The full moon ascended slowly over the Mystic Mountains to gaze serenely upon the deep forests of Barren-Fel. Its orange beams lighted the four towers of Castle Ryadok, crouched like a beast upon its granite perch. Rising higher, it hovered a moment to peep through the window of one tower, spilling eerie light across the stone floor and illuminating the circle painted in the very middle of the round room.
A tall figure in a stiff-collared robe stood in the center of the circle, coolly regarding the figure kneeling at his feet. A curious blue mist hovered above his left shoulder. His right hand held an ebony staff entwined with the likenesses of four hooded serpents, each facing a different direction. Their bared fangs and blood-red eyes glinted in the pale light.
“Lucius Mordarius. You deem yourself worthy to be called a prince of Epthelion after the Order of Ryadok.” The deep voice sounded calm, almost soothing.
The kneeling figure did not look up. “I do, my lord.”
“You think yourself able to do what I require of you, to obey my every command without question.” The voice rose, its resonance filling the chamber. “Do you swear allegiance to your lord, an allegiance broken upon pain of death?”
“I am able, my lord. I do swear my allegiance, on pain of death.”
“Take care, apprentice. Your uncle possessed great integrity, commanding reverence and respect throughout Epthelion. He raised you as his own son. Might his influence cloud your judgment, perhaps turn you against us, making you a traitor to The Cause?”
Mordarius’s shoulders rose and fell as he sucked in a breath and blew it out again. Through gritted teeth, he growled, “My dear uncle, that great man of God, forced his revolting doctrine down my throat until I vomited it back at him! His influence drove me to embrace The Cause.”
“I have already amassed an army. They have renounced the king and pledged loyalty to me. All is ready; in but a single night I could give you Valhalea!” Mordarius began to look up, but a swiftly-descending snake’s head thumped him back into submission. “My lord Ryadok, I swear upon my very life that I shall not betray The Cause. I swear it!”
“You are ambitious—and greedy.”
“I would not usurp your throne, Great One. I do not covet that.”
He heard Ryadok sigh, felt his steel blue eyes boring through the top of his head like flaming swords. Mordarius’s heart pounded, and he struggled to keep his breathing even. His knees, pressed hard to the stone floor, throbbed mercilessly. He longed to shift to a more comfortable position but dared not move. Despite the coldness of the room, beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead. The unbearable silence seemed to last an eternity.
Finally Ryadok clicked his tongue. “I hold you to your oath, Lucius Mordarius. Should you betray me I will require your life. I do not install you in my Order, however. You have yet to prove yourself truly worthy.”
“Have I not already, my lord?”
Again the snake’s head descended. A razor-sharp fang grazed Mordarius’s left ear. Inwardly he cursed but did not flinch.
Ryadok stood silent, his staff poised above Mordarius’s head. “I give you power, Lucius Mordarius—but not in full measure.”
Ryadok disappeared in a blinding blue flash. A swirling, howling wind arose, filling the chamber and pulling Mordarius off the floor. The hapless warlock cried out as the vortex carried him through the window and deposited him well beyond the moat.
For a moment he lay stunned, staring up at the indifferent moon.
“You speak of betrayal, Ryadok,” he rasped. “Have you not betrayed me? I. . .who have served—” He choked. Searing pain raced from his brain to the ends of his toes.
Several agonizing minutes later, his breath returned. Groaning, he rolled to one side and crawled to his feet. He would return from whence he came—to Valhalea, the glittering Gem of Epthelion, and home of his uncle, Prelate Jonah Havalseth. Valhalea would soon be his. And Ryadok would see what his uncle’s influence had wrought.
Prologue from Warrior Queen of Ha-Ran-Fel