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Plaguebearer

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Protect us, o lord,
Our homes, our wives, our breath.
And if we are to die
Protect us then from death.
- Castan prayer

The night was at its darkest, and the air was wet and chill. At first Cray would only lead his charges away from Margo's camp, from Setka's failure and Arianna's disfigurement. He cut west once he deemed that they had distanced themselves enough from these horrors. He found a break in the trees and they skirted the edge of the forest, searching for some kind of path. They were exposed and liable to become utterly lost, Cray knew - but their options were few.

Setka walked like a man drunk, stumbling over nothing, swaying like a tree in the wind. His legs stiffened until he finally fell behind, head downcast, droplets of water running off the brim of his hat. He stared senselessly at the ground, breath misting in the air, clutching his coat about him. His familiar, ever silent on padded feet, walked rings around him and then fell to its haunches, panting.

Cray went to him and stood before him, a hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Well?" he said.

"Never," was Setka's answer. "Never in all my years of letting has such a thing come to pass."

The Fees accent was soft and slurred, and had Cray not spent so many years in Setka's company he might have missed the words entirely. They were spoken to the dewy ground, wisping from Setka's mouth, thoughts that barely escaped the body.

"Then why?" Cray said.

Setka's head swayed back and forth. The meaning was clear.

I do not know. And if I do not know the ritual, then I know nothing. And a creature with no knowledge cannot speak.

Cray held his gaze for a moment, then said,

"We must go on, or we will surely die here. Will you walk with us?"

A nod, arthritic with misery.

Cray nodded himself and turned about. Setka is stronger than he seems. He will walk.

But where to?

They could not take the trade road; walking under the shadow of such a powerful fiend was lunacy, even if the caravan only passed by once every few days as Margo had said. The farmlands and villages that lined it would be little safer; from the sound of it, every settlement from here to Jysene may very well have been razed by raiders fetching food for their new master. Margo hadn't told them what manner of tribute the caravan stopped for, but Cray thought he knew regardless. Fiends dealt in one coin, and one only: death.

Cray felt the muscles of his neck tighten as he contemplated the kind of man who would do business with fiends. Blasphemers, he thought. Cowards, sinners... ENEMIES OF GOD!

If these were the old days, if this were the old world, if Cray had been at the peak of his strength - these creatures would have been routed from the midlands, down to the last man of them, strung up and exposed to the judgement of man and God. The caravan and all who served it would have been slain, burned, broken... smashed into the dust of the earth.

But this was not the old world. This was a world where Setka of Fees gave visions that caused women to leap into fires. This was a world where the men of Tranton barred their doors against travellers rather than let them in to the warm. This was a world where Cray of Stooria had no hammer to wear on his back.

Enough. You'll find nothing of value wandering these woods. Focus on the truth of the here and now.

"We need shelter," he said to his companions. "Where we can while away this wretched night. After that - we cannot use the trade road, but there is more than one way to the city of thieves. We will go on."

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