Child of Rot book cover, book two of the Ballad of Sorrows

When You Kill A Monster, Make Sure It’s Dead

Though the aftermath of battle has been buried in snow, Caden knows that his fight is far from over. Having rescued his friend Kori from certain death, he must now teach her to wield her new power. But the same magic that saved her life could cost Kori her soul. Together they begin to investigate the remnants of the deathmonger’s evil and attempt to piece together the dark mystery of its origins.

As he begins to untangle the mystery, Caden is called upon to protect the Queen as well as her throne from threats both mortal and magical. Should he succeed, she has promised him everything he could ever want. Should he fail, everything he and his friends have tried to build will come crashing down around them. Unable to refuse, Caden finds himself thrown into the center of Kings Keep’s political war while being hunted by an inexorable shadow.

The pieces are in play and it’s up to Caden to decide, which to watch, which to befriend, and which to dispatch. His life and the lives of his friends hang in the balance. One wrong move, one misstep, one mistake, could spell their doom.

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Book Product Details

Language: English
ISBN-13: 979-8-89034-179-2
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Age: 15+ (Suggested for Mature Readers)

Content Advisory

This book is recommended for mature readers.

The themes and events in this book may contain content which are adult oriented. Child of Rot contains depictions of fantasy violence, blood and some gore, mild language, alcohol and drug use.

There is no strong language or explicit sexual material in this book.

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Prologue: Shadow in the Dark

The gray-dark gloom of the day had passed so subtly into night that I barely noticed. Standing on the edge of the ridge, I watched as snow slowly descended upon the city of Kings Keep. The snow was thick and wet, the large flakes descending at an angle as it added to the blanket of white which covered the city. In the soft silence of night, I could hear the snow as it hit the ground, with only the howling wind to disturb it. Small lights from the city caused the snow to glow a dull orange.

I marveled at how a place could appear so warm on such a cold night. Despite the chill of the winter storm, I did not shiver. I never shivered. Had I been standing in the storm naked, it would have felt no different to me than if it had been a summer night. The cold to me was like an itch. All I had to do was ignore it and it would cease to bother me.

A blue ball of flame burned before me, casting a ghostly light all around. The snow that fell around me was melted by the flame, turning to rain before hitting the ground. The water had begun to pool around my boots, turning the ground soft. My boots sank into the earth, the yellow grass mixing with the mud.

Perhaps I should calm it down a bit, I thought.

Shrinking the hovering flame to the size of a thimble, I let it hover within arm’s reach from my chest. The snow no longer turned to rain as it fell around me, but the warmth and the light from the flame were still enough to help scratch that cold itch.

Turning my attention back to the city, I continued to trace the lines of the streets with my eyes, my thoughts returning to more serious matters. Something was troubling me, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. The last few weeks of autumn had passed rather uneventfully while I helped Kori recover. Seraphina and the other members of the Syndicate were busy putting things back together, undoing the damage Hevron had caused. Tristin was still combing through the ledgers and books the man had hoarded as she investigated his many years of misdoings. The man kept meticulous notes on people, places, and events. I couldn’t help but wonder how the man had found the time.

But, despite our efforts, we still hadn’t the slightest clue to what he had been planning. By the Valon, that was infuriating. I balled my fists in anger, only partially regretting that I had killed the man.

If only I had kept him alive long enough for answers.

Knowing that wishful thinking would get me nowhere, I banished the thoughts from my mind. We would figure it all out, sooner or later.

The world seemed like a different place than it had a month ago, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it might continue to change. How long would it take for them to find me? Winter had come two weeks ago and hit early. The first snow had turned into a blizzard, almost freezing the river overnight, stopping trade and throwing the general markets into chaos. I could only hope the winter would delay the news long enough for me to figure out the right thing to do.

Once again, Caden, wishful thinking. 

Twitching my fingers, I stopped tracing the city with my eyes and turned to face the large building which loomed behind me. The dark shadow of the collection of towers and domes was somehow darker than the night. The evil that enveloped the palace was tangible. It was the type of place I hoped to never enter, but as always, fate had scoffed at my wish. For the first time that night, I shivered, turning away from the wretched place.

It was in the shadow of Renor Keep that I waited for Kori to arrive. Snow continued to drift down upon the Keep as I waited. My intention in arriving early was to give myself more time to think. I should have guessed it was one of the worst possible things for me to do. I often found that, when you give your mind too much time to wander in a place like this, it will inevitably lead you to dark places. Part of me wished I had stayed at Ravens Cross for one more drink.

I took another look at the palace. It loomed, dark towers and spires jutting up into the darkness, like bony fingers emerging from the grave. The evil that enveloped the palace seemed to wash over me like a wave of slime. I felt dirty in my own skin. It was like being back in Hevron’s bubble of evil. Despair fought my mind for control, but my hope held it at bay. It was hope that would prevent fear and despair from consuming my mind.

Once more, I shivered, fighting myself for the resolve I would need to continue with tonight’s plan. No matter what, I could not fall back into apathy. Despite my failures and shortcomings, that would be a far worse fate to suffer. It had taken great restraint to keep a promise I should not have made. I wondered how setting out to be a better person had led me so far astray.

Where had I lost myself? I wondered, looking back to the ground, a deep longing in my soul for some semblance of an answer. But as always, the Valon ignored me. No answer came and the harsh longing remained.

I watched the blue flame that hovered above my hands and soaked in the warmth. The snow that fell around me was almost unnoticeable. Memories of fire and blood swirled together to create brutal images before me. The horror of death, destruction, and pain was as fresh as the day they had been experienced. The absurd amount of guilt that washed over me almost drove me to my knees. There was simply nothing I could do but change and try to be better. My reassurances didn’t make me feel any better. It simply couldn’t be helped but to let my mind wander off to the dark places of my past, a new self-examination that would hopefully end in a better understanding of myself.

I was in this dark mood when Kori arrived. She was dressed in black, her hair tied back and placed in a bun, several white feathers sticking up like a fan. Her face was thin, her eyes sharp, and her brow furrowed. Kori walked through the snow with difficulty, large clumps clinging to the sides of her boots as she approached. She left a long line in the snow where she had crossed which was already being covered by the falling snow. I reckoned it would only be minutes before they would no longer be recognizable.

“I should have known you would arrive early,” Kori said as she drew close. “I would never have expected to find you here, brooding.”

I faked a laugh and smiled. “Good to see your sense of humor is returning, Cub.” She smiled back, which caused my own crooked smile to widen. “The thing is, without a few hours of brooding every day, you tend to lose the skill.”

“We couldn’t have that.” Kori laughed, a soft sound that momentarily seemed joyful. Despite her smile and the jovial remarks, that glimmer of joy was nowhere to be found when I looked into her eyes.

“Caden, I’m not sure I’m ready for this.”

“I didn’t expect you to be.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Most likely.”
Kori let out a deep breath, frost swirling from her lips. “Will I still be…me?”

“You will still be you, but not the same you as you are now. What you are about to do has changed every single person that has ever experienced it. Even me.”

“That’s not an encouraging answer.”

“If I were to give you any other, it would be a lie.”

“Do you regret it?”

I first wanted to say yes. But I found myself at a loss for words. It wasn’t as simple as regretting it. It would be unfair to say that I would have lived a better life without undergoing the transformation; but the life I was forced into was so much worse than I could have believed. An entire life of suffering could have been avoided had I not become a pyromancer. But as much darkness as I had experienced, there was light there, also.

“No, I don’t regret it.”

“Well, I can’t keep pushing this off.”

“No, you can’t.” I reached out my arm and Kori stepped towards me, wrapping both arms snugly around my waist. “I’ll be with you the entire time. You won’t have to do any of this alone.”

We were quiet for a moment. The silence of the manor was so absolute that the soft sound of falling snow was once again audible. It felt as though the entire world was holding its breath, laying in wait as evil drew near.

“Let’s get this over with.”

“That’s the spirit. To the blood and blight.”

“To the blood and blight.”

I took the lead, striding through the snow towards the dark palace with steadfast determination. Tonight was going to be no different than fighting a battle or hunting a monster. Just because I was reluctant to do it, didn’t mean that facing the challenge directly wasn’t the best option.

The flame that burned above my hand lit the way as we approached the large doorway. As we began up the steps, the splintered wood from axe-beaten doors made the opening look like a monster’s maw. The miasma of death and decay greeted us as I stepped up to the entrance. It was dark within and the light from my hand did little to illuminate what awaited us within. Pausing on the steps, I turned to Kori, frozen on the steps.

“What’s that stench?” Kori asked, covering her mouth and nose with the sleeve of her coat.

“Death and decay. This is the sort of place where creatures of darkness spawn.”

“That’s rather disheartening.”

“Remember, reach out and feel what surrounds us. Magic can be detected by anyone clever enough to look for it and powerful enough to recognize what they feel. We call this essence the Empyrean.”

“Is that why the darkness around me feels like soft silk?”

I paused for a moment, slightly disturbed by her description. What she was feeling was so vastly different from what my own senses were telling me. The darkness within seemed like grease and slime, but I was not tethered to the power like she was. Kori looked at me, concern filling her eyes.

“Good to know you have already begun to recognize it.”

“What is the matter? You looked at me like I was a stranger.”

“Nothing’s wrong. I was just surprised, that’s all.” I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. Kori didn’t deserve to be looked at with distrust, but every instinct was telling me how wrong this was. “Remember, my instincts are going to be different from your own.”

“What do you feel?”

“I feel sick and revolted. Like I have been living in a slime-covered alley for months without bathing.”

“Oh,” Kori muttered, looking down at her feet.

“How I feel isn’t something you should let bother you.”

“Caden, I don’t want to become a monster. Nothing about this power has demonstrated that good can come of it. I feel destined to fall into darkness, to become like the deathmonger you killed.” Kori began to choke on her words, tears filling her eyes. She looked at me, her expression pure agony.

“You won’t.” The lie was not in my words but in my assertion. I knew firsthand how power corrupts, and how no one is exempt. The trick was to remain as unscathed as possible. She deserved the truth, but it was beyond me to tell her. “I’ll be here to ensure that does not happen.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Just trust that I will.” Placing my hand on her shoulder, I looked her in the eyes. “Power of any sort can give a good person the means to do bad. However, you alone are responsible for what you do with your new power, and not the other way around.” I held out my hand, moving the fire closer to her. “This flame is born from my ability to use magic to separate fire from its fuel. I learned to control this power, but it isn’t always obedient. The power cooperates with me, and I can use it. But no matter what I do, the danger always remains. This power calls to you, something not easily ignored without great sacrifice.”

“I can feel the power calling me. It’s terrifying.”

“That’s a good thing,” I assured her. “Never let that fear dissipate. So long as you fear what you can and will do if you use your power without rhyme or reason, you can stave off that corruption longer.” As I spoke, I couldn’t help but feel like I was giving her advice that I had spent a lifetime ignoring.

But who better to teach than one who has experience?

“How is it that you have stayed such a good person?”

“I never said I was a good person, Cub.”

“You may not have said it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

“Well, if I appear to be a good person, it would only be because I had help when I needed it most. Never underestimate the value of good friends.” I choked slightly on the last few words. My throat tightened, and I felt the edges of my eyes grow moist.

“Caden, you are a good person. It’s a good thing you are in my life.”

I wanted to argue. Tell her that all of this was my fault and that without me, she wouldn’t be infected with dark magic. Before I could go down that dark train of thought, a wiser part of my mind stopped me. No one can know what would change if their past self made better mistakes and took different paths. The only thing one could do was manage their lives the best they can and move on from their shortcomings. I had learned a lot, and as long as I used what I learned to be better and to help my friends, then I could at least live with myself.

Perhaps that should be my new promise, I mused.

“Kori, it’s time. We need to continue on and see this through.”

The fire lit the room with a bonfire’s glow as we stepped through the hole and into the palace. Kori gasped in shock, and had I not been prepared, I would have most likely done the same. Corpses hung from metal spikes driven into the polished stone walls. The stench which had faded to the back of my senses became overpowering. I fought back the urge to vomit. There was a reason I had decided to forgo supper. It was much easier to keep myself from vomiting if I had an empty stomach.

Kori was not so lucky. Dropping to the ground in a crouch, she vomited onto the grimy floor, bile splashing onto her boots.

“Son of a bitch, Caden!” she cursed, bile spewing out again even more violently, as if chasing her words.

The reddish-brown vomit was absorbed almost immediately by the thick, brown muck that grew on the floor. Neither mold nor moss, the substance was almost like living slime. There was no doubt in my mind that it was born from the dark magic Hevron used on the place. Unfortunately, this was only one of many horrors we were likely to find. Perhaps there had been more merit to my wanting to forgo this venture, but that was an excuse and I knew it.

“What a horrible place.” Kori wrapped her arms around herself and trembled.

I placed my hand on her shoulder. “Take your time. We can move on when you’re ready.”

“Caden, I feel so strange. It’s so warm here, almost like I stepped into a bath house. Everything my mind is telling me suggests how horrible this place is. But deep down, I feel drawn to the darkness. Like I have returned home after a long, tiresome day. But part of me feels it’s more like I am being seduced, like a mouse by the cheese in a trap.”

“There is strong magic here. Take a moment to memorize the feeling. The more familiar you become with the sensations of magic, the more they will become second nature to you.”

“I still don’t feel like I understand how to use magic. I’ve been trying to do what you told me, but it doesn’t make any sense.”

“What I taught you were only exercises to prepare your mind. To use magic, you have to force yourself to need it. While the power is already within you, it takes a great deal of pain or trauma to cause your body to channel that energy. It’s not a pleasant experience, and the first time you do so will change you. This trauma acts as a catalyst and connects the mind to the Empyrean. I was told to think of it as a channel dug between two lakes. The water in both lakes have always been there, but now there is something which connects them.” I paused, thinking of the reaction Kori had when I’d given her the talisman. How the dark lines of infection which had covered her entire body faded the after the bone white bracelet had been wrapped around her wrist. “But you may have already had that experience. Or at least, I suspect you have.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you were infected. The dark magic that ravished your body almost killed you. If we are lucky, you won’t have to endure something worse to be granted use of your power. That channel has already been painfully dug and you should be able to connect with your power. I can’t help but think it is why the talisman, once I attached it to you, acted so quickly to heal you of the dark magic’s poisonous touch. Though I may be wrong. I am a little out of my depth.”

“Valon help us, I’m starting to think this was a terrible idea.”

I chuckled ruefully. “No shit, Cub. If there were a better way, trust me, that’s what we would be doing.”
“Why do you think my magic will work here when I haven’t been able to so much as see the Empyrean during our other training sessions?”

“Honestly, if we were working with Pyromancy, I would probably be more helpful. There are basic principles of magic which seem to apply to all sorcerers, at least for the most part. But what you can do, your necromancy, is strongly connected to this place. And until we figure out how, we won’t be able to figure out what you can even do with it.”

“Dammit, my hands are shaking” Kori took in several deep breaths and clasped her hands together to keep them still. “Alright, let’s see what happens.”

Striding to the center of the large atrium, I looked up at the high ceiling and unlit chandelier. The dangling crystals reflected light, casting dots upon the vaulted ceiling. It almost looked like we could see the stars through the blackened stone.

Corpses were strewn about the large atrium, their bodies little more than dried husks, rats softly gnawing on rotten skin. The rats didn’t seem perturbed by our presence, but their glistening eyes looked up at us as we walked deeper into the ruined palace. The great entryway was different from Seraphina’s palace, and the stairwell which began at the end of the atrium split, one going up, the other down.

From Tristin’s maps of the layout of the Keep, I found it more practical and organized than the long, sometimes twisting palace my employer’s family had built. What we were looking for was below, and looking down into the darkness of the stairwell, I felt like it was the entrance to perdition itself. The light from my flame seemed to be absorbed by the unnatural darkness, only allowing for a handful of steps to be seen.

“I suspect what we are looking for was being kept in the dungeons below.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Kori said, reaching out her hand as if to touch the dark. “This isn’t what I was expecting. It’s like a fog is in the air, making everything slightly gray. Do you know what’s at the bottom?”

“I suspect it’s where Hevron was performing his rituals.” I paused, reaching out my hand to touch the tangible darkness. My fingers went cold where they passed through the vapors. I pulled my hand back. Moving the flame which had been hovering before me into the darkness, I watched as the light dulled, like it had passed behind a soot-covered glass.

“I can’t even see more than a few steps down. But I have the layout memorized. It should be twenty steps down to the bottom.”

“I can,” Kori said, lifting an eyebrow. She muttered as she counted the steps. “It’s only nineteen steps and ends in an archway. I can’t see much past that besides the stone floor.”

“Interesting,” I muttered, reaching out my hand to feel the darkness again, I moved my fingers through the oily vapor. It moved around my hand and swirled like smoke. “So you can see through the darkness while I can’t. We’re definitely in the right place.”

Kori looked at me, her eyes filling with concern. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”

“I would be worried if it did.”

“Valon help us!” she cursed, letting out a sigh of exasperation. “I guess I’ll take the lead.”

“Just stay a step or two in front of me. That way, I’ll still be able to see you.”

Tentatively, we began down the steps and into the suffocating darkness. It made me slightly more confident knowing that Kori could see through the unnatural darkness, though the difference might have been insignificant at best. I didn’t like feeling vulnerable. My armor suddenly felt stiff and uncomfortable to move in as my body instinctively focused on its weight. My mind went through the routine of flexing muscles and joints to regain a strong feeling of security within the metal and leather.

“Just a few more steps,” Kori said, just above a whisper.

“Thanks,” I said, preparing to reach the bottom.

As I took my final step down, I felt something soft and squishy beneath the sole of my boot. I looked down and found the ground to be covered in a moss-like substance. If stone could grow mold, similar to old bread or rotten vegetables, I was standing upon it. It was far worse than the slime up above, and just looking at it made my skin crawl. When my foot moved, it looked like I slid my boot across the fur of a dead creature.

I’m going to need a bath after this, I thought. And a really long scrubbing. 

“This place is disgusting. What is causing all of this?” Kori asked.

“My guess, whatever Valon-cursed things Hevron was up to are rotting the building. I’ve seen corrupted things before, but nothing near this terrible.”

“That makes sense. How did you figure out this was where he had been performing his rituals?”

“After we searched his room, I found no traces of magic. I then began to think he would want some place close but private. Tristin told me that she was trying to figure out where he’d kept the infected corpses he’d used when attacking Seraphina’s palace. They arrived too quickly to have been hidden up in the mountain cave. From there, I deduced that Renor Keep would be perfect. To be honest, had he not made that mistake, I probably wouldn’t have thought to check this place.”

“I’m guessing this is the first time you’ve come here.”

“It’s the first time I’ve come inside.”

“How come I feel like we’re going to find something much worse down here?”

“Women’s intuition?” I mused, smirking slightly.

“Keep up with the jokes, funny man. Remember, I’m the only one who can see down here, and I will leave you alone should you continue to annoy me.”

“Just trying to lighten the mood.” I strained my eyes, trying to look past the few feet the light from my hand provided. As it had above, the light seemed to be swallowed, absorbed into a fog black as a cave. “Describe what you can see.”

“Not much. The room is rather large, several rows of columns stretching out in all directions. Perhaps a hundred or so paces ahead is a wooden door. Everything is still a little hazy.”

“That’s still better than what I got.”

“So where do we go from here?”

“Now that’s where you are going to have to start testing some of your abilities. Specifically, your ability to sense magic and follow it.”

“What am I supposed to feel?”

“I don’t know. This is a unique situation and, aside from the dark stain that seems to be etched onto every stone around us, I can’t tell much more than that.”

“Are we only able to sense unique styles of magic?” Kori asked, scanning the depths of the basement with narrow eyes.

“Something like that. I’ll have to give you a few detailed explanations later. You have to be able to use magic first. Think of it as a refining process. Like learning to ride a horse or wield a sword.”

“You really like teaching with the whole trial by fire approach, don’t you?”

“I am a pyromancer. Trial by fire is all I know.”


A wet slapping sound broke the silence of the basement, causing Kori and I to jump in unison. The sound was like dozens of sodden hands smacking stones in quick succession, and it echoed from off the stone walls, making it impossible to tell its direction. Drawing our weapons, we stood back-to-back, readying ourselves.

“Shit, did you see that?”

“Uh, no. Again, I can’t see more than a few feet.”

“We need to get back upstairs,” Kori said, turning to run.

“Wait,” I said, taking a hold of her arm. “We’ve got to do this or what was the point of coming here?”

Reaching out my hands, I poured energy into the small ball of flame, enlarging it to the size of a jack o’lantern. The small sack of coal which hung from my belt grew a tad lighter. It took a considerable amount of energy to maintain a blue flame, but the extra power would be worth it.

I could see further in the darkness than before, the ten-foot radius growing only slightly more distinct. The firelight caused the air to appear smoke-like, rather than pitch black. As if drawn to the light of the fire, the creature which had been moving about emerged from behind a column. It slunk forward, its pale-skinned body close to the floor. Each of its eight limbs were little more than bones, covered with thin yellow skin. The human-like arms had two sets of elbows, one that bent outward, the other down. Each bony arm ended with a four-fingered human hand that slapped the ground as it moved. Sharp fingernails scratched the stones beneath the moss-like growth, creating a chilling rhythm. The creature’s face was distorted and stretched. Sunken sockets hid yellow eyes, and its mouth hung wide to display a twisting mess of crooked teeth.

The spine of the creature curled back, forming a secondary torso that consisted of a dozen rows of ribs. No arms hung down, but several shoulder-like knobs protruded from its sides. It too ended with a twisted human face whose mouth did not display teeth, but bit down upon a protruding spiked barb. The stinger moved in and out of the mouth like a tongue, and it dripped a thick, orange substance onto the creature’s back.

The way the vile monstrosity of flesh and limb moved towards us sent a chill up my spine and caused my teeth to vibrate. Kori cursed, leaping back as she drew a second small axe from within her cloak.

Brandishing her twin axes, she took another step back. “What in damnation is that?”

“It’s an Aqrabuamelu,” I replied, the name awkward on my tongue. “Don’t let it get close and no matter what, don’t let it sting you.”

“Right,” Kori muttered, teetering back and forth on the balls of her feet. “Are we just going to let it scuttle about?”

“That would be the smarter thing to do,” I said, calmly watching the creature approach. Despite the eight limbs, it didn’t move fast. The repeated sounds of hands slapping stone in the dark gave off the impression of much quicker movement, yet watching it was still unsettling.

Pointing the tip of my sword towards the creature’s face, I moved the hovering flame so it sat just beyond the apex of Burnfinger. The creature kept moving in and out of the light, the torso-like tail wobbling back and forth as it moved. The tangible darkness was like a cloak for the creature, causing its form to disappear and dematerialize as it wandered in a circle around us. It slowly drew closer, and I waited for it to emerge from the darkness completely. After the sixth time it circled us, the Aqrabuamelu grew confident enough to crawl completely into the light.

Darting forward, I launched the ball of flame at the creature’s face. Without time to react, my sudden attack struck the Aqrabuamelu just above the eyes, causing it to drop to the ground and roll awkwardly onto its side. As the flames burned out, I pulled the final sparks back into the palm of my hand and siphoned more fuel from my pouch. As the flame grew once again, the pouch became noticeably lighter. It was more than three quarters empty.

With more agility than seemed possible, the torso-tail whipped around, like a fish slapping atop a stone, desperately searching for water. The barb extended further from the mouth, growing to the length of a grown man’s arm. I watched the movement back and forth, timing my next strike. I took a step forward, readying my blade so I might thrust it through the foul beast’s head, when the flash of steel and sound of cracking bone startled me. I took a step back, steeling myself for any sudden movement.

The Aqrabuamelu fell still, an axe handle jutting from its skull. I looked at Kori, who flashed me a smile. We both approached the creature with the tentative demeanor of a cat stalking prey. Stepping into the field of reach, where a sudden jerk of movement from the beast could drive the barbed stinger from its tail through me, I lopped it off along with the secondary head it was protruding from.

“What a disgusting creature. I had expected this place to be foul but not this bad. I almost don’t want to know what monstrosities Hevron birthed here.”

“How the hell did you know what that was?”

“They aren’t as uncommon as you might think, but it’s been fifteen years since I saw one.”

“The hell they aren’t. I’d be happy to never see one of these creatures ever again, Valon’s honor.” Kori touched her heart, lips, and forehead in quick succession.

“For your sake, let’s hope that’s the last one we see tonight.”

Memories of a dark pit where nearly a hundred Aqrabuamelu crawled over each other filled my mind. I remembered watching dozens of prisoners being shoved into it one by one. They all screamed as they were torn apart and devoured. I shivered violently, a wave of cold spreading across my back, making me feel disgusted and violated.

Kori looked at me with concern. Glancing past her, I scanned the darkness, listening for sounds that might indicate another was close by. There was nothing. Playing off the more than obvious discomfort I felt, I hoped to move on with our mission.

“Caden, there’s something moving on the far side of the room. I can’t see it all that well, but there are a considerable number of limbs moving about.”

“Is it moving closer?”

Kori took a step in front of me, leaning a bit as she looked. I watched her for a few moments, trying to listen for sounds. It was soft, but there was something moving around.

“It’s in a cage. I think we should be safe to approach them.”

“Lead the way.” I tightened my grip on my sword and increased the burn of my sack of coal. The flame which hovered by my shoulder grew larger to illuminate nearly twenty feet in front of me. It was still like looking through a fog, but at least I wouldn’t be completely surprised should anything leap out at us.

The sounds of splintering wood almost made me jump. Kori stopped and seemed to relax. Her shoulders dropped and the remaining throwing axe she held in her hands seemed to drop slightly. “What do you see?” I asked, still unable to make out the source of the odd sounds.

“It looks like there are four more of them. But they are locked away in wooden cells. The one on the far end is broken open. It must have been where the one we killed had been trapped.”

“Did it chew its way out?”

“Sort of. The others all have marks on them, as if they have been gnawed on a little. But the one on the far end is broken open, as if it had been damaged somehow.”

“Any chance the others might break out?” I wanted to approach, but my inability to see properly was only making me more cautious. I wasn’t about to take any unnecessary risks. I hadn’t survived this long by being a fool.

“No. At least, not anytime soon.”

“I’d rather leave them be. Come back with more people before dispatching them.”

“That seems more than sensible.”

“I’m beginning to rethink my idea of trying to have you use magic here tonight. Something feels just a tad off, almost as if we were mice and a cat was stalking about.”

“Then what should we do now?”

“I would like to take a look around while we are here. Get a better sense of this place so we come more prepared tomorrow.”

Kori led me around as we searched the basement, keeping an eye out for both creatures and clues. At the end of the main room stood a doorway. The rot of once large wooden doors littered the floor. The room was of considerable size and was lined with stone tombs. A statue of the each tomb’s occupant stood behind it. More than two dozen similar stone sarcophagi lined either side, and at the end of the room stood a large stone altar. It was black as night and reflected my firelight like glass.

Striding down the middle of the crypt, I passed each stone coffin with reverence. This had once been a place to honor the dead. It had been tarnished by the deathmonger’s magic which had been performed here. I could feel it in the air, taste it on my tongue, and feel it course through my bones. As I reached the altar, I noticed a large book resting atop it. The book’s placement was in the exact center of the altar, and, while the pages were yellow with age, the book did not look as though it would fall apart if I moved it.

Picking up the large tome, I moved my hand across it, dusting off the well-worn cover. A strange, twisted symbol, etched with silver, sprawled across the aged leather. Below the symbol were several words written in a language I could not understand. Opening the book, I flipped through the pages and was startled by the drawings I saw within.

“Swiving hell,” Kori muttered over my shoulder.

“Shit,” I cursed, jumping slightly to the side. “You startled me.”

“Are those what I think they are?”

“Yes.” I opened the book wide, finding the page that had caught my eye. A highly detailed image of a Wendigo standing upon dismembered corpses filled the page. “It’s Hevron’s bestiary.”

“There must be hundreds of drawings in here,” she said, thumbing through the pages. I handed her the book and she began to flip through it hastily. After a few moments, she slammed the book shut and dropped it on the ground. With trembling hands, she reached for her weapon. “I don’t think we should take this with us.”

“During normal circumstances, I would burn it.” I stepped over to the fallen book and picked it up. “Unfortunately, I fear there is too much at stake not to learn what we can from it. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a true grimoire.”

“A what?”

“A grimoire. It’s a book of magic.”

“I guess this is what we were looking for. Though, I still didn’t use my magic. But I can feel something. It’s never been this strong before, but the sensations are still out of reach. Like I’m trying to touch something outside my window.”

“That’s fine. We’ll try again another night. It was wishful thinking that we would get it on the first go, and I am not about to subject you to the torture that I had to endure before I was able to summon it. This whole plan wasn’t as thought out as it should have been.”

Kori looked at me, her face grave, eyes locked on mine. I didn’t like the way she was looking at me, like she pitied me. I looked away from her and tucked the book under my arm.

“Let’s get the hell out of this place.” There was urgency in my voice as I started towards the door.

“Agreed,” Kori said as she followed behind me. It seemed as though we were both fighting the urge to run.

We left the crypt and made our way through the basement. I looked through the pillars, listening for the sounds of anything moving which I couldn’t see. My flame, still hovering before me, began to flicker, the coal in my belt running out. The fire was burning coal dust and once I no longer had fuel to feed my magic, I would be left in the dark.

Racing to the stone steps, I hurriedly climbed them. Kori matched my pace, and though we did not run, it was pretty close. Reaching the top, we burst through the unnatural darkness and into what felt like daylight. The surrounding room, corpses and all, was lit by the flame hovering above my hand. Reducing its size to that of an apple, I took in a breath and calmly walked towards the door. We took less than a dozen steps before being hit from behind with a gust of chilling wind.

The ground trembled as darkness swelled around us. I could feel a presence in the room, though I could not see it. What had been slumbering was now awake. A force, stronger than any stormwind, knocked me to the ground. The slime-covered stone was cold on my cheek and the iron stench of blood filled my nose and mouth.

The tumultuous wind howled above me and seemed to gather the darkness, bringing it together, giving it physical form. With shock and horror, I watched as the darkness swirled around and entered Kori’s body through her mouth. She writhed upon the ground as if stricken by seizure. Her eyes were open in horror, a silent scream sounded from her gaping mouth.

As the tangible shadow entered her body, its final tendrils twisted about, lashing from side to side. Quick as it had started, it stopped, and the final bits of darkness were consumed. Kori sat up and let out a horrible scream. The windows shattered and glass rained down, a razorblade snowfall that cut at our hands and faces.

Suddenly, Kori mouth opened wider and the creature left her body, its figure forming from the tendril of darkness that spewed from Kori’s mouth. The shade moved high above us and, though I could not see its eyes, I could feel it looking down upon me. A laugh echoed around the room, dark and evil, before it vanished.

Silence once again fell upon the ruined palace, and a shadow of despair settled upon my heart. It was done, and for better or for worse, I had helped change Kori’s life forever. Climbing to her feet, she loomed above in the darkness, a long shadow trailing behind her.

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