Titus was a renowned Legionary above and below the ground. He was known for his strength, his iron will, his leadership and his willingness to put himself in harms' way to protect his fellows, he was a leader who never spared himself.
Most of all, he was known for his unyielding sense of duty. He had sacrificed over and over again in order to perform the role he filled and he would damn well do it again. He never hesitated, did not regret but often, he grieved.
Looking down at the eager trainees below him he felt sorrow grip his heart.
But it didn't stop him.
"You are about to undergo the final trial on the path to becoming full members of the Deep Legion" he announced.
Serious expressions overtook the trainees at the word trial. What would they need to do?
"You have experienced severe mana saturation sickness on the way here and we have done what we can alleviate the symptoms, but we have not cured you. Behind that door lies the greatest secret of the Legion. We will cure you of saturation sickness permanently, the process will also make you stronger, faster, smarter, more powerful than you currently are. When it is done you will be reborn".
A few gasps and disbelieving murmurs erupted from the youths in front of him. Was any of this even possible?
Titus pointed to the door behind them. "Beyond there lies the greatest secret of the Legion. It enabled the first Legionaries to perform the heroic feats deep in the Dungeon that helped end the Cataclysm thousands of years ago and it fuels us today. Every full Legionary you have ever met has undergone this process, including me".
The commander took a deep breath. No avoiding it.
"Let's go in and I'll explain further".
Titus gestured to Alberton who squeezed through the cramped chamber before unlocking the enchanted seal on the door and striding through. Titus waited on the stairs until everyone had entered the next room before stepping forward, closing the door behind him as he did so.
Of all the trainees Mirryn was the only one to note his actions closely and a sudden fear gripped her heart. The way they moved, it was almost as if they had been blocking the exit, making sure that it was impossible for someone to get past them…
Suddenly anxious, she cast her eyes around the room they now found themselves in. The room itself was unremarkable. Light was provided by glowstones embedded in the ceiling which illuminated a simple and unadorned stone chamber. The chamber itself was long, but narrow, with regular offcuts down the right side. Pushing past her fellow trainees, Mirryn saw that in each offcut a narrow basic had been chiselled into the floor, almost like a bath carved into the stone. Counting quickly under her breath she saw that there was thirty such 'pods', each with the same narrow basin that appeared designed to have a person lie down in it.
Closely inspecting the pod she realised the ceiling directly above each basin was not as simple as she had first assumed. Incredibly fine, intricate runic patters had been carved into the surface, the lines so thin she almost hadn't seen them. In the center of the pattern a thin hole could be seen, perhaps for something to flow through and fill the basin? Even the basin itself was covered in intricate runic inscriptions. Just what were these for?
Her anxious musing was interrupted by a sudden clap from the commander. All of the trainees stopped gazing around and turned back to their officer, paying close attention.
"I will know explain the process to you" the commander said crisply, his eyes hard with determination, "listen closely as this will impact the rest of your life".
He paused there to ensure he had their full attention.
"Each of you will strip down and lie in a separate pod. From the ceiling above we will release pure, condensed liquid mana that will fill the basin until you are submerged. The fluid will be absorbed into your body, remaking it into something new. After twenty four hours it'll be done and you'll be a full legionary".
The trainees were staring at him as if he were insane. Liquid mana?! What the hell was that?! Donnelan stood with the rest, his mind flicking at lightning speed. If mana could be condensed into a liquid, wouldn't it be much more potent that the energy in the Dungeon? Wouldn't they just die?!
Titus could see their confusion. He did not move to reassure them.
"This process is exceedingly dangerous. It will be the most painful experience of your lives. Every cell in your body will become super saturated with mana, tearing at the seams. There are powerful healing enchantments built into the basin. You will be ripped apart and remade constantly for a day. One in five of you will not survive".
The deep, stern voice of Titus faded away and there was total silence as the trainees stared back at their commander in shock. They had been prepared for many things, but not this!
Alberton spoke from behind them, his voice weary with sorrow. "To defeat the monsters, to protect the civilisations on the surface the Legionem Abyssi decided that to be human was not enough. In order to overcome the Cataclysm, to make sure that it would never happen again, this was the step they decided to take".
His words fell on the young trainees like stones. This was real. It was going to happen. Fear gripped their hearts as they imagined the agony of having their very cells ripped apart for hours on end. Could they endure it?
Several thought fleetingly of running, of escaping this chamber and the insane ritual about to take place but they quickly squashed the thought. Who was that standing in the doorway, they thought bitterly. Commander Titus. He was a legend in the Legion. If all of them unleashed their most powerful skills at once would they shave even one HP from him?
"Nobody is forced to take the ritual" Titus announced grimly, bringing relief to the trainees. Before they could start to celebrate he pulled the short sword on his hip from its sheath and gripped it tightly in his right hand.
"But you cannot know the Legions secrets and not be one of us. If you wish to spare yourself the suffering, step forward and I will give you a quick end" he said.
Alberton found Titus staring at the wall outside the ritual chamber, as he always did once the trainees had begun their transformation. Once the process was done they would be remade into an entirely new species, no longer human, but Legion.
They could delve further into the Dungeon than anyone else could hope to, able to tolerate levels of mana saturation beyond what a normal person could ever dream. They would be able to take the fight directly to the monsters, able to chase them down wherever they chose to hide. That was what it meant to join the Abyssal Legion.
This had been done for thousands of years, all over Pangera. The secrets of the first Legionaries had been kept ever since those days. As Loremaster it was Alberton's role to keep the histories of those days and the determination, the sheer will of those men and women had remained within their spirit to this day.
That didn't mean they liked it.
The screams echoed through the chamber now. Down the corridors and up the stairs. On and on, endlessly screaming. Alberton could well remember what it had been like, he still experienced it in his nightmares, his throat ripping apart from the force of his shrieks only to be healed instantly, allowing him to scream some more.
Amidst the howls of agony a tap, tap, tap of chisel on stone could faintly be heard as Alberton approached his friend.
As he drew closer the memorial wall became clear, thousands of names had been written here by Legion commanders through the centuries since this base had been established. Titus knelt on the ground, his hands steady as he added one more name to the bottom of the list.
Alberton felt his heart twist with pain. The Legion did everything they possibly could to test their new trainees before they reached this point. Anyone they didn't think would be willing to undergo the Baptism had been separated, recommended to other forces, placed in the Auxiliary or other surface teams that were not required to delve. Even though the trainees didn't know it, they had been forensically examined for years before they reached this point.
The Legion didn't want to have the blood of their own people on their hands. Unfortunately no system was perfect.
Trelik had been unwilling to undergo the baptism, he had accepted Titus' offer.
Now the commander knelt and added his name to the wall, along with every other trainee who had not survived the final trial. Tomorrow, the baptism would be over and Titus would have to kneel here again.
It was impossible to converse with the horrific cries of their own people ringing in their ears. Instead Alberton walked beside his friend and placed a hand on his shoulder as he let his eyes roam over the names on the wall.
The Legion was the frontline against the Dungeon, none fought harder or delved deeper than they. To achieve this they had been called on to relentlessly sacrifice. None more so than Titus.
Alberton let his gaze rest on one name in particular. Romanus.
How must it have felt, he sighed, when the commander had carved his only sons name into this wall?