“Sir!” called a voice from outside the tent. “Sir, it’s starting!”
Hanaskit bolted to his feet and flung his golden general’s capelet over his shoulders without stopping to check that the fringe of red and green feathers lay smoothly. He paused only long enough to snatch his farseer from his desk and slip it into the holster on his belt before he pushed open the tent flap and hurried outside.
“Where?” he demanded as he strode past the soldier who had summoned him.
The man fell into step beside Hanaskit and pointed to the west. “The sentries saw the first light due west, sir.”
Hanaskit’s chest tightened, and he struggled to keep his face impassive as he turned to squint toward the setting sun. He had never been convinced that this was the right course of action. Sailing north was all well and good; landing in the unclaimed lands to the east in hopes of flanking the Alokite defense line was perfectly sound strategy. But calling down fire from heaven…that was another matter altogther.
“There, sir!” shouted a sentry from his post on a tall, flimsy tower built from spare yards and ropes borrowed from the ships. The man was nearly invisible, with his dark skin and dark green scout’s cloak blending into the dusk, but Hanaskit didn’t need to see the soldier’s pointing finger. The light was visible to anyone who was looking in the right direction.
It was smaller and dimmer than Hanaskit had expected, a mere streak of golden light slicing across the sunset. But then his sense of scale caught up to him, and his breath stopped in his throat. Hanaskit’s army was more than fifty miles from the Alokite capital where the mage-fire was meant to fall. Fifty miles away, and Hanaskit could see the bolt of flame like a shooting star.
He pulled out his farseer with a trembling hand and lifted it to his eye, invoking the small trickle of magic that activated the device. Distance warped; the sky itself seemed to melt and twist in the viewing lens, and an instant later, Hanaskit was looking at the city of Gath, a tiny glittering shape of white marble and gilded skylights. Even with the farseer’s aid, Hanaskit couldn’t make out individual buildings, only the overall shape of the city. A thread of dark smoke already rose from one side, and as he watched, the second fireball struck, looking no larger than a spark thrown from a campfire. A second line of smoke joined the first.
Hanaskit lowered the farseer, his stomach churning. This was wrong. War was never meant to be waged from such a distance or with such brutal impartiality. When an entire city looked no larger than a marble, how could any commander be expected to take thought for the lives he was ending? Each of those innocuous smudges of black smoke represented dozens of buildings destroyed, scores of people killed or injured — most of them probably civilians, not soldiers. And this was only the beginning.
“Keep watch with farseers,” Hanaskit ordered. “The bombardment shouldn’t last more than a few hours. We’ll begin our march at dawn.”
With that, he turned away and returned to his tent with a white-knuckled grip on his own farseer. He sank down onto the folding stool beside his desk and stared down at the magical instrument in his hand. Gods above and below, what was the world coming to? When Hanaskit was young, magecraft had been treated as sacred. There was a time, not so very many years ago, when the Holy Circle had used their melded power to raise new buildings in a day or to heal dozens who should have died, not to call down fire from the skies.
They never would have managed it if they had conjured the fire from nothing. But the starwatchers had foreseen a rain of burning stars that would skim through the upper sky, and the Holy Circle had joined their powers to drag the stars down onto Alok.
Hanaskit leaned his forehead against his hand. He’d made his objections to the plan and been overruled; the time for argument and uncertainty was long past. Now he had a job to do. His army had to cover fifty miles in the next two days, destroy whatever Alokite forces survived the magical attack, and occupy the capital city of Gath. Hanaskit had a feeling his men would spend the following days rescuing people from the rubble, not fighting off Alokite reprisals.
A sudden tremor jolted Hanaskit out of his thoughts. A groundquake, here? Hanaskit hadn’t thought there were any volcanoes in this part of the world. He frowned at the pitcher on his desk; the surface of the wine quivered and rippled for a moment, then fell still. Then it suddenly slopped over the edge of the pitcher as a second, more powerful tremor shuddered through the earth. Hanaskit’s silver goblet tipped and fell to the ground with a clatter. He pushed to his feet, and his stool toppled over behind him.
Outside, someone shouted, sounding panicked. Hanaskit rushed out of his tent again, then dodged to the side as the sentry’s tower pitched over. Wood splintered and ropes snapped with enough force that one of the loose ends whipped a bloody gash across the face of the nearest man, flinging him to the ground.
“One of the fireballs missed the city, General!” someone shouted, running toward Hanaskit. “It fell wide by at least twenty miles! Hit halfway between us and Gath, as best as we saw.”
Hanaskit swore and turned westward again. Darkness was falling quickly; the sunset had changed from crimson to deep violet, and the first few stars had appeared overhead. The streaks of fire stood out white-hot against the darkening sky. Hanaskit didn’t need his farseer to tell that something had gone wrong. The fireballs were supposed to fall in sequence, one at a time, systematically striking Alok’s largest military outposts. But a dozen streaks of light filled the sky now, spiralling in all directions, scattering and turning back on themselves.
It didn’t take a genius to see what was happening. Alok had its own mages, every bit as powerful as the Holy Circle in Nebor. And they were fighting back. Hanaskit watched wide-eyed as a bolt of fire arced overhead. Surely that one had been larger than the rest? He lifted his farseer to his eye and stared out to sea, tracking the massive streak of light. It sprang into focus: not one falling star but four, clustered together so tightly that they formed a single trail of fire as they plunged into the ocean. A great cloud of steam gushed up, obscuring Hanaskit’s view.
“Gods have mercy!” someone screamed, and Hanaskit jerked the farseer away from his eye to see a blazing star plunging down toward them.
For an instant Hanaskit froze, staring upward at it, but then decades of battlefield experience snapped into place and pushed him into action. “Away from the shore!” he roared. “It’s going to hit the harbor! Drummer, sound the retreat! Move inland!” Hanaskit siezed the nearest unit leader and thrust him toward the nearest group of frantic men. “Get them moving, soldier!”
Discipline saved them. Orders jarred them out of their panic and sent them rushing into motion. Division commanders screamed at the unit leaders, who in turn bellowed at their men, and in seconds the army was on its feet, thousands of men surging away from the shore, dragging the camp supporters with them.
Hanaskit ran with them, heedless of decorum. Someone stumbled and nearly knocked him down; he caught the woman by the hand and dragged her back to her feet. A laundress, by the coarse lye-cracked texture of her skin. She in turn steadied a mage in his brilliant white and red feathered uniform, and the three of them ran onward together, clutching each other’s arms as if they were best friends instead of utter strangers.
The fireball struck the harbor. There was a flash like lightning, and an instant later a wall of air slammed into Hanaskit’s back and flung him to the ground. He landed on top of the laundress and rolled sideways, banging his head painfully against the mage’s knee. Hanaskit found that his ears were ringing, and his entire body felt strange, as if his very bones were gongs still resonating after being struck with a hammer.
It took him a moment to catch his breath and roll to his knees. Then half a dozen hands caught his arms, pulling him upright. “General, are you all right?” The voice sounded oddly distant, as if someone was trying to shout over the noise of the gongs that were his bones. Hanaskit nodded numbly and found his balance.
He turned back to see the harbor in flames. The army had sailed north aboard thirteen ships of war. Three of them appeared to have been shattered instantly by the impact. Four more were broken and quickly sinking. The rest were ablaze. “Gods,” Hanaskit whispered. He’d left only skeleton crews aboard the ships, but even so, he’d just lost dozens of men in a single instant. Not to mention the vessels themselves. The army’s way home to Nebor.
“Sir, the forest!” someone called, and Hanaskit turned west once more to see smoke rising from the pine woods. A smaller fireball must have landed among the trees. Within moments, flames jumped up, a hellish red glow that spread through the trees, silhouetting the black shapes of trunks and branches. There hadn’t been much rain this time of year, and the dry pine needles and sap-cracked bark went up like torches. There must be fifty trees ablaze already; in five minutes, it would be a hundred.
Hanaskit took a long, shaky breath and tried to steady himself. This wasn’t the first time he’d been forced to think quickly to salvage a situation. His men needed him to be an unshakeable rock, now more than ever. “Form up!” he called. “We’re moving northeast.”
Nobody objected, even though that direction would take them deeper into the unclaimed wilderness east of Alok. They had nowhere else to go. Their ships were gone; their path into Alok was blocked. Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting clear of the rapidly growing forest fire. Then — then Hanaskit would have to decide what to do next.