Monthly Archives: March 2014

FALLEN Chapter 2 beta

Chapter 2 

Had Noah not finally placed the smell, he might have thought the goblets filled with wine, but a wine that was somehow too thick, too red. Clinks of goblets toasting to good health echoed around the hall. The feasters smiled at one another, drank deeply, wiped crimson droplets from stained lips. Noah’s gorge rose. He looked incredulously at the prince, who grinned large, and the nightmare continued.

The thin black-clad man appeared in front of the table holding a silver basin. This he placed before the prince, then clapped and beckoned toward a shadowed, high-arched doorway. Two servants emerged, pulling a tall apparatus slowly into the dim light. It was a bizarre, gangly thing, made of iron bars and cord set on small wooden wheels, somewhat resembling a gallows. A young woman, barely more than a girl, hung head-down, back curved and stretched over metal framework of the apparatus. She was alive, moaning dreamily as if drugged. Despite being swollen and red from hanging upside-down, her face was beautiful. Her hair fell loosely down in satin curls that waved as the apparatus stopped, and through his increasing sickness, Noah caught the faint scent of roses.

The girl’s head hung over the silver bowl; her hair almost brushed the bowl’s edges. Almost delirious with incredulity, Noah whispered. “No.” He shoved up from the table, scattering his silverware. A leatherclad fist hit him squarely behind the ear, stunning him. Hands grabbed him by the hair and neck and forced him back down. His cheek pressed against a silver plate; spittle from his quick, heavy breaths marred the girl’s reflection at the plate’s edge, but he could still make out the black sleeve and thin white hand, the curved knife that drew closer to engorged veins in a slender neck. Noah closed his eyes and cried.

He opened his eyes, hoping to awake. Instead, he saw blood. Pulsating rivulets of bright-red mixed with steady flows of maroon, all meeting and mixing and masking the girl’s face with macabre, meandering stripes until the blood soaked into her blonde hair and turned it dark. The clear, sharp drips onto silver became the wet sounds of liquid pouring into liquid as the bowl rapidly filled. The prince put his lips to the rippling red surface and took a sip.

“The rose is a very nice touch, Etien.” He smiled benignly at the man in black, a crimson grin against white skin.

“Thank you, my lord.”

“I think that will be all for now, Etien, this looks to be quite enough. Take it away – and don’t waste any, it bleeds still.”

Servants returned, bowed, and dragged the apparatus with the dead girl away from whence it came; one held a wooden basin under the dripping hair to catch the blood that still flowed from the long neck wound. Noah coughed, sick to his very soul and spirit.

“Let our guest up, if you please.” The prince waved to the unseen figures behind Noah, still holding him pressed to the table. Noah swayed in his seat as if he were drunk; some small part of his mind, some courageous subconscious spark, steeled him for whatever horrors were next, then his senses rebelled utterly. He vomited across the silverware and onto the floor.

With an animal’s reflexes, the prince pushed himself from his seat. He frowned, a faint look of disgust edging his features.

“Well, my appetite is gone.” The prince stood, and a servant was at the table before he called. “Clean this up, will you? Noah, walk with me again.”

A woman with drooping jowls and golden rings through her ears and nose noticed the prince stand. She turned and sent him an inquisitive look. The prince’s handsome face smiled broadly. “Excuse me, everyone,” he called. “I leave you now, but please continue without me. Enjoy!” The woman happily resumed her meal.

Strong hands pushed Noah behind the prince. Two burly men in piecemeal leather armor, scarred like the servants and bearing scars of battle besides, walked to either side and behind the missioner. Their hands lay lightly on the hilts of sheathed, curving swords. Noah stumbled along, numb with horror. The prince seemed oblivious to his state, though, and began speaking once more.

“Noah, let me share my view of the world. It is this. We are animals – intelligent, cultured, but animals nonetheless. As the stronger predator thrives while the weaker starves and the prey is eaten, so it is with us. Those people outside these walls? They are as cattle to us, as sheep to be slaughtered. Your myths and fantasies cannot protect them, any more than they protect you now. What say you to that?”

An ember of defiance gave fire to Noah’s defense of his faith. “Do what you will to me. I am a tool. The seed of truth has been planted in your lands, prince, and it will grow, all the more if it is watered with the blood of martyrs.”

The prince laughed. “Poetic! Vomit on your chin, but a gilded tongue! I will try to match you. You speak of your precious converts, yes? Come, let me show you why I will not worry on them.”

FALLEN Chapter 1 beta

Chapter 1

  The city of Phempor sweltered and sweated in the morning sun. The morning mists crept through the alleys, prying into cracks in the crude wooden doors and empty windows with damp fingers. In other places in the world, the mists watered crops, orchards, gardens; here, they merely turned the filthy dirt streets into mud.

  A man, neither very young nor very old, strode through the mud with a purpose, trying to avoid the patches of darker brown that marked where excreta had been tossed into the street. Working men and women were already about, trudging with dull, downcast eyes to toil in dry fields. The people of the city were impoverished, but they filled the warrens of their honeycombed dwellings with many children; after all, in a land such as this, what other entertainment was there to be had than procreation?

  For eight years Noah had lived alongside the peasants. It was not the longest time he and his comrades had spent in one mission field, but it was longer than most, for the need was great. They had started in the small, dusty communities of the region, and for the last few years had worked in the slums of Phempor itself. Much of his work had been of a practical nature. The application of sound farming principles, ingrained in him from his youth in the lands of Eden, to even this poor soil had led to markedly increased crop yields of the tubers and squashes that were staples of Phempor’s diet, aided by regular animal sacrifices in the altar houses they had planted about the city. The strong arms of the missioners had helped build many homes and dig many wells, and parts of the clay slums now had rudimentary waste channels running to the sulfurous bogs outside of the city. Phempor’s ubiquitous structures were the round-roofed clay hovels that clustered closely together and pressed almost to the high-walled palaces of the ruling class, like prostrate beggars clutching at the hems of noble robes.The palaces lay in the middle of the city, but for the peasantry that surrounded them, they might as well have been a thousand leagues away. After much work and prayer, though, Noah’s invitation had come. He was finally to meet the reclusive prince of Phempor.

  His destination loomed ahead, broad and dark against the bright blue sky. Messages of truth and hope, of the Creator God and His will for the world, bubbled easily to the surface of his thoughts. They were well-rehearsed, given freely many thousand times and honed by study, prayer, and discussion to pierce a man’s soul. Well it was, too, for times such as these, when the chance might not come again to witness the truth to these rulers of men. A good word well-planted in fertile soil might bear fruit for an entire nation-state.

  Noah smiled as he walked, reminiscing on the successes the Lord God Creator had blessed them with, on the many of His children who now called on His name and made sacrifice to Him out of fealty and love. This was his true work. Many others had joined the work over the last four centuries. Paths crossed and branched and began and ended, all weaving a holy tapestry for the Creator God’s glory, and ancient truths had reawakened in many places they had been lost. Phempor was one such place. While its barren soil bore the curse of the land poorly, the souls of its people had been ready for harvest. Noah found that this was often the case; those without earthly needs seldom realized their spiritual needs, but poverty bred hearts hungry for hope and a willingness to listen.

  At first, their message had fallen on deaf ears, but care and persistence had paid off. Now, Machmanis, one of the first of the peasants to take up the faith of old, had assumed full duties at one of the modest altar houses, and Felun’s zeal was as great as Noah or any of the others. Young Gaen had expressed interest in continuing with them to their next mission field, whenever and wherever it might be, and some of the missions they had planted had even begun to plant missions of their own.

  Still, this was the opportunity he had prayed for. For all of its change for the better, Phempor was still dangerous and dirty. The populace was hard-pressed enough, but crime was rampant. Women and children disappeared regularly. Gangs of brigands fought bloody, secret battles for control of alleys and muddy pools, answering only to rival gangs, since the Phempor guard remained within the confines of the palaces. There was much idolatry; clay was in abundance, and sculptors made a steady living crafting sun-dried figures, blind and deaf to their supplicants. These things did not have to be. Noah had seen it before: a righteous ruler, living as the Creator intended, could bless his own people, change how they lived their lives, in ways Noah could never do.

  The palaces were enclosed by a tall guard wall built of red salt-glazed bricks that caught the sun like liquid. Iron lamps sat atop the angular buttresses that supported the wall every so often; whatever fuel filled the lamps burned bright blue. Dark doors set in the guard wall opened for Noah, seemingly of their own accord. He walked through them.

  The courtyard was barren. No one greeted Noah as he crossed the dusty space to the wide steps leading to the main palace entrance. Two bare-armed, leather-clad palace guards stood at the door, both holding barbed spears in one hand and long leather leashes in the other. At the ends of the leashes, iron-grey wolfhounds strained against their masters and paced back and forth, roughly describing the arc that the leash length would allow. The courtyard stunk of dog feces; obviously no effort was made to clean up the wolfhound droppings that littered the ground.

  Noah took the stairs two at a time, smiling at the hounds despite their menacing growls. The guards’ countenances were imperceptible in the shadows cast by their lowbrowed helms and faceguards that swept past their cheeks and nearly met a hand’s length past their noses. The most striking thing about them was the symbols scarred into their necks, clearly a result of branding. They did not acknowledge Noah, but neither did they move to stop him. He strode on, through the door that again opened for him with no sign of human action.

  The palace interior was swathed in shadows, and a moment passed before Noah’s eyes recovered from bright daylight. As the darkness gained shape and hue, he raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. While the courtyard he had seen was in accord with the dirty quality of the city, the inside of the palace was opulent. Indeed, Noah would have thought he had stepped into a hall in Enoch – rather, Atlantis, as it was now named – or Havilah, had the stench of the courtyard not faintly followed him through the door. Sculptures and frescoes decorated the walls and columns, dim and dreamlike in the low light cast by more blue-flamed lanterns. Details of the art were difficult to make out, but each example was obviously done by a master in the form. Still, the more Noah looked around the room, the greater an uneasy sense of malevolence nagged at the edge of his consciousness. Whether the simple dichotomy of beauty in shadow, or some intentional twisting and warping of the figures by the artists, done too subtly to pinpoint, he was relieved when a man finally greeted him from a doorway across the entrance hall.

  “Welcome, Noah of Eden. You are expected. Come, enter freely, of your own will.” The man was thin and severe, dressed in a simple, straight black robe, and strikingly pale. He spoke with a heavy accent unfamiliar to Noah’s well-travelled ears, but the invitation was an answer to many years of prayer, and Noah gladly followed him.

  They walked quickly through a maze of hallways, and the missioner soon found himself completely disoriented. Rather suddenly, a turn took them through a high-arched stone hall, and Noah stepped blinking into a flame-lit room, complete with a coterie of courtiers who stopped and stared as one at the newcomer, and the prince of Phempor himself gazing down from his ebony throne at the end of the room.

  Like the rest of the palace so far, there was no source of outside light, but the lantern flames here were a comfortable, homey, normal orange. Many of the courtiers’ faces lit up at the sight of Noah, jovial and friendly. Each man and woman was dressed in dark clothing of fine fabric and cut, fitting for an audience with royalty. Like the man who ushered him in, the people who smiled at Noah now were pale of skin, as if none of them saw the sun. Many of them were quite fleshy, obviously well-fed, a stark contrast to the gaunt, bony physiques common to Phempor’s peasants. Noah suppressed a frown. What secret store of food were these fat folk hiding in these palaces, and why had they not shared it with the starving populace?

  A loud, light voice pulled his attention to the prince. “And you must be Noah!” he said. “Come closer! I am told that we have much to discuss, you and I. Come!” The prince stood. He was young, or appeared so, trim and starkly beautiful, and just as pale as everyone else Noah had yet seen in the palace. His slender, almost effeminate, hands had clearly not known labor of any sort, and with one of them he patted Noah on the shoulder.

  “What luck! You have arrived in time for our banquet. I know that you wish to speak to me – an honor! – so shall we walk and talk?”

  “My message is for the ears and hearts of your courtiers, too.”

  “Of course! All of you,” the prince said, clapping his hands, “follow us, and listen closely to what this man says! Now, Noah, if you please. What message is this? A good one, I hope?”

  “The best.” Noah took a deep breath. This court was certainly the most informal he had ever experienced. A camaraderie seemed to exist among these denizens of the palace, and the prince was surprisingly friendly and open. Like the farmers from whose stock he came, Noah had planted the seeds with toil and sweat, and now he prepared for a harvest. “Prince, I will tell you an ancient truth. We are immortals under a curse.”

  “Intriguing! Do tell more.”

  “You and I, and all here, were made by the eternal Creator God in His very image. The first of us, the man Adam and the woman Eve, were placed in paradise and fellowshipped with the Creator Himself, wanting nothing. They were perfect of form, undying, happy and fulfilled, but they were not merely playthings for the Creator God, not puppets. They were free to choose to do what they would, to go where they wished.”

  “This sounds very nice indeed! What happened next?” The prince leaned closer as they walked.

  Noah’s tone took a grim timbre. “They were deceived into disobedience, prince. Satan, the Serpent, once the highest of the Creator God’s servants but now set in rebellion against Him, tempted the woman Eve with the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. The man Adam followed. They disobeyed the one command that their Lord had given them. Fellowship was broken. The man and woman were cast from paradise, never to return, and a curse was set over the world. Death and pain, struggle and toil, was now the lot of man.”

  Quiet murmurs of disappointment and concern floated from the following courtiers. The prince frowned. “This story has become rather depressing, Noah.”

  “And depressing it was, prince. No tragedy could have been greater. But with the curse came hope! To our great benefit, mankind was not to live eternal in this cursed flesh, sinking ever deeper into its sin, apart from the Creator. His justice demanded punishment for disobedience, but His love remained. He promised a Redeemer, who would free mankind, and indeed the whole of creation, from the curse. Even death itself, the last, final enemy, would be destroyed, and all would be renewed to be what it once was, to what it was intended to be.”

  Scattered clapping came from behind, as if the courtiers had witnessed a bard’s bravura performance. The prince’s interest could not be denied. “A very fine story. So, tell me – what are we to do now?”

  “We obey the conscience given us by the Creator God,” answered Noah. “We hope for the coming of the promised Redeemer, and we walk in righteousness while we wait. We treat our fellow men as we ourselves wish to be treated.”

  The prince slowed his walk and pursed his lips. “And this is why you have toiled alongside the people of this city?”

  Noah smiled. “Earthly work can open minds to spiritual truth. If even one soul attains to the hope of redemption, I consider it well worth the effort.”

  “Ah.” The prince grew quiet. His mouth twitched at the corners, as if he were suppressing some joke of supreme hilarity. “You believe all of this to be true, do you?”

  “I know it to be true, prince.”

  “Know it! Well, Noah, allow me to share with you what I believe.” The prince glanced back at his fleshy followers with a conspiratorial grin. “I believe in what I see with my own eyes, and what I see is this. Each of us has a time, a thousand years at most, to suck as much pleasure from this life as we have power. I will waste no time thinking on a God I cannot see, nor the origins of the world around. It is what it is. That is enough. Might there be things that lie outside my perception? Perhaps, but why should I concern myself with them?”

  Noah had a dozen ready responses that leapt to his lips. He was not surprised at the opposition that he now encountered, that he had encountered countless times before. Before he could speak, the prince abruptly exlaimed, “At last, we come to the banquet hall! I must say, I am famished.

  The smell of meat and spices was heavy in the air, mingled with a faintly sweet, metallic scent. At first Noah couldn’t identify the curiously familiar smell, although he knew that somehow he was no stranger to it. As he struggled to place it, the group rounded another corner and arrived in a wide hall. Long tables were spaced around the brick-paved floor, with short staircases leading to shadowy alcoves in the hall’s corners. Fireplaces lined either side of the hall, and servants with the same sort of scars on their necks as had the palace guards stood at attention around the room.

  The prince gestured to Noah with a broad smile. “Please, sit at my table.” Noah could not very well refuse, and he followed the prince to his seat. Each place was set with ornate silver settings, but the tables were bare of food. The smell of the feast was stronger now; Noah abstained from eating meat, though it did smell quite good, but the strange scent somehow decreased his appetite further.

  Once the courtiers had been seated, the prince stood and clapped. “Bring food and drink! And be quick about it!” The servants disappeared into dark arched doorways.

  They reemerged two at a time, carrying long platters that were placed on the tables in front of courtiers who licked their lips in anticipation. Butcher shops would always be strange ground for the missioner – those who kept the old and true ways held to a vegetarian diet – but what confused Noah at first was his surety that herds, of any kind of animal, sizable enough to provide for a feast as this simply did not exist in the fetid wastelands around Phempor.

  Upon each platter lay a fat white fish, each as long as Noah’s arm, still steaming. Knives stuck deep into the ribs of the creatures. One fat, greasy-haired man at the closest table pulled out the blade with vigor as soon as the platter touched the table. He began carving slices and serving his tablemates. Noah thought he might ask the prince about the source of such bounty, and why such a source had not been used to help feed Phempor’s hungry population. He preferred to do so before he himself was obliged to refuse the meat and risk hurting the prince’s sense of hospitality, but his host cut off his question and motioned for his silence. Noah acquiesced.

   Scarred servants began filing out of side doors carrying trays of silver goblets to each table. All of a sudden, Noah recognized the smell. He feared nothing and no one but the Lord God, but a visceral terror now clutched his heart in an icy, shocking grip, and a chill swept over him. The color drained from his face, and he stared at the prince with unbelieving wide eyes.

  The prince returned his stare with a cold smile. “Welcome to our feast.”

FALLEN Prologue beta

Hey, all (however many “all” is…). I’m going to start posting a chapter from the sequel to Antediluvian every few days or so. I’m hoping this will 1) provide actual substantive blog content, 2) result in ongoing first-draft feedback, and 3) give me motivation to knock out the rest of this book in timely fashion. Here you (however many “you” are…) go.



  Gavai repositioned himself on the throne, trying his best to get comfortable. The golden seat had been built for a much smaller man, a weaker man, a lesser man – Gavai only wondered why someone had not wrested control of the tribes from the weakling earlier. Gavai himself was a large man, tall, with broad shoulders and a thick chest. So large was he, in fact, that more than one acquaintance had asked if he was part of an angelic bloodline. He never answered. He did not actually know, since his heritage was a mystery to him. Growing up among the tall tents of countless Zuthian oasis cities, stealing from merchants and following caravans like a carrion bird, Gavai had early on resigned himself to the truth that he was either an unwanted bastard or an orphan. Still, this bastard orphan now sat on the throne of the Zuthian tribes, albeit rather uncomfortably.

  Under the spacious cover of the white silk tents that stretched high overhead, the tribute procession had been moving along uneventfully for most of the morning. Each tribe’s delegation waited for its turn to present gifts to its ruler, then exited the tent. Gavai’s guards stood at the periphery of the tent’s interior. Not much protection was to be had from drapes of cloth or skins, after all; in Zuthi, the walls worth anything were made up of strong men worthy of trust. Such were the warlord’s guards, hand-picked by Gavai himself.

  A line of men draped in bright cloth, dignitaries from an eastern tribe, kneeled as one at the bottom step of the dais. They placed jeweled urns carefully down and retreated, pledging their fealty to the warlord. Gavai waved them on.

  Two of his concubines collected the urns as a slave called in the next tributaries. The scantily-clad young women had proved to be the only interesting thing about this dull day. For a fleeting moment, he envied his generals, still campaigning and conquering the leaderless rabble that resisted his rule. His generals, all former comrades-in-arms, had called him “the viper.” Ironically, he hated using poisons. Before he had killed his predecessor in clean combat, Zuthian rule had generally changed hands after poisonings. In hopes of avoiding such a fate himself, Gavai had also killed virtually every member of the former court – except the concubines, of course. Gavai grinned lustfully as they bent down to pick up the urns, bodies curving and stretching in fascinating ways. He abruptly decided that he had better things to do than collect tribute. “One more,” he shouted to the slave serving as usher, “and then I shall retire to my chambers.” He leered at the two concubines reclined on the steps by his feet. They smiled coyly back.

  The slave nodded nervously and hurried the next group in. Gavai sat up. Eight slaves entered, four male and four female, carrying a coffin-sized chest inlaid with shimmering blue lapis and blood-red rubies. They were naked but for loincloths, and their skin had a sheen as if they had each been doused in some sort of oil. All eight looked to be in peak physical condition, lean and muscular. Gavai did not recognize them to belong to any tributary he knew, but at the rate the outlier tribes were being conquered and added to his domain, that did not surprise him.

  The chest was obviously heavy, and the slaves carried it carefully. Each of them tightly held two silver handgrips spaced around the chest’s bottom edge, sixteen in all. Gavai found that he did not even care what riches the chest contained; what caught his eye was the four pairs of bare, oiled breasts bouncing slightly with every careful movement forward. He noticed his concubines’ interest in the slaves, as well – mostly in the men, but not only. He beckoned a guard to him.

  “Invite those slaves to my private chambers. See that no one disturbs us.” The guard nodded. “And tell the waiting tributaries that I may be quite a while.”

  The oiled slaves now stood before the dais. Gavai smiled, benevolently, he hoped, at the nearest female. The cold stare he received jarred him. A warning horn sounded deep in his consciousness, not as clarion as it had been in the days when he was leading his warriors into battle, but still clear enough that he stood, frowning.

  “Drop that chest,” he ordered. The closest two male slaves bowed their heads. Suddenly, all eight slaves pulled their hands violently from the chest, revealing the silver handgrips to be the hilts of wicked-looking long knives. They sprung away from the chest, burying knives into the surprised guards that futilely tried to defend themselves with raised shields and outthrust spears. One of the females ran to the back and tied the tall outer tentflaps shut, slicing the neck of the usher on the way.

  While the slaves’ knives were wreaking havoc, the chest fell to the ground. It cracked when it hit the sandy floor, but it shattered to pieces when one of the males threw a guard’s spear through it. Gavai’s battle-axe was already in his hand, and three of the concubines were already clustered behind him, when the swarm of beetles within the chest collectively realized it had been freed. Five guards had been downed already, but nine more had drawn their weapons and faced off against the armed slaves. One of the oiled women was already bleeding into the sand, dead or badly injured. Unnoticed by the guards, the swarm rose from the ruined chest as one black mass, then spread. The two concubines at the bottom of the dais were the first to cry out, slapping at the beetles that landed on their skin. Cries turned to shrieks of pure terror as the beetles covered them completely. They fell, screaming and writhing. The guards fared slightly better, if only because as soon as one’s attention was drawn to the biting beetles, he was cut down by one of the oiled slaves.

  Three remaining concubines rushed up the stairs. Only two reached Gavai and the others; the last was caught by the beetles that had finished stripping the fallen concubines down to bone. She screamed and fell, rolling down the stairs and leaving a trail of crushed beetles on the steps. More swarmed to her, though, and she soon was still and silent. Gavai was consumed by a jealous fury. He had been only a few minutes away from bedding those women, and now they were being devoured by flesh-eating insects!

  Another assassin-slave, a male, had fallen, but six remained and now stood at the bottom of the dais. Gavai surveyed what remained of his court. Black masses that were once guards lay spread around the ground. Shouts came from outside the heavy tent, and several blades stabbed through the fabric. Small swarms of curious beetles flew towards the rents in the tent, exploring for an escape. “Stay out!” shouted Gavai. 

  “Why?” the warlord growled to the oiled man climbing the steps, then crushed the first beetle that had dared land on his person. “Why are you doing this?”

  “For the jackal god,” the slave replied. The answer made no sense to Gavai, gave no reason to this chaos. He roared and swung his axe. The slave dodged and threw a knife, blade sinking halfway into the meat of his shoulder. Five more knives spun through the air, piercing his chest and abdomen. He dropped to his knees, eyes on the buzzing black swarms rising behind the grim, knife-wielding slaves. As the swarms advanced, two of the females strode past him to the terrified concubines. They slashed at the curtains behind the throne, cutting out long strips of thick linen. Rudely shoving the concubines to the foot of the throne, they wrapped each of them in the strips of curtain like a cocoon, then laid themselves sprawled on top of the bound women, all moaning in terror. “Quiet!” ordered the lead slave. “You will be gifts for the serpent god. Be thankful for your lives.”

  The black swarm advanced quickly now, ignoring the oiled slaves. Fighting sounded outside, and two more guards were thrown bleeding into the tent. Three enormous figures stepped inside, wrapped in dark strips of cloth and wearing evil-looking masks with wolf-like visages. They held curved blades, bloodstained and decorated with rose-gold. One held a jar out; the third female slave ran back to retrieve it, then ran up the steps and poured its contents on the concubines wrapped in cloth.

  Gavai’s lifeblood ran down the steps in crimson rivulets. He made no effort to stop the beetles that began to gnaw at his flesh. The lead slave dipped his fingers into the jar held by the female, then stood in front of the kneeling warlord a step below him, just above eye level. The slave tilted Gavai’s head up, then wiped an oily hand across his face and eyes.

  “You may watch your death like a man,” he said, then stepped down the stairs. He paused, then called out over his shoulder. “The beetles are sated now, so it may be slow.”

  The giant black-swathed figures ascended to the throne, ignoring the warlord, and descended again carrying the bound concubines. As a group, the giants, concubines, and slaves left the tent. The beetles covered Gavai slowly, lazily, only nibbling at his flesh, but none came near his eyes. It was indeed slow. He watched as long as he was able.