Aer greeted her at the front door as she passed through it, paper in his hands. “Be careful out there.”
She looked it over. Simple list of projected expenses. Good.
She hated writing those.
Strange taste on the air. Apprehension, perhaps. Excitement. Forlornness. Loneliness. The guild leader always left her so conflicted. Was it right to leave a man who seemed a hair’s breath away from doing something reckless? Was there an actual threat, or just the phantom threat that Lyn would finally miss her blow?
She didn’t like it.
“I am careful.” Lyn said.
“I know you are,” Aer said, flicking his eyes down to Dan. “I shouldn’t worry so much. You do have Dan with you.”
Dan nodded, adjusting his hat. He tugged up his robe; a natural reflex to ward his skin away from any magic, chemicals, or even the light of the sun. “I’ll keep her safe, Aer.”
“And Lyn’ll keep you safe,” Aer continued.
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Lyn pointed out, dryly. “Just because I’ve been gone for a few months doesn’t mean you need to start getting motherly.”
“And Brensh has been itching to prove herself,” Aer said, looking at their third companion. Lyn flicked her gaze down to the other acolyte. She didn’t recognize her.
“Good luck, Brensh. I’ll let the shrine tenders know you’re on your way.
Brensh let a shy smile touch her face.
But few people had been alive and with cloth and hammer as long as Lyn had stopped bothering with the politics of it all. And she couldn’t possibly know every minor acolyte who had chanced across a wandering priest like herself.
“Yes sir,” Brensh said, smiling shyly.
Lyn decided she disliked their third companion.
Quite a bit, actually. She doubted that’d change.
“We’re fine,” Lyn asserted. “We’ve been fine every time you’ve done this.”
Aer hesitated by the front door. Apprehension, tension, panic. Emotions she could taste. For a moment something hot, powerful, enough that she felt next to the sun. Then gone again in a flash, and she was sad she had to stop basking in it. “Keep safe.”
“Good bye, Aer,” Lyn smiled at him, hoping the expression was right. It was right enough that he turned away, disappearing inside.
“Shall we, Dan?” Lyn offered.
Dan nodded, but didn’t do anything so crass as to take her hand, which she was glad for, and then they set off. Brensh remembered to follow them after a few seconds.
Seventy years ago, Scoured Reach had been an outpost, a crumbling vestige of the once powerful kingdom crewed only by the occasional warrior monk who recognized the nearby shrine and the importance of it, and guards who had disappointed their superiors. Then, with the late Queen Minora’s proclamation that the empire would assume its old borders, it boomed, blossoming into almost a city in its own right.
Not the least of which was the adventurer’s guild that’d been built inside of it, crewed by Aer. Ageless as he was.
Perhaps he had a strain of elf in him. There was enough of that going around.
At the edge of town they found the client milling about. He occasionally looked up nervously, shooting a long look past the repaired gates out of the town. Aer had sent ahead to let him know they’d be there. It only made sense, and if there was anything Lyn appreciated, it was common sense.
The noble sat in a gambeson that’d clearly never been sculpted to him, and tugged irritably at it before brightening at their approach. Lyn kept right on walking past him. “Follow,”
“Follow?” the man asked. “What about my carriage?”
“Nobody brings a carriage into the Blight,” Lyn said. “Correct, Dan?”
“It’s a good way to lose a carriage and, well,” Dan shrugged. “Everything inside of it.”
“I do have horses,” The noble suggested.
Lyn sighed. She didn’t like horses.
“So, you guys are adventurers?” Nate said. He’d introduced himself at some point while acquiring his horses, though Lyn hadn’t been paying too terribly much attention to him.
“Yes,” Lyn said, keeping an eye on the path ahead.
“She doesn’t talk much,” Dan explained.
“I don’t get paid to talk,” Lyn pointed out. Nor did she like talking. “Lyn.”
“Dan,” the wizard introduced.
“Brensh,” the acolyte bowed her head slightly.
She rode behind Nate, and Lyn to the right of him. Dan, naturally, took up the left side.
An awkward silence for a moment where Nate eyed Lyn. She wondered what he saw. Scars? The color of her skin? Muscles? The emblem on her armor? It could be any of those things.
“She’s not a cannibal, is she?”
Ah. That was what the look was for.
Brensh defended instantly. “That’s an old wive’s tale, and rude.”
“Aren’t the war-folk supposed to eat their victims?”
Lyn kept her eyes ahead, and her hands managing the horse. And silent.
Dan shrugged. “She keeps quiet on what she wants to keep quiet.”
Lyn chanced a slight smile.
“Besides,” Brensh said. “You’d have to be one of her victims, wouldn’t you?”
Nate swallowed. Again. “But you’ll keep me safe, right?” She could taste the anxiety bubbling up.
“That is in the terms of our contract,” Lyn said.
Dan smiled slightly. “We’ll keep you perfectly safe, don’t worry about it. Me and Lyn are seasoned at this.”
The horses kept to the path neatly, despite how rugged it was. Grass grew through it, and rain had long ago swept the wagon ruts away. If it wasn’t for the aging posts pointing the way, they might’ve been lost.
If Lyn hadn’t been navigating. She was also perfectly aware of where they were, as was proper.
“Good,” Nate chirped like a bird. “I’ve been waiting for months for the right team to arrive.”
“I was elsewhere,” Lyn said. “And few have a taste for journeying into the Blight with anything less than an army, or for anything less than a proper pay out.”
The air tasted like fear again. Lyn grinned to herself, because her words had the right effect. Another victory after months of being away from people.
“It’s not that bad, right?” Nate asked.
“Things crawl in the darkness,” Dan said.
“I hear the creatures eat swords,” Brensh said.
Lyn knew a cue when she heard one.
“The night walks and swallows the moon. Eyes twinkle like burning coals in the wake of the gods’ passage,” Lyn intoned, voice flat and narrow as always. “But there are no gods for what’s left in the Blight. No gods but what the king demands.”
“Eloquent,” Brensh commented.
“Almost a sermon.”
“Does she do sermons?” Nate asked.
The road decayed as each minute melted into the next. No clock around but the steady movement of the sun. It’d decided on being reddish orange today, trickling like sand towards the distant mountain ranges.
And with each minute, more grass grew up, until all that was left was the recent passage of a supply wagon.
Lyn was silent at the question. She counted her breaths, her heart beats, a thousand different things, lost in the long moment.
“Only with a sword,” Dan said.
Nate looked down at the sword strapped to one of his horses, then gave Lyn quite the conflicted look.
“You’re safe,” Dan assured. “Jokes aside, they found your noble house in the last push. So it should be pretty easy to get in and out; we just honestly were in the middle of training blighters while Lyn was gone.”
“Yes, but they found my noble house years ago,” Nate said. “Will all of that… dark stuff come back?”
“It shouldn’t but-”
Dan saw something in Lyn’s face before Lyn realized she was sniffing the air. A faint hint of smoke?
Lyn held a hand up and paused. The horse shuffled to a halt under her comment.
A few hours on the road; they were closer to the outpost than they were to Scoured Reach. Enough that she could see the outpost in the distance, if she furrowed her enhanced eyes.
Enough to see the smoke curling up from the thick of it.
Then there was just silence in the party.
It didn’t break when the rain started. Nor did it break when they arrived at the foot of the outpost. The thousands of tiny drops like tears had quenched the blaze on the outside, but Lyn knew that the inside was unusable.
Despite that, she still carefully led the horses into the attached stable, the wretched beasts deserved their feed at least, and they took up residence out of the storm.
Dan conjured light without a word. A simple enough cantrip to be scrawled across his flesh, no need to disturb his books.
Nate remained pale, sullen silent for far too long, looking up at the horses, his nose burned from the char of the outpost. Old wooden platform had collapsed into the mess of the courtyard.
“What do you think?” Dan asked, looking at Lyn.
Lyn resented that the silence was gone. It meant she had to start thinking again beyond the smell.
“We should head back,” Nate said, heading towards the door, willing to brave the sheets of rain.
“Not an option,” Brensh said.
“What do you mean that’s not an option?” Nate asked, gesturing at the char around them. “Someone needs to know about this.”
“We have to gather information first,” Dan said. “To figure out what happened. Otherwise…”
“What about my life?” Nate squeaked. “Whatever did this might still be around!”
Lyn clamped her hand over Nate’s mouth, and he squeaked again like a mewling kitten, albeit muffled. “We are obligated by law and morals to figure out what happened here,” Lyn said. “Unless you think your personal life and property is worth more than the King’s?”
Nate swallowed, and ducked away from Lyn’s hand, shaking his head rapidly. “I didn’t mean to say that, I just… with me here?”
“And if we return you, it’ll be most of a day back, and then most of a day back here,” Lyn scathed. “Days where we know nothing. Where wind weather rain and whatever else is out there dismantles whatever clue is left behind.”
Silence from the noble.
Dan swallowed. “Do you think it could be…”
“Dragons?” Brensh asked.
Lyn closed her eyes. Map swam behind the lids. Cities lit up like dots, old habitations she’d spent nights in. Quiet lovely nights.
On the other side of the Blight were the draconic polities. Impossible to negotiate with.
And Lyn knew what’d happen if they came back without evidence. A burnt outpost? Dead guards?
It’d be a mess.
A horrible awful mess. How ungrateful would it be to Aer if the very first mission she went on after coming back got Scoured Reach into politics?
No… she may not know her true emotions on the matter (she suspected anticipation and hunger, but the rain killed her smell) but that would be poor taste for the man who’d helped her.
Her eyes snapped open. “Next person to say it was dragons is my training partner in the guild.”
Dan looked apologetic, looking away from Lyn. She didn’t linger long on his features, he was already in hell from the rain. He had books to keep dry.
Nate looked up from trying to dry his coat, waving it around like an idiot. “Even me?”
Lyn took a deep breath, flicked her eyes dismissively over him. Without his armor, she could see just how unimpressive he truly was.
“Yes,” Lyn muttered. “Even you.”
The rain didn’t let up for the next few hours. Hours where Brensh treated her weapons, looking them over, shining them in the mage light. Lyn recognized a nervous habit when she saw one, and very gently tapped Brensh on the shoulder so she could be more aware. Dan flipped through his books, making sure they were all dry, which wasn’t half as annoying as someone baring live weapons, so Lyn let it go.
Nate was in the corner, staring at the mounds of hay strewn about. Mostly unburned; the stable was unattached to the rest of the outpost.
“No horses,” Dan said, finally.
“It’s a start,” Nate said, looking up from feeling sorry for himself. “For clues, I guess.”
Lyn cocked her head to the side and looked at him. Lyn had just assumed they’d all gotten away in the chaos.
“Well, if there’s no horses, and no saddles… maybe someone got away?” Nate asked, his voice raising in pitch the longer Lyn stared at him. Her eyes flicked around the room.
Nate was good for something after all.
Brensh took a long breath, looking out into the storm. The horses nickered quietly to themselves, shuffling. Lyn didn’t care for horses.
“We won’t be able to do anything in the rain,” Lyn muttered. “Figure out a place to sleep.”
Nate stared at the hay next to him, a flicker of disbelief. She glared at him. Again.
Dan quietly offered the landless noble his pack as a pillow, which Nate took, stammering out questions on what was in it, which Dan simply smiled mysteriously at.
“I already hate it when Lyn does it, why would you start doing it?!” Nate wailed.
Brensh was already set up. What hostile places had she slept in? Lyn was slightly curious. But…
“First watch,” Dan said, looking up from his book.
“Second,” Brensh called.