Chapter 1: Clash of the Giants

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History had promised dragons would never go to war again. But it lied.

Aerith stayed out later than her mother would have liked. The games the children played were fun, too much fun, and she was reluctant to spoil the game by telling the other children she would have to leave. And so she stayed, hour after hour, in Ebanon, the neighbouring village, frolicking in the woods and squealing with laughter with others of her age. Before she knew it, darkness had fallen and the parents were calling out for their little ones. She decided it was time to go home.

When she left Caestro that morning, it had been a typical day. Merchants wheeled their goods down the streets, and the older children darted around the carts and animals, running errands, whilst their younger counterparts played outside the simple wooden huts. Farmers already had their harvest laid out, fruits and vegetables of all shapes and colours. It was a bountiful year, and Aerith's home village was blooming. The people were cheerful and happy.

When she returned that evening, she came home to hell.

Even before she had reached the village gates, there was a distinct, sharp smell in the air. She sniffed. She wasn't sure where she had smelled it before, but it reminded her of the kitchen, whenever the cook got upset. The sky was tinged with a pulsing orange, even though the sun had just gone down and it was getting dark. She moved as quickly as her short legs would carry her; her feet crunched on twigs underneath and she brushed her way through the low bushes, huffing as the hem of her dress caught on the plants.

The screams and explosions reached her ears moments before the village came within sight.

As she emerged through the thick undergrowth of the woods that separated her village and Ebanon, she could see Caestro was no more.

The squat thatched houses were bathed in a liquid orange glow, throwing violent shadows across the cobbled road. The beautiful colours of nature that had decorated her home were replaced by stark shadows and a fearsome blaze. The whole sky was alive, lit by the flames. The crackling from the fire was everywhere, accompanied by squeals and pops of expanding wood and crashes as roofs caved in. Sparks danced in the sky, like fairy dust. Aerith, coated in sweat, shielded her face with her hands as she toddled through the front gates, disorientated. How could a fire be so hot? She wondered if she had taken the wrong path when meandering back.

But no, she recognised the street signs. This was Caestro.

People screamed all around her. Mothers sprinted past with babies in their arms, dragging their children behind. Men yelled at each other, trying in vain to put out some of the fires and rescue the loved ones trapped inside, who were shrieking and crying. The noises and the fear scared Aerith. She couldn't understand what was going on. Why was Caestro on fire? Where was everyone going?

She picked up her pace, trying to avoid bumping into people running in the opposite direction. They were hysterical and fleeing chaotically, left and right. The baker from down the road was clutching his arm, which was purple and shiny, and weeping as he stumbled towards her.

"Jason!" she called. "Where's my mother?"

He appeared to not hear her as he looked up from his injury, dazed.

"Aerith!" His eyes focused on her, with a look of panic. "You have to run. It's dangerous here!"

"I need to find my mother," she said. A blast of hot air as the house nearest to them collapsed, whipped her dark curls off her face. "You go. I'll find her."

He shot out his remaining good hand and grabbed her thin upper arm. She struggled, but in vain.

"Let me go!" Her voice became shrill, but he was strong despite being hurt. He dragged her back towards the village gates. More and more people ran past them, armed with nothing and clutching their loved ones. Ash marks were streaked across the terrified faces.

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