Gene dreamt of a collapsing home. He stood amongst familiar strangers in an upstairs dining room. They lived around him and despite him; accepting, not including. He watched them jest and organise amongst themselves, but their words were muted. His hand rested gently on the smoothed hilt of the longsword at his side. Comfortable curiosity nudged his gaze between the denizens of their home. But he wouldn’t move from his space.
A tremor teased the room. It became a rumble, then a crunching roar. The timber of the house howled as it distorted. The colour around him changed, as bright life turned ashen and a purple haze bled through the pores of the ceiling. Where things broke apart, there was no falling, only blackening. The movement of the strangers slowed to stillness. As the crumbling found them, Gene’s eyes met theirs for the first time. One by one, they drifted into the dark, and Gene watched their confused eyes as they became nothing.
It was only partly a dream. There was an earthquake.
The thundering rattle of the inn shook Gene awake. The lamp across the street struggled to light his window, flickering in and out of life with each jolt of the earth. He pulled off his bedsheet and stumbled across the black room, peering through the window to watch the small town brace itself. A realmsguard grabbed for a timber post on a porch across the street. A grey man with his own lamp wandered from his home, calling to his neighbours. Voices called through the inn, crying for their kin and begging for certainty where there was none.
Gene scrambled into the dark hallway, pausing to recall Yin’s room number. Others emerged from their rooms, mothers leading sons, merchant’s tying up their bags and finding their partners, and loners scurrying through the panic to imagined safety. As the world shook, his partner’s firm hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Gene, we have to get inland.” Yin spoke calmly and quickly, barely audible through the turmoil.
Gene grabbed her forearm to steady the pair together and pulled her closer. He projected his own voice over the racket. “If the crumbling is beneath us, we’re already dead. Get your things, armor up.”
“Who would fight us now?” she demanded.
“The bounty is close. If we all survive, they’ll be shaken into the open. We have to nab them now, before they flee back into the capital region. Go.”
They broke apart and hurried back to their rooms, pulling on their still-damp travelling gear and strapping leather armor to their torso and forearms. With their few belongings scooped into their bags and their weapons on their belt, they met at Gene’s door and rushed out into the cold and misty pre-dawn air.
The residents and travellers in the small town of Godswatch littered into the street, dumping bags into wagons and fussing over the bridles of their horses. Hooded lamps guided them, throwing low arms of light over the dirt and dust, kicked up in grainy clouds by the shaking earth.