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Excerpt: Destiny of the Dead by Kel Kade

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Destiny of the Dead is the second novel in a genre-bending series from New York Times bestselling author Kel Kade.

The God of Death is tired of dealing with the living, so he’s decided everyone should die. And he’s found allies. The Berru, an empire of dark mages, has unleashed a terrifying army of monstrous lyksvight upon everyone with a pulse.

While the wealthy and powerful, the kings and queens, abandon the dying world, one group of misfits says no more. Through dogged determination and the ability to bind souls to their dead bodies, Aaslo and his friends fight on.

In the mountains of the far north, another bastion of defense is opened. Cherrí, the avatar of a vengeful fire god, has united the survivors amongst her people and begun her own war on the invaders.

Now, Aaslo and Cherrí must find a way to unite their powers, one divine, the other profane, to throw back the monsters of the Berru, and challenge Death itself.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Destiny of the Dead by Kel Kade, on sale 03/22/2022.


Chapter 1

“What is he doing here?” said a feminine voice that flittered through Aaslo’s mind like the forest song.

“I wanted to see this creature of yours. You think I cannot recognize the pride in your eyes, Arayallen?” The voice was deep and masculine yet melodic like the first. It, however, rang in sorrowful lament, resonating with the promise of freedom and rest.

“Of course, I’m proud, as I am with all my successful creations,” said the female called Arayallen. “Do you feel threatened, Axus?”

Axus? Aaslo remembered Myra speaking that name. Was he in the presence of the gods?

“Ha ha!” rumbled the one named Axus. “Me? Threatened by this? Your pride has befuddled your sense. He is nothing. I could squash him beneath my foot right now.”

Aaslo’s heart leapt, but his mind was murky, and the fog did not clear from his vision. Bright, golden light shone through the haze as figures hovered over him. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. But, as he struggled for full consciousness, he listened.

A third voice, that of a man, one who was accustomed to command and compliance, rumbled, “If you do that, I’ll have to find another, and next time I won’t tell you who it is.”

Axus sighed. “Your games are tiresome, Trostili. Can we not be done with this?”

Glass clinked, then Aaslo heard the glug of liquid into a vessel.

Trostili said, “Existence is tiresome, Axus.”

Axus’s next words rolled off his tongue like the chill of a winter night. “You expect me to believe that you are suffering from ennui?”

“Not at all,” said Trostili. “I have a purpose, a reason for being, and I intend to fulfill it. Besides, I have developed new techniques I’d like to try. It will make no difference to you. The prophecy guarantees the outcome. Leave the man alone and have some patience.”

“Death waits for no man,” Axus hissed.

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” said Arayallen. “Put him back. He doesn’t belong here.”

“I only brought him part of the way—”

“Solely because you’re not strong enough to draw him fully into our realm,” said a new voice. This one was deep and strong and carried with it the memory of warmth and security. The figures froze in place, then turned toward the third male voice. “Arayallen is right,” he said. “What were you thinking, bringing a human here?”

“Disevy. I didn’t expect you,” said Axus.

“Obviously.”

Axus’s voice heated as he moved closer to Aaslo. “This creature has somehow acquired my power. I want to know how and to what extent.”

“Has the ambrosia stolen your memory?” Arayallen said with a generous dose of mockery. “Who’s playing games now? You hand out blessings, then claim no knowledge of it?”

“I assure you I had no hand in this,” said Axus. “What do you know of it, Arayallen?”

“What do know? I know he wasn’t born this way. None of my creations bear power over the dead.” Aaslo heard a grin in her voice as she said, “Except for you, of course.”

Aaslo could hear the grinding as Axus gritted his teeth. “Must you remind me all the time?”

“Why?” she said sweetly, then with an audible pout, “Are you unhappy with your design?”

“Not at all,” replied Axus. “In fact, you outdid yourself. Is your ego so fragile that you require me to repeat myself so often?”

“Enough,” said Disevy. “Put the human back. You’d best hope he remembers none of this.”

“Remembers? He’s not even conscious. His mind is back on Aldrea. Give me some credit. I know the human mind is too weak to endure the power of Celestria.”

“Strength is relative,” said Disevy.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” replied Axus.

“It means that the next time you try something like this, your punishment will be swift and effective.”

“You threaten me, Disevy?”

“It has been a long time since I’ve put you in your place, Axus. You forget that rule this pantheon. Your power may have grown, but I am still stronger than you.”

“Are you so certain? While you expend your power on worthless creatures like this, I reclaim it. You can thank Arayallen for her so many design flaws and Trostili for pitting them against each other. In fact, all of you and your blessings are responsible for their inevitable demise and my rise.”

Whack!

Flaws?” shouted Arayallen. “How dare you! You understand nothing about life—about growth and evolution. The failure of one is necessary for the advancement of another. I may not always appreciate his methods, but Trostili understands this.”

“Trostili’s weakness is the leash you put around his neck during his creation.”

“I did no such thing!”

“You go too far, Axus,” said Trostili. “You should leave before I put that power of yours to the test.”

“Of course, brother.” Axus turned, and Aaslo could feel the god leaning over him. A chill suffused him, and somewhere very distant he felt a power so great it could have brought him to his knees. “You, human, will fail. Your soul and the souls of every pitiful creature in your world will belong to me. You are nothing. Aldrea is a grave.” As the voice moved away, Aaslo heard it grumble, “He’s not worth my time. Pithor will take care of him.”

The other gods began speaking as if Axus were no longer present.

Trostili said, “I knew Axus was growing bolder, but I did not expect him to do this.

A figure shifted toward Aaslo, and Disevy’s voice rumbled through him. “This is the one called Aaslo? I see the resemblance. It is quite the coincidence that he was the chosen one’s friend.”

“What are you saying?” said Trostili.

“Just an observation. What happened to his arm? They don’t usually come like this.”

Arayallen tittered. “Oh, just a little mishap with a dragon. The healer came up with quite the clever solution, don’t you think? Humans can be so creative when pressed.”

“A dragon on Aldrea? You have decided to help Axus?” said Disevy.

“Of course not. I care nothing for Axus’s endeavors. I was just having a bit of fun with Trostili’s pet.”

“Is that so?”

Aaslo thought Disevy didn’t sound convinced. Either way, he knew who he had to thank for the partial loss of his humanity. If they kept him there, he might even lose the rest. As if reading his mind, Arayallen asked, “Who’s going to put him back?”

Trostili said, “Axus expended the energy to bring him here. He should return him.”

“You think Axus spent that much power just to assuage his curiosity?” replied Disevy. Again, he sounded unconvinced.

“No, I don’t,” said Trostili, “but it’s hardly important. They will all be dead soon enough, and I can move on to other annihilations.”

“Touching,” muttered Disevy. “I will return this one to his world. You two have somewhere to be, do you not?”

“Oh?” said Arayallen. “Is it that time already? How fantastic. I love new world unveilings. This one is going to be so pretty—so much like Aldrea, but different.”

Two of the figures moved away until Aaslo could no longer feel their power. The remaining god stood beside him for a long while. Aaslo thought he could feel the god studying him. Finally, Disevy said, “You were never supposed to come here. We were never supposed to meet.” Aaslo wondered if Disevy knew he could hear him. “I was not going to get involved in this project of Axus’s, but the Fates seem to have decided otherwise. Listen carefully, Forester of Aldrea. Do not underestimate Pithor. He may be only human, but he is twice blessed by the gods of death and war. Your world will not survive him, and death follows in your wake. You may not be able to save Aldrea, but perhaps you can help Celestria.”

* * *

Aaslo lurched upward and nearly fell from the settee. His head spun, and he was confused about how he’d gotten . . . wherever he was. More pressing, though, was his throbbing cheek. He blinked several times to clear his vision and met a pair of large, brown eyes.

“See, I told you it would work,” said Teza.

Aaslo rubbed his face. “Wha—did you slap me?”

Teza smirked. “I’m a healer. It was therapeutic.”

“I must be a healer, too. I always felt better after slapping you around the practice yard.”

“Must you brag?”

“You’re awake, aren’t you?” she growled.

She stood back as Aaslo sat up and placed his feet on the floor. He winced when his claws dug into the soft fabric of the settee.

“What happened?” he asked.

She hooked a thumb over her shoulder toward Mory. “You collapsed. The boy said the reaper told him you weren’t here anymore but that you weren’t dead.”

As if summoned by the mention of death, two figures ambled into the room. They silently crossed the overly furnished expanse to take up residence in the corner. Flickers of gold and orange firelight glistened off the milky-white haze that filled their otherwise empty eyes. Aaslo tried not to look at them, but his gaze was drawn regardless like a moth to flame. He was not alone in his discomfort. His companions stared at the things without blinking, their faces pale and eyes wide. Aaslo wondered who would be the first to flee—or become sick. A faint, salty breeze carrying the scent of ocean through the open sitting room might have been pleasant if not for the stench of death that pervaded it. While the blight had been destroyed, the once verdant marshland beyond the escarpment remained in a state of decay. It would likely be weeks before any significant signs of life returned.

Life.

With life came death. Usually.

Aaslo glanced toward the corpses again—the silent sentinels in the corner of the room.

“Well?” said Myra. “You need to say something, Aaslo.”

He turned to find her suddenly sitting at his side. The reaper’s insubstantial form did nothing to block the light of the hearth behind her. From the corner of his eye, he saw that Mory had turned to look at her as well. Aaslo figured that if Mory could also see her then he must not be completely crazy.

“The absence of evidence is not proof of innocence.”

Aaslo clenched his teeth and inhaled sharply before releasing his breath. The voice had been silent since the battle in the marsh. Now that it was speaking again, he was both relieved and troubled.

“Crazy is not a crime,” he muttered.

Everyone turned to look at him. The marquess pursed his lips as if he might argue the point. Beside him, Peck gripped Mory’s shoulder as he looked at Aaslo with a hope-filled gaze. Standing over him, Teza tilted her head as if truly contemplating his assertion, and Ijen scribbled something in his book.

Myra sighed. “Say something else, Aaslo. You’re making them nervous.”

I’m making them nervous?” He waved to the corpses of Greylan and Rostus in the corner. “They’re the problem, not I.”

“Are you talking to the reaper?” said Peck. “What did she say?”

“Never mind that.” Teza’s hand whipped out to snatch Aaslo’s face by the jaw. She leaned over so that her face was mere inches from his own. “Where were you?” she said.

“Yes, Aaslo, tell us. Where were you?”

“Don’t you know?” said Aaslo as he pried her fingers from his flesh.

Teza shouted, “If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking!”

“No, not you. I thought . . . Never mind.” Aaslo scratched the scruff along his sore jawline. “I must have been dreaming.”

“No, Aaslo. A reaper, taker of the dead, said you weren’t here. Your consciousness, part of your soul wasn’t here anymore.”

Aaslo stared into the air with a sightless gaze as he struggled to recall the foggy memory. “He said he didn’t take my consciousness,” he mumbled.

“Who? What are you talking about?” said Teza.

Aaslo jumped when a dark shadow caught his attention. He looked up and focused on Ijen, who was suddenly standing over him. The prophet’s pen hovered over his book, and he was looking at Aaslo expectantly.

Aaslo frowned at the man. “Do you know what’s going on?”

“Uh, no,” said Ijen as he turned the book so that Aaslo could see its contents—or lack thereof. “This page is blank. I’ve been waiting to fill it.”

Aaslo wavered as he abruptly stood. Teza and Ijen stepped back to give him space—or perhaps they were avoiding touching him. Maybe whatever was wrong with him was contagious. He noted that the marquess and Peck were leaning against the farthest wall from the corpses, and neither seemed inclined to move. Mory was huddled on the ground next to Peck with his arms around his knees. He blinked up at Aaslo as if he were seeing a ghost.

“I don’t—I don’t know where I was, but I think—I think I was with the gods.”

“The gods?” said Teza as Ijen began scribbling.

You? Blessed to be in the presence of the gods?”

“Not blessed—cursed,” said Aaslo. “That foreign magus, Verus, was telling the truth. The gods want to destroy Aldrea. Axus, the one he called the God of Death, brought me to their realm against the others’ wishes.”

“You met Axus?” said Myra with alarm. “You saw the gods?”

Aaslo rubbed his chin. “I didn’t exactly see them. I could hear them talking.”

“How many were there?” said Ijen.

“I’m not sure. I think there were at least four. They were arguing. One of them told me not to underestimate Pithor.”

The marquess pushed away from the wall and came to stand in front of Aaslo. “Who is Pithor? Another god?”

“No,” said Myra. “He is called the Deliverer of Grace, His Mighty Light. He’s human but blessed by the gods so that he may lead death’s army.”

After Aaslo relayed the reaper’s message, the marquess released a heavy breath. “Good.”

“Good?” said Aaslo.

“He’s human. That means we have a chance. We defeat this Pithor, and we save Aldrea.”

“With what army?” said Teza. “Us? An apprentice healer, a prophet, two thieves, a noble, and . . . whatever he is?” The last was said with a wave toward Aaslo. He internally cringed and wondered if she was referring to his mutated physique or abhorrent new powers.

The marquess turned back to Aaslo. “Were none of these gods sympathetic to our cause?”

Rubbing the scales that had grown around his neck, Aaslo said, “I don’t know. It’s a bit foggy. They seemed pretty confident in our demise.” He looked to Myra, but she merely stared at him pensively.

“Well, that’s disheartening,” said the marquess.

“Way to boost their spirits, Aaslo.”

“All the others—an entire army of the dead—fell back into the swamp,” said Aaslo. He lifted a hand toward Greylan and Rostus. “Except these two. Why? What’s different about them?”

“They knew you?”

“Why would that be significant?” said Aaslo.

“Why would what be significant?” asked the marquess.

“Never mind,” Aaslo mumbled as his gaze flicked across the contours of the crown molding and tapestries that decorated two walls of the room. He had never taken the time to truly examine these surroundings. Whenever he had previously entered this room, more important matters had warranted his attention. Such was the case in that moment as well, but he didn’t want to think about the current issue.

“So,” said the marquess, “you are a necromancer.”

There. Someone had finally said it. Necromancer.

“There’s no such thing as necromancers,” Aaslo growled.

The marquess and, well, everyone else stared at him pointedly. Aaslo could hear Mathias humming in the background. He covered his face with his hands, one of them covered in scales and bearing talons—another reminder of how much his life had changed since leaving the forest. He sank onto the settee and then looked up at the marquess. “Must we call it that?”

Ijen muttered absently as he thumbed through the pages of his book. “Calling it anything else does not change the truth of it.”

“He sounds like your father.”

Aaslo growled. “Death, she said. Magdelay told me that, down my path, the prophets had seen only death.”

Ijen nodded his agreement.

Peck glanced toward the corpses, then leaned forward and whispered loudly. “Can’t you make them, you know, die again?”

“Don’t you think I would’ve if I knew how?”

“Just do the opposite of what you did before,” said Peck.

“I don’t know what I did before. I wasn’t thinking about it. It just happened—like instinct. The rest of them went back to being dead, except these two. Why?” Aaslo looked around the room but was met with blank faces. His gaze settled on Ijen, who peered back at him without expression. The prophet either didn’t know or wasn’t telling.

“I didn’t take their souls,” said Myra.

Aaslo turned toward her. “What?”

You did,” she said. “When they died, I went to claim their souls, but you took them instead.”

took their souls?”

“You killed them?” said the marquess, his voice heavy with accusation.

Aaslo scowled at him. “No, I told you, the blight killed them.”

“Then what’s this about taking souls?” said the marquess.

“The reaper says that after they died, I took their souls before she got to them.”

Mory blurted, “You hear that, Peck? He’s a thief, like us, except that he steals souls.

“I’m not a thief,” said Aaslo.

“Except that you are, Soul Thief.”

“It makes sense,” said Teza, who was gazing at the corpses thoughtfully. Of everyone in the room, she seemed the least offended by their existence. “There’s a kind of magic that uses blood to generate power and gain control over other creatures—even people. It’s outlawed in Uyan, of course. I imagine possessing a person’s soul would have even greater potential.”

Ijen said, “I’ve never heard of any being in this realm having the ability to steal souls—not even amongst the fae. This power could not have come from the creature you encountered.”

“Well, where did it come from?” said Aaslo.

The prophet blinked at him. “How should I know?”

With a huff, Aaslo said, “You’re the prophet. You have that book!”

Ijen tapped the book in question. “I assure you, there is nothing in here that will help. I only knew the result, not the how of it. But”—he tapped his lips with his pen—“you said the reaper fell into the power stream during the transfer. Perhaps you acquired some of her power.”

Teza began to speak—or perhaps it was the marquess—but Aaslo wasn’t listening. His gaze found the darkness of the night sky beyond the open wall. He yawned deeply, and his eyelids began to close of their own accord.

“Go to bed, Aaslo. You’ll sleep like the dead.”

His eyes popped open, and he glanced toward the still corpses. Then he noted that everyone was looking at him again.

“What?” he said.

“Are you unwell?” said the marquess.

“I’m just tired,” Aaslo replied. “Can we pick this up in the morning?”

The marquess tugged at his collar. “Yes, I am sure you all are spent.” With a nod toward Greylan and Rostus, he said, “But what about them?”

“You should lock them in a cell,” said Peck. “I know you have one.”

“You mean when you were caught skulking around the estate?”

Peck straightened and ran a hand down his velvet jacket. In what Aaslo presumed to be his best impression of a nobleman, the thief said, “We’re respectable men. We don’t skulk. We were, ah, testing the security of the premises on behalf of our master.”

The marquess shook his head, then looked at Greylan and sighed heavily. He crossed the room to stand a few paces from the corpse. “Can you hear me? Are you still in there?”

Greylan said nothing as his milky gaze rested on the marquess.

“If you are truly dead, then I shall mourn your loss. We may not have seen eye to eye, but you were a good and loyal soldier to me and my father before me.”

Copyright © Kel Kade 2022

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