Welcome to the beginning of my story. I won’t share it all here. But this is safe…After a fashion.
Chapter I: Centurion Prime Baro Aulus
Apotheosis is possible. This is incontrovertible.
Even if one rejects the Leucian Legend of Sharit, it does not explain away the Ascended heroes of our Golden Era.
They attained Divinity by devices myriad. But for each of these glorified Heroes two things remained true:
They each received personal sanction from one already among the Immortals to enter the Divine Ranks.
And every Hero either performed a mighty sign of their worth, or they slew a being revered as a god.
Thus we observe that even Gods are mortal, after a fashion.
-Polyeidus, The Arch Between Worlds
10th Ildos (Sharit to Leucians), Imperial Era 356
Year of the City 2892 (Marqash Reckoning)
Twin Harbors, Marqash
A ham-fisted right hand sailed toward the Dessian’s craggy nose. Baro Aulus dodged to the right, allowing the blow to slide over his shoulder. Then he scooped dirt from the floor and tossed it into the four cubit and span, ebony-skinned tribesman. He spat and rubbed the back of a hand as large as Baro’s head across his face, and the shells in his hair jangled like discordant lute strings. The other patrons had formed an impromptu gladiatorial ring around the combatants, and hooted at the display of dirty fighting.
But Baro did not fight for coin, and the glory he sought would never be found beneath a pavilion in a makeshift harbor-side tavern. So he slammed a boot into the tree-trunk thigh of his opponent, who howled and buckled to one knee. Then leaping into the air, he drove his fist down across the giant’s temple. With a pitiful moan and the rolling of eyes whose whites flashed like a thunderbolt across the dark face, the Gorunsite thumped against the dirt. Muttered curses and the exchange of coins greeted Baro’s victory. He offered a tooth-baring grin that made his square face look even less inviting than it had before festivities had broken out.
The Scithian tavern keeper raised a hand and shouted, “Enough! We don’t need guards tossing us under the piles.” Turning his round face with multiple jowls on Baro, he barked, “What brings you to the harbors, Dessian? You need to look at the markets for whores.”
“I came here to deliver a message,” Baro answered, his eyes narrowed and his bushy brows melded into one. “Someone seems to think it’s a good idea to make my people disappear when they venture into the Twin Harbors. Maybe you imagine there’s good coin selling them in your homeland?”
A murmur passed through the two score gathered around, and Baro let his hand drop to the short sword on his hip. “Since I know the Market is too busy to take people away from, and we don’t go onto Temple Hill, that leaves here. Enough different races pass through here. Someone’s bound to be stupid enough to think they can get away with it.”
“Scithians only take barbarians for slaves, soldier,” the tavern keeper, Cisseus by name, answered. “Maybe you should take this up with the Ninety-and-Nine.”
“Intend to,” Baro replied. “But you were in my way. We both know that to most Scithians, ‘barbarian’ means, ‘anyone not likely to be missed.’ Now you know the Dessians have been missed. I’ll be back.”
Tossing a silver Marqashian shekel onto the crude table where Cisseus had spread his wineskins, Baro ground his heel into the dust and left the pavilion’s shelter from the midday sun, if not the suffocating heat. A second Dessian, taller and leaner than himself, joined him. “They didn’t take that well.”
“Didn’t expect them to, Trifus,” he replied. Casting a glance over his shoulder before adding, “I’ll bet you a cycle’s wage the leader of those slavers was with that wine-seller. Wouldn’t surprise me if the tribal he sent was his bodyguard.”
“No bet. I need the money,” Trifus offered him a grin that came too easy for a man who made his living soldiering in the ranks.
But that’s what happens when we spend our time out of uniform instead of drilling, the centurion lamented. The prime century of the 7th Legion should be marching five leagues and thrown into battle before third codices had burned away. Instead they had spent the past year haggling with merchants, and passing notes to the Assembly. Meanwhile their commander, Gaiuso Donuso, was forced to bow and scrape to greedy Leucians who sent mercenaries to do their fighting and then reaped the profit from blood they never shed. Snorting through clenched teeth, Baro took a moment’s perverse pleasure in the thought of forming ranks, locking shields, and marching through their Market District straight up the long low slope to Temple Hill. Then they would wipe their bloody feet in the halls of the whore-goddess worshiped by the soft traders who built this city.
Just once, he wanted to see if Leucian magic deserved to be feared when faced with the Legion’s iron. After all, Scithians knew magic too, and Gaiuso had sent them scurrying to the hills, shields thrown aside, in a single day. Baro grinned at that memory, back when they fought as a Legion ought. Before politics had caught up with them and sent him and his men to the far corners of Niserie’s Sea. Scattering the men so the Legate’s enemies wouldn’t have to fear him, or his allies worry about the glory of Gaiuso Miniscule Donuso’s name eclipsing theirs.
He stopped and cocked his head as Trifus began, “Baro, is something-?”
The centurion grabbed his wrist and worked his jaw muscle. Then he glanced to their right through streets filled with citizens and slaves from every tribe of nation that trafficked with Marqash. Spotting an alley between two limestone rows of warehouses lined with long-narrow pods Baro knew to be filled with goods. “This way.”
They ducked away from the throng, scattering a gaggle of urchins already in the alley with slap of his hand to the leaf-shaped dagger on his right hip. Drawing it, he held the blade to his chest and motioned for Trifus to move to the other side of the street. The stout man drew his gladius from the opposite hip Baro’s hung from. Baro’s eyes flicked at the walls, thinking the alley too narrow for the sword and fretting at another sign of too little use over the past fourteen cycles.
As they crept back behind the empty pods, Baro saw a quartet of men with clubs and staves make the turn. They had managed to haul the tribesman back to his feet to complete their number. He guessed it would have taken an hour for them to rouse him. Two remained unfamiliar to him, but the leader, in a leather skullcap, had the round face and dark hair common to the Scithians. When his face passed through a sliver of light filtering through the shadows cast by the storehouses, Baro saw battered nose and stifled a grin. I saw you at the back of the tent, the centurion recalled. So much for looking in the wrong place.
A cool wind blew from off the sea, causing the hairs of Baro’s arms to curl and stand. He remained focused on their pursuers, until he heard a snarl. “Trifus,” he hissed. “Deal with that dog.”
“Isvan’s sword!! That’s no dog, Baro!” he answered, his voice cracking like he had never seen battle.
Baro stifled a curse as he peered over his shoulder. “Sidur’s hooded face,” he blasphemed and flipped his dagger to his left hand as he reached across to draw his sword. The creature had the head and neck of a dog, but the body of a man. Its hands were those of a man, but with talons instead of nails. The centurion had faced two decades of war, and put every manner of sword and beast to his blade. But he had never imagined a creature like this in his darkest nightmares.
It charged Trifus with a slobbering maw. The legionnaire’s mouth hung open like a child about to take the rob from his tutor. Gathering himself, Baro waited until the beast was two paces from his companion and then dove, screaming as he brought down the blade at the beast’s back. But in the background, he heard laughter from his pursuers.
An eye-blink later, he saw why. The sword passed through the monstrous creature’s neck. Then he followed through the thing of mist and slammed, shoulder-first, into the brick of the storehouse. He had to twist his body to avoid the ignominy of impaling himself on his own sword. Baro had just enough time to wonder how they had managed the trick before the sword grated along his left side. Hissing, he dropped his blade as he slumped to the ground.
Staggering to his feet, he looked up to see Trifus tossed aside by the tribesman like a rag doll. Then the man with the shells in his hair smirked at him and brought both hands to the base of the staff. Baro thought he should be ducking, but his sluggish body refused to get out of the way of the blow. The wood cracked, splitting the weapon in two across his skull.
* * *
“Baro?” Trifus’ voice caused waves to crash in his head. Or perhaps it just woke him sufficiently to feel what had been there for hours.
The Legionnaire repeated his query. His superior’s thoughts scattered about his skull like flotsam from a ship wrecked as Niserie swam. Baro attempted to stand, but only managed to plant one knee before toppling to the stone floor. After the jolt of pain through his body subsided, he found the cold of the stone comforting, as it sluiced away an unwelcome burning in his chest. Clenching his fists, he found them clammy, and sweat from his brow had dribbled into his stinging eyes. Resting his hand on the crude bandage around his chest brought a sharp renewal of pain along with a confirmation of the cause. Blood poisoning. He didn’t need a healer to recognize that it was lethal likely as not.
“Baro!” Trifus called a third time.
“Vat?” he muttered the answer through what he first thought to be a sponge placed where his tongue ought to be. But putting his hand to his mouth revealed no gag, only a swollen speech organ. Slapping the floor Baro cursed, “Damn! I’m going to talk like a Scithian shepherd for the rest of my life.”
“They took us beneath the city,” Trifus began unbidden. But Baro couldn’t muster the will to shut him up, so he listened to the boy prattle, “I don’t know where or how far. I was hooded the whole way. But it was down a whole lot more than up, and I heard the sewers. At least I think that’s what they were. We went deeper from there though.”
Feet thumped on stone, clamming Trifus up. Baro forced his left eye open, his right remained swollen shut. That was enough to confirm they had chained the two of them in a cell by the wrists. Last time he had seen one of these, it was after a drunken brawl following the Battle of Omana. He cracked a smile in the dark at that memory, as much with relief at discovering his head still worked as much at the amusement of the memory.
The cell door swung open with the scrape of metal on stone. It slammed off the wall and was caught by the tribesman. Baro growled and forced himself to his knees, the metal of his fetters scraping on the floor. Then the pain across his ribs forced him to sink back to his haunches with a moan.
“There’s no need for you to stand yet, Dessian,” said the man who trailed the torch-carrying Gorunsite. His deep, commanding voice radiated power like Sasubek’s chariot coursing across the sky. Over four cubits tall, and as sturdily built as any gladiator, with darker skin than the pale Leucians native to Marqash, but not as ruddy as either of the two Dessians.
“You’re the one who summoned that smoke-creature,” Baro guessed.
The large man chuckled. “Yes, I suppose it would have seemed that way to you.” He tilted his bald head and regarded him with dark eyes, their combined effect resisting any attempt by Baro to guess his age. “You appear to have taken ill, Dessian. My Scithian friends find that a pity.”
The broken nosed one spoke up from the rear of the cell, “The two of them would’ve caught a good price in Bydia, Kontar. Legionnaires make good gladiators. But him alone,” he pointed at Trifus, “Isn’t enough to justify going home yet.”
“We’re soldiers of the Seventh Legion!” Trifus’ voice echoed shrilly off the stone. “You can’t believe our officers aren’t going to notice our disappearance!”
Kontar sidestepped to smirk down at the Legionnaire. “Ah! I imagine you said that to provide yourself some comfort. But the problem with your argument is that I want your officers to notice.”
He waited for Trifus’ face to flush as he realized the implication. Then with a sigh, Kontar continued, “But in truth, I doubt that the disappearance of a half-dozen soldiers will stir the mighty Dessian Republic to wrath. So I will leave you in the tender care of Tharo Vlahos and his hirelings, while I goad this indolent city into rage.”
The Scithian slaver shot the Tunan magician a sidelong glance and then leaned in to whisper. Baro was adept at lipreading with two eyes, but not as well with his stronger eye swollen shut.
“Tharo,” Kontar replied with a smirk, “I’ve given you all the slaves your ship could carry, from Dusae, to Naxos, and now here. I’ve allowed you to arrange a deal with the largest traders of flesh in Marqash. You’ve accomplished your goals. Now I ask you to remember your agreement and support mine. Or have you forgotten?”
A flurry of muttered words was accompanied by a glittering dust falling at the slaver’s feet. Baro did not recognize the tongue Kontar spoke. It sounded nothing like the Tunan common to the strife-torn region now. But it wasn’t a barbaric speech either. Rather, it was too lyrical and rhythmic for him to follow, as the words disappeared in the beat of the chant.
Whatever the magician said, it won the Scithian’s support as he replied, “Of course, Kontar. How foolish of me to forget. We’ll be happy to help you in any way you wish.”
The Tunan patted Tharo on the shoulder. “I knew you would be. No one is more scrupulous as a Scithian.”
Baro stifled a laugh at the mocking proverb, but the slicing pain across his chest as he inhaled stole his breath. He held himself upright, exerting the discipline gained over almost two decades of life in the field to master his pain and refuse to bow to these foreigners. As Kontar returned his attention to the Centurion, he forced himself to meet the magician’s gaze with a set jaw to his misshapen square face. He felt the Tunan’s pressure on his mind, but he did not give his captor any purchase.
Kontar pointed toward the soaked bandage across his wounded torso. “It’s going to take a healer of some skill to treat you, Dessian. Pray to your gods that we find one for you.”
The Scithian stared at Baro with an arched brow; giving the Dessian the distinct impression the slaver was deciding if it was worth his while to barter with Nefere to keep him alive until they reached the flesh market. He knew what they were after. A pitiful glance. A pleading outburst like Trifus’ earlier. Submission. Instead, Baro drew himself up and sent a stream of red spittle at Tharo’s feet.
“Stupid ass!” the slaver barked. “Diallo, teach the Dessian pig another lesson.”
The tribesman chuckled as he stepped past his Scithian master. Then, quicker than Baro’s good eye could follow, Diallo’s foot snapped into the Centurion’s jaw. His teeth rattled as Baro’s head snapped back into the stone behind him. Then he slithered down the wall and lost awareness to the renewed roaring of his skull.