“So the shiny runes are… the reflection on the water?”
“Precisely! But there are many varieties and states of water, yes? How to maintain a reflection upon the frothing waves, or to split one across all the drops in a storm so that they fall in unison? What if one could calm and freeze the sea, carve off a piece of that reflection, and deposit it in another, still liquid sea—and have it continue reflecting that original sea? With a more expansive view of magic, one not held captive by axioms or collecting dust in a university library, one begins to see the hidden world truly unfold."
“Ez, I don’t wanna be in this chair all day.”
“Yes, yes.” Ezren scowled at his subject. “‘You can talk and tattoo at the same time,’ I believe were the exact words. Very well.”
A precise blow, and Ezren’s needle once more pierced Valeros’s skin to deposit a drop of ink. Ezren placed the instrument on the work table, lifted another from a pot of sparking red liquid, muttered over it, and then the stuff turned just as black as any other ink. Valeros had asked about this about half an hour ago, which had earned him the lecture on magical theory.
Valeros wasn’t sure what hurt more, Ezren’s needle or the knowledge that he still had hours of pontification to sit through before the tattoo was done.
Illustration by Ian Perks
Ezren lifted the striking rod, sighed brusquely, and set aside his tools. “Valeros, this patronage lasts for weeks. Can you at least try to be a good conversation partner?”
Valeros went to massage his temples, remembered he couldn’t move his right arm, and growled in frustration. “That’s rich. I tried with your big wet mirror analogy, you know! Hard to stay engaged when I can’t get a word in edgewise. Plus what do I know about magic theory? You want to have a proper conversation, you need to—"
The workshop’s southern face exploded inward in a storm of wood and dust. A ceiling joist smashed onto one end of Valeros’s chair, knocking it over and sending him rolling across the floor. Ezren hit the far wall, followed by several pots of ink—one of which hit the man square in the head. He folded like an anemic bird.
Valeros, dazed, opened an eye. No sign of sword: bad. Shield nearby: good. Shield slightly bent: standard.
Nothing broken, good. Lotta shallow stinging cuts, fair enough, not great.
Heavy, gurgling breathing, and what sounded like tightening rope.
Valeros rolled. A gnarled and glowing fist smashed through a fallen bookshelf and practically disintegrated the floor where his torso had been. He kneeled, lifted his shield, and turned to face his opponent.
Then swore. “Oh, give me a break.”
The person in front of him—he was almost certain it was a person—needed to crouch to fit in the cramped workshop. Which they were not doing, having instead used their neck and head as a battering ram. They had ploughed through roof and wreckage in their attempt to crush Valeros. Human-shaped, their body was covered in thick, obsidian scabs, viscous blood pouring from fissures like molten steel into a mold. They radiated heat like a furnace.
“Ez,” he called. “Ez!”
No sound but the hot roar of the giant’s breathing—and another tightening rope. He whipped his shield up, caught part of the blow, spun, and let the monstrosity stagger past him.
Fast not nimble. Probably too big to take out himself? Outmaneuver it, check on Ezren. Yeah.
Deep breath. Shield set. Knife out. Keep moving. In, sting. Out, shield up, make space. He was the horsefly, the heaving thing was the horse. Each bite of the blade loosed a cascade of blazing sludge that burned its way through the floor.
Sting, make space. Stay hard to see. Avoid the—
Valeros’s bones rattled inside his flesh and his vision exploded with hot, angry light.
Ezren’s voice rose over the assailant’s furnace rage. Valeros dipped in and out of consciousness, the ringing in his ears sometimes giving way to the whoosh of fire magic. He caught glimpses of Ezren wreathed in blue-white symbols, launching gouts of flame from one hand. His other held the snake-head staff, its eyes sapphire coals, surrounded in a blazing corona that flared every time the creature swung at Ezren. The fists seemed to hit an invisible barrier, and light erupted in a crackling flash.
It was pretty impressive, honestly. But Ezren was going to run out of steam soon.
The broken armor stand was leaning against the wall nearby, Valeros’s breastplate wrapped around it by the force of the giant’s initial entry. He lifted it, tested its weight. It was no sword, but it would do.
Valeros charged, makeshift weapon high, and brought it down on the thing’s spine. It screamed in a blast of sparks and spun toward him. Ezren continued raining flame into it. With each one, those internal fires grew hotter, and Valeros hoped that Ezren knew what the hell he was doing.
Then the tattoo started moving. Almost tickled, at first. It pulsed in time with Ezren’s magic, flared when those blue-white runes did. The tiger stripes slithered down his arm and up the erstwhile mace, and now each blow brought its own arcane heat. In, body blow, out. In, pull attention, out.
Then he raised the makeshift weapon high and brought it down on the creature’s leg. It stumbled forward and fell, now almost too bright to look at, its fissures incandescent, limbs churning on the splintered floor, little fires beginning to sprout around it.
It howled and launched its entire body at Valeros. At the same time, those tiger stripes leapt onto the shield Valeros was already raising. Monster met metal, and there was a deafening thunderclap.
Ezren said it was like a kettle with no lid. Too much steam, boom. Valeros didn’t know why you’d make a furnace-thing weak to fire, but hey, spell people were weird.
“So then what was the twisty tattoo thing?”
Valeros was mopping up ink, again. The last mop had melted after he’d tried to use it on the purple stuff.
Ezren looked up from the singed diagrams he was attempting to reconstruct. “I… honestly don’t know, which is very exciting! I think the tattoo was mimicking the ablative properties of my spellshaping. Which shouldn’t have been possible, given the crystallization matrix I established, but it was a tattoo, and blood, flesh, and hair are all traditionally puissant."
“Huh, I s’pose I could see that. So you moved the wet reflection to my big red mirror?”
“…so, my friend, you were paying attention!”
“I mean, kinda. Just… next time make it interesting, y’know? Say what the magic does, not just how it works in the fantastical and esoteric realms of the mind or whatever. You’re attaching it to my body, so tell me what it does, how I can use it. That’s the interesting stuff. Sorta like learning how someone fights.”
Ezren smiled and tapped the head of his staff on the pewter mug hanging from Valeros’s belt.
“Well, then. What say we talk the finer points of steel and ritual over a drink?”
Valeros held out a hand, offering to carry Ezren’s pack on the rough road into town.
“Maybe touch on who wants us dead so bad, too. Since we’ll be here for weeks and all. But, yeah,” he said, smiling, “that sounds good.”
About the Author
Andrew Mullen has been freelancing for Paizo and other publishers since 2017. He brings a keen interest in language and the interplay of geography and culture to his work, as seen in the Magaambya section of Lost Omens Character Guide, the xulgaths in the Extinction Curse Adventure Path, and numerous other monsters over the years. As a full-time parent, his daughter is his most important monster
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.