CHAPTER ONE

Dryst was beginning to think that he should have listened to the civilians and remained in town instead of venturing to the Oriseson's orchard. The gossip around town had been that an unearthly glow had been spotted near the ungan orchard just outside of town in the forest for two straight nights now. Some of the residents tried to trace it to its source but none ever could and most were too afraid to do anything at all, they just closed their eyes and hoped for the best. Dryst thought that actually doing something about it would be more beneficial than waiting for disaster to come knocking on your door. So here he was searching for any clues that might stand out and would help him find out what was happening out here. Dryst had no idea of his own about what the glow might be. Absolutely anything could be a possibility so he kept his pale grey eyes looking for the slightest hint of anything being out of the ordinary.

The young man knew the two sisters who lived there with their parents, and while not particularly close to them he did know them since childhood, and he didn't want to see any harm come to them. The Oriseson's would always come into town to sell their ungan fruit in the marketplace, but then the Orisesons disappeared, and no one had seen hide or hair of them for days. Then two days ago, the parents, Mary Anne and Greg had shown up at Lord Marcus' Manor to plead with him to help them find out the reason behind the sudden death of their entire livelihood. They knew that a fel mist rolled in with strange lights held within and killed the ungan trees and very nearly ended the entire family, they were fortunate that a druidess they knew had saved them from the deadly mist. This druidess was also keeping the twin sisters safe. Still the reason behind this was unknown.

Since then he had been chosen by his sponsor, Sir Corith Hawkens, to be part of the group of militia that had been sent to investigate. The others in his troop were back in town questioning more citizens and gathering some useful information. Dryst himself wasn't suppose to be going this deep into the farm on his own until they got an understanding about what exactly they were dealing with. All the citizens reported the same thing and he got frustrated by the inaction, so he volunteered to do a preliminary search of the area around the orchard.

The blue moon was high in the sky and peeked through a break in the clouds. Ilysandra was a quarter full this night, and usually went through a full phase every two months. The other white moon either hadn't risen yet, or if it had Dryst couldn't see it. This was a shame because it was suppose to be full, and the light from it would have helped him to see. The sky was clear except for the odd cloud that drifted across the moon or swallowed up a few of the glittering stars.

The withered ungan trees bared their outstretched branches which made them look like skeletal hands grasping at the winking stars high above. It was the signature characteristic of this type of tree to have long twisting branches which simply added to the nightmarish setting. No one knew how the fog had eradicated not just the trees but the earth as well. Dryst had a theory that the fog depleted the nutrients in the soil. Looking at the ground all throughout the fruit farm pointed towards the symptoms of a drought. The soil was cracked and shriveled for the full square mile the farm occupied and extended a little ways into the surrounding area. That didn't make sense, because it had rained often enough during the spring. The farmers in the Eldin province were reporting bumper crops this year which was natural because the province was the breadbasket of the entire known world. It didn't make sense to believe that a disease plagued the orchard either, a disease wouldn't completely annihilate everything in an area this large. At least Dryst had ever heard of a disease being this impartial before.

Dryst had been here for at least two hours now, he had looked almost everywhere and still there was no sign of the fog or the mysterious glow. The young man sighed deeply this was beginning to be just a big waste of his time. He really hadn't gathered anything useful out here. Then again the troop would eventually come to do a more through search soon.

It was a subtle impression, one that was not given to distraction by the circumstances. Dryst was not one to be so easily frightened by a simple rustle of leaves in the dark, yet he casually rested his palm upon the pommel of his military standard-issued sword. No, this was something more, and over the years Dryst had learned not to ignore what his instincts were telling him, it was something he had learned the hard way in the Lystrien Army. He counted on his gut feelings in order to survive his military life. Yet he simply couldn't risk the thing knowing that he was aware of it by looking around for it. He had to keep it thinking that it had the upper hand and hadn't alerted him. He wished he knew why the thing had shown up now, and what it wanted, but that knowledge he wasn't privy to.

A chill wind blew through Dryst's cloak and raven hair making them rustle with a life of their own. The cool breeze sent a shiver down his back and legs, and brought a fog that started to creep through the dead trees. The similarities to the farmers' story played out in his mind and he knew he was in serious trouble. The fog undulated and swelled past his feet quickly surrounding him before he could even escape. Then something strange happened, he began to see tiny pinpoints of twinkling light as if he was looking upon the village from far away just like the Oriseson's story. Narrowing his clear grey eyes Dryst tried to make out what they were but not matter how hard he tried he couldn't see through the fog. At first he thought they were lantern insects, but then they began to multiply soon they were too numerous to count. Not wishing to push his luck any farther Dryst turned and ran as fast as he could in the direction of town. Quickly checking over his shoulder he found that the lights weren't getting any farther away but actually closing in on him.

His heart beating like a drum Dryst finally thought he found what he had been looking for all night and the cause of the uneasy feeling he had. This was no ordinary fog. Dryst couldn't explain it, but the way it moved wasn't the way normal fog rolled. It didn't spread out like it should, it was more condensed.

He ran for minutes as fast as he could in his leather armour, shortly even the orchard was left behind. With every laboured breath Dryst came closer to town yet the fog still surrounded him so densely that he couldn't even see his feet. He didn't even know if he was running towards town anymore. Dryst suddenly felt the ground give out beneath him and began to roll violently down an embankment end over end. Searing pain wracked every impact upon jagged rocks all the way down the sheer inclination. Before he even hit the bottom he passed away into serene unconsciousness.

. . . . . .

"Do you think he'll be alright? He wasn't breathing when we found him so I shared my breath with him just like you've shown me and got him to breathe again. I don't wish him any harm, I know him." A concerned voice that sounded decidedly young and feminine was the first and only thing Dryst remembered hearing until he was able to gather his wits. At least whomever he was with were taking care of him and didn't sound like thieves. Then the memories started to flood back in as he reasserted himself. He remembered everything up to but not including how he got from the outskirts of the orchard to wherever he was now. Obviously someone had come and rescued him after he fell unconscious.

"You did the best thing for him at the time and yes, he should be alright. After all, you and your family recovered. The goddess, Ilysandra, must have been watching out for him because if you hadn't found him when you did it could have been much worse. I wonder if the same thing happened to him." The voice that responded also sounded feminine but older and increasingly sophisticated, she also had a strange accent that Dryst couldn't quite place.

Having felt that he had adequately had his bearings and senses back Dryst opened his eyes to find out where exactly he was and why he was there at all. It took a few brief seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the room he was being kept in. Once they did he was able to determine that the room he was in was unfamiliar and frankly quite sparse. All it had was the bed which he was currently occupying, and two chairs that looked like they had been brought in from another room. The only other thing it had was a nightstand beside the bed that held a wash basin and what looked like a homemade cloth made from spun wool.

After glancing around his gaze rested on the two women and was able to recognize one of the women. Lyn Oriseson was one of the twin sisters he knew lived at the orchard. There was no mistaking that mane of red hair she had that ran just past her shoulders. That was how he could tell her a part from her twin sister Mia; Lyn always had her hair long, where as Mia had hers cropped so short that it didn't touch her shoulders. It seemed to Dryst that it was more for their benefit so people would stop confusing them.

The other woman, however, looked as if to be the wilderness itself. She had long thick raven hair that looked as if it was tinged with a deep blue that blended so well that a with a quick glance he wouldn't have noticed it. This seemed like such an unnatural hair colour but as he took in the rest of her he began to understand why. She was not human at all, but an elf, which also explained her unique accent and non-human eye colour, violet. Dryst had never met one before nor had he even seen one, they were extremely rare. He couldn't help himself from staring at her. She had thin curling designs that were made from some kind of dye. Thin lines originated from her temple and stretched out mid way down her jaw and around her eyes. The artwork was intended to draw the viewer into her eyes and those eyes had to be the most intriguing feature about her. They were almond shaped and slightly slanted inwards. The shape along with the violet colour gave them haunting depth and exotic beauty. What was even stranger was that she didn't look to be five years older than him but her eyes held an ancient wisdom he didn't understand. Those eyes turned on him and a faint smile formed on her face.

"Well, so, he's awake now. Lyn, you should help fill him in, and decide what you are going to do. I have been up all night and I really need to mediate and rejuvenate myself. I exhausted myself healing him." With that she stood from the chair she was occupying and touched Lyn's shoulder before she left. It seemed as if in that instance something unspoken past between the two women in that silent farewell. Dryst watched her leave and close the door behind her before turning his attention back to Lyn.

"So, what do you have to tell me? All I remember is coming upon a strange fog that had lights dancing in it. I ran, became short on breath and fell down the hill. I have never heard of or seen fog move the way it did. It slithered like a snake." Dryst thought his tone sounded a lot harsher than he wanted it to be, he hoped Lyn didn't pick up on it. He was starting to feel the effects of a huge headache and hated not knowing what had happened to him. Yet he didn't want to take it out on Lyn. If she did pick up on his tone she was too kind to let it bother her, outwardly at least.

"No I haven't either, but that is what happened to our family as well, except the elf you just met saved us. Her name is Santrista, she's an elven druidess. Our family has had a connection with her for generations. The only reason we were saved is because she had come to pick up some herbs we had found for her out in the forest. That's when she found us, unconscious in our home. She was able to revive all of us and bring us here for safety. Mother and father have gone to Lord Marcus' manor in order to tell him what happened and make a plea for help. We stayed behind to keep an eye on our home.

"Yes, you were lucky for us to have found you down that steep ravine just off the path to the orchard. When I found you, you weren't breathing and I resuscitated you. I feared that we were too late, but you started breathing again yet you didn't gain consciousness. I didn't know what else to do so between the both of us we were able to put you on a cart and take you here to Santrista's house. Since she was able to treat us, I thought she would help you too."

"Well, it looks like Santrista did a good job treating me. All I have is a little bit of a headache. Your mother and father made it to Lord Marcus' Manor by the way. I was sent with a small troop to try and find out what happened to your home. I guess now we know what happened. I'll have to report this to Commander Hawkins soon."

"You should at least stay the night here. It's good that you're feeling well. You should feel up for a walk then, it'll do you good to get out and clear your head, and I can show you Santrista's grove. I'll just be outside if you need me, I'll let you wash up first. There's a wash basin there on the nightstand for your use." Lyn's green dress swayed along her ankles as she walked towards the door.

Dryst rubbed his forehead as if to give physical evidence towards his headache then added, "Thanks. I'll make use of it. I'll only be a few moments, and then I'll be right out to join you."

"Oh, by the way your clothes and sword are just beside the bed on the floor if you start looking for them. See you outside!" Lyn cheerfully added just as she closed the door on any response he might give.

At first Dryst was half embarrassed, half shocked by Lyn's statement. Then it began to sink in that they needed to remove his clothing in order to find out if there was anything else wrong with him. They needed to check for broken bones, or bleeding of any kind. That eased his mind a great deal and he was able to concentrate on washing himself. After he got clean and dried off he fully dressed himself then exited the room. He didn't take his sword because Dryst doubted he'd need it just for a simple walk. Lyn was waiting for him by the front door.

"The grove really is an awe-inspiring place. You'll never see anything like it again. I never knew such a place could exist. Santrista really has done some remarkable things." Lyn mentioned, almost to herself.

"I can't wait to see it for myself. You have known Santrista all your life, right? What else can you tell me about her? I have never met an elf before, or even a druid for that matter. I don't even know a whole lot about you either, yet I've known you since childhood. I have just seen you in passing around town. I mean, you've talked to me when I came to your fruit stand, but it was never anything really important."

"Well, now we have a chance to change all that. So, are you ready to go?" The young girl inquired.

"Yup, where is Mia? Would she like to come too?" Dryst was curious as to why he hadn't seen the other twin since he woke up, but then again he hadn't been conscious for that long either.

"She's sleeping right now actually. You've been out for four hours now and it's almost two bells." Lyn started to lead the way outside.

"I wouldn't want to disturb her then. We can just have a short walk. I never even realized how long I was out." Once Dryst stepped out the front door he finally realized that the druidess' home was actually a house made into the boughs of a gigantic tree with spade shaped leaves. In fact, the house was being supported by a giant mushroom growing out of the trunk of the tree, and in order to reach the ground you had to walk a staircase that spiraled a total of three times around the trunk of the tree before it arrived at ground level.

Lyn smiled faintly to herself as Dryst took everything in with wide pale grey eyes, "How did a tree grow to be so big? I don't even want to guess at how old it might be."

"Santrista says that it is the World Tree, and that she is a descendant of a long line of druids that look after and take care of it. She says that it was planted by the Goddess herself at the dawn of this world's life. She also seems to believe that this grove is where life first began on our world. Pretty interesting story, huh? It is impossible to tell if any of it is true, but Santrista seems to think so and that's enough for me."

"I was taught by my father that we were the offspring from an ancient race that traveled the stars and seeded themselves across many worlds that they pass in their migration from planet to planet. Of course my father was never of sound mind, he did a lot of things that the others found a little eccentric. I have been trying to unlearn most of what he taught me, that one thing though I could have sworn he was sure about. He'd never admit that he's insane even if everyone told him he was. Now, I choose to believe that the goddess created the world."

"Of course, the insane believe that everyone else is insane. Especially your father, he's paranoid beyond reason. My mother always said that Nina always spent too much time looking after your father and not enough time raising you. I'm not blaming her or anything because it must have been hard on her to be in that kind of position. I don't know what I would have done in her shoes." The young woman always had a habit of walking with her hands clasped behind her back. Dryst always thought it gave her an aura of innocence, and it was a childhood habit she never grew out of.

Dryst shrugged his shoulders indifferently, "I think you're right, but I have never resented her for it either. It's not like she's my real mother anyways. She thinks I'm some demon spawn the goddess cursed her with. She couldn't wait to petition the army to come and take me away. At least what I learned there is actually useful. It was nice to be stationed at home." Dryst lapsed into silence. He never knew who his real parents were or where he came from. Despite all that he never cared about who they might be, for all he knew he might never want to find out. He had just returned home not two weeks ago from basic training when he heard the rumors and was dispatched on his first assignment.

"She is radically different from my parents, hmm? They are way over-protective." The moon, Drasil, had finally risen and broke through the clouds to lend its silvery luminance to the grove. The blue rays of its counterpart, Ilysandra, mingled with it to add a blue tint to the landscape. Tiny lantern bugs left their hiding places and flew around them in competition with each other to outshine and attract mates. Dryst was no botanist but the plants he saw in the grove were growing up to five times bigger than those he saw elsewhere. There were also a few tropical plants that he was sure couldn't have survived here in such a temperate climate. Some even gave off their own illumination just to spite the fireflies. Most of the species he couldn't identify and looked as if they had come from an entirely different planet. Dryst could also make out the faint sound of running water, which sounded more like a waterfall then a stream or river.

"I never believed that she's ever going to come to accept me. I just wish I understood why. There's nothing worse than being hated for a reason you don't understand. Especially by someone who's suppose to look out for you," Dryst glanced up at the full moon and noticed a lazy cloud that darkened several stars nearby. "Anyways, it's getting late. I shouldn't be keeping you up. We need to head back."

Lyn nodded her agreement and started back to Santrista's tree house. Dryst followed close beside and decided that he definitely needed to have a talk with the druidess before he left in the morning.

. . . . . .

Where is the One? We sensed him, we tasted his flesh. You were supposed to have given him to us long ago. The disembodied voice always woke Serfius. That voice would never leave him alone he'd come to realize that.

He didn't even bother to whisper his response even though his wife was sleeping right next to him, "I know, I know, b-but I can't. He's my son. The only one I have. I don't even understand why you want him. There has to be a reason, that's the way the universe works. You can't just want something for no reason."

Give him to us or we will find him on our own. We have waited eons, we are patient and eternal. The voice sounded as if there were hundreds of voices whispering as one, but Serfius knew that only one being was actually speaking with him with a crystal clear understanding that he rarely got. Serfius also knew that the voice had left him alone for now even though there was no sign it had gone but his own intuition. Yet he knew it would be back, it always was.

. . . . . .

Soft rays of sunlight drifted down through the open window of Dryst's temporary room and shone across his face. Dryst eyes fluttered open and he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Quickly throwing on a loose fitting t-shirt and boots he left his room now fully dressed. The young man was determined to speak with Santrista today he needed to know if she knew anything about the mist, among other things. Dryst half wondered if he was just creating an excuse just to see her again. It was strange, he felt compelled to be near her and he couldn't stop thinking about her violet eyes and perfectly formed face.

Lyn glanced over to him as he entered the room, "Good morning Dryst. Would you like some breakfast? I bet you're hungry after what happened yesterday."

"Sure, I'd love some. What is it?" The smell of eggs cooking over the fire greeted Dryst and he suddenly realized that he hadn't eaten for almost a day. He also noticed that Mia was at the table eating already.

"Omelets with bits of peppers, cheese, and mushroom. Sit down and I'll get you some. I'm just finishing now." Dryst took the pre-offered seat. The furniture in Santrista's home looked a lot different from the kind he was used to. It just looked weaved together like a wicker basket. The table, chairs, beds, and couch were all like this. At least the chairs had a kind of burlap cushion stuffed with feathers on their seats.

"That sounds good to me actually. In fact, anything sounds good to me at the moment. I'm starving, but why isn't there any meat in it?"

Lyn dished him up the omelet onto a wooden plate and set it before him before seating herself with her own breakfast, "Santrista doesn't eat meat so I only have so much to work with."

"Ah, makes sense I guess. I don't mind it, just curious that's all. Do you know where she is? I want to talk with her." Dryst dug into his omelet with similar wooden utensils, intent on devouring it.

Lyn took her meal in small more delicate bites, "I believe she's out by the pool. Just head left of the way we went last night."

Dryst nodded to show that he understood where to go then glanced across the table to Mia. She seemed crestfallen and she never looked up from her food, "Are you alright, Mia? You seem upset."

The twin was taken by surprise by his inquiry, partly because she was being inattentive, "What? Oh, um… No I'm just a little upset about our home. We've lived there our whole lives. I hope we can go back soon."

Dryst never replied he wasn't sure what to say to her. He couldn't lie and say that he knew everything would be alright, that everyone would live happily ever after. If his experiences had taught him anything it was that life wasn't fair. Luckily Lyn spoke up for him.

"Don't worry, sister. Dryst is investigating, he'll find out what's wrong and set it right again. Then we'll be home before you know it"

Mia never answered but just picked at her food, she didn't look convinced. Dryst frowned faintly and glanced to Lyn with a helpless shrug. The trio finished their meal in silence. Soon after Dryst excused himself and made his way down to ground level. He followed Lyn's instructions to where the pool was located. Once he got there he realized that the pond was a small area that was saturated by a waterfall before a small creek took it down river. The water couldn't all escape at once and it was large enough so it was still at the middle of the clear pond. There were even some lily pads, cattails, and a few bulrushes but not enough to make the water scummy. It was clear enough that you could see the bottom even in the deepest area right beneath the waterfall.

Dryst found Santrista sitting cross legged on a smooth rock over looking the pond. The druidess didn't look much older then him, but for some reason she seemed to have the wisdom of someone twice her age. That was probably due to her age though, because he heard that elves lived hundred of years. She glanced over her shoulder at him.

"Hello Dryst," she looked as if she'd just exited the pool. Tiny droplets of water clung to her dark hair and ran down her smooth flesh. A two piece leather outfit adorned her slim form. She had an athletic build with well defined lines around her hard abdomen and long legs which weaved an illusion that they traveled right up to her stomach. Santrista gestured to a spot on the rock beside her. "Do you need anything?"

Dryst took the offered spot and crossed his legs to mimic Santrista's pose, "I just needed to ask you some things. I wanted to know if you know anything about the mist that I saw. I don't know how to explain it, but I believe it is the reason the entire Oriseson orchard has died. I figured since you're a druidess you might know why the land is dead."

Santrista's violet eyes passed from him out over the small lake. A slight frown marred her face, "I am troubled deeply by what happened to the Oriseson orchard and I am going to find out what happened, but first I'll have to speak with the earth."

"So, are you actually going to perform some kind of ritual?"

"No, not really. I'm going to speak with its creator, Ilysandra, but in a sense she is the earth. She'll know for certain what's happening. The earth is in pain that much I can feel, so she must be as well. I'm going to travel to Great Haven in order to speak with her."

"Great Haven? The capitol of Lystria? You're really going all that way? I should tell my commander and we'll all go. This is the first real lead we have gotten to solve this."

Ever since he sat down Santrista had been watching him closely, as if studying his measure and peering into his very soul. Perhaps she could? Dryst certainly didn't understand her or the extent of her powers, "Yes, you're welcome to come along, I have no disagreements. As for right now though, I wish to ask you a few personal questions about yourself."

Dryst immediately became uneasy. He never liked to talk about himself to anyone, especially a complete stranger like Santrista. He lacked confidence in himself, perhaps he even worried more about what she may think of what he held close. Still he couldn't just turn her down and not answer her, "Sure, I suppose. I don't know why you would want to know anything about me though."

"Call it curiosity if it makes you feel better. Being a druidess means that I am sensitive to the feelings and emotions of the creatures around me. Humans are no different, so I am empathic towards them and can judge character fairly accurately even though I have very little contact with them. Now, I wish to ask you what it is you would fight for."

The corners of Dryst's mouth frowned and he felt his throat constrict a little involuntarily. Honestly he tried to think of something, anything really but he couldn't think of a single thing, "Other than for my own life. I really have no idea what I would fight for."

Santrista inclined her head as if to say that was all she needed, "That fits with what I already believed. You seem angry and… lost I guess the word would be. You seem to have no purpose for your life. I believe you need to find one if you want your life to have any true sort of meaning. You must find something worth dieing for. Something you value above all else. It can be an ideal, or a cause, even a person.

"Also I seem to get the feeling that you are struggling. You are frustrated and you wish to find your own place in this world. There is a niche that will satisfy you and give you a reason for being on this mortal coil, but you must find out where or what that is for yourself. You must learn how to grow beyond yourself to become more than the sum of your being. Believe in your abilities and those close to you Dryst, if you do I have no doubt that you will find whatever it is you are searching so vehemently for."

Dryst stared at her in outright awe. Everything she said meant more to him then anything else anyone had ever said to him in his twenty-four years of life, "You are right. All my life I've believed that I wasn't good enough, that I was never strong enough and I don't know why. I guess it was just what I told myself because I lacked confidence in who I was and somewhere along the line I got lost just as you said. I will take to heart what you say and search for my place. It will help me find out what is it I am here to do."

A warm smile appeared on her lips, "That's great to hear. Most people don't take it to heart. They just live their lives and feel distant. They aren't truly living, they've lost hope that things might one day change if they just rise up and challenge themselves to change for the better."

Dryst sighed almost inaudible, "Ya, but that's a lot easier for someone to say that then to actually do it. Change is a very hard thing to do."

Santrista shrugged her lithe shoulders, "For most people, yes. That might be true, but that still doesn't mean they shouldn't at least try to become better then what they are, most often I believe that they will succeed. We'll talk more later, right now though we should prepare for our journey to Great Haven. I believe the twins will want to come with us if it helps get their home back."

"Sure, I'll head back to town to notify Sir Hawkens and gather supplies. Then we can meet up on the road and be on our way," Dryst frowned slightly as she cut their conversation short, but he had no doubt in his mind that in the days to come he'd learn so much more, not just from her but from his experiences.