This town was already gone.
It was obvious from the moment we crested the rise. There was no light, and no movement. Just a town, locked away. I could see the sheen of the metal plate the town had been built on, channeling nothing but cold now.
“We can rest here,” Flare said.
Flare didn’t bother with fanfare or ceremony. The town we had been heading towards was gone, so we would rest and move on. I didn’t know what map Flare was working from, or where we would ultimately be headed. I just followed. I hoped I would find out eventually, it wasn’t easy not knowing what was in the distance for us. If it would be like my hometown, or like Crownsbreak.
Or if it would be like this.
Flare lit a fire, and placed the witch-stone in it. We had a circle of golden warmth. Even so, the stillness loomed. I could see people, former people, I could see statues in blue glinting in the starlight in the town below. They were seated, looking up. Looking up at the darkness and the light and the soft twinkling. The stars were all that moved, here.
I shivered. It was chilly. I knew about death. I’d seen plenty of it. Harvesters whose charms had failed them, frozen stiff, carried into town by a solemn procession. Forgekeepers who had stumbled too close to the flame itself. Disease, age, injury, accident, murder. It all funneled through my dad, and it all was laid bare in front of me. It didn’t make it better. Crownsbreak, decimated. Scorched Rock, frozen. This town, nameless now, one large gravestone for everyone who had lived in it.
Flare said, “Do you see it?”
I looked at her.
She said, “How the town made its warmth.”
I looked back down at the town. At the metal plate on the ground, and the little dome structure in the middle of the town. “They lit a fire under the town, and then the plate carried the heat everywhere?”
“Good,” Flare said. “Get used to looking for that. If you find a monster interfering with a town’s heat, get rid of it.”
“Body heat,” Flare answered. My face began to curl with confusion. Flare elaborated. “They used the tree to trap body heat. When people vanished, it got colder.”
I nodded. Flare said nothing, and I wondered if that was all the lesson I was going to receive. I stared at the town. Why did its fire go out? And why did all the frozen people look so peaceful, gazing up at the stars? Relaxed, maybe. Serene. My mind began to slowly click into gear, spinning ideas of what happened.
A town where they knew the flame was going out. Where they knew it was only a matter of time before they would all go. Where they wanted to make sure their last moments were peaceful. Holding hands with loved ones. Then the fire had died, all at once, and the cold rushed in, and that was the end of this town.
Somewhere inside me, a wellspring of curiosity and sadness and anger and determination began to emerge. I could feel it roil and bubble as it filled me up, and though I did my best to not break Flare’s silence, it bubbled too much. “What do witches do?” I asked.
Flare didn’t say anything. Curiosity burbled out of my mouth. “What do we–” I caught myself, “Do you do? I know you deal with monsters, and you travel, and you take things that you need, but what do you do? Where are we going? What do you want? What is the witch-stone? What does it do? How did you cast a charm with your tongue? What was this town? Why is it frozen? Who are you? What’s in your coat?”
Then the curiosity petered out, and the echoes of my questions began to ring out through the silent landscape. I was louder than I’d intended, and asked more than I should have, and Flare still said nothing.
I breathed in, and I breathed out.
In the distance, there was a crack. I whirled. In the forest, a tree limb, weighed down by ice for too long. I watched as it snapped free, and fell into the forest, and a crashing and a shattering echoed around us, washing my questions away.
“Laminate Pass.” Flare said, finally.
“What?” I said. I didn’t know what she was answering.
“I’m looking for Laminate Pass. We’ll travel through it, and make through the mountains. It’s too dangerous to climb.”
I nodded. One question was answered. The only issue was that two more questions were raised.
“Don’t you know where it is? And why is climbing dangerous?”
Flare didn’t respond. Then she looked down at the town. “They knew.”
I looked at the mountains. I looked down at the town. It hadn’t even been in my musings on what the town had been like. What had they known? I couldn’t ask them anymore, their knowledge was locked behind blue lips and unmoving eyes.
What charms did they use? How did they manage the metal ground of their town? What fueled their fires?
I looked down at myself. At my hands. I thought about the charms I knew. I thought about the sticky-fingers charm in particular. I had come up with the charm, had put two charms together to make it. And it might not have been the most useful charm in the world, it might not have been around because nobody needed rather than me being some sort of charm-master, but the sticky-fingers charm was mine. And I had shared it with Flare, and the sticky-fingers charm could spread to others.
I wondered if Marz would be able to copy it from what she had seen of me using it. That would be nice.
I looked over at Flare. She could cast charms with her tongue. Whose was that? Was that hers, or a teacher of hers, or a secret of witches? She had already produced her bedroll, was already getting ready to sleep. Nothing more would be answered for the moment.
The thought crossed my mind that maybe I should ask her more questions. Even though her silence loomed like an army of frogs and fake coal. Maybe she had more sticky-fingers charms.