“Thunder, lightning, earthquakes and volcanoes. The work of the gods, most would proclaim. But gods do not work in such grand fashion. They are more subtle than the craftiest assassin, more cunning than the slyest of foxes. Theirs are schemes that span centuries, far from us to comprehend.”
Moridin crested the rocky hill at the head of his party. The road stretched before him, winding its way down into the forested basin below. It grew shorter each year, each time he tread it. This day its end was blanketed by fog that would soon be burned off by the harsh sun. Thin, dark clouds meandered overhead, giving shading the sky the hue of glacial silt, promising a soothing drizzle that never seemed to come.
The fog was for the best. The sight of the Dead Expanse always gave Moridin chills. It was no ordinary desert, not lacking for rain, but no amount of moisture could resuscitate a land so thoroughly devoid of life.
“Nearly there,” he said over his shoulder. His companions ascended slowly, their mounts snorting as they sought solid footing. Horses were ill-suited to such terrain, but Moridin would resign from the Outriders before he walked this road on his own two feet.
Sir Reynard Potts arrived first. A decorated older knight of the order, skin weathered and scarred, he was Moridin’s usual partner on this journey. The morning sun glinted off the many sigils lining his breastplate as he reined in on the left, while the third rider, a raven-haired woman in her twenties, joined them on his right. She was seated lazily in the saddle, no doubt bored. Just five days since she’d joined them in Firsthaven for the final leg of the journey, and she had already read twice through the three thick tomes that she had stuffed in the saddlebags.
Menara was a young scholar in the court and, if she was to be believed, some manner of sorcerer. She had joined the expedition not of Moridin’s choosing, but by order of the prince himself. Moridin regarded her with a scowl, which she returned with a small shrug.
He doubted her claim of magic. In the lands to the west, it was said there were such sorcerers as could level cities, but this woman was no westerner. In all of Versinia, even the most astute scholar of the arcane might only muster the simplest of tricks after years of study. That one as young as inexperienced as Menara might claim some power was laughable. It did not help that she refused to demonstrate.
Still, she was committed to the illusion. Neglecting to carry a firearm, she wore only a pair of thin knives in the belt that encircled her ochre robe. More likely a bloody assassin, an agent of the prince, Moridin thought. But what reason to send an assassin to such a gods-damned desolate place? We’re the only souls for miles. The only ones in our right minds, anyway, and that’s debatable.
Letting his experienced mare navigate down the scraggly slope, Moridin and his companions proceeded down into the basin, thick with trees, where the road flattened out once more. Once, Moridin had read, a glacier had sat in this very spot, back when the world was colder. Perhaps he ought to question Menara on it. If she was truly a scholar, she would know.
A look back convinced him otherwise. She sat hunched over now, a sour look on her face. Her pale fingers blanched even further, holding tight to the reins. They rode on a few more six’ns before Moridin stole another look back. She was visibly shaking now. He faced forward once more, preparing a cutting remark about her courage.
Sir Reynard gasped. “Six save us all.”
Moridin bit back his scorn. “What is it?”
The old knight lifted a finger and pointed. In the woods, off to the right, near a sharp bend in the trail, was a dead tree. Its branches were stripped bare, its wood a grayish, unnatural color. Not unusual in most places, but Moridin knew what it meant. Sure enough, squinting through the branches, his eyes picked out more leafless, sickly trees.
“No, it can’t be,” he said. “So far…”
That was all that needed saying. His voice trailed off into the silent wood, and the two knights rode on, as was their duty, to measure the distance of the Expanse’s spread each year. The horses took a few uneasy strides before Moridin noticed the scholar was not following.
“Come on,” he called back, waving her along.
What little color she had was gone from her face. Though she now sat straight in the saddle, it was not out of scholastic interest. Her eyes darted left and right, one hand at her belt. “This is a cursed place,” she said, barely loud enough for Moridin to make out.
He shrugged. “Ain’t killed me yet. I thought you knew all about it, scholar.”
She favored him with a halfhearted glare. “I have read on it, sir, but it is something more than the accounts tell. I feel drained.”
Moridin exchanged glances with Sir Reynard, earning only a blank look. Neither of them had ever felt much of anything from the Expanse beyond the unsettling sensation of being in a place so utterly lifeless.
Moridin took some pity on the poor girl. Perhaps she was merely a simple scholar. An assassin wouldn’t cower like a broken slave. “We’re nearly done, lass.”
“Do whatever you need to, sir, but I shall not venture further into this place.”
“You were to accompany us there and back, as a scholar, not a burden,” Reynard said, evidently not sharing Moridin’s charity.
“I am not like you, simpleton! I trust my instincts, and they tell me that nothing good will come of this place!”
Reynard laughed. “Instincts? I thought scholars knew only logic and deduction, not bloody instinct!”
“And I thought knights were chivalrous!”
“I may be a simpleton to you, girl, but I am your superior, and I’ll not report to the prince that I let you shirk your duty because your ‘instincts’ told you to. Now come along before I drag you.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” But Menara clamped her mouth shut when Reynard turned his mount with a sigh. After grinding her teeth for a moment, she spurred her own mount forward, avoiding his eyes.
It was an unnerving experience entering the Dead Expanse, one to which not even Moridin, in his eighth year of doing so, had grown accustomed. If his memory served, last year’s mark was more than a dozen miles down the road. A dozen miles of blighted trees, barren rock, and silence.
The only lingering scent was of dirt dampened by the morning dew. Anything that died within the Expanse stayed whole and fresh. Deeper in, a few years back, Reynard and Moridin had discovered a deer that had escaped a hunter’s pursuit only to succumb to its wound. The body had still been there the following year, undisturbed. Even the mindless things like fungi and other rotters knew better than to venture into the Expanse.
So what in the names of the Six are we doing here? Maybe the scholar is right. Moridin dismissed those thoughts, the same thoughts he had every year, with a shake of the head. Been here seven times before, he reminded himself, ain’t killed me yet.
The day was young. They had expected a much longer ride to the blight’s fringes. Moridin took solace in that. They would be gone from this place by day’s end.
The trio rode perhaps a mile through the Expanse’s outer edge, making approximations on the density of dead or dying trees and any other observations that came to mind, all according to the prince’s orders. From those numbers could be derived a rate of expansion, as well as an approximation of how rapidly it was accelerating, though last year’s prediction had been off rather significantly. Moridin knew nothing of how it worked; he was merely the grunt in charge of counting dead trees. Menara might understand it, but if she had any knowledge or expertise on the Expanse, she had been reticent so far.
Moridin glanced over his shoulder, intending to admonish her into speaking up, to find that she now sat nearly doubled over, hands cradling her stomach as if she might retch.
“May we depart this gods-forsaken place now?” she asked, noticing Moridin’s attention. “I feel ill.” She slumped back.
Moridin studied her. If she was acting, she was doing a damned fine job. He glanced over at Sir Reynard.
“Aye,” Moridin said after a nod from his partner, “let’s go.” The two knights spurred their mounts around, taking the lead once more in the other direction.
Menara’s mount followed on instinct, but she did not. Her head lolled backward, eyes closed, mouth slightly agape.
“Six preserve!” Moridin shouted, too late to help. She fell limp from the saddle, ankle catching in the stirrup. Moridin vaulted down and hurried toward her, Reynard not far behind, but both recoiled with shouts of horror. The horses threatened to bolt at the commotion.
The sleeve of the scholar’s robe had snagged on a root, pulling back to reveal her arm. Beneath her pale skin, veins ran black. From her fingertips and into the ground flowed that same black liquid. Not blood, for it was far too dark. On her neck, and creeping into her pallid face, the same blackened veins appeared.
“What in—help me get her up!” Moridin struggled to lift her arm from the ground. The black substance gripped her there, and not even the strength of the two knights could lift her.
Suddenly she was awake once more, screaming, clawing at them, struggling to pull herself as far as possible from the ground, from whatever had hold of her. This time the horses did bolt. Menara’s ankle, still tangled in the stirrup, snapped like a twig before it slipped free. The knights heaved with everything they had, but it wasn’t enough. Some unseen force bound her there, and they were powerless to help.
“Help me, please!”
Moridin gazed into her bloodshot eyes, watched as the blackness began to fill them. “I can’t, lass, I can’t!”
In a last, desperate attempt to escape, she lifted her hand slowly from the ground, reaching for Moridin. Knowing aught else to do, he took it, gritting his teeth as her nails dug into his skin. He found tears streaming down his own cheeks as they struggled to lift her.
“I’m sorry, lass,” he whispered as the life left her blackened eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
Releasing the body, blood running red through the folds of his clenched fist where she had clawed him, Moridin turned to Sir Reynard. Two veterans, two soldiers who thought they’d seen all the hell the world had to offer, stood aghast at what they had just witnessed.
Reynard shook his head. “Gods forgive us.”
Perched atop one of the mountains that cradled the valley, far enough away that she could not have seen, even if she had eyes, a blind woman smiled.