by James L. Sutter
Chapter Four: The Greatest Gift
Salim slipped through the pools of shadow cast by branches and shrubs, trusting to his robes to break up his outline and make him invisible. Around him, the sounds of the night creatures were sporadic and tense. Expectant.
Connell slid along beside him, still wearing his peasant disguise. Salim had to give him credit—the eidolon was surprisingly graceful. Ahead, the manor house stood huge and whitewashed at the end of the drive, its windows cavernous and dark save for three in an upper corner, which glowed with dim red light.
As welcome as the shadows were in hiding their approach, Salim would have preferred to come during daylight. Yet he had wasted too much time trying to convince Father Adibold that Salim and Connell would do better alone than with his assistance.
It was utterly stupid. The priest's little mob of peasants would likely scatter at the first sign of a walking corpse, and those who stayed would be slaughtered. Worse, if this Lord Mirosoy had advanced to making ghouls, then every farmhand who fell would rise again shortly to add to his army.
The old priest and his son might have been more useful—the man claimed to have some magic yet, and the boy's armor was solid. Yet Salim had seen enough in the priest's eyes to know that it wasn't worth it. For all that Adibold talked of the Pharasmin Penitence, that hopeless splinter sect of ascetics and self-deniers, it wasn't religious fervor that made Adibold cut himself, or so eagerly throw himself and his only son into harm's way. It was grief for his dead wife. Perhaps even a desire to join her early.
Salim understood that all too well. But the boy still had plenty of years left, and suicidal warriors were a liability.
In frustration, Salim had even attempted telling the old priest part of the truth: that Lord Mirosoy wasn't acting of his own accord, but rather had been enchanted by a cursed magic item.
The priest would have none of it. "I've seen souls corrupted by a shiny coin, or a bit of bare thigh. The nature of the temptation is unimportant."
At last, once it became clear that even the prospect of killing a potentially innocent man wasn't enough to dissuade the priest—"sorting good from evil is the Lady's job, not ours"—Salim had given in and agreed to join them in their attack at dawn.
Which is why he and Connell were out here in the dark, with the sun still hours below the horizon.
Salim caught the eidolon's eye and nodded. The eidolon had given him the layout of the house, and they'd decided on the servants' entrance around the side rather than the grand double doors that faced the drive. It was time to break with the road and circle left.
Something shot out from the brush near Salim's feet.
Without thinking—because in combat, acting was always faster than thinking—Salim drew his sword and slammed it down, pinning the scurrying shape to the earth. The creature squeaked once and expired.
"Mouse," he whispered, and withdrew his blade, rodent still clinging to its tip. He started to scrape it off against his boot, then stopped.
The thing's ribcage was hollowed out, the flesh rotted away from tiny bones. Salim's sword had spitted it neatly, yet its back legs still kicked feebly.
Another tiny form catapulted itself from the bushes. Before Salim could move, Connell leaped, springing forward with the grace of a cat and coming up an the undead rat in his hands. The eidolon popped it into his mouth, bones crunching, then looked back at Salim and smiled.
Perhaps the eidolon would be more useful than Salim had expected. Connell swallowed and asked, "Scouts?"
Salim nodded. It seemed Mirosoy wasn't totally without defenses. He slipped the twice-expired mouse from his blade and ground it under his boot heel before continuing on.
The servants' entrance was unguarded. From the tree line, it was a solid hundred feet of open lawn to the steps up to the back porch, and then the door. Salim covered it at a run, body bent almost double, sword under his robes to avoid reflecting the moonlight. Connell paced him. At the door, they paused for a moment, listening. When nothing revealed itself, Salim nodded to Connell and thumbed the latch.
Beyond lay a long hall, its wood-paneled walls lit only by the feeble shaft of moonlight from the open door, quickly disappearing into utter black.
Salim smelled it first—the charnel stench of putrefaction. He thrust out an arm to stop Connell, but the eager eidolon had already bounded into the corridor.
A hand reached from the darkness.
Salim moved. There was no time to let his eyes adjust, so he closed them and let his ears and nose guide him past the struggling eidolon, deeper into the dark.
Something rose up in front of him, grave-wet and stinking, and he brought his sword out and down, feeling it cleave through cheese-soft flesh. The thing gave a sigh and fell heavily into him, knocking him back into the wall and what felt like a tall table or stool. His free hand closed on a smooth, heavy object, and he brought it down hard on the thing in front of him, then spun to skewer a new attacker to his right. Back toward the entrance, Connell shouted something.
They were stuck. Salim might be able to keep this up indefinitely, but there was no telling about the eidolon, and they needed to move fast if they wanted to retain the element of surprise. Gritting his teeth, Salim reached out and touched the goddess.
It was only a second, but it was enough. The Lady of Graves flowed through him in a black rush, as grotesque and violating in its own way as the creature putrefying on his feet. The energy passed through him and into the blade of his sword, and cold steel flared with ghostly incandescence, lighting the hallway.
There were only three zombies, all dressed in the rotting finery that had probably once been the best clothes the little town could offer. Two lay at Salim's feet, his sword having severed the fragile magic that kept them animated. Down the hall, Connell struggled with the third. The eidolon had dropped his disguise, and the long neck of his true form snaked around the back of the zombie's futilely chomping head, wrapping it like a boa constrictor. Long jaws locked around the undead creature's skull. There was a twist and a pop, and the last corpse dropped to the floor and lay still.
Salim looked down at his off hand. The object he held was a stone bust of a young man, handsome in a vaguely arrogant and pupilless sort of way. He held it out toward the eidolon. "Your boss?"
Salim let the stone drop onto the corpse it had clubbed, then wiped his sword on the tattered linen shirt. He gestured down the hall.
"You know the house," he said, "but don't leave my side unless I tell you to. Are we clear?"
Connell bobbed his head in what appeared to be genuine contrition and led the way deeper into the house.
The manor was a shell. Though the pair passed several well-appointed sitting rooms, with plush armchairs and walls of bookshelves or big bay windows overlooking the moonlit grounds, the layer of dust at the entrance to each argued that no one had bothered with them in some time. Connell avoided the showy front half of the house, with its hangings and sculptures like the one Salim had appreciated, and instead led them through a series of narrow, more utilitarian corridors and staircases. Salim kept the light from the sword carefully banked and focused by a fold in his cloak, yet nothing stirred in the dead house. If it weren't for the slight but ever-present scent of decay, Salim might have thought the place a summer home, packed away for storage while the lord was away.
At last they came to a door whose bottom edge was limned with the same red light they'd seen from the road. The eidolon's barely existent lips moved, and after a second Salim realized Connell was attempting to mouth the word "workshop." Salim nodded, and the eidolon turned the knob. The door swung open.
The room was large, the kind other lords might put to use as a ballroom or formal dining room for parties. The huge set of windows they'd observed earlier cast moonlight on the hardwood floor, yet this illumination was overpowered by red lights that floated like swamp fire at the room's far end. The glow from these flying lanterns was soft, and cast a flattering glow over the guests. No doubt that generous lighting would have kindled more than one midnight romance among the figures standing in a knot on the dance floor. Except that the guests were dead.
As one, the corpses turned to observe the newcomers. These, too, were still dressed in their funeral finery, some in the clothes of peasants and merchants, others in simple shrouds marked with the symbol of Pharasma. There was no pattern to their features—young and old, male and female all stood with the awkward stances or constricted limbs of rigor mortis. A few had clearly been magically preserved for their funerals, and even now were only beginning to show the first signs of decomposition. Others were little more than fleshy skeletons, their bones tied crudely together with twine where tendons had fallen away.
Behind them all, a man stood in the center of the lights, obscured from the chest down by a long dining table repurposed as a workbench. Stacks of books and bubbling alembics cluttered every surface, along with stranger implements and silvery surgical tools with whose use Salim was thankfully unfamiliar. Though the man's face was the same as that on the stone head in the servants' hall, this version was older, and so drawn and haggard as to resemble his zombie subjects. Above the face, a black crown of long thorns and vertical spikes pierced and pricked at his brow, holding back long, dark hair.
Lord Mirosoy looked up from the book he'd been studying, yet his face barely registered the newcomers' presence. With one finger still marking his place in the text, he flicked his hand toward his uninvited guests.
"Lord Mirosoy appears to have embarked on some
significant life changes of late."
"Kill them," he said, and went back to reading.
The undead convocation shuffled forward.
Connell growled—a deep, resonant rumble in surprising contrast to his usual excited tenor. Three-fingered talons flexed.
"No," Salim said, and put a hand on the eidolon's shoulder.
Connell looked at him in puzzlement, but Salim simply squeezed once and then released him. He stepped forward and drew his sword.
The eidolon might be better in a fight than he let on, but that wasn't the point. Salim had seen enough to tell that these people were no ghouls, no vampire spawn or vengeful wraiths. These were just farmers, their corpses denied the slow transition into the same dirt they worked, forced to walk again at the whim of some spoiled lord.
This wasn't a fight. Nor even an execution.
It was a funeral rite.
The zombies approached, and Salim flowed like a river to meet them.
The undead fought silently, and Salim did the same, the only sounds the swirl of his robes and the wine-glass ring of steel sliding free of flesh, punctuated by the thumps of corpses hitting the floor. They moved to surround him, and he let them, whirling like a dervish, blade kissing them lightly in the only blessing he knew how to give.
Rest, he thought as a child's body slid from his sword, crumpling to the fouled floor. Rest.
And then he stood alone. Around him, the hardwood was covered with bodies, splayed once more in the posture of death that, while undignified, was so much more than they'd had a moment before. He looked down at the corpses and wished them well.
At last they had Mirosoy's attention. The lord looked at them as if dazed, struggling to understand the mess of bodies staining his ballroom floor. "Who are you?" he asked.
"It's me, Master!" The eidolon's voice was the whining, eager tone of a dog hoping to regain its master's good graces. "I've come back to help you! Please don't be angry!"
Mirosoy ignored his creation, instead focusing on the dark-eyed man moving toward him, sword drawn. The lord's voice didn't waver. "And you?"
"Just a friend," Salim said. "One who's come to do you a favor."
His sword lashed out.
"No!" Connell's scream was grief bordering on pain. The eidolon leaped for Salim's back, talons outstretched, but it was already too late. Salim's upward slash carved a shining arc toward Mirosoy's face.
The blade missed the man's cheek by inches. With a tiny clink of metal on metal, Salim's sword caught one of the black, curving thorns of the crown and tore it free from the summoner's head. Mirosoy gasped at the sudden absence, or perhaps at the furrows the embedded thorns carved through his scalp. The crown fell to the table, and Salim followed it down, sword hilt gripped in both hands. Blade met crown with Salim's full weight behind it.
There was a flash that wasn't so much light as its absence, and a high, keening wail that might have been a word, or a name. Then there were only two halves of a crown, the metal seeming to shrivel and fold in on itself like burning briars. The newly rusted slag clattered to the floor and lay still.
"Master!" Connell was past Salim and gripping Lord Mirosoy's shoulders. The noble stood with head hung on his chest, looking ready to fall face-first into his workbench. Slowly, he raised his eyes. "Connell?"
"Yes. Yes, Master." The eidolon was weeping in earnest now, huge tears rolling down the reptilian face. Above them, the rune on his forehead glowed brighter than ever. "I'm back now. I knew it was the crown that sent me away, not you. And now you're free!"
Mirosoy straightened, shrugging off the eidolon's steadying hands. "Yes. Well." He looked over to Salim. "You do realize that's a priceless artifact you just destroyed?"
Salim marveled. Even half-dead and surrounded by his own failure, the man exuded entitlement. Salim looked down at the corpses on the floor, then back at the noble.
"I'm sure we can arrange an accounting of debts." His voice was soft.
The summoner followed Salim's gaze down, then swallowed. "No, that won't be necessary. Clearly, the crown needed to be destroyed. You have my thanks."
Salim inclined his head, unconvinced. Perhaps the crown wasn't as responsible for these atrocities as Connell wanted to think. He opened his mouth to say something—then stopped.
There was a new sound. Salim saw the other two pick up on it as well: a low, muttering hum.
Salim moved swiftly to the window. Out in the darkness, a line of torches snaked down the manor house's long drive.
"Damn." Apparently Father Adibold was no longer interested in waiting until dawn.
Salim turned back to Mirosoy. "We need to get out of here. In two minutes, their families"—he gestured to the corpses on the floor—"are going to burn this place to the ground. And you're going to let them."
"Oh?" The noble's lip twitched toward a sneer.
Salim raised his sword suggestively.
"Oh," Lord Mirosoy said again, this time with considerably less vigor. "Well, you see, that may be something of a problem." He raised a hand and gestured to his waist.
"Oh, Master!" Connell's voice was horrified. "What have you done?"
And now Salim saw it. The various beakers and sealed containers on the worktable didn't stand alone. Below the rumpled blouse, several thick tubes snaked out of Mirosoy's abdomen and into the vessels and retorts on the table, steady streams of black and red fluids cycling through them.
Once more, the summoner ignored his servant and spoke to Salim. This time he looked almost embarrassed.
"The crown," he said. "It had several suggestions as to how I might...improve my longevity."
"Lichdom." Salim understood now why the man looked so hollow. He almost spat, but stopped himself for fear of hitting one of the corpses. "You were trying to turn yourself undead."
"Not me—the crown!"
Salim didn't care. "Can you stop it? Reverse it?"
"Almost certainly," Mirosoy said. "But it'll take time. Days."
Behind Salim, the villagers were drawing closer. He could hear individual voices in the rumble of the mob. "We don't have days."
Lord Mirosoy ventured a tentative smile, greasy and anxious. "If you'll allow it, my manor has certain defenses which—"
"No. You've done these people enough harm already." Salim thought hard. "Can you teleport? Move this whole setup somewhere else with magic?"
The noble grimaced. "My studies of late have been focused on other matters."
"Clearly." Salim sized up the various tubes that nosed into Mirosoy's clothing like hungry worms. "And I were to just pull those out?"
"Then I would die. Likely in excruciating pain."
Works for me, thought Salim, but he knew the eidolon would never stand for it. Besides, there was no telling what sort of backlash the expiring spell might generate.
Beyond the window, dozens of feet crunched on gravel.
"I have a suggestion."
Both Mirosoy and Salim turned to look at Connell. The eidolon was holding up a hand, as if waiting to be called on. Salim nodded.
"I have a suggestion," the eidolon said again. With one three-fingered hand, he reached up and touched the amulet hanging from his serpentine neck.
And then there was no Connell. Only a second Mirosoy.
Salim understood immediately. "Connell—" he began.
"They're looking for the master," the eidolon said firmly. "If we give them one, maybe they'll go home."
"They're a mob," Salim pressed, throat suddenly tight. "Even if they think Mirosoy's gone, they'll burn this place down anyway."
"Then you'll have to stop them." The eidolon held out a hand. "Goodbye, Salim. Thank you."
The hand hung there, unmoving. After an eternity, Salim stepped forward and took it. They shook.
Connell looked to Mirosoy.
"It's good to have you back, Master."
Then the eidolon walked out of the room and was gone.
Silence reigned as the two men stood looking at the door where the second Mirosoy had disappeared. Finally Salim spoke.
"If you lived a thousand years," he said slowly, "you would still be unworthy of that love."
Salim's glance flicked sideways to the noble.
"That sacrifice. For you."
Mirosoy seemed genuinely puzzled. "It's an eidolon," he said. "I made it to protect me. When it's gone, I'll make another."
Salim stared at him.
Outside, the crowd roared.
Three empty cups stood at parade rest on the wooden table. A fourth, only halfway drained, stood before them, the officer addressing its troops.
Salim took another drink. Around him, the familiar buzz of the Clever Endeavor continued as usual, a dozen conversations that never happened, between people who were never here and had never met. This time, no one was looking at Salim. That suited him fine.
The wood between his elbows was stained dark with spilled wine. Salim grimaced and set his mug down on top of the splotch, but the cup wasn't quite big enough to hide it from view.
Connell hadn't screamed. He hadn't made a sound at all. By the time Salim reached the front door of the manor house, passing corpses which lay motionless without the crown's animating touch, the worst was over. The bravest of the mob was still hacking away with hoes and scythes, while others shouted encouragement. At some point, someone tore away the amulet to reveal the eidolon's true form, which Father Adibold loudly proclaimed a sign that the noble had been a monster all along.
And then, finally, it was over. With a last gasp from the crowd, the eidolon's body disappeared. Only the bloody stain on the gravel drive remained.
Still giddy with the ease of their victory, the mob might have indeed charged the manor, had Salim not chosen that point to reveal himself. Stepping forth to address Father Adibold by name, Salim announced that the evening's festivities were over, and that he'd dealt with the rest of the lord's creatures himself.
A few of the mob, drunk on blood, had yelled abuse. Salim raised his still-glowing sword, and the newfound bravery dissipated. With Father Adibold at its head, the crowd turned and made its way back toward town. In no time at all, Salim was alone on the driveway. Just him and the stain Connell had left behind.
A single torch, dropped by a villager, still sputtered in the dirt. Salim bent down and picked it up. He looked up toward the manor window, where the red lights still played.
He could finish things. Mirosoy had perverted the corpses of innocents, and attempted to do the same to himself. Salim had executed men for less. He could set the torch against one of the tapestries in the entrance hall and let the whole place disappear.
Instead, he had opened his hand and let the torch drop.
And now he was here.
Salim drank deep, draining the last of the mug. The wine at the bottom had an unpleasant copper taste, and he looked down to see blood pooling there, mixing with the dregs. He put fingers to his nose, and they came away red. He sighed.
"You have a terrible way of announcing yourself, Ceyanan."
The creature across the table was neither male nor female, its pale skin as smooth and inhuman as an alabaster statue. Behind its shoulders, great wings that were half feathers, half shadow flexed once and then furled tightly in the dingy confines of the bar. Gray cloth like funeral shrouds wrapped its waist and chest.
Salim wiped his bloody upper lip with the back of his hand. "You want to tell me why you sent him to me?"
The angel smiled. "What do you mean?"
"Don't play coy." Salim put down his empty mug and leaned back, crossing his arms. "Your boss deals with more complex judgments than Mirosoy's little change of heart on a daily basis. If you hadn't sent me in, the mob would eventually have made it through those zombies and killed him, thus removing any reason for the Lady of Graves to take an interest."
"Many innocents would have died," the angel observed.
"And since when does your mistress give a flying fig about that?" Salim held up two fingers to the barman, who appeared almost immediately with two more mugs.
"Thank you," said Ceyanan, "but I don't drink."
"Who said one of these was for you?" Salim pulled both drinks close.
The angel watched him. "You're an excellent hunter, Salim. Your skill does you credit. But you still have much to learn." White lips twitched higher, the smile becoming almost beatific. "Connell did something very brave today. Out of love and devotion to his friend."
"Who didn't deserve it," Salim growled.
"Does it matter?" The angel's big eyes bored into Salim's. "Is the eidolon's sacrifice any less admirable because of it?"
Salim laughed sharply.
"Is that what this is all about? Teaching me to take pride in my work, even if I don't have any choice in the matter?" He showed his teeth. "Haven't I learned enough about duty? About sacrifice?"
Ceyanan shook its head, half sad, half bemused.
"Maybe not," it said at last. "But don't worry. You will."
"Just what—" Salim began.
But the angel was gone.
Salim stared at the chair where the angel had been. Then down at the stain on the table.
A mug in either hand, he began to drink in earnest.
Coming Next Week: A brand new romp exploring the perils of bragging in Lucien Soulban's "Fingers of Death—No, Doom!"
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 Carmen Cianelli.