Part I - Bringer of Storms :: 12
They all looked up at the sky as one. Yellow and black tendrils started to scrawl their way through the growing clouds. None of them had ever seen anything like it.
The air reeked of scorched iron, as if a great skybound blacksmith had just dipped a bright orange ingot into a water trough. The hair on Guardsman Parton's arms stood erect. He looked to the man next to him, who returned the glare with a worried grimace.
"What do you think it is?" Parton's friend asked.
Parton shrugged, his armor clinking, spear pushing forward. "I don't know."
Someone in the rank behind them whispered, "Magic." Parton didn't dare turn around. They were preparing to charge and breaking formation carried a severe punishment.
The Emperor had sent two battalions of the Imperial Army to protect the border town of Smythe, a metal working and quarry town just on the edge of the Whistland's northern most boundary. A contingent of the hostile northern tribes of Animas and Humes that lived there were expected to invade the town, looking for resources to smith their own weapons.
Parton had long heard rumors of the viciousness of the less-civilized community that had yet to be conquered. The Emperor and his forebears had long thrown armies against the area, looking to expand the borders of the lands they ruled. Every attempt had been unsuccessful. Unlike his predecessors, this Emperor had refused to give up. So here Parton was, about to cross a border that only a few had in his generation, ready to fight an enemy that was expected to be ruthless. They also had magic and that frightened the Guardsman to his core.
"It's getting worse," said the man next to him.
He nodded. "Yeah. It seems to be moving this way."
They continued watching the sky grow darker and more menacing with nary an order coming from the Linesman. Parton wondered just what was holding up charge orders. They could clearly see the encampment over the nearby ridge and were only a fifteen minute run from overtaking it.
He looked to his left and past the end of his rank. Beyond his cluster of spear and swordsmen was a new group of soldiers. They were known by the nickname Sluggers to the bladesmen and were officially titled the Projectile Corps. They carried a very new addition to the Emperor's forces: projectile weapons.
These wood and iron contraptions were handheld and launched round slugs of iron and lead out of their long barrels. Some one-handed versions had stubby barrels and a round cylinder that held the slugs, usually eight at a time. The long ones were Long Barrels. The short one-handers were Slugthrowers. A few men carried fluted-barreled Longs that shot multiple balls of metal at once. These were Scattershots.
He had little faith in these contraptions. They had come out of thin air when he was younger and had overtaken the aristocracy's hobbies. The weapons were unreliable and frequently caused injury from exploding in the hands of their operators. The handful of years they had been out had seen some improvement, enough to avail them to the armed forces, but still, Parton felt them to be dangerous and downright useless. Nothing could beat sword and spear save magic and most of that knowledge was tied up with the religious adepts and Alchemists. It had little place in war.
And yet, there it was, right next to him as the man to his left fell forward and started screaming, clawing at his chest and stomach, steam rising out of his mouth. In just two or three short breaths, he had burst into flame.
Parton couldn't process such a quick, visibly blameless death. There was the man behind him again.
"Magic!" It was a yell this time, not a whisper. The ranks behind Parton started to break. He looked to his right. A yellow lightining bolt from the ruined sky licked at the ground just in front of him.
Another man started screaming. Parton turned and witnessed a man's rapidly rotting flesh fall from the skull like putty. He turned again. The ranks in front of him were breaking now. He shuffled right. Left. Stepped over another burnt body. Saw a bolt of green light envelop a nearby spearsman. The man began melting before his eyes.
A small fishing pond turned to liquid fire close to the hamlet they had occupied the previous night. He could hear wild screams coming from smoking, burning buildings. A barn exploded in a flash of blue light.
The soldiers were all scattered, trying to dodge the whipping, cracking bolts of energy raining down upon them. Parton scanned the hamlet for somewhere safe to hide. Everything looked to be on fire. Citizens and soldiers alike were fleeing, falling, screaming, and dying.
Beneath his boots, he felt a rumbling. He whirled around, caught a glimpse of a charging, screaming mass. The tribes were coming. He could see bright flashes of light popping behind the ridge line. Magic. It was magic that was doing this.
His sharp fear motivated his flight. He ran to the left, towards the mass of Sluggers who, in their credit, had yet to break under the might of the war magic.
"Get down!" yelled the linesman as Parton rushed over. He obliged and dropped to the ground, staring at the group of soldiers.
"Aim!" yelled the linesman.
The Long Barrels, who comprised the back five ranks of cluster of troops, raised their weapons. Parton heard a hundred clicks merge into each other.
In one great bellowing burst, the Long Barrels let loose their barrage of screaming metal. The ground Parton lied upon rumbled from the force of the choreographed action. His eyes followed the ever shortening distance between the Imperial line and the approaching tribes. The effect was immediate. A large chunk of enemy chargers stopped in their tracks and fell to the ground. Parton could see some were thrashing about, others stone still.
Another barrage, another large chunk down. And so on until Parton, still on the ground, mouth now hanging open, saw no more upright enemy soldiers. He began to stand and started catching the sounds of chaos still going on behind the line.
Tribe warriors were bursting out of the forest, out of the smoldering ruins of Smythe's farming hamlet, and towards him. He readied his spear and tried to calm his fluttering heart and lighten his leaded stomach. Now was not the time to be marvelling at these new weapons. Now was the time to kill or be killed.
"BEHIND," he yelled and charged forward, helm bouncing against the top of his head.