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I crested the hill while the sun was still three finger-lengths above the horizon and stopped cold. Fear curdled in my stomach and burned in my throat. It wasn’t that the forest had grown in the half-season since I’d last passed this way. Forests often behaved in ways one couldn’t anticipate, advancing over this valley, retreating from that mountainside, devouring villages and villagers alike, or ringing the town with living, growing walls to keep the humans safe from the creatures that roamed the night. There was no predicting what the trees might do, not even the Summoners. To try was to tempt madness. The forest was closer to Midpoint Crest, the spot where I stood locked in dread, by roughly a morning’s hike, and the nearest village was three days back the way I’d come. No one had mentioned it in at the inn, and so no one was overly concerned, but then why would they be? This close to our stronghold, the forest was more likely to be friendly than not. This close to our stronghold, the humans were more likely to be friendly than not, come to that. No, the forest itself did not worry me.
Neither did the moon-wisps roosting in the tall grasses along the side of the road. Their ghostly forms looked like heatwaves that sometimes kicked up on the broad roads during the height of summer to the naked eye, but the day around me was chill enough that knowing them for what they were was no trouble. Nor was I was not dependent upon only my eyes to see them. They drowsed in the fading sunlight, their eyes closed, their red-tipped claws curled around their torsos. I counted less than a dozen on either side, eighteen or twenty all told. This was a new tribe, young and small. It could make them dangerous; young tribes were more likely to attack something that they had no hope of taking down, and while twenty had no hopes of causing me mortal harm, even alone as I was, it would take time I didn’t have to subdue them. I’d rather avoid it, if I could, and I had enough sunlight left to put distance between myself and the moon-wisps before they roused to their hunt.
What gave me pause – what rooted my feet to the road, kicked the bottom out of my stomach, and set the acid burning up my throat – was the blood-sickle brambles growing on either side of the road half a league from where I stood. The tell-tale glint of silver as the sunlight hit their leaves chilled my blood. The faint tinking of those leaves as they sought around them for food caused sweat to break out along my skin. For an instant I was fresh on my first solo journey, untried and nervous, with only my shadow, my eaglyn, and my power to protect me. I had years of experience under my feet since my first run in with the blood-sickle. I had confidence and practical knowledge and, more to the point, a larger network of allies at my disposal. I was close enough to safety that help would reach me before they cut my last breath from my body.
But, I had neither my shadow nor my eaglyn to send to fetch the help. There was less than three fingers left of sunlight. My other allies rarely ventured this close to the Summoner stronghold. None of the patrons at the inn mentioned anything about the blood-sickle being this close to a human settlement. Worse than that, I’d been traveling three days on this road without seeing any other travelers. This was the biggest, safest route running from Hell’s Gate to Riverbend Haven. This close to winter heavy traffic would be surprising, but no traffic at all was just as bad. Two days ago I’d sent Mecklin airborne to see if he could catch wind of any news. Yesterday I’d sent my shadow on to see what she could find out. That neither of them spotted the blood-sickle meant it hadn’t been there as recently as yesterday.
Which meant it was swarming.
Which meant there was not even close to enough daylight left for me to reach safety.
I stood atop the hill and gazed down upon my doom. Uphill and upwind from the blood-sickle, I knew that it was already aware of my presence. For all I knew its runners were already burrowing through the earth, racing to reach me, to seize my feet and hold me still until the long shadows of night freed the rest of the plant to come and devour me. It would follow, even if I ran all the way back to Riverbend Haven. It would head there next, if I didn’t destroy it all now – root and runner, seed and leaf, stem, flower, and fruit.
Blood-sickle was tenacious and deadly but, unlike most of the nightmares that ruled the dark, it was simple. It was fast and it devoured everything in its path. It knew no discernment. Flesh and bone and blood was on its menu, as well as wood and sap and flower. It devoured wherever it went, and the land it left behind huge swaths of barren, cursed land. Nothing could grow, and anything dwelling upon the land for long would sicken and die. Even the beasts of darkness. Because of this, blood-sickle was destroyed where it was found, and in this, like in so many other areas, the nightmares ruled. We still didn’t know how they destroyed the blood-sickle so thoroughly. We used sunlight, lent to us by the Five, celestial fire captured and distilled and injected into the very soul of the plant. Most of the time this worked. Most of the time. But it was always costly, and it always left me vulnerable for days, and I’d never, in all the times I’d done this, managed it alone.
Could I destroy it? On my own, with little sunlight left, and tribe of moon-wisps waiting in the wings to take a bite out of me? Could I eradicate the carnivorous plant from the world before it sliced my life away and took my soul into its gut? Or was this going to be the time and place I died? Was this to be the end of Caleyna Summoner? Lost on the ancient road between Hell’s Gate and Riverbend Haven, picked apart by a plant that’s plagued humankind and nightmares alike since the world’s end?
I eyed the angle of the sun, sinking ever closer to the horizon as I stood and debated. There was nothing to be done for it. I was here. I was alone. If I did nothing, I was sure to die. Time was against me.
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