The world is on fire and I don’t know where to turn.
The great city of Nasahara burns all 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 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 through smoke-clogged alleys and ash-covered streets. I run below falling timbers and past blazing homes. I run away from the slash-and-burn of the mighty Kotakaya, their awful visages made more monstrous by shadow and flame…their laughter and roars chasing me through the terror-filled streets.
I need to find somewhere to hide—my mind urges me to hide—but it seems there’s nothing now that’s not aflame. My world screams in orange and 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, 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 dark Myrtunan peeking at me from a sewer grate, eyes inches above the ground. The shadow’s fingers wiggle and her arm jerks up towards me...beckoning.
“Hurry! If you keep standing there, then we’ll both be caught!” I look left, then right, but there’s nothing waiting for me here but the raging inferno.
Though fearful, I decide to take my chances with what awaits within the basement of Ailur. I take the stranger's outstretched hand, slipping quietly through the rails of the sewer grate. Suddenly, there are more hands yanking at me—seizing, digging—desperately trying to pull me into the black underbelly of the Nasahara.
I try to scream, but a foreign presence silences it before it can escape, covering my mouth and the resultant howl. I twist and flail, but I’m pulled, kicking but not-screaming, into the darkness.
“Stop!” hisses the Myrtunan. “We’re Anagativa! Anagativa!”
As my eyes adjust to the murky black, I see others standing near, soot-covered and singed—a dozen different faces and names, all Anagativan.
I’m finally safe…as safe as anyone can be in this city, anyway. The hollow faces peering nervously around seem to understand my change of heart. They release me...certain now that I won't scream out...and I slump, 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 mine all the same. I am thankful.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” answers the Myrtunan. “Some patch of sewer they haven’t found. Yet. …But count yourself lucky that I saw you; with that fire, I’m sure there’s 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, but then again…these things do come in degrees. I’m not as lucky as those who avoided the experience completely, but compared to any still outside… I shudder.
“Lucky...yes,” I murmur.
I look over at my sooty 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 to remember each other’s names.”
“I’m Niveri,” I manage, before falling silent for a moment amid the hurried whispers and mewling murmurs of our group. Looking around, I see parents weeping softly for the children they could not save in time, and the children they could not quite comprehending 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 is a pessimistic optimist, one of those realists that keeps us grounded even as we dare to hope. She can see salvation and yet...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 figure that 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 eye and then winds softly down her cheek. She catches it with a finger and her eyes fall on me, but only for a moment, before she pulls away again with a wipe of the eye and a snort of the nose.
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 dank safe-haven and we rush to the grate. On the smoke-clogged street above, a young Anagativa runs, her eyes wide, her cloak whipping.
I reach out to offer her a hand, just as I was offered, 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. A second later, so does two pairs of angry Kotakayan boots.
“Whiskers!” curses Mitsana, fear and relief swimming in her eyes at the same time. “You could have given us away...you could have killed us all! You must use your head, Niveri!”
She glares at me with the intense, phosphorous eyes of our kind, but she’s not the only one; I feel the weight of the others' glowing eyes on me too, threatening to press me into the thick, ankle-deep water.
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 or 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, needing the proximity and relishing the comfort.
Despite herself, Mitsana’s head joins mine; perhaps she too craves the comfort. I realize her hard armor must get so heavy sometimes, and I feel thankful that she's not only saved my life, but that she’s shedding that 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.