It took two more nights of travel to finally approach the crossover point from Korelia to just outside of Juroosh. In this time, Joshua and Celeste slept in the day and traveled onwards at night, rationing what supplies they had left and keeping their senses alert for Korelians. The air was gradually becoming less humid, and a natural breeze had picked up, pushing back some of the heat. The thunderstorms that had been chasing them— but not quite catching them— flashed behind their backs, urging them to travel on more quickly.
As they got closer to the border, and odd smell began to waft to them on the breeze. It took only a moment to recognize the scent of smoke, but there was something else in the air that Celeste couldn’t quite recognize. Joshua glanced back and Celeste, seeing her by the light of the nearly full moon as it found its way from behind a cloud, and she nodded, telling him she smelled it also.
They moved more quietly and cautiously after that. More signs of danger were soon made evident as they came to a path through the jungle with trampled greenery and hoof prints. A foreboding sensation filled Celeste at the sight of it. She knew this couldn’t be good. Fearfully now, they continued on through the trees parallel to the newly made path.
Strangely, the animals in this part of the forest were nearly silent. Celeste only occasionally heard the hoot of an owl or a rustle in the trees. Goose bumps pricked her arms as Nutmeg’s ears flicked backwards and forwards. Celeste ran her fingers through his main, murmuring, “Shh, shh,” as much to comfort him as to comfort herself.
Reaching a small clearing in the trees, Joshua pulled up and dismounted Amos. Celeste followed his lead, tying the horse to a tree.
In a whisper which seemed fitting to the atmosphere, Joshua explained, “Something’s wrong. I’m going to go ahead and look. You wait here and be very careful.”
“What? I don’t want to wait. Let me come.”
Joshua raised his hands in a plaintive manner, “I know you want to come, but there’s no point taking unnecessary risks. I’ll be quick. Watch the horses.”
Before she could say another word, Joshua lithely ran off into the darkness, fading like a ghost in the trees. Celeste let out a breath of annoyance and reluctantly sat near the horses.
As Joshua moved through this familiar territory so close to Juroosh, he dreaded what he was going to see. A sense of death and darkness pervaded the landscape, and he almost didn’t want to know what had become of the town he had called home for the last three years.
Thunder boomed nearby as he came to the slight rise that overlooked Juroosh below. The scent of smoke and fire was almost overpowering here. Joshua slowed as he neared the tree line, leaning on a tree to catch his breath. Dread once again clutched at his heart. Stubbornly pushing it aside, Joshua crouched down, and, on his elbows and knees, shuffled forward until just below the rise that would show him his town. He paused a moment, took a breath, and inched forward. The first thing he could see was a Korelian army camp with tents and horses tied in a row near Juroosh. Then the town came into view.
Joshua’s heart stopped for a moment, and he shut his eyes in horror, trying to reconcile what he had just seen with the Juroosh he knew so well. Taking shaky breaths, he opened his eyes once more.
Juroosh was decimated.
Fires still burned, lighting the atrocity better. Everything was destroyed: houses, taverns, shops—not a building was left untouched. All were either already burned to the ground or were roaring with fire and slowly falling apart as Joshua watched. Lying in the streets, Joshua could see men, woman, and even children dead, defenseless and slaughtered. These people didn’t fight; they couldn’t; they didn’t know how to even if they had wanted to. So they had tried to run. But they were running from Korelians—Korelians with orders to kill—and so the people were shot or stabbed in the back by the Korelian monsters even now sleeping peacefully in their tents.
As Joshua’s eyes scanned the town, up and down, looking for some little bit of movement anywhere, he audibly groaned in anguish, knowing this was his fault. His fault. He felt like he was falling from the world, his body spinning, his mind lost in grief. He dug his fingers into the grass, trying to keep from tumbling helplessly into his abyss of regret.
The last emotion that washed over him was rage. Joshua clung to the hillside, less from grief now and more to keep himself from stupidly running down the hill to kill as many Korelians as he could. These monsters had slaughtered a peaceful town, and, in a circle of emotion, he thought again, how it was all because of him. These people were all murdered because of him. He buried his face in his dirty, shaking hands.
If only he had never come here! If only he could have stayed in the castle for the past three years, the Korelians wouldn’t have known of Juroosh and wouldn’t have cared about it if they had. This slaughter was his fault. It was his fault! Joshua continued to shake with more sorrow and anger that he had ever felt before.
Lightening flashed, and, at last, the rain caught up with Joshua. With one drop then two, the sky let loose the floodgates and wept for Juroosh, pouring from the heavens in buckets, drowning out the fires, and washing the blood of the innocents from the streets.
Celeste sat, huddled under the tree near Nutmeg and trying her hardest to manipulate the falling rain away from her. She could successfully direct a wave of the downpour away only to be hit by the next onrush. As she began to shiver, she sighed and gave up for the time being. Instead, she picked up a small stick that was, of course, damp, and focused her annoyance into her magic to try to light the stick on fire. Alas, all she could manage was an ember that glared for a moment and emitted a stream of smoke. She blew on it, and the ember flared a bit brighter but refused to light. Celeste put her hand near it but could barely feel the warmth.
“Well what are my powers good for if I can’t even keep dry and warm in the rain?” She asked of no one, dropping the stick and drawing her knees closer to her.
A branch snapped nearby, and Celeste leapt to her feet, standing closer to the tree and looking around her. She saw nothing through the trees and darkness and rain, but she knew she hadn’t imagined that sound, so she stood ready. Then she saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and she spun as a figure emerged from the trees. Lightening flashed, and Celeste sighed in relief as she recognized Joshua.
“Joshua, thank heavens, I thought you were a Korelian or some kind of living nightmare.”
Joshua stood quietly in the rain and said nothing.
He glanced at her, and Celeste realized there was an awful pain in his eyes. “They’re…” he began.
Celeste went to him. “What’s wrong? What did you see?”
“Juroosh,” Joshua let out a breath. “Juroosh is destroyed. Everyone has been… slaughtered.”
Celeste could do nothing. She couldn’t breathe. Her mouth opened slightly as if she wanted to scream, but no sound came out. Chills slithered down her back. In her heart, she had feared something like this as they had neared the town and the smoke wafted through the air, but she hadn’t believed it, hadn’t even admitted in her mind that it was possibility. Celeste’s hand went to her forehead as faces flashed through her mind. She hadn’t known many people in Juroosh other than Randle, but she had spoken to a few like the innkeeper and that blacksmith. Images of the baker and his wife, putting pies on the windowsill flitted through her mind, and Celeste moaned, pain piercing her heart. All those people!
Joshua was staring at the ground, his fists clenched, and Celeste suddenly realized how he must be hurting much more than she was. Her heart ached as it filled with sympathy. Without thinking, she closed the gap between them and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly. Joshua stood drenched and frozen. After a moment his arms came up and draped around Celeste, hesitantly at first, then tightly. He buried his face in her hair, a sob stuck in the back of his throat as he grieved so many lost friends.
Neither of them said a word, but they stood there for a long time, trying to comfort each other from such a terrible loss as the sky wept for them.