It was late, and the doors of Gozreh's temple were closed, but it was not so late that a bit of judicious knocking didn't get a response. A young acolyte cracked the door and squinted at Torius dubiously.
"We need to speak to the high priest immediately!" Torius gestured to the stiff form in Grogul's arms. "My friend..."
"The high priest is eating his supper." The acolyte seemed unmoved by the plea. "Perhaps tomorrow."
"We are faithful to Gozreh!" He produced the small golden leaf on a chain from the neck of his robes. "And we are not without resources." A handful of gold reinforced the plea, and gained them entry.
Like all temples to Gozreh that Torius had seen, this one was open to the sky, its walls of joined driftwood servin...g only to keep out the unfaithful, not the elements. In its center sat the traditional large pool of water, surrounded by native plant life. Katapesh being Katapesh, however, this particular temple was far from the humble hermitages and shrines one might find on a distant coast or otherwise uninhabited island. The head priest wore fine robes, and looked as if it had been some time since he last slept out under the open sky. He sat at a beautiful wooden table next to the reflecting pool, and looked none too pleased at being interrupted.
"It's late, Captain." The aged priest wiped the grease of his curried goat stew from his long beard. He squinted down at Snick's corpse as if it somehow offended him. "And there is no hurry. Perhaps in the morning."
"I've donated enough to your coffers in years past to buy this temple thrice over," Torius seethed, one hand clenching the hilt of his cutlass. "We urgently require information that our friend may have learned just prior to her death. I'm willing to pay whatever you deem fair."
"Oh. Well, information comes easier than treatment of her... um... condition. For a generous donation to the temple, we may be able to accommodate you."
"How generous?" Grogul growled, his flinty eyes narrow.
"And before you answer, consider my longstanding, and potential future support of this temple." Torius reached for his belt pouch.
After some haggling, they came to an agreement, and the priest led them across the garden and over to a stone slab, deeply engraved with the Gozreh's leaf symbol.
"Place her there."
When Grogul complied, the priest produced a matching leaf pendant from his robes and began a careful incantation. The symbol glowed with a deep blue light, and Snick's morbid features suddenly stirred. Sightless eyes blinked, and her mouth twitched, but her color remained the ashen hue of death. Grogul muttered an oath and took a step back.
"Ask your questions," the priest instructed.
"Snick!" He stepped forward. "Snick, I need to know where they took Celeste!"
"Celeste..." The gnome's voice was raspy, undoubtedly the result of being garroted. "They took her... Don't know where."
"I need to know about Caliel. What did he do with Celeste?"
"Caliel!" Her sightless eyes flung wide, pale lips drawn back in a rictus snarl, she hissed, "Traitor! He sold her to a man."
Torius' blood ran cold in his veins. "To who? Who paid him?"
"Don't know... Didn't see his face... Wizard."
"Blast!" Torius clenched his fists and thought furiously. "Do you know where Caliel's gone to?"
"No. South... Told his men Grand Arch at dawn."
"Good! Thank you, Snick." He rested a hand on her cool shoulder. "You rest now."
The spell faded, and Snick's pale features stilled.
"It will be expensive to bring her back, Captain," the priest warned.
"I don't care. I'll pay it." Torius looked up at the heavens and a shiver wracked his body. Could Celeste see the stars she so loved? Would she ever observe the night sky again? He knew what she would become if that was denied her for too long. He turned away without another glance at the priest. "Come on, Grogul. We've got to get back to the ship. We've got an appointment at the Grand Arch at dawn."
The crewmembers of the Stargazer were with him. Pirates they might be, but loyalty to one another was the key to their success and survival, and avarice was in their blood. Consequently, the opportunities to repay the treason of fellow crewmembers and reap a share of Caliel's payment for the sale of their navigator were serious incentives.
Well before dawn, Torius, Grogul and a dozen pirates were hidden among the simple homes along the road between Twilight Gate and the Grand Arch Bridge. Just as the sun peeked over the sea, seven desert-cloaked riders exited the gate astride fine mounts and headed toward the bridge.
"Horses," Grogul muttered with a note of disdain. "Figured that and brung a little surprise." He delved into a large bag and withdrew a heavy bola.
"Where'd you learn to use a thing like that?" Torius eyed the ungainly device dubiously.
"Wasn't always a pirate, Captain," the bosun replied with a grin.
"Fine. Just don't tip our hand." He watched the riders closely; they wore dust cloths across their faces, but he knew Caliel when he came close enough. When they were in position, he gave a high-pitched whistle and stepped into the street in front of the horses. Half his sailors stepped out beside him, and the rest filled the street behind the riders. Every pirate bore a loaded crossbow.
"That's as far as you go, you mutinous piece of dog meat!" Torius drew his sword and the riders pulled their mounts to a halt.
"Vin! How in the depths of Hell—"
"The shipmate you murdered gave us just enough information to find you, Caliel. Snick isn't here to cut her due out of your traitorous hide, but I'll wager you got enough from selling my navigator to pay a cleric for her return."
"Snick's dead?" Honest surprise registered in the half-elf's eyes. "Nosey gnome. I didn't mean for that to happen, Torius. She killed herself with her own damned curiosity."
"You might sell that to the dung collectors, but not to me, Caliel. I'll make you a deal. If you drop the gold you made from selling my navigator and tell me who you sold her to, I'll let you be on your cowardly way. Otherwise..." He gestured to the bowmen.
"Your navigator is a scaly monster, Vin!" The man hefted a long spear. "And you're the coward! No stomach to be a real pirate! We could have made twice what we got on that last take if you had any stones! A hold full of silks and fifteen new slaves would have paid well, and nobody would have been the wiser!"
"I told you when you came aboard that I don't deal in people," Torius said, his voice low and dangerous as he hefted his silver-hilted cutlass. "And there wasn't time to take anything more. You know that."
"Because you don't have the balls to kill a bunch of bloody merchants!" Caliel hawked and spat. "Did that scaly witch of yours chew off your manhood, Captain Vin? Is that why you're so craven?"
"Tell me who you sold her to, Caliel, or I swear by Gozreh, I'll take your head."
"You mean you'll try!" The riders kicked their mounts into a charge, spears set like lances.
"Fire all!" Torius shouted, and the crossbows cracked.
Three men fell, but Caliel and the others rode on. There was not a faint heart among his crew, but pirates are unaccustomed to facing a cavalry charge. They dove out of the way; only Grogul remained, his tusks bared as he threw his bola. One of the horses went down screaming, its rider pitching forward to land with a sickening crunch.
Torius stood his ground, reaching for a pouch at his hip. He focused on the gleaming tip of Caliel's spear and threw the pouch down hard, right in the horse's path.
It was just a simple firecracker, but the sound spooked the horse, which threw off Caliel's aim enough to save Torius's life. The tip of the spear creased the captain's shoulder, but his cutlass caught the traitorous first mate squarely in the stomach. Caliel fell from the saddle and landed in a bloody heap.
Another horse screamed in agony, and Torius heard Grogul bellow, but his attention was fixed on Caliel. He dashed to where the man lay clutching the slithering mass of his eviscerated abdomen.
He put the tip of his cutlass to his first mate's throat and said, "Who'd you sell her to? Tell me!"
"Or what?" Caliel spat, his lips flecked with blood. "You'll kill me?" He laughed horribly, then coughed, choking on his own blood.
"Or by Gozreh, your soul gets bound and sold to the foulest necromancer I can find." He withdrew an ornate crystal vial from his belt—nothing but an empty perfume bottle, but Caliel didn't know that—and pressed the tip of his cutlass into Caliel's neck. "There are things worse than death, my friend."
"A poison-crafter named Brojanni. Offered me enough for my own ship... The money's on my horse." Caliel grinned through the blood. "You said you'd let me live."
"I lied." Torius allowed the man a moment's realization before he ended his life in one quick slash. It was better than he deserved.
Torius turned to see Grogul standing over a dead horse and rider. Blood dripped from both his axe and the spear that transfixed his thigh. The boatswain reached down and snapped the spearhead off, then yanked the shaft free. Torius swallowed.
"One got away." The half-orc pointed to the bridge where the last of the traitorous pirates was riding at full gallop.
"I got what I needed, Grogul." He cleaned his sword and sheathed it. "Have the men round up the horses, and bind up that leg. Our traitorous first mate just supplied us with sufficient funds to bring Snick back and heal your hairy carcass up in the bargain."
"Bah! Just a poke with a stick!" the boatswain claimed, barely limping as he shouted orders at the pirate crew.
"This isn't good, Captain." Snick huddled in a blanket, her face flushed a living hue as she recovered from her brush with death. "Not only is Brojanni a wizard, he's an alchemist specializing in poisons, which explains why he wanted Celeste! And he's alchemist guild. The Pactmasters won't like it if we storm his fancy home."
"I'm guild, too, and he stole my navigator!"
"You're guild?" Grogul asked, taking another swig of his medicinal fish oil whiskey. The smell of it nearly made Torius retch.
"Merchantmen's guild," Torius explained. "Can't sell anything in this city without it."
"That's not going to do you much good, Captain, because technically, he didn't steal Celeste. He bought her, which is perfectly legal." Snick shivered and clutched her blanket closer. "The masks won't like it if you kill him."
"I don't want to kill him, Snick. I just want Celeste back." Torius suppressed a shiver of his own, and began to wonder why he was feeling like he'd just woken up from a two-day binge.
"So we go in quick, take her, and give him a swig of that memory-enema potion," Grogul suggested, taking another deep draught.
Torius swallowed hard and tried to think. Grogul's idea wasn't half bad, but they would have to make sure it happened like that, quick and without repercussions. The last thing he needed was to tangle with the Pactmasters. Katapesh was his home port; if he lost his standing here, he'd be cast adrift.
"Okay, we do like Grogul suggested. Quick in and out, and the good Master Brojanni doesn't even remember that we were there." He shivered again.
"You okay, Captain?" Grogul squinted at him.
"I'm fine." He reached for a bottle of spiced rum that he kept for his own medicinal purposes. "Snick, I think we'll need to bring your babies out of bed for this one, and I'll need to make a trip to the Repository. We'll need gold to do this right."
"How much gold?" Grogul's eyes narrowed in worry.
"All of it, I think." Torius suppressed another shiver. "When you confront a spellcaster, it's best to have a few tricks on hand."
Coming Next Week: The thrilling conclusion of Chris A. Jackson's "Stargazer."
Read more about Torius, Celeste, and the crew of the Stargazer in the new Pathfinder Tales novel Pirate's Honor, available now!
Chris A. Jackson is the author of the Scimitar Seas nautical fantasy series, which has won sequential gold medal awards for fantasy from ForeWord Reviews, as well as Weapon of Flesh, Deathmask, A Soul for Tsing, and the Cornerstones Trilogy. He lives with his wife on a sailboat in the Caribbean. For samples of his work, his blog, and his convention schedule, visit jaxbooks.com.
Illustration by Greg Opalinski