Check out James L. Sutter’s The Redemption Engine, sequel to Death’s Heretic, with illustrations by Eric Belisle! A Pathfinder Tale adventure, The Redemption Engine is available May 13th from Paizo Publishing.
When murdered sinners fail to show up in Hell, it’s up to Salim Ghadafar, an atheist warrior forced to solve problems for the goddess of death, to track down the missing souls. In order to do so, Salim will need to descend into the anarchic city of Kaer Maga, following a trail that ranges from Hell’s iron cities to the gates of Heaven itself.
Along the way, he’ll be aided by a host of otherworldly creatures, a streetwise teenager, and two warriors of the mysterious Iridian Fold. But when the missing souls are the scum of the earth, and the victims devils themselves, can anyone really be trusted?
The Devil’s Due
Salim realized he was gripping his sword hilt. The devil looked pointedly at it, then shifted his gaze to the corner hidden behind the door. “Not much for etiquette, is he?”
“Please, Salim,” said another voice, this one all too familiar. “Come in and close the door.”
Gritting his teeth, Salim let go of his sword and moved inside. As he let the door swing closed behind him, he tasted iron and felt the familiar warm trickle as blood ran from his nose, catching in his short black beard.
The devil looked at Salim with something between fascination and disgust, then past him over his shoulder. “He’s leaking.”
“Just a little reminder from the Lady,” said the other voice, now behind Salim. “It’s a little game we play. Isn’t that right, Salim?”
The angelic creature hung motionless in the air, its toes several inches above the floor. Beneath black hair, the face was too perfect to be human, its smooth features more like a sketch by a master artist than anything nature designed. Its flesh was the alien, hairless white of marble or maggot, and the sheer gray fabric that wrapped its torso was more shroud than toga. If there was gender beneath that garment, Salim had never seen it. Great black wings rose from behind the creature’s shoulders, oily feathers melding with the shadows to seem at once comfortable and far too big for the room. They stretched lazily, swirling the shadow into little eddies and currents.
“Ceyanan.” The word was a curse. Salim made no effort to wipe his face. Blood from his nose made its way across the well-trimmed lawn of his beard and dripped onto the wooden floor with a quiet plip.
“Really, Ceyanan,” said the devil. “I’m not one to tell others how to housebreak their pets, but this hardly seems suitable for our conversation.”
“Of course,” Ceyanan said, in its maddening, genderless voice. “My apologies.”
There was a sudden touch of wind on Salim’s face, stale and cold as the breeze from a long-sealed tomb, and then the blood was gone. Salim refused to react.
“Please,” Ceyanan said, raising a hand toward the chairs around the table. “Be seated.”
Salim contemplated his options. Normally, he would stand just to spite the angel, but such pettiness might seem a sign of weakness to the devil. With a hard look at the placid apparition, he moved to the table and took a seat, pushing his chair back against the wall so that he could see both of the room’s residents.
Ceyanan drifted over, neither walking nor flapping, but rather pulling the shadowy wings along in its wake like streamers that grew and stretched as it moved. It stopped on the other side of the table. An alabaster hand indicated the devil.
“Salim, allow me to introduce Hezechor.”
The devil smiled, showing perfect teeth only slightly too pointed for a human. He inclined his head.
Salim had met devils, of course. It was impossible not to in his line of work. This one was a classic breed, with features reminiscent of Asmodeus himself. A crown of short horns sat above a red-skinned and ruggedly handsome face with dark eyes and a small, pointed beard. His robes were a matching red, emblazoned with infernal symbols in black and gold, and left his muscular chest bare.
There, however, the devil’s similarities to the Archfiend of minstrels’ stories stopped. From the creature’s back sprouted a clutch of huge black horns, twisted and ridged like a ram’s. They curved out and around him like the tentacles of some tide pool anemone, threatening to cage him in. From several hung scrolls of parchment and papyrus, as well as one that looked suspiciously like human skin, all covered in dense, crabbed sigils that were nauseating to look upon.
“You’re a contract devil,” Salim said.
“A phistophilus, yes.” Hezechor smiled broader this time, and Salim had to suppress a shiver. The devil’s eyes seemed to bore through him, even as the rest of the face invited trust. Salim had known confidence men before, and master merchants who could convince you to trade everything you owned for a handful of tin. This creature was in another class entirely. “You’re familiar with us?”
“Not personally, no.” Salim shook off the devil’s uncanny charm like a dog shakes off water. He gave Ceyanan a look. “I’m afraid I strike my infernal bargains elsewhere.”
“Pity,” said Hezechor, and looked to Ceyanan as well. “Shall we begin, then?”
“Certainly.” Ceyanan paused to make sure Salim was paying attention, then spread its hands.
The air between them filled with rows of tiny faces. The illusions swung side to side, giving Salim a full view of the disembodied heads. Out of habit, Salim began memorizing them, breaking them into smaller groups by race and gender and noting scars, tattoos, and other distinguishing features. Most of the faces were human or half-elven, but there was a gnome in there as well, the little man’s hair a bloody red too bright for a human’s. None of the faces looked particularly friendly.
“Over the last several months, Kaer Maga has suffered a rash of unexplained murders,” Ceyanan said. “Dozens of bodies have washed up in the aqueducts and back-alley trash heaps of the city’s southern districts, or spattered across the stones at the foot of the cliff.”
Salim said nothing. Considering his own welcome, Kaer Maga gave every appearance of being a hard town. He would be astonished if there weren’t a dozen murders here in any given month. Or week.
Ceyanan noted his silence and nodded slightly. “Of particular significance is the fact that, of the identified victims, all have been singularly unsavory individuals. Slavers, rapists, murderers, and the like. Despite a great variety of wounds, all were ultimately dispatched by a neat stiletto puncture through the back.” This time Ceyanan let the pause stretch.
Always the showman, Salim thought. He sighed and accepted his cue. “So? Why does the Gray Lady care? Let Hell have them.”
“Precisely,” said Hezechor. The devil was no longer smiling.
Ceyanan looked at Salim. “As Hezechor implies, the issue is not what happened, but rather what failed to happen. Of the fifty-some individuals who have been slain, none have appeared at the Spire for judgment.”
Salim sat back in his chair and let out a breath.
Fifty souls. And from the same city, at that. It was a mind-boggling number. Across the various nations and worlds of the Material Plane—the realm of existence where mortals lived—there were few constants. In fact, despite the old sayings, even tides and taxes were avoidable, depending on where you were. But death—death was the great equalizer.
No matter who you were, or what you were, if you lived, one day you would cease living. On that day, your spirit would leave your body on the Material Plane and join the River of Souls, the great procession of recently deceased spirits that flowed all the way to Pharasma’s Spire, the huge pillar of stone that was the heart of the Outer Planes—what mortals thought of as the afterlife. Once you reached the Boneyard, Pharasma and her minions—psychopomps like Ceyanan—would divide you up according to how you lived and what you believed, and send you on to whatever plane or deity was most appropriate. If you were a particularly contentious case, there might even be a trial of sorts. But regardless of how exactly it happened, there was no getting around it: if you died, you were judged. Pharasma’s servants were meticulous record-keepers, and since the Gray Lady was the goddess of fate and prophecy as well as birth and death, she already kept tabs on every sentient creature in the multiverse. Trying to avoid her notice was like hiding from the passage of time.
Not that people didn’t try. They ran, or hid their souls, or transformed themselves into undead monstrosities. Some destroyed the souls of their enemies, or managed to bottle them up before they could reach the Spire. That was where Salim came in.
But still—even one soul unaccounted for was an anomaly. Fifty …
“I presume this is limited to the murders?” Salim asked. “Other folk who die in Kaer Maga are reaching the Spire as normal?”
Ceyanan nodded. “It’s not simply a matter of murder, either. A great number of people are killed in Kaer Maga on a regular basis. Most of these continue to arrive and be judged as normal. Of the ones who haven’t, the only link is that all appear to have died violently via the stiletto, and lived in a manner that even Kaer Magans would find abhorrent.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Hezechor snapped. The contract devil’s red skin seemed to glow faintly with irritation. “We’re being robbed.”
Salim gave him a level look, then turned back to Ceyanan. “Is that true? Were all the souls destined for Hell?”
“No,” Ceyanan said. “Some were too chaotic to be useful to the devils, and better suited to the Abyss. A few were nihilists, and the daemons of Abaddon would have gotten those. But it’s true that they were all evil, and the majority would have gone to the devils.”
Hezechor looked mildly affronted at having his grand statement amended, but he bobbed his horns in acknowledgment and sat back in his chair.
Now Salim turned to address the devil. “So where are your demonic and daemonic counterparts?”
Hezechor snorted. “You ever see a demonic accountant?”
“I suppose not.”
“Of course you haven’t. The children of chaos aren’t big on records, and the daemons pretty much eat anyone that shows up on Abaddon.” He gestured at one of the scrolls draped from his horns. “Hell, on the other hand, never forgets.”
Salim nodded and chewed mentally. “Hags?” he asked. “Have you checked the markets on Axis?”
“Naturally,” Ceyanan said. “None of the souls in question have shown up in any of the usual places.”
That wasn’t terribly surprising. There were creatures—most notably the nightmare witches called hags—that enjoyed trapping souls and bottling them up, selling them to unsavory spellcasters who used them in magical rituals. Then there were the creatures that fed on souls—things like the daemons Hezechor had mentioned—which didn’t care whether they’d been judged yet or not. Those were always a problem.
Yet neither of those would bother restricting themselves to evil souls. What sort of creature was simultaneously crazy enough to incur the wrath of the Lady of Graves by disrupting a soul’s natural cycle, yet conscientious enough to worry about their prey’s morality? Salim supposed it could be some sort of crusader—perhaps a paladin with a sword that ate souls—yet the magic required to destroy or capture a soul was itself taboo in most cultures, and there was little incentive. An evil soul sent to Pharasma’s judgment was bound to face punishment harsher than whatever a mortal vigilante could mete out.
Salim looked back to Hezechor. “So you’re here to figure out who’s cutting off your supply.”
The devil smiled. “My dear boy, I’m doing nothing of the sort. I’m afraid this is entirely your mess.”
“He’s correct,” Ceyanan said, emotionless as ever. “Hezechor expressed an interest in meeting you, but that’s as far as Hell’s involvement goes. The procession and judgment of souls is Pharasma’s domain, and any discrepancies are our responsibility to correct.”
Salim felt the familiar, stomach-warming anger that characterized all his interactions with Ceyanan. “You mean my responsibility.”
“Of course,” Salim mimicked, and crossed his arms. “Because it’s not enough to make me wade waste-deep through human filth chasing down packs of sewer ghouls. Or staking little girls who happen to be vampires. Or getting my arm charred to the bone by some delusional fire wizard trying to bring back his dead parents.” He flexed his right arm, though of course the priests had long since healed that particular injury. “Now you want me to do your accounting for you, too.”
Ceyanan smiled. “At least there won’t be rivers of sewage. Probably.”
Salim shot back an exaggerated rictus grin. “As you wish.” Still seated, he bent at the waist and swept out the repaired arm. “The Grave Bitch commands, and I obey.”
“And we thank you for your service,” Ceyanan said, as polite as if Salim’s bow had been real.
“Fascinating.” Hezechor watched the exchange with interest, bearded chin in one hand, tone equal parts scorn and amusement. “And your mistress allows this sort of insubordination?”
“Salim’s something of a special case.”
Salim flashed the devil the fake smile as well. “I get the best treatment a slave could hope for.”
“I see,” said Hezechor. “Well, as educational as this has been, I believe my involvement here is at an end. My superiors look forward to seeing the matter resolved in short order.” He reached out two black nailed fingers and pulled a narrow scroll from where it draped over a horn just above his right shoulder. He glanced at it, then looked over it at Salim.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” the devil said, “but I suspect we’ll be meeting again.”
The paper between his fingers ignited, a brilliant flash that left Salim dazzled for the second time that day. When his vision cleared, Hezechor was gone, leaving behind only the slight scent of brimstone and the faintest wisp of smoke drifting up from his chair.
Salim looked at Ceyanan. The angel-shaped psychopomp hung in the air, unflappable as always.
“So,” Salim said. “Alone together at last.”
Ceyanan tilted its head. “Not quite. Maedora?”
At the far end of the room, something moved.
At first it was like a breeze, a faint stirring of dust motes—but of course there was no wind in the windowless room. As Salim watched, the shadows in the corner seemed to reach forth, spinning out into long threads that tangled and wove together, splitting and multiplying as they stretched toward him. The shadows paled from black to gray, then began to shimmer as they formed an outline, interlacing like the straw of a wicker man. The web became a cocoon, then bulged obscenely.
A woman stepped through. She was undeniably beautiful, with long black hair that trailed behind her in the nonexistent breeze. She was also at least eight feet tall. The iridescent threads that painted her naked body were the silken patterns of orb-weaver spiders, and every bit as clingy. They wrapped her from head to toe and fanned out behind her, spreading into gray wings that were more bat than bird. Even her face was covered, the webs thickening into a flared mask that hid her eyes and left only her pale mouth and nose exposed. All together, the effect was that of a recently mummified corpse.
The trailing shadow-strings snapped and faded away as she strode over to stand next to Ceyanan. She turned her head to evaluate Salim, and he didn’t need to see her eyes to feel the weight of that stare.
“Nice outfit,” he said.
The web woman remained silent.
“Salim,” Ceyanan said, and for a moment Salim thought the angel sounded almost anxious. “This is Maedora.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Maedora,” Salim said. “Do you always make such an entrance, or am I especially privileged?”
Still the woman said nothing.
“Maedora is another psychopomp,” Ceyanan said tightly. “A morrigna.”
The angel said it like it should mean something. Salim shrugged. “Sorry. You all look the same to me.”
Which wasn’t true, of course. Salim had worked with a number of psychopomps over the years—those agents of the death goddess that mortals often called spirit guides, angels, or reapers. Yet with the exception of Ceyanan, those had mostly been birdlike things that guarded the River of Souls from creatures looking to prey on the defenseless petitioners. Nothing like this woman.
Maedora walked around the table toward Salim. Though the body underneath the shroud was flawless, her hips had no seductive roll, and her feet made no sound on the floorboards. As she drew near, the physical size of her grew more and more imposing, and the shifting patches of shadow that moved across her wrappings resolved themselves into thousands of tiny black spiders that rippled and flowed in precise movements. She loomed over his chair.
“You really should be more polite,” Ceyanan noted. “After all, you and Maedora are in the same line of work.”
“Oh?” Salim asked.
“Hunting.” The voice that emerged from beneath that mask was soft, arch, and as cold as the grave.
“She’s an inquisitor,” Ceyanan explained. “Like all her kind. They gather evidence to aid in judgments, and hunt down and destroy would-be immortals and those who trade in stolen souls.”
“And atheists.” Maedora placed a single finger on Salim’s neck. Cold raced across his skin, raising gooseflesh all down his side. “The faithless can’t be allowed to corrupt the Inner Court.”
Salim crooked a smile at her. “Of course.”
“Maedora will be investigating the murders as well.”
Salim gave Ceyanan a sharp look. “I don’t need a partner.”
“And you’re not getting one,” the angel replied coolly. “I’m afraid the situation is more complicated than that. You see, while I’ve been given charge of this investigation, there are certain factions within the Inner Court that have a different point of view.”
“Fifty-three souls,” Maedora said. “Their return is too important to trust to a mortal.”
“Spare my feelings, why don’t you?” Salim looked to Ceyanan. “So you’re running both of us against each other?”
The angel shook its head. “Not against. Merely in parallel. You both work best alone, so you’ll work alone. I trust you won’t interfere with each other, and will share information as benefits the aims of the Boneyard. It’s simple division of labor. For instance, in light of the Lamasaran debacle, Maedora will be handling all interactions with the local Pharasmin congregation.”
“Excuse me?” Salim asked. “As I recall, I successfully retrieved the kidnapped soul and rooted out corruption in the church.”
“By nearly burning it down,” Maedora pointed out. “Several of the faithful were injured defending the cathedral.”
“And promptly healed each other up, good as new,” Salim countered.
“Nevertheless,” Ceyanan said, “the Kaer Magan cathedral will not be subject to your special breed of etiquette. Maedora will be the Boneyard’s liaison in this matter.”
“Fine.” Salim had no desire to deal with a bunch of stiff-necked priests anyway. “Then where do you want me to start?”
“Wherever you can,” Ceyanan said.
“You know, for spirit guides, both of you interpret the ‘guide’ part pretty loosely.”
The web-wrapped thing called Maedora moved closer—very close. She hunkered down so that her face was just above Salim’s, forcing him to tilt his head back to meet the blank, gauzy expanse that hid her eyes.
Salim wondered how many eyes that mask actually hid.
“Listen well, Salim Ghadafar,” Maedora whispered. The web wings spread out behind her to block the light, casting them both in shadow. “Your service has been noted, but your insolence as well. Ceyanan may tolerate such things, but I will not. Stay out of my way, and find your own leads as best you can. If you interfere with my investigation, you will be removed. Permanently.”
Despite the shivers tracing lightning arcs up and down his spine, Salim had to smile. “Are you threatening to fire me?” he asked. “Because if so, I’m not sure you did your homework.”
“There are worse fates than death, Salim,” Maedora hissed. “You of all people should know that.”
“Believe me, I do.” Bending sideways so that he could see past the shield of gray wings, Salim said, “I see why you wanted her involved, Ceyanan. She’s clearly a people person.” He straightened and stood, moving the chair back so he could look the stooping psychopomp in the eye.
“With all due respect to your charming personality,” he said, “I think you might want to find a cloak or something. This whole ‘winged mummy’ bit might not put your informants at ease.”
Maedora’s lips quirked up in a smirk, and she drew back. “The dead are rarely so squeamish. But you have a point.”
She raised a hand, and the spiders that had been congregating in little pockets around her body converged on it, covering it in a writhing glove. She whispered something, and the spiders rolled down her arm and over her body in a seething tide, expanding out over her wings, devouring the webbing as they went. When the swarm reached the fingers of her other hand, it disappeared.
The psychopomp was gone. In her place stood a human woman in her early thirties, with pale skin and a stern face. She wore fitted pants and a shirt of a military cut, as well as high boots, all of them black. A gray cape hung from broad, straight shoulders, secured by a clasp in the shape of a spiral. Only the long black hair remained unchanged.
She crossed her arms. “Better?”
Her new shape was attractive, in a no-nonsense sort of way, and wouldn’t draw any attention beyond the usual. Yet there was still a blankness in the eyes. A dead thing, wearing the shape of a woman.
“Remember what I said.” The new Maedora’s voice was the same as the winged giant’s. “I’ll be seeing you.”
Then she turned and walked out the door.
Salim watched the door shut, trying to get a grasp on how his day had suddenly become so complicated. Eventually he turned back to Ceyanan. “Nice company you’re keeping these days.”
“Whatever serves the Lady.”
“Yeah, I know. So what’s the point?”
“What do you mean?” the angel asked innocently.
Salim hooked a thumb at the door. “Why am I here, if you’ve got spider-lady on the job?”
“It’s complicated.” For the first time in their long acquaintance, Salim thought the angel sounded tired.
“Everything’s complicated,” Salim observed.
Ceyanan spread its hands. “The Lady has many servants. I represent one division, Maedora another. Sometimes we disagree on how best to proceed. When that happens, the Lady often sees fit to let us sort things out among ourselves.”
“So I’m just a game piece,” Salim said.
“When has it ever been otherwise?”
The angel never failed to get under Salim’s skin. “So what if your horse decides not to run?”
“I’m afraid that would go very poorly for the horse,” Ceyanan replied. “Horses that refuse to run end up at the knacker’s. But you don’t have to worry about that.”
Salim waited expectantly.
“Your pride, Salim. The same thing that led you to us in the first place. The pride that led you to try to handle the Lamasaran situation on your own, in order to impress that noble girl, and nearly cost you both your lives. What was her name? Neila?”
The word was like a stone in Salim’s chest. “You leave her out of this.”
Ceyanan waved the issue aside. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll run because Maedora said you weren’t good enough, and thus your desire to spite her is momentarily greater than your desire to spite me.”
Salim started to respond, then realized it was true. As much as he resented Ceyanan, the goddess, and everything about his joke of an existence, part of him did want to solve the mystery—all because Maedora had told him he couldn’t. Perhaps she was a better inquisitor than he’d thought.
Besides, his real problem was with the goddess herself, and both Maedora and Ceyanan were part of her coterie. Which toe he stepped on was irrelevant.
Ceyanan nodded as if Salim had replied. “I’ve left the necessary funds with Canary House’s owner. I suspect you’ll need them, unless those thieves earlier were kind enough to refill your purse.”
Salim frowned. “So you were watching that.”
That spark of anger again. “I could have been killed.”
“No,” Ceyanan said. “You couldn’t. I believe we’ve already proved that point.”
Trust the angel to find a way to work that in. “Go to hell, Ceyanan.”
The psychopomp smiled.
“But Salim, that’s what I have you for.”
The Redemption Engine © James L. Sutter, 2014