Souldancer Character Study: Nahel

All Dogs Go to Heaven

During the revision process for my new book Souldancer, my editor recommended a character-building exercise popularized by literary agent Donald Maass. I ran several of the book's principle characters through the exercise to help me figure out what made them tick, and thus portray them more three-dimensionally.

Of all the new characters in this sequel to Nethereal, one who was consistently among the most fun to write was Nahel. As a preview of Souldancer and a brief look at events that bridge the two novels, I've reproduced the exercise designed to highlight two of Nahel's contrasting qualities. See if you can figure out which two character traits are in tension during the following scene.

The Castle of Despenser, former Baal of the Fifth Circle

Nahel stood atop the promontory and surveyed the blasted ruin before him. A fortress had once risen—wall within wall and tower upon tower—from the inverted cone of rock amid the Fifth Circle’s fetid sea. Now that Nahel and his friends in Nakvin’s army had done their job, nothing remained of the castle but a dark, smoking foundation.

Feels good to see the tables turned for once, thought Nahel. Everywhere, soldiers in the gold and green uniform of Avalon—both Gen, malakhs, demons, and dead humans—picked through the debris in search of hidden foes and trapped prisoners.

Nahel’s canine ears perked up at a soft sound, barely audible over the post-battle cacophony: a weak tapping drifting up from the pit. He rushed to the crater’s edge and slid down a slope of loose rubble till he stood over the source of the sound.

A slab composed of large cemented stones lay atop the debris before him. Nahel listened. He was sure that this was where the tapping had come from, but he waited several seconds for it to recur and heard nothing.

Nahel sniffed the air. The reek of smoke—and other less mundane; more hateful odors—stung his sensitive nose. Yet a weird mélange of scents wafted up from beneath the slab, combining wolf, bat, rat, and man.

Probably some kind of demon, Nahel thought. He suddenly recalled that he stood in the unroofed bowels of Despenser’s dungeon. Who knew what living nightmares the baal had stashed away down here?

Nahel drew his sword—its short, spade-shaped blade already bloodstained from the day’s work, planted it in the ground beside him, stooped down, and heaved on slab with all his angelic might. Stone scraped against stone, Nahel’s muscles burned beneath his russet fur, and at last the slab went crashing down into the dungeon’s nethermost pits.

Dust swirled, blocking Nahel’s sight of the cavity he’d revealed. He retrieved his sword and crouched, his heart thudding as he waited to see his enemy.

There was movement in the depths of the cavity, which soon turned out to be a crude cell. It had mostly collapsed, but the chains worn by its wretched occupant; who must have been striking them against the slab, told Nahel what the squalid chamber had been.

Nahel’s nose and eyes strove to confuse him. The animal scents remained, but the prisoner was clearly a man—disheveled and emaciated, but still a man.

The prisoner struggled to raise his sandy-haired head and fixed his defiant brown eyes on Nahel.

“Help me,” the prisoner croaked.

Without hesitating, Nahel sheathed his sword and leapt into the collapsed cell. “Hang on, buddy,” he said gently. “You’re gonna be okay.” Nahel lifted the prisoner, who weighed startlingly little, with one arm slung around the man’s back and hooked under his armpit, and hauled both of them out of the cell.

“Thank you,” the prisoner wheezed as he lay panting on the debris-strewn slope. “I am Sulaiman Iason, once a priest of Midras. What are you called?”

Nahel’s maw gaped in a doglike smile. “I used to work for Midras, too! Name’s Nahel. I’m a malakh.”

Sulaiman’s filthy beard may have hidden a grin. “I suspected that you were. I also suspect that Despenser’s reign as baal has ended. Tell me, friend Nahel, to whom do I owe my thanks for this most welcome turn of events?”

“Avalon’s army brought the baal down, but we wouldn’t be here if not for Queen—” The sound of disturbed rubble, and another scent—like grave dirt and lilacs—made Nahel forget what he’d been saying. His hackles rose, and a deep, rumbling growl issued unbidden from his throat.

“What’s wrong?’ asked Sulaiman.

By then, Nahel had seen what was wrong. A pale, gangly thing that smelled of flowers laid to mask corruption swarmed up from the deeper, lightless pits and undulated toward them. Snarling with unrestrained wrath, Nahel leapt upon the demon as the twin sawblades of its slug-like mouth parts extended toward Sulaiman. The malakh put the force of his descent behind the downward thrust of his sword, and the needle-pointed blade sank deep into the demon’s pallid, rubbery flesh. A sigh like an old woman at her last son’s funeral escaped form the wound. The demon collapsed into a shapeless mass and lay still.

Nahel stepped off of the fiend’s deflated remains, shook purple blood from his sword, and turned to Sulaiman. “Sorry,” said the malakh. “I got a little distracted. You were saying something?”

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