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Erthaelion Candidate | joined 08 October 2004 | 25 posts


Serious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... posted 30 October 2004 in The Thousandfold ThoughtSerious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... by Erthaelion, Candidate

Lets get some discussion happening here.

Whats gonna happen?

How does everyone feel about the Kellhus/Gnosis situation that looms over everything? Will Akka ovecome his newfound loathing for Kellhus that was borne of Esmi's betrayal? Will he see past the man's monstrous tendencies and do what may be the only thing that saves the world?

Will Conphas betray the Holy War at the walls of Shimeh? Will the city fall despite his treachery?

What does everyone make of the references to the Emperor's impending doom? Mundane death, Istraya's betrayal, or something more?

Who is Maithanet? What does everyone make of his his meeting with Ikueri Xerius III at Xothei?

What will happen with Cnauir and Moenghus? Revenge, or failure and damning insanity? view post


Serious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... posted 03 November 2004 in The Thousandfold ThoughtSerious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... by Erthaelion, Candidate

Well, now I have a pile of ideas that will come out in a most discombobulated form, so bear with me and endure this mess.

Regarding Kellhus' power:

He quite obviously has a firm grip on the Holy War, but can he halt their march before Shimeh? If he does need to save th Cishaurim, or save humanity, if thats at all a concern of his, how does he stop the Holy War? Granted, the obvious reply is, " He's Kellhus; he could probably make them prance around pleasuring themselves for days on end, if he told them they should." But realistically, he has to subvert a horde of men empowered by their intoxication on faith. The Men of the Tusk are, in all liklihood, going to be hungry for ultimate victory. How can Kellhus stop them now?

Regarding Conphas:

Unless I misunderstand, he still holds plenty of sway among the Great Names. Wasnt it he who denounced the Consult and Achamian before everyone? Lets face it: if not for Kellhus, Conphas would have taken control of this mess a long time ago. Kellhus is dividing power, not uniting it. I dont know what to think the outcome of the struggle for power will be, but the key is, not everyone, especially not all the Great Names, believe in kellhus 100%. And, if we're going to be on the topic of titles, what do you make of "Aspect-Emperor" as a title for the next series? Smells like Conphas to me.

Cnaiur:

Seems like he's really lost the handle, especially with his kid being named after his mortal enemy. Ouch. He's the wildcard, in that anything is possible when that wacko's flyin around.

The title:

I dont know if the TT refers to sorcery. I mean, it probably does in some way, but who knows. Its Moengus'/ Mallahet's(if it is him, which seems entirely likely) idea, but does it involve sorcery, or the No-God, or something else? view post


Serious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... posted 03 November 2004 in The Thousandfold ThoughtSerious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... by Erthaelion, Candidate

Little Moe is alive in Esmi's care from the sounds of things. And the swzond on his neck was from trying to kill himself, right again. Good call Anor. Also, good call on the Sarcellus-Conphas link. But I dont see Conphas losing lustre quickly. Too much charisma, too intelligent.

Kellhus as Aspect Emperor? I dunno about that. Its been proven he's not even a caste-noble. I guess, however, he is a descendant of the HIgh Kings of Kuiniri, but still, ASpect Emperor?

I still thinks its Conphas.

What does everyone think about the Emperor dying and Maithanet? view post


Serious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... posted 04 November 2004 in The Thousandfold ThoughtSerious TTT thoughts, predictions, ideas... by Erthaelion, Candidate

Andrew, I agree to an extent...

You're gonna tell me Proyas is gonna do a 180 and abandon the mission for Shimeh, though? I dunno, I agree Kellhus looks pretty godlike right now, but I cant see them giving up on Shimeh without damn goodreason at this point.

"The Aspect-Emperor" is, if I'm not enitirely misled, the name of the next series Scott is writing in the saga. I figure its a name refering to Conphas, but its just a guess. Aspect-Emperor was the name given to the rulers of the Ceneian Empire, correct? view post


Scott, tell me this won't be your excuse for delaying TTT ;) posted 07 November 2004 in Author Q & AScott, tell me this won't be your excuse for delaying TTT ;) by Erthaelion, Candidate

How much of the series had you actually completed so many moons ago, Scott?

How much of the sequels changed in your "sanitized" rewrites? view post


Scott, tell me this won't be your excuse for delaying TTT ;) posted 08 November 2004 in Author Q & AScott, tell me this won't be your excuse for delaying TTT ;) by Erthaelion, Candidate

And what point did the author feel he went from hopeless dreamer with no skill to what you've become? Was there a moment, or just a gradual absorption throughout the years of post sec?

Guess I'm just wondering, as a 23 y/o post-sec. punk myself, when all this work at this so-called credible institution is gonna transform whatever "talent" I supposedly have into some sort of pen-to-paper ability... <!-- s:? --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_confused.gif" alt=":?" title="Confused" /><!-- s:? -->

Not that senior English courses aren't FUN or anything.... <!-- s:wink: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_wink.gif" alt=":wink:" title="Wink" /><!-- s:wink: --> view post


Of Kings and Emperors... posted 14 December 2004 in Author Q &amp; AOf Kings and Emperors... by Erthaelion, Candidate

OWW is awesome, Gable. Honestly, I've let buddies read stuff, profs etc., but a full community of fan/sci fi fans who love to read and write is so much better than English people and/or people who read fantasy(who, unfortunately, read a plethora of crappy stuff like Dragonlance and Salvatore and their critical skills are somewhat lacking). You really get a spectrum of opinions- and not the biased opinion of your buddy who has to have beers with you and doesnt want you to punch him in the face if he says it sucks.

Post it on the site here if you want; I can promise I'll at least have a rip on it during the drinking/Christmas break.

Cheers view post


Nicholas Eames Chapter Five posted 14 December 2004 in Member Written WorksNicholas Eames Chapter Five by Erthaelion, Candidate

Not bad.

Remember that all criticism is critical of the writing, not your ability to write.

Which you certainly seem to have to a degree.

The first sentence is long and impossible to understand the first time. You can mention lineage anytime. Mentioning names and places in the verbose way you begin with is unworkable.

I found you have similar promblems elsewhere. The ability to know big words and use them properly isnt the ability to write intelligently. Anyone can use a thesaurus. Try using simple words that flow. Your prose is at time hard to read simply because your sentences are long winded. Using a simpler word would work better in alot of places.

Try reading what you wrote aloud. Not the sentence, but an entire chapter. Wherever the flow doesnt work, simplify.

Mieville, Marco, Erikson and our gracious host and reason we are on this form are all exceptionally gifted at this.

Another good excercise is listening to books on audio. Lots. You'll get a really good feel for what great writers' rythems are. This is moderately heretical, but...it is proven.

Overall the story looks unreal. Basically, if you are a smart writer, you dont need to pound it into peoples heads with long, well crafted sentences. Pace and flow.

This said, you certainly have talent. view post


Nicholas Eames Chapter Five posted 15 December 2004 in Member Written WorksNicholas Eames Chapter Five by Erthaelion, Candidate

I'm glad you see what I'm saying. It got alot better as it went though. The first few paragraphs....unless you have some explanation of these people earlier on, explaining their ranks(if its of any importance anyways) within the first few sentences really bogs this down. Slowly with the info drops! I have the same problem...

Its so easy to say "My world rocks! Bow to it!" and want to explain every damn thing about it in three paragraphs.

Reading the next chapter tonight, hopefully. If not tomorrow.

AND, I post before Christmas, if finals' studying goes ok.

We'll have competitions for who has the coolest Emperor... <!-- s:roll: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_rolleyes.gif" alt=":roll:" title="Rolling Eyes" /><!-- s:roll: --> view post


Nicholas Eames Chapter Six posted 16 December 2004 in Member Written WorksNicholas Eames Chapter Six by Erthaelion, Candidate

I only skimmed through this quickly. Seems solid. I'll be more thorough over the holidays bud, give you a rundown. Much smoother.

Questions: Whats your setting supposed to look/feel like? Tastes of Greco Roman and Medieval. I really cant SEE your city. Is it described at all earlier? It felt, honestly, like the two chaps at the start were talking all alone beneath a statue that I couldnt quite picture, so I immediately saw cuirassed Augustus with his arm upraised.

Need work there. If its a busy forum, dscribe it. Bring the reader there.

In terms we both can understand: Akka in the forum when Maithanet declares Holy War. The bul;l with the kids on it, the Summoning Horn, the masses... the heat...

You can feel it.

The agora in Momemn with Akka, the skin spy, etc

Guy Kay is also magnificent at bringing cities to life.

Not sure if it was described prior, but regardless, give us a mood. Right off the bat. view post


Connolly posted 21 December 2004 in Member Written WorksConnolly by Erthaelion, Candidate

A portion of the first portion.
More to follow.




2387 ATC


Chapter 1

No measure of martial potency may conquer elements.

The Semec Desert was a scourge that few armies could hope to withstand. A primal lust for survival can carry men only so far- beyond that. . .

The undulating column of warriors marched over golden cataracts of sand with ragged, begrudged discipline. An iron-limbed weariness mired their collective movements; billows of dust rose into the air as sandaled feet dragged and tripped at uneven, treacherous dunes. Their armor flashed in the rust of the retreating desert sun despite layer upon layer of sand and grit. Enervation was written across innumerable haggard faces, though it shamed each of them to show such frailty; the relentless determination of the Imperial Phalanx of Luralius was preceded by near-legendary reputation. To the last, the soldiers grasped that Luralius had conquered and perdured for centuries by the strength of its Phalanx. To march beneath the banner of the Imperial Army was to be defined by intrepidity and valor, to be above succumbing to humiliation and failure at the hands of mere elements. They were the Imperial XVth Phalanx; they would uphold the honor and glory of the Empire and the Phalanx, and they would do so by enduring the torments of the Semec Desert.

But the Semec and its fierce sun cared nothing for legends or illustrious reputations. The desert sun would scorch sand, sear flesh, and leave water skins desolate. The desert would summon winds that made burial grounds of barren vistas, drowning the hapless with heaving sands. The desert could burn a man's brain in his skull until he begged the mercy of death. The desert made feasts for carrion birds, laughed scornfully with hissing, wind-borne sand at those foolish enough to believe themselves strong.

What could the desert care for five thousand warriors brazen enough to challenge its furnace-depths?

Near the head of the column, Erthaelion Diocles reigned in his horse, turning to assess the ranks of Phalangites that wound ponderously over distant dun hills. Painted helms and myriad brilliant spearheads gleamed against the crimson sky. A slim man, conspicuous for his lack of cuirass, helm, shield and spear, steered a wasted nay alongside Erthaelion's jet warhorse. Fumbling with the pockets of his tattered robe, the man unfurled a scroll of papyrus, his deep-set eyes intent. Erthaelion effected indifference for a moment; his eyes wandered over the wavering lines of infantrymen, then aimed a harsh glare at the man at his side.

"How much farther, Quintus?" he said, his impatience belied by the unexpected calm of his tone. The robed man attempted to appear dignified despite his apparent discomfort. His eyes darted between the scroll and the horizon.

"We...should be...very close now, I would think, " Quintus said, momentarily focusing on the map, then attempting to meet Erthaelion's gaze. Erthaelion noted how the thinning hair and feeble chin added to the older man's look of increasing emaciation and weakness.

"I should hope you're right, Quintus. . . That horse looks thirsty," Erthaelion said wryly. "I would hate to have to see an esteemed academic like yourself forced to walk twenty miles through the Semec tomorrow."

"As would I, Centuryman," Quintus said. Profound disgust was written on the demure, wrinkled face for a moment. Erthaelion disregarded this; the man was often intolerably haughty when challenged. He imagined most elite scholars were little different- distended with volatile arrogance. Quintus, a cartographer and historian in the employ of the renowned Library of Galeapolis, was one of the few men who had traveled, researched and documented the land and people of Helatos in the last century. His reputation and experience had made him an obvious choice as guide for the XVth's campaign. The aging man had journeyed through Helatos and the Semec Desert once before, living not only to tell the tale but to publish several works for the Library's swollen shelves for the benefit of academics throughout the Imperium.

The military campaigns of the Imperial Phalanx, however, were no educational quarries. Grueling marches, extensive sieges, limited rations- and the intense scrutiny of demanding Phalanx officers made them torturous on softer souls. Men like Quintus were little used to accepting orders from those they would consider regularly assume dullards, and were often physically too fragile to tolerate the rigors of harsh conditions for weeks- or months. Erthaelion had inwardly questioned the resiliency of the scholar and his aides since the most infantile stages of the Semec campaign.

Quintus nodded stiffly as he turned, riding slowly alongside the ranks of infantrymen on his ailing mare. Has the formations filed forward, Erthaelion acknowledged looks of hope and admiration with curt nods, his lips pursed solemnly.

"Not far now, men," he called, his tone reassuring. He wheeled the warhorse, continuing along the columns flank. "Not far now!" He uttered a prayer to Costaris, begging the God for speed and luck. He hoped the cartographer had been correct, that the oasis was nearby. Among the hordes of faces, he saw countless marred with the indifference of exhaustion. Blank, heavy-lidded eyes and flaccid necks.

How much farther will they go on? Erthaelion wondered.

He begged the Gods with inarticulate murmurs to let Quintus be right, to let Ka'arnat be near.


****

The pavillion of High Tribune Porthios Scaevan was frantic with sun burnt bodies hauling furniture, hastily assembling the general's quarters. A divan was layered with exotic furs and silks; ornate candles worked in silver were placed on a desk of lacquered mahogany; chairs were set around a long table of stained oak, an elaborate wine krater adorning its center. The ram-horned lion of Costaris, the God of war, symbolically adorned the tents' far wall beyond the High Tribune's desk.

The column of infantrymen, cavalry and auxiliary archers from the countryside of Illyrium that comprised the XVth Phalanx had ceased their march to erect camp a half-mile from their destination: the oasis of Ka'arnat. Hundreds of slaves were sent to retrieve water for the camp, while others set about the tasks of preparing meals, watering horses and seeing to the needs of the noble officers of the Phalanx. Here at the camp's heart, even tasks made menial by repetition seemed to carry ominous weight. Like dogs who chased their tale, then started suddenly at their lengthening shadow, the premonition of deepening night brought the inexorable chore of decisive action.

Council had been called, and the decisions made would be imperative to the survival of the men and the cause of the XVth Phalanx.

Leaning against the edge of the expansive oak table, Erthaelion gave every effort to ignore the tumult around him. Porthios Scaevan, the XVth's High Tribune and commander, slumped to his side at the tables head, toying with an empty, golden bowl. Erthaelion could sense the Tribune's uneasy eyes on him. The slaves jostled, shouldered, lugged items both ornamental and essential. Men in the intricate breastplates and greaves of officers trickled in amidst the chaos. A slim youth, golden locks curled across his brow, entered bearing an amphora and ladle. Negotiating the crowd with sleek grace, he filled the tables krater with fragrant wine, then did the same with the rows of bowls about the council table. The youth bowed, departed in silence as the rest of the hand-servants made hurried exits.

The last of the Imperial Centurymen filed into the pavilion in austere silence. A procession of men in stately robes mired by dust followed; the cartographers, historians, augurs, engineers, physicians, and record-keepers of the XVth. The scholars often had the incredulous demeanor of men whose time was frequently wasted on insignificant nonsense. Erthaelion shot Quintus a discreet wink from across the length of the table as the cartographer sat, as if to say 'Welcome to your funeral, brother!' The man scratched at the gray stubble on his cheek and lowered cold eyes, visibly aggravated.

When all were seated, Porthios exhaled- a long sigh of profound disgust through his nostrils. Erthaelion could sense the expectation in his glance now: the High Tribune hoped his Prime Centuryman and second-in-command would offer aid in the council by speaking first. Erthaelion knew the man too well. Porthois' lowered hesitant eyes down to his fingers, dancing on the tables edge in nervous habit. As the Tribune stood, Erthaelion pressed his chin into the iron of his ceremonial cuirass.

"We are trapped," Porthios said flatly. Erthaelion turned to assess the man who had been his closest friend and mentor since he first joined the Phalanx five years ago. The older man's haggard appearance was a testament to the extent of their hardships in the Semec Desert. Grime covered the once-pudgy cheeks. The bright eyes were sunken, embedded in darkening rims. Worry lined the deep forehead. A pale tunic that sagged limply around a degenerating physique replaced his armor now. His purple tribune's cloak hung exhausted across the remnants of his belly. The child-fat Porthios had carried on his face so long into adulthood had withered away, evaporated on a whim by the desert. The grime-mired face writhed in vicious frustration. Seeing him thus, Erthaelion inwardly reproached his earlier silence.

The burden need not fall to him alone, he thought.

"Trapped," the High Tribune continued, his oratory gaining force, "in this bloody desert with our food and supplies dwindling. Trapped with an army we can scarce find, let alone engage." He paused to lean against the table, scratching at blotchy scalp and thinning red hair. "Without ample supplies, the journey across the desert from here to Avar-efer is dangerous at best- at worst, we will all end up dead. On the other hand, how long can we stay here? We have had no word in weeks from our baggage train or the Siyanal. We can stay and hope, but we risk many things in doing so: ambush from the Host and starvation, foremost. Cornelius, how long can we expect the food to last?"

Cornelius Septerus sat directly to Porthios' right, opposite Erthaelion. The Prefect of the Camp was the most veteran officer of the XVth Phalanx, a seasoned soldier who had spent over twenty years in the service of the Empire. His dark, sun-hardened skin was odd contrast to his colorless hair. His unadorned, sleeveless hauberk of chainmail looked impoverished next to the intricate finery worn by his peers. Running gnarled fingers through a thick grey beard, Cornelius appeared momentarily contemplative, then scowled bitterly.

"We have two days at best before we are forced to resort to the emergency reserves," he said gruffly. Cornelius, Erthaelion had deciphered, was possessed of the traits that were most admired in the field officers of the remote provincial Phalanxes, whose ranks were bloated with those of lower birth: a candor that made himself appear at once brutally blunt yet never hopeless- regardless of the harrowing nature of whatever he spoke of. It was these characteristics that had afforded him success repelling the fierce Didochai tribes along the Empire's natural northern border, the Cenarai River. "So often," Porthios had said to Erthaelion countless times, "it is not the oratory of knights and nobles the simple fighting man seeks for inspiration, but the selfless, professional enthusiasm of a soldier's officer." Cornelius had fought in grueling campaigns in the northern provinces, earned respect and accolades of many serving as Prime Centuryman then Prefect of the Camp for the famous VIIth "Amosi" Phalanx before joining the XVth for this same campaign. He had told his two superior officers, Erthaelion and Porthios, that he had seen emergency reserves last for up to two weeks- in the northern provinces.

But the Semec was not the North. The North- the vague term Imperial citizens utilized for the uncivilized lands beyond the Cenari River- offered water, shade beneath woodlands, game for hunting, and forage for horses. The Semec Desert, in harsh contrast, offered sun and sand in deadly abundances.

"As far as water," Cornelius continued, "we can carry a two to three day supply." The implications of the statement were immediately acknowledged around the table. Without our baggage train, which is lost on the desert or the Siyanal, we cannot get far...

Fifteen days, Erthaelion thought. Where the hell could they be?

It had been fifteen days since they had seen the triremes of the Imperial Navy on the River Siyanal - since they had seen fresh supplies. The Navy had vanished. Whether it had been consumed by the Siyanal or by more sinister methods was yet unknown. With them had vanished the Imperial Army's provisions and craftsmen. Hope would vanish before they knew it.

For six weeks, the XVth Phalanx had besieged the Helatosan city of Sar-armul, at last overwhelming its defenders ten days ago. It was in the final days of the seige that the Navy had slowed their frequent supply drops on the River Siyanal's lush banks. The city was plundered, the temple granaries and governor's palace stores raided; this had lasted the XVth Phalanx until now. But even the scavenges of Sar-armul presently dwindled. The need for supplies began to grow dire. The camp's proximity to the Ka'arnat oasis at least offered hope of refreshment- though the waters were said to be plagued with insects whose bite could burn a man's body to a husk in a matter of hours.

Unfurling papyrus, Quintus said: "There is another oasis: not so large as Ka'arnat, and probably being guarded by the Host, but . . ."

"But Quintus, would you hazard a march without ample water?" Porthios interrupted sharply. "Your skin I would wager, but I'll not waste the lives of my men to the desert when we have battle to expect."

"I fear, master Quintus," said Erthaelion, "our choices are simple. We have all agreed on countless occasion that if we can force a single, decisive battle against the Sun Host, we will be victorious." There were nods, murmured agreement rising among the officers around the table. "And the only way, it would seem, to force such a confrontation would be to threaten their last sanctuary, their most precious treasure: to march on Avar-efer." More nodded agreement, grunted approval. "Yet, as we have no means to march . . .We either march hopelessly- or wait, and hope."

"Or we go and procure the means to march," Cornelius interjected, "from the only place we can in this fucking desert."

Facial expressions momentarily ranged from perplexed to profoundly doubting. Erthaelion saw Porthios' mind work before he grinned knowingly.

"The Siyanal," the High Tribune muttered with the tone of revelation. Cornelius leaned back with uncharacteristic arrogance, bringing the bowl of unwatered wine to his lips. Erthaelion swore he glimpsed a smirk beneath the snow beard.

For a moment, Erthaelion pondered the functional possibilities and flaws in the plan. Theoretically, he determined, it was strategically workable. Agricultural villages pocked the banks of the River Siyanal. The run over of silt created the only fertile land in Helatos, save the flood deltas to the north that Galeapolis now claimed lordship over. The banks provided enough cereal crops to feed Helatos' towns and cities, fill the royal and temple granaries, and left enough excess to spare for trade with Galeapolis and Imperial Luralius' numerous harbors. Along the riverbank, the Phalanx would find enough food to feed itself for a time; perhaps even long enough for a final march on Avar-ever. If they were to march along the riverbank, they could simply eat as they went. . . It would be bloody. None of the villages' peasant farmers and fishermen would be able to muster any notable resistance. So many helpless peasants? Innocents?

His thoughts moved with rapid litany. I'm missing. . . Something else. Something. . . If we are discovered. . . We have no ships. . . unprotected. Unprotected from ambush. . .

"Erthaelion, what do you think? Can it work?" Porthios' turned to face him, his expression pleading.

He hopes. He believes this may work. He needs consent from me. But the plan, Erthaelion had already deduced, was fatally flawed.

"No. It can't work," Erthaelion said. Frustrated exhalations of breath rippled through the tent. Porthios' admonished him with a frown. Cornelius appeared unsurprised- merely curious. "We cannot risk to travel the riverbank. We would be vulnerable to any number of attacks from their forces." He paused, glimpsed Porthios' eyes and hopes fall. Cornelius was nodding slowly, the childlike expression of seeing something for the first time upon his face. In him, Erthaelion knew, exceptional experience had built confidence, not conceit; Cornelius still carried the capacity to admit failings.

"When we laid siege to Sar-armul, our camps were covered by the Navy, and the Host were unable to use the Siyanal to surround us. If we were to move parallel to the river now. . ." Erthaelion trailed off ominously.

"Just why we have kept to the desert since we took the city," Cornelius said. "We can't cover our march along the riverbank without our triremes." He shook his head bitterly, poignantly chastising his own short-sightedness.

Porthios was nodding concession, but his face was taut, strained. "It would seem our choices are few indeed."

A pair of dark-skinned Nerasar youths entered bearing torches, lighting the gold braziers and incense-lamps about the pyramidal linen structure.

As others among the forty officers intoned with far-fetched propositions for what may be done to avert disaster, Erthaelion's head spun with sickening force.

How far we have come - to die beneath chariot wheels or vulture talons?

****
Darkness loomed on the horizon like carrion; nightfall was imminent on the Semec Desert. In the dim cool that existed moments before the harsh cold of night descended, a gang of loincloth-clad slaves trudged through the sands, their skin scorched iron from sun. In weary arms, they bore amphorae and broad skins of leather. In their midst strode a somber figure, obscenely garish among them in his cuirass and horsehair-plumed helm. In many ways, his steps appeared more labored then those of the slaves.

Erthaelion walked on the awkward legs of those grown over-accustomed to horseback. The desert was a void of endless silence. None among the slaves and freemen servants sent to retrieve water spoke. He felt a strange combination of freedom and unease as he shot a sidelong glance at the decrepit slave near him. Are we so different? he wondered. His birth did not hold him higher in esteem by any great length than the skeletal wraith at his side. A few paces forward, he saw a corpulent Helatosan struggling with the an awkward amphora, panting with exertion, shoving the vessel with cracked knees. A prize of Sar-armul, Erthaelion mused. The shaven head and faded tattoo on his shoulder blade- a winged ram, Erthaelion guessed- marked him as a temple priest, a hereditary position of exceptional merit among the Helatosan people.

How does this man who once commanded hordes to bow to ebony and stone now carry my water?

Born as the son of a sandal-maker in Luralius, Erthaelion had fled the impoverished apartments and tenements of the Imperial City's slums, hoping the Phalanx and military service would provide respite from the city' suffering. It had been a decision fraught with anguish. Nothing ails the heart more then the thought of abandoning those one loves. But to act on the thought. . .

Erthaelion had often wondered at his two diametrically opposed lives: the man who suffered anguish, and the man who authored it with uncanny skill. In this, his first true campaign, he had yet to grow comfortable with the latter.

For a moment, his mind sought a time when he would not have felt out of place among water carriers and caste-slaves. His humble upbringing had left him discomfited by the trapping of wealth and honor he flaunted now. Unlike the vast majority of Phalanx officers, he was born a peasant, had climbed the ranks to attain the highest rank attainable by those not of senatorial class. Despite the feeling of pity he had for the men he now walked among, he could understand their unease at his presence. He himself remembered when, as a child, he and a gang of impoverished youths would chuck weeviled bread husks and decaying fruit at any man on horseback, then duck into alleys to evade half-hearted retinues.

How could they not hate me?

He had fled the council tent after a meager meal of bread, onions and salted fish. As he ate, he had realized that they were eating not from the officer’s stores, but from the infantry regulars' provisions. The food had left a foul taste in his mouth.

In the end, the decision of the council had been reluctantly unanimous: they would hold where they were, send out scouts regularly to keep eyes on the Sun Host of Helatos and the arrival of their supply caravan. There had been, however, no absence of uncertainties. The possibility of ambush and starvation loomed in their minds, churning innards with portentous implications.

Burdened beyond physical strain, Erthaelion had sought the solitude of the desert. He had found an isolation of a different sort. Solitude bore the ability to cleanse, but to feel isolated amidst a mob offered no healing. He contemplated how their malign of him- of any dressed as he- would stifle any thought of conversation. Wary looks hid spite. Erthaelion attempted to concentrate on the sound of sand relenting beneath the bare feet of the men scattered around him.

The Ka'arnat oasis was visible in the deepening dark of night for only a moment before the first of the water-carriers were engulfed in its lushness. Erthaelion heard tendrils of murmured awe. Looking skyward, he caught sight of the towering formations of plant life; cycad and eucalyptus trees rose abruptly above him. It was as though the uneven gold surface and setting sun had conspired to conceal the Ka'arnat oasis for as long as possible. Thick grasses replaced the sands of the Semec. The scents of trees, life and undisturbed water washed over him. Birds croaked from their tall perches, unconcerned with the newcomers.

Exhaustion was forgotten for a time. Cupped palms delivered ecstasy to cracked lips. Grateful laughter thanked the Gods for their mercy. Erthaelion wondered when the last time was the slaves had tasted moisture. He discreetly avoided as many as he could, not wishing to disturb their elation. Settling on a muddy bank, he gazed across the island of fertility. The waters' surface was dark, reed grasses protruding out some distance into the lake. Beneath the staccato of birdcall, he heard the soft buzz of insects. The memory of Siyanal predatory crocodiles reverberated through his mind like a childhood fear. He nearly chuckled aloud, crouched by the surface with a nervous hand extended to the water.

Cool. The water comforted like no flesh imaginable. He removed his helm and sandals with abandon, his hands like those of an impatient lover's. He splashed water on his face and hair, feeling the grime snake down his cheeks in rivulets. Oblivious to the mud, he sat, unbuckled his bronze-chased greaves, their length embossed with the figure of Costaris. Erthaelion stretched his legs into the water, gasping at the cold and the refreshment. He heard panicked cries over his right shoulder from the direction where the throng was gathered by the pond. Thrashing limbs. Tumultuous, crashing water. He heard terror in words that were little more than inarticulate shouts.

"Atiente! Atente- Halieke! Aresa!"

"Misiem'akos ven sered mak-tios!"

"Casama! Casaya! "

In the midst of the din, he heard the ancient tongue of Cathos, akente, in a nearly indecipherable accent: "Snake!"

Erthaelion suppressed the urge to recoil. In a moment, the cries ceased, and duty was remembered by those who knew little else. An uneasy calm returned.

The slaves perfunctorily filled skins and amphorae with water. Erthaelion strapped his sandals and greaves, then cupped his hands to take another drink. Water-carriers silently bore burdens to the edge of the oasis, paused on the threshold of the torturous emptiness of desert expanse.

As Erthaelion stood, collecting his now muck-riddled helm, a sound, distant but terrifyingly familiar, sent icy fear down his spine: sharp, sudden snapping. A piercing hiss as the air was cut, like a sharp blade ripping cloth. Wrenching impact.

The arrow pierced the slave- an aging Nerasar- between his shoulder blades. The man shrieked shock and agony, dropped the amphora with hands that clutched desperately at the shaft embedded in his flesh. As he fell to his knees, he tugged futilely at the arrow, screaming obsceneties. Dying cries were muted by the sound of more arrow fire.

Ambush. A thought that sped his heart, riled his stomach.

The twang of bowstrings drew nearer, joined by the clamor of countless whips, horses and chariots. Erthaelion placed them on the opposite side of the lake, a distance the Helatosan's recurved bows would have no difficulty covering. The cacophony drew nearer still, stopping suddenly. The hiss of descending arrows. The violence of impact.

Ambush! Panic coursed through his veins.

Water was forgotten. Slaves screamed dismay, scurried in panic only to be silenced by missiles of bronze and ash.

Erthaelion's eyes were everywhere at once. It was all he could do to perceive the intricacies of this well-orchestrated trap. Bodies crumpled, splayed across mud and brackish water. He watched dozens fall in heart-breaking seconds. Thoughts came at impossible intervals; he was barely aware that he should duck before logic superceded hope. Then, a fleeting, deflating thought struck him.

I'm going to die. . .

He sucked humid air, but no breath came.

How could reality feel so surreal? His surroundings solidified to near standstill, as if the Gods meant for him to witness his final petrified moments for an eternity. He wanted to swear, to curse, to chastise any God he could remember. . .but no words came. Only the throaty war-cries of Helatosan warriors.

Erthaelion fell to his knees as the arrow penetrated iron, cloth and skin. He felt the arrowhead puncture flesh, the trickle of blood down his torso as the wound began to flow. The agonized screams of the dying made his groan seem a whisper. He clutched his shoulder, pressed his hand to the wound. He fought iron-heavy eyelids, desperate for consciousness. He was defeated.

Darkness fell across the Semec.

****
For the officers of the Imperial XVth Phalanx, night during the arduous nine-month campaign in the Semec had always brought repose from both the desert and the calculating guesswork of warfare. Quiet talks over lukewarm wine- nothing could be kept cold in the desert- offered the opportunity for men made aloof by dutiful necessity to reminisce wives, children, and distant homes. Porthios had long grown weary of hearing about Second Cohort Centuryman Flavius Ergalla's heavy-breasted wife, his suspicions of her promiscuity; First Cohort Captain Hicetaon Lucullis brutally boring renditions of his son and daughter's exploits; vastly overblown tales of drunken conquests offered by the young Cavalry-Centuryman Marius Caerdollus- the youngest and wealthiest man in the Phalanx, eldest heir to one of the most ancient patrician Houses in Luralius. And if rumors and Marius' stories were in the vicinity of truth, one of the most debauched as well.

Porthios would remain silent through the majority of the conversations, taking comfort in Erthaelion's nearness. The confidence, the strength... The way he appeared certain amidst uncertain outcome- regardless of circumstance- had offered reassurances in the days that followed the campaigns departure from Illyrium, and most especially in the days that followed the Phalanxes sack of Sar-Armul. Porthios would relish the tales of the veteran provincial commanders, retelling stories of bloody confrontations along Imperial borders. In these there was some sense of respite for him. At least, he would think, the provincials understood more than wanton women and wine.

But there was no camaraderie this night. With an implicit understanding of the circumstances they found themselves entrenched in, the XVth's officers had sullenly retreated to their personal pavilions. Now Porthios was left with Quintus, the cartographer and scholar who was growing increasingly unpopular among the common soldiers for his apparent incompetence of late. Porthios sat at the head of his massive council table; Quintus had placed himself at a distance beyond the High Tribune's reach. Porthios' temper while in the depths of his wine-induced stupors was common knowledge among the esteemed individuals who had shared his company during the campaign.

"How long do you guess before they attack, Quintus?" Porthios muttered between sips of wine.

"I can't be sure, Lord Tribune. Like I've told you before, they have as much fear and respect for the desert as we. They avoid it as much as possible. To them, its another place of superstition, like the Siyanal or their temples. But the the Semec carries a suspicion of a different sort. They believe it to be infested by daemons and evil spirits."

Porthios nodded sagely, noting for the hundredth time the confidence with which the aging man spoke of Helatos. It was as if the mention of the mysterious nation of strange gods and gold, towering monolithic grandeur and exotic beauty reminded the man he was actually worthy of his pompous moods. "Of course. You've told me all of this before. You say they hunt in the deserts, hm?"

"The very wealthy nobles of Helatos often chariot-hunt in the Semec, yes."

"Then they are, perhaps, more knowledgeable regarding the topography here than we know, eh, Quintus?"

"I-I can't say with any certainty, Lord Tribune. I've seen large portions of the Semec, but I was guided, and we avoided staying here for long durations."

"Then you traveled primary along the river?"

Quintus nodded apologetically, as though acknowledging his own inadequacy in the fashion of an adulterous wife.

Porthios had long ago forgiven Quintus for his minute navigational errors while they negotiated the impossibly vast stretches of desert. Comprehending the scarce features was ridiculous- like mapping a reflection of the sky, cloudless but golden, as though scorched by countless torches. With little notable vegetation and few landmarks or other discernible markers, the desert was as trackless and indecipherable as the ancient pictograph texts of Helatos.

Still, Porthios would never admit that he was satisfied with the man's performance- not in plain words. He required subordinates- especially important ones like Quintus- to feel they were always capable of surpassing their prior feats of skill.

"Of course not. And just what can you say for certainty, Quintus?"

"That we are without food, Lord Tribune." The air thickened.

"Do you think I don't realize the situation, Quintus?" Porthios screeched. "I know quite well what we are up against."

"Do you believe..." Quintus paused, as though poised upon a blasphemous utterance. "Do you believe mutiny is possible, Lord Tribune?"

Porthios shot from the cushioned chair with violent intent. How could the imbecile say such a thing in my presence? "If I hear you say such a thing again, Qunitus..." He paused abruptly, unnerved at the thought of threatening a man in imperial employment.

"How can you expect me to feel, Lord Tribune?" Quintus' voice rose threateningly. "I am not a soldier, Porthios, nor am I under your command. If I wish-"

"You would risk desert alone, then, Quintus?" Porthios said. He leaned against his desk to still convulsing hands. "Where will you go, hmm? Will you take your entourage of intellects and flee to the desert? Would the Semec prove a better Lord than I, Quintus? How long before the Sun Host finds you? Are you so foolish to think they would differentiate between cartographer and soldier? How long till the vultures made a meal of your eyes, hmm?"

"Lord, I never implied-"

"No, Quintus, you did imply just that. Deserters among the Imperial Army are dealt with harshly."

Porthios sat with arrogant viscosity, his face condescending. He took satisfaction in the cartographers trembling shoulders.

"I didn't mean to offend, Lord Tribune. I simply begin to wonder what hope there is here. The men see the food dwindling. They know the water is scarce- perilously scarce. Do you think they will sit on their hands while they starve? What hope of success can they have?"

Porthios was silent for long moments. "None."

Long silence.

"My Lord?" Quintus' face displayed uncertainty, though Porthios could see the pleasure he derived from the seemingly honest concession. Let the fool think. . .

"What would you have me tell you, Quintus? 'All is well, as long as we have the Gods to watch over us. . .' Fuck the Gods. We are alone here, Quintus. Whether the Emperor has forsaken us, or if we have been betrayed by some other treachery, we are alone. Utterly alone. What hope can we have here?"

Wine splashing into Porthios' intricate cup was the only sound for a moment. Then silence. Finally, Quintus swallowed his hesitation and unease with apparent effort, said: "Perhaps we can send word to King Saladuecon for aid, Lord Tribune."

Porthios froze. The fog of drink lifted, and he felt for an instant a feeling of imminent danger, as though a sword was pressed to the small of his back.

Saladuecon. . .

Porthios had met Saladuecon XIX Korithmias, King of Galeapolis, in the weeks before the campaign had begun. The officers of the Imperial XVth had gathered to procure the squirming train of intellects who would act as guides to both the culture and topography of Helatos and the Semec. Saladuecon had welcomed them gloriously with drink and lavish spectacle. The man had lived up to the infamous reputation he had achieved through his short years: loathsome, deceitful and repulsive, the King had struck Porthios as a man who, while not ambitious, would go to any length to maintain the legacy of the Saladuecon Dynasty.

A thought- a thought burdened by the disturbing tingle of suspicion- pierced Pothios' mind, shook his thoughts. The wine had returned with revived potency, but the thought remained, a blurry feeling of uncertainty. "Leave me, Quintus," he muttered. He stared at the scrolls of papyrus that littered his desk, though his eyes were rounded, distant.

"Are you well, Lord Tribune?" The parodied concern sickened Porthios further.

"Leave now, Quintus."

The older man scuttled out of the tent, his naked boy-child body-servant following demurely.

Porthios refilled his cup, drained it just as quickly. Rubbing his forehead, his world rocked dangerously, lurched as he sat at his desk, staring down at unmarred papyrus sheets, as well as scattered reports, maps, and inventories. He saw nothing.

Is it you, King fucking Ingrate? Have you sold us to death?

He reached for his quill, but hesitated, and instead caressingly clasped his decanter. He again filled his cup, this time sipping gingerly at the red, heady drink. He wondered, for a moment, if he should send for another amphora. He licked parched, creviced lips.

I may need it this night . . .

Watching the desert darken, then savoring the nights chill, Porthios sat alone for hours, contemplating the impossibility and the irony of an insect opposing an Empire.

****

Nothing moved beneath shadows cast by mammoth leaves. In the deepening gloom of night, bodies could be seen scattered across desert sand and the oases' swampy surroundings.

Springing from his caparisoned chariot, Kardaxe of House Mentek grinned wolfishly in self-appreciation. With the demeanor of a poised but cautious predator, he circled the shadows of the exotic growth, scanning for movement as he drew his scythe-like khopesh. He felt his men moving behind him, sensed their exhilaration although he heard no footfalls.

Eerie silence. He drew nearer, heard the undulating throes and gasps of the dying.

He came to stand over the clot of bodies that lay in the pond's mud. Sneering, he saw in the corpses what he had expected: slaves, clad in loincloths and sun burnt hides, their bodies still around arrows clutched in dying spasms, fish-eyes staring endlessly at leaf-obscured stars, or face down in mud, muscles contorting in rigor. Leather water-skins and Illyrian amphorae littered the muds, abandoned in panic.

Kardaxe strode through the maze of splayed limbs and corpses, khopesh falling on the slightest movement with grim indifference. Behind, he heard groans and pleas of mercy silenced by hacking bronze. Inarticulate gasps of desperation answered with grisly death.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kardaxe glimpsed the twinkle of brilliant iron and gold.

Disregarding the intervening bodies, he picked through the corpses, gasping as he discerned the armored figure that lay in the mud.

The young, pale imperial lay motionless, his intricate cuirass pierced at the collarbone. The ashen shaft was substantially visible; the arrowhead had not penetrated deep. He took in the man's ginger hair and strong, clean-shaven chin, appraised the sword belted at his waist. A Phalanx general of some sort. And, in all likelihood, a wealthy, decorated one. He cackled as he saw the man's shoulders rise and fall with almost imperceptible subtlety.

"What have I found myself tonight?" he said, with the air of a man discovering timely sexual conquest. Kardaxe's men gathered as he knelt by the officers prostrate form, his fingers tracing the likenesses of horses and lions gilded along the breastplate. He glanced up, regarded faces that beamed satisfaction through the darkness.

As Kardaxe rose and strode back towards the chariots, he barked over his shoulder: "Take him. Ensure the physicians see to his wound tonight. Tomorrow, we send this prize to Avar-efer."

The Commander of the Sun Host Elite neither turned nor paused to ensure his order was obeyed. His thoughts had already shifted to glorious receptions and noble gratuity honoring him for his captive.

For the first time in months, Kardaxe savored the elation of victory.

****

Porthios sat at his desk as the first hint of morning gilded his pavilion with its brilliance. Through the linen flap that served as the tent's entryway, the desert air warmed as the sun ascended. The surrounding encampment clamored with morning activities: the watering of horses, the morning meals, the gathering of cohorts for rudimentary military drills.

Porthios' quill worked cautiously over coarse papyrus. With matters of such importance, he knew, words needed meticulous measurement. Anger, frustration- and rapidly mounting fear- would need to be tempered by respect and etiquette. There was no margin for error when communicating with men who were at once overly proud and ignorant to their own stupidity.

Worsening matters was the subject matter of Porthios' letter.


Honored Saladuecon XI, King of Galeapolis,

I must hope my words reach you with Costaris' swiftness. I trust this finds you and your people in times of good health.

It has been nearly three weeks since we, the Imperial XVth Phalanx of Luralius, have seen our baggage train or our Navy. Our situation grows dire, King Saladuecon. My men are on the brink of starvation. The Semec, as you, in your infinite wisdom must understand, is a trialsome place. Without supplies, King, we will surely die.

As you indicated in the Imperial Accord you marked on the ninth day in the month of Akkiantor, you are to allow the Imperial Navy untaxed passage beyond your harbours onto the River Siyanal. Failure to comply to Luralius' Accord would be hailed as an act of war. As you know-


And there his hand had frozen, his eyes alight with intensity. Did he dare, on suspicion alone, threaten the King of Galeapolis? Did a High Tribune have the authority to wager with stakes so high as open war? And even if he did, would his gamble afford his Phalanx the opportunity to elude death at the desert's hands?

How had matters some to this? Like the venal judge-elects of Luralius, he made blind accusations in spite of understanding the extent of their consequences.

Could Saladuecon be so bold? What other explanation was there for such a lengthy interruption in supplies?

Saladuecon! Porthios thought with consternation. Is that blithering, idiotic, half-witted fucking worm capable of this?

Conception had the ability, Porthios knew, of convuluting realities. When nothing was as it appeared, men walked in perpetual darkness. Saladuecon's foppish appearance and monumentally debauched reputation made it effortless to immediately discount him when discussing matters of any magnitude. How could such a man be taken seriously?

But perhaps it is not the King's intellect that must be measured, Porthios mused, but his mercantile entrepenuerism.

Saladuecon's reluctant signing of the Imperial Accord had been a source of nagging doubt in Porthios' mind since the campaign's outset. Was it possible that only now the King of Galeapolis realized that if Helatos were to fall to the Imperial Phalanx, his own city-state was doomed to follow?

Perhaps Saladuecon's betrayal is an act of desperate self-preservation . . .

A monstrous shadow obscured the sunlight that poured through the tent's entrance. A massive coal-black hand pulled the flap gingerly aside. Memoras, Porthios' Nerasar bodyguard, entered, paused at the entrance to wait for a sunburned boy to follow. Porthios recognized the boy as Erthaelion's hand-servant. He set the quill in its inkhorn, relieved that the interruption would afford him more time to debate his letter. The two approached the desk from across the pavilion, imposing Nerasar and meek Illyrian, the blonde-headed youths head bowed nervously.

Memoras barricaded the boy with a heavily muscled arm. Porthios found himself admiring the Nerasar's statuesque physique. Pitch-skinned, with a figure of admirable symmetry and girth, the freeman loomed godlike over the papyrus-littered desk. Clad, in Helatosan fashion, in only a belted kilt of coarse linen, he seemed carved from ebony.

Impressive son of a whore, aren't you?

He had gazed at that figure countless times, yet it never failed to elicit feelings of awe to glimpse the former slaves perfection. Many seconds passed before he managed to cock an eyebrow and effect aggravated impatience.

"What is it, Memoras?"

The Nerasar glanced at the boy expectantly. The blonde youth remained silent. Memoras grunted, returned Porthios' stare. "This is Erthaelion's body-servant, Lord Tribune. He claims the Prime Centuryman didn't return to his tent last night," he said, idly toying with the shortsword at his waist. Muscle danced along his naked torso, his skin writhing like oil over water; veins burst haphazardly from his arms. The man had a manner, Porthios had observed, of appearing menacing even at moments of utter ease. The former slave's mere presence radiated danger, death. Like the predatory snakes of the southern Semec Porthios had seen at Saladuecon's menagerie in the palace-complex of Galeapolis that seemed to slither about, to bask oily skin for long hours- but despite their docile appearance, bared, poisonous fangs were an ever-present testimony to their potency. With Memoras, he needed only to bare his sleeves to produce the same response.

Porthios attempted to peer through the haze of sleeplessness and two rations of unwatered wine. For the first time, he realized he had sat at his desk the duration of the night. "What do you mean, he hasn't returned? Speak, boy- quickly."

The youth raised his head revealing a face splotchy with stubble. His eyes were wide, dumbfounded by explaining the inexplicable. "H-he went to the oasis, lord, for a walk. . . He never came back, lord. He never came back!"

There was enough fear in the boys voice and face to frenzy Porthios' heart upon hearing the frank testimony. Weariness and wine overtook him. His knees palpitated beneath the mahogony.

Not this. . .Not now. Anything but this.

Memoras was regarding the young slave sidelong, frowning. Porthios rose from the cushioned chair, attempted to still shaking hands. His head buzzed. Terror and drunkenness.

"Have you seen the oasis this morning?" he murmured.

Memoras shook his head, dangerously stiff. "A gang of water-carriers set out at dusk last night and never returned. The first team leaves soon for more water."

Please. . . Costaris, Jurinos. . .

Porthios' eyes glossed. He stared vacantly beyond the white obscurity of the tent's linens. It seemed a high-pitched horn blared within his mind. Something incomprehensible.

"I'll send a party to the oasis," he said, his voice sounding vague in the midst of the clamor of tents and war preparations. Porthois realized momentarily that the ease had escaped Memoras- the freeman's body tensed visibly.

Porthios regained the composed demeanor that had authored countless orders. "Memoras, go with them. If the worst has happened. . ."

Please Jurinos, not now. . .

If my men see him fallen. . . For nothing. . .

"Guard them. Keep an eye on this. I will place a guard on Erthaelion's tent."

Porthios receded into the world where he saw nothing but orders obeyed. Wine conquered him. He suppressed the sudden urge to vomit.

"Take the water-bearers. Go now."

Memoras looked at the boy with mock amiabilty, slapped his back back with contradictory force as they exited.

Solemn silence encompassed the war tent of the High Tribune of the XVth Phalanx.

****

Daylight.

The throbbing pain in his right shoulder, pulsating like a second heart, informed Erthaelion he yet lived.

Disorientation overwhelmed him as he opened his eyes. He attempted to roll onto his stomach, but found his hands were bound beneath him, numb from lack of circulation. He winced as he tried to unclench knotted fists. The jerking movement he attempted sent pain coursing through his body, collecting sharply at his temples. He re-opened his eyes, clenched them against the brilliant sun.

Captive. Relief at breath. Terror at its imminent halt.

The brief movements at attracted the attention of the copper-skinned men who loomed over him, shadows obscured by the sun. He could feel now that he was naked against coarse sand. Gritty morsels filled crags of skin. Erthaelion groaned at the heavy bandage that was wrapped about his shoulder. The men- Helatosan soldiers, Erthaelion presumed, despite their plain loincloths and lack of weapons- were shouting in their eloquent language, their tones aggravated. Erthaelion remembered a conversation from a distant corner of his mind, when Quintus had recounted the countless nuances of the Helatosan culture- a culture wealthy in ways material and immaterial, made intricate and unique by the virtual isolation the Semec lent. Helatosan language was labyrinthine in its complexity, unrivalled in its beauty. Peristicylus, the renowned philosopher and historian of antique Cathos, had marveled at Helatos' countless wonders, but had remarked where stone and gold may whither in beauty, the writing of the scholar-scribes of Helatos were immortalized in the pictograms that adorned papyrus that only the most gifted and resolute foreigners could hope to penetrate.

Calloused hands groped at Erthaelion, forced him to his feet. His knees and neck were useless, flimsy as liquid. He blinked his eyes as a dizzying rush of blood was sent to his head. Water was poured sparingly over his lips. He lapped, swallowed with desperation.

A hand struck his face. Struck him again, hard.

Erthaelion squeezed his eys with dry lids, struggling to adapt to the sun. Through the pain and sunlight, he could begin to decipher his surroundings. War tents sprung from the sand for hundreds of spans in every direction. Two bare-chested men held him upright while a third was poised before him, his hand raised threateningly. Faces dark with sun were twisted with contempt. Armed men moved with casual ease, sparing only sidelong glances at the naked captive.

Erthaelion slumped as strength escaped him. Iron hands beneath his armpits kept him vertical. A third vicious backhand blow. He reluctantly opened his eyes.

A new figure before him made him gape. Carnal fear and disbelief.

The man's deep-set eyes were bright with passionate hatred; night-dark hair was pleated in the fashion of Helatosan nobility. Grotesque scars tracked across a once-handsome face. A shirt of overlapping bronze scales and the way the three men cowered at his presence indicated the man's rank. He spoke for a moment in the incomprehensible dialect, the other men replying with whispered deference. His fierce eyes never left Erthaelion.

Dazed, Erthaelion understood his initial awe. He had seen the man before, though only from a distance. Still, he needed not to guess at his identity.

Kardaxe, Commander of the Sun Host Elite.

The moment Erthaelion's neck again gave way, the eloquent conversation ceased. Fingers like eagle talons closed on his scalp, bringing his head upright. Erthaelion smelled onion and leather as he forced open his eyes.

Kardaxe appraised him in the manner of a blacksmith who had crafted an object of unacceptable quality. He barked something over his shoulder at his three men, harsh and guttural: orders, Erthaelion guessed. Even in the Commander's preternatural tone, the words sounded alive with melody.

Replies came in fearful murmurs.

Erthaelion felt the grip on his scalp relent before his muscles relented and his world was shrouded in darkness.

****

Hours passed with tedious reluctance. The camp of the XVth Phalanx was ominously silent from the confines of Porthios' tent. Moods were strangely subdued.

Or is it just me? Porthios wondered.

Four hours had passed since dawn had banished the nights icy desert winds; four hours since Memoras had brought the direst of news to Porthios' ostentatious pavilion. Two hours since they had returned with confirmation of the slaughter. It seemed eternities since Cornelius had left to catalogue the deaths.

But no body had yet been found. No sign of Erthaelion Diocles. He had sat here to await the return of his Camp Prefect, and unimaginably dire information.

Porthios would not grieve for his friend- not till he saw a corpse. The man who had come under his command nearly six years ago was simply too canny to let himself be killed now. Not only that, Erthaelion Diocles was possessed of a strength of will borne of low-caste birth and years of rigorous training. In Porthios' seventeen years as an officer of the Phalanx, he had never witnessed the combination of talent and determination in the abundant amount Erthaelion possessed. Even as a raw recruit with no military background, the boy from the slums of Luralius had been prodigiously skilled. It had been evident from the first times Porthios saw the youth at the Zanutorrian Barracks in Illyrium: Erthaelion was special. Moreover, the boy was entirely without training prior to his recruitment. His father had made sandals in Luralius' tenements; his mother had been a subject he avoided vehemently. Porthios, then only six months beyond his inital promotion to the XVth as High Tribune, had promptly taken Erthaelion under his wing. He understood full well the jealousy of officers of high birth. They would envy the youths talents, despise his wretched family and upbringing. But such talent, Porthios decided then, was worth the risk of associating himself with a lower-caste, wide-eyed boy. The dishonor of ignominious associations paled in comparison to the dishonor of defeat.

His assumptions had proven true. On the Semec campaign, Erthaelion had proven himself time and again as a gifted leader and skilled tactician. He had earned admiration, perhaps even fame. Porthios recalled his stunning maneuvers in the last days of the Siege of Sar-Armul: the cunning usage of ballistics, the bold assault he had lead upon the city's forward gates, the triumphant banishment of the Sun Host, the restraint exercised and enforced after the victory...

Brilliance and discipline.

And now he was gone.

Through tear-clouded eyes, he saw the hardened figure cut by Camp Prefect Cornelius standing a stride from his desk. Porthios blinked, cleared his throat, entirely unsure how long he had been lost in memory.

Cornelius feigned a cough- the only sign of discomfort the taciturn man would show- before speaking. "We've catalogued the bodies, Tribune. Sixty-seven males slaves and four eunuchs. No-" he lowered his voice, his fingers stroking graying temples. "No sign of Erthaelion."

"And the tracks around the oasis?"

A significant detail; if those who had orchestrated the attacks were indeed Helatosans, chariots and sandaled feet would speak of their presence. If the savage nomads of the Semec had been responsible. . .

They would see nothing more than a once-wealthy corpse, if Erthaelion truly had walked to the oasis in his armour, as his body-servant had testified.

"The night winds covered a great deal of the tracks, but we saw no evidence of camels."
Porthios swore foully.

"Porthios, he isn't out there."

"I know he isn't out there!" the High Tribune snapped bitterly, scowling at the veteran fiercely. Resolutely disciplined, Cornelius stood unflinching, impassive as stone. Porthios sighed, immediately regretful of his outburst. "I just don't know what to do about it."

"The men must be told."

Porthios hesitated. How could he not? Would telling the army of the travesty incite insurrection?

Uncertainty.

"I agree. I will try to find the right time, Cornelius." Honest, breathless candor.

But what was the right time to tell men that his most trusted strategist and most gifted warrior was gone, seemingly evaporated by the desert?

What was the right time to tell them hope would evaporate just as quickly?

****
Erthaelion's dreams were fraught with visions of torturous dungeons, overrun by glimpes of death at the hands of merciless men. The face of Kardaxe loomed before his eyes in dark, uncertain places, engulfing the peace of sleep.

He was almost thankful to wake.

Consciousness, like the blurry reeling of a dream half-forgotten. Erthaelion lay on his back. He could feel himself moving, jostled by something, but his muscles strained against restrictive bonds about his hands and ankles. Carried.

Captive.

More uncertainties baffled him.

The sounds of chaos assailed his intellect; not the roar and reverberating metals of battle, but the din of innumerable voices, of hawkers and craftsmen and children shouting in indecipherable tongues, all compressed into valleys of stone and mud-brick. The cries of animals echoed over the mercantile cacophony of the city. The stench of unwashed flesh and dung were discernible among scents of burning incense and fragrant foods.

His eyes struggled open. Light engulfed his world for long moments. Then acuity.

Several bronze-armored Helatosan warriors surrounded him. Cubicle buildings of mud-brick pinched the crowd into narrow, dust-riddled streets. Great tabernacles of stone perched above the sprawl, decorated by towering effigies. The crowd of bare-chested, copper-skinned Helatosan's was innumerable; the air was thick with humid heat and the press of sweating bodies. Goat, oxen and camel were burdened with casks and satchels. Merchants in makeshift stands lined the walls, cried out at passers by with musical enthusiasm.

Erthaelion lay prostrate amidst the group of burdened warriors as they moved through the commotion of hordes. From in front of his captors, he heard the harsh shouts of what he suspected to be a chariot driver clearing a path through the din. The dull ricochet of hooves against hard-packed dust. Whips crashing against glistening manes.

In the near distance, Erthaelion glimpsed a massive rectilinear structure, its stone covered with bas-reliefs: Gods, Divine Kings and creatures of myth painted across the breadth of the palace. Obelisks reared over the smaller structures, capped with golden pyramids. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw statues of rams and sacred ibis-headed men lining the processional way before the garishly painted stone palace that engulfed the sky.

Avar-efer, his flailing mind whispered. The Heavenly Precinct of Avar-efer. The Royal Palace of the Divine King of Helatos.

And a recurring thought after revelation. A thought he had felt before, brief days before . . .

I'm going to die.

Stone and darkness enveloped him.

****


The final amphora of wine purchased on the Galeapolan Delta tasted uniquely bitter to Porthios.

Perhaps it was the company that darkened his mood. The light-hearted banter he often shared with his younger officers was entirely absent when he found himself alone in the prsence of his Camp Prefect, Cornelius. Porthios found the man's taciturn matter-of-factness repulsively over-professional.

Or perhaps it was that two days had passed since his close friend and, more importantly, his Prime Centuryman, had disappeared.

Two days of waiting. Two days of wondering. Two days of rumor and festering impatience.

Two days he had pondered endlessly: What in the name of the Gods am I going to do?

Uncertainty. In men who led men, Porthios knew, it was a most unbecoming trait.

He had declined water when the servants had brought the wine. Drunkenness would deliver feelings that were beyond and above pride. Porthios sought drunken obviousness.

Again.

Morning would necessitate decision, it seemed.

Cornelius glared across the desk. His cup was dry. Porthios had observed that Cornelius was a man who savored his sobriety, cherished it in the way of men who cherished decisive action.

"We are down to emergency rations as of tonight, Tribune."

Porthios reached. A long pull from his cup. He felt the warm wine coat his teeth, flood his innards. Cleansing exhalation.

"Of course we are," he replied, staring at the aging Camp Prefect with his brow arched condescendingly. "What would you see done, Cornelius? What would you have me do? No. A better question: What would you do-" Porthios paused, measured his words- "if you were me?"

The Camp Prefect's gray eyebrows nearly intertwined as he struggled with this. Porthios smirked crookedly, amused by the veteran's indecisiveness. When proud men sat with one another, there was nothing they desired more than to humble their companion. Porthios' was a pride borne of birth and rank; Cornelius' from the immeasurable value that came from decades of campaigning in the bitter North. His military knowledge was respected from Luralius to Galeapolis.

And Porthios had challenged his acumen.

"The longer we stay here, Lord Tribune, the longer we invite ambush from the Host."

"Obviously."

Cornelius eyes spilled impatience. "And the food, Tribune. We need to move- as soon as possible, if I'm asked."

"Mmm hmm. . .And just where would you go, Cornelius? Deeper into the Semec? East into the dunes? South, into the Host?" Porthios realized his tone bordered on outright disdain, and did nothing to check it. Shall we duel, old man? "The river offers food, but do we risk the chance that we are followed? That the Hosts find us? Will we pillage entire villages to feed a hundred men, a thousand, so we may be ambushed by the riverbank?"

Cornelius massaged his temples.

Victory.

"We must march forward, Tribune. We must."

Porthios took another draught before continuing, his tone low, iron cold.

"No, Cornelius. We wait."

Another long silence.

"It could be seen as fear, Tribune, if we sit here. And the food-"

"Fear? Porthois shouted. "What have we to fear? From what I can tell from your replies, Prefect, we have a great deal to fear, regardless. There are no places for comfort anymore, no hiding places. Shall I lead these men to their death- or what they would believe to be their death, without him?" Him. Erthaelion. The man who had become the most crucial figure in this campaign, however inexplicably. "You and I may know this Phalanx has the capability to defeat the Host without him, but do they? Do the men know they can overcame Helatos without him? I think not, Cornelius." He paused yet again, speaking into his cup between sips of the bitter red drink. Then, slamming his glass cup against the mahogony, he rose with violent force. "The riverbank is treacheroous. The east, andmore of the Semec, is death. To the south is uncertain confrontations. Retreat is not an option. The clear choice is to stay. To wait.." Porthios paced his tent. he paused briefly over where Cornelius sat, sipping from his cup. The wine regained a certain sweetness. He drank further. Reaching for decanter, he filled the cup again.

"And if nothing comes of waiting, Tribune?" Cornelius' tone was staunch, devoid of emotion.

The characteristicly exaggerated professionalism did not dupe Porthios; he prodded for honesty beneath the mask of ridiculous mask the man wore perpetually; he begged emotion from unfathomable depths. How could honesty be reached from such unfathomable depths? He penetrated further. "Granted, its not a plan worthy of your genius, Cornelius-" He halted. He let the words carry through the pavilion, feeling the Camp Prefect shudder beneath chainmail and cloth. He enjoyed the Prefect's feigned calm. "But it will seemingly have to do. We wait for ten days; if we see nothing of supplies, we march on Avar-efer." Porthios paused, loomed over where Cornelius sat. "Of course, that is, if that plan is to your liking, Prefect."

Cornelius rose from the lone chair before Porthios' desk, a ponderous movement that spoke of his apparent age. He turned to regard Porthios with smooth, arrogant ease. The elder man's eyes narrowed for a moment, his eyes set, facial muscles tensing.

""I will do as you say," he said, cold yet devoid of malice. "By Amos, you have damned us." The Prefect's salute was curt, then he was gone.

Porthios returned behind his desk. Wine. He needed wine. The last amphora was more than worthy of his attention, despite its bitterness. He silently celebrated its potency, reveled in the thought of drunken obliviousness.

I will need more of you tonight.

But no peace came after the first cups.

Where are you, my friend? Where are you, Erthaelion?

For the remainder of the night, he could do nothing to banish the thought. Whenever forgotten, it returned with merciless inevitability; visions of a gutted, arrow-riddled corpse of an Imperial Prime Centuryman.

Where are you, my friend?


****

Erthaelion did not know how long he slept. His dreams were vague, colorless places where he drifted between chaotic suffering, torment and bliss. At times, he wondered if he were dead, if he had fallen into the void of Chaos and the paradise of the Ellyssian Fields had been denied him.

He awoke to find himself marvelously comfortable save a hint of pain in his shoulder. He was lying in a broad bed in an elaborately painted chamber- the furthest thing from a dungeon imagination could conjure. Frescoes of serenity and hunting scenes lined the walls, and the room smelled of honey and myrrh. Sunlight cascaded through a window at his side; the hub and chaos of the city could be heard though the absence of stone; distant, as though heard from the sky.

Avar-efer. He gasped.

Avar-efer was the administrative and commercial of Helatos. Across the realms of Imperial Luralius, Avar-efer was spoken of in breathless, awed tones, a place of unsurpassed wealth and countless wonders. Helatos itself was littered with grandiose monuments of legendary magnificence- artifacts from ancient Helatos, when their wealth and the mythic might of the Divine Kings of old had wrought a nation that sprawled from the Neresar wilderness to Cataputola. But time had crumbled mighty Helatos. While still a place of wealth and wonder- so much so that Luralius coveted it- its power had waned. Iron had superannuated bronze; cavalry and war elephants had replaced the chariot; Imperial Luralius' Phalanxes had obliterated traditional trade partners like Cathos and Jerithuimia; pirates had laid Yukthea bare. War was abandoned out of necessity when the Semec failed to yield a reliable source for metals to combat the iron of Cataputola and Luralius. Helatos remained, but li view post


Connolly posted 28 December 2004 in Member Written WorksConnolly by Erthaelion, Candidate

Thanks for the read, and the positive words! I am surprised without italics and everything its easy to understand what the characters are thinking.

This is Chap 1, as you guessed. Having a great deal of issue with the prologue. Cant seem to make it readable. I dont know if its too wordy or what. Maybe I will get it on here and the OWW again...

Scene length issue: Agreed. I think in the course of trying to keep the action at the start fast paced I got a little short sighted regarding the depth of some of the characters.

Changes will be made.

Look forward to seeing your stuff at OWW! Congrats on meeting your self imposed.

Cheers. I will try and post more for ye. view post


Okay - I just have to ask posted 14 January 2005 in Author Q &amp; AOkay - I just have to ask by Erthaelion, Candidate

I think I've asked you something similar before, but I'm sure you won't mind me asking the same thing with different words...

Can you speak briefly on the cliche archetypes you used for your male characters? Besides Cniaur, who is effectively straightforward. view post


Wowza posted 14 January 2005 in Author Q &amp; AWowza by Erthaelion, Candidate

Whoa...

I feel dumb asking, Scott, but what the heck is the cover on the French edition all about? And, did you have any input on that? view post


the emperor Ikurai Xerius III posted 25 January 2005 in The Warrior Prophetthe emperor Ikurai Xerius III by Erthaelion, Candidate

Hasn't been a female skin-spy revealed yet.

Hard to imagine the "things" being anything other then male, but upon re-reading that scene, it does seem like something strange was going on. And the skin-spies did discover, very suddenly, that Kellhus could see them. Just out of the blue, at a council of the Great names, bang- Sarcellus is staring down Kellhus.

hmm.... view post


the emperor Ikurai Xerius III posted 26 January 2005 in The Warrior Prophetthe emperor Ikurai Xerius III by Erthaelion, Candidate

I speak neither of physiognomy nor the possible complexity of engineering. The way the skin spy operates, from what we read of Sarcellus, is on the promise of release. Its simply alot harder to imagine a sexual misfit as a female, on that vivid a level.

Not imposssible, but harder to visualize it being the same sickening creature, bent on release, coupling with corpses etc. view post


Earwa Related babble... posted 03 February 2005 in Author Q &amp; AEarwa Related babble... by Erthaelion, Candidate

I just read a review from a link from this site and wondered what your take on it was Scott.

Morgans review is predominatnly positive, but she knda knocks Earwa for often combining elements from different eras of the worlds history. She mentions the Nansurium combining elements of Rome, Byzantium and Egypt. What is your take on this? Do you think that combining cultural elements from different portions of world history can detract from the world when you have readers with acute academic tastes?

I know that I, for one, had a hard time pinning down roughly what era of history you were drawing from exactly until the TWP when I read the first battle scenes. When you wrote PoN the second time, after all your academic osmosis, did you picture 10th-11th Century Europe as a guideline? Or was it much more complex then that? view post


Tally of Evil Acts posted 07 March 2005 in The Warrior ProphetTally of Evil Acts by Erthaelion, Candidate

It was Conphas, who "felt like a thief, the hidden author of a great loss...hidden in the womb of events. Like a God."

Had the book beside the comp, thought I'd clarify. Conphas, if one is convinced of the Emperor's malevolence, is at least equally at blame for the tragedy of the Vulgar Holy War. view post


Connolly posted 30 April 2005 in Member Written WorksConnolly by Erthaelion, Candidate

Book 1

Yanathina


Chapter 1


. . .the various potentates of the East and West initial disregard to the uprising was due in no small measure to the Yanite's storied penchant for fanaticism. For is it not in the nature of men to ginore that which is perpetually present? It was far more difficult, however, to ignore the machinations of the prophet Izanriah and his growing power through the eastern provinces of Imperial Luralius. Nevertheless, the scope of events elsewhere within the Imperium and beyond kept many ignorant to the grotesque ongoings in Yanathina. Only later, when the seeds of apocolypse were long-sewn, were they aware of the terror they had allowed unleashed. . .

Diasarus, Being a Chronicle of the First Days of Prophecy


Few men treasured time more than scholars. No resource was more treasured, no obstacle more profound. It was this that inevitably made the most gifted men the most impatient. Time, Sangaras had come to realize, was a currency simply too precious to be squandered.

The summons came without warning. The scribe sat alone, translating, as he had for the last three days, from a tablet etched with the cunieform script of ancient Gurush, when a demure cough shattered the intensity of his concentration. Sangaras glanced up, uncertain how long the young slave had stood at the door to his study. Aggravated at the intrusion, the scribe nearly allowed his impatience to overwhelm him - only the nature of his current task rescued the boy from brutality. The further he descended into the tablet's text, the clearer it had become that, to his utter disapointment, this was no hero-saga immortalized by the sages of Gurush; it seemed far more likely to be a tax-record of a routine harvest collection. It was at once a lesson in literacy and humility.

Not that he let this frustrate him. Both were lessons he had learned to endure quietly.

Thus, after his initial irritation, Sangaras had merely sighed and worked a final cautious letter over the sheet of papyrus. The room that served as his study was overrun with carelessly piled scrolls and tablets of stone - scripture written in the numerous dialects of Cataputola and beyond. An abacus worked in lapis stone's and ebony, a relic of antique Cathos, collected dust in a gloomy corner, dwarfed and oppressed by stacks of ancient literature. His desk, in contrast, was bare save for his papyrus, his Gurushian tablet, his inkhorn, and an oil lamp that provided the study its only illumination. Sangaras peered at the slave, his eyes cold and demanding.

"Many pardons, master," the boy whispered nervously, "but there is urgent news."

Sangaras frowned, both stunned and perplexed. What news could warrant an intrusion upon his studies?

"What is it?" he snapped.

"A retinue has come to speak with you, master." A pause, as if the boy's lips struggled to pronounce a foriegn utterence. "From the Royal Palace."

"From the Palace?" Sangaras dropped his reed quill, sprung hastily from his chair.

What could the Palace want with me? He pondered the implications of the thought as he followed the slave from his study.

Fear churned his bowel as he was led through the cavernous galleries beneath Arabel's sacred Teskeranti complex. Images flashed unbidden through his mind: of pained howls reverberating against soiled stone; the smell of rot and death in dark, cramped spaces; agony wrought by the most skilled hands in the trade. It was common knowledge that the Great King Hyrdaxes, like so many who bore the title before he, was an excessively cruel man. Among many Cataputolan rulers, harsh cruelty was often mistakenly equated with strength.

How could he not be terrified?

And yet he could find no reason to justify such fears. He was no enemy of the Royal House. Far from it, in fact. He was a simple scribe, an Acolyte of Berossas who showed some promise - nothing more.

His family, on the other hand. . .

Sweat in icy rivulets along his brow. Sand-dry mouth. Writhing innards. As they entered the administrative compounds that formed the heart of the holy precinct, he smoothed his simple linen robes with hands that oozed sweat. It was all he could do to keep from vomitting.

Sangaras blinked as sunlight and the immensity of the Teskeranti Courtyard engulfed them. He gazed across the expanse, attempted to conceal his terror with a raised hand to ward the sun. At the courtyard's heart, the Kamakosai Ziggurat piled concentrically into the sky, dwarfing the glazed-brick, military style parapets that framed the complex. Fountains lay nestled beneath leaning eucalyptus and date-palm trees in the courtyard's shadowy recesses; eunuchs attended to the priestesses and temple-concubines that lounged by the waters' edge. Priests and functionaries in voluminous robes stood in clots, conversing idly in gracious, measured tones. Frantically stroking his close-trimmed beard, Sangaras let his eyes linger on nothing familiar as he frantically searched for the men who inexplicably sought his company.

Or my death.

His breath was stolen when he glimpsed the retinue loitering by the arched gate of the courtyard. Struck suddenly by the futile urge to flee, he reached out a hand to still the already advancing slave. But it was too late - he too had been recognized.

Four men in long, patterened robes stood in a disciplined line before a litter carried on the back of massive, bare-chested slaves. The robed men carried spears, stood with a martial tautness that made the nearby priests seem effeminate. A fifth man, similarly garbed but unarmed, stood by the silk-and-gauze shrouded litter. He took a ceremonius step forward when he saw the scribe, his eyes narrowed with frank appraisal. Sangaras felt a child before his father's wrath, and found himself lowering his eyes to avoid the man's scrutiny. The young slave paused before the unarmed man - a palace courtier, Sangaras guessed from his dress and demeanour - then bowed and discreetly withdrew from the imminent confrontation.

The courtier took a stiff, straight-backed step past the unflinching guards. "You are Sangaras cas-Lobel, are you not?"

"I am." Sangaras was stunned at the steadiness of his own voice.

The courtier nodded. "You are to come with me." The man's hawkish features were blank with contemplation. A heartbeat later he strode forward, bending at the waist to speak into the scribe's ear. Sangaras caught the scent of date-wine mixed with the perfumed oils the man undoubtedly used to sculpt the intricate ringlets of his beard.

"You must cooperate with me, scribe," the courtier whispered, "if you wish to see the sunset."

Panicked, Sangaras glanced involuntarily up at the man's face, but the courtier had already turned away. The elegantly garbed man gave a simple hand motion, and the four slaves bearing the litter fell to their knees with effortless percision. Moving hesitantly, he passed the line of rigid, armed men, then watched the courtier sweep open the shimmering silk shroud. Sangaras suppressed the urge to glance over his shoulder. He imagined there to be far simpler ways to dispose of him than spears in the back with countless witnesses present. Not that it mattered. If the armed men were, as he'd immediately presumed, Sacred Kinsmen, then they were above things as petty as laws and witnesses.

Sangaras glanced pensively at the courtier, who smiled with feigned amiability and motioned for him to enter the litter's shaded, cushioned interior. Despite the litter's opulent interior, he crawled tensly across the silk pillows, wary of any sort of trap. He swallowed, released a strangled breath. Had their been malice in his eyes? Sangaras wondered, or am I merely a coward?

A moment later, he felt the litter being raised gently onto broad shoulders, then the rolling sensation of moving beyond the gate of the Teskeranti complex.

The clamour of Arabel erupted around the litter. The centrally situated and perpetually swarming bazaars of the Cataputolan city had for centuries seen the finest goods from the farthest reaches of society pass through their vast exapnses. The scream of the mercantile horde was occasionally drowned by the cries of burdened beasts, the metallic clang of a nearby coppersmith. Smells wafted through the litter's shroud: the robust aroma of cooking meats; the stench of beasts, mud, and feces; smoke from countless hearth-fires, and the pungent aroma of a thousand unwashed bodies.

Sangaras did all he could to silence the roar of the multitude, to still the hammering in his chest. The litter moved painstakingly through the masses, forced to halt often by the press of surrounding multitudes. Sangaras tried to question, to reason away the circumstances that had brought him to this elegant litter, but contemplation brought no comfort. Not when it offered nothing but more uncertainties.

Long minutes passed before the thundering crowd faded behind him, replaced by the ambient sound of rushing water, the distant smell of incense. The River Gynadaras. Nearly there. His heart resumed its frantic pace.

Moments later the litter slowed, then stopped. He felt it being smoothly lowered, then the shroud was again brushed aside.

"Hurry, scribe." The courtier's tone was sharp, devoid of the congenial grace it had possessed earlier.

Sangaras climbed from the litter to find himself immersed in what could only be the Royal Gardens. The courtier was already some distance ahead, moving along a walkway of immaculate grass. Sangaras was led through collunades of tamarisk and hibiscus, interceded by trimmed holly and lotus bushes. Canals latticed the the gardens, flowing with the lazy wash of man-made waterways. He heard music in the distance, the lazy, droning tune of a harp, Sangaras thought. The air smelled of vibrance. In his periphery he glimpsed harem concubines lolling with court officials, lolling beneath parasols and fanned by broad peacock feathers. In the distance, the hypostyle audience halls and treasuries soared above the greenery, its monumental staircases lurching against them like massive waves hewn from earth.

"I apologize," the courtier called over his shoulder, "that we are forced to conduct this business in such a manner. Even the palace is forced to be . . . abrupt at times, eh?" Forced laughter. The courtier paused, brought a hand to his intricately braided goatee. Sangaras thought he saw confusion in the features of his profile - confusion, or an uneasy curiousity. Turning to face Sangaras, he finally said, "You can trust in this, scribe: Unless you are a complete fool, you'll not be harmed today." Then he whirled and continued through the garden.

Heartened by his surroundings and the courtier's sudden candor, Sangaras followed breathlessly after him. "Why is it I'm here?"

The tall courtier froze, turning his head to regard Sangaras over his shoulder. "I don't understand why, scribe, but Cerseva has summoned you to meet with him."

Panic returned in lunatic dimensions.

Cerseva. The name belonging to the most feared man in all of Arabel, perhaps even all of Cataputola. Cerseva was the Great King's Lord-of-Spies, and, the rumors claimed, an assassin of extraordinary cunning.

A flicker of a smile passed over the courtier's face. "You know the name, then," he said with unnerving pleasantness. Apparently Sangaras had let his expression involuntarily betray his rejuvenated terror. The courtier lowered his eyes, bowed his head. There was no humor in the smile he wore as he spoke: "You needn't worry, scribe. If Cerseva wanted you dead, the Gods know you would be."

It was small consolation.

The courtier moved in a direction vaguely towards the soaring heights of the palace, then turned towards a raised, collunaded courtyard with neither a roof or walls. Its stone columns were covered in intricate bas-reliefs; two towering winged bulls bracketed the short stair to its platform. The courtier's walk was stiff now, formal in the way of those about to stand before their betters.











****

Miles away, Yanathina thronged with rapture.

Bathed in moonlight, the broad esplanade of the Great Temple of Yanathina was flooded with revellers flushed from the word of their visionary, Izanriah. Crowds swarmed about the Temple's gilded Eternal Altar, basking in the glow of its flames, savouring the warmth of wine and mutual ecstacy. The staircases that climbed the acropolis of the Great Temple were choked with fanatics. The avenues and thoroughfares beneath the temple's porticoes hosted celebrations of a more subdued nature, but wine spilled freely throughout Yanathina's Holy precincts tonight. Hymns were joined by the melodic drone of harps, the metallic clash of cymbals.

Battallions of the Imperial Phalanx marched in their disciplined formations, their hobnailed


****

Beneath the granduer of her monumental structures, Yanathina was a welter of crumbling and haphazardly strewn mud-brick hovels. Daraxes stepped through cramped, fetid alleys, anxious to avoid celebrations and overzealous eyes. Though dawn loomed, the boisterous


Chapter 2

If men measure atrocities with the blood of innocents, can miracles then be measured








Book 2

The Campaign



Chapter 4

Was this what our ancestor's intended? To make the blood of our people into a form of currency exchanged within Luralius for your own petty causes, Senators? How much longer should I, an Imperial High Officer, honor my position if I am to watch my men die for reasons which none can offer?

But who am I to trade such words with you, good Senators? Am I not simply another of your tools?

High Tribune Calladorus Senacis, letter to the Senate

The hereditary priests of Helatas have a saying so ancient it has come to define their transcend their people's understanding of the natural world. It simply states:


Quintus Sartias, Truth, Water, and Sun


No measure of martial strength can conquer elements.

The sun bled irridescence across the desert sky. Incessant, high-pitched screeches drew Erthaelion's eyes instinctively skyward. Above, the vultures that perpetually haunted the Fifteenth Phalanx circled and reeled, ominously close, dark shadows framed by darkening sky. Although the heat of the Cantussi Desert would inevitably relent with the falling sun, he could still feel the matted claminess of the tunic beneath his cuirass, the sweat dripping beneath his arms. Reigning in his caparisoned black, Erthaelion lowered his gaze to peer across the distant ranks of marching infantry. Helms perched on the ends of upraised pikes. Backs bent under the burden of camp gear. Soldiers staggering, falling to gritty sands. The heat, Erthaelion had noted, would confound the disciplined ranks more and more as day wore into night in this place. After twelve hours beneath the relentless sun, the Fifteenth Phalanx of Luralius appeared more like a migration of immigrants than an army of hardened veterans.

That a place could defeat an army! he thought incredulously.

He blinked at the sweat that rolled into his eyes, wiped at the oily hair beneath the lip of his helm. Feeling stragely curiously detetched, he glimpsed





a
Chapter 5


A people possessed of one ruler and many hands to do his bidding are like a man with many fabulous and well-bred horses. But when a people possess more rulers than hands, then they have been doomed by their own venal hungers.

For what man with the heart of warrior would bow to a harem of whorish kings?

Al-Sharad, The Oasis of Souls


The Imperial Senate Hall was designed to resemble the intimate amphitheatre of Luralian antiquity. Rising opposite to its tiered gallery was the dais where the Emperor's of Luralius had traditionally sat to address the body of the Senate for centuries. The gilded likeness of a diadem-crowned lion, the symbol of imperial majesty and power since time immemorial, rested on a broad pillar beyond the dais' lone bench. Lustrous marble columns etched with scenes from legend ringed the circular hall, interceded now and again by billowing censers.

Today the gallery was overflowing with members of Luralius' patrician Houses, but the only sounds were uneasy whispers and the nervous susurration of cloth.

Sweeping his gaze across the assembly, Emperor Mithratus I Kallikos could sense the anxiousness present in the room, could feel it hanging as tangibly as the sweet-scented smoke that clouded the recesses above. It was, he knew, eminently justified: in his forty years as emperor, he had never once called an emergency senatorial council.

Until now. He fussed with the embroidered hem of his sleeve, adjusted the plain gold band that rested on his brow - the Diadem of Luralius, the crown worn by none but the most powerful man in the world. How it chafed him today.

Every day, it seems.

Drawing then releasing a deep, troubled breath, he began: "King Saladuecon has sent a missive to inform me that he has ceased to allow our ships access to the River Siyanal for the remainder of the Fifteenth's Campaign in Helatas."

A consumptive gasp of disbelief resonated beneath glistening marble vaults .

"To those of you who do not understand this," Mithratus continued, "the Fifteenth has been abandoned somewhere along the Siyanal, perhaps still in ransacked Sar-armul, and, presuming their still alive, have not seen provisions in two weeks. They have undoubtedly been forced to resort to banditry. And there is no help on the way." The emperor paused, allowing his words sufficient time to sink in to the assembly. Each present spoke in hushed, incredulous tones, outrage soon following mutual disbelief.

The emperor leaned forward on his perch. "I have called you here today to insure that action is taken."

Rumbling approval. Mithratus watched as a man rose to his feet from the lower galleries, his balding head and pronounced limp discrepant with his hulking shoulders and massive chest. A sumptuous purple robe was draped across his physique. Despite his limp- the remnant of a wound sustained during phalanx service in Sapatarania, if Mithratus recalled correctly- the man moved with candid rage down the stairs and towards the emperor's dais.

"He's damned them!" the senator exclaimed. "He would dare to blatantly disobey the Accord he signed?" The well-proportioned senator stopped at the foot of the dais' stair. His strong, clean-shaven chin trembled; his fat hands clenched into fists.

Mithratus nodded sagely. "It would seem so, Paranius," he replied flatly. He had, of course, predicted the man's livid and theatrical reaction. Senator Paranius Calerus had led the delegation Mithratus had sent to Galeapolis during the Helatasi campaign's infancy. Their charge had been to force Saladuecon XIX Teiros to sign the Imperial Accord that would thereby allow the triremes and merchantmen of the Empire to carry supplies to the Fifteenth as they marched towards the Helatasi capitol, Avar-efer. Paranius had returned to Luralius - a year before a single imperial soldier had set foot on lush Helatasi soil - and proclaimed: "By Saladuecon's hand, we have been assured victory."

What Mithratus hadn't predicted was such a bold and thoughtless betrayal. Now the Accord was broken, and the Fifteenth was starving on the muddy banks of the Siyanal, or, far worse as far as he was concerned, pillaging like barbarians. And only the debauched King of Galeapolis was left to be blamed.

Paranius stared up at him indignantly, neither blinking nor flinching.

Should I not be as outraged as he? Mithratus wondered. Saladuecon has made a fool of both of us. Made a fool of Luralius.

But he could summon the youthful wrath that had once filled him no more than he could summon the old strength to weathered, creaky limbs.

Paranius was another matter. Excessively proud men, Mithratus understood, did not tolerate embarrassment with good humour.

"But you know the man, Paranius," he said calmly. "How could it surprise you that he has deceived us?"

"That pig-faced-" Paranius bit off his words, inhaled to compose his thoughts. "He would risk Luralius' wrath?"

"Ahh," Mithratus began, a tutor whose student is perched on the brink of revelation, "but Luralius' wrath is not there to be risked - we are across the Valasian, with our closest army dead or dying. The 'Divine King, '" he spat the name, as he always did, with no small degree of mockery, "and his Ksamarites, however, are only a week away on the back of the Siyanal."

"So he would save his neck from the Fifteenth," Paranius roared, "and in turn betray the whole of the Empire? Surely he cannot think he will not pay for this treachery?"

If not genuinely disturbed by the situation himself, Mithratus may have chuckled at the man's impotent rage.

"I wish I had knew what occurs in that man's mind, Paranius, but I do not. It seems clear that Ses'atre-akhet offered him protection of some sort from our Phalanxes, and any imperial retaliation."

"Probably offered him one of his pretty son's, too!" pealed from somewhere in the upper galleries, inciting a chorus of laughter.

Mithratus smirked. "Whatever happened, it seems we have been taught a lesson for underestimating those who we mistook fools. We have underestimated the Saladuecon's for too long, and now they have tried to make us pay for it."

"I did not believe the man capable of such indiscretion," Paranius said airily, visibly perplexed. Probably the only form of concession that could be exacted from Paranius, Mithratus supposed.

"Nor did I. But one cannot underestimate the Divine King of Helatas in this affair. Obviously the man was able to play on Saladuecon's fears: 'How long could Galeapolis stay sovereign if Helatos falls to the Empire?' Saladuecon has made his wager. He has chosen the promises of Avar-efer over the threat of our Phalanxes. Perhaps he thinks we are unconcerned with a mere six thousand men. But I am most certainly concerned."

"What of the Thirteenth?" Paranius asked, frowning.

At this, the whispers in the gallery rose to a dull and continuous roar. Stationed in Yanathina, the Thirteenth had been the subject of rumor since word of the upheaval had reached the Capitol.

Mithratus had hoped to avoid any talk of them today.

"Genarius is forced to remain in Yanathina," he began, surprised at the certainty in his voice. "As you all know, much has happened there."

"What of the rumors of a new Yanite prophet?" from an implacable voice in the lower tiers.

The emperor scowled. "Exaggerations, surely, as most rumors are." He paused and raised a hand to quiet the tumult. "What matters, great Houses, is that some of the Luralian Army's best men are as we speak starving in a foreign land. The Gods take me if Galeapolis doesn't see our banners in their harbor in less than two weeks."

Cries of enthusiastic approval rang through the Hall of the Imperial Senate. Paranius Calerus grinned cold, vicious approval.

"I am to presume you will interested in overseeing the proceedings in Galeapolis, Senator Paranius?" Mithratus asked with an air of arrogant certainty.

"I would be honored," he replied. "My son would surely be interested to see the city of the Conqueror, as well, emperor."

Mithratus suppressed the urge to cackle, struggled to maintain a look serene indifference. His plan was proceeding as he&#8217;d hoped.

Paranius' son, the great Tertadonus Calerus, was the linchpin of all his plans; the boy who most of Luralius assumed would next wear the diadem. Although he had, in months past, heard more of the precocious teen than he could sanely suffer, Mithratus saw now the value of such a talent. He would be a fool to not make use of such a prodigious tool.

Tertadonus was the product of his father's endless affection and boundless ambition. Paranius had nearly impoverished his House funding an education that consisted of the finest tutors of literature and oratory the Imperium had to offer. The young man had traveled across the eastern provinces, had been educated in statecraft in Cathos, warfare in Sapatarna, and the history of the Imperium everywhere in between. Since becoming a High Officer of the Imperial Phalanx, had been stationed along the River Cenari for the past year, serving as general of the illustrious Eighth Phalanx.

Now, after his year campaigning on the brink of civilization, the boy had returned to Luralius to take what most believed to be his destiny. The name 'Tertadonus Calerus' had become synonymous with 'future' among those who dared discuss their emperor's advanced age. Each day, the intense pressure upon Mithratus grew. . .

"Yes, I'm sure he would quite enjoy it." Rumor had informed Mithratus that the youth had idolized Attolon III for some time, and had fashioned himself as something of a 'second coming.' The comparison was inevitable, and the boy had likely done little to squelch it. Accolades were narcotics to young men: the more frequently received, the more necessary they became to their existence. view post


Cities posted 04 August 2005 in Author Q &amp; ACities by Erthaelion, Candidate

I'm compelled to believe that this question will either be too direct for you to answer in a straightforward manner, Scott, or it will be simply too linear for your creative psyche to tolerate, but, nevertheless...

When you visualize the great cities of Earwa - Momemn, Carythusal, Sumna, Caraskand, Iothiah - what visual analogies have you come to associate them with from Earth? I'm of the understanding that you at no point set out to make it that simple aesthetically, but on some level, there must be some connections, correct?

To me they're all brilliantly sketched pieces of creative art that at no time mirror any historical locale too closely (except of course for Momemn, which draws the obvious comparisons as the inheritor to Cenei and the gathering grounds of the "First" Holy War), but then we've only seen a few at any length...

In terms of world-building and visualizing, I've always thought in terms of analogy. Whenever I read fantasy, I pick it up and immediately search for clues as to comparable periods and locales on Earth, and proceed to search for reasons why it doesnt quite feel "right" - which, unfortunately, are normally easy to find. As you'd imagine, this left me utterly perplexed after my first tear through tDtCB. It was simply incongruent with any Earth period to feel as authentic as it did! After the third or fourth read, however, I came to grips with it, and began to gather an understanding, but I still stand in awe of your vision.

And the compliments, FYI, don't give you leave to dodge the question. <!-- s:wink: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_wink.gif" alt=":wink:" title="Wink" /><!-- s:wink: --> view post


Cities posted 04 August 2005 in Author Q &amp; ACities by Erthaelion, Candidate

Shimeh makes for easy and obvious comparison.

Carythusal, while we don't have long to get a feel for it, does very little to remind me of Constantinople. Ruled by debauched King-Regents and a calculating cabal of magi... The whole "Spires" imagery is very Oriental to me.

Momemn, although it can be compared to an Alexandrian model in my head, is very Constantinople-ish (Xothei makes for obvious comparison).

But I'm sure Scott will have LOTS of light to shed on the topic! <!-- s:P --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_razz.gif" alt=":P" title="Razz" /><!-- s:P --> view post


Cnaiur's prowess posted 07 August 2005 in Author Q &amp; ACnaiur's prowess by Erthaelion, Candidate

But how could you even think that attitudes possessed thousands of years ago are in any way translatable to the present time? If the Tusk condemns Nonmen, and the better part of the Three Seas is Inrithi, wouldn't Men who were to follow Nonmen damn themselves, as well?

Its not a logical argument that what was believed long ago will be part of a belief system centuries later.

I, also, am rather interested to know just how Nonmen are so quickly exterminated when they venture into the realm of civilization, however... view post


The Few and Kellhus posted 07 August 2005 in The Warrior ProphetThe Few and Kellhus by Erthaelion, Candidate

A little late with this, but I'm in serious agreement with the theory that the No-God is not quite divine, as we're in understanding of it. I'm most reminded of Egyptian mythology when I think of him - the Osiris story and resurrection - just based on his deaths and the constant struggle to resurrect him.

Remember how angry Skafra gets at the beginning of WP when Seswatha reminds the great wracu his God is not a God? Another interesting scene.

I think its amazing how brilliantly done the whole "Father" ploy was. We're really left with only a handful of clues. Is he divine, or has he simply made himself appear so to the Fanim in the same way Kellhus has to the Inrithi Holy War? view post


Critcism, please! posted 29 May 2006 in Member Written WorksCritcism, please! by Erthaelion, Candidate

The Genesis

Prologue


When beginning an account of this magnitude, one must be mindful that the true outset of great and catastrophic events can in fact be rooted in relative obscurity. With such factors in mind, the author has chosen to begin his narrative at the time of the appearance of a strange star, and the corresponding birth of a mysterious child...

-DIASARSUS, BEING AN ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST DAYS OF PROPHECY



603rd Year of the Luralian Empire
10th Year of the Reign of Mithratus Kallikos II



Nothing inspires fear so much as that which cannot be understood.

A trail of incandescent flame scarred the geography of the night sky. Panic engulfed the great nations of the Valasian Sea as men struggled to make sense of the impossible. Mighty and nameless alike across the breadth of the world looked to the heavens in wonder, their eyes wide with disbelief and helpless dread. Kings consulted priests and trusted seers; the lowborn beseeched both gods and ancestors for protection. In Immortal Luralius, inviolable heart of the greatest empire ever known, the populace was frantic with trepidation. Even those ignorant to the language of the stars offered delirious speculation at the anomoly's meaning. And with a sign so brazen, there could be little variance of opinion. There was one, and only one, plausible explanation.

A harbinger of doom. A herald of woe written through the heavens.

Were it not for the times, the strange star may have been seen as a miraculous display of cosmic splendor, a gift from the Gods to their most favored city. Twelve days had passed since the foreboding comet had plummeted across the celestial planes, and for twelve nights it had hung suspended over Luralius like a great beacon amid the calligraphy of stars and constellations. As always, rumours were exchanged in the great bathhouses and agoras of the Imperial City. Some spoke of learned scholars and wise magi who had reputedly traveled from as far away as Arabel to witness the phenomenon. Others whispered that the star was a dire omen - an undeniable portent of their glorious city's impending doom. And with the distressing news trickling in from all corners of the Empire - uprisings and border raids in the East, open war on the River Genari, piracy plaguing the Valasian Sea - the whispers had quickly swelled to an unremitting roar.

But now night had again fallen on Luralius, and though the great city was far from silent, the public haunts where such talk had become frequent were all but deserted. High atop its natural perch, the Aregallian Palace, home to the Emperors of Luralius for time immemorial, towered over the sprawl of the City of Cities like a glistening leviathan. Yet on this night the gilded corridors and pillared galleries of the Imperial Palace were devoid of pomp and ceremony, ominous with their uncharacteristic silence. A night without song and revelry in the Imperial Luralian Court was a true rarity. But then these were rare times, and despite the ribaldry that often clamored along the Capital's most impoverished streets, the Emperor of Luralius was no fool.



~~~~~~~




Submerged in the opulence of the Imperial Court, the dining hall was lavish and ornate, a garish blend of old and contrasting styles. In terms of sheer beauty, the hall knew few rivals, but with its peculiar artwork and statuary its decor seemed strangely out of place amid the austere elegance of the Emperor's Palace. And though it had seen little use over the centuries - the Palace possessed halls of far more subtle grace for any formal affairs of state - on this night, the gaudy chamber teemed with activity. Droves of lithe-bodied slaves filtered through the hall toting silver decanters, serving trays, and peacock-feather fans. Musicians bathed the expanse in the droning rhythms of flute and lyre, their naked backs braced against columns of polished marble. Platters of the finest delicacies were arrayed on a great table of alabaster and ebony. The scent of rich wine mingled with that of incense, myrrh, and scented oil.

“Every oracle I’ve consulted is at a loss,” Mithratus Kallikos II said to his two closest advisors, his tone airy with futility and regret. “I fear there is no one left to ask.” He shook his head and slurped back more wine. Over the past several days, Mithratus had pondered this alarming star with a tenacity that bordered on obsession. Since its appearance, sleep had become a rare and burdensome obligation. Even his dreams were fraught with baleful omens. Everything, he was convinced, came back to this star. He simply had to know what it meant! His fate - indeed, that of the entire Empire - depended on it.

His eyes downcast, Mithratus sighed heavily. When his ministers still failed to reply, he peered at them narrowly, scrutinizing them, struggling to find more to say. He opened his mouth to speak but then paused, hesitating. After a moment's contemplation he brought his cup to his lips, sipped his wine and remained silent. He did have more to say - far more, in fact - but the time was not yet right.

Patience...

Reclined on couches adjacent to his own, his ministers carefully avoided his gaze, affecting distraction and acting as though he hadn't spoken. Restless, Mithratus found himself shifting in discomfort, nervously adjusting the shimmering robes that veiled his frame. For some foolish reason, he had hoped to find reprieve in the presence of these two once-great men. But it seemed he had been afforded no such thing. Perhaps, he mused, this was a bad idea. How could he dare hope for reprieve? The very world seemed to conspire against him.

And well it should. He was the Emperor of Luralius. No man living could boast more power than he.

Or more enemies.

This thought had come to him, quite without warning, several days previous. And like any other horrifying revelation, it had come to tyrannize his thoughts, permeating his mind like a drop of blood in pure water. For the first time in his glorious life, Mithratus truly felt vulnerable. To have worldly enemies was one thing; to have the very heavens so blatantly express their disfavor was a different thing entirely.

He gulped down more wine, desperate to soothe the flutter in his bowel. He shuddered and squeezed shut his eyes.

Intent on discussing the string of catastrophes that had recently befallen him, and eager to deliver some news of his own, he had summoned his two most able ministers here in secrecy - although he could safely assume that by now all Luralius knew of their meeting. Secrets spread like plague in the Imperial City, and always had. But at this point it made little difference. His plans had been set in motion, and soon enough his Empire would again be secure.

My Empire… Such sweet words! All the more sweet because no man but he could think or say them.

Suddenly rejuvenated, Mithratus smiled, felt the worries that assailed him melt away in an exultant heartbeat. He opened his eyes, once again intent on his advisors.

Seemingly immersed in thought, Teladorus, High Chancellor of the Imperial Court, gazed into his cup of wine for several moments before finding the nerve to speak. “The Empire has seen dark times before and survived, Emperor. We will do what we must to get past this.”

Mithratus nodded vacantly, his eyes distant, devoid of passion. Ever since their arrival several hours ago, his two ministers had been saying everything imaginable in an effort to console him. Mere days ago he had found the insistent reassurances of his courtiers heartening - so much so that he’d even found himself encouraging them. Given the circumstances it had only seemed reasonable. How could he not be desperate for reassurances? These were desperate times. Few things comforted the mind so easily as vanity - or so it had seemed to him then.

Now, however, after weeks of enduring this disgusting charade, he found their incessant flattery both irritating and disturbing. The reason, he now knew, was strikingly simple. All of them - the unending train of augers, generals, astrologers and advisors - sounded precisely the same, as though they merely recited different versions of the same oft-repeated tale. All of them would swoon over his manifest divinity, spout wide-eyed reassurances of his incontestable might - anything that might appease their Emperor. But as soon as he turned his back, he had no doubt, the act would come to an end, and they would resume their whispering and conspiring as shamelessly as old women at market. The fawning sycophants. And to think he had actually encouraged this!

But no longer. He would hear no more of it - tonight, or ever again.

It was time, he decided, to re-assert his authority.

“I would have you both know,” he began, his expression at once stern and serene, “that I have begun assembling a force to deal with this pirate threat.”

Resplendent in full ceremonial armour, Callistares, High Tribune of the Emperor’s own Principate Army, cleared his throat around a mouthful of food. “You must be cautious, Emperor. You must ensure that the Army is not spread too thin. With this talk of insurrection in the eastern satrapies…” He paused, shook his head grimly. “I would not have us pour too much of our manpower in one place.”

Mithratus smiled, comforted beyond measure by the old General’s ignorance. For whatever reason, acting outside the designs of his ministers never failed to hearten him. It was a childish pleasure, he knew, but keeping his own counsel was perhaps the most effective way of affirming his ascendance over these fools. The secrets of the Emperor were, above all else, precious. In the past, advisors and generals alike had made themselves all too powerful once armed with such secrets. With time and ambition, they could make themselves into enemies - even emperors.

But this time was different. This time he had more immediate motives for his secrecy. The whispers of Percalaus Valerus's mounting ambitions had spread far - far too far for his liking.

“You’ve not heard, then.” He paused for a sip of wine, savoured its sweet burn in his chest. “I’ve had Percalaus Valerus recalled. If he does not return to Luralius in a timely manner, he will be declared an enemy of the State. An outlaw.”

Teladorus snorted in disdain. The balding minister was holding a dubious olive between thumb and forefinger, and was carefully appraising its merit. “Percalaus is a fool. He wins a few skirmishes against barbarians and thinks he’s earned the loyalty of the entire Army?” The old man shrugged and sent the olive skittering across the mosaic floor beneath their couches. “You must make sure he’s punished, Mithratus.”

For several instants, Mithratus could only gape at the man in stunned outrage. There was a marked difference, he had learned, between counsel and command. And his minister’s previous statement - in his mind, at least - had come perilously close to the latter. Only the Emperor could command the Emperor.

Mithratus breathed deeply, looked away from his brash minister. Composure. Only with composure would he survive the coming days.

Another of his father's lessons.

“The man will stand trial, Teladorus. You should concern yourself with it no more.”

Though the old man nodded in compliance, his canny eyes remained sceptical. “Trust is a luxury no Emperor can afford…”

Mithratus smiled weakly, recalling those very words from the jaded memoirs of a long-dead Luralian Emperor. Born into dynastic tradition, he had been educated extensively on the successes and shortcomings of his predecessors.

“I understand, Teladorus.” His tone, he realized after, was seething with impatience. But it could not be helped.

Callistares fixed Mithratus with the paternal eyes he had grown so fond of as a child. “Your father,” the old General began, “knew that the undivided loyalty of the Army was something that had to be earned, not simply given.”

Mithratus sneered. There had been a time - one of uncertainty and perpetual dread - when he had actually cherished such lectures. He had inherited the Imperial Diadem at an atrociously young age, and advisors of Callistares’ status were, as his father had so often preached, a precious commodity. But now, after a decade as Emperor, he found himself loathing these talks more and more with every time they occurred.

He was the Emperor of Luralius, not some stupid boy. How long would it take for them to realize this?

Before his death, Mithratus’s father, Arius Kallikos I, had installed Callistares as commander of the Principate Army, the elite warriors normally under the Emperor’s direct command. At the time, the honour had been a testament to both Arius’s faith in Callistares and to the old General’s unwavering loyalty. For these reasons, and for countless others, Mithratus might have found himself loving the old man as he might have loved his father - had things been different.

To love was to trust. Mithratus had known this since he was young. And yet through the course of his short life, he had never once loved anything or anyone. Not truly. In the Imperial Court, trust was a dangerous thing. Love perhaps even more so.

“But fear is as potent a tool as adoration, Emperor,” Callistares was saying. “You must always remember that.” The dignified General flashed a rare wolfish grin. “Perhaps this is as good a time as any for a demonstration.”

Mithratus smirked and arched his brows in amusement. Not long ago, he might have found such talk from Callistares distressing. But no longer was it out of character. Over the years, the scheming and politicking of the Imperial Court had left the General as cold and calculating as even the most ambitious of his advisors. For Mithratus, it had been a perversely fascinating thing to observe.

Callistares had been a hero once. While his father yet lived, the old General’s military exploits had been the subject of song and story across the breadth of the Empire. The General Without Peer, some had even called him. This alone, Mithratus realized, was reason enough to suffer the man’s often-irritating tutelage. While many still found themselves in awe of the man’s accomplishments, Mithratus had watched Callistares grow frail and forgetful with age while he himself grew virile and intuitive with manhood.

Perhaps, he thought, the old fool could be excused for forgetting his place from time to time. Perhaps a man of his stature was worthy of better than a grisly execution.

“Percalaus’s fate,” Mithratus said decisively, unwilling to discuss the matter further, “will be decided upon his return.”

A moment of silence passed between them, the unnerving hush of men struggling to broach difficult subjects. Feigning distraction, Mithratus watched as a child-slave came forward to refill the mixing bowl at the tables’ heart. But in his periphery he glimpsed the surly eyes of his advisors, the discreet expressions of mutual disapproval. Mithratus had witnessed such exchanges before: his ministers - Callistares and Teladorus in particular - chafing at his unwillingness to heed their counsel.

Finally, Teladorus dared venture: “I hear that Valerus’s wife has given birth to a son.” The old man smiled. “Perhaps that is why the gods have realigned the sky so…”

Callistares laughed at this, but Mithratus could only sneer and shake his head in disgust. This, he felt, was no time for wit. Dire omens were no laughing matter. Especially when they corresponded with dire events.

As the General’s laughter trailed, a soldier garbed in the elaborate armour of a Principate strode into the lavish hall, his helmeted head bowed in obeisance. Upon seeing him, Callistares lurched upright on his couch - a startlingly agile movement, Mithratus thought, for a man his age - and clasped his hands about the neck of his gilded cuirass.

The soldier came forward and placed a fist to his armoured breast. “Lord Emperor,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the music. “Lord High Tribune.” The soldier paused. For an instant he seemed to struggle with his composure. The lolling song of slave-musicians punctuated the silence.

Mithratus stiffened, momentarily overcome by a cascade of disastrous images. More dire news? Somehow he could feel it…

At length, the soldier barked, “Diodotus of Cayranus is here.”

Mithratus raised an eyebrow, nodded in acknowledgement. Had he been alone, he might have gasped for relief. But he was not alone. Not at all. Teladorus was regarding him carefully, his eyes narrow with bewilderment and astute curiosity.

“The Diodotus of Cayranus?” Callistares snapped, at once shocked and sceptical.

Once again, the soldier hesitated. “So the man says, Lord High Tribune.”

With his two advisors staring at him in apparent astonishment, Mithratus suppressed the urge to smirk. The shrill terror of moments before had become scintillating glee. Again he had outwitted them. Again he had moved outside their crude designs.

“Bring him in,” he ordered.

The guard bowed solemnly, saluted, then withdrew from the columned hall. The rasp of iron against leather momentarily drowned the droning melody of the lyre.

Once the man had gone, Mithratus raised his cup and watched a charming waif - a Northerner by her fair colouring - scuttle forward to refill it. Their eye contact was brief, but the Emperor nevertheless resolved to remember her. Beauty such as hers deserved his sampling.

After she'd completed her task, he cried: &quot;Leave us, all of you!&quot;

The music ceased mid-note. After the sound of scurrying feet had faded down the adjoining passage, the silence was encompassing.

With the easy manner of a life-long soldier, Callistares lay back and stretched the length of his plush couch. With one hand he held his painted wine cup aloft, using the other to smooth the leather lappets of his military skirt into place. Without turning his head, Mithratus peered askance, studied the man. The normally-taciturn General was smiling, but his eyes were utterly devoid of mirth. His stern gaze was fixed upon the smoke-hazed, frescoed ceiling.

“Would our Divine Emperor,” he said with deceptive mildness, “be so kind as to tell us just what this is about?”

Mithratus could no longer resist a self-satisfied smile. He’d always relished the sweet stink of desperation on his subordinates. It reminded him that their lives were a game to him. A game in which he made the rules…

But perhaps Callistares was right. These were, after all, monumental events, and such events demanded a modicum of understanding. The stakes, being as high as they were, had to be made clear. Diodotus of Cayranus - arguably the greatest mind in the known world! - was here. Here, in the Imperial Palace!

At last he would have answers.

“As you may have heard,” Mithratus said, his tone one of explanation rather than defiance, “Diodotus was recently in Cathios. I took the liberty of inviting him to the Imperial Court.”

“But, Exalted One…” Teladorus said breathlessly. “This will no doubt spark uproar. Galeapylus will not tolerate it.”

The pompous wretch. Always lecturing...

Mithratus sneered. He had heard enough of the man for one night.

“This is just why, Teladorus, I took care to tell no one of his coming. Even you couldn't be trusted to keep this a secret.” He smiled menacingly. “Especially you, old man.”

A heartbeat of ominous silence. Then, from down the adjoining corridor, the faint sound of approaching footsteps...

For a moment, Mithratus was afflicted by something akin to panic. His ears roaring, he downed another gulp of wine, swallowed hard. He gasped and purged his face of all expression. Then he hissed, “Neither of you will speak of this to anyone. Do you understand?”

The footsteps drew nearer. When neither man replied, Mithratus repeated, “Do you understand?”

He looked to both men in turn, scowling at their reluctant nods. Without warning, something within him - something vicious and utterly inhuman - seemed to break. His face twisted in fury. His nostrils flared. He wanted to berate them, to scream them into submission - if for no other reason than to remind them the penalties of disobedience - but there was no time.

Two Principate Guardsmen filed between the painted marble sphinxes that graced the hall's entrance. With an air of rigid formality, they saluted, then parted and retreated to a discreet distance, revealing the man who could be none other than Diodotus of Cayranus.

Mithratus found himself squinting through the gloom for a better look at him. For some reason, breathing had become painful. What was it he feared? In his ten years as Emperor, he had hosted countless embassies of political or commercial significance, men of wealth and power from across the Empire and beyond. And though none could rival Luralius in military strength, all of them would have considered a man such as Diodotus of Cayranus little more than a curious delicacy, a rare and enlightened treat. He was no warlord, no general or king. He was a scholar, a humble man of letters. Nothing more. But then why did he, the Emperor of Luralius, feel such terror at his looming presence?

Truth, Mithratus realized. It is the truth I fear...

There could be no other explanation. Unlike the preening fools he found himself perpetually surrounded by, Diodotus of Cayranus would spare him no sentiment in whatever explanation he chose to offer. Whatever this prodigious star meant, this man would, without any hesitation, tell him.

Which, despite his terror, was precisely what Mithratus needed.

Eyes wide and mouth slightly agog, the surprisingly youthful man took several distracted steps into the hall, grinning as his gaze happened upon this or that masterwork, obviously overcome with awe. The subtle elegance of the Imperial Palace, Mithratus realized, had left him unprepared for a place of such beauty. Since his childhood, Mithratus had always found himself drawn to such places. He had a far greater appreciation for beauty, he knew, than men such as his father.

When the man stepped through a globe of light cast by a bronze brazier, Mithratus was granted his first distinct glimpse of the far-famed Diodotus of Cayranus. Dark hair cascaded in curls across his slim shoulders. In the fashion of Galeapylan aristocrats, he wore his pale blue robe draped in folds across one shoulder. His sandals, Mithratus noted with contempt, were chased in gold. The Saladuecons, it seemed, paid their scholars well. The fools.

Beyond his periphery, from somewhere to his left, one of his guards called out: &quot;Diodotus of Cayranus, Court Historian and First Friend to the King of Galeapylus. The Emperor of Luralius welcomes you.&quot;

At the sound of his name, Diodotus blinked and shook himself from his reverie. For a moment he stood motionless, smirking as though amused by his own childishness. Then he locked eyes with the Emperor, and his jubilant wonder faded. Frowning as though in resolution, the young scholar strode forward with an air of self-assured dignity - the walk of a man who felt he had no betters. His eyes momentarily chanced upon the gaudy basalt idol that adorned the hall's recesses: the towering likeness of some vulgar Hailatasi god whose worship had been abolished, or so Mithratus believed, some centuries ago.

Diodotus paused mere strides from the alabaster table. Though there was no trace of deference in his bearing, the young scholar lowered his strong chin to his chest as he muttered, &quot;Emperor.&quot;

Mithratus gifted the man with a benevolent smile. &quot;Welcome, Diodotus. I trust you told no one of your coming here.&quot;

&quot;As you requested, Emperor.&quot;

When Mithratus could think of no more to say, Diodotus smiled nervously and opened arm and hand to the pillared hall. &quot;This place is magnificent. I hadn't expected to find anything like this in the Imperial Luralian Court, Emperor. I wasn't aware any of your predecessors possessed any appreciation for Hailatasi art -&quot;

&quot;I think you might be surprised,&quot; Mithratus snapped, &quot;at what my predecessors and I appreciate, Diodotus.&quot; He smiled bitterly. He had no more patience, he decided, for false flattery. &quot;This is Teladorus, my High Chancellor,&quot; he said, gesturing vaguely in the old man's direction. &quot;And this is Callistares, my Counsel of War&quot;

Diodotus directed a respectful nod at Callistares. &quot;I've read a great deal of your exploits in the Kelgaroi Wars. I am honoured, General.&quot;
&quot;I take it this,&quot; Teladorus inquired, &quot;is your first time in our Capital, Diodotus?&quot;
“It is. And I must say, your fine city has thus far lived up to its glorious reputation, Chancellor. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Mithratus cocked an eyebrow, uncertain how to take such a comment. “Indeed.” He stifled a grimace with a gulp of wine. “You know why you are here, do you not, Diodotus?”
“I know,” he replied, his frown belied by a petulant smirk. &quot;But I must admit to being confused by all of this. I would think the Emperor of Luralius had access to a multitude of esteemed astronomers…&quot;
Irritated by such impudence, Mithratus glowered at the man, felt his lips tremble with barely-suppressed wrath. He could hear Callistares squirming with impotent rage on his couch. For a mad instant, Mithratus actually contemplated having the man killed. It was a fleeting thought: the lucid image of this renowned scholar's blood spraying across the mosaic tiles of his hall flashed through his thoughts like a wanton memory. Such sweet satisfaction! But the repercussions were simply too dizzying. Instead he grinned pleasantly, drowned the idea in a mouthful of wine.
&quot;But none with your remarkable reputation, Diodotus.&quot;
The scholar nodded in stiff mimicry of gratitude.
“I hear you’ve been spending a great deal of time away from your employer’s residence,” Mithratus remarked, his eyes laughing. “Is this true?”
Clearly discomfited, Diodotus swallowed and nodded haltingly. “It is true.”
“Why?”
“There was a … An incident at the Royal Court. A rumour.”
This surprised Mithratus little. Rumours of scandal and deceit were perhaps even more rampant, or so he’d heard, in Galeapylus than in Luralius.
Teladorus leaned forward on his couch, his eyes thin with sudden interest. “What kind of ‘incident’, Diodotus?”
The scholar smiled. “Merely a rumour of an incident, Chancellor. Somehow the King heard that I had… relations with his sister. He thought it best that I spent some time elsewhere while the rumours settled.”
Callistares, who had till this point kept his silence, snorted in amusement. “An unfortunate affair, it would seem.”
His eyes bright with mischievous bliss, Diodotus smiled once again. “Obviously there’s no truth whatsoever to the rumours, General.”
A moment of hesitant silence, then raucous laughter pealed across the marmoreal expanse. Mithratus threw back his head and roared in elation. Perhaps he’d misjudged this Diodotus. Perhaps he was a worthy man after all.
Teladorus was first to regain his composure. “So tell us, Diodotus: Where is it you have travelled during your imposed exile?”
Smoothing the smirk from his aquiline features, Diodotus said, “As your Emperor knows, Chancellor, I spent the last several weeks studying philosophy in Cathios. Before that, I was in Hailatas, learning the wisdom of their priests.”
Blinking and wiping jovial tears from his cheeks, Mithratus attempted to regard the young scholar flatly. &quot;Did you know that I myself had a great deal of interest in the Helatasi during my younger years, Diodotus?&quot;
“Is that so?” Diodotus arched his brows in apparent surprise. “I suppose I might have guessed, looking at this place.” He nodded, again letting his eyes roam through the extravagant chamber. “How old is this hall, Emperor?”
Mithratus smiled. “My father, himself a student of ancient thought, claimed it was built by Horanius II after his tours of the Eastern realms.”
Diodotus nodded, avoiding the Emperor’s eyes. “Remarkable. A man of true culture.”
“Yes, of course.&quot; Mithratus sneered. In truth, Horanius II had been a barbaric madman, but he hadn't the patience to tell the man as much. “Nothing compared with yourself, however, Diodotus.”
“One can learn much,” Diodotus said patiently, “from the Hailatasi, I think. They are a people who have become devoted to a life of introspection and reflection -&quot;
“And,” Callistares interrupted, “to the subtleties of intercourse.”
Laughter. Diodotus lowered his eyes to his sandalled feet. “Yes, that as well…” The Hailatasi, it was widely known, had written numerous texts through the ages on the intricacies of human indulgence. “I take it your interest in Hailatas was somewhat different from my own, then, Emperor.”
Mithratus bowed his head in thought. What the man said was no doubt true. In all liklihood, Diodotus of Cayranus sought the profound wisdom of the most ancient and sagely people in the Valasian Sea; his own interest would seem merely a child’s enthrallment by comparison. He could remember the images of glory evoked at the thought of the all-conquering Divine Kings of Hailatasi legend, but his fascination had amounted to little more than this. And while to this day, these images never failed to stir something within him, his obsession had diminished with the realization of his inheritance.
To be Emperor required logic, reason, discipline - in short, clarity of thought. And there was no justification, in his mind, for clinging to childish delusions when one ruled the better part of the Valasian Sea.
Now, as Emperor, his interests in Hailatas hinged upon delusions of a far more practical nature. There was little purpose, he decided, in denying as much.
&quot;Purely academic, I assure you, Diodotus,&quot; he said dismissively. Then, afflicted by reckless vanity and prompted by scarcely-watered wine, he whispered, “But all of us know what a magnificent addition to the Empire Hailatas would prove…”
Again silence, breathless this time.
Diodotus smiled cautiously. His manner became at once servile and wary. &quot;Emperor, I'm afraid that even with the might of the Imperial Phalanxes, Hailatas would prove beyond the reach -”
“Nevertheless,” Mithratus fairly barked, “Hailatas was my father’s wish, and if he thought it possible, then I do as well.” He could sense the disaproving looks of his ministers, but he chose to ignore them. To their credit, they refrained from interrupting their Emperor.
“You, Diodotus, would be wise to speak of that to no one. When the day comes, you may be paid well to share any information you have to offer on the barbarians.”
Seemingly unnerved, the young scholar swallowed forcibly and fumbled with the hem of his robe. “Yes, Emperor. Of course.”
Mithratus frowned at this but elected not to push the matter further. There was good cause, he knew, for the man's unease. What they spoke of was no less than a conspiracy to destroy - or at the very least undermine - the power of his patron and employer. Diodotus had every right to be insulted, even outraged, by such presumption. Come morning Mithratus was certain he would regret this outburst. But for the moment, wine, laughter, and the mockery of his hated and ancestral enemies, the Saladuecon Dynasty of Galeapylus, had made this Diodotus worthy of his heart’s most guarded secrets.
“But enough of such things,&quot; he said breezily, shaking his head. “You've had a long journey. I take it you will dine with us tonight, Diodotus?”
&quot;I would be honoured, Emperor. You are most gracious.&quot;
In the uncomfortable pause that followed, Mithratus locked eyes with the man, stared at him for a hard moment. Finally, his stomach light with anxious dread, he muttered, “I would ask, before you join us, Diodotus, that you offer me some explanation.” A shuddering breath. “About this star...”
Too terrified to move or even breathe, Mithratus momentarily pondered the cold indifference of his tone. How could he be so calm? The fate of his dynasty was at stake! The fate of the very Empire! Have I become such an arrogant fool?
The lengthy silence was broken only by the sound of distant laughter. More of his slaves, Mithratus guessed, or perhaps his idle, vulgar soldiers…
After some time, Diodotus cleared his throat nervously, blinking in confusion and sudden panic. &quot;I... I can't quite say, Emperor.&quot;
Mithratus grimaced, hissed air through his teeth in contempt. “What do you mean, ‘You can’t quite say,’ Diodotus?”
Could he simply not know? Surely that was impossible!
He hides something from me! It must be.
“Emperor,” Diodotus said, his tone at once soothing and illustrative, “after you contacted me, I consulted as many texts as I could find regarding astronomy in Cathios. But as you may know, many of the city’s most ancient works were lost or sent to Attalonia during the reign of the First Emperor.” He pursed his lips. “I’m afraid that without the resources of the Great Library, I could find little.”
A likely explanation. Diodotus was accustomed to the Great Library of Galeapylus - to a wealth of textual knowledge unrivalled across the Valasian Sea.
And yet still… “But surely you’ve heard some speculation,” Mithratus said, struggling not to sound desperate. “Anything that might offer you some clue.”
Diodotus nodded sagely. “Nothing you haven’t already heard, I’m sure. I’m told the Yanite population in Galeapylus has been thrown into an uproar over this star. They believe it heralds the approach of their ancient prophecies.”
Mithratus snorted derisively. The Yanites were fanatical pigs, fools who believed the time of their Salvation was nigh every time a mule shat in the street or an old woman griped about the injustices of the world. “The Yanites have prattled about prophets and saviours for generations. Surely you don’t actually believe any of it?”
The scholar shrugged. “Of course not. We all take the Yanites for zealots. In truth, Emperor, when I first saw the star, I was reminded of a certain story from myth. A story you may recognize…”
Horror and exhilaration. “To which story do you refer?”
Diodotus lowered his head, paused to collect both his breath and his thoughts. When he looked up, his expression was dark, as though he’d at last grasped the gravity of this exchange. “There is a legend surrounding the founding of the city we know as Mykantos, Emperor. That the sight was chosen when a child was born - the son of Luril, the legendary founder of Luralius…”
Yes… House Telcoaros. Mithratus’s eyes narrowed in dawning understanding. He had indeed heard of this legend. It was said that that very line of ancient kings had fought against primordial demons before the Rise of Men. His father’s tutors had said that Attalon, Luralius’s famed First Emperor, had claimed descent from that exalted line of heroes.
“You refer,” he said harshly, “to the legend of Myaril. To the first High King of Mykantos.”
Another sage nod. “Yes.”
Silence.
“Are you saying,” Callistares growled, his tone thick with disdain, “that a scion of House Telcoaros - a line of Kings supposedly extinguished millennia ago during the fall of Mykantos - has been born here? Now? And that this could explain the star?”
Diodotus’s expression slackened. “I’m afraid I have no other explanation, General.”
Mithratus felt his face contort in momentary fury. “Do you take me for a fool, Diodotus?”
“Emperor, please… Would I come to Luralius only to tell you fables and petty lies?”
No, Mithratus thought. No, you wouldn’t. But then why was he here? Why had he come -
Was this some plot? Was this… Was this murder?
Why else had he come if not to kill him? Perhaps… Perhaps this wasn’t even the real Diodotus!
Snarling, his thoughts buzzing, Mithratus swung his legs from his couch, staggered to his feet. Then, with one hand braced against the couch to avoid reeling, he screamed, “Guards!”
Diodotus’s eyes grew wide in shock and horror. “Emperor, no! You must see-”
“I see well enough, Diodotus.” He straightened, threw his faience cup to the tiled floor. “I see well enough.”
Within moments, several of his Principate Guardsmen spilled into the hall and formed a wary circle around the dumbstruck scholar. Mithratus nodded, and two of them grasped the young man about the arms.
“Take him from here. Keep him under guard. He is not-” he paused to glare them into understanding - “to be harmed.”
He nodded once more, and Diodotus of Cayranus was carried bodily from his presence, shrieking and flailing as he shrunk into the pillared distance.
His chest heaving, the Emperor of Luralius turned to face his prostrate ministers. When he glimpsed the terror on their faces, he could all but guess the question they dared not speak: Is this wise?
Mithratus smirked, beating down the premonitions that assailed him. “I have no time,” he whispered, “to be lectured on myths.”
The two men looked away from his eyes, their expressions blank with horror and stupefaction. And how could they not be horrified? They sat in the presence of a God. At His merest whim, great men were made prisoners, whole nations made slaves. What could their lives mean to such a man?
Nothing.
No, His dynasty was not at risk. Not in the slightest. He was Mithratus Kallikos II. He was Emperor. Only the world was at risk - from His wrath.
Mithratus knelt and reached for his cup, screaming for his slaves as he did so. The multi-hued tiles seemed to swim beneath his feet. Then he rose and climbed onto his couch. He reclined and exhaled. The slap of bare feet on marble filled the silence.
“Now, Callistares,” he said amicably. “I’m told you have recent news from the North. News about the Kelgaroi tribes…”

~-~-~-~-~


It is said that only the Magi of Arabel possess more knowledge concerning the cosmos than the Hailatasi. For centuries their hereditary priests have mapped the skies, plundering what knowledge they can from the movements of the Heavens. And though I have never seen their temples, I shudder to think what wisdom they might contain. What frightens most, I think, is that none may ever know.

- Tuecarius, The Imperial Chronicles

My Regency goes well, Brother. For who would dare foment against their Sublime Emperor? There are those who already worship you as a God.
But I worry for you. There are murmurs in Luralius that your Spear-Bearer and trusted General, Saladuecon, has ambitions of his own. Dynastic ambitions. Be careful, my Brother. Perhaps it is time that you return home. Luralius would give you a welcome all the world would remember. Perhaps Hailatas is too far. I know you believe your army invincible, but you yourself are not, Attalon, my sweet, godlike Brother. I beg you to remember that.

Enekleas I, Letter to Attalon II, First Emperor of Luralius


Alone in his private apartments, Mithratus Kallikos II sat bent before his polished mahogany desk, his eyes roaming across a scroll of rich papyrus - a missive from one of his Satrap-Governors. Once again, the news was decidedly comforting - precisely as he had feared. He had read several such missives in recent weeks, having decided he no longer trusted the chore with Teladorus and his secretaries. Any number of conspiracies could be changing hands, he had realized, and it was only sensible that he ensure the loyalty of his servants beyond the confines of the Imperial Precincts.
So far his efforts had been fruitless. He had found nothing of value. Nothing of even the slightest significance. No plots. No treason. Nothing that might affirm the apprehension in his heart.
A faint knock at the great bronze doors of his apartments stirred him from his reverie. Mithratus sighed in irritation, pinched the fatigue from his eyes with thumb and forefinger. His body slaves, he imagined, come to prepare him for sleep. Or perhaps, he couldn’t help but hope, word from one of his Generals…
Consumed by a pang of curiosity, he abruptly rose from his desk and approached the doors, his stride brisk. His eyes momentarily drifted to the chalcedony cameo that adorned his panelled wall - a depiction of the great Emperors of antiquity enthroned among the Gods. Then he strode between the gilded lions that marked the entry to his antechamber. He paused before the engraved doors. After a calming breath, he shoved them open, his heart thundering with anticipation.
His ardour was extinguished when he glimpsed the timid figure squirming and fussing with the sleeves of his robes in the shadows of the corridor. Mithratus scowled in frustration and scorn, then brusquely turned from the doorway.
“What is it, old man?” With haughty disdain he marched to the heart of his chambers, certain the old fool would follow.
“Lord Emperor,” Teladorus began, his tone apologetic, “an emissary has arrived.”
Mithratus resumed his seat at his desk, not deigning to look from his scroll as he spoke to the old ingrate. “At this hour? Who?”
The High Chancellor of the Imperial Court approached his desk with the ponderous dignity of the elderly. Mithratus heard the bronze doors close behind the man and began imagining scenarios he might concoct to explain away a sudden, accidental death. A fatal fall? Mithratus smirked. Maybe it was too late in the night for blood. Tomorrow, maybe, he would find a better opportunity.
Teladorus clasped his hands together at his waist, his face slack with embarrassment. “From Hailatas, Lord Emperor.”
For an astonished heartbeat, Mithratus sat utterly still, eyes unfocused, thoughts racing. Hailatas. As far as he was knew, no Emperor of Luralius had ever hosted a delegation, whether of peace or otherwise, from Hailatas. Only in the days of Attalon, Luralius’s all-but-invincible First Emperor, had that far-away nation’s conquest ever appeared feasible. Now Hailatas had become the legend of an impossibly wealthy and exotic land, spoken of in the manner of a regal but increasingly-senescent royal wife. In distant antiquity, long before the ascendance of Luralius, the Divine Kings of that desert kingdom had been the most feared potentates in the Valasian Sea. But now they possessed neither the strength nor the authority to be demanding audiences with the Emperor of Luralius. Let alone arriving uninvited. The presumption alone was outrageous.
Numbly, his palms braced against the smooth surface of his desk, Mithratus pushed himself to his feet. “What do they want, Teladorus?” An echo of the words he’d uttered to Diodotus of Cayranus afflicted him with sudden panic. Did the man have the audacity to warn Hailatas of his plans? Surely he had seemed to possess audacity in excess…
But this?
Could this mean he would have one more enemy to deal with? One more war for him to somehow win?
But the Gods have been appeased! Or so he had thought…
“They would not say, Lord Emperor. They demanded to speak with you at once. They say it is a matter -”
“Demanded?” Mithratus roared, storming around his desk to confront the old minister. “They would make demands of me?”
Teladorus cringed from the furious aspect of his Emperor, helplessly bowed his head to his chest. “I-I said as much at first, Lord Emperor, but they were most insistent. I fear this matter is as serious as they say… So I allowed them to believe that you may see them tonight…” His voice trailed away pleadingly, a child begging mercy of his domineering father.
Mithratus opened his mouth to rebuke the old man, but then paused, struck by a sudden insight. Who better to confirm his fears than this old windbag? “You think Diodotus has repeated my words to the wrong people…”
His eyes wide with relief, Teladorus nodded emphatically.
“I thought as much,” Mithratus said in weary dismissal.
“But it only makes sense, Exalted One. Why else would they come now? Why else would they be so insistent?”
Disturbed by his vehemence, Mithratus slowly turned away from his High Chancellor. For a moment he could only stare dazedly into the flames of the oil lamps that adorned his desk. Finally, when he could sense his Chancellor’s growing unease, he muttered, “Send for my body slaves. Delay them for as long you can, Teladorus, then have these men brought here.”
He could hear the rustle of the old man’s silk robes as he bowed, but he acknowledged nothing. Even before he heard the bronze doors grind shut to announce the Chancellor’s departure, he was behind his desk digging through sheaves of papyrus.
Hailatas. The very idea beggared belief. Mithratus leaned back in his chair and brought a hand to his cheek in contemplation. Who had the Divine King sent to treat with him? And who, for that matter, was the Divine King? Did the title still even exist? Or had it, like so much else that had once defined that ancient nation, become obsolete? Mithratus shook his head in stunned exasperation. He could remember much of what the palace tutors had taught him in his youth, but never, it seemed, could he remember enough.
Recently, in particular…
Never in his life had he been so desperate for knowledge. After the mad evening with Diodotus of Cayranus, he had become increasingly aloof. At the urging of his ministers, the young scholar had been set free mere hours after their brief meeting. Keeping him was dangerous, Teladorus had fairly screamed, and would only increase the already substantial enmity between the Saladuecons of Galeapylus and the Imperial Court. Mithratus had agreed, albeit grudgingly. Given their straights, it had made little sense for the Empire to be unlawfully detaining the servants of their enemies.
Then, for a time, it had appeared that matters in Luralius were improving. Shortly after Diodotus departed, Mithratus had found himself standing alone amid the porphyry columns of his palace, his eyes riveted on the deepening gloom of the sky. For hours, it seemed, he stood in silence, restively awaiting the inevitable appearance of the star that heralded his doom. The doom of his dynasty! But what more could he do? What more, save wait?
Then the stars had begun to press their brilliance through the dark mantle of night. But the one star he had waited to glimpse - the one star that truly possessed meaning! - had never appeared. It was simply no longer there…
Never before had an absence caused such commotion. Many in Luralius dismissed the star outright, claiming that the Gods had at last been appeased, that the hundreds of gold-horned oxen the royal priests had sacrificed at the Emperor’s behest had finally sated their thirst for blood. Even the augers and astrologers of the Imperial Court began to gainsay their initial catastrophic conclusions.
Mithratus had been delirious with relief. Only the mounting hostilities between his Phalanxes and the Kelgaroi tribes of the North had apprised him of Luralius’s true peril.
But then the news had reached the Palace: the Kelgaroi had been broken.
At first, Callistares had been infuriatingly sceptical. Mithratus was incensed: how could the old fool not see? The Gods had been appeased. Order was returning. Of course, Mithratus knew very well the source of the man’s doubt. Not even he, the great General Without Peer, had pacified the Kelgaroi with such effortless facility.
“Surely,” Callistares had exclaimed in one council, “this is some trick, Emperor. Someone tries to play us for fools!”
Mithratus had almost agreed. Words his father had once uttered returned to him unbidden. “They are savages, Mithratus, a people born to bring death. Their man-children are born to the sword and the spear and the bow. They care for nothing but warfare and plunder. They know neither honour nor remorse. They are not to be respected, Mithra. Only feared. ”
How could he not be sceptical? For centuries these same illiterate brutes had plagued the Northern provinces with fire and death, murdering and pillaging relentlessly despite the valiant efforts of the Imperial Army. Even Attalon, perhaps the greatest Emperor in Luralius’s mighty history, had failed to exact tribute from the Kelgaroi tribes.
And now some nameless general had broken the backs of these savages?
Impossible.
For days, he had avoided sleep. He’d spent his nights poring over scrolls and treatises written by historians and Imperial generals on the Kelgaroi: of their anarchic method of war, their ruthless savagery in battle, their practice of severing the hands and feet of enemy captives and leaving them for carrion. And the more he read, he soon found, the more terrified he became.
Only when the victorious Luralian general, a young noble by the name of Porthios Scaevan, had returned to the Capital were his fears finally allayed.
He had triumphed. His dynasty was safe. Plunder was counted, spectacles prepared, and sacrifices arranged. Luralius, it appeared, was once again secure.
If only it had ended there…
Days later, Percalaus Valerus, the notorious general who had reputedly fomented against his Emperor, had entered Luralius - in chains. It seemed that a party of auxiliary phalanxmen had chanced upon the delinquent general by night, apparently travelling west with only the meanest retinue of slaves and bodyguards. Having heard their Emperor’s decree against the former High Imperial Officer, the soldiers quickly seized and shackled the man, beat him into submission, then dragged him back to the Capitol.
At the mere thought, Mithratus shook his head in disgust. Paraded in manacles through the streets like a common criminal. Beaten and bloodied, deprived of all dignity by the very men he had led to victory. It should never have come to that.
But it had. He had heard as much. Whether traitor or not, no High Officer of the Imperial Phalanx should be forced to endure such indignity. Such shame.
Then to have these mercenaries, these cowards, paid in gold for Percalaus’s capture? Paid with gold from the Imperial Coffers? Of all the outrages! Teladorus had very nearly overstepped his authority for the final time.
Haggard and humiliated, Percalaus Valerus had been taken into the custody of the Principate Army, smuggled to the Palace under cover of darkness and finally brought before the High Chancellor. After hours of brutal interrogation, the old wretch had been prepared to have the man killed.
Had it not been for Archamenas, Mithratus’s admirably loyal Grand Treasurer, things might have ended very differently. Having one dependable man in his collection of despicable ministers had, in the end, proven invaluable.
Drawn to the sound of the wounded General’s screams, Archamenas had entered the Palace’s Hall of Audiences to find the bloody interrogation well in progress, and had immediately fled to warn his Emperor of the High Chancellor's unwarranted actions. Fully intent on killing both Percalaus and his seditious minister, Mithratus had stormed into the Audience Hall in full ceremonial armour, his eyes wide with bewilderment and incredulous wrath.
But the sight of the General’s broken form had stilled his hand. Surrounded by a herd of black-gowned Court ministers, Percalaus’s head was hung in abject shame, his body smeared in blood, his shockingly-thin arms chained behind his back.
Mithratus shoved his way into their midst. Teladorus had fairly gasped, staggering from his path. Clamorous with shouts and harsh questions only moments before, the pillared hall had abruptly fallen silent.
With his left hand Mithratus drew his sword, aimed its tip at the bloody breast of the former High Imperial Officer. With his right he pointed at the huddle of his trembling ministers, reducing them with his furious gaze. “This,” he screamed, “is not justice.”
Teladorus had crept forward, his shoulders hunched. “Exalted One,” he muttered, “I wished only to do your will-”
Harsh laughter. “You wished only to curry favour, you old wretch.”
Silence.
“Were my father still Emperor,” Mithratus continued, “you would all be flayed alive for this.” He looked to Percalaus, who was eyeing the sword the way a starving man might eye a rotten onion - as though considering the inevitable.
But Mithratus had only sighed and lowered his blade. “Be thankful I am a more merciful man than he.”
Again Mithratus regarded the broken General. “I would remind you, my one-time General, that you may leave here tonight an Officer of the Imperial Army, or you may never leave here.” He removed his plumed helm and tossed it toward his baffled High Chancellor, his gaze never straying from the defiant eyes of Percalaus Valerus. “You stand in the presence of your Emperor. In the presence of justice. Speak only the truth.”
And Percalaus had done just that.
“I spoke against you Emperor, but what I said was not treason. I said what I said for the sake of my men. The men who fight and die in the East while their Emperor acknowledges neither their efforts nor their deaths.”
Breathless, Mithratus blinked in consternation, suffered a moment of unaccountable shame.
“Why do you say this?”
Then Percalaus’s face had become the very image of indignant fury. Even then Mithratus had known he would never forget that face. Nor would he forget the words the man next spoke. “You in Luralius speak of the Kelgaroi as though they were Demons of the Beyond. But you know nothing of Demons. I promise you, Exalted One, that it will be the Insacai, and not the Kelgaroi, that will one day put our Immortal City to the sword.”
Stunned silence. Mithratus’s eyes had rounded in horror and revelation.
He had heard those words before…
His father had said much the same to him before he’d died. And Mithratus had believed him. He’d have been a fool not to. All his long life, Arius Kallikos I had spat the name “Kelgaroi” like a curse, like the name of a despised rival or a petulant slave. But when he spoke of the Insacai, his voice would always possess a curious blend of awe and dread, as though he invoked the name of a frighteningly capricious God.
“The Insacai...”
For several instants, Mithratus had stood dumbfounded. He realized then that he had been remiss. All along, he had known this. All along he had known that the nomadic horsemen of the Eastern Steppe were the greater threat. And yet he’d heaped glory upon this Porthios Scaevan, piled wealth upon the Armies of the North. All along…
Chastened, Mithratus stared down at the man, moved to penitence by the sight of his tears. “You’re right, General. You speak truth.”
Mithratus stared into the wall of glittering lamplight before him, shaken by an image of a burning Luralius, the sight of his City, the glorious City of Cities, overrun by the elemental might of the Insacai. Not while I breathe.
He had forgiven Percalaus then and there. He had offered the man anything - rank and riches for his men, land, women, and even the title of Spear-Bearer of the Empire, commander of all the Armies of Luralius, for himself. Though flattered, the General had declined, claiming that his newborn seed, a boy named Prophilus, was now the sole object of his concern.
Unchained and cleansed of his wounds, the General had gone on to speak of the alarming strength of the nomadic warriors, and of the fortuitous turn of fate that had seemingly saved the Eastern Phalanxes from destruction. For no apparent reason the Insacai had simply disbanded, disappearing into the Steppe mere days before the imminent confrontation. It was rumoured that a prince had been born in the distant East, and that the horde had turned from battle to begin their pilgrimage home and pledge allegiance to this newborn child. That, Percalaus had claimed, and that alone had saved the Empire from their wrath. “Next time we may not be so lucky…”
Humbling words. Humbling, terrifying words.
Mithratus massaged his temples, ran his hand across his smooth-shaven cheeks. So far his spies had heard nothing of this young warlord, this Chieftain who would no doubt grow into a scourge upon the Imperial frontiers. No matter how many eyes he possessed, he realized, there was still far too much he simply could not see.
It was not long after the scandal with Percalaus that the whispers had begun - whispers of treason. It was said that Teladorus was conspiring in secret with several of his Imperial Satrap-Governors. And though Mithratus had been loathe to believe such claims, he couldn’t help but admit that if anyone had the resources, if anyone had the sheer temerity, it was Teladorus.
What was the old ingrate planning?
Mithratus pursed his lips and swallowed at the pang in his throat. Nothing terrified him more than the thought of losing his hegemony. Perhaps this was why he demeaned himself in this way. Night after night, searching for treachery across scrolls of papyrus. Night after night, reading the reassuring words of fawning worms. Ever since he was young, he had considered such tasks far beneath an Emperor’s contempt. But why, then? Why, if he was so frightened, did he not simply have these whoreson Satrap-Governors killed? Replaced with ones whom he could trust?
Because, he thought, I trust no one.
Another gentle knock at his doors. A rush of cold terror thrashed through his innards. Jolted from his thoughts, the prospect of the emissary’s early arrival struck him bodily, deprived him of all breath. Then he remembered his earlier instructions to Teladorus, and some semblance of calm returned. His High Chancellor was a deceitful snake, but in small matters such as these his obedience was indisputable. It was the sole reason, Mithratus supposed, that the man still lived.
The Emperor rose from his desk, bellowing his assent. The great bronze doors exploded open, and within moments his chambers were overrun with the palace’s stewards, lighting censers and frantically preparing the apartment for this impromptu audience. His body slaves followed bearing vials of perfume and his ceremonial armour.
He hurriedly exchanged his simple linens for a glistening silk robe, forgoing his armour and weaponry on this occasion. What reason did he have to look the conqueror for these foreign dogs? What could they expect, showing up in the depths of night like beggars at his door? Then to expect - no, to demand! - an audience with the Emperor of Luralius? They were lucky he hadn’t had them castrated and flayed alive…

Through the crowd of slaves and frantic ministers, Mithratus briefly glimpsed the wizened figure of his High Chancellor. Dressed in the official red silk robes of his station, the man pressed through the throng of servants, his eyes fixed upon his Emperor. Mithratus affected to ignore his approach as his body slaves arrayed him in finery: his golden diadem, his gilded sandals, and the signet ring that proclaimed his rank.

“Exalted One,” he said, breathless with what Mithratus could only presume to be exertion, “the envoy will arrive shortly. I’ve come to brief you.”

His expression impassive, Mithratus stood motionless while his limbs were rubbed with perfumed oils. “Brief me on what, old man?”

“I have spoken with the Hailatasi. I am to be your translator for these proceedings.”

Mithratus scowled involuntarily, faintly shocked by the old man’s knowledge. “You speak their tongue?” The Hailatasi spoke an old and convoluted language, one that had fallen out of use across the Valasian Sea several centuries ago. “How is this?”

The High Chancellor’s expression slackened in imitation of innocence. It was understandable, Mithratus thought, for the man to mistake questions for accusations. In the presence of the Emperor, all questions were usually as much.

“I studied in Galeapylus for a time, Emperor. When I was a boy… I thought you knew.”

Mithratus felt chills of suspicion tingle through his chest. “Is this another of your games, Teladorus? One more scheme against your Emperor?”

For an instant, the old Chancellor appeared thoroughly mortified. Despite the commotion in the chamber, an uncanny hush had fallen between them.

“I swear, Lord Emperor, it is not…”

Mithratus let his lips twist into a sneer as he glared down on the aged man. “So be it, Teladorus. What have they said?”

Recovering his composure, the High Chancellor straightened and folded his arms across his stomach. He stepped closer, glancing nervously to the slaves about them, and in hushed tones said, “They say they bring news of The Star.”

The fury and tension of moments before was forgotten, squelched by a throb of curiosity. Frowning, Mithratus stared into the old man’s rheumy eyes, said nothing.

“They would tell me little more,” Teladorus continued, his expression at once troubled and thoughtful. “But they did ask me one disturbing question…They asked whether any of your wives had recently given birth to a child.”

Wives? Child? What kind of questions were those?

“Surely they must know I have no wives.”

“But as you know, Exalted One, the Hailatasi have paid no heed to the events beyond their borders for centuries. They undoubtedly think you no different from the Saladuecons.”

Mithratus nodded, his expression calm despite the terror lurching through him. It was, he admitted with some reluctance, a likely interpretation. While the Saladuecons of Galeapylus had succumbed to the extravagant degeneracy of the East, the Emperors of Luralius had remained - though not immune to scandal - entirely incorruptible. The Aregallian Palace could boast no harem, and only rarely had its chief occupant married for reasons other than political alliance. Could the Hailatasi be that ignorant?

But it was not the indecency of the question that troubled him so deeply.

His hands trembling, Mithratus banished his body slaves with a mere glance, then barked, “All of you, out!”

Shocked by his outburst, Teladorus flinched visibly, looked to his sandalled feet. One of his slaves, who had moments before been pouring wine from an amphorae into a mixing bowl, stared dumbfounded at him before fleeing in terror, spilling wine across the black marble floors in the process.

Again the doors ground shut, punctuating the silence between Emperor and High Chancellor.

“You worry,” Teladorus muttered, “that this has something to do with what Diodotus said? About a child of House Telcoaros?”

Mithratus spun to face the old man. “Could they know of that?”

A shrug. “The Hailatasi are an ancient people, Emperor. Perhaps they know even more of it than we do.”

“But why, after all these years, would they offer us their knowledge so freely?”

“Perhaps they aren’t offering their knowledge.” Teladorus stopped, his expression pained. “Could it be they’ve come to see that this child - if the legend is in fact true - dies?”

Yes… Yes! Suddenly it all made sense. After all, it was the Hailatasi who, millennia ago, had sacked Mykantos - burned the hallowed city to the ground! Killed the Last High King as he lay weeping for his people! His tutors had told him as much… Perhaps the Hailatasi had come to finish the task they’d set before themselves all those years ago.

Mithratus shook his head in dismay. How could he have forgotten? And to have Teladorus, of all people, remind him… A moment of anxious disbelief accompanied this thought.

The old fool never failed to astound him. Just when he’d thought that he had outlived his purpose, that old age and depravity had robbed the man of both loyalty and intellect, he offered insights such as these.

Mithratus stared hard into his wrinkled face. “So you think they mean to kill me, as well, old man?”

Again, the old man merely shrugged. “Perhaps…”

His eyes narrowed, Mithratus regarded his aged Chancellor warily, smirking all the while. Did Teladorus have gall enough to simply indulge his Emperor’s paranoia? Perhaps he did…

But whether warranted or not, his suspicions would have to wait one more night. Turning for his desk, Mithratus said, “Have guards placed throughout the chambers, Teladorus. We’ll not make these worms wait any longer to look upon the Emperor.”

Teladorus’s robes whispered against the marble as he withdrew from the apartment. After what seemed only a few heartbeats, the High Chancellor returned, a retinue of Principate Guardsmen in tow. Mithratus stood motionless behind his desk, casually observing the old man as he positioned the soldiers through the apartment. He shook his head imperceptibly, even smiled at the man’s doddering senility. Seeing Teladorus bark commands was, he thought, perhaps as ridiculous as imagining the old fool as Emperor. He half expected his soldiers to laugh at the ancient ass, so comical was the sight.

But no… Now was not the time. These were great matters. Their Emperor’s life was at stake. This, they no doubt knew, was no time for laughter.

Through the sound of the High Chancellor’s prattle, Mithratus could only faintly hear the knock at his door. When it came once more, heavy with in view post


Critcism, please! posted 31 May 2006 in Member Written WorksCritcism, please! by Erthaelion, Candidate

AH... It cut off half way. Thanks for reading, WP. Here's the rest.


It is said that only the Magi of Arabel possess more knowledge concerning the cosmos than the Hailatasi. For centuries their hereditary priests have mapped the skies, plundering what knowledge they can from the movements of the Heavens. And though I have never seen their temples, I shudder to think what wisdom they might contain. What frightens most, I think, is that none may ever know.

- Tuecarius, The Imperial Chronicles

My Regency goes well, Brother. For who would dare foment against their Sublime Emperor? There are those who already worship you as a God.
But I worry for you. There are murmurs in Luralius that your Spear-Bearer and trusted General, Saladuecon, has ambitions of his own. Dynastic ambitions. Be careful, my Brother. Perhaps it is time that you return home. Luralius would give you a welcome all the world would remember. Perhaps Hailatas is too far. I know you believe your army invincible, but you yourself are not, Attalon, my sweet, godlike Brother. I beg you to remember that.

Enekleas I, Letter to Attalon II, First Emperor of Luralius


Alone in his private apartments, Mithratus Kallikos II sat bent before his polished mahogany desk, his eyes roaming across a scroll of rich papyrus - a missive from one of his Satrap-Governors. Once again, the news was decidedly comforting - precisely as he had feared. He had read several such missives in recent weeks, having decided he no longer trusted the chore with Teladorus and his secretaries. Any number of conspiracies could be changing hands, he had realized, and it was only sensible that he ensure the loyalty of his servants beyond the confines of the Imperial Precincts.
So far his efforts had been fruitless. He had found nothing of value. Nothing of even the slightest significance. No plots. No treason. Nothing that might affirm the apprehension in his heart.
A faint knock at the great bronze doors of his apartments stirred him from his reverie. Mithratus sighed in irritation, pinched the fatigue from his eyes with thumb and forefinger. His body slaves, he imagined, come to prepare him for sleep. Or perhaps, he couldn’t help but hope, word from one of his Generals…
Consumed by a pang of curiosity, he abruptly rose from his desk and approached the doors, his stride brisk. His eyes momentarily drifted to the chalcedony cameo that adorned his panelled wall - a depiction of the great Emperors of antiquity enthroned among the Gods. Then he strode between the gilded lions that marked the entry to his antechamber. He paused before the engraved doors. After a calming breath, he shoved them open, his heart thundering with anticipation.
His ardour was extinguished when he glimpsed the timid figure squirming and fussing with the sleeves of his robes in the shadows of the corridor. Mithratus scowled in frustration and scorn, then brusquely turned from the doorway.
“What is it, old man?” With haughty disdain he marched to the heart of his chambers, certain the old fool would follow.
“Lord Emperor,” Teladorus began, his tone apologetic, “an emissary has arrived.”
Mithratus resumed his seat at his desk, not deigning to look from his scroll as he spoke to the old ingrate. “At this hour? Who?”
The High Chancellor of the Imperial Court approached his desk with the ponderous dignity of the elderly. Mithratus heard the bronze doors close behind the man and began imagining scenarios he might concoct to explain away a sudden, accidental death. A fatal fall? Mithratus smirked. Maybe it was too late in the night for blood. Tomorrow, maybe, he would find a better opportunity.
Teladorus clasped his hands together at his waist, his face slack with embarrassment. “From Hailatas, Lord Emperor.”
For an astonished heartbeat, Mithratus sat utterly still, eyes unfocused, thoughts racing. Hailatas. As far as he was knew, no Emperor of Luralius had ever hosted a delegation, whether of peace or otherwise, from Hailatas. Only in the days of Attalon, Luralius’s all-but-invincible First Emperor, had that far-away nation’s conquest ever appeared feasible. Now Hailatas had become the legend of an impossibly wealthy and exotic land, spoken of in the manner of a regal but increasingly-senescent royal wife. In distant antiquity, long before the ascendance of Luralius, the Divine Kings of that desert kingdom had been the most feared potentates in the Valasian Sea. But now they possessed neither the strength nor the authority to be demanding audiences with the Emperor of Luralius. Let alone arriving uninvited. The presumption alone was outrageous.
Numbly, his palms braced against the smooth surface of his desk, Mithratus pushed himself to his feet. “What do they want, Teladorus?” An echo of the words he’d uttered to Diodotus of Cayranus afflicted him with sudden panic. Did the man have the audacity to warn Hailatas of his plans? Surely he had seemed to possess audacity in excess…
But this?
Could this mean he would have one more enemy to deal with? One more war for him to somehow win?
But the Gods have been appeased! Or so he had thought…
“They would not say, Lord Emperor. They demanded to speak with you at once. They say it is a matter -”
“Demanded?” Mithratus roared, storming around his desk to confront the old minister. “They would make demands of me?”
Teladorus cringed from the furious aspect of his Emperor, helplessly bowed his head to his chest. “I-I said as much at first, Lord Emperor, but they were most insistent. I fear this matter is as serious as they say… So I allowed them to believe that you may see them tonight…” His voice trailed away pleadingly, a child begging mercy of his domineering father.
Mithratus opened his mouth to rebuke the old man, but then paused, struck by a sudden insight. Who better to confirm his fears than this old windbag? “You think Diodotus has repeated my words to the wrong people…”
His eyes wide with relief, Teladorus nodded emphatically.
“I thought as much,” Mithratus said in weary dismissal.
“But it only makes sense, Exalted One. Why else would they come now? Why else would they be so insistent?”
Disturbed by his vehemence, Mithratus slowly turned away from his High Chancellor. For a moment he could only stare dazedly into the flames of the oil lamps that adorned his desk. Finally, when he could sense his Chancellor’s growing unease, he muttered, “Send for my body slaves. Delay them for as long you can, Teladorus, then have these men brought here.”
He could hear the rustle of the old man’s silk robes as he bowed, but he acknowledged nothing. Even before he heard the bronze doors grind shut to announce the Chancellor’s departure, he was behind his desk digging through sheaves of papyrus.
Hailatas. The very idea beggared belief. Mithratus leaned back in his chair and brought a hand to his cheek in contemplation. Who had the Divine King sent to treat with him? And who, for that matter, was the Divine King? Did the title still even exist? Or had it, like so much else that had once defined that ancient nation, become obsolete? Mithratus shook his head in stunned exasperation. He could remember much of what the palace tutors had taught him in his youth, but never, it seemed, could he remember enough.
Recently, in particular…
Never in his life had he been so desperate for knowledge. After the mad evening with Diodotus of Cayranus, he had become increasingly aloof. At the urging of his ministers, the young scholar had been set free mere hours after their brief meeting. Keeping him was dangerous, Teladorus had fairly screamed, and would only increase the already substantial enmity between the Saladuecons of Galeapylus and the Imperial Court. Mithratus had agreed, albeit grudgingly. Given their straights, it had made little sense for the Empire to be unlawfully detaining the servants of their enemies.
Then, for a time, it had appeared that matters in Luralius were improving. Shortly after Diodotus departed, Mithratus had found himself standing alone amid the porphyry columns of his palace, his eyes riveted on the deepening gloom of the sky. For hours, it seemed, he stood in silence, restively awaiting the inevitable appearance of the star that heralded his doom. The doom of his dynasty! But what more could he do? What more, save wait?
Then the stars had begun to press their brilliance through the dark mantle of night. But the one star he had waited to glimpse - the one star that truly possessed meaning! - had never appeared. It was simply no longer there…
Never before had an absence caused such commotion. Many in Luralius dismissed the star outright, claiming that the Gods had at last been appeased, that the hundreds of gold-horned oxen the royal priests had sacrificed at the Emperor’s behest had finally sated their thirst for blood. Even the augers and astrologers of the Imperial Court began to gainsay their initial catastrophic conclusions.
Mithratus had been delirious with relief. Only the mounting hostilities between his Phalanxes and the Kelgaroi tribes of the North had apprised him of Luralius’s true peril.
But then the news had reached the Palace: the Kelgaroi had been broken.
At first, Callistares had been infuriatingly sceptical. Mithratus was incensed: how could the old fool not see? The Gods had been appeased. Order was returning. Of course, Mithratus knew very well the source of the man’s doubt. Not even he, the great General Without Peer, had pacified the Kelgaroi with such effortless facility.
“Surely,” Callistares had exclaimed in one council, “this is some trick, Emperor. Someone tries to play us for fools!”
Mithratus had almost agreed. Words his father had once uttered returned to him unbidden. “They are savages, Mithratus, a people born to bring death. Their man-children are born to the sword and the spear and the bow. They care for nothing but warfare and plunder. They know neither honour nor remorse. They are not to be respected, Mithra. Only feared. ”
How could he not be sceptical? For centuries these same illiterate brutes had plagued the Northern provinces with fire and death, murdering and pillaging relentlessly despite the valiant efforts of the Imperial Army. Even Attalon, perhaps the greatest Emperor in Luralius’s mighty history, had failed to exact tribute from the Kelgaroi tribes.
And now some nameless general had broken the backs of these savages?
Impossible.
For days, he had avoided sleep. He’d spent his nights poring over scrolls and treatises written by historians and Imperial generals on the Kelgaroi: of their anarchic method of war, their ruthless savagery in battle, their practice of severing the hands and feet of enemy captives and leaving them for carrion. And the more he read, he soon found, the more terrified he became.
Only when the victorious Luralian general, a young noble by the name of Porthios Scaevan, had returned to the Capital were his fears finally allayed.
He had triumphed. His dynasty was safe. Plunder was counted, spectacles prepared, and sacrifices arranged. Luralius, it appeared, was once again secure.
If only it had ended there…
Days later, Percalaus Valerus, the notorious general who had reputedly fomented against his Emperor, had entered Luralius - in chains. It seemed that a party of auxiliary phalanxmen had chanced upon the delinquent general by night, apparently travelling west with only the meanest retinue of slaves and bodyguards. Having heard their Emperor’s decree against the former High Imperial Officer, the soldiers quickly seized and shackled the man, beat him into submission, then dragged him back to the Capitol.
At the mere thought, Mithratus shook his head in disgust. Paraded in manacles through the streets like a common criminal. Beaten and bloodied, deprived of all dignity by the very men he had led to victory. It should never have come to that.
But it had. He had heard as much. Whether traitor or not, no High Officer of the Imperial Phalanx should be forced to endure such indignity. Such shame.
Then to have these mercenaries, these cowards, paid in gold for Percalaus’s capture? Paid with gold from the Imperial Coffers? Of all the outrages! Teladorus had very nearly overstepped his authority for the final time.
Haggard and humiliated, Percalaus Valerus had been taken into the custody of the Principate Army, smuggled to the Palace under cover of darkness and finally brought before the High Chancellor. After hours of brutal interrogation, the old wretch had been prepared to have the man killed.
Had it not been for Archamenas, Mithratus’s admirably loyal Grand Treasurer, things might have ended very differently. Having one dependable man in his collection of despicable ministers had, in the end, proven invaluable.
Drawn to the sound of the wounded General’s screams, Archamenas had entered the Palace’s Hall of Audiences to find the bloody interrogation well in progress, and had immediately fled to warn his Emperor of the High Chancellor's unwarranted actions. Fully intent on killing both Percalaus and his seditious minister, Mithratus had stormed into the Audience Hall in full ceremonial armour, his eyes wide with bewilderment and incredulous wrath.
But the sight of the General’s broken form had stilled his hand. Surrounded by a herd of black-gowned Court ministers, Percalaus’s head was hung in abject shame, his body smeared in blood, his shockingly-thin arms chained behind his back.
Mithratus shoved his way into their midst. Teladorus had fairly gasped, staggering from his path. Clamorous with shouts and harsh questions only moments before, the pillared hall had abruptly fallen silent.
With his left hand Mithratus drew his sword, aimed its tip at the bloody breast of the former High Imperial Officer. With his right he pointed at the huddle of his trembling ministers, reducing them with his furious gaze. “This,” he screamed, “is not justice.”
Teladorus had crept forward, his shoulders hunched. “Exalted One,” he muttered, “I wished only to do your will-”
Harsh laughter. “You wished only to curry favour, you old wretch.”
Silence.
“Were my father still Emperor,” Mithratus continued, “you would all be flayed alive for this.” He looked to Percalaus, who was eyeing the sword the way a starving man might eye a rotten onion - as though considering the inevitable.
But Mithratus had only sighed and lowered his blade. “Be thankful I am a more merciful man than he.”
Again Mithratus regarded the broken General. “I would remind you, my one-time General, that you may leave here tonight an Officer of the Imperial Army, or you may never leave here.” He removed his plumed helm and tossed it toward his baffled High Chancellor, his gaze never straying from the defiant eyes of Percalaus Valerus. “You stand in the presence of your Emperor. In the presence of justice. Speak only the truth.”
And Percalaus had done just that.
“I spoke against you Emperor, but what I said was not treason. I said what I said for the sake of my men. The men who fight and die in the East while their Emperor acknowledges neither their efforts nor their deaths.”
Breathless, Mithratus blinked in consternation, suffered a moment of unaccountable shame.
“Why do you say this?”
Then Percalaus’s face had become the very image of indignant fury. Even then Mithratus had known he would never forget that face. Nor would he forget the words the man next spoke. “You in Luralius speak of the Kelgaroi as though they were Demons of the Beyond. But you know nothing of Demons. I promise you, Exalted One, that it will be the Insacai, and not the Kelgaroi, that will one day put our Immortal City to the sword.”
Stunned silence. Mithratus’s eyes had rounded in horror and revelation.
He had heard those words before…
His father had said much the same to him before he’d died. And Mithratus had believed him. He’d have been a fool not to. All his long life, Arius Kallikos I had spat the name “Kelgaroi” like a curse, like the name of a despised rival or a petulant slave. But when he spoke of the Insacai, his voice would always possess a curious blend of awe and dread, as though he invoked the name of a frighteningly capricious God.
“The Insacai...”
For several instants, Mithratus had stood dumbfounded. He realized then that he had been remiss. All along, he had known this. All along he had known that the nomadic horsemen of the Eastern Steppe were the greater threat. And yet he’d heaped glory upon this Porthios Scaevan, piled wealth upon the Armies of the North. All along…
Chastened, Mithratus stared down at the man, moved to penitence by the sight of his tears. “You’re right, General. You speak truth.”
Mithratus stared into the wall of glittering lamplight before him, shaken by an image of a burning Luralius, the sight of his City, the glorious City of Cities, overrun by the elemental might of the Insacai. Not while I breathe.
He had forgiven Percalaus then and there. He had offered the man anything - rank and riches for his men, land, women, and even the title of Spear-Bearer of the Empire, commander of all the Armies of Luralius, for himself. Though flattered, the General had declined, claiming that his newborn seed, a boy named Prophilus, was now the sole object of his concern.
Unchained and cleansed of his wounds, the General had gone on to speak of the alarming strength of the nomadic warriors, and of the fortuitous turn of fate that had seemingly saved the Eastern Phalanxes from destruction. For no apparent reason the Insacai had simply disbanded, disappearing into the Steppe mere days before the imminent confrontation. It was rumoured that a prince had been born in the distant East, and that the horde had turned from battle to begin their pilgrimage home and pledge allegiance to this newborn child. That, Percalaus had claimed, and that alone had saved the Empire from their wrath. “Next time we may not be so lucky…”
Humbling words. Humbling, terrifying words.
Mithratus massaged his temples, ran his hand across his smooth-shaven cheeks. So far his spies had heard nothing of this young warlord, this Chieftain who would no doubt grow into a scourge upon the Imperial frontiers. No matter how many eyes he possessed, he realized, there was still far too much he simply could not see.
It was not long after the scandal with Percalaus that the whispers had begun - whispers of treason. It was said that Teladorus was conspiring in secret with several of his Imperial Satrap-Governors. And though Mithratus had been loathe to believe such claims, he couldn’t help but admit that if anyone had the resources, if anyone had the sheer temerity, it was Teladorus.
What was the old ingrate planning?
Mithratus pursed his lips and swallowed at the pang in his throat. Nothing terrified him more than the thought of losing his hegemony. Perhaps this was why he demeaned himself in this way. Night after night, searching for treachery across scrolls of papyrus. Night after night, reading the reassuring words of fawning worms. Ever since he was young, he had considered such tasks far beneath an Emperor’s contempt. But why, then? Why, if he was so frightened, did he not simply have these whoreson Satrap-Governors killed? Replaced with ones whom he could trust?
Because, he thought, I trust no one.
Another gentle knock at his doors. A rush of cold terror thrashed through his innards. Jolted from his thoughts, the prospect of the emissary’s early arrival struck him bodily, deprived him of all breath. Then he remembered his earlier instructions to Teladorus, and some semblance of calm returned. His High Chancellor was a deceitful snake, but in small matters such as these his obedience was indisputable. It was the sole reason, Mithratus supposed, that the man still lived.
The Emperor rose from his desk, bellowing his assent. The great bronze doors exploded open, and within moments his chambers were overrun with the palace’s stewards, lighting censers and frantically preparing the apartment for this impromptu audience. His body slaves followed bearing vials of perfume and his ceremonial armour.
He hurriedly exchanged his simple linens for a glistening silk robe, forgoing his armour and weaponry on this occasion. What reason did he have to look the conqueror for these foreign dogs? What could they expect, showing up in the depths of night like beggars at his door? Then to expect - no, to demand! - an audience with the Emperor of Luralius? They were lucky he hadn’t had them castrated and flayed alive…

Through the crowd of slaves and frantic ministers, Mithratus briefly glimpsed the wizened figure of his High Chancellor. Dressed in the official red silk robes of his station, the man pressed through the throng of servants, his eyes fixed upon his Emperor. Mithratus affected to ignore his approach as his body slaves arrayed him in finery: his golden diadem, his gilded sandals, and the signet ring that proclaimed his rank.

“Exalted One,” he said, breathless with what Mithratus could only presume to be exertion, “the envoy will arrive shortly. I’ve come to brief you.”

His expression impassive, Mithratus stood motionless while his limbs were rubbed with perfumed oils. “Brief me on what, old man?”

“I have spoken with the Hailatasi. I am to be your translator for these proceedings.”

Mithratus scowled involuntarily, faintly shocked by the old man’s knowledge. “You speak their tongue?” The Hailatasi spoke an old and convoluted language, one that had fallen out of use across the Valasian Sea several centuries ago. “How is this?”

The High Chancellor’s expression slackened in imitation of innocence. It was understandable, Mithratus thought, for the man to mistake questions for accusations. In the presence of the Emperor, all questions were usually as much.

“I studied in Galeapylus for a time, Emperor. When I was a boy… I thought you knew.”

Mithratus felt chills of suspicion tingle through his chest. “Is this another of your games, Teladorus? One more scheme against your Emperor?”

For an instant, the old Chancellor appeared thoroughly mortified. Despite the commotion in the chamber, an uncanny hush had fallen between them.

“I swear, Lord Emperor, it is not…”

Mithratus let his lips twist into a sneer as he glared down on the aged man. “So be it, Teladorus. What have they said?”

Recovering his composure, the High Chancellor straightened and folded his arms across his stomach. He stepped closer, glancing nervously to the slaves about them, and in hushed tones said, “They say they bring news of The Star.”

The fury and tension of moments before was forgotten, squelched by a throb of curiosity. Frowning, Mithratus stared into the old man’s rheumy eyes, said nothing.

“They would tell me little more,” Teladorus continued, his expression at once troubled and thoughtful. “But they did ask me one disturbing question…They asked whether any of your wives had recently given birth to a child.”

Wives? Child? What kind of questions were those?

“Surely they must know I have no wives.”

“But as you know, Exalted One, the Hailatasi have paid no heed to the events beyond their borders for centuries. They undoubtedly think you no different from the Saladuecons.”

Mithratus nodded, his expression calm despite the terror lurching through him. It was, he admitted with some reluctance, a likely interpretation. While the Saladuecons of Galeapylus had succumbed to the extravagant degeneracy of the East, the Emperors of Luralius had remained - though not immune to scandal - entirely incorruptible. The Aregallian Palace could boast no harem, and only rarely had its chief occupant married for reasons other than political alliance. Could the Hailatasi be that ignorant?

But it was not the indecency of the question that troubled him so deeply.

His hands trembling, Mithratus banished his body slaves with a mere glance, then barked, “All of you, out!”

Shocked by his outburst, Teladorus flinched visibly, looked to his sandalled feet. One of his slaves, who had moments before been pouring wine from an amphorae into a mixing bowl, stared dumbfounded at him before fleeing in terror, spilling wine across the black marble floors in the process.

Again the doors ground shut, punctuating the silence between Emperor and High Chancellor.

“You worry,” Teladorus muttered, “that this has something to do with what Diodotus said? About a child of House Telcoaros?”

Mithratus spun to face the old man. “Could they know of that?”

A shrug. “The Hailatasi are an ancient people, Emperor. Perhaps they know even more of it than we do.”

“But why, after all these years, would they offer us their knowledge so freely?”

“Perhaps they aren’t offering their knowledge.” Teladorus stopped, his expression pained. “Could it be they’ve come to see that this child - if the legend is in fact true - dies?”

Yes… Yes! Suddenly it all made sense. After all, it was the Hailatasi who, millennia ago, had sacked Mykantos - burned the hallowed city to the ground! Killed the Last High King as he lay weeping for his people! His tutors had told him as much… Perhaps the Hailatasi had come to finish the task they’d set before themselves all those years ago.

Mithratus shook his head in dismay. How could he have forgotten? And to have Teladorus, of all people, remind him… A moment of anxious disbelief accompanied this thought.

The old fool never failed to astound him. Just when he’d thought that he had outlived his purpose, that old age and depravity had robbed the man of both loyalty and intellect, he offered insights such as these.

Mithratus stared hard into his wrinkled face. “So you think they mean to kill me, as well, old man?”

Again, the old man merely shrugged. “Perhaps…”

His eyes narrowed, Mithratus regarded his aged Chancellor warily, smirking all the while. Did Teladorus have gall enough to simply indulge his Emperor’s paranoia? Perhaps he did…

But whether warranted or not, his suspicions would have to wait one more night. Turning for his desk, Mithratus said, “Have guards placed throughout the chambers, Teladorus. We’ll not make these worms wait any longer to look upon the Emperor.”

Teladorus’s robes whispered against the marble as he withdrew from the apartment. After what seemed only a few heartbeats, the High Chancellor returned, a retinue of Principate Guardsmen in tow. Mithratus stood motionless behind his desk, casually observing the old man as he positioned the soldiers through the apartment. He shook his head imperceptibly, even smiled at the man’s doddering senility. Seeing Teladorus bark commands was, he thought, perhaps as ridiculous as imagining the old fool as Emperor. He half expected his soldiers to laugh at the ancient ass, so comical was the sight.

But no… Now was not the time. These were great matters. Their Emperor’s life was at stake. This, they no doubt knew, was no time for laughter.

Through the sound of the High Chancellor’s prattle, Mithratus could only faintly hear the knock at his door. When it came once more, heavy with insistence, he felt as though a great hand had been clamped about his chest.

Teladorus fell silent, glanced to his Emperor. Then, clearly rattled, he turned for the doors and, seemingly to no one in particular, whispered, “They’re here.”

Mithratus strode to the heart of the chamber, his eyes flitting to the soldiers that lined the alabaster-paneled walls. The reflection of flames from nearby censers rippled along their gilded cuirasses. He smiled, reminding himself that each of them - if it ever came to that - would die for their Emperor. There was some comfort in that.

A steward entered and conferred briefly with Teladorus. Mithratus watched, frowning. After sending the man away, Teladorus scurried feebly to his Emperor’s side, muttered, “They come.”

The bronze doors swung open, and two men entered his apartments, their steps rigid, their faces solemn, sedate. Even through the gloom, the sheen of gold was immediately discernible. Mithratus smiled. The Divine King had sent his best.

He turned to his minister, who kept his eyes fixed resolutely forward. Soft enough to not be heard, he whispered, “Have they been checked for weapons?”

Teladorus nodded stiffly, but otherwise made no reply.

The two men passed through the antechamber and came to stand at the threshold of the greater apartment. One was young, perhaps similar in age to Mithratus himself, and outfitted in the manner of a soldier. A corselet comprised entirely of golden scales draped his torso; golden armbands - stylized serpents, Mithratus guessed - adorned his wrists and biceps. His long dark hair was curled and braided ornately. The other was elderly, his body soft in the way of men born to luxury. He wore a broad golden collar studded with lapis stones and brightly-hued beads. His head was shaven and fairly shone in the light of lamps and censers. As Mithratus had so often seen depicted in relief, their eyes were rimmed with kohl, making them appear at once fierce and regal. Even so, Mithratus could not help but feel disappointed at their apparent mortality. Part of him had expected to see his divine kin to walk through those doors.

Nevertheless, there was something profoundly disconcerting, he decided, about glimpsing the legendary in the flesh. Suddenly everything around him - the ranks of soldiers lining the walls, the clouds of wafting incense, the Hailatasi striding towards him with fluid grace, even the frail features of Teladorus in his periphery - appeared curiously submerged, as though the very room had been consumed by the absurd inertia of nightmares. Unaccountably dizzy, Mithratus found himself altering his pose, struggling to retain both balance and dignity. Then, unable to cope with both preternatural still and buzzing silence, he stepped forward, raising his arm in salute.

“The Empire welcomes you, emissaries of Hailatas.”

Teladorus translated, speaking a series of fluid, measured syllables in rapid cadence. The older man replied in that same lolling, rhythmic tongue. He bowed, but only slightly, then gestured to his companion in introduction.

“I’m afraid their names confound me, Exalted One,” Teladorus began hesitantly. “But this man -” he indicated the older, portly man - “says he is the Divine King’s High Priest and Principal Auger.”

“And the other?”

“The Grand General of the Divine Host.”

Mithratus raised his brows, smiled crookedly. “Is that so…” Impressive. The Divine King had indeed sent his finest. But why?

The High Priest continued his inane prattle, his expression stern.

“They have traveled across the Great Sea,” Teladorus related, his eyes clenched in concentration, “to bring news of dire importance.”

Mithratus frowned, transfixed by the High Priest’s flapping jowls. “What news?”

At the High Priest’s next words, Teladorus’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “They say a child of ancient blood has been born in Luralius, Exalted One. A child of an ancient line of Kings…”

Mithratus turned to his High Chancellor, but his gaze remained fixed upon the Hailatasi emissaries. “How could they know this?”

“He claims-” Teladorus paused, seemingly intent on the High Priest’s babble. His expression darkened, and he looked up at his Emperor in astonishment. “He says that the Star proclaims his birth, Exalted One.”

Baffled, Mithratus took a hesitant step forward, then barked, “What does his birth mean?” An image of Percalaus, battered and bloody at his at his feet, surged through his thoughts with the force of cataracts. His son? Prophilus, was it? Was he important, somehow? He trembled, felt his mouth grow dry at the thought. What does this mean?

Teladorus’s words came to him from what seemed a distant place. “He speaks of a Dark god - the Lord of Blood. He says that the time of his return approaches…”

Mithratus nearly laughed aloud at that. Dark Gods… A Lord of Blood? What kind of nonsense was this? Why did all these fools insist on bothering him with myths? And how much more of this lie, he wondered, did they expect him to tolerate?

By now, the truth had become more than clear to him. The Hailatasi had been warned of a threat. Obviously they had been in league with Diodotus. Now they were using this lie to get close to him and then kill him. Of course, it was possible this child was, in some way, a threat to them as well... But one of far less immediacy.

Smirking with contempt, Mithratus regarded the High Priest narrowly. “Teladorus?”

“Yes, Exalted One?”

The Emperor glanced over his shoulder, glimpsed the gilded lions of Luralius that framed his lavish bed. “You can be certain of your translation?”

“I can.”

“And this child… What is the significance of the child? What does he have to do with this God?”

Teladorus asked the man, his tone lilting with condescension.

After a moment’s pause, the High Priest responded with increasing impatience.

Mithratus tilted his head back towards the High Chancellor, awaiting his reply.

A moment of uneasy silence passed.

“Well?” Mithratus snapped. “What does he say?”

“He says…” Teladorus trailed away in obvious distress. He swallowed, then continued: “He beseeches you to see this child safe. He claims the child will have many enemies. Powerful enemies who wish to see him dead.

“He says that if this child were to die, we would all be doomed.”

Mithratus whirled to face his stupefied minister, his eyes wild. “Why? Who are these enemies?”

“The-the Lord of Blood,” Teladorus stammered hastily. “He of Wrath and Woe… Or so this man says.” Then he shrugged as though to say, I know not what this means.

An implacable cold descended on Mithratus - the cold of malevolent rage. Clearly these Hailatasi took him for some gullible boy. Calmly, his movements poised so as to conceal his fury, he turned away from the High Chancellor, approached the Hailatasi emissaries. “How can I protect him if I don’t who he is? Where he is?”

With mounting irritation, the Divine King’s High Priest replied to Teladorus’s translation, gesturing avidly as he spoke.

“What does he say?” Mithratus snapped over his shoulder.

“He claims that they expected to find the child here,” Teladorus replied. “He says they believed that the child may have been your own.”

Gaping, Mithratus looked to the glossy marble floor, his expression perturbed. Was it possible? Could one of his slaves have hidden this from him? Fled from the Palace to save the life of her illegitimate progeny? It had happened before.

But that simply wasn’t possible. His blood - divine as it clearly was - couldn’t possibly possess the pedigree of ancient Kings. His grandfather, Mithratus Kallikos I, had been a lowly field officer before his remarkable rise to power. Before that… It was forbidden to speak of anything before that. There were penalties, harsh penalties, for speaking of anything before that.

Mithratus breathed deeply, blinking in silent rumination. The cold, once merely an intimation of the unthinkable, now threatened to overwhelm him. Perhaps tonight, he reasoned, would be a good night for blood after all.

“And if he was here... This child.” Mithratus abruptly cocked his gaze forward, glared fiercely into the eyes of the nameless Hailatasi Priest. “What would you do with him?”

“Lord Emperor,” Teladorus whispered plaintively, “is this-”

“Ask him!” he roared without looking from the emissaries’ painted eyes.

Though he obviously harbored misgivings, Teladorus promptly obeyed. But before he could finish, the Grand General interceded, his dark eyes bright with challenge.

“He wishes to warn you, Exalted One, that this is no time for petty mistrust.” Anguish and dread came to animate the High Chancellor’s expression. “He begs you not to be a fool.”

Stunned by his audacity, Mithratus glowered at the Hailatasi general, his chest heaving with wrath. You would dare insult the Emperor?

&quot;He also says,&quot; Teladorus continued, &quot;that far more than the Empire is at risk in this matter, Exalted One. He begs you to see reason, to trust them in this...&quot;

Mithratus smirked, overcome at once with amusement and disgust. &quot;Is that so?&quot; Though startled by the intensity of the man's reply, the Emperor remained unmoved. A gifted liar. One could never trust, his father had once told him, a people infatuated with knowledge. And the Hailatasi were nothing if not that.

A staggering sense of conviction seized him. Whatever foul deeds these Hailatasi ingrates had come to commit, whatever lies they hoped to spread, they would go no farther than this room. He would not allow the Immortal City to be polluted by their presence. Their lies.

And the cold had become unyielding…

“I will keep my own counsel,” Mithratus said, “on who is to be trusted.” Then he turned away from the emissaries, strode passed his High Chancellor and moved to stand behind his desk. “This audience is over, Teladorus.” The Emperor of Luralius stared at the young Hailatasi Grand General for several moments, gifting him with a sardonic smile. His farewell. “Kill them. Kill them both.”

Teladorus turned to face him, his rutted features slack with astonishment. “But, Lord Emperor…”

Mithratus said nothing, watched with cold dispassion as his guardsmen drew their swords and stepped forward as one. At least, he thought, their loyalties are clear.

The Hailatasi Grand General muttered something indecipherable, then with an agility born of urgency drew a gilded knife from the armpit of his corselet. The young man lunged forward, plunged the blade into Teladorus’s back. The old man gaped, his eyes rounded in pain and incomprehension. Then he slumped against the mahogany desk and fell to the floor, inert.

Mithratus stumbled backward, nearly collapsed into his chair. He yelped in panic and disbelief. Teladorus? The Hailatasi General shoved his desk aside, spilling lamps and papyrus across the floor. A womanish scream pierced the air, and Mithratus glimpsed the High Priest’s fat body crumple to the ground, riddled with wounds. Stunned, the Grand General spun to face the approaching soldiers. A merciless flurry of iron. The clash of metal against marble…

Then it was over. The nameless General’s body lay alongside the High Chancellor’s - mangled, limbs slack, fingers twisted in rigor.

Mithratus smiled and clenched his fists. Glory and ecstacy. Malice and might. Once more he had overcome. He truly was indomitable, a God among fools. He looked up to his Principate Guardsmen, stepped forward to congratulate them with his mere touch. They bowed their heads, held out their bloodied swords in submission. Mithratus knelt, silently appraising the dead Grand General’s fabulous armor. A pity to have ruined it. Then he looked to the lifeless form of his High Chancellor and snorted in aversion.

Strange, he thought, that he could feel so cold despite all the man had done for House Kallikos.

But perhaps it was only fitting. The Gods did not mourn the loss of mortals.

His gaze flickered up, caught a small, sluggish movement. The High Priest. The man lay bleeding, groaning in agony, blinking as he stared up at the gold-fretted ceiling. Mithratus stood, grasped a sword from one of his guardsmen, then came to loom over the dying Hailatasi Priest.

Their eyes locked, and Mithratus whispered, “Who bid you do this?”

Nothing. The High Priest blinked up into his eyes, but could make no reply.

“Leave us,” Mithratus snapped over his shoulder. “Send someone to clean this mess.”

His soldiers quickly complied, filing from the apartments without a word. Barked orders percolated down the palace corridors.

Alone with his would-be killer, Mithratus gripped tight the ivory hilt of his short sword. “Was it Saladuecon? Diodotus himself? Who?”

The blinking ceased. The High Priest gasped, coughed frothy strings of blood, then went utterly limp.

Overcome with wrath, Mithratus raised his blade, brought it down upon the man’s chest. Justice. Again and again, until blood covered his face and arms, until the man’s body was no more than a heap of lacerated flesh. Justice... That was the sum of his wrath.

Eternal, divine justice.

Only the sound of his doors grating open abated his fury.

Callistares strode into the apartment, his plumed helm tucked beneath his arm. His eyes widened in horror and revulsion as he scanned the Imperial Bedchamber.

“Emperor…” Breathlessness. “What has happened here?”

Mithratus smiled, tossed his sword to the floor. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, fairly trembling with the memory of his fury. “An assassination attempt, High Tribune. You should be proud. Your men responded admirably.”

Callistares stood dumbstruck. He peered past Mithratus’s shoulder, scowled when he glimpsed the body of the High Chancellor. No doubt the man would be riven with grief. He and Teladorus had been friends for many years…

Years in the service of House Kallikos.

Mithratus sighed. “Yes… Unfortunate, that.”

“Unfortunate? Lord Emperor, I must know what has happened here. Your High Chancellor is dead!”

Mithratus shrugged. “I think it quite obvious, High Tribune. These ingrates arrived at the Palace and demanded an audience with the Emperor. I indulged them for a time, then decided they were no longer worthy of my ear. They had, of course, actually been sent to kill me.” Turning away from the man, he smiled once again. “As I said, your men saved me. I am most pleased with their conduct.”

Slaves scurried like vermin through the room’s gloomy perimeter, shrinking from the confrontation between the Emperor and his Counsel of War. Lamps were retrieved and relit; scrolls were arranged across his desk.

Wincing, Callistares paused over the dismembered corpse at the chamber’s heart. “Who were they, Mithratus?”

By now, the slaves were dragging the corpses of Teladorus and the young Grand General from the apartment. Mithratus looked on, racked by a sudden pang of dread. By tomorrow, he had no doubt, all Luralius would know of this outrage. Something he simply could not tolerate.

“Hailatasi,” Mithratus said numbly. “They were Hailatasi.” He did not, however, tell the old General just who the emissaries were. Or of the impact their deaths would no doubt have upon the Empire. He had no time for the man’s concerns tonight.

Callistares kept his eyes lowered to the gore-littered floor. “What did they say?”

Mithratus brought a blood-smeared hand to his face, fingered the gold-and-carnelian diadem that crested his brow. “They spoke of House Telcoaros. They said a child of ancient blood was born in Luralius, and that he must be kept safe.”

The High Tribune regarded him with tear-filled eyes. “You didn’t believe them.”

Mithratus sneered, wearily shook his head. “No.”

The great bronze doors slammed shut. A chilling silence fell over the room. Callistares pursed his lips and stepped forward.

“Do you not think the coincidence too… alarming to be mere coincidence, Emperor?”

“You mean what Diodotus said.”

Rubbing his bearded cheeks, Callistares nodded.

“You think there could be some truth in this madness?”

Callistares frowned, blinking tears from his eyes. “I don’t know.” The High Tribune affected to wipe something from his lips. “But surely you don’t think they would travel so far to try and kill you in this manner?”

“And why else,” Mithratus snapped, exasperated, “would they come here, General? Hmm?”

Callistares sighed audibly. “You think Diodotus told them of your father’s plans.”

Rather than reply, Mithratus narrowed his eyes in cold scrutiny, then lowered them to his desk.

“They came to tell you of this child,” Callistares continued, his tone heavy with reproach, “and you killed them.”

“The man had weapons, Callistares! Weapons. In the presence of the Emperor!” That alone, Callistares would understand, had warranted their deaths.

The High Tribune acted as though his Emperor hadn’t just spoken. “Perhaps this child is more important than we know.”

Struck mute by disbelief, Mithratus simply stared at the man. No words would come. Callistares had never been one to voice idle fears. Nor had he ever been one to believe in foolish myths. Myths were beneath the concern of mythic men. But if even he could be concerned…

“They told you something about the child, didn’t they?”

Blank-faced, Mithratus could only nod. It seemed that the man read his expression as though it were a battlefield. “They said if he dies, we are all doomed.”

The hiss of billowing censers filled the silence.

“Emperor,” Callistares said at length. “As far as we know, only one child has been born to the Great Houses in the past several weeks.”

“Prophilus Valerus.”

Callistares nodded in his periphery.

“Have the boy watched, High Tribune. Watched carefully....”

“Of course, Lord Emperor.”

“That will be all for tonight, High Tribune. Tomorrow we will make arrangements for Teladorus’s passage into the Realm. The appointment of a new High Chancellor. And I must speak with the Master of Records about anything concerning House Telcoaros. I must know the truth behind all of this. ” He exhaled heavily. “But it must wait until tomorrow.”

“Yes, Emperor. Of course.” A nervous pause. “You will be…staying here tonight, Emperor?”

Mithratus frowned. It hadn’t yet occurred to him that some may find it strange that he remain here after an attempt had been made on his life. It wasn’t as though he lacked safe refuge outside the Capitol. There was his pleasure villa in Sardanum, his gardens in Carindesa - places that would afford him some time away from the mayhem that would surely grip the Palace after this affair.

But he could not leave. Leaving could be perceived as cowardice - as weakness.

He smiled. “The Emperor will remain here, Callistares.”

“As you wish, Exalted One.” Callistares bowed shallowly, then turned to withdraw. The voice of his Emperor halted him before he reached the doors.

“Callistares.”

The High Tribune turned to face his Emperor. “Yes, Exalted One?”

Mithratus brought his hand to his face in thought - but there was nothing left to decide. “Have the slaves who removed the bodies… silenced. See to it yourself.”

“As you wish, Lord Emperor.”

Alone at last, Mithratus rubbed his forehead, his thoughts stricken. Only days ago, his sole purpose had been maintaining control over the Empire. But now…

Now it seemed that everything had changed. Teladorus dead. His Empire apparently secure. All things being equal, he should have been elated.

Yet there was no reprieve. No sense of harmony or conquest at what he’d wrought.

Only more heart-gnawing uncertainty. The Hailatasi had seen to that.

For what seemed hours, Mithratus sat desolate, staring into nothingness. Everything he had ever heard or read about the Hailatasi tumbled through his mind like smoke roiling in the wind. Then, from nowhere, the words of his father - words he wished he had forgotten - came to him unbidden.

“They are the most ancient people in the Valasian Sea, Mithra. When our Capitol was a shepherd’s village, they ruled the entire South and East. The knowledge they keep is boundless…”

Yes… His father had spoken those words when he was but a boy. It was the first time he’d entered that very same hall where he’d met Diodotus. Words that had ignited the curiosity of a young would-be Emperor.

And that same curiosity, dimmed with age and worldly responsibility, suddenly burned bright with newfound purpose. Could they know something of this child? Something he didn’t?

I must know that they do! I must!

The people of Hailatas, he was certain, could not be trusted. But perhaps, he hoped, their knowledge could.

Either he would their knowledge, or he would have vengeance.

Vengance... And with it, glory.

He would accomplish what no other man had accomplished. Not even Attalon...

Hailatas would be his. It would take take time, patience, planning, and strength - so much strength! - but it would be his.

You are strong, Mithratus! You are!

But the shadows, relentless in their torture, clamoured: No, Mithratus. No, you are weak...

Here, beyond the scrutiny of his innumerable servants, Mithratus lowered his head to his hands and wept.

That night, before he crawled between the gilded lions that framed his bed, he scratched a simple message across a sheet of blank papyrus.


Mithratus Kallikos II, Emperor of Luralius, to Diodotus of Cayranus. Greetings. view post


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