The air of the jungle was sticky and hot against Doctor Alastair Lexington’s skin as he trekked through the growth. A tangle of branches allowed the sunlight to spill in and pool on the ground. Occasionally through a break in the trees he could see the peaks of the mountains. But those were still far ahead of him. And he still had plenty to explore.
Shouldering his pack and bringing out his notebook, Alastair bent down to examine a bloom of flowers. The orange petals were bright against the dark soil and twisting roots of the tree. His pen scratched the leather pages as he copied a likeness of the plant and what he could observe about it.
“Brilliant!” he exclaimed, snapping the notebook closed. “You are full of wonders now, aren’t you, Praetoria?”
Foliage slapped against his brown boots as the doctor continued through the jungle. At the thought of new discoveries, he felt the rush of excitement coursing through him. All his years of study at the university had led up to this. He could still remember preparing for his presentation for days, trying to convince the directors that his research was worthy of being funded. He should be the first university representative to be sent to Praetoria. This newly unveiled continent held much to explore and to understand, especially for the intellectual botanist that Doctor Alastair was. He had already completed a full notebook of written observations before turning to a second.
From a young age, Alastair had loved plants. He spent most of his formative years outside, studying them in the wild—or inside a lab performing experiments. He was talented, but he was young, a fact which resulted in his accomplishments being overlooked by the university’s directors. He had fought hard for each opportunity, and he was fortunate enough to be selected over much older researchers for this once-in-a-lifetime expedition.
“If only they could see me now!” he grinned to himself triumphantly.
The doctor had arrived by ship with a small expedition team to a small village that was referred to simply as Blue Harbor. The tropical sun was already unkind on his pale skin, but he still fell in love with the sweeping vistas. He found himself surrounded by pristine coastlines, a wealth of fish, and mountains that reached toward the sun. They were much larger than anything he’d ever encountered before.
Alastair had wandered away from the small expedition party, most of whom were conducting basic research at Blue Harbor. He trekked further into the jungle, marveling at the exotic diversity of the plant life. He had not intended to go this far on his own, but with each new discovery, he was further intrigued. He had left at sunrise, and the evening hours were already closing in. He knew it was past time for him to turn back. The expedition had very specific safety rules, all of which he had ignored on his impromptu journey into the wilds of Praetoria.
But there was something about that mountain.
He could see in the distance, one peak rising higher than all the rest. Its jagged top made him think it was a volcano, but he would need to get closer to verify. The imposing landmark had caught his attention most of all. He was unsure why, but something about it seemed to call to him. It promised a discovery beyond his greatest imaginations.
As another hour passed, Alastair settled down on a mossy boulder to enjoy a quick meal. As he cleared off a space to set his cheese and meats, he noticed a strange carving on a nearby boulder.
“Well, hello there…” he murmured. “What are you?”
Pushing his dark hair back from his eyes, Alastair leaned closer to examine the markings. It was strange. Similar in shape to an hourglass but with extra lines crossing through it, a small circle in the center.
His meal forgotten, he quickly pulled out his notebook and sketched out the shape, muttering to himself in fascination. Who could have carved such a thing this deep into the jungle? Was it a clue to the origins of the magic energy that this land seemed to literally hum with? What did it signify?
The doctor jumped from the boulder, spilling his notebook, food, and pack on the ground. The voice, so sudden, sent a bolt of fear through him.
“H-hello?” Alastair spun around, searching through the trees for the source of the voice.
“Come where? Who are you?”
The jungle that once felt so mystical and intriguing now felt quite haunting. The shadows were too dark. The trees were too close. There wasn’t enough air. How long had he been gone? Oddly enough, he could not remember.
“My name is Doctor Lexington,” Alastair stated, trying to sound as firm as possible. “I am a botanist on a research expedition for Quillton Field University. Whoever you are, I mean no harm. I am only here to understand.”
The sourceless voice chuckled. It was dark and deep. He could not tell from which direction it came, and it unnerved him. Alastair did not consider himself a strong fighter. He was tall but slender. His muscles were wiry rather than bulky. He was good at long hikes due to his stamina—but not at fighting big monsters! He reached for the only weapon available to him: a simple walking stick.
Do not be troubled. You may call me Silas, and there are things I’d like to show you.
“Show me?” Alastair stammered out, still desperately searching the shadows for this mysterious Silas person. “Are you from this region?”
Another dark laugh followed. I am interested in this land, the same as you. I, too, wish to explore it. Perhaps we can work together? Be my eyes. Be my voice. Be my Will, and in return, I will grant you power unimaginable.
“P-power? What kind of power?” Alastair’s instincts told him to run back to Blue Harbor. That he was not safe. And yet...there was something about this voice that was comforting. It soothed him, called to him, slowed his pounding heart. He was a scientist, after all. He knew better to assume malevolence in any type of discovery. This Silas was just another discovery, another mystery to study and unlock, in the magical land of Praetoria.
I can make anything you desire come true. I can give you power to defeat those that would stand in your way. Power to become everything you ever dreamed.
The Doctor considered. A secret advantage against his fellow scholars would be nice...
“What can you tell me about this continent?” Alastair asked. “What do you know?”
There is deep magic here. The ley lines thrive with overflowing energy. Do you know how to harness it?
Alastair scoffed. “I am no mage. I am a scientist. That kind of power is not something for which I am capable.”
Would you like to be? I can teach you. I can show you. There are places on this land about to burst at the seams with magic.
Alastair blinked in surprise. “Truly? I would very much like to see these places.”
Silas chuckled. Then I will guide you.
Doctor Alastair Lexington packed up his belongings and followed Silas’ guidance. He walked up steep slopes and clamored down dangerous ravines. His inhibitions seemed forgotten, and he moved with confidence. He had come to Praetoria only to discover new plants, but what this Silas promised seemed like the discovery of a lifetime. He would go down in history! A new university would be named after him!
The sunlight died as the doctor continued into the mountains. Silas was right. He felt like he could feel energy vibrating out of the very ground. It did not take him long to realize that he was being led to the very heart of Praetoria…the volcano. He was sure now that it was indeed a volcano. How did he know that? Not important. He just KNEW.
Alastair had no idea how much time had passed. Days? Weeks? Months? Not important. He felt free, no longer shackled to the rules and expectations of society.
Eventually, he exited the thick of the jungle. It was night. A cold wind blew at his sweaty hair and clothes. His dark eyes were wide as he blinked up in wonder at the sight.
He was near the top of the volcano now. How did he get here? Not important. Its slopes were steep, and it towered above the mountains around it. Praetoria spread out in all directions, as far as he could see. A land steeped in shadow, rolling out to the horizon. Up above was a collection of stars so magnificent that Alastair felt he had stumbled upon a vein of diamonds. Having spent his entire life in the city, he had never seen this many stars in the sky before.
His gaze moved to the volcano. Its crater was an abyssal hole that yawned before him like a giant maw. He could barely make out the slightest red glow emanating from within.
Get closer, Silas encouraged. Within this volcano is an extreme source of magical energy. Even someone as untrained as you will be able to feel it.
The doctor moved cautiously, relying on his walking stick as he traversed the rest of the steep slope to the crater. Edging his way closer and closer, he peered inside.
Hot air blew his hair back from his face as he saw a nearby piece of rock shake loose and plummet into the depths below. The drop was nearly enough to make him feel faint, but this new, strange vigor that had come over him kept him rooted to the spot. Magma bubbled and churned far below, lighting up the rocky interior of the volcano. He could also see a glimmer of something else. Arcane rune work? He was no specialist in that area, so he could not be certain.
Yes! Silas crooned. The barriers. I see them! You have done well to come this far, Doctor.
As Alastair teetered at the edge, almost mesmerized by the sight, he could feel something. A wild, chaotic energy. Like lightning sizzling the air before it strikes. It hummed around him and then through him. The sensation was frightening, and he took a step back.
No! Silas snapped. Now is not the time for cowardice. This is one of the ley lines. A powerful one. Embrace it. The power is yours for the taking.
Alastair swallowed against his tight throat. His eyes scanned the area. He did not know what he was looking for until he saw it. A stone near the mouth of the volcano. Something glowed atop it. His legs moved as if on their own, carrying him around the edge and to this stone. He knelt down and brushed the dirt and grass away to get a better look.
It was another rune-like he’d seen before. In the shape of an hourglass, but with a circle drawn in the center and two lines slashing through it. This one glowed a soft orange. And he could feel magic pulsing from it like a heartbeat.
Touch it, Silas encouraged. It’s yours for the taking.
Alastair slowly reached his hand forward, shaking.
It’s ours for the taking.
His fingers brushed it, and it felt like a small spark of electricity.
It’s MINE for the taking!
He slammed his hand down on the rune and felt energy like lightning shoot through his body. He was thrown backward and landed heavily. He cried out as his body writhed on the ground, energy spasming through him. A dark laughter echoed within his skull.
And then blackness.
When Alastair woke, he had no idea how much time had passed. It was still dark overhead. Was it the same night? With a groan, he sat up, taking in his situation. He was still near the mouth of the volcano. The trees shifted in the wind behind him, and the wind was cold.
He brought up a hand to rub his face and stopped short. His skin was...marked. Green lines of energy spiraled his hand like veins. Or were his veins...glowing?
He gasped and fumbled through his pack, pulling out a small mirror. It was with shaky hands that he held it up to behold his own reflection.
The same glowing green was spiderwebbed across his own face, and this time, he was certain it was his veins. His very blood had been altered. His eyes, normally so brown they were black, were now a poisonous green hue.
He had to get back. He had to get back to Blue Harbor. He needed help.
He was not even aware that he left his pack behind as he tore into the jungle in a panic. Leaves slapped at him, and thorns tore at his pants. With only his walking stick to keep himself from falling, he ran away from the jagged slopes of the volcano. The sun rose, but he did not stop. He did not feel hunger. He did not feel exhausted. The world was a blur around him. His thoughts were jumbled. Each nerve in his body sizzled and sparked from the magic now inside him.
He ran and cried and laughed. He did not sleep. He did not eat. On occasion, he would howl. At other times, he would slash at his flesh and growl...or giggle? But for the most part, he ran.
Finally, his wild eyes could see lights through the trees. A village. Was it Blue Harbor or another settlement? He could not tell. His normally sharp perception seemed to be muddled and confused. But the shadows of the buildings against the night sky was enough for him.
He paused at the edge of the trees. He glanced down at his hands. He looked frightening. Would they run in fear from him? He was practically glowing, illuminating the space around him in an eerie green. Sometimes he would catch the spectral form of dark purplish tendrils slithering outward from his body from the corner of his eye.
As Alastair glanced about the jungle, he looked directly behind him and saw a disturbing sight. The path he had taken, once full of vibrant green plants, was now sick and dying. Dying at a rate that defied science.
Shivering at the implications, he noticed a closed shop near the outskirts of the village. Some cloaks were hung in the windows. Perhaps he could find what he needed in there to hide himself.
He picked his way carefully through the plants, trying not to be noticed. There was a lingering scent of roasted meat in the air from a firepit that was now embers. He heard soft conversations and laughter. The shadows of people as they came and went from buildings. A few notes strung on a sitar. He barely paid attention to any of it as he got to the back of the shop. The door was locked, but some inhuman strength had taken hold of him. He forced it open, snapping the lock, and stumbled inside the dark interior, shutting the door behind him.
Shaking and barely in control of his own body, the doctor hurriedly rummaged for something to hide his glowing, green veins. From his studies in botany, he knew what this particular shade of green often signified. A sickness or poison. A danger. A blight.
He grabbed a long, black coat and gloves. Shedding his torn and dirty clothes, he put on this new outfit. He glanced around the hats, but none of them would properly cover his face. Then he saw it. In the corner, there was an assortment of masks hanging from the wall. Most were decorative rather than useful, however one in particular caught his glowing eyes. Shaped like the beak of a giant raven, the mask appeared to be something he had read about at the university, a medical head piece intended to protect the wearer from disease. Of course, all he cared about was that it hid his exceedingly disturbing appearance.
As he tightened the leather straps of the mask, he thought it was a bit ironic. Ravens were symbols of death, after all, and the trail he had left in the forest was certainly that.
Gathering himself and his failing sanity, Alastair turned to exit the shop when his legs gave out. He collapsed as a burst of the magic bolted through him. It seeped into the floorboards around him, rotting the wood.
Don’t be afraid, Silas’ voice purred. You have become something beautiful.
Alastair twisted around, trying to hold into his mind. But everything was tangled. The world around him no longer felt real. What DID feel real was the magic inside of him. And The Voice.
With a strangled cry, the doctor’s sanity broke. He lay limp for a moment, breathing hard.
My dear Doctor, Silas chuckled. You will be my instrument on Praetoria. You will be my herald, an agent of destruction not seen for millennia. You will walk this land and sow a Blight that none can withstand.
The Doctor slowly stood up. He straightened his shoulders and walked out of the shop. The village was quiet and sleepy around him, but not for long. He felt his cheeks pull back into a deathly grin that none could see.
Arms raised and body arched backward in unbridled ecstasy, Doctor Blight embraced his Purpose.
There was much to do.