Under Soil and Ash, Pt. 1

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The Strangers

Leiv held on to his letter to Melinda until the next caravan arrived, four days later. He hoped Melinda wasn’t worried about him; his promise to write every day he painfully could not keep. His desk had no drawers to hide anything in, so he was forced to see his letter on his desktop, out of the corner of his eye. He wanted it out of his sight so he could stop worrying, so on the day of the convoy’s arrival, he woke up early and waited outside the library, alone, with the letter in hand, ready to give it away.

As the chain of carriages trailed into the town center, Leiv noticed one that didn’t belong. It was smaller, large enough for only one person, and had none of the wear the others did. The carriages drew into a circle, and the usual dust cloud billowed up around them. Leiv brought an arm to his face to keep from breathing in any of it. He had developed a nasty cough from working in his dusty office. A small figure emerged from the dust, coughing and wheezing. It was a diminutive old man, nearly doubled over, hacking out his lungs. His violent motions caused him to drop his cane, and Leiv came running over to help him. He picked up the old man’s cane, and put a supportive hand on his back. The old man didn’t look at him and kept hacking and coughing, but began to walk with Leiv to the library.

Once they were inside, the old man slapped Leiv’s chest and gurgled, “Water. Need a glass of water.”

Leiv started, and replied, “Yes, of course,” and began to head outside to fetch a pail, until he noticed the library lobby filled with the other academics. They had not gone outside to greet the caravan as usual, once they saw the old man. Instead, they remained inside, lined against the walls, staring at Leiv and the newcomer. Their pale faces remained expressionless. The old man didn’t appear to notice; he was too busy attempting to clear his throat. Leiv took one last look, then hurried outside.

When he returned with a bucket of water, the old man had stopped coughing, but was still visibly uncomfortable. None of the academics had moved, yet each set of eyes was affixed to him. Leiv slowly approached the old man and handed him the bucket.

“Thank you, lad.” The old man grasped the bucket with his shaking arthritic hands, and lifted it to his mouth. After he had cleared his throat, the old man spoke.

“So, are you going to speak to me? None of them will.” The old man gestured wildly to the cowering academics.

“I think we just would like to know who you are, and what your business is here. We don’t get visitors often,” Leiv added.

The old man paused, and looked around the room warily.“My name is Frederik Magnusson, and I am the head professor of the anthropology department at Skymmning University. I am not here on any sort of scholarly business, but of my own accord. I am investigating a certain phenomenon that appeared on campus quite recently. Since you are the only one here who talks, do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

It was Leiv’s turn to pause to glance around the lobby. Then he said, “Let us move to a more private place.”

Leiv brought the professor to his office, and sat at his familiar unpainted desk.

“By the way, what is your name?” The professor inquired.

“Leiv. Leiv Akerfeldt.”

“Leiv. How long have you been here?”

“About five weeks.”

“You have tremendous resolve for someone trapped in this hellhole of a place.”

Leiv didn’t reply.

“This is what I want to ask you. About three weeks ago, the Skymmning University campus witnessed a frightening event. A group of strange men appeared on the property, armed with dangerous tools. They razed the ground with these instruments that breathed fire from their mouths. All of them were masked with these black devilish concealments, and wore dark robes. Fortunately, they were not interested in any person. They kept to themselves, and followed a path straight through the campus. As far as I know, they have not been caught or accosted in any way. I’m not sure what they want, or what their purpose is, but I think I may be able to find an answer here, amidst all of these historical records.”

"I don't know if I can find what you're looking for," Leiv replied. "But I can point you in the right place." He hesitated, then spoke again. "What did it look like, after they left?"

"They left nothing alive. Trees were hacked down and roasted. We did all we could to prevent the fire spreading."

A sea of scorched earth. Leiv started. “I've seen it. Come with me.”

Within the hour, Leiv and the professor stood at the Blackwater town limits. The land before them was just as dead and dried out as Leiv had seen it on his ride to Blackwater. “Incredible,” breathed the professor. Bending down, the professor scooped a pile of ash into his hands, and let it sift through his fingers. “What could they possibly be looking for?”


Leiv sat at his desk a week later, perusing some old document describing an unimportant monetary transaction from a faraway town he had never heard of. It was all he could do to keep his eyes from unfocusing. Sometimes he would find himself reading the same sentence over and over, unable to comprehend what the words actually said. Thankfully, he would eventually be snapped out of his trances by his own coughs, or coughs from the professor, who had holed up in his office with a tower of books.

Leiv asked, “Find anything?”

“Not yet. These papers are in horrible condition.”

“What are you looking for, exactly?”

“Some sort of transaction involving a great deal of raw materials. I’m guessing that these men fuel their weapons with some sort of ignitable substance.”

Leiv turned around to watch the professor as he perused a large stack of papers. The professor had commandeered a circular table for his needs, and stood at one end, head bowed in perplexity. Leiv noticed several vials on the table, they each held samples of dirt and soot they had got from the outskirts. “Who do you think they are?”

“Don’t know. Judging by their dress, I’d say they were a cult of some sort. Not one I’ve ever seen before, though. How did they get their hands on such dangerous tools?”

A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. One of the other academics opened the door, poked his head in, and mumbled, “There’s a message here for Akerfeldt.”

Leiv jumped up and snatched the parcel from the academic’s weak grip. “Melinda,” he breathed.

“Who’s that?”

“My fiancée Melinda. She’s written back to me.”

“Good heavens lad. You left your fiancée for this?”

Leiv didn’t hear him as he tore open the envelope and pulled the letter from it. It read:

Leiv,

Please come back home. Things at Nidstrang have not been right since you left. There’s a strange presence of people within the town. They dress in black and wear strange masks at night. We’ve started night’s watches to scare them off, but they keep returning. I’m not sure if they mean any harm, but I’d like it if you were here. You don’t need to apologize to me, just come home. I love you.

Leiv’s tense hands almost ripped the letter in half as he read it. Once he was finished, he thrust the paper in the professor’s face. “Read this,” he gasped.

The professor quickly read Melinda’s message, and looked up at Leiv solemnly. “You should leave. Go to her.”

“Come with me.”

“I’m afraid not, lad. I would be of no use to you. Go.”

Leiv left.

Tracing his path back to Nidstrang, Leiv pushed his horse through the dead wasteland, and back into the forest. He gripped the reins until his nails dug into the palms of his hands. He was overcome with a sense of dread. What had happened in the three days between Melinda sending the letter, and him reading her words? Soon, Leiv began to recognize the geography around him. He was nearing Nidstrang. But the smoke on the horizon filled him with despair. Exiting the path between the mountains, he saw the town ablaze. Dark figures moved in the streets, casting shadows with the flames that came from the metal machines they held.

“No,” Leiv breathed. “Melinda.”

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