Chapter Eight: By Wrath's Blade
The village of Arros had been like a gift from the gods for them.
That was the first thought Sentos had had when he and his troops had first arrived at its outskirts. It had been over a week since they had abandoned Demosthenes' army and struck out on their own, retreating from their diversionary battle at Tryxis before they could be crushed by their former king's superior numbers. Over the course of that week, they had been marching at double time in an attempt to keep ahead of the huge force hot on their heels, but even with all that effort, they had still ended up clashing repeatedly with Demosthenes' scouts. They had been victorious on each occasion, but the efforts of repeated battle and full days of forced marches with no real base camp from which to operate had begun to take their toll. Sentos had been able to see it in the bleary-eyed way that his men went about braking camp come sun up each morning, and in the gradual lessening of distance they would manage to cover each day. The worsening condition of their gear and supplies had become a concern too. Leather armour, once supple and polished was beginning to harden and crack from an inability to care for it properly, and their spears and shields were beginning to tarnish and dent after so many hard won fights. Food had also begun to run low, and on the fourth day, he had been forced to institute full rationing rather than the traditional field allowances that the Spartan army would normally operate on.
Arros had appeared at just the right time. It's people had been understandably nervous of Sentos and his troop of increasingly ragged troops arriving at the borders of their territory, especially given the rumours emanating out of the south. In the end however, the locals had eventually welcomed them when they had heard Sentos' tale. After all, what small farming village would not be grateful for the presence of a unit of defecting Spartans to protect it when a marauding army their ex-cromades could very well come sweeping through the region any day? They had given permission for Sentos' men to pitch their tents on the common at the centre of the village, and a few locals had even provided them with fresh supplies. Later that first night, the village head man had come to Sentos' tent in person, and asked if he might be willing to lead his men south the next day as scouts to see if Demosthenes' Spartans were indeed headed their way. Sentos would have preferred to linger a little longer, perhaps allowing his troops an extra half day's respite, but not wanting to appear ungrateful for the hospitality with which they had been met, he had agreed to the head man's proposal.
And so that morning they had set out south as requested, returning to the main road they had been shadowing for much of the past week and that they knew Demosthenes would be using to move his troops. Strangely they could find no sign of its passage. That had given Sentos pause. Demosthenes' forward march had been surprisingly aggressive for such a large force, only stymied slightly by Sentos' own nightly attacks on his scouts. After spending the last night camped in Arros, away from the road way and beyond the range of Demosthenes' scouts, Sentos had expected to have finally been passed by. The fact that they had not suggested Demosthenes had halted his own relentless momentum, but then the question was, for what reason? Unsettled, he had elected to return to Arros and report his findings.
It was on the return journey with th light of beginning to fade in the west, that they had first seen the smoke - several pillars of it in fact - thick and black and hanging ominously just above the horizon. Sentos had felt a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach at the sight of it. With no other settlements for miles around there was only one conclusion to be reached. Arros was aflame.
Ordering his men to quicken their pace, he had sent out two scouts of his own ahead of the main force. With so few men left to him he did not wish to risk their lives needlessly by marching blindly into whatever danger might await them.
Before too long, they had arrived just south of the village, and now his men were crouching in a ragged line, behind a low ridge that hid them from the eyes of whatever force was assaulting the village. A chill breeze blowing out of the north carried the scent of burning thatch with it, and Sentos gritted his teeth. Next to him, he heard the soft creak of leather as one of his few remaining officers, a young Spartan sergeant by the name of Pirikos, moved up beside him.
"How much longer do we have to wait?" the young man whispered.
"Until the scouts return," Sentos replied.
"At this rate if they take much longer all we'll end up doing is burying the bodies," was Pirkos' hissed response.
Sentos grimaced. Pirikos had the hot-headed nature of most young Spartans fresh to their shield and spear, but he also had a point.
"I won't lead us in there blind," he said tightly. "We don't know who's up there, what their capabilities are-"
"It's Demosthenes," Pirikos cut in. "It has to be."
Sentos fixed him with a hard look.
"Is it?" he said stonily, "Do we know that for a fact? Or are you just guessing? More to the point, are you willing to put our men's lives on the line to prove that guess?"
"Demosthenes is committing crimes against the honour of Sparta," the younger soldier was almost starting to sound petulant. "It is our duty to see that he not be allowed to continue!"
"As it is our duty to remain alive so that that honour is not forgotten. We march when I know what we are marching into, and not before. Is that clear Sergeant?"
Pirikos, flashed him a brief fiery glance, only to then acquiesce with a sigh and a nod. "Perfectly clear Captain."
As if on cue, the sound of three twigs snapping in quick succession sounded up on the ridge line. Giving a 'see' nod to Pirikos, Sentos leaned down and grasped a set of twigs he had prepared beforehand, snapping three in a pattern that echoed the one they had just heard. Immediately, a pair of Spartans came into view, ducking low to stay hidden as they crossed the ridge and slithered down its slope back to the unit kneeling at its base.
"Report," Sentos instructed them as they came up to him. "Is it Demosthenes?"
The first scout shook his head.
"No Captain," he said.
Sentos noted that his face was pale, and that both men looked visibly shaken. He shot Pirikos a sideways glance.
"Something else then?" he said, frowning.
"Something is right," the second scout said. "Bandits, or at least I think they're bandits. I've never seen bandits do what these ones are doing though."
Next to him, Sentos could see Pirikos shifting his weight slightly.
"What do you mean?" the young sergeant asked.
"I mean when bandits raid towns and villages, they do it for a reason," the scout replied. "Plunder and loot, maybe even carry off a few slaves. Not these ones though. They're just... just..." he trailed off as he struggled to find the words.
"No need to explain now. We'll all find out soon enough." Sentos rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. "What's their approximate position in the village?"
One of the scouts stooped low, brushing aside leaves and taking up a stick to scrawl a rough outline of the village in the dirt.
"We know the village is built on the crossing between two cattle trails," he said, drawing a circle then carving it into quarters with two lines that bisected one another at the centre. "From the looks of things these bandits hit it from the north, and are rampaging up and down the main north-south thoroughfare." He drew a stretched elliptical circle around the line from north to south by way of illustration.
"So, they've spread themselves thin then?" Sentos said, and the scouts both nodded. "Perfect," he muttered, turning his attention back to the map and scrawling a half circle line around the perimeter of the village with his finger. "Thedras" he ordered, addressing one of the scouts by name. "I want you to go to Sergeant Hedron. Inform him that my orders are for him to take half the men and circle around the ridge until he reaches the woods to the north side of the village. He's to use them for cover to mask his approach but he is not to advance on the village immediately. Tell him to stay hidden. I'll lead the rest of our men in from the south. We'll push these bandits back up to him, and at my signal, he is to march on them from the rear as they attempt to retreat. Together and on open ground, we'll crush them between two phalanxes. Whatever crimes this scum are committing, we'll make them pay for it."
Thedras gave a grim nod, and slammed his fist to his heart by way of salute before turning and hurrying off to his men.
Sentos waited, for the sound of Hedron's men departing to fade before he gripped his spear and hefted his shield, gesturing down the line for the remaining Spartans to rise. There came a clattering of shields and spears as they obeyed, and in less than a minute, the well drilled forces were arranged in a small marching column.
"FORWAAARD!" Sentos announced loudly.
With the low rumble of hundreds of pairs of feet, the column began to move, slowly at first as they found their rhythm and crested the ridge but once they were moving down the other side and on toward the village they had reached steady pace. It was as they crested the ridge that Sentos felt his stomach tighten. Now he had a clear view of what was going on, he could see what had given his own scouts pause earlier. The bandits were indeed running rampant, with tight clusters of them were bunched up throughout the village, burning and slaying wherever they roamed. Chaos reigned, and everywhere the bandits went, villagers would scatter, only to be hunted down and murdered without remorse. A few of the locals seemed to be trying to mount somekind of resistance, but it was clearly a doomed affair, and one that could only result in greater suffering for those involved.
Most disturbing of all though, was what Sentos could spy out beyond the Northern edge of the village. There the land was open and without cover for nearly two hundred yards until it met the woodland Pirikos was currently using to mask his flanking maneuver. While the ridge line did not give Sentos the best view he could just make out the bandits at that part of the village dragging any sizeable lumber they could lay their hands on out onto the open ground where a few of their number had already begun to lash those pieces they had together into a series of t-shaped frames.
"Are those..." Began Pirikos next to him, but before the man could finish Sentos nodded grimly.
"Yes," he said simply. "They are." Gripping his spear tighter, he quickened his pace, causing the rest of the formation to match him. This savagery could not be allowed to continue any longer.
They entered the village from the south as planned, their formation tightening as they went. Almost immediately the bandits spotted them, and as soon as they did, they began to withdraw, falling back deeper into the village. A few were left behind: those too caught up in their own wanton bloodlust to completely realise what was happening until it was too late and Sentos' men were almost upon them. Those men fell quickly, but as for the rest...
Sentos could feel doubts beginning to churn in his guts as he watched the bandits fall back. He had been expecting them to either turn and fight, or scatter and flee. Instead, they were withdrawing in a disturbingly ordered fashion, close enough to tempt the Spartans onward, but just far enough away to be able to turn and mount a defence should their pursuers charge, and the deeper Sentos and his men continued into the village, the more uneasy he found himself becoming. Nothing about this felt right at all: the crucified villagers, the manner of the bandits' retreat. It all felt wrong, like all of this was being staged for their benefit.
Ahead of them, the bandits had just crossed the central village square, itself a large open stretch of churned dirt that loomed empty and suddenly silent. Frowning, Sentos raised his fist closed fist.
A surprised murmur ran through the ranks of his men, but they were disciplined enough to do as they were told, drawing to a stop with a loud clattering the armour, spears and shields.
Sentos stood quietly among his men. In the distance he could hear the pained cries of the villagers where they were being rounded up and crucified. Other than that however, the rest of the village had fallen eerily silent.
"What's the matter?" Asked Pirikos next to him. "Shouldn't we proceed? Those villagers need our help."
Sentos looked at him.
"We go no further," he said. "Don't you feel it? The tension in the air? Something's waiting for us up ahead; a trap for us to spring, and those villagers are the bait to lure us into it."
"You're saying we should retreat?"
"And right now." He turned to take in the men around him. "Everybody FALLBACK! Double time!"
At first there was no response.
"You heard the Captain!" Pirikos said loudly, adding his voice to Sentos'. "MOVE!"
Still doubtful, but not willing to disobey, the Spartans began to reform their column to march back the way they had come, but before they could even take a step, another column of soldiers appeared, cresting the same ridge they themselves had just crossed and starting down into the village. They were Spartans like Sentos' men, but clad in blue cloaks as opposed to Sentos' red. A stir of unease swept through his men like some ill breeze blowing off a battlefield. Sentos opened his mouth to give an order, but before he could speak, two more columns appeared, both similar in size and marching slightly behind and to either side of it. The trap they had been about to try and back out of had already been sprung.
"We're outnumbered," Sentos heard Pirikos say in dismay. "What do we do now?"
"The only way out is through," Sentos replied. "We stick to the original plan, only now we have to get it done faster. Spartans! About FACE!"
There was a deep rumble as the column shifted once more around him, and for a moment Sentos found himself wondering if that was the only cause for the rumbling or if the earth had actually just shifted a little beneath their feet, as if in quiet expectation of the bloodshed to come.
"FORWARD! MARCH!" He commanded, doing his best to put such grim thoughts out of his mind. Once again his men started forward only for Sentos to suddenly order them to a standstill once more when he found something quite unexpected waiting for them.
While he and his men had been distracted by the approaching columns of Demosthenes' men from the south, two more units of bandits had appeared, streaming out of where they had obviously been hiding in various side streets and neighbouring buildings to block off all the other exits from the square. More surprising, and worse still, was the single figure now standing apart from the rest of the bandits at the center of the square and directly in the path of his soldiers.
She was clad in studded, black leather battle gear, and had wild blonde hair only slightly kept in check by a pair of black braids at her temples. A sword handle jutted from over her right shoulder and a dagger hung at her hip. Far from being intimidated by the small army of Spartans bearing down on her, she was grinning widely, even stepping forward to meet them as Sentos brought them all to a halt.
"Welcome to our little party!" She announced as she gestured expansively to the wall of bandits behind her. "I do hope you like it. You are the guests of honour after all."
"Callisto?" Sentos growled in confusion as he made his way out to the front of the column to confront the grinning woman. "I don't understand. You were... I mean, how can you-"
"Be alive?" The blonde woman replied, her smile never faltering even as the rest of her expression turned ice cold.
Sentos nodded grimly.
"I'd heard you disappeared after the Ephors were killed. Most thought you were dead."
"But no one bothered to check, did they?" She gave tired sigh and shook her head. "When will you people ever learn? No corpse, no death, Sentos. I'm like the proverbial bad dinar. I always show up, usually at the very worst of times."
"So all of this..." Sentos said, looking at the village around them as he struggled to find the words. "...this butchery! This was your doing?"
"You don't like it then," she pouted. "Such a shame."
"You supported us!" Sentos demanded, feeling his fury rising at her betrayal. "You were one of us! You wanted to save Leonidas!"
The woman's grin widened in amusement.
"One of you?" She said cocking her head and studying him carefully. "You honestly believed that, didn't you? You really did believe that I was ever on your side! Me, of all people?" She clapped her hands together and laughed. "Oh, this is just too delicious!" She took another step forward, her demented mirth turning quickly to ice.
"My loyalty can't be earned or bargained for, Sentos. It is to me, and me alone." Her eyes flicked to the soldiers at his back. "But what of your loyalty, hmm? Shouldn't you owe it to Demosthenes like the good little Spartans you all claim to be?"
"My loyalty is to Sparta," Sentos said straightening as he did so. "To its people and it's principles, not some megalomaniac who believes himself above them."
"Principles," the blonde woman replied with a dismissive sniff. "Your principles are dead. Demosthenes killed them." She reached up and drew her sword, holding it loosely at her side. "As for the people, well, they'll follow soon enough, but they need not fear." She lifted the weapon high. "They'll have you and your King waiting to greet them in Tartarus after all."
With that she let her sword drop like an executioner's axe, and a roar went up from the bandits as they surged forward at her signal.
"FORM UP!" Sentos bellowed, lifting his shield and stepping back to the line of his men, joining the formation as one of the first rank. "PIRIKOS! GIVE THE SIGNAL!"
A horn blast went up from somewhere to the rear of the formation, the signal for Hedron to close the flanking maneuver he had been sent on. Sentos only had a moment to feel a chill in his gut when there was no answering horn cry from Hedron's unit before the bandits were at their lines.
"Hold fast!" He growled at the men to either side of him, bracing behind his shield as he felt the first of their enemies press forward against him. Readying his spear, he rammed it forward through a small gap in the wall of shields and into the indiscriminate mass of enemies before him. He felt a moment of resistance, then heard a cry of pain, as the spear tip hammered through light leather armour and flesh alike. With a grunt he yanked the weapon back, feeling it pull free with a disgusting tearing sensation. Blood covered the head of it, and a good inch or so of the haft past that. Hefting the weapon once more, he took a step forward and thrust again. The result was much the same as the first time, and alongside him his soldiers were mirroring his actions. Each thrust from behind the shield wall would fell an attacker, and as one the whole the line would push grimly forward as their enemies gave way.
After the first couple of exchanges between the front ranks for the Spartans and bandits, the frontline of Spartans paused as the second line moved up to replace them, giving those at the front some much needed respite.
The old wound in his thigh from Thermopylae throbbing painfully, Sentos limped back off the line and deeper into the press of his men. He found Pirikos to the rear of the formation, trying to prepare a rear guard to meet the threat of Demosthenes' troops who were now only a hundred metres or so back down the village's main thoroughfare and advancing at a slow but an inexorable rate.
"There's still been no signal from Hedron," the young man said, wasting no time on formalities now that battle had been joined.
"I know," Sentos replied grimly. "Something's gone wrong."
"So we're on our own then?"
Sentos nodded, and Pirikos groaned.
"How are things at the front?"
"Going well," Sentos said. "We're gaining ground."
"Well that's something..." Pirikos began only to trail off when he saw Sentos shaking his head at him. "What?"
"It's Callisto," Sentos said. "She's smart. She knew Demosthenes' men were coming. We're gaining ground because she's giving it to us. She wants to lure us forward, keep us engaged so Demosthenes' men have time to move up and hit us in the rear. When they do, we'll be pushed forward into the centre of the village where our flanks will be exposed, and then she'll hit us with everything she has left."
"We can't stand against that of attack," Pirikos said, his face turning deathly pale.
Sentos shook his head in confirmation.
"No we can't."
"Then what do we do?"
"The only thing we can. We're going to have to break formation."
"The only way an of us will get out of this alive," Sentos cut the younger man off sharply. "No arguments, Pirikos. This is battle is no grand sacrifice like Thermopylae There is nothing to be gained by us all dying here today. When I give the order, your men are to break formation, and scatter in whatever way they can. If they make it out they are to lay low and then make for Delphi however they can. Am I making myself perfectly clear?"
The younger man gritted his teeth but nodded.
"I will see to it that your orders are carried out sir," he said, snapping a fist to his chest in salute.
Sentos returned the gesture then turned and made his way back through the crowd of men toward the frontline again. It had advanced enough at this point that they were now being forced to step over the bodies of the bandits that they were felling. Moving as freely as he could through the crush of people, he passed out orders as he went, disseminating his plan down the chain of officers until he was reasonably certain that everyone had a good understanding of it. Back at the frontline finally, he stepped up into the second rank, laying aside his heavy bronze shield and spear, and drawing the short sword he carried at his side. Beside him the rest of the second rank did the same.
"SPARTANS READY!" He yelled as loud as he could, and he could practically feel the tension running through the crowd of troops as he did so. "...AND..." He lifted his sword. "...BREAK!"
As he gave the order, the front line stepped forward, thrusting with their spears and clearing a line along the front rank. Immediately after, each frontline soldier, stepped slightly to the side, allowing the now unburdened second rank to charge through the gaps, hacking and chopping with their swords as they went.
Immediately the discipline in the Spartan formation broke down as the previously orderly frontline scrum devolved into a crazed melee. Shields and spears were cast aside in the fury of close quarters fighting, and the coppery scent of spilled blood began to thicken in the air. In response, the lines of bandits trembled, their resolve wavering under the sudden fierce onslaught the Spartans had unleashed. Sentos had felled two bandits himself in less than a minute and was stepping up to meet his third when he heard the sound of barked orders from the bandit forces as the reserves that Callisto had previously been planning to flank them with charged into the maelstrom.
A large bandit moved to block Sento's path, a particularly wicked looking sword already stained with the blood of a previous victim clenched between his fingers. A dark sneer spread across the man's face.
"You're the lord high muckety-muck behind all of this aint'cha," he said, his voice barely above a guttural snarl as lowered his posture to charge Sentos. "If I take your head, I'm guessing the boss lady will reward me. Maybe even move me up in the rankings after all this is over."
Sentos did not reply, instead similarly dropping his sword low, ready to counter the man's attack.
The charge never came. Before the bandit had even gone a step, slim fingers tangled in his hair, yanking back his head to allow a slim bladed dagger to be raked across his throat. The man gargled as the blood flowed freely from the wound, and Callisto stepped around him, an annoyed expression on her face.
"Bad dog," she scolded, giving the bandit a shove as she passed him so that he keeled over sideways like a felled tree, his eyes already beginning to glaze over. "I thought I made it perfectly clear before we started this; no one is to spoil my fun."
Slipping the dagger - still bloodied – back into the small sheath that hung at her hip, the woman then raised the naked blade of her sword so the tip was pointed straight at Sentos. "And you, you're exactly my idea of a good time."
With a gleeful shriek, she dashed forward at him, little more than a blur of leather and steel as she twisted on her heel and brought her blade around in a flashing line of silver that would cleave him straight across the chest.
Sentos gritted his teeth and shifted his balance, twisting on his bad leg and doing his best to keep her in view so that he could counter the strike. Their swords scraped against one another and Callisto drew back for a brief instant, only to rush him down again before he had chance to shift his guard. Sentos grunted, barely able to get his sword around in time, and once again the two weapons sprayed sparks as they collided.
Callisto danced back out of range of a follow up strike and began to circle him.
"You're good!" she smiled wickedly at him. "Not as good as me of course, but then we were hardly expecting that were we?"
Sentos did not have time to reply. Again she surged in at him, and their swords rang loudly off one another. In those moments the chaos around them seemed to fade away and it was only her and himself, locked together in a desperate, frantic dance, then she retreated again and the world came rushing back in. His arms were aching, and the pain in his leg was so intense that it was making his jaw ache, so hard was he grinding his teeth together to keep from crying out. His heart was pounding fiercely in his chest, and the blood was roaring so loud in his ears he could barely hear the cries of the dead and the dying all about him.
He could see them though. All about the village square there were dozens of bodies. Some were dressed as bandits, but a disconcerting number were clad in the same crimson cape that he himself wore. There were his men, those bodies; the ones who had not made it away after his orders to scatter, or that had remained behind in order to give their comrades time to escape.
Around the many corpses, the battle still raged, but it would not do so for much longer. More Spartans had moved to join the fray, but these soldiers were wearing capes the shade of a spring sky, and they assaulted the few of Sentos' remaining troops with a ferocity that made the bandits' own look positively reserved in comparison.
Sentos had no more time to concern himself with the losses around him. A much more pressing battle was demanding his attention. Turning back to Callisto, he felt his heart beat faster still as fury at all that happened filled him up to bursting. Seeing the anger in him, the delighted smile she was wearing grew even wider, but somehow, it never seemed to touch her eyes. It was as if the mirth she outwardly showed was nothing more than a dead husk stretched taught across an empty, hollowed out vessel.
"You're starting to hate me, aren't you?" she said.
"Why?" was all Sentos could think to snarl back at her. "Why would you do this? Betray us this way?"
"Oh sweetie," Callisto taunted, still circling him with her sword low, but nevertheless ready to strike. "Haven't you figured it out yet? All of this..." she motioned at the battle around them and the crucified townsfolk beyond. "...it wasn't about you. It was never about you."
Sentos had been taunted in battle before. It was not entirely uncommmon, truth be told, but something about the way Callisto spoke – the tone of her voice, the sheer amount of relish she seemed to be taking in goading him – was more than he could stand. With a bellow of pure fury, he launched himself at her, ignoring the shooting pain from his bad leg and hammering his blade down hard at her in an attempt to break through her first parry and end the duel with a single killing stroke. She was fast, it was true, but he still had the advantage of strength on his side.
Or so he thought.
As his blade met hers, she fell to one knee in the dirt, one hand clasped at the hilt, and the other pressed up against the flat of the blade toward it's tip. Suitably braced, she stopped his swing dead before it could ever reach her, then staring straight up at him as he pressed hard against her guard, she winked.
Before he could pull back, she slid her blade sideways along his with an ear piercing screech of steel on steel. The crossguard of her sword caught against the blade of his, dragging it to the side and throwing him off balance. As he stumbled, she released the hand she had pressed against the flat of her sword and grabbed for the dagger at her hip. So off balance was Sentos that he was completely unable to correct himself as she pivoted on one knee beneath him, rising and stepping behind him as the tip of his own sword plunged into the dirt. There was a sickening moment of stillness before the pain he knew was coming, then it hit him, like a red-hot surge of fire, as her dagger struck him in the back.
He fell forward, sprawling in the dirt and gasping for air as the blow from her dagger drove the wind out of him. Still gasping, he was barely able to push himself up onto all fours and crawl an inch or two before her boot struck him in the ribs, cracking two of them and sending a fresh wave of pain surging through him as the force of the kick flipped him onto his back. All the world seemed to be spinning except for her as she loomed above him. Her previous gleeful grin had now become a wicked leer and the dagger she had stabbed him with glistened wetly.
"You felt it, didn't you" she said, cocking her head and studying him carefully. "Just then, for a brief instant, you felt what it is that I feel all the time." Her gaze became unfocused, and her smile fell away. "Sometimes I wonder," she continued softly, "what it would be like to be able to put it all aside and know peace, real peace, even just a shred of it, if only for a moment." She shook her head as if shaking off a day dream and the dark smile returned. "All being well I'll know soon enough, and for a lot longer than a moment too, but before any of that can happen there's one last thing I need you to do for me." She squatted down over him, her face only inches from his own with teeth clenched together in a rictus snarl. "I really don't know what you Spartans believe happens after you die, but wherever it is you end up, you tell them Callisto sends her regards!"
With that she reared back, raising the dagger for a killing blow. Before she could deliver it however, a figure clad in a red cape and leather armour collided with her, knocking her back off him and landing atop her in the dirt in a mad tangle of thrashing limbs and flying mud.
Sentos felt another pair of hands gripping him by the shoulders and helping him to his feet.
"GET HIM OUT OF HERE!" Shouted the soldier that had just saved him. "I DON'T KNOW HOW MUCH LONGER I CAN HOLD HER!"
It was Pirikos!
Sentos tried to turn, to go back to help the younger man, but already he could feel the same hands that had lifted him tugging him off through what was left of the melee. The ever present pain from the old wound in his thigh was nothing compared to the fresh agony of the dagger wound in his back and the cracked ribs in his side. His feet stumbled clumsily in front of one another, barely able to resist as the soldier helping him did their best to drag him into a narrow side alley.
Before too long they had reached a ruined back doorway belonging to a house already ravaged in the earlier looting. Sentos could not recognise the man helping him. His helmet was a little too large, obscuring much of his features and the blood loss from the dagger wound was hardly helping, causing his vision to spin dizzyingly as they shuffled into the kitchen area of the house.
"...have to...go back..." he muttered weakly as the soldier eased him down behind a group of untouched grain barrels in the corner of the room. "...have to help...Pirikos." He tried to clamber back to his feet, but his legs no longer seemed willing to do as he bid them.
"And I will," said the soldier said evenly. "But you need to wait here."
"Like Tartarus I will!" Sentos snarled weakly, trying and again failing to rise to his feet. He felt strong hands press down on his shoulders.
"Captain, please, listen to me," the soldier implored him, and for a moment, Sentos almost thought he had heard a woman's voice rather than a man's. "You're the best of what's left of us. The last true Spartan in this whole sorry mess."
"Spartans don't run!" was all Sentos could hiss back as he struggled against the mans grip, a fresh feeling of strength surging through him as dark memories of Thermopylae and of King Leonidas ordering him away emerged from the fog of pain filling his mind. He tried to stand again, but the soldier held him firm, and as quickly as it had come, that renewed vigour drained away, leaving him to collapse back against the barrels breathing hard.
"Only fools don't run when the battle is lost," the soldier said, "especially when the war is still to be waged. A wise leader – a wise King – would realise that."
Sentos frowned in confusion.
"Who are you soldier?" he asked as the world began to darken around the edges.
"Nobody," the soldier replied. "Which is exactly how you should remember me."
The last thing Sentos saw before he blacked out was the soldier standing and heading back toward the door, reaching up to remove their helmet as they did so. Before he could see the features beneath however, the bliss of unconsciousness claimed him.
A cold, damp mist had settled over the Spartan army's camp the following morning. It hung thick and grey and still, swallowing up the usual hubbub that accompanied the soldiers' daily march preparations and leaving only eerily muffled clatterings and voices, along with the occasional figure that would appear from the fog and then vanish back into it as if they were some half-present spectre.
For Pelion, the unnatural stillness the fog brought with it was soothing. Recently, as his Lord's day of Return grew nearer, he had begun to feel increasing pressure within his own skull. When Great Cronus had first spoken with him, his voice had been little more than muted whisper, as if he were speaking softly through a thick brick wall. Now though, his Lord's voice sounded loud and clear in his head, and the sheer force of his presence was enough to make Pelion's mind throb in pain.
It was a pain he welcomed of course. For his Lord to be released, sacrifices had to be made, and his own discomfort was the least of those, but even a brief respite was nevertheless welcome.
Welcome as it was though, it would soon be over. He had finished his morning sermons early today at the command of Demosthenes and was now making his way across the camp, leaning heavily on his staff as he went to maintain that carefully cultivated air of frailty that had served him so well these last few years. Normally he would not entertain Demosthenes' pathetic attempts to exert control over him for even a moment, but today he was willing to make an exception.
The shade of Callisto that he had begun to affectionately refer to as Wrath was supposed to return this morning, and with her news of Sentos, the Spartan rebel that had so far managed to evade any attempts at capture and stymie the armies efforts to advance. Since Pelion was the one most directly responsible for her creation – excluding Callisto herself of course – it was only natural that any successes she may have should also be claimed by him. Also, her manner of infuriating Demosthenes and Mortius never ceased to entertain him, and he would not miss their confrontations for the world.
It didn't take much longer for him to reach the large but relatively unassuming tent that belonged to Demosthenes. Inside he could already hear voices, one of them raised in anger, the other cold and dry. Demosthenes and Mortius.
Pelion was about to sweep inside as theatrically as he could manage when a pulse of pain shot through the centre of his mind.
"Caution my Faith." The strong hard voice of his Lord drowned out his thoughts and seemed to fill every inch of him from the peak of his skull down to the tips of his toes. "You should not display your confidence too readily. Our time of victory is almost at hand, but there is still room for failure. Do not push them too far. Demosthenes is a simple minded fool, but one that is still necessary for our goals, and as for Mortius; he begins to doubt. It was inevitable really, but remember why we need him. Without him, this will all come to nothing."
Pelion did his best not to grimace at the pain, but nodded nevertheless. He could understand his Lord's apprehension. They had come so far, but even this close to the end, there was still much that had to be done. Slumping his shoulders, and leaning even more heavily on his staff, he pushed aside the tent flap and made his way inside.
Demosthenes' tent was warmer in than out and still lit by candles despite the daylight outside. At its centre, the Spartan King was pacing back and forth, clearly irritated and whenever he passed a set of candles his shadow would drag behind him, jittering off the nearby tent canvas. Mortius was standing off to one side as he so often did, as usual cloaked in dark robes and shadows both blacker than pitch. When Demosthenes' shadow drew close to him, it seemed almost to be tugged between its two masters, dancing madly until Demosthenes moved further away, at which it once again became more naturally still.
"...treating us like fools!" the Spartan King was in the middle of saying as Pelion entered. Demosthenes turned at the rustling sound made by the old priest and his mouth tightened. His eyes seemed even more red and puffy than usual. Last night must have been heavy on the Pneuma usage. Indeed, Pelion realised, he could still smell it in the air of the tent.
"On time for once?" Demosthenes growled. "That's unlike you."
Pelion simply dipped his head obsequiously.
"I am ever the servant," he said evenly. "You requested my presence and so here I am."
"To gloat no doubt," Was Demosthenes' bitter reply. "Well sorry to disappoint you, but your pet monster isn't here."
Pelion frowned. This was not what he had expected.
"Not here?" he said. "But she was supposed to return an hour ago."
"Punctuality, it would seem, is neither of your strong suits," Mortius remarked dryly.
"Perhaps she has simply been waylaid," Pelion said, doing his best not to seem overly concerned.
"Waylaid," Demosthenes snorted disgustedly. "More likely she got herself ambushed the same as all the rest." He pointed an accusing finger at Pelion. "If she has walked into a trap I will be holding you responsible. Remember that she has my men with her, and that she is your plaything!"
Pelion rolled his eyes. How many times did they have to have this conversation. Was Demosthenes really so thick headed that he was unable to grasp that the only purpose his men served was to die in the service of achieving Cronus' freedom?
He was opening his mouth to reply but before he could do so, the sound of surprised shouts, followed by the pounding of dozens of sets of hooves filled the air outside. Pelion could feel Demosthenes' heated gaze on him, and rather than say anything in response, he simply shot the Spartan King a triumphant smile. Demosthenes grunted, grabbed his helmet from a nearby armour stand, and stalked past him out of the tent. Pelion shot Mortius a glance to see if he was as infuriated as his compatriot, but cloaked and hooded as he always was, he remained as outwardly unreadable as ever.
Without a word the two of them followed after Demosthenes, exiting the tent just in time to see a loose formation of horse riders come galloping down one of the main camp thoroughfares with Wrath riding at their front. Mortius strode pas Demosthenes and out to meet them in the middle of the trail, seemingly unintimidated by the wall of horses bearing down on him. They were coming at such speed Pelion almost thought they were about to ride right over him when, at the last moment, Wrath reared her horse, drawing it up just short of the king. The rest of the men riding with her – her own bandit gang – had brought their horses to a stop a moment or two before and their horses were now circling agitatedly as their riders tried to bring them under control.
"Your late," was all Mortius said as Wrath dismounted. Despite him being over a head taller than her, she seemed as unfazed by him as he had been by the charging horses.
"Oh, I really am so terribly sorry," she said, not sounding in the least bit apologetic. She turned and moved to the back of her horse where a large burlap sack had been tied to the saddle. "But what can I say, my men wanted to celebrate, and after a job well done..." as she spoke she tugged on a draw string at the base of the sack, causing the weight of it's contents force the sack open and spill out onto the ground close to ten red crested Spartan helmets. "...I saw no reason to deny them anything."
Demosthenes' lip twitched in a sneer and Pelion watched as the Spartan King walked out to the pile of helmets. Stooping, he lifted one, barely even reacting when the head of its previous owner came tumbling out onto dirt. Looking more closely, Pelion realised that all the helmets she had brought seemed to have been collected alongside their owners' heads. His head began to pound again, as he felt the presence of his Lord once more.
"Glorious is she not?" his Lord's voice boomed inside his skull. "I see now why my son chose her as his champion. She is a weapon like no other; a true artist of destruction and chaos!" Pelion was forced to agree. He was used to witnessing savagery, had even conducted some himself, but it had always been in service of his cause. To see Wrath's gleeful brutality was never less than impressive, no matter how many times he witnessed it.
Demosthenes dropped the first helmet to the ground, and moved to inspect the rest.
"I recognise these men," he said, still looking from one head to the next. "These are Sentos' lieutenants,"
"That they are," grinned Wrath, from where she had begun to lean nonchalantly against her horse's flanks. The snorted and shifted slightly as she did so but a glare and sharp tug on its reigns from her stilled its protests.
"But no Sentos," Demosthenes said, looking back up at her. "Your mission..."
"Was what?" Wrath interrupted smoothly. "Let us not forget, there was no mission. I volunteered my services, remember? I told you your problem was now mine." She shrugged. "Problem solved."
Demosthenes took an angry step forward.
"Except it isn't!" he snarled. "Sentos has become a figurehead! A symbol of Leonidas' sacrifice, and of resistance to my new order. While he is alive he is a threat! I needed him dead, not crippled!"
"Crippled is better than martyred," Wrath replied evenly. "And what you need is of absolutely no concern to me."
"Then what is that you need," Mortius said, stepping up beside Demosthenes.
"I already told you, to make sure my message is sent." She walked back up to face them both. "And I'm not done yet either. I may have just destroyed my alter ego and her cronies' best hope against you, but they still have one other final hope to cling to."
"And that would be what exactly?" snarled Demosthenes.
"Isn't it obvious?" Wrath said, shooting him a glance that suggested she thought she was talking to a particularly dense individual. "Each other of course?"
"You plan to try and drive them apart?" Mortius said, his tone as flat and emotionless as ever.
"And I imagine you'll be needing my men for this little scheme of yours?" This question from Demosthenes.
Wrath nodded again.
"But of course," she said. "And not just yours either." She turned to Pelion for the first time since her arrival. "Tell me something. How loyal are these 'Followers' of yours? How far would they go for what they believe in?"
Pelion straightened proudly.
"As far need be and more," he said without even a hint of doubt.
A sly grin lit up lit up Wrath's face.
"Really?" she smiled. "So if I ordered them to die, they'd do it?"
Wrath's smile widened.
"Oh Pelion, you wonderful crusty old man, what you said just then..." The wide grin turned ever more sadistic and gleeful "...music to my ears!"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm alive! I really am so very very sorry to everyone who still reads these things that this has taken so long! Since August last year (the last update) I've been having a lot of personal issues and am now trying to change tack with my life somewhat. Fortunately, a side effect of this is that I am making a more conscious effort to devote more time to writing, so hopefully there should not be such a big gap again. Another benefit is that I've had a lot of time to think over the last 8-9 months about the potential pitfalls of where I was taking this story and have been able to adjust an tweak a lot so that it should all become a much more cohesive piece than had I just continued to plough on through it last year.
Anyway, again I am truly sorry for how long this has taken, and I hope you all enjoy.
EDIT: Changed the end of the chapter to read better and to better set up something that's coming up in a future chapter.