A young man grew up in his village hearing about the shapeshifting warrior that lived in a hut on a nearby mountain. Sean heard wondrous tales – about the man’s ability to scale trees, to fight off any enemy, whether man or beast, and in fact to don their appearance, feather, fur, or skin. He was always intrigued by this, unable to tear himself away even hours after bedtime, if these stories came up.
As he grew up, these tales underlaid his every moment. Sean found himself distracted while planting, trying to unnecessarily exceed himself while hunting, and constantly looking to the horizon while maintaining his parents’ home.
He loved his family and neighbors, but none of them were surprised when they heard that Sean was going off to seek out this mystery man. Even though no one had knowingly seen his face, they all vaguely knew where to look – halfway down the west face of the nearby mountain, between the ravine and the river. That is where he aimed for.
He was breathless with anticipation. His pack full of supplies and well-wishes, he shook out his sandy hair, then bound it up in a bandana and wandered into the unknown.
It was easy going at first, through familiar fields and orchards. Then the waist-high glades of grasses and wildflowers, ripe with birds and rodents, tore at his clothes and caught his legs. Despite how it slowed him, he couldn’t see killing the plants and destroying the homes for many animals there just to speed up, so he took his time. Once he finally found himself on the edge of the pine forest, he unbundled his blanket and rested.
This was the first day of many, wandering gradually closer and closer to his destination. He rigged himself bridges, fished and trapped for food, and made sure to cause no undue damage along the way. He hoped that his someday master might see his hard work and approve, but either way he wanted to make sure he felt he was doing this right. Either way, he wanted to celebrate the journey, leaving the world a better place after he passed through.
His heart grew heavy, though, as he found a week having passed without finding the place. The west face of the mountain was many miles across, spanning a range of elevations. He searched far and wide, but to no avail. When a violent thunderstorm swept through one night, his lean-to collapsed. In the darkness left by the extinguished fire, Sean struggled to gather his supplies – and slid into the nearby ravine.
He awoke on a cot, in low light. He glanced around, startled and confused, but still groggy. He didn’t know how he’d gotten here. He didn’t know where “here” was. And oddly, he really wasn’t worried.
It was a few minutes before his mind and gaze focused enough to notice the man sitting nearby on the floor. There was a blanket covering the door next to him, although sunlight did peak in around the edges. The beam of light showed brightly onto the man’s lap, where he scribbled onto a paper. He was distracted, although he glanced at Sean occasionally. This allowed the boy to inspect the modest table nearby, with a chair, minimal dishes, and a small stove of sorts. He hadn’t gotten any further than that when the man spoke.
“I see you’ve survived! That’s a relief. You could very well have killed yourself, wandering in the woods like that.”
It took Sean a couple tries to speak, but he got his mouth working. “How do you mean?”
“Well, I saw you carefully hunting, drinking plenty of water, and even building what you needed to survive, but you never stayed still long enough to take proper care of yourself.”
“Oh,” said the boy, startled, “you saw quite a bit! I never even noticed you.”
The man studiously returned to his scribbles, grinning mischievously. “I just do things. But I noticed you. Not many come this way. Any change is very apparent.”
Baffled by this response, Sean pressed on. “I wasn’t camping for fun. I was reaching out for the shapeshifting warrior. I was told he was in this area. Have you seen him?”
The older man cocked his head, looking up into the air above Sean’s head in a pondering way. “Well, if he were here, what would you ask him?”
Unsure if this was a joke at his expense, an offer of assistance, or somewhere in between, he pondered his answer deeply. He decided to be honest, and see what happens. “I would want to learn how to become strong, scaling trees under my own strength.”
“Well, who says you can’t?”
With that, he disappeared through the flap. He returned a moment later with a bowl of stew, which he thrust into Sean’s hands. “Eat up, and let’s get started.”
Confused but excited, Sean did just that.