For now, this is the page where you’ll find the sneak preview of the prologue of the novel. Later, it will have additional information:
*****SPOILERS AHEAD – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED*****
Caeryn raced through the halls, heart pounding. Her flight was fueled by the sounds of metal striking metal, screams of pain and anger, and the empty, hollow absence that followed each of those. Each new scream echoed off the thick stone walls and brought a fresh spike of fear through Caeryn’s veins, one which only intensified as the echoes faded away into empty silence.
Alarm bells tolled loud, clarion notes that mingled with the sounds of battle and then cut off abruptly. Raids were not uncommon, though the bells weren’t calling them to defend the walls. No, the notes sounded out a warning to flee. Despair blossomed in the pit of Caeryn’s stomach and threatened to claw up her throat, restricting her air as she ran.
Her long, white robes whisked against the stone floor in strange counterpoint to the screams. Ahead of her, the temple elder shuffled with surprising speed toward the ancient center of the building. He had simply told her to follow him when the alarm bells first sounded. Long years in service to her mistress, Ana-Sett, had taught her obedience, at least, and so she’d followed despite her terror. She told herself the Goddess would protect her, though fear coursed through her with enough force to almost make her question that belief. Almost. She prayed Teela would be safe as well.
“Where are we going?” Caeryn called. Her words sounded loud to her own ears, and her voice shook despite her best efforts to still it.
The temple elder turned down a side tunnel without responding and rushed through an ancient archway into the inner sanctum. Beads of sweat stood out on his brow and his breath came out as ragged, hoarse gasps.
Unlike the rest of the temple, which was magnificently carved and adorned with soaring columns of stone, the inner sanctum consisted of the remnants of a natural cavern, the blocks of its walls coming together in broken, jagged cracks. Caeryn noticed it in a detached sort of way, though she would have normally been overwhelmed by the sheer honor of it. The terror of the moment, the unadulterated fear, cut through the sanctified experience. The inner sanctum contained only the most holy and precious artifacts of their dying order, those too hallowed for a simple priestess such as herself to see or touch. Were they here to retrieve something? Was the attack really bad enough to fear that someone might reach this most holy of holy places? A spark of indignation broke through the fear at the thought of this holy ground being desecrated by unclean, violent men. Caeryn swallowed hard, struggling to suppress the frightened voice within her own mind, and turned her attention back to her companion.
The temple elder strode to the far side of the room with three quick, determined steps. Several boulders formed a shelf of sorts there. Worn smooth by age, the reddish-brown rock seemed an altogether quiet thing against the backdrop of the battle. The elder stopped before the shelf, standing almost directly within a shaft of broken light bleeding down from where the boulders met unevenly in the ceiling above. A statuette of the Goddess, Ana-Sett, rested atop a woven cloth of gold and tan on the stone shelf. Next to it sat a scroll bound loosely in twine. Caeryn felt a momentary flare of curiosity, but a scream of pain echoed down the passage behind her and snuffed it out completely.
The elder lifted the statuette with care and passed it back to Caeryn, who took it with one quavering hand and clutched it close, taking comfort in the presence of even an effigy of her Goddess. The statuette, barely a foot tall, was surprisingly light for how solid it looked.
More screams, this time coupled with war cries and guttural bellows, echoed from the passage behind them. Caeryn recognized the porcine sounds with a shudder that worked its way up from her calves and settled at the nape of her neck.
Orcs! What are they doing here, this far to the north? Why are they attacking the temple?
Caeryn swallowed hard and forced herself to pay attention to the temple elder.
The elder pressed on determinedly, moving the scroll aside and then pulling free the cloth to reveal a small bundle wedged into a crevice in the rocks. He reached in and pulled it out with a decidedly ginger touch, though his movements were deliberate and careful. Some sort of cloth-wrapped talisman, perhaps? Caeryn kept her eyes fixed on it as the elder turned to her.
“Here, my child.” His voice held the calmness of the sea after a storm, an immovable rock in a gale.
He tugged the cloth free. A dark, purplish-black stone lay in his palm. It was unlike anything Caeryn had ever seen before. Little purple-red sparks floated out from it, dancing in the air like spores from some strange fungus, though the stone itself remained cool. It glowed with an inner amethyst light that pulsed like the beating of a heart blackened by sickness yet still laboring onward.
“Take this to the paladin at Sung Hill,” the temple elder said, covering the stone with the cloth once more and pressing it into Caeryn’s free hand. “I am too old to make the journey.”
Caeryn felt a chill run through her as her hands wrapped around the little bundle. She silently muttered a prayer to the Goddess, trusting in her faith to lend her strength. Ana-Sett had never failed her before. She wouldn’t begin now.
Outside, the screams grew louder, announcing the approaching battle. Caeryn glanced over her shoulder down the passageway, then back to the temple elder. His countenance was calm and resolute now, but his grip on her hands was firm, stronger than a man of his age had any right to possess.
“Run,” he said in an eerily calm voice. “Do not lose the stone. Of all tasks given our order since its founding, none is more important than that which I now lay upon you.”
Caeryn took a measure of comfort in the steadiness of the words, if not their meaning, and nodded. No task more important in the history of their order?
The temple elder’s grip tightened painfully on her hands. “Run!” This time, his voice held the hardened burr of stone.
Caeryn grit her teeth and ran back down the passage toward the screams, clutching the cloth-wrapped stone to her chest and praying the Goddess would protect her. She raced out of the inner sanctum and into the temple proper, holding the little bundle in one hand and her robes, together with the statuette of the Goddess, in the other.
She felt guilty leaving the elder behind, but it was a single bitter note amidst the cold, dark, chaotic jumble of emotions floundering within her. She allowed her gaze to sweep from side to side as she ran down the passage, hoping and praying to the Goddess that her sister was still safe and that she’d be able to find her.
“Teela!” Caeryn dashed down a main passageway wrought of carved stone and massive columnar pillars. The passage was dark, lit only by a few scattered oil biers around the room, forcing Caeryn to mind her step as she frantically searched for her sister.
The orcs had come for the stone, whatever it was, that much was clear. The temple elder wouldn’t have gone through such lengths to secure its safety if it wasn’t in danger. She’d been entrusted with its care, though, by a temple elder of her Goddess, Ana-Sett. The Goddess would not let her fail. Temple workers and lesser priestesses ran the other direction, terror making their passage swift.
Caeryn prayed to the Goddess that nothing had happened to her younger sister. Teela had come to the order only after Caeryn herself had joined the ranks of Ana-Sett’s priestesses. If anything happened to her, it would be Caeryn’s fault. She would never forgive herself if that—
Teela appeared out of the gloom, resolving out of the darkness as the light of a nearby lantern flared in the night breeze. The flame cast sparks into the air, illuminating her fine red hair and casting her proud features into sudden, sharp relief. She, too, was garbed in the white robes of their order, though Teela, as was her way, carried her steel-clad staff in her right hand.
Caeryn felt a flood of relief wash over her and blunt the fear for a fleeting instant. Teela was safe. They could do this together. Caeryn reached out and grabbed Teela’s hand and together, they raced through the temple, heading for a way out into the night and toward the teeth of battle.
The temple elder—he had stopped thinking of himself as anything but that decades before—stood in the pillar of light in front of the little shelf from which he had removed the Darkspore. He raised his arms in supplication to his Goddess, aged limbs protesting the motion, and prayed she would watch over Caeryn in her flight away from this place. The orcs had come for it, though he suspected a deeper motivation, another force moving behind them and pushing them along. Orcs were, by their very nature, a simpleminded, need-driven race. They didn’t have the complexity of thought to orchestrate an attack of this magnitude. When the wizard had left the stone with them nearly two decades past, he’d warned them dark forces would come for it eventually. The elder hadn’t thought it would happen in his lifetime, but he’d been proven wrong before. This, perhaps, would be his final lesson to learn. Regardless of what lay behind the attack, neither the orcs nor their benefactor would get the stone, not while he or any of his order were around to stand in their way.
In the middle of his prayer he heard the sounds of booted and armored feet pour into the room behind him. He suspected he knew what he was going to see even before he turned to greet the invaders. He felt no fear, though he knew he should. Decades serving his Goddess had already steeled him for the day he would greet her in person.
A bald man with smoldering orange eyes, a Golgotian mystic warrior, stalked toward him. Orcs in battle armor spread out around him. They reeked of blood, sweat, and other odors too foul to describe. The temple elder felt outrage thundering in his ears at the desecration of his holy sanctum, but the Golgotian didn’t give him a moment to even breathe, much less protest the indignity.
“Where is the stone?” the Golgotian demanded, stopping only a foot away from him.
The glow of the warrior’s eyes seemed brighter up close, the effect enhanced by the dark scars and deep wrinkles which surrounded them and looked far darker by contrast.
“You will never find it.” The temple elder met the orange, glowing eyes and found that while he had no fear of death for himself, anxiety graced his thoughts of Caeryn and her mission.
The Golgotian’s glowing eyes intensified and the temple elder felt a momentary curiosity flit through him for an instant before the mystic warrior raised his right hand. Pain lanced through the temple elder’s body and a white-blue light poured from him, clouding his vision. Panic gripped him as his knees lost their strength and he found himself sinking to the ground. Images passed through his mind and, with a surge of horror, he realized the mystic warrior was seeing them too. The statuette of Ana-Sett, Caeryn, the Darkspore, then Caeryn again as she fled into the temple halls. They all passed through both his own and the Golgotian’s mind.
He struggled to breathe, though his lungs wouldn’t work. His body was becoming weak, too weak to do anything but succumb to the darkness spreading across his visage. Part of his mind called out to the Goddess, begging for her embrace even as he fell. White-blue light, his essence, his very soul, poured from him and into the mystic warrior’s clawlike hand. The temple elder continued to fall, eyes slipping closed as he returned to his Goddess’s embrace.
Caeryn fled down the temple passages, feeling, more than seeing, Teela whip her head around to check for pursuers. Caeryn didn’t stop or look back, instead leading the way through several smaller passages to a lesser-used exit out into the temple yard. Even as she ran, she struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the task given her. How was she going to get through the yard and to the paladin through the chaos of what was sure to be a pitched battle? The nearest settlement, Merren, the capital city of Deira, was leagues away through untamed wilderness. Even with Vitalia’s presence within the once-independent kingdom, that path lay fraught with untold dangers.
They burst from the temple and into the pale semi-darkness of a fast-approaching dawn besought by flame, death, and nightmare. Thought vanished.
Smoke billowed and filled the air, making each breath Caeryn took painful and belabored. Indistinct blurs in the rough, blocky shapes of people passed through the haze. Screams of pain, terror, anger, and lust mingled in Caeryn’s mind and formed a wedge of agony that pierced her to the core. The smells of blood, death, and fear assaulted her senses and left them over-extended and hyper-acute. She tasted bile, but swallowed it down.
Thought returned, though it came in scattered dollops of intermingled crystalline clarity and shattering confusion. She knew roughly where they’d come out of the temple and where they needed to go, so she took the lead in a mad dash across the temple yard, Teela only a few steps behind.
A group of terrified women wearing white appeared out of the haze, screaming and dodging. Caeryn darted around them and narrowly avoided the orcs who pursued them. She ached to help the women, to do something, but hers was a greater task, a duty which precluded all others, according to the temple elder. She tried not to think about the fate she knew awaited him.
Breathing heavily and fighting back helpless tears, Caeryn ran onward, doing her best to avoid both her own people and the orcs. Fear lent her both speed and a desperate, hope-filled agility.
A rocky hill appeared before them in the mist—dawn’s first light casting thin rays over its edge—and, for a moment, Caeryn felt a rush of hope and relief almost as great as when she’d found Teela only moments before. The ridgeline marked where the road split out and worked back toward Merren. She’d expected it to be guarded, or at least blocked in some manner, but it appeared to be clear. One corner of her lips twitched into a hapless grin. They were almost out. They could make it. They . . .
She pulled to stop, Teela staggering a few steps further before skidding to a halt as well. A massive, hulking ogre pulled itself up over the top of the cliff, blocking out the light.
The ogre dropped to the sand on the other side—Caeryn’s side—with enough force to send a tremble running through the ground that reached Caeryn a dozen paces away. The twenty-foot-tall behemoth saw them and leered.
The ogre’s voice dripped with a lechery so pure that Caeryn felt violated. She grabbed Teela’s arm and pulled her in another direction.
Caeryn’s heart raced, pumping blood through her body at a rate which was only beaten by her racing mind. The main road had been blocked. The only other way out lay to the north in the direction of Vitalia proper. She steered their flight in the appropriate direction.
People milled about them, though Caeryn largely ignored them, only taking the time necessary to ensure Teela was still with her and the strange purple stone the temple elder had given her was still safely within her grip. The ogre’s thunderous footfalls sounded behind them, thudding into the ground like the cacophonous echo of a battering ram against steel-clad gates.
They darted into a small side canyon, following the crowd trying to flee the battle. Caeryn turned right in the direction of the road to Vitalia, only to find herself up against a rocky cliff wall. Panic flooded through her. She must have gotten turned around in all the confusion. She took several small steps, turning with each of them so she could try and find her bearings. She had no idea where she was. Licking her lips, she spun back the way they had come, Teela at her side.
The ogre stepped into the mouth of the small canyon, filling it completely.
Caeryn sucked in a lungful of air in one sharp, frightened breath and glanced at her sister. Teela stood just in front of her with her steel-clad staff clutched in a white-knuckled grip. Caeryn felt her own grip tighten on the statuette she still held in one hand. Her other hand closed around the cloth-wrapped stone.
The ogre leered at them both again, blackened teeth almost as terrifying as the rest of the beast, and then lumbered forward with a speed that belied its bulk. Teela cried out as one massive fist caught her a glancing blow and sent her tumbling to the ground. She landed several feet away and rolled onto her back, clearly dazed, her staff clattering away from her. Caeryn’s eyes darted toward her sister, but the ogre continued forward, closing on Caeryn with fixed determination.
Caeryn took a step back, meeting the ogre’s gaze, and found within herself a resolve as hard and firm as the temple elder’s had been. It was there, burning like a bonfire within her chest next to the faith she held in her divine guide, the Goddess Ana-Sett. As the ogre stepped forward, Caeryn spied Teela through the gap in its legs. Her sister struggled to raise herself from the ground.
“Run, Teela!” Caeryn shouted, keeping her gaze locked onto the ogre’s own dark, soulless eyes. “The Goddess will not let me die. Find help.”
Teela stood on unsteady feet as the ogre bore down on Caeryn. “No, I won’t leave you!”
Caeryn looked away from the ogre for the space of a single heartbeat, locking eyes with her sister. Caeryn attempted to pass the faith she had in the Goddess, all her love for her sister and their order she could muster, and the silent command to flee through that momentary glance. Then she blinked and looked back up at the ogre as it reached out one massive hand toward her, thick fingers almost as big around as her arm. Not even a trace of fear passed through her.
“Go!” Caeryn shouted.