“Jerig!” his mother screamed. The quiet of his street was broken. The gentle lapping sound of waves kissing the beach at the bottom of nearby hill had been replaced by the crackling of fires, the sound of splitting timbers and breaking glass and the popping of hot stones. Women screamed, men shouted, horns blew and bells hammered him from every side with their inescapable, deafening roar.
Jerig stood and watched, petrified as his house smoldered. Ashes rose from the yard. The smooth walkway that led to his front door sat ruined, the cobbles no longer arranged in rows, but uprooted like bestormed trees marking the graves of the former order of their formation. On either side of the path lay a pair of smoking patches of grass where he had played with his father, clacking wooden practice swords together and laughing. He could hear his father’s chuckles as he watched the lawn turn brown, then black, then grey. Inside, the roof tiles tumbled into the shallow pool at the heart of the house, cracking on the marble statue at the pool’s center. The rear garden had gone with the wind and smoke as well, the fruit trees and shrubs and all the hiding places of his younger days vanished in plumes of broiling chaos. The pale stone walls had gone black as the fire slithered across their smooth surfaces. Smoke fled through the highest windows as it too tried to escape the ravenous flames. It licked the tops of the open portholes as a predator cleans blood from its muzzle. Then the wooden beams collapsed, bringing the roof down with them. The walls buckled. The fountain at the center of the courtyard filled with rubble and smoke and ash. Jerig’s mother stopped screaming. Jerig tried to move, but his legs refused to carry him. The fire’s hot breath pushed back Jerig’s hair and kissed his forehead. Smoke choked the sky. Jerig turned his head, slowly to see what the rest of the Hamlet looked like.
The rows of imperial palms flailed with their flaming fronds, begging for a winter rain to extinguish them, but when none came, they crisped and vanished with the rest of the smoke as the city burned. Oranges fell to the ground as their burning branches buckled under the weight of the fruit. Juice and rind mingled with blood and all the fluids ran down the hill toward the sea. The surrounding villas sank to the ground one by one as the walls buckled.
“Jerig!” He felt the strong grip on his shoulder. He wheeled about to find a young man, dressed head to toe in aurelian plate mail. He bore a long spear handled in ash. The tip was iron and blood. On his opposite arm he bore a large, round shield of the same amber hue. A blazing sun had been etched into the metal, though it had been tarnished by the scars of combat. His glossy eyes were green, red from smoke and dust. “Are you alright?” the boy asked. Blood had been sprinkled on his cheek. Jerig could not answer. “Jerig!” the boy shouted at him again. Jerig could not answer. “Take this!” The boy ordered, drawing a stout, straight-bladed sword from his waist scabbard. He pushed it into Jerig’s hand. “Can you fight?” he asked. He threw his eyes over his shoulder. Dazed and confused, Jerig’s head turned back to his immolating home, now silently smoking, then to the sword dangling from the end of his arm. The boy threw down his spear and shield and grabbed Jerig by the shoulders. He gave him a shake. “Jerig! Can you fight?” Jerig looked back at him, but could not form words. “Come on!” the boy urged. He picked up his gear. “We’re being attacked! We need to get to the harbor. Jerig!" He gave Jerig another shake. "Follow me.” The boy ran off and Jerig was suddenly following him, leaving The Hamlet behind. His legs knew which way to go.
The pair charged through ash cloud, down the ruined cobblestone street. Not far ahead, a low stone wall stood against the blaze. Dark clouds issued from the far side. The gate and the small guard box beside it had been destroyed, the heavy iron banded doors thrown asunder. Jerig and his companion pushed through the gate and into the street. Panic met them there.
A torrent of screaming men and women scurried past them like a great herd of frightened livestock. Their clothes were tattered, their faces worn and dirty. The ragged bunch surged up the hill on flimsy legs. Holding their ground against the fearful tide was a handful of young men, dressed in the same plate as Jerig’s companion. Many had lost their spears and stood, their heads wheeling about at the noise, shields raised, swords at the ready. Their smooth faces bore rough goatees of soot and blood, their own or a stranger’s.
Through the crowd came a hardened looking man, sturdy of build, but unnerved in the eyes. He was baldheaded but for the beads of sweat and the bits of dust riding them down his cheeks. He wore a set of imperial plates, segments of steel tied together by leather straps. Beneath the steel, steel and mail shoulder to toe. He bore a golden shield, but a long sword. On his tail was a troop of men, no more than half a dozen, a mix of young men without a hair on their faces joined by a pair of old men without a hair on their heads. They wore black and silver armor, but bore similar spears. Their swords were curved and those shields that remained were curved moons, smooth but for the craters left by the enemies scurrying through the streets.
“Report!” the head of the pack ordered.
“The houses are gone.” The young man at Jerig’s side announced. “Everything’s been destroyed.”
“And the generals?” The bald man asked.
“Gone.” The boy answered. The bald man did not take to the news kindly.
“Was there anyone?” he begged, wiping sweat from his bent brow. The boy nodded to Jerig. The bald man’s eyes fell upon the boy. Jerig's eyes moved rapidly, surveying the damage and carnage. The screams and the smell of smoke drowned him in bewilderment. His heart seemed to shake the ground. His legs were but stilts holding him up until the wind changed. Smoke chased the clouds from the sky. There was nothing above but blue sky and black cinder. “We need to get to the harbor.” the bald man ordered.
“The harbor is lost,” warned an elderly stranger. Jerig recognized what he could see of the old man’s face, but could not put a name to it. His head was bald as a tortoise, the sheen tarnished with the surrounding goings on, the remaining white tufts peppered black with ash. He wore the white robe and blue sash of a senator, though his customary pewter moon brooch was missing and the ensemble had been marred by blood, his own judging by the way he limped on the cobbles. One of his feet was bare and bloody while the other was encased in a failing leather sandal. “We must retreat to the high ground, I think. Everything that way is fire and death and smoke upon the water.” Jerig looked to the lagoon at the base of the incline.
On the edge of the bay he beheld a rank of longships, slender craft each with singular sails marked by a curved white horn on a field of blue. They battled with the empire's craft. Drums issued from the decks followed soon after by thick necked warriors wrapped in fur and mail. They brandished torches and long swords and clubs and axes, whatever they could as they fought for the wharves. A few imperial transports looked to have made their way beyond the danger, but the majority had been burned and shattered, left to sink to the bottom of the bay where the sharks would claim what remained. One of the remaining warships, a stout trireme with oars pumping hard slammed into the side of a longboat, cracking it open, spilling warriors and rowers into the brine.
A fresh crop of fires arose from the marina as the sloops and catamarans listed on the boiling surface. Debris floated in the shallows and along the shore all the way to the harbor’s twin, to the north. There, the moles there swarmed with warriors, many fighting in the nude, but for the green runes smeared on them by their chieftains and priests. Others appeared more prepared, clad in mail and fur and bits of plate. What remained of the Imperial Fleet had been splintered and sunk to make room for the barbarians and their skinny ships. The Legions fought them with spear and shield and sword, but the sheer numbers were proving too much for Imperial discipline and poise. The seaside forum had been set aflame joined by the office of the Grand Admiral and most of the ships afloat as well as the handful drydocked on the western shore.
"Take these men to the Plaza Corelia.” The old senator proposed. He turned into the crowd. “Get up, Jerig. The time has come to meet the day. Protect the emperor.” The tide swallowed him and he was gone.
The bald man rounded on the boy at Jerig’s side. “Spart, find as many men as you can and take them to the gates of the Stonehold.” he directed. “Tell everyone to head for the catacombs under the palace. They’ll be safe there while you hold the gate.” He put his arms on Spart’s shoulders and pulled him close. “Protect the people.” the man commanded.
"What about the emperor?" Spart asked. Jerig stared at the harbor as it crumbled.
"The Emperor will be fine, he has good men protecting him." The bald man replied. He nodded to the fleeing flock. "They have us." He pulled a loose helmet from the rubble and placed it over his head. He raised his sword. “Come on, boys." His tone was calm. The men fell in behind him, arms at the ready.
“Where are you going?” Spart called after him, his tone wrought with worry. The bald man turned his head and nodded down the hill towards the burning sea.
“I have a boat to catch.” he remarked. He gave a quick wink through the helm’s eyehole. The tide shifted. The the folk fleeing toward the water had wheeled about like a startled flock of birds and charged back up the hill. In their haste, many were thrown down and trampled as the wave of refugees washed over them. Spart gave the bald man a long look. The man removed his glove and held out a closed fist. Spart smiled softly and met the clenched hand with his own and the pair swapped encouraging smiles.
“Don’t let me down, old man.” he chided, as a tear fell out of his eye and cut through the dirt and ash on his cheek.
“I’ll be seeing you.” the bald man said. “Let’s go, boys!” He set off down the hill at a steady jog, the boys in gold and silver following closely. Jerig and Spart watched them disappear amidst the screaming crowd. But for the cries it was almost quiet for a moment.
“We have to get to the Stonehold.” Spart said. He turned to Jerig who stood motionless, his eyes closed, swaying to and fro among the white caps and blond caps and brown caps.
“Jerig!” Spart shouted at him again. Jerig could not answer. “Jerig! Take this!” The boy ordered, drawing a stout, straight-bladed sword from his waist scabbard. He pushed it into Jerig’s hand. “Can you fight?” he asked. He threw his eyes over his shoulder. Dazed and confused, Jerig’s head turned back at the fiery piers, then to the sword dangling from the end of his arm. The boy threw down his spear and shield and grabbed Jerig by the shoulders. He gave him a shake. “Jerig! Can you fight?” Jerig looked back at him, but could not form words. “We have to go!” the boy urged. He picked up his gear and ran off. Jerig was suddenly following him. His legs knew which way to go.
They raced up the ruined avenue, toward the center of the city, where the plumes of smoke had formed a dark grove above the streets and arches. The aqueducts had been destroyed and water from the local hills flooded the boulevards. Many of the columns that had lined the wide avenues had toppled over. The street was a bloody gumbo of carnage, a slippery mess of singed palm fronds, broken oranges, blood, juice, tears, sweat and other excrements.
As they climbed the hill, they were joined by a handful of legionaries, hardened fighters in battered steel. Their weapons were fine, long spears for some, short straight swords for the rest. Only a few of them still had their helms, bowls of steel resting on their heads. Broad metal cheekplates protected most of the face, though they left the eyes and ears clear. The soldiers shouted orders and commands as they entered the broad avenue, before disappearing around a corner or down a side lane. The barbarians took to the main streets as well, charging out from between the brick houses and the storerooms and the little shops on the corners. Some rode painted horses. There were white stallions and black chargers. Chestnut broncos bore armored warriors about as they wrought terror with long swords and heavy axes. Some of them bore helmets fitted with iron wings or roaring beasts. Some of the attackers had stolen old imperial helmets and made them look a bit more fashionable.
Bells clashed against one another and swords rang over the groaning roar of chaos. The birds had taken flight through the choking smoke and Jerig could feel the sun shining down on him, warming his back. A fat chunk of rock sailed over his head and splashed into a fountain, cracking the basin. The ground quaked and Jerig nearly toppled over. The fleeing people scattered like a school of frightened fish. Jerig steadied himself on the slick avenue.
“This way!” Spart called, pulling the reins on Jerig’s focus. Another boulder flew over Jerig’s head, smashing a burning building to burning wreckage. The fire spread on the wings of burning beams and bits of wood. Cloth awnings turned to ash, followed soon after by the buildings they bathed in cool shade.
The boys made their way up the lane to the Forum of Aquilios, battling against the tides of screaming masses. Their enemies were nowhere to be seen, but their presence could be felt with every step. The city wept as shattered fountains filled the streets with blue waters. The rocks became several different types of slippery. Barbarians tore about with drawn swords and axes and torches, setting everything they could to burn and cutting the rest down to puddles.
When the pair arrived at Aquilos’ Plaza, they found the old Emperor’s forum a ruin. The awnings blazed. Flames leapt and danced around the stonework and ran through the wooden tavern and shops like children at play. They swung through the fruit trees, knocking blackened oranges to the ground. The bakeshop burned beside the fruit stands offering the savory smell of fruit pies crisping in the oven. The butcher had been roasted alive with his meats, a hauntingly pleasant aroma that churned the contents of Jerig's stomach. The columns had been knocked asunder and the marble statues of the gods had been thrown to the floor while the temples burned. Jerig’s eyes fell upon the enemies holding the square and clenched his fist around his sword. He yearned to attack, but again, his legs and feet failed him. He dropped his sword and tried to lift his feet off the ground, but they would not budge.
Charging, through the crowd astride a great mahogany charger, clad in beautiful steel plates, rode a finely decorated soldier. His armor was a breastplate of muscled steel emblazoned with a silver disc bearing the mark of a soaring eagle. His helmet was a bowl of metal, fitted with broad cheek plates and over his face was a silver mask, a hollow face stained red with battle. A blue horsehair crest ran down the center of the helm and there was a plate at the back to protect his neck. His legs were covered in articulated plates, segmented steel woven together at the back by leather thongs. His horse bore an eagle emblem on a round plate laid across its chest. It wore a mask of steel, like the rider and a blanket of mail. The steed stamped into a small pack of barbarians and the warrior dispatched them quickly. A handful of soldiers followed on foot to clean up. He raised the visor on his helm, revealing a short cropped beard of orange hair which covered his pale face. He moved his sword to his shield hand and raced toward Jerig and his companion.
“Get inside!” he called out, driving his steed through the refugees. “If you’re not fighting, you’re in the way! Get out of the way!” A handful of barbarians charged out of the forum toward the mounted warrior, chopping through what remained of his company. “Get some place safe!” he ordered, wheeling his horse to face the warriors. The beast refused to keep still, wheeling about, to avoid the crowd, spooked by the stampede. Nonetheless the man held his reins firm. “Archers, cover fire! Eyes on the forum!” A handful of archers appeared, emerging from the narrow streets or from the doors of the brick apartments and homesteads along the way. They donned studded leather vests and short, azure capes. As the streets were cleared of the peasantry, they formed a pair of lines from one side of the lane to the other. “Ready…” called the man ahorse turning his steed to face the ruin. The bowmen laid their shots across their bows and pulled the blue and white fletchings to their cheeks. Jerig and Spart ducked on the far side of the street. “Fire!” The shafts whistled over the man’s blue crested helm and soared true into the forum. “Fire again!” the man ordered. Another volley fell on the square and the corresponding barbarian screams confirmed its effectiveness. A horn blew behind the ranks of archers. They turned and aimed their shafts down the smokey road. The mounted man turned his horse to meet the sound.
“General!” came a voice from the fog. A battered man, bloody and beaten marched up the road and out of the gloom. His helm was gone, as was the hair on his head. He was round of face and the mailed gut that put so much pressure on his sword belt was stained with blood. Beside him marched a young man bearing a standard, a long pole crowned with a silver crescent moon. Below the moon there was a banner of blue cloth, stamped with a white orange blossom. It looked to be in the same condition as the fighting men coming up as well.
Each of the soldiers wore a set of segmented plates lashed together with leather straps. Their helms were steel bowls, with plates to protect the cheeks and neck. They wore short skirts of blue cloth and on their legs they bore greaves and a pair of light leather sandals. Their swords were short and stout, meant for close fighting and their shields were broad, curved rectangles painted blue, rimmed with silver, and stamped with a white orange blossom, centered by a silver boss piece. The troops filled the street, forming ranks across the cobbles.
“Captain,” the general discerned from the badges threatening to fly off the captain’s stained chain coat. “Who are these men?”
“Sons of the Empire, sir.” The captain affirmed with a curt nod and a dark glare at the fallen forum.
“Can they fight?” the general asked, eyeing the company.
“Been doin’ it all morning, sir. They may look rough, but these are some of the best fighting men we’ve got left.” the captain answered.
“For all we know they may be the only fighting men we have left.” The general was not as congenial as the captain. “Have you been to the forum recently?” he asked.
“Looks like I’ve missed all the good stuff.” the captain tried at a joke.
“Well, that is where we’re going.” the general told him. “Prepare your men for an attack.”
“They’re prepared, sir. Give the order and we’ll strike.”
“Consider this the order.” the general issued. The captain wheeled on his men.
“Lads, to the forum! Charge!” The standard bearer was the first to move. Though just a boy without a hair on his face, he raised his banner and took off at full tilt. On his heels, the captain and battalion followed, shields at the ready, swords drawn. Jerig watched, eyes wide at the site of the soldiers, a smile almost breaking through the soot and sadness that had clung to his face. He approached the general as he turned his horse about to join the attack.
“Archers, two covering volleys then reform in the plaza!” the man ordered, waving his blade at the forum. Arrows leapt from the rooftops.
"General Gaerion," Jerig addressed him. Spart said nothing. The pair bowed their heads.
"Damn your formalities, boys." The general spat. "This is a war!" The hordes fired a volley of their own. The Emperor’s soldiers raised their shields over their heads and deflected the points. What few shafts made it through the shield wall fell useless against the strong Imperial steel armor. The archers began pouring out of the brick apartments and hovels and filled the street, taking shelter behind the debris for a breath before darting off into the fog. “Where is your sword, boy?” the general asked. His horse shied away from the archers, but he held the reins firm. Jerig looked for the blade Spart had given him, but he found an empty hand at the length of his arm. "Can you fight, son?" Jerig stared at his empty hand. “Can you fight? Jerig!” The general drew a stout blade from a scabbard on his saddle and flipped it in his gloved hand. "Take this." He commanded, thrusting the handle toward Jerig’s face. Jerig took the blade and let it rest at his side. "Now come." The general ordered. "Defend the Empire with me." The general lowered his helmet's visor and turned his horse. "Empire!" Was his battle roar and he carried It into the forum at full gallop to join the fray. Jerig watched him ride into the burning mist.
"Come on!" Spart shouted over the commotion. "We have to through there." Jerig could hear a soft whistle growing louder. He turned to find an arrow slowly creeping out of the smokey forum. Others flew past it. It sailed over the heads of soldiers and cadavers. The tip was iron and it was fletched with raven. Jerig looked down at his unarmored chest, then back up to the gliding arrow as it inched closer. Again his legs grew heavy and again he could not lift his feet. The arrow took its time.
Before it could land, something knocked Jerig to the musty floor. His palm scraped the stone, rubbing it raw. His face met a cool puddle that left his hair and chest soaked with red water. The metallic taste tickled the top of his tongue and he spat it out. A pair of hands pulled Jerig to his feet. As he rose, he snatched his sword from the puddle and gripped it tightly.
"That was close." Chimed the lanky boy who had picked him up. Across his back was slung a quiver of arrows, the fletchings blue and white. His hair was a black mess of tangles. As Jerig steadied himself, he picked a bow up off the ground.
“Hawk...” Jerig said, stunned.
"Too close." Said a girl of similar build as she pushed herself up off the ground. Her hair was the same hue as the lad's, only curled around her crown in a tight bun. “And you!” she smacked Spart’s helm, knocking him to the side. He recoiled from the blow and removed the helm to smooth his hair. “Wake up, Jerig!” Spart’s face was covered in joy.
“Liea…” he said, bashfully. The twins wore leather jerkins over mail. Like the rest of the archers, their backs were half covered by short blue capes. Their hands were gloved in leather but for their drawing fingers.
"We have to get them out of the forum." She said. “Come on!”
“"I hope they haven't taken all the good stuff.” Hawk added, drawing an arrow from his pack.
“Only one way to find out,” the girl said as she tightened the belt spanning her chest. “You lot ready?” Jerig nodded and Spart put his helmet back on. Liea looked at them and let out a sigh. She took a loose helmet from a pile of rubble. The man beside it made no objections. “Put this on, Jerig. Are you an idiot?” Jerig put on the helmet. It was wet inside, but it joined his tattered tunic as his only protection from the frackas.
“It’s dangerous out there.” Hawk said. “You lot go first.” Jerig and Spart exchanged eyes.
“We’ll cover you.” Liea affirmed with a shrug and a furrowed brow. Jerig looked to Spart and received a nod. He nodded back and eyed the smoking forum.
“Jerig!” cried the voice again. Suddenly Jerig was sprinting. Spart fought to catch up and they charged through the plaza. The fighting grew louder. The top of the mighty arch jutted out of the smoke, but as they neared the base they saw the rest of it and the dead scattered around the old pillars. The gate was shattered, the iron bars bent and thrown down. Columns were blackened and chipped. Some had given out. The first floor of the macallum was in flames and the second belched smoke between the arches lining the facade. The temples of Ana and Kenden had been given to the torch, the priestesses strewn like petals across their steps. The gilded idols had been taken and the little domed shrines demolished. The farthest side of the forum was a grand bath house, perferated at the center by the opposing gate. The tall imperial palms and other flowery outside the spa turned crispy and blew away with the wind.
The central square was a battlefield as always, but the merchants had been exchanged for butchers and their coins for swords and shields. The battalion of soldiers fought to push the barbarians back. The standard bearer had fallen not far from the entrance. The flag waved lazily as the wind brushed it. Behind the banner, there were far more round shileds present than square, more blue horns on white than white flowers on blue, more hugely muscled barbarians than men to stop them. The shields surged like a treacherous sea and the flashing swords and thundering drums completed the storm. The General Gaerion charged through the muck on horseback, carving gaps in the enemy formation. Through the back gate, rode a company of horsemen. Boulders rained from the sky, leaving ruins and cracked stones in their wake.
“Do we have to go in there?” Spart asked.
“We have to go through there.” Jerig answered, gripping his sword. The archers began streaming in. They split, some running toward the ruined temples, the rest taking to the side with the shops. They took cover behind the columns and an array of crates and barrels. Hawk and Liea came up behind them.
“You look comfortable,” Liea commented. “You going to dip your toes in to see if it’s warm enough?”
“Easy for you to say.” Spart shot back.
“Spart, take that standard.” Jerig suggested, nodding to the banner.
“And do what?” Spart asked. The far gate crashed open and a column of horsemen flooded in. They wore blue capes and carried shields bearing the Imperial Blossom. The man at the head of the column wore a helm similar to General Gaerion’s, while the troopers on his flanks bore maskless helms. Their battle cries took the enemy by surprise and their swords began the rest of the work.
“Come with me.” Jerig took off at a jog. Spart followed, taking up the flowered banner. Jerig took up a fallen shield. The rim was dinged and pieces were missing. Blood had been splattered across the white flower. They charged into the fray, joining the legionaries. The fighting was hard. Spart flung the imperial banner into an unwary barbarian’s back. The man fell and the flag rose, the once white flower now newly stained. Jerig watched through his helm as men from both sides were cut down. One of the barbarians thrust a long spear at him, but he blocked the blow with his shield and a stray horseman cut him down. The next blow came from the side. Jerig caught the flash of the blade and the shield ran to meet the sword. The blade dug deep into the wood. Jerig drew his shield back, dragging the blade away from the warrior and thrust his own stout sword into the man’s belly. The brute’s face bore a look of confusion. He looked down at the blade, then back at Jerig and pulled him close.
“Keep her safe, lad.” the skewered warrior warned. His breath stank of rotting teeth, old meat and sour ale. Jerig struggled to remove his hands from his shoulders, but the grip was too much. “Keep her safe. This is yours.” Jerig’s foe pulled the blade from his gut and handed it back to him wet, red and dripping. He then gave a polite nod and slumped down to the ground to die. When he was gone, Jerig could see the horsemen growing nearer. They splashed through the enemy with relative ease, given the light armor the barbarians wore, if they wore armor at all. Jerig and Spart joined the battle line as they pushed up the center toward the fountain at the heart of the plaza.
At the heart of the fountain rose the Column of Aquilos. The Emperor Aquilos stood at the peak of the shaft in marble and silver, his sword drawn, aimed at the eastern horizon. About the base of the column, four stone eagles screamed to the winds, their talons digging into the base. Their wings were addorsed, ready to take flight against the enemies of the empire. They did not move.
A barbarian crashed into one of the birds before collapsing dead in the knee deep water of the surrounding pool. Standing over him was a mountain of a man, his head a snowy peak of thinning white hair. His face and arms were covered in thick white drifts of hair as well. He wore the robes of a senator, a blue sash traversing his broad chest. He had no weapon but the clubs at the ends of his thick arms.
“Come on, you!” he taunted at the long haired beast before him. “I’ve got a hair in my ear for every one of you blue painted bastards that’s had the gall to stand before me!” The warrior launched himself forward with a flash of his axe, but the man took the weapon by the handle and cracked it over his knee. He then threw the pieces in the water and delivered a hard jab to the barbarian’s face. The warrior withdrew, his eyes blurred. The next blow knocked him on his back the the man in the robe stood over him. “Wake up!” he shouted at the man’s face. “It’s time to greet the morning!” the old man took a chunk of stone from the damaged fountain and smashed it into the water.
Jerig and Spart arrived at the edge of the fountain as the old man got to his feet. He bent down to pick up a small circlet, a wreath of orange leaves, the ruins of which he placed back on his head.
“Jerig!” the man greeted, his demeanor suddenly softening. He trudged through the water towards the boys, his robe flowing behind him like a fine white gown. “What brings you to the forum, my young warriors?” he asked, his voice full of adoration.
“We’re headed to the Stonehold.” Jerig answered.
“The Stonehold?” the man repeated. “Not a bad thought.” He rubbed his chin.
The horsemen fought their way to the fountain, sending a handful of warriors careening over the rim to bleed into the cool clear waters. The remaining barbarians were dealt with and a great cry of victory rose from the soldiers in the square. The riders raised their swords and banged them against their shields in triumph. From the rear of their party, rode their commander, a general by the look of him. Jerig recognized the wolf snarling within the silver disc on his chest and approached.
“Father!” he called. He leapt into the pool and waded through the shallows. Spart followed.
“Jerig!” the general raised the visor of his helm, unleashing a brilliant smile which fell upon the boys. “Nice day for the forum, eh?” the general laughed. He swung his leg over the saddle and splashed down into the water to join his son.
“It is now.” Spart replied, excitedly. The general wrapped his arms around the boys and brought them close. The man in the white robe waded near.
“General Farris.” he greeted, surveying the dead around them. “Nice day for the forum, eh?” he mocked.
“Good morning, Consul.” the general hailed.
“I came here for a pail of milk, a fistful of garlic,” he counted the items on his fingers, his rage slowly building. “And something called turmeric!” he bellowed. He kicked one of the barbarian corpses, splashing pink water about. “AND I WHAT I GOT...WAS A BLOODY FISTFIGHT!” He thrashed the cadaver again and again. Something shattered in the macallum and the general’s ears took notice. He turned to face the building.
“I think you’ll find your turmeric in there, Consul.” the general nodded to the macallum. Smoke billowed from the top floor while the bottom burned. The center of the structure was punctuated by a grand triple arch. Through the center portal, a handful of archers, Hawk and Liea among them, came running, fear plastered on their faces beneath the soot and cinder.
“Move!” the twins cried, as they fled. They turned their heads. Jerig’s eyes followed to the central arch at the heart of the macallum. There, they found a dozen riders, weapons, pelts and ancient runic tattoos all ablaze in a roaring blaze of flame and smoke.
“Burn the city!” roared some of them. “Burn the Emperor!” others called. Burn the Empire!” Weapons raised, they chased the archers, their flaming horses cracking the smooth stone of the floor. A few of the bowmen fell beneath their brands. Hawk and Liea pushed through the soldiers idling on the edge of the pool and leapt into the water.
“I don’t think that’s turmeric, General...” the Consul observed, watching as the warriors charged across the smooth stone. Jerig watched, frozen as the riders circled for a moment, raising their weapons. Their horses rocked back on their hind legs and cried out, their manes burning, fire leaking from their nostrils.
“Burn the Empire!” they called again and charged out of the forum through the rear gate nestled at the heart of the bathhouse. General Gaerion gave chase astride his armored horse.
“After them!” he ordered, slapping the plated rump of his horse with the flat of his blade. Many of the mounted warriors gave chase through the arch between the weeping halls of the baths. General Farris called for his captain.
“Sir!” the man announced his arrival.
“Bring me some horses.” General Farris ordered.
“Aye, sir!” the man soaked back into the crowd.
“Jerig, can you ride?” the general asked. Jerig could not answer. His eyes had followed the band of burning barbarians through the gate and stayed there, unblinking. “Jerig!” Liea splashed him with some cool, pink water.
“Jerig!” the voice came again, calling for his help. Before the captain could bring the horses to a halt, Jerig was mounted and off, joining the rest of the riders as they hunted the demons. With the others calling after him as they mounted up and tried to follow, Jerig blasted through the grand arch, which had become a cascade as the waters inside poured out over the smooth marble.
He emerged from the forum and his eyes followed a trail of wreckage up the avenue past the grand theater and the smaller playhouses and taverns that surrounded it. The road was still, lined with the dead. Ruined columns became headstones. Statues of famous writers and playwrights had been smashed all along the avenue. Restaurants lined the way, fine eateries set ablaze with their staff and diners. Outside the grand theater, stood the ruined marble effigy of the emperor responsible for its construction.
Between the theaters, taking up the majority of each of the city blocks, was a row of great amphitheaters and performance halls. Jerig drove his horse faster and faster down the ruined boulevard up the rest of the shallow incline towards the center of the city. A handful of warriors decked in fur ran in and a company of frightened actors fled the house. A woman in a blue dress stumbled down the steps of the largest of the assemblies, the Grand Aphitheater of the Emperor Bombora (that’s not his real name right now). Jerig watched as she sauntered towards him. He did not have time to notice the arrow that took his horse, but when he was thrown he landed hard on the stone. The world was dark for a moment. When he opened his eyes, the woman in blue was standing over him.
“Jerig!” she shouted down at him.
“Mother?” Jerig asked, his head spinning. She gave him a wild shake and wrenched him to his feet.
“Find Sera!” she commanded.
“Mother, I thought you were-” She slapped him hard across the cheek.
“Find Sera!” she repeated. “You have to find Sera.” She looked him up and down. “Where’s your sword?” she demanded. Jerig looked for the blade the general had given him, but he found an empty hand at the length of his arm. “Why don’t you have a sword, Jerig? Do you see what’s-” She coughed and put her hand in her mouth. Her hand came away with a black feather. She let it blow away with the breeze and turned back to her boy. “You have to find-” The coughing came again. Her words became a hacking cough, relentless and discomforting. Feathers spewed from her lips.
“Mother?” Jerig’s heart hammered against his sternum. The coughing continued. A beak appeared at her lips, followed by a pair of little eyes and a feathery little head. The black finch perched on her lip for a moment before it was shoved off by a second, which was then immediately replaced by a third and a fourth. “Mother!”
“You have to find Sera!” His mother choked on the words between the escaping birds. She fell to her knees and doubled over, loosing a torrent of fluffy black feathers.
“What’s happening?” Jerig asked bewildered.
“Find Sera!” she choked, looking up, eyes as wide as Jerig’s. “Go.” She collapsed and her fine blue dress flew off amidst a swarm of tweeting birds. The birds enveloped Jerig, forsaking the empty dress on the cobbles. They pecked at his ears and his cheeks. They landed on his shoulders to nip at his ears. He brushed them away, but they would not relent.
“Find Sera!” His mother’s voice came from the flock, her words on the point of every beak and talon. Jerig fled down the street. Another massive hunk of stone rolled its way out of the sky and crashed into the theater, reforming the facade into a pile of shattered marble. The impact knocked Jerig onto his back and sent the fluttering swarm of finches fleeing in terror. The world had gone fuzzy.
"Jerig!" Cried the voice, again. Jerig tried to get to his feet, but his legs would not move. He reached out for something to grab onto and found a hand. The hand pulled him up and as he wiped the dust from his eyes, he found a girl with wheat blond hair before him. Her eyes were a vibrant mahogany. Her face had been painted blue like an emperor parading victoriously through the city. She wore a blue dress embroidered with white flower blossoms a white sash wrapped around her waist. Shoved through the belt was a stout, slender blade, used by the color of the steel at the pointy end. The blood had gotten on her dress. She was breathing heavy and her wheat blonde hair flew wildly about her shoulders as her head whipped back and forth to make sure the way was safe.
“Sera…” Jerig could hardly breathe.
“Jerig!” she shouted. She shook him. “Look alive! We’re at war.” she commanded. “Can you fight?” She vanished, but returned a moment later with the sword General Gaerion had given him. “Stop losing it.” she warned. “Come on, I left my father at the gates of the Stonehold. He’s about to lead a counter charge to drive these smelly bastards out of the city.”
“What’s happening?” Jerig asked, bewildered.
“Jerig!” a horse followed the call and Jerig’s father and the others rode up astride their mounts. “Sera.” Jeren raised his visor to address the girl and gave a smile and a nod.
“Oh, thank the gods.” Sera said, turning to the general and the warriors on his flanks. “My father sent me to find help and I found…” she turned to Jerig. He could feel the eyes falling upon him and his ears began to fill with blood.
“What?” he demanded indignantly. He showed the sword, blood still sticky on the blade.
“My father’s about to lead a counter charge against the barbarians. He’s holding them back with what’s left of his legion and the imperial guard. Spart, is your father ready with the city watch?”
“They went to the harbor,” Spart said, quietly. A hush fell over the avenue, but before it could soak in, a massive boulder smashed through the stone and marble. The blast spooked the horses.
“We can’t stay here.” Sera warned, throwing her eyes over her shoulder. “You ride on and hit them from the rear. Jerig and I will follow on foot.”
“As you command, General Thorne.” Jeren replied, his voice full of pride. “You heard the lady, lads! On me!” With a crack of the reins, he drove his horse down the war torn street, the others close on his flanks. Sera drew her sword and gave chase. Jerig followed, suddenly filled with a great swell of vigor. They went after the horsemen, passing flaming restaurants and venues frequented by the city's wealthiest patrons, along with what Jerig took for a bit of burning timber until he noticed its arms and legs. They pushed past the remaining theaters, toward a grand archway, built of stone and marble.
Jerig and Sera raced down the road, toward the bleeding heart of the city, dodging siege missiles, dodging arrows and thrown spears, dodging enemies and their fellow citizens alike. His heart waited for him at the entry to the plaza. They passed through the archway where an eagle spread its wings at the zenith and on either side, a pair of large stone lions sat vigilantly, tucked into smoothly carved nooks in the stone.
At the edge of the plaza, Jerig’s legs froze again, refusing to budge. He surveyed the broad expanse of dark slate that was the Imperial Plaza and he could hear the blood rocketing through his veins over the din of war. The Emperor’s plaza, was a battleground. The fighting raged across the smooth stone floor, slick with blood and songed with the chiming of swords. Beyond Sera’s flailing locks and the haunches of the cavalry, Jerig beheld a sea of blue painted, fur clad warriors with hair in all the wrong places. Torches blazed and he could hear their battle cries and the drums that filled them with their ferocious vigor
Nearest to the archway, was the Hall of Victors, which had been pillaged and set aflame, the memory of the fallen warriors inside and the scrolls bearing the tales of their deeds lost to the roaring belly of battle.
To the north, on the far side of the arch leading to the tourney grounds, smoke billowing out of its shattered stained glass windows stood the Great Sanctuary, sacred house of the gods. A shallow stairway led to the temple’s broken, golden doors. The way was littered with girls in white dresses, stained red, where barbarian swords had found them. The portly priest had been thrown into the jaws of the marble shark that gnashed its rows of teeth at the base of the statue of Manqua. The sea god held out a long green trident against the raging hordes of enemy warriors. His right flank was protected by his brother Sirion, his great eagle perched in stone on his shoulder. His cool stone hand rested on the hilt of a winged sword. His left flank was occupied by the youngest of the elder gods, Durant, the lord of the underworld. Resting at his feet was the effigy of a great hound, sleeping soundly through the sacking of the city. The rest of the gods stood in bronze, housed in small ports carved into the wall.
At the center of the plaza, stood a grand column hewn of marble and stone. At its peak, stood the Emperor Bombora carved of fine, white marble.. The base was guarded by four lions, sitting at the ready. The barbarians threw ropes and grappling hooks over the emperor. They wrapped lengths of rope around the column and began to heave.
“Tear it down! Tear it down!” they cheered. The cords tightened as the warriors heaved. With a few great tugs, the cables dragged the emperor and the shaft of marble depicting his great victories splashing into the pool below.
Across the square, the headquarters of the city watch collapsed, dragging down with it the archway beside it and the headquarters of the fire brigade, filling the plaza with more and more dust and smoke. The pyroclastic fog rolled in heavy, masking the sight of the battle but doing nothing for the screams and the song of thousands of swords ringing against one another.
The Imperial Bank burned, crisping the money lenders and bankers along with their scales and ledgers. The windows wept tears of molten gold.
In the bank’s shadow, a handful of men battled the barbarians outside a small temple. The building was round and spared of the desecration the rest of the city suffered. The garden on the roof still sported its greenery, but on the ground, the elite band of warriors were having a hard time pushing back the waves of enemies as they crashed against their broad, kite shaped shields again and again. Their armor was fine and polished, a myriad of interlocking and articulated plates of steel all tied together with leather straps over a coat of mail. Over the armor they wore long coats of white emblazoned with the mark of their order on their chests. Their cross-hilted swords were longer and more slender than those of the imperials and many of the warriors bore them with two hands, cleaving their unarmored enemies with ease.
Jerig’s eyes came to rest on the gates of the Stonehold, the mighty citadel at the true heart of the city and home of the Emperor. The barbarians had thrown themselves against the walls of the palace with all their might, but the emperor’s personal guard was holding them at bay, accompanied by the ragged remains of the legions.
“Burn the empire!” sang the barbarians. “Burn the empire!” Archers loosed flaming shafts down into the throng, but there were enemies to contend with on the ramparts. The fortified gate stood ajar, but atop the barbican stood a great black charger. On its back rode a general, bearing the same armor and blue mantle as the others, but his helmet was gone, revealing a head of battle-mussed blonde hair. His face had been painted with blood and his sword was a red brush making strokes through the barbarians as they climbed ropes in an attempt to take the walls. A lion was stamped on his chest and he shouted commands, his voice carrying to the soldiers below.
“Hold the line!” he shouted. “Keep them out! Sera!” Sera looked up at the general. He pointed to her rear and she turned to find a pair of massive barbarians, wielding heavy axes waiting for her. Her eyes went wide for a moment as she took the sight in, but she gathered herself back together and readied her sword.
“Morning.” she greeted with a nod. The brutes charged, their blades raised high over their heads. Blades flashed where the sun could sneak between the puffs of smoke to strike them silver. A winter storm of bodies rained off the walls and behind, the lavish house of the emperor remained the only thing within the confines of the city not engulfed in flame or shattered by barbarian artillery.
The generals and their accompaniment of mounted warriors slammed into the barbarian rear, cutting a bloody swath through the ranks. The weight of horse and steel and the men driving them sent many of the tattooed warriors flying above their brothers as the swords followed, cleaving and slashing. The lines were broken. Battle joined and surged. Sera joined the fighting as well, cutting down the enemy and staining her blue dress. Jerig watched as she parried blows and returned them with interest. Though she wore no armor it was only blood that seemed to hit its mark. Before long her dress was completely stained, the white flowers soiled. The twins arrived at Jerig’s rear astride the horses that had once belonged to the mounted imperial warriors.
“What are you standing here for?” Hawk asked as he fired an arrow lazily into the crowd. Jerig looked up at the boy but could not answer.
“There’s so many of them.” Liea complained frustratedly as she too launched an arrow into the chanting tide. “Come on, Jerig!” she urged and with a kick of her heels she was gone, riding and shooting with her brother and the rest of their company.
Jerig threw his legs forward to dip his toe in the fray. His face felt seabitten by the cold sweat and the bits debris. Blood trickled from small cuts on his forehead and cheeks. His tunic had gone from a pale cream to a smattering of blacks and browns and reds and it had become torn in several places. His legs were scratched, his knees scraped and the sandals about his feet had lost most of the straps holding them to his feet. He gripped his sword and raised it over his head, letting lose his battle cry as he felled an enemy in the first with a quick chop of the leg. He exchanged blades with a huge, bearded man with a skull tattooed on his stomach and chest. The brute blocked Jerig’s attack with his broad axe blade, but when he threw the blade down, Jerig slipped out of its range and delivered a killing blow before the weapon could be recovered. Jerig caught sight of his father and the other horsemen and directed his swordplay toward them. He hacked through the attackers like shrubbery. Before he could make it to his father’s side, he glimpsed a handful of barbarians surround the general and knock him from his horse. Jerig panicked, but a moment later the general was back up, though his helmet remained on the ground. He threw his fist into a barbarian cheekbone, shattering it and sending the foe to the ground, where a horse came down hard on his chest. Before long, Jerig found himself back to back with the general. A handful of barbarians separated the pair and surrounded them, their weapons drooling blood, the drums rumbling their hunger.
"I can handle these." Jeren asserted. "Watch my back." Jerig nodded and turned, fending off a spear and driving his blade into the wielder’s chest. A half dozen more came and went and the boys dealt with them in a manner befitting men of the empire. Jerig pulled his father’s sword from the belly of a large man in what appeared to be a bit of stolen imperial armor. The plates was old and scratched and adorned with a pair of crossed roses.
"Not bad, eh, father?" Jerig chimed, happily, but there came no answer. "Father?" Jerig turned. The square had gone quiet, but for the noise of the surrounding pandamonium. His father was nowhere to be seen. Nor could Jerig see the horses or their riders or any of the barbarians that had been fighting so valiantly only a moment before. Bare bones littered the stone floor of the square. Barren skulls looked up at him. Skinny, ashen hands reached for him. “Father?” Jerig searched and searched, called out for his father, but there came no answer. He eyed Sera, her dress stained crimson, her face painted blue. She sliced an attacker across the belly and as he turned an arrow found his heart. As he fell, Sera’s eyes moved up behind Jerig. Fear penetrated the blue smeared on her face and fear became her expression. The ground quaked. What birds remained in the plaza took flight and fled the area in a flurry of feathers and panicked songs. A second hard shake of the ground drew the attention of some of the figheters on the edge of the plaza. Sera’s eyes continued to move up, up, up. Her sword fell loosely to her side.
"Jerig!" She cried. She lifted a finger, pointing at something behind him. Something big. A thunderous roar answered the question raised. The fighting paused. All heads turned. The combatants lowered their weapons and raised their eyes up, up, up. The ground shivered as something slammed into it. Boulders continued to rain from the sky, but they seeme soft feathers compared to the weight at Jerig’s back. Fallen weapons rattled. Rubble shifted. A handful of buildings, weakened by the fires could not contend with the shock of the impact and fell into ruins, fuming smoke and ash and dust. A quiet hush fell over the plaza as swords and shields and arrows stilled. The warriors stared, those clad in furs as well as those in fine steel plates. They stood, confounded as the rumbling call of the beast rang out. For a time it was the only sound. It echoed through the streets, resounding off the blistering stone like thunder charging through a canyon. Many covered their ears, but when it proved too much for them, they fled, so many brave warriors paled by the gargantuan roar.
Jerig tried to turn but again, his legs were beyond his control. He saw only Sera as she stood frozen in terror. There was a great crack and the top of the archway and all its fine masonry came thundering down around him, cracking the slate floor. Jerig could not turn, but he shielded his eyes with his arm and bent his knees until he saw it. Crushing what remained of the decimated archway, entered a new combatant for the city and it’s warriors to contend with.
Guised in golden fur, bearing massive claws, the pads on the underside doing nothing to mask the weight or sound of the beast as it entered the plaza, was a massive lion, the likes of which Jerig had never seen. The cat’s enormous paw splashed into the rubble and knocked Jerig to the ground. He rose without his father’s sword. The sun vanished. A shadow fell on Jerig and the rest of the plaza. He looked up from the darkened patch of stone to find a thick mane and the light underbelly. The creature towered over even the tallest buildings in the city, it’s tail thicker than the thickest of trees. A few of the sun's rays managed to maneuver around but the rest was mostly lost to the giant figure. A handful of archers thought to fire upon the beast, but their shafts found their way into the tangle of golden fur and not much else. The beast seemed unaware. It stomped through the square. Its tail brushed buildings aside like a child's blocks.
The second paw arrived, bringing with it the deaths of the warriors who found themselves beneath it, leaving behind a patty of iron and flesh and bone. Pandemonium took hold of the barbarians and they fled the plaza in full retreat. Were it not for the gargantuan beast in their midst, the imperials would have risen up with a cry of victory. Jerig’s heart was given a quantum of respite for but a beat before he realized he could not see Sera anymore.
"Sera!” Jerig called to her but he could not hear his own voice over the roar of the leviathan as it unleashed another terrible call. Jerig shoved his fingers in his hears and moved to find Sera. When the great golden paw lifted, he found her legs. Sticking out from the bottom of the beast’s paw, he recognized the hem of her soiled dress and each of the scars she’d earned on her legs. An icy wind cut through him and he fell to his knees to wretch.
“Jerig!” Sera called to him. Jerig looked up, wiping his mouth. He could barely distinguish her golden locks from the thick hairs sticking out of the lion’s paw, but he recognized her big brown eyes as they pleaded for rescue from the great cat. “Can you fight?” she called to him. Jerig could not answer. His throat was raw. Caught between the monster’s toes, Sera managed to free an arm to throw her blade. It landed at Jerig’s side, all caked with blood and dust. “Protect the emperor!” Sera shouted to him. “Then get me the hell out of here!” Her last word trailed off as the great paw rose and surged forward, smashing the far archway to rubble as the mass of fur and hunger loomed over the city.
“Sera!” Jerig wailed after her. One of the rear paws came down hard just in front of him, knocking him onto his back. All along the wall, soldiers fired scorpions from the watchtowers, sinking their spear sized quarrels deep into the lion’s coat and into the meat of it’s legs and haunches. The cat unleashed a defiant roar and pushed itself back onto its hind legs. The sound rattled Jerig’s bones. He could hear Sera calling to him from above.
The front paws came down hard on the ground, breaking through the buildings and the streets, cracking ceramic pipes buried in the ground. The earth belched water and sewage, which washed over the avenues dragging warriors of both sides with it, the wounded and the fit together in a torrent which ended at the sea. The lion dragged its rage across the rest of the plaza, sending men and horses flying above the din of war only to come crashing back down into it. In an attemped to alleviate the itch put in place by the huge scorpion rounds, it rubbed itself on the house of the gods, knocking loose the great orb supported by the Jerig charged through the plaza, trying desperately to catch up to the cat, but for every stride it took, he had to take a thousand, maneuvering around wounded warriors, jagged blades, giant boulders and the debris they sent whizzing about as they smashed through the stone and concrete of the old buildings.
“Jerig!” Sera screamed again and the noose around Jerig's heart tightened. He could hardly breathe. He stumbled and fell, fighting with everything he had to move forward, to get to her, but to no avail. His legs seemed caught in a thick sludge. They moved sluggishly, though his head wheeled around at the fray around him and his arms were free to block the blows that came at him and deliver a strike of his own. Smoke followed in the wake of the giant cat as it stormed through the city, full of rage as the archers and enginers pestered it with their munitions. Jerig tore at the earth with his feet. He leapt through burning fires and over the screaming wounded.
He fled the plaza through the ruined Arch of Iacoba Hedrixia, which had been left in ruins, but for a pair of wolves tucked into the masonry, sitting amidst the rubble. The lion roaring overhead had been desecrated by the lion roaring down the street.
Jerig never saw the club coming, but he felt the shock as knocked him on his back. Again, his sword fell from his hand. His body ached. The barbarian loomed over him, the cudgel raised for its killing blow. Jerig rolled out of the way and it smashed into the stone. He grabbed the foreshaft of a broken spear and drove it into the brute’s leg. Before the man had toppled over to lick the wound, Jerig was back on his feet and running at full tilt down the Avenue of Janus Lapus. He stormed after the long cumbrous tail.
Clouds gathered overhead. Sera’s screams began to fade. The animal wheeled around to the west, cutting a swath through the apartments and townhouses that lined the street. Here, they all had balconies and plants around them. The streets smelled of citrus oil as the broken lanterns bled out onto the cobbles. A massive boulder sailed overhead landing in the center of the street, sending fruit and stones flying. Jerig passed through another dismembered stone archway, where a few bowmen had gathered. He nearly charged past them, but one of the archers grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and threw him against one of the remaining walls as another giant boulder bowled over a carved statue.
“Stay down!” the archer shouted. Jerig struggled to get back up. The soldier's hand pressed hard on his chest, keeping him pinned up against the wall. He wore scarred armor and bore a deep gash across his ash smeared face.
“No! I need to go!” Jerig fought. His heart threatened to punch through and knock the man to the ground.
“Are you nuts?” the man begged of him. He took an arrow from a quiver and loosed it around the bend into an unseen target before returning his hand to Jerig’s chest when he tried to take advantage of the distraction. “You stay here!” the man shouted. “Do you see that fucking thing?" The lion roared its displeasure.
"What's happening?" asked Jerig. A fruit stand on the far side of the street exploded, sending apples and pomegranates and plums and oranges rolling down the avenue.
"You’re asking the wrong guy.” The bowmen said, firing a round right into a barbarian belly. “I don’t know fuck all! If I were you, I'd get the hell-” Before the end of his sentence, a blue painted warrior was on him. The attacker knocked the bowman off balance and smashed his head with a nearby brick. Jerig watched for only a moment before he took off down the ruined street. He followed the smoke and carnage, but when he found the cat, it had already made its way through the Pardus Ward, smashing the gardens and gymnasiums and temples until it burst through the Arch of Carus Hitanus. Nothing remained of the stone way or the poor neighborhood beyond it.
Jerig rounded a corner and found a fat swath of destruction and in the distance, the huge frenzied lion. Jerig fell to his knees, and stared hopelessly ahead as it shrank to the size of a normal lion. A pair of soldiers wheeled a scorpion past him and loosed its huge arrow down the street. As one of them laid the next shaft down to fire again, the other turned a winch that brought the bowstring back. Before they could fire, they were demolished by a piece of enemy artillery. Jerig's eyes filled with tears, definitely put there by the ash and smoke in the air. They slid down his cheek, cutting a clear path through the dirt and dust that smeared his face. Arrows and spears flew by but he barely noticed. He watched as the lion grew smaller and smaller, taking huge strides toward the western jungle, a mass of twisted roots and branches said to be brimming with demons and strange creatures, remnants of The Blackening. Anger festered in Jerig’s chest, where his heart had been. Before he knew it he was on his feet. In a matter of strides he sprinted through the ruined streets and found himself outside the walls. The grass blew gently in the wind, but for where it had been flattened by the cat’s huge paws. Jerig raced across the plain and broke into the jungle. The air pushed in on him and the musty smell of the trees filled his nose. He pushed through branches and jumped over fallen logs, his fists curled into tight balls. His legs covered enough ground to make up for their inaction in the streets. Jerig found himself in a clearing. The jungle concealed everything behind shadow, but a beam of sunlight stabbed through the canopy to make a small pool on the ground about his feet. Jerig stayed in the pool for but a moment before plunging back into the shadows, but before he could break through the tree line a large black wolf came prowling out of the wood, licking blood from its muzzle. Its yellow eyes swept from one side to another before it caught Jerig in its sights. Jerig stopped short at the sight of the hound. The wolf growled, baring its scarlet teeth. Back arched, it snapped at him, padding closer, eyes fixed forward. Jerig stepped back slowly, his heart thunder in his ears. The gathering clouds blocked out the sun and the clearing became grey and full of shadow. The wolf’s yellow eyes looked him up and down. The sound of his surroundings faded under the steady breathing of the hound before him and the sound of his own blood pulsing through his ears. The wolf pounced, bounding toward him. Jerig turned and ran back the way he had come. His lungs burned from the rising smoke. His legs ached. Everything hurt.
He leapt over a fallen tree, but tumbled on a rogue root offered up by the jungle and before he could mouth a word of pain the wolf was on him. It sank its long teeth into the soft flesh, tearing at his throat, ripping flesh from bone. He sputtered, the taste of his own blood ripe on his tongue. The wolf gave a pleased grumble as it ripped away the meat from Jerig’s neck and shoulder. The savaging lasted only a few agonizing seconds. When it was over, Jerig lay in a pool of his own blood, drowning as the world grew dark around him. The hound came back. Rain began to speckle his face as he gasped for breath. With nothing he could do, Jerig resigned to the beast's jaws. His eyelids grew heavy. As the world and its sights and sounds and smells began to fade, the beast lapped at his cheeks with its tongue. It sniffed around his ears and his nose and gave the inside of his nostrils a cleaning. He grew cold. Finally everything went black.