“I’m going to do something stupid.”
“As opposed to…what you normally do?”
“Joke if you wish, but if you’re pants are down, now might be a good time to remedy that.”
Py actually looked down at his pants for a moment, checking that they were securely fastened about his waste. Then it dawned on him. “You don’t mean to-,“ he cut himself short and ran for the flamethrower on the supply crate.
“I dunno what your thinking, Red.” He shot a stream of flame up into the air, a warning for those at nearby checkpoints. “Lots of folks have been plenty stupid about magic up here, but I never met a one that was sick enough to do it on purpose.”
Rianne listened to Py, but she was also running through the exercises she had spent the day practicing with the Greybeard. She was a quick learner and already she didn’t have to cast about from outside herself to find her own energy-well. Finding an internal source of energy took practice, but it could be done from a kind of muscle memory, rather than a seeking.
“Seriously, Red. Whatever you’re trying to prove here, it ain’t worth it. You only saw one zombie your first night, and he was half dead to begin with. You don’t want to mess with a whole pack of fit ones. You set this to blaze and it’s gonna burn like nothing you ever seen before.”
Rianne hadn’t yet begun to channel any particular spell. Taking Py’s metaphor as inspiration, she began chanting a fairly simply call fire spell under her breath.
Neither of them had been keeping watch, and Py had been arguing too loudly to hear the zombie coming. It jumped three quarters of the wall in one great leap, caught the handrail and hauled itself onto the top of the wall just behind Py.
Both the boy and the zombie were far faster than Rianne expected. Py was spinning the moment he heard the zombie land, trying to bring the flamethrower around. At the same time he let his knees give out, collapsing away from the monster in an effort to allow him the distance needed to use his weapon.
The zombie didn’t let him get out of reach. It dove forward onto Py as he collapsed, grabbing the flamethrower’s nozzle with incredible speed and smashing it into the ground. The flamethrower bent at the nozzle with a crunch and Py squealed. His hand had been caught under the weapon when it hit the ground.
The zombie crawled off of Py, getting to its feet. Py tried briefly to crawl away, but the moment he put weight on his crushed hand, he collapsed. The zombie stood over him and roared. Rianne couldn’t help but notice that it was a very human sound. She also noticed that the broken flamethrower was leaking its fuel onto the top of the wall and Py’s legs were still in the very flammable puddle.
She had an idea.
No one had ever explicitly told Rianne this, but she had a notion that a human body was very a difficult thing to set on fire. She’d not given any great thought to the subject, and no one ever brought it up in polite conversation, but she did know that a person was comprised largely of water, with no convenient air supply anywhere on the interior. A body could get very hot for a very long time before it would ever sustain a fire on its own. Though the zombie did appear considerably drier than a normal human, it would still resist burning for long enough to bend down and bite Py or snap his neck or whatever it intended to do next.
So Rianne didn’t bother trying to get the zombie to spontaneously combust.
She instead charged the zombie, screaming. While the zombie surely hadn’t been expecting this turn of events, it didn’t perceive it to be of any great consequence either. It hadn’t paid any attention to Rianne before, and it didn’t now. It seemed to consider Py its only objective and didn’t even turn when she dove past its legs, grabbing the ruined flamethrower.
Now, with the flamethrower in her hands, the creature acknowledged Rianne’s existence. It faced her and roared again, but she was already on her feet, swinging the ruined weapon like a club. The zombie deftly dodged back from the first swing, and then blocked the second with its forearm, not so much as flinching from the blow. It grabbed the weapon and wrenched it from Rianne’s grip, hurling it off the top of the wall out into the docks.
Rianne didn’t wait for its retaliation. She channeled her fire spell at the creature, focusing on the same forearm that had blocked her attack. It should have only taken a tiny spark, but since she couldn’t be sure if or where any drops of fuel had actually landed on the zombie, she dumped a considerable amount of energy into bathing the whole forearm in the briefest flash of red flame.
The zombie howled and suddenly sounded a lot less human. Rianne’s heart leapt as the fire didn’t just wash over the forearm, but caught on traces of fuel and burned fiercely. In a moment, the zombie was furiously waving an arm engulfed in flames. The fire spread then, to the drops of fuel that had splashed the zombie’s chest and then up to its head, where its dried and decaying strands of hair also caught.
The zombie flailed about for another moment, screaming, and Rianne realized that, for the second night this week, she was hearing and smelling a zombie burning to death. Tonight though, she didn’t turn away. Rianne understood that the injury, the suffering and death were her fault.
She had been so sure that she had read the Greybeard correctly and that there was something he expected her to learn by using magic around the zombies. What she had learned was that his stupid word games were as dangerous as they were frustrating. The rules were in place for a reason and she had been foolish to test them.
Only she hadn’t any idea how foolish until the burning zombie collapsed into the puddle of flamethrower fuel. In an instant, the zombie disappeared as a wall of fire erupted in front of Rianne. Py screamed as the lower half of his body was engulfed in flames.