by William R.A.D. Funk
Rhythmic breathing beat back the desert’s silence. Leather sandals slapped the flat, cracked land with the rigid pattern of a soldier’s conditioning. Sweat rained down from his brow, blurring his vision. He dragged an arm across his face, but dry air had already licked it clean.
Tyrol of Thein raced through the shimmering waves of heat, his enemy too far ahead to see. His enemy, shaped and dressed as an Imperial soldier, could have only one destination in mind: the Imperial outpost. If that man, that monstrosity, made it there before Tyrol, the garrison could suffer the same gruesome fate as those in the rebel camp. A rebel himself, Tyrol had no love for Imperial soldiers, but no man deserved such a fate.
He attempted to swallow. Mouth dry, his throat stuck together, robbing him of the simple gesture.
High above, the sun appeared large, its width spanning half the sky. In ten minutes, Tyrol knew he’d die from heat stroke. His body would feel suddenly cold, his vision would darken until that final sleep came.
But that didn’t matter. As long as the creature died before him.
Less than two hundred paces ahead, the vague outline of his quarry moved effortlessly through the desert of No Man’s Land, the edge of civilization. Tyrol’s prey didn’t seem to mind the heat. Its direction centered on the Imperial outpost, where it could regain its numbers, where it could sink its teeth into the Empire, destroying it from within.
The Vicis glanced over its shoulder, face devoid of emotion, while its eyes glared through narrow slits. Its gaze met Tyrol’s and hissed–the threat of a cornered animal.
Fists balled and jaw clinched, Tyrol centered on his target and sprinted from his steady pace.
Centurio Albus of Caisus, dishonored Commander of the Imperial outpost in No Man’s Land, continued his patrol through the underground compound. He climbed the ladder from the living quarters to a small dugout–the outpost’s only above-surface structure. By the fourth rung, he could hear the raspy sounds of a man’s snores.
Albus stifled a growl.
The watchman had fallen asleep–again. Undermanned and ill-equipped, the outpost could afford no more than one man on watch at any given time. And, he’d fallen asleep.
Wooden rungs groaned under Albus’s grip as he ascended, anger hidden behind white lips stretched thin.
Albus kept quiet. Each step, every movement, produced no more than silence despite his heavy breastplate and greaves. The thick plume of blue and black on his montefortino helmet barely stirred when he crept up behind the watchman.
Meanwhile, Rufus snored away from the chair, slumped and sprawled out over a table, head propped up on one arm.
Albus’s patience had grown thin over five long years in the desert–a post assigned as punishment for the crimes of another. To add further insult to his injury, the Empire continued to send him every reject and reprobate.
He unsheathed his sword, glaring down at Rufus. His upper lip twitched at the wretched excuse for a soldier. The blade rose high. It hadn’t drawn blood in all of those five years, growing thirsty from lack of use.
A powerful swing connected with Rufus’s head. The loud crack echoed against the clay-baked walls of the tiny dugout.
“Wake up, you idiot,” Albus shouted over the clanging echo of metal against metal.
Startled, Rufus’s hand fell to the hilt of his sword as he stumbled from the chair. He whirled about, back against the wall, his now dented helmet at a jilted angle.
“If I were the enemy, Recruit, do you think I’d taken the time to wake you first?” Albus asked, his blade-point pressed against Rufus’s blue and black tunic.
Rufus’s hand fell away from his sword, cheeks red, eyes focused on Albus’s blade. “No–o, Sir.”
“And where’s your armor?” Albus pushed the point deep enough to make the man wince.
Rufus’s eyes wandered to the table, where his breastplate lay in a heap. It wasn’t the first display of complacency and to Albus’s dismay, it wouldn’t be the last.
Rufus straightened to attention. “Apologies, Sir. It’s just this damnable heat. No matter how awake I am, I find myself falling forever toward sleep.”
“You’re new to this post,” Albus said, letting the sword hang at his side. “You’ll grow accustomed to it. Or as accustomed as a man can.”
Rufus nodded. “Yes, Sir. I–I will, Sir.”
“And if you don’t,” Albus bared his teeth and spoke through them. “I’ll kill you long before heat or rebels have the chance. Do you understand me?”
Rufus swallowed, and then nodded.
Bright light filtered in by narrow slits, lancets, wide enough to fire an arrow through, but thin enough to keep men out. Albus stared out at the desert. Barren, lifeless land stretched out as far as he could see.
“I’ll be checking on you from time to time,” Albus said, turning back to his subordinate. “If I ever catch you sleeping on watch again, I’ll stretch you out on the sand and let the sun take you slow.”
Sweat rained down from Rufus’s prominent forehead, curving over his bulbous snout. His eyes had gone wide, quivering in their sockets.
Albus sighed. He’d allowed his anger to get the best of him. Right or wrong, he would be stuck with this man for a long time. More than twenty years of leadership had taught him to temper punishment with education and a chance for redemption. “No one can make you strong.”
Rufus’s brow curved down, a wounded look.
“Only you can do that,” Albus continued. “Discipline and respect are not passed down from one to another. You have to cultivate it. Pull it from deep within. The Empire isn’t strong because it’s the Empire. It’s strong because men make it so. Be one of those men.”
Rufus’s wounded brow curved in with thought. A hint of pride sparkled in his eyes.
“For now, try standing when on duty,” Albus suggested. “It won’t be comfortable, but that’s the point. It won’t be as easy to fall asleep on your feet.”
“Back at it then.” Albus headed for the ladder, the soldier still visible through the corner of his eye.
Rufus’s shoulders slumped. He rubbed at his chest where the blade had almost punctured.
Cooler air rushed up to greet Albus. Down in his quarters, he could remove the armor if only for a couple hours. He could use some of Quintus’s powder on the skin to stave off heat rashes and blisters.
“Are we to receive a resupply from the Empire, Sir?” Rufus called.
Albus understood the question or rather the concern. Out here, a soldier could feel disconnected or forgotten by the rest of the world. Without resupply, the outpost would starve in a couple of weeks. “In three days,” Albus said. “But, don’t worry. The military caravan has never been late. This outpost is to the Empire. They wouldn’t easily forget–”
“I don’t mean to contradict, Sir, but I think one is coming here now.”
Albus froze, two rungs deep, the underground cooling his calves. The resupply caravan wouldn’t–couldn’t–be early. Its schedule was decided in advance for security.
Due to the desert’s deadly heat, the only living souls out on the sand were soldiers from the two conflicting outposts. The alternative to a resupply caravan would be a rebel incursion–an event that hadn’t happened since the war’s onset.
“Show me,” Albus ordered. He forced his way back into the heat.
Rufus pointed through one of the lancets. “There. It’s a blur now, but it’s definitely headed this way.”
Albus followed the soldier’s outstretched finger. As he described, the hazy blur of a single person contrasted against a cloudless horizon. The terrain was devoid of life; no plants, trees or shrubbery existed to obstruct Albus’s view. Even rocks and boulders were a rarity. Only the flat, cracked, desert floor as far as one could see.
“Sound the alarm,” Albus shouted.
Rufus grabbed the rope to the alarm bell’s clapper.
“Wake up Tatius,” Albus continued, “Make sure Otho and Nonus bring their bows. And, now would be a good time to don your armor.”
Rufus thrust the rope back and forth. Clapper against bell, its sound would reverberate down through the outpost’s three underground levels. All would hear it and know: The outpost was under attack.
Albus stared out at the approaching figure. It bounced up and down in a sprint, distorted as the desert gave up its heat.
A sword in his grip and a grin on his lips, the invigorating jolt of adrenaline coursed through Albus. After five long years, he was finally back in his natural element.
“Help me!” shouted a stranger, wearing Imperial garb, as he sprinted toward the dugout.
Albus watched the scene with bent brow. It had to be a rebel trick. The only Imperials in the desert were under his command.
“Halt!” Albus shouted. Neither of the two approaching men seemed to hear. “Halt or be fired upon.”
Now, the man dressed as an Imperial soldier heard the words and spotted Albus’s two archers. He stopped, hands up. The Imperial glanced over his shoulder at his attacker still charging down on him.
Albus raised two fingers. “On the rebel.”
“Yes, Sir,” Otho and Nonus acknowledged. Their arrows honed in on the rebel’s green tunic.
“Die!” The rebel shouted, sword raised high in the air.
Albus dropped his hand, the signal to his archers. The arrows were quiet as they spit forth. Two dull thuds announced they’d found a target, their feathered ends extending from the green tunic, now stained red.
The rebel reeled back from the force, but didn’t collapse. He straightened, then fell to his knees. Over his head, he held the sword with both hands and flung it at the stranger. The blade punched through the man’s thigh.
Both men collapsed. The rebel fell to his side, chest heaving in short, violent jerks, while the Imperial’s bellows sounded inhuman as the cries of dying men often did.
“Otho, Nonus, get him to Quintus–” Albus pointed to the wounded Imperial, “–and neither of you are to leave his side until I say otherwise.”
“Yes, Sir,” Under each arm, both men lifted the wounded soldier to his feet. They escorted him to the dugout, sword still protruding from his leg.
Albus walked over to the dying rebel. “Far from home aren’t you?” He eyed the horizon, half-expecting/half-hoping more rebels would materialize.
The rebel smiled, blood trailing from parted lips. “You should’ve let me kill him,” the rebel’s words were soft and raspy. Albus stooped to hear. “Vicis is your problem now.”
“Vicis?” Albus asked, brows bent.
The rebel didn’t answer. He was dead.
“Rufus!” Albus shouted.
“Yes, Sir.” Rufus ran up to his side. His bronze breast plate was half-fastened and his dented helmet still sat at a jaunty angle.
Albus sighed at the recruit’s appearance. “Bring the rebel’s body to Quintus. When he’s done tending to the wounded man, he may be able to tell us something about what would bring a single rebel to our little desert oasis.”
“Yes, Sir.” Rufus looked at the corpse as if it weighed five hundred pounds.
Another sigh. “Get Plinius or Gallus to help you.”
“Yes, Sir.” Rufus’s voice rose in what had to be relief.
“And where is Tatius?” Albus asked about his second-in-command.
Annoyed, Albus made his way back to the dugout. Unprofessionalism and complacency he’d come to expect from those under his command. Cowardice, however, he would never tolerate.
He ducked through the dugout’s low arch. Fists clenched. Albus would ensure Tatius never displayed fear in front of the others if he had to beat courage into his scrawny hide.
Tatius of Caisus sat on the patient’s cot in Quintus’s laboratory. Glass flasks, beakers, and cylinders containing multicolored concoctions bubbled and hissed along the red-gray walls. Quintus, adorned in his occupation’s purple robe, worked with mortar and pestle to grind a small rock into dust.
“A little egg white from a domesticated chicken,” Quintus listed the ingredients as he plucked them from their various jars and added them to his mix. The blend of catalysts and reagents percolated in a small glass beaker suspended over the coal fire. “Can’t forget the wormwood extract.” He sprinkled what appeared to Tatius as sawdust into the beaker. The combination fizzled and coughed up a green wisp of smoke.
Tatius fought to keep his right eye from twitching. His fingers danced nervously on the cot’s wooden frame. Hardly aware, his toes tap, tap, tapped on the cavern floor. It was the heat. It had a way of crawling under the skin and scratch, scratch, scratching. He needed to cool down or go mad. His own rational thoughts hung by a straw from the outreaches of his mind. The earlier alarm bell had demanded his presence two floors above, where the heat was even stronger. To obey its call was unimaginable. He knew–if only in a distant way–that one good push and his mind would be lost forever.
“Please hurry, Quintus,” Tatius begged. He tore off his tunic. The normally pale flesh beneath was red and irritated. “I don’t think I can–” He pressed his palm to a temple and winced. His thoughts had ducked out of grasp.
“Patience, my boy,” Quintus said, his voice soothing. “I’m grinding the last ingredient now. Frost-stone from our own mine. You remember how it cooled your body last time?”
Tatius watched Quintus’s long beard bounce up and down as he spoke, but the words garbled in his ears. Gray hair funneled through a silver, ruby-encrusted ring. It’s gentle sway hypnotized as the wizard spoke.
Quintus pinched the powder from his mortar and sprinkled it into the beaker. There was a crackle as icy-blue smoke escaped. “Now, drink this and–”
“Tatius!” Albus’s voice burrowed through the outpost’s tunnels. “I have words for you!”
Tatius squeaked. “He’s coming. He’ll put me on guard duty, Quintus…with the heat!” He looked about the room for escape. “I can’t go back up there, Quintus. I can’t.”
“Just drink this and I think you’ll feel better.” Quintus poured the beaker’s contents into a brass cup.
“I just can’t go back up there!” Tatius shouted and made for the door.
“At least drink–” Quintus’s words thinned out as Tatius turned the corner and made for the ladder, then down into the mine.
“Quintus,” Albus burst into the wizard’s laboratory, a place he avoided on most occasions.
Magic made him uneasy. Even now, it sent a jittery anxiety through his muscles. There was something unnatural about the unseen. It was undisciplined. Impossible to regulate by a laymen and barely manageable by the initiated. It gave men a power they were ill-equipped to possess; a power to undermine the will of others.
Albus in his haste to find Tatius, now found himself standing in the outpost’s source of magic. Colorful fluids bubbled, as strange animal parts floated in jars, while odd mists whisked above a coal fire. Each breath dragged a whimsical scent into his lungs: Familiar, but absent from memory. The presence of magic’s unpredictable machinations stole some of the rigidity from Albus’s broad shoulders.
“There’s no need to shout, Albus,” Quintus returned. “I’m old, but everything still works.” His beard and bushy mustache arched up into a wide smile. “Now, what can I do for the commander, today?”
Albus cleared his throat. “I seek Tatius. Have you seen him?”
“Where is he?” Albus started forward, then stopped. Further into Quintus’s domain caused his muscles to tighten. What strange spell had the wizard cast to rob him of his confidence?
“Please, sit,” Quintus motioned to a wooden chair by the round table at which the wizard prepared and consumed his meals. “Would you care for some?” He held up the beaker of his latest concoction. “It’s Chill Bone potion. You won’t feel the heat for several hours.”
Albus waved it away. The raw, chafed flesh under his greaves begged him to reconsider. “As it wears off, my tolerance of the heat will have to start anew.”
“Not everyone’s as strong of will as you,” Quintus said, his smile shifted to one side.
“I’ve no need for compliments, Quintus. I need to find my second.”
“It’s about poor Tatius that I refer.”
Albus folded his arms.
“He didn’t ignore the bell for the reason you most likely assume.”
Albus sighed. Quintus had a way of drawing out a conversation whether a person wanted to talk or not.
Albus took the proffered seat at the table. “Then what reason did my second-in-command not rise to the call of battle?”
“Heat madness,” Quintus stated, smile gone. “Or at least, its inception.”
Albus’s haste to find Tatius withered. Heat madness was not to be taken lightly. Two men in the last five years of Albus’s command had succumbed to the illness, the results disastrous.
First, his quartermaster at the time went mad, slit the watchman’s throat, and then ran out into the desert. His body, a sun-baked husk, was found hours later. A diary in the quartermaster’s scribbled hand narrated his belief that the watchman–in league with The Heat–had kept him prisoner. By killing him, the quartermaster was free to escape.
On the second encounter, Quintus discovered the symptoms in one of the miners. The man was confined to quarters until the resupply caravan could take him back to civilization for treatment.
“If what you say is true, we have to confine Tatius immediately,” Albus stated.
Quintus nodded. “I was preparing Chill Bone potion for him before you arrived. I’d planned on adding a sedative to make him more compliant, but your booming voice sent poor Tatius into flight.” The wizard peppered his tone with a hint of reprimand.
“I take your point.” Albus gave the wizard a roguish smile. “Tell me where he is now, and I promise to whisper until he’s found.”
“Unless I miss my guess, he’ll have made his way to the lower level where it’s coolest.”
Albus nodded. “With Plinius and Gallus helping Rufus, the mine is deserted.”
“That’s best considering the possible state of Tatius’s mind,” Quintus said.
Albus stood. “Agreed–”
“Wounded man coming through,” Otho shouted. He and Nonus carried the wounded Imperial–now unconscious–into Quintus’s laboratory.
“What’s this?” Quintus asked, riddled with excited curiosity.
“A wounded soldier that needs aide,” Albus stated the obvious. “Beyond that, we have to discover for ourselves. Let me know when he’s ready to speak.”
Quintus didn’t waste time. He raced about the room collecting materials from drawers and shelves.
“Either Otho or Nonus will serve as guard over the wounded man until I say otherwise,” Albus said. “If you need assistance, get one of them to help.”
“Of course, of course,” Quintus answered, his attention elsewhere. “Otho, you’re the strongest. You’ll hold the man down while Nonus helps me pull the sword free.”
“Make way!” Rufus shouted, as he helped Plinius and Gallus carry the rebel’s dead body into the room.
“And what’s this?” Quintus asked.
“Another mystery I hope you can shed light on when you’re done with him–” Albus pointed to the wounded Imperial, then back to the rebel, “–our dead friend here was chasing him across the desert.”
“And where are his comrades?”
“He came alone,” Albus said.
“How strange,” Quintus whispered as he prepared his tools on the round table where Albus had been sitting a moment ago. “Perhaps poor Tatius wasn’t alone in his current plight.”
“Perhaps,” Albus granted, not convinced. Although his words were unusual, the rebel didn’t appear insane.
“Well, I can handle things here. You should concern yourself with Tatius before his condition worsens.”
Albus couldn’t argue. “Plinius. Gallus. Suit up. The two of you will accompany me into the mine. Tatius has been taken by heat madness. He’s to be apprehended and secured in his quarters.”
Everyone except Quintus stared at Albus, their faces uncertain.
“I said, suit up!” Albus roared. His voice still had an effect. The two miners shook themselves free and raced to their quarters for arms and armor. “Rufus, stand at the ladder and alert me if Tatius tries to ascend.”
“Yes, Sir.” Rufus rushed out.
“Otho,” Albus said, waiting for Otho to turn. “As quartermaster, you are second-in-command while Tatius is incapacitated. Don’t disappoint.”
“Ye–yes, Sir,” Otho stammered, his large head and tiny ears accurately painting the picture of sub-modest intelligence.
Rejects and reprobates, Albus thought. Not a man among them.
“And, put someone on guard-duty. The post is unmanned,” Albus added.
Albus walked out of Quintus’s laboratory into the narrow corridor carved from the red-gray rock that made up most of the desert’s underground. Two floors below the surface, crates and burlap sacks clotted the corridor, the level serving as storage aside from Quintus’s secluded work space. One floor above housed their living quarters and one floor below contained the reason for an Imperial presence in No Man’s Land, the frost-stone mine.
Turning the corner, Albus could hear a whispered voice emanate from Quintus’s laboratory, “What the hell does all that mean?” Otho asked.
“It means if the boss meets an untimely end, you become the supreme leader of this pile of sand,” said Nonus, the outpost’s resident priest.
Gallus was the first to step foot on the mine’s floor. Met with a black darker than night, he drew his sword. Someone, presumably Tatius, had extinguished the oil lanterns, plunging the winding tunnel complex into an abyss.
The overgrown miner shivered. His sweaty clothes now clung to his body, made cold by the mine’s chill. He watched as his breath formed a thin vapor before it vanished into the darkness.
“I need light down here,” Gallus called up the vertical tunnel.
A whisper echoed around him, “Light means flame. Flame means heat. Heat is bad. Heat is the enemy.” The voice, if not deranged, belonged to Tatius.
Gallus–the largest Imperial in the outpost both in size and strength–felt vulnerable. He pressed his back against the ladder, the soft light from above created a limited glow for a couple of feet in every direction. It wouldn’t give ample warning if Tatius charged him, but with the light came a shred of confidence.
“Tatius, Sir. It’s Gallus…the miner. I’m a friend. Remember?”
A high-pitched chuckle echoed against the mine’s rock-strewn walls.
Gallus thanked the Empire’s one true deity as an oil lantern descended by a rope and pulley system. The same system used to remove excavated frost-stone from one level to the next. With each foot lowered, two feet of light stretched out in front of the miner. Once at eye level, Gallus could see the room before him.
The sieve room was a rounded space twenty feet across and a couple hands taller than Gallus’s six-foot frame. Various tools hung on the wall by wooden pegs. Two tunnels wormed their way through the rock across from where Gallus stood.
In the center, a large apparatus dominated half the room. Also rounded, it contained twelve layers of bronzed mesh used to separate ordinary rock from frost-stone. It was operated by repeatedly pulling on a rope that shifted the sieve’s layers from side to side. That was Plinius’s job. A man with a wiry build, Plinius was better suited to the task. While Gallus had to claw raw stone from the mine’s tunnel with a pickaxe.
Pickaxe! An empty space on the wall caught Gallus’s eye between the shovels and hammers. A pickaxe was missing. Yet, Plinius was meticulous about the tools. If one was out of place…
“Commander, I think Tatius has armed himself with a pickaxe.”
Laughter faded down one of the tunnels. From the echo, Gallus couldn’t determine which one.
“Stay your position. We’re coming down,” Albus announced.
Albus and Plinius had descended. Rufus stayed above should Tatius get by them and try to flee upward. Gallus used the flame from his oil lantern to ignite the others along the wall. In minutes, the sieve room took on its typical orange-blue glow. The black fumes from oil lanterns escaped through slits carved into the ceiling.
Proper ventilation made the mine livable. Its cooler clime made it desirable. Desirable until an armed madman had sequestered it. Now, Gallus would’ve taken a turn at watch rather than be down below. He found insufferable heat was suddenly preferable to a pickaxe in the chest.
“Tell me about the tunnels,” Albus instructed.
Gallus spoke first, having spent most of his days chipping away at the mine, “As you already know, the tunnel to the left is abandoned. We’ve scraped every pebble from that vane years ago. But, the tunnel to the right is fairly new, only a few hundred feet.”
“Do they intersect at any point?” Albus asked.
“Yes, Sir. There’s one,” Gallus replied. “It was by accident. When following the new vane, we intersected with one of the branches from the original tunnel.”
“Curses,” Albus muttered. His eyes retreated to a distant stare as if processing some internal calculations.
The commander’s deeply concentrated look reminded Gallus of the stories he’d heard about the man: Tales of a powerful tactician with more victories under his leadership than anyone else alive. His one inescapable flaw was in having a brother who aligned with the rebel’s polytheistic cause. He’d refused to execute his little brother, which led to his subsequent disgrace and exile to the outpost five years ago. In the face of that injustice, he never complained, never faltered in his duties.
“Why does that matter, Sir?” Plinius asked. The thinner of the two miners looked comical in drooping armor. His helmet and breast plate were made for a soldier much larger than him.
“It means we’ll have to split up,” Albus explained. “If we all go down one tunnel, Tatius could simply circle around behind us in an endless loop. The rebellion has used conditions like these to make their smaller numbers count.”
“The rebels, Sir?” Plinius asked. Gallus often wondered how a person that quick in body could be that slow of intellect. Then again, repeatedly pulling the sieve’s rope didn’t require a lot of thought.
Albus nodded, his face bright as he explained. “A legion’s numbers are useless if they have to funnel into a narrow space. Tatius is a graduate of the War College. He knows this. Even in his addled mind, he might retain a soldier’s strategic wit.”
“How should we split, Commander?” Gallus asked, fearing the worst.
“Since you know the tunnels better than either of us, you will take the new tunnel. Since I know little of them, Plinius will serve as my guide down the left.”
Gallus swallowed hard. It wasn’t the thought of armed conflict that rattled his nerve, but rather the strange laugh Tatius echoed off the walls. There was something inhuman about insanity.
“If you should encounter Tatius, don’t engage,” Albus said, face stern. “Simply shout that you’ve spotted him. Plinius and I will rush to the intersecting tunnel behind him. The same goes if we discover him first. If we can, I’d like to take Tatius alive. He’s a good man and it’d be a shame to lose him in such a disgraceful manner.”
“Yes, Sir,” Gallus replied with what he thought passed for confidence.
“Let’s begin,” Albus said, plucking a lantern from a hook on the wall and handing it to Plinius before taking one for himself.
Gallus followed the example.
“Good luck,” Albus said, stepping one careful foot at a time down the left tunnel.
Plinius shot Gallus an uncertain glance. The two of them had spent three years as partners. Unlike the soldiers above, they were civilians, a separate class.
“Don’t worry,” Gallus comforted, hiding his own fear. “You couldn’t be safer. The commander’s well known for getting his hands dirty in battle.”
“But, what about you?” Plinius whimpered.
Gallus puffed out his chest. “Tatius is a tough guy, but do you see anyone taking down someone with these.” He slapped a free hand against his bicep, the muscle thicker than Plinius’s head.
The skinny miner smiled, then nodded. The fear in his eyes had gone.
“Now stop wasting time,” Gallus mock-scolded. “The commander needs his guide. Hop to.”
Plinius returned with a mock salute–fist against chest–and disappeared into the tunnel.
Each step into his own tunnel, Gallus wondered who would convince him it was safe.
“That should do it,” Quintus said over the closed wound. The stitch work was neat and even, a result from having an unconscious, unmoving patient. He walked over to a bowl of water and rinsed the blood from his hands. He instructed the others to do the same. “I don’t want bloody prints all over my laboratory.”
But in playful defiance, Nonus hovered a bloodied hand an inch from the wall. No Man’s Land offered few distractions. And, the boredom had a way of reducing men to immature caricatures of themselves. Nonus was no exception. Although, Quintus couldn’t remember a time when the lanky priest was any more than a joke gone stale.
“Touch that wall and I’ll sprinkle fire-salt in your next Chill Bone potion,” Quintus warned.
Nonus recoiled as if the wall were infected with some strange disease. Eyes on the floor, he walked over and rinsed his hands in the bowl.
Quintus stooped over the Imperial, stroking his own beard beneath the ruby-encrusted ring. There was something wrong and he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. The wound should have shed more blood than it did. And, there was no sweat. The wounded man didn’t sweat. Granted, they were two levels below the surface, but it was still uncomfortably warm.
“I call dibs on it,” Nonus whined, breaking Quintus from his contemplation. Otho and Nonus were fighting over the looting rights for the rebel’s corpse.
“Back! Both of you,” Quintus shouted.
Despite Quintus’s earlier threat involving fire salts, Nonus now glared at him. “You now the rule, Magician,” Nonus used the less flattering term for the wizard’s profession. Magicians were the charlatans of the magic world. Illusions and parlor tricks were the domain of such lesser men. While Magic belonged to the wizard. “A soldier can loot what he kills.”
“But, my arrow struck first,” Otho broke in. “And, as the commander put it, I’m in charge while he’s gone.
Quintus sighed, tugging at his beard. Soldiers could be so short-sighted. They lacked the patience for proper investigation. “I’m not contesting your right to loot, but the commander gave specific orders for me to find out why this man came alone. I must do so before you pick him clean.”
Both men looked dubious.
“Perhaps the two of you can discuss how to divide the loot while I conduct my investigation.”
Suspicion vanished, replaced by greed.
“That should be simple enough,” Nonus said, walking away from the body. “I have quicker reflexes. Naturally, it was my arrow that launched first.”
“Except, I’m stronger. My arrow would fly faster,” Otho rebutted.
Quintus drowned out the bickering as he examined the corpse. The man lacked any armor, but wore the green tunic of the rebellion, green standing for honor and victory. An intentional change from the Empire’s blue and black, blue for loyalty and faith to the one true deity–a fact that the polytheistic rebels fought against.
Around the neck, a thin plate of metal on a hemp string identified the man as Tyrol of Thein. He had a belt pouch with a handful of copper coins and an empty scabbard. The missing blade sat on a brass tray, recently removed from a man’s leg.
Quintus tore open the tunic. His hand then crept up to stroke his own beard. “Interesting,” he muttered.
Nonus and Otho were drawn by the word. “What’s interesting?” Nonus asked. “Is it valuable?”
“Only to an inquisitive mind,” Quintus replied. “See these marks?”
Nonus and Otho nodded. “Flesh wounds,” Otho uttered.
“Exactly,” Quintus said. “They’re quite recent too. Our dead rebel was in battle not long ago.”
“Out here?” Nonus asked, wrinkling his long nose. “Against who?”
“Wh–where am I?” called a voice from the patient’s cot.
“Maybe our now-conscious friend can shed some light on these mysteries,” Quintus said, walking over to the wounded Imperial. “What’s your name, son?”
“Cato–” a dry cough cut him short.
Quintus handed him a cup of Chill Bone potion to wet his throat. Cato drained it and sighed in notable relief.
“Ah. I needed that,” Cato said, then stopped. His hands clawed at his stomach as he doubled over in pain. Before he could utter a sound, the man shook in a violent seizure.
“What do we do?” Nonus shouted in panic.
“Nothing,” Quintus said, hiding his own fear. “The fit has to finish before we can–” The seizure stopped, a thin strand of pink foam had bubbled between his lips. Cato lay motionless.
Quintus placed an ear over Cato’s mouth and watched the chest. It didn’t rise. Breath didn’t tickle his ear. Horrified, he laid a hand on the man’s chest. The heart didn’t beat.
“He’s dead,” Quintus said, stunned by his own announcement. He dropped to a whisper, “But he didn’t lose that much blood. Did I miss something?”
“What?” Otho asked. “How? What did you give him?”
“Chill Bone potion,” Quintus replied. “It couldn’t hurt a newborn much less a grown man.”
Quintus got to his feet and paced the length of his laboratory. He tugged at his beard as if he could pull the answers free by a strong enough yank.
“He’s going to kill me,” Otho muttered.
Nonus chuckled. “The burdens of leadership, my friend,” he said, slapping Otho on the back.
“What?” Quintus returned his attention back to the room. He spotted the fear in Otho’s eyes and recognized the same concern in Tatius before he fled. “Relax,” he said, placing a hand on Otho’s shoulder. “Cato was my patient. His death is my responsibility and I’ll tell Albus the same. You’re absolved of any fault.”
Otho nodded. “Okay, Quintus.” Relief washed away the fear in his eyes.
Quintus was less concerned over Albus’s reaction than the quartermaster. There was a good chance his patient had died from a potion he’d given him. Wizards were sworn to protect life at all costs. Magic to kill and potions to poison were left to the shadowy figures of sorcerers and dark alchemists. To have taken a life, even if by accident, would call his abilities into question. It was rare, but a wizard would occasionally fall for the allure of darker magics. With a dead patient, questions would be asked. Doubt would form.
Quintus shook the thought from his head, if only for a moment. “Help me put the rebel on the cot. I don’t want to be tripping over bodies all day.”
Nonus and Otho obeyed.
“Otho,” Quintus whispered to the quartermaster. “Didn’t the commander instruct you to post a watchman?”
Otho’s eyes shot open. “That’s right.” He raced out of the room.
“I’ll bring you some Chill Bone potion,” Quintus called after him. Turning to Nonus, “I trust you can guard two dead men. Maybe you can tend to their spirits before you strip them of their worldly possessions.” Those sarcastic words were out before he could pull them back in.
“Don’t worry about me, Magician,” Nonus returned with equal venom. “If they give me any funny business, I’ll just give them some of your Chill Bone potion. It seems to be more effective than a sword.” The priest’s smile turned wicked.
Quintus bit down hard. The comment struck deep. It would be the first of many like it if he didn’t do something fast. Cornered, he chose the most common refuge–denial. He replied by pouring a cup of the potion, then drinking it all in long confident gulps.
Nonus’s jaw dropped.
“There’s nothing wrong with my potions,” Quintus said, pouring another round. He left the room, Otho’s cup of Chill Bone in hand.
To Gallus, the echoed laughter of Tatius’s madness seemed closer with each step. The tunnels were his home. In days past, their closeness made him feel protected. Today, they closed in on him. They stifled.
A small cavity opened on Gallus’s right. He stopped. With a wave of the lantern, he illuminated the area. No Tatius.
The recesses along the tunnel were common. Whenever a vein of frost-stone or other precious ores split from the tunnel, Gallus would dig it out, leaving a small pocket in which he could later store materials and equipment. The spaces were often large enough to conceal one or two men comfortably. As a result, Gallus scanned them carefully before pressing on down the tunnel.
“I see your flame,” Someone whispered from up ahead, out of sight.
Gallus stopped. He pressed the lantern forward, creasing his eyes to better pierce the dark.
“Tatius. Is that you?” Gallus called, his own voice bouncing back at him.
“You’re trying to bring the heat down to me.” Tatius raised his voice from a whisper to an angry accusation, “I won’t let you!”
“The lantern is only so I can see, Tatius,” Gallus returned.
“Come on, Tatius. We just want to help you. Commander says–”
“Commander says, commander says,” Tatius rattled off. “Commander says Tatius go up and lookout on the land of heat. Suffer the heat, the commander says.”
Gallus recognized the voice as Tatius’s, but it was different; it was twisted like the man’s mind.
With sword stretched out in front, he moved forward, ready to call out. Another cleft opened on the right. The lantern slowly peeled back the shadow concealing it. Light glinted of something metallic. Gallus sucked in a breath to shout. It had to be Tatius.
Gallus swung to face the crevice, lantern thrust forward. The space brightened. Flickering light reflected off the metal surface of a wheelbarrow.
He wasn’t there.
Tatius roared, emerging at full sprint from further down the tunnel. Pickaxe in hand, raised high, he barreled into Gallus’s side.
The large miner, stunned by the crazed look in the eyes of his attacker, managed only to lift his arm. The bone cracked as it connected with the pickaxe’s wooden handle. Pain exploded in Gallus’s wrist as Tatius’s momentum brought both of them to the ground.
Pinned on his side, Gallus could see the pickaxe’s sharp point inches from his face. With broken wrist and the weight of Tatius’s body pressing down, his superior strength abandoned him. Tatius laughed as he watched the point descend, lowering toward Gallus’s eye.
“That’ll teach you to attack me with heat,” he said.
Tatius lifted his body to drop down with more force. Gallus knew he wouldn’t be able to resist. The point would pierce his eye and then his brain, light’s out.
Gallus closed his eyes in anticipation.
There was a loud clang, but pain didn’t follow.
He opened his eyes in time to watch Tatius’s mouth sag open and his eyes roll up. Gallus jerked his hips and Tatius fell off, the unconscious man’s head smacking the tunnel wall.
Plinius stood over him, a shovel in hand. “What’s the point of having these–” Plinus said, slapping one of his biceps, “–if you don’t use them.” The skinny miner smiled.
Nonus yawned. As with most days, he was bored. The fact that he shared a room with two dead bodies didn’t bother him. A priest’s duties often involved preparing the dead for their transition into the next world.
The next world. Now that was ludicrous. To believe in something they’d never seen. Something they had no evidence of aside from what men of religion said to be true. Priests, like himself, were mere con men with symbols of hope in one hand and a collection box in the other. It never ceased to amaze him how people could behave like mindless sheep, a hole ever-burning at the base of their coin purses.
That reminded him.
Nonus looked around the room. He was alone, no one to contend with his right to loot. Head poking from the door, he looked both ways. Rufus stood at the far end, guarding the ladder down to the mine, but no Otho or Quintus. Nonus silently closed the door and locked it.
After a cursory check of the rebel’s possessions, he wasn’t overjoyed. Seven coppers couldn’t even get him laid. It could buy the first pint of mead though. Nonus pocketed the coins.
He hovered over the Imperial and mused that Quintus technically had looting rights for killing his own patient. But then again, the wizard was too sanctimonious to loot. Nonus shrugged, then continued his search.
“Thanks for nothing, buddy,” Nonus said. The man had no possessions, not even the imprinted plate around his neck. He was anonymous, destined for an unmarked headstone.
“Help me,” Cato whispered, eyes open.
Nonus stumbled back, toppling two chairs on his way down.
Cato reached a weak hand out toward Nonus, pale and bent at the wrist. “Help me.”
“Yo–you’re dead,” Nonus muttered. He’d dealt with dozens of dead bodies. This was the first to speak.
Cato shook his head in a slow, heavy motion.
“But Quintus checked,” Nonus argued.
Cato shook his head again. “He was wrong.”
Not entirely convinced, Nonus turned toward the locked door. “I’ll get Quintus. He’ll know how to help you.”
Cato reached out. “Wait.”
Nonus stopped, glancing over his shoulder, his own hands trembling.
“I need–” Cato tried to speak, his words fading, “I need–”
“You need what?” Nonus asked.
“I need–” Cato motioned for Nonus to come closer.
Nonus took a couple steps forward. Cato motioned again. Reluctantly, Nonus moved close enough to stand over the bed, the rebel’s dead body between him and Cato.
“I…need–” Cato whispered, motioning closer.
Nonus bent over, just out of reach. “What do you need?”
“A place to hide,” Cato said.
Nonus’s eyes shot open. Something was wrong.
Before he could retreat, pain sliced across his upper back. Both legs went instantly numb, collapsing, dropping him forward. He tried to break his fall, but both arms refused to obey. He landed face first against Cato’s body.
“Your race is so easily deceived,” Cato said, sliding out from under him.
Strong hands lifted Nonus to the cot and rolled him over. Above, standing over him, Cato held the sword Quintus had removed from his leg.
“I can’t move,” Nonus said, his voice shaky.
“I severed your spine,” Cato explained. “At most you’ll be able to move your head and neck.” He dropped the sword back on the brass try.
“Why?” Nonus asked. “We tried to help you.”
Cato chortled. “I’ve known your people longer than you’ve known yourselves. You don’t help. You offer pretty promises and leave bitterness in your wake.” He shook his head, the mirth now absent from his face. “None of that matters now. This is our land. And you’ve come again with sword and pickaxe, to chip away at my home–” He stopped. The bones snapped and shifted. His face became an amalgam of different people Nonus had never seen before. Those thick muscles shrank while his body stretched. Before his eyes, Cato’s body had changed into someone else’s. When the face settled, Nonus lay silent, shocked. He was looking into the face of his own reflection.
“You’re–” Nonus started to say.
“You?” Cato finished. His face and body were identical to Nonus. “We are Vicis. And, soon your people will again learn to fear that name.” The Vicis removed Nonus’s armor, attaching it to his own body.
“But, I don’t understand–” Nonus was interrupted by the cloth shoved into his mouth. Cato tied a loose rag around Nonus’s head to keep him from spitting out the gag.
Cato walked over to a lantern hanging from a wall sconce. He blew out the flame and unhooked it.
“If it’s any consolation,” Cato spoke, standing over the cot, “your friends and loved ones will join you in the next world soon enough.”
“Huh?” Nonus sputtered through the gag.
Cato upturned the lantern, its oil spilling from the bowl, soaking Nonus and the rebel body.
The priest’s eyes stretched wide with horror as the situation became clear. Fear and a severed spine locked him in place.
Cato took an oil soaked straw and lit it from another lantern. He put the original lantern back in its place and lit it. Straw in hand, he walked over to the cot.
Nonus shook his head violently. “No!”
A wicked smile on Cato’s face, the straw dropped.
The pulley system worked as Plinius had said it would. Tatius’s bound and unconscious body raised with little effort from the mine floor to Rufus above.
Albus let out a quiet sigh. Until recently, the outpost had been a quiet one. To have two major events in one day defied the odds: First, a rebel attack involving a single soldier, a mystery Imperial appears, and now Tatius gone mad. Albus’s command–if it could be called that–was disintegrating. How would the mine produce frost-stone for the Empire if his strongest miner sustained a broken wrist?
“Fire!” Nonus shouted. “There’s a fire in Quintus’s lab.”
“Plinius,” Albus switched mental gears. “You and Gallus ferry water from the aqueduct to the fire.”
“Yes, Sir,” Both men said. Gallus didn’t ask how he would accomplish that with one less arm. Instead he grabbed a bucket with his good hand and raced for the underground aqueduct.
“Rufus,” Albus shouted up. “Secure Tatius in his quarters. Remove any sharp objects and make sure I have the only key.”
“On it,” Rufus answered.
At the lab’s threshold, Albus shielded his eyes against the blaze.
By some miracle, the flames kept to the patient’s cot while most of the black smoke, carrying the scent of charred flesh, escaped through the ceiling slits. Nonus had moved anything flammable against the opposite wall. And, the cavern’s stone surfaces prevented the fire from spreading further.
Albus thanked the one true deity for that small charity and noted Nonus’s competence in the face of emergency. He would have to reward the action when everything settled back down.
Nonus looked over at the commander. “I don’t understand it, Sir. The bodies just burst into flame.”
Quintus raced down the corridor toward Albus as Gallus thrust the first bucket of water onto the pyre. A small section of the fire hissed, vanishing into steam.
“What happened?” asked Quintus.
Albus failed to restrain his anger. “You tell me, Quintus.” He glared at the wizard as Gallus rushed in with another bucket. “I was dealing with Tatius. You were supposed to be in the lab getting me answers.”
“I got what I could,” Quintus explained, fluster in his face. “The wounded soldier died before I could get anything more than his name.” Quintus moved to let Gallus by with another bucket. “He said his name was Cato. I gave him some Chill Bone potion since he was in the desert for so long. He drank it, doubled over, and died. I left Nonus with the bodies while I brought Otho some potion.”
“Curses,” Albus muttered. Nothing was going right today. “Nonus said the bodies burst into flame. Could your potion have–”
“Absolutely not,” Quintus said, fluster turning to irritation. “Bodies don’t just start fires and neither do my potions.”
Albus held out a hand toward the fire. “Then you tell me.”
“I don’t know.”
Albus sighed. “What can you tell me.”
Quintus stroked his beard. “The rebel did have fresh wounds, as if from battle. Aside from that, I have nothing new.”
Albus nodded, processing the information.
Gallus rushed by with his fourth bucket. The fire was nearly dead.
Perplexed, Albus traced through what he knew: an unarmed Imperial soldier running through the desert alone, chased by a single rebel soldier on a suicide mission. What had he said? You should have let me kill it. Vicis is your problem now.
“Does the name Vicis mean anything to you?” Albus asked Quintus as Gallus put out the last of the fire. The miner sat down in a chair, breathing heavily, and cradling his broken wrist.
“It was the last thing the rebel said before he died.”
Quintus tugged at his beard. “Maybe. Nothing specific springs to mind, but it has a familiar ring to it. I’ll check my books and get back to you.”
“You can tell me when I return.”
“You’re leaving?” asked Quintus.
“It will be nightfall soon,” Albus said, staring at the charred bodies now on the floor. “Rufus and I will scout the rebel camp. If I can’t find answers here, I might find some there.”
“Just the two of you?” asked Quintus. “Is that wise?”
Albus shrugged. “Tatius has gone mad. Gallus is wounded. You’re no soldier. That leaves Otho, Rufus, and Nonus as capable for combat. Otho is next in command and therefore must stay here. Nonus will cover his back. That leaves me with Rufus.”
“What of Plinius?”
“He did well down in the mines, but he’s skittish,” answered Albus. “I need stealth if I’m to get the answers I seek.”
“Very well,” said Quintus. “I’ll prepare a potion for Fire Breath to keep you both warm at night and Chill Bone potion should you be caught in the desert at daybreak.”
Albus started to wave the suggestion away.
“Don’t argue Albus. It weighs nothing and having it can save your life.”
“Fine. If it doesn’t distract you from researching this Vicis.”
With the setting sun, No Man’s Land transformed from a furnace with its shimmering waves of heat by day to iceless tundra by night. Frigid winds strafed the land, capable of numbing a man’s soul while a star-littered sky and amber moon made lantern light unnecessary.
Albus and Rufus laid against the cracked desert floor, the rebel camp less than a mile away.
Rufus popped the cork to the Fire Breath potion Quintus had given him and drank it all. “A strange thing to crave heat after despising it all day.”
Albus snorted. “Hardship makes a man stronger while comfort makes him weaker. Your perspective will change if you seek out the qualities of life that will make you better. Now hand me the looking glass.”
Rufus obeyed, brows bent in thought.
The looking glass extended into a conical stick. It was another gift from Quintus. To help with your stealth, he’d said. Albus looked though it now and understood what the wizard meant. Without the glass, the rebel camp was nothing more than a dark speck in the distance. With the glass, Albus was standing at their front door. Or at least his eyes were.
Through the lancets of the rebel’s dugout, Albus could see inside, but no watchman.
“It’s empty,” Albus stated, unsure of his own words.
“Sir?” asked Rufus, sounding equally uncertain.
“Quintus’s toy allows me to see inside the dugout,” Albus explained. “There’s no one on guard.”
“What should we do?”
“Investigate,” Albus answered. For the first time in five years, he was on the offensive. His heart agreed with the decision, hopping along at an excited pace.
Halfway through his limited library, Quintus found the vague reference he was seeking. He found it in a tome of ancient lore. Most of the stories were long abandoned as fictitious accounts spun by overeager men desperate to make their name known. The reference was nothing more than a bard’s archaic poem.
Quintus read the poem aloud as if casting some arcane spell.
“From deep depths unknown,
arise Vicis, face unshown.
Beware world of man
this forever changing clan.
From the endless sands
Power will change hands.
Frost and snake heads,
weapons a Vicis dreads.”
Quintus shut the book, more confused now than before he opened it. Why would a rebel soldier whisper this long forgotten name to a commander of his enemy? Quintus looked over to the burnt body as if it may answer the question. He looked closer. Maybe the bodies could answer the question.
Quintus shot up from the chair, leaving the book open on the table. He dashed about the room collecting his autopsy utensils.
He’d have to be quick. If the others knew what he was doing, they’d object. Autopsies were viewed as desecration. But, Albus needed answers and superstition was a lousy excuse for ignorance.
In the corridor outside Quintus’s laboratory, Nonus/Vicis listened at the door, a snarl wrenching at his lips. His hiding place wouldn’t last long if the wizard solved the puzzle. He had to be eliminated.
Nonus/Vicis tested the latch. It was locked. Now he couldn’t kill the wizard without making a lot of noise. He needed an alternative solution.
“Let me out!” A voice called from the floor above. “I can feel the heat. Don’t leave me with the heat.”
Nonus/Vicis smiled, his new strategy taking form. He looked down at his hand, two fingers bent and twisted together, painfully taking the form of a key. A key he’d seen Rufus give the commander.
Tatius lay naked on the floor. The stone felt cold against his skin. He knew it wouldn’t last. The heat from his body would make that spot warm.
“Please,” he begged. “Don’t keep me here with the heat.”
“Tatius,” someone whispered from the other side of his door. “Tatius, are you awake?”
“Wh–who’s there?” Tatius asked.
“It’s Nonus.” The voice was familiar. It was Nonus.
“I won’t go up. You can’t make me!” Tatius shouted.
“I’m not here to make you go up, Tatius. I’m here to help you keep the heat away. Forever.”
Tatius didn’t speak. He didn’t breathe. Could Nonus be serious?
“I’m going to open the door, Tatius,” Nonus warned. “I stole the key from Otho. Don’t do anything rash. Okay?”
Tatius heard a click. The knob turned and the door opened. It was Nonus, standing over him, a kind smile on his face.
“Don’t worry, dear Tatius,” Nonus said. “I’ll tell you the secret for keeping the heat away.” Nonus knelt on one knee, motioning Tatius closer.
Tempted by the promise, Tatius crawled on hands and knees, bending his head to listen.
“Good boy,” Nonus said, his cold fingers combed through Tatius’s hair, beating back the heat.
Tatius groaned with relief. “What’s the secret?” he asked.
“I’ll do better than tell you. I’ll show you,” Nonus said, tightening his grip on the soldier’s head and hair.
Tatius’s instincts kicked in. For the first time since he heard Nonus’s voice, he felt naked, exposed and vulnerable. He tried to pull free but Nonus’s hands were carved from stone, unrelenting.
Cold lips touched his ear.
“What are you doing?” Tatius squawked, trying to peel away the fingers from his head.
Nonus didn’t answer. Instead, something wet and slimy pushed through those lips, and wriggled against Tatius’s ear. It slithered and pressed its way down the ear canal.
“No!” Tatius screamed. “Get away from me.”
The wormlike object made its way further, undulating deeper.
There was a pinch of pain. His screams sounded suddenly shallow, far away.
Danger. Heat. Enemy. Esca–
Quintus stood over the two corpses struggling with the facts he’d found. The first detail was in the relative size of the bodies. Granted the fire would have melted away some of the meat, but the basics like height would have remained the same. Somehow, Cato had grown taller in the fire while his muscles had shrunk.
The other inconsistency was in the parts that couldn’t burn. Quintus recalled finding seven copper pieces on the body of the dead rebel before the fire while Cato had nothing. Now, it was Cato’s corpse that had seven copper pieces and the rebel none. How could that be? He knew it was probable that Nonus looted the rebel’s corpse in his absence. But that didn’t explain why Cato suddenly had the exact same number of copper coins. Unless the ruined body in front of him were Nonus, not Cato.
Quintus waved the thought away. He knew it couldn’t be. He saw Nonus alive and well.
Vicis, face unshown. That ancient poem’s verse highlighted in his mind. Quintus, then, remembered another relevant piece of information. It was from his days in the Academy. There were rumors of a spell capable of stealing the identity of others. A power sought by many wizards, but mastered by none.
The rumor had to come from somewhere. Could the man he thought was Nonus be someone else? Could someone have mastered the spell? And, if this potential enemy could assume the form of another, how could Quintus be sure?
Nonus/Vicis locked Tatius’s door behind him. The deed done, he’d have to move fast. Quintus wouldn’t take long to figure it all out. When he did, no precaution Nonus/Vicis took would be enough. With four humans remaining in the camp, he was outnumbered. It was time to start changing those odds.
“I heard someone screaming,” Plinius said as he entered the corridor, focused on Nonus/Vicis.
Plinius was the weakest, an ideal first candidate. “I heard it too,” Nonus/Vicis said. “It echoed through the hall, but I think it came from below. Let’s check it out.”
Plinius nodded. He disappeared into his room and came out with sworn drawn. Nonus/Vicis stifled a low growl. He’d seen what sword toting humans were capable of in the rebel camp.
“Come on,” Plinius called, descending the ladder.
The storage corridor was devoid of life. Even the door to Quintus’s lab was closed. “There’s no one here,” Plinius stated, looking back up the ladder. “Maybe it wasn’t from down here. We should go up and check.”
“Or maybe it was Gallus down in the mine. He could be hurt.”
Plinius’s eyes shot open. He glanced over at the ladder dropping down into the vertical tunnel, the rope pulley hanging in the middle.
“Let’s go over and call down to him. See if he needs help,” Nonus/Vicis offered.
The two rushed over. Plinius bent over, raising his hands to his mouth. “Gallus!”
Nonus/Vicis didn’t waste time. With a strong shove, he pushed Plinius down the shaft head first. The startled miner screeched, arms waving until his voice was silenced by a single crack.
“Plinius?” Gallus called from below. He was coming to investigate.
Gallus rushed across the sieve room. Startled by Plinus’s call, he woke from his nap. Quintus’s painkillers had left him groggy.
When he reached the bottom of the vertical tunnel his jaw dropped. Plinius was upside down, foot resting on one of the ladder’s rungs while his head bent to the side at an inhuman angle. The life had left the miner’s eyes. In shock, Gallus walked over to his friend’s body, laying him on his back.
He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it a second later. Gallus’s vision started to blur, his eyes wet.
“How?” he asked Plinius. “Why?”
Plinius wasn’t bright, but he was careful. Could he have slipped and fallen? As if by instinct, Gallus looked up the vertical tunnel to get a glimpse of any rational reason for his friend’s sudden demise.
Before Gallus had time to process what he saw, it was too late. Bent over the lip of the tunnel, Nonus stared down at him, a cruel smile stretched across his face, the pulley’s bucket in his hand. The bucket dropped, crashing into Gallus’s head.
The lanterns lining the walls appeared dimmer to Gallus at that moment. They flickered with the intensity they normally had, but the light was dull. The room grew darker–vision blurred–breathing slowed–someone was laughing–tired–eyes heavy–nothing.
Quintus pushed the table against the door, piling on chairs, anything to keep it out.
There came a pounding at the door. “Come on Quintus, open up.” It was Nonus’s voice, but Quintus knew better than to think it was the priest. There had been screams, loud noises, conflict.
“Stay back. The others will–”
“There are no others, Quintus,” Nonus said. “It’s just you and me now.”
Quintus shook all over. He wasn’t a soldier. He wasn’t ashamed of his fear as it washed over him. The thing outside had every intention of killing him, or worse. Fear was rational.
“Very well, Quintus. If you won’t let me in, I’ll get creative.”
Quintus heard Nonus’s footsteps moving down the corridor. He was tempted to feel safe, but knew better. The creature would come back and if Quintus wasn’t ready, he’d die.
The wizard scanned the laboratory, hand shaking as he stroked his beard. There were many chemicals and reagents at his disposal, but what would work? His eyes spotted the open book on the table. The poem spoke of weapons against the Vicis; Frost and snake heads. Quintus didn’t know how snake heads played a role, but frost seemed straight forward; His Chill Bone potion certainly had an effect. The question was how to use frost as a weapon.
The answer was there. It was what separated a wizard from an ordinary alchemist. Magic. Real Magic. Quintus pulled a jar of mage-essence from the shelf. He dumped a healthy portion into the mortar.
As he worked, the implications registered in his mind. Magic didn’t come cheap. A wizard paid for it with his spirit. Sacrifice was required. And, at his age, he may only have so much to give. He grabbed frost-stone from a bowl and added them to the mortar.
A heavy object slammed into the door, causing Quintus to jump. Another slam. Wood splintered. The monster had an ax.
“You should’ve played nice, Quintus,” Nonus shouted. “I would’ve made it quick, but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps you’ll make an excellent vessel.” The ax slammed again, forming a small breach. It wouldn’t be long.
Quintus ground the frost-stone with the pestle. He snatched a large pinch of powdered-rage, adding it to the mix.
The ax broke through. A hole formed large enough to fit three fingers. Another swing sent splinters scattering onto the barricaded table.
“Almost there,” Quintus whispered. The frost-stone was close to a fine powder.
Nonus thrust a hand through the hole. His fingers traced down to the lock and turned it. The hand disappeared back through the hole.
Quintus dumped the powder into a beaker of water and stirred.
The table legs screeched across the stone floor as Nonus pushed. It was strong. A crack soon formed as the door opened little by little.
Quintus drank. The mix poured cold down through his body as if ice formed on his innards. Breath turned to vapor with each exhale.
The Vicis forced the door open enough to squeeze through. Nonus smiled. His steps were slow. He had all the time in the world. “I think I’ll make you a vessel after all. I promise you it’s an excruciating process.”
“Stay back,” warned Quintus, his body growing colder. He plucked a lantern from the wall and chucked it.
Nonus swatted, shattering the glass casing, its flaming contents splashed against the bookshelf. Old parchment from Quintus’s books ignited instantly. Fiery fingers lept from one area of the lab to the next, black smoke billowing up to the ceiling.
The monster’s strong hands reached out and grasped the sides of the wizard’s head.
Quintus sucked in a deep breath. It was now or never. Their faces inches apart, he exhaled, his breath freezing everything in its path. Crystals formed on the face of his enemy.
The Vicis screamed out in pain, falling back.
Quintus looked down at his hands. They were blue.
This was his moment. His moment to perform real Magic. His body somehow created an unnatural cold. A cold he could direct. But, how long he could keep it up, he didn’t know.
Quintus reached out. Waves of frost emanated from his fingertips, embracing the Vicis. It stumbled and fell. Each movement was slow, weak. There was fear on its face for the first time as it struggled to crawl from the room.
Quintus followed. He focused the blue light of cold onto the fleeing creature.
Nonus squeezed through the door on all fours. Quintus pushed passed, stepping between the Vicis and the ascending ladder.
“Back!” Quintus ordered, herding the imposter toward the mine’s vertical tunnel.
Quintus started to feel weak, the magic exacting its stiff price on his body. It could be minutes, maybe less.
“Back!” He pushed the cold forward. The air crackled as the corridor’s foodstuffs froze in its path.
Nonus let out a wounded screech before slithering down the vertical tunnel with Quintus close behind.
Albus stood at the center of the rebel dugout, sword drawn, scanning the dark interior as Rufus cowered outside.
“Nothing,” Albus said, staring at the bare table and empty watchman’s chair. “No bodies. No sign of struggle.”
“How can there be nothing?” asked Rufus. “They wouldn’t abandon their only outpost.”
“No they wouldn’t,” Albus muttered.
He walked over to the ladder. Complete darkness rested at the bottom.
“I’m Commander Albus of Caisus,” he shouted.
“Sir!” Rufus squeaked at his booming voice.
“I invoke a parlay,” Albus finished.
“Nothing,” he said again. “We’ll have to go down and–”
“Sir!” Rufus shouted again.
Albus rushed out of the dugout. The recruit’s outstretched finger focused on a meandering line of dark smoke splitting the bright amber moon.
“That’s–” Albus said, putting the looking glass to his eye. “–my outpost.”
“Another fire?” Rufus asked.
A knot twisted at the base of Albus’s stomach. “We have to go.”
“What about the rebels?”
“If I had to guess–” Albus started running, shouting over his shoulder, “–they’re all dead.”
Albus raced across the desert. To gain speed, he’d discarded his helmet and armor a mile passed. Up ahead, the outpost-–his outpost–approached fast.
Albus glanced over his shoulder. A winded Rufus had started to fall behind.
“I–I’m sorry, Sir,” Rufus yelled back, out of breath.
Albus cursed the soldier. Didn’t he know what was at stake?
“Just…don’t you dare stop running, Recruit.”
The knot in Albus’s stomach tightened as he approached the dugout. It was absent of lantern light. There were no alarm bells to signal his approach. A part of him hoped the watchman had simply fallen asleep, but another part–that knot in his stomach part, told him the Vicis was responsible.
Albus drew his sword and dropped the scabbard before ducking through the threshold. It was marginally darker inside the dugout, but enough light filtered through the lancets to create a silhouette of a man seated in the watchman’s chair. Small ears, large head, and broad shoulders–it was Otho. A dagger’s handle jutted from between his shoulder blades. Dead.
“Back!” Quintus’s voice floated up from deeper down.
Albus left Otho and descended. In a hurry, he poked his head in each of the rooms. Tatius’s door was still locked while Quintus’s had burnt down to the hinges along with everything else in the lab.
“Back I say!” Quintus shouted from further below.
Albus rushed down the mine’s vertical tunnel. The air around him grew cold enough to force a shiver.
At the bottom, Plinius and Gallus lay broken and motionless. Quintus was on the floor, head propped against the sieve apparatus. The wizard’s hand stretched out toward the tunnels as blue shimmers extended from his fingers. Ice coated the floor and walls in its path.
“Quintus,” Albus said.
Quintus turned his head. A once gray beard had turned stark white. The fleshy parts of his face had sunk against the skull, leaving behind a weak old man.
“Albus, thank The One you’re here,” said Quintus before he coughed. “I didn’t think I could hold on long enough.”
“I’m here now, Quintus,” Albus said as he took the wizard’s head in his hand, the knot in his stomach hardening with resolve. “Now tell me, where’s this Vicis and how do I kill it?”
“It’s not that easy,” Quintus’s voice softened as some of the light left his eyes. Albus had to crane his head to hear the rest. “Listen.” Quintus laid a hand on the commander’s arm. “It wants to infest and destroy the Empire, but can’t get there alone. It’s weakened by the cold. It wouldn’t make it across the mountains separating No Man’s Land from the rest of the Empire. Not without the caravan to ferry it there.”
“The caravan due in two days?”
Quintus nodded. “Frost and snake heads.”
Albus shook his head, confused.
“Weapons the Vicis dreads,” Quintus continued. “Frost is the cold that weakens it, but I don’t know about the snake heads.”
“I don’t understand–” Albus started to say, but stopped as Quintus’s eyes slid shut. The cold vapors of his breath were gone. He was dead.
“Troublesome people, wizards,” Albus’s voice emerged from the dark mine tunnel on the right.
Albus looked up, questioning if he’d actually heard it.
From the shadows, a man–matching Albus in every detail–walked out into the sieve room, sword in hand. The commander stared at his reflection. Neither of them wore armor as the real Albus had ditched his in the desert for speed.
Albus set Quintus’s head to the floor with care, removed the ruby ring from the wizard’s beard, and climbed to his feet. He slid the ring on the thumb of his sword hand. Quintus would be there in spirit as he plunged the blade in the monster’s chest. Justice would be served.
“Vicis,” The real Albus growled through gritted teeth, sword leveled at his enemy’s throat.
“Commander, I’m here and–” said Rufus, climbing down. He stopped at the sight of the two dead miners. His gaze moved to dead Quintus against the apparatus, then the commander and his double. “May The One protect me for my eyes deceive me.”
Albus/Vicis pointed his sword at the real Albus. “Stop the imposter, Rufus. He killed Otho and the others.”
Rufus moved at the sound of Albus’s booming voice, prepared to attack the other.
“Stop,” ordered the other Albus. “This thing,” he pointed at his reflection, “once held the form of that wounded Imperial. It was responsible for the death of all those rebels and every one of our fellows here.”
Rufus stared at the two identical men. “You both look and speak the same,” he whined. “I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know what to do.”
“Simple. Kill him,” An Albus said, again pointing his sword at the other commander. Rufus didn’t budge.
Rufus cursed himself for not having better sense. The real commander would know how to pick and he couldn’t exactly ask that man’s advice right now.
Forced to rely on his own faculties, Rufus scanned the two men. Both wore the uniform of an Imperial soldier, absent any implements of armor. Swords were standard issue. Identical down to the placement of every last hair, nothing separated them. Everything except…except for a ruby ring. On the thumb of one of the Albuses, it was Quintus’s ring.
How did that help? It certainly separated them at least. But, who was the real Albus? The ring could be loot from the imposter’s kill or it could have been for the commander’s strong sense of justice. To have Quintus there as he drove in the finishing blow. But, which was it?
“Curses, Recruit,” The Ringless-Albus spouted. “Your indecision is unacceptable. I gave you an order to kill this imposter. Now, kill him!”
Albus–with a ring–turned and stared at Rufus. “Every man has to make their own decisions. Time to be a man, Recruit. Make your decision and live with it, but most importantly…make a decision.”
Rufus scratched his cheek. There was only one person who ever tried to make him better despite his many failings.
Rufus raised his sword at his choice and said, “Surrender or be killed.”
“No!” Ringless-Albus screamed, raised his sword, and charged.
Rufus swung first. His blade was deflected and a sandal punched up into his gut, knocking him against the sieve apparatus.
A sword pierced the shoulder of Rufus’s chosen ally. That ringed-commander fell to the ground with a painful bellow.
Ringless-Albus charged Rufus. Strong hands wrapped around his throat, bending his back over the sieve’s wall with incredible force. Thumbs were pressing into his windpipe.
A roar broke through the strangling grunts of Rufus and his attacker. The Ringed-Albus, sword still in his shoulder, rushed in and embraced the man at Rufus’s throat. He lifted and dropped his double face-first against the brass mesh of the sieve.
“Pull the rope!” Ringed-Albus yelled.
Rufus did as he was told, throwing his weight down on the rope. The layers of brass mesh–sharp enough to cut stone–moved in opposing directions, shearing the face pressed against them.
Ringless-Albus let out a hideous screech as his face was removed layer by layer until, within seconds, only a bloodied stump remained above the chin. His body slid out from under Albus’s hand and crumpled to the ground.
Albus’s chuckle was dry. “Snake heads.”
“Sir?” Rufus asked, between breaths.
“Frost and snake heads,” Albus said, staring at Quintus’s ring on his thumb. “The wizard was there to the end, after all.” He looked up at Rufus. “How do you kill a snake, Recruit?”
Rufus scratched his head. The question felt like a trick. “Cut off its head?”
“Exactly,” Albus replied, looking down at the headless imposter at his feet.
“With the rebel’s camp wiped clean,” Rufus said to Albus, “we’ll never have another moment of excitement out here.”
Albus nodded, never taking his eyes off the caravan as it grew smaller against the horizon. “May we be that lucky, Second.” Albus used the young soldier’s promoted rank.
Despite the dishonorable post in No Man’s Land, Albus had helped save the Empire from a dangerous enemy. It was enough to lighten his heart for the first time in five years. If he was left out in the desert for the remainder of his service, he knew he could be satisfied. Nothing could take away his final victory.
Tatius looked out through the barred window of his cell on wheels, the rear carriage of the caravan. He watched as the Imperial outpost disappeared against the desert terrain.
A sinister smile stretched across his face.
It would be at least a day before anyone found the mutilated corpse of the real Tatius tucked under the cot. The human’s chest had ripped open where Tatius-Vicis crawled out. And, by the time the vessel was discovered, Tatius–or Tacius/Vicis–would make a miraculous recovery from his heat madness. After the snow-laden mountains, the caravan’s soldiers would make excellent vessels themselves. From there, the Empire in all its haughty pride would crumble from within, a Vicis at its head.