upon the needle kit Korm had found earlier. These items included a folded rectangle of butcher paper smeared with pesh paste and a pouch of qat leaves, as well as more than a dozen hallucinogenic yellowcap mushrooms.

His search complete, Korm decided nothing in Creeg's bag suggested a coming betrayal or unknown danger—just a lot of drugs that cast further doubt upon the alchemist's character.

Korm pocketed four of the mushroom caps for himself, put the rest of Creeg's possessions back in the bag, and waited for the dark skies to turn a lighter shade of gray.

∗ ∗ ∗

Korm finally reached the foot of the mountain to find Aebos and Epostian Creeg stopped short before him, marveling at a huge body stretched out upon the dusty ground. The stark white of its immense bones contrasted with the red dirt of the valley floor, reminding Korm of a sun-bleached skeleton of an ancient warrior revealed by the shifting sands of a desert. Clumps of flesh still clinging to the frame here and there and the jumble of indistinct organic matter within its chest suggested this warrior was more recent than ancient, however, and an army made up of creatures this tall could easily crush nations under its heels. The behemoth's skull looked in many ways human, but was larger than that of an elephant. From the top of its head to the soles of its feet must have been twenty-five feet or more.

"What in the Hell is that supposed to be?" Korm asked.

"Could it have fallen?" asked Epostian Creeg.

"Creeg hardly inspires confidence."

Aebos approached the skeleton for a closer observation, his posture displaying little of the caution that ran up and down Korm's spine. "The bones would have been crushed," Aebos said. "And they would have been jumbled and chaotic. This creature looks as though it fell straight on its back, as if it laid down willingly and died. The arms are out straight at the shoulder. No one lands like that and stays that way."

Korm turned from the creature to survey the route from which they had come. The last hour had been a careful hand-over-hand descent down a jagged cleft in the mountain wall. The cliffs stretched for miles on either side. No doubt the route they had chosen was the only viable path from the portal above down to the valley. That meant the giant's corpse had been staged for all who trod the path from the Relentless's portal. It was meant as a message, and its author must have been Juval.

"I think the demon killed it," Korm said. "But what was it, and what was it doing here?"

Creeg scoffed. "The ship is ancient, and any number of creatures may have found their way into Juval's realm, only to be killed. It's possible this fellow has been here for centuries. It is also possible that the giant is simply a figment conjured by Juval to scare us back up the mountain. We should pay it no mind and carry on."

And so they did.

∗ ∗ ∗

Later, the trio came upon the first of the violet pools that spread across the valley like angry, bubbling sores. The alchemist marveled at the pool's viscid liquid, which melted a wooden testing prod like a candle but did no damage to his bare hand. When Creeg knelt to gather some of the material for his own collection, Korm even thought he saw the alchemist take a sip from his slime-soaked sample jar.

They saw little sign of life as they traversed the plain toward the burning building at the heart of Juval's realm. Three times they heard a loud splash from one of the pools they had just passed, but upon turning discovered only ripples widening from the water's edge. After a few hours of marching, the pools thinned out and finally disappeared at the verge of a sickly forest of diseased trees glistening with gangrene and pus.

Korm and Aebos kept their distance from the hideous growths, but Epostian Creeg stepped right up to their trunks, cutting away sections of their scabrous flesh with a thin knife to collect samples for later study. The trail of his blade seeped with greasy black sap that smelled worse than it looked. Here and there in the forest, Korm thought he could hear footsteps in the undergrowth keeping pace with their march, but he never managed to catch sight of his observer.

On one such occasion, looking off the rough trail into the woods, Korm found himself staring into the eyes of a massive bull.

The vacant stare, twisted mouth, and extended yellow tongue told Korm the creature was dead even before his mind registered what he was seeing. It almost came as an afterthought that the bovine head sat detached from its body, balanced in a clump of viscera upon a gore-soaked tree stump at eye level, facing the path through the woods. A tree just beyond the grisly stump was the scene of an even greater atrocity. There the body of a muscular human man hung upside down from a long nail driven through both ankles. The splattered red stain smearing the tree from the man's jagged, headless neck gave the appearance of a can of paint tipped over end, with the thickest sludge still slowly oozing to the ground.

The head and the body had once been a matched pair.

"So I guess this guy is another of Juval's figments?" Korm asked.

"It is possible," Creeg said without enthusiasm.

∗ ∗ ∗

Finally the three reached the low stone walls ringing the garden at the center of the valley. Here the dusty ground and clumps of scrub grass gave way to wide, broken paving stones partially claimed by creeping vines. Raised platforms, dry and weed-choked fountains, and the remnants of mosaic paths hinted at the garden this once had been, an impression strengthened by the many statues arrayed around the area.

From a low rise at the center of the garden, the burning manor cast a flickering glow on the sculpted figures. Most of them looked in the house's direction as if transfixed by the awe of the sight. Korm could hardly blame them.

The entire frame of the stately three-story structure remained visible through the furious flames, but only the first was more than a vague outline. The front door stood as yet unmarred by fire, as if beckoning potential rescuers to burst through in search of survivors. Had they been in a city, even this far away, Korm might have attempted it. But here, in the demon's realm, he doubted very seriously that whatever lurked within would welcome him as its hero.

Their answers, and Juval itself, probably awaited them inside. But there was no sense in rushing into things. If Juval had known the moment they had arrived, as Creeg had suggested last night, the element of surprise had long since been lost.

And besides. They had not come to fight, but to negotiate.

The trio cautiously advanced into the garden, passing several of its statues on their way to Juval's lair. Some of the figures wore primitive, tribal garb. Others were attired as pirates, and others dressed in outdated military uniforms. Most had been sculpted in a moment of terror, their hands splayed out before them as if fending off danger, each face a rictus of fear. Closer to the garden's center, a trio of humanoid statues seemed to slink up a low stair toward the house. Time had worn away their crude features, but what remained gave Korm the impression of sharks. While inspecting the extremely realistic trident clutched by one of the creatures, Korm's peripheral vision caught a ceremonial altar at the top of the low stairs.

A small organic form lay motionless upon the altar. Korm, Aebos, and Epostian Creeg approached closer to discover the body of a goat-horned satyr prostrate upon the pedestal. A jagged line marred its bearded neck, and the flaked pool of blood that had gathered under it suggested that the body had been here a week or more.

The three of them stood with their backs to the garden, considering the slain satyr, when the clip-clop of hooves tapped from the flagstones at the foot of the low stair behind them. They turned just in time to see the form of a powerful centaur step from behind a massive stone plinth. Unlike the ashen statues that surrounded it, the creature's healthy tone and muscular physique exuded life and spirit, as did its bushy red beard and shock of wild hair.

The centaur's eyes burned with a bright crimson fire, and Korm knew that he looked upon Juval itself.

"Epostian Creeg," it said in a hollow voice accompanied by a disembodied chorus. "I expected you months ago. The decade has long since passed, and a fitting tribute is long overdue. Tell me, what treasure have you brought in the name of Iranez of the Orb?"

The alchemist stepped forward and gave a courteous bow. "A cyclops, regal Juval!" he shouted. "I bring you the form of the cyclops Aebos, to do with as you wish!".


Coming Next Week: The thrilling conclusion of Erik Mona's "Two Pieces of Tarnished Silver."

Erik Mona is the Publisher of Paizo Publishing and one of the primary architects of the Pathfinder campaign setting, as well as the former Editor-in-Chief of Dungeon and Dragon magazines. His previous game books have won numerous awards, and include the Pathfinder Campaign Setting Gazetteer, The Inner Sea World Guide, Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, "The Whispering Cairn" in Dungeon #124 (which kicked off the Age of Worms Adventure Path), and Pathfinder Adventure Path #19: Howl of the Carrion King, among many others. To find out more about Erik, visit his Facebook page.

Art by John Stanko.

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Tags: Alchemists Erik Mona John Stanko Pathfinder Tales Two Pieces of Tarnished Silver

Oh man! This story continues to rock so hard.

Excellent work, Erik. I hope you can continue to carve out personal writing time for yourself, in the midst of all your zillion responsibilities. I think you have a responsibility to your art & talent as well, if I may preachify for a moment...

The Exchange

Nice story! I can't wait for the conclusion.

Dark Archive

Nice twist, very, very nice twist. Should have seen that one coming.

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