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Off the Coast of Imasicia

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Surabhumi:
Shridaveh Enheduana
Sarasvati Kusari Adwani
Aasmi Achaerikar Sayyanvar
Sujati Khvamahant Enazhal

Imasicia:
Tingitus Ieder
Mocoricus Udadus
Gafasus Munatas
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“They are late.” Grumbled Shridaveh, her boot tapping rhythmically on the deck of her ship. “We were told we would meet at half past the thirteenth hour. And yet I see neither hide nor hair of them. I do not like being exposed in this manner.”

“Be calm, Shridaveh.” cautioned another, Sarasvati, her expression serene. “I do not fear the Imasicians at sea. They may possess a navy greater than our own, it is true, but they will not attack us so brazenly this close to Arcana. For all intents and purposes, we are a simple diplomatic mission to their city. To assault us here and now would make them a pariah in the eyes of all, and would reveal their true nature. No, no, though the dogs of Imasicia may be bound only by a tenuous leash of fear, it still binds them nevertheless. We will be safe here for now until they come.” She smiled, folding her arms, “Besides, Shridaveh. Have you so little faith in your sailors?”

Shridaveh’s face fell, and she shook her head slightly. “I am afraid not, your Honor. We have suffered great setbacks in the training and construction of a new navy, and I am afraid even my personal fleet is far cry from a true force, in quantity or quality. Were those hounds to attack us now, we would be lucky to escape with our lives.”

“Oh, come now, Shridaveh!” spake the priestess Sujati, entering the conversation unannounced, a prominent blade visible sheathed on her back even now. “Sarasvati may be a little infuriating at times, but even she is right! Even if they had the audacity to attack here, our soldiers are the finest in the land. We may not outsail them, but we can always throw them overboard if the need arises! Away with these negative thoughts, they do you no good! We shall dock in Arcana soon to negotiate with them and the Imasicians - and even if those go awry, we have our friends due to arrive soon to count on!” Sujati beamed, “And besides, I’ve seen you strutting about, danger or no danger, the sea is in your blood. You can’t lie to us, you’ve enjoyed being out on the ocean once more. Just smell that air! Nothing compares to it!”

Shridaveh allowed herself a small smile at these antics, nodding slightly. “It is true, I have missed the waves. These legs were meant for the deck of a ship, not sitting in Rhaputira listening to the council deliberating over grain shipments.”

The priestess’ eyes sparkled, and her grin turned mischevious. “I’d say they’re suited for more than that, but I suppose you would know more than I, wouldn’t you? Tell me, did you re-”

Sujati was cut off by a call from the ship’s mizzen, “Sails ahoy! Sails ahoy!” A Sanghar sailor rushed over, his red skin tanned and toughened by years in the sun and salt. “Your Honor,” he said, speaking to Sarasvati. “We have sighted the delegation of the Imasicians.”

Sarasvati’s lips tugged upwards in a small smile, and she looked towards her companion, a slight twinkle in her eye. “See? What did I tell you?”
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“Do Surabhi foreigners speak Imperial? Do they speak Old Imasician?” asked the young Tingitus Ieder, scratching the scruff around his neck. He did that often, especially now, when it had grown in tufts over the sea journey.

“We will speak to them in Imperial, worry not about it,” responded Munatas, looking out at the masts approaching from the horizon. “As long as we do our part and they theirs, we need not fear any misfortune befall any of the Gentes Optimates, which, fortune willing, shall instead pass onto the Gentes Unitates and their sickly lap-dogs the orkh-lords.”

“Everything should be in place,” said Udadus, in his rumbling voice. “Even should something go awry. Let us hope it does not come to that . . .” his eyes glance to the door leading down to the lower deck. There is enough crystal in there to blow their boats, those of the Surabhi, and the nearest beach straight into the spiritual world. All that would be left of any of them is horrific wasteland, dotted with monsters of unthinkable proportions.

“I shall make sacrifice and prayer after. If you would join me,” said Munatas. “Very well, young Ieder. Let us make your uncle our grandmaster proud with our silver tongue and diplomatic manner. It is most befitting of the greatest families, the Optimates, that we keep our demeanor pleasing, lest we become seen as the animals we seek to fight. Signal the landing. Let us bring honor to Imasicia Patria.”
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Sarasvati inclined her head slightly towards the Imasician delegation, her robes neatly arrayed in the customary fashion of a diplomatic priestess. “Greetings, friends.” She called in Imperial, a thick accent sticking to her words “I am sorry if my Imperial is poor, it has been long since I had need of it.” She gestured to her companions in turn, “May I introduce Shridaveh Enheduana, our naval leader. It is on her ships we have traveled here today. Sujati Khvamahant Enazhal, a protégé of our order. Aasmi Achaerikar Sayyanvar, a commander of our armies. And I myself am Sarasvati Kusari Adwani, appointed negotiator for these meetings. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

She took a step back, allowing the Imasician party to board via ramp, “If you will, please follow us into the cabin. We have more comfortable accomodations arranged within.”

Leading the small party to the specified area, she gently undid the latch holding its door in place, permitting their entry. Within was the personal quarters of Shridaveh, her small bunk visible off to one corner, and an even smaller shelf of tomes adjacent it. Centrally located was a strong mahogany table, around which was arrayed nine chairs. Upon the table sat a large pot of tea, steam rising gently from its spout. A small array of candied fruits, rich cheeses and dry crusty breads, and a small bowl of sugar lay fastened to the table. Though a sailor, Shridaveh had had a difficult time without these ‘essential’ foods, and had thus spent no small fortune equipping her personal vessel to provide for these ‘needs.’

“Please, take a seat.” Sarasvati said, motioning the Imasicians towards the table, “I apologize if you hoped for some accommodations from your own home. I am afraid we lack experience with many such things.”
_____________________________
“Something . . . naval . . . something . . . ships . . . appointment?” Ieder said, speaking in Old Imasician. “She talks silly. I can hardly make sense of it.”

“No, you twit,” Udadus snapped. “You’re lucky you had the good sense to speak the old tongue. Those very words could mean the end of negotiations for the rest of either of our lives. A diplomatic incident!” He reached over to slap the young man, but his partner grabbed his shoulder before they could humiliate themselves before the Surabhi company.

“Please, let us deal with this another time. What’s important is that he learned,” said Munatas, flashing that signature charismatic smile of his, that peeled apart his skin like an oily lemon. He switched to Imperial and began to address the Surabhi. “We are honored that you would speak to us in the tongue of our ancestors, and those of our kin here in Arcana. The Imperial language, I fear, is dying. The newer generation prefers the vernacular of the native tongue of Imasicia. Children, yes? They must be taught.”

“We are more than happy with what you have granted us,” Udadus said, picking a small date and setting it on his tongue. “Eager, dare I say, to partake in these cultural gifts of which we have been given.” He shoots an evil glare at Ieder, shoveling sugary raisins into his mouth without any regard for the world around him.

“Indeed. The foul gentes who disease our senate claim to be sworn enemies of Surabhumi, yet we see their merchants same as ours on the same desert roads, buying the same delicacies as our own, straight off the coming wagons,” Munatas says, gesturing with his hands at the cheese in his hand. When he gets going, he truly is a force, a storm of words. He alone could carry the Optimates through countless victories in the senate, if only he had been born a patrician of the old families. “The Gens Inumedigus, how detestable their manner! It is in their blood, passed from paterfamilias to filius minoris. Say, I believe I have had this before, yet not nearly as delectably fresh as what you have served to us. They call this, I believe . . . paneer?”

Sarasvati smiled slightly, shaking her head. “I am afraid not. It is… Shridaveh, what was it again?” She inquired, turning to the Sanghar woman - mid-bite through a heavily laden slice of bread laden with another cheese. She held up a finger, chewing slowly as she savored the flavor, before clearing her throat.

Speaking in the dialect of Surabhumi, she did well to mask her scorn. “No, Sarasvati. It is nothing close to paneer. I believe the merchants informed me the common name outside of our borders is… brie, however. I do not expect them to be familiar with our cheeses, simply keep them away from my pecorino. That is all I have to say on the matter.”

Sarasvati pursed her lips, shaking her head slightly, before turning back to the Imasicians. “I have been informed the name you might be most familiar with is ‘brie’? I do seem to recall it not being an invention of our own. Nevertheless, I am sure you have had it at some point. It originated from Annotilus, as best I can remember.” She allowed herself a smile, plucking a candied lemon wedge from the table. “But alas, we did not come here to discuss things as pleasant as our cultural delicacies, though I am sure Imasicia has many good things too.”

Reaching down, she pulled from a small bag a detailed map of the region, Imasicia, Arcana, and all other small states that dotted the coast. “Though it pains me, war seems likely if our negotiations in Arcana do not bear fruit. While we have some cursory understanding of your nation’s geography, we are unfortunately ignorant of much of it. We will depend upon you and your people to aid us in bringing justice to… Masinissa, was his name, yes?.”

“Masinissa! The dog’s whelp!” Munatas shouted. “On behalf of all of Imasicia, he has wrought a stain! He is of the cursed Gens Fesus, you see. I warned the old king Bogudus Senior, believe me I did. They are a sorry lot, poor in house politics and too quick with their marriages. That they would have the gall to call themselves a great dynasty, when the elder took that whore for wife . . . “

“What my colleague means to say, is that the actions of one gens is not representative of our kingdom,” Udadus says, barely hiding his disappointment. While Munatas was a performer at heart, and loved his theatrics, he did tend to put a bit too much ham into his act. “We cannot speak on behalf of the king nor the Fesi, but only ourselves. We, who call ourselves Optimates, would never dare any similar action. Very well then, what is it you ask of us to do regarding our . . . man of the subject?”

Unfazed by the outburst, Sarasvati simply smoothed her robes, allowing the young man to exhaust his bluster, and for his older counterpart to continue. She remained silent for a time, simply observing the Imasicians before her, sipping from her mug of tea as she did so.

At length, she spoke, “I am glad to see we are of one mind on this man. The demands of Surabhumi are simple, in truth. We seek to be given custody of this man that he may stand trial for his crimes on our soil, under our own laws, that he may face the repercussions of his actions. We would also demand reparations for his actions, taken from his own finances. The people of Aasiti have suffered greatly at the hands of his army, and the suffering of many a grieving dhutris would be alleviated by this. The liquidation of the estate to which he belongs, if such is necessary, would be well received as well.”

She set down her tea, looking Udadus in the eyes. “In turn, we are prepared to assist your faction within Imasicia. We hold no grudge with your people, nor do we wish vengeance upon them. But I think it would be to the betterment of all that the Regnum’s leadership be of a more… reconcilable nature with the other nations of this world.”

“Sol Inuictus! That’s-” Ieder began, but was silenced by Udadus’ hand gripping his shoulder. They looked into each others’ eyes, and knew immediately they were in understanding. They were talking about treason. The two of them then turned to Munatas, and even behind his unflappable demeanor they could see the fear in his eyes.

“The things you ask, the things you offer, both are very grave,” Udadus said. “It may not be in our power to promise such an arrangement. That lies solely in the hands of the king, and any man who is familiar with his temperament, as we are, will know that he is no friend to Surabhumi.”

“Yes, and your support for our cause, while admirable, may be a bit . . . hasty,” continued Munatas, clasping his hands together. “I am impressed that you are familiar with the factional system present in our governance. However, these things are . . . complicated, dare I say. If everyone could grasp the nuances, then what need have we for senators?” He laughed nervously, just enough to make the point that it was a joke. Even the self he kept in his mind, his honest self, was sweating like rain. Imagine if their enemies caught wind of them making clandestine deals with foreign powers. Imagine if the public did.

Sarasvati smiled. “What seems to be the matter, sir? We are merely sitting around a table, enjoying some delicious tea and discussing our views of politics and matters of state.” She showed no hint of guile, her face a serene mask of innocence. “Any meaning you take from this conversation is, of course, your own. I am but the messenger of my people, as are you. I can do nothing but represent the wishes and best interests of the people whom I owe allegiance to - and the same goes for you.”

In her fingers she toyed with a cube of candied plum, “But, in these little discussions of ours, perhaps it might slip that the Realm of Surabhumi is fully prepared to embark on a military expedition as a certain General threatened, should our negotiations with Imasicia in Arcana fail. It might be said that her demands are reasonable and just, to judge and to sentence one who has committed crimes against her and her people under her own terms, on her own soil.” Slowly, she slid the morsel between her lips, studying the men before her evenly. “And it might be said as well that if the monarch’s whim is not the best for their people, the people’s whim might not be best for the monarch.”

The threat was clear. Ieder wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. The eyes of the Surabhi woman stared him down, forcing him back from the table by the force of her will. In his mind, he could see villages, burning. Cities, turned to dust under hails of fire and thunder. Great Mirgamas, and its Castra Senatorum that dominates the skyline on its hill, turned to nothing but pebbles of marble. The Surabhi armies were a legacy even the Imperials knew. It was said the shield of the old Venda was unbreakable. Masinissa must have found out for himself.

“It is true, what you say,” Munatas began, letting the smile creep back into his face. It was more false than an orkh merchant. “I do not know how much you are aware of the political machinations within Imasicia. We, who call ourselves Optimates, have in late generations fallen out of favor with the kings. From Guba Quartus to Bogudus Tertius, they have been Unitates all. I fear our golden age is long past us. Are you suggesting that to guarantee our continued success, the position of Rex Imasicianus may be . . . rearranged?” That was it. He has crossed the line. The other two would either follow him into treason or betray him to his death.

Sarasvati’s expression remained neutral, and she sipped at her drink serenely. “My dear Optimas - if you will pardon my use of the term in such a manner - I am suggesting nothing. I am merely stating my view of the world. In Surabhumi, we once had a war the likes of which dwarf even our great clashes with the Sangharans. Those who held much power and influence used those for ends that harmed the people. Eventually, a tipping point was reached.” She set down her cup, staring him in the eye. “The census two years before the war reported a population of some one hundred and seventy five million, three hundred and twenty six thousand, four hundred and ninety two. Twenty years later, after the war had been over a year, another census was taken.” Idly, she plucked a small piece of cheese from the platter, toying with it before popping it in her mouth. Silence reigned as she turned her gaze back to him. “That census reported a population of eighty three million, two hundred and seventeen thousand, five hundred and eleven. Even today, farmers find mass graves in their fields. Fields strewn with armored skeletons, their names and memories lost. Entire dhutrisi disappeared, the priestesses who would have marked their passing likewise falling before they could do so. Surely, you know of my peoples’ fondness for libraries and records - did you know we must rely on Sangharan accounts of many of our past rulers? Stolen documents from Odhisa for many arcane works? We not not much of our own history, for it was destroyed. In turn, those who destroyed it were rendered extinct.”

A long sigh escaped her, and for once the diplomat’s expression showed a hint of genuine emotion, “I am telling you of what has happened in the past, and what will happen in the future. Whatever the people of Imasicia choose, the Realm of Surabhumi must react to in order to benefit our own.” She gestured in the direction of land, towards Imasicia. “Imasicia will do what it wishes, and you Optimates shall do as you see best befits yourselves. If you wish our support in changing Imasicia’s leadership, for the betterment of your home as a whole and to spare it calamity, that I can promise you.”

“Can we refuse? It doesn’t sound like we can refuse,” Ieder said, the words passing through his mouth in Old Imasician as he chewed on his piece of cheese.

“The boy has the right of it,” Udadus says, staring grimly at the table. “She has Imasicia at the point of her scythe-weapon. There is no winning, not for us, not with the senate we have now.”

“Faith, my friends,” Munatas said. “Keep hope in your hearts. There remains many paths by which-”

“Let me be direct, for these negotiations must be done. Should you support us, then we in turn shall support you. As our ancestors would say, quid pro quo,” Udadus said, switching to Imperial. “You are right, of course. Radical action may succeed where machination has long been trapped. Just tell us what we are to expect from Surabhumi in the coming moons, and when the optimal time comes that we should raise arms.” He stood up, and extended his hand to Ieder to do the same. Munatas sat, mouth agape, like he had been struck in the back with an arrow. For once, he was speechless.

Sarasvati smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. “Aasmi will discuss the military minutiae with you, know that we each speak with the full authority of the Electorate Council behind us. I am glad you have taken such initiative, Optimas. We will aid you in bringing benefit to both of our peoples.” She stood, inclining her head slightly. “I will take my leave for now and allow you and Aasmi to negotiate these matters. Please, call if you need me.” Making for the doorway, she paused, turning back to the assembled Imasicians, “And do bear in mind, if word of this leaks to the wrong ears - there will be consequences.”
Still WIP
Okay soooo this looks interesting and neat. Been rereading The Color Out Of Space and Shadow Over Innsmouth and I'm always game for some mind warping horror. Could there be room for someone with a nice education from a technical college whose faith in literally everything has been shaken to the core by seeing too much one night? Presumably former military - perhaps having gone on to be a military contractor servicing sensor equipment wherein they saw the wrong thing?

Then, presumably turning to laudanum some sort of drug to numb the crushing existential dread?
WIP
@JrVader

Vast majority of those huge posts are collaborations and we take way too long on 'em, so no need to worry. If you can output a few paragraphs, you can do it!
Soo... this looks interesting. Is there room for a bunch of hyper industrial, cybernetically augmented militaristic, not-Russian/Americans with lots of explosives occupying a couple forge worlds? Dependent on others for food, but also a massive industrial base?

also maybe dragongirls or something because I am now obligated to combine grit and steel with cute kemonomimi people
@JrVader

Yes, of course!
Kuirroda Dheniku Anvika Hjupeli Ghrolda: - Supreme Commander of the military forces of the Aasiti Province, on the southeastern coast. A flamboyant and jovial individual, she is nevertheless an excellent military commander and formidable individual fighter. A priestess of Ishareth, like many high ranking officials in Surabhumi, she has foregone the plain robes and traditional clerical sword for brilliantly polished steel armor and a two handed falx.

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“To the barbaric scum who has dared set foot on the soil of our nation; I am Kuirroda Dheniku Anvika Hjupeli Ghrolda. I demand that, effective immediately, you lay down your arms, surrender all plunder, release all prisoners of war, and allow your soldiers to leave our lands alive. You will all be spared and permitted to return home upon repaying the debt you have incurred with Surabhumi. Resist, and I will destroy you and repay tenfold the harm you have wrought on our land.”

Kuirroda’s face was taciturn and severe as she dictated the message to be sent, bereft of its usual humor and good nature. Her eyes were narrowed into slits as she surveyed the terrain before her, the rustle and clatter of armor and weapons filling her ears. She had received little information on the disaster that had unfolded while she was away, save that Asmaki had fallen and her ragtag assemblage had been shattered with little difficulty. Now, as she scanned the gently rolling plains before her, the full magnitude of the situation became evident. Patnai, the town Asmaki had tried to save, lay in the grip of a full siege, smoke rose from both sides of its walls and even from afar she could see the ruinous piles of rubble where once had stood buildings.

As she sent off the messenger bearing her letter, she called to her army and aides. “Units, assume bull’s horns! Skirmishers screen, keep the cavalry in reserve! Pikes to the center front!”

Like a well oiled machine, the army broke from its marching column, ninety thousand strong, and began to follow her orders. Ten thousand Surabhi bearing three meter pikes marched in perfect lockstep, forming dense squares in the center of the formation. Each of them carried a small shield in complement alongside the axes and swords they carried as sidearms. Each pike bearer was bedecked in thick chain armor, with dully gleaming burnished steel discs and plates secured in place on their torsos. Their faces hidden by sheets of more chain, horns coated in spiked stripes of steel. Behind them and on the wings marched the regular infantry, each woman bearing a large wood and steel shield, a spear, a two handed falx, and a short sword or axe. Each of these, numbering some forty eight thousand in total, was armored in a similar manner to the pike bearers. Taking up their positions in the core of the army were the archers, thirty thousand in number. Not as heavily armored as their compatriots equipped for melee, the archers sported sturdy woven vambraces in addition to their helmets and chainmail shirts, each archer carrying sixty arrows on their person in addition to the great war bows they held at their sides, many of them taller when unstrung than the Surabhi who wielded them. Behind them walked the cavalry, roughly six thousand in number, lightly armored and armed, they were used for harassment, screening, and pursuit. Each rider carried a sack of javelins with her, in addition to a light lance, wicker shield, and a light axe or sword. Their armor consisted solely of a padded shirt and sturdy steel helmet, and their ranks often consisted of the Surabhi smaller in stature than their brethren, easier able to ride on the backs of horses without tiring their mounts. Upon the wings of the formation were the skirmishers, numbering six thousand. Armed and armored in a similar manner to the cavalry, they carried additional javelins and a sturdy thrusting spear, many sported slings and additional armor. They would harass the flanks of the enemy and screen the deployments of the infantry in the field. Behind the archers rolled hundreds of various pieces of artillery, ballistas, scorpions, and more.

Kuirroda smiled, kicking her own mount into motion. Her personal retinue, sitting astride massive bulls armored so heavily there was nary an inch of hide exposed, numbered only a few hundred. They were to guard and escort her during battle, and to defend their commander with their lives. However, unlike Asmaki, Kuirroda had no intentions of allowing the battle to come to that.

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“Army on the horizon, Praetor,” said a grim faced legate. Masinissa followed his pointing finger to the flashes of light in the distance. There were enough of them to illuminate the entire surrounding fields in blinding light, especially in the scorching midday sun. He could guess as to the relative strength of this particular army, compared to the previous.

“Turn the catapults around,” Masinissa ordered. “The settlement can wait.” Immediately, his words were quickly relayed through the ranks. “Call up every soldier I took off duty as well. I want every hand. Now!” How many Surabhi were there? Fifty thousand, like his own? No, even more. A hundred thousand, perhaps. He was outnumbered nearly two to one, bad enough against a human army. Knowing that the enemy was so often taller, stronger, and more possessed of the zeal of fighting on home ground, who knows?

The rumble of wheels on hardened earth thundered through the army camp, pushed along by desperate hands and low voices. A military magus followed, inscribing prayers on various sections of the catapult, written in magic dust. The text glowed, then disappeared, and from the well of the catapult grew a mighty ball of fire.

“Wait, hold,” said the commanding centurion. He drew from his robes a letter, stained brown, along with a near-dried pair of gloved hands. “Strict orders from the praetor.” He placed both objects in the well, and the crew watched as the objects burned to a black crisp together. “Alright, let loose.” With a whoosh and a blast of hot air, the catapult released its deadly ammunition. Other catapult units quickly followed suit, and the air itself was alight with fireballs. Imasician magic was formidable, rivaled only by a select few in the entire known world, and will decide the fate of this battle.
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Kuirroda’s mood was further worsened when her messenger returned, bloodied stumps where had been the strong hands of a loyal soldier and messenger. She had come to the battle expecting an enemy with little respect for the laws of war - she had no delusions about notions such as ‘honor’, but the mutilation of her messenger filled her with disgust. She had hurriedly sent the distraught woman away with the best healers to be had, alongside a heavy sack of silver to buy the services of the best flesh shapers available. The soldier would have her hands back, and the scum who had maimed her would pay dearly. The carrion birds would feast well today.

The skirmishers moved forward from the flanks, fanning out in dispersed units that ranged ahead of the main column, the cavalry moving up on the flanks to take their places.

From her hilltop position, Kuirroda was the first to see the orange streaks of fire streak out as her skirmishers closed the distance. She gestured to an aide, who raised a spyglass and a curious apparatus, her mouth murmuring slightly as she fed observations to yet another aide. Kuirroda smiled as the spotter returned to her side after a minute, “Observations indicate they loosed at four hundred meters, commander. Based on what we can discern of the angle of their apparatuses, this is close to their maximum range.”

Kuirroda smiled, the familiar sense of battle falling over her as she observed the field before them. “Very good, move two medium ballista contingents to the 450 meter mark. Heavy ballista and the rest, I want them at five hundred. Alert me if they make any efforts to move their own artillery closer. Signal the infantry to form up between those points, standard formation. Keep the cavalry on the wings, out of their range. Let them fire at empty ground and slingers and javelineers.”

____________________________________________________________________________

The catapult’s volleys were imperfect, but their purpose was done. The enemy has halted, past four hundred meters, maybe more. The reach of the volleys cannot match further. “What now . . .” Masinissa wondered aloud. He could see them lining up, forming into maneuvers that looked straight from the texts in the imperial military records. On the field, the enemy skirmishers’ approach was rather clear. That was a bad sign.

“We know this,” said Centoria Andrea. “The enemy, they are defensible. Very formidable in defense. When they attack, who can say?” She studied the lines, observing closely as the formation continued to develop. “I don’t like it. These fields, they give us no hiding. If we could-”

Giant bolts rained from the sky, smashing into the ground around them and kicking up clumps of earth and grass. Andrea ducked, barely avoiding one aimed for her head. A few struck the catapults, rattling the levers and breaking some. At this moment, the skirmishers approached, letting loose their own volleys of stones, lead pellets, and spears. The skirmishers, striking exactly at the moment when the testudos were reforming, cut swaths through the open ranks. “Bring me my horse, Andrea,” Masinissa said. “I want the legii organized into a series of columns. Minimize the surface by which any of their accursed arrows may strike. We can overpower key points in their line, drive through and circle around. Just like Meldimica Augusta, just like Meldimica Augusta . . .” He could goad them into breaking rank and retreating if he pushed the catapults up, then charge while they’re retreating. If his gamble didn’t pay off . . .
____________________________________________________________________________

Kuirroda smiled, gently elbowing one of her aides. “Told you they’d try to move up on us like that. Signal a fallback, tell the spotters to maintain the same distance. If my guess is right, Asmaki tried to sit still and let herself be toyed with. We will not give him that same luxury. Draw the ballistae to the flanks, let them come in.”

She surveyed the ranks of her own forces, “I want the cavalry to fan out on my signal, keep them from moving any forces to the wings, send three companies of infantry with each wing - I do not wish to risk losing the cavalry. But for now, wait for my signal, let them think we will allow them to draw close like before.”

With a snappy salute, her aides relayed the orders, and the army held firm as the Imasician forces drew closer. Minutes passed, and as Kuirroda scanned the field, she blew into a whistle. At once, the force sprang into action, colored flags flapping across the army’s ranks, orders being shouted as the vast assembly of soldiers moved themselves back, keeping themselves out of range of Imasician artillery until they were assured the enemy had exhausted the bulk of their ammunition. Each soldier marched in perfect high step, spears held in position as the formations wheeled around, marching at double time away from the Imasician advance.

Kuirroda smiled, unable to suppress her pride in the military excellence of Surabhumi - and as her forces drew near the designated stopping point, the formations wheeled in place once more, a great clatter and cacophony of steel armor audible even at distance. Once more, her forces were well out of range of the Imasician artillery.

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“These accursed Surabhi, they see right through us . . . “ muttered Legatus Badis. His nephew, Masinissa, had spirit, it was true. Too much spirit. It was a blessing and a curse, embedded within the blood of they, the last two sons of the gens Fesus. Yet, Masinissa is still young, and his spirit has not been tempered with the forces of reason and full education. He continues his charge, which any more experienced general could say with certainty is doomed to failure. Yet, the boy is headstrong. He burns with the fire of the sun itself. Perhaps, Badis himself could believe for a moment, as he led the men to declare his nephew Triumphator, that gens Fesus could live on in glory. That time has passed.

Indeed, their family was one of dwindling glory, once one of the most prominent in the entire kingdom, replaced in recent memory by the gens Inumedigus, Tingitus, and Arbatus. Masinissa’s father was a harsh man, that Badis knew. He instilled within his son a sense of the greatness, by whatever force he could muster with his fists. Masinissa, he had to have been strong. Stronger than either Fesus brother his senior generation, growing and maturing despite his father’s best attempts. If only the spirits had accepted Badis’ sacrifice, and given him the son instead, perhaps such a gift would not have been so suppressed. Never mind that. Let his gens not fall so soon, with such a young host to bear the weight of this failure. He edged his horse towards his nephew and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Let me lead this advance, Praetor,” he said. Masinissa turned with an indignant look, madness coming through in his eyes. They were red as the sky in the eve. They could see the battle was lost, while even his mind could not.

“Nonsense. It is my victory. Let me win it.” With that, he turned forward, and tried to ride to the front of the rank, but his arm was locked into his uncle’s iron grip.

“It shall be your victory, Praetor. A victory for gens Fesus, for your warriors. But I shall lead them. You . . . take your horse to the shores. Have the Drakonians take you back to the capital. Request more legions. We’ll . . . defeat these barbarian garrisons, and camp here in await of our triumphator’s return.” Masinissa blinked, and rubbed his eye to banish the water. Wordlessly, he wheeled his horse about and trotted back the way they came. Maybe, in his heart of hearts, he did know.

“Now, bring me Canina,” he ordered. A small retinue quickly left his side, and returned to the prisoner. “Have a sword to her neck at any moment I need her throat cut. Now, men, let us remember triumph! With me, as one! The King! The Senate! The Legacy! CHAAAARGE!”
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Kuirroda’s easy smile faltered for a moment at the sight now unfolding before her. “Aide,” she murmured, “Do my eyes deceive me, or… have they gone mad?”

The entire assembled mass of the enemy had broken from their orderly, calm repositioning, falling into a direct advance across the grassy plain. Even across the great distance she could hear the manic war cries that echoed across the earth, deranged howling of berserking warriors, the clatter of swords on the shields of their legionaries, the firepults abandoned as their crews took up sword and shield.

“Something is off…” She murmured, scanning the enemy force. “Why would they change so drastically? Why abandon their artillery? What has happened?” She turned to her aides once more, taking hold of a spyglass and putting it to her eye. Slowly, but surely, the cohesion of the enemy force was crumbling as they continued their advance. And yet… there! A rider, surrounded by only a small guard, riding heavy back towards the coast. The ornate plumed helmet, visible even through the mediocre magnification of the spyglass, distinctive armor - she was sure of it. The enemy commander had taken flight, his army… inexplicably, not following him.

She frowned, signalling to the army. “Ballistae, archers, all make ready. Loose when the enemy draws within range. Standard protocol. When they draw within fifty meters, tell them to stay, and let these invaders know the full might of our steel.” She smiled, “And let the falx bearers take their flanks.”

The bugles sounded as her orders were relayed. A great din rose from her army, archers nocking arrows to their bows, the ballistae loaded with their great stones and bolts, the infantry readying their weapons in anticipation. The soldiers bearing the great falxes moved further to the flanks, ready to charge home into the sides and rear of their enemy.

An eerie pseudo-silence fell as the army waited, until finally the bugles sounded once more, and the ballistae and archers unleashed hell.
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The din of battle was said to be deafening, by scholars and senators of high standing and education. Badis, as a man who has seen war, knows better. Battlefields are silent, silent as the grave of the warriors who die upon it. Everything falls into a hush. Men scream in battle. They scream because they cannot hear themselves anymore. The only speech that fills their ears is the sound of their own guilt. Perhaps he was falling into the orkh’s famed battle-trance, as some men have claimed to experience. He had brushed those anecdotes off as they were; anecdotes. Yet, he can feel the weight of his actions bubble up within him, pushing out of him rather than in, through the armor about his shoulders.

The cursed rains came down again, silver points flashing before streaks of white. Again, the men fall, arrows passing through steel, cloth, and the flesh and bone beneath, as easily as it would pass through oil. Men do not weep, except for when meeting their deaths, his father would say. Men before their deaths weep rivers. This field shall become a sea, from mountain to mountain it shall lie, as a monument to the failure of the Legii XLVIII through LVIII. He ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them, and now he shall lie with them, far below in this bastard soil.

“Help me, ere I sink,” Badis said, feeling his mouth move rather than hearing the words. “I am but a man. Help me, ere I sink.” The shields of the legions crashed into that of the Surabhi, the impact shaking the earth. Swords met, and parted, leaving a trail of red in the air. Bodies begin to pile up, until the front lines must step over the corpses of their brothers only to become them. Was it love or hate that continued to drive them forward, through the blooded muck, into the waiting tips of their spears? Through the dark earth he could just make out the faces of some of the centurions. In their faces was love and hate, but most of all fear.
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Otracita felt the hard ground beneath her feet as she surged forward with her unit, falxes held at the ready, the voices of thousands of throats letting loose a tremendous battle cry. They had been at forced march for days, making heavy time across the province to intercept the invaders who had dared massacre their kin. They had stood for hours in the sun, awaiting the response of these invaders who would plunder their cities and homes. They had met with shock and revulsion the mutilation of the general’s messenger, had watched with hearts of cold, hardened steel as the foe arrayed themselves. They had champed at the bit to avenge their fallen, slaughtered in a one-sided battle by a foe who sought only to wreak havoc on their land. They had listened as the enemy artillery had hurled great flames upon the plains, to the screams and cries of the wounded and dying. And now, as they charged into the flank of the Imasician force, they had come to visit vengeance upon these barbarians from the east.

She raised her blade over her head, the black striations streaming throughout its length, the burnished metal gleaming in the overhead sun - soon it would paint the ground in Imasician blood. She scarcely felt the impact as she drove the tip into the armor covering the neck of the first man, the cruel point punching through the chain with a power and efficacy that many Sangharan armies had come to know. Indeed, she felt only rage, the red mist of battle, the need to avenge her fellows who had gone to the stars in defense of their lands.

Another soldier thrust a spear at her and she ducked, the point gliding past her horns as she lunged forward, forcing the spiked guard into the woman’s cheek. The blood flowed, and she pressed further into the attack, plunging the tip of her blade into the belly, the padded armor of an artillery crew of little use in this instance - her adversary sank to the ground, mortally wounded.

The battle raged around her, a maelstrom of death and suffering, hopes and dreams clashed with each other and were snuffed from the world. Another Imasician, his shield raised high, his blade at the ready. Otracita smiled, leaping forward as she brought the falx down upon his shield, driving the blade deep into the wood. The legionary slashed hastily at her and she grinned, his blade thumping against her armor as she seized a dagger from her hip. Again, he slashed wildly and she swerved to avoid his blow, bringing the dagger around in a furious counterattack. Again, she found her weapon meeting his heavy shield, and, enraged, she rushed forward, knocking the shield away as she grappled him to the floor. She could see the terror in his eyes, he went for his own knife, driving the tip into her armor - and she felt pain. A bright white, searing heat that momentarily pushed through the haze of battle as she stared almost confused at the blade now embedded in her forearm. Her own dagger fell to the ground, and the Imasician drove his helmet into hers, knocking her back as he groped for his sword, discarded with his shield.

She beat him to it, though, screaming obscenities as the blood flowed from her wounded arm, she pried her falx from his shield and drove its point into his exposed back. Pain arced through her body like a storm of lightning and she howled aloud in rage as the weapon failed to kill him. It had penetrated his armor - but not much, the sturdy iron bands keeping away the worst of the damage. With another primal scream of fury she fell upon him, driving her elbow into the base of his spine as he clawed for his sword, just out of his reach. Seizing in her hands the falx once more, she drove the pointed pommel into the wound on his back time and time again, dead to the sound of his shrieks of pain and pleas for mercy, dead to the world entirely, dead even to the pain that burned in her mind.

Another soldier took her from her trance, one of the infantry, her eyes wide in shock and horror as she paused in the midst of the whirling nightmare of battle. “Jemadar, what in Ishareth’s name are you doing? What has become of you! Please, leave him, he is dead! I beg of you, we must finish them now!”

Otracita looked towards the voice, blinking away tears she did not know she had shed. Around her lay a thick carpet of bodies, but even still the fighting continued. Life and death played out their dance as she saw a Surabhi thrust her spear into the gut of an Imasician cavalryman, pulling him from his horse. Another fell to the ground, clutching weakly at a javelin protruding from her side. Two more dueled with an Imasician Centurion, dancing back and forth as each waited for the other to give an opening.

She blinked again, rising slowly as if from a deep sleep. Her falx was still in her hands, red with the blood of countless beings who had loved and hoped and dreamed. She looked around for the Imasician legionnaire - his face burned into her mind, fixed like a mental branding - but she could not see him. Only a ring of dead that surrounded her, a young Imasician man’s disemboweled body sprawled at her feet, the tip of her falx still embedded.

“What nightmare is this?” She murmured, swaying slightly. “What have I done? What have we done? Is this… is this what they deserved? Is this what they inflicted on our own?” The woman stared at her, bewildered.

Jemadar, we must return to the battle, please. There are yet more Imasicians to defeat, they fight on. Please, you can wonder later. But we must go, now!” The woman’s voice was pleading, desperate - they were from different units entirely, and yet Otracita could tell she was alarmed, terrified even, of the beast that stood before her wearing the insignia of a Jemadar.

Otracita felt as though she might weep, but she steadied herself. “Yes... “ she murmured, nodding slowly, “Yes, you are right. We must.”

Gingerly, she pulled her blade from the belly of the Imasician, standing mutely for a moment before she nodded once more, readying her blade. “As you were, soldier. Charge!”
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It was done. The Surabhi charge was a great harbor wave, washing human and Varacci alike away in a rush of steel. Bodies lay together in ironically gentle repose, human upon orkh. Once, perhaps, they had detested each other on such grounds as heritage, now aside they lay like brothers.

The first to break were the greens. At least, what was left of them. Any who weren’t fool enough to charge into the front lines, seeking their own glorious end, could see their comrades do the same. They threw down their swords and made for the hills. Swiftly following them were the legii, following in the example of their less experienced counterparts. The Varacci . . . bless their hearts, bless them to the spiritual kingdoms. They held on, tooth and nail, fighting to the very last drop of their warrior’s gift. However, the gift is not unlimited, and they too realized where they were, scattering like rabbits.

“We fought, and for the spirits of war, that is enough,” Badis said. “They have drank their fill of the blood. Go on then, raise the white banner.” The centurion by his side nodded, and complied without a word. He tore off the red banner of Legio XVIII, emblazoned with a yellow snake, and tied his own toga about it, before making the solemn march towards their victorious foes, stepping over the corpse of Centoria Andrea as he did so. Andrea’s hide was pierced clean through, the spear broken off midway down. The hair on her body did much to soak up the blood.

“Peace! Peace!” shouted the centurion, letting the toga sway back and forth in the still air. “We are done! Peace!”
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Kuirroda perked up in her saddle, the torn, flapping cloth of the Legion’s banner catching her eye through the lense of the spyglass. She lowered it, raising a hand hurriedly as she called to her aides. “At ease, soldiers! Cease! They have surrendered!”

She kicked her mount into motion, the heavy beast lumbering forward, the great sheets of maille armoring its hide and those of its kin making a terrific clamor as her entourage followed behind her. Bugles sounded once more across the field, and slowly her army fell back into marching order, the formations reforming on the move as she lead her force to meet with the surrendering enemy commander.

Before her marched the foot contingent of her honor guard, Surabhi of even greater stature than the norm, bearing great falxes and armored head to toe in the finest maille. As they neared the Legion’s remnants, she dismounted, moving forward on foot with her guard surrounding her.

“To the barbaric scum who has dared set foot on the soil of our nation; I am Kuirroda Dheniku Anvika Hjupeli Ghrolda. I demand that, effective immediately, you lay down your arms, surrender all plunder, release all prisoners of war, and allow your soldiers to leave our lands alive. You will all be spared and permitted to return home upon repaying the debt you have incurred with Surabhumi. Resist, and I will destroy you and repay tenfold the harm you have wrought on our land.” She stated to the man holding the flag, “Those were the words I sent on a missive before this battle, do you remember? Borne by a messenger who returned to me mutilated and shamed. I offered you - or, rather, your commander, for I do not see him here - the opportunity to leave our lands with your lives intact. Instead, you sacrificed the lives of tens of thousands to stroke the vanity of one whom I can only assume to be but a boy, not suited to direct the farmhands of the lowliest village - let alone what was once a formidable army.” She stepped forward, her arms folded and an expression of the purest contempt evident on her features. “And yet, here you stand before me, utterly defeated, the man for whomst you marched nowhere to be seen, and I am left with his… what are you, his uncle? His second in command? The one who could not sway him from his folly?”

The enemy commander was talking. Some long and pompous speech he was of no interest in listening to. She spoke in Imperial, slowly with many stutters. It was obvious Imperial was at least a third language to her, maybe even more. The grammar was all backwards, and many of the more complicated words were substituted for simpler synonyms that didn’t quite capture the same connotation. When she finished, Badis closed his eyes and nodded, breathing out through his nose. She had done well. A soldier soldiers on, even when they cannot.

“I am myself,” he said, solemnly. “I am myself, and no other can I be.” He says it first in Old Imasician, letting the traditional words soak into the air, then repeated it again in Imperial. It was a mantra, taken from whatever remains of the spiritual texts from the First Age. Repeating it back in Imperial . . . it loses something. Something of the wisdom in which it was first written. It felt awkward, the words not flowing together in the way they should, when grandfathers tell it to their grandsons. He couldn’t help but laugh at himself, a short bark that startled both his horse and the horse of his aid. Were he not a general, he perhaps would have been a poet. “We are at the table, a most sacred place. Man and spirit convene before meals of fruit and air. Let us speak matters of enlightenment and worth, dispensing of base insult.” Could she understand his lofty metaphors? Perhaps not. He certainly could not were they speaking in her tongue.

Kuirroda scoffed at her adversary’s response, “You speak of enlightenment, Imasician, of worth and sacred places - and yet here you are, having invaded our lands without so much as a formal declaration of war. A rogue army bent on conquest and pillage. I have heard the reports of the things your soldiers did after defeating the governor of this province - tell me, does she yet draw breath? Or has she likewise been murdered by your rampaging horde?” She took a step forward, her hands on her hips. “My messenger returned to me with her hands missing, her body violated and mutilated by your commander - yet I do not see him here to face the consequences of his actions. Has he fled to Imasicia to cower behind yet more of your legions?”

“Glory is a young man’s game,” Badis replied. “I am too old to go seeking it anymore.” What he said was true. He had seen too much battle to be excited by it, too much death to relish in giving it, he was set in his views, and for lack of a better word . . . old. Time, that old rascal, breaths down his armor as the wind changes. He had hoped to die before the chill had settled into his bones, but it was not to be. Especially now, he must survive, knowing the family he keeps at home. They had already lost one, but another? What hope could they keep, with nobody to lean upon in the harsh storms? “You can say better than I, youthful as you are, of my nephew’s state of mind. He is a stranger to myself, who has children of his own. Have you children? Perhaps you might understand.”

Kuirroda nodded, “I do, as did many of my people whom your own army slaughtered a fortnight ago. I speak as a mother wishing to protect her children from the ravages of a foreign army, I speak as one charged with the defense of our lands and people against the ravages of a foreign army, and I speak as one who knows too well the horrors of the battlefield - for whom I assume many of your fellows who now lie in the grass had little knowledge of. In truth, Imasician, I am only fifty years of age, but I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is naught but the fever dreams of the addict. It is only those who have never struck with a blade nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell… and yet, Imasician, it is a hell I will endure for the defense of my people. The same people you and yours would brutalize.”

“We are fortunate, you and I, to have brought life into this world,” he said. It was tactical, and most importantly, courteous, to not goad her as she does to him. He blinked slowly, at this sacrilege. How could she speak of the dead, while they still hear? Their young souls linger yet about the field in which they lie, listening for mention of their own name, their own titles, an identity they may cling to, which anchors them to this world. Any improper choice of words and they will not pass on to the spirit world, to live among the rivers and trees, but rather shall haunt their own remains as an evil spirit, a vengeful ghost. Perhaps he should warn this enemy commander. He ought change the subject.

Kuirroda interjected before he could continue, “Yes, yes.” She spoke, waving her hand dismissively. “And yet you sought to take life from it. To wrong tens of thousands who had borne you no ill will nor done you harm.” She took another step forward, drawing her sword, a finely worked blade of the highest skill. “Kneel, Imasician.” She commanded, her words haughty and imperious. “Tell me, how did your commander maim my messenger? Did he force her to her knees, lay her hands across the ground and have one of his brutes cleave them? I must know.”

“He . . .” Badis began, drawing a shuddering breath. Remain honorable, even at the coming of death. The spirits will not deal with a liar’s tongue. He took one last look at his own hands, as if to say goodbye, before shutting his eyelids tight, blocking out the whole world. “He, with ropes, entangled her manacles upon his saddle. Then, the barding as an anvil, he drew his spatha and cut, twice.” They mustn’t see him cry.

Kuirroda nodded grimly, stepping forward. “I could have your entire force executed, you know.” She said simply. “By maiming my messenger, who came to deliver a message extending the most generous peace terms, he committed a great sacrilege. Even with our differences, surely you must know how far he trespassed?” She took another step forward, laying her blade on his wrists. The edge cut slightly into his skin, a thin red line.

Silence reigned for a moment, and Kuirroda swung her blade, the meaty sound of the blade burying itself into its target rang through the air.

Kuirroda stepped back, her sword embedded in the ground mere inches from his wrists. “Unlike your commander, though.” She said softly, “I will not punish his subordinates for his actions. Your soldiers will remain here, Imasician.” She continued, her eyes hard, “They will work long and hard to pay off the harm they have wrought upon our people. They will work the land and serve my people until their debt is paid off. It may be many years, but they will live to see their homes again should they wish it.” She knelt down, eye level with him, “You, however, will return to Imasicia. You will inform your ruler that I demand your commander’s presence here on our soil once more, to answer for his crimes - or we will come take him. You and your people have two paths to take. I pray that, for the good of countless lives, you will make the right choice. Now go.”
@Ever Faithful

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Asmaki Khalya Xaaviya D'aldrati Zhetiveh: Governor-Matriarch of the Aasiti Province, on the southeastern coast. A dedicated and adept administrator, her military training is only rudimentary. Intelligent and shrewd, she is prone to bouts of mania and depression. She has mustered all available militia within two days’ march to rendezvous with her and try to protect the town of Patnai and hamper the advance of the Imasician Legions while the Province’s Matriarch-Militant marshalls the army proper. Many of her soldiers are lacking the armor and weapons they trained with, and they are tired from two days of forced marching.
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The dawn rose beautiful over the green hills. Masinissa watched the flashes in the armor ring back at him, many glints on the fields of silver. They are called Legii XLVIII through LVIII, and they would conquer this land. Masinissa’s heart swelled, watching the perfectly formed ranks march across the grass, flattening it under their footfalls. It was a perfect representation of the Imperium, before its tragic end. Yet, as they advanced towards the pitiful garrison that was to be their enemy, perhaps it was time the Imperium rose again, stronger and wiser than ever before. A new Imperium, under the eyes of Imasicia, the last son of that venerable civilization. “Army, forth!” he called, and as one, they assembled upon the hill, overlooking the enemy forces below. In the lifespan of a candle, they shall fall.

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Asmaki surveyed the force arrayed before her with cold dread hanging heavy in her gut. Like a pouch of leaden sling bullets, a foreboding sense of doom filled her being. Her army was no match for the one arrayed before it, she could see that as clear as day. The scouts she had available counted at least forty thousand among the enemy’s number, if not more. Her own forces numbered a comparatively scant twenty thousand, many of them without even the weapons and armor they had trained with. This was a doomed venture from the start, she knew.

“Varidi, instruct what professional archers we have to retreat to Patnai, they will be necessary in the city’s defense.” She murmured to an aide. “We may die today, but we will ensure these invaders do not profit long from their victory here.”

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“Signor, I see them,” whispered a Varacci auxiliary prefect. He pointed with a mangled finger at the sea of horns assembling below, ragged and shivering. Masinissa’s breath caught in his throat, as it so often does before a battle. “They are . . . ten thousand? Twenty?” His brow furrowed. “I see no armor. What if it is a trap?”

“A trap? Perhaps . . . “ Masinissa whispered. “Who knows what these devious Surabhi may be planning . . . “

“Praetor, we await your decisi-” a legatus began, but Masinissa waved him away.

“. . . Approach cautiously. Send in a few greens, nothing we can’t afford to lose. Harry them and break their lines, and watch the damn corners. If it is a trap . . . “ Masinissa said, his voice slowly giving away to near-silent rambles. His eyes darted about, expecting to see an unending horde of cow-women appear from anywhere and descend upon him. The legati gave each other a grim look, and immediately left to organize their own legions. The auxiliary prefect did the same, shooting a suspicious glare at the Surabhi lines.

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Asmaki frowned at the approach of a small segment of the Imasician forces. It was a trap, it had to be. Skirmishers, to lure her smaller forces away from their defensive position and into the open, where they could slaughter her forces wholesale. This enemy commander was a cautious one for sure, and her hopes of forcing him into even a pyrrhic victory were slipping steadily by the minute.

“Varidi, instruct our remaining archers to take up their positions and await my order. We should reserve arrows for the main force of their advance. Tell the skirmishers and whatever infantry have their armor to move to the front - I want skirmishers to drive their own back, the infantry to protect our archers.”

Her expression was grim as she surveyed the field from atop the hill. Even dug in as she was, she knew she was no match for a properly trained and experienced general - let alone one who outnumbered her own forces by such a wide margin.

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“Run and release! Run and release!” shouted a centurion, lost in the mob. His voice was picked up by the remaining command, and rose up in a chorus alongside the charging skirmishers. Cries of “Get moving, damn you!” and “Bleed them dry!” joined shortly after, and the cacophony of overlapping voices grew to a mess of noises, only some of which may even be considered human. Metal rings rattled on metal rings, as the charging force ran right up to the quickly-forming Surabhi skirmishers, seemingly about to throw themselves upon them in melee combat. Then, they slow, halt, and pull from their backs a single metal-tipped javelin. With roars of fury, they hurl the javelins at the unarmored Surabhi, painting the grass red. Another volley, in quick succession follows, tearing gaps in their lines. Then, quick as they approached, they book it for the safety of the legion.

However, as the enemy skirmishers face them down, the roars quickly turn to screams. A javelin buries itself into a skirmisher’s back, and he collapses. More missiles join the first, each finding its mark with a power unexpected of a peasant levy. Desperately, the force raises their round shields, small protection that they are, to the sky.

“It’s no matter, the damage is done . . . “ muttered Masinissa. “I trust you are aware of your own role.”

“Si, signor, it will be,” replies a guttural voice. The Varacci prefect steps out before his kinsmen, and begins banging on his shield. The effect is an instant seeming hypnosis of the auxiliaries. The banging slowly gets faster, louder, but even the sound of metal is naught compared to the breathing of the Varacci themselves. The entire unit seems to vibrate, with how much they are twitching. “Ahhh . . . ahh . . . ahhh . . . AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” The shout comes up as one, and the unit charges, blood in their eyes and on their tongue, and all the world disappears in a haze of anger.
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Asmaki smiled in grim satisfaction at the losses inflicted by her own forces on the enemy’s skirmishers. She knew that her and her own force’s odds of survival were still slim, but it filled her with a faint glimmer of hope to see the foreign soldiers flinch and flee in a rain of javelins.

However, her eyes narrowed once more as she saw a fresh detachment of the enemy break away from their force, an unearthly yell reaching her ears, the sound carried by the wind.She could see these new enemies wore little armor, and seemed markedly different than the other members of the Imasician army. Hurriedly, she struggled to compose herself. “Archers!” She called, signalling to her aide, “Loose at will when the enemy draws past two and a half hundred yards! Skirmishers, to the flanks, to the flanks! Spears, counter! Hurry!”

Her orders were hurriedly conveyed through the ranks by her aides, but even as she watched them carried out she knew she had given the commands improperly, and she wracked her brains for the correct terms. The skirmishers lingered in a confused mass, only beginning to part after far too much delay, the infantry similarly was sluggish in its response, and its response was a confused one at that. Asmaki cursed herself, and wished only that the provincial commander could arrive to save her force. The few properly equipped elements of her army that originated from the standing garrison of the town formed themselves into a long, thin line of bristling spear points, many of the lighter armored soldiers who had not received their full equipment clumping in behind them.

‘Counter’ was not a standard order amongst the military, and many unit commanders, uncertain of what it meant, lead their forces in a sally against the onrushing berserkers. Asmaki screamed for them to return, but her voice was drowned in the wind, and a gaping hole opened in her line. It was soon being filled by one of the reserve units, but she knew they were raw recruits with minimal training, many of them not even full adults, hastily handed spears and shields and pulled along into her ragtag army.

The only contingent of the army that did not suffer in her breakdown of communication were the archers, even as one of the signalling officers desperately waved her colors at the unit that had broken from the line, the archers raised their massive war bows, loosing their deadly volley of arrows into the onrushing mass of orcish berserkers.

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Two. Two arrows. That was how many Centorio Silano Giulio had sticking out of him. Maybe, at least. He was judging purely by the snatches of color he could see. Still, blurry images, that flash before him, one after the other. Between each one, nothing but darkness and blood and the vague feeling that something, some part of him, isn’t quite moving the way it ought. A splash of water struck him in the face. No, not water. Salt, he could taste the salt. It was blood. Was it the poor woman screaming he could hear, or his own? There! He felt it! A third arrow drove home into his shoulder. Was he losing it? No, no, he can’t! He was a Varacco of the Cohorta! The screaming intensified, but it sounded different. Silano was almost sure it was his own. His hand closed around something. A pipe? An image flashed before him. Not a pipe. A horn. There was resistance in his hand. He’s pushing, pushing, but it won’t give. Everything is going dark, and he’s finding it hard to recall now. Why does that soldier have a broken horn? What’s that piece of white pipe doing in her eye?

What was he doing here?

With a gasp for air, everything comes into sharp focus. Red stains in his eyes. Everything hurts. Four, five, he can feel them all now. They hurt like death, they hurt like storms upon the tranquil sea. He falls, caught in the arms of an earth spirit. At last, the scream dies down. However, he knew in his heart that he should be proud. It was a day of victory! The king, the king would be proud of him. He will tell his father the sun all about the victory of Centorio Silano Giulio, who fought like an evil spirit while his brothers fell.

Masinissa had to resist the urge to look away. The Varacci weren’t warriors, not by any definition he knew. They were fireballs, moulded poorly into a humanoid shape. Their lives were dedicated to releasing that hot energy simmering away within them in a single massive explosion. He was watching it for himself, this terrifying inferno, this forbidden vision.

“I shouldn’t be dedicating this many soldiers to this battle . . . “ he mused, his brows creasing with worry. It could still be a trap. It had to be a trap, right? He had been overzealous. Where were the reserves? Did the Surabhi dare cut this many lives so flippantly? “Turtles, I want turtles down there immediately. Fill in the gaps with scuta and spatha. Legatus fifty-three, you’re in the center. Legati fifty-five and fifty-six, wrap around. Let’s squeeze them until they shatter.”
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Asmaki gasped aloud in shock as the orcish tide crashed into the still forming line of spears, even as great gaps were rent in their figures by the punishing arrows of her archers, she could see many of them charge on, heedless of the fatal wounds they had suffered. “Reinforcements! Reinforce the front, cut those things down, whatever they are!” She cried, motioning with a distraught hand at another aide.

Where are you when I need you, Kuirroda? she wondered, casting a glance to the horizon as if expecting the provincial commander to arrive at the head of a relief army. I’m not a commander, I’m an administrator! You could have delegated a lieutenant to organize the conscriptions in the west, but you had to go yourself.

She was broken from her thoughts by something in her peripheral vision - yet more detachments of the enemy’s army breaking off from the main formation, swooping down on each of her sides, their shields raised. “Archers, loose on the enemy!” she cried, her voice hoarse with desperation, “Heavy arrows! Something!”

Despite her shortcomings, even the reserve archers were well drilled, and nocked new arrows on their bows, drawing and loosing the heavy shafts with well practiced coordination. Even the heavy wooden shields of the Imasicians fell prey to the punishing rain of arrows, cruel steel heads with hardened tips that punched through maille armor and wooden shield alike. But it was small respite against the numbers of the Imasicians, and Asmaki had sent half of her archers away, knowing the outcome of the battle would not favor her.

Infantry captains, acting without orders, rushed their units to the flanks to meet the oncoming foe, but their troops were yet more inexperienced and untrained recruits, barely adults, often armored with little more than a padded shirt and carrying only spear, shield, and a knife. Asmaki closed her eyes, knowing the result would not be one she wished to see.

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The ground was a pile of bodies. Surabhi arrows distinguish poorly between officer and footman, and many bodies lay together in repose. They tear through the thick shields almost as if they were air, and are still strong enough to punch through mail armor, segmented armor, and the flesh and bone beneath. A line of soldiers threw themselves on the Surabhi spear-women, carrying the feathered corpse of their centurion. Masinissa distinctly remembered that one having once been a testudo. It was the arrows, that was the key to their warfare. If he could somehow get to them . . .

No matter. Their infantry was no match for his own. As they poured through the slowly thinning defenses, a familiar chill swept through the air. He could almost smell their fear. They may not know it yet, but they are about to break, and he would see they did by his hand.

“Senator’s sons, by your fathers!” he shouted, gesturing with a hand. A member of the civilian staff wordlessly ran over, clutching the rope about a horse’s neck. “Hello, Fulgongula,” he whispered, petting the horse’s neck. With a practiced swing, he landed astride and slung his quiver of javelins. “We’ll make three passes about the lines. You see a head with a horn, you throw. Away!” the young blood with him followed. Thunderous hooves marked their advance, leaving behind them a trail of trampled grass. As the horses approached, their riders let loose a volley of spears. They have practiced long enough for each to find a mark. “The archers, focus on the archers!” Masinissa shouted, as they wheeled about for another charge.
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Asmaki caught sight of the enemy riders just as the first murderous hail of javelins slammed into the exposed backs of her ranks. She swore, wheeling her mount around to face the enemy as she desperately called out. “Archers! Focus volleys on the cavalry! All archers focus on their cavalry! They will destroy us!”

Chaos surrounded her, all around, the shrieks and cries of war and death rang through her ears, an orchestra of terror and pain. A scream slowly filled her ears, and through the haze of adrenaline and fear she idly wondered from whence that scream came. It grew louder and louder, soon drowning out everything else - and she realized it was her own screaming, rage and anger coursing through her, a heavy javelin pinning one of her aides to the ground, the young aide’s blood hot between her fingers as she desperately tried to stem the tide, the cruel iron head having slammed home in the neck of the poor girl. Rough hands pulled at her, and she was standing - her aide was gone, she could see that now, but all around them surged the battle, more and more of her army dying by the minute.

In that moment, Asmaki knew her forces had lost the day. As she surveyed the thrashing carnage, she felt hot tears streak down her face. She had been a fool to even attempt such a stalling action. She knew that now.

Wiping the tears from her face, she strode back to her mount. “Call for a retreat.” She said grimly to one of the remaining aides, “Signal the archers to make for the town, tell whatever infantry can to cover them.”

She reached for her helmet, hanging by the side of her mount’s harness, sliding the steel in place over her skull, tugging its straps tight. “We will buy them time.”

One of her retinue seemed intent on speaking, her mouth opening in protest - but no sound came. Instead, the woman remained silent, staring her commander down for a moment, before nodding, turning to her comrades. “Daughters of Ishareth!” She cried, pulling an axe from its loop on her belt, “Do you wish to live forever in heaven?!”

Asmaki was deaf to the world now as she raised her own blade, a defiant scream of vengeance rising from her throat as she lead her small retinue into the thick of the enemy cavalry, the shock of the heavily armored riders, even numbering only eighty one in total, threw back the lightly equipped enemy cavalry, many of whom seemed taken aback by this suicidal charge. She was no warrior, even less adept with a blade than she was in command, but raw, animal savagery and rage fueled her motions as she drove the tip of her sword into the throat of an Imasician rider.

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In another life, Arbatus Medurus would have been a senator, as his father is. However, fate has decided another path for him. Masinissa hoped silently that his pitiful death meant the aversion of an even greater malady to befall Imasicia. Medurus stubbornly refused to die, struggling and spasming on the ground as he coughed blood onto his hide armor. Masinissa drew his sword and plunged it into the awaiting neck of a similarly occupied Surabhi rider, between the gaps in her armor. Then, he swung his sword low, clanging it against the steel blanket of another’s riding bull. The host was flung clean from the mount and landed with a sickening thump in the dirt.

Her fall was the signal the other soldiers needed to finally break and run. The archers fell first, making almost with a purpose for the dense woodlands. The spears followed shortly after. The legions made a chase for the routing army, but quickly realized it was pointless, to chase down their unarmored foe dressed entirely in segmented metal.

“. . . Triumphator!” a single voice shouted, from one of the unseen voices in the mass of bodies. “. . . Triumphator!” Another joined. Then a third. Masinissa basked for a moment in the sea of voices. “Triumphator! Triumphator!” Imasicia has not seen battle in many generations, and the title had not been even uttered in perhaps years. Now, here he is, a victorious commander. He gazed back, in sudden awe at the bodies he left behind. Could he have killed ten thousand Surabhi barbarians? Fifteen? He threw his arms up and let the shouts wash over him. “Triumphator!”

As the voices died down, two legionnaires dragged the limp body of the fallen rider. Judging by her decoration, it became immediately apparent as to what her fall meant. She was likely as not the commander. “I would parade her down the streets of Mirgamas,” he said, speaking not to her, but to the soldiers first. Then did he lean over her to grasp her chin and look into her eyes. “What’s your name? Whose sister must you have been to be given command of any army larger than a flea-bitten neighborhood guard?” he asked, in Imperial first, then native Imasician.

Asmaki did not speak in response, instead staring the man down with hate burning in her eyes. She understood the gist of his words, but felt no need to speak to the invader in his own tongue. Instead, she spat in his eye, a wad of dust, blood, and spittle splattering across his triumphant features.

Masinissa shrieked, and pressed a gloved hand to his face. A legionnaire enclosed his hand into a fist and slammed it into the commander’s face. “Your name is canina,” he said. Masinissa waved his other hand, gesturing for her to be taken away. Only would a barbarian be so stubborn. Yet, he cannot let a speck of grime stand in the way between him and his goal. Stroking his horse’s mane, he turned it around to face the direction of the town, just below the horizon. The true victory had not been won yet.

“Army, advance!”
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