The Box

by Bill Ward

Chapter Three: Nothing Ventured

The girls were, by any objective standards, far too beautiful for the Point. But in the dim glow of the dockyard lights they did the trick. Silently the trio gestured, gyrating hips that would make the women of the Keleshite Emperor's harem seem bony lads in comparison, their impossible skin as smooth and silver as the moon above. Their black tresses—tinged with a seaweed green—hung in long clinging strands that managed to suggest more than they concealed. They were, when it came down to it, completely irresistible.

If you were born yesterday, Kostin thought with a smirk.

The pair of Shoanti thugs guarding the old rum joint moved toward the gorgeous trinity like fish pursuing a hooked worm. When they passed through the darkest and narrowest part of the alleyway, Kostin struck.

He slipped in behind the leftmost guard and smashed across the base of his skull with a lead-filled sap. The man dropped.

Opposite him in the dark a giant figure loomed up, felling the second Shoanti with a single blow from a sledgehammer fist.

"Nice hit, Gyrd," Kostin said, gritting his teeth as his voice came out too loud.

At the end of the alley, the three nymphs gave a silent cheer, flinging their arms up and bouncing on their heels like schoolchildren.

Kostin swiftly bound the arms of the unconscious Shoanti with rawhide tethers and gagged them with wads of cloth. Gyrd stepped in when he was finished, reeking of sour sweat and stale mead, and threw a guard over each broad shoulder. The Ulfen's chainmail jangled under the load. Kostin pointed further down the alley and the big northerner stomped off with his cargo to dump them where they would not be found until morning.

"Enough with the girls," Kostin said through clenched teeth, noting that the illusory threesome was now engaged in activity fit to make a Calistrian blush. With a final, sensuous wave they winked out of existence—and a child-sized figure vaulted onto a nearby stack of discarded casks and gave a bow.

"Not too bad, yeah?" Her voice was the very model of gnomish enthusiasm. "I actually met a sea-nymph once, you know. And so I took her likeness and this tavern girl that Gyrd used to know—well, everyone used to know, apparently—and—"

"Yes, Shess. But we need to keep quiet—" Kostin was interrupted by the sudden flaring of a light behind him.

Whirling around and drawing his sword in the same motion, he saw Aeventius and Taldara walking up from the opposite end of the alley. A glow like daylight emerged from the wizard's left hand, from the onyx and platinum ring that bore his family seal and was an integral part of his magic.

Aeventius held up his other hand before the livid Kostin could speak. "There are no watchers outside, no windows—the light is safe. But just to keep you from making faces..." The wizard—dressed more appropriately for a night at the opera than a raid into a dockside gang's stronghold—cupped his hand over the ring and brought the daytime radiance back down to something approaching a dim lantern.

"What's she doing here?" Kostin stage whispered, gesturing at Taldara.

The half-elf stepped between Aeventius and Kostin before the wizard could answer. "Why is that the first thing everyone says when I show up? You got me into this, Kostin—"

"Not this!"

"Yes, this. The box, the Shoanti—staying up all night and watching them try to save your father's house. Don't think it's all about you—he was a father to me long before I ever met mine. Besides," Taldara smirked, raising the crossbow she held at the ready, "this is better than sketching the Irespan all day." Her badger, wobbling where it clung to her right shoulder, chattered agreement.

"She followed me," Aeventius added.

"You aren't hard to track—and a city isn't so much different than the wilderness, especially the city where I grew up."

Just then Gyrd reappeared like some vast berg of steel and flesh.

Aeventius let out an audible sigh. "Of course, where the imp goes, the ogre follows. You smell like an alehouse latrine."

"That's where we found him!" Shess piped up, bouncing to Aeventius's side. The wizard flinched away.

Gyrd, bearded face impassive behind a tangle of red and gray hair, took a long pull from a leather drinking skin. The raw, almost chemical odor of potent spirits rolled out from him like an aura.

"None of this!" Kostin said, snatching the bag from Gyrd before the giant could react. "You can have it back when we're done."

"What did you think of my casting, Aevy?" Shess gazed up at the wizard through a shock of emerald green hair.

Kostin interrupted, clearing his throat. "Enough talking. Come." He moved back down the alley toward the old rum house.

"Too beautiful," Aeventius said to the gnome as he turned to follow Kostin. "And do not ever call me that."

"Of course!" Shess said, skipping in stride with the wizard. "I always knew you liked your women short and green!"


"It seems Taldara picked up a number of new skills in her years away from home."

Taldara moved to Kostin’s side. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your, um, 'gang?'"

"Certainly. Forgive my manners," Irritation creeping into his voice, Kostin turned back around. The group halted.

"This here is Shess, the best little sneak thief in Magnimar."

The gnome, beaming, gave a mock curtsey. She was dressed in a patchwork of styles and colors, resembling something like a collision between a Chelish noble, a Tian merchant, a Sczarni blade, and an Ulfen minstrel.

"And Gyrd here is, um..."

"Blacksmith," the giant answered, no expression on his ruddy, heavily scarred face. His chainmail hauberk gleamed dully in the light, and he held a battle-dinted round shield in his left hand. Gyrd looked as if he had just stepped out from a shieldwall—and was aching to get back.

"Really?" Kostin asked, surprised. "Well, ah, everyone, this is my oldest friend, Taldara, who is some sort of big deal Pathfinder now."

"Ooh," said Shess, eyes round with interest as she studied Taldara. "But I thought Aevy was your oldest friend."

"I thought I was his only friend," Aeventius said blandly.

Taldara smiled and opened her mouth to reply, but Kostin grabbed her arm and tugged her along behind him. "Plenty of time for all of this later!" he said over his shoulder. The rest followed.

Aeventius was correct in that there were no signs of observation from the rum house. It was as Kapteo Giuleppeschi had said—the place was boarded up and abandoned. The Sczarni boss had come through for him that afternoon, granting him not only his silver, but valuable information about the Shoanti hideout. Kostin had modified his original plan to storm their front door in favor of this one—to come in undetected through the secret back entrance the Shoanti used to slip in and out along the shore side of the Point. Further west of here was the Wyrmwatch lighthouse, marking the spot where the great Indros had battled the sea dragon. South and east, and you had a tumble of smugglers' wharfs along the mouth of the Yondabakari leading down into the slums of Rag's End. It was a good location for a pack of robbers and thugs.

"Door is clear," Aeventius said behind him, and Kostin turned to see the wizard's eyes glowing with an eldritch blue light.

The guards had not had any keys on them. "Alright. Shess, you're better at this than me. Get us in there."

"Yes, sir!" Shess, saluting Kostin ridiculously, leaped onto Gyrd's back. Drawing her sword, the gnome leveled it at the door like a cavalry officer ordering a charge. "Smash it, Gyrd!"

Before Kostin could react the Northman—Shess still clinging to his back—raised his shield and launched himself shoulder-first at the door. It crashed inward with a splintering boom.

"'Best little sneak thief in Magnimar,'" said Taldara, covering the door with her crossbow. Aeventius snorted in amused agreement.

Kostin, sword drawn and teeth clenched in annoyed disbelief, entered after the mad gnome and the half-drunk warrior.

Inside it was dark and empty. A few sprung and moldering casks rested against the walls, and the odd sliver of wood or twist of ship's rope littered the ground. On the far wall a doorless portal yawned blackly.

"So far it's as the kapteo claimed," Kostin said. "The old cellar of this place abuts the sunken warehouse. From there we’re right at the shaman's quarters. Most of the Shoanti should be on the other side, in the warehouse proper. We nip in, take down Azahg, get the box, set some fires, and get the hell out again. Questions?"

Shess raised her hand and Kostin pushed it back down. The others shook their heads.

"Alright, then. Let's go."

The way ahead was easy to see—years of wear had left a path of dirt and scraped stone for them to follow. The blocks of the cellar wall had been pried out to form a crude doorway into the domain of the warehouse—a shoddily built structure that had sunk and partially collapsed at its south end and had long been abandoned by any legitimate concerns. Scrabbling through the wall and into the building, they followed a sloping and precarious floor upward. Kostin wiped sweat from his eyes; the air in the warehouse was close and redolent with the stench of mold and decay.

A flickering light ahead caused Aeventius to clamp a hand tightly over his radiant ring.

There were two of them, talking animatedly in the guttural cadences of the Shoanti. Gyrd tensed as if to spring forward, but Taldara clapped a hand on his shoulder and bade him be still. With her other hand she held a finger to her lips, urging them all to stay quiet.

After a brief exchange, both Shoanti moved off down the corridor.

Taldara turned to the group. "They say Azahg and his wives have been a night and a day in his sanctum, and they worry. They wish to know what powerful treasure he has discovered in the box, but also do not know if they should counter his orders and try to enter his rooms." Taldara shrugged. "At least that's the most I could get out of it."

"You speak Shoanti," Kostin said, impressed.

"They aren't all bad, you know. I think they may have had to come to the city to turn into this." Taldara scratched her badger behind the ear. Lifting it gently from her shoulder, she nuzzled it before placing it on the ground.

"Mordimor will scout they way for us," she continued as the badger zipped off down the corridor. Taldara closed her eyes and drew a shape in the air.

"Tal, are you—" Kostin stopped at a sudden smack on the arm from Aeventius, who gestured for silence.

The badger returned as swiftly as he had left, and Taldara muttered a few words in a language Kostin had never heard, one different from the ancient tongue of magic he had listened to Aeventius utter on so many occasions.

Mordimor leaped into Taldara's arms, and the two commenced to have the strangest conversation Kostin had ever witnessed.

"He says it's clear, but he gets a bad feeling about the shaman's door. Or, maybe, what's on the other side of it." Taldara plopped the badger back up on her shoulder. It still muttered at her ear and Taldara cocked a playful smile. "He also says the wizard should go first."

"A woodland wit," Aeventius said, scowling.

Kostin led the way, stalking ahead with barely a sound. Shess followed, moving silently with little effort. Taldara and Aeventius came next, creeping forward with careful steps. Gyrd shuffled in the rear, heavy one-handed sword drawn, armor tinkling despite his apparent caution.

They paused at the door for a time while Aeventius and Shess examined it—the wizard scanning for magical emanations and the thief checking for traps.

Shess, now wearing a ridiculous pair of spectacles devoid of their lenses, gave a thumbs-up, while Aeventius murmured something incomprehensible under his breath. Finally, he turned to Kostin. "I can open it, whenever we’re ready."

Kostin surveyed his team. Gyrd, wicked smile on his face and skin flushed with battle lust and booze, had positioned himself at the door, ready to storm in. Taldara was beside him, eyebrows knit in concentration, crossbow leveled to cover Gyrd's flank. Shess bounced on her heels, eager as a child at the fair, her blade gleaming silver and naked in her tiny fist. Aeventius waited patiently, back straight as any aristocrat, a slender black wand in his hand.

Kostin moved into position next to Gyrd, and took a deep breath in an attempt to strike a mental deal with his heart to stop thundering in his chest. He loosened his grip on his sword and bent his knees slightly. A cold serpent of sweat trickled down his spine.

"Do it," he said, left hand poised above the door's handle.

A word from Aeventius and the door lock opened with an audible clack.

Kostin flung open the door to the shaman's sanctum—and a horde of creatures burst forth.

Coming Next Week: The triumphant conclusion to Bill Ward's "The Box."

Bill Ward is the author of more than 40 short stories for venues like Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, Morpheus Tales, Rogue Blades Entertainment, and more, as well as game work for companies such as i-Kore and Urban Mammoth. A diehard fan of pulp adventure, he’s also an editor at the flagship sword and sorcery magazine Black Gate. For more information, visit his website at billwardwriter.com.

Illustration by J. P. Targete.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Bill Ward The Box J. P. Targete Pathfinder Tales

1 person marked this as a favorite.

I liked it, but can we agree she'd be much better off with a honey badger?


Aaron Scott 139 wrote:
I liked it, but can we agree she'd be much better off with a honey badger?

They're less conversational.

But honey badger just don't care.


If I had gone Honey Badger he would have had to have been the protagonist, and the story would have pretty much been him getting envenomed by snakes and scorpions, napping, then waking up and eating said snakes and scorpions. Actually, that might have made a nice two-parter now that I think about it...

But ultimately, as Darkstrom says, those honey badgers just don't give a *ahem* -- I mean to say they just don't care.


Bill Ward wrote:

If I had gone Honey Badger he would have had to have been the protagonist, and the story would have pretty much been him getting envenomed by snakes and scorpions, napping, then waking up and eating said snakes and scorpions. Actually, that might have made a nice two-parter now that I think about it...

But ultimately, as Darkstrom says, those honey badgers just don't give a *ahem* -- I mean to say they just don't care.

In all seriousness, I really did like the story.


Aaron Scott 139 wrote:
Bill Ward wrote:

If I had gone Honey Badger he would have had to have been the protagonist, and the story would have pretty much been him getting envenomed by snakes and scorpions, napping, then waking up and eating said snakes and scorpions. Actually, that might have made a nice two-parter now that I think about it...

But ultimately, as Darkstrom says, those honey badgers just don't give a *ahem* -- I mean to say they just don't care.

In all seriousness, I really did like the story.

Thanks!

Contributor

I currently have a picture of just the badger on my wall with the title "Mordimor Jones: Action Badger!"

Look at the intensity of his gaze!

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Love the story so far. Really liking the Gnome and hope we get a drawing of her.

Contributor

The gnome is definitely fun and having fun and doing illusions the way they should be played. I particularly like the description about "making a Calistrian blush."

Looking forward to the rest of the tale.


James Sutter wrote:

I currently have a picture of just the badger on my wall with the title "Mordimor Jones: Action Badger!"

Look at the intensity of his gaze!

OMG, I just realized something. Honey badger + Ultimate Races play test = one bad @ss race that just doesn't give a $@#t.


Aaron Scott 139 wrote:
James Sutter wrote:

I currently have a picture of just the badger on my wall with the title "Mordimor Jones: Action Badger!"

Look at the intensity of his gaze!

OMG, I just realized something. Honey badger + Ultimate Races play test = one bad @ss race that just doesn't give a $@#t.

They'd probably even have human animal companions.

Paizo Employee Chief Creative Officer, Publisher

Or maybe a cobra.

Or a stupid bird.


I also am very much enjoying the story, the characters are great! I love the mischevious gnome.

Badger of Action

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Mordimer Jones approves of this web fiction installment.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Just wanted to comment. This:

The Box wrote:
A glow like daylight emerged from the wizard's left hand, from the onyx and platinum ring that bore his family seal and was an integral part of his magic.

Is a simple and yet perfect way to describe a bonded item.


The Box wrote:
A glow like daylight emerged from the wizard's left hand, from the onyx and platinum ring that bore his family seal and was an integral part of his magic.
Matthew Morris wrote:
This is a simple and yet perfect way to describe a bonded item.

Agreed! I love finding things in fiction that will help me to be a better DM, especially descriptions of Magic. That's a minor weak point in my DMing style that I am trying to work on. Reading the fiction helps immensely.

Thank you Bill Ward and the other authors who contribute to the fiction of Golarion!

Community / Forums / Archive / Pathfinder / Pathfinder Tales / Paizo Blog: The Box--Chapter Three: Nothing Ventured All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.
Recent threads in Pathfinder Tales