It took two days to cross the city. It was littered with the corpses of horselords from when the Enemy took it for his own. It was the first to fall. Before the Old Gods called forces together to resist the Enemy. Before her.
She stared straight ahead without even a momentary flicker of recognition of the leftover carnage about her. He wondered if the Old Gods had given her the gift of ignorance with all the rest when They chose her.
He laughed, though there was no humor in it.
“What’s so funny?” the girl asked.
They marched on, boots crunching under the ash that coated the cobblestones. Still the girl looked ahead. The man grew envious.
* * *
On the outskirts of the city they found a holdfast. It was of a height with the city walls and seemed a mockery of the golden hall. The stones poked out at odd angles, hastily built by the Enemy whilst besieging the city. It was a wonder it was still standing. Each corner was marked with a spire, though its inside was too dark to ascertain any figures within its shoddy walls. The man checked the crenellations along the battlements for anyone inside.
There was a flash of movement, browning cloth fluttering behind. He dragged the girl roughly behind the city walls and told her to watch. She tried to ask questions, but her protests died on her lips as something emerged from the great stone structure. It was a bandaged form almost resembling a man, save for the lumps crawling across whatever lay inside the linen that covered its form.
“What was that?” the girl asked. “A corpse?”
“Swarm,” the man told her.
“What are Swarm?”
“Creatures enchanted by dark magic. Watch.”
There was movement again in the holdfast. The man watched one of the Swarm exiting the holdfast. It was wrapped in linen like a wrapped-up corpse that had returned to life. It had no eyes. Yet in a small hole where it should see through a spider poked through the bandages and then scuttled back inside. The thing moved in a grotesque mockery of the human form. Something scuttled out of an eyehole. A spider, big and red. It poked back in through the bandages and more came out, only to duck back in. The girl squeezed the man’s fingers until they went white.
“What’s inside those bandages?” the girl muttered.
“Spiders,” the man said. “Hundreds of them. Collectively making up a single Swarm.”
“How does it stay together,” the girl asked.
“I don’t know,” the man said. “Some kind of dark magic. I’ll not pretend to know the workings of the Enemy.”
“How do we stop them?”
“It might be time to use that fire,” the man said. “There’s Swarm down there. And Swarm don’t travel alone.”
“It’s not hurting anyone,” the girl protested.
“It’s going to hurt us if you don’t do something about it.”
“If I use the fire it’ll die.”
“That’s the idea.”
“I don’t want to kill things.”
The man set his jaw. “Okay.”
* * *
The man had told the girl with the fire to stay inside the city walls. He told her to watch. He hoped she listened. He couldn’t chance to look over his shoulder. He reached for a dagger and tossed it sidearmed. The Swarm turned too late and the man’s blade bit cloth of its neck. It crumpled to the ground in a pile of bandages and insects.
Then there were screeches. Or as near as the Swarm could manage: a loud, long, clicking noise undercut by a high-pitched whistle
The man drew his sword as two more came out of the holdfast. And in the windows on the spires he descried dozens more descending the steps.
He cleft the first one met the first before it could raise its weapon and it crumpled in a spray of rags and spiders.
The other Swarm circled around, a spear at the ready and a spider crawling across the back of its hand only to disappear in the strip of cloth around its wrist. The man pivoted away as the spearhead flew past the bridge of his nose, opening its belly in the same motion.
Wounded, the Swarm advanced. But the man parried its counterstrike. It tried for another cut, but this, too, the man turned aside. Until at last the spiders had sloughed out from the opened bandages and it crumpled to the ground.
But he’d not time for respite. More were coming from all sides with axes and swords at the ready. He gave ground until found his back to the wall as the Swarm were converging on him. Some running, others scuttling on all fours, and more still crawling down the wall all browning linen and scurrying spiders. Clicks and whistles, clicks and whistles.
But at the last both spider and linen burst into flames and they hit the ground like sacks of flower.
The man did not stay to watch the rest of them die. Instead he stepped over the pile of burning rags and spiders, stopping only to retrieve his knife from the unburnt piles before he trudged back into the city.
The girl glowed as the light within her came pouring to the surface. Tears raced down her cheeks where they dried and steamed. “I didn’t want to kill them. I don’t want to be a murderer.”
“Ssssh. The Old Gods put fire in you, child. You don’t have a choice.”
The glow faded and he hugged her. She was hot to the touch and burned him, but he didn’t let go.