by Liane Merciel
Chapter Two: Hovels
The Hovels lived up to their name.
The poorest and most wretched of Nisroch's people did not live in the city. They huddled outside its walls, clustered in a miserable, mud-drenched shantytown by the Leper's Gate. There was little stable ground to support them, so the denizens of the Hovels built high and dense, creating a teetering warren of sticks that seemed a sneeze away from collapse at any moment.
Swaths of sucking mud surrounded the Hovels, filling the entire tangled labyrinth with the stench of rotting fish and worse. Isiem saw paupers picking through the filth in search of food or usable refuse. They wore stilts and masks of wadded rags in a futile attempt to protect themselves from disease as they poked through the city's garbage.
Other paupers bore the sigil of the Morbidium—three links of heavy chain run through by a scalpel—scarred or branded on their skin. The mark signified that they had sold their bodies to the scholars of the Morbidium for experimentation. It allowed them temporary safe passage through Nisroch's walls... until the scholars were done with them.
For a handful of gold, they sold their flesh, their bones, their sanity. Then, stripped of everything that interested the scholars, they were discarded. They drifted to the Hovels and stayed there for whatever days or weeks were left to them. The unlucky ones, Isiem had heard, could persist for years.
"Why would anyone choose to live here?" Ascaros muttered through the sleeve pressed over his face. He lagged behind as Voraic led them through the Leper's Gate, eyeing the damaged souls who wandered the slums.
"Because they want to live, and there is nowhere else for them to do it," Voraic said. There was an odd note of sympathy in his voice. Behind his back, Ascaros and Isiem exchanged a look. Proper Nidalese did not express pity for their inferiors.
"I'd sooner die than live like this," Isiem said. He meant it. The Kuthite church taught that beggars and paupers were parasites on society; the only reason they were not purged immediately was because their sufferings pleased Zon-Kuthon. It was not a doctrine that lent itself to charity.
"The rest of them should too," Ascaros said. "Have some shred of dignity. There's none in living in the Hovels, and there's no way out."
"There is," Voraic said, pushing open the creaking gate. He stepped through the gap in Nisroch's great black walls, passing from rainy gloom into midnight and back into rain.
Again the shadowcallers exchanged a glance as they followed him. Then Ascaros said, carefully neutral: "You speak from experience?"
For a time it seemed that he would not elaborate. The gate closed behind them. Isiem watched a knot of small children, some thirty feet away, fight one another for the corpse of a starved orange tomcat. Their struggle was as grimly silent as it was vicious. Beggars' get they might be, but these children were still Nidalese.
A scrawny boy, bleeding from the temple, ran off with the dead cat. The others scattered from the shadowcallers' approach. Clearly they had learned to be wary of visitors coming from the city.
"I was like him, once," Voraic said softly, lifting a sleeved hand toward the boy with the cat. "Desperate. Starving. Willing to fight—to kill—for a meal like that. Most days, I didn't have the chance. I lived in the mud with my mother and four siblings. By the time I was ten, two of those four were dead, and my mother had had two more. I don't remember any of our fathers."
"A terribly sad story," Ascaros said aridly.
"How did you get out?" Isiem asked.
"Misanthe lifted me from the Hovels," Voraic said. His robes quivered and he hunched a little further down, keeping his back toward his companions. "It was during one of the burnings. Ten... fifteen burnings ago. I don't remember. They happen every year, twice a year sometimes. It's hard to keep count. I was ten. It was summertime, and the smell was bad. The Over-Diocesan sent her faithful to cleanse the Hovels. Their poisoned fires tore through the buildings, and they marched through the streets, killing anyone who managed to survive the smoke.
"My mother pushed me through the flames toward them. I knew what she was doing; she wasn't the only one to try it. Children who are stoic enough—Nidalese enough—to endure extraordinary pain without crying sometimes find acceptance among the ranks of the faithful. My siblings were too weak to have a chance. But I endured the fire without flinching, and when I stumbled back to my feet in front of the masters, I saw a glimmering of respect.
"Misanthe stopped the others from killing me. She said I had promise. She tested that promise before she took me, but I passed. And so I became her apprentice."
"Tested it how?" Isiem asked.
Ascaros would do well to guard his emotions.
A small shrug rippled Voraic's rain-soaked robes. His voice was steady but toneless. "She found my mother. She killed her. Then and there, in the smoke. There were screams all around us from others burning in the Hovels. My friends, some of them. My brothers and sisters. But Misanthe told me not to take my eyes off what she was doing, no matter what went on around us. I obeyed. And I did not cry. At the end of it, she said I had proven myself well enough to be worthy of magic... eventually. She did not want a useless child. So I trained in Nisroch, first, and in time she came back for me."
A path of broken planks sunk into the mud served as stepping stones to the Hovels. Ascaros lifted the hem of his charcoal-gray shadowcaller's robes away from the filth, grimacing as his boots squelched in the sodden earth. Ramshackle buildings closed around them, funneling the rainwater into tumbling rivers that slid from warped roof boards and splashed into the mud. "Were you with her in Westcrown?"
Voraic shook his head. "Only in Nisroch. I did not have permission to enter Cheliax." He paused, pointing to a crooked black spar that thrust up from the teetering buildings ahead. "That is where it happened. The burning always starts on the outer perimeter and pushes in toward the city, so that those fleeing the flames run into the archers on the walls."
"Wait here," Ascaros said. "See that we are not disturbed."
"'See that we are not disturbed'?" Isiem echoed as they strode deeper into the Hovels. Fearful eyes peered at them from the darkness within the shacks, but neither of the shadowcallers paid them any mind. Most of the Hovels' denizens fled or hid from their approach. A few were too damaged to do either, but even those would never dare confront them. Voraic was right: these people wanted to live. And confronting shadowcallers was no way to do that.
Ascaros shrugged. "Let him see the excuse for what it is. What difference does it make?"
"None, I suppose." Isiem watched a muttering idiot go by. The sigil of the Morbidium was branded on his brow, although it had been partly cut away. A row of large, careless stitches ran up the side of the man's neck and across his stubbly head. The wound they'd once closed had healed long ago, but the stitches remained, red and inflamed with infection. The man stumbled into a doorless shack and vanished from view, although Isiem could still hear him mumbling deliriously to his invisible friends or foes. "Does his tale ring true?"
"That he was plucked from the Hovels by my aunt? Perhaps. It isn't a story I'd brag about, but perhaps he wanted to deflect our suspicions."
"Do you suspect him?" Isiem asked.
"Maybe." Scowling, Ascaros stepped over an insensible woman lying sprawled across the alley. A cracked board served as her bed, or bier—Isiem wasn't sure which. She had no legs. The empty cloth of her skirts had been trampled into the mud so deeply that the garments were barely more than ripples in the puddled filth. The stench of wine-sweat fogged the air around her.
Forty yards past the legless woman, the Hovels opened to the sky. Spell-driven firestorms had blasted away the buildings. The mud around them was black and gritty with the coarser leavings of the flames: chunks of charred wood, a knot of melted pins embedded in a clump of burned hair, a few fragments of scorched bone. Nothing larger survived.
At the edges of the ruins, the Hovels were beginning to creep back, like vines stretching out after a forest fire. A mound of garbage here, a tangle of laundry lines there. Some of the rooms that had been cracked in half like gourds were patched up again. But no people.
"So this is where my aunt died," Ascaros said, surveying the desolation. "Useless. There's nothing here to examine."
"Witnesses don't seem likely either," Isiem said, "although I suppose we could knock on doors and see who answers. If they answer."
"They'll answer," Ascaros said grimly. Raising his silver-capped staff, he started for the nearest shack.
The fourth door they tried yielded a person with functional eyes and a mouth. He was another of the Morbidium's cast-offs; his fingers were reduced to three on each hand, and those three were unnaturally extended with stitched-in joints from the missing digits. Craters the size of cherries pocked his skull, collecting rain in little pools.
But he could see, and he could talk to them, and that made him better than the other creatures they'd found.
"What did you see when the fires came?" Ascaros demanded.
The wretch blinked at them from his doorway. Rain trickled down his dented scalp and ran down the sides of his nose, dripping into his slack toothless mouth. Behind him, a handful of children huddled in the dark. Isiem wondered if it was for their sake that this man had sold himself to the Morbidium—and what they must think if he had. What was a father like this worth?
"Fires," he managed at last.
"Yes," Ascaros said impatiently. "Fires. What happened? Who was here?"
"Many. Many in robes. With the fires."
"Was there a woman? One who looked like me?" Ascaros lifted his bad arm in its sling. "With an arm like this?"
The broken man nodded slowly. His fingers twitched strangely, as if the movement originated somehow in the sewn-on middle joints. "She was here."
"What happened to her?"
"The fires came down, and she walked into a house. Struggling. The fires ate her."
"Struggling?" Isiem repeated. He wondered if the man was confused. Those dents in his skull were very deep. "Against what?"
"Death." The broken man nodded emphatically. He drew his fingers across his throat. They wriggled spastically, like the convulsing legs of a crushed ant. "Fighting against death. She walked into the fires and they ate her."
"Thank you," Isiem said. He took Ascaros's sleeve gently and pulled his friend away from the door. The other shadowcaller's face had twisted into a scowl that suggested he was about to explode with rage, and Isiem didn’t think that would help them here.
"Worthless," Ascaros fumed, stabbing his staff into the stinking ground. He seemed angrier—and more afraid, Isiem thought—than the broken man's story warranted. "That idiot was worthless."
"Of course he was," Isiem said. "The Morbidium took everything of worth in him." He sighed, casting a glance up at the dull gray sky. The storm showed no signs of dissipating. "Do you want to try the other doors, or shall we pursue another lead?"
"There's no use talking to any of these lackwits. The ones that have tongues don't have eyes, and the ones that have eyes don't have brains." With one last snarl at the patched-up dwellings around the burned site, Ascaros turned back the way they'd come. This time he did not step over the legless woman in the mud; he jabbed his staff into her empty skirts and kicked her savagely in the side. The woman spluttered in the filth, struggling feebly.
"Control yourself," Isiem cautioned him quietly. "Voraic may see. Or some other Nisrochi. It would not do to damage our dignity."
Ascaros stiffened, breathing heavily, but after a moment he nodded and stepped over the sobbing, still-drunk cripple. He brushed a fleck of mud from his robes. "Yes."
"Do we have another lead?"
"The apprentice. He might owe her everything, but when has that stopped treachery? And my aunt's remains. They are being kept at the cathedral."
"We have to collect them anyway," Isiem said. "Let's begin there. No need to let Voraic know we suspect him until we must—and if we glean anything from Misanthe's remains, it will let us question him more carefully."
"To the cathedral, then," Ascaros said.
∗ ∗ ∗
Misanthe's corpse was laid on a table alongside several others in a small room under the Cathedral of Bones. Isiem had seen similar rooms, and similar tables, beneath the Dusk Hall. They served alternately as torture beds, dissection tables, and biers—sometimes all three in quick succession.
Copper pieces rested atop each of Misanthe's eyes, signifying that a spell had been used to delay the decomposition of her body. Not that there was much to preserve. The flames had not been gentle; Ascaros's aunt was barely recognizable as human. She had suffered from the same family curse as her nephew, and the peculiar decay it inflicted left her corpse even harder to study. Much of her body had been dead and withered even while she was living, and the curse-desiccated flesh had burned like kindling in the fire.
But there was enough left to look at. Isiem pushed up his sleeves and began his examination. Ascaros hovered by his shoulder, following his work.
Most of the injuries were straightforward, but one...
"Do you see this?" Isiem asked, pointing to a dark ring that encircled Misanthe's throat. Burns obscured some of it, but nevertheless it was clear that the mark made a perfect circle around her neck. It looked like a bruise, almost, but the evenness of the color and its peculiar grayish hue spoke to an unnatural origin. No human hand could produce such perfect uniformity.
"Yes." Ascaros looked paler than usual. The tension that had been in him since their conversation with the dented man in the Hovels seemed to have snapped, as if the sight of the corpse confirmed some suspicion he'd been nursing since then.
"What is it?"
"The mark of a spell. She called it the shadow garrote." Ascaros paused, fiddling with the wrappings on his bad arm. His mouth twisted slightly. "That was one of her most powerful spells, and the most secret. She wouldn't have taught it to anyone. She refused to teach it to me—and I wouldn't have had the strength to cast it if she had. Not many people even know it exists."
"What are you saying?"
"That Misanthe was the only one in the world who had that spell. Unless she used it for a suicide, that means someone else reflected her own magic against her. And that means..."
"...that she wasn't killed by an apprentice," Isiem finished for him. Turning a spell against its creator was a feat of extraordinary magic. It was far beyond either of them; it was likely beyond their masters at the Dusk Hall. "That's an archmage."
Coming Next Week: Deepening shadows—and their residents—in Chapter Three 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 Andrew Ryan.