Chapter Fifty-Eight | Part Four

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Guin's heart did an erratic jig of excitement in her chest. They were here. They'd finally found it--the big bad evil lair. It certainly looked the part.

Standing atop the windblown hill, looking down across the great gray wasteland, Guin saw a huge, blackened fortress of crumbling stone. The gloomy edifice was surrounded on all sides by a forest of dead trees, their crooked fingers raking the sky as if reaching to claw the sun from its perch. Far off, miles beyond the dead forest and ruined fortress, a bank of roiling clouds had all but consumed the horizon. 

As an afterthought, Guin held up a hand and brought Thesul to a halt before he toppled down the hill.  He lurched to a full stop roughly ten feet from their group and stood swaying on the brink of the incline. It was tempting to give him a little shove--but now wasn't the time. 

"Damn," Guin said, puffing a strand of hair out of her eyes and returning her attention to the grim prospect bellow. "This is some serious edgelord material right here. There's even a spiky gate."

Lorn came to stand beside her. He was breathing heavily and looked a complete mess, but seemed to be holding it together as well as could be expected. "He had a flair for the dramatic, or so I've heard," he said, arching a hand over his eyes and peering down the hill. 

"I can see that," Guin agreed. 

Standing to their left, Droom took a long sniff and grimaced. "Stinks like a singed doggerel."

Guin didn't know anything about singed doggerels, but the air did carry a certain bitter tang--a fetid odor somewhere between burnt toast and mildew. She supposed that was what evil smelled like. 

"What's that?" Kip asked. He raised a hand and pointed, not at the fortress, but the all-consuming cloud bank beyond it. 

Guin squinted. "Um--thunderclouds?"

"Then where, pray, is the sky?" Zolga asked, glancing sidelong at Talon. "Or the ground?"

The captain's already pale face had gone white as a sheet. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but only shook her head in mute horror. Then, with a suddenness that made Guin jump, she changed into her bird form and took off across the gray waste. 

"What's she doing?" Guin asked, watching Talon's flight as she skimmed over the ruins and headed for the wall of cloud.

But now that she really looked, it didn't seem like clouds at all. Clouds had shapes. This was a flat, formless mass stretching off as far as she could see in all directions--a wall of swirling, colorless mist...

Fog.

"Oh my God," Guin breathed. Instinctively, she  reached out and gripped Lorn's arm. "Please," she whispered. "Please tell me that's not what I think it is."

He reached up with his free hand and pulled her fingers free of his arm before twining them in his. "Looks like we have even less time than we thought," he said softly. 

"Well I'll be pitbound," Droom muttered, glancing worriedly at Mogra. 

"Aye," she said, and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I reckon we're all pitbound if that book ain't here in earnest."

Guin swallowed the painful lump rising in her throat. "This is my fault," she whispered. "Oh God what have I done--"

"Your fault?" Lorn asked, glancing at her and frowning. "How--"

With a piercing screech, Talon swooped down out of the sky and landed in front of them. She shifted back into her humanoid form and stood up, wild-eyed and panting. "The Fog," she said. "It reaches  forever, in all directions. It's swallowing the wind, the sky--" Her voice broke off sharply. She shook her head and took a deep breath before concluding. "It's moving. I cannot determine how long we have before it consumes Diavarda."

"Then we'd better get moving," Lorn said. He gave Guin's fingers a final squeeze, let go and began picking his way down the hill.

For a moment, Guin couldn't bring herself to follow him. She'd done this. She'd sped up everything until they had no time, not time at all...

"Come along, dearie," Mogra said gently, patting her elbow as she shuffled past. "Ye heard th'lad. We best get started."

_____

Orven's sleep was shattered by the clanging of bells. He sat up in bed with a cry, realized too late that he'd been sleeping close to the edge of the mattress, and rolled off. He hit the floor with a hard thump and a groan. 

The bells continued, shattering the morning with deep, tooth-rattling dissonance. Orven struggled against the twisted cocoon of blankets that he'd dragged off the bed with him. When he eventually managed to wriggle free, he kicked the sheet away and staggered to his feet. 

What in the pitrealms...

Still clumsy with sleep and disoriented from his rude awakening, Orven stumbled across the room until he reached the window and pulled the drapes roughly aside, tearing several rungs loose in his haste. 

One hand gripping the sill for support, Orven used the other to thrust open the window and stuck his head out into the bright, clanging morning just in time to see the shape of a dragon slice through the sky.

Orven stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, as the beast opened its jaws and let loose a torrent of flame upon the castle battlements. Screams filled the air, mingling with the relentless bells, and Orven realized that the cries were Thesul's soldiers burning.

Of course, Orven thought numbly. They're not Varyn's guard. They have no idea how to man the wall, or how to combat dragonfire...

Directing his gaze upward, Orven saw that the sky teamed with swooping, soaring, flame-spouting monsters. 

Svard was under attack. Why or how this had come about was of little consequence. Istenra and her soldiers might have had no notion of how to defend the city from these beasts, but Orven did. Once again, he would need to take matters into his own hands--but wasn't that the prerogative of any worthy king?

Turning sharply away from the window, Orven sprinted across his room, flung open the door and thundered down the hall. More screams and shouts joined the clamor of bells as he ran. There was no time--he had to act swiftly--

Orven rounded a corner and nearly collided with a group of rushing soldiers. Six in all. They were disheveled, and smelled suspiciously of his uncle's wine cellar. The foremost one drew up short and attempted a sloppy salute, but before any pathetic excuses could spill from the man's lips, Orven barked, "You! Come with me!"

He shoved the man roughly aside and continued running. After a moment, they fell into a disorderly line and gave chase. 

Orven glanced over his shoulder to check that they were indeed following, then picked up his pace. Six would do. Six would do just fine. Two for loading, two for aiming, two for winding the boltsprings. 

He had watched the machine's preparations with close interest over the past months--had even studied its blueprints--and knew its inner workings in inmate detail. No man had ever known a woman as well as Orven Ardov knew Girtha. Today, he would unleash her on the sky.

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