Posted on June 26, 2012 by Flames
In Nightglass, a young boy in the shadowy nation of Nidal is taken from his home and trained by the sadistic magical academy known as the Dusk Hall, transformed into a living weapon in the service of the dark god Zon-Kuthon. Many years later, now grown to manhood, Isiem is sent to Cheliax to help put down a rebellion by the winged, inhuman strix. Yet as he conducts his grisly work, Isiem begins to question his life under the shadow of the Midnight Lord, and wonder who the real monsters are…
Flames Rising is pleased to present an excerpt from this new Pathfinder novel.
Chapter Thirteen: Reprisals
The whooping woke him.
It had been the better part of a week since Isiem had talked to Orwyn and the others around the timber wagons. Both he and Oreseis had spent the intervening days asking questions under a succession of guises. Mostly Isiem chose illusionary identities whose mysterious disappearances, like the Pezzacki half-orc’s, could easily be laid at the Hellknights’ door; when such people vanished, it burnished their knights’ reputation for ruthlessness and raised few questions about where they had gone. Sometimes, so that people would not wonder why the Nidalese never showed their faces, he went undisguised.
But whatever face he chose, and whomever he approached, Isiem learned little about the strix. Wild rumors and speculation abounded, but accurate observations seemed scarcer than waterfalls in the desert.
Some said the strix were winged devils in more than name—that the diabolists of House Thrune had deliberately summoned them from Hell and set them loose on the people of western Cheliax so that they could offer protection from the threat they themselves had created. Some said the mine overseers had struck a secret bargain with the strix, allowing them to feast on lazy and unruly workers in exchange for leaving the others unmolested. A few claimed—never when they knew Isiem was listening—that the strix were not living creatures at all, but rather Nidalese thralls who had escaped from the shadowcallers’ control and hid in the deep recesses of Devil’s Perch because no light could reach them there.
The only sure thing anyone knew was that the strix had murdered Chastain, her daughter, and everyone accompanying them—and that the outrage demanded retribution.
That thought leaped to the fore of Isiem’s mind when he heard the whoops that morning. Pushing off his blankets, he went to the window and pulled the curtain to the side.
The street below was crowded with cheering men gathered around four sweat-stained riders on lathered horses. A dark-winged figure staggered on foot between the riders, and two more broken, winged forms dragged in the dust behind them. The ropes that bound the corpses were not tied around their ankles, but threaded through gashes in their calves.
Fastening his shadowcaller’s robe as he went, Isiem hurried down the stairs.
Every citizen in Crackspike seemed to have mobbed the street. He glimpsed the Hellknights pushing forward through the fray, Posie’s girls leaning bare-shouldered on their balcony, and miners and laborers who had come fresh from their work, wearing clothes sweated through and caked with dust so many times that the men seemed made of mud.
The creature who had attracted all their notice seemed oblivious to the crowd. The strix hobbled between the riders with his head lowered between his enormous, bedraggled black wings, unresponsive to the curses hurled his way or the occasional gob spat on him by a spectator. The riders and their horses, spattered with similar missiles, were less restrained; they answered with imprecations fiery enough to burn a Hellknight’s ears, or—if the spitter was foolish enough to be identifiable, and in reach—vicious blows from their quirts.
Isiem ignored them, along with the occasional shrieks from the bystanders they struck. It was the strix that interested him.
This one was a juvenile, he guessed, and male. Head to toe, it was the color of coal. Its eyes were enormous and eerily luminous, reflecting a green-violet iridescence in the bright hot sun. There were no whites or pupils that Isiem could see, although it was difficult to be sure with the creature’s head bowed. Its ears were thin and sharp, lying flat against its skull. It went barefoot, its toes and fingers alike tipped with short translucent talons, and its clumsy pigeon-like gait suggested that it did not often find reason to walk upon the ground.
Above all, however, it was the strix’s wings that commanded attention. Bent and broken, they still towered over the men on horseback. The feathers were a glossy, oily black, touched with a peacock shimmer like the plumage on a loon’s throat. There was an undeniable grandeur to those wings, even as the creature who bore them tottered crippled and diminished on the earth.
“How did you catch him?” one of the whores called down.
“Hunting,” the lead rider shouted back. “This one”—he jerked the strix’s rope as if the creature were a balky dog on a leash”—thought he’d catch a few of our mules for dinner. That was his mistake. The other two came to free him. That was theirs. They didn’t care to be taken alive, so I thought it only right to oblige them.”
“Are there any others?” Paralictor Erevullo asked.
The rider hesitated, winding and unwinding the reins around his hand several times before answering. “I can’t be sure,” he admitted, “but I don’t think so. These two rushed in blind, they were so upset we’d caught their friend. Any others would’ve done the same, if they were out there. Anyway, we didn’t see no more.”
Erevullo nodded curtly. He gestured with a gauntleted hand to the battered strix. “We will take that one. In the name of Her Imperial Majestrix Abrogail II.”
The rider opened his mouth to protest, then closed it, returning the Hellknight’s nod even more brusquely. “What about the others?”
“Sell them to your tavern to stuff as a showpiece. Cut them apart and sell the pieces as keepsakes. Or just throw them by the roadside and let dogs feast on the corpses.” Erevullo shrugged. “They are of no use to us. Do as you will.” The paralictor turned his flinty eyes on Isiem. “It is said that the Kuthites of Nidal are unrivaled in extracting information from their charges. I trust this reputation is well founded.”
“It is,” Isiem answered.
“They don’t speak no civilized tongue,” the rider interjected. “Just screeches and devil squawks. We couldn’t get nothing sensible out of none of them.”
“Language is no obstacle,” Isiem said. He turned to Erevullo. “Is there somewhere we might work without interruption?”
The paralictor waited for the rider to untie the strix’s rope from his saddle horn. Upon receiving it, Erevullo tossed the mudstained hemp to Isiem. “One of the alehouses has a cellar. They were using it as a dungeon of sorts. It’s yours.” He motioned to one of the other Hellknights, a signifer whose clean-shaven scalp was tattooed with spiked swirls of red and black. “Odarro. Show the shadowcallers where they will work.”
“This way.” The bald signifer turned on his heel, leaving the riders and the crowd to look on in confusion that soon turned to abuse of the two remaining strix. Whether their victims were alive or not, the people of Crackspike seemed all too happy to beat them and spit on their feathered remains.
Tugging his captive along behind him, Isiem left them to their sport.
The cellar Erevullo had spoken of was beneath the Long-Bottomed Lady, the largest of Crackspike’s three ramshackle taverns. It was a cramped and dingy space, illumined by wobbly shafts of light that spilled through the tavern’s floorboards. Barrels of beer and jars of white whisky crowded every available inch. A coating of sandy grit clouded the vessels, although the tavern always drank through its stock within days.
It was only on account of the liquor that the owners of the place had undertaken the trouble of digging a cellar and laying in a wooden floor. Spirits were unconscionably expensive in Crackspike, which had to import all its necessities across miles of hard road. The owners of the Long-Bottomed Lady wanted to protect their investment, and the easiest way to keep thirsty miners from stealing their beer was to sit on it.
Isiem wondered whether his work would dent their appetites. He doubted it. If anything, strix blood seemed to whet thirsts in Crackspike. And there would likely be a great deal of blood before he was done.
He wanted to begin gently, though. Confidences won through trust were worth more than secrets extracted through torture; the latter were often fragmentary and peppered with lies. Many Kuthites chose to rely on torture anyway, but Isiem valued effectiveness above piety.
The cellar had no chairs. He rolled two of the smaller barrels from their nooks, arranging them so that they faced one another across a short space. Touching the small clay talisman of a ziggurat in his pocket, Isiem murmured the words that would grant him the gift of tongues. He’d prepared the spell with the intention of questioning some of the miners whose Taldane was shaky, but it would serve as well with the strix.
“Speak to me,” he said. The words had an odd, doubled echo as they left his lips. Isiem heard his own voice clearly, but just as clear were the stretched, shrill vowels and harsh plosives of the strix’s tongue. He was never sure what the listener heard—but it hardly mattered, as long as he was understood. “What is your name?”
The strix gave him a hostile, unblinking stare. It did not sit on the barrel as Isiem did, but perched on top, its clawed toes grasping the wooden edge. In this light its eyes showed no iridescence; they were yellow as a hawk’s. Faint striations of darker gold, converging in the center of each eye, expanded and contracted as it breathed.
“You should answer me.” Isiem drew the holy symbol of Zon-Kuthon out from under his shirt and let it rest pointedly upon his chest. “Sooner or later, you must. And ‘later’ will come at a cost.”
“I am not afraid. Pain is nothing.” The strix’s voice had the same odd echo as his own: familiar human words twinned to piercing shrills and whistles only barely recognizable as speech. Its true voice seemed extraordinarily hoarse; judging from the chapped skin around the strix’s lipless mouth and the sunken, bruised-looking circles around its eyes, that was a symptom of its recent hard use rather than the creature’s natural tone.
It made the creature’s bravado even more wearying. The strix would break. Under the ministrations of a Pangolais-trained torturer, all men broke. And all dwarves, and all orcs. A strix would be no different, however alien its appearance.
Isiem had had his fill of breaking brave rebels in Westcrown. It was tedious, the progression from braggadocio to stoicism to abject begging. Such men clung to loyalty and principle as though it were a raft that could save them. It never did, but the Nidalese wizard had long lost his taste for snapping their fingers to make them let go.
“I could show you otherwise very quickly,” Isiem said, “but I will give you the chance to help yourself first. Again: what is your name?”
“Kirraak,” the strix cried. Whether it was a name or a curse, the spell didn’t translate it.
Isiem decided to accept it as a name. “Kirraak,” he repeated, altering the sound to fit on a human tongue. “How were you captured?”
For a long time the strix did not answer. Its chest heaved with silent, desperate breaths. Then it cocked its head downward and veiled its eyes with semitransparent membranes that slid across them from the side, instead of lowering vertically like its true eyelids. “Stupidity. They left a hurt mule behind. I wanted it. Some of their dogs wanted it too. I was butchering the dead mule when the dogs came upon me from behind. They kept me from flying.” The strix motioned toward one of the black wings hanging broken from its back. Up close, it smelled of dust and wild oily feathers and a rank undercurrent of infection. “I could not escape when the men came back to see what their dogs were quarreling over.”
“And your companions?”
“Untie me.” The strix lifted its head and held its arms out, showing him its rope-chafed wrists. The coarse hemp was spotted with blood, red as Isiem’s own. “Untie me, and I will say.”
Kirraak tensed as Isiem drew a small knife to cut its bonds. The muscles at the bases of its wings flexed, and it crouched slightly, gathering its strength. Isiem noted its tension but continued sawing at the rope.
He wasn’t surprised when the strix attacked. He was surprised at how fast it was. Isiem was already ducking away when Kirraak snapped the last few strands between its wrists, but he barely had time to put a barrel between them before the strix seized a nearby bottle of brandy and hurled it at his head. The bottle shattered on the wall inches away, raining liquor and glass shards. One splinter nicked Isiem’s chin, another his cheek.
“Krevaar!” the strix screamed. “I tell you nothing!”
Isiem didn’t waste his breath on a reply. He shielded his eyes and dodged behind a second barrel. Another bottle hurtled past, clipping the side of his head, but the strix itself did not come. Glancing back, Isiem realized that the strix’s wings gave him the advantage in this confined space; Kirraak flinched every time the wounded appendages struck anything, and the creature could hardly move without smacking its massive wings into a wall or keg.
It had fashioned a crude sort of knife from the remains of a broken bottle, though, and Isiem guessed that might prove more lethal than its ineptly thrown missiles. If the strix got close enough to use it.
He kicked a wine rack toward his adversary, sending bottles tumbling everywhere. Two of them slammed into Kirraak’s infected wounds, eliciting an ear-splitting shriek and causing the strix to drop its improvised blade.
Isiem seized the chance. Thrusting a hand in the strix’s direction, he chanted quickly, nearly tripping over the familiar words in his haste. Magic gathered in him like lightning and lanced out, surrounding the strix in a crackling black halo. Needles of dark energy stabbed into Kirraak.
The strix collapsed, keening in agony. Its makeshift knife cracked under its body, cutting into the creature’s arm and chest, but it hardly seemed to notice this insult compared to the wracking pain of Isiem’s spell. As the strix’s shrieks gave way to whimpers, and then into insensible sobs, Isiem straightened and brushed the glass flinders from his hair.
“You should have answered my questions,” he told the strix without rancor. He had not, of course, really expected that Kirraak would. The rebels in Westcrown seldom did; why would a strix be any different? This was just another step in their dance, predictable and inevitable.
Kirraak made no answer. Isiem hadn’t expected one. He picked through the shattered glass and liquor pooled around the semiconscious strix, selecting several of the longest, smoothest fragments and laying them atop a nearby barrel. He was careful to arrange them where the shafts of wintry sunlight made them glint in the cellar’s gloom.
When he had all the shards he needed, Isiem retied the crippled strix’s arms and tossed the rope over a rafter, hoisting Kirraak up onto its clawed toes. Standing in that partly suspended position wouldn’t hurt immediately, but in a few minutes it would start to ache, and in an hour or so it would become unbearable.
As an afterthought, and as a courtesy to the Long-Bottomed Lady’s guests, Isiem gagged the strix with the wine-sodden remnants of a burlap sack. Then he started another, simpler incantation, and passed a pale hand over the stained rips in his robe. The torn threads knitted back together; the stains faded from the cloth. In moments there was no evidence of his prisoner’s defiance.
The illusion of infallibility was crucial to the fear a skillful torturer inspired. Nothing his victims did could be seen to hurt him, or even interrupt his plans. Everything that happened in his domain had to serve his purpose. The strix’s struggles, the shattered bottles, the wasted brandy—all of it, as far as the world would ever know, was part of Isiem’s designs.
Isiem picked up a sliver of glass and drove it through the joint of the strix’s infected wing. Pus and dark blood spurted out. Kirraak screamed again, weakly; its head jerked up once and fell back down, limp.
Coldly Isiem took a second sliver of glass from the barrel and held it poised, waiting for the strix’s eyes to flutter open again.
Everything had its purpose.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Why did you let it fight back?” Oreseis asked.
Isiem shrugged, spooning pork-flecked oat mush from the pot the Hellknights had brought up for them. To preserve their air of inhumanity, the Nidalese did not eat where anyone might see them; instead they requisitioned food from the Hellknights and sent their waste back the same way. The subterfuge worked well enough, but he could wish the Hellknights indulged in better fare. The Chelaxians subsisted on iron rations boiled in conjured water: oat mush, barley porridge, wheat gruel dotted with shreds of dried apples or rock-hard sausage. Practical, and perhaps good for discipline, but even by the standards of a Nidalese ascetic, a Hellknight’s trail dinner was a sorry meal.
Still, he’d choked down worse. Isiem thrust his spoon into the gruel and sat on the side of his bed. “I always give them the chance to fight.”
Oreseis had already finished his own meal. He sat with his spellbook propped up on bent knees, making a half-hearted pretense of studying the next day’s magic. “But why?”
“So I can be justified in what comes after.” Seeing that the other shadowcaller did not understand, Isiem sighed and set his spoon down. “By giving my captives a choice, I give them responsibility for what follows. If they choose to answer readily, they escape pain. If they choose defiance, they suffer for it …but they know that it was their choice.”
“How virtuous,” Oreseis said, smirking.
“Maybe.” Isiem swallowed a mouthful of gruel, trying not to taste it. The pork, somehow soggy and tough at the same time, actually made it worse. “But it is useful. Men who feel culpable for their own suffering are conflicted. Guilty, angry, distracted. Easier to break.” He took another bite, wondering if Oreseis would believe the lie.
It was easier to break a man who felt he’d brought his own woes upon himself. But not precisely for the reasons he’d given.
The true reason Isiem gave them the chance to fight was because putting the choice on the victim—putting the fault on the victim—removed it from his own conscience. Framing the torture as the consequence of the victim’s decision, rather than his own, absolved the torturer of guilt. And after Westcrown, Isiem could not work without that absolution.
Oreseis closed his book and stretched his legs. “Erevullo wants one of us to help his signifers enchant their devilstongue relay.” Seeing Isiem’s puzzlement, he added: “It’s how they intend to communicate with Citadel Enferac while the passes are snowed in. Evidently their usual methods tend to get intercepted by strix spears.”
“So I’ve been told. What’s this relay?”
The younger shadowcaller shrugged. “I didn’t see the thing clearly when they were unloading it, and of course its magic is unfinished, but it appears to be a brazier of gold and iron, set with rubies and black stones. Obsidian, maybe. I couldn’t see clearly. Erevullo told me that they burn the tongues of devils in its flames, and thus carry their messages through Hell back to Citadel Enferac, where other braziers exist to receive the infernal words.”
“Can anyone use it, or just diabolists? Does every relay communicate with every other? How much of a delay is there between sending a message and receiving one?”
Oreseis gave him an incredulous look. “How would I know? I’ve never used it. I haven’t even seen it in any meaningful way. But obviously we should learn more.”
“Yes.” Isiem considered it for a moment. “Offer to assist the Hellknights with their relay. Learn what you can. The Umbral Court will be grateful for your report.”
Oreseis tilted his head slightly, studying him. “You’re the better wizard.”
“Making you the less obvious spy.”
“And the less adept one.” The younger wizard’s mouth twisted into an expression that was not quite grimace and not quite smile. “Don’t mistake me. I’m honored that you offer me the opportunity. But should I miss some detail that you would have caught, the Umbral Court will be displeased with us both. I cannot imagine the relay is that simple, or Erevullo would not have asked us to help with it—nor would he be so cavalier about giving us the chance to study it.”
“Or he wants us to take note of Citadel Enferac’s efficiency,” Isiem said pointedly, “so that we understand how valuable they are as allies and how dangerous as enemies. We could second-guess his motives for hours and it wouldn’t matter. What matters is that we have the opportunity to learn more about this device, and you have the skill to study it without arousing suspicion.” He softened his tone slightly. “You do have the skill, you know. The Umbral Court would not have tasked you with this assignment if you were lacking.”
“Why won’t you do it?”
Because I don’t want to go back to Nidal. Knowing a secret valuable to either the Hellknights or the Umbral Court would give them a reason to hunt him down, and Isiem intended to offer them none.
But what he said was: “Because I have a strix to break.”
“Ah.” Oreseis nodded. “That need not delay you long. There is a quicker way. Quicker, and holier.”
The younger shadowcaller stood, put his spellbook away, and retrieved something else from his pack: a round object, about the size of his hand, muffled in black velvet.
He held the nightglass up, still veiled. “Send one to the shadow, and he will give us all his kin. Another nation under Zon-Kuthon.”
Liane Merciel is the critically acclaimed author of the independent fantasy novels The River Kings’ Road and Heaven’s Needle, both set in her world of Ithelas, as well as the Pathfinder Tales short story “Certainty,”. She is a practicing lawyer and lives in Philadelphia with her husband Peter, resident mutts Pongu and Crookytail, and a rotating cast of foster furballs. For more information, visit lianemerciel.com.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.