-TWENTY-ONE-Mature

Nigel Gress inhaled the crisp air of the morning and tapped his boot-clad toes on the porch floor. Most mornings, he sat here, in his wicker rocking chair, praising the Maker for the fresh air and the ability to appreciate it all.

It had been a good decade or so, since Nigel had retired from his lucrative career as a monster-trainer. Creatures from all over the forest had been brought to him - domesticated artrophs, somehow related very vaguely to the legendary dragons of old; golden-horned jinfrii, winged unicorns with a penchant for causing destruction, unless they were brought into submission; silent marliskisks, birds of a neverending wingspan who were fabled to be able to speak with select humans, though Nigel had never witnessed this ability for himself. He had been respected, sought-after, wealthy...and then, the emperor's prize artroph had been killed during the final stage of training, and Nigel had been exiled to this hill in the middle of nowhere, given express orders to never, under any circumstance, pick up his trade again.

Nigel had not wanted to train any monster in the possession of the emperor. He'd never held any fondness for the man, who had ordered that any human being with any defect be sent to live in the dank recesses of an asylum. Nigel's own wife, Rae, had contracted an illness that eventually stole her sight. Her blindness was discovered, and she had been carted off to the asylum, where her illness eventually claimed her life.

To pour salt on an open wound, Nigel had not even been allowed to visit his wife of eleven years. Not even once.

Snapping back to the present, Nigel's eyes were averted to a rustling in the forest. He watched, transfixed, as a graceful young doe emerged, steps tentative and elegant. No matter how many times he beheld the beauty of the wildlife that ventured near his small cabin, he was always mesmerized. There was something innocent about natural beauty, something pure and untarnished.

The doe looked Nigel's way, and the two met eyes. For a fleeting second, the two sat, completely still, until the doe grew nervous and darted back into the woods. Nigel sat back in the rocking chair. Whatever the doe had sensed, she had become frightened and had flitted away. Something was coming, she must have decided.

Nigel, too, could feel something in the wind. For the past few days, a feeling of both impending doom and endless opportunity had swept over him. A premonition? Perhaps. Nigel's intuition had always been strong.

The trees waved slightly in the breeze, clueless as to the disturbance in Nigel's thoughts. Something was coming, something that would change the course of Nigel's future existence, and there was nothing that could be done, except wait patiently and prepare for both a threat and a blessing.

The End

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