I am working on a rewrite of the entire book, but I thought I would give you guys the prologue that I added. I'll post more of the rewrite as I complete it.
Maeryn slowed and crossed her arms against a sudden chill. She suppressed a shiver, rubbing irritably at the gooseflesh that that arose on her skin. The two young women in front of her never slowed in their progress, the sunlight dappling their lean frames as they glided deftly through the undergrowth.
“What’s wrong, biddy?” Brinna taunted, flipping her long tail of sandy blonde hair over her shoulder as she turned to look back. Her azure eyes flashed merrily. “Are your bones creaking?” The other woman, Sumi, flashed bright white teeth out of her dusky face before her hand came up to cover it and to smother a giggle as she turned away. Sumi was a full Viz-jaq’taar, but too often she still acted like the shy orphan girl Maeryn remembered from years ago.
“I could take you both in one peck, little worms,” Maeryn growled. She was old for a Viz-jaq'taar, having passed her fourth decade sometime in the last few years. Gray now streaked the pale brown of her hair, which she had taken to cutting up above her shoulders, rather than the braids and tails that many assassins wore. Her eyes were a deeper brown than her hair and were framed by thin lines. Her health, too, had suffered from the passage of time, and she sometimes pined for the strength and endurance she had enjoyed in her youth. Nonetheless, she had grown to accept that she could never go back to those days, and was slowly preparing herself for the day when her sisters would demand that she leave the order and settle into middle age. Another time, she might have shared in the joke made at her expense, having grown used to the jibes of the last few years. but now she felt tense, on edge, and couldn’t say why. “Keep your voices down, will you?”
“We should be almost there,” Brinna said. “You can rest your old joints soon.” The mirth slipped from her face as she took in Maeryn’s answering glower. She tapped Sumi’s arm and they came to a halt, allowing Maeryn to catch up. “Is there really something wrong, sister?”
Maeryn’s frown deepened. “I’m not sure. Maybe just a feeling.”
“Ah, there it is,” Sumi said, pointing ahead and to the right through a break in trees. A broken pillar and the edge of a thick, crumbling wall marked the remains of the temple they had been looking for. Sumi made to break into a run, but Maeryn caught her shoulder. With their packs unbalancing them, they both might have gone down if Brinna had not thrown out an arm to steady Maeryn.
Maeryn’s pulse was racing, the beat coming loud in her ears in the near silence of the forest. At the bewildered looks from her companions, she pointed at a deep round depression in the earth, a hoof print. Dozens more dotted the ground all around them. “Weapons,” she mouthed. She set down her pack, untied the drawstrings and snatched out her suwayyah. Thankfully, she had placed them on top of her other belongings. She wound the leather wrappings over her right hand quickly, her fingers working from memory. When it came time to attach the left, her right hand was hindered by the bindings, so she used her teeth, just as she had been taught so many years ago, to pull the straps tight.
“Hurry,” Maeryn breathed, as her sisters grunted in their efforts to secure their own weapons to their arms, “hurry, damn you!”
The air really was growing colder now. A gust of wind rustled the upper boughs of the trees and the sunlight began to darken. From out of the temple came a rumbling sound. Maeryn could not be sure if it was a groan or a growl, but her gut clenched and her knees went weak, making her stumble. As if in answer to the sound, a cacophony of bleating arose from the trees to either side.
Brinna finished strapping her blade talon to her left arm and plucked a small iron sphere from a pouch at her belt. She swung her head from side to side, her eyes wide with fright. Maeryn looked to see how Sumi was fairing, but she seemed frozen in place and gulped for air as if sobbing. One claw was fastened tightly, the other hung loosely on her arm.
“Sumi, come on,” Maeryn hissed. “We need you.”
“I c-can’t,” Sumi stammered. “My hands…” Maeryn looked down and saw that Sumi’s hands were shaking violently.
“Alright,” Maeryn said. “Just put the other one down.”
“What is this?” Brinna demanded, her voice trembling. “What’s happening to us?”
“There’s magic here,” Maeryn said. “Calm your mind. Don’t give in to the fear. I think it’s a demon, and a powerful one.” Brinna started to nod her understanding, but a ragged female scream made her whirl in the direction of the ruined temple.
“What was that?” Sumi wailed.
“Please, help me! Please!” an anguished female voice called.
Maeryn shook her head to clear it. “I don’t know. Whoever it is, I don’t think we can help her. We’ll have to go back, find another way.”
They began to retreat back the way they had come, leaving their packs where they had set them down, but had only gone a few steps when tall, dark shapes stepped from the shadows to bar the way, hefting glaives and spears tipped with broad bladed heads. Maeryn recognized them at a glance, the thin hoofed feet, thick fur and bestial heads. Goatmen. Their tracks had been what had given away their presence, not that it made their presence any less terrifying. Fear continued to eat away at Maeryn’s resolve. She knew that the emotion was not her own, that magic was at work, but that did nothing to still her body’s rising panic. “There must be a hundred or more,” she said. “We’ll have to break through them.”
“I’ll make a hole,” Brinna said, brushing a thumb over the sphere in her hand. She poised for a few moments and hurled it at the nearest cluster of the beasts. The ball hissed and trailed wispy smoke as it flew in a high arc, struck the ground, bounced, and rolled nearly to the feet of the demons before detonating. The blast flashed hot on Maeryn’s skin, sending up a shower of dust and debris.
“Go!” Maeryn shouted, and the three women sprinted forward towards the lingering cloud of white smoke. Three of the demons lay still on the ground, covered in black blood. Another shook its head, it's face a mass of torn and burned flesh, and a fifth struggled to rise, discovering in the process that it was now missing an arm. Maeryn drove for the gap between them, even as the demons moved to close in and surround them.
Maeryn heard the rush of wind an instant before she saw the spear and dove to one side, tucking the blades of her suwayyah close against her body as she rolled and returned to her feet. A wet thump and Brinna’s gasp made her stop and whirl to look back. The other assassin had, inexplicably, managed to keep her feet after she was struck. The spear had taken her low in the torso, and her free hand gripped the thick haft. She peered down its length and gave Maeryn a look of complete bafflement.
For a moment, Maeryn couldn’t move, couldn’t even take a breath. “Sumi,” she croaked weakly. Then, louder, “Sumi!”
“I’m here,” Sumi answered next to her. She sounded calmer than Maeryn felt. “We have to help her, Mae.”
She reached Brinna just as her sister’s knees gave out. Maeryn caught her under her arm with an elbow, her long training with claw weapons asserting itself to prevent her from causing Brinna further injury. The spear had lodged deep in Brinna’s body but had not pierced through. Sumi steadied Brinna on the other side and took hold of the shaft of the spear. “Can we pull it out?” she asked.
The demons were closing in on three sides, moving in without hurry. Another scream sounded from the direction of the temple and Maeryn bit down on her tongue to stifle the urge to scream her own fear in answer. “It might kill her,” she answered, letting coppery blood pool beneath her tongue. “Put your hands closer in, but hold the spear steady.”
Sumi pushed Brinna’s hand onto the smooth steel of the spear tip and then gripped it tightly herself. With a cry, Maeryn brought her suwayyah down, the razor-sharp tip of the blade slicing cleanly through the tough wood. Brinna gave a cry of pain, the first sound she had made since being struck. “That hurt,” she gasped, but grinned weakly. “Crazy. Old b´tch.”
“You’ll have time to insult me later,” Maeryn drawled. “Come on, we have to move. Sumi, stay with her.”
“Where are we going?” Sumi asked. She had gotten Brinna’s arm around her shoulders now.
Maeryn needed only a moment to think. There was only way left open to them. “We’re going to use the stone.”
Brinna groaned with every step, leaving a spotted red trail on the forest floor. Maeryn kept finding herself holding her breath, waiting for the spear that would leap out and take one of them. She might be able to react in time to dodge it, but Brinna and Sumi could not. Strangely, though, the demons seemed content to let them go as long as they continued moving toward the temple. Maeryn was getting the impression they had shown themselves only because the three of them had tried to go back. Whatever they might find at temple, that was where the goatmen wanted them to be.
“It’s getting worse again,” Sumi said, and Maeryn could feel that she was right. The fear had begun to loosen its grip on her when they had tried to break free of the demons, but now it had returned and continued to grow stronger.
They emerged from the cover of the trees and could see the entire ruin for the first time at the base of a short slope below them. Much of its north side had collapsed into rubble, but the southwest corner still stood. Its chiseled stone columns were carved with strange imagery of heavenly and demonic beings that appeared to cavort together. The roof that they held up was covered in dirt, and small plants had taken root there.
A man’s voice broke the silence. “Stop! Make it stop! Please!” A shrill woman’s scream joined his entreaties, and soon both voices were shrieking in apparent agony. Another rumble made them quiet, and this time, Maeryn was certain that it was a growl. She forced her foot to lift, move forward, settle to the ground. It was a constant, conscious effort to fight the fear now. Her body wanted to collapse, to curl up and cower while her mind retreated into darkness.
From the shadows of the temple, a low form slid silently forward, the light both absorbing and scattering from it as though it were covered in deep black ink. It growled once more as it emerged into the sunlight. Behind her, Maeryn heard Sumi repeating a mantra to still her mind as the creature’s black lips peeled back from glistening teeth. Its body vaguely resembled a wolf, but grown monstrous and shorn of any feature resembling grace or nobility. Hairless and eyeless, its powerful jaws took up nearly a third of its length. As Maeryn watched, petrified by her own terror, the smooth features of a female face appeared to push against the glistening skin of its shoulder from below, empty sockets staring outward while a mouth opened wide in the thing’s flesh.
“Help me!” the face cried. “It hurts. Please!” The demon rumbled and its flesh shimmered, dark waves passing over the face, obliterating it and leaving behind smooth black skin.
“Soul eater,” Maeryn said in a wispy voice. “That’s why the goatmen didn’t kill us.”
At her words, Sumi gave a choking cry and began to weep. The demon below them crouched and swiveled its head toward the sound. It gave out another rumbling growl and launched itself up the hill, moving so quickly that its legs were a blur.
Summoning strength that until that moment, she didn’t think she still had, Maeryn threw herself forward with a cry, one suwayyah raised to ward off its teeth while she brought the other low to strike at its neck. The demon never even tried to evade her strike. Both claws sank easily into the oily flesh, spattering her with thick black blood. Before she had time to twist the blades, the full force of its momentum bowled into her and it flipped her almost carelessly up and over its head. Maeryn felt a sharp pain in her left arm before the bindings snapped. Seeing the ground rushing up to meet her, she tucked her head and strained to get her feet beneath her.
A fierce cry behind her was cut short by a muffled crash. Maeryn’s feet came down on the slope with her facing the temple. She skidded, felt herself tipping forward and jerked back against the motion. The movement overcorrected for her imbalance and sent her sprawling on her back. She rolled, getting a sharp twinge from her wrist as she pushed herself to her knees. The demon’s snake-like tail thrashed wildly from side to side where it crouched. Sumi lay beneath it, kicking and struggling to fend off its jaws. Fighting fear that would have driven an ordinary human being insane, Maeryn rushed towards them. She struck just as the thing gave a sudden lunge and its teeth closed around Sumi’s head. Maeryn’s suwayyah went deep into its side, but the demon showed no sign of having felt it. Sumi’s struggling limbs went still. The demon released its hold, opened its jaws wide and sank its dagger-like teeth into her sides. Immediately, a warm glow shown through Sumi’s body and began to stream upward into the thing’s snout. The demon’s head turned translucent from its brilliance, but the flow of light gradually dimmed as it went, going out completely where it entered the beast's throat. Whispering Sumi’s name in despair, Maeryn sank to the ground, the weight of the blade pulling one arm down while the other throbbed incessantly from her injury.
“Go,” Brinna said hoarsely. She stood on the other side of the soul eater, her leather leggings soaked red with blood from her wound. Grimacing, she thumbed the iron sphere in her hand. “Go, Mae. Get to the stone. Tell them about the Key. You have to.”
Maeryn looked at her bleakly, still holding to a thread of sanity. Slowly, she nodded her understanding. The glow in Sumi’s chest was nearly gone. When the soul eater’s meal was finished, it would go for one of them next. Maeryn turned and crawled down the slope. The crushing fear began to lift from her mind the farther she got from the demon and her strength returned. Straining to hold back tears, she got to her feet and moved on shaking legs the rest of the way down the slope. She found the stone within moments, tucked in next to an outer wall of the temple. Behind her Brinna screamed in terror and defiance, the sound lost in the sudden detonation as her firebomb exploded.
Maeryn put her palm on the stone’s cool, smooth surface, her palms tracing over the faded glyphs engraved on its surface. “Maeryn, please!” Sumi’s voice called. “Help me!”
Maeryn’s sight blurred by the tears that finally overcame her willpower. “Damn it,” she sobbed, rubbing her eyes on her sleeve. She blinked quickly and looked down once more, her gaze falling on the glyph she needed. She touched it was the bare skin of her palm and spoke the incantation. A slash of blue light ringed by impenetrable darkness appeared and widened in the air before her.
Maeryn looked back to see the demon crouched over Brinna’s still form. One foreleg was missing, but a quivering tendril budded from the shoulder and grew in size and length, reaching down towards the ground. Its head bent over Brinna's broken body for an instant, but then it straightened and swung over to orient on her. Maeryn stood and leapt through the portal.