I watched my father burn to ash. The salt of the sea coated my tongue.
Fourteen years old. Too young to stand shoulder-to-shoulder within the ranks, to have been there to make a difference. Too old to ever forget the sight of him carried in on a bed of broken shields. Tears blurred my vision, smoke and sea breeze mingling unbearably on my senses. I refused to sob. The men bore it in grim silence, watching their captain and countless brothers burn to ash. I would do the same.
Captains led from the front. It was the way of the legions, the first virtue of the Republic. It was the first lesson that my father had taught me, and he had matched his words to action time and again in his service. The men of the fifth legion loved him for it. They moved mountains for him because of it.
And when he died and entered the great beyond, they followed him there too.
The mournful bellows of the legions’ war trumpets blanketed the camp, legionaries breathing their souls into their horns for the fallen captain and his men. Some men wept silent tears. Others stared vacantly into the flames, their minds still in the thick of the fight. Most, though. Most were simply grim.
“Dry your eyes, young Solus.”
Instinct moved me. I snapped to attention, dashing tears of grief, salt, and smoke from my eyes. A wave of sound swept through the ranks, hundreds of men slamming clenched fists to their hearts in respect. Belatedly, I did the same.
The general of the western front dropped a hand onto my shoulder, and I staggered under the weight of it. It was not a physical thing. It was his presence alone that nearly drove me to my knees. The general looked upon the mass funeral pyre, with my father at its center. There was sorrow in his eyes. But no tears.
“We don’t weep until the battle is won,” he told me. His resolve was a quiet thing. Yet it shook the earth beneath our feet. “Your father accepted death before defeat. It’s up to us to honor that resolve with action. Dry those eyes until we’ve swept his enemies into the sea.”
The words were for me, but they carried as easily as the war horns. Legionaries shouted and hammered their fists to their breast plates, slammed the butts of their spears against the earth. It was the nature of a Roman general to command unfaltering loyalty, but it was the providence of the man that led the western front to command devotion overwhelming. No man in the entire Republic was so beloved.
He turned me away from the pyre, away from the ash and salt, and urged me back to camp with his hand on my shoulder. I might as well have tried to resist the turning of the seasons.
“Your father was a fine husband to my niece, and a finer captain in my legions.” My great-uncle led me through the camp, with its weathered tents and siege materials. The earth beneath our feet had long been pounded to mud. “What I owed him, I now owe you. A boy your age needs a hand to guide you. I’ll have to suffice.”
He parted the command tent’s flap and ushered me in. Inside were men that appeared to be no older than my father, but possessed the bearing and scars of men far older preserved by cultivation. The logisticos of the western legions laid eyes upon me, and the pressure of their notice nearly drove me to my knees.
I grit my teeth and stood to attention, and though I had no breast plate to strike, I slammed a fist to my heart anyway. They eyed me appraisingly.
My great-uncle entered behind me, and those monsters rose and followed my example before the general of the west.
“At ease,” he said, allowing a legionnaire that had been waiting just inside the tent’s entrance to remove his heavy crimson cloak. He kept his armor, taking his place on a simple bench at the head of a wide sand table. The logisticos relaxed, retaking their seats and returning to their prior discussion.
One of them, though, glanced curiously at me. I hadn’t moved. Hadn’t dared to leave the position of attention.
“Gaius,” the logistico said. “Who is the boy?”
My great-uncle glanced back at me, and his expression made my heart clench in my chest. I’d mastered the tears. But the taste of sea salt and funeral ash remained.
“This is my nephew, Solus,” he said. “His father brought him here to show him how the virtuous men of Rome live. Now, I’ll teach him how to lead them.”
He gestured, and I joined him on the bench. The furthest western reaches of the Mediterranean were arrayed before us on the sand table, with all their armies. My eyes immediately sought out one set of pieces in particular. My great-uncle shook his head once.
“We have a long campaign ahead of us, nephew.” He pointed elsewhere. North.
“First we take the Gauls.”
“What is the primary quality that a man must have to lead?” my great-uncle asked me. It was a rhetorical question, like most he asked. His bright gray eyes swiveled across the field. Searching for something only he could see. “It is not strength alone. Neither is it wisdom. A man doesn’t need to be superior to those he leads in any particular manner, but for one.”
“What is that, uncle?” I asked dutifully, resisting the urge to roll my shoulders in the unfamiliar armor I’d been issued. Still too young to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the ranks, but neither could I ride at the general’s side in plain clothes.
“Men in general are quick to believe that which they wish to be true,” Gaius spoke. “It is the burden of the Republic to shed light on every shadowed nation. We are besieged on all sides by barbarian states. In circumstances like these, a man desires a guiding light above all else. To make that man believe you are someone worth following into the screaming hordes, someone worth dying alongside. Worth dying for. That is the minimum that you’ll need to lead.”
His eyes burned as he found what he had been looking for in the press of battle.
“Watch me,” he commanded, and urged his horse into a sprint.
The western legions were joined in vicious combat with the Gallic hordes. They had tried to hide behind the walls of their settlement, but Gaius’ officers had shattered them with cultivation that shook my senses. The barbarians that spilled out were massive, larger than all but the greatest of legionnaires, and far more numerous. Thousands upon thousands had come charging out of the walls, and then the buccinators among the legions had raised their trumpets and sounded the alarm as more came howling up the rear.
We were caught in the middle. The only way out was through. I watched the general of the west run his horse headlong into the fray, and I watched the disrupted ranks of the legions reform themselves, as if by magic, where he passed.
Shield walls slammed together. Century lines dug their heels into the mud and held, where before they had been pushed back. Legionnaires who had been shouting in anger and fear, or in simple exhilaration, went silent. Focused. Gaius shot through the lines like an arrow, and in his passing left them silent and dangerous as a knife.
He plunged that blade into the Gallic army’s screaming throat.
I gripped the gladius at my side tightly, aching to join them. Every fallen legionnaire was a life I could have saved. A father that would burn on the pyre because I hadn’t been there to cover him in the press. But I mastered the desire. I observed. And I promised myself that some day soon, I would be as my great-uncle was. The light that guided.
Gaius drove through the Gallic tides and found his mark. The general of the west met the Gallic king and their clash rocked me off my mount. I scrambled for the reins while the war horse reared up and screamed its defiance to heaven. Even the beasts gave their hearts for Gaius.
It was over as quickly as it had begun. The Gallic armies gave way like they were made of sand, a cascading retreat that started from both fronts and was soon spilling over to their furthest back lines. They were held up as precipitously by their king as the legions were by their general, and as Gaius drove the Gallic tyrant into the earth it was clear who stood greater among heaven and earth.
The legions let fly their eagle standards, clarion calls of war trumpets splitting the air. The Gallic king clutched a gaping wound in his side, and before the eyes of legionnaires and barbarians alike he slowly knelt.
Lightning struck the general of the west.
Horror stopped my heart. The bolt fell out of a clear blue sky, and was followed in the next instant by another. Then another. Dozens, in the blink of an eye. Hundreds. Barbarians caught too close were vaporized by the pillar of light. Legion shield walls were raised in turtle formation as the general’s men formed ranks against heaven.
After what seemed like an eternity and yet no time at all, the lightning storm ceased. At the epicenter of its destruction knelt the Gallic king, a smoking ruin of a man. Still alive, still kneeling, but only just.
Gaius sat tall on his horse. His pneuma unfurled like an eagle standard across the battlefield, and where it passed men fell to their knees. A rolling thunder of noise passed through the legion ranks, thousands of fists slamming to armored chests in salutes.
My legs shook with the urge to kneel. My basest instincts begged me to submit. But I stood tall and proud, a fist to my heart. And when my great-uncle looked back across the field at me, there was pride in his eyes.
From that day on, my path was set.
The general of the west returned home for his Triumph. The Gallic king was paraded around the great city, and for days Rome celebrated her favored son. It was a dizzying experience. I felt utterly out of place in the city that I had once so arrogantly prowled like a hunting cat.
My armor now felt more natural than the soft cloths and togas I’d worn as a boy. My blade was more familiar to my hand than any cup of wine.
When my great-uncle presented me with a girl and declared her to be my wife, I had no idea what to do with her. But I was my father’s son. I offered her my hand and she took it. Her skin was soft, the color of fresh cream. She looked coyly up at me through long lashes. I decided I didn’t like the schemes behind them.
So I pulled her tight to my chest and kissed her soundly. The men of the fifth legion cheered and laughed. When we parted her chestnut braids were disheveled, blue eyes startled.
“No games,” I told her. “And I’m yours.”
Slowly, she smiled.
I had just turned seventeen. The western front was a ruin. Crows blackened the skies and ash rolled like mist through the countryside. Where the enemy went, they burned and they salted.
“We have no choice,” my great-uncle said grimly. We were arrayed around the sand table, logisticos and officers of every legion gathered to hear the general speak. He moved ivory pieces through the sand, corralling a tide of obsidian stones. “Our internal conflicts have weakened us, and the enemy allows us no time to consolidate. We split them here and drive them into the sea, or we are lost.”
Officers were given marching orders each in turn, slamming fists to hearts and striding out of the command tent to round up their men. The legions were weary. They were worn. But they were sons of Rome, and they would march until the fight was won.
Soon only the logisticos remained. Gaius spoke to them for hours about the lands that lay between us and the enemy, the advantages that could be manufactured for our forces along the way. I stood by his side all the while, eyes roving over the sand table. My armor was cold. Heavier than usual on my shoulders.
“What do you see, Solus?” he asked me, some time later.
“We outnumber them,” I said. My fist clenched.
“Yet they ravage us like crows.” He nodded, taking an ivory piece in hand that stood taller than the rest. He rolled it between his fingers, contemplating. “Wars are won in the hearts of the men fighting them. Men have to believe they can win. Triumphing against greater numbers builds that faith.” He didn’t explain what happened in the opposite case. He didn’t have to.
“These stories we’ve been hearing…”
“Don’t matter. Our objective is unchanged.” He waved a hand, dismissing the logisticos from the tent. When they had gone, he brought that hand down and divided the ivory legions. He set his piece with the western forces. “I’m entrusting the fifth legion to you.”
“You can’t!” It was an immediate response. Instinctive. The tyrant of the west raised an eyebrow at me. “Sir, I’m not ready. I’m not strong enough-”
“What have I told you?” Bright gray eyes burned. They measured me, the same way they had measured every enemy to fall at the Republic’s feet. “Strength alone is not what matters. You are my nephew, who has cultivated my own virtue. The men of the fifth legion love you as dearly as they loved your father. You will lead them.”
“Is there no one else?” I asked, a heavy weight in my stomach.
“None that I can spare. You will have advisors and logisticos, and three thousand shining Roman souls to carry you through. All you must do is show them the way.”
I inhaled deeply. My fist rapped against my breast plate.
“I won’t fail you, uncle.”
“Father,” he corrected me, smiling faintly at my confusion. From a fold in his robes he produced a roll of papyrus. He offered it to me. I unfurled the document, and read in growing disbelief.
It was a declaration of adoption.
“Fight, my son,” he said, rising and clapping my shoulder. His gray eyes burned fiercely. “Fight until the last man falls. I, your father, will handle the rest.”
The enemy was unlike anything the fifth legion had ever seen. They surged across the battlefield like a midnight tide. Like a living nightmare. When they clashed against our shield walls, their howls shook the earth.
Within minutes our formations were shattered. They swept us away from our sister legions, the only sign as to their location being the wheeling murders of crows that darkened the sky. In the distance, lightning struck the earth over and over as the men of my adopted father’s legions pitted their souls against the enemy and ascended. It was chaos. It was a nightmare that had no end.
I’d seen enough men die. I dug my heels into my horse’s flank, and the midnight war stallion reared up and screamed defiance.
“Sir, you can’t!” One of the advisors that Gaius had allotted me cried out, reaching for me. A life in the legions had sharpened the man’s cultivation to a knife’s edge. Without question, his life’s essence was stronger than mine.
But strength alone was not enough. My pneuma rippled out from me in a wave. Gaius’ virtue slammed the man down into his saddle.
“A captain leads from the front,” I snarled, and my horse leapt into a gallop across the field.
It was worse to see the enemy up close. They were an impossibility. A perversion of nature. Worse, they wore the armor of a dead nation. An empire that could not exist.
Carthage had been burned and salted long ago.
“For Gaius!” I bellowed, charging into the nightmare’s teeth with naught but a blade and my defiant soul. “For Rome!”
“Gaius!” The men of the fifth legion screamed. “ROME!”
I pierced the storm as the tip of the spear.
“Sir.” The first spear stood at attention. I had dismissed everyone else from the tent.
The messenger eagle cocked its head, eyeing me curiously as I read its missive. Awaiting a reply that I could not give it, because there was no one for the bird to deliver it to. No where to return.
“The city of Rome is lost.”
The first spear was an older man. Weathered and scarred despite the preserving nature of cultivation. He had been at war for longer than I had been alive. When I recited the news, he only closed his eyes in grief. I dropped the letter onto my cot. My hands were shaking, so I clenched them into fists.
“Do you have a family, first spear? A wife?” I asked.
“Aye, sir.” His voice rasped. “And three boys your age.”
I tried to recall the taste of my wife’s lips. Funeral ash and sea salt were all that remained.
“Those dogs burned and salted the city of Rome,” I said. “They scattered her legions to the four corners of the Mediterranean and backed us into hostile lands. Tell me our options, centurion.”
The first spear answered without hesitation. “Fight and die, sir. Drag them down to tartarus.”
I stood, and the first spear straightened to face me. His grief mirrored mine, but it was something he’d mastered long ago. I would have to do the same.
A captain leads from the front.
“What are you waiting for, then?” I asked, a fire building in my soul. “Gather the men. Let’s make them bleed.”
The first spear slammed his fist to his chest.
Fight. Until the last man fell.
Carthage came for us in the night and we met them screaming.
We set fire to our tents, that they might light the field. At my command centurions bawled out the order to fire, and up and down the lines archers loosed their flaming arrows. Their lights arched high and long, and were swallowed by the advancing horde. I led the charge with the first spear and the prime cohort at my side.
We clashed in thunder and blood. The warriors of Carthage raked us with clawed fingers that parted bronze like spider silk. They howled loud enough to make men bleed from their ears, and snarled hatefully as they tore into us, and were torn into in turn. I drove my spear through a Carthaginian breastplate and caught the retaliatory swing of a broadsword on my shield. The impact numbed my arm instantly. The enemy glared at me with caustic yellow eyes as it died.
They were wolves in the shape of men. The smallest of them taller than the tallest Gaul, walking upright on legs that were jointed like a hound. They bore the arms and armor of the fallen Carthaginian Empire, warped and stretched grotesquely over their monstrous frames. They were demons.
They could cultivate.
A whip crack of sound and light stunned the men of the prime cohort. Links of chain lightning ripped through our shield wall in the blink of an eye, locking up limbs and staggering men for precious moments. The dogs howled and dove into our ranks with heavy spears and bronze blades. Men were torn apart, run through, and burnt out from the inside as the forces from Carthage drove lightning through their blades.
I grit my teeth and snarled against the lightning in my veins. I took my spear in both hands as three of the beasts lunged towards me, and slammed its tip into the earth.
My virtue rocked the battlefield. Every arrow in the sky changed its course, careening through murders of shrieking crows to bury themselves in canine flesh. The wave of arrows drove back the first line of the dogs for precious seconds. I shouted up and down the line. The ranks reformed around the dogs that had pierced through our formations, and legionnaires of the prime cohort hacked them apart.
It only gave us time. It wasn’t enough. Couldn’t possibly be enough. They had overwhelmed the best of our legions when we outnumbered them four to one. We didn’t have the advantage of numbers anymore. And we didn’t have the greatest general in the Republic, either. The fifth legion only had me.
Centurions roared up and down the lines. The shield wall shifted as men moved up from the back to relieve the men up front, fresh blood to face the beasts of Carthage. I tore my spear from the earth and leveled it at the enemy. I panted harshly, my pneuma thundering through me.
But they didn’t throw themselves mindlessly into our shields and spears. They fell back, and they parted around a single beast. The creature stared at me with burning golden eyes. Its lips peeled back from stark white fangs, and it snarled once. A word.
The vanguard dogs fell back, and hundreds more seamlessly took their place. Practiced. I watched in dread as the new arrivals closed ranks with one another and raised massive shields affixed to tree-trunk arms. Shields joined with shields, and the demons of Carthage vanished behind the largest shield wall the Mediterranean had ever seen.
A battle is lost the moment the men lose hope. I had known from the beginning that there was only one end to this fight. The first spear had known it. The officers. But the men of the rank and file, the infantry, had placed their hope in me. They’d trusted in me as they’d trusted my father, trusted my adopted father, to lead them through the bloody crucible alive if not whole. In all its years, the fifth legion of the western front had never once lost faith.
In that moment they did. And the battle was lost.
The captain of the Carthaginian demons snarled again, and their shieldwall advanced. I saw terror in the eyes of my officers. I saw men twice my age look desperately to me for some command, some yet unseen miracle. I felt the cold breath of tartarus as it breathed down my neck, wrapping its fingers around my throat.
A captain leads from the front.
I hollered in fury and plunged into the shield wall. My pneuma exploded from my soul, shattering through the front of their line as I ascended.
The world dissolved into the thunder of colliding shields, flashing blades, and snarling muzzles. I shattered shields with a spear that could have been used to pick their jagged teeth, driving through the beasts until I caught sight of the captain. It raised a man’s hand, the skin thick and padded like a dog’s paw, and lightning erupted between the tips of its clawed fingers. I slammed my spear through the dirt, driving my virtue into its depths. Beasts howled and yelped, thrown from their feet in a wide circle around me. The captain planted clawed feet and weathered it.
“You want my sons of Rome, dog!?” I shouted furiously. My pneuma was running wild, spirit and hunger overwhelming reason in the throes of my ascension. “You can’t have them! ‘Til my final breath, I won’t let you take a single one!”
The captain spoke.
“Then in hunger, this dog of heaven shall devour you.”
It pulled a blade of obsidian stone from its sheath and coated its length with lightning. Then it moved, and I lunged forward to meet it.
Fight. Fight. Until the last man falls.
Fight. I drove my spear through a hound’s yellow eye. Fight. I weaved my virtue through my fingers and crushed a dog’s skull between them. Fight. I threw my spear with all my strength at the captain’s retreating back, but a shield was raised against it. It pierced through the shield and the dog behind it, but not the one I wanted. And now I had no spear.
Fight. Men died. In numbers I couldn’t track. In magnitudes that made my heart ache. Men that had raised me. Men that had taught me how to throw dice, how to hold a sword. They screamed and they choked on their own blood as they died. The lightning took some. Swords and spears took others. Most, though, fell to sheer monstrous strength- fangs and clawed fingers.
Fight. I caught a beast’s arm as it swung, twisted and slammed it over my shoulder. It arched up, and I stomped it to the earth. Its breast plate caved and shattered, and so did its chest. I heaved for breath, steam billowing from between my clenched teeth. It felt as if I was in a chariot careening down a mountain. My pneuma wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop. When it did, I would die. I felt it deep in my bones.
“Rome,” I breathed, catching a descending sword swing on my bare palms. The blade bit into the bone but could not sever. I wrenched it out of the demon’s grip and swung the pommel into its skull like a mace, shattering it. “Rome!”
No one answered the call. I looked around. I saw corpses and crows, hundreds of prowling beasts. The stares of dead men drilled into me. They accused me. They judged me, and found me wanting.
I was all that remained.
A brassy cry split the heavens, and a sea of bronze struck the wolves of Carthage like a javelin. I stared, uncomprehendingly, as the beast legions were driven howling from the field by men in feathered helmets and shimmering bronze greaves. Their banners and tunics were scarlet. Rome’s color. For a moment, I dared to hope.
They forced me to my knees before the Alikon captain. Shackled and chained my wrists. The man, tall and cruelly strong, rendered judgement upon me in the tongue of my childhood mentor.
“Son of Rome. Your life-”
“- is your own,” Griffon told me. In his scarlet eyes I saw the sun. “If you’re still a slave tomorrow, it’ll be because you chose it.”
My pneuma, locked away for so many months, seeped through the cracks in my manacles. It brought everything with it. Pneuma was the essence of the soul. It was joy. It was grief. It was three thousand men, dead because I couldn’t lead them home.
My eyes stung, and for the first time in a year I tasted ash and salt on the wind.
Dry those eyes, young Solus. We don’t weep until the battle is won.
I grit my teeth and stood.