Ley Lines Finalist: “Five Finger Discount” by Stephen Rowe
Immortality does not grant flawless recollection.
I like to think of my experiences as a solid defining whole, but that’s a pleasant lie. Memories are closer to smoke than stone. I bottle wisps at random, and a little swaps with ordinary air every time I take a look inside.
It gets me in trouble sometimes.
A surly grizzled tiefling bursts through the door of my shop. “Osvaud, I need to talk to you,” he says.
“Ivlysse, I’m with a customer,” I reply, annoyed at the interruption. I don’t bother to turn away from the barbaric valkyrie lookalike eyeing the vorpal section lustfully. “Milady, I know what you’re thinking. Yeegads! Look at that fee! Madness! I ask… can you really put a price on decapitating a dragon with one swift slice?” I pause in my patter. “I, for one, think not.”
I bend her will to my desires. I need these little moments. I’ve gone years where my only human interaction was some burglar spouting tired clichés about paying for my evil.
The cursed tiefling butts in again. “It’s important,” he says. He should know better.
“Are you sure, Ivlysse?” I ask, turning slowly to stare at my bazaar’s doorman. Intimidation comes easy when you are a walking talking ivory-boned skeleton.
Ivlysse holds his ground. He nods sharply in response.
“Very well,” I reply, looking back to my mark. “You’ll have to excuse me my good lady. Please, browse to your heart’s content. Maybe try a few swings to see how it feels?” I bow low, grab Ivlysse by the shoulder, and shove him towards the stockroom.
If he costs me that sale, I’m going to be cranky. Every distraction helps keep ennui at bay.
The boredom of eternity makes the whole concept of an ancient undead super-genius building elaborate treasure-filled basements a lot more sensible. Look at me! Scary lich here! Please don’t try foiling my schemes and temporarily destroying my corporeal form! After a few centuries without sleep, a holy mace-wielding hero starts looking like a vacation.
My lifestyle is arguably more eccentric these days.
“This had better be good,” I growl when we are out of earshot.
“What, is gone?” I ask, at the end of my patience. Three torturous methods of murder spring unbidden to my mind.
“The Red Door. The portal. I turned around for a second and it disappeared,” his response is composed, but only because he has no idea what he is actually telling me.
I miss those many little automatic physical reactions of the living. I’d need eyelids to blink, a heart to skip a beat, and the closest I get to a cold sweat is condensation. “It can’t be gone you dolt! This is my demi-plane! I’ve got protections on that door that you can’t even imagine!”
“Go see for yourself then, if you don’t believe me,” Ivlysse replies, with the tone of an impertinent child.
I make a mental note to punish him for the insolence, no matter how reasonable the advice.
On my way out I maneuver past the madcap woman swinging a pair of vorpal swords with far too much careless abandon.
“If you’ll excuse me ma’am, I have to duck out for a minute. If you wish to make a purchase or need some convenient target practice, Ivlysse here is happy to help!” I remark cheerfully. The customer’s raises a brow and Ivlysse pales. “Kidding! I’ll be back shortly.”
Business booms in my market; especially near the discount alchemical supplies. The air is full of the sounds of the living, and I’m surrounded by new intriguing distractions. I love it. In a way it’s no different from building an elaborately trapped cellar. I still lure in heroes with treasure for my personal amusement. This route is just far more cost effective, and usually doesn’t require a messy cleanup.
A few newcomers stare like they’ve never seen a lich before. The rest gather around me for small talk, but I politely squeeze past armored hulks in joint reversing ways that only a skeleton can manage. I deftly dance through the crowd like a boney ballerina to reach my lovely red door, or rather, where my door should be.
If I still had blood, I expect it would start running cold.
“Osvaud, the Off-White,” a voice full of conviction calls out from behind me. I must have moved right past him. “I am Alrick Stormsworn. Prepare to pay for your evil.”
It’s going to be one of those days.
I turn around slowly. He’s human, spouting cliché dialogue, wearing shining mithral plate, and pointing a longsword so holy it hurts my eyes. Paladins. I swear; they are worse than gremlins.
“You’ll have to excuse me good sir,” I reply. “I don’t have time right now for a rousing back and forth. Thank you for visiting the Red Door Market, where we sell everything from knickknacks to artifacts. Come back soon.” I wave my hand with an unnecessary flourish to banish him to Bemmea.
Nothing happens. I try again. Still nothing.
“Your efforts are futile,” he says, slowly marching in my direction. “My god is with me and his holy wrath is inescapable. I have come to hold you accountable for the murder of Aven Stormsworn.” His delivery sounds rehearsed and I imagine he practiced in front of a mirror. However, he admittedly cuts an impressive figure.
Maybe I’ll get an unscheduled vacation. That could be nice.
“Do not doubt you face the true and final death,” he adds. “I have taken your accursed phylactery. Even I was surprised at the arrogance of it.”
“I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong lich. We all look alike. This happens a lot,” I reply, holding my ivory hands up like I’m surrendering. I take the opportunity to surreptitiously cast a few quick protective spells. “Ask around. I’m just a humble purveyor of good quality gear at competitive markups. You seem like a smart fellow on an important quest. I can help you get outfitted for vanquishing at a discount?”
“Silence, liar,” he snarls back. “I was there! I have the witness of my own memory. I see your leering skull and hear your condescending voice in every nightmare.”
He can’t possibly be serious, but at least he isn’t too boring. “You drive a hard bargain. I respect that. The best I can possibly offer is selling at cost.”
“You think I can be bought? You killed my brother!” he starts shouting and it silences all the other noises in my market. “This is not a negotiation! You are an abomination and a murderer!”
His delivery is improving considerably. I even spot a few tears. Improvisation is definitely his strong suit.
I bow low and put on my best show of humanity. “Let’s not resort to name calling. I think at worst I’m an abomination and an alleged murderer. Your say so is hardly a fair condemnation,” I retort while casting another silent spell with subtle gesticulations. “I certainly don’t know what you are going on about. Not that I kill a lot of people, but you aren’t doing much to help me narrow things down.” I turn to address the crowd, “Am I right? Is it just me?”
I do not have a sympathetic audience. Hypocrites. Like they remember everyone they kill.
“Enough. I hoped you would feel remorse for your actions, but your flippant impertinence makes my duty clear.” He prattles on, raising his holy manhood metaphor higher. At least it isn’t a mace. “I find you guilty and unrepentant. The sentence is destruction. May you never again harm an innocent.”
“Have it your way, sir. I guess I’m in the martyr-making business today.” I begin the complex gestures and mish-mashed syllables for real big time magic. Fell power concentrates around my right hand and a thick black ray of life draining energy shoots out towards his smug face. My other arm whips around and blasts him with supercharged bolts of searing fire.
Nothing. He doesn’t even wince. It’s like he’d be surprised if something actually happened.
“Oh come on!” My voice echoes my frustration.
He spits out, “Khors protects me from your vile spells, lich.” And he continues his slow advance.
I quip back with what’s left of my dwindling bravado. “The pompous feathered dandy in the sky? I’m terrified.” I run through a mental catalogue of my memorized offensive spells. There are not many. I don’t plan to fight divine vigilantes every morning. “I mean, have you seen his hat?”
I layer on a few more defenses. I just need to buy time to figure him out. Maybe I can outlast him. Mortals tire easy.
Mister Invincible rushes forward in a blur of white light. I can practically hear the heavenly chorus. The sword flashes out once before he raises the blade into a fancy defensive posture. I am sure his form does great honor to the master swordsage who taught him the ancient art of stabbing unarmed merchants.
Good thing I cast all those spells while he was…
My right hand falls to the ground.
It twitches a few times.
“You… you…” I stutter before I freeze time. This is getting out of control. I shove my severed hand in my robes and bravely flee to the other side of the market through the throngs of unmoving onlookers.
I might literally be the victim of divine intervention. I must have done something to seriously peeve Khors off. Maybe I accidentally disjoined an artifact, or it was the comment about his hat.
“I actually find the plumage quite dashing,” I say to nobody in particular.
Even if the whole Khors thing is in Bright Boy’s head, he still has me cornered. His protections and gear are world class. I don’t know a thing about him and don’t have time to puzzle him out. He’s confident enough he’s toying with me.
I’ve been in his position enough times to know how that story ends.
If you can’t cheat, it’s time for a new game.
I scramble up on top of a large cart. I use the last few moments of my spell to fix my robes and take my best epic villain pose. It is slightly modified on the fly due to the missing hand.
From his perspective, I must seem to disappear, but it doesn’t take him long to spot me up on my platform. “Your trickery won’t save you Osvaud!” he shouts, dramatically.
“Shows what you know,” I call back.
I turn to the crowd filling the bazaar. My bazaar. “Listen up! The first lucky lady or gentleman to take Sob Story down gets anything they want! Free!”
Everyone stops, but this time the seconds keep passing. All eyes are fixed upon me. The shoppers slowly turn to look at the paladin.
I lose sight of him in a swarm of hungry-eyed heroes.
o o o
“Thanks for all of your help today, Ivlysse,” I say with biting sarcasm.
I reposition my phylactery with my one remaining hand and affix it firmly into empty space. Painted wood flows out from the ruby knob until my beautiful red door is fully reformed. I start replacing the old protective spells. I add a few new ones in case What’s-His-Name wasn’t a fluke.
“What in the hells was I supposed to do?”
“Oh I don’t know, maybe… not let him in?!” I shout, my words dripping murder.
“He had gold, and lots of it. If you didn’t know who he was, how was I supposed to know?” he replies.
That is actually a really fair point.
“Don’t let it happen again,” I respond, after a moment of contemplation.
Ivlysse grunts an affirmative and mutters something insolent I don’t quite catch.
“One more thing, Ivlysse,” I say between spells.
“Learn to close a damned sale. You owe me two vorpal swords.”