Alaeron had been prepared for a violent reaction, and so when Rodrick drew his sword, he tossed back a vial of extract—the one he'd planned to use to help him creep through the barrow undetected. Rodrick was fast, and Alaeron's preparation might have been useless if the man hadn't been standing in the ruin of his dead friend, which necessitated careful footing rather than a headlong charge.
Alaeron shivered as the extract—which tasted strongly of wormwood—took effect. The only change from Alaeron's viewpoint was a certain fuzziness around his peripheral vision, but Rodrick paused, frowning, and Alaeron moved as silently as he could to the far side of the entry chamber.
"Invisibility," Alaeron said, and Rodrick snapped his head around, looking straight at the spot where Alaeron had spoken... which was why the alchemist never stopped moving, creeping back and forth as he talked. "I find it makes conversations with armed men more pleasant. I am not here to fight you. I was in the forest gathering botanical samples—I'm an alchemist, not a wizard, if you were wondering—when I noticed the barrow had been disturbed. I investigated, and heard your friend trigger the trap there."
Rodrick knelt and snuffed out the lantern, plunging the room into darkness, except for faint illumination around the door.
Alaeron moved toward the door, hoping Rodrick would hesitate to approach the light. "Ah, making yourself just as invisible as I am. That's good. I can tell already you'll be a great ally." He listened, but heard nothing, not the faintest scrape of leather on stone or the clink of shifting chainmail. "I gather from the blood on the barrow door that there was some magical ward your friend's blood was able to overcome?" Only more silence. "And that, with his death, you feel you cannot continue, as you have discovered another warded door? I only came in, you see, because I know how you can open that door—"
Something cold touched Alaeron's cheek, but he had the strength of will not to flinch. "Is that a dagger blade?" he said, moving his lips as little as possible when he spoke.
"It is," Rodrick breathed in his ear. "Tell me how you can open the door."
"If your friend's blood is the key... at the risk of being indelicate, he still has lots of blood, now more accessible than ever. It would be trivial to gather some and use it to loosen the wards."
The knife moved slightly, the flat of the blade against his cheek gradually becoming the stinging edge. "Of course I still have his blood," Rodrick said. "But I don't have his knowledge. Only Simeon knew which runes should be daubed with blood—and marking the wrong one could set off some horrible trap. But perhaps I can profit from this trip anyway. I'm sure some of your potions are valuable."
Most of Alaeron's potions would have no effect on anyone but himself, being fuelled by his own aura, and the few that could be used by others didn't have beneficial effects, but Alaeron didn't point that out. "Ah, well, of course," he said. "But I can read the runes, so I know where to put the blood."
After a long moment, Rodrick chuckled, and the knife withdrew. While Alaeron tried to decide whether or not he could move, the light of the lantern flared anew. "Prove it," Rodrick said, crouching by the inner door, sword sheathed, dagger in hand.
"We should formalize our arrangement," Alaeron said. "I will accompany you into the barrow, lending my considerable skills to your enterprise, and we will divide any relics or treasures we find equally."
Rodrick's ethics leave something to be desired.
"That's fine, if you can actually get us in."
"Move away from the door." Alaeron knelt and dabbed his handkerchief into a bit of Simeon's readily available blood. Rodrick narrowed his eyes. Seeing a bloody bit of rag floating through the air, moved by an invisible hand, was probably unsettling. "Bring the light closer," Alaeron said, and Rodrick held up the lantern while the alchemist squinted at the markings on the door. They were far less weathered on the interior barrier, which made them much easier to read.
Not that Alaeron could read them, really. The language seemed Northern, but the Mammoth Lords and Linnorm Kings didn't produce much written work, so Alaeron had never learned their writing. But he'd seen the runes Simeon daubed with blood outside, and now he saw the same pattern here, on a different part of the door, so he thought it was worth a try. It was strange to find Northern runes here, so close to the Inner Sea, and focusing on that anomaly was a nice alternative to thinking about how he might soon be pulped or fried by a magical trap.
But the door swung open at the touch of the blood, and Alaeron stepped back, keeping an eye on Rodrick in case the man decided to take a stab at Alaeron's invisible kidneys. "There. Do we have an agreement?"
"All right," Rodrick said. "But only because there may be more runes inside that need reading. I get first pick of the loot. You get my cast-offs."
"I woke up this morning expecting no profit beyond a few herbs," Alaeron said. "The prospect of any treasure at all is delightful to me." He was confident that he could manipulate Rodrick into taking shiny but less valuable items. Alaeron filled a vial with more of Simeon's blood, just in case there were further wards inside.
"In we go, invisible man." Rodrick stepped through the opening, lantern in hand. Alaeron followed, keeping an eye out for traps. The corridor, just wide enough for two men to go abreast, was angled steeply downward, suggesting that much of the barrow was dug into the ground, or built into natural caverns. There were faintly glowing lights ahead—luminous crystals or fungi, of the kind cultivated by builders of subterranean lairs. "You don't seem terribly upset by the death or your friend," Alaeron said.
"What? Oh, Simeon. I see. You're under the impression that I'm a rich idiot, like he was."
That was quite true. The fact that Rodrick knew that much was worrisome. Rich idiots were generally so used to being treated like brilliant paragons that they never doubted themselves, or expected anyone else to doubt them, either.
"I'm not a rich idiot," Rodrick said. "I'm an impoverished genius. I've been posing as a wealthy brat, and cultivating Simeon's friendship for weeks. I knew he was wealthy and had poor judgment, which meant some opportunity for profit would present itself. When he told me about the barrow of his avaricious uncle Brant, crammed with all the pillage Brant was too greedy to pass on, I knew that was my target. I convinced Simeon's parents to send him to the retreat—he was always sickly. The waters may even have done him some good, so at least he died in good health. But I wanted him at the retreat because it's so close to the barrow. "
Alaeron recalled that he wasn't supposed to know anything about these men, and tried to ask an appropriate question. "But if Simeon was wealthy, why would he agree to go graverobbing with you?"
"Oh, I lured him into a crooked card game at the tavern in the village south of the retreat, run by a man I know called the Ratter. Simon went deeply into debt, and his father's rather strict, and wouldn't have approved. I presented this as a convenient way of paying what he owed. I didn't expect him to die. I was going to play it straight. Why not? Ratter had agreed to split half of Simon's payment with me. But now that the poor boy is dead... at least I'll get a good price for his horse."
"You, sir, are a scoundrel," Alaeron said.
"There's no sort better to raid a tomb with," Rodrick said.
The corridor turned sharply, and something deeper in the tunnel whimpered. Rodrick put down the lantern, raised his dagger, and darted around the corner, Alaeron close behind him.
In a small alcove in the wall stood a petite young woman dressed in a blue-and-white checked dress, her blonde hair disarrayed, her face beautiful and smudged with tears, her eyes blue and wide.
"Have you come to save me?" she said. "I've been trapped here for so long!"
Rodrick lowered his dagger. "Of course," he said. "How did you come to be in this terrible place?"
"I can't remember." She shook her head, eyes spilling tears. "I was alone in the dark, I was so frightened..." She broke down in sobs.
"Would you like to escort her outside?" Alaeron said.
Rodrick snorted. "And leave you creeping through here on your own? I think not. We'll both take her."
"Please don't fight," she pleaded. She looked at Alaeron. "I only wish to be free of this dark and terrible place."
"Oh, am I visible again?" Alaeron said.
"As of a few moments ago," Rodrick said. "I assumed you knew."
"Yes, of course, I was just... distracted." Alaeron frowned. Something was... wrong. How had this woman gotten sealed inside the barrow? Had it been looted before, and then used as a headquarters by bandits with a penchant for kidnapping milkmaids? And why didn't any of those questions seem more urgent?
"I will lead," Rodrick said. "You, my dear, can follow me, and the alchemist will bring up the rear—"
"Oh, no, I'll go last. I don't wish to be in the way if there are dangers." She eased out of the alcove, sliding along the corridor with her back to the wall.
"Duck, alchemist." Rodrick said it casually. Alaeron acted without hesitation, dropping to the stone floor. Rodrick let fly with his dagger and put a hand on his sword. Alaeron scrambled to one side and turned to see the beautiful blonde crumpled on the floor of the corridor. She'd sprouted a dagger from her left eye socket.
"You killed her!" Alaeron shouted.
Roderick drew his sword. "Yes, of course I did. That was rather the point."
Coming Next Week: Frank discussions on the finer points of tomb raiding etiquette in Chapter Three of Tim Pratt's "A Tomb of Winter's Plunder."
Tim Pratt's writing has won a Hugo Award, a Rhysling Award, and an Emperor Norton Award, as well as been nominated for Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and Stoker Awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as two short story collections of his own. He novels include the contemporary fantasies The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Briarpatch; the Forgotten Realms novel Venom in Her Veins; and seven books in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series (as T. A. Pratt). He edited the anthology Sympathy for the Devil, and the forthcoming Rags & Bones anthology with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.