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↤ THE AMBER AND THE BLACKENED MAN ↦
(that is, the power of the gods)
Dal Kolt — whom Arteo called Red-Beard — was a man who valued certainty above all else. He would never chance a situation without knowing, as much as could be discerned, what the outcome would be. Fools take risks, leaders make calculations.
Yet no course of action was absolutely certain, and chance was always a factor. Kolt knew very well the story of his twice-great-grandfather, who lost control of the northern cities when a hurricane struck the battlefield, forcing the Dal troops to retreat from the pummeling winds and hail, while the northern armies had cover from the mountain range to decimate them. Such a storm struck only once a generation, and it happened to be on the very day Dal Kareso invaded.
Between the unexpected weather and the cleverness of the northern brigade, the Dals were left with less than half their military, and were quickly hunted down and almost wiped out by the joined armies from the east and south.
It was the story of the greatest failure of his Fealty, one told to him by his grandfather, father, brothers, mother, and on and on. If not for such poor timing and bad weather, the Dals would own all the lands of the Central Continent, including the Valley of the Gods (which was currently the property of no one and existed as a protected land, open only once a year for the Pilgrimage).
Even with over a century of time to rebuild, the Fealty of Dal was not what it used to be. Lord of only a few scattered pieces of land and the original mount in the east that held them, there wasn’t much to the Dals anymore.
But he was determined to reclaim his Fealty’s name. He would not allow the failure of past generations to determine his future.
And so he found himself, two summers prior to his journey into the Valley, at the door of a very peculiar and wretched mud shack in the far edge of a swamp. The swamp was known by various names, but few cared to venture into it because of its reputation for killing any who enter, either by sucking them into the muck and drowning them, being poisoned by noxious gases emitting from under the slop, or simply becoming lost and dying of exposure.
There were also stories of six-legged wolves that had long ago been blinded by the poisonous swamp, but hunted with a sense of smell so keen that they could track you the length of the entire Westfall Valley if they chose. He wasn’t sure if he believed such things, but stranger creatures existed in the world than that.
As cautious as he was, he opted to approach from the Black Hills in the East, instead of attempting the usual way from the entrance at the western edge. While treacherous in its own right, he had trained in the mountains for most of his life, and was confident he could reach the mud hut without issue.
He brought along two of the people he trusted most: Dallam Jel, the witching woman that concerned herself most keenly with unusual concoctions, and Dallam Latas, his sparring master and head of the Dal Guardians, the greatest warriors he had known.
After an uneventful if somewhat perilous scramble over the sharpened boulders of the Black Hills, they beheld the strange home from a cliffside. It appeared to be constructed in haphazard pieces, roots and twigs jutting from the thatched roof in wild, unusual angles. That the rounded, ugly building stood at all was confounding.
When they arrived at the front entrance, which was no more than a semicircle covered by animal hides, they heard a withered voice from within.
“Come if you’re willing.”
The three of them paused, and Kolt nodded to Latas to enter first. Latas drew his sword, but was greeted by the same, crinkled tone saying, “There’s no need for that, no harm will come to you. Not here.”
Latas nonetheless moved forward and carefully pulled open the hides to look inside. Along with the familiar crackling red burn of firelight, an unusual golden glow gently pulsed from the interior. Latas sheathed his weapon and motioned for them to enter.
As Kolt walked inside, he was overwhelmed by a melange of odors that clawed at his nostrils. The iron pot sitting above the hot coals of the stone stove bubbled up some grotesque and terrible stew, while the desiccating bones of animals hung from the ceiling with still-rotting flesh clinging to them. He guessed the pile of dusty cloth and stuffed hides in the corner was where the figure hunched in shadows slept.
Kolt stepped in front, trying not to vomit from the wretched aromas mixing together in their putrescence.
“Are you the Blackened Man?” he asked, forcing himself to sound authoritative despite his nausea.
“That is a name I’ve been called, yes.” The man’s voice was rusted, sorrowful, and dead. When he turned, Kolt had to suppress his desire to put the horror standing before him out of its misery.
“What do you call yourself? What is your name?” Kolt demanded.
“It’s been too long, I can’t remember it anymore. Call me what you wish.”
Dressed in soiled rags, the man’s left arm hung limply at his side. The entire left half of his body was, in fact, burned like cinder-ash. His one eye was white and swollen with gangrenous yellow bile coating it. The cheek and side of his mouth looked as if it was melted and scored to the same dark husk. His other half was unburned, but shriveled and pathetic, skin hanging off bone with the barest muscle tone. The only semblance of humanity left was the gleam of his one good eye, which burned a bright amber-red in the pale white.
Jel couldn’t help herself and scoffed in disgust.
“You may not be so lucky to look as healthful when you are the age I am,” he snarled at her.
“And how old is that?” she asked, eyebrow upturned.
“Too old, I would think.”
“What of your scars? From whence did they come?” she interrogated.
“From this,” he said, stepping aside and motioning with his functional arm.
Behind him on a wooden table, sitting in a jar of glass so clear that it might as well not exist at all, was a misshapen lump of dark, golden amber. Jel approached and peered into it, examining the strange light it emanated.
“This,” she began, “what is this?”
“You know what it is, witch,” the Blackened Man spoke in a hush. “Amber from the Great Tree, hardened over millennia.”
“No, such a thing is impossible. Amber comes from the heartwood of the Tree, and getting to it means cutting into the base near the western side of the Five Falls. Anyone doing so would die within seconds of exposure.”
“There are ways,” he said, “of protecting yourself. I did not do the best job in such a thing, yet the horrors that fell upon me gave me life beyond any man’s. You see the true danger isn’t in the poisonous wood, it’s in the amber itself.”
“How so?” Kolt asked.
“The amber reacts with whatever may touch it — water, skin, earth. If it contacts any such thing, it will explode violently, almost out of control. If it is to be contained without eruption, it must be in such a vessel. Or within the wood of the tree itself.”
“How did you make glass so clear, as if from crystal waters?” Jel marveled at the jar, having never seen something so beautiful.
The old man’s head tilted to the side. “Purity is key. The amber will react with any glass less than perfect and smooth. You must use the right sands, collected from five of the islands to the south, and heat the mixture for ten days, increasing the temperature slowly to burn out the impurities without destroying the crystalline structure.”
“Incredible,” she said with total sincerity.
“Evil,” Latas finally spoke with repugnance.
“Nothing is evil until used for such purpose,” the man said. “Evil is in the reason, not the thing itself.”
“Can this be made into a weapon?” Kolt asked. The man could only smile, as best he could.
“It could. A weapon of great and terrible power.”
“I want to know how to make such a thing.”
“Would you? And what sort of man wants that?”
“I am a man of vision.”
“You are a man of ideas,” the Blackened Man said. “Vision comes with knowledge, which is why you’re here. Although, what you really seek is power.”
“I seek to reclaim what is mine, the right of my Fealty.”
“You have no more right to the land than a bird does to all the sky.” He shuddered his weak form over to the bubbling pot and began transferring some of the muck into a wooden bowl. “If you could only see what I can, you would abandon your path and find joy in the beauty of creation, and the love of a good woman — or a comely man.” He cocked his good eye at Kolt.
“What do you imply of Dal Kolt, sorcerer?” Latas barked as he stepped forward angrily. Kolt bade him off.
“But yet you will help me? You will give me knowledge?” Kolt asked.
“Yes, of course,” the Blackened Man said, spooning the grotesque concoction from the bowl into his mouth, some stray bits dribbling down his chin.
“But why? If you are so wise in the ways of the world and my life, why help me?”
“Because that is the way it must be,” he said simply.
“Explain,” Kolt demanded.
“I cannot. You must either accept that there are things you can never know as you are now, or kill me and be done with my offer.”
Kolt considered his words. It was a gamble to at once agree that the frail creature in front of him was both brilliant and indispensable, yet ignore his most pertinent advice.
“How do I know you are no more than a dreadful hermit living in squalor?”
The man turned his good eye towards him and said, “I can tell you something that no other living soul would know besides you. I can tell you the secret you carry with you. Come, I shall whisper it.”
Kolt was intrigued, if suspicious. He kept a ready hand on the dagger in his belt as he approached and offered his ear to the man. The thing that was once human mumbled words for only a few moments, but that was enough.
Latas had watched Kolt grow up. He had been his sword master and teacher of the ways of being a man in the absence of his father’s guidance. Ever since Kolt had budded and become strong and wise, he had never seen him look fearful. But as he watched the Blackened Man hiss into his ear, a pale covered his face as the blood drained from it. Whatever was said, it was enough to give the man, possessed of purpose to reclaim his lost lands, a shudder of horror.
Kolt stepped back, confused and nearly shaking.
“What did he say, Dal?” Latas asked after a time. Kolt came out of his thoughts and stared at Latas before finally speaking.
“It is not for anyone to know, but he speaks the truth.” Kolt bores his gaze at the man. “Very well. Tell me about the wood of the Great Tree, and how I might use it to rule.”
The Blackened Man no longer smiled, but was satisfied nonetheless.
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