Many, many footsteps.
A village of people on the move — no, a city. Hundreds of shadowed figures slipped through the trees. Through the dark forest they trudged, their path only faintly lit. One headed the pack, leading the way through the dense trees. A small ball of flame lingered above their hand shedding a weak light. Scattered among the crowd were others with hands alight to show the way.
Despite their numbers, the city was silent, save for the sound of footsteps. Not a person spoke, a child cried, or a horse snorted. All was quiet.
The trees suddenly ended and gave way to a sandy beach. The leader stopped and gradually the crowd came to a halt. Beyond the sand was a wide expanse of water. A sea. Its sound was previously muffled by the trees, but its roar now penetrated the open land. A small sliver of moon reflected off the water’s surface, distorted by the crashing waves.
The leader set down the small child they were carrying, and lit the other hand as well. Cautiously, they stepped out into the sandy ground, leaving behind the safety of the trees. The crowd held its breath. The figure warily scanned the beach and finally gave the all-clear.
“We will stop here for now. Rest, but stay on your guard.”
The silence finally broken, the city began to awaken. A low murmuring overtook the sandy spit, only adding to the sea’s audible protest. People started to collapse where they stood, too tired to even set up camp. Nobody went near the water.
The leader, flanked by two others, broke away from the company and toward a more secluded spot. Within a short time, a tent was erected and the three entered.
Four torches lit the small interior. Finally, the three figures could be clearly seen. The leader of the city was none other than a young girl, only seventeen of age. She had hair the color of fire and piercing cobalt blue eyes. By her sides (and towering over her) were two boys of seventeen and eighteen, one with sandy-blonde hair and copper eyes, the other with jet-black and amber eyes.
“The Tenyal Sea,” The leader, Chief Ailani, said flatly. “We’re cornered, aren’t we?” She needed no answer, but her comrades nodded regardless. Best friends and loyal advisors, Finn and Xavier stood at her side.
Ailani knelt and unrolled a map onto the ground, pinning it down with small stones. Wordlessly, she took four shells from the sand — three white, one black. The girl carefully placed them on the map, biting her lip in guilt. She has led her people this way, and now the situation they were in was all her fault.
Three cities in pursuit. Together they had herded the Pyrokians into this corner and now were closing in fast.
The Hydrolians came from the west. Beings with the power of water, they were the fire’s most feared enemy. The most dangerous.
To the south and southwest, the Geofians spread their force to prevent any escape. People one with the earth, they could easily smother the flames.
Blocking the north and northwest were the Cryodians. Ice-enhanced beings, the fire had a slight advantage at first. But then it turned to the dreaded water.
The east brought forth the Tenyal Sea, an unventured, unexplored foe. By far the worst of the eleven seas, nobody had ever voyaged across it and came back alive. With a temper as hot as Pyrkoa’s flame, the waters wreaked vengeance on any foolish enough to brave it.
There was no escape that way, but none by the three cities. It was they who wanted the purple of the flame wiped out. Ever since Ailani’s father, Chief Zorrok, had passed on two moons prior, they had relentlessly attacked Pyroko.
Finally, Ailani had ordered her people to leave their home in hopes that they would be left alone. It was the worst decision she had ever made, and Ailani knew she could never atone for it. Countless lives had been lost and now her city was near to extermination.
Ailani stared at the map with unseeing eyes. “Have the scouts returned yet?” As if her words had summoned them, three tired boys stumbled into the tent. Ailani stood again and looked at each in turn. “What news?”
One by one they stepped forward and gave their report. Finally, the chief asked in a low voice, “how long do we have?”
Grimly, each scout lowered their head. “Not long,” one finally murmured, regretfully. “We would guess three hours. They should reach us just after dawn . . .”
Ailani turned to a soldier standing outside the tent entrance. “Send out new scouts,” she commanded him. “One in each direction, give them our fastest horses. Hurry!” As the soldier sprinted away, the chief turned to her comrades, her heart racing.
"Ok, we don't have much time. Xavier, assemble the soldiers by the shore. Finn, gather a group of workers to build a boat. It needs to be big enough to seat fifty and must be seaworthy. NOW GO!" The three split ways, each to their own duty. Shortly thereafter, Ailani called her city together one last time. Having scaled a large rock, she stood where all could see, the ivory moonlight hiding the guilt in her eyes..
As the chief raised her hand, the crowd instantly went silent. "Hear me, oh People of the Flame. Long have we thrived, but now . . ." Ailani found it hard to speak past the lump in her throat. “. . . now our time has come.” The crowd erupted in murmurs which their chief couldn’t quiet. “Everyone, please. It is no one’s fault but my own, I alone bear the blame. We never should have left our homeland, and now I see where I went wrong. I know I can never atone for my mistakes, but I’m trying now to make better ones.”
As Ailani looked out across her people, tears welled in her eyes. “You have trusted me this far, so please, trust me now. There is no future for us here, but embers willing, our legacy will live on—” The chief waited for silence to fall once again. “—in a new land.” Again, the murmurs rose. Ailani gave up trying to quiet them, so she raised her voice. “I know, I know, it’s crazy. At this very moment, a ship is being made to voyage the Tenyal Sea.”
Ailani’s voice dropped low again but it carried across the beach. “My father . . . Chief Zorrok once spoke of a land beyond the sea. Beyond the edge of the world. Legend has it, that a safe haven can be found there. A place where all can live at peace. I know this isn’t a sure way out and that no one has ever braved the dangers of the sea, but it’s better than doing nothing. Should we just wait here and accept our destruction? NO! So I say, let’s try. The Pyrokians shall not end here! We shall not be defeated!”
Mightily cheers shook the forest. Smiling slightly, Ailani waited for the noise to die down. “So once more, I say to you, the flames shall not die!” The chief thrust her fist into the air as the silence shattered.
“FOR THE FLAME!” A man shouted and the cry was taken up. “FOR THE FLAME!”
Her eyes alight, Ailani watched her people with pride. Yes, she had made many mistakes, some of which could never be forgiven, but they were with her until the dire end. That was the power of their city.
Finally, she shouted over the clamor, “but we don’t have much time.” That quieted the people a bit. “The enemy is only mere hours away. So give me your aid. All help is needed.” Ailani’s voice dropped to a murmur and only those close by heard her next words. “Let’s show them what we’re really made of . . .”
The next hour was filled with the building of a ship, the arming of civilians, the sorting of passengers, and many, many stressed meltdowns (on Ailani’s part).
Suddenly, a frantic yelling was heard over the racket. “THEY’RE HERE! THEY’RE HERE!” Chief Ailani shoved her way through the crowd to the commotion. At its core, she found a panicked scout falling off an exhausted horse.
“How far?!” She demanded, grabbing the man by his shoulders, but he was too out of breath. “HOW FAR?!”
“. . . Five . . . minutes . . .” he gasped and Ailani took a step back, startled. So soon? They weren’t ready yet! All chaos broke out.
“Chosen, to the boats!” Ailani bellowed. “Others, to the shoreline. Soldiers, TO ME!” Ailani found herself in the midst of a stampede. “LISTEN UP!” She yelled, forcing her way to the front. “Everyone, form a line before the sea. The ship must be allowed to escape!”
People running everywhere, calamity was not far off. After assembling her soldiers, Ailani darted through the crowds, helping to load the ship. Finally, all was ready. The passengers included the eleven remaining children, twenty-three women, fifteen men (nine of which were soldiers) and their new leader — none other than Finn. Fifty in total.
Ailani found a somber Finn and grabbed his arm, pulling him out of the flow of people. “Finn . . .” She couldn’t find the words to say. “Be safe.”
Finn pulled his friend into a hug. “I- I can’t go. I won’t leave you . . .”
“You can, and you will.” Ailani’s blue eyes filled with tears, pleading. “And that’s an order.”
Finn offered to stay and fight, but he was no soldier. A poet, a scholar, not a fighter. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll go, but on one condition. Lani, promise me that you’ll make it through and come find us. Please . . .”
As much as it hurt to tell the truth, Ailani shook her head. She could make no such promise. “Goodbye, Finn. May the flame guide your way.” With that, Ailani disappeared into the crowd, leaving a floundering Finn behind.
“EVERYBODY ON BOARD!” Their chief yelled and the passengers clambered aboard the ship which they had christened the Ember. “CAST OFF!” An ocean of tears accompanied the parting until the Ember moved too far for words.
“Block the way!” Ailani shouted over the clamor, her voice breaking with tears. “We must aid their escape.”
Together, the Pyrokians moved to form a wall across the shore. Ten deep and a hundred wide, soldiers and commoners united against their foes. Their chief took her place at the head of the pack, at her side, only Xavier.
Again, the forest fell quiet.
Many, many footsteps.
Footsteps to far outnumber the city.
Footsteps coming from all three sides.
Here they come . . .
Ailani unsheathed her sword. Flames sparked from her hands and lit the weapon. One by one, the wall sparked into fire, lighting up the dark night. A Pyrokians best asset was the element they were. Fire.
Closer the footsteps came.
Ailani took a deep breath and set her jaw.
Now or never . . .
Suddenly, a cry rose up from the forest. All at once, a wave flooded out of the trees. A wave of people. A wave of enemies.
Ailani stood, speechless. She stared in shock at the approaching figures, frozen in place.
“FOR THE FLAME!” Xavier started the cry, snapping Ailani out of her stupor. She cast her comrade a thankful smile and took a deep breath.
“FOR THE FLAME!” Hundreds of voices lifted up in one body, one cry. “FOR THE FLAME!” Together, the people rose up as one, united.
As the opposing cities charged towards them, the people of Pyroko held their ground. Ailani glanced back at the sea and felt her heart drop. The Ember was nowhere near far enough away. The Hydrolians would easily pursue and stop them. They couldn’t let that happen.
This is it . . .
“INFERNO!” Ailani shouted, raising her arms to the stars above. “PEOPLE OF THE FLAME, TRUST ME ONE LAST TIME! INFERNO!!!”
A pillar of fire erupted from the chief’s hands, rising into the dawning sky. Beside her, Xavier added his own fire to hers. One by one, the people brought forth their own flames. The wind picked up, soon tearing over the beach with a vengeance.
“FOR THE FLAME!” They all shouted as their element burned brighter still.
The flames swirled into a twister, sand and foliage soon joining the fray.
Ailani tried to raise the cry once more, but the wind snatched the words from her mouth.
The forest ahead caught flame. Each city tried to turn tail and run, but it was too late. There was no escape.
The firestorm was so great, not even the Pyrokians could withstand it. As the flames devoured the land and everything in it, Chief Ailani cast one last glance out across the Tenyal Sea where the ship steadily grew farther away. Ailani thought she could make out Finn’s wide eyes, but the distance was too great to be sure.
Good luck, oh people of the flame. Go, find the land beyond the sea. Go, and make us proud.
The howling wind strewn with flame decimated all, reducing everything to ash.
Finally, everything once again fell still.
As the new sun peeked over the horizon, its gaze found nothing but embers.