Thieves Vinegar

by Kevin Andrew Murphy

Chapter Four: The Hall of Whispers

You might think that watching cultists devour a corpse would be the most horrible sight one could witness.

You'd be wrong.

The most horrible sight is watching those cultists throwing the corpse back up while a vampire vomits. This latter is particularly bad when you remember who the priestess seated me opposite. If I ever hear a bard say the words "bathed in blood" again, I swear I'll kick him.

I wanted to kick my brother, but he'd saved us. While the cultists dealt with their unexpected illness, he'd located a secret side door and unlocked it with a mithral chime, then bustled us through. When the door was safely latched behind us again, he began to explain about harmonics and sympathetic vibrations, but I really didn't care. I was covered with the blood of Zharmides the Godless while Norret didn't have a speck on him. He'd been standing safely out of range, painting the portrait.

Norret was actually quite pleased with how it had turned out, and I had to admit that it was well done, assuming one likes portraits of cultists slicing up dead naked wizards. I was in the back, holding the unicorn horn spoon in one hand and the vampire's lavalier in the other. Rhodel was there as well, holding Zharmides' damned snuffbox with the lions and lilies, like a treasure chest for a pixie pirate queen.

Norret was happy that he'd found such a good use for the canvas, while I was upset because Urgathoa's pepper mill was still amethyst even though Rhodel wasn't touching it.

"Hmm, interesting." Norret took it, holding it by the chain as it went white. He touched it with his bare fingers, watching it change to rose quartz.

He handed it back. While it was pink for a moment, it swiftly purpled. "But I'm not undead!"

"Probably another false positive," Norret speculated. "It may test for some other property. Perhaps Urgathoa's approval."

I was about to protest that I didn't know why Urgathoa, goddess of sickness and escaping your grave, might approve of me, but I bit my tongue. Plus I'd just had a vampire get sick all over me. "What was in that vial?"

"Syrup of ipecac," Norret replied, "a powerful emetic. It's made from the root of the ipecacuanha plant. Didn't I tell you?"

He hadn't, nor had he told me we'd be traveling through Korvosa's sewers.

He was still holding the map he'd purchased before, tracing imaginary lines on it as we made turn after turn through the stinking—but admittedly rather spacious—tunnels beneath the streets. I didn't like to think about why folks would need to build them so large.

Norret was mumbling to himself, counting his paces. Each time I started to breach the silence, he waved my questions away, lest I interrupt his rapidly expanding total. At last he said, "If we went left there, then we should be under it right about..."

We turned a corner, and found a wall with an unmarked iron door set into it.

"Perfect!" Norret said. He opened his box labeled Hessim, Newby, & Sage Paint Manufactory's Complete Pigment Panoply. He selected the smallest pot of paint—already half empty—took a nip of some elixir, and set to painting an intricate key on a page of his formulary. He blew on it to dry, then held up the book and shook it.

A complicated iron key fell into his hand.

Norret corked the tiny sample pot, cleaned the brush, and put away the set.

The key fit the lock like it was made for it.


Nella is a tricky one, that's for sure.

An iron staircase wound upward. Occasionally passageways branched off. Terrible screams and moans echoed from those halls. We passed a silver mirror, and in it I glimpsed Rhodel talking with two men dressed as guards. No one stood on the stairs.

At last we came to another door with a keyhole. Norret inserted the iron key. It turned.

It opened out into a library—an unusually round one—with the door a hidden panel disguised as a shelf of books. A moment later I realized that all the books were false. They were made out of bronze, the same as the busts of the dead wizards and the statues of the past headmasters of the Acadamae. The floor was black marble inlaid with silver circles and arcane diagrams, and the dome above was painted midnight blue and spangled with stars. In the middle hung a great glass lantern painted to look like the moon, but from this angle, it looked more like a skull.

"It's the columbarium," I breathed. "The Hall of Whispers...."

As I said the words, they were repeated, ghostly echoes whispering around the room.

"Oh!" exclaimed Norret. "A whispering gallery! I've read about these! Some interesting acoustical properties here...."

His words echoed around the room as well, hissing and whispering as they passed the bronze books and the effigies of wizards past. Then they were followed by other words, repeated whispers not spoken by my brother: "Ya thievin' packrats! Give back what ya stole!"

There, before an alcove with his bust, stood Zharmides the Godless–completely transparent. But this time, thankfully, with his clothes.

Something was wrong, subtly wrong, but I couldn't quite say what.

"Give it back!" he wailed. "Give back my iv'ry chest or I'll curse ya ta–"

Suddenly the scent of ectoplasm and roses manifested as another ghost appeared—one I knew—and I realized what was wrong. Zharmides looked like a ghost, but didn't smell like one. Ever since I'd died and come back, I'd had the ability to sense ghosts by smell. And this one didn't smell at all.

Rhodel stared eye to eye with her fellow ghost. "Boo!" she said as she reached up and flicked his hat.

Zharmides' bowler raised in the air, hissing, while lines of blood appeared, trickling down his face. His hat flew atop his bronze bust and turned into a pug-nosed orange tabby. "Marcat! No!" the dead wizard cried in a feminine voice.

Rhodel disappeared, smirking.

The ghost of Zharmides the Godless turned toward us.

"My mistake." Nella Cailean's illusion melted. "Never pick drama over believability. I should have just impersonated Headmaster Ornelos." She shrugged. "Anyway, I still want the little ivory chest." She held out her hand.

"Why?" I almost screamed. "Are all wizards mad? What's so important about a snuffbox?"

"Sivanah only knows!" she laughed. "But all the older instructors have them, so I intend to find out."

"And how'd you know we'd be here?"

"My main field of study is illusion, but I dabble in divination as well. I spy with my little scry..." She produced a sheet of paper and grinned at Norret. "I still haven't figured out your claw spell, but a page from an alchemist's formulary and a handwriting sample? Can't ask for better sympathy than that."

"I thought I felt someone was watching me," said Norret.

"And a whole lot more will be if you don't give me Zharmides' snuffbox." She paused. "And the vault key. I only reserved the columbarium for an hour, and you must have alerted half the spectral spies."

A knock sounded at a door on the other side of the chamber.

"Reserved!" Nella cried. "Summoning!"

"Acadamae security!"

Nella looked at Norret. "Give me the goods, and I'll get you out. Refuse, and you deal with the guards."

"So will you."

"I'm a student. I'm used to it. You?" She cocked her head. "Did you hear the screams in the halls below?"

"Fine," he agreed. "Just be quick." He placed the key and the snuffbox in her hand.

They disappeared up her sleeve. "Understood." Nella wove her hands in the air, muttering arcane syllables. My brother's appearance melted, reforming into the image of Arlunia Ehrmande, Lecturer in Charms.

The door opened and three hellspawn entered the chamber.

"You fools!" Nella screamed. "I summoned a drekavac, and now it's out of its circle!" She pointed at me.

"What's a drekavac?" the first hellspawn asked.

The second stared at me in horror. "You summoned a plague spirit?" He turned to Nella. "Are you insane?"

The third remarked, "Don't drekavacs have animal heads?"

"It's a greater drekavac!" Nella improvised. "A bloody drekavac! A child who died of the plague!"

So far as I knew, I'd only died of a fever, but Nella's lies were uncomfortably close to the truth. I was also acutely aware that I was still drenched in the blood of Zharmides the Godless.

"Professor Ehrmande, do you think you can hold it?" Nella asked breathily.

"I think so," said Norret in his normal, masculine voice.

The hellspawn stared at him. "Does she have the plague?"

Norret coughed.

"Save yourselves!" cried Nella.

The hellspawn ran out the door.

Nella produced a wand. "Hold hands and run for the Acadamae gates. This won't last long." She touched me with the wand and said a single word: "Fernseed." Then she touched Norret. "Fernseed," she pronounced again and he vanished.

We were invisible. We ran for the open door and out into the Hall of Whispers. We found the main entrance by following the cries of "Drekavac! Drekavac! Run!"

We were out on the lawn, out the front gates, and halfway down a side street before the spell wore off. The illusion of Arlunia Ehrmande lasted a little longer, but was gone by the time we found a bridge to cross the Narrows of Saint Alika.

By the time we got to the Old Quay, I was staggering. Norret covered me with his cloak, and I finally slept.

∗∗∗

Teleportation is an awful way to wake up, but it was followed by the realization that we were back in Galt, in the Primrose Suite.

Sweet Galt. How I'd missed her.

"Blue Liberty!" Dr. Orontius swore. "What happened, Orlin? You look like you were in the front row at a particularly spectacular beheading!"

I wanted to say, "No, a vampire got sick on me," then found that I already had. Before I hardly knew what I was doing, the whole story came out. Norret even had pictures, including his painting of the cult's feast just before they all threw up.

Dr. Orontius worked a small spell, making all the blood that covered me vanish, then Norret told the rest of the tale, including how he'd lost the snuffbox.

"'Nella Cailean,' you say?" asked Dr. Orontius. "Saucy little minx. Well, two can play at the scrying game...."

"Unless there's lead in the way."

"Well, yes," admitted Dr. Orontius, "but it's not that common."

"White lead is also the primary ingredient in flake white, which I used to gesso my canvas." Norret opened his case of pigments, revealing a full jar of white paint. "I used to be a soldier, so I'm familiar with the feeling of being scried on." Norret reached into the jar and removed a tiny chest. "I assumed you could clean this off."

"Splendid!" cried Dr. Orontius. "You painted the snuffbox in the portrait twice, once with mundane pigments, once with the marvelous ones?"

"Yes," said Norret.

Dr. Orontius chuckled heartily. "Knowing what I do, Nella should be heartily surprised when she discovers that her prize is a fake!" He repeated the blood-removing charm, but this time it stripped paint, leaving a pretty little ivory snuffbox, complete with gilded scrimshaw lions and lilies.

He opened the tiny chest, bringing it to his nose and sniffing. "Ah yes, dear Zharmides always favored Peshpetal Blend." He snapped it shut and held it to his heart. "I will cherish this memento and think of him always."

"You could cherish that and think of him too." I pointed to the portrait of the cultists devouring Zharmides' corpse.

Dr. Orontius looked uncomfortable. "Yes, well, perhaps I might use that to retrieve some fragment of his body."

"So what's the snuffbox for?"

"Clever boy." He pinched my cheek. "Perhaps one day, if you are clever enough, you might attend the Acadamae and learn that secret." He patted me on the head for good measure. "But presently, you must work. Breakfast won't fix itself!"

There is something wrong with a world where ghouls and vampires are more polite and grateful than a houseful of scholars. I went out to the garden, let out the chickens that had been cooped up all day, and took in a double helping of eggs.

The post-execution day omelets were late the next morning, but they were seasoned with thileu bark. I declared them "Omelets Korvosa." If I didn't need to tell the boarders about unicorn bone porridge, I didn't need to tell them about Urgathoa's pepper mill either.

I was beginning to fix lunch when the bell for the Primrose Suite began jangling. Dr. Orontius had some nerve. But when the wire pulled the spring out of the wall and slammed the bell into the ceiling, I realized something was seriously wrong.

"Rhodel, get Norret!" I raced for the Primrose Suite.

Norret was already there, staring at the door, his monocle pushed up on his forehead. A horrible banging and cursing came from the suite, mixed with the screeching of an owl. Norret was half-shaven, holding a mug and shaving brush.

He pushed the monocle back in place, spat in his shaving mug, and painted the doorframe with the resulting lather.

Norret pushed me down on the floor. The lather sizzled and exploded, the entire door and doorframe falling out into the hall. Plaster dust swirled through the air like smoke.

Through the new arch into the Primrose Suite, I saw Dr. Orontius being beaten over the head with a gold-topped cane by Zharmides the Godless. Meanwhile, a green winged monkey-gremlin-thing attempted to garrote our boarder with the bell pull while an owl clawed at it.

Norret still had his pomander orbiting his head. He hurled it at the gremlin, angling the opening just so. The thing screeched, blinded by thieves vinegar. It looked like a beribboned, clove-studded orange-peel hat had been pulled down over its eyes.

"Get the homunculus," Norret said. "I'll get the wizard."

I wasn't certain how I was supposed capture a flying manikin, but then I spotted a bell jar on the mantel. It was covering a clock the same size as the homunculus.

I used my spirit's hand to tweak its nose. The homunculus flew up as I caught it in the jar, clapping the open end down to the surface of Dr. Orontius's traveler's trunk. The thing raged against the glass, but it was too heavy for it to lift.

With a terrific thundering that rattled the windows and knocked all the pictures askew, Zharmides the Godless blew up—fortunately into flecks of shaving cream and shadows rather than blood and gore like the last time he'd been ripped apart. A torn scrap of parchment fluttered down, and Dr. Orontius's owl familiar caught it. He dropped it in my hands before taking his customary perch atop the bust of Nethys and looking at me expectantly.

I examined the parchment. It was half of a magical figure—half a circle, half a square, and the upper half of Zharmides the Godless, holding his cane in one hand, his arms shown in two positions, like an architectural diagram for a jumping jack. More sympathetic magic.

I turned. The lower half of the symbol was pasted inside the open lid of another large chest, an ivory one. But it was still possible to see that this one was scrimshawed with lions and lilies and filled with books.

"Thank you," Dr. Orontius wheezed, loosening the bell pull from his throat. "Your assistance is appreciated but was not strictly–"

"It's Zharmides' trunk," I said. "The real one. The little snuffbox is just a focus, isn't it?"

Dr. Orontius harrumphed, but he couldn't hide the guilty expression. "How was I to know—"

I cut him off. "You use the paintings when you teleport somewhere. By the same principles, you use your snuffbox to teleport your traveler's trunk to you later when you want it. Why go back to your library when you can have your library brought to you? Zharmides knew the same trick, but to get his books, you needed his snuffbox. Which would have all worked out fine, except he left his homunculus inside the larger chest along with a trap."

"A symbol," Dr. Orontius said, feeling the lumps on his head. "I'm not certain which one...."

I handed Dr. Orontius the upper half of the torn piece of paper.

Norret beamed like a proud parent. But he was actually just my brother, and someone had to have a head for business. "I don't know what deal you had with Norret," I said, "but I'll be making up a bill."

I stepped out over the rubble, adding, "There will be no further room service."

Coming Next Week: A sample chapter from Richard Lee Byers' new Pathfinder Tales novel Called to Darkness, starring the Kellid warrior Kagur and her quest for vengeance against the frost giant that killed her family!

Kevin Andrew Murphy is the author of numerous stories, poems, and novels, as well as a writer for Wild Cards, George R. R. Martin's shared-world anthology line. His previous Pathfinder Tales stories include "The Secret of the Rose and Glove" and "The Perfumer's Apprentice" (also starring Norret and Orlin), and "The Fifth River Freedom," the fourth chapter of Prodigal Sons in the Kingmaker Pathfinder's Journal. For more information, visit his website.

Illustration by Carmen Cianelli

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Carmen Cianelli Kevin Andrew Murphy Web Fiction

Is it me, or does Nella look like she should be a Companion to the Doctor?

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Ah, I guessed the secret chest, but didn't guess the double bluff.

Also glad to see my question answered...


I also did not see the double bluff with the snuffbox and the white lead paint.

One of my friends wrote to let me know that he was catching up on Web Fiction today. His comment on the Feast of Urgathoa. "Ewwww... I'll bet you really enjoyed that scene, Aaron." My response: "Hey, I'm an entomophage, not a cannibal! But, yeah, it was a great scene."

So... when are we going to see a KAM novel in the Pathfinder Tales line? I'm just curious.

Here is why I am asking: So far to date, I have enjoyed everything that Kevin Andrew Murphy has written in Golarion. That includes the stuff that he has written for Wayfinder. I'll admit that The Secret of the Rose and Glove took a second reading for me to REALLY figure out what was going on, but that's not a bad thing. He has the best descriptions of alchemy and magic that I have seen.

-Aaron

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

I agree Itchy.

Also think Dario should see if KAM would write some fiction for his Radiance RPG.

The Exchange

I really enjoyed this story, even the gross undead feast, and didn't see the double bluff, though I did figure Norret had something up his sleeve (so to speak). The only thing missing is there was no picture of the feast Norret painted. I think that would have been more fun to illustrate than Nella. ;)
I like Orlin as a narrator, but I also hope that we get another story where KAM uses Norret's voice, too. They have their own points of view on things so it would be interesting. It would also be cool to see Rhodel as a narrator some time.

Also, I second (third?)the KAM Pathfinder novel.


This. Was. Great! :D


I primarily read these stories for escapism.

One thing I find unsatisfactory from this viewpoint is that Orlin doesn't do anything.

He's there, but no magic, no actions. I'm guessing he is a haunted oracle. To me it would be a lot more interesting if he started to use some sort of magic.

Contributor

Wow. As James promised, Carmen outdid herself. Really loving the illustration of Nella.

Xorial--

Nella does indeed look like she could be one of the Doctor's companions, and I think he'd happily take her. (And six degrees of separation-wise, I've recently been working on Wild Cards with Paul Cornell, one of the Doctor Who writers. Though I'm an old Who fan too, so it may just be that.)

Matthew--

The fun of mysteries is keeping the surprises coming so that everyone can have fun guessing.

And I'm glad to have answered your question.

Itchy/Aaron--

Thank you. And I'm glad you enjoyed the double bluff with the snuffbox and the white lead paint. A lot of the fun is working with the mythology and metaphysics of the universe, and part of the trouble of keeping a mystery going in a universe with magic is foiling divination.

And I'm glad your friend enjoyed--if that's the right word--Urgathoa's feast.

Zeugma--

Glad you enjoyed. While I think a picture of the painting would have been fun, we're also talking about an old naked dead man, so the NSFW-ness of that would have come into play. Plus I'm really pleased to see the illustrations of Nella and Rhodel, and I would be sorry to lose either of those. As for who is narrator, Orlin is fun, but I do like telling stories from other perspectives as well.

Tacticslion--

Thank you.

sunbeam--

Orlin's magic, aside from his spirit hand, tends to be much more in the way of divination, and his spells tend to be more instinctive than purposefully cast. There's also some variation from the usual--Orlin smells the undead, rather than seeing their auras--and he very much wants to be a normal little boy, so he denies a lot of what he's doing or blames it on something else.


Zeugma wrote:

I really enjoyed this story, even the gross undead feast, and didn't see the double bluff, though I did figure Norret had something up his sleeve (so to speak). The only thing missing is there was no picture of the feast Norret painted. I think that would have been more fun to illustrate than Nella. ;)

I like Orlin as a narrator, but I also hope that we get another story where KAM uses Norret's voice, too. They have their own points of view on things so it would be interesting. It would also be cool to see Rhodel as a narrator some time.

Also, I second (third?)the KAM Pathfinder novel.

If they did an Norret/Orlin novel, we could see both doing narration in different parts of the book.


2 protagonists max please! 27 is too many (I'm looking at you, fantasy genre!)

Sczarni

Ewwww, I was right about the syrup!

Great story,Mr. Murchy, and an excellent twist at the end.

Sczarni

Sorry, Mr. Murphy. Not Mr. Murchy.


The Devil is in the Details

Slightly off topic, but I just finished reading Prodigal Sons, which Kevin Andrew Murphy contributed to, and I think I finally hit on what I truly enjoy about his writing.

Kevin Andrew Murphy provides detailed yet entertaining descriptions of key environments or aspects of the story. Instead of the dry, "A lavish feast was laid out on the table." He provides a lavish and funny description of how to make a Turduckeon from fantasy animals along with the other accoutrements that are on the table. In the Norrett/Orlin stories it comes out in his descriptions of the science of how alchemy and magic work. It's what keeps me coming back and rereading these stories.

-Aaron

Contributor

MaxKaladin--

Alternating between Norret and Orlin is a possibility. It depends mostly on the story being told.

Tangaroa--

But what if you like twenty-seven protagonists? But that's generally better for telling the saga of a world, or an epic. One or two or three is generally enough for most standalone books. (Then again, I've also worked on the Wild Cards mosaic novels.)

Trinite--

Yes, you were right about the syrup. Poor Orlin could have profited by that knowledge. Glad you enjoyed the twists and the story.

Itchy/Aaron--

Descriptions are something I pay careful attention to. You can let readers know so much about what a character knows and values through their perceptions, plus descriptions are a great place to hide clues for a mystery, illuminate the world, and have fun in general. (The "turduckeon" in Prodigal Sons is based on a similar dish once served for Queen Elizabeth, and the other feast items are based on assorted medieval spectacle dishes.) I'm glad you're enjoying the stories and descriptions and coming back and rereading them.


Also love the attention to detail, esp. concerning the magic system and the metaphysical explanations. Few authors make such a good use of D&D's quirky magic imho.

Re: Orlin's apparent in action: you have to remember he casts subconsciously. And you might count Rhodel's actions as Orlin's depending on if she's a real ghost or just made up by Orlin via ghost sound and silent image (which would also explain his inaction as he has to concentrate (subconsciously even!:-) to maintain the image.

Or is Rhodel real? She does not appear to be haunting him very malevolently btw...

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

The attention to detail is what I love about KAM's writing too. I've been reading long enough that I don't honestly remember if my own love of 'how the world works' is influenced by him or if it is parallel development. :-)

Aside joke for KAM. I am seriously thinking about playing an Aasimar (Peri-blooded) and working up to the wings trick. Just so at 10th level...

Spoiler:
Peri, Peri, spread your wings, show us all your pretty things. :-)


I was glad to see Norret back in another story, I really like the character. It was interesting reading the story from the viewpoint of his brother. I think Mr Murphy managed to give it a different tone than the previous stories, by using a different style.
As other mentioned before, I’d gladly read another novel with Norret, or better, a book.


勝20100 wrote:

I was glad to see Norret back in another story, I really like the character. It was interesting reading the story from the viewpoint of his brother. I think Mr Murphy managed to give it a different tone than the previous stories, by using a different style.

As other mentioned before, I’d gladly read another novel with Norret, or better, a book.

If you are absolutely starving for more Norret/Orlin fiction. You could pick up the Reign of Winter Adventure Path that is currently being released. Each book has a chapter of the Norret/Orlin novella that Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote for the AP.

I haven't started reading it yet because I'm waiting for the full story to come out, but I did glance in enough to make sure it was a Norret/Orlin Tale. When I get the last book, I'll sit down one night after the kids are asleep and read the whole thing through. Which reminds me that I need to do that with the novella in the Shattered Star AP...

-Aaron

Scarab Sages

I was pleasantly surprised to discover another Orlin and Norret story here.

Here's me hoping we might get a future novel about Galt's two unlikely sons?


This was pretty cool, I enjoyed the dark humor.

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