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In the evening of the seventh day, I saw smoke in the east, a high, thick column billowing up and dragged to curling waves on the wind from the ocean. Askuwheteau and I were on the third terrace of the old temple, far above the bog land at the edge of the city. The mist was so thick that it appeared as if clouds were below us, and the breeze bore along curtains of silver droplets to cool our hides and wet our brows. We practiced the technique I had promised, over and over, a thousand times, to understand it fully. Later, we would discuss how to recover or avoid it.
Askuwheteau was almost my age, but a good pupil, and he had little ego when it came to the Open Path. To excel in the path of the Crade, one must remain ever the student. So it was with me. I fumbled along as a teacher and doubtless learned more than he.
When a pause came in the rhythm of our training, I noticed the smoke, first as a scent, a glowing, stinging change in the mist. I turned and looked and pointed, and shortly after Askuwheteau led me down and out of the village. We rode on elk-back, and I was a little saddened, as I always was when riding out on a beast of any kind. Memory does unusual things and strikes with honeyed barbs at the moments we least expect. I muttered a few words to a long-gone friend as we rode.
The elk were strong, wary things, with great antlers and thundering hooves that found the stable places between stones and moss and mud. We neared the smoke and the scent increased. The elk did not seem to mind.
Our first stop brought us to a clearing, burned clean and black with damp ash. No undergrowth remained. The stones stood as gray bubbles and a dozen of Askuwheteau’s folk were piling the remaining trunks while others dug rocks from the earth and rolled them away, using a system of ropes and levers and timber.
“We’ve been fortunate with the weather,” Askuwheteau said. He pointed off toward the smoke. “For the burning. But it could be drier.”
“Is it ever dry up here?” My clothes felt somewhat sodden at all times, but at least the wool was warm.
“This is dry!” He grinned.
“And this?” I looked around. “This was your peoples’ fire?”
“Just before you arrived. It takes some time for the burnings to cool.”
That I knew. Memory flashed, the inside of a house, all black and heat, such heat as cannot be forgotten, emanating, rising up like from a spirit’s gullet.
“Raze?” Askuwheteau spoke again and the memory was gone.
“Nothing,” I said. “You’ll make more fields here?”
“After winter, yes. When the rains begin in earnest. Would you see the burning?”
We went on, a short distance farther. On the way, we passed a long, burned swath, wide enough for a pair of carts. There, nothing was left; no undergrowth, no timber. All the fallen trunks had been hauled away, leaving just an empty, black stripe. “To stop the flames,” Askuwheteau explained as we crossed.
We moved into the smoke, which hung in the air like a greasy mist. Soon I felt my skin graying, ash-coated. Ahead, Askuwheteau guided us without concern, and his elk picked its way through a forest of felled trees, all of them lying, facing the same way. Only the undergrowth and a few shrubs and saplings remained. All of it would soon be blackened, lost, turned to ash. This land, in a few years, would be an orchard, or a bright field. Askuwheteau’s people would come in dozens to hack away the rock, carve the earth, rip out the roots, and then plant something new, something else. Life would spring from death, as it ever did. The old and weak and worthless die. The strong and young and new take their place, drawing nourishment from the discarded, sometimes without even knowing it.
The smoke thickened. Somewhere ahead the flames roared, but there was little other sound; no birds. No bugs. I began to feel uneasy, and the sensation of being watched returned, although anyone within sight should have been visible, at least as far as the ash and smoke allowed. I watched around me listened for sounds between the thuds of our mount’s hooves.
Askuwheteau stopped. He peered one way, then the next, and continued.
Bits of ash floated around us and the smoke was so still and gray that we couldn’t see more than a dozen feet around us. Embers fluttered above, around, like burning moths, undulating and drifting on the still air, wafting at currents, glowing hot and bright then fading to red, to white and black. My elk snorted and sneezed. I stopped, and a moment later Askuwheteau did likewise.
“This isn’t right,” he said.
“No,” I answered.
Before I could dismount, they came on out of the smoke. Four of them, like ash coalescing into shadows, then shapes. The Smoke Walkers.
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