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21: Ruin

We watched the fortress burn. Two things must have occurred to each of us as the walls of the fortress sagged, the towers fell, and all that could be was consumed until not even ash remained: First, were it not for the infuriating delays we had encountered, we would have been inside the fort, burned until there was nothing left of us, and second, that there was no place, anywhere, that we would ever be safe. We were watching ourselves die.

Some of the soldiers sat; Bags disappeared into the forest. No one thought to follow their prisoner. Kat stood alone, watching the destruction and death with a jaw set so hard I thought her teeth would shatter.

Elena stood next to me, her hand forgotten on my sleeve. “I hate all the gods,” she said, her voice flat and certain.

The captain looked up at her, startled by the honest blasphemy. He nodded slowly and turned his gaze back to the fortress.

I wanted my knives back. My skin itched where they should have been strapped against my wrists and legs, my hands twitched and flexed, missing their reassurance. My mouth was dry, which is just as well because my throat was too tight to swallow. If I didn’t find a way to get my weapons back soon, I was likely to do something foolish.

Finally it was over. The unnatural twilight lifted from around us with a sigh, and the fortress cowered under a sun no longer its enemy. In the town, the bell continued to toll in its stone tower, low and mournful, as if it were accomplishing something. Several of the dwellings on the north side of town were now afire, their thatch roofs and timbered rafters engulfed in yellow flame. The wind pulled the smoke of the fires toward the ruined fortress, where it rose with the heated air high into the sky. At least the fire would not spread through the town. I watched as men and women rushed about, some to the river to draw water, some to the burning houses, and others, soldiers, mostly, stepping cautiously into the blackened circle where their home and their friends had once been.

The captain stirred. “Let’s give what help we can,” he said. He looked around. “Where’s the big one?”

“Right here,” Bags said, emerging from the woods. The wind at his back blew his hair into his face, where it clung to the moisture on his cheeks. A few chunks of what had once been his breakfast were caught in his shiny new ring shirt. I’d never seen him look so tired.

“Get ready to move out,” the captain said.

“I think that would be unwise,” I said.

The captain was too exhausted to be angry. “I don’t care what you think.”

“They thought we would be in there,” I said. “They thought Elena would be there.”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“That was for us.”

He paused for a moment but in the end he shrugged and let out a long breath. “Then the last place they will look for us is in there,” he said. “We are going. If you don’t want to come along, I’ll be happy to cut you down were you stand.”

I looked over at Kat and Bags. They were watching me. “Might be someone in there,” Bags said. “In a cellar or something. Needs help.”

Elena’s grip tightened on my arm. “We have to help,” she said. The wind shifted for a moment, bringing the smell of burning fields. A large gray ash drifted slowly between us, hanging in the air, twisting and curling in the wind. It came to rest in her hair. “We have to fucking help,” she said. Her eyes looked a little wild and I regretted saying out loud that all those people had died in an attempt to kill her. The only innocent one in the group was going to blame herself for the evil of others.

And so we went. Somewhere, people who could melt a fortress were working to confirm they had killed Elena. They would have people in the town, or somewhere nearby. Eventually they would know they failed, and they would try again. I had no hope of protecting her. Against the might of the Soul Thieves I had a only a few pieces of sharp metal. And at the moment, I didn’t even have that. I snapped a twig off a tree and as we walked I flipped it between my hands, shifting it in my fingers, keeping my hands moving so they wouldn’t shake so badly.

The center of the destruction was a neat circle perhaps half a mile across; around that the fields burned, but the ragged line of the fire, driven inward by the wind toward the shimmering heat of the fortress, was not moving quickly. Once inside that ring we were blanketed in choking smoke that burned at my eyes and nose. I moistened a cloth and put it over Elena’s face, then did the same with another for myself.

We stepped past the smoldering stubble onto the hardened earth where the sun had shone so brightly. Around the edges bones of people and animals lay in charred piles, distinguishable by their teeth. A few cautious steps farther in and the dark, once-fertile soil was hard on the surface. Shining stone. Life had been erased here, never to return.

Of the buildings at the foot of the fortress, little remained. A stunted, sagging chimney and a warped, blackened anvil marked the location of a forge. Livestock pens had been reduced to areas with occasional charred bones. As had the barracks. Metal glinted here and there on the burned plain; armor, swords, and the simple tools of everyday life were almost indistinguishable. No knives to be scavenged out here.

We reached the moat, and I felt my stomach twist in my gut. The slow-moving water was choked with corpses — men, livestock, and fish all floating together, pale and bloated, singed and burned and boiled to death. Beneath the surface I could see hints of metal, the armor of men who had chosen drowning over burning. The earth, the stones, the air itself radiated with heat. I felt sweat trickling down my spine.

The air was heavy with the pungency of cooked meat and the biting smell of baked earth. When the bodies in the river began to decompose, Brewer’s Ford would face a host of new problems. Happily, cooked as they were, the corpses clogging the moat would be slow to ripen.

We joined a group of men working to build a makeshift bridge to span the moat and reach the hole in the wall that had once been a door. It was going to take some time; they were tearing down structures in town for the lumber, and dragging it behind horses which wanted nothing to do with the heat and the smell of death.

“Tell those lazy sacks of shit to hurry,” Elena said.

I nodded, and tilted my head back to look at the wall looming over us. “I’ll go on up,” I said. “See if anyone needs help.” I did not wait for the captain’s response.

“Be careful,” Elena said. “It’s hotter than a dragon’s snatch up there.” I nodded, but this was not a time for caution.

“Don’t worry,” I said. I slipped out of my cloak and waded into the river, pushing my way through the death, stumbling over soft objects wedged in the muck beneath my feet. Something brushed my leg and I looked down to find a face staring up at me, attached to a bloated body, the eye sockets burned-out holes, the flesh pink and gray and shiny. No hair. Teeth blackened behind burned-off lips. I turned aside and puked.

My great aunt Heldie was the one who taught me to swim. She taught all my family the art. It was, of course, a pragmatic decision — the water, she taught us, could be a very effective avenue of escape for those who knew how to use it, especially when those in pursuit were wearing a great deal of metal. Today I was inclined to agree with her. I was sure I was escaping something as I crossed the water, but I had no idea what. I would be alone for a short time, and perhaps that was enough. I came up on the shore at the base of the fortress, clinging to rock still hot to the touch, streaked with soot where shrubs had once grown in the fissures. Around me others were already working to create the footings for a new bridge. They assumed I was there to help them. Instead I climbed.

The climbing was easy at first, over the rough living stone. By the time I got to the remains of the dressed stone blocks of the wall, however, there were few handholds and heat radiated off the walls and through my clothing and I was sweating like a captured soul in the infernal lair of the fire demon Ygshut. Prudence dictated I turn back, but I could not. I was going to arm myself or die trying. I wedged my feet and pulled my sleeves off my shirt one at a time and slid them down my arms to cover my hands. I looked up at the empty gate, my destination, still ten feet above my head. Rubble had fallen, partially blocking the way but providing plenty of scrambling opportunities.

Move fast, touch as little as possible. Once up there, try to find a safe place before my feet burn up. A simple plan.

The day dimmed again, but it was not like before. I looked up. The rain clouds were back, gathering quickly. I swallowed, took a breath, and started my scramble. Up, up, the stone heating my hands and my feet, I scrabbled and pushed over the broken wall and into the cluttered gap that had once been a gate. I fell on my shoulder, cried out, rolled, the hot stone cooking my skin. On my feet once more I found a fallen block to stand on; exposed on all sides it had cooled faster than the rest of the fortress.

I crouched on it, lifting one foot and then the other, certain I was about to cook to death. When the first raindrop fell, hissing at it hit the heated stone nearby, I paid no attention. But then another raindrop fell, and then another. The sky opened and rain fell in earnest, heavy drops that slammed into the heated stone with purpose, only to be turned to steam. I was surrounded by billowing clouds, shifting and twisting in the now-confused wind, turning the demolished fortress into a strange, etherial world of air and stone. My imagination turned shadows in the mist into monsters come to eat me alive, there for a moment, but gone with the next breath.

The steam swirled around my eyes and clogged my lungs even as I rejoiced in my release from the oven that had been a fortress. Nearby a rock split with a loud crack that sent my heart into my throat.

I stepped off my perch. I suspected the rain was no more natural than the sun had been, but I was happy for it. Somewhere, perhaps, someone who could change the weather might be on my side. Or at least, not on the side of the ones who had done this. I turned my face upward, closed my eyes and let the cold hard drops hit my face. If I had a friend, it meant either the Soul Thieves were divided, or not all wizards were members of that little club.

Speculation for another time. The rain meant other rescuers would be here soon; if I was to gain anything from my head start I had to move quickly. First things first: find a sharp piece of metal.