Content Warning: mentions of burn victims, mentions of death, reliving of trauma, choking
[SFX forest noises, footsteps]
They disappeared between the trees with Asha taking the lead. Rena tried to glance at the people who were supposedly arriving at the clearing, craning her neck to look behind the trees. She didn’t see much at first but then spotted a few shadows moving on the path leading to the clearing. She couldn’t recognise who it was from this far away, couldn’t even really tell how many they were, but the moonlight glinted off of something and that something must have been armour or at least weapons.
[Rena, whispering] “How do they already know we’re here?”
She turned to Logan and almost tripped over a root that was protruding out of the ground. His hand shot up to stabilise her, pulling her up to her feet again.
[Logan, whispering] “Maybe they aren’t here for us.”
[Rena, whispering] “Why else would guards come here in the middle of the night?”
[Logan, whispering] “Not sure they actually looked like guards to me.”
[Rena, whispering] “What? You think so? Who else should they be? What do they look like to you?”
[Rena, whispering] “Sorry, Asha.”
[Rodrick, whispering] “I must agree, I’m not sure they looked like guards to me either.”
Rodrick came up to Rena’s other side, leaning in closer to them so they could hear him. Vincent was in front of them, only a few paces behind Asha and Finn.
[Rena, whispering, shocked] “You really think so? But who else could they be? You don’t think the people who did this came back here after all this time?”
[Logan, whispering] “Maybe they’re scouting out their old arson locations to get some new inspiration.”
[Rena, shocked] “Logan!”
[Logan, rueful] “Sorry.”
[Rodrick, whispering] “Well, the Tavuu’Moda triangles did look like they had been only recently carved into those gravestones. It might not be that outlandish to think those who perpetrated this atrocity came back here not long ago.”
Finn whipped around to stare at them, flinching aside for a second when the dog almost ran into him.
[Finn, hissing] “Will you shut up?! We are clearly sneaking away from a potentially dangerous situation, how do you folks not understand that silence is of the utmost importance? And yes, they looked like guards, why would anyone come back to the scene of a crime years later when there is nothing left of the town.”
[Asha, forceful] “Shh!”
[Rena, whispering] “Sorry.”
The forest in front of them was dark and they didn’t dare ignite Rodrick’s lamp, but by staying close to the path they had come from Asha managed to navigate them out. No one seemed to be following them, and no one seemed to wait outside of the forest either, so they walked back to the nearby town as if nothing had happened. Rena clung to Logan’s arm, hyper-aware of her surroundings, trying to see from the corners of her eyes if they might not be alone after all. She knew if she were to turn her head and look around it would look suspicious, but didn’t they look suspicious no matter what? A group of five people who didn’t look like they belonged together wandering in and out of a forest in the middle of the night, that surely must raise some alarms?
But luck was on their side, and they didn’t meet another human soul until they woke the old farmer up to get Rodrick’s caravan back. Rena wished they could have stayed with the farmer for the rest of the night, ask him for a place to sleep and maybe a bath, but the others were keen to get away from this part of the province and from whoever was roaming around the ruins of Miller’s Knee.
Rena laid down on the floor of the wagon and tried to rest, even if it was quite impossible with the noise and the rattling and the heat. They drove all the way back to Halvint, back to the inn Rodrick and her had stayed in that first night of the journey. The innkeeper wasn’t happy to see them arrive that late, but when he recognised them he shooed them into a room and told them to come talk to him in the morning.
It wasn’t a big room they had been dumped into, although it did hold eight beds, two of which were already occupied by other people. It was the middle of the night, almost morning again, which made it difficult to get out of their clothes and into their beds without waking the strangers up. The bed couldn’t exactly be considered comfortable, but after the long journey in the caravan anything that was even slightly soft was a blessing to Rena. The linens smelled familiar to her, almost like home, and a wave of melancholic sadness flooded her whole body as she buried her face into the blanket and tried to fall asleep.
[SFX morning birds]
It was deep into the morning when Rena woke up, the sun shining into her eyes. She groaned and turned her back to the window, cracking her eyes open just the slightest. On the bed next to hers, Logan sat with his back against the headboard, Finn at the other end of the bed, Asha sitting on the next bed over, all looking at her. She pushed herself up, rubbing at her eyes with the palm of her hand.
[Rena, mumble] “Morning.”
[Logan, cheerful] “Good morning, sunshine.”
[Rena] “[sniff] Why are you all up already?”
[Logan] “Because it’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining.”
[Asha] “We’re not all sixteen anymore. Our bodies decide for us when it’s time to be awake.”
[Finn] “They woke me up.”
Rena pulled the blanket up to her chest, feeling cold in only her undergarments. She looked around the room, noticing that the other people had already left. She turned to her right and saw that Rodrick was still asleep, the dog curled up on the bed at his feet. She turned back around to face the others, wrapping her arms around her legs and letting her head drop onto her knees.
[Rena, sleepy] “What are you guys doing?”
[Logan, cheerful] “Scheming.”
[Finn, annoyed] “Trying to figure out what the best strategy is for the journey ahead.”
[Logan] “Same thing.”
[Asha] “What the idiots are trying to say is that we have decided that Rodrick and I will go to the city of Rancor to talk with Cas about this situation and the idiots will go to Oceansthrow to figure out what is going on there, and then we hope that they don’t get killed and come back with some actual, valuable information.”
[Logan] “So little trust.”
[Asha] “In you? Always.”
[Rena] “And what about me?”
[Logan] “That is for you to decide, sunshine. We can’t force you to go back to Oceansthrow, we definitely wouldn’t want you to relive all of that. So if you want to go visit the ominous Sovereign Outcast with Asha and Rodrick you can do that, or you just stay here and take a day off.”
[Rena] “What about the innkeeper? Didn’t he say he wanted to talk to us?”
[Logan] “You slept through all of that, my dear. Young people really have an incredibly deep sleep, it’s kinda unfair. And I don’t know what’s up with the old guy but he hasn’t moved since we woke up.”
[Rena] “What did he say?”
[Logan] “Like a bunch of stuff.”
[Asha] “[sigh] The authorities have already come down here to take a look at the town. Someone from town actually contacted them to get some help, because they still believe these people are here to help us. A flock of guards arrived two days ago and told everyone they weren’t allowed to go to Oceansthrow anymore because they’ve got it all in check. And yesterday some lady in a fancy blue dress arrived to tell them the fire was just a tragic accident because someone left the oven on overnight.”
[Rena] “Like, a dark blue dress? With some inscriptions on it?”
[Asha] “I don’t know, you’d have to ask the innkeeper about it.”
[Rena] “That might be the historical academy. We saw a woman with that kind of robe at the archives. Rodrick mentioned that it was the uniform for the academy.”
[Asha] “Would make sense.”
[Finn] “It is part of their job to assist in these sorts of investigations.”
[Logan, mock conspiratorial] “Also, apparently there are some weird and shady people roaming around town.”
[Rena] “Shady people?”
[Logan] “I don’t know, he mentioned something about a group of people arriving yesterday that constantly stay together and that no one in town has ever seen before. I’m not actually sure it really means anything, maybe the innkeeper’s just being paranoid. Could just be some creeps who like looking at tragedies, or the kinda guys who’re trying to solve weird mysteries on their own. There’s some weird people out there, but hey, life wouldn’t be fun without them.”
[Asha] “I don’t fault the innkeeper for being careful. Better to be paranoid about things like these.”
[Logan] “What? You think the guys who did this have come back to check out the situation right when the place is crawling with guards? Or are these the people tasked with the ‘complete elimination of the town’s memory’?”
[Finn] “No, like I already mentioned, that’s the historical academy’s job, and they don’t go around weirding out the townsfolk when an official representative of the academy already talked to them. And all that means is that they’re trying to not cause mass panic. You’re making it sound worse than it is.”
[Asha] “The arsonists might be working with the guards, that’s why they aren’t afraid of being caught.”
[Rena] “As in, the guards know who’s setting these fires and isn’t doing anything about it?”
[Asha] “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
[Rena, stern] “No, I won’t believe that.”
[Asha] “Then you’re naive.”
[Logan] “She’s sixteen, give her a break.”
[Rena] “I’m sorry but I won’t believe that the guards and the administrator and who else know the people who burned down Miller’s Knee and didn’t do anything about it for two years and now my entire family is dead and it could have been prevented, but instead they are just letting these people run free, and for what?”
[Asha] “Money, maybe power, like everywhere else where these people destroy a place and its inhabitants for their own gains.”
[Logan] “Asha, come on, play nice. Listen, Rena, we don’t know what’s going on. We can’t even be sure Miller’s Knee and Oceansthrow are connected. It’s highly likely but we don’t actually know. Maybe the guards and the Royal Council have nothing to do with this, maybe they really are just bad at investigating and handling this kind of situation, but from my experience, it might also be worse than that. These people aren’t exactly strangers to playing around with people’s lives to get what they want.”
[Rena] “But certainly not all of them?”
[Logan] “No, sure, some of them are probably upstanding citizen who are appalled by this situation.”
[Rena] “So surely those people would be doing something against this? They wouldn’t just stand by and do nothing as more people died, right?”
[Finn] “From my experience, ‘upstanding citizen’, as you called them, don’t stay in power for very long. They are too much of an inconvenience for the rest of them.”
[Rena, angry] “[clothes rustle, footsteps] You are all just a bunch of gloomy killjoys. Everything is bad and negative in your eyes. I don’t want to talk to you any further. There is good in this world and people care and not everything is a calamity. Goodbye, I will see you at lunch.”
[SFX door open and close]
She grabbed her dress on the way out of the room and slipped into it when she was in the hallway. She had forgotten her shoes in the room but she was used to walking barefoot on a wooden floor and she didn’t mind the rough feeling of it on her bare skin.
[SFX door open and close]
[Logan] “Rena, wait.”
She turned around at the sound of Logan’s voice, crossing her arms as she waited for him to catch up to her.
[Logan] “I’m sorry we’ve upset you.”
[Rena] “I’m not naive, you know. I’m willing to believe that the administrator and the guards are trying to cover this up because they haven’t caught the perpetrators yet and that they don’t want that to tarnish their reputation, or cause mass panic like Finn said, but it’s a giant leap from this to ‘none of them care about us and will just let us die if it makes them money’.”
[Logan] “I know, I know. We got a bit carried away. Asha’s gone through some stuff with her family, you can’t blame her for having such a negative outlook on life. We just have to figure out what actually happened. I’m sure at least some of the nobles in power care about this. The administrator sounded upset about what happened in Miller’s Knee in the letters, right? At least a little bit. I’m sure she’s also upset about Oceansthrow. I don’t think anyone can look at this situation and not be upset one way or another. We just need to find the right people who’ll be willing to help us. Once we actually figure out what is going on and it turns out to be something that can actually be fought.”
[Rena] “Do you think Finn will know who the right people are? He’s probably well connected, right?”
[Logan, chuckle] “Honestly, who knows. He probably knows some of them, at least from around here, but if he’s just the third son of some old house that barely even owns land anymore and he only got his position because of some favour he’ll probably won’t have much bartering power. But otherwise we can also just bribe or blackmail someone if we don’t find anyone who would willingly help us.”
[Rena, annoyed] “Isn’t this what you were all complaining about? That the nobility is corrupt and isn’t playing fair? How is blackmailing them into helping out any better?”
[Logan] “Hey, they started it.”
[SFX door opens and closes, footsteps]
Finn stepped out of the room fully clothed, his sword dangling from his side, his blond hair slicked back with water.
[Finn] “We should leave, we’re only wasting time standing around here. Are you coming with us Rena or are you going with Asha?”
[Logan] “You really don’t have to if you don’t feel up for it, sunshine. Don’t force yourself for our sake.”
[Rena] “No, I’m coming with you. I need to know what happened to the town. Just let me get my shoes.”
[SFX forest, footsteps]
They left Halvint after lunch and approached Oceansthrow by foot. Asha and Rodrick took the caravan to the city of Rancor, and they made plans to meet up again in Halvint before nightfall. Finn kept complaining that they had waited for lunch before leaving, that they were wasting precious minutes where something that could help them would be destroyed. Rena wasn’t sure what could remain of the town if the guards had already been here for a few days, but she started to agree with him that eating might not have been the smartest plan. The closer they got to her hometown, the more her stomach twisted and turned in on itself. She started having trouble breathing again but she forced herself to take in deep breaths so that the other two wouldn’t notice anything.
By the time they reached the end of the road her fingertips were ice cold, her back was drenched in sweat, her lips were numb and she desperately wished she could sit down and rest for a moment.
[Logan] “Let’s just pretend we’re curious farmers from somewhere around here who heard about the tragedy and wanted to check out what actually happened.”
[Finn] “Do I look like a farmer to you?”
[Logan] “We can just pretend you’re our weird cousin who ran away to join the guards and now dresses in ridiculous clothes to pretend he’s made it in life.”
[Finn, offended] “My clothes aren’t ridiculous! Your plan just doesn’t make any sense.”
[Logan] “My plan is perfectly fine.”
[Rena, weak] “I think I’m going to be sick.”
[Logan] “Ok, ok, look at me, take a deep breath, [imitates breathing].”
[Rena] “[Shaky breathing]”
[Logan] “We’re here with you, ok? Do you want to sit down? Should we take a break?”
[Finn] “We don’t have time for a break.”
[Logan] “Do you even have a heart behind those ridiculous clothes of yours? Don’t you see she’s struggling. Even you have to recognise this is a difficult situation.”
[Rena, shaky] “He’s right, we don’t have time for a break. I didn’t come with you to hinder your investigation. We should keep going.”
[Logan] “Ok, but promise me that before you faint you tell me you want to take a break, yeah? No falling over without giving us a warning first.”
[Rena, weak chuckle] “Sure.”
They advanced slowly, emerging onto a wide plane of dirt and ashes. No buildings remained except for the burnt remains of the church in the middle of the clearing. A big pile of rubble indicated where the tower used to be, but astonishingly enough, the main building next to it had not completely collapsed in on itself, with the roof still intact on the rightmost side.
Horse and wheel tracks ran from both roads towards the church, next to which piles of debris had been neatly sorted and stockpiled. Three people were currently next to the church, loading a horse-drawn carriage up with pieces of wood from one of the piles.
[Rena, mutter] “They really took everything away.”
[Logan, whisper] “I’m sorry.”
[Rena] “I knew they’d take the remains away but I-I thought that at least some of it would still be here.”
[Logan] “Yeah, they really worked quickly on this.”
[Rena] “It’s just … gone. My whole life I lived here and now nothing remains except for the stupid school.”
[Finn] “Once those guards are gone, let’s get closer to the church and look at what remains.”
[Logan] “Come on, give her a second.”
[Finn] “I said once they’re gone, that’s multiple seconds.”
Rena pointed to the other end of the clearing where the second road led into the forest.
[Rena] “Over there, that used to be my father’s friend Jesper’s house. He had a few goats in his backyard and he used to make cheese out of their milk. It wasn’t the fancy kind of cheese you see in bigger towns or cities, just regular goat milk cheese, but he made it with love and he always gifted us some and that made it special to us. Next to his house there used to be two big poles with ribbons tied to them marking the entrance of the town. Each year, the kids in their last year of school would make a new ribbon and add it to the other ones. This year would have been my turn. Over there, there used to be a soap shop run by this old lady called Maggie. When she was young she travelled all over the kingdom, and even up to the Kano-Reki Federation and higher North. I’m not even sure which country is further north than the Kano-Reki Federation.”
[Finn] “It borders the nation of Yarrik and the duchy upon Elizar, although they might merge together soon.”
[Logan] “Shut up.”
[Rena] “A-and she brought all these recipes for soaps home with her and then settled down here, because her family was here, even though she could have very easily sold her soaps in the big cities, but I’m happy she remained here because I really liked her soaps. And my house used to be on that side, not too far from the forest. My uncle’s house was right down the street. Every week we used to all gather together and eat a big meal. Everyone got their turn to decide what should be cooked, even the little ones, but mom was really good at shaping their wishes into an actual, nutritional meal and making them believe they had wanted that version from the start, so no one was ever upset with what we ended up eating. It would have been Maya’s turn to choose this week. She would have probably asked for some cod again. She always asked for cod.”
[Logan] “I’m really sorry.”
[Rena] “[sigh] I thought I would start crying when I saw this, or faint or be sick, but I just feel empty. Like this place. Stripped of everything that used to be here.”
[Finn] “The guards are leaving.”
[Logan] “Did you never learn when to shut up.”
[Rena] “Looks like one of them stayed behind. I think he’s guarding the place.”
[Finn] “We’ll need to distract him somehow. I don’t see how we would be able to sneak up upon the church without him noticing us.”
[Logan] “Leave it to me.”
[Rena] “What? No wait!”
Logan jogged up to the guard, waving and calling him over as he approached the church. Rena couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the guard didn’t look alarmed. Logan shook the guard’s hand when he reached him, not letting go of it for a good while.
[Rena, whispering] “What is he doing?”
[Finn, whispering] “I don’t know. It just looks like they’re talking. He’s probably actually pretending to be a curious farmer.”
[Rena] “How does this keep working on people?”
[Finn] “Him pretending to be a farmer?”
[Rena] “No, in general, him just walking up to people and talking them into stuff.”
[Finn] “It’s the smile probably.”
[Rena] “You really think that’s all it takes?”
Logan put a hand on the guard’s shoulder and they spun around to look at the piles of debris next to the church. Logan patted the guard on the back, staying a step behind him, before sliding his arm around the guard’s throat.
[Rena, alarmed] “What is he doing!?”
[Finn] “Choking him.”
[Rena] “He’s going to hurt him!”
[SFX footsteps running]
[Rena] “Stop it! What are you doing!?”
Logan let the guard slip out of his grasp.
[SFX metal thunk]
[Rena] “You could have hurt him! H-he’s not dead, is he?”
[Logan] “He’s fine, he’s just sleeping.”
[Finn] “We should hide the body. We don’t know when a new troop will show up to pick up more supplies.”
[Rena] “Are you sure he’s fine?”
[Logan] “Yes, stop worrying so much. He’s going to wake up in a couple of hours. Let’s just put him in between the piles here.”
[Finn] “I wouldn’t exactly call that hidden.”
[Logan] “Oh yeah, do your beautiful blue eyes see another hiding spot in this great vastness of nothing or do you want to drag him all the way to the forest? Maybe we should dig him a hole and hide him underneath the earth.”
[Finn] “You are absolutely infuriating. If a new troop appears they will find him right away if you just put him between the piles and what kind of advantage does that give us?”
[Rena] “You guys deal with your mess, I’m going to go look at what remains of the church.”
[Logan, fading] “Yes, great observation, do you also have a follow up plan?”
[Finn, fading] “We could put him inside the remains of the church. The right side of the building looks intact enough for someone to stay in.”
[Logan, fading] “As if that isn’t the second place these guys will be checking. How does that help us more than putting him down here?”
Rena circled around the ruins of the building. As her eyes swept over the scorched beams sticking out beneath the rubble the memories of the fire came back, of the collapsing church as she entered the town, of the hand sticking out from beneath the collapsing building. The smell of that evening clawed its way down her lungs again as if she was still surrounded by burning bodies. She stopped in front of the back side of the church, bile rising up her throat as her vision went blurry. She dug her nails into the palms of her hands until the pain was all she could feel. She forced her eyes shut and took in long, deep breaths, dragging her mind away from the fire and towards happier memories, towards her new life, towards the warm, soft fur of Vincent.
[Logan] “Anything interesting on this side? Couldn’t see much from the other side but the room looks stable enough for us to go in. I checked the guard’s pockets but there isn’t anything on him. Not even a letter with his orders or anything like that. He’s definitely from Mellahen though, except if these people all stole the official guards’ uniforms and are pretending to be from the capital, I guess.”
Rena opened her eyes and unclenched her fingers, the pain remaining a dull, pulsing ache in her hands.
[Logan, hesitant] “You alright?”
[Rena, weak] “Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s look inside.”
She approached the part of the old building that had collapsed. She could see into the building from where the collapsing roof had torn a hole in the wall. Spots of light covered the ground from the broken windows and roof, illuminating the piles of ashes and rubble inside the building. Footsteps lead to and from holes in the wall, towards the almost intact side of the room. She squeezed through the hole, making sure not to touch the walls or the beams too much, and stepped into the ruins of the church. She had to crouch until she reached the part where the roof hadn’t collapsed. The smell of fire filled her lungs again, but this time she was certain that it wasn’t just in her mind. She tried not to look at the ground too much, too scared to find a part of someone’s body again.
She remembered this part of the building. It was the smaller classroom, where they had kept the little kids that didn’t have the attention yet for a learning environment. Along the wall to her left stood a row of closets filled with blankets and toys, although most of them had collapsed and spread their contents on the ground. A few of the tables were still standing untouched, covered in ashes, although the ones at the very back had been pushed forward, forming a half-circle around the back wall.
Logan came up behind her, looking around the room.
[Logan] “Well, someone was definitely in here.”
[Rena] “They moved some of the tables. I don’t think the destruction from the fire could have piled them up like this.”
[Logan] “Yep, definitely looks deliberate. Nothing else was touched though.”
[Rena] “Hmm, no I don’t think so … Wait, what’s that?”
She stepped closer to the tables that had been pushed forward, towards the back wall that had fresh marks carved into it.
[Logan] “Weird. Looks like the symbol we found in Miller’s Knee.”
[Rena] “That definitely wasn’t here before.”
[Logan] “Welp, guess we finally found our connection between the two towns.”
[Rena, getting angry] “What is this? Who would do something like this? People died here not even a week ago, a-and some random people came in here to carve symbols into the walls to-, to what? Pray to some old God no one has thought about for hundreds of years? What kind of sense does that make?”
[Logan] “I honestly have no idea. I’m sure they must have some reason for it.”
[Rena] “Are these the same people who put the bird figurines everywhere when the town was burning?”
[Logan] “Who knows, but it kinda seems likely. Would be wild if there were two secret organisations roaming around the kingdom doing weird shit like this. Although, one might just be taking advantage of the whole situation, like vultures.”
[Rena, mutter] “I just don’t get it. All this destruction and pain for what? For some, old belief system that disappeared centuries ago?”
[Finn] “Someone’s coming.”
[Finn] “Looks like it. Another wagon to pick up materials. We should leave.”