“This was a very stupid mistake,” Korrus said, swatting what was hopefully a mosquito on his wrist, “and I greatly regret agreeing to escort you.” “As you’ve made abundantly clear over the last three days.”
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.
Karrogh was a grown man meditating in the glade, but in his mind’s eye he was a scrawny boy again, aching to grow his muscles like the men in his tribe. His arms and legs were twigs, he was nine years old, and he hated how the others teased him for being the matriarch’s son.
Yet here was an opportunity to prove himself.
He stood unflinching in the face of the giant white wolf that had stalked into the camp and bitten the throats of his friends.
The beast had terrorized them for weeks. The men were out in the woods, hoping to lure it out on this moonless night, but here it was, right in their home. Karrogh and the other children had to guard the pack now.
“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.
I reached Cinder Peak after weeks of miserable outdoor camping and yearned for a hot bath.
“We are so very honored to have you here, Roland of Stendhall,” the refuge’s elder groveled. “Here’s a list of chores, because we know how fantastic you are at everything.”
“If you insist, good sir!” I said. “But first I’d like to make use of your bathing facilities. As you can imagine, I’m perfectly coated with the outside and I can’t wait to get it off of me.”
The elder very nearly prostrated himself before me. “I beg your forgiveness, we never bathe in this corner of the world, so we didn’t think to build any such thing!”
Needless to say, I was aghast at this revelation.
At this juncture I was starting to second-guess my decision to leave auntie’s little hellhole. (Second-guessing yourself is a very unfashionable look.) I have resolved to fix this problem myself, the elder’s tasks be damned. Personal hygiene first, so-called “defensive necessities” much later.
“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.
Death came for Otsumo as a field of squirming tentacles—flowering into noxious fireworks or stabbing his team with rusted blades.
Reaching the cleft, communication had gone by hand signals.
“Behind you!” Otsumo flashed.