Conbert’s hands were slick with sweat on the reins, despite the cold breeze. Every rustle of the long yellow grass, every whistle of the wind, any sound not the rhythmic clop of his horse’s hooves on the worn cobblestone road sent his eyes darting and heart racing.
He had traveled the Reach Road two times previous. Each time had been without incident. Each time, he had arrived at his destination hale and whole, without even a glimpse of the fabled predators the grasslands were so famous for. Yet each time, the sense of dread, of cold fear, had been with him.
The first time, he had tried to play the part of the brave hero, riding forth on a grand quest like the legendary figures in the old stories. That lasted until he caught sight of the infamous drowning grass. The blades were the height of a man and they moved with a sinuous and lifelike grace on each side of the wide stone road.
The fear had started then, shattering whatever myth he might have fabricated of Conbert Eylnen, the future valiant officer of the King’s Own. In the face of that grass and what he knew could be hiding under it, he was just Con, apprentice engineer and architect, student of the academy, and anxious to get the hell out of there.
Somewhere far out across the sea of grass, a lone tree rose up like an island. It marked the halfway point in crossing the grassland. It had often given Con comfort. But this time, beneath the shade of its heavy, twisted boughs, there was movement.
A human shape.
Impossible. The only road through the drowning grass was the one he was on now. No one would be stupid enough to travel into the middle of the cursed grass, set up like a picnic for the rendworms.
Con pulled his horse to a halt. Reaching down to the heavy saddlebag, he pulled out his surveyor’s glass and raised the delicate instrument to his eye.
Sure enough, there was a person. A girl. She seemed tall, but even with the glass, it was difficult to judge at this distance. She had short, blonde hair that was almost white as it ruffled in the wind. What really caught his attention was her clothing: the familiar grays of an academy cadet. The same grays he had worn as an underclassman a year ago.
The fear came back, but this time wild. The girl was doomed, marooned at that tree surely as any castaway on a lost island. It was only a matter of time until the rendworms caught wind of her.
Before he knew what he was doing, Con urged his horse into a gallop, off the stone road and into the undulating grass. His breath rasped and tears blurred his eyes.
From the wind, he thought. Tears because of the wind. Not because I am stupid and going to die out here.
He rode hard across the grassland, the twisted spire of the tree ahead of him. As it drew closer, he saw the cadet had caught sight of him. She waved frantically. Conbert focused on her desperate movements, shoring up his rapidly disappearing courage with the knowledge that he was her only hope.
Something brushed his leg and he almost shrieked, but realized it was only a heavy stalk of grass. The tree and the waving girl were a few lengths away now.
Con leaped from the saddle, stumbled, and fell on his face, but he got up quickly. Breathlessly, he stood before the girl. “It’s alright, cadet,” he gasped. “I can take you out—”
Her hand shot out, covering his mouth. It was almost too fast to follow and his eyes widened with shock.
The cadet met his gaze with a cold, hard look of her own. There was a focus there and not the desperate gratitude Con had expected. Slowly, she raised her free hand and laid a single finger against her lips.
Utterly confused, he could only nod.
She cocked her head, listening. Tall and fairly thin, she was not a delicate beauty. Her features were too strong, too sharp for that, but her clear, blue eyes were vibrant as she searched the grass around them. She sighed and released the hand over his mouth.
Con drew a deep breath. “Cadet, what are you doing out here?”
The girl turned and then, appearing to notice the black and silver uniform, snapped to a smart salute. “Forgive me, sir. I was hunting a rendworm.”
“You’re what? Are you absolutely mad, girl?” he asked, his voice rising.
“No, sir. Not at all. I am merely here to honor the First Trial of Aedan,” she said, bowing her head momentarily. “I am not to return without the jaw of a rendworm, but so far, none have appeared.”
“The First Trial of Aedan?”
Con’s eyes grew wider. The Hunt. The joke upperclassmen played on first-year cadets at the Academy. The older students regaled them with stories of the First King, Aedan, and the legend of how he bested a field of colossal rendworms to earn a meeting with an ancient one, the Shepherd of Tree and Stone.
Only there was no Hunt.
It was all an elaborate ruse, a traditional jape each first-year cadet class went through. The cadets were stopped at the gate of the Academy, chased and beaten by older cadets wielding sticks and wearing garish costumes. And then the ale casks were brought out and everyone would get ripping drunk.
No one ever actually went out to hunt the damn things.
He looked at the girl again. For her to be out here meant she must have been very sheltered or very stupid. But that didn’t explain why the other cadets wouldn’t have stopped her at the gate.
Conbert felt suddenly cold. Had they done this on purpose? Had they sent her unknowingly to her death? The chill turned to anger. The Academy had never been a warm place, but it had never been this cruel.
Conbert opened his mouth to tell the girl the truth about her fool’s errand, but saw her posture change. She stood absolutely still, looking past him, a long-handled black mace in one hand. His horse danced skittishly as the grass waved around it.
The girl put a hand on his shoulder. Her voice was low. “Whatever happens next, you mustn’t move.”
And then the ground underneath the horse exploded and a pale white form the size of a wagon erupted into the air. The horse let out a scream that turned into a wet gurgle as white writhing tentacles enveloped the animal. The copper tang of blood filled the air and Conbert felt his stomach lurch.
He thought to go for the sword at his side, but he saw the girl’s eyes.
He held himself still as another of the creatures breached the drowning grass. It was a huge mass of rippling white flesh, except at the front, where the mouth opened like an exposed wound. Massive tearing fangs lined the pink maw, and white tentacles writhed from the worm’s throat, seeking the remnants of the thrashing horse. The two monsters tore the horse apart in seconds, powerful tentacles flaying meat from bone with horrific efficiency.
As the rendworms began to slide across the ground in their direction, Con felt a terror urging him to run. He fought against it, trying to focus instead on the perfect stillness of the young girl as the huge worms slid past them.
Then the girl moved.
The young cadet was fast and sure as she darted forward. She struck out with the mace, swinging it with both hands, and smashing it into the rendworm’s side. There was a loud crack, and Con knew that somewhere inside the sinuous horror, a bone had broken under the blow.
The rendworm let out a keening screech that stabbed Con’s ears and took the breath from his lungs. The injured creature folded its bulk around, trying to round on the girl. The crown of white tentacles snapped and writhed like angry serpents, seeking her.
Instead of retreating, she moved into the circle of the rendworm’s turning bulk. The mace carved through the air once more, the flanged head crashing squarely just behind the enormous hooked jaws and tentacles. This time, there was no crack like thunder, but a wet sound like the smashing of rotting fruit. The rendworm immediately shuddered and collapsed to the ground dead.
The other rendworm came now, covering Con with a shower of earth, a massive shadow blocking out the sun. Bringing his blade free of its sheath, he held it before him in desperation as one of the tentacles lashed at him. By some fortune, Con’s sword came across his body right in the path of the slashing tooth of the tentacle. Con dropped to the ground as the horror reared for another strike.
There was an explosion of gore as the creature’s soft abdomen was crushed under the girl’s mace. The white flesh shuddered and collapsed, and Con scrambled away from the new corpse. Through the noxious rendworm blood dripping down his face, he peered at the young cadet.
Her eyes shone with excitement and triumph.
“From the stories, I thought they would be bigger,” the girl said, her voice colored in disappointment.
Conbert looked at her, unable to stop shaking, unable to keep from staring as she handed him a water flask. She walked to the first corpse and began working away at the creature with the short blade from her belt. With quick, sure movements, she tore free the huge serrated jaws of the rendworm.
The girl grinned ear to ear. “They have no eyes, but they can feel your vibrations when you move. You did incredibly well, sir.”
Con could only nod dumbly. Finally, he found his tongue. “Conbert Eylnen,” he said, unsure of what else to say. “My name is Con.”
The cadet nodded as she tore out the jaw of the second rendworm. “Elinor,” she said, handing him the bloody mandible. “That one’s yours, but I think we had better get on our way before we attract any more attention. Don’t you agree?”
Con shook his head in disbelief. “After you,” he finally managed.
Elinor smiled and started for the road.
Con made sure to follow close behind.