Sins of the Fathers Part II
by Martin Hall
The Camp of the II Augustus Victrix Legion, on the north coast of mainland Theah, Spring
Phillipus Tertullianus drew in a deep breath, feeling the air bubble through his ruined nose. He clasped his hands behind his back and cast the ill-omened glare of his empty eye socket over the assembled Legionaries, his lone grey eye following it in shadowy disapproval. The standard bearers stood behind him, the totems of the Legion risen high above his shoulders. He curled his face in what may, in a less fearsome individual, have been a smile. But not on Tertullianus, son of the traitor Tertullian. On him it was a leer of triumph. Whispers had run through the Legion after Licinius had left in the dead of night, and morale was low when Montanus dispatched Tertullianus to the fleet's marshalling point on the coast as a replacement. For weeks, the soldiers had endured a harsh winter while Tertullianus waited and listened. Now spring rose high above the troops, bringing warmth and life to the cold dead lands at the fringes of the Empire. His moment had come. Tertullianus lifted his hands from behind his back with the gravity of a professional orator and the strength of a soldier of Numa, and spoke.
"Men of the II Augustus Victrix Legion! You wish to return to Numa!" It was a statement, a barked acknowledgement of the desires of the men, not a question. "You have been abandoned here, in the wilderness, by he to whom you swore your loyalty!"
His face flushed red with anger, whitening his scars and driving the deep ruin of his eye socket into ugly darkness. "Such a betrayal I will not stand for!" His voice roared out across the assembled Legions.
He noted that many were still leaning on their shields. One man was shaving. Damn.
"When I saw Licinius in Numa" Ha, he thought. That got their attention. "I saw a man governed by the decadence of the city!" He ground his hand into a fist and held it up. "A man lounging day and night where he pleased, keeping company with whoever he pleased, a drunkard" he punched his fist into his hand, trembling with anger, "a wastrel, and a man unworthy to command this Legion."
His voice dropped to a whisper. "I saw an opportunity to take a neglected body of troops and make them great in the eyes of Numa. To hold men of honour up in front of their commander and say, 'See how you have ignored the best of your city, the best of your Empire!' I would show the world that you can shake it to its foundations, like the roar of the volcano."
In the silence, the sound of a spear clashing against a shield could be heard. It was joined by another, then another, until the cacophony was deafening. Tertullianus swept back his cloak and drew his sword, pointing it across the unforgiving waves.
"We sail tomorrow." In the howl of victory, he smiled. Just as the Senator said would happen, he thought.
at the same time
The cave smelled, and the acrid smoke that billowed through it choked Caecillian. The soldier stooped uncomfortably, unwilling to sit. He kept his palm on the hilt of his sword, clicking the short blade back and forth in the scabbard. Valeria sat reverently on the floor, sharing some sort of gruel with a toothless old man who cackled and muttered as he cast bones on the floor. A bird's sightless skull glared from the tip of a staff at Caecillian. Omens, he thought.
The old man spoke to Valeria for hours that seemed like days to Caecillian, murmurs in the smoky darkness while he stood hunched by the entrance. Perhaps another could come, pulling himself from blood and midnight like the last. Slay all messengers, Licinius commanded. He would come himself. Trust no-one from Numa. The old man coughed hoarsely, the shattering noise startling Caecillian. Valeria stood gracefully, gathering her furs about her. Caecillian extended a hand to help her, which she waved away.
"What did he say?" he blurted, more anxiously than he meant to.
"He said men are borne here on raven's wings to carry us to the land of the dead." Valeria's face was stony, unreadable in the flickering glow of the cave.
Caecillian frowned at the old soothsayer, who grinned toothlessly back at him. The ancient's eyes did not share the grin. Caecillian grabbed Valeria by the arm. "We're leaving."
"What?" Valeria looked back at her protector, then at his hand, fixed on her arm. "Why?" was all she could say.
Caecillian drew his sword and whirled to face the narrow mouth of the cave as Valeria stared in horror at the seer. The old man was crumbling quietly inward, as if he were filled with snow which melted in the heat of the cave. She backed toward Caecillian, her hand grasping in the flickering darkness. A form stood in the entrance, monolithic and imposing. Dressed in the uniform of the Senatorial Guard, his black cloak swirled around him as the chill winter wind clipped across the cave mouth. Behind him stood another of Montanus' heralds, wrapped in furs to guard against the fierce cold. Caecillian drove his blade at the guard, who made no attempt to raise his own sword or even leave the weapon's path. He merely stood there, smiling oddly, as Caecillian flew at him like a steel thunderbolt. As the blade touched the guard, it exploded into a shower of rust, the hilt rotting to pieces in Caecillian's hand. The soldier backed away, his left hand finding the knife hidden in his cloak, the right upraised.
"What are you?" he asked.
The guard dusted his cloak down, and turned his gaze on Caecillian. "I? I am just a man, much like yourself, who saw the benefits of loyal service to a powerful master. Let me show them to you." He raised his hand, and a pained expression danced across his face. Caecillian felt tired, his arms leaden. He pushed himself forward and bowled headlong into the herald, knocking him to the ground. As he struggled to rise, he threw the knife weakly at the guard. It glanced off the rock wall of the cave. As his vision blurred and he saw his fingers begin to crack and flake apart in front of his eyes, he screamed out to Valeria to run
of Montanus; Numa, the next day
Montanus paced around the wet bundle which sat awkwardly in the middle of the floor of his audience chamber, dwarfed by the sheer size of the room itself. Proximo, his current favourite among the heralds, stood stoically by it, clutching a darkened rag to the left side of his face. As he gingerly pulled it away, Montanus saw the extent of the deep gashes which ran across his face.
"Unpleasant." Montanus cocked his head on one side as he gazed thoughtfully at the bundle.
"Thank you, senator." Proximo stumbled over the words painfully, each syllable bringing him pain.
Montanus looked up sharply. "It was not intended as a compliment. Draco is furious that the woman managed to kill his man. Furious. You almost let her get away. At least you managed to remember to wrap it in the purple cloth."
Proximo bowed, blood trickling down his chin. "I am sorry, senator."
Montanus scowled. "Get out of my sight. Send someone for Licinius, and don't let him see you. I have no time for further setbacks. Go."
Proximo bowed again, slipping quietly out of the audience chamber. Montanus stared disdainfully at the miserable wet parcel on the floor and tutted audibly. Regardless of the brilliance of his plan, it was clearly going to leave a mark. Suddenly, Montanus had the distinct feeling of being watched. He pulled his robe tight around him. "It will work. Of course it will." In the empty silence of the chamber, the words seemed small and insignificant.
The Palace of Justinian, that night
The blood steamed as it hit the floor, slowly evaporating into wherever it came from. Licinius stepped into the room, his tear-streaked face shining in the moonlight. As he slid nearer the Imperator's bed, he saw the thin sheets rise and fall with the rhythmic motion of his breathing. Licinius raised his sword arm high, the iron of his blade shining dully in the clear midnight air. Swinging the short sword in a wide arc, Licinius let it go, sending it hurtling noisily into a ceremonial suit of armour which perched in dignity under the banner of his old Legion. The stand snapped under the ear-splitting impact, and the armour spilled to the floor. Licinius stood over the Imperator, his hands clenched into white fists. The old man shot up, and Licinius saw his face clearly. He had been a great general, but a decade of struggling against the Senate on a battlefield of their choosing had scarred him more than a hundred battles could. His skin was pallid, and worry lined the Emperor's face. Licinius' lip curled as the alert look of an ambushed commander was replaced with the befuddlement of Numan politics.
"Get up." He snarled, his hands clenching and unclenching, his voice steady. Hadrianus Justinian Pius rose slowly, swinging his feet over the side of the bed and gathering his sheets about him, maintaining the dignity a ruler of the world must even when wrapped in a bedsheet. Paying no attention to his creaking knees, the Imperator stood.
"Well?" his dry voice sighed out. "If you had come here to assassinate me, I would be dead. If you had come to frighten me, you have failed. I am Imperator of Numa, Tyrant and Ruler, and do not frighten easily. I would ask how you got here, but you have the hands of one of Montanus' Heralds. I had heard they needed an anchor to pull them from place to place."
Licinius remained impassive as the Emperor paced to the window. "They do. I do not."
"Why not?" The question was not asked out of interest. The Imperator's tone conveyed bored politeness. He seemed more interested in his gardens, yet he did not make any noise that would bring the guards.
"I am better than them." Licinius' answer conveyed as little fascination as the question. It was simply how he was. The paths were his to command, and he knew his way around them better than Montanus himself.
"And why are you here? I know you, Licinius. You are commander of the Augustus Victrix. You are one of Numa's most loyal servants. I greeted you when you returned from the campaigns against the northern barbarians last year, and knew I could trust you with my life. Yet here you are, enslaved to some evil power I know not, in my chambers, and armed. How did this come to pass?"
Licinius looked down. Words came to him only through struggle. Justinian listened in silence, his head slightly to one side. "I was cruelly used. Not by my father or the senate, though their cruel schemes touched everything I treasured, and destroyed it all. No, what used me was my own ambition. My father sees me as a tool, and to that end he" Licinius choked, unable to speak. "Had I not returned, all would be well. Yet I returned." Licinius slumped against a pillar.
Justinian heard him whisper to himself. "Yet I returned." Stiffening, Licinius stood straight again. "My father sent for me this evening, and showed me the only woman I ever loved, her head wrapped in the purple of Numa. He said you had ordered that done, that you disapproved of my association with a slave."
Justinian frowned, his weary brow knotting. "I do not know this woman."
Licinius' face contorted with animal rage. "Nor will you ever. She was worth a thousand times what this city is worth." He lapsed into bitter silence. Realisation swept across Justinian in a wave of relief.
"Your father - Senator Montanus - wishes me dead. He fears that I can turn the Senate against him and those who wield the black powers at his side. Yet you, who are tainted with his" Justinian's disdain could not be disguised, "gift, you come here to warn me. Numa thanks you, Licinius. You shall be rewarded for this. What do you wish? I can give you what was your father's. I canů"
Licinius cut the Imperator off with a gesture. "I came to warn you. You are right. I did not do this for love of the Empire. I did not do this out of the respect I held for you and your office. No, Imperator. Numa has treated me ill, and I shall have my revenge on it. You I shall warn, and you alone. It is up to you how you use that warning. I wash my hands of Numa, Imperator. Do with it as you will. Redeem it or cast it down."
With a dismissive slash of his arm, Licinius swiftly cut a hole in the air and pushed his arm through. After a few seconds, he tugged it out, clutching a bloody staff of gold about three feet long. Swirls and lines decorated it, designs alien and sinister to the Imperator. Justinian backed away from Licinius, frightened of the savage glee which seemed to be creeping out from his soul, taking control of him one limb at a time.
A grin swept across Licinius' face. "Stay alert, Imperator. Draco's men will come for you when Montanus realises you are not dead by my hand. I do not care if they killl you or not. By then, I shall be away from this place, far away. I turn my back on this world. It is no longer my concern." In one swift move, he turned and jumped from the window, the staff clutched to his chest. As he sailed through the air, Justinian saw his hands move swiftly in front of him, still holding the staff. A flash of lightning without noise or smell seared itself in Justinian's eyes, and Licinius was gone. Justinian sat down on the bed. After a while, the guards arrived.
Villa of Montanus, the next morning
The morning had brought bitter regret to the house of Montanus. The senator strode through the corridors to his shrine, flanked by two of his most trusted guards. The news of Licinius' betrayal had come as a blow to him. In hindsight, he had pushed him too far, but hindsight was useless now. The Imperator's men would be here soon, and everything must seem to be in order. Montanus quickened his pace as an ashen-faced servant pushed open the door to the shrine.
"Senator, the box" The servant pointed into the darkened room, his fingers trembling.
Montanus felt his stomach turn cold. "What of it?" He pushed past the man and entered the shrine, where he stopped as if struck and advanced cautiously toward the box, which lay discarded on the floor. He picked it up gingerly and dropped himself awkwardly onto a bench. Montanus stared sullenly into the empty box. It was entrusted to me, he thought, and I have lost it. "We are all dead men." He muttered to himself.
"Why?" The voice from behind him was sharp and unexpected, causing him to start. The wooden box slid from his lap and clattered to the floor. Castillus paced idly around it, squatted down and stared into it in an exaggerated pose of investigation.
"Oh, dear." Straightening up, Castillus smoothed his robes and smiled. "This has you worried?"
Montanus stood slowly, shifting ponderously from his bench. "Should it not? If we lose the artifact"
Castillus cut him off, his good mood evaporating like dew. "We lose nothing! We already have what we wanted, why should we want more? Hm?" He fixed Montanus with a hate-filled glare. "Unless that was your plan. Was it? Fool! Look at Draco. He has no concept of subtlety. He seeks only to intimidate Numa with his power. They fear him. His line will be lucky if it lasts a generation." Castillus paused, pressing his fingers to his temples. "No. It is better for us that it is gone. That way, our enemies can never use it against us."
else, the same time
Licinius couldn't help it. His eyes simply could not look at whatever was in the room. It lurked in the shadows, shifting around his scrutiny. The rod hovered in the centre of the room, a bright counterpoint to its shadowy master. The voice, when it came, was not so much heard as thought.
You did not summon me before. What do you want?
Licinius smiled. "I have simpler wants than those who brought you forth last. I knew happiness and lost it."
I cannot change that, it claimed. I can give you what you need.
"What do you know of what I need?" Licinius' head hurt. He kept his eyes fixed on the rod.
I can give you the time you need to make your revenge complete.
"And in return? What did they give you? What do you want from me?"
I asked them for something they were only too willing to give. I asked them for the future.
Licinius turned, sensing the presence behind him. "And from me?"
You? I need you to help me collect their debt.
He nodded once, slowly, deep in thought. After a moment, he nodded again. "I see. First, I shall require my Legion."
Basilica San Teodoro, Northern Vodacce, seven hundred years later
Augustine shook his head and drew the blanket up over the corspe. Reflexively checking the muslin mask wrapped about his nose and mouth, he turned away from the bed and moved down the ward. The disease was getting worse. The abbot would have to know. Coughs and groans sounded throughout the abbey, mixing with the distant morning prayers of the monks. Brother Paulus shuffled wearily between the makeshift beds, and Augustine hailed him with a raised hand. As Paulus fell into step, Augustine spoke, a hushed whisper through his gauze mask. "What do you think?"
Paulus made a face behind his own mask. "The plague, I am certain. But why now? We were so close, and it has struck here with such ferocity. Perhaps it is some sort of curse."
Augustine patted the other monk's shoulder. "The abbot will know." As the monks reached a small door at the side of the chapel, Augustine deftly unhooked a key from his belt and turned it in the door. As the lock opened, he pushed forward with his shoulder. Paulus darted a glance from side to side and followed Augustine through.
The room beyond the chapel was bare save for an altar. It was clearly the private chapel of a minor noble family. Augustine strode swiftly to the altar as Paulus took the key and locked the door. With one firm push, the monk shifted the stone altar to one side, revealing a set of stairs. A cold stale wind blew up from the passage beneath, which glowed in the flickering amber of recently lit torches. Augustine beckoned to Paulus as he started down the stairs. The tunnels, cut haphazardly from the earth, wormed through the new Basilica's foundations. The heat was stifling, and Augustine pulled down the mask, gasping for air. "Uncomfortable, my brothers?"
The abbot's sharp voice cut through them from behind. Both monks jumped, then turned around, their eyes on the floor at their feet. "My apologies." Augustine stammered. "We did not mean to come here unannounced, my lord."
The abbot's face twisted into a contemptuous sneer. "Of course you did. Otherwise you would have announced yourselves. What news of the disease?"
"It spreads through the order like wildfire. Nothing we have can remedy it or slow the symptoms. The artifacts seem to accelerate its progress. Brother Thybalt succumbed yesterday, and Mattheus today."
The abbot nodded, and a hoarse cough shook him. Blood flecked his hand as he raised it to his mouth. "It is as I feared. That which makes us strong makes us weak to this disease. Our enemies know this, and have somehow introduced it," the abbot paused, "or created it. Even now, it weakens me."
Paulus gasped. "How is that possible? You of all people"
"Nonetheless, it has happened. This body is condemned, beyond repair. Our war is all but lost today. Augustine, Paulus, you are among the most respected surviving members of our order. Seal the crypt, burn the basilica, disperse the order. Hide and prepare."
"Prepare for what? We can have fewer than a dozen who show no sign of disease."
The abbot glared at Augustine, his face little more than a stone mask. "Prepare for my return. We shall rise from the ashes, and our revenge shall be complete. They have told me it shall begin again. We shall return when our enemies least expect, and bring the world to its knees."
"Where will you go?"
"Where I shall never be found until the time is right for my return. Now, go. Seal the crypt. Leave me.
"At once, lord Licinius." Augustine bowed and ran for the entrance. Paulus looked back in time to see the abbot reach into thin air, then turned and ran as the sound of a screaming rip echoed through the tunnels. In seconds, Licinius had disappeared from the face of Theah.
The Isle of Itanu, West of the Midnight Archipelago, The Present Day
The final rays of the setting sun cast themselves across the cliff, bathing the lone figure that knelt in prayer in a warm red glow. Behind him lay the steaming jungles of the island and the winding path back to the camp. As he stood and whispered his final blessings to the crude makeshift Prophet's Cross, he paused and looked out again at the sea. Nothing. Turning across to the camp, nestled in the sheltered clearing they had arrived in, he saw the blue and gold of the tents and the fires flaring against the canopy of trees. Drawing in a deep breath, he looked to the sky for the thousandth time as the stars began to fade into view in the darkening sky. Even they seemed unfamiliar to him. As he started down the path, he saw the sun as it sank beneath the waves and made a silent vow to himself. I swear I will bring these people home.