"What would spur someone to kill her?" Isiem wondered aloud as they left the dead shadowcaller on her bier. "Not rebellion, surely. In Westcrown, perhaps, but not Nisroch."
"The mirror," Ascaros answered. He swept up the stairs from the chamber of the dead to their temporary quarters, where the Over-Diocesan's lackeys were to have delivered Misanthe's belongings. Blue-flamed candles in sconces of bone flickered as he went past. "Of course it's the mirror. It could be nothing else."
Isiem hurried after his friend. "You don't even know what the mirror is."
"True." Ascaros paused on the stairs, waiting until a black-robed Kuthite acolyte passed out of earshot. "But I know the Dusk Hall wants it badly enough to send us all the way from Pangolais to fetch it. If they would do that, others would do more."
They had reached the door to their room. It, too, was built of bone, arranged in ornate patterns that drew the eye in and did not easily let go. The same patterns repeated within the room, crawling over its walls and ceiling. Black drapes muffled some of the walls, softening sounds that would otherwise have reverberated harshly against the bones, but otherwise they were surrounded by the leavings of the dead. Even the desk and chairs were built of bone. The bedframe was an embrace of dead arms crowned with an arch of skulls.
On that gray-blanketed bed, illumined by a flickering host of blue-flamed tapers, Misanthe's belongings waited for them: A silver necklace holding a clear, many-faceted stone within which ghostly snowflakes swirled. A staff of smooth, glassy white wood that seemed almost ethereal in the cathedral's gloom.
And the mirror, hulking and ominous, its edge just peeping out from under a shroud of night-blue silk. The mirror towered higher than either of the shadowcallers' heads. A tangled hoop of chains served as its frame; the links of the chain had been bent and battered until they resembled curved hooks gouging the air.
"It's an ugly piece of work," Ascaros said, pulling aside the silken cover. The hooks caught the fine cloth and tore it; judging from the tatters that fringed the shroud, that was not the first time the mirror had ripped its veil.
A chill seemed to come over the room as the torn silk fell away, revealing the milky, impenetrable grayness of the mirror's glass. Voices seemed to whisper softly from its depths—not addressing the shadowcallers, but talking to each other or themselves, unaware of those who listened from outside. Their accents were archaic, their desire clear. One and all, they pleaded for freedom.
"It's not a nightglass," Isiem said. "That's a midnight mirror. A prison."
"Yes." Ascaros's face was unreadable. Isiem couldn't tell whether his friend was relieved or dismayed that he recognized the midnight mirror for what it was, but he was sure that Ascaros was not surprised. "It's an heirloom of my line."
"You knew this was what the Dusk Hall wanted."
"I suspected that it might be." Ascaros's grip tightened on his silver-capped staff. His knuckles went white under the candles' blue glow. "But I wasn't sure, because if the lore of my family is true, it wouldn't do them any good. It only functions for my kin."
"That mirror has been passed down from father to daughter, aunt to nephew, through the generations of my family since time immemorial. It goes to the magically gifted scions of the line... to sorcerers, always and only." Ascaros gazed into the mirror as if he could read his own future—or his ancestors' past—within the rippling fog. "Misanthe was the last of those, except for myself. She told me that much of its history, but not what it does or why we keep it. All she ever said was that it was part of our curse." He touched his linen-wrapped arm, grimacing faintly. "As if the rest of it weren't enough."
Isiem nodded minutely. He knew the curse that ran through Ascaros's blood. It gave him magic, but it also sapped his life, killing him slowly with every spell he cast. His family's curse had already claimed his arm. In time, unchecked, it would take the rest too.
But none of that answered the immediate question. A midnight mirror was a planar prison, sacred to the followers of the Prince of Pain. There was no clear reason that a Kuthite artifact should be bound to one particular bloodline, much less a sorcerous family that had no special ties to the faith. Nor was there any reason the Dusk Hall should want such a thing. "What's in the mirror?"
"I don't know."
"You should find out."
"Yes." Ascaros made a small, miserable huff of a laugh. "I suppose I should. That's what this is about, isn't it? Misanthe's death, the Dusk Hall sending us out here... probably the Over-Diocesan's hospitality, too. It's all about whatever is in that mirror."
"Whoever." Isiem walked toward it and held his right hand up facing the glass. The whispering voices went silent as he approached, and the ghostly mist within the mirror swirled away, leaving a blank opacity facing him. "You don't have any idea?"
"Then you must go in. Or let whoever is in there out... but anyone powerful enough to be of interest to the Dusk Hall will not be easily controlled or contained."
"We'll go in." Leaning on his staff, Ascaros straightened and stepped toward the mirror. He brushed a palm over the pockets containing his spell components, as if reassuring himself that they were all there. "Not because of that. Because I don't want the Over-Diocesan seeing who waits inside."
The mists swirled before Ascaros. Instead of the flat, empty space that faced Isiem, a spectral staircase appeared opposite the sorcerer. Built of ghostly, translucent bones that recalled the construction of the cathedral, it spiraled up into an infinity of gray.
"It knows you," Isiem murmured, troubled and awed. "Your blood is the key."
Even under the best circumstances, a shae is a dangerous ally.
"Let's hope it works as easily from the other side." Leading with the head of his staff, Ascaros stepped in. The mirror's glass scarcely shivered as he passed through, and it offered no more resistance than mist.
On the other side, Ascaros's figure receded rapidly up the stairs. He was ascending far faster than he could ever have climbed a real staircase, as though the mirror itself were pulling him in. At the top, a speck of blackness had appeared and was swiftly expanding. It opened like the yawning, shadowy mouth of some enormous lamprey, hovering hungrily in the air.
The sight of it spurred Isiem out of his distracted trance. He plunged through the mirror, hurrying to catch his friend.
Entering the midnight mirror was curiously simple. The weight of Isiem's body seemed to lift from his feet. Walking felt like floating, although he could see no change in the outward appearance of his gait. A deep hush settled over him, and a gentle but profound chill, as if he had walked into one of the Uskwood's sacred glens.
Zon-Kuthon's power was strong here. Bowing his head in silent submission to his god's presence, Isiem began walking up the staircase.
As he reached the halfway point, he saw Ascaros vanish through the portal at its top. The toothy fringes of the portal quavered and spiraled inward, as if the lamprey mouth were swallowing its prey. An instant later, it pulsed and then steadied, open again.
Ready for another meal. The thought brought a quick flicker of fear, but Isiem damped it down and continued his climb. Under him stretched an infinite gray abyss. There seemed to be no solid ground in this netherworld, or at least none that he could see. Only the stairs... and wherever they led.
Far faster than he would have believed possible, Isiem reached the apex. Just ahead, the portal waited, its ragged edges weeping blackness around the central void. He had expected to feel some pull into its depths, but there was none.
He went in. Electricity prickled along the small hairs of his body; a soundless gust flattened his clothes against him. Then the darkness parted, and Isiem found himself standing on a field of stars.
All around him, black grass swayed under a black dome of sky. The seed heads of the grass were white as snow, echoing the frosty stars high above. The pale bones of horse and man, half-buried by the grass, gleamed like pearls amidst the ebon stalks.
The vastness of the nighttime plain was broken only by a single hut of felted horsehair, a hundred yards before him. In front of the hut, a campfire burned, its flames oddly colorless in this strange gray world.
Two figures sat beside the fire. One of them was Ascaros. The other Isiem did not know. It wore a black horsehide cape in the style of the ancient Nidalese horselords, and a featureless mask of white porcelain covered its face. Countless silver pins studded the cape, glittering in yet another echo of the starry sky.
"What is this place?" Isiem asked, walking toward the tiny fire. As he got closer, he could see that Ascaros's face was white and frozen, as if his friend had received some devastating news and was still struggling to understand.
It was the other who answered. Up close, it was apparent that their host—if host he was—was not human. Wisps of shadow trailed around his form, constantly merging with and breaking from his body. The mask and cape seemed to be the only points anchoring his body; other than those form-granting garments, he was as ill-defined as a cloud of smoke.
A shae. One of the true children of the Plane of Shadow. Isiem had read of their kind, but never seen one before—the shadow-people had few dealings with the Dusk Hall.
"An illusion," the shae said in a voice accented with the melodically guttural inflections of old Nidalese. "Some is of my making. Some is the mirror's. But none of it, since you set foot on the stairs, has been real."
"I thought this was a prison," Isiem said. He sat on a horsehide-covered log near the fire, next to Ascaros. His friend shifted slightly to make space for him, but did not look up. He continued to stare blankly into the smoke-gray flames.
"It is." The masked creature raised a hand and tilted it to and fro, as if to undercut his own words. "It was. Its nature has... changed, somewhat, over the years. I am hardly the rebel I once was, and the mirror has, accordingly, granted me a certain degree of comfort. Eternal torment has not proven to be my lot after all. But the place is still unkind to look upon, in its natural state, and so I have chosen to render it more appealing. A prison of infinity, not walls."
"Who are you?" Isiem asked.
"Call me Silence." The porcelain mask was incapable of showing expression, but the voice behind it was rich with amusement. "My captor was fond of shouting that word at me, so I took it as a name."
Ascaros stirred. "Mesandroth," he said. "My ancestor. Founder of my line."
"A wizard of enormous power. One obsessed with immortality." The shae shrugged. The silver pins threaded into his black cape gleamed in the cool gray firelight. "Whether he found it, I could not say. His offspring proved to be sorcerers, imbued with the magic and death in his blood. He himself was not. He had no insight into their magic and no interest in their lesser gifts. So he captured a sorcerer—me—and tasked me with teaching his children. He imprisoned me in here, because although the shaes are long-lived, we do die eventually. Mesandroth intended that I should live forever, serving his line. So he told me. Then he left."
"And you've been in here ever since, teaching every sorcerer in the line," Ascaros said.
"Not every one," Silence corrected him. "In the early days, there were too many. Mesandroth had hopes that one of his sons or daughters might become a worthy apprentice. Not an heir—he had no intention of dying—but someone who might stand at his side. He had many, many children. Far too many for me to tutor.
"For centuries, I was a... prize." A wry note crept into the shae's voice, and under it a hint of age-old pain and anger. "They fought over me, his children. Dozens killed each other. The victors sought to learn my secrets. Some of them were kind, others cruel, but all wanted the same thing. Magic. I gave it to them, for I had no choice. And when each one died, I rejoiced, and added a pin to my cape."
"I'm the last of them," Ascaros said softly. He looked at Isiem. "The last with any gift for sorcery, anyway. My death wins his freedom. Silence has been engineering the destruction of Mesandroth's descendants for thousands of years... and I'm the last one."
"Yes." The shae laughed quietly. "It troubles him, knowing that. As well it should. When he is dead, the terms of my bondage will be complete, and I will finally be free."
"You just told him that?" Isiem asked.
"I always tell them. I give them all the same choice." Silence stood, turning his back on them. He raised his hands to the illusory sky. "I am bound to serve, but I do not do so gladly. Walk away—release me from your part in your forefather's sin—and I will have no opportunity to hurt you. But take this poisoned gift, and I will do my utmost to destroy you."
The shae let his hands fall, but kept his back to the shadowcallers. "Every time a new would-be master enters the mirror, I repeat the same offer. I have done this hundreds of times over the centuries. In all that time, two have refused Mesandroth's gift. Two. The others have all tried to evade their doom while using me. The master's children do not give up their ambitions easily, and my knowledge is vast. The temptation is too great.
"Some try to beat me into submission. Some try to bribe me. Some try to seduce. I have seen all their stratagems over the years. But I am a creature captured and kept in a midnight mirror of Zon-Kuthon; pain holds no fear and no surprises. There is nothing I desire more than an end to my bondage, and bribes are meaningless in this place. The seductions I always accept. I lie with them, and enthrall them, and ensure they will leave no mortal children who might perpetuate my suffering."
"You killed Misanthe?" Isiem asked.
The shae looked back at them. The eyeholes of his mask appeared to be blank black spaces, yet Isiem had the fleeting impression that laughter twinkled in those hollow gaps. "I did not. I am not permitted to cause harm to Mesandroth's blood."
"But you know who did." That was Ascaros.
"Of course." Now the laughter was clearly visible, a roiling in the shae's smoky form. "It was her apprentice, puffed with ambition. An old story."
"But you did the puffing," Isiem said.
"And taught him the shadow garrote." Ascaros's voice was brittle ice.
Silence held his hands out in wordless acknowledgement. "And when the apprentice comes back to claim me as his reward, he will die, because nothing prevents me from slaughtering him. It's an absurdly simple plan. Utterly predictable. Yet it rarely fails."
"We could stop you," Isiem said.
"You could," Silence agreed, "but you won't. Or rather, he won't." The shae pointed at Ascaros, who was once more staring into the fire. "No, he will do as his kind always does. Even knowing that it will doom him, even knowing that he will die, your friend will claim his inheritance."
Coming Next Week: Accusations and decisions in the final chapter of Liane Merciel's "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.