Among the Rot and Ruin Preview

This is how the third book in the Among the Masses series starts. It takes place several weeks after the end of book 2. Immediately after this prelude, the book goes back in time to follow directly after the end of the second book.

“I’m struggling to find words,” said The Scholar. The artificial, alien glow of yesteryear light hummed by the mysterious power that brought it to life. It wasn’t a steam engine that was responsible for the light. The Scholar had employed some other magic, something forbidden and forgotten – something dangerous. The light was dim and blue, radiating from a glass enclosure held aloft by a stem of brass and a thick, ornate base planted on the table between them. An ancient device kept safe from time in this hidden tomb filled with The Scholar’s treasures.

His face loomed over the light, his features hidden in shadow, but as he leaned back his emotions were revealed. She didn’t know what to expect at the sight of him without his mask, but was stunned to see a countenance of honest joy edging towards tears.

“After so many years, to be here with you…” He held a book to his breast, clutching it with his right hand as if it meant death to drop it. “It’s everything I’ve been working towards my entire life, ever since I first lost you.”

He turned and moved to the wall. He put the book back in its place among the other forbidden tomes that made up his one-of-a-kind collection. The Scholar’s library was a wonder of the world, and something the Walled Cities would burn down if they discovered it hidden in this buried world. All four walls had sections of inset shelves loaded with books and artifacts, and the sections of walls between the shelves were adorned with ancient weapons, framed pictures of old world buildings, and sconces that could radiate magical light like the one on the table. 

The Scholar traced his index finger lightly across the spines of several ancient tomes, and some of the fragile bindings crackled at the gentle pressure. He picked up a metal figurine from one of the shelves, and admired the depiction of an ancient soldier. When he put the figurine back, he positioned it carefully so that it looked exactly as it had before he picked it up.

“I’ve only brought two other people here,” he said, still turned away. “Here, to the heart of the world.” He stood silent for a moment as if the statement demanded time to be appreciated. “I mean that. This is the beating heart of our new world. Look around you. All the answers we’ve ever wanted to ask can be found here, in this very room. This place is a reliquary of lost knowledge, of purpose, of truth so powerful it’ll shatter the walls of every city left standing.” His zeal bordered mania, and he took a second to calm down lest he appear mad. He turned, smiled, and laughed at himself. “Sorry, I know how I must sound, but you’ll share my passion. I know it in my very soul.”

She refused to utter a word, and sat resolute in front of the glowing light on the table before her.

“You don’t agree?”

She didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at him.

“You will. Before this is over, you’ll be as mad as me, ranting and raving about the new world our army is ushering in. We’ll stand on the rubble of Golden Rock together, mark my words. King and Queen of a new world. A world without walls, and without false gods – without men who rule by fear, or an economy built on the backs of slaves. Because that’s what they are, you know? You and all the rest of them, slaves to a society built on lies – built on ignorance. No more. Together we’ll put an end to that. Together, we’ll change the course of history. You might not see it now, I know. No doubt you’re seething with anger and hatred of me. I don’t blame you. But one day you’ll see I did exactly what I had to do to find you – to get you here.”

She moved in her seat, and the chains that bound her hands and feet rattled.

“I’d love nothing more than to free you,” he said. “But I think you’d leap from that chair and reach for my neck the second I set you free. It’ll take time to forgive me for…”

“I’ll never forgive you,” she said, unable to stay silent any longer. “There’ll never be a day I draw breath that I won’t spend focused on killing you. Know that, Scholar. That’s the only truth you and I share. The truth of blood. The truth of vengeance and pain so horrible you’ll squeal like a pig set to roast alive over a low flame. You’ll cry out for mercy, and I’ll answer with a laugh. If your goal was to bring me here and turn me into a monster like you, then so be it. You win. I’ll be a monster so vile you’ll rue the day you set eyes on me. I’ll peel your eyelids off and dash your weeping eyes with salt. I’ll cut pieces off you and leave them as your only sustenance. You’ll suffer, I swear it. One day I’ll stand over your corpse, or you’ll stand over mine. There’s no other way for this to end. So take your turn now, because if you don’t kill me,” she finally deemed him worth a glance, and they locked eyes, “I’ll bury you.”

The Scholar sighed, closed his eyes, and turned back to the wall. “So be it. We’ll do this the hard way.” He retrieved one of the ancient weapons from the wall, turned to face Saffi, and pointed it at her. The small, silver weapon gleamed in the light. He held it by a handle, and the end that pointed at her proved that the metal device was hollow. “This is going to hurt quite a bit, but you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

There was an explosion, and then Saffi felt a heavy weight on her chest that sent her and the chair she was shackled to falling over backwards. And without understanding how it happened, Saffi Second Baker died.