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Certainty

by Liane Merciel

Chapter One: The Crusade

There aren't many old paladins.

Mostly we die. Spend year after year fighting everything from boggards to balors, and sooner or later one of them will take off your head. Or you succumb to rice-water fever while wandering in the bowels of a festering swamp. Or that smiling innkeeper with the dirty jokes turns out to be a secret cultist of Norgorber and slits your throat while you snore.

Few of us last ten years.

We don't all die on the battlefield, though. Sometimes it's quieter than that. Sometimes it's as simple as a loss of certainty.

Live in the world long enough, and you lose sight of the lines between good and evil. There aren't many true innocents out there. Maybe none. The maiden you save from a dragon grows into a mean old drunk who harangues her neighbors and kicks her dogs. The merchant you rescue from bandits turns out to be a cheat who's abandoned a dozen bastards around the Inner Sea.

And evil? Evil is no easier. Most criminals are only men, and stupid and frightened ones at that. But they're the easiest to punish; they've done wrong, and know it, and will pay the price.

The great evils trouble me more. Devils are evil. Diabolists, worse: they enable the fiends in our world. But I look at Cheliax—my poor, cursed homeland—and wonder whether grim peace is not, truly, better for the commoners than the civil war they had before, or the perpetually churning bloodshed in Galt. I hear of the Gray Corsairs' raids, and wonder whether it was worth the drowning of three galleys to strike a blow against slavers. The galley rowers were slaves too. Might they not have preferred to live, even if in chains?

I don't know. I haven't known for a long time.

I am not the first of my brethren to succumb to doubt. Ours is a high and narrow road. It's easy to falter, easy to fall. Almost impossible to climb back up.

Most never try.

Some surrender to the emptiness, living out their days in a slow gray mire. Some rebel, blaming the gods for their failures instead of themselves, and seek out new, malevolent masters.

A few join grand crusades, dying in a blaze of glory that might—might—be bright enough to blot out the stain of sin. That's always struck me as the best way. Find the easy choices, the clear lines. Die a hero. Let no one see the doubt.

I joined the grandest crusade of them all.

I went to the Worldwound.

∗ ∗ ∗


It was a snowy, bitter morn when I came to the gates of Kenabres. For the past ten days I had been studying the wardstones in the distance. They shadowed the lines of the road like an endless march of tombstones, commemorating the thousands who had died in Sarkoris and the thousands more that would die trying to save the rest of Avistan from that fate. Commemorating me, maybe.

Behind the wardstones the sky was smudged soot-black, stained by a fire that would roar unsated until it devoured the world. I never saw anything stirring in that poisoned air, but the red-bellied clouds were warning enough. Here lay the end of the world.

I did not come to Kenabres alone. On the road I had fallen in with other desperate, damned souls. Some wanted to confront death on their own terms; others wanted to live, at least for one more day, and had nowhere to do it but here.

During the journey I learned some of their names and some of their reasons. Jelani was a Thuvian sand-dancer who said she was dying of a wasting disease, though I saw no mark of it on her. Her parents lived in poverty on the far side of the Inner Sea, and even after she learned she was ill, she sent her earnings to them rather than paying a healer's fee. She had heard that Queen Galfrey offered free healing to anyone who joined the crusade, and had come in hopes that the rumor was true. Even if it wasn't, she said, better to die for an honorable cause than rot in a sickbed.

Most of my companions were less noble. Robbers, blasphemers, cattle thieves. The best of the lot was a mere debtor, cast in with the others when he borrowed to fuel his gambling and found the dice fickle as ever. All of them had been offered a choice between the gallows and the Worldwound. All had chosen to go north, though few had any training in arms and none had been properly schooled in sword or lance. Not one of them expected to leave Mendev alive.

These were my new comrades-in-arms. They made me glad I had already forsaken my oaths, and bitter that I had fallen so low. In my old life I would have sent them to the hangman or lopped their heads off myself. Now I could only hope they'd prove less dangerous at my back than the demons would be to my face.

The people of Mendev seemed nearly as suspicious of their saviors as I was. We spotted sentries ranging ahead of us a day's walk from the fortress town, and at the gates were greeted by bearded men in hard-used mail. Pots of acrid incense burned in the hollow merlons, draping the walls in curtains of ghostly white smoke. I smelled cedar and clove, and something else, unfamiliar, that tickled my nose and left me light-headed. Magic? If so, it was none I had seen before.

While archers kept arrows trained on us from the walls, a priest wearing Iomedae's radiant sword ordered us to doff our hoods, baring our faces to the cold. I turned my eyes away from the symbol of my old goddess, gritting my teeth at the touch of her magic outside me—always and forever, outside—but the priest didn't seem to notice. He chanted over us, beseeching Iomedae to show the truth of our natures, and only when he was satisfied that we were not demon-touched did the gates open at last.

"You must forgive us," he said. "We have hard troubles here."

No one answered him. What was there to say? We all knew of his nation's troubles. They were why we had come, willingly or not.

Inside the walls I saw more scars from Kenabres' long struggle. It would have been impossible to tell from walking through it that this town held the attackers, not the besieged. There were no cats in its streets, and the alleys held more rat-traps than rodents: the people had eaten their pets and were reduced to snaring vermin for food.

Peddlers crowded every corner, doing a brisk business in amulets and potions that promised protection from demons. I saw few women, and most of those were either painted bawds or Kellid giant-hunters, as wild and dangerous as their men. Mendev's wives and children had been sent to safety long ago. I wondered how many had become widows and orphans since then.

The gate guards shepherded us to a long, low building that served as a barracks. Banners and pennons from a hundred nations, city-states, and petty lordlings hung from its walls in a riot of dusty color. Among them hung stranger, grimmer trophies: weapons and battle-flags taken from vanquished foes in the Worldwound. I spotted a few skeletal claws and carapaces mounted in the corners. No skulls, though. Even dead—even taken as a prize of war—no one wanted those eyes on them as they slept.

A one-armed soldier seated at a battered desk took down our names and skills. His face had been dissolved by acid, perhaps in the same attack that took his arm; his cheeks hung down to his collar in ripples of shiny pink slag, and he looked half demon himself. Only one eye had been spared, but that eye narrowed sharply when I gave my name for his book.

"Ederras." He flicked a glance at my shield, then looked back at me, coolly appraising. "No title? No talents?"

I wondered if he recognized the golden wings painted on the oak, or if it was something else that had betrayed me. Perhaps I should have discarded the shield along with my blessed sword and the helm I was no longer worthy to wear... but the shield held one of the few enchantments that still worked for me, and I was loath to face the Worldwound with no magic.

"No title," I said. "No talents."

He didn't press me, moving on to the next man—Persil, a brewer exiled after his beer sickened and killed a dozen revelers at a Merrymead celebration. He swore it was an accident, and I believed him, but that hadn't saved the stammering youth from the local swordlord's justice.

None of the others admitted to much until the scarred soldier came to Jelani. She gave her name, acknowledged her lack of title, and smiled when he asked for her talents.

"Fire and sand," she said, lifting a hand. A tiny whirlwind spun, sparkling, over her palm. It seemed to be made up of gold motes rather than ordinary dust. Each speck glowed with its own fiery light. That light shone strangely on her face; at that moment she seemed inhuman, her pupils replaced by dark flame, her skin the glossy bronze of a Vudrani idol. She was not speaking loudly, yet her voice filled the barracks and quelled all other sound. "The heat of the desert wind. The blaze of the unfailing sun. Those are the powers I command, Mendevian. Will they do?"

The soldier shrugged with his good arm, drawing a stylized flame next to Jelani's name. "If not, you'll soon find out. Battle magic or builder's?"

Jelani closed her hand. The fire died; that strange light passed. She seemed a harmless girl again. "Battle."

The soldier smiled for the first time since he'd seen us. "Good." He fanned his quill over the ink to dry it, then closed his book. "You'll get your weapons now."

"I have weapons," one of the cattle-thieves protested. He was a shaggy, slope-browed brute of a man, and he carried an axe to match.

The one-armed soldier was unimpressed. "Are they blessed? Cold-forged? No? Not likely to give a demon any trouble, then. You can swing that axe until your beard goes gray, but if you're not wielding cold iron you won't leave a scratch on any of the beasts you're like to face here. The weapons we'll give you aren't fancy. No engravings, no gilt, no pretty little master's mark. But they can make those bastards bleed."

"You'll want holy water, too," said a Kellid woman. Triangles and knotted circles in red ochre covered her shoulders and collarbones, vanishing into the deerskin tunic she wore. "Not little vials like you carry in the south. Skins of it. Some of the demons have acid or stinking slime. Use the water to wash it off. Use the water to kill them, too, if you lose your sword. But don't waste it. Might need to drink it. Other water turns to poison near the Worldwound sometimes. Holy water's safer—as long as it lasts."

"We won't throw you out there like raw meat to wolves," the one-armed soldier said, reading the fear on the faces around him. "I won't lie: our need is desperate, and we're not training Andoren knights here. We don't have time to drill you for ten years in the training field. But we won't be sending you out against balors before you've learned to hold a sword, either. If you've never fought, we'll teach you. Until then, you'll tend animals, help the healers, brew whitesmoke for the pots. The work we do in town is as important as anything that happens on the wardstones.

"If you do know how to fight, however, we'll be sending you out once you're armed." He looked directly at me as he said it. I returned his gaze, impassive. "Our battle never ends. This is like no war you've ever fought."

"I've never fought in any war," Persil mumbled.

"You're in one now." The soldier grinned. "Welcome to the Worldwound."



Coming Next Week: Proof that the only thing more dangerous than a demon is a righteous man, in Chapter Two of "Certainty."

Liane Merciel is the author of The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, available now from Gallery. For more information on her writing, visit lianemerciel.com.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Certainty Liane Merciel Pathfinder Tales
Cheliax

Ms. Liane Merciel just got herself her newest fan.

Osirion RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32

Very Awesome, but where's the art???


Best web fiction yet. Very impressive.

But on the subject of enjoying freebies - where's the art? ;)


Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Modules Subscriber

Good first Chapter.

But so what that whitesmoke? The smoke for pope's election?

Andoran

Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Maps, Modules, Pawns, Roleplaying Game, Tales Subscriber

Fantastic Opening!


well read


Giggity! I do enjoy the setting of Mendev & the Worldwound.


baron arem heshvaun wrote:


Ms. Liane Merciel just got herself her newest fan.

+1!

Wonderful work, Liane! Great stuff, and beautifully written.
Eagerly awaiting the next installments...

(Btw, you seemed familiar with my kids' book, 10,000 Dresses- if you don't yet have a copy, I'd be honored to send one to ya!)

Paizo Employee Managing Editor

The art for this one got sacrificed to the Gen Con scheduling beast. Hopefully we'll be able to continue the illustrations starting next week.

Paizo Employee Director of Sales

I reviewed Liane's novel The River King's Road in the current issue of Kobold Quarterly. Liane kindly supplied a sidebar on how gaming influenced her writing.

Lantern Lodge

mass wrote:
But so what that whitesmoke? The smoke for pope's election?

At a guess, it's either for signaling, or some sort of "Holy Smoke Bomb", which might give demons negatives.. maybe treat those affected like a Bane or Doom spell.


James Sutter wrote:
The art for this one got sacrificed to the Gen Con scheduling beast. Hopefully we'll be able to continue the illustrations starting next week.

I'd say something nasty about that, but I suspect it'd just reveal how bitter I am about not having been able to go to GenCon - so I'll just reiterate: Great opening. Is it wednesday again, soon?

Cheliax Contributor

Excellent opening. I can't wait to see how the rest unfolds.

Contributor

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Yay, I'm so happy people like the story (so far). Thanks for the kind words. It was a ton of fun to play around in Mendev. :)

mass wrote:
But so what that whitesmoke? The smoke for pope's election?

If I can borrow a bit from Dave's answer here... intentional lacunae are intentional. ;) The exact effects of the whitesmoke (as well as its ingredients and the procedure for brewing it) are unspecified partly because our narrator doesn't have that information and partly so that people who wish to use it in their own campaigns can make up whatever details suit best.

You want high magic, it's powerful enough to daze flyers in the sky. You want low magic, it does nothing more than mask the stench of so many people, many of whom are sick or wounded, crowded into a single city.

Maybe it weakens demons' immunities to ordinary weaponry (since if they make it to the walls of Kenabres, you probably want to knock down that DR so's your desperate defenders can hurt them with thrown rocks and kitchen knives, if it comes to that). Maybe it scrambles illusions and masking effects (so that invisible attackers, or ones disguised as harmless pilgrims, can be spotted for what they are before they get inside). An all-out Dispel would probably be excessively powerful for incense, but if it's just something demons are allergic to, that still gets the job done: you figure out who's sneezing uncontrollably and shoot that dude full of arrows.

But the real answer, at least as far as I'm concerned (which makes this unofficially unofficial!), is: it is what you want it to be.

Contributor

Marcus Ewert wrote:
(Btw, you seemed familiar with my kids' book, 10,000 Dresses- if you don't yet have a copy, I'd be honored to send one to ya!)

I do not own a copy and that would be awesome. Shoot me an email for mailing info. I'm kinda swamped right now between day job + revision hell, but usually I can get to emails within a day or so.

Contributor

Pierce Watters wrote:
I reviewed Liane's novel The River King's Road in the current issue of Kobold Quarterly. Liane kindly supplied a sidebar on how gaming influenced her writing.

a) As much as I'm striving to be all cool and suave and not-egocentric here, I am and have long been desperately curious as to what this review actually says, because my Google-fu is weak and I have not seen it.

b) Really most of the blame for both the gaming and the writing can be laid on Larry Elmore's doorstep, because if his cover for Dragons of Autumn Twilight hadn't been so awesome that it suckered me right across the bookstore at age 12, none of this would ever have happened.

Of course it helps that I loved the book itself once I read it, and also loved everything that followed. And now I am running Crypt of the Everflame for several of my long-suffering PCs. They're probably going to get eaten by wolves on Saturday.

Contributor

Dave Gross wrote:
Excellent opening. I can't wait to see how the rest unfolds.

Thanks dude.

So, ahem, uh, where's my copy of Prince of Wolves cough cough hint?

(Verily, I am subtle. Srsly though I really want that book.)

Cheliax Contributor

Liane Merciel wrote:
Dave Gross wrote:
Excellent opening. I can't wait to see how the rest unfolds.
So, ahem, uh, where's my copy of Prince of Wolves cough cough hint?

I signed it for you on the first day of Gen Con and watched Pierce put it into a pre-addressed envelope. Granted, I didn't escort him to the post office, but I expect you will receive it soon.


baron arem heshvaun wrote:


Ms. Liane Merciel just got herself her newest fan.

Ditto.

And Mendev/Worldwound has so much potential for great reading material...thank you Liane!


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Charter Superscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

This is very good.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

That was a really good read, I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for chapter 2 next week! Might have to find out if any of the book stores here carry The River Kings' Road too...

Andoran

Great read!

'nuff said.

Paizo Employee Director of Sales

Liane Merciel wrote:
Dave Gross wrote:
Excellent opening. I can't wait to see how the rest unfolds.

Thanks dude.

So, ahem, uh, where's my copy of Prince of Wolves cough cough hint?

(Verily, I am subtle. Srsly though I really want that book.)

Well Liane, let me see, I emailed the original review to Marlene as soon as I wrote it. I will resend it tonight. I am meeting with the KQ Publisher this weekend and will get a copy of the magazine for you. I think the review looks great with your sidebar. As to your Prince of Wolves, Dave signed one for you at Gen Con and I mailed it last week. I don't know why it has not arrived. Let me know.

Paizo Employee Director of Sales

Dave Gross wrote:
Liane Merciel wrote:
Dave Gross wrote:
Excellent opening. I can't wait to see how the rest unfolds.
So, ahem, uh, where's my copy of Prince of Wolves cough cough hint?
I signed it for you on the first day of Gen Con and watched Pierce put it into a pre-addressed envelope. Granted, I didn't escort him to the post office, but I expect you will receive it soon.

You should have watched me Dave. I didn't mail it in Indianapolis. I kept forgetting to bring it down from my room. However, I did mail it on the Tuesday of my return. So it has been a week.

Contributor

Very nice read and introduction of the characters. Looking forward to the next chapter.


Very, very well written. If this were a book, I would have bought it.


bugleyman wrote:
Very, very well written. If this were a book, I would have bought it.

+1

Yup, yup!

Sczarni

Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Modules, Roleplaying Game, Tales Subscriber
Marcus Ewert wrote:
bugleyman wrote:
Very, very well written. If this were a book, I would have bought it.

+1

Yup, yup!

+2, wow it hit me deeply. If someday there were an Mendev AP, please write the fiction. Really hope we get pathfinder novels from you.

Sczarni

Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Modules, Roleplaying Game, Tales Subscriber
Marcus Ewert wrote:
bugleyman wrote:
Very, very well written. If this were a book, I would have bought it.

+1

Yup, yup!

+2, wow it hit me deeply. If someday there were an Mendev AP, please write the fiction. Really hope we get pathfinder novels from you.

Taldor

Berik wrote:
That was a really good read, I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for chapter 2 next week! Might have to find out if any of the book stores here carry The River Kings' Road too...

I just finished reading the The River Kings' Road and that it was well written. I finished it in three days!!

Contributor

Pierce Watters wrote:
Dave Gross wrote:
I signed it for you on the first day of Gen Con and watched Pierce put it into a pre-addressed envelope. Granted, I didn't escort him to the post office, but I expect you will receive it soon.
You should have watched me Dave. I didn't mail it in Indianapolis. I kept forgetting to bring it down from my room. However, I did mail it on the Tuesday of my return. So it has been a week.

I whined too soon: it showed up this weekend. I am (of course!) utterly delighted and will be posting about it in the dedicated thread as soon as I've read enough to have something meaningful to say. Thank you both so much!

Contributor

Draco Bahamut wrote:
If someday there were an Mendev AP, please write the fiction. Really hope we get pathfinder novels from you.

Thanks; that's a tremendous compliment!

I do hope to write a Pathfinder novel at some point. Exactly what it'll be about is up in the air, although I have a few ideas...

Contributor

Ariadan wrote:
Berik wrote:
That was a really good read, I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for chapter 2 next week! Might have to find out if any of the book stores here carry The River Kings' Road too...
I just finished reading the The River Kings' Road and that it was well written. I finished it in three days!!

It's kind of you to say so. This post was the kick in the pants that I needed to get back to work on the next one. Much appreciated (and I'm sure my editor would thank you too!).

RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Liane Merciel wrote:
Ariadan wrote:
Berik wrote:
That was a really good read, I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for chapter 2 next week! Might have to find out if any of the book stores here carry The River Kings' Road too...
I just finished reading the The River Kings' Road and that it was well written. I finished it in three days!!
It's kind of you to say so. This post was the kick in the pants that I needed to get back to work on the next one. Much appreciated (and I'm sure my editor would thank you too!).

As soon as I have some free $ (being the good samaritan is expensive!) I plan to get River Kings' Road too. Thanks for writing this Pathfinder piece, and thanks to Paizo for letting us see this writer's talent for free!


Squidzilla wrote:

The thing is, at higher levels the enemies start having DR, which you can't pass through with your natural attack, since they lack special materials (cold iron, silver, adamantine) or magical bonuses equivalent to those materials (+3 or higher), so your damage potential starts going down. Is there some way to circumvent this without investing a boatload of money on an amulet of mighty fist +3 or higher?

The DR / magic is easy, since you get greater magic fang, but the others are not. I was thinking maybe I could become more of an utility melee character, using poison in all my claws and bites, etc, or does the advanced player guide provide some new options for the melee druid?

I know...this is old WOTC stuff, but the spell compendium. It had a spell called "bite of the were-bear". When you aren't cracked out enough with your wand of "greater mighty wallop", wild hide armor +5, cast this.

Contributor

Love your writing style, Liane! Looking forward to more.

I am unsure if the protagonist is male or female, and wondered if you made that omission on purpose to tweak curiosity. Perhaps I missed it. It works, but inquiring minds want to know. Must read more now! ;-)

Silver Crusade

1 person marked this as a favorite.

I would love to see this character in a book. Please, please ;)

My number one problem with almost all of the Pathfinder fiction is there are no heroes. Someone may chose to argue, but I am talking a hero like Sturm. I find it hard to root for the people who are so shaddy in most of the other fiction.

I love the doubt in himself and as we see through at the end, Isomedea still has faith in him. You just got new fan and I be singing the praises of this character to everyone I know. Great work!

Paizo Employee Senior Editor/Fiction Editor

Panthros wrote:

I would love to see this character in a book. Please, please ;)

My number one problem with almost all of the Pathfinder fiction is there are no heroes. Someone may chose to argue, but I am talking a hero like Sturm. I find it hard to root for the people who are so shaddy in most of the other fiction.

I love the doubt in himself and as we see through at the end, Isomedea still has faith in him. You just got new fan and I be singing the praises of this character to everyone I know. Great work!

Actually, some folks from this story might just show up in Dave Gross's forthcoming King of Chaos, with Liane's full blessing. Hooray for crossovers! :D

Shadow Lodge

So far, hands down, this has been my favorate Pathfinder fiction. Both amazing story and writing, but also finally a character that we can like, relate to, and root for. Even though it is a short fiction, it felt more fulfilling, showing what was going on rather then telling it. In my opinion, this is the standard that fiction should reach for.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber
Panthros wrote:
My number one problem with almost all of the Pathfinder fiction is there are no heroes. Someone may chose to argue, but I am talking a hero like Sturm. I find it hard to root for the people who are so shaddy in most of the other fiction.

I've heard this criticism mentioned a few times on the Know Direction podcast, and while I agree that there haven't been as many true heroic protagonists in the Tales, I don't think that's a shortcoming. I'd prefer complex, well thought out characters than uni-dimensional heroic ones. I've been wondering why I never really enjoyed shared world fiction until I started reading Pathfinder Tales, and I think this might actually be one reason. Plus, I don't have any trouble rooting for Jeggare and Radovan or some of the other protagonists (such as Elyana from Plague of Shadows or Salim from Death's Heretic).

That said, I did really enjoy Certainty and the main character

Speaking of Salim, James, any chance we will see more of him in the future? I loved that novel.

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