Saturday, October 14, 2017

Chapter 43: A New Road

           Shepherd stood alone atop the spire of the GodKing, one hand resting easily on the stone battlement that encircled him, while the other was clenched tightly around the grip of Brand. 
It was a clear day, with no clouds shielding the new GodKing from the naked horizon that surrounded him.  Below, the city of Malthanon was laid bare, even from so great a height as the spire stood.  Shepherd looked down on this city…his city, now…and channeling a bit of his power, he opened his eyes to the goings-on of the mortals who lived there. 
He saw them all; the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the working and the derelict.  He followed each of them living their lives in a city that seemed only an imitation of what it once was.  Even with the harbor rebuilt, and the GodKing’s castle and spire restored, there was still so much devastation; and it was the people who were being made to suffer for it.  Some were suffering more than others, yet Shepherd could not ignore how much needed to be done before Malthanon would be made whole again.
The newly made GodKing watched over all of this, weighing how best to intervene - wondering how much the people expected of him.  A barrage of imagined demands suddenly littered his mind, giving rise to a growing sense of panic.  Of course the people would expect much of him.  Malthanon had been the envy of every other kingdom on Arden, and even with a ruler who had been absent from their lives for a thousand years, the people of the city attributed its stability and prestige to their GodKing.  Malthus was the greatest of the gods, and they would expect no less from Shepherd. 
And why should they?  For all they knew, Malthus was still alive and well.  True, his tower was destroyed, but it was also rebuilt overnight.  The harbor had sunk into the ocean, yet in an instant was restored.  It did not matter that Shepherd was the one who performed those miracles…not to the citizens of Malthanon.  And beyond that, Shepherd bore Malthus’s full power.  There was still a trace of the dead god in him…and in the city that still bore Malthus’s name.  Shepherd suddenly felt a bond to Malthanon he had not realized was always there; for while the power and the people were at the forefront of his mind, the city too was an inheritance…one he had not considered before.
So much responsibility, and yet Shepherd could see to it all with only a thought.  He had the power to heal the whole of the city.  He had the power to improve the lives of its people: not just improve, but perfect.  He could mend their wounds - he could feed their hungers - he could shower them in riches so that they wanted for nothing ever again.  He could revive those on the edge of death; or better, bestow immortality upon them so that death posed no threat. 
Under his rule, Malthanon could become a living paradise.  In the pit of his stomach, the power fluttered in answer to his desire, begging to be harnessed to achieve its master’s noble ends.  It trickled upward, moving through his chest, past his neck, and filling his head.  Shepherd’s eyes came alive with divine purpose as he looked down on the now broken city below, and reveled in the glory that only he could bestow upon it.
“I can see to it, master,” a familiar, female voice whispered inside his mind.  “Say the word, and thy will be done.”
Shepherd lifted his hand from the battlement and held it forth.  His outstretched fingers came into view, silhouetted in a white, perfect gleam.  In contrast to such holy luminescence, the city below seemed dull…dying…lifeless.
“Send me, lord,” the phantom Cecily’s voice sounded with great reverence.  “Let me bring them your light.”
A simple sanction from him; that was all she required to make the city perfect beyond the wildest dreams of all those who dwelt in it.
“You cant,” another voice sounded, in a tone far more serious than Shepherd was used to hearing from it.
“I can,” Shepherd insisted aloud.
“You shouldn’t, then,” Finnian Pell’s voice amended.  “And you know why.”
Shepherd bore the disagreement between the two voices on his face.  One moment, his eyes were wide and his smile broad with the possibility of what he could do.  An instant later, his brow was furrowed and his grimace pained with what he should do. 
Finally, he slowly forced his outstretched fingers closed.
“Are you sure?” Cecily asked, her heartbreak echoing in him more than her words.
Shepherd did not answer.  He had not the strength.  With all the will he could muster, he turned from the city.  The refusal to use so much power, already summoned, forced the GodKing to his knees.  “AHHH,” he screamed as he fell, landing hard on the stone of the spire.  With head bowed and eyes closed, he let himself be still, breathing in and out…shutting out the world around him, and living in himself for a moment’s rest.  Finally, he opened his eyes and raised his head, meeting the gaze of the pair of phantoms he knew would be waiting for him.
“You wanted to heal the city,” the pale Cecily said, “yet bound me to do nothing.  Why?”
Shepherd looked from her, finding Finnian’s spectral face wearing that all-too-familiar smile.  He breathed, “I want to restore Malthanon.  But more than that, I do not want her people enslaved.  But I could see it, Finnian, I…I saw it.  I saw the city rebuilt, more magnificent than before.  I saw the lives of the people…free of pain and ache and toil.  I saw paradise…perfection,” the young god recounted in rapture, looking up at them with moist eyes as though he still beheld the visions he described.
Then he shut his eyes tightly.  He raised a knee, resting his leather boot onto the stone floor, and lifted himself to standing.  As he got to his feet, Shepherd let his head fall to rest, and his body followed suit in relaxing.  The serene, blissful expression that shaped his face was now replaced by a contemplative, troubled visage.  He had fallen out of the ecstatic state and reclaimed himself.
“If I go down this road of restoring to them all that they have lost…” Shepherd said, opening his eyes to his shadow companions, “…I will become the same as the other gods, whose bondage I have sworn to free them from.”
“Gods like Adulatio?” Finnian asked with an inkling of accusation.
“It had to be done,” Shepherd hardened.  “He had to be dealt with.”
“In the way that you dealt with him?” Finnian pressed with firm sincerity, all pretense fallen away. 
Shepherd hesitated, and in that instant so many thoughts raced through his mind; thoughts, he knew, that the ghosts standing before him were privy to.  But at the end of such a long stream of ethical quandaries and morality plays, he knew what he felt about his actions: and that feeling was mightier than his conscience.
Shepherd steeled himself, and leveled an unflinching glare at the shade of his friend.  “I do not apologize for what I did to Adulatio.  His punishment was just.  He and those like him deserve to share in the suffering they inflict on others.  If I must be the one to deliver that judgment…then so be it.”
The phantom Finnian took a few steps forward, stopping so close to Shepherd that the god could have reached out and touched his old friend if there had been anything corporeal left of Finnian to touch.
“You know what I am,” the ghost whispered disarmingly, leaning in as if to keep this secret a private thing between old friends.
“I do,” Shepherd whispered back, suddenly softened.
“Then you know my being with you makes this road you’ve chosen harder,” the pale Finnian said, offering a warm smile.  “Best to leave me behind.  Take only what you need to see this through,” he said with a tilt of the head toward the spectral Cecily behind him.
“No,” Shepherd asserted without hesitation.  “I need you both.  Every step of the way.  Until the end.”
“Very well,” Finnian said, brightening.  “Just don’t lose me.  If you do, you will never be able to find me again.”
Shepherd gave a grim nod in answer.  He understood what Finnian meant: the severity of it.
“Cheer up!” his old friend’s ghost barked joyfully.  Shepherd could almost feel the clap on his shoulder as the shade of Finnian Pell stepped back to his original place next to Cecily.  “I’m a hard one to lose.”
“Master?” Cecily interjected.
“Are you two quite finished?” she asked with all the seriousness of her intensely religious namesake.
“Pardon me?” Shepherd was taken aback.
“There are things we can be doing.  Steps to take, if we are to go forward with this insane plan of yours,” she said without a hint of jeering.
“Are you sure she’s a part of you?” Finnian put to Shepherd.  “She sounds far too much like the real Cecily.”
“I suppose…now…she is the real Cecily,” Shepherd concluded.  “And even though he’s still alive in Briarden…for me, you’re the real Finnian.”
“Good.  Now that’s out of the way,” Cecily began dispassionately, “our first step should be finding the dark robed one whom Adulatio served.  The one called The Sovereign.  He is one of the elder powers, and would have the answers you seek.”
“That is an…ambitious…first step,” Shepherd said soberly.  “How do we even begin to find such a powerful being?  And if we do, how do we get him to talk?”
“One problem at a time, I think,” Cecily’s namesake pushed forward.  “First, how to find him.  He used Adulatio to reunite all of Malthus’s power back into a single host.  You, master.”
Shepherd, channeling the spirit of Finnian Pell; a spirit who stood not five paces away, offered Cecily a mischievous smile and a grand bow.
“If other gods have fractured their power in a similar fashion; like tributaries allowed to flow from the well; perhaps this Sovereign will seek them out, and find some way of forcing such branches back to their source,” Cecily concluded.
Shepherd looked at her, dumbstruck.  He turned to the ghostly Finnian, who only looked back at him, equally awed.  “Cecily,” Shepherd finally said, turning back to her, “that’s brilliant!”
“I am your power.  I do as you wish,” Cecily said, that reverence from before, when Shepherd was on the verge of unleashing her on Malthanon, had returned.  “You wished for a path, and I am glad to have aided in finding it.”
For the second time since this conversation began, Shepherd was taken aback.  He offered a slight bow of his head, and she returned in kind.
“How do we find another god who has split their power the way that Malthus did?” Finnian mused.
“The old stories are filled with mentions of the gods’ treasures,” Shepherd answered absently, his mind racing through the tales of gems, jewels, armors and arms that were cherished by the gods.
“But those are tales,” Finnian specified.  “Some of them centuries old.  There may be some truth to them, but how do we know what’s true and what’s not?”
“Malmira,” Shepherd exclaimed.  “She is one of the oldest of the gods.  Perhaps she’d be able to help us separate fact from fiction.”
“To Malmot then,” Cecily declared.
“To Malmot,” Finnian agreed easily.
Shepherd looked on the pale faces of his two dearest friends; eager and willing to jump into this new adventure with him; and he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  They may not have been the real Finnian and Cecily, but they were his memories of them.  Besides, to him in this moment, it did not matter.  These two shades were the only remnants of his old life, and he was as bound to them as they were to him.  So long as he had them both by his side, Tarsus Cole would not be lost to him…even on this new, divine road he now had to tread.
Shepherd drew Brand from its scabbard and held it up high.  The afternoon sun set the blade aglow, and he was reminded of all that the three of them had endured over the last year trying to find Malthir.  Now, he held the heir of that legendary sword; freshly forged, with an unwritten destiny in need only of a willing hand to compose it.
Shepherd brought the blade down and met the illumined aspects of his friends, matching their willingness with a righteous fervor.  “To Malmot.”

To Be Continued…

Friday, September 29, 2017

Chapter 42: ...darkness and silence

           There was a slight rumble beneath Adulatio’s feet, and in the distance, the old god heard a slight booming: the thunderclap that summons forth the lightning storm.  The colors of the sky, the sea, the wood, and the shore of the island suddenly grew sharper…warmer.  A shimmer took shape, surrounding every rock and tree.  In an instant, Adulatio’s sanctuary had become more beautiful and vibrant than he could have ever imagined it. 
Resentment began to well inside of the old god.  This strange visitor was changing what was not his to change.  Perhaps he thought if he could impress Adulatio with this journeyman level control over the power that the elder god would agree to take him on as an apprentice.  Well-intentioned, perhaps, but a poorly executed idea.  And Adulatio had every intention of telling him so.
The shimmer grew more dazzling, and the heat intensified.  Facing the sea, Adulatio could see tendrils of steam rise off the top of the wave-walls that closed is island in.  He smiled.  Here was the amateurish wielding of the power at play.  The effect the strange visitor had intended was growing too much for him to maintain.  Any moment now, this…performance would cease, and Adulatio would send the fool away for his insolent idleness.
Any moment now…
Adulatio spun around, his eyes instantly greeted with the source of the deafening reverberation.  High in the sky, the sun had split in two like a cracked egg.  Flowing from it was a stream of red and yellow liquid fire, which leaked all throughout the azure heavens turning a deep red what was once a magnificent blue. 
The broiling heat from the shattered sun instantly set the grass and trees ablaze.  The fire spread, enveloping the land in a roar so mighty that Adulatio only barely heard the death bleats, bellows and squeals of the millions of species he had cultivated.
The old god reached out an arm, redirecting the flow of his power from maintaining his creation, to quelling the flames that were devouring it.  He focused, stretched out his fingers, and released…
The momentum of the strike sent Adulatio’s arm sailing forward.  It landed on the sand a mere five steps from where the god stood. 
Adulatio watched it writhe and flail, still unsure of what had just happened, when the pain of his loss finally set in.  He was brought to his knees, his free hand instinctively set over the wet stump now left behind.
In a panic, Adulatio looked to his left and right, scanning the edges of the forest that let out onto the beach for any sign of his attacker.
“Behind you.”
The old god lifted his right leg, then his left, turning on his knees back toward the shoreline.  And as the quickly dissipating wave-walls came into view, so too did his attacker. 
It was a man…a seemingly simple, ordinary man.  He stood tall and lean, and wore light brown boots, tan breeches and a white tunic.  A plain, brown scabbard hung from his brown belt.  Draped over his shoulders was a blue hooded cloak, with the hood up so it covered his eyes.
In his hand, the man held a simple looking broad sword, with no ornamentation on the blade, nor decoration on the hilt.  Yet Adulatio knew that sword, though he could not place it.
“Who are you?” the old god called out.  “Your power feels familiar.  Like that of Malthus, if I had to guess, only…fuller.”
“I am not Malthus,” the stranger said simply, betraying a smile.  “I am a humble friend to mankind.”
“You are more than that,” Adulatio spat.  “Much more.  And dressing like a simple shepherd…”
“I am THE Shepherd,” the stranger corrected.
“Hm, the shepherd,” Adulatio mocked.  “And mortals are your flock, is that it?  Yours to herd?  Yours to fatten?  Yours to sheer when it would most profit you?”
“You confuse me with yourself, I think,” the stranger retorted, “you and the rest of your kind.”
“You are my kind,” the old god asserted with wrathful surety.
“Not quite,” the stranger answered, looking from Adulatio to the burning island that was coming apart at the seams all around them.  “A shepherd does not live in a world apart from his flock.  He does not demand their obedience or adoration.  He simply guides them…protects them.  If they follow, and if he guides them true, then they may follow him again.”
            “You think you are the first to believe that mortals will respond to your benevolence?” Adulatio posed, his patience a candle just about to burn through its wick.  “Others have tried.  And mortals may respond to it for a while.  But ultimately, they will reject you…betray you.  Because compassion, kindness and charity are too complicated for them.  Strength, force…power…these are the simple truths that they can all comprehend.”
“You are wrong.”
“You think so?!” the old god howled.  “Do it then.  Shower them with your benevolence.  See how long you can guide without taking control.  Let them betray you, string you up on a tree and leave you for dead.  Because when they do, I will be the first to remind you how much of a child you are.”
“You won’t be able to remind me of anything Adulatio,” the stranger said with leveled menace.  “You are never leaving this island.”
“Miserable whelp!  You owe me everything.  I am your elder…your better…I AM YOUR GOD!” he screamed as he extended his only hand and focused his power. 
Adulatio fell onto his side; the side where his one remaining arm used to be.  “Ah!” he cried out instinctively, as he rolled onto his back.
The elder god felt a faint bite clamp across his upper thighs, but compared to the agony of losing both his arms, this new sensation was a dull tingling.  Then, inevitably, the tingling gave way to full and complete torture.  The pain he felt in his newly liberated shoulders suddenly struck double in his legs - or at least, where his legs used to be.
“What have you done?!” Adulatio screamed.
“I have reacquainted you with humanity,” the Shepherd said calmly.  “Pain is one of the great unifiers of mortal-kind.  It is inevitable…inescapable…by all those who dwell on Arden.  And now, you can share it with us.”
“Us?!” Adulatio asked as he felt the power inside of him racing to do its work.  And it did.  It kept him awake…aware…but it did not dull the pain.  It could not.  His body had been broken by one of his own kind, and no god could undo what another had done.  So he lay there…awake…and agonizingly aware.
The Shepherd knelt down beside the torso of the elder god.  He fixed his glare on Adulatio’s face, meeting the invalid’s darting blue eyes with his own: his grey intensity burning with self-righteousness. 
“You…are not one of them,” the old god said through pained gasps. 
The Shepherd leaned forward, as if to retort, but he said nothing.  His eyes were still, yet behind them the elder knew his mind was racing.  “I know,” he finally whispered.
Adulatio replied with a grisly smile of victory that quickly morphed into a tortured glare.  “Will you…kill me now?”
It was the Shepherd’s turn to smile.  “No.  I condemn you to the same punishment you conspired for Malthus.  And for the one who took his place.”
With great effort, Adulatio raised his head, pushing his power to focus on the man behind the god that knelt over him.  A newfound rage dulled his suffering as divine realization set in.  “It IS you!  The shepherd from Briarden.  How?  How could you possibly wield the full might of Malthus?  How could you unite a power split and spread, even beyond the very fabric of this world?”
The Shepherd’s eyes crinkled, and a laugh escaped him.  Yet in the span of the same breath; as the laugh faded and realization set in; the young god came to understand the sad truth that eluded his forbear.
“You truly do not know,” the Shepherd affirmed.  “Adulatio…it was you.  You brought us all together.  Set us on the path.  Pointed us toward the sword.  But it was your betrayal that truly unified us.  You see, you were right before; when you said that I owe you everything.  Your betrayal…is what made me.”
Unable to hold up his head any longer, Adulatio let his face fall into the sand, mouth first.  What once had been a pristine white coat, stretching from the forest to the ocean, was now blackened with the silt unearthed by a roiling sea.
The elder god managed to turn his head, spitting out the dark sediment he had taken in.  He breathed in desperately, greedy to take in as much air as he could.  Though he needn’t have.  Those who wielded the power did not need air, nor food, nor water.  He realized in that instant how ingrained it was in him: breathing.  More than that, though, it was something he could do.  It was something he could control.  He had lost so much, so quickly; strange how a simple act - a human act - could give him a bit of solace.
Then he felt a hand grip the back of his neck; and with an anguish that made him wish, for the first time in his millennia-spanning existence, that he was dead; Adulatio was lifted high and made to look on the stoic demeanor of his tormentor.
“You have been blind to all but your own ambition,” the Shepherd judged, “and deaf to those you made suffer for it.”
“Please…” the broken god begged.  “End this.”
“As you wish,” the Shepherd said.  His stony expression seemed etched with a grim doubt.
The young god brought up his sword, Brand, and rested its edge in the crook between Adulatio’s head and right ear.
To Adulatio, the steel felt surprisingly cool to the touch.  It was pleasant.
The slight relief was replaced with a rapidly burning, liquid heat.  Adulatio’s eyes followed the Shepherd’s Brand as it moved over to his left side, its now slick edge resting atop his other ear.
The elder god felt the loss of his ears instantly.  It was not just the pain, but how this particular pain presented itself; it invaded his head with the thunder of a hundred horses, galloping madly across an open field.  That cacophonous onslaught was all the sound Adulatio could perceive now.
The Shepherd said something; a word or two; but Adulatio could not make them out.  The elder god guessed it was something like “on” or “onward,” but it did not really matter.  It was just something, other than his torment, to focus on. 
An instant later, there was something else to focus on.  Adulatio was faced with the tip of Brand, held steadily only a hair’s length from the middle of his face.  He let his eyes rest on it, crossing as they did so, and turning a singular point into thousands.
And the spell of the many was suddenly broken.  There was only one again: one tip, and one man.
The hand that held Adulatio released its grip.  The old god fell back to the soiled sand without a thud or a shake; the pain of the fall swallowed by the infinite suffering he had been made to endure.  And though he could neither hear, nor see, nor sense anything other than this own misery, he knew that the torture had ended.  His persecutor was gone, and he was left there to suffer alone…in darkness and silence.
And so he did…unto the end of days.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chapter 41: Pleasing to the Eye

Adulatio sat in his golden throne, looking out in all directions at the isle that extended out from beneath the high hill on which his holy seat rested. 
Supple palm and fir trees shone green in the golden sunlight.  As his eyes passed over them, they came to clear, grass-laden fields where lambs, dragons, and everything in between, sat beside each other on perfect harmony.  And further still; the white sands of the coast that gave way to the most opulent blue waters the world of men would never see.
“For it is mine,” Adulatio said, in answer to his own thought.  “It is all mine.”
The old god closed his eyes, reveling in this land: his land.  The power emanated from him, and the island responded.  The trees bent low, as if in bow, toward the seat on the high hill.  The animals in the fields sent up their voices in what should have been a cacophony, but was instead a beautiful harmony of unified praise.  The water at the edge of the isle retreated from the shoreline and waves rose high; standing to the attention of its lord and master, and giving him all the deference due him.
For Adulatio demanded worship, and his sanctuary would abide.
“I too, have come to worship at the altar of the elder god Adulatio,” a humble voice said.  “Yet, what place is there for me in all this splendor?”
“There is always a place to bow in my temple,” the elder god replied, opening his eyes to the supplicant isle.
No one stood before him. 
“Yet only for those I can see,” the elder god clarified.
“Forgive me, elder,” the voice replied, “I am a younger god…only days old, and I seek the wisdom that an elder god may offer.  You are one of the eldest.”
“Where are you?” Adulatio asked pointedly.
“Hidden, lord,” the voice said deferentially.  “The form I have chosen would not be pleasing to you.  Thus, I would prefer to worship privately.”
“Then do so in your own sanctuary, or on the soil and stone that make up the natural Arden.  This Arden…” Adulatio paused to take in the splendor of the island, “…is mine.  My own piece of it, that I formed and shaped out of the dust.  And on my Arden, I would see all who worship me.”
“Very well, lord,” the voice relented.  “I will show myself to you.  But if you wish to see me, then you must come to the very edge of your Arden.  For that is where I am…that is where I deserve to be.”
“Why do you say this?” Adulatio asked.
“My shape is too displeasing, lord.  I do not deserve to set foot on your glorious paradise,” the voice answered.
“Change it then.”
“I cannot,” the voice admitted, “I do not know how.”
“Yet you wish me to come to you?  Name conditions?  On my own land?” Adulatio accused?
“Nay lord, I make this provision in hopes that you will refuse it,” the mysterious voice clarified, “I would be more than content to learn from you without laying eyes on you, and you have more important things to do, to be sure, than laying eyes on me.  Yet if you did deign to come to me…there would be no greater honor I could ever imagine, for the rest of my days.”
Adulatio raised a hand to his mouth in consideration.  This could be a trick: a trap.  Had he his full power, he would be able to reach out with it and learn all he wanted to about this strange visitor.  Yet his power had been poured into this land, and just as it relied on him to maintain it with the divine energies, he relied on it to nourish him with its absolute devotion.  The fool Malthus made a sword as a totem of his power, but Adulatio did what gods were supposed to do; he made a living, breathing world.
But Malthus was gone, and his power scattered.  A dying mortal girl and a bitter half-breed heir bore the GodKing of Maltahnon’s legacy; and all fear of that incredible power being made whole again was laid to rest. 
Adulatio had done well in aiding the master’s plan to keep Malthus’s power crippled, and surely, he had his mater’s protection. 
Yet he did not need it now.  There was no one left, save the master, to challenge the eldest of the elder gods, and that had given Adulatio a sense of elated satisfaction the likes of which he had never known in all of his long life. 
The elder god stood and began walking.  In an instant, he was down off the hill and in the midst of the thick, lush forest of palm and fir trees.  Their bent trunks pivoted around as Adulatio passed by, so that their boughs and leaves always faced their maker in supplication. 
Overhead, the sun raced across the sky to keep up with Adulatio, always seeking to keep him bathed in its warm rays and slightly aglow in its radiant light. 
A moment later, Adulatio was in the open fields.  The lions led the other animals in walking beside their master.  Adulatio put each of his hands on the manes of the lions closest to him, and the large beasts purred with an innocent delight.  The rest of the animals followed by order of size, so that two trains flanked the elder god as a majestic escort.
In the blink of an eye, Adulatio was upon the white shores of the coast that bordered his island.  The waves beyond stood tall, now resembling a circular wall that shielded the elder god and his land from the outside.  It was a majestic sight; water so clear he could see through it, yet so firm and steadfast that nothing could pass through it.
Yet still, even standing in the place he had been told to go, Adulatio saw no sign of the mysterious speaker who’s form would mar the island with its ugliness.
“I am come,” the deity proclaimed. 
“Oh great god,” the voice bemoaned, “you should not have.”
“You will not presume to tell me, Adulatio, what I should and should not do,” the elder god firmly instructed.  “I was feeling generous, young one.  Come, let us cure your deformedness.”
Some moments passed, only the pleasing sights and sounds of Adulatio’s Arden petitioning him for his attention.  The foremost god stood on the shore, looking to and through the ocean wall that barricaded him.  He refocused a sliver of his power from the island to see, in his mind’s eye, the shoreline all the way around.  Still, he could not spot this stranger.
“Ugh,” he breathed out, annoyed.  “I grow tired of this.  I offer my help one final time.  Take it or go.  Now…show yourself.”
“As you wish.”

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Conclusion of a D&D Character's Backstory
            The moon hung high as Wigbrand descended from his family den at the top of the dragon’s mount.  He climbed and hiked his way down to the base of the mountain road.  If there was any meat to be found, it would be at there. 
            It was a desolate scene.  Fifty feet from the road’s end – or beginning, for the few brave souls who had dared climb the mountain – sparse fir trees sat hodgepodge on grassless earth, growing fuller and more numerous the further from the base of the road they dwelt; as if the forest itself feared to get too close to the path that led to the dragons’ den.
            Wigbrand moved as stealthily as a seven-foot tall, three hundred pound dragonborn could; which is to say, not stealthily at all.  His leather jerkin scraped loudly against his scales, and each soft step he tried only elongated the sounds of gravel crunching underfoot. 
            The dragonborn came to one of the few healthier firs in the outer wood and settled behind it.  “Wigbrand…” he whispered out loud, “…you are certainly no rogue.”
            His sharp ears suddenly picked up the sounds of a horse’s hooves falling rhythmically, with the light squeaks of turning wheels following behind.  Reflexively, Wigbrand looked out from behind the tree.  “A traveler so soon,” he thought, “I thought I would have to wait until morning.  Perhaps this will be my lucky night.”
            As he waited for the faraway cart to come into view, Wigbrand’s mind drifted.  He retreated to the memory of his mother in their den, and what she had just told him.  “You are mine…” he remembered; selectively choosing to ignore both the lead-up to, and the resolution of, that particular conversation.  He smiled at the isolated thought, and as he did, a strange sensation came over him: warmth.  It was not an emotional reverberation, stemming from his confined joy, but an actual physical sensation that spread throughout his body, under his scales.
            He did not have time to dwell on this new feeling, for as it spread, the wagon he heard traveling through the sparse wood came into view.  It emerged from the fuller forest like a tired bear cub, trudging along a lonely road at a weighted pace.  It was a simple cart; open in the back and loaded with filled sacks.  A single horse pulled it, and steering from the box seat was a lone driver whose face was hooded and hid from view.
            “No sense in taking this prey,” Wigbrand thought.  “A tired horse and a human wouldn’t make for good sport.”
            He turned from the lonely cart, when something else caught his ear: the sounds of heavy breathing.  The heat suddenly flooded him again, running hotter than it had a moment ago.  Wigbrand sniffed the air, taking in a new scent that he hadn’t picked up before.  It was different than the scent of the cart: fouler.  It smelled like sweat and blood and filth.  He turned back to find the bearers of this newfound stench.
            A dozen men had appeared from out of the shadows, and they were closing in on the solitary wagon.  One of them, the biggest one, held up a hand to the driver signaling a halt.  The cart obliged and came to a restless stop.  Three of the twelve ran up behind the rickshaw and jumped into the open wagon.  They quickly began opening the sacks and taking what they found.
            The leader signaled again, and the grisliest human Wigbrand had ever seen emerged from the remaining group of brigands.  The ugly man bore eyes that were too close together.  He had a pig nose and only three teeth, with shoulders that rested at a perpetual shrug.  The dragonborn had seen the like of him reflected in his own kind…the result of inbreeding within the clans: an attempt to keep the bloodlines pure.
            The very-possibly-inbred man climbed the mounting step of the cart with some difficulty.  With more force than he needed, he pulled the lone driver from the box seat onto the barren earth.  The leader gave a cock of the head, and the almost-assuredly-inbred one grabbed the hood the driver wore, and fiercely pulled it back.  A collective gasp went up from the group.
            “Oh ho, look’a’this boys,” the brigand captain shouted in devious glee.
            The woman that now stood before the men looked back on them with composed eyes.  Her demeanor was small and unimposing, like a slender sapling.  Yet her long ears affirmed her true ancestry: she was an elf. 
            “What’s an elf lady doing here?” Wigbrand wondered aloud to himself.
            “Wha’s an elf lady doin here?” the crazy-undeniably-inbred one repeated in a high pitch; a clear sign of inbreeding, Wigbrand remembered.
            “Don’ matter, do it Lawrence?” the leader asked.  “She’s here now, and it’s been a mighty long time since we had us any…comp’ny.”
            “Missed me that comp’ny,” Lawrence replied.
            “Wha’d’ya say boys?” the leader rallied.  “Y’all in the mood for some…com’ny?”
            The men all cheered.  The absolutely-positively-inbred Lawrence, Wigbrand could see and smell, pissed his pants.
            “Alrigh Gents!” the leader called, “Signal’s given.  Le’s comp’ny.”
            Slowly, the lecherous brigands began closing in on their prey.  The elf maid did not move, nor did she look at all frightened.  She stood there, calm as before, placidly observing the heavily breathing beasts that inched closer and closer.
            Instinctively, Wigbrand stood out from behind his tree.  The brigands were all facing their quarry, and so none of them saw the giant creature that had just appeared behind them.  And if the elf maid saw him, she did not acknowledge it. 
But Wigbrand did not spare a thought to who did or did not see him.   He was hot: smoldering with an inborn desire he had never known before.  Wisps of steam escaped from under some of his looser scales, and his eyes narrowed with wrathful intensity.  Someone was in danger, and that meant he was compelled to do one thing: protect.
The dragonborn raised his head skyward, and without a second thought, he let out a mighty roar.  The earth shook with the echoes of his anger, and some of the less sure-footed brigands fell over in their clumsy pursuit of unwilling company.  The ones who had not fallen turned back to him now, fear filling their eyes.  Wigbrand had their attention, but he needed to do more to shatter their wanton daring.
Wigbrand looked them all dead in the eye, taking the time to go from man to man.  His eyes settled on the leader’s own fearful visage.  The heat surged through him.  He opened his mouth and roared again, only this time, a cone of fire erupted, ripping through the chill night air.  It extended fifteen feet before him, and would have caught the brigand leader in the face had the man not turned and fled before the dragonborn’s roar was heard.  In solidarity, the other men followed their captain, dropping whatever they had taken from the cart and leaving the Elf maid untouched.
Wigbrand closed his mouth, silencing his roar and snuffing out his combustive breath.  He looked on, after the men as they ran desperately into the dark protection of the fuller wood.  Once they had all disappeared, realization dawned on him.  He stood rooted; holding still even as his mind was awash with countless questions; what had he just done?  How could he have done it?  What did this mean for him…moving forward?
He did not see her move, though his eyes were open.  The Elf woman stood before him as suddenly as if she had appeared out of thin air.  Once before him, she commanded Wigbrand’s attention.  She bore the youthful countenance of the rest of her kind, but her eyes belied an ancient soul.
“Hail friend,” she said, her voice lilting airily as she spoke.  “You have my thanks.”
“You…yes…of course,” Wigbrand struggled to offer.  Her voice had broken the spell of her eyes, and his mind was now free to fall prey to his own uncertainty.
“Is something the matter?” she asked without really asking.
“No,” Wigbrand quickly offered.  “Actually…I’ve never done that before.  Breathe fire, I mean.  I didn’t know I could.”
“You are dragonborn,” the elf said.  “It seems a natural talent.”
“Maybe,” Wigbrand placated, still trying to piece it all together in his mind.  “But I’ve never done it.”
“I’m glad you did it tonight,” she said, resting a hand on his forearm.  “You saved me from the ‘company’ of those men, and I am very grateful.  I owe you a reward.  We Elves are obliged to repay our debts.”
“That’s alright,” Wigbrand said.  “Seeing you in trouble…stirred something in me.  I couldn’t stand by.” He shook his head, trying to loosen the grip all of his questions had over him.  He came here for meat…for his mother.  There was still work to be done.
Wigbrand looked off, in the direction the brigands had run.  He sniffed the air and he smiled.  He still had their scent.  “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got hunting to do.”  He let his arm fall, breaking their touch, and began walking in the direction of his prey.
“For your mother?”
Wigbrand stopped.  He turned back to the Elf who seemed to show herself to him, in full, for the first time.  She was not the frail, fragile creature he had stepped in to save before.  Now, she radiated with an invisible power that made the air surrounding the pair of them hum.  “How did you know?” the dragonborn finally asked.
“I know all about you, Wigbrand Middleborn,” she said.  “And I did not chance upon this road.  I came for you…to offer you a path.”
“What path?”
“A long one.  Hard.  Strewn with great peril.  But one that can teach you, and help you to grow into something…different.”
“Different from what?” Wigbrand asked, his voice sounding to him as though it were a hundred miles away. 
“From your brother, your sister…” the Elf instructed.  “…from your father.  Who knows?  At the end of it, you may find you have more to offer than mere hunting.”
“But my mother needs me,” Wigbrand half-heartedly protested.
“Does she?” the Elf asked incisively.  “Or do you need her?”
Wigbrand kept his eyes on the Elf’s, weighing her words.  “What must I do?” he felt compelled to ask.
“The first step is both the simplest and the hardest,” she told him.  “Leave here…now…and follow me.”
Her voice was like the sweetest melody he had ever heard; one that was fading and that he wanted desperately to chase into the dark so that it would sound in his ears for all time.  “I can’t leave,” he said, pushing aside the fancy and taking hold of the practical, “I don’t even know your name.”
“My name is Elaria Feywing,” she proclaimed.  “And I offer you this chance only once.  After today, I shall never again walk the dragon’s mount in the waking world.” 
Elaria held out a hand to the dragonborn.  “Now…will you follow me?”
Wigbrand felt something familiar under his scales: the warmth from before, when he thought she was in danger.  Only, she wasn’t in danger now.
But there was danger in the air, that much Wigbrand knew for certain: the danger of going with her: the danger of staying behind: the danger of his mother’s neglect: the danger of his own disappointment in himself.  Danger surrounded him and threatened to swallow him whole.  He was lost in the middle of the sea with waves on all sides, threatening to crash in.  There was no way out…no way on…save one.
Elaria held out a hand to the dragonborn, and Wigbrand grabbed hold.