by Liane Merciel
Chapter One: A Death in Nisroch
"I need a favor," Ascaros whispered, stopping before Isiem's library table.
"Of course you do," Isiem murmured back, unsurprised. He did not lift his head from the scroll he was copying.
Once, he and Ascaros had been friends. As children in the village of Crosspine, they had been almost brothers. That friendship had survived the early years of their tutelage in the Dusk Hall of Pangolais... but only the early years. The isolating influence of Zon-Kuthon's faith and the weight of their respective sins of survival had pushed them apart. Now, as they neared the end of their time as students, that childhood friendship seemed nearly as distant as childhood itself.
The last time they had spoken seriously, almost two years ago, it had been Isiem who asked a favor of Ascaros. His friend had refused him then, Isiem reflected. It was tempting to do the same in turn.
But there was real fear in Ascaros's voice, under his Nidalese reserve, and Isiem had never been one to abandon his friends—even old friends, even strained ones—in times of need.
Besides, he was curious. What could be so important that it would drive Ascaros to this desperate attempt at reconciliation?
Isiem put his pen aside and looked up. Ascaros was still standing before his table, unmoving. His left arm, wrapped from fingers to elbow in white linen, rested useless in a sling, as it had for years; his right hand gripped the incense-filled Osirian staff he used to mask the odor from that ruined arm. The dim silver magelights of the Dusk Hall's library made it difficult to read Ascaros's expression, but Isiem would not have expected to see much anyway. No Nidalese worth his name let pain show on his face.
"What do you need?" he asked.
Ascaros ran his good hand through his dark, curly hair. In Crosspine that hair had been a rich russet, but years of living under the shadow of Pangolais had drained the ruddy warmth from the boy's locks. Now his hair was almost black, with only the barest hint of red remaining. Compared to some of the other changes the Dusk Hall had wrought in them, Ascaros's hair was a small thing, but Isiem's eye was often drawn back to it. They were not who they had been, either of them.
"Not here," Ascaros said after a long hesitation. He glanced down the hushed rows of shelves. "Can we talk in your room?"
"If you like," Isiem said. He was due to begin an apprenticeship with a Chelish wizard soon, but his new mistress had not yet come to claim him, so he still had student's quarters in the Dusk Hall. Although small and spare, they offered more privacy than the library did.
He stood, closed his scroll case, and led the way back to his room.
With the door locked behind them, Ascaros relaxed. He leaned the silver staff against Isiem's wall and sank into a black iron chair, leaning into its spike-filigreed back as if the thorny metal were a silk cushion. Eyes closed, he said: "I'm going to Nisroch."
"Nisroch?" Isiem echoed. "Why?"
"Misanthe. My aunt. The one who served in the Midnight Guard. She... died." Ascaros rubbed his dead arm through its wrappings. "I don't have many details, but it happened in Nisroch, two days past. The Dusk Hall wants me to investigate."
"Why you?" Isiem asked quietly.
"Because she was my aunt, I suppose." Ascaros shrugged. "And because I am a student here, and they have some measure of control over me. Misanthe had several objects of value, and I imagine the Dusk Hall intends to claim them. I am her last living relative—or the last with any standing, which amounts to the same—so if I do not object..."
"Will you object?"
Isiem no longer puts much stock in friendship.
"I don't even know what she had." Ascaros pursed his lips unhappily. "An enchanted staff, a silver necklace. I remember a black mirror, too. It might have been a nightglass."
"Yes, that could cause trouble," Isiem murmured. Nightglasses were powerful tools, and dangerous ones. An apprentice with a nightglass could summon shadowbeasts that would strike fear into a master wizard's heart. The Dusk Hall held the largest collection of nightglasses in Nidal, and it coveted more. It was not difficult to believe that their superiors would send a student to retrieve one—even from that student's dead kin.
Whether the Dusk Hall had any legitimate claim to the glass almost didn't matter. The Hall wanted it. Ascaros would therefore have to retrieve it, or risk facing their masters' wrath. After years of seeing the scars that their teachers inflicted for far lesser transgressions, Isiem doubted his friend would be eager to disobey.
"When do you leave?" he asked.
Ascaros raised his head and looked at him. "Tomorrow. I am allowed one companion. One of the masters offered, but... I would feel better if I had a friend. Will you come?"
"Of course," Isiem said.
Black and swollen and slow, the Usk River poured from the hinterlands of Nidal into the sea. It carried the shadowcallers' vessel from the Uskwood to the coast, and it bore them past the massive, rust-streaked Rivergate that filtered incoming traffic. At the Rivergate their documents were checked three times, their identities questioned, every parcel in their belongings opened and examined—but all of it was done in under twenty minutes. Nisroch saw more merchants and travelers than any other city in Nidal, and its sternly efficient officials kept its traffic moving.
Isiem's first impression of the city, as their boat passed through the rain-swept walls, was of towering gloom. Nisroch was known as the Maw of Shadow, and while it did not have Pangolais's black trees to cast its inhabitants into an eternal twilight, its dense gray storm clouds had much the same effect. He wondered whether the hand of Zon-Kuthon kept those massed clouds hanging over the city; surely no natural storm would linger so long.
Spires and mausoleums crowded the banks of the city's wealthy northern quarters, throwing jagged shadows across the river. To the south, the city's laborers and commoners lived in smaller homes of basalt and dark wood. Two immense bridges, their wet black stone carved into lovingly detailed depictions of tormented petitioners, connected the halves of the city. Rainwater cascaded down the bridges' sides in shivering cascades, drenching the boats that passed below.
High above the Nisrochi nobles' silver-edged towers and iron-gated mansions, the Cathedral of Bone loomed. Sixty feet high and raised even higher on an artificial hill of stepped stone, the cathedral was a gleaming white pearl in a grim black city. It was built entirely of human bone—and the building, legend claimed, was never done. Squinting through the rain, Isiem thought he could make out a lattice of scaffolding clinging to the west side. Somewhere nearby, he knew, Kuthite torturers would be stripping more bones from victims' bodies and washing them in acid to cleanse them for the faith.
"We'll go there first," Ascaros said. "We must report to the Over-Diocesan and be formally welcomed into the city."
"And if we don't?"
"It isn't a choice."
Ascaros's prediction proved correct. No sooner had their boat docked than five Nisrochi officials approached them on the pier. Three wore the harbormaster's silver pin over their plain black robes. Two wore the spiked chain of Zon-Kuthon.
"We welcome you to Nisroch," one of the Kuthites said. She was a short, round woman, her fingernails gnawed to uneven stubs. Her eyebrows were plucked completely bald, an affectation that Isiem had noticed among several of the harbor officials as well.
The other Kuthite was a man. He seemed younger than his companion, or perhaps merely subservient to her. His eyebrows, too, were plucked bare, and his head was shaved clean—a look that did not flatter his bumpy scalp or pallid gray complexion. Although he was not fat, the skin of his jowls hung around his chin in loose, sagging folds. He carried himself hunched inward, as if perpetually cringing away from the unseen blows of fate.
Isiem disliked him instantly. But the shadowcaller kept his manner neutral as he replied: "We are grateful for your welcome."
"The Over-Diocesan invites you to pay your respects at the Cathedral," the woman said.
"We are honored to accept," Ascaros said.
"I'll have your belongings brought up shortly," the boat's captain called behind them as his passengers departed. Neither the shadowcallers nor the Kuthite clerics acknowledged his words as they crossed the rain-slick pier. All knew the captain would have been badly beaten if he had failed to observe the proper courtesies. Impoliteness was not tolerated in Nidal, least of all impoliteness to one's betters.
It was a thought that loomed large in Isiem's mind as they approached the Cathedral of Bone. A single steep, narrow staircase led to the cathedral, slicing through the immense stone steps that supported the macabre edifice.
Small shrines flanked the stairs, each attended by one to three black-clad Kuthite dedicants and an equal number of petitioners offering themselves up for a show of piety in pain. The oldest of the shrines were built entirely of human bone; the newer and poorer ones still had animal bones woven into their walls.
The suffering that took place within those shrines was voluntary—mostly—but the screams and whimpers echoed in Isiem's ears as he walked past, keeping his gaze fixed on the church's doors so he would not have to see. Iron pincers, liars' masks, thumbscrews, salt knives, branding by frost and fire... and those were the tortures people chose to undergo. There were worse things in the dungeons under the Dusk Hall, and Isiem did not doubt that there were worse yet in the depths of the cathedral. The ascent was a pointed reminder of what a breach of etiquette could cost.
It was not the Over-Diocesan who met them at the cathedral's ornate bone doors, however, but a younger priestess wrapped in a clanking mantle of chains. Deep red scratches covered every inch of her skin except for her face, creating the impression of a flayed undead creature wearing a perfect porcelain mask.
"You will be Ascaros of the Dusk Hall," she said. "Your companion?"
"Isiem, also of the Dusk Hall." Ascaros inclined his head slightly over his folded hands. Beside him, Isiem did the same. "We thank you for your welcome, but we are eager to begin our work."
"Yes. Of course. The death of Misanthe." The cleric raised her bald eyebrows. "A member of the Midnight Guard, was she not? Remind me, please: what is the Dusk Hall's interest in that?"
"She was a Midnight Guard," Ascaros said. "But she was also one of our masters. Assignment to the Midnight Guard is temporary; membership in the Dusk Hall is not. She had finished her assignment in Cheliax and was on her way back to us when she died. And," he added, as though it were an afterthought, "she was my aunt."
The priestess dismissed that bit of information with a grunt. "I suppose the Dusk Hall does have some stake in it, then. Very well. She died while clearing the Hovels. The vermin were fighting back this time, so we asked if she would assist our own efforts. She kindly agreed to assist us. Unfortunately, it seems the vermin had a nastier bite than she realized."
"My aunt was slain by... paupers?" Ascaros sounded strangled.
"Calling them paupers would be kinder than they deserve. They are wretches. Human filth. They cling to our city like barnacles to a ship, and like barnacles, they must be scraped off." The priestess shrugged. "In any case, you are welcome to go to the Hovels if you like, although no guard can be spared for you. You may also collect her belongings. They are being held in storage at the cathedral. Voraic will show you the way." She gestured to the bald, stooped man who had accompanied them from the pier. "There may be more he can tell you. He was her apprentice, and the last to see her alive."
"Were you," Ascaros said flatly, turning to the man. By his tone, he liked Voraic even less than Isiem did.
The bald Kuthite bowed his head. The silver hoops threaded through his ears clinked against one another. "Yes."
"How did she die?"
"Bravely." Voraic kept his gaze fixed downward, looking at none of them, but Isiem still caught the grimace that wracked the gray man's face as he spoke. "But badly." He hesitated. "I can take you there, if you would like to see the place."
"Show us," Ascaros said.
Coming Next Week: Further glimpses of life in one of Golarion's most horrifying cities in Chapter Two of "Misery's Mirror."
For More of Isiem's adventures, check out Nightglass, available now!
Liane Merciel is the critically acclaimed author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Nightglass—also starring Isiem—as well as the short Pathfinder Tales story "Certainty." In addition, she's published two dark fantasy novels set in her own world of Ithelas: The River Kings' Road and Heaven's Needle. For more information, visit lianemerciel.com.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.