COUNTING THE DEAD
The city was stirring awake, haunted by a nightmare that had become reality and seemed endless. Its rolling sweat of fear were the anxious message runners and servants sent to investigate by the nobles. The city’s terror-frozen blood were the folk both rich and poor – all too afraid to move out of the shelter of their homes. The City Guard troop guarding the entrance to Sweet Orchard let Nyra and the others pass – apparently no-one got inside, but there were no orders to keep anyone in neighbourhood of the rich. The soldiers shared nothing but the other passers-by told the little they knew, or thought they knew: there had been further attacks, with bombs, and magic, the Castle’s water had been poisoned, people had been assassinated. It sounded too much to be true.
As they circled the hill upwards, through the dark and now unpopulated administrative strata towards the heart of the city, Nyra saw the rumours were not all untrue. A god had punched the Imperial Castle in places. Yawning openings billowing smoke decorated its keep and several towers, and Nyra could hear the disarray even from a distance. Tolling bells. Screams of pain, panic and attempts to restore order. The fires shed a reddish glow over the city. Molthune had been in a state of war for decades, but only now had war truly marched into Canorate.
“Do you really want to go in there, milady?” Tresh asked the paladin. “I heard the patriarch say he had allies in the General Council too.”
“Yet he and the devil struck the heaviest against the Molthuni military. Tresh, I appreciate your concern, but I need to report everything to Imperial Governor Teldas and clear the name of our company.” Her tone darkened. “Jocelyn’s company.” “Then I can go after the devil.”
Tresh nodded and reverently adjusted his load on his shoulder. “Just be careful.”
Nyra bit her lip. Or I’ll lose more than just Shevar.
Through the administrative section of the city, Nyra led the sad ensemble of survivors to the Imperial Castle.
They got a javelin-throw away until a troop of guardsmen jogged from the fortress’s outer gate and intercepted them. They came in a hurry, weapons drawn.
“Halt, in the name of the Oligarchy!” One of the Molthuni soldiers in white tabards over steel mail almost howled, pointing with his shortsword, as they approached.
“Peace be with you”, Nyra replied calmly, holding a hand up, and her party shuffling behind her halted.
“Who are you?” The soldier, evidently in charge, demanded.
“I am Commander-”, the regret was a stab to her gut, but she collected herself, “no, Nyra Sunn, paladin of Iomedae, and I’ve grave news for the General Lords.”
Beneath his painfully thin tough act the leader of the troop looked lost a like a puppy. An armed, anxious, sad puppy. Nyra had seen people like him often before, individuals finding themselves in unbearable situations like children thrown into the deep water when they could hardly swim. He wasn’t supposed to be where he was, carrying the responsibility that had been shoved into his lap. All the guardsmen clutched their swords, spears and shields like they were the last thing making sense in their world. The last thing they could rely on. Nyra hoped they weren’t looking for excuses to lash out their fear and frustration – and end up hurting innocent people, and themselves.
“Grave? What can be graver that this?”
Creases formed on Nyra’s brow. She didn’t want to be a source of further rumours.
“Whatever this is, there’s more to it, and I need to talk to the General Lords about it.”
The soldier spared a nervous look over his shoulder to his men-at-arms. “I guess one of the higher-ups is still alive.”
The paladin’s mouth opened in surprise. The General Lords, dead?
“Aren’t you supposed to be arrested like the other Iomedans?” It was the soldier’s turn to frown. Hearing of the fate of the 126th provoked another pang of regret in Nyra. Yet, the crystal made it recede quickly enough. Nyra didn’t have time to second-guess herself. Time was of the essence. She needed to stay resolute.
She bored into the nervous guardsman.
“We have thwarted a major threat to the city, and saved a number of local Abadaran clergymen”, Nyra explained and pointed to the pale, shaking and wretched Abadarans next to the Iomedans, covered by loaned cloaks, pitiful all. “House Horryn was colluding with agents of Hell against the General Council.”
“Horryn? Devils? Shit. I don’t know.” His short sword lowered. “I’d need to ask a commanding officer.” The soldier shook his head. He had too much on his plate. Yet the crystal drowned her empathy, and his uncertainty was like a raving sculptor hammering at Nyra’s patience.
“These tortured captives need to get to safety, and I need to meet with whoever is in charge.”
The soldier’s head spun as he tried to get help from his comrades. He got shrugs, spits to the flagstones and grunts.
From the paladin of Iomedae, he got an unyielding stare.
“I guess you are alright. Your people were poisoned by the water too, anyway.”
Not Jocelyn. Not Edvor. Nyra’s heart missed a beat and she forced her jaw shut, so hard it hurt her teeth. No regrets now. Talk to the Generals. Find the devil. Then mourn the dead.
She knew what to do. It was so clear to her.
The soldier gestured them to follow and led them to the outer gate.
As she went, Nyra slipped another crystal into her mouth.
As the tower bells kept tolling their grim welcome, Nyra, Tresh and the others were led past the outer gate and over the bridge. It had such a thick cover of tar, was so sturdy and hardened by years of heavy use that it barely croaked anymore. Like the mighty fortress itself with its thick, high walls and stout towers and drum towers, it was a testament to the engineering abilities of the Molthuni.
But no architectural skill, no ability to build to last, could protect against what had thrown the proud Imperial Castle into chaos.
Beyond the gatehouse guarded by pale and shocked Imperial guardsmen was the inner ward.
Dead bodies littered the ground of gravel and flagstones. There had to be two hundred or more, Nyra counted and she couldn’t believe her eyes. The lines they were in were the only thing neat about them. The faces of the fallen were set in horrifying grimaces of pain, as if even in death they suffered. Their open mouths were covered in dried blood and vomit both, and had begun to attract a swarm of flies.
And more were being carried out of the keep and the surrounding towers by their sullen brothers-in-arms.
The Molthuni had fought a one-sided battle within their fortress, and lost badly.
“We don’t know if they really poisoned the wells”, the soldier leading Nyra forward explained with a stream of uncertain words. “Or if this was some sort of magic, some kind of foul aura radiating from the water, or the food. But it affected so many.. Spared none, not the labourers, not the soldiers, officers, the General Lords..”
A horrible act of terror, a coward’s attack, Nyra shook her head in dismay. “Who is in charge?” she asked.
“Who knows”, the soldier shrugged, “last time anyone told us anything General Lord Davonnii was in command. He might be dead by now. I heard the Imperial Governor was dead, or incapacitated.”
Nyra’s jaw worked as she tried to put the pieces together. Teldas dead? What about Hemdor?
“This is a shitstorm, I tell you that, my lady.”
“I need to get to the General Lord. I might be of help to you and your people.” The offer left her lips stillborn. She knew there was little she could do for the dead.
The soldier stopped to stare at Nyra and his face betrayed his weariness and guilt.
“My lady, you’re too late, even for a paladin of Iomedae.”
Through her armor of duty, shame stabbed at her.
What if I’m part to blame for this? What if these dutiful Molthuni soldiers died because of my choices?
What if the army of devils would have poured through into Canorate? The hellspawn, though not a pillaging horde like their brethren of the Abyss, would not have left the protectors of the city untouched. More of the Molthuni would’ve died. Many, many more, as the devils would have brought down the existing leadership.
Nyra forced herself to believe the hellscape she witnessed was a lesser evil. A victory in itself. Despite what had happened to her oldest friend.
The paladin drew a long breath. “Then all that can be saved must be saved, and the the perpetrators brought to justice.”
The soldier only nodded and continued forward.
In the Castle’s keep, few paid Nyra and her survivors any attention. The Molthuni were too busy putting out fires, trying to keep their insides inside, sobbing or shouting at each other. Their disarray surprised Nyra, who had viewed the Imperial Guard as a shining example of strict organisation. The scale of the attack must’ve exceeded anything they had faced before. And it had been an outstanding success in its death toll and ability to shatter the entire chain of command.
The deeper they got, the more frantic were the people. Messengers ran, heedless of barging into others, soldiers redeployed in haste, servants carried the dead and wounded. Most tried to wear brave faces, but one could cut with a knife their fear that floated in the corridors. The dread of new terror attacks.
A bitter stench of strong ale was pervasive. No-one trusted water anymore.
At the doors leading to the immense war room, the guards sternly denied access, but after clearing it with whoever their commander was, allowed Nyra entry, alone.
“Stay here”, she told Tresh and the others. Tresh had lowered the body of Shevar to the marble floor and grunted his approval. The captives were still in a haze, like battered husks devoid of a mind of their own.
The soldier who had escorted them there turned to leave.
“Wait. What’s your name, guardsman?” Nyra called to his back.
“Sergeant Orellon. Ruben Orellon, my lady.”
“Thank you for your help, Sergeant Orellon.”
The soldier rubbed his neck. “You’re.. Welcome. All the best then, I guess.”
As he left, it dawned to Nyra he might’ve been the only Molthuni soldier who had been sincere with her. It was telling, but ultimately a mere sidenote in her struggles with the Molthuni military.
Nyra stopped herself before entering the war room. Something had nagged her all the way from Horryn’s city estate.
Had the patriarch been truly so mad to think his diabolical allies would have been able to defend him and the city against the retaliation that the remaining General Lords would have undoubtedly organized?
Something was out of place. He had pleaded to Cael before his death, whispered about an associate among the General Council..
Did Horryn have secret allies in the General Council? He already had connections to the neighbouring merchants of Druma and the devils of Cheliax both.
And why would the Generals betray their Oligarchy, just to turn the state over to a despot? Why would he need an army of Imperial Guardsmen when he had an army of devils?
It made sense. The Generals were all proud and ambitious people. Nobles like Horryn were just in their way.
Nyra shook her head. Her mission in Canorate was over. She would clear her name and that of 126th Augustana with the help of Horryn’s wife and the captives, and then revenge Shevar’s fate. He didn’t want to get herself any more entangled with the backroom politics of the Generals.
No, she had a devil to banish. Fearlessly, the paladin marched into the war room to set things straight.
An earshot away from the Castle’s outer gate, Belon leaned against an old maple tree, arms crossed, hidden by his ring’s invisibility magic. The tree was one of many, standing in perfect organisation on a wide boulevard leading to the Imperial Castle. Cael was behind him across the tree, almost as well out of sight.
It had been half an hour or so since Nyra had talked her way into the fortress. They had, by Belon’s insistence, followed the Iomedans.
Cael had not resisted and that frightened Belon. They had not exchanged words since leaving the Horryn estate. Horryn’s personal carriage had transported them safely out of Sweet Orchard just before the curfew had been declared. Belon could appreciate the irony. They had once, years ago, arrived to Sweet Orchard in a carriage, boxed in a cage.
The silence became unbearable.
“Do you really think Galicus-”
“Or whatever he is.”
“…the devil, is still in the city?”
“He is.” Cael didn’t seem to even consider the options. But his brevity was telling, if not unusual.
“What if the lied about his relationship with the rebels, the Nirmathi?”
“It’s possible. He’s no alchemist, that’s for certain. But it’s reasonable to assume he supplied the Nirmathi with the explosives.” Another cool, almost academic reply.
Galicus had weaved a story of helping the rebels and the brothers, as if he acted as a noble supporter of ruthless yet righteous causes. But ultimately, he had played both the brothers and the rebels. Or at least tried to.
“He smelled fishy…”
“Yes, you were right, brother. I should’ve seen it too.” No hateful anger, no thorny comments. Just a level, unfeeling admission. It told a cruel story of just how helpless Cael had to feel. “He used me. Us.”
“To create havoc. But that can’t be all.”
“That’s why I think he’s not finished with Canorate.”
“He’s not finished with you, either.”
“As I am not with him.” Belon heard him shift uncomfortably. “Yet here I am, only able to wait for him to come to me. I’ve hunted men and monsters, but how can you hunt a devil that can shape its form and bend the thoughts of others at will?”
Cael had reached the same conclusion that Belon had speculated about. There was no alternative. Shevar was no betrayer. For what it was worth, Belon understood why Nyra had tried to stop Cael from selling his soul.
But Cael’s despair and how it had so quickly crushed his indomitable will and perseverance twisted Belon’s heart. Cael giving up? Unheard of. He was too tough a bastard for it.
“There is a way”, Belon tried. “And we are not alone in this. Galicus has hurt the Molthuni-”
“The warmongering scum had it coming.”
“-and Nyra. They’ll seek justice, especially the paladin. She’s going after the devil alone.”
“Good for her.”
Belon sighed. Cael’s sarcasm wasn’t helping. “We need to see eye to eye on things with her. Be respectful towards her.”
Cael chuckled emptily. “You want me to apologize to her about the tigress?”
“It would be-”
“When Alfred broke your neck with his shield at Mhar-Massif, do you think I wanted him to apologize? Even though I had explicitly asked everyone to keep you alive when we stormed the wizard’s tower?”
Belon was quiet.
“In your trance, you nearly killed the old mercenary. It was either him or you, and the throw of a dice. I didn’t blame him. I hated him for what he did, but I didn’t blame him.”
Belon’s lips tightened. “You would’ve killed Alfred, had I perished.”
Cael’s words chilled Belon, even though they were hardly surprising.
“I would’ve.” Then: “But Nyra’s not me.”
“She truly isn’t.” Belon didn’t want to fight Nyra to defend his brother, even if he would’ve done so had things gone sour. But Nyra was not ruthless nor haunted by demons of wrath. “l know you acted in self-defense. But she might appreciate a gesture of remorse. Actually, it could be important to her.”
“Brother, do you sincerely believe I feel remorse for the tigress’s death?”
The possibility of the contrary hadn’t come to Belon’s mind.
Cael went on. “Without her interference, Galicus would not have had the space to cast his escape magic. I could be standing here with the souls of Aurora and Gabriella safely in my palm. I could have them in the flesh when the day breaks. Without her, I could be holding them in my arms by dawn.”
Belon opened his mouth to argue but Cael wasn’t finished. “No, I will not beg for forgiveness. She was in my way. I protected myself, like Alfred did from you.”
Even though he could sympathise, sometimes Belon felt there was a thick wall of ice between him and his brother. They could see but not hear each other. Belon could try to hammer reason into him, but it wouldn’t even make a crack.
“So she can hate me as much as she wants.” Cael sniffed. “I don’t care.”
“Or she can focus on Galicus”, Belon said darkly. It was his magic that had turned Shevar. Turning brothers and friends against each other was a coward’s tactic. Deplorable and unforgivable. “Like she should.”
To that, Cael said nothing. He didn’t give a damn.
The boulevard was a main road that snaked all the way from the western, commercial parts of the city up to the main outer gate of the Imperial Castle. Like a turtle hiding in its shell, the Imperial Guard had withdrawn behind its thick walls to lick its wounds, leaving the City Guard to maintain order. The bells had quieted, and the fires scorching the castle had been put down. It was still dark, only hours past midnight, the only lights those of the stars, the half-moon and torches here and there. The Imperial Castle and the Barracks next to it were two enclosed anthills of activity, but the roads leading up to it were abandoned save for dashing Imperial messengers and patrols of city guards. Belon imagined thousands of citizens watching from their homes at the damaged castle, wakened by explosions, frightened of what had happened, and what would happen come dawn. The City Guard was chaining the city with the curfew and undoubtedly scouring the city for the attackers, so only a brave few of the citizens wanted to approach the castle to spy and learn for themselves.
The Army was a wounded bear and curiosity was dangerous. Hide and deny everything if the soldiers came asking. That was what Belon would have done in their place.
Still, someone was willing to risk the ire.
“Look at this”, Belon whispered over his shoulder.
An enclosed carriage, pulled by a quartet of coal-black, fierce-looking stallions, came rattling in a hurry up the road. An escort of eight riders, knights in red and black plate, visors down despite the darkness, crimson plumes swinging from the back of their helmets, followed the carriage. On their shields, which hung on the sides of their mounts, was a coat of arms Belon had seen before, but couldn’t remember where.
It had two devils roaring over a figure of a man holding a scroll on his lap.
“Nidalese?” Cael guessed as the column moved past them and towards the main gate.
“Or Chelaxians. A diplomatic envoy, I’d wager. They’ll want to know what is going on.”
“I don’t think the General Council is feeling diplomatic.”
At the outer gate, the team of guardsmen halted the carriage, and Belon saw a number of heavy crossbows taking aim in the towers around the gate. The leader of the team was waving away the convoy, calling them to turn around and return in the morning.
The door on the side of the carriage opened and a finely clothed man disembarked. Belon could see only his back, the blood-red cloak, purple shirt with golden embroidery, and the bald head.
The hair on Belon’s golden back would have risen if he would’ve had any there.
The guard leader took a step back, open-mouthed. Even the other guards, who had circled the carriage, looked uncertain.
The bald man said something to the guard leader and gestured with his hand, and the guard leader nodded gravely before shouting to his men to let the convoy in.
“That was.. easy”, Cael said. Even Nyra had had to negotiate her way in.
The bald man turned to return to his carriage, and Belon could see his face. Even in the half-light, he felt a wash of senseless, raw emotion. A knot tightened in his chest and he wanted to hide behind the thick maple, as if he was a little boy, though he was invisible.
He had eyes that were somehow both young and wizened at the same time.
“What’s wrong?” Cael asked.
The man scanned his surroundings, then climbed back to the carriage. The door slammed close and the convoy continued forward as the sturdy portcullis started to rise with the clatter of chains.
Chills ran down Belon’s arms and back. Colder memories poured from dark, forgotten depths of his mind.
“I have a bad feeling about this, brother. We have to get in. Help Nyra.”
“What? Into the gods-damned Imperial Castle? No. You’re mad.”
Belon circled the tree so that he came helm to mask with Cael. He knew he could see him well enough despite his invisibility.
“We can get inside”, Belon spat in rising anger.
Cael crossed his arms.
“The fortress has two concentric walls, a moat between them, and a huge garrison. We have no idea of its detailed layout. Stop thinking with your heroic manhood. She’s a big girl and can take care of herself. That’s what she wanted.”
“She’s our ally, fool!”
“And not a really good one at that. She left us, remember?”
“Fine. You can mope around here while I go and help our friend”, Belon said between his teeth and sprinted to a run towards the outer gate. There, the way was still open as the carriage and its escorts were still entering the fortress.
Hearing the banging his steel boots made against the flagstones, Belon knew he wasn’t probably thinking this one through. But he had to go with his gut. Nyra needed help, he knew it.
Cael watched his brother go and did absolutely nothing.
His usual instincts took over, the few faint lights in an otherwise deserted city that was Cael’s being. Why risk the little he had for a paladin he didn’t know? He had survived for years thanks to focusing on his own mission. Cael was hardly the role model for anything, but Belon should learn from him at least this one lesson.
Yet, Cael couldn’t blame his brother. In the end, Belon was driven by his own sins. Whatever Belon kept telling him goddess Pharasma hadn’t protected Belon during their years of captivity and abuse. Cael wasn’t the only one who carried the burden of their shared history. His brother’s patronising attitude was exactly that – patronization – looking down on his poor brother from his high horse. But his high horse was sick beast, tainted by something his faith couldn’t shield him from.
Belon thought himself unaffected of the abuse of their formative years. But Cael knew otherwise. Belon craved narcotics and pleasure to soothe his traumatized soul. He lusted for women, for their touch that allowed him to forget the old horrors.
And though he tried to conceal his lust with heroism, Cael saw through it. And Cael knew his trauma, his hunger, would kill him.
Just like lack of trust, cold hate and smoldering wrath would destroy Cael.
For all their might and strength, the brothers were broken men, both in their own ways.
The mightiest fortress around Lake Encarthan. Hundreds of soldiers on high alert. No idea of the fortress’s layout.
It was certain death.
But Cael had no-one else left but Belon.
Without making a sound, Cael ran after his brother.
Leaning against the massive, round table of the war room, First General Lord Davonnii was locked in deep concentration, his thoughts somewhere in the scale model of the Inner Sea region that covered the conference table. Unusually wearing mail and armed, he still looked impeccable, regal and – surprisingly – unharmed.
As the doors closed behind Nyra, his gaze met hers, and he welcomed her with a strange mixture of frightening clarity and relaxed joviality.
“Commander. Though your company never ceases to please me, you find us in an unfathomable crisis, wherein your role has become very indiscernible. I take it you came to surrender?”
Nyra held her hand on the pommel of her ancient sword.
“Paladins of Iomedae do not surrender.”
Davonnii broke into laughter, full of mirth. Only then did Nyra notice the dozen or so knights around the chamber, standing in mute guard but each stiffer than the previous, with faces carved from rock. From Nyra, they expected trouble.
She couldn’t blame them.
The General’s laughter broke off as if cut with a blade.
“I was lenient with you. I wanted to help you. But you defied the Imperial Governor’s orders and escaped the barracks.”
Nyra nodded. “I did, and not my company. I went to stop an incursion against your government. A plot of House Horryn.”
Davonnii smiled at her.
“A bold accusation, and an even bolder course of action. From my point of view, you just escaped a catastrophe. And very narrowly, I should say. And quite conveniently.”
“I can understand that.” She chose to try to release the tension with some honesty. “But the truth is, by my goddess, that Lord Eximedes Horryn was colluding with forces of Hell, had kidnapped a number of local clergymen and was about to bring an army of devils right into the heart of Canorate, through a portal within his estates.”
Davonnii considered this.
“A portal to Hell, within Sweet Orchard? And.. you stopped him?”
“Yes. He was regrettably killed, but his plot was foiled.”
“And you did all this with only your cleric and your scout-master. Impressive.”
It surprised the paladin Davonnii didn’t have an issue with the fact she had helped kill a nobleman, traitor or not. Nyra cleared her throat. The crystal drowned any hesitation she had. Made her sound her age and more. Bold and decisive.
“I allied with the two half-elves who we hunted for the assassination attempt of Lord Horryn.”
Davonnii’s smile widened to a grin.
“Oh. Hemdor was right about you after all.”
“She was right if she told I was tenacious and righteous.”
“She told me you were a fraud with dangerous secrets.”
His words were heavy but Nyra hadn’t expected nothing less. “Leanna Marada of Druma, the wife of late Lord Horryn, and niece of High Prophet Kelldor himself, still lives and has rightfully taken over the House. She will attest my words. She can testify that Horryn plotted against your government, with the intention to overthrow Imperial Governor Teldas, your Council and instate himself as ruler.”
Davonnii straightened himself, locking his hands behind him.
“Then he was a fool and a madman. Molthuni people will never again bend knee to Hell’s forces on Golarion. And a single House can only dream of challenging the General Lords and their authority. Unless he could expect help from an outside force.” He glared at Nyra.
“I can only take her word for it. But know this, General: an army of Hell’s warriors was about to stream into the heart of Canorate unbidden. It wasn’t the Drumans who were interfering.”
Davonnii started to pace around the table towards her, his fingers brushing the surface as he went.
“An army of devils.. While Nirmathi rebels strike at the capital of our nation in a series of attacks never seen before.”
“There is a connection between the rebel terrorism and Horryn’s plot. A very powerful shapeshifting devil that worked with both parties. Made promises to Horryn. Undoubtedly supported and provided resources for the rebel terrorists. This devil.. played everyone.”, Nyra admitted with a clenched jaw and the image of Shevar gutted by Cael’s gladii surfaced for a fleeting moment.
Davonnii halted half-way around the table.
“That sounds dangerous.”
“Yes – we fought it and its two cornugon devil bodyguards deep inside Horryn estates. They all escaped us just as we were about to overcome them.”
“A shapeshifter and two devils that command armies of Hell. And you were winning, you and your slave friends?”
Nyra said nothing, but felt something was out of place. The way Davonnii reacted to her news. How he talked. The way he looked at her.
“Horryn was right about the brothers then, that they constitute a major threat. And I was right about you. You are quite the force together.”
Nyra opened her mouth to speak but never got the chance.
“You’ve done Molthune a wonderful service, Commander Sunn. But I must ask you for yet one favour.”
She chose her words carefully. “And what would that be?”
Davonii’s right fist clenched. In unison, the retinue of Davonnii’s bodyguard drew their swords.
“I need you to die.”