Excerpts from Book 3
Guardian in Absentia
As he stared deep into the lightless void, a soft voice, barely more than a whisper, emanated from somewhere behind him.
“The abyss beckons,” the voice said.
Lorand turned to see who was with him in the room and was startled to discover a woman draped in black looming before the altar. She seemed to float upon the air, and as she did, her velvet gown and raven-black tresses wavered behind her, fading off into the dark. Iron spikes rose from a crown upon her head, twisting upward like the horns of some ancient pagan goddess. As Lorand stood petrified, the shadow-clad form drifted closer, moving within the halo of candlelight, allowing him to gaze upon her face. Her flesh was pale and smooth, while her eyes were soulless pools of black. She was a creature of beauty, but her beauty was unearthly and sinister.
She spoke again. “Darkness holds many wonders, does it not? One need only peer into its black depths to behold countless mysteries.” She gestured a clawed hand to the passageway behind Lorand. “What awaits in yonder shadows? What lies buried far below?”
Her hypnotic voice held Lorand rapt, rendering him speechless.
“Are you not curious, child? Have you never wondered what treasures the Tower holds—what secret must be guarded so vigilantly?
At last Lorand found the power to speak. “A great evil is held here,” he replied. “The Tower must be guarded, lest the darkness imprisoned within these walls be set loose to wreak havoc upon the world.”
“This is not true,” the dark woman said. “Evil resides within the hearts of men. No prison could ever contain it.” She drifted closer, holding his gaze with her black eyes. “You speak of evil and darkness as if they were one, but this is not so. Darkness is not a thing to be feared. It is the ancient realm of shadows and night. It gives birth to dreams and grants safe haven for those who seek its refuge. It empowers all who embrace it, allowing them to bask in its eternal rapture.”
She drifted closer still. Her eyes seemed to pierce the very core of his soul. “Your destiny is entwined in darkness, child. Allow me to guide you along the path of shadows.”
Lorand found it nearly impossible to resist her seductive allure. He closed his eyes to break the spell and regained the will to speak once more. “Still your tongue, enchantress. I shall not be swayed by your charms.” His voice wavered weakly as he spoke. “Your beauty is but a hollow husk—a spell to conceal the demon within, but I know what you truly are.” He reopened his eyes to meet her cold stare. “You are Mara, the Dark Queen. The elders have warned me of your unholy magic.”
Mara’s blood-red lips formed a smile. “They are fools, blinded by their faith, refusing to see things as they truly are. Lost in their own delusions, they seek to destroy all they do not understand. They fear me, for power such as mine can shape men’s destinies. The blood that courses within me can transform mere peasants into warriors, even kings. If you were to taste such power, there would be no limit to the things you could attain. No dream would elude your grasp.” The Dark Queen now hovered directly before Lorand. She stared deep into his eyes, penetrating his gaze and thoughts. She pressed herself to him, her lips brushing against his. “I can grant your every desire.”
The Company of Wolves
Dravek clutched Leonidas by the jaw and forced his head back, his gaze boring deep into the old man’s eyes. Leonidas felt his mind go numb. He could not move nor even breathe. The next sensation he experienced was the feeling of spidery legs, sharp and icy, crawling inside his head. Dravek’s stare held Leonidas rapt as he peered into the elder’s mind, probing his memories and thoughts. But the vision was faint and obscure, revealing only the vague form of a figure cloaked in black standing amidst the shadows of the Dark Tower.
Dravek looked away, releasing Leonidas from his spell, then addressed the old man once more. “If indeed this new Tower Lord truly exists and is as powerful as you have said, why does he not make himself known? He is no better than those who have reigned before him—mere shadow kings who sought the sanctuary of the Tower to claim dominion over the lowest of men.”
Leonidas shook his head. “Those who have stood watch over the Tower have protected us and ruled over us wisely.”
Dravek stepped closer, towering over the old man. “They are false lords, reigning over a tomb, keeping my queen imprisoned.” Dravek’s eyes were seething with rage. “I am the true heir to the Tower of Vasaria. And when my queen is restored to her throne, all men shall tremble beneath her power.” He turned to face the mass of shadows comprising the Dark Tower and whispered, “Woe to those who dare stand against her.”
Blood of the Damned
Joseph Vargo and Joseph Iorillo
As Dravek stared at the hulking beasts, he realized another purpose for the power he now possessed. He stepped toward the fiendish sculpture that clutched the column beside the altar. Lifting the vial to the gargoyle’s lips, he let an oily droplet fall into the statue’s mouth. The black trickle slid across the statue’s fangs, coming to rest upon its chiseled tongue. Dravek closed his eyes and focused his mind to summon the ancient god.
Black smoke spewed from the stone monster’s mouth as if something within it had been set ablaze. The statue’s eyes took on the glow of seething embers as the creature slowly came to life. The demon’s clawed hands broke free from the column and it lumbered forward, towering over Dravek.
Dravek stood in reverent silence before the living nightmare.
“Who wakes me from my slumber?” The creature’s deep voice resounded through the chamber like the rumble of thunder.
“Enough!” A deep voice bellowed.
All heads turned toward the entrance to the Tower stairwell. Brom stood in the doorway, his cape billowing in the wind behind him like a writhing cloud of black smoke. His eyes held a bestial ferocity as he glared at Dravek. The wind dropped away and a hush befell the scene as the two foes remained locked in a deadly stare. Though each had heard tales of the other, this marked the first time they had come face to face.
“Release them, now,” Brom demanded, “or meet your death.”
A sinister smile crept across Dravek’s lips. He whispered a command to his minion and the great wolf bounded toward Brom, leaping upon him and driving him back against the stone battlements. The Tower Lord caught the creature’s throat and held its snapping jaws away from him, twisting its monstrous head back.
Dravek followed with his own fierce assault, swinging his sword down at Brom’s head. The Tower Lord ducked the blow and the blade bit deep into the stone of the castle wall in a hail of sparks. Brom flung the wolf aside to face Dravek’s violent onslaught.
Brom opened his eyes to find himself in the Tower’s grand hall, alone in the darkness, standing before the ebon throne. An eerie stillness gripped the air, creating an unsettling aura much like the calm before a storm. The surrounding silence was interrupted by a roar from the depths of the earth. A tremor shook the ground beneath his feet, sending an immense crack through the floor, splitting the great hall in two. Dark smoke issued forth from the gaping fissure and rose to take the shape of a human figure draped in black. The shadow lifted its crowned head, revealing a deathly white face, fearsome yet beautiful. Eyes black as sin held Brom in their cold gaze and lips parting around glistening fangs formed a hungry smile. It was Mara, the Dark Queen.
Rise of the Dark Queen
Dravek turned to leave but found that the path behind him was now blocked by a wall of skulls. A young woman stood before the barrier, her eyes sunken and hollow, the skin taut across the bones of her face. The tattered dress that clung to her frail form was drenched in blood. Her throat had been savagely torn open, as if she were the victim of ravenous wolves. Her sad, porcelain-white face seemed remotely familiar to Dravek, stirring a vague recollection from the distant past, but he had long since lost count of the lives he had taken. His victims were faded memories, their faces forgotten.
The phantom reached out toward him. Though flesh still clung to her bloody hands, her arms had been gnawed to the bone. The grisly specter moved her lips as if to speak, but she could form no words. Though Dravek could not remember her, it seemed she had not forgotten the fiend who ended her life. Her spirit now sought vengeance.
As the apparition stepped closer, something stirred amidst the death’s heads behind her. Swarms of spiders crept from the skulls’ hollow sockets, crawling across the decayed bones, forming a writhing mass upon the surrounding walls. In mere moments, the spiders scurried to weave a layer of silken webs, forming ghastly faces upon the skulls. Dravek stood transfixed as he gazed upon the emerging countenances of men and women, their expressions twisted and distorted in deathly torment, their mouths gaping in anguished screams.
The girl took another step forward and stood directly before Dravek. Her eyes were pools of blood spilling over their rims in long scarlet tears and her lips curled up over her teeth in a grotesque smile.
Darkness had begun to descend upon the woodlands, and I feared becoming lost in the night. My only path of escape was up the mountain to the Tower. I thought I would be safe hiding there, for no one would be fool enough to venture to the Baron’s keep beyond nightfall. But I was wrong. I soon spied torches approaching through the forest, following my trail. I was being hunted.
When I reached the summit, I hid behind the gate ruins just beyond the edge of the forest. A row of ravens sat perched atop the ancient archway. Their cold eyes, gleaming in the light of the early risen moon, studied me for a moment, and then the grim birds began to caw, betraying my hiding place. As the torches drew nearer, I ran to the castle.
I had never seen the Tower so close before. As my young eyes beheld it, I halted in place, for the sight struck me with awe. The keep’s black spires loomed high above me, soaring upward into the night sky. I gazed in terror at the fearsome stone creatures, half man and half beast, that clung to the castle’s facade and stood guard along the battlements. The monstrous sculptures seemed to stir beneath the spell of moonlight.
The ravens at the gate took to wing, following me to the keep. The birds perched above the castle entryway, croaking wildly before falling suddenly silent once more. A moment later, the Tower’s massive doors groaned open and a man emerged from the shadows. His head was completely shaven and his eyes were dark and piercing. A lifetime of sadness was etched upon his face. He wore the black robes of a priest and a tarnished crucifix hung from a chain around his neck. I stood petrified as he approached me, for I knew only one person who dwelt within the Tower. It was the Baron.
“This is a forbidden place.” His voice was low and hoarse.
“Please,” I pleaded, “help me.”
His black eyes held me transfixed beneath their gaze. “Do you know who I am?”
“You are the Baron,” I said, then added, “our protector.” My words seemed to stir a distant memory in the Tower Lord’s mind.
He studied me for a long moment then held out a hand white as bone and said, “Come.”
Beyond the Veil
Thunder rumbled in the distance, announcing an approaching storm. A moment later, an unnatural chill gripped the air and a strange sensation crept over Serena, making her feel uneasy, as if she were no longer alone. The sound of whispered laughter echoed around her, alerting her to someone concealed in the shadows of the chamber.
“Who is there?” Serena demanded, clutching her candle tightly in her small hands as if it were a ward against whatever watched from the darkness.
“Have no fear, young one,” a voice whispered. “I mean you no harm. I am but a lone spirit—a mere shadow among the ruins.”
“Show yourself,” Serena said, holding the candle out before her. The flame’s glow faded before reaching the far side of the chamber where a figure loomed behind a row of stone columns.
“I cannot,” the voice replied. “I am condemned to darkness. I must remain in the embrace of shadows.”
“Such is the fate of the demons that haunt this place,” Serena said.
“Demon?” The echo of low laughter filled the room, then the voice spoke again. “Nay, sweet child. I am like you—a desolate soul, abandoned and stripped of all I once cherished. Long ago, I stood against a mighty king—a vengeful and cruel lord. He wrought an unspeakable curse upon my brethren and I, dooming us to forever wander this realm with no hope of release. We now dwell among the restless spirits that inhabit this place, eternally bound to the Tower’s forsaken halls, surrounding the living, yet lurking unseen.” As the figure spoke, its eyes lit the darkness like scarlet coals.
Serena’s heart raced in her chest as fear settled upon her. She took a step back, slowly retreating toward the door.
“Wait,” the voice pleaded. “Hear my words. I mean only to help you.”
“I know of your terrible loneliness and the feelings you harbor. Once, long ago, I counseled another such as you. She too felt unwanted and neglected by those who professed to love her. I helped her break free of her mortal bonds and showed her the way to true salvation, guiding her through the darkness.” The figure’s voice was calm and soothing. “Tell me child, what is it you desire most in this world? Surely there is something… or someone you long for.”
Serena cast her gaze downward, averting her eyes from the shadow’s burning stare. “We all have secret desires deep inside our hearts,” she said.
“How true. And such feelings must not be denied. There is no greater tragedy than a life unfulfilled—no greater sin than a desire unexplored.” The shadow’s hypnotic voice remained low and soft. “Come, child, close your eyes.”
Joseph Vargo and Joseph Iorillo
Kristoff rose to his feet, glaring defiantly at Mara. “You promised me blood, and I shall have it,” he growled, his voice low and guttural.
Mara raised her hand and Kristoff clutched his throat, then rose up into the air to hover above the ground. Mara gestured again, beckoning him forth, and he floated toward her.
Kristoff tried to scream, but Mara’s invisible grasp choked his voice. His head and arms stretched backward, as if bound by unseen shackles. He struggled like a fly caught in a spider’s web, but he was unable to break free of Mara’s spell.
“I have no need for disobedient pets,” the Dark Queen said.
Kristoff hung suspended in the air before Mara, his eyes gazing in horror upon the eerie mask that stared coldly back.
“But your blood shall serve me well,” she whispered. The Dark Queen tore the mask from her face and cast it aside. Her black eyes glistened in the moonlight as she lowered her mouth to Kristoff’s throat. Mara sunk her sharp fangs into Kristoff’s neck, quenching her blasphemous thirst upon his blood. The ebon smoke that encompassed the demon queen rose to consume Kristoff and the two stood entwined in churning shadows as Mara drank his life. Kristoff’s flesh shriveled and his body collapsed until all that was left of him was a withered skeletal form. The Dark Queen raised her head and the drained husk of Kristoff’s body fell to the ground at her feet.
Slaves to Darkness
Mara’s crimson lips formed a sinister smile, revealing her glistening fangs. “Night is almost upon us,” she said. “Your fate shall soon be decided.”
“We have done nothing wrong,” Serena said, tears welling in her eyes.
The Dark Queen stared at her coldly. “Save you words and tears, child. Neither shall sway me to spare you. If the Tower Lord does not do as I have commanded, you shall die.”
Angered by Mara’s cruelty, Lorand could stay silent no longer. “Do no vestiges of humanity yet linger in your black heart?”
“Humanity,” Mara hissed. “I shed my mortal life long ago, much like a serpent sheds its dying skin. Tis a decision I have never regretted. I have no desire to cling to any remnants of my former life. The world of man shall soon crumble and fall beneath the Black Dawn’s shadow and a new dynasty shall rise from the ruins, heralding an era of blissful darkness.”
At the risk of incurring Mara’s wrath, Serena questioned her further. “Why do you harbor such disdain for all men? What spawned such bitter hatred?”
A look of disgust crossed Mara’s face. “Men are wretched creatures—selfish and cruel. They are the lowest of animals. They are petty and lustful, coveting all they see, warring amongst themselves over squabbles of land. They inflict unspeakable atrocities upon one another, then beg their god’s forgiveness for their terrible deeds. They offer only one thing of worth—the blood in their veins.” Mara stroked Serena’s head, inhaling her scent in the air. “And I shall taste yours soon enough.”
Crown of Shadows
Brom stood horrified and awestruck, gazing out over a burning landscape of scorched earth. Dark, churning clouds smothered the skies, blotting out the sun and keeping all light from reaching the world below. Skeletal remains of men and women lay in heaps among the ashes and smoldering ruins of forests and towns. The devastation seemed without end. The lifeless wasteland stretched as far as the eye could see. It was as if the fires of Hell had been unleashed upon the world, setting the earth ablaze. Brom looked toward the darkened heavens, searching for some glimmer of light, but there was none to be found.
“The Black Dawn has risen,” a soft voice said.
Brom turned to see Mara standing beside him where the demon had been mere moments ago. Her black hair and gown shimmered like raven’s feathers as they flowed in the wind behind her. A crown of ebon spikes crested her head like devilish horns and bat-like wings unfurled from her back, stretching outward into the night. Brom tried to retreat from the sinister apparition, but he felt the crushing weight of the Dark Queen’s power holding him in thrall.
“What horrors have you wrought?” Brom’s voice was choked with anger and sorrow. “The Earth lies in ruin.”
“We shall forge a new world together,” Mara said, “a realm of nocturnal bliss. Our reign shall have no limits.”
“Our reign?” Brom’s mind struggled to grasp the meaning of her words.
“Yes.” Mara smiled, revealing sharp, wolfish fangs. “With you at my side, nothing shall stand against us.” Her bone-white hand reached toward Brom and stroked his face tenderly. “We shall rule the Earth as gods. You need only surrender to me, heart and soul.”
Brom stood transfixed, his eyes locked upon Mara. His mind fought to break free of her bewitching spell, but her magic was too strong. He focused his thoughts against her and forced himself to utter a single word. “No,” he whispered.
Mara moved closer, her soulless, black eyes holding Brom’s gaze. “You have witnessed my power, and yet you resist your own destined fate? Surrender,” she said, and then again softer, “surrender.”
Lost in her hypnotic gaze, Brom felt his willpower slipping. Mara leaned nearer until her face was inches from Brom’s own. He turned his head away, staring down into the fiery chasm below. His strength faded and his legs began to buckle beneath him. He struggled to maintain his balance as he teetered on the brink of the infernal abyss.