As the stone cooled the wind became restless, shifting first one direction then another. The sharp tang of overheated rock was cleansed from the air, replaced by steam stained with the ashes of the fallen. I shed the rags that had covered my hands and stepped deeper into the gray ruin.
The short towers that had looked down on the compact courtyard were now nothing more than dykes of broken stonework stretching across the rubble-strewn pavement. Little of the other structures remained at all; what had once been buildings were low mounds of broken stone. In the drifting clouds of steam I identified deeper shadows among the paving stones, places where timbers below had surrendered and collapsed, exposing a warren of chambers and passages. The fortress had expanded downward as well as outward, it seemed.
Somewhere down there lay the cell I would have occupied that morning, if all had gone according to plan.
I skirted the elongated corpse of the nearest tower, stepping over blocks whose corners had softened in the heat, still evaporating rain almost as quickly as the drops collected. Within the tower’s rubble lay the remains of everyday items; blackened iron hinges and nails, spearheads and armor, blades distorted and no longer sharp. Where the fallen stones had provided islands of shade, crushed and charred bones clung to ruined talismans and unrecognizable icons.
In all their long history the Soul Thieves had never done anything like this. Today’s act had been for Elena, to kill a girl whom the Soul Thieves had not been able to take, and it had been to punish the King, to punish all mere mortals who dared oppose them.
I walked through a field of cracked and broken roof tiles into what must have once been a kitchen. Pots and pans had melted over the stone; fire irons lay like soft noodles on the remains of the hearth. Most of the floor was missing. I stepped cautiously toward the opening and saw that the floor below had also given way. Blackened rain water cascaded down from the courtyard pooled in the wreckage of the storeroom beneath the kitchen, and then vanished into the darkness below. From beneath a feeble wisp of smoke rose to be torn away by the shifting wind.
With great care I found a more stable part of the floor near the far wall and lowered myself into the cellar. There had once been shelves and barrels; now there was just a handful of distorted iron hoops and a scattering of brittle nails. Soot stained the walls, and black rectangles on the floor marked where sacks of grain had once been. There was nothing to suggest that any people had died here. If they got this far, they would keep going deeper.
I would find nothing of value this close to the sun. I peered down through the hole in the floor and was met by the smell of smoldering wood and overcooked meat. I wondered how deep the cellars went. Not deep enough, I suspected. If anyone was alive down there, they would be emerging by now, or at least calling for help. There was only the hissing and splattering of the rain, and the occasional murmur of wind. There was only one direction to go.
The loose rock and my wet fingertips nearly betrayed me as I dropped into the gloom of the second basement. A stone that weighed far more than I did came free as I descended, nearly landed on me, and then, failing to kill me outright, rolled and tried to crush my legs. I jumped aside and escaped with only a bloodied shin. I moved into the center of the hole in the roof, and waited to see if any other stones decided to follow.
To my right I found a chamber that once had held wooden furniture, enough of which remained to produce the smoke that rose up toward the light above. On the far side of the room a dark opening promised a hallway. To my left lay a stairway down, carved into the living rock of the outcrop, vanishing into blackness. Down was the direction I needed to go, but I wouldn’t get far without light. My great-uncle Chance had taught me to always carry tinder and a spark, but neither of us had ever imagined a place where all fuel had been burned until not even ash remained. My nose told me that the next level down had only been hot enough to cook animals, not reduce them to smoke. I would find what I needed there.
Down the stairs then, one at a time, silently, descending into air heavy with death. At the foot of the stairs the remains of a heavy door, badly burned, blocked my way. I pushed through the timbers, now little more than charcoal, and waited as my eyes resolved the vague forms scattered before me into corpses. The chamber was large, the feeble light from upstairs did not reveal the far wall — only the still, pale forms scattered and heaped before me. The corpse closest to the door had been a big man, and he carried a big man’s knife, as long as my forearm. I had to slow my breathing as I lifted it to my face, the now-cool metal sending a shiver up and down my spine, the worn leather that wrapped the hilt becoming one with my hand. I laughed despite my surroundings. I was whole again.
The next body also had a knife, smaller, more suited to a man of my stature. It was difficult, almost heartbreaking, to let the big knife go, after the magical moment it had just given me, but one must be pragmatic. I was not going to keep a knife I couldn’t conceal.
As my heartbeat returned to its slow, patient rate, I considered the problem of light. Finally I took one of the soldiers’ swords, ripped up some of their uniforms, and made myself a primitive torch. It would need constant feeding, but it seemed there were plenty of uniforms available.
When I lit the cloth and held it aloft, I said a quiet curse.
Perhaps one hundred corpses crowded that space, mostly soldiers, but women and children as well. They held each other in death, their tears long since vaporized. Some seemed to sleep peacefully, others cried out silently in anger and pain. One soldier lay over another, his blade crusted with flakes of dried blood, the other’s throat cut. Mercy or revenge? It was a story only the dead knew.
From the far end of the room, from a deeper blackness, came a sound, distant, muffled, but unmistakeable. A small, shuffling noise, followed by a muffled cough. A survivor.
I crossed the room, stepping carefully, keeping my flame alive. In a recess at the far end I found an alcove, piled with bodies, arms outreached, scratching and clawing at a door, fingernails shattered and blood baked into their clothes. The door, more iron than wood, had held while the frail humans had killed each other for the privilege of throwing themselves at it in futility.
What the frail humans had needed was someone who understood locks. My mother’s older brother understood the mechanisms very well, and passed that information to me. Once I had moved the corpses away from the door, I was able to convince the simple machine that I was a friend, and I was through.
Stairs again, down. A different smell. The smell of shit and fear, carried on an almost imperceptible breeze. With an ample supply of fuel for my primitive torch I followed the curve of the stairs into a dungeon.
The jailers lay where they had fallen, huddled together under a table in the center of the round room, suffocated. Around us the chamber was perforated with several heavy doors. Down here it may not have reached the temperature it had upstairs, but without touch of the cooling rain the heat filled the place and sweat beaded on my skin.
“Hello?” The voice came from behind one of the doors, a man’s voice, but high-pitched. Then a second time, more frantic. “Hello!”
“Hello,” I said.
“Get me out of here!”
“Fair enough.” I crossed to his door.
“Let me out!” There was no mistaking the panic in his voice.
“The less noise you make, the sooner it will happen.” He answered with a impatient sigh.
I crouched down to inspect the lock that stood between us. No better than the one on the stairs had been; it would be faster to use my tools than to search for the key. A stream of air came through the keyhole, smelling of shit, replacing the stale air in the dungeon with air that could once more sustain life. One lucky prisoner, to have his latrine open to the world outside. “I’m going to open this,” I said, “But you are going to stay right where you are until we talk.”
I took his silence as a tacit agreement. I found a torch from one of the walls, and was gratified when it came to life at the touch of my burning rags. I turned to the lock and had it sprung in a few moments. The man inside the cell rushed forward and almost impaled himself on my knife. “You said you would stay still,” I reminded him. “I assume you were in there for a reason.”
He backed off a step or two. “Who are you?” he asked.
There is a look a man gets in his eyes when he is locked alone in a cell while death sweeps through his prison, killing one and all. Or at least, I imagine there would be. I imagine someone who experienced that would be near tears upon his release, and shower his rescuer with thanks. This man merely seemed annoyed at me for slowing his egress after opening his door. I slipped my knife into its sheath and considered more carefully this man’s good fortune. Perhaps there was fresh air now, but there had been none, inside or outside, when the entire countryside had been on fire. He should have been the first one to die in that dungeon, before the guards, before the torches on the walls.
“Let me past!” The prisoner said. He was a little taller than me, a little heavier, dark hair reaching his shoulders, his eyes a little wider than natural. He wore simple clothes, but in good condition. His shoes were not the sort for extended journeys.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s go,” I stepped aside and he pushed past me in his haste. When I was behind him I said, “I’m Elena’s friend.” He twitched and that was all I needed. I kicked his legs out from under him drove him down hard, smashing his nose on the rough stone. I banged his head an extra time on the still-warm floor, then closed his mouth and nose until he was dead. And just like that I killed my second Soul Thief, this time with nothing more than my hands and surprise.
I pulled him back into his cell and locked the door on the way out. Just another corpse among many; no doubt not the first prisoner to lose some blood down there. “I’m Elena’s friend,” I whispered again into the silence. “And I’ll kill you all if I have to.”