Petro bursts from the forest like a rock from a slingshot.
All day, he followed the billowing smoke that poured off the village, and when it subsided, he’d kept on, focused on that single spot like a moth on a light.
The shortcut spits him out on the north end of the farmlands, and the moment his eyes adjust to the light, Petro gawks at the damage.
The fields are gone, reduced to black smudges of dirt and charcoal. The town silo has been flattened, its distinctive silhouette cut away from the tiny line of buildings that made up the center of the village. Actually, those aren’t even buildings anymore. They don’t have roofs or walls; they are merely lumps of burned and broken wood.
The farmhouses scattered around the plots are burned too. Only one, the tiny hut closest to Petro, still stands. It belongs to a newlywed couple, Para and Bronte. Petro and his father had helped clear the land.
The village is not silent, at least. Wind rustles in the trees, Petro hears a few birds chirping. The great ocean waves crash against the cliff walls on the village’s western edge. There are no people or livestock sounds though. The chickens and cows are mysteriously silent. The clanking of farm equipment has vanished.
Worse than that, Petro can’t see anyone. He’d figured that once the fires died down, people would be rushing about to repair and replace everything, but the village is more still than it is silent.
Petro takes a few cautious steps towards the nearest house, and then runs up to the tiny window in its north side. Cupping his hands to block out his reflection, he sticks his face right up against the glass and peers in.
The inside is a mess. Their bed is tipped and broken in half, and great splinters lay scattered across the dirt floor. Their blankets are gone, but Petro thinks nothing of it. Everyone would have taken and redistributed their blankets after a fire. A single, dented pot sits upside down near the door. Para and Bronte aren’t in, obviously.
With a sigh, Petro starts picking his way across the burned fields. He takes stock of the damage, recollecting which fields had been harvested before the fire and which hadn’t. As he looks down, he notices it’s a very clean burn; there isn’t even much charcoal left over.
He draws within shouting distance of the village center and cups a hand to his mouth. “Hello?”
He tries again.
Furrowing his brows, Petro stops. There’s something odd about the dirt in the village center. It’s been torn up or something. Strange mounds stick up from the ground, longer than they are tall, like maybe someone had dug trenches and just left the dirt next to their excavation.
He keeps going, and with every step, the sounds of the world die away. The birds stop chirping, and the ocean stops crashing, and his feet stop padding against the ground. Or maybe the sounds are there and Petro just doesn’t hear them. His heart even goes silent.
He passes between two burnt piles of wood, what used to be the furnace and weaving halls, and freezes.
And also he retches. The fish in his backpack does not help.
Somehow, Petro manages to gargle some water. He walks back to the fields to spit it out, because the idea of spitting on the ruins of the village makes his stomach flip again. He spends a few minutes standing in the dirt, hands on his knees, preparing himself to go back.
It’s disgusting and awful, but he has to look at the bodies. He hasn’t heard anything human since he arrived, and no survivors have come to look for him and warn him. There might not be very many. Maybe they didn’t have time to come for him. So if Petro is going to find out who lived and who died, he has to discover it for himself.
He gags on bile as he straightens back up, but forces it down, contorting his face in weary disgust. No amount of water can ever clean out his mouth.
When he goes back to the village center, he manages not to throw up. His stomach turns violently, but he stifles its cries of anguish. He stifles everything, really, and his face smoothes out into a tired, melancholic frown.
He counts the bodies first, taking note of any that are remotely recognizeable. Distantly, he thinks that one might be the size and shape of Ming’s grandmother. He can’t recognize his father in any of the charred mounds; the shapes of many of the grown men and women are similar.
He counts them twice. Two bodies are missing: his own, and more likely than not, Ming’s.
It’s so odd though, that the whole village is laid out like this, in the middle of the village, like they’re on display. People don’t die like that. Petro looks away from the bodies as he thinks, but there isn’t anywhere good to look at. The whole village is coated in death.
No one in the village could have perpetrated this. It’s obvious by the way the bodies are laid out and by the complete destruction. If an individual or small group attempted it, they’d be taken down by others in the village. This had to come from a large outside force.
Raiders, Petro thinks. The village rarely gets visitors, but they know people exist beyond. Petro thinks he would have seen though, if a large group of people had come in from the north. They couldn’t have come right off the ocean either, since the cliff walls are near impossible to scale from the ocean side. Ming tried it once.
The south is foggy, but not impassable. They could have come from there. Actually, they probably did. That must be why Ming’s body is missing. She might have run into them earlier, or been captured, or… something. Petro doesn’t know.
His heart reboots, kicking out all the logical bits of him that have kept him from doing anything drastic. His stomach flips. He can hear his blood start moving again, and all his insides churn back to life with a voracious need to run and vomit and cry.
Petro runs, because he can’t afford to throw up again, and he doesn’t have the time to cry. Ming is out there, and he has to find her.