Lordac sat back in his throne, his eyes half closed. All around him the moans of the damned echoed through the vaulted chamber. He sighed and shifted in his seat. A few of the liches pontificating before him paused but when he showed no other sign of moving, they resumed.
“My lord, forgive the intrusion.” The squat, toad-like creations his mother used for messengers were among the only living things in this realm and Lordac welcomed their appearance, even if it usually meant trouble for him. “Your mother is looking for you.”
“She knows where to find me. She's the one who put me here in the first place,” Lordac said. He sighed and straightened the iron crown on his brow. “All right, where is she?”
“In her garden,” the creature said.
“Where in her garden?” Lordac asked.
“By the roses,” the creature said.
“Which ones?” Lordac hated playing these games.
“The black ones,” the creature said.
“Well that narrows it down to only a quarter of the garden,” Lordac muttered. He stood up and stretched. “I'll be back as soon as my mother is finished with me this time.”
“If she lets you come back,” one of the liches muttered.
Lordac made note of which one had spoken. When he returned, he'd have to think of a suitable punishment for it. There was, after all, very little to amuse him in this sterile, dead world.
Lordac's cloak swirled behind him as he headed out of the tower that his mother had named him lord over. The undead scuttled out of his way as he strode down the black stone floor.
He made his way to his mother's garden, a mocking echo of the glory it had once held in the mortal world. For once, his mother was relatively easy to find. She was seated with Sianni and a few of his other siblings nearest to the thicket of rose bushes that she favored when punishing wayward mortal souls.
“Lordac, I was beginning to wonder if my summons was going to go unanswered again,” Morana, Guardian of Death, said as he came up. “I see you are as formal as ever.”
“Your messengers are dreadfully slow, mother,” Lordac said. He smiled and bowed to her. “I am, as I have always been, your most faithful son.”
“Well you're the only one who hasn't tried to rise up against me, that's for certain,” Morana said. “Which is why you and Sianni are going to do something for me.”
“What is that, mother?” Lordac asked.
“The dragons are up to something,” Morana said. “The others are in agreement with me. We don't know what, but ever since the end of the war they've been brooding in those mountains of theirs. I want you and Sianni to go to Vassa and see if you can find out what's going on. Make yourself useful and find something to amuse yourselves while you are there, but keep an eye on the dragons.”
“I have no problem with going to Vassa, but how are we to keep an eye on the dragons? If we get anywhere near their homes the dragons are going to notice,” Lordac said. “And Sianni? Really, mother? You don't have enough problems with this new world without sending her with me?”
“Your sister is perfectly capable of handling this small task,” Morana said. “I could always send one of the others with her instead if you don't want to do it.”
“I'll do it,” Lordac said. “But you still haven't answered my first question.”
“That's up to you to figure out,” Morana said. “The others are sending their children to do the same thing.”
“I doubt that,” Lordac muttered under his breath. He checked to see if his mother had heard him, but she seemed cheerfully ignorant of his comment. “When did you want us to go?”
“As soon as you can possibly leave,” Morana said. “You are my children, so that gives you some power of your own. If you need me for anything, call for me and I'll help you where I can. The Elder Gods are being rather finicky about what we can do so I may not be able to do much.”
“The Elder Gods have been in a snit since you and the others declared war on the dragons,” Lordac said.
“The dragons declared war on us, we did not declare war on them. We simply retaliated when they attacked,” Morana said.
“Of course, mother,” Lordac said. “I was only a child at the time so my memory of the events are of course faulty.”
Morana turned her attention to one of her daughters. One pale hand stroked Sianni's dark curls. “You won't disappoint me, will you, Sianni?”
“No mother,” Sianni said breathlessly. She smiled adoringly up at the goddess who'd created her.
“Excellent,” Morana said. “Now go, both of you.”
Lordac bowed to his mother and turned away. “Lordac, wait for me,” Sianni called.
“Why?” Lordac asked, glancing over his shoulder. “You can take yourself to Vassa. You don't need me to help you.”
“Mother wants us to work together,” Sianni said.
“Mother wants us both to go to Vassa,” Lordac said. “There was nothing in what she said to make me think she expected us to stay together.”
“What am I supposed to do if you're not with me?” Sianni asked.
“You'll find something to amuse yourself,” Lordac said. He continued walking, ignoring his sister's pleas.
He returned to his tower long enough to exchange his fine clothes for something more appropriate to the mortal world. It wasn't as if his strange pallor, his black eyes, and his height wouldn't alert only the moderately observant individual that he wasn't a mortal. He sighed and returned to his throne room.
“Are you leaving us, my lord?” one of the liches asked.
“For a time, yes,” Lordac said. “Do try to keep the old place from falling apart any more than it already is while I'm gone.” Everything around him blurred and the sudden shift of the smells told him that though he was surrounded by darkness he was no longer in his mother's realm.
He glanced up and saw tiny pin pricks of light. Stars, he thought. I haven't seen stars in a while. He heard a strange sound to his right. He turned his head. Something with glowing eyes was growling at him. He frowned. A large canine snarled and leapt at him. Lordac moved out of the beast's way and started to walk away. The animal lunged at him again. With a quick blow, Lordac snapped the thing's neck. He dumped the body and continued on his way.
Something didn't feel right. He stopped walking. He sniffed the air. There were a whole myriad of scents he didn't recognize. It had been some time since he was in the mortal world but he couldn't remember smelling anything like this. He knelt down and touched the earth beneath his feet. It was dry and granulated.
“What is this?” he asked, standing up and looking around. Though it was dark his eyes picked out shapes easily. Or they would have, if there had been shapes to see. The land around him was flat and unchanging. He turned slowly, taking in everything around him. There, in the distance, was a smudge of something. He turned and headed in that direction.
The sun rose and Lordac was able to get a better look at the wilderness he now trekked through. Sand as far as the eye could see, with no sign of anything to break it up. The smudge he'd seen in the distance looked to be part of the massive forest that had dominated the continent when he last walked the mortal world. The race that Rauha, Guardian of Peace, had created lived within the forest. Perhaps they would be useful in keeping tabs on the dragons.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the heat increased until Lordac began to cast around for someplace to rest. There was no place in sight other than the forest on the horizon. He stopped and regarded it with a disgruntled expression. It wasn't that far away, but it might as well have been on the other side of the continent with how hot the day had grown.
Lordac decided to risk detection. He focused on the forest and pulled on the threads of magic. The world around him blurred. A discordant sound emerged from the threads. He staggered as he came to a stop.
He was closer to the forest but not as close as he'd intended. He frowned. That was odd. Something in the forest was acting against him. He increased his pace and covered the distance within just a few candlemarks.
The forest was nothing like the primeval woods they'd left behind. He watched as vines writhed through the trees like slow, barbed serpents. Twisted beasts prowled in the shadows. From deep within the forest he sensed something that was completely out of place in this world. Curious, Lordac plunged himself into the forest.
Here, the beasts pulled back from him. Nothing molested him as he made his way to the center of the mass of trees. A white tree shimmered in a shaft of sunlight. Its branches were laden with iridescent fruit. Beneath its branches, a handful of elves white of skin and hair wandered aimlessly. They whimpered, pressed themselves up against the tree, clawed at the fruit, before returning to their wandering.
“A Chaos tree,” Lordac whispered. “No wonder the forest is so twisted.” He backed carefully away from the tree, trying not to draw the attention of the cursed elves beneath lurking in its shadow.
As he drew back, he heard muffled weeping coming from the trees behind him. He followed the sound until he found a group of elves huddled at the center of a grove. All of them bore marks of having been mauled by the things that now prowled the trees.
A few of them saw him and drew back in horror. “You are one of the cursed ones,” a young female with only one eye said. “Stay back. We'll not let you take more of our children.”
“I am not one of the cursed ones,” Lordac said. “I would know what has happened here.”
“The white tree came and the forest changed,” the woman said. Several of the others were clinging to crude weapons and watching him warily as she spoke. “Nothing here answers to us anymore. We are hunted yet we cannot hunt because nothing that prowls here is safe to eat. We call and we call but there are none left to answer our prayers.”
“I will answer your prayers,” Lordac said. He looked up. “I will climb to the higher branches to see what I may.” He seized one of the lower branches and pulled himself up into a tree.
He climbed as high as he dared. He surveyed the upper branches. There was fruit up here. He reached out and seized one. He took a bite. It was untainted. Small animals scampered among the tops of the trees, and birds nested without fear.
He climbed back down. “How can you answer our prayers?” the one eyed woman asked. “You are no god.”
“I am your god,” Lordac said. “You are small and light. You can climb higher than I did. But there is good fruit and animals that are not tainted in the tops of the trees. Build your homes there. Your hunts will bring you better food.”
“But how are we to shape the forest? We cannot bond to it as we once did,” the one eyed female said.
“Blood,” Lordac said. “The cursed ones, as you call them, have been corrupted by a great power. Only life's power will permit you some control over the forest again. To do that you must shed some of your blood and bond yourselves to the forest. It will not give you complete control, and you will still need to take to the high branches, but you should be able to bend the trees to your will.”
“How do we do this?” the one eyed woman asked.
Lordac began pulling on the threads. “Take your knives. Each one of you, the children included, must open a small cut on your hands. Your blood must touch the forest floor.” The group eyed him suspiciously but they did as he told them. Everyone, down to the infants at their mother's breasts, were cut and their blood mingled with the earth.
Lordac yanked on the threads, tying them to the blood they'd shed. Shrieks of pain echoed as the strands burrowed into their flesh. A few moments later, they all stood there gasping. Infants and children whimpered. “What did you do?” the one eyed woman asked.
“You are now bound to the forest. Though it will be slow to do so at first, it will answer you to some degree,” Lordac said. “Now, take your children and climb. Climb as high as you can. Build your homes at the tops of the trees. Your lives will now be tied to the upper levels of the forest.”
“How are we to build?” the one eyed woman asked.
“Surely you remember how to shape the trees,” Lordac said. “I know you used to be able to do that. Command the branches to weave themselves into homes for you. Scavenge wood from the forest floor, though I would be careful in that as you will not be able to control the beasts.”
“We have no tools,” the one eyed woman said. “We have lost everything.”
Lordac sighed. This was going to take a little more power than he was wanting to use. The last thing he wanted to do was attract his mother's attention. “I will help you this once. Then you will have to help yourselves.”
Lordac climbed back up the tree. He began by twisting threads and binding branches to each other. He grabbed smaller tree limbs and wove them together. Several candlemarks later he climbed back down. “What did you do? We heard the trees call out,” the one eyed woman said.
“Climb and find new homes. They will do until you can build something better for yourselves,” Lordac said.
Children were slung on backs and infants cradled against chests. The elves clambered up the trees, twisting and turning with the branches as they climbed higher. He could hear their cries as they reached the crude shelters he'd created for them. As he turned to leave, the one eyed woman dropped down onto one of the lower branches.
“Who are you, that we may direct our prayers to you,” she said.
Lordac looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. “I am Lordac, the Gray King. I will hear your prayers and if it pleases me, I will answer them. I will not coddle you as Rauha did. You must learn to survive on your own. But I will help when I feel it is necessary.”
“We will build shrines to you and our children will worship your name,” the one eyed woman said. She climbed back up the tree. Lordac carefully wove a net over the community so he would know if they called out to him. He smiled. These would only be the first. He turned and walked out of the forest. It wouldn't do to disobey his mother. For now.