In Nightblade, Isiem is a fugitive, a former wizard-priest in the church of the dark god Zon-Kuthon who rebelled and left his old life behind to follow his conscience. Now, his unique heritage makes him perfect for a dangerous mission into an ancient dungeon, one said to hold a magical weapon capable of slaying demons and devils by the thousands. With allies ranging from a righteous paladin to the mercantile mercenaries of the Aspis Consortium, it’s up to Isiem to lead the expedition back into shadowed lands that are all too familiar...
Chapter One: Plague Birds
That's the last of the stevedores," Ena said. The hooded dwarf unfolded herself from her perch atop the lintel of a barrelmaker's shop, collapsed the miniature spyglass she'd been using to watch the warehouse in the distance, and swung down to the street with a nimbleness that seemed at odds with her stocky figure. "We'll give them a few minutes to clear out, and then it should just be us and the night watchmen around the warehouse." She raised an eyebrow at Isiem, the gesture almost invisible in the shadows of her hood. "You're sure you can handle them?"
"Two untrained men with cudgels?" the Nidalese wizard asked dryly. "I should hope so."
"Without killing them, please," another of their conspirators snapped. She was a tall woman, almost as tall as Isiem himself, and although the red scarf wrapped around the lower half of her face masked her features, he guessed she had some elven blood. It was in the inflections of her voice, the litheness of her movements—and her peremptory tone. He'd never met the woman before, and the rebels recognized no ranks, yet she commanded him like a servant.
But it wasn't worth the argument. It had been just over a year since Isiem joined the rebellion in Pezzack, and in that time he had learned that the rebels were an impossible bundle of contradictions. Merciless and merciful, crude but idealistic, largely disorganized yet capable of orchestrating sophisticated attacks.
Their assault on the warehouse was one such operation.
For years, the provincial town of Pezzack had been a nest of rebellion against the diabolists who controlled Imperial Cheliax. Its remoteness and the natural barricade of the mountainous, monster-infested wastelands to its east made it difficult for Queen Abrogail's agents to control. Despite two fiery assaults, infighting among the rebel factions, and an ongoing campaign by the Chelish navy to starve the resistance into submission, Pezzack remained effectively free.
That naval blockade was the reason that Isiem stood out here, shivering on a frigid winter's night, amid a ring of accomplices whose names and faces he did not know. Other than Ena, they were strangers to him, and he to them. Hoods and masks hid their faces; an illusion guised his own. None of them used names. If Chelish agents or insurgents from a rival faction caught one of them—as had happened before, and would happen again—that unlucky captive would have little to betray.
The only thing the conspirators shared was their goal. Ena's informants had whispered that something terrible was secreted in the crates that the stevedores had just unloaded into the loyalist-controlled warehouse on the water. What it was, the informants hadn't known, but it was deemed dangerous enough that Ena had contacted the best in the rebellion for help.
"I wasn't planning to kill the watchmen," Isiem said, sifting through the spell components arranged in his top pocket for easy access. He didn't need to re-sort them—he knew them all with calm, sure familiarity—but the ritual soothed him in the quiet moments before action. "I'm well aware that it does no good to turn their families against us. Besides, it's hardly necessary. They pose little obstacle to our goal."
"Likely to be bigger problems inside," Ena said. "Still don't know what, though. The devilers won't leave valuables unguarded, but they won't use obvious guards either. Whatever's protecting their goods, it's hidden and it's not living. They didn't have any extra guards on the ship, nor meals carried down to the hold. My spies saw nothing. Might be the cargo itself is the danger."
"We should burn it," one of the other masked conspirators interjected. His voice, like the half-elf's, was unfamiliar to Isiem. Ena seemed to have reached farther afield than usual in putting together this night's crew. "Bar the doors and burn down the whole warehouse."
"That is a profoundly stupid idea," Ena said. "Profoundly." The dwarf stretched her legs and started toward the warehouse, melting in and out of the shadows effortlessly in her mottled gray cloak. "Let me remind you: the point is to find out what the devilers are doing. If their cargo is valuable, we want to steal it and sell it. If it's not, we want to find out what their plans are. We can't do that if we burn it, now can we?"
"And the rest of the warehouse is filled with food," the woman in the red scarf added. "That's what raised our suspicions initially. How often do ships carrying food get through Governor Sawndannac's blockade? She's been trying to starve the Pezzacki into submission for months. But even if it was a ruse to ensure we'd take in their cargo, the fact remains that the warehouse is stocked with food. We can't waste it."
Chastened, the man offered no answer. Ena didn't seem to want one. The dwarf turned back to them long enough to hold one finger up to her lips, under her hood, then pointed to the right side of the warehouse and held up two more. With that, she slipped off to the warehouse's left side, facing the water, where a smaller side door stood beside the large loading doors. The dwarf crouched against the wall, working on the padlock that secured the smaller door.
Isiem went the other way. He could see the watchmen coming; their lanterns cut bright lines through the night's salty fog. They kept close together, sheltering themselves against the dark. Their oiled cloaks were beaded with damp, their hoods pulled low so that he could not see their faces.
Not that he needed to. As the watchmen passed a narrow alley between two warehouses, Isiem struck. He sifted a pinch of fine sand from a pocket, letting it trickle to the ground while he spoke the words of magic that would send his unknowing victims into slumber.
As its last word left his lips, Isiem's spell seized the watchmen. Without a word of protest, they slumped gently into the fog.
Isiem swiftly bound and gagged the men. They woke as soon as Isiem stuffed the rags into their mouths, but were too startled to offer much resistance. One after the other, he pulled the struggling watchmen into the alley and out of casual view. Morning would find them stiff, cold, and scared—but they'd live to see the new day, and that was all the kindness he could spare them.
At his signal, two of the other conspirators took up the guards' badges, cudgels, and fallen lanterns. Raising their lights to cut through the night, the false watchmen took up the patrol. They'd maintain the illusion that nothing was amiss, and serve as a first line of warning if some outside threat should intrude.
Isiem went around to the waterfront side of the warehouse. Ena had forced the lock on the small office door. The dwarf eased the door open and waved Isiem and the woman in the red scarf forward, slipping ahead of them into the warehouse. None of them carried a light; either by magic or by the innate gifts of their blood, they could see well enough by the misty moon.
Shelves and pallets filled the warehouse in towering rows. Pezzack was not a large town, and its warehouses were modest, but even so it was disorienting for Isiem to see corded bundles of salt cod stacked higher than his head, or rows of hanging hams like impossibly fat, salt-crusted bats crowded in a roost. The pungent aroma of garlic mingled with the spicy fragrance of the long, wrinkled red peppers that the Pezzacki called "rooster's beak"; under it all was the earthy odor of the cured meats that filled most of the visible space.
"Where's their bloody secret cargo?" Ena muttered, stopping amid a cluster of hams. The dwarf pulled a small charm out from under her jerkin: a single-pointed blue crystal wrapped in silver wire and hung from a leather thong. She slipped it from around her neck and let it dangle from her fingers, watching it intently through the dusty gloom.
After a moment, the crystal vibrated, then pulled toward a few unassuming wooden boxes stacked under a heap of grain sacks. "Magic," Ena grunted in satisfaction, putting her charm back on and tucking the crystal under her shirt. "There'll be something more than carrots and onions in those boxes, I'll wager."
"Be ready," said the woman in the red scarf. She drew a longsword with a smooth, blued blade. Another crimson scarf wrapped its hilt, but the pommel was bare, and on it Isiem saw a sword-and-halo etched in gold. Iomedae's mark.
"Help me with these sacks," Ena told Isiem, grabbing one end of a sizable bag.
It must have weighed over eighty pounds, and the dwarf's short stature made moving it awkward. Isiem hoisted the other side with a grunt, helping Ena ease it to the floor. He tipped his chin at the woman who stood poised with her sword. "She could help, instead of trying to stare down this barley. She's probably stronger than either of us."
Ena snorted. "That's what paladins do. Look noble while the rest of us do the heavy lifting." She raised her voice, directing two of the other conspirators: "Get the next sack."
Minutes later, with the grain sacks piled on the floor, Ena pried open the top box under the paladin's watchful gaze. She brushed aside a layer of straw and sacking, then paused and stepped back slowly. "Wizard. Come here."
Isiem came forward. The box was packed tight with bones, all painted black. Most appeared to be the bones of large birds, although he couldn't tell whether they were from eagles, vultures, or some rarer breed. He'd never been a great student of the natural world.
Alongside those bones were others that seemed to be the fleshless hands and arms of some small, clawed creatures. Kobolds, perhaps; Isiem judged that they were slightly too small, and the claws too developed, to belong to goblins. They, too, had been painted entirely black.
He picked through the bones. They had been stacked in neat, careful rows, nestled together to conserve space. Gummy, necromantic preservatives stained their joints and the crevices under the hands' hooked claws.
"What is it?" Ena asked tensely.
"Undead of some type, I think. I've never seen ones quite like this." Isiem shrugged, stepping back. "Open the next box."
The next box contained more black-painted bones, as did the one beneath it. The final box, however, held something different under its coat of yellow straw. Hinged glass cases, each filled with dead birds, gleamed inside.
Isiem picked up one of the cases. It held eight birds ranging in size from crows to sparrows, and it felt strangely light in his hands. A whiff of funereal spices—frankincense, sandalwood, Osirian black resin—hinted that it, too, bore some necromantic spell. A curled copper shaving on each of the birds' eyes, and a sprinkling of salt in their feathers, told him what that magic was: a rite to stave off decay.
More cases of dead birds filled the box. Isiem peered more closely at the one in his hands. The birds' throats looked swollen, as if they'd all swallowed eggs that had lodged in their gullets, and there seemed to be a dried, flaky residue about their nostrils and the sides of their beaks ...But even though his magic allowed him to see clearly in the dark, it was impossible to be sure through the glass.
Curiosity pushed him to open the case, even as caution pulled him back. Isiem didn't recognize the necromancy at work here, nor could he identify the disease that had killed the birds—if what he'd seen was a disease, and not some poison or side effect of the preservative spell—but he wanted to. Pezzack had little to interest a wizard of any real skill, and less to challenge one; Isiem had spent much of the past year mired in boredom. This was a mystery, and that pleased him.
He didn't want to kill his collaborators for the sake of his own curiosity, though. Or himself. Glancing over at the Iomedaean, Isiem asked, "Can you cure diseases?"
She nodded silently.
"Good." Isiem turned to Ena, who had taken up a seat on the barley sacks and was chewing a piece of purloined ham while she watched. "Warn the others not to come in here, please. I'm about to do something very stupid, I suspect."
"That's always promising." The dwarf stuffed her slice of ham into a pocket and stood up. "Try not to actually do it until I get back. Don't want to be surprised any more than I have to."
She disappeared amid the warehouse shelves, returning moments later with a satisfied nod. "It's done. I told them not to come back in until I give leave, whatever they hear in here. The three of us will have to handle whatever you're about to unleash."
"Nothing, I hope." Isiem unlatched the case. Even as he grasped the glass lid to lift it, however, a clatter and rustle from the bone boxes told him that his hopes were for naught.
"So much for that," Ena said, reaching into her cloak. Spinning on her left foot to face the boxed bones, she pulled out a small, spherical glass bottle that sloshed with liquid. The dwarf did something to it—Isiem couldn't see what—and flung the glass ball at the boxed bones.
With a crystalline tinkle, it exploded into a cloud of thick, fragrant fog. Bones rattled and scratched against the boxes' wood as if a dozen skeletons were dancing a jig within the mists. The undead were rising.
The paladin strode forward, her shield raised with one gauntleted hand and her longsword shining radiantly in the other. The fog glowed around her like a sunlit cloud—and then it erupted into a second flurry of motion, this time from the inside out, as dozens of avian skeletons hurtled up in a lace-winged flock. They hurled themselves into the paladin's face, threw their bodies against her shield, bashed against her armored legs. The sheer momentum of the skeletal flock drove the woman stumbling backward. Her red scarf fell away, confirming Isiem's suspicions that she was a half-elf.
"You were wrong," Ena said, letting a second glass ball tumble back into her cloak. She sidestepped around the chaos, looking for an opening. A pair of hooked knives flashed in her hands, reflecting the blue fire of the paladin's sword. "They're not undead. That fog is holy water, and it isn't doing anything to them."
"I can see that," Isiem said through gritted teeth.
The black-boned birds weren't attacking the paladin. She was only an obstacle to them, and they whirled past her like windblown leaves parting around a tree trunk. What they wanted—what drew them and drove them—was in the glass cases at Isiem's feet.
They swept toward him, sieving the air with their whistling wings. Between the birds' naked ribs, the skeletal kobold hands dangled like stirrups, twitching as they neared the cases and their cargo of dead birds.
As they drew near their goal, the flock funneled into a tight formation: a vortex of bones spinning toward Isiem. His hood blew back as they approached. Dust stung his eyes, blurring the oncoming skeletons into a single dark cloud.
He could still see them well enough to kill them, though. Squinting through his tears, Isiem focused on a spell.
The wizard plucked a tiny crystal cone from a pocket. Holding the cone to his lips as if it were a war horn, Isiem whispered an incantation through the polished stone. As he spoke the last word, he pointed two fingers in a V directed at the flock of winged skeletons and the paladin still caught in their midst.
The half-elf threw herself to the floor, not a moment too soon. Wintry cold and bitter frost blew from Isiem's crystal, smashing into the skeletal birds. Several of them burst apart immediately, blasted into pieces by the elemental force of the cold. Shards of their bones ricocheted off the walls and embedded themselves in the hanging hams like hellish peppercorns. Others froze and fell to the ground, where their ice-rimed bones shattered on impact. A few flapped away at the edges, slow and lopsided under sudden coats of ice. Ena pounced on the crippled birds, smashing them to the ground with a box lid and stomping them under her boots.
In seconds, it was over. The paladin picked up a discarded piece of straw-flecked sacking and scooped the last of the struggling skeletons into it, then dropped the whole bundle into one of the empty boxes and put the lid back on. "I don't think these were made to fight," she said, while knotting a rope around the box. Its lid thumped with the captive skeletons' efforts at escape. "They had some other purpose. Do you know what it was?"
"I have a guess," Isiem said, "but it's only a guess."
The half-elven woman rubbed her forehead, where a long red scratch disappeared into her dark auburn hair. With the scarf gone, she was a handsome woman, with high cheekbones and a strong square jaw. Not girlish, and perhaps not beautiful in the traditional sense, but possessed of a calm certitude that drew the eye. "I expect you'll want to study them, then." She examined her sword for dirt or damage, found none, and sheathed it. "Can you do so safely?"
"I should be able to." Isiem plucked a shard of black bone from the side of a ham. He could see no sign that the meat had been contaminated, but he pulled out a small knife and carved out the flesh around the puncture mark anyway. One never knew what taints such creatures carried. "Help me collect the pieces, please."
It didn't take long to collect the larger bones. The smaller fragments, however, had been scattered across the warehouse by the force of Isiem's icy blast, and spotting them among the piles of spilled grain was tedious work. After the better part of an hour, they still hadn't gathered all the pieces, and Ena began to cast meaningful glances toward the door.
"We should go," the dwarf said. "It'll be sunrise soon, and someone might come to check on the watchmen. No need to linger looking for bone scraps. We've got enough."
"I'd like to find them all," Isiem said.
"Why?" Ena pushed down her hood, rubbing at a nick above her left ear. Short brown stubble covered most of her head, but scars from a long-ago explosion left irregular bald patches across her scalp and eyebrows. "You can't cover up that we were here. The devilers are going to know that anyway. All you'll do is maybe get yourself caught."
"I won't get caught." Isiem showed her one of the little balls of resin he kept tucked in a pocket. An ivory eyelash was embedded in the gum, its pale arc barely visible. "Not by any ordinary watchman. And if they've got someone capable of breaking through my magic, we'll have trouble whether or not I stay to pick up these bones."
"What makes the bones so important?" the half-elven paladin asked. "Why risk yourself over them, even if you do have a spell to hide with?" She had wrapped the red scarf around her face again, concealing everything but her eyes, so Isiem could not be sure of her expression.
He heard no suspicion in her voice, though, only honest curiosity, and so he answered honestly in turn. "I think they're plaguebearers."
"Plaguebearers?" Ena recoiled. She eyed the toppled boxes nervously, scrubbing a hand against the front of her jerkin as if trying to rid herself of some invisible stain. "When were you planning to warn us?"
"When we left." Isiem shrugged. "The paladin says she can cure diseases, and I don't think the plague is directed at us, nor do I think the sickness escaped from its bonds. In my estimation, we are in little danger. Nonetheless, I'd rather not risk ordinary Pezzacki if we can avoid it. I've been wrong before."
"Who's it meant for, then?" Ena asked. "They sent it to us."
"The strix," said the paladin. Her dark eyes hardened above the scarf. "Birds, not people. Those dead birds in the cases are meant to carry sickness. The winged skeletons were meant to ...disperse them, perhaps?"
"Something like that," Isiem agreed. "The preserved birds hold the sickness, and the skeletal carriers see that it reaches its intended victims. The cases were not opened, so the plague should be contained. That's my theory, anyway. It's only a theory. I'll need to study them." He waved them toward the door. "In the meantime, I'll try to find the rest of these bone fragments. Don't wait for me."
"We'll meet at the usual place when you're ready," Ena said. "Two days?"
"Two days." Without waiting for Ena and her taller companion to leave the warehouse, Isiem resumed his search for the scattered pieces. A cold draft through the door told him when they had gone.
Hours later, stiff-backed and bleary-eyed, Isiem looked up to see soft gray light spilling through the warehouse's small, filthy windows. Morning was upon him. His spell of disguise had long since faded, and although he wasn't sure if he'd found all the bone shards in the warehouse, there was no more time to look. He had to go now, or risk being seen and recognized when the sun rose high enough to show his face.
The boxes were already stacked and waiting by the warehouse doors. Isiem cinched the neck of the sack he'd been filling and dropped it atop the heap. He plucked a few strands from a knot of horsehair in his pocket and let them float to the ground, weaving a short incantation between the falling threads.
From shadows and sea fog and five scattered hairs, a mottled black horse arose. It stood patiently as Isiem loaded the cases onto the black horse's back, covered them with sacking and fastened the bundle in place with crisscrossed ropes, then took the animal's bridle and led it out to the streets of Pezzack.
Off in the distance, blurred by fog, the small lantern-lit boats of fishermen pushed out to the cold black sea past the creaking, floating hulks of Docktown. Across the way, a baker's hearth threw a warm orange glow like a lighthouse in the mist. No one else was awake or abroad. Fog swirled over the ruts in the town's dirt roads and slicked the cobblestones of its few paved streets. It enclosed Isiem in a gentle haze, lulling him toward somnolence.
Until he rounded a corner and found himself abruptly face to face with a child.
The child was eight, ten, something like that. Boy or girl, he couldn't tell. Wide brown eyes, a smattering of freckles, a dirty wool cap pulled low over protruding ears. A puff of startled breath escaped the child's lips and hung white in the air between them.
Their gazes locked, and in those huge waif's eyes Isiem saw a fatal flash of recognition.
His illusory disguise was gone. It was his true face that the child saw. And that face, Isiem knew, was difficult to forget. As filled with colorful eccentrics as Pezzack was, a near-albino Nidalese from the Uskwood still stood out. There was only one such man in this part of Cheliax, and that one was known to be wanted.
He would be remembered. If the child was a loyalist—as some were, even in this rebellion-rife border town—Isiem could be reported. Then the Hellknights would come, implacable in iron, and the tensions in Pezzack would explode.
If the child was a spy for one of the other rebel groups, Isiem's position wasn't much better. The Galtan faction, led by a madman named Habar Curl, was always looking for proof that his rivals were insufficiently pure in their dedication to the cause. The slightest whiff of cooperation with Imperial Cheliax was enough to earn a beheading, as far as they were concerned, and tolerating a Nidalese traitor went far beyond that. There was no question that if he caught Isiem's friends, Habar Curl would bend their necks to his blade.
The safest course, therefore, would be to kill the child. It would be so very easy in the sleeping silence of the town. The mists would hide his bloody work; the sea would swallow its aftermath.
But Isiem hesitated, and the child spun on his foot—her foot?—and in a swirl of rags and skittering footsteps, vanished into the night.
Isiem didn't pursue. Swallowing a mixture of relief and fear, he tightened his grip on the black horse's reins and turned down his own path through Pezzack. Once again, quiet closed around him, broken only by the muted clop of the horse's hooves and the clacking of bones inside the boxes it bore.
It was not a loud sound, but that clacking filled the wizard's ears with echoes. Other places, other bones. Pangolais. Nisroch. Westcrown.
He had enough of those burdening his conscience already. Deaths filled his memories: friends, enemies, victims of fate and circumstance. Some had been avoidable. Most had not.
As he turned down the last twisting alley to his temporary refuge, Isiem wondered about tonight's encounter. Was it sparing the child or killing him that was the mistake?
He didn't know. He couldn't. Such knowledge was not for mortals in this world.
But there was only one choice that he would not regret. And as he stepped into the quiet darkness of his borrowed home, leaving the budding dawn behind, Isiem knew that he had made it.
Coming Up Next: A holiday hiatus for the Wednesday web fiction—we'll be back with more weekly stories in the new year!
Liane Merciel is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Nightglass and the free Pathfinder tales "Certainty" and "Misery’s Mirror", a well as the novels The River Kings’ Road, Heaven’s Needle, and Dragon Age: Last Flight. For more information, visit her website at lianemerciel.com.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.