Exchanged by the gods, so he can better suit their purpose, thargramorg priest Gilzereet Urkhrist must now travel to the distant realm of Thargood in order to discover the Old One’s prison and prevent his escape. Accompanied by Vorgren, Tara, Ailina and four apprentices, he flees the temple of his new god as the current pantheon faces down Beauwallin’s most savage attack yet. With the Old One gathering power more quickly than before, will the support of the gods be sufficient to give them a chance to contain him?
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The temple deeps were cool and quiet. Tara stalked them, hiding from the light cast by flickering lanterns, sliding from shadow to shadow in swift silence—focused on the game’s intent.
Ahead of her, round that wine cask and to the left, lay her target, chosen by the master of the game, a pre-adolescent child. She risked a swift glance beyond the corner. A man stood next to another cask of fine wine, his straw-gold hair gleaming. The blue streaks that marred its sheen glistened, declaring him to have been a servant of Berveragna, the goddess of darkness and night.
He was her master, and the one who had insisted they play the game, as training and something to keep their minds off their confinement. It was also part punishment for their refusal to acknowledge him as anything less than their master and superior.
The man’s dark-colored cape swished around fine, black boots as he stepped away from the cask, a glass filled with sparkling amber in one hand. His gaze swept over the casks behind which Tara hid and she froze in the cloak of their shadow.
There was a guard. In this game, her target had been teamed with a partner; it made the challenge harder. The guard was big, a tall man of barbarian descent, a Northlander—Vorgren.
She couldn’t see the guard; the straw-haired man appeared to be alone. Tara glanced behind her, along the row of casks, just as the hairs on the back of her neck began to prickle. He was here, the big barbarian, for she knew he never strayed far from the side of his master and friend. Tara edged forward to the end of the casks. The man with the yellow hair had returned to his seat at the table, and picked up a piece of parchment. It gleamed like rich cream in the lantern light.
Tara slid back behind the casks and looked for the next patch of shadow to move to. There was none. She cursed inwardly at her lack of forethought. It was a mistake her first master would never have tolerated. She couldn’t reach another piece of shelter without being seen from the table. Memories of the last time she had stalked through another cellar flickered to life in her mind, but she forced herself to block them out. There had been another northlander then—Chariuk. And his partner had possessed hair the color of silvered snow, Sussurianakshan, a shapeshifting ice dragon.
Shaking her head to make the memories stay away, Tara retraced her steps. Her eyes darted along the row of casks opposite. They were stacked six casks high. A strange sense of déjà vu remained, Chariuk and Sussurianakshan…
Tara stopped. Six-casks high was almost enough to touch the beams supporting floor above. Almost... She smiled. Moving as lightly and as silently as she had when she had moved across the floor, Tara turned and climbed the casks at her back. She heard someone moving at the far end of the casks—the man with the straw-colored hair. Tara paused, another shadow amongst the racks of wine. She looked down the row of casks towards the oasis of lamplight. A figure, its hair a golden nimbus around its head, stood in the gap between the two rows of casks, his gaze searching the shadows.
The ex-priest paused, staring down the aisle for almost a minute. Tara froze. She was sure she’d made no noise. It was a duel of wits, his searching gaze against her ability to stay as still as the narrow shadow between the casks. By the time he had returned to the lamp’s light, her fingertips were aching with the effort of clinging to the side of her wine-barrel cliff. As the sound of his steps receded, Tara began to climb once more. She had only two feet more before the top of the casks. They were the longest two feet she had ever had to cover.
When she reached the top of the casks she crouched, looking along the row to make sure she was alone. Vorgren was well-known for his ability to climb. Indeed, the northlander possessed an elegance and grace that made even the most accomplished of cat-burglars grow green with envy. With a careful look around, Tara reached upwards to the nearest beam. Her fingers found purchase on the edge of the beam and gripped. Easing her weight onto her arms, Tara hauled herself up onto the beam’s wooden surface.
The barbarian grinned into her face, his green eyes twinkling with malicious delight. Chariuk! Tara gasped and pushed backwards, off the beam. Quick as she was, the barbarian was almost as fast. Tara felt his fingertips brush the back of her wrist as she dropped towards the casks.
And now he was not the only danger. As she landed, she heard the soft rustle of cloth on the casks ahead of her. She knew, before she turned her head to look, who it was that was coming towards her. The master had the ears of a cat!
The man’s hair had become dull creamy blur in the unlit heights between the beams and casks. Tara took a swift step backwards. The beam above her creaked, and Tara ducked. The man with yellow hair swept towards her across the top of the casks and the grace of his movements reminded her, again, of a wild-cat.
Tara dropped into a crouch on top of the casks, preparing to roll over the edge. The beam above gave another creak and the barbarian’s feet touched the edge of the cask behind her. Now she stood between them. She rolled anyway, using the lightest touch of her fingertips on the edge of the cask to guide her as she dropped to the floor. Again the barbarian moved, trying to intercept her. This time he was faster than she. His hand closed around her wrist and jerked her to a halt.
Someone dropped past her, the master, all of him a blur now, and not just his hair. Tara tucked her legs up, out of the reach of his grasping hands. The barbarian began to swing her out from the casks. Tara flailed vainly with her free hand as he released his hold on her and let her fall. The yellow-haired one was waiting to catch her before she landed.
“Game over,” he said as his arms closed around her.
“Game over,” Tara agreed, letting the tension drain from her limbs.
“My turn,” a small voice demanded, from the shadows of the rack of casks.
They turned and Tara sensed the barbarian pause at the top of the casks. The shadows parted and a young elf stood before them. Child didn’t do her justice. She was past what humans termed ‘childhood’, having seen more summers than Tara’s seventeen.
“Wraither!” the man snapped in annoyance.
“Yes, Master?” the child replied, her face a mask of solemn attentiveness.
The man glared at her but Tara could see the quiet smile that hid behind his lips. The child could see it as well but no hint of an answering smile touched her face.
“My turn, Master?”
The man ducked his head and Tara was reminded how much of him was not a man. The pointed tips of his ears and the angular features of his face shouted elf! to the world and the green and brown hue of his skin shrieked thargramorg!
Thargramorg—a race of elves with skin the blotched color of night-struck trees. Something that should frighten her more than Chariuk and his master, the thargramorg were rumored to dwell in the darkest centers of forests, in the deepest chasms of the mountains and even in the mountains themselves. They were also rumored to be worshippers of the dark gods and of demons. They were said to be shapeshifters and, worse, butchers when it came to their raids on human settlements.
Tara was not afraid. This was one thargramorg, or beast-elf, which she could not fear. She had seen him in the depths of despair, drunk and full of pain—and she had seen him loyal to friends, placing himself mortal danger to free them from an old power that sought to use their lives to fuel its freedom. Those friends were safe now, traveling with them to fulfil a requirement of the gods.
Since their arrival at the temple, Gilzereet no longer tried to drink the pain of his goddess’s rejection into wine-soaked numbness. He still felt that pain and he kept it well-hidden although, Tara knew, it bubbled to the surface when he thought his companions were asleep.
A thud on the flagstone floor of the cellar broke into her reflection and the barbarian landed beside her. Tara jumped in startlement and the big man chuckled.
“Gotcha,” he whispered, nudging her in the ribs.
“Gotcha, yourself,” she grinned back.
“Your turn,” the thargramorg agreed, speaking to the child.
The child, almost as much elf as the thargramorg and bearing the same splotched skin and amber-colored eyes as her master, gave a skip of delight.
“Now what game shall we play?” the thargramorg pretended to ponder, rubbing his chin with his forefinger.
“Why don’t you ask young Wraith what she wants to play?” the barbarian suggested.
Tara smiled; she had seen this word game before, albeit between brothers and sisters of a far-distant court. Gilzereet had been right to insist they pass the time in training. She began to glide quietly back into the shadows, but the barbarian’s hand on her shoulder made her stop. He drew her back into the dim light of the walkway and shook his head at her. Tara shrugged her shoulders and sighed.
“Can’t blame a girl for trying,” she said, just as the thargramorg asked the child what she wanted to play.
“Stalkers!” the child shrieked in delight.
The thargramorg smiled.
“And who are you going to stalk?”
“You,” the child answered, managing a sinister grin.
“Really?” the thargramorg asked, “and what about Tara?”
“Ah,” said the child, wagging a finger in front of his face, “that would be telling. Off you go.”
As the thargramorg walked down the aisle of casks, the child approached Tara.
“No listening,” she admonished the barbarian, as he bent down to hear what she whispered in Tara’s ear.
Tara smiled at the child’s choosing of her target and stepped back into the shadow of the casks. She watched as the child whispered a name into the barbarian’s ear, but did not hear whom he was to pursue, and then she waited until he had walked away.
With the child scampering after the thargramorg to tell him his target, Tara began to climb the casks. Up there, in the dust-covered shadows, she began to stalk the temple deeps once more.
END CHAPTER 1