A contribution to Chuck Wendig’s most recent flash fiction challenge: A piece which must be titled “The Fire of the Gods” and be no more than 1000 words long.
The Fire of the Gods
The new star had appeared in the sky over Cyrannus on the eve of the Harvest Festival, and had caused much argument among the Hierophants. It did not behave like any of the multitude of fixed stars that populated the dome of the heavens, progressing across the sky in a staid, orderly manner, turning predictably with the seasons. Nor was it like the planets, the heavenly abodes to where the divine Ancients had withdrawn in the Great Exodus two score and thirteen generations ago, and which regularly appeared in the sky for days at a time so that the gods could keep watch over the descendants of the faithful who had remained behind.
The new star, on the other hand, appeared in the sky each night, and often several times. Always it came and went in the same pattern, crossing the sky from sunsetwards to sunrisewards as quickly as a running man could cover the distance from the gates of the royal palace to the Temple of the Ancients. It would disappear beneath the horizon, only to return half or a quarter of a watch later for another pass. And some of the most sharp-eyed warriors in the Kingsguard had even spotted it during daytime.
Thus, on the sixth days after the appearance of the star, the Council of Hierophants gathered on the summons of the High King to debate its significance. Some interpreted it as a messenger from the gods, a sign that the Ancients would finally return to Cyrannus, as they had promised, and bring with them a new age of salvation and prosperity. Others felt that it was a warning for the faithful to renounce their sins, and a harbinger of the divine wrath that would come over the people should they not renounce their wicked ways.
Eventually, on the advice of the Council, the High King decreed that the daily burnt offerings in the temples and households should be doubled, and that all subjects should undertake a daily period of prayer and reflection. Yet the star remained in the sky, quiet and unchanging, and as days turned to weeks, the people of Cyrranus returned to their daily routines, only occasionally turning their eyes skyward to wonder at their new divine companion.
But in the early hours of the day of the Festival of Snowfall, fifty-three days after the first star had appeared, the new star was no longer alone; there were now dozens of stars moving across the sky in the same pattern. And at the same time, messengers came to the capital to report that gigantic flying chariots had set down among the holy ruins of Starija Porta, some distance away from the capital, from where the Great Exodus had started, and were disgorging ranks upon ranks of warriors in unearthly armours.
With growing concern, the High King summoned the Council once more, but by then, it was much too late. At daybreak, hosts of black demons flew over the capital with terrible thunder and screeches, spitting out a terrible breath of destruction that within minutes had turned the once-magnificent city into an ocean of flames and death. Thus, with the fire of the gods raining down over the helpless cities of the kingdom, the invasion of Cyrranus had begun.
Aboard the flagship of the orbiting Imperial invasion fleet, the Admiral was roused from his studies of the planet beneath them by the timorous approach of his adjutant. “Report,” he snapped without turning around.
“Lord Admiral,” the adjutant said, “the Marines have established a bridgehead at the ruins of the old starport. Our advanced scouts have encountered and defeated some minor organised resistance, and are now advancing towards the capital.”
The Admiral made a curt nod. “Proceed with the suppression.” The adjutant bowed again and quickly withdrew, leaving the Admiral to resume his contemplation of the planet.
He had long ago concluded that the Second Empire had fallen because of the softness and tolerance of its rulers. They had permitted too much diversity, too much independence, too many particularist interests. Eventually, the Empire had come across at the seams, broken down in a century-long civil war that had destroyed the galactic society, ushering in a millennium of regressive ignorance and darkness. But now the Third Empire was on the rise, having clawed itself back to a shadow of the old technological prowess, and it would not repeat the mistakes of its predecessors.
The Admiral spread out his arms as though to embrace the entire planet. Two Galactic Empires had fallen because of their weakness. But this Third Empire would be forged in fire and strength, and the pitiful savages of this world, the old Imperial colony world of Cyrano, would be the first to have the honour of submitting to its rule. It would stand forever, governing through order and unity, and a Fourth Empire there would not be.
On the surface, the world was burning. After two score and thirteen generations of waiting, the gods had returned. But instead of salvation and prosperity, they had brought with them only fire and death. Their black demons had performed their task well. The royal palace lay in ruins. Their own temple, where the Hierophants had brought the Ancients burnt offerings and obedient prayers, was now itself a smouldering crater. The Kingdom of Cyrannus had ceased to exist, the first conquest of the reborn Third Empire.
But somewhere in the city, in one of the bombed-out houses, a young man, tearfully cradling his mother’s burnt corpse, raised his eyes to the fading stars in the morning sky, and swore to whichever unknown gods were listening that he would have his revenge. The Ancients had come with divine fire and power beyond imagining, but the fire of hatred and vengeance now blazed in his heart – and when driven by such a fire, even a mortal may challenge the Gods.