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Chapter 1 - Forging Ahead

Roderick Leeuwenhart

“This was a very stupid mistake,” Korrus said, “and I greatly regret agreeing to escort you.”

“As you’ve made abundantly clear.”

Chiani had been taking point for several hours, the old evoker trailing in her wake. Both were tired, having traversed these badlands for three days, their supplies running thin and their mood thinner. Nothing grew here except thorn bushes, interspersed by the odd blackened willow. And all of it, always, was smothered in blight.

“The old man would never have agreed,” Korrus continued, his voice carrying the sound of ancient tomes, “but you convinced me with those doe eyes and broken hammer bits, and your talk about founding a smithy in the refuge, as if that will save us! So we snuck out and here we are, lost in the cursed blight and we still haven’t reached the Gravemark to—I swear to Duron I will destroy every last one of these blood-sucking gnats!

Korrus removed his rather impressive hat and scratched his itching forehead, ruffling the dark hair that seemed to sprout in great volumes from all over him.

Quarreling won’t help us reach my grandmother’s tomb. Chiani remembered it all too well, cheeks burning hot: A single wrong-angled strike shattered my hammer on the anvil. Brittle steel, sure, but lousy technique as well. I stood there frozen for hours until I had the courage to pick up the pieces and beg for help. Not help from the elder who’d so kindly let me in, but maybe the stern-looking mage?

One thing was certain: she needed Korrus to get through this. He was one of the refuge’s last survivors, an evoker of some repute, while she was just a young blacksmith. Bellows and anvils, forges and iron; by Siurd, those were her tools! But a blacksmith without a hammer—what a joke. Yes, Chiani was lucky she’d been able to persuade Korrus.

Not that it made his whining any more palatable.

“Chopping, cleaving, violence with big sticks, bah! What we need is knowledge. Scholars! Our greatest weapon against the blight is—”

“Shush. Do you hear that?”

The sound came from the underbrush, a few paces off the road. The blight obscured anything more than a few arm lengths away, so all Chiani saw were bushes vanishing into the milky soup, but she could guess where to go. And go she would, as this was no noise belonging to the miasma.

It was mewling.

Without warning she veered off path, shocking her companion.

“Careful,” Korrus said. “One scratch from those barbs...”

“Something’s in there, something that shouldn’t be here, so I think it’s safe.”

Nevertheless, she gripped her dagger.

“Nothing is safe,” Korrus protested, not joining, “and we shouldn’t be here.”

As Chiani trampled the thorn bushes as best as she could, it became all but impossible to hold back the memories of what they’d seen on this nightmare of a journey.

She remembered leaving the refuge to descend into the blight along the steps leading down the mountain. Then had come the hours of marching without a break, hours leading into days, always on guard, always feeling watched. After that, the wretches. Horrible creatures, once men and women. The blight had taken them and now all they wanted was—

Too horrible to think of.

Focus on the here and now. You’re terrified, but here’s something that’s even more scared than you are.

Glancing back, she noticed neither the path nor Korrus were visible anymore. The blacksmith gulped and tightened the straps of her leather tunic. This might’ve been another “very stupid mistake”.

The mewling continued. Keeping quiet, Chiani cleared a path towards the source. There it was, hidden under a canopy of thorns. She readied the dagger to arc it into any malicious—

Her heart broke.

She knelt down and eased her weapon to the soil.

It was a puppy with dirt-caked fur. He had buried his little head in the flank of his mother, who laid sideways quite dead. The pup in turns dug his snout in her ravaged belly and howled in distress.

“I’m afraid your mother isn’t coming back.” Chiani considered the right way to pick up the tiny animal. “Let me take you with us. Who knows, you could be my smithy’s guard dog?”

The pup’s back was still turned to her. She reached for him.

“Don’t be alarmed, now...”

Ever so gently, she wrapped her fingers around his sides, lifting him up—and at once the creature spun around, thrashing in her hold, eyes possessed. It was all Chiani could do to keep him at bay.

If I let go now, it’ll go for my jugular! she thought, tightening her grip even as he clawed at her hands, drawing blood. Easy there, little guy!

But the beast had gone berserk and already his razor teeth were growing in his mouth, the tongue a swirling tentacle. He nearly took off a finger. Chiani couldn’t ward him off for much longer.

Then—a flash of light. She recoiled at once and the mutated pup somersaulted back through the air. He landed and scrambled into position to pounce again, snarling.

“It’s been blighted,” she heard a voice behind her say, one thick with knowledge on the vast dangers of this place and the stupidity of young blacksmiths. “Evil doesn’t care if things look cute.”

Korrus stood behind her, his staff alight with the afterglow of his attack. Chiani felt a rush of embarrassment.

“I know,” she huffed, “I’m one big very stupid mistake. I should’ve—”

“It doesn’t matter. We will put this unfortunate creature down and resume our path.”

“No, don’t.”

It surprised both of them. Chiani knew there was no saving this creature: it had been corrupted and there was no reversing that.

“Don’t a be a fool. It’s relatively harmless now, but there’s no telling how it will develop. It might become as tall as a castle, with five gaping maws spewing lava, and then what will you do? Stand before it and say ‘heel’?”

He made perfect sense and yet there it was: “No.”

“Not even the elder could escape the blight’s effects! The old man’s been fighting for humanity’s survival for so long, the sickness has crept into his bones, to the point that being exposed even once more could kill him. I repeat myself, the blight doesn’t care what goes into it—and what comes out is without exception bad, the kind of bad that needs to be excised immediately.”

“And yet I insist.”

Korrus let fly a curse and pointed his staff, already humming with energy. The puppy braced to meet the threat head-on. Before Chiani knew what she was doing, she picked herself up and stood between them.

Before her, the pup that might lunge at any moment.

Behind her, the cantankerous wizard who must be weighing the pros and cons of blasting through her.

I can’t let him kill it. It’s all alone in the world—just like me.

She felt sweat snaking down her jaw. Then Korrus breathed a heavy sigh.

“These are the decisions that shape us, blacksmith,” the evoker spoke without anger, a tutor again.

Chiani thought little of the philosophizing. She looked at the mongrel, guarding its ruined mother, and knew she had done a good thing.

-

The Gravemark, Korrus explained, was a giant cemetery built by the Aetheri. Inside its white walls lay the tombs and crypts of a hundred thousand men in a maze of ornately carved rock. All from long ago, of course, before the Shadow Titan fell, before the blight came, when the world was still sane.

Chiani and Korrus stood agape before its entrance. Foliage bunched up near the perimeter, as if desperate to scale the walls. Two stone guardians flanked the rusted gate. Chiani surmised she’d be able to smash the aged iron to pieces—if only she had a hammer.

But that was exactly what she was here to remedy.

“Let’s head in,” she said.

“And you’re certain you don’t remember the exact location?”

“I never visited before. I only heard stories of our ancestral tomb and my grandmother was among the last to be placed there.”

“That’s a lot of ifs and conjecture.”

“They’re stories, Korrus. Stories we pass on and no more.”

“Bah.”

She stepped forward to test the barrier while stifling a cough, that surest sign the blight was getting to her. The gate’s creak seemed loud enough to alarm the whole courtyard behind it. She inched her way through the gap and Korrus followed, crushing his robes.

The courtyard wasn’t much of a welcome, with its crumbled fountain and caved-in benches. Chiani shuffled forward. There were various roads to take, all leading into alleys dimmed by fog.

“That way,” she said, just to have a direction.

-

It took hours of wandering before they found the place.

“This is it.” Chiani took a moment to take it in. The mausoleum wasn’t big, but it had a homely feel and above the entrance hung a heraldic shield featuring a blacksmith’s hammer. “My family grave. They’re buried here, my ancestors—furnace masters one and all.”

“Great,” Korrus huffed. “Let’s head in, find your granny’s casket and return. With any luck, the elder will only have us whipped instead of exiling us for being idiots.”

Chiani ignored him, as had become a habit, and pulled at the heavy door until it swung open. Inside, the air was dank. The confined space held a dozen stone coffins, with names chiseled on them. She knelt at her grandmother’s.

“Help me out with this.”

“That’s all mages are good for, it seems.”

Together they heaved the lid askew, just enough for an arm to worm through.

Chiani peered in. There, a glimmer! Her eyes adapted to darkness and now she saw the woman’s remains—a frilled dress decayed over the decades, a person barely more than skin wrapped taut around their skeleton. Emaciated hands held on to a hammer—her grandmother’s, buried with her as was her right.

Chiani held her breath and reached for its haft. She took it out and marveled at its quality. Where everything in the Gravemark was ancient, this object seemed new; its edges as defined as when first crafted.

I know I don’t deserve this yet, but I promise I’ll take good care of it, granny. She thought back to the broken hammer bits. No more mistakes. That’s my solemn oath.

At once she felt powerful again, whole again.

“Let’s go,” she decided, Korrus perking up his ears. “If we make time, we’ll be back at the refuge in two days.”

They left the vault feeling better about themselves when the thing came at them, overtaking them in four stomps of its steel-tipped boots.

Korrus was allowed the faintest of “eh?”s before he was smacked to the side, flying into the fence gating the crypt. Chiani saw him as a flurry of blue robes shooting by and that was all the warning she needed.

The advancing creature was a glob of shivering muscles tucked in metal armor, twice the size of a man, with great arrowhead blades extruding from its fists.

Chiani rushed to Korrus. His nose bled and he was dazed, but she managed to drag him by the shoulders into the mausoleum. Before the monster traversed the distance, she slammed the door shut and bolted it.

“I preferred,” Korrus spat blood, “the puppy.”

“I just hope this thing doesn’t know how to use door handles.”

The evoker laughed weakly. “That thing is what we call a meatclot. They don’t need handles.”

As if to demonstrate the fact, the door shuddered as the behemoth used its formidable body as a battering ram. Chiani jumped away—but it held. For now.

“What are we going to do?”

Korrus, still helpless on the floor, groaned. “I’m hurt and there’s no time to patch me up. I fear we have but moments. This was—”

“I know,” Chiani cried out, “a stupid mistake! I’m so sorry!”

“No,” Korrus smiled, “this was a honor for me. I’m glad to have joined you on this trip, despite our unfortunate, imminent end.”

She guffawed through the tears. “I don’t suppose my hammer will do any good? But wait! This isn’t over yet.”

As long as the door held, there was room to act. Without explaining herself, she once more took hold of Korrus and helped him to her grandmother’s grave—which was solid stone, so even the fiend outside would have difficulty cracking it.

“Get in,” she said.

Korrus was aghast. “You’re not serious.”

“I won’t be able to best that monster, but I’m quick on my feet, I can outrun it. This’ll keep you safe. Once I’m clear, I’ll get help. And if it kills me... at least I’ll have lured it away. Rest up with my granny and crawl out after a few hours.”

She pushed the lid a few inches further. There was no time for negotiating, Korrus would simply have to go. She started heaving him over the edge and he was powerless to resist.

“You think I can push that slab away on my own? Well, I guess I have no choice. Watch the robes! Ah, is that you fondling my sides, lovely lady?” He craned his head towards the corpse and flashed a devious look. “Oh, I must admit, I am not currently spoken for. I’ve been told by many that I’m quite the catch, married though I am to my studies.”

“Shush,” she said with a smile and heaved the lid back in place.

All alone for the first time in days. But the pounding on the door hadn’t ceased. In preparation, Chiani secured the hammer on her back—this would require speed and finesse, not fighting skills.

THUNK.

The poundings had a rhythm to them, as if the beast outside was working on a machine’s clockwork logic.

THUNK.

The wooden slats groaned terrifically now and Chiani saw bits of pink flesh peek through the cracks.

THUNK!

The battered door flew back. Chiani braced herself in the dust covering the floor—and in lurched the meatclot, its legs barely keeping up, blind with rage.

It was the opening she was looking for. With a generous dose of luck she flung herself at the brute, praying she’d be lithe enough to squeeze through its flailing arms. Her dive was clean. The arrowhead blades missed her belly by a hair’s width.

Light a candle for your ancestors later, she made a mental note. They’re watching over me.

Flying high on the success of her escape, her heart sang. The only thing troubling her was the building roughness in her throat, but even blight sickness couldn’t hold her down! She heard the meatclot behind her, slow to realize its quarry had slipped away.

Chiani ran.

Though the Gravemark’s winding paths were difficult to tell apart, nothing could stop her. She raced up a flight of steps and entered the courtyard.

There her blood curdled.

Where once the square had been empty, now a horde of meatclots occupied it. Choking it. Barricading the exits. An immovable wall of heaving flesh. As one, they lifted their faces at her, saliva spilling from the slits between their teeth.

“Alright,” Chiani whispered, slowly unclasping the hammer from her back. “Maybe if I take one out, it’ll give the others pause, and maybe I get to escape again.”

She coughed and forced her eyes to see clearer in the miasma.

“Come on, you roaches!” she howled.

One of the meatclots stirred and lumbered her way. And another, and a third, and soon the whole legion.

What a waste. But I gave it my best shot and I’m grateful I had the guts to take this risk. My only regret is I never got to hone my craft.

Sweat slicked Chiani’s fingers.

The ever-grinning faces came closer.

Just when she was about to lunge at them, one desperate swing that’d hopefully fracture a jaw, she heard a roar. A human roar. One ancient and powerful. The monsters turned.

“Who...?”

Chiani tried to peer behind their armored backs. For a while, she saw nothing but raised blades, the silent moments before a carnage, and she considered retreating. But what the blacksmith saw in the throng blew every thought of escape away.

It was the elder, the grey-maned lion lording over the refuge. Back there he had seemed so harmless—his adventuring years long gone, the blight sickness apparent around his one unpatched eye. But this was another man altogether: there he stood, twin axes held aloft, and the way he moved was a dance.

He sent one meatclot’s arm flying into the air.

Ducking, he pressed his cleavers against two hamstrings.

He’s internalized the craft of slaughter, Chiani thought, perfected it into an art form.

The next moment a raw splatter of violence befouled her face and the feeling vanished. The battle became as anguish-filled as any. The elder was clearly outnumbered and his axes started wavering.

“The old man’s been fighting for humanity’s survival for so long, the sickness has crept into his bones,” she remembered Korrus saying.

“Elder!” she cried out, silencing herself at once—stupid to distract him!

And yet his eagle eye fastened onto her.

“I’ll cut a way through,” he said. “Follow me once there’s an opening.”

She nodded.

He resumed the battle that would cost him dearly. Every second he breathed in the fumes stole away another hour, another day.

When one of the meatclots stabbed its arrowheads into his chest, Chiani was afraid he’d collapse, but the warrior slammed the enemy away. A feint—and the meatclot staggered back, axe embedded in yielding forehead.

But the endless parade of meat-things kept churning out new fodder.

Chiani prepared to rush in, hammer raised. Anything better than this despair. She launched herself right when the opening appeared—the long-sought way through, purchased with life.

“Now!” the elder roared.

Chiani dashed, legs responding faster than thoughts. Halfway through, the elder joined her retreat, guarding against the groping hands. Before the meatclots caught wise, they were gone.

-

By the time they reached the encampment, Chiani was racked with guilt. She had half expected the elder to succumb during the return trip, but only when they had made the climb up the mountain did he relax. Instantly his exhaustion showed. He slouched towards his tent and sat down, exhaling.

“Elder?” Chiani asked after a minute of silence. “Should I call the healer?”

“You went out without consulting me,” he said, never opening his eye. “Parties of two are ill-advised, and it took me long to track you down.”

This was it—kicked out of the refuge. Not only had she failed at being a blacksmith, Chiani had slighted the elder. To her surprise, though, he suddenly smiled.

“But you managed to find your family’s tool. Use it well.”

“So... I’m not expelled?”

“And turn away the future? We need your initiative, and your mistakes. I’ve made a fair few myself.” The elder sighed. “We’ve fallen on hard times. Please help me rebuild by constructing the best forge in the world.”

He looked out. The refuge was nested in an Aetheri ruin, occupied after the ancient race disappeared. It was built on a mesa overlooking the lands—the downed golem an ominous landmark in the distance and the graveyard even further beyond. Once, it had been filled with people, now only a few were left.

“This place could be a torch to light humanity’s way.”

Chiani suddenly startled, remembering a crucial thing.

“By Siurd, we left Korrus in the crypt! I’ll have to go back!”

“We must regain our strength first.”

“He won’t survive that long.”

Chiani swiveled around and prepared to leave the tent. Then the elder slammed his hands together.

“Malborys!”

Before she left the chamber, an imposing warrior stepped in—his body covered in tattoos. The elder beckoned him in, inviting Chiani to listen.

“Our evoker is trapped in the Gravemark. Somewhere in the blacksmith’s family tomb. Will you need assistance?”

The giant grunted. “Malborys needs no one.”

“Be swift.”

Malborys only nodded and, ignoring Chiani completely, left.

She noticed the elder processing everything and thought: Korrus hadn’t lied—he’s great in every way. Under his leadership, I’ll believe we stand a chance against the darkness.

But she knew in her heart it was the tiniest of chances. How were they supposed to save this land? Before despair took her, she suddenly felt the weight of her grandmother’s hammer on her back. Chiani took it in her hands and admired its perfect balance, its details.

She had no control over the future. Humanity might extinguish or it might one day rage again like a hearth fire. But with this, she could now at least do her part in forging ahead.