Morza was demolished.
Bodies hung from the timber posts: all that remained of the round wooden buildings. Smoke smoldered from the remnants of the pyres. Other villagers lay scattered about like dolls among the wreckage. The smell of charred flesh hung in the air thick enough to make the old sage gag.
The sun couldn’t pierce the thick layer of smoke clouding the air. Flakes of white ash fell like snow, drifting in the warm breeze and dusting the blackened world surrounding them.
Foe broke the silence, sliding off his gryphon’s back. The creature ruffled its feathers, letting out a low whine.
“They probably found some ridiculous reason to justify their actions,” Caldor kicked away the charred remains of a shattered clay party mask. Scorched banners of the Southern Red Dragon hung from a post. “I do not know where that light came from though.”
“Could those Snakes have done it?” Foe wandered over to examine one of the bodies laying on the road. They were too damaged to tell who they were, man or woman, and there was nothing left of their clothing to give him any clue.
The sage couldn’t answer his friend’s question. He didn’t like not having answers. That light could have been seen throughout Gaitan, which was an impossible feat - even for those in the South.
The light could’ve been caused by a tear in the veil, which could allow the Gods to visit from Their world. That idea stood out from the lore that bombarded his brain. The chance of any of it being true was impossible in and of itself.
Many believed in the Gods, sure, but had They been there to help Their children over the centuries? Yes, something may have created the world, but were They truly worthy to be considered ‘Gods’?
“Cal, come here,” Foe hollered.
The old sage glanced up to see the hazy outline of his friend standing a fair distance away. From what he could make out, Foe was staring up towards a large looming mound. If it had been the remains of a pyre it wouldn’t have drawn the attention of his friend.
The closer he got, the clearer the misshapen mound became. His footsteps slowed and his gut churned. He began to make out arms reaching out from the piles.
“Gods… they’re people…” he choked. The blood froze in his veins. He stumbled back.
Caldor doubted that the Gods had been to blame for the actions that brought about the massacre.
There were two mounds side-by-side: women and children in one, men in the other. All - from what he could tell by their silk and dragon leather clothing - were Morzi. The villagers’ bodies were sorted. Their throats cut like animals.
The Gods did not do that.
“This,” Caldor swept his arm through the air, “this is beyond brutality. There was no need for this…”
“Yeah…” Foe covered his mouth with his glove.
Sydrin were known for their brutality. It wasn’t below them to use the corpses of their enemies to strike fear into the living. They left flayed soldiers nailed to trees, and once left the heads of a whole regiment neatly packaged in bags made out of their skin.
Was this really surprising considering some of their past atrocities?
This was different in the sense it was executed without any obvious flaws. The slicing of the throat was similar to how those of the South prepared their sacrifices. One clean deep cut across the throat and the animal - or in this case person - would bleed out in seconds.
Every Morzi had the same lethal wound. There was something about their method of killing that made Caldor believe that there was a purpose behind it. What purpose he wasn’t quite sure. One thing was certain, whoever had led this massacre did so to make a point; they wanted nothing and no one to remain.
“Come, Foe, there are still things here I must see, and we do not have much time before those Snakes return,” Caldor hurried away.
The sage shuffled down the road, passing the scorched remains of the market. Carts were tipped and burned beyond recovery, their goods scattered across the ground. Anything of value had been taken; no metals, weapons, or gems were left. A barrel leaked dark, frothy liquid down the gutter by the roadside. More bodies lay in pieces, likely torn apart by dragons or other scavengers.
The plumes of smoke stung his lungs and the air gave his mouth a coppery taste when he breathed. Between the blood and the smoke he was safer covering his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his robe.
“Cal, stop walkin’,” Foe’s voice broke his concentration as he turned to see the man standing three paces behind.
“What now?” the sage’s voice muffled by his sleeve.
“Look,” Foe pointed down.
The old sage looked to the ground. The stone was blackened beneath Foe’s feet. The road was a crisp white where Caldor stood, as if untouched by the chaos.
That was strange. Caldor scuffled around the edge of the clean stone. Nothing lay within the circle. There were no bodies, no debris. The shape made up a perfect circle, similar in size to the pillar they had seen. Had this been where the light appeared?
His attention fell upon something in the center of the circle. The crimson splatter had caught his attention since the area surrounding it had been so clean. He moved closer to the mark to make out what it could be.
Crouching before the mark, Caldor dipped his pinky into the splatter. It was sticky to the touch, and when he smelt it he knew exactly what it was with its coppery scent. The mark was a blood stain, but where had the body gone? The size of the crimson pool suggested that the person couldn’t have survived. He could see that the blood settled where the arms and back must have been. The length of the stain told him that the person was either a Chijin - like himself - or a child.
There were no other obvious signs of drag marks or footprints nearby. It was like this person had floated away or been burned to ashes before being scattered to the wind. If the light turned the body to ash, then the blood would have disappeared along with it.
“Figured it out?” Foe asked.
“No. I’m confused and I do not like that feeling,” Caldor squinted his eyes, hoping that something else would stand out. There had to be something else missing.
“Well, I hate to be a pest, but whatever yah plan on doin’, it needs to be done soon,” Foe glanced to the sky.
The more he discovered, the more questions appeared. There continued to be no answers.
Right now, he needed to focus on finding Naygu and retrieving the most important piece of her collection.
They worked their way down the twisting road, past more bodies and rubble, until they reached the edge of the city where his friend resided.
The district appeared untouched by the fires that claimed the upper level. There were no bodies. The flowers in the gardens looked to be the only casualties, as they were trampled into the dirt. Even the yurts appeared undamaged. None of the walls had fallen and the roofs were intact.
Around another bend in the road he spotted the broken sign with a circle indicating the place he had been searching for. He stepped over the threshold of his old friend’s yurt and opened the door. The sage halted for a moment upon seeing her body on the floor. She had been uncovered and rolled onto her back. The reddish splotches on her face and neck from where the blood had pooled under her skin told him she had been laying on her stomach.
He didn’t need to check her pulse; he knew she was dead just by looking at her. Her lifeless eyes stared up towards the ceiling. The dress she wore was soaked in blood.
Caldor forced himself to take a deep breath. Forty years he had tended to healing the sick and injured. In that time he had lost many patients, but rarely had he lost a friend. With a quick blow of his nose and dabbing of his eyes, he held the tears back.
The smell of chamomile and mint danced through the air, covering up the strong scent of smoke and blood. Water seeped through the bottom of his leather shoes dampening his toes.
Tea most likely - Naygu loved her tea.
“Where’s your granddaughter?” he asked, knowing the old woman wouldn’t answer. The question was for himself as he looked around the room for clues to where the woman’s almanac was hidden. The girl had likely ended up in one of those wretched piles. Such potential snuffed out like a candle.
“Find what yah lookin’ for?” Foe called, leaning down to look into the hut. “Heh… looks like yar room.”
Caldor bit the inside of his mouth. This was not the time to make witty remarks or crude jokes.
“Can you bury her? Naygu deserves a burial,” Caldor coldly remarked, trying to keep his composure.
“Yeah… course,” Foe fumbled into the house to pick up the woman. He carried her out in his arms, disappearing around the side.
The southerners couldn’t have taken the almanac. The text held nothing of value to them. The almanac held Morza’s history and the secrets to their most potent medicines. Naygu would have used the text to find a cure for the prince, now he had to do it. That is, if he could find it.
Picking up some of the scattered covers, he hoped the text hadn’t become victim to the mess. The Snakes had made sure to destroy all the books in her collection, either by putting them in the fire or tearing out the pages. Those that hadn’t been damaged by the southerners surely had become victim to the water soaked floor.
Naygu wouldn’t have left it with the other books. The old woman had hidden it, but where? The yurt was torn apart, everything out of place. All her shelves were pushed to the ground, and the books were spread in pieces across the room.
Crude insults were carved into the walls of the yurt with a sharp implement, likely the dagger most Southern soldiers wore strapped to their thigh.
Stain? Caldor squinted at the word, wondering if he had translated the Sydi into common wrong.
Shifting his foot, it knocked against a brick by the cooking pit in the center, changing his attention back to the room around him. Jars filled with herbs lay scattered across the floor, and dishes lay shattered along with them. Anything of value had been taken, like the symbolic wind chimes that commonly hung in Morzi yurts to bring good luck.
Judging from recent events, the chime had not worked.
Shuffling over to the bookshelf, Caldor felt his foot sink into the woven carpet. He stepped back, noticing the water pool in the place his foot had been. A wood floor wouldn’t do that, but the carpet covered the spot.
“Naygu, you tricky bird,” Caldor smirked, lifting the edge of the carpet. A board was missing from the floor, and if the carpet hadn’t been so wet, it would likely have gone unnoticed.
Putting his arm into the hole, he felt damp leather. The almanac was heavy, but with a good grip and a quick lift with his legs, he scooted the text over the edge and onto the floor. The book had been wrapped in padded leather with a braided string tied in a double knot. The wet leather gave the book the extra weight.
This was the right text. Naygu had written to him about it, time and time again. The old woman planned on sharing it with him upon his visit, but now that wasn’t going to happen. That thought made his heart twinge.
The old woman had been a good friend: someone that understood the importance of the work they did. Caldor knew she wouldn’t have minded him taking it. He was certain she would have wanted a person who would appreciate it to take care of it, and if the text could help cure the prince, than the Morzi spirit would live on.
Holding the book to his chest, Caldor stood up. He squinted for a moment, tilting his head and adjusting his glasses upon noticing something on the ceiling. More words were carved into the wood. They weren’t like the insults put there by the fools who defaced the old woman’s hut. This one was in Morzi.
“Kanrow 2:1-12…” he made out the hurried scratches.
Why did she have the name of the Chijin prophet on her wall? Naygu didn’t strike him as being religious or a believer in such nonsense as the Prophecy. Those were for weak-willed and mentally unstable loonies who sung about the end of days in the streets. The Prophecy told the story of the ending of the era and the starting of a new world.
Ridiculous chaos singing, if he ever heard it.
Kanrow had once been a knowledgeable scholar prior to losing his mind and claiming he could speak to the Gods. The man had written plenty of history books and helped discover the islands off the coast of Derm and Easterly. He had been one of the first Chijin to discover the metal that the Dermite later called Demori Steel. Now that he thought about it, the old woman possibly referenced one of the man’s older works, and not the book that ruined his reputation.
Taking out his notebook from the pocket inside his robe, Caldor jotted down the name and the numbers. He would have to look into it along with everything else he had noted in his mind.
The sage headed for the door. The Steward stood with his hands on his waist staring at the ground. Foe was used to war. He was a seasoned warrior but the state of Morza was leaving its mark from what Caldor could tell by his friend’s stiff brow and tightened jaw.
“Are you doing all right, my friend?” Caldor asked.
Foe glimpsed at him, pointing to the ground. The Steward didn’t make it obvious to what he pointed at as Caldor tried to follow his friend’s finger.
“The soot would’ve settled after the soldiers left, or we would be seein’ a lot more footprints,” Foe explained. “I noticed when we were walkin’ - we’re makin’ prints.”
“So? We will be long gone before those Snakes return; we do not need to worry about them,” Caldor said. He understood the Steward’s concern, but that didn’t look to be the reason Foe had mentioned the prints.
“Nah, look. Those big prints are mine. Those scruffy small prints are yars,” Foe pointed towards a third set of prints.
A small set. They were barefooted. A survivor
At first, Caldor couldn’t believe it was possible someone could have survived. However, stranger things had happened.
“Where do they lead?” Caldor followed the small scattered prints. “Do you know? Did you follow?”
“Lost them in the woods,” Foe replied, scratching the side of his short blond beard. “Poor thin’ must be scared.”
“They may know what happened!” Caldor exclaimed. “We should find them. They may be hurt and need help… and if they are a child… imagine if it was your-”
“No! I don’ want to think me son in such a place,” Foe interrupted, his voice sharp. “Yah made yar point. We’ll look for the wee thin’.”
Those who lived in Morza were resourceful. They had to be, living far from most other villages and communities. Not many dared venture into the mountains filled with dragons, trolls, and other dangerous beasts. Caldor felt confident whoever had survived could make it safely to the closest community without much issue, even if that person was a child.
“Irbet’s the closest, but Downrow may be a better bet. Whoever it is may not wanna be so close,” Foe suggested.
That may have been true, but Caldor couldn’t help the bubbling feeling in the pit of his stomach telling him to go to Irbet. They were better off checking both in hopes the survivor had made it to one.
“Irbet first,” Caldor spouted, scuttling passed his friend. “If they are not there, they may have at least been spotted.”
They were allowed some time to search for this survivor without too much concern regarding the prince. The fact remained. Someone had survived, and whoever it was would have the answers to what had happened to the people of Morza.