In the meantime, I think I'll post a couple of sample chapters for your perusal. I heartily invite your comments. After all, this is the stage of the game where I can make things right if you think they're off to a bad start!
Curse Reiver (working title)
Book II of The Risen Age Archive
(Yes, there's a prologue. The POV character and location are separate from the main action of the story, so I stand stalwartly by its necessity.)
To be cast into his own fires of sacrifice by an Elgadrim Knight, even by an elf, was insulting enough. But by a simple girl? Ba-al Zechmaat roared in wordless indignation.
The fiend high priest of Queldurik disentangled himself from a last loop of chain around his foot. Despite his broken wing’s searing protests, he slammed his talons into the wall and sent chips of obsidian flying in a pelting spray. He hauled his weight, one shuddering arm length at a time, away from the bottom of the sacrifice pit that ringed the altar platform. The flames that roared along the pit’s floor licked over his flesh, familiar, but comfortless. Only the strain of the climb dominated Ba-al Zechmaat’s notice. Plagues upon the weaknesses I endure while I linger on this mortal plane.
A temple guard wearing a steel skull mask peered over the edge of the pit. “Your Eminence, can we assist you?”
Even from a full story below, Ba-al Zechmaat detected the tremor that ran through the guard’s body. “Assist me, you simp? How about this? Find them!”
“With all due respect, my liege…find who?”
Idiot humans and their ceaseless questions. What did the almighty Queldurik see in them?
“Imbecile. The Elgadrim dog and his little decoys,” Zechmaat replied. “Catch the maggot-breathed thieves. Drag them back to me. The strap them to these pitted idols and slow roast them until their flesh falls from their bones.”
A red-robed priest joined the first guard at the pit’s lip. He extended a length of rope and made ready to toss it to Ba-al Zechmaat.
“Don’t bother,” the fiend said. He heaved his way up the final two fathoms of the wall to stand before the human rabble that had begun to assemble in the chamber. Still three more guards scrambled in through the entry, herded toward the cringing assembly at the sacrifice pit’s edge by Zechmaat’s apprentice, Ba-al Hilekar.
With a clawed hand, Zechmaat snatched a handful of the first guard’s robe and lifted the man into the air to address him nose-to-nose. “How is it you did not see, you steaming pile of dung? Was it you who admitted a Knight of the Phoenix to the temple?”
“He…the knight…Your Eminence—he was disguised.” The salty tang of fear emanated from the guard’s flesh.
“And it was your duty to notice such disguises,” Zechmaat snarled. “And even having missed such an obvious intrusion, did not the combat that broke out alert you that something might be amiss?”
The humans licked their lips and let furtive glances flit toward the chamber exit. Hilekar spread his feet and reached for the whip on his belt. The guards stilled and focused on the floor.
“The doors . . .” the ensnared guard said. “We couldn’t open them until just now.”
Zechmaat bristled. “You’re not even worth the fuel it will take to burn you.”
The minor priest stepped forward. “Please, Your Dark Eminence, there is no need for this fury. The infidels did not interrupt any ceremony. Their parlor tricks and pathetic retreat pose no threat to Queldurik’s almighty authority.”
“No need?” Zechmaat flung the guard in a single thrust into the pit behind him.
A thud ended the man’s scream. Those who remained at the lip of the chasm stood wide-eyed as the stench of charring flesh filled the air.
“Are you blind to what’s gone?” the fiend ripped the empty scabbard from his back and dashed it to the floor.
The crowd hemmed between Zechmaat and Hilekar flinched away from the clatter—except the priest. He alone wore an expression of steely skepticism. Zechmaat drew a breath and quieted his rage. He extended his awareness and probed stealthily into the priest’s mind.
The sword you shouldn’t have been wearing in the first place, you swaggering . . . ?
Zechmaat belted the priest with a balled fist before the man had time to blink. He crumpled to the black stone floor with a misshapen cheekbone, a blank stare, and blood flowing from his ear.
“Hilekar!” the fiend bellowed. “If this fool regains consciousness, flay him.” He paced and rubbed his tense brow for a few strides. “Deploy hounds. Perform Incantations of Seeing on the falcons—it won’t be long before we know which way they’ve run.”
“Will you pursue them yourself, O Great One?” Hilekar asked.
“No, I dare not leave the Almighty’s temple un-guarded at such a time as this, since it seems I am flooded with incompetent men,” Zechmaat snapped. “As soon as we have a lead on the thieves’ location, you will lead the group to capture them. Now out!”
Ba-al Zechmaat thrust a clawed forefinger toward the door.
He groaned though his teeth while the temple servants tripped over one another in retreat. If the heady little girl from Radromir thought she had any chance of crossing Queldurik’s lieutenant and still making it back to her precious Papa in time, how bitter she would soon find her delusion.
Danae Baledric’s glance swept the distant tundra horizon, but to her admittedly untrained eye, it remained empty. The deepening twilight was treacherous. She did not trust it for candor about horsemen that were likely sweeping the barren expanse in search of her. In search of the Sword.
She hitched the blanket bundle that enrobed the Sword of Creo’s Patron higher on her shoulder, and its weight on the hemp shoulder strap bit, even through her cloak. Though her collarbone was raw under all her gear, though her legs and lungs demanded she quit, she continued running into the night. How her companions pounded on with no sign of the weariness that raged through her joints remained a mystery. The elf’s unending fleetness, she could forgive. But the old Elgadrim Knight’s? It hardly seemed fair he should run on, as hardy as a man a quarter his age.
The phosphorescent glow of lichen that clung in patterns of snowflake intricacy on the leeward side of the rocks cried out for Danae’s notice, even through the fog of her exhaustion. The lure of the lichen’s uncanny quality insisted she investigate. Culduin and Praesidio would not slip beyond sight if she dallied just a moment . . .
She slowed to a halt and leaned her palms upon bent knees. Wisps of hair that had worked free of her braid stuck to the slick of sweat that ran down her cheeks, but at least that eliminated the nuisance of them tickling her nose as they fluttered in the tundra wind. Between heaving breaths that steamed in frosty clouds, she pulled a dagger from her bandolier.
“Danae, are you all right?” Culduin rounded back to her from the lead of the group, and the gray-haired sage, Praesidio, followed not far behind.
“I’m fine,” Danae said. “Don’t I look it?” The corner of her lip pulled crooked in a little smirk.
Culduin cast Danae a soft smile, then tucked the copper waves of his hair back over his pointed ears and bound a leather lace around them. “It is insensitive of me to expect elven endurance of you.” He placed a light palm on Danae’s back. “My mind is bent too much upon haste.”
“We don’t have much time for sensitivity.” Danae crouched and applied he knife blade to the base of the lichen’s fronds. “Dare I ask if we’re camping tonight?”
Praesidio drew closer. “We must press on an hour or two more.”
After scraping some of the lichen from the rock—and subsequently depriving it of its glow—Danae shook her head. “Well, if you can keep going like this, I certainly had better be able to.” She wriggled her parched tongue against the roof of her mouth.
Praesidio rubbed his chin. “That sounded a bit like you’re calling me old.”
“Mostly, I’m calling myself pathetic in comparison, given the difference in our ages.”
Culduin crouched beside her. “The count of our years does not fully define us.” He pulled a waterskin from his belt and uncorked it. “At least take a drink while we have stopped. You need not suffer in silence.”
“Silence?” She chuckled. “Nice of you to pretend I’m not puffing so loud that Ba-al Zechmaat’s underlings could track us by the noise of my panting alone.” Despite the lichen’s seeming loss of its defining quality, Danae gathered several handfuls and transferred them to her belt pouch.
The shrill cry of a bird of prey caught her ear, and Danae tipped her chin skyward to seek it against a backdrop of stars.
“Speaking of tracking . . .” Praesidio glared into the blackness overhead.
“That clinches it in my mind,” Culduin said.
“Clinches what?” Danae stood up again. The sudden tension in both Culduin and Praesidio’s faces filled her limbs with jitters. “That’s the third hawk I’ve heard tonight.”
“The fourth for me, “Culduin said. “There is no species of wild night hawk native to Tebal. We must redouble our pace.”
Danae readjusted the five-foot Sword again. How the blade seemed to have tripled in weight since she had taken on its burden just a few short hours ago. She winced and shifted the shoulder strap away from the raw patch of skin beneath her cloak and leather breastplate.
“I can bear the Sword if you would like.” Culduin reached out a hand. “And you have not yet taken a drink.”
She accepted the skin and poured a small mouthful from it. “You’ve carried the Sword more than both Praesidio and me . . . combined.” Danae returned Culduin’s water. Did he hear the hint of protest that had crept into her voice?
“It is really no trouble,” Culduin replied. “My height makes it a lesser burden.”
Plausible, since he stood more than a head taller than Danae. She contemplated her elven companion’s offer for a moment. The weapon dragged on her like a prisoner’s weights.
The raptor’s cry echoed in the distance.
Danae squeezed her eyes shut against a dull pressure that swelled behind them. A sense of dread crept into her stomach and smoldered there. She pulled the Sword from her back and handed to Culduin. “We’ll be faster if you carry it, I suppose.”
Once Culduin settled the sword’s bundle across his shoulders, he stretched just a fraction taller, and a resolute look settled into his eyes and jaw. “This is best. Off we go.” He turned to once again run a southerly course.
Praesidio tightened the straps on his pack over his gray cloak and heavy robes, his glance fixed on Culduin all the while.
“Is there something I should know?” Danae asked.
With a slight shake of his head, Praesidio said, “Now is not the time for words. Keep up as best you can.”
Just minutes into the next leg of running, Danae heart resumed a dizzying rhythm. The landscape, which had so far presented little more daunting than endless flatness in every direction, developed rises and falls, with more and more jutting islands of rock cropping up at irregular intervals. The occasional ascent up the rocky slopes left Danae gasping for air.
The moon rode higher in the sky and bathed the landscape in shades of blue, with harsh black shadows beneath the tufts of diamond-leaf, caribou moss, and bearberry. Danae struggled to lift her heavy feet clear of the terrain. Her eyelids drooped.
In a confused moment where the world suddenly whirled on a shifting axis, Danae crashed to the frozen ground with a rattle of teeth and a clatter of equipment. Her groggy examination of her plight revealed a lump of slate that must have snagged her toe. A fiery sting radiated from her left hand. Bright spots danced across her vision.
She tugged her glove off the hand that had landed first and put a bleeding scrape on the heel of it in her mouth.
In the moment of quiet, devoid of her tramping feet and jingling pack, a low throb reached her ears. Its quality was reminiscent of twenty distant drums, beating at odds with one another.
Praesidio turned back first, who then grabbed Culduin’s sleeve. They both rushed to Danae’s side.
“What’s that sound?” Danae rubbed her brow.
Culduin paused, then snapped his attention to the northeast. “Look!”
“Maybe if I had an elf’s darkvision,” Danae said. “What do you—”
“Hush!” Praesidio squinted the same direction as the elf. “I hear . . .” His face blanched. “Hoof beats.”
“A score of horses!” Culduin said. He put out a hand to Danae. “Are you hurt?”
The revelation blew Danae’s weariness away in a surge of panic. She clasped Culduin’s hand and accepted his offer of help to her feet. “I’m fine. What do we do?”
“Once they found our heading, we knew it wouldn’t be long before they caught up to us,” Praesidio said.
“Right, OK. So what’s our plan?” Danae swallowed against the tightness in her throat.
Praesidio and Culduin exchanged uneasy glances.
“You mean we’ve been running for two days with no strategy for when someone from the temple followed us?” Danae shrilled.
“We had hoped to make the cover of the canyon to prevent anyone from sighting us,” Culduin said.
Praesidio squinted into the distance. “We may yet outpace them. Come, one more burst of fleetness.” He waved them onward and broke into a long-strided run. “The canyon is our only hope in this wasteland.”
Danae and Culduin followed. “But there are giant scorpions there, at the very least.” Danae blurted between searing breaths. “Who knows what else comes out after dark!” She gritted her teeth against the manic quality of her voice.
“Better the worst of creatures than the swords of men,” Culduin said.
Praesidio added, “Or the curses of priests or Inquisitors.”
The occasional rock formations and rolling hills transformed to a broken and tumbled maze of treacherous footing, compounded by the darkness. The terrain forced them to a slow jog, allowing Culduin to choose the best footing and easiest passage. Danae perked her ears for the hoof beats, fully expecting their low throb to grow to a thunderous pounding, but the sound never really swelled. Instead, it diffused. The sudden walls of rock and uneven ground cut off any hope Danae would have had of glimpsing their pursuers, even if it had not been so dark.
The group labored their way up the steep face of a rise. As they crested the rocky hill, the lip of the great chasm—the canyon of Quel Mahaar—drew into distant sight, cut into shards of black and silver by the moonlight. A rough slope stretched before them, the last half-mile before they reached the canyon’s edge.
Culduin slowed to a stop and flashed a smile back to Danae, “Here we are. The depths are nearly ours—”
“If we can get to them.” Praesidio pointed to the southward stretch of the expanse between them and the canyon lip.
Danae stared the direction Praesidio indicated. Fears of pursuit donned flesh. Eight horsemen closed upon their position from the southeast, and eight more thundered in from the southwest. Behind the southwestern group, three pony-sized canines loped. One of them bayed. The riders slowed their horses and advanced toward the travelers, closing the gap between predator and prey.
“They must have galloped to our flanks to cut us off from the canyon. Cha-thrath!” Culduin said.
From the sudden lift of Praesidio’s eyebrows, Danae guessed whatever elvish word Culduin spat was vocabulary less suited to civil company. Danae wrung her cloak and too stock of the riders.
Most of the Tebalese horsemen wore the shaggy cloaks and banded leather armor of soldiers, with boiled hide skullcap helms edged in iron covering most of their dread-locked heads. Three wore the red and black robes of temple priests, and one sported both armor and robes. The distance obscured any further details.
The rear-most figure of the group, the cowl of his red robe shadowing his face, sent a prickling heat across Danae’s skin.
That prickling can’t be good. Danae felt the clamminess of pallor overtake her.
The cry of a hawk screeched above the hissing wind, and a great falcon dropped from the sky. It perched on the red-robed pursuer’s shoulder.
“I think he’s a huntsman.” Danae took a faltering step backward. She searched the landscape behind them. They could never outrun mounted men in this wilderness.
“The hawk and the hounds confirm that,” Praesidio said.
The riders reined their shaggy, dun-colored horses and came to a halt in two lines, separated by perhaps fifteen feet of space, as if to dare the travelers to try a dash between them.
“His hood’s not deep enough to hide the maw of a dragon-kin,” Culduin said.
Praesidio’s voice came in a low rumble. “There are worse creatures in Queldurik’s service.”
Even from the full quarter mile that stood between the horsemen and Danae, a palpable sense of malicious evil emanated from them like a foul stench. Yes, something about this huntsman was different than the beast who had pursued her before.
“Follow me!” Culduin cried. He darted back down the rise and to the west.
Danae staggered after Culduin, but she struggled against the stone-littered terrain and the silty footing. Whoops from the Tebalese horsemen and the hounds’ barking echoed off the rocks like the brash notes of horns.
At the bottom of the rise, Culduin turned for a crevice in the ground, a long-dry streambed. The crack wandered toward a rising wall of stone, where it entered a black defile in the rock face, whose entrance scarcely exceeded the breadth of his shoulders. The tall elf stopped at the defile entrance and waited, all the while, scanning the distance with crystalline blue eyes.
“Through here.” Culduin pointed into the blackness. “The horses have no hope of fitting.”
“But hounds will, and what if it’s a dead end?” Danae asked. Her stomach threatened a revolt against overexertion.
Hoof beats swelled, closing in.
Culduin grasped her shoulder. “We must deal with troubles as they come. I cannot know, but I believe we will not be trapped.”
An arrow whistled through the air and stuck in the ground by Praesidio’s scraggly boot.
“If naught else, it will provide cover.” Praesidio plunged past Culduin, pulling Danae after him.
Praesidio’s urgent pulling into the defile’s absolute darkness obliterated what little remained of Danae’s vision. She groped her free hand in front of her. Praesidio, too, took slow steps, and the shuffling of his feet implied he, too, saw little or nothing. Danae barked her knee on a jutting rock, and she bit back a cry.
“Here,” Culduin’s voice whispered in the darkness. He took Danae by the elbow. “I can lead you both. Just a bit deeper in.”
The pursuing hoof beats thundered somewhere behind Danae as Culduin eased her forward and guided her on a winding course she could only assume steered her around obstacles. The strength of Culduin’s grasp steadied Danae’s careening worries, until overhead, the raptor shrieked again. Her heart resumed hammering.
“Blast that bird,” Praesidio muttered.
Culduin stopped and released Danae’s arm. The creak of his bow groaned close by, and the hiss of an arrow sped off.
The falcon’s next cry ended in a squawk.
“A shame, really,” Culduin said. “to see a fine bird put to ill use.” He slipped his arm around Danae’s once again. “On we go.”
They inched their way through the narrow cleft in the rock for just a few moments more. Up above, voices called to one another.
“Keep them up here,” a sinister voice bawled. “No use hitting them too.”
The hiss of missile fire descended upon them, and Culduin shoved Danae to the side.
“Stay down!” he said.
Lights flared in the defile. Danae blinked her dazzled eyes, then saw a half dozen flaming arrows stuck at intervals along the cleft floor. Culduin covered his eyes and grimaced.
“Culduin!” Praesidio yelled. “Take come cover.”
A series of mechanical twangs chattered from above, and more missiles rained down. Culduin twisted out of the path of one of the incoming bolts, but a second sunk into his shoulder. He grunted and spun around the rock Danae used for cover. The barb stuck too deep to pluck from the wound in a hurry.
Danae craned to see the edge of the cleft while maintaining her cover, but she could glimpse little more than shifting shadows against the night sky. Certainly not enough to take any kind of aim. No use sacrificing her few daggers to wasted shots. However, the slavering and snarling Hounds of Queldurik stood out clearly as they dashed along the lip of the gorge. The thorny onslaught that emanated from their cursed presence tormented her. Her skin teemed with it.
Culduin fitted another arrow to his string. He pulled back with his wounded arm and growled through his teeth. Sweat streamed down his forehead. The moment after he sent the arrow skyward, a cry of pain from somewhere on the defile’s lip confirmed his aim.
Danae pressed her palm against her temple. Was there an Utterance she could find in time to be of some use, not just someone to protect? How well could she target an enemy she could not truly see? Would the phrases she knew from her father’s notes still work, or were they really Curses? So much of how Creo’s Utterances worked remained outside her knowledge.
The clacking of gears announced the Tebalese had reset their crossbows, and after a single cry, another volley of ammunition streamed down. Many of the bolts either stuck in the dirt or skittered off rocks. One grazed a rip in Danae’s sleeve. She cringed tighter to the boulder in front of her. A quick glance at the tear confirmed the crossbow bolt’s head had not opened any wound on her skin, but the rip in her tunic retained her notice. The edges of the rent bore an oily green stain.
A sense of helpless fury eclipsed Danae’s fear. A thousand miles from home, and here she was, cornered by Queldurik’s zealots just like she had been in her father’s apothecary. She glanced at Culduin, whose face had paled from its usual warm glow to an ashen pallor. He grimaced with every move of his wounded arm. Something about this bolt challenged even his measure of toughness. A quick sniff of her own sleeve that stung her nose furthered her suspicion. Poison. It did not take an alchemist’s apprentice to venture that guess.
The first flaming arrows to plunge into the defile burned low, so the Tebalese sent another wave. It was in that moment Praesidio burst out in a loud chant. An updraft of wind ripped through the defile and sent the arrows back toward their shooters, and a series of astonished outbursts broke out amidst them. The arrows landed in the brush up above, and in several spots, it kindled to flame.
A little light to work by. Danae smirked. She readied a dagger, now that she could target a few of their attackers. But another volley of crossbow bolts sent her for full cover before she could take aim.
“Work your way deeper in,” Culduin said between shots. “We’re still too exposed here.”
“But I won’t be able to hit anything from farther—”
“Leave the fighting to us,” Praesidio said. “You just get the you-know-what farther from these enemies. “Albetrechne, sule tintaerna!”
A flare of light swelled around the old Knight, and from it streaked a column of blue-white energy. The column slammed into the front-most Tebalese warrior Danae could see, enveloped him, and broke into spokes of light that collided with the pursuers around him. Their mouths gaped, but any screams they might have uttered produced only silence. The first opponent erupted in a cloud of ash that crumbled to the ground and left no recognizable trace of him. The others the energy burst had hit collapsed.
Danae glanced down at her dagger. Right. I guess Praesidio and Culduin have this under control.
In the momentary pause in fighting Praesidio’s assault created, Danae ducked to the next outcropping of rock in the defile. Dagger clenched in a tight fist, she eased backward around it.
Culduin let another arrow fly, which caught a robed enemy in the chest. The man fell forward, tipped over the edge of the chasm, and landed with an ugly crunch on the floor of the gully. Danae took another step back. The victim’s spiked steel gauntlet on his right hand marked him as an Inquisitor, a warrior priest of Queldurik, and even with an arrow in his ribs, Danae preferred not to risk a confrontation with him.
Her foot slipped backward when she put it down, as the silt on the floor gave way beneath her heel. She scrambled to recover her balance, but the footing continued to drain from beneath her. Before she even drew enough breath to scream, the ground around her collapsed with a gritty crunch, and down she plummeted, away from the tumult of battle.