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Shadowcroft Academy For Dungeons: Year Two

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Build a Dungeon. Slay Heroes. Survive Finals. 


After narrowly surviving his first year at Shadowcroft Academy for Dungeons, Logan Murray—army vet turned fungaloid—thought the hardest and weirdest days of his life were finally behind him.


Logan has never been that lucky.


Students are being killed, more so than usual, and no one is quite sure why—though Logan and the Terrible Twelfth suspect it has something to do with Arborea's secretive past. Worse, solving the mystery is only one of Logan's many problems. His cultivation has stalled, he's positive Prince Chadrigoth is trying to murder him, and there's all his new classes to consider, like Best Friends Forever: Your Minions and You and Offensive Dungeon Design: When the Best Defense is a Good Offense.


Logan didn't survive his first year by giving up when the going got tough, though, and he has no intention of rolling over this time around. All he needs to do is level up his core, advance to his next monstrous evolution, unravel a mystery as old as the school itself, and put the smackdown on a demonic bully with murder on his mind. You know, just another ordinary year at good ol' Shadowcroft.


From James A. Hunter—bestselling author of Rogue Dungeon, Bibliomancer (Completionist Chronicles Expanded Universe), and the LitRPG epic Viridian Gate Online—and Dragon Award Finalist Aaron Michael Ritchey, comes a brand new Dungeon Core series, like nothing you've ever seen before. Funny, funky, and full of Gamelit goodness, this is one novel you won't want to put down

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Shadowcroft Academy For Dungeons: Year One

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Table of Contents
Shadow Alley Press Mailing List
Chapter Zero
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven
Chapter Forty-Eight
Chapter Forty-Nine
Chapter Fifty
Chapter Fifty-One
Chapter Fifty-Two
Dungeon Core Grimoire, Appendix 1
Books, Mailing List, and Reviews
Books by Shadow Alley Press

Books by Black Forge
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About the Author
About the Publisher


After narrowly surviving his first year at Shadowcroft Academy for
Dungeons, Logan Murray—army vet turned fungaloid—thought the
hardest and weirdest days of his life were finally behind him.
Logan has never been that lucky.
Students are being killed, more so than usual, and no one is quite
sure why. Logan and the Terrible Twelfth suspect it has something to
do with Arborea’s secretive past. Worse, solving the mystery is only
one of Logan’s many problems. His cultivation has stalled, Prince
Chadrigoth is trying to murder him, and he’s got a lineup of new and
challenging classes, like Best Friends Forever: Your Minions and
You and Offensive Dungeon Design: When the Best Defense is
Preemptive Murder.
Logan didn’t survive his first year by giving up when the going got
tough, and he has no intenti; on of rolling over this time around. All he
needs to do is level up his core, advance to his next monstrous
evolution, unravel a mystery as old as the school itself, and put the
smackdown on a demonic bully with murder on his mind. You know,
just another ordinary year at good ol’ Shadowcroft.

Shadow Alley Press Mailing List

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Alley Press and subscribe to our mailing list!
If you’d like to support James Hunter (and get access to
exclusive content and cool stuff), visit his Patreon page.

Chapter Zero

Professor Thozz Grimemaw stood before the entrance of the
Cruelwood Dungeon. Roots twisted around to make an arch over
muddy steps that disappeared into stygian darkness. The moon, or
at least the simulacrum of a stellar object—for there were no true
heavenly bodies in Arborea—shined silver light down upon the
Tallwood pines of the southeast section of the Xiru Forest. Nocturnal
creatures scuttled about in the weeds, grass rasping, twigs
snapping. Owls hooted, their calls long and melancholy. The scent of
wet vegetation, alive with summer, perfumed the air.
Thozz wished he would’ve had one more pint of ale at the
Wayfarer Inn, or just one last bit of the strange soonerberry wine that
the Gelatinous Knight said would put hair on his chest and color in
his cheeks. Thozz doubted that very much, though he was still
After living for a thousand years at the Shadowcroft Academy for
Dungeons, there was little new to try and even less that could
surprise him or inspire curiosity. The soonerberry wine was novel.
Interesting. Though Thozz very much doubted it could rival the
potency of Enrico Kagster’s cherry-chocolate Liverkill. As for putting
hair of his chest, nothing in this world could accomplish such a task.
As a Necro-Ghoul, his hair had all fallen out ages ago. All that
remained was rubbery gray flesh, hollow cheeks, and deep-set eyes
situated above a gash-like mouth filled with too many teeth.
Thozz didn’t mind being undead. This form suited him well and
offered him a chance to drink to his heart’s content, knowing he
would never truly die again. Though he was far from the most
powerful cultivator at the school—he couldn’t hold a candle to
Shadowcroft, or even Rockheart for that matter—he’d carved a nice
niche out for himself. He’d progressed to a low-ranked Jade Leaf
cultivator, and with the many knots he’d tied in his core, he felt a

constant connection with the Tree of Souls, especially when he was
near a dungeon—the sacred nodes that connected worlds to the
source of all life.
Thozz adjusted his hat, covering his rubbery and wrinkled scalp.
He had to be honest with himself. He wanted another flagon of ale
because he was nervous about the night’s work. Nervousness was
another sensation he hadn’t experienced in years beyond counting.
But unlike curiosity, this feeling was not nearly so novel or enjoyable.
There was no shaking it—not without gallons of wine or ale, and
more was the pity, he needed a clear mind for the work ahead.
Tonight, he was going to delve into the deep mysteries of Arborea,
the realm that housed the most ancient of dungeon academies.
Little was known about the odd pocket dimension, seemingly
unique among worlds. Where had it come from? Why did it exist?
That... Well, that was the ultimate curiosity.
Thozz was going to get to the bottom of the enigma by casting a
very specific spell, one that should reveal the secrets of at least the
Cruelwood. There were thirteen dungeons on Arborea, and all were
essential to the academy. They were where students could practice
defending the Tree of Souls, for that was the sacred task of all
dungeon cores. However, through his years of study and research,
Thozz had come to realize that four of the dungeons vibrated with an
additional energy. The Cardinal Dungeons, he had come to call
them, since they corresponded to the four cardinal directions—north,
south, east, and west.
The Cruelwood was one of those dungeons. The dungeon of the
And so, Thozz descended the steps, butterflies swooping in his
stomach for the first time in more than five hundred years. He held
his Staff of Desiccation in gaunt, skeletal hands. His blue eyes
blazed, giving him enough light.
He strode into a main entry room, its cavernous roof studded with
stalactites. On a normal school day, the chamber would’ve been full
of monsters, but the dungeons had been emptied for the summer,
with only a skeleton crew remaining behind.

Speaking of which, moldering skeletons emerged from the
earthen dungeon floor at his behest. With a thought and a flick of his
wrist, Thozz sent them ahead, ready to obliterate any native
creatures that might’ve taken up the dungeon as a den during the
long summer months. He heard the screams of a boss beetleoid as
the skeletons hacked the thing apart.
Turning right, Thozz threaded his way down more steps. It was
always thrilling, to walk the corridors, staircases, and kill rooms of a
dungeon. He’d grown up reading the stories of the great dungeons of
the past, as a young elf lord on far-off Eldariana.
Thozz gave up thousands of years of life, chose a new body, and
chose a new name because of his love for dungeons and the Tree of
Souls they protected.
Thozz had always had a secret obsession with dungeons, crypts,
tombs, that kind of thing. He’d had to keep his interests secret, of
course. He’d come from a respectable elven family; they never
would’ve understood his darker inclinations. Everyone knew that
elves loved forests, waterfalls, and moonlit dells where they could
play their lutes and sing songs about tragic love.
For one, Thozz hated freakin’ lute music. He also didn’t like harps
and downright loathed the Eldarian weeping flute. As for songs, he
preferred happy drinking songs rather than the dull ballads of
doomed lovers, one human, the other elven, and blah, blah, blah,
isn’t immortality hard? Thozz had even hated his elven name, which
contained not one but three y’s, a truly unreasonable number of
syllables, and loads of soft consonants. There were umlauts and
glottal stops—marked with apostrophes—involved. Thozz consider
umlauts to be unnecessary and the demonic work of arrogant
Thozz had always been a little different, and so when he’d been
reaped by Shadowcroft, he’d leapt at the chance to leave behind his
elven life to become a dungeon.
He’d never looked back. Not with regret, at any rate.
Seven hundred years later, he’d found a home as an instructor,
and while Yullis Rockheart could be overbearing, slightly evil, and
completely heartless, Thozz wouldn’t have traded this new life for

anything. His love for Skip Shadowcroft, the wonderous academy,
and Arborea had led Thozz to studying the strange realm. And it was
that study that had led him here, to the Cruelwood.
Thozz crossed a root bridge over a chasm and gracelessly
tromped through a muddy corridor where the walls leaked
luminescent water. It was gross and perfect in equal measure. If
Thozz had been designing this dungeon, he’d have included a giant
white worm, blind and disgusting, writhing on the ceiling overhead.
He’d known a Maggot-Fiend who’d done wonderful things with
exploding larvae.
Steeling his nerves, Thozz finally entered the inner sanctum.
Stone columns, marked by time and filth, held up the underside of a
massive tree. On a raised dais of ancient wood, with various
disturbing symbols etched into each step, sat a wooden pedestal
made up of polished roots and twisting vines. The top of the dais
was a circle of polished black marble, shot through with veins of red.
A thing of beauty. He could feel the presence of the Tree of Souls
here, even if he couldn’t see it with his pale blue eyes. But no time to
relish the space, he had business to be about.
Thozz retrieved a worn leather packet of tools from his robes and
laid them out on the pedestal. Accessing the Apothos in his core, he
conjured more minions, a variety of half-corpses, who crawled
across the stone floor, their dragging entrails and torn clothing like
mops to clean away the dirt and grime. In next to no time, he had a
tidy workspace where he could conduct his business.
With surprisingly nimble fingers, Thozz unwrapped his leather
workbag, admiring the glint of deadly steel tools and rune-engraved
artifacts of power. Instead of any of those, though, he withdrew a
simple piece of glowwrite chalk and began to trace out the curving
arches, swooping lines, and angular symbols of his ritual.
He heard a stick break, followed by a soft sigh.
He jerked his head up, blue-fire eyes blazing, his hat askew.
What was that?
He’d thought he was alone in the Cruelwood—other than his
skeleton crew, of course, and perhaps the odd forest critter with
more hunger than sense. To think there was something else skulking

around made anxiety bloom into a flower of genuine unease. What a
night of strange emotions this was turning out to be. But the unease
was warranted—he was dealing with powerful magic.
Thozz stood, stowed the nub of chalk in his belt, and dusted off
his hands. There was a rather simple solution—one he should have
thought of from the get-go. All he needed to do was remove the
cancerous green gemstone from his belly and let it float above the
pedestal. Once connected to the sanctum, he would be able to feel
every entity in the place, every last wood grub, dirt beetle, and acidstring spider.
Satisfied with his plan, Thozz reached for his gem, but as he did,
a shadow rose from behind a stone column. A pale hand, holding a
black weapon, maybe a rusted metal spike—Thozz couldn’t be sure,
and he’d never know—slammed into the Necro-Ghoul and shattered
his dungeon core. There was a brief flash of pain, swift and terrible,
and then darkness encroached on every side, leaving Thozz’s
thoughts hazy and disoriented.
Before Thozz’s core knots unraveled completely and returned his
cultivated Apothos to the Tree of Souls, a final thought swept
through the Necro-Ghoul’s mind—I’ll never have to hear another
tragic love song, played by a harp/lute/flute combo, ever, ever again.
That was a definite plus. Other than that? Thozz was heartbroken at
the idea he wouldn’t be there, six weeks later, for the beginning of
school. Teaching was his everything, and now that everything was
gone. Death. Such an unfortunate bummer. But it was rather curious
all the same...

Chapter One

Logan Murray sat up on his cot, nestled away inside the utility shed
on the Akros Coliseum grounds. He groaned and swung his legs out
over the edge of the bed frame. Every bit of his pulpy yellow fungal
body ached from the torment of his hellish summer. He would’ve
preferred back-to-back boot camps at Fort Sill—freezing cold in
February, drenched in sweat by March, wishing for death by April.
And still, that would’ve been better than what the rector prime of the
Shadowcroft Academy of Dungeons had done to Logan.
As it turned out, the gargoyle griffin was far more difficult to deal
with as a friend than he had been as an enemy. Rockheart had taken
Logan under his stone wing only to beat him to death with his rocky
interest. It felt as if he’d been fed through a meat grinder every day
for nearly three months. His body was battered, beaten, and broken,
but today he’d woken up happy for the first time in a long time.
Honestly, Logan didn’t mind the training, but it would be nice to
have a break, even if only a short one. Today, there would be no
core cultivation while sitting among the Iceblade grass. No obstacle
courses or dungeon crawls. There would be no need to painstakingly
feed Rockheart’s hellhounds while they, in turn, tried to turn him into
pizza toppings. Too often, snack time became murder time. Even
that had its benefits, though. He had plenty of chances to practice
his Exoskeleton ability—an evolution of his original Harden ability—
and now he could make his skin so hard that not even Rockheart’s
pets could eviscerate him.
Well, most days anyway.
The weak morning light filled the cracks between the wooden
slats. Dust motes drifted lazily in the heat. The place smelled like
grass and oil and sweat, but not from Logan—as a mushroom, he
didn’t sweat. It came from the ton of creatures who’d rummaged
through the shed over the past couple of weeks in preparation for the

new school year. They would come in and grab the rusted
wheelbarrow, or the garden tools, or drag out the big round practice
dummies. Also in the shed were a few notched and rusted swords, a
battle-ax the size of Florida, and a handful of pitted spears.
Logan had set up his digestion pit in the far corner under a shelf
holding chalk, bags of sand, and some grass seed. Right now, a
decaying pork chop was covered in slimy mold. He’d have to
reabsorb the digestion pit before he left or Rockheart would have a
fit. That last thing Logan wanted was one more second of
Rockheart’s attention.
Logan stretched, folded his blankets, grabbed his pillow, and
threw some things into a wheelbarrow. He would return it once he
got his meager belongings to his new room. His magical shield, his
rusted dagger—which had helped him pass his year-one final—a few
enchanted rings, his Dungeon Core Grimoire, or DCG, because it
wasn’t just the United States military that liked acronyms. He also
had some extra robes and clothes and a dumb hat Marco had given
him. With Logan’s yellow mushroom cap for a head, he didn’t need a
hat, but he didn’t have the heart to throw it away and hurt the satyr’s
Honestly, that had been the hardest part of the summer—not the
training, but the absence of his friends. It had been a productive
summer, but largely a joyless one without Marko around. Inga had
been buried in the library and Treacle had vanished up north, under
Professor Crucible’s watchful gaze. He couldn’t wait to see all of
He grinned. Plus, no more toolshed. He was getting a new room
in the second year Azure Dragon dormitories! He wouldn’t be up in
the attic! Actually, he would’ve preferred somewhere underground—
a damp, moist place with a constant temperature. That thought gave
him a momentary pause. He really was a dungeon now. It was
amazing how much his life had changed since the thrift store video
game had literally eaten him the previous year. He’d been Last
Starfighter’d. Or had he been Jumanji’d? Probably a little from
column A and a little from column B.

Logan stretched sore muscles, then dropped down on the dirt
floor and crossed his legs. He didn’t need to cultivate, and yet it
wouldn’t feel right starting the day without practicing his technique.
That was the tyrannical power of habit. Besides, he needed to
reabsorb his pit and clean up the shelf. It was spotted with spores,
and one of the bags of grass seed had a couple mushrooms growing
out of it.
Logan was wearing thin shorts and a light shirt. He tossed off the
shirt and sat there with his thick Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle hands
on his knees. In his yellow belly, his dungeon core gem gleamed,
emitting a soft golden light. With a thought, he swept up both the
digestion pit and the pork chop, folding the raw energy into his gem.
He felt the Apothos buzz through the knot circling his core before
disappearing into the core itself.
He checked his guardian core matrix:
<<< ‫>>> ۝‬
Logan Murray
Guardian Core Matrix
Base Race: Fungaloid
Current Evolution: Shroomian Acolyte
Cultivator Class: Iron Trunk Cultivator; C-Class, Rank 3
Primary Elemental Affinities: Morta/Toxicus
Racial Abilities:

- Digestion
Racial Skill:
- Domestic Fungi
Level-One Proto-Spore Cultures
- Opal Truffles, Mucal Film, Ghoul’s Snare, Blister Wart, God’s Eye
Level-Two Proto-Spore Cultures

- Braincaps, Gem-studded Puffballs, Skullcaps
Level-Three Proto-Spore Cultures
- Spore Wargs
Fungal Form (Active):
- Exoskeleton
- Pneumacity
Fungal Form (Passive):

Fungal Vision
Disease Immunity
Poison Immunity
Spore Halo:


Pollinic Affliction
Athlete’s Foot
Rapid Growth

Logan had come a long way since he’d arrived at Shadowcroft’s
door as a lowly E-Class Deep Root Cultivator. He’d burned through
ranks and had managed to ascend even when everyone else
thought he was dead in the water. Admittedly, his progress had
slowed a bit since Logan and the Terrible Twelfth had defeated
Rockheart during the Winnowing. That final battle had pushed him
up to C-Class Rank 4, and he’d only advanced to C-Class Rank 3
since then—not a huge gain for the amount of effort he’d put in, but
still impressive. Rockheart believed Logan had some sort of

blockage, preventing him from advancing faster, and what was
Rockheart’s solution? More training.
Even if that was true, however, Logan was still thrilled with where
he was. Passing Rank 5 had granted him a variety of new abilities
that he was excited to try out this year. First off, he’d unlocked two
new Proto-Spore mushrooms, Level-One God’s Eye Caps and
Level-Two Skullcaps.
God’s Eye Caps (Type, Ingredient): This fungus glows with a
pale blue bioluminescent light. It has a bitter and pungent taste, but it
is a key, though common, ingredient in many core purifying elixirs. It
is highly valued and sought after by Alchemists and Luminosus
cultivators since it is one of the few natural resources with Luminal
Affinity. Rarity: B-Class; Elemental Affinity: Pure Apothos,
Skullcap Waddlers (Type, Sentient/Minion): These are the first
sentient, mobile mushrooms that fungaloids have access to. At only
three feet tall, these stubby, mushroom-shaped creatures move
around on thick arms and short legs. They aren’t quick, but they do
follow orders well and can wield primitive weapons. They are most
effective in packs, where they can overwhelm their enemies. Beware
the Waddlers! Rarity: C-Class; Elemental Affinity: Vita, Mallus
The God’s Eye Caps were an excellent lure, but Logan was also
hoping there might be some way to use them to help him break
through his blockage. As for the Skullcap Waddlers, without Inga
around, Logan had been forced to beef up the number of minions he
could summon. His Spore Wargs were excellent, but he could only
conjure three of them at the moment, and that hardly made for much
of a dungeon. The waddlers were slow and not particularly bright or
difficult to kill, but boy could Logan create a lot of them.
Those weren’t the only changes, however. Logan had also picked
up a powerful new Active Fungal Form called Pneumacity, a new
passive ability called Replicate, and an additional Spore Halo ability
called Narcotic. All were powerful and potential game changers, both

for Logan personally and for the rest of the Terrible Twelfth. Unlike
his Active Form Exoskeleton—which increased the damage he could
take, though it slowed him down—Pneumacity made him more
brittle, but incredibly fast.
Fungal Form 2: Pneumacity. Trigger this ability to absorb
additional oxygen into the fungal form, creating pockets of air that
make you incredibly fast, but at a cost: your cellular integrity is
compromised, meaning you are far more susceptible to physical
damage—if they can catch you, that is.
Logan had used that ability more than a few times to outrun
Rockheart’s doomhounds when they were hankering for a bite.
Admittedly, a greater susceptibility to physical damage was a major
drawback, but to offset that, he now had the ability Replicate, which
was a powerhouse move in its own way.
Replicate: It is but a flesh wound! You’re a fungus, and wounds
that might maim or incapacitate others are nothing more than a
minor inconvenience to you at worst. At early levels, Replicate allows
you to rapidly regrow lost limbs, while at higher levels hacked-off
body parts can be triggered to rapidly grow into a ferocious Spore
The academy’s shrubbery doctors—Ned and Zed—had helped
Logan fix his broken body more times than he could count. As a
dungeon core, his real self was the gem, and the body was his
guardian form. With Replicate, Logan wouldn’t just be able to regrow
body parts fast, but he’d soon be able to turn his own severed limb
into a pet.
It was ironic that he’d lost a leg back when he was human. Now?
That would never be a problem ever again. This was just one more
way being a dungeon was flippin’ awesome.
Logan considered his final new Halo Spore ability, Narcotic.

Narcotic: If inhaled, these spores cause creatures to experience
a brief bout of Euphoria, slowing their reaction time and making them
far less susceptible to aggressive action. At higher levels, Narcotic
can become so potent that it can create a side effect known as
Addiction. Those cursed with Addiction will become a willing servant
in order to get another round of spores. Be warned! Fungaloids that
possess the Narcotic ability are often hunted down and harvested by
criminal organizations, for use in substances of a nefarious nature,
such as Muze Blood and Avens Nether.
Logan hadn’t had many opportunities to give that one a try, but
he was sure it would come in handy this year. Although he would
have to make sure to keep Marko away. Given half a chance, the
satyr would likely try to turn the spores into a potent homebrew beer
that he could sell on the side. With a content sigh, Logan stood and
took one last look at his summer home. With how hot and dry it was,
he wasn’t going to miss it. He’d had to throw buckets of water on
himself to survive. Goodbye, shed. Hello, sweet, sweet second-year
He ran his wheelbarrow across the arena fields, steeling his feet
against the Iceblade grass. It hurt for a second until he switched on
his exoskeleton and the fungal growths on his foot hardened into
armor, which in essence was the ultimate and grossest athlete’s foot
ever. And Logan should know since Athlete’s Foot was one of his
Spore Halo abilities. If this whole dungeon core business didn’t work
out, he could get a job with Lotrimin AF in their R&D department.
Kidding. There was no going back to Earth. Logan had died and
wouldn’t be human ever again—a tough truth he’d come to terms
with. This was his life now, and the only reason he would go home
was to save his Apothos-poor homeworld. But first, he needed to get
through his sophomore year without dying.

Chapter Two

Logan spun the wheelbarrow around when he got to the stairs of the
Azure Dragon dormitory. He then backed up the steps—bump,
bump, bump—just as he’d done so many times before while working
at his landscaping job, and rolled into the common room of the Azure
Dragon. Each clan had its own residential area for the students,
complete with common room and dormitories. Those dorm rooms
were then split by class.
The common area was a welcoming space with gray stone floors
covered by plush rugs edged in blues and golds: the colors of the
Azure Dragon Clan. The massive fireplace sat cold. Heat wouldn’t be
an issue for another month or so. Tables, chairs, and sofas were
scattered across the room, and the walls displayed a variety of epic
battles and fantasy creatures that would’ve made J.R.R. Tolkien
consider another trilogy. The best painting hung above the cold
fireplace, depicting a massive blue dragon encircling the golden Tree
of Souls, Ashvattha.
That painting always reminded Logan why he was here. What the
point of the academy was: To teach dungeons how to protect the
Celestial Nodes where worlds were connected to the Tree of Souls.
And not just that, but to safeguard the tree itself from the
dungeoneers who would raid its finite resources for their own
personal gain.
Dungeon cores stuffed the common room. Each of the monsters
in their guardian form had their core gem embedded in their bellies
or chests. Some wore clothes to enhance the gems—like Lady
Elesiel of Everstar, for example, the lich-queen girlfriend of
Chadrigoth, who wasn’t around. Lady Elesiel’s dress had been cut
low to show an ample amount of undead cleavage, which wasn’t as
gross as you’d think... at least if you were a fungaloid. Her core, set
prominently in her chest, glowed with a green necrotic energy.

Nearby was Jimi Magmarty—another member of the First Cohort—
who didn’t bother to wear clothes at all. His gem was lodged in the
rock and mud of his big Earth elemental frame. Tet-Akhat lingered
close to the pair. Tet was a black-furred cat-headed woman in blueand-gold robes. Her gem was concealed.
The cat woman gave Logan a nod and the ghost of a smile.
Logan returned both. He wasn’t close to Tet, not exactly, but of all
the other dungeons outside of his cohort, Tet was the one he’d
missed the most.
He threaded his way through the people, then walked right into a
slime-y trail left behind by the Gelatinous Knight. GK was chatting
with what looked like the world’s oldest merman—and not just a
merman, but a zombie as well. His thin hair was falling out, his
wrinkled face looked like it might drop a cheek at any moment, and
the scales on his fin were flecking off. Kinda gross—and that was
coming from a guy who ate his meals through a digestion pit. When
the merman talked, he flashed a mouth full of shark teeth then
turned his tail into legs. Luckily, the guy’s tunic covered his junk,
because that was a sight Logan did not want to see.
The zombie merman was probably one of the incoming first-years
because Logan didn’t recognize him.
He heard Marko’s laughter and the clip-clop of his hooves on the
stone floor.
The crowed momentarily parted, revealing Logan’s friends in the
corner. Inga Thosa Therian sat with Treacle Glimmerhappy at the
corner table. There was someone else there, but all eyes were on
the satyr as he laughed and danced. Marko had a deep-seated need
to be the life of the party, and with his formidable abilities as a Dark
Muse, he could do so with ease.
Logan felt his heart swell. It had been so long! They’d all worked
the summer away and hadn’t spent any time together. Logan had
missed their camaraderie like nothing else. One of the best parts of
his life, both before the strange Academy and after he’d become a
mushroom mage, had been that feeling of esprit de corps. It was the
feeling you got when friends were family, and family were friends.

Inga was heart-stoppingly beautiful, though she would argue day
and night about that point. Once upon a time, she’d been an owl-like
creature with enormous wings and curling antlers. Her current lack of
plumage disturbed her greatly. Instead of golden eyes and a sharp
beak, her guardian form was an elegant humanoid creature with
blue-and-black moth wings folded around her shoulders like a regal
cloak. Her antennae twirled above her dark eyes. She was pale and
pretty and clothed in Azure Dragon robes. She was almost as tall as
Treacle, but not as wide as the minotaur. Normally. But now? Treacle
looked gaunt and a little mangy.
What had happened to him? He looked like he’d lost a hundred
pounds, easy.
Besides being so thin, the minotaur had various machinery set
into his brown fur, which sometimes sparked with arcane electricity.
He wasn’t a steampunk minotaur—a point he drove home over and
over again—but rather an alchemic machinist. He even had the
lightning and chemical reactions to prove it. Treacle sat working a
screwdriver into the iron plate inset into his left forearm.
Treacle wasn’t interested in Marko’s performance, though Inga
was. She smiled as the satyr boogied across the stone, waving his
hands as he summoned music from thin air. The goat man moved
with natural rhythm all while effortlessly spinning a tall tale that left
the gathered cores grinning from ear to ear. Assuming they had
mouths—which wasn’t always the case. Curved ram horns eased
back from a furry face including a little beard sticking out of his chin.
His arms and legs were also hairy, the legs ending in black goat’s
hooves. His fancy gem-studded robe, which he’d won during finals,
was folded on a nearby bench. He wore a tunic with words on the
Ha. Goat. As in the “Greatest Of All Time!”
As for the guy sitting next to Inga? The figure looked familiar...
but it couldn’t be.
Logan pushed the wheelbarrow through the crowd to get to his
Marko stopped dancing and spun around, a joyous light filling his
weird goat eyes. “Buddy! Logan Murray! My main mushroom man!

It’s been so long!”
The entire room hushed for a second, and then there was
cheering as Marko pulled Logan in a big bear hug.
Logan wasn’t sure if it was for him, or for Marko, or just an
explosion of happiness. However, it was probably for the satyr, since
he was one of the most popular people at the school, friends with
Treacle glanced up. “Hello, Logan. Nice wheelbarrow.” His ears
flicked as he regarded the wheelbarrow more closely. “Wait. No, no,
it’s not. It’s rather pathetic really. Definitely inefficient.”
“Happy to see me?” Logan asked.
“I glimmer with happiness,” Treacle said with a sigh. “It’s in the
Logan snorted and rolled his eyes. Classic Treacle.
Inga got up and hugged Logan. She smelled sweet and familiar.
She eased him back, holding him at arm’s length as she regarded
him. “You didn’t visit me in the library once, Logan Murray. Not so
much as a single time.”
Logan winced. “Sorry. Rockheart was putting me through the
wringer. You know how he is—that which does not kill us makes us
want to die because it nearly killed us. And maybe makes us
“Are you stronger?” she asked.
“I did level, but—”
Inga cut him off. “The library was amazing, by the way. I created
my own nest in the pit trap over in periodicals. Getting back to my
nest at night was always an adventure—what with the traps and all—
but it was worth every near death. Madam Orry Gammy is a true
archivist, and I learned so much from her. She knows every book in
that place, and most of the scrolls, though I found some indices
she’d forgotten about.” She seemed to preen in happiness even
though she no longer had feathers.
“So it was worth coming to Shadowcroft?” Logan asked.
Inga was already moving on to the next subject. “Marko was just
telling us about a certain midsummer night. There was drinking

Marko laughed. “Not so much drinking. I’m not in full flight from
reality. I dip my toe in consciousness every once in a while. It feels
like a bathtub full of orphan tears. But seriously, that night was
amazing. Enrico Kagster was there, and he never leaves Vralkag. He
brought some of his grape-flavored Liverkill. It’s like wine, if wine
were poison.”
“So, did your work-study at the Wayfarer Inn with GK go okay?”
Logan asked. “Did you have fun?”
“Fun?” Marko rolled his goat eyes. “I always have fun. But it
wasn’t the party it should’ve been, because you’ve infected me with
this miserable work ethic nonsense.”
Logan glanced over at the strange figure sitting in the chair,
motionless. Up close, he recognized it as one of Marko’s white
plaster mannequins, vaguely creepy, like the mannequins in the
horror video game Layers of Fear 2. The mannequin’s limbs were
connected by rusted iron joints. He didn’t have eyes, just
impressions in the plaster, on either side of the slope of his nose. His
mouth was an ink stain. Which didn’t make the mannequin any less
creepy. And it had a tunic on that matched Marko’s, only the
mannequin’s said I’M NOT A DUMMY—YOUR MOM IS.
Logan grimaced. “What’s with the mom hater?”
“Who, him?” Marko hooked a thumb toward the dummy. “That’s
Steve! Believe it or not, but I did summer homework! Me. Summer
homework. I saw a doctor, and they suggested I self-medicate. But I
didn’t. Because of—yeah, you guessed it—your dumb work ethic.”
Inga returned to her seat and scooted a little farther away from
Treacle opened the metal plate in his arm. “You didn’t ask about
my summer, Logan. But that’s okay. I have a feeling Steve is going to
take up most of the spotlight.”
Marko came over and gripped Logan’s shoulder. “Old Four
Stomachs isn’t wrong. Steve is hilarious. A real showman, and that’s
coming from someone who was practically born on the stage.”
The mannequin just sat there.
Logan threw a glance at his astral moth friend. “Inga?”

She was already on to the next subject. “Treacle spent the
Rockheart strode into the common room, clapping his stone
hands together like a thundercrack.
The sound was loud enough to silence everyone. “Greetings, my
clan. Welcome to your orientation day. Your room assignments will
be in your Dungeon Core Grimoires. The Treegees will be bringing
your things there. You will have one hour to unpack.”
The Treegees were various plant, tree, and shrubbery creatures
that acted as the staff at the Shadowcroft Academy for Dungeons.
Logan wasn’t sure if they were connected to Shadowcroft or not,
though they seemed to be. Maybe his minions? There was still a lot
Logan didn’t know about how exactly Arborea—the interdimensional
plane where the academy was located—worked. Hopefully, he’d be
able to fix that this year.
Rockheart pointed at him. “Murray, that wheelbarrow needs to be
returned to the shed. I sent a Treegee over, but you were already
“I came here as soon as I cultivated.”
“Good answer. I would expect nothing less.” Rockheart
addressed the rest of the room, his eyes narrow, his hands folded
behind his back. He looked for all the world like a drill sergeant
inspecting his recruits. “Breakfast starts at nine sharp, and then we’ll
discuss the year ahead. Many of you will not survive it, so please
leave your suitcases, backpacks, and bags so we can ship your
belongings to your next of kin. One hour!” The gargoyle griffin spun
and strode out of the room.
Logan turned to find Steve the mannequin staring right at him.
Logan took a cautious step back. “So, uh, what is the story
here?” he asked, eyeing the weirdo mannequin askew.
Inga shot to her feet. “Pluck my back feathers, we only have an
hour, and I acquired some books over the summer. Let’s get going.”
Treacle tapped a metal plate on his arm and his grimoire popped
out, unfolding with a hiss of pistons and the clank of gears. “We have
rooms in the Ladder Hole.” He sighed.

Logan motioned to the plaster dummy. “Hey, Earth to everyone.”
He tried to snap his fingers but failed. Stupid Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtle hands. “What are you guys not saying? What’s the deal with
the mannequin—”
A sudden squeak from Steve’s joints made Logan jump back in
surprise. The plaster dummy raised a screeching arm. His thumb
creaked upward. Then he dropped both his hand and his arm to let it
swing, eerily squeaking. Whueak-eek. Whueak-eek. Whueak-eek.
Logan felt a chill run up his spine. What was Steve? And what
was the Ladder Hole?

Chapter Three

Logan had help getting his things down into the bottom of the Ladder
Hole, which was four rooms stacked on top of one another,
connected by a ladder set into the stone wall. Logan couldn’t have
been happier. He was in the bottom room, which was set deep
underground, but had a window that showed the churning depths of
Loch Endless. It was cramped, but he was small, and he didn’t need
much. The bed, the desk, and the little closet with the red-velvet
curtain were certainly an upgrade from his room last year and about
a thousand times nicer than the shed he’d been staying in all
Logan set his digestion pit inside the fireplace, since he wouldn’t
need heat until the dead of winter. Then he unpacked his meager
belongings before summoning a halo of invisible spores, which clung
to the walls and crevices like spider webbing. A burst of Rapid
Growth and he had a small forest of Opal Truffles and beautiful
glowing God’s Eye Caps. Not only did the mushrooms make him feel
more at home, but Opal Truffles were a rarity, coveted by foodies
across the galaxy. He had a feeling the God’s Eye Caps would also
carry a premium.
Satisfied with his handiwork, Logan opened the door and stepped
into the shaft with the ladder on his left. “Hey, you guys! Do any of
you have food you can give me? Ideally, something spoiled or
spoiling. I was going to get started on breakfast.”
Marko stuck his head out of his own doorway above Logan. “I
have a ham sandwich I brought from the Wayfarer. It’s a couple of
days old.”
Logan caught the sandwich, turned, and tossed it into the
fireplace and got to eating. Live prey had more Apothos, but a
sandwich wasn’t so bad.

Marko’s room was at the level of the lake, so his windows would
give him extra light. However, on windy, stormy days, that lake water
would splash up the side of the castle and cover Marko’s window.
Each room above Logan doubled in size, so Treacle, at the top,
would have massive living quarters. The minotaur would need all
that space for his legion of gizmos and gadgets.
Marko called down. “So, Logan, Steve wants me to tell you he
likes you. Getting good vibes off you. He’s also sorry that he freaked
you out.”
“Does Steve actually talk?” Logan called back.
“Does he talk?” Marko squinted. “Yeah. He has to talk. He’s a
floor boss.”
“A floor boss?” Huh. Logan was impressed.
Inga closed her door and let herself drop down the ladder shaft.
She extended her wings and caught a draft. She grabbed the ladder
just above Marko’s room, where a hallway led to the other
sophomore rooms and the common room. “Yes. Marko really did do
summer homework. This year, we have a class called Best Friends
Forever: Your Minions and You. Professor Arketa the Hellgazer is
teaching it.”
Logan left his room, nodding. “So she finally gets to teach us
about minion management and floor bosses.”
“Heck yeah she does!” Marko spouted enthusiastically. “So, I
read a few books, and I created Steve, who is connected to my core.
GK may have helped a little—that guy is wicked smart.”
Inga leapt into the hallway. She had a huge backpack stuffed to
the brim with old tomes. Marko followed, Steve trailing behind him
and squeaking with every step.
As for the alchemical minotaur, Treacle lowered himself on a
grappling hook and winch system that sprouted from his left arm. He
just fit inside the hall with his big horns.
Logan clambered up the ladder and jumped into the hallway,
torches flickering. Other students were leaving their rooms, all
headed for the Golden Serpent Hall.
Inga sighed. “We are so very fortunate to have the Ladder Hole
rooms. It allows Treacle a workshop, I have adequate space for my

books, Marko and Steve are happy. I would imagine your room is
damp enough to be to your liking as well. Am I correct, Logan?”
He nodded. “Strangely enough, I think it’s perfect.”
“Because Rockheart just wuvs you!” Marko slung an arm around
Logan’s neck and pulled him in close.
Logan playfully pushed his friend away. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I
had to work for him all summer long. And it wasn’t just training. I had
to clean and organize the Akros Coliseum, there was some light
office work, and I had to file. You’d think a magic school would have
less filing,” he grumbled.
“Not at all,” Inga insisted. “Filing and efficiency go hand in hand.”
“Okay,” Logan said. “So Marko made a floor boss. That’s great,
but why keep him around?”
“Pfft. Why? Isn’t it obvious?” Marko said, dancing a bit, moving
his hooves with remarkable rhythm. “Because he’s awesome!”
Steve clattered along, hip and knee joints creaking.
The satyr was crazy, and Steve was strange. But the fact that
Marko had cared enough to try to get ahead in his classes was good
news. Logan would tolerate the weirdo dummy, if only to encourage
his friend to continue his hard work. No one in the Terrible Twelfth
wanted a repeat of their first year when they’d had to bail Marko out
of the trouble he’d gotten himself into.
Inga motioned to the gaunt minotaur in front of them. “Hey,
Treacle, tell Logan about your summer.”
“He didn’t seem interested,” Treacle said morosely. “He was too
captivated by Steve, no doubt.”
“Come on, Treac, tell me.” Logan stopped them in the hallway.
Ed the Rot Troll, green and impossibly thin, dodged them. “You.
Terrible Twelfth. Me wish you luck. Me fan.”
“Thanks, Ed!” Marko said and waved.
Steve mimicked the wave as well. Then dropped his arm. More
Logan knocked his fist against a metal plate in the minotaur’s
thigh just below the hem of his leather skirt. Logan wasn’t so short—
certainly not as short as he was in his first evolution—but he was far
from tall. “Tell me, big guy. I think you lost a little weight.”

“I lost a lot of weight.” Treacle sighed. “As you know, I worked the
summer with Professor Crucible. Ronnalg eats a lot of meat. Not a
lot of grass up in the World Forge Wastes. I did research on magic
objects, made blueprints, crafted exothermic and endothermic
objects, and didn’t eat much.”
“Sorry, man,” Logan said. “But you’re back. We’ll get you a ton of
grass. A little cud chewing and you’ll be back to your old self in no
“I hope so.” The minotaur shook his head sadly. “Truth be told, I
dreamed about hay most nights. Not even good hay... but ... rainy
hay. Rainy hay is terrible. I’m sure you understand.”
Logan had spent some hungry days in the Army. And during
deployment, MREs—Meals Ready to Eat—got real old, real fast.
Some days he had simply not eaten rather than choke down
something nightmare inducing like the Veggie Omelet Meal. Logan
shuddered at the thought. “Yeah, I do. Come on, Treacle. Let’s get
you to the Golden Serpent Hall so you can eat.”
Marko and Steve had walked farther down the corridor. Steve’s
joints creaked. The satyr burst out laughing. “That’s flippin’ hilarious,
Steve-O. Your wit cuts me to the bone. To the bone, Steve!” Marko
turned to them. “Come on, guys! Hurry up! I want to get some food in
me before I lose the Apothos and have to reabsorb Steve.”
The satyr turned. “Just kidding, buddy. You’re too funny to die.”
“See?” Treacle exhaled like his heart had only just started
breaking. “Steve likes the limelight.”
Inga pulled the minotaur forward by one of his furry hands. “I
would be shocked if Marko maintains his interest in Steve.” She
patted the back of his hand reassuringly. “Eventually, our Dark Muse
will get tired of the mannequin and will move on to his next toy.”
Logan wasn’t so sure. Marko seemed smitten. Only time would
tell where Steve was concerned.
They all walked into the Golden Serpent Hall, which was like
walking into the Notre Dame Cathedral, complete with the stainedglass windows, enormous archways, and vaulted ceilings. Rows of
tables and benches sat below a raised dais where the professors
would eat.

With an average of forty-eight dungeon core guardians per class,
nearly two hundred monsters filled the grand hall. The Treegees
were busy bringing out dishes of food and laying plates and cups in
front of students. Chef Treegee was a whiz in the kitchen, and he’d
memorized everyone’s favorite food—no easy feat considering how
high the turnover rate was among the students.
Thanks to the brutal nature of Shadowcroft Academy, students
were killed all the time, but others invariably came in to take their
place. Usually in the form of new recruits, but also as the occasional
transfer students from the other dungeon core schools, like
Gadsore’s Institute of Defense or the Crossworld Academy of the
Arcane. Both fine schools. Though there were also less reputable
academies. Everyone agreed that the Plaguebringer College of the
Undead was a dump, and that Saudrian’s School of Guardians was
a basically a degree mill that turned out the least qualified of all
guardians. Nightfall University, though, had the best reputation
outside of Shadowcroft’s Academy.
Logan and his cohort found a table off to the side, where they
normally sat. A juniper bush with eyes, legs, and arms dropped off
their usual breakfasts.
Treacle sat in sullen silence. It was clear he wouldn’t be doing
any of the talking. He dove into a tray of golden hay, piled high,
along with a huge mug of weak beer, which was basically hay in a
cup. Inga had candied almonds, which she drenched in honey.
Marko had a big glass of orange juice, which he proudly declared
was non-alcoholic. Along came his veggie-goat cheese omelet with a
ton of spicy potatoes also sprinkled liberally in goat cheese.
“So, you’re a goat,” Logan said. “And you’re eating goat cheese.
This is vaguely disturbing.”
“Why?” Marko munched on some potatoes. “Baby goats drink
goat milk. Goat cheese is just old goat milk. And let’s not talk about
disturbing, my fungal friend.” He paused and cocked an eyebrow at
Logan. “How’s my old ham sandwich?”
Logan lifted his hands in concession. “Fine, fine. You win this
round, goat boy.”

Steve’s head swiveled on a creaking joint to take in Inga’s sicklysweet breakfast. It then swiveled its eye impressions back to Marko.
“Good point, Steve!” Marko burst out. “Inga’s meal is the vaguely
disturbing one.”
The moth woman waved a hand. “Yes, all of this is very funny
banter. But we have to go over this year’s classes, and we have to
pick our electives. I’m fairly certain I know what I want, and I’m
absolutely certain none of you will be interested.”
They would have time to do that later, but it wasn’t like Inga
would wait. The only thing she hated more than procrastination were
books out of alphabetical order.
She removed a huge book from her backpack and slammed it
down on the table. It nearly dumped Marko’s orange juice, but he
deftly snatched it up. “So, I’m assuming those are your notes and
suggestions on how I can improve myself and Steve.”
Inga glared at him. “No, these are all possible electives, many of
which you won’t find in your DCGs. Tell me what’s available.”
Marko had stopped paying attention and waved over at GK, who
was with his cohort as well as the first-year zombie merman.
Treacle couldn’t do a thing except eat. Poor guy, it was like he
was running on pure Apothos rather than food. He crunched on his
hay and washed it down with liquid hay.
Logan opened his grimoire. Listed were the five required classes
his cohort had to take as second-years:
Best Friends Forever: Your Minions and You
Professor Arketa the Hellgazer
The History of Arborea and the Four Clans
Professor Bartholomew Nekhbet
Intermediate Crafting: Keep It Simple, Stupid
Professor Ronnalg Crucible
Core Calisthenics II: Pain Endurance and Soul Torture
Rector Prime Yullis Rockheart
Offensive Dungeon Design: When the Best Defense is
Preemptive Murder

Professor Zuzanna Zantho
“Soul torture techniques?” Marko stopped waving at people and
came around to read over Logan’s shoulder.
“Yeah.” Logan sighed. “It’s worse than it sounds.”
“Funny,” Marko said, though he didn’t sound amused in the least.
“So those are the five classes. Hey, Treacle, are you excited for the
crafting class?”
“No. It’ll mostly be a review for me.” The minotaur crunched more
hay to fill another stomach. “Professor Crucible said as much, but he
thinks school is mostly a waste of time and we should just start our
dungeons. The weak ones will die. The strong will survive. Nature is
the best teacher, according to him.”
Logan knew that many of the staff members at Shadowcroft felt
the same way as Professor Crucible. The weak died, the strong
survived. They called it Cemoyre’s Constant, while Logan preferred
to think of it as Dungeon Darwinism.
“Offensive Dungeon Design: When the Best Defense is
Preemptive Murder,” Logan read the class title absently. “Huh. I’m
genuinely not sure how to feel about that... Not thrilled with the whole
‘preemptive murder’ thing, but the idea of an offensive dungeon
sounds interesting.”
Inga turned a page in the big tome. “I’ve read articles on dueling
dungeons, but I don’t necessarily understand the specifics.
Something to do with spatial gateways and something called Null
Arenas. I’m sure it will be covered exhaustively, though. Now, what
are the official electives that the faculty wants to ram down our
“Someone’s a little salty,” Logan said, before running through the
provided list:
A Kaleidoscope of Killzones: Diverse Dungeon Environments
Professor John Toothbyte
Beyond the Sword: Crafting Blunt Weapons
Professor Ronnalg Crucible
Advanced Dungeon Sounds and Music Design

Professor Arketa the Hellgazer
Tiles, Turf, and Terror: Dungeon Flooring
Professor Terrence Bonedust
Treasure Troves and Luscious Lures: How to Seduce
Professor Suresh the Merciless, the Cunning, and the
Dungeon Crockery, Kitchen Crucifixions, and Odious Oven
Mitts: How to Cook Up Murder
Professor Ekzatrix the Endless Devourer
Story, Metaphor, and History: The Significance of Thor: The
Dark World
Professor Bartholomew Nekhbet
Die Trying: Core Strength and Xtreme Guardian Form Fitness
Professor Zuzanna Zantho
Marko let out a whoop. “Oh yeah, my would-be girlfriend is
teaching the ultimate class for me.” He jabbed a finger at the
manual. Advanced Dungeon Sounds and Music Design. “Gonna get
my spooky sounds on. Like to hear one?” The satyr whistled eerily,
making a noise that put a feeling of dread in Logan’s belly.
He had to smile. “Wow, Marko, that’s pretty good.”
“Hammers.” Treacle swallowed loudly. “I suppose I’ll do blunt
weapons. I’ve always thought swords are overused. Like Excalibur.
How often can a dumb sword make some dumb kid a king?”
Logan found it surprising that Treacle knew about the Arthurian
legends, but then, there were aspects of Earth’s popular culture that
seemed to have permeated the multiverse. Take the obsession with
the second Thor movie, which baffled Logan. Shadowcroft insisted it
was both the best movie of the franchise and also a fairly accurate
depiction of the universe, despite the fact that it was objectively
terrible. Easily the worst movie in the MCU. And obviously Ragnarök
was the best Thor movie, hands down.
“So, Professor Nekhbet has a class,” Logan pointed out.
All eyes fell on Inga. Even Steve had his creaking head turned
towards her.

Inga blushed and her antennae shrank into her temples. “Well,
yes, I saw that class. However, there is a special class I found in the
extended electives list. Bart—Professor Nekhbet, I mean—has
agreed to teach it, since there’s someone else who signed up. I’m
dying to know who else here might share my love of advanced
dinner etiquette and table settings.”
“Uh, what class now?” Logan asked.
Inga’s antennae extended and a look of pure anger flashed in her
eyes. “Don’t make fun of me. I know, I know, I have a silly crush on
Bart.” Sigh. “Professor Nekhbet. But you have to admit, his wattle is
so red and dangly. And that beak, so yellow and sharp.” She fanned
her face. “Yes, it’s my honor to be taking the professor’s special
offering called The Cutlery of Eritreus.”
Eritreus was one of the most powerful planets in the multiverse,
and there were various dungeons there, protecting the Tree of Souls.
That world was also where the premiere dungeoneering guilds were
Logan squinted. “Professor Nekhbet wrote that book on the butter
knives, right? How can you teach a class on butter knives?”
Inga snorted. “It’s not just decorative dinner knives, Logan. There
are also spoons, threeks, forks, quints, and various other dining
implements. It can get very complicated.”
Her description only made Logan squint harder. “How does this
apply to dungeons and protecting the Tree of Souls?”
“Right there,” Inga said fiercely, “is your lack of basic
understanding of how important cutlery is to the Eritreus elite.”
Logan nodded and blew out a breath. “You aren’t wrong there.
So, it’s basically a lures class. Gotcha.”
Inga’s cheeks flushed with rage. “Logan, we need to stop talking
about this. I’m getting far too upset.”
Logan wasn’t sure how to respond. Luckily, the headmaster, Skip
Shadowcroft, had perfect timing.
The wizened tree man rose from his seat at the staff table and
held out his knobby tree hands. A mossy beard hung from his chin,
and a few flowers sprouted from his hair. He wore the black-andsilver robes of the Onyx Tortoise Clan. “Welcome, my dungeon core

friends, to another year at my academy. The finest and the very first
dungeon academy. This year, we’re doing a few things differently
than we did last year as far as orientation is concerned. Professor
Arketa suggested we be more welcoming. While some disagreed”—
Rockheart’s scowl confirmed his opinion—“I think it was an excellent
idea. I’d like to welcome the returning students. You survived, you
aren’t dead, and so you can do wonderful things. Give yourselves a
The hall exploded into shouts and applause. That was
Shadowcroft’s motto: Don’t die, and do wonderful things.
The headmaster lifted his wooden hands, hushing the assembled
students. “I’m sure it will be another auspicious year, and I’m glad to
say only three dungeon cores were killed in the Threshing. I’d like to
congratulate those first-years who’ve survived to do wonderful
things. Please stand and be acknowledged.”
Logan saw the geriatric zombie merman stand up and raise his
hands over his head. He balanced pretty deftly on his tail.
GK clapped, slime spraying from his mailed hands. Several
monsters around the armored knight ducked for cover.
Marko pumped a fist in the air. “You go, Nemoy!”
“Nemoy?” Logan asked in a whisper.
The satyr shrugged. “Yeah. Nemoy. He’s an undead merman, he
got reaped when he was in his eighties, so yeah, he’s old. GK knew
him back on his homeworld, Geyseria. There are a ton of geysers
“Like Yellowstone?” Logan asked.
Marko chuffed laughter and elbowed Steve. “Like I know the
geography of Uroth. I barely know what’s inland on Sangretta. But
yeah, Logan, sure, Yellowstone.”
Steve’s creaking joints sounded like wheezy laughter.
Shadowcroft hushed the crowd once more. “I’d also like to
welcome our transfer students. While the other academies are
From across the room, Chadrigoth had appeared finally. He
shouted, “Except for the Waldorf School of Strategic Learning. They

Shadowcroft laughed in a series of huffs that sent his mossy
beard swaying. “Perhaps,” he said, thumbing his nose, “but I won’t
say it out loud. I do know that none can compare to our school here.”
Chadrigoth nodded, crossing his beef-slab arms. He was a huge
demonic creature complete with bat wings, a spiked tail, and black
horns jutting from his handsome dark blue face. Fire burst forth
every once in a while to circle his shadow form. While he was a highranked Azure Branch cultivator, he was also a total asshat.
Shadowcroft clacked his branch fingers together. “Let’s give our
transfer students a warm Shadowcroft welcome. Please stand.”
About a dozen monsters rose from their seats—kobolds, orcs, a
goblin—but one stood out. A tall guy with a face like dead fish meat
stared at Logan’s table without looking around. His skin had the
blues and greens of decay, but his eyes were big and brown, with
thick eyelashes and thick eyebrows. When he smiled, he had silver
teeth like knife blades. He was strangely proportioned. While his
arms and legs were basically sticks, he had huge hands, ungainly
feet in white tennis shoes, and a large swollen belly that filled chef’s
whites. Strangest of all, he wore a black fedora, which he tipped at
Logan returned the hat tip with a little salute. Didn’t want to be
impolite, even if the dude was even weirder than Marko’s
While the other transfer students sat, Mr. Fedora started making
his way toward Logan and the gang. There was a look of expectation
in his sludgy brown eyes.
Logan wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not, but
Shadowcroft kept talking. “This morning, we’ll give you some time to
choose your electives and talk with your cohort, and each of the clan
leaders will be meeting with their clans to go over their strategies for
winning the yearly competition among clans. Will the clan leaders
stand up?”
Professor John Toothbyte was an enormous half shark, half man
—he reminded Logan of that old ’90s cartoon Street Sharks—with a
long tail, two powerful legs, and a gleaming barbed hook on his right

arm. He had a spiked anchor slung across his back. He led the Onyx
Tortoise Clan of the North, for those with cool heads and kind hearts.
The tiger-headed rakshasa, Professor Suresh the Merciless, was
in charge of the Crystal Tiger Clan of the West, for the headstrong
and brave.
Rockheart raised a stone claw awkwardly and kept his wings
closed. The Azure Dragon Clan of the East was his. Those of the
Azure Dragon Clan were bold, yet loyal and disciplined. Logan often
wondered how Marko had ever ended up there. He was certainly
bold and loyal, but discipline might as well have been a foreign word
to the satyr.
Last was Rockheart’s girlfriend, Professor Arketa the Hellgazer, a
gorgon who bore a striking resemblance to Reese Witherspoon in
Legally Blonde. Dark glasses covered her eyes, to save them all
from turning to stone, and a pink scarf covered her bulging snake
hair. She headed up the Vermilion Phoenix Clan of the South, those
with a virtuous nature and a fiery temper.
The mysterious big-bellied chef guy in the fedora stopped to clap
Shadowcroft continued as Professor Arketa took her seat. “This
afternoon, you’ll register for your classes. After dinner, we’ll have
some music and dancing. Enjoy the downtime while you can. This
year will be busy. The first-years will have the Winnowing to prepare
for, and the second-years will have another exciting field trip and will
be introduced to the world of dueling dungeons. The third-years will
have the interschool competition, like normal, while our dear fourthyears will have their senior projects—off-world, getting real-life
experience, facing vile dungeoneers and protecting the sacred Tree
of Souls from the raiders. Thank you all for the wonderful things
you’ll do, not just this year, but also in the years after you graduate.”
Shadowcroft made to sit, then paused, half stooped. “Ah, there is
one other small thing. Some rather unfortunate news, really. One of
our long-time professors, Thozz Grimemaw the Necro-Ghoul has
died both suddenly and terribly. Sadly he will no longer go on to do
wonderful things. His death was purely an accident, of course. I
suspect it likely had something to do with a new Revival Ritual

Professor Grimemaw was pioneering. But such is the life of a rockstar academic.” He had a wistful look on his wooden face.
“Grimemaw always did live fast and loose, playing with things he
ought not to have touched. An Alvoreian Malark flying too close to
the sun, as they say. For those third- and fourth-year students that
had his Ritual Revival and Reincarnation elective—never fear, I will
personally teach the course until we can find a new visiting
professor. Also, incidentally—and for reasons completely unrelated
—the Cruelwood Dungeon in the heart of the Xiru Forest will be
strictly off-limits, upon pain of possible death. You are dismissed! Go
and do wonderful things!”
The headmaster sat, signaling the end of formal orientation, and
the room erupted in a muted buzz of excited voices. Logan shared a
glance with Inga.
“That was weird, right?” he said, waving at Shadowcroft. “The
whole mysterious death of a professor and the Cruelwood Dungeon
being closed. Super suspicious.”
“Very much so,” she agreed, antennae quivering.
Before Logan could say more, though, he had a new problem to
deal with—and not the weirdo in the fedora, who was fighting against
the crowds to get closer. Nope, he had a face full of his nemesis,
The abyss lord pulled Logan off the bench and held him dangling
off the ground. Logan had a strange moment when he inhaled
Chadrigoth’s scent. Was this asshat wearing Polo cologne?
The Ashvattha Universe was a strange place indeed.

Chapter Four

Chadrigoth of the Diabolus Diaboli, of the Eritreus Elite, hadn’t been
in a good mood since he’d tried to kill Logan Murray and his terrible
cohort the year before. Things hadn’t improved since then. They’d
only gotten worse. To be fair, the Terrible Twelfth weren’t to blame for
Chadrigoth’s foul mood. There were many far more important
For one thing, Chadrigoth’s secret plan hadn’t gone so well that
morning, unlike in the summer. On that midsummer night, things had
worked out perfectly.
He couldn’t lose faith in his grand plan. He had to stay focused.
Rockheart might be showing the mushroom a lot of attention, but
the rector prime knew who he could count on to make sure the Azure
Dragons won the clan competition. They’d won it the year before
because they had Chadrigoth and his cohort, all of whom were
amazing. A lot of people thought it was Logan Murray and his freaks,
and yeah, they might’ve helped a little, but it was mostly the First
There were four parts to the leaderboard scores, each worth
roughly a quarter of the overall score. Teacher evaluations—
sometimes referred to as the intangibles—counted for twenty-five
percent. It was fairly subjective but regulated, so professors couldn’t
just heap points on the people they liked. Chadrigoth shined in the
intangibles because everyone basically worshiped him and knew
exactly how awesome he was—unlike his ungrateful, shortsighted
family, who couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces.
Twenty-five percent of scores was based around the Raw
Strength Index, which took into account overall strength compared to
the other guardians in your year. Both ranks and classes were worth
a certain amount of points, but Chadrigoth didn’t care enough about
the math to look into it. Math and numbers were for losers who

weren’t at the top. The only number he cared about was number
one, because if you weren’t first you were last. Chadrigoth was
always first. He was awesome, at the top of the leaderboard, and
worth a ton of points. End of story.
Another twenty-five percent was the Improved Strength Index, or
how much someone improved over the course of a standard school
year, and that could really change things, but not for Chadrigoth—as
a top-ranked B-Class cultivator he wouldn’t make that much
improvement, not unless his grand plan came together. Fingers
crossed. But last year, Logan had shot from E-Class to whatever he
was now. C-Class maybe? Didn’t matter. That little mushroom
probably wouldn’t gain another rank. Last year had been beginner’s
The last twenty-five percent would be their performances on their
assigned tests, especially in their Offensive Dungeon Design final.
That would be critical for them.
In the end, though, all of that didn’t matter much. The Azure
Dragon Clan would win, and Chadrigoth’s plan would ensure that,
especially if he became an A-Class, Jade Leaf cultivator. It all hinged
on his plan. But things had been rough.
Yes, seeing his old friend Jimi Magmarty was fine, and Her Lady
Elesiel of Everstar was as enchanting as ever. They would spend the
year in the Palace Suites, apartments in the second-year Azure
Dragon dorm that were impossibly spacious—impossible because,
like the continent of Arborea itself, they used dimensional magic to
give them additional room.
Chadrigoth hadn’t slept much in the past couple days. Packing up
his gear, dealing with his extended family on Eritreus, all of it had
been exhausting. Then there was the trip through the BYE portal,
which connected his father’s elite dungeon to the Tree of Souls.
Good old Dad. He might be protecting the Tree of Souls, but
Norman the Unholy could be a real bastard. He did have a nice
dungeon, though. The Weeping Hell was an expansive bit of abyss,
deep in the crust of Eritreus, a place of shadows and magma and
vast caverns and narrow stone bridges crossing unimaginably deep
crevices. The inner sanctum was a cathedral of perfection, every

column carved with intricate detail and shining veins of diamonds
polished into sculptures depicting all manner of shrieking demons.
Above the sanctum’s pedestal spun the Vanish Blade, a flaming
sword that could both fight on its own and gave its user line-of-sight
Norman was so proud of that sword. Whatever. Swords were so
last millennia.
Seeing his old man wasn’t terrible—yes, he was a bastard, but at
least he had some affection for his sons. But Chadrigoth’s brothers?
His mother? They were a different story.
Chadrigoth couldn’t spend the summer in the Weeping Hell,
listening to his father tell stories about all the dungeoneers he’d killed
or how many guilds he’d destroyed over the years. Instead, he’d
been forced to visit his mother in Haven’s Home. Big mistake there.
He’d had to walk the castle halls he’d grown up in. As an official heir
of the Diabolus Diaboli line, from an early age, all he’d wanted was
to be reaped by Shadowcroft so he could become the ultimate
dungeon and protect the Tree of Souls. Carry on the family business.
It was his destiny. If only he’d been the lone heir.
That family drama had made the summer unbearably stressful.
One of the only bright spots was his secret trip back to Arborea on
that midsummer night. Yet, even before the summer, the ending of
first year hadn’t been as enjoyable as he would’ve liked.
And Chadrigoth didn’t know why.
Returning for his second year had put him in an even worse
mood. That was why he’d shouted out during Shadowcroft’s
welcome speech, and why he was currently holding Logan Murray
by his thin tunic. Murray wasn’t the little red-and-white pipsqueak
mushroom derp he’d been at the beginning of the first year, but this
yellow fungal form wasn’t much of an improvement. Chadrigoth
could feel how spongy his body was. Disgusting.
The fungal filth grinned as if the abyss lord wasn’t a threat. “Hey,
Chadrigoth, buddy, welcome back for our second year. Are you
happy to see me? I feel like you’re happy to see me.”
Chadrigoth activated his Flame Halo, which got the fungaloid
sweating. As it should. Chadrigoth was an Azure Branch Rank 1—

one of the most powerful students in this school. He was one
advancement away from being on par with some of the lesser
instructors at Shadowcroft, yet this pitiful excuse for a dungeon
guardian vexed him at every turn.
“Hey, bully boy, leave us alone,” the foolish satyr said. Marko
Laskarelis was the stupidest and the most pathetic of the Terrible
Twelfth. The cohort wasn’t in twelfth place anymore, but they were
still terrible. Nothing would ever change that, not in Chadrigoth’s
Marko tried to tear the abyss lord away from his friend, but the
demon slapped the satyr away with his tail with casual ease.
Marko, on his back, let out a yell. “Get him, Steve!”
The plaster mannequin soon joined his master on the floor.
Inga Thosa Therian, the only real talent of the cohort, started
forward, a scowl marring her otherwise lovely face, but Lady Elesiel
appeared, circling the astral moth’s body with a rope of green fire.
The minotaur stood slowly, but Magmarty shoved him down with
a big rocky fist, dripping mud. “Just keep chewing your cud. My boy
Chadrigoth has business with your leader guy.”
Treacle swallowed the hay he’d been chewing. “Our leader guy,
the same one that grew mushrooms in you and cracked you apart
like an old brick outhouse?” The words came out flat, but they
carried a sting all the same.
Magmarty’s flaming eyes narrowed, and his rocky brow furrowed.
“Yeah. You know. Logan Murray. Your leader guy.”
“Just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget that my leader guy
once grew mushrooms in you.” Treacle belched. “It seems like you
might’ve forgotten.”
With the members of the terrible cohort in check, Chadrigoth
could focus on his main rival. “Listen, Murray, I know you’ve been
working with the rector prime all summer. It seems you might’ve
leveled, but I want you to know that your little team of socially
awkward miscreants here isn’t going to knock us out of first place.
You still don’t seem to know your place, but I’ll be more than happy
to enlighten you.”

The fungal idiot didn’t stop grinning. “Wet climates? Basements?
Underneath rotting branches in the swamp? Or do you mean like on
pizza or in your mom’s beef stroganoff recipe?”
The little worm was joking with him, but Chadrigoth wasn’t in the
mood for humor. “No. None of that. You know, Murray, last year, you
were a fly, barely worth taking a swipe at. But it seems you’ve
evolved into a rat, a nuisance that needs to be exterminated. You
think you’re going to kick us out of our top spot, but I’m here to tell
you that it’s not going to happen.”
The fungaloid’s eyes went from amused to deadly serious. “Oh,
but it will happen, Chadrigoth. Because this isn’t about my own
personal gain. I have my planet to save, and either you’re part of the
solution or you’re part of the problem. And me? I deal with
In seconds, the fungaloid’s body doubled in weight, and the lines
of chitin on his yellow frame thickened, gaining mass. One of the
rings on his fingers flashed, and Murray suddenly wore armor, true
armor: thick plates of iron that ran over his forearms, a massive war
belt, a leather skirt, and a spiked pauldron on one shoulder.
The sudden shift in weight surprised the abyss lord, and dammit,
he dropped the mushroom man.
Another of Murray’s rings flashed, and twin rune-etched silver
short swords appeared in Logan’s hands with a glimmer of pent-up
Apothos. Those were new, probably prizes from his final exam,
which by all accounts had been an epic success.
Chadrigoth had a surprise of his own. From out of his core, he
summoned his Soul Cutter—a massive sword made of fire, steel,
and pain. He wasn’t just going to cut through Logan’s frail body;
armor or not, he was going to chop through the damn fungaloid’s
gem. The abyss lord could claim it was an accident, some goodnatured bullying that had gotten out of hand. Chadrigoth had almost
killed him the year before, on Rockheart’s orders, and this wouldn’t
be so different. He would probably get a slap on the wrist, perhaps
some points would be taken from his clan—but nothing he couldn’t
earn back during the course of the year.

Besides, Shadowcroft Academy valued strength over everything
else, and if Murray couldn’t hack it, then “taking care” of him was the
right thing to do.
Chadrigoth snarled, raising the sword high. A blur of light stopped
him cold.
A pixie with translucent, aquamarine-colored wings, short green
hair, and eyes like emeralds—eyes full of rage and hate—appeared
before him. Back when he was human, Chadrigoth might’ve done
any number of stupid things to try and get a few moments alone with
such a beauty, however small—she was only about twelve inches
tall. That twelve inches sure was beautiful, however, and there were
any number of shape-shifting spells they could use for a quick kiss in
a Haven’s Home alleyway.
The pixie was dressed in drab green clothes and big black boots.
With a flutter of her wings, she was suddenly surrounded by glowing
green pollen.
Her voice boomed like a dragon out of her tiny frame. “What kind
of idiocy do we have here? A couple of complete asswipes who ain’t
got the good sense of a shoe. Or whatever the shoe stepped in.
Students! You both will stand down this minute.”
Chadrigoth reabsorbed Soul Cutter. “Yes, Professor.” Damn, this
wasn’t just any pixie. Not by a long shot.
The pixie flew up into Murray’s face. “What about you, fungaloid?
You’re holding those swords like you wanna use ’em. You think
you’re a tough guy? I heard about you... some hotshot fungus who
thought he could level up to S-Class in his first year. You’re a tough
guy, huh?”
Two rings on the fungaloid’s hands flashed, and he lost the
swords and the armor. What does that third ring do? Chadrigoth
wondered idly.
Murray smiled. “Well, Professor, I think Chadrigoth must be the
tough guy in this situation. I’m just a casual observer.”
The creepy plaster man helped the satyr to his feet. Chadrigoth
glowered. Logan might be willing to downplay the encounter, but he
knew Marko wouldn’t shut his dirty goat mouth.

“Yeah, Professor,” the satyr said. “In this situation, the First
Cohort are the bullies, and we are the bully-ees.”
The pixie whirled on Marko, tiny hands planted on tiny hips. “That
would be the bullied, goat boy. You will not be making up words on
my watch. Do you understand me, goat boy?”
Marko snapped a salute. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am.”
That softened the fearsome pixie. “Yes, maggot, that’s right.
You’re right to salute me, because I am your superior in every
possible way.”
She spun around, with the sweet green pollen following her. She
pointed two tiny fingers at both Chadrigoth and the fungaloid. “There
will be no fighting in the Golden Serpent Hall. There will be no
fighting outside of the arena. If you have a grudge, if you desire to
bully the weak, you will do so at the appropriate time, in the
appropriate manner. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Chadrigoth thundered. He did not want to get on
the pixie’s bad side. He knew exactly who she was and what she
was capable of.
“And you, maggot?” she roared at the fungaloid.
Murray glanced at Marko, then at Chadrigoth, a look of wonder in
his eyes. “Uh, yes, ma’am.”
“That will not do, maggot!” the pixie professor erupted. “Do you
understand me?”
Finally, the fungal clown got it. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am.”
“I am not pleased, fungaloid. I am not pleased at all. By all that is
holy in this world, by the Tree of Souls and by its roots, when you are
in my class, you had better be far more impressive, or I will make
your life a living hell, do you get ME!” She flickered around and
stared at the students with such fury that everyone stepped back.
The pixie then went soaring away, a flash of light, here then
Chadrigoth let out a sigh of relief, then shoved the fungaloid.
“Nice going, you worm. You just got on the bad side of Zuzanna
Murray winced. “Our Offensive Dungeon Design professor?”

Chadrigoth shoved the plaster dummy back down to the ground
and then thumped Logan’s mushroom cap. “That’s right. You sure do
piss off a lot of people around here, Murray, You best watch your
back. Lady Elesiel. Magmarty. Let’s go.”
Chadrigoth marched away with his cohort—minus Tet-Akhat, of
course—following in his wake.
As the First Cohort walked toward the exit, they passed some
moronic ghast in chef’s whites, a dumb fedora, and blinding white
shoes that covered his abnormally large feet.
For no reason other than he could, Chadrigoth shoulder checked
the ghast and kept right on walking.
Yes, the abyss lord had started off his second year in a foul, foul
mood. And woe to everyone who crossed him, because Chadrigoth
of the Diabolus Diaboli had plans...

Chapter Five

Logan hit his moldy bed in his new room with a glad heart. He lay on
his back, in the gloom, everything cast in a hazy purple light thanks
to his Fungal Vision. Around him spun a world of glowing spores,
hidden to the human eye. The gleaming particles allowed him to see
the outlines of his furniture as well as a view of Loch Endless, where
massive monsters of scales and fin glided through murky depths.
His room was chilly and damp. In other words? Perfect. Before
he went to sleep, he took a moment to nurture a few of his growing
spore colonies. He was going to give Marko and the rest of his
friends a little surprise come morning. He drifted off with his
mushrooms growing around him in perfect peace. He had a few
questions, sure, like who in the hell was Zuzanna Zantho and why
had Chadrigoth retreated from her? Also, what was up with that
weirdo in the fedora?
After the abyss lord had shouldered him down, Mr. Fedora had
taken off, as if his courage had failed him. That night, at dinner, the
ghast was back, though, sitting with some other transfer students.
And all the while, the strange guy kept throwing shady glances over
at Logan and the Terrible Twelfth.
After eating, Marko had taken off to Vralkag with Steve, GK, and
Nemoy, the elderly undead merman. The satyr promised not to come
in too late. He’d better not. They were going back to their normal
school-year routine, and that meant getting up and cultivating early,
working on their technique before breakfast. Logan had always said
that getting up early was like stealing time. Those early morning
hours when everyone else slumbered felt like a magical time without
distractions or worries, a time to be wholly in the moment.
Those thoughts whisked Logan off into a deep, restful sleep.
At the crack of dawn, with the waters of Loch Endless still dark,
Logan woke to find the fruits of his night’s work. There were a half-

dozen sets of beady black eyes staring at him, which felt more than
a little eerie. He’d grown a full crop of Skullcap Waddlers, and the
slump-shouldered minions were all pressed together in a huddled
mass. They were pale, stubby creatures, with stump-like legs, thick
arms, and oversized fingers that looked suspiciously like uncooked
bratwurst. Their mushroom heads were inky black, like freshly turned
graveyard dirt, except for the lighter skull-shaped markings on their
Skullcap was an appropriate name.
There were twenty of them crammed into his room, their bright
black eyes blinking in unison. One opened a slit of a mouth. “Master.
“Oh, I have orders all right.” Logan stood and stretched. He was
almost twice as tall as his conjured henchmen. It was strange. Now
that he was awake, he could feel a connection with them—a link
from his core to their bodies, and an awareness of them lingering in
the back of his head. His bond with them was different than what he
routinely experienced with his Spore Wargs, but he couldn’t quite put
his finger on what it was or why. He figured he’d learn more in his
minions class.
The little guys parted without a word to let him walk past. He
opened his door and glanced up the ladder shaft. “We’re going to go
wake up Marko. Can you guys climb ladders?”
“Ladders?” one asked.
“Ladders. Ladders. Ladders.” They all agreed, bodies waggling
back and forth, heads bobbing happily.
Except one of the minions, slightly taller than the others, cried out
in a high-pitched voice, “To the heavens!”
“Shush now,” Logan warned. “I want to surprise Marko.”
They all whispered one word, “Surprise,” except the odd man out,
who once again didn’t get it right. He uttered, “Happy Birthday!” in his
Logan ushered them out of his room. “Climb up there and wake
up Marko. Don’t hurt him. Just swarm him and yell a lot.”
Whispers from the waddlers, “Yell. Yell. Yell.”
“Outside voice!” from the squeaky one.

Logan had read somewhere, at some point, that Mariah Carey
could hit the highest notes of any popstar. He couldn’t help but think
of the squeaky minion as Mariah Carey.
The waddlers clambered up the ladder, which took some doing,
because they were so short, their limbs fat and spongy. One opened
the door, and the rest piled on. They started shouting the word,
Except for Mariah, who screamed, “Fear, Fire, Foes!”
Marko screeched, “Mother goater! What in the goating goat is
going on here? Steve! Stevie! Help me!”
That didn’t sound good. Logan figured he’d flex another new skill.
He triggered Pneumacity—one of his two Active Fungal Form
abilities. Air swelled in through the gills on his mushroom cap,
coursing through his arms and legs in a surge. In an instant, his
whole body felt lighter than air and yet, he also was brimming with
strength. It was a potent combination. He practically flew up the
ladder, bounding from rung to rung with peerless grace and ease,
then leapt through the open door.
Marko’s room was twice as large as Logan’s. A fire had burned
low in the stone hearth in the corner, and glowing red coals lit the
space with gentle light.
Marko’s gem-entrusted robes hung on a coatrack near a baroque
throne of gold and red velvet, the one he’d crafted the year before. A
leather bandolier holding a trio of magical throwing daggers dangled
off the rack—the loot he’d taken from last year’s final. The rest of his
belongings were spread out all over the floor without any sort of
rhyme or reason. Marko’s bed was a huge, canopied wonder, as
ornate as the chair. A few half-made mannequins loitered about in
odd poses. Almost as though they’d frozen while dancing to some
unheard tune.
Steve had been sleeping in a big easy chair near the window, but
the mannequin was up, on his feet, but looking uncertainty at the
bed, heaped high with waddlers, Marko squarely in the middle of the
mushroom dogpile.
The satyr butted one of them back with his curling horns. Another
he grasped by their spongy shoulders. “Mushrooms?” he blurted out.

“What in the holy stroganoff is going on, huh?”
Logan strode in. “A little wake-up call. You know, get the day
started right. What time did you get to bed?”
Steve grabbed a waddler and picked it up. The little mushroom
gazed down at the dummy. “Creepy,” Mariah said in its shrill voice.
“Yell!” Another waddler squealed, madly flailing its arms.
“No hurt,” came another voice as the Skullcap charged the
mannequin and launched an utterly ineffective tickle attack.
“That’s enough, guys,” Logan said, surveying the scene with a
critical eye. His Skullcaps definitely needed a little work.
Seeing the danger had passed, Marko sank back into the
waddler bodies on his bed. “Ugh. I forgot about the waking-up-earlyto-improve-ourselves part. Though, gotta say, your minions are
rather comfortable. We could make mushroom mattresses and sell
them for a king’s ransom.” He paused, pressed his eyes shut, and
rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Do we really have to go cultivate?”
“Same schedule as last year.” Logan took a candle to the
fireplace and lit it using the banked coals. Then he helped Marko get
ready while Steve and the waddlers looked at each other with
Logan figured he’d keep his minions around and show them off to
Inga and Treacle, who were probably already waiting in the common
room. He certainly didn’t hear any ruckus from them above.
They had to bodily toss the waddlers from Marko’s room to the
hallway, since they couldn’t make the jump. Soon they all descended
the stairs and stepped out into the fresh morning day. It was still
warm, but fall would be bringing a chill to the air soon enough.
Logan felt like a king leading his subjects as they marched down
the running track of the Akros Coliseum. The rising sun cast a
crimson light across the stone seats rising up around them in a ring.
Inga, at the bottom of the eastern seats, was already in her
meditative pose. Inga being Inga, she didn’t need the wake-up call.
Treacle was there as well, with a sack of hay slung over one
shoulder like an enormous duffel bag. He was already chewing, and
Logan was glad—that minotaur needed to gain some weight.

Marko trudged over, dragging his feet, eyes squinted, shoulders
slumped in defeat. “Okay. I’m here. It’s early. I’m miserable. But I
know my misery makes you all so very happy.”
Steve let out a creaky huff and lay down on the bottom row of
rock seats. His rusty joints sounded like exhausted sighs.
Inga made the right decision in completely ignoring the satyr.
“Logan, your minions are adorable!” She rose and went to one of the
waddlers, scratching him under his chin.
Mariah let out a series of shrieks. “Attraction! Exhilaration!
“Impressive vocabulary,” she murmured, sparing the very extra
mushroom a light pat on the head.
Logan wasn’t sure he wanted adorable minions, but he
begrudgingly admitted the little guys were cute in a skullcap kind of
way. They weren’t nearly as unsettling as Inga’s centipede armies or
her Spike Flies, and they wouldn’t be striking fear into the heart like
Marko’s disturbing mimics. But as long as they got the job done, that
was all that really mattered.
Treacle swallowed noisily. “Okay, then, you have minions. Very
nice. Can we get on with this? Marko was right. Our misery makes
you happy, which is why you keep me around.”
“Not true, Treac,” Logan countered. “We keep you around for
your bubbly personality.”
That brought a cow-eyed eye roll. Treacle made a move-it-along
motion with one hand.
A disgruntled Marko plopped down in the Iceblade grass, wincing
a bit as he adjusted his legs beneath him. The Iceblade grass was
misery: a swaying forest of blue razor blades meant to help reinforce
external meridian cultivation. “Ouch. I’ll never get used to that little
pinch on my soft parts. You can sleep for the both of us, Steve.”
Logan, Inga, and Treacle joined the satyr, taking up meditative
poses of their own. Logan folded his legs and sat, lotus style,
opening his Apothos channels and circulating energy out from his
core, through his limbs, and along the surface of his skin, reinforcing
his body against the razor-sharp grass. Meanwhile, the waddlers

gathered around the sleeping mannequin like Sunday morning
congregants, glassy black eyes alive and interested.
It was quiet as Logan and his cohort focused on their breathing,
drawing in the vast amounts of Apothos floating around in the
coliseum. It was a powerful place. All thirteen meta-energies filled
the air—Ignis. Magma. Corrosivus. Toxicus. Fulgur. Glacies. Terra.
Aqua. Mallus. Luminosus. Umbra. Vita. Morta.
Memorizing all of the energies hadn’t been easy, since three of
the words started with the letter “M.”
However, Inga had come up with a baffling mnemonic that was
surprisingly effective—I make coffee and tea for Grandfather
Tiberius and make lemonade under the Velveeta moon.
Apparently, Velveeta was the goddess of dairy products on some
planet, though it might be safer to call her the goddess of delicious
almost-dairy products perfect for queso dip. A little salsa, a little
Velveeta, and you’re in chip heaven.
The Terrible Twelfth all pulled from different types of power.
Inga processed Vita and Luminosus energies, life and light, which
made sense, since she was so attuned to the physical and astral
planes of existence.
Treacle was all about Fulgur and Mallus—a combination of
metals and raw kinetic energy fueled the lightning-based minotaur
Marko used Aqua and Umbra to power his core. As a Dark Muse,
he was as malleable as water and as mysterious as the shadows.
Logan breathed deeply, savoring a rush of Morta and Toxicus
energies. Those weren’t necessarily the happiest of the metaenergies, but death and poison served the Tree of Souls, as all
things did. Just as Logan did. The waddlers, who were swinging their
thick feet on the stone bleachers, were created from such power.
Any cultivator could harness and absorb any Apothos type, but
that energy then needed to be processed in the core and converted
into the primary strand of energy the cultivator utilized. For Logan,
stripping out elemental Ignis affinity could take days and was a
relatively painful process, since the energy was diametrically
opposed to his race type. But even for something more benign, like

Luminosus, the process was slow and rather cumbersome. That held
true for dungeons and dungeoneers alike. That was also why greedy
dungeoneers preferred dungeons attached to the Tree of Souls’
nodes that radiated the right type of Apothos for them to cultivate
without needing to convert it into something else.
Logan, though, had a trick up his sleeve. With his fungaloid
Digestive ability, Logan could process meta-energies instantly and
without burning off too much of the Apothos itself. As a C-Class
cultivator, his digestion pit instantly converted 60% of all Apothos of
his Elemental Affinity into pure Apothos. Instantly. That was the key.
And if Logan used Symbiosis to join with another core, their affinities
augmented his own, dramatically increasing the pool of Apothos he
could draw from. Just one more reason to have friends.
Logan closed his eyes and felt the power flowing into his core, or
more accurately, into the knot of energy circling around his core. The
Apothos danced through Logan’s knot, and from there he pushed it
out to the waddlers, who stopped moving as they felt the connection.
They were rudimentary creatures, and yet they had will and
consciousness. They weren’t intelligent exactly, but their minds were
their own. The fact that he had created them still left him in more
than a little awe. It was an amazing idea, that he could somehow
craft actual people.
Eyes open, Logan reabsorbed the Skullcap Waddlers. Their
bodies turned from pale spongy flesh into a golden energy that
whirled through the air, spinning around Logan like a dust devil
before being sucked back into the knot in his body. He didn’t dump
the extra Apothos into his core, but once more extended it through
his body, strengthening his cells and thickening his armor.
It was strange. Even though they didn’t talk, cultivating with his
friends was simply more fun than cultivating alone. Logan glanced
over at the utility shed and wondered if Rockheart would miss
torturing him this morning. Probably not. With the school year
starting, the rector prime would be busy taking care of a million
different things. Still, the gargoyle drill sergeant wasn’t done with
Logan just yet. The Terrible Twelfth would see him that afternoon for

their Core Calisthenics II class, which involved something called soul
torture. Hurray.
After spending an hour in concentrated meditation, Logan and his
friends hoofed it to breakfast—Treacle and Marko quite literally. The
Golden Serpent Hall was teeming with students, all excited to get
into the swing of things.
Inga was nearly quaking with anticipation. “I simply cannot wait
for our first class this morning.”
Marko put his face in his furry hands. “Oh no. I didn’t check my
schedule, but don’t tell me. It’s gonna be the bird guy. Please. No.
Anyone but the bird guy.”
Inga scowled at him, her antennae quivering in agitation.
Treacle chomped hay and nodded. “Yep. The first class of our
second year is going to be Professor Bartholomew Nekhbet’s The
History of Arborea and the Four Clans. I started hating the class
days ago. Why wait?”
“Bart’s class?” Logan teased.
Inga blushed. “It’s Professor Nekhbet.”
“Really?” Marko said with a silly smile. “I thought we were calling
him Bart this year.”
Treacle grunted a laugh. “He is so dreamy after all.”
Inga leapt to her feet, arms stiff, hands curled into tight little balls.
“Really. You three are insufferable! I have some things to prepare for
today. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll meet you in class.”
She hurried off.
Logan winced. “Should we not tease her?”
“No, we should totally tease her,” Marko said with a laugh. “Right,
The mannequin nodded, the squeaking of its neck joints like
dusty laughter.
That didn’t make Logan feel any better. He was getting used to
having Steve around, but him having shared opinions with the
mannequin was disturbing to the extreme. Logan would have to
mend things with Inga, but first, he was going to see if he could grab
some kitchen garbage for his digestion pit. Nothing like eggshells,
coffee grounds, and some moldering bread to tide him over until he

could get something a bit fresher to chew on while he suffered
through Professor Nekhbet’s class. It wasn’t the material itself that
was the problem; as with so many things in life, it was all in the

Chapter Six

Logan was happy to be in a desk and not loitering like a hobo in a
toolshed, but just seeing Professor Nekhbet made him sleepy. The
classroom’s windows showed a bright blue sky outside the central
tower of the school, where the classrooms were.
Inga’s crush was a balding vulture man in rumpled class robes.
He was as disheveled as Professor Rockheart was put-together. A
red wattle hung off a mustard yellow beak. He was feathery,
paunchy, and completely unattractive. But apparently beauty really
was in the eye of the beholder, because Inga was smitten with her
would-be bird beau.
Professor Nekhbet’s beady eyes gazed at them over the reading
glasses perched at the end of his bill. “Yes, welcome, students.
Please. Come in. I am very happy to see many of you again.” He
spoke in a monotone drone. “Others, I have high hopes you have
changed. Perhaps that change happened over the summer. Perhaps
it will happen over the next couple of weeks. However, I hope it
happened over the summer.”
“Too busy getting my drink on to change, Professor!” Marko threw
a hand up—earning a high five from Steve, before he and his minion
took a seat in the back.
Inga hurried to the front row and center desk, sitting right below
the bird monster’s lectern. Treacle and Logan sat behind her.
“Inga,” Logan whispered.
She turned.
“I’m sorry about the teasing,” he said, offering her a thin,
apologetic smile.
She returned the smile. “It’s fine. I’m just so happy to be here in
this class. Now, let’s focus. Wouldn’t want to miss a thing!” Inga
quickly pulled out her DCG and a small army of pens—all in a variety
of colors, since her notes were color-coded. Then, when all was

ready, she leaned back and sighed, eyes glued on Nekhbet, who
was shuffling through some dusty papers, coughing a bit, eyes
watering. He dabbed a handkerchief at his vulture face.
Ed the Rot Troll sat off to the side. The guy was fragrant. Most
people might not have liked that particular stench, but Logan didn’t
hate it, which he had very mixed feelings about. Being a mushroom
was weird, and it only got weirder. There were other returning
students from the previous year, like Alphonse the spice mummy:
wizened face, golden headdress, all wrapped in bandages yellowed
from age. Yellsa the lady ice dragon sat in a half-frozen desk, cooling
off the room. Her hair was snowy white, her scales silver, and every
so often, she licked her lips with a long red tongue, forked of course.
Professor Nekhbet cleared his throat like a crow preparing to sing
opera. “Yes, today, this class, today. This is The History of Arborea
and the Four Clans. If you are not signed up for this class, it would
do you well to leave now. You can talk with the registrar.” He blinked,
gazed down at his notes, and then lifted his head. “Where was I?
Oh, yes, we will also be discussing the Five Sacred Guardians. A
word of warning. My instruction will be as much about the legends as
it will be about the history. For the origins of this realm are ancient,
shrouded in mysteries, nearly lost to time.”
His gaze dropped to his notes, which he shuffled again.
Logan squeezed his eyes closed and suppressed a groan. This
was going to be about as fun as a liberty brief before long weekend.
The bird monster regarded the students who were already
fighting to stay awake. “Now, class, who can tell me something
interesting about the subject? I’m sure you have not come here as
blank slates, tabula rasas, so to speak. Anyone?”
Inga’s hand shot up.
Professor Nekhbet nodded. “Yes, Miss Thosa Therian.”
Inga had to work to keep from full-on squeeing. Logan wasn’t
sure if she was happy to be called upon or if she was a little
overwhelmed by her beloved professor uttering her name. Either
way, she glowed as she rattled off her answer.
“The Shadowcroft Academy is not only the oldest dungeon
academy in existence, but it is the only school that was built on its

own separate extra-planar dimension. All the other schools exist on
real planets, attached to the Tree of Souls. These are dungeon
strongholds, ruthlessly defended against villainous dungeoneers. For
example, Nightfall University is on Bharoosh, at a nexus of powerful
energy. I’ve heard wonderful stories of the Onyx Ravine, deep in the
rocks of that far-flung world, where diamonds glimmer in the rock
ceilings like stars in a stony dark sky.”
The professor raised a feathered talon. “Quite poetic, Miss Thosa
Therian. Quite. But let’s not get carried away with the lyrical
language. Already, we are stepping into the darkness of myth, and it
is only our precise language that can light the way. You are correct,
however, in all you have said. As for Nightfall University, it is an
adequate school, I grant you, and I have taught a few courses there
on the cutlery of Eritreus as well as dining etiquette in its myriad
forms. I am very happy to be teaching such a class this year, right
here at Shadowcroft.”
His voice was dry and slow, like a tax audit before a root canal.
Inga barely stifled a cry of joy when he mentioned her elective,
which left Logan scratching his head. These people were really into
butter knives and cutlery. Nekhbet had apparently written a book on
the subject, which Logan couldn’t even begin to wrap his head
around. How could anyone write a book on cutlery and table
settings? That was pamphlet material at best.
Professor Nekhbet cleared his throat and shuffled through his
papers for the umpteenth time.
Logan glanced behind him.
Steve sat as if taking notes, pen on Marko’s grimoire. Marko,
himself, had fallen asleep. He was sprawled out, hooves splayed,
head back, tongue lolling. Marko must’ve been out half the night,
because he’d never answered Logan directly.
Though Steve was in the right position, it was unlikely the dummy
would write anything that would be useful. Not that Marko was liable
to do any better even if he had been awake.
“Let me take you back to another time,” Professor Nekhbet
continued, oblivious to the passed-out satyr, “and perhaps I shall
allow myself just a modicum of drama.” He winked at Inga, and her

face nearly exploded in a burst of pink. “For you see, we know little
about the origins of Arborea, and yet we will go through every theory.
I will start with the one I enjoy the most, the Golden Serpent and the
Seed of the Universe. The Golden Serpent was the ancient,
unknowable guardian of the Tree of Souls.
“As I am sure you remember from last year, Ashvattha grew from
a single seed, buried in the soil of all possible realities, and as the
universe grew, it became entangled in the branches of that ancient
entity. Ashvattha is alive, you see, and it can protect itself in ways we
cannot comprehend. However, the Golden Serpent seems to have
been the very first dungeon, on the very first world, when the
universe was new and had barely begun to expand. On that world, a
raider came, perhaps not to chop down the tree, but to remove a
limb, if you will.”
Professor Nekhbet stopped talking. Somehow, he was less
boring when he wasn’t talking. He turned from his lectern, seized a
cup of water off his desk, and poured half of it down his craw. He had
trouble swallowing and made several rather disgusting sounds,
before shivering his feathers.
“The Golden Serpent foresaw the danger of the dungeoneers,
who would kill the Tree of Souls for their own profit. And so, the
Golden Serpent found four other souls who were willing to sacrifice
their mortal lives in order to protect the tree. A truly noble calling.
These four disciples of the great Golden Serpent became the four
Celestial Ancestors. You know them as the clans—the Azure
Dragon, the Vermillion Phoenix, the Crystal Tiger, and the Onyx
“These four cores grew in power under the tutelage of the grand
serpent until they found acolytes of their own. There were no schools
then. Not as there are now.” He shook his great vulture head, wattle
waggling. “Their classrooms were the forests, deserts, mountaintops,
and serene beaches. There, they taught other selfless souls the
ancient ways of protecting the nodes from raiders. Eventually, the
Golden Serpent, already an Immortal Crown cultivator, passed from
the universe, or, some say, he created a universe of his own,

expanding his dungeon not just to encompass worlds, but entire
Despite the professor’s droning voice, Logan felt captured by the
idea that these mystical creatures had ever existed at all. How old
were they? A million years? A billion? Did time even have meaning
to an Immortal?
The Shadowcroft Academy was ten thousand years old. How old
was Arborea?
Logan raised his hand.
Professor Nekhbet nodded at him. “Yes, Mr. Murray.”
“So how old is Arborea?” he asked.
The professor smiled, which might have been the first time Logan
had seen the bird man show any kind of emotion. It was like a creaky
door opening, and for the barest moment, Logan saw what must
have captivated Inga. But then Nekhbet realized he was smiling and
put an end to that madness immediately.
“Yes, this material is intoxicating, is it not?” he said, voice
constrained. “I hope your cores are strong enough to handle the
dramatics of our realm’s history. Arborea is more than ten thousand
years old. Some say it was built by the Four Celestial Ancestors on
the very day they slew William the Scales—a villain of the highest
order. Others disagree.” Nekhbet coughed. “But I am getting ahead
of myself.”
For a second, th