Sunspear: Book Two of the God Wars of Ithir (excerpt)

Ciarán came out of the woods into another meadow, wondering how much longer he could stay ahead of his pursuers. High overhead a ghostly moon glowed behind a thin veil of clouds. The dark bulk of the Tróndeag filled the horizon; their wintry crowns gleaming in the moonlight. In his rush through the forest he had not noticed when the rain stopped. His spirits lifted, but he could not face the hunters here. He had to find a place where they could only come at him one or two at a time. He opened a mind-gate and stepped through it to a distant hill.

He was soon deep in the mountains, standing on a ridge overlooking a moonlit valley. In the distance, the towers of a town rose like skeletal fingers into the sky. He tensed as the deep-throated howl of the pursuing Darkspawn filled him. Grimly, he wondered how they had managed to follow him. No matter, the hunt ended in the distant ruins.

He stepped from his portal into the town. A wave of nausea swept over him. Staggering, he released his Táam. The sick feeling passed, but it left him sweating and gulping deep breaths. The hair on his neck prickled. The town was a dead place, yet it had a feeling of menace in its deeper shadows—a menace that was utterly alien. The air was heavy, lifeless with a faint odor that smelled like fresh blood and something newly dead. Then he realized that it was not a smell at all, but a sense of wrongness, an unnatural otherness. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with the creatures hunting him.

"Perhaps coming here was not such a good idea, Rilkha," he said aloud. The deep baying of his pursuers drove the strangeness of the dead town from his mind. He had to find a suitable place to meet them that would give him the advantage. Caerwyn had pounded it into him that you should choose the place where you would face your enemy, if you could, and make him come to you.

Glancing quickly around, he saw that he was in what appeared to be a commons. It was closed in on three sides by the tumbled-down ruins of buildings. On the fourth side, broad steps led up to a row of tall fluted columns capped by lintels. He thought it was probably the temple of some long-forgotten god or goddess. It offered the best possibility of a place to wait for his hunters. He ran up the steps. Rilkha bounded up ahead of him. At the top he, peered into the building and was surprised to find that he could see all the way through it. Past the last row of columns he could see across a large open area to what looked like a series of giant steps topped by more of the slender columns. The hunters’ baying sounded again, spurring him into the temple.

At the other side, he found himself looking down into a large oval pit. What he had thought were steps were actually tier upon tier of stone benches. It reminded him a little of the Danu's Sanctuary in the Stone, only much larger. In the center of the oval’s weed-choked floor was a raised dais-like edifice with a small building on each end. The building facing him was open on one side and the stone roof was intact. He had found the place to make his stand. Not only would he be protected on three sides and from above, but his attackers would have to negotiate a sheer wall at least twelve spans high to get at him.

Without thinking, he opened a portal to the building. Pain lanced into his head and he was almost overwhelmed by nausea. Staggering through the mind-gate, he released the fetid energy of his Táam and dropped to his knees, retching loudly.

Fear knotted his belly. Was he was falling ill with some affliction of the mind? His plan depended on luring the beasts hunting him to a place where he could destroy them with his Táam. Well he had lured them here, but using his Táam seemed out of the question. He drew his sword. It would have to be enough. He thought about opening a mind-gate and fleeing. No, the hunters had followed him here in spite of the portals. Their baying was close now. He stood and faced the open end of the building just as Rilkha bounded through it. He was a good twelve spans above the pit, yet she had cleared it with ease. So much for the distance to the ground being an obstacle.

He looked around his hiding place. A large statue of a woman stood in the center of the building. Was she was the deity to whom the temple had been dedicated? If she was, she no longer manifested herself in this place. He could not sense any presence other than himself and Rilkha.
A low, rumbling growl came from his side. He placed a hand on Rilkha's massive head.

{Darkbrothers come.}

"Aye, Rilkha," he said aloud. Holding his sword in the two handed grip in front of him, he scanned the darker openings between the columns running along the top of the oval. Nothing moved. Suddenly the alien wrongness he had felt in the commons came upon him again. Something was moving toward him, an evil darker than even that of the Dark God. He shivered and wiped his palms on his trousers. He looked down at Rilkha and muttered, "It would seem I have put us from the kettle into the fire.” Her ears pricked forward and a deep rumbling that was not her happy growl came from her. Forming the núll, he backed into the building until he stood beside the statue.

Suddenly the moon shadows at the openings between the columns moved. Four huge shapes blacker than a cave at midnight and half again as big as Rilkha glided into the pale light. He had no idea what they were other than hounds of some type. Shadowhounds was the name he gave them. For a moment they stood, their four eyes glowing like red-hot coals. Then they looked right at him. With a howl that filled his mind, they launched themselves at his hiding place. In one instant they were standing still, in the next they were hurtling toward him with a speed that left him gaping. The building shuddered as two of them landed in the opening. The other two crashed into the walls and fell back into the pit. Rilkha's battle roar sounded. The small enclosure was filled with a savage din like a hundred wolfhounds fighting, and he was desperately trying to avoid the bone-crushing jaws of the beast in front of him.

Something heavy landed on the roof. There was a rending sound as though the stone was being ripped away. Bits of fine stone and dust rained down on him from above. One of the beasts was trying to dig its way through the roof. The one attacking him surged forward slashing at him with a huge paw armed with long claws gleaming like burnished steel. Throwing himself backward, the razor sharp claws tugged at his tunic and then tore deep groves in the statue. Before it could recover from its vicious slashing attack, Ciarán drove his sword into its chest. It was a killing stroke, but his arm shuddered as though he had struck sun-hardened oak. The Darkhound did not even flinch. His heart fell into the pit of his stomach. Goddess, Mother! How are they killed?

With a deafening howl, the monster surged forward, its massive chest, knocking him from his feet. His head thudded into the stone floor and sparks exploded in front of his eyes. In a dim haze he saw the beast standing over him. Then, jaws gaping, its head dipped toward him. Only years of training and lightning quick reflexes saved him. Unthinking, he got his sword up in front of him. The force of the Death Hound's own attack drove the razor sharp blade through the soft roof of its mouth and into its savage brain. Just that quickly, it was over. The fiend groaned and its glowing eyes fading in death, collapsed on top of him. Somehow he managed to scramble from beneath it before it pinned him to the floor.

Pulling his sword free, he stepped around the statue. Rilkha was pinned on her back desperately trying to keep the Death Hound's jaws from her throat. With a yell, he rushed forward and drove his sword into the Shadowhound’s brightly gleaming eye. With a roar, it reared up, snatching him off his feet and slamming him into the wall. Somehow he held on to the sword as the beast's effort to escape the pain in its eye carried it out of the building into the pit below. He tried to get to his feet and pain stabbed into his side making him suck his breath in with a hiss. His tunic was blood soaked from his armpit to his waist; he had not escaped the hounds claws after all. The adrenaline pumping through his veins from his battle was wearing off. He felt every bump and bruise.

Rilkha was on her feet and staring out of their refuge. In the pale light filtering into their sanctuary he saw that she was bleeding from a half dozen wounds. Another attack would finish them both. Only through luck and the will of the Gods had they survived the first onslaught. Why did they not attack? A horrendous roaring mixed with strange wailing cries coming from the pit penetrated his dazed mind. He stared out over the pit, vaguely surprised at how well he could see. The light was wrong. It was not the steady silver glow of the moon, but a greenish, flickering light. A band of spark-filled mist flashed across the opening. He rubbed his eyes, wondering if his wound was making him hallucinate.

Gritting his teeth, he levered himself to his feet with his sword and started for the open end of the building. Halfway there, he froze. The tiers of benches across from his refuge were covered with dark, man-like shapes moving down into the pit. A cloud filled with bright sparks hung over them. Sparkling streamers dipped from the cloud to hover briefly over the heads of the creatures before darting back up into the cloud again. Light wraiths was the name his pain-fogged mind gave them. More of the black shapes were coming through the columns at the top of the oval. Rilkha rumbled a deep growl.

Ignoring what his eyes were seeing, his spirits soared. He and Rilkha were not going to have to face the Darkhounds after all. He started to offer thanks to the Gods for their salvation, but the words died on his tongue. The alien otherness and evil he had sense earlier was here. They had to get out of here while the creatures were fighting the Death Hounds. Placing his hand on Rilkha's head, he sent, {Follow.}

Without waiting for her acknowledgement, he moved to the opening and cautiously looked over the edge. Two of the Shadowhounds were down, covered by black shapes, some man-sized others as large as Trollien, still hacking and stabbing their lifeless bodies. Even this close the attackers' forms were hazed and indistinct. Like shadows, he thought. The remaining hunter was still on its feet, wreaking frightful carnage among its attackers with its claws and powerful jaws. The ground around it was covered with bits and pieces of savaged bodies.

As he stared into the death-pit, the carnage strewn around the hound moved. The arms and legs torn from their owners were still moving. In the ghostly light he saw an arm crawl to a body. Horror turned his mouth into a desert; the arm was trying to reattach itself. Goddess! What were these things? Tearing his eyes from the nightmare below, he slipped around the wall to a walkway running along building's side. The pain in his side was forgotten. His one thought was to get as far away this place as possible. He found a set of steps leading to a lower level of the dais. A line of slender columns, each crested with an animal shape, stood between him and the building on the other end. In the center, more steps led down into the pit. He ran for them.

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