The flames could be seen from far away. The forest around the mayor's house was ablaze, and the fire had spread to the building itself. Several people were making their way towards it, but with the storm raging on and the paths by now largely covered in mud, it was a slow advance regardless of method. A few animals and wagons were being utilized, but the majority of people were, like Rink, going on foot. Out of all of them, she was by far the one the least dressed for the occasion, wearing only her white nightgown which by now was completely soaked from the rain and splattered with mud, and nothing more than sandals on her feet. Her state of dress ensured that she stayed wet, cold, and got increasingly dirty, but she didn't even register any part of that—reaching the mayor's manor, and more importantly, reaching Aniara, was the only thing she could think about.
So she ran, ignoring everything and everyone that was around her. With how ill-suited her footwear was for the trek, she rather predictably slipped and fell. But she barely paused, instead getting back up, using the rain to wash the mud off her hands and arms, and kept running, until she fell again. After getting up for the fourth time, she heard something approaching.
"Get on!" a gruff but familiar voice rang out from behind her. She turned around, spotting Allen and Charon in their full beast forms running towards her at high speed. Markus and Mirise were riding on the back of Charon, while Muse was on the back of Allen. Muse held out her arm as Allen came closer, and with her assistance plus Allen slowing down when passing, Rink managed to get on his back as well, in front of Muse.
"We figured you might want this," Muse said and draped something over Rink's shoulders once she was in place.
"What?" Rink replied before noticing it was her jacket. "Oh... yeah. Thanks." Rink noted that the others had taken the time to get more properly dressed for the weather, at least. She also noted that James wasn't with them, which didn't come as much of a surprise given his leg situation.
"You could have asked for our help, you know."
"Well... I just wanted to..."
"You're the one who stopped me when I was going to rush a Marine base alone... what made you think you had to go on your own? You didn't even get dressed!"
"I had to... I had to get to her," Rink said. "But... you're right, I wasn't thinking..."
"As long as we're still staying together, we'll help each other," Muse said.
"Do you know the way, Allen?" Rink asked.
"Yeah, I've seen the place when I've been walking around," he replied.
"Are you sure you can get all the way there in this weather with us on your back?"
"It's challenging, but I can manage. Charon gave me a little burst of energy, too!"
"What, like that steroid thing?"
"Not as extreme, he said it should keep me running for another hour or two... but I'll need a lot of rest afterwards to make up for it."
"So I'll better make the most of it, just hold on tight!" Allen stated and sped up even more. Charon followed suit, and they were among the very first to reach the mayor's home. The upper floor was still burning, and in front of the house, five people were standing, three of them holding lit lanterns. Rink quickly looked at them as she approached, but Aniara was not among them, and neither was Harry. All five of them seemed to be servants.
"Where's Anni?" Rink half-shouted at them as she got off Allen's back before he had even stopped. The servants turned to look at the group that had just approached.
"What?" Elsa asked.
"Anni... Aniara! Where's Aniara?"
"The mistress and master, and the children... we haven't seen them, we just got out... they might... still be inside, upstairs."
"Then... then why are you just standing there? They may need help!"
"But, the fire..."
"You can't fault them for not wanting to run back into a burning house, Rink," Muse said and laid a hand on Rink's shoulder.
"Okay... okay... but... we have to find Anni! I'm going in!"
"I'm coming with you," Markus stated, as Mirise, Allen and Charon joined them, the latter two back in their human and fishman bodies.
"I'll check around the back," Muse said. "Mirise, you're with me... maybe we can stop some of the spread, at least... and..." she continued before falling silent and looking at the forest.
"And what?" Mirise asked.
"Allen... do you... feel that?"
"Yeah," Allen said. "There's something that's odd, but I can't say what..."
"Well, we're making sure nobody's trapped on that side or anything, at least," Muse stated and turned to the servants. "Clear out the path to the house... right now, we can't do much about the fire, but more help is coming. Make sure they can get all the way here without issue!"
"Anyway, if I can borrow one of those lanterns..." Muse asked Elsa, who handed over her lantern. "We'll check it out, and see if there's anything at all we can do before more people arrive." She headed towards the left side of the house, Mirise following her.
"I'll head inside with you guys, then," Allen said.
"And so will I," Charon added.
"Alright, let's go already!" Rink shouted before the four of them rushed in through the front door, with the fire burning all around them. Markus couldn't help but be reminded of the day his father died, but that just made him more intent on doing whatever he could to save anyone else who was in a similar situation.
"Rink, you hear anyone?" he asked.
"Hold on... there's... I hear the fire more than anything, but... there's definitely some people in a room up the stairs, and... to the left."
"Then let us help them," Charon stated. They headed up the stairs in front of them, finding that the fire was more intense up there. A few parts of the ceiling had already started falling down. As they started going in the direction Rink had indicated, she stopped and turned around. "Is anything the matter?"
"There's something back there too, in the room on the far end... and... it's Anni! I'm sure of it!"
"But there's people over there too?" Markus asked and pointed the direction they had first been heading.
"Yes... there's... I hear three people in there," Rink said and pointed to the second door on the left. "Two of them have to be children... you help them, I have to go to Anni!" Before any of the other three had any chance to reply, Rink had already started running off to the right.
"I'll go with her," Allen said and dashed after her in his hyena form.
"But... oh, whatever." Markus and Charon headed over towards their original target, realizing there was no point in trying to change Rink's mind about this. There was no telling who needed the most help, and Rink was the one most capable of calling for help if she needed it.
So the two of them went to the door Rink had indicated, hearing crying coming from inside it as they opened it up. Their entrance came to the surprise of a young boy and an even younger girl, who were standing next to it. Markus squatted down next to them.
"Hey, we're here to help. Are you two okay?"
"My, my dad," the girl said.
"Where is your father?"
"He tried to get us out, and, and... he's under there!" the boy cried, pointing towards a pile of debris that had fallen from the ceiling further inside of the room.
"We'll help him," Markus said and stood up. "Charon!"
"Yes!" Charon replied and shifted to half-boar form. Making their way over to the pile, they quickly spotted the man lying on the floor face down, with his lower body underneath the debris. The two of them got started on freeing him, with some of the debris still burning, but they didn't let that stop them.
"Urgh..." came a weak mutter from the man.
"Hold on, we're getting you out of here!" Markus shouted in response.
"Robe... Isagel... where are..."
"Robe...? Oh, your children? They're fine, thanks to you!"
"Just give us a moment here..."
"It will be dangerous to stay in here for much longer," Charon said and changed into full boar form. "Allow me to take care of this!"
"What are you- be careful!"
"We are short on time!" Charon growled before charging into the remaining debris, knocking most of it away, further into the room, while making sure nothing would hit Markus. Shifting back to half-beast form, he and Markus soon got the rest of the debris out of the way, including a final heavy piece situated over most of the man's legs.
"Oh... ow..." the man groaned.
"Hey, we're gonna get both of you out of here," Markus said. "Can you... feel your legs at all?"
"Just... pain," he said.
"I'm Markus, and my partner here is Charon," Markus said. He'll carry you out, I'll get your son and daughter."
"Ha... Harry," the man replied. "Have you... my wife..."
"Aniara? Rink went to look for her."
"Ri... Rink?" Harry sounded as shocked as he could in his weakened state. "Is she... really..."
"Save your breath, we must get ourselves out of this house," Charon said as he gently lifted Harry up into his arms. Markus took Isagel on his back and held Robe's hand, and all of them started making their way outside.
"Well... I don't think there's much we can do on our own, here... but maybe we can at least figure out where to start..." Muse said as she looked up at the blazing trees, lantern in hand.
"At least everything's so damp after all the rain, so I don't think it's gonna spread from here..." Muse shined the light in front of them as they slowly made their way around the house. As they had just rounded the corner on the right side, they noticed that a window on the ground floor had been broken. Muse shined her light towards it, finding that it was the window to one of the servant bedrooms. "Someone must have escaped through here," she said and started walking away, but Mirise didn't follow and instead crouched down.
"Wait," she said.
"I hear something... point the light down here."
"Okay..." Muse turned the lantern back towards Mirise, revealing a small pile of rubble that seemed to be moving a bit under the window. Mirise started clearing it out, and soon Muse also heard a weak sound. "Is that..."
"It's... a cat," Mirise said. Muse held the lantern closer, and there was indeed a black cat with white paws lying underneath, weakly hissing at Mirise. "Hey... don't be scared," she said as she noticed that two of its legs were bloody and bent, and it had some bloody cuts on its body as well.
"Is it fine?"
"I think it's broken its legs, and cut itself on the glass... poor thing," Mirise said and started stroking its head before putting both her hands under it. "Don't worry, we'll help you," she said as she scooped it up, holding it in her arms. "We'll have to get it to the clinic..."
"Something's strange, but... good thing we headed back here, then," Muse said and pointed the lantern towards the forest. "Man, it's really blazing... all this from a... thunderstorm... wait, why is the fire... huh."
"I didn't notice it before, but..." Muse took a few steps into the forest, walking up to one of the trees. "This isn't right."
"Hey! It's too dangerous to go in there!"
"It's faint, but..." Muse kneeled down, putting her hand on the ground, bringing up some moss to her face and smelling it before holding the lantern next to the tree, touching the blackened tree trunk as she stood up. "Mirise... how did you say this fire started?"
"The lightning must have hit the trees, and-"
"Did you actually see it happening? Did you see the lightning bolts strike the trees?"
"No, I... I heard the thunder coming from this direction, and then the fire flared up. So it must have been-"
"That's not how the fire got started. There's no indication that any of these trees were ever struck by lightning."
"Are you sure?"
"Have you ever seen a tree struck by lightning?"
"No, I... didn't see any real trees until I left Avasine..."
"I know that you know your weather better than any of us, but I know fire... and I practically grew up in a forest. Trees hit by lightning don't just catch fire. There's marks, scars... bark peeling off in weird ways. You can't easily fake that. The scorching on these trees... it's just too consistent. They can't have burned from the top down. There's no chance any lightning could have ignited a fire that could have spread like this at the top of these trees."
"This fire started at ground level. And the rain should have made it far too damp down here too... but it's almost dry, and what's more... there's a faint smell of gunpowder and oil. This isn't a natural fire, it was started by someone! And hold on... now that I think about it..." Muse ran back to the broken window and shined the light into the room, leaning in slightly to get a better look. "That's what was bothering me!"
"The glass! There's almost no broken glass on the outside, the cat wasn't lying in a pile of shards... but there's a lot of it on the floor inside!"
"But... that means that..."
"Yeah. The window was broken from the outside, not the inside. With the thunderstorm as cover and distraction, someone set a fire, made sure the house got caught in the flames, and... when the servants had cleared out..."
"You mean someone wanted to burn the mayor's house down?"
"If that's the case... Rink and the others might be in danger from more than the fire," Muse said and looked up towards the house. "If someone made their way in through the window here... let's head back, they might need–"
Before Muse could finish her sentence, they suddenly heard a crash from above, sounding like another window being broken with force. Looking up to find the source, they saw two large bodies flying out from the upper floor of the building in a cascade of glass...