Authors: Becca Andre
The Catalyst of Corruption
The Catalyst of Corruption
Copyright Â© 2016 by Becca Andre. All rights reserved.
First Smashwords Edition: February 2016
Editor: Shelley Holloway
Cover and Formatting:
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual personsâliving or deadâis entirely coincidental.
lchemy is a diverse discipline
that offers endless possibilities. The alchemist is not restricted to a particular magic born to her. She can create potions to achieve anything, limited only by her imaginationâand morality.
At least, that was what I had always believed. I was a master alchemist, but some problems still stumped me. For example, I had yet to design a potion that could heal a broken heart. And at the moment, I wished I had.
Ian's face gave away nothing as he studied the name carved on the lid of the sarcophagus. I had come to know the man well over the last few months, and I knew his silences were the equivalent of more violent outbursts from other men. Even so, I had expected some reaction.
I pressed closer to Rowan's side, unnerved by the silence in these subterranean catacombs, and ran my flashlight beam over the name carved on the lid. Matilda Grace Nelson. Ian's daughter. We had finally found her grave. Well, Elysia and James had technically found her graveâand they had gone through hell to do it.
I glanced over at where the pair stood watching Ian. They had been held captive in these catacombs by Ian's twin brother, Alexander. Elysia had placed herself under Alexander's power in hope of finding his secret location, ultimately ending him with James's help. But that hadn't been their only goal. They had also hoped to learn of Matilda's location. And they had. Sort of.
“The sarcophagus is empty,” Ian said.
Rowan left my side and walked to the sarcophagus, his footsteps echoing off the bare walls. He lifted his battery-powered lantern, illuminating the interior of the stone box. “What does this mean?”
“It can mean a lot of things,” Ian said.
Rowan frowned, but didn't question him further. Instead, he turned to James. “Is anyone else here?”
James's green eyes began to glow, and he spun in a slow circle as he searched for souls around us. “Down below.”
“There are more tunnels beneath us?”
“There were cells containing imprisoned liches,” Elysia said. She glanced up at James. “I guess we didn't find them all.”
“Show me.” Rowan was clearly in Flame Lord mode, taking command. He had insisted on joining us, and I was grateful. Alexander wouldn't dare return with him around.
“I will show you,” Elysia said, “then James can release them.” She gave James a questioning look and he nodded.
“I can do it,” Rowan said.
I knew he offered because, like me, he wasn't happy about James taking lifeâeven if these things were technically dead.
“I'll be freeing them,” James said to Rowan. “It won't harm me.”
“I don't plan to eat their souls.” James flashed him a grin of teeth more canine than human. He pulled off his T-shirt and handed it to Elysia.
I noted the way she frowned when he said that. Was it more than a joke?
James removed his sweatpants and passed them to Elysia as well. A shimmer of darkness, and a hellhound suddenly stood in his place. As a hound, he was huge. His shoulders stood higher than my waist. His shaggy black fur was so dark that the shadows swallowed himâor maybe, he swallowed the shadows. Only his glowing green eyes were visible as he walked soundlessly around the sarcophagus and disappeared behind it.
We followed him to a crudely dug stairwell carved into the stone floor. James vanished into the darkness, only the faint green glow from his eyes marking his progress. Ian followed without hesitation, though the rest of us held the flashlights.
“Watch yourselves,” Elysia said, moving toward the dark hole. “We were attacked the last time we were down here.”
“Attacked?” I asked. “By what?”
“Those liches. The one controlling them wasn't happy about having her space invaded.”
I caught Elysia's arm. “Her?”
“I considered that it might be Matilda.” Elysia kept her words soft. “But she told me she was a soul reaper. It was my understanding that Mattie was a lich king, like her father.”
“That's what he told me,” I agreed.
“This is probably one of her descendants.”
I released her arm, making an effort not to stare at her eyes. Elysia's golden-brown irises were noticeably lighter than they had been before her adventure in these catacombs. During that ordeal, Elysia had learned that she, too, was a soul reaperâa necromantic blood gift that was as rare as it was deadly. But what really bothered me, and her, was that Ian had known what she was and had never told her.
I aimed my flashlight down the uneven steps and waited while Elysia descended. “Here we go again,” I said to Rowan.
“Era is going to be upset that we explored some catacombs without her.”
I bit back a laugh. “True.” Rowan's sister Element loved horror movies and ghost hunts. “So why is it that we always end up in these places?”
“I believe we decided that it was part of my master plan to scare you into my arms.”
I smiled, remembering the first crypt we had explored together. It had turned out to be Ian's.
“I'll let you in on a little secret, Your Grace.” I looked up into his gray eyes, clearly visible in the light of his lantern. “I don't need to be scared to jump into your arms.”
A faint ring of fire ignited around his pupils. “Perhaps you would like to demonstrate later.”
“Perhaps.” I gave him a wink, then started down the steps, very aware of him following. It was the most playful he'd been in a while.
The walls closed in the deeper we went, and the scent of damp earth filled my nose. At the base of the stairs, a tunnel stretched into the darkness, the hand-dug walls broken up every few feet by what appeared to be smaller tunnels on either side. I suspected these were the
Elysia had mentioned.
She hadn't stopped to examine any of them, but continued to the end of the tunnel where it opened up into a large room.
I stopped just inside, shining my flashlight around the space. A heavy wooden table stood in the center of the room, and I noted with unease the shackles hanging from the underside.
Elysia continued to the far wall and a second table there. She ran her flashlight beam over the surface, illuminating what appeared to be a collection of old tools, then she began examining the floor. Was she looking for something?
Rowan walked past me, and I followed him into the room. He set his lantern on the center table, then lifted one of the shackles for a closer examination before dropping it. The soft clang of metal on metal echoed around the space.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“It is where those who displeased the Nelson Family were Made,” Ian said, joining us.
James walked past him, his paws making no sound as he crossed the room to Elysia's side.
“Did you find anyâ¦one?” I asked.
“A pair of liches so old that they had lost their mobility.” Ian walked deeper into the room, examining his surroundings with the typical necromancer indifference.
“So, this place has been here longer than your tomb?” I asked. Ian had been decayed when I found him, but not to the point that it had affected his mobility.
“No.” Ian walked over to the table of equipment Elysia had been examining.
I frowned at his back.
The word just popped into my mind.
I glanced over and found Elysia watching me. The hairs on my arms rose. Ever since she had used her magic to save my life, I would occasionally pick up on her thoughts. Since her visit to these catacombs, she was doing more than projecting a random image. She had begun to communicate.
I mouthed the word.
Necromancer blood delays rot.
I watched Ian pick up another tool, this one a large pair of forceps. He had told me that his brother had continued to visit his tomb. Alexander had lived another forty years after he had Made Ian. Had Alexander used his own blood to keep Ian whole?
I shivered and Rowan lifted a questioning eyebrow. I reached down and gave his forearm a reassuring squeeze, then walked over to Ian.
“Any idea where she might be?” I asked.
“No.” He set down the forceps and picked up a pair of thick-bladed scissors.
“There are no other souls within the catacombs,” James said. He had pulled on his sweatpants.
I sighed. In other words, Matilda wasn't hereâor she was no longer among the living. “Damn.”
Ian opened the scissors. They moved surprisingly well for such an old tool. Then, too, Ian did possess the strength of the dead.
“What now?” I asked.
“Find Lex.” He closed the scissors with a snap.
“Will a truth serum work on the dead?”
Ian looked up, those vibrant blue eyes meeting mine. I had a strong suspicion that he wasn't thinking about using a truth serum on his brother.
I gripped his cool wrist just above the hand that held the scissors. “Those would not be terribly effective against the dead.”
“You underestimate my brother's vanity.”
I eyed how meticulously Ian was dressed to explore these catacombs. “I doubt it.”
A hint of dimples creased his cheeks, but the small smile didn't last.
Alexander had taken Ian's daughter for his wife in hopes of combining his and Ian's considerable power. It had worked. In vengeance, Ian had slipped his brother a potion making it so Alexander could only father powerful
offspring. Thus ending Alexander's quest to establish a dynasty. But the potion worked too well. Those girls could also only have daughters, and every one of them inherited that same combined power. They were all soul reapers.
A soft growl pulled my attention from Ian to James. He stood with his T-shirt in his hands, but he hadn't pulled it on. His green eyes were on full glow.
“What is it?” Rowan asked.
“We're not alone,” Elysia said, accepting James's shirt when he passed it back to her.
I crossed my arms. “As if this place wasn't disturbing enough.”
Ian gave my shoulder a pat and walked over to James. “A specter?”
“Aside from a grim, that's the only thing I know that can walk the veil.” James stepped out of his pants and handed them to Elysia. “I'll flush it out.”
A shimmer of darkness, and he became the hound. Then he vanished. No portal opened; he simply wasn't there.
“He isn't accurate,” Ian said. “The powerful can walk the veil.”
Elysia looked up, her faded eyes meeting his. “Do you think it's Matilda?”
“No.” His gaze swept the room. “Can you sense James?”
“Yes, but I feel him through the bond.”
“Are you sure?”
Elysia frowned. Then turned, gazing across the room. A chill crawled up my spine as her eyes seemed to track movement.
“It's the bond,” she answered Ian.
“But you could sense the other?”
“She speaks to me.”
Ian frowned. “I hear nothing.”
Elysia's jaw hardened. “I'm not madâyet. Doug and James couldn't hear her last time we were here.”
“I wasn't implyingâ”
“You were considering it.”
I was about to cut in when both of them whirled to face the far wall. I turned, as well, and noticed the open portal. James hadn't left via a portal, but when something on four legs jumped out, I expected it to be him. Then I realized what I was seeing wasn't canine, it was human. I covered my mouth with one hand as my brain tried to make sense of what it was seeing.
“Dear God,” Rowan whispered. His shoulder brushed mine as he moved to my side.
The manâif I could still call it thatâscurried across the floor on all fours. The problem was that the fours weren't in the proper order. His limbs had been rearranged. Arms grew from his hips and legs from his shoulders. I couldn't tell how he had come to be in this condition, because he was so badly decayed that he was little more than dried muscle, tendon, and bone.
The lich thing scuttled across the floor, heading straight for Elysia.
She spun to face the equipment table. Dropping James's clothes on the surface, she snatched up a scalpel.
“What are you doing?” I asked. A lich couldn't be stopped with a scalpel.
“It's soul-reaper Made. I can only control it with my blood.” She ran the scalpel across her palm.
“No!” Ian lunged forward and caught her wrist, but he was too late to stop her from cutting herself. He pushed her behind him, positioning himself between her and the charging creature.
The lich skidded to a stop and rose up on arms that now served as legs. It looked so wrong that it didn't seem real. I watched in horrified fascination as it kicked at Ian with an upper limb.
Ian turned his shoulders, avoiding the strike, and closed in on it. He caught its head, or rather, its skull, between his palms.
The thing reared up on oneâ¦ hand and gripped the bottom of Ian's coat with the other.
Rowan took a step toward him, fire already burning in his eyes.
Ian twisted the lich's head to the side and pulled upward. The move looked so effortless that I was shocked when the head popped off with a loud crunch. An instant later, the deformed body crumbled as the necromancy holding it together was released. Ian dropped the skull, and it landed with a clatter among the now bare bones.
“That's how Alexander killed Bella,” Elysia whispered in the silence.
“Bella?” Rowan asked.
“His eldest daughter,” Elysia said. “He pulled off her head with no more compassion than that.” She gestured at Ian and the pile of bones.
Ian gave her a frown. “You will not use your blood gift.”
Elysia fisted her hand and a drop of blood fell to the floor. “I wasn't going to reap it; I was just going to sever the bonds that held it to its master.”
“Where would the soul go once you freed it?”