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Apr

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Prologue: One Millennium Past

The Monster simply would not die. More than an hour after he had been hoisted in the praetorium, the fiend still kicked furiously at the air, leering down at the men who had come to celebrate his well-deserved end. Somehow, he had turned even his execution into another chance to sow discord. At least the noose kept his poisonous tongue from inciting yet more trouble, but the whole affair was not merely futile, it was disruptive of good order. If the Monster would not die, leaving him hanging bordered on the obscene, yet what was to be done?

Imperator Publius Xanthius Bellicus had any number of problems due to both his position and the situation at hand, more than one of them the sort that could cause a man to lose his grip on sanity, but this was by far the most pressing. A failed execution was a clear statement that a leader lacked resolve, and that was not a message he could permit, whatever the circumstances.

Husam al Din, Xanthius’s second, strode around the corner of the command tent and made a beeline for Xanthius. At six and a half feet tall and thick as a bull, Husam was intimidating enough. In motion, with grim resolve plastered across his face, he was positively terrifying to the lower ranks, a force of nature that would exact penance from the insubordinate and indolent. I suppose I am his target, now.

Xanthius almost smiled at the thought, but caught himself before it could show on his face. He waited in silence as his second approached. Husam stopped a pace from his commander, snapped to attention and hammered a fist against his breastplate in salute.

Xanthius raised an eyebrow at the sight of his friend and trusted officer. It seemed only yesterday that Husam’s skin was a chocolate brown, but now it was almost black, his eyes seeming to glow in his darkened face. Had there been a day when he was between shades, Xanthius wondered? It must have been so, and yet he had not noticed it until now. The time had simply slipped away, unaccounted for, like so much else. “At ease. Report.”

Husam looked at his feet and ran a hand over his great bald head, shaking it slowly back and forth, a gesture that Xanthius had come to recognize as indicative of the man’s disapproval. Husam growled to himself briefly, then spoke. “The sorcerer wishes audience.” He spat upon the ground in disdain.

Xanthius inclined his head toward the Monster, still dancing from the rope. “About him, I presume.”

Husam nodded, still scowling. “Presumably.”

Noting the subtle undertone in Husam’s voice, Xanthius raised an eyebrow. “You disapprove? You’re the one who brought him to me.”

Husam nodded as his expression soured. “So it was, and Ilaweh knows, I have fought many men and befriended them later. But these men are treacherous.”

Xanthius clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a fatherly a smile. “Strange times, strange bedfellows. I’ll see him inside.”

Husam snapped a salute and turned to carry out his task. Xanthius took one last look at the Monster, still leering down, then removed his galea and tucked it under his arm before entering the command tent.

Despite how he had downplayed things to Husam, the sorcerer would be a prickly issue. Xanthius laid his helmet on one of the several tables and turned to the washbasin and mirror, privileges of rank. He dipped a cloth in the tepid water and cleaned sweat and dirt from his face. These sorcerers are heavily influenced by such inconsequentials.

From outside, Husam called out, “Imperator, your visitor.”

“Come,” Xanthius answered, and turned toward the entrance to meet his former enemy. Though ‘former’ is, perhaps, too strong a word.