by James L. Sutter
Chapter Two: A Walk in the Park
The two men—for Salim had returned the eidolon's amulet, and the snake-man once more looked like an axiomite—walked shoulder to shoulder through one of Axis's many parks. To either side of the cobblestone path, trees and bushes of a hundred different varieties stood in a riot of color, each with a neat little placard giving its name and world of origin. Several were surrounded by decorative fences, and one of these quarantined plants shook and hooted as the pair passed by, its spherical fruit opening to reveal sucking lamprey mouths.
"My name is Connell," the eidolon said. "My master is Gatis Mirosoy, of the nation of Ustalav. More than thirty years ago, he called me forth from the aether of the Cerulean Void and gave me form, shaping me into his constant companion."
Salim nodded. He didn't know much about the practices of the so-called summoners, but he knew that the spirits they used in their magical creations were drawn from the Outer Planes. They weren't true souls—otherwise his own master, Pharasma the death goddess, would have something to say about the poaching—but they were close enough to provide the necessary animus. If Connell were a product of the chaotic Maelstrom, then it explained his appearance—and the disguising amulet. The serpentine proteans native to that plane were despised everywhere, but Axis had been at war with them since the universe began.
All of these thoughts passed by in the time it took Connell to draw breath and continue.
"For three decades, I served my master faithfully, protecting him from enemies, researching incantations, and managing his household affairs. He made this amulet specifically for me, so that I might treat with the local villagers on his behalf without unduly alarming them." One slender axiomite hand came up to caress the object, where it hung on its repaired leather thong.
"Sometimes, perhaps once every few years, his research would take us beyond the manor, to some forgotten library or dusty tomb where valuable knowledge lay languishing, waiting for the master to rescue it. It was on one of these excursions that he found the—the crown." The eidolon's voice caught, and for a moment he was silent.
"Crown?" Salim prompted.
"It's terrible!" the eidolon wailed, then reined himself back to a more reasonable volume. "We found it in the burial chamber of Arachyx the Ghoul-Handed. The master had brought us there in search of an ancient tapestry, but as soon as he saw the crown, all thought of the original mission went out the window, and he had to have it. It's a sick thing, an evil thing—a twisted band of iron with thorns that jut out in all directions, even back into the wearer's scalp. The whole thing has a weird, slick feeling to it, not like iron at all, but like oiled or decomposing flesh. And when the thorns prick you, the blood never drips—the thorns suck it up. I hate it." With this last pronouncement, a single tear welled up and rolled down the eidolon's disguised nose, dropping to the dirt.
"Missionary work is hardly Salim's forte."
"After the master put it on, he...changed. Before, he'd been a quiet man, and stern as any good master, but not without a sense of humor. After that, he became something else. He lost all interest in summoning lesser servants from the distant planes, which before had been his greatest joy, and even quit experimenting with my form. Instead, all he wanted to do was research death. He became obsessed with creating undead things, from rat skeletons and dog zombies to more... substantial works." Connell paused, embarrassed. "I dug up graves and brought him the remains of the townsfolk. He said we were just borrowing them."
Connell shrugged, helpless. "He was my master. If he wanted to study necromancy, that was his prerogative. An eidolon doesn't question."
Salim nodded, but trained ears had caught the verb tense. "Was?"
All at once, the eidolon's composure broke, and the face he turned to Salim was a caricature of anguish.
"He sent me away," Connell whispered. His tone made it sound like a death sentence. "In all my life, I had never been more than a mile from his side. But he had changed so much. He had never been over fond of travel, but now he never left the manor. He quit eating hardly at all, and would go for days without sleep. He ignored the clean clothes I left out for him. He tore down the shrine to the magic god Nethys, and built a new one to Urgathoa, the Pallid Princess. The old one was wood and paper, beautifully made. This one was made of parts from his—experiments."
Salim had seen plenty of such shrines, and could well imagine the decomposing limbs and reanimating scramblings it entailed. The Pallid Princess was a sick bitch, and made Salim's own goddess look downright warm in comparison. Where Pharasma was, for all her faults, at least even-handed and devoted to perpetuating natural cycles, Urgathoa was devoted to undeath and gluttony, her necromancers filling the world with perverse beings that refused to die. Needless to say, the two ladies didn't get along.
"You said he sent you away."
Connell wrapped thin arms around himself. "It was that stupid crown—I know it was. After a while, he didn't even take it off to sleep, and didn't notice when the wounds from the thorns got infected. I tried to take it off him once—just for a minute, to clean them out!—and he threw me halfway across the room. And that was when he said he didn't need me anymore." Another slow tear. "That—that he had plenty of new servants. Better ones. And then he cast a spell, and I was somewhere else."
The eidolon went silent, and Salim gave him his space, recognizing in the set of his shoulders how hard this must be for him. After a moment, Connell continued.
"He'd sent me back to the Maelstrom, the chaos plane he'd drawn me from. Except it didn't feel like home anymore. I was awkward, and lonely, and everything I met was either terrified of me or trying to eat me. But worse—I could still feel him. My master. The thread was faint—so faint—but I could still feel him." The eidolon pointed to the rune on his forehead. "I'm still my master's creature."
"That's when I realized how much danger he was in. He had his undead things, but they were still weak, and sooner or later someone was going to get fed up with the grave robbing and try to do something about it. And I wouldn't be there to protect him."
Salim was starting to get tired of the eidolon's puppylike devotion. He attempted to hurry the story along. "And so?"
"So I went to see Pharasma."
Salim stopped walking so abruptly that Connell almost tripped and fell over onto a flower whose blossoms were shaped like tethered hummingbirds, petal-wings buzzing frantically to pull them away from the clumsy eidolon.
"You went to the Boneyard?" Perhaps Salim had underestimated the creature. Though the goddess of death wasn't the sort to slay anyone out of hand—quite the opposite, in fact—there were plenty of other beings around the Gray Lady's realm who were less discriminating, and the journey there was hardly easy.
"It took a while," the eidolon agreed, "but I got there eventually. Some nice crow-vulture-things in masks led me in and showed me to one of her servants, a black-winged angel called Ceyanan. I think you know him?"
"You could say that," Salim said wryly. In the same sense that you know your master, he thought, just without the hopeless love. But he didn't bother confusing the eidolon with his own problems.
"He was very nice," Connell said. "I simply explained the situation as best I could, and he agreed that it would be in Pharasma's interest to help me." Here the eidolon grinned, and despite the amulet's illusion, Salim could easily imagine the serpentine smile beneath it. "See, it's not just the necromancy—I know the goddess hates undead, but that problem will take care of itself when someone eventually comes along and kills him. The real issue is the crown. It's what's changed him and made him do all these evil things—I'm positive. And if it's the crown, that means it's not his fault. And if it's not his fault"—here the eidolon raised a triumphant finger—"then it shouldn't affect the final judgment of his soul. It's a tricky situation. If my master dies while the crown's magic is making him do bad things, does that count against him? Does his soul go to Urgathoa, or to Nethys? At the very least, it seems like a long and complicated judgment is in order."
Now Salim understood. "And Ceyanan sent you to me."
Connell nodded enthusiastically. "He agreed that such a judgment would be needlessly complicated and take up the goddess's valuable time, and that the best thing to do was remove the cursed crown and let my master's soul cleanse itself. Then he gave me your description, and the name of a bar, and transported me to Axis."
"Of course he did." Salim had to admit, the eidolon's logic was sound. And it would be just like Ceyanan to send Salim on a job that was, in essence, missionary work. Soul saving. That would tickle the angel's sense of irony.
"So will you do it?" the eidolon asked eagerly. "Will you help me help my master?"
As if he had a choice. "Ustalav, you said?"
"Aton's Field, a village near Kavapesta."
Salim reached into his robes and produced an amulet of his own. The size of his thumb, the stone was a perfect, lightless black, save for an iridescent spiral that seemed to shimmer and move of its own accord. Cupping the stone in one hand, he offered the other to Connell. "Let's go, then."
The eidolon took it.
The world twisted.
Note: This story is also available in free audio podcast form at StarShipSofa!
Coming Next Week: Angry mobs and broken men in Chapter Three of "Faithful Servants."
James L. Sutter is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing, author of the novel Death's Heretic (also starring Salim), 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, including City of Strangers and Distant Worlds. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.