Embers flew in Dan’s face as he raced along the first street. Smoke blinded him. Ash caused him to cough, which in turn caused him to stumble. After a moment, Dan stopped running and stood still. He had been following Gideon and the others, but now he couldn’t see them through the smoke. Neither could he hear them over the crackling of flame. He had lost them. He knew where Gideon was headed: towards the keep. He would meet them there.
He ran along the empty street in the direction he had been going, but soon came to a fork. He turned on the spot. It was silent in the narrow street, though the sounds of battle were all about him. It was as if he was separated from the battle, hidden away by the dust and smoke. He looked down the right fork. Nothing but smoke and steadily falling ash met his eyes. He looked down the left fork. Aside from a few flickering flames, it looked no different.
Something moved in the smoke at the end of the street. Dan could see a shadow running, first left, then right, staggering and stumbling. He pulled his gun out and aimed, and then waited for the figure to show itself. Was it friend or foe?
After a moment, the shadow became more defined, then burst from the smoke altogether. It was a kyrie.
“Caela!” Dan cried. She looked lost, looking wildly from side to side. He ran to her.
“Are you all right?” he asked. She didn’t look all right. Her face was blackened with smoke, and ash was caught in her hair. She coughed violently before replying.
“Yes,” she gasped. “I just got lost. I—”
A building exploded right next to them, belching flame and sending stones rocketing through the air. Dan hastily pulled Caela into the cover of the opposite building. They ducked behind a partially demolished wall as fragments of stone pelted them.
Caela continued to stare around herself, looking like a lost child who didn’t know where it was. She looked completely disoriented.
“What’s wrong?” Dan asked her.
She finally looked at him. “It’s just… I didn’t expect to get out of that cell.”
That’s what she was thinking about? At a time like this?
“The orcs were talking about killing us for sport… I guess I had given up.”
She flinched as another building exploded, this one further away. Dan guessed dragons were to blame.
“We’re here now,” he said, taking her by the shoulders. She looked at him. “No one’s giving up. Not me, not Einar, and not you. We can still win this, but we’ve got to keep fighting.”
Caela watched him for a moment. Then a small smile crept onto her face. “Inspiring stuff,” she said.
Dan felt foolish for a moment, realizing how the words had sounded, but Caela smiled again.
“No,” she said, “you’re right. We can still win this. Come on.” She took his hand and pulled him up, and together they dashed from their hiding place, and ran down the street. Caela was leading, and took the right hand fork. They ran through the smoke and falling ash, coughing and dodging flaming debris littering the road. They took another right turn, and then Caela came up short. Stopping beside her, Dan saw why.
Several soulborgs were in the alley, but they were soulborgs the like of which Dan had never seen. They resembled giant rats, nearly as long as Dan was tall. The emblem of Utgar was clear against their metal bodies. They turned glowing red eyes to Dan and Caela as they appeared, and then, chittering with an eerie, metallic sound, rushed them, their metal teeth bared.
Dan and Caela staggered back, tripping over loose bricks and chunks of stone. Dan kicked the first rat which came close enough. His foot connected, but the rat’s jaws closed about his leg, and he felt sharp pricks of pain, as if a dozen needles had entered his leg. Immediately, two more rats sprung at Dan.
He slammed one to the ground with his metal arm, and managed to keep the other rat away from his face. However, the impact knocked him down. Rolling, he slammed his free fist into the rat’s head, and heard a satisfying bending of metal. The rat staggered sideways and fell to the street.
However, more rats had now arrived. Another rat grabbed Dan by his already injured leg, and began tearing at it like a vicious dog. A second rat leapt at Dan’s head, and unable to reach him with its teeth as he kept it at bay, began tearing at his chest and neck with its metal claws. Dan rolled trying to unseat it, but another rat began clawing at his back. Dan’s armor was taking most of the damage, but he was quickly being overwhelmed.
There was a sharp clang, and the weight of the rat left Dan’s back. Another clang, and Dan’s leg was liberated. He pinned the final rat beneath him with his arm, raised himself up on his elbow, and then punched straight down, crushing its head instantly. The rat shivered, and then was still.
“Deathreavers,” Laelia said as Dan looked up. She offered him a hand. “Utgar’s attempt at winning through annoying the alliance.” Dan took her hand, and she pulled him up. He tested his leg. The bites stung a bit, but didn’t seem to impede his walking.
“Where’s Caela?” Dan asked, scanning the alley. Aside from a few remaining deathreavers, which were now running away, the narrow street was empty.
“I never saw her,” Laelia said. She pulled Dan forwards. “Come on: Utgar’s using the deathreavers to smell out anyone who can’t fight. We can’t let them get away.”
Wondering where Caela could have gone, Dan ran after Laelia. They moved into a wider street, choked with smoke, ash built up on the sides of the road. Several fires were burning in nearby houses.
“There!” Dan called, as he saw a metal tail whipping out of sight. The deathreavers had entered a home.
They ran to where the door had once been and charged inside. Black smoke filled the house, and it groaned and creaked with every step they took. There was a crash above them, and, finding the stairs, they ran up them to the second level. Here, Dan saw that three deathreavers had trapped a family of humans.
A boy – no older than fourteen, by Dan’s guess – was holding a sword, ready to slice the first deathreaver who came in range. Behind him, a woman was huddled, her arms circling two small girls. One couldn’t have been older than two.
Without hesitation, Laelia crashed into the nearest deathreaver, her sword swinging down on its exposed back. The deathreaver hissed as the sword rebounded off of its armor, and leapt at Laelia. She evidently had not been expecting it to retaliate so quickly, and went down as it clawed at her face.
Dan tackled the soulborg off of her, trying to get at its head with his metal gloves. The rat squirmed and wriggled as he tried to pin it to the ground, always somehow finding a way out of his grasp, and dodging his blows. It snapped at him over and over, trying to sink its teeth into his metal gloves, and whipping its heavy tail into his ribs. It was all Dan could do just to keep a hold of it.
The wall shattered, and a kyrie, red skin smeared with white ash, rolled onto the floor. Dan doubted he had arrived there on purpose, but he leapt to his feet, saw Laelia, and brandishing his axe, charged her. Laelia deflected the first blow, but then fell as the kyrie tackled her. They struggled on the ground, Laelia punching the kyrie’s ribs.
A second deathreaver leapt on Dan, but he shot his elbow out before it could get a good grip. The edge of his metal glove caught the rat in the stomach, and Dan felt something snap as the rat was flung backwards against the wall.
They might have won. They might also have lost. Dan would never know, because at that moment the building collapsed.
Without warning, the whole first floor seemed to disappear. The second floor, the one they were on, dropped like a rock. For a moment Dan felt weightless. Then he felt pain.
They landed as the floor splintered, slabs of wood breaking off into painful points. All were turned away by Dan’s armor, though they still left bruises. Laelia, who had less armor, was immediately struck in several places. The kyrie she was fighting, however, got the worst of it. A convenient floorboard jutted up, impaling him just as Laelia threw him off of her. The deathreavers seemed uninjured, but they quickly scattered, bursting from the rubble and running for the street.
“Everyone all right?” Dan called, getting to his feet. The boy and his family seemed all right, if shaken. Laelia had a cut going down one arm, but it didn’t seem deep. She got to her feet as well.
“Laelia!” Gideon was standing across the street, and had just spotted them.
Both Laelia and Dan yelled at him at the same time: “Look out!”
Gideon turned, but he was too late: the dragon behind him turned its head, saw him, and lashed out with one massive clawed foot. Gideon was slammed into the street, several long, horribly deep gashes on his chest.
Without hesitation, Dan drew his gun, took careful aim, and fired. A moment later, the bolt of energy found its mark, slamming into the dragon’s head just below its right eye. The dragon roared in pain, and staggered backwards. Wings snapped out from its sides, and, knocking several more buildings to the ground, it took to the air.
Laelia was already at Gideon’s side. Dan rushed to them.
Laelia was crying, the tears falling thick and fast, and it was easy to see why: Gideon’s chest was torn, three long gouges going all the way across it. Blood poured from them, splashing everything, and quickly forming a thick pool beneath Gideon.
Dan turned, scanning the road. Where was Jaseff when you needed him? No one was in sight.
“Gideon!” Laelia cried, choking on her own tears. “Gideon!”
Gideon seemed to be struggling for breath. He managed to raise his head and look at the gashes on his chest. He let his head fall again. “Ah,” he breathed. “Crap.”
Dan didn’t see how Gideon could joke about a thing like this. Apparently neither did Laelia. “You’ll be fine,” she said, her voice shaking. “You’ll be fine, Gideon. Just lie still. You’ll be fine.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself, rather than Gideon.
“Hey,” Gideon said, putting a hand on hers, “I am fine.” He gave her a faint smile.
“Don’t do that,” Laelia said, an edge of fear in her voice. “Don’t do that. You taught me to never give up. Don’t you do it to me.”
“I taught you?” Gideon repeated. “And here I thought you were ignoring me.”
Laelia shook her head. “I would never ignore you,” she whispered.
Gideon sighed, coughing up some blood. “This isn’t giving up, Laelia,” he said. “You can’t keep getting back up. Sometimes you have to know when you’re beaten.”
“But you’re not,” Laelia said. “You’re never beaten. You can’t be.”
Gideon laughed, and then winced in pain. “Well,” he said, gritting his teeth, “a dragon disagrees.”
“No, no… I have to save you!” Laelia cried. “You can’t do this to me.”
Gideon doubled up in pain.
“No!” Laelia screamed. “I’ll save you, Gideon! I’ll save you.”
“You already did,” Gideon whispered. “You already did, Laelia. You… did fine.” He coughed once more, bit down, keeping in a cry of pain, and then let out his breath. His head rolled back against Laelia’s arm.