The Pawns of Hell

Monday, November 16, 2009

Illustration by David Bircham

It's an exciting time around here at Paizo. With all the hustle and bustle, if you've seen me on the boards at all, it's probably been commenting on Pathfinder fiction—how it's spooling up now, how some of the authors signing on are blowing my mind, and how we plan to manage things so that both the novel line and the gaming lines can flourish without breaking the world. (If you're curious, it's also the subject of the editorial in Pathfinder #29.) Yet in all this discussion of the Pathfinder fiction that's coming, it suddenly came to my attention that it had been a while since I'd talked about the amazing fiction we already have.

If you've been reading Council of Thieves, I don't have to tell you that Dave Gross is one of the most talented authors we've had the pleasure of working with on Pathfinder fiction. But I can tell you, having just finished the final chapter of "Hell's Pawns"—the noir-fantasy Pathfinder's Journal in which the tiefling Radovan and half-elven Pathfinder Varian Jeggare hunt a murderer through the upper echelons of Cheliax's corrupt nobility—that Dave has something few fantasy authors in any world achieve: Weight. Gravitas. An honest, emotional connection to characters, not just the world they live in. It's what we've always striven for with Pathfinder fiction, and there can be no question that Dave delivers—along with plenty of murder, intrigue, and gangsters both official and amateur.

But I won't get into spoiler territory. Instead, I'd rather give you all a sample of what I'm talking about, a snippet from the beginning of the story, in Pathfinder #25:

On the scaffold, a knobby-kneed herald emerges from behind the canvas. He looks to either side, shuddering with exaggerated fear when the guards eye him up and down. The groundlings laugh, recognizing him as one of the Fools of Thrune, a jester from House Sarini sent out to amuse them while they wait. I lose interest the moment he raises a trumpet to his lips and blows out a length of crimson silk and a pair of sagging pillows meant to suggest he's blown his lungs out through the horn.

I see plenty of familiar mugs among the groundlings: stevedores, stable hands, street sweepers, barmaids, a seamstress I once gave a memorable night on the Bunyip Dock. A pickpocket I know tips me a wink as he pats a mark on the shoulder while his adolescent accomplice dips his hand in on the other side. A few others touch their chins or smile when they see me. I nod back.

No one from the stands throws me a greeting, but more than a few know me better than they'd admit. I know several of them better than I'd like their husbands to know, but to most I am only the silent bodyguard of Count Varian Jeggare. The only one among them bold enough to return my gaze is Ivo Elliendo.

The Paralictor glides out of the stands where he has been receiving the compliments of the ladies. His tall figure stands out like a plow cutting through a garden. The sharp red scourges on the ribs of his black leather jack give him a gaunt silhouette.

He squints when he spots me, and I can feel his scorn hot on my face. What else can I do but shoot him my toothiest smile? All around him, ladies who had followed his gaze snap up their fans to shield themselves from the sight of a mouth that I'm told looks like a drawer full of knives. The commotion distracts Elliendo, and when he sees he is surrounded by a halo of fluttering fans, his lined face darkens.

Elliendo stalks away from the stands and mounts the stairs, followed as usual by two hulking Hellknights. I begin to frame a prayer for rotting steps before deciding that's too much to ask, even on Judgment Day. On the scaffold, Elliendo peers north at the approach of the golden Royal Carriage down the Imperial Promenade. He snaps his fingers, and the clown retreats behind the canvas to a clatter of applause. Once the carriage halts and the window shades rise just enough for the occupant—no doubt some minor Palace official, rather than the Queen herself—to peer out, the canvas on the scaffold falls away to reveal the Instruments of Judgment.

In the center is a blazing furnace in the shape of a three-faced devil. From each of its gaping jaws jut a bramble of iron implements: knives, spears, chains, rods, brands, and most conspicuous of all the Tines of Cheliax. Each is a two-pronged fork sized for a stone giant, and today there are two of them.

Arrayed between the furnaces are racks of torture devices retrieved from every civilized nation on Golarion, and several not so civilized. The spiked cages of Geb are a crowd favorite, and two of them already hold prisoners. One is a fat man who begins screaming the moment he is revealed, while the other is pock-faced Gellius Bonner, the Butcher of Merrow Lane.

I fell into the Bonner case when the boss sent me to nose around the tannery across the river. I was supposed to catch a stable master selling the carcasses of his lady's mysteriously sickened horses. That went nowhere, but I spied the tanner sneaking out of his own home well past midnight. Curious, I followed him into town, expecting to discover nothing more than a mistress in some Cheapside flat. Instead, he led me to Bonner's shop, where he joined six men wearing crude robes. Bonner greeted them with some fiendish phrase, though I could understand only a few words before he led them downstairs. I let myself in for a peek. When I saw the yak-headed thing Bonner conjured and what they intended to offer it, I ran to Greensteeples and beat on the boss's door until his sleepy halfling butler woke him. With a few questions, Jeggare confirmed that the cult was demonic, not diabolic, so he sent a message directly to the Temple of Asmodeus, who in turn asked the Hellknights to capture the cultists, minus a few who resisted arrest. They even recovered two boys who had not yet been devoured.

The discovery broke the cases of more than a dozen missing children, disappearances that Elliendo had publicly sworn to solve. As he was not on duty that night, he was surprised to hear the criers' announcement of another mystery solved by the celebrated Varian Jeggare.

If it were for the murders alone, Bonner might have met his Judgment at the edge of an axe or, if it were only one or two killings, in hard labor for a decade. The devil-worshiping lords of Cheliax, however, do not suffer the denizens of the Abyss in the city. For consorting with demons, Bonner earned his special voyage to Hell.

While not an admirer of the spectacle, I make a point of witnessing the Judgment of anyone convicted on one of our cases. This time, the boss insisted that I bring something to confirm it was Bonner and not some magic-masked substitute who did the dance of the Tines. He sent me to the Plaza of Flowers with a couple of sakava leaves plucked fresh from a plant in his greenhouse.

Once the Instruments are unveiled, four proper heralds stand on the corners of the scaffold and announce the list of Judgments. Behind them, brawny shirtless men in red hoods prepare the braces for the Tines.

When a couple of the big men unlock Bonner's cage, I slip the sakava leaves from a sleeve pocket. The size of my thumbs, they are thick green ovals with tiny white hairs glistening with oil. Just before I crush them, someone calls my name.

She is taller than me, which is not too uncommon, but most of that height comes from a pair of legs snugged in black calfskin trousers with tiny stars and suns cut out along the outer seam to reveal bare skin. Her blouse hangs loose except in just the right places to make a celibate throw himself off the roof. Her big hazel eyes are too far apart with heavy eyebrows, but they look fine above a long nose pierced above one nostril with a tiny ruby. The stone sets off a hint of late-summer red in her brown hair.

I'm staring at her over the little green leaves.

"Are you Radovan?" she asks again. I could listen to her say my name all day, but then she ruins it by adding, "Count Jeggare's servant?"

"His bodyguard." Immediately I think of three or four suave answers.

"My messages to Greensteeples have gone unanswered, and I require the count's assistance," she says. "And naturally his utmost discretion."

"Naturally," I say, but before I can give her the pitch, I feel a sharp poke just below my shoulder blade.

"Say goodbye to the girly, copper-tongue," reeks a voice inches beneath my ear. I know who it is from the stench of garlic and boiled eggs.

"Not now, Ursio." I try to sound casual, but the scratch he gave me starts to itch. Out of the corners of my eyes I see a couple of shapes that must be his backup. "I'll stay in this very public place while you and your playmates go climb your thumbs."

"These bolts are tipped with black lotus venom," says Ursio, and I know it's his treasured hand crossbow with its steel "fangs" jammed into my back. "You'll be dead before your body hits the street."

It seems unlikely that Ursio has acquired the deadly and expensive poison, but on the scaffold I see the hooded men dragging Bonner to a table, where a third man awaits with a pair of curved knives held high for the crowd's acclaim...

For more of Radovan's adventures in Cheliax, check out the Pathfinder's Journal section of Pathfinder volumes #25 through #30. I promise you won't be disappointed.

James Sutter
Fiction Editor

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Tags: Cheliax Council of Thieves Dave Gross David Bircham Dwarves Pathfinder Adventure Path
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