Part One: The Culling
Chapter One: Dark Beginning
The fire snapped. The sound resonated throughout the quiet woods around him. What manner of creatures would have heard that noise, and what would they think of it? These cursed woods concealed many dangers, all of which he would hopefully never see. In decades past he had always heard the tales of this place and had known never to venture within its borders, for the Darkwood was corrupt and evil. None who had come into the Darkwood far enough to see its horrors had returned unscathed. In fact of matter, most who had come into the Darkwood had not returned at all.
He had come as prepared as he could. Now, clad in tough leather armor, he sat staring at the fire. He held his hands out, forcing the light away from his eyes as he strained to see into the darkened wood around him. His dark skin tone made his hands blend in with the darkness. If it weren’t for the warm, yellow glow of the fire he would not be able to see himself at all for the leathers he wore had been dyed as black as his own skin.
The darkness that surrounded the raging flames blotted out the rest of the world for the time being. The man lowered his eyes to the ground and slid his foot through the dirt. His long, white hair hung down in his eyes. He reached up with his hands to pull his hair behind his head. Thankfully, he thought, he had allowed it to grow long enough to rest on his shoulders and not fall again.
His leather clad foot swept away a pile of dirt as he stared absent-mindedly at the ground. The resounding quiet of the woods chilled him to the bone. In no instant could he possibly feel at ease with the darkness that seemed to creep around him. The complete absence of sound in the depths of the shadows only fed his apprehension as he attempted to concentrate on the dirt at his feet.
A sudden howl pierced the silence, rousing him from his mind-state. The howl was like none he had heard before, more feral and primitive than any beast he had ever seen or heard of. The sound was cut off as abruptly as it started, punctuating the frightening setting in its termination. Yet again he was plunged into silence. No owls called out, no insects chirped. There was only the crackle of the fire before him and the eerie silence without.
The whisper inside beckoned him. It was intangible, and yet so eerily undeniable. It focused his mind on the forest beyond his camp fire. He began to understand the purpose of this recent beckoning. Ever since he had arrived in the forest the will to press on had dominated his mind. Seeds of determination had been planted inside him at the bequest of a spectral voice. Indeed, even when he had set down for the night and made a fire, the voice had not stopped. It continued to beckon him, never ceasing for a moment. It was almost as though the thoughts were enough to physically pull him from the ground and drag him along the road to his destination, wherever that may be.
A cold chill ran up his spine and feeling of urgency rang out in his mind, placed there by an entity that lurked somewhere off in the darkness, a voice still tugging at his mind. He knew this feeling well as the cold sentience had been drifting trough his mind for several weeks now. The feeling was accompanied by a wisp of fog that lifted up from behind him and wrapped around the rock he had perched upon. As he turned his head to look behind he watched in horror as strands of wispy fog wound their way in between the dark, twisted trees that framed the small clearing.
The fog crept into the clearing like a silent stalker in the darkness. Its almost ethereal mass swelled up from the forest and enveloped him. He stood, frightened by the phenomena, and staggered around his campfire as the fog pushed onward to envelope it. Slowly the fire began to change. It was almost a figment of his imagination at first, but soon it became apparent that the color of the flames had paled to a cold shade of blue. As he backed away from the encroaching fog the fire died slightly, paling further into a dark shade of gray. The fire no longer gave off a warm yellow light in the clearing, but rather reflected itself through the white mist as it was blotted out by the silent predator.
He squeezed his eyes shut in disbelief of the mist. Slowly backing away from the fire, he opened them again, hoping that the silent predator would be gone. He gasped as his eyes came back on the clearing to find the creeping wisps still reaching for him. He tripped on the roots of a tree and fell on his back. A cold sweat broke out on his face as he realized he had already reached the edge of the clearing, the darkness that loomed above his head stared blankly back at him as he panted in cold fear.
Turning over on his side he scrambled against the trunk of a nearby tree for purchase, pulling himself to his knees as a patch of mist swelled up at his feet. He cried out as he pulled himself to his feet and stumbled into the undergrowth, fearful of the sentient fog.
He pressed on into the darkness, casting his eyes behind him cautiously as he walked, wary of the creeping strands of fog. The dark woods stretched onwards indefinitely, it seemed. He stumbled over countless roots as he walked. There had been no visible path that he had seen since he entered the cursed woods, forcing him to trudge through the undergrowth. He stumbled through the trees ahead. The twisting trees only darkened the scene more. The trees had grown, it seemed, in all different directions. Their charcoal black bark was warped in all sorts of strange curves that made the forest look alive. At times some of the trees appeared to have faces etched out of their trunks and branches that hung low and splintered out into warped fingers of wood.
The voice tugged at his mind once more. At times he thought he was losing his mind. Perhaps the vestiges of his life had driven him to madness, but deep inside he knew that this was not the case. This presence that spoke to him was not his own. It was the voice of another. And while it compelled him to strange and irrational acts, he still was aware of his own actions and conscious of his own decisions. While the actions he undertook through will of some ethereal instructor had been strange and at times unconventional, he derived pleasure from their completion. Not a pleasure he would have sought on his own, but one he felt nonetheless.
He had not questioned his actions when he turned his blade to his friends. That guild of rogues back in Goran had not had the slightest chance to stop him. He lived his entire life within their halls and his mentors had held him in the highest esteem. In truth, were it not for this invasion of his mind by this spectral voice, he would be there today. He would be with good company. His family, friends and colleagues would still be alive. He would drink with them, and work with them, and cherish their good company. But today is not that day. That day will never come, because they were all dead, victims of the whisper taken hold on his mind. While he could not envision a day when he would regret his actions, he could not help but feel that if this voice had not been pervading his thoughts he may have felt the deepest remorse imaginable.
Everything that was kind to him in the world was gone, burned by his own torch. He remembered days of wandering the streets as a child, stealing from the pockets of the rich and running from the soldiers. He had witnessed atrocities committed by the tyrant Goranin. He saw women and children sewn into the belly of a dead horse and left to die themselves. Men drowned in a bath of blood, collected from brutalized, beaten and beheaded prisoners hung above from hooks. How could these things not have changed him? But these things had not dulled his humanity so much that he would have murdered his brethren in cold blood. A shiver ran up his spine as he thought of the cold precision with which he dispatched his own brothers in arms. He had taken pleasure in the act. He had executed the spectral command without a second thought. He had betrayed his own blood to the whim of another whose power he could not yet comprehend.
The road ahead of him was made clear in his thoughts, although he could not see any discernable destination. The darkness between the trees obscured his vision. He was reassured from within that he was on the correct path. The voice seemed to creep farther into his mind, making it harder to discern his own thoughts. Somehow the spectral voice within him had the power to assuage his fears of this place. He walked on at a brisk pace, suddenly devoid of any caution.
He wondered casually what he would find ahead. What treasure, or perhaps, what horror would be awaiting his hands at the end of the road he was on? It was his first reflex to wonder of worth, it could not be helped. His life as a rogue had taught him these things. The voice permeated his thoughts again, clearer this time. It told him to focus on the road and not the goal. It told him that his greed would be assuaged when he had crossed the threshold. It told him that he did not need to concern himself of its worth. He pressed on.
The power of the voice was growing. He could now hear the voice in his conscious mind as clearly as his own thoughts. The voice no longer came to him through instinct and intuition. He now could understand the will of the thing. Soon, he decided, he would be able to hear the voice in his head as if it were being spoken aloud. He assumed that it would still be as ghostly as it ever was. This voice that had spoken to him for so long now could not be anything born naturally. The harshness of its demands and the utter lack of concern for consequences could not come from any mortal. At the very least, it could not have a soul.
He decided that whatever will could force acts on him such as he had performed would be that of a powerful enough entity to secure any reward that he could conceive. He also decided that if a being of this magnitude would beckon him, it would have a purpose. A smile grew on his dark countenance as he thought of the pleasure he would derive from his next task, his fears of the Darkwood almost completely dissipated.
The trees parted ahead of him as he walked to the edge of a ravine. The shadows of the night deepened beyond the trees, concealing the ground ahead. As he reached this edge of the trees he had a small revelation. He had not considered until then that whatever voice was speaking to him was beckoning him to its location. This would support the recent rise in clarity of the voice in his mind.
As he strained to see the slope of the ravine before him a small wisp of mist licked around his ankles. Startled, he spun around, almost tumbling over into the darkness below. The voice spoke to him, almost tangible, soothing his apprehension. As he watched the fog began to wind its way down into the ravine, betraying the downward slope. His nerves began to calm themselves at this sight and he began his decent down the ravine slope.
Questions flashed through his mind as he walked. Why had this being chosen him? He was one man, one dark elf. He was not of noble birthright. He had not even arisen to a title within his own guild back in Goran. He laughed in his own lapse in memory. Whatever title he may have held with the rogues would be of little consequence now. He had nothing but his stealth and his short sword to offer in service. He felt hardly worthy of whatever omnipresent entity had brought him to this place, this dark forest. Again his mind rested on his presence in this forsaken place. It was to his advantage that the forest held a bountiful environment for a rogue of his talent. It was also true that whatever inhabitants this forest held had equal sway over the environment.
The voice invaded his thoughts in a resounding thrash of command. It beckoned him to press on and ignore his own thoughts for only a short while longer. Ahead of him was a creek, nestled into the bottom of the ravine. It trickled on ahead of him as the ravine twisted onwards, dark warped trees rooted in at angles creating an intermittent canopy over it. As he walked along the creek he heard another howl in the distance. A purely primal howl, the likes of which he had heard from no other creature he had ever encountered beyond the boundaries of this accursed place. The voice had no need to assuage his fears anymore, for he had spent enough time wandering amongst the twisting forest that he knew there were powerful wardings placed around him to hold the evil of the Darkwood at bay and allow him safe passage.
As he walked he heard the howling again, from another direction. Soon this howl was answered by another, almost challenging howl. Deep within the forest two animals spoke to each other in a tongue he felt he would soon understand. As feral and primitive as these beasts were he felt a lessening of fear towards them, engineered by his safe passage thus far. No tales of the Darkwood had ever alluded to this kind of safety beneath its haunted canopy.
He followed the creek through the border of trees that became ever smaller, enclosing him and leaving only the creek to forge the path ahead. Soon, it seemed he was buried beneath a tunnel of foliage and the moonlight above only pierced the dense canopy sporadically. As he walked farther along he watched the creek unravel ahead of him. The farther he walked alongside it the more the waters seemed to pulse ahead, as if driven by some unseen force.
Suddenly he realized that the air had become still. When he turned to look behind, he was surprised to see the fog that had so coated the ground minutes earlier had lifted. As he looked around he also wondered to himself why the trees within the ravine had come together in such a tightly woven tunnel around the creek. Looking down at the creek again, he could see it clearly now. He had been right about it, it was pulsing along. This ravine had leveled out long ago and there was no breeze to push the waters along and yet the creek pulsed along. The forest now seemed more alive now than it ever had.
The voice tugged at him again, even more forceful than before. It told him that his questions would be answered inside. He wondered how much deeper into the trees he would be going and pressed on. Soon thereafter the shreds of moonlight had been extinguished and replaced with the smell of earth. His cold eyes almost began to glow, set against his dark blue complexion.
His body all but faded within the encroaching darkness of a cave ahead as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. His blood and his life were to thank for his vision. His race was known for their ability to see in the dark and blend in with the shadows. The dark elves had evolved within the confined of underground cities giving every generation better night vision than the last. Despite his excellent visual acuity, it seemed he had relied on the moonlight for a great deal of time. It had seemed that the Darkwood was coated in a deeper shade than the rest of the lands at night, yet another haunting trait it harbored.
The cave stretched only a little farther before it opened into a small room. The walls were made of loose dirt, carved out of a hillside by some unknown means. This place would have been ideal for some forest nightmare’s home and yet it was devoid of any such presence. As he cast his eyes to the back he realized why this was so. Set into the back wall was a large stone door, fixated in the dirt as if it were build specifically so. As he drew closer to it he could see the stone surface that extended from the doorframe, betraying the larger construct buried within he hillside.
He walked to the door and placed his hand on it, feeling a cold chill wash over him. The door was colder than the air within the room, he could feel the icy hand of death within the chamber beyond. Placing his other hand on the door he pushed against it. Despite his strength the door would not move from its resting place.
“Speak your name,” came a cold voice in his head.
As a testament to his steadfast heart and the pleasure he derived from the will he thought nothing of this boldness. He had come so close to the being that called him that he could now hear its voice, just as he had imagined he would. And, just as he imagined, the voice was as cold and devoid of life as anything still tethered to the world could be.
He spoke, “Seulis.”
The door gave way beneath his hands, the spectral force that bound it in place removed. The sound of stone grinding against stone filled the cavern. As quiet as the grinding was it had been the first real sound that played in the seemingly long time it had been since he had entered the tunnel behind him.
The shadows ahead of him deepened at first, then the room was illuminated from above, where a ray of moonlight shone down into the chamber. The ray of pale light fell upon a large stone coffin set into the middle of a room whose walls could not be seen, covered in shadow as they were. And although the darkness seemed to play a sense of depth into the scene, Seulis felt a sense of claustrophobia standing in the doorway.
“I am here,” Seulis announced.
Seulis walked towards the stone coffin and placed his hand on it. A chill crept up his arm. The stone was not cold to the touch itself, but created an aura that could be almost seen if he looked hard enough. He assumed the aura emanated from what was inside the coffin. It chilled the entire room.
Seulis kneeled down and placed his hands on the lid, confident in his exploration. He pushed the lid to the floor with little difficulty as if it had a will of its own to be cast to the ground. As the coffin lid slid to the side the sound of scraping stone again filled the chamber, followed by the resounding thump it made when it fell to rest on the floor. The stench of decay issued forth from the coffin, forcing Seulis to turn his head and gag almost immediately. He had time to glimpse the rotting corpse within for only a brief moment. The tall corpse had been laid to rest in the most vile fashion imaginable. In the instant he could view it he recognized that it had not been laid into the coffin of its own accord.
As he knelt on the floor and hacked and coughed in a vain effort to rid himself of the vile stench the voice came to him again, “Welcome, Seulis.”
“Who speaks?” Seulis demanded.
“Lore holds no mention of my name in this time.”
“Then how will I know you?”
“You will know me by the cold chill that runs down your spine. And by the voice that commands your attention.”
“What am I here for?”
“I will allow you to know all you need to know when you are ready. You need not ask questions of one such as I. You need only follow instructions.”
Seulis nodded his head in acceptance. A small pang of doubt clung in his mind. He did not like being manipulated in this manner. The presence within the room was quick to assuage these doubts however.
“You know why you are here. Do not cloud your mind with doubt. You will discover within yourself the reasoning behind your actions soon.”
“Tell me of my path,” Seulis’ tone changed to that of curiosity. “What manner of deeds would you have me dispatch with.”
The sharp caw of a raven sounded from above. Looking above, Seulis glimpsed the shadow of a descending bird passing through the opening overhead. The bird landed on the edge of the coffin, drawing his eyes toward the corpse. It was rather ornately dressed and well preserved. It wore the garb of a magi. The robe was stained with a dark red, deeper than the reddest blood and deepened even further by the layers of dust and cobwebs stretched across the body. The arms and legs of the corpse were bent at odd angles, as if the man died in his last desperate attempt to wrench himself from whatever wretched force was holding him here.
As Seulis looked closer he thought he had seen color within the corpse. At first he dismissed it as the ever present haunting effect the Darkwood had on him. Then on second glance he realized it was something else. Upon closer inspection he saw a rush of crimson sweep through the corpse just below the skin. Whatever presence had been in his thoughts was here, within the body.
The pumping of blood through this decrepit shell explained all he needed to know about this place. The essence that had permeated his thoughts was deep within the body at the source of the blood. He could hear it now, a dark heart pumping vitriol through the cadaver. Suddenly he wanted the heart for his own. Pulling the dagger from his ankle he stabbed the corpse between the ribcage. The corpse gave a puff of dust as air escaped the decaying inside, and again he was bombarded by the smell of decay. He shook his head, frustrated but not deterred, and forced his hands into the opening, casting the dagger aside. He tugged at the ribcage and the decayed flesh ripped open, casting the foul odor across the room. Seulis could not help but turn away and retch. The stench that clung in the air was almost too terrible to bare.
Slowly he regained his composure. He spat on the floor in an effort to rid his mouth of the foul taste, but the stench clung to everything in the room now and he would be forced to endure it. Forcing himself back to the corpse he saw the object of his selfish desire. The crimson heart rested within the ribcage, still beating, still pumping blood throughout the body. This is why the corpse had not been reduced to bones in its long time here. This unnatural heart kept the last vestiges of the body alive and preserved. While the remainder of the innards had long since turned to dust the veins and flesh attached to the bones had endured.
Seulis grasped the heart in this hand, feeling its warmth pierce his numb hands. The pulsing heart provided the first hint of warmth he had felt since he had entered the forest. Even while he was watching the fire so recently he did not feel any warmth in the forest. And now, touching this warm membrane, his whole body felt frozen. Every part of his body suddenly felt stiff in the cold. Muscles he had not felt in days suddenly cried out in pain. And he then had a stunning realization. He was no longer alive. Long ago he had died at the campfire. He had not realized it until now, but he suddenly remembered his life in flashes up until it had ceased. He saw a foray of blades in a dark alley. He saw flashes of a royal insignia that he could only assume was the house Macallel. Then his past faded away. The realization that he was dead set in quickly and his mind turned back to the heart. He would consume the heart and it would give him strength, give him life.
All at once he ripped the heart from its nest in the ribcage and plunged his teeth into it. Greedily he swelled at the heart, rending flesh with his teeth as best he could. Sloppily, flesh was cast aside as he consumed what he could. When he had finished with the bulk of the heart he scrambled across the floor, savagely looking for discarded pieces of flesh. When he was satisfied that he had consumed the heart in its entirety he stood and watched the corpse.
Dark laughter resounded through his head, booming at first and then ear shattering. A twinge of pain issued forth from his stomach, giving him cause to shudder. He clutched his stomach as the pain became more and more intense, all the while the laughter increased. Seulis fell to the floor, his body wracked by pain. He convulsed on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. Seconds stretched into minutes, and minutes into hours and his senses were overwhelmed by pain, and dark laughter that no longer originated from outside. Now the laughter was one with Seulis. It mocked his suffering from inside, forever more entwined with his own conscious, a terrible intelligence from which Seulis would have no escape.