Chapter Fifty-Nine

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The moreii died off first. Then the grass. After that, the bare earth slowly turned to hard, cracked dirt the color of ash. Diavarda was as dry and brittle as a dessicated insect husk.

Guin felt gravel grinding beneath her boots, making each step she took loud and sharp. Sound carried far here--that was one of the first things she noticed. Every huff of breath, rustle of cloth and murmured word seemed magnified tenfold. Thesul's stomping feet were loudest of all. Though the group moved with caution, they sounded to Guin like a herd of stampeding elephants in corduroy trousers.

If there was anything unpleasant lurking about, it would hear them coming.

Guin coughed, took in a lungful of the foul-tasting air, and grimaced. Even without the  ultimatum posed by the Fog, she didn't want to spend a moment longer here than was necessary. It didn't feel remotely healthy.  

They were drawing close to the forest of dead trees. There was no visible path, but there earth lay flat between the gnarled trunks, and the fortress loomed high above the tree-line, visible from every angle--it wouldn't be difficult to navigate. 

The group came to a halt at the forest edge. Thesul, unable to stop himself, walked a little further until he collided with a tree and began marching on the spot. 

Guin ignored him and turned to her companions. "So, um--before we go any further," she said, her voice hushed and almost as dry as the air, "Anyone wanna tell me if there's supposed to be zombies or something? Because I'd like to know beforehand, if at all possible..."

"There're rumored t'be all manner o'fell an' foul things livin' 'ere," Droom replied, glowering up at the trees. "Old curses what'll turn ye t'stone if ye put a foot wrong. Ghosts o'them what the Sorcerer killed, gone funny in th'ead and liable t'attack without warnin'. Howlers what'll drive ye mad w'their cries. Deathgnashers what'll eat yer intestines while ye hang live from a tree. Bone-Snappers what like t'slurp warm marrow fro--"

Mogra punched his shoulder and gave him a stern look. "Droo!"

"She asked!" Droom muttered, massaging his shoulder.

"Nothing lives here," Talon said, her voice flat, yellow eyes scanning the trees. "Nothing can."

"Nothin' alive," Zolga added, fingers flexing on the hilt of her new sword. 

"I heard your soul gets slowly sucked out your ears the closer you get to the fortress," Kip offered doubtfully.

"I think it's your eyes, not your ears," Lorn corrected absently, his gaze fixed on the distant structure--and, beyond that, the seething grayness that had replaced the sky. 

Guin wondered briefly how it was that they hadn't noticed the Fog earlier. She was sure they'd been looking at the horizon all day, but the swirling darkness only seemed to have materialized once they'd climbed that hill...

She put that thought aside. No sense in worrying over things she could neither control nor understand yet. They had to focus on finding the book. Maybe, once that was sorted, everything else would be explained. Guin certainly hoped so.

"Thank you, everyone, for the reassurance." Guin sighed and massaged her forehead. "Who's going first?"

As one, their collective gaze fell on Thesul. His feet were still going with mechanical determination, churning up runnels in the ground as he banged relentlessly against the dead tree's thick trunk. 

There followed a long, thoughtful silence. 

"Seems only appropriate," Zolga remarked at last. "And he ain't got no soul to be sucked out o'his ears, so where's the harm?"

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