by Liane Merciel
Chapter Four: The Burdens of History
They left the midnight mirror without speaking.
Once on the other side, safely back in the Cathedral of Bones, Isiem snatched up the fallen shroud of silk and swept it back over the glass. Then he sat heavily on the bed, shuddering, as Ascaros sank to the floor beside him.
"You can't go back," Isiem said.
Ascaros did not reply. He laid his staff across his lap, thumbing its silver adornments over and over in repetitive circles.
"You can't," Isiem repeated, more urgently. "Silence is a trap."
"Is he?" Ascaros asked, as if the answer were of no great concern.
"Everything he said was meant to bait you. His false candor, the sly promises of power, the allusions to your predecessors' failures, even the mention that two others had refused his offer, so that you wouldn't be tempted by pride to be the first to say no... it is all calculated to bring you into his grasp."
"My ancestor's gifts are all curses," Ascaros replied. He raised his bad arm in its sling, plucking at the linen bandages that concealed the dead gray flesh. "He left hundreds of children, the shae said... and of those hundreds, I am the last. What an honor. How proud he must be." He shook his head bitterly. "The sorcery in my blood is killing me already. What does it matter, then, if Silence wants to do the same?"
"Is that what you want? A quicker end?"
"No. What I want is a way out. From all of this." Ascaros gestured to the cathedral's walls, to all the decades upon decades of human bones that hemmed them in. "Perhaps the shae can give me that. One way or another. Failing that, I'll take a better chance of surviving the Dusk Hall."
"You don't need him for that."
"You don't need him for that." Ascaros's smile was brief and weary. "We've discussed this before, Isiem. You truly have no idea what the Dusk Hall is like for someone without your gifts. It'll only get worse now that we're working individually with the masters. You can't help me anymore. But Silence can."
"Even if that help is not freely given?" Isiem pressed. "You would be the same as our masters, then. Forcing another to do your will with no regard for its own."
Ascaros's lips thinned. He looked away, feigning an intense interest in the arrangement of the bones upon their door. "I could offer him a limited term. Ten years, then a guarantee of freedom. After millennia in the mirror, that would be nothing to him. But for me... it might be enough to find a way out of Mesandroth's curse. By embracing undeath, maybe. Finishing the transformation that began before I was born." He shook his head in frustration. "I don't know if that's the right path, or if it would work. But the shae might."
"What about Voraic?"
The punishment for betrayal in Nidal is far worse than death.
"We should talk to him again." Ascaros stood, leaning on his staff. "In here. I want to see him face the mirror."
Isiem inclined his head. He left his friend in their room and went to find one of the Over-Diocesan's lackeys. "Bring us the apprentice, Voraic," he said when he found one. He took a seat on a bench of bones in the hallway until the acolyte returned with the man.
Voraic looked worse than he had the last time Isiem had seen him. His skin was almost as gray as his clothing. His fingers trembled visibly with exhaustion; weariness had scored deep lines across his face. And yet even through his bone-deep tiredness and guarded caution, the fear in him was plain.
"My time is precious," Voraic said as soon as Isiem rose to greet him. "I have work."
"We won't keep you from it for long," Isiem said, ushering him smoothly into the room. He locked the door behind their guest with a quiet click.
"What are you doing?" Voraic asked, turning back in alarm as Isiem turned the key. There were many locks on their door, and Isiem turned them all.
"Asking questions," Ascaros answered coolly. He pointed the silver-capped head of his staff at the mirror behind its veil. "What do you know about that?"
"Nothing," Voraic stammered. He knotted his hands together, wringing them in unconscious circles.
Ascaros gave him a thin, humorless smile. He wound the spiked chain of his holy symbol through his fingers and folded his hands in prayer, squeezing the barbs between his palms until both hands were studded with crimson droplets. A pulse of magic emanated from his maimed hands, filling the room with a flare of muddy red light and then receding. Isiem could still feel the enchantment in the air, however, and he knew the other two could as well.
"Try it again," Ascaros said, unbinding his hand. The wounds had faded to small pink dots. "What do you know about the mirror?"
Voraic's tongue flicked out nervously to wet his lips. His hands moved faster, over and over each other, strangling his fingers in fear. Silently his mouth moved, forming a protest that Ascaros's spell quashed—
—no, Isiem realized in a flash of sudden terror, that's not a lie. That's a spell.
Fire exploded at Voraic's feet. Isiem flung himself away to escape it. In the corner of his eye, he saw Ascaros do the same, taking cover behind the midnight mirror. It fell to the floor with a resounding crash, although the sight was obscured behind a rush of scarlet flames. The fireball Voraic had summoned was a sickly crimson thing, its colors murky and uncertain.
There was nothing uncertain about its heat. The mirror's shroud burst into flames and, almost as quickly, into ash. The bed shielded Isiem from the worst of the explosion, but he still felt the blaze through his clothes and the incongruously gentle drift of his own burning hair against his cheek.
Through it all, Voraic stood still in a pillar of torment, engulfed in clinging fire and screaming wildly as he burned. His spell had not been directed at the shadowcallers, not really; it was meant for himself. The agony of burning alive was nothing compared to what the Kuthite inquisitors would do to him if he were taken alive. This was his escape.
Ascaros stopped it. He tore one of the heavy black drapes from the walls and knocked the burning wizard to the ground. The shadowcaller tossed the drape over Voraic and held it down to smother the flames, adding a few kicks for good measure.
"Misery take the fool," he snarled, shoving a hand in through the drapes to pull Voraic back from death's brink. Sweat and soot blackened his brow, but Ascaros's concentration was untouched. "Help me," he snapped at Isiem. "Hurry. The Over-Diocesan's minions will be here soon. The idiot's attempt was hardly subtle."
Isiem nodded and fumbled through the drapes, ignoring his own pain. He caught hold of the man's hands: a sticky, sloughed mess of raw flesh and bubbled skin. Several of the fingers were gone; he couldn't tell how many. He closed his hands over Voraic's, pressing each ruined mass into a ball, and prayed for Zon-Kuthon's cruel mercy.
The Midnight Lord answered, and Voraic's mangled hand healed. Isiem continued to press down, fusing the man's remaining fingers—dead or alive—into the pulp of his palms. The flesh healed over itself, trapping the fingers like flies in amber. It was an effective, if grisly, safeguard against spellcasting. There would be no further surprises.
Slowly Voraic came back to consciousness as the healing magic flowed through him. The flames had ruined him. One of his eyes was gone, its socket a molten pit. His nose was a scab of charred meat pocked by two holes. The silver hoops in his ears had been blasted into globs of bubbled metal that dripped onto his shoulders. If he lived, he would be a monster... but there was no one in this room, Isiem thought, who intended for him to live long.
Ascaros dug his fingers savagely into the apprentice's cheek, yanking his face up so that their gazes met. "What do you know about the mirror?"
Voraic's mouth twitched. His shoulders sank under the weight of the drapes that still covered his body. "I have been inside," he admitted in a feeble croak. "I have spoken to the shae."
Ascaros jerked his fingers, flopping Voraic's head as though he were a fish on a hook. "You killed my aunt at his instigation."
"No. Not at the shae's instigation." The wizard rolled his good eye at the toppled mirror, staring at it without seeming to really see it. "Silence offered to help. He gave me the tools and the opportunity. But I would have done it on my own eventually, with or without him."
"Why?" Ascaros released his grip and stepped back. He sounded genuinely curious. "Misanthe saved you. She plucked you from the Hovels and gave you not just survival, but a chance at greatness."
"Should I be grateful for that? She took me from one hell to another. A worse one, I think." Voraic's burned lip curled, cracking at the edges. "And she murdered my mother."
"How did you do it?" Isiem asked.
"Silence taught me the spell. It was Misanthe's secret sorcery; no one knew that magic but her. Her refusal to teach it to anyone else—even her apprentice—was famous. It was a traceless weapon, or as near to one as I could manage." Voraic grimaced, shifting under the drapes in a futile attempt to find a less painful position. "But I would have done it even if I'd known I would be caught."
"Did he teach you anything else?" Ascaros demanded.
"Yes." Voraic's remaining eye squinted at the shadowcaller for a moment. Then he wheezed a strangled, mirthless sound that might have been a laugh. "Why, did he promise to share those secrets with you? It's tempting, isn't it? Centuries of lore at your beck and call. He isn't lying. He has the knowledge. But if you’re asking whether it's worth dealing with the shae..."
Voraic closed his eye and let his head loll back. The ribboned flesh of his cheek blew in and out with each breath he took. "Look what became of your aunt. Look what became of me. All Silence says is true: he invites you to destruction."
Isiem glanced at his friend, but Ascaros did not return his look. "How did you get into the mirror?" Ascaros pressed, still intent on the apprentice. "It only admits those of my blood."
"The blood doesn't have to be in you." Weakly, Voraic reached for a blackened chain around his neck. The links had become stuck to the man's melted flesh, but Ascaros plucked it away with callous ease. Attached to the chain was a small vial, its glass shattered by the dying apprentice’s convulsions. A charred rime clung to the inner surfaces of the few fragments that remained. "I wore hers, and it was enough."
Ascaros's face hardened. He jerked the broken vial off Voraic's neck, snapping the damaged chain. "Does anyone else know this?"
"No. Misanthe might have suspected... but it was a routine task for me to clean her tools after her prayers, so unless Silence told her, she would not have known that I kept the blood, or why." Voraic coughed out another miserable laugh. "Kill me and the secret dies too. But you will have to hurry. The Over-Diocesan's servants are coming. Give me a quick death, and I won't shout your secret loudly enough for them to hear."
"Consider it done." Ascaros drew the dagger at his belt and plunged it into the empty socket of Voraic's missing eye. The apprentice thrashed under the heavy drape, kicking spasmodically for several seconds and then stopping.
Ascaros withdrew the dagger and wiped it off on the thick black cloth. Before he could sheathe it, a sharp knock sounded at their door.
"Open," a woman's voice ordered, "or suffer."
"Of course," Ascaros called back, standing. He turned toward the door, but before he could take two steps, Isiem caught his arm.
"What will you tell them?" Isiem whispered. He canted his head meaningfully toward the overturned mirror. Resting lopsided on its halo of chains, the mirror seemed almost ordinary, by the standards of Nidalese decor. Yet one needed only a glance at its response to Ascaros's reflection to see that it was anything but.
"The truth," Ascaros whispered back. "Voraic murdered my aunt as revenge for his mother's death. She allowed him to learn the spell that he used to kill her. He attacked us when we confronted him, and we killed him in self-defense. The mirror is useless to anyone not of its creator's line, so there is nothing for them to gain by taking it."
"That isn't the truth," Isiem protested.
Another knock struck their door. This one sounded like it had been delivered by a mailed fist, not a bare hand. "Open."
"It is," Ascaros hissed back. He yanked his arm free and hurried to the door, making a noisy show of struggling with the locks. Several had been damaged by the fiery blast, so his efforts were not entirely feigned. "It is true enough to pass the clerics' spells, and true enough to keep us safe. What greater truth could you want?"
Unable to find an answer quickly, Isiem changed tacks. "What of the mirror? Silence? Do you still intend to offer him a term of ten years?"
Ascaros hesitated. He turned back halfway, his expression caught somewhere between desperate hope and desperate terror. He gripped the misshapen knob of the bottom lock as tightly as a drowning man clinging to a final frayed strand of rope.
Then the practiced mask of stoicism slid back over his face, and he forced the last lock free.
"It's not your burden, Isiem," he said, standing aside for the Over-Diocesan's agents to open their door. "Silence is mine."
Coming Next Week: A quick trip inside an ancient tomb with veteran Pathfinder author Mike Kortes in "The Twelve-Hour Statue."
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.