Today we preview chapter 1 of Dead God Trilogy 1: Forsaken for the Scarred Lands. This novel trilogy dates back to the d20 era of Scarred Lands (specifically 2002-2003), but Onyx Path has recently remastered it, making it available in various ebook formats and in print on demand.
The fear had been creeping up on him for hours, until Vladawen abruptly realized he was certain. “They caught her.”
“How do you know?” asked Nindom. A wiry little man with a broken nose, he had a taste for fancy clothes that made him look like a dirk in a lace scabbard.
“Because, idiot,” said Opal, “otherwise she’d be back by now, wouldn’t she? It’s hard to break into a true wizard’s stronghold, and by all accounts, Redstone Castle is downright impossible.” Homely and rawboned, Opal had had the least trouble passing for a local in what was, despite the imposing castle on the rise, essentially a farm town.
“What an intelligent observation,” Nindom said. “It dazzles me to think how useful it might have been if you’d served it up a few hours ago, say before Lilly skulked off into the night.”
Vladawen rose from the edge of the straw mattress, unlatched the little round window, and looked out. A night breeze caressed his face. In other circumstances, it would have been a pleasant relief after the stale closeness of the tiny sleeping room. But now he barely noticed, because the night watch was headed toward the inn. Their lanterns glowed yellow, marking their progress through the dark and twisting streets.
“The town guards are coming.” He picked up his rapier and hung the baldric over his shoulder.
“Are you sure they’re coming for us?” Opal asked. She squirmed into her shapeless gown, pulling it down over her shift.
“No,” said Vladawen, arranging his other weapons about his person. “But if we wait to find out for sure, it’ll be too late. Besides, we know someone will come eventually.”
“Then do we fight?” Nindom asked.
Vladawen eyed the little man curiously. “What would we gain thereby?”
The warrior shrugged. “A few more unbelievers dead? It wouldn’t be that hard, would it, if it’s just the watch. You are the Titanslayer.”
“That was a long time ago, and Sendrian is quite possibly the most powerful mage in all Darakeene. He must be strong, to accomplish what he has.” Vladawen turned to Opal for confirmation.
“Yes,” she said, her tone a little grudging. “We don’t want to be here if he comes looking for us himself. But ever since we crossed the border, all we’ve done is sneak and pretend.”
Vladawen switched to his high priest voice, dripping with wisdom and serenity: “When you’d rather fight. I understand. But That Which Abides wants us to serve the cause, not throw our lives away.” That seemed to persuade them.
As the cleric swung his lightweight summer cloak on his shoulders, he marveled at the sheer ferocity of the Wexlanders, and not just these two, all of them. They fought for a deity of whom they’d never even heard a year ago, and who had yet to work any miracles on their behalf. Outnumbered eight to one, they endured one bitter defeat after another. Still, no one spoke of surrender. Each setback made the beleaguered folk more resolute, more avid to shed the enemy’s blood. Vladawen couldn’t understand it, but he gave thanks every day that it was so.
He knotted his cloth-of-silver fillet about his head. No one ever wondered that he wore such a thing. He looked as if he needed it to keep his long hair out of his face. But its actual purpose was considerably different.
In the nine provinces of Darakeene in the western lands of the continent of Ghelspad, ordinary elves with their pointed ears and spindly frames were no great rarity, but the “forsaken” elves of distant Termana were a different matter. As far as Vladawen knew, he was the only specimen of his doomed race for thousands of miles in any direction, with his distinctive eyes, all black save for the brilliant silver rings of the irises. This made the Wexlanders’ fervor all the more impressive, since they now fought against the eight other provinces in the forgotten name of Termana’s deity, simply called That Which Abides. The god had died long ago in the Divine War and Vladawen was determined to revive him and his faith. He was not in Wexland, now, however, and needed a disguise to pass unnoticed among his enemies. Thus the magical fillet, which shrouded his eyes in a petty glamour that made them appear like everybody else’s.
He looked about. “Ready?”
“Just waiting for you,” Nindom said, adjusting the folds of his mantle. The garment did a good job of concealing the fact that, for someone endeavoring to pass for a common burgher, the small man was exceedingly well armed.
The three companions headed downstairs. The somewhat rickety steps creaked repeatedly, but without waking any of the snoring folk packed into the darkened common room. No doubt many had bellies full of beer.
Guided by the dying red light of the hearth, Vladawen picked his way through the sleepers. Some lay on the benches and tabletops, while others sprawled on the floor. Judging by the eye-watering smell, a fair number needed a bath. The elf almost turned up his nose at the dirty humans before recalling that he’d spent a century and a half sulking in a ruined temple after the Divine War, his personal hygiene less than impeccable.
He reached to unbar the door, and then someone pounded on the other side.
Vladawen turned on his heel and hurried back the way he’d come, this time not much caring which slumbering soul he kicked or trod upon. Fortunately, the inn had a rear exit. He knew because Opal had scouted the place the day they arrived.
The innkeeper, clad in his nightshirt, slippers and cap, came bustling through the door that led to his personal apartments. Nindom threw a knife. The blade thunked into the woodwork a scant inch from the man’s head, and he froze, no longer so interested in answering the knock.
Then, however, wood squeaked on wood. Vladawen looked back. Crawling with points of azure light, the door was unbarring and unlatching itself, as if ghosts were doing the work.
The elf shot Opal an inquiring glance. She shook her head, telling him she couldn’t counter the spell. He supposed he couldn’t fault her, because he couldn’t negate it, either. Once, perhaps, when That Which Abides had been a living force on Termana. These days his prayers could invoke only a few petty miracles, none of which would serve to hold the door shut.
But he thought it would be all right. He and his comrades would still escape out the back. Then a barrel-shaped man with a pointed beard reared up from the floor. Roused by all the commotion and conceivably still as drunk as when he’d lain down, the fellow pulled back his arm and threw a punch. With all that windup, anyone could have avoided the blow, but only if she saw it coming. Opal was looking in the wrong direction. The punch smacked her on the ear and knocked her down, on top of a sleeping youth who was using his boots for a pillow.
In the blink of an eye, Nindom sprang at the burly man and put him down, with a thrust of a blade or his empty hand, Vladawen couldn’t tell which. Then the warrior strained to hoist the dazed Opal, who likely outweighed him by forty pounds, to her feet, while the lad on whom she’d toppled squirmed ineffectually beneath her.
Nindom couldn’t manage Opal, but Vladawen could, thanks to the preternatural strength his god had bestowed on him in the first days of the Divine War. He hurried forward to take her, and then the door flew open. The watch started to bustle through, nicely turned out with their brigandines, spears and broadswords. But then they would be, wouldn’t they? By all accounts, Sendrian liked anything even vaguely martial. He’d even spent a month in the thick of the war, bedeviling the Wexlander army with his battle magic.
For a moment, Vladawen wondered if he and his comrades might be able to bluff their way past the guards. Alas, no. The watch oriented on him and his allies immediately, while the other folk in the common room, wakeful now, scurried to clear a path between the officers and their quarry. Meanwhile, the elf slipped his hand inside his cloak.
“Stand right there!” boomed the watch captain, a sour-looking man whose sash proclaimed his rank. “They caught your friend—”
Vladawen swung his hand out of concealment and pulled the trigger of his miniature crossbow. The venomous dart flew over the captain’s shoulder to pierce the stubbly chin of the mage behind him, whom the elf reckoned likely represented a graver threat than any of the men-at-arms. The magician’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed.
Without a pause, Vladawen snatched the long braided whip from his belt, while Nindom scrambled up to stand beside him. The human carried a cutlass in either hand, the brutal cleaverlike weapons giving the lie to his gentlemanly attire.
The watchmen threw their spears, but the inside of a hostel was hardly the easiest place in which to do so. Nindom knocked one out of the air with his right-hand sword. Vladawen ducked another, then struck with the whip. The weapon lashed the captain’s legs, breaking them, Vladawen hoped. At least it sent the human reeling.
The priest just had time to exchange his whip for his rapier. Then the rest of the militiamen charged, and Vladawen and Nindom set themselves to meet them. The next few moments were a blur and a clangor of steel, as the two outlanders fought madly to keep any of the guards from circling around and stabbing them in the back.
Once upon a time, some master-at-arms had given Nindom fencing lessons, but likely only a few. His form was more or less correct, but his technique was rudimentary. He made up for it with quickness, daring, and the half-mad fury that Wexland’s enemies had come to inspire in his breast.
In contrast, Vladawen had studied with a maestro for many years. Probably it showed in his footwork and the lack of wasted motion in his blade work. But he knew a fight against multiple opponents rarely allowed for binds, second-intention attacks or other flashy maneuvers dear to a fencer’s heart. It might not even allow for a basic feint-deceive. So he attacked straight and hard, counting on strength more than subtlety to drive the thrusts home.
Periodically, it did. With the might his god had given him and a blade of sturdy elven steel, he could sometimes attack through a parry, or beat an opponent’s weapon out of his hand. That being the case, folk sometimes wondered why he hesitated to fight anyone or anything. They didn’t grasp that, his strength not withstanding, he could be cut, stabbed or bludgeoned as easily as anybody else.
He thrust the rapier through a guard’s shoulder. The soldier dropped, from the shock of the wound, presumably. One of the folk whose rest had been disturbed, a grizzled crone who evidently didn’t like the authorities, cheered.
Before Vladawen could come back on guard, another watchman lunged in on his left side. The fellow’s sword spun around in a cut, and, able neither to parry nor retreat quickly enough, the elf priest simply dropped and let the stroke whistle over his head. Now off balance, the guard kept coming. He strode another step, then obviously realizing he was now too close for swordplay, dropped his sword and tried to grapple.
Bellowing and using every iota of his strength to strike through the thick leather metal-plated jacket, Vladawen smashed his elbow into the watchman’s chest. Bone snapped. The human stumbled back, then hugged himself and wept as if he thought his insides were in danger of falling out.
Now Vladawen had run out of opponents. He turned. Nindom was still contending with two adversaries, one a watchman and the other evidently a taproom tough who’d decided he wanted in on the fun. The latter, lacking any proper weapon more formidable than a knife, was flailing away with a poker he’d snatched from the hearth.
The elf started toward the melee, and then the chaotic room, a confusion of milling bodies echoing with shouts and catcalls, was nearly his undoing. Suddenly another foe burst from the concealment of the crowd. He was right there, lunging in on the cleric’s flank.
Vladawen wrenched himself around and parried, quickly enough to keep his foe’s sword out of his vitals but not to spare himself injury altogether. The point tore into his thigh, and the blade scraped along the bone. At first it was just a stunning jolt of sensation, but he knew it would turn to pain in a second.
His attacker was the captain of the guard. His legs were still intact and he was back for another passage of arms. More quickly than Vladawen anticipated, he pulled his sword free and attacked once more, this time with a chest cut. The elf jumped back out of the distance, just in time. The officer was too fast, unnaturally so. Evidently he’d imbibed a potion, or activated some other magic he’d hoarded for an emergency. Officers in the employ of potent spellcasters like Sendrian too often had access to such tricks.
And he was still getting faster. His movements accelerating by the moment, he chased Vladawen down the room one fencer’s advance at a time.
Retreating, the elf defended with distance. He didn’t trust himself to parry quickly enough. As fast as the captain had become, the only way to best him with blade work was to anticipate what he would do next, then start moving first.
So, feinting to elicit the captain’s responses, Vladawen studied the human, trying to identify his habitual patterns. Every swordsman had them, and any other duelist could figure them out. But Vladawen had to make his assessment quickly, before the captain’s weapon became an invisible blur, or the elf ran up against some barrier that precluded further retreat.
Finally he grasped the sequences, or at least he hoped he did. He sprang forward, closing the distance, then lunged. His point flashed toward the wrist of his opponent’s sword arm.
The sudden fierce aggression, coming from a swordsman who’d been fighting so defensively, would have startled many a combatant. Some would have frozen and allowed Vladawen to score. The watch captain was surprised, too. For a split second, the priest could see it in his face. But within his accelerated frame of reference, the human had more time to recover his wits. He parried in time, but at least it was the semicircular high-line parry that Vladawen expected and wanted him to make.
The captain’s riposte hurtled toward Vladawen’s throat, also as anticipated. For that reason alone, he managed to parry it to the inside, then feint to the chest. Thank That Which Abides, the officer kept to his customary pattern yet again. As his broadsword swept across in a lateral parry, the elf’s rapier-point dipped down and up, evading the defense.
At that instant, Vladawen exploded forward into a running attack. The captain retreated and parried a second time, but even his celerity wasn’t quite enough. The rapier punched through his sash, his brigandine and deep into his torso.
Regaining his balance, Vladawen yanked his bloody weapon free and looked around the room. Nindom was just cutting down the last of his opponents, that was good, but the forsaken elf gasped when he saw Opal.
The ungainly woman was still sprawled where Nindom had dumped her, but now she had company. A train of blood showed where a wounded watchman, a scrawny man with a drooping mustache, had crawled to her. He took hold of her tousled hair and pulled her head back, thus exposing her throat. Then he raised his knife.
Knowing it was probably too late, Vladawen started to recite a prayer to invoke the echoes of his fallen god, then saw that he needn’t have bothered. At some point, Opal must have come to her senses and begun her own spell, murmuring so softly that her assailant couldn’t hear. Now her body sparked and crackled, and so did that of the guard who was clinging to her. The infusion of lightning didn’t trouble her, but he was less fortunate. He shook and shook as his body withered, putting a stink of ozone and burned meat in the air.
When the flaring stopped, Nindom hurried to her side. “You couldn’t bestir yourself to help us, but you saved your own hide readily enough. As usual,” he said.
“If you were worth helping, maybe I’d take an interest.”
The small man grinned and helped her disentangle herself from the smoking remains of her would-be killer.
Meanwhile, Vladawen stared at the crowd. It didn’t look as if anyone else intended to try and hinder the outlanders’ departure. His leg throbbed, making him hiss with the sudden pain, but he reckoned it could wait for a dollop of healing salve. A quick departure was more important.
The three wayfarers strode out into the courtyard and on to the stable. They hastily saddled their horses, then rode out into the night.
Most of the town of Redstone was asleep, but not everyone, not on the second night of the fair. Topers wove from one source of drink to the next. Whores called to passersby. Vendors worked late in their stalls, preparing for the morning, or simply stood watch to deter thieves. Happily, none of the nocturnal folk paid any mind to the three riders galloping along, save to curse them when the horses veered too close or kicked up mud.
“Well,” said Nindom as he swayed in the saddle, grinning, “we killed some unbelievers after all, and we’re getting away clean.”
“Yes,” said Vladawen, “we are.” He turned his head, looked at the castle rising above the rooftops of the town, and wondered if any of the dread he felt was real.
Then he scowled and told himself it didn’t matter anyway. Nothing did, except for That Which Remains and the healing he would bring.