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Everest

by Scott M. Sands

Everest stood where he always did, gazing up from the shadow of the mountain. Wind whipping through the darkness chilled his muscular form with more than simple cold, for the mount belonged to Farahul, the dark mage. For long hours cries from hapless souls floated down into the valley, the raucous cackle of the mage tumbling after. He’d killed dozens—tortured hundreds over the years. In all that time, he had not permitted Everest to ever leave. So when the ominous sounds came, Everest would drop whatever he was doing, shuffle inside his cottage and jamb the door. Sometimes it was almost possible to block out the screams.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t heard much up the mountain of late.

That autumn night as Everest lolled in his wooden rocker before the fireplace, stroking the beard that overlapped his green tunic, a fell breeze rattled his window and turned his eye to the mountain. Commonly, mage lightning skewered the sky at the peak, or fire like dragons’ nostril flares arched across the nightscape. If nothing else, wisps of smoke would rise from the mage’s chimney against the moonlight.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen much up the mountain of late, either. His heart rate doubled. He dared to imagine, just for a moment—could something have happened to the mage?

No. He hung his head and pulled up the large, woolen blanket necessary to cover him from boot-tip to his broad shoulders. Of course nothing had happened. That would be fair. That would mean a chance for Everest to unshackle himself from this forsaken valley. To be free.

He closed his eyes, the fireplace crackling softly before him. Farahul was a powerful mage, and Everest a man snared. Only a fool would dream otherwise.

Yet that night he did.

###

Everest smiled the next morning when he woke in his little wooden cottage. It looked exactly the same as it always did, and he reveled in its simple pleasure. The bench still had yesterday’s chopped vegetable ends cast about; the leek’s scent accosted him from across the room. His pitiful bookshelf, rotted and on a lean, contained only a select few volumes the mage had allowed him over the years.

Everest exhaled, blue eyes closing. Some days proved harder than others to motivate himself. Events from the last night and the impossibility of his freedom clung to him like the hands of troubled sleep, unwilling yet to release its hold. But then, he loved his dear cottage, simple may it be, and the rest of the day wouldn’t run itself.

After he dressed his tall, muscular frame in a short-sleeved tunic with thickened wool ends that half-covered his biceps, Everest grabbed a beaver skin cap, an axe, his shorter fishing rod with the more flexible pole and the pack he kept ready. He’d not visited the deeper twists of the river in a while, and that’s where the best salmon thrived. And occasionally wolves, but they tended not to mess with the valley-dweller and his axes. That suited him fine—he never took pleasure in harming them.

Everest didn’t reach the river—he barely made it out the front door.

A rustling as if the tallest cedars brushed their leaves against each other wafted down on the mountain breeze to Everest’s porch. He listened; yes, laughter, smashing and general mayhem harkened from Sharuk Tower. His blood in his arms chilled as he recognized the noises, a throwback to rebellion in his early years. More than once, he’d ransacked places. It had been a while, but he remembered.

The sound rained down from the mountain. That could mean only a very short list of possibilities: either the mage was occupied elsewhere and would be furious upon his return, for no fool would dare intrude while the master occupied his home. Or—and Everest quelled the same hope that rushed through his chest the previous eve …

The dark mage was dead.

He let that sink in. Was it true? Was the crazed sorcerer even mortal?

Everest dropped his rod. Freedom called; fishing could wait. How long since he’d set foot outside the valley? How long since the world had forgotten his name?

How long since he’d laid eyes upon Amara?

Fueled with passion, he strapped his pack tighter over his shoulders and headed toward the valley’s southern entrance, where lay a long, winding path up the mountain. Once a year, the mage forced Everest to traverse it, if only to remind him of his lot. He had not been summoned, but the tower disturbance could not be ignored.

Trekking over stone and moss to the base of the mountain path, Everest tied his axe to his pack and began the steep climb that ascended the rocks, still cold from evening’s breath.

Over an hour passed before he emerged at the apex. He couldn’t still the huff of his own heavy breathing, and the uphill slope had caused his pack to weigh more than his cottage. He collected his strength before proceeding, as the tower demanded. Four solid stone floors of circular design, each custodian of a different sorrow. Capped with a wide spire. Few windows—and only the bravest moss. Harsh realization fell quickly upon those who failed to respect Sharuk Tower.

Additional noises, jovial and drunken, quickly overshadowed Everest’s steps thumping against the earth and stones; that laughter again, and multiple voices. No way the mage was home. The man wasn’t much for jovial company.

As Everest crept closer, he pinned himself against the tower’s coarse sandstone bricks and peered inside a ground floor window. Several men danced around a robed figure, face-down on the floor. Bandits, if their torn, ruffled clothing was anything to go by. Everest would know that figure’s side profile anywhere—the mage, dead in his own tower!

Power like mage lightning surged through his whole body. Free! Free! He really was free!

Stepping back, Everest shook a fist three times for victory. He returned to the bricks to steal a quick glance at the three bandits, who appeared as pleased as himself. One wore an eyepatch that extended to cover the whole left side of his face. Another had no muscle or fat to speak of—bones in a bag, stretched thin. The last he saw only from the back, but the man bore a modest tattoo of a spear penetrating the sun above his right elbow.

Best not to be noticed; Everest bobbed back down and slunk away to allow the men’s revelry to expire.

Rays from the fading sun had almost forsaken the day when Everest rustled out from his hiding spot amongst the wild lavender, alert to the new sounds of horse hooves and a carriage. Carefully, he snuck around the curved bricks of the tower’s side, attune for further voices.

Out over the dusty night road went the mage’s carriage, laughter like wicked spirits’ triumph trailing with it. It seemed these bandits pulled one joke after another, but they had stood inside a dark mage’s home, probably drinking his finest ale and creasing his immaculate cushions. Most men would live their entire lives and never dream of such feats. Especially those cursed and bound.

No More.

The lower door to the tower had been left swinging in the mountain breeze; Everest nudged it open and entered. The silence made him question everything he’d seen, and reinstated every fear that had kept him bound these last years, until he took courage enough to enter the main dining area and see the dark mage’s body still decorating the blood-caked floor. He could not immediately guess cause of death, but the result seemed sure enough; the sorcerer had cast his last spell.

Rummaging through what remained of the mage’s food stores—and the bandits hadn’t left much—Everest discovered a half hock of beef and some crusty bread. He sat his pack and axe down against the wall and took the host’s position at the table. He ate, the sweetest meal he’d ever tasted. The mage ordinarily allowed no length of menu, and Everest only ate what he acquired himself. Here, dining in the main room of his most hated enemy, even the air carried a honey-like flavor.

Yet sitting, tearing off bites of roasted meat with his teeth, his focus kept returning to the bodily lump on the floor. The ebony cloak, the scratch carved up his left boot, the abnormally long feet. The dark mage was pure evil alive, and felt no more welcoming while dead. Driven by cruelty, arrogance and dishonor, he was the sole reason Everest had been unfairly pulled from his former life and from Amara, his love. But the mage was dead. Did he deserve a burial? Perhaps not. Then again, Everest was not the kind of man to leave someone in such a state, even one so wicked as he, strewn face-down upon the floor.

Everest finished his last mouthful of beef, quenched his thirst from a water barrel and fetched a spade from the stable.

It took just over a quarter hour to reach the site Everest chose for the burial—an oak, whose twisted branches he’d always seen hanging out over the valley like contorted fingers. A half hour to dig, and another quarter hour for the return trip. He’d heard many wolf cries—even seen beasts lurking in the low brush. None dared approach. Dead or alive, the mage’s body carried a sickening aura.

When he returned to the tower, Everest half contemplated grabbing what he could and fleeing that very night. His tired muscles quickly scolded him—after the wearisome climb up the mountain and the effort to bury the mage, he had barely the strength to stand. With the bandits gone, he had the tower to himself; he could find a bed for the night and set out early tomorrow morning to pick up the life that had been stolen from him.

Lighting a candle, he ascended the stairwell to the third floor. He dared not delve into Sharuk Tower’s depths, afraid what lurked at the root of such an evil place. He admired a row of bookshelves that spanned the hallway—and made a mockery of his own collection—grabbed a random volume and headed to the closest room with a bed. There, he placed the candle on a small birch table and lay down to read, as he often did before sleeping.

He tried to concentrate on the words, but failed—his weary head surrendered to the pillow’s softness and he sunk into slumber. It didn’t last.

A thunderous bang rocked the tower. Everest woke and flung up on the bed, his heart pounding so rapidly it could outfly a raven. Instinct shoved the book he’d been reading in his tunic pocket at the same time he snatched the candle from beside the bed. He was halfway through drawing a breath to extinguish the flame when a robed figure entered the doorway.

Farahul had returned to life. A growing fireball atop his hand said everything.

He was not pleased.

###

“Fiend!” the dark mage cried, pointing a twisted finger at Everest. “What are you doing here! I’ll eviscerate your bones!”

The fireball remained on the mage’s left hand, but a black spot appeared and expanded over his right that bulged in and out with purple lightning. A faint sucking sound accompanied the sorcery, as though light and life were being drawn into it.

“Please!” Everest pleaded. “I … I …can go back to my cottage! I heard noises from the tower. I didn’t know what they were …”

“What cottage?” the mage said.

Everest tilted his head, confused. Had he heard correctly? The mage didn’t know about his cottage. Nor had he spoken to Everest by name. Everest stared closer in the dim candle light; same physique, same cruel almond eyes, but no dirt from where Everest had buried the dead mage. And those hands—they were longer and bent further sideways than those of Farahul, the mage who had imprisoned Everest. Those hands that cast lifeblood magic upon him so many years ago— Everest would remember them anywhere. This mage’s hands were not those. Perhaps a relative?

“Nothing, huh? Have it your way …” The mage charged his purple lightning.

“Lord mage!” Everest said quickly. “Sharuk Tower’s owner was known to me, and I brought no ill upon him. If I may; you bear his likeness. Was he family?”

The mage’s glower deepened. He did not release the lightning. “Farahul is my brother.”

That was likely to be really bad news—or terrible.

“I am sad to report his death,” Everest said. “I don’t know how it happened, but bandits were inside the tower when I arrived.” He wanted to relax, as though discussing such matters should be done with sincerity and slow speech, but the mage before him looked no less fearsome than when he’d burst in.

After a moment, the mage shook his head. “Bandits. You expect me to believe bandits killed my brother? Fool. Your treachery will cost you. Get up—it’s time you got the full tour of this tower.”

The new mage swooped from the room and for a moment Everest considered running. If he made it to a window, if he reached the ground floor, if he could just get outside he could hide under cover of night. But no. There was no escape. He through off the blankets and scurried to catch up with Farahul’s brother.

The mage grabbed Everest by the collar just outside the room. He snarled. “Walk.”

They descended to ground level. Spilled potions tainted food scraps on the kitchen bench, where flies attempted to feast and immediately spasmed and died. The mage walked to a passage behind the kitchen that led to the scullery. There, he opened a small door with a rounded top. It scraped against its hinges and Everest thought the scythe of death itself had come to claim him. Down they went into the bitter depths of the dungeon, where semi-fresh remains of wolves and bears violated the stale air. Strange long-handled pliers and a tall that looked like ten fish hooks stabbed into a ball lay on a table. Everest shut his eyes. He didn’t want to imagine how they might be used.

The mage opened a cell door and pointed one bony finger inside. “In.”

Everest entered the fully enclosed cell. The door slammed behind him, the bolt bashing against the chamber on the other side of the wood.

“Perhaps this accommodation will help amend your recollections. I have … business that requires me elsewhere. I’ll return in a week. You have until then to decide how slow and painful your death will be.”

With that, the mage turned on his heels and half-glided from the room.

When steps retreated up the stairwell, Everest gripped his chest in an attempt to stop his thumping heart. One week? What could he possibly achieve in that time? The mage would return and, one way or another, kill him. He began to wish for his little cottage, trapped deep in the valley. At least there he’d been safe.

Wishing did him no good. Rancid smells in the dungeon plagued his nose, and he realized he’d traded one valley prison for a smaller one. Life was the same. Worse—

He wasn’t going anywhere.

###

Everest woke shivering in the dungeon cell, chill air spiking the dark hairs on his arms and all the way across his chest. No sunlight. No herbs’ scent carried in his normal cottage window. Only faint flickers from torches ensconced upon the grey brick wall outside his cell. There wasn’t much to see.

The dark mage’s dungeon had five or six similar cells to the one which bore him, before the walls bent out of sight from the window in Everest’s door. All were empty, save for the bones of a four-armed creature dangling through one window, and a mouse with a tear on its ear gnawing on something in the cell beside it. Everest had hoped for some kind of partner to escape before the week was out; instead, he got a mouse. Ominous booms echoing from somewhere above only reminded him of his unavoidable fate.

“Curses!” Even as Everest slid his back down against the door, he heard his own words and figured them an odd phrase to shout, under the circumstances. Yet circumstances were unlikely to worsen, so what did it matter?

Dust puffed up as his backside slapped down onto the dusty floor, his arms dangling at his side in defeat. Breaths came hard in the stale dungeon air, and the lump atop his gut wasn’t helping. What was that, anyway?

Reaching into his tunic pocket, Everest latched onto the spell book he’d taken from the third-floor shelf. In the commotion of a living dark mage bursting in on him, he’d completely forgotten about it. A spell book—perhaps therein lay his salvation? No, you had to be a sorcerer to perform magic, didn’t you? He’d only ever entranced girls with his broad shoulders and iron abs. A peek at the book wouldn’t hurt, though.

Soul Magic and Death Rendering, the volume title read.

Great.

Everest had never considered himself a violent man. Rendering death? After years trapped under the mage’s power, he had no desire to become like his captor. He flicked through the opening pages, hoping for something—anything—he might garner to escape. What he found was gruesome images and somber spells with overly complicated chants for imbuing fatal diseases. Nice author, this guy.

One spell looked promising; a hardening variant that solidified the wielder like stone. Everest could bust down his cell door with that. Alas, it listed the key ingredients as chalk, iron and death. Someone had to be sacrificed for it to work.

Just like that, he’d been dumped right back where he started. Of all the spell books he might have grabbed! He had to snatch the most pitiful …

Wait …

Fireballs. Page eighty-one. What did they have to do with heart or death magic?

He leaned closer.

Twisting the pages to capture threads of light, Everest noted with much satisfaction that the spell required only two basic elements: a simple chant he was confident he could memorize and a charm imbued with rage. A charm. He wouldn’t find that in a cell. So close!

Everest tossed the small volume across the dirt. It bashed against a stone and flipped open. Maybe he needed to start thinking up better ways to negotiate. Yes, when Farahul’s brother returned, Everest would persuade him to see reason. Appeal to this dark mage’s better nature. He thought about that …

Crap. I’m dead.

The spell books’ open pages fluttered. They shouldn’t do that, thought Everest. There’s no wind in here.

Slowly, he dragged himself across the cell floor, its icy touch coursing through his palms. Taking the book in hand, he studied the open page. But he’d seen it already, some vile disease imbuing spell he had no use for. Although, he did need an imbued charm. Could the spells be similar?

Madly, he read the passage. He turned the page. Then the next. The imbuing spell was versatile—it could be cast upon almost any object. Everest ran dry, dusty fingers over the runes laid out on the pages, the ones involved with the imbuing, and a vulgar translation passed into his mind, in a tongue he imagined himself never to utter. A sudden hunger took him… a pull to continue the spell, to create the most potent disease and thrust it into materialization. Sheer power rose in his chest like a mountain bursting up from its confined valley. The image entered his mind: Everest standing dominant while a whole village fell to the ground in torment.

Power. Furious power, unlike he’d ever known. He need only complete the spell.

The image of him standing, watching villagers wrack their bodies with despair at his bidding. Could that kind of power be worth it to survive?

Slowly, carefully, Everest filled his thoughts with Amara. Her soft spoken voice whispered to him as clearly as the day they’d met on the road, and his knees threatened to tremble just the same. Confident and brash at times—yet delicate as a valley rose at others.

The urge to create disease subsided. He would not become a monster. Not even to save himself.

Excitement pushed through his starving gut. Everest snatched up the stone he’d seen, the only other object in the cell, besides his person. It had a mostly jagged edge that led to a point; a bolt, if he had to describe it. Before he could question what he was doing, he began to utter again that dreaded tongue shown him by the spell books’ runes, only when he’d finished he turned his thoughts to matters that inspired anger instead of disease. It wasn’t hard—he’d been trapped in a valley for years.

An aura like his soul breathing left Everest. The stone shook and absorbed it.

Proud of his progress, however slow, Everest flicked through the spell book’s ancient pages and found the fireball spell. He rose to full height. Holding the stone out in front of him, he chanted.

“Blaz’roc.”

A pitiful spark spurted out from the stone and fizzled against the back cell wall, hardly enough to singe the dust in the air, much less burn down a door. Yet Everest chuckled defiantly; the spell had worked. It lacked intensity, but it worked. Imagine, a rascal like him casting a spell! Now, if he could only increase what he poured into it—turn the anger to rage—he might even get out of this hell-spawned tower.

Beginning the imbuing chant again, he settled his mind onto every tiny detail of life that had been snatched from him, until his blood boiled red and aura flowed out of him, sure as the valley river.

If the task didn’t kill him, he might just make it out alive.

###

Everest glanced down, studying the bolt-shaped stone in his hands. This time its power seethed like a wild thing, a live thing. It bolstered his resolve.

He stood back from the cell door, extended his hand and, with gusto, let blast with vocal fire.

“BLAZ’ROC!”

A searing fireball shot from his hand and smashed into the door, erupting over it with ravenous energy till the wood lay as ashes and metal bolts glowed red in the doorway.

Yes! Everest stumbled forward, not realizing the sudden fatigue that had taken him. No matter. He scooped up the spell book, poking it back into the folds of his tunic, and ran from the cell. Farahul’s brother would not be back for days. Everest had but to snatch some provisions. Soon he would be long gone.

The booming sound he’d heard earlier thundered down the stairs. Everest froze in the dungeon hallway. Out stepped an iron golem, a man-shaped, metal hulk. The mouse Everest had seen raced at it—and was promptly crushed under the golem huge foot. Sadness stabbed like a dagger in Everest’s chest.

“Arrrgh!” the golem roared.

Everest released another fireball that struck a direct hit into the construct’s head—which only angered the tower guard. It stomped forward until its giant metal hand locked around Everest’s wrists, then, roaring, tossed him into a different cell, this one more a cage, with only steel bars for walls.

Everest rubbed his left shoulder as he sat in the cell, watching the golem taunt him beyond the door. It glared through black eye sockets before turning and heading back upstairs.

He’d made so much progress—even cast a spell! It was no use, though.

Sharuk Tower had Everest more trapped than ever.

###

From prison valleys to tower dungeons, life worsened by the day. Four days Everest had been locked in the dungeon. In not but a handful more, Farahul’s dark mage brother would return, and it would all be over.

He sat, his back slapped against the cold, steel bars. A little mouse startled him by hopping into his open hand. Saddened had he been by the death of the previous tiny creature—whose broken body lay by the stairs, beyond sight—and thrilled when another skittered into his cell. This one, strangely, carried the same tear on its right ear. For some reason it seemed to like him.

That wasn’t worth much, but it meant something.

He’d spent the last three days scouring over the spell book further—and found nothing. He still had his stone charm and could cast a mean fireball, but little good that did him in a cell with steel bars for walls. He’d contemplated trying to hold continuous fire on the cell bars to melt them; a quick test had proved the effort would take far more constitution than he had.

The mouse squeaked, nuzzling its furry face into Everest’s hand.

“Thanks, little guy.”

In the dirt beside them, the spell book pages fluttered …

“Enough with that, you stupid book!” If Everest didn’t know any better, he’d say the thing had a mind of its own.

Rolling his eyes, and feeling like an idiot for pretending not to indulge a book, Everest turned his attention down. Upon the open page: the solidifying spell.

Uggh. I’ve read this. What’s the point of doing it again? The spell seems useful enough, but I have none of the ingredients to perform it.

And one of them was death. He couldn’t forget that. His conscience would never allow it. Everest was no killer.

At once, his furry friend leapt from his hand onto the open spell book page. It spun twice in a circle, offering a squeak.

“Huh?”

The mouse hopped off the book, scurried between the cell bars.

Everest watched it go. Just when he thought he had this damn tower figured, it kept getting weirder. What he wouldn’t give to be sitting in the mild comfort of his cottage chair, savoring a fresh-roasted salmon from the valley river.

An hour passed—each one closer to the forthcoming return of the dark mage’s brother—while Everest fought the mental strain upon his head. There had to be a way out. He’d not had much luck so far in life, but refused to believe it would end with his torture and demise in a cold, dark dungeon. In the interim, all he could do was run his fingers over the detailed runes in a book with spells he couldn’t harness, and dream of the power they might bestow.

A scurry, skittle and squeak later and the mouse returned. The creature dragged what appeared to be a tiny velvet pouch in its tiny teeth, the object small enough to rest in a man’s palm without reaching the edges. The mouse dropped the pouch before Everest’s knees and frolicked about.

“What is this, my small friend? A pouch?”

Everest pulled the drawstrings either side of the pouch and opened it. A white substance, like powder, lined the inside. He carefully poked a finger in, got a little of the powder and sniffed: chalk. The mouse had brought him chalk.

He shuffled back a little, the slow blanket of fear climbing his spine. That wasn’t normal … chalk, iron and death were needed for the solidifying spell, and the mouse had brought him the first ingredient.

Everest studied the rodent. “How … how did you do that?”

A great booming came down the stairway and the golem reappeared. Everest flicked the pouch of chalk under his left but cheek.

“Arrr,” the golem warned, bashing against the bars of Everest’s cell. It glared a moment, then returned to its duties above, leaving Everest alone as ever with a mouse, a pouch of chalk and one ingredient of freedom …

As close as he’d been in years.

###

Two days passed. Two more days, now the dark mage would return tomorrow.

Everest sat in his cell, the lining of his gut ready to eat itself for hunger, if numb veins didn’t fail him first. He’d run scenarios in his head for ways he might escape, but every one ended with that big, dumb golem stopping him. The spell book didn’t help.

He bit at his nails, sharp and jagged, that had sunk painfully back into their nailbeds. When the dark mage returned—and return he would—the real pain would begin. Everest’s gut twisted just thinking about it.

Another boom from above. The golem, carrying out chores in its master’s absence, like a shadow—a really huge one—of the mage himself. Its constant stomping reminded Everest he was trapped. If he could but snare the keys from the metal beast. Although, he’d still need to get by it once free of the cell. Keys wouldn’t do much good for that …

Hmmm. Unless they’re iron-made. If so, they might serve as the second ingredient for the solidifying spell. Then he’d need only death. How could he possibly kill someone, alone in a dungeon?

The mouse squeaked and snuggled against Everest’s arm. The creature had made him laugh several times over the last couple of days, a feat he had thought impossible. He stroked under its chin.

More calmed than before, Everest formed a plan. It was simple enough; create a ruckus to bring in the golem, draw it close to the cell door, reach through the bars and snag the keys without it noticing. He’d just have to use stealth to escape from there.

At least stage one of the plan would be amusing.

Everest wailed and beat at the steel bars on his cell door, each strike deadening his hand a little more. When the golem didn’t come, he raised the volume of his cries, as though the great belly of the mountain herself groaned.

Twenty seconds later, the golem heeded the call. The thing stormed down the dungeon hallway to stand before Everest, waving its arms and shaking its head violently. It sent one solid punch into his cell bars, denting them in warning. Then another. And another, until it had almost broken through.

Proximity to this beast was the last thing Everest wanted—but there hung the cell keys dangling from a chain about the golem’s neck. He took a deep breath and thrust his arm through the bars. Aching fingers latched around the keys.

The golem won’t notice. I’m making eye contact. It won’t notice. It won’t notice.

It noticed.

Enraged, the iron hulk pulled back, Everest still desperately clutching to the keys through the bars till his shoulder squeezed against the cell door and he let go. The golem put one heavy right hand around the keys and tugged the whole chain of its neck. It roared, then bent them in half and tossed them away.

Everest belted the cell bars. “No!” The keys were useless now.

The mouse, mostly hidden behind Everest in the cell, suddenly darted out. The golem roared all the louder, as the tiny, dirty-white furball raced around its huge feet, tormenting it. Minute clangs echoed as tiny mouse teeth bit against the golem’s legs.

“Mouse!”

On hearing Everest’s voice, the mouse turned its head toward him and scurried off the golem. It almost reached the safety of the cell—when a huge iron foot crushed down upon its back.

“No!” cried Everest.

He pulled the poor mouse into the cell as the golem stomped up and down, and cradled the broken animal in the palm of his hand. Its twitching whiskers tickled his skin. Its warmth ebbed. With its final breath, it looked at something behind Everest and sniffed.

The mouse died.

The sting of loss almost muted the sound of the golem hammering against Everest’s cell bars again. Poor mouse. What had it sniffed at?

Everest turned. The only thing behind him was the pouch with chalk.

Why is the mouse so interested in that?

Chalk. Iron. Death. The three ingredients needed for the solidification spell. Chalk he had—and now this mouse’s death, he realized. Would that count? Yet it hardly mattered without the third ingredient, which he was never going to get while that infernal golem kept banging on his …

The golem.

The iron golem.

Even while his little white friend’s remains still warmed a spot on his hand, Everest snatched up the chalk pouch and tipped it over the animal. With his free hand, he pulled the spell book from within his shirt and opened it to page twenty-eight, and the solidifying spell. He strode toward the cell door and his foe.

Reaching through the bars, Everest gently pressed the mouse and chalk against the golem’s broad iron chest. In a guttural voice, he chanted the mysterious words to the spell and instantly felt power surge into him. First in his hand, attached to the golem, then his chest, then out from there to his extremities. Before he could close the spell book, a density took his bones as though he’d been turned to stone.

Looking down, he pretty much had been.

The golem ceased its raging cries, clearly unsure how to respond to this new development. A simple minded creation; Everest knew exactly how to respond—he pulled back a heavy fist and slammed it into the cell door. A second strike and the whole thing broke off like an entire army had rammed it at the same time.

Thoughts of his mouse companion squished underfoot brought to bear a war cry from Everest’s lips. The golem responded to that, stepping forward to meet the challenge. To no avail—as the great menace swung wild, Everest caught it one-handed and smashed the arm clean off the golem’s body with his other hand. Everest dropped low and shoulder-charged his captor to the wall, before three sequential blows took the golem’s head from its body. What remained of the iron wreck wobbled once, then crashed to the dirt floor.

Just like that, Everest was free.

No time to lose, he made for the stairway and any door that would lead him from the tower. With any luck, he’d be leagues away from this horrid place before tomorrow, when the dark mage returned. He had no idea how long the solidifying spell would last, and didn’t want to find out, but needed to be long gone before it happened. Saying one last farewell to his brave friend the mouse, Everest climbed the stairs.

The ground floor remained as he remembered; for the most part trashed, with scent of wine permeating the air, alongside discarded scraps that had rotted in corners for almost a week. Provisions would be few. Better to find his pack and flee. He could seek nourishment on the road, wherever he found shelter.

The loud whinny of a horse from outside caught Everest’s attention. Quietly as a stone man could, he moved to the door, peering out the window.

The dark mage! He’d returned!

Fear flooded across Everest’s body like streams that coursed between the mountain paths. What should he do? Confront the mage? He might surprise the man, sure, but if he didn’t move fast enough he could be right back in a cell. He could run, but doubted he’d get far.

Damn it! Why did the mage have to return early!

Hearing footsteps approach the front porch, Everest lumbered into the kitchen and waited half behind a closet door.

A chill wind that smelled of death and rotted teeth whipped inside as the front entrance opened. The mage grumbled something about golem service, his boots falling upon the floor as if to create a quake with each step.

“Golem!” the mage shouted. “Golem!”

Everest opened the closet door a fraction, hoping to glimpse the mage’s heading. Seeing the back of the figure who’d imprisoned him in the cell, he dashed out to ambush him.

The creaking closet door was his undoing.

The dark mage, having likely heard the sound, spun just fast enough to see Everest’s massive form bearing down upon him. He gripped a pocket on his cloak and cried aloud, “Fixel’niad’ia!” Everest’s body went rigid as the stone of its making; his legs frozen to the spot. His arms and head refused to move, either.

“Well, well,” the dark mage said. “Impressive. A worm has broken free from the Sharuk Tower dungeon.”

He uttered another spell, muffled to Everest’s ears. Within moments, the hefty strength left Everest; he shrank in size until his normal body flopped onto the ground in front of his captor.

“There we are. Now, I believe we have things to discuss.”

Foul magic locked Everest’s arms and legs awkwardly behind him and levitated his body. It brought into full view the mage’s snarl, the fireball upon his left hand and the stuffed animal foot protruding slightly from beneath his violet-hued cape. Everest’s muscles unfroze.

“Move.”

As they approached the dungeon stairway, salvation arrived by a courier Everest did not expect. A mouse—a beautiful, dirty-white hero—leapt from the high bricks that descended into the dungeon, straight at the mage’s face. The man screamed. The distraction gave Everest just enough time to lunge. He missed, for the most part, but one hand came upon his captor’s cloak, the other upon the stuffed animal foot beneath his cape. Latching onto both, Everest flung the mage over his shoulder, sending him crashing down the stairs. The animal foot came free. It hummed with hidden power.

A charm, Everest realized.

Proceeding carefully down the stairs, Everest found the mage laying down, his back twisted at an unfortunate angle. He clutched bone that had penetrated the skin of his left arm. The mouse. A tear on its right ear, saw Everest and scurried over.

It looked exactly like … no, it couldn’t be.

Rubbing the stone charm in one hand, Everest mustered what strength he could and conjured a fireball. He strode around behind the dark mage, beaten on the dungeon floor, and stood, waiting for the wounded man to meet his gaze.

The mage sneered. “Finish it. Do with me as you did my brother.”

“I already told you, I didn’t kill Farahul.”

“Pfft. Pathetic lies.”

Everest let the fireball glow brighter upon his palm. Its glare caught the mage’s eye. “I could kill you, you know,” Everest said. “Right here.”

The fireball glowed a moment longer then flickered out.

“But I won’t. I speak the truth: I did not kill your brother. I can’t say for sure who did, only that others—bandits—were already here when I arrived.”

The dark mage studied Everest’s face, the black yolks of his eyes seeping into his awareness. After a moment, he snorted, then took his good hand off his broken arm.

“It seems I gave you more credit than you deserve; you’re too weak to have defeated my brother. I should have killed you when first we met, a fate I decree upon you now: Unproven one, I curse your time from this moment forth. You have exactly one cycle to look upon the corpse of my brother’s killer, lest you suffer the same fate as he.” With that, an ear splitting scream erupted from the mage’s lips, and he smeared blood from his arm over his heart. Everest could only shudder.

When the scream died, so too did the mage, leaving Everest alone in a dungeon with a seemingly unkillable mouse, two magic charms and a hopeless quest that would force him to seek out and slay his most hated enemy’s killer.

Marching back upstairs, Everest strode to the front tower entrance and opened the door. Icy wind whipped against the loose folds of his tunic, while his muscles clenched against the cold. He stared out. Beyond the mage’s horse, now his, and mountainous terrain: uncertainty. But the last week had seen the demise of two powerful mages, and his raising from a valley that had imprisoned him for a decade. If he could track those bandits down, maybe he could survive a little longer. Life wasn’t finished yet.

He was just starting to reclaim it.

THE END