Ul’vade looked at Lorcan, thoroughly worried. His friend looked…defeated, downtrodden, empty. He had little idea of what had just happened, and he knew he couldn’t fully appreciate the pain that apparition had caused Lorcan. He had been pushed away to be a silent witness without a real understanding of what his friend was feeling, or why. Living in Terrasylvae, he had met people from all walks of life, and he knew very well that everyone carried some manner of burden. Some came to Woodland running from something, others seeking something, while yet others just needed a place to call home. As he looked at this empty, heartbroken man before him, he realized that he was facing someone who needed a home, and had become convinced that he would never find one.
Ul’vade almost opened his mouth to ask Lorcan if he was alright, but held back. Would anyone be, after something like that? Instead, he said, “Lorcan, you know, I’ve always considered you as family, and I know everyone else in the Order does too. Even though you’ve only lived in Terrasylvae for a short time, I’ve always felt that you were an important part of the group. Everybody in Terrasylvae is valued; everyone has something to contribute. You’re no more an exception to that than I am.” He reached out to grasp Lorcan’s shoulder, but Lorcan pulled away.
“Thanks Ul’vade,” said Lorcan. “I want to believe you, but…” he looked over at the water behind him. “I don’t know if I can right now.” He looked back at Ul’vade, his now golden eyes glinting slightly in the darkness. “I’m sorry I ever brought you into this. I should have just left you in peace.”
Ul’vade tried to protest, but held his tongue. Some things in a man’s mind couldn’t be changed by words. This was a wound that could only be healed by time. Lorcan would likely feel better soon, but he needed time if he was to fully recover from today. He put on a determined face. “Let’s head back then.” He motioned towards Lorcan’s hand, where the Yggdrasil ring sat, gleaming. “I figure we’ll need that to get out of here. Do you have any idea of how to use it to return home?”
Lorcan nodded weakly. “I have some idea.” He gestured toward the wall, and they walked over to it. Lorcan lifted his arm, pointing his fist at the wall and said simply, “Haute, we have the water. Let us in.”
At his command, a dark, ominous light flickered to life on the wall, spreading and tracing the shape of a large door. Ul’vade spoke as the door gained shape. “Be careful Lorcan, we have no guarantee of what Haute will do. Do not trust him; he will still find whatever loophole in your deal that may exist, and he’ll exploit it.” He shut his mouth as the doorway finished forming. The rock faded away, opening into a torchlit cavern filled with gold and a brilliantly smiling Haute, who still held Lorcan’s semblance.
Haute looked giddy as a child, and clapped excitedly as Lorcan and Ul’vade passed through the doorway. “Oh, I just knew you could do it!” he exclaimed. “And both of you are still alive, with intestines intact and all! Marvelous!” He rushed forward to embrace Ul’vade, who snarled, making him retreat. He looked at Lorcan, grinning from ear to ear. “Let’s see it then. Come on, show me the water!”
Lorcan lifted up the bottle of water, crystal clear and shimmering in the torchlight. Haute clapped again, and excitedly began pacing the edges of the cave, wringing his hands with eagerness. “Finally,” he said, his smile wide and malicious. “I’ll finally be free from this cave. Free to breathe the open air, free to walk among the trees, free to burn down homes, terrorize peasants, and commit wanton destruction and murder. Oh, it’ll be just like the good old days!” He stopped suddenly, and looked up at Lorcan. “Ah! But I’d forgotten! How rude of me, I promised you a magical item, didn’t I? You must forgive me, I’m so terribly excited, I’m forgetting everything.” He hurried over to a large, ornate wooden chest, and threw it open, rummaging through it’s contents.
“Ah-HA!” cried Haute, pulling something from the depths of the box. He straightened, and hurried over to Lorcan. He placed a leather mask in Lorcan’s arms, smiling gleefully. It was a leather bird mask, like the ones French doctors used in times of the plague. It was frightening, but resonated with a dark, powerful aura. “There you are, one magical item. I’ll leave you to figure out what it does. And…I believe I also promised to make you ‘as good as new’, didn’t I?” He reached out, and placed his palm on Lorcan’s forehead.
Instantly, Lorcan felt strength surge through him. All the toil and exhaustion of his journey was washed from him. He felt renewed and energized. He closed his eyes a moment, savoring the feeling. As Haute removed his hand, opened his eyes and looked down at his hands. He stepped back, startled. His skin was the same: scaly, green, and most definitely human. He looked at Haute angrily. “What is this!? You promised to cure me!”
Haute held his hand over his heart, and assumed a hurt, indignant expression. “I did no such thing. I promised you a magical item, and to make you ‘as good as new’. I have done both, and quite admirably and generously, if I do say so myself. All your injuries have healed, exhaustion has been eased, and I even made you twice as resistant to disease as normal humans. I daresay that you’ll likely even live longer than most. I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain.”
Lorcan bared his teeth. “You cursed me! You promised to cure me when I brought you the water!”
Haute looked pityingly at Lorcan, regarding him as if explaining something to a very slow child. “Oh, dear me. I’m afraid I’ve led you on terribly, haven’t I? My dear boy, saying that I cursed you was, simply, a blatant lie. I haven’t the faintest idea why you look like this, nor how it can be cured. But, being the opportunist that I am, I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to send you on this errand. You see, I need that water.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arms, pointing out the cavern around them. “As lovely as this cave is, it’s still my prison. I’m tired of being cooped up in here, and the power in that water is my ticket out of here. I need the knowledge of how to break the spell keeping me here, and you’ve been very kind to bring that knowledge right to me.
Lorcan glared knives at Haute. “You lied to me. You’ll never get this water, so long as I live.” He uncorked the bottle, and lifted it to eye level, as if he were about to throw it.
Haute tsked irritably. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that. ‘Oathbreaker’ is simply a very undesirable title. You, and all your friends, would pay the price if you earn it. I never lied to you. Well, no, I just said I did. I did lie to you, but not when we were discussing the terms of our deal. You see, the WORDING is the most important part of a pact. You have to be very specific, or anything could go wrong. If I had explicitly said that I’d cure you, I’d be in a very awkward position right now. But that’s not what I said, so I’ve done my part.” Haute’s face grew cruel and demanding. “Now do yours. Give me the water.”
Lorcan’s Mind worked quickly, fueled by anger and panic. He had been through too much for this to happen, and there was no way he was going to let Haute escape this cave. But what could he do? Suddenly, an idea came to him. He couldn’t let Haute have the water, but what he was about to do could very well ensure that he would stay as this goblin forever, or turn into a dragon, assuming Haute didn’t kill him first. He set his face determinedly, and looked into Haute’s eyes with defiance.
Haute looked annoyed, but a hint of fear began creeping into his eyes. “What now? Don’t think you can get out of this. You made an oath to give me that water. Now give it to me!”
Lorcan tsked at Haute. “I never promised to give you the water. I just said I’d bring the water back here. We never agreed on what I’d do with it when I got back here. It’s all in the WORDING, isn’t it Haute?”
Haute growled. “Miserable human! I’ll pry the bottle from your corpse!” He flew across the room at Lorcan, clawed hands reaching for his throat. Talons extended from blackening hands, ready to claw and slash Lorcan to death. But it was too late; Lorcan was ready for him. He brought the bottle to his lips, and downed Mimir’s water in one gulp.
A loud boom resonated in the room, and in the blink of an eye, the world froze around Lorcan. Haute was frozen mid-flight, murderous rage written in every line of his face. Ul’vade stood by his side, unmoving, sword already drawn with lightning speed. Lorcan was the only thing moving in the cave, as it felt as if the air itself lay still. He turned from Ul’vade, to Haute, to down at himself, startled and confused, trying to get his bearings. As he stood, a mellow voice spoke from behind him. “Son?”
‘Oh, not again,’ was Lorcan’s first thought. He turned slowly, tentatively turning his back on the demon hanging suspended in the air. It was his father, smiling sadly at him. But, it wasn’t quite his father as Lorcan remembered him (and no, he wasn’t thinking of the dragon). Lord MacBroin was younger and healthier than he had ever looked. He had lost considerable weight, and his eyes were no longer tinted yellow from poor health. Neither was he wearing his black and gold nobleman robes, nor his rings. He wore only a simple, white tunic and black trousers, with his usually long and greasy hair short and neat. Lorcan would hardly have recognized him, had his father not looked quite similar to himself.
Lord MacBroin lifted his hand, his smile turning sheepish. “I know, I know. I can’t seem to stay dead, can I? This is likely the last place and time that you would have expected me to be, isn’t it?
Lorcan frowned. “Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting to see you as a dragon in Norway, but I suppose I’m just more flexible now.”
Lord MacBroin nodded and laughed. “I suppose that’s fair.” He stepped toward Lorcan, who stood his ground. A look of deep sadness suddenly covered his face as he stared into Lorcan’s dark eyes. “You’ve been through a lot Lorcan. Too much. And now,” he looked Lorcan up and down, observing his scaly green hands and face, “you have to deal with this old curse. If only I’d believed the stories, perhaps this could have been prevented.”
Lorcan’s face hardened. “You knew about this? You knew all along that you’d become a dragon? Now…I’m destined to become the same thing.” He looked briefly back at Haute, and said bitterly, “I came here looking for a cure, but I’ve only furthered the curse along. Not that it matters I suppose. I’m about to be killed by this demon at any rate.”
Lord MacBroin shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be that way.” Lorcan looked at him, angry and confused, so he spoke again. “Yes, I knew about the curse. It was told to me as a child by my grandmother, though I didn’t believe in it until it was too late. My father felt that he could beat it out of me, somehow remove the curse by pushing it down inside of me. In the end, it’s what brought the evil out.” He gestured for Lorcan to follow him, which he did. They walked to the side of the cavern, and, at Lord MacBroin’s urging, the two walked right through the cave wall.
They found themselves in a lush, green field, a small town a short distance away. As he observed the village, Lorcan could just make out the shape of a large house on the far side of it. Instantly, he recognized the place. He turned quickly to his father, who answered his silent question. “Shalemont, yes. The MacBroin’s have lived here for generations; since men first settled this part of Ireland. This is what it looked like years ago, before the mine, before our greed, before we poisoned the land.”
Lorcan scrunched his brow. “What do you mean? Does this have something to do with the curse?”
His father nodded. “In part. Most of the damage was due to human folly; not caring for the earth that gives us life. Yes, the curse was partially responsible, but I suppose that can be chalked up to human weakness as well.”
They continued walking for a minute in silence, neither really sure what to say to the other. Finally, Lord MacBroin spoke. “The MacBroins aren’t pure Irish you know. We’re actually descended from Northern settlers that came across this land by accident, generations ago. Their leader was, by legend, a son of Odin, and was the first to carry the Yggdrasil ring. His name was Hrungnir, Son of the Raven, and he was given great power by the Allfather. Supposedly, he was one of the few men given the privilege to drink from Mimir’s Well, as you’ve done. He was given power over runes and charms, strength, courage, and the power to lead men. But, Odin warned him that if he, or any of his descendants, which would be granted the same power, were to ever use their gifts for evil, they would be sorely cursed, and would be scorned, hated, and eventually slain by their kinsfolk. We, as Hrungnir’s descendants, are heirs to this ancient power, and to the same ancient curse.
Lorcan hadn’t thought he could be surprised by anything anymore, but his mind reeled. How could he never have heard these things before? “So, you mean, you, Lucan, me…we’re descendants of Odin? We have…magic?” His father nodded, but he kept going. “But, you never knew, never cared, and turned into a dragon as an effect of the curse; because of the things you did, and I…” Lorcan stopped walking, and looked miserably down at his hands. “And…I’ve become evil too, and I’m going to become that…thing.”
Lord MacBroin grabbed Lorcan firmly by the shoulders, turning him to face him, and looked pleadingly and earnestly into Lorcan’s face. “No! No, you won’t be! You alone decide what happens to you, boy. You have a dark side, just like me, just like everyone else, and you can choose whether or not to give in to it. You are angry at the world around you, and you’re angriest at yourself and your imperfections. We’re all guilty of that. Everyone has their dark times. But, you are not evil Lorcan. You’ve proven that throughout your life. You were never like me. Ever since you left Shalemont, you’ve been trying to prove that you’re a good man, and that you want to do what’s right. You’ve stumbled, and you’ve made mistakes. That doesn’t make you evil. That makes you human.”
Lorcan batted away his father’s arms, bared his fangs, and shouted, “Do I look human to you, old man? I’m just like everything you were. I’m selfish, and jealous, and cowardly, and-” he stopped abruptly, tears forming in his eyes. “I stand on the shoulders of those better than me, so I can pretend that I’m better, and that I can play the hero too. I was always a disappointment. This curse is just showing me what I really was deep down, and refused to admit to myself. This is just what I deserve.
His father looked at him, tears running down his face. “I was a terrible father,” he said simply. “I hated my father, and I feared all my life that I was too weak to stand up to him. I let that fear take root in my soul, and I let it shape me into a hard, cruel man, bent on gaining wealth and power. I wanted to be respected and feared, so I could feel that I’d surpassed my father.” He sighed deeply. “In the end, I became just like him. I never showed my sons, or my wife, how precious they were, because I only focused on myself. I drove your mother away and…I gave up. I didn’t care about being better, because I felt in my heart that I couldn’t possibly change, and that I could never deserve forgiveness for what I did. My father had never earned my forgiveness, so why should I earn it from others?”
He put his hand on Lorcan’s shoulder again. “Don’t make the mistakes I did. You were always a better man than I was. You had the courage I never had, and it’s helped you shape yourself and so many others into better men. Do you think you brother would have turned his life around if you hadn’t inspired him to do so? Do you think your friend in the cave would have risked his life so many times as he did if he felt you weren’t worth it? Would those boys at the monastery, and now the men and women in Woodland, would treat you as a valued friend if they didn’t feel that you were worthy of their friendship? Everybody around you sees something great in you. It’s a man’s curse to only see himself as that which he lacks, and it’s his blessing to have friends that have the wisdom to see him as he really is.
Lord MacBroin turned Lorcan to look him squarely in the face. “That demon is telling the truth, he can’t cure you. This curse started in your soul, and only you can cleanse it. You have the power within you son. Decide now what you’re going to do with it, and purge the evil holding you back.”
Lorcan’s eyes filled with tears. He wanted to hope. He wanted so badly to believe that he could change. But, after what Mimir had said… “How?”
Lorcan’s father straightened, and smiled encouragingly at his son as tears streamed from his eyes, and fell to the ground below. “You know how son. You’re a good man. I was never a proper father, and I never showed you and Lucan the love you deserved. But, it brings me the greatest comfort and pride to see the man that you’ve grown into. I’m proud of you Lorcan.”
Lorcan embraced his father, for the first time in his life. They stood there for a long time, not wanting the moment to pass. Finally, Lorcan said, “I forgive you. Good bye, father.” They separated, and Lord MacBroin beamed at him. He waved farewell, and faded from view as if a wind was blowing away his image. The vision of Shalemont and the meadow dissipated like mist around Lorcan, and he was once again in Haute’s den,
Everything was still frozen in place. Haute was still leaping for Lorcan, murder in his eyes. Ul’vade was still preparing to strike Haute with his drawn sword, fierce determination on his face. They were frozen in what would likely be their last moment. They were about to die.
‘Not today,’ spoke a voice in Lorcan’s head. He felt cold resilience build in his soul, filling him with the desire to fight back, to defend his friend, to face the evil before him. They had come too far for things to end here. That peculiar strength, now familiar to him, rose in his chest. It was that odd, powerful feeling that felt like raging fire and ocean waves crashing against each other, filling him with rage and serenity at the same time. It was the same sensation he had felt at the attack on the monastery, after eating the dragon heart, when he drank Mimir’s water, and now he knew what it was. It was magic. It was his, and it was very, very strong. He was the one holding everything in place, he felt that now. And he could do more than that.
He held out his hand, palm facing Haute, and willed for the spell to break. Haute flew at Lorcan, reaching for him, but he was ready now. With a push of his hand, Haute stopped midair for a moment, then flew across the room, flung by an invisible power. He crashed into a pile of gold and jewels, cursing and yelling. As he struggled to get up, Lorcan made a crushing motion with his hand, and the gold around Haute came alive. It melted, then moved like a snake, surging over his limbs, coiling around him, and hardening again, chaining him in place on the ground. “What is this!?” he cried, struggling uselessly against the gold. “What have you done!?”
Lorcan only smiled. Haute was so arrogant, so sure of his power, so willing to abuse it; it felt good to see him afraid and angry, powerless as his victims had been. As he held out his hand, hew witnessed with amazement that it had begun to change. The scales on his skin were fading away like scars, and his color was becoming increasingly more human. The talons shortened into nails, and his skin became more pinkish-white. He already felt his teeth and his ears returning to normal. In moments, his hand was just as it had been; it was irrefutably human. Lorcan gasped in joy, and Ul’vade cheered. “I’m…I’m back,” he said, dazed. He turned to Ul’vade, who was smiling and laughing. “Ul’vade! I’m back!”
Haute snarled, snapping Lorcan back to the situation at hand. “Filthy, worthless, idiot boy!” cried the demon. “How dare you attack me! In my own domain, you worthless sack of flesh. You will die a most excruciating, exquisitely painful death at my hands!” Haute struggled mightily against the gold encasing his arms and legs, but to no avail. His eyes shone blood red, an belched fire and smoke from a fanged mouth. He did not look handsome now. He was not calm or in control; he was chaotic, raging, and bloodthirsty. Lorcan stepped back in fear, as he suddenly understood why so many still feared Haute. This horrible, evil creature before him…this was the face of evil.
Doing his best to appear confident, Lorcan spoke loudly to the wailing, struggling creature before him. “I’ve fulfilled my pact with you, and our business together has ended. Let us leave in peace.”
Haute cursed in a deep guttural language, speaking a language too ancient for Lorcan to understand. However, he understood what Haute meant just fine. It was an expression of unquenchable hatred. Haute ceased his cries, and his voice became a deadly, malicious calm. “You’ve made a very serious mistake, mortal. You’ve made an enemy of me, and you will regret it most bitterly. You caught me off-guard this time, but one day soon, when you’re most vulnerable, I will exact sweetest vengeance, and I will have you begging for death before the end.”
Lorcan nodded. “I’ll look forward to it. Until then.” He turned to Ul’vade. “We should probably leave. Quickly.”
They ran to the exit passageway, eager to leave the evil behind them, when Ul’vade suddenly stopped. He grinned mischievously at Lorcan, and turned back to face Haute. He smiled widely, raised his hand, and waggled his fingers at the demon. “Bye Haute,” he said, flirtatiously, then turned on his heels and ran up the passage, leaving Lorcan to stand confusedly for a moment, then hurry after him.
Haute’s scream of rage followed them up the passage, shaking the ground and walls, causing rocks and stalactites the come loose and fall around Ul’vade and Lorcan. They ran for all they were worth, and thankfully stayed relatively untouched until they reached the mouth of the cave. There was little light to be seen in the clearing around Haute’s den, but it was a fine sight better than what they were coming from. They made a final dash out of the clearing, crossing the edge of the unholy ground. As they ran back into the trees, they dived sideways off the path, and not a moment too soon. A column of flame erupted from the mouth of Haute’s Den, scorching the path that had just been on, and filling the air with the smell of sulfur and smoke.
Lorcan and Ul’vade stood up after a few moments, and stared at the smoking cave, clutching their knees and gasping for breath. After a minute or so, Lorcan turned to Ul’vade and said, “Bye, Haute?”
Ul’vade laughed heartily. “It seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Lorcan tried to look angry, though a smile was fighting it’s way onto his face. “We could have died, Ul’vade.”
Ul’vade’s laughter only increased. “We’ve almost died about 4 or five times in the past week Lorcan. I don’t think that was too bad, considering.” He straightened, and stared at Lorcan intently, his laughter fading. “And, for how long have you been doing that? Have you been holding out on me this whole time?”
Lorcan made a face, confused. “What? Oh…oh, that. Um, yes, I’ve kind of been able to do that for a while. But, I didn’t really know I had magic until about five minutes ago. So, I think I was holding out on both of us.” He looked seriously at Ul’vade. “I think I’d prefer that this stay between us, alright?”
Ul’vade nodded. “Of course.” His eyes widened for a moment, looking at Lorcan’s left hand. “Hey, it’s that mask Haute gave you.”
Lorcan looked lifted his hand. Sure enough, it was the creepy plague mask. He had forgotten he had it. The mask still radiated power, but he couldn’t tell for the life of him what it did. He was afraid to try it on and find out. “What do you reckon it does?” he asked Ul’vade.
He shrugged. “Haven’t the faintest.” He pointed behind him with his thumb at the cave. “Maybe you should go back and ask.”
Lorcan chuckled. “I think I’d rather not.” He looked down the path back to the village. “I’m glad this is over.”
Ul’vade nodded. “Me too.” He gestured to the path. “Let’s go home.”
It was with great relief that the two travelers left the tree-line, and re-entered the village. There wasn’t any welcoming committee waiting for them, and nobody asked where they had been. But, that was fine by Lorcan. He was just glad to be home. He was still troubled by some of the things Mimir had said to him, and Haute’s threat hung on his mind, but for now, he was just glad to find a place that he could call home. He and Ul’vade agreed to go their houses and sleep off their travels before they did anything, and felt it best that they wait a little before telling anyone where they had been. They parted ways at Ul’vade’s house, bid each other farewell, and Lorcan began to make his way back to the chapel. He moved quickly, trying not to talk to anyone, or meet anyone’s eye as he walked. He knew he looked human again, but it had been a long day, and he just didn’t feel like social interaction.
Lorcan shoved the chapel doors open, and navigated around the benches, strode through the hallway, and walked into his bedroom, breathing deeply through his nose. All the fatigue of the day hit him all at once, and he collapsed on his bed. “Good to be home,” he mumbled, as he drifted off into sleep.