Under the tortured sky that rained ash and ember stood the army of Phaisto, sick, starved, exhausted, but advancing on the citadel of Kastri, now set to ruin by the Eleuthan hordes, a species that crawled from the cracks that were a result of an earthquake in the nearby mountains a decade ago. The blood of the citizens trapped and captured in the citadel now ran down the hillside and under the feet of the volunteer soliders, their elephants, and the war machines they pulled inch by inch up the treacherous incline.
Phaistos himself was an imposing man, seven feet tall and wide with muscle. He had himself tattooed his forehead with the image of thorns, one thorn for each family member in the citadel. He never laughed with his men, and walked the entire way to the citadel by foot instead of on an elephant. He wore no tunic but instead, a necklace made of the fingers of the Eleuthan he had personally killed.
He stood by a war machine, his men watching intently even in their tiredness. He swung his axe up then came down on the rope, splitting it. The bucket whipped up and flung its contents, the flaming heads of a hundred Eleuthan towards the citadel. He watched the trajectory and was satisfied when they sailed over the walls. He moved on to the next war machine and repeated the action because he was the only one in the army with the strength to cut the ropes.
Behind Phaistos was the tent occupied by his advisors. They watched him as warily but also with as much admiration as any of the soldiers he commanded.
"What is your prediction, Heron?" asked Cyrillus, former general of the army and friend of Phaistos' deceased father.
Heron was the highest court pyromancer. He squeezed fat from the skin of a slain Eleuthan onto a small fire set in pebbles in a brazier and the flames licked up higher. He took in the smell while Cyrillus waited and tapped his fingers by his sides. The third man in the tent was Zephron, the governor of the region who was lucky enough to be away in the capital visiting one of his mistresses when the Eleuthan invaded the citadel. He was a rounded man, used to the finest luxuries afforded him by his position, and was not comfortable with either the business of war or of religion.
"Heron," prompted Cyrillus. "Do you have an answer?"
"It is a careful art," said Heron quietly.
"Yes of course," said Cyrillus sharply. He sighed heavily and went back to watching Phaistos through the gap in the tent entrance.
"He will vanquish the Eluethan completely," said Zephron. "That much is certain. You can see how he commands the men. To repel a supernatural force so quickly...he will be long remembered, and may even ascend to godhood upon his death...should that ever happen."
Cyrillus turned his gaze to the governor.
"You should be more careful with your tongue," said Cyrillus.
"Oh, I rightly share your fear of the man," said Zephron, his eyes sparkling. He poured himself a glass of wine and drank half of it in one gulp.
Cyrillus looked over at Heron, who was still engrossed in reading the flames.
"I admire his courage," said Cyrillus.
"Of course you do," said Zephron.
"Heron, what do you say of the battle?" asked Cyrillus.
"There will be five days more of the seige," said Heron. "Few if none will remain alive in the citadel, and those that do will be infected with the sickness of the Eleuthan. They must be killed and released to the heavens by flame."
Cyrillus nodded, thinking the tactic was a mercy. He thought it lucky that most of the soldiers had escaped it themselves, but then the sickness was only contracted if an Eleuthan managed to ravage your body but let you live, for the sport of it.
"What else?" asked Cyrillus.
"The Eleuthan will all die," said Heron.
"We must ensure it," said Zephron, "and seal up the mountain cracks."
"We must make sacrifices to the mountain," said Heron sternly, glaring at Zephron.
"I apologize for overstepping my...jurisdiction," said Zephron. "But wouldn't it be prudent to cut off the Eleuthan's access to us?"
"The mountain must breathe!" exclaimed Heron indignantly. "The fires inside require air, as all fires do. The gods would not forgive us if we let the mountain die by strangling its lungs!"
Zephron stared at Heron, not sure how to respond.
"I only meant it as a practical matter--"
"You should adhere to what you do best," said Heron, his cheeks reddening, "and leave spiritual matters to spiritual men."
"Are you implying that--"
"Heron," said Cyrillus, "what of Phaistos himself?"
"He will win the battle," said Heron.
"You know what I mean," said Cyrillus.
"You want to know if he will take the throne," said Zephron.
"He will have the will of the people with him if, I should say when he wins this battle."
"And you worry that he will turn his forces towards the capital," said Zephron.
"Yes," said Cyrillus after a moment's pause. He looked at Heron. "I only worry for the men. They need rest."
Zephron warily glanced over at Heron. The man was an unknown quantity, since his allegiance was to his order and to the gods.
"The gods have favored Phaistos so far," said Heron. "It is always possible that they should change their mind, but the words the flames speak do not allow me to read that far into the future."
"I am only concerned with returning the citadel of Kastri to its former glory. Any war in another region is not my primary concern."
"Your citadel will be affected--" said Cyrillus quickly.
"Of course. I only said it is not my primary concern," said Zephron.
Cyrillus walked over to Zephron and spoke into his ear.
"Hate burns in Phaistos' heart," he said in a whisper. "Hate born of loss. He enjoys killing and he will not stop even if peace is attainable. He is a creature of war and is not fit to be our ruler."
"You are jealous he took your army from you--"
Cyrillus grabbed Zephron's arm by the elbow and twisted it back so that Zephron had to kneel at the pain.
"Watch your words," hissed Cyrillus.
"This is unseamly conduct," said Heron. "Desist."
Cyrillus let go and Zephron stood. He straightened his tunic and finished off his cup of wine.
"My apologizies," said Zephron. He bowed to both Cyrillus and Heron in turn, then left the tent.
"I am sorry," said Cyrillus to Heron. Heron nodded.
"The winds of the future can always change, if a man takes action," said Heron. The two men looked at each other in a still silence. "I'll leave you with that thought."
Heron bowed and left the tent as well. Cyrillus stood again at the entrance and watched him leave for the mess, then turned to watch Phaistos' large form striding across the battle field, shouting orders. Cyrillus felt his nervousness leave his body as a course of action made itself apparent to him.