Rodrick dropped the bell and scrambled toward the slope that led back to the barrow. The linnorm uncoiled with impossible speed, and suddenly its head filled Rodrick's vision, blocking his route to the treasure room.
The miniature snowstorm Rodrick had accidentally spawned with the bell sent snowflakes spiraling all around, limiting visibility, but not enough to matter at this range. The coins and stones beneath the soles of his feet were icy, so cold Rodrick worried he'd lose his toes to frostbite—and then realized such a worry was the least of his problems, as he was standing nose-to-snout with a linnorm.
Rodrick had never seen a dragon or dragon-type creature in person, but this one looked more or less like the statues and drawings of such creatures: a huge reptilian head with twisted horns, immense black eyes, and a mouth full of teeth like broken daggers. It was unmistakably an apex predator of such power and size that Rodrick would barely count as a mouthful.
He froze, still holding Hrym aloft, as the creature gazed at him. It opened its jaws, and Rodrick prepared himself to be bitten in half. The preparation mostly involved whimpering and trembling.
Instead, the creature began to draw in a vast breath. Rodrick's relief lasted only for an instant. Could linnorms breathe fire, or ice, or poison, as their less snakelike cousins the dragons did?
At least it would be a quick death, Rodrick thought. Not as good as no death, but better than many of the other alternatives.
"Point me at the beast!" Hrym shouted.
Rodrick complied, though it was more of an involuntary muscle spasm than a conscious effort.
A cone of swirling, bluish-white crystals shot forth from the point of the sword, and the blade sent up great billows of freezing white mist. The linnorm disappeared in the torrent of ice, and when Hrym ceased his frigid attack, the beast's head was encased in an irregular ball of ice the size of a boulder. The linnorm's body began to whip around wildly, and Rodrick threw himself to one side—careful to keep his grip on the sword—to avoid being crushed by the creature's coils. The boots wrapped around his neck nearly strangled him in the process, but he managed to cram himself against the cavern wall.
The linnorm's ice-encrusted head slammed into the wall that led to the treasure room, smashing down enough rocks to block access to the barrow. Rodrick whimpered again—he was doing a lot of that lately. Trapped in a cavern, in a magical ice storm, barefoot, with a furious linnorm lashing around. The day just got better and better.
The torch he'd jammed into the coins was dislodged by the beast's lashings, and it came sliding down the mound of treasure toward Rodrick. He scooted away on his butt to avoid having his feet set on fire, then picked up the torch. It flickered weakly, its fuel nearly extinguished. The thought of being trapped here blind was too horrible to contemplate.
The linnorm continued to bash its head against the cavern wall, trying to break the armor of ice before it suffocated. Rodrick wondered if it would die or escape before causing the entire cavern to cave in.
"Good thing it's a mountain linnorm," Hrym said. "They breathe fire—or, actually, molten rock. Ice linnorms are immune to my powers."
"How fortunate," Rodrick rasped. He struggled to his feet, shivering in the cold. "We have to kill the beast before it collapses the whole cavern on top of us."
"I wouldn't recommend that," Hrym said. "When linnorms die, they curse their killers. Don't you think your luck is bad enough already?"
"I'd rather be cursed and alive than blessed and dead, sword."
"Hmm," Hrym said. "You make a point. Being an immortal magical sword, I don't usually see things in those terms. There is another option, though."
The ball of ice encrusting the linnorm's head began to glow deeply red, like an immense ruby. Rodrick realized the monster was trying to use its breath weapon—magical lava-breath versus magical ice. Which would prevail?
"Don't you want to hear about the other option—"
"Yes, yes, of course!" Rodrick shouted.
"We could just leave."
"The monster has sealed off the entry to the barrow—"
"Yes, I can see, you know, even if I don't have eyes. I don't mean we can leave that way. There's a tunnel toward the back of the chamber, probably too small for the linnorm to fit through. But a tiny little humanoid like you—"
Rodrick was moving before the sword even finished speaking. The cavern was brighter now, with the monster's fiery breath shining through the prism of ice around its head, casting rays of ruby light all around—and revealing a spot of deeper shadow in one wall, a tunnel big enough for Rodrick to fit through if he crouched.
Once outside the main cavern, the horrible biting cold diminished. Rodrick's spine protested as he shuffled along bent forward, torch in one hand, icy sword in the other, following the curving contours of the tunnel. Behind him there was a great thump, and the sound of cascading rock. He paused and looked back in time to see the mouth of the tunnel go totally black, sealed off by a cave collapse.
"Is it dead?" he asked.
"I don't know," Hrym said. "Do you feel cursed?"
"Now that you mention it... But wouldn't you be the one to get cursed?"
"I believe traditionally the wielder of a weapon is held to be the responsible party, not the weapon itself."
Rodrick grunted. He leaned Hrym against the tunnel wall, jammed the spluttering torch into a scree of small stones, and sat down on a flattish outcropping of rock. He crammed his feet—they felt like lumps of ice—into the magical boots, which shifted and squirmed to fit his feet perfectly. He leaned against the wall with his eyes closed and exhaled. "It's good to be alive."
"I wouldn't know."
The thief opened one eye. "You can shoot ice, then. That's handy."
"Oh, that's just a small part of what I can do. I hail from the north, and all things of frost, ice, and cold are within my power."
"I don't suppose you can withdraw cold? My ears are freezing."
"No, but I could make the rest of you even colder, to make the ears seem warm in comparison."
"I think I'll pass," Rodrick said. "Do you have any other tricks? Glowing in the presence of evil, flying around and fighting on your own, things like that?"
"Total elemental mastery of ice isn't enough for you?"
"Yes, well. Hmm. So you can't move on your own, then. You need a wielder. Someone to carry you around."
"Yes, humans are to me as horses are to humans."
"Ha. Horses aren't the ones who decide where to go, though."
The sword's voice grew harder. "A man who tries to take me somewhere I don't wish to go will find himself with his hand frozen off, adventurer. And now that we're on the subject, I don't want to be carried around—I want to rest on a heap of treasure. Specifically the untold riches I was promised. Shouldn't we be on our way?"
"Do you know a way out of this black cave, then?"
"I barely knew there was a tunnel. I just remembered glimpsing this one when the linnorm dragged me into his hoard. Aren't you living creatures attuned to subtle drafts and currents of air and so forth?"
"Not especially." Rodrick stood up, his head brushing the top of the tunnel. "But it's not as if we're faced with a wealth of choices. This tunnel only goes in one direction."
"If you die and leave me stuck in some dark hole with no gold I will be very annoyed."
"I'm sure knowledge of your unhappiness will make my afterlife miserable, sword."
Rodrick picked up the sword and the torch and made his way along the tunnel, trying in vain to feel a waft of air suggesting a route to the upper world. He also did his best to avoid facing the possibility that he might simply be sealed in the dark forever, plunging ever deeper, eventually starving to death. The torch's light grew ever more inconstant and flickering as he progressed, and he wondered how long he'd be able to force himself to keep going once the light was gone, and he was inching along by feel—
"Do you hear that?" Hrym said.
Rodrick cocked his head. He did hear something—a distant sort of knocking, seemingly coming from the rock wall before him. "It's not the linnorm," he said. "That's still behind us, unless I've become hopelessly turned around."
"Jam me in that crack in the rock," Hrym said. "As far in as you can."
"As you wish." Rodrick shoved the point of the sword into a fissure in the wall. "Now what—"
The exposed length of sword began to steam and billow mist, and ice crystals poured out of the hole. Cracks spread across the wall, like thin ice breaking over a pond, as magical frost filled every minute fissure and pushed it wider.
"If you bury me, you stupid sword—"
The wall collapsed inward in a cascade of frozen stone, and Hrym stopped steaming mist. A hole three feet across yawned open at chest height, light glowing on the other side. A man with a filthy face, holding a pickaxe, gaped in astonishment at Rodrick.
"Hi there," the thief said, clambering through the hole, leaving the torch behind. "A miner, are you? Good man. I have only the greatest admiration for those who wrestle wealth from the very bowels of the world—"
"Are you mining for gold?" Hrym said. "Answer me, man!"
The miner stared, wide-eyed, at the talking sword, then dropped his pickaxe and ran away, leaving a sack and a lantern behind with his tools.
"Hmm," Rodrick said. "We may as well follow him. I doubt he's running in terror deeper into the mine, so he's probably headed for the surface."
"I don't see anything shiny at all," Hrym said. "They must be mining something boring here."
Rodrick picked up the lantern and began to walk, whistling, through the tunnel. "Things are looking up, sword. You'll be resting on a bed of gold in no time, and more importantly, so will I—"
A dwarf stepped from a side tunnel and into Rodrick's path. He wore a miner's helmet set with a magical glowing gem, and held a battleaxe with a head approximately as large as his own chest.
"Breaking into my mine?" he rumbled. "Trying to steal from me? Nobody steals from me! This mine is mine!"
"You don't—" Rodrick began, but then the dwarf was coming at him, axe held high.
Coming Next Week: Finder's fees and disillusionment in Chapter Three of Tim Pratt's "Bastard, Sword"!
Tim Pratt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Liar's Blade and City of the Fallen Sky, as well as the short story "A Tomb of Winter's Plunder." His 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. His non-Pathfinder 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 Rags & Bones with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.
Illustration by Greg Opalinski.