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from The Dragon War by V.R. Rosewood

The Sole Survivor

Gregorim awoke to a whole different world. The storm from last night had persisted into the morning, a stubborn, steady drizzle. Flecks of ash still rained down from the sky. In the early morning mist, the charred husks of the trees were like skeletal fingers reaching towards the clouds. He rose to his feet and stretched, thankful for Seida’s charms that had kept him dry throughout the night.

Seida was already awake, hunched over in front of a weak fire. She sat looking down at her hands as she hovered them over the wet wood, muttering what he assumed to be a spell to help the fire start quicker. The mounts were tethered to a stump behind her, heads tucked beneath their wings as they still dozed. She looked up at Gregorim as he sat beside her on the ground and smiled weakly, whispering a quiet ‘good morning’ between her attempts to start the fire. After a few minutes of tinkering and muttering, Seida got the fire going. Gregorim held his hands out before the flames, glad for the warmth.

There was little left of their supplies for them to eat. Seida produced two more apples from her bag and what was left of her oats and nuts. Were it not for the desolate feeling in his gut, the meal would have disappointed him. Part of him wondered if he’d be able to keep even these meager rations down when they finally reached the village. Gregorim was less than eager to examine the village.

After the storm started, Seida had moved them as close to the epicenter of it as she could get them, extinguishing the fire as they went. They had set up a makeshift camp at the top of a hill, in what once had been a healthy glade of oaks and aspens. It took her an hour to set up her defensive spells and wards, some of which Gregorim recognized and found a bit excessive. But he wasn’t about to question her, not when she had his safety at heart.

Once they had eaten and warmed themselves thoroughly, Seida extinguished their fire and released her spells. Together, they readied their mounts and started down the hill towards Ordis. Neither of them said so much as a word as they went, too afraid of breaking the silence that surrounded them. The sun had been up for a short while now, but not so much as a single bird was singing. No insects droned. Other than the sound of the rain and wind and the footsteps of the mounts, the world was deathly quiet.

Seida slowed their pace as they entered what remained of the village. The ruins had a desperate air to them. Too many lives had ended so quickly. Gregorim shared in her obvious unease. He wanted nothing more than to rid himself of the area and return home. His first real mission outside of Ist'Heom had proven to be quite disenchanting.

All of his previous masters had warned him of scenes like this. None of their warnings had fully prepared him for the reality of it all. Bodies laid in the streets---charred husks, screaming in silence. Some had died in their sleep, never knowing their death had found them. Others had huddled with their families, unable to escape the flames. The whole scene made his stomach churn. Despite the carnage, Seida seemed unfazed. She didn’t give the dead any pause, no mournful nods or sorrowful stares.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” Seida said quietly. “So hard to look away, yet even harder not to.”

“I suppose you could say that,” Gregorim nodded. He envied her ability to ignore it all, to shut it out and not want to break down. How many scenes such as this had she encountered in her years to make her so numb? He contented himself to studying the leather of his reins, daring not to look anywhere but his own hands anymore. The devastation reminded him of very bitter memories.

There was no sign of life in the village. No one had disturbed the ashes since the fire finally died---not so much as a single footprint was to be seen, much to Seida's dismay. She looked around the ruins one last time as she chewed pensively on her cheek, turning her mount in a circle. Gregorim steadied his mount as she tossed her head impatiently and gouged the muddy ground with her talons. 

   “There’s nothing here. Let’s check the farms,” Seida said quietly as she turned her mount around. They left the village behind as they followed the main road out towards the farms that stretched out into the plains. Seida had said last night that the epicenter of the storm had been at one of the outlying homesteads, and that there they would find what they were looking for. If they were so lucky, that was. For all they knew, their storm-caller had perished in the flames, or fled for their life and was now miles away.

Despite the odds, Seida seemed intent to see their search through. Gregorim followed with no complaint as they examined the road for any signs of passage. Now didn’t seem like a good time to protest her decisions. A little cold and rain wasn’t going to stop him from finishing his quest. By nightfall, he’d be back in Ist’heom, safe and warm.

At least, he hoped so.

************************************

The first farm held little to nothing of value. Nothing but the stone foundation and a few support beams were left of the house and the barn. Whether anyone was inside at the time of the fire, it was impossible to tell. Despite how little there was to be gleaned from the wreckage, Seida insisted on sweeping the perimeter, searching for tracks in the ash. Despite the retort sharp on his tongue, Gregorim kept his head down as he searched the area for tracks.

When at last Seida seemed satisfied that they hadn’t missed anything, the two rode back out onto the road to the next destination. Gregorim kept his eyes on the road ahead of them, growing more eager to leave as the minutes passed. This whole place felt like it was draining the life from him. Everything was so grey and void of life and color. It hardly seemed real. Just last night, this place had been a sea of amber grass and pops of green trees. Now it was a barren, ashen wasteland.

“What do we do if we can’t find them, Seida?” Gregorim asked.

“We go home, if it comes to that,” Seida answered. “But I have confidence that the child will have remained close by. I should be able to find some trace of them around here somewhere. We’re not done searching yet.”

Their second stop seemed a little less bleak than the first. This farm seemed to have escaped the worst of the flames. The house hadn’t burned down entirely, but neither of them dared enter the structure for fear that it would collapse down upon them. Instead, Seida had them split up to look for footprints, insisting that the child may have attempted to scavenge in the burn zone for food or supplies after the fires went out.

Gregorim steered his mount towards the remnants of the barn, looking for any signs of life in the rubble as Seida investigated the house and perimeter further. Half of the roof had been burned clean off, but the structure seemed sound enough for now. Whatever had been stored in the barn was long gone now. The lack of footprints seemed to prove his suspicion that their little storm-calle...






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