Chapter 92: City in Flames
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The earthquake rocked the old warehouse, loose shingles raining down off the roof outside to crash and shatter on the damp boardwalk. Junk rained off decrepit tables and shelves, mixing with the trash on the floor. Lorton was thrown off balance and he watched Aretan and the man he was fighting both stumble. The Navanaean man grimaced, as his opponent’s blade dug into his shoulder. The spry and nimble Nelys, unperturbed by whatever massive problem has just appeared elsewhere, drove their blade up and into Aretan’s attacker’s sternum.

The man coughed, stumbled, and was kicked to the ground by Aretan, one hand holding his polearm and the other clutching his bleeding shoulder. The few remaining roughnecks looked just as confused as Lorton was in the aftermath of the shaking.

That’s either good news, or terrible news, thought Lorton grimly as he parried aside a sloppy attack and slashed his own blade across the attacker’s arm. They’d made a solid foothold into the complex where the mint was held, but encountered heavier resistance than he’d expected.

His group was fighting through the packed buildings’ narrow hallways and cramped, rotting rooms of the densest part of upper Riverside. The mint was here, but the operation extended much further, and not all the people they’d fought were Mudrats. The smell of the tide was soaked into the very timbers of places like this. Familiar and abhorrent in equal measure.

Should’ve brought more people. Like there were even more people to bring. He continued, fighting next to one of the few guards he could trust, two of whom now lay dying on the floor nearby. Shoulda, coulda, woulda…

They were winning, but if this fight didn’t seriously tip the balance in the city, there wouldn’t be enough survivors to carry on fighting. Lockmoth would be swept away on a tide of corruption. Look at me, Lorton thought, I’m getting poetic in the face of death. He parried again, and his partner landed a finishing blow.

A glance at the odd duo of recruits showed them to be faring well. Nelys had defended Aretan while the man fashioned a strip of cloth into a rough bandage over his shoulder. Thankfully, the Navanaean man seemed able to move the limb. Losing the former merc captain would be a blow to their morale Lortan wasn’t sure they could afford.

Aftershocks rattled the building again. A few more shingles dropped; another good guard went down. Their enemies, however, were flagging. Why hadn’t they run? Oh, sure, a few had, but what gave the others this kind of loyalty? What was the threat that kept them fighting?

Not a minute later, Lorton and Nelys were tying up the last of the surrendered group. Among them was a small, rat-faced man who’d tried to slink off until Nelys had kneecapped them. In between pained blubbering he shouted that “his boss” would “see all of you dead once the night was through.” Ominous, if it didn’t come across as the ravings of a desperate sycophant.

Officer Lorton glanced around the room at the dead and dying, jaw set and face hard. Great, another bad memory burned into my mind. Doesn’t get any easier, he thought, but I don’t get why they didn’t surrender. They’d just get sprung later anyway.”

Those thoughts would have to wait. “Nelys!” he shouted.

The small rogue jumped to attention. “Yeah, boss?”

“Go to the nearest church—we might be able to save some of these people. Tell them whatever you need to that’ll get them down here.” Lorton glanced at Aretan whose shoulder wound had soaked the impromptu bandage with blood. The man’s dark complexion looked a little pale in the flickering light.

Nelys jumped up and started to dart off.

“Wait—” Lorton shouted and they stopped on a silver. “Take Aretan with you. He’ll need his shoulder looked at.”

“Sir…” Aretan started to object, then paused. “I understand. I will be more use healed in case more fighting breaks out. I’d give the same order to one of my own.”

Lorton nodded. Good man. He watched to two of them go, glancing at the dull, rusted metal contraption that’d blown this whole thing wide open. There’s something else going on here, but I can’t say what.

***

Further away, Rodrik’s team had just cleared out an auxiliary Mudrat base when the earthquake hit. There’d been more resistance than he’d thought—some other people with red accents instead of the usual gray. Good thing the Gelles Company branch master never did anything in half measures.

As the rumble faded and he walked out into the night, he smelled burning and his eyes went wide. The demon. Shit. Zarenna must’ve played us all!

The Gelles Company branch leader didn’t know exactly what the demon had planned, but he’d never truly trusted her. She acted nice enough that she’d almost fooled him. And now, he’d have to pay the price for giving her a chance—no, his city would.

He turned to the smell of smoke and saw, over the buildings, a blinding flash edged green and crimson light up the night sky. That power. If Firalex and Zarenna hadn’t been lying… could he even stop her? Rodrik shook his head. He had to try.

“Company!” he shouted to the assembled mercs. “Head to the fire. Those with magic weapons move first! I want the scouts to split off. Go inform the Church we’ve a demon on the loose, get people awake and to safety, and let someone know the mess here needs cleaning up!” Then, under his breath he added, “and may Dhias help us all.”

One woman with dark hair and a wicked set of scars under her eye, dashed off first. Her dark eyes were hard and wet.

Rodrik turned and sprinted after her, the rest of his company following suit. The people they’d left behind would probably live. Well, those who weren’t already dead. He’d lost a fair few of his own on this excursion but there’d be even more hell to pay if he’d led his people to death under false pretenses.

I won’t let her get away with this! Dhias, how could I have been so naïve?

***

The last of the company members stumbled back into the hallway just as the wave of rubble collapsed into the room where the tear had been. Fira had one of Seyari’s arms around her shoulder and Salvador had the other.

Their tired, hurt group stumbled and ran down the hallway, over the blackened corpses the demon Zarenna had left behind. Groans and cracks and a crash behind gave rise to a fear that the whole place would collapse and entomb them, but beyond the threshold, the ancient stonework held.

Fira glanced down at the “half-angel.” Silver hair stuck to her sweat-soaked face, her mouth placid in her unconsciousness. To drive oneself past the point of mana exhaustion… Fira’s thoughts drifted around the woman as they retreated farther inside. They suspected Seyari was more than half an angel, and to pull a spell like that off hinted at many years of combat training. Her mastery of several weapons added to the years in Fira’s mind. She has to be older than she appears. Regardless of Seyari’s true origins, now wasn’t the time. Muffled thumps and a rushing sound shook bits of mortar out of the ceiling.

“Who’s hurt?” Fira asked sharply.

Several people raised their hands. Fire had seen Drin limping, the armored woman among the hands raised—situation serious enough to where bravado could be deadly. Someone had a clearly broken leg, leaned up against another. No other injuries looked severe at a glance.

“Healer’s out of commission,” Fira shrugged Seyari lightly. More thumps pounded from far above. “We move, then. Evidence can wait. If this place survives, we’ll get it later and if it doesn’t, we’ll dig it out.”

“What of those we’ve tied up down here?” Salvador asked from right next to her, still holding Seyari.

“Too much risk to take. I won’t see anyone shanked, or an escape attempt doom us all. They knew their lot. We’ll be back here later tonight if there’s a ‘here’ later tonight.” Fira’s throat felt dry as they said the words. The confidence didn’t match their inner turmoil. Never gets easier.

Salvador nodded and muttered a quiet prayer. Some of the others did the same.

“Alright, now move!” Fira shouted and stumbled forward, others falling in line. “The way we came in’s too close to the collapse, so we’ll go out the way Zarenna’s group came in. Keep open wounds out of the muck as best you can, and I’ll make sure a healer looks everyone over as soon as we’re out.”

The room where Zarenna had entered had a Zarenna-shaped hole straight through the bricks, horn marks on the ceiling and all. I’m glad she’s on our side, Fira thought.

They weren’t the only one thinking about their new demon ally.

“Do you think she can win against that monster?” someone asked when they’d made it into the noisome outer tunnel.

“I think so,” Tren answered, robes pulled up to his waist to keep them out of the muck. “I hope so.”

“What even is she?” someone else asked. “I’ve fought a demon, once. Lesser thing still, but are all greater demons like her?”

“No,” Fira answered. “They really aren’t.”

***

Aretan raced through the packed city streets, shoulder throbbing angrily. He’d tied the bloody sash tighter, but it hardly helped do more than staunch the bleeding.

“City guard!” he shouted. “Make room!”

No one listened. The panicked crowd surged away from where fire had lit up the night sky. A few people, far too curious for their own good, were headed toward the epicenter. Aretan had recognized Zarenna’s flames in the sky while they were still fading away and heard a roar that sounded like his demon friend. But why? Surely she had good reason, but what of innocents? What is so dire that she was left with no other choice? Also, just how much stronger is she than the demon whom he saw felled by a single sting from a titan scorpion?

Questions surged in time to the throbbing of his shoulder. Ahead, Nelys darted through the crowd, sheathed knife in a reverse grip. A poke there, a nudge there, and they helped part the crowd for the injured former merc.

A smell best described as burning rotted fish (which it may well have been) drifted from where the fire had erupted. There was little heat on the wind with it, thankfully, and no plumes of dark smoke threatened to blot out the stars that peeked through the scattered clouds high above. The moon was half tonight—just enough light to see by.

Aretan strode quickly on, drawing ever closer. The crowed thinned as he and Nelys approached. A glance behind saw several figures in red and white robes moving through the crowd in the same direction. The Church of Dhias.

They were a few blocks back, farther up the hill Aretan and Nelys were now running free down. We have to get there before them and warn Zarenna. And find out what horrible thing has happened.

Someone from the last of the crowd shouted for Aretan’s attention. He was an elderly man helped along by a younger woman who bore a familial resemblance.

“Stop!” he shouted. “There’s demons fighting ahead! You’ll be killed!”

Aretan shook his head. “I think—”

“We have to help the good one!” Nelys interrupted with a sharp nod.

“The good one? Bo-la-you! There’s no such thing!”

“Father,” the woman said, “she saved us.”

“She didn’t save my—my…” the old man’s words died in tears.

“We need to go. I’m sorry,” the woman shook her head at Aretan and Nelys. She helped the old man get moving again.

“Go.” Aretan nodded and grabbed for his polearm as a boom shook the street.

The woman nodded tearfully and moved quickly with the old man down the street and away. Wordlessly, Aretan and Nelys took off again, their speed renewed. What did Zarenna save those two from? The ground shook intermittently as they approached. The heavy-hitting sounds of martial combat echoed around the eerily quiet streets. Everyone who was fleeing had already cleared out of this last block. Aretan and Nelys weren’t the first to arrive, and they pushed through the spectators, revealing a scene of utter destruction.

Zarenna, visibly injured, was facing down what could only be described as a charred monstrosity of raw flesh and bone. The other demon, for that was all it could be, was still somehow alive and fighting despite looking like the leavings of a butcher shop. Its two heads, one partially smashed, had jaws open in wordless screams.

Aretan glanced at Nelys and offered a prayer to Aena.

Nelys hand fiddled with their azure pendant nervously. “We gotta help her!”

That it was suicide to enter the ring whose edge still flickered with green-tinged crimson flames need not have been spoken.

“We’ll figure out a way,” Aretan replied, forcing surety into his voice. “She shouldn’t have to fight alone.”

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