Brighton finished channeling his natural magic through the ley intersection of his heart. Excess magic leaked out of the corner of his eyes like tears that defied gravity, dripping rolling up his face before disappearing into the sky.
It’d been a few days now, so the guard post had stopped burning or smoking. Instead, it just smelled like wet ash, muddled and mashed together against the earth.
“Well?” Dan asked. “What do your eyes see?”
“Shhh,” Brighton said, holding up a hand. His ears were perked up. “Do you see that?”
“Not at all,” Lyn said.
He gestured, and ghosts of the past arose. The building conjured out of transparent light was still standing. A hawk flew in from the distance, just barely a speck of grey, and then swooped down at screaming speeds. The whir of the firebomb erupted against the side of the tower, casting it in flame as the oil took roiling and horrific. “There.”
“Well,” Lyn said. “We know how they did it now.”
Brighton dispelled the image, rubbing his hands across his sinuses, and spat out a clog of blood from his mouth where his teeth had nicked his tongue. Lyn followed the smell with interest, then lost it when it disappeared on the spoiled ground.
“A hawk,” Jacob wondered aloud. “Not a queen’smen then.”
“More than likely not,” Brighton agreed. “Grey-priest, have you seen hawks in your travels?”
“To the far east, past the dragon lands,” Lyn said.
Dan frowned. “I’ve heard there had been attempts to clear out the blight from the other side… but obviously, it’d be hard to see if that were the case. I’d hate to see what the royal family would do if the other side were being opened up.”
“Not our concern,” Lyn said, cutting him off.
“You’re right,” Dan agreed. He adjusted his hat.
“Let’s not engage in politic, not while we’re looking for bandits,” Brighton said. “Jacob, thoughts?”
“Did anyone bring a net?” Jacob asked.
“We’ll fashion something for the bird,” Brighton conceded. “But let’s not worry about that either. After all, we still need to figure out where they went.”
The light-mage held up a hand and twisted with his fingers. The images flickered back into play, fast forwarded in his grip, until Lyn could see the guards rushing out of the burning building. They went north, rather than west towards safety. Brighton turned to follow the dancing images, keeping track of them, until they were intersected just out of view.
Lyn knew where the horse had been left, skewered and filled with bolts. It was easy to follow from there.
“Well?” Lyn asked. “Can you take us to their camp?”
Brighton shook his head. “Reconstructive magics aren’t going to work too terribly well when we get thicker into the Blight.”
Lyn sighed. “Why is that?”
“Non destructive magics tend to go awry,” Dan said. “Due to the destruction of the leylines in the area.”
“And what did the damage?” Jacob asked, interested. Lyn flicked his eyes over to him to watch him. She wasn’t sure if she should tolerate him, and yet, killing him would keep why she didn’t like him a secret.
“Blight-beasts. They sustain themselves off of those magics,” Dan said. He walked over to the horses, who were nervously taking steps away from the flashing lights and fires, and calmed them down with all the poise of a noble man.
The wizard was good for that, Lyn knew.
“Oh,” Jacob said. “That seems bad. Does everyone know that?”
“Not at all,” Brighton said, walking over to his own transport. “We mages tend to keep it on the down low so that we don’t panic the unaffiliated.”
“So what happens if a ley line…” Jacob started.
“Breaks?” Dan finished.
“Yes,” Jacob said, mounting his horse.
Lyn met eyes with her beast, watching it canter and walk around. She narrowed her eyes. It hissed at her like a snake. She glared. It glared back.
Dan rolled his eyes and offered her horse a handful of food, and the horse greedily ate it, letting Lyn mount her beast.
“Nobody is entirely sure,” Brighton said.
“Well, I’ve done a bit of research,” Dan said. “And theoretically, the entire area would die off.”
Jacob looked uncomfortable at that prospect. Lyn, who had already been through the lands of the dead to the far north, where horses would not step and the shrines were maintained through elaborate sacred supply lines rather than any food that would grow, understood what Dan meant. “It’d take more than a few beasts to do that.”
“She’s right,” Dan agreed.
“Perhaps the Blight-Master,” Lyn said. “But I have no idea why that creature would do such a thing.”
Jacob frowned. “I was fairly certain that was a myth. Have you two…?”
Dan and Lyn exchanged glances for a moment. “No, we haven’t met them. But it’d make sense on why the plague still persists. If the original spell is still bound in what remains of the caster.”
“Pointless speculation,” Lyn said.
“I’d like to take a swing at him,” Brighton said.
And then they were off on the road, following the dim flickering path in the direction that the murderers had rode off in. If they were lucky, they hadn’t moved.
Well, Lyn loved to dance after all.
They made their way over hills and through minor valleys, following the vanished apparition of the road. Only the occasional shrine marked the path, and even those were overgrown at best, or turned into posts at worst. Most were to friendlier gods than Lyn or Jacob followed. Here was the goddess of cattle, whose husband had been bought at the slave market for one of her sacred pigs, and been freed from the tyranny of the dragonlords. There was the goddess of birds, who bore no remaining churches in the queendom, but still bore significance on the royal crown, her sweeping wings making up the most of the delicate artifact.
Gone were the days where the royal family was associated with birds and flight, but errant nobles were still occasionally referred to as fledgelings.
Brighton smiled as they passed a shrine to the afterlife, whose holy caress protected souls until they could be purified of experience and shuttled back into the mortal realms. Lyn smiled as well.
But over the next hill, even the road was gone, erased under centuries of fresh growth and sprawling weeds. Lyn’s smile dipped from her face.
“We’ve gone a bit too far,” Dan said. “Surely,”
“You might be right,” Brighton said. “I was expecting that we’d at least run into-”
Lyn held up a hand, and then ditched her horse, walking into the undergrowth. Dan sighed, and followed after. “What is it?”
The Grey-priest pulled at the overgrowth and rolled back the sprawl of weeds and half trees until the flash of color she’d caught was visible.
Another horse. Same breed as the one the guard had been with. Next to it? Another guard.
Torn to shreds until all that was left was their skin and a few of their bones. The rain had stolen most of the color, and the twist of vegetation and sprawl of reclaimed wilds kept even the path the blighted beast had taken invisible. How far had it been dragged?
“How’d she find that?” Brighton asked, peering down quizzically.
“She could smell the blood,” Jacob said.
“No,” Lyn said. She held up her hand. Everyone went silent.
The buzzing of the flies infesting the body was all that could be heard.
“You heard that from all the way over there?” Brighton asked, shaking his head. “You really are something else.”
“It comes in handy,” Dan said. “She’s got good ears.”
They were just handy enough to hear when someone muttered under their breath. For instance, Jacob. “Blight-elf,” he muttered under his breath.
She didn’t jerk or turn her head to look at him, since that would’ve given away the game right then and there.
And this was a game, since she wanted to know exactly what his kind was doing in her territory.
Brighton stepped off of the horse and squinted down at the remained. His hand twitch. Light played back in it’s path, twisting until the images reformed properly.
“Only have about six hours before they died,” Brighton said.
“They died here?” Dan asked, looking up. He tugged his hat down further over his ears, and looked around. He didn’t want to get caught off guard again, Lyn was good, but tempting fate wasn’t.
“They died here,” Brighton confirmed, curling his wrist. Time rewound itself, images flowing until the guard was left tied up against a stump on the other side of obscured road from them. Lyn traced the path he had to have taken.
“He was left as a sacrifice,” Lyn said. “To the blight-beasts.”
“Does that work?” Jacob asked. “As a manner of getting passage?”
“In so much as they’re occupied with easy prey,” Dan said. “They’re not intelligent, no matter what they might seem to do.”
“It’s their way of hunting, right?” Brighton asked.
“You got it,” Dan said. “Where’d you find that out?”
“I read one of your books,” Brighton said. “On your travels out here.”
Lyn looked at Dan, tilting her head like a bird. “You wrote books while I was gone?”
“One or two. One of our more tamer adventures, of course.”
“Of course,” Lyn parrotted. That was amusement fluttering in her tongue, behind her eyes. She liked that feeling and loved that taste. She should make sure to feel it more.
“It’s rather popular at the moment in certain areas of the court,” Brighton said. “The border’s rather sensationalized, you know.”
Dan bit his lip. Only Lyn knew this, because she could taste the change in his posture as he moved. She continued to watch him, threading her fingers together.
“Doesn’t seem that vivid,” Jacob said. “Just another overgrown wreck-”
Brighton’s images led to the first blight beast arriving. The guard, thoroughly tied up, couldn’t do much more than scream and thrash. It was over quickly, blessedly quickly. It took longer for the horses. They were always curious as to how the horses screamed when they were caught, and they could often outrun the blight beasts, so they were good fun for the mindless creatures.
Lyn watched dispassionately as augmented nature took its course. Brighton looked sick and dispelled the images. “Hideous.”
“They moved their camp,” Dan said. “They’re smart; they realized their lookout had been intercepted, and they-”
Lyn completed it. “They decided to use the blight as cover.” She flicked her gaze off of Dan (she felt him relax slightly) and over to Brighton and Jacob. “Are you two alright with a proper excursion?”
“Shouldn’t we get an army for this?” Brighton asked. The light behind his eyes dimmed as the prospect.
“We’re not going reclaiming,” Lyn said. “We’re scouting.”
Dan cleared his throat.
“Possibly killing a great number of people,” Lyn added.
Dan sighed, rolling his eyes.
“That’s not what you were going for?” Lyn asked.
“Not at all,” Dan said, sighing. “We’re going to keep on the low for this,” Dan corrected. “Engaging them is the last thing we want to do; we want to know why on earth they attacked a guard post when they could’ve just as easily spent most of their lives raiding caravans.”
Brighton nodded. “It’s good that we’re on the same page.”
Lyn rolled her eyes and looked over at Jacob. He sat, dispassioned, waiting for his colleague to finish talking.
“Well?” Dan asked, looking at Brighton.
With the dead body in front of him to counteract how faint the Blight made the trail, the light mage retraced the steps the bandits had taken.
It was the same path the blight beasts had taken.
Somebody else was at the shrine with Brensh. He bore the easy cut of royalty, the adventuring dark skin and strong shoulders, and he knelt in front of the shrine, eyes fixed on the swords below.
He knew better than to touch them, which Brensh was happy for, as there were no priests around to assist him and she didn’t want to find where they kept the medical supplies for idiots who handled rusty blades.
“Ah, another arrives,” The man greeted, throwing a hand up. Brensh slid in beside him, kneeling down before the shrine. She could hear the gentle stirring of the water over stone. Not quite tainted by his presence, no, but something close to it. “Justin, look.”
Brensh bit her lip as another slid out of the stones. It also wasn’t quite an ambush. “You two are a bit far from home,” she noted, hoping her voice didn’t waver quite as much as she thought it did.
“Relax, blade mistress,” the first man greeted. “We’re just taking stock in our surroundings,” he said, turning to look at the other man, Justin. “Right?”
“That’s right. I think she’d be happier if you weren’t quite so close to the shrine proper, Aaron.”
“Yes,” Brensh cut in.
Aaron took a few steps away from the shrine and took a seat on the stairs instead. “Sorry, I was just inspecting the runes. Can they be replicated?”
“I don’t think so,” Brensh answered. “Any chance we can take this somewhere else?”
“A shame. I’d love to put more pools of clean water about,” Aaron said. “They’d definitely remember me for that.”
“So far, all they’ll remember you for is annoying the locals,” Justin said, sliding beside the king’s nephew. “I’ll apologize for him, he’s too incorrigible to do it himself.”
“Rude,” Aaron said.
“Necessary,” Justin said.
Brensh tapped her foot.
“She wanted to know if we can talk away from the shrine,” Justin reminded.
Aaron snapped his fingers. “Right! Of course we can. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you nervous, I just wanted to see the swords myself.”
“It’s not really a tourist destination,” Brensh reminded.
“Of course, no offence met, but I’ve always heard…”
Justin grabbed Aaron’s shoulder and gently tugged him away himself, leading him down the steps. Brensh followed after them. Her shoulders relaxed as they hit the outskirts of the encampment.
“Alright!” Aaron said. “Do you mind answering a few questions?”
“What does the king want with one of our shrines?” Brensh asked.
“I said I’d want to ask the questions,” Aaron pouted. “But this isn’t the king’s work. I’m waiting for our team to come back, so I’m doing some investigation of my own.”
“On… grey temples?” Brensh asked. “You do have those where you come from. You have to, it’s-”
“Less than you’d think,” Aaron said. “It’s fallen out of style in the last generation or so, on account of the head of it being revealed as a cannibal.”
Brensh bit her lip harder. Oh, good, that’s what this was about.
“I hope you’re not looking for more cannibals,” Brensh said. “The priests here wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
“Are they cannibals?”
“Context clues, sir,” Justin spoke up.
“Right!” Aaron said, snapping his fingers. “So… do you guys eat people? Religiously?”
Brensh narrowed her eyes at him.
Justin sighed the sigh of the man servant. “Sir, if you want to get anywhere with this, stop asking that.”
“Got it,” Aaron said. He took a seat in the shadow of the long pillars. “I’m sorry, it’s just so hard to get in touch with the old church. Most of what we have are the latterday followers.”
“Did they send you here?” Brensh asked.
“No,” Aaron said. “Why?”
“Curiosity,” Brensh said. What on earth would possess someone to go to a shrine uninvited? It was rude, first off, and a massive breach in etiquette otherwise.
“I’ve been told that the lady Lyn recently returned from a religious pilgrimage,” Aaron said, unprodded. “Did you hear if she found anything?”
“Lyn keeps to herself,” Brensh said. “She probably wouldn’t say anything if she did.”
“The deadlands are mostly impassable,” Aaron said. “I’m just curious if she found anything up there. She might be the first person in decades to get far enough up north and then return here.”
Brensh shook her head. “Look, I’m only really an acolyte,” she said. “Can we keep the questioning a bit lower concept?”
“If I were to want to find someone to train me in the blade, where would I go?”
“The Reclaimers,” Brensh said. “Aer is more than willing to help people find teachers, it gives him business.”
“Excellent,” Aaron said. “And if I were to need to find members of the clergy?”
“Which faith?” Brensh asked. “This is your best bet for matters of the blade, and there’s the sheriff in town for most anything else.”
Aaron snapped his fingers. “Great. Thank you.”
“…You’re welcome?” Brensh said. Asked.
“Just trying to get a grasp on the land!” Aaron said. Chirped really. “I’m thinking of becoming a liason out here.”
Brensh stared at him. “We’re less than ten miles away from the safe border.”
“Exciting, isn’t it?” Aaron said. Over his shoulder, Justin gave him a long dead eyed glare, which Aaron didn’t catch at all.
Brench addressed Justin instead. “Is there anything else I can do for you two?”
“He’s looking for a priest who does blessings,” Justin said. “There’s supposed to be one or two out this way, and he wants to watch them work.”
“I’m interested in seeing the gods at work,” Aaron admitted.
Brensh continued looking at Justin. “He… he does know they’re gone, right?”
“They might be physically gone,” Aaron corrected. “But their works are still here and mostly intact. If they were dead, they would’ve faded in power.”
“I… don’t know enough about meta-theology to debate that,” Brensh admitted. “But… sure, okay.”
“Just don’t debate him.” Justin suggested. “Everyone back home has stopped, except the academics.”
“That’s something we don’t have,” Brensh said. “Except Dan.”
“Excellent, I know who to talk to,” Aaron clapped his hands together. “Thank you, Grey-priest.”
“Acolyte,” Brensh corrected. “And my name is Brensh.”
“Good name,” Aaron complimented.
“…Thank you?” Brensh asked.
“How good are you with a sword, by the by?” Aaron asked. “Justin, my dearest friend, has been wanting a spar with someone for quite some time, he’s gotten quite good at the palace, enough they had to make him stop, can you believe it?”
“That’s… not quite how that happened,” Justin said. “I defended your honor a few too many times, sir. Though, I am glad to be your dearest friend.”
“Lyn is currently teaching one of the new guys how to fight,” Brensh said. “Perhaps you can join her as well?” And get away from the shrine, and stop talking to her, Brensh would’ve added, but you didn’t get to say those things to royalty, even out of touch royals.
“We should go to the guildhall,” Justin added. “This shrine is very nice, but it’s been made clear we don’t belong here, sir.”
“Fine,” Aaron said, and then, giving a nod and a polite bow to Brensh, they swept away to the main road.
Brensh watched them go, scratching her head, until they were out of her sight, and then she knelt before the shrine and scratched at the rust and rot encrusting the weapons until her fingers ached.
The town could use an annoyance.