First watch came and went. Second watch came and went. Third watch came and went, and Lyn woke her companions with a gently nudge. Nate required more than a gentle nudge, but she was delighted to be his alarm for the day, and soon even the noble blooded was on his feet.
“We’re tracking today,” Brensh supplied, looking over at Nate.
“Logic,” Dan said, pulling a piece of paper out of his pack. Unfolded it very gently, held a mage light underneath of it.
Maps of the old kingdom weren’t hard to come by. They’d once been grand enough to put forth the effort of letting everyone know how great they were, because there was no feasible other way to show it off. They swept from one side of the mountain ridges of the Leviathan to the once-mountain known as Testle-down.
Lyn very gently pointed at about the middle, where they were.
“Logic?” Nate asked. Lyn flicked her eyes to Dan.
“We didn’t encounter the guards on the road into Scoured Reach,” he explained. “Which means they would’ve had to go somewhere else if they were seeking escape.”
“Oh,” Nate said. “That makes sense. Why is there a watchpost out here, anyway?”
“The main highway used to be through here,” Brensh said. “They spread shrines along the path, like the one back in town, and watch posts to make sure that there were always guards in reach.”
Dan gestured at the other side of the old kingdom. A few major cities nestled in the shadow of the dragon empire, where a long river looped and twirled about. Back when it had existed.
“…Why?” Nate asked.
“Bandits, mostly,” Dan said. “There wasn’t an awful lot in the middle of us, you understand; just miles of roads. Farmland too.”
Nate blinked a few times, then got a bit quiet. “Ah, so my noble house…?”
“Shouldn’t you know more about it?” Brensh asked.
Nate frowned. “Just the old embellishments. Wide as a mountain, hundreds of rooms.”
Lyn quietly shook her head, and Nate sighed.
“I figured they were exaggerating a bit. I’d just like to retrieve the old sword from the house. You know, so I can pretend I’m anything more than a landless noble.”
“What do you do, anyway?” Brensh said, curious.
“Financial stuff,” Nate smiled. “You know, managing books for people. Education’s good for that.”
“But not for maps,” Dan concluded.
“Exactly,” Nate smiled.
Lyn pinched the bridge of her nose.
“So, if the guards fleeing didn’t use the main road back into Scoured Reach, they probably tried to go north. There’s another outpost up north; they could’ve been going for help.”
“Before the dragon got them?” Nate asked.
Lyn smacked him upside the head.
She shook her finger.
“You heard her from last night,” Dan dismissed, not bothering to look up from the map. “There’s no need for dangerous speculation.”
Nate sulked, and Dan sighed. “Look, as scouts and adventurers, we have a bit of a responsibility to not spread around any damaging rumors.”
Brensh nodded. “This far from anywhere properly lawful, we could really get people hurt with quick accusations.”
Nate let out a slightly less wounded whine. “Like what?”
“Like…” Dan trailed off. “Well, I can’t tell you most of it, but we’ve encountered a couple suicides in the blighted areas we’ve cleared. Some were even identifiable. It’s in our best interest to not spread around whose ancestors died fighting, and whose didn’t.”
Nate went stiff, then looked down at the map. “I can see why you wouldn’t want to spread that around, I guess. I’m sorry. This is just…”
“We’re not even in the Blight yet,” Dan said, helpfully. “So don’t get too excited.”
Nate looked up. Lyn was already helping the horses out of the stalls. The hay stank from the rain, but it didn’t seem to bother the grey-priest in the slightest.
“So?” Nate asked.
“We go north,” Brensh said.
“And hope that the Blighted Ones haven’t gotten to them yet.”
In the dim light of the morning, with Dan’s conjured light floating around him like a moth, it was easier to scope out the scale of the destruction. Puddles of soot and rendered ash decorated the main courtyard, where scattered and shattered timbers painted it in hellish shades.
The front doors to the old watch tower were blocked off, almost entirely, and even Lyn didn’t think she’d be able to move them.
Dan shrugged. “I’m sorry, I didn’t really bring anything that explosive with me.”
Nate eyed him for a long moment. “That explosive?”
He shrugged. Nate’s eyes flicked over to Brensh, who also shrugged. She was a new arrival, but she wasn’t that new.
He didn’t even bother looking at Lyn, which suited her just fine. The horses made quiet noises as Lyn led them past the burnt ground, favoring Nate’s side, as they at least recognized him.
And the corpse smell from Lyn perhaps had something to do with that as well.
The road to the northern post wasn’t a real road. Perhaps, at one point, it’d been more than a quirk to the landscape, a distant memory of greatness. Something more than just a post pointing the correct way, letters wiped off by years of rain off of the plains. Dan didn’t give it more than a look, following after Lyn.
Naturally, they flanked Nate. He was the least useful, and he was in their protection, even if their mission had changed.
“Are you good with a knife?” Brensh asked, curiously.
“Pen knife maybe,” Nate said, pantomiming stabbing. A letter. Or maybe a carrot, since he moved on to chopping moments. “And I’m decent at cooking.”
“We might need to stop for lunch if this take too much longer,” Dan admitted.
“I don’t suppose you can conjure a chicken dinner?” Nate asked.
“I’m more of a combat specialist,” Dan admitted. “Besides, food safe conjuration is something only the great maguses attempt.”
Brensh nodded knowingly.
Nate looked at her. “So… he’s a wizard, she’s a…”
Lyn turned her face towards Nate, and he looked away in a hurry.
“What’s my story?” Brensh asked.
“That.” He nodded.
“Not really the time or place for it,” Brensh said, keeping her eyes ahead. Lyn had it covered though.
“I’m curious,” Lyn said.
“Well, if she says so,” Brensh said. “What’s there to say? Mom’s a peasant, dad’s an old sell sword, it was either work the loams or go east to the frontier,”
“Then how’d you end up an acolyte?” Dan asked.
“Well,” Brensh said, shifting on the horse. “Mom’s a follower of the old ways. Grandma was a maiden of battle, you know, with the toughened skin and the…”
Lyn didn’t look back at Brensh, but the acolyte hesitated anyway.
“We were blessed at one point by the War-god, for services rendered,” Brensh said. “So it was only natural that I was sent to the shrine near Scoured Reach to seek more blessings for combat.”
“And?” Nate asked, leaning in. Everyone was eager to learn news of the gods.
Brensh shrugged. “The monks recognized my family and gave me a chance. And, well, the guilds in town have very good offers for signing up with them, so I went with Aer, since he promised an education if I stayed for a few months.”
Lyn could taste the air. Anticipation. Excitement.
Those weren’t emotions she was partial to. She frowned, but given she was slightly ahead of the others, there was little anyone saw.
“He’s looking for a decent tutor in mathematics at the moment,” Dan said. “It’s hard to get any of those out from the capital; I think they understand just how close we are to the Blight.”
“How close are we?” Nate asked. “We have to be getting close now, right?”
Lyn gestured up at the hill in front of them. Wild grass had long since taken anything resembling civilization. At least, from this perspective.
The path had long since disappeared; they were relying on the unerring pace set by Lyn to keep them on track.
Up, up a hill they went. Then Lyn stopped at the top of it.
“Blight,” She pointed.
In the distance, nestled in the shade of the floodplain, a great old city sat. Carved stone antagonized the flow of time, a few desperate trees straining over top of old houses, roofs destroyed with only the foundation visible.
A few manors still stood, defiant, but even their struggle was coming to an end.
But that wasn’t the most visible part of it. That lay in the massive pattern in the grass surrounding it. Grand circles, lines darting in and out and intersecting with destroyed city streets. Gleaming in a different color from the grass.
Where it touched, dry wild grass was green. Where it wasn’t, wild grass was brown, decaying. At the bottom of the hill lay a line of white. Polished stones.
Nate squinted. His horse let out a nervous noise and took a step back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, giving the horse a pat.
Then he sniffed the air again, and his eyes went wide. “I smell rot.”
“The unconsecrated dead,” Dan said, his voice lowered now, lacking some of the spark and cheer. “They never really leave. Not really.”
“Is that what you’re here for?” Nate asked.
Dan reached into his robes and pulled out a large heavy book. Licked his fingers and pulled up on the pages, looking through it.
“It’s what the watch post is here for,” Dan said. “With it gone, they might follow the scent of living flesh. A few guards can take care of any stragglers.”
“And what do they want to do?”
“Take revenge for being abandoned,” Brensh intoned, the acolyte’s hand drifting down to her weapon. “Three hundred years is a long time for the dead to nurse grudges.”
Nate was silent for once.
The silence stretched on long enough that Lyn mounted her horse again and started off, and the rest joined her.
But the journey didn’t get to go back to quiet conversations and teasing their client, because they weren’t the ones to break the silence.
There’s a certain time period where adventurers in any guild will become able to identify dangerous noises. Brensh hadn’t been at this that long.
But even she recognized the crunch of a heavy thigh bone.
The rolling hills hid many things from easy view.
But they didn’t hide the gleam of the beast’s skin. It’d been human once, before bone had grown out of flesh, and the skull had burst out of flesh, gnashing teeth half missing from the maw, exposed muscle.
Blood caked the front of it. It’d found fresh meat in this horrid place.
Lyn ached for the creature, she really did. But her sword ached for something else.
“That’s a blighted one,” Dan said, turning to the proper page. His eyes flicked over to Lyn. Surely he felt her excitement in the air. He didn’t have the Taste she had, but surely…
“Let me take care of it,” Dan said, very gently touching Lyn on the shoulder.
Lyn stiffened at the touch, looking up from where she’d been looking. Words tumbled together in her head, and she jerked her head, looking at the other two.
“… Be gentle. Don’t want to destroy it’s food,” Lyn said, after a long moment.
Brensh’s fingers nervously tapped at her weapon.
“Off of your horses,” Lyn said. “If they startle, I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
“My horses won’t startle,” Nate said.
“Off,” Lyn demanded, her voice harsh, cutting.
Nate followed orders, and then everyone else, and Dan swept forward, book held out in front of him. Lyn smelled the air and felt her heart quicken. Fresh blood in the dried ink on the pages.
Dan bit into his thumb and smeared it across the page. The universe rebelled for a moment, sensing a manipulation. Some wild cry in the distance, some beautiful noise. The old God of magic roused from his slumber then plunged back into the great sleep.
The Blighted One sensed it and looked up, elongated human skull staring at Dan. Mouth opened, teeth bared. Long like a horse’s.
Then the spell took, the weave wrote off of the instructions in the tome, and the missile flew forth. A long line that stretched through vision, an after image, and then the spear embedded in the beast’s side. Slightly green, mostly yellow.
The beast reeled back, roaring in pain from destroyed vocal cords, bones rubbing against one another in a wretched clicking breaking that made Lyn stare.
“New spell,” she complimented. “Is that all it does?”
Dan snapped his fingers and the Blighted One exploded.
Where once was a monster, twisted from centuries of necrotic magic and the old plague, diseased stomach stuffed full of meat, there was instead a fine spray of separated bones and dust. And a smear of blood across the ground.
“By the gods,” Nate whispered.