Even before they reach the edge of the forest, the smell of smoke and burning wood fills the air. There is another smell that sends both waves of relief and panic through the approaching group, the fresh smell of water.
Emerging from the forest, the three are only slowed for a moment when they see the black smoke rising from the city. They run through the streets, passing water mages still putting out dwindling fires.
The fighting is over.
Bodies lie in numerous places, but most of the people have survived. The wounded are being taken care of, but still fights among the people break out. Ari doesn’t care why or to find out the reason for the arguments filling the city. She only cares about reaching her mother.
They reach the edge of the canyon and Ari stops. Her eyes drift to the watchtower across the way, or at least where it should’ve been. It’s gone, destroyed during the attack. Feeling a sad tug in her chest, Ari swallows the pain and begins the descent into the canyon, followed in silence by Kemp and Crofton.
Lyrrel waits for them outside Ari’s home. His cloaks are torn, burned, and have bloodstains though it’s unclear whether it’s his blood or another’s. As Ari approaches his violet eyes raise to meet hers.
“I’m sorry.” He holds out his hand and Ari’s breath catches in her throat.
The silk bracelet her mother always wore is in his hand. Somehow, the silk has survived the attack, the colors representing the elemental powers of earth, sea, sky, and sun standing out against Lyrrel’s pale skin.
Ari takes the soft silk and stares into Lyrrel’s eyes. She passes him in silence, heading into the house. Crofton and Kemp attempt to follow, but Lyrrel stops them.
“Give her a moment.”
Passing through the shambles of the house, Ari’s eye search the once familiar hallways. Fire has burned most of the floor away, while water still drips from the ceiling from the attempt to stop the flames from spreading.
“Mom?” Ari’s voice is soft, childlike. She knows where her mother is, but she still spends time opening the doors to destroyed rooms. “Mom.”
She stops, her eyes spotting a portrait on the floor. The paint runs due to the water, but she can still make out her father’s grey eyes. His piercing stare is locked to the door leading out to the courtyard as though leading her to the inevitable.
She doesn’t want to go out there. She knows what she’ll find and she can’t face it. Her father’s gaze remains on the door. She wants to plead with him to make everything all right. She wants to plead with him to keep the door closed forever.
A gentle breeze brushes her hair from her face and Ari feels tears roll down her cheek. She opens the door and walks out into the courtyard.
The white tree is burned to black. The leaves falling from above remain green, creating a storm of life dying as they fall to the earth. The red on the ground is unnaturally bright. Blood shouldn’t be that red, Ari thinks.
She manages to take three steps forward before her legs can no longer hold her. She crawls to her mother’s body, still warm as though she could wake up at any moment, but Ari knows her mother, Meah, is gone.
“Mom.” She lifts her mother up and pulls her close, burying her face in her mother’s auburn hair. She feels the limpness in her mother’s body and the wetness of blood soaking into her clothing. Tears drip from her eyes onto Meah’s oddly peaceful face.
Ari feels Crofton and Kemp approaching and squeezes her mother tighter as they make it out to the courtyard. Both men freeze at the sight, but force themselves closer. Crofton places a hand on Ari’s shoulder, trying to comfort, but unsure of what to say.
Kemp seeing the blood staining Ari’s clothes tries to pull Meah away. Ari lowers her head and a gust of wind shoves both men away. Finally her cries reach her voice and Ari screams.
Crofton and Kemp step back. Lyrrel appears behind them and watches the scene silently, his eyes flashing blue for the briefest of moments.