LIII.

In perfect honesty, this was the third time that Aldebaran had seen the oceans. His homeland was amongst the crevices of mountains well hidden by plateaus, plains and ranges on all fronts, and he was but a child when his mother decreed for an absolute isolation from the human realm.

Still, he recollected the large bodies of water being a lot more vibrant than this greyish, infinite uncertainty stinking of ill omen. He begged Jiube to go survey the place.

“It’s awfully empty,” Lyra pointed out the obvious as they strolled down the main dirt road past abandoned houses, the hooves of their steeds became unbearably loud.

“There is no point of healing anyone if there is not a single soul here,” Athlem muttered. “Is the bet voided, then?”

“I doubt it would be that simple,” Horatio rejoined them after retreating from the third unanswered door. “There’s certainly something rotten in that General’s state of mind, he could have the villagers massacred to pin it on you…”

At least not all of them were killed, Aldebaran noted the shimmer of spirits hidden behind thick fog and fear and bolted doors. Jiube returned to his shoulder to report murky inconclusiveness.

“What on earth is that?” Lyra was rubbish at hiding panic, and when he followed the direction of her finger he could hardly blame her.

Forms materialized from the densest patch of fog into strange imitations of humanoids persistent against the breeze and common sense. They initially moved at a gentle float, yet in a blink they had made to enclose the group. Half a heartbeat later a claw of a fogform gutted the mare Athlem was perched upon, and amongst pained neigh and sharp tang of blood Aldebaran saw the diluted ill will that plagued the fog’s irregular forms. He drew the dark strands from its being and it dissipated with a hollow screech.

A yelp of pain accompanied by a sting distracted him; he turned to Lyra, who, having made a quick work of a few monsters found herself overwhelmed as she threw herself between the horde and her aunt and uncle; a blade of air caught her arm, she dispatched the offender, though another ran its claws through her back. She fell to her knees.

Lyra!

I…am fine.

He swept over to her, collected the dark strings in the way and turned them to dust, how are you fine, your back is split open. In a single motion he collected her into his arms, her protests proclaiming her ability to limp killed by a hiss. Already some remnants of the fog form regain their deathly edge; when he contemplated taking flight, a door snapped open, lending to a man and his hoarse cry.

“Ya fools, get in here!”

There were little space for arguments, and he stole into the cabin with Horatio and Athlem closely behind.

The villager slammed the door shut, barred the wooden slab with talismans and a cluster of furnitures before turning to them, his weathered face contorted by anger and fear, “Who on earth are you? What were you thinking?”

“We are…” even Horatio stuttered while Athlem and Aldebaran were too busy fussing after Lyra to pay their savior the attention he deserved. “…forever in your debt — ”

“ — No, I am not speaking to you, capital snob,” Horatio attempted to act unoffended; the old man turned to Aldebaran, seized him by the shoulder and tore his attention briefly away from Lyra. “You are one of those filthy banshees?”

“Banshees?” Aldebaran was puzzled, distracted from the inquiry as he scanned his surroundings for the first time to find the room filled with at least twenty watchful villagers, young and old; then he glanced back to Lyra again, she groaned, he panicked, muttering a spell and drew a line down the back that Athlem was now hurrying to patch, rendering the torn flesh flawless again.

“What did you just do?” Both the old man and Athlem exclaimed, though Athlem merely strangled the stirring Lyra with a tight embrace while the man drew a sword and launched himself at the Nokshan.

The watchful eyes widened, their owners screamed; Aldebaran guided the blade out of the old man’s hand, “I do not understand what grudge you hold against my people. I have never set foot upon this land until today, and only do so for your aid.”

“Who sent you?”

“Al-Alde…?” Lyra muttered, her mind still disoriented.

Another villager answered with a gasp, “You are Lord Aldebaran, the Nokshan who left the rebellion.”

Then the identity of the four foreigners fell to place, the Princess, the Imperial Commander and Etzion Prince alongside his companion…but that also meant —

“ — Forgive your servant for his foolishness,” The old man still revered his Kingdom and their gods. “Your servant is blind — ”

“ — It’s fine, sir, you saved us,” Horatio helped the poor old man up. “This ‘capital snob’ should have stated his identity.”

It was difficult to see, but the old man’s weathered face flushed red, a few voices chuckled, “Your Highness…”

A clap to the old man’s back, “Now, good man, would you and your — ”

“ — Family.”

“ — Your family would be so kind to assist us further? Would you perhaps enlighten us to what this ‘plague’ is? I am assuming what attacked us earlier was part of it.”

“It is…not something that could be so easily explained,” The hesitance of each syllable gave the old man an angle of gentle sorrow. “It’s…so much worse than a plague. It’s…”

“Could you start by explaining what you meant by ‘banshees’ earlier, sir?” Aldebaran’s calm was almost infectious, Lyra looked about to doze off drowning in a clean shirt one of the villagers kindly lend her to replace her torn and bloodied one with while Athlem kept her in a gentle cradle.

While the old man looked away, engulfed in a rush of emotions, a girl barely old enough to be a woman took his place, began the tale of the Southshore plague.

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