The sky burst into flames that night. Outshining the dim light of the planet's seven distant moons, the city was burning. At intervals of no less than twenty seconds tiny pricks of light burst into existence from a point far in the distance, shooting into the sky and flaring briefly before blinking out. Four, three, two, one. An explosion sounded somewhere in the city. Homes were torn apart by the force. Fragments of brick clattered down from where they had been blown fifty feet into the sky. Wood and glass and stone and brick, destroyed in moments.
And the people, screaming, screaming for help and for their loved ones.
A small boy of seven stood on his tiptoes to see out the window, still in his nightgown. His dark brown hair was tousled from interrupted sleep and his wide eyes reflected the bursts of light in the sky.
"Tomem! Get away from the window!"
A red-haired man came clattering down the creaky wooden staircase, hand skimming the handrail as he flew down two steps at a time. The middle-aged face, lined and anxious, was the reverse of the fearless boy's and yet the straight-bridged nose was the same, the same shape of the eyelids and full lips.
The boy blinked at his father and he grabbed the boy, hurrying with him to the dark corner of the room, unobservable from the window.
The missiles were getting closer to their sector of the city.
The man crouched and took the boy by the shoulders, their faces inches apart. The father's eyes stared into his son's and when he spoke it was with a seriousness that the boy was unaccustomed to.
"Turn off the lights. Get down. Be quiet."
The boy nodded, frightened now, the glittering display from the window replaced with noises of grief and pain ten times more horrible than anything he had ever heard. Bent double, he ran to the doorway of the kitchen and switched off the glowing blue orb dimly illuminating the room. There was another near the entrance and he clicked this off as well, casting the house into darkness.
Meanwhile the man had grabbed a rough sack and was hastily cramming food items into it, anything that he could find in the cramped kitchen. Glass jars, a loaf of bread, a half-empty bag of flour, a woven wicker box containing a dozen small eggs. "Just in case," he muttered to himself under his breath. "Just in case, just in case." His hands were shaking and his heart felt as though it were pushing itself up, up through his chest and into his throat where it lodged itself and beat in a fluttering, pounding frenzy.
The small voice whimpered for him and he cast a final glance at the barren kitchen before hurrying back to his son, ensconced in the corner of the room below the stairs. A boom resounded around them, the direction of the source impossible to tell. The man set the sack down and crouched beside his son, holding him tight to his chest. The boy shivered against him, though the air was hot and dry. They waited.
The red-haired man stared sightlessly into the darkness, clutching his son to him and counting in his head. …Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven…. Sixty seconds passed. Then another sixty. There was no sign of the missiles that had come to take their lives, their homes, their city. No explosions. Nothing but the distant screams of the victims as the dust settled.
It was tempting to breathe freely again, to believe that they had been spared, these two insignificant people in their little house, untouched by the evil that had swarmed them overnight. It was tempting to uncurl his fists, to release his boy, to tell Tomem to go back to bed and think nothing of it. It was all a dream, nothing but a dream. Those embers in the sky were stars, and the fires were festival bonfires come early.
And yet something was coming, something in the ash and the smoke that came on the breeze.
Out in the streets, a crowd was marching, a single ominous phrase on their lips repeated like some sort of dark spell. "Kress Argulos, Seat of Kress. Kress Argulos, Seat of Kress. Kress Argulos, Seat of Kress."
A pool of amber light gleamed on the window, shifting and rippling as it grew. The boy sniffed and wrinkled his nose, rubbing the back of his hand against it; the smell of smoke was thick, creeping under the door and through the cracks of the house. The crowd was approaching, and with them, fire.
"Kress Argulos, Seat of Kress."
The voices were getting louder.
The red-haired man jerked involuntarily. It was happening again, he was going to lose everything. The blackness that visited his mind every night began to swarm in and he beat it back, the flood of adrenaline cleansing him. On shaking legs he rose, grabbing the sack of food in one hand and holding out his other hand to his son. The boy placed his small hand within his father's and stood as well.
"We have to leave, Tomem. We're going to run down to Cadethy Street, all right, and we're going to be silent, like we're not even there. All right?"
The boy nodded, silent tears making tracks down his face.
"Don't let go of my hand, Tomem. Not for anything. You hold on tight."
"Kress Argulos, Seat of Kress!"
They could hear the crackling flames now, devouring, voracious. A shriek came from somewhere nearby, a few houses down the street, perhaps, and the boy's head whipped around to see. Grim-faced, his father squeezed his hand and quickly, silently, led him through the house to the back door.
They were one street away when something made the man turn, though he didn't know why he did it. As he peered through the night, his city illuminated by flame, he saw the outline of their humble home and the arm that set the torch to it. The wooden roof caught fire instantly and he watched the last ten years of his life light up the sky with the other houses.
"Don't look back, Tomem!" he said, a lump forming in his throat.
But the man did look back, even while they hurried along the street. He looked back and he knew their lives as they had been were over.