The battle fought a week from yesterday brought him closer to death than ever before. A chance arrow struck him dead-center in the chest, punching clear through his breastplate, knocking him off his horse. He awoke hours later in his tent, his wounded chest swollen and warm, in frightening contrast to how clammy he felt.
He sat cross-legged in his tent, elbows propped on his thighs, face in his hands. He hadn’t left his tent in days.
A rustle at the tent’s entrance drew his attention.
“This had better be important,” Cyan spoke into his hands.
“Good evening, Captain Cyan,” said his visitor.
He did not recognize this man’s voice. Cyan raised his head.
Standing by the tent flap was a lanky wisp of a man enveloped in yellow robes. Every inch of him was draped in yellow fabric except for his clean-shaven head.
Cyan frowned. No doubt this man was a wizard. Cyan had never met a wizard he liked, much less would trust with anything more important than latrine duty.
“Why are you here?” Cyan asked.
The man paced inside with an imperious air. “General Godfrey sent me. He is disappointed over the news that his shining young protégé has lost impetus.”
“If all he sent you out here to do is recite the obvious, then you can save your breath and leave.”
The man drilled into Cyan with his steel blue eyes. “I am known as Wren. And I did not come solely to discuss the obvious.”
Wren reached over his shoulder and slung off a small shoulder pack. He withdrew a forearm bracer polished to a high gleam. Two serpents were embossed into the metal. One coiled into a horizontal figure-eight pattern and the other did likewise, but vertically, bisecting the first.
Cyan’s eyes flitted down at the armor and back up to meet Wren’s. “Apparently, you got your facts wrong,” he shouted, yanking his shirt open to reveal the bandages on his chest.
“You jump to conclusions,” said Wren. “Wear this, and you need not don any more armor.”
“You’re a closeted academic.”
“Is it that you are afraid?”
“You’re wasting my time.”
“See that I’m right,” Wren spoke over him. “Try it on.”
Cyan held his tongue, but shot Wren such a look of derision as would make a nun faint. Grudgingly, he obliged. The bracer fit as though it was made just for him; the leather straps did not even need adjusting to fasten the armor to his forearm.
“And now?” Cyan asked.
“Now we do a test,” said Wren, an instant before snatching a dagger from beneath the folds of his robe. Cyan roared with surprise as Wren’s knife flashed before him. A chill entered his body through his neck.
Cyan fell, cupping his wound with his hands. Blood surged between his fingers. Everything went gray, then black.
It hurt too much to move. Cyan’s body let up wisps smoke.
“I am going to kill you for that,” he wheezed.
“For what?” Wren asked, arrogant as ever.
“For…” Cyan trailed off.
“For killing you?” Wren suggested.
“But did I really kill you?”
“No,” Cyan stammered. “No, I suppose not.”
Damn Wren for being right, he spoke the truth. Cyan touched his injured neck and found that the flesh there was intact. Even his puncture wound in his chest was gone.
“Now you see the power of the bracer,” said the mage. “Each time you are laid low, it will bring you back and grant you monstrous strength. But there is a catch.”
“Isn’t there always?”
“You must not take the bracer off,” Wren said with emphasis.
Groaning, Cyan brought himself to sit up. “Is that all?”
“Good. Get out of my sight.”
He called out to the people behind the walls, “Open your gates and surrender, and we shall be lenient with you. Refuse, and we will burn you out of your homes.”
The Elashi men on the palisade catwalks held up both hands with middle fingers held high. Cyan was unfamiliar with Elashi culture but knew enough to recognize this for a rude gesture.
He gritted his teeth. “You brought this upon yourselves!”
Raising his battle-ax, Cyan gave the signal for the battering ram to advance. His army gave way to a crew of engineers pushing a wheeled ram. The engineers butted the device up against the palisade gates, then rocked the ram’s head back on its fulcrum to send it careening into the fortifications.
The ram stuck the gate with a deafening crack of splintered wood.
Coarse yells went up just as the ram smashed the gate. Cyan’s horse reared as Elashi ambushers surged from out of hiding behind the palisade’s blind spots. The ambushers fell upon the siege engineers’ flanks like a wave at sea, utterly cutting the hapless men down.
Suddenly the sky darkened as though by a swift moving cloud. Cyan looked up, for a moment taking his eyes off the action, and saw that iron barbs rained down upon them.
He had led his men into a trap.
Cyan tugged on the reins and his mount threw him to the dirt. His shoulder gave a sharp pop on hitting the ground. Wincing, he dragged himself along one-handed, fleeing from the defenders’ charge. His horse gave a panicked scream as the hail of falling arrows tore into its flesh. It reared again and toppled over onto Cyan, crushing him under its weight.
The sun was half set. The battle was over. The bodies of an entire Elashi legion were fanned out in a circle around him, with him at the center.
Cyan stood. The palisade was leveled. Beyond it, waning daylight shone through black billows of smoke as the Elashi settlement burned.
“By Nordon,” he whispered. Had he done this? He wasn’t sure. He held up his forearm for a better look at his enchanted bracer, turned it one way then the other for any clues it might hold.
This was too much. Wren had gone too far. Cyan’s orders were to subdue the Elashis, not to decimate them. It might be years before the Elashis would be in any shape to offer up regular tribute. This would get Cyan court-martialed for sure.
He tugged at the bracer’s leather straps. As he undid the first band the bracer began to grow warm.
“What the…?” he muttered, then broke into a scream. The bracer glowed with searing heat like a blacksmith’s forge. Smoke rose from his burning flesh. Cyan clasped the bracer with his other hand to yank it free but scalded himself and tore his hand away.
As abruptly as it began, the burning sensation stopped. The bracer had become a sooty black color. The leather straps that fastened it to his arm were gone. It had become a solid metal tube fused to his skin.
The world spun. Cyan clutched at his temples. His vision rippled as though running water fell before his eyes. When finally his senses settled down, he realized he was no longer in his tent. Cyan stood in a cavernous library. Books were stacked in shelves that ran floor to ceiling as far as he could see.
He was not alone.
“You tried to take the bracer off, didn’t you?” said Wren in a matter-of-fact tone.
Cyan spun to face him. “You!” he bellowed. “You tricked me!”
“Did I?’ Wren asked. “I gave fair warning against taking it off.”
“You didn’t say this would happen.”
“I felt I didn’t need to.”
Cyan glowered at him.
“Was I not perfectly clear?” Wren went on.
“Then how did you expect me to take it off once I was through with it?” Cyan asked.
“It would have been simple, if you had come to me first.”
Touché, Cyan thought. “What do you mean would have been?”
Wren frowned at having to state the obvious. “I mean, it’s now going to be a lot harder to take it off.”
“So do it,” said Cyan.
“What do you mean you can’t?” he shot back.
“It’s too late for me to do that now.”
Cyan reached between his shoulder blades and drew his ax. “I don’t have patience for your word games, wizard. So you’d better start making sense before I cut it out of you.”
“You don’t understand the powers at work here,” Wren explained. “That one bracer has more power infused in it than any living creature can ever imagine. With it on you can be like a god, undying and eternal. But to safeguard against someone taking this power from its wearer, it bonds itself to the flesh of the user when someone attempts to remove it.”
Cyan eased his stance, lowered his ax slightly. “So I’m a god now, am I?”
“You are immortal,” said Wren.
“For how long?”
“For as long as you are alive.”
“That’s forever, right?”
“So long as you wear the bracer.”
“What if it comes off?”
“So then I’m a god?”
“Answer my questions!”
“I thought I had,” Wren drawled. He clasped his hands at his chest. “You will forgive me, as I am very busy. There is other work I must attend to. Should you need further assistance, merely call my name.”
Wren extended a hand and a small white card popped into being between his fingers. Cyan took it and glanced it over. Printed on the card was the mage’s name and occupation – Wren, Owl Mage.
“So now what…” Cyan began, and cut off. He was back on the outskirts of the Elashi village. Wren and his library were nowhere to be seen.
“Hmph. Wizards. Always here one minute and gone the next.”
He slept a scant few hours before the sky burned rosy orange from the rising sun. His pupils stung in the morning light. Cyan rolled over and faced the wall. Today he had no reason to wake up early. His campaign was over and so was his career – not that a god needed such things.
It was not too long after that Cyan finally roused. His parched throat yearned for water. He felt like he hadn’t had a drink in weeks.
He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with the heels of his palms and stopped in mid-motion. The touch of cold iron against both sides of his face prickled his skin. Eyes still cupped, he blinked, then slowly drew his hands away from his face.
Both arms were covered in iron up to his elbows.
Cyan shook his head. He held up his left arm for a closer look at the bracer. On this arm was the one Wren had given him, he was sure of it – it was embossed with coiled snakes. The bracer on his other arm wasn’t there yesterday. He held it up, searched for buckles and found none.
“H-how?” he stammered. Cyan clasped his mouth with one hand, staggered backward and fell on his backside. Raspy little breaths wheezed through his fingers. He rapped on new bracer with his opposite fist. It sounded hollow.
“How can this be?” He held his arm out and turned it around. His right arm from his elbow to his fingertips was encased in iron.
He felt the need to scream. At that instant, Cyan cocked his head back, clenched his eyes shut yelled Wren’s name.
When he opened his eyes he was in a dark, stuffy laboratory. Fumes rose from cauldrons and open beakers, making the atmosphere heavy. Wren sat at his desk, looking more amused than surprised. His workspace was cluttered with notes and papers stacked messily atop it and peeking out from its overfilled drawers.
“I take it that you are having some kind of trouble?” Wren asked.
“Oh not at all,” Cyan said with a sarcastic grin, “unless you call my skin turning to lifeless metal trouble!” He held up both arms. “Look!”
“Such is the price of immortality. Did you think it would come without a cost?”
“This is not what I signed up for.”
Wren spread his arms. “What is more timeless than iron? Iron does not die. And with proper care, iron never corrodes. Look at all the statues of war heroes – they’re all made of iron for a reason. And now you can be just like them.”
A fine sweat broke on Cyan’s brow. He was not sure whether Wren had meant Cyan would end up like the war heroes or their statues.
“I don’t want this,” said Cyan. “I want my body back.”
Wren steepled his fingers. “I’m sorry.”
“I said I’m sorry,” Wren spoke over him.
“That’s not good enough!” Cyan shouted.
Wren’s eyebrows dipped sharply at the inner corners. “It is not possible to reverse the effects of the bracer now,” he said flatly.
“There has to be a way.”
“There isn’t. No mortal has the power to undo the magic that binds the bracer to you…”
Cyan grit his teeth. “Then who does?”
Wren’s mouth pressed into a tight line.
“Damn it, you know something I don’t, don’t you?” Cyan yelled. He reached across the desk and grabbed Wren by the collar, dragged him across the desktop.
“Tell me what I need to know!” Cyan shouted into Wren’s face.
“What?!” He shook the mage to rattle the answer out of him.
“There…” Wren stammered. “There exist four sage dragons.”
“Quit with the fairy tales, wizard. Dragons don’t exist.”
“They do exist!” Wren clutched Cyan’s wrists in his hands. Much as he struggled, he could not wrest free of Cyan’s grip.
Cyan cocked back a fist.
“I’m telling the truth!” said Wren.
Cyan drilled his eyes into the wizard’s quivering face. If Wren spoke any lies, he would have detected them out by now. “Keep talking, wizard.”
Wren’s eyes flitted between Cyan’s and his fist. “Four sage dragons guard the treasures of the elements – earth, wind, water, and fire. With their powers you can undo the binding force of the bracer, maybe even revert your metal body back to flesh.”
“How do I find them?”
“Put me down first.”
“How do I find them?” Cyan repeated, shaking the mage with each word.
“I will give you a charm…”
“Oh no,” he cut him short. “Not that again. I’m through with magic.”
“No, no, it’s harmless, really! Trust me!” Wren pleaded.
“Unless I try to take it off, right? Then what’ll happen? For all I know you could be giving me something that will phase me out of existence for good.”
“No, this charm is completely safe, I promise. Now please, put me down so I can get it for you.”
Cyan paused a beat, then shoved Wren back across the desk. Wren rolled of the workspace and onto the floor. The wizard got to his feet and dusted himself off.
“Right… well…” Wren trailed off.
Cyan gave a slow deliberate nod. Even without words, the message was clear: “Get on with it.”
Wren went to his cluttered chest of drawers and dug through them, spilling papers onto the floor. “I found it,” he said, holding up a crude necklace. It was nothing more than a loop of jade suspended from a cord.
“Put this around your neck,” Wren said, handing it to him. “It’s a wind charm. It will take you wherever you want to go instantly.”
Cyan opened his mouth to speak.
“And no, nothing will happen to you if you try to take it off,” Wren preempted him.
It was with no slight trepidation that Cyan slung the necklace on. To his relief, the wizard had told the full truth this time. Nothing utterly detrimental had stricken him. Yet.
“What do I do once I’ve talked to the dragons?” Cyan asked.
“You need for them to lend you their treasures, each representative of the elements they stand for.”
“I need one treasure from any one of them?”
“No.” Wren hesitated. “All of them.”
“They will test you,” Wren went on, “to see if you are worthy of their gifts. Once you have all four you must return here, and using their combined powers I might just be able to free you from the bracer.”
Arms crossed, Cyan could not believe what he was hearing. Dragons did not exist – they never did. They were beasts slain by knights in fairy tales. He shook his head. Almost as unbelievable was that, for a moment, Cyan actually thought Wren was telling the truth.
He gave a sigh. “What do these treasures look like?”
“No one knows,” said Wren. “No one has ever seen them.
Cyan nodded. “So now what?”
Wren froze in the middle of straightening the creases in his robe. “Tell the wind charm where you want to go.”
It occurred to Cyan that he didn’t know where any of the dragons were.
“You’re overthinking this,” Wren said. “Just tell it you want to go to the abode of the earth dragon.”
“Why should I go there first?”
Wren threw up his arms in exasperation. “Stop making this difficult. Just go.”
Cyan snatched up the charm and gripped it in his fist. “If this thing drops me into a fiery volcano, I’m going to claw my way out and come after you personally.”
It was faint, but Cyan saw Wren’s throat bob as the wizard swallowed hard.
The charm glowed bright green in Cyan’s hand. Wren’s papers rustled as a gust of wind kicked up, swirled into a vortex that began to whirl around Cyan. The world beyond the rush of air stretched into streaks of color.
“A final word of caution…” Wren shouted over the noise. “Try not to die too many times.”
“Or else what?” Cyan yelled back.
“I'm not sure,” said Wren.
That very second there was a bright flash of green and the next thing he knew he was falling to the ground face first.
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About The Author
Ramiro, who writes under the name R. Perez de Pereda, is the author of several dozen short stories and poems. A lifelong fan of fantasy in all its forms, in his youth he was a big fan of Robert E. Howard's work, particularly the Conan the Barbarian series.