It's Halloween, and in the spirit of going door-to-door looking for treats, we've decided to do something a little unusual for the release of the new Pathfinder Tales novel Queen of Thorns. Instead of offering a single sample chapter, we've spread the first four chapters across four prominent fantasy and gaming websites, giving you a free sneak preview of the first 70 pages of the book! Here to talk a little bit about the project is the author himself, Dave Gross:
To give people a taste of the Pathfinder Tales novel line, Paizo's fiction editor solicits short prequels for the web fiction page. These stories allow us authors to show a glimpse of what happens to our heroes between books. I appreciate the opportunity to go darker or funnier or just a little different from the novels while showcasing the same protagonists.
I love them.
Paizo also posts chapter excerpts from the novels, often from the middle of the book, with glorious full-color artwork.
I hate them.
Well, I love that Paizo is showing off beautiful art and a sample chapter, but why is it never Chapter One? That drives me crazy! I wrote the chapters in order, damn it, and I think the first one is a pretty good introduction to the story. Why can't that be the excerpt?
So I complain, as anyone who's read my editor's blog knows all too well. And he responds with perfectly reasonable-sounding explanations like, "We wanted to show off some action, because we like your fight scenes." (That's a dirty trick, the appeasa-flatter.) Or maybe he'll say, "We loved this character and wanted an excuse to commission a painting of her." (I loved her too, so I'm thwarted.)
But, damn it! I still want everyone to read Chapter One (and Two and Three) before Chapter Four. And so I keep complaining, and my editor keeps posting lists of things authors should never say to editors, and so it goes.
But something different happened this time. I don't know, maybe my editor was just tired, or maybe the stars were right. I suspect the enlistment of publicity impresario Jaym Gates might have been a factor. The result is that you can follow the links from blackgate.com to flamesrising.com to sfsignal.com and finally to paizo.com (below) to read Chapters One, Two, Three, and Four of Queen of Thorns.
If you like what you read, I hope you'll buy a copy of the book. And if you like that, I hope you'll tell everyone you know to buy one, too.
In the meantime, let's thank our hosts at all the participating websites, as well as Jaym Gates and my long-suffering editor, James Sutter, for making this happen.
I promise not to complain for the rest of the week.
About This Chapter
After Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils, in which the boys spend much of their time on separate journeys, for Queen of Thorns I wanted a plot closer to a classical quest fantasy with a group of heroes. You know, like a Fellowship or a Ring of Companions or something like that. So in Chapter Four, Count Jeggare assembles a party that leaves Radovan wishing he'd stayed in Rivendell. I mean, Iadara.
Jokes aside, Kyonin is only superficially similar to Middle-earth. In addition to the fey creatures infesting the woods and the horde of demons threatening from the south, the Fierani Forest is full of half-forgotten archaeological sites, some concealing arcane or cosmological mysteries. What could be more exciting to a Pathfinder like Count Jeggare? Although, as things turn out, the expedition into the Fierani Forest might reveal as many secrets of Radovan's infernal heritage as of Varian's long-absent father.
Chapter Four: The Fierani Forest
Somebody was making a hell of a racket, and not just in my nightmare. I'd been having a lot of those lately. I shook off the terrors, sat up, and rubbed sand out of my eyes.
Desna smiled. Nobody was getting murdered outside of dreamland. Arnisant just had Fumblewhatsit backed up against the campfire.
"Call off your animal! Great glens and gardens, he'll eat me in one bite!" The gnome wasn't tall enough to hold the skillet out of reach. He protected it with his body, but the hound's big jaws shook his confidence.
"Arni, get over here!"
The dog bounded and sat beside me, a long rope of drool running from his jaws.
The gnome scowled at Arni and set the skillet back on the fire. Fat black sausages sizzled in the pan.
"You all right, Fim?"
"Fimbulthicket," he winced as he pressed a hand to hip. "And I'm fine, thanks for asking. Dodging a hungry dog is nothing new, I'm sorry to say."
"Where's the boss?"
The gnome tilted his head in the direction of the brook. His baggy eyes told me the boss had kept him up late, as he had our last couple of nights in Omesta, quizzing him about his old man. It didn't help that we'd slept this last night in the forest just outside the elf and gnome city. The boss said it was supposed to get us prepared for the upcoming journey.
It was going to take a lot more than one night's camping to toughen up the gnome, who winced every time he moved. He probably hadn't spent a night out of a soft bed since he'd last seen Variel. That was around the time the boss was born, and I still had trouble thinking of him as working on a hundred years old.
I didn't mind sleeping on the ground so much as the fiends tearing through my dreams. I couldn't blame it on last night's supper, which had been pretty plain fare after all the rich elven goodies back in Iadara. No, I had a pretty good idea where my nightmares came from. They didn't come from the things I'd eaten. They came from the things I'd done.
As I pulled on my boots, the back of my neck itched. I looked around, saw nothing. Listening, I heard the sizzling meat on the fire, the water from the brook, and birdsong from the trees, but nothing out of order. Still, it felt like somebody was watching me.
I shook out my blanket and made a cloud of gray dog hair. No wonder I'd dreamed about wrestling a demon-bear. Whenever I slept near the boss, Arni waited for him to fall asleep before moving from the foot of his bunk to steal my covers, the big mooch.
The starknife rested behind the pack. I'd carried it with me ever since we'd left Ustalav. Even all the time I tramped through Tian Xia in a devil's body, I kept it near. A few times I'd had to use it to kill, but that's not why Azra gave it to me. Despite swearing to Bishop Senir that I'd never go back to Ustalav, I wondered sometimes whether Azra was waiting for me to return her knife and seal the offer she'd made me.
It was a stupid thing to think about. I wrapped the starknife in my blanket and stuffed them both into my pack.
I fetched my jacket off the tree where I'd hung it. It looked no worse for the dunking I'd taken back in Iadara. Most of my scrapes and bruises had healed, too. While the night I spent with Kemeili was fun, I was glad it was behind me. There'd been a time I'd have felt different. Maybe the problem was I'd spent a year stuck in a body nobody could love. Or maybe I'd had my fill of rough stuff for one lifetime.
My spurs slid into their elbow slots as I shrugged on the jacket. I rolled my shoulders to feel the slack hidden under the overlapping strips of red leather. It was the best jacket I'd ever had, and I liked feeling my tools close to hand. If I slapped my arms just so, razor-sharp blades filled my fingers. Even in a tight spot, it was easy to slip a rake or probe out of a hidden pocket.
I snagged a couple sausages from the skillet, juggling them as the fat dripped down my fingers. It was time I learned to be more careful around hot things.
Arnisant followed me out of camp. When I paused, he sat at my side and gave me a pitiful look.
I broke a sausage in half and held it up. "You stay off my bed. Got it?"
The Arnisant Falls started flowing. Before he could drown in his own puddle of drool, I dropped the sausage. He made it disappear and looked to me for more. I finished mine before I let him have the other half of his. Otherwise he'd harry me all the way to the brook.
We found the boss in the middle of the stream. He stood on a stone, his pose telling me he was halfway through the Thirty-Six Forms he'd learned from the masters of Dragon Temple. I'd learned the same exercises from a less reputable source. No surprise, the boss still practiced the Forms, and I had to admit he was a lot better at them than I was. Still, I made better use of them up close and personal.
I hopped onto a nearby stone and joined him. Usually we didn't go for more than a minute before he started pointing out my mistakes. This time he didn't say a word. We just let our bodies flow through the motions.
We finished and began again. As we Gathered the Sun and did Crane Steps Forth, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. The elf ranger Caladrel crouched on a branch overhanging the brook. He watched until we finished the second routine.
The boss looked at Caladrel. An unspoken message passed between them, and the elf dropped as light as a leaf to the ground. He set aside his bow and quiver, slipped the long elven curveblade off his back. Facing us, he imitated our movements as we did it all again.
By the time we reached Tip the Leaf, I knew he was one hell of a quick learner.
"Immaculate," the boss said when we were done. "Have you studied?"
Caladrel shook his head. "I practiced Willow-Oak calisthenics while training for the rangers. Your exercise seems to have a similar purpose."
They collected their weapons, and Arni and I followed them back to the campsite. Caladrel and the boss were the same height, a good five inches taller than me. As they locked step, the boss fell into the ranger's rolling gait. As long as I'd known him, he was a natural mimic, even when he wasn't trying.
It was good to see the boss in his long coat with the riffle scrolls slung around his chest. The Shadowless Sword hanging from his hip should have looked all wrong with his Chelish clothes, but somehow its black-and-gold lacquered scabbard seemed to fit in just perfect. When he drew the blade, it moved as swiftly as his Chelish rapier ever had. Swifter, even. He said that's how it got its name, because it moved too fast for the sun to throw a shadow behind it.
The one difference I noticed in the count lately was that he'd lost that little bit of gray in his hair. I couldn't tell whether he was using dye or magic, but it was only a matter of time before I caught him at it. He was getting old, even for a half-elf, but he hid it pretty good.
"Prince Amarandlon sent me to aid in your search," said Caladrel. He saw the boss's eyes narrow, same as me. "He explained that the expedition is under your command. I welcome the opportunity to learn from you."
The boss nodded, but he was preening on the inside. He likes having his toes kissed. I guess that can't be helped, when you're born into the richest family in the richest country in the world. "The prince's message said I should expect two others."
"Maybe Faunra?" I'd hoped to find that doe-eyed ranger in Omesta while the boss and Fimbulthicket planned our excursion, but the gnomes told me she'd flown back to Iadara. I made up for my disappointment by catching up on the sleep I'd lost with Kemeili.
The boss gave me a look, but Caladrel smiled. He was turning out to be a regular guy, despite the toe-kissing.
"I'm afraid not," said the elf. "I'm here for the rangers. The others will represent other concerns. Doubtless one will be the queen's creature."
The boss's eyebrow rose a bit. Otherwise he masked his suspicion pretty good.
"That reminds me," Caladrel said, rummaging in his pack. "I bring a gift from Prince Amarandlon."
"Your master has been most generous to me," said the boss.
"Actually, the gift is for your associate."
The boss masked his disappointment pretty bad.
Caladrel pulled out a dirt-colored cloth and handed it to me. It was light as a handkerchief, but I let it fall open and saw it was a full cloak with a hood.
"Thanks," I said, trying to sound polite. "But it's not really my style."
"Your red leathers stand out against the forest," said Caladrel. "With scouts from the Witchbole venturing ever closer, stealth is our first line of defense."
"It's kind of warm to wear a cloak, don't you think?"
"Try it on."
The boss gave me the look, so I threw the cloak over my shoulders. The hem fell just above the top of my boots, covering up my red jacket and pants. It wasn't too warm after all.
"Much better," said Caladrel. "Now you aren't visible from a mile away."
"Thanks." Maybe it'd get caught in a briar patch. Maybe a breeze would blow it into a ravine. I revised my wish list for Lady Luck.
Back at the camp, the gnome with the goofy name rolled his eyes when he saw we'd brought company for breakfast. When the boss told him to expect two more, he shuffled over to his pack and dug out more sausages. Grumbling as he rubbed his wrists, he said, "I hope they bring more provisions."
"It would appear one has," said Caladrel.
A tall figure came out of the forest. Mirror-bright armor glinted out from beneath a hooded elven cloak like mine. The warrior's backpack was twice the size of mine, and it came with a barn door of a shield and a rafter of a sword.
The newcomer dropped the pack. Pulling back the hood, she revealed herself as the Forlorn woman who'd slugged me at the queen's party.
"Desna weeps." Sometimes I forget and say it out loud.
Caladrel coughed. "Count Jeggare, allow me to introduce Oparal, paladin of Iomedae."
"Your Excellency." She made a stiff Chelish bow.
The boss barely nodded, reminding her of the pecking order. With a sly smile, he said, "I believe you are already acquainted with my bodyguard, Radovan."
The black pupils of her steel-colored eyes slid toward me. Her nostrils flared. Her expression was almost comical except for the fact that my jaw still ached. Otherwise, I would have tipped her a wink to show I wasn't scared.
I wasn't. Not much, anyway.
"Hungry?" asked the gnome.
"Yes," said Oparal. "Our owl only just arrived."
At a nod from the boss, Oparal went to sit beside the fire. I made the "let's talk" sign. Caladrel caught the hint and joined the others at the fire while the boss and I strolled out of earshot.
"You sure this is a good idea? I mean, seriously—a paladin?"
"We could wish for no better ally if we encounter demons in the forest."
"We don't need one of these holy avengers. They make me nervous. You don't like them either. Besides, we've handled fiends before."
"I never said I don't like paladins. As for demons, you and I have only ever faced one or two at a time, usually with the Egorian Watch only a shout away."
"You're forgetting Iron Mountain."
"I forget nothing," he said. "Those were devils. And you were on their side."
He had to remind me of that. "I couldn't help it."
"All I am saying is that the circumstances are different."
"You weren't the one that ogress clobbered."
"I was not the one who offended her."
"Thanks for the sympathy."
The boss looked past me. That sly smile found its way back onto his face. "Perhaps our last companion will be more to your liking."
I turned to see her approach. Under an elven cloak she wore black-and-yellow leathers—wasp colors. A coiled whip hung at her back, pushing up her cloak like the bustle of a ball gown.
Kemeili planted a fist on her hip and smiled at me. "You didn't think I'd let you get away that easily, did you?"
∗ ∗ ∗
Caladrel paused and raised a hand. He lowered it, palm-down. We all crouched low. Even Arnisant lay down without needing to be told. Clever boy.
Whatever the ranger spotted, I was glad to set down my overstuffed pack. The boss kept his books in his satchel, but I was the one hauling around the rest, including his tent. At least he had all his little scrolls and widgets in his coat and bandolier.
Caladrel beckoned the boss forward. I went with him.
We peered through some bushes at a mob of demons ambling through the forest. They wore the bodies of elves, some of them in scraps of ranger leathers, but there was no mistaking them for real elves. They jiggled with every step, glutted with something wriggling inside them. I counted seventeen of the damned things.
"Vermleks," whispered Caladrel.
"I will lead the attack," said Oparal, who'd joined us without an invitation. She shrugged off her pack and set her shield on an arm as thick as mine. Traced in gold on the shield's face was the image of a winged, eagle-headed woman.
"No," said the boss. "There are too many for us simply to rush in."
"The count is right," said Caladrel.
"But we are less than half a day from Omesta," said Kemeili, who I hadn't even heard creep up on us. "They have never come so close before."
"They have, and more often than you might think," said Caladrel. "But we are charged with protecting the queen's guest. You take your duty seriously, don't you, Oparal?"
"I—" Oparal looked at the boss and me. "I do."
"Then wait. With your permission, Count Jeggare ...?"
The boss gave him the nod, and Caladrel drew an arrow from his quiver. I could have sworn the fletching moved itself into his fingers, like the container was handing it to him. He nocked the arrow. On its tip was a lump that looked like a plant bulb.
The boss whispered to Oparal. "Caladrel knows the forest. We will follow his lead."
"Of course, Excellency."
"In the field, call me Varian."
I didn't like having a cloak on me, even if it didn't make me too hot. I dropped it on the ground. As an afterthought, I shrugged off my jacket, too. Oparal looked at me like I was stupid. Maybe she was right, but I didn't want demon gore all over my new leathers.
Caladrel popped up and back down so quick that I noticed the sound of his bow only after I realized he was moving. The demons heard it, and some of them looked back in our direction. A few stared so hard I felt like they were looking straight at me. I moved real quiet-like, and their elven eyes followed me.
Past the demons, the arrow hit the ground with a squelching sound. That got the attention of all the demons. Wailing, they rushed toward the arrow, shoving each other to reach it first.
"The scent drives them mad," Caladrel whispered. He pointed through the brush at a pair of demons ripping hunks of meat off each other. Caladrel nodded up toward the forest canopy. "It also attracts help."
At first it looked like cones were dropping from the high branches, but there were no pines around. The "cones" were fist-sized wasps.
"Well done, Caladrel," said Kemeili.
The demons noticed nothing but what was between them and the scent. The wasps swarmed over them. For a few moments, the demons didn't seem to notice. Then one began screaming and slapping at its elven body. Its head swelled and darkened. An instant later, it burst open like a rotten melon. A liver-colored worm's head burst out through its gaping neck, squealing as it squirmed free of its wasp-stung body.
"Now?" Oparal had her hand on her sword.
"Let them weary themselves," said Caladrel.
An impatient growl rumbled in Oparal's chest. She sounded like Arnisant when he spied a cat. She was spoiling for a fight.
Six or seven of the demons raised their stolen hands above their heads, gurgling unholy prayers. The air around them congealed. The wasps fell to the ground while the demons crushed the insects in a frenzy of slaps and stomps.
"Now," said the boss.
By the time I realized Caladrel had stood, he'd unleashed three or four arrows. One jutted from the chest of a vermlek, blood spurting through its hollow shaft.
Oparal charged the demons. Her sword struck quick as lightning and blazed twice as bright. Two demons came up behind her, black energy surrounding their hands as they reached for her. The boss riffled a scroll, and two gray bolts of magic struck each vermlek in the face. They howled and clutched their eyes as Oparal whipped her sword around and opened their bellies. Bloody worms as thick as my arm poured out of the wounds. Below each thick head, the worms split into four long tails, the tails further tipped with nests of countless tiny tentacles. The abandoned elf bodies slumped to the ground.
The boss tucked his expended scroll back into his bandolier. I stayed close in case one of the worms went for him. Arni did the same, barking as a worm shot quick as a snake past Oparal. The hound jumped in front of the boss, but the demon didn't go for the count.
It raised a dripping tail and pointed straight at me. In the squealing tongue of demons, it called out to its wormy buddies. Their heads swiveled in my direction. They rushed me.
I tensed, deciding whether to stand or dodge.
With a crack, Kemeili's whip caught the first vermlek by one of its wormy tails. The demon struggled to get free, but the curved flaps of the whip held it tight. Kemeili pulled it off course, giving me all the room I needed.
I planted the big knife a couple of feet below the worm's five-jawed mouth. Dark blood sprayed up as I pulled out the blade, but the demon barely grunted at the wound. Maybe that's not where it kept its heart.
Or maybe vermleks don't need hearts.
It rammed its head against my ribs, knocking the breath out of me. Arnisant's jaws caught the worm just below its head. The hound shook once, twice, and the third time tore away a mass of ruined flesh and six inches of bloody windpipe.
Turns out vermleks do need windpipes.
We left it flopping on the ground and turned to stop the next one coming toward me. None even came close.
Caladrel and the boss each put down another one with their swords. The ranger's big two-hander moved so fast that all I could see was its red blur. It hummed as it moved, louder when it touched a demon. In the instant it was out of its sheath, the boss's Shadowless Sword was damned near invisible. It looked as if everywhere he pointed his hand, some magic power tore wounds in the demons' flesh.
Oparal cut the legs out from under two vermleks trying to break away. As the worms escaped their host bodies, she chopped them into pieces.
Kemeili twisted the handle of her whip. Three long, wicked barbs grew from its tip. She lashed a vermlek across the belly, revealing the worm inside. With another stroke, she tore it out of its shelter. I filled it with darts from my jacket sleeves. It flopped a few times and lay still.
It was over before I'd worked up a good lather. I thought about how the vermleks had looked at me, then I began to sweat.
Oparal looked at me herself, eyes narrowing. The white light of her sword began fading. She raised it up and chopped the head off another demon.
Caladrel joined her in the beheadings. The closer his sword came to the vermleks, the more it glowed like blood on a lantern pane. As the demons died, so did the glow.
The boss had been right. It was good to have a couple demon slayers with us. I only hoped they didn't mistake me for one of the bad guys.
Kemeili wiped the gore off her whip while the gnome looked us over for injuries. A gnome-sized whirlwind floated just above the grass behind him, but it hadn't left his side during the battle. He didn't find any wounds on us. "Not even a scratch!"
Good thing, I thought as I fetched my jacket. Otherwise I'd have felt pretty silly setting aside what little armor I had. I promised myself not to do that again, even if it meant getting a little slime on my leathers.
"Don't sound so disappointed," Kemeili said to the gnome. "Or maybe next time just help us fight them."
He waved away her complaint. "I've seen scum like these a dozen times before. I knew you could handle them. They're boring."
The boss knelt to examine the dead demons. I counted time in my head until he broke out his sketchbook. Fourteen seconds—a new record.
Kemeili shot me a silent question. What is he doing?
I could have told her that the boss is a student of everything, but the truth is he likes weird stuff best. For instance, he calls himself a botanist—a fancy word for "gardener"—but the plants he likes most are the freaks like those whispering lilies he used to give his Pathfinder agents. They could plant one wherever they were, talk into the flower, and their words would come through lily's twin in the boss's greenhouse.
I could have told her that, but I didn't want to lead her on. If she'd finagled her way into the group because she couldn't get enough of me, well, who could blame her? On the other hand, it was way too convenient. If the queen had sent Oparal, that left the temple to send Kemeili. And while the Calistrians were bunches of fun with their temple baths and prostitutes, guile and revenge weren't high on my list of good times.
Kemeili waited for an answer until I shrugged and turned away, pretending to concentrate on cleaning the gore off my knife. Once the boss decided we had to bury the elven bodies and burn their demon hosts, I kept busy enough to avoid her for the rest of the afternoon.
After we finished, we hustled east until the boss called a halt at dusk.
It was about time, I figured, since I was carrying twice as much gear as anybody except the paladin, and I'd decided she was half giant.
Actually, she didn't look half bad. I liked how the sunlight made her black hair shine almost blue, but she never cracked a smile, especially when she saw me looking back at her.
The gnome dropped his pack. It hit the ground with a heavy thump. I grabbed the strap and hefted it. It was almost too much to lift in one hand.
"Hey, Thick. How do you haul so much?"
"Fimbulthicket," he corrected me, but then he smiled. He'd shaken off his morning grump, but he still winced as if every move brought out a bad ache in his bones. "I imbued myself with the might of an ant."
"Proportionately, they are far more powerful than we gnomes. Even stronger than you humans."
He called me human, so I liked him a little better, despite his stupid name. "So you cast a spell?"
"You got to teach the boss that one." I touched my own aching back. It'd be worth one of his riffle scrolls to lighten my load.
The gnome shook his head. "It's not some arcane formula, but rather my connection to the Green that lends me power."
"I get it. You're more like a cleric than a wizard. But the boss is a clever guy. Maybe he could figure out a way to do with his scrolls what you do with your Green."
"Perhaps." The gnome shrugged, then brightened. "If he did, it would certainly be the first time that I ever heard of such a thing."
The boss doled out chores, and no one seemed to mind his giving orders. Caladrel made a fire as Kemeili skinned the hares he'd shot while he scouted ahead during our hike. She was good with a knife, as I knew better than most.
"Hey, boss. I could use a little help with that thing over there."
He glanced at Kemeili and back at me. We walked off far enough that I figured the elves wouldn't overhear us.
"I'm starting to think it's a bad idea to take Kemeili with us."
"She is an official representative of the temple of Calistria," he said. "You realize they are the most influential sect in Kyonin?"
"Yeah, yeah." He'd given me the long lesson before we'd arrived, and I could list the names of all the elf gods. I liked that they worshiped Lady Luck, same as me and the boss, but their favorite was Calistria, the Savored Sting. "I'm just saying I don't think she's here for the right reason. Even if she was, she's going to be a distraction."
"She is important not only to the success of our mission but to the continued goodwill of her temple, the court, and the queen herself."
"Just keep her happy," he said. "That should not be too onerous. Or have you lost your touch with the ladies?"
"Lost my—? Hey, now. You know that's not a problem."
"I hear quite a few wild boasts, but when we face a situation that requires a certain subtle—"
"Fine, I'll keep her happy."
"Excellent," he said, turning to go back to the others. He paused and added, "Just not near camp. Show some discretion."
The boss and Oparal went off to fetch water, talking as they went. I had his tent set up and his gear stowed inside by the time they returned with filled canteens and waterskins.
I stretched out Arnisant's supper by giving him a little at a time rather than throwing him a whole hare. By the time it was gone, he didn't even give me the starving dog routine. He just settled down at the boss's feet.
"What other varieties of fiend might we face?" the boss asked Caladrel.
"The list is endless," said Caladrel. "The vermlek are the least of them. I have fought over a dozen kinds, but many others lurk in Tanglebriar or await summons from the Abyss."
"This is why I returned to Kyonin," said Oparal. "To wipe this filth from our land."
Caladrel raised his leather tankard in salute. "May you touch the Brightness."
"A laudable goal," said the boss. "But I would be as glad to avoid them as to slaughter them. Our mission is to find Variel Morgethai."
"We are all here to help you find your father, Varian," said Kemeili. He usually told people to call him by his given name 'in the field,' as he put it. Still, I didn't like the way she said it. Maybe he would have to be the one to keep her happy. That thought was more annoying than I'd expected it to be.
"Are we certain he still lives?" said Oparal. "No one has seen him for almost a century."
"I would know if he had died," said the gnome. He rubbed his knuckles. "I would feel it."
The boss shot him a curious look. It was a weird thing to say. From the way everyone else looked away, I wasn't the only one who thought so.
The gnome picked up on it too. "I would feel it in the Green. Variel has always been a strong presence in the land."
Everybody nodded as if that explained everything, but it still killed the conversation.
Caladrel and Oparal discussed the best ways to kill demons. Lightning and poison were useless. Fire, frost, and acid weren't so good either, but that mattered more to the boss, who had to pick the right spells to write in his riffle scrolls. Since I'd had the big knife whammied in Goka, I was all set to slice off a hunk of demon.
As we banked the fire and got ready to sleep, I caught another of those looks from Kemeili. It was weird how she could look like a girl one moment—complete with a baby-doll voice that shouldn't have done it for me but, to be honest, kind of did—and then turn her head in the firelight to become all woman.
Well, maybe part tiger, too.
Sleep is what I wanted, and Kemeili looked like she had more than cuddles on her mind. I rolled up the elven cloak and shook out my jacket, trying to make it clear that I was ready for sleep.
"What's that?" said Oparal. She sat on a fallen log beside the fire, her big sword across her knees. "That image on your jacket."
I held it up, showing off the phoenix on the back. "Phoenix. Big flaming bird. They got them over in Tian Xia."
"Did you see one?"
"Yeah. Once. Kind of."
Oparal tilted her head to the side, obviously not buying my story.
"I had this jacket made to remind me of all the fights I had in Tian Xia. That's a land on the other side of the—"
"I know what Tian Xia is."
"Well, long story short, I got into a few tussles over there. Each of these pictures is kind of my souvenir."
"Trophies of your kills?"
I didn't like her tone. It didn't matter to me what god she wore on her shield. She had no business judging me. Still, I wasn't about to back down just because she wore shiny armor. "I didn't kill them all," I said. "Just the ones who got in my face with their righteous attitudes."
"That's no phoenix." She held up her shield to show off the bird-woman—which now that I looked closer, did bear some suspicious similarities to the symbol on my jacket. Not the same, but close enough to make me wonder what the artist had known. "It was someone bearing the symbol of my order, wasn't it?"
"Nah," I said. "It was a whole other country. Different gods and everything."
Oparal reached into a belt pouch and brought out a little jar. She opened it and dipped in a finger before drawing a little sun on her brow, across her lips, and on the armor over her heart. "Tell me again who you killed," she said. "I will know if you lie."
"That's enough," said the boss.
"So you know what he did?" said Oparal.
He didn't know, because I hadn't told him. The moment he hesitated to answer, Oparal knew it too.
"There were two of them," I said. "Well, one woman in two bodies. I think one of them was a paladin. I wasn't looking for a fight, but they were. This phoenix on my jacket, that's what was left of them afterward."
Oparal's eyes widened. No doubt she was surprised I'd told the truth.
"Like I said, I wasn't the one looking for a fight."
"You killed a paladin!" She dropped her jar of holy balm and drew her sword an inch from its sheath. It lit up the trees around us.
"Put that away," said Caladrel. "They can see that light in Razmiran."
When Oparal didn't move, the boss snapped, "Sheathe your weapon, or return to Iadara and tell the queen we have no use for you."
Oparal shoved the blade back into place, but her eyes never left my face. I folded the jacket so nobody else could see the phoenix or any of the other figures carved into its leather. Eventually I turned away from Oparal and walked out of camp, half-hoping the boss or Arni would follow. But they didn't.
I found a cozy spot just within range of the fire's light and sat down. What pissed me off about Oparal wasn't that she'd made me admit what I did. I didn't give a good damn what she thought. I just didn't like thinking about the people I'd killed. Most of them had it coming—killers themselves, or worse. Others came looking to kill me, and I shouldn't have felt a bit bad about killing them first.
But this phoenix paladin, when she'd found me, she thought she'd found a devil. A monster, not a man. I tried telling her otherwise, but she wouldn't listen. So I could say I hadn't killed her. She'd killed herself.
But that was a lie, and I knew it. The truth was that I beat her before I killed her. I could have walked away. Well, run away. But I could have got away—that was the point. I could have got away and left her there alive.
But that's not what I did.
Shoving the jacket under my head for a pillow, I lay down alone. When sleep finally caught up with me, it brought me nightmares about the people who hadn't had it coming.
People I'd killed anyway.
Want more? Check out Queen of Thorns in paperback or ePub format!
Coming Next Week: A brand new Queen of Thorns prequel story of murder and rivalry in metropolitan Absalom, courtesy of Dave Gross!
Dave Gross is the author of numerous Pathfinder Tales novels and stories. His adventures of Radovan and Jeggare include the novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns, as well as the Pathfinder's Journals "Hell's Pawns" and "Husks" (published in the Council of Thieves Adventure Path and the Jade Regent Adventure Path, respectively) and the short stories "The Lost Pathfinder" and "A Lesson in Taxonomy." In addition, he also co-wrote the Pathfinder Tales novelWinter Witch with Elaine Cunningham.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.