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CHAPTER NINE

Morgynn descended the spiraling stairway in a daze, feeling the tingle of magic across her skin and the heat of its passing in her veins. She cast as she skipped down the steps, twirling the words of her spell gracefully past her lips. The warmth of the magic flared on her bare throat, humming on her vocal cords. Her body trembled, flesh rippling as the power took shape. The tips of her fingers blackened, becoming shadowy and transparent. The transformation crawled up her arms, leaving an ephemeral darkness in its wake. She smiled and gasped as the change reached her throat, turning her lips and mouth into a ragged hole and condensing her eyes into tiny points of white light.

Her hair was a black flame tossed in unceasing winds in a realm beyond the tower. The change complete, she felt her bare feet escape gravity and she floated above the floor, an incorporeal shred of staring darkness. She was the very picture of the soul she imagined she still carried inside, lost in time, possibly still buried in the dirt of Narfell. She looked to the distant ceiling, the floor of her chamber above, and remembered a time when she had been in another hole, looking up into the eyes of righteous barbarians. The Sedras had come to lay waste to all that she'd accomplished since leaving them. Her mother, brandishing mace and shield, summoned fires from that god of dawn and flame, Lathander. She blinked, as best she could without true eyes or lids in her wraithlike form. Her vision adjusted back to the present shadows above, showing her old stone and the fine, spidery cracks of age. She looked down and floated toward the wall, melting through it and peering out its edge at the mumbling priest who drew smoking runes into the surface of the stone. He could not see her. His eyes fluttered behind a mask of sinewy muscle and bone, lost in arcane mumbling and malignant prayers. She slunk downward and drifted along the ground beneath him like a stream of brackish water, barely a shadow among those cast by the glowing orbs of the wizard-priests. She wished to avoid Talmen, keeping her secrets to herself. Taking the wraithform was less efficient than teleporting, but she enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness and the constant chill of its nature. The cold was as familiar and numbing as the windswept plains of her childhood. Across the stones she flowed, under and through them, making her way to the forest and the pale trees Khaemil had told her about. She'd sensed them before and had thought of ignoring them, but her mind changed along with her mood. Their presence intrigued her more than their defiance made them a nuisance. A use could be found for such allies-their obvious fear of her made them perfect for service. Well away from the eyes of the Gargauthans, and Talmen in particular, she glided past the first few trees, sliding through low-hanging limbs and clawlike branches. Tasting their bitter bark through her misty form, she sensed ancient magic still pulsing in the sap and roots. She envied the kind of power that had changed this once peaceful forest into a haven of monsters and perversions of nature. A Calishite, she'd been told, had cursed the forest and the city of Qurth hundreds of years earlier during the Mage Purges of the Shoon Dynasty. That fallen wizard's spell had destroyed the cities now buried in the Qurth Forest. The forest's magic became centered on the city of Qurth, where the Calishite had been executed. The lingering potency of that magic clung like an invisible mist to everything around her. She swam in arcane currents that thrived and spread like a living creature, born of a mob's righteous vitriol and the Calishite's violent death. Close to her destination, she stopped her vaporous travel and cancelled the spell, feeling well protected from prying eyes. She regretted ending the magic even as blood flooded her limbs and breast, an onslaught of beating warmth that blushed her skin for a moment as it returned. She stood on a thick carpet of dead leaves, dark green grass, and vines that flourished in the forest's interior.

Sprawling bushes of razorvine and bloodthorn surrounded her as she casually walked between their reaching tendrils. She brushed her hands across the tops of razorleaf bushes as she passed. Cousin to the razorvine, its leaves were hard and sharp, whipping against the flesh on stiff stems to open wounds that fed its thick, knotted root system.

Bright yellow berries tempted the creatures of the forest to pass within reach. The addictive toxin in those berries assured the return of animals large enough to survive the wounds. Although scarred, some forest creatures returned often to sate themselves and the hungry plant. Morgynn admired the simplicity of the plant's resources as she watched the leaves slice her hands and wrists, imagining the frustration when the wounds quickly closed, refusing to feed the plant's appetite. The razorvines and bloodthorns lashed her calves as she passed, receiving equal reward for their efforts. The forest, impassable for some, was to her a savage and malicious garden of delights and wonder. Her progress was unhindered where others might fall and become food for the vicious foliage. This thought gave her short and hidden journey purpose, bringing her to a solution that stood in the form of three white oak trees. As Morgynn stepped into the semicircle of oaks in the small grove, pale leaves shook, creating a feline hiss, despite the wind being gentle this far into the forest.

Their trunks were a blend of white and ash colors, looking almost petrified if not for the sharp-angled leaves that hung from gracefully twisting branches. Morgynn could feel their presence, hiding behind the bark, peering from knotholes and the healed cracks of old wounds.

Her feet felt the shuddering of long roots beneath the ground, trembling at her approach. The hissing turned to whispers. Syllables and voices hid in a cacophony of tiny noises, growing into a wave of sound and sylvan magic that carried the scents of decay and tainted soil. The bark writhed and flowed like liquid as the power sought to overcome her. A chorus of words and soothing chants filled her mind, flowing through her and seeking weaknesses in her spirit. Her previous amusement with this encounter was gone. Though she'd expected resistance, this outright assault made her angry. In kind, she cast a spell of her own. She wove her words around theirs, countering their effects and wrapping around those seeking songs with melodies of thorns. Her magic followed the charms back to the trees, to the roots, to branches and leaves, a burning and stinging surge of power. The whispering stopped, and the grove was silent a moment before screams and shrieks shook the branches, sending a shower of autumn leaves down on Morgynn's feet. Bark erupted in violent movement. Twigs grew, sprouting clawed fingers, then withdrew back into the trunks. Mouths opened and closed around knotholes and veins in the wood, exposing needlelike fangs and tongues of pale green. Agony permeated the oaks and subsided only at Morgynn's word, and she enjoyed feeling their suffering through the forced link between them. The power they had sought to work upon her retreated swiftly once freed. She had barely released the magic before a trio of rasping, feminine voices erupted from the trees. "Why do you torment us? Leave us, and keep your ruins!" The voices overlapped and echoed each other. Morgynn reined in her own emotions, adopting a tone of diplomacy. "Why do you defy me when there is much we could share with one another?" "The forest is ours!" The trees' branches shook with each word, emphasizing their rage and hatred at this mortal woman. "This forest will belong to the hearths and homes of your enemies, should I so will it!" The oaks fell silent, considering Morgynn's words and weighing her possible power.

She knew she had struck a nerve by threatening the forest itself.

Though they were of a darker nature, nature was still their life's blood. Finally they replied. "Your boasts are hollow, human. Such magic has not walked the Realms for centuries." Morgynn heard an edge of hesitation in their voices and noticed pale, red eyes blossoming like sick flowers from their trunks, looking her up and down. "You are correct. Power such as I claim is old and forgotten, a relic sought and rarely found." Laughter was their response, mocking her bluff and echoing through the forest like a swarm of insects and snapping twigs.

Morgynn smiled back at them, enjoying the moment and cupping a hand next to a small pouch at her belt. At a word of command the pouch responded, sending its contents into her open palm. She closed her fingers around the object. She held her fist forward, palm upward, fighting the trembling anger that hid behind her cool facade. Staring daggers into the trees, their pale crimson orbs regarded her curiously as they continued to giggle and chuckle. Opening her clenched fingers, she revealed an ebon object resting within them. The trees' laughter slowed and hesitation returned to their chortling voices as they beheld her prize. A smooth stone of marble it seemed, black as night, with lightning veins of ivory shot through its surface. What they could not see were the minuscule writing, ancient runes, and spells inscribed on its surface in ivory ink. All was written in a language long feared and considered taboo by the superstitious of the Border Kingdoms and Calimshan. It was the alphabet of the djinn, the ancient masters of the Old Empire that had stretched from the Shining Sea to the far edges of the Lake of Steam. Though the letters and meanings were invisible to them, the stone's power radiated like a cold sun, draining their mirth and sobering their attentions. "Do you know what this is?" Morgynn stared at the three massive oaks over the top of the black bauble. Though smooth and glassy, it reflected nothing around it, not even the brief flashes of lightning through the branches above. Their silence and trepidation answered her question as she stepped closer, bringing the stone's icy aura closer to them, letting its chill settle on their exposed roots, which squirmed almost imperceptibly, trying to sink further into the dirt, away from its touch. "It is called the Stone of Memnon. Do not be fooled by the ice in its heart. It carries the flame of the fire djinn, the efreet."

"Take it away!" The voices returned fully to their fear and Morgynn saw the foliage at the perimeter of the grove shifting and crawling, the razorvines and bloodthorns responding to the sylvan call of the oaks' inhabitants. Their crimson eyes disappeared, folding closed and melting back into the security of the white bark and the wooded flesh beneath. Sensing their intent, Morgynn called a sphere of force around herself, snapping the words of the spell out like a whip, just as the animated plants lunged, uncoiling their greenish black tentacles. They thrashed against the sphere's transparent surface and the grove grew darker as the living forest enshrouded the unbreakable magic. Only Morgynn and the three oaks stood within her sphere, with her threat still pulsing in the palm of her outstretched hand. "This tiny stone will shrivel your roots, bleed you dry, and reduce this forest to a wasted desert. This is the relic sought and rarely found, a sample of that old magic that ruled kingdoms and laid them to rest." Morgynn turned the stone over and grasped it between her thumb and index finger. "Shall I plant it here with you?" Only the serpentine wall of vines and thorns made any sound, creaking and rustling against the barrier, growing thicker and darker. Quietly, almost conspiratorially, one soft, dry voice spoke without the others, "Your tower will be exposed. Your threat still rings hollow." The other two voices hissed from within their trees, attempting to silence the third. "True, but I will be alive to deal with the consequences. You three will be dead, along with your oaks." Several branches moved then and Morgynn tensed, prepared to punish them again for further defiance, but the white limbs shifted, entwining in each other's embrace. Their horrible whispers were quieter now, directed at one another, the sound of dry leaves blowing in a winter wind on a barren field. As they conversed, the animated plants surrounding the grove retreated, falling away to their roots and shadows, resuming their passive roles and hungry waiting. A blood-thorn snapped behind her, ensnaring a screaming animal flushed out by the commotion. Its cries weakened as the thirsty plant drained its tainted blood. Sensing growing wisdom in the strange discussion between the pale oaks, Morgynn lowered her arm but still held the stone in her fist. She had no desire to drain the artifact at that moment. She would sooner destroy the three with her own power than waste such a treasure. Finally, a consensus reached, the branches untangled from one another and returned to their natural positions.

The pale eyes appeared again, shyly from behind the trees, hiding themselves as they once again spoke in unison. "We will comply. The pale sisters are at your service, but we keep our loyalty to ourselves." Morgynn smiled and returned the stone to her pouch, removing its chill from the already cool air. "A wise decision, ladies. Enjoy your forest for now, and hamper not my minions. I shall call upon you when the time comes." She turned her back on them and returned to the deeper forest, still wary of treachery but trusting her instincts. As her shell of force dissolved, the winds of the storm rushed back to life in the grove. The treetops swayed as fallen leaves mumbled and spun in the pull of greater forces.



***** | Bloodwalk | *****