Paul Kemp: The Hammer and the Blade

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Paul Kemp The Hammer and the Blade
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    The Hammer and the Blade
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Paul S. Kemp

The Hammer and the Blade


Nix studied the sanctum's door, a large slab of black metal featureless save for the narrow gash of a keyhole. Intricate stone reliefs of land lampreys and sand serpents — creatures deemed holy in ancient Afirion — lunged from the door's posts and lintel, the ropes of their serpentine bodies entwined in a chaotic swirl of fangs, bulging eyes, and implied violence. Afirion pictoglyphs covered the walls, the black, gold and turquoise ink telling the tale of Abn Thahl's life.

Nix put his hands on his hips and stared at the door as if he could will it open, like one of the mindmages of Oremal.

No luck. He frowned, looked over at Egil.

"No rust on a door more than six centuries old. Odd, not so?"

Egil sat on the floor with his back against the smooth sandstone wall, his twin hammers, both goresplattered, lying on the stone floor to either side, his legs stretched out before him. Sweat collected in the fringe of black hair that ringed his head above the ears. Blood — but not his own — speckled his thick forearms.

"Odd, aye," the priest said, worrying at a wound in the tree trunk of his leg. The tattoo inked on his bald pate — an eye looking out from the center of a starburst, the symbol of Ebenor the Momentary God — stared at Nix while Egil looked down. "Can you open it?"

The question jabbed a finger in the eye of Nix's pride. He turned to face his friend, his own finger pointed like a loaded quarrel at the top of Egil's head.

"Perhaps one of the zombies struck the sense from your head? Can I open it? I? You may as well ask can a whore hump, or can a wizard dissemble. These are things intrinsic to their nature. Can I open it? Hmph."

"There you are," said Egil, ignoring Nix's tirade. He brandished a sliver of bloody obsidian he'd plucked from a small gash in his left thigh and squinted up at Nix, brown eyes all innocence. "You were saying something about a wizard humping locks?"

Nix crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "You heard what I said, whoreson."

"I heard," Egil said, with a longsuffering sigh and a weary nod. He held the sliver of stone close to the lantern for a better look. "Look at this. It's a piece of one of the zombies' blades."

Nix and Egil had pulped a score of the undead creatures — onetime temple guards animated to unlife by the wizard-king's sorcerers — on their way through Abn Thahl's tomb.

"You may have heard but you didn't reply, so let me restate. Are you acquainted with a door I couldn't open? I press the question only to illustrate your softheadedness, as demonstrated by a faulty memory. It's important that you understand your limits."

Egil tossed the sliver to the ground, tore a strip of cloth from his shirt, and pressed it to his leg wound. "There was that time in the Well of Farrago-"

Nix shook his head emphatically. "That was not a door."

Egil looked up, thick eyebrows raised. "It had hinges, a handle. It opened and closed. How can you say-"

"It was a hatch."

"A hatch?"

"Of course it was a hatch, and only a fool priest of the Momentary God would confuse a door with a hatch. A hatch is a different thing from a door. A hatch can be troublesome. You see? Does having an eye inked on your head make your other two blind, or otherwise detrimentally affect your cognition?"

They stared at each other for a long moment, the lantern light flickering over their faces.

"Well enough," Egil said at last. "It was a hatch."

"Now you're mocking me? I hear mockery."

"I'm not. I'm agreeing. I said it was a hatch." Egil stood, tested the leg, and seemed satisfied.

"I heard the words," Nix said, waving a hand as if to fend off a buzzing insect. "It's the tone that bothers."

Egil opened his mouth to speak but Nix held up a hand to stop him.

"Leave off. We both know the truth."

He turned back to the door, muttering, more determined than ever to get it open. He eyed it from different angles, examined the stonework around it. There were no hinges, so he surmised it opened with hidden counterweights. Holes bored into the pale stone above the lintel caught his eye. They'd been filled with plaster long ago. Perhaps sand had been poured into the chamber beyond after the door had been sealed? He'd seen such things before.

He went down on his belly, saw that the bottom of the door sat flush on the floor, sealed with a thick layer of tar or something similar.

That he'd never seen before, and it puzzled him.

Perhaps to prevent blades from being stuck under? But why?

"Maybe try to pick the lock?" Egil offered.

Nix answered with an obscene gesture.

Egil grinned, bending his wounded leg. "Your pride is too easily tweaked. And I make that point only to illustrate the fragility of your ego. It is, after all, important to understand your limits."

Nix stood and offered the obscene gesture with both hands.

"And so my claim is validated," Egil said. The priest took his yellowed ivory dice from the pocket of his trousers, shook them in his hand.

"Must you?" Nix asked, knowing the answer.


Nix reached out slowly toward the door, stopping a finger's width from its surface. He waited, waited, and after a moment, the hairs on his forearms rose. He looked knowingly at Egil.

"You see? Warded."

"Well noticed," Egil said. "Your education at the Conclave wasn't wasted. Now what?"

"Now this," Nix said, and unslung his leather satchel of needful things.

Within the satchel he carried his tools, both precise and blunt, the enchanted items he'd acquired through purchase or theft, together with sheets of parchment, sticks of chalk, a vial of ink, quills, and anything else that seemed to him likely to be of use on an expedition. It also held his collection of keys, both mundane and enspelled.

"One of your gewgaws?" Egil asked. The priest stepped to his side, eyed first the door, then the contents of the satchel.

Nix rifled through his various keys — all of them purchased in the Low Bazaar or found on expeditions — until he found the one he wanted: a small brass beauty, with a thin tube for a blade and a beaten copper coin for a bow. He held it up for Egil to see.

"My gewgaws, as you so roughly call them, have saved us more than once."

"That's truth," Egil acceded. "But the odds of that key working in an Afirion tomb are about as good as finding a virgin in the Slick Tunnel."

"Or, one might say, about as likely as finding a priest possessed of wit."

Egil chuckled. "Nice."

Nix smiled in return. "And this isn't an ordinary key. I purchased it in Dur Follin's bazaar from an agent of Kerfallen the Grey Mage. It opens wards, not doors."

"Hmm," said Egil, squinting at the key. "I pray it's so, though I credit the agents of wizards not at all." He bowed his bucket-sized head reverently, putting the eye of Ebenor squarely on Nix.

"Alas, I credit your prayers still less. Ebenor isn't called the Everlasting God, my friend. The Momentary God was divine for… a moment."

Egil's eyes moved off, grew distant as they did when he discussed his faith, when his thoughts turned to the events that had brought him to a life of religion. "Lives are made of moments, Nix. You know that."

Nix heard the seriousness in his friend's tone, but the door had left him irritated, so he did not tread as lightly as he ordinarily would.

"I do, but Ebenor's dead, so there are no more moments left to him. He can't hear prayers, my friend. And you're his only worshipper as far as I know."

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