The endless ring of bells dominates all sound. Relentlessly, they blare their panicked tune. Screams, shrieks, and cries accompany war's anthem as searing boulders fall from the sky, cracking, breaking and finally shattering the barrier entombing the Blackshire stronghold.
I stand above the madness, looking out onto the Blackshire courtyard. Men, women, and children scream as fire from the sky detonates the earth around them. Enhancing my vision with Tension, I look further towards the monster of lava and rock. Atop its shoulder, a man stands. His mouth contorted into a grimace; his eyes wide and untamed. The man pulls back his arm, and his beast follows suit. Mirroring his actions, as the man strikes only air, his creature strikes the walls surrounding the stronghold, blasting through the rocks, showering those beneath with pulverising death.
Stone by stone, the wall rebuilds itself. Despite its tenacity, the man achieved his purpose; having renewed the gap in the stronghold's defence, the man and his monster waste no time with their attack. Stretching out its arm, the creature forms a flaming boulder in the palm of its hand. The man looks my way. He sees me through the hole in this chamber. His eyes burning with madness, the man points in my direction, inciting his titan to action.
Death flies towards me.
I turn and run.
Reaching the exit of Huntress' quarters, I grip the doorknob and fling the door open. Footsteps trace my movements, and I exit the room with Huntress and Alicia in tow.
Behind me, devastation. I don't see it, but I hear the crash of destruction, and I feel the rumbling of its aftermath.
From behind, smoke pours. It drifts out of the room and engulfs the hallway, clouding the space in its smothering grey. Bodies surround me. Each one screaming, each one crying, each one clamouring and clawing their way to the exit.
Jolted by her neighbours, a woman falls to the ground. Though smog envelopes the passage, I see her struggle to stand.
Her struggle is for nothing.
I won't slow; her plight is hers and hers alone.
She lies in my way. She can blame only luck for my boots on her head. She can blame whomever she wishes for the stampeding horde in my wake.
Balls of fire burst through the ceiling; they crash through the ground, carving holes through the floor as they carry countless people around me to the depths of Hell. Flooding my legs with Tension, I pause not a step. Leaping over the breaks before me, I continue my path to the staircase, uncaring of the multitudes who fail to make the vault, unmoved by their screams as they soar towards fiery oblivion.
I reach the first staircase. People stand in my way. Hesitating when they should be running, the fools impeding my path bring my actions upon themselves. Gripping each shoulder in front of me, I toss screaming corpses over the side of the sapphire bannisters and continue my descent, bounding between flame-carved chasms, to the floor below.
'Daddy! Daddy! I forgot Fluffy! Daddy, we have to go back! I can't leave Fluffy. We Can't leave Fluffy!'
A young girl tugs the hand of her father. Fire licks the floor around them. Despite the surrounding chaos, the fool of a father kneels to comfort his daughter.
He negotiates when he should demand.
He soothes when he should aggress.
This is not the time to coddle. Life gives no way to sentiment, and neither do I. Perhaps in their next life, they'll reflect on this lesson. In this life, I shove both father and heir into the raging pit at my side and march towards the second staircase.
'Help me!' A woman screams, her legs crushed beneath a stone beam. She sees me; our eyes lock. I register her pleas. I hear them clearly; I just don't care.
Father taught me many things, but I didn't need his schooling to endure. The trick to longevity has never been a secret to me. I've known it all my life. To survive what may come, I've only ever needed one rule.
Each hair on my head weighs more than the world.
If there's a voice in my head that wishes to save the woman, its whispers are shouted down by the call to survive.
As I approach, the woman's eyes brighten. She's been passed by many, but perhaps I'd be different. I'm no mind reader, but I'd wager those are her thoughts.
"Hope dies last", I've heard someone say. That might be true for the woman, but only because a flaming boulder falls from above and crushes her before she could watch me abandon her to her fate.
Jumping over the hole in the ground, I land on the other side, sprint through the smoke, shove bodies aside and reach the second staircase. To their credit, the people in front don't hesitate down the steps. They sprint, they leap, but not fast enough. With practised indifference, I push, shove, and toss the people slowing me down to their deaths, clearing my path to the lower floor.
'What's going on?'
I don't care.
The woman who asked the question is blocking my path. Swivelling her head to the left and the right, she surveys the bedlam around her. As if in a daze, her wide eyes and open mouth exclaim her confusion. Drawing the sword from my side, I put a final end to her bewilderment as I sever her head, kick her corpse to the ground and rush towards the third staircase.
With ice in my veins, I continue my onslaught. Each clouded figure I see pays its head as a tribute to my escape. Covered by smoke and panic, I don't fear my discovery. Even if I'm recognised, this Clan has more to worry about than my "dishonourable" conduct utilised to survive. When matched against the value of a rank-three Tension Master, who would dare to complain over the deaths of servants and dregs?
More likely than complaints, I may even receive condolences and apologies for going through such trauma under the Blackshire Clan's protection. If trouble does come my way, I would rather survive to lament my position in the future, than die in the present, an honourable death.
'What are you-' I silence the man in front, severing his head from his jaw and booting him to the ground.
'My baby! Someone help my-' The woman continues her screams as she dives headfirst through a pit in the floor.
'I need to get out of here!' Aiding the panicked man with his request, I toss him over the side of the bannister, jump over gaps in the stairs and make my way down to the next level.
With not an inch of the floor unmolested by flames, I grit my teeth and ignore the inferno's bite. I sprint through fire and madness, paying no heed to the flames which tongue my legs, nor the smoke that threatens to asphyxiate me.
Fire descends from above; it impacts through the ceiling, causing havoc where it lands. Through luck and relentless movement, I avoid the devastation raining down from on high. Others have no such fortune. I hear their shrieks all around me; I see many fall to their demise in their unsuccessful attempts to leap past the many pits infesting this once opulent building.
I care for none of it.
No, if anything, this is a positive development. When the time comes to join with Geo and his army, the more people killed today, the fewer remanent forces we'll have to oppose up.
I'll admit, this attack took me by surprise. I couldn't account for human irrationality. The man atop the titan, I've seen his face before. I didn't believe he'd act so brazenly, but I don't deny his claim to retribution. His grievance isn't easily dismissed. After all...
I did kill his daughter.
Even still, the man is a lone rank-five expert; this Clan has five of them, six if the Blackshire Clan's leader were not secluded in closed-door cultivation, readying his soul to absorb the Spirit Tree's essence.
The man's powers are great. By his might, he rains fire from the heavens. If not for the defensive formations protecting this stronghold, I have little faith a blade of black-grass could survive his wrath. Powerful as he might be, can he hope to survive the retaliation of multiple rank-five experts?
I suppose that's not my concern. My only directive is to escape this accursed place and seek refuge within the reinforced wall of the Blackshire fortress.
Whatever the fate of everyone else, naturally, that has nothing to do with me.
Between her coughs, I hear Alicia call for me. Smoke consumes the air; all but shadows are lost to my sight. I don't know when the girl got down here. I was certain I left her behind in the chaos. The fool slowed down to aid whom she could. If justice prevailed, at this time, she would lie broken and scorched in the depths of a pit.
Do I ignore her voice?
Can she see me, somehow?
My time with her Clan is near its end, but that doesn't mean I can forsake all pretence. If she survives this devastation and breathes word of her abandonment, it would be vexing.
I deviate my course and follow my fiancee's voice. Stumbling over debris and the broken forms of the fallen, I make my way towards Alicia's wails.
Trapped beneath a pile of rubble, Alicia wrestles to free a leg from the concrete pinning her to the ground. Fire dances around the girl. Waving her arm, she sends weak arcs of water in a bid to protect herself from the fire's embrace.
'Logan? Thank Ember, you survived!' Pausing her attempts at battling the flames, Alicia sits up, grips the leg from her knee, and attempts to pull it from the rubble.
'Get out of my way, kid!'
A male shaped blur charges my location. Through the smoke, I see his arms held forward and palms displayed, no doubt intending to shove me from his path. I can't fault the man, but neither can I countenance his impertinence.
Lifting my sword forward, I allow the man to impale himself. I retract my blade and kick the man's stomach, toppling the creature into the surrounding flames.
'Alicia, I apologise for making you witness my shameful actions. As your future husband, I must put your safety above all else. If it means I must debase myself, that is what I shall do.'
Whether she believes me or not is of little consequence. My excuse is plausible, and it isn't as if I plan to remain here to face any long term ramifications.
'I must apologies again. I lost sight of you the moment this attack began.'
'It's... It's okay, just help me!' Alicia cries. With both hands, I shift mounds of concrete from Alicia's leg. As the pressure bearing down on her decreases, the girl's whines grow louder. Crunching her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut, Alicia pitifully squeals as I remove the last pile of rubble, freeing her broken and bleeding limb.
'I… I cannot stand.' To demonstrate her infirmity, the girl pushes herself to her feet before falling into my arms.
'I will carry you. We haven't time to lose. Climb onto my back!' Gently, I lower Alicia to her knees. I slowly turn, allowing the girl to support herself on my arm and finally my back. I wait for her arms to fold around my neck, stand, and run towards the final staircase.
Alicia's lips press next to my ears; her gentle warmth combats the inferno raging through the space, soothing the scorched skin on my back as I rush down the staircase towards the hellacious ground below.
'Logan... Thank you.' The girl whispers into my ear.
Blaring their terror, bodies fall from the holes through the ceiling. Face first, legs first, falling onto their backs, in whatever position the pitiful souls land, they burst on impact, exploding their gore to be roasted by the fire.
Regardless of where my eyes turn, countless dead litter the foyer. The flames char their remains, breathing the stench of roasted flesh into my nostrils. Suppressing the compulsion to gag, I keep low to the ground, close to the fire but beneath the thick smoke above. Careful to avoid burning rocks and screaming bodies that continue to fall from above, I make my way to the open door of the exit.
Fresh air dances in my lungs; like a man dying of thirst, I quench my suffocation with long deep breaths.
My relief is short-lived. Without the time to bathe in the oasis of smoke-free air, I'm forced to leap from the path of an oncoming spear.
Standing to my feet, I survey my surroundings.
Hordes of golems and Tension Masters battle in the courtyard.
The walls have come down.
The stronghold has been besieged.