With the man’s every step, a flat note tolled. An iron bell bounced round his neck. Faces turned, startled, shuffled away.
Stoat turned from the bar, stared, wrinkled her upturned nose. She leaned to her friend, a lass wrapped in silk. “Can’t believe they allow that, here.”
“What?” said the lass, distracted from her beer.
“Look about, Lilé.”
“I have rarely seen one, in the North.”
Lilé surreptitiously watched the man, followed his swaddled face and stiff, slow movements. He leaned at the bar, massaged blunt, bandaged hands. With an uneasy wave, he caught the attention of the barkeep, a mouse. When he bent to speak to the whiskered publican, a line of blackened skin showed at his neck. Spongey, knotted skin, puckered like the flesh of a plucked duck.
Stoat nudged Lilé, shook her head. She hunched her shoulders, uncomfortable. “Puts a person off her food. Shouldn’t be allowed here.”
Lilé’s green eyes narrowed, askance at Stoat. “You know, Love, that is very much the way we ragged folk are treated, by many Firls.”
“Aye, but you're not diseased.”
“He might have been born with it. And he’s covered up. They are not so catching as you might think.”
Stoat glanced at the man, noted the bell, the bandages, the smell of grey salt. She noted his belted sidesword, his cutter’s pack.
“Eh. Suppose he’s plying the same life as us.”
“To many, he is more valuable than us.”
Stoat unknitted her brow. “Aye, you’re right. Can’t blame a blighter for making the best of things.”
Bones crunched underfoot. Sulphurous tears dropped from rotted stone, rolled down dirty helmet visors. Eyes, puffy with exhaustion, blinked, twitched behind slits of steel. They watched the hall, nervous. Down that low and putrid tunnel, many somethings shifted, just beyond the lantern light.
"Hold," barked a low and broken voice. The cutters stopped.
"Vanguard to the fore."
From the column's rear, a bulk of armor advanced. Shoulders, clad in quarter inches of steel, pushed to the front. Spike-stoled boots crushed wet bones to slurry. Thick, distorted arms hefted a tower shield near as wide as the hall. Eyes, blue and rimmed by puckered skin, showed neath a metal grille.
The cutters shied away from their vanguard. Their uneasy eyes watched a bell, silenced by a daub of wool, hang silent from the hulk's neck. Only by their leader's insistence did they huddle close, point pikes and heavy gunsprings round the slab of shield. A scent of salt and rot floated from the figure, twinged in their nostrils.
With a rustle of steel, the cutters took a collective step. The lantern light crept a meter. Something withdrew a pale limb into the unnatural dark. Another step. Something hissed, eyes flaring in the light. Another.
Suddenly, a thin and lipless shape burst from the dark. It sprinted, limbs wild, spittle flowing from white gums. A crack resounded in the cramped hall. A flechette disappeared through its eye. It toppled, spun out, slid to the tower shield's lip. There was silence, save for the high slither of a gunspring rewinding.
Then, there were more. Countless grey, bare-toothed figures. Their thin and bloody feet skittered over ancient bones. A volley of gunspring retorts echoed in the long chamber, struck bloody lines through veiny skulls. Dozens fell. More followed.
Bodies slammed against the slab of steel. It quaked, held fast. The vanguard merely blinked. Past the hunched, armored hulk, pikes struck, met flesh, withdrew, stuck again. Spit and sour gore spattered round the curve of the mobile barricade, speckled already-filthy armor. Emaciated, crooked creatures fell, piled broken at armored feet.
The column began to waver. A long-clawed arm whipped round the shield, caused a cutter to cry out, clutch her wet, ruined eye. Weird, cast-iron spears of an ancient mould jutted round one side, stuck one man in the neck and groin. He fell back, mewling.
"Assume rear shot positions!" called the lead.
Cutters peeled back from their guard. Unhindered by warding pikes, toothy creatures squirmed through. Many fell to biting flechettes. Others slipped by unassailed. They struck at the vanguard's sides and arms, sunk time-hardened points into soft elbows and joints in armor. Chain mesh tore. Steel plate buckled. Diseased, senseless skin split.
The blighted vanguard felt nothing at all.
From the dustlands south of Baramecca comes a black and noxious mold. It is no common fungus, no pest to twigs of trees or garden fruit. It prefers more hearty fare: The trunks and limbs of humankind. It is blight.
Blight distorts, consumes its victims. A new infection is naught but a patch or two of wide, blackened pores. This patch spreads over months, years, slowly becoming an oily, spongy lesion. Infected tissue grows knotted, blackened, puckered and holey, like the plucked flesh of fowl. Quickly, that flesh turns numb and senseless. Victims' extremities become like dumb weights, oblivious in all but sight and smell to leaking, accumulated cuts and rotting secondary infections.* In time, those limbs wither, shrivel up, and fall away.
Fortunate blights victims die of secondary causes. The most miserable live to see themselves become disgusting, shrunken stumps.
Creatures affected by blight are shunned, avoided. They are known as blighters.**
Wise folk beware the blighter's bell. That flat, iron tongue produces a clapping deeply associated with death and distrust. Its tone will clear a ten-foot radius in even the most crowded market.***
Most blighters wear bells. In Northern realms, where blight is uncommon, the law will imprison those who do not warn of their condition.† In Southern Alagór, where begging blighters prowl the gutters, the bell-less are met with death.
Though blight does not twist the mind, its victims are treated as madmen or monsters. Though many fear to even breath near a begging blighter, there are some who would kick the bowl from their shriveled hands. If ever a blighter is strung up for some crime, crowds will cheer all the more as they twitch in the noose's grip.
Though blighters may not be true monsters, some change to fit perception. Some begin to revel in their horrific image, construct bandit packs from fellows who would punish the society which shuns them.
Only in the lawless reaches of the Wilderness do blighters find acceptance. As cutters, blighters are valuable assets. The numbness caused by their condition curtails pain, allows them to serve in assault or vanguard roles too punishing for anyone else. Though such roles lead them to the most awful, fatal depths of Tombs, the blighters who survive are paid richly. Such coinage funds medical treatment and plentiful salt, which stems the progression of blight. So long as they remain in one piece, a blighter with a shield may lead a long and profitable life.
In further scribbling on diseases, I have concocted one which bestows pain resistance. If the party tank is a blighter, they can tank all the harder. They also might not notice when their nose falls off.
* Often, it is an auxiliary infection sprouted in blight lesions which kills blighters.
** The term "blighter" is often used euphemistically to refer to a contemptible, annoying, or pitiable person.
*** Folk deeply fear blight, even above plague. While most diseases are prevented by the panacea which is grisodate salt, blight is not. Though the mold is only communicated by touch, most won't enter spitting distance of a blighter.
† Usually, such an offender will be shipped to a blighter colony on some faraway island.