Chapter Twenty-One: King Modrus
The curling waves shimmered under stars as the elven galley made its way across a tumbling sea. A thick fog spread over the earth, billowing like wisps of smoke in the pale moonlight, and far off, away in the south, a gull pierced the gloom with its cry.
Lying awake in his cabin, Efkin peered out his window into the fog. He could not fall asleep. Too many thoughts were tangled in his mind and he was lost in his ponderings.
He looked at the horn on the table. It was a relic of another age, when the world was new and glorious entities swept over the earth. He was descended from the very beings who had formed the lands and oceans of the world.
The horn glowed with a faint light that might have seemed like a reflection of moonbeam, but Efkin knew the radiance came from the horn itself. It was full of the powers and mysteries of the earth, the music of creation that brought all things into being. It was a power that emanated from every rock and grain of sand and reached into every crevice of the earth.
Suddenly, Efkin had a notion. He rose from his bed and stepped toward the horn. He touched the horn, clearing his mind of all concerns, dismissing every stray thought from his consciousness. He picked it up and held it with both hands, concentrating his energy in the way he had been taught, employing ancient arts that had served the elves for centuries. He stood very still, breathing slowly, aware of only the horn in his grasp. His mind reached out, attempting to probe the horn and make contact with whatever power dwelled inside it. He became dimly aware of a strange warmth, a heat that seemed to come from the deck. It sprang from some hidden depth, coursing through the ship and into his body, a force that came from the very core of the earth, and the Sylph glowed with the energies that were channeled. He felt the raw power flowing inside him and, by some means beyond his elven arts, he directed this energy outward. In his mind’s eye, he sped over the ocean, moving swiftly east toward the fog veiled shores of Mor. The strange power was rich with all the elements of the earth, myriad vibrations that stirred and mingled with his essence. He focused on one element and descended suddenly, plunging into a great canyon that spread for miles. At once, the air was thick with poison. The iron he sought was all around him. It grew stronger as he passed through the curling rock of the canyon until he came to an area where the concentration was greatest, a part that was saturated with the iron that elves can perceive. Were the Runes near?
And then he was aboard the ship again, standing with the horn in his hands.
Ebin and Colun were overlooking the sea when Efkin came from below. He climbed the narrow steps slowly with one hand on a wall to steady himself. He stumbled and his companions came to his side.
“What is wrong?” Ebin asked him.
Efkin took a breath of the fresh air to draw strength. “I think I have found the Runes.”
Ebin gasped. “How?”
Efkin touched the horn at his belt. “A power in the horn …”
“Ggrrom has shown you the Runes?”
Efkin shook his head. “The iron.”
Ebin and Colun looked at each other as Efkin rose to his feet. He stood a moment inhaling deeply, allowing the sea breeze to revive him.
“Of course, the iron,” Ebin said.
“Iron?” Colun said confused.
“For many years, we have feared the iron men use,” Efkin said. “It is like poison to the elf folk. A mere cut from a blade of iron can make us sick or kill us.”
“If the stench does not take us first,” Ebin added.
“We are very sensitive to iron. It is the only metal we can actually perceive. Yet I was surprised to learn from a dwarf that my sword has iron.”
“But we would detect it,” Ebin said.
“Perhaps not. Perhaps the iron we perceive has been tainted. If the sword was forged long ago, before the earth’s iron was altered, we might not perceive it.
“What force could alter the iron?” asked Colun.
“A force that is deathly to the elves. It seems likely the iron we perceive has been tainted by the Runes.”
Colun nodded. “The Runes may be affecting the iron, but how will finding iron lead us to the place of power? There may be miles of iron in Mor.”
“If I am right, the iron that radiates the strongest poison is the iron that is closest to the Runes.”
“That could narrow our search,” Colun agreed. “You have found this iron?”
Efkin touched the horn again. “I have.”
Colun glanced at the horn, raising a brow at the curious artifact that possessed powers beyond his understanding. He turned his gaze east. “We have some miles ahead of us.”
Ebin laughed at the knight’s euphemism. “At least we have the horn,” Ebin said. “That is one thing in our favor.”
At that moment, a man in a grey cloak was upon them. He took the horn from Efkin and dashed away across the deck.
“He’s taken the horn!” Efkin shouted.
He was one of Colun’s men. They pursued him as he ran to the larboard rail where he stopped suddenly. They were almost upon him as he waved his hands and a light flashed. Then a strange portal opened before him, a black hole that hovered in the air like a rip in space. He leapt over the rail and into the portal, disappearing into the blackness that swallowed him.
Running ahead of the others, Efkin sprang off the deck, casting himself through the black hole before it vanished.
And the man and Efkin were gone.
He was hurtling through darkness. In his youth, he had heard of strange portals that abridged great distances by warping space and time. The men who traveled these pathways had spent most of their lives learning how to open them.
He saw the man below him, holding the horn as he fell through the void. Then he vanished.
An instant later, Efkin found himself standing on a grassy hill as a cool breeze crossed his face. He saw a small town scarcely three miles from where he stood. He did not see the man anywhere and was not surprised, for if the stories of the black holes were true, he would have arrived in this place hours before Efkin appeared even though he preceded him through the portal by only a few seconds.
Efkin started toward the town, hoping to find the man and recover the horn.
“Hold, demon!” a voice croaked.
Suddenly, his sword flew out of its sheath and he watched it fly away behind him into the skeletal hand of a gruesome figure.
“Fiend! You are not welcome in this land!” it said, approaching.
Efkin was in shock at the sight of the thing. It was a skeletal form half-covered with flesh that hung in rotten clumps. Two eyes stared out of its skull and upon its head was a crown laid with sapphires. Its body was wrapped in torn garments of blue and green with its skeletal legs inside two black boots.
“You will not slay me, demon!” It swung the sword at Efkin who seized its fleshless wrist and dealt a blow to its head that knocked it to the ground.
“I assure you I am no demon,” Efkin said.
Its terrible eyes stared at him. “You fell out of the sky like the other one.”
“You think I am a demon because I fell from the sky,” Efkin said amused. “Demons are not the only beings who deal in sorcery. If they were, I would think you are a demon, seeing how you acquired my sword.”
It stood silent for a moment, pondering.
“Yes, I suppose you are right,” it said, “for if you were a demon I would be dead … again.”
It stood up, leaning on the sword for support, and sat itself on a rock. “They are cruel to wake us after all these years.” It spoke with sadness, and though hideous to behold, it seemed harmless somehow. Efkin stepped closer to it.
“Can you tell me where I am?” he asked it.
“You stand in the once proud lands of Khad-Amryn, a few miles from Kossol, the great citadel.”
Efkin was at once concerned, aware that Khad-Amryn had fallen under the sway of Mor.
“What sort of sorcerer are you?” it asked, bewildered.
“I am not any sort of sorcerer,” Efkin smiled. “My folk do not practice sorcery, for theirs is a power not related to the dark arts of men.”
Its eyes, two orbs without lids, looked at Efkin closely. “You are not human,” it said.
“I am of the elf folk,” replied Efkin.
It fell silent, sifting through its memories. “The elves. I seem to remember something of that folk. What brings the elves to this land?”
“No others have come. An unfortunate circumstance has brought me here.”
“Indeed, I could say the same of myself,” it said. “But you came out of the air like the other before you.”
“The other you saw is a man who has stolen a horn. By his arts, he opened a portal that cut a path across the realms and escaped through it as I followed after him.”
“This man is a sorcerer,” it said. “The horn he has taken must be of great value for you to pursue him across the planes.”
Efkin paused, wondering if he should disclose the nature of the horn to a creature so bizarre. But there was something about this being, a strangely benign quality that even his grotesque appearance could not diminish.
“It is the horn of our ancestors,” he said. “It will summon the only power that can save us from annihilation.”
Its pale jaws were agape with surprise.
“He will go to the citadel, this man you seek. The lords who dwell there are an evil lot who have sided with our enemies and brought ruin to this land.” It bent its head toward the ground sadly. “It is cruel to wake us.”
“What do you know about this land?”
“I know it once shone with a light that dimmed the stars in the sky, brighter than Kel-Ri or Gruin-Jrel, brighter even than great Hlonan. It was a rich and beautiful land filled with towering structures that cast shadows across the sea.
“Then a dark time came when this land prepared for war with its eastern neighbors who had grown envious of its prosperity. They had each tried to plunder its riches and had always been defeated, but now they were united and it seemed their combined armies might conquer the land that was now being devastated. No man or woman who was born in this land had ever known such carnage as was seen in those dark days. The people cried for peace and their king tried to end the war, but all his attempts to negotiate with the invaders had failed, for they were a brutish sort who wanted to rape the land of all its wealth.
“During this time of strife, the rulers of Nojor who bordered the land in the south had offered their aid, but the king was wary of these men whose territory belonged to Mor, for rumors were spreading that Mor sought to conquer all the lands of the world and rule them with cruelty. He was opposed to any dealings with these men and did not seek their aid until all the citizens and his counselors begged him to summon their armies and save their kingdom. The sight of their beautiful cities falling in pieces crushed their spirits and they were outraged by the king’s refusal to involve the men of Mor who could swiftly defeat the invaders. In desperation, the king at last relented to the will of his people and Mor’s forces swept into the land, vanquishing all their enemies, and peace was restored. But the price … the price …”
It paused a moment and looked across the land.
“Mor kept its armies in Khad-Amryn, ostensibly to guard against further attack, but in truth, its rulers were occupying our land. Slowly, Khad-Amryn was being absorbed by that terrible land, extending its territories in the north.
“Save for those who moved in political circles and a few among the aristocracy whose opulent homes were quickly occupied by Mor’s captains, the people were largely unaware of any changes, satisfied that the war had ended, but the king knew a greater war was at hand, for their true conquerors had crept into the land and tried to steal their kingdom while they slept. The men of Mor did all they could to seize power away from the king, but while he lived, no foreign lord sat upon the throne.” It paused and turned its gaze toward the town. “The fools.”
It sat on the rock in silence, staring out across the fields with the eyes of a wounded soul.
“You seem to know this king quite well.”
It held its gaze on the town and replied in a whisper. “I am that king.”
It nodded. “Modrus, the noble king of Khad-Amryn, resurrected from the grave to behold again the kingdom that I lost.” It lowered its head and fell silent for a moment. “Why did I listen to those wise fools?”
Efkin was stunned at the mention of the name. “Did you say you are King Modrus?”
The being nodded.
“You must tell me where the Runes are hidden.”
“Yes, you have seen the Runes. You took a sorcerous oath that you would not reveal the location of the signs, but you broke the oath and tried to raise an army to destroy the Runes.”
Modrus thought for a moment and a memory came to him. “Yes, I tried to speak of the Runes … and died.”
“Where are the Runes?”
“I do not remember.”
“Try to recall.”
“I cannot,” said Modrus. “I have forgotten many things and, if my fortune improves, I will forget a great deal more.”
“How did you return to us?”
“I do not know. Some cruel sorcery has awakened me from the grave so that I must walk the earth in this ruinous form. It is the most profound irony: Mor’s influence destroyed this land and now its king stands as the embodiment of that decay.” It raised a skeletal hand to its face and watched a piece of flesh slide off a bony finger. A tear rolled down its fleshless cheek. “They are cruel to wake us.”
Efkin sat beside Modrus. He placed a hand on the king’s shoulder. “I have a sense that our meeting has some deeper significance. I believe that we were supposed to meet. If you could remember how you were awakened, we might discover why.”
Modrus nodded. “I will try.” He rose slowly, lifting himself with the sword, which he used as a cane as he walked across the field to the place where he had been buried. “I burrowed out of the earth,” he said, pointing to a hole in the ground. “And then I was standing here.” He looked around and seemed to behold something unseen. “I remember now,” he said with surprise. “There was a forest, a bright wood with trees that glowed.”
Efkin looked up and found a full moon gleaming in the sky. “You saw the Shimmering Forest. Did you see the dryad?”
“I have never seen a dryad,” said Modrus. “I did not know they truly existed.”
“Then she did not appear or she may have clouded your memory of the encounter.”
“It was a beautiful forest. I have not seen anything so wondrous.”
“Did you step outside the forest?”
“I did not move. I stood staring at the trees, hoping to remain in the glowing wood forever.”
Efkin wondered why the forest had not taken Modrus away as it departed this plane and moved on to others. Perhaps he was not truly alive and could not be removed from this plane, like a ghost bound to its haunting grounds. He did not know why Modrus had been wakened, but he was sure the forest had played a part, its power in some way affecting the earth in which he lay buried.
“It is as the druid foretold,” Efkin realized. “The trees will fade and the dead will rise.”
“This forest has been unkind to me,” Modrus said bitterly. “How could something so beautiful curse me in this way? Look at me, there is not a creature on this earth more frightful to behold.” He stood sullen, his tall frame casting a shadow that stretched eerily over the plain.
Efkin looked at Modrus as the king gazed once more into the valley, staring down at his lost kingdom with tormented eyes as a light breeze blew strands of flesh from his face. In that moment, Efkin felt a terrible pain in his soul.
“I must go now, Modrus.”
“You will go to the citadel to seek the horn?”
“It will be difficult,” Modrus warned. “It is nigh impregnable and heavily guarded. You will be scarcely a few yards from the citadel when their archers pierce you, if their horsemen have not already cut you down on the road.”
“I have no choice. I must recover the horn or this world is lost.”
“Have you no elf magic to aid you in this task?”
“I fear my mystic arts are not as formidable as those I would challenge,” Efkin admitted. “But still, I must try.”
The king sighed.
“Then I suppose my magic will have to suffice. I had hoped I would not walk upon this land again, that death would bring me peace at last, but if someone is determined to save the world, I believe it is only proper for me to assist if I am able.”
Still leaning on the sword, he waved his free hand in the air and a gold radiance was upon him, wrapping round his entire skeletal form, transforming him, fleshing his bare frame until he stood in the full body of a grey haired man.
“That was powerful magic,” Efkin said, astonished.
“It is not what it seems,” said Modrus. “It is only an illusion, I am the same fleshless wretch as before, veiled by this pleasant guise, and do not worry, for this is not the sorcery your folk abhor. It is a purer magic that in days of old was called wizardry.”
Efkin did not reply, skeptical that any magic practiced by men could have its origin in anything other than sorcery. He did not voice his qualms, however, for it was plain that Modrus had a good heart and he was in desperate need of his aid.
Modrus passed his hand over Efkin’s face and his elvish countenance was changed into a human disguise. “I fear my powers are weak and I do not know how long I will be able to sustain this illusion.” The king handed Efkin his sword. Seeing that Modrus limped, Efkin found a fallen branch for him to use as a cane.
“We still have to find a path into the citadel,” Efkin said. “Do you know a way in?”
Modrus stared across the plain for a moment.
There is a way.