The Skeleton Throne

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White Wolf (Pt 4)

Several more days passed in their journey and soon they could see the mountain range looming in the distance before them. Illithanos spent much of his time quietly drawn into thought and Belmius allowed the silence around them, wordlessly cooking their meals or slipping off to set traps while the durmian contemplated at their campsite. Illithanos finally broke the stillness of their journey as they were walking down the roadside early one cold morning.

“What happens once we pass through the mountains? Where do we start looking for the creature? How long do you think it will take us to find it?”

Belmius listened to the young man’s questions with a silent grimace. He could hear the anxiousness in his voice and feel the doubt and worry that Illithanos carried with him.

“I understand the task may seem daunting,” the hunter began, his voice slow and heavy, “but you must have faith that we will find this monster and that we will put an end to its terror. Otherwise you will find yourself buried beneath the immeasurable weight of doubt and it will keep you from accomplishing even the simplest of tasks.”

Illithanos frowned. The answer was unhelpful and he felt as though Belmius were avoiding the question.

“But where do we even start?” He asked, looking over at the huntsman. The older man kept his eyes forward as they walked, his scarred face showing a calm, even expression.

“We start by reaching the other side of the mountains. And then we will see where we go from there.”

Illithanos’ frown remained, the young man feeling all the more anxious. He fidgeted as he walked, reaching up to tug at his hair or rub his arms. More than once he opened his mouth to say something only to close it again after a moment of hesitation. Every so often Belmius would willingly acknowledge the behavior and respond with a firm and calm “Have faith” as they walked. Hours later, well into the afternoon, Illithanos couldn’t contain himself any longer.

“You speak of having faith,” he said, looking back up at the larger man, “but I’m confused.”

“Why?” Belmius asked, his voice still calm and slow.

“It’s just that...” Illithanos began, trailing off as his mind searched for the words he wanted. “Don’t you hunt the Children of God? Isn’t that what we’re doing right now? But we’re supposed to still rely on faith for this?”

“You believe Omed’ra is the only one we may have faith in?” The huntsman cast a curious look at his companion and Illithanos’ brow knotted in confusion. The question seemed nonsensical to him. Omed’ra was God. Who else, if not Him?

“Do you speak of Gah’lia?” Illithanos asked with trepidation. Gah’lia was once the wife of God but He had since cast her aside. It was known She human that He Ascended, and some still worshiped Her as Goddess, but Her churches were smaller and far-spread. Illithanos had never before met someone who professed to follow Her, and Belmius’ brief laughter at his question led him to believe that this was still true.

“No. The human Goddess is not where my faith is,” the huntsman replied, a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth. “I speak of the Lost Brother.”

“I’m… sorry,” Illithanos hesitated, his forehead creasing all the more as he looked up at Belmius. “I’ve never heard that name.”

“I am not surprised,” Belmius said, nodding to himself. “Most have not. But the Lost Brother has been here with us for ages.” The human reached his hand out to gesture to Illithanos as they walked. “He knows how Omed’ra has grown less caring over His creations, how He has denied your kind the use of magic and has sent His Creature-Children to punish those of you who still use it.”

Illithanos felt something stir when he heard Belmius say that, like a physical force punching him in the gut. He winced, his insides churning, and a sense of anger slowly overtook him as he recalled the all-too familiar memory.

Magic. His mother had been a mage, he knew. His kind were the only ones of all the mortal races who could even manipulate the energies woven through the world since Omed’ra had breathed Lendral to life. It was said that magic was just learning how to tug at the threads God used to weave creation, and durmians were the only ones able to reach out and tug at these threads. It was also said that this ability, this manipulation of creation’s threads, was what drew the Aylon to them.

Not as powerful as their God Father, Aylons yearned to harness the power of magic and of creation, and for centuries they had stolen durmian mages and enslaved them, forcing their captives to teach them this magic. If Omed’ra had crafted all the mortals of Lendral with a purpose, and if He had intended for durmians to be the only who could use magic, why did He also allow His Creature-Children to hunt them as they did? Why did He not step in to protect durmians from them? Or simply teach His own Children the ability to harness magic? These questions had plagued durmiankind for generations now, and there were whispers that Omed’ra had changed His mind about the gift He had given them and was now punishing them for having it. Perhaps some mage had used their gift in a way that He had no liked and He’d turned His wrath on their people as a whole. Or perhaps His Children had convinced Him that they were more deserving of this power than the mortal beings of the world, and He’d agreed. No one knew.

God was silent. And Illithanos’ people suffered and died for it. This is why he’d been seeking someone like Belmius in the first place, someone who was willing to stand up against the injustice the Aylons wrought upon them. This is why the huntsman’s words now stung him so hard.

“But the Lost Brother cares,” Belmius’ slow, deliberate voice broke through Illithanos’ thoughts and the durmian turned his eyes to him once more. The huntsman was still looking forward as they walked, his face still calm and relaxed, a contrast to the churning emotions and thoughts within Illithanos. The young man tried to focus his mind on listening to his companion as he spoke, a lifetime of hurt yearning to hear some message of hope and validation in what he was saying.

“The Lost Brother cares,” Belmius repeated, “and He has shown us that by placing the third moon in the sky – Lassah. And now with her existence He has granted us the blessing of the Clarity moon.”

“He made the third moon?” Illithanos asked, the statement surprising him. He’d never heard of such a thing. But then, there was plenty he was never taught properly, growing up traveling the roads. “I thought Omed’ra alone had crafted all that we had?”

“When God sculpted the world He made for us two lights to keep us safe from night: Sabyr and Miragh,” Belmius said as he gestured toward the sky. It was currently overcast and early evening, but Illithanos followed his motion regardless, picturing in his mind the sight of the three moons suspended overhead. “When His Brother came He saw how Omed’ra had grown distant, not caring when we were devoured by men or by beasts. Sabyr and Miragh were no longer enough to keep us safe, their Vitality and their Strength only offering so much when what we needed was wisdom and insight, and Omed’ra was doing nothing to help us through the nights. So the Brother sent a sign for us to all know that He was here to help us, and He placed a third light in the night’s sky, Lassah, and made it so that the third time any of the moons reached full light within a month’s time, that we would gain Clarity and omens.”

“If this is truly so, why don’t I know about him?” Illithanos asked. Surely a story such as this should be at least as wide-spread as the knowledge of Gah’lia, if not more so. Belmius’ expression dimmed at his question.

“Omed’ra quickly became jealous, fearing we would all turn from Him to praise the Brother instead,” the great hunter explained. “So He locked the Brother away where He could not reach us, and we forgot about Him.”

“He locked Him away?” Illithanos asked, enraptured by the huntsman’s story. “What happened then? How do you know all of this if it was all forgotten?”

Belmius looked down at his traveling companion, casting him a smile.

“I know this because He has returned to us. Many many years ago, the Lost Brother broke free from the place where Omed’ra banished Him, and now He must keep Himself hidden in order to protect Himself from Omed’ra’s jealously. But still He reaches out to help us.” Belmius’ gaze turned and he gestured with his hand to his empty shoulder. “I lost my arm to a Nedran that terrorized a small town of good folk, and when I thought all hope was lost, the Lost Brother reached out to me. He gave me strength to stand and fight back and free those people from the oppressive hold of that monster. All it took from me was faith in Him. Now I am led to be His hand and help free others. He guides me by Lassah’s light, the same thing that led me to wait for you. So this is why I tell you not to worry, young wolf, and that we will be able to find the monster that destroyed your family. I have faith, and so He will lead me to where I must be. And if you give Him your faith, He will help you, too.”

Illithanos fell silent. He did not often speak of the divine as bitterness and anger were usually the only things that subject inspired in him, and all of this was too much for him to understand for the moment. Belmius allowed the silence to return as they walked and the young durmian found his thoughts wrapped up in the huntsman’s story for the rest of the day. Even as they made camp and settled that night he was still thinking about the story of a forgotten God casting a moon into the sky, and that night when he dreamed, he dreamed of places that felt long forgotten and of memories that seemed from another time, all messages clear within the surreal realms of his sleeping mind but instantly forgotten and lost upon waking the next morning.

After more than a month of travel the two finally broke through the Barrier Mountains.

The act of overcoming the physical terrain was practically symbolic for Illithanos. They’d stopped at the foot of the mountain at a small cabin and met up with a few others who were planning on heading over the pass. A guide lived there, willing to take the larger group through all at once. Illithanos had been hesitant on the idea but Belmius assured him in his usual way, stating “There is no shame in accepting hired help if it means you reach your destination alive.”

Illithanos had been less concerned about matters of pride, however. He simply found himself unsettled by the whole scenario, uncertain if it was the group, the guide, or the location that set him off the most. Every time he attempted to bring the concern up Belmius waved them away and the huntsman soon grew friendly with the mountain guide, staying up late and speaking to him over warm fires while the others rested and made preparations for their mountain journey.

Illithanos gave up on trying to talk to his companion for the time, even feeling diverted by him as Belmius bonded with the fellow outdoors man. Eventually he convinced himself that his unease must stem from simply having traveled alone or with such sparse company for so long that he was feeling anxious around so many strangers. Quietly he chastised himself, forcing himself to focus instead on the next part of their journey.

Regardless of all this, the few days of travel through the pass were mostly uneventful, and reaching the other side of the mountains and parting ways with the group and the guide brought a sense of easement to his mind. He was eager for things to return to as they had been, with simply himself and Belmius traveling alone, and equally eager to resume their search for the Damerok that haunted him for all of these years.

“Our timing is good,” Belmius told him as they set up camp that night. The land on the southern side of the Barrier Mountains was a sharp contrast to anything Illithanos had seen in his life, a much more barren and sparsely vegetated land of flat red stone and heat. He was having to relearn techniques for building shelter in a new environment and Belmius was guiding him through some of it as they spoke. “Within a few days, Sabry will come to full light and provide us a Clarity moon. On that night we will get the information we need to hunt down your monster.”

“You said we were going to ask for information on the Damerok,” Illithanos noted, casting his companion a look of confusion. “Are we waiting til the full moon to ask anyone about it?”

“We could travel to towns and we could ask locals, and perhaps they will give us what we need to know or perhaps they will know nothing,” Belmius said, setting rocks in a ring for their fire pit. “But our timing is fortuitous, and instead we shall ask someone who will know. We shall wait until Clarity and we shall ask the Divine.”

Illithanos frowned but did not press the matter further. By now he knew better. When the time came, he knew Belmius would show him what he meant.

Three days passed, and with each night Illithanos watched as the largest moon grew slowly full. Belmius did not often remain in the camp at night, instead taking some of his tools and heading off into the darkness while the durmian stayed behind. Illithanos was a little unsettled by the loneliness but he did not ask or venture to follow, feeling safer in the camp made by the huntsman as the light of the fire brought him comfort in the brighter desert nights. The human was always back by the time he awoke at dawn’s light and Belmius rested through the warmer parts of the day, hidden away beneath fur coverings for shade as Illithanos busied himself with chores of finding and fetching water from some of the mountain’s glacial runoffs that managed to trickle down into the hotter, arid environment.

On the fourth night Sabyr finally reached its fullest and Belmius remained in the camp as the last rays of sunlight fell away.

“Take this bowl,” Belmius handed the young durmian a wide and shallow clay bowl. Illithanos had not even asked what they were going to do when the large man had simply brought the vessel to him while Illithanos was busy setting up their firepit for the night. “Go out and fill it to the brim with sand. Then come back and sit with me by the fire.”

Illithanos nodded and left to fulfill his task. Behind him the center of camp lit up with flame as the huntsman started their fire.

The chill of the night sank deep into his skin, the yawning, open expanse above him drawing away the heat of the desert, pulling it upward toward twinkling stars and the unblinking, ever-watchful eyes that were the moons. The night was so bright out he could see his own shadow in the moonlight as Sabyr reflected down upon him. With no trees, no great rocks for shelter, Illithanos felt so out in the open and vulnerable. Yet the two of them hadn’t seen any sign of another for their entire time here. It was no surprise to him, not honestly, but it was different; an emptiness he was unaccustomed to. A loneliness that left him feeling bare and exposed even with no other living soul around.

He cast quick glances about as he scooped sand into his hands and poured it into the bowl, tossing away larger rocks as they fell in and picked out small bits of dried vegetation. He filled until sand spilled out over the edges of the clay vessel, then smoothed it down with his palm. The bowl was so much heavier now as he hauled it back through the night. He rejoined his companion and the warmth of the fire as it danced orange and golden light around their campsite.

“What do we do now?” Illithanos asked. Belmius did not answer. The huntsman sat quietly on the ground, legs crossed and hand resting in his lap. From the light of the fire the durmian could see his eyes were closed. He frowned, looking down at the bowl of sand in his hands, and carefully took a seat near him. Was he meditating? Praying? He was reluctant to ask the hunter and break the silence, so he did the only thing he could think to do – he sat and waited with him, placing the bowl of sand on the ground before the silent huntsman.

Something pulled his gaze to the land beyond their ring of fire light. Though the night was bright from Sabyr’s body, the world extending out from the fire’s range was dark, so much darker than it had seemed when he’d been out in it just moments before. His eyes, now too spoiled by the burning flames, searched in vain for what must have caught his attention. He could see nothing, yet he was certain there had been movement. He sat still and alert, straining into the inky black beyond their small oasis of light.

Another something teased at his peripheral and he turned his head a new direction, the hairs on the back of his neck standing and prickling. He opened his mouth to speak his concern to his companion but his voice caught and held in his throat, refusing to break the meditative silence of the huntsman.

All at once Belmius’ arm snapped out beside him, reaching into the darkness of his own shadow. When he drew it back into the light, a tendril of black coiled and lashed in his firm grip and Illithanos recoiled as he saw cold eyes reflecting the firelight. The shine of long fangs extending from a gaping maw glinted wickedly at him.

Belmius held the black serpent steadily, his grip firm as he clutched it behind the back of its head. It hissed low and angry, venom beading at the tips of its hollow fangs. Its long body and tail whipped and contorted, coiling around the huntsman’s thick forearm and squeezed in vain effort of struggled.

“Take the small knife from my pocket,” Belmius ordered Illithanos calmly. The young man moved forward on hands and knees, limbs trembling unbidden as the snake hissed and writhed even harder at his approach, jaw still hanging open in a never ending bite. He found the pouch at Belmius’ side and fished for the hunter’s pocket knife within it, unsheathing it before looking to the large man for his next step.

“Bring the bowl over,” the huntsman instructed and Illithanos obeyed. He scooted the bowl closer to where the large human sat and watched as he held the snake above it. A bit of its venom loosed from its fangs and fell onto the sand. The liquid hit with an airy hiss and a sizzle as ghostly wisps rose from where it contacted. Illithanos’ eyes widened and then his brow creased in concern and wonder. He was fairly certain this was not the normal reaction snake venom had when hitting sand.

“We place the knife behind its teeth,” Belmius continued to direct the durmian calmly. “We will use it to milk the serpent’s venom.”

“Then what?” Illithanos asked, hesitant to reach forward to the gaping fang-bared maw. Belmius did not answer his question, simply nodded for his compliance. With a sigh and a breath to steel himself, the young man stretched his hand out and placed the small blade carefully within the serpent’s mouth. An acrid scent hit his nose as the creature massaged and gnawed at the blade’s flat edge, its venom dripping more freely onto the sand in the bowl beneath it.

“The serpent is the closest creature to the Natiss, the great guardian of the Forgotten One’s realm,” the huntsman spoke calmly, firmly, as his eyes fixed on the inky form in his hand. “The Natiss’ venom is potent and powerful. It is transcendent. When you are tried by its venom you will either be granted the Gift to see His Truth or you will be found unworthy and burned away from the inside...”

The acrid smell continued to grow with every drop of venom that fell from the serpent’s fangs. It stung Illithanos’ nose and burned at his eyes, but he kept his hand steady as he held the blade to its mouth. The beast’s cold gaze locked on him, glowing in the firelight, and it reflected something more than animal as it watched him with unblinking, dangerous eyes. Belmius finally drew his hand back, lifting the snake from the small blade now slicked with its venom, and the serpent’s jaw gradually closed. It flicked its tongue, sights still held unnervingly on Illithanos.

The huntsman turned to set it back down and instantly the black wisp slithered quickly into the darkness beyond their camp light. Illithanos shuddered, his mind all at once picturing the angered creature circling in the dark to strike him from behind, but Belmius would not have his attention drawn away. With a stern look and deliberate, heavy words, the huntsman commanded the young man to keep his gaze on him.

“Tonight we ask the Forgotten One to gift us the insight to find our quarry. Tonight we ask the Lost Brother for guidance to carry out our just cause. Look.” Belmius commanded him and Illithanos found his gaze dropping down to the bowl before him. The sand was wet from venom and coils of acrid steam rose from it in slow, intimidating curls. “Look and focus on what it is you seek now.”

The huntsman plunged his hand into the fire beside them without even a wince, grabbing a large ember that snapped and smoldered angrily, hissing as it gnawed the man’s calloused skin. He held it aloft over the bowl and released it. The moment it touched the envenomed sand Illithanos felt a blast of heat and his vision was engulfed in flames.

“Look and see,” he heard Belmius say, the man’s deep bass dropping further, growing louder until it became a booming growl that more rumbled in his bones, unheard by his ears. He felt the ravenous heat of the blaze and smelled burning wood. A roar echoed around him, pressing down on him from every side. Beneath the deafening, suffocating noise he thought he caught the sounds of voices shouting, and as the red-orange light of the fire cleared from his eyes he found himself standing in a narrow hallway, flames licking up the wooden walls around him. A red haze coated the area, the inferno reflecting off of choking smoke. Another deep roar, like rocks slamming together and shattering. Illithanos watched a small figure emerge from the red that hung in the air, moving quickly with a tiny bundle in its arms, and finally he understood where he was.

He stepped aside to watch as the figure of his younger self raced down the hall, choking and coughing in the thick air. From farther down the passage came a terrible groaning creak and then a loud crash as a beam fell, blocking the way forward for his young ghost. As he watched the echo of his past search for an exit, a voice hissed clearly through his mind.

Focus on what you seek.

It sounded both unfamiliar yet not. Certainly it was not the huntsman speaking to him, the voice nothing like Belmius’ low rumble, but still he could not help but feel he’d heard this one before. Illithanos moved in obedience, turning away from the struggling, fearful child, and instead the durmian looked expectantly into the crimson smoke, waiting for what he knew was soon to come.

It did not appear all at once but instead started as a shadow, the slow form of something moving methodically, purposefully through the fire and ruin. He could see first its dark outline in the haze, then the glisten of scales and horns reflected in the destruction. The massive head of the Damerok swept into view, panning slowly left and right as it prowled forward. Illithanos watched as floorboards weak from heat groaned and bowed beneath the weight of its slow footfalls.

Though he knew in his mind he was only witnessing a memory, something little more than the dream his mind replayed a thousand times each night, he still felt the quickening of his heart and the unbidden hitching of his breath as the thing approached. Illithanos stood stock still as he watched the vision, everything about this moment almost too sickeningly real as it played out around him.

Slowly the monster drew closer and Illithanos felt a great rage start to well inside. He wanted to scream, to strike out at the beast though he knew it would do no good now. He wished for the house around him to collapse and crush it, for flames to swallow it whole. He wished for everything that he knew wouldn’t matter in the moment, yet still his hatred yearned for it, cried out for it as the dragon drew ever closer.

Then all at once it stopped. Gleaming and dangerous eyes fixed squarely on Illithanos as it stood just before him. Immediately the durmian felt the breath in his chest stolen away as his blood chilled. Its gaze seemed so certain; did it actually see him now? As clearly as he saw it?

A sound came from the cellar and the beast’s head turned. It had only stopped to listen. Fear was quickly replaced by hot embarrassment, then a new wave of rage as the dragon moved for the cellar door where the durmian knew it would find its quarry. As the monster passed him by, Illithanos balled his hands into fists, gritted his teeth, then turned and rushed after the lumbering monster. Giving in to his rage he cried out, swinging at it with a clenched fist as it tore the wooden door frame, knowing it would do nothing but wanting this chance for retaliation all the same.

As knuckles moved in to strike scales the entirety of the vision around him trembled, wavered, then very immediately rushed in on itself as though collapsing into a single point. Illithanos staggered, overtaken by vertigo as the world stretched and pulled in around him and he worked to steady himself on uncertain feet. Everything moved quickly now, the images around him blurred by speed. Once, twice, three times everything paused, giving him just a moment to register some scene before the world distorted and rushed around him again, allowing him witness to its disjointed progression.

The Damerok stepped from the burning house, rows of sharp teeth bared in a snarl as it clutched a bundle in its foreclaws, holding it like a person might carry a handful of pebbles. His mother stood before it, challenging the dragon with her upraised arms, but her defiance faltered as she saw the fragile treasure it grasped. The scene shifted quickly around him again and next he saw the beast moving through wilderness and forests, his mother in tow as a shrieking swaddle hung from the dragon’s maw.

Illithanos watched them travel through plains and over mountains, saw the redness of desert rock and dirt around them. He saw the shape of a large cave, caught glimpses of a young boy dirtied red as he played with sticks and rocks on the ground. He saw a woman his heart felt it knew. She looked worn and weary, standing tall as the great red monster crouched before her. Faster and faster the visions pulled away, halted, moved by, and the more Illithanos tried to keep up with them the more he felt himself start to slip from the moment, like a dreamer trying frantically to hold on to a the unreal as sleep slips away. His senses fogged and he felt disconnected from the moment. Something cold that he could not see rushed him and suddenly he was falling backward, stumbling, arms flailing and legs jerking as he tried in vain to catch himself.

Illithanos sat upright with a startled gasp, the cold air of the desert night rushing in around him. He was beside Belmius, the huntsman watching him with a look of reserved awe though the large man kept quiet. Illithanos’ chest heaved, the durmian feeling the need to catch his breath as his eyes darted around and he worked to reorient himself. The bowl was before him on the ground, a smothered bit of charcoal sitting atop the sand. The night was still inky black beyond the campfire that burned brightly. How long had this moment taken him?

“What did you see?” Belmius questioned, finally unable to hold his silence any longer.

“I saw… my memories...” Illithanos began, but his brow furrowed as he spoke. “But… they were not from my perspective. I saw things I could not have seen...” he paused again, allowing his words to trail off. Something tugged at the back of his mind, like a thin thread that was being pulled, beckoning him to follow. The young man turned his gaze to stare out into the darkness, mulling over the feeling as he worked to understand its meaning.

“I think I know where we need to go,” he finally realized aloud. Belmius nodded, unquestioning in the young man’s assertion.

“We will rest the remainder of the night,” the huntsman offered, moving away the used bowl of sand. “I imagine a spell such as that would take more from you than you may realize now.”

Illithanos’ brow knotted as he looked to his companion in skeptical wonder. “I did magic? But I was never trained to do any magic, though?”

“You did ritual,” Belmius told him in a manner that left the young man unsure if his large companion was correcting him or agreeing with him. “You opened yourself up and the Lost Brother guided you. As you are durmian His Will works more easily through you than it can through others.”

“Because my kind were the ones made to use magic?”

“Because you hold the keys to manipulating Creation itself,” Belmius stated in the same tone that made Illithanos question if he was being validated or corrected. The huntsman gave the young man’s chest a meaningful jab with his fingers. “Now we rest. Tomorrow we resume our hunt anew.” He gestured to their makeshift mats and as Illithanos felt fatigue set in he moved to comply. Sleep overtook him quickly and as he slept he smelled the sharp scent of sediment and saw hues of brown and red, and he dreamed of nothing more.

Illithanos woke the next day to find the tug in his mind just as persistent as the night before. After a small breakfast he had difficulty finding interest in, they packed up camp and headed out, the huntsman following the lead of the younger durmian as they wandered the isolating desert lands.

A few times Illithanos found himself pausing to adjust as the tug changed, pulling him in a new direction, but never once did Belmius question his intuition or challenge their change of course. Illithanos himself could not explain it, he could only accept. He had done something – a ritual, as Belmius had called it – and now this tug led them onward.

For days they traveled, pausing only to hunt or forage for food and water, as towns did not dot the lands the way they’d done north of the mountain range. At night Illithanos would feel no fatigue at all and then all at once it would take him over, pulling him down into a dreamless sleep of rusty red-browns and rich mineral smells. In the day his mind only thought of where they needed to go, where he needed to be, like a beacon beckoning him, forcing a single-mindedness to his actions.

“I do not feel like myself,” he confided in Belmius several days into their journey as they sat around the campfire, the huntsman eating some small game they’d caught and cooked while Illithanos picked vaguely at his food.

“Do you feel ill?” His companion asked, pausing to clean his own fingers with his mouth as he watched the young man closely. Illithanos shook his head.

“No, not ill. I feel fine. I feel… steady,” he considered, forehead creasing as he attempted to put words to the way his mind and body felt. “I feel energy that is even but endless… But I do not feel like myself.”

The huntsman offered nothing to this and though Illithanos received no answers, he did not find himself as concerned over the matter as he felt he should be. He continued his own dinner without being commanded by a sense of hunger and when he finished it he did not feel the satisfaction of a full belly.

“I think it knows we are coming,” Illithanos shared this information with his traveling friend on a separate day as they walked beneath the hot, high sun. The two spoke very little while the durmian existed in this walking trance, the only words shared between them often spurred by Illithanos’ own unsolicited statements. The days blurred together for him and still Belmius patiently followed. “The closer we grow to it the more I am certain of this.”

“Does it feel dread?” Belmius asked as they walked.

“It feels apprehension,” Illithanos answered, but he did not know how the knew it.

Sleep was growing more scarce for the durmian. A few nights had found him laying awake all night long, staring up at the stars as he became acutely aware of the sleeping form of Belmius near him, a new sensation for him during their long journey together. Illithanos had grown so adjusted to the human being awake before him, falling asleep after him, or resting while he was away. Indeed he had begun to see him as an ever-watchful figure, but for just two or three nights he found himself wide awake, unable to settle as the huntsman slept soundly. And yet for it all Illithanos felt no fatigue the following days, felt no sluggishness or drain of energy as they traveled onward.

Finally they spotted it and Illithanos knew their journey was soon to be at an end. As they crested a barren hill he could see the outline of stone canyons far ahead of them, red and wavering in the distance as the heat of the land contorted and rippled them.

“It’s there,” he said, frowning as he stared at the horizon. “It’s trying to see us, but it does not yet know what it is looking for.”

“Soon enough it will know,” Belmius stated, his tone simple but foreboding as he shifted the weight of his great blade on his back.

A short time later found Illithanos wandering between the steep jutting rocks of the canyon walls alone. Belmius had told him he would need a moment before the fight to focus and center himself. The presence of the Damerok loomed just on the horizon but Illithanos thought he could wait. He had waited years for this moment already, the young man was certain he could manage a little while longer.

Yet when his companion settled down and closed his eyes, Illithanos felt the tug in his mind pull even harder. He was certain he had the patience to wait for the huntsman, yet he looked down to see his feet carrying himself away, his body moving unbidden as he walked toward the towering red canyons in the distance. And then he was moving among them, the rich, sharp scent of the rocks and their red hues an echo of what he saw whenever he closed his eyes the nights before. He walked not knowing where he was going but with all the certainty of someone who belonged.

The canyons splayed out like a labyrinth of stone, leading him through a maze of twists and turns and branching paths. Every footfall came without hesitation, every turn decided by some unrealized guidance. He understood without question just what he was looking for and had long since ceased to ask how he knew its location. He simply moved as in a trance, detached from himself as he witnessed his own journey.

Finally he found it, down a broad path and around a sharp turn, just where he knew it would be. A figure perched up on one of the ledges eroded into the wall of the canyon. They looked like a human, dark skin and hair, like one of the locals and not at all foreign or out of place like Illithanos or his traveling companion.

The stranger, a man, was well dressed in a colorful poncho and suede leather shoes with large, loose, light-colored pants. He looked down at Illithanos as the young man appeared and smiled at him with an expression that implied more of a grimace than kindness. The two considered each other in silence, just a short distance apart, as if each had been wholly expecting the arrival other.

“Do I know you?” The stranger finally broke the silence with his question. His voice was rich and pleasant with a playful accent that would have been appealing to Illithanos’ ears had their meeting been different. Instead the young man’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed at the speaker.

“We met years ago,” the durmian responded, his own voice much weaker than the stranger’s. “I was much smaller, and you… you destroyed everything I had...”

“I’m sorry? I don’t think I follow,” the man replied. A cautious smirk played at the corner of his mouth as he gazed down at Illithanos with calculating eyes from his crouched position on the ledge.

“You’re the monster that tore apart my family.” Illithanos stated. He found his voice growing firmer, more certain. There was no question of it in his mind. “You burned my home, took my brother and my mother!” He felt his hands clenching into fists at his sides as he glared up at the false man before him. “Where are they now?” He demanded, determination burning within his chest.

The man’s careful grin faded and morphed into a frown as he gazed down at the resolute durmian. He let out a low breath, just a soft sigh to himself, but Illithanos could all at once feel heat in the air that was beyond that of the desert sun, and the canyon echoed a low rumble all around them, a soft growl reverberating off the stone. Then the stranger smiled again.

“They served their purpose and now they are gone.” The man stood and leaped down onto the canyon floor mere feet away from Illithanos. The stranger’s grin broadened as he regarded the young durmian before him, watching Illithanos’ forced confidence as he clenched his fists. This time when the stranger spoke his voice was low and rumbling, echoing off the walls all around them as it crashed against Illithanos from every side. But you have use to me. I have felt your presence endlessly these past days. What magic have you done? What power can you still teach me, little one?

Illithanos’ vision started to waver and blur, everything before him quivering like a mirage dancing on the waves of heat. The canyon, already baking beneath the high sun, grew all the more sweltering as the stranger approached. Illithanos felt as though time itself was slowing to a crawl. Sweat trickled down his forehead and burned his eyes as the oppressive heat pushed in on him. He heard his pulse grow loud in his ears, felt the clarity of his mind slipping.

Before him the stranger, now a dark form to his distorted sight, was stretching and morphing as he slowly approached, his proportions shifting and contorting in an inhuman manner as he grew and changed. The figure now moved on four legs instead of two. Its body was nearly as wide as the narrow canyon they stood in, its great tail, club-like and broad, swept the ground heavily behind it. Its eyes glistened dangerously like embers, and its horns and scales shone red as the Damerok, now fully transformed, bared its fangs and dug its claws into the rocky ground. Illithanos swayed as he stood, losing himself in a manner he did not understand nor knew how to combat to the mere presence of this creature.

Come, child, the voice of the beast resonated within Illithanos’ mind, drowning out all other thoughts he could hope to muster. Your long search for me is now over.

Illithanos wanted to resist but he could feel his body moving forward, pulled by some beguilement toward the creature. His hand reached out for it and its nostrils flared and eyes blazed triumphantly as he closed the distance between them.

Then a firm hold wrapped itself around his waist and chest as something coiled and strong grabbed him. In his fogged state he could not see what it was, could not even make out a form or outline of it. He could only feel the pressure of it against him and he was pulled back, the figure of the dragon now retreating with unlikely speed as Illithanos was dragged along. The next moment he blinked, his mind already clearing, and looked up to find himself standing behind Belmius. The huntsman had his massive blade raised in his arm, pointing it toward the red creature that roared angrily at having its quarry stolen away.

“Stay behind me, wolf pup!” Belmius bellowed out before rushing forward with a deep cry. The dragon reared its long neck back, inhaling in a deep breath of air, and as it threw its head forward to unleash a fiery blast Illithanos pressed himself against the canyon wall in vain attempt to avoid the searing air and licking flames. He winced and closed his eyes, waiting for the deadly crash of heat, but when it did not come he chanced to open them just a bit.

He could see fire arcing high overhead, redirected out of the canyon as the Damerok breathed it angrily down upon its attacker, but from his spot against the wall and behind the huntsman he could not make out how the man was managing to deflect it. Illithanos knew he possessed no shield or guard and doubted his sword could manage such a thing. Yet as the monster’s breath finally trailed off and the deadly flames ceased, there was no sign of scorch on himself or his companion, let alone on the ground or walls around them.

Belmius lunged again with another cry, swinging his weapon with a deftness that Illithanos found unbelievable with only his one hand. The beast lunged forward as well, catching the wide blade in its sharp maw and pulling it to the side with a strong lash of its head and neck. Though it could not seem to disarm the huntsman with its parry, at feat that struck Illithanos as impossible to have failed, it managed to throw his swing wide and the Damerok let go of the blade and lunged at the large human, aiming to strike while he was unable to guard himself.

Illithanos let out a cry as he saw the monster bearing down on his friend and then his voice cut out in confusion as the dragon staggered back with its head snapped upward. A very apparent wound appeared in its neck near its jaw and blood began to flow down from the scales atop its head. Illithanos could not see what the huntsman was doing, but as Belmius stepped aside the Damerok staggered forward, its head bowing down toward the ground as though pulled there by an unseen grip, even as its claws scrabbled to gain stability and cease its unbidden movements. The huntsman raised his massive weapon once more and with a single mighty blow he struck the beast down, the hard swing of the sword cleaving the red horned head from its scaled body. The beheaded mass staggered and spasmed before collapsing and going limp, the creature’s eyes rolling and its jaw moving uselessly until it finally stilled.

And then it was over. Illithanos stepped away from the canyon wall, his legs beginning to tremble from a weight he didn’t realize he was carrying. That tiny string in the back of his mind strained and then snapped, and all at once the durmian felt as though he was rushing back into himself. His legs shook and wobbled and he fell to his hands and knees. His stomach churned and ached from emptiness and stress, his mouth dry and parched from lack of water. His skin burned beneath the sun, his mind reeled and pounded from lack of sleep. He felt a return to himself, an immediate and sincere sense of feeling truly himself again, and all the weakness that came with it as he trembled, tears now flowing freely from his eyes. He cried out to the ground below him in relief and revelation and in sheer, unrelenting sorrow. He shouted, hearing his voice echo off the rocks around them, and sobbed, overwhelmed as so much realization and feeling flooded back into his mind.

“Are you alright, white wolf?” Illithanos heard Belmius’ deep voice, soft with consideration, and felt his strong hand rest on his shoulder. He reached up, desperate to grip and cling to the arm of the man who helped deliver him, and was met with a firm hold. The huntsman knelt down beside the younger durmian and waited as Illithanos struggled to pull himself together, offering him minutes of silence before he was able to calm himself enough to respond.

“It’s over...” Illithanos finally said, his voice as disbelieving as it was relieved.

“Yes,” Belmius agreed. “Your family, and your pain, they have been avenged.”

“My family...” Illithanos finally raised his face up to the huntsman, lines of tears streaked his cheeks and his eyes red. “They were here,” he managed out, his voice weak and strained. “I saw them… somehow. Somehow I saw them, and I know they were here, but not anymore...”

The huntsman released his hold on Illithanos’ arm and raised it to pat his shoulder firmly once more. He gripped him steadily, commanding the young man’s attention with his own strong gaze.

“What you have done here is more than what most any could ever hope to do,” Belmius said, his tone low and firm. “You freed their memory from that beast. You freed yourself from it.”

Illithanos’ heart was heavy but he nodded at the man’s words before he dropped his gaze back down to his knees. It was over now. Perhaps it was too late for his family, but until just a few days ago he’d not even known that any of them had lived passed that awful night so long ago. It was late, but it was over. He had always dreamed that this moment would have been one of celebration and a feeling of lightness, but now, knelt here upon the sand and dirt, the smell of the creature’s blood thick in the air, he felt only heavy and worn. Weary.

Belmius stood and turned away, moving back toward the Damerok’s body. His blade was already resting on his back and as he approached the corpse of the dragon he reached out to grab one of the broad horns of its head and slung the massive thing over his shoulder, hoisting it like a trophy.

“Come, white wolf,” he said, turning back to Illithanos and gesturing with a nod of his head. “Let us leave this area. We have a long journey back.”

Illithanos frowned, his forehead creasing. He had only joined the huntsman for this purpose. Now that it was over, what else was there for them to do?

“Where are we going?” He asked weakly, his dry throat protesting from speech and he swallowed the hard urge to cough.

“To the Throne of the Lost Brother,” Belmius responded. “Where I will bring Him this as thanks for granting me the power to strike the beast down.” He shrugged his shoulder to shift and emphasize the head he carried over it.

Illithanos nodded weakly, seeing no reason to protest. He had nowhere else he was planning to go and needed time to figure out what to do with himself now. Keeping company with the huntsman for a while longer appealed to him, at least it was certainly favorable to finding himself suddenly alone and stranded in the desert, and part of him was honestly curious about this Lost Brother the man kept speaking of. He pushed himself up on weak legs, wobbled for a moment, then found his balance. Belmius nodded toward the body of the beast.

“Would you like a trophy of your own?”

“I want nothing to do with that thing ever again,” Illithanos muttered out bitterly and the huntsman grinned broadly.

“Then come. We shall leave it for the dirt and the vultures.”

The two left quietly, retracing their steps through the maze-like canyon, and began their long journey back to a destination Illithanos did not know.

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