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Zhota found the slaughtered caravan three days later.
There were eight corpses in all, strewn about a small clearing blanketed with a layer of fallen pine needles. He pulled the sash wrapped across his chest up over his nose to ward off the stench, and he opened his mind to the surrounding area, searching for the presence of demons. He discovered none.
More than two dozen sacks of provisions lay scattered next to a stocky packbeast, cleaved in half at its immense shoulders. There were too many supplies for the one animal to bear, even as strong and tenacious as packbeasts were. Near the road, Zhota came across three sets of hoof tracks, each leading in a divergent direction.
The human corpses were ripe, the caravan no more than a day dead. Most of the victims wore drab gray robes common among those who dwelled in the Gorgorra. Yet finely crafted swords and axes sat beside many of the bodies, belying their simplistic garb.
He kneeled by one of the dead, a well-built man with the calloused and scarred hands of a warrior. Maggots squirmed around a number of wounds on his arms and chest. It appeared that nearly all of the travelers had been tortured before being killed.
One body in particular truly piqued Zhota's interest. The woman had been stripped naked and thrown upon the now-blackened fire pit at the center of the camp, her legs charred to a crisp. Unlike the other victims, she was missing her head. Zhota scoured the clearing again but did not find it.
The massacre had been calculated. There was a story here, he knew, but the Patriarchs had not sent him into the Gorgorra to puzzle out mysteries. He needed only to purify the corpses before he departed.
Zhota spied something half buried in the ashes of the fire pit and pulled it free, an ornately inscribed wooden flute adorned with brass studs. It was a child's toy. He remembered that he had brought one of the instruments with him to the monastery when he had begun training. Music had always been honored in the monk order and Ivgorod as a whole, but Akyev did not share his comrades' love of the arts. Immediately after he had found the flute among Zhota's belongings, he had snapped it in half and cast it off a cliff at the edge of the Floating Sky Monastery.
Zhota brushed soot from the instrument and put it to his lips. When he blew, the notes were a broken disharmony. They were as empty and meaningless as his life had been before he joined the monk order. He prepared to toss the toy back into the pit but ultimately stayed his hand. Something about holding the flute was oddly emboldening, and he felt almost tranquil. He tucked it into his sash, convincing himself that it would be a reminder of the weak, ignorant boy he had once been.
The dense canopy at the edge of the clearing suddenly rustled with movement.
Zhota bolted up, turning toward the sound. "Show yourself!"
Dead leaves cascaded to the ground just beyond the clearing. Zhota was creeping into the forest gloom when a small figure dropped from a massive birch and plunged deeper into the woods.
Zhota gave chase. The runner had donned the same drab robes as the dead travelers. It was a child, from the looks of it, and a clumsy one at that. The figure stumbled over roots and shouldered into tree trunks as it fled.
Finally, he tackled it to the forest floor. The child squirmed beneath his grasp and started to sob. When Zhota drew back the figure's hood, he saw an abomination that sent an icy chill through his spine.
It was a boy no older than ten. Long, almost translucent hair flowed out across the cold soil, framing a thin, mousy face. His skin was the color of sun-bleached bone. And his eyes...
His eyes were stark white, and they wept tears of blood.