Black, soulless hair down to the shoulders. Hazel, almond shaped eyes with irises like mold. A diamond head with a cleft chin begging for a sword. Pronounced, breakable cheekbones, and attached earlobes a clean arrow could sever like an artery.
As far as Salem was concerned, it was the face of evil incarnate, sketched on a sheet of paper and only missing a name. She meant to take good care of Marsha-- Zoie’s drawing, but had instinctively crinkled it to oblivion almost immediately by holding it with too strong a grip after folding it up to a more manageable size. The situation wasn’t improved by the ink not quite being dry either, something Marsha should’ve known before sending her on her way, but it was still better than anything anyone in Shatter Woods could’ve made. The foragers there could copy whatever was needed, but had the imagination of a white flag when it came to anything from scratch.
Which made it so fucking frustrating when the fruit of her journey trip was pushed back like she was trying to hand off a wet tissue.
“No one looks at a face in a brothel,” The scent of cinnamon was in the air as Ian Fisk created space between Salem and himself, “Maybe if you had a doodle of her ti-”
“My daughter could draw better than that.” Crossing his arms, the man glanced over his shoulder towards the interior of his establishment. The brothel should’ve been busy by then, but only a few of the women had bothered coming in to work, and less men were interested in their services that night. The mood was also severely marred by the obvious discoloration on the floor where Wolfgang had died the night before, causing the dancing flames of countless candles to feel more demonic than romantic. “I’m sorry Salem, I’m not trying to be insensitive, but we already discussed this at length yesterday, and discussing it more won’t help either of us. Did you already talk to Reed?”
“Oh.” She shook her head. “I showed him the picture, but he sees too many faces a night to remember them. It was a similar situation with his waitstaff.”
“You might just need a better picture, I can recommend you someone if you’d-”
“No one can draw better than Marsha.”
Ian withheld a comment. “Then what do you need, Salem?”
“To talk to your girls, clients, cleaning staff.”
The man let out a sigh before his gaze drifted to the quiver and bow slung over her shoulder. He considered asking her to leave them outside before she entered, but if anyone had a right to be worried, it was the archer. “I’ll set you up with a room, then. I doubt we’ll need many in rotation tonight.”
“Can… you just send them here?”
The operator frowned. “I can’t have you blocking the doorway all night, and I don’t send staff off-location. It’s safer when everyone’s together.”
“It wasn’t yesterday.”
Ian solemnly nodded. “Even so, if there’s a knife in the dark, my people need to stay inside. I won’t charge you for the room, I won’t keep you from talking to anyone, but please only talk to the clients on their way out. Other than that...” He sighed. “Just… don’t sour the mood too much.”
Stepping aside, he motioned Redwood inside, but when he moved, her eyes locked on the spot on the floor Wolfgang had bled out on. It wasn’t stained red, so much as it was the only spot cleaned so thoroughly that the floorboards were a blatantly lighter color. Hesitantly, Ian reached out to the girl, who flinched when his hand touched her shoulder, and guided her inside. She tried looking anywhere else but that spot, but her eyes kept faltering and returning to it until she was led inside a room and Ian’s body physically blocked it. “We’ve had some issues in the past, so the windows don’t open anymore, but if you get hot, let someone know and we’ll bring you some water. I didn’t know Wolfgang, but Mason was good company. You can add another 1,000 Tsion from me to whatever bounty you intend to offer.”
“He is good company, but thank you.”
Ian nodded. “Apologies. I’ll send someone your way then.”
Salem bobbed her head in kind before turning to see if there was any part of the room better suited for a series of interviews. Being a small space with only large bed gave her just the one option, however, so sitting on its edge she did her best to get the wrinkles out of her sketch. It wasn’t long before Ian, true to his word, sent her someone, a client who’d only arrived in town a few hours before. Her next several guests had similar uselessnesses, some offering wild guesses for who the woman was, but never with any degree of certainty. As the sun set in the sky behind her, Salem began lighting candles, watching the wax melt away as men and women sporadically spoke to her. It was becoming hard to keep her eyes open as the night pressed on, and she had a growing pile of wax knubs before her as the round windows behind her filled with stars.
‘I was already drunk when it happened.’
‘I wasn’t looking at faces.’
‘It happened too fast.’
‘Is that supposed to be you?’
‘I was half asleep when I heard the screams.’
‘That doesn’t look like anyone to me.’
It was just the same half dozen statements echoing each other for hours, like she was bellowing them in a cave. Wolfgang was killed. Dr. Hemingway had no idea what was wrong with Green. Marsha had fucking forgot them. And no one in Shatter Woods knew anything. Salem was ready to scream.
“Sorry, I have no idea who this is supposed to be.” Gingerly, Sapphire returned Redwood’s sketch, who responded with a defeated nod. “I wasn’t in yesterday though, thank the Gods. Your… friend, didn’t leave anyone behind, I hope?”
“A little sister, Grace,” Salem uttered, lying down on the bed and resting her eyes. “She’s a sweetheart, runs a bakery in Three River, east of Strom Hill. Her legs never worked, and Wolfgang grew strong carrying her everywhere they went when they were kids. He learned to read and write exclusively so he could send her letters saying he was alright, and I imagine she did the same. If he’s not here with me, he’s there, watching over her.” Feeling herself get choked up, she took a moment and cleared her throat. “And a wife.”
Sapphire gave her time to elaborate. She didn’t. “You didn’t like her?”
“We all loved her, but... she left him. Didn’t say a word. Didn’t leave anything behind. Just… gone in the night.” She paused. “I saw her earlier and she forgot his fucking name. Never said it the whole time I was with her, never said mine, and never asked about the others.” Salem felt her knuckles whiten.
“She forgot his name?”
“Yeah, after knowing him for six years, five of them married.”
“Then she didn’t. Couldn’t’ve”
“I was looking in her eyes. She forgot, and changed hers. Not even back to her maiden one, either. She’s using a new, used, name.”
“Dead child from Even Falls. A little ten year old who died in a thunderstorm.”
“I have no idea how she smiles. I’d haunt the fuck out of her.”
Nodding, Sapphire let out a sigh. “You don’t just forget people though. I’d look into that if I were you. If there’s nothing else though…”
“I intend to, and no, go ahead.” Salem motioned to the door, “If I’ve talked to everyone, I may just call it a night. I’d rather not walk a mile back to the tavern though, if that’s alright. What way does the door lock?”
“It locks from the inside, so you should be fine. Did Ian give you a key?”
“No, but I’d appreciate one.”
“Then I’ll get it.” Sapphire gave Salem a soft smile as she rose to leave, but paused before going to the door. “And… when Mason wakes up, please let us know, and let him know that if he wants company, we’re there for him. He’d deny it, but if you can get through his dickish sarcasm, there’s a good heart under that thick skin. No one here’ll forget the night he found Aoife’s daughter.” Sapphire smiled, but Salem flinched. She butchered that name an hour ago, horribly. “I’ll slide the key under your door, no need for you to stay up. I’ll cook some extra eggs in the morning, or if you skipped dinner, there’s still a lot of salad and some oysters in the lobby. Either way, be sure to get some sleep, alright?”
Redwood nodded before slowly laying back, legs dangling off the edge as she shut her eyes. As much as Green liked to brag, he loved being seen as a mischievous motherfucker too much to let some stories spread. He once took manure out of a stable, snuck it into a noble’s vineyard and dumped it a barrel of grapes. He didn’t stick around to see the end results, but going by the bounty on his head, someone diffidently drank some defiled wine. It was his favorite tavern tale to tell, but Salem had to find out from outside sources he’d often buy crates of toys have them shipped to the orphanages throughout the kingdom. He never lived in one, but his mom did, and claimed to have only made it out because of her best, stuffed friend. Every kid needs a cotton pal, Green had jested.
Cracking an eye open, Salem noticed Sapphire had yet to leave, her gaze fallen at the base of the door and the light shining through it. It was difficult to see considering how bright Redwood had to keep her room so her picture was visible, but once it had her attention, there was an orange pulse beckoning to the lobby. “Afraid of seeing the mess?”
“...No…” Sapphire was slow to speak, her arms stuck between crossed and reaching for the door knob, “We clean in the morning, and I came in when Ian was locking up… It shouldn’t be that bright, there should only be a few candles lit so I can see where I’m going.”
“Maybe he forgot?”
“Ian cares about safety. A lot. He wouldn’t forget, not about something that could start a…” Her voice trailed off, and hesitantly, she reached out her hand to the knob. She didn’t have to touch it to know what was happening, she could feel the heat radiating off of it inches away, like a freshly smelted blade. “Fuck.”
Salem put the clues together like a three piece jigsaw puzzle, but hating what she saw, she tore the blanket off her bed and crumpled it up around her hand like a giant’s mitten. Hoping to see a better image she gripped the doorknob and despite feeling a burn through layers of cloth, tore it open.
A cloud of black smoke struck her like a passing phantom, causing her to gag and her eyes to water. Squinting, she lifted her arm as her bronze eyes took a quick glance of the lobby, perplexion pumping into her blood with every square foot she saw. She’d barely seen half of it before Sapphire forcibly yanked her back inside and slammed the door shut. As the thief coughed and gagged, the prostitute climbed on the bed and jumped, slamming her palm against the ceiling and shouting “Fire!” as loud as she could. Salem only recovered the ability to speak once she heard a stampede above her.
“Tell me there’s another exit.”
Sapphire shook her head, unsure she wanted to know the answer to what she had to ask. “How bad is it?”
“Was the floor soaked with alcohol when you came in?” Redwood barely gave the woman moment to respond, “Every candle is toppled, your salad bowl is hosting an inferno and everything is on fucking fire!”
“...There’s no other exit.”
“Fuck!” Salem dragged her hands down her face before he eyes snapped to the windows. There were three in her room, one large circle about two feet in diameter flanked by smaller ones half the size, each quartered by wooden divides with their base at her forehead. Without speaking a word, she exchanged a glance with Sapphire and the two woman dragged the bed across the floor, it’s legs scraping against the hardwood before the thief climbed on top of it, grabbing a pillow and smacking it against the largest window. Pinning it in place with her left hand, she reared back her right and with all her might, smashed it into the white cloth. Thick as the padding was, pain ruptured from the girl’s knuckles while the glass chipped behind it, but undeterred, she struck again and again.
Red dots began speckeling the pillow as its interior fabric began to part, leaving her fist with all the protection of a long sleeve. Finally the blow came where something broke, and an instant of elation revitalized Salem when it was the window, but as it caved and her arm rushed through it, fractured glass tore the pillow to ribbons and carved into her skin. Crimson oozed as she retracted her limb, and although Salem did her best not to look, Sapphire gasped in horror when she did. Sparing Redwood the sight, the prostitute snatched the blanket off the floor and wrapped it around the archer’s arm, Red’s red bleeding through each new layer as soon as it was spun. Tying it off as best as she could, Sapphire nodded to Salem, and wobbly standing, the archer returned to her work, easily breaking off the rest of the spider webbed glass. With a boost from her new friend, Salem was able to crawl through, receiving only minor scrapes from the glass she’d missed, and with the aid of the soaked, beaten pillow to grip the window’s base, Sapphire was able to follow her out.
Against the darkness, damnation cackled. Looking through the windows to the lobby, Sapphire saw flames covering the floor like a flood of fire, blackening the wooden walls as they thrashed. A table leg snapped and the rest crashed against the ground in a shower of embers, feeding the inferno a morsel before it could sedate it’s thirst for living flesh. Smoke was billowing out of every crevice on the ground floor, and with horror, Sapphire’s eyes trailed to the second, locking on the shadows against the windows.
“Get help.” Salem’s words were soft, but she repeated them louder as soon as she realized. “Go get help, they can break windows the same as us, but if the winds change… the forest has too much dead wood for the city to survive.”
After a hesitant nod, Sapphire turned to leave, but Salem grabbed her wrist when another thought crossed her.
“How many people sleep here overnight?”
“Including me? Five.”
“Then five people will be outside waiting for you.” Salem forced a small smile and the women departed, the later beginning to pace the burning building while the former sprinted back to town, a half mile away. Not being limited to just a bed, the shadows in the windows above her had better options to shatter the glass. Ian was the first to break his way through, lobbing a chair through to create an opening, but nearly rained the shards on top of Salem. Too much was happening for him to notice however, and looking over his shoulder, it took a moment for the thief to see he was guiding one of his employees, Brittainy, first. Twelve feet wasn’t too far a drop, but Salem could see fear in her amber eyes.
“Just tuck and roll!” Startling the woman, Redwood’s words almost made her fall out of the window. “You’ll be fine, is everyone in there with you?”
“N-no, Aoife was worried the floor would give way under too much weight, and Willow was terrified. They’re i-in her room.”
Nodding, Salem kicked the bloody, battered pillow under the opening. With all the rising smoke Brittany had a difficult time seeing it, but at Salem’s prompt, she finally jumped and missed it entirely. The fall was broken by the archer, however, who half caught, half outright took the impact. Her body wasn’t as hard as the dirt, but the blow still winded the women, knocking both over and leaving an open space for Ian. Finding himself too heavy for the women, he didn’t wait for them get situated, leaping down before they could reset, fucking up his knees with the impact and cleaving through the webbing of his right thumb when his hand planted on a shard of glass.
The sound of his sharp scream cued crying on the other side of the house, a pitch louder than Salem would’ve expected, and two thoughts collided like jousters. She hadn’t spoken to a ‘Willow’ that night, and one of the women had a kid.
“Please tell me that isn’t Aye-oi-fee’s daughter.”
“She is.” Brittainy was pale, but her quivering hand was still able to grab Salem’s arm before she bolted away. “And it’s Aoife. Aoife.”
Lacking the time to process the correction, the archer sprinted around the building, flinching when she heard the cataclysmic bang of something breaking through the top floor into the lobby. Embers seemed to explode and the flames attacked like starving sharks, devouring the bookcase and all the knowledge it contained with haunting savagery. Sweating for several reasons, she planted her feet harshly on the ground for a sudden stomp, eyes snapping at the second floor on onto Aoife’s back as she straddled the remnants of the window that spanned most of her room. The cackling flames below consumed most of Salem’s hearing, but some of the prostitute’s words managed to peirce the night.
“Please Willow, you’ll be alright, I promise! I know it’s scary but-- Willow!”
In all her life, Salem had never heard a more horrifying shriek. Her skin flashed into goosebumps when a godless bang accompanied it, paired with a child’s petrified, agonized screaming. Aoife’s body tensed, and Salem knew she was about to leap down the hole that consumed her child, but the archer’s voice cried out before she could move a muscle.
“Don’t be stupid!” Salem’s bow was already drawn by the time Aoife turned around, startled with tears streaming down her sweat-soaked skin while the Raven found an arrow with rope tied to its tail. “Stay still!” After flicking the end of the coil on the ground behind her, Salem shot her projectile, its head embedding into a wall in the woman’s room. “Now don’t let me fall!” Not waiting for the rope to be gripped, the thief charged, getting a running start before leaping as high as she could, feet planting on the wooden wall as she snatched the cord with both hands. It gave way a couple inches, but when Aoife grunted, it was apparent she’d reacted in time. Swift as she could, Salem hiked the rest of the height in a few long strides, brushing past the prostitute when she reached the window.
“Go!” Even inches away, Salem had to project to be heard over the sustained scream of a child, “I need you on the ground, pulling us out! Grab the rope, count to three and run!”
“Save us. Go!”
Wrapping the end in her palm and clenching, Salem took a quick glance into the suffering inferno as Aoife leapt over the other end. The blazes had eaten though the door that barred the Rotation Room from the lobby and had climbed the walls, evidently weakening the floor above until it could no longer hold the bed. Its legs were shattered and was sprawled over the lower level’s love one. It was the only thing not entirely engulfed in orange ruin, its center hosting a young, teenage child desperately thrashing to get the flames out of her dress. The sight almost paralized Salem.
“I’m coming!” Salem felt her arrow snap as she jumped into the pit, dread gripping her bones like she was in a giant’s grip. The bed was an easy enough target for her to land on, but her impact with the mattress nearly knocked the child off it, rolling to its side and prompting Salem to dive over her, pushing her back away from the edge both palms as she cleared it, falling into the fire herself, chest first.
In twenty five years, Salem had gathered a collection of scars and broken nearly a dozen bones. She’d been stabbed, taken an arrow to the back, nearly drowned, trampled by a horse, but never in her life had she felt such a sudden, all consuming agony. It was torture in its most natural form, the flames dispersed by her fall all attacked her in unison, like a well trained army, igniting her clothes before any instincts could kick in. It was less than a second before they did, but that single moment felt like an eternity suffering in Rot, excruciating flames igniting her shirt and pants as she shoved herself upright with all the strength she had. It looked like a drunken stumble as she fell back on the mattress, kicking her feet up to shed her burning bottom before doing the same with her top, the fabric tearing around her quiver.
Her chest was reminiscent of a robin down to her waist, vicious red where she’d fallen on the fire and she could see her legs in a similar state. If her arms didn’t save her face she may have lost her eyes, but the sudden tightening of the rope on her hand thrust her back to task, her entire arm ripping up to the sky and popping out of its socket as it resisted Aoife’s dash outside. It was the pain that finally pushed her over the limit, shrieking ‘Fuck!’ until smoke filled her lungs. Eyes watering, or, more likely, crying, Salem managed to retain the cognition to do what she came down for. With a nearly blind thrash, her left arm swiped for Willow, catching her side and dragging her close to her.
Salem could’ve sworn pressing the child against her burn nearly killed her, but the Raven was able to prompt her to hold onto her tight. Strength rapidly waning while the inferno thrashed to finish what it started, Salem’s wobbling left hand reached above her right, clenching the rope and heaving herself up. Her body quivered as the effort demanded oxygen, but holding her breath, she repeated the motion, her feet swaying above the bed as the fire climbed onto it, clawing after them. She could hear Willow crying in her ear, but when she reached up to move another step, her body betrayed her.
A desperate gasp for air was greeted with black smoke, causing the girl to choke and gag. It was all she could do not to fall, hand quickly returning to the rope as it became impossible for her to catch her breath. She couldn’t breathe, there was nothing to breathe, and as anguish spread to her throat and her head grew dizzy, her grip grew weak. The Raven couldn’t think, couldn’t see, only smell ash and feel death. Fighting the urge to pass out, Salem hoisted herself up to where her hands bled, pushing them away for only a moment before she jerked them back, holding Willow in a tight hug. The sudden impact of Red’s arms frightened the girl, and the child started to whimper. The adult knew that if she opened her mouth again she’d cough blood, and resting her forehead on the girl’s, made a silent vow to Wolfgang that no one else would die there.
Her teeth grit as she begged her strength to return, but her black hair swayed as her rope moved. Eyes fluttering, Salem’s gaze could scarcely see the ceiling growing closer and closer, and her grip on on Willow tightened as her back grinded against the broken floorboards that nearly damned the child. Her weakened skin tore from the oak and Salem felt damp by the time she was taken to the window. Its glass was even worse, digging into her bare back like a hawk’s talons before finally giving her a moment of rest, teetering between a twelve foot fall and back into a burning building. With blurry vision, her bronze eyes saws saw three figures below her, Brittany with the rope seized in her grip while Ian and Aoife repositioned themselves under the window. At the mother’s cue, the prostitute made one, last tug, pulling the thief backwards.
Flipping to the world below, Willow’s constricting arms and the rushing wind were the last things Salem felt, fading like a stormcloud after the flood.