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So the Prologue for Cycle II (Working Title: Star-Crossed) is…

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So the Prologue for Cycle II (Working Title: Star-Crossed) is completed. And I need some opinions. Primarily about whether or not the writing style works. I'm working between a relaxed gruff style (think 1k1in) and going all out bardic, and I'm not certain it's working. Anyway, check it out.

Warning - long. But opinions even on just the first few pages is welcome.

Prologue

They were running.
Past the merchants’ booths, through the throngs of shoppers in Fishermen’s Bend, the cobblestone of the streets of Jyoto racing beneath their feet, they ran. Ryjel’s mother had his hand in her hand, pulling him along. Her face was ashen, the fear on her face so tangible that the crowd would have parted for her even had she not worn a priestess’s garb.

They followed the Northerly Road as it wound around the Jyoto River, not slowing from their run until they reached the Great West Bridge, and even then only dropping to a brisk walk. Every few steps his mother would glance helplessly over her shoulder at the crowds of people moving in and out of the streets, her hand held against her pounding heart.

She calmed a little when the Temple of the Father of Waves came into view, nestled in the bend of the river. Built of a green-blue stone that shone violet in the sunlight, it was their temple, their home. His father was standing in the gardens out front that his mother so lovingly tended, watching the last of the ships tie off and dock for the night as the sun set. She ran to him, colliding with him in a fearful, desperate embrace. She gave herself a few moments to relish his touch and take a few deep breaths. Finally, she pulled herself away.

“A company of the Chosen of Inashita are on their way,” she whispered, unable to look him in the eye.

The face of Ryjel’s father fell, growing pale enough to match his mother’s. “Get inside,” he said, hastily leading them around to the main entrance of the temple and ushering them inside. “Inashita preserve us,” he whispered over and over again, “Great Father save us.”

Then, with one last furtive glance outside, he swung shut the great doors
closed silently on well oiled hinges, signaling the end of the day.

The private priest of the Chosen of Inashita made his rounds, snuffing out the candles, shuttering the windows, brushing away the ashes of incense that burned at the feet of the statue of the Goddess, a towering figure of white polished marble. Finally, as the bell’s tolled the tenth hour, he left through the small side door that led into the barracks, whispering prayers as he walked. As he shut the small door behind him, the Temple fell to a deathly quiet, the only light the flickering votives in the back.

When the half-hour tolled, a shadow emerged from the back, a man wrapped in a black, ankle length cloak. He moved soundlessly over the floor, his footfalls gliding smoothly over the stone. He stood for a moment in front of the statue of the Goddess Inashita, contemplating her serene face and elegant hands, the intricate details lost in the dim light. The image was lovingly carved, hair and robe twisting and dancing in an imagined breeze, one hand held skyward, pointing to far away lands while the other clenched defensively at her shoulder. It was a conqueror’s pose, the Chosen of Inashita’s favorite image of the goddess; one they had invented for themselves.

He bowed to her, his gaze steady, then turned away and walked to the niche in the wall that held the small statue of the Lady in Red; a tall, hooded woman with her Northland-blade held high. From beneath his cloak, the shadow produced two matched short swords, one a few fingers longer than the other, and brought them to his forehead reverently, closing his eyes briefly as the metal touched his skin. Then, sheathing the blades, he followed the priest out of the Temple.

He saw the guards long before they saw him. They didn’t even draw as he walked through the door and into the rough hewn hallway behind it, assuming he was simply a devotee who had stayed late for private devotions. Even when they failed to recognize him, they only looked at each other with puzzled expressions. The shadow nodded once as he walked between them, as if his presence there was hardly abnormal. It wasn’t until he felt the hand on his arm that he knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.

“A moment, sir,” the Chosen of Inashita said, “I don’t think I’ve-”

The shorter sword passed silently through the guard’s throat, easily slicing through skin and cartilage, burying itself up to the hilt. The Chosen’s eyes widened in surprise and disbelief, as if he still didn’t understand what had just happened. He managed to gurgle once before his throat slid free from the blade and he crumbled to the floor.

It wasn’t until the body hit the stone that the other guard armed himself, freeing his sword from its sheath. With a strangled cry he attacked wildly, but the shadow stepped past the thrust, catching his wrist with his right hand. The shadow twisted his arm and then wrenched him backwards, moving in an ever-tightening spiral until the guard was being practically ground into the floor. The Chosen’s grunt of pain was stopped short as a blade slid under his armor and between his shoulder blades, the shadow pushing until he felt the metal tip ground into his breastplate. His struggling ceased after only a few seconds.

Smoothly, the shadow stood, wiping the blade off on the guard’s tunic and then returning it to the sheath at his left hip. He dropped the cloak to the ground and then unbuckled the belt holding his other sword. He slung it over his right shoulder, draping the sheath, designed for just this purpose, down his back and re-buckled it into position. Then he repositioned the shorter weapon on his left, strapping its sheath so it lay across small of his back.

He began running, marking his location against the map in his head. Every third torch was lit, the light intended to be just enough to find the out-house or a lover’s doorway. The shadow hurried, for he had much yet to do tonight, and little time before the bodies were discovered.
He wasn’t certain where they were coming from or how close the other patrols were, but already he could hear voices of his parents were hushed as they fastened the doors.

The inside of the temple smelled of salt and brine. A network of channels ran the length and breadth of the room, worked reverently into the very stone of the floor, coming together to fill a great rectangular pool at the feet of a great turquoise turtle, the statue of the Father of Waves. Sailors coming inland from Dovenshire or one of the many other coastal cities would carry with them barrels and bottles of ocean water, to be poured into the pool and offered to the Great Father as a prayer of safe return. The empty containers lined the windows of the temple, a mute testimony to the number of sailors who had visited the temple over the years.

“If the Chosen come here what will we do?” his mother asked.

“What we can,” his father answered. Desperately, he looked around the temple, hoping to find some answer there, but the only sound was the lapping of the tiny waves in the pool. “Hide Ryjel,” he decided finally, “I will stay here and hold the doors if they come.”

His mother only nodded and picked him up now, holding him tight against her, crying into his hair. She carried him past the great statue and into the labyrinth of hallways that marked the Temple’s inner rooms and his family’s living chambers.

His father was a formidable mage, he remembered, often making the water dance for him. Ryjel couldn’t help but wonder what he could be afraid of.

His mother took him to his parents’ room and brought him to their bed, where he had often hid under while playing hide and seek. “Stay here,” she told him, “and hide in the very back corner. Do not come out until you hear your father’s voice, no matter what.” She hugged him close. “If the Chosen come and something happens to us, seek sanctuary within the High Temple of Inashita or Bel-Terr. Or even, Father help us, join the Chosen of Inashita if you’ve no other choice. But live, my son, find some way to live. I will rest easier if you are safe.” Thus saying, she kissed him on the forehead and left. Ryjel crawled back beneath the bed so not even the pinpoints of his eyes could be seen.

His mother never looked back as she walked out the door, nothing more than a
silhouette was approaching, a dark figure against the torchlight behind him.

The shadow swore to himself, then shrouded himself in darkness and slipped behind the hanging tapestries.

The Chosen of Inashita was not a guard, based on his appearance and careless pace, but more likely a new recruit who had trouble sleeping. He turned right at the end of the hall, and the shadow listened with dread as his footsteps first slowed down and then stopped entirely when he reached the bodies.

He didn’t immediately cry for help, and the shadow thanked the Lady for that much, but he was already running back the way he had come, the pounding of his boots growing louder by the second. As he came sprinting down the hallway of tapestries, he sucked in a breath to awaken the barracks and alert the guards to an intruder.

He only got out the first syllable before metal clipped his windpipe, splattering blood from his jugular onto the hanging cloth. He lost his footing as his life bled out of him and he fell against the wall, crumpling to a heap on the floor, surrounded by a slowly growing pool of crimson.

The shadow sheathed his sword and ran. The Chosen had not finished his shout, but it was enough that guards would be on their way to investigate. Praying that his memory still held true, he turned left and took the stairs he found there two at a time. At the top of the stairs he found a wide room with rows and rows of empty wooden tables, much as he had hoped. The only light came from the cook’s fire in the adjoining room, kept lit through the night only to insure an easy start to making breakfast in the morning. Heedless of the dirt and grime, the shadow slipped beneath the nearest table, using his limbs to brace against the table-legs and pull himself off the ground.

Clearing his mind again, he wrapped himself in a protective layer of darkness filled the room as the door shut.

Ryjel didn’t know how much time had passed when he first heard it; the concussive boom of pounding on the Temple doors. It struck rhythmically, with a drummer’s beat, every few seconds, echoing everywhere in the temple. Finally, it stopped, and for a brief moment, Ryjel was relieved, and then he heard shouting. Not joyous cries but screams of pain and death. The last thing he heard was his mother shrieking, and then he heard nothing else.

In time, he could hear the invaders wandering inside the temple, opening doors and searching the rooms. They laughed and talked amongst themselves, as if they browsed a merchant’s store rather than a violated holy place.

They came to his parents’ room, of course. Opening drawers and closets, looking for what little gold they kept, and perhaps him as well. One crouched down to peer under the bed, reaching his arm to see if he could find some chest or lockbox. Ryjel shrank against the very far corner and held his breath, and the Chosen gave up his search, not willing to dirty his clothes to investigate further. Finally, they gave up the search, heading out the door.

The last Ryjel saw of them was their legs
of the Chosen of Inashita walked right past where the shadow hung motionless, not even breathing.

He ignored the pain in his arms and the cramp in his legs, clearing his mind of their consideration. One of the men carried a torch, but light did not reach the underside of the table, nor even if it could, would it have pierced the spell of darkness the shadow had cast.

“We’ve lost three men,” one explained, “Canis, Oistin, and Faolan.”
“The boy?” another asked. The shadow could only assume the first speaker nodded in assent, because the second voice continued. “Why would someone do such a thing?”

“We don’t yet know if he was the target or was simply in the way,” the first answered.

“Sir,” a third voice broke in, “I’ve men ready to search the Temple, to find the murderer, on your command.”

“Assuming the assassin was leaving, not coming in,” the first spat.

“But, sir,” the third protested, “how would he have gotten in through the Temple door?”

“Easier than he would have gotten in through the barrack’s gates,” the first answered. “Send in half your men. But send the others out to spread word to the patrols to keep watch. If you don’t find him in the Temple, then he must be in the Fort.”

“Unless the murderer is one of our own,” the second said softly to the first as the third’s heavy footfalls carried him down the stairs.
“Don’t you think I know that?” the first said, “All is not well this night, and I will not consider the barracks secure until we either find the assassin or find no more bodies.” He took a deep, exasperated breath. “I’ve left two guards at the Commander’s quarters and alerted the patrols on the third floor. Once we secure the temple, we’ll secure the first floor and then move our way up.”

“I’d prefer if we secured the Commander’s floor first,” the second said.

“As would I,” the first agreed, “but there are no means of escape on the third floor and most of our men are downstairs, regardless. Come, I’ve put two guards on the Commander, he will be safe. The more men we have searching, the sooner we will flush out this assassin.”

“I will stay here,” the second said, “in case I can catch the man fleeing up the stairs. If you flush him out, I will sound the alarm.”

“As you will,” the first said, walking off, “But get some torches in here. He could be hiding in the corners, as little light as there is in here.” The second said nothing, but began picking the torches off the wall and carrying them to the cook’s fire to light them, then returning them to their position.

The shadow waited until the man’s attention was focused entirely on lighting his torch before he slipped out from under the table and dashed out of sight, moving with a preternatural silence was almost deafening after the Chosen had left the room.

Ryjel huddled under the bed, uncertain of what to do. He no longer heard the invaders, but he didn’t know how much longer he should stay there. Were the Chosen going to rededicate the Temple and claim it for their own? Had his parents escaped? If they hadn’t, where were they? The questions whirled through Ryjel’s head as he huddled there. He would wait until morning, he resolved, before venturing out. But from underneath this bed, in this windowless room, how would he know when it was morning?

Ryjel was just drifting off to sleep when he heard it, a soft, warm voice calling his name.

His father’s voice.

Ryjel slipped out from under the bed, his soft footfalls echoing in the stillness. Perhaps the Chosen had simply vandalized the Temple, taken their gold and left. Perhaps his parents had agreed to replace the great turtle with a statue of Inashita, and that was enough to please the Chosen. Perhaps they would even have to abandon the temple and return to Dovenshire. Ryjel didn’t care, so long as his mother and father were unharmed.

“Come out, come out,” the voice called again, “it’s all right now.”

Ryjel began jogging through the hallway, eager to embrace his mother, to know everything was alright. He burst out into the main temple and then froze mid-stride. His father was indeed there.

But he was flanked by armed men of the Chosen
of the Light, a pair of them, stood watch over the door.

The shadow couldn’t help but grin. Only two guards over the Commander, most of their forces currently searching an empty temple, and a sentry who would swear that nothing is happening on the floor above him. The Lady in Red had smiled upon him, this night. It was almost too easy.

He focused, surrounding himself with a field that would mute all sound, to keep the guards from shouting for back-up. Then, reaching over his right shoulder and drawing the longer of the two swords, he stepped out into the hallway where the two Chosen of Inashita could clearly see him.

The one on the left reacted first. Broadsword held high, he charged in, swinging hard and fast. The shadow didn’t try to parry his attacks, but instead sidestepped them, rolling to his right, and then springing from a crouch into the man’s chest, knocking him backwards. He slid his sword into the unarmored spot just under guard’s armpit, cutting through his ribcage and piercing his heart. The Chosen slumped to the ground as the shadow turned to deal with the other.

To the man’s credit, he hadn’t waited for his companion to die before attacking and came in swinging, forcing the shadow to parry. He knew he was out-matched, shouting for back-up that should have been just down the hall had the sound been allowed to carry. But no help would come and by his forth swing the shadow sidestepped and counter-attacked, slicing deep into the guard’s elbow. The sword dropped from the Chosen’s hand, clattering to the floor. Still, he lunged for it, but the shadow kicked him halfway through the motion, and then pinned him against the wall, the tip of his sword wavering just under his chin.

They regarded each other for a few moments before the shadow rammed the blade through the Chosen’s throat, savoring the moment as the light died in the man’s eyes of his father were dead and empty.

As was his father himself, he realized, for blood covered his robe and there was a gaping wound over his heart. Holding onto his shoulder was a skeleton of a man, with gray, stringy hair and dark eyes that were dead and empty in an entirely different way. He wore the traditional Chosen of Inashita white in his cloak and the gold threads of rank on his shoulder, but underneath it were garments of black that seemed to wrap nothing more than bones. Ryjel could practically see the threads of magic that ran from the man’s hands and seemed to have been stitched into his father’s very muscles and bones.

“That’s my boy, Ryjel,” his father’s mouth moved and his voice came out of it, but it wasn’t he that talked, “everything’s all right now.”

The gray-haired man grinned at the look of nausea and horror that crossed Ryjel’s face. “Do you like my trick, boy?” he asked, “I learned it from the Lady in Red herself, a few years ago.”

The man outright laughed when Ryjel threw up, then extinguished the threads of magic that had kept his father standing. The body collapsed to the floor, a dead thing.

“Was that strictly necessary, Antares?” one of the Chosen asked disapprovingly.

“It got him out here, didn’t it?” the man answered, “I swear, Pismis, if you disapprove of us so much, why do you come along?”

The other man didn’t answer, just looked away.

Near the entrance, Ryjel could see his mother, tied and gagged, tears running down her face. He tried to run to her, but a strong hand grabbed his shirt and hoisted him in the air. “Oh, no you don’t, boy,” he said with a sneer, holding him almost level to his face. Then he held him out for the guards. “Here. Take him and tie him up. We wouldn’t want him running to join his mother in the pyre, now would we? Well, perhaps we would, but we are not without mercy for children.” The company laughed at that.

A Chosen came running through the Temple’s main doors, which now hung open to the night. “Guise Betel,” the man said breathlessly, “Captain Bochum wanted you to know that the pyre is ready.”

“Excellent,” he said, “then we can finish this off and we can all get home be-”

A sudden splash interrupted Betel’s words. Irritated, the Guise turned around to find one of his men knee deep in the central pool, a bewildered expression on his face. “Is something wrong?” He asked angrily.

“I’m sorry, Guise,” the man answered, “I must have slipped.” He raised one of his legs out of the pool and put it on the edge, trying to climb out, but he slipped and fell back in. He didn’t come back up; only his hands broke the surface, groping in the air as if looking for something to grab hold of.

“His armor must be weighing him down,” Betel realized, then motioned at one of the few men not wearing armor. “Aervin, help him up.”
Aervin splashed into the pool to the drowning man and grabbed a hold of his hands, struggling to pull him to his feet. For a moment, he almost seemed to have succeeded, but then he lost his footing and fell backwards into the water, too.

The company of Chosen had gathered around the pool, and they could all see Aervin, face down in the water, trying to push himself off the bottom of the pool, struggling as if he had some great weight on his back. When his shoulders breached the water, he tried to straighten, to take a breath of air. He managed one inhale before the water itself seemed to snake around his throat and drag him struggling back down.

“Stay!” Betel shouted, but it was too late. Another of his men had already rushed forward, only to slip on the wet-surface and fall in. He joined the other two, drowning in a knee deep pool of water.

They watched in mute horror until the struggling stopped, until the hands fell back beneath the surface and the bodies stilled. Suddenly, one of the Chosen rounded on his mother, ripping the gag from her mouth. “What did you do?” he demanded, slapping her.

“Garai, back off,” Betel commanded.

“She didn’t do anything,” Antares confirmed.

“But-” Garai protested.

“I’m a mage,” Antares said calmly, “had she been using a spell, I would have seen it.”

Ryjel’s mother rubbed her cheek, but she couldn’t keep a grim smile off her tear-streaked face. “The ocean is deep and merciless,” she said, “and indiscriminate. If you do this thing, not one of your Chosen of Inashita will ever be safe in salt-water again. The Father of Waves will not allow it.”

“Is that some kind of curse?” Garai demanded.

She met his gaze calmly. “I only interpret what has happened here tonight, that is all.”

Betel swallowed once, then spoke. “The Wanderer’s serve Inashita; she is not beholden to them. That he has struck here tonight against us only proves that we are right to tear down his temples. The Father of the Waves may rule the ocean, but the whole world is Inashita’s domain. She will protect us.”

“The Wanderer’s are Inashita’s children.” Ryjel’s mother spoke again, clear and calm. “She will not side against them with those who simply decided they were her chosen.”
Betel settled his black gaze on her. “Take her to the pyre,” he spat.

Garai was pleased to do just that and he marched her out the door, though she held herself calmly. When they got outside, one of the men rushed to meet him and helped him tie her to the stake. They had set the pyre in the middle of her garden, ripping down branches from her beloved trees for the fuel.

“Bochum,” Betel called, “is she ready?”

Bochum, the man who had tied her up, nodded gleefully.

“Then, light it,” Betel commanded. He smirked in grim satisfaction as Bochum and Garai brought their torches to the pyre. The dry wood burst into flame, eagerly reaching skyward.

Ryjel’s eyes never left his mother’s. She fixed him with her tear-streaked gaze and mouthed one word, “Live.” Then she closed her eyes as the flames touched her feet and commended herself to Inashita’s embrace.

But Ryjel was not thinking of his mother’s words, nor of the Temple of Inashita. Instead his gaze went from face to face of those that wore gold thread on their shoulder, those that commanded this attack, memorizing their names. Betel, the smirking leader. Antares, the thin one, with gray hair and dead eyes. Bochum, the eager one, who stretched out his hands to warm them by the fire. Pismis, the oldest one, who watched the burning quietly, who, even if he objected, said nothing. And Garai, the big one, who huffed about and congratulated himself, as if they had taken down a pair of brigands, and not two defenseless priests. Betel, Antares, Bochum, Pismis, Garai, Ryjel said in his mind, eyes going from face to face. Betel, Antares, Bochum, Pismis Garai.

Betel, Antares, Bochum, Pismis, Garai
’s mouth made an “o” shape as his own sword passed through his ribcage and cut into his lung, ripping out through his back and driving deep into the wooden closet door behind him. His eyes widened and he clawed feebly at the hilt, first with just his right hand, then with his left as well, mangled as it was. But his own blood made the hilt slick and eventually he gave up, letting his arms drop limply to his side.

Ryjel admired his handiwork. Garai had been as arrogant as he had always remembered him to be. It had been a simple matter to bait him into over-committing his thrust and breaking his arm.

Garai’s eyes fluttered open. “Please,” he gasped out, the words thick with blood, “I have gold… I have diamonds… I will double what they paid you if you will let me live!”

A mage could still save Garai. All Ryjel needed to do was pull out his sword and disappear, or perhaps not even that, since a patrol would no doubt be checking here soon. Even a novice could knit the flesh back together easily enough.

Ryjel shook his head. “I think not,” was his only answer.

“Consider it,” Garai spoke again, blood flecking his lips, coughing as it filled his lungs, “You’ll never make it out of here alive.”

Ryjel laughed to himself. He had heard that countless times before, and never had the prediction come true. “It’s not about money,” he explained, “it’s personal.”

Garai squinted at him, feebly trying to remove the sword. “Do… do I know you?”

Ryjel looked at him, surprised. “You don’t remember?”

The Chosen could only shake his head weakly.

Ryjel grabbed Garai’s chin and forced him to look into his coal-black eyes. “It would be twelve years ago now, here in Jyoto. You and your fellow Chosen of Inashita visited the Temple of the Father of the Waves. You were only a Captain at the time, but still one of the ones leading the expedition.” Ryjel waited for something to show in the Chosen’s face, some kind of flare of recognition in his eyes, but there was nothing. “There was a couple tending the Temple there. They had a child, a young boy. You don’t remember that night? You don’t remember what you did?”

Garai either coughed or laughed, Ryjel couldn’t tell. “I have killed hundreds of heretics. I’ve cleansed scores of temples and homes. And you expect me to remember one from a decade ago?”

All the expression went out of Ryjel’s face except for his eyes; their fathomless black burned with rage. He went to the desk and then blew out the oil lamp that burned there, a rare luxury outside of the temples. He removed the wick and splashed the liquid all over the Chosen.

“One last hint, Garai,” he said softly, then lit the man on fire.
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