"Perhaps not so little," the cyclops shouted in response. He gestured toward a vast expanse of land that spread from the mountain below into a wide plain spotted with violet pools and copses of feeble, dun-colored trees. Jagged mountains hung like curtains in a ring around the arid flatland. The roiling black clouds above cast everything in a pallid gloom, as if the whole of the demon's realm stood poised at the moment just before the breaking of a terrible storm.
Creeg pointed to a distant glow, perhaps a dozen miles away beyond a wide swath of sickly woods. "Look there, in the distance," he said. "I think something is burning down there!"
The alchemist removed a large rucksack from his shoulders, placed it upon the ground, and rummaged through its contents, finally producing an elegant spyglass. He held the device to his right eye and glanced at the vista for a moment before furrowing his brow in frustration. "It's definitely a fire," he said, "but I can't make out much detail from here. I think it's some kind of building."
"Let me have a look," said Aebos, snatching the glass from Creeg without waiting for the dandy's permission. The alchemist sneered. Aebos smiled right back at him, pointing to the center of his forehead. "I've got an eye for this sort of work."
Without aid of magnification, Korm could just make out the bright spot beyond the woods that had captured Creeg's attention. Aebos glared through the alchemist's scope and narrated what he saw.
"It's definitely a structure," he said. "Looks like some sort of mansion, like you might find in Andoran or Taldor. Human construction. Well made, too, but it'll be totally consumed within the hour." The cyclops frowned. "Too bad."
"There are ruins not too far from the house," he continued. "Broken stone walls, columns… There are people down there! Hmmmm. No. None of them are moving. Statues. Lots of statues. It seems ancient. Must be the remains of some kind of garden. Looks like the whole place is abandoned."
"Scan the rest of the land down there," Creeg ordered. "See if you can make out any other settlements."
Aebos brought the spyglass across the landscape in a wide, slow arc before shaking his head and handing the implement back to the alchemist. "I see nothing else but pools and trees."
"Then we will set off toward the garden and the burning building," said Creeg. "Juval must be found there, and there is no time to waste." He shouldered his pack and began walking away, seeking a path down from their lofty perch.
"Just wait a second, chef," countered Korm. He pointed in the direction of the distant glow with his saber, letting his spirit rise slightly with the flinch of the pompous alchemist. "How do we know Juval is down there? That's miles away, and we haven't the proper equipment to climb down a sheer mountain. Why would the demon put the entrance to its lair so far away? And how do you fit twenty miles of hellscape inside a glass lens the size of a giant's shield, anyway?"
"I work in chemicals, Calladan," said Creeg. "Not planar physics. Even I don't fully understand how all of this works. But I do understand that Juval has placed the entire kingdom of Nex in danger, and that said danger will not be resolved here on this ledge. We've a long walk ahead of us, and we best start off soon. It looks like more than a day's march to the garden, and I don't relish sleeping in this place any more than I have to."
As he turned with a flourish, Creeg slipped on a bit of scree and fell to one knee with a curse. Why the Lady Iranez had chosen this overconfident glorified cook as their companion in this treacherous land made little sense to Korm, but if she wished to risk her trusted agent in this task, it was her own coin to spend. He doubted the alchemist would survive the journey to the foot of the mountain, let alone make it back to the other side of the lens after making a deal with a demon.
Aebos bent down to collect the bag of Iranez's treasure that lay at his feet, threw an awkward grin at Korm, and set off along the alchemist's trail. Korm sheathed his sword and set out after them, eyeing the linen sack as it bounced upon the cyclops's back with each of the creature's long strides. There was a fortune in there. Surely the demon wouldn't need all of it. Even a handful from the sack would set him and Aebos up for months in Quantium, if not pay their way to any port on the Inner Sea. But in order to spend their reward they'd have to bargain with Juval. And they would have to survive.
∗ ∗ ∗
Six hours later the trio had reached only halfway down the mountain. Although no sun had been visible in the sky since their arrival, the whole of the demon's world had become progressively darker as they made their way down the rugged terrain, and in the last hour all three of them had slipped and slid within inches of unseen dropoffs and unexpected ravines. Epostian Creeg's fine white leather suit bore jagged tears and stains from shoulders to shins from the coarse red dust that covered the mountain. Korm's left knee still bled from a fall that had shredded the leg of his breeches, and the alchemist's salve had done little to stop the dull pain. The persistent fire of the burning mansion, still visible just above the treeline of the nearing forest, glowed more brightly in the growing gloom, but did little to light their increasingly dangerous path. All of them suspected that a fatal tragedy lay just ahead.
"All right," Korm said, throwing up his hands. "I think we've got to call it a night and rest here. Any more climbing in this darkness is likely to kill us."
Aebos frowned—his vision far surpassed that of a human in the dark—but Epostain Creeg's dust-covered face shone a wave of relief.
"Agreed!" the alchemist said cheerfully, plopping himself down on a low boulder set against a jagged wall of rock twice the height of Aebos. "This vantage should prove easily defensible for the evening. I shall prepare us a meal, for all of this climbing has aroused a demonic hunger in my guts."
At the mention of food, Aebos turned away from their makeshift trail and let out a contented sigh. "That is the wisest thing you have uttered since we arrived," he said. "What provender shall you provide from your satchel?"
Creeg smiled reflexively, his eyebrows high with surprise. "It is nice to be appreciated," he said, struggling to free his arms from the straps of his oversized rucksack. He set the bag on the ground beside him and withdrew a generous metal pot with an engraved lid. This he uncapped, setting the lid beside him on his rocky seat. He placed the pot between his legs. "Our options are somewhat limited under the present conditions," he said, his face a mask of genuine regret. "Before we ventured through the lens I returned to the galley and scavenged some mashed tubers that I'd set aside for dinner. There are cubes of hippogriff within, but I'm afraid the lady Iranez enjoyed the tenderloin the day before yesterday, and all that remains are the lesser shoulder cuts."
Aebos sat himelf upon the ground opposite the pot. "I am sure we will manage," he said, peering into the stew. "Shall we light a fire?"
"We don't need to," Creeg replied. He reached into his bag and retrieved a slender glass tube filled with bright blue liquid. "A little something I cooked up before setting out from Quantium." With an eager grin he unstoppered the tube and flicked his wrist three times. Three dashes of sapphire splashed into the pot, which immediately issued a small cloud of steam. Korm felt steady heat from within the pot as he sat down next to Aebos. Satisfied, Epostian Creeg re-capped his glass tube and placed it into the bag, from which he withdrew a long metal spoon. This he jabbed into the pot, stirring the slurry with enthusiasm.
After a few moments of slience, Korm spoke up. "So what do we know about this demon?"
Creeg looked up from the stew. "We know that it's formless in nature. When Nex trapped the demons within his ships he stripped them utterly of their physical forms. They exist now only as a disembodied presence. After a while the demons learned to possess mortals who came into their realms. Over the centuries, Juval has taken hundreds of forms by possession. It shoves aside the consciousness of a body it wants and wears it as long as it wishes. Because Juval is immortal, its fascination with a given body tends to outlast the lives of its physical forms, but this is no problem because it can always claim another."
As he spoke he drew a small glass cylinder from the bag. Korm recognized the familiar gold flakes—Creeg's signature flavor—from breakfast. The alchemist unscrewed the top of the canister and dumped a generous clump of the stuff into the pot and stirred. After a few moments, Creeg sniffed the stew with an expert nose, but even Korm could tell it was ready to eat. His mouth began to water. His stomach tightened. He swore to himself he would enjoy the meal, no matter what.
Creeg fished three wooden bowls and three short metal spoons from his bag, filled the bowls one at a time, and handed them to Korm and Aebos before tending to himself. The cyclops ignored his spoon and tipped the entire bowl up to his thin lips, practically gurgling the stuff.
"If the demon doesn't want Iranez's treasure, how do we get it to return wind to the seas?" Korm asked, eyeing the beige mess slopped into his bowl. The hippogriff chunks looked like squalid islands in a sea of sludge. Only Creeg's golden flakes brought a touch of class to the dish, and Korm was quite sure he'd had enough of those. "Can we kill it?"
Creeg chewed a bit of stubborn meat before replying. "I doubt very seriously that either of you is capable of such a feat," he said, leaving unsaid whether he thought himself capable of the deed. "And besides, slaying its host body won't do the trick, because Juval can simply reassume its formless nature, in which it is even more difficult to defeat."
"Anything can be defeated," said Aebos, scraping remnants of sauce and mush into his tiny spoon. "You've just got to punch it hard enough."
"You cannot punch what is not there," said Creeg, wiping his bowl clean with a fine linen cloth. "I'm afraid the best way to defeat Juval is to try to best it with words. The Lady Iranez—or rather, her miraculous Orb—seems to think the two of you capable of the job. It's a testament to your glibness that you have survived this long, so I suppose all hope is not yet lost."
Korm scooped a spoon of stew to his mouth and was surprised to find it delicious. Perhaps he could put the Queen's Lament behind him and learn to enjoy food again after all. As he slowly maneuvered his spoon from meat island to meat island, Korm looked out over the horizon to the valley below. Darkness hid the dismal trees and rank puddles, but the flickering light of the burning building at the center of Juval's world drew his attention like a magnet.
"Up there, on the ledge, Aebos said that the house on fire down in the valley would burn itself out within the hour. I can see it myself now that we're closer, and it's definitely still burning. How is that possible?"
Creeg, having finished with dinner, now stood up from the boulder, his rolled sleeping pad tucked under his left arm. He circled Korm and Aebos in a survey of their camp, looking for a bit of flat earth on the jagged mountain ground. "Juval controls everything around us, from the rocks on this mountain to the chill of the air to the sickly grass below our feet. If the building keeps burning, it is because Juval wishes it to be so. We're sitting on a mountain now because Juval wanted a mountain here. We have to risk a plummeting death as we descend because that's the way Juval wanted it. No doubt the demon considers the grueling march a fitting expression of its power over visitors."
Aebos stirred his spoon in the tiny bowl cupped in his hand. "So if Juval controls what this place looks like, what else does it control? Could the demon fold forest and flatland to draw us closer to its lair? What if Juval discovers that we are here?"
Epostian Creeg snorted. "I assume that Juval knew we were here the very moment that we entered its realm."
The alchemist flicked his wrists and unfurled his sleeping pad with a resolute snap.
Coming Next Week: A meeting with a demon in Chapter Four of Erik Mona's "Two Pieces of Tarnished Silver."
Erik Mona is the Publisher of Paizo Publishing and one of the primary architects of the Pathfinder campaign setting, as well as the former Editor-in-Chief of Dungeon and Dragon magazines. His previous game books have won numerous awards, and include the Pathfinder Campaign Setting Gazetteer, The Inner Sea World Guide, Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, "The Whispering Cairn" in Dungeon #124 (which kicked off the Age of Worms Adventure Path), and Pathfinder Adventure Path #19: Howl of the Carrion King, among many others. To find out more about Erik, visit his Facebook page.
Art by John Stanko.