The Child in the Woods
The morning brought light to a different world. In the early dawn, there was nothing but silence. No birds sang as they took flight nor did any squirrels begin to chatter as they rose from their nests for the day. There was still the heavy scent of smoke and ash in the air. The sky was still thick with storm clouds and the rain had persisted through the night, finally diminished to a light drizzle. Seida hadn’t bothered to clear it away; there would already be a price to pay for this when she summoned the rendezvous team to take them back. If she cleared the storm, it would only make her and Gregorim look guilty. Undoubtedly, there would be an investigation into this incident.
They’d taken shelter under the cover of a small glade outside the burn zone, just within sight of the road. Seida had stayed up throughout the night keeping a watch for any other survivors, or the off chance the Titan returned to strike again. Nothing save for a few animals had triggered her detective wards, though, much to her disappointment. It seemed there had been only one survivor last night. Whether they were even still around, they’d have to find out.
Gregorim was still asleep in the lean-to they had made last night. With the help of a spell or two, she was able to keep them dry through the night. She was glad at least one of them had gotten some rest in the night. After they had done their best to control the burn a bit, he’d seemed pale and shaky. Despite his insistence that it was the smoke, he’d had two thick tear tracks tracing lines through the ash and sweat stuck to his face. What little she knew about him was enough to know it most likely didn’t bring back pleasant memories for him. As much as she wanted to find the survivor, or at least a trail of them, she knew Gregorim was her priority, not the mission.
With all their supplies officially gone, Seida had spent a good while trying to scrounge up something for them to eat during the early dawn. There was no wildlife to be found, and with it being too early in the year for any sort of wild berries, her only option had been scouring the river for fish. Even the rivers seemed void of life. The only fish she could find were far too small to justify eating. Empty handed, she had resigned herself to starting a fire to warm herself instead. Hopefully, their search would be a quick one and they'd be back in Ist’Heom soon for a hot meal.
Even starting the fire proved to be a challenge. The wood she had gathered was soaked through. Her attempts to draw the water out completely failed. Trying to start the fire with magic and damp wood was taking frustratingly long. Her fingers were numb from the cold, and her joints ached. She rubbed her eyes, muttering under her breath as she held her hands over the log and tried to get her spell to cast again.
“Here, let me do it.”
She jumped when Gregorim put his hand on her shoulder and sat beside her. He gently pushed her hands out of the way and held his hands over the fire. First, he pulled the last bit of water from the wood, then lit the firewood with a small stream of flames from his palms. Seida held her hands out as the fire caught and the wood began to crackle, sighing in relief as the warmth thawed her frozen hands.
“Thank you,” She said quietly.
“You’re welcome,” He said. “I noticed you didn’t sleep last night.”
Seida nodded as she rubbed at her eyes again. As tired as she was, she doubted she would have slept anyway. “You needed the rest more than me.”
“I doubt that. You’re the one that needs their strength to get us out of this mess.” He gave her a stern look, as though he was the master and she the apprentice. She found it very endearing. His concern was greatly appreciated. “Is there anything left in the saddlebags to eat?”
“I’m afraid not. I did some foraging earlier, but this time of year, there’s not really anything to find. The fire scared away all the game.”
“Guess that’s okay. I don’t think I could hold it down anyway,” Gregorim shrugged. He still seemed pale this morning. He drummed in fingers anxiously on his knees, keeping his back to the burned village. Whether it was just exhaustion and hunger mixed with the ash smeared on his face, or something else, Seida wasn’t quite sure anymore.
“Do you want to wait here while I search the area? I can come back for you if I find any sort of trail to follow.” Seida wasn’t about to force him to investigate the village. She knew well the horrors that awaited them there. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to sift through the rubble of a disaster like this.
“No, I’m going with you. If it’s a deserter and they attack or ambush you, you’ll need all the help you can get. I can handle seeing a few charred corpses.” His voice, confident though he’d attempted to be, ended up sounding unsure. “It wouldn’t be my first time.”
“Alright. Let’s warm up a little more, then we’ll water the mounts and head out. The sooner we’re done with this place, the better.”
Once they’d warmed themselves enough, they extinguished the fire, untied the mounts, and led them to the river to drink. Gregorim’s mount—Ashii, as he’d taken to calling her—lifted her head from the water once she was done and butted her head into his chest, clicking her beak impatiently and nipping at his gloved hands. He stroked her feathered neck, sighing as she continued to pester him.
“Sorry, Girl. There’s no food for you, either.” He took a step back to mount the saddle. Seida did the same. After some gentle encouragement, she turned her mount toward the village and started forward. Despite her gut feeling telling her that the town wouldn’t yield anything of importance, she knew she had to check anyway. With luck, they might find something salvageable to eat in the wreckage. Or, better yet, their stormcaller.
Their first stop was a collection of farmhouses on the south side of the village nearest them. Most of them had taken the brunt of the dragon’s fire. There was little left of the buildings other than a few charred beams and puddles of metal that had melted from the heat laying in the ash. If there had been anyone in the houses or barns, there was not so much as a trace of them left. Not a single print could be found in the ashy muck. Confident there was nothing of note here, they started the trek into the village proper.
Seida gasped in surprise when her mount suddenly reared, flapping his wings and screeching. Gregorim’s mount tossed her head, snorting and stamping her front feet into the mud anxiously. It took them a few minutes to calm their mounts enough to see what had startled them. The skeletal remains of a horse were laying half-buried in the mud, cracked and splintered from the heat of the fire.
“Ahlma be praised, that’s better than what I thought it was.” Gregorim breathed a sigh of relief as they steered the mounts around it and continued forward. Seida said nothing, merely bracing herself for what they were inevitably going to find. This horse wouldn’t be the only unlucky soul claimed in the fire.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before they stumbled upon more bones laying in the mud. Though the rest of the bones had either shattered in the heat or sunk into the thick muck, a tiny skeletal arm lay outstretched from a pile of charred wooden rubble. The more she looked through the remnant of what she could only guess was a home, the more bones she saw sticking out here and there, stark white against the grey-brown mud.
“Keep your eyes peeled for any footprints in the mud. The survivor may have come through to scavenge the wreckage,” Seida said as she circled the building and inspected the wreckage of another building nearby. Aside from the collection of small puddles from the storm, there was no sign of anyone having passed through the area besides them.
“I doubt they’d want to come sift through this gruesome graveyard.” Gregorim had lost even more color now. He had a death grip on his reins, keeping his eyes firmly looking anywhere but the scene around him. Seida thought he looked moments away from being sick. “There’s not a single building left in town, and it’s obvious nothing of value is here. Unless they had any personal belongings they were desperate to find or wanted to find something of value to try and pawn off somewhere else, I doubt they’d come back this way.”
“If we’re dealing with a deserter, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. They’d be living beyond the outskirts somewhere and wouldn’t think twice about ...