A Rose among the Ashes

Chapter 1

Maria crept through the hall of their small house quietly making her way to her brothers' room. Nightmares had haunted her sleep and a foreboding feeling lay heavy in her stomach.

The kingdom of Fynn slept silently and the night was still. Everything seemed peaceful and right but to Maria, who seemed to have an intuition when danger was near, feared that everything was not as right as it should be.

She padded up to the door silently and waited a moment before quietly pushing it open. Firion and Leon slept soundlessly in their separate beds. Leon was rolled over on his side with the blanket pulled neatly up to his shoulders while Firion was sprawled out on his back with the covers kicked off and his feet dangling from the edge.

Maria smiled at how opposite they were even while sleeping. Leon, who was her blood brother, constantly quarreled with Firion, who happened to be adopted. Firion's parents had died of the plague when he was very small. Though the two argued about almost everything, it always seemed to be more like a rivalry than them actually disliking each other. Firion was like fire. Impulsive and hot headed. Leon more like ice. Calm and collected but alert and able to make decisions in the direst situations.

Suddenly a loud boom sounded somewhere in the distance. It sounded almost like a canon ball had been fired. Though distant it was loud enough to reverberate through the floor boards of the small house immediately waking Leon.

"What was that?" he muttered silently reaching for the oil lamp next to his bed before the sound came again. This time louder and much closer causing the glass shade of the lamp to rattle noisily.

"Firion, get up!" Leon shouted lighting the lamp and moving to roughly shake his adopted brother's shoulder. Firion groaned and winced at the light.

"What's wrong?" Firion questioned groggily as Leon peered out the window. A sound kind of like a jet stream cut through the air and crashed into the house next to them. The collision knocked Leon off his feet.

"Brother!" Maria shouted suddenly as Firion looked at her wide-eyed springing off the bed.

"Maria!" Firion rushed to her side as Leon pulled himself up. The smell of smoke began to drift through the air as the now not so silent city began to glow with flames.

"What is happening?" Leon whispered as the sound of heavy boots began to march loudly throughout the kingdom's streets. Leon doused the light and peered cautiously out the window. Large, demonic looking men had begun marching through the streets going from house to house setting them ablaze and slaying anyone foolish enough to be out on them.

Loud canon fire still echoed in the distance as Leon grabbed Maria by the arm.

"We must go wake Mother and Father. If we stay here we will die," Leon stated hastily grabbing the sword he kept stationed by his bed before leading his sister out back into the hallway. Firion equipped his own sword and quickly followed. As they ran down the hall the sound of their front door opening caused them to freeze in their tracks. Loud clanking armored men marched in the house and Leon pulled his sister into the shadow of the hall next to the descent of the stairs. Firion waited next to Leon. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he could tell Maria was trembling. Leon however was as still as a statue. His eyes alert in the darkness watching the soldiers' every move.

They began to move up the stairs and all three of them stiffened afraid to even breathe. Suddenly a hand grabbed Firion's shoulder and he almost let out a yell if it hadn't had been for the hand quickly clasping over his mouth. Leon turned suddenly sword in hand before immediately lowering it.

"Father?" he whispered as the elderly man placed a finger to his own lips signaling them to stay quiet. Their mother was behind him. Her hair purple like Maria's though slightly faded with age.

"Mother!" Maria gasped rushing to the old woman's arms in what she didn't know yet would be their final embrace.

"Listen to me carefully, Leon, for there is no time," the old man whispered eyeing the shadows slowly creeping up the stairs. Leon nodded quickly looking to Firion and then back to his father.

"When I say run you take your brother and sister down stairs and you run as fast as you can out of the city."

Leon remained silent realizing what it was they were planning to do.

"What about you and Mother?" Maria questioned as her father smiled grimly.

"We will draw the attention of the soldiers long enough for you three to escape," the old man explained as Firion shook his head.

"We can all get out if we fight them! I know I'm not all that good yet with the sword but Leon-"

"No, you are no match for these men and I'm afraid neither am I," the old man said as a distressed look took both Firion and Maria's face.

"But-"

"Don't argue with me Firion, just do as I say. You've been a good son. As good as blood could ever be," the graying man said as his wife smiled and nodded.

"You will be faster if you go alone. Your father and I are old. We cannot outrun what has befallen us," the old woman said softly gently wiping the tears from her daughter's eyes.

"Mother I can't," Maria sobbed before looking back in the direction of the stairs when one of the soldier's spoke.

"Did you hear that?" the armored man questioned so low it was almost a growl. Something about the soldiers didn't seem human. They were very large for an average man and smelt like blood and brimstone. The two soldiers finally made it to the top of the stairs and spotted the family.

"Run!" their father shouted suddenly throwing himself at the soldiers who easily cut him down splattering blood all over his once pale bedclothes.

"Father!" Firion shouted as the old man fell silently to the floor pooling in his own blood. Leon suddenly grabbed Firion and Maria. The house had already started to burn from the explosion that had erupted next door.

One of the soldiers laughed as they neared the three youths.

"Stay back!" a woman's voice hissed as their mother blocked the soldiers' path.

"Mother!" Maria screamed.

"Jump over the railing! Get away from here!" the woman cried out before she was cut down as well. Maria screamed in agony at the fallen forms of her parents and tears bled from Firion's eyes as he picked her up and followed Leon over the railing of the stairs. The landing to the ground floor was quite harsh but they had no time to pull themselves together. They had to keep moving.

They had made it past the two soldiers in their house and into the streets where packs of them marched from the flames of the burning kingdom.

"Let's move!" Leon shouted barring the door to their burning house before running in the opposite direction. Corpses and flames marred the falling kingdom from the widest street to the narrowest alleyway. This wasn't an invasion. It was a complete massacre!

They finally made it to the outer wall of the kingdom now riddled with holes.

"So this is how they got in," Leon said touching the dark scorch marks on the alabaster walls of the small kingdom.

"Large metal balls made holes in the wall," a deep voice spoke behind them in the darkness. Leon unsheathed his sword and whipped around. A large youth stood gripping a blood darkened axe. His eyes wide with unvoiced fright.

"Guy, you're alive!" Maria shouted rushing over to him.

"So it was cannon fire," Leon said lowering his sword as Guy nodded.

"Guy was sitting at hill outside of town. Big men in armor pushed cannons up on large cliffs around city," Guy explained still gripping his axe so tightly his knuckles were white.

"Guy saw them…start killing people. Anyone…everyone…women…babies…even animals! Animals are Guy's friends," Guy stated in a quite somber voice that was betrayed by a look of trauma. Maria gripped one of his large arms and he slowly loosened his grip on the axe.

"Guy got a few with axe…but they are strong. Not human. They wouldn't die," Guy continued still quite traumatized before Firion noticed a glistening crimson staining his leg.

"Guy, you're bleeding!" Firion exclaimed examining the slash in the larger youth's thigh. Guy flinched sinking to one knee when Firion's fingers accidentally brushed the gash.

Firion ripped a large piece of his shirt off and secured it around the bloody thigh applying pressure.

"Hurry! We must keep moving," Leon said looking to the smoke covered night sky. Dawn was still a few hours away.

"We can use the woods as cover until we can make it to a nearby town," Leon said stepping outside the city though the large hole followed by Firion and Maria aiding Guy.

It had been hours since they made it out of the city and already dawn was approaching signaled by a pale green light spreading across the sky through the tops of the trees. They had hidden and snuck by several groups soldiers throughout the night.

"Do you think we're the only ones that made it out? I haven't seen anyone else but those soldiers," Maria questioned stepping over a few fallen tree limbs.

"They couldn't have gotten everybody," Firion replied still aiding Guy through the cluttered forest path.

"I wonder about that," Leon muttered at the head of the group.

"Leon, lets stop here for a while," Firion spoke up feeling Guy almost fall from his grasp.

"We can't afford any breaks. We're still too close to Fynn. We have to make it to at least Gatrea before we can stop," Leon began looking back at Firion slowly losing hold on Guy who sank to the ground in exhaustion.

"Guy!" Maria exclaimed rushing over to him.

"Brother, his wound is deeper than we thought. We can't go any further like this," Maria stated helping Guy lean back against a tree while examining his leg. Leon grimaced pondering the idea of leaving Guy behind but knowing both Maria and Firion would never consider it not even for survival.

"Alright but we can't stay long. The forests are still full of soldiers," Leon said walking a short distance from the group to keep a look out.

"It looks infected," Firion pointed out next to Maria. Guy remained silent. It looked like he was about to fall asleep. Maria pulled a dark silvery shard from the wound causing the large youth to groan and twitch in pain.

"What is that?" Firion questioned as Maria examined the metal in her hand.

"It looks like Mythril from Salamand-ouch," Maria said dropping the shard into the grass as it nicked her finger.

"Are you alright?" Firion questioned as the violet-haired girl popped her finger in her mouth.

"Yeah, just a scratch," she said continuing to examine the wound.

"Can you heal this?" Firion questioned eyeing the bloody slash. It was very deep. He was surprised Guy was able to keep his footing on it for this long.

"I can cast a simple cure spell on it. I just learned it so it's still very weak but it should help," Maria said muttering a few chants under her breath before a faint green glow took the wound. Though still open the slash no longer looked infected.

"We should let him rest a little while," Firion said standing up as Maria nodded. Firion walked off towards Leon who stood solemnly next to a small opening in the trees out looking onto the vast valley they had tread during the night.

"My gods…," Firion breathed as he came to stand next to Leon. You could see the remains of Fynn through the clearing. Smoke, black and ominous, rose above the broken kingdom with the large glittering lake beyond.

"They were imperial soldiers from Palamecia," Leon spoke staring intently at his destroyed home.

"How do you know? They wore no insignia," Firion replied remembering he didn't even know what the empire's insignia was. The Palamecian Empire itself was swaddled in mystery. Firion had read somewhere that it is a very secluded place hidden by vast deserts and sharp mountains that even the most skilled traveler would have much difficulty reaching.

"Black armor. There is no other country or kingdom that clothes their soldiers in black. As for the insignia, it is said only the emperor wears it. It is a hollowed gold hoop with a foreign design in the center. No one knows for sure what it signifies but there are plenty of rumors. Tiers of flame, the gates to Pandemonium, a symbol of the Jade Passage…who knows?" Leon said as Firion had a look of amazement on his face.

"How do you know so much?" Firion questioned as Leon sighed.

"How do you know so little? I actually paid attention during Father's lessons," Leon replied as Firion looked a little saddened at the mention of their father.

"Do you know anything else?" Firion questioned changing the subject.

"All who have tried to go there be they scholars, explorers, or treasure hunters have never returned so all is rumor with no actual proof but legends say Palamecia is a nation of demons ruled by the devil himself disguised in a human form," Leon spoke before a harsh cackle interrupted him.

"The Devil? No he is not the Devil but I'd say he's close enough," a rough voice stated as several imperial soldiers surrounded them.

"Brother! Firion!" Maria screamed standing in front of the unconscious Guy with her arms spread apart in a feeble attempt to protect him as imperials surrounded her as well snickering at her boldness.

"Maria, run!" Leon shouted clutching his sword and gracefully slashing the nearest imperial.

"Kill them. The emperor wants no captives or survivors," one of the imperials that was apparently this group's commander ordered.

"Emperor? So they are Palamecian!" Firion exclaimed clumsily blocking one of the imperials attacks. He had just begun to train with the sword and Leon was much better than him. Maria had no fighting skill at all just a basic cure spell she had read from a cheap magic scroll a few months back. She just stood in front of guy with a frightened look in her raven eyes as the sword came down on her.

"Maria!" Firion screamed watching a slash appear across the length of her body. Her face was ghostly and full of shock as she fell to the ground. Next was Guy who was no harder to defeat than Maria.

Firion rushed at the soldier that stood over Maria now collapsed in her own blood. The white-headed youth gored the soldier through on his sword but instead of a cry of death he got a merciless laugh instead.

"That does not work on us, boy," the imperial said cutting him down as he did Maria. Leon was holding his own against the imperial fighting him. Amidst the battle he caught glimpse at his fallen sister and anger boiled within him. His blows fell harder actually pushing the imperial back.

Suddenly Leon disarmed the soldier and impaled him through the heart. The soldier laughed as the other did before him.

"We told you boy…that won't work on-" the soldier began but was cut short as Leon ripped the sword from his chest and swung it full force at the imperials throat successfully beheading him.

The other imperials stood silently as if in awe that the boy was actually capable of killing one of them. The corpse within the armor dissolved to dust and quickly withered away leaving only the hollow shell of the armor.

Leon fell to his knees and his sword slipped from his hand as the imperials continued to eye him silently. He gazed at his sister and then to Firion and closed his dark eyes. This is it…

"What are we standing here for? Kill him!" one of the soldiers shouted as the group began to march toward him swords in hand before the leader of the demonic warriors raised his arm to still them.

"Wait. Let us take him to the emperor," the imperial commander spoke as the rest of the armored group looked to him questionably.

"Didn't the emperor say no survivors?" one questioned.

"We've done our job and secured Fynn. One prisoner shouldn't be too much trouble. Besides this one was able to kill one of us. He is stronger than the other maggots we stamped out in the city. He deserves a heavier punishment than can be dealt here," the imperial commander explained signaling for a couple of the group to come forth.

"Beat him unconscious and have him taken to Palamecia. Our Lord's dungeons could use a new addition," the imperial laughed hidden by the dark of his helmet.

To be continued…