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The world is on fire and I don’t know where to turn as the great city of Nasahara burns around me.


Dukmanu’s meat stall pops and sizzles as lamb fat melts from the bone. Vatte’s dresses, once setting the city's fashion on fire, now self-destruct, consumed by hungry flame. The Cathedral of St. Pavstri, once standing watch over great Nasahara, now smolders in a ruined a pile of board and brick.


I run.


I run through smoke-clogged alleys and ash-covered streets. I run below falling timbers and past blazing homes. I run from the slash-and-burn of the mighty Kotakaya, their awful visages made more monstrous by the vastness of their shadow and flame.


I must seek somewhere safe to flee—my mind urges me to hide—but it seems there’s nothing now that’s not set aflame. My world screams in blazing orange and angry red, and it’s clear that now…there’s no surer name for Nasahara than Hell.

Psst...over here!” hisses a voice.


I nearly leap out of my skin at the noise, shedding five of my nine lives as I imagine Kotakayan specters with torch and sword coming swift to steal my life. Instead, I find a raven-furred stranger peering at me from a lone sewer grate, eyes inches above the ground. The creature’s fingers wiggle, its arm jerking up towards me, beckoning.


“Hurry! If you keep standing there, we’ll both be caught!” I glance quickly left, then right, but there’s nothing waiting above for me here except the raging inferno.


Though laden with terror, I take my chances with what awaits within the underground. I grasp the stranger's outstretched hand, slipping quietly through the wrought-iron rails of the dingy sewer grate.


Suddenly, there are more hands yanking at me—seizing, grabbing—desperately trying to pull me into the black underbelly of Nasahara's streets. I try to scream, but another strange hand silences it before it can escape, covering my mouth and quieting the howl. I twist and I flail, but I’m pulled into the darkness.


“Stop it!” hisses the dark stranger. “We’re Anagativa! Anagativa!” As my eyes adjust to the murky black of the sewer, I see others standing nearby, soot-covered and singed—a dozen different faces and furs, all Anagativan.


It's the first time in many hours that I let myself feel as…at least, as safe as anyone can be in this forsaken city, anyway. The hollow faces peering nervously around at me seem to understand. Certain now that I won't scream out, they release me, and I slump to the damp ground, relishing in the faint chill of the cold sewer floor beneath my hot, weary bones.


This may be a stagnant, sewage-covered salvation, but it’s salvation all the same. I am thankful. “Where are we?” I ask.


“Don’t know,” answers the stranger who called out to me, a Myrtunan judging by her black fur. “Some patch of sewer they haven’t found...yet. But count yourself lucky I saw you; with that fire, I’m sure there are plenty I’ve missed.”


I mull on her words for several long moments. Lucky. I wouldn’t have described myself as such a mere five minutes ago. I’m not as lucky as those who avoided this devastating experience completely, but compared to those still outside… I shudder.

“Lucky...yes,” I murmur.


I look over at my savior and slowly realize that she isn’t Myrtunan after all. Peeking through her soot-saturated clothing is patches of brown fur…the tabby-like coat that clearly marks her as Nisargan.


“What’s your name?” I ask.


“Mitsana…not that it matters. We probably won’t live long enough to remember each other’s names.”


“I’m Niveri,” I manage before falling silent amidst the anxious whispers and mewling murmurs of our group. Looking around, I see parents weeping softly for the children that could not be saved in time, and the children too young to comprehend the terrible sacrifice their parents have made.


In the midst of it all sits Mitsana. She’s willing to save us, but she herself has no illusions about survival. She seems a pessimistic optimist, one of those realists who keeps us grounded even as we dare to hope. She sees salvation, and yes still sees doubt too…for Mitsana waits until she’s long since received hope in order to accept it.

“What did we do to deserve this?” I ask. I'm certain if anyone can tell me the truth, it’s Mitsana.


“I don’t know,” she says softly. “I don’t know what anyone could do to deserve this.”


There’s a crack in her armor then—a tear that forms in her golden-green eyes and trails softly down her cheek. She catches it with a clawed finger and her eyes fall on me for a moment before she pulls away again with a wipe of the eye and a snort of the nose.


And just like that, her armor’s back up. She does what she needs to survive.



All of a sudden, a frantic scream erupts outside our safe haven and we rush to the grate. On the smoke-clogged street above, a young Anagativa runs, her eyes wide, her cloak whipping wildly behind her.


I reach out to offer her a hand, but Mitsana’s on me, pulling me back with a force I wouldn’t have ascribed her. The power behind the gesture sends me sprawling to the sewer floor. My head swims, the room floats, and the terrified villager rushes by above. A second later, so do two pairs of angry Kotakayan boots.


“Bleeding whiskers!” curses Mitsana, both fear and relief swimming in her eyes at the same time. “You could have given us could have killed us all! You must use your head, Niveri!”


She glares at me with the intense, phosphorous eyes of our kind, and she’s not the only one; I feel the weight of the others' glowing eyes on me too, threatening to press me down into the thick, ankle-deep water until my lungs fill and I can no longer breathe.


I swallow hard and shake my head, pushing myself slowly to my feet. “But...but they're going to kill her,” I say.


“Yeah,” Mitsana replies after a moment. “They are going to kill her.” Her eyes fall to the grate, watching the inferno as it continues to feast on the world above. It’s senseless…and terrible…but there’s nothing either of us can do about it. We can save one life, maybe two, but then what? There are so many more who will die, and there's no way we can stop the flames let alone the Kotakaya.


There’s only one thing we can do...only one thing I can do. Broken and weary, I join Mitsana and the other rebels in solidarity, far from the flames, distant from the roar. I don’t know where to turn, but I find myself laying my head on Mitsana's shoulder, craving the proximity and relishing in the small, simple comfort.


Despite herself, Mitsana’s head joins mine—perhaps she too craves the comfort. I realize her hard armor must get unbearably heavy at times, and I feel thankful that she's not only saved my life but that she’s shedding that hardened, heavy armor now to be by my side.


After all, we’re all just strangers here: the lucky ones who fled the fire, who are done running. Below the streets we sit. Below the streets we wait, for the burning—of Nasahara...of our hearts—to end.

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