Artumes opened her eyes. Her whole body felt numb. Sweat covered her skin in a faint sheen, like a blanket of stars, glistening under the white turbinating lights of the coronite flames.
They reached out for the off-white night sky, blasting through every obstacle they found and turning it into more fuel.
She had brought a sliver of the Burning River here in this village. The coronite would eat through all of it: wood, metal and stone, down to the ground beneath her feet. It would then expand like a wave around, until and past the outer reaches of the Marrower’s influence, denying any and all passage to the Gloom Lords.
They would not set their cursed foot upon this land – and in fact, few would.
The coronite would not be as toxic as standing in the presence of the Hearthwomb was, but it would make sure nothing could grow there for years.
Only corrosive ash and carbonated cinder would remain.
An utter destruction, denying the Marrowers of even a speck of meat to exercise their power upon.
All that, of course, would come at a cost…
But that was a thought for another time.
Artumes found herself smiling as she watched the fire dance.
In a way, it was pretty. Prettier than it had been that time in the village, when her life had been upturned once and for all.
But at least, that kind of fire had tempered her – made her stronger. It was one of the reasons why the artefacts that had created and controlled this whole roaring wall of flames was so docile under her touch.
Any other Anthilian would have become part of the ashes.
The flames licked at the perimeter marked by the twelve spokes, but not a nail’s width further.
She was safe.
“Fire cleanses,” she muttered, air so hot it felt almost like choking. Her tears evaporated on her face as her black hair shone as if they were catching fire by itself.
But all this would come to an end soon.
And then she would find her twelfth Marrower.
Her smile turned into a grin – she allowed the artefact to eat through her eagerness and bloodlust and with a laughter of triumph the flames rushed out, engulfing the whole of town in a corona of blinding hunger.
Runo had almost reached the crumbled wall when the second roar of flames blasted over the plain. She caught a glimpse of the advancing tide of flames as it rose to devour the village. The heat blistered on her skin, eating away at the layers of protection she had set there as a Marrower. The effect of the Coronite pierced them and made her skin raw and pink.
She cried out in pain, stumbled, but did not stop. Dashed towards the wall and there the stones did offer a modicum of protection. Her mind rattled back from the shock and she cradled her arms close to her chest. Just a few hundred paces away, the body of her horse caught fire and went up in a pillar of white flames – at least it would not suffer anymore.
Rattling her teeth, Runo pushed her will towards her skin, forcing her blood to stabilize, her skin to knit together, against the relentless assault of the coronite and the mechanical intelligence that had guided it.
Many were the weapons of the Anthilians, and to be on the receiving end of one of their worst was not how she had hoped to find refuge.
But she had to resist – muttering prayers to forsaken gods, she came back to a similar night when she was a child in the lonesome village, before the Iron Crown came. Her mother held her in her arms and cradled her over the fire, and that warmth was so much gentler than the hungry flames licking away at her skin. Her hair danced at the rhythm of the incandescent wind while new lines of pain etched on her flesh, carved by a filament of coronite passing through the wall of stones. New skin would then regrow, new and shiny.
By the time she had finished the first prayer and her addled mind pulled up a new one from her rackety memories, her body was covered in lines of fresh skin and already-old scabs.
At least, she did not need to wonder what she did to deserve such torture.
For every year, every day she had been a Marrower, she had to dish this kind of punishment out.
Runo cried out in anguish.
It could be that the gods did not exist after all – but their irony maybe did.
Artumes stood up from the circle of spokes. She batted her eyes to get used to the much lower light, now that the flames of coronite had spread and eaten through every corner of the village, or what remained of it.
They had done their job perfectly.
She allowed herself a smile – every little speck of flesh, skin and bone was off-white ash in the scattered wind. The warm air from the bonfire was still rumbling with heat, and her black hair shifted with this or that current.
Most fires were now back to their natural orange or red colour, while the silver flames only danced atop a few homes and far-off, in an expanding ring, ever-thinner, until it would cover every trace of the Marrower’s Harvest, and deny any chance of passage to the Gloom Lords.
They would not set foot on this devastated land.
In fact, nothing would, for a long, long time.
It usually took at least seven seasons for a land blasted by coronite to recover, but she had a hunch that between the Harvest and her cleaning ritual… it might take a few years more.
She detached the artefact’s feelers from her skin, gently removing them from where they had pierced her flesh. They withdrew into the main body like roots growing backwards, leaving just a few marks on her skin, a few patches of slightly-darker spots. She still felt a little dizzy, the echoes of the device’s mind passing through her head like waves in a pond.
The device came back to its old form, completely smooth. She covered it with the leather skin and put it into her backpack.
“Isn’t it so much better here, after the fire?” She mumbled, looking up at the stars, both the fixed ones and the fast ones streaking the sky.
All around her, golden sparks rose in the night air as if to meet them.
Thanks for reading.