As she watched the show of lights in the darkness, she lifted her radio and spoke to the leader of her artillery. “Forward battery, are you in position?” “Yes, sir. Ready to light the candles on your order.”
Cassandra checked her laptop. The blue ring of the transceiver persisted in the sinkhole. Nothing else mattered. Whatever they sought lay among the ruins, with the curator.
Raising her gaze, Cassandra stared at the shimmer of wavering lights where the town of Shisur lay. She lifted her radio, called the forward troops, and ordered a pullback. She then switched back to the artillery captain.
“Level the town.”
A S PAINTER led the others out of the village and through the gates of the ruins, he heard the first whistle. It pierced through the storm’s roar.
He swung as the first shell struck the town. A fireball burst skyward, lighting the storm, illuminating a patch of the village briefly. The boom reverberated in his gut. Gasps rose around him. More whistles filled the air.
Rockets and mortars.
He never suspected Cassandra had such firepower at hand.
Painter fumbled for his radio. “Coral! Go dark!”
Whatever advantage of surprise they had gained by the sudden burst of vehicles from their hiding places had ended. It was time to evacuate.
Out in the town, the lights of the vehicles were all extinguished. Under the cover of darkness, the women were to retreat to the ruins. More rockets struck, blooming in wild spirals of fire, whipped by the winds.
“Coral!” he yelled into the radio.
Barak grabbed his arm. “They know the rendezvous.”
Painter swung around. More concussions pounded his gut.
Over at the sinkhole, the gunfire from the second helicopter had gone silent. What was happening?
S AFIA HUDDLED with Omaha under a lip of rock. The bombs rattled pebbles from the ruins of the citadel atop the cliff above them.
To the south, the dark skies glowed ruddy from fires. Another boom reverberated through the storm’s wail. The town was being destroyed. Had the others had time to escape? Safia and Omaha had left their radios down in the trilith chamber. They had no way of knowing how the others had fared.
At her side, Omaha leaned most of his weight on his right foot. She had seen him take that spill while fleeing here. He had twisted his ankle.
Omaha mumbled through his scarf. “You could still make a dash for it.”
She was worn, her shoulder ached. “The helicopter…”
It still hovered over the sinkhole. Its floodlight had blinked off, but she still heard it. It swept a slow circuit over the sandy floor, keeping them pinned.
“The pilot broke off his attack before. He’s probably half blind by the storm. If you stuck to the wall, ran fast…I could even take potshots from here.” Omaha still had his pistol.
“I’m not leaving without you,” Safia whispered. Her statement was not all altruistic. She squeezed his hand, needing to feel his solidness.
He attempted to free his hand. “Forget it. I’d just slow you down.”
She held harder. “No…I can’t leave your side.”
He suddenly seemed to understand the deeper meaning in her words, the raw fear. He pulled her closer. She needed his strength. He gave it to her.
The helicopter swept by overhead, the bell beat of its rotor wash suddenly louder. It angled back over the center of the sinkhole, unseen, its path described by the beat of its passage.
She leaned into Omaha. She had forgotten how broad his shoulders were, how well she fit against him. Staring over his shoulder, Safia noted a flicker of blue across the sinkhole, a dance of lightning.
She clutched Omaha harder.
“Saff,” Omaha mumbled, lips by her ear. “After Tel Aviv—”
The explosion blew away any further words. A wall of superheated air slammed them both against the wall, to their knees. A flash of brilliance, then all vision squeezed away.
Rocks rained around them. A tremendous crack sounded above. A huge boulder struck the sheltering lip and thudded into the sand. More stones fell, a torrent of rocks. Half blind, Safia felt it under her knees. A shift in the earth.
The citadel was coming down.
P AINTER HAD reached the edge of the sinkhole when the explosion ripped up from there. The only warning: a flash of blue scintillation deep in the hole. Then a column of cerulean blue fire erupted from the chamber opening, lighting every corner, shoving back the storm both with its brilliance and its hot breath.
The ground shook underfoot.
He felt the rush of heat shoot by his face, straight up, confined by the walls of the deep sinkhole, but its backwash still buffeted him backward.
Cries arose all around him.
The jetted column of cerulean fire struck the last helicopter full in the belly, knocking it skyward, cartwheeling it. Its fuel tank exploded in a wash of red flame, dramatic against the blue. The wreckage of the helicopter scattered away, not in pieces, but in liquid jets of molten fire. The entire craft had melted within the bath of cobalt flame.
Next, from the sinkhole’s south rim, Painter watched the ruins of the citadel, perched precariously over the western edge, begin a slow tumble into the pit. And at the bottom, lit by the balefire flames as they petered out, two figures stumbled across the floor, rocks falling all around them.
Safia and Omaha.
D AZED, OMAHA leaned on Safia. She had an arm under his shoulders. They fought through the sands. His eyes wept from the residual burn on his retinas, but vision slowly returned. First a glow formed, dull, bluish. Then he saw dark shadows falling around him, thudding into the sand, some bouncing.
A rain of rocks. A biblical curse.
“We must get clear!” Safia yelled, sounding as if she were underwater.
Something struck the back of his good leg. They were both thrown to the sand. A deep grumble rattled behind them, above them, an angry god.
“It’s coming down!”
P AINTER RACED headlong down the path into the sinkhole.
To his left, the back half of the citadel spilled into the chasm. It groaned and rumbled. Pouring rock and sand into one end of the pit. Painter had witnessed a mud slide during a rainstorm, an entire hillside liquefying. This was the same. Only a bit slower. Rock proving more stubborn.
In snatches through the stormy gloom, he spotted Safia and Omaha scrambling away from the avalanche as it slowly spilled toward them, chasing them across the floor. They fell down again as Omaha was struck in the shoulder and spun around.
Painter would not reach them in time.
A throaty growl whined behind him and a shout: “Out of the way!”
The shout threw him around. A light flicked on, spearing him in the face. He was blinded, but he saw enough in that split second to dive aside.
The sand bike sailed passed him down the slope, spewing up gravel and sand. It leaped the path ten feet from the bottom, front wheel yanked up, rear knobby wheel spinning. It landed with a bounce, a twist, a crunch of sand—then tore off across the floor.
Painter continued down the path.
He had spotted the rider, bent over the handlebars. It was Coral Novak, cloaked and goggled, hood thrown back, white hair flagging behind her.
Painter gave chase, watching the cycle tear alongside the avalanche. Its headlamp flicked back and forth as Coral dodged around obstacles. Then she reached the pair, braking and skidding to them. He heard her shout.
Then she was off again, shooting straight across the floor, away from the tumbling stones, hauling Omaha and Safia, who clung to the seat’s back, feet and legs dragging behind.
They raced clear of the rock slide.
Painter reached the bottom, well clear of the tumult of stone and sand. By the time he reached the floor, it was over. The collapse of the hill and fortress settled to a stop. The steep cliff was now a gentle slope.
Edging the wide delta of spilled rock and sand, Painter hurried to the idling bike. Safia had climbed to her feet. Omaha leaned one hand on the seat. Coral sat astride the bike.
They all stared at the hole in the ground ahead of them. It steamed and roiled, like some entrance to hell. It was where the trilith chamber had once opened. Only now it was ten feet across, blasted wide.
And bubbling with water.
The headlamp of the bike illuminated the steaming surface.
As Painter watched, the waters receded, draining away rapidly.
What was revealed held everyone silent.
C ASSANDRA STARED, unblinking, through the windshield of the M4 tractor. A minute ago, they had watched a blue flash of fire shoot skyward. It had come from straight ahead.
In the direction of the ruins.
“What the hell was that?” Kane asked from the driver’s seat.
They had halted the tractor a hundred yards off. To the left, the town flickered with a dozen fires. Directly ahead, the ruins had gone dark again, lost in the storm.
“That was not one of our bloody mortars,” Kane said.
It sure as hell wasn’t. Cassandra glanced to her laptop. The glow of the curator’s transceiver continued to shine, though now it flickered, as if some interference fluttered its signal. What was going on over there?
She attempted to radio the only person who might know. “Eagle One, can you read me?”
She waited for a reply. None came.
Kane shook his head. “Both birds are down.”
“Order another two copters in the air. I want aerial coverage.”
Kane hesitated. Cassandra knew his concern. The storm, while already blowing fiercely, was only beginning to ratchet up. Its full might had yet to strike. And the coastal weather system was rushing up from the south, promising even wilder weather to come as the two systems collided. Outfitted as they were with only six VTOL copter sleds, to send up another pair risked half their remaining aerial force.
But Kane understood the necessity. They dared not conserve their resources. It was all or nothing. He passed Cassandra’s orders over his own radio. Once done, he glanced to her, silently asking her how to proceed.
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