Soldier of the Empire

by L. Young

Decurion Marcus Rufus led his cavalry squadron down the muddy track with his friend Quintus Cassius at his side.

“If there’s an arse-end of the empire this is it. Doesn’t even have a decent road,” Quintus said.

Marcus looked out at the empty, mist covered countryside they were riding through and shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. It has a peacefulness I like.”

“You can have it,” snorted Quintus. “But I need more action. There’d better be some good wine and women when we arrive. I’ll tell you that.”

“For all we know, there mightn’t be a settlement at Dermius left. No one’s heard from them in six months.”

“Maybe it’s because they’re having too good a time,” said Quintus.

Marcus laughed. “Anything’s possible.”

“What did the last message say?”

“The last communication was there’d been an outbreak of plague.” Marcus tried hard not to sound overly concerned about their mission. “Nothing’s been heard since.”

Quintus shuddered. “Even I draw the line at bedding plague victims.” But he quickly got over it and found something else to complain about. “The weather’s terrible too. Maybe if you’d gone along with Verenius, another unit would be freezing their arses off.”

Marcus lowered his voice to keep the men from hearing, “Verenius is a dishonourable piece of dirt. It’ll be a cold day in Hades before I allow him to turn this unit into his personal extortion service.”

“I know,” said Quintus softly. “But right now your morals aren’t keeping me warm.”

Marcus allowed himself a sardonic grin as he remembered past campaigns. “We’ve been through worse, so stop moaning.”

“I didn’t like it then,” replied Quintus. “And I don’t like it now.”

Marcus was about to reply when they rounded a bend in the track. “What in Hades?”

The small column of riders halted as they looked out upon a destroyed native village. Despite the thick mist swirling around them. They could easily see that the settlement had been torn apart, its remains burned to the ground. While in places, charred bones poked out from the debris.

Nervous murmurs emanated from the men. “Cut the chatter!” Marcus ordered.

“This was no plague,” said Quintus. “Barbarians must have slipped over the border, taken who they wanted then razed the buildings. Perhaps we should turn back. We don’t want to run into something we can’t handle.”

“And give Verenius a chance to run us down again?” Marcus shook his head. “I don’t think so. Dermius might still be holding out. We have to be sure, anyway didn’t you just say you were bored?”

Quintus smiled and replied, “Alright do-gooder, but if I don’t make it back, you have to tell my mistress I was thinking of her.”

“Which one?” asked Marcus with a grin.

“What do you think? snorted Quintus. “All of them.”

A bone-rattling howl pierced the air. Everyone jerked in their saddles, but there was no sign of the culprit.

“By Jupiter. What was that?” said Quintus.

“Just the wind,” replied Marcus as he fought to keep his horse steady.
The howl pierced the air again. Quintus raised a sceptical eyebrow, and Marcus replied with far less certainty. “Probably.”

One of the men in the rear screamed as something came out of the mist. They turned to the source of the screams to find a horse missing its rider. There was another scream as a rider in the centre was pulled from his horse. There were shouts and screams, but the mist obscured all.

Marcus tried to control the men’s rising panic and his own. “Draw swords!” he ordered. But if anyone heard him there was no sign. He turned his agitated horse towards the nearest screams. A ball of flame shot towards him. His horse reared in panic, toppling him to the ground with a heavy thud. Despite his pain Marcus stumbled to his feet in time to see a massive pair of jaws close in on him.

#

Marcus woke with a start. His body was battered, bruised, and covered in a thin coating of ooze. As he lay recovering, his eyes adjusted to the darkness of his surroundings.

A foul stench attacked his senses and he vomited profusely over the ground. When it felt like there was nothing left in his stomach, he wiped his mouth and examined his surroundings in closer detail.

He was in a dank, underground cavern, but light was shining in from somewhere above, giving him just enough to see. But that was a mixed blessing as he gazed upon the mixture of animal and human bones lying everywhere. He rolled over and noticed the rotting fish carcasses oozing beneath him and contributing to the foul smell.

He carefully got to his feet and patted himself down. It seemed his uniform was intact, except for his sword. He cursed, but hoped he would find a replacement somewhere in the surrounding debris.

He tried to ignore his rising anger as he saw the chewed up corpses of several of his men and their horses lying not far from him, though the only way he could tell them apart from the other bodies was the familiar pieces of uniform still attached to the flesh.

Marcus noticed a large body of water at the far end of the cavern. He wondered if it led out to the sea, perhaps the beast liked to fish.

Marcus had been fumbling around in the dark for a weapon when he heard a soft moan. Feeling naked without something to defend himself, he grabbed the nearest bone and raised it in front of him. He inched closer to the noise, prepared to sell his life dearly – useless weapon or not. But his fear subsided when he realised the sound was human. In fact it was more then that. He whispered hoarsely, “Quintus, is that you?”

“Marcus, where are you?”

Marcus hurried over and clamped his hand over Quintus’s mouth. “Quiet, I don’t know where the beast is. How are you?”

“I can’t move,” stammered Quintus. “I think my right leg is broken. ”

Marcus felt his way along Quintus’s leg till he found a protrusion just below the knee. “Barely a scratch, you layabout,” he muttered.

Quintus forced a grin. “You know me, anything for a lie-in.” Then his expression hardened. “What was that thing?”

“I wish I knew.”

“Leave me,” said Quintus. “Save yourself.”

Marcus patted him on the shoulder. “You still owe me from our last game of dice. I‘m not letting you off that easy. I’ll find a way out, then come back for you. No arguments.”

Quintus shrugged through the pain. “I’m not going anywhere,” he paused. “Did anyone else make it?”

“Maybe,” lied Marcus. “I haven’t been able to do much searching yet.”

Quintus pulled something from his belt. “Here take my sword.”

“You should keep it.”

Quintus laughed weakly and said, “A sword’s not going to me much good in this condition. Take it.”

Marcus reluctantly accepted the blade and patted Quintus on the shoulder. “I will be back.”

Then with a heavy heart he left him and started down the biggest of the caverns leading away. He had carefully negotiated his way forward for several minutes when he spotted a light up ahead, a light that was moving.

Memories of the beast’s fiery breath almost made him turn back. But he swallowed his fear and realised he might be able to surprise the beast before it had a chance to use it again. He hid himself in a crevice and prepared to strike. As the light rounded the corner he attacked.

Instead of the vicious roar he was expecting, he was met with a scream. On the floor was a young woman clad in a worn dress, around 16 with pale white skin and light brown hair tied back. Beside her lay the torch he had mistaken for the beast and a basket. Marcus’s natural suspicion came to the fore and he pointed his sword at her and said, “Who are you?”

The girl looked up at him defiantly with her dark blue eyes. “Who are you? You scared me half to death.”

A slightly chagrined Marcus reddened. He lowered his sword and extended a hand to help her up. “My apologies, I was expecting something scalier. Decurion Marcus Decius Rufus at your service.”

The girl smiled thinly and dusted herself off. “A gentleman at last. Adele at your service.”

Marcus gestured around. “Where are we?”

“We’re in one of the many underground caves beneath Decessus Island.”

Marcus studied her closely “I’ve not heard of it. Who’s with you?”

“No one.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow. “You live here alone?”

She reached out and wiped ooze from his armour. “No, not alone. The Dragon lives here too, but the beast is gone, Decurion. At least for now.”

Marcus refrained from bombarding her with all the questions running through his mind and asked just one. “Where has it gone?”

Adele shrugged. “After a meal, it usually goes off to sleep or it might have gone back out through the cavern to swim in the sea.”

Marcus nodded a plan coming into his head. “Do you know where it sleeps?”

She smiled and said, “You want to kill it while it slumbers. I wish I knew, but there are dozens of caves down here and I try to keep out of its way. Besides it’s a very light sleeper.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Then why are you down here?”

She pointed to her basket. “I sneak down to collect fish and anything else useful it brings back.”

Grimacing Marcus put aside his plan – for now. “And how did you get here?”

“It’s a long story, one I would feel better discussing out in the open. I have a small cave I live in outside. Just follow me.”

Marcus shook his head. “We can’t go yet, my friend is still down here.”

“There are others alive?” Adele said clearly surprised.

“Just one. But his leg is broken.”

Marcus led the way back to the cavern when they reached the threshold Marcus stopped raised his sword to block her way and said, “I warn you it is not pleasant in there.”

Adele smiled without humour and pushed his sword down. “I appreciate your concern. But I have gotten used to such things. Where is your friend?”

Despite the fragility he sensed under her bravado, Marcus couldn’t help but admire her fortitude. “This way.”

Quintus had drifted off into semi-consciousness by the time they arrived. Marcus roused him away and despite the blood and grime covering him Quintus attempted what Marcus knew was his best lady-killing smile when he saw Adele. “My lady, please excuse my current condition. Quintus Modius Cassius, at your pleasure.”

She smiled despite the seriousness of the situation. “Save the charm for later, we have to move.”

Despite Adele’s assurance that the beast was nowhere nearby, Marcus spent the entire trek looking over his shoulder. But finally after a tense walk they emerged into a rocky, windswept valley that was surrounded by cliffs at least 200 feet high. In parts small sickly trees fought for life in the barren surroundings.

“I live up there,” said Adele pointing up.

Her cave was situated up a narrow and very precarious walkway about halfway up the cliff side.

“The path is challenging so watch your step,” said Adele.
With the path so narrow Marcus had only one option. “Sorry Quintus, looks like I’ll have to carry you on my back.”

Marcus knew it was serious when Quintus just groaned instead of replying with a jest.

High winds buffeted them about, slamming them into the cliff-face. Marcus grunted from the pain, but forced himself forward. As he took his next step the pathway crumbled beneath him and he felt himself toppling over when he was grabbed from behind and pulled to the comparative safety of the remaining ledge.

Behind him Adele said, “Didn’t I say watch your step?”

“I’m not as nimble as I used to be,” replied Marcus once he regained his composure. He started forward again and after several more heartstopping minutes they finally reached the top.

He carefully guided Quintus to Adele’s small alcove. Despite the precariousness of her situation, the cave was clean and relatively cosy. There was bedding, some utensils for eating, and a wooden box he assumed she kept her clothes, even a small mirror.

Marcus paused to study his reflection. His close-cropped red hair was caked with ooze, his blue eyes were bloodshot, his face was bruised and the beginnings of a beard were forming on his normally clean-cut face.

Marcus did what he could to bind Quintus’s leg, then they left him to sleep. He walked out of the cave’s small entrance and looked out into the valley.

Adele crept up behind him and pointed to the valley’s sheer walls. “As you can see apart from here, they’re quite unclimbable.”

Marcus cursed inwardly, then forced a smile. “I believe you owe me a story. How did you arrive here?”

She pointed to the ooze still caking him. “The same way you did. The Dragon likes to bring back live food to play with. It has a compartment in its stomach. Believe me it’s a lot better to be unconscious during the trip. Especially when it regurgitates you.”

Marcus raised his hand to stop the unpleasant topic. “When did this creature appear?”

“About six months ago.”

“Six months?” replied Marcus thoughtfully. “It’s been that long since anyone heard from Dermius.”

“It’s not a coincidence. Governor Plautius needed to keep things quiet.”

“Why?” said Marcus. “He clearly needs the help.”

Adele looked away. “Because his daughter, Livia is the Dragon.”

“I have no time for riddles,” snapped Marcus.

“This is no riddle,” replied Adele. “Several months ago, Plautius decided to cut down a section of forest to build a bathhouse, but there was an old native woman living there. She refused to leave, said she was the forest’s guardian. So she was arrested and her shack was toppled. As she was about to be executed she uttered a curse. For several days, each month for a year, his daughter would turn into the Dragon. After the first month and all those deaths, he decided he couldn’t risk discovery. He said that his daughter was in Rome, then he declared a plague to keep people out until the curse ran its course.”

“An elaborate curse,” replied Marcus unsure whether to believe her. He decided to play along and said, “Why not just keep her as a Dragon?”

Adele sighed and looked off into the distance. “Maybe because that would be to easy. This way Livia is forced to face what she has done.”

Marcus studied her. “How do you know all this?”

“I was her personal slave.” Adele smiled thinly and continued. “I still am. When the Governor told Livia to hide on the island. I volunteered to accompany her. I look after her when she reverts to human form.”

Marcus looked at her with an even more profound sense of admiration. “So the pair of you have survived here alone for five months? How?”

“Fish mostly, but when Livia first became the Dragon she still had some control. She brought over a load of supplies. I still have some of them left.”

Marcus decided it was time to ask the only question he really cared about. “When will she revert to human form?”

“Not for several days,” said Adele. “Until then it is best if you stay up here. I’m the only one she trusts in Dragon form and even that is no guarantee of safety.”

Marcus took a deep breath, then asked, “Are you close to her?”

Adele laughed, but there was brittleness behind it. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. She’s a good person.”

It was the answer Marcus was afraid of. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Why?”

Marcus knew the next few moments would be tense; he just hoped Adele wouldn’t stand in his way. The Dragon had been the cause of enough bloodshed. He placed his hand on her shoulder. “Because I have to kill her,” replied Marcus. “She killed my men. She has to answer for that.”

Adele pushed his hand away. “It’s not her fault.”

Marcus looked down. “No,” he agreed. “It’s mine. It’s my fault they died here.”

She studied him; her face contorted in confusion. “What do you mean?”

Marcus gazed out into the valley. “Our new commander Titus Verenius represents everything bad about the empire, greed, malice, lechery, corruption. If there was something crooked happening he would be involved somehow, but his family are old members of the Senate so there was no point in trying to report him. He tried to get us to do his dirty work extorting money, killing rivals. I refused to allow the honour of the legion to be sullied in such a way. As a result we were assigned every menial or difficult task there was including this one.”

“Killing her won’t bring them back,” said Adele.

“No,” agreed Marcus. “But it will make me feel better and it will stop her from hurting anyone else.”

“Maybe there’s no one left to protect,” she pointed out. “Will one more death make a difference?”

“Then their souls demand vengeance!” said Marcus more harshly than he intended. He forced himself to stay calm, he needed her help and he would not get that by alienating her. “Help me find her. Let me put an end to this. No one else has to die and you can go back to a normal life.”

Adele went quiet. “I cannot help you. It doesn’t feel right.”

Marcus put his hand gently on her shoulder. “If she’s as good as you say she can’t enjoy turning into this monster. Let me set her free.”

She looked away for several seconds. Then she turned back and nodded. “For her, I will do what I can.”

“Thank you,” replied Marcus. “If we get out of this place, I will do what I can to get you to a place of safety. I’d say you have earned your freedom.”

“We are never truly free,” she replied with a smile.

Something about the reply had Marcus wondering just how much her stay here had affected Adele’s mental health. But he put it aside. He had no time to nurse her or philosophise on the true state of freedom.

He had a monster to kill.

After making sure Quintus was comfortable, they made their way back underground. Adele hadn’t been exaggerating when she had described the size of the underground cave system.

Time lost all meaning in the rocky labyrinth and after several hours of fruitless searching, Marcus was losing patience. “Damn it, she has to be here somewhere.”

Beside him Adele said, “I told you she wouldn’t be easy to find.”

Marcus resisted the urge to snap at her and after taking a deep breath replied, “A thirty foot long, fire breathing monster shouldn’t be hard to track. Even down here.”

Adele stopped suddenly and put her hand to her head.

“Are you alright?” asked Marcus studying her.

She waved him off. “I just need a moment to rest.”

Marcus looked around carefully, but saw no sign of approaching doom. “Go ahead.”

As Adele sat on a boulder she asked, “How long have you been a soldier?’

Marcus looked around gloomily. “One day too many its seems.”

She laughed softly.

“What about you. Were you born a slave?” asked Marcus.

“It feels that way.”

They sat in silence until Marcus said, “Your loyalty to your mistress is commendable. I think there are few who would volunteer for such an endeavour.”

“I am unworthy of such praise,” she replied blushing.

“You are too modest,” he continued. “You have dragged me around these caves for hours with no intention of taking me to her. Given how angry I am that takes courage.”

Adele looked away from him. “Would you do any less for your friend?”

“If he were killing people, I’d be the first one to stop him. Just as I will be the first one to kill the Governor when I get out of here.”

Adele’s eyes widened. “He was trying to save his daughter. Wouldn’t you do the same?”

It took Marcus a moment to reply, it was a hard question to answer, but he knew there was only one answer. “No. He’s caused countless deaths by trying to solve this himself. He has proven himself a poor leader by trying to hide this. If he had told someone perhaps we could have saved Livia, now it’s to late.”

Adele grabbed Marcus’s hand, he couldn’t help but notice how cold and clammy they felt. “Do you really think she could be saved?”

Marcus could see she was desperate to save her friend. “I know little of magic, but Rome is the repository of all knowledge. There must be someone there who knows of such things and could reverse the process.”

Adele released his hand and got to her feet. She looked off into the darkness. “I believe you, Marcus. We could’ve been friends, but it’s too late for that now.”

“I know you want to save Livia,” replied Marcus. “But she’s too much of a threat. I’ll make it quick, I promise and I will get you to safety.”

Adele laughed softly and shook her head. “So honourable, she would have loved you. Adele was always quite taken with dashing soldiers. I’m sorry you’ll never get to meet her. I never meant to kill her.”

Marcus drew his sword. “What are you talking about?”

“The Dragon’s right here, Marcus. It’s been here the whole time.

Adele turned around and Marcus took a step back. Her eyes had gone yellow and her skin had begun to turn scaly “I’m Livia. Adele was my slave; she came with me to the island. I accidentally killed her two months ago. I never wanted to hurt anyone.”

She staggered against the cave’s wall. “You should run.”

Marcus stepped back as she started to transform before his eyes. Her clothes tore apart as her body morphed into a Dragon’s torso. Her arm and legs extending into big dragon sized limbs. A large tail sprung out from her burst out behind her and a pair of wings sprang from her back, then tucked themselves neatly at her sides. Her face ripped apart then solidified into a Dragon’s head. It looked at Marcus for a moment as if recognising him, then it opened its mouth. Marcus knew what was coming next. He dived for cover as the flames roared over the top of him.

As soon as the burst ended Marcus leapt to his feet and ran. Livia was close behind; despite her unwieldy size she was surprisingly swift. As he rounded a bend, Marcus realised if he allowed Livia to get into one of the larger caverns she would have room to kill him. If he was to finish her, he had to go on the attack while her bulk was confined.

Taking a deep breath, Marcus spun around and charged the Dragon.

Surprised at this sudden turn of events, she had little chance to react before Marcus dived beneath her head.

Marcus had hoped to inflict a wound on Livia’s underbelly, but he found himself occupied with just staying alive as her feet threatened to crush him. As she careened down the cave, Marcus saw an opening near the tail and slipped through. The tail whipped around threatening to crush him against the cave wall, but Marcus leapt to avoid it.

He jumped on board Livia’s back, hanging on desperately as she tried to shake him loose. He tried to climb closer to the beast’s head, but found it impossible, while holding his sword in his other hand.
So Marcus stayed where he was and went to work on Livia’s wings. He sliced through the joints that connected them to her back. Blood spurted from the wounds, making Livia’s back even harder to cling to.

She roared as they reached the large, open cavern that led out to sea. Bone and flesh squashed together beneath her feet. Livia reared up on her hind legs and Marcus leapt to the ground. Her tail swung out at him and he just avoided getting smashed as he dived into the putrid remains beneath him. Livia swerved around and let loose with a blast of fire.

Marcus dived for cover by another stack of rotting bodies, the smell of charred flesh filling the air. Smoke rapidly filled the narrow confines of the cavern and Marcus decided to use that to his advantage. He ran forward, judging Livia’s location by the noise she made thrashing about.

Marcus knew he was close, even before Livia’s head snapped out of the smoke and nearly grabbed him.

He dived beneath her snapping jaws and sliced his blade along her belly. Livia let out an anguished moan. As she swayed, Marcus jumped out of the way. He looked up to see her toppling in his direction and scurried backwards just enough to avoid being crushed beneath her immense bulk. He was flung briefly into air by the sheer force of her drop.

Marcus looked on in eerie wonder as the monstrous dragon corpse slowly disappeared, re-forming into the naked shape of Livia. She had a deep wound in her chest, but she was still alive.

Marcus made his way over and took her hand. “I’m sorry.”

Livia looked up at him and smiled weakly. “My father said the same thing. It didn’t make me feel better then either.”

She winced in pain. “At least it’s over now. Do you feel better at avenging your men?”

“I get no pleasure from this,” he murmured. “But it had to be done.”

Livia didn’t disagree. “Before you go,” she said. “You should know that at the far end of the valley, hidden behind that cluster of trees. There’s a small cave that leads out to the sea. There is small boat hidden there.”

Marcus replied, “Thank you.” But she was already gone.

He gently closed her eyes. He carried her body out into the valley. Marcus didn’t rest until he had brought up every body he could found or what was left of them. He collected every dry piece of wood he could find and made a funeral pyre. He watched them burn till morning.

Finally he went to collect Quintus.

“Where have you been?” muttered Quintus. “I smelled smoke and thought the beast was coming for me.”

“The beast is dead.”

Quintus looked around feebly. “And the girl?”

Marcus looked away. “She didn’t make it.”

“To bad, she seemed nice.”

“She was.”

“So what now?”

“I’ve found boat to take us to the mainland. From there hopefully we’ll find help.”

“And the mission?”

“It is half completed,” said Marcus. “I have killed the monster, but it’s father still lives. Fortunately I know where he hides.”

The End