Topic: The Moor Crow (formerly Bec de Corbin)

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  • #12686
    Daimera
    Daimera
    Participant

    I was planning on waiting until I had Chapter 2 finished, but I just looked up the lyrics to this song, which fueled a LOT of this particular stretch of writing (I rarely write. it probably shows. be gentle. :c), so I have the compulsion to post it without its nigh-necessary followup.

    IT MIGHT LOOK INAPPROPRIATE AT FIRST BUT TRUST ME IT ISN’T I was just exploring an unusual interaction in the game that seemed to make no sense without being gross and I wanted to approach it in a way that wasn’t gross. The gross interpretation is still fully canon given mechanics, but I’m not writing that.

    This was originally meant to stand alone, but stuff happened along the way and that’s why there is another, more in-theme chapter in the works.

    Title change to reflect a change in direction. Future updates still forthcoming; I’ve just been really blocked. Everything is planned, just not fully written.

    Gonna start consolidating as much of it into the OP as possible, as the forum formatting permits.

    Chapter 1

    Spoiler

    It was Shandre’s first night working at the brothel.

    It was no secret that she despised the notion. Nobody really wanted to be in the cursed hamlet, but for a few there was no choice. By ill fortune, Shandre found herself in the decrepit old town, overshadowed by that abominable estate. Unable to afford any other education or training, Shandre had little to offer in the way of making a living in any other fashion, and this was her absolute last resort.

    She couldn’t think of anything worse.

    Her discomfort was clear as she prepared with the other, more experienced girls, and their derision of her was just as obvious, as they shot wry smirks at her thin frame and comparatively insubstantial build. She wasn’t unhealthy, but neither was she as the sassy, buxom mistresses like those that surrounded her.

    As evening cast its dreary, orange glow, her insides knotted. Soon the adventurers would trickle in, wearied and often entirely maddened from their forays into the twisted, ruined lands outside the town. She’d caught a glimpse of a few before they departed, and tried not to think too much about which ones would be by later for the brothel’s pleasures. Many of them seemed the most unsavory of sorts, which meant even less considering they would only be worse for wear upon returning from their expeditions.

    Shandre had her eyes on one of the armored knights, brandishing holy banners and wearing tabards with blessed symbols, but deep in her heart she knew it was unlikely. As much as she felt a regal man of such stature would surely go easy on her for her first day, there was no way such a warrior would be anything but chaste, shunning this debauchery.

    As the curtains drew and the doors opened, she was herded into the back rooms with the others, to await their charges.

    Shandre, shrinking back as best she could, did not see the customers who arrived asking for rooms. But it wasn’t long before an ill humor began to percolate from those out at the front, peeking through the gap in the crooked door frame. Sinister giggles from the older women, who shot glances at the girl who was trying so hard to seem inconspicuous that she might very well have sunk into the wall if she could. She couldn’t, however, avoid noticing the attention she was getting, with the other prostitutes smiling and poking one another while gesturing towards her. Her curiosity got the better of her.

    “W-what’s going on?” she immediately regretted asking.

    Without looking at her directly, one of the older women, dressed in an elegant if garish feather dress of purple and silver, broke the insubstantial whispers with the observation they had all made, “There’s been a leper in town of late,” she rumbled, spitting the word leper as if just the mere thought were bile in her mouth, “Filthy, disgusting thing. Barely held together by his armor, thinks he can do something about the blight upon this accursed place.”

    Shandre’s heart nearly stopped. She already knew where this was going as the woman continued, “Looks like some fool talked him into relieving the stress of it all here, of all places, and it looks like he agreed, being a far bigger fool,” she absentmindedly waved her feathered fan to her face, although the air was cool, “But the biggest fool would be our management, for not turning that giant, oozing sore away the moment he appeared in the door, but I suppose money is money to that geezer, after all.”

    Another woman, middle-aged and slathered in makeup, giggled, voice a high-pitched squeal as she talked around Shandre as if she weren’t there, while the others watched the poor girl’s face twist further and further into horror at the words, “I don’t see why we don’t give him the new girl,” she gleefully sneered, “Really make her earn her keep.”

    “And a few new diseases, to boot,” trilled another, entirely not helping matters.

    “P-please don’t-” Shandre managed to peep out, barely over the shuffling of feet as the receptionist appeared in the door. The portly man sighed, looking over all the women, expression neutral, eyes judging, before he pointed at Shandre. She bit her lip. His own lips pursed and he shook his head, crooking his finger towards himself, beckoning her to follow him.

    With great apprehension, Shandre managed to peel herself off the back wall and trudge, reluctantly, though the door.

    “Have fun~” giggled the makeup-caked prostitute, blowing a sarcastic kiss at the departing girl as she was ushered towards one of the rooms.

    As the door closed behind her, she gazed at the sheer curtains before her, and the dim light beyond it. Taking a deep breath, she raised her hand and gently parted the silken cloth. That breath quickly found itself departed in a short gasp.

    When she heard the word leper, her imagination had immediately painted an image of something truly rotten and wasted away, completely malformed and barely human. What sat upon the bed was not that. She was presented with a figure that was, if anything, just short of giant, covered almost entirely in bandage wrappings that gave the initial impression of a solid frame beneath. The only indication that he had removed any clothes at all were the leather armor and heavy, bronze cuirass arranged ever so neatly on the bedside dresser, with a gigantic, broken sword that seemed too large for any man to carry, much less swing, set to lean against the wall.

    He did not face her as she tiptoed, apprehensively, through the curtain, instead seeming lost in thought for a moment, head bowed, eyes closed though not visible behind the bronze mask and tattered headdress that obscured most of his head and face. In fact, the only skin that showed was just under that mask, as his lower lip and chin were bared, and the first obvious indication of the rot that ate away at his flesh. The other was the bandages that covered his body; clean and otherwise well-kept at first glance, but showing through with spots of faint discoloration from the fluids of countless, unseen lesions to keener eyes. There were a few patches of blood against the white cloth, tended wounds from the expedition he had participated in just prior.

    “H-hello…” Shandre managed to choke out, her voice trembling nearly as much as her knees, face wrought with an equal share of confusion and fear.

    There was a pause before the man responded, with a short, soft, “Good evening,” his deep voice carrying an almost profound calm. It was nearly enough to bring some ease to the poor girl’s mind… but only barely failing.

    There was an uncanny quiet following, as if both parties were waiting for something. Shandre could only guess what, and she had to try very hard to hold back the beginnings of tears.

    While in no way relishing the idea, she began to undo the thin, pale yellow dress she had been provided, dreading the following interaction but eager to get it over with as quickly as possible. However, the leper raised a gloved hand, imploring her to stop.

    “There is no need,” he sighed.

    Shandre paused, expression instantly snapping to puzzlement, “…But you’re…” she turned slightly to point towards the door, looking back at the curtains then back at him, pointing at him, trying to draw a connection. She fumbled her words a bit before finding them, “But you… why would you come… here… if not for…?”

    He shook his head slowly, before patting the bed just beside him, returning his hands together, fingers clasped, as his arms rested on his knees. “Come. Sit,” he beckoned, gently. When she didn’t, he looked away, “Please… worry not.”

    Not sure what else to do, Shandre slowly stepped across the seedy carpet and sat with dainty deliberation next to the man, whose presence made her feel much smaller than she had before. Up so close, she could see the patches of failing skin on his chin and the faint hints of further decay under his wrappings with much more clarity. She took in a sharp breath, counting herself fortunate for the strong perfumes of the parlor masking any scent of decay as she averted her eyes. She couldn’t bear to look more more closely.

    Was it disgust she felt? Or pity?

    “I fear,” the leper began, his tone steeped in melancholy, “that I have very little time left,” those words pulled Shandre out of her thoughts, and she turned back to look at him. She looked at his mask, letting herself get lost in the reflection of its metallic surface. Anything to keep herself from dwelling on his physical afflictions.

    “My… companions, I suppose… most assuredly know this. I imagine that is why they told me to come… here,” he sighed. “But I do not wish to… inflict… my condition… upon any other if I could avoid it.”

    Shandre looked down at her own knees, fidgeting her feet together, “Th-… Then… Then why did you-?”

    “I have… very little time,” he repeated, looking down, “I… would like… just once… to feel the warmth of another human. Just once. Before I go.” He turned away again, “Just simple warmth is all I desire. Intimacy is… not required.”

    Shandre just stared, dumbfounded, at the emotionless mask. She tried to imagine the expression under it, but could not. Her stunned silence made the sounds around them from the other activities in the establishment more noticeable, creating an awkward tension.

    The leper straightened up, shifting his weight. “If you would… rather not… Well, I suppose I do not blame you. It is your choice. If you choose not… I will just tell my companions that… well, this is not the relief for me. I am sure they would understand.

    “W-well,” the bewildered girl started, “Y-you’re putting down h-hard-earned c-coin for c-companionship here-”

    Though he didn’t smile, there was a tinge of humor to his voice, “The beds here are favorable to what I would sleep upon otherwise. That alone would justify the cost… and make the estate heir think twice before sending me here with hard-earned coin again.”

    “I… I couldn’t. I mean… I’m t-to be paid for… well… I’ll n-need t-to… e-eventually…” Shandre stammered.

    “I would appreciate it deeply, but please, do not feel pressured,” he assured her. Reaching for a couple of the provided pillows, he used them to prop against the frame, reclining against it instead of lying down, “Just… make your decision before dawn. I would hate for you to lose sleep for my insolence.” Leaning back, he clasped his hands together, resting them on his abdomen as he drifted to sleep, looking like he was in prayer as he slept.

    Shandre sat at the edge of the bed and remained there for quite some time, her thoughts knotted and conflicted. However, a spark lit in the back of her mind. A certain compassion.

    She climbed onto the bed and lay beside the large man, just close enough that her arm brushed up against his. When he didn’t stir, she turned to extinguish the lamp beside the bed, lying back down.

    As she lay there, Shandre remained awake, unable to shake the unusual nature of this encounter. All she could do was listen, the inevitable noises of the brothel around them seeming to fade away into stillness. The only sounds that registered to her was the beating of their hearts, and the leper’s own breathing, now much more clearly ragged against the quiet.

    As she listened to that heartbeat and hers, her worried mind cleared. He was human, like any other. Perhaps more so than most. This was a human who had seen tremendous loss and persevered through it all the same.

    Pity. It was definitely pity she felt.

    She let the heartbeat sing her to sleep.

    The next morning, when Shandre awoke, she found herself in the same position as she fell asleep, though the blankets had been pulled over her and she was alone under them. Nothing else was amiss.

    She jolted upright, only to see the leper standing over the dresser, putting on his armor without a word.

    He looked over at her, tightening the straps on his breastplate. He smiled, and a genuine warmth flowed from his voice, “Thank you.”

    Shandre pulled the covers up, flustered. Her words failed her.

    “Do not worry, I only now awoke as well,” he reassured, “I will be sure to pay generously for your kindness.”

    “I-it was n-nothing, really,” Shandre tried to convince herself out loud.

    The girl’s racing mind couldn’t quite pull together anything, except for one dominating thought; she was incredibly lucky that this hadn’t gone as horribly as the other women were no doubt hoping it would have.

    “F-feel free to come back i-if you want…” was the only response that came to mind, “I-If… if you’d like… you can a-ask f-for…,” She gulped a bit before smiling, meekly, “Shandre.”

    There was a pause, as the leper continued to smile, shouldering the large sword that had been leaning on the wall, before he responded, “I will consider it.”

    He slipped out the door, leaving Shandre on the bed to recollect herself.

    When she finally emerged from the room, her anxiety evaporated as she found herself quite pleased to see the shocked faces of the other prostitutes, who couldn’t believe that she wasn’t emerging as a scarred wreck from the encounter. That was enough to fill her spirit with confidence as she beamed.

    “What are YOU so happy about?” hissed the lady with the makeup, which was running quite profusely now. She seemed quite disheveled, much less lucky with the charge assigned to her. It wasn’t uncommon for those from expeditions to be a bit rough from their traumatic experiences and inability to cope with them.

    “Well, I don’t know about you, but I think I found someone who understands a thing or two about being a decent person,” Shandre smiled brightly, “Thank you for allowing him to be my first customer.”

    The other woman puffed up, indignant and fuming, but said nothing more as she left to fix herself up. Shandre regarded her and the others with a slight smugness as she set to prepare for the following night. She probably wouldn’t be so lucky again, but at least she had something to smile about.

    A few days later, the leper showed up again, and Shandre practically volunteered to ‘entertain’ him, only to find that he requested her company specifically. The second night was the same as the first, though there was less talk. She understood, as did he. He fell asleep, and she followed suit beside him. Though this time, she nestled ever so slightly closer.

    He didn’t show every night, and eventually Shandre found herself falling into a more common routine. She still didn’t enjoy that routine, for certain, but her spirit remained high, fondly looking forward to those rare nights where the gentle, decaying giant would pay the brothel a visit. He always asked for her. But he never asked much of her. Just being there was enough.

    Each night, they got a little closer. Shandre’s worried stammer slowly vanished. Soon, she was fine with a bandaged arm around her shoulder, holding her a little closer. There was strength in those arms, which she found comforting, but at the same time, there was that lingering infirmity. Strength that could crush beasts of the deep darkness, yet couldn’t stop the advancement of its owner’s own inevitable mortality. This man was truly strong, yet somehow fragile.

    It was so tragic, and Shandre wished she could do more. But she remained content in those strong arms, head resting against his chest, where she could listen to that heartbeat that had become so familiar to her.

    Finally, one evening, she decided she’d try harder.

    “Hey…”

    The leper glanced at her, curiously, as he arranged the pillows as was customary.

    “We’ve been at this for so long now… You’ve been so very kind to me this whole time, and it’s one of the only things keeping me going in this awful place,” Shandre clasped her hands in her lap, looking down, “I… I just have to repay you… somehow. But… but there’s nothing really that I can do except… well… you know…” she began.

    “No,” he responded, simply.

    “But-” Shandre began to argue.

    “My affliction would not have it…”

    “Ahaha, you shouldn’t worry,” Shandre waved in overly forced dismissal, “I-I mean… you know… Who knows what kinds of… things go around a place like this… I’d be worried about -adding- to your… problems,” Shandre tried to smile and laugh, awkwardly, though she knew she was almost certainly only making it worse, cursing herself in her head for even thinking that it was okay to say such things.

    “It is not only the… fear of passing it on,” he tried to smile back, but it faded quickly, “Only that… well…”

    He removed the leather glove from his hand and Shandre put her hand over her mouth upon seeing what was under it. Cracked, graying skin, some fingers even shortened, fallen off by necrosis from nerve damage and loss of circulation. The implications ran deeper.

    “Even if I wished to…,” he looked down at his hand, flexing what remained of his fingers with a dry crackle, “I would have nothing to offer, myself.”

    “O-oh…” Shandre muttered, looking away, “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

    “There is no reason for you to be sorry,” the leper leaned back, “It is not because of you that I possess this… aspect.”

    Before he could replace his glove, Shandre reached out and took his hand in her own, which took the leper by surprise. It was the first time anyone had tried to touch his skin of their own volition. Shandre herself didn’t quite know what possessed her to do it, and there was a slight sinking of her heart to feel the cold, cracked callouses, barely containing life.

    “I still… I didn’t think…” Even after all this time, Shandre had never considered it, even with how much sense it made.

    Slowly, the leper closed his fingers around her hand, ever so gently, and almost entirely enveloping it, taking in and relishing the warmth.

    “It is okay. I understand,” he smiled, “You have been very kind to me, as well. More than most. Perhaps more than all others. That, alone, is appropriate payment in kind.”

    He always sounded so calm, yet so sad, but when happy, or at the very least content, there seemed to be a radiance about him. She spent so much time trying to imagine his expressions, to see those eyes that could only be as gentle as his voice.

    As he fell asleep, Shandre came to a final, foolish decision.

    “I must know…” Shandre whispered as she gingerly undid the strap holding the leper’s mask in place. She began to pull the bronze away.

    The feeling of her fingers peeling his mask back was enough to wake the leper with urgency. He jolted upright.

    “W-wait-!” he tried to stop her, hand reaching out, but it was too late.

    Shandre’s scream pierced the noise of the brothel and brought it to a screeching halt as she ran from the room, horrified tears streaming down her face, the door crashing behind her, bouncing on the frame a couple times before shutting fully.

    The mask rattled on the floor before going quiet. The leper sat there, horror and sadness in his eyes, his mangled features bare to the world, mouth agape with his last word ringing in his ears alongside the scream. His hand was still raised, trembling, as his breath stopped.

    As he began to breathe again, he closed his hand slowly and softly at first, only for his grip to escalate enough to crack bone as he clenched his teeth, eyes shutting tight in shame, his own tears mixing with the weeping of his facial wounds. He remained there in silence, the whole establishment in shock and nobody daring to open the door and witness just what had horrified the young lady who had, until then, been so starstruck.

    He turned about, swinging his legs off the bed, and stood up. Taking a step over, he leaned down and took his mask, putting it back where it belonged, covering his terrible affliction. Putting his armor back on, he took up his sword and made his way to the door… but not before dropping a hefty bag of coin, far more than necessary to pay for a more substantial interaction, upon the bed.

    As he left the room, he could feel the burning from many eyes fixed upon his shame. Head down, he tried his hardest to ignore that feeling of disgust and incrimination from every craning, morbidly curious neck as he headed out the door.

    “My deepest apologies… and regret…” the leper rumbled, glancing back over his shoulder for just a moment before he departed to seek his solace elsewhere.

    In the alley behind the brothel, Shandre curled up, knees to her chest, slowly rocking back and forth, tears still streaming down her face. Her mind was racing.

    What had overcome her? She was so willing to do whatever she could for that kindly leper, and in that last, crucial moment, she broke down, and she couldn’t come to grips with why.

    She knew she had overreacted, but her hopes had been so high. Too high. The brighter the optimism, the higher the hope, the more painful the fall, and Shandre knew that she wasn’t the only one who took that fall.

    That guilt only added to the pain.

    Was his face truly that horrifying? Or was it just a reflection of her own inability to help someone she cared that much for?

    “What can I do…?” she asked herself, in vain. She brought her hands up to her face, trying to stifle her tears, but stopped. There was a slight tinge on her nails, from where she had reached beneath the leper’s mask to remove it.

    A shrill squawk quickly drew Shandre’s attention away from her hands, and she turned to look as a crow landed in the alley, the slowly rising sun that shone between the masonry glistening against its oily feathers.

    It paid her no mind, and Shandre watched on as it started to pick through the detritus in the alley. It waded in with its scaly legs and slick wings, unafraid of the filth, and reached in with its adept beak, plucking up choice morsels of old, discarded food from the adjoined bar. She watched as it precisely cut out what was undesirable and placed it aside so it could enjoy the remnants of better fare beneath.

    Skill honed through surviving through error, the error of pursuing without fear. There was no training. No education.

    Just need.

    Shandre did not just want to help the leper. She needed to.

    Looking down at her hands, Shandre found her resolve. Standing up, she looked out from the alley, as the sun rose, casting its light on hamlet.

    She needed to make a difference. No matter what it took.

    She would become as the crow.

    [collapse]

    Chapter 2

    Spoiler

    “Excise the rot, isolate the blight, clean the flesh… Excise the rot, isolate the blight, clean the flesh…”

    Only a week after coming to her revelation, Shandre found herself on the outskirts of town, looking for interesting plants and signs of disease and blight to experiment with. Clad in a dirty but heavy old robe she got secondhand from the sanitarium, she leaned over the corpse of a brigand who had tried to accost her as she wandered about aimlessly, picking at whatever looked interesting or unusual. The protective dagger she had used to stab her attacker in the throat was now turned to his chest, as she undid his shirt in an effort to disembowel him to check for any signs of disease.

    She didn’t expect it to be easy, but it was especially difficult now. Her initial, frightened stab was a product of fear and survival, but now that the bandit was dead, she was having a hard time bringing her knife to his skin a second time. She continued to mumble her short mantra softly to herself, trying to psyche herself up for a more substantial cut.

    “Heeey,” chimed a cheerful but raspy voice from behind the ex-prostitute, “what’s a li’l girl like you doin’ out ‘ere butcherin’ a human corpse ‘n th’ middle o’ nowhere?” Shandre gave a start, leaping to her feet as she whirled around, dagger pointed at the speaker.

    Standing there, looking far too garish for his surroundings, was a jester in full regalia. Dirty, belled tassels, in black, gold, and once-pink but stained by dirt and blood until they appeared red, hung about his thin, leather-clad frame, his sauntering carriage loudly announcing his ego. A smooth, white mask covered his face completely, a ratty old lute strapped to his back. Shandre took a few deep breaths, then lowered her dagger.

    She had seen him in town. He often caroused near the graveyard, playing his lute and singing insensitive songs about the deceased. Obnoxious, for sure, but not threatening. Somewhat relieved but nevertheless unnerved by the rude interruption, she took another deep breath, turning back to her kill, muttering, “…It’s none of your business.”

    She didn’t turn, but the bells on the jester’s cap and exaggerated shoes made it clear that he had closed the distance and was now peering over her shoulder. His voice in her ear grated unpleasantly, “Whoooooo, yer pretty shit at this,” He absentmindedly flicked a bell on his hat, snickering, his voice thinning to a sing-song near-whisper, “Not that I’d ‘spect much more from a whore~”

    Shandre went cold, blood nearly freezing in her veins as she feigned ignorance, “What are you talking about?”

    “Oooh, don’t act like ye don’t know~” The colorful trickster danced around the corpse and squatted on the opposite side from Shandre, hand on one knee and elbow on the other, “Name’s Martin, and oh!” He snapped a few times, feigning deep thought, “Don’t say it, I think I remember…” He spun his finger for emphasis before pointing at her, “Shaaandre, was it not~?”

    Shandre bristled, gripping the knife tighter, “How-…?”

    “Heehee~ It wasn’t too hard,” the jester laced his fingers together beneath his chin, tilting his head to one side, “I mean, it’s not like nobody notices when that ugly meatbag asks for you by name. How sweet~”, he returned his hands to their initial positions on his knees, chuckling, “Yaknow, ya got a lotta guts sleepin’ with a roilin’ stew ‘f rot like that~”

    “DON’T talk about him like that,” she hissed, brandishing the blade in the jester’s direction, “He’s far more a man than you’d ever be!”

    “Ooooh I doubt that~” Martin crooned, standing up and swinging his hips a bit, playfully, “But I’ll take your word for it~” He turned around, back to the girl, as he glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve never seen what ‘e does behind closed doors, an’ you’ve never seen what ‘e does ‘n battle. Perhaps ya’d be more scared of ‘im if ya did~”

    Shandre’s expression darkened as she returned her attention to the corpse, mumbling “I’m sure the monsters of the darkness fear him. Why should I?”

    “Believe what’cha wish, li’l girl. A brigand like this?” Martin roughly kicked the corpse, causing Shandre to jump slightly, “A flesh an’ blood human that yer strugglin’ t’ flay with that li’l letter opener?” He held up his hand like a blade, then brought it down in a chopping motion, “I’ve seen one o’ those jump ‘im, thinkin’ ‘im an easy, sickly target.” The jester then flashed his hands open, miming an explosion, “Poomf~,” he whispered, with an air of feigned awe, “Clean in two~ Not a second thought~”

    Shandre tried to ignore him. She couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or just trying to goad her, though her irritation was mounting and it was enough to fuel a strong but clumsy stab with her dagger into the center of the bandit’s chest, where it lodged in his sternum. She tried to pull the knife down to slice, but only managed to pull it straight back out again, leaving only a deep but short gouge.

    “Like I said, yer shit at this,” the Jester kneeled down by the corpse, drawing lines across the scarred skin with his finger before pointing over at the self-training doctor, “Ya wanna cut a man open? Ya can’t be so dainty ‘n gentle.”

    Shandre frowned deeply, crossing her arms, “What, and you could do better?”

    There was a flashing gleam as a sickle appeared in Martin’s hand that Shandre hadn’t even noticed was slung on the Jester’s belt. In one clean, swift motion, he drove the hooked tip into the brigand’s throat and, with a blossoming fountain of blood, split the flesh straight down to the groin.

    Splaying the skin and muscle wide open with a dramatic flourish, Martin took a step back, admiring his handiwork and striking a pose with his arms outstretched, “Ta-dah~!”

    Shandre reeled back as the blood splashed across the front of her robe. Holding her hands up, she gaped, incredulously, at the giggling clown, “What the HELL!?”

    Martin’s wide smile could not be seen behind his mask, but obvious sarcasm dripped from his voice as he placed the sickle against his chest and gave a little bow, “Well? I did better, didn’t I?”

    Shandre looked down at the corpse, organs clearly displayed. As much as she hated to, she had to admit he did do a better job, and the necrotic organs from living off the corrupted land were plain to see. Coils of sickly black and yellowed green crusted over the tissues, especially around the stomach and liver, and pale, quivering abscesses dotted the muscles and fat. Bile collected in the girl’s throat and she had to turn away for a moment, hand over her mouth to prevent unceremonious vomitting. It took her a moment before she turned back and, trying her hardest not to breathe or look directly at the corpse, began a first, awkward attempt to cut out the most affected organs.

    The jester chuckled, shaking his head as he sat back to observe the wreck. After a few moments, he slung the lute off his back and began to strum at it with perky chords and runs. After a couple test tunes, he began to sing, his voice light and uncharacteristically melodious, his words more crisp and deliberate.

    “~Poor, poor little brothel girl
    So smitten with a hideous leper grim
    Decided to give doctoring a whirl
    Found a corpse from which disease she’d trim
    But surgery makes her stomach curl,
    How then should she expect to save him?~”

    Shandre seized up, eyes feral, her sudden tension pulling her knife up, a chunk of blackened liver tearing free in her other hand. Martin continued, merrily.

    ~To notions of naive virtue she’d cling,
    Is it honest care or just foolish lust?
    So much as she’d like to lessen mortality’s sting,
    Could she tell healthy flesh from blighted crust?
    Perhaps it’d be kinder for the daft little thing
    To leave her beloved leper to dust.~

    “Right,” Shandre hissed, throwing a mangled stomach to the ground as she sheathed her knife with a snap and straightened up, “I’ve had it.”

    Martin stopped playing abruptly, voice still cheerful, “Oh?”

    Furious, she reached down at the small pile of poorly excised organs, healthy and not, and began to stuff them into the bandit’s bloodied cowl, “I’ve had it with your… constant… harassment.” She snarled “You’ve done nothing but mock me since you showed up and I’m leaving.”

    “And where might’cha be goin’? Hm~?” the jester chided, waggling an index finger in a scolding motion, “Back to town, perhaps? Good luck going back with a sack full of gore to ‘study.'” He threw his head back and laughed heartily, before slowly looking back down at Shandre, who had paused. Martin’s voice twisted into a sinister sneer, “Noooobody’s going to think yer a serial killer~”

    Shandre trembled a bit, shoulders arched as she resisted the urge to plant her face in her gore-stained gloves, “Damn it…” was the only utterance she could muster.

    “Plus, yaknow,” the jester’s voice suddenly lightened, taking on far less aggressive intonation, “I’d just follow ya back. I have legs~”

    A moment of silence was punctuated by Shandre’s exasperated, “…Why?”

    Martin giggled, strapping the lute to his back, “Just givin’ ya a bit’ve incentive, dear~ Yer not gettin’ very far ‘n yer own.”

    “No, I mean why ME?!” Shandre snapped, glaring daggers at the jester.

    “‘Cause ye were there? D’ya think a guy like me needs any better reason?” He shrugged in response, before chuckling. His laughter finally flattened out, voice going much more serious, “Though really, ‘t helps that yer invested ‘n someone I know, fer better or worse, an’ yer determination’s got a lotta promise.” He gestured down at the disemboweled bandit, “That determination could be useful t’ more’n jus’ yer own birdbrained goals, with a li’l help.”

    The sudden shift in direction caught Shandre off guard as she tied up the gore-laden cowl, “…You?! Want to help… me?” Her voice croaked slightly, confusion apparent.

    Martin stretched, straightening his back with a couple of loud pops, “I don’t jus’ hang ’round th’ cemetary fer shits’ ‘n giggles every day. Just so ya know, I’m in one o’ th’ heir’s scoutin’ parties, an’ we’re lookin’ fer another member.” He flicked one of his cap bells over his shoulder, “Stage coach’s takin’ far too long ‘n we can’t rely on it t’ get new blood ta spill, so of ‘course we got told t’ find out why it ain’t gettin’ here. But we ain’t gonna do it short a person. We may be crazy, but that’s drawin’ the line.”

    Shandre’s quiet pondering allowed the jester to continue, “Seein’ ya got enough guts t’ wander out ‘ere by yerself means ya might ‘ave enough guts t’ wander a li’l further ‘n search o’… whatever th’ Hell it is yer lookin’ fer.”

    The young woman frowned. She did not like this man, not one bit, but she also didn’t know what she was doing. Hateful and irritating as he was, this jester’s offer was an opportunity to secure some more resources that she might otherwise have died trying to obtain by herself.

    Weighing her desperation with her better judgment, Shandre decided that even an unfavorable opportunity was better than no opportunity at all, “So what do you suggest I do?”

    “Weeeeell, there’s a bandit encampment not too far from ‘ere,” the jester pointed eastward with his thumb, “Could prolly use it t’ stay th’ night ‘n take some time ‘n seclusion t’ examine yer shit without suspicious village eyes.” He laughed, “An’ jus’ yer luck, looks like th’ bandit that was usin’ it has been relegated t’ the shit yer examinin’~”

    Shandre pondered this for a moment as she set the tightly-wrapped cowl down. With some effort, she dragged the corpse off to the side, bringing it to rest in some heavy brush, before returning to the clearing and picking up the sack of organs.

    She sighed and turned to Martin, “Okay. Lead the way.”

    The jester laughed and took an exaggerated bow, sarcastically chirping, “Sure thing, m’lady~” before heading off. Shandre followed reluctantly behind.

    “This… smell… it’s horrible.”

    After arriving at the camp, Shandre had spread out a leather tarp in the bandit’s tent and spread the bits and pieces of blight-laced organs and mutilated tissues across it, with various small packets of herbs and other plants she’d picked arranged in rows in front of her. A small, enclosed lantern provided light in the dwindling sun. Her deep breath to prepare herself was not pleasant, as she began to cut the infected organs into smaller pieces for examination.

    Martin took up a seat on top of a crate overturned atop a stash of bandit moonshine, strumming his lute lightly and, to Shandre’s relief, not singing.

    “I know, right? I’ve told ‘im the same thing, but nooooo…” Martin held up his hands, mocking deepness to his grating voice, “‘It is not as if mere water could cleanse me of my decay’, ‘e says,” the jester snorted, “But ‘m sure ye knew that. I mean, ye slept with ‘im, so it’s not like-”

    I never noticed,” Shandre growled, nearly cutting herself with her knife as she drove it roughly through the spongy liver in her irritation, “The brothel is heavily perfumed. It’s not like all of you heroes make it a point to bathe before showing up.”

    Martin stopped playing, shrugging with just one arm, “Well, if that perfume solves all yer stinkin’ problems then why not use it to solve this one?”

    “What, and tie a bag of flowers to my face?” Shandre stabbed her dagger into the dirt, turning her attention from the organs to the herbs, “Are you out of your mind?”

    The jester snickered as he went back to strumming, “Sure, let’s go with that~” Shandre groaned and rolled her eyes, rubbing the plants between her gloved fingers to fray their fibers, releasing oils and aromas. She raised it to her nose and inhaled, deeply, then coughed, the odor overpowering.

    “So, what’s with your mask?” she asked, eyes nearly tearing from the smell, as she took the dull blue flower she was working and ground it into a particularly blackened tissue sample, only to recoil a bit when it reacted with a pungent sizzle. Wafting the fumes away, she looked over at Martin, “Are you as ugly as your attitude or something?”

    “Hah, ‘f only t’were so simple,” He laughed, strumming away, “I merely wear this mask ’cause a simple mortal whore like you’d be blinded by my sheer magnificence~”

    “…Riiight, I’ll take that as a yes,” Shandre muttered, moving on to a different herb, this one yellowish with small, uniform seeds. Martin just continued to chuckle.

    A few quiet minutes passed as Shandre mixed and matched plants to blight samples with varying degrees of inconclusive results. Backed only by Martin’s lazy, but oddly calming lute playing, she finally broke the quiet monotony with another question, “So how long do I have before you’re going to need me?”

    Martin stopped playing for a moment, thinking to himself, before starting again, “We’re waitin’ on a ruins expedition set ta go before us, so th’ heir knows ‘ow much money’s left ta do what needs ta be done. Should take ’bout…” he paused again, “…five days for everythin’ ta iron out, provided they don’t lose anyone.” With a flourish, he changed the melody of his playing before shifting his weight on the crate, leaning forward, “We’ll be scoutin’ th’ weald, right where th’ fungal outbreak crosses th’ carriage path.”

    Watching as Shandre continued to struggle with her tests, Martin flicked at one of his cap bells, “I’ll give ya five days ta work out whatcha need, ‘n ya can meet me at th’ tavern on the dawn’ve th’ sixth. I’ll take ya ta meet th’ others then.” A smile crept into his voice, mischievous and wry, “Yer customary customer’ll be there~”

    This stopped Shandre cold, and she nearly dropped her knife, which she was using to shred a particularly fibrous root, “Wait…. YOU’RE one of his expedition companions?!”

    “Of course~!” The jester cackled, “Who d’ya think’d be th’ fool enough t’ convince ‘im ta go to th’ damn brothel, ‘f all places~? Ya should be THANKIN’ me~!”

    “But…” she started, trying to put her thoughts to words, and taking a few moments of fidgeting with her experimental materials before finishing, “but you’re so incorrigibly rude about his malady!”

    “So? ‘Tis not like being nice about it will make it go away,” Martin waved in mock dismissal before returning to his lute, “I like t’ think I give ‘im th’ impetus t’ keep goin’, jus’ ta prove me wrong~”

    Shandre half-opened her mouth to retort, but nothing came to mind, so she turned away, biting her lips.

    “So,” she finally gathered the courage to ask, “Does he… have a name?”

    Martin blinked, stopping his play at the sudden personal question. He tilted his head, rubbing his chin for a moment, before shrugging, “‘M pretty sure ‘e does but Hell’f I know what it is.”

    That struck Shandre as odd, and her brow furrowed, “So, he… never gave a name? Even though you work with him?”

    Martin shrugged in disregard, “Nobody’s ever asked. Don’t think anyone cares, really. He’s prolly ashamed ‘f it,” he chuckled, rudely, “I’d be, too, ‘f I ‘ad a face like that~”

    “Would you stop-”

    “I’ll stop when ye stop bein’ so damn cute when yer angry~” the jester interrupted, slapping the lute strings for emphasis as he laughed.

    “You’re horrible,” Shandre spat, expression grim, “Absolutely horrible.”

    “Keeps me goin’~” Martin stopped playing abruptly and lashed the instrument to his back quickly. Shandre, too, stopped what she was doing, but more so at the jester’s conspicuous action rather than any understanding as to why.

    “Be too naive’n th’ horrors outside th’ town will eat’cha alive.”

    As if on cue, the faint light of a distant torch seeped through the tent flaps, followed by loud, angry shouting. Shandre gave a start, whirling around to see a pair of angry bandits; a short ratty one with a dilapidated blunderbuss, and a massive wall of a man wielding a pistol and the torch. They both raised their guns and began to open fire on their own tent and the encroaching occupants. Both Shandre and Martin scrambled for cover from the inaccurate salvo.

    “You said this camp was abandoned!!” She screamed, ducking behind the crate beside Martin, as a shot glanced off a corner, splintering the wood.

    “And ya believed me!” He laughed, mirthfully, “Yer trust is truly hilarious!” Unsheathing his own dagger and sickle, he brushed his tassles back and readied, “Now ta test yer mettle~”

    The bandits had closed the distance in an effort to fire around the blocking crates instead of through them, for fear of igniting the liquor within and sending their whole camp full of ill-gotten gains up in flame, as simple a solution it would have been to their intruder problem.

    Without skipping a beat, Martin leaped out from behind cover and grabbed the large bandit’s torch, pulling it from his hands and putting it into the dirt, plunging them all into darkness. Both bandits tried to take aim at the jester, but he was too quick and it was too dark, a problem only compounded when he rolled back to kick out the central tent prop, bringing the whole thing down.

    By the time the gunner extricated himself, he found a sickle planted firmly in his mouth, then hooked down through his throat and pulled, splitting his jaw and neck open for the jester to bring his dagger up and put it through the man’s bared palate. Martin smirked, before lowering his hand and kicking the bandit off of his blade.

    When the large bandit finally threw the tent from himself, he also revealed Shandre, who was also struggling to regain a footing, lit up by the nearby lantern which was small and sturdy enough to, miraculously, neither break nor go out when the tent fell.

    With a bellow, the large bandit lunged at Shandre. Scrambling, in a panicked stroke of accidental ingenuity, she reached down and grabbed a handful of dirty blue flowers and blighted entrails. Crushing them as best as she could between her gloved fingers, she flung the sizzling concoction into her attacker’s face. He howled in pain and disgust, reeling back as it stung his one good eye and bit into his flesh, retching at the smell and taste.

    The grotesque distraction gave Martin an opening, and he bounded up the rock face against which the tent was once assembled, only to leap off with uncanny grace and a high-pitched cackle, using his momentum to drive his narrow dagger right into the bandit’s uncovered eye, up to the hilt. The dead outlaw’s screams cut short as he dropped like a rock.

    Shandre observed the scene before her and gasped. Martin stood above two dead men, his weapons dripping crimson. Laughing.

    Martin kneeled down, scraping the sizzling herb and blight mixture off the brigand’s face with his dagger, lifting some moderately liquefied skin in the process “Well, that’s disgustin’ an’ honestly pretty damn effective, I’ll give ya that.” He turned and pointed the soiled weapon in Shandre’s direction, “Even with yer lack o’ healin’ touch, perhaps ye’ll find usefulness yet.”

    Shandre brought her hands up to cover her mouth, mortified at the jester’s brutal means of dispatch. The horrid smell quickly made her regret that decision and she began to cough violently, removing the gloves and letting them fall to the ground so she could bring her hands to her face more comfortably.

    She needed that slight comfort. As much as this murder saved both their lives, the thought shook her. Was this really what she wanted?

    “Lookin’ like that, ya might wanna take a good look’d these’n think about it a bit,” he confirmed, taking in her horrified expression with a hidden, snide grin as he sheathed his weapons, “Ya think this’s bad, yer gonna be in fer a real treat when ya see what yer hubby does ta guys who try ta interfere with our job~” Leaning down, he picked up the tent cloth, “Now, help me put this thing back up so ya can get back ta work~”

    Shandre’s mind was blank. She wasn’t sure what to think. Staring blankly at the ground, she stood up and did as the jester asked, taking the tent cloth while he set the posts back into the ground. Before long, the bandit tent was back in order, the dim lantern light swinging on its rope, barely illuminating the moderately shuffled study tarp.

    With a parting wave, Martin left the reeling girl to her thoughts, “Seeya’n five days~”

    ‘What am I doing here…?’ she asked herself, silently, as she watched the jester’s lanky form vanish into the shadows of the night. ‘Do I really think I’m going to learn how to cure disease with nothing but corpses…?’

    She closed the tent and sat down at her workstation, looking down at her bare hands. Images swirled in her head.

    The leper’s mask.

    His mutilated face, twisted into sorrow.

    ‘What am I doing…?’

    The jester standing there laughing, drenched in blood.

    ‘Can I do this…?’

    A crow perched upon a pile of corpses, its eyes aflame, gazing into her soul.

    It shrieked and drew towards her, plucking her eyes out.

    ‘What am I doing??’

    Blood on her hands, she reached up and clutched her head.

    ‘If… I can’t cure him… perhaps I can at least protect him… but does he need it?’

    Poomf. Clean in two.

    The crow shrieked and ascended from the corpse pile, only to split down the middle, fire bursting from within in the shape of a beating human heart and…

    …becoming the lantern above.

    Shandre suddenly snapped out of the images with a short yelp, falling backwards and only barely catching herself as she stared at the collection of herbs and blight in front of her. The pungent odors of the various reactions left to stew on the mat swirled into a potent miasma in the stale tent air.

    Shaking her head to clear it, the girl flung open the tent’s flap in earnest, stumbling out into the night. Taking in a deep breath of the cool, dry air, she found her calm. Mind level, she closed her eyes.

    “I need to meet him again first, and find out what is needed of me then. I’ll do anything to make sure I have something to offer when that time comes,” she whispered to herself between deep, cleansing breaths.

    Steeling herself, she set to work.

    As the days tarried on, Shandre continued to experiment. Although sure to leave the tent open for air circulation, she nevertheless tied a spare cowl from the tent supplies around her face as a makeshift filter. She couldn’t risk falling into another hallucination spiral.

    Other substances stashed away in the bandit’s tent, from their low-quality moonshine to gunpowder, provided her additional options. Once she became acclimated to their grisly, life-ending injuries, the two new corpses gave her further substrate upon which to test different herbs, combinations of herbs, and their effects on introduced infectious agents.

    They also allowed her to test self-defense measures. Grinding gunpowder into the blue herb and packing it separately from blighted samples in small, leather capsules seemed like it’d make an effective deterrent, should she be jumped again. After a few tries, she managed to get an optimal balance, the ignition of the gunpowder mixing the herbs with the blight on impact for maximum, flesh-searing potency.

    Martin dropped by only once, two days in, bearing a collection of syringes pilfered from the sanitarium, along with a few bottles of various tinctures and other dubious medicinal concoctions utilized therein. His only words of encouragement were, unsurprisingly, cryptic and unhelpful.

    “Don’t know what any’ve ’em do, but th’ wails from th’ treatin’ rooms were particularly loud today~” he sang, waving nonchalantly, adding “So try not ta drink ’em to find out~” as he strode away.

    Mixing some drops of each in the alcohol and soaking some dried bandit ration bread in it, she left samples outside the tent. A few unhealthy pigeons stopped by to partake in the fare. Two dropped over dead. The third seemed to become invigorated, gobbling up the rest of its bread with unusual fervor before flying off, looking a bit perkier.

    Shandre took notes.

    It was a long five days.

    ===

    No casual glance identified the figure who strode into the town on the sixth day as the prostitute who departed that many days prior. A few suspicious glances were cast upon the bandit’s cowl she wore to shadow her features, as well as the fusilier belt laden with filled syringes instead of ammunition. A collection of small leather capsules dangled from sinuous cords alongside a few more satchels of other effects ranging from herb-laced bandages to bottles of experimental vapors, but for the most part she was taken for little more than just another eccentric adventurer.

    With a bag of pilfered bandit money, she wove her way through the sparse morning citizenship towards the tavern. Few were partaking in such revelry at this time of day, and it was easy for her to find an empty seat at the bar.

    “First time… Something strong enough to burn,” Shandre mumbled through the cowl as she placed down a stack of coins. The barkeeper eyed her, arching a brow at her diminutive statue, then shrugged, understanding the sentiment. He put down the tankard he was habitually cleaning and reached for a bottle of whiskey, pouring her a cup and sliding it across the bar table to her.

    There she waited, occasionally pulling her cowl down to take short sips of the strong drink. She grimaced, not used to the sensation. As much as she worked with the bandit liquor, she had never bothered to drink any of it, herself.

    Suddenly a collection of filled travel packs and an unusual, elongated mask were dropped onto the bar table beside Shandre with a clatter that nearly startled the girl into knocking over her cup.

    “So, ya made it~” came the familiar, cheerful drawl of Martin as he took a seat beside her, “I checked th’ camp. Saw it burned down. Wasn’t sure if ya’d been burned with it~”

    “What was done there needn’t be found,” Shandre sighed darkly, picking up the strange mask, looking over it curiously, “Where’d you get this?”

    “Made it, o’course,” Martin snorted, grabbing one of the tassels of his hat and ringing the bell on the end, “What, ya think I could jus’ walk up t’ a dumpster and fish somethin’ like this out?” He laughed, dropping the bell and gesturing at Shandre’s ratty clothes.

    “…It’d be an improvement,” she grinned, taking another drink.

    “Some grateful bitch you turned out ta be,” Martin spat, though in spite of his words, his intonation still bore the hint of a smile rather than any feeling of offense. He spun on the bar stool and leaned back against the bar, kicking a foot up to cross his legs, “I thought ya’d be a nice girl considering yer atrocious taste ‘n men.”

    Shandre sighed, expression deadpan as she shook her head and took a sip of her drink before responding, “Maybe I am and you’re just not giving me a reason to be.”

    “Whatever. We’re not gonna be picky at this juncture.” He gestured to the miscellaneous satchels on the table, “We gotta bring supplies, an’ yer not gonna get away with not carryin’ yer weight so there’s some bags. I’m givin’ ya th’ torches ‘nstead o’ th’ food so ya can stuff whatever gross garbage ya want in th’ bags when they free up, if we’re not usin’ em ta bring back any’ve th’ heir’s scattered junk. We’re just scoutin’ so we prolly won’t find much.” Then, pointing at the mask, he added, “And ya can stuff whatever sweet smellin’ crap ya want in that and it should help with th’ nasty smells yer gonna be dealin’ with. Looks stupid, but I figured it’s practical.”

    Shandre looked over the mask and its beaklike shape, bemused thoughts turning towards the crow that prompted her change of heart, that had been her constant imaginary companion since she began on her impromptu path to purpose, “Maybe, but you know… I actually find it rather appropriate.” She smiled, lightly, in spite of herself. “Thank you.” Reaching up, she pulled her cowl down just long enough to wrap the straps around her head and fix the mask to her face to make sure it fit. She’d find something fragrant to fill it with later.

    “Heh,” Martin shook his head, “Ya look like some awkward, craven bird… woman… creature,” he snapped his fingers, trying to think of the word he wanted, “…Harpy. Heh. It’s very unflattering.”

    “Right, because the one thing I could stand to worry about most now is being flattering,” Shandre sighed, furrowing her brow a bit. The mask’s shape created a very unnerving acoustic effect, distorting her voice.

    Perhaps a blessing, she thought. Anonymity had its perks, if the abrasive jester was any indication.

    “Normally th’ heir sends us out ‘t ’round noon, so we meet up by th’ old statue before then. Prolly runnin’ a bit late fer Cassandra’s tastes, as it figures,” Martin sat up, uncrossing his legs. Shandre just took in the name, not knowing what to expect of the fourth member whom she hadn’t met.

    “Make yer final preparations an’ then meet me by th’ graveyard, so I can take ya t’ see th’ others.” Lurching forward, the jester stood up from the barstool and walked out, while the barkeeper glowered after him. Shandre lifted her mask to finish her drink and put down some additional money in tip before standing up and leaving the bar, herself.

    She had only one preparation in mind. She headed towards the brothel, head down. Upon entering, the receptionist eyed her with an odd expression, not sure what to make of the unusual mask.

    Shandre put down her last bag of stolen coinage on the table, looking at the portly man, “Take a break. You’ve done me a great favor.”

    His confusion held his tongue as he glanced down at the money on the table, trying to figure out the meaning behind it. He didn’t notice Shandre leaving with a length of decorative, perfumed cloth that had been lining the reception table.

    On her way to the graveyard, Shandre tipped her mask up just enough to insert the cloth into its elongated hollow before replacing it. She took a deep breath. The perfume was very subtle, but comforting and familiar.

    As she neared the graveyard, she heard Martin’s lute before she saw him. When she was finally close enough to see, he was standing tall before one headstone in particular, laden with a few packs more than she was used to seeing him with as he looked down upon the grave and not her, “That was fast. Didn’t have much ta do, huh?”

    “Well, you did give me five days,” Shandre gestured down to her personal medicine satchels with a light pat, “Not much left to do.”

    “Touché,” Martin waved his hand, putting his lute away as he adjusted his supply packs on his shoulder, “Follow me. We’ll get this over with yet.”

    There were two figures situated by the statue as Martin led Shandre towards the hamlet center. Sitting upon some of the fallen timber was an armored woman of the Light, a vestal, her attention deeply bound to the leather book in her lap. Standing not too far away was the leper, gazing wistfully up at the cloudy sky.

    Shandre’s heart fluttered momentarily, and she took a deep breath to cover her feelings. She wasn’t sure it helped. Perhaps her choice of aroma for her mask was not the wisest, steeped in nostalgia as she had initially wanted it to be. Following Martin, she approached, as straight-backed and professionally as she could.

    “Fashionably late, as usual,” mumbled the vestal, Cassandra, not bothering to look up as Martin and Shandre approached, expression staid and humorless as she closed her book.

    The leper only glanced for a moment with a short, barely acknowledging nod at Martin before turning his attention to the incognito Shandre, “And who is this?”

    “Well, ya see, I’ve been a bit busy and we’re ‘n luck~” Martin chirped, flourishing a hand towards the masked ‘doctor’, “I’ve found ourselves a fourth member. Someone unafraid t’ wade hips-deep inta’ filth ‘n decay~”

    Shandre nearly choked and shot a dreadful glare at the jester, fuming behind the tinted lenses, unseen by the others, certain that Martin knew full well that she was in no way amused by his sick idea of a stealthy joke by his light giggling. The humor was lost on the others, and they disregarded it.

    “Well, she certainly looks dressed for it, so points for preparation,” observed the vestal, not fully convinced, but seeming relieved all the same, “I just hope she fares better than Meredith…” she added, grimly.

    Shandre blinked. Martin said they needed another member to their party, but it didn’t occur to her that her hire was meant as a replacement, “Who?”

    “Our… late colleague,” the leper rumbled, “A thorny rose on the best of days, an impassable briar the rest, so obsessed with the digging of graves that she is now one with her own forevermore,” he bowed his head, “A thief and a cheat and paranoid beyond measure, she was not the most pleasant of allies, but even she deserved a more noble fate.”

    He shot a glare over at Martin, though the severity of it was not immediately apparent to Shandre thanks to his mask. The jester fidgeted slightly. He was aware.

    Shandre’s heart sunk, “…Oh.”

    “I wouldn’t judge you to be dissuaded by that,” Cassandra clipped her book to her belt, standing up, “the going has been very rough and it’s been hard to find good, stable help.”

    “I would, ‘fter all that trouble…” Martin mumbled from the back. They both ignored him.

    “It’s… fine,” Shandre lied, trying to put on the mercenary air she was trying to feign, “As long as the pay is good and the cause is just.”

    The vestal nodded, expression neutral, voice flat and emotionless. She held out her hand, “Cassandra. Pleasure to have you. Didn’t catch a name, though?”

    Shandre took the hand in a firm shake, “I…” She began, looking down. Did she tell the truth? She was still far too ashamed. She tried, quickly, to rack her brain for a suitable substitute, and her thoughts drifted to the source of her resolve.

    “…Corbin. Just call me Corbin.”

    The jester snorted loudly behind her and broke into a fit of giggles, prompting the leper to level a stern frown at him, “What is so funny?”

    Martin put a hand over his mask where his mouth would have been, as if it would do anything to stifle his fit, “Oh, everything? I mean, c’mon, what d’ I not find funny?” However, he elbowed Shandre in the back, “Though seriously, -that’s- th’ best ye could come up with?”

    Shandre glowered, unseen, “…Shut up. My name is unimportant.”

    “The trepidation is understandable,” the leper hunched over, tone pensive, “Names are a watchlight at shore during a storm, but our duty is a terrible and wrathful sea. Any of our company could fall at any time; becoming too reliant on those beacons will only plunge ill-fated scouts like us into deeper darkness when the light inevitably goes out.”

    Martin shrugged, “Ever th’ optimist~”

    “We should get going while the clouds are thin as they are,” Cassandra observed, “It’ll be dark enough before nighttime that we’d be using more torches than necessary along that ugly path, otherwise.”

    “Well, after you, princess~” the jester bowed, chuckling, as he gestured along, “You’d know best~” Cassandra just shook her head, sighing as she hefted up her own bags of provisions, heading off down the carriage path.

    As Shandre turned to follow after her, she found herself stopped by a strong grip around her left upper arm, holding her still. She turned, somewhat startled, to see the leper standing at full height, glowering down at her.

    “Hmmm…” He rumbled, eyes narrowing as he tried to peer through the tinted glass of the plague doctor’s mask, though in part due to his own mask’s visual limitations, he could not make out what was beneath. Shandre’s breath caught in her throat. There was a palpable tension in the air at their standstill.

    “…No. Perhaps I am mistaken,” he finally uttered, releasing his hold and stepping past, following after Cassandra. Shandre was left, standing straight and still, shaken, as she finally allowed herself to breathe.

    As the first two crested the edge of town, Martin strode along past Shandre, snickering softly as he elbowed her in the ribs, whispering, “Think it’s gonna be worth th’ trouble, hmm?”

    Shandre looked down, placing a hand over her arm where she had been held, and wondered how long she would need to keep up the disguise.

    Or, more importantly, whether it would be safe to ever leave it.

    [collapse]

    Chapter 3

    Spoiler

    Though Cassandra was the first to leave town, it wasn’t long before Martin pulled ahead of her, jaunting merrily down the path as he strummed his lute, humming just barely out of tune with his playing. The vestal’s pace slowed enough for her to pull alongside the leper, as Shandre trudged along in the very back, taking in the surrounding sights.

    It was a clear road, for the most part, bordered on each side by thickening woods, with the occasional broken stone wall or abandoned cottage peeking between the trees. The area had clearly once been a bustling rural community of farmlands, taken to putrefaction by the corruption of the estate’s former lord.

    Had it been any other forest, the walk would have been uneventful, almost idyllic. However, a thick unease clung to the party save the carefree jester, only bolstered by the unnaturally thorny thickets and large, unhealthy looking fungal growths upon the ancient trees. The grim nature of the woods was only furthered by the graves; countless headstones of varying size and quality, lining the sides of the road as if they were fences.

    “What I would give to see this place returned to its former glory,” Cassandra placed a closed hand to her chest, lowering her voice in solemn lament as she uttered a quiet prayer for the lost souls of the road.

    “Heh, yeah, maybe ‘n a thousand years when someone finally gets th’ right idea ta’ jus’ burn it ta th’ ground ‘n let it regrow,” chuckled Martin, with inappropriate mirth. Cassandra glowered at him for just a moment, before returning to her previous gestures.

    The leper shook his head, “Is that entirely necessary?”

    Martin stopped his playing long enough to shrug, “Well, y’all can pray ta yer ‘Flame’ all ya want,” he began, loading the word with a touch of sarcasm, as he began to strum again, “but when it comes down ta’ it, what d’ya think a Flame’s gonna do ta’ purify ‘n the first place?”

    “He does have a point,” Shandre admitted, grimly. She was never the religious sort, but the analogy made sense in the light of her self-styled studies, “This looks pretty bad… it might not be a graceful solution, but it might just be the most thorough.”

    “We are all mere servants of a grander scheme,” the leper looked up to the twisted canopy, voice contemplative, “We must do what we can to find that more graceful solution. Whether it exists or not, to know is not our calling. Just to seek.”

    They continued on in relative silence, apart from the jester’s music, which Shandre found simultaneously obnoxious and welcome. The tune kept her attentive in the silence, and was certainly appreciated, were she not constantly reminded of the insufferable nature of the man playing it. It also made it more difficult to listen for subtle, ambient noises that could have proven valuable, though Shandre expelled such worry from her mind; she wasn’t called to help them for her tracking abilities, as she had none. She just hoped that the others, experienced as they were, would be taking up that slack.

    The hours pressed on. As the quiet became more pervasive, the wanderers began to spread out slightly, keeping closer to the sides of the road to keep eyes and ears on the bordering shadows, their own footsteps slowly becoming suspect. The trees already blocked out enough of the waning light, and as the sun slowly descended, Shandre found herself drawing out the first of the torches she’d been given.

    “It doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere…” she expressed, worriedly, as she began to strike the provided flint to light the oiled rag, “What are we even looking for? The cart itself?”

    Martin stopped playing and turned about, approaching the makeshift doctor, “The cart, signs o’ the cart, or anything that coulda’ made it turn back.” He took the torch from her once she successfully lit it, without thanks or other acknowledgment, and she was somewhat annoyed by that as he wandered back ahead with the fire held high, “Blockages, monsters, bandits… I betcha’ all it’s bandits.”

    This did little to alleviate Shandre’s concern, “And if we find nothing? Where do the carts come from?” She returned the flint to the small pocket on the side of the torch bag, “What if it got stopped at the source and not the road? We can’t go that far if wagons are needed to make that trip in the first place…”

    “Then we keep on until exhaustion takes us,” the leper asserted, not bothering to look back, “We take the old road as far as we can, and if we cannot find any trouble, we rest, then return to let the heir know. Perhaps word is simply not getting out… or no souls are foolhardy enough to find the venture to this cursed land worthwhile.”

    “Or word is getting out… word that it’s hopeless,” Cassandra sighed, shifting the weight of her packs to her other shoulder, “I certainly hope not. This darkness must be stopped before it spreads that far, and we need all the help we can get.”

    “Y’all are so dreary,” Martin waved between tossing the torch lightly between his hands, resisting the urge to juggle it with his weapons, which would no doubt make it lose its light sooner. He stopped fiddling with it suddenly, gripping it and holding it towards his side of the road with a curious, “…Hm? What’s this?”

    While it wasn’t yet dark enough to significantly stifle the limited glow of the single lit torch, the jester’s own hold of it gave him a much better view of the immediate surroundings, so it wasn’t any surprise that he was the first to notice a break in the scenery. Several gravestones, including one large obelisk and an angelic statuette, were knocked over, out in the direction of the woods. Beyond it, a conspicuous trampling of the underbrush, and a few broken branches.

    Martin stroked his chin, feigning contemplation as he smiled behind his mask, “Seems promising.”

    As the others looked over the damage, Shandre walked a little on ahead, to the edge of the torch’s light. Striking another one of her own, she took a closer look at the road, and her attention fell upon a few conspicuous splinters of wood in the middle of it. She leaned down, picking one up, then called over “Hey, look at this!”

    The leper remained by the broken graves, taking his sword in both hands and standing at the ready. Martin was the only one who did not bear the anxiety of a potential attack, as he held his own torch near the path’s departure. Cassandra drew her own weapon, a studded, reinforced club, as she walked over to Shandre, taking the fragment of wood to examine more closely. After a minute of poring over it and the other shards on the road, she shook her head, “These are clearly from the cart. Something drove it from the road, but from this damage, I can’t tell what.” She reached down and picked up another piece, to clear it from the road, and gestured for Shandre to do the same, “It’s time we strayed from the path. We’d best prepare for the worst.”

    “As if anythin’ ’round ‘ere’s anythin’ better’n worst~” chuckled the jester as he gestured into the shadows with a nod of his head before hopping over the felled stones. The leper gave him a curt passing glance.

    “We are most fortuitous to be burdened with such a simple task as this,” he corrected, “I envy not those who get sent into the old estate ruins… or worse, the wa-”

    “Speak not of that!” Cassandra hissed as she passed on by. The leper quickly cut his statement short, turning away. Shandre looked after them, curiously, gathering the last of the cart scraps. The sudden hostility had her burning to question further, but her gut told her it probably wasn’t a good time.

    “We got it easy, yeah,” Martin chuckled, dismissively, “but even easy ‘ere is far worse than th’ worst beyond th’ hamlet,” he gestured to Shandre, then at their own two torches, slowly giving out, “Bring out more. We’ll all be needin’ em now.”

    Shandre gulped a bit, casting a gaze upward to shuffling noises overhead, and quickly reached into her packs for more torches. She handed two to Martin, who doubled his own dwindling fire with a second, lighting the third and passing it on to the leper, who took it roughly, without a word. The plague doctor lit another, herself, and gave the fresh one to the vestal, keeping a hand on her pack to draw another one once her own became too dim to proceed.

    The combined torchlight illuminated far more dire corruptions beyond the road, the trees losing their natural shapes that not even the fungal infection could explain, twisting into barbed tendrils that reached up into the night. Giant, wispy webs stretched from branch to trunk to rotted stump, while tiny eyes glittered from the darkness, accompanied by the sounds of chittering and skittering in the branches above as their sources shrunk away from the fire’s glow.

    The signs they sought through the trees became much clearer in the light, the trampling of hooves and the gouges of one cracked wheel leaving a distinct, wobbly trail through the fallen leaves and grimy soil, leading to a sudden drop. As they crested the edge, their objective came into view; an old, dilapidated wagon, barely more than a covered cart, lying at the bottom of what appeared to be a minor landslide. The fall was too much for it beyond the already-treacherous journey, as it sported two shattered wheels and a snapped axle, putting it over on its side, its patchwork cloth cover caved in. What stood out more, though, was that it was overgrown by fungus. From its state, it had been lying there for quite some time.

    “By the Light…” Cassandra gasped, softly, expression dark. She took a wary glance around, then kneeled down, holding her arm as far as she could out over the scene below. Faint human shapes could be seen amidst the rubble, splayed about and still.

    The leper shook his head, sadly, “Their fortunes fared no better than we feared.” There was a moment of collected silence, before they turned their attention to finishing their task.

    Taking a short detour to a shallower bank downward, the four travelers descended to the scene of the crash. Martin hopped from stone to root on his way down with grace and little care, the jangling of his uniform ringing between the trees and drawing moderate ire from his companions. Cassandra and the leper made their way down much more slowly and deliberately, the latter bracing his progress with his sword while the former followed in the solid footholds left by the large man’s heavy steps. Shandre, not used to such offroading, practically had to scoot down on her behind to feel sure of her stability, and even so, she’d have certainly taken a tumble had she not maintained a deathgrip on any available foliage on the way down. By the time she got her footing on solid ground, the others were already examining the wreckage.

    The driver and horses were nowhere to be seen, only scrambling hoof prints disappearing into the thick of the tangle beyond. The fates of the other occupants, however, were far more obvious. Two women in modest dress, both with their throats slit, faces twisted in horror. One man in a long coat, with a bullet between his eyes, his defiant expression masked by a blood-soaked scarf. Another, clad in leather and scale armor, likewise done in by a shot to the head, though one far less clean, most certainly the product of a point-blank shotgun blast before he could don the protective helmet that lay on the ground only several feet away.

    Not that it would have made a difference how he lost most of his head, given that what was left of it was sprouting up a dense collection of large, yellow mushrooms.

    Wherever blood and tattered flesh were bare to the elements, more of the yellow mycelia and fruiting bodies sprung forth. Even blood splashed upon the ground and cart bore signs of the settling fungus. The ill-fated hunter in particular seemed the worst off, but it was no less grisly a sight from the others.

    Shandre cringed as they approached to assess the damage. Martin skipped over, peering over the corpses. “Heh, bandits,” he muttered, taking a close look at the single shot in the highwayman’s forehead. Using his sickle, he pulled down the scarf to get a better look at the man’s face without touching any of the growths, albeit only out of curiosity, “Called it~”

    “So you did,” Shandre crouched, holding her torch over some of the growing fungus on the ground, very small clusters drawn to small splatters of dried blood, “Though they’re not here now. Even if they camped a ways away, I’m sure we’d have noticed them by now… or the other way around.”

    “Whether or not they are here now is of little concern to us,” The leper added, as he paced around the edge of the cart, keeping his light on the bordering woods, “Knowing it was bandits means we know the source of the delays. We can take the steps to prevent future incidents… and avenge those who have already met this fate,” he muttered, “It is the least we can do.”

    “Yes. As much as it pains me, we cannot bring them back for a proper burial,” Cassandra put her packs down, kneeling beside the cart, “Not in this state.” She dug her torch into the ground to keep it upright as she took out her book, lowering her head and softly chanting last rites.

    “Right..,” Shandre observed, grimly. As the vestal wrapped up the rites, the plague doctor drew near, cutting a medium-sized mushroom from one of the corpses with her dagger and skewering it to lift closer for examination, “I’ve never seen these, though they seem similar to some more toxic varieties that I found before. We should burn all of this…” she shook the fungus from her blade back onto the pile, “That’s usually enough to destroy the spores.”

    “No…” the leper glanced upward, hoping to see even faint rays of the moon’s light through the stifling foliage, but there were none, “Not now. The smell of cooked human flesh would no doubt attract…” he took an ineffectual sniff, himself, looking off into the encroaching darkness, “unsavory beasts at this hour.”

    “And I’m certainly not going to fuel our camp with these tainted cart remains. We can do it in the morning,” Cassandra stood up, dusting off her knees. She closed her book, then held out her hand to direct the others, “Secure this area. We’ll find a clearing far enough away for us to settle down, so if anything gets attracted to these corpses, they won’t be immediately attracted to our own fire.”

    Martin held up a finger, correcting, “I’m sure ‘f anythin’ would be drawn to th’ carrion by chance, it woulda gotten it by now.”

    “It does seem suspicious that the mushrooms would’ve gotten to these before scavengers,” Shandre pondered for a moment, before snapping her fingers, though the sound was muffled by her gloves, “…unless…”

    She reached into her pack and drew out a fresh torch, lighting it and directing her attention back to the ground. After waving the flame about enough, her eyes were drawn to a minute detail near a steeper wall of the cliff they’d descended from. A small, crude, and hastily covered fire pit, and the scraping of boots that attempted, poorly, to cover up indentations left in the dirt by tent post fixtures and pillaged supply crates.

    Shandre was familiar with such a camp layout, “So they did camp here a while,” she allowed herself to feel somewhat pleased for just a moment, or at least, not feel completely useless, “If their presence deterred scavengers, maybe it’s safe for us to camp here, as well.”

    “Ta be honest,” Martin snorted, walking up behind Shandre and reaching into one of her packs for another torch, causing her to jump slightly, “I’d kinda rather not go ta sleep this close t’ a buncha dead people, anyway.”

    “Plus, what caused them to leave so suddenly?” Cassandra asked, a slight suspicion in her tone.

    “Dunno,” the jester shrugged as he lit the new torch. “Maybe they just had nothin’ else ta do ‘ere after they looted th’ wagon… speakin’ o which…” he put out the last remnant embers of his two previous torches in the dirt before holding out the newly-lit light source towards the cart, “Anything in ‘ere?”

    Shandre, confident enough in her own coverings to shield her from the growing fungus, lifted the collapsed cart tarp and stepped inside, looking around, “Nope, looks like the bandits cleaned them ou- hm?” she paused at an out of place paper rustling noise. Looking down, she saw that her foot had revealed a couple of envelopes, initially covered by dust and dirt. She reached down for them, curiously, and shook them off, “What are these?”

    The leper took the envelopes and, recognizing the seal, nodded, “Ah, they appear to be deeds. Perhaps word is getting out, after all, and those who owe the heir have finally taken to sending them along,” he passed them to Martin and continued, “Looks like the bandits saw no need of such papers or were unaware of their value. I am sure our benefactor would appreciate them.”

    “Yeah, great fer us, means this wasn’t just a complete waste o’ provisions,” the jester chuckled, turning them over and tracing a finger over the seal, “Might get us a li’l more pay~”

    “If you think we’re getting paid more to deliver something that was supposed to arrive without our help,” Cassandra corrected, flatly, “then be prepared for disappointment.”

    Martin scoffed, stuffing the envelopes into one of his bags, “Killjoy.”

    “Hey, careful with those,” Shandre warned, albeit timidly, “If they’re that important, I mean.” Martin just looked at her flatly and deliberately adjusted his pack, the papers scrunching within and causing the plague doctor to cringe vicariously.

    “We’ll jus’ say th’ bandits messed ’em up,” Martin asserted, turning about, “Now, we find a place ta rest.” He started heading in the direction on the other side of the cart from where the bandits were camped relative to it. The other two simply followed after him, not questioning.

    Shandre balked a little at their trust, “Why that way?”

    “Why not?” Cassandra casually replied. The plague doctor attempted to formulate an argument, but after a few awkward moments of trying to stutter out a thoughtful suggestion to split up, she finally just resigned to following, herself.

    They carved a route along the earthen ridge, so as to make retracing their steps simpler the following morning, and after several minutes of uneventful travel, found a flat of ground with enough distance from the trees to set up a safe fire of their own.

    Cassandra was the first to stake a claim. Planting her torch into the dirt, she reached into her pack and pulled out a few thin mats, unrolling and arranging them for the others before taking a seat upon her own. She placed her bags down, opening them fully to reveal a set of bowls and utensils, a medium-sized iron pot, and a few packages of dried food.

    The leper, after placing his own torch near the vestal’s, slung his own supply pack from his shoulder, which crunched into the leaf-strewn ground with a heavy thud. Reaching down, he retrieved a tightly bundled pack of firewood from it, far too heavy for any of the others to have carried on their own. He cut the binding twine with his sword and tossed a few of the wedges over to Martin, who used one to brush some of the leaves aside before assembling the rest underneath the iron rods that he had taken from his own supplies. Once done, he began to unload the rest, additional rations to what Cassandra had produced, contained largely in jars and tins.

    Shandre was taken by surprise, apparent in her tone, “You’re actually going to cook? I thought the food would all be… well…” she tried to gesture with her hands, but failed to come up with a meaningful motion, “Sort of like bandit food. All dried and preserved. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

    “Easier, sure,” the jester flipped his hat tassels over his shoulders as he continued to unload food from his bags, “but kinda crap ta sit around ‘n eat, don’tcha think?” Once everything was out, he braced the pot over the firewood, attaching it by chains to the peak of the assembled rods. After testing its stability, he lit the firewood with one of the torches.

    “Even a simple stew provides comfort enough,” the leper sat down, loosening the belts on his cuirass slightly but not removing the armor entirely, “Simple comforts are most important in trying times.”

    Shandre fidgeted at those words slightly and looked between them all, at Cassandra in particular, “Who here cooks?”

    Uncorking one of the ceramic bottles, which contained clean water, Martin filled the pot with it. He snickered, opening one of the food packs, “Well, last time we let Cassandra cook, we nearly died, so-”

    “An exaggeration, of course,” the vestal cut him off, voice monotonous and unamused, “though it’s not like you haven’t brought it up at nearly every camp since then.”

    Martin began to turn towards the leper, only to be met with a gravelly, “Do not even think to feign my involvement. You know I would never dream of touching repast meant for the rest of you.”

    “Riiight, I wasn’t even gonna ask,” the jester turned in a wide arc, passing over the leper and instead pointing at Shandre, “Bandit trash aside, I don’t suppose ya know how ta cook, yerself?”

    She shrugged, “If by ‘cook’ you mean ‘mix whatever is handy until it changes color or starts to smell weird and hope it doesn’t burn,’ then sure.”

    “Yer all useless,” Martin facepalmed with an over-exaggerated sigh, voice filled with false lamentation through clenched teeth, “Must I do everything?”

    “Cut the theatrics and cook, for Flame’s sake,” Cassandra rolled her eyes, opening her book, “You needn’t make a scene of it every time.”

    “Hey, we’ve got a new pair o’ ears that haven’t heard it yet, just give me that~” Martin began to open the canned meats with a stout knife provided with the fare for specifically that purpose, emptying them out into the pot with a small splash, not bothering to measure. As he started measuring out other ingredients with slightly more care, the others got more comfortable in their spots in preparation for the ensuing wait.

    After a few moments of naught but the fire’s crackle and the jester’s occasional muttering as he fiddled with the stew, Cassandra spoke up, “So… Corbin, was it?” she began, not looking up from her book, though given her speech, it seemed less like she was reading and more just skimming familiar material, “What made you want to come out here to ply your trade? Couldn’t you learn your medicine by working at the sanitarium, instead? It’d be a lot safer.”

    “Aaahhh I gave it a try for a couple of days before I struck out on my own…” Shandre shifted uncomfortably, looking down at the syringes on her belt, “I mean, it’s where I got this,” she gestured to her robes, looking down at herself as best she could given her mask, “They let me assist with some minor procedures, for learning purposes and… uh… well…” She shook her head, “It wasn’t quite the direction I had in mind.”

    “They are rather crude,” the vestal mumbled, turning a page, “I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that I find the Light’s healing to be far less… traumatic.”

    “And far less effective fer some things,” Martin remarked offhand, as he gave the pot a stir, “Great fer patchin’ wounds… not so great fer mendin’…” he lifted the ladle and inspected the broth, before pouring it back in and replacing the lid, “…other ills.” He cast a sidelong glance at the leper, who simply nodded.

    “There are some ills that not even the dreadful medicine of that place can cure,” he remarked as he hunched forward, elbows on his knees.

    “Says a lot, considerin’ some o’ th’ things I’ve seen folks go in there fer,” Martin shuffled the fire a bit with a poker from his pack, “Broken hearts, for instance~” Before he could be reprimanded for the statement, he tapped the side of the stewing pot with the wooden ladle, “Should be done, now.”

    Shandre’s curiosity as Martin removed the pot’s lid was spoiled slightly, as the contents looked a bit less like stew and more like a thin, pale, meaty gruel. Unperturbed, Cassandra was the first to reach over, taking the ladle from the jester’s outstretched hand and using it to fill a large bowl with the contents, making sure to include several larger chunks of meat. She took up a whole loaf of the stiff travel bread and set it across the rim of the bowl, standing up and placing it, gingerly, next to the leper, who nodded to her gratefully as she returned to her seat. He took the loaf of bread and gave it a strong twist, tearing it in half. Placing one piece in the bowl and the other on his knee, he gently lifted them, taking in the heat and vapor as he waited for the bread to soak.

    As the vestal settled, Martin filled his own bowl, breaking a generous chunk of dry bread into it for himself. He budged his own mask up just far enough to bare his lightly grinning lips, so comfortable in the security granted him by his facelessness that he was not willing to part with it, even to eat. Though doing so obscured his eyes, the routine was so ingrained that he didn’t need to see his bread and bowl in order to partake in the fruit of his negligible effort.

    Shandre just watched on, casually mesmerized by their mealtime habits. Cassandra regarded her, flatly, as she filled her own bowl, “Aren’t you going to eat?”

    Snapping out of it, Shandre waved a hand, “Ahh, I’ll have some later on in the night to keep me awake,” the plague doctor half-admitted, leaning back slightly and hugging her arms to herself, “I’m not really too hungry right now.”

    “Ya sure ya don’t wanna at least take th’ mask off ta sample?” Martin teased, waving the remains of his bread, “Perhaps th’ aroma’ll make ya change yer mind~”

    “I’m fine, thank you,” she shot back, not taking the bait.

    They ate to the soft crackling of the fire, and Shandre just watched the others, chin resting on her knuckles as she leaned forward. The leper took some time to finish his own portion, less to savor the taste and merely to prolong it, as it was significantly larger than the others’ on the account that he had no intention to go back for seconds, nor concern the others with doing it for him. Martin, likewise, did not return for more of the stew as a whole, though he did fish for a couple more chunks of carrot and another piece of bread. Only Cassandra took a full second helping, uttering an obligatory thanks as she did so.

    “So,” Martin broke the silence as he placed his bowl down, pulling his mask back to its default position, “Th’ night’s long and th’ scenery’s dull. Care ta regale us once more with a sweet tale o’ yer li’l brothel lady?” He waved with a flourish over to the leper, “Yaknow, ta take th’ edge off th’ cold?”

    Shandre quickly tossed another log onto the fire to hide the sudden onset of anxiety as she cast a perturbed glare at the jester, who leaned back, full of pomp and full understanding that he was playing with more than just one heart’s worth of emotions. She hoped the motion would be seen as curiosity, and not a revelation of investment. She was, indeed, curious, at least to hear what he had to say about her.

    The leper drew back, shoulders tense as he put his mostly-empty bowl down, “Spare me your spurious concern,” he growled at Martin, grinding his teeth, “You know well enough how that tale ended.” Shandre’s heart sunk as she remained quiet, looking back and forth between the two men.

    “Hey, even if I don’t care, I jus’ figured ye’d benefit more from rememberin’ the better parts’ve it.” Martin kicked a leg up, crossing it over one knee, hands behind his head as he bobbed his raised foot just slightly enough that the bell made vaguely any ring, “Does it not make ya feel better knowin’ ye have a story ta tell? ‘Bout how much someone actually cared fer ya after a life o’ loneliness?”

    Shandre just knew those sneering eyes behind the jester’s white mask were fixed right on her even though his head was not turned her way, and she was fairly certain he knew she was returning the look with deep resentment, “Must you be so inconsiderate?”

    “Oh? Don’t tell me you care~?” The jester chimed, wryly, sitting up and leaning forward. Daring her.

    “You pulled me into this,” Shandre spat, taking up the iron poker herself and stirring the fire with it, agitated, imagining herself pressing it like a brand against that sneering smile she could only imagine. Taking it out, she pointed it at the jester, accusingly, “I’m doing this because I want to help, and I need to learn how,” tossing the fire iron aside, she crossed her arms, glaring daggers at Martin, “I’d like to think I care about the people I’m trying to help, regardless of attitude or ailment. You’re making that difficult.”

    “It pains me to have brought about this hostility by my mere being,” Shandre was drawn abruptly from her ire by the leper’s soft words. She turned to look, and it shocked her to see someone so large and imposing trying so hard to seem small and unassuming as he shrunk away, arms drawn close, face turned away and shrouded by his hood, “I shall retire for the night, and unsettle neither of you further.” Without another word, he took his sword and stood up, slipping off into the night, dragging the heavy weapon behind him.

    Shandre began to hold up a hand to stop him, but stopped herself mid-reach and looked down. She turned to Martin, angrily, “Are you happy now?”

    “This’s actually pretty normal,” he shrugged, leaning back once more, “Even if I didn’t say anythin’, he prolly woulda left eventually, anyway.”

    “But isn’t it…” Shandre started, shaking her head and waving her hands about as she looked for words, “…for him to just… I mean,” she dropped her hands to her sides and huffed, then pointed upward, though the canopy was, for the moment, quiet, “I got the feeling back there that the… things in the trees were leaving us alone for the torchlight. Isn’t he at risk just sitting in the darkness…?”

    “Heh, even th’ slaverin’ beasts o’ these blasted woods know that sinkin’ fangs inta his rotten hide’s not worth th’ trouble. He’ll be fine…” Martin rolled his empty pack into a makeshift cushion, lying back on it with his arms crossed, one knee up, “Yer own clean, fresh blood’s prolly way more appealin’, so perhaps ye’d be better off tendin’ the fire, hm~?”

    Shandre bristled slightly, partly at his brazen taunting, but also at the slight fear of the creatures in the deeper, corrupt woods that she had no familiarity with. She hissed, “That’s hardly an excuse to care so little-!”

    She got no response.

    Stewing for a moment and resisting the urge to strangle the jester where he lay, Shandre turned to the vestal, who had returned to her book after finishing her meal. She hadn’t looked up from it through the entire exchange, “How can you just sit there and allow Martin to keep on in such a manner?”

    “This is how they go about nearly every expedition,” Cassandra mumbled, bluntly, “It’s gotten them through most of this madness for long enough, and I’ve learned to accept that,” she turned another page, “It’s not my business to judge their rivalry. I’m just here to keep them alive.”

    “That doesn’t make it right!” Shandre huffed, trying to keep her volume low enough to not wake the snoring jester without sacrificing the severity of her words.

    “Girl… nobody is perfect,” Cassandra’s voice got very quiet as she placed her book’s ribbon marker on the page, “Every one of us wears a mask. Vile words mask fear. Kind ones mask frustration and rage. Some of us,” she snapped the book shut, then leveled a sudden and atypically predatory glare at the plague doctor, eyes glittering in the dwindling firelight, “lie about our identities with the misguided notion that it’s for the better.”

    Shandre blanched, taking in a short gasp, turning away.

    “Don’t think I don’t know who you are,” the vestal rumbled, almost threateningly, binding up her book and hooking it back to her belt “I know Martin does, and Xavien… I’m sure he suspects, but you’ve made no moves of your own to verify it. I see it in his carriage, since he stopped to take a look at you before leaving… he’s been reluctant to get his hopes up.”

    “I… I don’t mean… wait…” Shandre’s stutter halted when she realized what she heard, “…Xavien…? He… has…?” she turned back to the other woman, “But Martin told me he never revealed his name.”

    “He didn’t,” Cassandra clarified, flatly, “I made it a point find it out for myself. I can’t very well call down blessings upon someone at a distance without knowing their name. Their REAL name.”

    “Please…” Shandre begged, quietly yet still desperate, “you can’t tell him. I’m still… trying to figure out… what I must do.”

    The vestal waved her hand, lowering her head, “Considering even Martin has had the uncommon decency to keep quiet on the matter thus far in his own way, I’ll be content to do the same.” Shandre’s racing heart immediately calmed. She hadn’t even thought about Martin’s own consideration on the matter. Sure, he made jabs, but they were all veiled. The fact that someone as brash as him did, indeed, have the motive to keep her masquerade a secret was surprisingly and confusingly reassuring.

    “However, a word of warning,” Cassandra looked down, reaching into her satchel and taking up a small, beaded rosary, “Know why you wear your mask. If you’re hiding yourself out of fear, for preservation, then fine. But if you’re doing it simply because you’re too stupid to know what kind of damage you’re causing, I may have to step in to correct it,” she placed the holy symbol against her lips, closing her eyes, “Trust me. I’ll know.”

    The vestal didn’t open her eyes as her breath slowed, and Shandre wasn’t sure if she had fallen asleep sitting up or not. Wringing her hands a bit, she took a moment to break a bit of bread and pick out one of the ceramic bottles of water like the one Martin had used to cook, while the leper wasn’t around to see her lift her mask to eat and drink.

    With the mask off, she could smell the stew, and wasn’t entirely impressed, though she was certain she would have done no better had she tried, so she silently commended the jester’s attempt as she washed down the dry bread with some of the water. Taking up her own bowl and the ladle, she was about to prepare a serving when she paused. She really wasn’t that hungry, after all, and the bread felt sufficient. Looking down at the bowl in her lap, she gave a quick glance off into the darkness where Xavien had retired to.

    “…I should at least…,” Shandre mumbled to herself, before replacing the mask and sitting up. After tossing another wedge of firewood under the pot, she grabbed the bottle of water and bowl and tread as quietly as she could over towards the leper’s lonesome hideaway.

    Like Cassandra, he appeared to be asleep in a sitting position, though he was hunched over with his arms on his knees, head down. His mask was off, laying on the ground to his side, the faint flickering of the distant campfire casting only the barest light upon his disfigurement. The shuffling sound of Shandre’s closing footsteps stirred Xavien groggily from his uneasy slumber, and when he realized that he was being approached, he gasped slightly and reached down to his mask, quickly raising it up to cover his face.

    Shandre raised her hands in protest, trying to whisper just loud enough to be urgent, but not so loud as to wake the others or attract other, unwanted attention, “N-no! Don’t worry, it’s okay!”

    “No, it is not…” he rumbled, holding the mask firmly in place. He recoiled slightly as the plague doctor neared, not to be turned away.

    “A-actually, I was coming over to…” Shandre cast a glance back to the camp, before looking back down at the leper, ” …have a look, if you… if you didn’t mind.”

    He wasn’t convinced. It was too forward. Too sudden. “And for what purpose?”

    Shandre had the inkling of a feeling that she was coming on too strongly, but had no other recourse but to continue, “Well… I am trying to study various illnesses… Even yours would be valuable knowledge.” She knelt down next to the leper, shoulders drooped slightly, “Especially yours, if there’s no cure yet. Someone’s got to try, right?”

    The tense silence that followed was finally broken by a soft, “You are naive, but I appreciate the concern. However, it is my burden to bear.”

    Shandre gestured back to the camp, quietly exasperated, “And you’ve bore it for a long time, if that ruffian’s words have any truth to them. Why turn away an offer to help?”

    Xavien turned away, the grip on his mask lessening slightly as he stopped pressing it so tight to his face, “Why do you care?”

    “Because…” Shandre began, trying her hardest not to choke up, “…I…” She sighed, hands dropping to her knees in resignation to her partial-truth as she bowed her head, “…want to make a difference. Everyone has been doing their part to stave off the shadows, and I needed a calling.” She held the bowl she brought with her in both hands, turning it over a couple of times as she closed her eyes, “I’ve been looking… This one just feels… right.”

    “… Fine.”

    The word drew Shandre’s attention back up to Xavien as he took down the brass covering entirely. With clear hesitation, he finally turned his face towards the masked doctor. The faint firelight was enough to catch the details in conjunction with her own eyesight adjusting to the low light.

    Shandre cringed slightly. Entirely missing nose aside, the lesions and other sores looked far worse than she remembered from her final encounter with him as herself. However, after the toil of her crude studies, she found herself encouragingly able to confront the revulsion and turn it aside. Mostly. “That… looks…”

    His gaze tried to pierce her disguise, but as before, it fell flat, “Hideous?”

    The ferocity in those eyes was suppressed by his dolefully furrowed brow, and only hinted at by the glimmer of the fire reflecting off of them. Shandre shook her head, “N-no! I mean… It looks… bad, but…” She took a deep breath, trying to center herself, “How often do you let it air out?”

    “Rarely,” he turned away once again, eyes falling on his sword. The one thing that would never betray him. Was he willing to put trust in this suspicious stranger? Would it hurt to? He sighed, “Never in town, if I can help it.”

    Shandre shuffled a bit closer on her knees, setting the bowl down as she looked straight at his features, trying to take them in as best she could in the dim light, “Well, I would like… Um… Well, I’d like to take a sample, if you don’t mind,” she raised a hand, tentatively, “I mean, I know you already said that nobody was able to-”

    “Others have certainly tried, but to no avail. However,” he looked down at the mask in his hand, before offering it to her, “if it makes you feel better to make your own attempt, then I shall not stop you.”

    Shandre looked down at the mask and felt pangs of intense guilt. The leper’s face by itself was ragged and torn, but seeing the underside of the mask made her feel even worse as she observed the bits of peeled, scabbing skin and weeping fluids, both dried and fresh, caked to the inner surface. Removing it must no doubt have been an ordeal all its own, and she felt horrible how she had done so, herself, without even considering his reasons for keeping it on.

    The amateur doctor took a deep breath as she accepted the mask, reaching into her pack for an untreated bandage. She placed the cloth on her lap and took the bottle of water, dampening it slightly in preparation. Shaking slightly, she thoroughly scrubbed the brass clean before handing it back to Xavien, who took it without further word. Shandre looked at the soiled cloth for a moment, grimly, before folding it carefully and placing it into another pack for later study.

    Before the leper could put his mask back on, Shandre raised a hand to stop him, “I could… help clean your sores, if you’d like. I have some vials from the sanitarium-”

    “And why would you do that?” the leper rumbled, nevertheless stopping with the cleaned brass inches from his face.

    “If you don’t take it off very much…” Shandre gulped slightly, tracing a finger over the antiseptic bottles she’d brought with her. She tried to run through her memory of preparing them as to which one was which, as they were a little more difficult to ascertain in the dark, “it must be horribly uncomfortable. Maybe it’ll cling less if everything were cleaned up a little.”

    The leper pondered for a moment, looking down at the cleaned mask. He tilted it slightly, catching the light with an unfamiliar glint, “Hmmm… I suppose you have a point.”

    Shandre put her hand to her chest, thankfully, as she reached down to her vials. Holding one up to the light behind her, she checked the color for a deep red and, upon confirmation and a slight contentment with knowing she’d gotten it right on the first try, opened it and poured it into the bowl she’d brought.

    Xavien watched the plague doctor, half-curious and half-skeptical, as she dipped another bandage in the liquid so that only a small bit of it soaked up. He tried to remain neutral and still as she reached over with it. However, he cringed away from the tincture-soaked cloth suddenly as it touched his cheek, and Shandre withdrew it sharply in her apprehension, though it wasn’t so much the pain that bothered the leper. Pain was normal, mundane, and inevitable. However, to have anyone at all so much as touch his face was a much more personal boundary to which he was unaccustomed.

    “Is it too much…?” Shandre bit her lip, returning the cloth to the bowl. She began to reach for the bottle of water, “I… could dilute it if-”

    “It is not that. The sting means nothing to me,” Xavien sighed, forcing himself to loosen up as he looked at the ground, “No, I only recall the final fleeting moment of the last time another suffered to touch this wretched flesh of mine. It is not a memory I hold fondly.”

    “O-oh. I’m sorry,” she said, trying to sound as impartial as possible, despite knowing that he was talking about her. She worried that it sounded too genuine, as her heart yearned to apologize in full for what she’d done.

    “It is not your fault, neither is it hers,” Xavien looked downward, then back at Shandre, “It is merely the fault of fate that I should suffer the indignity of this condition for its own morbid amusement.”

    Shandre couldn’t tell if he was in any way suspicious of her as Cassandra had implied, though hearing him refer to her as two different people in the same breath gave her a sense of uncomfortable disconnection. At the same time, it relieved her, if only slightly. Was it unknowing? “I’m sorry…” she apologized again, feeling it slightly more in earnest. She began to put away the cloth, “If… now isn’t a good time…”

    “No… No, it is fine,” Xavien steeled himself, feeling just as guilty, “I shall not deprive you of your desire to help. It is for your peace of mind as much as mine.”

    “Th-thank you,” she took a deep breath and once again reached out. The leper’s face twisted into a mild scowl at the sensation of another hand tending to him, the sting of the antiseptic and the abrasion of the cloth rasping away the necrotic tissue even as Shandre tried her best to be delicate. Though uncomfortable with the attention, he remained still.

    As Shandre worked, about half-way through, she found herself burning to ask, “What was she-”

    Xavien cut her off, not angrily, yet with an unsettling touch of severity, “I would much rather not discuss that. The pain in my heart is too near yet.”

    “Ah… okay,” she sighed, only just keeping herself from apologizing a third time. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hide her actual feelings if she did. The avoidance, however, did little to divert her anxiety. How much did she hurt him by running away? Would he accept her coming back after that, so soon, while he still hurt over it?

    Would he approve of her trying to be something else?

    Would it only get worse the longer she waited..?

    After a few more minutes of quiet tending, to the mental background noise of countless troubling questions, Shandre felt she had done the best she could, “There.”

    “This doting…” Xavien muttered, keeping his eyes on Shandre’s mask as she prepared a second bandage, one with only water to clean off the excess tincture, “Is it genuine concern… or just morbid curiosity?”

    She paused, considering her answer and how her actions were reflecting it. “I don’t see why it can’t be a little of both.”

    Just as she reached up to apply the second cloth, Xavien grabbed her wrist, causing her to start a bit. However, it wasn’t a rough grip at all. His face softened a bit as he reached up with his other hand to gingerly take the damp bandage from her, “I will take care of the rest,” he insisted, gently, “You have done enough for this wretch for one night.”

    Shandre held her position, frozen by the racing of her heart, as he released her and turned aside. She lowered her hand slowly as she watched in silence. The leper made no attempts to be subtle with his own condition as he closed his eyes and began wiping away the residue, and she flinched inwardly at just how rough he was being with himself. Every pass of the cloth seemed to hold an air of increasing self-loathing, and Shandre worried that her act of goodwill had only exacerbated his troubles.

    When Xavien finally finished, he opened his eyes and reached for his mask, only to notice that the plague doctor was still sitting there, fixated by guilt to which he was unaware. Nevertheless, his grim expression changed to one of regret, with a shade of embarrassment, “You are… still here. I was hoping you had gone so as not to see that..,” he whispered, darkly. He looked down at the mask in one hand, ragged bandage in the other. The awkward circumstance took a moment to sink in, before he held the cloth out to her, uncertainly, “Did you… want this one to study, as well?”

    “O-oh…” Shandre stammered. It hadn’t crossed her mind, “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt…” She nodded meekly as she reached out and took the cloth from him.

    In the low light, Shandre couldn’t tell how much of the deep crimson stains were the antiseptic, or blood from rotten flesh rasped raw, and she tried not to think about it too hard as she folded it up and placed it in the pack with the other sample. She’d have plenty time to do that later. For now, she had only one thing in mind, “I was… actually just waiting so I could say,” she glanced over her shoulder back towards the main camp, then looked back at Xavien, “The others are asleep now. Perhaps you could come back by the fire,” she gestured back, “Might as well take advantage of the warmth while you can, right?”

    “I suppose so,” the leper admitted, begrudgingly, as he donned his mask, wiggling it slightly. The cool, smooth metal, now clean, felt refreshing, and he relished it for a moment before taking his sword and using it as a support to stand up, with a grunt, “These old bones would appreciate it.”

    Shandre let out a hefty sigh of relief before standing up, herself. Taking up the bowl and bottle, she retreated momentarily to the forest edge, dumping out the used antiseptic and rinsing the bowl out with a bit of the water. By the time she got back to the main camp, Xavien was already seated in his original spot, next to the remaining unused firewood.

    “I shall tend the fire,” he nodded at her approach, “You get some rest, now. I will keep watch until either stirs.”

    “But you haven’t-” Shandre began to object.

    “I have gotten by with less,” Xavien assured, calmly. He held out his hand to the flame, though he could barely feel it, “It is more difficult to sleep long knowing that there is little worth waking for.” He took a deep breath, “The rose planted in the ground withers inevitably, leaving the thorns to dream of its eventual return.”

    Those words echoed in Shandre’s mind as she settled down on the edge of her camping mat. She lay down, reluctantly, using her own arm to rest her head in lieu of a pillow. Her days and nights of toil in the old bandit camp gave her little time to sleep, and while she felt she needed to maintain that resolve to prove herself, there was no doubt that the lack of proper rest was beginning to catch up with her.

    Pulling the mat over herself, Shandre tried to find a sense of peace. She tried to recall the last time she slept well. It wasn’t difficult, as her tired eyes fell upon the hunched-over form of the man with whom she’d shared that time. A somber reminder of loss, and an uncertain path ahead. But that path was not without that faintest glimmer of hope. It would do, for now. Her heart reached out to that glimmer and held it close.

    Only then did she finally allow herself to drift to sleep.

    [collapse]

    Chapter 4

    Spoiler

    As hard as she tried, Shandre couldn’t sleep soundly.

    The sickness of the woods seeped in through her ears, every noise resounding in her subconscious. Twigs snapped like peals of thunder and the aching fibers of the trees groaned in protest of their corruption, while the steady crackle of the fire rose to a deafening roar. Every subtle rustle of the leaves drove away any hopes of dreaming, and while her body was relaxed, her mind couldn’t find rest.

    Voices stirred. Cassandra awoke, and had begun discussing something with Xavien. Shandre’s subconscious absorbed and relayed a certain tension in their low tones, but the hushed words were devoured by the flames and other, increasing noises.

    She was abruptly jolted from her slumber by Xavien shouting, “Look out! Behind you!”

    Shandre nearly flung her makeshift blanket into the fire, flailing her arms as she shot upright with a weak cry. She wasn’t the only one, as Martin also kicked himself to standing in an instant at the exclamation, bells jangling in the stale night air, dagger and sickle at the ready, “What!”

    Cassandra, to whom the warning was directed, quickly dodged to the side as a lurching, humanoid figure loomed out from the shadows behind her, arms outstretched. It blindly clawed at the air where she once sat, before tripping on her mat, crumpling to the floor, the campfire revealing it as the nearly-headless victim from the cart.

    “What manner of devilry-!” Cassandra hissed through clenched teeth as she raised her club. The departed human writhed and flailed, recoiling from the fire as it rose to its feet, movements jerky and unnatural, a marionette drawn by unseen fungal strings beneath its armor and blighted flesh.

    Shandre reached to her kit for her bombs and dagger, not fully comprehending the scene before her, “The dead walk? Th-that’s not possible!”

    Martin twirled his sickle as he slowly circled around, keeping a careful eye on the walking corpse’s behavior, looking for clues to its movements. He snickered, “Ya say that, but ye’ve never been ta th’ Ruins~”

    “Not now, Martin!” Xavien grunted as he hefted his sword onto his shoulder, standing up with some effort.

    “Ah, and you, o’course,” the jester added, mischievously, “Our livin’ proof~” Xavien just sighed, shaking his head, as he stepped carefully around the fire to engage the strange fungal automaton.

    “Wait!” Shandre waved her dagger, her attention drawn to the creature’s unusual carriage, “It’s… not attacking us..?”

    Indeed, the once-human, now standing, did not appear to move with any sign of aggression. Now sufficiently away from the fire, with the whole party standing at a wary distance, it almost seemed to ‘look’ about, despite having no eyes or other form of vision, reaching its arms out tentatively as it shuffled its feet ineffectually in the dirt. It seemed confused. Curious, even.

    “What makes it move?” The plague doctor continued, taking a cautious step towards the shambling mess, still holding her knife out and beginning to sound mildly curious, herself, “Perhaps it could be a clue to the nature of the-”

    “Never mind that!” Cassandra growled, opening her book, “The living dead in all forms are an abomination unto the Light and must be dealt with!”

    Xavien didn’t need to be told twice as he swung at the animated corpse with full force, cleaving into its right shoulder and cutting the arm free through the leather and scale. The thing stumbled back, teetering and wobbling as it tried to remain upright, remaining arm swatting wildly at thin air. What oozed from the wound was not blood. At least, not entirely; instead, a syrupy orange paste, smelling of rust both metal and fungal.

    “Diplomatic as always~” Martin shrugged. He regarded Shandre’s dismayed flinch with mild amusement, “Ye can take a closer look once it’s in pieces, yaknow. Never stopped ya before.”

    Once it regained stable footing, the fungal puppet arced back, chest forward, remaining arm out to its side. Its whole body quaked, as if screaming to the trees above, but no sound emerged.

    What emerged were greater horrors.

    The party’s attention was quickly drawn to new shapes emerging from between the trees, bloated forms shambling along the ground on four limbs, gruesome parodies of beetles or spiders at first glance. However, upon closer inspection, they, too, were human corpses, far gone and desiccated nearly beyond recognition, almost completely overgrown with large mushrooms. The grotesquely distorted remains were crawling on their backs, the rotund shape a product of grossly distended bellies, filled with spores to the point of bursting. One emitted a hollow gasp, plumes of brown powder puffing from its mouth as its body contracted.

    “By the gods..,” Xavien gasped under his breath, grip on his sword tightening. The others were equally repulsed at the sight, but were at a loss for words to voice their disgust.

    Before any of them could react to their approach, one of the bloated corpses convulsed, launching a salvo of mushrooms from its flesh. The fungus zipped through the air, jabbing into the ground just short of the two women, planting firmly in place. Once in the ground, the infected hunter suddenly snapped to ‘attention.’ It turned towards the planted markers and lurched in that direction, arm outstretched.

    “They guide its moves!” Xavien exclaimed, as he raised his sword to strike again.

    “We must be quick to dispatch them, then!” Cassandra shouted as she raised her club high. The low, reverent chant that followed was punctuated by a sudden, bright flash of light, splitting the shadows and striking the closest creature, causing it to spasm uncontrollably, mummified muscles grinding against one another with a dry, high-pitched rasp as it attempted to shuffle its way backwards, away from the holy assault.

    The one she didn’t smite, though, tensed up, launching a much less directed spray of marking mushrooms, peppering the campsite. Xavien’s hefty swing at the cart victim fell wide as a few of them barely missed him, spoiling his focus. One of those mushrooms caught Martin in the shoulder, causing him to yip in pain, “O-ow! Th’ Hell!” He grabbed it roughly and gave it a yank, which only increased the pain as it emerged with a few drops of blood. The fungal projectile had pierced through the fabric, jabbing in with pointy roots, “Sh-shit! This ain’t good!”

    As Martin crushed the marker in his hand and tossed it aside, the cart victim once again shifted its attention to new quarry. The faintest sensitivity to fresh blood, marked by the other abomination, drew it towards the jester with a fervent lunge, not even acknowledging the campfire that was directly between it and its prey, nor the leper who had yanked his sword from the ground to prepare another blow. It barreled through, knocking over the pot of stew, the contents spilling onto the fire and putting it out with a hiss.

    “Damn it!” the leper bellowed, furious. The sound of metal cleaving into dirt rang as his attempt to swing at the creature once again failed to connect in the spontaneous darkness.

    “No, no!” Martin yowled, “Crap! We need a torch! Now!” He attempted to scamper out of the way, making several blind swings with his weapons at the closing threat. The sickle caught the outstretched hand, piercing through it and hooking between the carpal bones and catching on the leather glove. Martin’s dismay turned to a dull, satisfied chuckle as he pulled the unprepared creature towards him, its one limb incapacitated by his blade. With that motion, he thrust his dirk into the creature’s chest, piercing the scale, and followed up with a strong kick, sending it tumbling away, its hand tearing free and remaining on the sickle. Before he could revel too much in his own fortune, though, a jolt in his shoulder reminded him that he hadn’t gotten off scot-free, and he hissed, “Ow, damn it, what’s with this?”

    There was a grunt in the dark as the kicked creature collided with Xavien, who grabbed it by the shoulder and flung it to the ground, stunning it long enough for him to prepare a final overhead swing, burying the entire blade in its chest and abdomen, ribcage collapsing and spine shattering under the blow. It seized, helplessly, then fell still.

    Shandre, who was closest to the needed pack, dropped to her knees, groping about in the dark. Without the light of the moon or stars between the leaves of the twisted canopy, there was no way for her eyes to adjust quickly enough given the urgency of the situation. But as she crawled about, she felt something alight upon her back. A soft, dainty, and tentative weight. The sensation initially confused her, bringing her pause. What small woodland creature would be perching on her now, of all times, in such a horrible place? However, the seven additional faint taps against her robe that followed painted a much more harrowing realization.

    She gasped in horror and drew her dagger, swinging it upwards in alarm and severing a single long, furry leg. The giant spider shrieked as it drew back, and the sound made Shandre’s blood run cold.

    She was not the only one to panic, as both Martin and Cassandra’s frightened vocalizations were proof enough that they were all in danger. The vestal’s scream in particular, though, was followed up by another flash of light, startling their foes and illuminating the camp just long enough to etch the horrid scene in Shandre’s mind.

    The spiders were gigantic, and brightly-colored; a curious adaptation for creatures that thrived in darkness, but announcing their undoubted toxicity all the same. Two had approached Cassandra, but the sudden flash of light from her weapon caused them to leap back, giving her some space for just that instant. A third had projected a thick web down at Martin, tangling him up as he struggled to free himself from it with his blades, shouting obscenities. The one Shandre had just struck stumbled for a moment, not fully acclimated to its lost limb.

    As Martin had correctly asserted prior, none were attacking the leper. Xavien had wrenched his sword from the cart victim and turned his attention to striking down the fungal batteries, but the low light and visual limitations imposed by his mask made it difficult to land a blow on those which were more than accustomed to moving about in pitch blackness. However, seeing his allies in peril during that flash of light brought him an agonized pause. Drop his sword to help pry the spiders from his companions without the risk of striking them by mistake, but leave the infectious spore bags unchecked? Or concentrate on the task at hand and leave them to fend off their arachnid attackers alone?

    Fortunately, he would not have to bear the burden of that decision, as that light was just enough for Shandre to pinpoint the torch pack, and once the dark resumed its hold on the campsite, she scrambled over to it on her hands and knees. Taking up a torch and flint, she quickly struck it alight, just in time to see the spider she’d slashed leaping at her. She cried out and thrust the flame at it, which blinded it and caught to its prickly fur and spread rapidly.

    There was a loud, shrill hiss, but it was not a vocalization. As the flame engulfed it, steam began to spray from cracks forming at the joints of the giant arachnid’s carapace as the fluid in its body expanded and broke free. Soon the hiss was joined by the shrill screeching of the spider’s actual death cries as it flailed about, trying to escape the fires that clung to its form, but the pressure inside of it proved too much, and the creature burst in a foamy spray of pale green ichor. As it collapsed, its blood and entrails bubbled in the remains of its own body, a grotesque cauldron of boiling arachnid flesh.

    Unsettling as it was, the sight proved to be a boon to the party, as the burning corpse provided more than enough light to frighten the other spiders back into the trees, chittering as they went. Shandre took a deep breath, hand on her chest, as she held her torch up, trying to collect herself quickly. She reached down for her dagger and sheathed it, before flipping open the pack with her bombs.

    “Huh, who’d’a thought th’ spindly bastards were flammable all along?” chimed Martin, still half-encased in webbing. The silk was thin, but layered, and flexible enough that his sickle was doing very little to cut through it, but the jester sounded relieved all the same, “Gotta remember that next time.”

    Cassandra took a moment to catch her own breath, casting a wary glance upwards at the retreating arachnids, but before long was on her feet. She strode briskly over to the netted jester and began to help him pry the webbing away, shouting over to the plague doctor, “Corbin! Help deal with the rest!”

    Shandre hesitated for a split second at Cassandra’s continued use of her lazy pseudonym. She still wasn’t entirely used to hearing it. Once internalized, though, she nodded sharply, pulling a bomb from her pack. She gave it a small shake to loosen the ingredients within before lobbing it at the nearer of the two bloats. The impact with the gravel inside set off the gunpowder, causing the whole thing to burst in a bright flash and a puff of sizzling, weaponized blight. To her dismay, though, the creature barely reacted, only jolting slightly away from the flash of light for a moment. While the hissing concoction clearly ate into its dried flesh, the absence of living tissue to disrupt or eyes to sting made the implement far less effective.

    Mostly freed, Martin glanced over, snickering in a sing-song voice.

    “~Little doctor, little doctor dear.
    Fighting creatures that know no fear
    Perhaps she should put away the toys
    And leave the fighting to the boys~”

    Shandre resisted the urge to throw another bomb directly at him, only withholding due to the vestal’s proximity, “There’s only one ‘boy’ here and you’re not doing anything to help!”

    Cassandra sighed, curtly glaring Martin in the eyes, “I know it’s hard for you, but she’s only just got here, why antagonize her so? We need the help. You remember what happened to-”

    “Incentive~” Martin mischievously winked, only barely visible behind his mask’s eye holes in the meager torch light. Shandre growled off to the side, snapping the flap of her bag shut, drawing her dagger instead and approaching the animated carcass. He gestured over at her with his head, “See?”

    Meanwhile, Xavien closed distance on the other automaton. Vaguely sensing the nearing hostility, it tried to backpedal, launching a few weak mushrooms in an instinctive panic, but they deflected harmlessly off the leper’s brass breastplate. With a bellow, he raised his sword in the air and brought it down with all the force he could muster.

    Though he should have known better, he wasn’t expecting it to explode.

    Even before the heavy blade chopped all the way through the abomination’s body into the ground beneath, the edge punctured its inflated abdomen and caused a violent eruption of brown dust, enveloping the leper in a noxious cloud. Xavien’s vaguest of surprised gasps was enough to send him into deep, full body coughs from the vile powder, only compounding itself as further coughing only forced him to inhale more. He stumbled back, throat burning, dropping his sword and bringing his hands up to his face and neck, wheezing painfully and falling to his knees at the periphery of the rapidly-settling cloud.

    The hacking fit drew Shandre’s attention from her work, and her aggravation dissolved, giving way to worried alarm. She had managed to get close to the other creature, and it had tried to exhale a similar cloud at her in defense, but her mask protected her from it as she attempted to cut into its arm with her dagger, aiming to cripple it and make it easier to subdue. She pulled her knife out, gesturing over to Cassandra and Martin, panic edging into her voice, “Take care of this one! I need to help him!” Quickly sheathing the blade, she ran over, mind running quickly through her supply of experimental curatives.

    Finally free of the web, Martin skipped his way over to the stumbling piece of fungal artillery, its defensive powder already settled into the dirt, and kicked it over onto its side. Too spent from trying to deter the plague doctor, it could do nothing as the jester gleefully finished the doctor’s work of slicing each of its limbs off. It flopped over, fruitlessly, writhing in place, attempting to fire off a few more shots, but to no avail. The projectiles popped and hit the ground less than a foot off, mortars with barely any propellant.

    “That’s fer peggin’ me with yer damn mushroom, bastard,” he sneered down at its pathetic form, rubbing his shoulder a bit. He leaned back down and grasped its face, fingers in its eyesockets as he wrenched it forward, bringing his sickle down on its neck and severing its head, more for personal gratification than any effect on the fungal puppeteering. Dust and spores weakly hissed into the ground from its neck as it slowly deflated. Martin tossed the head aside with a disgusted snort before turning to look at the others.

    Shandre had knelt down by Xavien, pulling out a teal tonic that she’d made from herbs and alcohol, “Here… inhale this..,” she cringed at the continued coughing, bordering retching, as she shook the flask and uncorked it, with some difficulty for holding the torch, before placing the bottle under Xavien’s chin, “the vapor should… it should numb the irritation.” She swallowed, hoping it’d work as tested.

    The leper grasped at the glass, taking in a deep breath. While not instant, after a few more coughs, the reaction eventually subsided as he hunched over, gasping heavily and erratically and feeling subtly ashamed for the show of vulnerability. Cassandra and Martin both made their way over, and the vestal gently touched her fingers to Xavien’s back, muttering a short verse under her breath. A faint glow issued where she made contact, and slowly his breathing evened out.

    Martin twirled part of his cap around a finger, putting his other hand on his hip as he chuckled, “I guess ya may be numb on th’ outside but yer still a softie inside~”

    “Martin-,” Cassandra began, flatly, putting her book away.

    What?” the jester threw his arms out to the side, nearly pinging the bell off its tassel, “I was complimentin’!”

    “You are being a bit more impertinent than usual,” she observed, beginning to sound mildly resentful, “what is-”

    “No, it is fine,” Xavien finally managed to express, hoarsely, as he handed the vial back to Shandre, lowering his head deeply in thanks, “It is a… relief, of sorts, to bear such reminders.”

    The jester’s voice implied a thin, smug grin behind his mask as he put both hands on his hips, “See?” Cassandra sighed, heavily, shaking her head and walking back to the doused fire and picked up her mat. The others followed, quietly. Or mostly quietly, on account of the light jingling from Martin’s slight skip in his step.

    Shandre sighed, as well, but in more of a relieved manner as she capped the vial and put it away, returning to the circle. She tried not to look at the corpse of the spider so close to her original seat. Its remains were still sputtering, and she shuddered, “I don’t suppose we’ll be moving again? We still have a couple logs.”

    “No point,” Cassandra shook her head as she folded her mat and put it away, “In the time it’ll take to pack, move, and set up again, we might as well start heading back.” She proceeded to gather more of the leftover rations and other provisions.

    Noting that Shandre was standing there, looking lost and unsure of how to proceed, with her torch held up, Xavien leaned down to the last logs and tossed the remainders near the original fire, but not onto it. “Light them,” he mumbled, shortly, gesturing to them as he leaned down to clean up the mess left by the spilled stew, “They should last us long enough to pack. Our remaining torches should last us until the light comes.”

    Shandre paused for a moment but could see no reason to disobey. She placed the whole torch onto the wedges before picking up the pot, hanging rods, and poker, which she handed to Cassandra, her voice a bit worried, “Have… have you all rested enough to make the return trip?”

    “We can rest back in town,” The leper assured her, however faintly, as he gouged into the ground with his sword, digging a small pit to bury the soaked logs, “This depth of the woods has become too dangerous to rest in with our usual, meager supplies. We will need to prepare better, next time.”

    “I see… I guess there’s no helping it,” She looked down at her hands, wringing them together. She knew, inside, that this was of no fault of her own, but she couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for everything going wrong. Just by being there. She knelt down to help a bit with the cleaning, head low.

    The rest of their packing went with little in the way of words. There wasn’t too much left, just some basic rations, which Martin packed up as Cassandra wiped out the pot and packed it with the other cooking implements. Xavien left the pit he’d dug open, to bury the rest when done, and in the meanwhile kept watch over the fire, using his sword to stir it slightly on occasion. He seemed moderately despondent while everyone else busied themselves, though he kept an alert eye on the surrounding shadows, wary of another ambush. The relative silence was broken only occasionally by his short coughs and throat-clearing growls.

    Without anything left to do, Shandre paced about to gather samples from the battle into any of the small containers she’d brought along as she could fit them in. She carefully twisted the venom-laden fangs free from the exploded spider before collecting some of its singed fur and fluid-soaked entrails, which had finally stopped simmering. Not that she’d be able to get more of such materials later, in the event they proved to have any use at all, but it was a start.

    As the others settled down to the fire’s dwindling light, she took her last rounds gathering some mushrooms and dirt permeated with spores from around the nearest fungal corpse. The plague doctor frowned at the mutilated creatures, before grabbing the severed limbs and head of the closest. She began to pile their remains on her own mat. Martin scratched his shoulder and tilted his head at the plague doctor, chirping a quizzical, “Whatcha’ doin’?”

    “Probably should take these back to the cart to burn with the rest,” she grunted as she hefted the limbless corpse. Its desiccated nature made it much lighter than she expected it to be, but the deflated gut sack made it awkward to move without half-dragging it over to the mat and letting the body flop onto it, “Just to be safe.”

    The jester chuckled, stretching his back with a pop and giving his affected shoulder a couple rotations, barely keeping the cringe from his voice, “Heh, yer pullin’ a bit more weight’n I woulda’ given ye credit fer.”

    “Well, you’re doing a great job being helpful,” Shandre responded, almost instinctively, as she tried to pick up the cart victim, “Hnngh… this one’s heavy,” she grunted, straining to lift it, but to little avail. The body was still too fresh, only weighed down further by the infection, and the armor didn’t help matters.

    “Allow me to take that one,” Xavien stood up, with obvious effort due in part to his lack of rest, “Martin, handle the torches. I shall bury this dying light.”

    “Eh, fine,” Martin snorted, sauntering over to the torch bag. There were only a few left, and he lifted the bag up with his foot to grab it, slinging it over his uninjured shoulder with the rations pack. Taking one torch out, he lit it just as the leper swept the last stuttering embers of their campfire into the pit with the ruined fire’s remains, and then covered it all using his sword as a spade.

    With everyone standing, Cassandra grabbed the remaining two mats. As Shandre moved over to the final overgrown corpse, picking up the cart victim’s severed arm along the way as she passed by the vestal, she couldn’t help but notice twin pinpricks of blood on the cloth over the other woman’s arm. She paused, looking worried, “O-oh! You… were bitten, huh?”

    Cassandra took in a sharp breath, her brow furrowing. She looked down at it, her cowl shadowing her face from the torch’s light, “Yes, but it’s not yours to worry about,” the vestal rubbed her arm, though more to cover up the wound than for any pain, as her blank expression bordered foul, “The healing Light has taken care of it.”

    “Are you sure?” Shandre tried to keep facing Cassandra as she walked on by, nearly tripping on the mat as she did so, and catching herself just in time to add, “You weren’t injected with-”

    “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine,” the vestal cut her off, a barest twinge resembling hostility on her breath. She caught herself, though, and took a breath, leveling her voice off to one of gentler, more honest criticism, “If this is your first experience with these spiders, I doubt you have a working antivenom in your bag of tricks, anyway.”

    This caught the self-taught doctor a bit by surprise and she turned away to load the other corpse onto the mat, muttering, “I-I’ll make sure to figure something out. For if it happens again…” She bit her lip behind her mask, not sure if the aggressive snap or its correction held the vestal’s actual feelings about her presence. It wasn’t helped by Martin’s quiet, dry snicker, and Shandre grimly remembered why she disliked him. She couldn’t fathom how he could see any humor in such tension, and she likewise had no idea how the vestal would be so quick to judge her for her paranoid make-believe while simultaneously letting the jester’s rudeness slide. It made no sense.

    Instead, they left their makeshift camp, heading back to the cart. Martin led the way with the torch, waving it about a bit on occasion as he continued to favor his shoulder a little, giving it a bit of a scratch now and again. Cassandra was close behind, and Shandre and Xavien followed, slowly, as the plague doctor walked carefully backwards to use both hands to drag the mat of deceptively light abominations and assorted limbs and the leper dragged the infected hunter’s remains by the back of its collar. Its saturated blood had dried quickly once exposed to air, so even missing a limb, a hand, and a large chunk of its chest, it left no trail apart from the displacement of dirt and leaves.

    One torch replacement later due to the slow going, the faint gray light of a cloudy morning began to peek through the treetops, just as the cart came into view. It was exactly as they’d left it, save the one corpse that had up and walked off, which they were returning to the scene.

    Xavien dropped the corpse roughly and approached the cart, sword hefted up onto his shoulder, “I shall dismantle this. Keep an eye out.” Cassandra nodded to him and he set to work, lifting his sword up with a loud grunt and chopping into the cart with it, splintering the wood apart against its grain. Shandre flinched back slightly at the raw force, which didn’t quite occur to her during the nighttime scuffle. She had been too preoccupied until that moment to fully appreciate, with some concern, the full extent of the leper’s brutish power. She shot a glance over to Martin, half expecting him to pick up on her hesitation with knowing conceit, but it went unnoticed as the jester lit the last two torches and planted them around the site as the gray morning light began to diffuse more, keeping watch.

    Once the cart was rendered into manageable scraps in its entirety, Xavien set down its tattered tarp and a thin layer of wood and dried leaves atop it, and then began to lay the diseased corpses from the battle over that, neatly. Cassandra took that time to move the other bodies to place them with the others, with surprisingly little effort, though her deep frown made it clear that she didn’t like the idea of piling the innocent dead with the previously undead monstrosities that had attacked them. With the bodies arranged together, she took out her book and prayed over them once again, though much shorter than her previous rites. With that out of the way, she and Xavien started to place the rest of the pulverized cart on top, as neatly as they could. Not content to be left out, Shandre looked about, then moved in to help as best as she could, passing the shattered timber over as the vestal and leper arranged it with care for more precise control of the coming blaze.

    There was not much wood to arrange, and with three working at it, Martin had no reason to participate other than to get in the way, and instead chose to stand off to the side, keeping watch while playing his lute. While this annoyed Shandre slightly, the tune was somewhat welcome to break the monotony of the boring task, and the others seemed to appreciate it slightly, as well. Perhaps his frivolity wasn’t quite as useless as she’d initially been willing to condemn. However, the dragging chore was interrupted suddenly as the jester hissed loudly, drawing everyone’s attention at the discord as he raked his hand across the lute roughly to apply a tight grip to his shoulder, digging his fingers in.

    “What’s the problem?” Shandre huffed as she handed a shattered bit of wheel over to Xavien.

    “This itches somethin’ horrible, ya wouldn’t even know!” he grated, thinly, as he continued to claw at his shoulder, glaring resentfully at the pile of wood and the creatures that were beneath it, “Or maybe ya do, knowin’ what kinda filth ya gotcher self in.”

    Shandra threw up her arms in mild exasperation, “Then why didn’t you say something about it before it got that bad?!”

    “Just hurry up ‘n set th’ damn thing on fire,” the jester growled, tensing up and gripping the neck of his lute tightly enough for the wood to creak slightly, “I’ll be happier knowin’ it’s burnin’ in Hell!”

    Cassandra puffed, waving a hand to silence the bickering as she braced the last bit of broken axle over the pile and walked over to the jester, taking up her book and opening it to her healing blessings, “Let me take a look.” After skimming the relevant incantation, she took a closer look at his shoulder after parting the punctured fabric. She furrowed her brow. There was very little blood from the punctures, so thin they’d practically sealed on their own, leaving only a mild discoloration and a few small boils. The vestal closed her eyes, placing her hand over the infection, as she chanted under her breath. A glowing light issued forth and permeated the affected area. She removed her hand to examine as the punctures sealed fully, and the boils receded. The discoloration, however, remained.

    “Doesn’t look like there’s anything I can do,” Cassandra shook her head, expression grim, “Looks like the insidious evil around here is becoming stronger. We’ll have to have the sanitarium look at it.”

    “Ughhh, don’t like th’ sound o’ that,” Martin muttered as he returned to poking and fussing with his shoulder, sounding greatly displeased, “Thought’cha were supposed ta begood at healin’!” Cassandra’s lips pursed as she glared at him, sighing and not dignifying him with a response as she stood up to give the pyre one last look over.

    “Maybe I can do something.”

    Everyone looked over at Shandre in surprise as she stepped over to Martin, knife in hand. Before he could object, she cut the cloth over his shoulder a bit wider to get a better look at the affected area.

    “Hey! Careful with that!” Martin sharply objected, trying to push the plague doctor away, but she shrugged it off and continued to examine him.

    “Hmmm… yeah, I think I have something for this,” Shandre’s dark expression quirked into a slight grin, unseen, as she looked over to Xavien, “Hey, you think you could hold him still a bit? This might sting.”

    The leper pondered for a moment, before nodding, sternly, walking deliberately over and taking hold of the jester’s arms, pinning them behind his back..

    This upset the jester greatly, as he tried to pull away, to no avail, “H-hey, what’re ya-!”

    “I’d give you something to bite, but…” Shandre interrupted. Martin took particular notice to the fact that she did not re-sheathe her dagger, and gave a bit of a panicked kick in response as she continued, “…well, your tongue will be fine, I suppose.” Shandre’s voice bore the faintest hints of her predatory smile as she wiped down the blade with one of her antiseptic bandages.

    “I-I don’t remember agreein’ ta lettin’ ya do th-AIIEE!”

    With little in the way of finesse, Shandre drove the coated dagger into the jester’s shoulder.

    “Y-ya d-damn crazy bitch-!!” He shouted, trying and failing to wrench himself away. Off to the side, Cassandra nearly knocked part of the pyre over, her usual staid countenance cracking somewhat in helpless bewilderment. She tried to raise her hand to get the amateur plague doctor to stop, but the motion fell flat, and she could only stare on in cringing disbelief.

    “Stop struggling,” Shandre muttered, flatly, as she ignored the jester’s yowls, pulling out the knife to get a better look at what was beneath it, “You’re going to make it worse.”

    “Can’t’cha be-OW! OW OW OWOWOWOW!” Martin gave a retaliatory kick, which Shandre managed to sidestep. Xavien only tightened his grip in response, causing the jester to yelp, “More gentle??!”

    “Funny,” Shandre chirped, parting the wound more as she scraped at the discolored flesh with the dagger, examining it, then sheathing the weapon without cleaning it, so she could have an even closer look later, “I seem to recall a certain someone telling me I shouldn’t be dainty and gentle when cutting open a man~”

    “That’s-! Not-! What I-! Meant!” Martin struggled, fruitlessly, against the leper’s iron grip, voice hitting a manic pitch, “I meant cuttin’ OTHER men-!” Shandre ignored his continued verbal barrage as she reached in with her gloved fingers and pulled out the most obvious source of the spreading irritation; two thin, broken pieces of fungal root that the jester had so carelessly ripped free. Stashing them with the other samples, she then extracted a bottle of acrid, alcohol-laden tincture, giving it a shake and twisting it open with a loud and deliberate pop before pouring it into the open wound. Martin punctuated his disagreement with a long, seething hiss as she applied pressure to the wound, to let the liquid permeate thoroughly.

    “There,” Shandre nodded, matter-of-factly, as she re-corked the bottle and returned it to her kit, “That should stop any potential spread.”

    Xavien let the writhing jester down, who continued to squirm, clutching his shoulder. Cassandra rushed over, expression bordering furious as she opened her book. “Could you be any more barbaric?” The vestal growled, holding up her hand. She chanted lowly under her breath, calling the light forth again, only successful this time, as the flesh weaved itself shut under the glow, leaving behind a smooth, healthy surface. Martin shuffled backwards, holding his shoulder tightly, whimpering. The pain had mostly subsided by the light, but a twinge of paranoia remained.

    Shandre shrugged, as she knelt down to the spent torch bag for its remaining flint, “Hey, I saved him a trip to the sanitarium, didn’t I?”

    Cassandra fumed, her eyes narrowing, “Your methods are hardly better!”

    “They might not even have an opening in time! Who knows how quick it could have spread, how deep it could have gotten to the point where it couldn’t be removed!” Shandre gestured wildly in the direction of the fungal monsters under the pyre, “He might’ve turned into that if we waited that long!”

    “I… I’d rather not think ’bout that,” Martin murmured grimly. Though they couldn’t be seen under the dismantled cart, his mind’s eye could still visualize them, the bloated ones in particular. Shuddering, he turned away, looking at the blood on his shoulder. It was, as much as he hated to admit, a preferable outcome to being digested alive from the inside and ingloriously puppeted about.

    “In addition, it would save quite a bit of the heir’s money,” Xavien added, as he returned to scrutinizing the bonfire’s arrangement through the bickering, “Treatment in those harrowing halls is not without a hefty cost in coin.” Finally content with it, he stepped back to get the full picture.

    “And you, of all people!” Cassandra shook an accusing finger at the leper, then paused, biting her lip for a moment before lowering her hand and continuing, “How could you agree to that?!”

    “Well, to be perfectly honest…” Xavien shook his head slowly as he crossed his arms, a faint chuckle barely audible, “I do feel he was due for a bit of… humbling treatment.” He gestured for Shandre to approach with the flint, finishing, “Perhaps it has served to put others’ suffering in a little more perspective.”

    “Maybe she should cut ya open too, then!” Martin gestured wildly, the diminishing pain giving way to fervored indignance, “Ya breathed that thing’s nasty smoke!”

    Xavien didn’t even bother to look back at the manic jester, “Well, I am not complaining about it bothering me, now, am I?”

    “There’s probably a difference between the mushroom that got you and the cloud that thing breathed,” Shandre quickly cut in, trying not to think about it but troubled by the nagging implication all the same, apparent in her tone, “I’ll check on the samples, for sure.”

    “Do not worry yourself over it, Corbin,” the leper tried to reassure, “My body is familiar with infection, I alone would know best if something were amiss with that which is not under that affliction. Now,” he gestured, gently, to the pyre, “if you would be so kind as to send these poor souls to their final rest.”

    Shandre looked down, biting her lip and starting to regret her impulsive forwardness, only to sigh and nod as she approached. Leaning down to the dried leaves mingled with the base, she attempted to strike the flint on them. However, they merely fizzled to ineffectual embers, the kindling failing to catch the wood. She frowned, “Hmmm… this isn’t working… perhaps I should- aah!?” Shandre’s fiddling was cut off as one of the remaining torches arced past her, dangerously close to her head, and landed on the pile, igniting it quickly. She turned back, still startled, just in time to see Martin’s arm dropping to his side from the throw.

    “Well,” the leper sighed, stepping back, “That works as well, I suppose,” He pat Shandre’s shoulder in a rough show of camaraderie for her attempt, and she tried her best not to tense up at the contact as he finished, “Now we wait until it has been consumed.”

    The jester snorted, grumbling a curt, “Yer welcome,” as he took a few long steps backward to lean against a tree, returning to his lute. His rough handling of it from moments ago became obvious a few cringeworthy strums in, and Martin muttered bitterly as he began to retune it. Shandre took in a deep breath and stood up, dusting off the front of her robe. As she stepped away from the growing fire, she collected her corpse-stained mat, folded it up neatly, and placed it on a large rock for a cushion to sit on, elbow on her knee and chin in her palm, tapping her fingers nervously, eyes darting between the others. Xavien didn’t sit, instead content to pace back and forth, slowly, keeping his eyes on the woods. Cassandra mirrored Shandre’s position, taking out her mat and placing it on a rock opposite the fire from the training doctor and taking a seat for herself. Though she opened her book, it was clear that she wasn’t really reading it, her eyes instead wandering, warily. Shandre could’ve sworn she saw a few angry glares directed at her, but wasn’t sure if that was just her anxiety imposing itself upon her perception.

    The tension of their silence was only amplified by the fire’s crackle and the whine of the jester’s cheap lute’s strings as he twisted and untwisted the knobs between bouts of amelodic plucking. Soon, though, Martin found his tuning adequate and shifted his posture, straightening his back and running through a test arpeggio before starting up a gentle and unusually soothing tune, humming along softly. Shandre’s breath caught, curiously surprised, as she lifted her chin from her palm, looking over, having not expected to be so entranced.

    “You okay?” She asked, perplexed as to how such preceding tension and ire could sway to something so serene, “After all that-”

    “Shh,” Cassandra cut in, turning a page idly, but adding no more.

    Martin didn’t respond immediately as his humming lowered and eventually ceased altogether, maintaining tempo on his instrument. He simply chuckled. It took a few minutes before his voice joined his expert picking, soft but clear.

    “~To think that desperation so
    Would require such expertise.
    And while ill feelings may ‘ventually go,
    Never shall the memories cease.

    So steel thy blades and tend thy fire,
    The time is now to move on,
    Through tooth, and nail, and poison, and briar,
    Towards that elusive dawn.

    For if all we do is make mistakes
    Then what, if all, would we learn?
    Out here, the need to do what it takes,
    Lest we fall, one by one, in turn.~”

    The jester’s singing gave way once more to humming, but the song chilled Shandre’s bones, though it wasn’t for the lyrics, but the eerie calm of their delivery. She couldn’t tell if it was a merely meant to be a generic adventurer’s jingle, a warning, or some manner of veiled threat. She shifted in her seat uneasily, looking at the others, to see if they had any opinions on the impromptu performance and any underlying meaning, but neither the leper nor vestal made any indication that this was anything beyond typical.

    Shandre took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the fading scent of the cloth in her mask, to distract herself from her own worries. Surely she was simply overreacting.

    The music continued as the flames grew to their full height, before slowly petering off as the shrouded sun’s light took a more substantial hold of the weald. The leper continued to pace, reaching down for the last and now fully spent torch. Before he could throw it into the fire, though, a rustling off to the side drew his attention. The shapes, mostly hidden by the underbrush, were medium-sized and quadruped, belied by the light glistening off cloudy eyes and sharp, dripping teeth.

    Cassandra was the first to react, snapping her book shut suddenly and bristling, hand reaching for her mace, “More beasts.”

    Martin didn’t stop his playing, though his melody slowed significantly as he glanced over, tapping his foot with a jingle, “We jus’ fought off ‘bominations against all that’s nat’ral and yer worried ‘bout some mangy mutts?”

    “No foe is to be underestimated,” Xavien tossed the torch remnant into the fire and hefted his sword in both hands, “We know not as much as we thought of these vile woods.”

    The shadows loomed for a moment, threateningly, but a sudden crackle from the dying fire and a loud, bellowing shout from Xavien sent them scurrying away, yipping as they went. Cassandra sighed with relief, nodding a thanks to the leper, “Just poor scavengers. The light must have driven away the worst of the lot.“

    Shandre stood up, taking up her folded mat and stepping over to the bonfire, nearly entirely spent, the smoldering remains letting up thick plumes of oily smoke. She fanned at it with the cloth to get a better look. “Should we bury all of this?”

    “No… We have remained here for long enough,” Xavien rumbled, bowing his head as he prodded the pile with his sword, causing it to collapse inward a bit with a dry crack, “As much as it no doubt pains us all, we must depart, and allow the poison rain return the ashes to the earth in its own time.”

    “‘Bout damn time, too,” Martin yawned, stretching. He winced for a second at his shoulder, before lashing his lute into its holder at his back, “Let’s find th’ bank we came down so we can get back t’ th’ road.”

    Shandre scowled a bit at the jester’s nerve, but felt a twinge of begrudging agreement with the sentiment all the same. She was getting weary of the deep woods, and it was clear that the others were, as well, experienced as they were with it.

    Martin stepped over to the cliff and retraced his steps along it as the others finished tending the dead fire and collected their things. He paused, turned on his heel, and walked back again, looking upwards, turned on his heel again, then stepped back, arms crossed, back arced as he peered up at the top of the cliff, “That’s weird, coulda’ sworn we came down ‘ere, but this’s way too steep ta climb back up…”

    “Coming down probably unsettled it enough to collapse overnight,” Cassandra added as she walked up alongside the jester to examine the embankment, looking for any signs of a slide, though the cliff was so uneven and rough that it was too difficult to tell, “We should keep moving in the direction of the hamlet, following this rise. We’ll find a shallower ascent eventually.”

    “Yeah, ‘ventually,” the jester scoffed, kicking at the ground, “Jus’ great.”

    Shandre could barely withhold a scolding retort, but she stopped herself. She just wanted to get back to the hamlet to take some time to rest and reflect on this outing, and perhaps ask around for some answers. She felt so very small and out of her league, and perhaps it would be better if she avoided trying to incite further agitation before she could find out more. Instead, they walked along quietly, keeping their eyes peeled for any chances to get back to the road sooner.

    The last thing they were expecting to see as they rounded the cliff bend to their old camp was the form of a small old woman, hunched over the corpse of the giant spider that had been set alight the previous night. Their approach alerted her and she stood up from picking through its stringy flesh, adding it to leather packs along with a few ceramic bottles of its silvery-green blood already filled and dangling from her rough twine belt. She was dressed in ragged cloth and leather and small patches of wiry pelt, and decorated with beads, bones, and severed pieces of smaller woodland creatures. Her wispy white hair was held back by a bone pin decorated with black feathers. Though short in stature and wrinkled by age, she was by no means unhealthy.

    The two parties stood and stared at one another in surprise before Martin finally elbowed Shandre in the side, “‘Ey, it’s you’n a few years.” His blatant joking aside, the jester’s voice was heavy with suspicion. While the old lady’s carriage wasn’t the least bit threatening, any old and feeble-looking soul living out in such dangerous woods couldn’t possibly be as feeble as appearances let on. Ignoring Shandre’s indignant “H-hey!”, Martin pointed at the crone, “You ain’t preppin’ ta curse us ‘r anythin’, are ya?”

    “Oh, terribly sorry,” the old crone coughed, reaching down with spindly, long-nailed fingers stained with spider blood, and taking up a tall walking stick that had been lying on the ground. It was a head taller than the woman who held it, and decorated much like she was, in bones and cloth, with the addition of some wooden bowls and utensils hanging from the tall crook at the top with ragged string and hooks. “Just surprised. I just didn’t ‘spect to see humans around that aren’t the usual no-good thieves’n murderers.”

    “Neither did we,” Xavien instinctively looked over his shoulder, before returning his attention to the old woman, “Unusual to see someone so… acclimated to these surroundings.” He held out his hand, gesturing towards her with an air of concern, “What keeps you here, when there are safer havens?”

    “Oh, I’ve lived ‘ere all my long life,” the crone looked off into the woods, wistfully, adjusting her grip on her staff with both hands, finger by finger, “Couldn’t bear to part with my old house, e’en after the sickness set in.” She looked back at the four, a small smile on her lips, “Just learned to live with it.” Without giving them time to respond, the crone gestured back at the arachnid remains, “That your doing?”

    “Yes,” Cassandra admitted, but not without a distrustful hiss as she narrowed her eyes, “It attacked us with some other, far more abhorrent creatures as we camped overnight.”

    “Oh, I’m not accusing you of anything, just curious, is all,” the woman waved her hand assuringly, a sweetness on her voice. She leaned on her staff and took a few steps towards them to take a closer look through squinting eyes, “And why’d some nice, respectable townsfolk like you be camping out here?”

    “Town business,” Martin quickly cut in before Shandre could start explaining their task in full detail, “‘S all ya need ta know.”

    “Mm hmm, I see,” the crone continued to smile, nodding. “Noticed the fangs were gone,” she added, and despite not gesturing back with her abrupt change of subject, it was obvious to what she was referring.

    “O-oh!” Shandre gave a start. She reached down to the pack of samples she’d taken, undoing the latch, “I’m sorry, I took them earlier. Wanted to take them back to town to study. Maybe come up with a counter to their venom,” She began to rifle through the collection, stuttering, “B-but if you need them, I could-”

    The crone’s beady eyes lit up and she took a few hobbling, excited steps towards the beak-masked doctor, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s okay!” She waved her hand quickly, to draw Shandre’s attention to her, almost hopping in place, “So you’re… interested in the toxins ‘round these parts… are you not?”

    “I… I suppose?” Shandre wasn’t sure how to take the sudden interest, but sensed a genuine feeling of excitement from the old lady as she clarified, “I’m looking for cures to anything I can, using whatever I can find.” She fidgeted with her pack, “Can’t rule out anything.”

    “Oh, wonderful,” the crone hooked her elbow around her staff to softly clap her hands together once, before taking hold of it once more with her left hand, and gesturing around them with her right, “I’ve lived here a long time… ‘midst this spreading poison,” she returned her hand to the staff and leaned forwards, “Perhaps you could come home with me, I could teach you quite a few things from my experience.”

    “That won’t be necessary,” the vestal barked, “We’ve more than enough resources in town to risk staying out here among diseased beasts and crawling dead.”

    “B-but… why not?” Shandre balked at Cassandra’s zealous obstinance, “I mean, this place is sick, why not learn more about it? The knowledge could be used to combat it!”

    “I do not doubt that such a venture could prove fruitful, in the long run,” Xavien reassured, but not without shades of doubt all his own, “But for now, we have a task to complete. We must return to the hamlet with our news.”

    The crone’s smile vanished as her shoulders drooped, “That’s a pity, a real pity,” she looked down at the ground, sighing, before she raised her gaze back at the others, a hint of longing on her brow, “But if you must return to the road, you’re not far. Just one bend to the right past the clawing tree. You’ll know it when you see it.”

    The directions were cryptic enough, and the confused glances that the travelers gave one another were not lost on the old woman, but she had no further directions to give as she waved them off. As they walked past the crone, Shandre bowed slightly in thanks to her, only to be stopped as the old woman’s borderline clawed hand reached out and took the plague doctor’s long sleeve, startling her, “Oh, and before you go.”

    They all stopped suddenly, looking back as the old crone felt around her outfit with one hand, as if trying to remember where she’d kept something. Finally, she reached around her own neck, undoing the clasp of a fine, silvery chain hidden beneath the fur of her collar, upon which was looped a tiny glass bottle containing what appeared to be an unnaturally tiny set of inky feathers, “I know it’s not much, but I really would like to hear from you again. There is a lack of good conversation out here, and I would love to mentor a young soul who shares my interests.” She took Shandre’s hand and pressed the small vial into her palm, using her other hand to close the young doctor’s fingers around it, “Please… consider it?”

    Shandre was touched, but at the same time slightly puzzled and unnerved by the unwarranted gift, precious as it seemed compared to the rest of the old woman’s garb as the crone drew back, leaving the trinket in her hand. She looked down at it, unsure of what to make of it, before closing her fingers around it again and nodding, “I’ll see if I can spare the time. Th-thank you.”

    The crone bowed deeply and waved as they departed. She returned to the spider carcass to continue picking through it just as they disappeared around the curve of the cliff face. Cassandra fumed, and once they were a good distance away, she snarled, “I don’t trust her. No sane soul would willingly live in this festering pit unless they were up to no good.”

    “Yaknow, I’m inclined ta agree with Cassandra on this one,” Martin chimed in, twirling a tassel around his finger, hand on his hip as he walked along “She sounds nice, but somethin’ ‘bout ‘er gives me th’ creeps.” He shuddered, comically exaggerated enough to seem disingenuous, though his tone hinted otherwise.

    “Come on, you’re all about doing whatever it takes, and we might be on to something good here,” Shandre tried to defend, as she looked back down at the pendant. Adjusting it to hold by the chain, she held it up to eye level, to get a clearer look through the goggles on her mask, “Can’t we give her a ch-huh?” she couldn’t finish, as her attention was pulled away, sharply, by a most unusual sight. A tall tree growing at an angle out from the cliff face, stripped of bark by countless long, bloodstained gouges along its sides.

    “…Oh,” was the only acknowledgment Martin could make of the find.

    Xavien stepped over to the tree and placed his palm against it, grimly noting how much larger the spread of the claws were compared to the splay of his gloved fingers, “A ghoul. I am glad we had not the misfortune to cross it in the night,” he withdrew his hand, clenching it, tightly, “This is not far from where we camped…”

    Shandre shuddered at the thought of a creature that large with a name like that, but couldn’t help but notice a small, positive detail, “The blood looks pretty dry… this hasn’t been used recently, at least.”

    “It’s still imperative that we let the heir know,” Cassandra straightened up, taking in a sharp breath, “Bandits are still our foremost concern, as they’ll seek out our wagons intentionally, but a ghoul wandering this close to the old road by accident shouldn’t be taken lightly, either,” she rumbled, her tone lower than usual, “They’re getting more bold, to wander this far from the ruins.”

    “Well, we ain’t runnin’ inta it now durin’ th’ day, so no use gettin’ scared, right?” Martin tried to sound confident, though his voice trembled ever so slightly, “As long as nobody runs away by themselves inta th’ woods-”

    Xavien cleared his throat loudly and Martin quieted. They exchanged masked glares as the leper nodded, “We are safe, for now.” He paused, looking down, as if remembering something bitter, but he quickly cast the thought aside, “Nevertheless, we need to move,” the leper rested his sword on his shoulder, beckoning with his other hand, “If that woman was not intending to lead us astray, the way back to the road should be just ahead.”

    Shandre looked back and forth between them as they picked up their pace, feeling distinctly out of the loop of some incident she was not privy to. She looked over at Cassandra to see the vestal holding her holy symbol to her lips and muttering something short and repeated to herself.

    “Is this something I should know about?” Shandre asked, warily.

    “As long as you don’t run off, it shouldn’t concern you,” the vestal mumbled as she put her symbol away, “So don’t run off.”

    The young doctor-in-training furrowed her brow, looking away for a moment, trying to recall conversations from before, “…This is about the person I replaced, isn’t it?” She tried to remember the name, but couldn’t recall, settling on the first letter and humming it out in her attempt to dig the rest up from her memory..

    “Meredith,” Martin grumbled in confirmation, “Yeah, it’s ‘bout ‘er. Let’s jus’ say… mistakes were made, ‘n lessons learned,” he kicked at a branch on the ground, hands behind his back as he walked, “A ghoul may ‘r may not’ve been involved.”

    Shandre was about to press further as they rounded the last bend, and the cliff face broke up for just a moment, much shallower than the one they’d descended from. At the top, the faint outlines of upright grave markers beyond the brush indicated the immediate edge of the road above. “Well, she wasn’t lying about the path,” she smiled, slightly, “Perhaps she’s more trustworthy than you all are giving her credit for.”

    “Yes, it would seem so,” Xavien admitted, with relief on his voice, taking a moment to kneel and catch his breath to prepare for the climb, “Once on the road, we should be back in town before sundown.”

    The slope was shallow enough that they could navigate it without much difficulty, though Shandre found herself slightly winded once up top with the others. The only one not showing obvious signs of their lack of rest was Cassandra, who was poring over the path on the way up. The tight pack of the dirt and stones were troubling. It was not a natural formation.

    Cassandra muttered, stepping around the headstones to the road and looking back at it. The graves and the brush covered it up quite well, making it almost too convenient a hidden path down, “Just another thing to note. The bandits probably carved it to get to and from the road more easily.”

    “Well, we’ve someplace ta start if th’ ‘heir doesn’t have any other plans,” Martin chuckled, shifting his pack to take up his lute for the walk, “But that’s not fer us ta plan now,” he gestured down the road with his head as he began to play, “Let’s get goin’.”

    Shandre paused for only a moment to cast a glance back at the woods. She looked down at the crone’s gift and sighed, softly. Turning, she followed after the others along the winding road back to town.

    [collapse]

    Wherein I occasionally draw fanart and/or attempt to write a fanfic. Pick your poison (or don't, and possibly survive).

    #13056
    Daimera
    Daimera
    Participant

    Aaaand I finally finished chapter 2. Haven’t proofed it yet, but I’m too impatient to wait for my proofreaders because it’s 3am. This seems to be the most optimal time for me to write. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

    Mild content advisory for language, and a slightly more serious content advisory for violence. But then, where would this game’s world be without some good, ol’ fashioned gore, huh?

    —–

    Chapter 2

    “Excise the rot, isolate the blight, clean the flesh… Excise the rot, isolate the blight, clean the flesh…”

    Only a week after coming to her revelation, Shandre found herself on the outskirts of town, looking for interesting plants and signs of disease and blight to experiment with. Clad in a dirty but heavy old robe she got secondhand from the sanitarium, she leaned over the corpse of a brigand who had tried to accost her as she wandered about aimlessly, picking at whatever looked interesting or unusual. The protective dagger she had used to stab her attacker in the throat was now turned to his chest, as she undid his shirt in an effort to disembowel him to check for any signs of disease.

    She didn’t expect it to be easy, but it was especially difficult now. Her initial, frightened stab was a product of fear and survival, but now that the bandit was dead, she was having a hard time bringing her knife to his skin a second time. She continued to mumble her short mantra softly to herself, trying to psyche herself up for a more substantial cut.

    “Heeey,” chimed a cheerful but raspy voice from behind the ex-prostitute, “what’s a li’l girl like you doin’ out ‘ere butcherin’ a human corpse ‘n th’ middle o’ nowhere?” Shandre gave a start, leaping to her feet as she whirled around, dagger pointed at the speaker.

    Standing there, looking far too garish for his surroundings, was a jester in full regalia. Dirty, belled tassels, in black, gold, and once-pink but stained by dirt and blood until they appeared red, hung about his thin, leather-clad frame, his sauntering carriage loudly announcing his ego. A smooth, white mask covered his face completely, a ratty old lute strapped to his back. Shandre took a few deep breaths, then lowered her dagger.

    She had seen him in town. He often caroused near the graveyard, playing his lute and singing insensitive songs about the deceased. Obnoxious, for sure, but not threatening. Somewhat relieved but nevertheless unnerved by the rude interruption, she took another deep breath, turning back to her kill, muttering, “…It’s none of your business.”

    She didn’t turn, but the bells on the jester’s cap and exaggerated shoes made it clear that he had closed the distance and was now peering over her shoulder. His voice in her ear grated unpleasantly, “Whoooooo, yer pretty shit at this,” He absentmindedly flicked a bell on his hat, snickering, his voice thinning to a sing-song near-whisper, “Not that I’d ‘spect much more from a whore~”

    Shandre went cold, blood nearly freezing in her veins as she feigned ignorance, “What are you talking about?”

    “Oooh, don’t act like ye don’t know~” The colorful trickster danced around the corpse and squatted on the opposite side from Shandre, hand on one knee and elbow on the other, “Name’s Martin, and oh!” He snapped a few times, feigning deep thought, “Don’t say it, I think I remember…” He spun his finger for emphasis before pointing at her, “Shaaandre, was it not~?”

    Shandre bristled, gripping the knife tighter, “How-…?”

    “Heehee~ It wasn’t too hard,” the jester laced his fingers together beneath his chin, tilting his head to one side, “I mean, it’s not like nobody notices when that ugly meatbag asks for you by name. How sweet~”, he returned his hands to their initial positions on his knees, chuckling, “Yaknow, ya got a lotta guts sleepin’ with a roilin’ stew ‘f rot like that~”

    “DON’T talk about him like that,” she hissed, brandishing the blade in the jester’s direction, “He’s far more a man than you’d ever be!”

    “Ooooh I doubt that~” Martin crooned, standing up and swinging his hips a bit, playfully, “But I’ll take your word for it~” He turned around, back to the girl, as he glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve never seen what ‘e does behind closed doors, an’ you’ve never seen what ‘e does ‘n battle. Perhaps ya’d be more scared of ‘im if ya did~”

    Shandre’s expression darkened as she returned her attention to the corpse, mumbling “I’m sure the monsters of the darkness fear him. Why should I?”

    “Believe what’cha wish, li’l girl. A brigand like this?” Martin roughly kicked the corpse, causing Shandre to jump slightly, “A flesh an’ blood human that yer strugglin’ t’ flay with that li’l letter opener?” He held up his hand like a blade, then brought it down in a chopping motion, “I’ve seen one o’ those jump ‘im, thinkin’ ‘im an easy, sickly target.” The jester then flashed his hands open, miming an explosion, “Poomf~,” he whispered, with an air of feigned awe, “Clean in two~ Not a second thought~”

    Shandre tried to ignore him. She couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or just trying to goad her, though her irritation was mounting and it was enough to fuel a strong but clumsy stab with her dagger into the center of the bandit’s chest, where it lodged in his sternum. She tried to pull the knife down to slice, but only managed to pull it straight back out again, leaving only a deep but short gouge.

    “Like I said, yer shit at this,” the Jester kneeled down by the corpse, drawing lines across the scarred skin with his finger before pointing over at the self-training doctor, “Ya wanna cut a man open? Ya can’t be so dainty ‘n gentle.”

    Shandre frowned deeply, crossing her arms, “What, and you could do better?”

    There was a flashing gleam as a sickle appeared in Martin’s hand that Shandre hadn’t even noticed was slung on the Jester’s belt. In one clean, swift motion, he drove the hooked tip into the brigand’s throat and, with a blossoming fountain of blood, split the flesh straight down to the groin.

    Splaying the skin and muscle wide open with a dramatic flourish, Martin took a step back, admiring his handiwork and striking a pose with his arms outstretched, “Ta-dah~!”

    Shandre reeled back as the blood splashed across the front of her robe. Holding her hands up, she gaped, incredulously, at the giggling clown, “What the HELL!?”

    Martin’s wide smile could not be seen behind his mask, but obvious sarcasm dripped from his voice as he placed the sickle against his chest and gave a little bow, “Well? I did better, didn’t I?”

    Shandre looked down at the corpse, organs clearly displayed. As much as she hated to, she had to admit he did do a better job, and the necrotic organs from living off the corrupted land were plain to see. Coils of sickly black and yellowed green crusted over the tissues, especially around the stomach and liver, and pale, quivering abscesses dotted the muscles and fat. Bile collected in the girl’s throat and she had to turn away for a moment, hand over her mouth to prevent unceremonious vomitting. It took her a moment before she turned back and, trying her hardest not to breathe or look directly at the corpse, began a first, awkward attempt to cut out the most affected organs.

    The jester chuckled, shaking his head as he sat back to observe the wreck. After a few moments, he slung the lute off his back and began to strum at it with perky chords and runs. After a couple test tunes, he began to sing, his voice light and uncharacteristically melodious, his words more crisp and deliberate.

    “~Poor, poor little brothel girl
    So smitten with a hideous leper grim
    Decided to give doctoring a whirl
    Found a corpse from which disease she’d trim
    But surgery makes her stomach curl,
    How then should she expect to save him?~”

    Shandre seized up, eyes feral, her sudden tension pulling her knife up, a chunk of blackened liver tearing free in her other hand. Martin continued, merrily.

    ~To notions of naive virtue she’d cling,
    Is it honest care or just foolish lust?
    So much as she’d like to lessen mortality’s sting,
    Could she tell healthy flesh from blighted crust?
    Perhaps it’d be kinder for the daft little thing
    To leave her beloved leper to dust.~

    “Right,” Shandre hissed, throwing a mangled stomach to the ground as she sheathed her knife with a snap and straightened up, “I’ve had it.”

    Martin stopped playing abruptly, voice still cheerful, “Oh?”

    Furious, she reached down at the small pile of poorly excised organs, healthy and not, and began to stuff them into the bandit’s bloodied cowl, “I’ve had it with your… constant… harassment.” She snarled “You’ve done nothing but mock me since you showed up and I’m leaving.”

    “And where might’cha be goin’? Hm~?” the jester chided, waggling an index finger in a scolding motion, “Back to town, perhaps? Good luck going back with a sack full of gore to ‘study.'” He threw his head back and laughed heartily, before slowly looking back down at Shandre, who had paused. Martin’s voice twisted into a sinister sneer, “Noooobody’s going to think yer a serial killer~”

    Shandre trembled a bit, shoulders arched as she resisted the urge to plant her face in her gore-stained gloves, “Damn it…” was the only utterance she could muster.

    “Plus, yaknow,” the jester’s voice suddenly lightened, taking on far less aggressive intonation, “I’d just follow ya back. I have legs~”

    A moment of silence was punctuated by Shandre’s exasperated, “…Why?”

    Martin giggled, strapping the lute to his back, “Just givin’ ya a bit’ve incentive, dear~ Yer not gettin’ very far ‘n yer own.”

    “No, I mean why ME?!” Shandre snapped, glaring daggers at the jester.

    “‘Cause ye were there? D’ya think a guy like me needs any better reason?” He shrugged in response, before chuckling. His laughter finally flattened out, voice going much more serious, “Though really, ‘t helps that yer invested ‘n someone I know, fer better or worse, an’ yer determination’s got a lotta promise.” He gestured down at the disemboweled bandit, “That determination could be useful t’ more’n jus’ yer own birdbrained goals, with a li’l help.”

    The sudden shift in direction caught Shandre off guard as she tied up the gore-laden cowl, “…You?! Want to help… me?” Her voice croaked slightly, confusion apparent.

    Martin stretched, straightening his back with a couple of loud pops, “I don’t jus’ hang ’round th’ cemetary fer shits’ ‘n giggles every day. Just so ya know, I’m in one o’ th’ heir’s scoutin’ parties, an’ we’re lookin’ fer another member.” He flicked one of his cap bells over his shoulder, “Stage coach’s takin’ far too long ‘n we can’t rely on it t’ get new blood ta spill, so of ‘course we got told t’ find out why it ain’t gettin’ here. But we ain’t gonna do it short a person. We may be crazy, but that’s drawin’ the line.”

    Shandre’s quiet pondering allowed the jester to continue, “Seein’ ya got enough guts t’ wander out ‘ere by yerself means ya might ‘ave enough guts t’ wander a li’l further ‘n search o’… whatever th’ Hell it is yer lookin’ fer.”

    The young woman frowned. She did not like this man, not one bit, but she also didn’t know what she was doing. Hateful and irritating as he was, this jester’s offer was an opportunity to secure some more resources that she might otherwise have died trying to obtain by herself.

    Weighing her desperation with her better judgment, Shandre decided that even an unfavorable opportunity was better than no opportunity at all, “So what do you suggest I do?”

    “Weeeeell, there’s a bandit encampment not too far from ‘ere,” the jester pointed eastward with his thumb, “Could prolly use it t’ stay th’ night ‘n take some time ‘n seclusion t’ examine yer shit without suspicious village eyes.” He laughed, “An’ jus’ yer luck, looks like th’ bandit that was usin’ it has been relegated t’ the shit yer examinin’~”

    Shandre pondered this for a moment as she set the tightly-wrapped cowl down. With some effort, she dragged the corpse off to the side, bringing it to rest in some heavy brush, before returning to the clearing and picking up the sack of organs.

    She sighed and turned to Martin, “Okay. Lead the way.”

    The jester laughed and took an exaggerated bow, sarcastically chirping, “Sure thing, m’lady~” before heading off. Shandre followed reluctantly behind.

    “This… smell… it’s horrible.”

    After arriving at the camp, Shandre had spread out a leather tarp in the bandit’s tent and spread the bits and pieces of blight-laced organs and mutilated tissues across it, with various small packets of herbs and other plants she’d picked arranged in rows in front of her. A small, enclosed lantern provided light in the dwindling sun. Her deep breath to prepare herself was not pleasant, as she began to cut the infected organs into smaller pieces for examination.

    Martin took up a seat on top of a crate overturned atop a stash of bandit moonshine, strumming his lute lightly and, to Shandre’s relief, not singing.

    “I know, right? I’ve told ‘im the same thing, but nooooo…” Martin held up his hands, mocking deepness to his grating voice, “‘It is not as if mere water could cleanse me of my decay’, ‘e says,” the jester snorted, “But ‘m sure ye knew that. I mean, ye slept with ‘im, so it’s not like-”

    I never noticed,” Shandre growled, nearly cutting herself with her knife as she drove it roughly through the spongy liver in her irritation, “The brothel is heavily perfumed. It’s not like all of you heroes make it a point to bathe before showing up.”

    Martin stopped playing, shrugging with just one arm, “Well, if that perfume solves all yer stinkin’ problems then why not use it to solve this one?”

    “What, and tie a bag of flowers to my face?” Shandre stabbed her dagger into the dirt, turning her attention from the organs to the herbs, “Are you out of your mind?”

    The jester snickered as he went back to strumming, “Sure, let’s go with that~” Shandre groaned and rolled her eyes, rubbing the plants between her gloved fingers to fray their fibers, releasing oils and aromas. She raised it to her nose and inhaled, deeply, then coughed, the odor overpowering.

    “So, what’s with your mask?” she asked, eyes nearly tearing from the smell, as she took the dull blue flower she was working and ground it into a particularly blackened tissue sample, only to recoil a bit when it reacted with a pungent sizzle. Wafting the fumes away, she looked over at Martin, “Are you as ugly as your attitude or something?”

    “Hah, ‘f only t’were so simple,” He laughed, strumming away, “I merely wear this mask ’cause a simple mortal whore like you’d be blinded by my sheer magnificence~”

    “…Riiight, I’ll take that as a yes,” Shandre muttered, moving on to a different herb, this one yellowish with small, uniform seeds. Martin just continued to chuckle.

    A few quiet minutes passed as Shandre mixed and matched plants to blight samples with varying degrees of inconclusive results. Backed only by Martin’s lazy, but oddly calming lute playing, she finally broke the quiet monotony with another question, “So how long do I have before you’re going to need me?”

    Martin stopped playing for a moment, thinking to himself, before starting again, “We’re waitin’ on a ruins expedition set ta go before us, so th’ heir knows ‘ow much money’s left ta do what needs ta be done. Should take ’bout…” he paused again, “…five days for everythin’ ta iron out, provided they don’t lose anyone.” With a flourish, he changed the melody of his playing before shifting his weight on the crate, leaning forward, “We’ll be scoutin’ th’ weald, right where th’ fungal outbreak crosses th’ carriage path.”

    Watching as Shandre continued to struggle with her tests, Martin flicked at one of his cap bells, “I’ll give ya five days ta work out whatcha need, ‘n ya can meet me at th’ tavern on the dawn’ve th’ sixth. I’ll take ya ta meet th’ others then.” A smile crept into his voice, mischievous and wry, “Yer customary customer’ll be there~”

    This stopped Shandre cold, and she nearly dropped her knife, which she was using to shred a particularly fibrous root, “Wait…. YOU’RE one of his expedition companions?!”

    “Of course~!” The jester cackled, “Who d’ya think’d be th’ fool enough t’ convince ‘im ta go to th’ damn brothel, ‘f all places~? Ya should be THANKIN’ me~!”

    “But…” she started, trying to put her thoughts to words, and taking a few moments of fidgeting with her experimental materials before finishing, “but you’re so incorrigibly rude about his malady!”

    “So? ‘Tis not like being nice about it will make it go away,” Martin waved in mock dismissal before returning to his lute, “I like t’ think I give ‘im th’ impetus t’ keep goin’, jus’ ta prove me wrong~”

    Shandre half-opened her mouth to retort, but nothing came to mind, so she turned away, biting her lips.

    “So,” she finally gathered the courage to ask, “Does he… have a name?”

    Martin blinked, stopping his play at the sudden personal question. He tilted his head, rubbing his chin for a moment, before shrugging, “‘M pretty sure ‘e does but Hell’f I know what it is.”

    That struck Shandre as odd, and her brow furrowed, “So, he… never gave a name? Even though you work with him?”

    Martin shrugged in disregard, “Nobody’s ever asked. Don’t think anyone cares, really. He’s prolly ashamed ‘f it,” he chuckled, rudely, “I’d be, too, ‘f I ‘ad a face like that~”

    “Would you stop-”

    “I’ll stop when ye stop bein’ so damn cute when yer angry~” the jester interrupted, slapping the lute strings for emphasis as he laughed.

    “You’re horrible,” Shandre spat, expression grim, “Absolutely horrible.”

    “Keeps me goin’~” Martin stopped playing abruptly and lashed the instrument to his back quickly. Shandre, too, stopped what she was doing, but more so at the jester’s conspicuous action rather than any understanding as to why.

    “Be too naive’n th’ horrors outside th’ town will eat’cha alive.”

    As if on cue, the faint light of a distant torch seeped through the tent flaps, followed by loud, angry shouting. Shandre gave a start, whirling around to see a pair of angry bandits; a short ratty one with a dilapidated blunderbuss, and a massive wall of a man wielding a pistol and the torch. They both raised their guns and began to open fire on their own tent and the encroaching occupants. Both Shandre and Martin scrambled for cover from the inaccurate salvo.

    “You said this camp was abandoned!!” She screamed, ducking behind the crate beside Martin, as a shot glanced off a corner, splintering the wood.

    “And ya believed me!” He laughed, mirthfully, “Yer trust is truly hilarious!” Unsheathing his own dagger and sickle, he brushed his tassles back and readied, “Now ta test yer mettle~”

    The bandits had closed the distance in an effort to fire around the blocking crates instead of through them, for fear of igniting the liquor within and sending their whole camp full of ill-gotten gains up in flame, as simple a solution it would have been to their intruder problem.

    Without skipping a beat, Martin leaped out from behind cover and grabbed the large bandit’s torch, pulling it from his hands and putting it into the dirt, plunging them all into darkness. Both bandits tried to take aim at the jester, but he was too quick and it was too dark, a problem only compounded when he rolled back to kick out the central tent prop, bringing the whole thing down.

    By the time the gunner extricated himself, he found a sickle planted firmly in his mouth, then hooked down through his throat and pulled, splitting his jaw and neck open for the jester to bring his dagger up and put it through the man’s bared palate. Martin smirked, before lowering his hand and kicking the bandit off of his blade.

    When the large bandit finally threw the tent from himself, he also revealed Shandre, who was also struggling to regain a footing, lit up by the nearby lantern which was small and sturdy enough to, miraculously, neither break nor go out when the tent fell.

    With a bellow, the large bandit lunged at Shandre. Scrambling, in a panicked stroke of accidental ingenuity, she reached down and grabbed a handful of dirty blue flowers and blighted entrails. Crushing them as best as she could between her gloved fingers, she flung the sizzling concoction into her attacker’s face. He howled in pain and disgust, reeling back as it stung his one good eye and bit into his flesh, retching at the smell and taste.

    The grotesque distraction gave Martin an opening, and he bounded up the rock face against which the tent was once assembled, only to leap off with uncanny grace and a high-pitched cackle, using his momentum to drive his narrow dagger right into the bandit’s uncovered eye, up to the hilt. The dead outlaw’s screams cut short as he dropped like a rock.

    Shandre observed the scene before her and gasped. Martin stood above two dead men, his weapons dripping crimson. Laughing.

    Martin kneeled down, scraping the sizzling herb and blight mixture off the brigand’s face with his dagger, lifting some moderately liquefied skin in the process “Well, that’s disgustin’ an’ honestly pretty damn effective, I’ll give ya that.” He turned and pointed the soiled weapon in Shandre’s direction, “Even with yer lack o’ healin’ touch, perhaps ye’ll find usefulness yet.”

    Shandre brought her hands up to cover her mouth, mortified at the jester’s brutal means of dispatch. The horrid smell quickly made her regret that decision and she began to cough violently, removing the gloves and letting them fall to the ground so she could bring her hands to her face more comfortably.

    She needed that slight comfort. As much as this murder saved both their lives, the thought shook her. Was this really what she wanted?

    “Lookin’ like that, ya might wanna take a good look’d these’n think about it a bit,” he confirmed, taking in her horrified expression with a hidden, snide grin as he sheathed his weapons, “Ya think this’s bad, yer gonna be in fer a real treat when ya see what yer hubby does ta guys who try ta interfere with our job~” Leaning down, he picked up the tent cloth, “Now, help me put this thing back up so ya can get back ta work~”

    Shandre’s mind was blank. She wasn’t sure what to think. Staring blankly at the ground, she stood up and did as the jester asked, taking the tent cloth while he set the posts back into the ground. Before long, the bandit tent was back in order, the dim lantern light swinging on its rope, barely illuminating the moderately shuffled study tarp.

    With a parting wave, Martin left the reeling girl to her thoughts, “Seeya’n five days~”

    ‘What am I doing here…?’ she asked herself, silently, as she watched the jester’s lanky form vanish into the shadows of the night. ‘Do I really think I’m going to learn how to cure disease with nothing but corpses…?’

    She closed the tent and sat down at her workstation, looking down at her bare hands. Images swirled in her head.

    The leper’s mask.

    His mutilated face, twisted into sorrow.

    ‘What am I doing…?’

    The jester standing there laughing, drenched in blood.

    ‘Can I do this…?’

    A crow perched upon a pile of corpses, its eyes aflame, gazing into her soul.

    It shrieked and drew towards her, plucking her eyes out.

    ‘What am I doing??’

    Blood on her hands, she reached up and clutched her head.

    ‘If… I can’t cure him… perhaps I can at least protect him… but does he need it?’

    Poomf. Clean in two.

    The crow shrieked and ascended from the corpse pile, only to split down the middle, fire bursting from within in the shape of a beating human heart and…

    …becoming the lantern above.

    Shandre suddenly snapped out of the images with a short yelp, falling backwards and only barely catching herself as she stared at the collection of herbs and blight in front of her. The pungent odors of the various reactions left to stew on the mat swirled into a potent miasma in the stale tent air.

    Shaking her head to clear it, the girl flung open the tent’s flap in earnest, stumbling out into the night. Taking in a deep breath of the cool, dry air, she found her calm. Mind level, she closed her eyes.

    “I need to meet him again first, and find out what is needed of me then. I’ll do anything to make sure I have something to offer when that time comes,” she whispered to herself between deep, cleansing breaths.

    Steeling herself, she set to work.

    As the days tarried on, Shandre continued to experiment. Although sure to leave the tent open for air circulation, she nevertheless tied a spare cowl from the tent supplies around her face as a makeshift filter. She couldn’t risk falling into another hallucination spiral.

    Other substances stashed away in the bandit’s tent, from their low-quality moonshine to gunpowder, provided her additional options. Once she became acclimated to their grisly, life-ending injuries, the two new corpses gave her further substrate upon which to test different herbs, combinations of herbs, and their effects on introduced infectious agents.

    They also allowed her to test self-defense measures. Grinding gunpowder into the blue herb and packing it separately from blighted samples in small, leather capsules seemed like it’d make an effective deterrent, should she be jumped again. After a few tries, she managed to get an optimal balance, the ignition of the gunpowder mixing the herbs with the blight on impact for maximum, flesh-searing potency.

    Martin dropped by only once, two days in, bearing a collection of syringes pilfered from the sanitarium, along with a few bottles of various tinctures and other dubious medicinal concoctions utilized therein. His only words of encouragement were, unsurprisingly, cryptic and unhelpful.

    “Don’t know what any’ve ’em do, but th’ wails from th’ treatin’ rooms were particularly loud today~” he sang, waving nonchalantly, adding “So try not ta drink ’em to find out~” as he strode away.

    Mixing some drops of each in the alcohol and soaking some dried bandit ration bread in it, she left samples outside the tent. A few unhealthy pigeons stopped by to partake in the fare. Two dropped over dead. The third seemed to become invigorated, gobbling up the rest of its bread with unusual fervor before flying off, looking a bit perkier.

    Shandre took notes.

    It was a long five days.

    ===

    No casual glance identified the figure who strode into the town on the sixth day as the prostitute who departed that many days prior. A few suspicious glances were cast upon the bandit’s cowl she wore to shadow her features, as well as the fusilier belt laden with filled syringes instead of ammunition. A collection of small leather capsules dangled from sinuous cords alongside a few more satchels of other effects ranging from herb-laced bandages to bottles of experimental vapors, but for the most part she was taken for little more than just another eccentric adventurer.

    With a bag of pilfered bandit money, she wove her way through the sparse morning citizenship towards the tavern. Few were partaking in such revelry at this time of day, and it was easy for her to find an empty seat at the bar.

    “First time… Something strong enough to burn,” Shandre mumbled through the cowl as she placed down a stack of coins. The barkeeper eyed her, arching a brow at her diminutive statue, then shrugged, understanding the sentiment. He put down the tankard he was habitually cleaning and reached for a bottle of whiskey, pouring her a cup and sliding it across the bar table to her.

    There she waited, occasionally pulling her cowl down to take short sips of the strong drink. She grimaced, not used to the sensation. As much as she worked with the bandit liquor, she had never bothered to drink any of it, herself.

    Suddenly a collection of filled travel packs and an unusual, elongated mask were dropped onto the bar table beside Shandre with a clatter that nearly startled the girl into knocking over her cup.

    “So, ya made it~” came the familiar, cheerful drawl of Martin as he took a seat beside her, “I checked th’ camp. Saw it burned down. Wasn’t sure if ya’d been burned with it~”

    “What was done there needn’t be found,” Shandre sighed darkly, picking up the strange mask, looking over it curiously, “Where’d you get this?”

    “Made it, o’course,” Martin snorted, grabbing one of the tassels of his hat and ringing the bell on the end, “What, ya think I could jus’ walk up t’ a dumpster and fish somethin’ like this out?” He laughed, dropping the bell and gesturing at Shandre’s ratty clothes.

    “…It’d be an improvement,” she grinned, taking another drink.

    “Some grateful bitch you turned out ta be,” Martin spat, though in spite of his words, his intonation still bore the hint of a smile rather than any feeling of offense. He spun on the bar stool and leaned back against the bar, kicking a foot up to cross his legs, “I thought ya’d be a nice girl considering yer atrocious taste ‘n men.”

    Shandre sighed, expression deadpan as she shook her head and took a sip of her drink before responding, “Maybe I am and you’re just not giving me a reason to be.”

    “Whatever. We’re not gonna be picky at this juncture.” He gestured to the miscellaneous satchels on the table, “We gotta bring supplies, an’ yer not gonna get away with not carryin’ yer weight so there’s some bags. I’m givin’ ya th’ torches ‘nstead o’ th’ food so ya can stuff whatever gross garbage ya want in th’ bags when they free up, if we’re not usin’ em ta bring back any’ve th’ heir’s scattered junk. We’re just scoutin’ so we prolly won’t find much.” Then, pointing at the mask, he added, “And ya can stuff whatever sweet smellin’ crap ya want in that and it should help with th’ nasty smells yer gonna be dealin’ with. Looks stupid, but I figured it’s practical.”

    Shandre looked over the mask and its beaklike shape, bemused thoughts turning towards the crow that prompted her change of heart, that had been her constant imaginary companion since she began on her impromptu path to purpose, “Maybe, but you know… I actually find it rather appropriate.” She smiled, lightly, in spite of herself. “Thank you.” Reaching up, she pulled her cowl down just long enough to wrap the straps around her head and fix the mask to her face to make sure it fit. She’d find something fragrant to fill it with later.

    “Heh,” Martin shook his head, “Ya look like some awkward, craven bird… woman… creature,” he snapped his fingers, trying to think of the word he wanted, “…Harpy. Heh. It’s very unflattering.”

    “Right, because the one thing I could stand to worry about most now is being flattering,” Shandre sighed, furrowing her brow a bit. The mask’s shape created a very unnerving acoustic effect, distorting her voice.

    Perhaps a blessing, she thought. Anonymity had its perks, if the abrasive jester was any indication.

    “Normally th’ heir sends us out ‘t ’round noon, so we meet up by th’ old statue before then. Prolly runnin’ a bit late fer Cassandra’s tastes, as it figures,” Martin sat up, uncrossing his legs. Shandre just took in the name, not knowing what to expect of the fourth member whom she hadn’t met.

    “Make yer final preparations an’ then meet me by th’ graveyard, so I can take ya t’ see th’ others.” Lurching forward, the jester stood up from the barstool and walked out, while the barkeeper glowered after him. Shandre lifted her mask to finish her drink and put down some additional money in tip before standing up and leaving the bar, herself.

    She had only one preparation in mind. She headed towards the brothel, head down. Upon entering, the receptionist eyed her with an odd expression, not sure what to make of the unusual mask.

    Shandre put down her last bag of stolen coinage on the table, looking at the portly man, “Take a break. You’ve done me a great favor.”

    His confusion held his tongue as he glanced down at the money on the table, trying to figure out the meaning behind it. He didn’t notice Shandre leaving with a length of decorative, perfumed cloth that had been lining the reception table.

    On her way to the graveyard, Shandre tipped her mask up just enough to insert the cloth into its elongated hollow before replacing it. She took a deep breath. The perfume was very subtle, but comforting and familiar.

    As she neared the graveyard, she heard Martin’s lute before she saw him. When she was finally close enough to see, he was standing tall before one headstone in particular, laden with a few packs more than she was used to seeing him with as he looked down upon the grave and not her, “That was fast. Didn’t have much ta do, huh?”

    “Well, you did give me five days,” Shandre gestured down to her personal medicine satchels with a light pat, “Not much left to do.”

    “Touché,” Martin waved his hand, putting his lute away as he adjusted his supply packs on his shoulder, “Follow me. We’ll get this over with yet.”

    There were two figures situated by the statue as Martin led Shandre towards the hamlet center. Sitting upon some of the fallen timber was an armored woman of the Light, a vestal, her attention deeply bound to the leather book in her lap. Standing not too far away was the leper, gazing wistfully up at the cloudy sky.

    Shandre’s heart fluttered momentarily, and she took a deep breath to cover her feelings. She wasn’t sure it helped. Perhaps her choice of aroma for her mask was not the wisest, steeped in nostalgia as she had initially wanted it to be. Following Martin, she approached, as straight-backed and professionally as she could.

    “Fashionably late, as usual,” mumbled the vestal, Cassandra, not bothering to look up as Martin and Shandre approached, expression staid and humorless as she closed her book.

    The leper only glanced for a moment with a short, barely acknowledging nod at Martin before turning his attention to the incognito Shandre, “And who is this?”

    “Well, ya see, I’ve been a bit busy and we’re ‘n luck~” Martin chirped, flourishing a hand towards the masked ‘doctor’, “I’ve found ourselves a fourth member. Someone unafraid t’ wade hips-deep inta’ filth ‘n decay~”

    Shandre nearly choked and shot a dreadful glare at the jester, fuming behind the tinted lenses, unseen by the others, certain that Martin knew full well that she was in no way amused by his sick idea of a stealthy joke by his light giggling. The humor was lost on the others, and they disregarded it.

    “Well, she certainly looks dressed for it, so points for preparation,” observed the vestal, not fully convinced, but seeming relieved all the same, “I just hope she fares better than Meredith…” she added, grimly.

    Shandre blinked. Martin said they needed another member to their party, but it didn’t occur to her that her hire was meant as a replacement, “Who?”

    “Our… late colleague,” the leper rumbled, “A thorny rose on the best of days, an impassable briar the rest, so obsessed with the digging of graves that she is now one with her own forevermore,” he bowed his head, “A thief and a cheat and paranoid beyond measure, she was not the most pleasant of allies, but even she deserved a more noble fate.”

    He shot a glare over at Martin, though the severity of it was not immediately apparent to Shandre thanks to his mask. The jester fidgeted slightly. He was aware.

    Shandre’s heart sunk, “…Oh.”

    “I wouldn’t judge you to be dissuaded by that,” Cassandra clipped her book to her belt, standing up, “the going has been very rough and it’s been hard to find good, stable help.”

    “I would, ‘fter all that trouble…” Martin mumbled from the back. They both ignored him.

    “It’s… fine,” Shandre lied, trying to put on the mercenary air she was trying to feign, “As long as the pay is good and the cause is just.”

    The vestal nodded, expression neutral, voice flat and emotionless. She held out her hand, “Cassandra. Pleasure to have you. Didn’t catch a name, though?”

    Shandre took the hand in a firm shake, “I…” She began, looking down. Did she tell the truth? She was still far too ashamed. She tried, quickly, to rack her brain for a suitable substitute, and her thoughts drifted to the source of her resolve.

    “…Corbin. Just call me Corbin.”

    The jester snorted loudly behind her and broke into a fit of giggles, prompting the leper to level a stern frown at him, “What is so funny?”

    Martin put a hand over his mask where his mouth would have been, as if it would do anything to stifle his fit, “Oh, everything? I mean, c’mon, what d’ I not find funny?” However, he elbowed Shandre in the back, “Though seriously, -that’s- th’ best ye could come up with?”

    Shandre glowered, unseen, “…Shut up. My name is unimportant.”

    “The trepidation is understandable,” the leper hunched over, tone pensive, “Names are a watchlight at shore during a storm, but our duty is a terrible and wrathful sea. Any of our company could fall at any time; becoming too reliant on those beacons will only plunge ill-fated scouts like us into deeper darkness when the light inevitably goes out.”

    Martin shrugged, “Ever th’ optimist~”

    “We should get going while the clouds are thin as they are,” Cassandra observed, “It’ll be dark enough before nighttime that we’d be using more torches than necessary along that ugly path, otherwise.”

    “Well, after you, princess~” the jester bowed, chuckling, as he gestured along, “You’d know best~” Cassandra just shook her head, sighing as she hefted up her own bags of provisions, heading off down the carriage path.

    As Shandre turned to follow after her, she found herself stopped by a strong grip around her left upper arm, holding her still. She turned, somewhat startled, to see the leper standing at full height, glowering down at her.

    “Hmmm…” He rumbled, eyes narrowing as he tried to peer through the tinted glass of the plague doctor’s mask, though in part due to his own mask’s visual limitations, he could not make out what was beneath. Shandre’s breath caught in her throat. There was a palpable tension in the air at their standstill.

    “…No. Perhaps I am mistaken,” he finally uttered, releasing his hold and stepping past, following after Cassandra. Shandre was left, standing straight and still, shaken, as she finally allowed herself to breathe.

    As the first two crested the edge of town, Martin strode along past Shandre, snickering softly as he elbowed her in the ribs, whispering, “Think it’s gonna be worth th’ trouble, hmm?”

    Shandre looked down, placing a hand over her arm where she had been held, and wondered how long she would need to keep up the disguise.

    Or, more importantly, whether it would be safe to ever leave it.

    Wherein I occasionally draw fanart and/or attempt to write a fanfic. Pick your poison (or don't, and possibly survive).

    #13150
    PlagueDoc123
    PlagueDoc123
    Participant

    I am totally loving this so far! The personality of the characters feel so fitting!

    "Ack! Pulled a muscle!"

    My art!
    #13245

    agilerouge
    Participant

    Damn it! I feel jealous for not having had the cleverness myself to write out a story like this. The writing, the story and plot itself is simply amazing. You’ve done an excellent job in fleshing out each individual character and you’ve done an even better job at making sure their personalities are so clearly defined that you know instantly which one it is. I really must say that I’m enjoying it quite a lot!

    #13248

    agilerouge
    Participant

    Oh, and I simply must add that I find it humorous the fact that your own nickname, Daimera, is just one letter off from my own usual one, (Not on this forum) Caimera. The odds huh..?

    #13450
    Daimera
    Daimera
    Participant

    Thank you! Positive feedback on writing really helps with the motivation to keep going; I don’t write often, most of my descriptive and character-building background is steeped in roleplaying rather than narrative prose, so I tend to fret about my grammar and pacing when I’m going at it alone.

    Chapter 3 might, unfortunately, be a while coming. 1 and 2 largely wrote themselves, but I was so iffy on their reception that I didn’t have much concrete progression for things going forward past them (though… I have more written for the theoretical and currently-unnumbered last chapter than I do for 3… =3=;;;). I have a DIRECTION, but no real content yet.

    Oh, and I simply must add that I find it humorous the fact that your own nickname, Daimera, is just one letter off from my own usual one, (Not on this forum) Caimera. The odds huh..?

    Haha, yeah, names are kind of a small-world thing; I think there’s straight up a band that uses the name Daimera, not sure how active they are. Caimera seems like it’s meant to evoke “chimera”; I don’t even remember what my thought process was when I made Dai’s name (she’s a character of mine more than an actual persona). I’ve just been using the name for more’n 15 years now, even though I don’t necessarily use it everywhere these days. I continue to use it because it’s familiar to my older and/or more active haunts and allows for easier cross-referencing. 8S

    Anyway, thank you all, again! I needed that pick-me-up!

    Wherein I occasionally draw fanart and/or attempt to write a fanfic. Pick your poison (or don't, and possibly survive).

    #13501
    VanityPirate
    VanityPirate
    Participant

    I wish I was as good at writing as you are, because this is just about the third time I’ve rewritten this comment. You fit the character’s personality and dialogue so well, and Martin is just awesome. I can’t wait for future installments!

    My characters-
    "I'd sneak into your burrito." --Bloodtrailkiller
    "you'll never quote me" --Relentless Oblivion

    Spoiler

    "All flesh fails, in the fullness of time."

    Tilly: Grave Robber
    HP: Healthy
    Stress: 30/100 [Neutral]
    Gold: 4585

    Florence Novel: Plague Doctor
    HP: Healthy
    Stress: 15/100 [Relaxed]
    Gold: 75

    [collapse]

    #13524
    cupiens_
    cupiens_
    Participant

    That was extremely well-written. I had at first thought the story was going to simply be a heartwarming, mini-tale about the Leper finding pure, simple intimacy–and even though that would’ve been great on its own, the direction this is going, and has gone, is really well-written. That’s the mark of a good introduction, I think.

    I loved the symbolism used with the crow. It wasn’t necessarily immediate, but it clicked rather quickly as the story progressed, and it was really really well done. I’d say though it got a bit too heavy-handed when Shandre internally made mention of it herself, but that’s just a really small nitpick and is entirely inconsequential and really just boils down to my own personal taste.

    You breathed a lot of life and believably within the characters, and the setting in general. The personalities you’ve written for the characters were very fitting, and very believable. I feel personally this is going to end up being my head-canon regarding them. I like how this sort of ties in with your other piece of artwork you did earlier. I’m not sure which inspired which, but nonetheless, I think the potential Plague Doctor x Leper pairing is genius. It’s probably more obvious to most than it was to me at first, but damn, it’s just really perfect given their professions and visual design.

    I’m going to sound like a broken-record at this point, but once again, this was really nice work. Keep it up!

    #14033
    Smiley
    Smiley
    Participant

    I created an account here JUST so I could post in this thread, that’s how much I love what you’ve got going on with this story and its accompanying fan-art! ^_^

    Your writing style is really nice and clean, and combined with the great idea and character work so far that makes it a real pleasure to read. I’m a bit of an hobbyist writer myself but this is seriously good stuff, better than I could hope to do.

    After seeing Darkest Dungeon is a few let’s plays around Youtube I couldn’t stop myself from getting it, despite my usual aversion to Early Access games. The art and aesthetic style are wonderful and I LOVE games that encourage you to develop characters and stories over the course of the gameplay. Those two aspects are the main things that initially drew me to the game.

    Over the course of the last week since I bought the game I’ve probably spent an hour or three alone thinking about my various character’s personalities and interactions with each other and the Hamlet’s denizens in between their weekly treks into the darkness. The four reluctant companions who bond over their shared enthusiasm for card games each night in a secluded corner of the tavern, the Highwayman who was an aspiring ballroom dancer before turning to a life of crime and adventuring, the Grave Robber who’s utterly concerned with her sense of “professionalism and standards” or the less than noble Crusader who routinely badgers and haggles with the blacksmith for better deals for his costly armour repairs and sword sharpenings. All these little traits and more popped up naturally over time and have only made my experience with the game all the better.

    Which is why I was so excited to find someone else taking this narrative approach to the game and just running with it when I merely came here to look at what was being said by other players about some balance issues.

    Please keep going with this, because after only two chapters you’ve hooked me. I want to see how this plot develops, what sort of characters your protagonists run into and what sort of trouble they get stuck in. It’s cute, it’s tragic, it’s funny and I can’t wait to read more when you update it, whenever it is that you get around to it.

    #14072
    Daimera
    Daimera
    Participant

    Wooow, thank you guys so much! The thoughtful feedback really makes me happy and giddy, and I’m glad people are looking forward to more! I want to Like each and every one of these responses, arg! T3T

    The picture came first and the initial story was done independently of it, but then fed into it when I decided to write more than just the first chapter. Don’t be surprised if it shows up in a far more direct manner later on. ;>

    I do worry about being heavy-handed, especially when it comes to flowery language and off-hand metaphors, but for the most part I just kinda let those things flow as they come. Heck, I’m even worried that the TITLE is too tryhard, but coming up with a title was really, really stumping me, and the term came to mind on a whim (I used to really enjoy studying medieval weaponry) and just kinda stuck. I may end up changing it later if it starts to make me cringe, if I can.

    I’m trying to work on it as quickly as I can given the circumstances, and I’m trying to get at least a page a day, whether that page be actual concrete progress, or detailed summaries of scenes so that I’ll have a skeleton to work from when I reach those scenes. The reason that’s ending up a bit slow is that many of the ideas I find myself summarizing are spread across all the remaining chapters as opposed to keeping my attention full-bore on 3; making sure everything ties together in the long run, and such.

    I can’t promise much more in the way of humor (it’s a very dark game, after all), but there should be a little more. YMMV on how funny certain things could be considered given that. From the looks of things, the main plot and “conflict” here will be resolved with 5 chapters total, unless something pops up that changes the direction (for instance, the reason this grew into more than the first chapter was because the character traits for Martin popped up in my head while walking home from volunteering one day and started writing himself into the plot and not shutting up). This isn’t to say that these characters’ escapades will definitively end at 5 chapters, as side-stories may occur (heck, there is already one short, single-chapter side-story in the wings regarding the ill-fated grave robber, Meredith, with two short scenes written out). It’s largely reliant on whether or not I unintentionally shoot myself in the foot before finishing. =3=;

    Speaking of, the mention of “the Grave Robber who’s utterly concerned with her sense of “professionalism and standards””… is coincidentally reminding me a bit of what I have written for Meredith so far, so I might have to tweak her slightly so it doesn’t feel redundant or come across as stolen. c.c; But that’s a ways away. I’m not sure if any other character classes will get full-character representation right off the bat; I guess it depends on where this goes after the main storyline is done. I’m just concentrating on my favorites, for now. ^^;

    Wherein I occasionally draw fanart and/or attempt to write a fanfic. Pick your poison (or don't, and possibly survive).

    #14075
    PlagueDoc123
    PlagueDoc123
    Participant

    I wish was this good at writing…

    "Ack! Pulled a muscle!"

    My art!
    #14321
    FateWeaver
    FateWeaver
    Participant

    My first post on the forums here goes in favor of you, Daimera I saw some of your art earlier and liked it, figured I’d dig for more and was pleasantly surprised by this. Thank you, for making my morning somewhat bright- er… Darker.

    #15330
    Dameon Love-Knight
    Dameon Love-Knight
    Participant

    As I’ve already given my opinion (and rampant need for more mushy story)
    I guess I’ll just leave here that I blame you for making me want DD that much more :>

    #15888
    Ajkrumen
    Ajkrumen
    Participant

    More. Pls. I need my DD fanfic fix. You got the good stuff!

    #15913
    Daimera
    Daimera
    Participant

    Thank y’all for continued support!

    Chapter 3 is maybe about 80% done at this point (and keep in mind I do write scenes out of order as they come to mind)… but it is also quite long! Going by my OpenOffice file, chapter 1 is about 7.5 pages, 2 is about 13.5 pages, and so far 3 is about 15.5 with one major scene, wrap-up, and some polish to go. This is gonna make chapter 4 kind of awkward unless I find a way to pad it out because it looks like it’s going to be on the short side.

    I may have to go back into this once everything is done and re-partition the chapter distributions to get them a bit more even, if I can find a way to do it nicely. One of the things that comes with me having little in the way of formal creative writing background beyond high school is I have no idea how to break these things up; its pacing is more akin to a short roleplay campaign, and you can never really predict how long a given session of that will go given the scenarios. You just kinda run with it.

    Chapter 3 is pretty gradual so it’s hard to cut it anywhere to make it into two separate chapters. It’s tempting to find a break-off point and post a “part 1” as a tide-over, but the best place to break it without interrupting the flow is honestly rather close to the end (IE, right before the major scene I’m about to work on), which would make for a… somewhat stilted partial-release, should this scene turn out to not be very long in conjunction with the following scenes that wrap the chapter up.

    Thoughts?

    Wherein I occasionally draw fanart and/or attempt to write a fanfic. Pick your poison (or don't, and possibly survive).

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