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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


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