The dense undergrowth bore less and less friendly flowers or almost paths as the horses walked through it. There soon came a point, to Lyn’s relief, where they had to stop using the horses while riding them or risk having their legs snapped off.
“We should abandon them,” Lyn suggested.
Three pairs of eyes glared at her. She only shrank from Dan. “The bandits got through here on their horses,” Dan pointed out. “If we’re careful, we’ll get through the worst of it as well.”
“Fine,” Lyn huffed, leaning away from her horse when it inevitably snapped at her. Horses had longer teeth than her, and she didn’t like that.
“What’s the matter?” Brighton asked. “Horses not like you?”
“They can smell the blood,” Jacob suggested.
“Possibly,” Lyn said. Dan rolled his eyes, and stepped through the overgrowth on the path to help with Lyn’s horse. They preferred his scent over hers.
Not that that was saying much, they only barely preferred her scent over a blade’s.
Brighton held up his hand and refreshed the path. It turned, wiggled and wobbled, broadcast in perfect, if flickering, detail. Lyn raised an eyebrow at him. “I thought your magic was…”
“Not working?” Brighton finished. “I guess a blighted beast moved out of my area.”
“Dan’s magic works on those,” Lyn pointed out.
“Dan’s magic is worked through a book,” Brighton said. “Mine’s worked through flesh and blood. I’ll give you two guesses on what the blight’s designed to go through.”
Dan shrugged. “It’s unethical to test what mage is affected the most by the Blight, so we’re not completely sure why or what area-”
The holographic image flickered out entirely. Dan and Brighton frowned.
Jacob and Lyn sighed and drew their weapons.
“It turns up ahead, at least,” Brighton said. “I saw that.” A small dagger slid out of his sleeve. Dan flipped through a book, back and forth, trying to decide which spell to take up. Lyn slashed at the thick brambles, abandoning the safety of the horses, and crept forward on practiced feet.
“Clearing ahead,” Lyn reported. “And-”
The brambles in front of them rustled.
“Beast?” Brandon finished.
The three headed bone centipede burst into the clearing screaming from exposed vocal cords, vibrating and buzzing half congealed out of it’s rotting meat. Five sets of arms and five sets of legs were attached to an elongated torso, changing it from a man into more of a centipede.
“Give me room,” Dan hissed, throwing himself off of his horse. Brighton was kicked off and caught himself before he slammed into the bushes. Jacob hopped off and braced himself on the ground. “I can’t cast this close up, it’ll eat my book and then we’ll all die.”
“Got it,” Brighton said. His hands gleamed with flickering light magic. No complicated spells for him, but what was complicated about blasting someone with hot light?
The brambled tore into the beast’s rotting flesh, snagging it in place. All three heads, and the four eyes that still remained, locked onto Lyn.
Good. It knew who to fear. Lyn grinned at the quivering mass of decay.
But it wasn’t Lyn who stepped into the familiar waltz of the beast, but Jacob, who swung in with his hand and half. The blade caught across the easy flesh of the bound beas’s chest and scattered off a great hunk of green skin, sending it flaking off into the brush. The blade made musical noises against the exposed rib cage.
“That smell,” Jacob complained.
“You get used to it,” Dan said. He was back with the horses, having moved them safely back. Lucky bastard.
Lyn watched Jacob, waiting for the moment he would get out of her path.
“It’s so much uglier up close,” Brighton said. His hands balled up into fists, and then he stepped forward to join Jacob. Lyn bit her lip.
The beast’s three jaws clicked, beastial intelligence gleaming under eyes long since locked by rot and mirrored decay, and then it shifted, rearing back to smash through the brambles.
Lyn lunged forward and snagged both of the fighters by the shoulders and dragged them into the brambles. They squawked like birds and then the beast fell like a star upon the ground, shaking the earth.
The grey-priest tugged a bramble out of her face between two fingers, the other still holding her blade, and turned, ignoring the dig of the other barbs.
“Careful,” She hissed, a tad late. “It’s not going to have any fear like bandits might. No matter how many men it was made from.”
“What in the Queen’s name could make this?” Brighton hissed.
“Flesh crafters,” Jacob said, darkly. “Long attempted to hold back death.”
“Not now,” Lyn said, and the beast rose, dragging the bush along with it. “Now’s fighting. You can claim wild theories later, idiots.”
“I agree,” Jacob said, and he was already on his feet, eyeing the great creature. “It dies if we stab it enough, right?”
“Ultimately,” Lyn said.
The beast wriggled its many stolen legs and arms and then the heads turns on the tripod neck, tilting to listen to their voices. Lyn shifted, keeping her stance light and open. “Brighton, keep a watch for more than one.”
“More?!” Brighton hissed.
Lyn kept her own ears perked, but it was so she could hear Dan flipping through his spell books. There was a good reason why she tugged the wizard along with her wherever she went.
“They move in packs, typically,” Lyn said. “Do you really think the average guild couldn’t take these on? Aren’t you supposed to be the best?”
“The guild policy is to not engage,” Jacob said. “And they pay me to follow the rules.”
“Like a real mercenary’s scripture,” Lyn muttered.
The beast lunged at them, and the bush attached to the skin broke into pieces, sending thrones every which way. They rained down onto Lyn’s hand, and she darted, remembering the lesson of the bee, and swung low between the crawling tendrils of rotten feet. Her blade dug up into the center.
The damn thing had ribs the entire way down. She’d have to remember this formation of flesh.
Jacob tugged Brighton out of the way. Fitting to keep someone close to watch the mages. Dan had long learned his lesson of where to stand when under attack, Lyn didn’t have to watch him, she could tell where he was by the crazed nickering of the horses. But Brighton…
Her heart beat greedily in her chest and she loved the feeling of being alive.
Brighton lashed out with fists dripping fresh light, and as his out stretched fingers touched the beast flying overhead, hands (his and its) grasping for anything at all he made contact. Flash bombs had been designed for man vs man combat.
Here they made spots dance in Lyn’s eyes like the setting of the sun, and she smelt burning pork. The char spread up in hot inches around Brighton’s touch, and then he crouched low and brought it raking down the beast’s stomach. Jacob dug his sword into the burning blacked flesh and struck something important, it burst in a spray of putrid biomass, far above his body.
“Got it!” Dan said. “Get out of the way, this one shouldn’t set the whole thicket on fire.”
“About time,” Lyn snarked. Jacob and Brighton slid beside her.
“We hit something important, do we need the wizard?”
“Don’t care,” Lyn said. “He’ll deal with clean up too.”
Dan looked up, book spread across on his knees, then straightened, tearing out the page. He held it, spoke the first few words, and it tugged into the equation the rest of the way, hissing across like a fuse. Words tangled together in a melody she couldn’t comprehend.
The beast knew where they were this time. They didn’t have the luxury of slow casting, or the time for a longer work.
So the spell that ushered forth was sharp and jagged around the edges, and caught the beast right underneath of the left chin like a whirring sword. It cut in deep, sending out a spray of foul smelling rotten viscera, and broke into bones.
It didn’t explode, not this time, but the fire that spread down across the wound wasn’t hot. It devoured flesh all the same.
“Is it over?” Brighton asked.
The beast stood up, roaring in pain and glared down at Dan. Eyes shuttered, teeth bared.
“Lyn?” Dan asked.
Lyn was already moving. The spine was visible outside of the flesh. She kicked off of it, one by one, flying up the vertebra like a cliff wall, and while the beast roared and smoked, she slashed her sword up through the burning bone of the neck. It struck solid, hit solid, tasted solid nerve chord.
It resisted, as was the nature of such abominations, but it could not resist Lyn. They never could.
The cord cut in a spray of blood and cerebrospinal fluid, this time untainted, and the beast froze up, nerve action stopped, however temporarily. Lyn rode it down, perfectly balanced, and it hit the ground in an agonizing thud.
And it burned the entire way down.
“Fascinating,” Brighton said, peeking from behind Jacob’s shoulder. “Is it always that flashy?”
“I had to cobble something together,” Dan said. “I’m really glad they haven’t figured out a resistance to that spell yet.”
“I recall last time they had,” Lyn said.
“It made it harder for them to hunt,” Dan said. “So I imagine they ended up getting outmoded by the faster ones while we were gone for a year.”
“They can do what?!” Brighton hissed.
“They change,” Dan said. “I mentioned it in my book. They adapt rather quickly to attacks, so the army has to take care not to be rendered impotent.”
“I thought that was a metaphor,” Brighton muttered.
Lyn hopped off of the skeleton and stared, watching flesh catch, and then muscle.
It wasn’t dead. Not really. Just paralyzed. The burning of the lower body probably didn’t provoke a pain response, a steady tug like a candle on the energy stored within flesh, all up up up in a thin trail of smoke.
Dan was terrifying.
She was glad to be his friend.
Then it hit the brain, where the magical spell binding the body together was stored and the beast finally met an ending.
“Anything else we need to know?” Jacob asked, voice rather dark. “Do they fly?”
“I haven’t seen one fly,” Lyn said. “I’ll tell you if that changes.”
Dan shook his head, fingers paging through his book. “Don’t have too many melters prepared. That spell takes a lot out of me to write, and it takes even more out of my wallet.”
“Aer keeps you well stocked,” Lyn said. “It’s that much?”
Dan shook his head. “Violent spells require special ingredients, Lyn. We’ve gone over this.”
“And I said I’d be willing to help you find those.”
Dan looked away.
Brighton quirked an eyebrow, slowly making his way over to the horses. They weren’t doing too well at this point, their legs covered in the occasional scratch from the brambled path even if they’d take extra care to avoid them.
They couldn’t prevent them from drifting into them from blind terror. Lyn privately hoped they’d just walk next time.
“Think you can clear the path?” Jacob asked, gesturing at the brambles.
“Not at all,” Dan said. “Not unless you want everything to catch on fire.”
“You can’t just magic a clear spell?” Jacob asked.
Dan huffed, tugging at his wizard hat. “I’m a wizard, Jacob. I’m not an invoker. I can’t just twist what I have written until it works.” He abandoned the horses for Brighton to take care of and stepped over to Lyn’s side. “Is everyone alright?”
“Just taken aback,” Brighton said. “I wasn’t expecting… well, I wasn’t expecting that to happen at all. Can you blame me?”
“They’ll be more like that,” Dan said. “We’re only going deeper. Moreover, if the bandits have gotten this far in, they’ve probably got a mage or two of their own. Decent cover if they’ve figured out a way past the beasts.”
“Beyond sacrificing prisoners to them so they can get away?” Brighton asked.
“That only works as long as you have prisoners,” Dan said. “Do you two want to go back?”
Brighton opened his mouth but Jacob answered. “We need to find the camp. That way, we know exactly what we’re facing.”
Lyn stepped gently into the brambled path, her sword drawn, and hacked at the worst of the bushes. “Come on, we need to clear a path so they can use the horses.”
“Another day of clearing the way for artillery?” Jacob asked.
“At the end of the day, it’s why we’re here,” Lyn said.
Jacob cast the spell to reveal the path again, and it caught, showing the area was empty of more blight monsters.
For now at least, there was progress.
That came with a caveat.
But that didn’t change the fact that at the other end of the hill, the only way the path moved was towards a manor towering over the growth of the forest. Gleaming stained glass and imposing walls free of the paint that had covered them. Stone mixed in with collapsed roofs.
They’d found a manor house after all.
Lyn hated manor houses.
Nate stood at the front of the room, flicking his eyes back and forth over the gathered students. He adjusted the collar of his noble jacket, faded with age, the leather turned soft and pliable from long use. He should oil it again.
Lannon sat in the front row in the Akri seating, his claws tapping at the surface of hard clay. His feathers puffed and shifted in the slight breeze cast through the open window.
Mela, craftsperson and master of general repairs for the guild, sat somewhere in the back row, eyes closed. She wasn’t asleep, there was a deliberateness about the entire thing that told him she was awake, and yet-
Aer sat in the middle row, calm, attentive, the model of a student.
A few other sat in various degrees of attention or boredom, the remnants of adventuring parties separated based on intellectual achievement, but not merit.
After all, Aer could hardly penalize someone for never having been taught. That’d just be bad practice.
Nate swallowed, took a piece of chalk, and turned to the half slate board behind him. “Welcome to the basics of math. You’ve been selected as part of a test to see if this program will work out.”
He gestured at himself. “I’m Nate. My family has served as accountants at the capital for the last several generations. I understand that a few of you have been interested in learning math.”
Lannon’s clicking claws stopped as he looked up. Nate swallowed from the extra set of eyes.
“And well, I do math for a living,” Nate said. “It only makes sense to try and use it for the greater good here.”
A hand flittered up in the back. Mela, the craftswoman.
“Yes?” Nate asked, grateful for the distraction.
“Will this help for imbuing?”
“I don’t plan on directly covering imbuing, but when we get to derivatives and calculus I’ve heard that antiderivatives will tie into this,” Nate said. “If you want to stick around for that long.”
Mela nodded, and then went back to being solemn quiet, and eyes closed. Nate swept his gaze over the crowd until he ended staring at the Guildmaster himself.
The Guildmaster gestured for him to continue.
“As a part of the introduction lessons, I’m going to teach you, hopefully, how to do basic math in your head,” Nate said. “Enough that you should be able to spend money responsibly. At the end of the course, we’re going to be balancing a budget, and if you impress me, I’ll uhhhhh,” Nate trailed awkwardly, the script he’d been reading in his head coming to a complete and utter crash.
Aer’s eyes met Nate’s. Nate swallowed, hard, and the words caught hard in his throat like glue.
The door to the room opened.
Nate breathed out a sigh of relief.
“Sorry I’m late,” the doctor said. His hair was blue.
Nate had never actually seen blue hair, since most of the dyes in the court were dedicated to getting their hair as dark as the nobles, rather than as ostentatious as the Akri, and blue feathers hardly counted as hair.
The rest of him was just as showy, a complex display of bright colors and poetry scrawled across his body, gleaming against the skin that was showing, looping over the curve of his collar bones. His jacket was a gaudy bright red-pink, like the kind that Nate’s family’s terror birds insisted in rolling in as a status symbol.
“Did I miss anything important?” The doctor asked, brushing a hand across his face.
“Nate was just getting to the reward for passing the course,” Aer said. “I think you’ve startled him. Poor man.”
The doctor swept towards Nate like a sling rock, and Nate slowly took steps back until he reached the wall, chalk dust smearing against his good clothes.
“Are you quite alright? You look infirm,” The doctor said, peering forward. The hand came forward, covered in lyrical poems and binomial nomenclatures and pressed against his temples.
Nate squirmed out of his grip. “I’m fine, it’s just a bit hotter here than the Capital and-”
“Drink more water,” The doctor pronounced, taking a seat next to Lannon.
“Now, the reward,” Aer said, gesturing.
“A-ah,” Nate stuttered. “I was… I’m going to buy whoever wins a week’s worth of sw-sweets,” the accountant finished. “I’ve got a decent amount saved up, and I want to give back to you guys for uh, saving me. And giving me a job and such.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, hoping he didn’t look as cold and clammy as he was, and brushed chalk dust off of his skin.
“So you’ll have sweets and a balanced budget,” Nate finished, lamely.
“Excellent!” The doctor cheered. “Do you think we’ll cover logarithms?”
“Y-yeah,” he said. “I think we’ll get to cover that too.”
His eyes flicked around the room for an escape option, but only found Aer’s amused eyes as refuge. The guildmaster gestured for him to continue.
So he did.
God, why hadn’t he been eaten by plague beasts? It’d’ve been easier than trying to teach a bunch of adventurers!