Afoot, he carried it in his arms wrapped in an old coat, safe from the high winds, the fallen walls, and the shards of sky collapsing all around. It was a fine relic; the last of its kind to have survived intact.
The earth shook every so often, objects rained at random from all directions at once, occasional fireballs flared out from cracks beneath the ground. Bright and warm like springtime blossoms, he thought with a grimace and hugged the vase closer to his chest.
Fewer people ran through the streets these past few days; he saw none today. Could these ruins be called streets? Their ashen breath prickled his nostrils, seeped into the pores of his skin. The scrawny alley cats have disappeared as well, and the ramble of explosions coming from the distant battlefield have died away.
Past the shadows he slipped, taking cover when danger loomed, though most shelters could not be trusted for long.
The air has been murky for weeks. The once familiar city had turned into a labyrinth. He might have already crossed it from east to west, north to south, a few times over. Or has he been circling the same neighborhood again and again? Whenever he found water pooled in the wreckage, he would suck the drops dry, spitting out dusty sediments. He had yet to find any today.
Exhausted, he ducked into a ditch and laid himself on the debris-littered ground. The vase was cradled within his curled-up body and his eyelids slid shut before his head met the ground. His once spotless suit was now but rags splotched grey and brown, hanging loosely on his frame.
Did he fall into a deep sleep or merely dozed off for a few minutes? He could not tell upon awakening. Peering out from under the struck-down tree that roofed his shelter, he wondered if anyone beyond these veils of acrid smolder has endured.
Was the vase still unharmed? He unwrapped it with feathery fingers. In the dim light, his eyes scanned the intricate, bejeweled ornaments. He brushed his hand across the design, lingering on a small embossed being, half-bird half-beast, whose name escaped him now. Hunger is the enemy of memory, he mused.
Twelve inches tall, adorned with mythological motifs, its value was immeasurable. Recalling its former placement atop a glass-protected shelf in the softly lighted gallery, he knew keeping it out of harm's way was now his sole charge.
An earthworm appeared beside him. He scooped it up. The creature shoelaced down from either side of his open palm; tiny clumps of earth clung to its moist body. Life underground remained largely unaffected, he realized. Tickled by the spasming creature, a chuckle escaped his lips. The sound took him by surprise as if it were someone else’s laugh. An echo from a distant past.
He replaced the worm on the ground and watched it slowly writhe away until it disappeared into a crack.
Does this creature stand a chance? he wondered. Yet for what purpose?
With the vase swaddled in his old coat, he crawled out of the ditch and rose to his feet upon reaching the open air. He looked up, trying in vain to trace a patch of blue sky, even a hint, and resumed his flight.
Where to, he knew not.