Ravens Cross

Book One of the
Ballad of Sorrows

Caden is a killer and he’s exceptionally good at it. As a notorious member of a mercenary guild, he takes on the city’s most dangerous jobs to earn both gold and renown. But when a dangerous monster forces Caden to unleash a forbidden power, he is dragged deep into the underground world under the guise of fame and fortune. But will he succeed against the monsters lurking in the shadows or will he find himself trapped by the deadly plots being spun by the underground crime-lords?

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Prologue: Midnight Hunt

The mulch of autumn leaves were soft underfoot as we crept between dark silhouettes. Half dead forests always reminded me of hunting, and I wasn’t certain that tonight, we were the hunters. I squinted, struggling to see through the trees which were growing tall and dense. Dusk was shining its last brilliant rays of orange light across the sky and beneath a thick canopy of pine needles and ash leaves, darkness was broken by needles of burning light.

It was reaching the time of night that invited the worst things that crept the continent to emerge from their burrows and hiding holes. A gut feeling told me that we should turn, run back the way we had come. I growled at myself unwilling to stray from my course. There was an advantage before us that was too good to turn down. My mercenary band and I had set out to find the bandits, and I would stop at nothing less.

“I don’t like this,” young Jash said, his hand gripping the hilt of his sword with a strangling hold. His ears were green as grass and I’d foolishly relented to his pleas of tagging along. At the time his request had seemed reasonable enough. But the dark was dangerous to a knowledgeable hunter. For a boy like him, it would only be treacherous. He had stayed by my side during the journey and now that we were committed, his attachment to me was dog-like. “Should we keep following them into the dark?” His question spoke to the very reason my mind had been contemplating. Hearing it voiced aloud did something I did not expect.

With tension melting from my shoulders, I paused, leaning against the trunk of a twisting oak, and placed my hand on Jash’s shoulder. “So long as you keep calm and quiet, nothing is going to happen,” the lie left my mouth before I even realized the words were coming off my lips. The best thing for him was to continue into the night. “If you want to be a mercenary, you can’t be afraid to go where others will not.”

His jaw firm, his child-like face growing hard. His eyes were terrified, but a firm resolve burned there also. After a moment of pause, I added, “Just stay close and stay alert.” He could do this. The dogs that followed me all showed clam resolve in their posture.

I looked them over, one by one, their eyes meeting mine. Kori stood, her thin face shrouded beneath an evergreen hood. Evand, tall and thick, shouldered a battleaxe. And Merek, scouting the rear, wore dark spectacles which reflected tinted orange light. His owl eyes would see better in the dark than mine would during the day.

I began again, leading my band through the woods, creeping forward in single file. The leather armor we wore beneath our woolen cloaks did not creak as we moved. With trained feet, they all followed me through the woods like cats stalking prey.

“How do you know we’re on the right path?” Jash asked, a slight quiver in his voice.

“See those broken branches,” Kori said, her thin finger pointing just ahead. “They weren’t careful, and it’s clear they were in no hurry.”

“I still can’t believe someone would be bold enough to attack one of the great houses.” Merek’s voice was deep and clear. He stumbled a bit as his foot turned on a branch and I heard the clink of glass from within his cloak. I shot my friend a glance and he nodded. It made me feel good that I wasn’t the only one who’d come overprepaired.

“Fools, that’s who,” I said pressing forward through the brush. It was difficult to see, but the faint light.

“Probably a band of thieves hired to attack and flee. Definitely an inside job if you ask me.”

“I heard they massacred their entire guard force before anyone could respond. They say that the men were…”

“Enough Jash,” I snapped. “We were hired to track them, not fight them. That’s why they hired us in the first place. As soon as we know where they are camping, and how many of them there are, we will return to the city and collect our payment.”

“Relax boy,” Evand said. “You’re hunting with the best. People don’t come to Ravens Cross with contracts because they think we’re incapable.”

“It’s the only independent mercenary guild for a reason Jash,” Kori added, her soft voice soothing.
“Make it out of here alive,” Merek teased, “and I’m sure someone will apprentice you.”

“He’s already an apprentice,” Kori said, a sharp snort accenting his annoyance.

“Just checking,” Merek retorted. “Wasn’t sure if someone had changed their mind.”

“Hilarious,” Jash said, enduring the banter as good as any disciplined lad would. I looked at him and noticed his posture was a little striated and the fright had left his eyes. The banter had relaxed us all a bit.

Time passed slowly as we continually crept forward through the woods and eventually moonlight began to slowly shine down, silver beams lighting our way in the wake of a forgotten sunset. The sharp scent of smoke appeared on the air and I followed it around a cluster of boulders revealing firelight shrouded behind a wall of trees. I paused and I could feel the tension return as my dogs stood still and waited. I listened for voices, looked for scouts, and was unnerved to find neither. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I double checked everything certain I was missing something.

“Merek? What do you see?”

“Nothing. It’s too bright for the lens to make out what’s by the fires, but the trees are empty. It seems everythings staying away from this camp.”

“These animals aren’t used to people and fire,” Evand said, his slow words humming as he spoke. “I can smell burning meat.”

A snapping tree branch caused me to leap in the air slightly. My sword was halfway out of its sheath before I realized. Sliding it back in, I looked up and saw a branch high above us dangling. I kept my grip on the blade, ready for someone to jump out of the darkness to kill me. I studied the tree with the snapped branch and found it to be old and diseased, leaving over half of its branches black and brittle. The tree was certainly old enough to have toppled from its weight, but I wouldn’t let myself trust it had broken by itself. Trusting so openly could get someone killed.

“Merek, keep an eye on things. We’re going to need the owl tonight.” My friend’s spectacles glowed and his face curled in a half smile.

“You can count on it.” He ran his fingers along the side of his spectacles, the lenses turning slightly as they expanded outward. The brilliant spyglass-like device glistened in the firelight as he turned to look about.

“Jash, follow me and watch my back. Kori, Evend, the two of you stay back and keep an eye out for anything with Merek.” They each nodded their agreement and getting as low to the earth as I could, I moved forward. We didn’t move particularly fast, but we moved with the resolve of a predator who needed a meal.

“I’m worried,” Jash said. “Should I be this terrified?”

“Yes, you should be afraid. Use it to keep you alert and remain calm.” I tried to make myself sound encouraging, but that was hard to do in hushed tones.

“We just need to get to the firelight to get a better idea of their numbers. We’re not here to fight them. But if there’s any fighting, find a shadow to hide in, and let me take care of things.”

If circumstances had been different, I would have looked forward to the fighting. But I wasn’t stupid enough to get others killed because I was looking for a challenge. It had been too long since my last good fight and I was itching to get some action. If things worked out, perhaps I could see myself included in the party that will undoubtedly be sent to kill them. They would need a guide after all.
“You’re not what I expected.”

“No?” I asked ducking behind a tree. The shadow turned out to be a passing nightingale which I cursed silently as it perched on a branch. “And what were you expecting?”

“They say you’re dangerous, hot headed, and arrogant.”

“All true,” I admitted moving forward.

“But you’re smarter than people give you credit for.”

“Thanks, I guess. But you just need to give it time. I may not be as smart as you say, just experienced.” The thicket of trees was oddly dense and I couldn’t see through them. The tracks lead around the thick grove which had partially been hacked down. Small lines of orange cast odd shadows and I crept forward to the edge to peek through. “Stay quiet.” My whisper was little more than a breath and Jash froze, not daring to follow me to the edge.

Peering through a break between trees, I saw a large encampment of tents that swallowed a meadow. Several large glowing fires raged in stone fire pits and as I examined the disorder I gaped in confusion. Boddies, bent, twisted, and mutilated, were strewn about. Once it had toppled into the fire, its head ablaze, becoming little more than a charred husk. The source of the charred meat scent that had been wafting through the air.

Releasing the tension from my chest with a quick breath, I straitened and made my way around the trees. I entered the meadow and began to count the dead. Forty eight bloody corpses were strewn about, trampled grass and flowers painting a picture of the now dead bandits movements. I scanned the area once more for movement and found none. The camp had been here for some time, but the killings had happened recently. The blood was still wet, but it had begun to darken, hadening clumps floating in wide pools.

“Merek, Evand, Kori! You’re clear!” Jash called out, the sudden noise causing me to jump.

Sword raised, I turned and glared at the boy who shrank down. I had to force myself to relax my whiteknuckled grip and adjust my blade so its point wasn’t aimed directly at Jash’s throat. He mouthed an apology as I raised my finger to my lips. Fool, I thought resisting the urge to harshly rebuke him. Jash followed me closely, his pink boyish face looking aghast at the death. My ears shivered as they examined the stillness of the air. Still nothing moved and the wind which caused the trees to sway and the leaves to flutter sent shivers down my spine.

I heard the rustling of branches indicating a more relaxed air from the other mercenaries. “I just about had a heart attack when you shouted,” Merek said, flashing the boy a quick smile. It was a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. His spectacles were atop his head and lines had formed under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose. We shared a glance, the concern in his eyes reflecting my own gut feeling.
“Boy, if you ever…” Evand began to say as he entered the clearing. His rebuke was cut short as he looked from Jash, to the bodies. His face slowly turned down into a grimace. I heard Kori gasp, and Merek walked over to her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Kori, how long ago do you think these killings happened?” Merek asked, stooping next to one of the bodies. Together, they began to examine the spilled blood and open wounds. Without hesitation, I began to search for the bodies myself. The two of them could figure out when, and that left me with the troubling task of discovering how.

Crouching down, I turned the corpse of a woman over and jumped back in surprise. Half of her face was missing and the torn away flesh dangled from off her skull. Long slashes ran down her chest and I could see down past her ribs and into her gut. Four slashes, long and clean, had cut through the bandits armor and through her flesh. No weapon I’d ever seen could have delivered a blow so deliberate and precise. The little comfort I had conjured up in my mind thinking they could have been butchered by swords evaporated.

Something rustled beneath the canvas of a tent causing me to freeze. Holding my breath I widened my eyes and focused on the movement. Within a few moments, something emerged from within the depths of the folds of canvas. The creature had large batlike ears, three glossy black eyes, and a coat of dark fur that was matted with blood. Its monkey-like form crouched low to the ground as it crawled to the next body, feasting upon it with ferocious vigor. Its belly was fat but it continued to gorge itself on its meal. Strangely it hadn’t noticed me and if I could kill it before it could, it would save us a lot of hassle.

“By the Velon! What is that?” Jash shrieked. The sound of his voice startled the creature whose vicious stare snapped towards the boy. Growling at the fool’s stupidity, I drew my sword and turned to face the Night Howlder. An apeish scream rang out again in the night and the creature spun about as it saw me. It fixed its three eyes on me and opening its mouth wide, the creature displayed its needle like maw.
I turned up the one sided blade and it saw it gleam red in the firelight. The strange dark vein of metal which ran inside the sword was dark against the steel sides. The creature growled, low and angry like a stray dog before it scampered towards me.

Readying myself, I held my blade to the side with a loose grip. The monster leaped into the air and Jash rushed towards it, slashing its legs with a wild stroke of his blade. It tumbled to the ground, blood spirit across the trampled underbrush, and the quiet stillness of night was abruptly shattered by its monstrous scream of pain. This sound filled the air with chilling ferocity and Jash dropped to the ground, cupping his ears with gloved hands.

Even beneath my armor and cloak I felt oddly exposed. I thrust the tip of my blade through its head with a quick jab, silencing the scream in a sudden moment. The silence which followed was daunting and glancing towards Jash who was grimacing on the ground, I couldn’t help but shake my head. Looking up into the trees above, I searched for any sign movement or any indication of a companion. The meadow glowed from fire and moonlight, the cold blue light cast a purple haze along the line of trees that reflected the orange fire.

“Foolish boy,” I growled, my eyes darkening as I looked at the lad. The chagrin on his face was highlighted by flickering firelight and his eyes looked down at the ground in shame. “When you use your sword, you do so with control and with an intent to kill. What you just did is a great way to get yourself killed.”

The young apprentice nodded, picking up his dropped sword, this time holding it with controlled hands and a firm stance.

“Caden, what was that?” Jash sounded frightened, as he should be.

“A Night Howler. And they’re never alone. They move in packs and I doubt this was the-” My sentence was cut short as a shrill sound echoed that of the fallen beast. It traveled through the trees and it was close, too close. The cries sounded first from in front, then from behind, when suddenly the calls erupted from all around. They weren’t close, the echoes seemed from over a mile away, but they would be to the meadow shortly.

“Shit Caden,” Kori said, rushing into the open meadow ahead of the others. “What now?” She looked around at the camp in dumbfoundment.

“We fight” I said, a little frustrated.

“Boy I swear, you’re going to be sleeping with the pigs for a month because of this.” Evand looked at the boy as he said it. It was no threat, just the harsh reality facing him. “But,” Evand’s face spread in a wide smile as he held up his axe, “I need a good fight.”

As if to answer to his ill considered words, a string of throaty calls began to sound in the distance.
“I really don’t like the sound of that.” Merek spun his twin axes in his hands, the small curved blades forming a hook like shape. “Bastard! Be careful what you wish for.”

“Somethings not right,” Kori said, her long blade wavering as he shifted stances. “Why are they surrounding us?”

The sound of moving branches drew my attention to my left. I watched for movement and saw several branches move irregularly and with a swift step, I fell into a clam stance. My bare arms felt chill in the night and each hair seemed to stick up. It’s a good thing that others couldn’t tell my emotions. There was my reputation to think about after all.

The howl which reverberated around us was deep and throaty, and not seconds after it sounded, it was joined by three others. “Son of a bitch!” I cursed through gritted teeth. The calls sounded from above and as the branches above in the darkness began to creak, a cascade of leaves began whirling down around us. “Get ready, they’re-”

Before I could finish my sentence, a shape dropped from the trees above and landed in the path before us. The torchlight cast a glow on the creature and its wide eyes stared up at us. The three pupils were large and black, with a sickly green film surrounding the edges. Teeth sharp as needles, the creature’s mouth was filled with hundreds of them. They mimicked the first almost exactly in the way they moved.

“Caden?” Jash cried, his voice cracking with fear. Its grey skin was covered in thick grey hair and its form was similar to that of a monkey. It seemed to hesitate, taking a few steps backwards, its hands dragging across the ground. It leapt at the boy, claws extended, fangs bared.

I stepped forward and with a swipe of my sword, I cut the creature across the chest. It moved with such startling speed that the sharp steel hardly nicked the creature. It moved faster than the other, its abilities unencumbered by an engorged belly. My grip tightened on my blade and I watched the creature as dark blood began to seep from the wound. It let out the characteristic howle for which it was named; but the cry was louder and more extreme than the calls that had come before. Thuds sounded from all around and our small band was quickly surrounded by over thirty Night Howlers.
Evand charged, sword raised, and yelled as swiped at a trio of beasts. Either startled by his sudden attack or slower than their companions, they were all struck down in one blow. He swung again, connecting the edge of his blade with the thick skull of another. The top of the head toppled from its shoulders and sounded like a dropped melon as it tumbled across the grass. Ten more Night Howlers dropped from the canopy of trees above and rushed him. I opened my mouth to call out just as one of the nasty creatures leapt onto his back and bit off his shoulder. Blood spurted from the wound and the creature devoured the flesh like a gull eating a fish. Evand fell and the Night Howlers’ claws began to rake across the armor, tearing off chunks of along with shredded leather.

They devoured him like hungry rats, covering themselves with blood, tossing chucks of skin and entrails to the ground around them. They were after the meat and bone which was eaten in whole chunks. I forced myself to hold back my vomit. I stepped forward and attacked.

The sharp steel of my blade cut through the flesh of a Night Howler, causing its gut to split open. Bile, blood, and organs spilled out creating a stinking mess. The creatures collapsed upon its gore and it was trampled beneath the feet of three more monstrosities. One creature lunged towards me, taking a hold of my leg with its human-like hand. With the shake of my leg, I kicked the creature free and with a fist, I knocked it atop the head. It shrieked in pain, retreating back into the cluster of its fellows.

Looking at my three remaining companions, I met their frightened eyes with a glance of determination. “We need to run back to the city, now!”

Without hesitation, they dashed forward and I followed closely behind, fighting off the advances of over a dozen Night Howlers. We dashed past one of the glowing fires and the creature which had been nipping at my heels stopped suddenly to give the flames a wide berth. Reaching down, I plucked a log from out of the fire and held its single burning end into the air like a torch. The light seemed to hurt them, they didn’t move as quickly and their eyes narrowed dramatically.

Waving around my makeshift torch, I staved off the advances of the creatures long enough to catch up to my companions. We fought desperately as we approached the forest only to find more and more of the creatures pouring out from the darkness. It wasn’t a pack but a swarm. Over a hundred of the creatures surrounded us and it was all we could do to keep them back.

A night howler leapt from atop a tall tree and landed on Jashes back, clawing at his sides. The boy yelped in pain and collapsed. Kicking the creature in its hindquarters, it rolled off the screaming boy, and scampered back into the swarm. Grabbing Jash by one of his shoulder straps, I began to drag his limp body away from the forest.

“We can’t get through them!” Merek screamed as he slammed his axe into the chest of a Night howler.
“We need to get…” I tried to think of what we could do and my mind seemed to freeze as the creatures poured out of the forest. Kori turned to look at me with desperation, just as a creature slashed her across the back, its claws raking her back.

The sharp steel of my blade cut through the flesh of a Night Howler, causing its gut to split open. Bile, blood, and organs spilled out creating a stinking mess. The creatures collapsed upon its gore and it was trampled beneath the feet of three more monstrosities. One creature lunged towards me, taking a hold of my leg with its human-like hand. With the shake of my leg, I kicked the creature free and with a fist, I knocked it atop the head. It shrieked in pain, retreating back into the cluster of its fellows.

I was breathing heavily, and our group numbers were dwindling. Jash was lying on his back, half his face torn free. I looked upon the still corpse and for the first time in a long while, I felt a sense of loss. He was so young, but I knew that I wasn’t responsible for his choices. I knew what I needed to do. The stronger part of my mind, the part that knew how dangerous what I was about to do would bring upon me, caused my body to tense.

Cursing to myself under my breath, I stepped forward and took in a deep breath. Four Night Howlers lunged towards me and with a strong swipe of my sword, I clopped off their feet. They rolled to a stop beside me, crawling and lashing about with their claws. Three of the ugly creatures darted towards me and once. Leaping in unison, they each latched onto me, their long claws digging into my flesh, cutting through my armor like it was cloth. I stumbled back and topled back into a roaring fire.

Together, we caught fire, the flames growing with alarming speed. The creatures burst aflame and each relinquished their grip on me. I watched them stumble away, spreading the flames as they ran on trampled grass. Closing my eyes I took in a deep breath of smoke and felt the burning within me. Relaxing, I let waves of pleasure wash over me.

Embracing the heat of the coals I drew forth the energy from the fire. Standing up I stood among the flames and with renewed vigor, I scanned my surroundings. I cast a ball off flame directly into a group of seven Night Howlers. They exploded in chunks of charred meat. With another breath I drew upon the energy of the fire and the coals exploded into a cloud of ash and charcoal. The ground around me burst alight and the forest was illuminated, revealing the hundred remaining creatures. Their glossy three eyes stares were wide and if a creature like that could show fear, at that moment I could say I saw it.
The creatures held themselves back giving me a little time to gather strength before the assault I knew would come. The survivors of my party were huddled together and each one looked up at me with fear that matched that which had been shown at the first sight of the Night Howlers. Our band of twenty mercenaries and four merchants were now half that size. But there was something far more wrong here than a normal attack. These beasts did not hunt in numbers this large.

“All of you, get behind me and stay back!” I looked at their terrified faces and I felt their fear. Cursing silently to myself I decided to break a very old promise. But death wasn’t going to be an option, not this night, and not any other.

As I turned back to the swarm of Night Howlers, my hands burst aflame, burning as bright as bonfires. I could see their greasy, bony bodies shy away as I thrust out my hands blasting the four directly in front of me. They collapsed to the ground, smoldering husks of burnt flesh. The creatures all screeched with such ferocity that it set my teeth on edge. That’s when they swarmed.

All at once, the Night Howlers lunged towards me and with a reflective wave of my arms, I brought my flaming hands up to my face. A burst of flame created a small wall between me and my attackers. I heard the wails of pain and smelt burning flesh. Moving forward, I reached out with both arms and threw fist full after fist full of fire at the creatures. I hit one square in the jaw and I watched as its mouth exploded, white needles like teeth blasted back. They hit a nearby tree, sticking into the bark like tiny white darts.

Taking up my sword, I began to use my steel and flame to kill creature after creature. The light seemed to be debilitating and to my great relief, they focused their attacks and ferocity on me alone.

A sudden sharp pain in my arm caused me to drop my sword to the ground. Growling in pain and anger, I grabbed the creature that had the back of my forearm in its teeth by one of its batlike ears and tugged hard. Flaring the fire, I burned the beast which caused it to shriek and release my arm. Hot blood poured down my arm and dripped off my fingers. Acrid smoke twirled up from my fingers and I flared my flames, letting it engulf my body. I felt the cloth beneath my armor burn away and my cloak became a blanket of fire which enveloped me.

The flames licked at my skin and it felt good, like taking a hot bath. The fire did not affect my body and it stimulated every fiber of my body. The pain in my arm faded as the fire burned inside the wound and stooping down to pick up my blade, I burned the leather handle with an imprint of my hand.

I fought with calm determination, the flames from my body turning the blade a dull orange. The heated metal stung the creatures and instead of delivering bloody blows, it sliced through flesh like a hot blade through butter. Singed wounds that smelled of burnt hair and rotten flesh swirled in the smoke that drifted around me.

The fighting was quick and not a single beast fled. I enjoyed killing them all, it was by far the most enjoyable thing I had done for weeks. I loved fighting monsters and there was a strange satisfaction I gained by killing them. It was why I truly wasn’t in it for the money alone. Fighting beasts let me forget that deep down inside, I was a monster just like them. I let the fire rage around me one last time as I looked upon the dismembered piles of corpses that surrounded me.

Sitting upon the ground, surrounded by smoldering corpses and covered in charred gore, I closed my eyes and concentrated. With a deep breath I smothered the fire within me. It took all my willpower to let go of the flame and my blood suddenly felt cold. A chill rushed over my body and I shivered. The shivers passed and I began to forcefully take in deep breaths.

Opening my eyes I, my attention directly focused on the only thing still moving. Merek who was cradling Kori in his arms. He rocked back and forth, hot tears spilling down his face, as he held a wad off cloth to her side. I focused on her chest, saw it rise and fall in staggered breaths, and felt slight relief that she was still alive.

It was hard to turn my attention away, but forcing myself to shift my attention from them to Jash who was almost unrecognizable. It was obvious he wasn’t alive and I fought back angry tears. I could have saved everyone. If only I hadn’t been so selfish and hidden what I truly was. The years of dishonesty suddenly felt heavier than I could bear and I collapsed to my knees. It was one thing to know I’d been selfish, but it was another to understand that I had found pleasure in it.

So many allies, friends, had died by my side over the years, and just like tonight I had let them die. My throat was suddenly dry and a deep ache in my heart tore through my resolve and I let out a groan of remorse that sounded little better than the beating of a dying lamb. I desperately needed a drink. Like that will do you any good now, the logical voice in the back of my head berated. It told me I would have plenty of time to drown my sorrows in booze. But I still had my duty to attend to, and till death I would see it done.

Getting to my feet, I walked to the only two living friends I had in the world, and squatted beside them. “Let’s get Kori back to the guild. I promise, I will give anything to see that she survives.”

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