The bearded wanderer realized too late the twin creatures rising from the sand weren’t mirages. The desert had hatched giant scarabs, carapaces shimmering in the light of the ruined sun. They rushed him.
He only just managed to roll out of harm’s way. Clicking and clacking shrieks echoed off the nearby dunes.
His words sounded nasal; the remnants of an old injury.
As he struggled to rise in the shifting sands, the two ambushers approached. The wanderer noticed the bulge of blighted organs, like an overgrown mollusk straining in its shell.
His short sword came out of nowhere, hidden somewhere in the tattered robes. It was a gladius with a ridged hilt. Unleashing it, he flashed his stained steel breastplate. A soldier’s armor, to go with his soldier’s reflexes.
The beetle-creatures were cut down in a matter of seconds. The wanderer thrust his sword into the blight-flesh tucked underneath the exoskeleton and their purple blood ran through its channel.
“What have I done?” he suddenly wailed.
The monsters fell down gurgling, their soft bellies gushing grossness into the sand.
Now the black smoke will pour from their corpses, the wanderer panicked, and the dying will start and the dying and screaming!
He sheathed his gladius and fled ever deeper into the desert.
Raddeus Clegg was so young, yet already commander of the Fifth regiment in the One Hundred Nations alliance. The sideburns he tried hard to grow out weren’t all that impressive yet, though.
He checked the reins of his horse, kissed the lightning charm pinned to his collar, then bellowed “to battle!” at his legion.
Theirs was a battle unlike any ever fought and the outcome would shape the future of the human race.
The landscape before him was dotted with armies trampling the hills. The young commander’s heart fluttered at the sight of fifty thousand troops flying every heraldic shield, banners aloft and drums beat by terrified boys. He saw bands no more than marauding thugs next to well-oiled cavalry. Town militia side to side with warrior monks. Even the smuggling gangs had pitched in—the Grodan, the Stadakar, the Motonaga—sending scores of poison-lobbing blackguards.
The whole of humanity had united to make a last stand.
“Triple Lance formation!”
“Yes, commander Clegg!”
Raddeus’s intelligence officers dispersed the orders. Soon the Fifth, consisting of footmen and archers, with only the officers on horseback, divided into three spearheads.
“Two more hills to the rendezvous point.” He glanced at his aide-de-camp, a woman slightly older than him and always filling his stomach with butterflies. “Are the reports in, officer Jofia?”
“Yes,” she said. “The maneuver is complete.”
“How is the men’s morale?”
“As fine as it can be, I suppose, under these circumstances. I advise you to give an inspiring speech before the push.”
“And how is your morale?”
Jofia glanced at her superior. “It could use a small speech.”
If this was a prelude to some light-hearted flirting, it quickly faded. The gloom of the situation held them both in a stranglehold.
I’ve never faced an enemy like this. Raddeus willed himself to look at the nexus of the battlefield. How will we prevail against it?
Swaying in place on the sloping plains, as if deep in a trance, stood the golem—the earthly incarnation of Kriusz, Titan of Corruption, given form by the rituals of the Cimma’s Folk twenty years prior.
“The worst of it,” his old sergeant had told them during training, “came when you were still snotnoses, too young to remember. The golem, summoned by those bastards to fight the Aetheri, threw an eldritch spear longer than twenty castles at our sun. Our sun! Well, I guess you don’t remember that either. Used to be a giant orb of warmth and light, but the fiend cracked it. Ever since, we’ve had to do with this eternal dusk.”
“I’ll kill it!” Raddeus had grunted, straining under some torturous weight.
“As far as I’m concerned, it finished us then and there. Wiped out all the Aetheri too, fwoomp, gone. But sure, if you ever get a chance, sock it one for me.”
And the young commander-to-be had vowed silently to do just that.
Now he stood before that very golem. It towered high over all the armies surrounding it. Humanoid in shape, but one could tell, feel, that underneath the exterior lived something profoundly alien.
It destroyed our light on a whim. Is there any question what it will do to miniature, mortal challengers?
But Raddeus Clegg, commander of the Fifth, wasn’t about to go down without a fight.
When he regained his senses, the bearded wanderer felt warm water run down his leg.
Did I wet myself?
He checked his waist and found a more distressing cause: his water skin had ruptured in the skirmish with the scarab horrors. He quickly poured the remaining drops from the bladder into his mouth.
“A pox on this thing.”
In better days, when his mind hadn’t yet been ravaged, he would’ve undressed to wring out his soaked trouser leg and salvage whatever moisture he could. Instead, he trudged on.
Where is my supply officer? They should be around at all times. How irresponsible. I’ll have them court-martialed.
The wanderer kept raving for another two hours, certain that cresting the next dune would reveal his bivouac, or the next.
He tripped and got a mouthful of sand, which he spat out coughing.
Another hour passed and the wanderer dropped to his knees.
“Bring me... my canteen...”
He started dipping in and out of consciousness. Flutter, flutter.
Shapes in the distance.
More enemy troops come to assault him? He tilted his head, his beard riddled with grains of sand.
An illusion. Strange beasts circumnavigating my horizon...
But the procession drew closer. Soon, he discerned the creatures were dromedaries, carrying caravan guards and pulling carts. The frontmost riders halted before him and unclasped their mouth coverings.
“Karrhak di antoy’ah?”
The other answered: “Hezzuk.”
A long pole was produced and they prodded the wanderer, who protested with a grunt. “Kill me already, scoundrels. No guts, eh? Not a shred of honor...”
“Ak meh’len di het, Yenezek.”
The first guard swung himself off the cloth saddle and approached the wanderer carefully, carrying a dried gourd with a cork in the top.
“Buva, antoy’ah,” he said as he knelt next to him.
The guard uncorked his water bottle and brought it to the stranger’s lips.
“Don’t open that!” the wanderer screamed, and he slapped the gourd away.
The container began chugging its contents into the sand. The guard didn’t waste a second in retrieving it. Whatever sympathy had existed between them, it was lost along with the liquid.
“Zir Zerrish! Di antoy’ah merrour!”
The other guard came over in a fury, drawing his falchion, murderous rage apparent on his face. But he was blocked: his friend threw himself as a shield before the target and made a gesture across his forehead—this man was mad, not evil.
There was a terse back-and-forth between them, capped by a harsher “Hezzuk!”, and then both climbed their runners.
“Yes, flee!” the wanderer yelled in a daze. “Spineless! You destroyed us all!”
Then, overcome by a sudden fright, he started running away.
The guards looked at the spectacle with disdain and clicked their cheeks. The caravan started moving.
At the end of it lurched a dromedary carrying a mother dressed in embroidered cloaks and a small girl with thin jewelry. The child looked back and her chestnut eyes beamed at the fleeing wanderer.
Whatever organized assault the One Hundred Nations alliance generals had agreed to, it fell apart as soon as the battle commenced.
The golem was waking from its fugue state, but that wasn’t the most pressing concern: surrounding it was a defense force of Cimma’s Folk, breaking the first wave of troops that descended on the valley.
Raddeus Clegg’s veterans had joined the skirmish, so he had a front row seat to the slaughter.
What fools, he thought, spurring his warhorse. This day will see the Folk’s end, as well as their golem’s.
“First assembly! Flank left!”
His three spearpoints had pierced the enemy’s redoubt. The point guard had then been swarmed by armored grunts on attack boars. Raddeus himself had charged forward alongside his regiment—despite officer Jofia’s disapproval.
“I can’t just sit this out,” he had argued with her. “I may not be the most experienced general yet, but I am a trained soldier.”
“Commander, if you’re lost, the confusion will tear us apart.”
“Am I to be a figurehead for calm and order only? I can’t accept that. You have command if anything happens.”
And with that he had flung himself into combat.
Up close, Raddeus appreciated how vile the enemy was, yet how human too. When he cut someone down, he saw their mortal fear.
Human or not, you sided with evil.
His gladius cut through the air and wherever he galloped, Raddeus left streaks of blood on the soil.
Then someone lanced his horse with a javelin and suddenly his world turned upside down and with a violent lurch he was in the mud.
Quick, quick! He scrambled to get up and assumed a defensive posture. His steed whinnied in panic behind him. He looked back for just a split second to check if the animal was unhurt. Then—
“For prince Karzimi!”
Out of nowhere he was trampled by a Cimma’s Folk cavalryman riding a boar, storming him from the dark mess of mud and soldiers and crushed ramparts and smoke. Raddeus felt a wall of bristles knock him down and an excruciating pain as one of the hoofs landed on his nose.
The commander sunk into the soil, fortunate that the mud gave way, preventing his skull from being crushed.
Then the burden lifted—the boar had thundered on—and Raddeus’s immediate danger lay in drowning. While blood leaked freely from his nasal cavities, he thrashed around in the slop. His breastplate was unbearably heavy.
The world is spinning. I have a concussion. Where is Jofia?
Unable to get a grip on anything in this sludge, he looked around. He saw his regiment’s banner above a throng of gridlocked troops. His soldiers fell down; one of the spearpoints was on the verge of collapsing.
“How is this happening?” he wailed.
It was the same everywhere. The armies had met with a tenacious foe fueled by dark arts, absorbing their hoped-for quick strike. The vanguard was scattered, making it impossible for the legions on the hilltops to advance. An hour of fruitless combat had turned the battlefield into a quagmire.
The golem roared.
Everyone froze. The avatar of Kriusz had shaken off the last vestiges of its torpor and directed its gaze to the squirming ants at its feet. Raddeus was petrified.
But that was the problem. This Titan had ceased to be above, but was very much among them. The golem started its assault and would slaughter thousands before it was done.
Death was coming for the bearded wanderer.
His breathing was haggard and every inch he crawled through the sand further exhausted him. At long last, the scorching heat made him reel. He collapsed; his back against the hotness and his face exposed to the breathless sky.
The thing he had tried to outrun all these years. It had been decades already and he had become an old man since witnessing the world’s end.
Running, so much running.
Aetheri weapons glittered in the world’s eternal dusk. Seas of blood were spilled.
Raddeus saw the golem dig its claws into the soil, crushing three alliance soldiers and one Cimma’s Folk standard-bearer. It happened so near—it could’ve been me! Terror gave him wings; he was up in a second.
But adrenaline or not, he only barely prevented crashing back into the slush.
The distant voice was a blessing and Raddeus’s heart lifted at its ring alone. Jofia! His aide-de-camp galloped towards him. A fiend with tusks tried to swing at her, but she deftly leaned to the side of her horse and countered with a crossbow bolt in its eye.
“...I have to lead my men!” Raddeus hollered, but his voice sounded strange and powerless.
Jofia circled his position to secure the area.
“Quick, sir. I’ve gained terrible intelligence.”
“Our regiment’s in disarray and I need to be at the helm. We can still win, we’ve only just begun the assault.”
“Please, Raddeus. You’ve been gone for two hours. It’s a miracle I found you.”
Mustering his concentration, he leapt up the horse to sit awkwardly behind Jofia. Wielding his gladius was too much, so he clung to her back as she turned the steed around.
“Commander Thorann is dead.” Jofia started listing the casualties. “So are the twin Stendhall generals. An estimated sixty percent of our forces remains in combat. The worst thing is what I’ve heard whispered among the officers. It’s the Tutors, they’re planning something.”
“Jofia, I need to rally my troops. Take me to the regiment.”
“Under normal circumstances, absolutely, sir, but we’re fighting a losing battle here. I urge you to speak to the Tutors first.”
“Those arrogant sorcerers? Let them fling their spells from the safety of their hillside, see if I care.”
Jofia glared. “It’s more than that. The rumors spoke of a massive ritual. Those blood wizards are among them, Sessonos, Livonne, Hemog and Faerna—there’s no telling what they’re preparing.”
“Let them,” he repeated, and that was that.
Jofia drove her horse towards the nearest spearpoint.
The Tutors were a group of magi favored by the Aetheri and sworn in to the many secrets of that ancient race. Their arts were above and beyond the ken of the average evoker. This made them ill-loved, but impossible to ignore. After the Aetheri vanished, the Tutors took on the role of their successors, insisting only they knew the correct course for the world to take. They had been a driving force in forming the One Hundred Nation alliance, which had taken a great deal of influence on clan leaders, princelings and burgomasters.
Raddeus had no brain for politics. All he sought was victory against his opponent—and no greater existed than this Titan-forsaken golem.
Dust caked his palate and the inside of his throat. Coughing was useless against it.
I’ve experienced the worst bivouacs, the bearded wanderer thought. Killing campaigns. Slogs through festering marshes. The mosquitoes alone... But nothing as bad as this. And Jofia... How I failed you.
He felt some vital essence leave him as through a final breath. The breastplate was so heavy, he thought it might sink him deep into the dune.
Titans, just let me die.
Kriusz had awakened and not even the combined armies of the world could dent it. Instead, the golem grabbed attacking soldiers by the handful, ripped them up in the air and crushed them.
Perhaps it was for the best that the kicked-up dust prevented Raddeus and Jofia from understanding the extent of the carnage.
“Press on!” he shouted at his remaining troops working their way forward.
“Enemies coming from the right!” Jofia warned.
They shared a horse and had resumed command of the Fifth. Cimma’s Folk resistance was heaviest here. There were masked faces everywhere and rabid beasts.
“There! The golem’s foot!”
Raddeus pointed at the ebony mass in front of them, just as a spearman plunged his weapon into it. But if Kriusz had felt anything, it didn’t show.
“The damnable thing’s impervious. Strike it again!”
Like a tidal wave, his men crashed on the banks of the golem’s ankle, thrusting blades into the charcoal substance.
The reaction came, finally, and it was more horrible than commander Clegg could’ve imagined.
“Above!” Jofia shouted, retaining her quick senses.
She steered the steed away—for through the smoggy roof descended a giant hand, fingers poised, grappling the humans crawling underneath. Scores of unfortunate soldiers were seized and carried off into the air.
Raddeus drew his sword and cried: “If for nothing else, for humanity we will fall!”
What troops remained in control of their nerves cast their arms into the air as well. This was the life they had signed up for and frankly, if they failed here today, there wouldn’t be a safe haven in the world to retreat to.
“For the Fifth!”
“Thyst be with us today!”
Whether their desperate attack would’ve borne fruit, he’d never know. The battlefield suddenly bathed in an otherworldly light.
Jofia did her best to keep their horse from panicking.
“What’s happening?” Raddeus whispered.
“I think it’s the Tutors. They’ve finished their ritual.”
Indeed, when they looked to the surrounding hills, they noticed pillars of light shooting up and raining down on their position. An electric warmth tickled their skin.
Raddeus drew Jofia’s gaze to the mud below, where the corpses of their comrades stirred. One by one, the carcasses squirmed and—
Their skin tore open and trickles of blood streamed upward, untouched by gravity. Raddeus reddened with anger at such disrespectful treatment of fallen soldiers.
“What in blazes are they doing?”
He didn’t notice the faintly glowing lines of the spell circle drawn by invisible hands underneath their feet and hooves. The light blinded them all. Not in twenty years had the world seen such brightness. Thousands of blood fountains weaved together into a filigree spire. Raddeus tried to follow it into the air as it overtook even the golem, but the fog of war was simply too thick.
“I’m frightened,” Jofia confessed.
He embraced her, glad to have a ward against his own fear.
The golem tried to swat the spire away, but its hands merely interrupted it for a moment. High above its head, the blood began to coagulate into a smooth spear—its tip pointing straight down.
Jofia craned up her face, tears flowing at the magnificent sight of it. “We’re saved.”
“At the cost of our blood.”
The sanguine spear glowed bright and plunged into the golem’s chest. Kriusz was skewered from its collarbone down and gave a deafening roar.
It was dying.
The colossus eased to its knees, swaying around the spear lodged in it. The spark in its eyes fizzled. The bane of the world had been vanquished.
Cries of joy erupted all over. Soldiers cheered in dozens of languages, while Cimma’s Folk defenders wailed. Then the lumbering giant toppled. A shadow fell over Raddeus.
Jofia pulled the reins sharply and their steed shot away. Raddeus turned to his surviving troops.
“Run, or you’re flattened!”
But unpredictably, the golem careened sideways and hit the horse with an elbow. Raddeus was cast from the saddle and flew through the air. Once again, he landed in the muck.
I have to rejoin Jofia!
This time, he was up in a beat and turned around to locate—
His arms drooped down. There was the warhorse, staggering forward on bruised legs. But Jofia wasn’t riding it. Raddeus rushed to the golem’s collapsed form and cried out as he saw bits of her armor underneath.
Pulling her out was impossible—and useless. He fell to his knees.
He couldn’t have imagined the worst was yet to come. Even as the sounds of celebration rang from the hills where the Tutor wizards had succeeded at their sorcery, the blood spear evaporated from Kriusz’s corpse. What remained was a perforated husk in a landscape littered with dead people—and the cadaver was apparently hollow, from out of the holes poured forth a thick mist, sickly green.
Raddeus retreated from it by instinct. Others weren’t so quick and soon the field was rife with the cries of soldiers whose faces were being eaten away by the fumes.
This is madness! My poor Jofia! I have to get out...!
The blight enveloped everything. Raddeus fled from the rapidly disintegrating people, the warping flesh and evil chattering as fast as he could. Somehow he managed to escape, but not without losses. His mind, for one, but that surely counted as the least of the things the young commander had lost that day.
Like the first dewdrop in the morning, a touch of water to his lips woke the bearded wanderer. His eyes flashed open.
Kneeling at his side was the young girl with the earrings, from the caravan. Behind her he saw a dromedary and on top of it—her mother, looking on with disapproval. The girl tipped a gourd of water to his mouth.
This time, he didn’t reject the offer.
“Thank you, thank you,” he murmured, gulping down the liquid. Some of it trickled down his mess of a beard, but there was enough to wash away the desert inside his throat.
“Anto’yah...” the girl scrunched up her forehead, then continued with words he understood: “You danger. No good place. Death.”
“You speak my language. How?”
“Book. I read. Mother: no. Guards: no. Buva, drink.”
Again a rush of fresh water reinvigorated him, and it felt as though with every mouthful, the wanderer’s senses returned. His head cleared.
He grabbed her tiny hands, steadying the flask, and drank more.
“You. What name?”
Name? He hadn’t spoken his name in years. Had tried his best to forget it, then truly forgot it when the clutter of decades piled up on him.
“Raddeus,” he mouthed. “Raddeus Clegg.”
With a simple act of kindness, this young girl had done so much more than save his miserable body. She had teased his soul out of the darkness.
While her mother gazed down in concern, the girl continued to support him. They would catch up with the caravan later, Raddeus riding along at the back of the hump. Much later still, he was to reach his homeland again, washed and shaven.
My lot in life is not to die just yet... My experience as a commander must be put to use. We can conquer the blight and regain our world. If, achieving that, I finally surrender my life, then and only then will it have been one well-spent.
And in the distant future, one he couldn’t possibly imagine while swaying on the back of a dromedary, he would play his part in the pivotal siege of Cinder Peak.