Tarduk, Crotesius, and Kirbold had been riding for a full day. They had left Surel, his Iron Wolves, and his dire warnings behind, but none could forget his words. Kirbold had been silent since then, lost in his own thoughts. Tarduk was more watchful than ever, hoping to spot the next attack before it was too late. For his part, Crotesius had decided that Surel had gone mad after so many years in the mountains, and there was little point in paying attention to the ravings of a madman.
Tarduk paused to glance at the metal fragment he carried with the strange map inscribed upon it. Yes, they were almost far enough to the north. Soon, it would be time to turn east, and head for where the symbol of the red star was located on the crude chart.
Kirbold abruptly reined the Sand Stalker to a halt. “I’ve changed my mind. I want to turn back,” he said.
“We’re not turning back,” Crotesius answered without turning around.
“I don’t even know what we’re doing here,” snapped Kirbold. “Who cares what’s beyond the mountains? We have our own problems at home.”
“Maybe the two are connected,” offered Tarduk. “Maybe there’s something up here that can help us deal with the Bone Hunters, the Vorox and the Skrall.”
“We’re here for a weapon?” Kirbold asked. “If there was something that powerful up north, the elders would have sent Glatorian to get it.”
“Maybe they didn’t want something like that in the hands of Strakk,” muttered Crotesius. “Or Kiina, for that matter.”
“Shut up!” said Tarduk.
“Hey, I have a right to say what I think!” replied Crotesius.
“No, I mean shut up, I think I hear something up ahead,” Tarduk said.
All three went silent – now they could all hear it. A harsh, keening sound like the song sung by a chorus of the dead. It seemed to be coming from a forest in the distance.
“It’s the wind,” said Crotesius. “You know, big blast of hot air, enough to knock a person over – sort of like Scodonius after a win in the arena.”
“I know it’s the wind,” answered Tarduk. “I just never heard wind like that before.”
“The Forest of Blades,” said Kirbold. “Up ahead. Maybe that’s the place Surel was talking about.”
“I don’t see any blades,” said Crotesius. “I see trees. That means maybe there’s some fruit or something else we can eat. I’m hungry enough to eat Thornax stew at this point. Even cold Thornax stew.” Tarduk started to say something back, but even the thought of cold Thornax stew was so nauseating that he had to swallow hard to keep from getting sick.
Crotesius had spurred his Sand Stalker on, and was riding ahead. Kirbold hesitated for a long moment before following. Sitting on the animal right behind Kirbold, Tarduk felt a moment of relief. He didn’t want to lose a team member, and he doubted Kirbold would be able to make it back to Iconox safely on his own. They needed to stick together.
As the small band rode closer, they noticed something strange. Faint sunlight was glittering off what appeared to be swords sticking out of trees. It almost looked as if the forest was armed, as strange as that seemed.
“Must be a weird kind of tree to grow branches like that,” said Kirbold. “I guess we know how the place got its name.”
“Do we?” said Tarduk. “Look closer.”
Kirbold peered through the morning mist. What he had thought was just a gleaming branch was in fact a sword, and it wasn’t sticking out of the wood – it was held in the hand of a warrior trapped halfway inside the trunk of the tree. Kirbold gasped. He suddenly realized that there were scores of warriors here, their bodies merged with the wood of the forest, still clutching their weapons. It was as if the trees had reached out and grabbed them and wouldn’t let go. He couldn’t tell if the warriors were still alive or not.
“That’s… horrible,” he said.
“What do you think?” Tarduk asked Crotesius.
The Fire Agori just stared at the awful forest for a long time. Then he said, “No natural forest behaves this way. I hate to say it, but Surel was right. The Element Lords were here. This is power over plant life at work. These warriors might have been here since the war, for all we know.”
“If they’re alive, we have to save them,” said Tarduk.
“That means going in there,” replied Crotesius.
Tarduk nodded. Kirbold yanked on the reins, turning the Sand Stalker around.
“You can get off right here, Tarduk,” said Kirbold. “I’m going back.”
Tarduk knew he should argue with him, but he couldn’t think of a good argument. The sane thing to do was to head back to the desert and try to forget this terrible place existed. But something told him there was more at stake here than just the discovery of new knowledge or the solving of a puzzle. More and more, he felt like they were on a mission – and a vital one.
Without a word, Tarduk jumped down from the Sand Stalker. Then he climbed up onto Crotesius’ mount.
“Be careful, Kirbold. The way back might be more dangerous than the way here.”
Kirbold nodded toward the Forest of Blades. “Same to you, friend. I think you’re crazy to go in there, but… I’ll make sure everyone back home knows you were trying to help others… and…”
His voice broke and he stopped speaking. Tarduk leaned over and shook his hand. In their hearts, both believed they would never see each other again.
Tarduk waited until Kirbold was well on his way before asking Crotesius to get the Sand Stalker moving. Together, they rode into the cool, green shade of the forest. They were so close to the warriors that Tarduk could have reached out and touched their armor, but he did not. He was doing his best to be brave, but he knew if one of the trapped warriors should suddenly move, he would have to scream.
None of them did. The two Agori rode deep into the forest. It was silent. No birds sang here, no rodents scurried across the leaf-strewn floor in search of a meal. It was a garden of sorts, but it was not a place of life. At least, that was how it seemed to Tarduk and Crotesius – right up until the moment when the wind gusted again, the howling noise rose, and the branches all around reached out to seize them both.