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Fiction Friday: Dead God Trilogy 2: Forsworn

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Mortekai

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Today we preview chapter 1 of Dead God Trilogy 1: Forsworn 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.

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Vladawen had hoped to enter the city with a certain stateliness, because, while he no
longer much cared about appearances, he knew many other people did. His weary traveling companions likely just wanted to get inside the place quickly, before the red twilight bled from the sky, for autumn had taken the continent of Ghelspad in its grasp, and even here, in proximity to the burning wasteland called the Ukrudan Desert, the nights grew cold. The horses and mules confounded everyone’s desires by balking before the massive gate.

Thin and raven-haired, fair in the harsh way an unadorned but well-made sword might be, Lillatu cursed the animals and spurred her black mare. Vladawen found her display of filthy temper reassuring, while the guards atop the massive wall grinned down at it. He suspected travelers often had difficulty inducing their beasts to enter Hollowfaust, and the warriors generally found their plight amusing.

For his part, the elf deemed it entirely comprehensible. Once, he’d wielded the potent magic of a high priest. Most of it was gone now, but he was still capable of sensing what the horses were discerning, the concentrated, clotted memory of death, and worse than death, festering inside the ramparts. He reminded himself uneasily that it was an integral part of what he’d come to find.

Rawboned and plain, still riding without grace despite all the practice she’d had of late, Opal scowled at Lillatu. “Shouting’s just going to spook the animals worse,” she said, and in its way, that was a good sign, too.

“Then you do something,” Lillatu snapped. “Calm them with your magic.”

“I don’t have the right spells prepared.”

“Then we’ll just have to shout, drag, and flog the brutes inside, won’t we?”

“Perhaps I can help, if you’ll give me leave to try.” The bass voice was pleasant and courteous enough, but, chiming in so unexpectedly, startled Vladawen nonetheless. Dignity forgotten, he jerked around in the saddle.

The newcomer was on foot. His wiry frame and pointed ears suggested a mix of human and elvish blood, even as his rough garb pointed to a life lived in the wild. His tanned, muscular arms and chest were bare beneath a sleeveless cloak of hide, affording a glimpse of elaborate tattooing as well as small bones pierced into the skin of his abdomen. Vladawen had to repress a frown at the inked designs, even though overall, the stranger didn’t much resemble the newest contingent among his ever-proliferating enemies, the obsidian-skinned subterranean elves of Dier Drendal. The nearest drendali was likely hundreds of miles away, and a good thing, too.

“We’d be grateful for any assistance,” Vladawen said.

“Then let’s see what I can do.” The half-breed leaned close to Vladawen’s restive sorrel gelding and crooned something under his breath. The horse quieted. The same treatment soothed Lillatu and Opal’s mounts, and the stranger moved on down the line, his quarterstaff cradled casually in his hand.

“I know the light’s failing,” Lillatu murmured, “but he’s a sneaky bastard, isn’t he, to creep up on us without our noticing.”

“Do you think he’s one of your colleagues?” Vladawen replied.

She shrugged, her abrupt relapse into surliness a reminder of all that remained problematic between them.

“I think the animals will enter now,” the stranger called. “They simply wanted some reassurance.”

Vladawen waited for his soldiers and drovers to chivvy the equines back into something resembling a column, then optimistically urged his sorrel gelding into motion. The half-elf proved as good as his word. The priest’s mount walked forward, docilely if not eagerly, and the rest of the animals followed.

Followed him into darkness, in fact, for the city’s walls were massive, particularly at the base, and the gate was like a tunnel. He glanced about, looking for portcullises, murder holes and other defensive details. After all the years he’d spent at war, he took something of a professional interest in such things, and it helped distract him from the charnel atmosphere, not a stink but a silent yammer, a wearing at the spirit, that intensified as he advanced. He wondered how the resident spellcasters bore it. He supposed they either grew accustomed to it, or else actively reveled in it.

Hollowfaust nestled against the foot of a volcano, which had once rained ruin upon it when it bore another name, and on first inspection, a visitor might easily feel that no one had exerted himself unduly to brighten up the place in the centuries since, for the buildings beyond the gate were as ash-stained and dark as the walls. Those citizens in view wore rather drab garments and moved quietly about their business, contributing to the funereal effect. Still, nothing overtly ghoulish awaited the new arrivals, just the living, human officer of the gate and a pair of underlings, and Vladawen realized he was just as glad. Let the dark marvels bide until he had a chance to rest, and the mere psychic climate of the reclaimed city-state ceased its gnawing at his nerves.

“I’ll need to know your names, and something of your business,” the officer said. Short and middle-aged with a close-cropped beard, he spoke in a bored, indifferent drone, but the young scribe at his elbow regarded the travelers with greater curiosity. Perhaps he’d noticed Vladawen’s eyes, all black save for silver irises, the stigmata of a so-called “forsaken elf” of Termana and thus a rarity here in Ghelspad’s western lands.

Ignoring the aches and pains in his tired frame, the spindly-limbed rider sat up straight and tall in the saddle. “I’m Vladawen Titanslayer,” he said in his best “high-priest” voice, “chief cleric of Wexland in Darakeene, and counselor to Lord Gasslander. Accompanying me are Lillatu, Lady Commander of the King’s scouts and skirmishers, and Opal, a mage in His Highness’s service.” Sensing it was required; he then named the two dozen soldiers and retainers who followed in his train. The scribe’s stylus flew across his wax tablet, recording the information in neat characters whose luminescence defied the advent of the night. “We’ve come to consult the Sovereign Council on matters of utmost importance, and we bring gifts in earnest of our good intent.”

“You missed one,” the officer said, pointing, still not sounding overly impressed.

Vladawen glanced around. The Hollowfauster was indicating the half-elf, who in turned, peered about uneasily, and swallowed a time or two. “He’s not one of mine,” the priest said. “We just happened to fetch up at the gate at the same time.”

“Ah.” The officer raised his voice. “You there! Barbarian! What do they call you?”

The half-elf bolted, dashing across the little plaza toward the mouth of one of the streets beyond.

“Bugger!” the gatekeeper spat. He lifted his mail-sheathed arm, and his troops stirred on the wall-walk above his head. Vladawen didn’t need to look to know they were readying bows or crossbows to shoot the stranger down.

It was really none of the priest’s business, but the runner had done him a service, his elvish blood made him at least in the vaguest sense a kinsman, and slaughter seemed unnecessary. On impulse, he said, “I’ll get him!” He kicked his mount into motion.

The mare was tired, too, but now that the half-elf had coaxed it through its leeriness of the city, game nonetheless. It only took the animal a few strides to accelerate to a creditable gallop. Then an arrow streaked past Vladawen’s head to crack against the cobbles, and he abruptly realized his precipitous action had quite possibly made him as enticing and legitimate a target as the object of his pursuit.

He considered reining in his steed, but the officer bellowed, “No! Hold off!” Taking it to mean the soldiers would defer shooting, Vladawen raced on.

Sure enough, no more arrows flew his way. His eyesight sharper than a human’s, he noticed the one shaft now lying in the street possessed a silver head. It was expensive gear for a sentry manning a wall, but if rumor spoke true, Hollowfaust required special measures for its defense.

Hoping that in this instance, a common whip would serve as well, that he hadn’t just made a perilous miscalculation, Vladawen uncoiled the braided leather, leaned sideways, and struck at the fleeing stranger. With luck, the lash would entangled its target and allow the rider to yank him off his feet, arresting his flight without serious injury.

The whip snapped around the half-elf’s torso and pumping arms. Vladawen braced for the jerk that came a second later. The “barbarian’s” legs flew out from under him and he slammed down in a no-doubt bruising fall.

As the priest had no desire to drag his cousin, he released his weapon and hauled back on the reins. The gelding stumbled back into a walk —gratefully, most likely — and he sprang from the saddle, pivoted toward the stranger, and hesitated in surprise.

The tattooed traveler was tough. Vladawen had expected the fall to stun him, but he’d already scrambled back to his feet and was pulling off the hindering length of leather.

“I’m sorry!” said the priest. “But you need to calm down and come back to the gate. Otherwise, the guards will kill you.”

The half-elf just glared at him, seemingly without recognition. He mouthed words under his breath.

“You’re reacting to the psychic poison in the air,” Vladawen said. “I feel it, too. But you have to master the fear.”

Still murmuring to himself, the barbarian cast the whip aside, then started to lift his staff.

Vladawen reckoned that since he didn’t want a fight, it would be counterproductive to let his kinsman come on guard. He sprang in, caught hold of the polished wood, and, exerting his prodigious strength, bulled the surprised half-elf down onto his back.

“I’m not going to let you up until you come to your senses,” said the priest. “Breathe, curse it!”

Rather to his surprise, the stranger obeyed, and then lucidity blinked back into his eyes. “Merciful… merciful mother Denev,” the half-elf whispered, the oath revealing his fealty to the one titan who’d stood with the gods in the Divine War in which Vladawen himself had fought one and a half centuries before.

“Are you all right now?” the cleric asked.

The half-elf took another breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly as someone trained in meditation or a martial discipline would do. “I think so. It was just so strong.”

“Almost strong enough to fill your back with arrows.” Vladawen stood up and pulled the stranger to his feet. Then his horse screamed.

Even as he pivoted, Vladawen noticed three things. The first was that the last dregs of dusk had given way to night, the second, that the spiritual miasma shrouding the town seemed more oppressive than ever, and the third, that thick coils of clammy mist were twisting their way through the air. Somewhere inside the vapor, the gelding screamed a second time, and then its body thudded to the ground.

Vladawen reached for the hand crossbow hanging from his belt, then changed his mind and drew his silver rapier instead. Like his prodigious strength, the sword was a gift from the deity he served, and in its time, had graced him with nearly godlike powers himself. That was over now, he’d expended its deepest magic, but it still bore enchantments that made it a duelist’s weapon second to none. He stepped into the mist.

The half-elf followed, quarterstaff in hand. “Is this wise?” he asked, his tone
conversational. Despite the uncouth aspects of his appearance, he certainly didn’t speak like a barbarian, rather, a person of culture.

“Probably not,” Vladawen said. “But it’s a good horse.”

“I understand.”

As if in response, the vapor seemed to thin to reveal the animal’s body, or else they’d simply approached close enough. A cursory inspection sufficed to reveal the animal was beyond their aid, the flesh of the carcass untorn but strangely shriveled in patches.

His mouth dry, Vladawen looked around for whatever had killed the beast. The fog and darkness made a mockery of sight, and he realized he had little memory of the layout of his surroundings, nor could he determine in which direction lay the gate. He shouted Lillatu’s name, but the mist seemed to muffle the noise even in his own ears.

The half-elf murmured a word of power and touched the butt of his staff to the cobbles. Pale light flowered from the point of contact, illuminating the masses of fog more than anything else. Vladawen considered it a mixed blessing. It might bring help more quickly, or even reveal the location of their unseen foes, but it was might also help those enemies pinpoint them. Still, it was too late to criticize the tactic now. He’d simply have to utilize the glow as best he could.

In point of fact, it did seem to help a little. After another moment, he glimpsed the figures flowing silently through the mist, nearly indistinguishable from it, but shaped, in their vague, inconstant way, like elves or men, with flecks of scarlet phosphorescence for eyes. He brandished the slim silver sword with the unique and nameless blue gem for a pommel and invoked the power of his god.

To no avail. He supposed it was only to be expected, especially in a place like this. The undead, if that was what they were, glided closer.

Vladawen retreated a half step, drawing the phantoms in, then lunged. His point pierced the lead apparition as easily as empty air, and it wavered before resuming its advance. The half-elf’s staff whipped through its head, and it dissolved, or at least Vladawen hoped it had. He couldn’t be absolutely sure it wasn’t still there, hiding amid the drifting sheets of mist.

Bellowing a war cry, he struck at another wraith. The phantom sought to dodge, its torso bowing and stretched fantastically, but he compensated, and the silver blade plunged into its breast.

This time, though, it didn’t seem to matter. The red-eyed phantom pounced, sliding up the sword as if being impaled weren’t troubling it in the slightest. Its insubstantial hands grabbed Vladawen by the wrist, sinking through the thick leather of his gauntlet and sleeve to grip the flesh inside.

Its touch was burning hot, freezing cold, or perhaps just supremely painful, the shock was such that Vladawen wasn’t sure. His knees buckled, and two more phantoms caught hold of him. For a moment, he was certain he was about to pass out, then imagined his own flesh withering within their grasp like the poor dead horse’s, and the image was so repulsive that it energized him despite the debilitating pain. He screamed and tore himself free.

He’d needed to retreat if he was to survive, but the convulsive leap had the unfortunate effect of separating him from his ally. Though still only a few feet away, the half-elf was merely a pivoting smudge of shadow amid the fog and silvery magical light. Vladawen tried to scramble in his direction, but a wraith rose up before him and cut him off. By the time he dispatched it, the stranger had disappeared.

His absence left Vladawen beset on every side. As he whirled this way and that, thrusting and defending frantically, it seemed to him that the wraiths had begun to whisper, but so faintly he couldn’t make out what they had to say. It occurred to him that if he couldn’t fight shoulder to shoulder with the half-elf, he should at least attempt to put his back against a wall, but such was his disorientation that he despaired of even finding one of those. Considering that the apparitions could reach through solid matter, it might not help protect him anyway.

A gust of wind howled, shoving at him, snagging and tearing at his clothing. It also drove the fog before it, stripping the wraiths, for the moment at least, of their hiding places. Some observers might have deemed that a mixed blessing as well, in that it was disheartening to see just how many murderous phantoms remained.

At least Vladawen could also see the mass of would-be rescuers, a mix of his own entourage and warriors from the gate, rushing to his aid. “If you don’t have an enchanted weapon,” he shouted, “stay back!” Given what he’d experienced so far, he doubted ordinary steel would harm the spirits.

Thanks to Gasslander’s largesse, Lillatu did possess an enchanted blade, a relatively short one with a needle point, a sword well-suited to an irregular or assassin, and she fought her way to Vladawen’s side. “You just had to ride after the whoreson, didn’t you?” she snarled.

“Sorry,” said the elf.

Opal scrambled up to shelter behind the swordsmen as best she could. Vladawen assumed it was she who’d conjured the blast of wind, and now she wove another spell. At the end, she expelled the air from her lungs like a child energetically puffing out a candle.

Her intent, however, was not to extinguish flame but create it, and the exhalation exploded from her mouth yellow-bright and searing-hot as a firedrake’s breath. Expanding as it roared up the street, the blaze burned away any wraith it touched, and came within inches of doing the same to the half-elf. But Opal’s aim was true, and the stranger likely escaped with nothing worse than blisters.

After that, the fighting was easier, even though the mist began to rise anew. Vladawen dispatched two more wraiths, and his companions, employing their disparate skills, accounted for a few others. He cast about for his next foe, and a figure in plate armor, a long sword clasped in its gauntleted hand, strode into view. The design of its helmet left the face exposed, revealing the eyeless, fleshless visage of a naked skull.

Vladawen had battled such creatures often enough, in the Divine War and, more recently, during the exploit that won him her royal husband’s aid, in the keep of the mad Lady Gasslander. He had to resist his initial impulse to attack the skeleton forthwith.

Lillatu did lunge for it, but he grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her back. “It’s on our side!” he said, and indeed, the bone man passed them by without a glance. It evidently belonged to one of Hollowfaust’s notorious patrols of skeleton soldiers come to reinforce the living.

Vladawen couldn’t make out whether the reanimated warriors possessed some virtue that allowed them to strike less tangible undead. He wouldn’t have expected so, but still, perhaps by simple coincidence, the arrival of the skeletons heralded the final stage of the fight. He slew another phantom and then couldn’t find any more. Neither, it appeared, could anyone else. The tatters of dank mist thinned and melted away.


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