“There it is,” Lyn said.
“You think?” Brighton asked. He held his hand up and cast his spell again. A single frame spun into action. A bandit exiting, and then it fell apart. “That was from half a day ago.”
“Something wrong?” Dan asked.
“I’m being suppressed.”
“Actively?” Jacob asked.
“Feels like the same as before,” Brighton admitted. “But I’m not that comfortable going in unarmed.”
“You have a dagger, right?” Lyn asked.
“I guess,” Brighton said.
“And just simplify what you’re casting,” Dan said.
“Have you tried burning them to death?” Dan asked.
Brighton grimaced. “I-I, I suppose.”
“Aim for the spinal cord,” Lyn said. “They have a hard time moving after that one.”
“This isn’t their home,” Jacob said. “Otherwise they’d have more sentries.”
“Or it was their home,” Lyn said. “And they’re moving deeper into the Blight. Or out of it altogether.”
“That’s all the better for us,” Dan said, snapping his book shut. “If we don’t pull the entirety of them down on our heads, I like our odds.”
Lyn smiled and drew her sword. “Shall we dance?”
“That is so creepy,” Brighton said, staring at Lyn’s lips.
Dan elbowed him and stood up. Jacob rolled his eyes.
“I can’t be the only one to think that!” Brighton complained.
The manor was deserted. Lyn could still smell the candle smoke in the air, and the faint odor of suppressed fear tangled up with it. Dan gestured at a candle, and Brighton, sulking, threw a beam of light out of his hand, and after a few seconds of hitting the wick, lit the chandelier lying in a heap on the floor.
Every painting on the wall had been sliced to pieces. The tapestries had been stolen, and probably sold in a market in Akri territory. Everything that looked like it had been shiny had been taken, even the crown molding.
Lyn stepped inside and liked the sound of her boots on the wooden floor. Dan stepped silently on the floor. Brighton and Jacob came in like elephants.
“So much for stealth,” Dan complained.
Jacob drew his sword.
Lyn drifted across the floor, poking at what little furniture remained. “Must’ve been stripping this place for months. Didn’t we see this on our last mission?”
“Over a year ago,” Dan said. “And we left it for the next time.”
“Well,” Lyn said.
“I guess this is a next time,” Dan admitted. “Try not to destroy anything you two, there’s good money in getting this place into the old noble hands.”
“I don’t think they’ll want it,” Brighton said. “There’s nothing in it.”
“On the ground floor,” Dan corrected. His head tilted over to the stairs that took up the back half of the room. “Up there?”
Up there revealed something darker. Lyn poked the body with her foot.
A skeleton rested at the top of the stairs. The skull had been crushed under foot, leaving everything else intact. Apart from tiny threadlike cracks across the bone.
Lyn thumped one of the bones against the wall, cracking it. Hollow, no marrow had rotted in the long bones.
“Rare to find one this intact,” Lyn said.
“Why?” Jacob asked. “Shouldn’t there be corpses all over this place?”
“The blight likes dead bodies,” Lyn said, mounting the stairs three at a time. Soon she was on the second floor, waiting for the others to catch up.
“Ah,” Brighton said. “They left us a present.”
“Pleasant,” Jacob dismissed. “Let’s see if we can find something about these bandits instead of gawking. They might be back.”
“Then we kill them,” Lyn said.
“We’re officially scouting,” Dan pointed out.
The master bedroom sat behind a pair of wooden doors that had had the locked gouged out of it. Axes had been taken to the wood to render whatever protective ward had been placed upon it completely inert. Lyn strolled through it.
The bed was intact. Everything else wasn’t.
“They had to leave here in a hurry,” Lyn muttered. “Why?”
“They should’ve used this place as a base of operations,” Dan said. “Protected from the elements… perfect place to steal their goods before transport… what made them change their mind?”
Lyn drifted over to the window and looked out. Three hundred years ago, it had looked into a valley where the peasants would work.
Now it just looked into a bare spot carved into the ground. The brambles had been cleared out, piece by piece, with axes, blades, daggers. The valley had been left clear. Lyn squinted, trying to see into the dark shadows.
“They were watching something,” Lyn said.
“Outpost burning and watching?” Brighton asked. “That doesn’t sound like healthy banditry.”
“Means they’re not bandits,” Jacob said. “They’re mercenaries. On whose orders, and what were those orders? And that grove…”
Lyn looked up and peered over at Jacob. “Exactly. If we want to complete our mission, we’re going to have to see what’s in that grove.”
“After we search the rest of the house,” Dan interrupted.
Lyn looked over at him.
“I’m with Dan,” Brighton said. “They might’ve left something behind.”
“They seem professional,” Jacob said. “Makes me uncomfortable, actually. Who would have the money to finance an expedition into this place in secret?”
Lyn bit her lip. “A noble?”
“A noble, attacking the kingdom? That’d decrease their worth, not increase it,” Dan said. “Besides, we’re not here for spurious accusations.”
“Say they wanted an excuse to expand their territories faster,” Lyn said. “Who would benefit from that?”
“The guilds,” Dan said. “It benefits us to have this happen.”
“We can worry about that later,” Jacob said. “Let’s search.”
The sum and total of their search delivered three more dead bodies, shucked clean of any flesh, with only tiny cracks where the marrow had once been.
“That’s starting to get creepy,” Brighton said.
“Yeah,” Dan said, opening the last room. In the depths of the room, clearly a child’s by the rusted rotted toys and scraps of cloth on the ground, they found a final corpse.
The bones had been dessicated, the marrow sucked free.
Lyn closed the door and shook her head.
“Starting to get an idea of what we’re dealing with,” Lyn said.
“What is it?” Brighton asked.
Lyn’s eyes flicked over to Jacob.
“We need to check out the grove,” Dan said. “Brighton, prepare to kill, if we’re very unlucky. Jacob, Lyn? I hope you’re alright with standing way in front of me and running away on my mark.”
“Just like old times,” Lyn said.
“There were a few more of us when it was the old times,” Dan said.
Jacob nodded. “We’ll be fine.”
And then they drifted out of the house.
At this point, the damage to the leyline made the pages in Dan’s book ruffle and rub against each other like a cat against a leg. Lyn whistled to break the eerie stillness, and to stop the whispers from forming in the ears of her companions.
Many people had died here.
Many many people had died here. They weren’t quite in the band of towns that had died in last stands, but those were only 50 miles away. That marked the deepest that even her Guild had gone.
Going farther than that without a full army was suicide, even for their ranks.
The the injuries to the brambles surrounding the grove had been recent. Too recent, Lyn could still see where the brambles had been snapped back and-
Dan looked up. Lyn followed his gaze.
The brambles far out of their reach had suffered the same fate. Brighton lifted a hand to get an image of it, and the light broke into shards instead of illuminating it.
“Starting to taste blood,” Brighton said.
“Then stop casting that spell,” Jacob groused.
Dan reached a hand out for Lyn, and she blinked, staring at it. He gestured again, and she cautiously took it, hauling him up further onto the ridge.
“Please, for the love of magic and the craft god, don’t let us find what I think we’re going to find,” Dan said aloud. Lyn shimmied up the side of the great crater in the earth, her spare hand curling up into a fist.
And peered down into that dark place where the sun could hardly reach, where magic ceased to work, and the bandits had congregated.
And saw a collection of silver scales littering the ground like discarded pebbles. They ranged from the side of her hand to the size of her body.
Rimmed with the remnants of old fires and the detritus of a camp half moved.
Lyn bit her lip. Behind her, her companions managed to make the climb and stare down below.
Brighton stared. “A dragon. They were tending to a dragon.”
Nate adjusted the jar of jelly beans on his desk and took a peek at their finances. A complicated series of currency transfers, supplies purchased from three companies in three different locations, and a spreadsheet attached to a simple equation to determine individual pay out, with a series of modifiers based on need and damage.
He wasn’t at it for more than half an hour before his new office door opened up, and the on staff blacksmith poked her head in.
“Mela, right?” he asked.
“That’s the name,” Mela said. “I’m told you’ll be handling finance?”
“For now at least,” Nate said. “I’ve got money tied up with you lot, so I might as well make sure it doesn’t disappear.”
Nela blinked. “What’s wrong?”
“If there’s one thing Aer’s good at, it’s preventing his assets from disappearing,” Mela said. “As long as there’s jobs to be done, your money’s safe.”
Mela slid over to him. “I came over to make you sure you understand how my requisitioning works.”
“I imagine you have a budget?” Nate asked.
“I have a budget that I draw on from Aer, and you now, and I have my own personal supplies for other tasks,” Mela said. “I charge the guild for the supplies I need to fix the guild’s things, and they pay me a wage on top of that.”
“Right,” Nate said. “That’s… reasonable.”
“We can’t all have magic books or a sword,” Mela said. “Some of us have to abound by reason.”
Nate felt a tiny bit of tension dissolve out of his shoulders. “This place is very strange,” he admitted.
“It is,” Mela said. “You’ll grow to like it eventually. Everyone does. Aer gives us a lot of relative freedom, education and the like, and the people are more than willing to take a dagger for you.”
Nate nodded, just a bit. “I’m starting to get that impression.”
“Really, I just hope you stick around longer than the last tutor,” Mela said. “They fled after Lyn left on her pilgrimage, something about not feeling safe without her around.”
“She that good?” Nate asked.
Mela shrugged in response, and gave him a few pieces of paper regarding her budget for the next month. “There aren’t a lot of grey-folk left in the world. Lots of people would like them stomped out entirely.”
“Why?” Nate asked.
“Not a lot of people like how they were created,” Mela said. She held up a hand, and Nate frowned, his teeth clicking together. “Not my place to talk about that, though.”
“Whose is it?” Nate asked. “I’m getting tired of this mystery.”
Mela smiled. “If you really want to know, I do believe the king’s nephew is interested in the exact same things.”
She gestured at the paper again, and Nate sighed, looking it over. The numbers looked correct, and a brief look over the equation sheet, and a look at the previous budget for the previous months looked correct, so he signed off on it and left her to her work.
It was evening by the time Nate was comfortable leaving his new office, and everything he touched smelled like old paper dust and poorly cured vellum. But he may have figured out the system everything ran on, and the various teams the guild offered, in their various stages of completion and modularity, so he could figure out their wages later.
Aer may have been smart, but he wasn’t too good at making his plans and process visible. Nate would fix that.
The local tavern and inn bore the brunt of the age of Scoured Reach. The only thing that was still original, apart from the walls, was the sturdy blue-oak door, the remnants of a long forgotten pilgrimage to the far north, back when it had been something other than a smited hole in the earth, steam still rising off of blasted oceans.
Nate marvelled at it, mostly because blue-oak was a symbol of opulence and wealth, and it looked terribly out of place in Scoured Reach, which still bore most of the edges of a frontier town, though it had long settled into having its own beat of cosmopolitan charms.
Aaron and Justin, the king’s nephew and bodyguard, were trading shots inside, squinting blearily at a magician who was using feats of prestidigitation to look into the future.
“So?” Aaron said.
Justin siiiiighed, looking over at the mage. “That guy going to talk to us?”
The mage flicked her blonde hair out of her face and looked at Nate. Nate gave a hesitant wave at them. “Yes, definitely.”
“Excellent, I told you,” Aaron said.
“That was a 50-50 shot,” Justin said. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
“No matter,” Aaron said. “Cousin, come over here!”
Nate’s smile needed a few more rounds in the gym. So long as those rounds didn’t involve Lyn teaching his smile how to dodge.
He definitely didn’t need that practice anymore.
He made his way over to his distant noble cousin, taking a seat at the booth. The magician bowed her head. “Tiana, at your service. They’ve hired me to take questions.” Her eyes flicked down to the alcohol at the table, and Nate flashed her an understanding smile.
“So… can you see into the future?” Nate asked.
“I can see into many places,” Tiana said. “Some of them are in the future.”
“What does that even mean?” Justin complained.
“It means that magic is hard,” Aaron said. “Leave the girl alone, you know full well natural mages get the short end of the stick.”
“I hardly think being able to cast my gaze across continents in the short end of the stick,” Tiana said, mildly.
“What brings you to Scoured Reach?” Nate asked, cutting to the quick.
“The King has charged us with making sure there’s not much funny business going on here,” Aaron said.
“As well as to satisfy our curiosity with frontier towns. I know this is the largest for fifty miles.”
“The river makes getting supplies from the south fairly easy,” Nate said.
Tiana took up a seat at the table with the other three, pulling out a small set of cards.
“Do those tell the future?” Aaron asked.
“No, they keep drunks happy,” Tiana snarked.
Justin snorted. “Yeah, cards’ll do that.”
Nate looked down at the hand he’d been dealt, and flicked through it a few times. “So what’s the game?”
Tiana casually flicked through hers a few times, matching his pace exactly and deliberately. He squinted at her, and she shuffled the cards in the exact cadance as his. “I’m here in town because it’s easy money,” the mage said.
“Ah,” Nate said. “I guess we could use some entertainment.”
“If this place were anymore straightlaced, I’d say they recruited royal guards from here,” Tiana said, matter of fact.
“Is that bad?” Nate asked.
“Eh,” Tiana said. “Frontier towns are supposed to be excited and dangerous.”
“This place hasn’t been dangerous in fifty years,” Justin said. “Wherever you got your information from-”
“I’m thinking of heading down to the Akrii city states,” Tiana said. “I hear that natural mages are exotic there.”
Nate looked at the other two to see if they knew what game they were playing, which they clearly did, but he still didn’t.
“You’ve got two queens a fighting, and a jester failing to keep the peace,” Tiana said, squinting at Nate.
Nate dropped his cards on the table. “Mages are spooky.”
“Yep,” Tiana said. “That’s totally how I knew that.”
“She’s got this really nice mix of sleight of hand and vision taking,” Aaron said. “We’ve been messing around with it for hours.”
Nate gasped. “Did you at least pay her?”
Tiana gestured at her purse. “Yep. And bought me drinks.”
Nate squinted at Aaron and Justin. Justin had a glass next to him, and Aaron had three. Tiana had one, and wasn’t half and flushed as the other two.
“I don’t even know who’s taking advantage of the other at this point.”
“I am,” Tiana said. “Definitely I am.” After a moment, she called out the contents of the others hands, one by one, and they dropped them onto the table. Aaron huffed at her, and Justin snatched up the cards to shuffle them himself.
“It’s still a trick,” Justin said. “No magic lets people read minds or see into the future.”
Tiana shrugged. “What do you think, Nate?”
“I never told you my name,” Nate complained.
“And you’ve been a joke in town for the past week,” Justin said. “Really, we shouldn’t be encouraging her!”
Tiana shrugged. “You can do whatever you want as long as I get paid.”
Nate rubbed the bridge of his nose, rubbing out the headache. “Why’s the town so tame?”
“Your guildmaster,” Tiana said. “Every time someone new shows up, he either picks them out or rejects them, and the riff raff disappears in the process.”
“They get out of town,” Aaron said. “It’s all legal stuff, we see it time and again, trust me. Aer shows up, talks to them, figures out why they’re here, and they get the message to leave if it’s not for a good reason.”
“Handy,” Nate said.
“It keeps crime low,” Justin said, dealing out the cards.
Tiana picked up her hand, flipped through it a few times, then reached over to Nate’s cards before he could look at them.
“Ashes, dragons, Queens, hammers,” she read off, flipping them up one by one.
Aaron laughed. “Explain that, Justin!”
“Clearly the cards are marked,” Justin said, looking over his own hand to try and figure out the trick.
The blonde leaned back against the booth, still looking bored. “I expect he’ll try to recruit me next, but it’s not really my style to stick around in one place. That, and my magic’s not that good at the fighting bits, and like hell I’m going anywhere nearer to the blight.”
“Ey,” Aaron said. “Place’s a bit undercooked for me.”
“Undercooked?” Justin asked. “That’s how you’re going to describe it?”
“It’s rough,” Nate agreed.
Tiana’s eyes rested on Nate’s, a faint flicker of red visible in the deep greens. He stared at her for a long moment, suddenly very uncomfortable. “You were there, weren’t you?”
“I was,” Nate said. Was it too late to run for it?
“What was it like?” Without even looking at Aaron, her fingers tapped on the carves. “Hammers, queens, dragons, ashes. Death’s the last card.”
“Maybe the cards are magic,” Justin muttered. “And she can just read them?”
“Brambles,” Nate said. “There were brambles everywhere, and things were on fire. I saw a blight beast and-”
“What was it like?” Tiana gleamed with interested. Her hands moved like spiders over to Justin’s hand. He kept them away from her grip sourly, still trying to figure out the trick.
“It had a lot of hands, and it was in a lot of pain,” Nate said. “Then Dan blew it up with a single spell.”
“A single spell?” Tiana asked. “You know, blight monsters are a lot like dragons. Magic doesn’t work too well on them.”
“Magic doesn’t work well on dragons?” Aaron asked aloud.
Tiana didn’t look at him. “Their natural magic keeps them shielded from most of it. The blight eats magic users like me for breakfast, it’s similar.”
“Ever done this trick for a dragon?” Justin asked, still holding them out of reach.
“Hammers,” Tiana said. “You have three hammers, a prince, and a queen.”
“How-” Justin muttered under his breath.”
“Magic,” Nate said. “She’s magic.”
“Obviously,” Justin said. “But what magic is she using?”
Tiana shrugged. “Maybe you’re too drunk to figure it out?”
“If you want to figure out the blight, maybe ask Lyn?” Nate said. “She’s been beating me up since I got here.”
“Beating you up how?” Aaron asked.
“Like in training,” Nate said.
Justin thumped Aaron on the back of the head. “Sir, you’re my best friend, but as your bodyguard, do not flirt with the grey-witch.”
“I thought she was a priest?” Nate asked.
“Whatever,” Justin said. “Rumors of cannibalism are greatly exaggerated, but it’s not in your best interest to have your name associated with that religion, especially not after how it went down in the capital.”
“I heard about that,” Tiana said, leaning back. Justin shuffled the cards again. “Seems like a shame.”
Nate rubbing his head again, trying to keep the headache away. “So what’s up with the Grey Priests?”
“They crawled out of the blight a few hundred years ago. They used to be the front guards against draconic invasion,” Justin said.
“Just normal people were supposed to fight that?”
Justin and Tiana laughed. “Normal people?” Justin asked.
Nate bit his lip. “I mean, Lyn’s a bit grey…”
“I said they crawled out of the blight,” Justin said. “As in, they crossed the damn thing when it was harsher and sharper, just so they could return to their posts a hundred years later.”
“What were they doing before that?”
Justin shrugged. “Some business with their old outposts, I suspect. I also suspect they ultimately failed, since the blight didn’t leave.”
“Failure is a bit harsh,” Tiana said. “I don’t see how anyone is supposed to fight a disease.”
“I don’t see how a disease leads to giant skeletons running about picking up bodies either,” Justin said. “That seems a bit arbitary. Where did they come from?”
“You can’t possibly mean that they’re not related,” Nate said.
Aaron shrugged. “They’re clearly related, but that doesn’t mean one caused the other. There was a lot of tension back then over the east and west halves of the kingdom.”
“Over what?” Justin asked, curious.
“Succession,” Aaron said. “The kingdom was ruled by two sister queens,” the royal said. “They were fair and just and whatever, but when one up and died, the other refused to recognize the heir, charging them with murder instead.”
Nate’s teeth clicked together. “Oh.”
“So, what, the blight came about just in time to stop a civil war?” Justin asked. “Where was that in my history classes?”
“Buried between dragon wars,” Aarons said. “Really, it probably wouldn’t have gone into a civil war. Before anything could really happen, half the kingdom was dying from disease, and the other half started shooting and burning anyone that came from that side.”
Nate looked down at the ground. “So the outposts…?”
“They became killing grounds,” Aaron said. “Great mages conjured bonfires, and around that time, the gods all fucked off wherever they went.”
“They’re waiting to return,” Nate said, automatically.
Aaron shrugged. “I’ve talked to a few invokers. They say that heaven’s got no guardian, and all the godways are quiet as death.”
“So what?” Justin asked.
“Daring proclamation,” Tiana said. “Do you think the plague reached into heaven and stripped away the hearts of the gods?”
Nate felt sick, and shoved the cards back at Tiana. “Hammers-”
“Queens, ashes,” Tiana finished.
“I don’t know what happened,” Aaron said. “But waiting on the gods to do anything about the blight isn’t going to work. Your guildmaster’s got the right idea.”
“So we just burn back the blight, year by year?” Nate asked.
“It’s working, isn’t it? Salt the earth, boil the fields, kill the ash queens, strip back the brambles,” Aaron said. “We can buy back the miles with cut throats and burning skin.”
Tiana laughed. “You get poetic when you’re drunk.”
Aaron leaned back, his skin too hard to show the alcoholic blush. Justin didn’t have that problem, and calmly thwacked his royal better on the back of the head. “Don’t flirt with the mages either, sir.”
“Are you serious Justin?” Aaron whined.
“Nobles flirt with nobles.”
“I’m not hitting on Nate, we’re probably related.”
Nate sank into his chair and wished he could die instead. Tiana snickered at him.
“Not what I had in mind, sir,” Justin sighed, throwing his cards over at Tiana. She listed them off as they flew by, snatching them out of the air.
“Fine!” Aaron snapped. “This conversation’s pointless anyway. We won’t know what’s going on out there until they return.”
“Another few days,” Nate said.
“Hopefully,” Justin said, his eyes sliding over to the mage entertainer. “They’ll have found some good news.”
“Doubt it. Like your master said, the only good news in that place is hammers and ashes.”