Opportunity For Growth

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By Zetka - April 2020

It was Mayan. Zbor trekked northward through the hills, his steps cautiously navigating the jagged chunks of granite hidden beneath fresh snow cover.

"An opportunity for growth," Damak, his mentor, had explained that morning. "The Gnolls are a merciless race, and your first task is to face them. Slay Rarthim, the head slaver, and bring the Bloodsworn his corpse in offering. You have until the end of the year." With Sarapin approaching, Zbor had swiftly departed Targossas.

His spirit fortified by holy blessings, the young priest felt no chill from the frigid winds scouring the granite hills. A leafless hickory came into view, and Zbor recognised it immediately. Praying for inspired strength, he pulled a root at its base and descended into the dark tunnels of Manara Burrow.

He had anticipated the stench of toil and dirt, but the sound, the rattling chains and echoing shrieks of slaves, seized his heart. In the low light, he saw the outline of an enemy, a squat figure wielding a whip in his paws. With a nod to his guardian angel, Zbor advanced.

Though inexperienced, he had managed to catch the Gnoll slaver off guard and landed a mighty smite with his mace. The beast turned to face his assailant. His yellow eyes, hyena-like, shone with sadism. On all fours, he darted behind Zbor and garroted him savagely with his whip. A sip of health elixir revitalised him, and he broke free to deliver another blow across the Gnoll's furry maw. His battle rage surged with each impact. Tapping into it, he commanded his angel to finish the wicked creature. A flap of her wings propelled shards of crystal through the air, striking the Gnoll and slaying him.

With battle rage amplifying his strength, the novice felled the remaining slavers in the tunnel. Despite the subterranean cold, a film of perspiration coated his forehead. He paused to catch his breath, and the black boar tattoo regenerated his wounds.

In the lull of battle, the faint, nasal taunts of Rarthim echoed from the depths below. Though formidable, the reserves of Zbor's rage would grant him the empowered strength necessary to defeat his foe. He made haste to the source of the voice, eager to engage before the flames of his rage flickered out.

Reaching the far end of the muddy passage, Zbor's zeal turned frantic. He faced a dead end. His eyes scanned in futility for a path to descend further into the burrow. A sickening pit of failure opened up in his stomach, hungry to devour his opportunity. Feverish eyes hunted for any enemy to strike to keep his battle rage burning. They fell on a huddled Mingruk slave, a barrel of water strapped to her chest.

His mace struck her forehead, the soft skull crushing like a pantry egg. A gush of water erupted forth as her body collapsed, and Zbor's rage was renewed. As he turned to resume his pursuit, his armour caught the dim glow of a phosphorescent mushroom. In the faint light, he could see that it was blood, not water, that covered him.

Zbor's rage faded away.

Zbor leaned against the railing of the Mirror Isles bridge, hair still dripping wet. He had immediately returned to Targossas. He stared blankly into the Silverveil River in which he had just bathed. While its holy waters had washed away the blood from his hands, the blood on his spirit remained. The slender bridge creaked with approaching steps.

"I sense your troubled spirit," Damak spoke, resting his arm on the railing near Zbor.

His protege dared not look up from the slow moving waters below.

". . . I have failed my task and committed an evil," he finally admitted.

Damak's voice was steady, "You will find clemency in repentance. What have you done?"

Zbor's confession poured out, rapid and monotonous, but sincere. Damak took a breath in the heavy quiet that followed. He started.

"You recited the prayers in your breviary. Bought a shield. Engaged in spars. All things I taught you."

He turned to Damak like a prisoner receiving a sentence. Though in his face was no warmth, the resolve in his mentor's eyes showed a stony kind of compassion. He continued.

"Those were all good things, things you had to do. But you must also know the things, in the light of eternity, that are going to last forever. To complete your task, you shall return to Manara-"

Zbor hastily cut in, "Yes. I will complete my task. I will grow stronger yet and learn from this."

Damak shook his head in disappointment and removed a personal journal from his pack, writing as he spoke.

"You are not listening. You will return to Manara Burrow and seek out Ebra, of the Mingruk. You are tasked to write of her strength." He looked over the top of his journal, raising an eyebrow in anticipation of another interjection.

"Her strength? How am I to complete my growth task?" came the protege's dumbfounded reply.

"An opportunity for growth, but no longer growth of the body. Growth of the spirit," Damak answered. Zbor looked down at the wooden planks he stood on. He understood.

"Your deadline remains," Damak reminded as he departed.

Zbor reflected on the bridge a moment before commencing his task. Breaking the silence, a silver fish leapt from the waters, and ripples rolled across the smooth surface of the Silverveil.