Today we preview chapter 1 of Dead God Trilogy 3: Forbidden 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.
Lilly knew that something was very wrong. Opal’s scroll should have transported them instantaneously. Hollowfaust should have appeared in the blink of an eye.
Instead, the two women, bruised and weary, each bloody-handed from the slaughter she’d committed, hurtled through limitless, luminous space. Or at least Lilly had a vague sense that they were hurtling. Without reference points, it was impossible to be sure if they were moving at all.
Having visited the place only hours before, she was reasonably certain they’d returned to the astral plane. The only difference was that since this time they’d come in the flesh instead of merely their spirit bodies, they weren’t trailing silvery cords from their navels.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, then discerned that Opal wasn’t going to answer. Homely and rawboned, her forehead gashed and bruised, the wizard appeared paralyzed, inert and frozen as a statue.
“No,” Lilly moaned. The scroll was torn, and Opal had warned her the spell contained thereon might not operate as intended. Still, mere minutes before, Lilly had believed their mission had reached a victorious end, and it seemed incredible that disaster had overtaken them so completely.
She lifted her hand in hopes of shaking the magician out of her stupor, then hesitated, uncertain whether such an effort was really a good idea. She was still pondering when something buzzed, the drone knifing through the silence.
Lilly cast about until she saw a mote of gleaming gold streaking down from overhead. Over the course of several seconds, it swelled into a creature like a locust, with magenta blazes on its metallic- hide. The thrumming was the sound of its wings, beating so fast they were merely a blur. Without any points of reference to provide perspective, it was difficult to be sure, but she thought the thing might be the size of a horse or ox.
“Opal!” she shouted, then slapped her companion hard across the face. The Wexlander didn’t even twitch. Her eyes stared at nothing.
Lilly pulled her slender sword from its scabbard. She had no confidence in her ability to fight in these conditions, but maybe the enchanted weapon would frighten the locust-thing off.
No, no such luck. The burnished creature, simultaneously hideous and weirdly beautiful, hovered above her, just out of reach. Up close, she could tell that it was as big—and threatening—as she’d feared. Its forelimbs terminated in vicious pincers, sharp mandibles gnashed about its maw, and a long stinger curved from its abdomen.
Its eyes, globular and purple-black as grapes, regarded her for a few seconds, and then a voice spoke inside her head. Though it was noiseless, the stuff of pure thought, she registered it as a grating buzz like the note of the locust’s wings, an inhuman grinding that set her teeth on edge.
Give me the horn and head, it said, and I’ll let you pass.
Lilly knew what the creature meant. It was a bitter irony that, while Vladawen’s enterprise had proved a calamitous failure in every way that mattered, it had nonetheless yielded priceless treasure. The glittering crystalline horn tucked under Opal’s arm was a reservoir of arcane power. The gemstone sculpture which floated, along with the corpse of the poor murdered elf, at her feet was an oracle capable of divulging virtually any secret.
Lilly didn’t much care about either one, but she doubted the locust-thing would keep its word. Its bizarre appearance aside, her experiences as a killer for hire, dealing with toughs and bullies across the continent of Ghelspad, suggested that a show of weakness was more likely to provoke it into attacking. So she brandished her sword and said, “Clear off.”
Fool, the creature said. A human is no match for a locust demon anywhere. Certainly not in this realm, where I’m at home and you are not.
“You want the horn, so I imagine you know what it is. I slew the Slarecian dragon who bore it, and no doubt I can manage a grasshopper, too.”
The locust demon spread its mandibles wide and screamed, the ghastly screech spiking pain through Lilly’s ears. She fumbled her grip on the hilt of her sword, and at that instant, the spirit dived.
Lilly snatched at her weapon and kept the blade from slipping from her grasp. Shining pincers flashed at her torso, and she parried desperately. Its point wet with venom, a stinger plunged at her belly, and she swept the sword back to block that attack as well. Then the insect-thing hurtled past, slipping out of range too quickly for her to attempt a riposte.
Even if she had, would the stroke have penetrated the demon’s metallic-looking chitin? Suspended here in space, without her feet planted, how was she supposed to put the full strength of her body into her blows?
Somehow. She told herself she’d beat the spirit somehow, because she must.
It wheeled, circling around behind her. She clutched at Opal, and, using the insensate magician’s body as a sort of fulcrum, hauled herself around to face her onrushing foe.
The locust demon spread its mandibles. She swayed to the side, avoiding the bite, and simultaneously stabbed at one of the spirit’s eyes. Her point missed the orb by an inch, but punched into the creature’s head.
In fact, it was still embedded there when two sets of the demon’s pincers grabbed hold of her other arm. Exerting agonizing pressure, the claws sliced into her leather armor, even as the flying spirit’s momentum threatened to rip her away from Opal. She knew that if the insect-thing separated her from her companion, she’d have no way of making her way back. Disembodied souls traveling the astral realm could flit about impelled by simple intent, but those unfortunate enough to find themselves trapped here while still in their corporeal forms lacked the same capacity.
With only a split second left to act, Lilly clung to Opal and jerked her sword from the wound it had just inflicted. She rammed it deep into the demon’s belly.
Trailing scraps of leather, the pincers spasmed open and released her. But at the same instant, the demon’s stinger leaped at her.
She didn’t have time to jerk her sword into position to parry, so she twisted at the waist. It wasn’t quite good enough. The sting still grazed her shoulder, slicing through her layers of protection and scoring the flesh beneath.
A kind of cold pain wracked her, and she shuddered. Though the stinger hadn’t hit squarely enough to impale her, it was obvious the stroke had sufficed to infuse her with a dose of poison.
She struggled to push the terror of it out of her mind, to quell her shaking and compose herself. As the spirit wheeled for its next attack, she pondered how best to fight it.
She’d already dealt it two wounds, either of which would have incapacitated an earthly opponent, and only made it falter for a moment. Perhaps it didn’t have vital organs in the same way that people and animals did. Yet she had to dispose of it quickly, or it would surely do as much to her. It had spoken the truth when it claimed to possess every advantage.
For several horrible seconds, her mind was a blank. Then, just as the locust demon shot forward, she thought of a ploy that might conceivably serve her need.
First, though, she’d have to weather the spirit’s attacks. She ducked the gnashing mandibles and knocked aside a pair of pincers. Other claws snatched and missed. Her target came within reach, she took aim, and then another wave of cold anguish rattled her bones.
Screaming, she kept the convulsion from crippling her by dint of sheer willpower. She hacked at the smear of rapid motion created by the demon’s wings.
The blade sheared through some resistance, then bounced clear. The spirit’s stinger hammered her, driving the breath from her lungs but failing to penetrate her armor. The locust whizzed past, and she watched it as she gasped for air.
The creature tumbled, then righted itself and labored after her. It now flew with one side of its body hitched higher than the other, and the drone of its wings had a ragged edge.
Lilly grinned savagely. Her earlier impression had been correct. She and Opal were in motion, and now that its wings were damaged, the locust demon couldn’t keep up. Despite its best efforts, it was falling behind.
It must have realized as much, because it slowed down, and Lilly dared to hope it was giving up. Then, however, patches of the luminous void churned and spun in a sickening manner that made her feel as if she were somersaulting head over heels. The shapes of half a dozen other locust-things rippled into being amid the zones of distortion.
She had no chance of overcoming so many. Even if Opal were able to help, it likely wouldn’t make any difference. Lilly gripped her blade and swallowed at the metallic taste of despair. She wasn’t greatly afraid to die. Why should she be, when she deserved it so? But she regretted that she’d never have a chance to tell Vladawen and all the other folk she’d betrayed how she sorry she was.
Then the bright blankness of the astral realm exploded into a bewildering riot of shapes and shadows. Her body suddenly had weight, and since her legs were no longer positioned to maintain her balance, she lurched forward, tripped over Vladawen’s slender, long-legged corpse, and fell.
She lifted her head and peered about. The astral plane had at last given way to Hollowfaust, specifically, to the benighted Plaza of Owls with its gushing fountain. The locust demons were nowhere to be seen. Evidently they were either incapable or unwilling to pursue their prey from one level of reality to the next.
Opal blinked down at Lilly. “Are you all right?” It was obvious that she still had no idea what her friend had just endured. In a sense, the magical journey had been instantaneous for her. It was a paradox beyond a simple assassin’s capacity to unravel
“I’m…” Lilly began, only to realize she didn’t know what she wanted to say. Cold sickness made her shivered. For a second, she imagined she was back in the dark elves’ cave, dying of the lead golem’s noxious breath, and then everything swirled into blackness.