The Gilded One
Many years ago, a human sorcerer decided that he would conquer death.
He would not allow himself to succumb to death, the way that his family and peers did. The world around him, even nature itself, saw age as a privilege. But he saw the ability to live, to grow old, and to survive, as a right.
The sorcerer shut himself away, retreating to a small cabin in a dark wood, so that he could study in peace.
Years passed, and he saw progress in his studies. He created small golden bracelets to wear for himself that would slow the process of his body’s decay to a crawl. He returned home to show them off to others.
“It’s a trick,” some said, “he’s going to swindle you out of your coin.”
“It’s a lie,” said others, “his face has wrinkles, he’s still aging.”
Even the few that believed him didn’t want a set of bracelets for themselves, for fear of public opinion.
And so the sorcerer retreated to his cabin and began to study again.
But no matter how he tried, he could not stop the process of aging itself. He could only keep the body alive. Worse, he put more and more of himself into the artifacts, causing his own age to accelerate.
After his next breakthrough, he returned to his hometown, only to discover that people turned away at the sight of him, and children fled from him in fear.
He sought advice from his family, but they disowned him for his studies, claiming that he tampered too much with the natural order of things.
He sought advice from his peers, but they refused to listen to him, saying that they would not be respected if they stooped to magic like that.
And so the sorcerer retreated to his cabin for good.
Without the strings of other people holding him back, the sorcerer looked through his discarded ideas once more, wondering if the key to defeating death was somewhere within.
While walking through the forest for food, the sorcerer found the carcass of a wolf. It had been dead for several days, the bones picked clean by scavengers. He placed the skull and the claws in his bag and returned home with them.
Nature was cruel to end the life of this noble creature, to leave it on display for the other animals to use as they please. There was no dignity in its death. No remorse. The sorcerer decided to use the wolf’s bones in his studies.
He carefully gilded the wolf’s skull with gold, enchanting it with his magic, and wore it as a mask.
With his face covered, he felt at peace. He could continue to live, and no one could fault his method for living, no one could run in fear at the sight of his face, no one could disagree with his methods. He would simply be a masked stranger.
For a time, that was enough.
But even with his magic keeping him alive, his body began to decay. It became too brittle to move properly. Too fragile to withstand disease and attack.
And so the sorcerer decided that as long as death did not take him, he did not need a body. His soul was the most important piece of his life.
He gilded the wolf’s claws, enchanted them, and wore them on his fingers.
His body became ethereal. Trivial to his existence. All that remained of his physical self remained in the gilded bones and bracelets.
He did not return home. He did not have a home to return to.
He was above nature. Above the natural order itself. He abandoned his previous self, his old name, his old thoughts. He was an ideal, not a creature with base desires. He was no longer a sorcerer. He was more than all that.
He was human.
He was more human than the animals in the villages, bustling from building to building, forcing themselves to eat to survive, to procreate and further their species. They were no better than the beasts of the forest he lived within.
He was human, and they deigned to call themselves human as well.
But they would learn what it meant to be a beast when they crossed his path again. When one of them crossed his path, walking through the forest, he would taunt them and cut them with one of his gilded claws. And the magic that kept him alive would be a part of them, subtly pushing themselves to become the beasts that he knew them to be.
Those with light hearts changed and adjusted well.
One man took the body of a bull and joined a holy order of sorcerers.
One woman fell ill but was saved by a wandering orc clan, becoming one herself.
One more willingly joined a group of felarin settled in the mountains.
Those with heavy hearts did not recover.
One woman fell to a curse that turned her into a wraith, haunting her home for years to come.
One man lost himself and turned to stone, a gargoyle destined to guard a temple for a shrieking spirit.
Another fell victim to a powerful sorcerer and became a mindless griffin mount, never to think freely again.
The Human in the forest never saw himself as directly responsible for these things, but his magic put those people into those situations. And he adored it. Every person that crossed his path would see what it really meant to be human.
He had conquered death itself. He was the pinnacle of his kind.
All that remained was to see how everyone else could fall short of his glory.
The people of the town warned visitors of the forest. There were no dangerous animals, save for a few wolves here and there. But there was a presence there. And many of the folk that ventured there had some horrible event befall them. A curse of sorts.
They warned visitors to be wary of gold claws. If they saw one, they should turn around and run back, lest they find themselves becoming a monster in less than a week’s time.
“Beware The Gilded One,” they said, “For just one touch, and you’ll lose yourself forever.”