Blood splattered the Monastery floor, but not in ritual. The half orc’s fist that connected with Zildath’s jaw caused the small spray, and sent the young Dragonborn to the ground. Around him Zildath heard the cacophony of calls from the other children. Some called him outsider, abomination, shouted that he didn’t belong there. Others shouted his name, encouraging him to get up.
Gritting his teeth, Zildath attempted to rise, but the half orc’s foot crashed into his back and kept him down. Zildath felt his anger bubbling, a burning in his throat and-
The noise stopped immediately, all the children hurrying to stand at attention. Even the half orc, Theren, released Zildath and did the same. Zildath scrambled to his feet, dashing a hand over his eyes quickly and stood straight and tall.
Master Kardek, stocky and tall for a dwarf, walked the line. He stopped in front of Zildath and Theren staring at them both in equal measure, before he addressed the group.
“Tritheron teaches us to embrace our freedom to be as we are. To be who we are. To be justice. To be warriors. You are all outcast. Abandoned. That is truth. But here, you are home. You are brethren, until the time comes you venture the world alone, to do what needs doing. Even then you are still part of a whole, you always will be. You all belong here.” Master Kardek’s gaze returned to Theren. “Am I clear?”
It took the half orc a moment before he responded gruffly, “Yes, sir.”
“Back to your studies. Now.” They all rushed away, but Master Kardek took hold of Zildath’s arm, halting his motions. Once they were alone he brought his gaze to the young dragonborn.
“This time you lost. Next time, Zildath, win.”
Two Weeks Earlier
“What are we doing?” Zildath heard his father, Hifras, ask, in a tone heavy and remorseful.
At first there was only silence. But, when his mother finally spoke Zildath heard the small tremor in her voice. “The only thing we can do.”
Once they were clear of Clan Taccor’s lands, the escort broke away. When the escort was out of sight, Hifras moved into the back of the wagon. “Hold still, son.” He removed the muzzle around Zildath’s head, and cut him free of his binds. A water skin was given to him, and Zildath sipped it, watching his father’s gaze.
“Where do we go, father?”
Hifras put a clawed hand on top of Zildath’s head. “Why would you do that to your tail?”
Zildath down turned his gaze, ashamed not of what he’d done, but that it hadn’t worked. Ashamed that despite all his efforts he was still outcast. Clan was everything to a Dragonborn, and now he had none. He shamed his family. “You know why,” Zildath finally said in a quiet tone. “It marks me as the abomination I am. I hate it. I just want it gone.”
The wagon stopped abruptly. “Come sit next to me, Zildath,” his mother’s voice.
Hifras leaned forward, touching his forehead to his son’s, a loving gesture, before he motioned and Zildath obeyed, climbing up front to sit next to his mother. Narina handed him the reigns. “Follow the road to the east.” Zildath nodded, and did as he was instructed.
There was some silence, before Narina rested her hand against the back of her son’s head, gently. “Zildath, I need you to know that your father and I, are not ashamed of you, or how you look. I need you to know that we’re taking you to a place where you will learn to be stronger than you already are. And the blood you just spilt in anger, you will learn to use as a weapon to protect others, and defeat evil things.”
Zildath listened, his grip tightening on the reigns, struggling to keep his childish tears at bay. “I will never guard the Dragon. I will never be as you are mother. Nor you, Father.”
“You don’t have to be, Zildath. You have a different path, and it is just as noble, and honorable as what I, and your father do. One day, you will come to understand this.”
He did not understand. And truly, it was not until many years later, when Zildath travelled with a new pack, his own clan, and the world was in chaos that he actually thought his purpose was greater or more noble than the guarding of a Dragon.
It took them a week, and they barely stopped, instead sleeping in shifts to cut the time in half.
The Monastery sat with it’s back against the base of a mountain, sprawling green fields in front of it, a river to the east. It was a beautiful place for the children who had been neglected, abandoned or outcast to grow up. A human woman, dark skinned and lithe, waited for them. Zildath saw the scars marking her arms, and a particularly nasty one that looked like it came from the claws of some beast marked the left side of her face. But her smile was warm and welcoming. She introduced herself as Master Catha.
Zildath’s parents did not linger. But they promised him they would write and gave him the location of where he could send his letters to them.
“Be brave Zildath. And know that we love you.” His mother whispered before they left.
Zildath stood on the steps on the Monastery, his vision blurring, his body rigid as he struggled to try and make his parents proud and not call out for them to come back.
Master Catha placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, standing with him. “You are lucky,” she said quietly. “Many here, do not know what a parents love feels like.”
He didn’t feel lucky though, so Zildath remained silent and merely nodded, sucking back his stupid feelings and looked up at the human.
“Come,” she smiled at him again. “Let me show you, your new home.”
“C’mon lads, and lasses. Hurry up with it now.” Instructor Varick ordered in his parental stern tone.
Five young students, an assortment of races climbed out of the back of the wagon where they’d sat with the supplies.
“I’ll take the heavier ones. Your arm is still healing,” Zildath said to his friend Elefan, a drow.
Zildath grabbed one of the heavier crates, and hefted it up against his shoulder, walking inside the Tavern in the small, but busy port town of Aria.
“Are you the trouble maker?”
Zildath stopped still in his tracks at the voice. A female moon elf approached him, and Zildath knew she was the owner of the tavern. Her name was Arlan and they were instructed to treat her respectfully. Zildath lowered his gaze to the ground, wondering what the others told her of him. “Yes ma’am.”
“Well, I expect you to tell me the story of such trouble,”
Her voice was kind and Zildath lifted his head to find her smiling at him with the same sort of kindness. Of it’s own accord his tail swished back and forth. He watched her eyes move there, and stiffened waiting for what usually came next.
“You have a tail. You’re the first Dragonborn I’ve seen with one.”
“I am an abomination, but I will make it right with my oath and service,” Zildath said quickly.
“Is that right?” Arlan briefly touched his shoulder. “Well, I don’t think you’re an abomination. And I like your tail.”
It was the first time anyone had ever told him that.
Zildath found a true friend in Arlan, someone who felt like family. She told him magnificent stories, and he in turn would tell her the tales of the monastery, and all he was learning. He even sometimes spoke of his parents. He would always be the first to volunteer to go into town to deliver or fetch supplies, and always stayed longer to do extra work around the tavern, cleaning the area, helping in the kitchens, or tending to the horses. He learned things, about how people interacted, the tales they told, and while some flew over his head, other lessons served him well when he eventually set off alone like all Blood Hunters do.
Into the shadows I walk. For I will never allow the unholy to hide there. Command of the Darkness I master, for I will never allow the unholy to use it against me or the innocent. My blood, my steel, be my weapon and ally to drive the unholy back to the darkest pits of the underworld. So say we all.
Night blanketed quiet land. The shadow of clouds passed across the crescent moon in the sky. It was cold, small spots of snow beginning to fall around them. A group of Blood Hunter apprentices, Zildath’s class, stood under the dim light of held torches. Instructor Parven stood with the group, his hand near the hilt of his sword. They stood at the west end of the circle. Inside the circle knelt Blood Hunter Elnoa. Newly graduated, the half-elf woman took a blade to her palm, slicing deep, letting the blood drip onto the symbol that marked the ground.
Standing on the outer edges of of the circle were Master Kardek, Master Catha, Master Selen, and Priest Trajor. The masters, Blood Hunters, were fully armored and armed, their eyes on Elnoa.
She whispered words Zildath knew were in Abyssal. He was still learning the language like the rest of his class but he understood the gist of it, and knew she was summoning a Fiend. It wasn’t always a fiend, sometimes a Blood Hunter would perform the type of summons that allowed whatever powerful entity to appear to barter with for power.
But it was an Arch Fiend that appeared this time. Some of his classmates gasped as it appeared. Zildath’s heart beat speed up, and he felt a sliver of fear crawl up his spine before he glared at the beast. The fiend was so very tall, horns sprouting from it’s head, a living flame outlining it’s skin.
“Another Blood Hunter, seeking the power of the nine hells,” It’s tone was mocking. It’s gaze moved from Elona to look all those assembled. Zildath felt it’s eyes on him and hated that he almost took a step backward. Instead he forced himself to hold his ground, meeting the Fiends gaze evenly. It smirked before looking back at Elona. “The last Blood Hunter I gave power too, died so young. He does not find my section of the nine hells so pleasant. I daresay he might regret making a pact with me. Are you so brave?”
“I am not that Blood Hunter,” Elona said evenly.
The Arch Fiend laughed, a terrible sound that echoed into the night. “Take my hand then, Blood Hunter. I will give you the power you seek and we will see how long it takes you to become a monster too.”
Elona looked down at the flaming hand extended in her direction. She gritted her teeth and clasped her bloody hand with his own. The pain in her face was visible to all, but she bore it in silence, and the Arch Fiend sneered, holding her burning flesh in his grasp longer than he needed. Zildath could see through the dim glow of torches her eyes, a bright cat like green suddenly flash all black and for a moment the flames spread from her hand up her arm, until they covered her whole body like a fire out of control. Still she was silent, and it lasted only a second before with more mocking laughter the Arch Fiend disappeared.
Elona remained kneeling, smoke rising from her clothes, drawing in deep breaths. When she looked up, her eyes returned to normal and a triumphant smile sat on her mouth. “So say we all,” she said. They repeated the words back to her, loudly.
“Yes Zildath?” They walked as a group back towards the Monastery.
“Who was the other Blood Hunter the demon spoke of?”
“That was an Arch Fiend Zildath. Know your enemy. Especially that you make a pact with.”
Instructor Parven was silent for another moment before he said, “Blood Hunter Mathis fell a week ago. That is who the Arch Fiend spoke of.”
“What happened?” Zildath asked.
“He could not control the monster any longer,” Instructor Parven said. “Students, be still. Hear me. Sometimes you will be lucky, you will make a pact with an entity that is not purely evil. But even those Blood Hunters must be as cautious as those who get power from one of the hells. We do not walk in light, we walk in shadows. We do not seek to rise above monsters and kill them in the day, we meet them were they are, and strike at their very hearts with the same merciless ferocity they show their victims. You will be a monster in moments, in battles, for a short time to rid the land of evil. You will go where Paladins do not, you will cross lines that will scare those you protect. But you must always, always remember to come out of those shadows. You must remember the light of Tritheron. You must know who you are, inside and out. You must find something, even as you walk alone, to anchor you, or in the end, you will no longer recognize yourself. Do you understand?”
They said yes to eagerly as those who do not yet have the lived experience to truly heed the words being spoken often do. Zildath was quiet the rest of the way back to the monastery, remembering the fire in that Arch Fiends eyes as it looked at him.
“What will be your anchor?” Zildath asked Elefan as they returned their weapons to the armory after the mornings sparring session.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure it out.” Elefan grinned. “What about you?”
Zildath was silent a moment considering. “Every one of those things I kill will be my pence for what I am. My purpose, my duty will be my anchor.”
“Nothing you do will ever make up for a Dragonborn built wrong. Don’t Dragonborn clans kill abominations?” Theren shoulder checked Zildath as he moved to the racks to put his weapons away.
“Give it a rest, Theren.” Elefan shook his head.
Zildath stiffened, gritting his teeth as the shoulder bump took him a step back. He said nothing though, just walked out of the room, into the hallways.
“I’m talking to you abomination!” Theren followed on Zildath’s heels, purposefully making sure his booted feet kept clipping the tip of Zildath’s tail as he moved behind him. “That’s all you’ll ever be you know that right? A literal mistake. You’ll bring shame on the Blood Hunters the same way you did your-“
Zildath’s round house fist caught Theren right in the jaw, drawing blood. Theren’s eyes flashed in shock, in anger, then in glee. The bigger boy came at Zildath, just as the sound of fighting drew the attentions of the other young apprentices in the hallway and nearby rooms.
Zildath turned quickly, using that very tail to trip Theren, sending him flat on his back hard. Zildath pivoted back around just as Theren tried to rise, growling, spitting his cruel words. Zildath quickly sent his foot into Theren’s chest, putting the boy back on the ground and jumped on him immediately. Four hard fists later Theren looked another blow away from passing out. Zildath felt the anger in him, the pain in his bruised knuckles, so very tempted to hurt Theren more.
Instead he unclenched his fists, slapping Theren’s cheek to get his attention, before he grabbed the half orc by the front of his shirt. “Yes, I am an abomination. And when it’s my time to be a Blood Hunter, I’ll be better than you because I’m already a monster. This is my home Theren, same as yours. Deal with it, or next time you’re gonna regret talking to me at all.” Lightening crackled in his eyes, and for once, Theren looked a little less arrogant, staring silently at Zildath.
Zildath snorted, little sparks of lightening coming from his nostrils as he stood up, and after a moment offered his hand down to Theren. Theren hesitated, but finally took it, letting Zildath help him to his feet. They regarded each other in silence a moment, before Theren nodded at Zildath, winced at the motion and turned around, heading back over his group of friends.
Zildath exhaled a breath, turning to the laughter and cheers from the small group behind him. When he looked across the hall, Zildath saw Master Karduk standing there with his arms over his chest. He winked at Zildath.
Zildath smiled, before his classmates swarmed him, dragging him down to the mesh hall for lunch, all telling their version of the fight and good naturedly asking him to try and trip them with his tail so they could learn to be faster. It was the first day in his life, Zildath hated his tail a little less, and no one in that Monastery ever called him an abomination again.
Even Arlan laughed in delight when he told her what happened days later. It was after that, the Monastery began to really feel like home, that friendships were truly born, and he forged that purpose inside of him like the steel of his sword, never to be broken.
Or so he thought.