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The night burned a pulsing orange.
General Vorto, supreme commander of the legions of Nar, stood on a hillside beneath the red flash of rockets, safely distant from the bombardment hammering the walls of Goth. It was a cold night with frost in the air. He could see the crystalline snow in the sky and on his eyelashes. The northern gusts blew the battle rockets up and over the city and bent the fiery plumes of flame cannons. Goth's tall walls glowed a molten amber at its weakest parts, and in the city's center small fires smoldered, the result of lucky rocket shots. Gothan archers rimmed the catwalks and battlements, raining down arrows on the thousand legionnaires encircling the city. High in the hills, rocket launchers sent off their missiles, while on the ground war wagons lumbered on their metal tracks, grinding the earth to pulp. Inside the iron tanks, teams of gunners pumped kerosene fuel into the needle-noses of flame cannons and blasted away at the unyielding stone of Goth.
The war machines of Nar were at work.
General Vorto pulled off a gauntlet and tested the wind with a finger. Southeasterly and strong, he determined. Too damn strong. A curse sprang to his lips as he pulled his metal glove back on. So far, the Walled City didn't seem to be softening from his attack, nor had the winds abated to cooperate. It had only been a few hours since he'd begun his attack but he was already growing impatientnot a good trait for a general. He ground his teeth together in frustration, and watched as the city of Goth withstood all he could throw against it.
"Resist, then," he grumbled. "Soon we will have the ram in place."
Nearby on the hillside, the gunners of a modified acid launcher awaited their general's orders. They had loaded the first cannister of Formula B hours ago, when they'd first arrived around the city. Vorto had hoped the wind might cooperate, but the breeze had picked up and so the order to fire had never come. There were five more such launchers in the hills around Goth, all primed like this one, all awaiting Vorto's order to fire. Vorto blew into his hands to warm them.
"They are strong ones," said the general to his aide, the slim and dour-faced Colonel Kye. "I've underestimated them. They have a stomach for siege, it seems. I would have thought Lokken weaker than this."
"Duke Lokken is weak," corrected Kye. He had a rasping voice that Vorto had to strain to understand, the result of a Triin arrow through his windpipe. "When the dawn comes he will see what's out here waiting for him, and he will surrender." The colonel smiled one of his sour smiles. "I am optimistic."
"Yes, you can afford to be," said Vorto. "I cannot." He pointed toward the city's towering walls, thick with archers ignoring the bombardment. "Look. See how many men he has? He could hold out for weeks in there. And these damned winds . . ." Vorto halted, mouthing a silent prayer. God made the winds, and he had no right to curse them. He confessed his sin, then turned his attention to the giant launcher sitting nearby. Ten cannisters of Formula B waited beside the magazine, ready for loading. The bellows that would propel the cannisters was swelled with air. It groaned with the sound of stretched leather. Vorto reached down and picked up one of the cannisters. His gunners gasped and inched away. The general held the cannister up to inspect it, turning it in the pulsing rocket light. The cylindrical container was no bigger than his head. Inside it, he could feel liquid sloshing around. There were two chambers in the cannister, one full of water, the other loaded with Formula B, the dried pellets the war labs had synthesized. Upon impact, the cannister would shatter and the components would mix. Any small breeze would do the rest.
Theoretically. Formula B had never been tested in the field. Bovadin had fled Nar before its perfection, leaving a handful of tinkerers behind to finish his work. Formula A had proved too caustic to transport, even in its dry state. But Formula B, the war labs had assured Vorto, was perfect. They had tried it on prisoners with remarkable results, and they were sure fifty cannisters of the stuff would be enough to wipe out Goth.
But the winds would have to cooperate.
Brooding, Vorto put down the cannister. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't risk detonating the formula in such stiff winds. The walls of Goth were high, certainly, but were they high enough to contain the gas? And what if one of the cannisters landed outside the walls? If there was a safe distance from the caustic fumes, no one knew its measure. Maybe Bovadin did, but the midget was in Crote now, hiding with the sodomite Biagio.
Have faith, the general reminded himself.
"If I fly with dragons, and dwell in the darkest parts of the earth," he said, "even there will Thy right hand guide me, and Thy light shine a path for me." Vorto smiled dispassionately at his colonel, who was not a religious man. "The Book of Gallion," he declared. "Chapter eleven, verse nineteen. Do you know what it means, Kye?"
Kye was unmoved. Unlike Vorto, he followed the edicts of Archbishop Herrith out of duty alone, and not of any sense of the mystic. Vorto had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the colonel of the reality of Heaven, but Kye had remained skeptical. He was a loyal man, though, and a fine soldier, so Vorto overlooked the older man's heresy.
"They fly the flag," said Colonel Kye simply. "That's all I know."
Behind Kye, Vorto could see the city of Goth aglow in rocket fire, its stone towers tall and defiant. And at the city's heart, billowing in the winds atop Lokken's fortress, waved the Black Flag, that hated symbol of old Nar. It was a crime to fly that banner now, but Lokken and others like him flaunted Herrith's commandments. Vorto would not be satisfied until he pulled down that flag and stuffed it down Duke Lokken's lying throat himself.
Since the death of Arkus and Herrith's ascension, there was only one flag that the nations of Nar were allowed to fly. It was the same banner Vorto's men milled under now, a radiant field of gold harboring a rising sun. Herrith himself had designed the standard. And the bishop had named it wisely, and blessed it with the power to rebuke the Black Renaissance.
It was called the Light of God.
And whenever Vorto saw it, he felt a catch in his throat. Now, as they circled the enormous Walled City, his standard bearers held the Light of God high so that the glare of the rockets alighted on it like the touch of heaven and all the misguided in Goth could see it. Tonight they flew their Black Flagtonight they displayed their loyalty to a dead Emperor and his equally dead idealsbut on the morrow if the winds were fair, the Light of God would wave above Goth forever.
"Check your azimuth," Vorto commanded the gunners. "I want no mistakes when we launch."
The gunnery chief looked at his leader questioningly. "Are we launching, sir?"
"We will be," replied Vorto. He strode over to the weapon and checked the gauges himself. It was unfamiliar work, but the crude dials and sliders were simple to understand. A small pointer along the barrel displayed the estimated distance in forty-yard increments. His gunners had set the range on maximum and pointed the barrel, high enough to scale Goth's wall and lob the cannisters into the city. Curious, Vorto regarded his gunners.
"Best guess, Chief. These winds . . . too much?"
The soldier wrinkled his nose and looked up into the night. The snow flurries were coming down in a slant. "Hard to say, sir. The cannisters are heavy, so they should fly straight. But that's a damn high wall. We'd have to call back the wagons before I'd be comfortable."
Vorto nodded. "Agreed. Be ready."
The general turned and walked to his warhorse. The powerful dapple-gray, outfitted with hammered armor, snorted unhappily as its master mounted. Vorto was an enormous man, and so required an equally enormous horse to support him. This one was from Aramoor and big in the shanks. Upon Vorto's back was strapped his axe, the only weapon he favored since the loss of two fingers. Though less precise than a sword, he had found the axe at least as devastating in battle, and its twin blades gave him a desirably frightening presence. He wore no helmet, for he liked the sounds of battle and feared no arrow. He armored himself traditionally in black, but he knew his greatest protection came from Heaven. He wore his head shaved and his cheeks smooth, and he adorned his hands with silver gauntlets polished to a mirror shine. Big in the extreme, he was not fat at all, but rather muscled the way a bull is muscled, and when he was shirtless his deltoids gave him the appearance of a wing-spanned hawk or the hood of a cobra. Save for Herrith himself, no man in the new Nar held more power than he, and no man was more feared.
Everything about Vorto was inhumanparticularly his eyes. They were a faded blue, like two lusterless gems, dim and without life. As a boy they had been brown, but the potions of the war labs had changed that. The same potions that had once made him very near immortal had done strange things to Vorto's body. Like Arkus and the rest of the dead emperor's Iron Circle, they had all become addicts, dependent on Bovadin's amazing narcotic. But since the little scientist's departure there had been no more of the drug. It was just one more secret Bovadin had taken with him to Crote, and so Vorto and the others loyal to Herrith had learned to live without it, despite the bone-crushing withdrawal. Sometimes, when it was quiet and he was alone, Vorto still had cravings, but with God's help he had tamed his demons. Others had not been so lucky. Some of the foppish Naren lords had been unable to withstand the pain and had perished. A few had even flung themselves out of Nar's towers rather than endure another moment of agony.
But Vorto was more stout-hearted than those weaklings. He had overcome the drug and Biagio's schemes for the throne, and he considered that his proudest struggle. Now he and Herrith were rid of this tribulation, mostly, and ready to destroy the rest of Biagio's designs. There was wise work to be done in Nar these days. Men like Lokken still held on to the ideals of the Black Renaissance, Arkus' godless disease. The Black Flag still flew in at least four other nations, and those who didn't fly the symbol of the past often refused to fly the flag of the future. Very few had come willingly to the Light of God. Archbishop Herrith could count only a handful of the Naren nations as true allies. But he had Vorto behind him, and Vorto had all the legions of Nar. In time, Lokken and everyone like him would heel.
God's will, thought Vorto as he spied the city. God's will that they should die this way. Like cows on the killing floor.
In the days of Arkus and the Black Renaissance, Vorto had trod the world like a prince. He had maimed and slaughtered for the emperor's false ideals, and had bargained away his soul for soft beds and lewd company. But he was not that man anymore. He had heard the call of the Lord and had been cleansed. Herrith and God had saved him.
Vorto had no remorse. The Black Renaissance was a cancer, and the only way to deal with it was to eradicate it utterly. Ideas were powerful, hard to kill. To leave a trace of them was to invite death. Those who were called to do Heaven's work needed to be iron-willed and, sometimes, iron-stomached. There would be a stench from Goth for months, and the buzzards would feast, but Duke Lokken would be dead. Biagio would have one less ally on Naren soil to threaten the throne, and the Light of God would fly above the city, a symbol of God and his mercy.
Vorto spurred on his horse and guided it down the slope. When this was over, he would sleep well. Colonel Kye mounted his own horse and followed his superior down the hillside, sidling up to Vorto and shooting him a suspect stare.
"We're going to launch?" he asked. "When?"
"When I say so, Kye."
"But the winds . . ."
"I've come a long way to bring justice to Duke Lokken and his rebels," snapped Vorto. "I won't leave defeated."
Kye grimaced. "Begging the general's pardon, but I think you just want to try the formula."
Vorto shrugged. Kye was almost a friend, and sometimes overly familiar. "It's God's will," he said simply. "When the other nations see what's happened here, they will think twice about siding with Biagio. They all have armies, Kye. Vosk, Dragon's Beak, Doria. We can't be everywhere. Biagio knows this. And the memory of Arkus is strong." He gave his second a mordant glare. "We must be at least as strong."
"General," said Kye evenly. "We have enough men to take the city."
"I intend to take the city and more, Kye. Now get that damned ram into position. It's time we knocked on Lokken's door."