Martin Hooijmans | Lars de Ruyter
Even at the edge of the village, the heat was almost unbearable. Remains of burnt down houses littered the landscape, and all that still stood gave off the choking scent of smoldering wood. Plants had died, animals were reduced to charcoal and not a whiff of humidity remained in the air.
Jon cursed beneath his breath, then fell into a hard fit of coughing. He covered his face against the dust, readied his pistol and headed for the small stone structure in the village square. Each step required a great feat of strength, and each step the heat became more pressing.
“Hellspawn!” an old woman had shouted when Jon had asked her about the burning village. Soon, many had gathered around, some survivors, all naming the threat by another name. One thing had become obvious. One should steer clear if he valued his life. But what if the threat was more valuable than that?
At the foot of the structure, Jon started feeling faint. He had crossed deserts, but had never experienced anything like this. It felt like standing at the edge of a blazing furnace. Beyond the heavy stones would be the fire, and the fire was what Jon would need to seize.
“Hello?” he shouted. “Is anybody in there?”
No answer came, and it sent a chill down his spine. He had unearthed the grim truth about this place, had nearly shot the man who had told him about it, had hoped it was all a lie. But standing here, in this dead place, made him understand the desperation that had filled its inhabitants.
He took out a heavy hammer from under his traveling cloak, hefted it and brought it down hard against the wall. The structure was brittle, and two more blows opened a space big enough for two grown men. It also sent out a surge of heat that knocked Jon off his feet. Scrambling up, he saw what he had feared.
In the middle of the structure sat a woman, or rather, the remnant of one. Her bones protruded from every curve of her body, and her eyes were unseeing. At her breast lay a child, desperately seeking nutrition that was no longer there. Both beings were about to die, that was a fact.
Jon kneeled next to them, lifting the woman’s face to look at him. She did not see him. The bitter pang in his heart told him that she could no longer be saved. Not her, but the child. The source. The tool.
Taking the boy in his arms filled Jon with an excruciating pain, and for a moment he was sure he would die. Then, however, the little figure seemed to relax in his powerful grip, and the heat subsided. The child had fallen asleep.
Jon glanced over at the mother. She had toppled, and lay face down in the dirt, motionless, abandoned by life, betrayed by the people she loved.
As he made his way out of the village, Jon told himself that he had saved the child, that he had secured its future.
But the knowledge he held told him that it was all a lie. The boy would not be safe. The boy would not have a future.
He would become a tool for a greater cause.
He would become nothing but a weapon.