When the gods discover an ancient power has suborned a king, and now menaces their domains, they must find agents to act on their behalf. Will a goddess’s temper over losing a favorite to the cause stand in their way? Or the capture of one of their chosen mean the attempt is doomed to fail before it has begun?
Shadow’s Rise is the first in a dark fantasy trilogy, containing strong elements of horror. It describes the rise of a group of heroes, chosen by the gods to bring down an emerging dark power.
Shadow's Rise is available from Smashwords, Kobo, Kindle, CreateSpace and DriveThruFiction.
Chapter 1: Freedom's Price
Gilzereet caught the carriage just after it left the Graglecrock city mansion. He tipped the driver, paying him for his silence and the risk he took, and easing the man’s terror with a single golden coin. Skill and secrecy was what he paid for, loyalty was what he inadvertently bought. The coachman gave him all three.
The carriage slowed as it turned from the estate, hesitated long enough for Gilzereet to swing aboard, and sped up before anyone noticed it had collected a passenger. Despite the gathering dusk, Gilzereet wore the hood of his cloak pulled low, and long gloves to hide the skin of his hands. The coachman knew him only as an important member of the thieves’ guild. The man didn’t realize he was also its head or that he was of a different race.
Tonight Gilzereet intended to meet more of his kind, and buy his freedom from them with the life and freedom of another. He lounged back in the padded velvet and leather comfort of the duke’s coach and wondered what the Duke Gareth Aster would say if he knew exactly who was using it that night. He might not be amused that it was used by the guildmaster of Escarlion’s most powerful thieves’ guild, and a cat burglar convicted of breaching the kingdom’s security by breaking into the Harbor Master’s office.
The coach wheel’s rumbled over cobbles, the steady rhythm of the horses’ hooves barely breaking until the coachman approached the city gates. Outside the coach, rough voices asked the coachman his business in leaving the city so close to night. Inside the coach, Gilzereet tensed, ready to react should the guardsmen decide to search his chosen transport.
“Who knows what passes through the master’s mind,” he heard the coachman reply in a brusque tone hinting at resentment. “I get paid to do as I’m told, when I’m told, and I don’t get paid to ask the master why.”
It was the right answer for the guards and, after hearing them deliver the traditional caution that the gates would close for the night and not open again until morning, Gilzereet felt the coach move forward once more. The coachman took it through the gates at a walk, as though hesitant to leave the protection of the city walls. For all Gilzereet knew, that might be exactly how the man was feeling, but it also matched his instructions.
Waiting until he heard the gates clunk shut behind him, Gilzereet opened the coach door and slipped out onto the verge. With the bulk of the vehicle shielding him from the gate, he looked back at the wall until he saw the man waiting at its base.
Mavlock. The thief had failed him, gotten caught stealing some papers from the Harbor Master’s office, and been sentenced to die on the gibbet at the crossroads a mile from the city gates. Now he stood, his arms crossed, rubbing his hands against his biceps as though he felt the coming cold of night.
Gilzereet felt a small smile curl his lips. The man should be feeling the cold. He should be feeling a cold worse than the dampness of the rising mist and the encroaching dark. Moving swiftly and silently, Gilzereet slipped from the shadow of the coach, toward the base of the wall. Behind him, the coachman drew his vehicle to a halt. Clucking his tongue and shaking his head, the man made a fuss of dismounting from the driver’s seat and moving to inspect the horses’ hooves and harness.
Glancing toward his target, Gilzereet saw that Mavlock had tucked himself closer to the base of the wall. The guildmaster’s smile widened just enough to show a little fang. Mavlock was competent, but he had signed the guild agreement when he joined, and knew there would be a reckoning for his release.
“A child to one such as me.”
Gilzereet made all of them swear it, and as a result, had never once failed to make the required payment for his own freedom. A small part of him felt guilty at the sacrifice he made, but another part of him reveled in the deceit. He never traded them for just one child. He traded them for life. Theirs for his. Sliding forward, he noted that Mavlock had fallen for the coachman’s routine. Gilzereet focused on blending with the rising mist and ghosted towards the soon-to-be-ex cat burglar.
Mavlock didn’t see his approach, startling when Gilzereet’s hand descended on his shoulder.
“Guildmaster Urkhrist,” Mavlock stuttered, his blue eyes wide. “I… I did not hear you come.”
Gilzereet did not reply, schooling his face to an impassive mask as he surveyed the man he’d chosen to pay his debt. Blue eyed and dark haired, Mavlock’s fair skin was pale against the grey stone wall.
“Come,” Gilzereet ordered, and, sliding past him, led him toward the coach standing a short distance from the city gates. “We have but little time.”
Gilzereet wound back through the mist, noting how the coachman had finished his round of the horses’ feet and was now making a show of checking the reins. The man would start on the wheels next, but that would be stretching it. The guildmaster snaked his way through the door and into the coach, noting when Mavlock followed. The burglar pushed a velvet cushion aside to settle in the corner farthest from his master.
When the man was seated, Gilzereet drew his dagger and used the hilt to rap on the front wall of the coach. He didn’t miss Mavlock’s flinch as his forearm brushed the man’s shoulder.
“The same carriage will bring you back,” Gilzereet said, causing Mavlock to startle once more. Gilzereet smiled, as though to reassure the man. “You shouldn’t believe all the stories you hear about the thargramorg,” he said. “There are clans, and not all of them are responsible for the deeds of which you’ve been told.”
“Mavlock nodded. “Forgive me,” he said. “I’m not used to… not used to…”
“Not used to selling yourself for freedom?” Gilzereet asked, leaning back against the leather as the coach lurched forward. He watched as Mavlock licked his lips nervously, but the man only nodded once more, before wrapping his arms across his chest and closing his eyes.
Gilzereet watched as the thief settled into near-sleep. While the driver had been paid, and agreed to stop outside the city gates, he’d warned the guildmaster it wouldn’t be for long. It still seemed that an eternity passed before Gilzereet heard the driver clamber into his seat, and felt the coach lurch forward beneath him. Using a gloved hand, he tweaked the curtain aside and watched the dusk descend into darkness, and darkness grow to full-blown night. Letting the curtain fall back, he took an hour glass from his pocket, and turned it, watching as the sand began to fall.
He did not need light to see by. His eyes were those of a hunting cat, and he had enchanted the sand so it gave off a very faint glow. When the last grain had started its descent, he leant forward, rapping the end of his cane on the front of the carriage ceiling. Numerous dents in the wood paneling showed it was an action oft repeated.
Mavlock woke with a start, reaching for the dagger he no longer wore at his belt.
Gilzereet rested a hand against the man’s chest and shushed him gently.
“Peace. This is our stop.”
“Peace,” Mavlock repeated, and some of the fear left his eyes.
The coach slowed, and Gilzereet turned towards the door. Behind him, Mavlock rose to his feet and braced himself against the carriage ceiling. When they were going no faster than walking pace, Gilzereet unlatched the door and jumped lightly down onto the road. Pivoting, he walked beside the coach and offered Mavlock a hand to steady his descent. There was no point in delivering damaged goods to the hunters.
Hunters. Gilzereet shivered. He would be meeting more of them tonight. He wondered which of the clans had won the honor of collecting his tribute. Tree Cat, Tree Rat, Sky Falcon and Cavern Spider—all these clans produced the best Hunters. An elite force, the Hunters were charged with tracking down and returning any who tried to leave clan lands, be they thargramorg or slave.
Gilzereet had escaped them once, then twice more, before they caught up with him and struck the deal allowing his continued absence from the homelands—ten lives for every year he had spent in freedom against their wishes, and two for every year he continued to dwell away from the clans; ten unspent lives, they had reiterated, lives not bereft of their youth.
Given that he had evaded them for two years before finding sanctuary within the walls of a Berveragnan temple, and that he had stayed safely within those walls for ten years more, while he learned the goddess’s ways and a new trade, there had been one hundred and twenty lives owing to start with. Add the years he had spent travelling with Ailina and her companions, and he had accumulated a debt of around two hundred lives before the Hunters had successfully captured him.
They had taken him beyond the pursuit of his friends, and the protection of his goddess, and they had forced him to accept the pact of lives, or forfeit two hundred years of his own. They would, they assured him, make sure he survived to the end of his debt.
And not much longer, he had thought, reading the confirmation in their eyes.
The Lady Berveragna had a counterpart in the thargramorgan pantheon, called Shavreet. Some said that Shavreet was just another facet of herself, others that Berveragna was a facet of the beast elves’ goddess. Whatever the details of their relationship, Shavreet resented the human goddess, and did not agree with the way she governed her domain of night. It seemed that physical darkness was not enough. Where Berveragna delighted in the occasional deception, deceit was not tolerated by the goddess of thargramorg—at least, not when it was practiced by one thargramorg on another. It was a thing of pride to be able to deceive and disadvantage members of a race not their own.
Memories of those days of confinement flickered, unwanted, across Gilzereet’s mind, and he shivered, shaking his head to rid himself of them. His goddess felt his pain and grew ominously silent. His capture had embarrassed her greatly, counterpart or not, she had failed to keep her servant safe, and it had shamed her before two pantheons for the beast-elf goddess had not kept her failure a secret.
With a sharp rap on the side of the coach, Gilzereet draped an arm across Mavlock’s shoulders, and pointed towards a nearby stand of trees.
“They will meet us there,” he said. “Stay close.”
The failed cat burglar licked his lips and nodded. His eyes betrayed almost no feeling, but Gilzereet could scent the man’s nervousness, see the tremor of fear that ran across his muscles. He gave Mavlock no time to think, instead sliding his arm from the man’s shoulders, and hurrying quietly into the night. The burglar followed.
Within moments, the shadows in the copse had engulfed them, and Gilzereet could hear Mavlock breathing hard in the dark. He placed a hand on the man’s arm, feeling him startle.
“Not far now,” he said, soothing the man’s panic with his voice.
He felt the air shift in the shelter of the trees, a soft breeze, smelt a scent like the one that preceded the winter’s rain, heard something rustle through the leaves. Beside him, Mavlock drew another shaky breath and held it, as though fighting to stop his breathing sounding so harsh. Gilzereet pulled him further into the trees.
They crossed the boundary, the grove much larger on the inside than it was on the outside. It was more tangled and old than was possible for the little copse of trees they had entered. Gilzereet did not give the thief time to think about the grove’s age or impossible depth, but drew him further through the underbrush until they came to a clearing where the afternoon sun still shone.
Mavlock did not pause, but walked on in wonderment, as though mesmerized by the play of the sun’s light across leaves he had never seen before. Gilzereet drew him to a halt when they reached the clearing’s centre.
“We are here,” he said, and his words were both warning to his guildsman and an announcement of the Hunters themselves.
Movement amongst the trees drew their attention.
A woman, whose gold skin was streaked with slashes of green, stepped through the hanging leaves and came to stand in front of them. Gilzereet’s hand tensed on Mavlock’s shoulder, preparing to stop the man from making a run for it. The woman smiled.
She was wearing a sheath of finely spun spider silk, split so that it revealed most of her thigh. Her gaze passed across Mavlock as though he didn’t exist, and she addressed Gilzereet in a tone as distant and cold as the southern mountains.
“What is the human doing here?” she asked.
“He pays a debt to me by providing the service,” Gilzereet replied, and he could see that the meaning underlying his words was not lost on the woman.
She laughed, a short bark of amusement that was quickly gone as she turned to look at Mavlock, tilting her head from one side to another as she inspected him. Slowly, she circled the thief, and only Gilzereet’s grip on his shoulder prevented Mavlock from turning to face her.
Another fine tremor shook the man, and Gilzereet knew Mavlock had come to recognize he had something to fear. The woman’s next words made the thief jump.
“He will do. Your terms remain the same?”
“Unless the Hunters have changed their price.” Gilzereet suppressed a smile as he replied.
The woman’s lips quirked as she responded.
“Hunters do not change the terms of their pacts.”
Mavlock turned his head to look at Gilzereet’s face, but before he could ask the question on his mind, the grass in the clearing swayed, and four more golden beings rose around them. The thief’s eyes widened and he started to shake as the serpentine forms thickened and grew limbs. Gilzereet tightened his grip, as he greeted the newcomers.
“Clan Viper,” he said, and could not keep the awe from his voice. “I am honored.”
“We fought for the honor,” the woman replied, her pupils upright keyholes as she met Gilzereet’s gaze and held it. A scale-like shimmer marred her skin and she flicked a surprisingly long tongue towards one of those who had risen from the grass to join them. Gilzereet saw the creature bow his head in reply as Mavlock turned to his guildmaster in horror.
“Master,” he said, and dropped to his knees, “you can’t leave me with these…”
Gilzereet let go of the man’s shoulder and stepped away. By the time Mavlock thought to reach for him, he was more than an arm’s length away and it was far too late.
“Master!” Mavlock cried as two of the golden-skinned men laid their hands on his arms.
Gilzereet met his bondsman’s terrified gaze and made his voice stern.
“I made a pact with the Hunters, Mavlock,” he said. “And you made a pact with me. My pact is fulfilled. Make sure you honor yours.”
With that, Gilzereet turned to the lady.
“He is yours until the first successful birth, and then he must be returned. Those were our terms.”
“Maste—” Mavlock cried, only to be cut short by the open-handed blow that struck his face, and a rough voice cut across his protest.
“You have no master. Bow before our Mistress of Venom, Tanizeth, Third Lady of Clan Denegrath Viper. It is her mark you will bear on your chest and her orders you will obey with your heart."Gilzereet did not look towards Mavlock as he bowed to Tanizeth and left the clearing. Behind him, on the other side of the distance bridged by Clan Viper’s magic, Mavlock raised his voice once more. The agony Gilzereet heard there made him wince, and he remembered that Denegrath Viper marked its slaves with a dilution of the poison possessed by the clan’s namesake and totem. Venom and acid, the scars remained for life.
Should you want to read more, Shadow's Rise is available from Smashwords, Kobo, Kindle, CreateSpace and DriveThruFiction.