Chapter 26 - Raines
It is unsettling to see my own name in ink, but what is even stranger is to see Persie’s work becoming enormously successful.
My chest, having spent the past few days tightened with fear, is beginning to relax. Cal isn’t safe yet, but the countries are starting to realize the horrors of their actions, and at least that is a start.
I eat dinner with the rest of Nemia’s guests - elves from a wide range of lands, scattered sparsely about a small dining room - for the first time. They are friendly, but tired, seeming almost as war-weary as I am myself.
I am clutching my roughly hewn iron spoon so hard it’s making dents in my skin. I take a swallow of air. Try to relax, shovelling scoopfuls of hearty stew between my lips. It trickles all the way down my throat, warming my stomach.
When next I glance up, now from an empty bowl, it is to see two other patrons standing at the large windows near the door, staring intently out. I squint. The fading sunset light has gathered a menacing quality. Less pastel; more abrasive orange. Another guest stands, slowly, and joins them at the smudged glass. I stand and approach them, a sick fluttering invading my stomach.
“Fire,” I croak.
Nemia returns from the kitchen and her brow lowers with concern. It takes only a second for her sharp eyes to take in the scene, and then she’s marching to the door, ready to lock it.
But a shadow sweeps past the glass and thumps into the wood before she can snap the bolt into place. A fist is banging at the wood. Nemia barely begins to twist the knob before it bursts open with the weight of a woman’s frame and she topples inside.
Her clothes are singed and blackened, the skin beneath inflamed. Our barely restrained calm turns to chaos. A man is rushing over to her, calling for bandages and a bowl of cool water, other patrons hurriedly grasp at their belongings and whisk away to their rooms, and a few stay behind, attempting to help Nemia, who has jumped into action.
Before anyone can lock us inside, I race for the door, hardly clearing the frame, as it is snapped shut again for safety.
But I’m gone, racing through the smoke-clouded streets. I dodge onto different roads, spidering my way towards the center of the city. Towards the smoke.
Armor clad elves are swarming the streets, thick hide boots crunching over the broken glass of shop windows. Although they are numerous, it is nothing compared with the numbers of civilians. Adults and children run in every direction, some desperate to protect their stores or homes, others only desirous of an escape from the looming flames.
And they continue to grow, searing over rooftops. Sparks whirl down. I skid to a halt in the town plaza, fearful yells crashing down upon my ears. Someone thumps into my back, jostling me forward and I barely keep my balance. Glass shatters, spilling over the heads of merchants trying to protect their shops.
“Stop!” someone is screaming. “Stop, help!”
Riots. At first I think that’s what this is. But then I see a soldier laying torches against the dry wooden walls of buildings and gleefully watching bright orangey-red beasts lick up the beams.
This is arson.
The government has ordered mass arson.
And suddenly I’m running at the nearest burning building, tossing away the torches and ripping at the smoldering panels.
I hiss, yanking my hands back as they are filled with splinters and licked by flames. Turning desperately, I run over the bricks of the street - now covered in bits of wood and glass and smoldering fabric - and tear back in the direction of Nemia’s inn.
Horror pools in my stomach.
It is already alight. And not just alight, but half gone. My feet catch on a crumble of stone and I slam to my knees, squinting up at her burning livelihood.
The occupants have been evacuated, and I see those who I joined at the bar huddled in a clump a safe distance away.
Chaos is beginning to spread even now in this quieter part of town on the outskirts. The orange glow is spreading nearer, shouts bouncing off ally walls towards us and -
“Stop!” It is the burnt girl who fell against Nemia’s door, her ragged scream aimed at a soldier who’s just come barreling out of a side street towards us.
“Stop it!” she begs, stumbling to him and blocking his way. “Can’t you see what this is doing? What you are doing? Don’t you have any mercy, any - ”
His blade enters her side and twists, before slipping out again. She coughs, a thin line of blood dribbling down her chin. The soldier keeps running away into the night.
And suddenly she is lying dead in the street.
Dead, in merely a second.
Dead, sprawled face down only a few feet away from me.
I crawl toward her.
My burnt and bleeding fingertips are only inches from her fading skin when Nemia’s yell cuts through to my ears.
“Raines, run! Move!!”
My foot tries to find traction, but lands on a piece of glass, which slides - screeching - across the bricks beneath. I fall, cracking my head against the ground, conscious only long enough to drink in the last few messages from my senses: the soldiers reach for me, a huge cloud of sparks kicked into the night sky, and the dreadful creak of the inn finally giving way and crashing in on itself….
The sky cries flakes of ash. It fades from misty gray to smoldering black. The sun’s touch is utterly obliterated.
We are the only ones breathing in this clogged air as we are marched - rank on hushed and unsettled rank - through the evacuated town.
Roving bits of ash drag my eyes off the road and our trudging feet. They fall down like a thousand smudged and smearing silken butterflies having long since lost hope of finding a flower.
The world is muffled by an eerie silence, only broken by the quiet clinks of swords against their belts.
The last horrible day replays in my mind.
Waking up in a cell, the brutal interrogation that followed. The most I can say for myself is that I gave nothing away aside from my ripped dignity. But that was only because I had no information to give.
And then the general, coming for me and dragging me to Caerini’s temporary base and barracks, explaining harshly that he does not care that I was discharged, or the reason why, only that the army needs bodies, not skills, because Trinova is drafting again.
I am about to become a body.
Like the dead girl in the street.
We have reached the fringes of the city by the time it occurs to me. If Trinova is recruiting again, that can only mean one thing: Trinova is losing. And desperate to regain the upper hand.
A muted thrill jolts through my body. I look up at the elves surrounding me, marching numbly in rows.
I wonder how much of this is Persie’s doing? The arson, the turning civilians, the draft…. How much of this has been triggered by her and her journalist compatriots?
I haven’t seen the most recent two papers, no doubt the local press building has been razed to the ground, bathed in fire.
“Halt!” our general calls. We are at the docks. A new Caerinian naval ship is being readied for us. I watch the flag ascend it’s huge main mast. “Alright, load up.”
We start boarding the ship. As my row approaches the gangway, my foot slips. I look down. One of Cal’s wanted posters pokes out from beneath my boot. I shift my foot. Half of his smiling face is smeared by ash. I step off to the gangway and the other half crumbles to soot.