The ramshackle and ruined chain hung useless in the boy's hands, staining his skin and clothes with grease and oil. He had tried to repair it, but his efforts had been in vain. The threatening black and dark clouds announced that, if he didn’t hurry, he would have to carry out his work while punished by the cruel and merciless rains, typical of the region.
It wasn’t the first time his ruined, old-fashioned bicycle broke down, and each time it did, the young boy and his brothers lost weight dangerously. Not that he earned too much money, but every day was a promise to get some bread from the previous day or some old food from a bar; sometimes, he would get a good ration of hot stew or soup for his brothers. The problem, of course, was who arrived first to claim such a glorious prize.
He ran out to the nearby hardware store, wishing with each fiber of his body that the owner, Gorvam, had already opened his business. The shudders ran through him as he imagined what would happen if he woke the man up; actually, the hardware dealer was not a bad person, but he used to be short-tempered and tended to raise his voice and hurt with words.
He turned around a corner and could see, to his relief, that Gorvam was opening the doors of his establishment with a frown of a drowsiness that still had not left him. The boy approached slowly and timidly, thinking how he was going to get the favor of the hardware dealer.
-Good morning- he babbled in a low voice, trying not to disturb the man.
Gorvam turned around and assessed him with one look, and as a sole answer he grunted. The owner of the hardware store was fat and bald, with a large gray mustache and a sparse, sloppy and half grown beard. He usually smelled like all the products he sold, and always wore the same gray wool coat decorated with all kinds of spots.
-You see, mister Gorvam- the boy continued -, my bicycle chain broke down and…
-Again?- the ironmonger interrupted him with hoarse voice; he truly wasn’t a morning person -. What do you do with chains? Eat them? I wouldn’t be surprised- he added with a burst of laughter and looking at the boy's ungraceful silhouette -And what do you want? A new one?
-Yes…- he answered -. Please- he added quickly, as if those words could magically change Gorvam's willingness.
-Can you afford it?- it was precisely the question that the boy wanted to avoid.
-Not now, but I promise to do it- he said, still looking at the ground; every time he asked for charity, he was overcome with a heartrending shame -. If I exert myself hard, with the profits of the day I could pay for it... I need my bike, or my brothers will starve to death. Yesterday they only had one meal…- he thought of his younger sister, who a week ago was almost died from a simple low-grade fever -. I beg you…
Gorvam looked at him for a few seconds, then gave a long, deep sigh. He began to rummage through some shelves and extracted a chain in perfect conditions.
-I don’t understand how you keep moving forward... nobody reads newspapers anymore, Vilo -the man said with a sad expression -. You should look for another job if you want to survive, and soon.
-I could work for you- the boy suggested, excited and jumping with relief when taking the new chain with his hands -. I could work here.
-Unfortunately, nobody buys at hardware stores either…- Gorvam laughed sarcastically -. If business was better, I'd love to lend you a hand, Vilo, but this is all I can do- he added, pointing at the chain -. Now go, and hurry up, or you'll miss the chapel communal pot.
-Oh, yeah!- young Vilo answered -. Thank you, mister Gorvam! Thank you very much!
-Don’t even mention it- said the ironmonger, waving the thought away -. And don’t smile like that, I mean it: don’t you dare mention it.
-I won’t!- Vilo yelled as he ran towards his house.
A violent lightning tore through the dark and stormy sky, followed by its resounding thunder. Vilo thought of his younger sister, Sasha, who had a paralyzing fear of storms, and hoped that the rest of his brothers could comfort her. They were a large family: four women and two men, and he was the oldest of them all.
As he fixed the bicycle, he looked in the direction of the big city, and promised himself that as soon as he could, he would take his brothers to know it. He himself had gone there only once, when he was ten years old. His father had shown him the great buildings and the advanced vehicles. He remembered tasting some delicious sweets and seeing his mother smile. It had been six years since then, and sickness and grief had visited Vilo's home, leaving him alone and in the care of his brothers.
When the repairs were ready, he mounted the bicycle and pedaled with all his energy to get to the newspaper stand. In general, he took his time to try to read the news and practice his reading; but he had been delayed long enough and he could not afford to lose the communal pot.
Another lightning flashed in the dark vault the sky was now, followed by a gust of wind that almost threw him off his bicycle. Vilo maneuvered nimbly with the handlebar of his vehicle and managed to get stabilized, quickly getting to shelter under the awning of a grocery store. He checked his cracked watch and frowned with confusion: at that hour, the sun should have already begun to rise, lightening the sky regardless of the presence of clouds. Instead, the darkness was overwhelming, almost as if the black night sky had descended into the streets and taken over the city.
Hesitant, Vilo watched the street leading to the chapel, which turned in a curve in the distance. He felt that something was wrong, very wrong, and he instantly thought of his brothers. He cursed inside, and turned the bicycle to go back home, taking a last look at the church long alley. The wind blew from any direction, sometimes with strength, sometimes weakly, making it an ordeal to handle his bicycle.
What followed next, Vilo would describe it as if it was a dream. Time seemed to slow down, decelerating reality around him. On the horizon, a shower of bright blood colored rays crossed the sky; the power supply was cut off in the city, but it was illuminated by constant crimson flashes. The violent tremors that the boy felt at his feet made him fall off the bicycle and prevented him from standing up. The clouds began to swirl and shine, until it seemed as if they were made of smoke and embers; thousands of fiery arrows began to fall in the distance, increasing their size and setting fire to the fields that Vilo and his brothers used to watch from the overlooks. In the hills, the boy watched how the earth cracked and vomited flaming tongues. A small rubble hit him on the head, and a name echoed in his head: "Sasha!".
Suddenly, time returned to its normal course and Vilo began to run back home, tumbling because of tremors and dodging the occasional splinter of fire. He opened the door of his house with a kick and fell inside, stumbling. He felt a wet heat on his lower lip, indicating that it had split in the fall. He tried to sit up, and he saw from the ground how his four little sisters and his brother Graham looked at him terrified.
-He have to get out of here!- he yelled with desperation, while a thundering crush resounded outdoors.
Graham shook his head quickly, and his expression changed to conviction, encouraged by the presence of his older brother. He stood up and began to raise the smaller ones, while Layra, second in age, ran in search of some blankets.
-No time for that!- Vilo stopped her -. I have no idea what’s going on, but we have to get away as soon as possible!
He picked Sasha up and had Layra take Rose, barely a year older than the youngest. Graham had already gone ahead and had Mika on his back. They began to run, but a nearby explosion made them stagger. Vilo prevented Sasha from hurting himself, turning his body to fall backwards and cushion the blow. His brothers helped him to get up, but none of them could continue walking, terrified by what they were contemplating.
In the distance, over the flaming debris of what had been Gorvam's tent, they could see a gigantic sphere of fire falling slowly and menacingly over the great city. The meteorite fragmented with a violent explosion and what appeared to be a pair of wings engulfed in flames unfolded with sullen and dark magnificence, scattering hundreds of embers around it. Another fragmentation, and more fire was spread. Just before making its destructive landing, it exploded strongly, spreading a blanket of smoke and ashes.
A brutal boom accompanied by tremors and earthquakes forced them to turn and direct their eyes to the hills. Magma tongues were licking a gigantic pair of arms that emerged from the earth, also raising a cloud of dust and sandstone that made it difficult to see the figure. But Vilo saw it clearly, paralyzed, terrified, fearing for the mental health of his brothers and fervently doubting his own sanity.
He forced his legs to walk, feeling them as if they were filled with lead, and yanked Graham and Layra to follow him. He didn’t know where to run, with debris and flames raining everywhere, with houses and buildings giving in to the tremors, with hundreds of people running for their lives or dragging their loved ones that had been burned or crushed. They turned a corner and began to dodge the other citizens, feeling infected by the collective desperation that was increasingly growing.
A huge, flaming building fragment fell brutally on the street that Vilo and his brothers were traveling, crushing dozens of people. The boy saw the deluge of debris rushing over them, and sought refuge in the alleys behind some tall houses. He didn’t understand anything of what was happening. How was it possible that such chaos had been unleashed on the city and no specialist had said anything about it? He did not remember that the newspapers had mentioned anything of a meteor shower or impending earthquakes and eruptions of volcanoes.
-Stay here- he said to his brothers when the debris stopped falling.
He went slowly and carefully to the street they had come from, and terror again paralyzed him. Everything around him was a ravaged flaming hell; but that vision would have been bearable had it not been for the titanic figure that loomed between the buildings of the great city. His wings were extended and a thick black smoke came from his back; the fire illuminated its reddish skin and seemed not to damage it; its eyes emitted a glow of their own, shining beneath a prominent pair of horns. Suddenly it started to shout and gesture words that Vilo didn’t understand, pointing to something with its right arm.
The boy followed the direction the monster was pointing to, and he could see in the hills another gigantic being, as terrifying as the one in the city. It had four massive arms that made threatening gestures in the direction of the winged beast; it gave a loud laughter that seemed jocular and full of fun. Were they about to fight? What were those beings? Or was it that he was having a nightmare?
-The gruwek!- a shrill childish voice shouted at his side, bringing him back to reality -. The gruwek is coming!
His little sister Mika had followed him without him noticing her, and was pointing at the four-armed monster, crying desperately. He cursed within himself the curiosity of the girl and all those who had told her stories of fear about the “gruwek” monster. He picked her up and ran to where his other brothers were, forcing them to stand up. Sasha and Rose were quickly infected by Mika's crying, and Layra, despite being eager not to cry, had her eyes in tears. Graham's look of despair finally succeeded in devastating Vilo, filling him with overwhelming helplessness.
He sat leaning against a wall and the three younger girls ran towards him. He grasped them tightly as Graham and Layra sat beside him and joined the embrace. He tried not to sob, but he couldn’t help the tears from sliding down his face. "We are going to die here", Vilo thought as the rumble of the monsters' footsteps echoed alongside the explosions and the collapses. He closed his eyes and clung even more strongly to his brothers, waiting for the moment when the darkness fell over them.
How could this have happened? Until that morning, his biggest concern was to get some coins to get some food and supplies. He remembered waking up thinking about buying a thicker and warmer blanket before the winter came. He had made an overwhelming effort to keep Sasha alive, getting all the medicines she needed. Everything had been worth it, because the embrace in which he had sunk with his brothers was warm and comforting. He began to calm down and even to relax; at least he was with them, and he was sure he would see his parents again... But strong hands separated the embrace of the six brothers and made them stand up.
-Eraion…- Vilo said when he recognized the face.
-Yes, yes, me- the young man answered as he signaled a group of people to get closer -. Forget about our disputes, now we have to get out of here.
Eraion was a couple of years older, and had always been in charge of tormenting and bothering Vilo. The rest of the young people idolized him and saw him as a leader, something the boy had never understood. Vilo didn’t have a gang, but from time to time, when he was not working, he took it upon himself to claim vengeance, silently but harmlessly. Their rivalry had been going on for years, but that had not prevented Eraión from helping him at that critical moment.
-All right- Vilo answered resolute, overcome by a strange feeling that had replaced his despair. He dried the tears of Mika, Rose and Sasha, and lifted the smaller one, kissing her on the cheek -. Let's go.
Eraion and his companions began to guide them through some streets and alleys, taking detours when they encountered a landslide or a fire. Vilo turned a few moments and saw that the monsters had begun to attack and brutally beat each other up. But this time he was not paralyzed: he was willing to protect his brothers by any means necessary, even if it meant following and obeying Eraion.
The young man took them to the outskirts of the suburbs, and pointed them to the entrance of an extensive drainage system. They ran towards it, while a gleaming flash illuminated the city completely; Vilo didn’t turn around this time, because nothing mattered more than leading his brothers to safety.
-These are the last ones!- a man shouted to be heard among the blasts and the roaring wind.
-No!- Eraion refused -. There are still many people in the streets! We must help the wounded!
-Look at that, you damn fool!- the man shouted, clutching the young man by the shoulders and making him turn around.
With his brothers already sheltered, Vilo looked in the same direction as Eraion, and could not help terror to dominate him once again. In their destructive struggle, the monsters demolished buildings and reduced everything to rubble; the city had been rendered unrecognizable. Everything around them was a great vortex of flames, smoke and ashes, with glowing embers dancing in the air. Both boys exchanged a brief glance and entered the tunnel.
Inside, there were fewer people than Vilo had expected, and he understood Eraion's urgency to protect even more people. Children cried in silence, without making a sound, while adults comforted them. Some women had taken up to care the wounded, running back and forth to relieve the burns and close the cuts. The boy realized that each person there had lost everything... their homes, their families, their whole lives had taken an unexpected and inexplicable turn.
A couple of men entered the tunnel dragging a third, seriously injured, and carrying large bulging bags. They left the injured one on a stretcher improvised with sheets and quilts, and then they began to empty the bags: preserved food cans, rolls of paper, a couple of blankets, bread, boxes of cookies, water bottles, medicine kits.
-Provisions…- Vilo murmured, sitting on the floor and holding Sasha up to reassure her -. Is this how our lives will be now? Take a risk each day to look for food and supplies?
-No- Eraion answered, without hiding the anger in his voice -. This can’t continue.
-And what do you intend to do? With those... things out there, we can’t go out without being cooked alive- Vilo reasoned.
-I do not care... the World can’t take long to retaliate. And if it doesn’t, we will find the way- he said, clenching his fists -. Someday... someday I'll find a way to kill them. I will do it, I swear it for my life, for my parents, for my home and for my…- he stopped for a moment, and Vilo couldn’t tell if his expression was one of hatred or pain; maybe it was a combination of both -. For my Chiara- he completed -. I don’t care if they spit fire or make fire rain, I don’t care if they are huge, I don’t care if they destroy everything in their path. I will improve, I will become stronger, I will learn to use all the weapons that exist, I will achieve everything within my grasp and I will take revenge on those damned Demons.