Chapter 14: Vision
Having a goal in mind made the time pass swiftly. Indeed, it seemed the winter snows came and went in the blink of an eye, until Almonihah found himself standing at the edge of the village, saying farewell to the Griffon Tribe. Because he did not expect to return, the Ranger made gifts to the villagers of his equipment. His longsword he entrusted to Griffon Heart, who accepted it solemnly and voiced his thanks. His other things he distributed to the rest of the tribe as he would.
At last, he came to Owl Talon. All Almonihah had left was a small bag. He handed it to the old Plainsman and said, gruffly, “Here. Figure you can do something with ‘t.”
Glancing in it, the shaman could see that it contained a variety of dried herbs. With a gentle nod and a smile, he said, “I believe I can, young dragon.” Closing the bag and straightening, he continued, speaking this time to be heard by all, “And now I have a gift for you, young Almonihah Zrathanzon. As you will likely not return to us at the end of your quest, I would give you your name now.”
“The name I give to you, and the name you shall be known by among all the Tribe of the Griffon, is Thunder Heart.”
The unusual declaration, as well as the unusual name, caused a bit of whispered conversation among the assembled tribespeople. Almonihah, however, simply murmured, “Thunder Heart,” to himself, thinking it over.
“And there is one last thing I would say to you,” Owl Talon said, more quietly. He took the half-dragon aside, far enough that no one else could hear, then said, “There are many reasons for your name, but I would have you think on this.”
“Two wolves dwell in you. One hunts eternally for the thrill of the kill. The other hunts only to eat, and fights only to protect.” The old shaman paused for a moment, leaning forward slightly and reaching up to place his hand on Almonihah’s shoulder. “Have a care which one you feed, young dragon.”
After another moment of silence, Owl Talon returned to the watching Plainsmen. Almonihah looked back at them, nodded in farewell, and then turned North, walking off with only Zithrandrak to accompany him.
Almonihah walked north, deep in thought. When he’d discussed going on a Vision Quest with Owl Talon, he’d asked where he would go on it. The old shaman had answered only that he would know. The odd thing was, somehow, he did. He didn’t know where exactly he was going or what he would find, but the half-dragon was certain that for now, he was supposed to head north.
Just living was harder as he traveled. Zithrandrak wasn’t exactly a good hunting weapon, and there weren’t a lot of plants on the plains that had edible parts. However, Zrathanzon had taught him some techniques for situations in which he’d lost his equipment, and if though they were difficult and slow compared to bow-hunting, they still worked well enough.
Almonihah was just looking for a spot to lay down for the night several days after leaving the Griffon Tribe when he saw a big, gray wolf looking at him. He paused for a moment, trying to decide if she was a threat, and decided she was not. He was about to turn away when he realized that she was still looking at him. There seemed to be an almost expectant air about the wolf, as if she was waiting for something.
He met her eyes. They held each other’s gaze for a few moments, then the big wolf turned towards the north. Then she looked back over her shoulder at Almonihah, as if to see if he was following. He stood for a moment, then started after her. Once she was satisfied that the half-dragon was, indeed, following, she started walking north, towards the nearby forest. After a minute or two, her walk turned into a trot, and then a run, and Almonihah found himself pushing himself as hard as he could to keep up.
She didn’t slow when she reached the forest.
He lost sight of the wolf not long after entering the forest. Almonihah kept going the way she’d been heading, hoping he could catch up again, but there was no way he could plunge between trees and under fallen logs the way she had. His pace was just starting to flag when he felt something bump his back. He turned just in time to see the wolf shoot past him, flicking him with her tail as she passed. Almonihah grumbled under his breath as he chased after.
The half-dragon wasn’t sure how long he followed the wolf, sometimes losing sight of her, sometimes catching sight of her looking back at him with an expression that he was sure meant she was laughing at him. Finally, she darted through some thick undergrowth. Almonihah growled mentally, since he was too out of breath to do so out loud, and broke through it.
He came out into a large clearing to find himself ringed by wolves. The one he’d been chasing was standing next to an even larger male, looking at the half-dragon with that same amused expression. The wolves surrounding him seemed… expectant, somehow, as if they’d known somehow he was coming and were now waiting to see what would happen.
The big male, however, wasn’t waiting for anything. He stepped forward, growling low in his throat, as he sized up this creature that had entered his territory. Defiantly, Almonihah growled back, crouching down a bit, poised to move in any direction. Slowly, the wolf circled him, and he started circling as well. As he did, the half-dragon’s mind worked furiously, trying to figure out what he was supposed to be doing here. It was clear the female had led him here, and that was not an ordinary thing for a wolf to do.
He thought back on the tales of Vision Quests Owl Talon had told him. Most involved animals behaving in unusual ways… often, the quester would speak with the animals, and the animals would speak back. Somehow Almonihah knew instinctively that this was not the case here. What was he…
The wolf leaped forward, jaws snapping. Almonihah sidestepped, but didn’t strike back. While the tales sometimes involved fighting beasts, they were always animals or monsters that were tainted or evil somehow, and while this wolf had just tried to bite him, that didn’t make him evil. Instead, it seemed he had more just been testing Almonihah, as he returned now to his slow circling.
So what was he supposed to do? He’d obviously been led here, first by just a feeling, and then by that female… hmmm… what was the purpose of what was going on now? It was kind of like… the big male wanted to establish… dominance over him? Almonihah knew something of wolves, and he had a vague idea that the lead wolf did that to other wolves in his pack. So was this whole thing to establish Almonihah’s place in the pack?
“Hey,” Almonihah growled at the wolf still circling him, “I’ll travel with you, hunt with you… but I’m not one of you. You will not command me. Got it?”
The big wolf seemed unimpressed, instead lunging again at the half-dragon. Again, Almonihah dodged the attack, but did not strike back. This time the wolf tried again, and then once more, to bite him, but the half-dragon was too quick, and his teeth snapped on empty air.
And then, suddenly, the wolf relaxed and quit growling. This time, he approached Almonihah slowly, his eyes watchful, but with no intent to harm. Slowly Almonihah relaxed as well, allowing the lead male to near him. He neared the half-dragon, and then sniffed him, taking in the creature’s odd scent, the dry smell of a lizard, with a faint trace of ozone, and a hint of man. Suddenly it seemed that the whole pack joined in, and Almonihah found himself surrounded and jostled by a number of eager wolves and their noses. He supposed this meant he’d been accepted, and the pack was getting to know the smell of its newest not-quite-member.
Well, all except one. As he was twisting and turning, trying to keep his feet as some of the more enthusiastic wolves pushed their way around him, Almonihah noted the big female still standing apart from the bustle, watching him.
She still looked like she was laughing at him.
Wolves do not count days like men. The months and days do not matter to them, only the slow turning of seasons, and they have their own signs independent of the count of days. So it was that Almonihah could only guess at how long he had been with the pack from the fact that the summer days were still long and hot. Now, however, it was night, and the wind was cool on his scales and in the fur of his friends.
He looked at the pack, thinking on the days and weeks he had spent with them. That first day he’d gone hunting with them. Or rather, tried to go hunting with them. After chasing the big female and then following the pack, he’d been too exhausted to really do anything useful. Slowly, however, he’d learned to keep up with the wolves without tiring himself so badly, as well as simply built his endurance up.
Hunting with the pack was wholly different from the way he hunted on his own. Instead of using weapons or traps or tricks, he worked with the pack to bring down prey, using his own claws and teeth just as the wolves did. While he didn’t think he’d do it when he was on his own, Almonihah felt that it was… right, for this time.
Of course, there had been a couple times when he had drawn Zithrandrak. Several times he had stayed with the pack’s cubs and the adults left to care for them, and twice they had been attacked by some of the more dangerous creatures of the North Forest. Both times he had driven them back with his blade.
Those had been the only times he had done something the wolves couldn’t do, though. The rest of his stay had been spent doing everything they did do. He did, however, still retain his separate status, traveling with the pack, but not truly one of them. The one thing he had not joined in with was exactly what they were doing this night—howling together, yelling their companionship to the moon overhead.
With a bit of a grin, he decided he’d quit being such a stranger. Stepping out in the middle of the pack, he threw his head back and roared.
The next morning, the pack was gone.
He looked around briefly for some sign of their passing, but the clearing was as untouched as if no animal had ever entered it. Shaking his head a bit, and wondering what exactly Naishia was up to with him, Almonihah turned south and west. He could feel it was time to move on.
Almonihah headed towards the mountains across the plains. As he traveled, he had a lot of time to reflect, both on his time with the wolves and on other matters. He was rather surprised to find that he had truly learned much from the pack. He… looked a bit differently at the world, now. Being with the wolves had made him realize… something. Or maybe some things. It was hard to put into words exactly what it was. Just… how many different ways there were to think of life, perhaps.
Part of his new way of looking at the world was watching just how the different animals lived their lives. Of course, during his time with Zrathanzon, he had learned a lot about the behaviors and such of different animals, but it had been from the perspective of an outsider, not as one trying to see through their eyes.
Almonihah could tell that summer was starting to turn to autumn as he reached the mountains. The heat of summer was not yet gone, but there was a hint of coolness in the wind.
His path led him up one of the mountains. The half-dragon had always enjoyed the exertion and challenge of climbing mountains, and that certainly had not changed. He did, however, note just how many other things lived on the rocky slopes he traversed.
It took him a couple of days to reach the top of the mountain. This one was not so high that it had snow at this time of year, but the half-dragon could feel the chill in the air, and guess at how thin it was from his breathing. He looked back for a moment at the great plains, and all they contained, then turned to the way he would go. There was a sheltered valley on the other side of the peak he stood on, still green despite the hot, dry times of the late summer. Some mountain streams from the taller, still snow-capped peaks must feed into it.
As he descended into the valley, Almonihah noticed a number of eagles flying over it. After watching for a few minutes, he realized that they must nest somewhere down the mountainside from where he now was.
It took the half-dragon a few hours to reach their nests. Following the same impulse that had lead him here, he carefully made his way right up to one until he stood only a few feet away from it. The eagle who was presently roosting there glanced up at him, caught his eye for a moment, then went back to preening its feathers. Almonihah snorted softly. Looked like he was supposed to be here.
The half-dragon could not fly with the eagles, though a part of him longed to do so. Regardless, he stayed up near the nests for almost a week, though he had to spend a fair amount of time hunting and foraging for food and water. The rest of the time, he watched and he thought, trying to see the world through the eyes of the eagles.
Soon enough, he knew it was time to move on. He descended into the valley, then headed south. His path took him back out of the valley and down into another, again and again as he made his way south.
Almonihah had almost reached the peaks of the Dragon’s Teeth, and beyond them the Lost Sea, when the first snows started to fall. While they weren’t bad now, the half-dragon knew he should seek shelter before the storm got worse. Luckily—though he wondered if there was really any luck involved—he could see a cave in a nearby mountainside. He headed up the slope toward it.
It wasn’t a particularly large cave, but it did have a bend in it which hid the back part from the entrance. In spite of that, Almonihah was sure he should have seen some sign of the bear before he came face to face with it. Later, he would chalk that up to just another of the weird things that had been going on during his quest.
For now, however, he was much more worried about not being mauled by an angry bear. At first he simply avoided it, but he knew that he couldn’t keep that up forever. He could just leave, but somehow that didn’t just feel right. Which left just one thing to do.
The next time it charged at him, he sidestepped it again and then jumped on its back.
He wrapped his arms around its neck and used all his strength to cut off the flow of air or blood or whatever he could to its head so it would fall unconscious. It took quite a bit of grim endurance to hold on, especially when the bear started ramming him against the sides of the cave.
Fortunately, it gave out before he did. First it slowed down, and then it slowly toppled to the ground. Quickly, the half-dragon looked it over. It wouldn’t be knocked out for long, but it felt like he wasn’t done here.
Something caught his eye about one of its paws. Lifting it, he saw there was a large thorn embedded in it… which was odd, given that there weren’t any plants with large thorns around. Pushing aside that thought, he quickly pulled it out. He realized he didn’t have anything to bandage it, so instead, he lifted the symbol of Naishia around his neck—the very one Llinos had been carving for him so many years ago, now finished by his hands—and murmured the one spell-prayer of healing he’d learned from the old Druid.
He felt the familiar wash of fatigue flow through him along with the healing power of the spell-prayer. He’d never practiced channeling Naishia’s power like this, so even simple things like this tended to tire him out. This time seemed worse than usual, though—so much so that he had to steady himself against the bear with one hand when he was done. Which was a somewhat awkward position to be in when he noticed the bear’s eyes were open again.
This time, however, it didn’t seem at all angry. In fact, once it was back on its feet (and Almonihah had back away to a respectful distance), it ambled back towards the back of its cave, looking once over its shoulder as if to see if the half-dragon was following. With a bit of a disbelieving shake of his head, he did.
Once it reached the dark, sheltered back of the cave, the bear promptly settled down and went to sleep. Almonihah, feeling both the aches and bruises from their little wrestling match and the fatigue from healing its paw, decided to follow suit. Without really thinking about why, he settled down against the furry side of the bear and closed his eyes.
Normally, Almonihah woke almost instantly from sleep to alertness. It was a necessary survival skill in the wilderness. This time, however, he felt like he was languidly swimming up through layers of half-seen, half-remembered dreams. As he woke more fully he realized he had dreamed quite a lot that night, and not of the things he usually did, either.
He opened his eyes and stretched slowly. He felt good. Better than he had even before getting banged around by a bear, in fact, which was odd, as it seemed like he should still be bruised all over from his experience. Carefully he stood, noting again that he didn’t feel the least bit sore anywhere, and walked outside.
It was spring.
Well, he was fairly certain it was spring. At least, there wasn’t any snow on the ground, and the flowers were blooming, which was usually a sign that it was no longer winter. The half-dragon blinked in momentary incomprehension. Had he slept through the entire winter? And for that matter, where was the bear? He realized now it hadn’t been there anymore when he’d awoken.
Slowly Almonihah sat down to think. He thought of the last year, of what he’d seen and heard and done. And he thought of what he’d dreamed. Gradually, a certainty began to form in his mind.
The Ranger stood and turned south and east. His Vision Quest was now over. It was time to go to the Line, and defend the life he’d been a part of for all of his life.