After our nocturnal training, morning came far too early. By the time I staggered outside the sun was peeking over the trees at the edge of the clearing. Old Robert and his assistant Fritz conversed softly while they lay the wood to cremate my most recent victim. “No need to conserve,” Old Robert said. “Won’t be staying here anyway.”
The air was cold and still, turning Old Robert’s nose and ears red. The grass crackled under my boots, brittle with frost. I could hear Bags tending to the horses on the far side of the cottage but the lack of conversation told me that Elena was not with him. There was no sign of Katherine, either.
Old Robert looked at the sky. “Snow comin’. Tomorrow maybe. Let’s burn this bastard.”
I pulled the tarp off the Soul Thief’s body and started stripping his clothes off.
“You don’t want to burn them, too?”
“I want Worm to look at them first. Might be something here I don’t know how to recognize.”
“All the more reason to burn ’em before our one-handed friend gets to ’em.” Robert let me finish the job myself, then took the dead man’s feet. “Help me get him on the pile.”
I took his arms and we heaved the corpse onto the pile of split logs without ceremony, his eyes open and staring at the sky. I tossed the clothes onto the grass by the remains of the woodpile and took a stick back inside the cottage to fetch some fire.
While the flames in the hearth explored the new fuel I heard motion behind me. “Burning him?” Worm asked. His voice sounded more sleepy than in pain.
“I should be there.”
I turned to look at him. He was trying to sit up in his bed, with only partial success. “Why?” I asked.
Worm gave up his struggle and lay back, his truncated forearm pointing at the ceiling. “It hurts less when I keep it elevated,” he said, looking where his hand had been. Then he looked at me and said, “I don’t know why. But if something odd happens, I want to see it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What kind of odd?”
“I have no idea. But this isn’t just an ordinary body. Sometimes, I… Your stick’s lit. Help me up.”
I did as I was told. Careful to not light the wrong Soul Thief on fire I put Worm’s good arm over my shoulder and helped him to his feet. He wobbled a bit, and his face went pale, but he swallowed and said, “Let’s go.” We went, slowly. I nursed the flaming stick with my free hand.
Old Robert scowled and took the fire from me, leaving me to deposit Worm on a log I pulled from the remnants of the woodpile.
When I looked up from my task smoke was already rising from the tinder at the pyre’s base. I stood next to Worm as flames peeked timidly out of the tinder and began to gain confidence, wrapping themselves around the larger logs, embracing them in consumptive love until all was fire. In the center of that, the Soul Thief’s hair flared in an instant and the skin of the body blackened and smoked, as steam rose from the moister tissues within.
I was watching the smoke curling through his fingers when one of them twitched. I took a step back. Sometimes strange things happen when you burn people, muscles shortening as they are cooked can sometimes seem lifelike. But this didn’t feel like one of those times. I pulled my large hunting knife from its sheath and held it quietly ready, in case it was necessary to kill this man a second time.
For a few moments nothing else happened. But then as the dead man’s ears began to burn his eyes widened, and a foot kicked out spasmodically. My throat went dry and tight and I reminded myself to breathe. “The fuck?” Old Robert said.
As the dead man’s face turned black his head arched back, exposing the neat incision I had left in his throat. His jaw worked and his eyes darted in every direction. His lips moved in attempt to put shape to the sound he made, but most of the air escaped out his throat. “Mah…” An arm rose, grasping at smoke. He tried again. “Mama,” the corpse whispered. “Help me.”
I looked at the corpse and I looked at Worm where he sat, his mouth hanging open in mute shock.
I took another step back when the dead man sat bolt upright, arms flailing with no apparent purpose. He tipped his head back about out of his mouth and his throat emerged a sound that tore my heart from my chest even as I staggered back, away from the source, knife forgotten as I clamped my hands over my ears. The gesture did nothing to protect me from the horrifying sound.
It was a scream — it was many screams — voices once separate but now united in horror, many but not countable. A chorus of suffering that set my hair on end and tore at my fossilized heart and started it beating again. The wail went on, and on, the corpse in the fire shaking and thrashing as it was consumed, the sound growing to a crescendo even as the dead man’s lips were burned off and his head listed to the side, staring at me with milk-white eyes, clouding as they cooked.
Before it was over I could hear the individual voices. Children, all of them, imprisoned in darkness without hope, only to be immolated in agony. My stomach turned and I waned nothing more than to run from that place, run from the terror in those voices, but I held my ground.
When the clearing was at last quiet again I was on my knees. Kat was there, while Bags took a protective posture in front of me. Elena had wrapped her skinny little arms tightly around my body and had her face pressed against my chest, over my heart. The sound had not, it seemed, affected them the way it had me. The fire still burned hotly but by then the Soul Thief was mostly smoke. Kat’s hand lay lightly on my shoulder. Perhaps she could feel what was building inside me.
“We got to kill them all,” Old Robert said. His face was white and his voice shook, while a tear tracked down his cheek. “And all their dead’uns we dig up and burn, too. No matter how bad it hurts. Let the children be dead.” He took a breath. “We got to.”
“Tell my mother,” I said to him.
He nodded. “Yeah. An’ a lot of other mothers, too. They won’t be standin’ for this.”
If Old Robert told the story well, I knew more than one “aunt” who would meet the news with anger. If the Wanderers had ever mobilized for war in the past, the fact was not recorded anywhere. I suspect something as large as war would have formed the context for many mistakes, however, and mistakes are never forgotten. But if our mothers decided, each on her own, to send her children against the Soul Thieves, it would mean a sort of conflict the world had not known before.
Would it matter? I didn’t know. I didn’t even have an estimate of how many Waderers there were. More than a hundred, certainly, but probably less than a thousand, and only a fraction of those with skills like mine. Probably. That’s another thing we don’t record.
As my breathing recovered Elena released me from her protective grip. She straightened, turned to Worm and said, “Tell me why we shouldn’t throw you on that fire with him.”
He looked straight back at her, his face the color of ash, his hand wrapped around his stomach. “After we kill the rest of them, I’ll jump in the fire myself.”