Blackford Point was a small town with less than two hundred citizens, its log homes built from solid cypress and oak, making its atmosphere quaint and inviting. There were watchtowers positioned so that the sentries could spy travelers coming down the road, but other than that the town had no walls or other protection. Nyson knew this to be a friendly little village. He had come through here on his way to Fort Havenworth to stop and rest. It was a waypoint of sorts for weary travelers. The people who lived in this town were strongly built, and always were warm and welcoming.
Woodsmen lived here; strong, broad shouldered men with auburn hair could be seen journeying into and out of the forest, some carrying logs thrice their size and others bearing saws and hammers on their able shoulders. Fires burned at even intervals to keep the chill away, one or two of them roasting a tremendous wild boar or a plump chicken, fully plucked and dressed. Children scampered about now and again, but most of the villagers were young men and women. It was a sturdy town, which the old rarely lived past the age of forty. Lives were humble and the people hardworking.
The arrival of Nyson and Sinclair was of little interest to these busy people, and so they crossed the town without much notice, save for a few curious glances. Nyson looked around for someone who didn’t seem preoccupied, but everyone seemed to be at work. There was a blacksmith forging in his shop, the hammer striking the anvil and making a pleasant ringing noise; he smelled pastries baking in a small cabin, and the men who had been carrying the logs back had now reentered the forest. A tree toppled somewhere in the bushy copse, and the flapping wings of birds could be heard overhead. Yet something was wrong. Sides of some cabins seemed to be scorched, and the earth was compacted in places, as if many horses had trampled upon there.
They rode for a little while longer when Nyson saw a young man, not much older than fifteen, exit a cottage.
The man had short brown hair, a dirty face, and was tall and broad shouldered, like the rest of his people. He wore a dirtied apron that seemed to be smeared with grease, and fingerprints dotted the cloth. He seemed surprised when Nyson beckoned him.
“There’s an inn yonder, sir,” he said as he walked toward them, pointing in the opposite direction, mistaking them for travelers seeking a place to stay.
Nyson shook his head. “Thank you, but we are not looking to stay. In fact, we’re just passing by.”
The boy shook his head. “Aye, people these days do not stay too long here. Been ‘aving people pass through here many times, though. Traders, merchants an’ whatnot. Especially at night.”
The boys’ eyes settled on the sword at Nyson’s side, a little too long for his comfort. He shifted his weight on the horse, trying to hide his blade and seem less threatening. Obviously something had happened in this village, but Nyson did not know what.
“No, we are not merchants. We have come to seek the advice of a man named Henrish. Do you know of him?”
The boys’ eyes grew wide, and Nyson noticed him back away slightly. Apparently he had heard of him.
“Henrish is an infirm old wretch who lives at the edge of the wood, away from the town,” he said. And then, his face changed. It was a sad look, a pathetic one. “You aren’t with the Scarlet Ouzel, are you?”
This question startled Nyson so much that he nearly fell off of his mount.
“Scarlet Ouzel? No. What do you know of the Scarlet Ouzel?”
The boy’s face lightened, yet he looked worried still.
“I know not much about the Scarlet Ouzel or where they come from. Imagine I did not mention it.” And he would speak no more of the subject, Nyson knew. Instead, the boy straightened himself and changed the subject.
“Henrish never comes out of his cabin and some of us think he’s a warlock, sir. It’d be best for you two not to seek him. He has a garden that has plants that would never thrive in this kind of climate, yet they blossom year round. A bit fishy if’n you ask me, “he said as he wiped his dirty fingers on his apron. “It’s best for both of you if you go on your way. Best for the town, also.” He eyed the sword once more. Did this boy know that the Scarlet Ouzel meant the prescence of Anacorans? The appearance of Anacorans here was highly improbable for any grand scheme. What would they want with a small town used as a checkpoint?
Nyson had enough of this. He was not going to be scared away by some hamlet boy. This town did not know that they had a Mor-dryk in their midst, a very dangerous and unpredictable person to be around. Henrish may not have any part of his mind left, and that made him more deadly than an agitated ebon rib adder. For now, Nyson decided to push the Scarlet Ouzel away from his mind.
He nodded the boy off and continued on his way, Sinclair following close behind him. Soon they reached the outskirts of the town, where there was only road and forest keeping the chill of the wind out. The warmth of the fire did not reach out here; it was a lonely place to live.
Not far from the town, Nyson spied the corner of a small cabin, half hidden by two enormous trees. He knew it to be Henrish’s house immediately; in front of it bloomed an array of colored flowers, from the bright blues of morning glories to the brilliantly white roses which blossomed extravagantly. Interspersed in the beautiful flowers, however, one could spy much more devious things. He saw the purplish hood of aconite, a poisonous flower for which there was yet no antidote; the small, white clustered flowers of hemlock, known to cause paralysis and death; and hellebore, another poisonous plant, with its five white petals that resembled those of the harmless rose.
He smiled. Henrish had been a skilled C’theran earth mage. His intrigue in poisonous plants was mirrored in Nyson, and he wondered if he could snag some samples before the day was over.
Perhaps we are not so different, he thought.
They reached the small cabin, and both Sinclair and Nyson dismounted. He handed his reigns to her, telling her to wait outside with the horses, and to not enter the house, even if she heard screams. He did not know what poisons Henrish may have in the cottage, or what the old man would do if he sensed a C’theran in his presence.
Nyson rapped on the splintered door, and even before he finished knocking the door swung open. Inside was dark, and a musty smell emanated from within. He could see a fire burning low and dim in an ashy hearth, could hear and smell some type of soup boiling. He took a few steps inside and the door slowly closed behind him, dimming the small rectangular room even more. He couldn’t make out many of the shapes and stood there for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. When he could see, the only furniture he could make out was a table and a stool, a wobbly old chair, and a bookcase with a considerable amount of books lining the shelves. Nyson didn’t bother to turn around; he could hear raspy breaths coming from behind him, next to the door. Instead, he took a seat at the small table and waited.
He heard feet shuffling, and saw the old man in his peripheral vision, scooting a stool up to the table. The bent old man sat at the other end, wheezing and sputtering. It was a long while before his breaths returned to normal. Then, he spoke.
“You have come from Bythesini, C’theran,” he said slowly. “You smell of the forest, and yet I sense something else hidden under the scent. Tell me, what name do you go by?”
Nyson waited before he answered, deciding not to reveal his identity just yet. “My name is unimportant; yours is. Henrish, you have been alive for years. You have a firsthand account of what happened in Darsuul’s time. Tell me of Anacor.”
The old man laughed so abruptly that it startled him. His shoulders shook up and down, his long beard wagging as he shook. Nyson could make out his cataracts, could see liver spots covering his pockmarked face. He could even see the dull brown linens the old man wore. The cabin seemed to be brighter for a moment.
But at once the laughter stopped, and it was as if a cloud has passed under the sun, and the dimness returned. Nyson shivered.
“So, you come to me with the news that Anacor has risen again? I knew so, I told Darsuul, Saraul, and the entire arrogant king’s of old. I knew this time would come. Anacor withdrew from the war, yes, but they did not surrender.”
Then, faster than Nyson expected from such a frail being, the old man stood and strode to his side. He stared at Nyson, although he was sure the old man was blind. Nyson could feel his breath on the side of his face.
“You are a powerful boy. Only eighteen and at your fourth tier,” he said this in a fatherly tone, as if he were praising him. Doting on him. It sounded eerie.
“I was like you, once. I was part of Darsuul’s court, his chief C’theran mage. I fought with him on the day he defeated the Egorcus, did you know that? Did you know that I once knew how to summon one?”
The Egorcus were the foul demons from the Hells that Anacoran wizards had summoned so long ago to control. Legend described them as beings of solid darkness that eternally shifted their shape, withering in light but multiplying at night. They had a way of pulling men towards them, by means of which no one knew, and once the dark tendrils touched flesh, it sucked its prey into itself, becoming larger. Nyson had heard that when a person got this close, they could hear the screams of the thousands of people who had been dragged into those personal hells of living darkness, could see the thousands of eyes staring at them from the depths of some unknown abyss. One popular story told that Darsuul fought a great Egorcus which took the form of a bull, one so huge that it swallowed the whole kingdom of Euphadeos in its enormous mouth.
“Egorcus cannot be killed by mortal means,” Nyson quoted. “They are not corporeal; they are ethereal beings with no one shape or form. To kill one would mean being something above man.”
Henrish laughed once again, yet this time the light and warmth was not present. It was a bitter laugh, a resentful one.
“You think Darsuul was a mortal, do you? True, he was a C’theran king, but he was much more. He was the Sunderer, the High King, the true king of kings. He defeated that beast using magics far surpassing that of any C’theran or Mor-dryk. He was above man, and was nearly immortal. In the Before Ages, the Anacoran fools summoned those monsters to command, but they could not leash what cannot be controlled.”
“He was a fool, Darsuul was. He killed the Egorcus, yes, but he also could not save Euphadeos. The most accomplished C’theran lived in the shining kingdom, including my family, and they had been wiped out, fodder for those demons. The carnage,” he said, and he grabbed at his heart as if the thought was too much to bear.
“He was a fool if he thought that was the end of the war. In truth, the war never ended. It’s been going on all of these years.”
Henrish looked sullen, worn out. Nyson saw a shadow pass over his face, but decided it was just the light playing tricks on his eyes. The fire flickered in the hearth, and cracked as it burned the wood.
“Did the Egorcus Darsuul fought really take the form of a bull?” he asked, studying the way the old man hobbled back to his stool. Once the old man sat back down, he resumed speaking.
“It took the form of many things, some of which I could not say ever walked this earth. It took the form of a thousand-armed beast, a winged demon, and even the towering figure of Solomon Darsuul himself, shrouded in darkness. If it ever took the form of a bull, I cannot tell, because at that time I had become very wretched indeed.”
He had started to become a Mor-dryk by then, it seemed. The curse would have taken its toll.
“A C’theran becomes a Mor-dryk by ignoring the six Disciplines,” he said in almost a whisper. “He ignores all self-restraint, and although he gains tremendous power, it deforms him. Look at me, Nyson Anthony.”
Nyson was startled, not knowing how the old man found out his name. He became wary of Henrish, for his face seemed masked in darkness, his features indefinable.
“I ignored the Disciplines of Stoic, Will, Vigor, Spirit, Mind, and Fate. I became entwined with mortal worries; of enemies and allies. I lost the love of C’theran craft as it was, unhappy with my slow advancement up the tiers of mastery, unhappy with my own flaws. I failed to work hard, and stopped practicing the sciences and religion; and most importantly, I questioned the Creator, the Sage, and cursed the fate of the world.”
He stroked his beard, looking off to the side, staring at the bookshelf. “I turned away from all that I once loved and began siphoning power from others, taking like the Egorcus the lives and powers of those around me.”
“I grew powerful enough to summon an Egorcus myself, and the feat cost me everything. I gave up my life for Darsuul, to fight for him. I became what I am by indulging in power, and for some time I was invincible. I fought the Egorcus, slaughtered Anacoran armies, but it all caught up with me. You see, C’theran powers are a symbiotic relationship; a man must not take more than the element, both must work in harmony. When a mortal reaches out and grasps too much power in his greedy palm, his wickedness shows in the physical realm, while in the spiritual he is lost beyond hope.”
Nyson nodded. He knew too well how the temptation of power could sway even the most responsible C’theran; he himself almost succumbed to the power, once. But it was interesting to hear that this man, Henrish, had become twisted in order to help fight the Egorcus. He had gained power to summon the very thing he had been trying to fight.
“Didn’t you know, then, that you could not control them? You say you gave up your life, that you learned how to summon those demons. What use were they to you, if you could not handle such beasts?”
“Darsuul could! Darsuul needed them, could sway their raging minds and quell the maelstrom that was their blackest souls to do his bidding, the one thing that the Anacorans could never do!” His voice rose in pitch and volume, his breath becoming strained.
“Did you know that Anacorans arrived here just this morning? Did you know that they, too, were looking for me?”
Nyson’s mouth dropped. So, the boy had not been mistaken; he had actually seen the Scarlet Ouzel. From the looks of the earth around the road, there had been many of them. Where have they all gone?
“Yes, I can see your eyes widen!” the blind man shouted. “They searched for me; they needed me to tell them the secret to raising Egorcus, for that tainted art has long died in their culture. They brought pyromancers and enchanters and would have burned the forest to ashes. I care not for the quarrels of mortal men, and dearly love the Wood. So I told them how to raise the Egorcus!”
“You fool!” Nyson nearly screamed as he leapt from his chair. He foguth the urge to slap the man, feeble as he may be. “You damned old fool! They will unleash Hell unto earth and with it the millions of lives swallowed by those beasts will be on your shoulders!”
The old man cackled once again. He began rubbing his twisted hands, almost as if he were washing them. He clawed at his hands angrily, scraping at whatever invisible stain marked them. The shadow grew on his face, spreading to his arms. Then he leapt from his stool, sending it flying backward.
“Ye miserable cur! Darsuul was a half-breed like you, and yet the gods chose him to be Sunderer. He did not deform as Mor-dryk’s do; he was allowed ultimate power! He walked like a man, but had the pleasure of power second to none. Why must I be confined in this prison of a body, for acts which I did solely to serve him, to serve all of Lyrycul?” He overturned the table with inhuman strength as Nyson jumped from his chair. He drew his blade, poised for defense. The old man turned to him.
“You, you are not from here. You are an Atlivian mutt, yet you are not a C’theran as you have believed for so long. You smell like him!”
Suddenly, the floor began to crack, and roots began to push into the cottage. The fire blazed in the hearth, a raging inferno. The Mor-dryk was losing his sanity inside his own home.
“Once again, the old Sage has chosen a weak substitute for a hero. A poor choice for his creations, in the end. The Egorcus will rise again.”
The fire seemed to explode behind the old man, flaring out and turning the wood it was burning to ashes instantaneously.
“They promised me ultimate power, so long as I brought them the head of the next Sunderer!”
The fire revealed a crazed look on the man’s face, for it was warped beyond comprehension. His mouth was wide, stretching from ear to ear; his eyes misted over yet emitted a supernatural glow. Nyson slashed at the writhing roots, which squirmed through cracks in the floor, cutting off limbs and tendrils which began to gush a sappy liquid that saturated everything. The roots clawed at his cloak, grasped for his neck, but he continued to slice through root after root. The floorboards began to part, revealing a network of squirming vines and stalks beneath the small cottage. The plants were snaking up the walls, coming toward him.
One vine slashed at his ankle, and Nyson could feel the thorn on the stalks cut in. Another root came up to trip him, but he jumped up and backed away in time.
Nyson whispered a counter spell but it barely had effect, for his Discipline would not be a match for the sheer power a crazed Mor-dryk could unleash. He must restrain himself from using his abilities to its fullest, which was one of the reasons that there were not many C’theran anymore.
Yet something strange came over him, an unusual sense of thrill, something in him began to stir. He felt that breaking the Discipline was the right thing to do, and he opened the reach of his powers wider.
The vines shrank back, sucked of their energy, and crumpled to the floor. Roots which pushed up from the floor began to squirm and burst all around him. He muttered a possession spell and ceased the animated plants, returning them to their dormant and normal states.
Henrish began ululating in a bizarre tongue, no doubt calling on his powers. He began talking, most of his sentences just random sound, but one sentence stood out clearly: “The Sunderer has returned, embodiment of all man and magic, and yet Lyrycul will fall.”
Suddenly, the chanting of Henrish ceased as he grasped at his chest, and the old man collapsed on the floor, his mangled body twitching.
Nyson was sweating wildly, unsure of what he had just experienced. Did the old man mean that he was a reincarnation of Solomon Darsuul? There was no way he could be the Sunderer; he was just a regular man, a mutt, a merchant.
Nyson knelt at the old man’s side, saw that he was still breathing. He bent low to hear the whispered words he was saying. “Darsuul reached the ninth tier and still did not have enough strength to conquer the Abyss waiting in the Hells. He was something else, and so too are you. In a fit of vengeance I hath wrought the world and sealed its fate, the Egorcus will take over. Only the Sunderer can save us. Forgive me; I leave you now to a fate which has been coming to me for centuries.”
In an even lower whisper, he said, “Go to the desert by the Marchessies. Seek the Diviners. They are not merely myth, they are beings older than time. They have seen many times, many dark things have crossed their paths. They will give you answers, but be aware. They are a strange race,” and with a final heaving breath, he said, “Forgive me for betraying you, Darsuul.”
Then he died, the last breath of life escaping him, the shadow fleeing from his face. His body seemed to crumple inward, his brittle and porous bones caving in. He literally withered, his body becoming nothing more than dried soot. It was a rare sight to see a Mor-dryk die, to become one with their element once again, after such a long seperation. It was also a frightening thing. His mind had shattered once he made contact with Nyson, and it was his presence that killed the old man, he was sure.
Nyson stood up and hastily walked outside, and was nearly blinded by the light filtering through the treetops, even though evening had fallen. Sinclair stood with the horses twenty yards away, and when she saw him emerge from the cabin, she began sprinting toward him.
“What in the Hells happened in there?” she called. “The trees around the cottage began to shake, and I could swear I heard them whispering. These woods trouble me!”
Nyson didn’t bother explaining. He strode past her and jumped on his horse.
“Get on your mount. We travel to Atlivia.”