Middlewick shimmered like a lantern under the black sky, alight with fire and the screams of the dying. Dozens of militiamen paraded through streets and fields and farmland with torches raised and swords drawn. Desperate pleas and crackling flames permeated the icy night air as Stretvanger's soldiers shattered windows, smashed doorways, and set houses ablaze. Townspeople poured into the streets like rodents, clutching their children and possessions, stumbling confusedly about in charred nightwear.

Stretvanger's voice boomed through the chaos like the call of a war horn drowning the clatter of battle. "They have scars! Look for the scars!" the bishop bellowed as people flooded past him through the road. "Look for the runes and purge their bodies with flames! If they bleed, then they're not dead!"

Dalya sneaked low through the fields, the stench of smoke stinging her eyes. On her hands and knees, she circumvented the town, crawling its perimeter until she found her grandfather's cottage beyond the tall grass. Conjuring the last ounces of energy from her muscles, she dashed toward the house and bolted through the fractured doorway. She sprang down the hall, collapsed as she entered the kitchen, and sprawled awkwardly amid the cracked dishes. Her legs were cold beneath her, and she did not have the balance to stand; instead she inched her way into the larder, fully prepared to slither from Middlewick, grandfather in tow, if she could not find her feet.

Rolling aside the toppled food barrels, she ripped the loose paneling from the floor and peered down into the hole. The reek of decay burned her nostrils and choked her like a tangle of fishhooks. A violent sob rose in her chest, and Dalya began to shiver.

The hole was empty. Cautious footsteps echoed through the house.

"Istanten?" she called, but there was no answer.

She sifted through the debris on the larder floor, brushing aside shards of plates and splintered spears of tile and wood. Dalya scrabbled through the mess, looking for a knife or fork or a spike of broken dish big enough to slash her way through to the doorway, but she froze mid-search when she spotted the pruning shears in the hallway beyond the kitchen.

Bloodstained, handle to blade.

Torchlight sprayed over the walls, and Harringer—his frame bowing beneath heavy armor—stepped into her vision and darkened the larder doorway. He took a moment to study her in the light, then leaned back into the kitchen and hollered, "I found her! She's in here."

There was muffled chatter from somewhere outside. Harringer offered his hand, but Dalya shuffled backward, closer to the empty hole. "What's happening?" she asked, the words husky and cracked as they slogged past her lips.

"Nothing like I've ever seen," he said. His eyes were round and slick with worry. "The other six bodies have vanished from the orchard."


"Gone. Disappeared."

"And my grandpa?"

Someone screamed outdoors. Harringer's fingers brushed the hilt of his blade. His eyes flicked back to Dalya, and he offered his hand again. "We have to go."

She gawked up at him for several seconds, her breaths hard and uneven. "I don't think I can stand."

Harringer stepped in and scooped her up from the ground. Dalya wrapped her arms around his neck as he backed from the larder and out into the kitchen. The ruins of plates and silverware crunched under the young soldier's boots. Just as they turned into the hallway, Stretvanger planted a mammoth, gnarled hand on Harringer's chestplate.

"Put her down," the giant growled, his head cocked slightly under the roof of the cottage. Bloody smears colored the front of his robes, and a thin trail of crusty crimson dribbled from one ear.

Harringer hesitated. Stretvanger slapped him across the face, sending the soldier reeling back into the kitchen. Dalya spilled from his grip and crashed to the floor as the bishop's titanic form stalked toward her. He plunged a hand into his robes and drew a curved dagger from their folds. His fingers wrapped the hilt like five bony snakes, and he leaned close, spine and knees crackling beneath his frame.

His breath was hot ash upon her face. "Where," he whispered, "is your grandfather?"

She shook her head. "I... I don't—"

Stretvanger lashed out, slicing her cheek with cold steel. Dalya winced, tears beading at the corners of her eyes. "Show me!" he roared, seizing a handful of her clothing and hauling her upward. Harringer watched from the edge of the room, lips parted and colorless, as the bishop held the knife to Dalya's throat.

The girl opened her mouth to speak; she contorted her lips and rolled her tongue, but she found no words.

"I will water your grandfather's flowers with your blood," Stretvanger hissed. "I will level the countryside. I will burn your memory from existence if you don't answer me."

"I—" The knife bit her throat, and Dalya flinched. She met Stretvanger's unbreakable stone stare and saw no pretense in his eyes—no tricks and no insincerity. But there was no malice either. Dalya saw only terror, stark, urgent dread in the giant's wide pupils. "The woods. You'll find a clearing due east from the mill. He's in an open grave."

With his knife hand, Stretvanger pointed to Harringer. "Go," he barked, and the young man scrambled into the hall and through the front doorway, screaming orders to his comrades in the streets.

"Put me down, please?" Dalya murmured.

The bishop surveyed the kitchen, shaking his head, muttering, "No, no, no," through a subtle smile as his eyes probed the walls. He moved into the hallway and carried her deeper into the cottage, opening various doors along the way. "You're far from exonerated, little girl. This is your mess we're cleaning."

He opened the door to the basement; a series of steep stairs delved down into the heavy darkness under the house, like a jagged tongue sprouting from a blackened maw. "I'll be back for you soon," Stretvanger promised. "To chat about the impiety of lies."

All at once, the darkness rushed forward. Dalya smashed against the staircase, ribs snapping, the world whirling as she tumbled into the basement. She smacked the stone floor with a thunderous thud. The doorway at the top of the steps was a narrow line of light, shrinking as Stretvanger closed and barred her exit.

From beyond the walls, she heard the dampened cries of her neighbors as Middlewick burned in the night. She heard the scurry of rats at the corners of the basement. She heard her own hoarse, labored breathing, her own shrill cries of pain as she clawed her way toward her grandfather's workbench, lost somewhere in the darkness.

Reaching up, she probed the bench for a candlestick. She laid it carefully in front of her and fished blindly through the tools for a firesteel. Steel in hand, she pressed the candle to the ground and dragged the striker across the floor. A rain of sparks littered the darkness, and with numb fingers, Dalya scraped it again and again until the candlewick ignited.

She squinted against the brilliance of the little flame. Tendrils of wax drizzled over her knuckles as her eyes adjusted to the light, and after a few seconds, she raised the candle and examined small illuminated pockets of the basement.

The candlelight skimmed every corner—the workbench, the bookshelves, the crates near the stairs. Dalya's exhausted mind nearly glossed over the old, desiccated man leaning against the opposite wall. His features were familiar—the slope of the shoulders, the hairline—but the man was tatty and worn, like someone wearing her grandfather's skin. His eyeballs were veiny white, reflecting the shine of the flame, and his mouth hung slack like a torn piece of clothing. All of his limbs drooped out of socket, and he flinched under her gaze.

Dalya's pulse thudded in her ears.

The creature snarled and staggered forward, pale runic scars running down his chest and thighs. Dalya scooted backward, her breaths choppy and pained. From the darkness stalked six others, all trudging toward her, inhuman sounds spilling from their warped faces.

"Grandpa?" she squeaked.

The candle clattered to the floor.



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