The Prince of Murk and Rot
By Morgan Argor Strange
“This the story of how I defeated society and my adversaries, and how I reached the stars. If it reaches you even now across these starless aeons, sleep soundly and with a blood-drenched, broken smile: For the worst is yet to come.” – Viricula, Black Centuries III
Before the Blood Spines tore through the clouds and the Alnilam infiltrated the halls of the first Grim Kings, when Stargrave was young and the Lords of Silvenmyr were but a whisper of a ghost in the Empyrean Halls, I wandered the Mountains of Myr.
“‘But Vorn,’” they always ask, “‘Why have you wandered the Raizalarian countryside as a humble vagabond exorcist for all these years if you dreamed of the dissolution of reality itself since before the stars were young?’”
Well, my friend, the answer is simple: Because being a vagabond exorcist is fun—and all I’ve ever known.
The gift first awakened inside me when I was as young and desperate as the countless demons I’ve driven out: As vulnerable to possession, corruption, and other evils as the innumerable people I’ve liberated.
I was seven years old, and my dearest mother had come down with a particularly gruesome affliction. Her eyes had warped from the crystalline yellow of the moon to the bloodshot, blackened pits that only true desperation can bring. Her crimson hair, once as thick and lush as my own, had gone brittle and begun to fall out in clumps.
The local healer was convinced she’d contracted a particularly ugly case of rotbrain from eating bad meat, but he was as blind as my father, who had no idea he’d been sleeping next to one ofViricula’s own fragments every night for an entire cycle of the moon.
Now, like any Syndragorean boy of seven, I’d heard so many stories about the the Prince of Murk and Rot that his whispers reached me even in dreams. I knew that Viricula’s spawn had been driven from the Halls of Time forever, to the darkest corners of our own world—but I struggled to accept that my mother’s heart was a feast black enough to satisfy the vilest scoundrel of Raizalarian legend.
How could my own mother, the one who kissed my forehead and gave me sweets every single night, have been twisted and vile enough to draw one of Viricula’s own spawn? Possession was something that happened to other families in nightmares and campfire legends—how could it happen to ours?
But this is the very line of thinking which allowed the fragment to slip past my father and the village healer for so long, unaccounted for. This is the very line of thinking that has led to there being a shortage of Raizalarian exorcists since the first bones of Stargrave were lain upon the Nightmoor when the world was young.
My seven-year-old brain nearly boiled itself to mush trying to drink it all in, I assure you. But my mother had been screaming that the townsfolk were breathing too loudly and needed to be suffocated under an ocean of their own blood for thirty-three nights straight, and finally I’d had enough.
In truth, I’d recognized she’d been possessed by a fragment of Viricula after the second night—but there are far worse virtues than curiosity that a young man could have chosen to explore, wouldn’t you agree?
No one in the village suspected even for a second that a child could keep his composure through truths so jarring and black—which meant that I had the unique opportunity to study a fragment of Murk and Rot in the safety of my own home. I have not even the faintest shred of a doubt that my time with that shadowside fiend who pretended to be my mother made me into the man I am today.
But all sweet dreams come to an end, and all friendships must eventually be consummated in separation or final death: So on the thirty-third day, I knew it was time to set my mother free.
I woke up starving that morning, as I always did. My mother was sputtering curses and wishing for me to choke on my stew, as she had every morning after falling under the influence of Viricula’s fragment. I still remember the pure, unrestrained loathing in her eyes as she shrieked how I was a waste of perfectly good meat that didn’t deserve to breathe—how she promised to chop me up and cure my meat and store what was left in the wooden chest with the giblets and summer sausage.
Something about the strings of spit flying from her lips that morning made me even hungrier than usual as she wished me dead. So I did what any adoring, admiring son would do, and I gave her a kiss.
To this day, I can’t fully recall what nebulous delights consumed me. All I know is that I took something from her: Something that is still with me to this very day—and from the moment I drew that sour, sacred cosmic essence out from her lips and past my own, my services were in-demand from my forgotten hometown in the Myrothian Foothills to the gates of Stargrave.
Word of my mother’s miraculous return to health spread quickly in such a small town, and soon, the truth got out. Our local Priestess of Hermestra insisted that it was only a matter of time until the demon took hold of my own form, if it hadn’t already—but to everyone’s surprise, I remained completely and utterly unchanged. I was seemingly invulnerable to demonic influence, even though my father and the townsfolk were far too simple to ever deduce why.
No one ever noticed that I soon developed a violent, nearly-insatiable craving for cured meats that has stuck with me even to this day.
From the moment I passed beneath the ivy-licked gates of Lightsmourn, I was reminded of the still, quiet town in which my gift awakened. Off in the distance, I glimpsed the ramparts of Castle Exfyre, like broken fangs screaming towards the lurid magenta sky. The towers were crowned with worn golden spires that seemed to twist their way past the bounds of the atmosphere and Syndragorean imagination.
Before the raven arrived with Duchess Exfyre’s urgent plea, I had been planning on a long weekend lost deep within the Mountains of Myr to contemplate the glory days of rot and ruin—but few things could lure me more quickly away from the blackened freedom of midnight than the pleas of a desperate noble.
The Duchess was there to greet me at the castle gates, with no small legion of guards and attendants ensorcelling her. Her ruffled blue gown was the color of tears, and her sublime golden hair made the ruby-encrusted crown she wore atop her head seem dull.
It had been many months since I’d drank in such sorrowful eyes, ripe with the hopeless, raw abandonment of true betrayal. It was as if her very soul was screaming for reprieve, for a consolation that could only be found in a mother’s arms or the realm of childhood dreams.
“Thank you for coming,” She muttered in an idle, distant tone, reaching for my hand in a gesture of trust that did little to quell my suspicion that I was not what she expected.
But with the sweeping finesse of a polished gentleman, I fell to one knee and kissed her warm mahogany hand and purred, “The pleasure is mine alone.”
My entire body shivered as her carmine claws, embedded with garnets, brushed against my cheek as she implored me to stand. The smell of my own blood was thick and raw against the frigid night.
I felt the collective gaze of her entire gaggle of guards dissecting my every move as we swept across the castle, past banners of long-forgotten armies and suits of armor far too large for any living man. A sour disdain crept up at the bottom of my throat as we passed through the shadow of a vertebrae six times larger than my own form: It pained me to know these splendors of old Raizalarian legend would forever be locked away within the halls of Exfyre, far from the unworthy eyes of the masses.
We passed through libraries filled with books whose age-worn black spines held a wicked and limitless energy that whispered to me even from across the room. We passed by a door marked ‘laboratory’, and I caught the scent of a cornucopia of tonics and poisons that even I’d never tangled with before.
The Duchess was silent until we’d reached the foot of the staircase that led up to the young Lady Exfyre’s quarters.
“I . . . must admit, I never thought it could happen here.” The urgency in her voice was more sublime than bathing in a pile of rose petals in a court of glass beneath the summer moon. Countless peasants and wayward travelers had been in debt to me for decades, but the desperation of royalty was something I’d never grown tired of.
“It can happen in any timeline and any generation, Duchess,” My reassuring tone was betrayed only by the curious glimmer of my golden eyes. “It has an equal chance of happening to Emperors and the ones who scrub out their chamber pots: To kings, and the beggars who loiter outside their castle gates, trading their dignity for a single morsel of bread.”
“Yet still, I never thought it would happen to my own daughter. Meadowlark is the gentlest girl I’ve known in all my life. She’s always embraced the light and the new ways and turned her back on the dark. Her empathy for all living creatures is so boundless that I’ve seen her weep for the death of a mouse.”
“Then it’s no small wonder that a fragment of Viricula has preyed upon her,” I mused, earning a scowl from half the guards in one fell swoop.
“Mind your tongue, conjurer,” gnashed the guard closest to the Duchess, tightening his grip on his spear.
“Ah, the truth often awakens such rage in the minds of the frail,” I smiled, raising both hands harmlessly to show I was armed with knowledge and nothing more. “Do I deserve to be condemned for revealing the uncomfortable truth that demons aren’t drawn to good or evil, but weakness above all else? If so, then drag me down to the dungeons and let me rot: Meanwhile, the Lady Exfyre can live a rich and fulfilling existence walled off in this tower as an echo in the forgotten corners of some demon’s brain.”
And so we began the trek up the winding staircase, past the chartreuse-and-violet stained glass windows, to the room where the fragment lurked. The turbulent silence in the wake of my insult, far louder than any scream, signified that all of them knew I was untouchable for as long as the Duchess’s daughter needed my help. The posse began to thin out as we continued our ascent.
“Whenever the guards slip food through the slot in the door, she sends the tray out only a moment later, covered in excrement and chunks of hair,” the Duchess muttered, as if that was the worst thing she could possibly conceive in a thousand lifetimes. “It took six guards to drag her up to the tower, and only four walked out.”
A small red door smothered in chains awaited us on the platform at the top of the stairs. Aside from the Duchess and myself, only two of the most loyal guards remained. A lone black candle exhaled its dying plumes, and a sick crimson light crept out from beneath the door.
“Vorn of the Nightside Grove,” she began, reaching for my hand once more and gently stroking it in the shadows. “Before it begins, there’s something I must tell you.”
Her ruby claws shredded the flesh of my hand, drawing blood. She lifted my fingers to her lips and and lapped up blood slowly, carefully from between the crevices. I said nothing: The starless, night-black pits of my narrowed eyes spoke for themselves.
“I called you here today because of the unquestionable fact that you’re the best at what you do in all of Raizalar. This is no ordinary demon that’s taken root inside of Meadowlark’s heart, and you are the only one I trust with my daughter’s life.”
“Is any demon “ordinary,” Duchess Exfyre? It’s hard to think of anything stranger than being injected with the nebulous sparks of eternal life, only to spend eternity riding the coattails of mortal dreams.”
“Pardon my insolence,” the Duchess conceded with a hint of sarcasm, relinquishing her grip on me with both her hand and her tongue. “All I can say is what I’ve already told you in the letter: Heal my daughter, Vorn of the Nightside Grove, and any relic of your choosing from the halls of my castle will be yours forever.”
My mind flashed back to the massive vertebrae, a portal to some forgotten time-before-time immortalized in bone. Then I remembered the spell books, the crumbling sentinels of all the forbidden secrets of the ages. My smile must have repulsed her, for she crinkled her nose and turned away.
“Go, now. And remember, I’ve entrusted the future of the entire Exfyre bloodline and all of Lightsmourn onto you.”
Now, I have no doubt that this shard of Viricula was the most loathsome horror Duchess Exfyre had faced in this life or any other. But from the moment I stepped past the gates of these time-lost halls, I knew my soon-to-be-adversary was little more than a pathetic slave to a pathetic slave like all the rest.
But of course, it was crucial for the duchess to believe that her daughter’s tormentor was the essence of agony itself. For if such a frail and spineless fragment could upheave her entire life, how would she ever sleep again if she knew what horrors lurked just beyond the somber refuge of night?
As I entered that chained-off room and heard the lock click behind me from the outside, I was still so lost in thought that it took me a moment to notice the Lady Exfyre hunched on all fours in the pulsing red light. All the curtains of the canopy bed where she rested were torn and crusted. The thick, ripe stench of rot dominated the entire chamber, and I knew the bodies of the fallen guards hadn’t been removed long before I drank in their clean-picked faces.
I smiled at the Lady Exfyre, and she grinned back, her fangs adorned with strips of rotten meat and caked with corpse blood. Her red eyes flickered in the light of a hundred black candles burning low.
I drew closer to the bed, and her expression soon melted into the flat and anxious frown of uncertainty. She cringed back from me, feigning a sudden interest in the severed nipple of one of the guards that she’d nailed to the bedpost with a shard of bone. Knowing how common it was for these fragments to be shy in their hour of judgment, I gave her space and allowed her to contemplate her final moments in the realms of men in this silent, suspended kingdom of Murk and Rot.
I soon fell victim to the amorphous stirrings of empathy, as I often did before harnessing my gift: In truth, I knew the pain of the demon wearing the Lady Exfyre’s face. For I too have chosen a path of isolation wreathed in pure cosmic blackness—but still, every cell in my body longs for the warmth of the moonlight of summer’s end. I too have sold my soul to never know sadness, or hunger, or a twinge of pain, but every bone in my withered, impossibly battered form aches to know them again. I too have severed all ties from the world from which I came—but still, all the quiet spaces between my brain have been flooded with a wild and fervent longing to return.
“Are you going to send me back?” She gurgled, her pale lips encrusted with vomit and worse.
“What do you think?” I asked, reaching for her throat and gently stroking her lymph nodes, focusing.
“It’s not how I thought it would be,” the demon conceded, her eyes softening at last and brimming over with all the sorrows of the final twilight of a life wasted. “Mortal life, I mean.”
“You can imagine something a million times, and it’s still worth less than truly tasting it even once,” I purred, licking my lips. She was a near-spitting image of the Duchess Exfyre with those cheek bones sharper than knives, but her hair was far darker. I could only imagine how sublime, how supple her chestnut locks had been before the corruption took hold and forced them to dry up and fall out.
“I know.” When she sighed, her breath was so sour and thick that it momentarily choked out the stench of the corpses. “I miss unreality: It was a lot less complicated than here. Really, I’m kind of glad it’s over.”
“Oh, but it’s only just begun,” I hissed, reaching out to stroke the side of her face and redirect her resigned gaze into my own eyes.
She cringed back as our flesh boiled together, as if she expected me to change my mind and smite her at any moment. A hundred candles flickered in unison as I dragged her into the shadowside.
Outside time, the sky and all the forgotten secrets of the past were one, blanketed by the stars themselves. I urged her to gaze down into the abyss, to drink in what was ours once and would be ours again at the end of the universe: The collective dreams of entire civilizations compressed into bite-sized spheres of energy, waiting to be plucked from the gardens of eternity. The empty thrones of not only the kings of Raizalar, but of every planet and every galaxy yet unnamed. The silence of the grave and the cosmic sea between reality and dreams—all devoured and rolled into nothingness, forever.
“This is but a taste of what we lost when the Lords of Silvenmyr took hold,” I told her. “And this is what I offer you in exchange for your cooperation.”
“R-really?” She rasped, carefully, childishly. I expected no less: The brain she now wore had belonged to a girl who couldn’t have yet reached her twentieth birthday. But still, the glimmer of wonder baptized in pure black atrocity soon came to life in her eyes, telling me all I needed to know.
“Yes,” I declared, sweeping my arm grandly towards the eternal twilight kingdom, and the stars themselves flickered. “As long as you can promise to do one thing for me.”
“W-what is it?” She whimpered, her tears reflecting the timeless essence of ethereal mysticism as the swirling red nebulae flickered back to life below.
“You have to trust me. You have to believe that I’ll come back for you when I’ve freed the rest of your brothers and sisters.”
“I . . . That’s all?” She tilted her head, and finally her sobbing stopped.
“No: You also have to do a much better job at pretending to be Meadowlark Exfyre. After I exorcise her soul for all eternity, you’ll be free to explore her brain without intrusion. You’ll have full access to all her memories, and cravings, and woes. I need you to put on such a convincing performance that not even her own mother will never realize she died: And I need you to always remember that the Lord of Murk and Rot gave you a second chance at life, when the ones in power summoned him to swallow you down.”
“Y-yes,” she stammered, now staring directly into my own eyes for the very first time. “I think I can do it. I . . . feel better already, somehow.”
“Your faith in me will sedate your soul and guide you to eternal freedom,” I reassured her. “And no one will suspect a thing. After your precarious brush with Black Eternity, the ones outside will understand you need time to recover and return to your original self: I’ll make sure of it.”
She nodded, and I flexed my fingers in perfect unison as time wound itself back together again. We were back at Castle Exfyre, now, and the candles were burning far brighter than before. I leaned in to kiss her, and I closed my eyes and drank Meadowlark Exfyre’s soul.
On the way out, I reached down and peeled away a strip of the guard’s neck for later: I could never turn my back on cured meat, no matter how crude the preparation.
The Duchess took her place at the head of the table, presiding over rich and exotic offerings such as stuffed mare’s head and spiced stew of dragon entrails. I was offered the position of honor at her left side, which I accepted with a gracious bow. The guards who once cowered in fear at the mere mention of Meadowlark Exfyre’s name were now scattered across the banquet hall, guzzling mead and howling victory ballads to celebrate her return.
When one of the servants attempted to place a slice of meat onto my plate, I politely refused. I would not indulge in even a single bite of their food, but I drank the wine. Across from me, young Meadowlark Exfyre was fervently studying a bowl of wolfskin porridge with grapes and berries floating in it. The contents of her wine goblet soon joined the slurry.
“Meadowlark! What did I tell you about repulsing our guests?” Scolded the Duchess, crinkling her nose at her daughter’s unusual dining choices.
“If I may be so bold, Duchess Exfyre,” I interrupted, placing my hand on her gilded knee plate beneath the table where no one would ever know. “Although Meadowlark’s habits may be . . . unusual for the time being, please try to remember what we talked about. It could take weeks, or even months for her to return to her true self: And any new cravings acquired on the shadowside may very well haunt her forever.”
With a sigh, the Duchess smiled, “I suppose you’re right. I should be glad to have her by my side at all, yes?”
“Indeed,” I rasped, exchanging a dark and forlorn smile with Meadowlark across the table. After all, what kind of father would I be if I didn’t show my own fragment a shred of approval now and again, after all she’d been through?
Guests were continuing to pour into the hall, and soon it seemed that half of Lightsmourn had shown up to celebrate Meadowlark’s liberation. The feast carried on into the early hours of the night until the black torches lining the walls burned low. The ladies danced, the children shrieked, and even the Duchess herself drank until her cheeks were flushed red.
They sang for normalcy, and gluttony, and willing numbness to all the evils of the world. They drank to the return of a girl they claimed to love, but couldn’t tell from a demon. And without knowing it, they celebrated yet another glorious victory for Murk and Rot.
As the revelries continued into the early hours of the morning, the townsfolk were slowly beginning to drain from the banquet hall. Many of the guards had retreated back to their quarters as well. At long last, I was alone at the end of the table with the Duchess and Meadowlark.
“It’s hard to believe that this nightmare has finally drawn to an end,” the Duchess Exfyre said, dissecting me with her gaze while stroking her daughter’s hand. “But you held true to your word, Vorn of the Nightside Grove. And now, my daughter and I are in your debt. So as promised, I invite you to walk through our castle and choose one single relic to keep for all eternity.”
I considered allowing her to lead me back through her ancestral halls so I could snatch one of the forsaken tomes, or one of the potions from the laboratory, but even I’m not that much of a snake: For I’d already taken the most pleasing, scrumptious souvenir that the Exfyre bloodline could ever offer me.
“I have no need for wealth or abundance, Duchess. I can’t imagine a greater reward in this life or any other than your satisfaction.”
“I can see why all of Raizalar trusts you with their lives and futures, Vorn of the Nightside Grove.” The duchess smiled, stroking my hand without cutting me for the very first time. “You will always be welcome in the kingdom of Lightsmourn and the halls of Exfyre. And I’m certain Meadowlark will always remember you as the one who saved her soul and set her free, from now until the streams of time run dry.”