“The Fall of the Forest”

by Merric Blackman, Joe Helfrich, and Jeff Franzman


Being the fifth and final part of the “Fall of the Forest” cycle.

Once upon a time, when our people were young, and there were still trees that remembered the first days of the world, we lived in the Forest of Argoth.

The forest was home to elves, treefolk, faeries, and all manner of woodland creatures. They lived in peace, their only contact with the outside world was through those who had renounced it – the druids of Citanul. The druids tended the forest, making sure that all was well in Argoth.

Then the rivalry between two brothers came to Argoth. Both needing the resources only Argoth could provide, they set up factories, mines, and workshops in the forest, and soon a pall of filth hung over the land.

Emissaries were sent to the brothers. “Please stop the work! Please go away!” Urza, the more diplomatic of the two, explained that if he did go away, Mishra would be free to continue his domination of the world – including Argoth. The emissaries sent to Mishra never returned. And seeing no stop to the work, the folk of Argoth attacked the brothers.

Their attempt to stop the brothers was futile. The resulting war destroyed Argoth. The Dragon Engines of Mishra breathed fire and terror, the Soldiers of Urza were little less destructive, as they moved across the land, not caring as to what was in their way. Finally, the island upon which Argoth stood could not take any more of the strain of the battle, and split asunder, most being buried beneath the waves. So too were Urza and Mishra, their war ending in mutual destruction, or at least that is how the story goes. But Argoth had been destroyed.

Not all of the forest folk died when it was destroyed. A group of elves, treefolk, and faeries had fled the forest, led by the seeress Kethyr some time before. Travelling the planes, they at last came to another place they would call home. To the men who lived to the south, the forest was known simply as the Great Forest. And such remained its name. The elves settled there, and prospered, and grew, and regained the happiness they had lost when Argoth fell.

Kethyr, who was old even by elven standards, watched her people grow, and was happy. When she felt her end come near, she called the people to her one more time. As she relinquished the bonds of power to her successor, Kylara, the power of prophecy came over her one last time, and she implored the elves to leave their new home, and go once more in search of a safe haven.

She uttered a prophecy, and finally, worn out by the strain, she died. The elven council met, and discussed her final words. But they did not follow her advice. The journey would be too hard, they said. We have our new home, we will stay here. And so the elves stayed in the Great Forest.

One thousand years later, the time of the prophecy has come and the Beast walks the land. Despair has filled the elven people, as the Great Forest crumbles before the power of the Beast. The younger elves curse their elders, and many die as the Beast makes his way to the Heart of the Forest.

The time of the prophecy has come, and the Forest is falling.

The death of life, the life of death,
The darkness walks the land,
Destroying all it can’t control,
Enslaving those it can.

At Forest’s Edge, defender bold,
Confronts the beastly foe.
Where champion’s fate, all wonders gone,
In swampy depths is held.

Within the sight of guardians strong,
The horde of dark now comes,
Where guardian’s fate, all living gone,
In night’s dark depths is held.

The Forest’s Heart, where three must stand,
The one alone does weep.
Where weaver’s fate, all hoping gone,
By traitor’s hand is done.

The Forest’s Death, in time to come,
The power of the Beast.
Which yours will see, the Forest’s Doom;
When darkness covers all.

***

Canticle scraped the mud off his boots onto a convenient log. The two wizards hadn’t been walking through the Bramblewood long before they had come to the location of one of the battles against the Beast. Where once tall trees had stood proudly against the elements, now their broken trunks and branches littered the ground. The ground itself was churned into mud, making the journey hard and unpleasant. And everywhere they looked, they could see the dead bodies of the Guardians.

“They fought well,” Canticle said to his friend, pointing out the forms of swamp demons amongst the bodies of the defenders.

The ELF ignored him, instead concentrating on identifying those who had fallen. “I can’t see any of the Riders. I hope they survived. We’ll be needing them.”

“How could you tell?” asked the ELF, quite surprised at Canticle being able to impart this information.

Canticle shrugged. “The practice of Black magic gives one a sensitivity to the presence of the living. I would have thought you would have a similar ability?”

“It seems that the passage of the Beast has stripped me of that ability.” The ELF sighed. “Obviously it’s a specific charm designed to foil me, but not you. Enough of that. You said they’re still alive?”

“Yes, though I do believe they’re trapped. Not far from here, and they aren’t going anywhere.”

“We’d better hurry, then. With luck, it won’t be hard to free them.”

“Yes… a moment, if you will,” Canticle said, bending over the bodies of the dead Guardians. He intoned the words of a spell, sprinkling a strange dark powder over the bodies, and slowly, jerkily, the bodies began to move, sitting upright and rising to the necromancer’s call.

“Canticle,” the ELF exclaimed, looking on with horror.

“Eh?” Canticle looked puzzled. “Is something amiss? Oh, my apologies, but we are going to need all the help we can acquire, and this is but one method of gaining it.”

“They should be left in peace!”

The Necromancer looked at the newly arise bodies for a few moments, lost in thought. “They are in peace…”

Shaking his head, he continued. “And don’t you think they’d prefer to be of some help against the Beast? Don’t worry, my friend. You’ll soon be grateful for their presences.”

“Perhaps… I’m sorry, my friend,” the ELF sighed. “My guardianship of the Forest has made me a little intolerant of necromancy within its borders. Continue. I’ll not interrupt again.”

The mud oozed and squelched beneath their feet as they walked quickly in the direction Canticle had indicated, the zombies. As they approached the location of the Riders, the sounds of battle could be heard. Battle curses spoken in elfish proclaimed the identity of one side of the battle, but nothing could be heard from the other, save only the clash of metal on metal.

Breaking through some foliage still standing, the two wizards came in sight of the battle. The elven riders were surrounded by a group of skeletons, whose bones danced an obscene jig in midair. The riders looked in no danger of losing, but neither did they have much hope of winning, for the skeletons’ bones reassembled themselves even as they were shattered by the riders’ weapons.

Canticle mumbled under his breath as he saw the skeletons, for his Black magic would avail him little against the undead, save by expending spells he would sooner prefer to keep for other uses. But the ELF chanted a brief summoning, and soon the target of his spell became apparent.

A plaintive call from overhead drew Canticle’s attention. A small brown and white bird was flitting from tree to tree. But as it flew over the skeletons, its cry stopped, and to Canticle’s eye, the skeletons grew paler.

This time, as the riders’ blades struck the skeletons, their bones shattered into a million pieces that did not reform, instead crumbling into a white dust which soon coated the riders and the ground. Smiling gently, the ELF walked towards the riders, Canticle following behind.

“My Lord!” exclaimed one of the riders, a young elven woman. “We thought you were dead!”

“No. I survived, Fi,” the ELF replied, scanning the ranks of the riders. “Where is Tysche?” he asked.

Fi’s face became grim. “He died in an ambush set by Galariel. Master, the Liege now serves the Beast!”

A pained expression crossed the ELF’s face. “Ah, no!” His thoughts went back to the duel at the Falls, and the memory of what had happened returned. “Fool!” he chided himself.

Canticle came to his side. “Is something amiss?” the necromancer inquired.

“Galariel,” said the ELF. “I’d forgotten what had happened in my duel – the Beast subverted him. And now he’s killed Tysche. Oh, Larissa, forgive me!” The ELF’s thoughts went to the elf-maiden who even now waited in the Heart of the Forest, and to the one to whom she was betrothed, now lying still somewhere in the Forest.

But time was pressing upon them, so soon the ELF came out of his reverie, and turned back to the Guardians.

“We’ve got to reach Larissa in the Heart of the Forest,” he explained. “It may be the only way to stop the Beast. Canticle, can you ride?”

Canticle looked apprehensive. “Are we talking about horses?”

“Good. Wait a moment while I summon them.” The ELF began to cast the spell which would bring the steeds to him.

“Is he serious?” Canticle asked of Fi.

The Guardian smiled. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You won’t be able to fall off.”

Canticle wasn’t reassured, but held his peace until the spell finished.

The horses that arrived were of faerie-kin, white, with a kind of etherealness about them. The ELF greeted them as old friends, and beckoned Canticle over.

“I’m honored,” said Canticle, nervously looking at the horses, “but are you sure about this?”

It’s the only way we’ll get there in time, Canticle. Come on, it’s not hard.”

Canticle grimaced, but finally surrendered to the inevitable, and mounted the faerie steed. The ELF grinned encouragement at his friend, and with a shout the horses were off, the ELF leading the way. Behind the wizards, the Riders fell into formation, keeping an eye out for any trouble. Soon, the group were lost from sight, leaving only the echo of hoof-beats.

* * *

Further into the forest, Morgan led his small group on a path which he hoped would intercept the ELF. Heartened by his success in destroying the Beast’s corrupted Liege, he and Ullias were discussing their tactics against the Beast.

“So, can you create Black mana for my use?” said Morgan, intrigued by what Ullias had told him.

“Well yes, my Lord. But unfortunately there’s a cost to you – we have to use some of your lifeforce to create the mana. We don’t know why, but it’s not as easy as creating the Green mana we were originally trained to do.”

“My uncle would probably say that it has to do with the ‘mystical relationship between life and dead’, and ‘to deal in death means you have to accept a little death of yourself.’ No matter. Perhaps another time we’ll look at it more closely. Meanwhile, we must discuss our plans.”

“The trackers seek signs of the Beast, Lord Morgan.”

“I’m not sure that we should go after the Beast directly.” At Ullias’s startled glance, Morgan’s voice dropped to a whisper. “My Uncle yet lives. By now he is well on his way here, with Canticle. Since Larissa would not let me join the defenses, I feel it is best if we try to clear my Uncle a path. Let us concentrate on the minions of the Beast.”

“As you wish,” Ullias said, grinning.

Their journey continued. The forest they were moving through was still untouched by the Beast, but the news of his coming had reached here some time ago. The forest at night would normally be filled with the sounds of animals moving through the underbrush and the cries of the night birds such as the owl, but all that was absent on this night.

There was one skirmish, then another, as the small group handily defeated a group of imps, then a band of Zombies and their master. Then things… changed. A cloud passed over the moon. The elves moved closer together, as the air became tainted with the stench of death. Morgan prepared himself for a battle, opening himself to the ley lines which had been bonded to him. Power from the forest and the swamp flowed into his body, and he smiled with the pleasure that gave him.

Several shambling forms emerged from the forest ahead. The elves with Morgan readied their weapons with trembling hands as they realized that the zombies that now approached them had once been Guardians of the Forest. But Morgan, with the arrogance of his birthright, held out his hand and drew on the power of the swamp and forest.

“Aid me!” he commanded his companions. And they did, twisting part of his life force into power for the spell. He gasped in pain, and released the spell. The zombies’ bodies stiffened as the spell wrapped around them, disrupting the unholy magic which gave them the semblance of life. The magic drained from their bodies, and they collapsed to the ground. Morgan’s spell completed as he drew their energy into himself, replenishing the lost to the spell. He smiled slightly, but the smile faded as he saw what lay before him. The Beast.

“Did you truly think you could hide yourself from me?” the Beast asked.

“No,” Morgan said. “I merely thought that you’d underestimate me again. I resisted your temptation, and destroyed Galarial easily enough.”

“True enough… and by forcing you to do so, I separated you from your Uncle. I sought only to divide his forces, so that I could destroy them all before destroying him.”

Lines of power swirled around Morgan as the Beast began a new spell of summoning. More zombies emerged from the gloom, shuffling towards the elves. Ullias looked confidently to his leader, knowing that Morgan would be ready with a counter to this new foe. And Morgan was up to the task, attaching a bond of control to a group of boars which had not completely left the forest. Spirited to the battlefield by his magic, the boars snuffled and snarled as the zombies halted their advance, and the Beast tried to find a way around his new foe.

The air grew chilly as a shadowy form emerged from the ground. However, Morgan was not deceived by the Beast’s stratagem. The more dangerous foe was the Spectre which now swooped amongst the treetops. The ELF had been distracted by one, Morgan would not be that unwise.

Drawing on the power of the plains, Morgan released the energy of several lines of power. The energy arced up into the air, whirling and scintillating, solidifying into the forms of several swords, dancing in the air. Taking a small amount of mana from the Lands of Mourning, he awoke something dark and dangerous inside the boars. Their forms appeared to grow, and their eyes became a gleaming red. With a cry of delight, they hurled themselves towards the Beast.

The zombies were there to protect their master. No cries of pain came from their twisted frames as the boars ripped them apart.

“Morgan!” bellowed the Beast. “Why do you fight me? I have so much to thank you for! If not for you, I might never have had the chance to return. It was your abandonment of your uncle that weakened the Forest magic enough for me to return! And as a reward, you may serve me! You shall be my apprentice and my lieutenant! Surely you would like that, youngling?”

“What I want is not of yours, demon!” screamed Morgan. “You’ll not destroy my home!”

“But who’ll stop me?” You can’t. See, even your creatures can be persuaded to serve me!”

Energy built in the glade. Morgan cried out in pain as the threads bonding him to the boars were yanked from his control. The boars re-orientated themselves, now threatening the elves.

The Beast stepped out of the trees that hid him, but his form was still unknown, so great was the darkness surrounding him. But he was there, full of ancient evil. The elves recoiled as he came closer, halting just in front of the dancing swords. Morgan took a deep breath, and began another chant of summoning, praying that luck would be with him.

* * *

Upon a hillside which rose above the Great Forest, the ELF stood, preparing for the coming battle. A little way below stood Canticle and the elven riders, waiting for the ELF to finish his preparations. The ELF stood within a circle of ancient stones, carved by some forgotten race, from which Canticle could sense the essence of stored power.

Pale faerie light illuminated the features of the ELF’s face, handsome by any standard of the word, but still those of a young man, even though he had lived for more than a thousand years. His light brown hair tossed in the breeze from the south, and his eyes sparkled at the thought of the coming conflict, for even now he still believed he could somehow find some way out of the doom which threatened to engulf his domain. He had summoned an emerald pendant from its resting place upon another world, and now the artifact hung around its neck. Canticle had expressed interest in the pendant, and had been told that it would aid in the summoning of creatures, but then the ELF had requested silence as he continued to prepare for the battle.

Canticle waited apart from the elves, standing near his guard of zombies. The necromancer was binding lines of energy to himself, from both the swamp and the forest, while keeping a careful eye on the others. His power reached out and touched various creatures and people around the lands, who sent acknowledgements back to him of their readiness. Completing his preparations, he waited for the ELF to rejoin them.

Finally, the ELF finished his meditation and came down to the others.

“Morgan has met the Beast,” he announced.

“Then he is lost to us,” said Canticle.

“Not quite yet, but it won’t be much longer. We’d better hurry. The time he buys us will be valuable – we’ve lost if the Beast reaches the Heart of the Forest before us.”

“I managed to contact Lariss – she’s set up the wards about the Heart, so hopefully the Beast won’t be able to get there easily.”

Canticle remounted his steed. “Then we should make haste.” Once more, the riders headed into the forest, seeking its Heart.

* * *

Larissa anxiously paced the glade. She was relieved to find that the ELF was still alive and coming to her aid, but the news of Tysche’s death had hit hard. The atmosphere inside the glade was unsettled, a result of the ongoing battle between Morgan and the Beast. Every so often a ley-line would flare into visibility, arcing greenish sparks, and then fade into invisibility again.

The other elves had gone, most fleeing the forest at her command, the others had joined Morgan in his foolish attack on the Beast. They wouldn’t be needed, for the Heart of the Forest would give all the mana she needed.

A portion of her concentration was taken up with keeping the warding spells up around the glade. If she wasn’t careful, the Beast would be able to rend through the barriers and confront her in physical conflict, and that she would surely lose.

About the glade waited various creatures she had summoned to do her bidding. A Craw Wurm seemed to half-doze by the entryway, a Basilisk hid beneath a bush, avoided by all the others. Rustling and squeaking told of the presence of other creatures, all waiting to do combat with the Beast.

Larissa was ready. The Beast had slain her lover, she would slay him.

Even if she died doing so. It would be a small price to pay, after all.

* * *

Morgan cursed as another of his spells flickered and died out even as he cast it. The Beast laughed, and motioned for the Boars to attack again. Morgan was off-balance, vulnerable. And then Ullias was there, protecting him.

Swinging his sword, the elf tried to keep the boars back. The boars ignored the gashes the sword was causing and rushed Ullias, who with a prayer to the Earthmother held firm.

Into Morgan’s mind leapt a spell which would save his defender. A brief charm, and the glory of the Earthmother’s blessing sprung into being about Ullias. Ignoring the wounds the boars had given him, he went into a frenzy, hacking with his sword until in a surprisingly short amount of time, the boars were dead. The aura of the goddess faded, but as it did so, it healed the wounds he had taken from the boars. Smiling, Ullias leaned down to help Morgan up.

The two elves stood side by side, facing the Beast. “Protect yourself,” commanded Morgan, as he began another spell. Winds rose up around him and Ullias and the other elves crouched upon the ground. The Beast gave a howl of fury as stones and sticks smashed into his great frame, and the Spectre was ripped apart by the howling winds. A great stone smashed into the side of his head, then the winds died. The elves cautiously got off the ground. Morgan’s cheek had a long gash from when a stone had ripped itself across it. The Beast cried out once more in fury.

Harsh-sounding words from the Beast signalled the beginnings of his next spell. Morgan paled as he recognised the chant, but could do nothing as the spellthreads settled around the elves who had followed him. The Beast finished the charm with dark satisfaction, and a howling demon flew from the midst of the darkness directly at the elves. Morgan averted his gaze, but the others were paralysed by that form, most being struck dead in an instant with fear, the lucky ones simply fainting.

“Prepare yourself!” bellowed the Beast, and advanced on Morgan. The dancing blades shattered on his hide, doing little to harm him. Morgan stepped back and grasped for another spell, but the knowledge would not come to his mind. In desperation, he attuned the ring on his finger, something which took all of his available mana, and drew his sword to face the Beast.

The Beast lunged at Morgan, who was unable to defend himself fully, a great claw raking across his chest. The Beast’s hide deflected the force of the return blow, but Morgan was able to force him back enough to let loose the power of the ring, a great bolt which smashed into the Beast back into a tree, snapping its trunk. Morgan leapt at the momentarily defenseless Beast and plunged his blade into its back. But the blade stuck in the thick armor and was ripped out of his hand as the Beast regained its footing. Morgan could do nothing as the Beast smashed him into the ground.

As the Beast gloried over his body, Morgan let loose another bolt from his ring. The Beast was knocked back a full twenty paces, once more falling over. Morgan regained his feet, he called his blade back to his hand. Morgan stood ready once more for the Beast’s approach.

But the Beast was more wary this time, preferring to summon aid. A dark portal opened in the ground, and from it emerged a demon from the depths of hell. “Drakkath, I bind you,” intoned the Beast. “By ancient pact between our houses you shall serve me in this battle!”

“So shall I,” replied the demon lord. He cast an eye across the battlefield. “Where is my tribute?”

“There, Drakkath,” said the Beast, pointing at Morgan. “There is your tribute.”

Drakkath looked steadily at the Beast. “You know I require more than that.”

“Very well.” A charm was spoken, an enchantment laid. From the ground where he lay, Ullias’s body jerked upright, and staggered across to stand in front of the demons. Morgan’s eyes widened in terror, for a moment he couldn’t think.

“Thank you!” cried Drakkath, reaching for Ullias. But Morgan recovered his wits in time, sending a bolt from his ring directly into Ullias’s frame.

“No!” cried the Beast, as Ullias’s body was destroyed by the ring’s fire.

“How sad,” remarked Drakkath, and smashed the Beast with his greatsword, the Beast giving out a howl of agony. “Shall we attack?” the demon lord inquired.

Morgan tried to stand against the Beast, and was able to deflect most of the blows, but against Drakkath, whose fighting ability was superior to anything he’d ever seen before, he was defenseless. At last, darkness claimed Morgan Spellweaver as the Beast laughed above his broken form.

* * *

Larissa’s vigil was ended as she heard someone approach the wading circle. A soft voice called her name, and her heart leapt in hope.

“Tysche? Beloved, is it you?” she asked, fearing to know the answer.

Faerie light illuminated the face of Tysche Caladorn. He was pale, and covered in a myriad of wounds, yet somehow he still lived. “Larissa,” he was able to say, but no more. He fell against the mystical shield which kept him from her, mostly unconscious.

Larissa wasted no time, releasing the wards to allow her beloved entrance. She ran to his body, lying so still on the ground, and began a chant of healing.

The chant finished, she was horrified to see that Tysche’s wound had not healed. Her horror deepened as a mocking laugh came from center of the glade.

“So foolish, and so pitiful,” said the Beast. “You have failed your master, Larissa, and I’m sure he’d want you punished… and I have just the punishment for you.”

Lariss tried to run, but there was no escape.

* * *

“Well lad, welcome back to the land of the living.”

Morgan opened his eyes. “What happened? Where am I?”

“Two of the questions we go through life trying to answer, young one. Ah, don’t sit up just yet,” he said, as Morgan started to pull himself upright. He promptly slumped back onto the mat as his head started pounding. “Hang on, I know I’ve got some aspirin here someplace.” The man started digging through several cabinets around the room.

“You still haven’t answered my questions,” Morgan said. “The short term versions, not the philosophy questions.”

“You’re so impatient, Morgan.”

“You sound like my uncle.”

“That, lad, is a bigger compliment than you know. Ah, here they are.” The man pulled a bottle from the cabinet and dumped two small tablets into his hand. “Here, swallow these.”

Morgan took the tablets, and stared at them. “Not until you tell me what they are, who you are, and where I am.”

The stranger sighed. “Those are to take care of your headache, I am a friend of your Uncle’s, and this is a little place between dimensions that I maintain. And to answer your other question, I snatched you from Death’s embrace and will return you to Domina in a few minutes, you’re very welcome.”

Morgan popped the pills into his mouth. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

The stranger shook his head, and Morgan noticed that one of his eyes glinted strangely. He cocked his head–which was already feeling better–for a look, and gasped.

“By Urza, what happened to you eye?”

The man reached up and touched his cheek, just below the red crystal that sat in one of his eye sockets. “A gift from an old enemy. It’s a long story. Now, though, we’d best get you back to the battle between your Uncle and this ‘Beast,’ or whatever terribly unimaginative name he’s cooked up for himself this time.”

“What do you mean, ‘this time’?” Morgan asked, standing.

There’s a larger story here lad, which I don’t even have the time to explain to you, even if I had the right. Suffice it to say that your Uncle has fought this battle before, and will fight it again. Provided, of course, that I get you back to where you need to be to save his ass. I can’t hold time still forever, even here.”

“I don’t understand…”

“You’re not meant to, not yet at least.” The stranger pulled a tarp from a large contraption in the rear of the room, revealing a strange artifact with a pair of seats atop it. “Hop up lad, we’ve got to get going.”

“You’ll return me to the battle?”

“No. If I did that, you’d just die again. I’m going to take you someplace far more important. And Morgan,” he said, his hand resting on one of the levers in front of the seat, “don’t be afraid to ask for help. Today, or tomorrow.”

His hand moved, and the world shifted.

* * *

The wizards’ ride ended as they came to the edge of the Heart of the Forest. Stone statues of various woodland creatures stood around the glade, eerily protecting the interior. Canticle was impressed, the ELF was horrified, for he knew the work of a Basilisk, and it seemed the Beast had beaten him to the glade. His worst fears were realized as he came to a position from where he could see the interior of the glade. Larissa was spreadeagled upon a stone altar, which only recently had been the body of Tysche Caladorn. The Beast stood above the altar, and mocked him as he cautiously entered the glade.

“You have lost, Guardian. I control the Great Forest!”

“How astoundingly typical,” Canticle said. “Arrogant, grotesque, and cliched…” Energy sparked about him as he tried to break the wards.

The ELF was frantically trying to work some spell to help the elf-maid as Canticle distracted the Beast, but it was too late.The Beast had completed his preparations long before they had reached the glade, postponing the horror until the wizards were there to appreciate it. With a quick motion of a taloned claw, he reached into the elf-maid’s chest, and plucked out her heart. The heart still beat in his hand, and Larissa screamed, not yet dead.

Energy sparked from the heart, which turned black in the Beast’s hand. Larissa gave a scream of agony, which mercifully cut off as her body crumbled into a blackish ash. Lightning leaped from the heart to the trees surrounding the glade. The Beast released the heart, which hung in mid-air, vibrating with unholy energy.

A wave of power swept through the vale, knocking both the ELF and Canticle to the ground, disrupting their magick. The Beast howled with laughter.

“You were to free me, Guardian! Your sacrifice would have given me the energy to break my bonds, but your resistance sentenced me to another thousand years of torment! But I have my revenge on you now!”

“Not while I live, Beast. Not while I live!”

Canticle wove a spell of summoning as the ELF called a bolt of lightning down from the storm-clouds above. The Beast ignored the lightning, and gestured to the blackened heart. Far to the north, the trees of the Icy Forest shuddered and crumbled to the ground, the life being sucked out of the land to feed the hunger of the Beast.

Canticle motioned with a finger to a nearby collection of fallen logs and stricken trees. A giggling horde of ravenous, half-naked forms stumbled into the clearing. Hurling whatever debris they could lay hands on at the Beast, they charged forward with insane glee, unchained from the torments of their home plane.

The Beast, ignoring the ELF’s spellweaving, gestured with his talons. Canticle’s newly acquired creatures were wrenched out of his control, and started to fight amongst themselves. The Beast chuckled.

Canticle cursed in frustration, considering what to do next. The ELF completed another spell, this time activating the wards which he had set up around the glade. Although they would not fully keep the Beast out, they would at least delay him.

The Beast seemed to ponder this occurrence. “I wonder how I’ll kill you?” he mused. “Quickly? Or slowly?”

“Enough with the posturing… if your power were half as awe-inspiring as your speech, we would have been charred beyond recognition at this point…”

As he spoke, Canticle wove his hands through the motions of yet another spell. Tapping into the Beast’s lifeforce, he forced it along the ley lines into his own body, replenishing and invigorating his weary frame. But it wasn’t even enough for the Beast to flinch. Greater spells would have to be used, and he doubted if he’d have the time. The Beast turned to him, and let loose a storm of disrupting energy. There was no time for defense — and Canticle’s mind went blank under the attack. He recovered shortly afterwards, picking himself up off the ground, but no spells came readily to mind. Concentrating, he tried to pull his bonds of power back together. “A mind twist,” he sneered. “One would expect something more creative from the self-proclaimed incarnation of pure evil…”

“You’ll not kill me,” replied the ELF. “And you shall die by my blade. Mavveral, to me!” A black runeblade appeared in the ELF’s hand, emanating power.

The Beast paused. “I know that blade… You aren’t the ELF!”

“My name changes, but here I am the ELF, Beast. Who are you, who knows my blade?”

Canticle looked at the ELF strangely, and squinted, as if trying to recall some long-distant thought. “I know you…”

“You are Morgana’s whelp! I should have known! Die Taliesin!” The Beast, abandoning caution, jumped at the ELF, who defended with his runeblade. Neither side inflicting much damage on the other, the two parties withdrew to a safe distance and regarded each other.

Canticle meanwhile, had been distracted by a communication from of all people, Morgan.

“Canticle!” said Morgan.

“Morgan!” whispered Canticle back through the link. “Where are you?”

“The Scarwood,” replied Morgan. “Something very strange has…”

“We’re rather busy at the moment…”

“I know. I need your help here, Canticle, else the ELF will not have a hope of winning.”

Canticle looked at the battle, and thought of his spells… and found nothing remotely useful at hand. “So be it, Morgan.” He twisted the energy around him, letting it carry him to his apprentice’s side.

* * *

The clearing he appeared in was much like the one he had left. But in its center was a large square block.

Canticle examined the block with a scholar’s eye, and actually gave a low whistle. “That is what I believe it to be, is it not?”

“A Cyclopean Tomb,” Morgan said. He was seated in front of the tomb, and his eyes were closed. “It is bonded to the Beast, and to the land. It is the source of much of his strength. But from its aura, I’d say it was his prison as well.”

“Have you uncovered anything which could assist in returning the rather pompous gentleman to his cell?”

Morgan shook his head. “The ELF, perhaps, at his peak, could. Or now, with Larissa and me to help him.” Canticle opened his mouth, then closed it. Telling Morgan of Larissa’s death would not help. “But the Beast is a long way from here. It would take too long to lead it back.”

“It must be destroyed, then. You’ve tried disenchanting it?”

Morgan nodded. “It’s warded, very elaborately, against both white and black magic.”

“Can you steal the bond away?”

“No. I was hoping you could. I could destroy it, but the process would give the Beast even more energy.”

“Given the nature of the conflict, that would not be a wise decision.”

“Aye. There is another option, but it will take much of my energy. But we have no choice at this point.” Morgan reached for the energy of the forest around him, and Canticle sensed the nature of the spell immediately.

“Can I be of some assistance?”

“Lend me strength, and be ready to help me if the Beast tries to counter my spell. Which he surely well. Once it is done, return to the Heart. The ELF will need help, and I will be in no condition to grant any.”

Morgan began a spell, and before Canticle could do anything to stop him, began converting his very life force into magical energy.

“Morgan, you truly have gone insane… if you are unable to utilize that energy, the backlash will tear you to shreds… many little ones.”

“And if the Beast is not stopped, he will kill us all.”

The wind began to swirl as Morgan started his next spell.

* * *

At the Forest’s Heart, the ELF stood his ground as the Beast sent spell after spell towards him. The Runesword in his hand was traced in fire as it absorbed the energy thrown at its owner. The great black shape paused for a moment, gathering itself for another energy spell, and the ELF did not waste the opportunity. He leapt at the Beast, and this time the Runesword opened gaping holes in the creature’s hide.

Again and again, the sword swept in, and the Beast cried in pain. The ELF drew every bit of energy he could from the land around him, channeling it through the blade. The Beast opened its mouth once again, and shouted a few short words–not so much a spell as a promise to some otherworldly being. And when the Runesword swept in again…

It shattered.

The ELF stepped back, shocked. He dropped the hilt of the blade on the ground, and powered the wards that protected him, even knowing it wouldn’t be enough. The Beast rose up, towering over the ELF.

The ELF felt the shift in the energies an instant before his opponent did. Even weakened as he was, he was still connected to the Great Forest, and could not miss such a powerful spell being cast. Nor could he mistake the caster.

“You fool!” the Beast bellowed. “I would have given you this entire realm!”

* * *

The Desert Twister strained at the Cyclopean Tomb, trying to lift the ancient stone from the earth. Suddenly, the winds faltered, as the energy of the spell was drained away. Morgan poured energy into it, replacing it as fast as the Beast drew it away. When he could draw no more, he reached to Canticle, and drew from him.

And in the end, it proved enough.

With one great crash, the Tomb collapsed, its stone shattering.

The ELF–Taliesin–cried out in glee. My thanks, Morgana, he thought, knowing that his mother had somehow been responsible for Morgan’s continued life. And if she is watching… then perhaps there is other help available. If not here, then elsewhere. The old knowledge, abilities unused for centuries, leapt into his mind. The Beast was weakened both from the battle and the destruction of the Tomb, and its bonds with this plane were broken. It took less time to complete the task than it took to think of it.

The bowl was simple wood, and nothing, not even the most powerful magic, could reveal the value of what it contained. Morgan had collected the ashes that were all that remained of Larissa, and then cremated Tysche’s corpse, letting the fire wash away the Beast’s taint. Now the two lovers were together, reunited in death.

Morgan knelt in the soft, wet earth at the base of the tree in front of him. Or rather, trees–two trunks grew from the earth here, twining against each other, their tops blackened and blunted by a lightning strike.

With his hand, he dug a shallow hole in the dirt. Tipping the bowl, he let the commingled ashes fall into it, and then replaced the dirt on top of it. “For what little it is worth,” he said, “I am sorry. Sorry that this sacrifice should fall to you, and not to me. Sorry for my failures, and my blindness. And I am sorry, Larissa, that our last words were spoken in anger, even if I still think you’re wrong. As you do I, no doubt.”

His smile was strained, and slight, but it was genuine. He stood, and backed away from the tree. When he turned, he saw Canticle standing a short distance away, and altered his path to meet him. As Morgan approached, Canticle turned and began walking away from the tree, Morgan matching his pace.

“I’ve spoken to everyone who was nearby when the battle ended. Some of them have questioned the few forest spirits that stayed in the area. I’ve even questioned the zombies, as much as I’m able. At almost the same instant that you destroyed the tomb, the ELF opened some kind of… rift, and both he and the Beast were drawn into it.”

“But no one can sense the energy he used to open this rift, or even begin to trace where it took him.”

Canticle nodded.

Morgan looked down at the ground, shaking his head. “And so someone else passes from this world, who I last spoke to in anger.”

“You don’t know that he’s dead.”

“I don’t think that he is. Wherever he went, he probably has friends waiting. I think I met one of them…” Canticle looked at him curiously. “It is a long story, Canticle, and I do not have the energy to tell it now.” He turned back towards the tree, and picked up a large wooden box that was laying on the ground. He opened the lid, as if to reassure himself that the fragments of the Runesword had not disappeared as mysteriously as the ELF himself.

“I will return to my Tower now, Morgan, unless I can be of further assistance?” Morgan shook his head. “Very well then.” Canticle turned, making his way to the edge of the glade, and Morgan wasn’t quite sure if the necromancer meant for him to hear the words he muttered.

“Love is colder than death.”

Making his way across the glade, Morgan found the Dwarven War party just about to leave for their home.

“Durruck!” called, seeing the War Chief at the head of the party. The crowd of Dwarves parted in front of him–although many distrusted him, his role in finishing the battle had gained him a small measure of respect, at least temporarily.

“Durruck,” he said, stopping in front of the Dwarf, “though your people have sacrificed much this day for mine and the Great Forest, I must ask another favor of you.” He pressed the wooden box into Durruck’s hands. “I beg you to reforge the blade that my Uncle bore into battle this day.”

The Dwarf looked thoughtfully at Morgan, then nodded once, wrapping his hands around the box. He jerked his head sharply, and his War Troop began filing past them, starting the trail home. “I shall return it to you when the task is complete.”

“No,” Morgan said. “Keep it until one worthy of bearing it shall come and ask you for it.”

“As you wish it, Morgan,” Durruck said after a moment. “What shall you do now,” he asked.

“I shall return to Canticle’s tower. I have much yet to learn.”

“You do, and you are wise to realize that. But what of the Great Forest? Does it not need a Guardian?” Durruck asked, as the last of the Dwarves marched by.

“I don’t know,” Morgan said. “The Forest is changed, corrupted by the power of the Beast–”

“Corrupted, is it? Strange, but I seem to remember you arguing against that viewpoint some hours ago–and rather effectively, if I say so myself. Of course, Larissa’s arguments were valid as well.”

“For a Dwarf, Durruck, and warrior at that, you know much of the nature of Magic.”

Durruck shrugged. “My point, Morgan is that the Great Forest has changed. Perhaps the ELF’s day is done, and yours has arrived?”

“Even if you are right, my friend, and even if the people of the Forest would accept me–which I doubt–I am not ready. If my Uncle does not return, they must look elsewhere.”

“Perhaps they must, Spellweaver. For now.”