The fourth part of this story can be found here.
Night had fallen over Coppertown—rather, over the place where Coppertown had been. Ashes and scorched stones were all that was left, apart from a few buildings that rose like tombstones from the devastation. The moon painted the scene black and silver. It was like a picture, quiet and still, except for the odd flicker of movement as an animal scurried through the remains of the town.
The building that had once been the mayor’s residence was the safest structure left. The survivors had settled in the upper rooms, beyond the reach of the creatures turned vicious by the Blight. There were about forty survivors: mostly young miners and their wives. No children had lived.
The survivors were in the process of exploring the cellars that remained intact after the fire. Once they had gathered enough supplies, they would arm themselves and make the dangerous trek to the nearest town. Then they could book passage with a caravan and travel to the Emperor’s City, there to begin a new life as refugees.
Such was their hope.
Several of the young miners had built a fire in their room, using timbers from the attic as fuel. After removing the ladders to the lower floors, they huddled around the fire and tried to make conversation.
“Cursed be Jerem,” muttered Aloysius, watching the flames. “Ten thousand curses on him and his band of murderers. No mercy, not even for the children. Rope for a few; steel for some; pitch and fire for the rest. Gone. All gone.”
“Will you stop it?” burst out his brother. “It’s over. Jerem’s gone, curse his fat face. Our town is gone, and so are most of our friends. Almost everything is gone, yes, but we’re still here. We’re still alive, Aloysius, don’t you see? We can’t complain. We’re the lucky ones. We survived.”
Aloysius scowled. “Tell me, dear brother,” he said. “How does that make us the lucky ones?”
“Ignore him, Quinton,” said one of the men. “Your brother was a gloomy blighter before Jerem swept through, and now he’s even worse. If we take no notice of him, perhaps he’ll shut his mouth and let us talk about cheerfuller things.”
The conversation turned to other subjects, and Aloysius’s thoughts turned to his parents. They were not among the survivors. In a single day of bloodshed and ruin, most of the family had perished. Aloysius and Quinton were the only members left. They alone survived to carry on their family’s name. For their family’s sake they had to keep living.
It was their only reason to keep living.
Morning dawned: as fresh, bright and beautiful a morning as the world had ever seen. Birdsong was heard for the first time since the fire. Sunlight flooded the ruins of Coppertown.
Aloysius could not help but feel a glimmer of hope. Yes, the world was falling apart. Jerem the Plague and his band cut a swathe of destruction across the Empire. Disasters tore apart the land, and the Blight corrupted whatever creatures were spared.
Yet the sun rose every morning.
Perhaps, mused Aloysius, the end of the world was not such a gloomy thing after all.
“Today’s the last day,” said Paddy, the oldest of the miners. “We can’t afford to stay longer. No stone unturned today, lads. If there’s any food left in this town, we find it. Tonight we pack; tomorrow we leave. Aloysius, you’re on guard duty. The rest of you lot, come along.”
Since the guard towers had been reduced to a few charred timbers, the best vantage point in Coppertown was the roof of the mayor’s residence. After gathering a few essentials—some food, a bottle of water, a parasol and his trumpet—Aloysius crawled out of an upper window and climbed up to the roof.
It was the work of a moment to set up camp for the day. Aloysius opened the parasol and propped it up against a chimney for shade. He placed the other items carefully upon the rooftop and then sat down to keep watch.
Aloysius was the only miner who could play the trumpet. The others had tried, but all they could manage were muffled wheezes. Only Aloysius could produce a long, clear blast from the instrument. If anything approached the ruins of Coppertown, he would blow the trumpet, signaling the miners to make a dash for the safety of the mayor’s residence.
A week before, Aloysius would have been tempted to pass the time by making music. He felt no such temptation now.
Hours passed. Aloysius drank from the bottle and ate a little. The sun blazed. The air shimmered. Except for the murmur of conversation from the miners below, all was silent.
He sounded the trumpet. With shouts of alarm, the miners swarmed across the ashen remains of Coppertown and barricaded themselves in the mayor’s residence.
“What is it?” asked Quinton, joining his brother on the rooftop. “What do you see?”
Five figures leading horses had entered Coppertown.
“Jerem’s men?” asked Quinton.
“Can’t say,” replied Aloysius. “Sun’s too bright. They could be Imperials. I’ll take a closer look.”
“Aloysius, if you think for one instant I’ll let you—”
“Curse it, Quinton, just be quiet. I’m not the fragile little boy you think I am. Get inside and tell the others to be silent and alert. I’ll meet these people. If all’s well, I’ll give a blast on the trumpet. If you don’t hear anything, assume the worst.”
“Aloysius, I won’t—” began Quinton, but his brother cut him off again.
“I love you, dear brother, but shut up.”
Aloysius clambered down through the window, clutching his trumpet. His decision was made. Life was a painful option; suicide was no option at all. Meeting the strangers seemed like an admirable solution. If he survived the encounter, he would keep living. If he did not survive, his troubles were over.
He left the mayor’s residence and padded silently through the ashes. As he neared the strangers, their voices became clearer.
“Well, gents and lady, here’s the thriving mining outpost called Coppertown. Looks like my information was correct. The place is gutted. We’d best start by looking for survivors: anyone who can tell us where Jerem’s gone.”
“Thank you, Master Puck. Your services are proving to be useful.”
“You’re too kind, Paladin Fey.”
“Your obsequiousness is duly noted. All right, we had better split into two—Loxley! Where do you think you’re going?”
“What, Nicky here gets a formal title and I don’t?”
“Answer the question, Loxley.”
Aloysius heard the ringing sound of a blade unsheathed.
“Whoa, put away the sword! I didn’t mean to offend, lady. I was just slipping away to see if Jerem overlooked anything, don’t you know.”
“Do what now?”
“Explain,” said another voice. It was a gentle voice, and Aloysius guessed the man to whom it belonged was smiling.
“Oh, that’s what she means. Thanks for translating, Innocent. Ah! Will you put away the sword, lady? I’ll explain, I’ll explain. I thought there might be some valuables Jerem missed when he plundered this place, see?”
“You disgust me, Loxley. If you try to slip away again, you’ll lose one of your fingers.”
“But I need them all for thieving, lady. Would you endanger our mission by handicapping me?”
“Then you’ll lose some other, less useful portion of your anatomy. I can think of one in particular with which you could certainly afford to part ways.”
The gentle voice spoke again. “With due respect, Paladin Fey, threats are not needed. Mist, don’t forget you owe me quite a debt. You can start repaying it by obeying our leader.”
“All right, Innocent. You got it. I’m listening to you, lady, but only because Innocent here told me to. Don’t think for a second I actually respect you or anything.”
Aloysius had crept near the strangers and hid behind a crumbling section of wall. He had some idea of listening to their conversation until he was sure of who they were and what they wanted.
His designs were ruined. A man stepped around the wall, took hold of his arm and dragged him into the midst of the strangers.
“Well done, Master Fuori,” said the lady, before addressing Aloysius: “Calm down, we’re not here to hurt you.”
Aloysius had begun to shake. As he tried to gather the nerve to speak, he glanced at the strangers and tried to match each one to the voices he had heard.
“We’re from the Emperor’s City,” continued the lady. “I’m Paladin Fey; you may have heard of me. These are my companions, Paladin Spike and Masters Fuori, Puck and Loxley.”
“About time I get the title,” grumbled Loxley.
Paladin Fey was a slender woman in a military uniform. Although he would never have dared admit it, Aloysius thought she was quite pretty. Paladin Spike was middle-aged and had a pleasant smile; Master Fuori was young and athletic; Master Puck was gangly and had ginger hair; Master Loxley was hairy and slightly rotund.
Each of the strangers was armed: the Paladins with swords, Master Fuori with a bow and arrows, Master Puck with a cutlass and Master Loxley with a long knife.
“We’re searching for Jerem the Plague, also called the Red Demon,” continued Paladin Fey. “The Emperor himself has tasked us with bringing him to justice. We received intelligence that he had been seen near Coppertown. Judging by the condition of the town, I surmise this information was accurate.”
“Yes, he was here.”
“What can you tell us?”
Aloysius took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you, but for a price.”
Paladin Fey mechanically raised the point of her sword to his throat. “Tell us or I kill you where you stand.”
With a single, swift motion that made them all start, Paladin Spike drew his sword and knocked the blade away from Aloysius’s throat, forcing the points of both swords into the ground.
Aloysius took a long, shaky breath.
“I apologize, Paladin Fey,” said Paladin Spike quietly. He pulled her sword out of the ground and handed it to her hilt-first. “I know this is the Empire’s way of doing things, but I won’t have more violence than can be helped. Do you understand?”
Paladin Fey’s expression changed rapidly from surprise to anger. “You have no right—” she began.
“I don’t mind dying,” interrupted Aloysius. “The only way I’ll talk is if you pay me. There are other survivors—you’ll never find them, so don’t get any ideas—and we need money for supplies. Your money for my information. It’s a fair trade.”
“Done,” said Paladin Spike.
Paladin Fey scowled, but counted out ten gold coins and handed them to Aloysius.
“Jerem was a fat man,” said Aloysius. “Fat but very muscular, if you know what I mean. He had red hair and a red beard, both long. There were about thirty men with him, all vicious, filthy ruffians. They stormed in, executed everyone they could find, looted the town and burned it to the ground.”
“Which way did they go?” asked Paladin Fey.
“Toward the Jade Forest.” Aloysius pointed. “That way. Listen, I know something that might help you. Not many people know it, but there’s a clearing in the northeast part of the forest; you might see it if you climb a tall tree. If Jerem knows this area, that’s probably where he’s camped.”
The visitors turned and began leading their horses away from the wreck of Coppertown. Paladin Spike lingered a moment to clap Aloysius on the shoulder. “Thanks, and good luck,” he said. “Justice will be done, if it can be.”
Aloysius was not a sentimental man, but he could not repress tears. “No, thank you,” he said, and began walking back through the ashes to the mayor’s residence.
Only halfway there did he remember to blow his trumpet.
The story continues with the sixth part, The Tale of the Enemy.