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Pyre

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The night is burning.

You watch the flames, let the images sear themselves into your mind.

Skin blackening and flaking away. Parting too easy beneath sharpened steel. Flesh peeling off bone. Spars of white in a sea of dark red.

Behind you, you can hear your men departing, their respects paid and prayers given. Your given leave implied in a hundred previous such nights.

You keep your eyes fixed on the flames, on the bodies within. Unwilling to face the living just yet. A coward’s move, yes. But at this moment you lack the strength to meet your men’s eyes, fearing the questions you may find there. Will they be next you fail to save? Will tomorrow’s pyre be their own?

A gust of wind drags icy claws up your back, sends the flames surging with a muted roar. You hear the screams. Branches shift, snap. You hear the breaking of bones and falling of bodies.

You blink. Hard. Once. Twice. On the third, your eyes stay closed. The flames paint your eyelids red.

You can feel yourself splintering, shattering. Riddled with cracks like the bones you’re watching crumble into ash.

You’re not allowed to break. Not allowed to betray the cracks forming in your mask. Not allowed to let the grief and guilt and emotion chip away at that wall of ice everyone expects to see.

You force it down, choke as it retreats only to surge forward, a wave of roiling emotion that burns.

You feel a single tear escape. Burning a path down your flame-warm cheek. You let it fall.

It’s far, far less than you own the dead, but more than you can allow.

The flames carve shadows from your hood, hide your weakness in their murky depths. A mercy you do not deserve.

The trail of moisture is already drying.

Mask firmly back in place, you stand and guard the dead as they burn.

***

After.

He comes to your side, comes to you.

The fire still burns, your dark energy fueling the inferno far beyond the heat and life of wood. It will burn until the last bone crumbles.

He stands close, closer than you should allow.

Facing you, reaching out a hand. You let him.

Night-cool fingers trace the long dried trail of a single tear. He thumbs away the imagined but still felt grains of salt.

The hand retreats. He does not.

You spend the rest of the night there. Side by side. Watching the pyre burn.