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“I Am Brahkis” Episode 40

The Adventures of an Intellectual Barbarian

I’ve had almost a week to prepare, but still don’t feel ready. I missed the feast at Treehorn Hall celebrating our victory in the Golden Valley, but that’s probably for the best. I’m not sure I could have swallowed the performance Hagen must’ve given before the rest of the clan.

I keep the Founder’s Blade wrapped in furs in my shelter so as not to invite questions. My chieftain’s son has not yet asked what became of it. I went on a scouting patrol two days ago just to get back to my old routine and see how it felt. It failed to take my mind off the Great Mountain and the reckoning to come. My team found Shadow off-putting, but I have hopes they will grow to accept him.

At last, the time comes to meet Rhiannon at Yorilis’s hill. The moons will be full in a few days. This time, I make sure I’m well-rested and prepared for the journey. My pack is heavy but carries enough rations so I shouldn’t have to hunt. I’m bringing my bow, anyway.

I leave early enough to avoid seeing anyone on my way out except for the posted look-outs. I already told Nertram not to expect me back for a week. The few hours it takes to reach the Spirit Shaman pass quickly, but I spend most of it taking in the beauty of the morning: the dew-kissed long grasses of the fields, the majestic conifers of the woods, the sound of swollen creeks rushing over beds of stones – all the things I will miss should our mission end poorly.

When I reach Yorilis’s home, Rhiannon is already there, as is the Grackle. “I spotted one of the Mountain Monsters while flying in the forest yesterday. They are exploring – it is well we do this now.”

I nod, having nothing to say.

“I may not be able to use magic,” the Grackle continues, “but I wanted to at least observe the outcome … just in case.”

He doesn’t have to say more. I know what’s at stake. The Spirit Shaman tells me he believes in me, and that I should let my instincts guide me. Easy for him to say – I have no idea what my instincts are. I appreciate the words, nonetheless.

Now that we know how to find the Heart of the Mountain, the journey is smoother. We reach the base of the slopes around noon on the day of the full moons, which is where I tell Rhiannon to stop.

“Is your magic ready?” I ask.

She stares back at me with those huge, pale eyes. Even after all this time, I have not learned to read them. Her pink hair has been gathered and tied off into a series of tufts down the center of her head, much like the spines of a drake, and she’s wearing tribal jewelry around her neck and wrists. “I know the incantation – the only question is whether I am able to draw upon enough sahd. Only the attempt itself will tell us.”

It is a skill – accepting that which is beyond our control. “Very well. I think this is a good place for me to try the change.” I cross my arms over my chest, making myself compact, and shut my eyes. I’ve acknowledged the truth of my identity, but have not yet mastered the process of transformation.

I do my best to block out stray thoughts and concentrate on Brahkis the Wolf: how the earth feels on my padded feet, how the forest wind carries the smells of other creatures, how my gaze cuts through the shadows of night. My muscles twist and stretch, and relief floods me as I realize it’s working.

When I open my eyes, they are closer to the ground. I stand on four feet, and my tail hangs behind me. I look up at Rhiannon and she smiles – I can’t recall ever seeing that.

“I like you better this way,” she says, then starts up the long slope ahead of us.

A few hours later, after Shadow has sniffed me for the hundredth time, we approach the cave. The sun has dropped below the edge of the peaks, though not so far as the natural horizon. The sky is indigo, and the twin moons already shine in undiminished splendor. Another snow has fallen since we were last here, and previous tracks are buried. Like before, a handful of monsters guard the entrance. I can only hope my form makes a difference and they leave me be.

Rhiannon leads the way, her boots crunching in the white powder, which is easier to walk on than the underlying ice. I stay close to her and Shadow trails just behind me. My entire body tenses as we draw nearer, my fight-or-flight response only suppressed by sheer force of will. But the Mountain Monsters don’t react to us at all. It’s like we’re invisible.

The mouth of the cave has jagged edges like teeth, but it’s plenty tall for Rhiannon to enter without ducking. “Lucemi,” she says, and a spark of white light shines from the lowest jewel on her necklace. The inside of the cave is unremarkable at first, but after a short tunnel, a natural stone ramp winds down to a larger chamber.

Two guardians, composed of rock and ice, stand motionless at the base of the decline. “Come,” Rhiannon says, as if she can sense my hesitation. She walks by the protectors, unconcerned, the movement of her light casting eerie shadows across the chamber. Past the monsters, another dozen paces into what feels like the womb of the world, is a stunted stalagmite whose top has receded to form a depression. Atop the bowl-like feature rests a splintered geode: the Heart of the Mountain.

Rhiannon looks down at me and exhales. I cannot but admire her courage. “Are you ready?’ she says. “I don’t know what will happen, or how long this will take.”

I haven’t mastered the ability to speak in my wolf form and don’t even know if it’s a possibility, but I do my best to yip affirmatively.

The Eladrin nods and steps up to the geological pedestal. She extends both arms until her hands hover over the geode’s surface, not quite making contact. Even so, the guardians shift, turning toward her. Shadow growls protectively. Without further delay, Rhiannon places her hands upon the Heart of the Mountain.

The reaction is instantaneous. The Mountain Monsters lumber forward and in a blink, I am Brahkis the Man once more. Rhiannnon chants behind me as I draw the silver falchion of my forebears. Calling upon reserves of strength I’m not sure are there, I go on the offensive, swinging my blade at my earthen enemies.

I don’t know if rock and ice can feel pain, but I convince myself they can and strike accordingly. I lop off a hand, then slice through a hip, my weapon cutting through them with unfathomable efficiency. Large as the chamber seemed to me as a wolf, there is not enough room for the gigantic guardians to attack side-by side, allowing me to take on one at a time.

I parry blows and inflict wounds, fighting as I never have before. Shadow snarls beside me, trying to scare them off, though he doesn’t engage. Before long, I’ve whittled the first monster enough that he collapses under the instability of his remaining weight.

Looking up, I see that another couple of the abominations have passed through the tunnel and wait their turn to descend the ramp. I’m already exhausted, and spare a glance over my shoulder in hopes that the Eladrin might be close to completing her task. She is holding the Heart closed, and the seam of the two halves appears molten.

My attention returns to survival as the next guardian bears down. I swivel to dodge his initial blow, then cleave upward with the Founder’s Blade, splitting its head in two. It is not enough to deter the creature and he fights on, flailing his massive arms from side-to-side. I back away and swing again, roaring a battle cry for self-motivation.

Another pair of slices cut first through the rapidly heating air, then the stone behind it. The second wound doesn’t seem particularly grievous, but it coincides with a thunderclap that resounds through the chamber. Not only the monster I was fighting, but those in queue behind it suddenly crumble to pieces.

Twisting my upper body, I see that Rhiannon has backed away from the Heart and is holding her hands above her head. “Have you done it?” I ask, gasping for breath, unwilling to turn my back on the former guardians. For all I know, the Great Mountain has simply shifted to a new tactic for its defense.

“I believe so,” she says. “It appears to be holding.”

I wait for few breaths more before giving in. I’m so worn out I drop to one knee, using the Founder’s Blade to prop myself up. “Let’s not do that again.”

Shadow’s demeanor has transformed and he nuzzles my face with his wet nose. That’s enough reassurance for me. In addition, I hear a caw and look up to see the Grackle, perched upon the remains of a toppled guardian.

“You did well, Brahkis,” Rhiannon says, her light moving closer.

I look up at her and force myself to stand. “As did you. I know you didn’t have to come. Thanks for looking out for my people.”

She nods. “Now it’s your job to convince them to do the same.”

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