“Crossroads of Souls” Prologue

Rats emerged from holes under twisted green cypress roots— a scattered few at first until dozens more joined the caravan across the swamp. Rigidly focused, they traversed the thickets and muck, drawn by a common goal.

Nearby, against the wrinkled trunk of a grand willow, sat a corpse, gray and decomposed, infested with fungus and spider web mummification: the broken-down vehicle of a forgotten soul from decades past. This decayed ruin interested the rats as they formed a ring around their little shrine, studying it with twitching noses.

The corpse offered no acknowledgment. Quiet stillness gave no indication of time until the air broke with sounds of crumbing bark: hungry beetles dotted the tree in their own campaign. This cued a mutual frenzy, both armies swarming in and claiming different sections of the pickings.

A ghostly tune played faintly, telepathically under the squeaks and chattering: sounds of panic and confusion from an unfolding tragedy miles away.

"W-what is happening? What is wrong with Lucrecia?"

"I don't know, Rosara! We need a medic to answer that!"

"Owlsbeard, take Dannix!"

The newborn wailed.

"Your poor mommy. We all got a chance to hold you except her. Not to worry, little one; you will see her soon, I promise. And you will meet your dear sister, too. Think of how much fun you and she will have together."

"Doctor! This is an emergency! My wife's in labor, but something's gone wrong!"

"Relax, Missus Nectarrin. Try not to overstress yourself."

"Rosara! Did she have the second baby? Is Lucrecia all right?"

"Rosara would like to see our son now. Owlsbeard, may I have a word with you outside, please?"

"What is it, Jeron? What did the doctor say?"

"I can't believe this! You told us we were going to have perfectly healthy twins: a boy and a girl for us to cherish! Not— not this! Why couldn't you see this coming? You are completely incompetent as a seer, Owlsbeard! Worthless!"

What happened next was grotesquely irregular: instead of nibbling the last bits of rotten flesh, the rats choked and convulsed before regurgitating over the bones. The beetles, too, laid their own glaze. This strange session lasted only briefly, and when it finished, each emptied scavenger straggled away in a disoriented state, leaving the corpse to sit in loneliness again.

Yellow goop dribbled down the contour of its eye socket, slowly, non-anticipative— until a skeletal finger rose with rickety grace and smeared it like a desperate tear.

 

Chapter One

Wiping watery eyes due to a deep yawn, the living dead rose from his armchair to the whistle of a teapot in the next room. A reality of work welcomed him. Papers stacked on the headrest toppled behind him, and a book that warmed his lap fell to the floor before being salvaged by tired hands.

Sipping from his cup, twenty-two-year-old Dannix Nectarrin returned to the lamp-lit den of his own home and steered toward a particular wall, gazing at it with intelligent aquamarine eyes. What he stared at was a framed piece of parchment that had basically ruled his life in recent months. It was a royal decree signed by King Briton that read:

I hereby recognize Dannix Nectarrin as the true and sole founder of the element Nectarium. Therefore, I shall sponsor Dannix for implementing the Nectarium element in the creation of an Elixir of Youth, which shall be capable of defying the aging process and granting longevity to whomever it is administered. I shall fund Dannix for all necessary expenses: materials, research, and development of this product and this product only. My sponsorship will remain in effect for six months after the date of signing.

The king's voice rang through every time Dannix read that excerpt. He remembered the sense of pride and excitement that washed over him the first several dozen times since hanging it on his wall.

The story was a thrill to imagine: a simple lad, a mere supply boy accompanying his father on heroic missions, who one day stumbled upon a vein of weird-looking rocks in the Labyrinth of Koroqi after a raid on a sinister time wizard, and it became the discovery of the century. That was his first taste of fame, but it did not end there. Thanks to an ensuing education in the field of chemistry, he had found that this special new element contained incredible preservative properties that could possibly be harnessed into an age defier: an Elixir of Youth— not necessarily the key to immortality, but a magical formula that could prevent young lives from ever growing old. It had been a dream of man for many centuries, a Holy Grail to wizards, something alchemists had striven to perfect for ages. A formula worth the lives of countless souls was finally within grasp.

It was certainly a divine responsibility, and Dannix often daydreamed about becoming a legend in his own time. True, he would have to deal with instant popularity, and he was never sure if that was a good thing or bad given his timidity.

Some folks said that the lad's good looks were wasted on his own four walls. Reclusive nature showed in his untamed blond hair— evidence of how two strokes of a brush made up his morning grooming session— but his face had a rather bewitching appeal: cool eyes set under a strong brow, cheekbones well defined. He could have wooed any maiden with ease if he so desired. His attire was casual, consisting of things he just "threw on" in the morning but clean and civilized nonetheless. On this day, a beige sweater, dark green slacks and leather boots covered his slim, healthy build.

The inspirational parchment offered a mental pep talk for a few more seconds until Dannix finalized it with a nod. It was time to get back to work. Swinging around to face his desktop workstation of vials, tubes and burners, he rubbed the kinks out of his knuckles and uttered, "Five months down and one to go. Let's make it count."

He left the wall to its solitude, the demanding parchment hanging there, mocking him. It used to offer all the bragging rights he could ever wish for until becoming a prison guard chaining him to his lab. It did not matter, though. Sponsorship or no, Dannix preferred to seal himself in his den and work on experiments. Chemistry, after all, was his one true love in life. It was his obsession, his cannot-take-a-break-for-lunch, dream-about-it-on-three-hours-of-sleep obsession, and his well-paying self-employment, too. He had no interest in anything else, and other than venturing out to buy groceries and potion ingredients, or to sell his wares to faceless customers, he remained antisocial. No one was considered a friend anymore. Classmates and childhood pals— they had all gradually disappeared.

The closest things he had to acquaintances were the "guys" who lived down the street, but they did not really count because they were everybody's friends: four strong and courageous men who made an occupation out of battling evil and saving the homerealm time and time again. Men of nobility, they fought for the ways of righteousness and stopped at nothing until peace was won.

Speaking of peace, it was unusually quiet and uneventful this evening in the castle town of Briton. Dannix realized this as he peeked out his window. There were no explosions, no wild keg parties, no off-key xylophone playing, and no large animals running for their lives from a knife and fork. Maybe those guys were on a mission out of town tonight.

###

"YO HOOOOOO!"

The unmistakable battle cry of Good vs. Medieval front man Keno echoed down the catacomb walls. There he was in a dynamic standoff pose, backed by his dwarfish, elfin, and wizard mates wielding a battle axe, serrated dagger, and wooden staff respectively. The armored knight— though he preferred the term "barbarian"— held his favorite broadsword at the ready. All four stood intense and hungry, ready to challenge any foe, but ahead of them was nothing— just a long corridor of gray stone, shadowy and foreboding, with a single wall torch crackling softly in the silence. Behind them rose the stairway on which they came down and nothing more. It was a dead scene, lonely and quiet, void of activity.

Until—

"Okay, Gregor," Keno boldly ordered with a pointed finger, "light up their lives!"

The white-robed wizard leapt to the front and fervently cast a spell from his staff, illuminating the corridor with searing light. This caused a multitude of shadowy winged figures to shed their invisible cloaks and fall from the ceiling like disorientated bats. The men rushed in for the attack, slashing and slicing at the illusory beings, causing their bodies to blink out of existence with every swipe.

Extermination came ever so easily with the high-fueled, take-no-prisoner, almost-blindly-arm-swinging action that defined Good vs. Medieval's style.

Rounding the bend at a frantic pace, they came upon the next course, a corridor full of skeleton warriors armed with longswords and shields. Without so much as a standoff, the two forces collided. The rickety fiends swung their blades at the nimbly dodging heroes only to have their arms clipped off and their skulls smashed in by every hack, chop and slam offered in retaliation. This was hardly a challenge for the men of righteousness. Quickly and flawlessly, they reduced every one of the undead warriors to waste.

Only the four men remained, standing among the littering of bones, maintaining intense battle-ready postures and huffing heavily like mad, salivating dogs ready to take on more. But seeing that all their attackers had been eradicated, they flipped like a switch into a casual mode, their panting and sweat gone completely.

"Okay, then." Keno shrugged in satisfaction as he sheathed his sword.

"That was easy!" Stumpy the dwarf commented, kicking a skull across the floor.

"Pft! Those guys were nothing." Gregor took a swig from his canteen, which incidentally contained ale instead of water. He let out a belch then wondered, "What kind of weak Skullduggery outpost is this that it's overrun by string-bean skeletons?"

"That's a good question," replied Keno. "Skullduggery doesn't usually enlist the help of the undead. It's very unlike Lord Critikul to work alongside such pitiful warriors."

"Maybe standard-issue orcs are no longer in Skullduggery's budget?" Keeb, the elf in green and magenta jester's wear suggested.

"Could be!"

As they spoke, a storm of mad drumsticks on stone grew louder until it demanded their attention. Reinforcements!

Down the long corridor, rows of wooden doors burst open, spilling forth the next batch of skeleton warriors. Scrambling viciously with sickles wagging in the air, these demon spawns were hell bent on ridding the intruders from their lair.

Keno rolled his eyes and sighed in disappointment, and he halfheartedly raised his sword. "Here we go again."

###

Dannix's face appeared in the lamplight glow of his otherwise dark and shadowy den, watching little beads of lavender liquid course through the jungle gym of glass tubes in his lab. One by one they plopped into a small vial until it was a quarter full.

He tweezed the container, and with another vial of clear liquid, raised them both to his eyes. With great concentration, he trickled the clear liquid into the mixture, swishing it around every few seconds. Next came the grueling part: before he could test it, he had to stir the mixture by hand for ten minutes. Previously it was nine minutes, and before that eight, but Dannix had the patience of a vulture when it came to this. He knew that he was on the right track and would twirl a vial in his hand all night if needed.

###

Keno and his men maintained their siege throughout the Skullduggery stronghold, fighting skeleton knights, mummies, and other ghoulish creatures to the lower levels. After clomping down one final stairway, they found themselves in a crummy, rat-infested chamber with four prison-barred cells, one pair facing the other from across the way. This was the dungeon, all right.

An aged man, white-bearded and dressed in a brown sorcerer's robe and medallions, spent his time moping on the side of the bars he did not prefer, and he whipped his attention to the sudden intrusion, hopeful that his saviors had finally arrived.

Upon reaching their goal, the men's excited pace did not ease. Not even halting to comprehend the situation, Keno, Keeb, and Stumpy hustled to the cage door and began hacking on it with their weapons as if it were another Skullduggery fiend. The clanging, sparks, and savageness of it all caused the prisoner to jump back in surprise.

Gregor, probably the most sensible of the group despite all the alcohol in his system, caught up to his mates and planted his humiliated face in his hand. "No, snappers! Unlock the door!"

The others awoke from the heat of battle against the nonexistent foe and stared blankly at the obstacle.

"How?" Stumpy roared defensively, his typical numbness coming through.

That question called for a slap to the side of his head by the agitated wizard. "You're the locksmith! Figure it out!"

"Oh, yeah!"

Stumpy removed a keyring from his belt and checked the thin black keys, his tongue stuck out in concentration the whole time. His eyes perked when he found the right one, and he gave it a twist in the old clunky lock. Success! The door easily creaked open.

"The Great Gherezar, I presume?" Keno addressed the prisoner.

"Yes, yes," the old man praised with a clap of his hands. "Thank you, heroes, for rescuing me. I will be forever grateful!"

"All in a day's work," the barbarian smiled heartily. "When we heard that Gailand's greatest potion maker was kidnapped, we were right on the case."

The old man smiled back, his teeth crooked and brown. Apparently mouthwash was not one of his custom achievements. "Good show, I must say! I appreciate your promptness in the matter. One day in this hellhole is enough torture for me. My conscience would never allow me to do the bidding of that hideous gargoyle sorcerer."

"Lord Critikul," Gregor verified with an emphasized nod. "The meanest, ugliest bastard of 'em all. He may be at the top of the Skullduggery pyramid, but he's nothing compared to our superior greatness!"

"I'm eager to know why you were marked for capture, Mister Gherezar," Keno inquired. "Maybe we can get an idea of whatever miserable, nasty, or perhaps even embarrassing scheme Skullduggery's trying to hatch this time. The earlier we find out what it is the better."

Before the man could answer, Keeb interfered. "Hey, Keno! Check this out."

Something in the dungeon cell next to Gherezar's intrigued the elf. Responsive, the commander approached. "Hello, what do we have here?" he observed with interest.

Something suspicious lay on the floor beyond the bars: a female form wrapped in dusty ancient rags, lying motionless. Stumpy had already sorted through his keys and began conquering the lock to the door.

"We never got a report of a missing girl," remarked Gregor, almost sounding guilty for her condition.

"She must have passed on some time ago," Gherezar revealed. "For the past twenty-four hours confined in this dungeon, I thought I was the only one here. Not a peep came from this cell."

Keno gave the old chemist a dubious glare as Stumpy provided entry.

"Looks like she's ready to decorate this place with her bones," Gregor commented. "Yet another neglected and forgotten victim of Skullduggery's evildoing."

But a closer look at the facedown corpse revealed something very curious. Despite the tattered, brittle cloth of her garment, her skin, though filthy with dirt and grime, looked healthy and devoid of any decomposition. Not even the resident vermin appeared to have touched it. The young lady's hair was ratty and dusty brown, almost the consistency of hay.

Keno slowly knelt down to place his fingers on her neck, and the mystery thickened. "There's quite a bit of warmth radiating from her." He did not need to detect a pulse, for her carcass stirred mildly, sensitive to his touch. The action spooked the onlookers.

"How can this be?" muttered Gherezar.

"I'll be damned. You're alive," Keno gasped to the anonymous lady, settling his hand between her shoulders.

What happened next caused Stumpy to leap into Keeb's arms, for the woman's tightly clawed hand reached out to the side. Keno, too, snapped back in surprise. Although her face remained hidden under a jungle of hair, a slight wheeze trickled from her mouth as the hand jittered then collapsed back to the floor.

Gregor and Gherezar looked on in astonishment, and Keno returned to his knee to poke the young lady. "Miss? Are you with us?" He brought his fingers to her jugular and felt nothing.

"Is she dead?" Stumpy asked like an innocent child.

"Not if I can help it!" Keno boldly rolled the woman onto her back, revealing her face. Had it not been so black with soot and her hair dry like weeds, she perhaps would have been quite attractive.

He proceeded with some breaths into the young lady's mouth causing her chest to heave, then set his palms down over her sternum.

"Careful, Keno," Keeb warned. "Know your own strength. Remember what you did to that imp from the Cotton Candy Forest three years ago!"

"Eh, he was a brat anyway," the muscle-bound warrior grunted, performing chest compressions softly yet potently.

Gherezar turned to Gregor. "Isn't there some easier way to revive her? A magical spell perhaps?"

"It would help if our wizard friend here knew any recovery spells!" Keeb teased.

In return, Gregor, the white-robed wizard with no knowledge of white magic, snapped, "I'm working on that!"

After a few rhythmic pushes, the barbarian repeated assisted breathing. The other men watched in suspense as Keno tried all he could to revive the woman, though it seemed futile at this point— no different from blowing into a regular sack.

Hot sweat forming on his brow, he was about to go for another round of resuscitation when his hopes came true. The corpse jerked with a cough.

###

"Success!"

Dannix clutched the vial of elixir tightly in his fist and laughed triumphantly.

"I did it, I did it, I did it!"

He must have done it! Nothing could contain his excitement as he twirled and danced across his paper-littered floor. Not even stubbing his foot against his armchair dampened his spirits.

Holding the clear glass vial to the light, he observed the liquid inside swirl with a multitude of transparent colors. It brought a sparkle to his vivid eyes, for those colors spoke to him personally, telling him that fulfillment was near— that he had the power to change the world right in his hand.

It was time for the moment of truth: to test his creation. A small potted plant with draping vines sat on the desk next to the lab. This served as the test subject, the first life form in history to be blessed with super longevity.

Tingling with giddiness hard to suppress, Dannix's hand quivered as he administered a few drops to the soil. As the formula soaked into the dirt, he dragged his desk chair behind him and collapsed into it, unbottling a sigh of accomplishment. Still, he could not help but jitter with elation and flash a grin that nearly fell off the sides of his face.

He eagerly grabbed his microscope and fiddled with one of the plant's leafy tendrils, stuffing it under the lens. With a few adjustments of the knob, the results would come into focus.

###

A gloomy blur of colors introduced themselves to her, but with a slow, refreshing blink of her eyes the image sharpened. What she saw was the face of the barbarian, and peeking from behind his shoulder, the hooded wizard. Both loomed above her in a concerned state. The barbarian seemed to speak gibberish with a distorted, tinny voice, but that cleared up with her vision. Although she was too tired to answer, the promising words, "You're gonna be all right" were understood.

"Miraculous!" Gherezar exclaimed from the sidelines of the cell's door.

"I think she had a heart fart," suggested Stumpy.

The young lady's eyes closed again, but her limbs slowly began to stir. A soft moan emanated from her throat.

Keno placed his hand on her forehead to clear away some of the grime, but the heat of her skin caught him by surprise. "Yeowza! She's got a temperature like you wouldn't believe!"

"I got some water," Keeb announced, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his canteen. He also extracted a series of colorful cloths strung together but unfastened one for the barbarian.

Keno doused the cloth with the cool water and placed it on the woman's forehead. He then put the nozzle of the canteen to her lips, and her mouth opened weakly to accept it. Most of the liquid spilled down her cheeks.

Becoming more animated, the woman used her arms and legs to feel her surroundings. She added a slight groan, then a sickly cough as her body tried to attune itself to the environment. Her eyes opened slowly and her pupils dilated, but they were inattentive. Finally she brought both hands to her forehead, her elbows aiming straight up, implying that she was suffering from a headache for the ages.

"That looks like how Gregor wakes up in the morning," Stumpy commented. In response, an airborne skeleton bone, compliments of the wizard, clanged off the dwarf's helmet.

"I wonder who this young lass could be?" Gherezar mused.

Surprisingly it was Keeb who presented the answer. "Abby," he said with confidence.

"Oh, yeah? How do you know?" Gregor quizzed the elf.

"Because it's written on the side of her cell." He made note of the word ominously scratched into the stone.

Keno observed the scraggy prisoner's body further and could not fathom the amount of abuse she theoretically had endured. Her apparel, consisting of what used to be a gown, was nothing more than grungy brittle shreds strewn over her body, barely giving her skin any coverage at all. It looked like a rag that had withered through countless months of intense, grueling labor.

"How long do you think she's been a prisoner here, Keno?" asked Gregor.

"Far too long. This is proof of how cruel and despicable those Skullduggery fiends are."

"To think that could have been my fate," Gherezar described, "to be left in this dungeon to rot after suffering under Skullduggery tyranny. Once they find no further use for a human life, they just throw it away without a care."

"But what did they want from you?" Keeb asked.

The old chemist cleared his throat and gave four crucial words. "The Elixir of Youth. Skullduggery captured me because I'm one of only two people in the homerealm who has advanced knowledge of the formula. I was very close to perfecting it until those scoundrels targeted me and threatened to drag me to their fortress where I would be their slave. They wanted me to show them how to concoct the formula, but I would not give in to their threats. Therefore, they discarded me here, hoping that a stay in this dreary place would break my spirit and make me change my mind. But I would sooner die than share my secrets with the forces of darkness!"

"The Elixir of Youth, you say?" Gregor reiterated. "You actually found a way to make it work?"

"Officially, no," Gherezar answered with regret. "I never completed my last attempt, so who's to say that I could create a working formula for Skullduggery even if they tortured me? I've worked on the experiment day and night for the past five months— blown through countless attempts, but all of them off by just a fraction. The special ingredient is very difficult to apply, let me tell you; it gets frustrating after a while."

###

Dannix sat with his eye to the microscope for several tense minutes.

The verdict: his smile began to dwindle, and an irritated sigh blew from his lips, followed by a kick to his desk.

"DAMMIT!"

Angrily he swished the plant aside, letting it launch off the edge of the desk and crash to the floor.

He shot from his chair and paced around the room, cussing out loud. "Why is this so difficult? Why does this keep happening? EVERY time I try to create a youth formula, it comes out as an age regresser INSTEAD of an age preventer! Why isn't the Nectarium working for me?"

His temper indicated that this was the last straw, that the experiment was finally getting the best of the otherwise mild-mannered boy. The same armchair he stubbed his toe on earlier was revisited with an ill-tempered kick by the same foot, his fury dampening the pain. He picked up one of the many chemistry books scattered on the floor to make a quick, futile glance at the pages before immediately throwing it down again.

An open notebook lay on his desk where he kept a journal outlining all his formulas. Success or failure, he made a habit of jotting down every mixture created and its results. Snatching his quill, he specifically scribbled the words causes regression as he had done so many entries before, but this time he pressed the pen so hard, it gouged the paper.

Dannix continued to gripe to himself, loud enough to potentially wake the neighbors. "Geez, what good is a formula that will turn people into babies? There's no benefit to that! If there were only a way to—"

His thoughts derailed as he passed by his window and caught an action from the corner of his eye. This being the late evening hours, there was little more than shades of black beyond the glass, but his wits told him that something— or someone— might be lurking outside. Dannix stopped cold, juggling the possibility of hysteria playing with his senses— a product of all those sleepless hours catching up with him.

Then again, the subtle wooden scraping along the outer wall of his den sounded all too real.

This did not alarm him. The presence of a wild animal rummaging outside his house was a normal possibility. Whatever the case, it called for an investigation, and an investigation this late at night called for some protection.

Dannix kept a small sword— what he called his "lucky sword"— on a nearby wall rack. It was an item purchased years ago in an attempt to follow in his father's footsteps, and though its main function had become that of a decoration, that did not retire it from its practical usage by any means.

###

"I should have seen this coming," Keno sighed, still kneeling over the young lady. "With the recent studies of Nectarium, finding a mixture that results in a youth formula has been all the rage these days. It was only a matter of time until Skullduggery found interest in this."

Gherezar crossed his arms and scoffed, "Hmf! You Britoners may know it as Nectarium, but I prefer to call it by its proper name, Susslinite. I was Jeron Nectarrin's personal medicine man in that skirmish against the Koroqian time wizard, I claimed sight of the magical ore first, and therefore, I'm the true founder of the element— not Jeron's little supply boy, Dannix."

"Yeah, I do recall my dear friend Dannix mentioning something about having a little unwanted competition," Gregor nodded slyly. "I'm sure if he were here right now, he'd suggest keeping you locked up!" The wizard ended his jest with a slap to Gherezar's back and a boisterous laugh that sounded a little too crooked for comfort.

"You wouldn't do that, would you? I know you Britoners all look after your own, but—"

"Gregor's just being a jerk," Keno differed, maintaining his position. "We don't know Dannix that 'dearly', and your competition with him is none of our business. What is our business is to rescue those who are in peril and thereby send another flip-off thank-you message in Skullduggery's direction. So on that note, I suggest we get this victim some aid pronto!"

Now that he had a name to the face, he tried using it to rouse the fallen woman. "Abby, don't you worry. We're gonna get you out of here. Do you understand, Abby?"

She whimpered painfully in response, closing her eyes to comfort them from the stinging light. In a sleepy whisper she uttered, "Abby—? Please— take me home."

"We're gonna take you to a medic right now, okay?" Keno hoisted the frail woman's body off the cold floor and cradled her in his arms.

"You heard the man," Gregor announced to the others, playing traffic control officer. "Everybody, clear out of here! Nothing more to see!"

"Now that's an agreeable gesture," complemented Gherezar. "This dungeon just bleeds misery, and I don't ever want to see another walking skeleton again."

"But did we kill all the bad guys?" Stumpy asked, looking lost as usual.

Gregor happened to have a map of the stronghold's interior in his robe, and he unrolled it to show the dwarf. It was a very simple layout of rectangles and passages, every one of them marked with a red X. "Unless you wanna chop all the rats in half too, we're good! Plant a 'GvM' flag on the roof; this place is done!"

Stumpy frowned, though. "Aww, but skeletons ain't no fun to kill. I wanna fight orcs! Orcs bleed real good! Where are they all?"

###

Golden interior light from Dannix's den window illuminated a patch of warted green skin, a fat, drool-soaked bottom lip ridged with crooked teeth, and an evil eye bulging from underneath a thick, lifted brow. The next second it was gone, having ducked into shadows between the shrubs and the residence exterior. Heavy guttural breathing stirred from its location, accompanied by the clanking of metal equipment that rattled against the wooden exterior toward the back door betraying the creature's presence.

Dannix crept across the floor of his den, sword held at novice height and eyes fixed on the closed door to the next room. Periodic scuffling sounds emanated from the other side: careful, strategic sounds definitely not made by some wild animal. This was indeed a foul presence, and it was well inside his home.

Now he was legitimately frightened. His heart pounded, but he stood up to the threat instead of finding an easy escape. A self-proclaimed coward, he had never predicted standing his ground against an unknown intruder. Anything could have lurked behind that door, even a horrible monster on the hunt for fresh meat. Nothing was out of the question given the homerealm's untamed nature. But adrenaline cleared his mind of perilous images, administered by territorial instincts: his need to protect his lab as if it were his own child.

Slowly he paced to the door, keeping his eye fixed on the painfully steady knob, just waiting for it to twitch. Whoever was about to come in uninvited, he would be ready.

Or not!

The door burst open in a storm of splinters causing Dannix to jump with fright, his blade swinging wildly in the air.

Four battle-ready orcs marched ill-fatedly into the room, their green, bulldog-like faces snarling with hostility. Each one of the five-foot menaces brandished a typical orcish weapon: a small hatchet, a cleaver, a spear, and a morning star respectively; and all wore chain armor, circular midwaist plates, and heavy boots.

An unfriendly rumble radiated from the mob as they glared at the young chemist with beady yellow eyes.

"W-what do you want?" Dannix stammered, raising his sword over his shoulder like a pickaxe.

The answer came in the form of a savage attack by the foremost orc leaping straight for the chemist's face. A swerve by Dannix, and the brute crashed headfirst into the bookcase. The others let out an intimidating hiss, signaling that the fight was on.

Dannix sidestepped across his den in panic, stumbling over books and papers to take cover behind his armchair. Immediately the orcs stormed his padded bunker, scurrying onto the seat for a shot at his head. He fended off the attackers the best he could, but unskilled in the art of swordplay, he swung his weapon randomly, scoring hits that were lucky at best.

The orcs shoved the chair aside, forcing Dannix to back away until completely surrounded with nowhere to hide. Toying with the man, the creeps jabbed and hacked at him with their weapons, slicing bloody tears in his sweater and pants. All Dannix could do was whip his weapon around like a broken rotor, but the morning star orc put an end to his lackluster swashbuckling by pounding the flail into his fist. The chemist let out a pained cry, and his sword escaped his hand to soar across the room. Its destination: his beloved desktop lab where it smashed with a blanching shatter of glass.

The helpless man was then pummeled to a dark corner of the den. There was nothing he could do except bring his forearms to his face and succumb to the orcs' unrelenting assault. Their growls turning to wily laughter, they threatened to keep the attack going until they had a crippled man suffering at their feet.

###

Carrying Abby's limp, semi-conscious body, Keno retreated with his men and a relieved Gherezar to the staircase at the dungeon's exit.

Gregor led the way, and as he climbed the steps, a sinking realization struck him. "You know, I just thought of something. If Skullduggery was able to target Gherezar for being one of the founders of the special youth formula element, don't you think—"

"Dannix would be a likely target as well?" Keno finished his thought. "I was already considering that. Like Gherezar, Dannix was in the public eye for the past five months, giving him plenty of time to get noticed by those creeps."

"And because I wouldn't cooperate with them, they will surely go after him next," Gherezar added.

"Yikes!" Keeb exclaimed from the rear of the line. "We gotta hurry back to Briton and hope nothing has already happened to him!"

###

The damage had been done. A battered and torn Dannix lay facedown on his floor amongst ravaged blood-smeared papers and shattered glass.

Having finished their dirty work, the orcs paraded out his window, fading into the night. They had claimed their prize; gripped in the last orc's claw was Dannix's notebook. Months of trial and error were outlined in its pages, and it was now in Skullduggery's hands.

The rustle of frantic passage through the bushes and dwindling grunts marked the orcs' escape, leaving Dannix for dead in his home. He was still alive— barely— a slight nudge of his arm the only movement he could muster. Never could he have considered such a drastic outcome: his dearest love ripped away from his side, and his life reduced to an ember all in one fell swoop. The end of his world had come.

 

That's it for now. Will Dannix recover from this traumatic experience? What kind of horrible outcome does Skullduggery plan with his formula? If you would like to see more, let me know.