Saturday, August 19, 2017

WITHHOLDING
A D&D Character's Backstory

             
             It was another grey day on the mountain pass.  They were all grey days on the dragon’s mount.  On either side of a gravel road were haphazard boulders bordering it as far as the eye could see.  Behind the overlarge stones were steep, cliff faces that stretched high up, beyond the very clouds. 
            Wigbrand sat alone, behind one of the largest boulders he could find.  He was not terribly afraid of being seen.  Very few souls dared travel by the mountain pass for fear of the dangers believed to haunt the place.  One of those mythical dangers was Wigbrand himself.  He was a dragonbron: half man, half dragon standing seven feet tall and adorned in golden scales.  Rumors of his kind, and worse, infesting the mountain had terrified humans for centuries.  Though if any of them could see Wigbrand now, perhaps they would have taken a moment to consider his postulate position, before fleeing in terror.
            “Great Bahamut…” Wigbrand prayed aloud, facing up to the sky.  His arms were extended over his head with palms upturned.  Resting on them was a small, pink filet of meat.  “On this Yuletide, I pray that she finds this pleasing.  Please…please let this be enough.”

           
            Wigbrand stood as straight up as he could.  Not that it mattered, for to either side of him stood two taller dragonborn.  To his left, at close to ten feet tall with a rusted reddish-gold coat, a muscular build and a haughty air was his older brother, Wigsbane.  To his right, standing only eight feet high with a golden sheen to her scales, was Wigraine, his younger sister.      
Inside his ancestral home: a dragon’s den the size of a gladiatorial arena: Wigbrand posed before a massive, roaring fire.  To anyone else, this cave would have been menacing.  Juts of stone protruded out from the stone walls.  All manner of bones littered the ground: femurs, tibias, skulls, and others so burned and bent they were unrecognizable. 
And beside those bones were the remnants of the warfare those men and women: humans, dwarves, elves and gnomes: had carried with them into the cavern.  There were iron hooks, bronze spears and steel swords strewn about, rusting; the foolish relics of would-be heroes who had quested so far to claim the glory of killing the great, golden dragon that dwelt in this cave.
On the other side of the fire, opposite Wigbrand, that dragon now sat on her golden haunches.  She was a glorious, and terrible creature, looming large at forty feet high and spanning almost the width of the room.  Her golden scales were smoking with the boiling heat of the blood flowing in her veins.  Yet of all the fearsome features to her, it was her eyes that proved the most menacing: lavender irises shone so clear that the mid-size giants of the south country could make out their full reflections in them, and her pupils: an inky black darker than pitch: were so piercing that they compelled their subject to expunge the darkest of secrets.
“Happy Yuletide children,” the dragon mother’s voice boomed with a steely femininity. 
            “May you live to see a thousand more, mother,” Wigsbane declared with great bravado.
“May our clan elders be cured of their blindness in refusing you a seat on the High Council,” Wigraine intoned with great solemnity.
“May the love of your children..”
“Now it is time for gifts,” the dragon mother asserted.  “Finally, all my children have come of age.  From my eldest son…” she nodded her approval of Wigsbane, who bowed his head back to her in gracious acknowledgement.  “…to my youngest daughter,” she showered Wigraine with her doting eyes and a warm smile.  The youngest dragonborn placed hand to heart in gratitude for a mother’s love.
Wigbrand stood on the tips of his pedal talons, trying to gain some height betwixt his taller brother and sister.  He offered his mother an eager smile, hoping to catch her eye.
“Wigsbaine and Wigraine,” the dragon mother boomed, regaining her full height without so much as a glance at Wigbrand, “you have my permission to present your gifts.”
Wigsbane stepped forward, lifting the heavy spear he held, presenting it to his mother with upturned hands.  “Mother, today I leave you to start my own journey out in the wide world.  I offer you my strength.  I swear that I shall become the greatest warrior this world has ever known.  I will conquer creatures of all races, and they will worship you as their goddess.  This is my gift.  Is it pleasing to you?”
“It is,” the dragon mother affirmed, bowing her head to her eldest son.
            A mighty roar echoed throughout the cavern.  Wigbrand jumped in his spot, surprised by his brother’s full-voiced exhibition of so much raw emotion.  In his life, he had never known Wigsbane to show so much pride.  Yet this roar proved more genuine than any show of bravado his brother had ever performed before. 
            “Wigraine, step forth,” the dragon mother said as the last reverberations of Wigsbane’s roar died down.
The lithe and lovely Wigraine stepped forward.  She held a simple wooden staff; at the top of which was set the most beautiful opal Wigbrand had ever seen.  The jewel was alight with many different colors, shooting to and fro inside it.  Wigraine set the butt of the staff into the earth, and bent low her head.  A moment passed and the silence built.
Suddenly, the colored lights in the opal shone bright as a star, and the female dragonborn’s head shot up.  With her own lavender irises aglow, Wigraine proceeded to speak in a deep, stately voice that shook the room with every word.  “Mother, I offer my skill in the arcane arts.  I shall train with the ancients of our clan.  I will master the great magics that most of our people have long forgotten, and in time, I shall take control of the high council…where you shall be awarded a seat of honor from that moment on, until the end.  Is my gift pleasing to you?”
“It is,” the dragon mother affirmed again, offering her daughter a bow of the head.
Wigraine lifted her staff high into the air, and from the glowing opal came an explosion of light and color that filled the cavern.  The great roaring fire in the center of the room was transformed from red to blue to green, until Wigraine set her staff down gently, allowing it to resume its original hue.  Wigraine stepped back, retaking the line, as her irises faded back to their original lavender.
“Bravo my dear children,” the dragon mother enthused.  “You have pleased me greatly this day.  Now, it is time for my gifts to…”
“Excuse me mother,” Wigbrand timidly raised his hand.  “I haven’t given you my gift yet.”
“Wigbrand…” the dragon mother said with mild irritation, “…my little middle.  I had forgotten.  Yes dear, you may present your gift.”
Wigbrand nodded and stepped forward awkwardly.  He held up his other hand, opening his palm to reveal the small pink filet.
“What is it?” his mother asked.
“Gnome belly,” Wigbrand offered.  “Your favorite.  Is it…is it pleasing to you?”
The dragon mother leaned forward, eyeing the gift for what felt like a very long while.  Wigbrand began to rock slightly back and forth, and became so nervous that he actually broke a sweat on his brow.  Dragons weren’t able to sweat, but his half-human parentage had given him the ability…in moments of extreme duress. 
“It’s small,” the dragon mother finally declared.
“He was a lean gnome,” Wigbrand assured.  “Not a lot of fat on him.  Is it pleasing to you?”
“It’s small,” his mother repeated simply, backing away from him and rising back to her full height.
Wigbrand stepped back.  He looked up to either side of him at his brother and sister.  Neither one of them looked back, but he saw the small smirks that cracked their faces.
“Wigsbane and Wigraine,” the matriarch continued, “your gifts were pleasing.  Now it is time for my gifts to you.  Before you begin your journeys, I shall give you what I have promised to give since you were younglings: I will tell you who your fathers were, and where they may be found.”
“Thank you mother,” the oldest and youngest intoned at the same time.
“Wigsbane, your father is a mighty king,” the she-dragon explained.  “His kingdom was built off the blood exacted by his blade, and there is no better spearman to be found in all the world.  To a dragon, he is strong…to his own kind, he is invincible.  His kingdom lies five leagues to the north.”
Wigsbane took up his spear in both hands, gripping it tightly.  “Thank you mother.  Now my life as an adult begins.  I hope to see you again, one day.” 
Without another word, Wigsbane was running back to the cave entrance.  Echoes of his footfalls could be heard for a short time, but so fast was Wigbrand’s elder brother that they were not heard for long.
“Wigraine, your father is a great wizard,” the dragon mother continued.  “He spent his life searching out the best wizards in the land, learning from them, and then battling them to the death to prove his incredible skill.  The humans only speak of him in whispers now…he is more myth to them than man.  He will be difficult to find, but sharp eyes may spot his lonely tower in the very center of the great desert twenty leagues to the east.”
Wigraine’s lavender eyes sparked to life, glowing with greater intensity than they had before.  “I shall not fail you mother,” she proclaimed.  Then, in a puff of smoke, Wigraine was gone.
“Just us now, eh mother?” Wigbrand said with an overlarge smile.
“Wigbrand dear, why don’t you go find me some food,” his mother said dismissively.  “Something a bit larger than a speck of dust.”
“Of course mother, but…” Wigbrand held back, rocking back and forth as though teetering on the edge of a great height.  “…I haven’t yet received my Yuletide gift.”
“Your gift?” his mother repeated dangerously.  “Why should I give you a gift when yours was so…poorly chosen?  What is it you could possibly want?”
“Well, I was hoping to…that you would…” Wigbrand floundered as he met the scrutinizing and judgmental gaze of his mother.  For the first time this night, all of her attention was focused on him…and it was not at all what he hoped it would be.
“What, Wigbrand?” the mother dragon interrogated. 
“I was hoping that you would, uh….tell me also of….of my father,” Wigbrand stammered.
“Reeeaaaallllyyyy?” his mother asked, her tone suddenly changing from anger to a wicked playfulness.  She seemed to relish this.
            “Yes please,” Wigbrand pushed on.
            “Very well,” the great dragon said. 
            “Really?”
            “Yes Wigbrand.  I shall tell you about your father,” his mother said with a ghoulish gusto.  “But not because it will give you joy.  On the contrary, your father’s story has nothing to offer you…but disappointment.  Are you ready?”
            “Uh, never mind.  I’m suddenly wondering if I should get out hunting before it gets dar…”
            “No, no,” the dragon mother interrupted.  “You have made your choice, and there is no going back now.  Time to grow up, my little middle.”
            Wigbrand said nothing.  He only took a deep breath, and resolved to keep focused on his mother’s nose.  Looking her in the eyes – her gleaming, glowing, joyful eyes – was too much for him.
            “Your father…was a priest,” the dragon mother began.  “A holy man, dedicated only to two things: his god, and ridding the world of the evil he believed to be threatening that god.”
            Wigbrand cocked his head to one side, “well that sounds...good?”
            “I forget how much faith you put in Bahamut,” the sobering voice of the dragon echoed.  “Your father had faith too…more than faith, he had zeal.  His god bore another name…one I don’t remember now…and he entered my den shouting it, bearing a glowing cross.  ‘An enchanted weapon,’ he claimed.  ‘Made specifically to slay dragons.’ 
“He struck at me while I slept,” she continued, “plunging the sharpened end of the cross into the back of my head.  It pierced me, but the god that made his cross was nowhere near strong enough to challenge me.  The weapon barely pierced my skin.  I awoke with a start, flinging him off of me.  He held on to his weapon, but for naught.  He landed close, and in a flash I had him…my tail wrapped around him.  He cursed me, swore that his god would save him.  That his god would strike me down.  ‘No, no, no,’ I told him, ‘there is no god that can save you now.’“
            The glowing lavender eyes turned red.  “’Then He shall save me in the afterlife,’ the fool said.  ‘I shall be welcomed home, to an eternity of plenty, once you have killed me.’  ‘Kill you?’ I said to him.  ‘Not yet, my little fool.  Not yet.’”
            It seemed to grow darker in the cavern.  Wigbrand could make out an orange and red glow from under the scales of his mother.  She was getting angry just remembering this tale.  “’What will you do first, worm?’ he dared ask.  Truth be told, I didn’t know.  But I was stunned to hear such insolence coming from a human about to meet his end.  It intrigued me.  ‘This god of yours, what does he offer you?’ I asked.  ‘He offers me solace, forgiveness and peace.  Serving him makes me pure, in an impure world,’ he said.  And that’s when an idea struck.”
            The dragon mother lowered her head, so that her nose stood an inch from her middle son’s face.  “’If purity is what you prize, then that is what I shall take from you.  I will send you to your god, defiled.  Then we shall see how loving and gracious he is.  Well…you shall see.  Only you.’”
            She breathed out, steam emanating from her nostrils and momentarily blinding Wigbrand.  “And so it was.  I was true to my word.  Look to your left.”
            Wigbrand rubbed his eyes and slowly turned his head.  As his vision returned, a pike came into view.  It stood thirty feet away from him.  Hanging on it, were the faded remains of a human skeleton holding a broken cross.  In the torso, Wigbrand found a gaping hole. 
            “That is your father,” his mother confirmed.  “Every moment of our coupling was torture for him.  In the end, he died wailing and in agony.  I thought his death would rid me of him forever.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that, just as I had found a way to punish him, he had found a way to punish me.”
            Wigbrand turned back to his mother.  Looking up at her, he was at a loss for what to say.  But he felt he had to say something.  “That was…dark.”
            “You don’t know the half of it, child,” his mother replied.  “I thought about eating you every day when you were born.  But too many of our kind fall to the swords and ambitions of other races.  So I made my peace with the fact that you aren’t as strong as your brother, nor as smart as your sister.  You’ll never leave my den, and likely aren’t good for much more than bringing me meat,” she looked down at the filet in Wigbrand’s still-open hand, “and you aren’t even good at that.  Nevertheless, no matter how little of it there may be…you are of my blood.  And that makes you mine.”
            “Mother…” Wigbrand felt his heart about to burst in his chest.  “You have never said…anything…like that to me before.”
“Nor will I again,” the dragon mother resolved.  “Happy Yuletide.  Now go get me some more meat.”

TO BE CONCLUDED…

Saturday, August 5, 2017

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 40: To Thine Own Name Be True

            “We get to name a magic sword,” the phantom Finnian was ebullient.  The halo of light surrounding him gleamed so bright with his glee, that had a pair of mortal eyes been able to see him, he would have blinded them instantly.
            “Not magic…” the stern voice of Cecily’s ghost lectured, “…divine.  Tarsus’s divinity fuels the sword.  Brings it to life…just as it keeps us alive in him.”
            “Either way, we get to name it,” Finnian pressed on, undeterred.
            The phantom Cecily let out an audible sigh.
            “Can you tell her I heard that?” Finnian posed to Tarsus.
            “This is not some imaginary story where a blade needs only a formidable name to make it important,” Cecily droned.  “The sword is as much a part of you, Tarsus Cole, as we are.  Unlike us, however, it is the symbol of your power that others get to see.  It will stand for whatever you stand for…”
            “This is just a name…” Finnian interrupted in Tarsus’s mind, “…it’s not as serious as she’s making it out to be.”
            “A name is serious,” Cecily defended.  “It is who you are…how you are known to all the world.  You are a god now.  Your name will precede you, and become what you represent to mankind.  Malthus is dead…his sword, broken.  Their names must die along with them, and so you are right to choose new names for you and your weapon.  But I ask you…beg you….to choose carefully.”
            The ghost of Finnian exhaled, and Tarsus looked over to see his friend’s shade shaking its head while a pale hand rested on its brow.  “This is going to take all night, isn’t it?” Finnian asked.
            “Probably,” Tarsus said out loud, the large grin on his face shrinking to a more humble smile.
            “This just stopped being fun,” Finnian declared.  “Tell her that.  Tell her she just stopped this from being fun.”
            “She heard you,” Tarsus said assuredly.  He turned back to the ghost of Cecily, and the shadow of doubt quickly flitted across his face, “Right?”
            “I did,” Cecily replied, her harsh scowl softening into a relieved smile of her own.
            “I knew you did.  I mean, you both have been hearing the other thus far.  But the rules of all this…I admit, they still perplex me at times,” Tarsus said.
            “Don’t worry, she’ll always be here to remind you,” Finnian jeered.
            “So where do we begin?” Tarsus pressed on.
            “She said it,” Finnian sniped.  “You have to choose what you want to represent to mortals.  Which is?”
            “That seems…” Tarsus tarried in his speech, searching for the right words to say in answer to a question he had never fathomed could be one that applied to him, “…too big a question.”
            “It is not,” Cecily pronounced.  “The old gods personified the worship they demanded from their disciples.  Adulatio chose adulation, while Proprio set himself as the god of prayer, and so on.  The younger gods forsook such ethereal qualities, instead seeking tangible and material manifestations of their power on Arden.  They became godkings and queens, battling fiercely to carve up the land and lay claim to as much of it as they could.  Malthus and Malthanon, Malmira and Malmot…and so forth.  The choice before you seems clear; will you take over Malthanon as GodKing, and rename it as you rename yourself?  Or will you follow the way of the old gods, and personify a quality in men that you most wish to bring out in them?”
            As Cecily spoke, Tarsus’s eyes had slowly grown wider.  When she finished, she looked up to find him stupefied and mute: the image of an overwhelmed child, who had just been told he had to clean up a mess he had spent months in the making.
            “Does she understand that there is such a thing as the wrong thing to say?” Finnian posed.
            Tarsus did not spare Finnian a glance.  His gaze was fixed on Cecily’s incandescent shape as she rose up to meet the taller Sunsword’s eyes.  “This is the way of the gods,” she proclaimed.  “I am sorry Tarsus, but from this moment on…there is nothing that can be too big for you.”
            “Well…” Finnian sighed resignedly, “…there it is.”
            Tarsus’s body remained still, even as his stomach reeled with a thousand feelings bubbling inside him all at once.  He was well aware that Cecily and Finnian were watching him closely.  They would know what he was feeling, of course, but he couldn’t be bothered with worrying over that now.  An image had suddenly sprung to life in his mind: he was standing alone against a black sky, while approaching him fast, and growing ever larger as it did, was a tidal wave.  It would engulf him in an instant, drowning him in its voluminous mass and washing him away along with his future legacy.
            But he was a god now.  He felt the divine energy in the pit of his stomach radiate, and the anxieties of his doubts were suddenly quelled.  Another image came to life before him: the tidal wave was upon him, about to fall, when he simply stepped through it.  On the other side, he found he was not even wet.  Instead, a clear and unimpeded horizon greeted him.  He walked on, striding the water’s surface as easily as if it were a city road. 
            “I know my name,” Tarsus declared.
            “Strange that I do not,” Cecily intoned concernedly.
            “I don’t either,” Finnian added, the childlike excitement rising in his voice.  “What is it?” he asked impishly.
            “And how are you keeping it from us?” Cecily posited with unabashed bewilderment.
            “I don’t know,” Tarsus answered earnestly.  “It just came to me…and it feels right.”
            He felt the specters’ eyes upon him as he took a moment to collect his thoughts.  They still didn’t know his newly chosen name.  How could this be kept from them when it was all he could think of?  When it was writ so large in his mind that he could almost see it with his waking eyes?
            “My godhood won’t be marked by debts or domains,” Tarsus went on.  “I know my way now…the point where lies my purpose.  I shall be a guardian to mankind: bringing them peace and freedom, no matter the cost.  No longer shall I be known as Malthus, though I bear his power.  No more am I Tarsus Cole, though his heart beats inside me.  I am reborn.  Henceforth, I shall be called Shepherd.
            Tarsus looked up to the clear, blue sky.  In the center, shining bright at its zenith, the face of the sun warmed him atop his tower.  The young god raised his sword, as if in salute.  The blade caught the sun’s rays, flashing brilliantly as sunlight kissed divine steel.  “I name this my chosen weapon.  Extension of my flesh, and instrument of my will.  Its strength shall be derived from the purity of its purpose, and woe to those who try to use it for selfish gains.  With it, I shall leave my mark upon the world…my Brand.  And thus it shall be known.”
            Tarsus lowered his head and his sword.  He looked at the ghosts that dwelt inside him, shifting his eye from one to the other.  Cecily and Finnian looked back at him with reverent awe. 
            “Come my friends,” Tarsus said, allowing a coy smile to spread.  “Now we start our quest.  I made a promise that will take a long time to see fulfilled.  Best to get started.”