Watchful Cerulean Aegis took a careful look around the dimly lit tunnel, then gestured her men forwards. Five men moved first, taking up position around her before gesturing for those behind them to follow. She nodded approval at their caution - as close as they might be to the Matropolis, these were extremely dangerous tunnels, and it paid to be cautious.
So dangerous, in fact, that she doubted that her mission was anything but a fool's errand. Other scouting parties had been lost nearby, but she expected that was due to them wandering too close to the Blight, instead of any sort of indication of Yugashian activity. Bold as they were becoming, even Yugash knew to fear the Blight. Anyone could fall to the monstrous creatures within, and an Exalt was no guarantee of safety...
â€œSir?â€ Aegis shifted her gaze instantly, looking across and down at the soldier standing before her. She was an imposing sight to him, she knew. Six and a half feet tall, her body a jade casing through which Essence ran like blood, bones of metal and wire replacing flesh and sinew, clad in armour of the same azure shades as her eyes, the Alchemical Exalt was imposing enough to impress nearly anyone. Her face was indulgent, but often grim - Aegis was a soldier first and foremost, and her Social Charms gathered dust on their shelves most years. She could not recall the last time that the familiar weight of her weapons had not sat at her side, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice, and somehow, although she welcomed the challenge, the thought brought a burst of half-remembered regret. It should not be like this. Not within the Realm of the Maker.
â€œYes, Seargent Olu?â€ The seargent had been with Aegies for over four years, since she first began her exploration and protection duties, and was well-used to her philisophical moods and sudden intuitions. He had even come to share them from time to time. Most of the other scouts present had similar experience - all fifteen of them had served under her for at least two seasons, and some for as many as the Seargent.
â€œWill we be checking the markers? By my read, we're only 500 yards from the nearest Blight market post.â€
Aegies considered it for a moment, then nodded. â€œWe might as well, as long as we're in the area. Which tunnel?â€
â€œThis one, sir.â€ Olu gestured down the left-hand tunnel, and Aegis nodded and started forwards. Her eyes shifted and clicked over, servos whirring as they refocused on the tunnels. It wouldn't do to be surprised by the things that lurked in the Blight.
Soon, they had reached another tunnel crossing, and Aegis motioned for the other scouts to remain at the crossroads as she advanced. According to her sensors, the Blight began a mere twenty feet down the passage, and she had no wish for any of her men to so much as cross the threshold if it was not needed. She stopped, the Blight hanging ahead of her. In her sensors, it stood out like a sickness, and even her men could tell that something was wrong - the lights of the tunnel ahead were dim and flickering, their light casting shadows longer than they had any right to. The pooling water of the tunnels reflected flashes of motion that did not exist, and the sound of liquid flowing through the pipes changed to a low moaning that set Aegis's jade teeth on edge. It was a place of death before her, and she shook her head at the sight. No matter how many Blight Zones she saw, she was never prepared.
Quickly, she turned to her task. Kneeling, she reached out to the marker post that had been affixed to the left side of the tunnel, carefully measuring the distance between it and the edge of the Blight before removing it, and then carefully re-affixing it at the exact point that the Blight gave way to normal tunnels. She called back to Olu. â€œHow long since the last inspection?â€
The seargent consulted the papyrus that he held, balanching it on the back of one armoured glove as he pulled out a stylus with the other. â€œTwo months, looks like. What's the spread?â€
â€œ14 centimeters.â€ Aegis let out a breath. â€œSeven a month. That's not good.â€ She stood smoothly, scanning the tunnel out of habit. â€œAlright. We'll move to Outpost E-14, and then...â€
She broke off abruptly, shifting position to face the tunnel. Her hands fell to her waist, twitching to reach for weapons. â€œI see you there, Blade.â€
There was a moment's pause, and then a part of the tunnel wall detached and shifted. A man stepped out, his dull grey skin reflecting the lights of the Blight with half-seen faces, his crimson eyes boring into her. â€œI thought you had. I rather hoped that you hadn't. Hello, Aegis. What brings you out here?â€
â€œI could ask you the same thing.â€ Aegis frowned heavily. Bloodied Blade Falling was a saboteur and enforcer of the Soulsteel Caste, and a servant of the nation of Yugash. She had worked alongside him once three years earlier, battling a Void cult - but she hadn't expected to see him within Estasian territory. And... â€œYou're within a Blight Zone, Blade. You must know that.â€
â€œI am in no danger. You, on the other hand...â€ Blade shook his head, and Aegis felt a low humming coming from him, something that pulsed through the surrounding tunnels at the very edge of her hearing. â€œYou are interrupting a test.â€
â€œYou shouldn't be here.â€ Aegis took a step backwards, gesturing to the right. â€œAnd you are alone. Leave now, and you will be unharmed.â€
â€œHm. Perhaps I will. But I don't need to follow your paths - I have my own ways.â€ Blade smiled grimly, stepping backwards down the passage. â€œI suggest you flee. They will be here soon.â€
And then, with a ripple of shadow, he stepped around a corner and was gone. And in the wake of his passing, Aegis heard the howls of the Dead.