The raven starts to feel the effects long before it reaches the towers of smoke – the air feels warm, much too warm, and harder to breathe. It flaps its wings to pull itself higher, above the lingering smoke, and that’s where it passes over the blanket of spreading smoke.
The terrain has changed.
Farmsteads and tilled fields, roads and rivers have given room to a grey landscape where the trees have began to grow stilted, bent over themselves, consuming poisoned soil and acidic rains.
The raven lets out a shrill caw, as if in tune with the destruction it sees beneath its wings – it can do little to save, to help the withering trees and the grass growing brittle and the poodles of ear water, where nothing grows, not even algae. The land is turning into a blanket of death.
Runo knows very well why. She’s part of the force that caused the adoption of such extreme measures.
And this dilapidated land is just the after-effects of wind blowing the wrong way. The Anthilians have made sure to build the Burning River along the paths of air currents that usually blow to the east, so that their dark gift could spread further into the no man’s-land between them and Tuonela.
But they also have had to pay its price.
The raven chokes on a sliver of fumes and keeps flying higher. Runo allows it, because she does not mind taking a look from up on high on the King’s most formidable and most desperate defence.
For Tuonela, with its armies and its slaves and its Marrowers can cleave through any wall, but the Kings of Anthilia have opted, long ago, for a much more drastic measure.
The raven loses a beat and its wings flurry – its eyes turn white once again and Runo takes over, pulling its wings taut and keeping it afloat even through the acidic air and the towers of smoke, as the sunset takes on a rusty shade and air feels like it’s taking down its throat. The glistening lines of molten metal burst out in a crimson spiderweb growing to the horizon, as the crown of chimneys and furnaces of the Burning River raises from below.
The raven hears the din and tin of countless Anthilians chugging boxes of coal, wood and coronite into the spewing mouths of the furnaces. They go up in blasts of flames that push more molten material through the channels, searing the terrain and, far-off, another burst of flame signals where the dross spews out, in a man-made magmatic cauldron that spreads over hundreds of miles, the result of decades of creative destruction.
The wind changes direction and pulls the raven to the east – Runo has to struggle to keep its flight together. It is different from when they faced the corpse of the Hearthwomb in the other desert. This is just smoke and lava and smelted metal and noxious chemicals built it. It is not going to create hidden tumors or melt living things from the inside out.
But it is still more than enough to keep the Marrowers away.
For what use is a kind of magic that twists and burns everything that lives, if there is a miles-wide strip of terrain where nothing grows and nothing lives?
The Burning River stretches through the channel systems, bursting out tongues of flame and spewing caustic fumes for as long as the horizon can stretch, turning the ground into the most formidable enemy. Nothing will grow there for decades – centuries, maybe. A sizeable portion of their own country, reduced to a mephitic wasteland.
And, the thought is enough to make Runo tremble with the weight of what she’s a part of, that is the best solution they could come up with, the preferable one.
The raven stumbles again, losing height. Runo pulls on its wings, trying to steer its fall, but it is getting harder and harder. The smoke is everywhere, choking and acidic.
She gets one last look at the tormented landscape stretching beyond, at the hordes of Anthilian workers in protective gear and gas masks that keep destroying their own land to keep the Gloom Lords at bay, and she wonders how she is ever going to cross the Burning River, if at all.
She pulls the Raven away.
Fast, faster – flapping its wings with the strength of despair, she pulls the bird away from the clouds and the lingering wall of smoke, towards the south, where the wind does not reach and the wind is clearer.
She couldn’t even get in reach of the first rows of furnaces, let alone actually cross the marred land all the way to the first stretches of Tuonela. Not even with her will guiding the raven and strengthening its body.
She will have to find a different path if she wants to reach the King. To the south, though, she’d come far too close to Iskalnari territory, and the lands in the middle are the domain of savage Elven colonies.
Hard to pick and choose – no safe passage for a Marrower.
But she will have to find a way… and to save the raven in the meantime. She pulls on its wings, guiding its mind away from the screaming lungs and pain racketing its body to the safety that awaits it in the south.
The terrain is changing quickly – just after the wind mutates, the shrunken and ill landscape gives way to shrubs, to mangy but green grass, and to-
The raven hits water.
It falls into a shallow pond. The shock its enough to wake it up, and Runo can fall back into the recesses of its awareness as it drinks up the pond water – it’s dirty, but it is safe. The Burning River by now just a grey curtain at the horizon, a promise of pain, but far-off and unable to reach them now.
The raven drinks until the bad taste in its mouth is gone, and then it flutters up to a low tree, sitting on one of the branches amidst the still-green leaves.
Runo alerts it to the presence of a nearby rabbit, and the bird takes care of its needs.
After what she pulled it through, she believes it deserves a little break.
Inwardly, she sighs. The northern road is shut.
Perhaps the south would offer better luck… even if that means Elvish territory.
Pulling away from the raven, Runo feels another shiver run down her back.
Author’s Notes: I really liked writing about the Burning River. One of the things I feel it’s lacking in fantasy settings is a bit of focus on humans’ tendency to change their environment. This literal ‘scorched earth’ tactic has fascinated me and I wanted to offer a glimpse of it. I hope you liked it. Also, raven has earned a bit of a respite, I guess. Thanks for reading.