Death's Heretic Sample Chapter
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
by James L. Sutter
In Death's Heretic, Salim Ghadafar is a problem-solver for a church he hates, bound by the death goddess to hunt down those who would rob her of her due. Presented below is the first chapter of the new Pathfinder Tales novel by Paizo Fiction Editor James L. Sutter!
Death always smelled the same.
After all this time, it wasn’t the stink that got to him—the reek of excrement, of putrefying flesh and organs never meant to see daylight. That was expected, easily imaginable by even the greenest killer. No, what stuck with Salim was the insufferable sweetness of it, the fact that behind the stomach-churning stench was the saccharine ghost of fermentation, cloying and coating the insides of his nostrils. It was impossible not to respond to it. Somewhere in the back of his brain, the part that was little more than animal, he knew that smell meant a kill, and that a kill meant success. That part of him wanted to crow, to roll in the filth until it covered him like a badge. On its own, the stink was tolerable. Combined with that sweetness, it made him want to vomit.
The undead had that smell, too. With some it was musty and old, others mixed with the heavy scent of wet earth, and still others—those that walked among the living without notice—so faint that the lightest perfume could cover it. Yet it was always there.
The ghouls had it in abundance, their dry, stretched flesh never quite sure if it wanted to heal or slough off completely. Without looking down, Salim stepped carefully over the nearest corpse and pressed up against the wall, studying the doorway.
He’d killed most of the pack, though not before they’d glutted themselves on the parishioners. It hadn’t been difficult. These weren’t civilized horrors like the monstrous citizens of Nemret Noktoria, but rather the newly risen dead, as naive in their own way as the rural farmers they fed upon. They were strong, and hungry, but knew nothing else. They’d never been hunted. Fear was something they inspired in others, and by the time Salim taught them otherwise, it was too late.
Still, it was the easy prey that surprised you, and there was no point in taking chances. There were still three of them beyond the door, waiting like cornered rats to rend and tear. It would only take one scratch from a poisoned finger-turned-claw to stiffen his limbs and leave him paralyzed, helpless while they fed—or, worse yet, let the infection in their bite spread through his veins like wildfire, burning out his flesh until he became one of them. No, this was no time to get cocky. Taking the ghouls might be easy, but there was no room for error. The execution had to be flawless.
The glow of his torch was barely enough to light the antechamber in which he stood, its flickers seemingly swallowed up by the black void beyond the archway. Fixing that was the first order of business. If they went for his light—and they certainly would—the burns they’d get trying to take it would be nothing compared to the disadvantage his human eyes would be in the tomb’s darkness.
Salim glanced around the crypt, silent save for the crackling of burning pitch. It was humble, little more than a brick-walled pit with steps leading up to the church, but it was this village’s holy of holies. Each of a dozen narrow wall niches held a cloth-wrapped form, most still thick with dust—the ghouls hadn’t bothered feeding on these mummified husks when the church graveyard bore riper, more putrescent fruit. Hands folded, covered with the withered threads of what were once flowers, the honored dead might have continued their dreamless sleep undisturbed, were it not for the two ghoul corpses that fouled the gray stone floor.
They were exactly what he needed. Without a second thought, Salim moved to the nearest niche and took hold of the corpse’s homespun burial shroud. A single pull sent its contents spinning to the floor, leaving Salim holding several yards of cloth, which he promptly put to the torch.
Flame caught the simple embroidery and raced up its edges. As he let the flickering tongues writhe over the sheet, Salim glanced down at its former occupant. A young man, and not recently dead by the look of him—tendons showed through withered flesh, but they still held the sack of bones in the rough shape of a man. The body’s relative cohesion gave Salim an idea, and he set down the torch, wrapped the now merrily blazing cloth around the blade of his sword, then leaned down to scoop up the corpse with his other arm. With the grisly parcel clutched to his chest like a lover, he moved along the wall toward the doorway.
No time like the present. With a flick of his sword, Salim sent the burning shroud sailing into the room, the fabric flapping open to light the sepulcher. Something hissed in the darkness, and he followed the light with his other prize, swinging the corpse around the corner and into the room at shoulder height.
The ruse worked. Thinking Salim had charged in after the blazing blanket, two of the ghouls pounced, dropping from the walls and ceiling to rend the corpse’s brittle flesh. In the second it took them to realize their mistake, the real Salim was among them, sword flashing.
The ghouls’ leathery hide was stronger than human skin, but it still parted easily under the edge of his blade. Salim’s initial thrust caught the first one in the center of its back and slid in smoothly, the flat of the blade kept parallel to the ground to avoid getting stuck between the creature’s ribs. His recovery gave the second ghoul time to face him, but not enough to get its glistening claws up. Salim’s swing didn’t take its head clean off—his sword was light, and that sort of thing was more for storybooks and campfire tales than real battles—but it did the job, sending the creature slumping backward, head lolling to one side on a thin strand of flesh. Salim ignored it, withdrawing to a defensive posture with his back to the wall next to the archway, waiting for the third ghoul’s attack.
It didn’t come. Heartbeat after heartbeat went by as Salim’s eyes darted back and forth, but the expected attack failed to manifest. The room was silent, save for his own heavy breathing. Then the blood pounding in his ears calmed, and he heard a new sound—a low, dry whimpering. Sword at the ready, he stepped forward and kicked the crackling shroud farther into the room.
The third ghoul was curled up in the back of the burial chamber, hunched over into a fetal position in order to pull itself as far as it could into an empty wall niche. It clutched its knees and moaned again as Salim advanced.
“Please,” it whined. Coming from the twisted form, the voice was shockingly human. It strained to shape the words with its grotesquely overlong tongue. “Please don’t kill. I’ll go. No more hunting. No more brothers. Just graves. Please.”
In its fear, the ghoul came closest to resembling the man it had once been. Had the creature’s previous incarnation made a similar plea, as farmer to ghoul? Salim said nothing, but the ghoul nodded anyway. Chin to knee, it curled tighter and closed its eyes.
“Hungry,” it whispered. From behind bruised-black eyelids, a tear welled and slid down the creature’s face. “So hungry.”
This time Salim did respond.
“I understand,” he said.
Then, with both hands, he lifted his sword and brought it down.
In the aftermath, Salim recovered his torch and let the light of it and the blackened, sputtering shroud show him the room in all its meager glory. It was as humble as the outer chamber, but it was clear that the room had been both crypt and funereal preparation chamber. A long stone slab that was almost an altar sat to one end, surrounded by the mundane implements of embalming, while the walls held more spaces for bodies, unlit lanterns, and fine tapestries showing the glory of various gods, from stag-headed Erastil to the Lady of Graves herself. Clearly, these villagers worshiped an array of divine beings, pooling their resources into a single church.
And hedging their bets, Salim thought.
Setting his torch down on the altar, Salim moved over to the baptismal font in the corner and looked down into its shallow basin. The holy water was still clear and unsullied—either the ghouls hadn’t had time to soil it properly, or one of them had accidentally been splashed and the rest had learned to keep their distance. Salim’s eyes, hooded and tired, stared back at him from the water’s reflection. The rest of his face—dark hair, dark skin, and thin, dark beard—all blended together into the chamber’s gloom. The splashes of black ghoul blood didn’t help, either. Balancing his sword along the stone where the font emerged from the wall, he leaned over and splashed his face, then began scrubbing his hands vigorously, setting clouds of black filth blooming like ink through the water.
And not just black, he realized. There was red in the water as well. He glanced quickly down at his robes. Had one of the ghouls managed a lucky scratch without him realizing it? If so, he needed to move quickly to avoid sharing their fate.
But no—he was unharmed. Looking down at the basin, he realized that the blood was welling up from beneath his fingernails, his hands slowly weeping red into the baptismal font. The realization was followed immediately by a telltale tickle on his upper lip.
Oh. Of course. Salim dipped his hands back into the icy water. From behind him came the soft flutter of wings, as of a flock of doves suddenly startled into flight.
"Ceyanan has an interesting way of announcing itself."
“Ceyanan.” Salim waited a moment, hands gripping the font’s stone lip, then collected himself and turned.
The angel was floating in the chamber’s center, its toes pointed like a dancer two feet above the floor. The robes that flowed around it in an undetectable breeze were gray against worm-pale skin, and combined with the black hair they made the figure look like a charcoal sketch. Its features were too perfect to be truly beautiful, like a marble statue, and androgynous enough that not even the sheer fabric revealed a gender.
More arresting than all of these were the black-feathered wings that sprang from its back. Even half-folded, they were clearly not normal appendages. More shadow than form, they gave the impression that if they spread, they would not so much unfurl as bloom, the way the ghoul’s filth had expanded in the water of the font. Yet the angel’s floating seemed to have little to do with them, and they remained still, the individual feathers flickering in and out of visibility. It looked around the room.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Ceyanan said.
Salim ignored the apparition and instead located a clean patch of sleeve, which he used to wipe his nose, succeeding only in smearing the blood around.
“Is this really necessary?” he asked, gesturing at bloody lips. “Every time?”
The angel laughed, as innocent as a child, and spread its hands.
“Consider it a gift, Salim. What better way to know that you’re still alive?”
Salim let that one pass, but the angel wasn’t finished.
“Besides,” it said, motioning toward the floor, “was that necessary?”
Salim looked down. He was almost standing on the corpse that had acted as his decoy. The young man’s arms and legs, once locked tight in the stately constriction of the dead, were now sacks of shattered bone, flesh tattered by ghoul claws and the rough landing. Salim shrugged.
“He didn’t object,” he said, but he was still careful not to kick the corpse as he stepped over to one of the ornate tapestries and began systematically cleaning his sword. Ghoul blood had already dried along its length, crusting both the shining blade and the twisted, melted-looking hilt with filth.
“They rarely do,” the angel acknowledged. “But that’s neither here nor there. You know that I come bearing tidings.”
“And here I thought this was a purely social visit.” Salim sheathed the blade. “But please, Ceyanan, don’t keep me in suspense—pray tell me what the bitch-goddess wants from me now.” He turned to lock eyes with the angel. “Is there a vampiric orgy in Caliphas that I’m to break up? A mummy that needs unwrapping? Or did someone forget to dig a grave deep enough, and a coyote ran away with some bones?”
The angel frowned.
“You should learn to show proper respect,” it said.
“And you should know by now that I only give it where it’s due.” The mocking politesse was gone now, replaced by a cool, smooth anger. “If your lady wants to win my love, she’s got a long road ahead of her.”
The angel waved its hand as if shooing a fly, refusing to be baited. It was an old game.
“Have it your way,” it said. “You have the opportunity to work great justice in this world, but you’re welcome to see it as an order if it pleases you.”
Ceyanan sighed. “No undead this time. Rather the opposite, actually—something uniquely suited to your skills. A kidnapping.”
“Kidnapping?” Despite his resentment, Salim couldn’t quite keep the curiosity out of his voice. “That’s hardly my usual fare. Or yours, for that matter. How do I factor in?”
“In this case, the victim is already dead.”
The angel paused a moment to see if Salim would say anything. He didn’t.
“The merchant in question,” Ceyanan continued, “was the target of a routine assassination—nothing special there. But after his death, his soul was stolen from the Boneyard before it could pass on to its final reward. Not destroyed—stolen. The local clerics have been unable to raise the body, and now the kidnappers are offering to sell back the man’s spirit. Naturally, the church is more than a little upset. We’ve already got the local clergy working on the problem, but we’d like you to step in and handle things. You might consider it a nice change of pace.” The angel’s hand swung to encompass the crypt and the already decaying ghouls.
“Makes sense,” Salim said. “Letting a soul go missing hardly reflects well on the church. But why me? And why don’t they just pay the ransom and be done?”
“The situation is in Thuvia.”
Thuvia. The name hit Salim like a blow. That was too close. Far too close. But if the kidnapping were in Thuvia—
“The sun orchid elixir,” he said.
“Precisely.” The angel looked pleased.
“Stealing a soul and selling it back for a shot at immortality. No wonder the Gray Lady’s pissed.”
“Now you understand,” Ceyanan said. “You’ll depart immediately.”
Salim gritted his teeth. “You know I don’t like being that close.”
“As you so eloquently pointed out, winning your affection is not my first priority. Your familiarity with the region and its customs will make you that much more efficient. And you might even enjoy your time there.”
“Not that I have a choice.”
The angel smiled down at him again.
“You did, once.”
Salim opened his mouth to respond, but the angel had already grown transparent, its voice a whisper that receded into the distance.
“Enjoy the desert, Salim.”
Purchase the whole novel here.
Coming Next Week: A brand new, standalone adventure featuring Salim, Ceyanan, and even stranger characters!
James L. Sutter is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing, author of the novel Death's Heretic, and co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous Pathfinder supplements and City of Strangers and Distant Worlds. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.