The two soldiers burst through the Door and ran for the stairs. Taking the stairs two at a time, they trailed a sour reek of fear.
Unnerved, Jamis locked his gaze on the opposite stairway, but the rest of his senses remained fixed on the Door. His neck hairs bristled, a soldier’s sixth sense warning that danger lurked behind, yet there was nothing to fight but shadows. He gripped his spear, needing to feel the certainty of steel, knowing he dared not let rumors banished reason.
An odd, slithering sound came from the stairs. A tall skeleton of a man leaning on an iron staff shuffled into view, his dark robes dragging behind. The cowl of his robe slipped back to reveal a shock of long white hair framing a ravaged face. Broken veins spider-webbed his ruined skin and his cheeks hung hollow like empty sacks, yet the dark eyes glared cold and keen.
It was the Mordant, the lord of the citadel.
Jamis fell prostrate, his face pressed to the floor, praying to avoid the chilling stare. Iron clicked on stone, drawing near, the staff stopping beside his face. “Rise.” The sibilant rasp froze the air. “Rise and follow.”
The imperious voice jerked Jamis like a chain. Drenched in a sudden sweat, he staggered to his feet and bowed to the Mordant, before turning to face the Door. A veteran of a dozen battles, he told himself there was nothing to fear…but the lie coiled cold in his stomach. A rotten stench clogged the Doorway, making him gag as he followed the Mordant across the rune-carved threshold.
Jamis stifled a gasp, his gaze skittering around a vast cavern carved from nightmares. Red stalactites hung from a vault of rough rock, as if the earth had wept blood that slowly petrified. Beneath the vault of weeping stone, a great golden pentacle stretched across a black marble floor like an altar awaiting an offering. Flaming braziers stood at the five points, filling the cavern with a flickering light. The light did little to dispel the menace. Power pulsed in the shadows, waiting to be summoned.
The Darkness was alive.
Mortals did not belong here, Jamis wanted to run. Needing a bulwark against his fears, he fixed his gaze on the two men standing beneath the pulsing shadows. General Haith stood at one of the braziers while the executioner cradled his axe above the dark-stained block of wood.
The block stood empty, waiting for a sacrifice. Jamis wondered if it waited for him, but then a worse fear twisted his guts, remembering those things that had crawled from the Door. Death at the block would be a far cleaner fate. Struggling to keep his dignity, Jamis shambled forward till he reached the edge of the golden pentacle. His footsteps slowed, somehow knowing if he crossed the Dark Lord’s symbol he’d be lost.
“Stop.” the Mordant rasped.
Jamis froze, clutching his spear, shocked by the reprieve.
The Mordant began to circle the pentacle, his black robes fluttered behind like a windblown wraith…yet there was no wind. Muttering chants in a strange tongue, the Mordant woke the chamber. Flames roared from the braziers, licking the vaulted ceiling, releasing plumes of red sparks that fell like scorching cinders. The air crackled with power, the breath of a thunderstorm eager to strike. Shadows coalesced overhead, taking the form of gibbering demons. And then the braziers dimmed.
Darkness pressed down, forcing Jamis to his knees. Crouching low, he held his breath lest the Darkness enter him.