Aeron and the other survivors spent the rest of the night at the nearest People's Army garrison where they all received prompt medical treatment and lodgings. It turned out that Brian had also survived the battle, having escaped the mansion before it completely collapsed. The young druid-in-training had been shaken and bruised but not gravely injured. Aeron, meanwhile, had his chest injuries treated and bandaged by a rather strict Army nurse and he was sent to bed immediately.
Still, Aeron could barely find sleep as the moonlight poured into his room. He constantly replayed the bloody battle in his mind as he stared at the room's wood paneled walls, flip-flopping between blaming himself for Gregor and Siana's deaths and telling himself that none of it was his fault. He remembered the druid Duncan's advice: either Aeron could hold himself back and agonize about what he couldn't change, or he could accept what had happened and dedicate his time and energy to things that he could change.
That advice wasn't as easy to follow as Duncan had made it sound.
Morning came bright and early and Anderson's platoon oversaw the post-battle operations. Several heavy-duty Army trucks rumbled onto the scene and work crews used chains and thick ropes to let the trucks drag away chunks of rubble. For hours the Army crews slowly scattered the massive chunks of stone until the damaged entrance to the basement panic room was uncovered. Anxiously, Aeron and the other mages moved in as close as the crews would allow while the shelter was cracked open.
To Aeron's relief, most of the Stewarts were alive in the shelter and gratefully climbed out and into open, dry air. Men, women, and kids were all hoisted out of the damaged shelter and onto secure ground. The final tally counted eighteen survivors, including Siana's mother, Rodina.
Then, Aeron watched anxiously as the crews picked through the rubble to find other survivors. Aeron clenched his fists and hoped against hope as more chunks of stone and wood were pulled away. Countless bodies were found: Dearg-du thralls, house guards, Army soldiers, three Dearg-du, several werewolves, a few Stewarts, and Conall's gigantic form. It gratified Aeron to see Conall's limp body in the rubble. Last night, when he had finally found sleep, Aeron had seen Conall's undead form shredding Kenna and Commander Anderson over and over. Gregor's body was found as well, but Aeron wasn't surprised. Rodina burst into tears at the sight.
Aeron's hopes sank further when Siana's body was recovered, too.
"Oh... by the gods..." Rodina stumbled toward Siana's crushed form, but the crews discouraged it so the woman merely sank to her knees. A few of the other Stewarts crowded around her, offering comfort.
Aeron, unable to help himself, joined the crowd and reassured Rodina. "She was a hero," he told her gently. "She made sure that the rest of us got out alive. The others and I owe her everything."
Tears poured down Rodina's face and she clenched her fists on her lap. "Siana, she... she was my daughter, my little baby girl. And your damned Mage Force took her. I told her not to join your awful army, but she went and did it anyway, and now she... she..."
"Mom, it's okay," said one of the younger Stewarts.
She didn't regret anything she did. Siana did what she thought was right for her life, Aeron thought, but he decided against voicing his opinion. Instead, he sighed deeply and walked away from the rubble zone, standing on the edge of the rocky cliff. He let the warm morning sun wash over him as he stared out into the badlands, still marveling at the sight. He was much more used to pine forests and rolling hills. Somehow, the primal, simple beauty of this place made the grief and horror of this whole situation seem to melt away.
Crunching footsteps sounded from behind him but Aeron didn't turn around. Kenna joined him at his left side, watching the exotic landscape with him. "She was special to you, wasn't she?" she asked quietly.
Aeron managed to find his voice. "I... yeah. She was really someone."
"Mmmmmm." Kenna paused for a second. "Forgive me, but... did you love her?"
Sighing again, Aeron said, "For a while I thought I did, but I guess I was being shallow. Getting caught up on people's looks."
Kenna looked alarmed. "Don't blame yourself for anything, Aeron."
"I'm not. I guess I needed this much time to figure out where my heart is. I can say goodbye to her and... that should be the end of it. The druids taught me to accept what I can't change and move on so I can -"
He stopped when Kenna wrapped him in a tight hug, burrowing her face in his chest. "I miss her too," she muttered into Aeron's Mage Force uniform. "I don't think you should lie to yourself about how you feel. It's natural to grieve. Our duty can come later."
Aeron embraced Kenna in return and realized how much her warm body comforted him. He felt a thrill of gratitude and fondness for her. "You know, you're right. Talwydd's problems can wait."
"Boss! You can't be serious!"
One of Bevan Flanagan's top officials followed the rebellion leader through the apartment-turned-HQ all the way to Bevan's office, nagging the boss the whole way.
"I am serious," Bevan snapped, running a hand over his unshaved jaw and sighing with fatigue. He crowded past several officers in the hallway and swung open the heavy oak door to his office while the official followed him in. As the official closed the door behind him, Bevan stopped and turned to face the man. His patience had been worn quite thin and he didn't bother to act otherwise. "This is the endgame, do you understand me? You've seen the same maps as me and you're aware of the same troop movements. I can't have squads of my men garrisoned in remote towns around cities like Awrych and Ryth Gawaid right now! Golau, this city, is where everyone is needed."
"We're jeopardizing our entire operation by concentrating in Golau!" the official retorted, jabbing an accusing finger at Bevan. "Boss, if I didn't know better I'd think you were a sellout to the Mage Force and People's Army! They can handle the incoming corrupted horde. We're risking everything with this plan of yours."
Unlike the strict Mage Force and People's Army commanders, Bevan believed that his subordinates should be free to speak their minds and contribute to the cause without rank and official titles interfering. But still, this man's insistence was irritating.
"Look at this." Bevan pointed to a paper map on his office's bulletin board, tracing his finger over the roads, towns, and natural landmarks. "The mysterious entity's corrupted creatures are all converging here on Golau, clearly with the intent to destroy Talwydd High Command and shatter mage supremacy. For a while the entity has been biding its time and striking other mage garrisons, but now all chips are on the table. That entity will risk everything to win. And there's going to be a lot of collateral damage when the corrupted monsters come crashing through Golau in order to reach the city hall, and I don't intend for countless civilians to suffer and die."
Ironically, even though Bevan's makeshift rebel HQ was right here in Golau he was in no position to assault the city hall directly. He didn't have the men. But this entity's black mist-corrupted creatures had no such inhibitions, and besides, a horde of fire-breathing Cu Sith, bloodthirsty lobstoids and wailing banshees outstripped any army that Bevan could muster. He hated the Talwydd Ascendancy and the mages now as much as ever... but the mages were still fellow human beings, and the entity's horde could not be bargained with or negotiated with. Only the corrupted horde's total destruction would solve this particular problem, and the Ascendancy's forces would need rebel assistance in order to keep Golau and its citizens safe. Then the mages could be dealt with.
The official ground his teeth. "I don't want to lose any civilians either. But Golau is a fortress of a city! And the city hall is on that hovering island with the enchanted bridge. Not even possessed Cu Sith or banshees could storm that place. And let's not forget that the eight elite mages of the High Command are the most powerful mages alive. They'll die to defend their government."
This much was true, Bevan had to admit. Although the elderly Supreme Magus Aodhagan was the most visible figure of Talwydd High Command, there were seven other equally powerful old mages who administrated the Ascendancy. Still... there was another issue. "What are we fighting for?" Bevan asked the official.
The man stared. "Is that a trick question, boss?"
"It isn't. Just answer."
"We're fighting for equality and to free the common people from mage oppression."
Bevan nodded. "That's right. We're not fighting for glory or to put our names in history books. Everything that we've done is for the people of Talwydd. If we're not willing to confront our enemies and put our lives on the line for the common people, then what are we doing here?"
"I... yes, of course. I had lost my perspective," the man apologized. "Now that you put it that way..."
"That's what leaders are for," Bevan said sagely as he walked over to a window and watched the sun rise over the cityscape of Golau. "To guide everyone else back on track when they stray from what must be done."