That was her name now.
Her, his, their, its. There were endless subtleties depending on gender, age, build, culture: these mammals were so difficult to capture. She, the shapeshifter, preferred to stick to goats. And now was the time for her acting to be perfect, surrounded by humans with the innate ability to spot things just ever so off.
Luckily the closest one to her, the ornery wizard Korrus, had only eyes for his treasure.
“Hildegard,” he announced, never looking up from his poorly lit table, “I need better candles. The wicks won’t catch fire anymore.”
He pointed to his coin purse, which dangled from a rack propped up by several piles of tomes in his three-pole hut.
Hildegard took the purse and left.
Three days now, she steamed, and the human hasn’t shut his eyes once. Don’t they need increasing amounts of sleep as their bodies age?
If only he would sleep, then she could steal his prize.
If only he were to keel over.
But she needed to exercise exceptional care, because despite how scared the humans were of her and her power of change, Hildegard was powerless. Why else would she have resorted to tricking others into visiting Khuliath’s lair? The truth was any single one of them, Korrus included, could subdue her easily.
She had infiltrated the refuge under the guise of a male adventurer, but switched forms soon after. Having observed several females going about, she had crafted a new shape. Her body had endless memory for these changes, as well as memories about things far more primal, a hunger, a need that transcended everything else.
To fulfill this need, she would murder the wizard.
A monkey screamed at her.
Before the monkey could jump to her face, its owner, the merchant Dokalt, grabbed it.
“I’m very sorry about that,” he turned to Yoyo, “he’s usually well-behaved, aren’t you?”
But the pet kept snarling. This “Yoyo” recognized Hildegard for what she was.
“It must be dying to mate,” she joked. “I’m looking for a few items and ingredients. Candles, premium quality.”
“I have those in the back.”
“I also have a list of herbs: thyme, basil, saffron... and aconitum.”
Dokalt, rifling through his wooden crates, froze. “Wolf’s bane? Are you sure?”
“It’s for Korrus,” she jangled his coin purse. “He needs them for his studies.”
“As long as you’re careful. Wolf’s bane is quite the poison and I have a good record for not killing my customers.”
He wrapped the order in separate pieces of cloth. All the while, Yoyo kept eyeing Hildegard from Dokalt’s shoulder.
Don’t worry, it’s not meant for your master.
The hunger was still with him.
The blighted pup ruffled through an abandoned refuge campsite, but found no leftovers. He didn’t dare to approach the lively ones, where adventurers sang songs and cooked meats.
Though the strange thing was... Ever since his Friend had taken him up this mountain, the world had stopped trying to kill him. It was as if he was no longer frightening to humans. His Friend had dripped something on his fur and he had felt different somehow.
Then, three days ago, his Friend had said: “Listen up, guard dog, I’m very close now. The rest I will do alone. Stay here, but don’t draw attention. I’ve given you enough of a makeover that no one will notice you’re not quite alive.”
It had been lonely. He had remembered his mother and felt a crushing weight on his heart.
Don’t think of that, that’s the empty stomach speaking.
But he somehow knew he was fooling himself.
Wait... He put his nose in the air. I know that smell! That’s—
He dashed out from under a log and tried to pinpoint it.
It was an excellent fragrance; kindness mixed with fear and hope all bottled up in a perfume of sweat and skin that he recognized from the earliest moments of his afterlife.
He started to walk, following the impossible-to-resist scent. It soon became blended with the bloody smell of iron.
Hildegard entered the tent and saw the wan light of Korrus’s desk flicker behind a wall of folios. No snoring. He was still awake.
Not that she had any qualms about murdering him, but once the human was dead, it was a matter of time before he’d be discovered and a general alarm raised.
Then again, the same would happen if I were to snatch it from his sleeping hands. Killing is safer.
“Hildegard? I feel the draft on my ankles. Come in!”
Careful not to reveal her other purchases, she placed the coin purse back and tucked the herbs in her skirt. Four thick candles remained.
Korrus pointed at the crooked specimens. “Replace these. Quickly, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough.”
Hildegard removed the stubs of tallow and lit the new ones. Korrus reacted to the sudden brightness by peering deep into the jewel.
“A discovery, master scribe?” she asked, humoring him—these were his last moments alive after all.
“I’ve unearthed the phylactery’s ancestry.” He turned to a tome, tracing the scribblings on its starchy pages. “Hemog, that’s the name. It matches the story from that girl, Dottir. Hemog came from an old family of evokers specialized in matters of the blood. These markings here... and here... are sigils belonging to his family.”
“Your throat must be parched. Let me make you some tea.”
“Nonsense, I could speak for hours, but go ahead. Bring me two titles from the stack while you’re there.”
He gave Hildegard the names and she retreated to a small kitchen area to boil water. Knowing she was within earshot, Korrus continued.
“I now know the origin of this artifact. I also know why it was used—to power this creature Khuliath. But many details still elude me. What is the nature of this rainbow gem and how is it vigorous enough to fuel a giant? Phylacteries are known to extend the life of mortal men and poorly at that. For this tiny thing to breathe life into a body that size...”
The mage’s voice trailed off. Hildegard took a cup and filled it with water from the kettle. Then she unfolded the package containing the poison. The aconitum would kill a person in an hour. The trick was to get Korrus to ingest it. Hildegard ground several petals into a powder and infused it into a tea. The problem was the immediate effect of wolf’s bane: a tingling sensation on the tongue and lips. To disguise it, she added spices that naturally caused the same. The rest would hinge on Korrus’s level of distraction.
She placed the tea on his desk.
“Here. Drink up, please.”
“Huh? Oh, thank you. Did you retrieve the volumes?”
She produced two books caked with considerable dust.
“It really is helpful to have an assistant,” he said.
“I’m happy to hear that. Now, your tea.”
The scribe brought the poison to his lips, never ceasing his inspection of the device, and just as he tilted it for a sip—
“Ten thousand curses!”
Korrus’s shout was immense and he jolted from his seat, dropping the cup and spilling its contents on the floor.
Hildegard brimmed with rude emotions: fury, frustration, astonishment. She nevertheless kept everything inside.
Meanwhile, Korrus rushed back to the table.
“Incredible!” he gasped. “I saw it! Some specter within, screaming at me soundlessly! This calls for immediate experimentation! Hildegard, fetch a tripod, several sticks of kindling, and find a place to—no, better yet, send someone over to my friend Chiani. I have need of her forge!”
His assistant ground her teeth. The poisonous tea had been lost and Korrus’s untimely death foiled. For now.
The blight puppy staked out the building that emanated the sweet smell mixed with the memory of his dead mother and the heavy stink of metals.
He couldn’t read the words on the sign, so he didn’t know if this was Her home, but he hoped so. After all this time, he could still picture Her: that human woman with her dark eyes full of concern, braving the thorn bushes for him.
The encounter hadn’t ended well—he’d lost control and tried to attack Her—so he ached to make amends. This time would be different.
Hildegard was powerless to stop Korrus in flying off with the jewel.
What is that human planning?
He had seen a fragment of the phylactery’s creator inside the gemstone. The shapeshifter recalled several instances in the history of the world where this had been the case. Her knowledge was drawn from an ancient and faraway well, as she had no brain of her own.
How much she yearned to join that well again.
“Chiani! I’m here to propose another very stupid mistake!” Korrus had rarely been so energetic as today. “Open up!”
The heat that wafted from the smithy was enough to ward off any visitor, but Chiani quizzically leaned out, unharmed by the temperature.
“Korrus. I see you got out of that tomb after all.”
“and I see,” he crossed the entrance, braving the smoke, “you made good on the promise to your grandmother. Don’t think I didn’t hear: in old age, one’s ears grow long indeed.”
Chiani twisted the hammer in her hand and smiled. “What do you need fashioned?”
“Ah, it is the very opposite I’m looking for—decomposition. I’d like to borrow your furnace for a bit.”
At the sound of that word, decomposition, Hildegard’s eyes widened. She had followed the scribe into the sizzling oven, feigning a sweat.
He can’t mean to destroy the phylactery!
She considered transforming into a raging beast right away, unleashing the limited power available to her, but simmered down: there was still time and Korrus was no idiot.
Further complicating matters was the arrival of a lumbering human, half-naked and covered with tattoos.
“Malborys, my savior,” Korrus said.
“That’s true.” Chiani sized the brute up. “If it weren’t for him, you’d still be in that coffin. Why’s he here, though?”
“He’s here because there is a nontrivial chance things might get a bit dangerous.”
“Better not be meatclots.”
As Korrus brought forth the prize and beckoned Chiani to discuss the plan, Hildegard suddenly felt a tug at her skirt. Gazing down, she saw the blight pup.
What are you doing here?
One more threat to deal with. The pup might break the transmogrification she had applied to him! She knelt down, hoping the others were too distracted.
“Go, little guard of mine.”
But he clawed at the fabric and—was he pouting?
“I don’t have time for you right now. Leave.”
She quickly scooped up the dog and deposited him out of the window. The blight pup landed in a box of vellum strips.
“I’ll make it up to you.”
Hildegard returned to the inner forge and saw things were already going forward. Korrus sat looking in rapt attention while Chiani handled the phylactery with a pair of tongs. Malborys kept his distance.
“Gently now,” Korrus warned.
Chiani brought the jewel to her fire pot, filled with coals licked red hot by eager flames.
They’re going to destroy the one thing that can deliver me from this nightmare.
Just as she was about to jump in and jerk Chiani’s hands back, the forge-mistress stopped. The phylactery hung on the precipice of burning up.
“Good, keep it there for a moment.” Korrus wrung the sweat from his beard. “I’m certain this will work. Blood boils quicker than stone and I will wager anything there is blood magic at work here. All right, now tip it in.”
Chiani hesitated, Hildegard tensed.
“It has to understand,” Korrus said, “that we’re serious. Do it.”
The blacksmith eased the tongs into the fire. Tongues of flame touched the cursed jewel.
Seeing no other way to stop this, Hildegard prepared to drop her disguise and conjure up the most terrifying shape she knew—a nightmare from the deepest crevices of the earth. With a little luck, it’d stun the humans long enough for her to save the phylactery and run.
However, a heartbeat after beginning her transformation, an unearthly howl blasted from the gemstone. More out of shock than by design, Chiani retracted the tongs and saved the trinket from the fire—a trinket that now began to shiver and ring.
No one paid any heed to Hildegard and she quickly reversed her metamorphosis.
Malborys drew his sword and lunged at the phylactery.
“Stop!” Korrus shrieked.
Everyone in the forge made room for the artifact that Chiani had dropped to the floor. The phylactery vibrated, then projected a swirling black cloud from its center. From it emerged a screaming blood magus.
“Hemog!” Korrus gasped.
The sorcerer was clad in crimson robes and his skin was hideously malformed by the blight. Bony protrusions sprouted like antlers from his shoulders and head—and all the while he kept chattering.
Malborys was on him in an instant, slashing his blade clean through the monster’s throat. But the phantasm was undisturbed and continued his ascent.
“By Siurd,” Chiani said, “was that in there all the time?”
“Yes, and we’ve managed to coax it out! It’s the blood magus from the tale, but not him exactly, it’s more like a blood memory, an aspect of Hemog that he trapped in the phylactery when he created it.”
“I say we destroy it!” Malborys yelled.
“Don’t be daft! If I can reverse engineer how Hemog created this, we’ll have a weapon against the blight unlike any other.”
“I don’t know, scribe,” Chiani opined, “this seems like playing with fire.”
No words could sway the straightforward mind of Malborys, however. Without hesitation he held his sword aloft and brought it down on the seed that had spewed forth this evil flower. Before it struck, Hemog swiped with one of his gangly claws. Where once he had been as ephemeral as morning’s dew, now his hand was solid as bone. Malborys was flung to the side.
Seemingly having made his point, the manifestation slunk back into the phylactery—which itself had cooled off.
“I think,” Korrus gulped, “I’ll have to be very careful going forward. Hildegard, please help me collect it. We’re going home.”
Chiani nodded, equally vexed. Malborys groaned from the corner.
The only person—or entity—in the room that had remained unfazed throughout it all was Korrus’s assistant. Even as the blood magus had howled, Hildegard had felt only relief.
So, the phylactery can defend itself. Hemog was a prudent craftsman. I’ll have another opportunity to seize it, but no more stalling. Korrus dies today.
If his Friend wanted him out of the building where She was holed up, then she must’ve had good reason for it. It probably wasn’t safe, so he’d just wait.
The blight pup got sleepy and started drowsing against the warm stone wall.
He dreamed of a never-ending field of brambles, except the brambles were meat pies and gourds filled with milk. The ground was slathered in honey, though, and he kept slipping.
Startling awake, he saw a small group of people leave: his Friend, a black-bearded human and a scary one with a helmet. The puppy waited for the procession to pass. His heart raced, because She hadn’t been with them and her scent still lingered around the windowsill.
A few moments more, he thought.
Enough! He leapt from the crate’s edge through the window and landed with a thump on the smithy’s packed earth floor.
He looked up at the owner and She gazed back, momentarily stunned.
“Hey little guy.”
He started frolicking around her feet. Smiling, She knelt down and petted him wearing coarse gloves, scratching behind his ears.
“It’s a little dangerous here, right now. Let me show you out.”
He stopped prancing and backed away, involuntarily snarling at the thought.
Why isn’t She as kind as She was before? Ah! Stupid, stupid! I must look totally different after what my Friend did to me.
“I won’t harm you,” She said, “come along now. I’m sure there’s someone in the refuge that’ll take up a stray.”
She won’t recognize me unless I shake off this disguise!
As She reached for him, the blight pup tensed, concentrating on regaining his true form. Something cracked and he felt his shape melting away. Out of his mind with joy, he tried to lick Her, but She recoiled in fright. Within moments, She had her hammer in hand.
He barked to comfort Her, but it came out as a wild roar.
“You’re that monster dog!” She whispered. “Why don’t you and I visit the elder?”
The blight pup growled as She came close. She was going to take him to some human and hadn’t his Friend told him to stay away from everyone?
He evaded her lunge and was out the window in a second.
Outside, he looked behind him to ponder his next step when She already came bursting out the door.
Chiani rushed out of her smithy, grappling her grandmother’s hammer. That poor, blighted dog she had discovered in the wilderness months ago was here!
A sickening feeling reached the pit of her stomach.
Korrus had warned me against leaving the creature alive.
The blight had somehow infiltrated the refuge. More worrying, perhaps, was the dog’s ability to cloak itself. Who or what else was hiding among them?
The pup raced down the alleyway and Chiani gave chase, careening over timber-laden carts, weaving through traffic and dodging a halberd that nearly decapitated her. The practicing warrior went white as a sheet.
“My bad!” he yelled.
—First, she had wanted to say, but her flight through the refuge was so dizzyingly fast that the scenery had already changed into a different street, and then an expanse of huts, and then the outskirts of the mesa. The infected dog’s course led up a few roughly hewn steps in the Aetheri ruin and then, beyond a forest of granite pillars, to the blight scribe’s abode.
With an agile series of vaults, the runt was in the hut.
Chiani was racked by guilt. The thought that it was Korrus who might be paying for her mistake was too much to bear. She tore open the entrance to the tent.
“Korrus!” she hissed, forcing her eyes to adjust to the low level of light.
She strafed around the columns of books and found a grisly scene: the evoker hung back in his chair and skulking over him was his assistant Hildegard.
“What did you do?” Chiani demanded.
The other woman dropped all pretense. “Your friend is dying from wolf’s bane poisoning. If you wish to save him, better be quick.”
With that, she snatched the phylactery up. Suddenly her arm warped into a scythe and with a single slash of her mutated appendage, Hildegard carved out an opening in the back wall and retreated through it.
From a corner of the tent, the blight pup emerged in a sprint, following his master outside.
Chiani rushed forward, her feet kicking a cup lying in a pool of liquid—a bitter tea, going by the smell.
Think fast now. Wolf’s bane—who knows how to cure it? The healer. But the healer’s tent is on the other side of the refuge and perhaps the greater evil would be to let the assassin escape with the phylactery.
Chiani was inching towards a terrible decision: to leave her friend at death’s door and instead apprehend Hildegard. But she wasn’t quite ready to commit to it yet.
The victim rasped and she put her ear to his chest. How weakly his heart beat! She picked up his hand and was shocked to feel how clammy it was.
“Titans, this toxin is doing a number on you.”
“Phyl... tery...” he breathed. “Get...”
Chiani flushed with rage and regret at her impotence. “Sorry, Korrus, this is my fault! And it’s the second time I’m leaving you behind!”
Swallowing her emotions, she made for the exit while Hildegard’s trail was still hot.
Hildegard felt a throbbing panic. She had been caught red-handed and now everything hinged on a mad dash for the world outside.
“A pox on you, guard dog!” she cursed while sprinting through the pillars.
The pup was on her heels, a look of confusion on his little snout. Hildegard had a shrinking window in which to escape. The shapeshifter had never been more nervous in her life—its life. “Hildegard” wouldn’t fool anyone anymore, their arm a swinging blade of tar-like substance. They morphed into the young adventurer who arrived here not a week ago.
I might be able to blend into—
But the thought was cut short when they heard a shout.
“Assassin! Sound the alarm!”
It was Chiani! The shapeshifter had reached the populated part of the refuge, but hadn’t had the chance to mingle. Night hadn’t fallen yet and that meant all were ready to join the hunt.
That’s when the bells began to ring—a pitched jangle of rallying sounds.
I have to get out!
All over the refuge, adventurers drew their weapons and wizards boobytrapped the roads with runes. The shapeshifter hid wherever they could. Any abandoned backyard was another chance to shift forms. They changed into a codger, a spear-thrower, a spellsword. Every time, it afforded them a chance to sneak further before Chiani invariably sniffed them out. Or they triggered a trap and had to liquefy to escape. More and more human heroes grew wise to the shapeshifter’s flight.
Arrows whizzed by. Zigzagging through the labyrinth was their only option. There! The massive gates loomed in the distance.
But they’re closed! How will I breach the wall?
An arrowhead pierced their shoulder, but why would that upset them? The shapeshifter had no crucial underlying muscles. They merely forced the intruding object out and continued to run.
Ah, but my thinking has been constrained by human limitations.
Mid-run, their arms grew a thick span of feathers until they had turned into wings and they themselves into a great vulture.
“It’s getting away!” Chiani shouted. “Archers!”
The shapeshifter had barely left the ground, carrying the phylactery in one claw and the blighted pup in another, when a volley of arrows descended on them from the marksmen stationed on the fortification.
They felt bolts tear their newly-formed wings asunder. The ascent faltered.
“Fire everything you’ve got!”
Spells hit them without remorse. Gravity wells sucked at their weight, electricity roasted their feathers. The shapeshifter had managed to soar above the wall now. Below they saw the massive landscape, covered in rolling banks of blight.
“Open the gate!” the blacksmith ordered.
The massive portal slowly pivoted open. A storm of people swarmed out underneath the vulture’s shadow.
The ready shapeshifting had drained them of their energy and they took a nosedive. The refuge, nestled on the tip of perilous butte, had only the faintest of rims outside its borders before it sloped down hard and fast.
I’d rather flatten myself in the canyon below than fall into human hands.
So they swooped down, but aiming took effort and they landed on a ledge.
Losing all coherency, the shapeshifter degenerated into a puddle of black ooze, forming hands and arms to try to raise themselves up. Within seconds, Chiani and a few others had surrounded them.
“Give up,” she said.
As the blighted pup tried nudging his master back into shape, the amorphous blob formed a mouth and wailed: “Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“Incredible! Murdering my friend isn’t enough of a reason?”
“I am... only trying to... become whole again.”
“You’re a monster.”
One of the shapeshifter’s arms oozed over to Chiani, grasping. “Must reach Kriusz...”
The blacksmith arced her hammer sideways to deflect the hand, which retreated into the blob. Gathering whatever remained of their strength, the shapeshifter solidified partially.
If I can just...
They managed to form tightly wound coils burrowed into the rock face underneath, tensing their body, bracing to launch themselves.
Chiani stepped forward, nudging to the surrounding executioners to strike on her mark. Hammers were raised. Lethal incantations prepared.
The shapeshifter released the built-up energy in their bizarre limbs, clutching the phylactery, and fired themselves off the mountain.
Several human jaws dropped at the sight of an ungainly ooze of pitch black corruption shooting into the fog hundreds of feet below, dragging down a frightened runt.
Chiani bolted into Korrus’s hut. She hadn’t spared a second to rush back.
Several people were present to care for the dying evoker.
“Praise be Siurd,” she whispered. “How is Korrus?”
Two guards looked at her sternly. Chiani recognized the third by his flowing robes and not-quite-tattoos that radiated with a light of their own—Kujuk was his name, a disciple of the Titan Oxuuxo.
He touched the victim’s forehead and drew circles there.
“This one is not out of time yet,” he said sonorously and strangely lacking in emotion. “It wouldn’t tangle the flow for me to reverse the poison’s entropy.”
“Do it. Reverse it, whatever you just said.”
Kujuk drew a line from Korrus’s forehead to his sternum, where he again drew circles, this time counterclockwise. Blue fire washed from his wrists. After a minute, the flames evaporated and Kujuk retracted his hand. He then walked backwards to the entrance.
“Tell Korrus to watch out for poisons in the past,” he said in goodbye.
He hadn’t left for a second before the black-bearded wizard gasped violently and struggled to sit up. The two guards gave him a cup of water, which he slapped away—probably thinking it toxic tea.
His eyes seized Chiani and his face mellowed.
“It’s all right, my friend. We saved you.”
“The phylactery?” he asked, his voice raspy.
“Stolen. Hildegard was a doppelgänger of some sorts.”
“Before it fled, it said something about Kriusz. Isn’t that... I mean, it’s the Titan of Corruption, but isn’t it also the golem out there?”
Korrus’s eyes filled with worry. Chiani didn’t doubt even the word “Kriusz” was a curse on mankind and that the mage would soon tell her disturbing stories about the golem and the end of the world.
Nothing scares humans as much as change. Whether it’s the world itself shifting like quicksand, the slow degradation of old age or the sudden shock of a body warping into something else. The shapeshifter knew the last one from experience.
Throughout their brief and painful life so far, it had been all they could count on. How they ached to return to the well of their existence! With the phylactery in possession, they could finally achieve that task. They would assume their real form again, a droplet of ooze no longer.
The shapeshifter crawled on through the miasma, the blight pup following dutifully.
It will take time to gather my strength before the ritual. The humans are aware of me now. Hunting me, probably.
From the mist emerged the shape of the Aetheri’s cruel legacy in this world. A place where the shapeshifter could hide—a hole deeper than any other. Yes, here they would find solace, here in this Underhold, among the screaming madmen and evils incarcerated no longer.