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The Essence of Choice

"Maara." The twin yellow eyes turned their focus from the oval bronze cauldron onto the approaching black-feathered gryphon. "Aaar." Falth's ears drooped visibly, he never insisted on being called so formally, especially in private.   "Look, I know I should have consulted you but..."   "But Scrawl is the only one who knows how to command Clawstoppers and how to fight. Clearly he is better suited to be Aar than I am. My own feelings on the matter of allowing that criminal be in charge of lives and fates of Your followers do not matter. Something along those lines?" The yellow eyes returned back to the concoction with slight white tint to it. Her claw casually added a few sticks underneath the cauldron to feed the orange flames.   Falth's eyes half-lidded and his beak opened, ready to argue and defend himself. "They see me, but they only see a weapon, a miraculous savior who can do everything. I can't do everything, I..." His voice was rising in tone before he paused. This is not right. Forcing his feathers to lay slack against his back, the volume of blue mist escaping his eyes dimmed as he forced himself to calm down. With more self-control, he continued. "I am not without fault. I have blood on my claws. To some, I am a criminal too. I gathered all these fools from their homes and families, from their comforts and their happiness, all to chase a Dream. Dream of freeing our ancestral lands of Greengrasp and beyond from the dirty claws of Air dragons." Falth's eyes gazed down onto his own foreclaws. There wasn't a speck of grime on them. The Gryphoness watched him intently. "But I need help, both from you and from him to stop these cruel lizards from claiming more of our lives and lands. See, I hope for this war to be resolved before Freezan hits. And for that, I need to utilize every advantage I can find."   The alpine-gryphoness's eyes remain trained on the Ember wielder. "Yours is not an easy flight to make, Falth. I respect your decision, even though I may not like it." Her eyes finally allowed Falth to breathe again, as the gryphoness shifted her piercing owl gaze to the brew in her cauldron instead. Satisfied, she pulled up a handful of small, portable flasks and started carefully filling them in with the cauldron's contents.    The ever-smoking eyes of the dark-feathered leader of Night-Hawks paused on the actions performed by Ar before him. Her form shifted forth and his larger frame leaned over the warm liquid curiously. Suddenly, a white-feathered wall was erected right before his blue beak. "Do not inhale." The sharp commanding voice of the gryphoness pierced the air, and Maara's wing lowered a moment later. "Lest you want to put your worries to rest."   Leaning back and turning his head at an angle, a playful click relieved the tense atmosphere. "Why, getting my worries to rest is usually good for one's well-being. I should know..."   Maara didn't seem amused, her eyes remained set upon the cauldron as her claws picked up and filled in yet another flask with the milk-like liquid. "Falth. I am a Shaman. Not a Wingbinder."   "So, it's not a fun essence?" Falth quipped.   "No." Maara paused, sorting her thoughts as she glanced up at the black-feathered Warlord. "This is the Essence of Choice."   "Essence of Choice?"   Maara stopped and raised one of the full vials with one of her rare smiles. "Yes. A very much-needed potion. When you are fighting your enemy, you sometimes are not given the choice of how to live out the rest of your life."    She handed the potion to Falth and continued. "There are fates worse than death. At best, you will remain fed and alive in the dragon's prison. At worst, you will be starved and tortured to unravel all your secrets." Her smile faded and she looked on to the dark, star-filled skies. A gentle gust of wind rustled leaves in the trees. "I deliver this potion to give the choice of quick and painless death to those suffering who can't be saved, be they dragons or our kin. Everything extra I make goes to our Scout and Clawstoppers. You or anyone else needn't use it. But therein lies the beauty of it. Having the choice, rather than be at the mercy of others." Falth glimpsed a hint of pain in her eyes as she spoke, and he instinctively raised his wing invitingly to embrace her. A gesture she refused with a shake of her.   "All of us who followed you made our choice." Her tail swayed about and her head raised up into the night sky proudly. "And some of us want the last choice in our lives to be ours alone to make."

Cover image: Maara by Elly


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