The explosion left a ringing in Kirra's ears. They twitched wildly, as much from pain as from the residual magical energy in the air. He looked up from the rubble, dazed and confused, trying to piece together the last few seconds.
It had begun when he noticed the golem started moving again, and he shouted out an alarm. To those watching on the rooftop, their alarm had quickly become confusion as the golem moved in the opposite direction, running away from them through Pentalus. Seconds later, the golem pointed its face towards the sky, aiming at the edge of the Everbright City.
A beam of light erupted from the golem's head, bright and hot, and powerful enough to melt through the sturdiest of metals. It started at one end of the Everbright City, then carved straight through the center to the opposite end.
Kirra's ears had twitched then, more frantically than they had ever twitched before, as the greatest surge of magical energy he had ever felt exploded across the sky. It didn't come from the beam, but from the Everbright City. A torrent of power like a rushing river that soon became a tidal wave.
Krira shouted for everyone to take cover, but his words had made little difference. Light as bright as a hundred suns broke through the wisps of clouds keeping the base of the Everbright City from view. Five points of light, that now seemed burned into Kirra's vision, all emanating from near the center of the city.
A shockwave reached them then, hitting the city below like a wave and rippling outwards. Long before any of them had a chance to seek cover, the force overtook their position, and the building crumbled beneath them.
Blinded and disoriented, Kirra took stock of his new surroundings. He landed on a piece of stone not much larger than him. It was what remained of one of the stone walls of the building they'd taken for their vantage point. The stone sat teetering on the edge of the hole leading down into The Shade from the Plaza of Ibrix, the same edge that appeared to be crumbling now.
For a moment he wondered how the blast had managed to send him so far away, and then noted the size of the hole. Ibrix Plaza no longer existed, its entire area collapsed to expose The Shade below. Around him the world screamed, as if thousands of lives had been snuffed out in a single second. From the devastation he could see around him, he couldn't doubt the truth of that thought.
He could see several bodies lying amongst the rubble, though he could not tell if they were alive or dead through the clouds of dust settling on everything. He could not tell any of their identities, either. Some were Elroks simply by size, but most were human-sized.
Kirra tried to move, but neither his right arm nor leg moved more than an inch despite his urging. Struggling with using just his left side, he inched along the slab of stone toward the safer edge of it. As his weight shifted, he heard a loud cracking and rumbling beneath him. Behind him the stone shifted, and Kirra found a surge of adrenaline to scramble forward off the slab and onto the last remnants of cobblestones.
As he cleared the edge, the stone slab tipped into the hole, catching Kirra's right leg as it was in the air and scraping against it then hooking it. Kirra was dragged back several feet as the stone fell away from him and into The Shade. He barely managed to hold onto the edge of the crumbling plaza, his right leg pulsing with pain.
He grunted, trying to force the pain away from him as he moved forward again. The stones beneath him continued to crack and shift, but he persevered, moving forward until he rested against the rubble of a building that had stood on the edge of the Plaza.
Taking a moment to collect his senses, he scanned the area around him again. He didn't see anything he recognized other than the fact of the hole itself. The pillars containing the demons continued to stand out above the smoke and dust, though there were fewer than he remembered. And the mountain . . .?
There appeared to be a mountain rising beyond the pillars, a dark mound he could barely make out in the twilight and dust. As he squinted, he saw the sheen of metal and veins of energy pulsing along its entire expanse. Not a mountain, but a large structure. The Everbright City, or at least a piece of it, lodged now between several of the demon pillars.
He wanted to scream, but he wasn't sure he had the stamina. Instead, he called for the first person he thought might bring him a semblance of solace in the moment. "Alsha?" it came out as barely more than a croak. His ribs ached, and he was certain at least several were broken.
"Gobrak?" he tried next, still as softly as before. He grunted with effort and collapsed, his chest heaving. He would have to rest before calling out again, if he even survived long enough to do so.
"Over here!" a voice shouted nearby. "There's someone over here!"
A form darted through the clouds of dust, an older man with a greying beard and a leathery face. The old man waved a couple of others to him, both youths a few years younger than Kirra.
"Who are you?" Kirra asked.
"Don't worry about that now. We'll get you to safety, if'n we can," the old man replied with a smile. His eyes darkened quickly, and he glanced around at the devastation. "If'n there's a place left to go."
Another form appeared behind the two youths. His sandy mop of hair was even more disheveled than usual. Kimbler, of the resistance. "I know him," he said, looking at Kirra. "Make sure he's well taken care of. Once we find the Mother, we should make sure she sees him, too. He'll be able to give us some information."
"Will do, Master Kimbler. Right away," the old man replied, and made several gestures to his youthful companions. Kimbler nodded and went the other way.
"Have you seen any other Knights?" Kirra asked.
The two youths settled on either side of Kirra, one inspecting his leg while the other looked over his upper body. "We've rescued a few so far. We're rescuin' whoever we can."
"Have you seen my commander? She was with me a moment ago," Kirra asked, wincing when the boy prodded his leg.
The old man regarded Kirra sympathetically. "I don't know, boy. But if she's around, we'll find her."
"Right leg broken," one of the boys said. "We'll want to splint before we move 'im."
"Right arm isn't much better," the other boy added. "Looks like a break to me, though not as serious as the leg. Guessing by the way he's breathing, I'd wager he's got something wrong in his chest too."
The old man nodded satisfactorily. "Good job, boys. You'll do Old Nante proud before the day's done."
"Old Nante?" Kirra asked the old man as the boys beamed with pride. "Is that you?"
"Not me, I'm just her secretary," the old man replied. "She's a healer on the east end. Looks like her district is still intact, so the boys and I were intendin' to take the wounded there. Whoever we could find, anyway."
"East end?" Kirra asked. "Then why are you all here?"
The old man frowned and surveyed the scene one more time. "Kimbler and his friends were gathering the whole city to come fight for Pentalus. Guess he came too late."
Neredos had never felt more pain. He still wasn't sure what had happened a moment earlier, but he knew what was happening now. The Everbright City was crashing, exploding into a million little pieces and at least two large ones, and raining death and destruction on Pentalus.
He hadn't acted quickly enough. He had failed his people.
He could still see the bright flash of light that had seared through the center of the command room. It had blinded him at first, though the pain of it taking his left arm had been far worse. It had nearly regrown itself now, drawing on the power from the demon generals remaining within their prisons. At least, to some extent, his immortality remained.
But it wouldn't last. He lay in a tangled mass of sharp metal, digging into his skin from several dozen angles. Every time he shifted, the metal dug in deeper. His connection to the demons would continue to heal him, but it would lose the battle eventually at this rate.
He stared across what was left of the room. A swirling orb of grey fog remained tucked in the corner, dragged along with the rest of the city as it crashed into Pentalus below. It had been all Neredos could do to keep his focus on that orb and protect its prisoner. No shrapnel from the explosion had pierced the magical barrier, and Neredos was reasonably certain the barrier prevented any heat from passing through as well. Styx would be all right, assuming he could extract himself from this mess.
With a groan of effort, Neredos focused fully on the fog and willed it to dissipate quickly. The mists faded, their last wisps floating upward as Styx dropped from the air, panting with effort, dagger still clutched in his hand.
His eyes were frantic as they settled on Neredos. "What happened?" he asked, looking around the room with surprise. "Why are you buried in the wall, and why is the wall now the floor?"
"Good . . . you're alive," Neredos breathed. He raised his right arm as high as he could—only a couple of inches before the metal twisted around him dug in too far—and he beckoned Styx forward. "Come here, boy, unless you intend to kill me."
"No . . ." Styx said, sheathing the dagger. He forced his hand away from the hilt as he cautiously picked his way along the wall toward Neredos. "No . . . I, I think I can control the urge. I don't really know what . . ." he shook his head as if to clear it. "Veil," he muttered, "Veil wanted me to kill you."
"I know," Neredos replied, gritting his teeth through the pain. "She thought I was going to abandon our people. If she'd known what I intended, she never would've twisted your mind to it." Groaning with effort, he nodded upward, to where the wall now gave way to the sky. "Now, I need you to do something for me."
"What?" Styx asked, following Neredos' gaze.
"Can you climb up there and give me a report of everything you see?" Neredos asked.
"I think so," Styx replied. "The ceiling . . . er, wall . . . has enough handholds; it should be easy. I've spent a lot of time climbing these last few days however, so it might take me a bit. My muscles are exhausted."
Neredos paused to consider the problem. He shifted, wincing as a shard of metal dug into his side. "See if you can remove my cloak. I can teach you how to . . . how to fly with it."
"You want a bird's eye view?" Styx asked, eyeing Neredos with concern.
"That would be best, yes."
"I can't get your cloak, but I can do what you ask," Styx said, then to Neredos' surprise, he slipped out of his shirt and tossed it to the side. As he started on his pants, he asked, "What happened? This isn't how the world looked when you imprisoned me."
"The city was attacked by something," Neredos said, wondering if he should explain the golem. "I'm not sure what. I wasn't paying attention to anything but the demons at the time."
"And how am I still alive?" Styx asked, eyeing the destruction around him as he stepped out of his pants. "Judging by the state you're in, I'm surprised anyone survived. I mean, you're immortal and you look like you're dying."
"I am dying," Neredos replied dryly. "As for you, the prison I kept you in protected you. I made sure it lasted during the explosion."
"Why did you let me live?" Styx asked, stripping off the last of his clothes and tossing them aside.
"I could tell that you didn't really want to kill me," Neredos said. "I never liked killing, but especially not when it was unnecessary. That's why . . . why I built this place. I wanted to create a haven for people to come together."
Styx nodded once, then met Neredos' eyes. "It's difficult to make people work together. That's something they have to choose to do."
"Wise words," Neredos conceded. "Now, will you care to explain to me why you've stripped down?"
Styx grinned, though it quickly shifted to a grimace of pain. Neredos watched in initial shock and then admiration as Styx's body shifted, the mass in his muscles and bones redistributing as huge wings sprouted from his back. Styx collapsed from the effort, panting, then slowly rose to his feet and met Neredos' eyes again.
Neredos nodded in appreciation and understanding. "Be careful. I have no idea who might still be out there. There were enough eagles in the sky before that any number of them could've survived, and they were not all friendly."
"I will," Styx replied, then spread his wings wide. "I'll be back in a moment."
Styx lifted from the broken wall of the Everbright City, taking to the skies. At first, he thought he'd entered a thunderhead full of dark clouds and lightning, but he soon identified the fires and smoke around him for what they were. Only then could he appreciate the devastation around him.
Pentalus was a smoldering ruin, a large, burned crater nearby seemed the epicenter of the destruction, as no buildings stood for a mile around, and few stood beyond that. Only the outskirts of the city to the east, north, and south had most of their buildings intact.
The remaining demon pillars jutted up through the rubble, apparently unharmed and unmoved by the explosions. Several rose up on either side of the giant slab of the Everbright City Styx had emerged from, and the slab leaned against three of them. They seemed impossibly inadequate to hold the weight of half a city, yet they did so without any sign of leaning.
To the north, the other half of the Everbright City had shattered into a dozen large pieces and a thousand small ones. They'd rained onto the city causing additional damage and starting fires wherever they landed. Some of the fires burned strange colors, from blue to green to purple.
He flew out into the city, searching for anything else to add to his report. The armies to the north and south remained at the borders, and it seemed a large group was gathering in the east. As he watched, several people seemed to be moving out from the eastern group and searching the nearby city for survivors.
The large hole in Ibrix Plaza drew his attention for a moment. It had grown significantly, a result of the explosion by Styx's best guess. There was a large group of bodies on both the south and north side of the plaza, some of which were still moving.
Assured that he'd seen enough to give Neredos a report, he turned back toward the slab. The bottom of the Everbright City pulsed with energy in one sector, and two large holes showed light from the other side. The last rays of sun, piercing through the ruins of the city of light.
Styx contemplated the destruction as he flew back into the opening and down into the chamber with Neredos. He felt an urge to return to his clothing, grab the dagger, and plunge it into the helpless King's chest, but he suppressed it and landed on the other side.
"It's bad, beyond bad, really," he said, meeting Neredos' eyes with pity.
"Is there anything left of Pentalus?" Neredos asked.
Styx sighed. "On the eastern side, mainly. There's a bit to the north and south as well. Just the outer ring. Like a crescent moon of civilization at the edge of a crumpled ruin."
"And the Knights?"
"I didn't see any, but it was hard to see through the clouds of smoke," Styx admitted.
"What about our situation here?" Neredos asked. "What's left of the Everbright City?"
"We are inside a large piece of the Everbright City that is resting edge-down in the rubble. It appears that several of the pillars are supporting this piece, otherwise we would've fallen flat when we crashed."
"Could you see any holes in the Everbright City?"
"Holes?" Styx asked, then gestured around them. "You mean, like the one we're standing in?"
"No . . ." Neredos said, shifting for comfort but ending up worse off as an edge of metal dug deeper into his thigh. "Below our current position. There should be three of them. From the explosions."
"Oh, those . . ." Styx replied, shaking his head, "there were only two, and everything is pulsing with energy."
Neredos sucked in his breath. "So . . . one of the reactors is still intact. That's not good."
"Is there something I can do?" Styx asked.
Neredos nodded. "Get everyone out of the city. Get them as far away from here as possible. Don't worry about rescuing anyone in the rubble. The more time you take to save them, the more people will die. Get everyone out of Pentalus and flee."
"What about you?" Styx asked, looking over the metal bent around Neredos' body.
"Even if I broke free from this, I would die today. I have work to do here, and I hope I have enough time to finish it before that reactor decides to blow," Neredos replied. He held his hand out as far as he could manage and pointed upward. "Go, Styx . . . make what peace you can of this shattered world. Slay the demons, don't contain them. Don't let fear of evil keep you from fighting to your last to make the world better."
Styx held Neredos' gaze for a long moment but eventually nodded. "I will do what I can."
"Go," Neredos said, smiling with grim determination. "I must finish this once and for all."
Kirra did his best not to squirm as Old Nante looked over his wounds. The long transport to the eastern outskirts had been pure agony. The people who'd come to his rescue had splinted his leg and made a makeshift stretcher. Crossing over the rubble jostled him enough to feel every broken bone.
Even as Nante recounted the injuries, Kirra was sure some had been missed. "Four broken ribs," the healer stated as she pressed against Kirra's naked torso lightly. Nearby, an assistant was scribbling notes onto a piece of paper. "A hairline fracture of the right ulna, and a compound fracture of the right femur. Get him something for the pain. We'll get his arm and leg properly braced now and send someone else to wrap the ribs."
Kirra braced himself for the pain as Nante set to work wrapping his leg and arm. She ignored all of his sharp cries whenever she brushed against his ribs, giving him nothing but an understanding look when she set the bone in his leg and he screamed. She said nothing, and simply finished the job with a steady hand.
As she turned to go, Kirra caught her arm, panting through the sheen of sweat on his face. "Have any other Knights come in? Have you seen Lady Alsha Tremlaine?
"I have not," Nante replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "Though there are more coming by the minute. Try not to think so much about what is happening out there. You need to focus on your recovery right now. As soon as my assistant returns with some herbs for your pain, you'll be going to sleep."
"With all due respect, Nante, my duty is to those people out there," Kirra said.
"You'd have to be a Knight still to mean that," a voice said from behind Nante.
"Fenri!" Kirra exclaimed as his former comrade hobbled forward on a makeshift crutch. He was shirtless, wearing a fresh yet quickly reddening bandage on his side. Kirra avoided staring at the wound and returned his eyes to Fenri's. "Have you seen Alsha? Belthin? Any of them?"
"No. Not yet," Fenri said as he settled onto the cot next to Kirra's. "You're the first one I've seen alive. If this isn't hell, anyway."
"It's not. It's Pentalus, and you need to stop talking like the world is over. You need your head rebandaged. Maybe once we stop that we can prevent all those negative thoughts from spilling out, hmm?" A familiar female voice said. Madame Godani stepped up next to Fenri and glared at him. "You've been complaining the whole way here."
"Madame Godani!" Kirra said.
"Kirra, I'm glad you're alive," Madame Godani said warmly.
"You don't seem injured," Kirra said with surprise.
Madame Godani shrugged. "I had a few tricks that kept me mostly out of harm's way. The worst I suffered was a scrape on my arm," she said, pulling back her sleeve to reveal a bandage wrapped most of the way up her forearm. Nante reached for it and Madame Godani let her sleeve fall quickly. "It has already been seen to, thank you. Don't let me distract you from the people who need your attention."
Nante seemed put off by this, but said nothing, instead doing one last check on Kirra's wounds. Kirra ignored her as best as he could.
"Have you seen any of the others?" he asked.
"One important one," Madane Godani said with a smile.
"Alsha?" Kirra asked hopefully.
"Styx," Madame Godani replied. "He was flying over the city earlier."
"On an eagle?" Kirra asked with surprise.
"No . . ." Madame Godani said, grinning, "my boy finally found his wings again."
Kirra shook his head. "I don't understand."
"You will. I'm sure he'll make his way here soon. He'll see the gathering here and look into it at least," Madame Godani said. "As for our other companions . . . at least half of my forces remain unaccounted for. I'm sure less are dead than I fear, but I won't be able to relax until more of them surface. Likely some have escaped into The Shade."
"But you don't know anything about the others?" Kirra asked.
Madame Godani sighed grimly. "With the collapse of Ibrix Plaza, some of our companions surely fell to their deaths."
"That's a comforting thought," Kirra said dryly. "Thank you."
Madame Godani shrugged. "There's no use in false hope, Kirra."
"But it seems you have the right to, this time. Look," Fenri interjected, pointing to the doorway. Two of Nante's assistants were supporting a woman with dark but greying hair, guiding her to the nearest empty cot.
"Alsha!" Kirra said excitedly.
"Thank you for bringing her in," the assistant at the door said to someone standing outside. "You look like you're doing well. Do you need any assistance?"
The other person stepped through the doorway. He was naked, but his brown hair and hawk tattoo on his face drew Kirra's attention first. "Styx?" he asked, a hopeful breath caught in his throat.
"I found her on my way here," Styx explained to the assistant. "We need to get as many people out of this city as possible. We might be safe over here, but . . . we're all in danger. How soon could you get these people out of here?"
Nante, hearing Styx's words, rose to greet him at the doorway. "We're not even close to that," she said testily. "We still need to rescue the rest that are trapped in the city."
"That will take months at this rate, and what's left of the Everbright City is going to fall down on us at any moment," Styx said. "Have you not seen it out there?"
"It's supported by the pillars," Nante said with a shrug.
"Those pillars have been disappearing all day. Haven't you noticed there are less of them now than before?" Styx replied.
Nante shook her head and looked around the room. "Most of these people were dangerous to move once; I don't know if we can move them again without killing them."
"We might be safe here. It doesn't look like it's going to collapse on us from this angle, but whatever happens when it does . . ." Styx sighed and added, "we could all fall into The Shade if we're not careful."
"The Shade . . ." Madame Godani said, joining Styx and Nante. "That's the answer. Pentalus is lost. If the armies really want to claim it now, they are too insane for us to stop anyway. We need to pull these people into The Shade as quickly as possible."
"Hello, aunt," Styx said, then surprised Madame Godani by wrapping her into a hug.
"Hello, nephew," Madame Godani replied with a sincere smile. "Did you get your answers? Where is Dogo?"
"He didn't make it," Styx said, his face falling. "None of them did, except for me."
Madame Godani's features tightened, but she nodded once resolutely. "We will mourn them when we have the luxury of time. Until then, I can order all those left of my people to your service, Nante. Every one of my operatives are trained in basic first aid. Accidents are common where we're from."
"I will take your help," Nante said, then returned her attention to Styx. "If you're insistent about our need to evacuate . . ."
"I am. Neredos himself warned me of its necessity," Styx replied, earning him several nearby gasps.
Nante hesitated, reading Styx's face, then nodded. "Then we'll follow your suggestion for now. No one is in charge here, and if you've word from Neredos, it's better than nothing."
"I appreciate it," Styx replied. "Madame Godani, I trust you can organize the retreat better than I ever could."
"I'll get right on it," Madame Godani replied. "I'm glad you're alive." She hugged him back to her and then followed Nante to find out what needed to be done.
Before Styx could move to follow them, Kirra took the opening in the conversation and shouted as loudly as he could managed. "Styx!"
"Kirra!" Styx shouted back, then turned to Madame Godani and Nante, bowing slightly. "If you'll excuse me." He rushed to Kirra's side and reached for the hand on his unbroken arm.
"You're here . . ." Kirra said, "you're alive."
"I am," Styx replied, reaching up with his free hand and stroking Kirra's matted hair out of his face. "I've missed you. Are you okay?"
"Broken bones, only. There's never a Fedain around when you need one," Kirra replied, forcing a smile. "Grim and Veil were both here an hour ago, not to mention Maxthane, but they left right before the . . . explosion."
"Maxthane is well? What was he doing up here?" Styx asked.
"You don't know what's happened, do you?" Kirra asked. Styx shook his head and Kirra continued. "Let me fill you in."
"Only if you let me do the same," Styx replied. "How's your left side?"
Styx looked at the open space on the cot and smiled. "Care for a little company on that cot?"
"I . . ." Kirra said, meeting Styx's eyes and seeing nothing but love and need there. He shifted over as best as he could, giving Styx enough room to lay down next to him. He smiled then and pulled Styx down gently. "I would love some."
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