It began unpleasantly.
A boy of seventeen dreamt of a dark place and a monster so large, so swift, and so terrifying that the sight of it stole his breath away.
He awoke to find a mob carrying him.
Many hands gripped him like vises, lifting him high and stretching his body painfully. They carried him face up. When he tried to turn his head, someone wrenched it back into place.
Pole lanterns bobbed around him, combatting the dark of the night-time sky. At least he assumed it was sky. He saw no stars. Instead, streaks of luminous tendrils drifted high above, their blue glow so deep that they offered little useful light.
At times the boy could glimpse a city out of the corner of his eye, lit by fire and an odd glow. It was built against a cliff a cliff that rose skyward, seemingly forever, lost in the darkness and the not-light of the sky tendrils.
The mob shouted at him, screamed at him.
Hands pulled at his black hair and fists pummeled his lean ribs, interrupting his attempts at shouting a question. He began again, and again.
He fought against blind horror, as if he were falling and could not see.
He needed time to recover his fogged senses, a moment to speak.
But he did not have that time.
A roaring sound grew nearer. Flecks of wetness spattered his face. He tried to lever himself up, his stomach muscles quivering with the effort. But a hand took hold of his hair and forced his head back and down, drawing a groan of pain from his stretched throat. He hung there, arched over and backward, struggling to breathe. The boy's eyes tried to adjust to his upside-down view. He caught sight of six legs, their feet planted in sand bordering a narrow river of swift water.
There was a multi-colored glow here, bright enough to cause him to blink. It came from the river and patches around the banks, turning the water into a ribbon of light. The boy thought it might be the plants that glowed.
Two of the legs strode forward. A bony hand rapped against his ear. The flash of an elderly woman's face swung across his view, her expression tightened in fury and sorrow.
Mutters and cruel laughter filtered into his stinging ear.
"Give him another, Katya!" said a voice. "That one we won't count."
"Yes!" said others.
The hand struck him in the ear again, harder, and fingernails dug flesh from his cheek. A cheer followed. The second set of legs shifted in front of him, and instantly a sledgehammer of force struck his cheek. spreading a shower of swirling stars through his vision. The hand that braced his head kept his neck from snapping with the impact. Cheers arose.
The third pair of legs approached, though Rodrigo could barely see them through his quivering eyes. The crowd fell silent. He felt a woman's hand at his neck. Then sand poured into his nostrils, bringing the sting of sensitive tissue and a panic of drowning. His reflexes wrenched away from the woman's grip, but other hands held him tightly as the crowd urged on her torture with shouts and vengeful laughter.
"Why-" Rodrigo managed to choke out, but the woman's hand flashed above him and a handful of sand pitched through his open lips. Stretched as he was, he couldn't spit it out and couldn't clear his throat. His arms and legs spasmed in suffocation until a ragged rasp of air squeezed out and in through his sand-swollen nostrils.
The warm wet of spit spattered his face, the woman turned aside, and Rodrigo was lifted higher. Only a few hands held him now-strong hands, expertly gripping to keep him from struggling. The beach passed by, and the roar of the water grew louder as they carried him onto a spur of rock. Below him, the roiling water dropped away over a falls.
A building roar of avenging shouts arose from the riverbank. The hands drew him back, a voice barked a command, and Rodrigo found himself launched in the air. For a moment he hung there, his sand-crusted eyes flicking frantically over the city, the mob, and the glowing river beneath him. Then he struck the water and it bore him over the edge, down into a misty, depthless void.
A man who called himself Wisp stood at the ready in the undead city of Old Haven, his body formally erect and his eyes forward. His hands rested at his sides, aligned precisely with the worn hilts of the daggers strapped to his thighs.
From outside the enclosing circle of lantern light there could be heard soft footsteps, breath-quiet whispers, and the faintest scrape of metal on metal. Wisp ignored these phantom sounds. It was unwise to pay attention to the dead.
He had been here before.
A man named Paddington stood beside Wisp, facing the opposite direction, his relaxed body showing the same strong lines of physical conditioning as Wisp's. Unlike Wisp's plain face and receding waves of dark hair, Paddington was portrait-worthy, with sharp, handsome features, a confident jut to his jaw, and nearly black eyes highlighted by tightly curled blond locks. His precisely cut beard ended halfway to the ears. A silver insignia of a shield braced by stars shone on his shoulder, for Paddington led the secret service of the current, and long-time, High Lord of Haven - Odami of Crescent Clan.
Wisp carried no insignia on his shoulder. For all anyone knew, he was merely a locksmith. In reality, he served a quiet, deadly purpose against those who threatened Odami or Haven.
In front of Wisp, High Lord Odami perched atop a low wall surrounding a dead garden, his head turning side to side, revealing to Wisp the confidence and certainty in his face. It was the same expression Paddington wore, and the one Wisp also presented.
But unlike Paddington, who seemed to believe without reservation in the high lord's ambitions, Wisp harbored grave doubts - doubts that he kept carefully locked away.
Wisp held a fervent love for his home, the city of Haven. He could trace his family line back through sixteen generations of Havenites - to ancestors who were not merely Sleepers awakened from stone. Like every patriotic Havenite, he chafed at the restrictions placed on Haven by the immortal royals sitting on their thrones in the city of Pinnacle. He had access to the deepest information gathered by Odami's spies, and knew the depths of the royals' evil.
Despite this, Wisp shuddered at Odami and Paddington's war plan.
They intended to kill Pinnacle.
Along the nearly abandoned east side of sprawling Pinnacle Castle, a pair of short natural cliffs rose to create a tiny canyon between them. A few buildings and fortifications had been built atop the cliffs, including the barracks once used by the light-winged tantyr warriors, but most of the rocky, spurred clifftop remained untouched by construction. Darkness dominated, broken only by scattered moss-glow and the midnight-blue of the drifting sky tendrils.
Within the jumble of rock near the joining of the cliffs, a shadow touched at the edges of the frail light.
A minute passed, the shadow giving no indication that its maker was anything other than a large nearby boulder. But then it shifted, disappeared, reappeared between two open patches, and sank away beneath a jagged crack next to the cliff face.
Another minute passed.
A shifting patch of shadow arose on the cliff stone - the silhouette of tentacles curling about each other and a long, flat snout sniffing at the air.
The shadow extended. Two bulging black eyes regarded the sill of the window built into the cliff face below.
The window sat open a few inches.
The creature stiffened in alarm, but acted.
Creeping swiftly down the vertical cliff on wide, flat feet, it swiveled its head to allow one eye a view into the room beyond the window.
A clutter of old medical supplies and a disarray of healer's beds choked the room. In the mess, a human invader dressed in a brown cloak stooped over a cot, inspecting an arrangement of loot salvaged from the room.
The creature cared nothing for the loot. Her eye surveyed the room, patch by patch, trying to spot her only care...
Her two children.
No sign of them. But there were other rooms beyond, and they knew to hide.
The human scooped up several more items off the floor, rattling steel pots and thin forceps. This gave the she-creature the opportunity to ease open the window and slide her long, lean frame through, then up and along the ceiling. The human's loud clatter hardly mattered, for she managed this entry with near silence.
She hung above him. He rattled on. Her eyes took in the clutter of objects.
Despite the leanness of her body, she measured more than eight feet long and outmassed the human by a small but significant measure. Her weight, and the surprise of it, bore him to the ground. She clamped the wide flap of her hand to the human's mouth and nose. Her other hand reached for the scalpel that she had spotted among the clutter.
But her smothing hand landed against an obstruction at the human's mouth - a mask or bar of some kind. She tore at it, and it shifted, but not enough to get a seal over the human's breathing.
Her other hand closed on the scalpel.
Her name, in English, was Ariel's Fancy, but the crewmates called her Patch because of her many design faults and half-effective refits. As a third-rate knockoff of coastal expedition cruise liners that were designed for the quiet waters of bays, she lacked comfortable seaworthiness. She bucked into the waves and rolled sickeningly in side swells, and to add to her graceless state, her owners had shamed her with a patchwork of eye-offending paint and plastics.
She could carry one thousand, according to cruise-line regulation.
On this evening, she carried over six thousand.
She pushed north-northeast, critically short of fuel after a desperate, tangled course in her flight from Port Caldera, Costa Rica.
The captain who had commandeered her a brilliant man of military skill-turned to his navigator as the sun touched the horizon. The navigator hunched over her station, muttering to herself. He stooped over her shoulder, scanning the charts of the central Oregon coastline displayed on the control flat. "Reserves?"
The chart screen flickered, agonized by a corroded wire somewhere within. The navigator's breath stopped and her fingers raised off the table in helpless frustration, but they lowered with a sigh when the screen steadied. They had no paper charts available to them, and GPS no longer existed.
She brought a slip of paper marked with measuring lines against the screen and scratched furiously at a notepad. "None, sir."
The captain leaned in closer to the screen. "None, or very little?"
"Not a drop, sir. If we stay straight on course and don't hit weather, we'll coast into the upper Coos Bay docks."
He rubbed at his unshaven cheek, scanning the map. "We can beach in the lower bay if necessary, use the day boats to ferry-"
A shout echoed through the cracked window.
He snatched up his weapon. "How close is land?”
She reached for her own weapon. "Orford Reef has a few stacks coming up. Otherwise, about twenty miles."
He undogged the door and stepped out. His lookout shouted again and pointed coastward. The captain followed his point.
In the last of the sun's effort, he caught a hint of irregularity low in the sky, just above the dark band of the coastal ridges...
Bloated bodies and the flick of leathery wings. Grogs.
The captain cursed and sucked in a breath. He leapt onto a rail. "Stations! Incoming!"
The command echoed as his men passed it along aft, having lost personal electronic communications.
The captain tried to count the grogs, ending at sixty. He shook his head. Seventeen men covering eight hundred feet of ship...
Below him, the surviving NCO of the marine embassy detachment bolted from the comm room and turned to race sternward.
"Sergeant Zales! Grog flight incoming." shouted the captain.
Sergeant Zales turned, his ugly bulldog face wrinkled in intensity. "Got more than Grogs, sir. Leviathan on sonar. It'll bull-hump us in the stern in a sec."
"Guevara has stern. Back him up, go go go!"
Zales tapped his bald head in acknowledgment and spun into a sprint.
- one month after the failed Malfaer attack on Haven
The mist had purpose. It did not drift lazily through the ruined city within the underground cavern. Instead, it raged like a pack of winter wolves, driving forward with such ferocity that a curtain of dust roiled up before it. Every gap and splintered edge sent up a quavering howl of tortured air.
It reached a cliff face pocked with fortifications, foaming in its frenzy to reach the heights. The mist cloud swelled, filling the cavern, clawing higher and higher against the cliff until it poured forth across a flat plateau choked with half-burned ruins. It rushed forward into a narrowing cavern, thrust through a tall crack, and spilled into a great domed chamber cluttered with machinery. There, it found a circular passage and churned vengefully down its length.
But not far.
A barrier blocked the way, its surface of bronze, smooth and bright with newness. The fog crawled across that surface like snakes seeking a lair. It pressed around the edges, in the seam between rock and metal, but dared not press through such a dangerously narrow space. Denied by the barrier, it stilled, lapsing into sluggish impatience like an animal long caged.
Hours passed. Shapes flowed in the shimmering dark-a parade of shadows birthed from nightmare. They advanced in silence through the city, but now unleashed their screeches and threw themselves at the offending blockade. Predators lashed their claws across its surface, stick-women raised their hands in power and called forth fire and lightning, and bug-like horrors vomited their acids upon it.
Within the domed chamber, hordes of shadows surged in from the crack-so many that they pushed and crowded against each other. In their midst, lights appeared, opening like trapdoors. The creatures called to each other. "Pallora! Pallora! Make way for Pallora!"
An emaciated giant materialized—a woman of thorns and vines and rotting wood, fifty feet tall. Pallora, one of four surviving lords of the Malfaer, had come.
Rodrigo wakes up to find himself in the middle of his own execution. He is tossed over a waterfall cliff and falls a thousand feet to an obvious death. And yet he awakens to increasingly odd events. He and a band of fellow strangers begin to tug at the mysteries around them. They discover an elusive pattern that could save their lives—if it doesn’t kill them first. The Dusties fantasy series is king of unfolding mystery—smart, unexpected, filled with twist after twist, and with some of the most loved characters found in fantasy.
Fall in love with the lost Dusties, and discover their link to the Worldspanner universe.
"This is not a series to take lightly. It's like a Sherlock or Poirot mystery where you have to pay attention. You get dropped into this strange situation, leaving you with as little knowledge of events as the characters. And then you start having these 'wait a minute!' moments, and they don't stop! Definitely one of the most interesting mystery series I've read."
- Abbey Dissance
"One thing I love about this book is that the reader is given enough clues to solve the mysteries on their own. This compels you to think through what you are reading and I found myself constantly asking myself if some piece of information was a clue to a puzzle that the dusties had to solve. The book is also full of noble characters who do admirable things. In a world where many of our books are filled with anti-heroes it was fun to have characters that I loved rooting for."
- John D Teem
"I don't normally give out 5 star reviews, but this book is truly worth it. I don't remember how I managed to find it, but so glad that I did. It's a beautiful story filled with action, romance, puzzles, and even simple life for those of very un-simple origins."
- Stephen Kunz
"I've been reading science fiction and fantasy since the 1970s. After awhile you see patterns and tropes emerge and when you read a new book in the genre, you start making forecasts as to what will happen in the plot based on what you've read before. Reading this book, I was immersed in something original. The plot, characters, and world all felt unique. I greatly enjoyed the experience of reading this book for that reason, but also for the interesting characters that are well developed with interesting dialogue and hidden secrets."
- C.M. Pohl
"I was pretty stunned by the series. It read like the mixture of Burroughs’ Mars books, Narnia, Sherlock Holmes, comic book action, and relentless thrillers, that I never knew could exist. Cliffhangers, and puzzles, piled on top of each other, again and again, in a way I haven’t seen before. I haven’t burned through a set of books like this since I was a teenager. Thanks for writing them!"
- Ian Stewart
"Murrell's handle on character development and distinction of personalities is some of the best I have ever seen--on par with some of my favorite authors such as Brandon Sanderson and Michael J. Sullivan. Rodrigo and Rip were my favorite characters, but I felt connected and interested in every member of the cast—including the antagonists. I won't call them villains, because they often had logical reasons for doing what they did, which made them fascinating to read. Murrell's use of foreshadowing to create plot twists was one of my favorite parts of the series (aside from the characters). There was never a dull moment, and I found myself reading one book after the other non-stop.""
- Lula McCue