Kristen carried the heavy weight of Rondus's stout body like a man carrying a full cask on his shoulders. Dumping the unconscious body near a pile of blankets in the camp he had carefully set up twelve miles from the old coots cabin he looked at the result of a week's worth of backbreaking effort. Everything looked perfect, well as perfect as the agent from the dark lands of Mordel could manage from the gear and supplies his former master had left behind.
If Erik had still been alive he might have looked upon the camp scene with pride but the Grau was now dead, by Kristen's own hand. Even after a week Kristen could not believe he had betrayed his masters and those they served, the terrible and vengeful Dominus, who ruled the blasted lands of Mordel and its underground city.
That was all in the past now, along with so many other things. It amazed him to think that only two seasons ago he and Erik had been mere observers, spies checking for any signs of weakness among the warrior Centurions and the Domus Empire they rule.
Whenever they saw a wooden wagon being pulled, or people lining up around a fountain to drink, Kristen and Erik would give each other a knowing smile and laugh at how primitive the poor naïve people of Domus and the rest of Ares were compared to the technological might of Mordel and its great rulers.
Yet, if they were honest with one another, they would have admitted they loved being free of the underground city with its recycled water, air, and even food. Here in Ares the air was clean, the rays of the sun warm and free of most deadly radiation, and the people went about their lives never knowing that it could all be taken away if the Dominus so desired it.
For Kristen, the fear that he could have the freedom he enjoyed in Ares taken away from him at any moment if their mistresses wanted it was what had led him to fire his gun at Erik. It had become clear that the telepathic Grau agent had every intention of taking them all back to Mordel now that they had finally found the angel; the prize all Mordelian agents were trying to find.
Kristen had believed an Angel would never be found; that the gulf between the Centurion warriors who fought for the Empire and the Legatio who wrote poems about it would never be breached. Then again, the young man for whom he had become a body servant was unlike any Legatio born in thousands of years.
Jason, sweet, innocent, and very naïve had lived most of his life as his mother's hostage during the long siege of the Labyrinth Tower in the Kingdom of Qul Tos, famed for its silver and jewels. Jason, the result of a shared night of pleasures between his mother Eleanor, Qul Tos' queen, and the famed Centurion general Agamemnon, should have been raised in Domus like any proper Legatio.
It was a miracle that Jason even reached the age of twenty-one under his mother's harsh care for, while Legatio, were always sired by Centurion warriors, they were born in frail health, suffering from a terrible form of hemophilia that could make the slightest cut deadly. Yet if a Legatio could manage avoid cutting himself, he would be blessed with nearly a thousand years of life. His Centurion cousins, on the other hand, were the greatest warriors in all of Ares but died at the age of forty.
Since a Legatio could never become a warrior, or a Centurion live the long life of his cousins, the two races ruling the greatest empire in all of Ares had a natural dislike for one another. But not Jason. Raised outside the empire, without the company of men, Jason had no bias against either group and knew nothing of his own heritage other than the hateful things his mother had told him.
Looking to where Jason was sleeping under a pile of goat furs, Kristen could hardly believe that the handsome young man he saw had once been the short, near starving youth he had come to serve and love. He wasn't the only one to love Jason. Rescued from the Labyrinth Tower by an army of Centurions, Jason gave love and respect to his saviors. Most of all, however, he worshiped Commander Philip Helios of the 7th Centurion Eastern Legion, the first man he saw and the man most directly responsible for his escape from the tower.
Kristen touched the young man's pale white face, wishing he were the one who had finally earned Jason's heart out of the countless men who had gone after it. But, Jason and Philip had loved enough to share their anima - the living essence that gave the Legatio and Centurions their unique gifts. The unique bonding had transformed Jason into the Angel of legend and Philip into his demon. Philip was a good choice though. The Centurion was a warrior but, more than anything, he was a protector. With Jason's gentle heart the former Legatio would need the power and the passion of his Demon lover to protect him from the dangers the land of Ares held and from the Dominus' redheaded Grau agents. Kristen, after all, was just a man, a genetically enhanced and very handsome one, but still mortal.
Knowing that the sleeping drugs he had been giving Jason, Philip, and all their followers wouldn't wear off for a while, Kristen stripped down in the cold morning air and joined Jason under the furs. He was supposed to be Jason's official bed warmer. Wrapping his muscular body around Jason's equally strong frame the Mordelian let a warm tear run down his face as he wondered if he had really done the right thing.
Having dealt with Erik, he had used his gun to knock everyone out and then drugged them all, causing them to forget about Erik and the stunning transformation Jason and Philip had undergone. He used a Mordelian device to replace the memories of their flight from the Imperial Academy in Domus with ones that would better hide Jason and Philip's true nature from the Grau agents who would eventually descend upon them once Erik failed to make his regular report.
Kristen knew the memory blocks wouldn't last forever; that eventually the drugs hiding Jason and Philip's transformed bodies would run out. When that happened he knew there would be hell to pay, and not just from the Dominus.
Still, fleeing the Academy had been the right decision. Sly Senator Perils and his co-conspirator Field Marshal Xavier would not have left poor Jason alone until they had used him for the war they wanted to start against the allied Confederated Kingdoms of the East. There Lord Varrus, one of Jason's first lovers and mentors waited for them in the Kingdom of Qul Tos and the Tosians waited for their Legatio king.
Holding Jason even tighter, Kristen worried about how Varrus would react to learning that Jason and Philip were now bonded lovers. He doubted Jason would deny his bed to the most handsome man in all of Ares. Then again, Kristen very much doubted that Philip would give up his hedonistic ways even though he now carried Jason's bond. He was, after all, a Centurion Commander and Centurion officers made it a matter of honor to seduce each one of their men, not to mention their superiors.
Though Jason had often strived to mimic his Centurion heroes, Kristen worried his gentle heart would not be able to bear Philip's lecherous ways.
Thinking of such things filled Kristen with a new doubt. Not everyone had fled the Academy with Jason and Philip. Philip's younger brother, Alex, a stubborn, reckless youth, the same age as Jason had loved the Legatio as well. In fact he loved no other. Unlike most Centurions Alex saw no honor in sexual conquests. All he ever wanted was one man, the ideal man, to be his one and only lover. It had just been a terrible trick of fate that the man turned out to be the same person his brother loved: Jason.
While Kristen, Philip, and many others loved Jason with all their hearts, Alex had been the one willing to sacrifice the most for that love. But instead of rewarding such love, Philip and Field Marshal Darius had forced Alex to remain at the Academy to finish his officer's training. Kristen feared it was going to end up being a decision everyone would come to regret.
Feeling Jason stir in his arms the Mordelian knew that time was running short. Soon Jason and the others would begin to awaken and Kristen would have to be ready for them. After putting his clothes back on he went to the campfire he had carefully prepared and fed it some more dried sticks as he began preparing breakfast for what he knew would be a hungry crowd.
With the sizzle of bacon and a pot of beans boiling, the rising sun began to fill the narrow mountain pass as a new chapter in the lives of the people of Ares begins.
When Jason awoke the first thing he noticed was the sharp pain in his back, it seemed that some time during the night he must have rolled over onto a sharp stone that was now pressed against his spine. Standing up, he stretched out, working the kinks out of his back. He then looked down at his goat-hair clothes and tried to figure out how he had gotten them. Slowly, it came back to Jason like a dream. He remembered arriving at Rondus' cabin, sick with fever and then, when the rest of the party had joined them with the bad news that Erik had drowned in the underwater cave. Jason recalled that he had cried a lot after being told. Things had gotten better, though. When he had celebrated his 21st birthday, and had been circumcised, Jason thought he was enough of a man to tell Philip he loved him. He was still amazed at how fast he had healed from being cut and how his relationship with Philip had changed.
Feeling hungry, and smelling garlic in the air, Jason made his way to the campfire where Kristen was stirring seasoned potatoes.
"Did you sleep well?" Kristen smiled warmly.
"Yes..." Jason grinned, ignoring the pain in his back. As he made his way closer to the fire he tripped on his own feet.
"Be careful!" Kristen laughed, catching Jason before he fell into the fire.
"Sorry... I've been pretty clumsy lately." Jason blushed. He knew he had, again, grown several inches and getting used to his longer legs would, again, take some time.
"Morning!" Gideon yawned as he, too, got up.
Jason smiled at his friend and went over to hug him. Something was not right: Gideon did not feel the same in his arms, as he could now see the top of the blond man's head.
"Come on now...time for you two to eat." Kristen grinned, filling two bowls with potatoes.
Slowly, the rest of the party woke up and filled their bowls. All of them seemed to be in a daze, but happy. Jason, for his part, could not keep his eyes off Philip. Each time his gaze met his guardian's he blushed a deep red. Today was especially bad, as Philip was wearing a solid black tunic. For some reason, seeing Philip in black sent a shiver down his body.
Philip, seeing the man he loved blushing, smiled back at him. He liked how he looked in his white goat-hair outfit. He gave Jason a reassuring smile and a wink. His Legatio lover, not failing to notice, put his face deep in his bowl to hide the redness of his face.
Sitting next to Philip was Darius, his bond mate. Philip could remember the fool trying to chase after one of Rondus' goats, only to slip and fall on his chest. He knew that under Darius's clothing were the remains of a giant bruise. By the end of the day it would be gone, however.
Jason...the stunningly handsome Jason... now fit into a completely different category of love and lust for Philip. For the life of him, he didn't understand why his feelings for Jason had undergone such a change after the young man's circumcision. Yes, Jason was now an adult and, as such, could take part in the Centurion world. But it was as if Jason had undergone a transfiguration from boy to man in a single night. Of course that was just impossible.
After breakfast, Philip watched as Jason and Gideon went off to scrub the pot and bowls in a stream around the bend. Seeing this as a chance to explore what he was really feeling, Philip followed after them.
There, by the flowing water, he saw Jason and Gideon splash each other, laughing, and the water making Jason's shaved head shine under the morning sun. Watching the two together, Philip was amazed at how much Jason had developed. When he had rescued Jason from his murderous mother, the boy had been small, thin, and frail. Now, though, he was taller than Gideon and had a physique that, while not as bulky as a Centurion's, was much more defined. The Legatio also looked older... more mature compared to Gideon, which was very remarkable as Legatio usually matured more slowly than their Centurion cousins. But then, Philip also knew of two times that Jason had been treated with Centurion anima. It was well known that Legatio who received such treatments were always very unusual.
"Gideon...can Jason and I be alone for a while?" Philip asked, coming closer to the two men.
"Alright..." Gideon nodded, giving Jason's head a rub before turning to leave. "I'll make sure you are not interrupted."
"Smart boy." Philip grinned as he watched Gideon run off.
"Philip?" Jason asked, looking at Philip with his bright green eyes.
Philip had wanted to say...'yes my love', but did not want to scare the young man. "Yes Jason?"
"Something is different," Jason said, not knowing what else to say.
"Yes... I have noticed it as well." Philip grinned, moving closer to Jason.
Jason looked at Philip's gray eyes and tanned face. Neither seemed quite right. Jason was sure that Philip did not always look this way... that he had a different, more attractive, appearance.
It would have surprised Jason to know that Philip felt the same about him. Jason's always pale skin still looked too dark, and the young man's eyes were not the right color. Even while these problems nagged at Philip, it did not stop his feelings from growing into overwhelming love and desire.
In a sudden darting move, Philip took hold of Jason, bending his head down so his lips could press hard against those of the young man. The two undressed each other, letting each article of clothing fall one by one into the stream and float away. Each had complementary desires and both fulfilled them on the muddy shore.
After they finished, Jason left to find fresh, dry clothing for both of them. While he was gone, Philip stared at his reflection in a nearby puddle. What he saw disturbed him to the core of his being. His skin, hands, and eyes all looked wrong, leaving him feeling alien in his own body. Striking at the puddle with his fist to rid himself of the image, it came back covered with dark mud. Philip's eyes froze on his hand. It seemed so much more natural, more true to the way his body was supposed to look, that he began to smear the dark gunk all over his face and body. By the time Jason came back, Philip was covered in mud.
Jason looked nervously at his lover, confused by what he had just done. "Philip?"
Philip returned Jason's worried gaze. "Jason... you're right. Something has changed."
Elections and Compromises
Zophar watched from the distant hills as Saracill, the capital city of Yelding, went up in flames despite the snow covering the rooftops of the once great city. General Titus had successfully defended the city's outer walls for three weeks, but now that the Jadoorian army had built hundreds of catapults, the outer city was under a constant barrage of dragon fire. Zophar watched with sadness as the banner of General Titus, a mace on a field of green, disappeared behind the clouds of smoke. Before the sun set, however, it reappeared at the citadel on the hill in the center of the city. It would not be long now...maybe a day or two before the city was overrun. After a week the citadel itself would fall. The young general wanted to stay to witness the last moments of his Centurion brothers, so that their heroic actions would not go un-witnessed, but he knew that he needed to rejoin his men at Sol and organize the resistance there. Field Marshal Darius wanted Zophar's men to last three good months at Sol, giving the Field Marshal time to set up fortifications and rebuild his legions on the border of Domus.
Turning his horse toward Lake Mahka and the island fortress of Sol, Zophar knew that by the time he reached the capital of the Federation, General Titus would be either captured or dead.
After spending several days following the river, Zophar reached the lake village of Gish. Looking out at Lake Mahka, he could see large pillars of smoke rising from around the shore, proof that his men were following his last orders. All the ports and bridges were being burned, with Gish to be last. As he boarded the last of the boats, Zophar watched the thatched roofs of the houses and the oil-drenched harbor being set afire.
Standing on the boat's small deck, the general gazed at the domed roofs and high wall of the island of Sol. In the shape of a near perfect circle, the island was protected by a fifty-foot high brick wall that had only two openings. To the south was the main gate, connected to the mainland by a long stone bridge. Already Zophar could see that his men had destroyed several of the bridge supports, leaving twenty-foot gaps for the enemy to cross. To the north side of the island, where Zophar's boat was sailing, was the harbor. It was protected by a short seawall, leaving only a thirty-foot gap through which ships could enter and leave. Past the sea wall was the largest fresh water harbor in the known world. Two hundred and fifty ships, ranging from fishing vessels to trade barges and war galleys were tied up at the piers, every one of them outfitted for war.
Hopping off the boat before it came to a complete stop, Zophar ignored the salutes of his men and made his way to the center of the island, the capital city of the Federation and the center of the enemy's alliance. Not stopping to talk to anyone, the general entered the domed Grand Assembly building.
Seated around the arena were the twenty-five commanders of the 7th Western Legion. Just as Zophar had hoped, the sun beaming in from the large rose window on top of the dome shined down on the tiled map set into the floor and right on the circular red tile marking the island of Sol.
Placing his foot on that spot, Zophar began to address his men. "By now, Saracill will have fallen. The Dorsian's have brought their riverboats to the mouth of the Terran River. The Uuls are busy building troop barges on their side of the lake. The shores of the Rapa Free State are lined with their canoes. Soon, the Jadoorians will have us cut off from the rest of the Western Army. We will be surrounded north, east, south, and west. Once we are besieged we can expect no further help, reinforcements, or rescue. From now on we will only become weaker, while the enemy continues to get stronger.
Zophar stopped to let his words sink in before giving the hammer blow. "We cannot win this battle. It is already too late for us to escape. We are here to keep the enemy from advancing for as long as possible, fighting to the last man. That is what our Field Marshal wants from us, and we will give it to him for the sake of the empire."
"What do you mean we can't win?" the commander of the 4th unit demanded.
"We are only five thousand. Given time, the enemy will have several hundred thousand men surrounding the lake. IF we fall, the armies will be able to join forces and attack our homeland. If our fleet had not been wiped out at Eb, we could have cut off the Federation's supplies and waited the enemy out, but..."
"But our wonderful Field Marshal sent them into that trap!" another commander laughed.
"Silence...the Field Marshal had the right to make that decision. Insulting him will not earn you any respect, only demotion."
"But, are not the situations similar? The Field Marshal left the fleet to die. Now he is doing the same to us!" Commander Cillis yelled, triggering protests from several of the others.
"Are all of you saying you will not follow Lukas' commands?" Zophar said as he drew his sword, causing the commanders to return to their seats. "This legion has plenty of lieutenants whom I could easily promote over all of you. Give me too much trouble and I will have each and every one of you tied to a fire barge. If fighting for Lukas is too hard for you, then fight for the empire. If we do not give the Field Marshal enough time to fortify the way to Domus, then the Gate itself might fall. Do you want to be remembered in the songs as the men who brought Domus to its knees?"
After a long silence, Aegis, one of the commanders who had not spoken, stood up. "I see no reason why we cannot make our death songs here. My question is why you should be the man to lead us. Only a month ago you were just a commander like the rest of us."
"I was the one selected by the Field Marshal to lead the 7th legion."
"That was only because you were the one representing us at the meeting. By having Lukas appoint you, you avoided a proper vote."
"Yes, vote!" several of the commanders shouted.
Knowing he could never win if only the commanders were allowed to vote, Zophar used his position as the standing general to form a compromise. "Yes, vote...but let the vote be opened to all officers."
This sent the room into quiet whispers. Not only were there commanders who wanted him out as general, but also a few wanted to replace him. For almost an hour there was a good deal of mental vote counting, the commanders trying to guess who they could count on.
Once he felt there had been enough discussion, Zophar put an end to it. "The voting will be with each change of the guard. The first will be one hour from now." Zophar then marched out of the room to the shouts of protests behind him.
Slowly making his way to his quarters, Zophar hoped the risk he had just taken was worth it. It had all been Aegis's idea. See who receives the most votes and put those persons on the most dangerous missions, hopefully removing them quickly from challenging him again.
The only danger was that he was not sure he would earn majority support from his men. Having been the old general's lover had earned him both respect and jealousy. At times like this, Zophar wished that it had been him and not his lover who had died by the sniper's arrow. Still, he had Aegis, the general's younger brother. Together they had mourned their shared loss and had formed an alliance of sorts. Even now, Zophar walked slowly to his bedroom in order to give Aegis time to arrange the vote.
Entering his quarters in the former Jadoorian High Ambassador's room, Zophar lay down on the white goose feather bed and looked up at the statue of the Mother that hovered over it. "Damn the Joodrians and their goddess."
Drawing his sword, Zophar reached up to knock the marble statue down, only to have it land and break on his head, knocking him unconscious.
When he awoke, it was to a pair of bright gray eyes. "You won. Two thousand of the men sided with you."
"I did? What time is it?"
"It's morning. You need to watch out for two people. First is Commander Cillis. Almost a third of the men voted for him. The other is Commander Lorish. He did not receive as many votes, but every single member of his unit voted for him."
"So, who do you think is the larger threat?" Zophar asked as he sat up.
"Cillis will try to undermine you, until he can claim you are incompetent and replace you, while Lorish will try to kill you."
"I need to get rid of both of them then." Zophar sighed.
"Until you do, we should try to keep them apart. I have already arranged for Cillis and his men to be assigned to the eastern wall, with Lorish and his men on the western. It will put them in non-critical areas and keep them far apart," Aegis explained.
"What of the men loyal to us?"
"They control the citadel and the port."
"What of the bridge?"
"I left Commander Issa in charge of it. He is 39, and knows this will be his last battle, so we can expect him to fight to the end."
"Good planning." Zophar patted his commander on the back.
"After I saw that bruise on your head, I decided you needed me to take care of things. You should know better then to try and fight a god." Aegis chuckled.
"So we have some free time on our hands?" Zophar asked as he pulled his lover toward him.
"I'm afraid not, General," Aegis said as he pulled away. "A Federation ambassador has arrived." "How long has he been here?" Zophar jumped.
"Two hours. I see no rush. They know it will cost them thousands of lives to try to retake Sol."
"Good, but I think two hours is long enough." Zophar grinned as he let Aegis dress him in his blue and silver armor, leaving the facemask off.
Going back to the harbor, Zophar boarded one of the twelve war galleys docked there. He was then rowed to a ship three times the size of his own, made up of three keels covered by a common deck. The ship even had a side dock at the waterline, from which a staircase led up to the main deck. Lead to an area curtained off by a translucent pink curtain, he passed a pair of large eunuch guards. It was seeing the guards that made Zophar finally realize the origin of the ship. It was from the Republic of Mathannon, ruled by the Matriarchy that had broken off from Jadoor.
Believing that only women had the wisdom to fulfill the will of the Mother, only women had any rights. The male population was kept in slavery or the breeding pits. To Zophar, Mathannon was a land of fools.
Fools they might be, but he did not miss the significance of the presence of a Mathannon ship on Lake Mahka. It could only mean one thing...that the Terran River, located south of the capital of Saracill, was now under Federation control.
Allowed to pass the curtain, Zophar saw a woman lying on a gold divan, wrapped in furs. Seated on cushions, on both sides of her, were representatives from the other nations: the black skinned Raporos dressed in heavy wool, the tanned Dorsians with their conical hats and bright patch-colored outfits, the albino Drakors, with their red eyes, dressed in grey, the Jadoorians, one in white the other black representing both the king and the church, and the husky Gladmores dressed in rich purple. The only ones not present were representatives from occupied Freen, and Austrola, the hated rivals of the Republic of Mathannon on the island they shared.
"Please, general, sit," the veiled woman from Mathannon said warmly, pointing to an empty pillow.
"I prefer to stand."
"And have your head above mine? Where are your manners, Centurion?' The woman chuckled from her high perch.
"Have you come here to surrender, or am I just wasting my time."
"Isn't that so like you Centurions? Always acting as if you are just on the edge of victory, even when you know you will be defeated." The priest from Jadoor laughed.
"Why don't you visit me in the city...see how long you will keep that laugh," Zophar replied coldly.
"Oh, we could...it is only a question of cost. Do we really want thousands to die for an insignificant piece of rock?" the veiled woman asked.
"Try moving your troops across the lake and see how insignificant it is."
"Yes...that is what we would like to discuss with you. Is it possible that we can "buy" passage for a few of our ships?"
"Ships that would be loaded with Rapos and Dorsians?" Zophar laughed.
"We have almost pushed the rest of your army out of Yelding. Soon we will remove it from Freen. After that..." the Jadoorian priest sneered.
"The fact remains that you will never defeat the empire with your forces divided, and the only quick way to unite them is crossing Lake Mahka, which is under Centurion control."
"Are you saying you can't be bought?' the veiled woman asked.
"And become a traitor? Where would I spend such wealth?"
"You could choose to live in any part of the Federation you wish."
"In a land where people bathe only twice a year? I have to decline."
"What if we were to offer your men safe passage to Domus after it has fallen?" the representative of Drakor asked, focusing his red eyes on the Centurion general.
"Domus under Federation rule would not be Domus," Zophar replied.
"Not even if we made you mayor of Aquanos?" the Dorsian ambassador asked.
For a brief second Zophar was tempted. Other than the capital, Aquanos was the wealthiest city in all Domus. But offering him the city was like wanting to make him a Field Marshal; a thing they had no ability to give.
"Let me set my own terms. The Dorsians, Drakors and Rapors are to stay on their side of the lake. Any ship that tries to cross it will be destroyed. If you want your armies to be joined, do so through the Wort Mountains, as I have no jurisdiction there."
"Your fellow Centurions have been most effective in triggering avalanches in those passes. We would lose more men there than we would here," the Jadoorian general spoke up.
"Then we will meet in battle." Zophar bowed, making ready to leave.
"Let our ships through, or not a single one of your men will be left alive," the veiled Mathannonite warned.
"Try to make it past Sol, and it will be your men that will suffer," Zophar replied, retuning to his boat.
As soon as he was ashore, he met with Aegis. "I want that floating palace of theirs sunk by tomorrow."
"Yes, General." The Centurion saluted.
That night, Aegis sent his twelve strongest swimmers out of the port, towing small barrels of dragon fire behind them. Before leaving, they had painted their bodies black lest the moon reveal them. It took three hours of near silent swimming to reach the floating palace anchored on the far northern shore, where the crew was busy building a new pier. As soon they were up against the hull, the Centurions lit the ropes feeding into the barrels and began to swim for their lives.
The sound of splashing water alerted the guards on the ship, who responded by shooting arrows at the splashing water. Just as the alarm bell was rung, however, the first of the dozen barrels exploded on the starboard side, sending splinters of wood into the air and water. This was followed by the explosion of the other barrels, leaving the three-hulled ship broken into six parts and sinking halfway in the shallow water.
The Centurions successfully escaped the explosions, but a few suffered arrow wounds that slowed their swim back. Halfway back, they were quickly picked up by Aegis's fast patrol boats. Still, out of the twelve men, only eight made it back to safety. An important point was made, however. Not even an ambassadorial vessel would be spared by Zophar's Centurions. It would spread fear among the Federation troops, which had been his goal.