The Blighted Earth - Chapter 3 (under construction)

Eĵas and I parted ways as he went to talk with the saltkeeper while I went to gather the other necessities we would need in going out into the unknown.

"To ensure that brows won't be raised when you ask for a few days’ worth," he had said. "You might have been able to convince her to give you a pinch with little hassle. Getting a quantity that can’t be contained by your pouch? Imprisonment, easily.”

I didn’t argue since we were being pressed for time and that I was trying to calculate how much I could get away with spending for the rest of our supplies.

Not very much, it turned out. Apparently things tended to inflate in price during the winter in Gavallande, what with the lake that was the only access to the rest of the kingdom and its tendency to freeze over quite often. It was fortunate that none of the merchants in the town’s marketplace were hurting for stock. The past few years proved to be as bountiful in the mountain town as it was the rest of the kingdom.

I’m sure if it weren’t for the botanists, arborists, and other horticulturists like me, it would have been a different story. I couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride at that realization.

It was a brief feeling. After all, the days of plenty could easily end if the other practitioners of my profession continued to pretend nothing was wrong with the soil they worked with. They along with me felt the pull to the Blight. They knew something was amiss there. But they wanted to keep it secret and pretend that “pull” didn’t exist.

Instead, the most unqualified, novice alumnus of the academies took it upon himself to figure out what was happening. Me, someone who got stuck with the “safe” job of tending the gardens of people who risked it all and attained something greater, all because of the connections my family had.

And once again, it felt like my chain of successes so far was on the coattails of someone of higher status. A prince who didn’t bat an eyelid to mind control, no less. I guess I should have felt thankful that sometimes things were handed to me on a silver platter. Instead, I felt like I was cheating at life.

Though perhaps if life had given me a bit more coin, I could have bought so much more for supplies.

I spent about half of the contents of my coin purse just for food. With what was left, I had to scrounge together makeshift tools for my experiments. Glassware was unfortunately out of the question, so I had to make do with a set of ceramic pots and cups. I almost gave up the entire expedition because it took me a few hours to find a decent mortar and pestle.

Gavallande did not breed scholars of the likes of me, it seemed.

At the very least, the major necessities were easily available. Water was free, all I needed was to melt it from its frozen form. Shelter would be no issue considering that I could grow a makeshift one at a moment’s notice. If I were able to grow anything in the Blight, of course. But if I was able to grow an apple tree in the sand, I was confident enough that I could grow one in soil laced with sickness. It would just be half-dead like the apple tree.

“All set?” Eĵas asked me after I parted with the last coin I had on me for a case of sea salt. The stuff was so cheap in the city of Avamir because the ocean was so close.

“As best as I can be with little preparation. I was expecting to be given a few weeks to prepare.”

“We both know you would have done that regardless.”

“Yes, but at least this way I could avoid the complications of having the gates send me to prison if I got caught.”

“So you admit to having intentions of going regardless of obtaining permission?”

“I did, if I got desperate enough. However, should something happen to me, no one would know that I was in the Blight, that is if I don’t set off the ward the duke and duchess placed on it. Despite what you might believe of me, I’m not an idiot.”

Eĵas nodded. “Good choice. Hopefully you’ll be able to continue the same while we’re out there.”

From the marketplace, Eĵas and I started our way up the mountain with our large bags of supplies on our backs. The trees grew thick as we distanced ourselves from Gavallande, the air growing thinner and colder. I wrapped my newly-purchased scarf tighter around my neck. I envied Eĵas’s ability to control his body heat, as with all the hardier koriras that called the mountains home.

Then again, süliras like me would never call harsh environments “home.” It was nature’s way to keep the balance of influence between the two forces of magic.

As we continued our way up the mountain pass, it felt like my eyes were freezing over while Eĵas walked like he was having a pleasant summer stroll through the snow. The gates to the Blight were finally in sight, a good portion of the day lost just getting there. The sun was already setting, twilight creeping over the heavens above me.

The grand gates were etched into the mountains, molded into the sides of the valley. The path was rockier and harder to distinguish in the snow since the morticians were the only ones who trekked this far in centuries, only making the journey once a month to send the dead through the gates.

The imposing structure stuck out, its shining iron gates a contrast to the dull, snowy mountains. Legends said that, during the time of the Founders and when magic ran rampant, powerful men and women had erected the mountain chain to divide the two halves to the island into the wild east and the civilized west. A Founder himself forged the gates and held them up so the mountains could be formed around them.

A story only children believed, since history and dedicated studies of the geology of the island said the mountains were a natural phenomenon and the gates were added later. But looking at how both were situated, it was apparent how easily such a tale could be created.

“Impressive, are they not?” Eĵas said, monotonous. “But I’m sure you’d like to know what lays beyond those gates as much as I do.”

“Are you sure that we have the duchess’s express permission?” I asked. “I don’t want to end up setting off the ward. Being knocked unconscious then dragged before the king to be exiled to the mainlands isn’t on my list of things to do.”

“You should learn to trust me more, Alir. Of course I’m certain.”

“Alright, since you’re the koriras in our duo, care to do the honors?”

Eĵas nodded once before he stepped before the gates. He placed a hand on the metal barrier and closed his eyes.

With a groan, the gates swung open upon its hinges against the mountains it clung to.

The breath in my throat hitched when I saw what laid behind those gates.

Bones. Wrapped in funeral suits and dresses from all walks of life in the kingdom and charred from the magical fires that burnt away the flesh that once clinged to the frames. From what little I could see of the Blight, the skeletons of people who once lived on the island littered every inch of space save for a narrow walkway that disappeared out of sight around a corner.

“Since you’re the expert here, I believe it’s best that you lead,” Eĵas suggested.

I sighed and braced myself, passing through the gates into the unknown with supplies on my back and Eĵas in tow.

At least there wasn’t any snow on the other side of the gate.


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