Winter lazily circled in broad sweeps as she rode the thermals with little effort. The updrafts stronger in the height of the afternoon as the sun’s warmth captured in the forest and valleys of the mountains were released to the heavens. She revelled in the sensation of the slightly warmer air pressing against her body and wings. Again she smiled, as she had many times since taking to the air, she felt like she could barely contain herself. Both Antrandis and Sian had freed her from her confines, they had restored a semblance of purpose to her. To be theirs, his. She caught herself as she thought, the whisper in her head continued to correct her. His.
She did not dislike this correction, in all truth she felt comfort in it. Sian’s words and actions had provided her with a direct path to Antrandis, the purpose that Lumos Darkfall had entrusted to her, the wilder of the three sisters, the three gods who ruled above others. Though something troubled her, it was as if something was forgotten. A memory that had mysteriously been concealed from her. She had noticed it before, and in the dark of her room she had tried her best to unlock it, to no avail. She smiled again, it did not matter now. The one she could not be without was once again within reach, and her closest friend had insisted to this. The smile grew; those negative emotions that had plagued her were receding, allowing her a small measure of confidence.
Winter’s sharp eyes had seen the moment that Antrandis had re-joined Sian, she had been keeping track of their progress from above. Though, despite her efforts she had been unable to find Silvast, nor the children and their gryphon from her vantage. Not long after taking to the air, she had spotted movement in the forest, the wolves. They were searching, spread out among the trees and descending into the valley. It was a slow, but effective approach. As Sian had surmised, they would reach the river’s edge by nightfall.
Winter slowly banked, keeping track of Antrandis and Sian as she glided. Her eyes narrowed, they were both running. Ahead of them, the bend in the river doubled back on itself, with a small swath of land between its banks, creating the shape of a grey teardrop surrounded with a glimmering ribbon of water. She rolled in flight, allowing herself to pull into a dive, tucking her wings in as she speared toward the ground. The air rushed past rapidly, heightening the feeling of exhilaration as she dove out of the sky. She angled her descent, taking it into an arc so that she would be able to fly up to them from behind. Frowning, she saw Antrandis pointing ahead. But, from above the foliage was too thick for her to see. She continued her path, taking a final sharp turn, her wings straining as she worked them, hooking the breeze off the river and gliding in fast from behind.
Gliding beside both Sian and Antrandis, she pulled up. Buffeting the air with her wings and slowing, she alighted on the ground, her feet moving quickly as she settled into a run. She pulled her wings in tight to her back as the pair ran ahead. It was then that she noticed it, she had seen it earlier from the air not long after ascending, but had thought nothing of it. The forest ahead was dead, the foliage was there, but it was as if the life had been suddenly sucked out of it. The leaves that still clung to their branches were neither green nor brown. They were skeletal and the grey of ash. Eyes wide, she slowed to a walk as both Antrandis and Sian came to a stop at the edge of the desolation. Antrandis nodded to her, a smile still breaking though and onto her face, despite the sight in front of them.
Winter was the first to speak, her voice hushed, ‘I saw it from above earlier, but, I didn’t think that it was this.’
Sian nodded, looking up at the desiccated foliage that was still stubbornly clinging to the morbidly twisted twigs and brittle branches, ‘Do not concern yourself, Winter. From above, I doubt it looks much different than the rest of the forest, except for the colour.’
‘Silvast went in there?’ Winter asked, glancing at Antrandis.
‘She did,’ he said as he frowned, ‘I doubt it looked like this when she entered.’ he gestured to the side without taking his eyes from the forest ahead, ‘The last couple of dozen yards, she was a mixture of stumbling, crawling and dragging herself along.’
‘Are you suggesting that Silvast did this?’ Asked Winter.
Sian nodded, ‘We are. From above, how large an area was like this?’
Winter thought for a moment, ‘The entire bend, to where the river doubles back.’
Antrandis nodded slowly, the subtle expression of being impressed on his face.
Winter frowned at him, ‘You are impressed?’ she said with a disapproving tone in her voice.
‘I am. She managed to control it, considering her condition. If she stooped so low to tear the thread of life out of the forest, blighting it to power a spell, she showed impressive restraint.’ he looked at her, Sian now intently listening too, ‘It is akin to a flood, except it is raw, potent, wild power. You grow drunk off it, and you only want more. It is like a drug. An easily accessed drug. A taboo. There are those who do not think twice about draining the life out of the land to fuel their obsession, bastard Necromancers, Liches and abusers of the darkest arts. The barrens that surround the city of Knocht, they inflicted their addiction on the land.’
‘To me it demonstrates her desperation.’ Sian said as she touched the ashen soil.
‘It does.’ agreed Antrandis, his mood sobering, ‘That message last night was the spell she cast.’
Winter looked at Antrandis, ‘She is still in there, isn’t she?’
Antrandis seemed distracted, ‘You see Winter; it is a double -edged sword for one of her kind, it cuts both ways. For her to remain in there will only exasperate her condition.’ his eyes met Sian’s, ‘Once we enter, be wary of your step, we find her and bring her out. We can attend to her once we are out of the blight’s influence.’
Sian eyed Antrandis as she read his thoughts, concern growing on her face as she stepped over to Winter.
She spoke quietly, ‘Don’t come in, don’t even step foot on that soil. Wait for us out here, I am not sure how it will affect you.’
Winter nodded as Sian handed her a flask of water. Antrandis came to them.
‘Sian is right, Winter. Please remain here.’ he said as he handed her a small pouch.
Winter looked at it with curiosity, ‘An Evergreen? Another?’
He nodded with a small smile, Winter shook her head in mild amusement, tucking the pouch into the inside of her jacket, watching both Antrandis and Sian disappear into the lifeless forest. The ashen pall of death and decay engulfing them quickly as they advanced past the first rows of trees.
‘She really drained the life out of it,’ Sian commented as her eyes suddenly encountered the remains of three wolves, lifeless husks, nothing but skin stretched taught over their dehydrated bony remains. As Antrandis walked past them, they crumbled to nothing but piles of thick ash.
Sian clicked her tongue as Antrandis tore some fabric from his shirt, dousing it in water and handing it to Sian to cover her nose and mouth with. He quickly did the same for himself, and once done they forged on, their eyes open, searching for Silvast.
They continued in silence, the oppressive atmosphere already eating at them. Flailing at their mood and thoughts. Before long, they reached the centre of the blight, a stale, smoky mist engulfing them, trying to choke their breath and sight. Sian felt Antrandis’s hand on her arm. Turning, she could make out the dark smudges under his eyes and his uncharacteristic sickly pallor. He shook his head, not even bothering to converse telepathically. He gestured in the vague direction of the river, what would have been the edge of the curve, the belly of the cull-de-sac.
‘Water’s edge, nearby. Silvast.’ he said haltingly.
Sian nodded, her head heavy, her sense of direction all but gone and the effort of talking beyond her as she turned in the haze. She stopped as she heard his muffled voice.
She watched, swaying on her feet, he took a seed out of his pocket. She frowned, watching him drop to his knees and digging a small hole with one hand. He cupped the hand with the seed over his mouth and blew into it, a single glow, like the flame of a candle in the breeze came from the seed. He placed it into the hole and covered it, emptying the rest of his flask onto it. He placed a hand over the spot and raised his other to the sky, his eyes glowing dimly as he concentrated. He stood and shakily walked over to her, his face now almost as grey as the ash swirling around them. Nodding, he gestured for them to move on.
Minutes passed as bushes and small trees crumbled to dust around them, falling at the barest hint of movement while they plodded through the ash and between shadowy tree trunks. Sian looked up, trying to make out the sun, even a glimpse of Auryl would lift the despair dragging at her shoulders. Every second was a struggle, every minute felt like an eternity. She stumbled and fell, something soft had tripped her up as she shuffled through the debris. Crawling, she stopped opposite Antrandis while he crouched. Her eyes suddenly wide as she realised she had tripped over a body, Silvast’s unconscious form.
‘Trandis,’ she said in shock.
Kneeling, he held out a calming hand, leaning over the still form under a layer of ash. Gently brushing the grey, course dust clear of her face he brought his close, feeling the almost imperceptible breaths against his cheek as the remains of leaves and ash continued to rain down around them like grey snow. He slid his hands under Silvast, slowly lifting her limp form. Sian helped to steady him as he settled Silvast into his arms more securely, cradling her. Sian met his eyes, lifting a hand and gesturing, he nodded.
‘Yes, that way.’ he said breathlessly.