Thank you to everyone who provided feedback along this exciting journey!!
I have placed a Book Balloon on the novel for anyone wanting a little credit for reading the earlier chapters.
The soldiers marched towards the narrow passage at the top of the stairs. Respecting the chain of command, Jocasta insisted Wolf go first. He poked his head outside, peering over a bleak landscape. He pulled himself over the ash mound at the threshold and slid down the other side.
His first sensation was one of heat. Everything was painfully hot to touch. He expected this, but the sights greeting him he was not prepared for. It was like an artist’s conception of Helle. The city was gone, replaced by a smoldering, barren wasteland. Only vacant hulks remained, resembling charred skeletons. Wisps of smoke gently caressed these former buildings, twisting upwards into a darkened, ash-laden sky. Structures of brick and stone still sat stubbornly, but all works of wood had burnt away.
The aqueducts had fallen. Residual streams birthed black rivers of sludge. As the water ran down the hills, larger streams formed, dredging the charred remains of the city’s denizens who had not escaped the holocaust. Wolf’s stomach turned, attempting to adjust to the sickening visions. Charred wood and burnt flesh offered a pervasive stench, penetrating everything. People choked on air, heavy with ash particulates, and, although it was well before evening, they walked through an eerie twilight with no sign of a sun that ought to be at three-quarters of its arc.
Wolf contemplated the unfolding of events. A great plume of burning ash had ravaged the eastern part of the city. Few portions lay untouched. The devastation cascaded in a conical pattern, as it swept past the acropolis. More than half the city lay burried or utterly destroyed, including their position atop Malden Heights. A great swath of countryside smoldered as well, with forest fires blazing in the distance. Food shortages would be a serious problem in the coming weeks.
Alcuin gasped. “In all my years, I’ve never seen such a sight! Nor could I have imagined such devastation. Poets and bards have yet to capture anything approaching this in their artful descriptions. No doubt, they will not be able to do this disaster justice … and we are better for it.”
Most in the path of the searing ash had perished, burnt to death, or smothered. Yet, incredibly, Wolf saw survivors, the poor wretches wandering in the distance, looking drunken or confused. From his vantage point, they resembled ants. They moved collectively towards the waterfront.
An eerie silence greeted the survivors. Like snow, the ash dampened all noise. There were no birds; they had all either perished or been decieved into thinking night had fallen. Wolf found it distrubing, yet oddly peaceful.
Ships anchored at the docks were scorched, their sails burnt to cinders. Some drifted aimlessly throughout the harbor, manned by a dead crew. Some still burned, while others smoldered as blackened hulls, skeletons of their once former glory. Ironically, the wars being fought around the world spared most of the Navy from destruction. Only a few warships had been unlucky enough to be in port at the time. Small boats had fared better; they had been able to disembark faster, with a few acheiving a safe distance.
Wolf wondered if Tidus was on one of those boats, then realized he didn’t care. His next thought fell upon Archenon. He wondered if his powers extended to charming incinerating clouds of ash. He turned, searching the crowd for the man, but the rogue was gone. Wolf carried only vague, jumbled recollections of the earthquake, since all had been chaos. When focusing on one’s own survival, it was easy to lose track of others, and Wolf could not remember when he had last seen the man. Had the rogue made it out? Had he perished in the abyss? Had he followed Sigfried? Wolf could not remember. It was difficult to think after all he had been through.
One thing was clear – there was nothing left for them to do in Malden. Their enemies could be anywhere. Or everywhere. Perhaps they were watching them right now.
Ketri appeared at Wolf’s elbow. “What now, sire?”
Wolf ignored her use of the respective title. In a loud voice, he said, “We head North … to destiny!”
“What about Sigfried?” Demelza asked.
“I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
“Wolf!” shouted a voice. At the bottom of the hill about a furlong away, a lone figure stood waving. He was covered in ash, a common appearance for anyone still living, but there was no mistaking his identity. It was Sigfried.
“You see!” Wolf said, smiling at the dwarves. “Such a resourceful lad! I never doubted him!” He pretended to have expected this outcome, but in truth he had wondered if he would ever see the boy again. Sigfried could have as easily fallen to his death or been trapped somewhere, buried under tons of rock and ash while trying to discover another way out. Or he could have just decided to go his own way. Wolf knew Virriel was a draw for the boy, but the lad was capricious if nothing else, and it was impossible to predict what would happen if the Black Dragon came knocking upon his door. Using that drug was more like a sentence; plaguing all users with a struggle that for would last a lifetime, if not killing them outright.
As they approached the boy, it was clear he was fixed on some endeavor. Frantically, he dug with an improvised tool, a bowl of some sort.
“Someone’s trapped in here!” he said. “I heard him!” Sigfried knelt before a building partially buried in ash.
Wolf listened. Indeed, he could hear sounds like one trapped, attempting to get out. He dropped beside Sigfried and dug with his gloved hands. The dwarves helped too. Before long, a small team of people worked together, clearing a space before a store front window. Eventually a wall of caked ash gave way, revealing a wiry, diminutive man. People cheered.
Sigfried threw out his arm, but at first the man did not take it; instead, babbling his gratitude. Wolf realized the man was blind.
Sigfried grabbed his arm and pulled him from the building. Clad in filthy rags, the man gave his saviors hugs. Ketri gave him some water before he could speak.
“My name is Caldriss,” he said. “Thank you for saving me from a horrible fate.”
“You’re blind!” Sigfried said in a tone of utter disbelief.
“Yes, son,” Caldriss laughed. “You can see far better than I.”
“What happened?” Wolf asked.
“When the mountain exploded, I knew there was little time, and a blind man has little hope of flight.” The old man chuckled, seemingly amused he had cheated death despite being so disadvantaged. “I know the baker who owns this building. A good man. He would provide me with charitable scraps at the end of his workday. I lost my sight long ago and would have perished without his kindness. He was out when the catastrophe stuck. I heard people speaking in panicked voices. Many talked of fleeing the city. Some suggested racing to the docks. As a frail blindman, I knew I would be trampled to death if I tried that option. My only chance lay in taking shelter here. I closed what hatches I could and crawled into the dormant oven at the end of the kitchen. Those bricks are meant to reflect heat inside when baking bread, but I know those ovens are surrounded by tons of earth and stone several feet thick. Since there was no fire inside, I knew it would be the best place to insulate me from the heat of the approaching ash outside. Rather ironic, wouldn’t you say?”
Wolf found himself nodding in agreement before realizing the stupidity of using non-verbal affirmations on a blind man.
“I hoped I would be able to weather the storm,” Caldriss continued, “And somehow, I did. But then began the perilous matter of digging out. That was when this fine young man heard my cries and called you over to help. Without him, I would surely be dead. I want to thank everyone. I am grateful to you all for saving my life.”
People were gracious enough to tell the man he owed them nothing. Most shook his hand and left. Soldiers, however, are a superstitious lot, relying on omens and augury. Wolf knew this, and, therefore, it came as no surprise to him when many rubbed the bald man’s head for good luck, considering him exceptionally blessed for having survived the deadly disaster.
Sigfried spoke with Cladriss and Wolf retreated a few steps to give the two some privacy, since the two seemed to have formed a special bond. Even with the distance, though, he could still hear their conversation.
“I want you to have something,” Sigfried said. He handed the man a gold aureus. “Make sure you don’t get cheated.”
As Cladriss ran his fingers over the coin, his blank stare took on a look of incredulity chased by joy. “Surely, this can’t be! You gave me a Runchy!”
“How did you know?” Sigfried asked, surprised, and pleased at the same time.
“Despite my age, my sense of touch is quite fine. I can read the contours of any coin. I recall seeing Runcheon’s face when I still had sight, and since the presiding emperor is always on the aureus, I immediately realized your generosity.”
“Protect it, friend. Go to a church. Have a priest convert it to denarii for you. Most holy men can still be trusted. Maybe if you agree to a tithe, he’ll open an account for you in your name and hold your money. That would be far safer than having to withdraw money from a bank and risk being robbed once you step outside. A blind man presents an attractive target for thieves.”
“Good advice! Thank you, my son! May Seydor bless you!” The older man hugged Sigfried, the latter awkwardly returning the embrace. “I’ve a nephew who owns a farm West of here. Hopefully, he’ll allow me to stay the night. Then we’ll see where the wind carries me. Farewell, my friend.”
“May you walk the path of the light,” Sigfried replied. He looked over his shoulder and noticed Wolf. The boy shrugged, and Wolf nodded approvingly.
“Looks like you found your way out,” Wolf said.
“Yeah, it wasn’t so bad. Had to clear away some boulders and do a bit of digging. Once I fell and thought I would drown in the ash … but I made it.”
“I’m happy you did. Alcuin said you’d be fine. And now that we’ve found you, we can leave this accursed city!”
“Yes, there’s nothing left for any of us here,” Sigfried agreed.
Wolf thought of Atelka a moment, then responded, “Nope, not any longer.”
The Stoneseekers and the remainder of the elite Athersparian Guard negotiated the streets, moving together through a city resembling an apocalyptic dreamscape. Often wading through knee-deep ash, they breathed air of poor quality. Many used their canteens to water strips of cloth, wrapping them around their faces.
The further they went, the more relief permeating their ranks. All yearned to achieve the city gates and distance themselves from this incident. This unspoken, shared objective elevated the group’s collective morale, despite the destruction all around. Even the misery captured upon the faces of the scant survivors did little to dampen their spirits.
As they marched, the soldiers sang ribald songs, a practice Jocasta tolerated despite the derogatory portrayal of the female gender many of the lines carried.
The formidable group gathered followers, an incessant stream of survivors swelling their ranks. The appearance of a large procession further attracted more and the farther they went, the more their numbers grew. Refugees assumed the man leading was their savior, and Wolf did not have the heart to disabuse them. Some looked as if hope was the only thing keeping them alive.
Ralf slept most of the journey. The dwarves dragged him along using the stretcher as a sled. The fact that they were roughly the same height ensured a smoother ride. It worked well too, far easier than carrying him. In fact, the soft ash offered a fairly gentle ride, yielding more easily than snow. And, like snow, it damped all noise, providing an ironic tranquility.
Buildings continued to burn along the way, some yielding as the wood of a supporting beam finally burned through. Resembling cannon fire, billowing clouds of ash would roll outwards to add their pollution to the sky on these occasions.
Shards of blue appeared here and there on the horizon, but for the most part the heavens and earth were blanketed in gray with the occasional red cloud occupying the skyline like a scene out of some prophetic text describing the end of the world. Wolf once enjoyed such mythology. He loved reading about seas boiling and clouds raining blood. But today, he liked those stories less, regarding the landscape with a mixture of wonder and terror. The sobering truth was half the city lay buried under smoldering ash, offering a grim shroud for untold thousands.
Wearing an expression of determination, he did not entirely feel, Wolf waded through the dunes of ash. He looked forward to heading North. Away from this disaster. Away from this place he associated with failure, despite what he told the others.
Without fail, dark thoughts intruded upon his consciousness to plague him. Despite his best efforts, he could never banish them for long.
Malden is destroyed. Our largest port city, vital for trade along the Reintrank, is no more. Where will the Navy dock when it returns from overseas? Kingsport?
This event will devastate the economy. How much will it cost to rebuild Malden? We are at war with Vanadia, with conflict looming in the Border Lands. A fine mess! Not to mention civil unrest in Xanadu! What will become of the men garrisoned there?
Wolf could no longer bear his thoughts alone. Perhaps unaware of what he was doing he began to voice them. “How will the Crown find the resources to pay for the massive relief effort this disaster will require?” he muttered. “We can’t levy another tax on a people impoverished by the last one! And what happens when all these refugees head North to Aachen? Thousands of hungry mouths to feed, all needing somewhere to stay. We can’t even guarantee their safety along the main travel roads! Will the beasts lurking in the wilderness grow bolder now that a seemingly endless supply of food is wandering past?”
Sigfried drew alongside Wolf. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing, Sigfried. I’m just reviewing the complex political challenges Etruria now faces. Not to mention the ramifications of the economic disaster we helped create.”
“I see,” Sigfried said, looking over his shoulder.
“Nothing will ever be the same again … our world has changed…”
Sigfried slowed his pace, falling back, only too eager to spark up a conversation with Demelza. Wolf was just as happy. Despite muttering aloud, he wanted to think these things out himself anyway. He was the type of person who needed time to formulate his views before expressing them to others.
And who will preside over this disaster? Who will take charge at the capitol? The Grand Theophanist is not a strong man. Will Janicus try to seize power? Is he daring enough to stage a coup? He’s certainly stupid enough! He’s got nearly five legions at his disposal, and since he pays them himself, not the Senate, they are completely loyal … when will they change that moronic policy? At this important juncture in our history, will Janicus Kriegenschwert threaten the land with Civil War? Will he try to put underqualified idiots like Tidus in charge of important offices? Will he tear our country apart when we need unity the most?
Wolf hoped not. He would like to give his uncle credit, but he knew his fears were more than justified. Rubbing his eyes, he paused and took a deep breath.
Virriel drew alongside him.
“Where are you taking us?” she asked.
“To the Western gate. It’s less likely to be flooded with ash. We need to head North to Aachen as soon as possible. There’s nothing for us here.”
“Shall we take Reintrank? I’ve been talking with Ralf; he says he has a barge.”
“Had a barge, more likely. The harbor is in ruins. His craft is probably kindling by now. Or perhaps it still burns as we speak.”
He glanced over his shoulder and watched the dwarves dragging the sled bearing the wounded man, mercifully unconscious. “Besides, we have a small army now. I don’t think river travel is viable. We would be easily followed, and I’d rather not risk the phalanx drowning in some ill-fated river accident. It happens more often than you’d think, certainly more often than is reported … from what I’ve seen as a roadwarden.”
“Well, what then?” she asked, slightly flustered.
“We march like regular soldiers. After leaving the city, you can heal Ralf further before we buy a horse and a cart to assist with our transportation needs. It will take only a week to walk to Aachen. We can stop at Inns along the way to ask for news. One thing is certain – we need to leave the city. Looters will gather shortly. It’s likely the thieves of the Devil’s Den survived this disaster. Many hideouts are deep underground, ideal protection from this disaster. If we were able to dig out, so can they. Malden Reserve is likely flooded with ash, and, if not, it will be flooded with survivors, the panicked wealthy trying to secure their money before fleeing the city. They all use bodyguards, and there’s no telling what desperate orders they may give. Things will get ugly once gangs stalk patrons as they leave. The Maldener Guard is supposed to intervene in moments of disaster, but who knows if they will be mobilized … probably not in time to prevent the inevitable slaughter. Regardless, we don’t want to be anywhere near the bank.”
Virriel said nothing, appearing thoughtful as she digested the information.
“I had considered the possibility of downsizing our party for faster travel,” Wolf continued. “But I think that would be a bad idea. Although we could better manage a surreptitious flight, our whereabouts may already be known to our enemies. In which case, we want strength, not stealth. Once we leave the city, the Athersparian Guard will be our most useful weapon, especially if our enemies are planning an ambush.”
“Our enemies?” Virriel prompted.
“Sure! You don’t think they’re going to give up, do you? Who knows what horrors Olivejem is planning this very moment!”
“Let’s hope he’s near death,” said Virriel, the words sounding incongruous from her righteous mouth. “At the very least, he’ll need time to regroup. He lost his coven, his henchmen, and, most importantly, his status as Chancellor.”
“And yet he still must live,” Wolf added with a sobering glance. “We did not find his body, and no one would have removed it from that hidden lair. If he were dead, we would have found him."
“Discretion is a good policy, I agree …”
“And who knows where that rotten wizard landed. It is probably too much to hope that he was destroyed. That fiend is probably already scheming to recover the stone. And he does not know we no longer have it. Ralf shot that bastard in the eye, and the fiend shrugged it off like a bee sting. He can throw fire, cast rocks upon the wind, and summon lightning. He can even steal someone’s mind. And he can channel eldritch powers to direct hideous beasts from the Aether. What chances do we have against that?”
“Keep your voice down,” Virriel admonished. “People are scared as it is. You’re our leader; you must not show weakness at this vital moment. I know it’s tough. We’ve all been through a lot today …”
“And then, there’s Archenon,” Wolf said.
Virriel bristled, as if annoyed by the possibility he was not listening.
“Archenon?” she prompted in a confused tone.
“Yes, that rogue works for Relgash. He’s all politeness and smiles … until you stand in his way, then watch for his knife to slide between your ribs.”
“Really? I … I did not get that impression. You really think him capable?”
“These people will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives, Virriel. None of the Dark Lords, not even Relgash, will tolerate failure for very long. Our adversaries will only become more desperate. We must be wary of anyone talking about stones. ‘Trust no one!’ That was what Seydor said and for good reason …”
“What’s this?” Jocasta asked, interrupting their conversation with a mischievous smile. “Anything good being discussed?”
Stationed at the back with her men, she had powered her way to the front with all the strength and energy of a military commander used to campaigning. She was obviously accustomed to difficult travel and skilled in leading others.
“Nothing,” Wolf replied dismissively. “Just strategy. Fears, worries, doubts… the good stuff they pay competent leaders to consider.”
Jocasta clapped her hands together and laughed. “Oh! You are a rich man, Wolf Kantwohner. Rich in intellect and experience. I’ve known you less than a day, but I can see why Swordmaster Keels holds you in such high regard.”
Not good at bearing praise, Wolf blushed. “You are too kind,” he replied.
“Good to have you with us, Jocasta,” Virriel said. “Looks like you’ll need new clothes before you head back to your father’s kingdom.”
“Look who’s talking,” Wolf said. He helped Virriel brush ash from her tunic. As he ran his hand over her sleeve, he felt something.
“Hold still, Virriel,” he said.
“Eh, what …”
Wolf inspected her arm. Something hard violated the fabric – a small pin. It bore two nesting ‘v’ shapes.
"What’s this?” Wolf asked.
“Never seen it before,” Virriel replied with alarm creeping into her voice.
“Who could have put it there?” Wolf mused aloud.
“Perhaps I can offer an explanation.” It was Alcuin, eavesdropping on the conversation. “Malden is a big place,” he began. “Yet your foes found you immediately. Do you think it chance that they appeared at that Café when you surfaced?”
“Good point,” Wolf said. “I hadn’t given it much thought. But now that you mention it, the odds are staggering … the likelihood of that encounter is rather absurd. Not to mention Tidus had his men in strategic positions before we arrived. How could he have known that?”
“Exactly, my son,” Alcuin said, no doubt pleased to have his student proceeding down the avenue of thought he likely followed.
“I saw Tidus earlier,” he continued. “Despite the beating you gave him; I still recognized his face.” Alcuin paused to smile, and Wolf grinned. “And since I know of his affiliation with your uncle, I followed him. I wondered if he would lead me to our mysterious visitor, the kind gentleman who pushed me down a flight of stairs.”
“The vainglorious idiot in the burgundy cloak,” Wolf added. “Kalus, if I remember correctly. I enjoyed repaying his violence the next day.”
“Exactly. Well, I followed Tidus. He’d been going around asking for your whereabouts at the public houses and inns. Had a good sketch of your face too. It was not long before he encountered Archenon. I eavesdropped and heard him tell Tidus he could lead him right to you … his price being a worthless artifact … a green stone.”
“Scoundrel!” Wolf exclaimed. “Oh! The treachery of that man!” He turned to Virriel. “See? This is what I was talking about. You can’t trust anyone. He allowed us to go before him at the Olivejem estate because he planned to steal it from us after we did all the hard work for its recovery.”
“I told you, he’s a treacherous bastard!” Sigfried spat. “I warned you.”
Wolf nodded, an image suddenly forming in his mind, a flashback to the moment when Archenon first introduced himself. He had taken Virriel’s hand and kissed it, but he lingered a long time.
“Archenon was tracking you,” Wolf exclaimed. “He placed that pin on your arm when he bent forward to kiss your hand in what appeared to be a gallant gesture. That perfidious swine!”
Alcuin nodded his approval, perhaps allowing his student to arrive at the conclusion he had already determined.
“I see,” Virriel commented. “He played us well.”
To Wolf’s annoyance, instead of seething with anger, she bore a wistful look upon her face.
“Well, he shan’t track us anymore!” Wolf said. Taking the pin, he cast it deep within a pile of ash.
“Hey!” Virriel exclaimed, biting her lip. Perhaps she thought the right to dispose the item ought to be hers alone. But the moment passed. “You’re right,” she agreed. “We must be on our guard. And our list of enemies keeps growing.”
“Well, fortunately your list of friends keeps growing too,” said Jocasta. Virriel looked at her and smiled her appreciation. Wolf’s heart swelled; for it appeared she had accepted Jocasta as a member of the team.
“Let’s hope the latter trend surpasses the former,” Wolf said. “For the Contest is only just beginning.”
“Is this the swordmaster who defeated your friend, Keels?” Demelza asked. “The one you raved about in bed the other night?”
Jocasta raised an eyebrow, a playful hint at accusation.
“Uh, yeah, when we shared a bed out of necessity, you mean. And I do recall telling you then that the Athersparians trained naked with women beside the men.”
“That’s correct,” Jocasta averred. “It is our way. To us, it is natural, although you correctly assume that occasionally, it can become … distracting.”
Jocasta smiled and introductions were forthcoming. Wolf wondered how he could have failed to introduce everyone earlier. Then again, they had been fleeing an erupting volcano right before dodging falling masonry and resisting a giant chasm in the middle of an earthquake. Normal social etiquette need not apply under those circumstances.
They approached the Western Gates, negotiating the chaos and suffering all around. Violent rioters gathered, some looking for any reason to lash out at people. The Athersparian phalanx assumed their formation and pushed past these dissidents without difficulty. Wolf verified what he long suspected – an advancing wall of overlapping shields bristling with spears works wonders against an angry mob.
Once outside, the party turned North towards Aachen, sharing a common goal – to seek the next stone – the Stone of Man.