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"The... worms?" Dee put extra effort into feigning ignorance. It seemed to work. The disgust at the subject matter, however, was genuine.
"Never mind," said Lahr. "They're not important, and I'll just frighten you for no reason."
"You mentioned them. They must be important."
"We're unlikely to encounter them. They live in the mountains to the east of the Covenant. Beyond the great temple."
Dee knew what temple he meant. She realized that there was something else she was keeping from her new friend. It took an unusual amount of effort to remember what that other thing was, and, when she did, the knowledge tried to bury itself in her mind once more. The involuntary shift in her thoughts made her frown. Lahr took it for recognition.
"You've heard of the Four Temples?"
"No. Four, did you say?"
"North and South. East and West. They're in ruins now, from the time before words."
" And the worms?"
"In the soil. No one sleeps on the ground there. Or near freshly-turned soil. The worms bring madness and violence-"
Lahr thought for a moment.
"-well... more madness and violence than is normal. Mindless. With the uncontrollable desire to bite. The bite spreads the worm to new victims. Once bitten, the madness comes within minutes. Death comes in days. You see the problem, yes?"
"You've seen this yourself?"
"The Covenant has used these worms against us in the past. They capture and infect a single person. Usually a child too young to know what is happening to them. Then they release him near his village."
"Is there a cure?"
"Death is the only one I know of."
Lahr looked away, but Dee caught a glimpse of his expression. Not fear or disgust... shame.
"You've... killed some of these people?"
"I'll not speak of it."
"So... what if my friend had these worms?"
"What if he did?"
"Madness comes in minutes. If he'd been bitten, he would have killed you long before I met you. Your friend is strange. But he is not... like them. You would know if he were."
"Is it always that fast?" Dee asked. "Is there something that could... slow it down?"
"Why do you-"
Lahr frowned, and looked around.
Dee saw the large bird circling them overhead. But it wasn't what had drawn Lahr's attention.
"I've allowed myself to become distracted. We're here."
"Gather your friends. I must warn them."
"About what? What's going on?"
"You will see."
Dee jogged ahead and shouted after the lumbering Woodsman.
"Nicholas! Hold on a second!"
The machine came to a halt with a squeal not unlike the hydraulic brakes on an old garbage truck. It turned to face her, trampling a hole in the ground as it did.
"YES?" the grinding voice boomed.
"Where's the Scarecrow?"
A pale hand appeared on her shoulder. Dee yelped and spun. It was her homicidal rescuer.
"Where were you?"
He raised a finger and rotated his hand slightly, indicating 'everywhere'. He then pointed skyward.
"Yeah, I saw him. Lahr's got something to tell us. I don't know what, but maybe we need to tell him about the-"
"This way!" Lahr walked past them, forging a new path through the woods. "Slowly."
Dee followed him. Treach followed her, but stopped every few steps to sniff. The pit-bull had taken a sudden interest in the way the ground smelled.
A few seconds later, the forest ended.
It just... ended.
There was a large tree directly in front of Dee, and when she stepped around it, there was open space. The ground abruptly changed from dirt and rotting leaves to loose white stone. Ahead of them was a barren clearing the size of several city blocks. Rock formations ranging from tiny piles of small gravel to truck-sized slabs of what looked like bleached granite dotted the space between Dee and the forest on the far side. The clearing was shaped like a teardrop. Not teardrop-ish or 'roughly' like a teardrop... it was EXACTLY that shape, as if it had been carved out of the forest by a machine. At the 'fat' end was a large pit. It was big enough to swallow a house. Huge rocks jutted from the ground around it as if something had exploded outward from the depths. Their color and placement were eerily reminiscent of teeth.
"Good," Lahr sighed in relief. "I was hoping we'd come out far from that." He indicated the pit.
"What is this place?"
"A Blight," said Lahr.
Dee caught a hint of something unpleasant in the air. The air was uncomfortably dry and dusty, but there was also a touch of rot. Like hot garbage and sour milk. It wasn't a scent she expected, given that there was nothing organic in the clearing. Just rock. But the smell seemed to be coming from the pit, and there was no way to tell what was down there.
Lahr continued his explanation.
"It came from Imoz... one of his early attempts to forge the White. It failed. And that failure left the land like this. Full of poison and... other things."
"Other things like...?"
"Doesn't matter. We will not cross the Blight. We will not enter it. We will walk along the trees, that way." Lahr pointed roughly north. "Along the edge."
Dee followed the tree line with her eyes, then frowned. Something didn't look right.
She looked behind her and jumped, inhaling sharply. Dee had stopped walking when she first saw the Blight. The trees should have been directly behind her, but when she looked, the nearest tree was over five feet away. And it wasn't the same tree she remembered stepping around.
"What's going on?"
"The shamans say that this place is not entirely within our sphere," said Lahr. "It is an-" He scowled, trying to think of the word. "...intersection? The size and location are not fixed. It is very easy to stumble across it unexpectedly, even if you know where it should be. As we almost did."
Dee moved back toward the trees, which weren't as far away as she thought. Or perhaps the forest had moved forward to meet her. Dee honestly couldn't tell which.
"Stay just behind the trees," Lahr warned. "Do not enter the Blight. Avoid looking at it if you can."