Aebos's fist crashed into Creeg's jaw with the force of a battering ram. The alchemist made a meek little sound, spun once, and collapsed upon the garden floor. Korm had seen lesser blows from the cyclops's fists snap the necks of men much hardier than Epostian Creeg. Perhaps the punch had killed him. A fitting end for a traitor.
At the foot of the low stair, cloaked in the form of a centaur, Juval cackled loudly. "That was unexpected! How very exciting. I had not known there would be entertainment prior to my collection of the fee."
Korm stepped toward the demon, his hands held palms forward in a submissive gesture. "I am Korm Calladan, and this is my friend, Aebos. We have no quarrel with you, and have come only to negotiate the return of winds to the seas surrounding the Relentless and the kingdom of Nex."
The creature turned its piercing eyes to Korm. Crimson flames smoldered under thick red eyebrows. "The almighty Nex created his demon ships for battle, did he not? This is a war vessel, designed for conquest. What harm does the lack of wind do to the Relentless? I can power the ship through storm and calm alike. If lesser ships are rendered useless, it is to our tactical advantage."
Korm frowned. He had not expected reason from a creature born of multiversal chaos. Convincing Juval to abandon its gambit without giving up the bag of treasure was bound to be more difficult than simply asking nicely, but Korm wasn't ready to give up yet. If they were to dissuade the demon, he would have to find an angle. And to do that, he had to keep it talking. He decided to start with the obvious.
"So those statues, they're former hosts? Old shells you keep around to remind you of past victories?"
"Oh, no," Juval said, its face masked with scorn. "By the time these wretches invaded my domain I'd long had my fill of human frailties. They were mere invaders. Victims. Three hundred years ago the Relentless ran aground near Lirgen, and over the centuries natives of those rain-cursed lands found their way onto the deck and explored the ship's lower quarters, seeking treasures. Instead they found the lens and their way into my domain. Among the earliest was a snake-haired medusa, whom I inhabited to great effect. Her eyes saw the world more vividly than any I had used before. Better, her form granted me the ability to cast any who beheld it into stone. Here, let me show you."
Juval's centaur form twisted upon itself, the rear legs pushing up into its torso even as the fiery red beard withdrew into a sharpening, increasingly feminine jaw. Korm's mouth fell slack as Juval's mop of ropey hair writhed and undulated, transforming before his eyes into a profusion of squirming green snakes. Juval's arms extended into lanky, gnarled emerald branches tipped with jagged claws.
"No!" cried Epostian Creeg, throwing his hands in front of his face. Korm met Juval's eyes just as the demon's pupils took on an ophidian cast. A dull power seemed to emanate from those hateful eyes, anchoring Korm to the ground and forbidding him from looking away.
The tips of his toes began to ache, and Korm imagined them hardening to gray stone within his boots, the transformation creeping rapidly, inexorably up his legs, over his groin, and into his trunk. He wondered when it would finally kill him. When his frantic heart stopped within a shell of rock? When the march of stone reached his eyes and he could no longer see? Or would the transformation preserve his consciousness so that he might live forever as a statue, feeling minute pain in every chip and scratch over the uncountable years he would spend trapped in this demon's personal Abyss? And when erosion set in, and all that was once Korm Calladan had crumbled to dust, would he still maintain his sense of self?
But Korm's toes did not turn to stone. His heart continued to race in his chest. Juval, now wholly a medusa, cackled with delight.
"You've nothing to fear from my gaze, child," it said in a voice that dripped with newfound femininity yet remained unmistakably that of the demon. "That body died out long ago. I can assume its image now only because it remains in my memory. For I now inhabit a shapechanger, and can become any creature that once was mine. No more can I create statues, but with a thought I can make my own body a gallery of the forms I have worn before.
"No, swordsman. The statues are not reminders of my previous forms. They are something far more useful. They remind me that though I control all aspects of this realm, the keys to its front gate are not in my possession. I must remain ever vigilant against unwanted intruders."
"But we are not unwanted," replied Korm. "Epostian Creeg brought us here. You and he had some kind of deal, didn't you?"
"I do not deal directly with wretches like that dandy on the ground," Juval spat. "My accordance is with his mistress, the Lady Iranez. That she uses intermediaries to deliver my price is a sign of weakness and lack of trust. Most disappointing."
"I also find Creeg most disappointing," Korm said. "But I assure you his offer is not genuine. As far as I can tell, he is acting as his own agent in this. In fact, the Lady Iranez instructed us to deliver a portion of treasure culled from the finest of her personal collection. Aebos, show our host what we have been authorized to deliver."
The cyclops reluctantly reached into the linen sack and withdrew a sturdy platinum tiara bejeweled with a rainbow of scintillating colors. A fine silver necklace chased with glittering rubies looped around the apex of the delicate crown and curled over Aebos's massive thumb to dangle invitingly.
Juval cackled, the snap of its derisive laughter sharper for the chorus of hissing snakes that accompanied it. When finally the demon's pleasure subsided into a fit of rough chuckles, it spoke, shaking its head. "You are a fool. What good does a pretty bracelet or a handful of coins do me here? I am trapped forever in this Hell of my creation, never to visit a market or fancy ball. Wealth as you understand it means absolutely nothing to me."
"I'm certain that we can come to some accommodation," replied Korm.
"As am I," Juval replied. "Creeg spoke true. My accordance with his mistress calls for the delivery of a new, interesting form once every decade. I inhabit that form until I tire of it, at which point I demand a new one." Juval turned briefly toward the murdered satyr atop the garden's central dais. "The last three deliveries Iranez has made have not been sufficiently interesting, and so I have stilled the waters of her beloved homeland until the quality of her offering equals the value of my service."
Aebos began carefully returning his treasures to the linen bag. The corner of Korm's mouth twitched. Things were about to go to hell, he thought, but at least if they managed to get out of here that bag of treasure would accompany them to Quantium.
Korm's mind raced to concoct a way to defeat the demon. If he stalled the creature, perhaps Creeg could rouse himself and come to their aid. Even the thought of pinning their hopes on Epostian Creeg—who had already proven himself their enemy—made Korm's stomach turn. He brought his left hand to rest on the grip of his saber, unsure what to do next. Juval seemed to read his thoughts.
"There is nothing you can do to win the day. The cyclops is already mine. I control every aspect of the world within the lens. I control every aspect of the Relentless itself, down to the finest detail. And now, thanks to eons of effort, I extend my control even to the waters surrounding the ship. And through those waters I control the fate of a nation. You should have known better than attempt to bargain with a demon, Korm Calladan. We are not limited by human frailties, weaknesses, or desires."
There it was again. The demon controlled every aspect not just of this gloomy underworld, but of the ship that surrounded it. Korm smiled. His sword might not be up to the challenge of killing a demon, but perhaps another avenue presented itself.
"Who was Durvin Gest?" asked Korm.
"No one of consequence," snapped Juval, in a manner that suggested otherwise. After a moment's consideration, it continued. "You remind me of him. Lean like a predator. Sword on the right hip, though Gest's was a true blade and not a needle like yours. He was a stronger man than you, from a better era, but the prototype is the same.
"You even have his eyes. Sharp as a forest drake. Gray as a wolf."
"You sound very familiar with those eyes," said Korm. Juval's own eyes flared, but the demon kept its face placid, as if it had barely noticed the comment. The calm extended only as far as its brow, where its serpentine hair writhed in disdain, each tiny ophidian face registering its personal disgust at his impudence. Behind Juval, on the small rise at the center of the valley, the burning manor house flared mightily. Korm felt its warmth on his cheeks.
"I knew him well. In the fifty centuries since a wizard's treachery left me formless and bound eternally within the lens, hundreds of visitors have ventured here—many of them human like you. Pathetic creatures. Frail. Singularly obsessed with protecting their lives yet incapable of doing anything meaningful with them. A human will always, always sell out its principles to preserve its life, but so few manage to think beyond petty concerns like family and community.
"But Durvin Gest was unfettered from sentimentality. He sought to use his ephemeral human life exploring the world, taking in its marvels, and leaving his mark in the form of deeds and tales that would long outlive him.
"A quest of limitless scope requires a vessel of limitless capability, and so Durvin Gest claimed the Relentless by virtue of sword and guile. And in time..." Juval turned to glance at the burning home behind it, "In time, he even conquered me."
Korm raised an eyebrow.
"I led the conquering hero all over the world. Around the Horn of Garund, through the straits of lost Azlant, and to the far shores of Arcadia. After every stop, Gest returned here to our home together. He told me of the people he had defeated and the mysteries he had solved. He brought me funerary masks and axeblades and bones and books, eagerly sharing the panorama of a larger world beyond the Relentless. A world I would never truly see. His triumphs became my triumphs. As his image of the world exploded with mystery and wonder, so did mine extend beyond the confines of my eternal prison. Our lives became linked."
Aebos snapped his fingers, finally understanding what Korm was driving at. "The symbol on the dining room wall! That's your doing! You and Durvin Gest had a partnership!"
"We had a bond. I knew that the captain of the Relentless was a truly exceptional human, and so I took on more than just a human form. I attempted to think like a human thinks. To aspire as the greatest of humans might aspire. To be the companion that this exceptional human desired. To be exceptional together."
"Plenty of exceptional humans are trapped on Nex's seas," said Korm. "Because of you I even ate a couple of them. Many more exceptional humans will starve when ships can't reach port. You've got to put an end to this." Slowly, deliberately, Korm withdrew his slender blade from its scabbard. "And if you don't, we're going to have to kill you."
Juval threw back its medusa head in a wicked laugh. "You do remind me of him, Korm Calladan. Curious and confident to the point of recklessness. You came here, to a world I command to face off with a creature older than your race's eldest empire. And you come in the company of a lout and an addict, wielding nothing but an unmagicked blade."
"I object!" said Korm. "Aebos is far from a lout."
"Even in the face of certain death you remain jovial. Just like him. But Durvin Gest never returned from his final adventure. By now he must be centuries dead."
Behind Juval, the burning manor exploded in a bright conflagration. As the fire cloud lifted, it left behind no sign that the home had ever been there at all. Korm suspected a similar transformation was now taking place in the ship's dining room on the other side of the lens.
"I no longer believe in exceptional humans," said Juval. "The age of the human is over. The form has expired its appeal. I thought a shapechanger would cure the ennui of my imprisonment, and in truth I will miss it. But I find myself limited to only forms I have inhabited before. A shapechanger will come again. In ten years' time I can even demand one from Iranez, or again Nex's waters will fall still.
"But I may never get another chance at a cyclops."
The medusa fell slack and slumped to the ground, its cheek slamming into the edge of a step with a dull thud. While the body itself remained motionless, the details of its appearance undulated and rippled. The brown linen garment lost definition and melded with the body beneath, which grew increasingly gaunt and malnourished. Its serpentine scales smoothed even as the tendrils of its hair withdrew into the skull. The feminine face sagged until it resembled the early outlines of a hollow-eyed bust. Its vacuous mouth hung crooked and low. It was no longer a medusa.
It was no longer Juval. Korm turned to Aebos to shout a warning, only to realize that he was too late. His friend was down on one knee, bent over and struggling to steel himself against some unseen assault. As the swordsman rushed to his side, Aebos slackened his shoulders and sighed. Korm placed his hand upon his companion's arm. Aebos turned to him.
"They say that the cyclopes can see the future," the demon said in Aebos's voice. An unseen chorus echoed the words. "I wonder if your cyclops ever saw himself with his hands around the throat of his most trusted ally?"
Juval grabbed for Korm, a wicked smile upon its face, murder in its single eye. Korm rolled along the outside of Juval's attack in a move that always confounded Aebos in their many sparring sessions. But the cyclops was no longer Aebos, and Juval seemed prepared for his dodge. It spun to meet Korm's movement, swinging its forearm in a clothesline strike that swept Korm off his feet and put him on his back upon the ground.
Juval looked down at the swordsman and opened its mouth for some further insult, only to double over at the waist, clutching its arms to its stomach. Korm saw anger and confusion on his friend's face. "The form of the cyclops," Juval muttered with difficulty, "it burns! The pain is intolerable!"
Juval fell to both knees and moaned. Korm scrambled away from the demon and got to his feet. It crushed him to see Aebos in so much pain, but he reminded himself that the demon was not Aebos at all. Creeg had said that Juval pushed aside the spirits of the forms it inhabited, so the best he could hope for at the moment was that whatever plagued Juval so terribly had no effect upon his friend. Juval clawed at its stomach, trying to tear a hole in Aebos's leather armor to get at the source of the pain within. From between the demon's outstretched fingers Korm saw a flash of golden radiance that seemed to come from within the cyclops's body.
Juval turned its baleful eye upon Korm, and the swordsman recognized determination on the face of his friend. He immediately felt a blasphemous presence slice its way into his psyche, slashing the bindings between his body and mind and thrusting his consciousness aside. He no longer controlled the movements of his form, but as he sensed his hand reach for the grip of his saber he felt the familiar softness of the supple leather handle and realized that if he could feel texture through his alien hands, Aebos must surely have experienced the horrific pain that had forced Juval to flee. Sword fully drawn now, Juval turned Korm's head to regard the stricken Aebos, pitched over on one side upon the ground. He took a step toward the cyclops and raised the sword for a mighty blow.
Korm felt a sharp scratch in the pit of his stomach. Juval brought his hand to the point of pain, and at the touch a hundred daggers exploded within him. Juval threw back Korm's shoulders and screamed in anguish, his puppetry of Korm's form finally matching exactly the intentions of its owner. Korm felt as if a swarm of insects was tearing him apart from within.
Although Juval seemed reluctant to look directly at it, from his peripheral vision Korm beheld a corona of crackling golden light shining from his abdomen, and he instantly realized what had happened. Creeg had poisoned them both—and himself—from the moment he first had met them, no doubt hoping for exactly this result. Each point where golden fire seemed to scorch his innards away must have been some remnant from one of Epostian Creeg's flakes of golden seasoning. But understanding the source of the pain gave Korm no control over it, and hope vanished within seconds of the excruciating onslaught. Korm realized that the pain that wracked both puppet and master would soon kill them both. Epostian Creeg had won.
Korm was willing to die, if that meant Aebos would live. He had no control over his own body anymore, but perhaps he could extend his mind to touch that of Juval's, find some kernel of goodness that would confound it into remaining in his body long enough for Creeg's golden flakes to do their fatal work on them both. He did his best to push the pain to the back of his mind and opened himself to the imposter dwelling within him. He managed to contact only a tiny sliver of the demon's mind, a thundering abyss of resentment, hatred, arrogance, and anger. Such a mind offered little for him to work with.
Before Korm could formulate a plan, however, the demon slipped away, leaving him in control of his faculties once more. The pain left immediately upon Juval's withdrawal, though Korm felt a warm glow in his stomach that convinced him that Creeg's poison still provided a defense against another possession attempt. His heart jumped as he looked to Aebos, fearing that Juval would make another play for his promised tribute. But Aebos lay gathering his senses on the ground, free of demonic inhabitation.
A flurry of movement on the steps drew Korm's attention to the squirming shapechanger, who writhed in pain on the ground, stomach glowing with a golden radiance. Somehow Creeg's golden flakes had transferred back with it so that even the shapechanger's body had been infected. Not all of the flakes, of course, but enough to constrict Juval in paroxysms of pain. As if summoned by his triumph, Epostian Creeg stepped past Korm to approach Juval.
"You are all fools," he said, dabbing his bloody mouth on the back of his hand. Already an angry bruise marred the side of the face where Aebos had struck him. "Iranez of the Orb has more pressing matters to attend to than placating her demon. You have outlived your usefulness, Juval. We knew that a cyclops would be too tempting a morsel for you, so the Orb found us one. Then it was only a matter of fattening it up with a substance anathema to you, and we knew you would undo yourself. And you did.
"But poison has no command over demons!" cried Juval.
"Indeed it does not," replied Creeg. "But what you have ingested—what's now become a part of you—is not poison at all, but a violation of multiversal law. You act as if you are poisoned because it is a biological process that is killing you. Or killing your mortal form, but that is good enough for our purposes, as your formless soul will die just as surely."
"I—I do not understand," Juval said through gritted teeth.
"When you started causing us trouble, the Lady Iranez ordered me to learn what I could about demons, in particular how to combat their ability to possess victims and steal their bodies. This led me to discover an order of celestial azatas known as the Golden Host, who made war against demons countless aeons ago. They had no natural protections against possession, so they bathed their skin in eldritch extracts anathema to demonkind. When a demon possessed the azata, its soul and the azata's became the same being, trapped within the imprisoning golden skin."
Both Korm and Aebos had regained their senses and approached Epostian Creeg and Juval. The alchemist continued his narration, as much to brag to his companions as to inform the demon of its impending fate. "This process violated the fundamental rules that govern the multiverse. A creature of utter good or utter evil is either one thing or the other. A demon cannot also be a celestial. So the multiverse compensates by erasing the contradiction. And thus did the azatas of the Golden Host discover a method to poison the unpoisonable. A fascinating study in alchemy I might never have discovered if not for you. Go to your oblivion knowing that you have my most sincere appreciation."
"These creatures are not of the Golden Host," declared Juval through the shapechanger's gritted teeth.
"Of course not," Creeg scoffed. "Such a creature would never accede to subterfuge, and would never agree to our plan. So I didn't even bother asking it. I simply summoned the creature, murdered it, and dried its skin for later ingestion by our bait." At that word, the alchemist smiled a blood-soaked grin at Aebos.
"Just think, Juval. If you had truly been one of those humans you hate so much, you would have been perfectly safe from our plan. I hope it makes your blood boil to know that in the end, it was one of us that finished you."
The shapechanger's image rippled and twisted, refining itself into the form of a beautiful human woman with luxurious long red hair to match the familiar crimson eyes. The indistinct body smoothed and took on the curves of a shapely human woman garbed in the clothes and gear of a traveling adventurer.
"I was human once," Juval said in a soft, feminine tone wholly free from the muffled chorus that had previously accompanied everything the demon said. "I could learn to be again." It turned to look Korm straight in his gray eyes. "This is how Durvin Gest saw me. How I truly am."
Aebos hesitated. Korm reached into the pouch at his side and clutched the cylinder of glass containing the rest of Creeg's golden flakes.
"Do not trust it," Korm said. "I have touched its mind. There is nothing good left in it."
Epostian Creeg gasped as he recognized the thin golden flakes contained within the jar in Korm's fist. The swordsman stepped back to get the most of his swing and punched Juval in the face so hard that his hand shattered its teeth and penetrated its mouth. He withdrew his hand rapidly, wincing as the demon's jagged mess of a mouth cut furious channels in his bare flesh. But he left the smashed jar within. Aebos closed both hands around Juval's head and, for good measure, shook the demon violently to ensure even distribution of the flakes.
The creature's form shifted urgently as it jerked around in the cyclops's clutches. The fingers of the demon's hands melded and sharpened into cruel talons, which tore handfuls of flesh from Aebos's shoulders and arms. The cyclops released his grip and backed away from the fight. All detail fled Juval's form, which once again assumed the shapechanger's emaciated natural frame. With a surprising burst of energy, it lashed out at Creeg, throwing the alchemist fifteen feet away to land with a sickening crunch. Juval spat a dollop of blood upon the stairs and spoke through broken teeth in a raspy, desperate voice.
"You have hurt me, worms. Worse than any mortals have managed before, but I am afraid I have digested all of your foul meal, and yet I live. Perhaps an ounce more and I would have been undone. But I am not so greedy as to inhabit any of you again. I will have to content myself with tearing you limb from limb. A pity that you have no more of Creeg's poison."
Korm rushed Juval, saber raised for a deadly slash. On the downswing, Juval caught the blade in the palm of its hand, instantly heating the metal to soft, useless slag. The demon slapped Korm across the face with a backhand, sending him sprawling on the verge of unconsciousness.
With a touch of triumph to his movement, Juval spun to face Aebos on the ground, only to find himself looking directly into the eye of the cyclops. A wide grin split Aebos's massive head.
"I've been eating Creeg's poison since breakfast yesterday, and I have plenty left here in my belly. But I'm more than willing to share."
With that, Aebos opened his mouth and brought the index finger of his left hand to the back of his throat. Almost immediately, the cyclops let loose a powerful torrent of vomit directly in Juval's face, filling the demon's slack-jawed mouth. Even from where he lay upon the ground, Korm could see the sparkle of tiny golden flakes within the spray.
The golden glow at the pit of Juval's stomach spread across the whole of its body, and when the flash of light slowly faded, nothing of the demon or the shapechanger remained but the dying echoes of an all-too-human scream.
∗ ∗ ∗
From the deck of the Relentless, Korm and Aebos looked on as Iranez's crew put the Queen's Lament to the torch. A strong wind spread the fire quickly to the mainsail, which erupted into a curtain of flame. Iranez of the Orb and Epostian Creeg stood upon the bridge atop the sleek demon ship, while the boat's crew rigged enormous sails upon its impossibly thin masts for what must have been the first time in ages.
Korm clasped the bag of treasure tightly. Iranez had looked disappointed upon their return, but proved true to her word, allowing them to keep what they had earned. Even now Korm felt the Relentless pulling away from the Queen's Lament, catching the fresh westerly wind that would bring them to Quantium.
"Aebos, my friend," he said. "I think we are finally getting free of our troubles. It's all uphill from here. I'm not thrilled about going to Quantium, but at least we're moving."
Aebos shrugged. "I am eager to reach the city," he confessed. "I don't know about you, Korm, but I could use something to eat. I'm starving."
Coming Next Week: A sneak preview of Robin D. Laws's new Pathfinder Tales novel, The Worldwound Gambit!
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.