A Manticore's Tale

by Volk-Oberoten

Lowenherz watched the sun slowly set by the Giantdowns. Standing on a high cliff, he had been observing a small band of lutins, who were beginning to disperse. Once separated, they would be easy prey.

The sun nearing the horizon reminded him of a time when he went by a different name. Once, he had lived in the Sathmore Empire, in a small town by the sea. Then, he remembered watching the birds flying to their roosts at dusk, and envying their freedom. In those days, he never dreamed that he would have his own wings.

As the sky dimmed, Lowenherz removed his cloak, as he felt his wings begin to bud. It seemed to be part of his curse that they could only be used at night. Slowly, membranes began to elongate from his shoulders. It would take some time before they were fully unfurled.

Feeling a breeze blow up the cliff, Lowenherz recalled the first time he went out to sea. He never wanted to serve one of the lords in Sathmore, but wished to make his own life. After boarding a ship for the Sea of Pyralis, he cast his fate to the winds, seeking his own destiny. Sailing south, the boat passed the Isle of Whales, heading through the Strait of Good Fortune. Then, a gale pushed it off course, far to the east, into the lands where little law was known. Fate brought him to a land where lutins worked with humans, and piracy was common.

As the first stars emerged in the rapidly blackening eastern sky, the lutin encampment began to disperse. Had they looked up, a few of them might have glimpsed a pair of bat-like wings. But that's all they would see, as Lowenherz was careful not to reveal himself when vulnerable. He had learned this skill while evading sea raiders, but that knowledge was still useful in his current form.

Flying high above the Giantdowns, the wind made him think of the sea breeze for a moment. It had been a long time since he had smelled salt air, but the wind still reminded him of his voyages. After years of sailing, he heard that King Iro was starting a major shipbuilding project in Spake. He offered his services to Iro, hoping to secure steady employment there. In return for giving the king a portion of his gains, he was given a royal license as a privateer. The vainglorious despot wanted to build a huge fleet, and needed experienced sailors to keep the sea lanes open, so he could gather timber, pitch, and hemp from the little known areas beyond the Desert of Dreaming.

Darkness now covered the entire sky. This did not bother Lowenherz as he had excellent night vision. Spotting a lutin moving alone down a valley, he reckoned that it would be unable to alert others when he attacked. Never fight a group when you can target a solitary victim.

Indeed, that is what he had done when he was a privateer. Using his knowledge of the winds, he had timed attacks on smugglers to seize their cargoes when out of convoy. After several attacks, he had enriched King Iro, and become the commander of a small squadron in his growing fleet. But he was too successful.

The lutin had wandered off to a flat area behind a clump of boulders. Now was the time to strike. Lowenherz carefully landed behind the rocks, producing little sound upon impact. As he walked stealthily in the shadows, he retracted his claws, ensuring that little noise would alert the lutin.

He thought for a moment of his last raid in the Sea of Yajiit, when he had captured a large ship laden down with treasure. After arriving in port, his welcome was distinctly unfriendly. King Iro accused him of withholding part of the agreed share of the loot, but some of his men told him that another issue was key. Whispers in the town said that he had sired the newly born prince. He recalled that his relationship with the queen had not been particularly discreet.

As the lutin walked by a large boulder, Lowenherz turned. He needed to carefully aim, so that the lutin would not make any sound. Also, his tail only produced a few darts each night, so he could not risk many missed shots. He certainly did not want to be caught on the ground at dawn.

Why run away when you did not have to? However, sometimes one needs to flee. Iro's soldiers planned to kill him, but Lowenherz picked the fastest ship for his escape. Racing out of the harbor, past the Jaw of the Devil, he paid no heed to the gathering storm clouds. Although he eluded the wrath of King Iro, the tempest blew his boat far to the east. Finally, it broke up on a reef, casting all aboard into the sea.

As clouds briefly parted, Lowenherz could see the lutin's neck clearly. He now had a clear shot. Hearing a brief click as his tail segments flexed, Lowenherz fired a dart at the lutin. The shot went off almost by reflex, as he had become quite skilled at dispatching lutins quickly.

His darts were shaped something like porcupine quills, but had sharp triangular tips at the forward end. When he faced a formidable foe, Lowenherz would dip the end of his tail in a small vial of poison he carried to ensure that it was doubly lethal. It was easy to kill lutins, however.

Within seconds, the dart struck the lutin's neck, severing its jugular vein. As it collapsed to the ground, Lowenherz could feel his bestial nature take over. The lust for blood was almost overpowering. His human side was still repulsed by this emotion, but he only attacked creatures of darkness and other evil-doers. Besides, he had to feed. The red blood was so enticing . . .

Many hours passed before Lowenherz was thinking in a human manner again. He could feel small bits of lutin flesh lodged among his three rows of teeth. His claws were covered with dirt, as he was instinctually driven to bury the bones of prey. No trace would be left of the lutin, so the others would only know that it had mysteriously vanished, without a trace.

His hunger satisfied, Lowenherz flew back to his perch on the cliff. He remembered where he had left his cloak, as it would be needed at dawn. For a minute, he felt a twinge of deep loathing at what he had become, a blood-thirsty carnivore. The feeling soon passed, though, because he was now used to this life. It had been several years since it all started. He began to recall his first transformation.

After fleeing Spake, and surviving the shipwreck, he had washed up on the shore of the Desert of Dreaming. This wasteland had a bad reputation, as King Iro had scoured it for evil magic users and demons, thinking their powers could be used in an impending war against the Fleet of Whales. Men were said to go mad from hallucinations linked to the powerful spells cast here. He had dismissed these tales, having merely been happy to have survived. Had anyone else reached shore?

As he walked down the beach, he saw a strange man approaching who was wearing a robe, and carrying a staff. For a moment the man appeared to be extremely old, but then assumed a more youthful form. His skin glowed in the last rays of the setting sun. It reminded him of something he heard in Spake. King Iro had allied himself with a powerful sorcerer named Nasoj who employed many mages. In return for working for Nasoj, their lives were extended many times beyond the normal limit for a human.

What could he do? He was all alone. Before he could run away, the mage raised his staff, and chanted an incantation. Fearing the spell, he clutched an amulet around his neck he had kept from his childhood in the Sathmore Empire. It was dedicated to the goddess Akkala of the Lightbringer religion, and was supposed to provide healing. Perhaps it would block the magic spell.

Lowenherz glanced down, his train of thought interrupted by a sound from the valley below. He must move on before dawn. Beyond the Giantdowns, there was said to be a fortress whose inhabitants had defeated Nasoj. They were said to have great skill at magic, and might be able to reverse his curse. Or at least reduce its effects. Lowenherz feared that his predatory nature might take over entirely some day.

Flying to the west, he thought about the mage's power in the Desert of Dreaming. When he first felt it, he thought it was some sort of hallucination. He saw his fingernails begin to grow, elongating into cat-like claws. A tail erupted next, tearing through the tattered clothes he was wearing after the shipwreck.

As the metamorphosis continued, he could sense the mage's orders: "You shall now serve me and my master, Nasoj. You shall destroy all of our enemies, and secure our domination of this world." Yet, he resisted, with one clawed hand still clutching Akkala's talisman. The mage walked closer, confident that his new creation would be an excellent gift to Nasoj. Or maybe he just wanted a good servant.

A little while after the mage cast the metamorphosis spell, he perceived a vision of a tall woman with blond hair, who reminded him of his mother. Somehow, he knew it was the goddess Akkala. She addressed him as "Lowenherz," stating that he now had a lion's heart, but could become human again by serving her. He could be healed only if he performed good deeds, as penance for his service on behalf of evil King Iro. Did this really happen? It seemed like a dream, as did the transformation. But both events must have been real. He was a manticore, but was not a slave of Nasoj. So, surely, the goddess must have really been there.

But what deeds did the goddess require? Sometimes, Lowenherz wondered if this requirement had only come from his own mind, punishing himself for serving Iro. Just after his first transformation ended, he heard Akkala's voice for a second time, telling him to destroy creatures of darkness. At that instant, his tail flexed for the first time. Without much thought, he released a dart, which struck the mage in the arm. The magic-user screamed, declaring that his new manticore was disobedient, and would be punished personally by Nasoj. But Lowenherz paid no attention, leaping at the wizard, impelled by a fervent desire to eliminate his evil from the world. Thus, that evening, he made his first step toward redemption, by eliminating the evil mage. Or did he? As time passed, he often wondered how much of it was real. Did Akkala really inspire him to kill the mage? Or did his newly formed manticore nature just backfire on its creator?

Continuing to fly west, Lowenherz could glimpse the towers of a keep guarding a pass on the edge of Giantdowns. This must be the Metamor Keep he had heard much about during his travels. Landing on a small knoll, he noticed light beginning to stream out of the eastern sky. Dawn would arrive soon.

As he prepared for the inevitable change, Lowenherz used his claws to release a buckle around his waist. He had tied it on after leaving his previous perch, holding a small bundle of essential materials. During the daytime, he could attain a semblance of his former human form, so he carried loose fitting clothing that could be worn after dawn. As the first rays of the sun crossed the horizon, he could feel his wings retract, folding upwards into his back as they steadily shrank.

As the transformation finished, Lowenherz inspected his bundle. He had journeyed for almost four years since killing the mage, and had seen most of the lands in the chaotic, war-torn east. During the daytime, he posed as a trader, carrying exotic goods from distant lands. After all, he had experience with commerce from his years at sea. He never had much trouble making a profit, as he had the ability to travel much further than other merchants, by flying ahead at night. Any extra money he earned was spent to aid those in need, as good deeds might bring aid from the goddess. Even if they didn't, he wanted to atone for his previous service to Iro, especially after hearing that Spake had been destroyed as a result of Iro's black magic.

At night, he fulfilled his promise to the Goddess Akkala by destroying evildoers, but he worried that healing would never occur, because he seemed to enjoy the hunt too much. Perhaps the magic of Nasoj was too powerful, and would eventually convert him into a demonic servant, solely driven by a lust for blood. That's why he had returned to the west, seeking a place where the curse might be cured.

As the sun's disk rose into the sky, Lowenherz glanced in a small pool. His extra rows of teeth had withdrawn upward, leaving him with a more human appearance. However, his facial features still remained leonine, with cat-like ears, and a clearly feline nose. His clothing included a hood he wore when trading, like those worn by people in the Great Northern Desert. It covered most of his face, in order to avoid unpleasant questions.

Feeling that the claws on his feet retract, Lowenherz stood up. The last part of the change happened when his tail segments folded inward with a snap. During the day, he was always conscious of his tail, because a new dart would grow while it was dormant. Thus, he was always warned of his impending transformation into a manticore by late afternoon. Looking through his bundle, he glanced at the trade goods he had collected a few weeks before. While caravans were said to visit Metamor Keep, he was sure that these items were rare, and might be deemed valuable.

Putting on the last of his clothes, Lowenherz made sure to closely secure his hood. He hoped to present himself as a merchant at the keep, and then reveal his mission when he found someone knowledgeable about magic. Perhaps someone would tell him how to satisfy the Goddess Akkala, and find true healing. He did not want to reveal his secret immediately, and resolved to leave before sunset. It would be easy to fly out to the Giantdowns and hunt lutins at night. So, food would not be a problem.

Hoisting a sack with his trade goods above his left shoulder, Lowenherz set off on the road leading to the keep. Merchants would arrive early in the morning, and he would join them . . .