I wanted to go back; I felt ashamed for leaving Beatrice, but I couldn’t show my face at that camp ever again. She’d only see the coward who abandoned his ideals at the first sign of trouble. I tried justifying my actions to myself, but I couldn’t. I knew deep down that Harold’s antagonizing pushed me over the edge; I may have been a lot of terrible things, but I wasn’t the type to abandon my friends.
Ash and I wandered aimlessly through the Eldergrove well into dawn, the sunrise bringing little relief. Time felt like it had stopped; I was lost, having a terrible sense of direction to begin with, not to mention I was at a loss of what to do next. The little creature grumbled, letting out a sigh with a puff of ash.
“Yeah, I know buddy. I’m getting hungry too…” I lifted him from my head, setting him down in the tall grass. I was startled when he took off like a racehorse, disappearing into the dense underbrush. I lost sight of him, instantly regretting my decision. The creature had never done anything more than saunter, causing me more concern than necessary.
“Ash?” I called out. No answer.
“Ash, come back!” Still nothing. I let out a sigh, walking in the general direction he took off in.
The Eldergrove had grown uncomfortably quiet, like every animal had scattered from the trees and bushes, hiding from something. The songbirds I’d become accustomed to had fallen silent, the scurrying rabbits retreating to their burrows. As I wandered further down the path, the evergreens began to bend in a way that the canopies stretched overhead, creating a tunnel. This oddity lasted for a long time, the bends becoming more exaggerated the further I traveled down the path.
After nearly an hour of wandering, I found myself at the end of the stretch. It lead to a great oak with a trunk so thick my outstretched arms couldn’t begin to wrap around it’s front quarter. It’s branches stretched out like bolts of lightning, connecting into the tunnel-like canopy. It stretched on for almost a mile, into the rest of the Eldergrove. It looked like it was sick, the thick bark peeling from it’s mighty trunk.
“This… This must be it…” My thoughts were trailing off as I noticed Ash pop out from underneath the First Tree’s base. He glowed softly as he emerged, the blue aura shining more brightly than before. His blood-red scales seemed faded.
“Ash? Did you… bring me here on purpose?” He looked like he was smiling, sitting patiently in front of the old oak tree. “There’s no way….” I looked up at the natural monument once more. The First Tree was just as impressive as Gavin claimed, an ancient, solemn oak standing tall in a sea of pine. I couldn’t believe I was entertaining the thought that I was brought here by this strange creature. I shook my head, dismissing the notion.
“So what now?” I raised my hands with a shrug. As if on cue, a strange glyph underneath the tree’s peeling bark appeared in an electric flash. It glowed with the same blue hue that Ash did, slowly pulsing. I stumbled backwards in my surprise, falling to the dense patch of clover that went unnoticed prior.
“Ash? What’s going on?” The scaled creature sat calmly, watching, waiting. He was beckoning me, wanting me to come closer. I struggled to stand, slowly approaching the strange, glowing mark. The shine became brighter as I came nearer, Ash walking alongside me until I stood face to face with the mark. He scaled the tree, nudging the bark with his nose.
“Like this?” I reached out to peel off the loose piece, but it was like something grabbed my hand and pulled me in. Ash jumped onto my head as my hand landed on the glyph, engulfing us both in a blinding flash. I could feel Ash’s claws digging into my scalp as I fell once more, landing once more in the clover.
My vision slowly returned, Ash seated close by. His glow had changed again; his aura was electric-blue, pulsing more vibrantly than ever. The change in Ash’s appearance was minor compared to what I saw next.
The First Tree had been burnt to a crisp, leaving nothing but a black husk. Every leaf disintegrated in the heat of the bolt, seemingly sucking every ounce of life left in it’s veins. Where the glyph had once been, was replaced by a bull carved deeply into the wood.
“I-I….” Words failed to escape my quivering lips, my entire body still burning from the shock. A strange thunderous bang brought me back to reality, my attention shifting immediately to the clear night sky. “Am I losing my mind?”
Strangely enough, it seemed like a lingering fog had been lifted from my mind. My decision making seemed more methodical and strategic, like my brain was running at full capacity. Not only that, but I could feel. It was like I connected to the life force of the Eldergrove, and it was faint.
‘The bond has been completed.’ A young boy’s voice echoed in my mind. It was familiar, but I was certain I’d never heard it before. I scanned my surroundings quickly, Ash jumping in front of me excitedly. His electric glow was slowly fading; the full hue of his red scales returning as he trotted around me happily.
“Are you…. talking?” I spoke directly to him, and he nodded. My eyes widened; my mind flooding with hundreds of questions.
‘I wish I could explain, but I’m not sure myself. All I can say for sure is that She summoned us to her resting place, and completed our bond.’
My first question was going to be ‘what is a bond’, but before I could speak Ash answered.
‘I don’t know exactly, but it has to do with the Empyr.’
‘Ash, you’re speaking gibberish to me.’
‘I’m sorry. That’s just what mama told me. Wait, look!’
Ash ran back to the First Tree, pointing out the carved bull.
‘Do you think that’s the man Gavin called Bull?’ It took me a moment to realize what he was speaking of.
‘You mean you saw that too?’
‘Yes. I think it has something to do with the bond.’
I sat back down in the clover field, resting my chin on my knees. My head was spinning, unsure of whether I was dreaming or even alive at that point. At the very least, my body had stopped burning. At least one thing was clear; I needed to rescue Gavin. Whether this ‘Bull’ would be a help or a hindrance remained to be seen.
“Alright, I’m still not sure if any of this is real or not, but I need to know right now- did this person tell you anything else before it disappeared? You make it sound like she was talking to you.” I crossed my arms, looking down at Ash.
‘Nothing. All she did was beckon us here with the aether. But before I was taken, mama talked about the The Black Witch.’
“Black Witch?” Chills ran down my spine as I said it. “That seems like an important bit of information. I’m going to assume you don’t know what a Black Witch is either.” Ash cowered, crawling to my feet. He didn’t speak. “It’s okay, Ash. It’s okay to be afraid.”
The scaled creature quickly climbed back to his perch; it seemed like he was more comfortable up there. “I wonder if that was ‘Her’ will that influenced me to protect you…”
‘I think it was more than that…’ Ash yawned, curling into a ball.
I had tons of questions, but the creature had already fallen asleep. The bolt had exhausted the little guy and I was quite tired myself, struggling to grasp the entirety of the situation. I wanted nothing more than to fall over and sleep, but unfortunately somebody had other plans for us.
“I finally found you, you lying little sack of shit.” I turned from the burnt tree to find the seven brigands from Traug standing before us. They were no longer wearing the city guard’s uniform, but rather dressed in a combination of leather and steel mail, wielding a variety of halberds and shortswords. I could feel their hatred resonating, but I could also feel a deeper resentment stemming from the forest itself. I think it was that feeling, that woke Ash up.
“That creature belongs to us.” Ash stirred as he spoke, and I could feel his anxiety. It inspired a confidence in me, an unnatural bravado.
‘Those men took me from my mother…’ Even speaking directly into my mind, I could feel the creatures sadness in his voice. He might not have been able to finish the thought, but I knew well enough what he was about to say. The bond he spoke of was a powerful thing, connecting us in ways I couldn’t comprehend. His sadness, his anger; it projected itself through me. I could feel the warm sensation stemming from the small of my back, the same as the heat in his own paws.
“That’s not what he says.” The brigands looked at me in utter confusion.
“What are you talking about?”
“He told me what happened.” I clenched my fists, standing tall. “You stole him from his mother.” The brigands exchanged glances, an enhanced courage brewing in my chest. I can only explain it as Ash’s courage; I knew if I stood there on my own, I’d be quivering in my boots. As that heat spread through my torso and into my shoulders, that wasn’t the case.
“His what? How do you know we took anything?” The man shouted, waving his weapon. “Quit pissing around you idiot! Turn him over or you’ll die!”
“Fine. Then I’ll die!” The brigands hardly needed the taunt to begin their reckless assault.
The first sprinted towards me, the others noticing something he didn’t. Ash dug his claws into my head as our foe swung his blade, and I instinctively raised my hand. For a split second, I thought he chopped it clean off, until I felt that hellish heat exploding in my palm. It forced every bone rigid, everyone in my vicinity falling silent to the strange crackling nearby. A dense bolt of lightning exploded from my hand, jumping to the brigand’s chest in a powerful explosion. The sudden burst of electricity sent the bandit hurtling into his friends, catching him before he fell. I stood there motionless, dumbfounded, until Ash dug his claws into my scalp once more. I stumbled backwards, the blade sinking through the top of it’s former master’s skull.
“He’s one of them! Let’s go!” Without a second thought, the bandits fled with haste. I stood there, speechless. The burning sensation in my hand faded quickly, until a stray arrow pierced the dirt in front of me.