Daryus Gaunt used to be a crusader, battling to protect civilization from the demons of the Worldwound, before a battlefield mutiny forced him to flee or be executed. Pathfinder Shiera Tristane is an adventuring scholar obsessed with making the next big archaeological discovery. When a talking weasel reveals that a sinister witch is close to uncovering a long-lost temple deep within the Worldwound, the two adventurers are drawn into the demon-haunted lands in order to stop him from releasing an ancient evil. Now both fame and redemption may be at hand... if they can survive.
Chapter 1: The Rescue
Daryus Gaunt eyed the two armored figures over the froth-covered rim of his mug, taking in every detail of the pair. Despite his outward disinterest, he remained on edge until the two crusaders took their leave of the tavern.
They had not recognized him—but then, he hardly looked like the earnest warrior he had been when he had worn their same uniform. Scars etched his oddly narrow features, many covered unsuccessfully by the thin, black beard edged with gray. Some of the jagged marks had been earned when he had been a crusader, but the rest—along with the beard—he'd gotten acting as a sword for hire for whoever was willing to pay.
Daryus could have saved himself so much trouble by simply not making Nerosyan his base. Doing so was like poking the proverbial bees' nest. The Order of the Flaming Lance had a significant presence here. If even one of the crusaders recognized him, he risked losing his head.
After all, the order had very little sympathy for traitors.
He set down the empty mug, then rose. Next to him, the two surly thugs muttering to one another about some future robbery immediately eased out of his way. Contrary to his name and his grandfather's supposed elven lineage, Daryus Gaunt was a mountain of a man, just a few inches shy of seven feet. It made his hiding in a stronghold of the order an even more questionable choice to that handful aware of his situation.
Five ales had done nothing to temper Daryus's mood, but he always stopped after five no matter what a part of him desired. The five drinks represented part of his failing, part of his betrayal. Daryus might have so far escaped punishment, but he couldn't escape his own guilt.
The Crimson Hammer Tavern might not have been one of the best-known establishments in Tumbletown—much less the city of Nerosyan itself—but it was a place where those in desperate need of a practiced sword could find such. "Desperate" was the key. Prospective employers had to be willing to wend their way deep northwest into one of the worst parts of the city.
Tonight, Daryus noted two potential contracts. One was a squat, robed figure who tried to keep his face covered with a scarf. The former crusader guessed him to be a merchant attempting to smuggle something either into Nerosyan or out of it. At present, the rotund man conversed with a pale, eye-patched swordsman who Daryus knew would do his best to part the fool from his money without fulfilling the contract.
The other possible client was a thin young man with long blond hair and furtive eyes who gave Daryus a measured glance before heading toward a grizzled ex-pirate from the River Kingdoms by the name of Divalo. Daryus gave the young man some credit. He had picked one of the more trustworthy swords in the tavern. Despite his background, Divalo would live up to his contract and even make certain that any other swords the young man needed would do the same on pain of death.
Seeing no reason to remain, Daryus made for the door. It had been a fortnight since he had returned to the Diamond of the North, as Nerosyan was also known. The name had little to do with any glamorous aspect of the city and more with the base design of the massive fortress initially built here. There was no better fortified city than Nerosyan—a good thing, since it was close enough to the Worldwound to attract the attention of demons.
Thinking of the Worldwound, Daryus hesitated just shy of the door. It was not out of any thought of adding a sixth ale to his count, but rather the hope that the rumors he had heard might still prove true. The word was out that some Pathfinders were planning an expedition into the demon-blighted land. What insane reason they had for doing so, the former crusader did not care. All he knew was that Pathfinders paid well. They would need a strong arm out in the Worldwound if they hoped to even survive their first night.
Gripping the swinging door carefully, Daryus slowly opened the way. A slight creak accompanied the door's movement. The tavern's owner liked to keep all the doors creaky, the better to know when someone exited or entered. Daryus appreciated that aspect, save now when he wanted to make certain that no one outside might hear him.
But the two crusaders were nowhere to be seen, even to his skilled eye. If they had recognized him and arranged a trap, they had done a fine job. Daryus doubted it, though.
Some might have wondered at his choices, a renegade at the heart of the crusader city. Even the explanation he gave himself—that they would never expect to find him so close by—was one that Daryus knew he wouldn't have accepted from anyone else.
Shrugging off both the obvious contradictions in his decisions and the reasons behind them, Daryus headed deeper into Tumbletown. For all their power, the crusaders did little to clean out the area. It wasn't due solely to the tremendous effort needed, though. The area around the Crimson Tavern and its like allowed the crusaders to have a particular place to find those tools they would not admit they needed at times. Daryus had seen the supposed clients who he knew were actually servants of the various crusader orders. Even the most pious of the orders' higher-ups occasionally needed those they considered scum.
Only a few dim oil lamps and torches lit the way through the grimy streets and the filthy buildings lining each side. There had been attempts in the past to better illuminate the area in a pretense of making everyone safer, but those had lasted only long enough for someone to steal the lamps. The lesson remained. Only those who could defend themselves could walk these streets at night.
A light some distance to the southwest and high above momentarily caught his attention. While not as large as the city's four main defense towers, Starrise Spire—or, more specifically, the magical beacon floating above it—was a useful landmark when trying to wend through the darkened streets toward where he lived. The only other landmark of any use to Daryus besides the city's towers was the great Cruciform Cathedral, situated dead center in the city. More a fortress than an ordinary cathedral, that massive redoubt housed Queen Galfrey and the rest of Mendev's leadership, those soldiers and bureaucrats charged with organizing all the disparate crusader orders into a solid defense against the Worldwound's demons.
As he moved on, Daryus set one gloved hand on the hilt of the longsword dangling at his side. All it would take was one swift motion to ready the blade for battle. He had been forced to draw it three times since arriving in Nerosyan, but not of late. Most of the regulars knew Daryus Gaunt by reputation now and avoided trouble with him.
He came to an abrupt halt. Cocking his head, he listened.
With a grunt, Daryus moved on. Five ales might not be enough to affect his faculties, but exhaustion could. He hadn't slept in three days. As a young warrior, three days awake would have meant little to him, but of late it seemed to Daryus that his strength flagged quicker and quicker. Still, there were few he knew of in Tumbletown with more skill than him, so he wasn't overly worried.
Again, Daryus hesitated. He listened, only hearing a slight wind struggling through the tightly packed buildings and narrow streets.
He frowned. It was almost as if he heard the voice in his head.
"Help me! Please!"
That cry he heard out loud. Moving with a speed and grace his form belied, Daryus drew his sword. He took one step toward where he believed the faint cry had come.
The clink of metal against metal made every muscle in his body tense. Daryus considered the possibility of a clever crusader trap, but quickly disposed of the notion. The cry seemed too true, too honest.
Daryus got a fix on the direction. With swift but stealthy steps, he headed toward the pleading voice. Whether it was male or female, he couldn't say, but it didn't matter. Every instinct in Daryus pushed him to helping the unseen caller. A renegade he might be, but he couldn't fight his basic nature.
As he entered a side alley, something just ahead of him moved in the shadows. With his left hand, Daryus brought the sword around, but found only empty air.
A second clink warned him just before the point of a narrow sword would have pierced him through the throat. Instead, Daryus managed to bring up his own weapon in time to deflect the attack. The oncoming tip scraped his cheek, adding to collection of scars.
Daryus's fist followed his sword, striking his adversary hard in the chest. The shadowy figure grunted as the force of the blow sent him back a step.
Despite eyes already attuned to the darkness, Daryus had trouble making out the other swordsman's features. No matter how hard he tried, the face remained indiscernible.
The sword did not. Out of the corner of his eye, Daryus spotted the weapon coming at him again. As he shifted his own blade to meet it, he noted another attack coming from the opposite side.
There was no time to reach the small dagger he wore in his belt. Daryus thrust his other arm up, willing to take a shallow slice on his cloth-covered arm rather than have his head skewered.
Deflecting the first sword, Daryus spun to meet the wielder of the second. He had the satisfaction of feeling his blade cut into the other attacker's arm.
Despite the wound, the second figure made no sound. Daryus knew he faced not only seasoned fighters, but determined ones.
The cry for aid had ceased, making the mercenary wonder if he had arrived too late. However, he knew the point no longer mattered; he was now committed to the struggle, whatever and whomever it concerned.
The first attacker tried to take him again. Daryus's left-handed counterassault kept the shadowy fighter off guard, while at the same time, he kicked at the legs of the second figure. He drove his latter attacker down on one knee, buying time to better deal with the first.
"Beware above!" the same voice that had cried for help called.
Rather than thrust at his foe, Daryus had to instead leap back. Even then, he barely missed being crushed under the weight of yet a third figure.
Sword already in play, Daryus lunged at the newcomer. He caught the crouching fighter on the side, but the other managed to roll away before the sword could do more than scrape what Daryus guessed to be a light breastplate.
Daryus sensed the movements of the second assailant. Determined to do something to keep the odds from turning further against him, he threw himself against the kneeling figure. As they collided, Daryus twisted his sword around and shoved as hard as he could.
Although the blade sank deep into the other's throat, his foe's only response before dying was a grunt. Daryus began to wonder whether they could even speak at all.
He hardly had the sword free from the collapsing body before the third of his attackers returned. Despite a hint of illumination from the street beyond, the face continued to be as featureless as those of the original pair. Daryus knew magic when he saw it, and hoped that the obscuring shadows were the extent of their abilities. The trio did not strike him as spellcasters, but rather paid assassins given a trick or two. Still, even one more trick might prove too much for Daryus.
Both attackers converged on Daryus. He fended off their initial attacks, at the same time managing to analyze which of the pair was the more dangerous. As for his foes, they seemed satisfied to harass him, almost as if waiting for something else to happen...
A clatter arose from his right. Daryus, already suspecting just what the pair had been waiting for, was startled that the fourth figure seeking his death could be so clumsy. The murky form stumbled into Daryus's waiting hand.
With all the force he could muster, Daryus threw his latest adversary toward the others. One fighter managed to evade the living missile, but the second wasn't so lucky. The two fell in a heap.
"Beware! One more! One more!" came the voice, this time from what seemed somewhere on the ground to the right.
Daryus couldn't see anyone there, but he responded to the warning. Drawing his dagger, he brandished the smaller blade at the most likely direction from which any additional enemy would attack.
It was all he could do to keep his grip as the sword point thrusting out of the darkness clashed against his dagger. Daryus spun around, forcing the barely visible sword's wielder back while still keeping the foremost of his other adversaries at bay.
Lunging toward his latest foe, he slipped past the sword enough to reach the hand gripping it. He drove the dagger as hard as he could into the wrist.
This time, Daryus was rewarded by a pained cry. The sword slipped free. Daryus grabbed the wounded limb, then pulled his opponent toward him.
So near, he finally caught a glimpse of a face, a peculiarly nondescript face that even Daryus's expert eye could not identify by region. A faint beard covered most of the lower half, but that was perhaps the only detail of any note.
A rough hand shoved Daryus back. The face disappeared into the same sort of odd, darker-than-dark inkiness obscuring the faces of the rest.
Daryus used the force of the push to enable him to roll to the side. As he turned on his back, he brought up his sword.
The point caught the attacker coming up behind him under his armored chest. Before the wounded fighter could stagger back, Daryus shoved the sword deeper.
As he did that, a strange change came over his dying enemy. Not only did the inkiness fade, but the attacker's entire body shimmered. A bland face identical to the other fighter's briefly materialized, then itself faded into something else.
And suddenly a pitborn stood before Daryus.
As a crusader, Daryus had come face to face with the demon-tainted creatures before. Generally human in face and form, they bore the curse of some past coupling between a human and one of the foul denizens of the Abyss. Daryus's former order had seen pitborn as little more than demons themselves, though while many were indeed evil, he knew that others could be as pure of heart as the oath-sworn warriors with whom he had served.
The last, it appeared, did not apply to the fanged, thick-browed figure collapsing by Daryus. His dying gaze held only rage, a look that faded a moment later as death took him.
Daryus scrambled back as both the attacker he had knocked over and wounded and the remaining pair regained their footing. He had been fortunate up until now, but even with two dead and possibly two wounded, the odds were still against him, especially if all of the three were pitborn. The demon-touched often wielded some level of sorcerous power, which explained their ability to mask themselves in the midst of a crusader stronghold.
Instead of attacking, though, to Daryus's surprise, the two in front of him retreated. Weapons ready, they vanished into the shadows behind them.
Daryus turned to the last, only to find the disguised attacker sprawled in a heap. Suspecting a trap, Daryus approached cautiously. As vicious as the dagger wound had been to the assassin's wrist, it should not have killed him so quickly, if at all.
In death, the pitborn's true countenance lay revealed. Small, sharp horns curled up from his forehead. His gaping mouth revealed sharp teeth. However, it was the pitborn's throat that demanded Daryus's attention.
Something had ripped it out with animalistic tenacity, something evidently capable of moving swiftly and silently.
Not one to question his fortune, Daryus looked around for the caller. He was not surprised to find himself alone. Whoever had been the intended target of these assassins had wisely fled. Unfortunately, that left Daryus alone to deal with the bodies. Bodies were not uncommon in Tumbletown, but three dead pitborn would certainly stir the attention of the city's crusaders. There would be a search of the area, with questions about who in the area would have the skill to kill not one but three.
It would not be long before someone led them to Daryus.
Daryus knew a spot where he could put the bodies, a place where no one would find them for years, if ever, based on the two skeletons he had discovered there the first time he had stumbled into it. He wiped his sword and dagger off on the body with the ruined throat, then sheathed the weapons and hefted the dead pitborn over his shoulder. He could have carried two at once, but that would have made it harder to draw a weapon should someone come upon him. Besides, a single body he could prop against a wall and pretend in the dark was a drunken comrade.
The hiding place in question was a narrow passage between two old, stone buildings farther to the west of his dwelling. Sometime far in the past, the entrance to the passage had been bricked up to make the two structures seem as one. The only way to still reach it was from the roofs above, which was how Daryus had stumbled on it in the first place. He had not expected to have to slide into it, nor had he expected the skeletons with the telltale chips in their ribs indicating death by sword. Now, though, what had been an unfortunate chance discovery was proving to be of use.
For most people, the time needed to dispose of one body, let alone three, would have been measured in hours. Daryus managed to remove the first two in such quick order that he surprised himself. Only then did he realize just how well he had eased into his current life. His earlier existence suddenly seemed farther away than ever.
Gritting his teeth, Daryus returned for the last. Not once had he seen anyone on the street, but he doubted his luck would hold much longer. With growing impatience, Daryus returned to the scene of the struggle...and found no trace of the last corpse.
What he did find was a small and curious-looking animal sitting near where he had last seen the body. The long, sinewy mammal licked one of its forepaws, upon which Daryus noted small bits of dark moisture.
The brown-furred creature raised its head to look at him. Daryus had not seen many weasels in this region, but knew what they looked like. This one was average in size and slightly wide in the mouth. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it save that its left eye seemed injured and twisted shut.
Without warning, it scampered over to Daryus and started up his leg. Thrusting the dagger in his belt, the former crusader seized the vermin by the scruff of the neck and brought it to eye level.
The weasel wrinkled its nose, but otherwise didn't react. It seemed perfectly at ease dangling several feet above the ground as it stared with the one eye at Daryus.
A quick survey of the area revealed no sign of either the intended victim or the last body. Daryus knew he had risked himself far too long for what he now felt was no good reason. Indeed, he began to wonder if perhaps he had been set up by someone intending either robbery or vengeance. Perhaps he had been the target all along.
Remaining wary, Daryus abandoned the area, taking what precautions he could to keep from being followed. If in fact he had been set up by a rival, or had simply become the object of some thieving gang's attention, he didn't want company joining him at home.
Not certain what else to do with the weasel, Daryus set it down and started off. He didn't get far before realizing that the creature was following close.
Daryus waved it off, but the weasel continued to follow. Its lack of concern for the dead or missing assassins suggested it hadn't been a pet of theirs. Yet if it had belonged to whoever had cried out—assuming there had actually been someone in the first place—Daryus wondered why the animal's owner had left it behind.
Daryus's abode was little more than a shack attached to the back of a warehouse. In the early days of the city, the shack had probably acted as the warehouse guard's quarters. The warehouse had changed hands and functions over the generations, becoming now the front for a merchant of disreputable means. Daryus paid the man's scarecrow of a daughter a month's lodging at a time. He knew that they also saw him as an unpaid guard for their goods, for if something happened to the warehouse, then Daryus would lose his dwelling and the money he had paid out that month.
Other than a creaking oak bed with a blanket to act as mattress, the lone room had only two other pieces of furniture. The well-stained table and accompanying bench were where Daryus spent his time when not sleeping. A half-empty bottle of foul-tasting red wine that reminded Daryus of the swill he had once drank in faraway Sauerton sat atop the table, looking inviting despite his familiarity with its sharply acidic taste.
Just as he shut the door behind him, the weasel slipped through into the room.
"No you don't!" He made a swipe for the sinewy creature, but the weasel twisted out of range. It darted to the bench, leapt atop it, then made its way to the table and the waiting wine bottle.
Daryus pursued, only to pull up short as the weasel suddenly turned its one-eyed gaze back at him. The stare was so intense that the renegade crusader almost expected the animal to talk.
Which it did.
"You save Toy's life!" it piped in the voice Daryus immediately recognized as the one that had called for help. "You save Toy's life, but now we must beware! They will seek to obey their master's will! They will come again with more! We must leave this city!"
Daryus reached for his sword. "What are you?"
Toy impatiently shook its head, its single open eye never leaving Daryus. "No time to waste on foolish questions! Must act! Must act before he acts!"
The weasel hissed. It reared, revealing that it was definitely male. "An evil walking on two legs! An evil that will now come looking for both of us, Master... unless Toy and Master stop him first!"
And then, without warning, the weasel opened his other eye as well—an eye simultaneously of fire and ice, blood red and bone ivory.
A demon's eye.