He didn’t have much time. Things had gone badly. Very badly.
He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know where his friends were. And more importantly, he didn’t know where his pursuer was.
The halfling Penelor Cloakshadow stood in an alcove opening into a rubble-strewn chamber. Behind him lay the passage along which he had fled. Dust—disturbed by his flight—still swirled in the air.
In one corner of the room ahead, the ceiling had collapsed dumping rubble and dust across the floor. An alcove opening into a passageway sloping steeply downwards pierced the left wall. Ahead of him, atop a small flight of cracked, pitted dust caked steps, glowered a squat archway of strangely disturbing aspect.
The archway gaped wide, like the maw of some infinitely patient lurking predator. Its crumbling masonry was old—that was obvious—and some of the stones looked loose. Dust and shards of stone obscured the threshold. Nothing had passed through that portal for years.
With shaking hand, Penelor cautiously extended the torch and its faint, quivering light toward the gloom-filled arch. Shadows danced and twisted in the half-light. Beads of sweat oozed down his forehead into his eyes.
He didn’t have long. The torch was already half-gone, and he could feel its heat on his clenched fist. Ten minutes, perhaps twenty. That’s all the time he had. He didn’t have any more torches. Well, he did—sort of—he just didn’t know where they were. His spares were safely tucked away in his backpack, but he’d dumped that when he’d fled from the living shadow creature that had stolen poor Arlamen’s life.
He’d seen it happen. The thing had reached out and caressed the wizard’s chest. Arlamen had collapsed. Dead, without a mark on him.
It had all happened somewhere back there in the darkness, and now he had no idea where he was. Had he been this way before? The crumbling archway looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t be sure. Dust covered the floor, but here and there it looked disturbed--like someone had passed this way.
That shadow creature: did it pursue him still? Even now, was it gliding soundlessly toward him? Could it sense his fear? His warmth?
He shivered. His heart hammered in his chest. He had to go on. Going back was madness, and—anyway—he had no clue where he was. Retracing his steps was bound to lead him back into the shadow creature’s clutches. Perhaps, the passage beyond the archway led somewhere. Certainly, there was no help—and no hope—here.
The torch flared. He didn’t have another. He had to go on—no time to waste. Once it had burnt out, he was down to a few candles he kept in a belt pouches. Wiping the sweat from his brow, the halfling steeled himself. Clutching the torch ever tighter, he thrust it forward and tentatively crept up the crumbling stair toward the shadow-filled archway.
And beyond, hidden among the deep blackness, lurked coiled wisps of malignant darkness waiting for its prey to blunder into its chill, deathly embrace…
Words Creighton Broadhurst Art Matt Morrow