Hatchet came back to consciousness with a start, gasping, ears ringing with the aftereffects of the Tower's explosion. The last thing he remembered seeing was the Watch's historic headquarters as it flew apart into a thousand pieces... but now he could hardly see anything. The world was just a blur as his eyes refused to focus. He took slow, deep breaths and squeezed them shut, trying to recover his senses.
He could taste blood in his mouth, he wasn't sure why. His sense of balance told him he was lying face down on the ground, and exploring with his hands told him he was still encased in the protective shell of his exoframe. None of his bones felt broken.
Slow breath in, slow breath out... as he concentrated on his breathing the ringing in his ears faded. It was replaced with a deathly silence that would have made him worry he'd gone deaf, had it not been for the sound of his own ragged breathing. At last he opened his eyes to find that they were finally cooperating. Unfortunately, all he could see were the cobblestones of the courtyard.
The exoframe didn't want to cooperate when he tried to stand up. He could get the right arm to move and had limited success with the left, but the legs flat out refused to do anything. "At least I can flip over," he mused, and did just that. The exoframe landed on its back with a loud clang. "And now I know what a turtle feels like," he groaned, staring up at the clear blue sky above. It took a moment for Hatchet to realize what that meant. The portal was gone... that meant they'd won. Right?
There was only one way to find out. His fingers found the latches to the exoframe's canopy and fumbled to snap them open. He released the straps that held him in and, despite a sharp pain in his shoulder, he pushed open the hatch and climbed out. The sight that greeted him made his breath catch. The Ivory Tower was gone, with only parts of the first floor and parts of the adjoining buildings still standing. But he'd expected that. It was the utter devastation it's destruction had imparted on the surrounding cityscape that surprised him. Huge sections of the Tower had smashed homes and shops, flattening some completely and tearing ragged holes in others. Pieces landing in the streets or courtyard had gouged craters and furrows into the ground. One particularly jagged chunk of stone had landed very near his own exoframe, and he counted himself lucky to be alive.
Others were not so lucky. At least two exoframes had been hit by debris large enough to damage them severely. He doubted their occupants were still alive. The others were beaten, battered, and dented, but more or less intact. As he surveyed them an exoframe lying on it's side stirred. Hatchet hopped from his own frame and started towards it, ready to help whoever was inside. Before he could reach it the hatch popped open, and out rolled Asmova.
"Bac dasrama!" he cursed, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet. Hatchet was there to catch the inventor as he stumbled. Asmova braced himself with both hands on the Watchman's shoulders and the two took a long look at each other. "You look terrible," Asmova noted.
"You're not exactly one to talk," Hatchet countered. A line of blood trailed out of the inventor's right ear, and his nose had lost a cascade of it down the front of his face and onto his shirt. Blood aside, his hair was matted thickly on his head and a combination of dirt and sweat was smeared across his face. "If I look anything like you, we both need to find a healer," Hatchet said.
"Pfft," Asmova dismissed the notion with an unsteady gesture. "My workshop exploded once. You should have seen me then! Hospital for a month!" His chuckle quickly faded into a cough. After clearing his throat noisily and spitting, he looked around. "This, I think, is worse," he allowed. "The others?"
"Dead or still in their exoframes," Hatchet told him. "Or both. We should start prying people out, see if they're still alive."
"The ones without the exoskeletons..." Asmova breathed, looking with fresh horror at the cratered landscape. "Oh no."
"Yeah," Hatchet pressed his lips together. It didn't bear thinking about, especially Volker and Lucan, who had been at or near the top of the Tower when it had exploded. "If we're lucky some of the frames will be operational," he changed the subject. "We might still need them."
"Yes," Asmova seemed to shake himself. "Yes, of course."
They found only one more exoframe operator alive. In addition to the two that had been obviously crushed by debris one looked to have died in the fight with the demons. That left Hatchet, Asmova, and a man named Carter, who was shaken but no worse off than the other two.
"Where's Anara?" Asmova asked as they looked around the debris. "I don't see her exoskeleton anywhere."
"She took the mages over the wall," Hatchet told him.
"She could be alive still," Asmova suggested. "The bottom of the Tower still stands. If she was in just the right spot..."
"Hey," Carter interrupted. "Somebody's coming." He pointed away from the Tower, and as Hatchet watched he saw figures making their way through the debris. It was the rest of the Watchmen that had come aboard the Headwind. Not as many as they'd left behind, but far more than he'd ever expected to see again.
"Hatchet!" Watchman Conroy called as he came into sight with a big grin plastered on his face. "By all the gods, man, what did you do?! We thought we were done for until we saw the Tower explode. Then the demons... just ran away."
"We survived, is all," Hatchet told him.
"Just barely then," Conroy commented. "You three look half dead."
"That's about how I feel. Anyway, we got the mages to the top of the Tower. I think Noman made it up there, too. No idea what happened to make the damn thing explode, but it seems to have done the trick."
"Come," Asmova told Conroy, "Help us. We were about to look around the Tower's base for Watchman Anara and the mages."
"Anara went with them?" Conroy winced.
"Got them over the wall, anyway," Hatchet said.
"You think they made it out?"
"Only one way to find out. Besides, they're mages. If anybody could survive that, it's them."
Volker sat with his back against what was left of the Ivory Tower, a small pile of rocks at his side. His eyes slowly swept the area before returning to Lucan, huddled over Olian's tortured body. "How is he?" he asked.
"Alive," Lucan sounded exhausted. "If only just. It was all I could do to keep him that way." He looked over at Volker, eyes hooded. "I need to lie down now," he said, lowering himself to the ground. "You'll keep an eye out?"
"Of course," Volker promised, though he felt every bit as exhausted. He could feel it in his bones, he was so tired, as if the spells he'd crafted atop the Tower had sucked years away from his life. They very nearly hadn't made it safely to the ground, explosion or no.
Lucan closed his eyes and was immediately asleep. Volker rested his head against the wall and fought the urge to do the same. He must have fallen asleep with his eyes open, because he jerked in surprise at movement that hadn't been there a second ago. Uttering a handful of quick, sharp, syllables he sent one of the rocks flying from the pile beside him. It struck with a loud clang, followed by the sound of someone cursing.
"Anara?" Volker asked hesitantly.
"What in the hells, Volker?" Anara's exoframe emerged from the shadow of the Tower, a large dent in it's front hatch. "Any higher and that could have gone right through and put a hole in my head!"
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't expect... I must have dozed off, and when I saw something move I just reacted. I'm glad to see you're alive."
"I got lucky," she told him. "I was just in the front hall when the place flew apart. Part of the ceiling fell on me. Managed to dig my way out, thankfully. Are they...?" She gestured to Olian and Lucan.
"Both alive, somehow," Volker told her. "And I think they've got the right idea. I can barely keep my eyes open. Would you mind terribly?"
"I'll keep an eye on things," she promised. Volker nodded, closed his eyes, and began to snore softly.
The army set up a new command post in Marsten's civic building. At first they treated the city with the utmost caution, sending out patrols to sweep the streets for demons and garrisoning strategic buildings. It became quickly obvious that none remained, and as they day drew to a close scouts were dispatched to make sure the horde wasn't returning.
"I can't believe it," The Captain said, sitting in a chair on one of the civic building's balconies.
"You'll have to be more specific," Her Ladyship told him. She had elected to stand, and was leaning against the railing as she surveyed her empty city. "Do you mean you can't believe we won? That we survived? Or that any of this happened at all?"
"That you're still wearing those clothes," he said. "We've swept your estate, it's clear. You can go back any time you like and put on one of your expensive dresses."
"I think the time for expensive dresses is past," she observed. "And speaking of my clothes, did you find the Watchmen who lent them to me? Did he survive?"
"Yes and yes," he nodded. "He's with the garrison of the White Swan Hotel at the moment. I understand he's quite happy with it."
"Be a dear and work the money I promised him into his next payday. I'll make sure the Watch is compensated."
"It's going to take us a long time to recover from this," he observed.
"I know," she agreed. "The physical damage can be repaired relatively quickly. We may even get many of the refugees at Redhurst to return. But everybody's going to know... this is where the first Incursion in hundreds of years happened. That kind of reputation will be hard to shake."
"What about stopping it? Just us and Redhurst, and we stopped an Incursion on our own. That's got to be worth something."
"The world is going to need demon hunters again," she mused. "There's no one with better experience at that than us just now."
"I don't know about hunting them... killing them, on the other hand, we did well enough."
"Especially if we can get more of those exoframes from Redhurst. It's never too soon to start building a better reputation. And speaking of better reputations," she asked, "is there any sign of Noman?"
"None," The Captain told her. "According to Volker he was at the top of the Tower when it went. He says Noman sacrificed himself to close the portal. Lucan agrees. I had some men search through what was left of the Tower, if only to find his body. They didn't find anything."
"I'd say that's cause for some redemption, don't you?"
"You mean forgive the murders?"
"If all he said was true he didn't have much choice in that. I almost feel sorry for him. And in the end, he did willingly sacrifice himself to put it all right."
"If all he said was true then this is just the beginning." The Captain sighed heavily. "If the gods are back, with who knows what plans... the world is about to get a lot more interesting."
"I think I'm going to go survey the damage around the Ivory Tower," Her Ladyship said abruptly. "Do you feel up for an expedition?"
"No, you go without me. My leg is in no shape to go scurrying through that mess. But... find me when you get back, will you?"
"I'll make a point of it," she promised.