I’ve been working on this novel for a while. Picked it up. Set it down. Changed multiple times. Figured I should at least put up a snippet.
Below is the beginning of the novel.
In the Republic of Marei, it was an accepted fact the Badlands should not be entered if one wanted to remain alive – or sane. It wasn’t because the Badlands were the largest stretch of desert on the continent of Torra. People survived and thrived in deserts for thousands of years. No, the reason no one went willingly into the Badlands was because they were a cursed land twisted over the last two centuries by unnatural magic. Most people went mad in a few months. Rin was one of the few who could work in the Badlands and keep his sanity. There were times he wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse.
The magic might not make me insane, but seeing things like this might, Rin thought. After nearly eight years working in the Badlands as a Republican Ranger, Rin thought he’d seen pretty much all the horror the cursed lands could throw at him. He should have known better. Rin climbed down off his horse and carefully stepped on the sandy ground. His horse refused to go any closer. Forti Equo was a born-and-bred Badlands horse. Those didn’t speak easily. If Forti didn’t want to go near the scene, common sense was for Rin to gallop back to Fort Killian as fast as he could and return with as many of his brother rangers as he could grab. Sometimes, unfortunately, common sense needed to be put aside to get the job done. Particularly when dealing with demons.
Ghosts of the long dead daemon, demons were the rarest of the monsters in the Badlands – which was a very good thing. Demons were the most dangerous creatures in a land known for its dangers. Two centuries ago, the daemon invaded the world. They opened gates from their own cursed world and went about slaughtering all that stood on the land they craved. The races of the world threw everything they could conjure or forge at the daemons, but nothing could stop the tide of the monsters. In the end the daemon threat ended because of one human wizard. Killian and his Benevolent Betrayal. Standing somewhere in what would become the Badlands, Killian sealed away almost all of the world’s natural magic. Without the streams of natural magic, the daemons’ power was ripped from them. It made them vulnerable to the weapons of the races of the world. That was the benevolent part. The betrayal was the destruction wreaked upon the world. Hundreds of thousands died when the center of Torra continent collapsed, and the waters of the rushed in forming the Little Sea. It was much worse for the Crystal Empire across the Jeweled Sea. The betrayal nearly destroyed their entire civilization.
“Told you,” hissed the foul creature, shimmering into visibility, “Told you truth.” Rin ignored the demon as he studied the scene.
“Done what was required. Fulfill the bargain,” the demon said, with a voice like a loud, malicious whisper. Most people thought demons were dangerous because the monsters could tear through an army platoon without effort. Some demons could, but most of them were little more than shadows. The real reason demons were dangerous was because they still had some of their own magic. Enough to channel the trickles of natural magic into powerful spells. Demons used their magic to lure idiots looking for power. Those idiots never understood that the demons’ magic also allowed them to enforce a bargain. Any demon’s ultimate goal was to gain a shard of a person’s soul. The power of a soul allowed the demon to fully come into the world with all the power and terror of the long-dead daemon. A souled demon was immensely powerful in its own right, but it could also bind any other demon and use their power. Most Rin’s job was stopping the fools looking for demons before the demons found them. That didn’t mean he was above bargaining with the demons when needed.
“Not until I’m satisfied,” Rin replied. The demon tried to look more threatening. Demons could look however they wanted. They ranged the gamut from simple innocent-looking tricksters to true horrors that hurt a person’s mind just by looking. Most demons tried to mimic humans when dealing with people, but for some reason they could never get the details quite right. The eyes were too big, or the hair was a metallic color, or there were tentacles instead of fingers. There was always something off. This demon didn’t bother with pretenses. Rin wasn’t a short man, but the demon’s three-meter frame towered over him. Its current form was a slimy, bulging mass of gray flesh, tentacles, and claws. There was only a small protrusion with eyes and a mouth to talk with Rin. Usually, these kinds of demons just slaughtered anything around it until it was put down. Rin was surprised when it approached him the night before to bargain for information.
Rin’s hard gaze made the demon shrink back. It wasn’t going to do anything too stupid while Rin still held the bait. Demons were often depicted as wily, cunning foes in paper novels. They could be – if you forgot what they were after. Above all else, the demons wanted soul shards. All their promises, all their gifts, all their magic was devoted to gaining those precious shards. Hold that out as bait, and a demon will agree to damn near anything.
Rin covered his mouth and nose with a bandanna. The cloth cut down the stench to bearable. Torn human innards smelled bad enough. After baking in the hot sun, the odor was strong enough to make most men wretch. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what was causing Rin’s stomach to flop over like he’d drunk an entire bottle of rotgut. According to the demon, this scene was two days old. Badlands scavengers never passed up a free meal, but there weren’t even any flies on the bodies. Eighteen people were tied hand to foot in a large circle, including the half-dozen children. From their features and clothing – and the two burned wagons – they were probably refugees escaping the Northern Kingdom’s civil war. Maybe they were hoping to find refuge in the Republic or even the insane patchwork of bandit fiefdoms in the Southlands. It didn’t matter now. What mattered was finding who did this to them. Instinctively, Rin undid the leather lashes on his scimitar and revolver. As he neared, Rin realized what was causing his queasiness. Rin could feel the wrongness from the remnants of a powerful spell. Damn, the demon was telling the truth.
Rin swallowed again and took another step to inspect the bodies. From the bruises and scrapes on the men’s faces and knuckles, they tried to put up a fight. It hadn’t helped. From the expressions on the faces, these people were alive when the ritual symbols were cut into their flesh. Just looking at the symbols gave Rin a headache. As Rin circled the scene, he guessed the perpetrator killed them to fuel the ritual. Rin had seen it before. Use the demon to bring in the trickles of natural magic and then use the death to intensify it.
“What was this ritual for?” Rin asked as he stood back up from his examination. The demon’s flesh pulsed quizzically.
“What about the bargain?” the demon asked, ignoring Rin’s question. It must have sensed Rin knew something was wrong. It started floating backward. That made it greedy, not stupid.
“You told me you watched a human attack these people two nights ago, tie them up, and do a ritual.” Rin said, keeping his voice calm as he stepped back to his horse. The demon floated back a little further.
“You promised a shard!” the demon yelled, its whisper turning into a thunder boom.
“If you want me to give you a shard, then you need to tell me everything. That was the bargain,” Rin said.
“Told you everything,” the demon retorted, but it was back to whispering. It almost sounded pleading. The promise of a shard was too strong. Rin revised his opinion of the demon. It was greedy and stupid.
“The sorcerer needed help to gather up those people. I’m guessing that was you. I doubt very much that you would participate in a ritual that you hadn’t taught him. So, you will tell me everything as we agreed or the bargain is forfeit,” Rin told the demon.
“Shard! Give me shard!” the demon wailed. Rin’s hand reached back and yanked the grapegun from its scabbard on his saddle. He brought the double-barreled weapon up to his shoulder and touched off the first barrel. The demon let out an otherworldly howl as the shards of obsidian lanced into its form. The gray flesh darkened. It was now stuck between this world and whatever one they came from.
“Everything, now!” Rin demanded, “Or you get the second barrel – and it’s silver.” The demon quivered as it realized the danger. Obsidian anchored demons into the world without the protection of a soul shard. While it was anchored, silver could put down the demon. For a time, at least. There was only one way to put down a demon permanently.
“Human said it would trade a shard for help,” the demon croaked, “Helped get these humans. That all! Human already knew ritual.” Rin quirked his eyebrow up in surprise. Since the near elimination of natural magic from Killian’s Benevolent Betrayal, there was only two sources of the knowledge of magic rituals – the dieties and the demons. No religious order would use such a horrific ritual, and no demon would have told a human about a ritual that powerful without getting a shard in payment. The rangers would have known if there was a souled demon. If the sheer carnage didn’t alert them, other demons would have been tripping over themselves to do so just to keep from being enslaved. Still, the demon was bound by the deal to tell Rin the truth. It could leave out parts, but whatever it told Rin must be true or the bargain would be forfeit. Demons who forfeited their bargains suffered the same fate as those who were bound with obsidian and hit with silver.
“What was the ritual for? What did this do?”
“I don’t know. The human was talking foolish things.”
“What did the human say?”
“It would wake up the world.” The demon pulsed with terror as Rin considered the words. Wake the world? What under the Protector’s gaze would that mean? Rin studied the demon. It wasn’t lying. It wanted the shard too badly.
“You helped the human. So why didn’t you get a shard?” Rin asked, looking up at the demon.
“Ritual broke the bargain!” the demon exclaimed. The words sent a chill down Rin’s spine. Demon bargains were unbreakable. The sky was blue, water was wet, and you couldn’t break a bargain with a demon. A person who didn’t live up to his end forfeited all of his soul to the demon. Not much scared Rin, but a human wielding magic that could break a demon bargain terrified Rin.
“Where did he go after this?” Rin asked, motioning to the human corpses.
“That not the bargain,” the demon protested, “Give shard!”
“The bargain was you lead me to this place and tell me everything you observed,” Rin said, “If the sorcerer said or hinted anything about where he was going, then you would have observed it.” The demon snarled as its flesh pulsed angrily.
“Hate humans. Especially hate you,” the demon said, “Demanded human give shard. It said no. Tried to invoke bargain. Magic broke bargain. Threatened to kill human. It laughed. Said it was too busy to deal with demon. Had to catch a ship to elf lands.”
“So why didn’t you kill him?” Rin asked, ignoring the sudden pulsing from the medallion around his neck. Rin ignored it. Damn thing started up anytime someone mentioned the elves.
“Tried. Nothing worked. Magic didn’t work right,” the demon admitted, “Told everything. Now give shard.” Rin scanned the flat sandy area. His eyes locked on to the light glinting to the north. Well, it was about damned time. Rin looked at the demon.
“I, Rinaldo Batista Acciaio, give you a shard of my soul,” Rin said. The formal words sealed the demon bargain. As soon as he uttered the words, a wave of weakness hit him. Rin collapsed to the ground. The demon screamed in exaltation. Rin felt the unnatural shift in the air as the demon absorbed the shard. Rin rolled over and flashed his signal mirror with the little strength he could muster. It was at that point, the demon realized its mistake. It should have known not to make a deal with a ranger.
The demon bellowed in rage. A clawed tentacle shot out at Rin. He barely managed to block the strike with his mirror. The blow shattered the glass and tore the steel backing from Rin’s hands. Black fluid erupted from the demon’s body as the bullet struck a second before the report of the rifle. The demon quivered indignantly before screaming in agony. A second bullet slammed into the demon. Silver could temporarily put down a demon once it was anchored in the world, but the demon would reappear anywhere from a month to a few years later. To permanently put down a demon, it needed to be pierced by star-iron. Star-iron destroyed the demon. Which was why every ranger carried a few of the precious bullets.
The demon went into a fit of spasms as the star-iron expelled its unnatural presence from the world. The demon’s body went still as the daemon ghost struggled to remain in this world. The fight lasted a few seconds. The demon’s body splattered across the ground as the daemon ghost was shoved out of reality. Rin felt his strength come back as the shard of his soul returned to him. The gamble paid off better than he’d expected – and much worse. Rin knew what he was going to have to do. As much as he wished he could shove this duty off on anyone else, Rin knew he had the best chance of catching the sorcerer responsible for the horror in front of him. He staggered over to Forti Equo and pulled out his writing tablet.
Rin was finishing his short report as his partner trotted up on his horse. Like Rin, Sergeant Nico Ignaccio had what were considered traditional Republican features. Nico’s hair was straight and black, but unlike Rin, Nico kept his long enough to be tied back. Rin found short hair was much cooler in the heat of the Badlands. Nico was short and heavily muscled, where Rin was of above average height and slim. Both had skin darker than the normal olive tone due to long days in the Badlands sun. Nico’s dark eyes normally twinkled with amusement.
“You were late with the shot,” Rin growled as Nico approached.
“You know, most other people would start with ‘that was a great shot, Nico. Especially from that distance with a star-iron bullet’,” Nico said. All of his humor evaporated as soon as he saw the ritual site.
“Sweet Protector, what happened here?” Nico asked. “I’ve never seen a demon ritual like this before.”
“That’s because it’s not a demon ritual,” Rin said.
“The Protector would never condone such a thing in his name. Not even the elves’ god would do this. Even to humans,” Nico said. Rin stopped himself before correcting his partner. The elves worshipped a goddess, not a god. He didn’t have the time to explain to Nico how he knew that. Nico was already too inquisitive about Rin’s past. The man absolutely refused to take the hints to leave well enough alone.
“Agreed. I don’t know what this ritual was for, but I intend to find the bastard who did this and find out,” Rin said. He held out his account of what the demon told him. “Nico, I need you to take this to the major. He’s going to need to get some of the scholars down here. Maybe they can figure out what happened.” Rin hoped they would find something that contradicted what his instincts were telling him.
“If I’m supposed to be taking this to the major, then where are you going?” Nico demanded.
“Fools Port, as fast as possible.” Rin climbed up on his horse.
“Fools Port? Are you insane? They’ll kill you as soon as they see your badge. Why under the Protector’s gaze would you go there?” Nico asked, perplexed.
“Only place in the Republic I can find a ship that will take me to the Elven Empire fast enough to catch the bastard who did this,” Rin answered. He spurred his horse into a gallop as Nico’s jaw dropped. The medallion around Rin’s neck pulsed happily.