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RPG Superstar 2015

Certainty

by Liane Merciel

Chapter Four: The Stone

"Jelani, Adrun, with me," I said. "The rest of you, keep going." Whatever the scout had found had terrified the man, and I didn't want his panic spreading to the others.

"Found tracks," the scout said when we were out of the others' earshot. "Followed them." He thrust a hand forward, jerkily, as if to hurl the memory away.

I was about to ask how he had spotted tracks on the tundra when I saw them myself: a line of booted prints sunk deep into the ground, as though it were summer's soggy marshland instead of the rock-hard terrain of late fall. The earth was slimy and discolored in those prints; the very dirt and ice seemed to have rotted at the touch of whoever had passed there.

"Seen that kind of thing around the Worldwound," the scout said. "Never on this side."

The bootprints tattooed a dark line back to the wardstone. Nearer us, they went over a low, rocky rise and into a shallow cleft. I followed, uneasy. Adrun and Jelani were watchful at my sides; the scout lagged fearful behind.

In the cleft we found the man who had made those prints. He'd died badly. Deep gouges tore through the back of his sheepskin coat. Green-black rivulets leaked from the wounds; the stench of sickness pervaded the area despite the wind and chill. I could see brown bone under the flapping tatters of the man's coat; the skin and muscle was rotted away entirely.

He'd survived his poisoned wounds long enough to get this far, though, and I didn't think they'd killed him. Blisters covered his mouth in a frozen pink froth. His throat had collapsed, eaten away from the inside; its long red track vanished into his sternum. The soft part of his jaw was gone, too, and a shaggy beard of red ice spilled across his chest.

An empty waterskin lay near his hand. It bore the same mark as the ones we'd received in Kenabres.

"Holy water," Jelani said, reaching the same realization that I had. "He was already dead—or rather, undead. He killed himself by drinking holy water."

"Maybe he thought it could flush out the poison from whatever got him in the back," Adrun said. "Maybe it would have, if the poison hadn't spread."

I left them to their speculations and rummaged through the dead man's kit. He didn't have much. A few blankets, some lamp oil, a good sheepskin hat. Most of it was standard-issue, like ours. He'd been a soldier, or stolen from one—and, like many crusaders, he had a sizable collection of warding amulets. I picked them up as an afterthought. They didn't take much space, and he might have a sweetheart or an orphan back in Kenabres who'd want them.

We returned to the company in silence. The others watched us apprehensively, aware that something had gone wrong without knowing what. A gloomy mood fell over the camp, and it deepened when the other scout failed to come back. No one mentioned it, but I knew no one expected to see him again.

That night, as the others talked or slept, Jelani scratched furrows in the frozen ground and filled them from one of our blessed waterskins.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Making spears," she said.

"Of ice? They'll shatter."

She only smiled. In the firelight, that smile was a mystery. "I have seen storms that sent twigs through solid walls. My spears will have their use."

She would tell me no more than that, and I went to my bedroll puzzled.

Morning did nothing to lift our spirits. The tundra stretched on, frozen and lifeless; the wardstone waited, leaning against a stricken sky. Soon after we broke camp, the wind turned, bringing a charnel house stench that defied the cold.

"It's not from the Worldwound," Jelani said, prying sticks of ice up from her furrows. "Wind's blowing the wrong way."

"Weapons ready," I ordered, drawing my own sword. I could hear bones popping and teeth gnashing on the wind. It might have been miles away; I wasn't used to judging how the tundra played with noise. But if it wasn't, I wanted to be armed.

I was right to be cautious. As we crested the next rise, we saw our foes.

They were eating our scout. Eight of them crouched around his corpse, hissing and snapping at one another over the meat. They wore the tatters of soldiers' clothes, but they weren't human anymore.

"Ghouls," Adrun whispered.

"Not quite," I said. They were ghouls—I recognized their quick, jerky movements, the high-pitched feral snarling, the carrion reek of guts rotting in their bloated bellies—but something else blighted them too. Their veins bulged with the same greenish-black filth that had corrupted the dead soldier's wounds. Oozing sores covered their tongues and spotted their backs, dripping the same putrescence.

"Close enough," the priest said. "I'll keep them from noticing us immediately. You've a few minutes before my spell fails."

"Let me," Jelani said, touching her quiver of dirty icicles.

"Even outside of the desert, Jelani is a formidable ally."

I saw nothing but calm confidence on her bronze face. I nodded, stepping aside.

Jelani laid her ice spears on the barren crest, angling them toward the ghouls. They never looked up. She stripped off her mittens and began a chant, her fingers dancing through the spell's gestures.

A gust of wind circled around the woman, gathering intensity until it whipped her black hair free of its scarf and forced Jelani to squeeze her eyes shut in the cyclone. Then, abruptly, it howled away, hurling the icy lances into the ghouls with spell-driven force.

The spears shattered as they plunged into undead flesh, but the wind-whipped shards were just as deadly. Ice ripped the ghouls' hides apart and pinned their limbs to their bodies. The stink from their ruptured stomachs was overwhelming; two of my men doubled over, vomiting.

Some of the ghouls fell. The survivors' heads snapped up. One's left eye was gone, replaced by a thick splinter of ice; another had two feet of ice through its gut. But the attack had broken Adrun's spell, and the ghouls had seen Jelani. Howling, they rushed at her.

She didn't flinch. Holding her hands out, Jelani called another invocation. Sunlight twinkled on her gold and bronze rings, then ignited in her cupped palms. She threw it, and the spark swelled into a fireball as it flew. It exploded over the ghouls in a rush of translucent, blue-edged flame. They shrieked as they burned—and then they collapsed, spasming, as the ice lances melted in the fireball's heat and spilled holy water through their innards like lye.

"Finish them," I shouted, leading my soldiers into the fray.

Even dying, the ghouls fought viciously. They writhed on the ground, covering it with their own deliquescing corruption, and pulled down soldiers who slipped on the slime. Those who fell were doomed. The Kellid woman lost her footing when she swung too vigorously at a fallen ghoul; she crushed her victim's skull, but went to a knee as she did. Instantly two of them were on her, and by the time we battered them away, nothing was left but the bear claws of her necklace, scattered among red rags of skin and bone.

Another crippled ghoul bit its own arm, filling its mouth with poison, then sank its teeth into Adrun's calf when he ventured into the melee to heal a wounded soldier. The priest screamed, hitting it with his holy symbol in a fist. White light flared, consuming the creature; its skull dropped lifeless onto a bed of ash. But the damage was done. Adrun staggered away, clutching his leg as sickly discoloration seeped through his skin. Two steps from the battle, he fell.

We destroyed the rest.

I took stock of the casualties as Jelani cauterized the survivors' wounds with enchanted flame. The Kellid was dead, as was one of the Mendevians. Adrun was badly injured, but if we could get him to a healer before the ghoul's poison took hold, he might live. I wasn't optimistic, but I was willing to take the chance. If it came to the worst, I'd give him mercy myself.

I touched Jelani's shoulder. "These ghouls carried crusaders' tokens. I think they were the last company of soldiers sent to Valas's Gift. If the wardstone has failed that badly, I don't want to risk the others—but you and I should examine it."

She paled, but she put her mittens back on. "As you will."

I hadn't realized how huge the wardstone was until we reached its foot. Even with its wind-pushed lean, it towered thirty feet above us and measured ten feet across its base.

Chunks of the lichen-stained stone were missing, rupturing the wardstone's rings of runes and leaving a gap large enough for a man to walk through. Peering into the breach, I saw that the wardstone was hollow at its core. Hard-packed silvery dust filled it, or had. The dust had been scraped out as far as a tall man could reach. Where the wardstone had been hollowed, its runes were black and oozing, weeping like cuts in a pine tree's trunk. The ground was spongy with decay where that ichor trickled, as it had been in the dying soldier's bootprints.

"They took the nexavar," Jelani breathed, tracing the ruined sigils. She was careful to avoid their dripping ink. "That's why the wardstone's failing, and why those soldiers turned to ghouls. They were mining out the nexavar. They took too much, though, and they couldn't have known what these runes said, or they wouldn't have broken through this section. They ruptured the ward, and the backlash killed them."

"Why would they take nexavar from a wardstone?" I asked.

She gave me a skeptical look, then laughed. "I forgot. You don't have time for superstitions like the rest of us. You've seen those warding amulets people wear to fend off demons."

"Yes."

"The ones that work use nexavar. It's weak magic, but real. People around the Worldwound will pay a lot of money for that—even, or especially, the crusaders themselves. If you care more about lining your own pockets than protecting the border, a wardstone's better than a diamond mine."

I scowled. If Jelani was right, the dead men had paid for their selfishness, but their deaths didn't end the danger. "Can you fix it?"

Jelani paced around the wardstone, examining its broken runes and hollow core. At length she stepped back, shaking her head. "I'd need enough nexavar to replace what was taken. Without it, my spells would fade in hours, if I even had the strength to hold them that long."

My heart sank. It could take months to requisition that much nexavar and bring it back to the wardstone... or longer, with winter hard upon us. I'd heard the nexavar trade depended on river traffic. If that was true, and the supply was locked on frozen boats, we might have to wait until spring. All the while, the Worldwound's poison would seep through the crack in the wards. I hadn't felt so hopeless since Iomedae turned from me.

And yet that desolation might hold the answer to this one.

I knelt by the ruined wardstone, just beyond the reach of its spoiled earth. I'd come to Mendev expecting a clear-cut war of good men against evil demons. I'd found selfishness, greed, fanaticism, and bitter grief. And grace, sometimes, though it was fragile and fleeting.

But no certainty, not until now. Only now, as I clasped my sword between both hands to hold it up as Iomedae's symbol, did I know with absolute, soul-deep clarity that I was acting on behalf of something right. Healing the wardstone was an absolute good. The people of Mendev weren't saints; neither were the unwilling exiles who had joined their war. But they had the potential for virtue amidst their flaws, and sheltering that potential was an unalloyed good. Valas had seen the same before me, and his gift was proof that the gods agreed.

Iomedae, I prayed, hear me. Grant your unworthy servant this boon. Hold the wardstone's magic a little longer. Protect the people of Mendev from the Worldwound. I ask this for them, not for myself. I will give my life for this, if you ask. I will give my soul. But shield them, I beg you.

I waited, kneeling, for some sign. Light, song, agony. Anything.

Nothing came. The wind wailed on. My knees ached. I heard Jelani pacing back and forth behind me, trying to keep warm as she waited.

Finally, despairing, I opened my eyes.

The ground before me was laced with frost—bright, clean frost, with no sign of the previous decay. The rift in the wardstone's side remained, but a shimmering lattice filled the gap, like a tapestry of starlight stretched over black night. The runes at the base had stopped dripping; the poisoned ichor might have been an ugly dream.

"You did it," Jelani said in wonder. "I don't know what you did, but you did it."

"How long will the magic last?" I asked.

"I don't know. It's... not the magic I know. This is holy work." She raised her eyebrows. "I thought you weren't a paladin."

"I'm not." I'd had so little faith that I hadn't believed Iomedae heard me without a sign.

"Then what—"

"We have a reprieve. The chance to do good. But only a chance."

"Ah." She smiled wearily. "Well, a chance is more than we had before."

"It is," I agreed, and we walked back to our war.



Coming Next Week: Death in the bog in the first chapter of Amber Scott's "Swamp Warden."

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.

Art by KyuShik Shin.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Certainty Kyushik Shin Liane Merciel Pathfinder Tales Wizards
Dark Archive Contributor

You had me at "deliquescing corruption."

Actually, you had me well before then, but that sealed the deal. Terrific story!

Sczarni

Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Companion, Maps, Modules, Roleplaying Game, Tales Subscriber
Dave Gross wrote:

You had me at "deliquescing corruption."

Actually, you had me well before then, but that sealed the deal. Terrific story!

ok - where's the preorder button for a book?

Dedicated Voter 2013, Star Voter 2014

WONDERFUL!


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Cpt_kirstov wrote:
ok - where's the preorder button for a book?

Agreed!!!! More explorations of Mendev and the Worldwound would be fantastic. I've also added The River Kings' Road to my Amazon wish list (Just placed an order yesterday. Will probably order this when I place my order for the next WoT book in November.

Contributor

Very nice finale.

Sovereign Court

I want this to be a book. Best web fiction to date!

--Vrock, vrock, vrockin' on Heavens door...

Liberty's Edge

wonderful story, my favorite so far :)
but i am Iomedaian :P

Paizo Employee Developer

Good thing I'm in the same office as Sutter now, so I can keep pestering him to get us more of Liane's work.

Contributor

I'm delighted and flattered that you guys liked the story. The reception's been incredible to me, and I'm grateful for all the comments.

But let us not overlook the art, which has been fantastic throughout. I loved the first piece but this one's even better (okay, sure, the costume is a little impractical, but sometimes you just gotta sacrifice practicality on the altar of Cool), and I am continually amazed by how well KyuShik Shin has brought the characters to life via art. It's great stuff.

Sczarni

Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Companion, Maps, Modules, Roleplaying Game, Tales Subscriber
Liane Merciel wrote:


But let us not overlook the art, which has been fantastic throughout. I loved the first piece but this one's even better (okay, sure, the costume is a little impractical, but sometimes you just gotta sacrifice practicality on the altar of Cool), and I am continually amazed by how well KyuShik Shin has brought the characters to life via art. It's great stuff.

But didn't you already have her casting endure elements earlier in the story.... so who needs practical clothes?

Star Voter 2013, Star Voter 2014

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Maps Subscriber

Allow me to echo the praises of my fellows when I say this has been a thoroughly enjoyable read (all parts) and I'd TOTALLY pre-order or, heck, outright buy a full length novel from the author.

What's that, you say the author has a novel available, it's just not set in Golarion. Well now... what fortuitous circumstance be this!

Dean; The_Minstrel_Wyrm

Sovereign Court

Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure Path, Modules Subscriber

The best chapter: a real sense of bitter, cruel brutality.

The Exchange

I really enjoyed this story.

Paizo Employee Managing Editor

Cpt_kirstov wrote:


But didn't you already have her casting endure elements earlier in the story.... so who needs practical clothes?

That's exactly what I said. In a world of magic, miniskirts are perfectly sensible in the strangest situations. Also, maybe there just wasn't enough bear or wolf pelt to make a whole outfit...

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Companion Subscriber

The only thing I don't like about the short stories is that I get just enough that I love it and then it stops. Its killing me. Then again that is probably the plan.

RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8 , Star Voter 2013

What intrigued me more than anything in the story, "I hadn't felt so hopeless since Iomedae turned from me."

As an amature theologian, I found the choice of words interesting. As the old Footsteps story goes, it's not the Divine that turns from us, it's we who leave him. Does he beleive that she abandoned him? Or is he referring to whatever he did caused Iomedae to turn from him? It makes the character even more intriguing to me.

Liberty's Edge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Modules, Roleplaying Game, Tales Subscriber
Matthew Morris wrote:

What intrigued me more than anything in the story, "I hadn't felt so hopeless since Iomedae turned from me."

As an amature theologian, I found the choice of words interesting. As the old Footsteps story goes, it's not the Divine that turns from us, it's we who leave him. Does he beleive that she abandoned him? Or is he referring to whatever he did caused Iomedae to turn from him? It makes the character even more intriguing to me.

My reading is that he thinks he's done wrong by the faith and caused his goddess to turn. The tone of the story is that the guilt is for his actions that caused the rift rather than blaming the goddess for abandonning him.

[EDIT] Also agree 100% with both the praise for the story and with damnitall

Liberty's Edge

Liane Merciel wrote:

I'm delighted and flattered that you guys liked the story. The reception's been incredible to me, and I'm grateful for all the comments.

But let us not overlook the art, which has been fantastic throughout. I loved the first piece but this one's even better (okay, sure, the costume is a little impractical, but sometimes you just gotta sacrifice practicality on the altar of Cool), and I am continually amazed by how well KyuShik Shin has brought the characters to life via art. It's great stuff.

worthwhile descriptions tend to bring worthwhile art

of course there is also the need of an awesome artist for this, so you are right, honor where is honor is due, wonderful pieces of art :)


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Charter Superscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber
Cpt_kirstov wrote:
Dave Gross wrote:

You had me at "deliquescing corruption."

Actually, you had me well before then, but that sealed the deal. Terrific story!

ok - where's the preorder button for a book?

+1

Awesome work, Liane.


Man do I want to play a fallen paladin now.


+1

Amazing and awesome words.

Silver Crusade Dedicated Voter 2013, Star Voter 2014

Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure Path, Tales Subscriber

I followed this story from the beginning. It was amazing. Thanks for sharing it.

Paizo Employee Developer

I got my copy of River King's Road this morning from Amazon and I'm anxious to get home tonight and dig in. Keep the great stuff coming, Liane.

Contributor

Thanks!

I never know what to say when people mention the book because it's still so incredibly surreal to me that it exists and is out there. But I hope that you enjoy it, or at any rate do not have cause to regret your purchase too greatly. ;)


Just thought I'd pop by to say how much I've enjoyed this story. Issues of faith interest me and I thought that particular aspect of the story was handled exceptionally well. It really brought a sense of depth to the tale and I was thoroughly engrossed right from the first page. I also really enjoyed it for its depictions of the crusade and the startlingly gritty areas of grey that exist in an endeavour that you expect to be more 'black and white'. (The encounters with the villagers were genuinely unsettling.) Excellent stuff and I hope you get to write again and again in the Pathfinder setting.

Yours,

JDD

Contributor

I'm delighted that you liked the story; thank you for saying so. :)

I hope they'll let me keep writing in it. Golarion is a really fun setting with so, so many awesome hooks that just beg to be grabbed and then don't let go. It's a trap, I tell you. A TRAP!

Scarab Sages

Lord, so many great comments on this story already, I hope I can find something worthy of adding!

Firstly, anyone who works at Paizo and has the ear of those in the hierarchy making decisions to hire (ha, hire-archy) authors for writing Pathfinder setting-based novels if you haven’t already TELL THEM TO GET LIANE MERCIEL TO WRITE A PATHFINDER NOVEL! I cannot stress this enough! This story was absolutely phenomenal! Hence the overuse of exclamations… Sorry about that, but if you read “Certainty” then I can’t see you likely to disagree that the exclamation points are more than deserved. Heck, this was so captivating it deserves a portable hole full of exclamation points. Maybe several…

Anyway, now that I have that out of my system, Liane you’re a beautiful writer, to say the least. This work (and though it may not be bound and printed, I say with all certainty that “Certainty” deserves to be described as a “work”) is intoxicating and I hope that you are given more opportunities to write for Pathfinder. I will be stumbling (can’t quite walk a straight line, I’m still intoxicated by the reading experience) over to your site to find out more about your novel and any other writings that might be referenced there. All luck and blessings to you as you continue revealing tales to us!

PS- KyuShik Shin, your artwork is amazing! I love your take on Jelani with as much fervor as I love your rendition of Tiberion in "Noble Sacrifice".

You know, all of you (writers and artists alike) are setting a high bar. What's wonderful is it's a high bar you all consistently clear. Keep up the great work!


Really enjoyed this story. Think it is my favorite one of these, altho a couple of others come close.

One thing i am curious about is how did they get the Nexavar out of the wardstone? I would think that would be difficult to do, otherwise the wardstones would not be very affective if some random thief could just walk up and pound on the stone to get to the Nexavar.

Contributor

Psalmist - thanks for the compliments, and apologies for not checking up on this thread for so long. :)

Alephtau wrote:
One thing i am curious about is how did they get the Nexavar out of the wardstone? I would think that would be difficult to do, otherwise the wardstones would not be very affective if some random thief could just walk up and pound on the stone to get to the Nexavar.

Here's my thinking (NB this is NOT canon about the wardstones, because I don't get to make canon; it's just an explanation for that particular plot point):

Let's assume the wardstones are shielded with a boosted Magic Circle Against Evil (Level 3 on just about every spell list).

The Magic Circle effect prevents the demons of the Worldwound from getting close enough to claw the wardstones apart. I like this explanation because if the wardstones are linked to one another with a boosted version, that explains why demons are generally barred from passing through the barrier, but every once in a while one gets lucky on its save and then you have a solitary demon rampaging around Mendev until a crusader party takes it down. Go lowbie game go!! ALSO, and importantly for my personal worldbuilding preferences, it makes sense for the wardstones to have a mid-level, multi-list shield because a) just about every caster type can renew the protection by casting the base spell into the wardstone-as-amplifier (important during a crusade where your resources are stretched thin and you can't always rely on having a particular type of specialist caster around when you need one); and b) it's not super duper high level, because again, stretched-thin crusade means not having a Level 20 caster on call to fix a wardstone three times a week.

Anyway, that's why demons aren't tearing these things down right and left. They literally can't touch the things.

As for why human(oid) thieves aren't doing it, the reason is twofold. First, you actually do need a certain amount of magic to bypass the protections on the wardstone, and most people don't have access to that. Second, even if you DO have that capability, most sane thieves generally realize that it is in their own best interest to not have Mendev eaten up by the Worldwound. Every thief knows that in order for your stolen gold to be worth anything, you need to be in a society willing to recognize that gold has some value. You can't eat it, drink it, or burn it to stay warm at night, so if society goes down the drain, so does everything you worked so hard to steal.

And the Worldwound is another level of bad on top of that, because the reality-melting chaos of it means that sack of stolen gold might just grow a face (or twenty) and eat your hands off while you're holding it.

So that's why most thieves aren't sabotaging the wardstones to steal their nexavar. Self-preservation wins that calculation.

Of course, every once in a while, you might stumble across a bunch of unusually shortsighted and greedy thieves who think they can carve out a wardstone, sell the contents, and use the proceeds to flee before anyone catches on... but oops!, turns out bad things happen when you wreck the effect that had been protecting you a second ago.

That's my take, anyway. But it's not official or anything, just why the premise works inside my head. ;)

Contributor

Once again, nice prose. Congratulations on the upcoming debut of Nightglass! Looking forward to picking up a copy.


What class is Jelani I wonder? A wizard of the water elemental arcane school or a female Sorcerer with either the Boreal or Elemental (Water) bloodline? Does anyone know if she has official stats?

Dark Archive Contributor

More clues as to Jelani's class appear in King of Chaos.

Just sayin'.


Ah, okay but could you let me know if she has stats Mr. Gross?

Dark Archive Contributor

No official ones that I'm aware of, but I sketched out a character sheet for the purposes of tracking spells. I left it unfinished, and of course it's not "real" unless Liane does a version.

If she ever wants to do one, I'll gladly send her my notes, but otherwise it stays in the ultra secret research folder.


(wags fist at the heavens) DAMN YOU ULTRA SECRET RESEARCH FOLDER!

<_<...>_>...^_~

Dark Archive Contributor

Berselius wrote:

(wags fist at the heavens) DAMN YOU ULTRA SECRET RESEARCH FOLDER!

<_<...>_>...^_~

One way to propitiate the heavens in this matter might be to propose a character-creation contest involving Liane's characters, including Jelani.


Quote:
One way to propitiate the heavens in this matter might be to propose a character-creation contest involving Liane's characters, including Jelani.

Well, I'm more of a fan of official stats myself so I'll just keep hoping Paizo comes out with some sort of codex for their iconic Pathfinder Tales NPC's.

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