A New Road
Have you ever thought about what it must feel like to be on the run before?
I, Richard Boulderdash, once proud Wyvern General of the Tenelean Empire, confidently declare I have been on the run for two months and fifteen days, and constantly ponder that question, among others.
I have found too many people attribute such an act to that of misery. To go against your family, your friends. To lose your life.
To tell the truth, I have never felt something more exhilarating! The burdens of my responsibilities cast away, the freedom of the wild air always around me. My wyvern mount, Cicatrix, always at my side.
Some people might find running away like a prison. Though I don't blame them, I certainly don't see it the same way. In fact, I look at it as the complete opposite. One could not feel more free.
But like any course of action, a flood of questions and concerns follow. Unluckily, both crept up on me.
You think about the perils that would come with having no food and no home. Or you wonder about what it is you are running from. Is it chasing you? What will it do if it catches you?
An even better question: Why are you choosing to run in the first place?
It was only a day after I threw everything away that these thoughts began interrogating me.
I still remembered what had happened. My grandson, Frederick and his friends atop that mountain peak, fighting that canine creature controlling a monolothic god. I still didn't know how I hadn't fallen over in disbelief.
But the truth was, I shouldn't have even been there in the first place. That same day, when I saw Frederick and his friends leave for such a battle, I had received orders from the emperor of my empire himself, Wulfick Civilius XIII.
I still remembered its medium. It came in sleek, white papyrus, bordered with numerous Tenelean crests. It was sealed with the emperor's pendant. It was only addressed to me, and for anyone else to open it was... well, an act that wouldn't be met well.
That day, I had so wished to accompany Frederick and assist in thwarting a great threat. But these orders forced me to make a choice.
Do I continue following this empire as a general, who worshiped an outright god of war? Or leave everything behind to do as I had wished? Empire, or family?
Since I was a child, I had always been raised to act in unwavering resolve to our guardian, the Cosmic Warrior. I was always told we were his people, and he meant to smite all those who opposed us one day. As his people, we acted to do the same, which is why I fought.
I fought for salvation. Everything the empire and I did was meant to do more than conquer enemies of the empire. It was to bring unity.
The faith and even reckless obedience I developed had been respected by those around me. Soon enough, it grew me into the person I had become, the general I had acted as. There was no order I ever hesitated to see through to the end.
But that single letter had changed my entire perspective. Made me question who I could really trust and where my loyalties actually resided. In all that could have been requested...
How could I be expected to kill my own grandson?
For reasons I could not fathom, the emperor had declared in that paper my own grandson had become a burden to the empire. Somehow, he had become a liability, a festering wart that needed to be cut off.
That day, when I saw them leave, I know I had said I would not join them. That was not because I had already made my decision, but because I was torn and needed to assess myself.
My own grandson? A devout follower like me, an enemy to us? It was the first time in a long while I had really felt my heart ache in places I had forgotten about.
Loyalty was one of the largest virtues our land retained close to heart. To see the emperor turn his back through one single letter was preposterous!
This was not the land I fought for, this was not the life I wished to live. This was not the god I wanted to follow.
As much as it pained me to know I would lose all my reputation, to know I would become the villain, I broke rank. I fled and searched all over the mountains for my grandson.
Luckily, it had been easy. There's only so many mountaintops that suddenly erupt in cacophonous explosions.
Frederick had been so glad to see me come to their aid when they were losing hope. Even though I wielded a sword in my hand then, it was not meant for him.
After we had achieved victory, I had never cherished a hug so much in my life. Because I knew him remaining with me would only bring his death. His hug was one of victory, mine was a goodbye.
I couldn't bring myself to tell him what those orders were, because I saw the passion on his face. The thought of seeing it diminish, couldn't stomach it.
He didn't need me anyway. He already had a greater family around him. And so, I left knowing I was a wanted man. In both the empire, and the kingdom my grandson runs around in. Ravenna.
I've never felt so free.
In this very moment, I found myself flying atop Cicatrix. The night sky around me was dark, cloudy, and all manners of chilly.
I could barely see the canopies of pine far below as the two of us soared overhead. As I gazed upon the sky, noticing our moon high above, I realized I had lost track of time, and did not know how far into the night I was.
As I saw the land below, the forests that were obscured by clouds and darkness, I realized I couldn't tell exactly where I was either.
I knew the Trispire Mountains were still somewhere to my west, so I likely remained somewhere inside Ravenna, probably to the north.
Perhaps the city of Raventa was nearby. I couldn't tell.
All I knew was, I was a wanderer now. I had no path except the sky in front of me.
But we all need a path to walk in our lives, don't we? Otherwise, what's the point?
A yawn stretched from my mouth despite the cold air that whipped past me. On the right side of my mount's neck, I gave three good pats. A signal she had been taught to know it meant it was time to land. She didn't disappoint when we slowly began to descend.
Meanwhile, I still chose to fixate on the thoughts in my head. Focus on the question that screamed, what next?
I had left everything behind for quite some time now. Regarding the empire, I was sure I had already been replaced. But regarding my family, I pondered what they must be doing.
Where was my grandson, Frederick, now? And what of my own son, Hector, now well aged, who surely still served that empire?
A heavy lurch beneath me as I realized Cicatrix had already soared beneath the canopies, landing in a small clearing. Like the rest of the sky, it was dark and quiet.
Like second nature to me now, I dismounted and immediately set to laying out our resting spot for the night. Cicatrix curled near the base of a clump of trees, more obscured from onlookers. My bedroll unfurled beneath her wing, obscuring me also.
Still standing, I gave a good look towards her, pressing my forehead to her nostril.
"Sweet dreams, m'lady."
A warm huff from Cicatrix as her eyes slowly drifted shut.
Wordlessly, I opened my bedroll and tucked myself into it and closed my eyes. But sleep never came.
My thoughts raced wildly. Normally, servants would undress my bulky golden armor, not suited for sleep at this time. Normally, I would tuck my once young grandchild into bed by now.
I felt something press against the back of my neck uncomfortably. Pulling it out, I realized it was the necklace I always wore, and it was its pendant that had slipped behind my head somehow this night.
It was the pendant of the Cosmic Warrior.
Normally, I would be kneeling down to him in thoughtful prayer, my unsheathed blade at my side for respect.
I had always followed him so faithfully. He would vanquish the enemies of my family, and I had trusted him so.
But now, I didn't know if I could anymore. How could my family become that enemy?
Have I been living a false life all this time? Obeying false tenets? Following under corrupt and incoherent stigma?
I had joined the empire's ranks as assurance my family would live happily for the rest of their lives, that the Cosmic Warrior would make sure of that. Yet, it had all been a lie.
I tore the necklace from myself, and flicked it far out from underneath Cicatrix. I heard the whooshes and thwicks as it vanished into the darkened shrubs farther out.
Decades of worship, and none of it had meant a thing.
This was not the path I wished to follow. This was not the life I believed the world should live out, I realized.
Subtly, but noticeably, I felt a slight ache in my forehead. I rose my left hand to rub and sooth it. From over me, I felt the thrum of Cicatrix' awakened sigh. She was as disgruntled as I was.
"I feel so lost m'lady." True, it felt free to not have any responsibilities, but if the rest of my life were to be lived out wandering woods like this, my family would never know peace.
I slowly -- finally -- began to feel the pull of sleep.
I would need to discover a new way. Find a new road.
That would be my next focus tomorrow. Until then, my eyes gently shifted shut, and felt myself lull back into a deep sleep.
The soft yet sturdy scales of a wyvern's wings brushed against my cheeks faintly, stirring me from my sleep. Cicatrix' sense of hearing and smell -- good heavens, her senses in general -- were far superior to mine, so I usually relied upon her to play lookout.
Each night for the past two months, she always rustled me awake in the early mornings, so I expected nothing less this go around either.
My eyes tried their best to crack open, like I was trying to lift a one-ton gate with both hands tied behind me. Instinctively, my hand rose to shield my face from the incoming light, but caught none of it.
It was still dark, it was still night. I scanned the horizon for any hint of sunrise, but nothing.
Guuurrrrr. That low, menacing hum emanated from Cicatrix. I looked to her face, seeing her eyes squinted like mine. But mine were out of drowsiness. Hers were out of caution.
Something wasn't right.
Next to where I slept, I grabbed my sword that still sat in its sheathe and held it close, ready. Noticing her gaze, I followed it carefully to the other end of the clearing.
And there was a glow. A soft, almost invisible orange aura that I came too close to overlooking. Within it stood a silhouette, a human-like silhouete.
Judging by the distance and the form, whoever this was was likely my size. But on top of that, the figure was facing our direction.
Not moving, just... standing.
In an attempt to be as unprovoking as possible -- which at my age is very difficult -- I steadily guided myself up onto my feet. I never once took my gaze off that figure, who still chose to do nothing.
A bandit? I scanned the area for other accomplices. I didn't see anything; since Cicatrix seemed weary of only this one man, safe to assume he was not.
Perhaps a lost soul in the night? No, someone who is lost wouldn't look so confident.
Or a trap. Couldn't tell. Heck, maybe the empire had finally caught up to me.
Clipping my sheath to my waist, I placed a palm on my wyvern's side. Her gaze shifted down to me, and her eyes spoke concern. Unease.
"Easy girl," I murmured, "hold down the fort here a little bit, 'kay?"
Foof. A small puff from her nostrils straight in my face, smelt oddly of charcoal. She wasn't sure if it was safe.
"Richy's just going to have a nice nightly chat for a bit."
Cicatrix gave no response, but made no move when I took the first step in the direction of the figure.
In three paces, I was out from under her. In the open. If that stranger hadn't seen me then, he assuredly did now.
Yet my stride toward him didn't cease, and he still did not move. I took extra care in making each step as poise as it could be.
One footfall after another. The closer I got, the less of a blackened object he became.
I saw the red cloak draped over their form, hood up. Another step and finally I realized, it wasn't a man after all. But a woman.
I saw a devilishly long handle of what I assumed to be a sword sheathed over her back. And the orange glow slowly condensed to the source that floated behind her head. A small sphere of light, the size of my hand, wafting in the air all on its own.
I could barely see the grayish dress beneath her cloak. Her face was a pale color against the light, and her irises... weren't there. That stopped me in my tracks, ten feet from her.
This was, equivocally, something you didn't see everyday.
For a moment, I said nothing, and neither did she. Her eyes never left me, though mine certainly drifted to that sphere a number of times.
The only noise was the low breath of wind that blew past us.
Given she hadn't attacked me yet, my guard began to drop and I felt more confident this was a more passive encounter. A strange one, but passive.
"Sooo..." I rocked back and forth on my feet. "You do this kind of thing every night?"
She didn't respond. When I even leaned my head in toward her, beckoning her to say anything, her mouth still remained closed.
"I-is there anything I can help you with?" I questioned.
She shut her eyes, shaking her head no.
"Are you by chance lost?" The same answer.
My body weight shifted back towards Cicatrix. I raised a hand to her in goodbye.
"Well... it's dangerous out here. So if there's nothing you want of me, then please leave so I can go back to-"
"I am not the one who is lost."
I stopped. Turning back towards the woman.
"What is your name?" I asked.
The two of us now sat in the grass of this clearing. I could feel the indefinite mildew that dampened the world's floor beneath me. It should have been close to dawn, yet I still could not make out any sign of light on the horizon.
Only the glow from that sphere that now rested in between us, like a magical campfire.
As I looked to her face, it still held that same blank expression. But she spoke.
"I have gone by many names," Her voice was smooth and tranquil, "but I am no more than a traveler."
"Mm-yes, I see." I coughed. "Well, my name is... Henry Lentow, of the House Lentow, once proud nobleman of the Tenelean empire. I'm sure you've heard of me?"
"I have heard of a great many people."
...Right. With my sword on the ground next to me, I crossed my legs.
"So miss... traveler, what grand journey are you embarking on this late at night?"
"I am on no journey for myself," Softly, a finger rose from her cloak, pointing at me. "but for you."
A frown formed at my lips. "Ah, so you've been sent by the emperor to hunt me down. Explains the red, likely disguised so Ravennians don't get the wrong-"
"I come on no one's behalf that is of this world."
I realized my hand was at the hilt of my blade. I kept it there, for good measure.
"I'm to believe you're not a Kite? Sent by my empire?"
Kites would be certainly the last thing I needed. Deadly assassins of the empire, but also freakishly devout worshipers of the Cosmic Warrior.
"I guide others to the path they long for. Your empire simply destroys the path altogether."
Quite a mysterious young lady. I made no movement as I continued the conversation.
"You are to lead me to a path? Excellent!" I raised my hands to my thighs, arms akimbo, "If you could give me the directions, perhaps, to one that leads to a nice bed, I'll be off at dawn!"
She still stared. By now, I had hoped she would simply say anything so as to be out of my morning hair. Because as sure as I was she might be a lovely young woman, friendship and criminal life could never mix.
Her cloak began to rustle, her arms were fumbling around within. A couple seconds later, and a hand emerged, closed-fist.
Outstretched to me, she unfurled it, revealing two small objects. The first, glistening in the light of the sphere, was a small golden medallion. Its circular shape was pierced by several spokes protruding from its sides, like a sun and its rays.
The second... was the necklace I had thrown into the bushes earlier this night. The pendant of the Cosmic Warrior still set firmly into the thin chain.
"How long have you been here?" I demanded. "Tell me."
She ignored what I said.
"You ask for directions, and now I present them to you." One at a time, she set both items on the ground, in front of the campfire sphere. "I sense heavy discordance within you, Richard Boulderdash. You find yourself now torn with what you believed and what turned out to be reality."
My eyes were still so set on the two icons that I didn't remark at how she had mentioned my real name. In my vision, I saw the woman slowly rise up to stand. The grip on my sword tightened.
Can she read minds?
"You yearn for those you love to have their happily-ever-after. I am here to tell you it is within your grasp."
There was a pause. Still staring at the two pieces of jewelry, I realized and gazed up at her.
"You wish for me to choose one?" She turned away from me, the cloak now obscuring her entire self.
"You now wander aimlessly believing there is nothing more you can do. But, I seek people like you to tell you there is."
Surely not. If there was any salvation to be had, it was up to my son and grandson now... but...
"Tell me, which should I choose? What path do I seek?"
She made no motion, no answer. Behind her, I began to see another dim glow far off in the distance. It covered the nightly black, shrouded the stars and the moons. Dawn.
Then, I heard her voice. "That is a revelation you must figure out for yourself."
As she continued to speak, my eyes leveled down once again at the medallion and the pendant.
"Salvation is what you seek, though it can come in many different forms. You must decide how you want it to take."
"Pray tell, where do I find myself if I choose this sun?" Still looking down.
"The answers to that question are not found here. But, if it is what your heart desires, then follow where the sun rises, and you shall soon find your path."
"Answers? Path? Desires? What are you saying-" I looked up, but she was already gone. In her place, I could see the barest hints of the sun beginning to peak over the distant foothills.
On the ground, the light from the sphere suddenly flickered out. Once it did, I saw it was an ordinary stone, nothing elaborate about it.
I could hear Cicatrix behind me, rustling as she likely stretched her legs, back, and wings. But my sight rested on the sun and the pendant.
Find my own path? I'd always believed the Cosmic Warrior gave it to you at birth. Always thought we were his chosen and nothing could tear us apart.
I glanced at the sunrise another time. Could feel the morning warmth wash over me.
Thump, thump. I felt Cicatrix saunter up behind me.
With no other thought, I grasped my hand at my choice. Standing up quickly, I turned to Cicatrix, whom I presented it to.
"Take a good look m'lady. We finally have an adventure ahead of us. Just like when we were young."
Several happy snuffs from her nose and she extended her wings in excitement.
I turned towards the horizon, holding it up to the sky. I thought about my family, and the hope I felt yet again for a bright future.
"Never have I seen a sun shine so luminously." I pocketed the sun medallion, hopping onto Cicatrix and into the harness.
"Onwards m'lady! To the sunrise, wherever it takes us!"
The pendant, I left behind.