The beast was ravenous. Bloodthirsty. And, occasionally, overwhelmed by the need to throw back his head and mewl.
Tearing through the brambles on instinct, the blighted puppy ached to rip into anything it came across. His mother was long gone and with her his only source of food.
Meat. Meat. Meat.
Knowing this wasteland held nothing he could eat, he had set out to find a new home. Here there was only blight, fogging up his view, conjuring one nightmare after the other.
He was a nightmare too. He’d become one after the attack on his litter. His mother had been powerless against the monsters and so had his brothers and sisters.
The landscape shifted. The barrens creased with craggy structures and soon, foothills. The vegetation disappeared, opening up to wide patches of nothing and then wet terrain, a diseased swamp.
He heard a whisper of sound, a sigh. A strange scent, somewhere up ahead. Something alive and edible.
A surge of energy. He approached carefully, hiding underneath a shrub. Peering through its leaves, he saw a human slumped against a felled tree trunk. Wounded, missing a leg and wrapped in bandages. The stranded adventurer wasn’t much to look at—gnarly, no plumpness whatsoever—but he’d make do.
The runt’s mouth had begun to water and his tongue slithered out.
Just as he was about to rush the man, a distant clatter stopped him in his tracks. Careful now. Cresting a nearby bluff, a band of people revealed their presence. Three humans, well-armed—he’d be no match for them. The group descended the slope. One of them spotted the injured adventurer, pointed.
The pup waited, suppressing his growling, empty stomach. His hunger was great, but with a little luck they’d soon leave the man alone again and the feast would begin.
They approached the man resting near the trunk. His head was craned back—only grizzled beard greeted them at first.
“Is he dead?” Bantham, the knife thrower, asked. Just in case, he unsheathed a blade.
Dottir came close enough to see him breathe. “Not yet.”
“I’ll give him three hours, tops.”
It was code, telling her that Bantham had three knives prepared. Not that she needed his protection. Dottir was the muscle and built like a pack beast—no way this scrawny geezer, missing a leg even, would cause her trouble. She stepped towards him, her boots sucked down by the muddy soil.
She hadn’t so much as touched the stranger’s leather jerkin before he snapped to life. Already Dottir was poised to wrestle him to the ground, but the man just looked at her with quizzical eyes.
“Can’t a fellow die in peace anymore?”
He glanced at the others: first Bantham, an admittedly shady-looking figure constricted by straps and belts hiding a truly astounding amount of knives. Then he looked at their healer and sometime confidence trickster, Jarriano, who’d stayed a bit in the back, as was his cowardly custom.
“It seems you’re hurt, old man,” Bantham called out to him.
“I’m not that old, but hurt? Can’t deny it.” He patted his stump leg, grimacing as he did so. “Damn rotten tourniquets.”
“What’s your name?”
“What good will that do? I’m not long for this world and I can’t recall the last time a gang of robbers had use for courtesy.”
“Hey now!” Bantham got mad. “Dottir, do something about him before I do.”
“Zip it, juggler.”
That’d bring him to a boil, she knew, unable to resist. If there was one thing Bantham hated, it was to be likened to a juggler. “I’m not some carnival entertainer!” he’d yell.
“But I’m afraid you’re right,” she said sympathetically to the wounded man. “If you wouldn’t mind...”
Not giving him the time to react, Dottir searched him, patting down the sleeves of his doublet. Aside from a groan when she prodded the bandaged stump, he kept quiet—and she found nothing.
“No dice. Nothing in the way of gold and no valuables either. How’d you end up here without supplies?”
He bared his brown teeth in a smile. “I had a mule. It was eaten by creatures further down. I crawled up here, that’s all. You’re free to search the premises, you won’t find anything worthwhile. But if it’s riches you’re after, have I got a story for you. And it’s no joke either, it’ll be worth your while.”
Dottir looked at the others. Bantham just stood there like the idiot he was, but Jarriano came forward to appraise this new potential avenue of fortune.
“I hardly need to point out what dire straits you’re in, good man,” he said. “My companions won’t be forgiving if it turns out you’re wasting our time. But if the information’s solid, ahhh, well, then we might do you a good one still.”
You’d easily mistake Jarriano for an impoverished nobleman, with his tattered tunic and breeches. He had a way with words though, and a penchant for charming people out of their last dime.
The stranger wasn’t fooled. “Even if you wanted to, you can’t help me. I’m done for. But I’ll settle for some hot soup now, or a stew. That’s my price. Now come, get me comfortable.”
Dottir hesitated when the stranger waved her over, but Jarriano shot her an urgent look and she helped the man up. Further up was a dry patch of land. Bantham was ordered to collect wood for a fire and Dottir carried the enfeebled man there. Before long, they’d set up a small cooking place. The stranger ate with relish and spoke.
“Have you ever heard the story of Hemog, the blood magus? Many decades ago, when the golem had only just breathed its last... Wait, this is rather theatrical, isn’t it? Sure you don’t mind? Alright. After killing Kriusz, the human armies disbanded and that’s when the corpse spilled the blight. From the war’s survivors came a lonely mage, one bright and ambitious and certain he could stop the corruption.
His name was Hemog.
But no sooner did he reach the golem’s corpse, than he was hopelessly engulfed by the miasma. It, hungry for anything, took him as its first disciple. The poor wizard was ripped apart and stitched back together, atom by atom, his own blood now the source of his magic. When the blight was done, the human had vanished and in his place stood the blood magus.
But what hadn’t vanished was the man’s overweening hunger for power.
He sought to create something of his own. He took up residence in the mountains and started experimenting.
For this he needed corpses. Many corpses. After a campaign of terror that lasted a half dozen years, he had collected enough to shape the matter into a giant he called a humongore. The colossus had legs that could crush a castle and arms to withstand the pull of a hundred horses. Strangely, Hemog chose to encase the head in a steel helmet. Fashioning a face might’ve been too difficult, or maybe it was a way to exert control?
Regardless, it didn’t take long before the creation rebelled against his maker. The blood magus had made him too powerful. The humongore, overcome with rage at its useless existence, became master of the Blood Ridge and began to do exactly as Hemog had done: gather corpses to create another humongore. There are two already, the brothers Khuliath and Gruegant, but that’s not relevant to this story.
Here’s what’s truly interesting. When the blood magus created the humongore, he smelted piles of gold to serve as its life blood. Slay him and it’ll stream out, a mound of treasure you won’t know where to begin to transport back.
You’ll be the richest people in the world.
And all you have to do is kill the humongore.”
Valor and duty were sufficient to chase men to war, but only greed could take them up a mountain to face suicide.
We’ll be lucky to survive, Dottir thought, but if we do... we’ll be so wealthy as to make kings and queens jealous.
She felt the treasure’s pull as much as Bantham and Jarriano did, trailing a little behind her, she being their bulwark against the many pitfalls of this place.
“Shouldn’t we have brought the stranger after all?” Jarriano asked.
“And I suppose I’d have been the one to carry him up here?” Dottir’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Would’ve worked for me. Then we’d have used your face to catch all those spike traps.”
“On second thought, good thing we left him there.”
How ridiculous life is. Men’s pride and men’s greed. Two useless forces, sending us buzzing all over the world like flies on spoiled meat.
But how she liked the thought of that gold nonetheless. It was bigger than her, bigger than all of them. Something in the story had captivated—
An arrow whipped past her and nearly took off her nose. The following ones bounced off her shield, raised instantly.
I got careless! she thought, but also: My mentor trained me well.
As Bantham ducked behind her, flinging a pair of knives, Dottir thought back to her first lessons in shield practice. The instructor had mercilessly hacked away at her with a cudgel. In panic, she, a speck of a girl, had held a wooden buckler in the air and felt her arms shiver under the pounding. Death waited the second she let go, she knew. Her mentor had been a maniac.
“Give up!” he’d screamed. “This is no place for weaklings!”
And he’d pummeled her until splinters had flown into her face. The cudgel’s force had smashed the buckler to pieces. Her eyes had darted everywhere, the instructor advancing for the killing blow—and then there’d been a hand helping her up, a tired smile.
“There will be times when your shield breaks and the enemy will give you no quarter. What will you do then?”
“Die,” the young girl had said, crying.
“We’ll find you something better to do than die.”
But here in the grotto, one of many honeycombing the mountains, Dottir’s shield was unbroken and her arms held firm, so she rushed the wretches and cut them to pieces.
Bantham retrieved his knives from the bodies.
“When you’re done playing around,” Jarriano said, studying a crudely drawn map, “I believe I’ve figured out the way to the plateau.”
“You keep navigating, useless wizard,” Bantham shot at him.
“I’ll admit I have less things to juggle around here than you.”
“A toast to riches,” Jarriano said, clinking his pewter cup to theirs.
They’d made their way through the savage crags and now made camp on the threshold of the humongore’s plateau.
“That I’ll drink to.” Bantham gulped up the stale water.
Dottir remained silent, carving off a chunk of cured meat. Her appetite was the largest of the group and when Bantham protested her superior portions, she suggested he carry around her huge shield.
“What will you do with your part, Dottir?” the evoker said genially.
“Return to the keep I was raised in. Restore it and have a statue made for the man who trained me.”
“And then live a life of luxury inside those impressive walls, I presume?”
Dottir guffawed. “And see these arms shrivel up? I don’t think so. I’ll fight until the day I can’t raise my shield anymore and then I’ll have my head chopped off and that’ll be that.”
Jarriano took a swig from a flask of brandy. “Good Titans. I suppose you have a more salacious future in mind, Bantham?”
The knife thrower grinned and Dottir knew he thought of concubines and fountains of wine and debauchery and he’d be dead in a year—either by any number of diseases or, more likely, by being robbed and killed for his lucre.
“And you, smooth talker?” Dottir asked Jarriano instead.
“Oh, I haven’t really thought about it.” He was lying, already trying to cover his tracks. Smart man. “I plan on living quite a bit longer after this. I might buy my way into one of the remaining libraries, have a small army of learned men at my beck and call. That’d be nice.”
Bantham started sharpening his collection. “How in Kriusz’s name did we end up with each other?”
“Through great fortune,” Jarriano answered, “and in great fortune we will part.”
If all went well, they wouldn’t need her shield at all. That was the plan and Dottir didn’t like it, for she thought it was cowardice.
There lay the humongore—a mound of flesh and muscle, mottled grey as a cadaver and bound with leather straps. The stranger hadn’t lied about the head: it was stuck in a seamless metal helmet, a saucer of some kind.
And he was quite asleep, slack on the ground in the middle of the plateau, an open night sky above it and the clefts of the surrounding mountain walls deeply dark.
“We’ve been looking at it for an hour,” Bantham complained from their covert position, relieving his aching back. “Are you satisfied the thing’s off to dreamland?”
“Yes,” Jarriano said.
Dottir shot them both an angry look. Their whispering might wake the giant.
“The plan is simple,” their cleverest party member had detailed to them earlier. “The lumbering brute would pose a severe threat in fair combat, so we’ll wait until he’s sound asleep and thrust our swords into his neck, and watch him bleed gold until he’s dead.”
“And if he’s not really sleeping?” Dottir asked. “Or we wake him?”
“Then,” Jarriano patted the rim of her shield, “we’ll need you to fight like you’ve never fought before.”
Jarriano gave the signal and they left their hiding place. Though the humongore lay dormant, they’d circumnavigate the outer niches and approach him from his blind spot.
That meant sidling along the edges of some very obscure cliffs.
“I love this furtive stuff,” Bantham said.
“Of course you do.”
The first hollow contained nothing but shadows.
The second gave Dottir a scare as a colony of spiders scattered when she stepped in. She stood ready to strike—but the arachnids weren’t blighted.
But it was the third and final cleft, the largest, that shocked the shield-maiden. There was something in it.
“Dena and Duron, save me,” Jarriano said and promptly covered his mouth.
The niche hid an enclosure, a pen, containing the humongore’s livestock: people. Thin as reeds and packed together so tightly they couldn’t sit down. The ground was covered in filth and their faces were all eyes. None of them spoke. They only stared.
The fence was made of crude wooden slats, but Dottir doubted that was what kept them here. It was the hopelessness of escape: anyone who made a run for it would be caught and punished.
She reached for the enclosure’s gate. “We have to free them.”
“And wake the humongore? Better to free them after we slay their master.”
That’s if we slay their master, Dottir thought. But Jarriano’s right. Will these prisoners remain silent though? It only takes one of them to scream.
“We’ll return for you,” she told them, “but please be quiet until we get back.”
There was no response. Dottir stepped away from the gate, annoyed that it came to these terrible decisions. She’d signed up for adventure and spoils, not this.
All that was left was the beeline for that vulnerable neck.
With every step the monster grew and involuntarily Dottir’s legs began to shake and she felt sweat slipping up the grip on her shield.
Keep it high, she reprimanded herself. And don’t make a sound.
The ground was speckled with gravel, so they sneaked carefully.
The humongore’s aura became palpable—a menace strangling their hearts.
His throat was in reach now. Dottir prepared her sword. Bantham took position to plunge his daggers in.
One chance is all we’ll get.
It had to be now, before they lost their nerve—so she nodded and focused her strength on the thrust, and her companion did the same.
The humongore moved, the reflective dome of his helmet catching their weapons. With a clang-clingggg they bounced off.
She saw the giant rise and rise, his neck out of reach now and in its place two massive legs and a heaving frame. Now that the creature was awake, his body sprung to life—the skin frothed with pustules leaking a milky discharge.
“MEAT!” the humongore roared with a metallic reverberation.
He raised a massive cleaver and slammed it down, sending an earthquake their way. Dottir held her ground while Bantham tripped. Behind her, Jarriano started an incantation.
“NOT OFTEN MEAT COMES BY FREELY.”
It took all her resolve to stay in position, not just hearing the enormous voice but feeling it deep in her bones.
“It’s going to swing!” she called out to Bantham.
True to what she expected, the humongore pulled his cleaver back from the fissure and spun it around, the sheer weight of it unsettling even him. The grooved edge swung right over Bantham, who ducked and, sensing an opportunity, cast one of his poisoned knives.
The tip burrowed into an arm, but not deep enough to draw gold. Nevertheless, the toxins would do their work soon.
“Halfway there!” he beamed.
“Look out, idiot!”
While he’d performed his throw, the humongore had completed the arc of his cleaver and circled it another time in a propeller motion. Bantham hadn’t noticed and the cleaver hit him low this time, taking off both his legs.
Bantham’s surviving part dropped to the floor, stunned.
“Bantham!” Dottir shouted, feeling a concern for the brigand she hadn’t felt before. “Jarriano, help him!”
“Oh no, no, no! That’s beyond healing!”
The knife thrower dragged his frame through the gravel, away from the monster. He started to blubber and bleed profusely.
“Do something!” screamed the wizard. “Attack him!”
“If you haven’t noticed,” Dottir braced herself, “we’re more than a little out of our league!”
The giant seemed to force something and suddenly the blisters on his body bubbled. They ejected red globules that showered over the adventurers. Dottir instinctively raised her shield, then saw one projectile racing towards Jarriano and she rushed to his side to catch it.
The glob splattered on its frame, exploded, and Dottir saw streaks of red blood shoot off the edges.
Jarriano shivered audibly. Without taking her eyes off the enemy, Dottir punched him: “Flick your biggest spell at it. I’ll draw its attention.”
Without waiting for a reply, she jumped away and started to bellow. The humongore took note.
The word rang through the cavernous plateau and she knew it was no lie. To the humongore, they were nothing. Perhaps it would’ve been better to tell the mage to create a diversion, allowing them a swift retreat.
He rammed his fist down on her, and she warded it off with both her hands holding the shield. Dottir’s arms quivered under the strain and when the humongore let up for a second, she dove to the side.
If I can just reach Bantham, I might keep him safe long enough—
There he was, having crawled barely a foot further, panting with a death-fever.
“And I thought the stranger was in bad shape,” she quipped.
“Aahhhhhh,” was all he could produce.
“I’ll lure it to the other side. Get to the entrance, whatever it takes.”
And away she was again, a shield-maiden flashing across the battlefield, evading the cleaver barreling down at her. The humongore followed her and advanced, his footsteps thunderous. Every move would buy time for Bantham to get away and for Jarriano to—
Dottir afforded herself a smile at the sound of him finishing his arcane whispers. The knotted end of his staff drew in light and color from places beyond and shot a white hot beam that pierced the humongore’s helmet.
Dottir held her breath.
The humongore remained rooted as if he’d fallen asleep on the spot. The smoke cleared. Had the brain been destroyed?
An unfamiliar sound shook the cave—the monster’s guttural laughter.
“STUPID TO TRY.”
And he bent his knees and vaulted into the air with such velocity it made Dottir’s braids swing up. The brute was a shadow against the moonless night, so high up the blight swallowed him.
“I can’t see it,” Jarriano panicked.
Dottir rushed forward. “Get out of the way!”
But the humongore came down and it was too late. He was a boulder, a mountain, and Jarriano was powerless to evade it. He gave a final yelp and was squashed.
That was two now and Dottir was beginning to realize she wouldn’t get out of this either. The prisoners had been right not to try, but not trying was anathema to her, so with anger that throttled her windpipe she charged the enemy.
He laughed, a mirthless, hollow laugh that bounced off the clefts.
The humongore’s terrifying blow got stuck on her shield, which shattered, and she cast it aside.
The colossus was off-balance now and she had the opening she’d sought. Dottir aimed her sword and lunged.
This’ll open you up good.
The blade sunk into his upper arm—she felt the resistance of the skin give way to tough muscle and then bone. It didn’t faze the humongore at all. He threw her off and ripped out the sword, warping the steel with his fingers.
Dottir crashed to the floor. It didn’t matter anymore, but as the humongore thumped her way she watched his wound, agitated and pumping...
Come on! Where is it?
Delirious now, she thought she saw a golden sheen and in her imagination out of the arm rushed a fountain of molten treasure. But no. The humongore bled alright—she was a damn fine swordsman—but all that oozed out was a wine-dark fluid. Its lifeblood, quickly clogging the wound as if hurried by dark magic.
From the nooks of the plateau, the prisoners began to wail.
We were tricked, Dottir realized at last. There’s no gold inside. The stranger lied, but why?
She had the feeling they’d been made the butt of a joke she’d never know the punchline to. The humongore was upon her and the only thing left to her was to die.
Meat. Meat. Meat.
His stomach could bear no more! The blight pup had stayed put in his hiding place for what felt like forever, eyeballing the wounded human.
Move or starve!
He snuck out and ruffled the leaves from his fur.
The stranger was still lying there, his stump leg useless and his head craned back, as if listening to some far-off spectacle.
Drooling now, the runt readied himself to pounce, but he pressed himself to the ground when, unexpectedly, the man moved.
“That’s a shame,” the stranger said, sitting up. “I expected more from her. She was strong, good shield arm. Well, there’s always another day, and another band of fools.”
The pup leapt at the man’s arm, his mouth opening beyond what should be possible. His teeth sank into flesh and he tried to tear off a chunk.
The stranger started laughing.
“Aren’t you the little spy! How did you like my story?”
He gently plucked the wild puppy from his arm, which proved strangely impervious to his fangs, and put him down.
“Stay there for a second.”
The man concentrated and rubbed his bandaged leg. As if molding a piece of clay, he extruded the leg outward from the stump, shaping it into a knee and then a calf, an ankle, a foot and five wiggling toes.
The pup barked. This was bad magic.
Now whole again, the man rose and bounced on his feet, testing them out. Then he plucked a piece of meat from his torso, which he threw to the ground.
The runt sniffed it, unsure what it was. But it smelled fine, so he ate, grateful for the offering, and followed the stranger into the blight encircling the swamp.