The door was forcefully kicked down. It flew off its hinges and crashed to the floor as several men in the official armor of the king's guard surged into the tavern. The guardsmen formed a line and drew their swords, pointing them all at the lone figure sitting by the bar and sipping his ale as if the armed men behind him were not there at all.
Another man entered through the doorway, bearing the mark of a captain. He held open a scroll and cleared his throat. "Hear ye! Hear ye!" he called. "Let it be known to all that the wizard known as Morphius the Eternal has been declared an enemy of the throne by decree of His Royal Highness; King Thedran IV of Tordinell!" The robed figure by the bar seemed to be studying his ale very closely. "For the heinous crime of theft from the King's possessions: the wizard Morphius is hereby sentenced to death by the sword!" The wizard finally turned to look at the guards assembled behind him and sipped from his pint once more before setting it down on the bar. "The condemned would like a few last words, if he may" he said. The captain shrugged and motioned for him to carry on. "First of all:" Morphius began. "I would like to point out the fact that a woman could hardly be described as a possession, secondly, I don't believe it counts as theft to spend one night with said woman, and thirdly" the wizard paused and glanced at his pint before continuing. "Good drink is an oddity to come by, and this is the finest ale I've had all month. Thus, it sort of bugs me to be interrupted in the middle of my pint." With those words he turned back to bar and sipped his ale anew.
The captain blinked twice before drawing his own sword and short speaking two words: "Kill him!"
The guardsmen started advancing upon the young wizard. Morphius leant over to the innkeeper. "Excuse me?" he asked. "You wouldn't happen to have a sword I could borrow, do you?" The innkeeper crouched and picked up his own weapon before handing it to the wizard. Morphius nodded in thanks and turned to the guards again. One of them rushed forward and swung his blade. The wizard ducked under the weapon and whacked the man's wrist with the flat side of his own sword. The guard dropped the weapon and was immediately smacked in his neck by his opponent's hilt. The guard dropped to the ground, out cold, but otherwise unharmed. Morphius smiled sweetly "Next please." The following nine guards were all put down in a similar way, non-lethally, until only the captain was left.
Morphius looked at him. "You know what?" he said. "I don't particularly feel like fighting you at the moment, and we both know how another swordfight would end, so you might as well stand down and spare yourself a humiliating defeat." The wizard turned back to the bar and thanked the innkeeper for the loan. The captain suddenly rushed forward, raising his blade to strike down the arrogant youth. The robed man whirled around and raised his arm, his eyes flashed white and a ball of energy flew from his palm and smashed into the charging soldier, sending him flying into a nearby table. Morphius quickly checked the man's pulse and was relieved to find him alive and well. Striding back to the bar, the wizard pulled a bag of gold from his belt and dropped it at the counter. "I'd use that gold to buy a horse and skip town if I were you, friend." He nudged a guard with his boot. "Preferably before they wake up."
Morphius saw the innkeeper disappear down the road and out of sight safely before fetching his staff and his own sword and heading in the opposite direction and into the thick woods. He was glad to be travelling again; the time spent in Tordinell had been as pleasurable as it had been productive. Uncurling the map he had gotten from the queen after their "get-together", he struck out westward towards the mountains.
He had been walking for three days. He always walked to his destinations unless he was in a hurry. Most people who had met Morphius would agree on one thing; there was something strange about him. He did not appear extraordinary at all, however. He was not a particularly tall man, his hair was an unruly mop of deep brown and he appeared to be no more than at least twenty-three summers old. The thing most people found strange about him were his eyes. His irises were pitch black and seemed to shimmer with age and wisdom far beyond the wizard's youthful appearance. He was clad in simple blue robes fit for traveling and a similarly colored cape sporting a hood, had a rune-inscribed sword tucked into his belt and he carried a long, smooth, wooden, staff with an orb on top of it with him wherever he went.
Morphius reached his destination by sunset on the fifth day of his journey. An old, ruined, keep nestled against the mountainside. The wizard stood on a hill some feet away and surveyed the ruin. Closing his eyes and concentrating, he searched the surrounding area with his mind. The fact that he did not feel any life-force from inside the keep did not reassure him the slightest bit. Only a faint presence of dark magic grazed his mind. Opening his eyes, the wizard drew his sword, The Blade of Awe, and stepped into the shadows of the ruined keep.
The orb on top of his staff burst into flames as Morphius made his way inside. Coupled with the radiant glow of his blade and the wizard's enhanced senses, he could see fairly well. Skeletons lay strewn around him, each and every one with some sort of injury, axes buried in their skulls, arrows lodged in their eye pits and bits and pieces missing. "Pulverized by a heavy blow from a blunt weapon I gather" he muttered to himself while stepping over a shattered ribcage. "Probably a mace or a warhammer." A sound caught his attention and he stopped dead in his tracks. The faint, yet unmistakable, sound of uneven footsteps sounded from somewhere in front of him. The white flame that had engulfed the orb on his staff detached itself from the weapon and extinguished itself with a flicker of the wizard's mind. He could the footsteps approaching at a faster pace now. A howling shriek reached his ears as a skeleton missing a large portion of its skull launched itself at him, swinging an axe in wide arcs. Morphius caught the undead human's axe with his blade and deflected the blow before shoving his staff into the creature's ribcage and letting loose a flash of energy that burned out the abominable thing's unholy life-force.
The faint presence he had sensed before started to grow and soon it was nearly cripplingly painful and pounding at his mental barriers. Morphius reignited his staff, realizing that he could use the extra light and that his opponents didn't have to see him to know where he was anyway. He ran. He ran as fast as he could down the dank hallways, shattering any corpse that stood in his way with flashes of fire and light and quick slashes from his blade. He emerged through a wide doorway and found himself in a great hall or a feasting room of sorts. He swiftly closed the, thankfully intact, doors and levitated chairs and tables to block them with before quickly moving on. He made sure to close every door he came across, knowing that the undead would have to stop and hack their way through. "Thank the gods for mindless undead" the wizard thought while he ran. "Now then, if I were a court mage with a prime knowledge of the mystical winds of the arcane. Where would I have my chambers?" Making a quick decision, Morphius started heading upwards. "The higher up you get, the more powerful the winds blow. Simple, really, when you give it some thought."
The wizard threw himself; shoulder first, against the door in front of him, turned, closed the door and warded it. "That should, in theory, keep them out" he muttered. Scanning the room, he was relieved. This was most definitely the mage's chamber. The mage himself lay on his back with two arrows piercing his robe. A quick search of the chamber yielded, at least, part of his reason for coming to the cursed keep in the first place. A skull, made of a smooth and shiny black mineral, rested in the dead mage's bony hand. The corpse was clutching it tightly against its chest. Morphius bent over and managed to wrest the skull from the skeleton's grip, he then stood up and examined the artifact. He could feel a surge of energy from the skull-shaped rock, and noticed that it had a third eye pit in its forehead. "Black Arcanium" he whispered. "So this is The Obsidian Triclops." Searching the chambers again, he decided that the eyes of the Triclops weren't in the tower. Then he noticed the mage's journal lying on the table. He closed it and put it, along with the skull, in his satchel.
Searing pain shot through the wizard's mind, and he felt the dark force strike out against the ward on the door. The sheer pain made him stumble across the room and bump against a cupboard he had missed earlier. An orb, glowing sickly green, fell to the ground. The dark energy was practically bleeding from the orb and it was now hammering against him harder than ever, forcing him to his knees. Morphius gripped his blade tightly and raised it before plunging it towards the accursed orb. The second the blade struck the orb, however, both it and its wielder were flung across the chamber.
Morphius got to his knees and crawled across the floor and back to the orb. It took every ounce of his willpower to keep his mental barriers up. He knew without question; that if the malign presence invaded his mind, it would force him to break the ward on the door and then he would be just another corpse in a cursed keep.
The wizard gripped the dark orb with both of his hands. He could hear it now, a dark whisper on the edge of his mind. "You…you are not like anyone who has touched me before…" it hissed. Morphius did not respond. Doing so would require him to open his mind ever so slightly and he had a stinking feeling that it was exactly that the voice was trying for. "You…shall be my vessel! Your corpse…shall be my path into your world! Your power…shall be added to my own! And I…shall feast on the souls of the living…once again!" The wizard gritted his teeth. "Not…on my watch, you don't!" he snarled. Gathering his thoughts, he spoke again and the words shook the chamber with their power.
"Argrathenn trallgrech Dwayna, Akatosh anderal Lorithia! Korres athnar al'karath narlan hûlrendor!" The dark voice screamed in pain as the wizard's spell flooded the orb's aura with holy light and cleansing flame. Morphius held the orb until the voice drew a last gasp and its presence disappeared. He let the ward fall and opened the door. The skeletons lay dead once more. The wizard let out a heavy breath and collapsed upon the mage's bed, he hadn't been this exhausted for ages it seemed. Keeping the ward up, shielding his mind from the orb and the spell he had used to end its wretched existence had drained him completely. He closed his eyes and slept peacefully for the first time in days.
Morphius opened his eyes. He was still alive, so it appeared as though he really had done away with the evil presence for good. Sunlight shone through the window and he sat down with the mage's journal. He learned a great many things from it. It would seem that the orb's presence had raised the dead soldiers in the crypts of the keep and the laid siege to the keep itself until the living defenders had mostly starved to death, for every soldier that fell, a new one arose for the dark orb's forces. They never stood a chance.
The wizard scrolled through to the pages until he found an entry about the skull-shaped block of Arcanium he had come for in the first place. Studying the journal let him know that the three magical crystals that allowed the power of the Obsidian Triclops to be used were not in the keep, but that the mage had found out where they were kept and had a map that showed those locations hidden away in one of his tomes.
Morphius was more careful in his search of the chamber this time around, he wasn't in a life-threatening situation anymore and could carefully thread through every book in the room. He put many of the tomes in his enchanted satchel, vowing to read them thoroughly later. Several extensive searches later, he concluded that there were no maps in any of the tomes.
He sat down on the bed and sighed while rubbing his forehead. "I must've missed something" he thought grimly.
The wizard had been staring at a bookshelf for the past ten minutes when he noticed something. Part of the shelf was a different color than the rest. After investigating, he found that there had, indeed, been another book in the chamber, but it was there no longer.
He closed his eyes again and once more, he let his mind scour the surroundings. He found something. Something the presence within the orb had prevented him from noticing before. A faint hint of life that had lingered after someone who had been in the keep not too long ago. At least two weeks, at most, a month ago but they had been there and even in the chamber he was now standing in.
He was certain that whoever they were, they had the book and more so, they had only taken the tome with them and nothing else. "That means they knew what they were looking for" Morphius mused on his way out of the ruin.
The choking darkness that had plagued him on his way in had lifted, and sunlight streamed through the windows, making the trip out considerably more pleasant than the trip in. Spotting the entrance up ahead, Morphius sped up ever so slightly before halting just outside of the keep.
A spirit, clad in robes he recognized from the corpse in the chamber stood before him. The spirit observed him for a while and spoke. "Are you the one who shattered the orb and destroyed the evil within?" It asked. "Well, I never like bragging, but yes. It was I who destroyed the dark presence." The mage's spirit smiled. "You have every right to brag, young one; you have freed us all from the dark one's yoke." It said. The spirit looked at the wizard's satchel, and then back at Morphius again, still smiling. "It warms my spirit to know that my tomes are in the hands of such a brave and kindhearted young wizard. May you have good use of them on your journeys." Morphius smiled back at the spirit. "I have no doubt that I will." The spirit slowly began to dissipate. "Fare Thee Well, young wizard. May you always find knowledge wherever you turn!" the spirit said as it disappeared. "Fare Thee Well, old one. May you find rest in the Aetherium" the wizard whispered before taking off.
Morphius found the trail he had been looking for after three days of intensive searching. It led northward, into the deep forest and he was currently bending over and examining the tracks he had found.
"These tracks are far too light on the ground to be anything heavier than a human's" he murmured to himself. "And there appears to have been at least ten of them. With armor and weaponry fit for fast travel over long distances." The footprints showed that the band had indeed left in a hurry and moved off quite quickly after getting what they were here for.
The wizard wasted no time, and took off after the tracks at a fast pace over very thick forestation.
Morphius followed the trail he had found for many days, not going too fast because he knew that the humans were at least two weeks ahead of him. He leaped over a fissure in the ground and realized that the trail led into the mountains.
A large drop laid before the wizard's feet. A waterfall roared in the distance. A quick look revealed that there had been an old tree trunk spanning the gorge not too long ago. "They must not want to be followed" Morphius thought. Kneeling down and placing his hands on the ground, he started searching through the rock for anything he could use to get across. He smiled as he found a small plant growing on the side of the stony wall. He closed his eyes and gave a single command; "Ethrenn!" The small plant started growing at an exceptional pace. Soon, it acted as a natural bridge across the gap.
Morphius was about halfway across the bridge he had created when a snarl rose to his ears. A large creature stood before him. Its front legs and body resembled a great eagle with a mighty pair of wings, but the hind legs and body was that of a lion. The griffon raised its beak and let out a shrill cry against the intruder.
The wizard slowly drew his blade, knowing that the beast would attack at the first sight of sudden movement and also knowing griffons to be extremely territorial. The griffon observed its prey for some time before suddenly leaping forward with another cry of anger.
Morphius moved quickly and jumped high into the air, passing over the charging creature and landing behind it. Knowing that he was at a huge disadvantage at the narrow bridge, the wizard ran for the other side. Suddenly he felt two pairs of talons hooking onto his shoulders and saw the ground disappear beneath him. He then felt the talons letting go. He hit the ground hard, and staggered to his feet again. "Well, I wanted to get to the other side didn't I?" he thought as he winced from the pain.
The griffon swept towards him from above. The wizard raised his staff and fired a bolt of lightning at the beast. The bolt hit and the griffon screeched and dived in another direction. Morphius knew he would stand little chance against the creature if it remained in the air, and so he continued firing his magical projectiles at it, trying to force it to the ground.
The griffon landed and started circling him. The wizard turned to keep his eyes on his foe, while at the same time running the orb of his staff along the ground in a circle around himself.
The beast leapt towards the wizard. Morphius's eyes flashed and the circle he had trailed with his staff burst into blue flames.
The creature reared up on its hind legs and cried out, the wizard hefted his sword, leapt, unharmed, through the flames and sunk the blade into the creature's exposed chest. The griffon howled in pain and started thrashing. Morphius pulled his sword out of the beast's chest and raised it above his head.
"I'm sorry" he whispered before bringing his sword down and separating the griffon's head from its body. The wizard winced as he felt the creature's life slip into the beyond.
He decided not to linger. Searching around, he found the trail of the band he was tracking again and alongside it he discovered the gutted corpse of a human male. "They definitely passed through here" he thought, and hurried along after them.
Several days passed. The terrain was becoming steep and rocky, and patches of snow lay here and there beside the trail. Looking ahead, the wizard noticed great clouds in the distance and frowned. "If it starts snowing, I'll risk losing the tracks" he groaned."Good thing I have some extra tricks up my sleeve if it should come to that."
Morphius's worries proved themselves to be true, for it did indeed begin to snow. He followed the trail as far as he could before the snow covered it completely. Stopping at the last sign of a footprint, the wizard concluded that he could not rely on his eyes at the moment.
"Alright" he thought. "As I see it, I've got two options. I could ask the mountain for directions, or, I could continue tracking them by myself in a way that does not limit my options to merely using my eyes." Morphius pondered these two options for quite some time, in fact, the falling snow had reached his ankles when he finally made his decision. "Asking the mountain could give me away to potential enemies, others could ask the mountain if I passed by here" he concluded.
The wizard surrounded himself with magical energy. The power surged through his physical form, shattering it and rebuilding it as he willed it. The light that engulfed Morphius disappeared. And where moments before, there had been a wizard, there now stood a wolf with fur as white as the snow falling around him, with the exception of a thick, black stripe of fur that ran from between his ears and to the end of his tail.
The wizard-turned-wolf buried his snout in the snow and started smelling around. He could smell the dank hallways of the cursed keep and the moisture of the forest below, he smelt the griffon and a trek up the mountain.
Morphius wasted no more time. He took off at great speed after the trail, following it now would be a piece of cake.
The wizard spent several days in the form of a wolf as he trekked over the wintery landscape. Through great pine forests and over frozen lakes he ran, sniffing out and catching squirrels, bunnies and other meals whenever he felt hungry and then quickly returning to his primary hunt.
After a week of tracking the band through the mountains, the terrain started sloping downwards and the snow started to become sparse. The trail led down the mountainside and into the forest below. The wizard remained in his animalistic form until he was under the cover of the trees and changed back to his usual, human, appearance when he was sure that he was unseen.
The tracks had become fresher, he discovered. "I must've shortened the distance between us when I used four legs" Morphius thought as he followed his quarry's tracks through the large forest.
After a few days of tracking, the wizard came across a wide river. He passed over it and noticed a signpost on the bank. It read; "You now enter the borders of the kingdom of Doren!" Morphius read it once and paid it no heed. He was never too concerned about which human claimed to own which land anyways.
He stopped suddenly. His ear twitched once. He could hear shouting and he could sense joy, awe and fear. Marking the place he stood with a simple spell so that he could find it later, he dashed to the side and quickly made his way through the bushes. He slowed down when he neared the source of the shouting.
Peering through the bush he was standing behind, he saw six men standing together and shouting at a seventh man. They were clothed in leather and furs and carried bows, arrows and spears. "Hunters, obviously" Morphius whispered to himself. He then caught sight of their downed prey. His eyes widened. It looked like a horse, so purely white that it was almost shining. It had an arrow stuck through both its hind legs. The three things that separated it from any other horse, was the single horn rising from its forehead, its cloven hooves and its lion-like tail.
The seventh man stepped forward and pulled a long dagger from his belt and advanced upon the helpless unicorn. "NO!" Morphius stood and let a bolt of light fly from his palm.
The bolt hit the hunter and sent him flying into a nearby tree. The wizard charged out of the bushes and drew his blade. Slashing at the nearest human, he split open the hunter's gut. The remaining hunters attacked without thinking twice.
Two of them went down from lethal sword wounds. Three others were incinerated by the wizard's magic. The last hunter turned tail and ran for it. Morphius disappeared in a flash of light and reappeared in front of the fleeing human, holding his blade straight forward. The hunter couldn't stop quickly enough and impaled himself on the wizard's sword, showering Morphius and his robes in blood.
He quickly headed back to the wounded creature and knelt by it. "Do not be afraid" he sent into the unicorn's mind. "I wish you no harm." The unicorn calmed down and stopped thrashing.
Morphius carefully stroked the creature's leg as he broke off one end of an arrow before quickly pulling the remaining part out of the wound. The unicorn neighed in pain and he quickly sent soothing words into its mind to calm it down. He then repeated the process with the other arrow before speaking a few words in the tongue of his kind and closing the wounds.
The unicorn got to its legs and looked at the wizard before it. It then leaned forward and ran its muzzle along his face. A feeling of gratitude was conveyed into the wizard's mind. Morphius smiled as he saw the beautiful creature head into the trees and out of sight.
He headed back to the trail and continued where he left off.
After another week of trekking, he noticed that the forest was becoming less and less thick. Eventually it gave way to farmlands and fields, and he could now see a large, walled, town ahead, surrounded by small villages and farms. An inner wall surrounded a castle perched on top of a great hill, like an island in the sea of green forest around it.
The wizard approached one of the farms where a woman was busy working in the field. "Excuse me?" he said as he got near. The woman turned to face him. "Yes? Can I help you with anythi… Oh my Gods! You're covered in blood!" Morphius looked down at himself. "So I am" he noted. "I was attacked by a bear in the forest on my way here. I managed to wound it with my blade, it must've bled worse than I thought."
The woman called for help and several farmhands came rushing. Morphius was, practically, dragged inside and stripped of his robes so they could be washed. He stood outside again a short while later conversing with the lady of the house. "Are you certain you do not wish to stay a while?" she asked. "You must be dead tired!" The wizard, while thankful for the offer, declined, stating that he had business elsewhere.
"Say…" he began. "You wouldn't happen to have seen a band of armed men, at most nine of them, pass by here would you?" The woman thought for a bit. "Now that you mention it…yes! Yes, I have! They passed through just a few hours before you arrived. They were heading towards the castle."
The wizard was stunned. He knew that he hadn't been far behind them. But he never thought it would be so little. He hastily thanked the woman for her kindness and strode off towards the castle himself.
A band of men stood before the castle's gate. The apparent leader of the band stepped forward and flashed the king's seal to the guard, who called for the gate to open and the king to be alerted to the band's presence.
The king came running out into the courtyard, visibly excited. "Welcome back, Hawk!" he said jovially, addressing the leader of the band. "I trust your quest was a success, yes?" The man called Hawk nodded. "Indeed it was, your highness." He called for one of his men and the tome was handed to him. "Splendid!" the king exclaimed before halting and counting the band. "Say…were there not ten of you, when you left?" Hawk nodded solemnly. "Darren was killed by a griffon on our way back from the ruin." The monarch closed his eyes and bowed his head. "At least he did not die in vain. This tome shall be the jewel of my collection of ancient scripts. And, as promised, you and your men will be handsomely rewarded for your troubles." Hawk grinned. "Thank you, your majesty. But don't worry, trouble is our trade" he said.
Hawk, his men, and the king headed inside, none of them noticing the white eagle taking off from the wall and flying down to the town below. The majestic bird landed unseen behind a large tavern. A flash of light shone on the walls and a young man came walking inside the tavern shortly after. He got himself a pint of ale and placed himself at a table in a corner, well out of reach of the general crowd.
Morphius was shocked. That didn't happen very often, but it had certainly happened now. That tome was pulsing with magical energy, and the fat swine that called himself king was going to let it gather dust in his stupid collection. It was an insult to everything knowledgeable.
The wizard sipped his ale and winced. It tasted like piss. At least compared to the ale he had been drinking in Tordinell a month and a half or so ago. He sat there for a while and pondered his next move. "Taking the tome now, right after it arrived, wouldn't be very wise" he mused. "It's sure to be extra heavily guarded for some time to come. I'll have to be patient and bide my time until an opportunity to strike presents itself."
He looked up to see a particularly chesty barmaid observing him with a smile. She noticed him looking and pranced over, settling herself in the chair across from him.
"Hey there, handsome" she winked at him. "How's the ale?" Morphius studied his pint and after a while he said; "I pride myself on being an honest man, so I'm not going to lie to you. It tastes like a bull's guts, and personally, I doubt that it is as healthy as the aforementioned innards." The barmaid's smile widened. "You're absolutely right" she whispered. "Congratulations, you've won the big prize." The wizard smiled himself. "And what, pray tell, would that prize happen to be?"
"A free room for the duration of your stay" the barmaid began. "So long as you don't mind me "visiting" you every now and then." Morphius shrugged. "I'm flexible, I'm sure I can live with that." "Great, then I'll see you later." The girl winked at him again and walked back to the bar, exaggerating the sway of her hips along the way. The wizard smirked. "Thank the gods for disgusting beverage" he thought as he sipped his ale and winced once more.
Morphius went into the town the following morning. The night had been quite eventful. The barmaid, her name was Eirin, was as flexible as he was; apparently. While striding through town, the wizard came across a square with a great oak growing in the middle. He sat down in the shade of the tree and looked around. He spotted a group of small children sitting some way away from him, looking like they did not have anything to do.
He sat and observed the children, and the rest of the square, for some time and eventually decided to nap a bit. He had, after all, not slept much the night before.
The wizard awoke to the sound of shouting. Looking up, he discovered that three older boys had arrived and were informing the smaller children, quite loudly, that they weren't welcome in the square. Morphius frowned and stood to his feet before walking towards the noisy teenagers.
The boy in the middle of the trio had seized the oldest of the younger children by his collar and was raising his fist to teach the younger boy some respect when a shadow suddenly fell over him from behind.
Looking behind himself, he discovered a robed adult standing there. "What do you want?" the boy snarled angrily. "Can't you see I'm busy here?" "I want you to unhand the boy" the wizard calmly said. "And find someone your own size to pick a fight with."
The teen snorted. "You can't tell me what to do! Now scram before I pull your brain out of your nose!" Morphius grabbed the boy by his shoulders and turned him around to face him. "I said" the wizard snarled, suddenly seeming to grow and started sprouting wings, horns and hooves. "Unhand the boy and leave these children alone!" The teen cried out in terror and wrenched himself loose of the demonic stranger's grip before turning tail and dashing down the street, all while screaming about demons and dark magic, his two companions taking off after him.
The wizard smirked. Bending the mortal mind to his whim was a game he loved playing. He turned to the boy that the teen had dropped when he fled from Morphius's illusion and extended his hand to help him up. "Are you unharmed, little one?" he asked. The boy huffed and shot his chest forward. "I'm not little" he said. "I'm eight summers old!" Morphius bowed his head. "My apologies, young master. I didn't mean to imply that you were incapable of handling the situation." The boy cocked his head to the side and blinked. "Why did he run off like that? All you did was talk to him." The wizard smiled. "I can be very persuasive at times" he said. The child blinked again. "You're weird" he stated. "What's your name?"
"Tell me your name first" Morphius said. "And I shall tell you mine." The boy shrugged. "I'm Erryck. I'm the innkeeper's son." The wizard shook his hand respectfully. "It is a great honor to meet you, Erryck. I am called Morphius. I am a travelling wizard."
The group of children and the wizard sat down by the tree. He soon learned that they had nothing to do. Morphius scratched his chin and thought for a while before smiling. "Would you, perhaps, like to hear a story?" The children's faces lit up with excitement. The wizard took Erryck on his knee and spoke again. "Then gather 'round, my friends. And listen well! This is the story of the Orc knight; Derak Gro-Gorak and the human mage; Merkoth, and how they, together, saved the world from the dark forces of the realm of Oblivion!"
Hours passed as the wizard told his tale. The sun was beginning to set as he neared the end. "…suddenly! The two companions were blinded by a fierce light. And before their very eyes; Martin transformed into a titanic dragon cloaked in flames. The foul daedra lord; Mehrunes Dagon, cried in terror as the avatar of Akatosh, the dragon god of time, smote him back into Oblivion from whence he came! Thus, the world was saved from an evil that wished to destroy it utterly. The end" he finished. The children looked like the wizard was a god himself. "Whoa…" Erryck whispered. "Is that really true?" Morphius nodded slowly. "Every last word." He then noticed the darkening sky. "It's late. You children should be heading home now" he said, standing up.
A small girl grabbed his cape and pulled it to get his attention. The wizard knelt down before her and smiled. "Yes?" The little girl looked into his eyes. "Will you tell us another story tomorrow, Mister Morphius?" she asked. Morphius shook his head. "Now, where would the fun in that be?" he asked them all, standing up. "Savor this tale and use it to its fullest. I promise to tell you a new story next week!" The children cheered and ran off, leaving the wizard standing in the square, smiling fondly.
The next few days were spent more practically. Morphius familiarized himself with the town and the surrounding areas, the evenings he spent in the tavern. Eirin had not yet tired of him, but she kept making horrible wordplays about his "magical staff".
"Every now and then, my ass" the wizard mumbled as he exited the forest after a day of needing to be out of town. "More like; every night and then some." He sighed. "And the worst thing about is that I don't mind it in the slightest."
Hawk and his men left the kingdom quite often, and came back with more tomes or other treasures. Morphius was amazed at himself for having spent three months in Doren without making a move; he was usually a very nomadic person, never staying in one place for too long without good reason. "Is this good enough of a reason then, to stay so long for this book alone?" he wondered to himself as he approached town, lost in deep thoughts.
He had become something of an idol for the group of children he had befriended, telling them one story every week. He had told the legend of princess Zelda and the Hero of Time, the tale of the flameseeker prophecies, the events surrounding the death and return of Shiro Tagachi, the fall of the dark god Abaddon, the legend of the One Ring of Power and its lord and many other tales he knew of. But he had many more stories to tell and was somehow saddened by the thought that he had to move on soon.
He waited for three months more until he knew the town and forest close by like the back of his hand before one day deciding that it was time to strike.
The night fell across the kingdom of Doren. The sky was clear and a small breeze was refreshingly cool. The guards posted on the walls were drowsy and tired, nearly sleeping whilst standing up. It was therefore not surprising to the wizard that he was able to climb up and over the wall with no problem.
Morphius dropped into the courtyard and immediately stepped back into the shadows of the walls. He snuck towards the castle, making good use of every shadowy nook he could see along the way. Slipping into a haystack near the stables, he scoured the castle with his mind and quickly located the magical energy radiating from the tome. The wizard made his way towards the castle itself, evading a few patrols on the way.
Morphius pulled himself in through a window close to what he presumed to be a library and landed in a dimly lit hallway. He silently dashed down the hall towards a turn up ahead. He slowed down and peered around the corner. The wizard was met by a large door with a guard posted on each side, but unlike the guards on the wall; they appeared vigilant and focused. "Found you" Morphius whispered to himself.
The wizard raised his arm and whispered again. "Ashphelit nor'golech!" One of the guards yawned, the other one started blinking, and before long; the two men were sitting against the wall, snoring loudly.
Morphius strode over the two guards and entered the library. And it was, by far, the biggest library he had ever seen in any mortal's castle before. "Now if his majesty actually had in mind to read all of this, I'd be impressed" the wizard thought as he let out a whistle.
The room had no windows and no torches. The only reason Morphius could see anything at all was because his eyes were sharper than a human being's, but that wasn't enough he decided. The orb of his staff burst into white flames once more and the wizard held it out in front of himself as he slowly made his way along the multitude of bookcases.
He had been searching the room for the better part of an hour when he remembered that the tome had a signal he could track with his mind. Morphius mentally chided himself for two minutes or so and let his mind search the room for him.
The wizard quickly found the tome in the very middle of the library and headed in that direction, whisking scrolls and tomes, with magical auras around them, into his satchel along the way. "Theft, preservation of arcane knowledge, the line between them is rather blurry" he smirked to himself.
He reached his destination shortly after setting out from his standing point and beheld the tome lying on a pedestal in front of him. After scanning the area for traps of any kind, the wizard reached out and touched the tome. A surge of magical power flew into him as he laid his hands upon the old book and lifted it from its resting place. The wizard heard shouting and dashed into hiding between some bookcases. The door to the library burst open and Morphius could see at least four guards enter with lit torches and drawn swords.
The wizard swiftly snuffed out the flame engulfing his staff-orb and retreated further into the bookcases. One of the guardsmen remained at the entrance while the three others moved through the library, sticking close together but not quite moving in a group.
Morphius had been evading the guards for at least five minutes when he heard them call for the alarm to be sounded and that a very important book was missing. The wizard realized that he had to get out or be trapped like a rat. He inhaled deeply. And when he exhaled, thick, white fog spilled out from his lips. The library was soon covered with the stuff. The guard at the entrance peered into the white blanket and was debating with himself whether he should go in and find his comrades or sound the alarm. He had just decided to sound the alarm and find the other guards later, when the butt of a staff was smashed into his forehead and a bolt of freezing cold ice sent him into the wall.
Morphius emerged from the fog and checked the guard, finding him mostly unharmed. He could hear the sound of many feet thundering down a hallway to the left of him and took off to the right. "That shout from the guard in the library must've alerted them" he thought as he ran swiftly down the hallway.
The wizard skidded out of the hall and into a larger one that seemed to be where all the hallways in the castle led out into. Seeing no guards anywhere, he ran for the large doors at the end of the large hall. He pushed them open with magic and felt the cool night air against his face before he halted.
Two groups of at least twenty guards each stood before him, looking every bit as flabbergasted as he felt. "Nope" the wizard began. "This isn't where I left my steed." All the guards blinked in surprise and when they opened their eyes: Morphius was nowhere to be seen.
Three guardsmen came running up to the entrance from inside the castle and spotted the wizard making a mad dash for the walls. "Stop him!" one of them yelled. "He's stolen a tome from the library!" The forty guards turned and gave chase while the guards on the walls notched their arrows and tried to halt the fleeing intruder in his tracks.
Morphius narrowly dodged another arrow and flung himself up a stairway that led up to the walls themselves. "Stupid!" he scolded himself. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Why did you not involve this kind of situation in all your planning?" he thought as he ran along the wall, fencing his way through some guards on the way. "If I drop off the wall here, they'll catch up to me easily. I have to find a higher point."
The wizard scanned the walls and spotted a large watchtower on the far end. He headed that way with haste.
The large group of guards came flooding onto the wall behind him and were catching up slowly but surely. Morphius suddenly turned and raised his staff, his eyes glowing red. The guards skidded to a halt as the wizard's voice sounded, thunderous and mighty. "Tharg nerkolech tonerlar!" The wizard brought his staff down upon the wall and it began to shatter, effectively slowing down the guards on the other side of the ravine.
Morphius had continued running the moment he lifted his staff of the wall, quickly getting close to the large tower when he stopped again. A lone figure stood before him, his greasy black hair reached to his shoulders and his nose was oddly crooked and pointy. "Hawk" Morphius realized.
The man uncrossed his arms and drew his blade. "While I admire your determination, wizard, I'm afraid I can't let you leave with that book. Getting a hold of it was a bitch!" he called. "It most certainly was!" the wizard answered and drew his own blade.
Hawk snarled and lunged forward, the blades of the two opponents clashing. They fenced for quite a while and Morphius suddenly spoke while dodging a swing from Hawk's blade. "So? Do people call you Hawk because of your oddly shaped nose, or what?" Hawk was taken aback and barely managed to block a swipe of the wizard's blade. "Because you know, that from the side it really looks like a beak of a bird of prey of sorts" Morphius continued, all the while driving the seemingly older man backwards. Hawk snarled and made a swing that left him open. The wizard quickly swung his staff into the man's exposed midsection, sending him to the ground. "You have the strength, but not the discipline, remember that, remember that you were defeated by Morphius the Eternal" the young wizard said before slamming the butt of his staff into the man's forehead, knocking him out.
Morphius stormed up the tower, defeating at least five guards on the way before standing at the highest point of the castle. He stood there for some time, letting the wind rustle his robes. Suddenly; he leapt forward and off the edge of the tower, plummeting towards the ground.
The wizard breathed deeply in and out a few times before surrounding himself with magical power. He was engulfed by an aura of light and emerged from it as an eagle with pure white feathers and black legs and beak. Morphius let loose a shrill cry of victory as he sailed away on the wind.
Hawk groaned and sat up. Looking around, he discovered some nearby guards firing their arrows at an eagle. He quickly concluded that he had seen the exact same bird the day he had arrived with the, now stolen, tome six months ago. Hawk grabbed the bow of a passing guard and dipped an arrow in a pouch he kept in his belt. "Now you will know, Morphius the Eternal, just why they call me Hawk!" he snarled as he notched the arrow and let it fly from his bow.
Arrows whizzed past the wizard as he made his getaway. "Alas, dear children" he thought while smirking in his mind. "This is the day you shall always remember as the day you almost did away with Morphius the Etern-ack!" A searing pain made itself known in his leg, forcing him towards the ground. His concentration shattered and he was forced back into his human form as he crash-landed on the edge of the forest.
Getting to his feet, Morphius discovered the arrow piercing his leg. "Something's wrong" he heaved. "An arrow alone shouldn't cause this much…" he groaned as his veins burned with pain. "That bastard must've poisoned it!"
He could hear horses nearing as he limped in between the trees, using his staff to support himself.
The night was fading into morning. The skies were redder than usual, the wizard thought as he hurried as fast as he could manage through the woods. He heard them, they weren't far behind. They had been hounding him for three hours straight now; he had only evaded them by pure luck so far.
Morphius gasped thickly as he collapsed on the ground, his lungs burned like a volcano in eruption. Suddenly hearing shouting, the wizard turned over on his back to see a pair of guards running towards him with their swords drawn. The wizard closed his eyes, resigning himself to fate's merciless hammer. He heard the sound of flesh being pierced, felt blood splatter across himself. "This hurts a lot less than usual" he thought as he opened his eyes to see the guard closest to him impaled on some sort of horn.
The unicorn reared up and tossed the dead guardsman over its head before turning to face the second one. The creature reared up again and smashed its hooves into the human, shattering his skull. The unicorn turned and trotted over to the downed wizard. It kneeled beside him. Morphius smiled as he managed to crawl onto his savior's back. The creature rose and took off, swift as a wind among the trees. The wizard felt himself grow weaker and eventually slipped into darkness, knowing he wouldn't fall off so long as the unicorn wished for him to remain on its back.
Morphius opened his eyes and then closed them again. The sun shone brightly and he squinted against the sky before looking to his sides. He was laying in a great flowery meadow. A soft breeze rustled the tall grass as the wizard rose to sit and look around.
He heard neighing and turned to see the unicorn trotting towards him. It stopped and ran its muzzle along his face before turning and neighing loudly towards the forest.
A strikingly beautiful woman appeared from between the trees and moved swiftly towards them. She moved in large leaps, almost not touching the ground at all.
"You're awake! Thank the Spirits!" she exclaimed as she reached the wizard. "I thought I was going to have to burn you in this field." Morphius blinked. "What happened?" he muttered. The woman huffed. "Manticore venom" she said. "If you were human; you would have been dead before the arrow even went through."
"Now, where are my manners?" the woman said before the wizard could speak. "I am Mithra. I'm the caretaker of this wood. What would your name be, friend?" "My name is a secret to even me" the wizard began. "But mortal man has named me Morphius the Eternal, and that is the name I wear." Mithra nodded. She liked the name it seemed. "I must thank you for rescuing me, I am forever in your debt" the wizard said. The nymph, Morphius guessed she was one, waved her hand. "Don't thank me" she said. "Thank my sister, Elythé. She was the one who brought you here."
The wizard turned to the unicorn. "Thank you" he whispered. The unicorn neighed. "She says that is was only fitting; since you saved her life earlier" Mithra said. The unicorn turned and disappeared into the woods, leaving the nymph and the wizard in the meadow.
"It really was a miracle that you pulled through, you know?" the nymph spoke. "You've been lying here, twitching, for the last two weeks. How's your leg?" Morphius moved around a bit, discovering that his leg was as good as new. Mithra smiled and stepped closer to him. "You're welcome to stay as long as you want" she told him. "Thank you, Mithra. Your kindness is much appreciated" the wizard answered.
He did stay for a while, taking his time to read the tome he had worked so hard to get his hands on. He and Mithra soon became close friends and shared their knowledge and experience with each other. The nymph had quickly decided that the wizard was older than he appeared to be, but she could not quite place his species and when she had asked him about it; he had merely smirked and said: "Now, wouldn't it be more exciting not to know?" She had been a little bummed that he wouldn't tell her, but after awhile she had admitted to herself that not knowing just what her close friend was, was sort of fun.
One day, five full summers after they had first met, Morphius announced that it was time for him to pursue his quest once more. He had studied the map contained in the tome extensively and located the rough area where one of the crystals was located.
After declining an offer to be taken to his new destination by Elythé, the wizard and the nymph said their goodbyes and parted ways.
Morphius swallowed his sadness and went on his way, studying the copy he had made of the old map. He knew that there was a possibility that the crystals had been moved in the centuries since the map was last in use. "But it is the best lead I have at the moment" he reasoned.
The wizard soon relaxed and was actually happy to be travelling again. Crossing a river, he discovered that he was heading into a chain of mountains. It wasn't the mountains he had come through so long ago however. These were vaster and looked wilder.
"They are wilder" Morphius thought as he pulled his blade out of an ettin's guts. The two-headed creature had attacked him the third day after entering the mountains. And it had obviously been tracking him for just as long. The mountain range was a very dangerous place, the wizard had discovered, filled with treacherous drops and a wildlife that could have killed off an army. Luckily, he had managed to avoid confrontation with most of the creatures he had seen. "Others are, obviously, not so easy to fool" he muttered, cleaning his sword. He moved away from the corpse with haste, knowing that the smell was likely to attract worgs or other, more dangerous, scavengers.
Morphius swiftly jumped back as part of the narrow mountain trail crumbled and plummeted into the abyss below. The wind was howling and cold, forcing the wizard to seek shelter.
Morphius peered into a cave in the mountainside, finding it visually unoccupied. Taking no chances, the wizard warded the entrance before drifting off to sleep. The storm was still howling outside the entrance when he woke up and he decided to read the journal of the mage from the keep. He found that details about the power actually contained in the Triclops were vague at best and speculative at worst. He then checked his map again before reading one of the tomes he had taken from the mage's chambers. It had taken him a few years while was with Mithra and Elythé, but he had managed to translate the tomes into an understandable language. For him, at least.
The storm died down after three days. But it served the wizard quite well. With the skies clear, he could determine his direction by observing the sun. Morphius checked his map once more and headed eastward, deeper into the mountains.
He had briefly wondered if he should change form again, but decided against it to save his energy. "Besides" he thought. "I'm more comfortable on two legs anyhow." A roar caught his attention. He instinctively dived forward as a boulder smashed into the ground he had been standing on.
Another ettin came at him, swinging its club in wide arcs. A second one emerged from behind a rock, preparing to launch another boulder at the wizard.
The first ettin advanced hastily and swung its club at the wizard. Morphius ducked and slashed at the beast's leg. The ettin roared and kicked forward, its foot colliding with its crouching foe. The second creature let the boulder fly forward. Morphius, who had been tossed onto his back by the first ettin's kick, rolled out of the way with a "Yikes!" just as the projectile crashed to the ground. Before he could get up, the wizard saw yet another boulder heading towards him. He quickly formed a ball of fire in his palm and launched it into the boulder's path. The fiery projectile hit its mark and shattered the boulder into hundreds of, small, burning rocks.
Morphius rolled backwards as the first ettin smashed its club into the ground where he had been lying a second before. The wizard ran towards his adversary and sidestepped another swing from its club, the movement leaving the creature unguarded. Morphius made an upwards swing and severed the beast's arm.
The ettin howled in pain as it knelt over, clutching the stump of its arm. The wizard's blade buried itself in the beast's chest and ended its life. The second ettin's fist smashed into Morphius' back. The wizard went down. The beast retrieved its fallen companion's club and raised it above its head. Morphius disappeared in a flash of light, moments before the club smashed into the ground, and reappeared in between the ettin's heads.
The beast caught on quickly and struck out against the wizard. Morphius leapt off the creature and its club struck its left head, cracking its skull. The remaining head turned and roared. Morphius quickly lifted some snow with his magic and melted it with a fire spell; he then froze the water and formed a large icicle before flinging it forward. The icicle flew through the air and impaled the ettin's second head. The creature howled and raised its arms, pulling the icicle out of its face and raising it as if to use it as a makeshift spear.
The ettin never got that far. It took a few, slow, steps towards the wizard and collapsed in the snow. Morphius retrieved his blade and quickly took off.
"These mountains are huge!" the wizard thought as he stood on a high point and compared his surroundings to those on the map. He had been trudging through the frozen peaks for the better part of a month now, slowly but steadily drawing nearer to the first crystal. Food was scarce, at best, but he had somehow brought himself to eat whatever he could kill, no matter how foul it seemed.
Morphius made his way down from the cliff he had been standing on. The viewpoint helped. He was now certain that he was going the right way and he had calculated that it would take him, at least, another week to reach his destination, provided he did not run into unexpected trouble.
He was looking at his map again. It was clear to him that something was not as it seemed. "According to this map" he muttered to himself. "I should be near." The wizard glanced around himself, seeing nothing but snow, stone and a mysterious pedestal. Morphius did a double take. "This wasn't here just now" he said aloud as he walked up to it.
The wizard pulled his hood off and studied the pedestal. An inscription was carved onto the surface, along with a hand-shaped carving. Morphius's eyes widened, the inscription was carved in the runes of his own people. "This pedestal must be ancient. It's a wonder that it's still standing" he thought and laid his hand onto the carving. "Shirrahl kher'thoras mahlrûkh!" he read aloud from the pedestal. A surge of magical energy flew out of the altar-like structure and spread out into the ground.
The earth beneath the wizard suddenly began to tremble and tear. Before his eyes; a tower rose from the rock and then another one and another one. Before long, an entire castle had risen from the ground, looking every bit as untouched by the ages as the pedestal did.
Morphius did not move for quite a while. He could feel the eons that this place had seen, it was old, perhaps even older than some of the gods of the world and yet: here it stood, as if it had been built only yesterday.
The wizard knew of many spells and charms that could keep something from aging, but such things only worked for so long before they ran out of "juice". He had never before encountered something so old and yet so new in the realm of mortals.
He was still debating with himself whether he should enter or stay put; when a small magical presence wormed its way out of his satchel and into his mind. Reaching inside, he found that the small trace was coming from the Triclops. He pulled it out and discovered that the eye-pit in the forehead had started glowing purple.
The light emitting from the Triclops seemed to twist and turn of its own as it led him deep into the bowels of the mysterious castle. There was nothing living inside, no corpses either and there wasn't even a trace of sprits or such in the air. The wizard was equally delighted and disturbed by this. No corpses or spirits meant that there weren't going to be undead hordes trying to kill him this time, but the emptiness and overwhelming silence somehow unnerved him greatly.
Morphius couldn't help himself. He had to stop by the library to see what he could find, and he was not disappointed. The wizard silently thanked Elune for his enchanted satchel as he brought with him most every tome in the enormous hall. Once he had made certain that he had everything he wanted, he quickly took off towards where the Triclops was leading him.
It felt like he had been walking for days. Perhaps he had. If so, the wizard had long since lost count of them. But of one thing he was certain; he was walking ever downwards. "By all gods, I must be nearing the bottom of this mountain soon" Morphius thought as he descended another stairway. Rounding a bend, the wizard suddenly found himself in a large, open, chamber.
It was without a doubt, the largest chamber Morphius had ever been in. "Holy gods! Seven fully-grown dragons wouldn't fill this place up" he said aloud as he did a wide-eyed survey of the room. While doing so, he suddenly spotted some sort of throne in the middle of the chamber. As he got closer, the Triclops's magical trace started getting stronger.
The wizard reached the throne and stood before it for some time, studying it closely. A light caught his attention. On top of the throne, resting in a carefully carved-out niche, the crystal stood. Under the niche there was written a single word, again, in the tongue of his kind. "Orrtherin…preservation" the wizard muttered. As he reached for the crystal, Morphius became aware of something. A small, barely noticeable trace of energy slipped from the crystal before seemingly vanishing. The wizard swiftly pulled back and laid a hand on the hilt of his blade.
He stood there for about five minutes before releasing his weapon. A noise reached his ears, so slight that under normal circumstances it would've passed by unnoticed, even by the wizard. In the grave-like silence of the mysterious castle, however, it was the equal of a banshee screaming as loud as it could right into his ear.
Morphius brought his hand up and massaged his brow. "This is so stereotypical" he groaned and turned around.
A gigantic creature, vaguely man-shaped and seemingly made entirely out of ice, stood there with its fist raised. "So stereotypical" the wizard sighed just before the golem's fist smashed into him.
The blow sent the wizard sailing across the large hall and crashing into the wall, back-first, before collapsing onto the floor.
"Ouch" he said to the ground. "That hurt…a lot." Morphius got onto his feet just in time to see the golem's fingers launch themselves from its hands and fly towards him. The wizard flung himself out of harm's way as the icy projectiles shattered against the rock.
Morphius let several fireballs fly from his palm; they smashed into the golem seemingly doing it no harm at all. "That's strange" the wizard thought as he dodged more of the harpoon-like fingers while letting every fiery elemental spell he knew rain upon the construct.
"Okay, this is no longer strange" Morphius muttered as the golem stood unscratched by a spell that could've blown a small mountain to smithereens. "This is now, officially, just plain wrong." The ice-golem decided to change tactics at that moment. It suddenly stormed towards the partially stunned wizard, barely making a sound despite its size. The reason for this was simple, it slid forward on the icy soles of its feet. Almost ice-skating across the hall.
"If I cannot smash through it…" Morphius thought. "I'll have to knock it over somehow." The construct swung out with one of its arms and the wizard took the opportunity to slash at it with The Blade of Awe. The blade struck the golem's arm and rebounded, flying out of the wizard's hand and across the hall.
"So much for the works of Balthazar" he snarled, dodging another swing before teleporting to the other end of the room and retrieving his sword. "Right, force won't work and neither will magic." The ice golem flung another finger at him and in an instant something came to the young wizard's mind. The fingers had shattered against the wall. Meaning, that once parted from the golem, they were no longer protected by whatever force it was that shielded the construct.
The wizard immediately seized the golem-finger with his mind and sent it flying into the construct's head. "I honestly can't believe that actually worked" he muttered as the golem crashed to the ground and started struggling to get up again. "Not too much effort put into the artificial mind, I reckon." Morphius wasted no time. "Think, you fool, think! There must be something that you have over…looked…" The wizard slammed his palm into his face. The crystal. Preservation. It all made sense now.
The golem made its presence known by delivering a solid kick to Morphius's back, once more sending him into the wall. The wizard quickly disappeared once more, reappearing on the ice golem's back, clinging onto one of the icicles there. The golem tossed and twisted, trying to dislodge its foe before suddenly firing the icicle from its body and the wizard along with it.
Morphius swiftly let go of the icicle-harpoon and crashed, face first, into the throne at the centre of the hall. "Ooh, that's going to leave a mark" he groaned as he dizzily got to his feet again.
The golem had apparently abandoned the concept of subtlety at that point, for it no longer slid unnoticed over the floor. It came at the wizard again with thundering footsteps, raising its fist with all its sharp fingers poised to stab and kill.
Morphius gripped the crystal tightly and tugged at it, it didn't budge an inch. "Come on!" he snarled tugging harder and harder until he was putting all his strength into his arms. "!" The wizard violently lashed out with his mind, blasting the ancient throne across the room and ripping the crystal loose in the process.
"Gotcha'!" he snapped triumphantly, and then another thought struck him. "What if this crystal kept the castle preserved as well as the golem" a tremor through the hall proved the wizard's theory plausible.
Morphius swiftly turned to find the golem in shambles. Another tremor shook the ground as large cracks and fissures formed all over the floor and walls. The wizard dashed for the exit, leaping over chasms and holes along the way.
The exit cracked and trembled before collapsing upon itself. The wizard stopped dead in his tracks and massaged his brow again.
"This" he mumbled. "Is going to be a long day indeed." A rock fell from the ceiling and smashed into his skull.
Morphius stumbled. He could feel his grip on the world, and the control over his legs, slipping from his grasp. He took a few uneven steps forward, and then stumbled backwards and into one of the cracks.
He could seen the surface fading from view, the crack he had fallen through became little more than a slit. He closed his eyes, and lost his consciousness.
Morphius opened his eyes. He was greeted only by blackness and the sound of dripping water. An attempt to push himself up to a sitting position sent a painful jolt racing along his spine, forcing him onto his back again.
The wizard squeezed his fists together, thankfully finding the crystal intact in his hand. A quick look revealed that his sword was secure in his belt, but his staff was nowhere to be seen.
He reached out with his mind once more, swiftly finding the staff's magical presence somewhere behind him. Morphius bit his lip and raised his arm. Pain shot through him once more, and yet he mustered enough concentration to pull the staff towards himself.
He closed his fist around the cool wood and pulled some of the power contained within out of the weapon and channeled it into his wounds, effectively healing them. Using the staff as support, Morphius managed to pull himself up with some effort. He was still weary from his skirmish with the golem and it felt like his brain was trying to escape from his head. "That rock must've hit me pretty hard" he murmured.
The wizard sat there in the dark for some time, letting his eyes get used to the blanket of blackness around him. Before long, he could make out his surroundings more clearly. He was sitting on a rock in some sort of natural underground hall. A large, subterranean, lake stretched out only a few paces to his right, and a tunnel led into the mountain to his left. Small drops of water fell from the ceiling of the cave and landed in the lake.
"That explains the dripping" the wizard thought and then he shuddered at the thought of landing only slightly more to the right and into the lake itself. He probably would have survived the fall and would even manage to pull himself out of the water. But Morphius was only too familiar with such places, knowing perfectly well that dark, ancient, nightmarish creatures often stowed themselves away in places deep beneath the earth.
For that exact reason, the wizard swiftly went on his way into the tunnel. Wishing to put distance between himself and the lake.
He had to ignite his staff once more once inside the tunnel. For it was so pitch black in there, that a giant could have been shoving its crotch in his face and he wouldn't have been able to see it. But thankfully it would not come to that, he hoped, so long as the staff kept the darkness at bay.
The tunnel was silent, though it was a different kind of silent than from the castle. The castle had not even contained a whiff of life. The cavernous tunnel did contain life. It was not visible to the wizard's eyes, but he could feel them skittering around in the dark. Also different from the castle was the lingering scent of death. The tunnel reeked of decay, causing him to hurry along. Death was not an unnerving concept to the wizard, but he did not enjoy its presence in any way. The continued stench, along with his slight claustrophobia, made the whole experience rather unlikable.
It was scaly. But one would only know so if one touched it, for its color was so dark that the blackness of the cave rendered it nearly invisible. It pulled itself out of the lake and crouched to the ground. A pair of forked tongues emerged from its mouth. It smelled flesh, warm flesh. And the creature knew what kind of flesh as well, a kind of flesh it had not tasted for centuries, millennia even. It rose to its full height and slithered into the tunnel after its prey.
"It's official" Morphius thought as he pulled his boot out of a sticky substance that he thought was better left unidentified. "This place sucks, and I think my inner clock has gone, completely, haywire." The wizard had been trudging through the dank hollow of the mountain for days. Or what seemed like days to him, he had no way of telling if that really was the case.
The tunnel had eventually led into larger caves. All leading in different directions. Using knowledge from his previous travels, Morphius had quickly found a way he was fairly certain of. "When in doubt, always follow your nose" the wizard chuckled to himself.
He had stopped to rest when he first became aware that something was following him. Morphius had learned the hard way to never rest unprepared. His mind flew from his spirit, trailing through the surrounding area. And he felt something. What it was, he could not say. But he gained a general grasp on the thing's appearance. "Large, scaly and wet" he muttered. "It must've come out of the lake." After a swift debate with himself on whether or not it was safe to sleep, the wizard surrounded himself with a shield of magic and rested himself, keeping his inner eye trained on the creature all along just in case.
When Morphius woke up again, he swiftly went on his way. Regretfully, his current situation forced him to, temporarily, abandon his practice of attuning himself to balance between the physical realm and the ethereal planes through meditation each morning. The thing from the lake had moved closer while he had slept, he could feel it slithering ever forward.
This sort of chase went on for quite some time, Morphius was moving as swiftly as he dared through the dank caverns, yet always sensing the creature's presence behind him. The wizard knew that, eventually, the thing would catch up with him, for it came a little bit closer every time he stopped to rest.
"Following my nose was a good choice" Morphius thought. After several weeks, maybe even months, of constantly trying to keep himself ahead of his unseen adversary, he could now smell fresh air clearly and he felt small traces of sunlight up in front of him. He sped up, sensing that his escape was at hand.
Then suddenly; it struck. The wizard had no idea how it had managed to get so close to him without him noticing, but it was most certainly there. "I'm going to blame this on lack of meditation" Morphius thought as two, slimy, tentacles flung themselves around his shoulders and pulled him back into the darkness.
He swiftly engulfed himself in blue flames. The creature screeched and dropped him. The wizard rolled onto his feet, drew his blade and ignited his staff. He then turned to face the thing behind him. Once he had actually seen his foe, Morphius wished he had never seen it at all. It could have best been described as a mixture between a giant snake, slug and leech with a writhing mass of squid-like tentacles growing from its scaly hide. As it rose onto its tail, a massive, gaping, maw lined with several circular rows of sharp teeth came into view. A pair of forked tongues slithered in and out of its mouth and given that it had no visible eyes; they seemed to be how it oriented itself.
The creature lashed out with its tentacles again. Morphius dodged one and separated it from the main body with a quick swipe of his weapon. The thing howled in agony. The wizard smirked, though it disappeared when a new tentacle sprang forth from the creature's back. "Son of a-huurk!" A second tentacle suddenly wrapped itself around his throat, once more lifting him above the ground.
Morphius struggled for breath as he was brought ever closer to the maw of the beast.
The creature opened its jaws wide, the stench of a thousand corpses struck him, had his throat not been shut off, he would have hurled. Yet, there was something else the beast gave off, a faint energy signature that reminded him of his own. Realization struck him like a blow to the face and he began to struggle in earnest, and he was suddenly afraid. Fearing for his very existence. The creature would consume everything, flesh, soul, mana and essence. There would be no escape, no hope of survival, even for him.
Despair seeped into his mind then. The beast itself seemed to enjoy his fear, for it brought him close to its maw as slowly as it could. The wizard thrashed and twisted, and in his desperation, he sank his teeth into the beast's tentacle.
The creature had obviously not been expecting such a move. It shrieked and dropped him. Morphius grabbed his weapons and fled down the tunnel towards the sunlight. He had gotten somewhat far when the creature began to pursue him.
The end of the tunnel was within eyesight, he could feel the sun, he could smell the wind and he could see clouds. "Wait, what…clouds?" The wizard halted himself just before he went over the edge.
The tentacles wrapped around his shoulders again. "No!" he shouted, placing his legs apart from each other and digging his heels into the ground. Pulling against his bindings, Morphius felt them give in a bit and he realized two things. The creature's underside was slimy and that it was not connected to anything. With a burst of strength that he didn't even know he had, the wizard leapt over the edge of the tunnel opening, pulling the beast out with him, and plummeted down into the mist.
The two tentacles loosened and lost their grip on the wizard's shoulders, and just then, Morphius realized the titanic flaw in his plan. The creature was heavier than he was by far, thus, it fell quicker. The thing seemed to have the same idea. It opened its maw and let itself fall upon the wizard.
Strangely enough, free falling with certain death approaching from both sides did not have the wizard as unnerved as he had been the tunnel. Knowing that he had to think fast or be consumed, his mind worked like a windmill in a hurricane. It came to him in a heartbeat. He reached into his satchel and closed his fist around the crystal, letting a small magical charge into it just as the creature closed its jaws around him.
The creature smashed into the mountainside, yet somehow survived. It was quite satisfied with itself; all that was left to do now was to find a new lake to settle in. It never got that far, however. The Blade of Awe was suddenly stabbed through its back, followed by an explosion of fire and light, tearing the beast apart from the inside.
Morphius rose from the beast's smoldering remains. He put some distance between himself and the carcass, drew a shuddering gasp, and collapsed in the snow. Using the crystal itself had not taken much of an effort. Keeping the barrier up, however, had drained the wizard of a substantial amount of magical energy. Calling upon what power he had left, Morphius raised a pillar of stone from the ground with himself on top of it. Now sure of the fact that he could not be reached by conventional means, the wizard rolled onto his side and slept peacefully once more.
He awoke several days later to the sound of his stomach's death rattle. He was hungry, hungrier than he could remember ever being before. However, even if he had been on the brink of starvation, he would not have eaten his most recent kill.
Morphius quickly decided that he was far too weak to hunt anything. After pondering his options for a short while, he concluded that an unpleasant method had to be used to ensure his survival.
"First things first" the wizard thought as he sat up and arranged himself into the position commonly known as "the lotus".
He placed one of his hands on the ground with the palm touching the earth. He then kept his other hand elevated with the palm facing the sky. A clear, blue, light surrounded the wizard's hands as he closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
He sat like that, unmoving, for several hours, savoring the sensation of his spirit and mind attuning themselves to balance between the physical realm and the ethereal planes.
Morphius drew a deep breath before opening his eyes. He was reminded, quite painfully, of his situation when his stomach roared again. The wizard closed his eyes once more, his mind's eye searching the area and revealing an abundance of life in his surroundings.
Steeling himself against the inevitable self-disgust, Morphius lashed out with his mind, draining every living creature within one and a half mile of its life-force and transferring it to himself. When he felt reasonably satisfied, the wizard swiftly ceased the draining. Feeling equally relieved and mournful, he lowered the platform and stepped down into the snow.
The wizard looked around. The snow was falling thickly, and his vision was greatly reduced. On top of that, he had absolutely no idea where he was or how to get anywhere. He quickly deduced that he had to reach higher ground and try to see if he could recognize anything in the area and the work his way from there.
Morphius struck out and soon enough, the ground turned uphill. The wizard smiled, despite his compromising situation, and carried on.
Three days later, he stood at the very top of one of the mountain peaks, scouring the landscape below. Lights glimmering at the edge of his vision caught his attention. He turned to look, and to his surprise; there was a large, walled, town spanning a great valley down below. It was quite far away, however, at least three to five days more. Not wanting to waste any time, Morphius began his decent.
Six days had passed when Morphius finally had the gate leading from the town and further into the mountains within eyesight. He had clearly seen the guards before they caught eye of him and for a while, he stood where he was, observing them. They were humans, as far as he could tell. A pair of tall men clothed in furs and chainmail. Their faces were bearded and they wore, large, horned helmets. One of them had blonde hair and was leaning against a large spear. The second one was red-haired and carried a wooden shield and an axe tucked into his belt.
The wizard stayed put for a while longer, eventually coming to the conclusion that sneaking in would most likely arouse suspicion amongst the inhabitants. Having made up his mind, Morphius approached the gates.
The unmistakable sound of snow crunching under a pair of boots reached the two guardsmen's ears. They swiftly readied their weapons and stood at alert. From the thick blanket of snow cascading from the heavens, a robed and hooded figure emerged with a long staff gripped in its hand. The guard carrying the spear raised his hand. "Hold!" he called. "Who goes there?" The robed newcomer stopped, but he did not answer at once. "Only a weary traveler, looking for a place to rest" the stranger said after some time. "Come closer!" the second man called. "And lower your hood so we can see your face, slowly!"
The wizard slowly and gently stepped forward until the first man's spear was poking him in the chest and lowered his hood, keenly aware of the archers on the wall training their arrows on him in case of sudden movement.
The blonde man studied the newcomer's face thoroughly and eventually gave a shrug. "He seems harmless enough" he stated to the second guard. The axe-wielding warrior scoffed. "He looks like some sort of magician to me" he muttered. "Can't be too careful around folks like that."
"Excuse me, if I may?" Morphius said slowly. The first guard shrugged, the second one narrowed his eyes, obviously expecting some form of hypnosis. "Yes, I am a sort of magician, though I prefer wizard, and no, I wish neither you, nor this town, any harm."
The blonde man gave a "see, I told you" look in the other guard's direction. "Fine" the second guard growled. "But you better not try any funny business!" The wizard respectfully bowed his head. "You have my word" he said.
"Well, that works for me" the first man said and called for the gates to be opened. "Do enjoy your stay in Trymsheim." Morphius smiled and went on through the gate after thanking the guardsmen.
The wizard relaxed only when he heard the thick wooden gates slamming shut behind him. He looked around. So far as he could tell, everyone in eyesight were carrying weapons. Guards patrolled the street in groups of two to four and there were bonfires burning at nearly every corner. As he went along, Morphius noticed that humans were not the only inhabitants. The community seemed to consist of a sizeable population of dwarves as well, something the wizard experienced when he walked right into one. "Oi! Watch where yer goin', ya sod!" the dwarf barked. Morphius bowed his head again. "My sincerest apologies, master dwarf. I didn't see you" he said. "Well, ya might want ta train yer eyes downward while yer 'ere, if nothin' else than just makin' sure ya don't make tha' mistake again" the shorter creature said. The wizard smiled, "Thank you" he said, "I'll keep that in mind." "In tha' case, I've done m'good deed fer taday" the dwarf smirked.
"Tell me, my good dwarf, do you, by any chance, know of somewhere a weary traveler might rest his bones and fill his stomach?" Morphius wondered. "Aye" the dwarf answered. "There be a couple'a fine taverns in town, but if ya want th' very best, you should seek out The Ettin's Tooth Inn, m'cousin runs it an' it's got the best ale ye'll find fer miles."
After getting directions, thanking the dwarf and apologizing once more for almost running him over, the wizard set out to the inn.
Finding his destination proved itself an unchallenging task. Before long, he stumbled across several drunkards shambling down the street, or being dragged down the street by friends or guardsmen.
As the wizard neared the tavern, a man suddenly flew through one of the windows in front and landed face-first on the street. He groaned once and fainted. Morphius raised an eyebrow in slight amusement and took a long step over the motionless figure and into the tavern itself.
The moment the wizard entered he had to duck as an axe came flying through the air and lodged itself in the wood behind him.
A dwarf scurried over and pulled the weapon out of the door, hastily apologized for almost taking the newcomer's head off and flung himself back into the large brawl in the middle of the room.
Morphius made his way around the fighting and up to the bar. Another dwarf climbed onto a stool to reach over the counter. "Welcome, stranger, ta The Ettin's Tooth Inn" he greeted the wizard. "What'll it be?"
"A room, as far away from the other rooms as possible, and something to drink." The dwarf nodded. "Any drink in particular tha' takes yer fancy?" the innkeeper asked. Morphius dismissively waved his hand. "I really don't care much for the details" he answered. "You could serve me imp's blood now if it could get me drunk."
The dwarf smirked. "Been long withou' proper drink, have ye?" he asked. "Years" the wizard answered, feeling awfully tired all of a sudden.
The dwarf retreated into a doorway behind the counter and returned shortly, carrying a large pint. He climbed back onto his stool and put the beverage down on the bar.
"How much?" Morphius asked. The innkeeper waved his hand, much in the same fashion as the wizard himself had done earlier. "First three pints are on th' house. Neither man nor dwarf should have ta go years withou' alcohol, if ya know wha' I mean."
Morphius thanked the dwarf thoroughly, took his pint, and found himself a table away from the ongoing melee in the room. The wizard sat and observed the fight for a while before sipping his drink. "By Avo's righteous nose-hair! Finally!" He thought as the beverage caressed his taste buds. It was certainly the best ale he had tasted in several decades.
After a few pints more, the innkeeper escorted the wizard to his room. As Morphius had requested, it was as far away from the other rooms as one could get. He handed the dwarf a small bag of golden coins and closed the door behind him before collapsing. He could honestly not remember the last time he had slept in a bed. The wizard quickly fell asleep, the pressure of his time in the mountains finally catching up to him.
As per usual for him, Morphius rose with the sun. he turned to the giant ball of light peeking over the lowest of the nearby peaks, bowed his head slightly, placed his index and middle fingers on his forehead and muttered a quick greeting in his own tongue. "Arrysh'tûreal, thaeron."
After a few minutes of meditation, he went downstairs for breakfast. The innkeeper looked up when he entered the room and gave a friendly smile when he sat down at the bar. "Top o' th' mornin' ta ye, wizard!" he greeted. "'Ere fer breakfast?" The wizard smiled. "You read my mind, master dwarf" he answered. The dwarf laughed. "I think I'll leave mind readin' an' such ta more experienced folks, like yerself. Now, wha' can I get ya?"
Morphius ate until he was full and then retreated to his room. The wizard pulled some of the tomes he had taken from the mysterious castle out of his satchel and sat down at a small table near the window.
Fishing a smoking-pipe out of one of his pockets and lighting it with a flicker of his mind, the wizard put one of the tomes in front himself and started reading.
The morning had long since turned to twilight by the time Morphius closed his book. He had learned a great deal from his findings. The creature in the tunnels went under the eerie name of Khorranûkh; in the common tongue of mortals, a translation would have named the beast "Consumer".
According to the tome, the consumers and the wizard's own kin had fought a devastating war several millennia ago, a war made even more cataclysmic by the fact that the consumers had the uncanny ability to devour any living creature's essence, effectively erasing the consumer's victim from existence altogether, and for every essence consumed, the beasts only grew stronger.
When Morphius's people all but disappeared from the surface of Nirn, their ancient enemy slowly starved to weakness and death and hid themselves away in places where not even the gods themselves could find them.
The wizard shuddered. Suddenly thankful for the fact that the consumer he had fought hadn't fed properly in several millennia. If it had, the tunnels would surely have been his tomb by now.
His stomach let loose a loud complaint. "Glutton" the wizard muttered in annoyance, rising from his seat and heading downstairs for a bite.
Morphius ate quickly and returned to his room. During his meal, a thought had etched itself in his mind. The moment he was back in his temporary residence, the wizard retrieved the Orrtherin-crystal from his satchel and placed it on the table. Swiftly closing, locking and warding the door and windows, he sat down and started pondering.
Using the crystal to prevent his own consumption had drained him almost to the point of death. "How in the name of Sylaise is any normal person supposed to use this thing over an extended period of time?" he murmured to himself. "Such a feat would require an almost unquenchable magical source." Morphius mused over this for quite some time before suddenly remembering why he was seeking the crystals in the first place.
Pulling The Obsidian Triclops out and placing it on the table, he could feel the magical connection between the two gemstones grow exceptionally. Something else came to the wizard's mind just then. He had concluded that the Triclops was made out of Black Arcanium the moment he laid his hands on it. Arcanium, he knew, were minerals that acted as natural focal, storage and conduction points for magical energy. Black Arcanium was generally thought of as the rarest and most potent of all the versions of the mineral due to its ability to infinitely recreate magical essence within itself, effectively creating an unlimited source of magic. However, Black Arcanium was also notorious among scholars for its ability to conceal the source within itself, making it so that one would need some sort of key to unlock the untold mana stored inside.
After swiftly thinking through everything he knew about Arcanium and its uses, Morphius came to the conclusion that the three crystals, united, would unlock the power in the Arcanium's core. It would explain why he hadn't felt any strong magical traces from the Triclops on his quest before drawing close to the first crystal.
This conclusion presented a new problem, however. "Should I unite the crystal and the skull now?" he silently pondered. "Or should I wait until I have all three in my possession?"
While trying to decide upon his next move, yet another thought came to the wizard. "My mind is unusually fleeting this eve" Morphius muttered to himself as he rummaged through his satchel anew.
After a few minutes, he pulled the tome he had stolen from the castle back in Doren, along with the old map and the copy he had made, out and onto the table. He then, slowly and carefully, folded the old map out in front of himself.
"And now I have a new problem altogether" he mused.
The wizard had not given this obstacle much thought beforehand. In fact, he had pushed it to the very back of conscious thought and instead focused solely on locating and securing the first crystal.
Now that he had the Crystal of Preservation in hand, however, the repressed detail made his lack of foresight almost painfully clear. Morphius groaned and massaged his brow in slight frustration. "My spontaneous way of dealing with things will be the death of me" he sighed.
The problem was, in fact, that the map he had followed thus far only lead the way to one of the three crystals, making it next-to-useless in locating the remaining pair.
The wizard relit his smoking pipe and leaned backwards, his body partially ceasing to function as he tried to think of every explanation he could consider. "Why would that mage from the keep make a map that leads to only one if he knew where the others were as well?" A puff of smoke covered his face as he sunk into the recesses of his own head.
As the sun once again shone upon Trymsheim, a window at The Ettin's Tooth Inn opened, seemingly, by itself. A cloud of herb-induced smoke drifted into the cool morning air.
The sunlight streamed into the relatively large room. Morphius slowly turned his head and gave his usual greeting to the sun before turning back to the map in front of him.
The wizard's eyes were red and bloodshot, he had barely moved a muscle all night and he was more tired than he himself realized. The night he had just spent thinking had actually yielded more questions than answers and his mood would surely fall when he saw it fit to rouse himself from his self-induced coma of sorts.
Morphius blinked for the first time since the evening before. The sudden rush of conscious movement cost him his balance and sent him to the floor in a heap of flailing limbs laced with livid swearing.
Getting up, the wizard cursed the name of every deity he could think of before his stomach, once again, reminded him why he sometimes despised the neediness of a human form.
"I've been too long in this room" Morphius muttered as he headed downstairs. "I need some time off."
He ate a large breakfast before heading up to the counter. The wizard cleared his throat rather loudly. The dwarf innkeeper looked up and was met by a large bag of gold being dropped on the counter.
"I'm going out of town for a while to clear my head; this bag contains payment for the next two months. If I am not back by the time the gold runs out, I'll pay the rest when I get back." The dwarf peeked into the bag and instantly made a mental agreement. When he looked back up, the wizard was already gone.
Morphius strode out through the gate he had entered the town through and headed into the wilderness, quickly disappearing in the falling snow.
Two whole weeks passed before the first attempt at entering the wizard's room was made. The brave, or foolish, man who tried had instantly remembered something important he had to do the moment he touched the door. Others tried as well, with various results. One man was shocked, another was thrown into the opposite wall by an invisible force, a dwarf was turned into a sheep for the next three hours and a woman who tried disappeared in an instant, only to suddenly reappear in the middle of a bar brawl later that evening, bewildered and confused, but otherwise unharmed.
Three months passed with no success at entering the room before people eventually gave up. The wizard was still nowhere to be seen.
Morphius was, in fact, well aware of the repeated attempts at breaching his temporary sanctum. Every time someone touched the warded door, his mind swiftly conjured a counter-measure. It had given him many good laughs, which in turn had raised his spirit. The cool air of the mountain and the sheer sensation of freedom they provided had helped him think, and he had come to a conclusion to his problem.
The map had not been made by the mage after all. He could easily tell that it was several centuries old, millennia even. The mage had definitely not been anywhere near that age. The wizard realized this after the first month, and he had spent a week after that lamenting the fact that this detail had bypassed him completely.
The next month he had spent pondering how he could use his new discovery to his advantage. Morphius came to the conclusion that there could an underlying connection between the map and The Obsidian Triclops. The month after that was spent musing over this theory and eventually finding it plausible at best and hopeful at worst. He then spent two weeks meditating before turning and heading back towards Trymsheim.
The inn was uncharacteristically silent and empty when the wizard made his return. He dropped a large bag of gold on the counter and swept up the stairs and into his room. Getting back to town had taken longer than he had anticipated, but it had given him more time to think.
When he was in the safety of his quarters once more, Morphius studied the map more intensively than he had done when making his copy. He let off a, slight, magical charge that revealed a single line written in his own language around the edge of the map for a second or so.
Morphius quickly retrieved his staff from its resting place by the door and held the staff's orb just above the old parchment. The arcane light shone through the map, revealing the text once more.
If one seeketh the Three Crystals of Essence, then taketh heed of these words and ponder them well. If one finds a creek, yet wishes more water, one should follow the creek back to the pond of its birth. Once there, more creeks shall be found and in time, they shall combine and form a great ocean.
"People must've been less perceptive back when this was written" Morphius thought in slight humor. "A toddler could have understood this metaphor." The next step was clear as crystal to the wizard. In order to locate the second crystal, the first one would have to be reattached to the Triclops.
Morphius took the crystal in one hand and the skull-shaped block of Arcanium in the other. The wizard drew a few deep breaths before quickly slamming the gemstone into the central eye-pit. He realized at once that this was hardly a well thought out choice of action. The two energies were united much too fast and the excess force began to leak out of the other two holes at an exceptional pace, mingling together into an all new form of energy.
Morphius swiftly turned his satchel upside-down and emptied its contents before stuffing it over the leaking power source and holding on to it for dear life.
The excess power met with explosive results. The wizard was flung across the room and into one of the walls from the sheer mental backlash.
The satchel began to swell like a balloon being blown into and for several moments, Morphius feared that it would not hold. Suddenly, the energy reached its peak and died down quietly. The enchantments placed upon the satchel had held fast. He could sense it now. Power, immense power, yet, still limited, still measurable.
Morphius got back onto his feet and slowly approached the table. He removed his satchel and studied it for any sign of damage. Picking up a book and dropping it into the satchel, he was glad to find that the enchantments were intact; he had been worried that the excess power would've burned them out. The wizard breathed a sigh of relief and started picking up everything he had dropped out on the floor.
Cleaning up every tome, scroll, magical artifact and trinket he had collected over the years proved to be a long task. By the time he was completely done, the sun had risen once more.
Morphius turned back to the map. And indeed, a line had appeared and trailed from the point of the first crystal to another destination quite far away.
The wizard quickly pulled out the copy he had made. His time out of town had given him the chance to get a grip on his surroundings, and he had swiftly pinpointed Trymsheim's position from where the, now ruined, castle had been buried.
Thus, Morphius traced the line from his own position and to the point specified on the old map on his own copy, rather than retrace his steps to the site of the castle and carry on from there.
The wizard rolled his maps together and put the Triclops back into his satchel.
"I've been here long enough" Morphius thought as he gathered his equipment from around the chamber. "It is time to take my leave of this place."
The wizard strode down into the inn's main room and up to the counter. "Well now, there ye are!" the dwarf exclaimed. "I was beginnin' ta think tha' ya already skipped town withou' tellin' anyone."
"I never skip in secrecy without good reason, master dwarf" Morphius replied. "But, alas. The time for skipping has come." The innkeeper gave a solemn nod. "Aye" he began. "I s'pose everythin' has ta end sooner or later. Though, it still saddens me ta see th' back of such a fine lad like yerself." The wizard smiled warmly. "I may come and visit again, should I find myself in these parts. Nevertheless, I shall warmly recommend your inn, and your ale, to anyone that asks." Morphius extended his hand "May Moradin's favor be upon you, my friend." The dwarf laughed heartily and seized the wizard's palm in his own. "Good luck ta ye, m'lad! May Grimnir's axe guard ye on yer travels."
After saying his goodbyes, Morphius went on his way. He exited through a different gate this time, leading downwards and out of the mountains, rather than inwards. Before he had left Trymsheim behind completely, one of the guards posted at the eastern gate had told him a rumor about some sort of warlord, commanding an unstoppable army, ravaging the lands below the mountains. Apparently, refugees had been streaming into town while the wizard had been on his small quest for self-insight. Morphius assured the guardsman that he would be cautious and took off.
"Now, if only all mortals were as kind-hearted as these ones, life would be so much easier" the wizard thought as he glanced back at Trymsheim's walls one last time. "Easier, yes. But also, so much less exciting."
True to his way of viewing the world, Morphius slipped off the road further ahead and headed into the wilderness.
The wizard found himself climbing upwards again, yet, as he drew ever eastward, the mountain landscape became less jagged, more rolling. It was most definitely a welcome change of scenery.
After a few days of trekking through, relatively, hospitable landscape, Morphius stood on a large ridge. In every direction below, an enormous forest of spruce stretched outwards for several miles. If he squinted his eyes, the wizard could barely make out the reddish-golden leaves of oak trees in the distance. "By Melandru! Is it autumn still?" he thought to himself. "I could've sworn it had just ended when I parted ways with Mithra." That thought caused him to turn to the south-west, where he had entered the mountains from so long ago. "I hope she and her sister are well."
"I should visit her, once I've sorted out my errand."
Morphius let his gaze linger in that direction for some time before turning back to the task at hand. The sun shone brightly from a spotless sky, and the wizard raised his head and smiled at it before turning his eyes downwards the ridge he stood on.
He let out a long whistle. "That's a long way down" he said aloud to no one in particular whilst pondering how to proceed. "Changing form and flying to the bottom seems the most obvious, and logical, choice" he mused. "But then again, my life is anything but logic, so relying on that could be a mistake."
Morphius pondered for another hour, or so, before rising abruptly and securing his staff in a rarely-used holster on his back, under his cape. "Ah, what the heck" he told himself as he swung his body over the edge. "What would life be without any challenges, anyway?"
Climbing up a mountainous ridge was hard enough. Morphius had discovered as much many years ago. Climbing down a mountainous ridge, however, proved itself to be akin to a nightmare. "Remind me…" he muttered to himself after pulling his foot off a rock that had plummeted into the woods below. "…why did I make this harder for myself again?" "It could be challenging, fun, adventurous and it could preserve precious energy" he answered his own question with a sigh, somehow managing to carefully maneuver his way down the ridge.
He was nearing the top of the spruce trees when an obstacle presented itself to him. There was nothing left to step on.
Morphius clung onto the mountainside for some time, pondering. If he leapt forward, there would maybe be enough time to change form before he flew into something, like the ground. "Then again" he thought. "My calculations have erred most grievously before."
Before he could make a decision, a cracking sound made itself known to his ears. He looked up and discovered that the rock he was currently holding on to was loosening from the rest of the mountain.
"Oh. Fu-" the rest of the wizard's sentence disappeared into his scream as the rock lost its hold on the ridge and fell, with Morphius underneath it, towards the earth.
Morphius kept on screaming until several branches suddenly caught him. The wizard abruptly stopped crying out and instead fell silent. After a while, he let out a sigh of relief, one that quickly turned into a groan of annoyance as he felt the branches snap, one by one, under him. "Son of a one-legged gnoll" he muttered before suddenly plummeting towards the ground again. Perhaps it was bad luck, bad karma or fate's cruel sense of humor, but somehow Morphius managed to get himself hit, often in the face, by every branch on the way down.
When he finally made contact with the ground again, he silently thanked the heavens and its inhabitants, until the rock he had fallen with made its presence known by way of a sudden explosion of pain in the back of his head.
Several nearby trees violently burst into flames. Morphius scrambled onto his feet while cursing Taal's name and flinging the offending piece of mountain as far away from himself as he could.
The wizard calmed himself and doused the flames. After whispering his apologies to the earth and belittling himself for allowing his anger and frustration to get the better of him, he began to make his way through the undergrowth.
There was little sunlight to be had, due to the close proximity of the trees shutting it out from the ground. Only the hardiest plants survived being this closed off from the sun. Even so, those who had managed to maintain their existence grew in abundance along the ground and there were quite a few clearings where Morphius could feel the sun caressing his face.
The wizard had been walking through the, simply, enormous woods for several days when he found his first reminder of what dangers such serene places often hid from the inexperienced. Several, brutally gutted, deer lay scattered on the ground before him.
Morphius swiftly came to some basic conclusions about the attacker. It was most definitely large, fast, powerful and vicious. It had not been hunting the deer for food, as they were untouched, brutal gutting aside, which meant that the assailant possessed some form of cruel desire to kill and inflict pain. It had been alone, as there were too few footprints for there to have been more. Kneeling down to run his hand down the neck of the nearest animal in silent respect, the wizard discovered something else.
The carcass was still warm.
He swiftly stood to his feet and closed his hand around The Blade of Awe's hilt. The killing had clearly taken place recently. At most half an hour ago, less than ten minutes ago, at least.
The wizard quickly backed out of the clearing, knowing that standing in it would make him a sitting duck. As soon as he was within the shade of the trees, he swiftly turned, aware of the possibility of the creature sneaking up on him from behind.
Morphius slowly and silently made his way around the clearing, constantly wary of his surroundings. As he reached the other side, he glanced behind himself one last time. At that exact moment, a chorus of bestial howls sounded in front of him.
Without turning his head back, the wizard tossed himself into shelter behind one of the nearby trees. Something large passed over him. Morphius got back on his feet in time to see the tip of a scaled tail disappear among the thick forestation.
As he tried to locate his adversary, the howling sounded from behind. The wizard dropped to the ground as the large creature passed over him again, closer this time. Getting up, Morphius discovered four deep gashes in the thick tree trunk.
He quickly decided that standing still was a bad idea and swiftly started running in a random direction. Even so, his unseen enemy kept making leaps at him when he was not paying attention to a specific direction. This made him unfocused and unable to sense the creature when it came at him.
After a particularly close call, Morphius decide that to stand any chance, he would need his wits about him. He disappeared in a flash of light and reappeared on a branch some way above the ground. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. It helped immensely; he could now sense his opponent's life-force. And it was heading right for him.
The wizard whirled around to face the beast just as it slammed into him. His staff and sword fell from his hands as the creature's paws rammed into his shoulders and sent him plummeting to the ground.
The moment he made contact with the earth, his enemy was over him. Immediately, Morphius raised his arms to grab at two heads looming above him while seizing the third one with his mind. It took all his strength, both physically and mentally, to keep the three sets of jaws from closing around his throat.
Though his mind was occupied with the creature's middle head, the wizard mustered enough concentration to manage lifting his sword, which had fallen to the earth some feet away, and bringing it towards his foe.
When the sword had hovered close enough, Morphius gave a mental command. The Blade of Awe sliced downward and split open a large gash in the creature's side. The beast's heads howled in pain and it recoiled, making room for the wizard to roll backwards and onto his feet.
Morphius pulled the sword back into his hand and stood to get a better look of his enemy. It was decidedly a bizarre creature, sporting the hindquarters of a goat, the forequarters of a lion, the tail and wings of a dragon and three heads. The head on the left was that of a sandy-brown mountain lion. The right head was a black-furred goat's, its eyes a gleaming red, blazing with malice. The head in the center was that of a red dragon with smoke rising from its nostrils.
The chimera had obviously not expected its enemy to survive its most recent attack, as it took a more defensive stance, seemingly abandoning its previous strategy of striking when it was unseen. Now knowing that its prey was armed, the creature paused and evaluated the situation.
The wizard and the chimera stood and regarded each other for some time. Suddenly, the beast reared up on it hind legs, the lion- and goat heads roaring while the dragon head took a deep breath.
Morphius swiftly dropped his blade and kneeled with his palms touching the ground. As the chimera dropped to all four again, a jet of flame shot out of the middle head's maw. The earth in front of the wizard immediately rose up, forming a shield between him and the fire.
Morphius grunted as the flames struck his wall of earth, maintaining a spell without his staff as a focal point was far more difficult than he remembered. The moment the flames subsided, Morphius reshaped his wall into an orb and flung it towards the beast with the power of a catapulted boulder.
The earthen projectile struck the chimera and sent it flying backwards and into a tree. It rolled back onto its feet and snarled with all its heads. Quicker than one could say "fly, you fools" the creature charged head-on, quite literally. The goat head and the horned dragon's head lowered as it flew forward, using its wings along with its legs to propel itself in the wizard's direction.
Morphius threw himself out of harm's way once more, narrowly avoiding the lion head snapping at his feet. He rolled to his feet and took off, hoping that his chimeric adversary would not follow him directly.
The gods seemed to favor his prayers, for once. The wizard felt the beast slip in between the trees and pursuing him well out of sight. At least, the kind of sight one needed eyes for.
Morphius made a quick mental scan of the area, finding his staff some way off. Sensing the chimera's impending attack, he quickly jumped backwards. The beast flew past him with an enraged snarl, the goat head snapping after him as it went. Morphius ducked under an outstretched wing and dodged a blow from the creature's tail before continuing his sprint towards his staff.
The chimera leapt again. The wizard tossed himself forward, again narrowly avoiding the attack, and closed his hand around his staff before his face suddenly collided into a nearby tree trunk. "Ow…" he muttered and got to his feet again.
Morphius whirled to face the beast as it made another leap. The wizard swung his staff at his attacker, channeling magical force through the weapon the moment it made contact with the chimera.
The creature was sent whirling into another tree. Snarling as it got up; it swiftly retreated into the woods. "Not this time!" Morphius snarled as he slammed the butt of his staff into the ground. A wide circle of blue flames erupted from the ground, not visibly damaging the forest.
Concentrating so hard, that beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, Morphius lifted every tree within the circle out of the ground and flung them out of the fiery ring.
The chimera turned and trained all six of its eyes on him, before beginning to circle him. It paced, fittingly enough, like a caged animal, never taking its gaze of its rather persistent prey.
Unlike in his encounter with that griffon, so long ago, Morphius did not turn to follow his enemy this time. Instead, he decided to bide his time, and strike when the creature least expected it.
Predictably enough, it circled him a few times to try to lull him into a false sense of, relative, security. The chimera suddenly leapt at him from the side. Morphius turned while bringing his weapon up and slashing at the creature, leaving another gash on its body, across the dragon head this time.
The chimera howled in pain and swiftly recoiled. Suddenly seeming to realize that it was in over its heads, the creature spread its wings and took flight. "Oh, no you don't!" the wizard called as he leaped forward and managed to get a hold of its tail.
The chimera was well above the circle of flames when it noticed the unwanted passenger clinging onto its tail. It snarled and started to make a series of erratic movements in an attempt to shake it off.
A particularly strong whip of its tail made Morphius lose his grip and plummet towards the ground.
At the exact moment the earth and the wizard collided, he disappeared again.
The chimera suddenly felt something landing on its back, followed by blinding pain as its foe drove his blade through the lion head, and then slicing the goat head clean off before finishing the beast off by engulfing the final head in flames.
The chimera's corpse fell like an anvil dropped from a tower. Morphius stood as best he could and managed to jump off and grab hold of a tree before hitting the ground.
The wizard slowly climbed down, careful not to over-exert himself. Pulling the trees out of the ground with their roots had been an unfortunate, but necessary, way of preventing the beast from getting away.
He felt drained. "No wonder there" he thought to himself. "You're pushing yourself too hard Morph'." He gave a small chuckle. "And now I'm talking to myself" he said aloud. "I should really seek the company of others when such things start to happen. Wouldn't you say?" he nudged the, rather mutilated, carcass with his boot before realizing what he was doing.
After banging his head into a tree a few times in order to clear his mind, he climbed up the tree and fell asleep, perched on a branch like a large and peculiar bird.
When he woke up again the following morning, Morphius glanced down and promptly fell off the branch. "Now, why in the world would I sleep up there without changing form?" he wondered and rubbed the back of his head. "Maybe that rock earlier hit me harder than I thought."
He decided not to mull over it any longer and went on his way. The sun had barely peeked over the horizon, though he couldn't see it due to the forest blocking the rest of the world. Even so, the wizard greeted the rising sun as he always did when he wasn't otherwise occupied.
The next few days passed with little to no trouble. Food was not a major concern, as Morphius was versed well enough in herb-lore to know what plants were edible and which ones weren't. Drink was provided by several creeks running down from the mountains and if he wanted meat, there was plenty of deer running about. Overall, the wizard's life could have been much worse. "Hand me a lovely girl with an unexplainable urge to mate with me, and I'd might think I'd gone to paradise" he chuckled to himself as he stepped over a hill.
Though high in spirits because of his recent luck, he remained vigilant. Painfully familiar with fate's fickleness.
After another week, the spruce forest gradually began to mingle with oak trees and later disappeared entirely. Now the scenery was that of large oaks, still colored in the red and gold of mid-autumn.
Morphius had stumbled upon a road some days afterwards, he followed it backwards with his gaze and found it led to the mountains. Presumably back to Trymsheim.
While the wizard had no profound love for roads, as he thought they restricted one's right to go where they pleased, he decided to follow this one until he had to take off again according to his map.
A few hours had passed when his tendency to keep his mind's eye, as well as his own, on the surroundings proved itself fortunate. Halting, he turned his head to the side and let his eyes wander downwards until they stopped on a pair of boots sticking out of a nearby bush.
Swiftly guessing what had transpired, the wizard ducked into the trees. A quick look was all he needed to confirm his suspicions. The corpse of a male human, with several wounds to the chest, had obviously been hastily pulled out of sight.
"No animal made these wounds" Morphius muttered while making a quick search of the body for anything he could use. "Animals don't loot their kills." Now positively sure about not being the only one in the area, he decided to stay under the cover of the trees and investigate further. Closing his hand around the hilt of his weapon once more, the wizard crouched low and crept forward as silently as he could.
He didn't have to go far. Before long, he heard threatening voices and sensed extreme fear. Stopping short of the road, he ducked into a bush a peered through the leaves.
There were eight men on the road before him. Seven of them stood with various weapons drawn against the eighth man, who stood on his wagon with an axe clutched tightly in his hands. The road ahead was blocked by a pile of tree trunks.
"Calm down, man!" one of the seven men called. "Just put the axe away and step off the wagon, and you'll go unharmed!"
Morphius didn't even have to read the bandit's mind to know that he was lying, the eighth man would be cut down as soon as he stepped down from where he stood. He shot a look at the man in the wagon. He was definitely not a fighter. His pose, the way he held his weapon and everything else about him practically screamed "farmer-who-has-never-killed-anything-but-pigs-in-his-entire-life."
Thinking quickly, the wizard issued a single command into the farmers mind: "Down!"
The man dropped to the floor of the wagon without thinking twice. As soon as he was out of harm's way, one of the trunks piled across the road swung out like an enormous club.
The flying tree trunk struck three of the bandits, shattering their ribcages and sending them flying. Another two were turned into little more than bloody smears on the ground as the trunk caught them in a downwards swing. The last two were crushed as the trunk flew into the forest and smashed into them on its way, swiftly followed by the rest of the chopped-down trees.
Morphius emerged from the forest, stepped onto the wagon and poked the man in his shoulder. "You can get up now" the wizard said. "They're gone." "How gone?" came the man's muffled reply. "As far gone as mortals ever can go" answered Morphius.
The man slowly peeked up and looked around. Then, he got to his feet and bowed his head.
"My thanks to you, stranger" he said. "If you hadn't been here, this would certainly have been my last hour." Morphius waved his hand. "Don't worry about it, it was my pleasure to help someone in need."
The two men exchanged a few words before the wizard stepped down from the wagon. "It was a pleasure to talk to you, good sir, but I'm afraid I must be on my way" he said. "Where are you headed?" the farmer asked. Morphius smiled. "I'll know that when I get there" he answered. "But it'll be dark soon! The woods are dangerous enough in daylight" the man exclaimed. "Your concern for my health is endearing, my friend. But I've slept in worse places."
"Even so" the farmer began." I invite you to come and stay with me and my family for a night or two, it's the least I can do after you saved my life."
Morphius mulled over this offer for a few minutes. Eventually agreeing to go with the farmer. "By the way" the man spoke as they rolled down the road. " My name is Erlov." "A great pleasure" the wizard replied. "I am called Morphius the Eternal."
Reaching the farmer's home didn't take all too long, by the time the wagon stopped; the sun had just barely begun its descent beyond the trees.
A woman stood in the doorway of the farmhouse. Morphius guessed she was Erlov's wife. "You're late" she stated. "Sorry, love. I was held up by bandits on the way" the farmer replied
The woman's expression softened considerably as she quickly stepped towards her husband to inspect him.
"I'm all right, a little shaken perhaps, but unharmed" Erlov assured her. The woman then turned her attention to the robed stranger sitting on the wagon. "Hello" she greeted. "Who might you be, then?"'
"Oh! Pardon me. This is Morphius" Erlov told his wife. "He is the reason I'm standing here right now."
"Well then, master Morphius. You have my gratitude, my name is Tania" she said. "It is an honor to meet you, milady" the wizard replied and bowed his head. "Now, now, there's no need to be so formal. You are among friends after all" Tania laughed. "Come inside, and I'll get you both something to eat."
The food was on the table when Tania stood up and stepped close to a nearby staircase. "Caterina!" she called. "It's time to eat!"
Erlov shifted in his seat, clearly uncomfortable. When his wife sat down again, he leaned over to her. "Is that really such a good idea, love?" he whispered, not knowing that Morphius' enhanced hearing picked up every word. "She is very ill, after all. What if she-" "Enough, Erlov!" his wife cut him short, also whispering. "I will not alienate our daughter for any disease. And we have not been affected thus far, there may still be hope."
Just then, the sound of uneven footsteps could be heard coming down the stairs. A young girl stepped into the light of the fireplace and Morphius's eyes widened just as he bit back a gasp.
The child was deathly pale; her eyes were clouded and unfocused, her breathing heavy and she moved with a shambling, uneven, gait similar to a walking corpse.
Erlov got up from his seat and picked the girl up. Father and daughter hugged one another tightly. The child suddenly became aware of the wizard's presence. Though she did not speak, she looked at him with questioning eyes. This gave Morphius a chance to study them, and it struck him as strange that she could see anything at all seeing as her eyes were more clouded than a sky during a thunderstorm.
The child, Caterina, whispered something in hear father's ear and Erlov smiled before turning to the wizard. "This is Morphius" he said. "He saved daddy's life."
Erlov put his girl down and she shambled over to the wizard and hugged his leg. "Thank you" she rasped. Her voice was barely more than a wheeze. Morphius smiled down at her and bowed his head again. "You are most welcome."
Erlov told his family everything about his journey over during the course of the dinner. From the day he set out from home, to his "blessed" meeting with the wizard. This was followed by said wizard telling of his own journey. Of course, he left out details such as the Triclops. They didn't ask much about his goals, and he had no intention of telling.
Once everyone had eaten their fill, Erlov cleaned the table while Tania took her daughter back upstairs. Morphius offered to help with the cleaning, but was strictly ordered to sit down and relax. Therefore, he sat down and started to think. He had noticed that Caterina had barely touched her meal at all, even though her parents had given her, and him, more food than they had taken themselves.
Tania came back down, and she, Erlov and Morphius sat together and talked for a while. After a while, the wizard could no longer control his curiosity. "If you don't mind me asking" he began. "What's wrong with your child?"
The couple looked at each other for some time, before Erlov sighed and buried his head in his hands.
"We really don't know" he spoke after a while. "She became ill, some, two months ago. It's only gotten worse since then." Tania scooted over and embraced her husband. "We're almost certain that it happened while we were fleeing from the conquests going on further south" she explained. "But we don't know, how, where or why she fell ill."
Morphius pondered for a while before speaking again. "I don't suppose…" he started, tentatively. "…I don't suppose you would let me have a look at her? I have some knowledge of various ills and how to treat them."
Erlov and Tania looked at each other again. They seemed to communicate solely through eye-contact. Erlov spoke again after some time. "You have already saved my life; we cannot ask more of you."
"But it is I who is asking, is it not?" the wizard asked rhetorically. The farmer bit his lip. "We have only just met, my friend" he said after some time. "And yet, for some reason I would trust you with my life." "As would I" his wife agreed. "You have our full trust, Morphius."
Erlov and Morphius entered Caterina's bedroom, and the farmer shook his daughter awake. "Everything's going to be all right" he whispered and kissed her forehead. Morphius stepped forward. "Sleep, child" he murmured and placed his hand on her head. "Ashphelit nor'golech" he whispered, and the girl instantly fell into slumber. Morphius immediately turned back to the child's father. "Water" the wizard commanded. "Lots and lots of water. As cold as you can manage to get it." Erlov was out of the door in the blink of an eye. Despite Caterina's pale complexion, her skin was practically blazing. Cooling her down would be an absolute necessity. Erlov returned with the water soon after. Morphius dipped his finger in it and nodded, that would do. "I understand if you wish to stay, my friend. But I think it would be better if you left me now" he said. Erlov nodded in understanding. "I trust you" he said, and left the wizard to his work. Morphius turned back to the girl and stretched. "Time to get down to business" he muttered to himself.
Morning came and passed. Erlov and Tania did not see hide nor hair of the wizard until about mid-day, when he came down for a quick bite. The couple did not need to say anything; their eyes asked all the questions for them. Morphius shook his head. "Nothing yet, but you should know that your daughter is deathly ill, and that I cannot promise that I'll be able to save her. Know, however, that I will do everything in my power to try." Tania swallowed a sob and Erlov laid his arms around her. "We understand, do what you feel is best." Morphius nodded and went back upstairs.
The next two weeks passed by with much of the same. Morphius was not to be seen most of the time and only came down to eat or, sometimes, go outside and think while having a smoke. Some times when he showed himself, his face bore no specific emotion. Other times, he looked troubled.
Two and a half weeks had passed since the wizard had offered his help, when he came downstairs one day and asked both of his hosts to sit.
"I have good news" Morphius began. "And I have bad news."
"Good news first, please" Erlov spoke. The wizard nodded. "The good news is; that your daughter has not contracted any disease, she is not sick." Tania and her husband looked at each other. "And the bad news?" she asked. Morphius gave a small sigh before speaking. "The bad news is; that while she is not sick, she has been poisoned." The silence that followed was almost tangible.
"What?" Erlov's question was but a croak. Morphius continued. "I took the liberty of sampling a vial of her blood and examining it." The wizard produced a vial from his robes. "This is what I found."
He placed the vial on the table. The red liquid inside was mixed with a thick purple fluid.
"What is that?" Erlov whispered as if he was afraid of the substance within the vial. "She's having a hard time breathing, she is dizzy, she cannot walk correctly and her body temperature is bordering on the extreme. I have seen, and felt, the symptoms before." Morphius's hand subconsciously drifted down one of his legs. "Your daughter has been poisoned with manticore venom."
"Is…" The farmer paused to swallow the lump in his throat. "Is that… very bad?" Morphius sighed again. "I'm not trying to alarm you or anything of the sort" he said and massaged his brow. "But the sting of an adult manticore can kill a grown man in a matter of seconds."
Tania broke into sobs as Erlov's face turned ashen grey. Morphius paused and let them wear themselves out. "However" he began, once they had calmed down, causing them to pay their full attention. "The purple color of the venom seems to indicate that this is, in fact, poison from a manticore hatchling."
"You mean… there's hope, after all!" Tania exclaimed. "Indeed" Morphius answered. "The hatchling's venom does not kill instantly; it is more for the use of discouraging other predators than for bringing down prey."
The couple's faces lit up. "But" Morphius said. The couple's faces fell again. The wizard continued. "Though not deadly as the adult instantly, the venom will eventually kill the victim if not properly treated. Treating it only requires a simple antidote." Morphius sighed, yet again. "Alas, I lack the final ingredient to brew it."
Erlov rose from his seat. "Well, at least you did all you could, Morphius. Thank you."
"Sit down, Erlov" the wizard calmly said. "I am not quite finished; give me a few hours before giving up."
With those words, Morphius strode out the door and sat down on the ground outside the farmhouse.
Once again assuming a meditational position, the wizard let his power flow into the soil beneath him. He took a few deep breaths, placed both hands on the ground, closed his eyes and spoke.
"Arkh! Arkh, sûhl'nar asrith Morphius, servreän tol Solarion! Naryen khusfr al'doraethir. Asthrann ûlé rakha. Argrathenn trallgrech Taal, Melandru anderal Kynareth! Safhri! Safhri achlireas!"
Morphius's eyes flew open; he scrambled to his feet and swiftly headed inside.
"Despair not, my friends!" he called as he threw the door open. "For there is indeed hope, still!"
Erlov and Tania raised their heads and merely watched as the wizard practically flew up the stairs and came down again with his sword secured in his belt, his satchel around his shoulder and his staff in his hand.
"What, what? Where are you go-" Erlov stuttered. "I know where the plant I need is!" the wizard said. "If I leave now and travel quickly, I could be there and back in a month! Maybe even less!"
Tania spoke up. "But how did you even…?" "No time, no time!" Morphius was already out of the door again and quickly moved westward. "I'll tell you when I return!" he called back over his shoulder, before disappearing into the nearby forest.
While turning into an eagle and flying to his destination would have gotten him there faster, he needed contact with the earth so that he could seek directions if he needed them.
After several straight days of running, the landscape changed into one of rolling hills and open plains covered in tall, yellow grass. Morphius collapsed. "Relax" he told himself. "You're no good to Caterina if you run yourself to death."
After that, the wizard took one break of half an hour every day. Even so, his tenacity, and velocity, was astounding. If he had been thinking clearly, he would most certainly have been pleasantly surprised by himself.
As it was now, however, all his thoughts were centered on his current objective. He was simply unwilling to let the child die when she had survived thus far with the venom in her blood.
Two weeks passed and every day, the wizard drew closer to his goal.
Morphius took his hand of the ground and made a sharp turn to the right. He was close, very close, the earth had told him that much. He passed through a small cluster of trees and found himself in facing a large fjord that glimmered and sparkled in the mid-day sun.
The wizard's brow wrinkled. According to the earth, the plant was near, too near to be located across the fjord, yet too far away to be anywhere on his side.
Still bearing a slight frown upon his features, Morphius knelt and placed his hand on the ground again.
It was as though he was no longer in his own body. His gaze travelled along the ground and under the fjord's water, eventually coming to a halt by a large rock in the middle of the fjord.
Further examination proved the rock to be hollow. The path forward was now crystal-clear. He would dive into the water, swim into the hollow rock, retrieve the plant and then get back to the farm as fast as he could.
"Sounds simple enough" he thought as he opened his eyes and rose to his feet, only to discover a rather enormous shadow looming over him.
Morphius turned his head upwards. A gigantic tentacle had wormed its way out of the fjord and was currently poised to squash the wizard like a bug under a boot.
He barely had time to mutter a; "By the beard of Golganneth" before the massive appendage came plummeting down towards him.
Judging by the size of the tentacle, the wizard guessed that diving out of the way would not put enough distance between himself and the area of impact. So he ran for it instead.
The tentacle smashed into the ground behind him and was immediately pulled back into the water.
Morphius drew his blade from his belt and stood his ground. The monstrous appendage rose from the water and made to smash against the shore yet again.
The wizard teleported out of the way just as the tentacle slammed against the ground again, swiftly teleporting atop the appendage, he plunged his blade into it. Black blood showered out of the wound and covered him completely as an anguished howl rose from the depths of the fjord.
The flaw in his plan of attack became, painfully, clear to the wizard as the tentacle rose again, all too swiftly for his tastes.
Morphius flew off the appendage and slammed into the ground. Groaning, he managed to roll over onto his back, only to keep rolling as fast as he could.
His adversary's substitute-for-an-arm made contact with the ground just behind him. The impact was strong enough to send Morphius through the air, though a slight manipulation of the wind landed him safely on his feet.
"So much for that strategy" the wizard thought grimly. "It's probably for the best, anyways" he reasoned with himself, teleporting several times in rapid succession had a tendency to get exhausting rather quickly.
The attacking creature didn't move against him for some time. Morphius had even begun considering that it had fled when he sensed new movement below the deceptively tranquil surface.
The tentacle came at him, straight at him. It shot out of the water like a snapping viper, the front curled like a closed fist. With blinding speed, the appendage struck the wizard and sent him soaring into one of the nearby trees with a force that would have shattered the spine of a lesser being.
The tentacle struck again, turning the small cluster of trees into little more that firewood. The situation screamed, "Teleport or die!" and so he picked the lesser of two evils.
Whatever will the tentacle was commanded by seemed to have an uncanny track of his movement, as the tentacle retracted itself back into the water the very instant the wizard disappeared.
The appendage reappeared some way from him. Morphius briefly wondered if it had lost sight of him, a thought that dispersed when the tentacle slammed to the ground and came at him in a sweeping movement across the shore.
Eyes widening, both in slight terror and slight awe at the creature's ingenuity, the wizard swiftly teleported again, reappearing on the other side of the attacking appendage.
As he phased back into corporeal existence, the wizard felt the first pang of fatigue strike him. "Stop 'porting or you'll be dead before this…thing gets a chance to hit you again!" he growled at himself.
Hearing the sound of the tentacle readying another sweep, his mind started racing. There was no way he would be able to leap over the tentacle, there wasn't any room for running or diving out of the way and teleporting was out of the question.
A possibility struck him like a mace to the head.
Morphius whirled around, simultaneously dropping his blade and reaching into his satchel. He closed his hand around The Obsidian Triclops and brought it out in front of him.
"Orrtherin" he spoke, and sent a magical charge through the block of Arcanium. The crystal lodged in the third eye-pit of the skull-shaped gemstone briefly glowed a dark purple. The tentacle made contact with him. It was like tossing a piece of butter at a razor-sharp sword. The appendage snapped clean in half and another howl, loud enough to crack a nearby rock in two, rose from the water.
The writhing tentacle was pulled back into the fjord, quickly coloring it black with the creature's blood. Morphius waited for some time before lowering the Triclops, along with the shield he had erected. "Well, that worked beyond anticipation" he muttered and put the Arcanium back into his satchel before bending over to retrieve his blade.
In that instant, a myriad of smaller tentacles shot out of the water and wrapped themselves around his arms and legs before pulling him into and under the fjord's depths.
A few minutes passed, before a light suddenly shone under the surface in a bright flash.
The wizard broke the surface, except, it was no longer the wizard. What arose from the water did not even remotely resemble him.
In his place, there was now an enormous sea-serpent, with a maw large enough to swallow a siege tower whole in one bite. The top of its serpentine form was covered with void-black scales, while the underside, and lower jaw, was colored a brilliant white. An exception was the monster's forehead, where a large arrowhead-shaped spot of white was present, with the tip pointing down the muzzle of the beast.
Another tentacle rose in front of the sea-serpent and swiftly coiled itself around its adversary.
Morphius gave a bestial roar, sank his man-sized fangs into the offending appendage and started pulling. The tentacle gave away with a sickening rip, though it was lost on the wizard as he gobbled down his newly acquired meal.
Not about to give his enemy time to recover, he struck again. Swift as a serpent, fittingly enough, Morphius dove his head under the water and closed his jaws around the main body of the creature.
With a mighty heave, the wizard pulled his foe loose from its entrenched position on the bottom of the fjord and flung it ashore. As if to make sure that the enemy was truly dead, Morphius latched onto it with his teeth once more and lifted it above the ground before slamming it down into the rocky shore.
He repeated this action three or four times before the creature stopped writhing.
Morphius threw his head back and roared in victorious euphoria before suddenly falling forward and collapsing next to the carcass. Golden light enveloped the creature as the wizard gradually returned to his human form. "Guthix is my witness" he muttered. "Before this is over, I'm going to develop a tentacle-phobia." Then the world was lost to him.
His eyes slowly opened halfway. Finding no discomfort, he opened them fully and climbed onto his feet.
Morphius stretched and scratched the back of his head, letting a long groan out of his mouth in the process. Looking around, he discovered that night had fallen upon him.
He swiftly dropped to his knees and pressed his palm against the ground. It yielded the answer he had been dreading. He had been laying there for the past two days, and that was two days closer to the girl's demise.
He whirled around and flung himself into the fjord. He quickly swam to the middle and dove under, finding the entrance to the hollow rock soon after.
He paused to carefully retrieve the plant he had come for and, just as carefully, place it in his satchel before swiftly making his way back to shore.
While swimming, Morphius decide that he would not chance taking longer than necessary in returning to Erlov and his family.
Upon getting out of the water, he sprang forward off the ground and landed in the form of a wolf.
The wizard took off as quickly as he could, using his nose to follow his own trail backwards, praying to all gods and spirits that it was not too late already.
One week and two days had passed by the time Morphius had the farm in sight. As he got closer, however, he sensed something. Something not quite unlike what he had sensed when he and Erlov had first met. Fearing the worst, the wizard-wolf ducked into a nearby thicket and crept closer.
Erlov could safely say that this was the all-time-low of his life. His daughter was dying, his wife was hiding behind him and at least fifteen armed men were advancing upon them, each and every one bearing an uncanny resemblance to the men who had attacked him the day he and Morphius had met in their way of dress.
"You better drop that axe, farmer, before you hurt yourself with it" one of the bandits called. "Yeah!" another one chimed in. "We don't mean no harm, we're just going to kill you, take whatever valuables you have, burn your home and maybe…" The bandit's face split into a lecherous grin. "…maybe have some "fun" with that fine lady of yours, though not necessarily in that order!" The group doubled over laughing and he could feel Tania cringe behind him.
The farmer tightened his grip on his hatchet, determined to take down as many of the bastards as he could manage, yet, in his heart he knew that he couldn't possibly hope to defeat them all by himself.
Just as he finished a quick prayer in his head and opened his mouth to shout out a challenge, a feral growl sounded from somewhere behind the brigands.
Before Erlov's eyes, a wolf the size of a horse, and the length of two, erupted from the forest. The enormous animal closed the distance between itself and the brigands in the blink of an eye, savagely tearing open the nearest throat before leaping at another one and sinking its razor-sharp claws into his guts.
The beast managed to down five of the attackers before the rest had a chance to react. As the, near panic-stricken, men raised their weapons to attack, three of them were flung backwards into a cluster of trees and broke their necks upon impact. The wolf's eyes flashed red and four others burst into flames.
The last three dropped their weapons and fled, though they did not get far. The earth itself suddenly rose from the ground and sealed itself shut around their feet, halting them completely.
The wolf trotted up next to the bandits and sat down. A bright flash blinded the onlookers and when they looked up again, the wolf was gone. A wizard stood in its place, a wizard with his blade drawn. The first two bandits' heads were lopped off before they could get a hold of what happened and the wizard was looking decidedly menacing as he turned to the last.
"No!" he called. "Wait! You, you can't do this! Please! I beg you! Spare me! Spa-haaagh!" The wizard was silent as he drove his blade into the pleading man's gut, only pulling it out once he stopped twitching.
Without a word, Morphius swept past the stunned couple and up the stairs.
He returned downstairs early the next morning, smiling. "She will live" he assured Erlov. Tania burst into tears again, though for completely different reasons than before and Erlov himself was crying with relief.
"Can we see her, Morphius? Or must we wait?" he asked as he embraced his wife. The wizard's smile grew and he stepped to the side and made a "go ahead" gesture with his hand. Tania and her husband practically flew up the stairs.
Still smiling fondly, the wizard stepped outdoors into the chill of the morning. He greeted the first ray of the sun and sat down, pulling his pipe from his robe. The rising sun gave little warmth, as winter was already beginning to make its mark on the land. Moreover, Morphius felt sick all of a sudden. A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature had gripped him.
He sat like that for some hours, until he sensed the farmer approaching him from behind.
Erlov plopped down next to the wizard and drew a deep breath. "Morphius" he began. "If I could give you all the treasure in the world, it would still not suffice to thank you for what you have done."
The wizard didn't say anything, in fact, he seemed rather distant. Erlov continued. "When I met first met you, you saved my life. Then, you offered to help save my daughter and in the end; you wrested us all from death's grip. I now believe that our meeting was not a mere coincidence." The farmer paused before speaking again. "You're a godsend, Morphius. Your coming was a blessed moment for us all."
"I do not consider myself a particularly virtuous man" Morphius spoke after a while. "I've always believed that in order to survive, you'll have to do things that you would rather not." Erlov blinked, not exactly sure where the wizard was heading with his words. "Yesterday, I overstepped a boundary I hoped I wouldn't have to cross again." Morphius looked up at the heavens for some time, before turning his gaze to the man beside him. "He begged me" the wizard said, his voice no louder than a whisper. "He pleaded, cried, almost prayed for his life. And I butchered him, like a mindless beast."
He stood to his feet. "I grieve for every life I have ever taken, and it only makes it worse when they plead." Morphius turned and started walking away. "I am no godsend" he whispered, trying in vain to bite back his tears. "I am a, simple, merciless killer."
Before he had gotten far, the wizard found his path blocked. Erlov had rushed in front of him and stood with his arms stretched out, obviously not about to let the wizard pass without saying his mind.
Erlov gripped the wizard by his shoulders. "Listen to me" he said, shaking him lightly. "You are not merciless. You are not a simple killer. The simple fact that you regret killing that man makes you a good person. Besides, you killed only to defend my family and me. You overstepped a personal boundary in defense of someone you met barely a month and a half ago and for that, I consider you a blessing."
Morphius didn't say anything, so the farmer continued. "No matter how few boundaries we set up for ourselves, it's hard to not overstep them at some point. We are, after all, only human."
The wizard bit back a bark of laughter at the last part and mustered a smile through his tears. "Thank you, my friend. You have greatly lessened my grief" he whispered.
Erlov gave his friend a pat on the shoulder. "Come now" he said. "Dinner should be ready soon." He strode past the wizard and headed back indoors.
Morphius gazed at the farmer's retreating back for a while, before turning his eyes back towards the heavens."Lessened, though not yet quenched" he muttered and said a quick prayer for the souls of the men he had killed before turning and heading inside as well.
Dinner dragged on for a long time, eventually, it was more of an evening-meal than dinner. The joy radiating from the girl's parents helped on the wizard's rather somber mood. Caterina proved herself a joyous child who asked her savior every question about the world she could think of. Morphius answered as best he could, intentionally omitting some of the more intimate, gruesome and forbidden parts.
Before long, Caterina was put to bed. Morphius decided to go to bed early, suddenly realizing how very little sleep he had gotten in the past month. The wizard bid his hosts good night and retreated to his room, collapsing upon the bed and falling asleep the moment he reached his destination.
Erlov woke up early the next morning and went downstairs. He entered his kitchen just as Morphius strode in through the door. "Good morning" he greeted. Morphius looked up, he had obviously been thinking. "Good morning to you too" the wizard replied.
After eating breakfast, Morphius took Erlov with him outside and knelt by one of the bodies. "Call me paranoid…" he began. "…but I get the distinct feeling of having seen the clothes they're wearing somewhere before."
"You're not paranoid" Erlov sighed. "I've seen them before, on the day we met and earlier."
The wizard rose and turned to him. "Earlier?" he asked.
Erlov nodded. "Do you remember that I told you we fled from the conquests in the south?"
Morphius thought for a bit, before nodding. "You said you thought your daughter fell ill during your escape." "Indeed" The farmer confirmed. "When we fled from our last home, there were men bearing these clothes in the invading army." The farmer's face fell. "I fear that the war has reached us, and that we will be forced to flee again."
"I have been meaning to ask you, how did you daughter get manticore venom in her blood in the first place? The venom is rare to come by outside of tapping it from the creatures themselves, and manticores are extremely uncommon in this part of the world."
Erlov shook his head. "As I told you before, we don't know. She was hit by one of the attackers' arrows in her arm and fell ill two weeks later." He abruptly stopped to think. "Do you think...?" he started. "Do you think those two are connected?"
"I think they are more than just connected" Morphius muttered. "I am certain, that the arrow was poisoned."
The wizard turned to Erlov. "You should leave this place behind at once" he said. "At once? As in, right now?" "Would you rather stay here and wait for the rest of them?" "Of course not!" "Then go, now!"
"You should make for Trymsheim as fast as you can, don't look back and don't come back until you receive word about the war being over" Morphius ordered sternly as Erlov and his family sat in their wagon with those belongings they felt they could not be without.
"What about you?" Tania asked, holding her daughter tightly against herself. Morphius smiled. "I've been through worse things than war in my life. I'll be fine" he reassured them.
Erlov drew a deep breath. "Well, I suppose there's no use in standing around." He turned his gaze to the wizard. "Again, thank you. I don't know what we would have done if you hadn't come along."
"Will we ever see you again, master Morphius?" Caterina asked. The wizard stroked the girl's cheek with the back his hand, still smiling. "If the gods will it, we may see each other again. Have faith, little one." The child tilted her head to the side. "Faith in what?" Morphius' smile grew wider. "In anything you wish to have faith in" he answered before bowing to the girl and walking up beside her father. "If you ride quickly, you can be in Trymsheim before the week is through. Go to The Ettin's Tooth Inn, give this to the dwarf that runs it" the wizard handed Erlov a large, heavy, bag along with an envelope with his name on it. "He will take good care of you."
The farmer, his family and the wizard said their goodbyes and then they rode off along the road.
Morphius stood and watched as they rolled out of sight before turning and heading southward.
Five days after parting ways with Erlov and his family, The wizard came across the first sign of the mysterious warlord's conquest. A village, completely ruined laid before him.
After making a careful investigation, he concluded that humans alone were not responsible for the carnage wrought there. The ground itself was burnt in several places, reminiscent of tracks, yet other parts were muddy as if there had been much water running across it. Structures had been ripped apart and flung away with far greater force than a human would be able to muster and there were holes in the earth, as if something had risen out of it.
"This is the work of a power far beyond mortals" the wizard muttered to himself, something he became even more certain of because of the ethereal radiation. The place practically reeked of magic, strong magic that few men could hope to use without severely draining their own life-force in the process.
A thought struck him suddenly. "Gods, I hope I am wrong" he thought as he retrieved The Obsidian Triclops from his satchel and held it in front of himself. He stood like that for a while, knowing that it would take some time for the Triclops to attune itself to the surrounding energies and determine if they fit with its own force of essence.
After forty minutes or so, the wizard let out a breath. "Guess I was wrong after all" he thought and made to put the Arcanium away. Suddenly, the left eye started glowing a bright blue.
Morphius groaned at his misfortune. The warlord was in possession of the second crystal. "How is that even possible?" he snarled at himself. "I can hardly use one of the crystals without the Triclops, how can a human use one without it at all? Aaargh! It doesn't make sense!" what was left of the town was suddenly swallowed by the earth. "Control yourself, wizard! Control yourself!" Morphius breathed in and out a few times, and eventually calmed down.
"Well" he told himself after a while. "There's only one way to solve this riddle." The wizard held the Triclops in front of himself. The blue light shifted to the north-east and he swiftly headed that way.
For several weeks, Morphius followed the trail. Even if he hadn't had the magical trace to track, the carnage left in the army's wake would have been more than sufficient. He ran into several settlements, villages and even entire cities along the way. Some were leveled and burnt, other were abandoned and a few still held the occasional survivors that were willing to point the wizard in the direction the invading force had taken, though most were too shaken to actually give him some idea of what the army consisted of. The only clue he had, was from a rather disturbed fellow who kept repeating the words; "The elements! The elements walk!"
The trace eventually led the wizard to the edge of the land, before abruptly bending southwards along the coast. Morphius knew that he would catch up to the army eventually, as the trace grew stronger every day.
Six weeks after finding the ruined village, Morphius sensed enough power to know that he was close.
Deciding that he should scout ahead a bit before making his move, the wizard enveloped himself in a golden light, emerging from it in his eagle form and taking flight.
He flew across a large hill and his eyes widened. There were battalions of men on the field below, all armed and obviously part of the war camp that stretched out in every direction below him. But it was not the men who had caught his attention, the elementals did.
There were legions of elementals standing still on a field below the camp itself. Hulking earth-elementals made of stone, docile and barely visible wind-elementals, fire-elementals that glowered with the flames contained within and water-elementals that seemed to flow together in a large pool at the edges of the field.
After circling the field a few times, Morphius soared towards the camp itself and perched himself in a tree near the highest point. That was when he saw it.
The bright blue crystal was resting in a niche on a throne not unlike the one he had seen in the castle under the mountain. Though, the throne in the castle had been very squared and edged, this one was more rounded and soft-looking. Under the niche was carved the word Csayaerin. "Creation" the wizard thought. "Perhaps the thrones can be used as a power source for the individual crystals."
Before the throne, there stood a table with a large map laid across it. Men who seemed to be discussing their next move surrounded the table itself. Another figure, hooded and clad in a brown robe that concealed him entirely stood at the side of the throne. The figure exhumed an aura of magic, not particularly strong but definitely noticeable.
As Morphius' eyes drifted from the only magic-wielder present, as far as he could tell, and over to the figure sitting in the throne itself, his mind did a double-take.
There was something ominously familiar about the man currently leaning over the map on the table, and as he slammed his finger down on it to indicate their newest destination while raising his head to announce it to the assembled men, the wizard understood why.
Morphius was about to bite back a cry of surprise when he remembered two things. He had neither lips to bite, nor teeth to bite them with in his present form. "Curse all gods for their ridiculous design-flaws!" he thought bitterly as the surprised cry wrenched itself from his beak.
The men, including the robed figure, turned and looked at him. "I wonder if he recognizes me" the wizard thought as the man on the throne cast a glance at him before bending over again then freezing and looking up again, his eyes widening.
"Oh crap, he recognizes me." "Seize that bird!" the man bellowed, rushing onto his feet just as Morphius took wing and hastily dodged back as an arrow whizzed past him. "Alive, you numbskulls!"
"Not good. Not good at all!" the eagle-wizard thought as he turned and flew towards the south as hastily as he could. Suddenly, the magic-wielder who had stood by the throne materialized at the edge of his vision, clutching a simple wooden staff in his hand. Before Morphius could react, or even think of a counter-measure, he was struck by lightning and sent into the ground.
The wizard reverted to his human form once more as he struggled to get back on his feet. A boot firmly placed on his back halted his efforts. The heavy blow to his head did not help in the slightest. "Welcome, Morphius the Eternal." His eyes closed, a gasp was heard and the world ceased to exist.
Extreme discomfort, it was the only word that could properly describe what he was feeling at the moment. A quick attempt at moving his arms and legs confirmed one thing. He was chained. Moreover, an attempt at simply melting said chains proved that they were enchanted with powerful anti-magic wards. This meant the wizard had about as much power as a rotten loaf of bread at present time.
Slowly lifting his eyelid a fraction, Morphius got a closer look on his surroundings. He was in one of the tents, though it was sparse in the way of furniture. A sack here, a barrel there and some chests spread around. "A storage tent, no doubt" he thought. "Also, it seems, my place of residence for the time being."
Footsteps sounded from the outside. The wizard slammed his eyes shut and let his head fall against his chest. The footsteps entered the tent and stopped in front of him. Freezing cold water was splashed over him and he coughed and spluttered before glaring up at his captor, wishing intently that he could wipe that self-satisfied grin off his face with his fist.
"I wasn't really unconscious, you know" the wizard muttered. "I know" the man laughed, he then stepped closer to his captive. "Do you remember me, wizard?" he asked with a gleam in his eye. "Of course I do" Morphius answered sweetly. "How could I ever forget that pretty nose of yours."
His comment earned him a blow to the face. Morphius grinned. "Still a bit sensitive about that, are we?" he chuckled. His captor gritted his teeth together and drew a deep breath before suddenly relaxing.
The man leaned against the pole in the middle of the tent, and the two merely stared at each other for some time before Morphius spoke again. "So?" he began. "How long has it been since Doren, Hawk? Six summers?" "Eight" Hawk corrected him. "Eight summers, five months, two weeks, six days and fourteen hours."
"You've counted?" Hawk nodded. "And you recognized a bird you got a glimpse of eight summers ago?" Hawk nodded again. "Wow. Obsessed, much?" Another blow made contact with his face. The wizard let out a bitter laughter, though on the inside, he was rather shaken. "Eight summers? Really?" he thought. "I must've really lost track of the that has passed time since I left Mithra."
"Warlord Hawk!" a man entered the tent. Hawk turned and nodded to him, apparently giving him permission to speak. "We went through the prisoner's belongings like you said we should" he began. "The satchel was empty and some of the men started fighting over the sword!"
Morphius's eyes widened slightly. "And how did that go?" Hawk asked. "That's the thing, Warlord. One of them picked it up to use it and fell dead to the ground!"
The warlord turned back to the wizard. "Care to explain?" he said. Morphius gave a heaving sigh. "The Blade of Awe is an extremely powerful magical weapon. It's origin is shrouded in mystery, though I can tell you this much: it was not forged by mortals. I have not yet discovered all that lies within it, but I have managed to attune its energy to my own" he said. "It will instantly slay whoever lays hand on it without my permission."
"Spread the word" Hawk told his subordinate. "No one is under any circumstance to touch the prisoner's blade." The soldier saluted and exited the tent.
"Well then, since I am at your complete mercy, why haven't you killed me yet?" The wizard asked after a while. "Surely, you've been wanting to do just that these past eight summers?"
Hawk laughed. "You are ever so right" he grinned. "However, seeing as I saw you fall to the earth with deadly venom pumping through your body and still being here now, I don't think I have the means to destroy you just yet."
"So I am going to be you trophy. Is that it?" Morphius asked. Hawk's grin grew wider. "You could say it like that. Until I figure out what to do with you, you may consider yourself my honorary-guest-in-chains." The warlord laughed and strode out of the tent, leaving the wizard to his thoughts. Thoughts that generally went something like; "…Well, shit."
Morphius frowned, and then winced. The blows he had taken stung, and would probably bruise. He sighed and hung his head low. "Well, might as well try to get some rest before Warlord Beak-Face decides to pester me again." With those thoughts, the wizard closed his eyes and slept.
The soft press of something soft against his face roused him from slumber. He raised his head to find a piece of cloth being pressed against one of the places where Hawk's blows had struck him. Squinting in the faint light, he discovered the robed figure that had shot him down earlier standing there with a bucket of healing salve.
The magic-wielder noticed that the wizard was looking at him and stopped what he was doing. The two mages then looked at each other for a while, neither saying anything until Morphius broke the silence.
"That was some impressive lightning you conjured up back there, I am impressed." The robed one tilted his head to the side and kept it like that for a time. "Though, in my defense" the wizard carried on. "I haven't had a decent time for meditation in gods only know how long, so I am a little out of tune, so to say." Morphius gave out a chuckle. "Nevertheless, you are a very talented young wielder. In time, you will become a mighty mage, if given the proper training." "You…do you mean mighty like…like Merkoth?"
Morphius smiled. The voice was definitely that of a young boy. "You impress me again, young one. Not many people in these parts have any knowledge of the heroes of distant lands". The wizard saw the younger wielder's lips turn upwards in a smile for a brief moment. "A…friend told me about him" he said. "He told me…that Merkoth is one of the most powerful mortal mages in the world."
"Your friend must've been a knowledgeable man, then" Morphius replied. "Oh, he was. He had very many things to tell me, though, they were all just stories."
"I can tell you this much, then, my young friend. Merkoth is as real as I am" the wizard reassured. The robed one sighed and hung his head. "You don't recognize me at all, do you?" Morphius raised an eyebrow. "You must excuse me, friend. It is kind of difficult to recognize someone who keeps their face covered all the time, even for one such as I."
The wielder laughed softly. "You're weird" he stated. "Though, I already told you that, when we first met." He tossed his hood back. Morphius's breath hitched.
"Erryck?" he whispered. The young boy nodded. "Erryck! Gods' blood, how you've grown!" The wizard suddenly burst into laughter. "Oh gods, you practically spelled it out for me, and still I didn't know!" Erryck waited patiently until the wizard's laughter died down.
"Gods" Morphius repeated after a while. "You've grown." "So you said" Erryck replied. "You, on the other hand, haven't aged a day since I saw you last. How?" Morphius smiled sweetly. "Would you believe me if I told you it's the result of a healthy lifestyle?" "No." "Well crap, I tried."
"Well?" the boy asked. "Are you going to tell me?" The wizard sighed. "I can't" he muttered. "Why not?" "Because, some stories are better left untold." "Is yours one of them?" Morphius answered with a nod.
Erryck sighed and nodded. "I understand, I think." He then peeked out of the tent. "It's getting late, I have to go. But I promise to come and see you again if I can." The wizard smiled again. "I'm already looking forward to it."
As Erryck disappeared, Morphius smiled once more and drifted back into slumber.
A few days passed, in which the only people Morphius ever saw were a few underlings who fed him. The wizard had made as thorough a survey of his surroundings as he could, and concluded that he was chained to a large iron wheel of sorts.
Just why he had been restrained in such a fashion, he found out three days later as the army began to break camp. When the tent he was kept in was taken down, three earth-elementals grabbed hold of the wheel and rolled it, along with the wizard, up to the throne where Hawk was reclining.
"Ah, here is our guest!" he stated in mock-joviality, throwing his arms open. "Comfortable, wizard?" Morphius shrugged as best as he could. "Oh you know, I've been worse." The shadow of a scowl crossed the warlord's features, though it was quickly replaced by a sweet smile. "I'm glad that you have some spirit left in you, my friend" Hawk laughed. "It will make it all the more sweet for me to break it."
The wizard snorted. "You are going to break my spirit? Please, you might as well kill me now and spare yourself all the time wasted for naught."
Predictably enough, Hawk's fist slammed into Morphius' jaw. The wizard saw Erryck tense up at the other side of the throne. "I told you before" Hawk snarled. "I'm not going to kill you, so you might as well give up and spare yourself the trouble."
"Damn, guess I'm stuck with you then, Mr. Flamingo." This time, Hawk snapped his fingers. Erryck hesitantly laid his hands on the crystal and sent a small spark of magic through it. One of the earth-elementals raised its fist and smashed it into Morphius' side. The wizard bit his lip and managed to hold back his pained outcry. Hawk laughed again. "One day" he whispered, just loudly enough for his foe to hear him. "One day, I will make you scream." Morphius grinned back at him. "Now, aren't you a kinky fellow?" A new blow from the elemental shut the wizard up. Four new elementals lifted the warlord's throne and started carrying it southwards, the wizard was rolled along beside him and Erryck had mounted his horse on the other side.
The army marched all day, settling down only when the sun hung low on the horizon. Hawk was looking at his maps again, when Morphius began to whistle. Hawk's head whirled in his direction, and he promptly fell silent. The wizard shrugged and made a face that practically said:"Who? Me? No!" Hawk glared for a while and turned back to his maps, only for the wizard to resume his whistling and shutting up when his captor turned to him.
This carried on for some time until Hawk was fuming. As he turned to the wizard once more, Erryck frantically shook his head behind his master's back, mentally pleading for Morphius not to anger the warlord any more.
Morphius seemed to catch on, after Hawk threatened to sew his lips shut, and ceased his whistling. Erryck, however, immediately suspected that the wizard had somehow heard his mental plea.
The sun disappeared beyond the hills and Hawk stood from his throne and stretched. "Well, it's been a long day. Time to get some sleep. Hope you're not afraid of the dark, wizard." His laughter trailed after him and faded after a while. "Hope you're not afraid of the dark" Morphius imitated in a high-pitched tone through his teeth, the he snorted again, this time in contempt. " Humph! Afraid of the dark. I've seen things in broad daylight that would make you shit yourself."
Glancing to the side, he saw Erryck put his bucket of healing salve on the ground and dip a piece of cloth in it before gently applying the concoction to his bruises. "Why do you do that?" the younger wielder asked. "Do what?" Morphius replied. Erryck frowned. "You know what I'm talking about. Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
Morphius turned his gaze to the stars twinkling in the sky for a while, and then turned it to the boy that was now applying salve to his side. "No" he said. "No, getting killed would be bad."
"And now, it's my turn" Morphius said when Erryck had finished his task. "Why are you doing this?" The boy hung his head. "I…I don't have anywhere else to go. And when you're surrounded by battalions of armed men who'll cut you down in a heartbeat whenever Hawk sees fit to order them to, you don't really have much of a choice."
The wizard nodded. "I understand." "By the way…" Erryck began. Morphius raised an eyebrow. "You didn't stop whistling just because Hawk threatened you, did you?"
Morphius smiled and let out a small laugh. "No. I stopped because you wanted me to." "How did you know?" "Well, you were shaking your head like you were experiencing an uncontrollable spasm-fit." Erryck smiled as well. "Oh, right" he said on a laugh of his own.
"Go rest yourself, Erryck" Morphius said after a while. "It's getting late."
The young wielder sighed, but nodded and disappeared in the darkness of the night. Smiling softly, the wizard turned his gaze back to the stars and closed his eyes, breathing slowly and heavily.
Hawk was not pleased, Morphius could see as much. "Either, you have a vastly accelerated rate of healing" the warlord began. "Or someone has been doing the healing for you."
The wizard smiled at him. "Or maybe it's because you punch like a gnome that's stoned off its ass." Hawk's knee buried itself in the wizard's gut. "When I find out who's been helping him, and I will, there's going to be trouble!" he stated to the nearby men. "Spread the word."
Morphius rolled his eyes. "I swear, Beaky, you spread more word around than an old crone at a marketplace." The blow that followed knocked a tooth from the wizard's mouth. He spat it out while cursing his captor under his breath.
It took a few hours before Hawk had calmed down enough to resume studying his maps. However, he kept one of his eyes trained on the wizard, an ability he was quite proud of. In the corner of his vision, the warlord noticed that his captive kept glancing at his throne, or more specifically, the crystal resting in its niche.
"Like my throne, do you?" Hawk smirked and turned to the wizard. "Quite so" Morphius replied. "It is rather extraordinary. Tell me, where did a washed-up ex-mercenary like you come across such a thing? More importantly, where did you learn what it was used for?" Hawk decided to ignore the wizard's remark about being washed-up, instead focusing on something else. "How do you know what the crystal is used for?"
Morphius shrugged yet again. "Well, I put two and two together when I saw your little magic-wielding friend here…" the wizard nodded his head towards Erryck. "…place his hands on the crystal just before one of the elementals struck me."
The warlord slowly clapped a bit. "Very perceptive of you, I must say." He rose from his position by the map-table and walked over to the throne in question. Sitting himself down, Hawk began to explain.
"Truth to be told, the story of how I came upon this nifty little thing begins the exact same night as you escaped from Doren" the warlord said. "We all know how that went, neither the king's guard nor my men or myself could figure out how you managed to escape with manticore venom pumping through your body. By all accounts, you should have died that night."
Hawk paused for a bit before continuing. "You were the first prey to ever escape me alive, and since I had "let" you make off with the crown jewel of the king's collection, I was sacked the next week after searching fruitlessly through the area. After that, my men and I were forced to make a living by raiding dungeons and keep-ruins and the like."
Morphius grinned. "Sounds like, about, every able-bodied adventurer I've ever heard of." The warlord snapped his fingers again. And again, Erryck reluctantly ordered a nearby earth-elemental to strike his friend. "Don't interrupt me, wizard" Hawk ordered sternly.
"Along the way, I kept asking people I met whether or not they had heard of you or even knew your name. Those questionings led to some rather…interesting answers."
"Really, now?" the wizard wheezed, trying to ignore the pain in his chest. "Quite. From the information I have garnered, it would seem that most kings and queens and other heads of state would simply love to have your head impaled on their banners. Care to explain why?"
Morphius shrugged. "I don't go all that well with restrictions placed upon the world by authorities." "So it would seem" Hawk said, obviously rather enjoying his little tale. "Also, I have heard rumors of you being killed before. They say that they have seen you be burned, hanged, impaled, starved to death, drowned, mauled savagely, beheaded and many other sorts of executions, and yet, you've always returned, sometimes within a week, sometimes not for a decade. But you never stay dead. Some say, that you are truly immortal. Morphius the Eternal, indeed."
Morphius rolled his eyes. "Humans are ever so superstitious" he chuckled. "Only the gods are truly immortal." The warlord nodded. "That was what I said too. Though, one cannot help but wonder… never mind. After, say, four years, I came across this throne hidden in an underground keep. It was guarded by the very same types of elementals you see around us now." Hawk gestured to some of the elementals standing around.
"I lost many of my men, though by that time I had so many of them that it didn't really matter if a, relative, few were slain. "When we finally got the throne out of there, we made a beeline for the nearest city, though the creatures did not pursue us far. When we were in safety, my men wanted to sell the throne. Indeed, if we had sold it, the gold earned could have bought us riches for the rest of our lives."
Hawk took a sip of a chalice of wine that had been brought to him earlier. "There was something about the thing, however, that made me think that it was worth keeping." "Very perceptive of you I, must say" Morphius smiled, copying Hawk's own words. This earned him another blow to his midsection.
"The carvings on the throne intrigued me, not to mention the crystal. We tried to get it loose, but it wouldn't budge. So we abandoned that endeavor and instead tried to find someone who could translate the inscriptions for us."
"You must've gotten very lucky, then" the wizard stated. "There are exceptionally few left in this world who know that language."
"Few indeed. We were on the verge of giving up, when we arrived in a quaint little place very far from here. I believe you've spent quite a lot of time there in the past. A city, called Kaineng? On the continent of Cantha?"
Morphius tensed visibly. Hawk smirked. "Besides finding out that there was a bounty of twenty-five thousand pieces of gold for your arrest, I met someone who was more than happy to help me figure out how to work this thing out." The warlord gave his throne a pat for emphasis. "No…no, no, no, no!" the wizard thought frantically, suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. "A pretty little thing, actually. Now what was her name again? Oh yes, I remember!"
The wizard's captor stood from his position and sauntered over to his prize. He leaned close to the, suddenly quiet, wizard's ear and whispered a word. A name. "Minister Hezokio Sundara Vatazaaki."
Morphius lunged forward as best he could, which wasn't very good, given his current state. "If you have so much as bent a hair on her head, I'll flay you alive and use your hide as my toilet!" he growled loudly.
Hawk let out a booming laughter. "Struck a nerve, have we? She told me a lot about you as well, wizard. She seemed to resent you with the fire of a thousand blazing suns, if you'll forgive my cheesy choice of words."
Still laughing, the warlord practically skipped back to his seat. "Oh, and about the bending. Her hair was deliciously smooth; it was a true pleasure running my fingers through it while we got better acquainted."
"Esh'veriak'ephrael, noz kahl!" Morphius roared, the sound distinctively inhumane in nature. The wizard's eyes flashed a dark red, despite the wards holding his magic in check and everyone present scrambled backwards, reaching for their weapons.
Even Hawk had been unnerved by the outburst, though not as visibly as his cohorts had, his hand had still closed around the hilt of his sword.
Morphius felt nothing but seething hatred for the man who sat on the throne. He had added insult to injury in the worst way possible and at that moment, the wizard wanted nothing more that to tear out his throat and devour it while he still watched.
The unease among the onlookers turned to pure fear as the wizard began changing before their very eyes. His nails sharpened into claws, his ears lengthened and became pointed, his teeth grew into fangs large enough to pierce a man's arm in a single bite and his eyes were still red as blood as he snarled and snapped around himself and struggled against his chains, occasionally roaring in what they assumed was his native tongue.
Somewhere in the depths of his mind, Morphius managed to get a hold of himself, and as quickly as the monstrous transformation had come, it disappeared.
Hawk immediately ordered the wizard rolled away from him. As the elementals rolled him off, the wizard fixed his seething glare on the warlord before suddenly catching Erryck's gaze and turning his head away in shame.
Word of his bestial display spread over the camp like a wildfire, and for once, Morphius was sure it was not their leader that had encouraged them to "spread the word".
Five days passed. The only signs of life the wizard saw were the elementals that brought him food, everyone else avoided him like the plague. "Who can blame them, I would have avoided me if I saw that" he thought to himself, then sighed. "No. No, I wouldn't. Gods curse my curiosity."
The silence and loneliness was both a curse and a blessing. Though it gave him time to think and meditate as best he could, he found himself missing the sight of a friendly face. But he knew that there was only one of those in the area, and he was most probably terrified of him now.
Worse than that was that his wounds and bruises burned like flames upon his skin. It did not exactly do wonders for his concentration. Still, through his pain, his sorrow and shame, there burned a flame of vengefulness, mixed with stubbornness. He would not give his captor the joy of seeing him broken before him.
"Never before have there been a day where I have given up. Today shall be no different" he spoke softly to himself. "But, by all the gods of the heavens and all the spirits of Nirn, I swear, Hawk will pay for what he has done!"
With these words echoing in his head, Morphius closed his eyes and slipped into troubled sleep.
The unexpected sound of soft footsteps roused the wizard from his slumber. His head rose from its downcast position and spotted a certain wielder carefully edging closer to him.
"I'm sorry I couldn't come earlier" Erryck spoke softly as he once again dipped a piece of cloth in his bucket. "Hawk's made sure that you're heavily guarded at all times, it was only tonight that I managed to convince him to let the elementals do the job because the men are too frightened of you to do it properly."
"And so, you gave them the order to let you pass? Clever move" Morphius said and smiled. Erryck smiled back at him before starting to apply the healing salve to his wounds.
"That…monster, a few days ago" Erryck began after a while. "What was that?" The wizard snorted in response. "So, think me a monster do you?" The younger wielder recoiled slightly before seeing the mirth in the wizard's eyes and resuming his task. "I didn't mean it like that" he muttered. "I just thought…" "You thought it couldn't possibly be the real me?" "Well…yes, or no, or…I don't know what to say."
"It's alright" Morphius reassured his friend. "Fear of the unknown and that which cannot be understood is a natural trait of the mortal races." "I wasn't sacred" Erryck stated, his voice still a mutter. "I was just…shocked, that's all. Was that your…true form, though?" The wizard laughed softly. "No. No, it was just another one of my many forms. In fact, the form you see now is the one I myself would consider a true one, as it is the one I am most comfortable in."
Erryck nodded slowly in understanding as he pressed the cloth against the wizard's ribs. "I don't mean to pry into something that isn't my business, but that woman Hawk was talking about…" Morphius tensed again. "…is her name really Hezokio?"
The wizard sighed. "No, Hezokio is her family-name. Sundara is her given one." "Ah, I thought it sounded strange on a woman, even if she is from a far-away land."
"Before you ask, no. We have not been involved with one another" Morphius said, then sighed. "Though that doesn't mean I haven't tried to convince her that we should. I got much too demanding and now she'd rather have me thrown into a meat-grinder than speak a civil word to me, and seeing as she is a highly-esteemed minister of the Canthan ministry of flame, she has the power, and means, to make just that happen."
The wizard fell silent, and Erryck had nothing to say on the matter, so the two wielders went about their own in silence.
"Morphius?" the young boy asked after some time. "Yes?" "How did you manage to transform like that, even though the wards on the chains held you down?"
The wizard was silent for a while. "Well, I'll tell you this much" he said. "Not all transformations are magical, some are physical as well." Erryck tilted his head to the side. "What is that supposed to mean?" Morphius answered him only with a smirk. "Now, wouldn't it be more exciting not to know?"
The younger wielder's face became thoughtful. "Well…I suppose so…" "Excellent. After all, we all need some excitement in our lives." Erryck smiled brightly. "You're right, I guess. Besides, it's only fair that you get to keep some of your secrets to yourself."
"You had better get back to your tent before someone notices your absence" Morphius said after some time. Erryck nodded and disappeared out the tent-flap with a promise to return as soon as he could.
The wizard gave a smile after his young friend. "Out of sight" he muttered. "Yet, clearly not out of mind." Chuckling still, Morphius sank back into sleep.
Six more days passed, the boredom of which were only broken by Erryck's two subsequent visits. On the seventh day after his outburst, Morphius was rolled back before his captor, whom he noticed had significantly increased the number of armed men and elementals around himself.
"I see that you've had time to calm down, wizard" Hawk said as a way of greeting. "I see that you've stopped pissing yourself for long enough to actually work up the guts to look me in the eyes again" the wizard in question countered.
"I would say that I've missed your quipping" the warlord snarled. "But I haven't." "Oh, that's all right" Morphius smiled sweetly. "I too would be lying if I told you that I've missed you hideous visage."
Hawk grinned. "Now normally, a comment like that would've earned you a strike to the head. But I have figured out a punishment that is much more befitting, not to mention painful. Erryck!" The young wielder stepped close to the warlord and bent over to receive whispered instructions.
As Erryck rose to his full height, the wizard saw him pale, bite his lip and squeeze his eyes shut before walking over to the crystal and placing his hands on it. On a signal from their leader, two men ripped open the top half of Morphius's robes. Morphius himself raised an eyebrow. "Listen, I've never shied away from interesting…experiments in this field, but I must admit to being a bit reserved when it comes to being chained down during the act. I dislike restrictions."
"Just for that comment" Hawk began. "I'll run this for three more minutes than I had originally intended to." "It'll be lovely, I'm sure" the wizard smirked. "Trust me, you won't be laughing for long."
Erryck's eyes flashed white and one of the nearby fire-elementals started moving forward, cloaking itself in flames along the way. The elemental moved until it stood an arm's length from the wizard. "Enjoy" Hawk smirked, decidedly sadistic.
Morphius's eyes widened a split second before the fire-elemental raised its arm and pressed a burning finger to his exposed chest.
Searing pain engulfed him as he gritted his teeth together and bit his lip till he bled.
After five minutes, he could no longer hold himself. An anguished cry flew from his throat as he simultaneously cursed Hawk, his family, his friends and all who followed him. Except for one, though he kept that to himself. All the while, the warlord's laughter rang in his ears. Though he struggled madly against his chains, he managed to tame the monster inside of him this time.
After fifteen minutes, Hawk ordered Erryck to halt the elemental. Morphius's head slumped against his chest. Tears of shame and rage spilled out over his face. Hawk stood and drew his blade. He strode over to his prize and tipped his head up with his sword's point.
"Your eyes beg for death, wizard" he said, smirking gleefully. "So, of course, I shall deny you the salvation you seek." He then looked down to examine the burns on Morphius's chest, and his grin grew. "You…are the pettiest being I have…ever had the displeasure of knowing of" the wizard snarled quietly. "You have wasted eight years of your mortal existence hunting a man you have only ever met once, you're not just petty. You're mad!"
Hawk's fist slammed into the burns on the wizard's chest, causing him to cry out again. "You humiliated me!" the warlord bellowed, striking his captive once more. "You made me look weak!" another blow. "You, You…Aaaargh!"
Hawk's yelling turned into nonsensical gibberish as blow after blow rained down upon the hapless wizard. Eventually, he calmed down and staggered back onto his throne.
Morphius spat out three more of his teeth. His lip was split and in the midst of his pain, he felt the seething hatred deep in his soul resurface. Before he could say anything, Hawk ordered him rolled away again.
This pattern continued for the next week. Every day, the wizard would be fetched, then tortured and used as the warlord's personal punching-bag, before being taken away again. Erryck was nowhere to be seen, except for when he commanded the elementals to inflict pain upon his friend.
One day, Hawk himself came along when the wizard was fetched, and rolled him up to a hill just outside of the war-camp. The throne, and Erryck, stood there as well.
"I do hope you are enjoying the view, Morphius" he said. Before them, there was a great plain and in the distance, a large port-city stood. "Well, it certainly beats having to look you in the face every day" Morphius retorted. "Funny" the warlord said dryly, and then pointed in the direction of the city. "Do you see that city, over there?" he asked. "No…it's only the only thing in sight" the wizard replied innocently. "Of course I see it, moron!"
Whether the warlord did not hear him, or whether he simply decided to ignore him seemed irrelevant. A small figure came galloping towards them over the plain. The man stopped his horse, leapt off and kneeled before Hawk's feet.
"Warlord" he began. "The city refuses to acknowledge your superiority, and will not surrender themselves to us. Their army amasses as we speak."
As if on cue, the port-city's gates opened and a force many thousands strong began marching out of it.
"That city must be a capital of sorts" Morphius thought. "You don't find an army of that size just anywhere." Hawk grinned nastily. "Alert the men" he told his subordinate. "Erryck, muster the elementals. This is going to be fun."
Erryck obeyed and once more placed his hands on the crystal. His eyes flashed and the army of elementals moved forward along with the men. Before long, the two armies began firing at each other, though it was apparent that the city's forces did not have anything else than bowmen among them. Hawk's army, on the other hand, had the fury of the elements on their side.
Hawk himself stood fast and grinned. "Soon you will see, Morphius the Eternal, that resisting me is a most regrettable course of action." He turned to his captive again. "This; is only the beginning. In time, my unstoppable army shall claim the entire planet in my name! And all shall bow before me and hail the name of Hawk!" the warlord tossed his head back and laughed. Still laughing, he turned towards the battlefield where the two armies had reached each other.
Every time an elemental fell, a new one was created in its place. The nearby sea provided more than enough water for the water-elementals, the earth-elementals rose from the ground itself, the air around them supplied the wind-elementals who were now fully visible and nowhere near docile and Hawk had even ordered an enormous bonfire be lit, from whence the fire-elementals were spawned.
"This has gone too far" Morphius thought. He closed his eyes and started concentrating as hard as he could. "Erryck? If you can hear me, kick the throne twice."
The wielder looked startled for a second before kicking the throne as instructed.
"Good, that means enough of my power has seeped through the wards to be able to commune with you. Don't say anything, just listen." Erryck stopped mid-turn and closed his mouth.
"This madness must end, now. The wards on the chains only blocks the power of the chained one, if you can break them and command the elementals to stop moving, I'll handle the rest. Do you understand?"
Erryck nodded and started edging backwards towards The Wheel of Blatant Unpleasantness, as Morphius had begun to call it after five days of being chained to it.
When he reached it, the younger wielder turned and grabbed one of the chains before starting to freeze it. Hawk was oblivious to what was unfolding behind him, in fact, he was still laughing. Erryck finished freezing the first chain, glanced over his shoulder at the laughing warlord, and started on the second.
Once all the chains were frozen solid, Morphius leapt forward. The icy chains shattered under his weight, the sound catching the warlord's attention. As he turned around, the wizard leapt at him and knocked him onto his back. "I'll take care of you later" he snarled and placed his hand on Hawk's forehead and sent a bolt of lightning through it, knocking him unconscious.
The older wielder then sank to the ground. "Oh, it's no use" he muttered. "I'm too exhausted to do anything about all this. If only I had my equipment." Erryck suddenly disappeared and returned a moment later, with the wizard's staff, sword and satchel in hand. "I overheard you saying that one could only touch them with your permission" he answered Morphius's unspoken question. "I gave it a try and decided to keep them until I could give it back to you."
Morphius laughed heartily as he closed his hand around his staff once more and pulled out some of the power contained within to strengthen himself. "Erryck, if there ever was such a thing as a blessing, you are one" he said as he pulled himself up on his feet. Taking his blade, he swung it around himself a couple of time to familiarize himself with it again before turning to the battlefield.
"Halt the elementals and then make yourself scarce" he said and disappeared in a flash of light. Erryck scrambled back to the throne and laid his hands on it again.
King Marius I of Anchorstone had fought many battles in his life, against pirates, sea serpents, the many mysterious peoples of the sea, the occasional kraken and many a drunken sailor. Yet in all his years, he had never faced an enemy quite like this one. While he had encountered the fury of the elements many times on the sea, they had never been this…direct before, moreover, there were men among them.
He had been worried when a lone rider had demanded he surrender the city and all its riches, but he had stood fast. He had not fought himself up from being a simple deckhand to leader of the city, before proceeding to forge himself a great kingdom through many glorious battles and trade-contracts, just to give it all up to some upstart who thought he could prance into his realm and demand whatever he wanted of him.
As he swung his great-axe sideways and separated the head of an enemy from his body, he became aware of one of the earth-elementals standing over him and raising its fists. He made to block the blow as best as he could, but the foe suddenly stopped. He looked around. Indeed, every single elemental on the field had halted completely.
The attacking men, too, had stopped, obviously wondering what had happened. Marius was about to order his men to keep fighting, when a bright flash temporarily blinded him.
When he opened his eyes again, he spotted a light hovering at least ten meters above the ocean. He squinted and barely made out the appearance of a young man in robes with a blade and a staff clutched tightly in his hands.
Before anyone could say anything, or even act, the hovering figure spoke, and his words echoed across the field.
"Ophrel! Arkh! Ishrach! Sûhl'nien hasreandör!"
The effect was immediate. Suddenly, lightning flew from the sky as clouds covered it. The lightning struck the wind-elementals, causing them to disperse. Fists of stone rose from the ground and shattered the earth-elementals. Flames flew from the ground as well and coiled themselves around the water-elementals, akin to serpents, and large orbs of water slammed into the fire-elementals and smothered their flames. As the last elementals fell, the light flashed again and the mysterious robed one was gone.
Marius turned to the invaders again. Now that the elementals were gone, they were in great minority as far as numbers went. "Invaders!" he yelled. "You are severely outnumbered and cannot hope for victory! Lay down your arms, and you will be spared!" The sound of steel clattering to the ground rang through the air as every last one of the attackers dropped their weapons and raised their arms above their heads.
Hawk groaned and sat up. His head pounded something fierce, and he felt dizzy. "What…what happened? The battle!" he got to his feet and whirled around. Only to see his men be shackled and taken away. He looked back behind himself and his fear was confirmed. The wheel was empty.
He turned around, and received a fist to the face. He fell backwards and stared in pure terror at the wizard standing before him. "That was for leading me a merry chase all the way to Doren" Morphius snarled.
The wizard stepped forward and dropped to his knees, so that he was pinning the warlord down with his own body. Morphius struck his foe again. "That was for shooting me in the leg!" Another blow. "And for simultaneously poisoning me!" Yet another blow. "That was for the first time you punched me!" *SLAM* "That was for the second time you punched me!" *SLAM* "That was for having your rock-men punch me!"
The next twenty-five strikes or so, were all because of various beatings.
"And now" Morphius grinned. "We come to the fun part."
*SLAM* "That was for even looking at her!" *SLAM* "That was for bedding her!" *SLAM* "That was also for bedding her!" *SLAM* "That was for ripping open my robes!" *SLAM* "I made these robes myself, damn you!" *SLAM* "That was for searing my flesh!" *SLAM* "That was for using me as your punching-bag!" *SLAM* "And this is for everything else you have ever done to anyone else!"
What the wizard failed to realize in the midst of his violent fit of rage, was that his ex-captor's head had become little else than a bloody smear of broken bone and brains on the ground.
Erryck peeked out from his hiding spot. The fighting seemed to have ceased, and he looked up at the hill where the throne still stood, hearing the shout of a voice he knew was friendly, he rushed up the hill to find him.
The sight that met him was shocking, to say the least. Hawk was lying on the ground, with little left of his head, and Morphius was sitting on top of him, shouting and punching madly at what was left of it.
The young wielder ran forward and placed his hands on his friend's shoulders. "Morphius! Stop! He's already dead, it's over." Morphius's fist paused in mid-strike. "Heh…it really is over" he said after a while, and fell forward. The last thing he heard was the sound of footsteps coming towards them, and then everything was black.
Erryck turned at the sound of footsteps coming up the hill. A man plated in elaborate armor and a royal-blue and gold-trimmed cape with a large two-handed axe in his hands came into view, he was flanked by several other men.
Frantically looking around himself, the young wielder spotted the wizard's blade nearby. He grabbed it and raised it against the newcomers. "Stay back!" he shouted, gripping the blade tightly. "Don't you even dare come near him!"
Marius halted. "Do not be a fool, boy" he said. "We outnumber you greatly, put down the blade." "Indeed, you are more than me" the boy said and took one hand off the hilt. "But I have something, that you do not." A ball of flame appeared in his hand and he flung it forward.
Marius and his men jumped backwards, the fireball fell short and hit the ground, exploding and leaving behind a small crater. The young mage conjured up another one in his palm. "That was a warning shot" he said, breathing heavily all of a sudden. "Next time, I will not miss. So I'll tell you again, back off!"
The king suddenly recognized the limp figure behind the boy and swiftly threw down his own weapon, urging his men to do the same. Erryck did not waver. "Please, do not be afraid. We are friends" he said. "I saw the wizard behind you earlier, he practically won the battle for us."
The mage faltered slightly. Four of Marius's men dove forward and took him to the ground. Two others, and Marius himself, went over to the wizard. "Take him back to the city" the king ordered, then turned to the younger one. "Bring the boy as well."
"Wait!" Erryck shouted as one of the men bent over to retrieve the blade. "I have to carry his equipment!" Marius raised an eyebrow, "Why is that?" The mage breathed out. "I promised him…that no one else would touch it."
"Sounds fair enough" Marius shrugged. "Quickly now, back to Anchorstone!"
Morphius opened his eyes, slowly. He was looking at a wooden roof, and he could feel the softness of a bed beneath him.
Clenching and closing his fists a few times, he discovered that he was still capable of movement. The wizard turned his head to the side, and spotted a familiar figure in robes sleeping in a chair beside him.
Groaning, Morphius managed to elevate himself to a sitting position. Swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, he found that he was clothed only in his underwear. He looked around and discovered that his pants, boots and robes were within reach.
He dressed quickly and silently, finding, to his elation, that the top half of his robes had been stitched back together. He then sat down in another chair nearby and waited.
Before long, Erryck stirred and started blinking. He then gave a large stretch and a yawn before sitting up straight and looking over at the bed. His eyes widened as they found it empty, and he looked around frantically before spotting the smirking wizard sitting from across him.
Without saying a word, though with a cry of mixed relief and happiness, the younger wielder flung himself across the bed and into the wizard's outstretched arms. The two tumbled to the floor in a heap of laughter at seeing that everything was all right and that the nightmare was truly over, for them both.
The door opened and Marius came in. "Ah, I see you're finally awake, master wizard. Good, we feared that you were beyond our help" he greeted. Morphius and Erryck stood to their feet and bowed their heads respectfully. "I thank you, Marius of Anchorstone, for you gracious hospitality" the wizard spoke. "You already know of me?" the king blurted, rather taken aback. "Yes, your highness, I caught a glimpse of you in the city of Stormwind while I was there some years ago."
Marius smiled. "Since you know of me already" he began. "I think it only fair to say, that your name is not new to my ears either, Morphius the Eternal."
"Really? How so?" Morphius asked innocently, while at the same time mentally locating his blade and readying to summon it in the blink of an eye, if the need arose. "Your name is spoken in many ports, my friend" Marius replied, making no move towards his weapon. "Some say; you are a murderer, a thief, a criminal, an anarchist and a shameless, lustful fornicator. There are many bounties on your head."
"I shall confess to being guilty of the fornication, if one omits the part about shamelessness…mostly. And maybe, under certain circumstances, the theft. And the murdering, if necessary and only in self-defense or the defense of others, and maybe, just maybe, the anarchism" the wizard admitted.
"Others, however" Marius spoke again. "Say you are a godsend, a liberator of the oppressed, a protector, a staunch defender of freedom and even a holy man. Given what I saw at the great field four days ago, I am inclined to believe the latter."
The king stepped forward and knelt before the wizard. "You have my eternal gratitude" he said. Morphius placed his hands under the man's arms and goaded him to his feet. "I assure you, it was my utmost pleasure. You needn't kneel to me" he said. "Very well" Marius nodded. "In fact" the wizard said. "You should rather be thanking my young companion, here." He placed a hand on Erryck's head. "Without him, I would probably still be chained to that wheel, and everything would have turned out quite different."
Marius raised his eyebrows and turned to the boy, who was now beet red and looking at the floor. "Why did you not tell us that, young friend?" "Well, I just wanted to make sure Morphius would be taken good care of" the wielder murmured. The king smiled. "I do not know which of you to thank the most, so I shall thank you equally. You are both my guests of honor. Come now, you must be starving and the victory feast can begin now that you are both here!"
Morphius and Erryck gladly followed Marius to the feast, and it lasted long and well. A whole week of festivities followed, each day merrier than the last and all of them filled with food, drink and other, more intimate, pleasures. Morphius made sure that his young friend had experienced the pleasures of the flesh before stealing off to a secluded spot and lighting his pipe.
Erryck found him there a few hours later and sat down beside him. He was silent, very much so. Morphius removed his pipe. "You seem…troubled, Erryck" he stated. "Is something the matter?" The wielder buried his head in his hands. "Dear gods" he wailed, his hands muffling the sound slightly. "I was pathetic!"
Morphius almost choked on his pipe and had to bite back his laughter. "There, there" he said and patted the younger man's shoulder, not quite succeeding in keeping his mirth from his voice. "It was your first time, after all. Even I had difficulties with my first time."
Erryck peeked out from between his fingers. "Really?" "Of course! No one is ever born a natural at this sort of thing; it is all a matter of practice, you see." The wielder smiled at his friend, and his friend smiled back at him. "By the way" Morphius said after a while. "You never did tell me how you came to be in Hawk's employ, or thralldom."
Erryck sighed. "He just…appeared, one day" he started. "He said that his vengeance had begun, that was about three years ago, and he had that throne with him. He killed the king, and everyone else who stood before him. He was about to burn down the inn and kill me, and my parents too, when one of his men was struck by lightning. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me, and then…Hawk made a bargain. He said that he would spare my parents and sister if I agreed to come with them, so I had no choice really."
He closed his eyes as a tear dropped from them before continuing. "When I found out later that he had lied and killed everyone anyway, it was too late. He had too many men, and we were too far away from anything for me to get away from him. I managed to get my power under a semblance of control after a while, and then Hawk used me to create his army."
"Ironic, isn't it?" Morphius chuckled after a while. Erryck turned to him. "What?" "Hawk was in possession The Crystal of Creation, and yet, he used it for destruction only. The irony is overwhelming."
"Yeah, it is, isn't it" the wielder said and chuckled as well. The older wizard rose to his feet and helped his friend up. "Let's get back to the feast, shall we? Or else, Marius is going to start wondering where we went off to. Besides, you have practice to do!"
Erryck gulped loudly as Morphius dragged him back to the festivities.
After the week had passed, the pieces of the battle were being picked up. At Morphius's urging, Marius sent messengers to every corner of the realm to inform the people that the war was over. Then, the spoils of war were distributed amongst the victors.
"As the wizard Morphius and his companion Erryck were crucial to our victory, they shall have the honor of taking their pick from the treasury of our enemies!" Marius announced. "You may proceed, master wizard, young wielder."
Morphius bowed his head in respect and thanks, before heading towards the throne containing the crystal. Grabbing hold of it, he decided to use the same method as last time and lashed out against the magic holding the thing in place. The throne was blasted backwards, but the crystal remained in the wizard's hand and he swiftly hid it within his robes before heading back. "I'm done" he told the king. "I'll be back in my room if you need me."
Marius shrugged and motioned for the rest of his men to begin once Erryck had taken his due, figuring that the wizard had his reasons for taking as little as he had.
Morphius couldn't help but pick up his host's thoughts and again, he had to repress a snort. The crystal he held was probably worth more than twice the amount of the treasures Hawk had amassed during his conquests. He swiftly returned to the chambers he had been given and closed, locked and warded all exits.
He pulled The Obsidian Triclops out of his satchel and placed it on his table. Mindful of what had happened last time, Morphius slowly pushed the crystal into the left eye-pit. The gemstone fit perfectly into its slot, and the wizard felt the power stored inside grow exponentially.
Then, he took out the old tome and unfurled the map he had chosen to let remain within it. Sure enough, the trail started drawing itself across the map. Unfortunately, it stretched out from the point where the crystal had originally been, instead of where it was at the moment.
Morphius frowned. Backtracking would take days, weeks, maybe even months, and he was suddenly experiencing a fit of rare impatience.
"There has got to be another way" he muttered to himself. "Maybe, if I found more maps, I could compare them and find my location in comparison to the one on my own map."
He rose from his seat and lowered the wards. "In a bustling port like this, finding old maps should be a no-brainer" he thought as he strode down the hall, out of the castle and into the streets.
He returned several hours later, looking rather disgruntled. His search had proved itself as fruitless as a dead tree. "How can a city that is basically one enormous port not have any maps that are over fifty years old?" he snarled silently before plopping down in his seat on King Marius' right.
Marius looked over at the fuming wizard with a slight frown, though it was of worry, rather than disdain. "Is something the matter, Morphius? You look…agitated."
Morphius sighed. "It's nothing, really. Just a personal matter" he said. "Well" the king replied. "If there is anything I can do to help…" "Not unless you can magically conjure up a map or three that are several thousand years old." Marius smirked, rose from his high seat and beckoned the wizard with him.
Morphius's curiosity spiked and he rose as well, the two men barely noticing Erryck when he tagged along.
Marius led the two magic-wielders down through the dungeons of the castle. Deeper and deeper they went, until they reached a room at the very bottom.
Marius smiled. In the light of his torch, not much could be seen. "Perhaps a little magic would prove beneficial in this situation, master wizard." "Certainly" Morphius said and ignited his staff as much as possible, then gasped. "Lords and gods" he whispered. In the shining light of his staff's beacon, thousands upon thousands of maps were stacked upon each other. The chamber was massive, easily the size of the entire castle above it.
"I thought you might like it" Marius smirked. Erryck's staff fell from his loose grip and clattered against the floor. The wizard paid it no mind. "I'm sure you will find what you are looking for on your own." Marius bowed politely and exited the chamber. Erryck picked up his staff and turned to follow him. "And just where do you think you are going?" the older wielder inquired.
Erryck froze and slowly turned to him. "I, I…was just, I…" "Say no more, young friend. I am going to need help on this one." Morphius turned and started walking towards the maps. "And you just volunteered." Erryck groaned, looked up at the map-mountains in front of him and hurried after the wizard.
"Morphius?" the younger wielder asked after a while. The wizard answered with a "Hm?" Erryck cleared his throat. "You never told me how you managed to commune with me through the wards, how did you do that?" Morphius rolled the map he had been looking at together and turned to him. "A very good question, young friend" he said. "Nevertheless, a question with a surprisingly simple answer. To hinder or cease a stream of magic, equal or greater magic is required." He smiled and picked up another map. "I think it is safe to say, that the enchantments Hawk had gotten placed on those chains, were not powerful enough to halt my power in the long run. Hand me that map, would you?"
Two days later, the wizard and his companion emerged from the sub-levels of Castle Anchorstone, carrying armloads of maps each. Marius looked up from his goblet and laughed at the sight. "I take it that you found what you were looking for, yes?"
Morphius shot him a grin. "I believe time will give us the answer to your question." Erryck didn't say anything. He was preoccupied with balancing his stack of maps in his arms. "Come now, Erryck. There is still much work to be done" the wizard said and moved up the stairs. Erryck made haste after him. "If you need help carrying that, I stand at your disposal!" Marius called after them. "Thank you, but no thank you! We can handle this!" Morphius called back down, accompanied by a groan from the younger wielder.
For a week afterwards, the only clue to the two wielders' existence was Erryck who came down and fetched food and drink every now and then, explaining that Morphius was too engrossed in his work to fetch it himself.
One day, however, a cry of triumph echoed through the halls. Marius decided to check in on his guests and found the wizard practically dancing with his young friend among the scattered maps. "So? Have time answered my question yet?" he smirked.
"Indeed it has! Most excellently, in fact!" Morphius was ecstatic. It had taken many grueling hours, but he had at last managed to find exactly what he wanted. Getting there would take a long time, but his impatience had worn off by now.
"I should leave at once!" The other two present fell silent. "Leave?" Erryck whispered. "Now?" Morphius slapped himself on the forehead. In his excitement, he had all but forgotten his young friend. This journey was not one for a boy his age.
"Yes. I should leave now. Swiftly, and by myself" the wizard muttered. Tears pressed against the young wielder's eyes, before he threw himself at his friend and sobbed openly into his robes. Morphius closed his eyes and embraced him. "You can't leave me, not again, not now!" Erryck stuttered. "It's not fair!"
"Not only that" Marius butted in. "It is highly unwise, almost madness. Winter is upon us already, and travel will be difficult and far too dangerous. Will you not stay, at least until spring?"
Morphius regarded him for a while before turning his head back to the wielder in his arms. "Till spring" he sighed. "I will stay till spring arrives, but after that, I must be off."
Erryck smiled. "Thank you" he whispered. "Very well" Marius smiled too. "If you would wait until after I've set out on my voyage to Cyrodiil, I would be most grateful."
"Cyrodiil?" the wizard asked. "Yes" Marius replied. "It has been a while since I was there last. It has many exotic wares that I would like to bargain for." Morphius thought for a while before nodding. "I shall wait. Now…" he turned back to the wielder. "You, I believe, have sleep to catch up on. As have I. Off to your chamber now."
Erryck nodded, feeling tired beyond what he thought was possible. He said his goodnights and staggered off. "If you would excuse me, my friend, I have a letter to write" Morphius told the king. Marius bowed his head. "I understand. Goodnight, master Morphius." "And a good night to you as well, my liege."
The wizard closed his door and sat down by his table, lit a candle and pulled out an inkwell, a feather and a parchment. He drew a breath and started scribbling.
Morphius spent the remaining two months of the winter being a teacher. He taught Erryck how to better control his gift, the basics of several ancient languages that would be crucial to his further education, how to fight with a sword in one hand and a staff in the other and also how to smooth-talk the opposite sex. By the time spring arrived, the young wielder was very much ready to face the world on his own, for the most part.
The two mages stood on the docks and watched as Marius and his men loaded whatever they needed onto their ships. Only the king's own ship, The Wavesplitter, remained in port. The rest of them were anchored up some way outside of the walls.
Marius approached his two guests. "Well, my friends" he sighed. "Regrettable as it is, it seems as though the time has come to say; farewell." Morphius nodded sadly. "It appears so."
Erryck tried to fight his tears, but he could not hold them back as he once more embraced the wizard and cried into his chest. "I don't know what to do anymore! I don't know where to go!" Morphius laid his hands in his shoulders and pushed him back so that he was looking into his eyes.
"You don't? Then, I shall guide you. Do you remember when I told you, that with proper training you could be a mighty mage?" he asked. Erryck nodded through his sniffles. "Now, you will receive that training" Morphius smiled softly and turned the boy towards Marius. "I have arranged with our friend here, to let you come with him aboard his ship to Cyrodiil."
The young wielder gasped. "Really?" Marius nodded. "Our paths do not yet separate, it seems" he smiled. Erryck turned to the wizard again. "Why?"
Morphius' smile grew. "When you get to the city of Anvil, on the coast, I want you to head into town and find passage to The Imperial City, once there, find the man called Raminus Polus, in The Arcane University. Give him this" the wizard handed his former apprentice an envelope with his name on it. "If all goes well, you will be taken in by The Mage's Guild there, and trained further."
Erryck, once again, embraced the wizard and cried, whether it was of sorrow or joy was hard to tell. "I want this" he whispered. "But I don't want to leave you." Morphius held his friend tight and whispered back to him. "I wish it didn't have to be this way either. But the path I walk is for me alone." He leaned close to his ear. "Remember" he whispered. "So long as I live, so shall you live, in my heart, I shall never forget you." The wizard leaned up and kissed him softly on the forehead. "May all the gods and spirits watch over you, Erryck."
Erryck turned to Marius, who extended his hand, and then back to Morphius, who teary-eyed motioned for him to go.
Finally, the young wielder took the king's hand. Marius pulled him to himself and embraced him. "Welcome aboard, my boy." Then, he turned and walked onto his ship and Erryck followed after hugging the wizard one last time.
Marius called for the ship to set sail, and before long, they were out at sea. Erryck and Marius went to the back to the ship and waved farewell to Anchorstone. Erryck, however, only waved to one man on the dock. And he was waving back.
Morphius stood there until the ships had faded from eyesight, before turning and disappearing in the crowd.
A few days had passed since the wizard had left Anchorstone, and though he knew of many reasons to grieve, the parting from a dear friend was a most bitter experience.
Even so, he swallowed his sadness, though did not forget it, and focused first and foremost on the task at hand. Simply getting to the location where the crystal was, supposedly, hidden would take several months by foot. "Luckily, I am in no hurry" he thought. "And stressing has never solved any problems."
His foot disappeared into the ground. He cursed for what seemed like the millionth time since entering the area and pulled it out. "I hate swamps" the wizard muttered. "If I could remove just one type of habitat on this world, it would be the swamps."
He thought this over for a time before sighing and shaking his head. "But then again, the swaps are needed to uphold the balance. And so, I must suffer for the world."
"Stop whining" he told himself. "You are not making this easier." He slapped himself. "Stop. Talking. To. Yourself."
Venturing into the swamps was not Morphius's preferred choice of action, but as fate would have it, crossing them was the shortest way he could find on the map. For even though he was in no hurry, he did not want to waste more time than necessary.
"I both talk to, and contradict, myself. I need a vacation." The wizard kept mumbling to himself even as he searched for somewhere he could put his foot down without being dragged to his doom. "Gods only know what rests in these murky waters" he thought and hopped onto a stone. When it did not start sinking into the mud, he stood there and tried as best he could to spot another safe place.
He leapt onto solid ground and stood up. Hearing nothing out of the usual did not reassure him, as it was hard to hear anything at all due to the buzzing of insects and the croaking of frogs or toads. Besides that, he knew that if something with even a tiny glint of intelligence lived in these hostile lands, they would have learnt how to move as silently as a gust of wind.
"A gust wind cannot be heard" he thought and laid a hand on his blade. "But it can be felt." Something, several somethings in fact, was circling him, just outside of his vision. Their presences moved quickly from place to place, avoiding staying in one spot for more than two seconds at a time. How many there were was hard to tell. They moved with such swiftness that their life-force signals intermingled to a blur.
Still keeping a hand on his weapon, Morphius kept walking as if there was nothing to worry about. If the circling presences became aware, that he was aware of them, things could worsen.
He had no idea of why they hadn't made a move yet. Surely, he seemed like unsuspecting prey. "Have you paused to consider the fact, that they may not be hostile after all?" he asked himself suddenly. He would have slapped himself, but he did not want to give his pursuers reason to believe he had noticed them.
Several days passed, and Morphius had come up with a theory. They were not used to prey like him; therefore, they were cautious in their approach. They were possibly letting him go on till he had his guard down visibly enough for them to strike.
They were always there, sometimes circling him closely, sometimes spreading out in a wider ring. They were swift and coordinated, never ceasing, never slowing down and never keeping their eyes off him. He felt their gazes upon him; it made him uneasy not knowing their intentions.
He stopped. A river slung itself across the earth just in front of him, and he had been too sunken into his own thoughts and theories to notice it. They were still circling him, a full two weeks after appearing. "Tenacious little buggers aren't you?" he mumbled. In those two weeks, he had not slept. Not in a traditional sense. He had slept by retreating to the inner sanctum of his mind, while allowing his most basic functions still operate, such as a sense of direction, sight and movement. It helped somewhat, but true sleep was infinitely more satisfying.
The wizard eyed the river with disdain clear on his face. Swimming over was out of the question, as was flying or trying to grow a bridge across. All three actions would leave him open to attack. "Growing a bridge would most certainly seem like the better option" he mused. "But kneeling down now, here, is not the better option. How to make this work?"
His thoughts drifted to his satchel, and a smirk appeared on his face. He reached inside, and retrieved the Triclops. Holding it in front of himself, he pictured a bridge made of whatever was conveniently at hand, and spoke. "Csayaerin!"
Immediately, roots grew from the bottom of the river and formed the base, then, they grew solid trunk-like planks across, and last, a hedge-like fence. "Or maybe, it's a fence-like hedge?" Morphius shrugged, deciding that it was a technicality not worth quarreling himself over.
As he made to move across, a sound from the left had him whirling in that direction and drawing his blade. The instant he stood still, something crashed into his back and sent him to the ground. A threateningly loud hiss made its way to the wizard's ears, and he knew what was lying on his back.
Snarling, Morphius managed to roll over and trap his attacker underneath his weight. He then leapt to his feet and took a stance out on the middle of the bridge. The enemy he had downed crawled onto its feet and stood its ground. It was not a large creature by any means. In its hunched position, it barely stood taller than a dwarf. Its hide was green-blue and covered with scales. It was dressed only in a loincloth, sported a tail that was about as long as it itself was, its eyes were a gleaming yellow with a thin slit for a pupil and it clutched a hunting-spear in its clawed hands.
The lizardman roared, baring all its sharp, yet small, teeth. Small but numerous. Still roaring, it leapt forward with amazing agility. "A charging attack with a spear to the front is risky" the wizard thought. "And these reptilians are not as witless as one would think."
Just as his swift thoughts subsided, the lizardman landed in front of him and leapt to the side in the same movement. The moment it hit the water, a new one, wielding an axe and a wooden shield took its place.
In a blind guess, Morphius flung two balls of light from his palms both left and right. The spear-toting lizard screeched as it was hit in mid-air and flung away and back into the water.
The shield-bearer rushed forward and swung its weapon at the wizard. He blocked it with his blade and slammed his staff into the foe's shield. The reptilian gawked in surprise as his shield caught fire, before screeching loudly, flinging it into the river and charging with his axe held high.
At the very same moment, three arrows flew out of one of the trees hanging over the river. Morphius conjured up a magical shield and deflected them as his sword met the attacking lizardman's axe. After a brief struggle, the reptilian suddenly dropped down and dove between the wizard's feet. The sudden loss of his foe caused him to stumble, and the kick from the lizardman sent him to the ground.
He rolled over, bringing his staff with him and managing to slam the orb on top of it into the lizardman's face, sending him tumbling off the side of the bridge. Before he had a chance to get up, the foe he had sent into the river earlier practically flew at him out of the murky water with its spear pointing downwards.
Morphius rolled backwards. The spear lodged itself in the bridge, and before the wizard's foe could pull it out, Morphius ran him through. He had just barely pulled his blade back out when furious shrieks from the shore caused him to turn.
As he whirled to face his foes, three of them leapt forward and grappled him. He crashed to the ground and his staff and sword flew from his hands. The one sitting on his chest raised a dagger and plunged it towards its foe. As luck would have it, however, Morphius's arms were not restrained. He grabbed the lizardman's arm with one hand, fisted the second one and sent it crashing into the creature's face.
His gamble had paid off. He had suspected early on, that the creatures' speed and agility came at the cost of a strong bone-structure. The lizardman's softer-than-average bones made him easy to knock off. The blow sent him flying into one of his fellow hunters, and they both tumbled into the river as well. The last one was dispatched with a swift kick.
Morphius got to his feet swiftly. The sudden weight on his back informed him that one of the creatures had jumped him again. He managed to catch a glimpse of an axe, and knew that the one he had slammed off earlier had returned to finish the job.
The sound of three bowstrings echoed through the air, along with the whistling of arrows. Again, the wizard whirled around, and again, his gamble paid off. The solid "Thunk" of arrows piercing scaly flesh, along with the bloodcurdling screech from the reptilian as it slid off his back were proof of that.
Morphius turned and reached out with both mind and hand. His staff flew from the ground and into his outstretched palm. His eyes blazed green as he turned in the direction of the archers.
"Ethrenn, anderal nifr anmolach!" the wizard spoke and fired a whip-like green translucent snake from his staff. The ethereal viper coiled itself around the tree and sank into it. As the snake disappeared, the tree's roots and branches stretched out and coiled around the lizardmen. The screeches were cut short as the tree crushed every bone in the bodies of its victims.
Morphius decided that staying on the bridge was, most likely, not a good idea. He turned and ran for the other side, bending down and fetching his blade as he went.
One of the attackers slammed into his side, and though its weight was not enough to toss him into the water, the impact still sent him stumbling towards the edge of the bridge. As Morphius teetered precariously on the edge, several pairs of arms grabbed hold of his robes and pulled him into the river.
The wizard sent a quick thanks to all the gods he come remember the name of without thinking them over when he realized that his blade was still in his hand. He slashed out around himself, and those reptilians who were not swift enough to swim away in time were struck. Seven of the creatures fell limp and floated towards the surface.
Morphius stayed put, after conjuring an air-bubble around his mouth and his eyes. If he swam upwards, he would be speared before he made it half-way. Even if he made it to the surface, the chance of escaping the aggressors was a slim one. A flash of movement from the side had slashing out again. "If only I had more time to think on" he growled.
His eyes had gotten used to the murky darkness of the, surprisingly deep, river well enough to spot several lizardmen swimming at him. The wizard raised his staff and let loose a bright flash of light, illuminating his surroundings for a short while, and simultaneously blinding his foes. In the split second when he could see clearly, however, Morphius spotted something in the corner of his eye.
An enormous, red pupil-less eye, was staring right at him. The lizardmen screeched, turned tails and swam as if Skorm himself was in their heels. He promptly decided that it was time for him to do the same. Without stopping to wonder why he hadn't done this in the first place, Morphius pressed the water underneath himself together and let go of it once he felt it was enough.
The repressed water jetted upwards and sent the wizard flying out and over the river. He looked down, and cringed as a gigantic pair of jaws snapped shut just under him. Thinking swiftly, he swung his staff and lifted a small patch of the shore from the ground before positioning it under himself. The river-creature's jaws snapped after him again. The wizard swung his staff against the ground in a swift motion, as if lighting a match, and his eyes glowed white.
A bolt of lightning flew from the weapon and struck the water. The creature gave a skull-shattering roar and plummeted into the river again. Morphius quickly became aware of the lizardmen appearing on the surface, and the fish, and various other aquatic dwellers. "Oh. Didn't think of that" he muttered. "Ah well. I suppose that a small aquatic mass-murder is a price I'll have to pay for my continued existence."
He slapped himself as the piece of earth he was standing on reconnected itself to the ground. "Don't say such things" he mumbled while stepping off his vessel and preparing to be on his way. He had not gotten far, when the splashing of water and a mighty roar told him that his enemy was not yet beaten.
The creature surged forward with its jaws open wide. Again, Morphius hauled out the Triclops. "Csayaerin!" Mud from the ground flew up and joined together, packing itself as hard as stone. As the creature neared, the wizard flung his improvised boulder towards it. The mud-boulder struck and lodged itself in the thing's mouth.
The creature gave a muffled roar, thrashed wildly and clawed after the object in its maw with its small arms. Eventually, it slowed down. The burning red of its eyes dulled, and it sank to the bottom of its former home, twitching in its death-throes.
Morphius shivered, feeling slightly disgusted at himself. "I hate strangling things" he groaned. Strangling and drowning, were his least favorite methods of finishing his foes. "At least burying your sword in someone's guts grants them a swift departure" he muttered. "Pull yourself together, man" he snarled at himself. "Survival of the fittest, well, survival at any cost. Well, nearly any cost."
The wizard sighed, but decided not to dwell over it. Opting instead to put distance between himself and the river before something else came out of it. He snorted. "Not very likely, now is it?" he thought. The battle had probably scared off what life there was nearby, for he felt no life-force, other than that of the trees and the grass.
As he carried on his way, the wizard pulled out his map. According to it, that was the only large river in the swamp, to his great relief. if the map was correct, and it should be, the journey across the swamp would go much easier from then on.
Indeed, the trek across the wetlands were easier than one would have suspected. Except for a few violent encounters with the local wildlife, the wizard was mostly unscathed by the time he had the end of the mire in sight.
The lands beyond the bog were considerably more pleasant than the bog itself. Once more, a great forest of oak surrounded him, though it was still only blooming, as spring had arrived just weeks ago.
Even so, the forest's aura teemed with life, something that seemed to invigorate the wizard as he went on his way. The fact that there was no more swamp also helped.
A few more weeks had passed. The leaves of the great forest had begun to show themselves. Morphius was observing a small blue bird, as it took its first flight. He smiled and let his attention return to his map. He was sitting on top of an enormous stone in the middle of a clearing, having decided to rest there for a while before carrying on.
Just as the wizard made to put his map away, something whizzed past his face, mere millimeters from his nose, and lodged itself in a tree. Morphius rolled backwards over the rock and landed on his feet behind it. "That shot was much too accurate to have been a miss" he though, readying his blade. "A warning shot, perhaps?"
As if on cue, a voice called out to him from between the trees. "Step away from the stone if you value your hide, two-legged one! We will not miss again!"
The voice was female, though not one of a human or an elf and the commentary about him having two legs had him thinking, that he knew what he was up against. Morphius did as he was told. He stepped away from the stone, and just to prove that his intentions were not harmful, he dropped his weapons as well.
His suspicions turned out to be correct. At least five scores of centaurs surrounded the clearing, and each and every one had an arrow trained at him. "Do not approach him!" the same voice that had given him a chance of survival called. He quickly found it belonged to a white-furred female with hair as white as her fur pulled back in a ponytail. "Well isn't that strangely fitting" the wizard thought. Wisely enough, he refrained from thinking aloud, he had compared centaurs to horses and ponies in their presence once before in his life, and had sworn to never do so again.
"Do not take us for fools, two-legs!" the female snarled. "We can see from your appearance and equipment, that you are far from defenseless, even though you are unarmed!"
Morphius was barely listening. His eyes had drifted downwards, and were now resting their gaze on the centaur's rather impressive bosom. Another arrow whizzed past him, grazing his shoulder from behind this time.
The wizard gasped in slight pain and surprise, just as the female focused on someone behind him. "Goléar!" she shouted. "I did not give you an order to do that!" Morphius managed to get a glimpse of the attacking centaur. A large male with black fur and hair and, like the others, his skin was tanned and bare of the hairs that covered their lower halves completely.
"Apologies, Priestess Sheíra" the male rumbled, his voice deep and low at the same time. "But he was looking at your chest, when you were talking. Among the two-legged kindred, this is surely a sign of disrespect."
"Time for a white, and life-saving, lie" Morphius thought. "If I may speak, your grace?" he said aloud. The one called Goléar frowned. "How dare you speak to her, you filth!" he snarled.
Sheíra held up a hand to stop the male. The black-furred centaur fell silent and lowered his bow, slightly. Morphius took this a sign of allowance. "I would like to say, your grace, that gazing at a woman's,… forgive me, a female's chest while she is talking is not disrespectful at all among us two-legged folk, quite the contrary, it is a sign of great appreciation" he finished, deciding that telling them that the notion of a single kindred when it came to two-legged creatures was ludicrous, would be a very stupid, and potentially life-threatening, thing to do.
"Not a lie" he thought to himself. "Though, not entirely the truth."
The centaurs started murmuring to each other in their own tongue, and before long, the priestess stepped forward. She slowly walked up to the wizard and stopped before him. She bent down and looked him in the eyes.
Morphius had made sure, that his eyes remained on her face this time.
The centaur narrowed her eyes; the wizard suddenly had an urge to turn his head away. Sheíra seemed to sense this, as her hands grabbed his cheeks and held him in place.
The centaur-priestess and the wizard stood there for a while, looking into each other's eyes, until she released his head, turned and trotted back to her kin. "Not human" the wizard heard her mutter to the closest centaur. "Then what?" "I do not know."
"What does it matter?" Goléar snarled loudly. "He has laid infidel hands upon the sacred stone! He even sat on it, as if it were his to sit on! This blasphemy demands blood be spilt!" several murmurs, and even shouts, rose in agreement.
"That is more than enough from you, Goléar!" Sheíra snarled back at him. "We are not murderers, and this…man had no knowledge, nor intention, of sacrilege." Morphius let out a breath of relief, only to suck it in again when a "However" from the centaur reached his ears.
"Though I find no ill will in your eyes" Sheíra continued as she turned around. "The fact remains, that anyone from the outside world who lays hand upon the sacred stone without our consent, or that of the gods, has broken our most sacred rule. And the gods demand retribution, either by your blood or the blood of another."
"So, either way" the wizard spoke. "This ends in bloodshed." It was not a question, it was a statement. The female solemnly nodded.
"Well, what if I just give myself a tiny cut, then?" he asked, his nervousness peaking. "The rule doesn't specify just how much blood must be spilled, does it?" The assembled centaurs did not even have to answer. Their eyes said everything he didn't want to hear.
Morphius sighed. "Very well" he said. "What must I do?" Finally, Sheíra motioned for the centaurs to lower their weapons, before turning to the wizard again. "You must pass three tests, each of which will require you to spill the blood of an enemy until they have none left to spill. The first test will take place to the north." She pointed towards a mountain that stood alone, like an enormous jagged monolith, in the myriad of trees in the forest.
Goléar snorted again. "Must we then slow down?" he said, his tone laced with obvious contempt. "So that this…creature will be able to keep up with us?" The wizard smirked. "That" he began. "Will not be necessary."
Morphius quickly assumed wolf-shape, about as large as the centaurs themselves, and trotted up to the black-furred male. "Race you there" he sent into the centaur's mind and dashed off in the direction of his first test. He heard Goléar roar in outrage and set off after him.
He knew he was being watched. He both saw, and smelled, at least five centaurs ahead of him and beside him. "Obviously some of the swiftest ones" the wizard thought. He was smugly satisfied to find that the centaur he had challenged could not catch up to him.
As he reached the foot of the mountain, he changed back to human form and leaned against a nearby tree, plastering a smug grin on his face as he spotted the fuming male. Goléar did not speak, though he snarled at him, and merely waited for the rest of his herd.
Sheíra looked mildly amused for a split second as she caught eye of the two-legged one's grin and her herd-mate's silent fury, though she quickly regained a neutral expression.
"Now then, we can proceed" the priestess spoke and turned to the wizard, who stood straight. "In the first test, you must ascend up this mountain and defeat one of the creatures that dwell there" she explained. "We shall follow and watch you."
Morphius nodded and started his ascent. The centaurs, Goléar included, leapt up the mountainside from stone to stone and from crag to crag as sure-footed as any Ibex.
After some time, the wizard reached what looked like the top, finding it to be an enormous crater. Though not particularly deep, the crater was wide enough to hold a city inside of it.
Sheíra pointed down into the crater. "The foe you must defeat dwells in the caves lining the walls of this crater, take caution, the enemy is most certainly hungry and very territorial. You must bring back to us that which catches your eye first, and it must be fully intact." Morphius drew a breath. "Thanks for the tip" he muttered as he stood and peered into the arena-like scenery.
Just as he was about to turn and climb down, a firm shove sent him tumbling over the edge.
The crater was shallow enough to avoid any major damage, luckily. The dark chuckle that reached his ears gave the wizard a good idea of who was behind the act.
Slowly getting to his feet, he turned and scowled at the centaur. Goléar flashed a nasty grin at him, and the wizard turned back to the task at hand. Though he did not miss the glare the priestess had sent the male.
Pushing the centaur's antics from his mind, Morphius stepped forward. The crater was dry and rocky, there were crooked crags pointing towards the sky everywhere, akin to claws, and here and there, smoke-like substance poured out of the mountain, shrouding the crater in a thick sandy-brown cloud. A thin layer of dust and ash covered the ground. The stench of bodies was carried along by a breeze. Deciding that following it would lead him to his quarry, the wizard headed in the direction of the scent, drawing his blade along the way.
He found himself drawing close to the wall of the crater as he slowly crept forward, before long, a quite large cave revealed itself to him. A small area around the entrance was littered with bones, though the stench itself came from within the cave. After investigating the surroundings, Morphius made his way inside.
Once inside the cave he ignited his staff, only slightly so that he wouldn't startle something. Several elk hung by their hind legs on a wooden pole jammed into the wall. "And I think just found the source" the wizard thought as he wrinkled his brow and held his nose.
He swiftly concluded that there was nothing alive in the cave, except for him, and stepped out again before bending over to examine the ground more closely. He found footprints in the ash. In shape, they were man-like, in size they were most definitely not.
"Some sort of giant, then" he muttered. "What kind, however, is still a mystery." His head whirled around suddenly. A boulder erupted from the shrouding smoke at the other end of the crater and flew towards him. Without thinking about his actions, Morphius reached into his satchel and closed his hand around the Arcanium inside of it. "Orrtherin!" he spoke loudly. The boulder struck him and shattered against his shield.
Three more boulders struck his shield spell; each one came from a closer point than the last, and each one shattered like sand against rock. As the final boulder fell to the ground, a large figure lurched out of the smoke.
The size of the creature was striking, at least the height of four grown men, but what really caught the wizard's attention, was the monster's eye. It only had one, the size of a man's head, in its forehead.
"Lords and gods" Morphius thought. "They want me to take the eye out of a cyclops!"
The beast roared and charged him. Deciding to save the energy in the Triclops for more threatening situations, the wizard dropped the shield and dove out of the way as the cyclops' fist slammed into the ground where he had been standing.
"How in the name of Asuryan am I supposed to take its eye out without damaging it?" he wondered as he tried to make himself scarce. He ducked into the smoky substance and threw himself behind one of the claw-crags. "Because, as fate would have it, the eye is its weak point."
As he pondered his options, the crag he was standing behind was torn off the ground and hurled off somewhere. The cyclops' foot smashed into him and sent him sailing through the air and crashing into another crag.
A crack appeared in the crag where the wizard had been thrown at it and suddenly, it collapsed over him. He quickly seized it with his mind and flung it at the giant, making sure not to aim for its head.
The crag struck the cyclops in the chest and had it stumbling backwards. Morphius charged forward and swung his blade at it before swiftly teleporting some distance away.
The creature regained its balance and scowled at the new scar on its chest before roaring and coming at its prey again. Morphius had dashed into hiding after slashing at his foe, he was still pondering how to proceed when he heard the creature coming towards him.
The wizard ran for it just as his enemy shattered the crag he had been standing behind. The cyclops roared again. Morphius slammed his staff into the earth. A powerful gust of wind blew around him and whirled up the dust and ash, it shielded him from view for a second, before surging forward and surrounding the creature's head, obscuring its view.
"Now that your eye and, hopefully, nose is out of commission for the time being" the wizard thought as he pulled out his pipe. "I can sit down and think a bit." And so he did, watching with great amusement as his enemy raved around and swung out at random, occasionally running into a crag and tripping over.
When the cloud dissolved, however, Morphius was no closer to a solution than he had been when he began. He blew a ring of smoke out of his mouth when he heard his foe come at him again. He sighed and put away his pipe before whirling around and sending the earth under the cyclops up in the air.
The beast was unable to halt itself in time. It plummeted off the earth-pillar with a roar and crashed to the ground before it. It quickly got back on its feet and charged once more. "Gods' blood. This one just won't die!" the wizard snarled as he dove forward and rolled between the cyclops' legs.
He nearly hurled when he stood again. The stench of the beast's crotch put the smell of a thousand corpses to shame. "No, wait. That's an over-exaggeration" he reasoned to himself. "Though it is not far behind."
Morphius regretted stopping to think about stenches when the cyclops whirled around and slammed its fist into him. He was once again sent flying into something, and again he flung the crag at his foe. The crag struck it and this time, it sent the beast completely onto its back. Seeing his chance, the wizard teleported on top of its chest and plunged his blade into its ribs.
The cyclops howled in pain and seized the tiny, yet persistent, man in its fist before flinging him away. Morphius landed hard and skidded along the rocks for a bit before eventually coming to a halt against another crag.
The beast rose from the ground, screaming like a wild animal. Besides the bleeding, it seemed no worse for wear at all as it once again came at the wizard. The wizard in question groaned and used his staff to support himself as he picked himself up from the ground, before spotting the enraged one-eyed giant making a dash for him.
Suddenly an idea came to him, one he would scold himself for not thinking about before later. He dropped his sword. A ball of bright blue flame appeared in his palm and after a moment of holding it back, he flung it at his adversary's head. The effect was immediate. The creature bellowed in blinding pain as its head was engulfed in flames, it kept staggering around, arms flailing, until it stumbled over one of the crags and fell. The cyclops did not get up again.
Morphius picked up his blade, put it in his belt and approached his fallen foe, extinguishing the flames with a snap of his fingers and a flicker of his will. Everything had gone according to his plan. The head of the creature had become a black-scorched skull, but the eye was completely intact. The wizard let out a sigh of relief and extended his hand. The eye floated out of its socket and levitated into his palm. He fetched a blanket from his satchel and draped it over his trophy, feeling uneasy with its stare, tucked it under his arm, turned around and began his trek back to the crater's edge.
As he stood before the wall of the crater, he tapped his staff into the ground and raised a pillar of stone underneath himself.
The sounds had stopped. There had been a horrible racket in the crater for some time. Sheíra was certain that all wildlife within a range of at least five miles had been scared off by now. There had been bright flashes of light, boulders flying and roars that could've woken the dead, but it was silent now. The priestess bit her lip and clutched he ceremonial staff tightly. A contemptuous snort roused her from her thoughts, though she didn't even have to look to know who had given the sound.
"The two-legged vermin must be long-dead by now" Goléar sneered. "I knew that the heathen stood no chance of survival." "Goléar! Enough!" Sheíra snapped at him, before regaining her composure. "If he truly has fallen" she began, speaking not only to the brash male, but to the whole herd as well. "Then, he fell in battle, with great courage and with his honor unscathed by cowardice. Gods rest his soul."
Goléar snorted again. "There is no honor among the two-legs! Neither courage nor strength! They are weak, cowardly wretches! All of them!" "Come now, my hoofed friend" a calm voice spoke from below. The wizard's head appeared above the fumes, followed by his torso and his legs. "You give us two-legged folk too little credit."
The centaur fell silent. Morphius hopped from his pillar and onto the ridge and uncovered the eye before handing it to the centaur-priestess. Sheíra accepted it and studied it closely for any sign of damage. After a while, she smiled and held the cyclops-eye up above herself.
"The wizard has passed the first test!" she proclaimed. Many of the centaurs cheered, some clapped politely, most remained neutral, others gave respectful hums and grunts, and a number growled or snorted. "The gods are pleased by his courage!" the priestess continued. "The second test may commence!"
The centaur-herd and the wizard moved back down the mountainside. Once down on flat ground again, Sheíra approached the wizard. "The second test will take place to the southeast" she stated. "If you wish to rest and regain your strength, you may do so once we have reached our destination." Morphius nodded once. "Very well" he answered. "I believe that would be a preferred option."
A low chuckle sounded from behind the wizard. Goléar stepped up beside him, grinning, as in triumph. "Tired already, two-legs?" he taunted. "I myself have taken down five of the one-eyed beasts alone, in a matter of hours." Morphius clapped slowly. "Quite a feat, master centaur" he said with the slightest hint of bitterness. "However, given the fact that you thought I would be cyclops-snack, I think I did well enough for myself. Besides; a wise warrior does not over-exert himself."
Goléar scowled, and turned his eyes to the priestess. She nodded. The male centaur bent down to the wizard's eye-level and spoke three words. "Race you there." The centaur stormed off, galloping as fast as he could to the southeast. Morphius growled, the sound becoming wolf-like as he changed form and dashed after him.
This time, it was Goléar who wore a smug grin on his face as his opponent arrived at their destination. The wizard's snarl carried over to his human form as he reverted. The rest of the herd arrived, and Sheíra announced Morphius' decision to rest, therefore, the test would be postponed until the next morning.
The centaurs spread out. Some simply settled down, some ran through the trees, though most began chatting with each other. Morphius decided that it was best to gather his strength and wandered off to find an open space. On an order from their priestess, eight centaurs, Goléar among them, followed him with arrows on their bowstrings.
Finding a clearing nearby, the wizard let go of his staff, it stood on its own as if held, and sat down. He crossed his legs, closed his eyes, drew a deep breath and let his mind and spirit begin their attunement. The sun stood high in the heavens when he began his meditation, and he knew that it would sink low on the horizon before he was done.
Morphius could sense the anger and annoyance brewing in one of his watchers. He knew who it was, even without turning his mind's eye to him. Goléar had hoped he would run, that he would try to escape and give him a good reason to put an arrow in his back. "Fat chance, four-legs" the wizard thought to himself, deciding not to convey the message to the centaur and risk being shot down anyway.
He meditated until the sun disappeared from his awareness, then stood and stretched. Looking around, he discovered that his guardians were all fast asleep, even Goléar. Morphius sighed, fetched his staff and walked over to the aggressive male. He observed him for a bit, and even waved his hand in front of the creature's face. No response.
The wizard narrowed his eyes, before smiling, lifting his staff and smashing the top of it into the centaur's forehead. Goléar roared and collapsed to the ground, waking the other centaurs as well. Morphius gave a laughter and jumped back as the male got to his hooves and swung at him.
"By the ever-watching eyes of Elune" he laughed. "You are the lousiest watcher I have seen in years!" Goléar snarled loudly and stomped forward until his face was mere millimeters from that of his grinning rival. "Enough! Both of you!"
Sheíra was positively fuming as she trotted out of the forest and into the clearing. She turned to her herd-mate first. "Goléar, I never expected you of all to fall asleep while guarding someone! Moreover, you need to teach yourself some self-control! And you, wizard" she turned to him. "You should not make your situation worse than it already is! By all the gods, you are both behaving like year-old foals quarreling over a berry-bush!"
Goléar and Morphius did not say anything; they merely bowed their heads in apology, while simultaneously glaring daggers at one another as best they could. The priestess turned and stomped off, huffing something that sounded suspiciously like "males" along the way. The two males in question raised their heads and resumed their glaring.
Morphius stretched and gave a yawn. "Now then, since I already know that you have had your, much needed, beauty-sleep" he spoke to the centaur male. Goléar's scowl deepened at his remark, but the wizard carried on as if he had not seen it. "I am going to get some shut-eye myself. I trust that you will not drift off again." Though he knew, that going to sleep with this particular centaur in the vicinity was foolish, possibly dangerous, Morphius needed his rest then. "Besides" he reasoned. "He won't do anything drastic so long as Sheíra and the rest of the herd are nearby." With that in mind, the wizard laid down on his side and closed his eyes. The last thing he heard before drifting off was a mutter from Goléar. "I shall not sleep two-legs. Count on it."
His sleep had been nice, though the dream about being tied to a horse and dragged through a field bore ominous tidings regarding his return to the land of the non-sleepers. He felt that something was wrong the moment he woke up, though he had not opened his eyes yet. When he did open them, his gaze immediately fell upon Goléar's upside-down-turned, and grinning, face.
"You may wake early, two-legs, but you sleep like the dead" he smirked in greeting. "And a good morning to you as well, Master Sunshine" Morphius retorted. As he had feared, he had been dragged away by the male in the dead of night and hanged by his feet from a branch.
"I hope you are uncomfortable, two-legs. I made sure to place your weapons just out of reach, for humor's sake" the centaur chuckled. "You have a sense of humor? Gods bless, for verily, a miracle has befallen us" Morphius said as his blade suddenly disappeared and materialized in his hand. He could not help but smile as the centaur's expression darkened. He swung upwards and slashed at the rope, only realizing the flaw in his logic once it gave away and he crashed to the ground.
The wizard got to his feet with a groan, quickly finding his staff and using it to support himself. Goléar's snigger had him turning a rather menacing glare to the centaur. "Well then, two-legs" the male said. "You would do best to hurry up if you want to make it back, in time for the second test." He then laughed heartily and set off through the trees.
After managing to get his wits about him, Morphius kneeled and placed his hand on the ground. He closed his eyes and concentrated, quickly finding the herd. "Straight to the east, is it?" he muttered to himself before grinning.
Assuming eagle-form, the wizard flew above the trees and swiftly found his destination. Most of the centaurs were still asleep, as the sun had not yet risen above the forest. Morphius dove downwards and landed in the middle of the clearing before turning back to his usual appearance.
"And where have you been, if I may ask?" a voice sounded behind him. The wizard turned to face Sheíra, who stood with her arms crossed under her bust, framing it quite nicely.
Tearing his eyes from the alluring display, Morphius quickly regained focus on the female's face. "And what makes you think I have been anywhere, priestess?" he replied. The centaur's eyes did not lose their accusing tinge as she answered. "Your method of entrance suggests as much. Care to explain?"
He shrugged innocently. "It is such a fine morning, seemed like a good time to stretch the wings a bit." Though still emitting an aura of slight suspicion, Sheíra seemed to accept the wizard's explanation. "I must say that I am surprised, though" she spoke. "I wouldn't have thought that Goléar would let you fly off like that."
Morphius suppressed a smirk. Instead, he smiled. "I can assure you, honorable priestess, that without Goléar, I would not have flown at all today." Just as he words left his mouth, the wizard sensed a life-form approaching and could not keep himself from smirking. "I do believe" he said. "That he is on his way here now, actually." He pointed to the right with his thumb. "Now, I'll just do some last-minute meditation before the test, if I may?" The priestess nodded and set off to greet her herd-mate. Morphius chuckled and found a large stump to sit himself upon.
Some hours later, a slap to his face roused the wizard from his meditation. He opened his eyes to find Goléar standing before him, looking like he'd rather run him through than speak to him. "The sun has fully risen above the trees, two-legs. It is time." Morphius resisted the urge to rub his cheek, gave a glare back, rose from his position and stepped over to Sheíra, who stood further off.
The priestess turned to him as he neared her. "The gazes of the gods are fully upon us" she said and motioned to the sun. "The second test can begin." The wizard nodded and the herd moved off.
After a short trek through the woods, the herd and the wizard stopped in front of an enormous rock. The size alone was staggering. it was both tall and wide enough to let two ogres pass into it at the same time with ease. For indeed, one could pass into it, which was the focus of Morphius's attention. The front was carved out to resemble a maw lined with long teeth, sharp and sturdy enough to pierce steel plate. Beyond the "mouth", a torch-lit stairway of stone descended down into whatever laid below.
Morphius's breath quickened slightly as he bit his lip. He had never felt particularly comfortable underground, coupled with his slight claustrophobia; the tunnel-mouth was distinctively unappealing.
As he feared, the centaur-priestess raised her arm and pointed towards the stone. "The second test will take place in there. You must descend into the passages below and bring back the heads of ten of the creatures that inhabit them, and they must be fully intact, unharmed in any way." "No biggie, then" the wizard mumbled. "Scared, two-legs?" Goléar inquired from behind. "No! Of course not!" he retorted, adding something under his breath. "Just not overly comfortable with the circumstances."
Morphius motioned to the priestess. She bent over so low and close that he was certain no one would hear him when he spoke. "Listen, priestess" he muttered. "I happen to be in possession of a slight fear of confined space, and I am very much uncomfortable underground, bad experiences, and memories." The female nodded, the wizard kept on. "So I was wondering…is there any chance that I may attempt a less terrifying test, maybe? Like, wrestling a kraken, or sucking the venom out of a living manticore's stinger, or racing a hungry dragon on foot, maybe a staring contest with a medusa or…attempting to lift a titan with my bare hands, please?"
Sheíra placed her hand on his shoulder. "It takes great courage to admit one's fears. And your courage pleases the gods." Morphius's face lit up. "Yet, the test must still be passed." His face fell again. Again, a firm shove to the back sent him over the edge of his battleground. "Go on, two-legs, I grow tired of waiting for your bravery to gather!" Goléar snarled, which earned him another glare from his priestess.
Morphius turned and delivered a gaze so seething that the stoic centaur took a step backwards. He then turned back to the tunnel and took a deep breath before starting his descent into the unknown.
The only sound heard was the flickering of the torches and the wizard's boots making contact with the steps as he made his way down the large stairway. The steps themselves were cracked and broken in many places, and they had obviously not been made by the centaurs. "And if they did not make them, who did? When, and why? "
He pondered over this as he slowly descended, but he found no answer. Suddenly he spotted something ahead. A doorway, with two monstrous gate-doors stood in his path. As he got closer, he spotted a brass plaque on the door. He stepped up close and leaned in to get a closer look.
There was an inscription, but not in any language he knew by heart. "But this letter here looks sort of familiar" he muttered. Morphius promptly sat down, lit up his pipe and pulled out one of his notebooks along with an inkwell and a quill. He carefully wrote down every letter on the plaque before fetching a few other notebooks and began to compare the letters.
He had little to no idea of how long his attempt at translation had taken. However, he could safely say, that several hours had passed. It did not bother him all too much, as he was making good progress. As far as he could tell, the plaque was inscribed with a mixture of several different languages from around the world, many of which were long since extinct, and some that very few could know of besides its respective race.
Ancient elven was present, as was draconic, the elemental tongues, high demonic, necrotic, elder-dwarven and even his own tongue, among others.
The translation process was long and tedious, for it seemed like every letter was of a different language, but the shameless joy of gathering new knowledge kept all tiredness at bay, Morphius had no intention of stopping until he was sure that he had everything correct. Just as he finished, his need for rest overcame him, and he slept for a few hours.
When the wizard returned from his dreams, he wasted no time in attempting to read the plaque.
"Beyond lies the halls of death, where the judged shall meet the final condemnation. Beyond lies a palace of nightmares, where none can hear you scream. Beyond lies your tomb, from whence there is no escape. Beyond lies a temple of suffering, where you shall be sacrificed. Beyond lies the abode of beasts, where no god can save you. Beyond lies a forge of despair, where you shall be lost for eternity. Pass not, if no guilt weighs you. Pass not, if no sin has been done by your hands. Pass not, if no evil festers in your soul. Pass only the damned and the lost, for whom there is no return. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
"Strangely enough" Morphius muttered. "This does not make this trip any more likable." He stepped back and observed the doors. In the grim light of his newest discovery, they seemed more intimidating than ever before, and, if possible, even more massive than when he had first laid eyes on them.
Only now did he notice the handles. There were two of them, easily the size of a grown man's torso, shaped as bulls' heads with large rings in their noses. Their horns were longer than the wizard's arm, and when he touched the tip, it drew blood.
An attempt to open the doors proved it a futile effort. "That must be why the tunnel is so wide" he concluded. "So that they could get many enough men down here to open the doors." As he was very much aware of, however, the wizard lacked such extensive manpower. "Then again, I make up for that in other ways" he smirked and placed his staff and hand against the doorway. Concentrating deeply, he slowly managed to push the doors open, just enough for him to slip between them.
The tunnel, and the stairs, continued on the other side. Now, however, Morphius had a clue as to what the place he was standing in was. "Some sort of death-sentence for convicted criminals I'll wager" he muttered to himself, making his way downwards even more carefully than before. "But what creatures could warrant such a warning?" He shuddered.
Soon enough, he saw the end of the tunnel. He edged close and stole a peek outside of it, the sight had his breath catching. Though the tunnel ended, the stair did not. It travelled down in a spiral, coiling around a colossal pillar standing in the center of a gargantuan underground chamber, easily wide enough to hold the island of Istan twice within itself.
Below, more tunnels stretched off in every direction, bending, twisting and turning as far as the eye could see. It was an enormous labyrinth. "The halls of death, where the judged shall meet the final condemnation" Morphius whispered, failing to suppress another shudder.
Steeling himself, the wizard resumed his descent along the spiral-stair, all the while keeping an eye on the tunnels below. The pillar was, as he had noted before, colossal. In his mind, he estimated it to be at least three times the height of the tower of The Circle of Magi in the land of Ferelden, as well as four times the width.
Morphius was so deep in thought, that the giant drop in front of him only became apparent once he almost tumbled over the edge of it. He jumped backwards just in time and landed on his back with a surprised yelp.
Breathing heavily and clutching the front of his robe, the wizard got to his feet and swallowed several times in an attempt to regain control of his lungs. When this had been accomplished, he slapped himself in the face. "Control yourself, man" he whispered. "This is not going to get any easier if you start behaving like a frightened hare in the face of every obstacle you meet."
For the sake of safety, Morphius kneeled and crawled to the edge of the gap to peer down into it. He nearly shuddered again. The drop would surely have broken both his legs, if it had not killed him outright. Backing off, he stood again and squinted towards the other side. He could barely make it out in the sparse light, the torches had become few and far in between. Even with his vision impaired, the wizard knew one thing for certain; there was no way anything on two legs could make that jump. "Maybe this gap is the reason why whatever it is that is down here, has not yet come out through the opening on the surface" Morphius mused. Stepping back, he changed form and flew across the gap, deciding that it would be better to follow the stair as long as he could before leaving it behind.
The trek downstairs took very much longer than the translation in the tunnel above had done. By the time Morphius reached the bottom, he was decidedly sick and tired of the stairway. "By The Blazing Blade of Balthazar, if I never see a stair again in this millennium I shall be content" he groaned as he set foot on the ground again.
He sat down and rested for a bit, but kept an eye on his surroundings. Afterwards he stood and looked around. The stairway had ended in a large circle at the pillar's foot, lined with entrances to the tunnels he had seen from above.
He took his time and walked around, peeking into every entrance as he went, before choosing one and marking the entrance with a simple, yet effective, spell and venturing inside while drawing his blade.
The inside of the tunnel-labyrinth was also lit by torches, making the wizard wonder briefly how they were still burning, as he doubted that the creatures dwelling in the tunnels were, by any means, intelligent. "Now you're being unfair" he thought to himself. "Every being in existence possesses some form or vestige of intellect, although some possess more than others."
The sound of steps as he neared a turn had him halting in his tracks and raising his sword, at least, he thought it was steps. It sounded like stones were rhythmically being tossed at each other, and the breath that followed was deep and heaving. He began to slowly back away as a shadow was cast on the wall in front of him in the light of a nearby torch.
The shadow came closer and closer, and Morphius kept backing up. The creature finally came into sight. It was huge, the size of two and a half men, at least, its head was that of a particularly bestial bull, with sharp teeth and a pair of horns as long as the wizard's arm. Its legs were equally bull-like, sporting a pair of enormous, cloven, hooves and looking powerful enough to crush steel and bone alike under their steps, a relatively small tail protruded from the beast's spine. Its torso was almost man-like, only covered in shaggy fur, with arms as thick as tree-trunks and clawed hands, one of which was clutching a massive battle-axe. The bull-creature moved in a slow thundering gait before suddenly stopping.
It raised its muzzle and started sniffing the air. A growl erupted from its throat as it turned its head towards the wizard, turning into a bestial roar as it spotted him and charged. Its eyes blazed red, and steam flew from its nose and past the ring pierced through it as it raised its axe at the intruder. The size of the monster belied its speed as it reached him in only three long strides and swung its weapon downwards at him.
Morphius jumped back twice, once to avoid the axe, and once to dodge the swipe of the creature's unoccupied hand. The monster pulled its axe out of the deep scar it had left in the ground and swung it at its prey again.
He ducked under the weapon and swiftly rolled to the side as the monstrous fist made contact with the ground. Looking up from his crouching position, the wizard discovered the bull-like beast looming over him with its axe poised to strike. He managed to roll backwards just as the weapon lodged itself in the ground. Before the beast could recover, Morphius raised his staff and let loose a blinding flash of light. The creature staggered backwards, howling in surprise, fury, and pain being added as the wizard plunged his blade into its gut. He pulled out the weapon and delivered a swift kick to his foe that sent the stumbling beast onto its back. The howling ceased abruptly as he leaped onto his adversary's chest and separated its head from its shoulders with a swift cleave of his blade.
Breathing heavily, Morphius let his blade slip from his hand and clatter to the floor. He backed up until he hit the wall, then he started chuckling. "Minotaurs" he chuckled. "They're only minotaurs!" Then he threw his head back and laughed, long, loudly and heartily. "Gods above!" he wheezed, struggling to control his breath. "Minotaurs! With an inscription like that, I was expecting something out of The Planes of Oblivion, or The Nine Hells of Baator! Gods, minotaurs!"
After a while, he managed to get a hold of himself. He retrieved his sword from where it had been dropped, and cast a glance at his fallen opponent. Suddenly remembering the specifics of his test, he sighed and placed his satchel on the floor, opening it as wide as he could. "Far be it from me to denounce someone's religious practices as barbaric and/or savage" he thought as he lifted the minotaur's severed head, wincing from the weight, and carrying it over to his satchel. "But this head collecting business, I must admit, is rather unpleasant, not to mention slightly disturbing."
With great difficulty, the wizard managed to squeeze the head into the satchel's opening, picking it up afterwards as the head made no difference to the weight once inside. "One down, nine to go" he thought and resumed his path into the labyrinth. He did not have to go far. Suddenly, a pair of the beasts leapt in front of him out of a side-passage.
One of them swung its claws at him, just as the second one raised both of its axes to swing with a mighty roar. Gritting his teeth to keep himself from crying out, Morphius dropped to the floor to avoid the claws and rolled to the side to dodge the axes. He spotted a hoof heading for his head, and flipped backwards and onto his feet to avoid it. As he raised himself out of his crouching position, the wizard realized that the dual axe-wielder was very close to him all of a sudden.
Before he could react, the minotaur's horned head slammed into the side of his own and sent him flying into the wall. The impact shook him to the core. "Mara's breath!" he thought as he grunted in pain. "There goes three of my ribs." Even through his painful haze, he was alerted to a new attack by another roar. He dropped again, and the charging creature crashed against the wall, leaving its horns lodged in the rock.
Morphius managed to quickly crawl forward between the beast's legs. He stood to his feet behind the minotaur, whirled around and slashed at its back. The bull-man howled in pain and started ripping its horns loose from the wall, just as the wizard was reminded of the fact that there were two of his foes.
The second minotaur's fist closed around his torso, and he was picked clean off the ground. The beast snarled and smashed its prey against the wall three times, before hurtling it down the hallway.
The wizard slammed against the ground and rolled until he hit another wall. Wincing, he spat out a few drops of blood and tried to get to his feet. The minotaur roared and came at him, murderous hunger blazing in its eyes. Lifting his arm, Morphius formed a ball of blue energy in his palm and flung it at the beast. The ball struck true, and the minotaur was frozen on the spot. The wizard's blade and staff appeared in his hands. He surged forward and sliced the ice-block in half. The top half slid off and shattered against the floor, dashing any chances of retrieving its head.
The wound he had inflicted upon the axe-wielder was apparently deeper than he had anticipated, for it was stumbling around with a glazed expression on its face. Morphius swiftly teleported in front of it and slashed at its throat, taking its head off.
Morphius quickly used his magic to heal himself as best he could. "Healing magic is not my forte" he groaned, pulled a vial with red potion in it from his robe and downed it. He sighed, the combined effort of the potion and his magic had done the trick. He then turned to the head, and sighed again.
The sound of at least five pairs of hooves accompanied by raging howls had him whirling away from his objective and dashing down the tunnel. A large group of minotaurs rounded a corner and set off after him. Morphius rounded a corner of his own, and placed his hand on the wall. "Arkh, sûnphalear!" the wizard commanded.
The floor rose to the roof, creating a barrier between him and his aggressors. Even so, the wizard thought it wise to not stand around and wait for the creatures to figure out another path. He ran down the tunnel and disappeared around another corner.
He was climbing. He had discovered some sort of shelf, or niche, far up on the walls of the labyrinth. He had calculated that the bovine predators would not be able to reach him, and he was certain that he could fend off a group of them when he had the higher ground.
As he made himself as small as he could and squeezed himself into the very back of the niche, he glanced inside his satchel again. He had managed to meditate enough to gain a semblance of time-perspective. If he was correct, something he believed but wished was untrue, a full three weeks and two days had passed since he had abandoned the surface. He frowned as he, once again, looked over his rather grisly trophies. "Three weeks, and two days, and I am still missing four heads!" he growled.
The task given to him, he had discovered, was not as simple as one would think. The easiest way to obtain a head, was to find a lone minotaur and make quick work of it before moving on. "Problem is" he mused. "They barely go anywhere on their own anymore. Two of them is a challenge, three of them is a nightmare and anything above; is suicide."
"On top of that, every moment I spend in this hellhole is a moment I could've used looking for the last crystal." He had indeed not forgotten his original quest. The Obsidian Triclops had proved itself a lifesaver. While it had not been forgotten in any way, the wizard had simply pushed it to the back of his mind. It had quickly come to mind again, however, when he had found himself beset by at least ten minotaurs. He had pulled out the skull-shaped gemstone on pure instinct and raised the power of preservation around himself.
He had barely managed to do so when the first blow struck the shield. Then, he had let them strike him over and over again, until they fell from pure exhaustion. Once he was sure that they were out cold, he had lowered the shield and slowly tiptoed away, before dashing madly down the nearest passage.
After that incident, the wizard had started meditating briefly after every time he rested, it helped, as it was far easier to sense life-force when one had done so. Thus, it became far less life-threatening to traverse the tunnels. Even so, Morphius often found himself running for his very life, the beasts had an uncannily strong sense of smell and could track him by scent alone hours after he had moved on.
Still, worse than the minotaurs and the time he had to spend underground, was the underground itself. As he had told Sheíra on the surface, he was most uncomfortable under the earth. "A swamp would be a better place to be, hell, an active volcano in eruption would be a better place to be, compared to this one" he thought with disdain as he drifted off into a restless slumber.
He awoke to the sound of sniffing below the niche he was sitting in. He crouched low and stole a peek over the edge. "Well, by the luck of Ranald" he thought. A single minotaur was standing below him, sniffing around. A quick scan confirmed that there weren't any other beasts nearby. And to top off the whole thing, the creature was unarmed, if one overlooked the massive horns, its clawed fists and the tusk-lined jaws. For that exact reason, Morphius exercised as much caution he could while standing and drawing his blade, then leaping forward with the tip poised against the monster's head. Only then did he remember that the heads had to be unscathed.
Luckily for him, the condition of the head was not yet something to worry about. The creature caught sight of him and slammed a closed fist into the wizard while he was still in the air.
Morphius collided against the wall again, teleporting to safety just as the minotaur struck once more. He appeared behind the creature and slashed at its leg. His foe managed to lift its leg just in time, and the sword merely took a chunk out of its hoof.
The raised leg was immediately sent backwards and into the wizard. Admirably enough, Morphius managed to stay on his feet and bring up his staff. He swiftly conjured a bolt of lightning and flung it at his adversary, it struck and the minotaur howled in pain. As the shock wore off, it turned towards him and charged. The wizard got ready dive out of the way when his foe screeched to a halt just within the reach of its arm and slammed its fist in his gut.
Morphius was lifted off the ground by the blow, as well as his breath being knocked out of him completely. The minotaur's second fist smashed into the side of his head and sent him flying. As he skidded to a halt, he silently thanked the gods for the unnaturally strong bone-structure of his kin.
Still howling, the beast charged him again, lowering its head this time, signifying its desire to impale the wizard. Sitting up, Morphius froze the moisture in the air around his staff and formed an icicle on the end, before holding it up in front of himself. The charging minotaur suddenly found itself impaled on the wizard's ice-spear.
Morphius disappeared from the corporeal plane just as the beast collapsed on top of him. he reappeared on top of it and swiftly took its head off. "Quickly now" he thought to himself as he managed to load the head into the satchel. "Spilling blood in this place is like tossing a dead ox to a pack of hungry hyenas." With that in mind, he took off, already sensing several life-forms heading in his direction with great speed. "Seven down, three to go."
Lingering was not an option in any case, as he had discovered that trying to magically conceal himself as a rock or some such did, in fact, not fool the beasts in the slightest. That knowledge had been procured by trial and error, but at least it had secured the fourth head for him.
He had been running for quite a long time when he stopped to catch his breath and search around for any nearby life-force. Placing one hand against the wall and the other one on his knee, Morphius closed his eyes and concentrated. Indeed, there was life-force close by. So close, that he had to duck to avoid the axe that was thrown at him, but surprisingly enough, it was alone. "I guess Ranald's luck really is with me today" he smirked as he seized the axe with his mind, made it turn in mid-air and sent it flying towards its previous master.
The minotaur's timing was uncannily precise as it bent down and then shot up again, deflecting the flying weapon with one of its horns. "Uncanny seems a good word to describe this lot in general" Morphius concluded, too deep in thought to notice the bull-man standing right in front of him, until it hooked its horns under his arms and tossed him over its head, that is.
In mid-air, the wizard brought his blade up and ceased his descent, as well as the minotaur's mortal existence, by plunging it into the monster's back. The sudden halt nearly yanked his arms out of their sockets, but the beast was dead. "Well, that was surprisingly simple" he noted as he cut the head loose from the body. "Two more" he sighed after securing it in his satchel. "Two more, and the I can get my ass out of this place." And again, he dashed off in a random direction.
The following month without a head to add to his satchel, convinced the wizard that the gods had abandoned him. when the next month passed with the same results, he became convinced of the fact that they downright hated him.
"Gods above, these have been the most embarrassing two months of my life, well if one doesn't count that time in Gielinor when I accidentally turned my staff into a bouquet" he groaned. "I bet that sod, Goléar, is having nice dreams about my bloody demise right now."
Morphius kept mumbling to himself as he went on his way, before suddenly noticing that the walls had disappeared. He looked up, and spotted a glimmering lake in front of him and sunlight streaming in from a hole in the ground so far above.
"Gods" he whispered, then he noticed the, about, seventeen minotaurs turning to him. "Gods" he whispered again, though the hint of awe and joy was replaced by mind-numbing fear. Luckily for the wizard, his fear was not bone-and-muscle-numbing. He turned and legged it back towards the tunnel he had come from. Only to find it blocked by five more of the beasts.
Morphius instantly backed up and drew his blade. All was silent for several minutes, until the wizard raised his staff and slammed the butt into the ground. Several spikes of stone erupted from the ground and impaled at least three of the creatures, the rest rushed at him roaring and howling.
The change of scenery proved fortunate, as the wide open plain gave him much more space to move on and more to work with, without fearing that the ceiling might collapse on top of him. In addition, the presence of the sun invigorated him immensely. Morphius quickly decided that his collecting of heads had to wait, choosing to focus on staying alive instead.
The charging beasts were almost upon him when he did a full whirl with his staff extended. A ring of flames erupted from the ground, catching four of the minotaurs in their grasp. Several of them, however, managed to leap through or over the fire, quickly closing the distance between themselves and the wizard.
Morphius brought his staff up over his head to block the first strike. The staff was left without a scratch by the creature's axe, but its wielder almost buckled under the sheer force of the blow before swiftly leaping sideways. His foe stumbled forward and bellowed in pain as the wizard plunged his sword into its ribs, swiftly pulling it out and moving to the nearest beast.
The flaming wall was subsiding quickly and more minotaurs were leaping inside of it every second. He managed to down many of them before they even got close by flinging fireballs around himself. "At least they're easily flammable" he thought as a burning bull-man collided with another one and they both went down.
Somehow, he had managed to get a hold of the fur on the back of one of them, and clambered up to its shoulders. He leapt off as one of the others swung its axe at him. The head of the one he had been sitting on flew off, and he seized it with his mind and scooped it into the satchel. "One more head! One more!" the wizard heaved as he threw himself to the ground, dodging the weapons of his enemies, then teleporting to avoid being trampled.
His sense of time had faded away from his consciousness, having made way for his instinct of survival. He had killed scores of beasts already, but more were steadily pouring out of the passages at all times. They were hindered by the corpses of their kinsmen, much to Morphius' great relief. From the very beginning of the battle, the worry of being outnumbered had nagged in the back of his mind, however, and the sheer number of minotaurs present at the time pushed that worry to the forefront of his attention, besides the battle itself.
He was surrounded once more shortly after and quickly raised a pillar of stone underneath himself to escape his predicament. The beasts launched themselves at the pillar, most of them falling off, but some managing to sink their claws in deep enough to haul themselves upwards. They were quickly thrown off again by lightning bolts fired from their foe.
When about nine of them had fallen by the wizard's lightning, the minotaurs decided to change tactics and started flinging rocks and weapons at him.
Morphius observed the sea of horned heads under him. He had conjured forth a mental shield; it was more than sufficient in keeping the projectiles flung at him at bay for the time being.
He cast another look at the horned horde below and started pondering his options. "Flying away? No, wait, they'd shoot me down in a heartbeat. Teleporting is, most definitely, out of the question. Leaping down into their midst? Heroic-sounding, but stupid when one is trying to survive."
He carefully crouched and sat down with his feet dangling over the edge of the pillar. The wizard retrieved his pipe and sat there for a while, blocking the sound of howling minotaurs out of his head. After sitting there for what seemed like an hour or two, he suddenly looked up and grinned. He stood, slowly so that he would not fall, and turned towards the subterranean lake he had noticed earlier, pulling The Obsidian Triclops from his satchel and holding it up.
"Csayaerin" he spoke softly, before turning the Arcanium towards the ground and repeating the word, and then turning to one of the tunnels and speaking it again.
The ground shook as vaguely man-shaped creatures of stone rose from it. The lake rippled and whipped, as if a storm was sweeping over it, and washed puddles onto the shore, from whence feminine figures consisting solely of water rose. The torches in the tunnels blazed up and became large bonfires from which jets of flame flew to the ground and formed themselves into flaming man-like figures.
The minotaurs halted and quieted down, obviously surprised by the appearance of a force matching, maybe even exceeding, the strength of their own. The elementals did not move, or even acknowledge the presence of the bull-beasts, until Morphius, with his hand on the Triclops, gave a single command. "Ephrael!"
Every single elemental in the chamber surged forward and started laying waste to the minotaur-horde. The creatures did not remain stunned for long, and swiftly started fighting back against the newcomers. The wizard kept the skull-shaped Arcanium in his hand, fastened his staff in its holster, drew his blade and leapt from the pillar and into the mayhem below. He landed upon a downed, though still living, minotaur and thrust his sword into its neck, before leaping off and burying it in another one's guts.
Morphius quickly discovered that it was much easier to kill the things while there were allies present. "Strength in numbers, I guess" he smiled triumphantly, all while trying to avoid the burning beasts stumbling around. They were caused, of course, by the fire-elementals, who simply leapt upon their foes and sealed them in a fatal embrace.
The sight of an earth-elemental being tossed through the air, like a ragdoll, and colliding into a group, sending both elemental and minotaur alike sprawling, caught his attention. Morphius turned and spotted a white-furred minotaur, at least two heads taller than the other beasts, carrying a warhammer with the hammerhead shaped like a closed fist slamming its weapon into another one of the wizard's underlings and sending it flying as well.
Just then, the white minotaur laid eyes on him. It tossed its head back and roared so that the cave shook. The other minotaurs kept fighting, but they were giving their leader, the wizard guessed, and the wizard himself a wide berth, effectively creating a ring around the two. Quietly cursing himself for his sense of honor, Morphius ordered the elementals to do the same.
Quicker than one could say, "Lok'tar Ogar!", the minotaur leapt forward with its hammer raised. The wizard managed to leap forward, both avoiding the minotaur's hammer and diving between its legs at the same time, he rolled to his feet and slashed out at his foe.
With amazing speed, the minotaur-chieftain whirled around and blocked his strike with its hammer, before returning the favor and lashing out at him with the weapon.
A wall of solid rock rose from the ground. The beast's hammer smashed into it and was halted in its strike, the wall crumbled to pebbles under the force of the blow. Morphius had decided to temporarily disappear when he saw what the beast had made out of solid rock with a single blow. When he reappeared, he discovered himself sitting on one of the creature's horns.
"This is why teleporting blindly is a bad idea" he murmured. The horn was as long as his arm and leg put together, as wide as a dinner-plate and adorned with rings of gold and silver. The monstrosity roared and started tossing its head back and forth, forcing the wizard to cling onto the horn, he was unsuccessful.
A powerful buck sent Morphius flying to the ground, barely managing to roll to the side in time, as the hammer smashed a small crater in the ground where he had been laying a heartbeat ago. He scrambled to his feet and fired an orb of flame at the minotaur from his palm.
Demonstrating its impressive speed and agility once again, the chieftain swiftly sidestepped the fireball, dashed towards its prey and seized him by the face. The back of Morphius' head made contact with the ground three times before he was flung away.
Again, the wizard got to his feet. This time, he put the Triclops away into his satchel, deciding that he didn't need it at the moment, and drew his staff, already feeling more confident. "Your head shall be my ticket out of this pit!" he snarled and slammed his staff into the ground. He then lifted it into the air and started swinging it over himself, before slamming it back down, his eyes flashing a dark purple.
The minotaur suddenly bellowed and swung out to the side, even though there was nothing there. Then, it struck an invisible foe to the other side, and took a defensive position, its gaze flickering around like it was trying to keep an eye on someone flanking it that others could not see.
In the midst of the chieftain's apparent schizophrenia, Morphius stepped forward, calm as an ocean on a sunny day with no wind. The wizard smirked. "Ah yes" he thought with a certain amount of satisfaction. "Deluding those simple-of-mind, is such a humorous pastime. Illusions are quite handy, I must say."
When he was standing just next to the panicking creature, he stopped and snapped his fingers. The minotaur halted in mid-swing, and turned to the wizard howling and snarling. That, however, abruptly halted when Morphius swung his own weapon and slashed clean through the throat of his enemy. The head flew off and fell to the ground with a resounding *thud*.
"Survival of the fittest" Morphius chuckled, too caught up in his joy about getting to leave to worry about his rather unfair method. He levitated the severed head into the air and then into his satchel, pushing it in sideways as it was to broad to squeeze in any other ways.
He turned and prepared to leave discreetly when he noticed something. The chamber was deathly quiet, for one, and his elementals were nowhere to be seen, then he remembered that the Triclops' energy was not infinite yet. "The mana required to uphold and control the elementals must've drained it" he noted. Then, a single roar rose from the horde surrounding him.
Every single creature in the chamber rushed forward and flung itself upon the wizard. In the chaotic struggle that ensued, Morphius phased out of existence just as the first of the creatures fell onto him, and rematerialized just outside one of the tunnels.
A minotaur that stood at the very edge of the scuffle sniffed the air a couple of times, whipped its head around, spotted the fleeing wizard's cape disappearing behind a corner and roared. Every beast in the chamber ceased what they were doing and turned to their pack-mate, who roared again and pointed at the tunnel. Another, slightly larger, minotaur stepped forward and sniffed around. Its eyes narrowed, and it snarled before turning to the rest and roaring as well. As one, the minotaur-horde dashed towards the tunnels and surged inside of them.
Morphius had made sure to seal up every passage he passed on his way, knowing that it would not take the beasts long to notice his absence. The thundering sound of two hundred pairs of hooves trampling after him confirmed his suspicions. Suddenly, he was immensely thankful that he had remembered to mark his point of entry with a simple spell when he entered the tunnels.
Just as he sealed another side-passage, a clawed fist broke through a wall in front of him, though it was swiftly sliced off. Three of the beasts suddenly crashed, shoulders first, through another wall and came at him with their axes raised.
Those three were quickly felled when the floor rose up through the roof and crushed them against it. Seizing the opportunity, as he saw more beasts breaking in, Morphius raised the earth underneath himself again and escaped through the hole in the roof. Quickly changing shape and flying off towards the enormous pillar in the centre of the subterranean realm.
Several minotaurs climbed up after him, caught eye of where he was headed, leapt down to the rest and sprinted off in the direction of the pillar, the remaining beasts following.
Morphius was panting as he landed by the foot of the pillar's stairway. "Cursed is whoever decided that there would be something such as fatigue in the world" he growled and started running as best as he could up the steps. He moved quickly in his determination, and was already a good way up when the first roar reached his ears.
An axe buried itself in the wall just in front of his face, leaving the wizard amazed at the power contained in the beasts' arms. He decided to dwell more on his foes once they could not reach him anymore and carried on, his pace quickening now that he knew his enemies to be close.
He was quite far up now and he could hear the snarling of the minotaurs behind him, when something came to mind that made him halt swiftly. The gap he had crossed earlier stretched out before him, a roar from behind spurred him to action. The wizard leapt forward, managing to transform in mid-air.
Morphius managed to flap his way near the other side of the gap before he lost his eagle-shape. His hands gripped onto the edge and he pulled himself up with a great deal of effort. He was preparing to let out a relieved breath, when the axe flying over him reminded the wizard that he was not yet safe from harm.
He dashed on. The open stair became a closed tunnel, and after some time, he could see the enormous gate up ahead. The roars behind him had become increasingly less audible since he had crossed the gap, and as he squeezed through the gap he opened earlier and began to close the gates behind himself, he heard one last furious howl before the gate-doors shut all sound from the other side out.
Leaning his back against the gates, Morphius slowly slid to the floor and collapsed in a heap of boneless mass. "Finally" he rasped to himself, as if to confirm that it was real. "Finally, I can sleep well again." The wizard's eyes slid shut, and he soared away from the realm of the waking.
He slowly opened his eyes, immediately catching sight of a bull's head looming over him. He cried out and abruptly sat up, causing his head to smash into the solid brass the head consisted of.
Morphius fell down again, lividly cursing the handles above him and those who had made them in a time now distant and forgotten. "Gods above" he groaned, sitting up and trying to rub the tiredness from his eyes. "I'm not going to able to even look at a bull again for the next ten years, at least."
The wizard slowly rose and stretched, swallowing a great yawn and instead groaning as his joints popped back into place. He fetched his blade and staff, which had been dropped when he collapsed, and started his trek towards the surface.
Luckily, the gateway out of the nightmarish tunnels was not far off and before long, he felt the wind caress his face once again and basked in the light of the slowly setting sun. "Arrysh'nûroal, thaeron" he whispered in both greeting and farewell for the first time in months, just as it disappeared over the horizon and left the lands cloaked in darkness once again.
The area was devoid of life as far as he could tell. A quick sweep of his surroundings made it quite clear that the centaurs were nowhere near the cave-mouth. "Well. No surprise there, really. They probably think I'm dead and eaten" he thought aloud. "I should probably look for them, or maybe…" he was suddenly struck with an idea. "Or maybe, I should take wing and get out of here while I still can."
He sat down and mulled over his options for some time. When he stood up again, the moon had risen above the trees. He had made up his mind, shortly after peeking into his satchel while looking for some more herbs for his pipe. "I can't leave. If I did, then all of this would be for naught" he thought to himself as he looked over the ten heads resting in his satchel.
Morphius assumed wolf-form and began to sniff around a bit, eventually finding the herd's scent. Grinning wolfishly, he took off after their smell into the woods. He ran swiftly, stopping every now and then to smell along the ground before changing his direction if necessary.
The chase lasted through the night and the next day, only interrupted by small detours for food and short periods of rest. On the third night after his return the surface, the tracks were fresh enough to let the wizard know that he was close enough. He returned to human form and let his mind search the area, finding the centaurs not far to the northwest.
He grinned as he found a mental signature that he recognized particularly. He slipped into some bushes nearby and crept closer. Amazingly enough, he managed to get close enough to the grouchy centaur to see his eyes clearly, without being spotted.
Goléar seemed content, almost serene. "Not surprised" Morphius thought. "Smug bastard's probably sorry that he couldn't take a dump on my corpse." He scowled at the male, but chose to remain hidden when another centaur came up beside his herd-mate.
"I really wish you would wipe that satisfied smirk off your face, Goléar" the newcomer spoke. "It has been months since the two-legged one was declared vanquished by the second test, I would say the novelty has worn off by now." The first centaur turned his head to the other one. "Come now, Heldiór, the demise of those with two legs should be celebrated by all of our kind. In fact, if Priestess Sheíra had not strictly forbidden me to do so, I would be celebrating! I'd kill the greatest boar in the forest, get myself some barrels of ale and even write a song in honor of the minotaurs that killed the filthy vermin! Now that would've been something" he stated with a dreamy sigh.
The one called Heldiór frowned. "We are not that wicked, Goléar" he said. "Rejoicing in the death of someone is a most despicable act." The larger centaur turned completely to the smaller one with a snarl. "I am not rejoicing in the death of someone, Heldiór. I am rejoicing in the demise of something. The two-legged are beasts, monsters worthy of neither pity nor mercy!"
"I know that the two-legged were responsible for the deaths of your mate and foals, but they are not all alike" Heldiór growled, standing his ground with an unfaltering face against the, now fuming, Goléar. "If it were not for the them, we would never have come to these woods in the first place."
The blow from the larger male sent the other centaur sprawling to the ground. "How dare you" Goléar's voice was scarcely above a whisper, but the fury contained within was almost tangible. "How dare you!" he repeated, only he was bellowing now. "How dare you defend that scum after what they did to us? To me! You treacherous filthy horse!"
Just as Goléar reared up to smash his hooves down upon his slighter kinsman, something heavy slammed into his head and sent him to the ground. His head whipped up to see what had hit him, and his heart almost stopped. The severed head of a minotaur laid at the ground just in front of him, and the butt of a staff, the lower part of a blue robe and a pair of boots soon followed. "I think you shall find, my equine friend" a calm, though slightly seething voice began. "That I'm not quite dead yet."
Surprise, fury, unwanted awe and even slight fear was in the centaur's gaze as it fastened itself on the wizard above. "And on a slightly unrelated note" he began. "All three of us should be thankful for the fact, that this head…" he picked the head in question up and put it back into his satchel, before continuing, "…is thicker than this head" he finished, tapping the butt of his staff against Goléar's skull for emphasis.
The larger centaur was still dumbstruck as Morphius started citing his reasons for saying that all of them should be thankful, while simultaneously striding over to Heldiór and extending his hand to help him up.
"You are thankful that I intervened, or Mr. Psycho McPsycho-pants here" he gestured back at, the now stuttering, Goléar. "Would most likely have trampled you to death." The smaller male accepted the wizard's hand and bowed his head in thanks for his assistance. Morphius rounded on the other centaur. "You" he started. "Are also thankful that I intervened, because, for some reason I don't think the rest of your herd would take this matter very lightly." Goléar had still neither said a word, nor risen from the ground. "And at last, I am thankful for the fact that a minotaur-skull is thicker than a centaur-skull. If it had cracked, you would probably have forced me back underground to get a new one, in which case, I think that I'd rather let you lot kill me."
The shock had not abated from the larger centaur's face, and Morphius didn't bother to hide his amused chuckle. He turned back to Heldiór, who was carefully eyeing his herd-mate. "Now then" he began. "If I have understood the situation correctly, you two were on guard-duty, yes?" The centaur nodded, only slightly less flabbergasted than his kinsman. "Very well, if you would point me in the direction of the rest of your herd, that would be most appreciated."
Heldiór raised his arm and pointed to the north. Morphius bowed his head and strode off in that direction. He did not have to go far. A clearing before him was filled with sleeping centaurs, and the wizard calmly ventured among them until he stood before the priestess.
Sheíra, like most of her herd, was fast asleep, and Morphius let his eyes drift downwards again, finding the slight rise and fall of her chest as she slept quite mesmerizing. He bent over and waved his hand in front of her face, she didn't even stir, so he decided to wait. He sat down, and pulled a large tome from his satchel, lighting his pipe along the way. The moon shone brightly enough for him to read, though his enhanced senses helped.
The book he had started on was quite long and by the time he was done, the sun was peeking over the treetops. During the night, he had retrieved the minotaur-heads from his satchel as well, and placed them around so that they would be the first thing the priestess would see when she woke up.
When her eyes started to blink themselves open, a smirk stretched across his face. That smirk only widened when she caught eye of the heads and fell backwards with a surprised shriek. Every centaur in the clearing sprang to their hooves and drew blades, spears and bows and arrows and training them on the wizard, who had broken into peals of laughter at the female's reaction.
His laughter ceased at once when a pair of hooves slammed into his back and sent him to the ground, with the aforementioned hooves on his back and a spearhead in the back of his skull. Two other centaurs grabbed their priestess by her arms and hauled her, quite forcibly, to a standing position before she could protest.
Sheíra brushed the two centaurs off and turned a rather furious, and slightly embarrassed, gaze to the perpetrator. The fury quickly became shock, however, as she saw just who it was, that was trapped under the hooves of her kinsman. "Gods' blood…" she whispered and let her gaze drift to the ten heads surrounding her, stopping and lingering on the one of the minotaur-chieftain, before turning back to the wizard.
"Goléar!" she snapped. "Get off of him!" The male growled, but obeyed. Morphius stood to his feet and bowed respectfully for the priestess, shooting a grin at Goléar once he was standing straight again. The shock that had clouded the centaur's eyes the evening before, had given way to murderous rage. However, the unnerving thing was that he seemed strangely pleased, almost as though he was glad that the wizard had returned for some reason.
Sheíra drew a deep breath. "Wizard…" she began. "Despite all evidence to the contrary, you have returned to us alive, and with your task completed." She bowed her upper body in respect and raised her voice so all could hear. "The second test has been passed! The wizard has conquered a nearly impossible challenge, in face of his fear, and for this: the gods are pleased! The third, and final, test shall commence once the wizard deems that he is prepared!"
Cheers erupted from all around the clearing, and there were noticeably more of them now than at the end of the first test, though one sound caught his attention particularly. Morphius turned to see Goléar clapping slowly, with a nasty grin spreading over his face. "Congratulations, two-legs" he said and chuckled. "And good luck to you in the final test." Then he trotted off, apparently no longer interested in racing the wizard.
Sheíra laid a hand upon his shoulder. "Come, the next test will take place nearby. Will you walk with me?" Morphius smiled and nodded, and the two began to walk, chatting about this and that.
"I must say, that I am surprised wizard" Sheíra confessed after a while. Morphius raised an eyebrow in question. "How so?" he inquired. "Most of those who are given the tests are quick to accuse us of being savage barbarians. You have not said anything of the sort. And that surprises me somewhat, no offense meant, of course" she explained, looking down at him while they walked. "None taken, priestess. I am quite aware that many of us two-legged folk are quick to denounce everything that is different as savagery. Humans, in particular, are like that, even though their so-called "civilizations" are capable of acts of cruelty and barbarism almost too horrible to be believed." Morphius sighed, recalling the incineration-chambers awaiting the criminals of Cantha. "Nevertheless, it is not my place to tell you how to practice your faith, and personally, I believe that all living things should be treated with respect, no matter their race or religious preferences. To a certain extent."
The priestess raised an eyebrow of her own. "Really? To what extent would that be, then?" The wizard shrugged. "Worship of that which is not divine. Worshipping something that is either mortal or never having been alive in the first place, is what I would consider an insult towards the gods, the closest thing one could get to true heresy, in my opinion. However, I can tolerate demon-worship, if it is simply a way of indirectly praising the demon-god that controls it. But, as I said, it is not my place to judge others, I'll leave that to the gods themselves."
"I see" the centaur nodded. "Are you a religious man, my friend?" He laughed and shook his head in response. "I would not consider myself one, no" he replied. "I value my freedom far too much to grovel before an altar and pray, in fact, I make it my personal code to never kneel. Neither to mortal nor god." Sheíra tilted her head to the side. "Will that not anger the gods? Is it not disrespectful?"
"Well see, I believe, that one needn't kneel before someone to respect them. I am well aware of the gods' existence, and I have the utmost respect and reverence for them, but they do not decide what I shall do. And I am not governed by their laws. Thus, I kneel before no one, though I can bow to show thanks or respect to those who have earned it."
"I understand" the priestess said softly. "I have never thought of it in such a way before. You are quite extraordinary, wizard. If you survive the third test, would you do me the honor of staying a while? I would be most grateful." Morphius smiled, not showing the unease he was feeling at the part about "if you survive". "You flatter me, priestess. But yes, it would be my pleasure to remain with you and your herd for a time, should I survive, that is."
She smiled at him. "You have passed the two first tests admirably, if a little on the slow side for the second one. I have the utmost confidence in you, my friend."
The two walked in silence for a time, until Morphius spoke again, "Can I ask you a question?" Sheíra nodded. "What is the deal with your herd-mate, Goléar? He acts rather asocial, I must say."
The priestess closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, her smile disappearing. "We did not always live in these forests" she began. "Some summers ago, we dwelled in another forest, where our mothers, and their mothers before them had dwelled for centuries. We co-existed with the creatures of that forest, all was harmonious, some of us even said that it would not last." Her eyes opened again, gleaming mournfully. "They were all too right. One day, a few of our scouts found an animal, dead, clearly not killed for food, and clearly not killed by claw or fang. It had been shot with an arrow, and then left to rot. Also, it was a hare, so it was not killed in self-defense either" The wizard's expression darkened. "Humans, then?" he muttered in question. Sheíra nodded before carrying on. "More of these discoveries were made every week, and then, someone began to cut down the trees. This time, we quickly found out who was behind. A rather large community of humans had taken residence nearby, fleeing from an unstoppable warlord or some such, and we approached them in peaceful errand, at first. They did not listen to our warnings about upsetting the balance of nature. Instead, they threatened us and said that they would drive us out of their forest, if the need arose. By the time we understood that reason and sensible communication was a waste of time, they had already murdered a score of our own. That was when we killed one of theirs to show that we would not tolerate such disrespect. Then our real problems began. Though they had killed numerous centaurs with no remorse, when one of their own was taken, they swiftly denounced us as blood-hungering monsters, savage beasts who lived only to destroy mankind." The centaur paused and wiped a tear from her eye, Morphius remained silent. "Their numbers were greater than we thought" Sheíra continued. "Or maybe they gathered help from other communities nearby, we do not know. A number akin to that of an army, marched into our home. Killing whatever they could and starting fires to drive us out. Before long, they had reached our true home. The great and sacred oak, in the heart of the woods. They slaughtered those who tended to and protected it, among them Goléar's mate and three foals, and set the tree alight. It was then that we realized, that we could no longer remain in our ancestral homeland. We gathered around us those who had survived, and fled, following the stars and hoping for a sign. Eventually, we came upon these woods, and discovered the sacred stone in the heart of the forest. When we first laid eyes upon the stone, a beam of light suddenly rose from it and ascended into the heavens. Naturally, such a thing could only have been the will of the gods. Therefore, we settled here, and we have lived here undisturbed ever since. Most of us have done away with our grief, accepted what has happened and left our old life behind, though many refuse to let go, and now hate all two-legged with a searing intensity, especially Goléar."
Silence reigned over the two for some time after the priestess finished. "A most mournful tale, my friend" Morphius spoke. "You have my deepest condolences for your lost brethren." The centaur shook her head. "You need not dwell on that, in fact, let us not talk about it right now, please?" The wizard nodded and changed the subject.
"Say, I thought you said the next test was nearby?" he piped up after a few minutes. "We have been walking and talking for quite some time now." Sheíra looked taken aback, not to say shocked, and gazed around before hastily bowing her head. "My deepest apologies" she said hurriedly. "I somehow forgot that you are two-legged, it is not far now, though. Just a bit longer."
"Oh, I do not mind at all" The wizard quickly said. "Time spent on meaningful conversation is time spent well, that's what my father has always told me." The priestess relaxed noticeably. "Your father must be a wise man, to give such advice." Morphius chuckled. "He is wise, indeed. Though, he is also a cantankerous old sleazebag , and a rather dominative figure. He and I have not spoken, or even looked, to each other for longer than I care to recall." The wizard sighed. "Nowadays, the only link between us is my half-sister, she finds me from time to time, though only the gods know how she does it."
"How sad, that you do not get along with your father" Sheíra mumbled. He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "It doesn't bother me all that much. I lived the first two decades of my life not knowing I even had a father, now is not very different from then. Besides, my father and I radically differ in our view of most things, so in the end, a falling-out would have been inevitable either way, let's leave it at that." The priestess nodded, and they went on in silence, eventually catching up with the rest of the centaur-herd.
"Be most welcome, my friend, to The Circle. This is where the final test will take place" Sheíra stated and gestured towards a wide clearing surrounded by tall rocks. Morphius was surprised. This test's arena seemed rather harmless in comparison to the other two. Even more surprising was the lack of commentary from a certain centaur, who was standing nearby with his arms crossed and a smug grin on his face.
"You may rest for a few days before the test, if you desire to do so" the priestess told him. He nodded. "I think a few days off would do me good. Thank you for your kindness." Sheíra smiled at him and excused herself.
Morphius decided to get himself something to eat. Goléar tagged along. "I suppose you're here to keep an eye on me, then?" the wizard spoke up after some time. "Among other reasons, yes" the centaur replied. Morphius raised an eyebrow and popped a berry into his mouth. "I must say" he said, his back turned still. "That your unusual display of civility has me wondering if I should be joyous, or terrified. Care to help me out with that one?"
"I, for one, think you should rejoice" Goléar shrugged. "Why, thank you" the wizard said slowly. "I am officially scared out of my wits." "What I mean, two-legs" the centaur corrected himself. "Is that you should rejoice in the last few days of your life. For the third test will surely be your doom." Morphius sighed in elation, strangely enough. "And the world makes sense again, at last. Thank you, for pointing that little detail out." Goléar smiled sweetly, and sickeningly. "You are most welcome" he drawled and bowed in a gesture of mocking.
Morphius spent the next few days doing nothing. He slept, he ate, he meditated and he read some, when he felt like it. When the day of the third test dawned, he felt more refreshed than he had done since he had left Anchorstone.
The wizard approached Sheíra with confidence. "I am ready" he stated simply. The priestess nodded and gave a signal to a nearby she-centaur. The female raised a horn to her lips and gave it a long blow, and before long, the clearing was swarming with the herd.
"The wizard has fought high above the ground, and deep beneath the earth. He has faced enemies that make the bravest of us tremble…" A snort sounded from the crowd. "…and he has stood fast in the face of death, and survived!" Sheíra announced. "Now, he shall face what most of us agree is the most difficult test of them all!" Morphius was struck with a sudden chill. The tunnels had become his personal vision of perdition, "What could be more difficult?"
"The wizard must demonstrate his strength and wit once more, in an unarmed battle to the death with the herd's mightiest warrior!" The priestess turned to the, now wide-eyed, wizard. "This battle, as I said, must be fought without weapons. That includes any and all forms magic." Morphius's face turned ashen gray.
Suddenly, the wizard put two and two together and turned to Goléar, who had removed his weapons and stood cracking his knuckles. "You… are the herd's mightiest warrior, aren't you?" he groaned, understanding why the centaur had been looking so uncharacteristically jolly the last few days. He had been looking forward to beating him to death. Goléar nodded, his smile curling into a nasty grin.
"Well isn't this just peachy" Morphius thought glumly as he stood near the middle of The Circle, with Goléar facing him. The centaur was stamping his hooves into the ground, clenching and unclenching his fists, clearly aching to send his adversary's face flying out the back of his head.
Sheíra calmly stepped into The Circle's center and gazed upon the two combatants, as if searching them for anything that was amiss or unwanted. The priestess raised her ceremonial staff and held it above her head. "The third test shall now commence! May the gods be with you both! May they guide one of you to victory, and one of you to The Eternal Beyond! Let the battle begin!"
The female slammed her staff back into the ground and hastily retreated. While she had been announcing their battle to the gods and everyone else who had cared enough to listen, the wizard had been thinking his options through. "He is bigger than me" he thought. "Bigger, stronger, and faster, than me. Luckily, I believe that I am in possession of the higher intelligence." Just as he finished weighing his strengths against those of his opponent, said opponent's fist slammed into his face and sent him to the ground.
"Then again" he murmured. "He seems to be able to make a good decision without pausing to think things through first." He rolled out of the way as his foe reared up and slammed his hooves into the ground.
Goléar threw his head back and laughed heartily while massaging his knuckles. "I cannot even begin to describe how good that felt!" he mustered, still laughing. Morphius did not respond, he was all too busy trying to figure out a way to keep himself alive and well.
"I really need to stop standing still during my evaluations" Morphius groaned and leapt to the side just in time, as Goléar thundered past him, made a long turn, and came at him again. "He relies on speed" the wizard thought to himself. "Speedy entrance, quick, but strong, blows and speedy retreats. I have to slow him down, somehow."
He jumped to the side again as the centaur swung his fist after him, the battle very reminiscent of Estalian bullfighting. The leer plastered onto his opponent's features had him making up his mind. Morphius stood his ground, and just before the smug, yet enraged, centaur slammed into him, he crouched, leapt forward and collided with Goléar's front-legs
Roaring, the centaur flew over his prey and slammed into the ground with his face first. The herd surrounding The Circle remained strictly neutral. In the blink of an eye, Morphius was upon the fallen centaur, strangely satisfied that he hadn't been the one flying through the air for once, and grabbed the side of his head, raising it and slamming it down into the ground again.
He repeated this action four or five times, with his other hand crashing into the centaur's face a few times for good measure, until Goléar's hand was suddenly clamping around the wizard's throat. Goléar squeezed his hand for a few seconds, before making a mighty throw and sending the wizard into one of the rocks surrounding their battlefield.
Morphius peeled himself off of the standing-stone and quenched his urge to mentally tear it from the earth and club his adversary to death with it. Said adversary had managed to roll over and was clambering onto his hooves again, his face twisted in rage and devoid of its former smugness.
Roaring madly, the centaur charged, raising his fist and preparing to shatter bone. Morphius's eyes widened at the pure murder in his foe's gaze before rolling out of the way just as Goléar smashed into the rock and left a long crack in it. Without even realizing that he was deathly afraid of his towering opponent, the wizard twined his fists together and swung them with as much force as he could muster into the centaur's chest.
Goléar stumbled back and coughed wildly, holding his chest before Morphius came slamming into his side and sent him to the ground once again. This time, the centaur did not stay to await the wizard's wrath and rolled away from him. He quickly rose and turned away from his swiftly-approaching foe.
Morphius only needed a split second to understand why Goléar had turned his back on him. Unfortunately, it was a split second too late. The hooves on the centaur's hind-legs collided with the wizard's chest and propelled him backwards again.
Goléar threw his head back as he turned to the wizard and let out a, premature, cry of victory, while rearing up on his hind legs. Morphius recovered quickly, and charged headfirst at his rearing opponent. The wizard's skull slammed into the centaur's exposed stomach, knocking the breath out of him and sending him onto his back.
Morphius swiftly straddled Goléar's chest and let his fists rain upon the centaur. A fist crashed into his midsection. He bit back a cry, instead letting out a pained grunt, and felt a pair of hands grab him by his upper arms, before being flung over his foe's head and slamming to the earth somewhere near the middle of The Circle.
Repressing the instinctual message of, "Teleport to safety!", Morphius rolled out of the way again, though this time; it was ever so slightly curved, so that he managed to avoid the hooves of his enemy, yet still remain underneath him.
Just as the wizard had predicted, Goléar made a humongous leap through the air and landed over him, his rolling successfully preventing the centaur's hooves from crushing his legs. Just as his adversary's legs buckled slightly under his landing, Morphius cursed his newest plot for survival, and sent his fist slamming into Goléar's crotch.
The centaurs surrounding the two combatants still remained neutral, though Morphius could sense a wave of revulsion, outrage, surprise and even mirth among the spectators. "This is so going to come back and bite me in the ass later" he groaned. "Later" arrive a moment afterwards, when the black-furred male collapsed upon him, almost squashing him.
"You wretched, dishonorable, cowardly, sniveling, filth!" Goléar rasped. "You shall suffer grievously for this act!" "It's called survival at most costs" Morphius groaned as he managed to pull himself out from underneath the centaur. "And nobody specified that there were any rules of engagement, other than the part about no weapons or magic." "It is called honor, two-legs. Not that I had expected as much from your kind" Goléar retorted with a snarl as he shakily hauled himself to a standing position.
The wizard sighed. "You're right, master centaur" he said. "That was unfair and cowardly of me." He turned to his foe. "Though, I am sure you will forgive and forget if I offer my most profound apologies, yes?" A nearly bone-shattering blow to the face was the only answer he received. "I guess not" the wizard muttered with his face halfway buried in the ground. A single hoof planted itself on the back of his head, and started pressing him down.
Morphius swung out with his legs and managed to push the centaur off, quickly rising to his feet and turning to face his foe. "Note to self" the wizard told himself. "Try to avoid civil conversation with whoever is trying to kill me at the moment." "Your days are numbered, two-legs!" Goléar snarled. "I shall tear the flesh from your body, drink your blood, crack your bones open, and make a fine necklace out of your teeth!" "Thank you for revealing your plans for the future" Morphius dryly replied. "If you are quite done, I'd very much like to get this over with." "Very well, two-legs, prepare to meet the gods, murderous scum! Today, I avenge the family your kind has taken from me!" With only his vow as a warning, the centaur charged forward again.
"Now that you are done, hopefully" Morphius gracefully dodged his adversary. "I would like to say a few things myself." Goléar growled fiercely as his two-legged foe practically danced away from his strikes. "And I think you possess the tender qualities of a farm animal!" The centaur halted in his track and turned slowly, surprise and disbelief etched onto his face.
The wizard took the chance and began to count on his fingers. "You prance around as if you own everything you see, like a rooster, you are stubborn like a donkey, you move with the grace of a pregnant cow." Goléar's expression gradually went from surprised to fuming, and Morphius kept going. "You have the temperament of a bull, the mindset of a cranky goat, you smell like a pig, and not to mention…"
Goléar howled in a fit of rage and stormed at the wizard with both his arms stretched out at him, making for his throat. "Gotcha'" Morphius smirked. Due to his height, the centaur had to tilt his arms downwards ever so slightly. As he got close, the wizard managed to grab his arms and catapult himself over the centaur's head and onto his back.
Morphius managed to turn and lock his arms around Goléar's neck. "And not to mention…" he whispered into his adversary's ear. "…you look, like a horse." The desired effect was achieved. Like a rabid horse, the centaur roared and began to buck and snap in an attempt to remove the wizard from his back.
If Goléar had remained more calm, he would have managed to pull Morphius off with ease. In his current state, however, he was as good as doomed. The flaw in the wizard's strategy became apparent quickly, however. If he let go of his foe for even a second, he would be flung off. "Time to play out my final card" Morphius thought.
"You know" he whispered in the maddened centaur's ear. "I had a chat with Sheíra about a week before our battle." Goléar was already cooling down, but that revelation had him snarling again. "She told me" the wizard continued. "That she had the utmost confidence in me. This means, she is expecting you to lose." Again, the desired effect was achieved.
The centaur halted completely and snapped his head towards his priestess. Immediately, Morphius let his arms loose from their position around his adversary's neck and clutched one hand over his chin, and placed one on the back of his head, before making a turning motion with them both.
Goléar's lifeless eyes met the wizard's own, as his head was turned completely around. The centaur's body stumbled about a bit, and crashed to the ground just as Morphius leapt off its back. "Gods rest your soul, warrior" he thought silently as the corpse hit the ground, before turning to the herd.
He walked up to the edge of The Circle, passed the stones outlining it and stopped before the priestess, bowing his head in respect. "It is done" he stated and moved past the centaurs.
Sheíra sighed and kept her eyes on the wizard's retreating form for a while before turning back to her herd. "The wizard has passed the third and final test! And as such, he has proved himself a noble, wise, enduring and resourceful warrior! The gods are pleased, and have forgiven the wizard's crime!" With those words spoken, she turned and trotted after Morphius, the herd dispersing behind her.
She quickly caught up with him and slowed down, simply walking alongside him until he was ready to talk. Morphius drew a deep breath after a while and spoke. "I assume your gods are pleased now, yes? I'd really hate to have to kill anyone else for the sake of repentance." Sheíra nodded. "The tests have been passed, and as such, you may be inducted as an honorary member of the herd, if you so please." The wizard smiled. "It would be an honor, but before I accept, I must know if this places any restrictions upon me, if so then I am afraid I must decline." "You shall not be restrained in any fashion" the centaur promised. "If you choose to accept, you shall always be free to wander these woods as you please and you may always seek refuge with us if you should need it."
Morphius stopped and bowed his head again. "With as much humbleness as I can muster, I gladly accept your offer, Priestess Sheíra" he said grinning slightly. The priestess looked as though she was about to reply, before halting. She remained silent for some time before speaking again. "It occurs to me now, dearest friend, that I do not know your name."
The wizard was visibly taken aback. "You are ever so right" he muttered. "I can only assume that my manners have taken a turn for the nonexistent in face of mortal danger. I am called Morphius, oftentimes Morphius the Eternal." Sheíra bowed back at him. "Then, Morphius the Eternal, by the right given to me by the gods, I hereby induct you into the herd and welcome you as I would welcome my own kin." Morphius accepted his herd-mate's outstretched hand, and was pleasantly surprised when she pulled him into a sisterly hug, burying his head in her ample bosom. A rather lecherous grin split open the wizard's face as he returned the embrace. "This" he thought. "Is going to be interesting."
And interesting it became. Though initially met with a cold shoulder from many of his herd-mates, over the course of a few months he proved himself to be a valuable asset, as well as a much-sought-after partner for intelligent and sensible conversation. Moreover, he learned much about herbs, star-reading, hunting and healing magic taught by his "sister" Sheíra, who was quite skillful in the field.
Three summers after joining the herd, Morphius felt the inevitable call of his nomadic tendencies and went to find Sheíra to announce his departure. He found her sitting down, watching six of the herd's foals playing near a cluster of rocks. "Sheíra, may I speak to you for a moment?" he asked. He had been told quite clearly early in his membership, that he was not to address the priestess by her title, but use her name as he felt like. "Of course Morphius, I just have to send these little ones off to their mothers" she answered. The wizard nodded and stepped back, waiting patiently for his "sister" to finish her task. Soon enough, the foals went running through the trees, and Sheíra returned to his side.
"Now the, is there some way I can assist you, brother?" she asked. Morphius did not answer right away; he was trying to find the right words. "I…I…I cannot stay here any longer" he said after some time, his voice quiet and his eyes on the ground. "What…are you saying?" the priestess asked, her voice equally low of volume.
Morphius gritted his teeth together and breathed deeply through his nose, before turning his eyes up and looking directly at the centaur. "The time has come for me to move on, and leave this place behind" he stated, struggling to keep his voice from breaking. The pair fell silent once again, until Sheíra sighed. "I knew this was bound to happen, sooner or later" she whispered. "Though later would have been preferable." The two chuckled slightly and started walking in a random direction, as they often had done during the wizard's stay.
They walked in silence for some time, simply cherishing what time they had. "You must understand that I have no profound need to leave" the wizard began. "I am simply not comfortable staying in one place at a time for long, it makes me feel restricted." Sheíra held up her hand to silence her "brother" before speaking up herself. "Morphius, you needn't explain your reasons to depart to me, or anyone else. It is your decision and yours alone, and as such I shall honor it." He let out a breath he didn't realize he had been holding. "Thank you, sister" he said quietly. "I shall of course remain long enough to bid the rest of the herd farewell." At this statement, the priestess smiled playfully. "Well of course" she said matter-of-factly. "I would not have let you leave without saying goodbye to your family."
After exchanging a few more words, the wizard and the priestess wandered off to find their herd. After an hour or so, they managed to locate one of the herdcallers, centaurs carrying great horns that they blew whenever the herd needed to be gathered. The three of them, with Morphius assuming wolf form, hastily galloped to the edge of the grand forest, blowing The Calling Horn at regular intervals along the way.
Several days had passed by the time the herd in its entirety reached the edge of its woodland home. Once every centaur in the family was present, Sheíra spoke up. "Friends" she began. "Brethren, dearly beloved ones. It is with great sorrow that I announce the departure of one of our own." The assembled centaurs were not noticeably shaken, as it was far from unheard of for a herd-mate to take a temporary leave from his or her family, though it was never a joyous event in any case.
"Our brother Morphius has decided, that it is time for him to return to his own path, one that leads him away from us." This time, the herd did say something. some mumbled something along the lines of, "I knew this day would come." Others were already moving closer to wish their brother a safe and successful journey. A few were actually trying to make him reconsider, though the wizard was inconvincible. And though there were traces of relief and the echoing thought of, "Good riddance, two-legs" among some of his "brethren", Morphius made sure to bid each and every one farewell before returning to Sheíra's side.
The priestess and the wizard shook hands and embraced each other. "Goodbye, Morphius the Eternal, I will miss you" she whispered. "Goodbye to you as well, Priestess Sheíra, I shall treasure the memories of my time here, and I promise to come and visit some day." "You are always welcome here, my brother." The two of them let go of each other and Morphius bowed his head before turning and walking off. He stopped a small distance away and turned back to gaze upon his herd one last time. "Just for the record!" he called. "You should consider putting up some sort of warning about touching the sacred stone!" Sheíra smiled back at him. "I'll take it into consideration!" she replied. Bouts of laughter, mixed with contemptuous snorts, sounded from the herd. As the wizard disappeared over the horizon, so too did the herd disappear among the trees. Sheíra stood and gazed after her friend for a while, before turning and following the rest.
Harboring an unusual desire to cover ground quickly, Morphius changed to eagle form and took wing. He wasn't quite sure why he felt compelled to make haste, but he did so anyway. "Perhaps" he reasoned to no one in particular as he raced the winds. "Perhaps I want to really put the herd behind me, and quell any want to just give up and stay with them." He nodded to himself and accepted that explanation.
He flew a swiftly as he could, and by the third rising sun since parting ways with the centaurs, he had covered ground enough for at least two weeks on foot. Even so, he kept on flying. Only landing every once in a while to make sure that he was heading in the right direction, something he was currently in the process of doing. "I could've saved so much time if I had just been foreseeing enough to learn this map by heart" he grumbled as he sat down.
It would have taken him, at least, two or three months to reach his destination if he had been walking. As it was now, he had spent a week on the wing and was fairly close already. The area he was in was rocky, barren and quite unwelcoming. There was little vegetation, and what remained were either leafless trees or thorn-bushes dotting the desolate and craggy cliffs Morphius was traversing. Pointy rocks were plentiful and the wizard often had to turn back and find more traversable pathways, deciding to remain in human form to save his energy.
A few days after entering the inhospitable area, Morphius encountered his first non-environmental obstacle. He had been trudging alongside a steep wall of solid stone, when he had felt something. He had not scanned his surroundings for any signs of life since he had arrived, but he could feel a pair of eyes trained on him. A feral growl from above had him whipping his head upwards. A man-sized figure launched itself from a shelf above him. The sparse light of the setting sun concealed its features, but one could clearly make out a large morning star raised above its head. With accuracy that surprised even him, Morphius flung his blade upwards and dove out of the way. A doglike yelp was cut short as the aggressor slammed into the ground. The wizard ignited his staff to get a better look as he bent over and pulled his sword out of the creature's ribcage.
As previously noted, the now-corpse was man-sized, and essentially man-shaped. It sported a pair of digitigrade legs with clawed paws in place of feet. Its arms were relatively human, though the hands sported claws and like the rest of the body, they were covered in a reddish-brown pelt of fur, with dark spots covering it. A tail was protruding from the base of its spine, and the head was that of a large hyena with dull green eyes. Something he found out as he lifted its face from the ground.
"Gnolls" he muttered. "Why gnolls?" Morphius retrieved his blade, and wiped the blood off on the hyena-man's fur, before moving along. Curiously, there seemed to be no other gnolls in the immediate area. "A straggler maybe?" the wizard theorized. "Or perhaps a young warrior that went off on his own to prove something?"
He neither saw heard, nor felt any other gnolls for the rest of the evening, but he made sure to ward the area around himself before going to sleep. If anything came close to his enchantments, he would know its exact size and level of sentience.
He had not slept easily, and the rising sun above the desolate landscape offered little comfort to his mind. "Gnolls are notorious pack-animals" he thought to himself while scaling a diagonal wall of stone. "Gods only know how many there are of them on this rock." He crawled over the top of the wall, when distant howls made themselves known to his ears. After standing still for a bit with his hand on the hilt of his sword, Morphius breathed out and relaxed. "At least they're neither moving closer nor coming from the spot where I killed that first one." He smacked himself soundly on the forehead. "You should have gotten rid of the body, smartass."
Despite being far from an expert on the physique of the gnoll species, he, as anyone else would've done, made the assumption that their sense of smell was strong enough to track him by scent alone. With that in mind, the wizard sped up, as it seemed ideal to put as much distance behind him as he could before he was discovered.
Three days passed without trouble, though he had heard sounds and seen sights that more than confirmed the presence of the hyena-men. Howling sounded from time to time, often answered from afar, and signs such as skulls impaled on spikes or hanging in a rope of sorts from cliffs and crags were unmistakable. Every now and then, Morphius stumbled upon slain gnolls, though he did not think much of it as it was common knowledge that gnolls would start violent, and often fatal, squabbles over the most trivial of things. He had just passed three such casualties of internal strife, when he heard something. Loud sniffing, from around a corner, followed by ferocious snarling. A cacophony of barks and growls erupted from the gnolls and they came sprinting around the corner.
The first one was met by a bolt of lightning that sent him flying into a nearby rock. Four others shared the same fate, before one of the more ingenious ones came from above, having chosen to climb the rocks separating the prey from its predators, and slammed into his shoulders. A small pillar of stone surged out of the mountain and smashed the gnoll off the wizard, who quickly got to his feet and parried a swinging scimitar and returning the blow. The beast fell with a gaping gash in the chest.
Morphius quickly sent the orb of his staff into flames before whacking another hyena-man off its feet with it, and raising a wall of fire underneath four more. Another swing of his blade lopped off the head of a nearby foe, and the wizard turned to find that there was only one left. The remaining gnoll tossed its head back and let out a howl, a howl that was cut short as Morphius jammed his sword in the creature's throat.
Several answering howl echoed from various sides. The wizard swiftly pulled out a vial filled with a lavender-hued dust-like substance and threw it to the ground. The glass vial shattered upon impact, and the substance spread over the area. That done, Morphius turned tail and fled, praying that the powder would mask his scent as it should.
He only stopped several hours later, being quite sure that the powder had done its job right. Morphius fell back against a rock and slid down to a sitting position, profoundly thanking the centaurs who had taught him to make the powder. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he placed the wards and slept.
He awoke even before the sun rose, roused from sleep by a low growling. The wizard was on his feet in a heartbeat, pulling his blade out of his belt and conjuring forth a fireball in his palm in the process. He then noticed that his wards had not warned him about anything. The orb of flame hovering above his open hand snuffed itself out, and Morphius placed his sword back into its place. He pondered for a while, knowing with great certainty that he had not dreamt what he had heard.
After a while, the growl came again. Morphius smacked himself on the head. "I don't believe this" he groaned as he sank back into a sit. "My own stomach manages to scare me shitless. Great going Morph', absolutely fan-tastic."
After grieving his recently re-deceased pride for a few minutes, he decided that heeding the call of his tummy would be a wise course of action. Getting up and dusting himself off a bit, the wizard scanned the area, finding a few life-forms not far from his resting place. He retracted the wards and snuck closer.
It had been a meal as meager as the surrounding wastelands. A pair of relatively large lizards and their cluster of eggs. It tasted horrible, but it shut his stomach up. He sighed and stood, then changed his mind and sat down again. The recent chase had given him a reason to worry. He had enough knowledge about the social structure of gnolls to know, that a tribe consisted of around thirteen to twenty-six individuals. A quick halt in his mad dash the night before, to scan the area in order to find a safe path, had revealed the presence of over seventy of them. Moreover, he could not feel a single one anywhere nearby.
Suddenly valuing peace of mind over his existence, Morphius lit up his pipe and sat on the rock thinking for a while. "Let's go over what we know, shall we?" he asked to himself. "Fact; the number of gnolls amassed here accounts for at least three tribes together, with a possibility of there being far more elsewhere." He nodded, that seemed about right. "Fact; they are prowling within a set area that they do not move anywhere beyond." Another nod. "And fact; they react with extreme, and coordinated, hostility against outsiders. Extra fact; they fight until the last gnoll falls. Unusual…" He stuck his pipe back between his lips, pondering.
"I should not get involved" Morphius muttered to himself. "I should just find what I came for and get off this rock." He sighed and stood, remaining standing this time. "May all the gods curse my curiosity" he groaned and headed back towards the gnoll-territory.
The wizard was more careful this time. He snuck around as stealthily as he could, and managed to keep out of sight for the most part. The few times he clashed with the gnolls, they were, thankfully, in small groups and were dispatched before they could sound any alarms.
As he moved towards the center of the rocky area, a giant stone-needle that could be seen from miles off, the patrols became larger and more frequent. Yet they seemed hurried, often passing the, often shabbily-hidden, wizard by without even raising their snouts.
Morphius had taken to moving at night, seeing as the hyena-men were more active then. He reasoned that it would do him little well to be asleep if they came upon him during the moonlit hours, and so, he was now slowly moving among the narrow cliffs, his enhanced eyesight being his only guide.
The wizard had no idea of how he had gotten there, but he found himself standing on the edge of a crater-like formation staring down into a large campsite, or settlement of sorts. Several large bonfires lit up the place, and two roads could clearly be seen, one in front leading into the crater, and one in the back leading out of the crater. As always, Morphius remained confident in a subtle approach and prepare to trek along the edge to avoid the crater entirely, when a sound reached his ears. The sound of cracking rock.
Again, he cursed the gods for their ridiculous design flaws, before plummeting down towards the camp. A certain luck was with him though, he managed to alternatively skid and run down the steep rock, landing on his feet on the edge of the crater's bottom. Immediately, he was beset on all sides by a horde of snarling gnolls. As the wave of furred doom set upon him, Morphius swiftly teleported behind it, reappearing somewhere near the middle of the crater. At once, he began to fling fire, ice and lightning at the aggressors.
The gnolls turned and made a dash for their prey, many of them were shot down during the charge, and those who reached the wizard first quickly became overly intimate with his blade. Spells flew, and gnolls fell like flies. Eventually, however, their numbers became the wizard's undoing.
Morphius had just pulled his blade from a hyena-man's guts, when an explosion of blunt pain made itself know to his back. His weapons fell from his hands and clattered to the ground, as he himself fell to his knees. A pair of paws came into his vision. He looked up, and caught sight of a large beast leering down at him, a large morning star was clutched in its hand and he guessed that it was the one who had struck him down.
The gnoll raised its weapon above its head and made to shatter the intruder's skull in a single blow. Before the wizard could make a move, the gnoll was pushed away by another one. This one's armor carried different colors, Morphius surmised that he was from another tribe. The newcomer hefted his axe and was about to cleave open the wizard, when the first one pushed him out of the way.
This pushing-match continued for some time, until the first one lashed out with his hand and left four deep and long cuts under the second gnoll's eye. Growling savagely, the axe-wielder flung his weapon at his rival. The hyena-man dropped to the ground, and the axe lodged itself in the chest of one of his underlings.
The gnoll yelped once, and fell over, dropping his spear along the way. All was silent for five seconds, and mayhem ensued. The gnolls of the different tribes laid into each other with fangs, claws and steel.
Morphius seized his blade and ran it through a nearby guard, before closing his hand around his staff and beginning to crawl away from the melee. Several of the combating gnolls fell over him, and he had to crawl over many of their casualties, but eventually he reached the edge of the camp and rose again. A quick look assured him that he was not followed, and then he dashed off, scaling the crater-wall, quick as a frightened spider. Once on top of the rocky crater, he kept running, not stopping that night, or the day after and the night after that, he ran for several days straight before collapsing in a narrow ravine.
He came to again a few days later. That fact that he was not dead brought a satisfied smile to his face. Though it drowned in the repeated protest of his stomach. He huffed, not at all feeling like hunting. He lay there for some time, the increasingly louder complaints of his human physique becoming rather annoying. "By the fiery breath of Akatosh" he growled. "If I didn't need my stomach to survive, I would have torn it out and tossed it to Azeroth long ago!"
At the thought of Azeroth, Morphius sat up abruptly and let his palm and face make swift contact three or four times. "Morphius" he told himself. "You are without a doubt, the clumsiest, most forgetful and air-headed wizard on the face of Nirn."
The wizard clambered out of the ravine and sat down. He closed his eyes and let his mind reach into The Immaterium, seizing magical essence and pulling it into the corporeal plane, shaping it and giving it physical form along the way. He reached out with his hand and let the essence of magic, the mana, manifest itself in his palm. And it manifested itself in the form of a large bread.
Morphius practically wolfed down his meal, praising himself for taking a few years to study in the halls of Dalaran. The bread was big enough to sate the wizard's hunger for the moment, and he was on his way again before the hour had passed.
Though still unsure of what he was looking for, exactly, Morphius kept on going, choosing his direction by going the opposite way of the oncoming gnolls. Three days had passed since the skirmish in the crater and he was nearing the giant needle rapidly, when he first caught eye of something out of the ordinary. Ducking into a cluster of rocks, the wizard climbed onto the tallest of them and squinted against the horizon.
A wall surrounded the needle-like stone. It was made of wood and covered in severed heads, shields, tribal banners and other indications of gnoll presence. A hedge of wooden stakes had been placed at the foot of the wall, and gnolls carrying bows and arrows were present on top of it.
There was something beyond the wall, obviously, but the distance between Morphius and his new discovery was too great. Therefore, he changed form and took wing as an eagle, praying silently that the archers weren't hungry enough to waste their arrows on a single bird.
He let out a breath of relief as he soared over the walls without problem, though the sight that met him had that breath hitching in his throat. The absolutely largest gnoll camp he had ever seen laid beneath him. Without even trying to count the numbers, he could easily estimate them to above three-hundred of the hyena-folk.
The wizard landed on top of a large hut halfway across the camp and looked around. Everywhere his eyes fell, there were gnolls. Many were simply keeping an eye on the other ones, others were busy with making shields, weapons, and armor and a few were even distributing meals to the others.
"Who knew gnolls could get so organized" Morphius thought as he saw a guard break up a nearby fight by skewering the closest gnoll on his spear. Order was quickly restored, and the gnolls went their own ways. The guard returned to his post, it was a large beast, covered in black armor, including a helmet that covered the entirety of his face, though its sockets glowed the dull green of the creature's eyes. Its fur was red and white-spotted, and upon its chest-plate, there was a symbol of a clawed hand clutching a skull. "That's an odd coloration" the wizard mused, and noticed that every guard in sight were colored and dressed alike with the same symbol on their chests.
"The leading tribe I presume" Morphius decided and turned his gaze elsewhere, one spot in particular catching his attention. There was an entryway into the spire of stone in the absolute center of the campsite. Above the entryway, there was a word carved into the rock. Though both the toll of time and the inherent destructive nature of the gnolls had scratched it almost completely out, the wizard could clearly see that the word was written in his language, despite not being able to make out the word itself.
"I should believe the crystal I'm looking for" he muttered while craning his neck backwards. "Is up there." He fixed his gaze back on the point of entry, noticing that there were at least ten guards standing vigil outside. Deciding that the front door was a bit too crowded for his tastes, Morphius took wing and flew upwards, hoping to spot another entrance from above.
After circling the needle-rock several times at varying altitudes, and deciding that blasting his way in would draw unwanted attention, Morphius flew back down and perched himself on a hut near the entrance again. "Front door it is, then" he mumbled. He did not feel like alerting every gnoll in the area to his presence, however. So he decided to stay put and think.
An idea popped into his head and he mentally grinned, before nestling down and falling asleep.
When Morphius woke up again, the sun had set, and darkness covered the campsite, broken only by the bonfires burning here and there. Except for them, there was no light, as there was no moon. The wizard grinned in his mind again. "Time to stir the pot" he chuckled.
Morphius turned towards a nearby bonfire. Three or four large groups of gnolls from different tribes sat around it, each tribe keeping a healthy distance from the other ones. The wizard's eye glowed briefly, and a small rock flew up from the ground and hit one of the gnolls. The beast yelped and shot an angry glare, accompanied by a low growl, at the group to his right.
The group largely ignored him, though one of them looked slightly taken aback for a few seconds, though it passed, as he narrowed his eyes, folded his ears back along his head and growled back. Morphius grinned to himself and sent another small rock flying.
This continued for some time, until both groups were openly snarling at each other. The two other groups were looking agitated and some of the gnolls were clutching their weapons tightly. The nearby guards shifted and put their hands on their weapons, though the groups seemed to not notice them.
Another rock made contact with a gnoll on the left. Barking loudly, he jumped to his feet and brandished a scimitar, only to be stricken down by a spear that no one had actually thrown. But none of the gnolls knew that. With a chorus of feral snarls, the gnoll groups unsheathed their weapons and laid into each other, the two other groups joining in for the hell of it, it seemed.
The wizard's grin had not abated, and he turned to the entryway to see the guards grab their weapons and head towards the fight. Once they were gone, he flew down to the ground, changed form and headed inside.
"Stairs" he groaned, observing the spiral stairway, leading upwards, in front of him. "Why did it have to be stairs? I hate stairs." He kept grumbling silently to himself as he began his ascent.
The stair was long, though it made sense, seeing as the spire it was located in was simply titanic in size. Soon enough, he spotted a doorway and the stairs ended. Morphius put his back to the wall, peeked around the corner and into the archway.
Inside, there was a large, round, chamber. It was mostly featureless, except for some smashed furniture and four gnoll banners placed in a square in the chamber's center. Around these banners, there stood several of the hyena-men, and inside the square, four of them sat and talked in hushed voices. Across the chamber, the wizard spotted another doorway with stairs leading up from it.
The gnolls present were plain in color, rather smallish of stature and their equipment was shabby and in various states of disrepair. Given their appearances, Morphius decided that these tribes were the runts of the litter, so to speak.
Though the wizard could clearly hear them speak, even he was at a loss when it came to translating the snarling tongue of the gnolls, in fact, it sounded more like vicious guard-dogs warning off an intruder than a language at all.
The wizard retracted his head and started thinking. He had managed to count around thirty of them, and they would have to be taken out swiftly and silently to avoid having the rest of the gnolls rushing in. Another quick look proved the method of using levitation to egg them up against each other useless, the guards had every inch of the ground covered, attempting to lift something would have them instantly suspicious. Besides that, he would need to maintain eye-contact with the levitating object, and he stuck his head back in through the archway it would only take a slight tilt of the head for one of the gnolls to spot him.
Slowly and silently, he sat down, cursing the fact that he could not light up his pipe. He had been told by several people he considered his friends, that smoking was a nasty habit, but he paid them no heed. The act relaxed him almost as much as sex did. "Gods" he thought. "I haven't had a good lay in years." He shook his head, reminding himself of more pressing matters.
After sitting there for a while, the wizard snapped his head up and smiled. He remembered something, a trick he recalled using many years ago. Only this time, he would have to move faster, knowing that the gnolls' above-average senses would not be fooled for long.
He stood and took a deep breath, and like the time in Doren, ages ago it seemed, thick fog spilled from his mouth and floated into the chamber.
Confused yelps sounded from the inside as the wizard ducked into the fog, only to turn into snarling, growling and barking. The sound of weapons being unsheathed had Morphius thinking that he had been found out, and he couldn't seem to find the exit. Then the fog cleared.
Instead of facing a wall of spears like he had feared he would, he found that there were only five gnolls left alive in the room. The hyena-men blinked, obviously surprised to see him. They were dealt with swiftly, and in silence.
Morphius kept on going, occasionally running into a lone guard on the stair, sometimes a pair, but never any higher numbers. By the time another archway came into view, he was panting slightly. He covered his mouth, not wanting to give himself away, and peered into the next room.
The gnolls inside were larger, more oddly colored and better equipped. Again, there were four banners in the center with four gnolls sitting inside the square they made. This time however, there were guards posted at the side of the door.
The pair posted at his end did not see him, the pair posted at the other door, however did. Morphius bolted back down the stairs, though only for a short distance before halting and turning to his pursuers. The stairway proved advantageous, as it was too narrow to allow more than two gnolls at a time against him.
Eventually, the gnolls lay dead, and the wizard climbed over their corpses to move on. Such it continued for several hours. He would ascend the stairway, find a chamber filled with increasingly more powerful gnolls, battle his way through, and repeat.
After at least two days of such activities, Morphius began encountering both less and more resistance. Less, because the numbers of the gnolls were dwindling, and more, because the remaining hyena-men were exceptionally large and powerful.
"This is starting to get ridiculous" he muttered as he pulled his blade out of one that was at least two heads taller than him and at the same time froze another one before shattering the ice-block with his staff. "I must be getting close to the top now, these gnolls are large than any others I've ever seen before."
The chamber he was standing in now was littered with the large gnolls' corpses. Though large of stature and swift of movement, they were weak, and slow, of mind. Even so, they had not gone down easily, and had almost succeeded in hammering their furless opponent to fleshy paste.
Said furless opponent slid his back down along the wall until he hit the floor, breathing heavily in exhaustion and wiping the sweat from his brow. "Right, I'll just rest for a bit, and then move forward again" he thought and closed his eyes, falling asleep instantly, being more tired than he knew.
He blinked once or twice before raising his arms to rub the tiredness from his eyes. He raised his head and surveyed the area. "Still empty? Good." He rose from the ground and stretched out, yawning and groaning simultaneously. "The last thing I need to wake up to is a spear to my throat, or to not wake up at all" he muttered, scratching his neck before rolling his head around once.
He kept on going after conjuring another bread and some water. It was a poor man's meal, but it was certainly better than cannibalizing gnoll-corpses. He halted suddenly. The air was strung with some sort of energy. A quick investigation proved that it did not emanate from the crystal he was looking for.
"It's…tattered" he muttered to himself. "Not nearly consistent enough to be any sort of gemstone, or artifact." He smiled bitterly, knowing that sneaking up on the residents of the next chamber was a lost cause. With that in mind, he returned his blade to its resting-place, tucked into his belt, and strode upwards, batting away feeble attempts at penetrating his mind.
As the wizard neared the chamber, the power behind his would-be mental intruders grew stronger to the point where he had to slow down his pace to expel their advances. Finally, he came to a stop before another doorway, though this one actually had a door in it, as well as a ward of sorts. A small, tentative, touch proved that it channeled lightning. Surrounding his hand with blue flame, he slammed his fist into the door, found the ward's keeper through his mental link and sent a blast of arcane power surging back through it. His enemy's mental shields shattered like glass against rock, and a yelp-like scream was briefly heard as his mind was flooded with the wizard's fire.
The ward dispersed and Morphius raised his staff, channeling arcane waves through the weapon. The staff crashed into the door three times. On the third blow, it splintered and was sent flying across the room. The wizard stepped over the remains, and stood face to face with five gnolls, another one lying dead on the floor.
The hyena-men were all robed and hooded, with many skull-necklaces hanging from them and numerous other trinkets stuffed into their belts. Their fur was colored bluish grey, with black spots, and their eyes shimmered with a radiant purple glow. Their robes were dark purple, and a mountain split by lightning was emblazoned upon their chests.
One of the gnolls, the only one who carried a staff, stepped forward. The two wielders observed each other for some time, until the creature gave what could've passed as a respectful grunt. "Well done, outsider." Morphius' eyes widened. He had only ever heard one gnoll speak before in his life, and that one was of a different breed altogether.
"Well done indeed" the gnoll spoke again. It spoke slower than most men, obviously choosing its words carefully. "You have avoided our troops, sowed disarray in our midst… what is the word I am prowling for? Ah yes, infiltrated our spire and sent the tribal alphas to death with little to no trouble. Very impressive. You have even managed to slay one of us, by turning our own sorcery against us. Most impressive, indeed."
Morphius bowed his head slightly. "I thank you for your praise, oh flea-bitten one" he smirked, and it was mirrored by the gnoll, who actually chuckled. "I don't suppose you could all just move over and let me pass, so that I will not have to kill the rest of you as well?" the wizard asked. The gnoll pondered over his next words for a while before answering, "Alas… is that the word? Yes, I think so. Alas, no, though our alliance of tribes had surely been torn apart, we have an obligation to fulfill."
"I am going to reach the top, whether you live or die" Morphius said. "I would advise you to stand down, and walk away with your legs still intact. Once you attack, I will not spare you, unless of course you are prepared to beg for mercy." "Oh, I shall beg, whelp!" the gnoll snarled. "I shall beg to differ!" A long growl spurred the remaining four into action. The wizard barely had time to throw a shield between himself and the hyena-men, as bolts of lightning flew from their hands simultaneously.
As the shield flickered out of existence, Morphius leapt forward and thrust his blade through one of the shamans. He turned, pulled it out, and set another one of the gnolls ablaze at the same time. A bolt of lightning struck him and sent him to the ground.
Two of the three remaining gnolls leapt onto him and pulled long daggers from their belts. One of the weapons was glowing ominously green, and Morphius grabbed the arms of its wielder to keep it away from himself, tossing the other one off with his mind. He wrestled the gnoll off him and raised a spike of stone to impale him where he laid.
The second one was already turning and dashing for the door, though he stopped and clutched his throat. He was lifted into the air and turned around to meet the scowling face of his leader. The gnoll's hand was engulfed in purple light. "Coward!" the shaman snarled, and with a sharp movement of his hand, he broke the slighter hyena-man's neck.
"Well that was unsatisfactorily simple" Morphius chuckled and turned to the last gnoll. "Ready to give up yet?" The shaman grinned toothily. "I am a gnoll of my word, wizard, and I think you shall find me a far greater threat than my recently deceased kinsmen."
Morphius knew that he was telling the truth, the remaining gnoll was far superior to those who had just been slaughtered. For caution's sake, he erected a new shield in front of himself. The gnoll smirked and sent a dark-green lightning-bolt at his foe. The shield shattered, and the wizard flew into the wall, answering the attack with a fireball on the way. The hyena-man bolted out of the way, and flung a purple orb of energy at the wizard. Morphius teleported out of the way. The orb hit the wall and all but obliterated a large portion of it. Guessing his intentions, the gnoll whirled around and swung at the wizard with his staff. He struck true, and channeled another lightning through the blow for good measure.
Morphius reeled back from the blow, regained his posture, and raised his own staff to block another blow. The magic surging through the two staves met, the result being both wielders finding themselves thrown across the room. The wizard rolled back onto his feet, still clutching his staff, and sent a hail of icicles flying from his palm and at the gnoll, who hastily raised a wall of flame from the floor. Morphius cursed silently and sent orbs of water at the flames, dousing them quickly, only to find the gnoll waiting with another bolt of lightning in his palm.
Holding his staff in front of himself, the wizard caught the lightning, swung the weapon around once and sent it back at its caster. The hyena-man yelped and threw himself to the ground, the wall behind him exploding and sending shards of rock flying everywhere. Seizing several shards with his mind, Morphius sent them surging towards the gnoll, who seized several of his own and sent them crashing into the wizard's projectiles.
Just as the gnoll got to his paws again, Morphius was over him, raising his sword to strike. The hyena-man shaman surprised him by teleporting out of the way and appearing at the far end of the chamber, sending another purple orb at him. The wizard whirled out of the way and the orb flew past him, smashing into, and shattering, another large portion of the wall.
The wizard and the gnoll rushed at each other, their staves and minds clashing in the center of the chamber, both so caught up in their duel that they almost missed the ominous sound of cracking rock. Almost.
Turning their heads, the wielders discovered that there was only a small portion left of the wall standing, and that was not enough to support the remaining part of the spire-rock. Both of them turned their minds upwards, just as the structure collapsed, and mentally seized it.
The spire-rock's top came down, inch after inch, as the two wielders were unable to hold it back on their own. The gnoll and the wizard turned their heads and looked each other in the eye. Nodding once to their respective opponent, they held their staves high still, but pressed the palms of their free hands together and combined their energies.
Together, they lifted the slowly falling rock above themselves, and flung it backwards, wincing as they heard it smash into the ground below. Even with the two wielders together, the act had taken a great effort of them both, and they stood there for a while, panting and doing nothing else.
Morphius ducked as the gnoll swung his staff at him, swinging his own staff and sending the hyena-man to the floor. The shaman kicked out and struck the wizard's face with his paw, sending him to the floor as well.
Forgoing magic as he got onto his feet again, the gnoll leapt forward, raising his clawed hand to strike with a bestial howl. The hyena-man collided with his downed prey's boot, and went soaring backwards, almost tumbling over the edge of the spire. His head was, in fact, hanging over the edge.
He raised his head to find the point of the wizard's blade poking his forehead. Morphius smirked. "Last chance, fuzzball. Say please and give me your word that you will not attack, and you are free to go wherever you please" he said.
A muttered grumble issued from the gnoll after some time. "What was that?" the wizard asked, holding one ear open. "You'll have to speak up, my friend." "I give you my word, and swear, that I will not attack you any longer. Please spare my life" the hyena-man growled, still in a low tone.
Morphius studied the gnoll's eyes for a while, before tucking away his blade and extending his hand. The gnoll accepted his help and, somewhat grudgingly, and let the wizard pull him to his feet. They stood and observed each other for a while, before they bowed their heads in mutual respect and shook hands.
"Thank you for the battle, wizard. It was most…what is the word? Invigorating" the shaman spoke. "And a thank you to you as well, master gnoll. It has been one of my more interesting fights as of late."
The hyena-man turned towards the edge of the tower, and looked down, a bitter smile appearing on his face. "I might as well be off" he chuckled. "Seeing as there is nothing left to fight for here in any case." Morphius raised an eyebrow, and went to stand beside his ex-foe. There wasn't a single living gnoll left below, so far as he could see. Heaps of dead hyena-men laid scattered across the great plain. "I guess my distraction went a tad too well" the wizard muttered.
The gnoll broke into a fit of barking laughter. "I like you, whelp, you have the mindset of a cunning…predator? That is what it is called, yes?" he stated after regaining control of his lungs. "Perhaps, if the higher powers see it fit, we shall meet again. However, until then, Grochznak the Tempestmaster bids you farewell." The shaman extended his paw again, Morphius shook it. "As does Morphius the Eternal. Farewell."
Grochznak turned, and with a last wave of his hand, he turned into a large vulture and flew off, leaving the wizard rather flabbergasted. "Teleportation and shapeshifting abilities. I'm impressed, I must admit" he thought with a long whistle.
Once the gnoll-turned-vulture was out of sight, Morphius turned his gaze downwards until it fell upon the top of the spire that had slammed into the ground. He changed form, took wing and was soon on ground-level again, not far from the impact site.
The wizard's breath was uneven now, now that he was so close to completing the task he had set for himself over a decade ago. Slowly and steadily, he made his way closer, only to stop in his tracks as a sound reached his ears. "Sound like muffled pounding" he realized, raising an eyebrow in question, just as an enormous fist smashed through the solid rock, followed by another one.
A gigantic gnoll, with the red and white-spotted fur he had seen on the guards earlier, pulled itself out of the spire-top while rubbing its head, apparently just coming to after its unexpected trip down the side of the needle.
The gnoll alpha raised his head and let his gaze sweep over the corpse-ridden camp, eventually spotting the only remaining form of life besides himself in the area. A snarl erupted from the beast's throat as it pulled itself loose from the fallen rock and raised its weapons. One hand was clutching a three-headed flail, and the other a relatively short blade.
The gnoll's snarl grew into an enraged howl, and it leapt from its spot on the rock and dashed towards the furless whelp before him.
Morphius, meanwhile, had been struck with another fit of rare impatience. "I am mere minutes away from gaining an unquenchable source of power, and this meathead thinks he can hinder me? After all I've been through? I think not!" he snarled aloud, his volume rising with every second.
Making an instant decision to not waste time on the gnoll-giant, the wizard snapped his fingers and conjured forth a ball of flame. He stood his ground while the howling beast thundered towards him, and when it leapt forward to sink its blade in his forehead, he flung the fireball and teleported.
The orb of flame struck the creature's head in mid-leap, and instantly set the fur ablaze. Its anguished howl was cut short by The Blade of Awe forcefully removing the head from the beast's shoulders.
Morphius did not bother to even cast a glance at the fallen creature. He tucked his blade away again, after wiping off the blood with a quick spell, and slowly approached the final crystal's resting place. A grin stretched across his face as he climbed down the hole the gnoll had made, grew wider as he spotted the throne lying on its back, looking similar to the first two except for the many spikes and sharp angles, grew even wider as he saw the word kolgherin, destruction, carved onto the throne, and died completely as he turned his eyes up and reached for the crystal.
There was no crystal to reach for.
The wizard stood there for what seemed like hours, then slowly shook his head, his breath coming quickly. "No" he whispered, shaking his head faster. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO, NO!" The rock he was standing in shattered into a million shards, several flying into the base of the spire and sending it surging downwards.
Turning his, now-blood-red, eyes to the needle, Morphius snarled inhumanely and released a beam of light from his hand that seared right through the rock, before exploding and shattering the ex-spire. He raised his boot and sent it to the ground in a stomp that had the earth cracking and opening. A mighty storm began to rage over the sky. Anything flammable in the area burst into flames, and in the depths of the wizard's mind, a chain snapped loose.
A tremor of pain shot through him, though he was too enraged to notice, he another one, and another one. He gasped for breath, suddenly realizing what was happening, and knowing that it was too late to chain the beast.
Another snarl ripped from his throat as he fell to his knees and started clawing at his face, tearing of large chunks of skin as he felt the extreme anguish of his skull forcefully changing form.
He tore the hair from his head, only for it to be replaced by rapidly growing fur of the same color, his legs twisted and cracked as they became digitigrade, claws erupted from his fingertips as the fur covered them, his teeth became fangs, his feet turned beastlike in their form, his spine elongated out of his skin, creating a tail that was swiftly covered in muscle, flesh, and fur, his frame grew considerably, tearing his robes and leaving only strands hanging onto him, his ears tore themselves upwards and changed shape, nowhere near resembling what they had been before, his muscles expanded, becoming strong enough to successfully arm-wrestle an ogre without trouble, so strong that he could have ripped an ogre's arm clean off and beaten the creature to bloody paste with it, something his current state of mind would have had him do in a heartbeat, his nose shrunk back into his head and was replaced by a new one.
The tremors died down, Morphius opened a pair of eyes that were not his. A new, yet terrifyingly familiar, body shambled onto its paws, opening and closing its head-sized, clawed fists. The creature threw its head back and let out a mix of a human scream, and a wolf's howl.
The pain had subsided, and given way to hunger. The werewolf raised its snout and sniffed deeply, rational thought giving way for animalistic instinct.
The scent of dirt, sweat, blood and fear came to him. He turned his head, and spotted around twenty-five gnolls still alive. Roaring savagely, the eight-feet tall man-wolf flung himself forward onto all four and gave chase. The yelping creatures turned and fled, though they did not get far.
After massacring the band, Morphius flung three over his shoulder and retreated, having no interest in the remaining bodies. His preys were quickly consumed, and he took off, running in a random direction at breakneck speed, as if Hircine, Kuornos and Elune were hunting him, all at once.
The wasteland was put behind him by the week's end, and the lycanthrope kept on running, leaping, swimming and climbing his way forward.
He passed over frost-bitten peaks, through large forests, across grassy plains and even deserts, only stopping to sate his hunger or quench his thirst. He had no idea how long it had been since he had succumbed to the wolf inside, or where he was going, yet he never changed direction. He always headed a single path, as if something was drawing him to the direction, something that his senses could not have noticed while in human form.
Weeks passed, maybe months, he could not tell. The werewolf had reached another forest, when he collapsed, completely exhausted. When he opened his eyes, he was infinitely relieved to find himself thinking again. His thanks were interlaced with a curse though. "An eternal plague upon the werewolf that bit me" he mumbled, struggling onto his feet. Another jolt of pain shot through him, this time, it came from his always so demanding stomach.
Without pausing to think about, like he usually did when faced with this option, Morphius fell to his knees and drove his hands into the earth and pulled the life-force from every blade of grass in the clearing he had collapsed in, as well as a few trees, leaving the clearing dead and grey.
He rose to his feet again, feeling reinvigorated, and went over his equipment, as he always did whenever the wolf seized control of him. He was grateful to the extreme that he retained enough common sense in his more bestial aspect to bring his three most treasured items with him. His blade, his staff and his satchel, and given that the satchel was practically infinite in size, he brought everything else he carried with him as well.
He cast his gaze down upon what was left of his robes, and sighed. The work that needed to be done afterwards was the second-to-first reason why he rather despised his unusual disease. "I suppose I can't be helped, at least I didn't come across any villages or such" he thought with a sigh and fished into his satchel after a needle, rolls of cloth and thread.
It took a few days of sewing and dying, plus finding that he was lucky enough to have an extra pair of boots stashed away in his satchel that he had forgotten entirely, but after five days, Morphius nodded, being quite pleased with his handiwork, and donned his new robes, though they looked precisely like the previous ones, and went on his way. "Wait" he said and halted before he had taken six steps. "Where is my way? Where do I go, what shall I do now? Where am I, anyways?" He looked around. He could immediately see that he had not been there before.
He sighed again, remembering his predicament. He stood and looked to the northeast, where he had come from. Sighing once more, he picked his staff up from the ground and started walking, thinking back to the time when he had been infected.
It had happened many years ago, so long that he had forgotten what date exactly, he had been younger then, rash and impulsive, thinking that he was powerful enough to take on the world alone and win. To that end, he had, foolishly enough, ventured into the cursed forest of Darkovia, in his former homeland of Lore, when he had ran afoul of one of the beasts. If it had not been for the timely intervention of one of the local vampire-slayers, the beast would have eaten him. The creature managed to sink its teeth into the wizard's arm in its death-throes, however, and the slayer turned his blade on him. Morphius was not ready to leave the mortal coil behind, and slew the slayer instead, before fleeing the haunted woods. That night, the beast inside of him was unleashed for the first time. However, something was odd. In all the books he had read at that time, it had been stated that the victims of the lycanthropy, or werewolf's curse as common folk often called it, had no recollection or control of their wolf-shape. He did.
He could see everything, he could remember everything, and most shockingly of all, he retained some control of himself. Though not by much, he was able to control his movement to some degree. The most prominent, non-physical, change, was the loss of his ability to let his mind dictate his actions. He was ruled purely by instinct, his personal rule of survival at most costs was geared to the extreme.
After the first happening, Morphius intensified his meditation, discovering that it calmed the wolf inside him, and eventually chained it. He had later found out, that rage, often mixed with frustration and/or sorrow, was the most effective way of snapping that chain, and it became dangerously strained under a full moon.
He had spent many years wondering why he was somewhat sentient in his werewolf persona, when others lost their minds completely. When he found what he really was, that he was as far from human as ethereally possible, he attributed it to the mixture of the lycan venom and the blood of his species having unforeseen side-effects.
"Not that being a werewolf doesn't have its pros as well as cons" he thought as he stepped through a small creek. His senses were, in fact, stronger than average, even in human form. He could hear and smell better than any regular human, and his eyes could see fairly well in the dark, in addition, his state of being had secured a kinship between him and wolves, he was basically one of them.
Pushing the thoughts of the past from his mind, he regained focus on the present and the future. He brought up his hand. "Alright, let's go over what we know" he murmured and started counting on his fingers. "I have little-to-no idea where I am. I haven't got a clue of how much time has passed. The crystal" he paused to punch a nearby tree, it burst into flames, "is gone to gods-only-knows where. I don't have the foggiest idea of what to do next, and I'm tired of all this shit falling over me all the time." He paused. "Yeah" he shrugged. "That seems like a perfect summary of my situation."
Still pondering his next objective, he wandered in between the myriad of trees, lost in thought and worry.
A few days passed. Morphius had stopped for a small rest by a pond in a clearing. Feeling rather downbeat, he slid down against a tree and raised his hand. A tendril of water extended itself from the pond and reached towards him as he opened his mouth. After slaking its master's thirst, the tendril washed over his face and rubbed the weariness from him.
The wizard rose after a few hours, in which he read from one of his many tomes. He sighed for what seemed like the millionth time that afternoon, and went on.
Without even noticing it, due to the map hovering in thin air in front of his face, he had stepped onto a broad road leading through the forest. Letting his frustration manifest itself in a small growl, Morphius folded his map together and sent it back to his satchel. The sound of a snapping branch from his left caught his attention.
His head snapped to that direction to see a shoddily made arrow fly out of the forest. His eyes flashed, and the arrow caught fire, turning to ash before it hit him. Several men carrying pitchforks, axes, knives or scythes came at him from the bushes. A swift scan revealed them to be absolutely terrified of him, and he didn't even have to scan to know that they were not experienced fighters.
Smiling slightly as a fist of earth flew up from the ground and smacked into the chin of one of them, he turned and drew his blade, blocking an axe and slicing off its head in the same motion. The axe's flabbergasted owner was knocked unconscious by the wizard's staff.
A man wielding a scythe raised it overhead to strike the wizard, who had his back turned. But when he swung his weapon downwards, he found it missing. Turning, he discovered that large roots had sprung from the ground and grabbed his scythe. The roots held it for two seconds before tearing it apart and slamming into the man, knocking him out as well.
Whirling to face five more of the attackers, Morphius sent a wall of blue flame erupting from the ground before them. As they halted, he leapt through and sent them to the ground with a few well-placed swings of his staff.
The flames died down. Twelve farmers lay unconscious on the ground. Morphius turned his head and shot a menacing glare at the remaining ones, who at once dropped their weapons and dashed out of sight. Chuckling, the wizard turned to find a man of enormous size standing before him. "How did I not manage to hear this guy?" he wondered before noticing the hammer heading for his skull. "Gods, it's going to be one of those days." The hammer struck his head with great force and he fell backwards. The last thing in his vision being many pairs of feet approaching.
A slight jump roused the wizard back into awakened state. He looked around himself, finding his surroundings to be a cage on a cart of some sort. "Cursed are all these holes in the road!" someone growled from in front of him. The man with the reins sat on the front of the cart, muttering loudly and cursing this and that from time to time.
Turning his head back, he spotted the hulk that had clubbed him down earlier in mid-yawn. The large man opened his eyes, and they met with the wizard's enraged gaze. "It's woken up!" he called. Morphius became aware of the thirty-something men surrounding the cart as they took several steps back and trained their weapons on him. He then became aware of the ropes holding his elbows, wrists, knees and feet together.
"Then put it back to sleep! I can't be assed with all these gods-be-damned holes, and I can't be assed with getting any more trouble from that thing!" the driver yelled back. "It? Thing?" He was appalled, though not entirely surprised. This was not the first time he had run into magic-haters, not by a long shot.
"Why, I ought to burn these ropes and teach these peasants a thing or two about magic!" he growled in his mind. Yet, he felt strangely compelled to play with them for a time and see what would come of it.
The large man, who was, he noticed, dressed in a blacksmith's apron, raised his hammer again. "Woe is unto me!" the wizard screeched. The blacksmith halted and raised an eyebrow. "Why is that?" he asked. "Don't talk to it, you oaf! It'll cast some sort of spell on your mind!" a man from the crowd hissed loudly.
"If only I could" Morphius said bitterly. "But alas, my powers are useless whenever I am bound." The man raised his brows disbelievingly. "Really?" "Really" the wizard replied, lacing some truth into his next words. "If I still had my magic, these ropes and this cart, not to mention all of you, would be bursting violently into flames at this very moment." The wave of mental terror had him grinning gleefully.
"Well, then you might as well shut up!" the cranky driver shouted. "Save your vocal chords for the court!" "Right! Yeah, settle down, and enjoy your last hours on this world" the blacksmith said and sat back down himself, falling asleep within a few short minutes. "We shall see, master blacksmith, we shall see indeed" Morphius muttered to himself, grinning in an unsettling manner, though it was hidden by the hastily approaching dusk.
Morphius had long since lost count of how many times he had slept in troublesome or uncomfortable conditions, the cage he was stuffed in was far from the worst. "Though, The Wheel of Blatant Unpleasantness makes the top five, or at least ten" he chuckled to himself. "Stop mumbling to yourself back there!" the driver snarled. The blacksmith sat up straight with a start. "I wasn't mumbling" he said hastily. "Not! You! That thing!" the smaller man yelled, turning to reveal a large portion of his face having been burnt almost completely off. The wizard paid him little heed, choosing instead to focus on the walls of a great city coming closer.
Like most cities he had seen, which happened to be a hell of a lot more than most people could count, the area directly outside the outer walls was a crowded village, filled with farms and such. The villagers lined up along the road, silent in voice, but fear, revulsion and hatred bombarded Morphius's mind and he had to swallow a wolf-like snarl when a tomato made contact with his head. Remaining silent, he still shot a seething glare at the perpetrator, that had her stumbling back.
That did not hinder others though, and the wizard was covered in rotten vegetables before they reached the outer walls. "That's a lot of rotten tomatoes" he said to the blacksmith. "Bad season" the large man muttered back. The burnt man on the front of the cart spoke up. "Yeah" he growled. "That's probably the work of things like you as well."
"And I can already tell what a joyous stay this will be" Morphius thought as they passed one of the gates. Inside the walls, the atmosphere became more city-like. The streets were paved and crowded, the houses were tall and thin, and there were shops and such to be seen everywhere.
Like before, the people lined up to watch him, though this time, they were not silent. Mumbles and whispers travelled along the crowd, but they were kept at bay by the newly arrived guardsmen.
A tall guardsman wearing a cape and higher-class armor came riding down the street, halting his horse beside the cart. He cast a disdainful gaze on the wizard before turning to the driver. "Quite the catch, master Khyrrean" he stated. "Are you sure that those ropes will be enough to hold it down?" The man called Khyrrean snorted. "'Course I'm sure" he growled. "It said so itself, when its hands are tied, it ain't got no power." "Excuse me? It?" the wizard snarled. "I am still here, you know!" Khyrrean motioned to him, and the larger man slugged him in the face. "You'll get yours" Morphius growled, in his head this time. "By all the gods, I swear, you'll get yours, both of you."
The guard captain met the wizard's glare, but did not step back like most others. "I you want to I could take it off your hands, it looks like a dangerous one" he said without taking his eyes off the caged wielder. The driver waved his hand dismissively. "And take the bounty for yourself? I think not, master Gallaghar. Besides, it's completely harmless now, if it could kill us, it would've done so by now."
"True enough" Morphius sighed. "I would rather like to see your head pull itself out of your backside, but alas, life is unfair. I can't use my magic, and you…" he motioned to the driver. "…will probably look like a steak that has been roasted for too long for the rest of your life." Khyrrean snarled. "I'm going to enjoy watching you burn, vermin!" he growled through gritted teeth.
With a snap of the reins, the cart started moving again. "I'll ride ahead and inform His Lordship of your success" Gallaghar stated and kicked his horse into a gallop, not entirely missing the dirty glare he received from the driver. Snorting, Khyrrean sped up.
Before long, they reached the inner wall's gate. Morphius felt depressed, he had seen many taverns on the way, and began thinking about how long it had been since he had had a drink. They passed the gate without any difficulties, they were obviously expected, and rode into the courtyard to find the man Morphius assumed to be the king standing there.
He was tall, reasonably muscular and had a mustache that extended all the way to the end of his chin, only to be replaced by a goatee. His hair was long and jet-black, with small grey hairs here and there. "Welcome back master Khyrrean" he greeted in a booming voice. "I see your hunt went well!"
The burnt man hopped down from his seat and kneeled. "Indeed it did, my lord" he grinned. "We caught this on the road, it was heading towards town." The monarch laid his gaze upon the wizard, and sneered. "Towards my fair city, eh? With ill intent in mind, no doubt."
"You keep telling yourself that" Morphius thought. Aloud, he said, "Would it help at all if I denied you accusations, my liege?" The king snarled and his fist shot forward into the wizard's face, his expression darkening. "You will speak, when I give you permission, scum!" This time, Morphius was not quick enough to suppress his snarl, and everyone present took three steps back, except for his two captors.
"Don't be such cowards" Khyrrean grumbled. "Animals tend to snarl from time to time, this one is no different." "I was told, that it is harmless" the king said, stepping closer again. "You are certain that that is the case, master Khyrrean?" The smaller man nodded. "Certain as the sky is blue, milord."
"Very well, then" the king smirked, and motioned to two guards standing some distance away. "Take it to the dungeons; the trial will begin in a few days time, and make sure to keep its hands bound in some way at all times." The guardsmen rushed to obey, and before long, Morphius found himself chained to a cell's wall in the dungeons.
Three days passed, in which he only saw the guards who brought him food. His cell was large, and none of them dared enter it, so they usually sat the slop down just inside the bars and pushed it towards him with their spear. They had quickly "discovered" that his powerlessness included being shackled to the wall, as long as his hands were restricted in some way, they were safe. Or so he had made them think. His chains were long enough to let him move his arms around somewhat.
He spent most of his days hanging his head and pretending not to notice the guardsmen, until one day, they came to his cell, twenty men strong. All of them were terrified beyond rational belief, and as the unfastened his chains and tied his hands together, they avoided all eye-contact.
Morphius grinned unsettlingly at those with enough guts to cast a glance at him, they did not look again. The twenty guards led him through the castle and all the way up to the throne-room. When he entered, he was led to the middle of the room before being pushed to his knees.
Before him, the king sat on his throne, glaring at the wizard in obvious contempt. The throne itself was elevated above the floor a large pedestal, and below and beside it there sat several, fancily-dressed, men and women on lesser thrones.
"Order in the court!" the guard-captain, Gallaghar, called. The chattering that had been buzzing in the air of the large room died down, and the king cleared his throat.
"I, King Gafreth Alghrehn, of the fair city and kingdom of Waeir Khalrûn, call this court and council, to judge the heinous creature you all see before you!" the king called, stood and pointed an accusing finger at the kneeling figure. "We shall begin at once! Creature" he spoke directly to Morphius now, who was silently fuming at his current position. Gafreth continued, "You stand accused of wielding hellish sorcery and magic most foul! How do you plead?"
"Guilty as charged, my liege" the wizard smirked, the last part coming off as a mock, rather than an acknowledgement of the monarch's title. The council, as well as the king himself, seemed taken aback. Morphius shrugged at their gawking expressions. "I have nothing to hide from you, though I feel I must protest the-." A blow to the back of his head had him shutting up. The court quickly regained its composure.
"Very well, we shall proceed to the second charge!" Gafreth called, as the council wrote down their verdicts. Growling and gritting his teeth, the wizard glared viciously at the throne's occupant. "Creature! You stand accused of entering the fair realm of Waeir Khalrûn without permission, with weapons in hand, and attacking defenseless farmers! How do you plead?"
"Yes to the first, yes to the second, and a definite no to the third. In fact, it was I who was-." Another blow, so hard that he was sent face-first to the floor. He growled again. "Why do I even bother?" he thought bitterly.
"Third, and final, charge!" the king called, and again, the court was busy writing down Morphius's "confession". "Creature! You stand accused for conspiring to bring terror and havoc to our fair kingdom through the use of your demonically-granted powers! How do you plead?"
This time, Morphius growled loudly. Everyone who could, took a step back. "I do not plead anything to you, kahl! It matters not what I tell you, you will have me burned either way!" The room fell silent. "This trial" Morphius stated. "Is over." He turned his head to the nearby guards. "If you would kindly escort me back to my cell so that I may await my execution, well away from these…worms, that would be splendid" he growled. With a glance at their king, the armed men obeyed and hauled him to his feet before escorting him back to his cell.
A few more days passed, much like the days before the trial, except for the fact that the guards were even more afraid of him after seeing him, practically, order the king's court around. One day, a guard came sneaking with his food as usual, and as usual, he was hanging his head and pretending to be asleep.
Morphius could almost hear the man's heartbeat, and when he was directly in front of him, the wizard raised his head swiftly and locked his eyes one the guardsman, who froze completely, even ceasing to breathe. The wizard and the guard stared, unblinkingly, at each other for some time. "Boo!" Morphius cried.
With a terrified shriek, the guard fell back, clambered onto his feet, and fled screaming down the hallway with the wizard's laughter haunting his ears.
Morphius laughed long, loudly, and heartily. The guard's expression had been a reward in itself, but the man had literally pissed himself where he stood. "They're going to speed up the date of my execution for that" he chuckled. "Totally worth it."
Through a bar-covered hole high up on the wall, that served as a window, the wizard could hear them setting up the large bonfire that he was going to be executed on. He smiled to himself. "Soon" he whispered. "Very soon, they shall see."
Two days later, the guards came for him again. They did not lead him, so much as they walked with him and kept at a rational distance into the courtyard. The square courtyard was filled with people, and they were all silent as tombstones.
The guards led the wizard to a large pole standing on a small hill of firewood, had some larger men lift him, and simply let him down again with the pole between his arms, who were now behind his back. None of them seemed willing to take the risk of untying him.
King Gafreth stepped onto a balcony up above and raised his hand. "Let this be a reminder to all of us!" he shouted. "Let this day be remembered as the day, when the bravery of the men of Waeir Khalrûn stood strong, and rid the world of one of these abominations!" As he ceased his shouting, he lowered his arm. A nearby guard tossed his torch at the firewood, and it did not take long before the bonfire was blazing and the crowd had taken to cheering and jeering at the wizard.
Gafreth Alghrehn smiled proudly at the spectacle below. They had done it. His people had proved themselves strong enough to take down one of the demon-worshipping magic-wielders. His smile grew as he shifted his gaze to the wizard, only to die down and be replaced with a confused frown. The thing was chuckling, and then broke into peals of laughter 'till he almost lost his breath.
The crowd had fallen silent. Morphius' laughter echoed over the courtyard and drowned any other noises. "You…you…you actually-" his voice broke as he burst into another laugh. "You actually fell for it! Oh gods! I can hardly believe it!" Another round of laughter.
Terror and confusion was etched upon the faces of the present townsfolk, the wizard kept laughing. Then, he turned his gaze upwards, so that he was looking the king in the eye. "So" he said, smiling. "My magic is useless when my hands are bound, is it? In that case, I had better untie them, then. Ishrach, sephrühl ayashan darageheâr!"
The flames suddenly blazed up, and shot upwards towards the clouded sky, taking the form of a dragon, and diving down again. The fiery dragon crashed into the ground just behind the wizard, and burned away the ropes holding him before passing into the ground and rearing its head up beneath its master's boots, lifting him upwards. The wielder's blade and staff appeared in his hands. He leapt from the flaming dragon's head, and landed on the balcony, just in front of the king.
Striking quicker than a coiled viper, Morphius smacked his staff into the monarch hard enough to make him spin around. When his back was to the wizard, Morphius lunged forward and placed his blade at his throat. "I would advise you to remain calm, your majesty" the wizard hissed. "Lest you want your head to be my new ornament."
Gafreth's breath came in short, uneven gasps, and he nodded softly. "Order your men to stand down" Morphius whispered in his ear. "Stand down!" the king yelled frantically. The guards hesitated, captain Gallaghar in particular. "For gods' sakes! Stand down, and lower your weapons!" Gafreth yelled, almost shrieking as he felt the wizard's blade dig a little deeper into his throat.
Gritting their teeth, the guards dropped their weapons, though the ones in the courtyard had dropped them the second the wizard was free. The ones on the balcony were obviously more disciplined. "Good boy" Morphius grinned. "Now, you and I are leaving. Nice and slowly."
Suddenly, the wizard whipped his staff to the side. An icicle shot out of the weapon and impaled a guard on the walls with an arrow on his bowstring. The guardsman toppled over the wall and fell with a sickening crack into the courtyard.
"No bright ideas now, gentlemen!" he snarled, loud enough so that it was heard. "Or your precious monarch pays the price!" "Weapons down!" the monarch in question yelled.
"Move!" the wizard snarled and brought his staff into Gafreth's spine. The king swallowed and started moving. Once the pair was down from the balcony, Morphius took his staff off his captive's spine and held it in front of him instead, turning so that he was walking backwards.
The wizard halted. He had spotted two familiar faces in the crowd. Suddenly the two men were catapulted through the air, and landed at his feet. "Master Khyrrean, is it?" Morphius asked, lowering his staff to hover before the burnt man's face. The normally grouchy mage-hunter swallowed and nodded. "I thought as much. I do not appreciate being stuffed into cages, master Khyrrean. Almost less than being bashed over the head with a hammer" he sneered. The pair whimpered before him. "I could administer punishment to you now. I could curse you to eternities of suffering!" The wizard was snarling again, before a sadistic smile overtook his features. "But, I think I shall let our esteemed majesty here deal with you when I am gone instead."
The men paled, and the wizard smirked, knowing that the king would be unpleased with them, to say the least. The king himself was radiating an aura of both rage and mind-numbing terror at the moment, and both became stronger as Morphius firmly ordered him to move.
"You are a fool if you think that you will escape this city alive, vermin!" Gafreth snarled as the two of them neared the gate of the inner wall. "And you are a fool to speak in such a manner to the man with a blade to your throat" Morphius replied in an almost-casual manner, still keeping his eyes on the guards.
The pair backed out through the inner gate. The king turned his head towards the wizard as much as he could in his current position, and said, "Give up, creature. My men will follow you for as long as it takes. You cannot hope to escape."
Morphius eyed the gate with unhidden disdain. "You are quite right, my lord" he said, once again mocking the king with his title. "I will not be able to make a quick getaway with every guard in town on my heels." If Gafreth had any objections to his capital being called "a town", which the wizard sensed he had, he wisely kept them to himself. "I shall simply have to hinder them from following us then, shan't I?"
Morphius swung his staff. Five bolts of lightning shot down from the sky and through the wall, seemingly not harming it at all, before striking the earth and standing straight like five massive bars in front of the gate, obviously preventing anyone from passing through.
"Now then, since they are in place, we can move a little faster" the wizard smiled and removed his sword from the monarch's neck, only to point it into his back instead and motioning for him to move. "And please, do not try to run, will you? You won't get far, and I'd rather not kill anyone else today."
The king failed to hide his gulp as he started walking. The streets were empty, it seemed like every man, woman and child in the city had been at the execution, and with the king leading on, it did not take long for the curious pair to reach the outer gate.
"Keeeep walking…" Morphius muttered when his captive stopped. "We're not stopping until I deem it fit to stop." Growling an incomprehensible curse through gritted teeth, Gafreth kept his pace going, until they were beyond the village outside the gate. He stopped again. The wizard sighed. "Have it your way. Here is as good a place as any other."
"I will find you for this!" the monarch snarled. "You can run to the ends of Nirn and beyond, until doomsday comes, but I will find you for this!"
Morphius shrugged. "That kind of threat loses its flavor when you've heard it a thousand times before" he said. "Besides, you will not be chasing anyone for quite some time. Shéhinn vurha'thalor!"
Gafreth barely had time to let his eyes widen in surprise, alarm and question, before falling to the ground. "What have you done to me?" he bellowed as he found himself unable to move his arms or legs.
"Consider it my "thank you" for letting me stay in your dungeons during my visit, leading unfair trials, and… oh I don't know… attempting to murder me!" Morphius bellowed back, quickly calming himself as a nearby house froze and shattered. "But" he began. "I, unlike you, don't delight in killing people. And in that regard, I have decided to lessen your punishment."
Finally, the wizard tucked his sword away and powered his staff down. "Well, I shall be off, though I suppose you'll want my name for your bounty on my head, yes?" Gafreth did not answer, he was too busy trying to get his limbs to work by thrashing his head around. "Very well, in that case, Morphius the Eternal bids you a fine day, your highness." With those words, the wizard turned and started walking.
"You're all the same!" the king yelled after his back. "All of you, magic-using scumbags! You are no different from that witch with the crystal!" Morphius halted abruptly, turned, and quickly strode back to the limp monarch. "What crystal?" he inquired. Gafreth looked at him for a while, then closed his mouth firmly. "Now you're just being childish" the wizard sighed. "But you don't have to tell me with your mouth, of course. I could just invade your mind and force the answer from you. But hey…" he shrugged. "It's your choice."
The king remained silent for a while, before sighing. "I'll tell you" he growled. "Good boy" Morphius said and sat down, motioning for him to begin. "We were… invaded. About a year ago, by an army of magic-users." He paused, and met the wizard's look of disbelief. "Oh, all right. Not an army. Only about three hundred of them. They were led by a woman, carrying some sort of crystal on her staff, using it to lay waste to both my army and my kingdom. To stop them, I had to surrender two thirds of my land to them, which happened after they utterly annihilated my forces in a battle on the Plains of Helrhand, to the southwest of here."
Morphius's eyes glowed as he stood to his feet, and bowed. "I thank you, your majesty, and to show my appreciation, I have halved the time of your punishment. You'll be on your feet again in five years time or so."
Ignoring the outraged yells from his self-proclaimed nemesis, the wizard changed to his eagle form, which silenced the king completely, and took flight towards the southwest.
Morphius flew as fast as he could, his hope driving him forward. He had already laid the city behind himself by three days, being far too excited to stop for anything.
He had ducked low into a forest to avoid strong winds, and was currently flying through a foggy part. As he exited the misty forest, he gasped and changed back to his normal shape.
He was standing at the edge of a great plain. More specifically, what had once been a great plain. Now it was barren and burnt, twisted and cracked, there was nothing living to be seen or felt in the entire stretch of it. "If there ever was a picture of kolgherin, this would most definitely be it" Morphius thought as he stepped towards the plain's middle-point.
Once there, he stopped and looked around. Silently praying to every god he knew of, the wizard pulled The Obsidian Triclops from his satchel and held it in front of himself.
Morphius held his breath until he almost passed out, before the right eye-pit started glowing red. Relief and terror warred for control of his reaction. Eventually, he sat down on the ground and let a out a deep breath.
After a few hours of silently thanking the gods, Morphius rose and set off, on foot this time, letting the Triclops lead his way. "There is always hope" he remembered his father telling him once. "Sometimes, you just have to dig a little deeper for it."
A week passed, and the trail was becoming stronger. He passed several cities, all of them seemingly under the yoke of the magic-wielding invaders. "Cursed are all tyrannous magocracies" the wizard muttered as fifteen guards on horseback thundered past his hiding spot in a bush. "They always give wielders a bad name." This was not the first time he had faced prejudice and persecution since leaving Waeir Khalrûn. Everywhere he went he had to lay low. If the local authorities did not hunt him, he had to avoid the enemy troops garrisoned in many of the cities he passed, and even in remote outposts.
He had understood as much after a run-in with the invading mages, that they were not after killing him outright. He, on the other hand, would rather that they didn't send word of his whereabouts to their superiors, and silenced them quickly before fleeing the scene. Subsequent observation led the wizard to believe that the invaders, who called themselves the Gashir'éann, were abducting anyone they could find who were in possession of magical powers, and sending them to their capital, by carriage, seaway or even portals.
Since his encounter with Gashir'éann, Morphius tried to retain a more incognito approach to any settled areas, often choosing to avoid them altogether. For every day on the move, the trace emanating from the Triclops became stronger, and for every step he took, the enemy became a more common sight, right up to the point when he chose to abandon all roads and settle for the wilderness instead. The decision did not bother him much though, the wizard felt more at ease in the wilds either way.
After another two weeks on the move, the forests gave way to rolling plains and grasslands dotted with hills and farms. The ethereal radiation in the area was strong, and the trace from the Triclops had become so powerful, that Morphius knew he was close.
The wizard was standing on top of a hill and looking at the city below and some way ahead of him. Indeed, it could be classified as a proper city. It was easily twice the size of all the cities he had seen while on his quest combined, with enormous walls surrounding it.
The city was perched upon a massive cliff, with waves crashing against the bottom. At one point, the cliff extended out towards the sea, and upon its zenith, there stood a massive tower. The walls were decorated with dark blue banners, bearing the image of a hand and an eye. Alongside them the words Kechtûn and Ayéthern were written in his tongue. "Power" he read. "knowledge, someone has been doing their homework." "If you plan on heading into town, you might want to hide away that staff of yours" a gentle voice spoke from the right of him.
Morphius whirled to the right and closed his hand around The Blade of Awe's hilt. An old man stood there looking at him with unsurprised eyes, supporting himself on a hayfork. The wizard sighed and released his weapon.
"That sounds like a good idea" he answered. "Though I'd rather not be caught off guard in the streets without it." "It's for your own good, sonny" the old man stated. "If the Gashir'éann so much as glances at you while that thing is out, they'll slap you in irons and haul you off to the tower faster than you can say hopscotch."
"What matters it to you anyway?" Morphius asked. The farmer shrugged. "Guess I'm not much of a fan of the Gashir'éann in any case. 'sides, it'd be a shame for a young man like you to throw your life away in that hunk'a rock."
The wizard suppressed a grin at being called a young man and instead asked, "How do you know that I myself am not Gashir'éann then?" The old farmer chuckled in answer. "You're not like them" he stated. "I can see it in your eyes. Of course, actually seeing your eyes helps a damnedest lot." He let out a small laughter and spat at the ground.
Morphius smiled. "Your advice is reasonable, my friend. If you will permit to leave my staff behind here, I shall." The farmer waved his hand. "Leave it where you stand, if you like. The Gashir'éann never snoop around here anyhow. They just come to the village every now and then" he pointed behind himself at a small village with his thumb. "To gather the tithes and their part of the crops."
Nodding his head in thanks, the wizard planted his staff in the ground and let it stand up straight. "Ethrenn. Ethrenn anderal wufhea nien alchreím." he spoke, softly yet with an air of authority to his words. Suddenly, roots sprang from the ground where the staff stood and coiled around it, covering it and sprouting branches along the way. Before long, the staff was covered by a large tree, with brilliant golden leaves adorning it, and apples already hanging from its branches.
The old farmer hobbled over to the tree and beat his hayfork against the trunk. "Solid as a tree" he chuckled and cast a glance at the wizard, who nodded. The farmer reached up and plucked an apple off a low-hanging branch before biting into it. He nodded vigorously. "Best apples I've tasted in sixty years these ones" he said and swallowed. "Though you might want to think twice about pulling a stunt like that in town. Those hotshots in the tower have ways of telling when people are using magic, and then, they'll contact their troops through some magical yahoo, and then it's mostly over for whatever poor soul gets dragged off."
"I'll keep that in mind, good sir" Morphius said and bowed his head. The farmer and the wizard said their goodbyes and parted ways. The old man headed back to his farm, and Morphius set his course to the gates.
As he neared his destination, the wizard spotted columns of people moving in and out of the gates. Slipping, and blending, into the crowd was an easy task, though the guards posted at the gates could he trouble.
They were mostly clothed in robes of the same dark blue as the city's banner, with plates of iron strapped onto their chests and upper arms. Their heads were completely covered by their helmets, which were featureless except for the eye carved into the front, with the word Ayéthern underneath. Upon their chest-plates, the hand was emblazoned with the word Kechtûn above it. They carried two weapons each, a sword hanging on their left, and a scepter, radiating magical energy, on the other side.
He did not need to ponder why they were not searching anyone entering for long. Every time someone passed them by, a slight trace of magic leaked from them. They could see everything without even having to search them bodily at all.
Further ahead, there were posted several other guards, who pulled aside a person every now and then. "I see" Morphius thought, and slowed his pace. "These guards scan, and those guards search. Clever."
Barring his magical signature as best he could, the wizard passed the first set of guards without incident. The second smelled of a tad more difficulty, when one of them stepped into the road before him.
"Halt!" the battle-mage said, laying a hand on the scepter strapped in his belt. "Remove your cape and hood, and present any weapons you are carrying!" "Me?" Morphius inquired. "Yes, you!" the guard growled, his all-covering helmet giving him a hollow clang to his voice.
The wizard stepped to the side and pulled his hood off while pushing his cape back over his shoulders. The guard, along with two others, scanned him thoroughly, seeing only a youth in robes with an ordinary steel-sword hanging from his belt. One of the men raised his arm and pointed at the wizard's side. "What do you have in that satchel?" he asked.
"This old thing?" Morphius reached for it and picked it up, noticing the guards tightening the grip on their weapons. "Nothing, really. I just keep it at hand in case I should need it. You may search it, if you like."
He unfastened the satchel and handed it to the closest battle-mage. The guard snatched it and looked it over before handing it back and motioning for him to get moving. Morphius bowed his head, covered it with his hood, and wandered off.
After checking behind himself to make sure he was not watched, the wizard ducked into an alleyway, sank against the wall and let out a deep breath, though he quickly rose to a standing position as a patrol rounded a nearby corner and marched past him.
Deciding to make himself scarce for the time being, he entered a crowd of people coming down the street and went with the flow.
After walking for a bit, sometimes by himself and sometimes in a group, Morphius entered a tavern standing near the center of the city. Even so, it was dark, dank, crowded and noisy. The wizard received a few glances from the patrons as he made his way through the crowd and up to the bar.
"Ale" he stated as he sat down and dropped five coins on the counter. The barkeep scooped the coins up and placed a tankard where they had been lying. Morphius nodded his head in thanks and took a deep swig . His face twisted in disgust, and he spat it back out, coughing and spluttering. "What in the name of Sithis's rancid rectum is this goblin piss?" he snarled.
"Yeah" the barkeep shrugged. "We get that a lot." The wizard shoved the beverage away from himself with a scowl. "Let me guess" he said. "Your most gracious hosts, the Gashir'éann, have taken all the good stuff for themselves, no?" The barkeep hushed him and fastened his eyes on a point above the wizard's head. He turned slightly to see what the plump man was watching, and swiftly turned back. A group of battle-mages sat around a large table near the fireplace, drinking, talking loudly and being generally arrogant.
"You should mind your words while you're in town, stranger" the barkeep whispered, leaning down so that they could talk undisturbed. "Lots of rats around that'll run straight to the mages at the first sign of anything ill spoken of them."
"I see" Morphius muttered. "Thanks for the warning. Do you know anything about them at all? A weakness maybe?" The bartender shook his head. "I don't know, and I don't want to know" he said. "I see" the wizard muttered again. "Thanks anyway." He rose from his seat, and strode back out the door, leaving a few more coins on the counter for good measure.
Treasuring his low profile, the wizard slept outside for the next few days. He had surmised that the guards were less likely to search through the myriads of homeless souls in the city instead of the inns, should the need to hide quickly arise.
And arise it did. The wizard had sunken down against a wall, and prepared to close his eyes, when a scream reached his ears. "I don't care" he told himself. Another scream split the air, though whether it was male or female was hard to tell. "I really don't care!" he said, firmly. A cry, vaguely sounding like "Help!" echoed through the air. "I. Do. Not. Care. Not in the slightest bit" he thought. "Nuh-uh, none of my business." Yet another scream, so close that he could feel the terror emanating from it. He got up and ran towards the source of the sounds. "Gods curse my soul to the blackest hells for my curiosity, and damn me for my good heart I do care" he snarled bitterly and rounded a corner.
A robed woman with long midnight-black hair was backed into a dead end. Six guards with their scepters blazing and swords drawn were advancing upon her. "Nowhere left to run, my lady" one of the guards stated. "You should know that the tower does not play nice with deserters."
The woman swallowed, and slowed her breathing, a defiant shimmer coming to her eyes. She raised her arm. "I'm never going back there!" she shouted. An aura of magic surrounded her, and a blood-red beam of energy shot from her palm. The beam struck one of the guards and sent him to the ground. His scepter flew from his grasp, and the woman pulled it towards herself with a flicker of her mind.
With the magical scepter firmly in hand, the female mage raised a barrier in front of herself and deflected an incoming fireball before returning the favor by striking down the assailant with a well-placed, and dark purple, fireball of her own.
"Can someone tell why she was screaming bloody murder just a few minutes ago?" Morphius wondered to himself. He stood a short way off, leaning against a wall, almost casual in his posture. He had decided to not intervene until it was absolutely necessary, if it even came to that at all, and given the number of downed guards, that seemed unlikely.
The sound of at least ten pairs of feet approaching hastily had him reconsidering. Fifteen battle-mages thundered past just as the wizard ducked into the shadows. As soon as they passed, he stood and followed them.
The guards had once again backed the woman into a corner. "Give up now, lady Menera, and perhaps Mistress Nâeve will show you mercy!" one of them called. The woman, Menera, let out a laughter, though the fear had returned to her eyes. "You don't know my sister like I do" she panted, a bitter grin marring her, otherwise beautiful, features. "She only cares about ruling this "empire" of hers. Nothing else!" "My lady" the guard said, in a sickeningly sweet tone. "The Mistress does care about you, come with us now, and I am sure she will overlook what has transpired here tonight."
An otherworldly power was laced into the words of the battle-mage, so slight that Morphius barely noticed it at first. He swiftly shielded his mind once he uncovered the hypnosis, drew his blade and snuck closer.
The battle-mage had extended his arm towards the woman. "Put down the scepter, my lady, and we'll talk about this like rational-" A sword through his chest silenced the guardsman.
Morphius pulled the fallen battle-mage's scepter from his belt and leapt back, sending a bolt of blue chain-lightning flying from the weapon. Seven guards fell, and three more were impaled on dark tendrils of energy as Menera reinstated her offensive tactic.
The wizard ran a few of the remaining guards through, the rest were engulfed in flames by the female mage. The two looked at each other, and without a word, they raced off down an alleyway, already hearing more battle-mages approaching from afar.
Menera motioned for him to follow her, and he did, reasoning that she was, all in all, more familiar with the place. The mage pushed away the lid of a manhole and leapt into it. Morphius climbed down after her, and pulled the lid over the hole again.
"They won't find us here" she whispered. "Gashir'éann never bothers with the sewers below the city." "Conveniently enough" the wizard muttered. "The mistress of this city claims that it is no concern of hers what goes on down here" Menera explained. "She busies herself with expansion, and keeping order in the streets, if you can believe it."
"Oddly short-sighted of one with such a tight grip on her empire" Morphius said as the two removed themselves from beneath the manhole. "Manners!" the woman suddenly exclaimed, causing the wizard to jump slightly. "My manners must have evaporated." She turned to him and extended her hand. "I am Menera; you have my most profound thanks for your assistance, noble stranger."
"Morphius" the wizard introduced himself, taking the mage's hand and shaking it. "Morphius the Eternal, and it was only a pleasure to be of help."
After exchanging pleasantries, the two wielders continued in silence. "You are no mage, are you?" Morphius stated. Menera let a smile cross her face. "I should believe that the moniker: sorceress, is more appropriate, yes. And what of yourself?" The wizard's smile mirrored her own. "I am but a simple wizard, my lady" he said with a deep bow and a grin. "Always wandering from place to place, searching for knowledge ."
The sorceress giggled slightly at his display. "A brave, or foolish, wizard you must be then, to wander into these lands" she said after a time. "But never mind that. I am certain, that if we search around long enough, we shall find an exit that leads outside of the walls." "Though it seems like escaping while one still cam is the better option" Morphius began, and halted his stride. "I have business with the leader of this town, which I have come to understand is your sister. She has something I want, and I am not leaving here without it."
Menera stopped and turned to look at him. The look in her eyes told him, that she thought he was mad. "Are you completely insane?" she asked. "Nâeve will not be merciful if she catches you, which she will! The tower is nigh impenetrable, filled with elite battle-mages and the magic-users who have sworn her their allegiance, not to mention the dozens of traps, magical minions, her fondness for inflicting pain unto others, and-mmph!"
She found herself cut off by the wizard's lips against her own. The kiss kept on until he pulled back and hastily bowed his head. "Forgive me, good lady" he said quietly. "It has been some years since I was last with someone, and you are… extraordinarily beautiful. If I have offended you in any manner-" "No! No, no" she cut him off and let her fingertips brush over her lips. "You merely…surprised me. That's all."
Menera turned her back on him. "It…has been a while for me…as well" she mumbled. "I know" he whispered in her ear, suddenly standing very close. "I could see it in your eyes." She turned around to look him in his eyes. "We barely even know each other…" she whispered. "And there is a good chance we will never meet again" he countered. "I say we make the most of our meeting before parting ways, yes?"
She grinned mischievously and said, "You're on, Morphius the Eternal."
A few days later, the two of them found a sewer exit leading from the city. After a very "thorough" goodbye, the sorceress and the wizard parted ways, solemnly vowing to each other, that they would not mistake their flings for more than they were.
After seeing Menera safely off, Morphius turned and disappeared back into the sewer-pipes. His time with the sorceress had yielded results beyond the pleasures of the flesh.
According to her, the tower stretched all the way through the cliff it stood upon and down to the shore below. At the bottom, there laid a dock, through which the tower received its supplies, and newly captured wielders. Supposedly, the dock was sparsely guarded unless there were new wielders coming through them.
"The arrogance and/or stupidity of a ruler is the greatest asset to any enemy of their government" Morphius thought as he made his way eastward through the sewer tunnels. One of the openings, he had been told, was pointing out to the sea. Menera had not misguided him. After trudging through sludge and human waste for a few hours, he came upon a grate that led out to sea.
"Many thanks to my alluring little "source-eress"" he chuckled to himself, and then frowned. "Lyssa, strike me down, that was awful! I must be losing my good sense of humor" he thought.
A few slashes from his blade, still enchanted to appear as any other weapon, and a strong kick, sent the grate splashing into the water below. Luckily, the sewer-mouth was far enough from the tower's dock to avoid attention.
Morphius sat down on the walkway to the side of the stream of sludge, and waited. Deciding not to strike until nightfall. His only lament was not being able to have a smoke while waiting, instead, he decided to meditate. Though he did not surround himself in magical energies like he usually did, the meditation helped him concentrate and sharpened his mind and senses.
When the wizard opened his eyes again, the moon was peeking over the horizon. Making sure that his blade and the scepter he had acquired were secure in his belt, he dove from the sewer mouth and into the sea below.
He swam until he reached the dock, climbed onto it and dashed into hiding behind a crate. The dim light of dusk was more than enough for his enhanced vision, and he could see three battle-mages on the dock. The three of them were patrolling around the entrance, which was a large opening that covered the side of the tower, with a spiraling staircase leading upwards in the back.
"Alright" one of the guards said. "Our shift's almost over, we can just sit in the back and wait for our relieves now." Another, slightly smaller, of them snorted noisily. "We were not chosen by The Mistress to sit on our asses and wait for someone else to do our job, you know" he said acidly. "Oh lighten up you grump, he doesn't complain at all" the first guard said and motioned to the third one.
"He doesn't complain because he can't talk, remember? At least he does his job right. See! There he goes to check the dock one last time!" the second battle-mage said, and indeed, the third one was coming down the dock, toward the wizard's hiding place.
"Come on" the first guard grabbed the second one by his arm. "He'll be fine on his own. He doesn't need us babysitting him." The second guard looked at the third, who motioned for them to go on without him. "If anything comes up, just use some magic and we'll come running!" the second one called, growling slightly as the mute one answered him with an exaggerated bow.
The two other guards disappeared up the stairs, and the third continued his stride. "This has to go quick" Morphius reminded himself as the battle-mage came closer. He pressed himself against the crate that served as his hideout, and prayed that the mute guard would not see him.
Once again, the wizard thanked the gods as the battle-mage strode past him and halted at the end of the dock. Morphius rose from his hiding spot and snuck closer, slowly. The mage turned just as the wizard pounced and sent them both off the edge and into the water.
Luckily, he had aimed for the mute mage's head. And before the shock could wear off his foe, or he could warn his comrades, the wizard snapped his neck. Morphius managed to haul the body ashore, and quickly disrobed it before sending it out to sea with a firm kick and donning the battle-mage's robes and armor.
He then dried it off with a simple spell and hurried back to the dock. "Thrice cursed is the black heart who invented stairs" Morphius thought bitterly as he moved up the stairway. At what he estimated to be halfway through, he met four other guards coming down. The apparent leader looked him over and huffed. "At least someone in this tower stays on duty until their shift is over" he said and motioned back over his shoulder. "Go and rest yourself, you've earned it."
Morphius bowed in thanks and went on his way, letting out a relieved breath once he was certain that they were out of earshot. "Verily" he thought with a certain amount of mirth. "The gods delivered to me a man who could not speak, so that I would not misspeak, may he rest forever in The Aetherium."
At the end of the stairway, the two battle-mages from earlier stood leaned against the wall. "There you are!" the largest one greeted. "So? Did you come across anything?" Morphius shook his head.
"See!" the guard said to the second one. "I told you nothing would happen!" the smaller man might've sent his companion a glare, but it was impossible to tell due to the helmet. "You said, that you wanted him to hurry his ass up so you could get to sleep" he growled. The large one shrugged. "About the same if you ask me" he muttered.
"Meathead, here, aside" the slighter mage grumbled and turned to the disguised wizard. "Ready to hit the sack? It's been a long day." Morphius shook his head again, and motioned down the hallway. "You mean you actually want to patrol some more?" the large guard asked, sounding flabbergasted, dumbstruck even. Morphius nodded. "Well I'll be an imp's lovechild" the battle-mage mumbled.
The smaller one sent his elbow into his companion's ribs, lightly, and turned to the wizard again. "Do you want us to come along?" The relief was clear in the large man's body language and aura as Morphius shook his head and sent a wave over his shoulder before striding down the hallway.
Once the two guards were out of sight, Morphius stopped and scanned the area, trusting the massive ethereal radiation in the tower to drown out his unknown signal. Three seconds later, he knew exactly where the largest concentration of magical force in the tower was located and headed that way.
He passed many battle-mages on the way, and a few regular mages as well as warlocks, sorcerers, conjurers, a wizard every now and then, a necromancer here and there, a couple of elementalists and generally, wielders of nearly every spectrum of magic.
The wizard went out of his way to bow deeply to these men and women, he noticed the lack of non-human wielders, when they passed, as they were obviously superior to one of the many guards in the structure. What really caught his attention, however, was the lack of attention paid to him. "Is it really that unthinkable for these people?" he wondered as he climbed another flight of stairs, pressing himself to the wall to let a group of dark-robed sorcerers pass. "Is it so unthinkable that they might be infiltrated? By Verena, are these people arrogant."
He was almost annoyed, but managed to keep his grumbling to the inside of his head. He ascended another stair, cursed the tower's inhabitants for not having any kind of short-range portals or some such, and noticed that the radiation was powering up somewhere ahead of him.
Morphius narrowed his eyes, steeled himself and strode forward through a hallway, emerging on a walkway surrounding a massive chamber. His eyes nearly leapt from his skull, and he barely hindered his jaw from dropping through the helmet and onto the floor. He was instantly grateful for his adeptness at completely controlling his human shape as he forced a certain part of his anatomy into a dormant state and dashed into hiding behind a nearby pillar.
People were spread all over the floor, either bare as the day they were born, or in various states of undress, writhing together in an enormous orgy. Moans, sighs and screams filled the room, and the wizard had to swallow several times before peeking out again.
Trying, and nearly succeeding, to ignore the wave of carnal activity taking place before him, and smothering his urge to leap down and join them, he scanned the chamber and found what he was looking for.
A woman, looking so alike Menera that it was nearly unsettling, sat on a large throne at the other end of the chamber, surveying the scene before her with cold, icy-blue, eyes. "Mistress Nâeve, I presume" Morphius thought. A light smile was playing at the woman's lips, which were as dark as her hair, midnight-black without stars of course.
Morphius let his gaze linger on her, drank in the amount of skin she revealed through her scandalously slight robes, brushed over the man kneeling between her spread legs, and stopped at her staff. All feelings of desire left him, and he had to repress a shudder, now knowing what happened to the ones who did not give her their allegiance, and to those who outlived their usefulness.
The sorceress's staff was made out of some sort of stone, and he knew exactly what stone. The mineral was…unusual, to say the least, in its coloration. An extremely dark red, with black stripes running from top to bottom, looking as though they had been carved by claws, except for that they did not go deep.
"Crimson Arcanium" he thought. Sometimes referred to as, "Blood Gem." Besides the black variant, Crimson was the rarest of the Arcanium minerals. While it did not have the potential for an unlimited and unconditional source like the Black Arcanium, it could be recharged an infinite number of times, the method of recharging it, however, also gave it its unsettling nickname.
To recharge the magical energy stored within the Arcanium, one would have to submerge it in the blood of someone possessing magical powers themselves. Shifting his gaze upwards, the wizard discovered the crystal, nestled into the claw-like crown on the top of the staff.
"Alright" Morphius thought as he managed to tear his eyes from the crystal, concealing himself fully behind the pillar again. "The crystal is within my grasp, but how am I going to get my hands on it?"
He sat down and started to think. An hour passed, then another one, and another one and he was no closer to an answer. Impatience boiled in his mind. "I am so, very, close" he thought as he moved down the walkway, staying low behind the railing and out of sight. "So close to the one thing I have desired for the last twelve years, or so."
"I am too close" he whispered to himself, and settled down against the last pillar before the walkway sank into the wall, close to the throne. "Too close to wait any longer!" He pulled out his blade and halted as he heard voices from below, a quick glance proved that one of the belonged to the sorceress.
"The daily life of the worms of this city is insignificant!" she snarled at a mage standing nearby, and kicked away the male between her legs. "Do you, or do you not have news of my sister!" The mage, a thin old man with little to no hair and a single braid of beard hanging from his chin, shook his head. "We have searched the sewers Mistress, it would appear that she had already left the city a few nights ago." His tone was steady and unwavering, and Morphius could tell that he was far more dangerous than he looked. "I took the liberty of having a few of the seers…snoop around a bit. She was not alone" Nâeve raised an eyebrow, suddenly curious.
"That would explain how she took all those guards down by herself" the sorceress mumbled, then raised her voice to the older mage. "Do we know who helped her?" "Not yet, Mistress" he answered. "But the seers say he matches the description of the young man in the inn who was asking questions." The wizard's eyes widened slightly. "He, however, did not go with her, but turned back into the sewers. Regrettably, he has covered his track masterfully, in both mental and physical sense, and we lost him."
"The innkeeper said he was robed" Nâeve mused aloud. Morphius's widened eyes narrowed. "Rat!" he snarled silently. "Yes. Yes he did. Do you suppose he was a wielder as well?" the mage questioned. "More than sure, old friend. I am certain that it was he who assisted Menera in her battle, thus being the source of the unknown energy we sensed. We shall make the capture of this…wizard a high priority, no?"
"Having a curious, and unguarded, wielder running about will most probably be of harm to us, yes" the mage agreed. "I shall inform the battle-mages to up their patrols, rest assured Mistress, this interloper will not leave the city undetected."
"That one" the wizard thought as he let the illusion around his blade fade away, referring to the old mage. "Has to go, or this will be too difficult for me." A swift scan of the orgy's participants revealed them to be no threat, he concluded that they were probably drugged or some such to keep them under control.
Morphius stood to his feet and stepped out from behind the pillar. Setting a foot on the railing, he leapt from it and flew through the air with his blade pointed towards his first target. To his great surprise, and relief, he found that the old mage had not put up any form of barrier around himself. "And thus, your arrogance becomes your downfall" he chuckled darkly as the weapon was thrust through the old man.
The man's shock faded, along with his life-force, and he slumped to the ground as the wizard pulled The Blade of Awe back out before training it at the, partially stunned, sorceress. He retrieved the stolen scepter from his belt and let it charge up with lightning. "The crystal" he spoke. "Give it to me, and you will walk away from this, unharmed."
Nâeve's face gradually shifted from shock, to anger, to hate. "You dare demand anything of me?" she said, her voice low, her tone poisonous. "After rebelling against me and murdering my advisor? I will see you gutted alive for this!"
Morphius was confused for a second, before remembering that his face was covered by a helmet. Without moving his blade, he reached out and removed the helmet with his mind, freeing his unruly hair from its confinement. "I should think, Mistress Nâeve" he smirked. "That if I was to rebel against you, I would've had to serve you first."
The shock returned to the sorceress's face, before being replaced by a cold and calculating stare. "Ah, you must be the wizard that helped my sister get away" she noted, leaning back on the throne, and simultaneously tightening the grip on her staff.
"I am not here to chit-chat, sorceress" he stated, his smirk still etched on his face. "But yes, I helped Menera out, in more than one way" his smirk grew lecherous, before disappearing. "Now then, the crystal, if you don't mind."
"I think I do mind" Nâeve replied icily as she stood. "Because even though you do not work for me, the fact still remains, that you killed my guards, assisted my sister's escape, after shagging her no less, broke into my tower, murdered my advisor, and now you are threatening me." She let out a small laugh. "You have clearly take a bigger bite than you can swallow" she said and rose from her throne and pulling a scepter of her own from behind her back.
"Then I shall simply have to chew you a bit" he smirked again, and let the lightning fly from his scepter. Nâeve swung her scepter and deflected the lightning, before lashing out with her staff. A whip of flames burst from the crystal on top of it, cracking twice against Morphius's hastily erected barrier, and shattering it with the third one.
The wizard leapt back to avoid the whip, and landed in the midst of the orgy, which was still taking place. "Yep" he thought, while avoiding another crack of the flame-whip before freezing the fire solid and shattering it. "Definitely drugged."
Narrowing her eyes, the sorceress raised her staff above her head and slammed the crystal into the ground, like a hammer's head. The earth cracked and split itself open, the tear heading towards the intruder swiftly. Morphius whirled out of the way, sending several balls of light flying from his weapons.
Again, the scepter in Nâeve's hand deflected his attack, and she unleashed a wall of flame from her staff in retaliation. A shield of stone erupted from the floor, and though most of it was blasted away, it kept the wizard behind it from being scorched.
Feeling an energy-source heading straight for him, Morphius was too late to dodge it. It struck him and catapulted him into the wall, where his wrists were suddenly frozen to the rock. He surrounded himself in blue flames and ripped his arms loose before channeling it forward in a thick beam. She flung a spear of lightning from her staff and parted the fiery beam down the middle, only just catching the light emanating from her foe before he disappeared.
A blast of energy caught Nâeve in her side and sent her flying. The wizard dashed after her, reaching her as she landed. A slight manipulation of the air form her mind had her landing on her feet, and dodging back as his blade swung though the air.
Partly through instinct of survival, and partly through dumb luck, the sorceress managed to avoid the wizard's blade time and time again. Seeing a strike that she couldn't hope to avoid, she brought up her scepter to block it. Morphius's blade struck the magical weapon and sent it flying from her hand.
Before he had a chance to end the skirmish, a sword of ice, so cold that it emitted frost-smoke, formed itself in her hand and met his blow, proving itself as sturdy as any steel. The two wielders fenced back and forth, interlacing magical charges with their physical battle.
A wild swing from Nâeve knocked The Blade of Awe from its master's hand and into the wall, where it lodged itself in the rock. Ducking under her next attack, Morphius placed his hands against her middle-section and blasted her away before turning and making for his blade.
Nâeve skidded to a halt against another wall, rose to a sitting position, and let loose a beam of grasping darkness from her staff, powerful enough to strip someone's skin off in a heartbeat.
Turning to his foe halfway on his path to his blade, he let a countering beam of light fly from his palms. The two beams met with an explosion that caught several of the orgy-goers in it. Slowly but surely, Nâeve's beam pushed Morphius's beam back. "Gods" he thought with a groan. "That crystal is too strong!" Realizing that he could not withstand the might of the sorcerous beam, he forfeited his attack in favor of a shield-barrier instead.
The beam struck his shield and sent it, and its caster, soaring through the wall. He hit the cliff-floor outside of the tower and kept flying a few more meters before smashing through the wall separating the tower from the rest of the city and crashing into a house on the edge of town.
"This is not good" he groaned and shambled to his feet, just as he caught eye of his killer-to-be floating towards him. "Why did you approach the situation like this?" he asked himself as he took off running through the streets. "Gods damn me for my impatience!" The wizard halted and swept down an alleyway, trying in vain to call his staff to him. "That" he growled. "Is why one should never make too powerful barriers." His opponent hovered past the alley and disappeared.
"Didn't I once say that my spontaneous way of dealing with things would be the death of me?" he pondered and frowned, looking down at himself and the robes he had stolen. The wizard quickly shed them, feeling faster, freer and more comfortable in his usual attire, before swiftly heading back to the tower.
"I should have waited" Morphius scolded himself. "I should've remained undercover as a battle-mage, watched her until I knew more and then made off with that gods-be-damned crystal when she was unaware." Reaching the tower, he quickly teleported inside and pulled his blade from the wall.
Knowing that his teleport had likely gotten her attention, he teleported again and appeared outside the tower. He spotted her immediately, as she burst through a great many houses while charging at him. "This would be so much easier if I had my staff" he muttered.
Vowing to make this the last one, he teleported once more and appeared behind her. His sword was blazing as he sent a beam of flame shooting from its point and at the sorceress. It struck her back, and she snarled as she turned to him and fired off a spell of her own.
Her blood-red lightning was caught by the wizard's blade and sent back, striking her again. A great wind flew from her staff as Nâeve got up again. Dust and dirt whirled around and obscured Morphius's view. A wall of flames erupted from him and seared the sand to glass, glass that broke apart and went flying against the sorceress as large shards.
The shards were sliced in half by a purple, arcing, wave of energy. The sorceress leapt through the glass and rammed the crystal into her foe's gut, before letting loose a blast of energy so powerful that he was sent soaring through the air and crashing through a roof near the center of the city.
Morphius groaned and sat up, noticing that he was lying in the remains of a bar, then noticing the barkeep that had ratted him out. His scowl could've peeled bark from a tree. "I'll deal with you later" he growled and exited through the door, not missing the solid *thump* of the innkeeper hitting the floor.
Well outside, he discovered the sorceress standing in the main square of the city, looking up at her statue of herself. "A little conceited, are we?" Morphius smirked. "Well, you know" she smiled back. "When you are blessed with a body and face like these" she motioned to herself and did a little twirl on the spot. "You should not be so egotistical as to keep it to yourself."
As soon as she finished speaking, she sent a hail of icicles at him, which he batted away with his mind, only to find her nose-to-nose with himself. Realization pierced him just before she did. He looked down at the blade of ice, buried hilt-deep in his guts, before it was brutally pulled out and her hand set him ablaze.
He felt flames singing his skin, burning his senses away, and his world collapsed into pain.
He stumbled back, screaming and clawing at himself, until a lance of blackness erupted from Nâeve's hand and pierced his heart. She pulled her lance back as he slumped against a nearby wall. "And so ends another feeble attempt at my realm" she laughed, turning from the wizard's charred corpse towards the battle-mages that came running down the street.
"Clean that up" she ordered and went on her way, though she halted abruptly as a chuckling, intermixed with coughing and gasping reached her ears. Wide-eyed, she slowly turned back to see her slain foe sit himself up against the wall, and turn his eyes on her.
He kept on chuckling, eventually bursting into maniacal laughter. "You…you think that you…have won…" he stated and laughed some more, only pausing to spit out a large glob of blood. "You are…a fool!" His breathing was uneven and slow, obviously painful to his wounded lungs.
"I…am not called…Morphius the Eternal for naught" he rasped, laughed and coughed violently. "I…will return. As …I always have done, and then… you will regret this day… Mistress Nâeve."
His laughter continued, before he suddenly started gasping. Once again, and for the last time, he trained his eyes on his adversary. "I…will…return…" and with a final sigh, he fell backwards, dead.
Before the eyes of the people present, the wizard's body was engulfed in light, before it disappeared without a trace.
Nâeve bit her lip so hard that it bled, before turning and swiftly heading back to the tower, flanked by her equally distressed guardsmen.
They could not see it, few mortals could, but it could see all as it rose from where its shell had been destroyed, hung in the air for a few brief second, and then disappearing with great haste towards the north.
It saw everything. It saw; a cloaked sorceress on a ship heading away. It saw; a herd of centaurs galloping through a great forest. It saw; a city-port, bustling with people arriving to greet their king. It saw; a family, laughing happily together. It saw; a nymph frolicking in her woodland home, and for an instant, it thought she could see it as well.
It saw; a young wielder in far-off Cyrodiil, bent over his studies. It saw; a gnoll shaman, gazing at the stars. It saw; a dragon nestling itself in its cave. It saw; four greenskins, travelling across a mountain. It saw; armies clashing, old men dying, new men being born. It saw a ranger running through the wilderness, a face it held dear in someone else's arms, a spirit of sand, rising from a desert and waving its hand in greeting to its fleeting form.
It saw; kingdoms rise and empires fall. It saw; pain, fear, anger. It saw; hope, courage, tranquility. It saw…everything, felt…everything, was in balance, attuned to everything. Plagues, famines, floods. Rain, wind, thunder. Earth and sky, titan and worm.
The visions became lesser and lesser, as its sentience focused on one point ahead of itself. It passed over a great forest. It flew between the peaks of a ring of mountains, encircling another forest, sloping downwards and ending near the shores of a great lake, in the middle of which there laid an island. It settled itself down on the absolute center of the island, and waited.
It changed, gradually, over days, weeks, months. By the time four months had passed, it was able to form a conscious thought, and pull it from the recesses of its endless well of thoughts. "Sometimes…" it sighed mentally. "I really hate mortals."
Its form, that of a glowing orb of purest light, changed, became humanoid in shape, luminous and motionless, simply hanging some feet above the ground. Its cognition formed first, then an inner layer containing the components needed to sustain its mortal shell, though some parts were formed noticeably slower than the rest. The two places where the former shell had been pierced would rebuild at a slower rate, as they would have to be repaired from scratch.
Eventually, the inner layer was finished, and the forming of the outer one began. Seared as it was, it would need to be healed completely before it could be applied to its form. The process was lengthy, slow and tedious, or it would have been, if it had any perception of time.
In the outside world, seasons passed, but within the mountain-ring time seemed to stand still. Soon, by its own standards, the outer layer was completed, and garments formed themselves around its nearly-finished shell. Simple blue robes, fit for travel, though some would say they were unfitting for a creature such as itself, it found them comfortable and welcoming.
A radiant blade formed itself in its belt, a mop of unruly, deep brown, hair appeared on its head, the light that had surrounded it pulled itself into its new shell, and Morphius the Eternal took his first breath, once again.
The wizard opened his eyes and drifted down towards the ground. As his boots made contact with the earth, he stumbled and fell with a curse flying from his lips. "By all the gods" he muttered as he rose and dusted off his robes. "I should be used to the first step by now, one would think, but no, the newly reborn wizard always has to fall. Gods! If I had a golden coin for every time that has happened, I would've been rich enough to bribe the entirety of The Celestial Ministry! Except for her, of course. Why me? As far as I know, this never happens to other gods! Am I the venerable deity of perpetual misfortune? Am I-" His ranting was interrupted as he spotted a hulking shape moving through the mist surrounding him.
The figure stepped out into view. It was tall, tall as five men standing on each other's shoulders. It was clad in beautifully ornate plate-armor, so radiant that it looked like they were made of the sun itself. The creature's face, and the rest of its skin, was featureless, except for a pair of sky-blue eyes, completely hairless, and luminous. Atop its head, there sat a helmet, as richly crafted as its armor, and from its shoulder-pads, there hung a cape of brilliant white, trimmed with gold that shone in the presence of its skin.
The luminous giant pulled out its sword, that looked like a two-men long shining crystal carved into a blade, placed the tip on the ground, and knelt before the wizard.
"Welcome back, my prince" it spoke, its voice gentle and melodious, with a hint of danger and the spirit of a warrior in it. "Stand up, Callidus" Morphius greeted. "You know that I don't like it when you kneel to me." "As you command, master" the being called Callidus bowed his head and stood to his full size, dwarfing the wizard in comparison, though it would have been plainly obvious to any onlookers that the smaller figure was in charge.
Morphius walked past his underling, though he would never call him so to his face, and toward the lake surrounding the great island. "So" he began. "How is your work coming along?" "The progress is slow, my lord. We are already running low on resources, and gathering new ones will be difficult since you have forbidden us from venturing beyond the ring" the luminous creature replied. "In addition, the Lightbringers say that the finished tower will not be able to withstand the tear of time without some sort of preserving spell of immense power, moreover…" Morphius held up his hand, the warrior stopped talking in a heartbeat.
"I will take care of our shortage, Callidus, and our tower-remains-standing problem, and to top it off, I shall bring us a formidable defensive power, you told me that you and the other Sentinels were worried about that last time, and all the magical energy we need to complete my designs once the time is right." The Light-Sentinel commander kneeled briefly.
"As you command, my prince. I take it you are planning to go through with your…plans for this place, then?" "Quite" Morphius answered as they reached the shores of the island, venturing over a series of large, circular stone platforms in the water to cross over. "Athregaleth Konlach will be just that, The Unbound Isle." "Master? Where is your staff?" the luminous being asked suddenly, with a hint of alarm tingeing his voice. Morphius was dumbstruck. "Wow" he said. "I must've restrained that thing better than I thought."
"A restraint that could withstand the calling of your divine essence? With all due respect, master Morphius, even your power would not be sufficient for such a task" Callidus stated. The wizard scratched his chin thoughtfully as the pair stepped onto the shore, where a retinue of female figures with pale, glowing skin and blonde hair pulled back into elaborate buns and clothed in sleeveless robes mixing light red and light blue together stood waiting for them. On their foreheads, just above the shining golden of their eyes, a bright yellow sun was tattooed.
The Lightbringers fell to their knees as the wizard approached them. "Oh, for The Light Lord's sake!" he snapped. "Stop kowtowing and get up so that I can talk to you properly!" The female figures obeyed without a second thought, knowing that their prince only swore by his father when he was annoyed.
"Now then" Morphius stated once the maidens of The Light-Realm were standing at attention. "How much time has passed since my essence returned to Athregaleth Konlach?" One of the Lightbringers stepped forward and bowed deeply. "My lord" she spoke with a voice that could make mortal men and women alike toss themselves to their knees before her feet and proclaim their love for her, though her unearthly beauty may have had something like that happen even if she did not speak at all. "Two and a half summers have passed since your essence returned to our fold, my prince."
"Really? That went a lot quicker than I imagined it would…" he muttered and fell to the ground as he leant on his non-present staff. His hand shot up to ward off his servants, who made to help him up, and got onto his feet again. "Regarding my staff" he grunted as he dusted himself off for the second time in less than an hour. "The ethereal radiation was immensely strong in the area where I concealed it. I believe that may have something to do with it."
"Indeed it must have been strong to withstand the call of you essence, your highness" the Lightbringer standing closest to him spoke. "Perhaps we should relocate ourselves to that place instead?"
The wizard shook his head. "It's too risky to move away from the wards or try to move them now, besides, I like this place much better anyhow and I would rather not have to wipe a city full of people off the maps just to satisfy my own needs." The Lightbringers obediently bowed, before he waved them off and they returned to their duties.
"What will you do next, my lord?" Callidus asked. "I shall find a way to obtain something" he replied. "And I'm going to think of a good idea of how I'm going to do so." The young god and his underling headed towards the forest surrounding them. If one caught eye the mountain ring from the outside world, which was unlikely seeing as there was no civilization to found for many thousands of miles around them, they would see a tightly clustered group of peaks. However, if someone were to breach the magical barriers placed on the foot of those mountains, they would find the land contained within the ring large enough to room an immensely large area, filled with enormous forests of various trees, great rivers and lakes, and the tall mountains surrounding it. In fact, if one stood on the tallest peak of the western portion of the ring, the eastern one was so far away that one could not see the mountains outlining it.
Not too far from the shores of the central lake, there stood a building of stone. In stature, it was not all that impressive, though tall enough to make room for the Light-Sentinels, a simple shack almost. "I shall depart as soon as I am able" Morphius announced as he and his second-in-command approached the structure. The two Sentinels posted outside the entryway kneeled briefly before reassuming their posts.
The wizard pushed open the doors to reveal a stairway heading downward into the earth, lit by floating orbs of light. The underground did not bother Morphius as much in this place as it did in other places, the stairs felt less vile as well.
"If I may ask, my prince" Callidus spoke while they descended the stairs. "Ask away" Morphius answered. "Did anything interesting happen to you while you were away?" The two reached the end of the stairs, and entered an enormous room, filled with bookcases. "Well, I did fear for my immortal existence for the second time since abandoning The Heavenrealms, for starters" the wizard replied while pulling the tomes he had acquired on his journey out of his satchel and putting them in a nearby bookcase.
The Light-Sentinel looked as though someone had punched him in the face. Before he could say anything, Morphius spoke. "You are aware of the creatures known as the Khorranûkh, I presume." Callidus's energy flared up, a sure sign of anger. "My lord" he said, replacing his normal subservient tone with a stern one. "This is why I must once again insist on an escort for you. If anything happened to you that could not be undone, even by The Elder Gods themselves, your father would be heartbroken beyond measure." This time, the wizard turned to him and narrowed his eyes. "First of all, even if they could help, The Elder Gods would rather see me consumed in either case and I'd rather be consumed than to kowtow to them again, and secondly; I have told you at least fourteen times, I don't want an escort and I certainly don't need an escort. Don't force me to order you to not bring it up again."
"Forgive me, my prince" Callidus mumbled. "I overstepped my boundaries." "Think of it no more, my friend" Morphius told him and walked back up the stairs, with the commander in tow. "I know that you have only my safety in mind when you make such remarks, but you must understand that it would be difficult for me to remain incognito if I am surrounded by Light-Sentinels all day long."
When the two were once again topside, a creature reminiscent of a miniature sun hovering above the ground in some sort of chariot. The Sunray, afloat as it was, could not bow or kneel, though it briefly dropped to the ground before the wizard and spoke. "My prince" it conveyed into the air mentally, having no mouth to speak with. "The watchers have detected two presences moving within range of the outer wards. Shall we repel them?"
Morphius closed his eyes and stood for a while before reopening them, a smile on his face. "No" he said. "Let her come." "Her, my lord?" the Sunray conveyed, curiosity tingeing its message. "Yes, her. She has followed me here." Again, Callidus looked like he had taken a blow to the face. "How is that possible?" he exclaimed. "She is attuned to this world, just as I am, though on a slightly lesser scale. I shall go and greet her personally." Callidus turned towards a sound from the woods. "I don't think you have to, my prince." Still smiling brightly, the wizard turned to his friend. "Mithra, Elythé. Welcome to Athregaleth Konlach."
The nymph leapt off her unicorn-sister's back, strode up to him and slapped him across the face. Hard.
In a heartbeat, a dozen Lightbringers descended from above and surrounded the two. Moving as one, they swiftly bound the newcomer in chains of magical energy and forced her to her knees, promptly turning and giving her sister the same treatment.
"Enough!" Morphius snapped once he processed what had happened. "Release them! Both of them!" Their eyes narrowed, the Lightbringers obeyed and the wizard extended his hand to the nymph. "I would strongly recommend that you do not slap lords surrounded by their subjects" he smiled as she batted his hand away and got up on her own.
"I knew there was a reason I couldn't place you" she grumbled. "And it took you getting yourself killed for me to realize it. Why didn't you tell me you are a god?" She had been leaning forward while talking and he had steadily been leaning back to avoid her getting too close. "Well now, technically I'm only a godling as of yet-" Callidus cleared his throat loudly. "My prince, if you remember" he began. "You renounced the moniker of "godling" the very day you abandoned the heavens, I believe you reasoned that it was merely another burden placed on you by The Elder Gods to restrain your kind and bend it to their whims."
"yes Callidus" Morphius said after a while. "I do remember that quite well, but she doesn't need to know everything yet." The two of them had subconsciously switched to the tongue of the gods, and Mithra was, understandably, confused as to what they were talking about. Quickly tiring of a conversation she could not understand, the nymph decided to explore the area a bit instead, and slipped away without notice, her sister turning and following her. The voices of the wizard and the Sentinel-Commander getting louder as the pair moved in among the trees.
"Wait! Hold, hold, hold! We are going nowhere with this conversation!" Morphius shouted. "Besides, it is unforgivably rude of us to argue in front of our guests." He turned to apologize, only to see that his friends were there no longer. "See" he said and turned back to Callidus. "Such things happen when you argue in front of guests."
Knowing what was coming next, Morphius held up his hand to decline the Sentinel's unspoken offer of searching the area for her, instead kneeling and finding the nymph's presence to the west. Ordering Callidus, his Light-Sentinels and his retinue of Lightbringers to return to their duties elsewhere, the wizard took eagle form and flew after his friend.
He covered ground quickly, and found the nymph and the unicorn standing atop a waterfall and looking across the forest below. "I take it that you like what you see" he stated as he went to stand beside her. "Oh, this place is beautiful!" she exclaimed. "It's the most beautiful land I have ever seen." "Well, the scenery was my second-to-first reason for choosing this place as my place of rebirth" Morphius smirked as he watched Elythé drink from the pond at the waterfall's bottom.
"What was your first reason then?" Mithra asked, and sat down, the wizard following her. Instead of answering right away, Morphius held his hand up in the air, and pulled a swirling sphere of purple energy from it, held it for a few seconds, and released it again, causing it to dissolve in the sunlight. "This place" he began. "Is one of the most powerful focal points of magical energy on the planet. I needed that energy as a sort of fuel for my rebirths, thus I bound my essence to this place and named it Athregaleth Konlach, The Unbound Isle, and decided that I wanted a dwelling place built for me here."
"How did you bind your essence here? I thought all gods were connected to The Heavenrealms" the nymph said and cocked her head to the side. Morphius sighed and rose from his position. "Walk with me" he said. "Walking and talking is better than talking and sitting still, no?" Mithra smiled and rose as well to follow her friend as he strode off.
"Where shall I begin?" the wizard mumbled, more to himself than to the nymph. "You could begin with the beginning" she smiled at him. He laughed and nodded. "Very well. I was born as the first child of The Lord of Light, Solarion, and a goddess I do not know the name of, father refused to speak of her while we were still on good terms. I don't know how it happened, but somehow I was brought to the mortal plane of existence from my birthplace in The Light-Realm. Once there, I was abandoned somewhere in the wildernesses of the land of Lore, where I was found by a travelling mage, who brought me to an academy, of sorts, with him."
Morphius paused to ponder his past days some more, before hopping over a small creek and ducking into the shade of the trees. "In that academy" he continued. "I was trained in the arts of the arcane, and my masters discovered that I possessed an unusually powerful natural aptitude for magic of most kinds. They also discovered my unwillingness to follow their commands, and my absolute refusal to kneel before anyone, and so I was thrown out of the academy when I was fifteen summers old. After that, I wandered Lore for a few years and got into all sorts of trouble, before I died for the first time at the ripe age of twenty-three."
The two were now lying in a field and watching the heavens above them as Morphius continued his story. "I was helping out a unit of the ancient protectors of Lore, the Guardians, during a war, which happens about every other week in Lore, and we were caught in an ambush. We were slaughtered to the last man, and I was felled by an arrow through my throat." The wizard paused to let his fingers brush over a spot on his throat before resuming.
"Naturally, I thought I was doomed when I felt my conscious mind separate itself from my body, though I suspected that something was wrong when my corpse suddenly disappeared and I went flying through the layers of dimensional barriers that surround the many different planes of existence. The wound that killed me was not a major one, in any way, and my physical shell was reformed soon after, then…I met my father for the first time in my life. That was the first and last time I ever saw my father shed tears. It was a joyous reunion, to be sure, and I even discovered that father had built a massive tower in The Light Realm in preparation for my return. I then stayed with my father in his kingdom for some years, until I felt the mortal realm call to me again. I left The Light-Realm behind and returned to the mortal coil. By that time, I decided it was time for me to leave Lore behind as well, as too many there knew of me and my supposed demise, I have not been back there since."
Morphius leapt over a fissure in the earth and turned to see that Mithra made it across as well. The nymph kept pace with him, and motioned for him to continue. "I then spent the next, say, five decades wandering Nirn, I have yet to discover even a fraction of its wonders, returning to my father's realm every now and then and staying for some time before taking off again. Then, twenty, or so, summers ago, I made the greatest decision in my life." His eyes darkened slightly.
"At one point, my father took me to see The Undying Council, where the "leaders" of our kind, The Elder Gods, held their sessions with the "lesser" gods. In that session, I saw the divine essence of one of us be devoured by an Elder God, simply for claiming them to judge a matter unfairly for the fifth time. It was during that time that a fissure formed between my father and I. He lived in strict adherence to the commandments of The Elders, while I saw them as oppressive tyrants who unjustly dominated our kin. My father and I spoke very little to each other after that, and I returned to the mortal realms to ponder my existence."
The pair passed through a series of dimly-lit tunnels running through the mountain-ring. "I decided quite quickly that I would not, in any circumstance, spend the rest of eternity in slavery to The Elder Gods, thus, I started searching for a way to free myself from them. The answer, laid in this" he said and brandished his blade. "In what is collectively known as The Dawn, among the gods, one of The Elders commissioned a blade be forged for him. One of the Six Gods of Tyria was given the assignment. Balthazar, the god of war and fire. He formed the blade from The First Flame of Life and Death, and encased it in metal, forged from the very essence of The Heavens. The Elder who sent for the blade infused it with unfathomable power, coupled with the Flame's properties and those of the essence, it became one of the mightiest weapon is all of The Creation."
The wizard and the nymph made their way across a snowy stretch of mountainside, rather like a plateau, and simply felt the touch of the snowflakes against them while Morphius kept talking. "The other Elders were…less than pleased by this turn of events, thinking the blade too powerful for one god to bear alone. They stripped their brother of the blade, shattered it, and sent the pieces to the mortal realm so that no single god would ever wield its powers again. Coincidentally, all the pieces were thrown onto Lore, where I found them and reassembled the weapon, all before I even knew of my heritage."
Morphius and Mithra sat down on a large branch of one of the many giant oak-trees dotting the inside of the ring. "After deciding to release myself from The Elder Gods, and thus The Heavenrealms, I studied every text I could find, and some that I had others find for me, until I came upon a solution to my predicament. When I assembled The Blade of Awe, it recognized me for what I was, and bound itself to me permanently. Using this connection, I shouted my defiance to The Elders and The Heavens, before severing my bond to my realm of birth, and reconnecting it to this place. The Elders were, understandably, furious, though they could do nothing about it, as the bond between me and them had been destroyed, rendering me completely invisible to them and all the other gods of The Heavens. They can no longer sense my energy, even if I enter The Heavens themselves. Hell, I could stand right behind an Elder God, and it would not see me without actually looking at me!"
The two sat on a cliff overlooking a great forest below, and watched the sun sink behind the ring. "The gods of The Heavenrealms are forbidden to step onto the mortal plane, though many break this rule from time to time, and so, The Elder Gods cannot send grown gods to hunt me. Many of the gods oppose my actions, but a great deal of them are secretly supporting me, including The Six of Tyria, The Nine Divines of Tamriel, two of the four gods of Chaos and many others, I have much support from the gods of Nirn, as I have sworn to defend the realm against those who wish it harm. And though the grown gods are forbidden from pursuing me, the younger ones are not, and to that end The Elders have sent two of my cousins to Nirn to hunt me down and bring me before them."
"And know you know, who I am and why I am here" he finished as the stars twinkled above them. "Do you have any questions?" "Two" Mithra replied. "One; how come your father did not notice your presence before you first came to The Light-Realm?" Morphius smacked himself in the forehead. "I forgot about that" he mumbled. "When I was found" he began. "I had this around my neck." He fished some sort of amulet out from his robes and held it before the nymph. "Though there is no way I can be certain, I think this belonged to my mother, father refused to talk about, which only serves to confirm my suspicion. I discovered, that while wearing this amulet, my presence was hidden from The Heavens, much in the same way as my essence is now. Thus, I remained hidden until the day of my death. Next question, please."
"Alright" Mithra spoke. "If you are an, shall we say, exile of The Heavens, how come these beings from The Light-Realm are here, will they not be noticed by the gods?" Morphius smiled as he hid the amulet away in his robes again. "I'm going to say, that that was two questions in one, and I shall answer them for you. In regards to my…servants first. The tower in The Light-Realm was not the only gift my father gave me upon my homecoming. He gave me command of one of The Seventy Legions of Light, who were ordered to obey my every command, unless it posed a threat to the realm. After establishing this place as my personal Void of Rebirth and deciding that I wanted a place I could call my home built here, I opened a portal to The Light-Realm and emerged in the basement of my tower, finding it guarded by my legion under Callidus's command. I ordered them through the portal, and they had barely gotten through before my father arrived. He and I just looked at each other for the longest time, before I turned and fled. This leads me to your second question. Everything within the ring of mountains you see around you, is as invisible to The Heavens as I am."
The nymph's expression was one of confusion and wonder as she looked around at the mountains. "By using the amulet my mother left me" Morphius explained. "I was able to create a type of magical ward, able to fend off the eyes of The Heavenrealms. This is why I cannot allow the beings from The Light-Realm to venture outside of the ring, if they do, they will be spotted by The Heavens and The Elders would quickly put two and two together, spelling either my consumption or my banishment to The Netherrealm, and one is as terrible as the other."
Morphius and Mithra stopped in their stride as they reached the shores of the central lake. The moon had risen to its zenith in the sky above them. Callidus emerged from the nearby forest and went to stand beside his master, Elythé came trotting out of the woods as well and stood beside her sister.
"My lord" the Sentinel-Commander spoke. "If you are finished with this mortal, and her…pet, I shall take it upon myself to escort her to the wards and see her off." The look on the nymph's face would've sent most men running for their lives. The Light-Sentinel remained unwavering until his prince laid a similar gaze at him before turning back to his friends.
"You must excuse my friend here" he bowed his head. "He has not been taught to be humble in the face of mortals. Say that you're sorry, Callidus. Meaningfully." If Callidus had anything against being spoken to as if he were a child, he did not show it, instead he kneeled and said, "Please accept my most profound apologies, good madam, I shall not disrespect you again."
Mithra looked taken aback. "Umm…well…Thank you" she stuttered. Morphius patted the kneeling Light-Sentinel on his helmet. "Good boy" he said. "Now stand up." Callidus did as ordered, and rose to stand behind the wizard once more. "Callidus has a point though" Morphius mused. "I would gladly escort you to the wards myself, if you would let me. You are, of course, free to stay and go as you please."
"What if I told you" Mithra began after pondering for a while. "That I wanted to stay here. As in, permanently?" This time, it was the wizard who looked taken aback. Even so, he swiftly held up his hand to silence his underling's unspoken, but not unheard, protest. "I would consider it a great honor to let you dwell here, as Athregaleth Konlach is open for any who wish to stay, no matter who or what, so long as they do not bring harmful intent. Something I know that you do not. Callidus!"
The Sentinel-Commander straightened up. "Yes milord!" "Make sure that Mithra and her sister is properly introduced to the rest of The Legion, she is no longer a guest, she is now a resident of the isle, and I expect you all to treat her as such. Am I understood?" Again, the Light-Sentinel kneeled. "What will you do next master?" he asked as he got up. "I have something to do, and a bone to pick with someone while I'm at it."
"You mean you are leaving?" Mithra asked. "Does it bother you?" Morphius asked back. "I shall stay longer if my absence causes you grief." No, no, no!" the nymph swiftly exclaimed. "I was just curious." "I must warn you though" the wizard told her. "I am not here very often, so you will not see me all that much. Are you sure you wish to stay?"
"Don't you dare insinuate that I am staying here just because you are bound here, Morphius the Eternal!" she snarled. Morphius took two steps back and threw up his hands. "That was not what I meant! I swear to Kormir!" he said quickly.
"Fine" she huffed and her expression softened. "And yes. I still want to stay." "Splendid!" the wizard exclaimed in an uncharacteristic display of genuine jolliness. "Then I'll be off. I just figured out a way to get what I want." "What way is that then?" Mithra asked, then quickly added. "My lord?"
Morphius glared at her. "I'll tell you when I get back, and you are under no circumstances to call me that. Gods know I've tried to make everyone else in this place stop doing it." "As you wish" she smiled. "My lord."
She walked off with her sister, smiling brightly despite Morphius's dry gaze in her back. Once he lost sight of the nymph, the wizard turned to the Light-Sentinel, who was looking rather offended on his master's behalf. "Callidus" Morphius began. The Sentinel-Commander snapped back to attention and bowed his head. "I need you to remember this; you are not her superior. You may not order Mithra or Elythé around in any manner, and you are to treat them as equals." Callidus bowed deeply. "As you command, my prince."
Some time later, Morphius and Callidus stood atop one of the peaks of the ring, looking at the world beyond it. "Take good care of everyone, Callidus. Especially Mithra, I want her to feel at home among us" the wizard spoke as he changed into his eagle form. The Sentinel-Commander kneeled. "Yes, master Morphius, I shall do as you command."
Nodding to show his approval, Morphius took wing and rode the winds to the south, his mind already plotting his next destination.
A young boy exited the farmhouse in the dim light of the evening. He cast a slight glance at the walls surrounding the city a few hills away from the village, before taking off towards one of the larger hills not far away.
The determination in his face was replaced by confusion and slight shock when he reached the top of the hill, and he quickly turned and raced back to his home again. "Grandpa!" he shouted as he barged through the door. "Grandpa, come look! The apple-tree is gone!"
The old man sitting by a nearby table piped up. "Is it now" he chuckled and got to his feet. "Let's go and see if we can find it then."
The two of them exited the house together, only to find themselves blocked by a younger man. "Father" he said. "You shouldn't be out of the house this late, and that means both of you. If Gashir'éann catches you outdoors while the curfew is in action-" "My boy" the older man interrupted and held up his hand. "The mages haven't been able to catch me before, and they won't catch us now. Don't worry."
With that said, the old farmer pushed his son aside and followed his grandson up the hill. When they got to the top, they found that like before, the tree with the golden apples was nowhere in sight.
"That certainly is strange" the old farmer muttered. He then noticed the note lying on the ground where the tree had stood. He picked it up and read it, his eyes widening as he did. "Go home, and tell your parents to start packing, we're leaving tonight" he said in an unusually stern tone. The old man's voice left no room for argument and the boy hurried off to do as he was told. The old farmer stood and peered into the woods some more for a while, before turning and hobbling after his grandson.
Morphius took a deep breath. After departing from Athregaleth Konlach, he had spent two summers gathering what he needed and making the necessary precautions for the ritual he was about to undertake.
He was standing in a great clearing. Before him, a massive circle was burnt into the ground, ringed with arcane symbols that glowed an ominous blue, and containing many more. In the absolute center of the ring, the image of an eight-pointed star was carved into the very earth beneath it, with a flame in the middle. It was flickering, even though it was only a carving, and one might've imagined seeing a reptilian eye in its midst, if one dared look close enough.
The wizard gripped his newly-recovered staff tightly and raised his hand, surrounding it in a dark purple aura that shifted and changed at all times. His eyes blazed blue, and the very air around him seemed to twist and shift as he spoke.
"Sheyahl nohsph m'le acharrûz!" The arcane runes outside of the circle blazed to life. A nearby tree coiled around itself as its branched became tooth-lined maws. "Ghel'asnnuh xaozit mazhkheya!" The circle began to rotate in a seemingly random manner, switching directions, shrinking, expanding and rippling. "Argtheuzm lamxayin ûhlm äzfrethim!" Black clouds gathered into a twisting maelstrom, that shot light-blue bolts of lightning into the ground and illuminated the symbols and runes inside the circle. "Kheshim ashylgar nûen'dahmizkh shezamdohl!" As the symbols dotting the inside of the circle blazed alive from the lightning, the eight-pointed star, the mark of Chaos, began to rotate as well, always differently from the circle containing it, and shimmered and rippled. "Macheleon aûn'alashyen damralgehunnam askhalamberinn!" The flame-like carving at the center of The Star of Chaos burst into real flames, flickering and shifting, never appearing the same way twice, neither in shape nor color. "Dhamûlh achlerretxzeshin gam'nevahl kushphar!" The ground directly below the mark cracked open, turned to flesh and grew teeth. The maw gaped open, and fire spilled from its bowels, just as nine, grand, claws erupted from the earth and formed another ring outside of the circle. "Mazchûm aldóreh juoshimgal qieth'salzoxtyr!" Another hail of lightning struck the claws and shot out from their tips as purplish streaks of energy, that formed a sphere in the midst of the flames billowing from the earth. The fires were absorbed by the sphere, which grew from the size of a marble, to the size of a large boulder. "Usmahl! Rechtol! Nazgh'domarith!Tzeentch!" A thin slit appeared in the sphere's midst, like the pupil of a great eye. The eye turned and fixed its gaze upon the wizard, who had not yet lowered his arm, before plummeting into the maw beneath it while dissolving into flames and pure energy. The maw it had sunk into ceased its flame-spewing and let loose a scream that could've sent entire armies running in terror. After a few minutes of gut-wrenching cries, the maw went silent, and a thick cloud of smoke drifted from its depths and up towards the cloud-covered sky.
The ritual was complete, after what felt like hours of intense concentration. Morphius staggered forward and almost keeled over, but caught himself on his staff and straightened up, breathing heavily. Two red lights flashed to life somewhere in the thick, and oddly-colored, smoke, like eyes. The wizard allowed himself to smile for a second, internally congratulating himself on the effort, just as a voice boomed from the smoke.
"What fool calls upon Shaltûn'vrock, The Seer of Eternities!" the voice demanded, its eyes emitting a lamp-like light as they searched the ground below. "You are, as always, so melodramatic!" the wizard laughed. The eyes in the smoke widened for a second, then narrowed as they trained themselves on him and lowered themselves to his level.
"Morphius the Eternal" the voice scoffed with obvious contempt. "I might've imagined that you would pester me again soon." Morphius smiled sweetly. "It warms my heart to know that you think of me while we are apart, Shaltûn" he said and bowed his head. "Spare me your wit, godling! I could easily snap you in half and devour every ounce of magic in your feeble shell!" the voice snarled, the smoke in which it was hidden turning a deep red.
"Oh yes, most definitely" the wizard nodded before pointing at the circle. "But you seem to forget that I am the one in charge here. I am sure you remember, if you stop to think, that-" "I am bound by the summoning circle, and whoever summoned me maintains command of me until I am released" the smoky voice finished.
"Or if I should, in some way, lose control of you" Morphius added. "You shouldn't try to keep these things to yourself when dealing with me, daemon."
"I am well aware of the facts of the matter, godling!" the daemon roared and took a few minutes to calm itself. "You should not try to teach me the rules of my existence, godling" it said, its smoke regaining its original bluish-purple color. "If we are done, I did not summon you to chit-chat. I would've come to you in that case" Morphius spoke.
"I thought as much" the voice muttered. "Tell me what you want then, or release me. I've no time for your petty interests, wizard." The daemon's remark made Morphius's profession sound like it was a disease. "This is no petty interest or passing fancy, Shaltûn'vrock" the wizard said, his eyes narrowing. "This is regarding a matter I have been pursuing for the past…fifteen to seventeen, maybe even twenty summers, and led to my demise about five of them ago. And I aim to finish my search, and settle a small grudge, tonight."
Morphius raised his arm and pointed directly at the daemon. "You" he began. "Are going to be my little instrument of vengeance for this part. So you had better hurry up and take a more physical form." One might have imagined seeing the hint of a leering grin forming itself in the smoke, the daemon's eyes were certainly ablaze with mirth. "Impatient, godling? Lord Tzeentch would be ever so disappointed, he thinks very highly of you, and would by any means hate to see you like this."
"You may give my thanks to Lord Tzeentch for his high opinion of me when you return to The Realm of Chaos, and I am not impatient! I am anxious and vengeful" the wizard countered. "As you say, godling" Shaltûn'vrock spoke. "I see you were clever enough to conceal us both with wards and illusions, as always you wish to maintain the element of surprise I see."
"Naturally" Morphius replied and turned to walk towards the city. "Come now, my pet. We have much to do."
The night was silent. It had been silent ever since Mistress Nâeve gave the order to establish a curfew, and the subsequent mass-executions of the homeless folk inside the city. The Mistress had gone from a reasonably good dictator, to a raving mad tyrant in the course if the last five summers. "And all in all, we take the blame…" the battle-mage thought where he stood on the wall and overlooked the hills beyond the city.
"By all the gods!" he exclaimed. "Sometimes, I wish something would just come along, and put me out of my misery!" His head sucked itself into his torso just as the words left his mouth.
At the base of the wall, a cloud of smoke had converged, and it was rising, climbing up the bricks, and taking form. The guardsmen on the wall backed up 'till they hit the fence behind them as the daemon's head emerged from the darkness.
It best be described as the head of a vulture, perched upon a snake-like neck, sitting on the shoulders of a massive body. The creature's body was akin to that of a human's though of enormous proportions, digitigrades and with bird-like feet and clawed hands. The entirety of its body was covered in scales that shimmered and shifted, never being the same color twice. A pair of enormous wings, covered in color-changing feathers, unfolded themselves from its back, and it was clad in a long white lower half of a robe, trimmed with gold and inscribed with foul runes.
The Lord of Change raised its clawed hand. Pink fire and purple lightning appeared in its palm, entwined and hardened, forming a massive staff, topped with The Mark of Tzeentch.
The beast raised the staff above its head as it was engulfed in dark flames, and brought it down upon the wall, smashing clean through it. The greater daemon laughed heartily as it strode through the ruined walls, swinging it weapon once more and shattering what remained of it for good measure. The battle-mages who had not fled already flung their spells at the invader. The magic struck the daemon and was immediately sucked into its hide by gaping maws that appeared on its form. With barely a flick of the beast's mind, the souls of its assailants were ripped from their bodies and consumed.
The greater daemon, to the surprise of those who stopped to think about it, did not pull the souls out of any of the non-wielders, until it passed an inn near the center of the city. Shaltûn halted his stride and swung his staff against the structure's roof and sent it flying, before reaching down with his free hand and seizing the innkeeper.
As the monster lifted the human towards certain doom, a voice echoed inside his head. "This is for ratting me out." The man barely had time to recognize the voice, and scream in terror, before the daemon's beak snapped him clean in half. Shaltûn'vrock resumed his stride towards the tower, leaving flaming pits in his wake, and lesser daemons crawling out of his tracks.
Some of the daemon's spawn looked rather like fleshy ghosts, with maws that spewed flame covering their forms. Other looked more like pink blobs of flesh, that changed and twisted, growing limbs, horns, maws and other, more revolting appendages at random, and flinging daemonic fire from their hands whenever they had any.
The daemons of change laid into their mortal prey, each one slain meaning another soul for their gruesome master. The Lord of Change didn't even spare a glance at its offspring as it neared the wall separating the tower on the cliff from the rest of the city.
The daemon narrowed its eyes, its beak twisting into a grin as it tasted the magical wards on the wall, and placed its hand on it. The Mark of Tzeentch flashed over the bricks, the malign glyph sinking into them. The wall exploded in an eruption of flames, each of the bricks flying away. Those that landed nearby, suddenly grew spider-like legs, along with pincer-tipped tentacles and scurried in for the killing.
After the wall fell, the daemon strode on through and advanced upon the tower. Suddenly, the uppermost spire of the tower flung a boulder, surrounded in green flames at the beast. Grinning again, Shaltûn'vrock raised his staff and swung it at the projectile, and sent it flying back at the tower. The spire was shattered, and the boulder, that had grown a maw and a pair of wings, headed back to slam into the tower again, taking a chunk out of it with its teeth.
The boulder had just formed a tail and four eyes when it was shot down, but it had served its purpose well. The Lord of Change had reached the tower, and dug its claws into its wall, before ripping it lose and letting a jet of flame fly from its beak into the breach.
The orgy still going on inside was consumed by flames, and the souls of its participants were devoured. And as the tower was leveled, its inhabitants burned and eaten, one lone figure slipped out of the sewers, almost unnoticed by hostile eyes. Almost.
Nâeve ran faster than she had ever done before in her life, she had sensed a gathering of magical energy in the woods earlier that night, and though it was masterfully hidden behind wards and illusions, some of the force had leaked through. Knowing that she and her cohorts did not possess the power necessary to banish a greater daemon of Chaos back to The Warp from whence it came, she chose to flee, taking only her crystal with her, to build herself back up elsewhere.
She was panting heavily by the time she reached the edge of the woods, casting a glance back at her city, burning and crumbling, before turning and taking off again.
The moon was hanging low in the sky as she stopped in a clearing to catch her breath. Taking off again, she found something to be holding her back. She crashed to the ground and looked behind her. A root had risen from the earth and coiled itself around her calf, and just as she was about to rip it off, a growl reached her ears.
She whirled her head back and spotted a wolf the size of a horse padding towards her, snarling, its eyes ablaze with something she could not quite set her finger on. A ball of flame appeared in her hand and was flung at the animal. The wolf's eyes flashed, and the fire extinguished itself.
Before her eyes, the wolf changed form and became the man who's voice had haunted her nightmares for five summers. "I told you I'd be back" he said, casual in his tone, but with a hint of baleful glee in his eyes. "No…" she whispered and crawled back as far as the root would allow her. "You're dead…I killed you…you're dead!" The wizard did not answer for a while. "So I am" he said. "Or at least, so I was. But let me ask you a question, Mistress Nâeve. Can you die, if you were never truly alive to begin with?" Largely ignoring his killer's flabbergasted look, Morphius sat down on a nearby stump.
"…never alive?" she whispered, before her voice rose to a shriek. "What are you?" He smiled, unnervingly. "A lot of people ask me that question" he said. "And I always answer them alike. Wouldn't it be more exciting not to know?"
Another ball of flame was snuffed out in midair as he rose and advanced upon her. "Stay back you…you monster! You're dead, damn you!" she yelled. He halted just within reach of her and his smile turned into a venomous grin. "Maybe I am" he spoke, as a large chunk of his skin fell from his face. "Maybe I am dead." His flesh fell from his body in large chunks, leaving only his bare bones as his robes became splattered with blood, and tattering as if they had been shredded open. "Maybe" he began, his voice a cold, hollow whisper. "I have not passed on. Maybe I cannot rest before my murder has been repaid in kind. Maybe…I was reborn for the sake of vengeance!" His eye-pits erupted in dark green light as he drew his blade and held it tightly in his skeletal hand. "Maybe this is why I am called: Morphius the Eternal!"
He raised his blade just as she screamed and held her crystal against the corpse-wizard, hoping somewhere in her mind that it would defend her. Her screaming only got louder as she felt his blade cut into her wrist and lop off her hand. Morphius caught the severed limb in his hand, pried the crystal from its grip, and tossed it away.
Disregarding the screaming sorceress, he retrieved The Obsidian Triclops from his satchel. "Finally…" he whispered. "After all these summers. It is almost complete." He swung his staff and knocked the screaming woman unconscious before dropping it to the ground.
Trying, and failing miserably, to control his breathing, Morphius slowly pushed the Kolgherin-crystal into the eye-pit of the black Arcanium. The power inside grew, and grew, and grew, and soon he could not feel the end of it. A beam of white light erupted from the Triclops and shot towards the sky, lighting up the area like a sun. Ancient runes of gleaming white color appeared on the gemstone's smooth black surface, he could not understand most of them, but a word in the tongue of his kind, the language of gods, shone to life between the three crystals. Elvrënhim, eternity.
"Maybe you should be renamed, The Triclops of Eternity" the wizard mumbled, just as a swiftly approaching presence, along with the currents generated from a large pair of wings flapping against him, warned him of his temporary servant's coming.
The daemon dropped out of flight behind him and the ground shook under its massive frame. "I am going to assume, godling, that my summoning has not been in vain" Shaltûn'vrock spoke, eyeing the limp sorceress with obvious hunger. "You assume correctly, Lord of Change" the wizard answered, not taking his own eyes off the Triclops.
"However, there seems to be a problem" the daemon chuckled darkly. "It would seem, that in your eagerness your attention has been focused upon one sole object, fully and completely. I hardly need tell you what that means." The Lord of Change's beak curled into a grin again.
"So it would seem" Morphius grinned and turned around. "However, I must tell you, I feel, that I didn't lose control of you, so much as I let it go. I thought I would take this thing for a test-run." The monster narrowed its eyes and brought them to the Arcanium resting in its foe's grip. The eyes snapped open, and it raised the staff above its head just as the wizard held up The Triclops of Eternity.
"Kolgherin!" he shouted. The daemon flew backwards, knocking away the forest behind it and leaving a crater where it landed. "And that wasn't even intended to destroy him" the awestruck wizard thought. Screaming out terrible curses in daemonic, Shaltûn'vrock took to the skies and flung a fireball the size of The Imperial City in Cyrodiil at him.
Repeating his earlier word, the fireball was cut clean in half and dispersed as the wizard said it for the third time, meaning it completely, and aiming for the daemon.
Lightning struck the beast and sent it to the ground, where the earth rose up and formed an enormous hammer of stone, that crashed down upon the fiend. The creature was breathing unevenly as the wizard stepped up beside its face. "You will give Lord Tzeentch my best regards, yes?" he asked. "Naturally" the daemon rasped. "I imagine he shall be quite pleased with the events that have unfolded here tonight."
"Wonderful. Then I'll see you whenever" Morphius stated and turned with a small wave, as the daemon wheezed out its last breath. "Stay" he sternly said to the sorceress who had begun to crawl away, clutching the stump of her arm. "We are not finished." Years streaked down her face as she turned to him, terror etching itself in her eyes as he raised the Arcanium again.
"Csayaerin" he spoke. Suddenly, bones sprouted out of those he had severed, flesh grew out of the stump, and before long, her hand had grown out again. Her shock turned to terror again as he spoke once more. "Kolgherin!" She closed her eyes and braced herself, but nothing seemed to happen.
Morphius put away the Triclops into his satchel. Seeing her chance Nâeve concentrated and flung a bolt of lightning from her palm. Or she attempted to, yet nothing came from it. in fact, she could no longer sense her own magic, or his for that matter.
"Kolgherin, or destruction in your tongue, comes in many forms" the wizard spoke as he turned to her again. "Just to make sure you can never impose your rule upon anyone ever again, I have destroyed every last trace of magic in your soul, mind and body."
She fell backwards again. "What are you?" she whispered. "Remember this, Mistress Nâeve. No one crosses Morphius the Eternal without consequence. Be gone now, little mortal, and pray that our paths do not cross again."
The wizard's tone left no room for argument, and she rushed to her feet and fled the scene, leaving him standing to watch the sunrise.
"These crystal contain the very essences of preservation, creation and destruction. Think of the power one could amass with these" he thought. "Athregaleth Konlach will be the safest place to store them in." He looked around, pulled his hood up over his head, and walked off. "Though, that can wait until next time I perish."
He looked up from the map he was holding. A small tingle of nervousness was dancing at the edge of his mind. He sighed and rolled his map together, before turning his eyes upwards. A large black spot came into his vision, and though he could not make out any of its features due to its altitude, he knew exactly what it looked like.
Its body, head and legs were those of a great raven, pitch-black and sporting four red eyes. The wings were bat-like, and the tail was that of a snake, all in the same black color. The large creature, about the size of an adult wyvern, dove towards the ground and crashed into it, collapsing into a puddle of black foggy substance.
Terror beyond reasoning pounded at Morphius's mental barriers, but they held fast as the fog began to shift and form. A robe, black as the mist it was spawned from, and shredded in many places, rose from The Black Mist, with the black fog spilling from underneath the robes, its sleeves and from inside its hood, where two red eyes opened, with thin slits for pupils. A pearly white row of sharp teeth were revealed as the misty figure grinned maliciously.
The wizard reached into his satchel for the Triclops, but pulled his hand out and drew his blade instead. "Where would the challenge be in that?" he asked himself as a staff materialized from The Black Mist.
The staff itself was made of gnarled and knotted wood, twisting into screaming faces as it went. At the top of the staff, there sat a statuette of a raven, with its wings spread and its head only a raven's skull, with black mist billowing from its beak and eye-sockets.
The two robed figures stared at each other, neither saying anything for a long time, before they suddenly charged, black mist meeting the wizard's blade. Tendrils of mist whipped from the dark being, and dissolved against Morphius's radiant blade and staff.
This kept on until he noticed the black-robed figure standing right in front of him, with a long, curved dagger clutched in his long, claw-tipped fingers. Staff met staff, blade met dagger, and both of the fighting figures were engulfed by light and blackness.
"Not this time, dearest cousin."
The End?(is only a new beginning.)