Howdy folks, The writing is going strong. I’m on track for a pre-Christmas release of Priestess of War. To wet your whistles, I thought I would post the first complete chapter of the book.
SPOILER WARNING for those who have not finished The Troll King. This directly deals with events at the end of that book. Here it goes. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments below!
Fist let out a sigh of contentment and placed his large hands behind his head, his eyes closed. He was lying on his back on a comfortable bed. No, it wasn’t a bed. It was softer than that. The ogre felt lighter than air. It was as if he was lying on a cloud. He could feel the warmth of the sun upon his body.
At that thought, a slight frown crossed his features. He had experienced this before. Many times. He grew certain that if he opened his eyes the peaceful feeling would be gone, replaced by some kind of horrible vision. He clenched his eyes closed, willing that softness and warmth to linger.
A rumble reached his ears and the warmth of the sun was diminished by a cool breeze thick with the smell of rain. A storm was coming. Fist groaned. It was happening again. He tried to ignore it.
“Let the dream stay nice,” he pleaded.
A sudden weight settled on his lower body, pushing him deeper into the cloud. A thin hand smacked his face and an insistent female voice said, “Hey! What are you groaning about, Big Guy?”
Fist cracked an eye open and saw Maryanne’s amused eyes looking down at him. She was leaning over him, the tips of her hair dangling down to tickle the sides of his face. The sun behind the gnome’s head lit her auburn hair, turning it the color of fire. Fist smiled up at her, his cheeks flushing as he realized she was straddling his hips.
“What?” she asked, sitting up. Her skin-tight leather armor creaked as she folded her arms. “Don’t just lay there grinning stupidly. We’ve got things to do.”
“No we don’t,” he said and reached up one arm to grasp the back of her neck. He pulled her back towards him. Her eyes narrowed in playful protest but she allowed him to bring her in for a deep kiss.
It lasted only a few moments before she pulled out of his embrace and sat up again. “I mean it, Fist,” she said reproachfully and pointed off to the right. “That storm’s coming on quick and it ain’t made of clouds.”
The cool breeze picked up again, turning into a gust that blew her hair to the side, exposing her floppy ears. The smell of approaching rain was thicker now, but beneath it was a putrid undertone. There was a rumble of thunder and, despite his determination to ignore it, Fist looked in the direction she was pointing.
Lightning flickered in the menacing oncoming clouds. Only Fist knew that it wasn’t truly lightning. The clouds were made up of swarms of flies and winged moonrats and the flashes of light were caused by the flickering glow of their eyes. As if on cue, Fist heard the stomp of oncoming feet and saw his father running towards them, his heavy feet obliterating the clouds beneath him.
“This is my dream!” Fist growled.
Mistress Sarine had taught him that his recurring dreams were part of his spirit magic. She said that they were the Creator’s way of speaking to him and that if he could hold onto his awareness that it was a dream, he could control certain aspects of it. In this case, he wanted to go back to his interesting encounter with Maryanne. He willed everything else to go away.
Evidently, that was not an aspect of the dream he could control, because the storm only grew darker. Crag’s face was bloodied and bruised as he shouted out at him. “Fight!”
Maryanne stood and held his mace out to him, her gaze firm. “C’mon, Fist. He’s right. Stand up and fight!”
Grumbling, Fist rolled to his knees and climbed to his feet. If this was how the dream had to be, he would face it as a warrior. He snatched his mace from the gnome’s hand and he was suddenly outfitted for war. His iron breastplate shimmered with earth magic and his shield was heavy on his left arm. Fist gritted his teeth and sent out threads of earth and air magic. Lightning crackled over the surface of his skin.
“We will fight this evil together,” he promised.
Yes! Fight! Kill! cried Squirrel enthusiastically, appearing on Fist’s shoulder. The furry animal was wearing a vest made of chainmail and a tiny sword was clenched in one of his small hands. Fist lifted one thick brow. Squirrel certainly had grown bloodthirsty since arriving in the mountains.
The wind picked up, buffeting Fist as the smell of rot increased. His father ran towards them as fast as his legs would carry him over the fluffy clouds. Crag arrived just in front of the storm, a look of frustration on his battered face. “I said fight!”
“I am ready,” Fist said, his eyes fixed on the oncoming horde. He was able to make out individual beasts in the cloud now and between the snarling moonrats and specks of flies were larger winged creatures, some of them as large as Fist himself.
“Not them, Toompa!” Crag shouted and swung a heavy fist.
Fist had known this was coming. This dream usually began with Crag punching him off of the clouds. He raised his shield to catch his father’s blow. There was a meaty thud and the ogre chieftain grimaced, shaking his hand.
“We will fight together this time,” Fist declared and reached out with his magic, sending a bolt of lightning into the enemy ranks. There were pained screeches as moonrat eyes burst and blackened bodies fell from the air.
Maryanne fired rapidly, her arrows taking out moonrats one-by-one. Fist saw a large beast break free from the others and hurtle towards her. It was dark and menacing, a tangle of clawed appendages attached to wings. Maryanne’s next arrow struck at the heart of it. The creature continued towards her as the light died from its eyes.
“Maryanne!” Fist cried out as the beast’s heavy body slammed into the gnome warrior, bowling her off the edge of the cloud.
Fist didn’t hesitate. He ran and dove off the edge after her. Squirrel wisely leapt from his shoulder and landed on Crag. Crag and Squirrel continued to fight, Squirrel valiantly skewering flies on his tiny sword as Fist fell from view.
As Fist plummeted after her, he saw Maryanne push her way free from the dead beast’s limp limbs. The spry gnome spread her arms and legs wide, somewhat slowing her descent. Fist plowed into her back.
“I got you!” he declared, wrapping his massive arms around her.
“What the hell’re you doing?” Maryanne shouted back at him in surprise. “Did you jump after me on purpose? Now we’re both falling, ya goblin brain!”
“I know that,” Fist replied. He wasn’t afraid for himself. He always fell in his dream and the landing never hurt him. Of course, landing in the Black Lake led to its own unpleasantries, but he had learned how to will himself not to fall into the Black Lake.
Maryanne, on the other hand, might not be under that same protection. Despite the fact that he knew this was a dream, he couldn’t bear the idea of seeing her die. Besides, he knew from experience that some aspects of the dream tended to come true.
“This is my dream,” he said, holding her tightly as the wind whipped past them and the distant ground closed in. “I choose.”
“Then choose to let go of me!” she snapped and struggled in his arms.
Fist ignored her, willing their descent to slow down. He tried to change the reality of the dream, envisioning both of them standing safe on the shores of the lake below. But as he looked at the approaching mountain range, he realized he wasn’t falling towards the Black lake this time. He was headed somewhere between the lake and the Thunder People Territory.
“Let go,” Maryanne repeated, still trying to pull free. “You’re gonna land on top of me!”
“We’re not gonna hit the ground,” Fist promised her, but his normal tactic wasn’t working. They were still hurtling towards the rocky ground below. As the earth rushed up towards him, Fist could make out the forms of a large group of people rushing away from the Thunder People’s home. It’s my dream, he thought again and tried to picture himself and Maryanne joining the group of people below.
“I said, let GO!” Maryanne snapped her head back, smashing his nose. To his horror, she managed to push free from him just as the ground came up to meet them.
The gnome warrior spun in the air and landed deftly, somehow absorbing the momentum of the fall in a roll on the ground before rising to her feet.
Fist, on the other hand, landed with a splat, face down in the mud. The air was blasted from his lungs and he laid there for a moment unmoving, humiliated. Of course she would land fine without his help. She was a gnome warrior after all.
He could hear the rattle of armor and stomp of footsteps as people marched all around him. A powerful hand gripped his shoulder and pulled him free from the muck, bringing him to his knees. “Dag-gum it, Fist! Get yer sorry hide up. We got a garl-friggin’ war goin’ on!”
“Lenny?” Fist said, wiping mud from his eyes.
The dwarf’s familiar red handlebar mustache was askew and he looked battered and bruised from the fighting, but he just grinned his gap-toothed grin and charged ahead with the others, waving Buster in the air. Fist stood, watching as Academy warriors and brawny ogres rushed past him, intermixed with Mage School wizards. He tried to make out faces to see who else had come with Lenny, but they were all ablur.
“C’mon!” said Maryanne, standing beside him without a spatter of mud on her.
The gnome warrior ran on ahead of him, pulling an arrow from the magical quiver at her waist. Fist tried to run after her but his movements were slow. His arms felt heavy and he grew lethargic and weak. People continued to rush by him, heading towards what he was certain was a massive battle at the Black Lake. Fist tried to take charge, tried to will himself forward, but for some reason this was yet another aspect of the dream he couldn’t control.
“Oo-ooh! Ride?” Rufus asked.
The ape-like rogue horse ran up beside him, his enormous mouth stretched with a wide grin, exposing plate-sized teeth. Squirrel was standing on Rufus’ shoulder and Fist’s eyes widened at small animal’s appearance. His chainmail vest had been replaced with a bandoleer of tiny throwing knives and his wide fluffy tail was gone. In its place was an arching reptilian tail with a pointed barb on the end.
“What happened to you, Squirrel?” Fist asked slowly, curious despite his sluggish state.
I am Deathclaw, Squirrel replied and opened his mouth to expose razor sharp teeth.
Fist would have recoiled but, somehow in the logic of the dream, it made sense. “Thank you, Rufus,” Fist said and tried to raise his heavy leg.
No! said Squirrel, shaking his head. You can’t come up. Not with all those snakes.
“Snakes?” Fist looked down and discovered that his arms and legs were weighed down by dozens of mud-covered brown snakes, each of them latched to him with their teeth.
Fist wasn’t a squeamish sort. He fought giant spiders and ravening trolls without fear. But there was something about snakes that he found unnatural. There was the sinuous way they moved and the fact that even the smallest ones could kill an ogre if they were poisonous enough. He had killed many before, but always with a shiver. This was too much.
He screamed. It was a deep and sluggish sound. It had to be the venom of the snakes that was affecting him.
Fist . . , came the familiar sound of Justan’s thoughts.
Fist didn’t listen. He frantically tried to wave his arms and stomp his legs to shake the snakes off, but all he managed was an odd sort of slow shuffle. His scream continued, panicked in his mind, but aloud it sounded as if he were simply trying to hold a low note.
Fist, I need to talk to you, said Justan’s thoughts again and Fist realized that Justan was there, standing in front of him. There was a tired look on his face.
“Snaaakess,” Fist said in slow motion, pleading to Justan. “Heeellp!”
This is just a dream, Fist, Justan said patiently, his arms folded. Sorry, but I need you to wake up. Something horrible has happened.
The sorrowful feeling coming from Justan’s thoughts jolted through to Fist and he realized that he had let the dream take over. The sluggishness disappeared. “Justan, is that really you and not part of my dream?”
It is, Justan replied. He held out his hand.
Fist reached out to him and the snakes weren’t there anymore. The moment their hands touched, the dream faded from his mind. Fist became aware of the hard ground beneath the thin layer of his bedroll. He could hear Maryanne’s soft snore nearby and could feel the weight of Rufus’ heavy arm over him.
Fist muted those sensations and focused on his connection with Justan through the bond. I am sorry, Justan. I was trying to reach you a while ago and while I was waiting I must have fallen asleep.
It was a long day. We just now stopped for a few hours of sleep ourselves, Justan said. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow, though. I needed to talk to you.
Once again, Fist was overwhelmed by the weary sadness that filled Justan’s thoughts. The ogre was afraid to learn what he had to say. I have a lot to tell you, too, but what happened? Did someone . . . He hesitated to say the word die, but that was definitely the feeling he was getting.
I-I . . . Justan hesitated, unable to form his thoughts into words and Fist’s heart sank. I’ll just show you.
Justan’s memories flowed into Fist’s mind. He saw the two massive armies facing each other. He saw the small platform in the middle of the small marsh at the center of the valley where Jhonate’s father was meeting with the Gnome Warlord to decide whether there would be peace or war.
Aldie led Justan away from the valley and Fist’s heart leapt as Talon came into view. She’s back? Fist feared that Deathclaw’s sister had killed someone close to them. What was she doing in Malaroo?
Just watch, Justan replied and the memory continued.
Fist watched with awe as Justan used his sword to try and heal Talon’s insanity. Then Justan’s focus shifted to the treachery occurring at the armies’ center. Chaos erupted as the ancient troll behemoth rose from the ground beneath the armies and men were swallowed right and left. Thousands of lives were lost right before Justan’s eyes.
When it was over, Fist’s mind was just as numb as Justan’s had been. So many gone. Fist didn’t know most of the people personally. Justan had spent more time with the victims of the massacre. But he had known Djeri the Looker. Fist had spent several nights on guard duty with Lenny’s nephew and had liked him.
And Aldie, Justan said. I didn’t see it myself, but I heard. He was helping evacuate the valley and was pulled underground.
Fist winced. Sir Lance’s son had been so brave during the war. For him and Djeri to die in a foreign land in a war that wasn’t theirs? Horrible.
There were so many lost that the remainder of the army has been in confusion. Since we stopped, Xedrion has had his officers put together a list of those missing. The number keeps growing, Justan sent and his sorrow turned to rage as he added, and it’s all because that gnome was in league with Mellinda.
That last thought pierced through the haze in Fist’s mind. But that can’t be true.
And yet, it is. Somehow she survived our attack in the Dark Forest and found a new body, Justan said, sending the images he had pulled from Talon’s mind. Fist, she has the Rings of Stardeon. She must be more powerful than ever.
But, Justan, Mellinda is here, Fist said. Locksher saw it. That’s what I was going to tell you tonight.
It was Justan’s turn to be stunned. How is that possible?
Fist sent his memories through the bond and told Justan about their mission to the Black Lake and how it had grown in size and the number of infested monsters had increased. He showed Justan how Locksher had allowed himself to become infested so that he could follow the evil magic to its source.
He discovered that it was Mellinda’s power, Fist explained and repeated what Locksher had said, telling Justan that when Jhonate had hewn Mellinda’s soul in two, her power had found a way to escape into two orange moonrat eyes that had been left behind in the mountains. Her evil is what created the larvae. It worked a lot like the way she made the moonrats.
Justan digested all that Fist had shown him. Then what you’re facing is her power only? None of her old intelligence is behind it?
That is what Locksher sensed when he was communicating with it, Fist replied. The way the wizard had explained it, this was just the abscess that had grown from Mellinda’s soul as she had accumulated more and more evil power over the centuries. Her intelligence was gone.
And Locksher thinks that the Dark Prophet has taken control of this power? Justan asked.
He said that this is the part of Mellinda that was connected to the Dark Bowl. It was running wild and the Dark Prophet sent one of his servants to take charge. This had made the evil more dangerous than before. Now the larvae had more of a purpose than to mindlessly breed and control the living. This servant is using some kind of red spirit magic to make Mellinda’s power do his will.
Red spirit magic? Justan hadn’t heard of that before. Every spirit magic he had seen had been white, black, or gray.
Dark red, Fist replied. He hadn’t seen it himself but that was how Locksher had described it.
Justan considered it for a moment. I’ll have to ask Beth or Tolynn if they know what that color means.
Locksher thinks that this person is probably one of the Dark Prophet’s old soldiers or priestesses, Fist added. She was really powerful. We barely escaped.
It had been the storm that saved them. It had been a harrowing ride away from the lake for the four of them clinging to Rufus’ broad back. The thickly falling snow had obscured their escape, but the mysterious woman had come after them, blindly lashing out with air magic in a vicious attack. Wind whipped at them with the fury of winter’s last gasp.
Rufus’ climbing skill had been sorely tested. The rogue horse nearly fell several times. The ice and slush that clung to the mountainside was treacherous and that was before their enemy sent out vibrating strands of earth magic. Tremors shook the cliff face. Rocks loosened from beneath his hands and he had been forced to make several ill-advised leaps.
For his passengers, the experience had been terrifying. If Locksher hadn’t used air magic to lash everyone to Rufus’ back, surely some of them would have fallen to their deaths. As it was, all of them had been battered and bruised by the constant jerking about. Rufus himself had fractured a wrist after one particularly long fall and Fist had needed to repair it through the bond before they continued on.
Did Maryanne ask my great grandmother if she recognized the woman? Justan asked.
She was going to, but I fell asleep before she had time to tell me what she found out, Fist replied. Mistress Sarine’s bonds had given her an extraordinary lifespan. She had been one of the Prophet’s companions during the war two hundred years ago. If their new enemy was one of the Dark Prophet’s priestesses she should recognize her.
Okay, let me know what you find out tomorrow night, Justan replied and Fist felt the bonding wizard’s weariness overtake the bond again.
I will, Fist said. A feeling of guilt surged within him. The evil he faced in the mountains seemed small compared to importance of the events Justan faced. Justan . . . I am sorry that I was not able to be there with you.
Don’t be, Justan assured him. I can see now that we are both where we need to be. Your mission is every bit as important as . . . His thoughts brightened as an idea occurred to him. Fist, maybe more help is coming than you know. Before he left, the Prophet told Tarah Woodblade he had somewhere else important to be. Somewhere where major players needed his help. Maybe he’s coming to you.
Really? Fist replied, hope stirring in his chest. If the Prophet came surely everything would all end up alright.
I don’t know it for sure, but it makes sense now that we know the Dark Prophet has taken control of the Black Lake, Justan pointed out. And even if the Prophet isn’t coming, the news of what Locksher learned today should force the Mage School and Academy to get moving up there.
I hope so, Fist said somewhat doubtfully. They certainly had been dragging their feet so far. It was mainly the Mage School Council that was slowing things down. The Academy wasn’t prepared to move on their own.
I should go now, Justan said and Fist felt him yawn through the bond. Xedrion will want to continue our march soon and I should sleep as much as I can.
Okay. Justan . . . Tell Jhonate I am sorry about her siblings.
I will, Fist. We’ll talk again tomorrow.
As always, Fist replied. It was their common goodbye at the end of the night, yet Fist felt a twinge of sadness every time Justan’s presence faded.
Fist’s awareness of the world around him increased as his thoughts retreated from the bond. He could hear the distant sound of ogres at campfires, but everyone in their own camp seemed to be asleep. His body was still tired and sore and he tried to drift back to sleep himself, but his mind was too active after all that Justan had shown him.
Fist carefully lifted Rufus’ heavy arm off of his chest. Fist hoped not to wake him, but rogue horses were notoriously light sleepers. The intense core of energy that powered them meant that they needed very little rest, but Rufus had used an immense amount of power the day before. To his relief, the ape-like beast simply rolled to his back with a grunt and kept sleeping.
Fist turned to his other side and reached out to gently nudge the gnome sleeping next to him. “Maryanne,” he whispered.
Her snore stopped mid-breath and she cracked an irritated eye at him. “Huh?”
“I just finished talking to Justan,” he replied, feeling a bit guilty for waking her.
She let out a soft groan and rolled to face him. “And?”
“And . . .” He grimaced. “I wanted to know what Sarine told you.”
She sighed. “Sorry. It’s just that I feel like I was tied up in a sack and beaten by a dozen orcs.”
“Sorry,” Fist said, well aware of the beating they had all taken earlier that day. “Do you want me to heal you?”
“You do know how to make me tingle in all the right places.” Maryanne gave him a tired smile. “But no. I’ll be fine. What did your bonding wizard have to say?”
Fist briefly told her about the disastrous events in Malaroo. “He says that the woman leading those troll people was Mellinda.”
She frowned. “Impossible.”
“That’s what I told him,” Fist said. “But the people that saw her swore it was true.”
“Sure is something strange going on there,” Maryanne said.
“Did you ask Mistress Sarine about that red spirit magic Locksher saw?” Fist asked.
“Yeah. That concerned her. She said she was going to look into it,” Maryanne replied. “Sarine was pretty distracted, though. She said the Prophet showed up at the Mage School today raising holy hell.”
“Really?” Fist said with a grin. “Justan said John might be coming up here to help us!”
“I don’t think so,” she said regretfully. “He was mainly mad at them because they hadn’t done the ceremony to call a new head wizard. He told them to get off their butts and start making decisions and then he left.”
END OF CHAPTER ONE