I skated to the door and opened it, slipping out quickly with Chance behind.
The beautiful colors of the city were gone. The fire had consumed them. Over half of the city was in flames, and the blowing embers were spreading quickly toward the capital building.
“Alright,” I turned back to him. “We’re going to have to be fast, and we’re going to have to be careful, and if you do anything stupid, I’ll kill you! Darwin, fly over and see if you can find the emperor!”
As Darwin took off, Chance held his arm up. “Fuzzball, you too! Go find Vao!” The squirrel ran up his arm and flew above the city.
“We’ll go to the Capitol building,” I decided. I knew the fastest way there, so I led off, skating as if I were being pursued. Chance did not fall behind, staying with me step for step.
We began to swerve between the burning skeletons of the buildings. The alleys became more perilous with every crossing. People were running and panicking everywhere, and it was difficult to dodge them. Every time we passed between buildings, we were hit with waves of heat that grew hotter and hotter the closer we got.
The Capitol building was just ahead. Darwin and Fuzzball flew around the tower. Darwin hooted loudly as a signal.
“He’s up there!” Chance pointed out.
The entire building was in flames, except for the tower. There was no time, though, so I simply rushed into the door.
I came to a flight of stairs, and I was forced to deactivate the laser skates to climb them. I ran to the third floor when I found that the stairwell was completely blocked with fire.
“What do we do now?” Chance asked.
I knew only one thing to do. I transformed into my dragon form and extended my wings. “Get under!”
He hid under my wings. I closed them over him and used them to shield him going up the stairs.
Now we came to a spiral staircase to the tower. I transformed back and began to climb again. I pulled myself up the railings to gain traction and speed.
About halfway up, Chance nudged my shoulder and pointed down. “Look out!”
The bottom of the wooden staircase had caught on fire.
“Run!” I shouted back. We continued to climb until we had reached the top. The door was locked, but it proved no contest to my kick. The doorjamb broke, and the door swung open.
As we surveyed the situation, Chance looked at me and shook his head. “You’re kidding, right?”
Emperor Vao was asleep.
I quickly thought about it. I examined the room, but there wasn’t really anything useful except for the pallet that Vao was sleeping on and two coils of rope in one of the drawers.
Well, there was only one thing I could think of to do. “Do what I do, but on the other side of the window.”
Chance came to my side and accepted one of the ropes. I tied my rope around the foot of the dresser, and he tied his around the other foot. I ran by the door and grabbed two long shards of wood from the broken doorjamb. I kicked them into the plaster windowsill, holding it in place. Chance retrieved a hammer from his pack and smashed the wood into the other side of the window. I punched out the glass with my glove hand. Then I turned back to Chance.
“Do you trust me?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
I stared him in the eye. “Everything.”
I ran over to the pallet. It had four strips of cloth on the corners to tie it up. I took the two by his head. “Grab hold, and tie it around your wrist! It cannot come loose, at all costs!”
He grabbed the strings and wrapped it around his hand, but then used a sho spell that I had never heard. “Filiaen ferre!”
His hand turned to iron, making it impossible for him to drop the strings.
I was stunned. “You’re still not out? How many sho was that?”
Chance smiled. “That one’s 4. I’ve usually got about 18, but I should be out now.”
Well, I would just have to depend on the strength of my own hand. Fair enough. I removed my glove and tied the other strings of the pallet tightly around my left wrist. I stepped up to the windowsill and threw both of the ropes out the window. Before I leapt out and grabbed the rope, he realized what I was doing. “Are you insane?”
“I have no other ideas,” I shrugged. “Keep him level!”
With my other hand I grabbed the rope. I jumped with a swift movement and held my feet tight against the rope. “Come on!”
It was obvious he wasn’t comfortable, but he knew that the staircase was not an option. He grabbed the other rope, closed his eyes, and jumped. He barely caught himself, but managed not to lose the Emperor.
“Okay, nice and slowly…” I coaxed.
I loosened the space between my feet, sliding down the rope at a slow pace that Chance matched inch for inch. Vao was held steady.
My right hand was burning from sliding down the rope, but I was more focused on my left wrist, which was losing circulation from the straps tied around it. I did not relinquish my grip, though the pain encouraged me to.
I finally looked up from my work over the smoldering town. Astentians and humans alike were fleeing from the destruction. The entire city had fallen. The reality hit me hard: The cultural center of our world was gone.
Finally we reached the roof of the fourth floor, which sloped downwards to the first floor’s roof. “Careful, it’s steep!” I shouted.
Chance nodded. We both took small steps down the roof, still holding the Emperor’s pallet.
A beam crashed high in the tower and shook the building. Chance took one more step, but he stepped on a loose shingle and lost his balance. He only fell a few feet before he managed to stop himself, but the pallet rested flat on the roof. All of its weight was supported on my wrist. I struggled to keep the pallet from slipping down the incline.
As Chance struggled to get out, I nearly passed out from the pain in my wrist, but I managed to keep consciousness. I grunted as he lifted the pallet again and headed down the slope again.
With a sigh of relief, we reached the first floor. Chance spotted a trash can and ran to stand on it in order to move the Emperor’s pallet to the ground and keep it level. After much struggle, we reached the ground.
Finally Emperor Vao began to wake up. He stood up off his pallet and stretched. “What a terrible dream!”
Vao was a tall, gaunt, wise-looking man. with thin, grey hair and a long, triangular beard. His thin eyes had small, ice-blue pupils. He wore a long, blue cloak that did not conceal his leather sandals. He opened his eyes and looked around at the current situation. He saw Chance and me holding his pallet. “Oh, er, Revenant, I presume?” he asked.
“No time to explain,” I said. “We have to get out, and we have to do it now!”
It was then that Vao noticed the city, and his home, ablaze. The spirit in the old man’s eyes began to fade away. “Whitesand… the great center. The jewel of this nation.” He bowed low to honor it.
Allowing the Emperor his moment in memory, I untied the straps of the pallet, removing it from my wrist. I found I couldn’t move my hand, which had turned a pallid, bloodless white. I assumed it would recover when it received blood again, so I left it alone, sliding my glove limply over it and signalling for Darwin to follow. The owl hooted to get Fuzzball’s attention. Chance unwrapped the cord from his metal hands, abandoning the pallet at the foot of the tower.
Another beam slammed down, and a shower of embers poured from the windows. We have to get out of here, I muttered under my breath.
I then thought of something; Vao was old, and not likely to be able to run. “Chance, how much can you carry on your back?”
“A hundred twenty pounds or so, if I need to. I won’t be going very fast, though.”
Vao ended up piggybacking on Chance. Chance proved capable; the Emperor did not weigh a very great amount. We both activated our laser skates, and I pushed him as we went.
“Turn left,” I told Chance, and he followed the directions. We continued down the main street and left the flaming ruins of a city. Then I gave him directions to head north.
“Seven or eight miles,” I told him. “My orders are to bring him to Delta’s headquarters. I assume that the Auxiliary HQ will do just fine. Just keep going, and follow the forest path until I say anything.”