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The Gods Return: Prologue

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 21:57 EDT




by David Drake


    To Dan Breen

    As sort of a bookend, for making this series much better than it would've been without his help.


    When I'm deep into writing a novel, everything else sort of blurs. On my own, I'd eat whatever's simplest to grab. I don't have much sense of serial time on my best day, and when the book takes over I'm likely to be off by a week or more on when things have to be done. The fact that things (this includes sending in the taxes and paying bills) are done and I'm fed excellent, healthy meals, is due to the efforts of my wife Jo.

    Dorothy Day and my webmaster Karen Zimmerman archived my rough and intermediate texts, so that if disaster struck central North Carolina the work would survive. (I might not, but that doesn't concern me. In that case, somebody else will have to sort out the problems.)

    Dorothy helped with continuity matters (for example, what color was the Ornifal standard?), and Karen (a skilled cybrarian) researched all manner of questions, including finding books and images that my whim suggested might be helpful. (I have very clever whims, by the way.) I joke about "my trained staff," but in all truth Dorothy and Karen make the process smoother and the result significantly better than it would be without their help.

    Dr. John Lambshead provided me with drawings of a large, vicious nematode which he discovered and named after his then-girlfriend, now wife. (Hi, Val!). My version of the creature is bigger still but perhaps no more dangerous if you happen to be of the right size.

    I had computer adventures. (Do you know anybody else who had the power button of his PC fall into the case? Mine did.) My son Jonathan and my friend Mark Van Name kept me going. All they get out of it is a fund of stories with which to astound their fellow geeks.

    Thank you all.

    Dave Drake


    The religion of the Isles is based on the Sumerian triad of Inanna, Dumuzi, and Ereshkigal. That fact is of more significance here than it has been in the previous books of the series.

    The magic (which in the Isles series is separate from religion) is based on that of the Mediterranean Basin in classical times. Its core was probably Egyptian, but it borrowed heavily from other cultures (including Jewish elements). What I call words of power are the voces mysticae which were written or spoken to bring the request to the attention of demiurges.

    I do not believe the magic of the Isles series or any other magic is effective in the waking world. I've been wrong about many other things, however. On general principles, I prefer not to pronounce the words of power when I transcribe them.

    My background is basically that of a classical antiquary. There's a great deal to amuse other classicists in this novel besides the snatch of Ovid which I translated (and for more, check my website, I put in these references not as jokes but to give some of the texture of our wonderful real world to my fantasy creation. (Though, okay, the discussion of Pytheas and Strabo is a bit of a joke.)

    I don't believe I've discussed style in print before. I'm going to do so here because of some recent questions.

    Although this novel (and most of mine) is told in third person, I do not use an omniscient narrator: each section is written from a particular viewpoint and in language appropriate to that viewpoint. Ilna is more formal than her brother Cashel, but neither of them has the educated vocabulary to be expected from Garric or Sharina. In all cases this internal viewpoint involves the use of contractions that would not be proper in (say) an academic paper.

    I believe this helps to put the reader in the character's own worldview. You may think I'm a fool to do this or that the technique doesn't work; we can discuss those matters. Please, though, don't assume that I and my erudite editor are ignorant of the rules of formal English prose.

    One final note: we scattered the ashes of my editor and publisher Jim Baen in a grove on my property. I've put the grove into this novel. I can't say with Horace, "Exegi monumentum perennius aere…," but I felt that a little extra memorial to my close friend would be a good thing.



    "You were right, priest," said Archas grudgingly as he and Salmson stared at the jungle-covered building. He wore his blond beard in two braids, curving outward like the horns of a mountain sheep. "Though it doesn't look like any temple I've ever seen."

    Before the Change that mixed all eras to reform the Isles into a single continent, Archas and his men had been pirates scouring the seas off Sirimat and Seres. Now Franca the Sky God had use for them.

    The underpriest Salmson shivered despite the muggy air and the runnels of sweat which had already soaked his robe. "Franca's revelation to Nivers His priest is always right, Captain Archas," he said. "Of course. Franca is lord of all existence; how can He not be right?"

    Salmson looked up to mumble a prayer, but he couldn't see even a patch of sky through the layers of foliage. Nonetheless Franca was present, here and everywhere. All power is with Franca, and serve Him.

    "Anyway, it's a temple and a prison both," Salmson said, wiping his neck where the robe chafed. Insects ringed the collar, not biting but drinking his sweat and making him itch. Other insects crawled into his eyes, though he kept blinking them away. "And it's your path to power, captain."

    Salmson had spent the past twenty years as steward and general dogsbody to Nivers, High Priest of Franca, in the glittering ruin which was all that remained of the Empire of Palomir. It frightened him to have suddenly become so close to unthinkably great power. That was true even though the power was his to control.

    The Gods of Palomir had returned. Deep in Salmson's fearful heart, he regretted his loss of the past when rats chittered in the crystal hallways of Palomir and the jungle inexorably devoured its margins. Those days were gone forever, though. Now Salmson spoke with the voice and power of Franca.

    He grimaced and said, "Bring up the prisoners. It's time we got started."

    The man-sized rat beside him turned and sent a clicking call back along the trail. A squad of ratmen chivied the captives out of the jungle, each carrying a pack. There was no formal division, but Archas and his men had taken the lead during most of the journey from their base on the eastern coast of the seaway which penetrated the new continent.

    The pirates didn't mix with Salmson's escort of ratmen, but they wouldn't have mixed with another band of human cutthroats either. The pirates were a pack of wild beasts which Archas ruled by being the most savage beast among them.

    Whereas the rats were certainly beasts, but not wild ones: they were the minions of Franca, raised by Nivers to serve the place of the human worshippers which depopulated Palomir could not yet provide. The ratmen stood upright, carrying swords. They spoke their own language among themselves, but they took Salmson's orders and kept better discipline than most human soldiers; certainly they were better disciplined than Archas' pirates.

    The ratmen were as ruthless as the icy winter wind. Franca demanded that in His worshippers, and soon all the world would worship Him.

    The prisoners staggered forward and set down packs before sinking to the ground. The six-year-old boy and handful of elderly people didn't have burdens, but even so the trek had exhausted them to the point of collapse.

    This wasn't a clearing, but the canopy hundreds of feet in the air and the lesser canopy of saplings and palms thirty or forty feet up meant there were only ferns and fungi on the forest floor. Some of the captives stared fearfully at the ratmen and the pirates, each band more savage than the other; most turned their eyes to the ground. Here flowers fallen from a giant tree threw magenta patterns across the leaf mold.

    Only one prisoner, an old woman, bothered to look at the structure to which Salmson had drawn them. It was flat-topped, a massive table at least eighty feet long–both ends were hidden in the forest–and twelve high, built from the coarse red limestone which underlay the jungle's thin soil. The frieze along the top register seemed to alternate geometric designs with the heads of stylized beasts, though it was hard to be sure: fern fronds and the roots of major trees covered most of its length.

    Archas prodded the alcove in the center of the structure with one of his pair of curved swords. "This isn't a door!" he said. "It's carved out of rock just like all the rest of the thing. Where's the real door, then?"

    The altar block in front of the temple had a narrow ledge along the back side. Salmson looked up from laying out his apparatus there. A pair of captives had carried the chest holding his paraphernalia of wizardry.

    It made Salmson uncomfortable to think of himself as a wizard. He felt even more uncomfortable in directing the powers of Franca, though… and that seemed to be the truth of the matter.

    He rose to his feet. "That's as expected," he said curtly. "It's the door, or will be. Now, get out of the way while I remove the seal."

    Archas gave him a look of cold appraisal, flicking his sword like the tip of a lion's tail. He stepped aside, though.

    They were all on edge, even the chittering ratmen. The journey along jungle tracks or no track at all, the heat, the insects–all these things were uncomfortable enough. Beyond those normal miseries lurked fear of the unknown and the scraps of knowledge which were even more fearful.

    There was no turning back; Salmson touched his apparatus, nerving himself to begin by raising his athame. That knife of art had been cut from a whale's tooth by a wizard of an age lost in dim time. Its yellowed ivory was inscribed with symbols which Salmson couldn't translate and with tableaux which were all too clear.

    No turning back…. "Abriaon orthiare," Salmson chanted, dipping the athame's point at each syllable. He hadn't scratched a figure on the altar as he normally would've done, but he thought he saw a pentagram glowing in the heart of the opaque stone. "Lampho!"

    Wizardlight as blue as the heart of a glacier quivered along the edge of the alcove; it spluttered every hands-breadth as if igniting blobs of sealing wax. Only when it had described the whole rectangular course did the cold glare fade away.

    "There!" Salmson cried. "Archas, get the shackle that I've freed. By Hili, man, don't lose it or you'll never control the–Hell blast you, I'll do it!"

    The priest scrambled around the end of the altar, tripping on tree roots because his eyes were focused on the wall from which a quiver of gold was drifting. He thrust his hand out against the stone and to his relief felt the ghostly caress of the gossamer which had held the portal closed beyond the strength of even a God to open. Carefully, he began to wind the fetter onto a tourmaline miniature of Fallin of the Waves.

    "What is it?" said the pirate chieftain. He'd stepped back when Salmson shouted at him, his sword raised against whatever might be coming from the tomb. Now he approached again, keeping the blade slanted across his body with the edge outward. "Is it a hair? It looks like blond hair!"

    "It's a hair," Salmson said slowly as he coiled the wisp of gold on the finger-long tourmaline statue of Franca's sibling. "It's supposed to be a hair of the Lady Herself."

    Salmson knew everyone's attention was on him. There were forty-odd pirates; two had died during the march, one in a fight too disorganized to be called a duel and the other screaming at the demons he'd swilled with his wine. The twenty ratmen groomed themselves as they waited. Though they didn't wear armor for this expedition, the jungle's mold and moisture had caused their harnesses to chafe. They licked the sores in their coarse fur methodically.

    "A god's hair?" said Archas. "That's impossible!"

    He glowered, then added, "And anyway, didn't you say the gods were dead? The Lady and the Shepherd and the Sister, all three?"

    Nearly a hundred human captives had survived the march, but they were too cowed even to run away. They watched with the dumb apathy of sheep at the gate of the abattoir.

    The black rooster trussed to a handle of Salmson's casket watched him with furious black eyes, though. Unlike the human prisoners, it hadn't given up.

    Slavery is a state of mind, thought Salmson. But we are all slaves of Franca. Even the cockerel.

    "I said," Salmson said as he finished coiling the impossibly long strand of hair, "that since the Change this world is without gods. As for what the hair is–perhaps you know best. But I warn you, captain, when I turn this over to you–"

    He raised the talisman to call attention to it. The filament was so clear that Fallin's carved features could be glimpsed in the pale green stone.

    "–don't lose it. Without it you won't be able to control the Worm. No one will be able to control the Worm."

    Salmson's lips smiled, though fear froze his mind for an instant at the thought behind his words. No turning back….

    "But no matter," he said, walking back around the altar. He placed the talisman on the ledge among the other implements and raised the athame again. "Bring me the cockerel."

    A ratman lifted the rooster. Instead of cutting the cord, he teased the knot open with delicate claws before handing the sacrifice to Salmson.

    The priest held the cockerel to the center of the altar stone with his left hand. It wriggled and tried to peck him, so he shifted his grip slightly.

    Salmson had noticed birds all the way from the seaway to here. They'd clattered and called in the foliage even when they couldn't be seen, but generally he'd seen them. Since he'd spoken the incantation to unshackle the portal of the Worm, the forest had been silent.

    He sighed, took a deep breath, and intoned solemnly, "Barbathi lameer lamphore…."

    This wasn't as trying as the previous incantation. All he was doing this time was loosing the power of Franca. It was like lifting the trigger bar of a loaded catapult, childishly easy though it released a ball that could smash a gate or the hull of a ship.



    "Anoch anoch iao!" Salmson said. He stabbed the rooster with his athame. The edge of the ivory knife wasn't keen enough to slice flesh, but its point could split a bird's chest. Blood followed as he withdrew the blade, splashing the stone and his arm to the elbow.

    For a moment there was nothing but the thick smell of violent death. Then the rooster's blood began to steam from the altar, swelling into a misty figure the height of the sky. It didn't exist in the same world as Salmson and the jungle, but it was nevertheless visible.

    The figure bent to grip the stone door slab. There was no single scale of sizes in what Salmson saw; though he closed his eyes in sudden terror, the figure remained. Lightning flashed within its dim outlines, but the portal remained shut.

    "Bring me a prisoner!" Salmson said. Two ratmen seized an old man by the arms and dragged him to the altar. The prisoners who'd been carrying packs merely shrank back, but several of the old men would've tottered off if pirates hadn't grabbed them. The child sobbed in misery; the old woman held him by the shoulders.

    The rats threw the prisoner onto the slab face-up, gabbling in wordless terror. He was still wearing a tunic; Salmson gripped it with his left hand and pulled hard, but the cloth didn't tear. One of the ratmen slid the tip of his sword under the collar and sliced the garment open without touching the skin beneath.

    "Anoch anoch iao!" Salmson said and stabbed. The prisoner's back arched. The priest tugged, but the ivory blade had stuck between ribs. He levered the athame back and forth till it came out with another spray of blood. The sacrifice continued to thrash convulsively, but his eyes had glazed before his heart ceased pumping.

    The cloud-formed figure grew denser as it wrestled with the portal. When Salmson looked at it–his eyes were open again, since it didn't matter–he thought the figure stood in a cascade of planes which should've intersected but didn't, or didn't in the waking universe.

    Still the portal remained closed. "Another!" the priest cried. "Bring me a sacrifice!"

    Pirates held the prisoners, but none of them came forward at Salmson's command. The ratmen who'd brought the first victim now flung his drained corpse off the slab and minced toward the remaining supply.

    Before the rats could make a choice, the old woman shoved the boy toward them. He turned shrieking to run back, but the rats caught him and threw him onto the slab. The rats' limbs were slender by human standards, but they had the strength of whalebone.

    "Anoch iao!" Salmson repeated. He stabbed again and the boy's blood gushed.

    The cloud figure solidified into a black-bearded giant whose legs spanned the cosmos. Lightning crackled from its hands as they wrenched at the portal. The stone came away with a crash and flew skyward.

    The figure of Franca dissolved, but titanic laughter boomed across the sky. The portal was open.

    "Sister take it!" Archas muttered. He was staring into the forest canopy with his sword lifted, as though expecting the giant to reappear. "Sister take it and take you, priestling!"

    "Cap'n?" said a pirate holding a stout-shafted javelin. The weapon had a ring in the butt where a line could be reeved to grapple with a merchant vessel, but the barbed head was equally able to disembowel human prey. "What's that that's coming out of the hole now, hey?"

    Salmson's eyes followed the pointing javelin. The square opening in the temple's face had been an empty blackness initially; now thin, violet smoke began to drift out of it. Archas took another step back. Salmson set down the bloody athame and raised the miniature of Fallin.

    The Worm crawled through the interstices of the worlds. Salmson gripped the talisman and faced it, too frightened even to think of running. We are the slaves of Franca. All power is in Franca.

    The portions of the Worm in the waking world were slate gray, pebbled, and colossal. A long tusk thrust from the circular mouth, then withdrew. The opened portal was ten feet square, but the Worm could never have passed through it in the natural course of things.

    Sometimes Salmson saw a world beyond as though the Worm were squirming through a frescoed wall. In that other place cold, sluggish waves swept a rocky strand. Where the body of the Worm should have been was instead a purple mist, but it solidified as the creature writhed into the jungle.

    Some of the pirates had fled. Archas held both swords out, and the man with the barbed spear cocked it over his shoulder to throw.

    A fat, scarred pirate with one ear fell to his knees and began incongruously to call on the Lady. How much mercy did you grant to the prayers of your victims, savage? Salmson thought, but the past no longer mattered.

    He held up the talisman. The skein of golden hair blazed brightly, though no sunlight penetrated here in the jungle's understory. "In the name of Fallin of the Waves!" Salmson cried. "Halt!"

    The Worm reared, its blunt snout penetrating the treetops. Branches crashed aside, showering mosses and spiky airplants like a green rain. The creature was thicker than a five-banked warship and longer than Salmson could judge. Perhaps it was longer than the waking world could hold….

    Slowly the Worm settled back, shifting between the solidity of cold lava and the swirls of violet mist that Salmson had seen rippling in the world beyond the plane of this one. The great body didn't seem to touch the temple from which Salmson had drawn it, but swathes of the jungle beyond shattered at the touch of the gray hide.

    A tree, its crown lost in the canopy two hundred feet above, toppled majestically; wood fibers cracked and popped for minutes. When the bole slammed down, the ground shuddered and knocked several pirates off their feet. The ratmen chittered and squeezed closer together; most of the prisoners lay flat and wept or prayed.

    The pirate with the barbed spear screamed, "Hellspawn!" and hurled his weapon into the Worm; he must've gone mad. The spearhead barely penetrated; the creature twitched, causing the thick shaft to wobble.

    Salmson pointed with the talisman. There must be a demonstration; as well to use the pirate for it as the surplus prisoners he'd brought for the purpose.

    "Kill," he said, though the God had revealed that he needn't speak aloud while holding the talisman.

    The pirate who'd thrown the spear stood where he was, babbling curses. The Worm's mouth opened like a whirlpool yawning. Inside was a ring of teeth and a gullet the mottled red/black colors of rotting horsemeat.

    Black vapor belched from the creature's gullet, enveloping the pirate. His scream stopped in mid note. His bright clothing crumbled like ancient rags; his body shriveled as it fell.

    The Worm quivered forward a few segments, furrowing the jungle like a warship being dragged onto the beach. Its maw engulfed the corpse with a cartload of soil and bedrock, then closed. The creature recoiled slowly to its previous position.

    In a moment of trembling anticipation, Salmson felt an awareness of the power he controlled–the power to destroy anything, everything, by directing the Worm. He recoiled: if he went any further down that path in his mind, he wouldn't return. There would be nothing as valuable to him as the thrill of universal destruction.

    He raised the talisman again. "In the name of Fallin," he said, "go back until you are summoned."

    The Worm began to dissolve into glowing mist: patches here and there, spreading like oil over a ridged gray seascape, iridescent but with foul undertones. The sizzle that accompanied the disappearance was too loud to speak over.

    At the end there was a violet speck in the air. It vanished with a clack like wood blocks striking. The forest was silent.

    Salmson still shivered. There was a fetid odor which he hadn't noticed while the Worm was present.

    He looked down the swath cleared by the monster's body, mashed vegetation from which a miasma rose. Birds hopped among the crushed branches, hunting for prey stunned by the catastrophe.

    All this power….

    "Here, Captain Archas," Salmson said in a clear voice. "Take the talisman. By the grace of Franca, God over all Gods, it is given to you to conquer the Kingdom of the Isles!"

    Archas reached left-handed for the offered statuette. Before he touched it, he paused and said, "And what then? When I've conquered the Isles, what of your folk in Palomir?"

    "We're all slaves of Franca, Captain," Salmson said. "When the whole world worships Franca, then He will decide our fate."

    Archas hesitated a moment longer, then snatched the talisman. "There's nothing more to it?" he demanded. "I just–use it as you did?"

    "The Worm is yours to command," Salmson said quietly. "But don't lose the talisman, or–"

    He shrugged and gestured with his head toward the gouge in the jungle.

    "–the whole world will look like this. Like the Worm's own world."

    And will it be any different for mankind when Franca is God of Gods? Salmson wondered. But there's no turning back….

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