Chapter Sixty

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The forest seemed to close in around them like a slow, hostile mob. Lorn swallowed and ran his tongue across his lips in an attempt to moisten them. It was so dry here. Even the air was parched, and left an ashen residue in his mouth. 

Up ahead, Thesul marched like an oversized toy soldier. So far, their presence hadn't alerted any obvious threat. If anything, the further they traveled into the waste, the quieter it became. The silence was oppressive. Nobody spoke.

Lorn estimated they'd been walking for close to an hour. The fortress was close--he could almost feel the cold, rough stones of its crumbling structure beneath his feet. Soon they would walk through its ruined halls. Part of Lorn wanted to turn around, to run from this cursed place, damn the quest, damn the book--damn all of Ther to the Pit.

But of course, that was only a passing impulse. There was nowhere else to go but onward. Even if he had nothing left in this world, he would not abandon it.

Still, to be here, in this place, so long after his sister had fought and killed the Sorcerer--his sister, who was now just as dead as the monster she had defeated...

It was a nightghast that refused to end. A slow, waterless drowning. Holding back his grief was like holding up the sky. Its weight was unbearable. Lorn felt he would give anything to be rid it--even if the only escape was his own death.

To distract himself, he focused his attention on Guin. Somehow, the sight of her, striding tall and purposeful by his side, was strengthening. She wasn't part of this world. She was a flame in the dark. A light he could follow. Even if, soon, she too would leave. Just like Ygrael had said--once this quest was over, for good or ill, she would go back home.

But he wouldn't think about that now. The quest wasn't over yet.

"I think we're gettin' close," Zolga said. 

"Yeah, me too," Guin agreed. "Talon, we're still on track, right?"

The captain nodded. She had just completed her third aerial survey of the area. "We'll be there in under an hour, if we keep pace."

"Can't say I'm relieved, exactly, but I guess that's good news," Guin sighed. "This place really feels evil. I never thought that was really possible, you know? For somewhere to feel like this. Now I think I know now what people mean when they talk about visiting places like Auschwitz..." She trailed off, grimacing. "I wonder how much pain and awfulness there has to be before it just soaks into the ground and poisons everything."

"In this case, centuries' worth," Zolga replied. "This was where people from all over Ther were brought to die when they angered the Sorcerer. Many were hung from the branches of these very trees."

"It's where my uncle, King Yoldr, was executed for heresy," Lorn said quietly, gazing up at the twisted, leafless boughs. "He refused to give up any more of Dwel Valley's winter stores to Alavard. He made a formal stand against the council of that day. My father warned him not to, but he said he'd rather hang than see his people starve another winter..."

"And so he did," Talon concluded grimly. "Though I heard he was flayed before they hung him."

"I remember them coming to take him away," Lorn murmured. Images flickered through his mind of silver-armored Alavardian soldiers marching through the halls of his home. Mother had pleaded with them, begging for mercy where there was none to be found. Matta had wept, and screamed. Father had only been held back from killing them all by the king's own hand.

"It was my choice, Oryk. My choice. Stand down--that is an order--"

And then they had led him away, his hands in chains, back straight and shoulders broad, graying head held high. 

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