The way many told it, the legend of the Suntouched was a succession of successes. Climbing Mount Paylor, mastering one weapon after the next, discovering mythic treasures, defeating this monster or winning that battle. Of course, like most legends, it was largely a lie of omission. The Suntouched had failed many times. Mostly in the early days, but some were more recent, like his defeat at the hands of Ulthanadon, The Mad Dragon, or his role in the creation of The Below. And, most prevalent in his mind these days, the failure at Tinderleaf.
It was a small town in the plains of Grandia – one of nearly a hundred just like it, if The Suntouched had to guess – set apart only by their conspicuous cathedral built of crimson stone, which sat away from the village and towered over the its modest daub-and-timber homes. The building’s conical roof was topped by a statue of a figure with a feminine body and the head of a cat. She was looking up toward the sky, with her hand outstretched in a grasping motion.
“A local god,” Emelthea Crimsonfir said with interest when they first spotted it from the road into town. The elf was sporting a deep gash in her side, received the day prior after an encounter with a Leecheetah. She walked with a limp in her step, but otherwise gave no evidence of the pain she must have been in.
The Suntouched shrugged. “At least Sol worshippers can point to their god. And to me. These regional sorts are nothing but fairytales.”
“So? They give a town color. I can ask any farmer or shoe cobbler in the world to tell me all about Sol. Or you, for that matter. But this tiger woman? She’s a mystery. Mysteries are interesting.”
“Mysteries are interesting,” the Suntouched agreed. “And fairytales are for children.”
Emelthea said nothing.
Tinderleaf sat on a crossroads from which a traveler could find the way to Seamoore, to Castiron, or to dwarven lands. The pair was passing through on their journey to the O’grofkala Mountains, where The Suntouched would soon be named Worthy of Dragons, and taught their secrets and their tongues. On that day, though, The Suntouched wanted only to find someone to take a look at Emelthea’s wound, since magic was only keeping it closed for minutes at a time, and the effort was exhausting the elf.
As was often the case, they were admitted to the village with open and eager arms. Particularly by the children. “Tell us about Mount Paylor,” they might say to The Suntouched, or “Did you actually melt The Iceburg That Lives with a single word?” to Emelthea. They answered politely, embellishing the truth where appropriate. In villages like these, the people gleamed far more value from glamor than truth.
It wasn’t long before a young woman noticed Emelthea’s wound and brought the duo to her father, the local herbalist. He was an older man with a hunched back and a deaf ear, but he knew his trade well and recognized the elf’s problem as soon as she entered his shop.
“A wound from a Leecheetah resists your standard curative magic,” he explained loudly. “Are they not teaching the young folk basic skills anymore?”
“I’ll bet I’m a least a century older than you,” Emelthea replied. The old man responded with a charming grin. He took a liking to the pair immediately, and they to him. He asked them all about their journey through the neighboring lands, focusing on the small details and making no mention of their fame. It was a welcome change.
Emelthea let out a long, pleasant sigh as he applied a jelly made from a harpy’s tears and a dryad’s fruit. It worked immediately. “Who is she?” Emelthea asked while he helped her rebandage. She was looking out the window, at the church. The Suntouched feigned disinterest as he browsed the shop.
“Eh? Ah, you mean Kaja. The demigoddess of witchcraft, devils, and crossroads, who protected these lands in life, and after. They say she was so beautiful and wise that men often did not notice her feline features until it was mentioned to them, like a natural hypnotism.”
“Witchcraft?” Emelthea inquired.
The Suntouched frowned. Emelthea was a dear friend, but her fascination with eldritch arts had recently begun to feel more than academic, and it was disconcerting. “Sounds a bit macabre for such a sweet town,” he interjected.
“We’re most interested in the crossroads,” the herbalist admitted with a smile. “We might not have chosen her as our protector, if given the choice. But she keeps us safe, and sends travelers where they need to go, so we show her our respect. Not buying anything today, eh?”
The last remark was directed at a trio of hooded travelers who had been observing a collection of pickled mushrooms since they’d come into the shop. They were on their way out, but they all turned in unison when addressed. The one in the center, a tidy, blonde, lime-eyed human, smiled. “Not just now, I’m afraid. But you never know. We’ll be in town a few days.”
On either side of him was a halfling and a dwarf. Each of them was pale, and had their mouths sewn shut with dark-purple stitches.
“What are you doing here?” the Suntouched suddenly demanded. The herbalist placed a calming hand on the Suntouched’s shoulder, but it was brushed aside.
The blonde man smiled knowingly. “Same as you. Passing through. We’re meeting friends here soon, then we’ll be on our way.”
“Why the hostility?” the herbalist asked. Emelthea shared a look with the Suntouched and shook her head.
“These are the Chastened,” he replied. “They’re monsters.”
“They’re harmless,” the old man insisted. “It’s unkind to put down others for their faith, young man. You did not give me such treatment when I told you about Kaja.”
“You don’t understand. A few months ago I found myself in the town of Manschin. A small lumber village, worshipped an offbeat god just like yours. I awoke that night to find the city on fire, and the people torn to shreds by cultists with sewn mouths.”
The blonde man looked taken aback. He placed his hands up in surrender. “Easy there,” he said. “I’ve never even heard of Manschin. You’re accusing me of destroying it? Why would I do that?”
“Let’s go,” Emelthea said. “Thank you very much for your hospitality and service.”
“Not you, your ilk,” the Suntouched said firmly. He reached for his sword.
“Well, I regret the actions of my fellow Chastened dearly,” the blonde man said, “but I have nothing to do with them. Surely you follow some sort of creed? Am I to assume all heroes are as reckless and tactless as the Suntouched?”
“Demigods, is that it? Manschin followed a demigod of labor. Tinderleaf follows Kaja. Is that what brings you here?”
“Maybe it’s you,” the man said menacingly. Then laughed dismissively. “Maybe this life is bad for you, Mr. Suntouched. Seems to have put you on edge.”
“My apologies for him. It’s been a long road,” Emelthea said. “You’ll have no more trouble from us unless you earn it. Safe travels, and may Kaja guide each of us down our proper path.”
“A path that doesn’t include violence in my shop,” the herbalist added.
“Yes,” the Suntouched said curtly. “Apologies.”
“Angry accusations do no one any good,” Emelthea chided that evening. The two of them were sharing a room in Tinderleaf’s nameless inn, which contained only three rooms. It had two uncomfortable beds and a table with ale and bread. The bread was fresh, at least.
“We have to protect these people.”
“Of course, and we will. If they need protecting –” “-they do.” “If these are the same people –” “ –they are –” “– if these are the same people you saw in Manschin, they will not be successful here. We share this inn. If they leave, I will hear it. If they use magic, I will feel it. Tinderleaf is safe under our watch.”
“The demigods. That must be it. They’re against the worship of lesser gods.”
“Or, you’re drawing connections to reach the conclusion you’ve predetermined. How tragically human. If you started a fight and spilled innocent blood, what then? And if they’re not innocent, all you’ve done is alert them to your suspicion. Either way, you need to put an end to this rash behavior and start acting like the hero I know you can be. I’ve left before, and I’ll leave again. Don’t make me.”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
Despite his companion’s scolding, the Suntouched remained confident in his conclusion. And if he was right, he couldn’t afford to sleep the night away while The Chastened prepared their attack. So he wouldn’t.
“Where are you going?” Emelthea asked. She sat upon her lumpy bed with legs crossed and eyes closed. Elves could forego sleep via a semi-conscious meditative state. It wasn’t as restful, and not typically recommended for a woman who had just been attacked by a Leecheetah, but Emelthea chose to stay conscious in case the Chastened left the inn.
“Just to relieve myself.”
“If you’re lying, you can go to the O’grafkala Mountains alone.”
“Then how will you learn if there are truly dragons there?”
“If you’re not lying, I will.”
“I’ll return shortly.”
The Suntouched moved quickly on his way to the church. It was a good ten minute walk from town, a distance which masked just how truly massive the red structure was. Kaja towered over Tinderleaf in an image that was either comforting or threatening depending on how one looked at it. The Suntouched settled on threatening, but he was not there to judge their god. He was there to protect it.
A wave of…something…washed over the Suntouched when he saw movement near the church from a distance. A figure in the window. They looked hooded. He broke into a run, the cool night air pleasurably soothing his everburning skin.
The church opened into a small foyer adorned with many candelabras alight with green flame. The room quickly sloped upward, and a steep flight of stairs led to a higher level. The building’s stone door was lighter than it looked, and the Suntouched made more noise than he intended when he threw it open. A crashing of stone on stone alerted two cloaked figures walking up the steps. They turned in unison.
The Suntouched didn’t recognize either of them. One had their mouth stitched closed and the other, a bald elven woman with dull sapphire eyes, did not. “Damn.”
“Did I ruin your plans?” the Suntouched asked as he made his way up the stairs.
“No,” she said coldly. “I owe Callum a silver. I told him the Suntouched would never fall for such a simple ploy.”
He paused. “What do you mean?”
“You presume to know our intentions. Tinderleaf falls for your mistake. The only thing we’re doing in this church is wasting your time. Run, hero. Run, and see that it is futile to meddle in the affairs of Dulcificus.”
The Suntouched did not know then who Dulcificus was, and he did not then find out. He took the elf’s advice, and he ran.
But he was too late. He could hear the howling wind before he was outside. A white storm of hail and icy mist circled and tore through the town, toppling trees and shattering windows. Beneath an archway which read “Welcome to Tinderleaf: May You Find Your Way,” the herbalist was fleeing his village. But he drew no closer. The Suntouched quickly realized that he had frosted over, leaving his body and face locked in a portrait of terror. The Suntouched’s stomach churned.
As he was taking in that sight, a dozen or more Chastened rode through town, blasting an icy spray from their hands, freezing doors shut and people solid. By the time the Suntouched stepped foot in the village, the town of Tinderleaf – so named for local trees which burned so bright that travelers lost in the night could see the fire from miles away – had become a frozen wasteland, without a single civilian spared.
The Suntouched cut down two or three of the cultists as he took in the horror, but the majority got away. He was beyond caring in that moment, however, consumed entirely by horror, self-loathing, and a need to find Emelthea.
She was in the street, where just that morning they had answered the questions of their admirers. Now, she was clutching her side with one hand, while a steady stream of flame erupted from the other. The blonde man – Callum, the Suntouched presumed – stood opposite her, releasing a steam of icy mist. Emelthea looked exhausted, and her flame sputtered, but the Suntouched kicked in Callum’s legs from behind, dropping the man to his knees, and the fight was over.
“Why?” the Suntouched roared over the whipping wind, turning the man to face him. “What did you want with Tinderleaf?”
“This!” Callum replied, his eyes bright with triumph. “Only this!”
A few feet away, Emelthea uttered a word that was lost beneath the cold cacophony of death that swirled around them. A second later, Callum’s untouched lifeless body was in a heap beside the Suntouched.
He looked up at the elf with horror. He’d heard of such spells before – a word that could compel a man to die – but he didn’t think such a thing could actually exist. And he certainly didn’t think that Emelthea could be capable of such a thing.
As the wind died down around them, the Suntouched reasoned that she was justified. Anything she had done to the man would be. But still, staring at the elf, who now clutched a small wooden idol of Kaja, all covered in sleet, the Suntouched knew that he had failed there in more ways than he could count.
It was a failure he would never shake, but failures weren’t as fun to tell at taverns or around camp fires. It was all freeing Dol Belvargamar and slaying the army of Nethergiants, it was never Tinderleaf or Manschin. And so the failures faded away almost entirely in favor of his more glamorous moments.
The legend of Donovan Allman, it would seem, could have no such luxury. Sitting outside The Ale Moon, which had just opened after recovering from the explosion Donovan had failed to prevent, the weight of his mediocrity weighed upon on him once more. Like the rebuilt portions of the tavern, where the paint had dried the wrong shade and the texture of the wood was wrong, Donovan Allman was just a scar left over from the damaged Suntouched, never again to be magnificent or whole.
But still, he had work to do. While investigating Tabitha Darkholm’s bedroom, Donovan made note of her work schedule at Al’s Chemy. The following day, he tailed her from work, only to end up back at Goldsoil Farms. This evening, however, he seemed to be in greater luck. The half-dryad was taking a nonsensical route through town, the kind you take when you are very bored or when you are attending a secret meeting. Based on the frequency with which she stopped to speak to passersby and vendors, the former seemed likely, but they weren’t mutually exclusive.
When she at last finished talking about the upcoming sea slug racing season with a vendor selling sea slug ice cream, Donovan closed the book he was pretending to read, and resumed his pursuit.
Tabitha was easy enough to follow. The girl had her head in the clouds constantly, muttering to herself about work, imagining social situations with a boy named Carver, and working out the words to a poem she was writing. Between talking to townsfolk and her labyrinthine thoughts, Donovan was constantly doubting whether she had a destination at all, or if she was simply determined to distract herself with nonsense for an entire evening.
But when the moon was high above Skymoore, she did eventually settle on an endpoint: a warehouse in the penumbra of affluence and poverty, not far from where the market district became the Mish Mash. It was a grey and uninteresting building, much like the area in which it resided. Still, Tabitha checked her surroundings before she entered.
Fortunately, Donovan was quick on his feet, and already hiding around the corner of the warehouse by that time. His injury from the explosion screamed for the first time in weeks in response to the fast movement, and he clutched his side. He never let a thing like pain stop him before, though, and pressed on.
A hero’s truest ally was luck. Or perhaps fate. Either way it found Donovan there in the alley behind the warehouse, where a shattered window had been haphazardly boarded up some time ago. The thunk as he removed the boards was notable, but nothing compared to walking through the front door or shattering the window himself.
The warehouse was one of two which belonged to Ingrid Nittlepick of Ingrid’s Immaculate Ironworks. The first was used to store materials that may one day find use. This one’s purpose was to store materials that were to be recycled or destroyed. These included stained carpet and cloth, scuffed material that you could rework but never quite restore to utter unblemished perfection, and anything which at one point secreted an odor that may be associated with any of Ingrid’s ex-girlfriends. The warehouse was very full.
When Donovan approached the clearing which had been made among the jungle of boxes, it was clear at once that his paranoid was justified. A group of roughly a dozen cloaked figures of similar height gathered around a painted circle containing six interlocking squares which formed a strange, pseudo-three-dimensional shape. Above them, the Warm Moon was full and framed perfectly within a skylight on the roof, casting its orange glow on the crowd.
A summoning circle, if Donovan ever saw one, and he had. A small candle was set at each point where the squares intersected with each other and the edges of the circle. The candles were scented, and burned with an unnaturally incandescent flame which periodically changed color. The candles gave off smoke to match the flame, giving the room a peculiar look and smell.
The hooded figures had their heads bowed as they engaged in prayer.
“…and we ask that these forces submit to our will,” a deep woman’s voice said.
“…so long as we give it the sustenance that it needs,” a young man continued.
As they went on, Donovan moved out from behind a stack of boxes and approached the circle. Next to it was a table atop which rested a stack of books, a scroll written in illegible hand, and two mummified hands resting palm-up on either side of an elven skull. There were also five vials of differently colored liquids.
He had seen all he needed.
“…now arise, forces of nature!” yet another voice said.
“We lend you physical form in exchange for underworldly-”
The prayer was interrupted by Donovan grabbing the speaker by the hood and throwing them into the table. Both the cultist and the table toppled over with a crash of wood, a shattering of glass, and a yelp of human. The cultist’s hood fell away to reveal a green-haired teenage boy with an acne problem.
“Just take whatever you want!” the young man cried in a nasally voice. “It’s not even our warehouse!”
Donovan was speechless.
“Mr. Allman?” Tabitha asked, stepping back from the circle and removing her hood. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
She looked at him like he was mad as she gestured to the gathering. “Hanging out with my friends.”
“At a summoning circle!”
“An ironic summoning circle,” someone else replied.
(A single intact vial rolled quietly across the floor.)
“It’s a real summoning circle,” yet another teen explained. She removed her hood to reveal an avayla, a feathered, winged humanoid with beady eyes and a bird’s beak in place of a mouth. Her feathers were the colors of autumn, and her dark eyes were bold with authority. “With ironic intent.”
(The vial hit the corner of a box, and the small cork lid popped off.)
“Did you think we were a real cult?” someone asked. “That’s badass.”
“We are a real cult,” the avayla replied.
“Teyla likes to think so,” Tabitha said. “Most of us just like the atmosphere. And drinking wine out of real skulls.”
“But you call yourselves The Chastened.”
(A white liquid – fermented harpy venom mixed with vodka – trickled across the floor, toward the summoning circle. Harpy venom was quite useful when diluted, and not at all harmful. It was used in all sorts of things, and if you happened to be the rare harpy born with the ability to produce it, you could make a killing down on Solkin if you were comfortable selling your body. Its most common use was a catalyst for alchemical reactions…and rituals.)
Tabitha shrugged. “Jonathan read it in a book once. Said people were afraid of them on the surface. Sounded cool. So, what, are you some kind of cult buster?”
“That’s badass, too,” someone said.
(White light began to trace along the border of the circle, casting a brighter glow than the candles.)
“What are you summoning?” Donovan asked.
“A demon,” Teyla said, like it was obvious.
Relief washed over Donovan as the light moved inward, tracing along the cubes and snuffing out the candles. “Oh good,” he said. “Demons aren’t real.”
“Yes they are,” Teyla snapped. “I’ve been reading about them all month.” She crossed the circle to pick up the books that had once been on the table. “I’ve been taking extensive notes and-”
“Whatever you read is fiction,” Donovan said. “Demons are not real.”
Teyla thrust the scroll toward Donovan. “Yes. They. Are.”
Like a flame reaching the end of a wick, the white light finished its trek across the circle, and vanished.
“No,” Donovan said.
The space inside the circle seemed to compress and become less than it was before, which made everyone looking at it a little queasy. Then it exploded outward with a thunderous clap which knocked over boxes and people alike, and tore open the wall where the front door once was.
Those still conscious and not covered in boxes were both relieved not to be unconscious and covered in boxes, and horrified by what they were looking upon. Standing in the circle was a creature towering at seven or eight feet with a form much like a gorilla, but with a third eye and extra pair of arms. Instead of skin and fur, its body was a rippling mass of bubbling magma and sleek black stone.
“Yes,” Teyla said, and passed out.