By Dave Gross
This is an excerpt from the upcoming Pathfinder Tales novel King of Chaos by Dave Gross, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Paizo Publishing and Dave Gross, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Paizo Publishing, LLC.
Chapter One: The Watchtower
Bastiel lowered his horn. His sooty mane whipped my faceplate as I rose in the stirrups to lean over his neck. The thrum of his hooves traveled up through the saddle grips and shuddered through my enchanted armor. Bastiel required no bridle, no reins—only a word.
The unicorn galloped down the wet hill, his hooves plunging deep through the moss. The mud spattered against my greaves. A cold snap had laced the thawing earth with frost.
Before us, demons swarmed the watchtower.
Above them all hovered a trio of wrath demons. Their raw humanoid bodies and vulture-like heads loomed over the combatants as they shook noxious spores from their bodies down onto their foes. One demon tried to land, and the crusaders rushed to drive it back into the air before it could begin its storm dance. Surrounding them all, tiny fiends teemed like minnows in the foul miasma around the filthy black wings.
On the tower roof, naked demons leaped upon steel-clad defenders. The Mendevian crusaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the crenellated wall. Their valor sang to my heart, but against the combined packs of fiends they were far too few.
Bastiel galloped more swiftly than any horse, but within his great heart he found even more speed. We sailed toward the tower, the sodden earth churning like waves beneath us.
At the tower’s base, a gang of brimoraks assaulted a pair of knights. One glance at the fiends left a sick trembling in the vault of my stomach. Every paladin experiences a different reaction to the presence of evil. I once described the sensation to an irreverent friend who dubbed it “the butterflies of evil.”
Barely more than half the height of the men, the brimoraks threatened their foes with flaming swords. Their red-hot hooves left prints in cracked mud.
The crusaders stood fast. Behind them, their squires freed horses from the stable abutting the tower. The penned animals bucked against the walls, terrified by the sulfurous vapors emanating from the little arson demons.
One of the defenders caught a flaming sword on his shield and tried to shove it aside, straining against his foe’s surprising strength. Before the fiend could bring the brand back into line, the knight—no, the paladin—called upon Iomedae and sliced open the demon’s belly with his gleaming longsword. The brimorak dropped its fiery blade with a bleat and fell.
“Sergeant!” The other knight pointed at me and Bastiel. His sergeant saw me. So did the brimoraks.
So much for the element of surprise.
I drew the Ray of Lymirin. Pure light flared from the thrice-blessed steel as the saint’s choir sang in voices audible only to me—and, judging by his twitching ears, also to Bastiel. The sword trembled in my grip, eager to strike. I sat deep in the saddle, hugging Bastiel with my legs. The brimoraks braced themselves.
Bastiel caught the first demon on his spiraled horn, tossing it aside. The point of my sword sparked off the curling horns of the second. The blow was nothing in itself, but the holy aura of the blade burned the fiend. It scrambled through the mud, howling and clutching at its head.
Anticipating Bastiel’s next move, I grasped a saddle grip and braced myself. The mighty unicorn trampled two more brimoraks before planting his front hooves. Momentum turned him around, pivoting him on his front legs. I clung to the saddle only by virtue of the fantastic strength my magical belt imbued in me.
Bastiel kicked with his own considerable brawn and mass. The resulting sound told me his hooves found their target. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a goatlike head tumble across the yard.
Bastiel danced himself back into balance. I straightened to survey the scene.
Only one brimorak remained, the one whose horns I had creased. It had thrown itself to the ground, screaming and clutching its horns in a tantrum of agony. The sergeant ran after the fiend and stamped upon its neck, severing its spine with a single blow.
The squires finished releasing the terrified horses, calming them with strokes and whispers.
“My lady.” The knight who spoiled my surprise attack doffed his helm and fell to one knee, gazing up with an all-too-familiar expression on his face.
“Stand up, soldier,” barked the sergeant. The younger man stood. He could not have seen more than eighteen years before joining the crusade.
The sergeant raised the beaver of his helm. Beneath it lay a battered face fringed with a red-brown beard. He saluted me properly and addressed me by the rank he saw upon my pauldron. “Captain, there’s no time to report. They’re overwhelmed on the parapets.”
“Follow me,” I said.
Bastiel’s hooves struck the base of the tower stairs. Twice he barreled into vermleks, shoving them off the steps. The infected host bodies burst as they struck the ground, releasing their wormy contents. Behind me, the sergeant bellowed at the squires to cut down the escaping parasites.
The sound of battle grew louder as we reached the spacious roof. Worse than the cries and impacts was a mad jabbering that came from everywhere at once. The sound battered the edges of my thoughts.
Two dozen crusaders remained standing. Ten or so had already fallen, and twice as many fiends lay dead. Everywhere I saw deep gouges in the watchtower stone and in the shields and weapons of the defenders. Blood stained their white-and-gold tabards, and one or two clutched bleeding stumps. They were being eaten alive.
I spied paladins among the common soldiers and low templars. One paladin lifted her warhammer to call down the radiance of Iomedae. The holy light scalded the nearby fiends, but didn’t reach as far as I had expected.
The shadow of the wrath demons fell across us. Their sickening spores fell upon us. Those that touched flesh began burrowing in. I felt one upon my face, but its tendrils recoiled as they touched the Inheritor’s radiance—one of Iomedae’s many gifts to her anointed paladins.
The common soldiers were not so fortunate. The spores grew instantly upon setting root in their skin. Some screamed as green-black vines sprouted from their limbs and heads. A quick-thinking paladin sheathed his blade and produced a flask of holy water from his pouch. Sprinkling the afflicted while calling out a blessing, he vanquished the unholy spores.
Eyes wet with revenge, the fiends turned on the paladin.
I lifted the Ray of Lymirin and shouted, “Iomedae!” The longsword sang, its blinding radiance casting stark shadows across the watchtower. A holy breeze dispersed the remaining spores that drifted down from the hovering demons.
In the light of the Ray, the lesser demons shrieked in agony, while the worse fiends gobbled curses at me. The veteran crusaders took the chance to cut down the confused mob. The sight of me astride Bastiel distracted only the demons and the novices.
And one other.
With his helm torn away, I recognized Ederras Celverian fighting across the tower roof. Our gazes met for an instant. As I turned back to the fray, I saw him do the same, jaw set in anger.
A group of four crusaders forced a tusked demon toward the tower’s edge. It grunted as they shoved all their might into their shields. The demon squealed as it slipped from the parapet and fell to the ground.
Bastiel leaped over the nearest group of defenders, and we plunged into the battle. I guided the Ray through the demons’ bodies. Their dismembered limbs streamed black ribbons, and they fell.
“Stay back!” A fur-clad sorcerer cried out a warning as we approached. At her hip hung a quiver of icy javelins. Ice caked the tower roof all around her. Demons slipped and fell as they tried to reach her.
I batted away a gibbering bat demon and cut another in half as Bastiel stopped short of the ice.
A scythe-clawed demon managed to stand erect on the slippery roof. A crusader thrust a spear through its chest. The fiend chortled, perhaps at the crusader’s ignorance of demonic anatomy. It pulled the spear through its own body, drawing the soldier close.
The sorcerer uttered arcane words. Four snarling bolts of force shot from her outstretched fingers into the demon’s head, blasting away an eye and half its face.
Even that wasn’t enough to slay the demon. It snapped its jaws at the spearman, spraying his face with ropes of bloody spittle.
I leaped from the saddle and onto the ice, knees bent, sliding in a crouch. As I reached him, the spearman released his weapon and fell onto his back.
He could not have timed it better.
Hopping over him, I added strength to momentum and swept the Ray clean through the demon’s neck. Its ichor steamed upon the ice as I slid to a halt beside the sorcerer.
She intoned another spell while reaching for her javelins. I couldn’t understand the words, but I heard Thuvia in her accent. She had crossed the Inner Sea and all of Avistan to join the crusade.
Near the center of the watchtower roof, Bastiel gored what looked like a seven-foot-tall flayed man. Throwing the fiend back, he bucked and turned to bring his powerful hind hooves to bear. He battered the demon half to death before a pair of crusader spears finished the task.
I guarded the sorcerer while she cast her spell. Warm winds rose around us. She tossed the icy javelins one by one, letting the whirlwind fling them high, up into the suppurating flesh of the hovering vulture demons. The fiends shrieked and bled, and we held up our shields to cover our heads as a rain of gore and spores fell upon us.
“Paladins, with me!” I ran to the tower’s edge, turning the Ray of Lymirin pommel-up before me. “Blessed Saint, let me be a window to your light.”
Paladins joined me on either side, murmuring their own prayers. One was the sergeant I met below.
Iomedae’s radiance suffused our bodies and made a beacon of the tower. Demon mouths gaped in agony, but I could not hear their shrieks.
I heard only the choir.
A few of the tiny bat-fiends fell flaming to the ground. The vulture demons screamed again, then vanished, teleporting to safety.
My fellow paladins went at once to tend to the wounded. Bastiel picked his way delicately through the bodies, lowering his horn here and there to bestow a blessing.
Sometimes I wondered whether his magic came directly from the Green. If so, it was a wonder he could hear the choir. Had the Inheritor touched Bastiel after the unicorn chose me? Or had he always walked in the radiance?
Miracles are not mysteries, I reminded myself. I need not question them.
I went to one of the dying. I removed a gauntlet and lay my hand upon his brow. When he was safe, I moved to the next. When I had healed all I could, I rose and said, “Who’s in command here?”
I looked to those who were not tending the wounded. They looked at each other, counting the absences until the sergeant made a final calculation. He walked to Ederras and saluted. “You are acting captain, sir.”
Ederras nodded with obvious reluctance. “Thank you, Aprian.”
I drew the paper from my gauntlet and took it to Ederras. “Your orders.”
He glanced at the captain’s insignia on my shoulder. His eyes hardened. “You joined the crusade less than a year ago.” It was not a question.
“Queen Telandia commended me to Queen Galfrey, who invested me with the rank upon admittance to the crusade.” That should have been enough to satisfy anyone. I certainly had no obligation to say more, but an unbidden regret made me add, “Last summer I fought against the hordes of the Witchbole.”
Sensing my unease, Bastiel came to stand beside me.
“A unicorn,” scoffed Ederras. “Of course.”
Aprian winced, perhaps embarrassed by his commander’s discourtesy. While I had learned to place little trust in first impressions, my opinion of him was only improving.
Ederras’s scowl deepened as he read my orders. Before finishing, he snapped, “We don’t answer to the Silver Crusade.”
A few of the soldiers muttered disparaging phrases about freelancers.
“No, we don’t,” I said, emphasizing the pronoun more than I intended. “We answer to Queen Galfrey.” I drew the seal of the queen of Mendev from my pouch and held it up for all to see. Raising my voice, I announced, “Her Majesty commands cooperation in this matter. I need your sorcerer and twenty knights.”
“We just lost half our strength,” hissed Ederras. “And you can’t have Jelani. I need her.”
I understood his anger. If I had known I would find him here— No, it didn’t matter. I had my orders.
Stepping closer, I lowered my voice. “Listen, Ederras, I know the circumstances couldn’t be worse, but my mission is critical. The queen herself—”
“She’s sent you fishing,” he said. “I’ve seen this fool’s errand a hundred times before. ‘Search the ruins surrounding the Worldwound for any materiel useful in prosecuting the war.’ It’s a snipe hunt, Oparal.”
“Not this time. The entire Silver Crusade has been dispatched for the same purpose, but Queen Galfrey wants our own people on it, too. She would not have summoned me for a routine effort.”
“Because you’re so very special.” He made no effort to disguise his scorn, or his anger. His cheeks flushed red. There was a time when I welcomed that sight, the rising of the blood as we fought side by side in the alleys of Westcrown. If he remembered those days, it was not fondly. There was only bitterness left in his voice when he said, “Why didn’t you stay in Kyonin with your people?”
“The same reason as you,” I said. “I go where I can do the most good.”
He clenched his fists. I stepped back out of sorrow, not fear. He still hadn’t forgiven me for what I had done all those years ago. Perhaps he never would.
“I don’t want to leave you empty handed,” I said. “I will take ten, plus the sorcerer.”
Jelani said, “Don’t I have any say—?”
Ederras and I turned simultaneously, silencing her with a look.
According to my brief, Jelani had been in the field for well over two years. If she hadn’t learned discipline by now, she never would. Unfortunately, she was the only sorcerer I had permission to take into my command. Fortunately, I had recent experience with freelancers in Kyonin. She could hardly be more trouble than they had been.
“I need every remaining soldier to hold this tower,” said Ederras.
“You need to withdraw. This tower is on the wrong side of the wardstones. What was your captain thinking to station you here?”
Exasperated, he gestured to Aprian. “You tell her.”
“He was thinking we needed a better view,” said Aprian. He pointed northeast toward a line of storm clouds hovering over a low line of corrupted hills. “Look closely.”
It wasn’t the clouds alone that darkened the sky. More flying fiends hovered above a pustulant ridge. Sickly green-black motes floated around them, swarming like gnats.
“How long have they been there?”
“Days. We rode out from Kenabres, over there.” Aprian’s finger moved slightly east, indicating a city just barely visible on the horizon. “The captain led us across the wardstone line to this tower, hoping to draw off some of the horde.”
“More came than you expected?”
“Many more.” Aprian nodded. “The worst part was the first wave. Those swarms of bat demons around the floaters, they’re half wings, half jaws, all insanity.”
The sorcerer stepped forward and picked up a half-pulverized carcass from the watchtower roof. It was as Aprian described: an eyeless maw about the size of an ogre’s fist. Its spiny wedge of a body formed wings. “Vescavors,” said Jelani. “They can bite through almost anything: wood, stone, even steel. But the worst part is the gibbering. It’s maddening.”
“The troops held as best they could, but the confusion alone almost broke our lines,” said Ederras. His tone had shifted to that of the younger man I had known in Cheliax. “It’s good that you arrived when you did. You saved lives.”
Ederras sighed and turned away. I knew that sound. He had accepted the need to turn over his troops, but he would no longer look at me. Instead, he addressed the survivors.
“Into the Worldwound. Volunteers?”
The young crusader I encountered before the stables stepped forward. He drew his sword and knelt before me. “My lady, if you will have it, my sword is yours.”
His unmilitary gesture broke the dam of propriety. Another man stepped forward, and then another. A few moments later, four dewy-eyed youths and two grown men who should have known better had stepped forward to pose like knights from romantic paintings.
Masking my displeasure, I said, “My writ grants me the choice of your troops. I choose Jelani and Sergeant Aprian.” I turned to the sergeant. “Your first order is to select nine more troops for me.”
“Oparal, listen to me.” Ederras pulled me aside. Strong as he was, my enchanted belt made me much stronger. In deference to our friendship, I allowed him to draw me away.
“You’re making a mistake,” he whispered when we had moved out of range of human hearing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an elven crusader turn away discreetly. “Aprian is a good soldier, but you need to know he’s been compromised.”
“He wouldn’t be in the field if he hadn’t been exorcised.”
“With his record, he should be commanding a legion. But every time his name appears on the rolls of valor, someone at court strikes it off. There must be a reason.”
I knew something of the prejudice of those at court, although my persecutors were elves, not crusaders. “Aprian stood with me to channel the light. I saw him healing the wounded.”
Ederras’s expression turned to stone as he realized the implication: I had not seen him channel the light or heal the wounded.
“Listen, Ederras, if it’s a question of my taking your best man, just say so.”
“I wasn’t trying to deceive you, Oparal. I was just telling you the facts so you can decide for yourself. You’re the one who needs everything to be perfect.”
His words stung because they were just. I had at times refused to yield to imperfect answers in the face of difficult problems. The past year had begun to open my eyes to some of my personal failings, but he couldn’t have known that.
I tried a different tack. “It seems a very long time since Westcrown, Ed.”
“It seems like yesterday, Captain.” With that he turned to look west, where infection roiled through the wounded land. When he looked back, resignation filled his eyes. “Take them and go.”
There was a time when we would have embraced before parting. Instead, I saluted. He returned the gesture without looking me in the eye.
Aprian made his selection. None of the volunteers stood beside him—another encouraging sign of his competence.
I signaled Aprian and Jelani to walk with me. Bastiel followed without the need for a sign. In our months together, the unicorn had learned to read my moods and body language. At times I almost believed he could read my mind.
At the tower’s base, my troops gathered their horses. Thanks to the squires, none of the steeds had fallen to the brimoraks. Some of the mounts would carry their riders’ bodies back home.
“Ten minutes.” I pointed to a nearby hillock. “I will address the troops up there.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Aprian.
Bastiel carried me away while my crusaders said their farewells. Some waited at the base of the tower stairs to touch the faces of the dead as they were carried down. I saw prayers upon their lips, mourning in their eyes.
Others traded equipment or tokens with the companions they were leaving behind. No doubt some were extracting promises to send the trinket home for burial in case its owner never returned. It was a wise precaution.
After a brief conference with Ederras, Jelani was the first to leave the tower. She rode a dun mare with a black mane and tail, and black stripes along its back and lower legs. The horse shied and lowered her head as she drew near Bastiel.
The unicorn lifted his head and pretended not to notice. To him, a horse was a mere beast, no closer kin to him than an ape to a man.
“So, you and Ederras …?” said the sorcerer.
I shook my head, disappointed. The men of the Mendevian Crusade were as full of gossip as any I had met in Cheliax. Many of them had joined while still barely more than boys. I had expected better from a woman.
Ignoring her question, I asked, “You know something of the demons?”
“As much as many,” she said. “But I’m no demonologist. My talents lie in wind and sand.”
“But you have some experience with the wardstones?”
“Yes. My first assignment was to restore a failing wardstone to prevent a breach. Is that why I was chosen for this …mission?”
I suspected she had stopped herself from calling it a snipe hunt.
“One of the reasons.” I nodded down the hill, where Aprian led his selected crusaders and a few packhorses toward us. “What of the rest of the troops?”
“There are no rookies left in this squad, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Jelani. “I’d say the ones Aprian chose are as good as the ones remaining with Lieuten—that is, Acting-Captain Ederras. Naia is our best archer. Erastus is the second-best tracker. All of us have been over the line more than once.”
Good, I thought. I didn’t want a sergeant who would leave his former commander with the least of his soldiers any more than I wanted one who would choose them for me.
Aprian presented the selected nine in two ranks. Already I had seen they were practiced riders, guiding their steeds with the economy of motion one sees in veterans. At a glance, a few stood out: a dwarf riding an improbably tall horse, a black-skinned half-elf, the Qadiran archer Jelani had called Naia, and a black-bearded Andoren with an eagle-shaped spaulder on one shoulder.
“None of you asked for this assignment,” I told them. “After what you’ve just faced, you deserve a week’s leave in Nerosyan. Unfortunately, the horde has other plans.”
“These accursed demons have no plans,” grumbled the dwarf. “They’re all mad as a box of frogs.”
“Pipe down and listen to the captain, Urno.” Aprian barked like every sergeant I had ever met.
“You’ve just seen how they’re massing along the wardstone line. Even Urno doesn’t need a high horse to see they’re preparing for a push.”
Urno’s eyes widened. The Andoren chuckled and slugged him on the shoulder with a clank of armor. The others relaxed now that I’d shown them I could make a joke, if a rather poor one.
“We have several sites to examine. I won’t keep it from you: each will be worse than the previous. If Queen Galfrey’s oracles are correct, in one of them we will find our target: a book containing some of the rituals used to open the Worldwound. Once we return it to court, the queen’s sorcerers will unlock its secrets and close this damnable chasm forever. Let us pray we find it sooner rather than later.”
The crusaders offered little reaction to that astonishing pronouncement. I had hoped for more, but I recalled Ederras’s remark about snipe hunts. No doubt they had been promised grand salvation in the past, and it had never proven true.
“What’s the first site, Captain?” asked a young Ustalav. He had the longest, darkest eyelashes I had ever seen on a man.
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Dragomir, madam,” he said. Aprian caught his eye, and the young man corrected himself. “I mean, Dragomir, Captain.”
“The first site we will visit is Yath.”
Dragomir paled and drew the spiral of Pharasma over his heart in a distinctively Ustalavic gesture. The others made their own signs of prayer: the wings of Desna, the blaze of Iomedae, and others.
“Captain, Yath is gone,” said Aprian. “I saw it fall.”
“There wasn’t so much as a doorknob left,” said Urno.
“We have our orders,” I said. “We will search whatever remains of Yath. Once we clear it, we move on to the next site.”
“You said each is worse than the one before,” said the man Jelani had identified as Erastus. Like Naia, he carried a bow in addition to the standard crusader sword and shield. From his dark complexion and accent, I might have taken him for a Chelaxian, but his blond hair marked him as a man of Isger. “What could be worse than Yath?”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” said Naia. The Qadiran sat atop a black destrier, the very image of a desert ranger. Along with her bow and scimitar, she carried a war lance with a blue-and-white streamer.
A crack of thunder echoed across the hills. Heads turned in every direction until the black half-elf stood tall in his stirrups and pointed. “There!”
We saw a red flash above the city of Kenabres, followed by a rising plume of smoke and detritus. Seconds later, a sharp report reached us, followed by the dull roar of some incomprehensibly large animal. The cloud continued to rise, blossoming at its crest to form the shape of a mushroom. It was difficult to judge its height from such a distance, but I estimated it was more than a hundred feet tall.
“The wardstone!” cried Jelani.
“The people will need our help,” said Dragomir.
By the watchtower stables, Ederras and his troops scrambled to finish loading and mounting their horses. He turned to us. Even at the distance I knew his eyes were fixed on me. He lifted an arm, not pointing at Kenabres but beckoning to me.
“He wants us to go with him,” said Aprian.
“We can’t,” I said. “We have our orders.”
“They’re moving,” said Dragomir. The demons hovering in the hills near Kenabres had indeed begun moving toward the city.
By the watchtower, Ederras shouted an order. His troops followed him toward Kenabres, their horses gaining speed with every step. Even with our help, I could not imagine how they would survive.
“You knew this would happen,” Aprian said. It was not a question.
“The queen’s oracles had a vision. I didn’t know it would come so soon.”
I drew the Ray of Lymirin and held it high. Even with the demons so far away, its holy steel flickered white. “Follow me,” I cried. “For the crusade, Queen Galfrey, and Iomedae!”
A few of my troops cast longing glances at their comrades racing toward Kenabres. Despite the desire to join them, they followed me. As we rode across the changing land, I thought of Ederras and wondered which of us led the more courageous soldiers.
And which of us led the more doomed.
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By day, Dave Gross is the lead writer at Overhaul Games, developers of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, which reunites him with the beloved Forgotten Realms setting, for which he wrote Black Wolf, Lord of Stormweather, and other stories and novels. Under cloak of night, Dave is also the author of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and the recent Queen of Thorns for Pathfinder Tales.
He also has stories in the recent anthologies Tales of the Far West, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop’s Modern Fables. You can find him on Twitter @frabjousdave.