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.
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!"
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?"
"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