Chapter 3 of Through Fire

From the Ashes

Ishné and Cae stood in silence as the sun slowly climbed up the sky. A growing but unspoken expectancy hung in the air. Ishné looked at her new friend, thinking about the injustices piled upon the poor girl by her captors. These petty atrocities had become intensely personal to her through the girl’s shared memories. In the end, she felt that she couldn’t leave it unaddressed.

“Were there any individuals in that village who were not cruel to you?”

Cae shook her head, frowning. “No, not one.”

The young?”

The girl snorted. “The youngest in the village is seven. She took her turn knocking me into the fire two months ago during post-raid celebration. She made me topple the brands and drop the serving basket I was carrying around to the other villagers. I was beaten twice as long for the double infraction. She was praised.”

“You believe that their actions justify a reprisal.” She received a nod in time with a clear affirmation in the girl’s mind. “I feel that it would be fitting that they should receive the same treatment that your people received from them. Would you object?”

“I do not object. Only—” she hesitated, her mind a turbulent mess.

“Only?”

“May I join you?” The girl’s eyes were anxious, but resolve crept in to replace the turmoil.

“Of course,” Ishné replied solemnly.

As Ishné stepped back, her diminutive acquaintance  could see her full body for the first time in the light. The long black body stretched and shook like a dog shedding water. Cae’s eyes widened as four wings stretched out from Ishné’s back: two from the space between the shoulders of her fore and middle limbs, and two from the space between the shoulders of her middle limbs and her hips. The front pair’s span was greater than her entire length, while the back pair was slightly smaller. Each wing comprised of a strong limb that folded tight against her back, from which extended overlapping leaves, whose lengths increased from half a fathom to just over one. But for the colors streaking through them, they could have been cut from shadow. The rainbows shone brighter within the vanes of her wings and tail. Heat warped the air above and below the wings’ broad planes, and faint flickers of fire traced across their undersides. Cae was struck speechless, her awe rippling across their mental bond. Ishné chuckled.

The girl snapped out of her reverie, confused. “But…if you had wings, why did you walk everywhere?”

“Flying requires a great deal of energy. If I must be somewhere quickly, which is very seldom, I may take to the air. Otherwise, the ground serves just as well. Under the circumstances, walking will allow my fires to ignite the prairie. The resulting smoke and flames would alert the village before we can arrive.”

Cae nodded her understanding then asked, “But, I haven’t wings. We’ll lose time if you have to wait for me to catch up on foot.”

Ishné reached out with her dexterous forepaws and lifted the girl, who gasped when her feet left the ground. Six vaguely finger-like digits, three of which were shorter and opposable to the the longer three, wrapped almost completely around her slender torso. The other paw cradled her thighs above the knees. Both limbs drew her to the dark skin of Ishné’s chest and held her close. She rested her hands on the thick, warm fingers and watched with wide eyes as the flames crackled and flared brighter around the wings that stretched wide to either side. The air below the vanes rippled and wavered as it heated, until it almost seemed to glow. Cae, held close to Ishné’s body, felt as huge muscles tensed and the wings flexed. Her four remaining legs pushed hard against the ground, and the latter receded beneath her with a sickening rush as the wings beat the air. Dust, air, and plant matter was drawn into the space below them, then ignited in infernal heat of Ishné’s wake. The additional heat from the swirling eddies of flame pushed them upward even faster. The girl marveled at how light her new companion seemed to be, despite her massive size.
   Cae had climbed many trees in her youth, but their altitude now had surpassed even the tallest trees she had ever seen. The circle of denuded plain fell away beneath the pair and the surrounding sea of grass shivered like a puddle struck by a pebble, rippling from the force of their ascent. As they rose, they flew back toward the west before banking in a wide turn to the north. Cae could clearly see the mountain from which Ishné had emerged. Dark streaks radiated across the blasted slopes, converging on a black crater that glittered faintly in the morning sun as though strewn with massive fragments of glass. Ishné’s wandering trail in the mountains and her direct path toward the grassland were plain to see amid the vibrant living green through which they cut. The pair’s course through the sky would carry them over the great forest that lay between the continent’s backbone and the eastern sea, hopefully allowing them to approach the village unnoticed.

As the horizons spread out and fell away on all sides, the girl recognized bits of landscape from her childhood travels with her nomadic tribe. Far to the east, on the shores of a sparkling gulf, was a great harbor town named Eastport by its unimaginative founders and the Gate of the West by sailors from Nifa, across the sea. Tall perimeter walls surrounded a sprawling town where peoples from that region traded freely with Nifal merchants and wayfarers from the far reaches of the continent. She remembered the impressive library with its towering shelves, filled with books in tongues from all around the world. Low tables in the lobby featured cunning dioramas of some of the largest cities from all over the world. Her favorites had been Wehnkyu-Baan, city of ice in frozen Shūl; the Nifal capital of Eis, with its network of broad canals; and long-dead Tsekacl ze Aneth, lost ages ago to the desert sands and only remembered now in patchy tales. From Cae’s vantage point the port now seemed smaller than any of the models.

Northward, beyond the forest, lay the rich green blankets of the Hin’s wide plantations and livestock pasturage. The fields and herds were tended by slaves who came from all classes but the topmost. Anyone unfortunate enough to fall into a loan that could not be repaid according to the terms of the contract would be stripped of land and title, and forced to work off their debt—a goal intended to be unreachable. Cae recalled her mother telling her once that friends of the land owners would orchestrate false deals to ruin individuals and push them into lifelong servitude. Her people had traded tools and supplies with the owners of the ranches and farms; but they were always careful to keep their business arrangements clear and well documented. As a child, she had felt sorrow for the slaves and her time with her own captors had done little to sway her distaste for the practice of treating people as property.

Her captors…

Cae turned her head southeast across the plain from where she and her strange companion rose into the sky, to where the village lay. A low hill rose up as an island from the surrounding sea of grass. Atop it stood a vague semicircle of shabby huts that opened toward a tall grove of poplar trees. The village used the morning shadow cast by the tallest of the trees to tell the month of the year, as the sun rose farther north or farther south along the horizon and the tips of the shadows fell on different huts in the semicircle. Cooking fires smoked lazily in the morning mists. Columns of denser smoke rose from a few points where watch fires had been extinguished with the coming of dawn. The small shapes of people went between the huts and the fires, or into the large hall that dominated the center of the village arc. The ground in the center of the arc was hard packed dirt and around the village stood a high bramble hedge with watch platforms spaced at uneven intervals along the perimeter.

“There,” she said, looking up to the bottom of Ishné’s outstretched head. “The cluster of buildings between that creek and the copse of poplar trees is the village where I was held.”

Ishné nodded and banked toward the village. They approached in a wide circle, coming around to the east. As they circled, Cae explained the layout.

“The large building is the home of the chief and the elders, along with their wives. The little huts house the rest of the people, except for the shaman.”

“Where can he be found?” Ishné asked.

“The poplars form a ring. That grove is sacred to them, it connects them to their gods. The shaman has a hut in the middle of the trees where he lives and performs rituals. He is seldom away from it.”

“There, I think, shall be our first stop”

Ishné’s ire toward the man who sentenced Cae to slavery and subsequently to destruction could be felt crackling between their connected minds.  She cradled the girl with care and descended upon the copse. The towering poplars that ringed the clearing ignited as she plunged through down through the well of foliage. A nude, frail, ancient man stumbled out from the moldy dome of assorted animal skins and wood that occupied a space on the north edge of the open ground. The orange light of the burning trees mingled with the dappled morning light on his bald head and his knob-jointed limbs trembled as he stood and stared upward. Blue tattoos, whose designs resembled the painted markings Cae had worn when tied to the post, covered his wrinkled face and distended belly. Rheumy eyes followed their descent with anger, terror and disbelief.

Ishné released Cae as they came to a rest on the other side of the clearing. The girl stepped forward as burning branches collapsed behind them. Flames had already begun to spread to other trees in the grove, descending the canopy and slowly drawing a circle around the shaman’s clearing. Several branches fell to bounce upon the taut, stinking hides of the hovel. The sparks shed by these brands took hold and hungry flames began to spread through the old hair and wood. A shriek from the hovel briefly drew the intruders’ attention away from the shaman. A bruised young man and woman tripped over each other as they plunged naked out of the door flap. They appeared to be of an age with Cae, give or take a year. Their eyes and mouths gaped at the dark void that loomed before the flames. Both of them clutched their clothes to their chests and fled down the path back to the village. At least these two weren’t children.

Disgust wrinkled Cae’s nose and twisted her mouth into a sneer. The tribe accepted the shaman’s special manner of violence against children and the youngest adults as the right of one who speaks with a god’s tongue. Acts that should have been monstrous were seen by this group of grassland pirates as a form of ritual “toughening up”; and, if a subject died during the shaman’s ministrations, the tribe shrugged it off as a culling of weak blood.

“<Why do you defile this sacred place, outsider child?>” he demanded in a hoarse croak, jabbing an arthritic finger at her and the shadow that loomed behind her. Ishné recognized the guttural tongue as the one of the languages that she had found in Cae’s memories. “<You were supposed to sate the demon’s hunger, not bring Him to our home! And into the Wood, no less? Are you so wretched that even His unholy fire did not wish to touch you?>”

Cae approached and stood proud and furious before him, buffeted by hot gusts from the burning trees. She replied with contempt, letting the shaman’s title fall from her lips like a morsel unfit for consumption, “<No, O Wise and Venerable Ghel! It was not food that she sought, nor destruction. It was not until she learned of my treatment at the hands of this clan of filth that she sought you out with my help.>”

“<Nonsense!>”

He raised his gnarled hand to slap the insolence from her face as he had done countless times before. This time, however, she refused to bow before the blows. A scream broke through the crackling heat of the burning glade and rose to a thin, shrill wail. The withered hand had not connected with the girl’s face, stopping instead in mid-air with her fingers around its wrist. Her skin still retained intense heat from her close contact with Ishné during the flight, and it gladly shared that heat with the cool, clammy flesh of the old man’s arm. Startled by his cries and the sudden, unsavory smell of charred flesh, she released him and watched in mute shock as he wriggled upon the ground and clutched at the wrist where blisters had risen and burst, openly bleeding from the angry red flesh within the blacked outline of a small hand. The white glimpses of bone showed through the bubbling mess.

The Ghel was accustomed to dealing torment to others, not to receiving it. He lived a happy, painless life of relative luxury. Seeing Ishné’s flame-wrapped arrival, witnessing the destruction of his sacred grove, and having such a severe injury inflicted upon him by this awful girl was too much for his mind and body. Twisted fingers left his burnt wrist to clutch and scratch uselessly at his chest and throat. His watery eyes bulged in their sockets and his shriek fell to a gurgle, then silence.

Shaking, Cae looked from the shaman’s now-still body to her hand. She stared in blinking confusion at the smoking, blackened flakes of flesh that still clung to her skin. For moments, she couldn’t wrap her mind around what her eyes and nose were telling her. Realization crashed in with the memory of the smell of burning flesh and the echoes of screams. She frantically brushed at the debris on her hand, knocking the charred flecks onto the ground. Even after all that remained were streaks of ash, grease, and grime she bushed and rubbed at her skin. She closed her eyes to block the sight of the black smudges; but, the darkness served only to amplify the odor of burnt meat that lingered in the air. Flames roared all around her. The girl dropped to her hands and knees and retched in the dirt. She wiped the bile from her mouth and turned back toward where Ishné had stood, fighting an icy feeling that grew in the pit of her empty stomach. All of her pent up frustration, anger, and grief from the years she spent as a slave to the monsters that murdered her people burned her cheeks and welled up in her eyes. However, watching the old man die had robbed her of her righteousness. It was hard to revel in the destruction of evil when it suddenly seemed so frail and impotent.

Cae hoped to find comfort with her new friend; but when she looked, there was no sign of Ishné. She could see nothing on all sides but tall, twisting flames and the tumbling shadows of trees. The stress, hunger, and sleeplessness of the last couple of days twisted reality around her. Hints of shouting voices whirled on the hot wind. Muffled curses crackled through the fire, but she could not make out the language. That ball of ice within her swelled and she felt suddenly small, alone, and cold despite the flames. Kneeling in the center of the copse, shivering, she pressed the backs of her fists against her eyes and called out to Ishné. Her voice caught in her throat, but the call reverberated through her mind where it was heard and answered.

“I am here, Cae!”

With a burst of ash and swirling flame, Ishné came crashing through the barrier of burning trees and stopped at a crouch beside Cae. Four gleaming eyes looked the girl over and took in the sight of the shaman whose cremation was being completed by the close proximity to her heat. Strong forelimbs gently turned her body, checking her for harm.

“Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”she asked. She nuzzled and pawed at the girl’s body, inspecting her from head to toe.

“No. He— I’m fine. Ishné, I’m—” she broke off in tears and embraced the large head as it nuzzled her torso. Cae pressed her forehead to the top of Ishné’s head and felt the humid gust of her companion’s breath blowing from two pairs of nostrils against the skin of her chest, she calmed. “I’m fine now. He just died so easily that I—” she turned away, wiping her eyes. “All of the horrible things that he has done and said seemed so far off and impossible. He was just this weak old creature, choking to death on fear and pain. It didn’t seem real. I wanted so much to see you and to know that this was not all some absurd nightmare. When I turned, you weren’t there; I was all alone in a circle of flames. It felt like I was back in the camp and my people were burning around me again. I could almost hear their voices.”

“I am sorry to have caused you pain, Cae. Seeing the two who ran away, I was concerned that they might warn the others. I left to circle the village and ignite the wall of brambles. My flames surround them, starting and ending here. If you no longer wish to punish them, we can leave. The villagers should find a way to battle the flames and escape with their lives, if they are allowed the time.”

Cae rested her head against Ishné’s and considered her words. The shaman at her feet had been a weak, old monster who used his words and importance to carry out his cruel whims. The villagers were another matter. They were raised from birth to kill and pillage. Even the youngest among them had bloodied their hands taking from unwary travelers and passing caravans. Her people had not been the first to be massacred, nor the last. More would suffer. It had to end.

“No,” she said aloud. “They must reap the consequences of their actions. The murders they have committed and their treatment of me must not go unpunished.”

The girl, her face stern beneath tear-streaked soot and ash, walked toward the shaman’s burning hovel. She ducked through the flap and knelt at the fire pit in the center. Taking handfuls of embers, she cast the contents of the pit out and dug carefully through years of ash. Her hand sifted back and forth, fishing out hard bits as it encountered them. Bones and stones clattered across the hovel floor as she continued searching. Finally, when her arm was one-third buried in the ash of the pit, her fingers felt and closed around cold metal. Withdrawing her hand from the ash revealed a soiled charm between her fingertips. She blew off the loose ash and dirt, then wiped the remaining soil from its surface with a scrap of cloth from the floor of the hovel. The enamel had almost all chipped off, leaving only the raised bumps of her tribe’s crest. Cae couldn’t be certain who it had belonged to; but it felt like saving a piece of her parents.

Ishné waited patiently outside until Cae returned. The girl showed her the pendant, and received a nod in response. She could somewhat understand its significance to the girl. Grasping the metal and feeling it warming in her palm, Cae strode toward the encircling flames to exit the destroyed copse in the direction of the village. Ishné followed behind her.

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