Meus Profiteor*

Book One: Origins

Part One: Pax Romana

Chapter One: The Master and the Student

"Etiam, Praedo". "Historia tua, mi amice antique, scribitur equitat sanguine equi". You see, he could never be one of us; he could never want to be. He sat alone, surrounded by followers, who, with inquisitive eyes, waited on baited breath for his imparted wisdom. He always seemed to be in deep, silent, brooding contemplation over any topic, including afternoon tea.

He never raised his voice. He never objected. He rarely spoke out of turn, but then that was because no one else ever spoke in his presence. When he lectured, he was a general, and we were his willing fodder. He commanded respect. He commanded awe. He was a monolith. He was a Titan.

Peering at him from behind poorly lit flambeaux, we all whispered his sayings, his teachings, to one other in the ancient language that we had been taught since infancy. We sat in silence, huddled around him: some sitting on pillows, others cross-legged on the cold ground, a scattered few perched on the cracked and nitre-encrusted rocks. The most enamoured of us stood near him, hanging on to his every word in admiration, while the rest half-listened from the shadows. All we hoped for was that one day we too might take our places among the great ranks of the Circle of Thorns and serve him as humble and fledgling Thorn Casters. He was our master, our father - the only father we ever knew.

What we knew about our father was very little. He was an ancient sorcerer of immense power who hailed from unknown lands in ancient Greece. His age we could only guess at. We knew from the elder casters that he was an advisor to King Leonidas (a direct descendant of Hercules himself) in the year 480 B.C.E. Our master was there when Leonidas halted the armies of Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae in the Season of the Sun. It was our master who gave the Spartan heroes unnatural power over the Persians. It was even rumoured that our great master was there when the Titans themselves ruled the Earth.

My origins, or rather my beginnings, were much more humble and far less dated. I was not witness to living legends or ancient myths. I did, however, come to adolescence during the Age of Augustus, Pax Romana. It was a time when the Empire was immense and powerful. Augustus, born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, was the first Emperor of Rome. He ruled the land with vision and guidance while staving off the border nations and their hordes.

I was no patrician, however, no soldier. I was only a boy who stole glances outside my master's walled temple hidden deep in the Northern Dolomite mountain range. I rarely ventured outside to see the great cities of the sprawling Roman Empire filled with citizens, slaves, and traders who went about their unimpressive lives. You see, I was an individual of books. I placed my faith in my master and in his teachings and longed for more knowledge. I knew that if I was patient enough, he would eventually teach me the great magiks - terrifying powers. I had once witness him perform them a Germanic raiding party - or at least that is what I was led to believe - that had infiltrated the temple to steal The Black Tome, an article of power that our mages guarded zealously.

I remember that day clearly. I was no older than seven years of age and was fetching water from the well outside the temple. I heard a muffled cry and then a loud moaning and gurgling sound coming from the other side of the enclosure. As soon as it began, however, it had stopped. Suddenly, a mad, frenzied demon launched over the top of the wall with amazing speed. I dropped the wooden bucket of water and found myself unable to move, frozen with fear. I felt a wetness run down my leg, thinking that I was surely about to die.

The horned devil approached me, its smoky breath materialising from beneath his hair covered nostrils in the cold air. Its' face was stained with bluish paint while the eyes burned through me with acrimonious rage. It raised a great axe high above its head, blocking out the sun, determined to blot out my life as it did the light. Eyes shut tight, I awaited my fate. Instead of the swift falling of its axe upon my head, I heard a guttural cry burst forth from its cracked, thin black lips. I looked up and saw its ragged body burst into flames, erupting blood from its chest and mouth like a fountain. Its blood was boiling; its skin was melting. It was as awful retch-inducing sight.

In the same instant, I felt my body being pulled back through the air and flung onto the ground. Wincing at the taste of both dirt and blood in my mouth, I kept my face down, daring not to look up at what had so easily flayed and incinerated a demon.

"Rise, my son," my master spoke quietly, shaking me from my fear. "They are gone. There is no need to be afraid any more."

I looked up to see his sage-like face searching my eyes with his own. I met a calmness there, but I also noticed his trademark contemplation. Outwardly he appeared collected and unaffected, but inwardly I sensed worry. Not that my master had anything to worry about or fear for himself. I believed that he was afraid for me. Perhaps it had something to do with the demon that had attacked me. I was aware that the Circle had dark and mystical creatures in its service. Was this one of them? Why did the behemoth try to kill me? I was a follower. It did not make any sense.

Shaking the disturbing cobwebs of my meditations, I shook my head and gave my master a strained smile of gratitude as he extended his hand to me, helping me to my feet.

"Thank you, master," I said while shaking uncontrollably.

I wiped the blood off of my face with my bare arm, and spit the dirt out of my mouth. I resisted the urge to cry as I looked back up at my master, who was now leaning over me, raising an eyebrow in jest with that same kind smile still stretched across his face.

"Go wash up, son," he ordered softly. With an afterthought, he added, "Do not look at the demon's body. Just wash up, and go inside. I will come visit you later tonight."

"Yes, master," I replied, obediently, then ran as fast as I could to the well; however, I could not help myself from looking down at the now black and ashen body suited in strange armour.

Abruptly looking away, I dismissed the image of the horrible thing and quickly ran over to the well to wash the blood from my face and hair. After thoroughly rubbing my tender skin raw and red, I turned heel and headed towards the temple, forgetting to complete my original task of bringing in water.

As I stumbled, out of breath, up the temple stairs, I tripped onto the stone floor. One of the older students, bloodied from battle himself, reached out and caught me by the arm, helping me back up to my feet.

He was tired and dirty, but I was pale and ashen, blood still wet and sticky, seeping through my worn garments. Out of the two of us, I, as the younger, looked the worse for the wear.

The older boy, still trying to catch his own breath, glanced past me, searching, then looked down at me with genuine concern in his eyes. He placed both his hands on my shoulders and looked me squarely in the eyes. He looked as though he had something important to say. I waited patiently for his query.

"Tarixus, what happened? Where is Archmage Akarist?"

Terms:

Historia tua, mi amice antique, scribiturequitatsanguineequiis Latin for "your story, my old friend is written in blood and carried on the steeds of history."

Etiam, Praedo is Latin for "Yes, Destroyer"

Meus Profiteor is Latin for "My Confession" (or confession of my sins)

Pax Romana is Latin for Roman Peace, the period in which Caesar Augustus ruled. It was a time of civil peace that lasted over two hundred years.

Chapter Two: The Seventh Legion

So you wish to know of the Black Tome and its relevance to you? Of its origins, I am afraid I cannot tell you. I was never privy to that sort of information; in fact, very few of us were. I can only tell you when I first learned of its existence.

My story began in Cimerora, an island citadel, a vassal of the Empire. On these shores of our venerable land a great battle would take place, causing a series of cataclysmic and irrevocable events that would eventually introduce me to a world that I could have scarcely imagined.

It was in the year 10 B.C.E when the story of who I am began. It was in this time, during a most epic and deciding battle for my people, that I was given my first opportunity to prove my worth as both a man and a soldier. I had just been appointed military tribune and was only some twenty years naïve; however, I had been with the Seventh Legion since I was granted the rite of passage as a man some seven years earlier and was not so wet behind the ears. I had seen my share of blood, and tasted death on more than one occasion.

It was a glorious spring morning, but before the sun would set that day over three thousand Roman and Cimeroran lives would be lost in the valley adjacent to the port of Cimerora. Caesar Augustus knew that General Imperious and his troops guarded the secret Well of the Furies somewhere on our small island. I believe you regard this in your age as the "Fountain of Youth". It was very real, and had nothing to do with simple immortality, I assure you. If Imperious would not give up the location willingly, Augustus would take it by force. The mighty emperor wanted the power for himself, whilst Imperious knew that the Well had to be protected at all costs, never to be found.

Imperious' fear of its discovery was not only that others would drink from it and fashion themselves a God like himself, but that powerful and cunning people, like Augustus, would align themselves with Romulus, Imperious' greatest enemy. So Imperious chose to avoid the anger and wrath of the young Caesar, attempting to placate him with offers of truce, proposing that the Cimerorans would dispatch of his enemies, the Germanic hordes and even the Parthians, allowing the Roman armies to swoop in after the battles were won, free to collect the spoils of war. All he asked for in return was that Cimerora be left alone as a separate nation. Augustus, however, would have none of this.

The Cimeroran men of the Seventh Legion, who stood in line with their ranks, held no illusions. They knew that many of them would perish in the battle that lie ahead. The wind whipped sharply at the banners, while the Aquilifer attempted to steady the standard. The Romans were coming. In comparison to the number of men standing behind Augustus' standard, the Cimeroran army appeared quite pitiful indeed.

General Nonius Paxius Asprenas, of Caesar's army, moved his Fourteenth and Nineteenth legions, totalling some ten thousand troops, from the beaches where they landed their rafts up to the heart of our valley. We were fortunate that they did not bring horses with them, but that was the only luck we were afforded. We, ourselves, had fine horses.

Do not laugh! I know you have visited Cimerora. It is a small island, I agree. Such an island is not accustomed to house such free ranging and spirited animals. You must understand, however, that before we were Cimerorans, we were Romans. Of course, Romans were not exactly the most skilled cavalry men, but we were the protectorate legion of the Spanish province. The Spaniards had taught us how to ride, but it was the Spartans who had inspired us in how to fight. We took what we could from all the great warrior nations, and we adapted these skills to ours, made them our own.

General Imperious came down from his lofty tower in his walled palace and mounted his steed. He scanned the small valley below while his staff studied the map and bickered over the defence of our city.

Imperious had mustered the Seventh before the Roman ships had even been launched. How he came to this foresight no one knew at the time. Of course it was later to be revealed to me that it was Sister Solaris who had the vision of Augustus' two legions approaching, and Imperious reacted quickly, summoning the Seventh, the only legion at home, to the front line.

The mighty Seventh itself was led by General Igneous Trajanus, and his legion numbered some five thousand seasoned veterans. For its emblem, the Seventh took a bull, a symbol popular in Spain then as it is today. This symbol appeared on the shields and standards throughout the legion.

Though he would never admit it, Imperious was particularly proud and vain of his Seventh Legion and expected much from us tribunes, all young officers like myself, who could be referred to as veterans in anyone's eyes. So it was I who was assigned liaison of the Seventh to General Imperious.

I sat as regally as I could on my horse, nervously surveying Augustus' troops in formation on the valley below. Imperious, in turn, was grimacing as he shook his head and brought his horse over to mine, looking at me with stern eyes.

"Marcus, a word, if you will," he said as he gently placed his hand on my shoulder and ushered me away from the remainder of the staff, just out of earshot.

I nodded my head and walked my horse along with his. Judging from his demeanour, I could only assume that whatever news he had to relay would not be wholly fortunate, for me.

"I have a problem, Marcus," he started and turned his horse around to face me. "I fear that Augustus' legions will not stop until they have destroyed the city, until they have found what it is they are looking for." He paused and chose his words carefully. "You are one of my most trusted and capable officers, Marcus."

Inwardly I was shocked at his words. I was a young man at the time, but I was not foolish. I knew his words spoke volumes of wisdom. The emperor Augustus was proud and arrogant, but he was also clever and resourceful. He wanted something from Cimerora - at the time I knew not what - and he would not stop to get it. He would kill every last man, woman, and child in Cimerora to get it. Pax Romana was just that, Roman peace - no one outside of Rome was allowed such a luxury. What shocked me was the amount of confidence that the general had placed in me. I cannot lie to you and say that I was not greatly honoured by his words. Imperious, however, I would learn much later, was just as cunning as Augustus; he played to my vanity of pride.

"Marcus, I need you to take the turmae praetorium and conduct a special mission for me," he said, shaking me from my ruminations. "For the glory of the Seventh!" he bellowed with a half smile on his face.

"It will be made so, General! For glory and for honour!" I smartly blurted out.

Imperious' smile faltered, and he brought his horse directly beside mine so that we were intimately close.

"Marcus, we will not survive the continued onslaught of Caesar's forces for long. We may drive off these legions here today, but he will send more the next day and the day after and so on." He paused and leaned in closer, pressing his lips to my ear. "There is a tome of great power guarded at the Oranbega temple, In the Northern mountains of Rome."

I frowned. The Oranbegans, to my knowledge then, were a dark and mysterious order. The fact that their temple was within riding distance of Rome's city walls unnerved the most stoic Roman and Cimeroran alike. The only reason that they were not persecuted or crucified was due to the large amount of coin that they contributed to the Roman coiffures - that and the rumour that Augustus himself was a secret member of the cult.

"Marcus, I need you to retrieve this book for me, without delay. The temple I am sending you to is only a training facility, a school for boys. Kill only those who get in your way; try to spare the children. There will be several mages there, but only one will pose a serious threat to you, and he will no doubt fight. Do not let his age or appearance fool you. You must be cautious. You and your men must be prepared. There will be ... terrible things there."

He sat back up and looked me squarely in the eyes.

"Are you functional, Marcus? Are you prepared for this mission?" he finally asked, and I did not hesitate.

"Yes, Sir! I will not fail you," I said with deep regard.

"Your men are waiting for you on the eastern shore. Ask for first spear Centurion Geminius. I wish you luck, Marcus."

Imperious inclined his head slightly to me and waited for me to salute him before he returned to the camp to join the other generals.

I hesitated. I was about to leave my home for Juno knew how long. I had no time to set my affairs in order.

Imperious watched as my eyes began to glaze over, deep in thought.

"Marcus, is there something you wish to say?" he asked.

I shook my head, embarrassed. It was too much for me to ask what I was about to.

"If I am to be absent for so long, Sir, I was wondering if ..." I trailed off, not knowing how to phrase my words properly.

"You wish for me to bring Callista into the castle," he said as if he had read my mind.

"It's just that she has no family here, General. I hate to impose, but she and I have only been recently engaged, and I have not yet had time to put my affairs in order. I would offer her to stay at my father's house, but my younger brother and his new wife are there and have just recently conceived ..." I trailed off.

"Marcus, what you are doing now is for the greater good of this nation. How could I not offer my services to protect what is yours? Consider her a most welcome and respected guest in my home until your return." Imperious smiled and then added, "I shall have my guards dispatched to your home immediately to bring her to the guest quarters."

I smiled, relieved by this. If the battle were to go ill today, I would at least know that my Callista would be safe. I thanked and saluted Imperious who smiled in return and rode off.

After saluting and facing about, I turned to gather my chosen cohort, who were waiting for me on the shores. I could not help but feel a deep conflict within my heart. I would miss the battle, a battle where many of my friends and even fellow Romans would die a warrior's death while I was sent on an errand to retrieve a book guarded by an old man and some children. What honour was there in that? What use was this book? What could it do that the swords of the mighty Seventh could not?

While busying myself with such heavy thoughts, I unconsciously steered my horse towards the eastern shore of the island where my party awaited. As I dismounted my steed, I was promptly greeted with a salute by Centurion Geminius, who met me just outside the castle walls. I returned his salute with fervour and kept it longer than I should have, by rank alone.

You see this was Gauis Geminius, who until that very morning was known as Praefect Geminius, Imperious' second in command, the acting ruler and administrator in Imperious' absence. Since a praefect could not quit the city walls for more than a day, Imperious had temporarily demoted Geminius, reducing him to his military rank of first spear Centurion before becoming a praefectus urbis.

"Tribune Servilius, let me bring you up to speed," Geminius spoke to me in formal tones, ever the officer and politician.

Before becoming praefect, Geminius was a skilled soldier and tactician. He was a no-nonsense man. He gave orders, and people followed them. He was, after all, Imperious' most trusted man. I had met him on several occasions and found him to be, if nothing, a gentleman and a diplomat. He was, however, some twenty five years my senior and most likely unaccustomed to being commanded by a young tribune.

"In due time, centurion Geminius," I said, trying very carefully not to emphasis his inferior rank to my own, but still asserting my authority and leadership to both he, myself, and the alert and impatient soldiers that closely surrounded our persons. Gather the turmae and have them prepare at the eastern docks. Ensure that we have enough food for the journey to Rome. Tell the men this and nothing more."

I did not want the men, some of whom I had known since childhood, to know that they would be abandoning the Seventh in battle today. It would only be an act of extreme demoralisation.

If Geminius had been affronted by my assertion of rank and leadership, he did not show it. He simply nodded his head, clicked his heels together and stood straight, bringing his clenched fist to his chest, saluting outwards. I returned his salute with a thin and forced smile. I watched him disappear around the corner towards the castle doors to go make arrangements.

I brought my hand up to my face, covering it with sigh, taking in a deep breath. Composing myself, I brought my head back up high and walked my horse towards my own tent outside the castle. Just then I heard the cornice sound the call to move. Standards held high, I watched the men of the Seventh march in step down across the plain towards the beach with a rhythmical tramp and the rattle of equipment. Discipline was rigid and other than the blowing signals of horns and the sound of footsteps in unison, no sound could be heard save the wind in my ears.

On the flanks I saw our cavalry secretly move into position towards their ambush spots. The plan was brilliant. We knew that once the enemy infantry moved out from their assault ships their supporting archers would be exposed as they formed on the beaches. The ambush spots were hidden behind the mouth of the caves near the beach. Our men would be lying in wait for them. Once the infantry would pass, the cavalry would ride out and destroy their archers, leaving their milites gregarious without supporting fire.

More importantly, though, our Legion had the advantage of higher ground. I was confident that we had the tactical advantage too. It was ten thousand against five thousand, but they were invading our land; they were treading on our territory. If only we had known that the Romans were supported by the Circle, who had discovered the cavalry before we could even mount our assault on the archers.

That is all in the past. There is nothing that I can do about it now. In that moment, however, I was sure that I was about to miss an impressive and historic victory of Cimerora over Rome.

Shamefully, I gave my horse to one of the stable boys and slipped into my tent. I heard the sounding of the charge, a deafening roar as the lines rushed down the hillside, and I could not look back. I was leaving my friends; I was leaving the victory grounds.

Gathering extra weapons, I left my tent and walked down the narrow pathway that led to the docks on the Southern end of the Island. The farther away I got away from the battle, the more I burned inside. As I approached the ship, Geminius and two of his discerns approached me.

"Sir, the ship is prepared. The men are ready."

"Very well, we will cast off immediately," I replied. "Set sail for the port of Misenum. I will brief you all along the way."

With a nod from Geminius, who now realised that there was very little to catch me up to speed on, he handed me a large portfolio to read, I began walking the deck of the ship, whilst Geminius departed to supervise the crew.

I briskly walked over to the door of my cabin aboard the Triremes with portfolio in hand. Sitting down at the desk, I opened the leather bound book and spread out the papers. In limited detail were Cimeroran reports on the temple of Oranbega. Little was known about the Circle and where its true lair lie. What we did have were sketches of the training facility and current Circle activity.

I closed the book and sighed heavily, resting my head upon the cool wooden surface of the table. It was a dark day indeed, and I was weary and weak with shame. I grabbed the Spanish wine out of the basket near my bed and began to drink. If I could not get these thoughts out of my head, perhaps the wine could. Feeling the ship lurch forward, casting off, I cast off my own vessel of wine, drinking like a man dying of thirst.

Although my journey to the port of Misenum and travel to Rome held their own dangers and, in some cases, comical tales, it is immaterial to this story. You see, what happened at that Oranbega temple had and has forever shaped my life.

Perhaps it was only fitting that it was on the Ides of March when we chose to conduct our raid. The moon was at its full height, and all of the soldiers were anxious for the mission. I had briefed them all on the power of the mages guarding the tome, and we came prepared - for the most part. We had been given amulets by an Asian cleric in Misenum that were supposed to ward off any dark magiks. We had also obtained a small, crude map of the location of the temple, which was nestled on the outskirts of the palm groves three leagues to the north of Rome itself.

I trusted my men, and I trusted Geminius with my life. Although he had spent the last decade as a city magistrate, as a commander, I knew that Geminius was a very capable leader and soldier in the field of battle. He was a leader of warriors, and I was happy to have him by my side.

It was cold the night we decided to launch our assault. I recall shivering uncontrollably in the night air, blaming my shakes on the temperature. The truth of the matter is that I was frightened, terrified of what magical terror wait in store for us. Yet at the same time, I was excited and exhilarated at the opportunity to prove my worth to Imperious.

As we advanced towards the temple, three flashing signals from a torch on the ridge told us that our little raiding group had indeed surrounded the temple and were prepared to enter from two different directions. Geminius had the group from the south, while my force approached from the north. The remainder were set as a cordon force on the outskirts to ensure that no one escaped or, for that matter, interfered.

As I advanced on the temple with my fifteen soldiers, I notice three figures dressed in dark robes, whom I initially mistook from a distance to be tree stumps. They were motionless, positioned in an eerie and peculiar unhuman manner.

My men and I crept closer, and with gladius in hand, I crouched down and led them forward when the two men flanking my rear cried out in abject horror and their skin burst into living flame. So much for the amulets.

I immediately dropped to knee next to the wall on the outer yard of the temple. Looking back, most of my men were lying flat on their bellies, frozen with fear at the sight of what had befallen their comrades. Gathering my courage, and attempting to slow my heart that threatened to leap from out my chest, I moved at a speed that I did not know I was capable of. This was my first realisation that there was more to me than a simple soldier.

I struck with precision and steel as I squarely sliced the throat of the first mage, swinging in an arc while crouching, taking the legs off of the second. The third tried to scream at me in a foreign language that I could not comprehend. As he ran off, I found myself materialising through the air like an electrical current, coming down on his person with my blade slanting downward, delivering a powerful blow to his spinal cord. He failed to make it to the entrance of the temple.

As if waking from a dream, I looked down in revulsion at the broken and severed limbs lying at my feet. The bodies were smoking as was I. Red lightning emanated off of my body in waves. After a moment, my body felt as though it had cooled down. The red lightning was gone. I looked back towards my men. They were beginning to stand up, and all of them were as white as ghosts in the moonlight. It was the look in their eyes that let me know that what had happened, what I had done, was no dream.

"Sir, how did you-" one of the soldiers began.

"Let's go," I said, cutting him off before he could finish asking a question that I could not even begin to understand let alone answer.

Quietly, we entered the doors of the temple, lighting torches as we moved down one of the tunnel-like halls as quickly as our armour and equipment would allow us. Suddenly, we heard screams coming from beneath us, down a separate dark, long and narrow staircase.

"This way," I yelled as we turned and moved downward into the abyss.

I moved with restless and impatient haste as my soldiers struggled to keep up. I could hear them talking behind me, but I was unsure of what they were saying. As I entered the room, Geminius was already there, and all around he and his soldiers were the bodies of children and several of the mages. He had massacred them all.

Before I could speak, he pointed his sword past me at the wall behind me, showing me a book encased in crystal. As I turned to look, I felt his blade press against my neck and my own soldiers stripping my person of my weapons.

"Against the wall, tribune!" Geminius emphasised my rank with disgust.

"What is the meaning of this?" I bellowed. My ears were deafened with the sound of my own blood beating, boiling, and coursing through my veins.

"Romulus sends Imperious his regards," Geminius said with a sneer.

Just then I felt a sharp pain to the back of my head as I was clubbed hard from behind. I hit the table with my face first before falling to the ground. I was half in and out of consciousness as I heard the traitors whisper to one another, my name being mentioned several times. Perhaps they were trying to decide whether or not to keep me alive to deliver Romulus' message, but what I really suspected was that they were conversing about the display I had given the men earlier.

Blinking my eyes open several times, I weakly tried to open my mouth to speak, to tell the foul traitors to kill me now before I killed them when suddenly I felt a current of hot air blow over my head accompanied by horrible screams of agony as everyone in the room burst into flames.

"Foolish mortals!" a low and commanding voice boomed. "You killed innocents for the wrong book!"

My head felt like it was on fire; my body felt like it was being crushed; my mind felt groggy and invaded. What little I could make out was Geminius, badly burned, trying to retreat from the awful voice, the invisible force behind me. I saw his body lift into the air, blood pouring from his nose and mouth.

"Go run and tell your master that he has invited war of the worst possible kind unto his kingdom. Run now, before I change my mind and tell him personally."

I watched Geminius drop to the ground and then struggle to gain his footing and take off blindly into the night. I was glad that the thing behind me had not killed him. I wished that pleasure for myself.

Grimacing at Geminius' betrayal, I quickly began to lose consciousness again, but not before I heard the same commanding voice address me.

"And you, you can inform Imperious that even he is not welcome to use the tome. He will have to find another way to fight evil," and he then added softly, "my friend."

My last sight was of an old man in robes leaning over me before the darkness overtook me, before I slipped into the dark realm of dreams and saw the angelic face of my Callista, covered in blood.

Roman Terms (definitions):

tribune - a military tribune had the rank of Captain by modern comparison

Aquilifer - a senior signifier bearing the standard. It was a position of enormous prestige (immediately below the centurions)

turmae praetorium - personal guardsmen of the praefect

turmae - a 30 man squadron of the cavalry (however, in this case they are referred to as a trained group of soldiers, much like the immunes)

praefect urbinis - city magistrate - represented the ruler or caesar when absent (usually when the ruler was on campaigns)

cornicen - a trumpet sounding war

milites gregarius - basic recruits (foot soldiers)

discens - soldiers in in training to become immunes, specialists within the military (engineers, field medics, carpenters, and craftsmen)

gladius - Roman sword

Chapter Three: Betrayal

Master Akarist came to me at night, advising me to gather my cloak and leave without word. He took me into the forest on the outskirts of the temple. It was the season of l'inverno, and the moon was full and bright. He led me down into the entrance of the forest and gave me the ancient bow to hunt. He informed me that I was to stay there in the forest until my task was complete. It was my right of passage to become a man.

Seven years had passed since the Germanic horde had raided our temple. As a boy then, I could not help the others to fight, nor could I ward off the behemoth that had tried to kill me. Now I would embark on one of many tests that would give me the means and the strength to defend myself and my people. Beginning my training as an archer and a hunter, I would test my mettle and prove my worth to the Archmages of Oranbega. My first task was to kill the dark wolf that was hunting and killing our flocks at night.

My hands were shaking as I reached for my arrow. I crouched low in the wet bushes, straining to hear the padded foot falls of my prey. I could hear the panting of the vile creature. It was close. I feared that it could smell me, sense my presence. I had tracked it for the last three hours, and knew that I was close to taking the shot.

I silently parted the bushes and knocked the arrow on the string. As the wolf came into my focus, I saw something move beyond it, behind it. The wolf, sensing it too, darted off without making a sound.

I grimaced and lowered my bow, peering as far into the distance as the moonlight would afford me. What I made out was what appeared to be a crouching Roman soldier. I slowly backed up and made my way around the bush to get a better look.

Had my eyes deceived me? Why would a Roman soldier be hiding in our wood line? He could not see me as I was to his rear oblique, so I crept a bit closer. It was then that my knee knocked a rock off onto the ground, cracking against the other rocks.

The soldier turned toward my direction and without waiting, I sprinted out of the tree line towards the temple as fast as my legs would take me. I had never run so fast in my life. As I rounded the corner wall, I felt a sharp sting on the side of my face, which brought me to a halt. The tip of a javelin had pierced the wall before me, grazing my face.

I gathered my bearings and started off towards the door while glancing behind at the soldier. It was in this moment of distraction that I ran headlong into a man who had been running opposite in my direction. He was badly burnt. He hurriedly shoved me out of his way, knocking me to the ground as he ran towards the woods.

I quickly scrambled to my feet and ran inside the door, down into the chamber where I assumed that everyone would be.

As soon as I descended the staircase, the smell of blood and burnt bodies assaulted my nostrils. I looked down at my feet to see one of the younger children, no more than five, lay prostrate and lifeless, his neck half severed. It took all my strength and my own gnawing fear to prevent me from emptying the contents of my stomach onto the floor.

A Roman soldier lay on the ground face first, blood streaming from his head. His shield, which held the crest of a bull, lay next to him.

I had not even realised that I had been screaming when a hand reached out and grabbed my mouth.

"Tarixus, it is I!" My master's voice was calm and low.

I nodded my head, and he let go of my face. He looked down at the body of the unconscious soldier and then looked down at me.

"Help me carry this man upstairs," he commanded, his voice just above a whisper.

"But, master, more Romans are coming!" I pleaded, my voice rising.

"Quiet Tarixus!" my master hissed at me. "They have left. Now grab his legs while I take his arms. We have little time, and I have not the strength to lift him myself."

"But he is one of them!" I cried indignantly. "Why are we helping him?"

"SILENCE!" my master bellowed, and I stood rigid at his booming command. "It is not for you to question me, Tarixus!" he reprimanded me.

"I am sorry, master," I apologised. I was not used to being yelled at. "I will help."

We carried the soldier up the stairs. He was heavy, and I was still scared that someone was going to find us and kill us.

We entered the crystal chamber, an area where I had begun to learn about the arts of healing and rejuvenation. We set the soldier down on the floor where the green crystal glowed and hummed. The man did not stir. My master frowned and then knelt down beside him, placing his hands upon the soldier's head.

What happened next I would not be able to understand or explain for some years later. It was a strange sight to behold. I had seen the green crystal being used to heal before, but I had never seen a man, my master, perform a healing act by hand. He had no herbs or salves to use on the soldier. He did not even perform an incantation. He merely put his hands to the man's head. I watched in awe as the skin began to knit and repair itself, the wound fully closed.

The soldier moaned and twitched briefly before he fell back into unconsciousness.

"Will he live, master?" I asked.

"I cannot say," he replied. "I have done what I can. We can only pray that he lives."

"I pray that he dies," I spat, outraged.

My master sighed and put a hand on my shoulder to comfort me.

"I understand why you feel that way, Tarixus, but there is more to this man than you can possibly understand right now." He paused and looked down at me, scrutinising my face. There was a warning in his eyes. "You are not to harm him, Tarixus. Do you understand?"

"Yes Master. I understand," I replied, unsure of why he was looking at me the way that he did.

"Good," he said, seeming satisfied with my response. "We will depart for Oranbega tonight. Ready the horses and the cart."

The cart rumbled and jerked along the dirt road, its wooden wheels creaking as it rolled closer to the Apennine Mountain border checkpoint. Master Akarist had instructed me to get in the back of the covered wagon with the wounded centurion he had rescued from the temple. I was there to prevent him from causing a commotion should he stir on our way to the checkpoint. He had told me that the young man was someone very special, and that if we were to leave him at the monastery, Caesar Augustus' troops might find him, spot the outlawed symbol on his armour and kill him.

At the time, I could not fathom why my master wanted to protect this man, why he cared that one Roman be slain by another. This soldier had come into our school and killed our people, my friends.

I studied the young man's face with contempt. I would admit that in sleep he looked peaceful and handsome. The armour he wore was as red as the blood that soaked the bandages I had been told to lace across his forehead and face. On his right forearm was a tattoo of a bull, the outlawed symbol that my master spoke of.

I sighed and peeled the bandages off as carefully as possible. The blood was dry and sticky. I removed the dressings to find the large gash on his face and back of his head completely healed.

I looked up through the small opening of the wagon to see my master wincing slightly, clutching at his side and then straightening up. I grimaced and peered down at the soldier once more, restraining myself from spitting on his face. My master had put himself in pain for this man - why?

I shook my head and finished cleaning the soldier's wounds as I was instructed. I shivered as I felt a gust of cold air rush into the wagon. As we entered the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, I pulled the sheep hide closer around my body and the centurion's.

Master Akarist had told me that all outbound goods were checked to stop thieves from making off with Roman goods. The soldier and I were were hidden between grain barrels and well concealed under animal hides; however, I was still fearful that they might inspect the cart.

I felt the horses begin to slow their pace, and the cart come to a halt. A loud, yet unnaturally high voice boomed from outside the wagon, and I dared to peek out through the small opening.

"You there, old man! Stop your cart!" the young legionnaire, commanded. He was maybe fifteen, no older. "Well, what are you gawking at?" he said shrilly to my master and ordered him to get off of the cart.

"Young soldier, I am a simple skin trader and require passage to Southern Gaul," my master said as he stopped the cart, examining the young legionnaire.

The horses were restless. Perhaps they had sensed that something was about to happen. The cart lurched forward a bit as the horses jostled about. As they did this, the wounded centurion let out a rather loud moan. I tried to cover his mouth, but it was too late.

"What in Juno was that?" the legionnaire said spooked, like our horses. "Get off the cart old man! I will not ask you again!" he threatened.

Terrified, I slowly stretched my body over to the side of the cart to see what was going on through cracks in the wood. All I could make out was five or six legionnaires moving around to the back of the cart.

When it happened, it had happened fast. Thinking back on it now, seeing it through my own eyes as a child, it was a horrible even nightmarish sight to behold.

The ground had opened up under their feet as the stone and dirt buried underneath became that of the living. Its hellish form appeared as arms that grabbed at and took hold of each horrified soldier, pulling them under the earth. They tore at the ground with bloodied and torn fingernails, screaming in terror as they were dragged under.

I saw the eyes of the younger one, the last one taken. He had such a look of fear in his eyes. He cried for his mother just before the stone hand pulled his head down with such force that it snapped his fragile neck, crushing his helmet.

I jumped out of the cart and ran to Master Akarist, who was standing a few feet from the area that had swallowed the soldiers. I looked up at him to search his face for answers and found that he was engrossed in the patch of dirt, rocks, grass, and blood before him. He was looking down with slight wonder at the gruesome sight before us, watching as the earth began to fully restore to normal with no trace of the bodies.

Smiling, he tore his gaze away from the ground and began to study his hands in mild amusement.

"Fancy that," he laughed. "You know, I always wanted to be an Earth Thorn Caster in my youth, but they told me I had a greater propensity for fire."

I stared at my master blankly. I expected him to be just as horrified as I was. Instead he appeared giddy.

"I said that out loud, didn't I?" he said as he finally noticed me standing beside him.

I hesitantly nodded my head in affirmation.

Master Akarist's grin quickly transformed into a grimace as his facial expression became serious once more, the demeanour in which I was accustomed to.

"Tarixus, mind not what you saw just now. I only do what must be done for the greater good. I pray that you will one day understand this."

I shut my eyes tight and did not open them for the rest of our travel that day. I quickly fell asleep and had my own nightmares of ghoulish arms made of earth and roots pulling me down into the abysmal darkness.

In the utter darkness of the void there was a light. It glowed like a dying ember, bright enough to see but not enough to guide. I found myself following the light in blindness. As I did so, a lithe figure suddenly appeared behind it. I made out her form, but the light was too faint to make out her face. The light then began to pulsate and grow, illuminating her features in the shadows. Soft golden hair fell in ringlets about her shoulders, brushing against her alabaster skin.

I began walking towards her as her features came into focus, caressed by the light, highlighting a haunting and sombre face. Her lips were full and pink; her eyes were almond shaped, glowing a rich, dark amber. She was smiling a sad smile, a lonely smile. Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Her lips parted, but no speech was uttered. The light then grew brighter, so bright that I could not bear to look upon it any longer. I closed my eyes, shielding them with my arm.

Finally, I was able to open them, revealing the woman's body now enveloped in fire, flames licking at her pale and delicate face. Her sad smile, her sad eyes, never left me. She stared at me even as the fire reduced her to ash.

The world went dark again.

Flashes of another woman's face now assaulted my eyes. Her cruel eyes peered out at me through the darkness. Her face was painted as a white skull against ebony skin. Her hair was adorned with white feathers.

Her hand reached out and grabbed my arm in a grip so tight that it cut off the circulation of blood.

"You will make them pay for their insolence, their self righteousness, and their murderous, vile ways," she thundered. "YOU will make them bow down to our people and to Hequat!"

Her voice was like a roaring thunder, and it shook me with terror. I felt as though she was devouring my very soul.

I awoke with sweat pouring off of my body and an acrid smell filling my nostrils. What I thought to be just a nightly fog filling the air was, in fact, smoke. I could smell burnt animal fur and see the last manifestations of burning embers surround me where I slept.

"Tarixus, my boy, are you well?" my master asked me from a distance. "You were screaming."

"Yes, master. I think so," I replied, both confused and tired. "I just had a bad dream, that is all."

Master Akarist walked over to where I lie and smiled down at me. He reached down and pulled the animal hides up over me.

"That is all?" he asked, seriously.

"Yes," I replied. "A simple dream."

He seemed to ponder on my reply with seriousness and then laughed despite his sombre expression.

"Tarixus, my boy, I have never found anything in this world, especially a dream, to be simple."

He looked down and saw the confusion in my eyes. "Sometimes, a dream can be a roadmap to your destiny," he said with a gentle smile and squeezed my shoulder affectionately.

The last thing I believed was that that these two women in my dream were somehow a part of my destiny. I was just a simple boy who wanted to be a man, whose only ambition was to join the ranks of the Circle of Thorns. However, neither ambition nor destiny could wrest my mind and body from sleep. My eyelids languidly fluttered open and then closed. A dreamless sleep finally overtook me.

When I awoke again, my master and the now fully conscious centurion were sitting directly across from me, talking in whispers near the fire. The soldier began to raise his voice in disapproval and distress, but I still could not make out what they were saying. Finally they looked in my direction, noting that I was now fully awake.

I made to sit up and looked at my master, who was looking directly into my eyes. His eyes were soft and lined with age. Staring at me, I felt him stare through me. I tried to open my mouth to ask them what they were talking about when a wave of dizziness suddenly overtook me. My eyesight dimmed, and I lost focus of the scene as my master and the Roman began to blur and disappear before my eyes. Once more I was consumed by the darkness.

"Get up boy!" a voice echoed in my head, and I quickly dismissed it.

"I said GET UP BOY!" boomed the voice once more.

I sprang up with a start. The Roman was still adorned in his blood red armour, looking directly at me as he bore all his weight down upon his one knee, crouching to my level.

"What?" I replied, simultaneously alert and drowsy.

"We have a long way to go and not much time to get there," he said briskly as he rose to his feet to collect his gear. "Get your things, lad," he said absently as he sheathed his gladius and looked towards the horizon.

"Where is Master?" I asked as I got up in a stupor, searching for Archmage Akarist.

"He has some business to attend to," he answered and then looked down at me with some distaste. "I am charged with your safety. You will be travelling to Cimerora with me."

"But I do not wish to travel to Cimerora," I whined. "I have to go to Oran-" I stopped. I had almost forgot who I was talking to. It was forbidden to utter the name of the ancient city to anyone outside our order.

"Oranbega?" the soldier finished my sentence in a sarcastic tone. "Such a city does not exit, lad. It is a rumour, mere legend - that is all," the soldier scoffed.

"My master," I began, and the centurion cut me off this time.

"Your 'master' is a madman, boy. He has powerful magiks to be sure, and I will be the last to dispute a claim in opposition, but he is not all right up there. There is no such thing as Oranbega."

The soldier shifted somewhat uncomfortably as he saw the angry glint in my eye.

"I am not saying anything bad about your master," he began to explain. "He saved my hide, he did. He should have killed me there along with those back-stabbing traitors, but he let me live." He paused and then he grinned. "So that shows you how much sense the man has then, nay?"

The centurion stood up and began unhooking the horse from the cart. The other horse was missing, along with my master.

"Why do we go to Cimerora?" I finally asked as I gathered my belongings and tied them to the horse as the soldier walked along side it, down the pass.

"We go to check on my people, my love, and find out why I was sent to my death," he spoke plainly, and I cocked my head to the side to look up at him. "Are you up to it, boy?" he grinned mockingly.

"I have not been trained to fight, Centurion," I said, unable to conceal my hatred for the man.

I could not confess to him that I had not yet earned my right of passage as a man by skilled combat or through hunting. I knew only of healing magiks.

"Well lad, if you are willing to learn then I am willing to teach. First lesson, however, is respect."

I looked up at him, and he looked down at me, his smile removed.

"I am a tribune, not a centurion," he corrected me. "You will call me Tribune or Servilius," he commanded, and I scowled.

"Well my name is not 'boy', Tribune," I replied, equally as haughty. "It is Tarixus, discipulus Tarixus."

"Oh well then discipulus Tarixus," he replied, his grin now returned. "When I get done with you, Ares himself would take pause before tackling the likes of you."

"But I do not wish to fight Ares or anyone else for that matter," I said as I awkwardly tried to mount the horse behind the tribune.

He offered his strong hand, and pulled my frail body up in an instant.

"Well I do not believe that you have to worry about Ares seeking you out for match, but I do have the feeling that there will be trouble ahead."

I must have had a look of worry on my face when he spoke of such a portent for at that moment he chose to "comfort" me with words.

"Don't worry, Tarixus. I will not let them hurt you ... much," he said with a grin.

"Much?"

The port of Misenum lay a hundred miles* to the south. We would reach our destination by nightfall as the tribune would, at times, drive our steed beyond its limits. The horse's chest heaved and its nostrils flared, snorting in great gulps of air then blowing it out in quick bursts as we moved with great haste along the high grassland trails.

There would be no checkpoints until we reached the outskirts of the city. Tribune Servilius had donned a large common cloak to hide his seventh legion armour and hid the remainder of his arms inside the animal skins that rested in our bags and on the horse.

We said very little on the final leg of our trip. Servilius seemed to be elsewhere whilst my thoughts focused on my master and his whereabouts. Later that night as we neared the port, I could see the torchlight of the buildings below and lanterns marking the Imperial Roman Navy.

My master had taught us much about the Roman military in our studies. The Roman Navy was always considered an inferior arm and was strictly under army control. Romans were no sailors, and they lacked knowledge of proper ship building. Their ships, in fact, were built copies of captured Carthaginian vessels combined with Greek expertise. To Romans, a warship was little more than a floating platform on which the soldiers could be brought into close contact with the enemy on the sea or on islands.

The commanders of the fleets were praefecti, who were recruited from the equestrian order like those of the auxiliaries. However, we would not be on any Roman ship for our journey. We would be looking for trade ships or slave runners - anything going near or to Cimerora. My master had given the tribune a large amount of denarii and aurei for our passage - how much I knew not.

With night covering our entry into the city, we moved down the alleyway until we came to a stable. We purchased housing and food for our horse and then found our way into a local establishment that was said to be the hub for all privateers, sailors, and the general dregs of society.

"Tribune, it smells horrible in here," I complained. "Can we not find some other place?" I asked him while holding my nose.

With a large hand, he brought it forward and landed it on my back, making me stumble forward.

"Such delicate olfactories you possess, young Tarixus," he laughed and then led me into the bar. "This is our point of reference, lad. We need to get somewhere fast and unseen, and here we can find men to deliver us such promises. We need men who ask little and care even less." He put his mouth to my ear. "So keep quiet, and let me do all the talking."

Glaring at him, I went over and found a seat at a table at the back of the tavern. The establishment itself was old and weathered with wine bottles strewn all over the place. Smoke from pipes gave a foul odour that made it very hard to breathe. Unkempt burly men filled the place playing Tesserae, wagering what little they owned, sometimes losing their very lives. One particularly large man was staring intently at me from the bar. He walked over towards me and bent down, leaning his large hands on the table.

"Boy, what is a young sweet lamb like you doing here?" he said, leering. "I think you need to come home with me. I have something to show you."

He opened his mouth as he grinned, revealing missing and rotted teeth. I began to turn away from him and leave when I saw the tribune walk up behind the grotesque man and place his hand on his shoulder.

"Leave the boy while you still have the use of speech," Servilius said, wasting no time with conversation.

"Find your own boy," the man with the rotted teeth growled, shoving off the tribune's hand.

The man turned around to face the soldier, brandishing the hand axe he held on his belt.

"Perhaps you should take care to whom you threaten, deserter," the man said, noticing the tribune's armour.

Tribune Servilius smiled.

"Perhaps I should not have given you the option."

The man did not even notice as the tribune reached, with lightening speed, for the small blade in his belt, striking him squarely in the throat. Blood squirted from the sides of the wound as Servilius shoved the knife in all the way to the hilt, glaring menacingly into his victim's eyes.

Just as quickly, the tribune yanked out the blade, saying nothing as he watched the man drop to the floor, clutching his throat that gurgled with blood. In a slow, almost mechanical manner, Servilius bent down and wiped his blade on the man's tunic and then tucked it back into his belt.

"Over here, lad," the tribune said casually as he pointed to a table across the room where a group of men, who looked surprisingly well dressed for such a place, sat.

I was in shock over how brutally skilful the soldier was and immediately arose and followed him. As we walked over to the table, I tried to bring myself to thank the tribune for saving my life. My pride at the time, unfortunately, lodged the words of gratitude in my throat.

I obediently sat beside the soldier and scanned the men at the table. One, whom I initially mistook for a man, was, in fact, a woman wearing an archer's garb. Her hair was as white as the snow, slightly hidden by her hood. Staring more intently than I should have, I noted that she had red eyes, which amazed me greatly. The other two men looked to be Asian in decent and wore expensive privateer dress with fine leathers and ornate swords on their backs. They reminded me of drawings in the ancient traveller texts in which my master would let us read, regaling us in tales about the mysterious Asian lands. The swords were called chokuto and were straight blades made from a curious metal.

"This is my cargo," Servilius said as he gestured towards me with his hand. "All we need is safe passage to Cimerora and no questions asked, obviously," he said in his usual direct manner.

"If you or he are marked for death or capture, Tribune, that may up our price," the woman said from the shadows, eyeing the soldier's regalia.

"First of all," he said, raising a finger, "I am not a deserter, and the boy is not marked by the Roman legion. Second," he said, raising a second finger to the woman, "never address me by my rank."

When he brought up his third finger in count, I saw a scowl begin to form on her pretty face.

"Third, I will pay you a quarter talon of gold if you get us safely to Cimerora - half now and the other half upon our arrival."

She smiled at this; however, Servilius brought down his hand and leaned in close.

"Now if you cross us, woman," he warned, "I will kill you, your men, and take your ship."

The woman, who I had now begun to realise was the captain, smiled and spit on her hand, extending it to the tribune, who took it firmly and shook, sealing the deal.

Servilius dragged me from my sleep early that morning, and, without word, we rapidly walked to the docks in the cold darkness. I had not much experience with the sea, but I did have some knowledge of the various ships that drifted upon it. The boat that we were to board was a rare vessel of ancient days and rather small. She appeared long-seasoned, weather-stained from typhoons and all four oceans. Her dark hull was lined and cracked from war damage, and her masts looked to be cut somewhere on the coasts of Asia, as she was very oriental in design and feel. The ancient decks were worn and dirty, but it would prove to be a noble craft.

The lady privateer met us at the docks and led us onto the ship. Never before had I seen such a collection of men from different regions. There were Asians, Germans, Gauls, Greeks, Judeans, and a few Carthaginians. The styles of their weaponry and armour varied greatly. The sword-wielding Asians appeared to be the dark enforcers of the female, who led us aboard the ship. The crew stood at attention as she walked aboard.

"Captain Vierra," a burly Germanic warrior with a massive double sided axe across his back addressed her as we walked onto the deck. "All stores, men, and arms accounted for."

"Good," she replied, satisfied. "Tell the navigator that we set sail for Cimerora immediately. Cast off all lines, and hoist the sails!"

"Aye Captain!" they all shouted at once and began moving with great haste in all directions.

"You down there," she said to both Servilius and I as she tapped the hatch door with her foot. "You both are to stay hidden with the cargo."

"Lovely," the tribune replied. "Will you serve us morning tea and fluff our pillows for us before bedtime, domina?" he asked with a grin.

"If you do not get your Roman arse and your little puppy below decks," she ordered, "I will serve you more than tea!" She half-saluted the tribune and then closed the hatch.

"Puppy?" I asked, eyes wide.

Servilius snorted. "Hey at least she compared you to something cute and soft."

For three weeks we sailed, cramped in rotten, dark, dank, mould-infested quarters. On the fourth day of our self-inflicted internment, the tribune finally offered his given name as a sign of respect. I was now to call him Marcus, and he was to call me Tarixus. This was to be the beginning of a bond that lasts to this very day. Although Marcus is not the anchor that allows my ethereal form to remain tied to this mortal world, he has always been a constant reminder of who I was. Should he ever leave my side, I fear what little humanity is left in me should disappear entirely.

But I digress. Seeing the past through my own eyes as a child has caused me to become somewhat nostalgic; I apologise. I assume Marcus will give you some account of our travels across the sea or perhaps not. It was something new and exciting for me, even though I was only half-conscious for most of the trip. My sickness lasted close to a week as it was utter hell getting used to the rocking of the ship. I ate very little that first week. What I remember distinctly during the voyage was one particular song that the crew sang, for they sang it over and over again:

Hey don't yer see that black cloud a-risin'?

'Way haul away, we'll haul away Caesar!

Hey don't yer see that black cloud a-risin'?

'Way haul away, we'll haul away Caesar!

Naow whin Oi wuz a little boy an' so me mother told me,

'Way haul away, we'll haul away Caesar!

That if Oi didn't kiss the gals me lips would all grow mouldy.

'Way haul away, we'll haul away Caesar!

An' Oi sailed the seas for many a year not knowin' what Oi wuz missin',

Then Oi sets me sails afore the gales an' started in a-kissin'.

Naow first Oi got a Spanish gal an' she wuz fat an' lazy,

An' then Oi got a [Roman] tart-she nearly druv me crazy.

Oi found meself a Asian gal an' sure she wasn't civil,

So Oi stuck a plaster on her back an' set her to the Divil.

Sheepskin, pitch, an' beeswax, they make a bully plaster;

The more she tried ter git it off it only stuck the faster.

They were singing this song late one night when I heard a yellabove decks.

"Captain!" one of the sailors roared above the singing. "Cimerora's lights, dead ahead!"

"Very well," the Captain called back. "Darken the ship. We go to the Southern Island. Lookouts, to the bow!"

I could hear one of the sailors calling out the depth as we closed in on the island.

"Four fathoms 'n' holdin', Capt'n!" .

"There! Right rudder!" the Captain called out, moving the ship towards some unknown destination.

"Steady lad," Marcus said as he gripped my shoulder. "We could be in for some trouble."

Within minutes I heard the sound of the ocean turn into an echo as if we were in a cave of some sort. The ship came to a halt then rocked backward. I tightened my grip on the bars of one of the crates that were below deck with us as the ship began to dock.

"Roman, we are here. On the deck, if you please," said the Captain through the hatch.

Marcus and I gathered our belongings and climbed the oily, fish-scale encrusted wooden steps onto the deck.

"Very well, Captain," Marcus said. "We thank you for your time, but must ask you of one last favour: where is this contact of yours?" Marcus asked as he handed her the bag of gold.

She half-grinned back at him, and held the bag of currency in her hand, feeling the weight of it.

"Weigh it!" she yelled as she tossed the bag to one of the Asian bodyguards.

He opened the bag and took out one of the coins and bit it, then put the coin back in the bag and placed it on some sort of a scale.

"Yee Ma'am, it is all hewe," the Asian replied in his strange accent.

The captain turned to us in the cave and pointed directly up.

"Directly above you, you will find my contact, Roman. Her name is Sister Airlia," she explained and then extended her arm to Marcus' and he clasped his large hand around her forearm in return.

"Let us part paths now. Our business is concluded. I wish you luck, Roman."

Marcus nodded and let go of her arm and grabbed my shoulder, ushering me off of the ship.

"How much of my master's money did you give that woman?" I asked him.

"More than she probably deserved," he replied. "However, keep a pirate happy, and the ones with honour will not give you fuss," he said.

"Pirates? I thought they were privateers or traders?" I exclaimed.

Marcus laughed. "Trust me. I saw some of their cargo. They are not privateers by any stretch of the imagination."

As we walked off the ship and ascended the stairs out of the cave, a temple loomed before us. A woman stood at the steps of the temple, the strangest woman I have ever seen. Her eyes, hair, and skin were as white as the snow, and she stood at an unnatural angle. As we walked towards her, I could see she was not entirely in our world. I started to run backwards but Marcus caught me by the arm.

"Marcus!" I hissed as he still held my arm. "She is a ghost!"

"Steel your courage, Tarixus," Marcus said. "Do not fear. I know who this witch is."

Marcus let go of me and approached the ghostly woman.

"So witch, I thought Imperious banished you from these lands," Marcus said with his hand ready on the hilt of his sword.

"Oh look, one of Imperious' finest returns," Airlia breathed with mild mockery. "How went your mission, Tribune Servilius?" she asked with that same unearthly voice.

"What do you know of it, woman?" Marcus commanded.

"Oh I know many things, dear Marcus, more than you could possibly imagine," she said with an unnatural smile on her pale face.

"Such as?" Marcus asked, taking the bait.

"Such as your return here to claim your lovely bride-to-be. Alas, that will never happen now," she replied, attempting to pout.

"What do you know of her, woman! Out with it!"

Marcus pulled out his gladius and pointed the tip towards her ghostly throat. She laughed at his threat and did not move.

"Ohhh that is right. You do not know," she laughed again. "Better run along and find out then, hero," she said with a smile.

Marcus lunged forward only to find his blade meeting with air as Airlia laughed once more and flew off down into the cave, disappearing out of sight, leaving a black trail of smoke or Juno knew what in her wake.

Marcus bolted towards the row boats moored to the dock, and I struggled to keep up with him lest inadvertently leave me behind. The rest of our time on that godforsaken island was a nightmare, and the encounter with the ghostly witch was only the beginning.

The knowledge you seek, my old friend, can only be gained through the retelling of its origins, our origins. In order to understand everything that I have done, even why I chose to save you during the invasion of Sicily during World War II, all stem from betrayal.

Betrayal moved me to my greatest feats and brought me to my darkest despair. It is in these defining moments that we are shaped to become who we are, what we are. You understand betrayal, I believe. Soon, however, you will discover how far down the rabbit hole you have fallen and how worthless of a pawn you truly are in the scheme of things. What is important, you believe, is the here and now. The here and now, my friend, is fear - consuming fear.

I had never felt horror as I did thinking that my love, my Callista, was in some sort of peril. That fear surged through my veins; it drove me; it spurned me onward. I pushed the craft faster and harder than my body would allow. Blood trickled down the oars from my hands as I struggled to get to the main island.

When I hit the Cimeroran docks, I wasted no time. Several legionnaires saluted as they saw my tribune garb and began to assist me.

"Sir, can we hel-"

"No time, soldier!" I dismissed him and called to Tarixus. "Keep up boy!" I yelled, not wasting time with formalities any more. Tarixus struggled to keep up as I ran to my house.

I arrived at the door only to find it locked. Without hesitation I banged on it. No one answered. I kicked the door down with a mighty blow. It flew off the hinges and blew into the corridor of the house.

"What is the meaning of this?" a slave woman yelled without seeing who knocked down the door.

She rounded the corner with a stick ready to beat off the would-be intruder, but saw me instead.

"Dominus!" she exclaimed. "You are … alive!"

"What do you mean?" I asked, confused and enraged. "Where is Callista?"

The older woman paused. Her head dropped, and she shook as she backed up.

"Where is she, Lusca?" I boomed at my servant. "Did General Imperious not bring her back to my house? Is she still at the castle?" I demanded.

"Dominus," Lusca began, "she spent most of her time at the castle with the General, who looked after her. She was to return here to your house, but when she heard the news of your death, she stayed there. Some months went by, and she appeared fine, sad and grieving, but healthy. Then not more than two months ago, almost a year after your departure, she began to change, grow distant and forlorn. She was not herself."

"But, I sent a letter not some six months ago," I interrupted in disbelief.

"I can not answer if she received your letter, Dominus. We all believed you to be dead, even General Imperious," Lusca explained.

"What happened to her?" I asked more quietly, fearful of the answer.

"She disappeared, Dominus," Lusca sighed and wiped away a tear. "One day while I was hanging clothes to dry, I saw her in the courtyard. She held something in her hand and walked off towards the sea. When I finished hanging the clothes, I went to go find her. She was gone. I sent for General Imperious, and the men searched for days. The sea must have claimed her. The entire kingdom was saddened by the news."

"Why … why did they think I was dead?" I asked. "I was gone little more than a year. Many times the legions can be gone up for up to five to ten years during a campaign."

"Praefect Geminius told us you were dead, Dominus," she explained. "He told us he and ten other men were the only survivors."

"Geminius!" I hissed and raised my body with pure hatred and rage.

I must have scared the old slave woman as she fell to the ground.

"Where is he?" I barked at her, my fists shaking uncontrollably.

"D-Dominus, h-he sits at the castle at General Imperious' side. I-I saw him go there while I was at the market today," she stuttered, afraid.

"Watch the boy!" I commanded as I grabbed my shield and gladius.

I sprinted across the mountain path towards the castle. Praetorians watched me run forward, fully armed, and did not know how to react as I raced past them. The most I would hear would be the random "Sir?" as I was a blur before their eyes.

I sprinted across the castle bridge into the castle itself. It was a long run, but I was driven with pure hatred and insanity. Geminius would perish by my hands.

I raced up the stairs into the main citadel, kicking open the doors to the throne room. There stood a group of people staring at me, open-mouthed. I was in a blood lust, unsure of who was my friend and who was my foe. The praetorians moved towards me as I held my gladius in hand.

"Geminius, you foul cur! Face me now, you cowardly wretch!" I cried out.

General Imperious rushed forward, and I could see Geminius to his flank.

"Marcus, you are alive!" he cried. "Thank Jupiter!"

He came at me with open arms to embrace me, a shocked look on his face.

"Get out of my way, General!" I growled, pushing him to the side, not receiving his embrace. "Geminius has deceived me, our legion, and he is a murderer of children!" I cried, causing both Imperious and his guard to stand back, stunned by my words. "He tried to kill me, and then left me for dead. He is a dog of Romulus!" I spat. "I am here to settle our score."

Imperious stepped in front of me again, a look of both worry and anger conflicting on his face.

"Surely, Marcus, this must be a mistake?" Imperious asked.

"No mistake. He and his praetorians, men that I have served with for years, betrayed me and tried to keep the tome for themselves, for Romulus."

Imperious turned around and looked at Geminius, whose skin was burned and scarred from the encounter with Akarist.

"He," I said, pointing at him with my sword, "is the cause of my love's death, and he will pay for that with his life!"

As I stepped past Imperious towards Geminius, two of Geminius' special praetorians rushed at me from the flanks while the others stood in shock. I sensed their movement as their swords were held high for a direct blow to my head. I spun low and brought my gladius clean under the rib cage of the man to my left, up through his armour. Then using his body as a shield, I threw him backwards into the second traitor and leapt high up in the air and came down on his head, cleaving it in two. Their bodies dropped like trees in the forest.

I glared at Geminius and prepared to rush him when Imperious stood in front of me once more.

"Stop this, Marcus! Stop this madness!" he commanded.

I could sense the boy near me. He had followed me to the castle and was now standing behind me, watching. I believed that he was there to stop me, but it turned out that he was there to do much more than that.

Geminius strode forward and pushed General Imperious shield to the side.

"General, if the lying soon to be former Tribune has come here to die, I can surely help him with that," he said as he grinned, unsheathing his gladius and rushing towards me.

"Die traitor!" he yelled as he closed in on me.

Very few could call themselves a master swordsman in this world. I had no doubt about my skills, and I was ready for his mistake. Geminius brought the sword in a wide arc attempting to dispatch my head. In that instant, I knew that I did not want to kill him yet. I wanted him to confess his crimes, to be belittled in front of my men, my peers, and my superiors. I wanted them to see him for the traitor that he truly was.

I ducked rapidly, missing his swing and with the hilt of my sword, I hit him squarely on the kneecap, eliciting a crunching sound from his knee as I connected the butt of the sword to his bone. He spun over like a rag doll falling to the ground, face first, his gladius falling across the floor.

I leapt up and walked towards him kicking his sword out of reach. I pointed my blade to his neck as he turned over to put his hands up, begging me to stop. His face formed into a shade of horror, amplified by his badly burned face.

"I will give you but this one chance," I said, towering over him. "Confess to all here what you have done, and I might let you live."

General Imperious walked over beside me and stared down at Geminius. It seemed as though Imperious was finally beginning to realise who the traitor really was.

"Servilius, you have always been a clueless boy," Geminius laughed, wincing as he clutched his crushed knee. "Perhaps it is ironically fitting that both you and Imperious share the same first name. So trusting. So foolish. So weak!" he spat as he looked up at the general by my side. "You have no idea what has truly been going on here, Servilius. I am not the one you want killed. I am not the reason your Callista died," Geminius said with a malicious grin on his face.

"Do not say her name, traitor!" I yelled.

Imperious reached down and grabbed Geminius by his tunic.

"Geminius, keep your foul mouth shut!" he threatened. "Guards! Take Geminius away!" he ordered.

I stood there confused. I did not understand why Imperious was preventing Geminius from speaking.

"Stay your post guards!" I threatened them with my sword, and they paused briefly. "What were you going to say, traitor?" I commanded.

Geminius smiled, happy I had taken the bait, giving him his moment of escape.

"The General bedded your wife-to-be, tribune," he laughed. "He was in love with your woman, and when he found out that you were dead, he took her. She must have discovered that you were alive and mortified with grief, she took her own life."

Imperious made a move to strike Geminius, but I held his hand.

"Did you not wonder why you were sent on a suicide errand, Servilius?" Geminius laughed, and evil smile twisted on his face. "He wanted you dead and your woman for himself!"

"LIAR!" Imperious roared and struck Geminius with his fist crushing his skull in an instant, silence broken only by the Generals shuddered breath.

I turned around in disbelief, looking into General Imperious' eyes - they told me what I needed to know.

"Damn you to the fires of Hades!" I screamed as I rushed at Imperious, leaving Geminius on the ground.

I was faster than ever had been before. I could sense guards coming at me from all directions. I could hear the boy scream.

I thrust my sword at Imperious' neck only to have the blade hit the wall and break in two, sending me reeling across the floor. I rushed at him again, and he swatted me with the back of his hand sending me flying, like a child's toy, into the wall. His strength was unhuman. I struggled to maintain consciousness, but it was a losing battle. With darkening and blurring sight, I watched as Imperious and his guards approached me. Tarixus' screams deafened my ears until I slipped into the void of unconsciousness.

Ah, the Child of War wishes to know his past? The story of betrayal is as old as the Garden of Eden. You know of betrayal, do you not? You have experienced it your whole life. Now you seek me out to hear the old Cimeroran story of betrayal. I can tell you my part, no more though. It is not for me to say.

As you may know, at that time I was the matriarch of the Seers. I have always had the strongest connection to the Oracle, and, therefore, the greatest ability to glean the futures and pasts of mankind. You are linked to this future, even to its past.

As for the betrayal, I never knew if it was true. I feared that it might be, and not wanting to know the truth, I refused to ask the Oracle. I accepted Imperious' account at the time.

I was in the throne room that day, and I am certain that Marcus Servilius told you his account of what had happened, but not of the boy's. I doubt Tarixus told you, for what I saw remained in my mind's eye alone.

Tarixus had entered the room like a lost puppy, following his friend to whatever fate awaited them. When Servilius attacked first Geminius and then Imperious for the crimes that he accused them both of, it was very confusing for most of us. We did not know what was going on. Many of the soldiers froze because they did not know who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The only ones that attacked Servilius were the ones either working for Romulus or the ones defending Imperious.

I was in the back of the room when most of this had transpired and had moved to the side of the room to get a better view. There I saw young Tarixus come in, scared and shaken at what was befalling his eyes. It was then that I realised what had come to our doorstep. I do not think the boy had any realisation of his true power. Many of the praetorians had rushed to kill him when I moved in to intercept.

Before I could react, Tarixus froze in terror - for just a second - but it was then that I saw him transform into a beautiful butterfly of red lightning. I watched in amazement as in an instant he was a thunderbolt from the heavens, which I assumed was in pure reaction to his impending doom. It was instinctual, an unnatural occurrence, yet part of his biology.

He hit with a force that sent the four praetorians, who came to dispatch him, flying in all directions. Their eyes were as white boiled eggs as their smoky hulks came to a roll across the throne room floor. Tarixus reformed in that same instant with his clothes completely melted off, his body convulsing in shock.

Imperious' guards began to rush him, and I quickly intervened with a wave my hand, and they flew backwards. I held him with my mental force up against the wall for his own protection and mine.

I wanted to know who he was. I was curious, so I probed the dark nether regions of his mind. I found that he was much more than a boy, more than he or Servilius could have imagined at the time. I saw through his eyes as if I was but a child, an infant really. I was warm with love as I felt his mother's embrace.

She set me down in the cradle and sang a lovely tune, a song that made me so sleepy. I could not see her well, except that she had lovely golden hair that fell in ringlets about her face. I watched her through the weave of the basket cradle.

Suddenly, strange men in robes come in, and one in particular wore a peculiar robe unlike the others. He wore a light grey robe with green thorn vines crawling up the sides. He had a white sash and a tall hat.

I heard the mother cry out as the men entered. They spoke to her an ancient language that I did not know or understand. They appeared to be accusing her of something. The only word I could make out was "Mu". The man in the grey and green robe uttered what sounded like incantations. I saw her rise in the air as if she were floating. Then her arms quit flailing and dropped. After that, so did she. The rest of the men pointed towards me, and the leader waved his hand and dismissed them from the room. He walked over to me and gently picked me up. More incantations were uttered, and I felt warm. I felt myself being transported.

Abruptly, I stopped. Not out of my own volition, but because something or someone was forcing me out. I did not relay this vision to the boy, to Tarixus. I still have never told him. Then I did not wish him to know of such things, things that a child should never be forced to witness.

What I did do was ask him a question. In my own ignorance did I ask it. The mysteries of Oranbega were not known to me at the time. So out of sheer curiosity, I helped form an unrivalled animosity, and put in motion a deep-seated feeling of betrayal that would rock Tarixus to his very foundations. To this day, I regret asking; I regret telling him what I knew.

What I asked was altogether simple and yet devastating: I asked him what a Mu was, and why did the Oranbegans kill his mother for being a blood-traitor.

His slender body hung limp. He looked at me with wide eyes. I do not think he knew what the Mu were. What crushed him was that he had a mother, a mother killed by those he served, by those he worshipped.

He screamed at me, trying to break free of my mental holds. I let him go and followed him as he rushed over to Marcus' side, who lay unconscious on the throne room floor. I watched as he weakly tried to cover the tribune's body, weeping over it - weeping over his friend, over himself. I felt sorry for the boy. I enveloped him in a shield and asked Imperious not to harm him.

Imperious ordered that Marcus Servilius, former tribune, thereby be banished from Cimerora, and should he ever step foot on the island again, he would be punished with death.

He was allowed to stay in the castle, with the boy, under guard until he recovered from his wounds. After a few weeks, both he and the Tarixus set sail to lands unknown. I would not see them again until many years later.

*Roman mile - with 5 Roman feet in a passus, a Roman mile was 5,000 ft. Slightly shorter than a modern mile.

discipulus – Latin for student.

praefecti – administrators (navy).

denarii – common Roman silver coin.

aurei – less common Roman gold coin.

Tesserae - Roman dice game of chance.

• dominus – (master).

Meus Profiteor*

Book One: Origins

Chapter Four: Sacrifice

You. I knew you would eventually come. I cannot imagine any other way for this to take place. It is inevitable, I suppose. You will get what you want from me, whether I give you the information willingly or whether you take it from the deep reaches of my brain while you do what you do best. I wonder, do you have a heart in that fusion powered mechanical body of yours Destroyer? I sense a soul, but I for some reason I cannot read it, hmmpf, very strange, very strange.

And you, little girl. I wouldn't think you have stooped so low to endanger your own people. I knew you to have a knack for the dark arts, but to take pleasure in it, against those who have given you their blood, knowledge, and guidance, you should be ashamed. What is that Dahlia? A wicked, petulant smile on your face? Just remember child, in the end, we all get what we deserve. I guess that's why you are both here, the wicked and the destroyer. I guess I probably deserve this.

I suppose you two want to know all about the forbidden lands. About he, who is ever-powerful, all-knowing, and virtually a living God as far as I can tell.

But to understand the context, you must understand what Sacrifice is. Something you know very little about my sweet little Dahlia.

I remember learning a motto, a binding truth, just before they thrust the thorn in my heart.

A sacrifice you make today

Will Never be Gone

A sacrifice you make today

Will soon be passed on

A sacrifice you make today

Will stay in many hearts

A sacrifice you make today

Help many PLAY their parts

A sacrifice you make today

Might even change history

A sacrifice you make today

Will be kept in SOMEONEs memory...

Or so the story goes anyway. Quite frankly my memory isn't very good, this was many Millennia ago, mind you. I just know it wasn't pleasant, for any of us, and I wasn't the only one making sacrifices back then.

….more to come ;)