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.

 

Prologue

  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.

 

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