Book 1 – Prologue

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“The gods are bastards.”

The scene of the death was quite beautiful, now, years after the fact. A small creek cut through a little hollow in the prairie; the bowl-shaped depression had probably been a crater centuries ago before rain and wind had blunted its edges and nature filled it with field grasses and singing cicadas. In the exact center, in a vaguely star-shaped swath of emerald green moss interrupting the golden tallgrass, stood a stone marker bearing the carved sunburst of Omnu, the victim’s name and the dates bracketing her pitifully short life.

She knelt before the tiny monument, apparently studying it but in truth merely listening as he approached. The crunch of his boots, the rattle of spurs had given him away long before he spoke, to her annoyance; his heavy tread obscured the other sounds for which she listened.

“You can feel free to tell Father Reyfield I said so,” the man went on, coming to a stop at the lip of the little crater. His shadow loomed beside her, an elongated figure in a ten-gallon hat, hands tucked into his belt in the stationary swagger of a man who kept order in his little town by the sheer force of his personality. “The old poof and I don’t see eye-to-eye on much anyway. Here’s little June Witwill, just plain the best girl in the province, near enough. Sang in the choir, donated all her pocket money to the local mission… Always spoke respectfully of Emperor and country, and up to her eyes in everything ever went on at the church. She once got caught up in a stagecoach robbery when she was twelve, and talked one of the bandits into turning himself in. He went on to become a monk in Omnu’s temple, used to send June letters all the time.” The shadow of his hat oscillated as he shook his head slowly. “Just…best kid I ever knew, is all. And here she is, walkin’ out to catch crawdads in the stream, and just…burns. Just went up like a goddamn firework. Town’s almost a mile away and we heard her scream like it was happening right there. What the hell kind of thing is that, except an act of the gods? And why the hell would they wanna pick on one of the sweetest things they ever created? Yeah, I ain’t been to church since. They’re just plain bastards, is all, and I’ve got enough of those comin’ through my town as it is.”

His steps resumed crunching in the dry grass, more loudly as he picked his way down the slope toward her. The woman rose slowly to her feet, pausing to brush off the knees of her trousers. For a moment she considered getting one of those hats, just for comfort’s sake, but her eyes didn’t need protection from the sun. Besides, she liked the way it gleamed on her golden hair. There was always time for a little touch of vanity.

“I doubt you can imagine what that did to a little town like this, where everybody knows everybody and their business,” he said, drawing abreast of her. “And now, three years on, just when it’s all starting to finally scab over, here comes some nosy elf with a big-city accent, snooping around, asking questions about poor June Witwill and generally opening old wounds. This town doesn’t need that kinda grief, and the Witwills sure as hell don’t. Ma’am, I can’t honestly imagine what it is you’re after, and I do not care. Speakin’ with the full authority of my office, this is me tellin’ you to knock it off. Coach leaves for the Rail depot at Saddle Ridge tomorrow at nine sharp. I think you oughta be on it.”

“Wish you hadn’t followed me, Marshal,” she murmured without looking up at him.

He grunted. “Just bet you do. Now, are we gonna have any difficulty over it?”

“Three and a half years ago, in various places across the Empire, four girls between the ages of fourteen and nineteen spontaneously combusted.” She began pacing in a slow circle around the mossy area, peering at the ground. The swath of green was decorated here and there with tiny stands of versithorae, conical flowers in brilliant shades of yellow, orange and crimson. Elf candles, the human settlers called them. They grew only in the aftermath of fire, where ash nourished the soil. “Well, ‘combusted’ might give the wrong impression; they went up like bombs. All four on the same day, and though the records aren’t precise enough to verify it, I’d bet my ears at the very same moment. And I should clarify that four is merely the number of cases I’ve verified of so far. I’m almost positive there were others. I first learned of this after meeting the one girl who lived, who’s to start in my class this fall.”

“Class?” He eyed her up and down, from sweat-stained work shirt to dusty leggings and scuffed snakeskin boots. “You’re a schoolteacher?”

“Professor,” she corrected absently, still circling. “I’ve found no common thread between them at all, except that each was struck down while she was alone, isolated, outdoors and a good distance from any town. In Shiver Gulch, a mining town in Calderaan Province, it was a sixteen-year-old who’d been in and out of more trouble than a privateer on shore leave. She was passing through a graveyard on the way to join a few other ne’er-do-wells who were waiting with a bottle of whiskey and a whole bushel of glittershrooms. You know how the kids are. It was they who ran for help after hearing her scream, and seeing the fire.”

She straightened, stretching her neck, and met his eyes for the first time. He watched her warily, as he might a large prowling dog of uncertain intentions. Then she resumed her pacing, staring at the moss. “In a wealthy village less than forty miles from the Imperial capital itself, it was a poorly-closeted lesbian roaming the backroads to hide from the town bullies. She was struck down as she crossed a footbridge, and fell into a creek, which was vaporized on contact. In Lasa Vallas, another frontier town much like this one, it was a studious young lady of good parenting who worked at the local library and volunteered her time at a stable. Loved animals, and reading. It hit her as she walked across open prairie to the nearby elf grove to return a book she’d borrowed from one of the druids.”

“Which one survived?” he asked quietly. She glanced at him again, noting with wry satisfaction that the bluster had leaked from him entirely, leaving only a fairly young man trying to accept responsibility for his whole narrow world, under pressures he couldn’t begin to understand.

She came to a halt again in front of the memorial to poor June Witwill, whose faith had not saved her. “It’s never the one you’d expect,” she whispered. “The unfortunate Miss Witwill was attacked by a demon, Marshal. An extremely high-ranking demon, several orders of magnitude more powerful than any seen on the physical plane before. It attempted to possess her, but a human body proved a wholly inadequate host, resulting in the destruction of the girl and, luckily, the creature. We know this because the survivor was able to integrate the demon into herself, preserving both.”

“You’re letting a girl possessed by a demon into your class?” he said incredulously.

“The situation is complicated. It’s unfathomably complicated, and that’s just the fairly small slice of it that I understand. The Church and the Empire have both been involved in this, but I don’t trust either to investigate their own butts using both hands and a mirror, especially not when they begin tripping each other up. So I’m after my own answers.”

“Right, well…nobody in this town has your answers, Professor Elf. It was crawling with priests and Imperial agents for a full year after the incident. If they didn’t turn up anything when the scene was fresh, you won’t now.”

“Ah, but I doubt the investigators thought to ask the Black Wreath.”

“The who?”

“The Black Wreath,” she said patiently. “A cult dedicated to Elilial. They’re secretive, mostly masquerading as—”

“I know who the Black Wreath are, lady! That’s something else you’re not gonna find in this town. Business like that goes on in the cities, not out her among ranchers and farmers who don’t have time for demon-worship even if they have the inclination.”

Wordlessly, she pointed upward.

Raising his eyes, the Marshal started violently, cursing. The rim of the crater was ringed by figures in hooded ash-gray robes; nine of them, almost encircling the two below. He snatched up the two wands holstered at his belt, aiming each up at the menacing figures. Beside him, the Professor rolled her eyes.

“All right, that’s close enough,” the Marshal snapped, grasping for control of the situation. “We’re all neighbors here; nobody needs to get zapped. Let’s lose those hoods. Slowly, now.”

“This is why I wish you hadn’t followed me,” said the elf mildly. “Now I have to keep you alive, too.” He spared her a withering sidelong glare.

“Sorry about this, Marshal,” said one, his voice muffled. “Always did like you, but you’re in the wrong place at the worst possible time. The elf needs to go.”

“You know how tricky it is to ask exactly the right questions make it plain you already know to much when you don’t know anything?” the Professor asked idly, pitching her voice low. “The first two towns had no significant Wreath presence; the third one, I let slip who I was and spooked them into running. I’ve worked hard on this trap, Marshal, and I have no more leads, so kindly don’t screw it up.”

“All right, enough!” the Marshal shouted, raising both wands higher; he was beginning to look rather frazzled. “Hoods off, hands where I can see them. Now!”

Four of the cultists moved, including the speaker, but they reached into their robes, not for their hoods. The Marshal cursed and squeezed the switches on both his wands; their muted click was lost in a tremendous CRACK as bolts of lightning sprang from the tips, striking down two of the robed figures. Not fast enough; the two others had pulled wands from their hiding places and returned fire.

Lightning bolts fizzed into nothingness a few feet from the two in the crater, prompting oaths of surprise from above.

Do try not to kill them all,” said the Professor, then bent her legs slightly and leaped fifty feet straight up, somersaulting over the heads of the startled cultists to land gracefully in the tallgrass beyond the depression. She gestured with both hands and two more of them went bowling cowl-over-spurs into the depression.

Except for the speaker, who stood at the lip of the crater as if frozen, the rest scattered.

The Professor strode unhurriedly after them; by the time the Marshal had dragged himself up from below, she had pinned two more down under a mass of what looked like giant spiderwebs and felled a third with another invisible bolt of force. He paused at the rim, aiming both wands at the immobile cultist.

“Leave him be, he’s not going anywhere,” the elf called over her shoulder from up ahead. “That one seemed most likely to have useful information, so I fixed him in time.”

“Fixed him in…” He tore his gaze from the pacified cultist to her, then broke off what he’d been about to say. “Watch out!”

A dozen yards beyond her, the sole remaining robed figure had doubled over, almost hidden by the waving grass. Now his robe began to ripple as though blown in a high wind. He let out a low groan which grew rapidly into an ear-splitting shriek, then with a great ripping of fabric and flesh, seemed to explode, blood splattering the grass around him.

From the ruins of the cultist rose a bronze colossus, draped in scraps of gray cloth and grisly scraps of the cultist. Spiny wings sprang from its shoulders; it was proportioned like a gorilla, with stubby legs and hugely powerful arms, and covered in coppery scales that gleamed blindingly in the prairie sun. Lacking a neck, its lump of a head sprouted directly from its torso, with a gaping mouth extending halfway down its chest.

The creature weakly fluttered its wings once, swiveled its whole body back and forth as though looking for something, then fixed its gaze on the Professor and emitted a howl was more than half a roar.

“Oh, fuck me,” groaned the Marshal.

“Hmm,” said the Professor. “This complicates matters.”

Not waiting for any further commentary, he raised both wands and mashed the switches, unleashing blast after blast of lightning directly at the monstrosity. It roared in fury, but gave no sign of falling; the magic bolts left swaths of scorched prairie grass in their wake but splashed harmlessly across the creature’s hide. Still, he pressed forward, giving it everything he had, until the elf tackled him from the side, pushing them both into the ground.

Seconds later, the Marshal had only just raised his head and spat out a mouthful of loam when the earth shook as the monster ran right past them, howling. He froze, the elf’s meager weight half on top of him; one of the creature’s bronze feet went by so close he could have reached out to grab it. But they were hidden by the tallgrass, apparently; he could hear the brute stomping and roaring in frustration a few feet away, seeking his lost prey.

It occurred to the Marshal that the thing couldn’t be very bright. Not that that would help anyone if it went for the town.

“That’s a baerzurg,” the elf breathed in his ear. “A lesser class of demon, but its skin is quite impervious. You’ll only draw its attention with your wands. Stay put a moment.”

Then she was gone.

For a tense moment the only sounds were of the demon’s snorting and snuffling (could it smell him?), then suddenly the Professor’s voice came from several feet away.

“Hey there, handsome!”

There was another roar and the pounding of heavy feet, followed by a light laugh from the elf. “Oooh, so close! Go on, have another try.”

She continued to taunt the creature, leading it progressively further from the Marshal, the Witwill memorial and the town which was just barely visible in the distance. As the sounds of her laughing and the creature’s increasingly frustrated yowls drew farther away, he carefully rose to a crouch, removing his hat and peeking up through the upper fronds of the grass. He could barely make out the flicker of movement that was the elf, but the demon continued to stomp back and forth after her, roaring.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

He cursed and almost threw himself flat again at her voice, which came from just behind his shoulder. She winked at him from inches away.

“But…you…over there…”

“Illusory decoy,” she explained. “Now, Marshal, don’t lose your head. Anyhow, it looks like we’re in luck. Our boy’s a slugger, not a caster.”

“I think I’m just gonna sit here and wait for everything to make sense again,” he said woodenly.

“Oh, relax. Baerzurg are hierarchal; some of the upper castes are quite smart and can use magic, but this one’s clearly nothing but muscle. Easily dealt with.”

Easily? That thing looks like it could demolish a building!”

“We’d best not lead him near any buildings then, eh? Now keep your head down, I’m going to coax him back this way…”

She crouched, peering at her duplicate through narrowed eyes and making twitching motions with her fingers. The Marshal groaned softly and edged over to give her space. He watched, clutching his wands for comfort, as the laughing decoy began to weave back in their direction, dragging the increasingly furious demon along.

The illusion finally came to a dead stop, waving cheerily at the baerzurg. Sensing its chance, the beast pounced on her, roaring in triumph. It turned to a howl of impotent rage when the figure vanished right under him.

The Professor stood and calmly made a lifting motion with her hand. The baerzurg, which had been snuffling about on the ground, trying to locate his lost target, yelped as he suddenly ascended straight into the air.

“You can come out, Marshal,” she called. “It’s quite safe.”

Slowly, he rose to his feet. The demon hung suspended twenty feet in the air, roaring and swiping at the elf, who stood almost underneath him, well beyond his reach.

“I’ll need to concentrate on this bit,” she said cheerily, “so kindly busy yourself elsewhere. Perhaps you could round up the rest of our visitors? Here.” She handed him a sizable coil of slim, silvery rope which she had definitely not been holding a moment before.

The Marshal did as he was told. At least it was something he understood.

No matter how he steeled himself, each face he uncovered was a punch to the gut. The lone cultist who’d been the last one felled by one of the elf’s blasts was Howard Slater, a jovial, pot-bellied man who ran the town’s general store. He had passed many a slow hour in the hot afternoons gossiping with the Marshal, and everyone else in the town. The man had a strong pulse and was breathing, but showed no signs of waking up. Whatever she’d hit him with was well-designed.

He had to use his jackknife to extract the two under the spiderwebs, and even so they were left covered with a sticky mess that he didn’t bother to try removing. Maggie Vinterson was a spinster with a mouth like a prune who was always nose-deep in everyone’s private affairs; Lorenzo Haltas worked at the scrolltower office. By all the gods, the man trusted with every message beamed into and out of the town was a demon worshiper. The Marshal almost dizzied himself trying to recall whether anything he’d sent to the capital in the last year would have been of interest to cultists before forcing himself to drop that futile line of thinking. He lined them up next to Slater, lashing their ankles and wrists together and to each other; they’d not be going anywhere when they woke.

He glanced over at the Professor for a moment. She was still standing beneath the imprisoned demon, staring fixedly up at it; now the beast’s distracting howls had taken on a desperate tone and it had begun writhing in apparent pain. At this rate, wouldn’t be long before someone came from town to investigate the commotion; sound carried a long way over the prairie.

His work continued, arranging comatose bodies and confiscating wands and knives as he found them. The two in the crater he dragged up to the others. Joe Blakely, the bootmaker. He’d liked Joe, who was a steady, easygoing man who listened well and gave good advice when a fellow had a problem and needed to unburden himself. The Marshal felt an even stronger pang in his heart upon unveiling the fifth; Marie Upwell was the most sought-after young lady in the whole region, and not just because of her cheerful, compassionate nature. Now that he knew it was she, it was hard not to notice the way even that baggy gray robe draped becomingly over her figure. The Marshal hadn’t actively tried to court her—he was one of the few—but embarrassing fantasies involving Marie had kept him company during more than a few quiet nights. He tied them to the others.

He tried to tune out the baerzurg’s noises, which had become piteous whimpers. He really didn’t want to look up and see what the elf was doing to it.

There was no need to restrain the two felled by his own wands. Some Imperial Marshals carried customized wands that could deliver varying degrees or kinds of power; some were even amateur enchanters who crafted their own to personal specifications. His were standard Imperial issue, and cast standard-issue lightning bolts which were functionally identical to those that came from the sky. A person could survive a direct hit from a bolt of lightning, but it was a noteworthy event when it happened. It hadn’t happened today.

So he laid out Jeff Langley, the shy kid newly apprenticed at the bakery, and Walter Jordan, an aging ex-soldier whose ranch lay just over the horizon, with the hoods of their cultist robes over their faces.

Just as he began to reach for the hood over the figure still frozen upright at the lip of the crater, a great thump shook the ground. He spun to behold the Professor walking toward him and the smoking body of the baerzurg lying in the grass behind her.

“Don’t touch him till I release the spell. He’s stuck in a pocket of slow time; even small impacts could damage him quite a bit.”

“What’s the story with that thing?” He jerked his head at the fallen demon.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s thoroughly dead. Burned to a proverbial crisp.”

“I thought you said it was invincible.”

“Only the skin. Anything will die if you systematically incinerate its internal organs.” She grimaced, wiping her hands on her trousers. “Not a very kind way to die, but that’s the price you pay for superficial invulnerability. All right, keep a wand out; I don’t expect much trouble with this guy, but they’ve already surprised us once today.”

He didn’t see her so much as wiggle her fingers at the last cultist, but the man suddenly twitched as though waking from a heavy sleep. “Take her down! They’ll—eh?”

That was as far as the confused man got before the elf pointed at him and he went tumbling over backward, unconscious.

Careful!’” the Marshal protested. “There is such a thing as excessive force!”

“Oh, un-bunch your bloomers, he’s fine. Let’s get him tied up to the rest of them.”

She did so, while he removed the man’s hood and the scarf wrapped over the lower part of his face. It was definitely not the right weather for that, and the man was even sweatier than the rest of his companions. The Marshal let out a defeated sigh at beholding the refined features of Jackson Towerwell, the clerk at the town hall.

“Ooh, I know him,” the elf said in tones of interest. “Just the chap to have around if you’re planning a spot of skullduggery, eh?”

“…right.”

“Well, then!” She rubbed her hands together. “Sure of those knots, are you? Good, let’s see what our wayward neighbors have to say for themselves.” Leaning forward, she lightly touched Towerwell on the forehead. He started violently and tried to sit upright, succeeding only in entangling himself with Marie. The elf quickly ran down the line, awakening each cultist with a touch.

“Afternoon, Jackson,” the Marshal said gravely.

“…Marshal,” the clerk replied in the same tone. He managed to look dignified, even sitting in the dirt with his hands bound behind himself and being tugged about by the tension on the rope as each of his co-conspirators awakened and struggled experimentally. “Well, I’ll confess this is a mite embarrassing.”

“You’re not going to shoot us, are you, Marshal?” asked Marie tremulously, glancing at the two fallen cultists and then back up at him.

He pushed back his hat to scratch his head. “Not if I can at all help it, Miss Upwell, which will be contingent upon whether you choose to make it necessary. Needless to say it’s jail for the lot of you till I can send a scroll to the capital. This is Imperial business now.”

She burst into tears. The Marshal grimaced, not enjoying the irony; even if she was a fairly caught demon cultist, being responsible for a pretty girl weeping never failed to twist his guts into a knot.

“Well, there is one bit of good news,” Towerwell said with weary joviality. “I meant what I said, Marshal; really didn’t like the thought of having to kill you. It sat poorly with all of us, in fact. Disappointing as all this is, I feel a good bit better that we missed that particular chance.”

The Professor snorted disdainfully, and Towerwell fixed a glare upon her.

“I see your companion doubts my sincerity. You think all members of the Wreath are necessarily wicked creatures who love nothing but destruction? You’re a fool, girl. We’re the last hope for humanity, the few willing to stand against the tyranny of the gods themselves. Would you dare to tread a mile in our shoes? A great doom is coming, and when it arrives, you’ll wish you’d joined us.”

She nudged him in the chest with her boot. “Don’t lecture me, you presumptuous tadpole. I’ve met your dark goddess, and frankly she would find you embarrassing. Now, I’ll need you to provide some answers concerning those girls your glorious cause casually murdered. So, we’re going to play a game called ‘First Person to Talk Doesn’t Get Burned Alive Like June Witwill.’”

“Now, hold it,” the Marshal snapped, drowning out a few muted exclamations of fear. “These folks are Imperial prisoners, Professor. If you had the authority to interrogate them, you’ve have shown me the proof of it before now. Nobody’s laying a hand on them till I get backup out here.”

“Boy,” she said very calmly, “after all we’ve been through together, surely you don’t imagine you can stop me from doing whatever I damn well please?”

He locked his gaze with hers, refusing to back down an inch. The fact was, she was right; he’d seen this woman in action and knew he wasn’t a match for her. But some things were more important than practicality. He had an oath, and a duty, and an agent of the Tiraan Empire did not throw that aside for anything.

“Who are you?” asked Towerwell quietly, peering up at the elf.

She tore her eyes away from the Marshal’s, turning to study the prisoners dispassionately, then smiled. “Well, since we’re all going to be such good friends, I suppose there’s no harm in you knowing at this point.”

So she told them her name.

The Marshal took a reflexive step backward, and a new round of struggles and shouts resonated along the row of bound cultists. Jackson Towerwell bared his teeth at the elf in a feral snarl, furiously twitching and shifting his arms, still bound behind himself.

“An interesting thesis,” the elf said dryly, “but I’m afraid those bonds aren’t likely to be any looser just because you suddenly want even more to be out of them. No, don’t stop on my account. By all means, wear yourself out. I have all the time in the world.”

“Wait,” said the Marshal suddenly, shouldering her aside. “Something’s not…”

Even as he knelt to look more closely at Towerwell, the man convulsed violently, his eyes rolling up, and tumbled over backward, taking Marie down with him. He thrashed in his bonds, beginning to foam the mouth.”

“Oh, shit,” hissed the Professor. “Their hands, Marshal. Grab their hands! Stop them!”

They were too late. All up and down the row, the imprisoned cultists had begun to writhe, a few groaning in obvious agony. Each of them appeared to be suffering some kind of seizure.

The elf produced a gleaming saber from midair and unceremoniously slashed Towerwell loose from the others. She rolled him, still twitching, over onto his front, revealing a small, brass-bound glass tube tucked into his left hand. Upon close inspection, the Marshal saw that one end bore a needle, which was pressed into his opposite wrist.

She snatched it out of his grasp, but the damage was done. Already, Towerwell had fallen still, and the others were faltering in their struggles. The Marshal dashed around behind them, seeing the same little needle-tubes pressed into each’s veins.

“What do we do?” he shouted. “What can we do?”

“Nothing.” Her voice was like ice. She straightened slowly, glaring down at the glass tube clutched in her hand. “There are half a dozen poisons this might have been, and I don’t have antidotes for any of them. If I did, it wouldn’t help; they’ve been injected directly into the blood. It wouldn’t be fast enough.”

He cursed helplessly, clutching Marie Upwell by her shoulders as she twitched weakly, foam dribbling from her perfect lips, then finally went still. He held her, numb, for a few long moments, before lowering her gently to the ground alongside the others. Not one of them still breathed.

“What is that,” he asked, surprised by the calm of his own voice.

“It’s called a hypodermic syringe. One of the new dwarven inventions. Made for delivering medicine; it’s held in the tube here, then you press the needle into someone’s skin and push the plunger, which sends the fluid right into their bloodstream. I bet it took all of two minutes for someone to figure out how good they’d be for delivering poison. They must’ve had them up their sleeves, above where you’d check to tie the wrists. Rather ingenious, really.”

He dropped his gaze to Marie’s face. It was an awful sight, her cheeks flecked with foam, eyes rolled up into her skull, mouth twisted in agony. Carefully, he pulled the hood of her robe out from under her head and draped it over her face, then began moving down the line, doing the same for each of them. He didn’t look up from his task as he spoke.

“Was it true, what you said? You’re really her? Arachne Tellwyrn?”

“You’re really she,” she corrected, “and yeah, I am. For all the good it did here.” She threw the syringe to the ground in disgust. “Congratulations, Marshal, you’re now a member of a very elite group of men who’ve seen the great Professor Tellwyrn made a fool of. Fewer than a dozen have joined in the last century. In fact, I think you may be the only one currently alive.”

She knelt and, with surprising gentleness, closed Jackson Towerwell’s eyes, draping his hood over his face, just as the Marshal reached the other end of the line.

Finding himself without something immediately to do, he simply sat down in the grass, staring up at her. She sighed heavily, knuckling the small of her back, and turned her head toward the distant town.

“I just…I don’t believe it. Demon worshipers, in my town.”

“That’s not so shocking,” she said dismissively. “The Black Wreath is everywhere. Mostly just folks looking to spice up their lives with a bit of the illicit occult, and a couple of true believers to keep them motivated. No, what’s disturbing is that this circle had a suicide summoner on hand, as well as having been supplied with shiny new tech from the dwarven kingdoms, and every one of them had the will to end it rather than risk being made to talk. Usually, you can count on a few cowards not to realize which is the easier way out. This is not what I expected from a few cultists in some backwater town. I was obviously very close…” She sighed again, then shook herself. “Well. I’m staying at the Willowbranch Inn.”

“Oh,” he said numbly. “Yes. Right. I’ll need to get a statement from you, after I…do something with…” He trailed off, sweeping his gaze across the row of dead cultists who minutes before had been friends and neighbors he was sworn to protect.

“Statements, sure. Look, I’ve just been embarrassingly thwarted and seen months of investigation go up in smoke. I now have to start over from scratch, as if I have the bloody time for it, which means hoping another lead into another grisly death will surface. I owe it to my faculty not to come home this frustrated; they’ve enough stress on their shoulders with the semester starting in two weeks. As such, I intend to get thoroughly drunk and laid before catching my coach in the morning. Find my room before ten o’clock tonight if you wish to be part of it.”

With that, she walked away, leaving the poleaxed Imperial Marshal sitting amid the carnage left in her wake.

Professor Tellwyrn didn’t hurry, but let her feet carry her at their own pace back toward the town. Walking was good for thinking; the legs pumped blood cleanly through the brain.

How many other cases like this were there, scattered throughout the Empire? Realistically, it was probably a random number. Maybe no more than the four she’d already found. Arachne had been roaming the world for better than three millennia and become very accustomed to the unexplained and just plain weird. Sometimes these events were hints of broader things in motion, but more often they were just the chaotic detritus of a world too full of magic and people like herself who felt the need to stir the pot. But in that time, she’d also learned to trust her hunches; her subconscious mind was a finely tuned machine that drew connections long before she was able to spot them, and right now it was telling her that the case of the exploding girls was not another coincidence.

The Queen of Demons had seven daughters. Tellwyrn knew, even though she couldn’t yet prove it, that she now had at least three fewer.

Now, the best thing she could hope for was that somewhere in the Empire, three other innocent young lives had been pointlessly, excruciatingly snuffed out in a blaze of hellfire. The alternative was at least one more archdemon with a brand new human body, running around doing Omnu knew what and not carefully under her own eyes as was the girl who’d survived the possession.

And if that was the case, “a great doom” didn’t begin to describe it.


Author’s Note, a year later: One of the downsides of writing in serial form is the inability to edit in large chunks.  Once it’s published, it’s published.  Apart from my desire not to “cheat,” and to let what I wrote stand, keeping an update schedule means I simply don’t have time to go back and re-write whole chapters after the fact.  If I did have the time, I would wholly redo the first part of Book 1.

This story is one of intrigue, adventure and humor.  The first few chapters are the slowest and most expository in the whole run; if you find you like the slow pace, be warned it picks up considerably not far in.  If you find it a little dull, please stick around!  I think you’ll enjoy what comes next.

And as always, thank you for reading.

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21 thoughts on “Book 1 – Prologue

  1. Man, this is good writing. Very solid. The setting is interesting, the characters with some good depth, and some quality conflict brewing.

    Okay, a few minor things.
    “Tallgrass” unless this is a new kind of grass, it should be two words.
    “What is that,” needs a question mark.

    Also, the prof’s explanations seem a bit exposition-y, though that can be easily explained by the fact that she’s a professor.

    Like

    1. I appreciate the compliment!

      Yes, “tallgrass” is the name of the plant; it’s used more in later chapters. And the Marshall’s lack of a question mark was a deliberate stylistic choice; I feel that sometimes, the rules of grammar are less important than the impact the words need to convey. Here, he’s so emotionally wrung out he doesn’t have the energy to lift his intonation at the end of a question. Of course, there are grammar lovers who will argue with me, but I gotta go with what seems right.

      Thanks for spotting those, though! No matter how many times I re-read before posting, it seems I always miss a typo or two.

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      1. Actually if you use something like “What is that, some sort of soap opera?” you can use a question mark later in the sentence rather than right after it.

        FYI, never read a single word yet, I just looked at the comments for reviews before I do. Going to do so so far.

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  2. “You know how tricky it is to ask exactly the right questions make it plain you already know to much when you don’t know anything?”
    ^you already know too much^

    I agree completely with the lack of question mark, and find it fairly amusing that the Marshall completely skipped over Tellwyrn’s offer to sleep with him.

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  3. “A small creek cut through a little hollow in the prairie; the bowl-shaped depression” – I have a hard time picturing this bowl not being a pond or lake.
    “You know how tricky it is to ask exactly the right questions make it plain you already know to much when you don’t know anything?” – something’s missing in this sentence.
    “emitted a howl was more than half a roar.” => howl *that* was more
    “when they woke.” – was the spiderweb enchanted with sleep-inducing magic?

    “very elite group of men who’ve seen” – what, only women live more than a normal human lifetime in this story? Is this going to be one of *those* stories?
    … Okay, if it was the lesbian that survived, I’m out.

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      1. I haven’t read any of the rest of the story yet, but please let me just say something and hear me out. I’m not the most articulate, but please.Thank you.

        When he/she said “*those* stories” he meant the type where the author goes full on “anti-patriarchy” and just simply antagonizes almost all the male characters, making a good man an exception rather than the other way around. That all men are out to exploit women/are sleazy etc. And that just isn’t right, and it bothers some readers.

        As for the lesbian comment I understand as well: when a story has an overrepresenting cast of non-heterosexuals and/or will seek to make aforementioned characters experience plight and make their (back)story tragic, or alienated from their society because of their orientation… well it feels kind of like an attempt to garner sympathy, and it just starts to strike annoyance when you notice what the author is doing. Especially when it becomes a central theme. I, and many others are not looking for a romance or sexuality driven plot, of any kind. I just want fantasy. magic swords boom!

        To recap, I’m not saying feminism is bad, and that non-heterosexuals don’t have it difficult. Hell, it’s just as annoying when I (am attempting to) read something written by an author who doesn’t respect women/is misogynistic in his work. The thing is, it’s annoying both ways. Doesn’t mean we’re misogynistic or homophobic. Just being pushed too far EITHER way is something we very much like to avoid.

        Hope this helps.

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      2. For some reason my computer is not letting me reply directly to The Aimless Passer-by’s comment, so I’ll have to settle for typing my reply below my original comment instead. I appreciate your perspective, and maybe I was a little harsh in my first response (anything I perceive as homophobic or sexist really triggers me). After browsing a bit on the TV Tropes website I found that immortal female races are quite common in fantasy, whereas immortal male races are quite rare in comparison. I can see how this is quite offensive to both men and women, as by positioning women as innately perfect it indulges in gender essentialism as well insulting men and forcing female characters into an unrealistic mold where they are not free to have imperfections (and therefore personality). In light of this, I can understand why a new reader might be wary of this trope coming into play.

        However, I disagree with your concern about a story that deals with issues such as gay rights or feminism. If I understand you correctly, you are not against feminism or gay rights, but you don’t want to read a story that is trying to make an overall point about these issues because you feel it interferes with the actual story? D.D.Webb has explored this particular criticism of his work in another chapter’s comments section, in which he explains that our brains are hardwired to find meaning in any story, even in ones where the author did not intend to send a message. I think the example he gave was when Stephanie Meyer inadvertently sent the message to young girls through the Twilight saga that stalking and possessiveness are romantic behaviours. Therefore he feels that taking control of the messages a story sends is the responsible thing to do. I hope D.D.Webb wont mind me using what he wrote but I really liked his explanation of it. I agree that sometimes stories can get a bit heavy handed with their message, but I don’t feel that the Gods are Bastards does this. When its themes are talked about, it feels organic and not forced (at least it does to me).

        I also find it offensive that anytime you would encounter an ‘over representing cast of non heterosexuals’ in fiction where the author gives a realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, you would assume that the author is only doing this to make a point. Yes, as I just explained, I believe all stories have deeper meanings to them whether the author intended them to or not. However, just because their inclusion sends the message that being gay is just as valid a way of being human as straight (which is obviously a good message) does not mean that the author wrote the characters as gay specifically to prove a point. Saying that they did feeds into the idea that gay and bisexual people are only open about their sexuality to prove a point. For example, if a gay person keeps a picture of their spouse on their work desk, a lot of people would take that as them flaunting their sexuality to make a point even as it is a perfectly normal thing that straight people do as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. OK, so it turns out I was typing my comment in the right place all along, so just ignore the first part of my response. You can probably tell I’m not used to commenting.

        Like

  4. At first I was a little confused, but things became clearer after the baerzurg attacked and what followed after that. Then I was hooked. I like the promises you made: demons, demonic cults, action, magic, fantasy. Normally I would’ve hated the first sentence being the title of the story, but for someone reason it worked for me (probably because it does set up a question–how many gods are there, why are they bastards?). Though you don’t go deep into the world-building yet, I like that you introduce a lot of the elements right out of the gate: elves, dwarves, demons, an empire. Good writing on the action scenes too. Looking forward to reading more!

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  5. I’ve got to admit, this type of mash-up of genre’s is a first for me. And I actually like it very much! You’re doing a splendid job and I hope you write other stories when you finish this one! I would love to read them.

    I’ll definitely re-read this in the future!

    Like

  6. Going back a re-reading some.

    Typos:

    backroads
    (usually)
    back roads

    know to much
    know too much

    spiderwebs (2)
    (usually)
    spider webs

    each’s
    (I get the idea, but my spell checker doesn’t like the possessive form of ‘each’. How about)
    each one’s

    Reactions:

    I noted the following, which is either a lie or an inconsistency from Arachne (rot13 for spoilers):

    “Na rkgerzryl uvtu-enaxvat qrzba, frireny beqref bs zntavghqr zber cbjreshy guna nal frra ba gur culfvpny cynar orsber.”
    Abcr, Inqevral naq ure fvfgref unir orra ba gur cynar zhygvcyr gvzrf orsber. Naq fvapr Grny jnf tbvat gb or ure fghqrag nyernql, fheryl Nenpuar xarj gur cbffrffbe qrzba anzr ol abj.

    Another inconsistency or improbability:
    Seven cultists can all hit a vein with a hypodermic with their hands tied behind their backs? Improbable at best, and anything less than fast blood delivery might not kill them quickly enough. There is one possibility that is consistent with the rest of the story (rot13 for spoilers): nypurzl rkvfgf naq n fgebat be gnetrgrq cbgvba zvtug qb guvf.

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  7. Hi. New reader; I’ve seen this on the web fiction guide enough that I thought I should finally get around to picking it up. Liked what I’ve read so far, too.😉

    Typo report:
    not out her among ranchers -> not out here

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  8. After reading a ton of japanese light novels, chinese xianxia’s and original fictions from RoyalRoad, this will be my first western web novel hahaha. Definitely liking what i see so far😀

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