Wyvern anointed himself with the ceremonial oils and stepped into the sauna's heat. Today was his nineteenth birthday, a day of ritual, a day to face his future. More importantly, it was the day he could finally set off and fulfill his duty, something he had been preparing for his entire life.
The sauna was a ceremonial ritual, representing being forged anew and crossing that ever-perilous border between boy and man. Wyvern sat down and meditated in the heat, trying to calm his thoughts. He was about to set off on the most important journey of his life, one that would almost certainly end in death. After exactly fourteen minutes (as specified by ritual), he got up and dragged himself to the door. Wyvern emerged to a gathering of his closest family, his mother and uncle, right outside the wooden door, anxiously waiting for him. They immediately started scrubbing him clean with pumice stones and giving him the proper face paint.
Wyvern turned to his mother, seemingly the only one concerned about his impending doom.
“You know you don’t have to do this. No one in the village would hold it against you if you gave up.” His mother’s eyes were on the verge of tears, only keeping from spilling over through sheer will.
“We both know there is no future for oathbreakers in Nautan. I either do this, or we all get shamed and ignored by the community,” Wyvern said, his gaze steely.
His uncle Bear, a bald, heavyset man already tired from scrubbing his body, chose this moment to weigh in.
“Bullshit. Kid, you’re doing this because you think you wouldn’t be the Future Sun anymore if you failed. No one will think less of you just cause you had the misfortune of being picked to hunt the Beast.”
“You say that, but all of you enjoy what my status as the Future Sun has afforded this family, and the Future Sun can’t be a known coward. At least if I die on the hunt, Ma will get payment and still be accepted by the village.”
“You stupid, stupid child. We’d still rather have you.” His mother sobbed, finally losing the will to stop her tears from flowing.
“Bye Ma, bye Unc, if they recover my body, try to bury it by the old apple tree near the south wall. Love you both.” Wyvern said curtly. He tried to keep it as short as possible. Wyvern had to report at the north gate in precisely twenty-three minutes (again, ritual), and everything that had to be said was already said in the weeks leading up to today. He tried not to look back as he ran to the next checkpoint but couldn’t help himself. The only view that greeted him was his mother sobbing uncontrollably on the ground and his uncle crying into his hands. Wyvern wished he could turn around and get a different final memory of them before leaving, but he was already late. Punctuality was a virtue, and he would need all the goodwill he could get if he wanted to have even the slightest chance of surviving.
It took Wyvern at least four hours to get from the north gate into the thick of the forest. A hunter with lesser prey would have had to stop at this point to properly track their game, but Wyvern’s target would only be found in one place: Mount Thunderhead. From where Wyvern was now, it would be a long, hard trek that would’ve taken an ordinary man three days. Wyvern could do it in one; he was, after all, a member of the Mokilan tribe and the Future Sun of that tribe no less.
As Wyvern walked, he found that his thoughts were horrible company. Every thought he had was spoiled by the fact that he was walking into his death. After night fell, Wyvern set up camp and rested for the night; not even the best warriors dared to go into battle fatigued.
Wyvern watched the stars as he slept and remembered nights spent with his mother and uncle learning and identifying the constellations as a child before he started hunting. He wondered if he would be in a different position if the Elders of the tribe didn’t divine him to be the Future Sun. If he wasn’t trained until near death to be the greatest hunter in his tribe of exceptional hunters.
He entertained the notion of a life studying the stars instead of only seeing them through foliage on hunts; Wyvern tried to shut down the thought as quickly as possible. He was a hunter; it was all he was good at and his only viable path in life. Wishing for anything else would be spitting on the gifts he’d been given, a betrayal to everyone who relied on him. He fell asleep quickly after that, dreaming of constellations despite his previous affirmations.
The next day, Wyvern made quick work of the remaining trek, devoting all of his mental energy to making it to the mountain. Currently, he was hanging on to the side of Mt. Thunderhead, scoping for his prey, careful not to alert anything while slowly making his way up. He had no idea what to expect. All other Suns sent throughout the tribe’s long history never succeeded.
Wyvern’s current predicament was not ideal, to say the least. He was climbing up the side of the tallest mountain he knew existed on one of the hottest days of the year while also making sure not to alert a centuries-old monster he couldn’t recognize that killed hundreds of warriors smarter, braver, and stronger than him. The climb was slow and treacherous, but at least he wasn’t dead yet, and in Wyvern’s mind, that counted for something. A small triumph in the comically shitty situation he found himself in.
It took another four hours before he was able to summit the mountain and saw nothing but a jagged expanse of sleet gray rock partially obscured by a dense fog. Wyvern tried investigating further but soon found himself completely blind in the fog. He had no choice but to set up camp and wait for something to happen. So Wyvern sat down, trying to make himself as small as possible while having his spear ready to spring into action at any moment.
Hours passed, then a full day, and there was still no sign of any movement.
Wyvern was tired of waiting and only had enough rations to last one more day; he would have to brave the fog and face the monster. As he stepped into the mist, Wyvern focused on his other senses, specifically his hearing, throwing small pebbles in various directions and letting them guide him and keep him from walking face-first into any rock formations. He threw pebble after pebble and cataloged just how far everything was from him until one of his pebbles made no noise at all. Wyvern threw five more in quick succession to verify if he was very close to the edge of a cliff or was hitting something soft.
“Hey man, could you stop pelting me with rocks? You already got my attention.” a gruff voice boomed from the mists, answering his question.
“I’m sorry?” said Wyvern, shocked to hear a voice on what he thought was an uninhabited mountain.
“Don’t be sorry. Just leave and let me get back to my nap. I was having a nice dream about the constellations.” At this point, the man was very clearly annoyed by Wyvern’s presence, and if Wyvern were a bit smarter and a lot less brave, he would have hightailed it off the mountain. In the end, however, his curiosity won out.
“How are you living here? The mist obscures everything, and based on what I’ve seen, the lack of sun because of the fog prevents anything from growing.”
“The mountain provides me with what I need, and it seems today it chose to give me an annoying teenager who can’t take a hint.”
“How did you know I was a teenager?”
“That scream earlier made me think you were a five-year-old, but you look a bit too muscular for your average five-year-old.”
“Wait, you can see me? Through the fog?”
“Of course I can. You hit your head or something.” Suddenly, a hand reached out of the gray of the fog and grabbed Wyvern’s chin. As soon as the hand made contact with him, he could see an old man standing in his late 60s in front of him, wearing nothing but a simple robe. Even more wondrous was that the fog seemingly disappeared, directly in front of his small picturesque cottage, directly on the mountain's rock with a cot directly in front.
“What the hell did you do to me? Who are you?”
“You people and your questions, I just opened your third eye. Now start looking me in the eye and answer my questions.” Wyvern shifted his gaze into the man’s stark white eyes. “Who are you, and why are you on my mountain.”
“I am here as the Future Sun of the Mokilan tribe to claim my birthright and kill the beast that lives on this mountain for the glory of my people.” Wyvern tried to project and make himself seem a little more grand in front of the wizard. His pride had been hurt by being compared to a five-year-old.
“What monster? I’ve lived on this mountain for quite some time and have yet to see an animal, let alone a monster.”
“That cannot be, my tribe has sent their best hunters to this mountain for centuries, and not one has come back alive. Their dead bodies carry claw marks a foot deep; there is no world in which the Beast does not exist. You must be mistaken, Great One.” Wyvern was suspicious of the Beast’s true identity but carefully held his cards close to his sleeve in front of this strange man he wasn’t sure he could trust.
“Kid, I’ve already told you no monster lives on this mountain, and I hate repeating myself. Now, a storm is not too far out, so I suggest you scram before it arrives. You do not want to descend when it’s raining; it's a really easy way to die.” The wizard was getting increasingly impatient with every passing moment. It astounded Wyvern that a scholar of magic would be more impatient than a child.
“I apologize, but I cannot leave without the head of my prey. I would lose my standing in my tribe, and my family would suffer.”
“I honestly don’t care. Just walk in any direction for a while, and you’ll get off the mountain one way or another.”
“Maybe I wasn’t clear, but I am saying that I cannot leave this mountain without your head; as the only resident of this mountain, I am quite confident you are the Beast my tribe has been hunting for centuries.” Wyvern leveled his spear at the man and quickly assumed a stance in which he would be able to strike if the wizard moved even an inch.
The wizard's impatience morphed into a fatigued exasperation. “Go home kid, I don’t want to kill you, and you’re kind of forcing my hand here.” The bags under his eyes deepened, and he started looking about as old as he actually was. “I’ve lived quite a long time, and I don’t remember killing your tribe members, but there is no chance in hell a greenhorn like you could even scratch me before I atomized you.” Wyvern relaxed his stance, completely believing his words.
“I apologize again, but the only value I have in my tribe is that I am their best hunter. That’s why I am the Future Sun and was sent here; I would have no place if I returned, having failed my mission.” Wyvern said frankly, and it was true. If Wyvern returned to the village empty-handed, he would be labeled a coward, and the Mokilan had no space or charity for cowards and their families.
“I knew you would say that. Follow me.” said the wizard, entering the cottage behind his cot. Wyvern followed, unsure of what to do; he kept his spear ready and his feet light. The wizard stopped at the door and appeared to collect himself before he went in, the open door giving way to pure black, offering no idea of what lay beyond.
Wyvern took much longer than the wizard to collect himself but eventually entered, keeping a death grip on his spear. When he entered, he nearly vomited off of the stench alone; dozens of rotting bodies half decomposed were strewn about the cottage floor, all in various stages of decomposition. Numerous bodies bore claw marks, and those whose faces hadn't yet decomposed were contorted into expressions of sheer terror. The wizard was standing in the middle of them, looking burnt out to the stem.
“Every couple of years or so, your tribe sends hunters to kill me. Every couple of years or so, yet your tribe never stops sending them out. The few times I’ve spared people, they come back to tell me no one believed them, labeled them as a coward, and forgot about them. Is it that much of a sin to ask the world to leave me alone.”
Wyvern began crying, sobbing uncontrollably. It was all too much for him, and it would be unreasonable to expect a teenager not to weep at his impending death. He was convinced that he would die here, nineteen years spent hunting, nineteen years wasted.
The wizard collapsed onto a nearby chair and buried his face into his hands. “You don’t have to die. I’ve always given others the choice. However, I don’t hold out hope that you’ll choose to live. Your tribe does glorify dying on the hunt.”
“Sorry, that’s not an option. All I’ve done with my life is hunt; it’s all I can do. My family relies on me. I am nothing if I go back to the village empty.” Wyvern managed to get his feelings under control; he would kill himself if he spent his final moments bawling like a baby.
The old man took his head out of his hands and stared into Wyvern's eyes, “You know I used to bury them off the mountain, but eventually, I got tired of making the trek and started dumping the bodies inside and sleeping outside.” The wizard moved closer to Wyvern, his white eyes piercing through Wyvern, “Believe it or not, I’m a peaceful person, but every single one of these so-called hunters said the same thing: ‘They were nothing without the hunt’ or ‘their family relied on them.’ Your crisis is not special.”
“Then what am I supposed to do, because dying or living the rest of my life as an outcast and my family starving doesn’t sound appealing.”
“You’re young. You’ll find a way to live at the margins of your society. People have done it before. Now it’s time for you to leave. Tell your tribe what you saw here. Slim chance they believe you, but you’ll at least be alive down there.”
“Ok,” said Wyvern, coming to terms with the fact that he would have to return in shame. At the beginning of his journey, he was willing to die, but that was when he still had the chance of being able to win against some gigantic scaly monster. Now, seeing this wizard living amid the corpses of his ancestors who seemingly had control of the mists, he knew he had no chance of winning. He would no longer hunt, but maybe it was time to find something else. He imagined his mother and uncle would also be pretty happy to see him alive.
“Wait, really?” Now, it was the wizard's turn to cry. “You would not believe the number of times I have given that same speech to someone, and they’ve still tried to kill me. Good on you, kid. Now, you really should leave as soon as possible to avoid that storm.” The old man choked out between sobs, eventually breaking into an easy smile at the thought of not having to kill again. “And when you get to your village, can you tell them something for me?”
“Tell them to let me live in solitude for at least a century. Tell them to leave me the fuck alone.” Wyvern then proceeded to leave much quicker than he arrived; he did not need to wait around for a magical god-being to change his mind.
Wyvern walked through the night to make it back to his village in record time. His mother and uncle both cried tears of joy upon his return while the other villagers watched with disdain. He tried telling everyone the truth, but predictably, people thought he never actually went to the mountain. One more Future Sun was sent out and never returned before Wyvern managed to convince the village to stop the practice, and it turns out he was a pretty good orator; he just never knew it due to all the hunting. Wyvern never picked up a spear again after that day, but he did start studying the stars under the master astronomer of the village. He wasn’t any good at it. His teacher said he was the worst student he ever had, but every minute he spent looking at the stars was worth more than a year of hunting.
Wyvern remained an outcast until the end of his life, but he managed to build a family and life at the margins of society just like the wizard said he would. On his deathbed, he’d say the wisest decision he ever made was to run away. Wyvern died a better death than most of the Future Suns before him, surrounded by his family at the end of a fulfilled life spent doing what he loved.