The Ironroot Deception

by Robin D. Laws

Chapter Three: The Dog

Gad's feet scramble for purchase against a heap of gravel as the muscular prisoner chokes the life from him. Stokh grunts in surprise; Gad's supposed to be shackled at the ankles. He tightens his grip. Gad's arm flails into the gravel pile. He fishes out an object.

The burly prisoner sees the flash of metal and releases Gad in a twitch of panic. Knuckles white on the hilt of Ethundel's dagger—stolen when he prompted Stokh to push him into the elf on the way into the excavation that morning—Gad neatly plunges it between the startled man's well-demarcated ribs. He jams it in deep. He twists, forcing Stokh to cry out in pain.

Agonized cries resound through the pit. They cease as blood fills Stokh's lungs. He dies to the sound of running elven feet. Gad steps out of Stokh's path as his corpse timbers to the dirt. He slides to Vitta's side, yards away. He presses his ankles together. Vitta slaps the shackles on them. Using a twig she's carved, she clicks its tumblers, locking it. She stashes the twig in the rock pile, retrieving another item. When she sees that Ethundel has seized control of the scene and is barking orders to his fellow Reclaimers, she places it in Gad's hand.

Ethundel rushes to Stokh's side. He places fingers on his jugular, shakes his head, and rises. A red fury, so intense as to be visible in the weak light of predawn, suffuses his triangular face.

"Where is the new one?" he calls. "Where is the churl?"

Gad scrabbles back, catching his eye. The elf sprints at him, hauling him to his shackled feet. He backhands Gad across the face. Throws him against the pit wall. When he tries to knee him in the groin, Gad angles to avoid the worst.

"What happens here?"

At the slicing sound of his mistress's voice, Ethundel stops. He throws Gad to the dirt. "The new one has murdered our best thrall. Our strongest, most loyal human."

"They say that all the best leaders are a little crazy. By that metric, maybe Dualal is destined to rule."

Dualal's arched brow suggests that her admiration for Stokh ran cooler than her lieutenant's. "Humans are vicious, Ethundel. They slay one another. The savage ones are oft of greater use than their docile brethren."

Ethundel points at Gad. "And I shall slay this one."

"And lose two slaves, instead of one?" says Dualal. "When we are a few day's digging from our prize?"

"I warned him not to defy me."

She laughs. "I've told you time and again, child, just because these creatures walk and talk, and seem capable of feeling, you must not mistake them for people. They are but snarling animals. If one dog tears another's throat, it is not the fault of the dog, but of the negligent dog-keeper." She sweeps toward Ethundel. "Why did you let my one good dog kill my other?"

"Milady..." Ethundel stutters.

"I raised you from nothing, and you are hard and brave, yet you haven't the sense of a barnacle."

Ethundel can see that his comrades are watching him.

"I didn't even do it!" Gad blurts.

"What?" says Dualal.

"He says I killed Stokh, but it wasn't me. Look! He's stabbed. Do I have a blade?"

"Ethundel," she says, "did you let the human have a dagger?"

"I did not!"

"Look!" says Gad, "the blood's on his scabbard!"

The dagger is back on Ethundel's hip. Returned to him when he was trying to knee Gad in the gobbles. Stokh's sticky blood smears his belt and tunic.

Dualal's hand snakes out at him.

In an unthinking defensive gesture, Ethundel's hand lands on his guilty dagger-hilt. He immediately lets it go, as if it burns. His lips follow the rhythm of his unraveling thoughts. "He must have—no..."

"Give me that blade," she says.

From her tone, Gad decides he guessed right. These two are like mother and son. But not truly mother and son. All the demands, none of the affection.

She pulls the knife from its sheath. With it falls a bundle wrapped in a dirty rag. It falls to the dirt. Glinting dawn light reflects from ruby facets. Dualal bends down to seize the purloined gems.

"You've been holding out on me," she says.

"No."

"I told everyone that any treasures found in the Ironroot Vaults were to be turned over to me. And you, of all my followers, you betray me?"

"I've never seen those before."

"You, whom I elevated not for your strength, nor for your courage, but for your loyalty—you would forsake me for a handful of stones?"

She stabs him in the chest. He drops to his knees, more out of supplication than injury.

"Milady, it's a trick, I would never—"

Dualal jabs the knife into his open mouth, slashing his tongue. "Silence, traitor!" She wheels to face the appalled ranks of her minions. Ethundel gags behind her. "Each of you will stab him once with his own duplicitous blade. I shall punish shirkers and light-strikers as I have punished him!"

One by one, they step up and meekly comply. Her lackeys slash at Ethundel enough to say they've done it. She wrinkles her nose in dissatisfaction.

"You there. Human," she says.

"Me?" Gad asks.

"These elves are of the blood, yet have permitted it to run thin in their veins. We lost Golarion to you because we lacked your cruelty. To take it back, we must equal your barbarity. Teach my men a lesson, human. Show them what savagery is."

She proffers the knife.

"Do it. I'll reward you."

Gad steps up and slices open Ethundel's throat.

Imagining that he's doing it to her.

∗ ∗ ∗

Days of toil pass, with no hint of Dualal's promised reward. Each morning Gad and Vitta go down into the excavation with the rest of the press gang. Some days they break rocks. Some days they pass debris buckets down the passage or up the shaft. Every night they stumble from the complex, which they now know as the Ironroot Vaults, topple onto beds of gravel, and surrender to pain-wracked sleep.

Since his stabbing of Ethundel, the other prisoners come to Gad, as if, in killing the elf, he gained a measure of his authority.

They say:

"They're going to work us to death."

"My name is Saadak. I have a wife, three children, and another on the way. My death will be their misery, too."

"If we're still alive when they get whatever they're looking for, they'll slaughter us just for spite."

"I am Barash, son of Barash. I was foolish to venture so close to the Shudderwood with my cart, but it is not a crime I deserve to be killed for."

"I overheard her. They seek a gem that will prove her destined to rule the world. That can't be true, can it?"

"I am Tlivush. That is my brother, Tliuka. It does not matter what happens to me, but if he does not return, it will break our mother's heart."

"There must be a way we can escape."

"She thinks you're her new pet or such. We beg you, sway her to ease up on us."

It throws him off. Gad is used to leading, to calling the moves, but with confederates who are in on the gaffle. Responsibility for a pack of ordinaries is not part of the plan.

The next evening, as the end of the shift nears, Vitta's ax opens a hole to a hollow chamber. She quickly returns the rock to its place. "The digging's almost done," she says to Gad.

That night, Gad sleeps fitfully. He dreams that Dualal is looming over him.

He awakens.

Dualal is looming over him.

She unlocks his shackles and takes him for a walk. They stroll up the slope out of the pit, to the dead forest beyond. "The other dogs gather around you," she says.

"We prefer 'human.'"

She turns to face him, as if worried that he'll rifle her pack. "I said I'd reward you, and I will. Even though a sliver of me now suspects that you somehow abetted Ethundel in his betrayal."

"That's not so," Gad says.

"Your people were bred to serve mine. You'll deny it, but it's true. Are we not older, wiser, more beautiful? How could we be supplanted by such as you?"

"It is a mystery."

"I could use a loyal dog. A killing beast. Instinctively, the others yearn to follow you. Why is that?"

"Your thoughts rush swiftly. This poor dog can't keep up."

"When I rule... It is unrealistic to expect that we shall exterminate your race entirely. Many will remain. I must learn to command your kind. Yet my revulsion for you clouds my understanding."

"You're not too big to admit that."

"Not at all."

"What makes you think you're going to be world-queen?"

"Do not mistake this moment of intimacy for weakness. Insolence shall still be punished. My visions say so. Since I was but a child, I have dreamed my future glory. I would fall into a trance, and recite epic stanzas of my eventual deeds. All the great prophetic poems of elvenkind refer to me, foretell my coming. Yet unbelievers, even other Reclaimers, refuse to see the obvious parallels in the texts. The prophets say that the great elf queen to come will find a gem, buried deep in the earth. Its light will shine on the elven people, curing them of their blindness. Forcing them to recognize me. I will unite the elves and fey of the known worlds, then the seven leaves will fall—but it is beyond your comprehension."

"And that's what we seek here—your gem?"

"Two thousand years ago came the first harbinger of my rule. The thornbeast. A terrible tripartite devourer: animal, mineral, vegetable. It scourged the elven kingdoms, seeking the queen too early, enraged by its failure to find her. The elves of this land finally captured it and sealed it in their own holy Ironroot Vaults. They could not kill it, so they left a powerful gem, the Opal of Command, to force its eternal slumber."

"And the opal is your gem of prophecy."

"Yes."

"So what happens when you take it from its resting place? You release the thornbeast?"

"Don't worry about that, good dog."

∗ ∗ ∗

Gad asks the amber elf what his name is as he and Vitta smash through the last wall of rock to the open chamber beyond. The elf has time to snarl at him before the stones give way, collapsing into a tumble of rubble at their feet.

Darkness shrouds the chambers beyond. Vitta reaches for a lantern.

The amber elf stops her short. "Halfling! Go to the top, and convey to your mistress that the excavation is at an end."

Gad steps lightly on her toe, to forestall the retort he can already hear coming. She stalks off down the passageway, squeezing her way past the row of bucket-haulers. "Drop your pails, boys," she says. "Digging's over."

Soon Dualal and her best-armed guards have shoved themselves into the tiny terminal chamber. She peers into the black with her exceptional elven eyes.

"Shall I dismiss the thralls?" Amber elf asks. "We shall guard you, the rest of the way."

"Yes," says Dualal.

A hideous, hungry wail echoes from the depths.

Dualal whispers: "The thornbeast." She swallows, then shudders back to composure. "On second thought," she says. "The thralls may still be of use. To walk ahead, and alert us to hazards." She turns to Gad. He expects to see a cruel smile but there is only blankness. She gestures to the pile of stones, and hands him a lantern.

"Proceed, brave dog, proceed."


Coming Next Week: The perils of the thornbeast and the rewards of presumption in the final chapter of "The Ironroot Deception"!

Robin D. Laws is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel The Worldwound Gambit—also starring Gad—and six other novels, as well as various short stories, web serials, and comic books, plus a long list of roleplaying game products. His novels include Pierced Heart, The Rough and the Smooth, and the Angelika Fleischer series for the Black Library. Robin created the classic RPG Feng Shui and such recent titles as Mutant City Blues, Skulduggery, and the newly redesigned HeroQuest 2. His previous fiction for the Pathfinder campaign setting includes "Plague of Light" in the Serpent's Skull Adventure Path. Those interested in learning more about Robin are advised to check out his blog.

Art by J. P. Targete.

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Tags: Elves The Ironroot Deception J. P. Targete Pathfinder Tales Robin D. Laws
Dark Archive

Liking the art for Dualal.


Great art, Fantastic story!

Scarab Sages

Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path Subscriber
baron arem heshvaun wrote:
Liking the art for Dualal.

+1. Absolutely fantastic artwork.

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