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Pathfinder Tales: Master of Devils
By Dave Gross
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Paizo Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved.
Falcon-Head Sword Gang
"Run for it, boss!"
Jeggare arched an eyebrow the way he does when I defy the natural order by commanding him. Arnisant didn't need telling. The wolfhound lowered his head and nudged the count down the slope.
Behind me, the bandits unleashed another volley. We'd seen them touch the arrowheads to their firepots, but the flames were invisible in the afternoon sun. They'd taken a lone shot now and then to see when the boss's warding spell expired before spending ammunition on full volleys. Clever lads, but adding the fire was pure meanness.
I looked for a Radovan-sized gap in the flaming cloud of arrows. The spread was denser than before, despite the casualties we'd inflicted. Spinning into the thinnest patch I could see, I batted away a few arrows. One creased my cheek. A couple others caught me in the hip and thigh. The rags tied beneath the arrowheads splashed flaming oil over me.
I hit the ground and rolled. The arrow in my hip snapped away, but the other stuck fast. Fire spread upthe shaft and onto my leathers. I dropped my blades and grabbed the arrow in both hands, snapping it short. My hands barely tingled as I choked out the flame. A little fire doesn't bother me much.
The arrows, on the other hand, hurt like hell.
I grabbed my big Chelish knife in one hand and the Varisian starknife in the other. I rocked back up to my feet and braced for another volley, but the bandits had a better idea. The instant they'd fired, they lit more arrows and charged the hill.
Between the count's spells and my crossbow, we'd already killed maybe a dozen bandits. There were still twice that many left. I reckoned I could cut down five or six if I was lucky, give the boss a head start. After that, I didn't much like my chances.
The bandit chief was a proud one, announcing his identity with an ensign waving a tall red banner at his side. To show my appreciation for the help, I threw him the big smile. A few of his men balked when they saw what I have instead of proper teeth. The chief pointed at me and shouted in Tien.
"Kill that devil!"
I threw the starknife. The chief tugged his standard-bearer over as a shield. One of the four wide blades of the starknife sank into the ensign's chest. Another split his chin and sent a line of blood across his face and onto his leader's cheek. The chief grimaced and backpedaled away from the corpse. I hoped that ensign would be the only dead bodyguard when this thing was over.
"Shoot!" yelled the chief.
The brigands raised their bows and fired. I leaped away.
Most of the arrows hit my legs, but some of the archers led their target. The oil soaked my clothes, and I grew a halo of fire. The arrows stuck out in every direction, pain tearing at me no matter which way I moved. When I tried to roll off the flames, another dug into my arms, my ribs, my spleen.
Terrific screams and curses burst out of me.
The Tian bandits didn't understand a word of Taldane, the common tongue on the other side of the world. Some laughed and shook their swords as I thrashed in agony. Their chief ordered them to shoot again.
The second volley hurt worse than the first. One fiery arrow passed through both of my cheeks and hung there like a horse's bit. I chomped it to splinters and spat them out.
I felt the heat as the flame poured down my throat and up into my sinuses. I was past feeling the difference between the fire and the wounds. I was ablaze inside and out.
Then came the change.
The arrows inside me disintegrated. My clothes peeled away in flakes, and all my blackened tools fell to the ground. Every joint in my body twitched and cracked.
I still didn't know the why, but the how was that fire brought out the devil in me.
The pain didn't subside. I was baying, the voice coming out of me no longer my own. Even the language was different. I recognized it as the tongue of devils.
My monster voice told the bandits what was going to happen to them next. They couldn't have understood the words, but there was no mistaking my tone. They dropped their bows and scattered before fleeing into the woods from which they'd launched their ambush.
I squinted at the retreating figure of their chief, weighing the big knife in my hand. It looked as small as one of my throwing blades, but that was an illusion. It was the same size as ever. It was me that had gotten a lot bigger.
My fists were the size of hams, with claws where my nails had been. Bony spurs jutted from my knuckles. From what little I'd seen the last few times I'd been immolated, I was spiky at every joint and angle.
Slapping out the last guttering flames, I tallied my wounds. Most of them looked like little more than blackheads on my copper skin. None felt worse than a snakebite. It felt like my internal heat had already mended my flesh and eaten up the arrows inside me. That much I was used to after the first few times I got lit up.
Despite the boss's nagging, I'd never done a serious inventory of the changes fire made in me. There was one thing that had been gnawing at my curiosity, and I felt a burning sensation where you hate to have one. I peered down at my crotch.
About what I saw there, the less said the better.
I went to the fallen ensign and ripped the chief's banner from its frame. Its embroidered silk looked mighty fancy for a bandit chief, but that's not why I wanted it. I tied it around my waist with the dead man's bandolier, figuring, out of sight, out of mind. I pulled the starknife out of the ensign's corpse as easily as I might have plucked a dandelion. The change made me crazy strong.
Above me the light shifted. My first impression was that the sun was falling toward me. The way things were going, I wouldn't have put it beyond possible. But the light didn't come from the sun.
A big fireball crackled through the sky, a black tail of smoke curving behind it. It looked like one of the boss's favorite spells, only slower. Branches withered as it swooped down just above the trees. It was headed my way, so I moved.
It corrected course, coming at me again. I ran ten yards to the side. It shifted again.
Damned thing was definitely coming for me.
Probably fire wouldn't even singe me now that I was full fiendish, but I still didn't want to get hit. Just as I tensed to run again, a voice boomed out from within the blaze.
The fireball floated to the side and settled on the hill. The flames subsided, revealing a man inside.
He looked small to me, but I guessed he was bigger than the average Tian. That was one of the few things I liked about Tian Xia. Even before I got big, I was a finger or two on the tall side, even among the men.
The stranger had thick black hair and a beard, both frosted with gray at the edges. His faded robes were old and patched, and he wore a lumpy bag slung around his muscular chest. An empty scabbard hung at his left hip, but his right arm was missing just below the shoulder.
"Who the hell are you?"
"A true devil!" He spoke a dialect of Tien I hadn't heard, but I understood him all right. I'd been picking up the language a few phrases at a time, and it had been more than a week since the boss had to cast a spell that let me understand our bearers.
Despite the one-armed man's dialect, I could tell it was me he was calling a devil, not himself. He added something in the infernal speech.
"I don't understand that devil bullshit," I said. When I've changed, I understand what I'm saying because I'm thinking it, not because I understand the words coming out of my mouth. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me either. "Talk human."
He switched back to Tien. "I am Burning Cloud Devil, King of Heroes."
"Your mama must be real proud."
He stroked his beard and strutted back and forth like an actor, not a regular person. "Show me your skill!"
I shot him the tines. Back home, that was a great way to chase off a coward or start a fight, but he cocked his head, not getting it. Still, he had to know I was giving him the brush-off. He threw back his head and laughed.
His voice boomed like thunder. The sound battered my ears and knocked me on my ass. I rolled back up to my feet.
I could smell his breath ten feet away. It was all eggs and pickled cabbage. As I raised a hand to wave away the stink, he closed the distance quick as a wink and struck me on the forehead. I fell backward, but he was already behind me. He caught me on his knee and chopped me across the chest.
I jabbed with an elbow, but he was gone. My momentum threw me off balance. I fell flat on my back.
"You have no skill." He sounded astonished and disappointed. "None!"
My witty retort was little more than a wheeze, but I got back on my feet. I showed him the big knife.
He smiled and beckoned me closer.
I took the invitation, but I took it slow. He shook his head and scoffed at my cautious approach.
"What sort of hero are you?" His eyes flashed, and he shot darts of green light at me.
I've been stung by magic, once even on the tender bits. That time it hurt enough to make me flee a girl half my size. Still, that pain was nothing compared to Burning Cloud Devil's magic bolts. They smacked my cheek harder than a bouncer's slap.
I had something nasty to say to that, so I said it. It translated just fine.
"If you wish revenge, come take it." He leaped into the branches of the nearest tree. The distance was way too far for mortal muscles to carry a man.
Son of a bitch had to be a wizard. Witch. Sorcerer. Something like that.
Usually I know better than to fight a magician, but I was hopping mad after that sting in the face. I ran after him.
The woods were thicker than they'd looked from the top of the hill. I lost sight of Burning Cloud Devil in seconds. His laughter rang out from the side opposite where I thought he'd gone. His clothes were dark, but now and then I caught a glimpse of his flashing eyes among the black boughs.
"Where the hell are you?"
He struck me from behind, a hard smack on either shoulder. My muscles trembled where he'd touched me, as if his fingers lingered where they had struck to dig deep into my flesh. By the time I turned to stab him, he was gone, except for that mocking laugh. I ran blind through the woods.
Felt like minutes. Could have been hours.
I trampled saplings in the gloom until the stone-hard bole of a tree knocked me down. It hurt, but it knocked some sense into me. What the hell I was doing? I shouldn't be here. I should be with the boss.
Burning Cloud Devil's laughter grabbed my attention. The boss could wait a few more minutes. I chased the voice into the yellow-green light of a forest meadow. Spring buds had begun to color the branches. Ridges of brown-and-white fungus formed shelves on the surrounding trees. The place looked like a dryad's library.
The first shot threw me across the clearing. I hit another tree hard enough to shake loose a rain of crumbled fungus. Even in my big devil body, the impact hurt. But the pain gave me strength.
I leaped back at him.
I dropped the starknife and caught Burning Cloud Devil by the hair just as he tried to leap away. He killed my other hand with a knuckle shot to the wrist. I lost the big knife.
I pivoted and swept my elbow to the back of his neck. Even before I get ugly, my spurs are enough to break a breastbone, maybe even sever a spine. He shrugged, and the six inches of bone protruding from my elbow barely scraped his neck.
"Such power!" A hopeful smile spread across his black beard. "But power without form is useless. You must become my disciple."
I said the two words that best described my feelings on the matter.
Nothing got lost in translation that time, either.
His smile vanished. My body shuddered, pain breaking out in a hundred places as he struck me faster than I could see his hand move. He hit me with his fingers and thumb, the sides of his hands and the heel, never with a closed fist.
He ripped the strength out of my arms, one after the other. He jabbed the inside of my thighs, deadening my legs. Everywhere he struck felt like an icicle through my body. He poked my neck in three or four spots, and I couldn't move my head. Finally he punched me all around my heart and throat. He stepped back to observe the results.
"You are a wave, not a stone." He shook his head. "You are made of molten spirits. I will forge you solid."
His fingers traced Tien characters in the air, and their paths lingered like a blood trail. I didn't know what they meant. I should have paid more attention when the boss tried to teach me the local writing.
Burning Cloud Devil took a low stance, feet spread wide, knees bent. His body trembled, blurred, and fell still. He showed me his hand, like a priest offering a benediction. White witch-light played over his palm.
He struck me on the chest. It hurt, but not as bad as I figured after his little preamble.
He drew back his hand, and I felt invisible filaments of my heart float up to twine about his fingers. When he gripped them I felt the blood stop in my veins. He relaxed his grip, and my pulse returned.
"This fiendish body rides your soul until I release it," he said. "Now you are an alloy of your mortal and infernal selves, and I am your master. You will obey me until you have learned my ultimate technique. With it you shall slay my sworn enemy."
"What the hell did you hit me with?"
Burning Cloud Devil looked smug, as if he'd hoped I'd ask that question. "It is my penultimate technique: the Quivering Palm."CHAPTER 2
By my reckoning, our predicament constituted the twenty-third time Radovan had been obliged to delay an attacker while I withdrew from the field. In my memory library, I left a mental note to add an extra purse of gold to our next accounting.
More imminently, I intended to repay Radovan's courage by ensuring his efforts were not in vain. If I could reach the scrolls in my satchel, I would awe the bandits with a mighty spell.
Our bearers were in full rout, their once-stubborn pack animals now perversely eager to follow their handlers. They carried off all of the expedition's supplies, the bulk of our money, and the remaining healing potions we would require in the unlikely event that we should survive the attack.
The guards had been the first to flee, kicking their horses into a gallop moments before we spotted the bandits brandishing their eponymous falcon-head swords — flared and hooked things somewhere between falchions and machetes. Collusion between our men and the robbers was now all but certain. I regretted my failure to heed my initial suspicions about the port functionary who recommended them. In the future, I would insist that Radovan personally select our guards.
The treachery was only the latest in a series of disheartening misadventures.
What began as a mission to collect the husk of a celestial pearl from an agent in Minkai became a full-blown expedition across Tian Xia. No land in all of Golarion lay farther from Absalom and the headquarters of the Pathfinder Society, the august community of explorers and scholars to which I belong. Yet while my masked superiors in the Decemvirate arranged for a conjurer to teleport us instantaneously to Minkai, upon arriving we found the provider of our return transport murdered and the object of our mission stolen. Rather than return empty-handed, we secured sea transport to mainland Tian Xia and marched across half of the Successor States to entreat the King of Quain for an identical husk from his royal vault.
I spied my satchel under the arm of a bearer mounted on my steed.
The man replied with an insolent smile. His irregular teeth resembled stained wooden pegs.
"Come back here this instant!"
He slapped the reins and vanished over the next hill. With him went all of my personal belongings, including my precious spellbook. If only I had kept all of my riffle scrolls on my person, I should have reduced him to cinders, horse and all.
Arnisant butted my hip, urging me to continue our inglorious retreat. He had already dispatched two of our attackers, but his instinct was that of a guardian, not a berserker.
As we crested the next hill, I dared a glance back. There stood Radovan bristling with fiery arrows. In an instant he became an inferno. I held my breath in anticipation of the metamorphosis. In a flicker of flames, it was done.
Seven feet tall and covered with long bony spurs at every joint, Radovan's infernal form resembled the nightmare of a shiver addict. Steely coils roiled beneath his copper skin, which now flowed across him as if turned to molten metal. Even in his original form, Radovan's teeth were the stuff of street legend in our home city of Egorian. After the change they resembled a mound of shattered blades left by a retreating army.
While many of Radovan's devilish qualities were the product of his unfortunate parentage, these new fiendish transformations were something else entirely, and began during our investigation into a diabolic cult. Unfortunately, I was not witness to the first incident and had observed others only during the distraction of combat. If only Radovan had acceded to a few experiments under controlled conditions, through research and consultation I might have guided him into a fuller understanding of his condition.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: Master of Devils by Dave Gross. Copyright © 2011 Paizo Publishing, LLC.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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