Art Pact 146
Indistinct fires in the distance marked the remains of the town. Beaufort took a deep breath and let the smoke taste of the air swirl around in his mouth. Even at this great distance the fumes from New Hampton tasted like burnt milk, and he wondered whether the blow to the head had awakened some new sense in him, a sort of long-distance taste. He looked down at his map of the area and began to sketch a grey line around the affected area as best he could.
"Sun's too low," Ashleigh said, her eyes scrunched up to emphasise her point. She lifted up one hand to shield her eyes, then the other, then she bent forwards, turned her head sideways, and squinted hard at the vista of devastation.
"Best look we'll get," Beaufort told her.
"We'll have to disagree, then," he said.
Ashleigh sighed loudly and began to remove her tools from the bag. A complicated mixture of scientific and mystical equipment emerged and was laid out in neat rows on the ground - the top row parts of the sun elevation device and the solar charm, instruments for dealing with water and water spirits in the middle, and on the bottom row geologist's and geomancy's tools, the only things that Beaufort recognised. The scientific apparatus was a heavy tube linked to an electric ignition - a device for firing captive rounds into the ground - and a ruggedised computer sprouting a number of robust microphones. On the mystical side, a staff with the symbol of Saturn at one end and a wicked spike the other, three bottles of essential oils, and a clay globe marked out with the patterns of the continents in lines of silvery-green paint.
She picked up the solar charm first, and making a face again at the bright low spring sun she began to wind and unwind the beaded leather tassels that surrounded the charm, draping them over the gold disk that represented the sun's face again and again in different patterns. Each time she reached the last tassel she would place the whole token down on the ground, walk around it first clockwise and then counterclockwise, pick it up and begin again. Beaufort tried to concentrate on his map, but the effect of Ashleigh's movement around and around the fetish was hypnotic, and he found himself drawn into watching her, his mouth moving silently along with the nonsense words she was chanting. He had heard them so many times before that, like song lyrics, he could reproduce them himself without necessarily any comprehension.
Carrion, the third member of the group, sat silent behind the two humans. His eyes were closed, and Beaufort could see that the creature was far into its trance and unlikely to be emerging any time soon. It had been Carrion's idea to flee New Hampton, but although the outcome was favourable he still seemed to be disgruntled about the gap between his prediction and reality, and neither Beaufort nor Ashleigh had been able to get a word out of him all morning.
A sudden flash blinded them for a few seconds, just enough time for the sound of the explosion to rush to them. It was an urgent, violent boom that rattled Beaufort's bones and left his ears ringing. Closer in, he thought, it would have sounded like being crushed.
"Do you think there was anyone left in there?" he asked.
"No," said Ashleigh, a little too quickly. "No, no. No."
"Who do you think got left behind?"
"No-one, of course. Maybe the Guardian. He was always a bit... stubborn, I suppose."
"But we told him what was coming. What Carrion saw, I mean."
She waved a hand around airily - her shortcut sign for we did what we could.
"We can't save them all," she added.
"We can't save any of them," Carrion said morbidly. Beaufort glanced in surprise at the animal. Carrion was on his haunches, his long ears flicking with nervous energy at a cloud of little midges that had surrounded his head. "Do you have all your measurements?"
"Just a few more," Ashleigh told him.
"Well get on with them and let's get out of here," the donkey said irritably. "I need to get somewhere I can concentrate. These little bleeders are driving me crazy." He shook his head, trying to drive the swarm of insects away from his ears and eyes, but only succeeding in spraying the loose spittle at the edges of his mouth across Ashleigh's water-dowsing equipment. "Sorry."
Ashleigh gave him a furious scowl and picked up the divining rods, carefully wiping them clean on the corner of her long jacket. Beaufort returned to his map while she worked, and traced out the pattern of fires as they had appeared from their vantage point.
It was clear that they had started in the north of the town, probably around the park district marked on his map. But the pattern had been curious after that - buildings beginning to catch fire on the west and east sides simultaneously, as if two sources of flame were circling the town in a pincer motion. But fire could not do that. Not except by some unusual chance, at any rate, and Beaufort did not believe that for a moment. Someone - two lots of someones had been setting the fires, that was one option. Which meant that either the fire had spontaneously arisen as Carrion had predicted and then someone had taken advantage of it, or the initial fire had been sparked by a deliberate act of arson, simply the first task on some evil to-do list.
Another option occurred to him - perhaps the first was spreading evenly from the north, but was being prevented from spreading evenly through the centre of the city. That seemed implausible on the face of it, but the strange sensations Carrion had been having around the town hall - could they have been part of some more complicated defence?
"We have to go back," he said.