Screaming in the dark, and then – fire. Explosions ripped through the royal palace, strong enough to send cracks slithering through the marble facade. Flames burst and burned as slaves, stewards and serving-girls poured from the palace, desperate to escape. The city of Thebes flashed and flickered in the firelight; soldiers dropped their spears and seized buckets of sand and water. The flames ascended, a roaring tower churning smoke and ash out into the night. Everyone, royalty, citizens and soldiers, stood stunned as the palace began to collapse.
Everyone but the boy. Uncrossing his legs, he rose, as the fire danced in his eyes. His heart stabbed at the walls of his chest, urging him forward into the disaster. The rag he used to softened the hard stone streets was kicked aside as he hurtled against the flow of panicked Thebans. Echoes of the first explosion hung in the boy’s ears like the clanging of a bell, as he ran towards the palace gates, fighting the crowd. His eyes narrowed in the fire’s harsh light, arm raised against the glare. Survivors clutched at their recovered jewellery, or beat at their smoking clothes; some rolled in the gravel, while guards and volunteers slung water at the walls. Still his heart beat him forward. The palace doors were wide open, and above the noise of the fire, he heard screaming. The boy ran, into the gaping jaws of the blazing palace, dragged by inexorable destiny.
He could not breathe, and in seconds his skin’s sweat was blasted dry by wave after rolling wave of heat. His roughspun robes fell to the ground, but he forged ahead. His bare feet slapped on the cold marble floor, but even the stone was beginning to warm. Tapestries melted from the walls in flaming chunks, bindings buckling and groaning. He passed a group of servants, their eyes wide with terror, as they hobbled an ageing maid through the wreckage. The boy flew past, up the sweep of the curving staircase, while another thunderous explosion ripped through the building. Pillars and walls shuddered, dust and ash crumbling loose in the tremor’s wake. Still the screaming persisted; still the boy’s heart beat him forward. Two looters tried their luck, as the boy sprinted past the open doors of the treasury; above the roar of the flames, he heard them yelp as their hands touched hot gold. Servants gasped as the heat stole their breath, but the boy ran on; the screaming endured, and it was getting louder.
Through great double doors, and into the inferno. The heat was terrifying; the ground floor below had started to smoulder. The boy had long since lost his bearings, eyes made bleary by stinging smoke. The sound of screaming, the beat of his heart told him, higher, higher, and he seized the rail of the nearest set of stairs. Through and up, and the walls gave way to columns. The courtyard opened up below him. The garden looked burnt to ash, an open throat of flame. Now, nobody in sight, and yet the screaming rang long and loudly still. Upstairs again! His feet flew across the hall, passing the giant doors which led to one of the main galleries. He glanced quickly sideways, slowing his step for just a second; peering inside, the boy snatched his chance to see the place where Cadmus, King of Thebes, would feast with his royal court. From above, he looked down upon the banquet-hall: the sight was ugly, tables and chairs still in place, yet blackened and twisted. Goblets and platters were melted together into rich puddles of metal. A wall of hot air blasted at him, bringing with it the smell of charred meat - the boy prayed to all the gods of Olympus that it was only the scent of the kitchen’s supply. The air shimmered like water, and all around him the wealth of Thebes burned.
The final floor, and now the boy was among the royal chambers The screaming was louder now than ever, and as he charged he whipped his head from left to right, peering through open doorways for the source of the noise. Flames devoured the walls, rubble littered his path, and the ceiling lay strewn open; above, Tiresias could see the darkness of the open sky. Firelight drowned the stars. Picking his way through the flaming wreckage, he approached the last chamber on the corridor.
It was the last his mortal eyes would ever see. From the doorway, he surveyed the scene through a suffocating screen of fire. The chamber had once been rich, but all ornaments had been torn away by the ferocity of the blaze. Walls were bare of hangings, charred black and barren. The skeleton of a royal bed, its four thin posts stripped to crumbling stalks, stood over to his left. On the bed, a tortured sight: a girl writhed in burning agony. Her hair was gone, leaving only blistered flesh. The flames took her, and she shrieked her last, clawed hands digging into an open wound in her belly. But it was not this horror that captivated the boy. The screams of Princess Semele, dying in a torrent of fire, were not the only thing to have drawn him through the disaster.
Among the smoke and shimmering flames, something massive moved. It shuffled like an injured man; what looked like hands cradled a tiny bundle. As the boy watched, the thing turned its head towards him. Two points of light seared from it, and at once all around him was eclipsed. The screaming was gone, but in the boy’s head the blood roared like thunder. A flash blazed across his vision as the ceiling collapsed, and the figure – along with everything else – disappeared.