Once, the town must have been quite the sight. A human settlement under Aetheri guidance, built near the floodplains of a river bursting with fish.
Then, the blight.
“So, this is Brooksbounty,” Desert Mouse mused.
“Used to be,” Ezzouhn replied, his voice gravelly.
“Not much left of those fabled saffron fields.”
The two had entered the town’s main street and found its rooftops had caved in and its facades were peeling off. Ezzouhn and Desert Mouse had been ordered to search the settlement, one of dozens swallowed by the blight. The moment they had set foot there, however, they had known there’d be little to pillage.
Desert Mouse had traveled far to be here, escaping the prospect of a forced marriage. The oasis she grew up in had been beautiful, but its customs stifling. She had been happy to join the refuge and fight for this gothic wasteland, so very different from her sand-bleached birthplace.
“I’m taking a look.” Ezzouhn nodded to a hardware store. “Ready your daggers. Some of the townsfolk might not have fled.”
He unsheathed his sword. Where Desert Mouse was as nimble as they came, having honed her skill hunting rodents in the dunes, Ezzouhn was an immovable wall of strength.
She waited and surveyed the street. It had been cobbled in parts, and up ahead ended in a square featuring a crumbling well.
I only need to close my eyes to see tents swaying in the cool oasis breeze.
Feeling exposed, she wanted to yell into the shop to ask if he’d found anything, but a shout from up ahead caught her attention.
She jolted into a fighting stance, daggers dancing around her fingers.
There was a figure hurtling her way, dark-skinned and framed by a billowing cape. It was no one she recognized from the refuge.
The evoker’s words became audible as he hollered: “Are you Desert Mouse?”
“I have need of you and your companion!”
“Do we know you?”
He had crossed the distance between them and halted, cloak still swishing. Desert Mouse heard the jangle of the gold jewelry adorning his naked skin. For a mage, he was remarkably in shape and would be considered a good prize among the women of her village—but no, now I’m thinking like those husband-craving bores.
“I beheld a vision of the Titans!” he cried. “They came to me two nights ago, out in the wilderness. Corruption birthed purity, from darkness came light. And they told me you would be here and would accom—!”
His ravings were interrupted when Ezzouhn leapt from the store’s window and tackled the mage.
“Careful!” Desert Mouse said. “I don’t think he’s dangerous.”
Ezzouhn had the evoker’s head in a lock. “Speak.”
“Of course,” said the man, straining. “My name is Tek’ka...”
At the beginning of time there was nothing, the next moment there was light. Light unveiled the existence of space, and from this jittering void spilled a race of Titans. It was their form that first blocked the light—casting shadows on each other.
“So repellant was this darkness to them, that they fought,” Tek’ka recited from memory. “So great was their rage at being born to emptiness, that they twisted together to turn their own bodies into the soil and sky of a newborn world.”
This was the creation myth that he had been told from his earliest youth. Tek’ka now used it as a prayer.
“Gorman of Stones, Siurd the Forge Titan, Encaph of Lies, Zerrish the Serpent, M’waan of Seas—”
It was night and he was resting underneath a promontory. His journey had brought him to the foothills surrounding the Blood Ridge mountains, where enemies were few.
A nearby clip-clop of hooves stirred Tek’ka from his half-slumber. He was up in a second, staff in hand. Not wanting to fight with his back against a wall, he moved out into the open and saw a shadow leering at him from the top of the outcropping.
He pointed his weapon at it.
The abomination on the cliff stepped forward and Tek’ka discerned it was a goat. But one obviously diseased—blighted. The evoker was just about to chase it away, when the animal spoke.
“H-head to the to-o-o-p,” it said, its half-rotten mouth barely able to form the words.
“An unholy creature,” the mage said and summoned the energies necessary to kill it.
“Up-p-p the mountai-ai-ai-n, is the treasure-ure.”
“Do not tempt me with treasures I don’t seek.”
“Wha-a-a-t you will find at the peak-k-k,” the goat insisted, “will change e-e-everything.”
Tek’ka didn’t fire. He knew the corrupted beast was not to be trusted, but something in the encounter was too strange to ignore. Truth was, he did want everything to change.
“It is my life’s goal to restore the sun,” he announced, testing the creature, “and return the Aetheri to this world.”
In response, the goat bleated. One of its eyes drooped out of its socket.
Tek’ka shook his head.
“I hear the blight’s madness in your words.”
No sooner had he said it than the goat seemed to explode into a million colors, expanding outward to envelop the heavens. The light was brighter than anything Tek’ka had ever seen—yet he couldn’t avert his gaze, even to the point of nearly being blinded.
“MASTER TEK’KA,” a voice thundered down from the promontory.
The mage peered into the maddening light and saw nothing more of the corrupted goat. Instead, he saw the Titans, all of them, morphing into each other and taking their place in the constellations above.
“YOU WILL GO TO THE RUINS OF BROOKSBOUNTY AND REQUEST THE AID OF EZZOUHN AND DESERT MOUSE.” It was mighty Siurd that spoke to him, and Kriusz, and Oxuuxo. “TOGETHER, YOU WILL SCALE THE MOUNTAIN. THERE YOU WILL FIND THE MEANS TO HEAL THE SUN.”
Tek’ka had fallen to his knees at this point, drained by the vision. The world was on fire with colors and light such as he’d never known.
“I will do it!” he wailed. “At once, great Titans!”
Desert Mouse looked up and saw the spires of the Blood Ridge. Violent memories trespassed on her mind. She’d nearly lost her life here several times—and that was in the lower areas, where vertiginous drops were out of the question.
Ezzouhn, Tek’ka and she were presently sidling along a precipice.
I don’t trust mountains, they are inherently ill-tempered.
“Couldn’t we have gone through the caves?” Her shout was barely audible over the gale. “Hey!”
For some reason, Ezzouhn came through loud and clear. “Those caves are a deathtrap.”
“Ah yes, and this is a stroll through the oasis.”
Tek’ka clung to the rock face. “It doesn’t matter! As long as we reach the top.”
The top, eh?
Desert Mouse looked to the sky and through the blight’s eternal haze she saw what remained of the sun. The million bright shards in the heavens weren’t nearly as luminous as the whole thing had been. As a result, their world had ceased to know the fullness of day for over half a century now.
Tek’ka had said he wanted to restore the sun, but was that even possible?
“It was a mistake to come here,” she whispered.
Somehow, Tek’ka had heard her. “Trust in the Titans, disciple of Zerrish. I do. What do you search for?”
A life of freedom and promise? The refuge. Yes, the refuge that took me in, and its people. The flustered mage Korrus, ever ranting about the time he was abandoned in some crypt. Or that shopkeeper, Dokalt, who is all sorts of awkward but keeps a pet monkey that makes me laugh.
“I guess,” she answered, “the people that I’ve come to depend on.”
“Then they are the reason you joined me.”
That and the fact that Ezzouhn had volunteered readily, stating that he had business on the mountain. It had left Desert Mouse with no alternative but to tag along.
But sure, if there was a chance for her to pay the refuge back for its kindness, she’d take it.
“And at the top of the mountain, they encountered a giant.”
Desert Mouse’s grandmother had told her many fairytales—of hapless children encountering great evil when they ventured too far from the oasis, of banquets that cursed you if you ate even a single grape. Of unbelievably high dunes of rock, called mountains, home to angry giants.
The party had reached the mountain’s crown—a plateau encircled by vicious-looking walls, forming an arena. Ceilingless, the open sky was their sole observer.
“It looks abandoned.”
“This is not possible,” Tek’ka said, taking a few strides onto the empty plateau. “The Titans promised me.”
“You were dreaming after all,” Ezzouhn opined.
“I saw what I saw!”
“We followed you here. Now it’s time to help me. I have wards that need fixing.”
The evoker and the swordsman leered at each other. They might as well have lived on separate worlds. Tek’ka was led by prophecy, chasing after lofty goals. Ezzouhn was deeply practical and sought to fix the magical devices protecting his distant village.
“Perhaps we should leave altogether,” Desert Mouse interjected.
The others were loath to give up so easily.
“I tell you the truth, the Titans want us here!”
“Leave that nonsense for the scholars.”
Their squabble echoed through the plateau and Desert Mouse was struck by a sense of foreboding. The crags around them seemed to close in on her. She unsheathed her daggers. Training her eyes on the niches, the rogue didn’t catch the shadow that emerged beneath her feet.
“Above you!” Ezzouhn shouted.
Desert Mouse dove to the side, just as the humongore crash-landed on her position.
The whole plateau shook. It had jumped down from the spires above, building up enough speed to quake the very mountain.
“Great Titans,” Tek’ka said.
“That’s no Titan,” Ezzouhn grunted, drawing his sword.
The humongore craned its massive head—encased in a metal saucer of some kind—toward the intruders in his abode.
“GOOD TIMING,” it said with metallic reverberation. “LARDER NEARLY EMPTY.”
Then it hauled its massive cleaver in the air and smashed it down on Ezzouhn. Desert Mouse thanked every sand phantasm she knew by name that it hadn’t targeted her. She scrambled to get up.
Lunging forward with her daggers, she marveled at this unknown foe. It seemed strangely cobbled together—a patchwork of skin and muscles from various sources. The giant was an animated corpse, with skin pale as milk and pustules erupting all over it.
Ezzouhn had escaped the deadly blow and was uselessly slashing at the brute’s fingers. Tek’ka, meanwhile, aimed his staff and created a well of gravity behind the humongore, wanting to pull it down. It hardly affected him.
“Desert Mouse, can you stagger it?”
Temporarily stunning an enemy was possible—when they were in the midst of an attack and she tripped up their stance. But Desert Mouse had no experience with this colossus.
“I’ll try!” she huffed nonetheless.
“NO MATCH FOR KHULIATH.”
The humongore’s words boomed across the summit. The young woman spurted forward and scaled its trunk-sized legs. Khuliath responded too slow to whisk her away. Once, twice she evaded his grabbing hand.
She stabbed her curved blade into the humongore’s abdomen. The tip unfortunately dug itself into a meaty substrate.
Desert Mouse could no longer resist the pull of gravity and slid down, rolling out of the way in case Khuliath retaliated.
“It’s impervious to our weapons!”
“We have nothing to gain here,” Ezzouhn muttered. “Might as well retreat.”
Tek’ka recoiled at the thought. “No!”
And besides, the humongore wouldn’t let them walk away so easily. Having dealt with the insect on its hip, it swung its cleaver again, this time in a revolving motion to decapitate them all at once.
Desert Mouse leapt back, staying out of range. This brought her close to one of the crevices in the rock face. They ran deep and, glancing into the shadow to scan for danger, she noticed something move within.
More enemies perhaps, or a way out?
Venturing into the niche, within seconds she discerned a fence of sorts, made from crude wooden slats and chicken wire.
It’s a corral.
An empty one at that. The various pieces of cloth and trash strewn about told her it had once been packed with prisoners.
“Hhh... Stay away...”
Desert Mouse started at the voice. In the pen’s darkest corner huddled a survivor. She sat on the floor, knees tucked in and arms shielding her face.
“Are you alright?” Desert Mouse asked, and mentally slapped herself for asking such an insipid question. “I’ll get you out, hang on.”
She started testing the fence and found a gate with three strips of bent metal to keep it shut. It was beyond her strength to unwrap them.
The prisoner moaned softly, as if afraid the newcomer was entering with a purpose in mind other than rescue.
“Don’t be frightened. I’m here to help.”
Desert Mouse used her dagger to wrench some of the slats loose. Kicking at it angrily, she forced open a hole large enough to step through.
“I’m Desert Mouse.” She extended her hand. “I come from the refuge on Cinder Peak.”
The dangerously thin woman peeked through her fingers. “My name’s... Dottir.”
“Dottir, we’ll do our best to escape. But first we’ll have to deal with Khuliath.”
At the sound of the name, two competing emotions crossed Dottir’s face: abject fear and hatred.
What has this lady endured?
Desert Mouse helped Dottir up and together they hobbled into the light. The rogue quickly checked how the fight was going.
The humongore had cornered her two companions. Ezzouhn was just making a break for it and Tek’ka had encased himself in a sizzling cocoon. It wasn’t enough to ward off the giant’s terrifying blow. The wizard slammed into the wall.
Without hesitation, Desert Mouse sprinted.
Khuliath’s back is turned to me and I bet that saucer makes it hard for it to sense me coming.
While she hurried across, she signaled Ezzouhn to lure it into an attack—which meant an opening for her to damage it. Tek’ka saw their coordination and intuited the strategy.
What followed was an astounding piece of good fortune.
As Desert Mouse approached from behind, the humongore hoisted its cleaver up. At that instant, Ezzouhn nicked its leg sufficiently to postpone—only briefly—its downward strike. The cleaver came down with enough hesitation that Tek’ka had time for a spell. His flash of insight was to cast a gravity well on the foe this time, instead of behind it.
Clever. Rather than trying uselessly to topple Khuliath...
The sudden pull of gravity in front of the monster’s chest warped the trajectory of the cleaver. It missed Ezzouhn by a yard and didn’t hit the ground, but shot up again, nearly lodging the serrated edge into the humongore’s own neck.
“WHAT TRICK?” it thundered.
It would be the last thing it thundered. Desert Mouse was upon it and struck a dagger in each of its calves.
Khuliath roared and sank to its knees.
Now to finish it.
She pulled her blades free and, with ready access to its vulnerable neck, braced to leap up.
However, something pushed her aside. Something yanked a dagger from her hand.
Desert Mouse regained her footing and looked at her attacker. It was Dottir. She stormed her tormentor, the creature that had locked her up in a cage.
With a single jump Dottir was on the humongore’s back. She crawled to its throat and starting stabbing it with the dagger. Over and over, in its jugular vein and muscles and windpipe. Dark purple blood shot all over her.
“Titans help us,” Tek’ka said in shock.
Khuliath gurgled and fell down dying. Dottir continued. By now the head was only attached to its body by slim remainders of a chipped spine and slabs of flesh. She started to scream in rage.
All power drained from Desert Mouse.
At the end of every fairytale her grandmother had told her, the heroes would return a little wiser and the villains would be vanquished. The mountain giant felled. But Desert Mouse didn’t experience the promised rush of victory. All she felt was dirty and disgusted, and she couldn’t wait to leave the plateau.
The summit had become a distant memory already. Their party, which now counted four, was in gloomy spirits—all except Tek’ka.
He had been confused after the humongore was destroyed.
“Where is the Titan’s treasure?”
Then Ezzouhn had found something on, or rather inside, Khuliath’s corpse: a phylactery. A soggy leather orb that, when they unwrapped it, had revealed an ornate jewel.
“An object of light, Aetheri-blessed...” Tek’ka had said, touching it with reverence.
At the center of it had lain a cloudy gemstone.
He had decided this was the prize they had been looking for. By then, Ezzouhn had lost his appetite to scour the mountains, Desert Mouse had been more than ready to leave the place and Dottir had become catatonic. They had half-carried her down.
A phylactery, Desert Mouse mused. A magical object to extend life beyond death.
They had left the last of the foothills. The road was pleasantly flat, though the blight remained thick as broth.
“I don’t feel comfortable holding on to this thing.” Ezzouhn readjusted the bag slung around his shoulder. “It’s blight-born.”
Tek’ka, who lead the group, gasped and stopped walking. Ezzouhn was at his side in the space of a breath, sword drawn. Desert Mouse was last to catch up, burdened by their charge.
“Alright, what’s the ambush?”
But the quip starved on her lips when she saw what blocked their path.
“Gi-ive-ive it to me-e.”
She recognized the goat from Tek’ka’s description. Its body gave the impression of a skeleton barely keeping its muscles together.
Spittle dripped from its protruding teeth.
Tek’ka knelt. “Yes, my Titans.”
And he reached for Ezzouhn’s bag—but the warrior stepped to the side, not prepared to give away their prize.
“Now I think I’ll hang on to it for a while longer.”
“This is no time to play,” the evoker warned.
They started a game of cat and mouse, Ezzouhn ducking away whenever Tek’ka made an attempt to grab the bag.
That’s when Dottir screamed. Desert Mouse tried to catch her, but she flew backwards, gasping for air.
“It’s him! It’s him, it’s him!”
Ezzouhn stopped to review this new development. Though Tek’ka felt a twinge of curiosity too, he saw his opening and stuck his hand in the backpack, taking out the wrapped phylactery.
“My Titans, my present to you...”
“Good Tek’ka-a-a,” the goat bleated.
Desert Mouse’s concern lay solely with Dottir, whose face had become a mask of agony.
“That’s the one,” she shivered, “I recognize his smell, his aura! He sent us up the mountain, oh Titans, but he was a man back then, a man with a bandaged stump for a leg.”
She kept rambling on, leaving Desert Mouse few clues as to what she was talking about.
Luckily, Ezzouhn had no qualms about acting before knowing the details. He had caught up with Tek’ka, angry that he’d let that spell-flinger get the better of him. The mage had brought the treasure to the goat by now.
“Hand that back, idiot!”
At the very last moment, Ezzouhn snatched the object away. He backhanded Tek’ka on the face, wanting to daze him to avoid a tussle.
As the mage stumbled, the goat sprang to life and latched onto Ezzouhn’s arm—but the parts that moved were newly formed. Bony, black limbs that frothed with an altogether different aspect than the rest.
“You’re not what you pretend to be,” Ezzouhn murmured.
Having trapped its victim, the goat started to morph. Parts of its skin fell off, shedding color and hair. For the briefest second, it was featureless and dark, draining the light around it, then it took shape as a humanoid.
Gnarled and ancient, with a frizzled beard and distinctly missing a leg, the new man said: “Kindly give that to me.”
With unexpected power, the geezer tried to coax the phylactery out of the warrior’s hold.
“It’s not human...” Dottir pulled herself up. “It’s a shapeshifter. It tricked us into fighting the humongore. It’s after the magical device.”
Desert Mouse had seen enough. She took a leap forward and threw one of her daggers at Tek’ka. It landed in the soil next to him, rousing him from his stupor.
“Wake up, mage!” she shouted. “You’ve been had! This is no Titan.”
And indeed, the once-goat-now-man lost coherency again and restructured itself into a mightier form, twice the size of an ordinary person. Its extremities were now flailing tentacles ending in scythes.
But Tek’ka had come to his senses. Seeing that he had been duped, he flew into a fit of rage. In less than a heartbeat he had thrust up his staff and opened the floodgates within himself—allowing an irresponsible amount of magic through.
A sliver of lightning ripped through the atmosphere and bored into the shapeshifter. It released Ezzouhn from its hold.
The warrior jumped back as if he had been standing in acid, then knelt beside the wizard, whose skin was charred in places.
“Hey. Get up.”
“I am fine,” he coughed. “But we must not assume this has subdued the creature.”
Desert Mouse was one step ahead of him and already coordinating the retreat. The two men stayed in the back to defend against any threat.
Yet the shapeshifter didn’t come after them.
The refuge had grown.
Gone was the barren mesa cradling a handful of tents. In the span of a single year, adventurers from all over the land had heard its rallying call. The Aetheri ruin had become a bustling place with fletchers, weaponsmiths, diviners, healers, a great forge and stockpiles of armaments. Construction had begun on a gated wall along the perimeter. The refuge needed protection and would soon gain the appearance of a rampart.
Overseeing these immense changes was the refuge elder. Despite the workload, he seemed in many ways younger than ever.
“Those boulders will hold,” he told the architect, “even if we place two ballistae on top.”
“My main concern is our lack of mortar.”
“I’ll have someone produce more, then.”
The architect left him, but was immediately replaced by other people seeking the elder’s direction. After a long journey, Desert Mouse, Ezzouhn, Tek’ka and the still-faint Dottir had reached home.
“Elder,” Desert Mouse reported, “Brooksbounty—”
“You’re late,” he interrupted. “Which leads me to suspect you’ve gone off-trail.”
She swallowed. “Yes. Brooksbounty didn’t hold anything of value, but we encountered this evoker, Tek’ka...”
While she recounted the events, the elder listened.
“And this phylactery is still in your possession?”
Desert Mouse nodded. “Ezzouhn has it. It’s dangerous, we shouldn’t underestimate it.”
“Bring it to Korrus. If it holds any secrets, he’ll tease them out.”
Glad for any reason to duck out of the conversation, Ezzouhn bowed and left the party. The elder turned to Tek’ka.
“You are welcome. Please make yourself useful to us.”
“It is my honor to be your guest,” the evoker said.
Both he and Desert Mouse retreated, taking along Dottir, who was ordered to the healer.
Still the elder’s work wasn’t finished, as no sooner had he dealt with the current group than another came forward. This one was comprised out of new faces—a small band of disheveled-looking people with two imposing figures at their head.
The woman, an older lady with purple wrappings covering her eyes, spoke to the elder with a hint of imperious disdain. Her shock of white hair sent a shiver down his loins.
“I am matriarch Wodania of the wolf tribe. We’ve come to ask your assistance in retrieving some of our kin. We lost them to iron pursuers and the youthful mistakes of myson, Karrogh.”
She prodded the man beside her, who was impossible to miss due to the white wolf head he wore as shoulder armor.
“Welcome,” the elder said, feeling the urge to straighten his posture. “I can’t promise assistance for your quest, as we’re short on hands. But I see you have a following of your own?”
“They’re wanderers that joined us in scaling the mountain. Strays.”
The elder reviewed the ragtag crowd. Not one of them stood out to him, all were equally worn-down. Some carried children. He resolved to process them as a group, asking Wodania to keep an eye on them as they dispersed into the refuge.
“I’ll look after this sorry bunch,” she confirmed, “if you’ll reconsider my request. A favor for a favor.”
“Not a second here and already testing the limits of our hospitality. I can tell you’ll be a handful, matriarch.”
“How very perceptive of you.”
While they bantered, one of the stragglers surveyed the refuge. There was nothing peculiar about him, just an ordinary adventurer. No one noticed him.
And no one noticed the little dog he held, a puppy, that would occasionally lick his nose with a tongue that was a little too long, a little too venomous.
The man looked on, his eyes slightly deader than a normal human’s would be.