Writings: Accidental Hero


[TW: Tight Spaces. BoTW Spoilers.]

I've been playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the because it helps manage my winter depression. In the game, the player wakes up from fantasy cryo-stasis as Link with no memory of the past. It will later turn out that you are the Chosen Hero who has been asleep one hundred years healing up from a climactic boss battle which went very badly. Zelda ordered you crammed into cryo-stasis and went to go hit "pause" on the boss battle until you could come back and finish the job a century later.

You don't know all this at first. An elderly man asks you to do him a favor and raid a nearby shrine for treasure, which seems easy enough. Yet when you get there, the desiccated monk mummy waiting for you at the heart of the shrine congratulates you for getting this far, shoves a fragment of spiritual power into your body, and then disintegrates.

The first time this happened to me in-game, I freaked out in a massive panic because, well, what if I'm not up to the job? What if I get killed and we need a new hero? My replacement won't be able to get spiritual energy from this monk because the monk blew away as so much dust. That's a lot of pressure to be perfect, let me tell you!

I couldn't put the idea down and ended up writing this fic of a trans man adventurer who breaks into one of these shrines thirty years before the hero is supposed to awaken and accidentally blunders his way into Chosen Hero status--not because he's the right person or because he wanted to be a hero at all, but because he's now the only eligible candidate who can collect all the orbs.


---

Accidental Hero

Harken folded the map into quarters and tucked it against his skin under his breast bands. He didn't go in for symbolism much--at least, not when anyone was looking--but a corner of his mind was tickled by the juxtaposition of the worn fabric map pressed against his heart. The soft muslin and its colorful tracks of blue and green thread--along with red, yellow, and purple embroidery knots marking locations important to him--was certainly a work of heart, if not of art. He'd never excelled at sewing as a child, but the lessons had come in handy when he wanted a map he could carry along with him and never worry about getting wet.

His master map was at home, of course; a giant sprawling thing he'd made himself by stitching softened squares of wood bark together. The bark was pale and thin and very pliable; he could cut away segments and redo them if necessary, such as when Teagan leaned too far over the table to see the Sister Peaks and tipped a bottle of blue ink over onto Pagel Woods, making an enormous lake where none was. Harken had trimmed away the square containing the woods and redone the section from scratch, painstakingly painting the boundaries of the forest from memory and the little cloth map he'd sewn when he'd visited in person.

Of course, that map was not the map he now held against his chest; the Dead River was a league and a half away from the Pagel Woods and Teagan's accidental lake. Harken's cloth maps were designed to cover a very small area so he could add as much detail as a needle and thread would reasonably allow. This map did not even cover the full Dead River--short though it was--but rather just a small blue sliver running along the southern border of the delicate muslin square. Just north of that sliver, buried in the heart of a thick forest whose name nobody seemed able to tell him, was his target for today: the shrine of Thom Arden.

Harken was going to try to do something no one had managed before. He was going to burgle a shrine.

---

Everyone knew of the shrines. They were dotted around the land, little mounds of carved stone etched with ancient, unreadable runes. No one could enter them, for their sealed doors were made from a mysterious heavy metal no weapon could scratch--to the frustration of many a treasure hunter.

These shrines had risen during the great cataclysm which erupted the day of the millennial celebration seventy-two years ago. The monstrous cataclysm touched every corner of the land, leaving slaughter and sorrow in its wake and decimating the population. When it became clear the princess and her hero would not be able to beat back the disaster, the monks of the goddess cult raised the shrines and retreated one by one into their depths to wait for the awakening: the prophesied day when the wounded hero would rise again. He would visit these shrines where weapons and power would be given to him.

This awakening would occur one hundred years after the millennial celebration. During that time, both the castle and the cataclysm shrouding it remained trapped in magical unchanging stasis. The countryside was left to bury their dead and rebuild as best they could. Very few would live to see the hero awaken, healed of the wounds he sustained in battle against the cataclysm. He would stride boldly to the castle, defeat the cataclysm, and restore peace to the land, but none who fought that day would survive to see him do so.

Harken didn't believe in heroes. It would certainly be nice if someone from his grandparents' generation bestirred himself off his ass to sort out the cataclysm, but the whole thing sounded more like a fairy tale told to children than a real event which might occur in his lifetime. Either way, he'd have to survive another twenty-eight years just to see it, and he didn't place high odds on doubling his current lifespan. Not in his line of work. Treasure hunters took big risks for bigger rewards, but they rarely reached retirement age.

What he did believe in was the capacity for monks to perform basic math. Those who had retreated into shrines were elderly when the cataclysm hit; none could've imagined they'd survive another hundred years in their buried solitude. Whatever aid they planned to grant the coming hero would have to be stored with them in their tombs. Weapons, sharper and more sturdy than anything that could be made nowadays. Magic scrolls of fire and lightning and ice, the sort hardly anyone knew how to scribe anymore. Piles of cold hard rubles, or precious gems to be sold to prosperous merchants who could afford to dress gaudily.

Harken knew just the right buyers for almost anything he could stuff into his sack and carry away.

---

He'd discovered the secret of the shrines by accident. There was one not far from home, nestled in the forest east of the house where he and Teagan lived. Harken often passed by the sealed door on his way to hunt deer or forage for wild berries and mushrooms. In his younger years he'd worn out an old sword, a good crowbar, and three sets of lock picks on the door before accepting others were not wrong when they said the shrine doors were impenetrable; since then, the door had become part of the scenery for him.

This particular day had been a berry-gathering day, in the early autumn when the weather was first turning nippy. He was returning with a loaded basket and day-dreaming about Teagan and berries and fresh cream bought from the lady in the village who kept goats. Then the world was yanked out from underneath him with a burst of pain and he ended up flat on his face with an aching nose and an ankle screaming for relief. He looked around in a panic, trying to spot whatever had ambushed him, but nothing moved except for a few startled birds taking flight into the canopy and the berries rolling around his freshly thrown basket.

When the first burst of panic subsided, he rolled onto his back and sat up nursing his wounded ankle. A hole in the ground had covered over with weeds and grass tendrils, invisible to the naked eye. His foot had caught the edge and wrenched, twisting his ankle and sending him tumbling. He was lucky, Harken decided; nothing was broken. Some of the berries were smashed and he was annoyed at the waste, but he would scoop up what he could and Teagan would work some kitchen witchery to turn them into a pie.

By the time he finished piling berries back into the basket, his hands were soaked with juice. He grabbed a wad of grass to scrub his skin clean and peered again at the hole which had toppled him. Now that he'd cleared the grass away, it looked too big and too perfectly round a circle for a rodent to make. He touched the edges tentatively and blinked when he felt cool, silky metal: the same which sealed the shrine doors.

The shrine was not within spitting distance, though he knew its immediate direction and was close enough to reach in a few minutes' stride. This hole had to be related to the underground cavern and its mysterious sealed door, but he would never have found it on his own if he hadn't, well, stumbled into it. Carefully, he lowered his face to the hole and listened. No sound but his own breathing, yet a breeze tickled his face. Air was moving, coming up from the hole and just barely stirring the grass at the edges of the cleared circle.

Harken had rocked back on his heels, basket and berries forgotten. He was certain: he'd found a way in.

---

Unfortunately, he'd been wrong--or, rather, he'd been less correct than he initially believed. Harken had found a way in, for the hole he'd so obligingly tripped over was the entrance to a tunnel connecting the shrine to the outside world, drawing fresh air and water for the tiny underground chamber.

However, that particular tunnel was blocked by a cave-in which looked to have happened years before. He'd found this after crawling thirty feet through a passage narrow enough to brush his head with every movement. The fit was claustrophobic--Teagan couldn't bear to hear him describe the experience--but the closeness pleased Harken. He was small among explorers; if he could only barely fit, most others wouldn't. All he had to do was find a matching hole-and-tunnel system to another shrine and try again.

The next nearest shrine to home was the shrine of Thom Arden, buried in the forest north of the Dead River. Harken packed enough supplies for five days: one to walk to the forest, one to search for the hole, one to explore the shrine, one to walk back, and a fifth just in case. Though he preferred to travel light, he'd learned the hard way things didn't always go to plan. Still, he made good time to the Dead River, the mild weather a welcome change from the blinding rain he'd endured the last time he passed this way.

That left him a day and a half to find the hole, but gratifyingly he'd not needed more than a few hours. He'd measured the distance between the hole and door back home, as well as the direction from the door. The hole for Thom Arden was not the same direction, but the distance from the door was roughly equal; all Harken had to do was measure out his steps with a rope and a stake, then walk in a careful circle. When he found the lip of metal buried under weeds that were probably as old as he was, he felt a stab of pride. This was what he was good at: exploring, mapping, using his brain to find things others might miss.

He set up camp for the night next to the tunnel and cooked his dinner in the flames of a small campfire. No foul or explosive air rose from the hole when he tossed a burning twig in from a safe distance; there was only the same gentle breeze he felt from the other one, but stronger this time. That boded well, indicating this tunnel would not be blocked. Harken chewed happily on his rations for the night and dreamed of treasure. Enough to make him and Teagan rich as dragons, or at least comfortable a while longer.

---

Crawling in the dark was not Harken's favorite activity, but he'd learned tricks to take his mind away from the tight closeness around him. He counted each time his right hand moved forward, marking the number of "steps" he'd traveled from the hole. He'd need that number if he had to back his way out; he knew from experience he didn't like the panicky feeling of not knowing how much further he needed to blindly travel.

At thirty feet, he had reached the point where the cave-in had stopped him at the first shrine. No rocks here; the metal walls encasing him were reassuringly solid. He felt around as he rested, curious about the structure. Tiny holes lining the bottom of the tunnel likely drained any water that ran through here. More interesting was the breeze blowing cool air into his face. The effect was unlike a natural wind, too steady to be normal.

Moving on his hands and knees was uncomfortable, but remaining still was worse; he couldn't sit upright in this enclosed space, and he didn't want to lie down for fear that getting back up would be easier said than done. He continued onward, hoping the main cavern under the shrine door couldn't be much farther ahead. He frowned as he crawled, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. A glimmer of blue light flickered, then was gone the moment it registered. Then it repeated the pattern: a shining blue glow whisked away almost immediately.

Harken watched the walls around him as the light flickered on and off. He could see the curve of metal and the tiny holes lining the bottom of the tunnel in a long evenly-spaced row towards the light. Pausing, he brushed his fingers over the drainage holes again. Perfect circles, perfectly spaced. Only the technology of the ancient world was able to make things with such precision. Odd. He'd been taught that the shrines were made by monks on the day of cataclysm, pouring their magic into sanctuaries for retreat. But this was the work of machines, not magic. A mystery lurked here, one Harken hoped to turn into profit.

He continued his crawl towards the strobing light, the shining blue growing stronger with every "step". On and off, off and on, and then--just when the light seemed brightest--a whoosh nearly took the skin from his nose. He scrambled back, strangled gasp in his throat. The light wasn't turning off; something was spinning in front of the tunnel exit and blocking the light from sight. Something very, very fast.

---

Harken had seen metal fans before, of course. Small ones once cooled the internal workings of the ancient machines which littered the countryside. These could be scavenged for coin; metalworkers found the thin flat blades useful for crafting. This fan, however, had to be at least as tall as himself, while moving rapidly enough to send a breeze down the shaft. He watched it revolve from a safe distance while lying on his stomach in the most comfortable position he could manage in the cramped space.

If he absolutely had to, Harken would give up. He'd slither backwards down the passage and take the loss of a few days' travel time and rations. Food cost time and money, and he and Teagan were in perpetual short supply of both, but he wasn't so reckless as to get himself killed for a treasure he wasn't even certain of. Yet until he'd exhausted all the safe options, he wasn't ready to give up.

He'd brought a crowbar in his pack, the solid piece of metal a comfort to him. The end had been filed to a flat point so it could be used to shift boulders and collapsed masonry while searching ruins for salvage, and doubled as an effective weapon when necessary. He eased it out of his backpack, then lay still and fingered the cool metal. Harken hated to part with so valuable a tool, but he hated parting with his limbs even more.

Pressing the crowbar against the side of the tunnel, he eased it forward with his fingers light on the back end. The trick was to stay as far back as he could and to not grip the metal which would--unless this worked--be soon wrenched from his hand. Sure enough and with a sudden sickening grind, the spinning metal fan collided with his bar. The tool was not wrenched from his fingers as he'd feared; instead it was simply shattered off at the extruding tip, little tinkles of metal hitting a floor somewhere far below.

Harken yanked back. The crowbar rolled along the bottom of the rounded tunnel, making a forlorn metal-on-metal echo. The fan carried on its whipping pace unhindered. That was that, then. He had no more tricks up his sleeve and wasn't about to try diving through the hole--not when the fan was strong enough to shred him, and he had no idea what was on the other side. All he could do was go home; maybe he could return with more tools and a better plan. A trip wasn't a waste if he learned something, he decided.

Cold comfort, he thought, feeling more bitter than he let on. He couldn't really complain; adventuring was risk and he'd made out better than he could have. His crowbar was damaged, but salvageable. He was out time and supplies, but not more than two days. He'd traveled a lot farther for less before. Still, he realized with surprise that he'd gotten his hopes up. Not just for treasure--he knew better than to count those chickens before they were hatched--but for a glimpse of the shrine. To set foot where no living soul had tread for seventy years. His imagination had taken hold of the idea and didn't like being told to let go.

Harken shook his head and opened his bag as best he could in the tight space. He'd pack his crowbar up and begin the arduous process of backing out of the passage; the fifty feet of wriggling would cool down his disappointment. Yet when he wrestled his pack around to work the crowbar into it, something jostled and fell out. He started and grabbed for the thing--keenly aware how precious his few supplies were--but his aim was clumsy in the dark and he only succeeded in knocking the item away from him at high speed.

He stared helplessly in the strobing darkness as the errant item no bigger than his fist rolled towards the hole and collided with the giant fan. A mighty kachunck rattled his ears and to his astonishment the fan stopped. The glowing blue light solidified, no longer cut off every heartbeat with the rotation of the fan covering the tunnel, and the breeze which had been blowing past him stilled. The lost item teetered once on the edge and dropped silently over. Then all was quiet, save for the blood pounding in his ears.

---

The fan didn't start again. Harken waited, hardly daring to breathe, as he counted to one hundred. Nothing stirred in the tunnel. He was alone, the shrine was as dead inside as he'd always believed, and for whatever reason it was open to him: a silent invitation to plunder the treasures of the old world.

There was a point in any expedition where a decision had to be made: seize an opportunity and dare the risk, or leave. Harken hesitated, chewing on the inside of his lips. He'd feel a lot better if he knew why the fan had stopped and what he'd dropped from his pack, but he hadn't come all this way to be timid. Now that the light wasn't strobing he could see better and was able to dig in his pack with more precision than before; he'd brought climbing gear down here with him and now was the time to use it.

With the utmost care, he brushed a finger over the opening, ready to jerk back at the first breath of motion from the fan. Nothing. He took a firm grip on the fan blade and pushed; it was locked in place, unable to rotate at all. Harken frowned and slowly stuck his head out of the hole. The inside of the shrine was bathed in soft blue light. Cool and sterile, almost unwelcoming. Not in a hostile way, but he was an intruder here and this place was not for him. That was fine; he wasn't planning to stay long. Just a quick looting.

In the absence of anything else to use as a fixture, he tied off his rope to the motionless fan. Several wide loops around the center shaft and some tightened knots later he was ready to rappel down. He climbed out--reflecting with relief as he did so that his exit through the tunnel would involve crawling forward instead of backwards now that he'd been able to turn around--then paused in surprise as he faced the fan from the front. Six identical holes were nestled behind the giant fan, each marking another tunnel.

Each with an exit? Harken's heart leaped with excitement; if there were more than one tunnel into the shrines, then the one near home wasn't blocked off to him after all. He just had to find another hole. Tricky, but not impossible. Already counting a chicken before this one hatched was foolhardy, he knew, but he couldn't help but feel a thrill as he let himself slide along the rope until his feet brushed solid floor. A step down, an unhooking of his gear, and he was in: the first living soul to walk here in seventy years.

---

Glowing blue light was etched into the walls, powered by a technology he couldn't begin to understand. Through a narrow doorway nearby he could see an ancient mechanical warden resting in the center of a large open room. Harken froze--even little wardens were dangerous and could kill a man with ease--but the machine didn't move. Perhaps it was defunct like those above ground, their decaying armies littering old battlefields for scavengers to pick over. Or maybe its sensors did not extend outside its room. Harken eyed the narrow doorway with suspicion and decided not to enter. He didn't see anything worth burgling in there.

Treasure would be in this room, the inner sanctum of the shrine. Harken turned and his blood ran cold when he saw what he knew would be here: the remains of the elderly monk who had retreated to this place. Somehow the poor soul had died and mummified in a meditation position, desiccated hands still clasped in front of their chest in prayer. Harken wasn't a religious man, but he bowed his head. He was grave-robbing for a good cause--stealing from the dead to feed the living--but he could show courtesy.

Resting on the floor in front of the monk was what he came for: a chest which was no doubt filled with treasure. Harken's palms itched, but he searched the floor for the moment. He found what he was looking for after a dozen heartbeats: the mysterious item which had flung itself from his pack and stopped the fan with a mere touch. Snatching it up, he almost dropped it again in surprise; it was his lunch. A packed ball of meat and seasonings Teagan had cooked for him, unwrapped after being jostled from his bag.

He frowned, examining the meatball with his fingers. The tiniest of cuts marked where the fan touched it, barely a nick. Otherwise it was unharmed, surviving the fall to the floor below with a bounce which spoke more to Teagan's tendency to overcook meat into rubber than any special providence. Tilting his head, he looked up at the massive fan. The mechanism circulated air through the chamber, keeping alive the monk and--Harken could only assume--any workers involved in the making of this place. The fan would also have been instrumental in lifting away the scent of the dead body as it mummified on the meditation pedestal.

The fan had chopped off the tip of a metal crowbar as easily as Harken might bite a thread with his teeth. Why would a lump of meat stop the machine at a touch? He tossed the little ball in his hand a few times. Maybe the machines could tell meat and skin from metal? He'd never known a machine to shy away from severing a limb--the wardens which patrolled the grounds around the stasis-locked castle were deadly to anyone foolish enough to approach--but maybe the shrine makers didn't want to harm their workers? If the fans were built for safety, Harken was in luck; all he needed to get into the shrines was a haunch of mutton.

By all accounts, there were supposed to be one hundred shrines scattered throughout the land. In Harken's head, a few more chickens hatched prematurely and he didn't even attempt to stop them.

---

Only now did he allow himself to turn his attention to the chest.

The object of his dreams was a beautiful piece of work. This wasn't a wooden box hastily thrown together from a few splintery boards and leather hinges. This chest was solid metal, the same cool smooth slate which composed the shrine doors and walls. Glowing orange markings scrolled around the container in an ancient language no one alive could read; Harken imagined it promised health and long life to whosoever was blessed with the contents. The lovely box rested below the meditation pedestal where the monk sat, his mummified corpse watching over the chest in death as he waited patiently for the supplicant hero to return.

Harken hesitated as he ran his fingers over the chest, his eyes flicking up at the watching corpse with an unfamiliar sensation of guilt. This wasn't his to take. Of course it wasn't; nothing ever was. He was a scavenger scrounging the ruins of a civilization destroyed before his parents were born. When he poked through the burned shells of old houses, the things he found were not his to take. When he dug weapons and supplies from crumbling garrisons which once guarded the countryside, those were not his either. This chest--beautiful, glowing, gorgeous--was no more or less his than anything else he'd taken to survive.

But the things in the garrisons and homes and ruins weren't his in a generalized sort of way; they were, more accurately, no one's to take. Their owners were long dead. This chest wasn't his in a specific way: it wasn't his because it was someone else's. The hero who would rise again and defeat the cataclysm.

There were problems with this, of course. For one, Harken didn't believe in the myth of the awakened hero. A hero was wounded in battle with the cataclysm so deeply that he couldn't fight further, but not so deeply they couldn't whisk him off to be healed? His healing would take one hundred years exactly--not a day more or less--at which point he would rise and beat the cataclysm? This was a fairytale to tell children when they beheld the roiling danger engulfing the time-locked castle. There wasn't a hero coming to save them.

Even if there were, the hero wouldn't be any help if they were all dead by time he arrived. Harken and Teagan had to eat, the merchants had to ply their trade, and the lot of them had to get on as best they could in the ashes. That meant scavenging what they needed to survive. If whatever was in this chest was important, the hero could come find Harken--or his heirs, since the likelihood that he would be around in twenty-eight years to greet the hero seemed slim given his line of work--and collect. Hell, if there was enough money in here to invest into a store as he wanted, he might even be able to make it grow. How about that for a line of work? The hero's banker. Collecting everything from the hundred shrines, so he only had one place to drag his butt to upon waking. He'd probably be grateful. Harken was doing him a favor.

At any rate, I'm not leaving without looking. He let his hands brush the sides of the chest as he knelt before the strange orange locking mechanism in the front. If it were something truly special--an ultimate weapon from heaven, or armor tailored for the hero by angels themselves--he'd leave it behind and go away empty-handed. But he'd look first. He owed himself that much after coming all this way.

Orange lines turned blue under his touch, the chest lock turning and clicking open with a soft whisk. A noise behind him made Harken jump and spin on his heel: the mechanical warden in the center of the larger room powered down from the apparent stand-by it had been on with a quiet whoosh and the clank of metal as its legs lowered it from a ready crouch to a sleepy squat. He stared at it but nothing moved; metallic death didn't rush his way and, as far as he could tell, it didn't even seem to notice he was there.

He turned back to the chest and peered inside. No heavenly weapon or angelic armor awaited him, and he wasn't sure if he was disappointed or relieved. A very old and very sharp sword lay at the top, but while the double-edged straight sword was of fine quality and construction, he'd seen just as good or better in ruined garrisons; they weren't rare. He'd even kept one for Teagan, since she preferred the double-edged style to the edgeless cut-and-thrust ones Harken used whenever the town guard called him up for a stint.

The pile of rubles under the sword was far more attractive: there had to be at least two hundred here. Not anywhere near enough to make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but after he sold the sword for another hundred, the total would make a good day's haul. Definitely in the top ten, and with another hundred shrines to loot, a whole coop of hatched chickens danced in his imagination.

He ran his hands through the money, looking for anything buried beneath but mindful of sharp edges; the sword had been wrapped in only a flimsy scrap of cloth. Ah! Fingers closed on a little nest of gemstones in the corner and he brought a handful of opals up to the blue light. Another hundred rubles if he could find the right buyer. He could even keep a couple for Teagan. String them into a necklace and save them for a rainy day, which wouldn't be for a while if they stretched this properly. Things were looking up.

Now he just needed to pack this all up and haul it out. He stood, taking the sword up in one hand and shaking his bag out so he could slide the weapon safely in without skewering anything important. His mind was preoccupied with the question of how many trips to take, when a hum sliced through his thoughts. Harken spun again, wary of the mechanical warden, but it still rested on the ground. Strangely, the odd humming sound was coming from the opposite direction to the machine.

It was coming, he realized with cold horror, from the corpse on the pedestal.

Harken didn't believe in ghosts. He'd poked around in enough ruins, disturbing a legion of bones and dead bodies, to convince himself they weren't real. But his heart was in his throat as he turned back and locked eyes with the mummified monk who sat in a meditation that would never end. Would he be killed for this intrusion? A trap prepared by the ancients for grave-robbers, or the goddess herself bringing the body of her dead worshiper back to some semblance of life long enough to take his?

But the corpse didn't lunge for him. Instead, the humming intensified. Words weren't spoken into the air but rather into his mind, the voice like cold water poured over his mind, the chill more painful than relief.

I am Thom Arden, creator of this trial.
By defeating my warden, you have shown the resolve of a true hero.
In the name of the Goddess, allow me to bestow my gift upon you.
Seek out the other shrines and defeat the cataclysm with our aid.


A last message intended for the awakened hero? Harken wondered if he should stay frozen to the spot or bolt for his rope. Yet if this were just a recorded message, a mere magical note left behind in the monk's absence, then he was in no danger. He must have tripped the recording when he opened the chest and picked up the sword. Probably if he brought Teagan down here, the monk would say the same thing to her.

Air rippled in front of the monk's praying hands and something cold and hard collided with Harken's chest, then kept going. Harken gasped, his hands scrabbling to pull away whatever the thing was, to repel the attack, but he found nothing to grip. Whatever it was had entered him, the icy solidness of it freezing his lungs. He couldn't breathe, he was dying, then the thing shattered and liquid ice flowed through his blood.

The pain was intense enough to grind his teeth. Yet as the cold sensation faded to a coolness, then seeped away to normalcy, he was left... stronger. He didn't understand how that could be, but he felt it from head to toe; the muscles in his arms and legs were tighter, thicker, thrumming with energy. He could run a marathon, he thought; he could climb a mountain. He could crawl the tunnel back and not break a sweat.

Was this the power the shrines were meant to give the hero? He stared up at the desiccated monk with new respect. Rubles and gems and a sword had been a nice haul, but not something that would make a dent against the massive power of the cataclysm. But this, this subtle strengthening of himself all over, might well do the trick. Not one shot of whatever this was, of course, but one hundred cumulative hits? Harken puffed his cheeks in a silent whistle. Maybe this hero business was the real deal after all.

The corpse of the monk hummed again and his attention snapped back. To his renewed horror, the mummified body begin to flake and drift away. Little flecks the size of ashes dancing about a fire now spun through the air. "No!" Harken's voice was a soft hiss of anxious fear. "No, no, no, what are you doing? No!"

With your arrival my duty is now fulfilled.

Harken couldn't breathe in his panic. This mindless mummy thought he was the hero, had given him the hero's power, and was now fading away into nothingness. The strength he'd been given was a one-time shot and no one else would ever possess it. Harken stared as the corpse collapsed into an ash that blew away on a wind that wasn't there, then he fled up his rope leaving the rubles behind.

---

He went back for the rubles the next morning. He had to, and he knew he had to, but it had been dark by time he calmed down and he couldn't bring himself to go back into that hole while the sun hid herself. When he reached the bottom again the next day, everything was as he left it: dead air, silent machine, missing monk, open treasure chest. He filled his pack as quickly and silently as he could before fleeing again up the tunnel. Whatever else happened, Teagan would not go hungry.

His walk home would not be a swift one with him dragging his feet, burdened by more than the pack on his back. He was stronger than ever before--he could still feel the subtle thrum in his muscles--but the gift weighed on him more heavily than a mummy's curse. This wasn't something he could "give back" when the hero came calling thirty years hence. If the hero came calling thirty years hence. This wasn't a sword or a handful of money that could be replaced or returned; this was magic. The monks had created this magic to defeat the cataclysm and bring peace, which meant the magic was probably necessary to do all that.

How much, if any, redundancy had the monks built into their system? Did the hero need every one of their gifts to defeat the cataclysm? Harken would've left some wiggle room if he'd been in charge--they couldn't be sure one of their shrines wouldn't be wiped off the map in a natural disaster or burgled by an innocent soul who didn't know better--but they hadn't much time to plan when the cataclysm attacked. Maybe one hundred gifts represented all the power they had; maybe ninety-nine gifts of strength wouldn't be enough.

If every one of these gifts were needed to defeat the cataclysm, then Harken had ruined everything. Thirty years: that's how long the world had left. The hero would awaken and the stasis spell on the castle would end and everyone would die because an adventurer blundered into a shrine and took what wasn't meant for him. More selfishly, all the chickens Harken had been hatching were little more than feathers in the wind. He didn't dare break into another shrine lest he disintegrate more dead monks. Each time he did so, that would be one less gift for the hero to absorb, making his eventual defeat all the more inevitable.

But if Harken couldn't raid any more shrines, that meant he and Teagan would struggle to survive. The more mundane ruins had been picked clean over the last seventy years and there wasn't much left. He'd been hoping to use this haul to set himself and Teagan up with a little shop of their own, but this wasn't enough. They'd use these rubles to eat--a necessary and noble expense--and then have nothing to show for it when the money was gone except the brief extension of their lives by a few more paltry years.

Those were the options: die now from slow starvation, or doom everyone else to die in thirty years when the hero showed up and found all his shrines burgled. Not a fun dilemma, Harken thought as he dragged his feet. If the hero showed up. And if Harken hadn't already ruined everything anyway because ninety-nine gifts weren't the same as one hundred. But... if ninety-nine wouldn't do the trick, and if he'd already doomed everyone, then why not go for the full one hundred and loot them all?

He sighed. Might as well throw a big party for everyone with the money, if they were going to die anyway.

A butterfly, blue as the glowing shrine walls, flew up at his step and startled him into a sudden halt. Why not go for the full one hundred? The thought tugged at him. How strong would he be after ten of these gifts? How much stronger at twenty? How strong could the awakened hero possibly be when he woke up, after being stashed into a magic sleep for one hundred years? Talk about muscular atrophy; the man would probably stumble out of bed on breadstick-thin legs. The calamity would snap him like a twig. At least Harken wasn't one hundred years out of practice with a sword, unlike some heroes he could name.

No. He shook his head, stunned that he was giving this serious consideration. He was sleep-deprived and anxious, that was all. Yet the thrum in his muscles was real, the power there and waiting. Was he going to ignore that hum for the rest of his life?

You have shown the resolve of a true hero.

Not by defeating a warden, though. He'd gotten in through a back door, bypassing the challenge Thom Arden must have put time and thought into. Harken would feel guilty for wasting the monk's time if he weren't already full up on that emotion. A real hero, the awakened hero would've--

He paused, his eyes following the butterfly's dancing twirl. The awakened hero would've been known to Thom Arden. They were peers, and the princess and her hero visited the Goddess' temples as part of their pilgrimages. But the monk hadn't set up a test only that hero could pass; he hadn't asked the visitor to look in a mirror or answer questions about his family to prove who he was. He'd set up a test anyone with a sword could win, and then tested their resolve to do so. Not their identity. Their resolve.

Is the awakened hero... dead? Harken had been so certain the hero did not even exist, but had found his way around to considering the man quite possibly alive and real once the shrine revealed itself to hold aid more mystical than a sharp blade and hard cash. Yet what if the truth were somewhere in-between: real, yes; but no longer alive? What if the shrines existed to test the mettle of any available hero they could find in search of a replacement? What if a hero was needed but there wasn't one awakening when the hundred years passed and the stasis spell on the castle faded away and unleashed the cataclysm again?

Harken scowled at the ground, his thoughts bleak. If that were the case, the monk really ought to have asked before bestowing power on him. Or at least stuck around to do it a second or third time if the first recipient wasn't good enough to finish the job and beat the cataclysm. But they'd been desperate. Maybe this was all they could do, their last gift to future generations to sort out. Maybe they had left instructions somewhere, but the bearer lost them or misunderstood them or died in the chaos following the cataclysm.

Maybe.

Even if all this were true, it still meant Harken might be the only one who could become a hero, since he'd taken one of the hundred gifts already. Maybe someone else could do the trick with ninety-nine, but what if they couldn't? What if no one else was willing to try? What if other looters figured out how to breech the shrines and the gifts were split further? Harken felt certain he was the first, but he couldn't bank on that. Nor did he want to wait for thirty years in the hope that a hero--new or old--might show up on time.

He didn't want to be a hero. He didn't believe in them. But if he was going to get himself killed adventuring anyway, maybe doing so while trying to save everyone and everything he'd ever known was as good a reason as any. He shifted the weight of the pack on his shoulder and walked a little faster. He had to get home and dig out his maps. There were a lot of shrines and he had just under thirty years to find them all.

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