Screams rang in the darkness followed by flickers of light. Though familiar with the voice, they shuddered at it. Nothing enraged the Batal like betrayal.
With the Ancient word, Emma made their surroundings visible. It was a faint glow without origin, turning the dust to glitter.
Emmaxis sparked again against the weathered patterns of the entryway—“Villain!”—Xandr was beating the stone like a man possessed, screaming. “Pernicious, devil-spawned villain!”
Emma called his name in dulcet tones. “We must come to our senses. The wall is not your enemy.”
He lowered the sword. “If Cambses were before me, I’d run him through! Alas, we are trapped! Vengeance is denied me!”
“My wings can carry me to an aperture in the ceiling,” she answered, “I am sure of it. But I would not dare leave you.” Her voice faltered, lingering on the last word, on him.
“No trap can keep me.” It was Thelana, paying Emma no heed. Peeling off what little remained of her garments, her bluish skin prickled in the chill. Emma was tempted to make a joke, but it was not a time for laughter. “There is a way out,” she continued, “the way I would have escaped last year, if Xandr hadn’t ruined my plans.” Her violet lips curled into a smile.
Xandr came away from the wall, wrath given way to curiosity. “When you came for the Eyes of Sargon, I had thought you climbed in from the top.”
“I did, but I couldn’t very well go out the way I came in; they would have been expecting that! There’s an aquifer that cycles fresh water in and out of the temple, or used to before the Sea swallowed this place. The sacred pool led to it.”
“But the city is a ruin,” he cautioned, “and the aquifer is likely flooded and teeming with horrors!”
“Do you want vengeance?” she replied. “This is the only way. Stay if you prefer and await my return, but I doubt we’ll have the time to catch the Nostrum. And without a ship, we’re forever doomed to wade through this muck.”
Two bodies coursed through space, weightless, straining with desperate limbs against inaction. It was a test of muscle and mettle, the ever-present void choking all notion of warmth from their memories. Upon entering the water, the cold turned to pain, but now the pain became a total lack of sensation.
Where the light penetrated the watery depths, they could see the flat masonry curving into a long, winding, circular tunnel. Xandr and Thelana clung to every mossy niche, searching through eyes burned by the salty sea, for escape, for respite against the fire in their lungs. Then the aquifer wall receded into the gloom and there was only darkness, and into this darkness they pushed, as though seeking to vanish entirely.
Xandr was uncertain as to whether Emmaxis proved too great a hindrance, but Thelana moved like a creature born of the sea, her arms and legs and torso undulating with graceful unity. He watched her move higher and further away until she disappeared in a cloud of opaqueness. There was nothing around him now, no sound, no sight, no awareness of anything. Death could not have been much different. But the sharp throbbing of his will kept him alive and kicking, that, and his burning desire for vengeance.
Out of the pitch blackness, a gray haze came into being, and if what had been prior was much like Death, this was rebirth. Air pained his lungs, but it gave him courage. Thelana was grinning. Without a word he pulled her close, so their thighs brushed together as they kicked to remain afloat, and in each other they found warmth.
Shaking them from idleness, a man-sized fish clawed its way through the water. Rows of unpleasant teeth defined its maw. Its fins were ridged with finger-like bones. It was of no species known to them, but like those prehistoric fossils found in formations of rock. Gelatinous eyes pondered the human visitors, but the creature did not pause its awkward padding, and the wake of its bony tail rippled against their bosoms as it passed.
With some effort Thelana found her voice. Her words came heavily, through clutches of breath. “Over there . . . an opening . . . we can climb.”
No air was wasted on useless prattle. He followed her gaze to the hill of worked stones fallen from the roof, and marveled at her eyes, how they remained bright and fearless.
Shortly they reached the haphazard slope of pyramid, formed of the natural and the manmade. They vaulted from one smooth plateau to the next, until finding sure footing and started to climb. The passage above the aquifer was much like the halls they explored upon entering the temple complex. No water came down from the ceiling, but a putrid mist obscured their vision and offended their nostrils. Vines grew from every crevice, thick as a man’s wrist across the floor. They followed the sounds of dashing waves that echoed from afar, over violet poison bulbs with finger-length barbs. Warmth and light steadily increased, until they stood before a precipice where the outer wall of the pyramid was collapsed and the whole of the drowned cityscape spread before them. Somewhere along the adjacent wall, the Mare Nostrum was moored. Whether it still remained they could not know.
A sickly fluttering jerked them to alertness. Translucent wings spread the length of Thelana’s outstretched arms as she reached for her sword. The jade handle felt smooth in Thelana’s palm and she took strength from it. With knees bent and heels raised, a gold blur passed between her and the dragonfly hovering just beyond the broken ledge, splitting its thorax in two, leaving green gobs against her blade. The left wing fell into the deep mist below, the other half at her feet, buzzing the last of its life.
“Just a bug,” she murmured.
Xandr stared unremarkably. “Come away, Thelana. Emmaxis hungers for blood that is red.”
The approach did not come as a surprise. At a distance, the sailors watched them clamor over reefs formed from the ebbing tide, over smooth planes of collapsed marble, defying wind and waves. They did not take heart in it, but rather, the belabored confrontation struck the oarsmen with dread. How could the Batal have escaped from the sealed tomb? And so quickly? Where they had betrayed him?
Reversing the course of the Mare Nostrum had not been an easy affair. The ship was locked between two towering monoliths, intermittently submerging rooftops, and a tide that threatened to rip the hull to timbers. There had been considerable discussion, consisting of both shouting and name calling, of what was to be done. During this quarrel the Ilmar came into view, like the coming of some ship-wrecking storm. Cambses face coarsened like a burlap sack. It was a look of iron will and consternation, familiar to those who had been at war with him. His gladius gripped at his side, he went out between his men to meet the Batal and his companion.
The way the winds arrayed Xandr’s hair made him look all the more a madman. In his hands, Emmaxis stared back at them, grinning like a living thing.
“There are worse things here than grayquid,” Xandr said to them.
“All you barbarians sicken me,” Cambses shot back. “Thousands fell to my gladius in the Purification Wars. Killing two more will be a simple task.”
Thelana kept her bowstring tight, her eyes like a battle cat in the grass. “War makes monsters of men!”
Twenty-two able crewmen formed behind their captain, shields and spears at the ready. One of them handed his tower shield to Cambses. The red and gold of the Hedonian trident shone dully upon it. “Your savagery is no match for us, Batal. I have seen this time and again on the battlefield. Courage and strength fail against strategy.”
“Listen, one and all: My fight is not with you!” Xandr cried. “Let down your weapons, or join the restless dead that dwell here.”
A bronze spear rang inches from Xandr’s chin, crumpling against Emmaxis broad face, in answer. Another sailor ran across the crumbling floor, putting faith in his plate and long shield. But the skull-faced sword divided him from these accompaniments, and with another stroke, the blood gushed from the man’s open neck as from a broken wellspring. Searching for its missing head, the body stumbled and slipped, and crimson foam tinged the spray of the sea.
“Marcellus!” Cambses shouted, the veins reddening the white of his eyes.
Xandr stood firm as a stone, sword dripping like a newly inked quill. “You would sacrifice all these men, for Frazetta?”
“No Xandr. She holds a temporary seat, for the true emperor, he who will resurrect Hedonia’s greatness!”
“And who would be this emperor, you?”
“If Fate wills it.”
Now Thelana came forward, balanced upon a truncated pillar jutting from the water. “There will be other great empires, fabulous nations, but the age of Hedonia is over! Fate decided this. You cannot undo it.”
“Admittedly, she is a cruel bitch, Fate. But the goddess’ influence can be bent, even broken, through the sheer power of human will.”
“If you would dare such hubris,” Xandr replied, “do not let your men die for you. Prove yourself! Attack me!”
Now Cambses charged like a bull with horns lowered. Hedonian bronze met Ancient alloys, and where the sea pooled about their ankles, they heaved and grunted to toss each other from the narrows. The old captain was wise in the ways of battle, and knew not to contest against Xandr’s long blade. Rather, he forced Emmaxis away with the brunt of his shield, thrusting again and again, the tip of tin and copper grazing the hairs of his adversary’s naked abdomen.
Crouched and barricaded, Thelana launched her arrow, and a Hedonian soldier lurched forward. She released again, and the feathered shaft ricocheted from a stony protrusion—under the shield into a second man’s heel. As quickly as he could wince, she was between him, directing his own gladius against his jugular, making him permanent to the ruin.
Long sword, shield, and short sword continued their interplay of clashing and grinding and evasion. Cambses strategy proved flawless. No matter how swiftly Emmaxis came around, the shield was always there. With each escape, Xandr lost ground. Steadily the Hedonian pressed him, to where he could not maneuver, to where he would lose balance and plummet.
“Admit defeat, Batal! There is no way you can beat me!”
The words rang truthfully, but there were many games of strategy. Shifting his heels forward, Xandr attacked headlong. A triumphant grin crossed the other’s lips as he tore through naked flesh, but the expression transformed to agony as an elbow loosed the clasp of his chinstrap, freeing the teeth from his mouth. Inside Cambses’ defenses, the skull-face glowered, cutting across his shield arm. With a fist through the bridge of his helmet, Xandr sent him sprawling with a nose like a smothered cauliflower. Red streamed from the captain’s arm, along the concave of his tower shield, the surge of the sea washing it clean and bleeding it anew. At any moment the Batal could have killed him. But Xandr knew better than to further anger the crew at his command.
“Call off your men!” Xandr cried, his one arm staunching the flow of blood from the gladius made wound in his side.
Cambses glanced around. Another of his men—of his friends—screamed, and where he fell Thelana stood streaked with red. “Periplous!” he croaked. “Form of periplous!”
Suddenly the Ilmar found themselves corralled, at the center of bristling spear-points.
“Don’t lay off, Batal,” Cambses said. “Kill me so that my men might take action!”
“No,” he replied.
Thelana scowled, batting spears off by the edge of her sword. “Kill him Xandr and let’s be done with it!”
Under beaded brows, Xandr watched their eyes, intense, determined, troubled.
“Do not let this disgrace continue!” Cambses rasped. But his men stood motionless, loving him too dearly to take action.
Emmaxis’ tip alighted atop the Hedonian’s throat. “It would seem we are at an impasse. Perhaps an agreement can be reached.”
“You would trust me, after my betrayal?”
“Any other way, we both die, and only your men make it home alive. But still, I wonder, if less than half your crew can row back to Thetis through these waters.”
“We need your strength, now that you’ve slain three more of my men. Killing you before reaching port would not be to our advantage.”
“It is settled, then?” Xandr asked.
“Not quite. For I have one more item with which to barter. Kalokus!”
Down the ramp of the Mare Nostrum a man came limping, his shin heavily bandaged. It was he who had been shot by Thelana in the temple. All parted for Kalokus to answer the summons. Between his fingers were the outstretched wings of a raven.
“Not too common around here,” said Cambses. “Ravens.”
Emmaxis shuddered in Xandr’s arms, and he let off the man completely. The crew pressed closer with their spears.
The feathers of the raven expanded, becoming delicate fingertips, no less helpless in the ragged clutches of Kalokus. Among the battle hardened warriors, she was like a child, lost and afraid and shivering. She blinked and peered about, her dark lashes fluttering like a bird’s wings. “Xandr,” she murmured. “I’m not . . . I’m nothing to you, the third wheel of a two-wheeled chariot.”
The crash of the waves could not muffle the Batal’s frustrated sigh. His steely resolve subsided. Emma had disarmed him.
“An impasse indeed,” Cambses goaded, grinning through what blood-soaked teeth remained.
“What would you have me do?” he asked the captain.
“No, Xandr!” Thelana cried. “Listen to Emma. He’ll slit our throats in our sleep!”
But the Batal was deaf to her.
“Join my crew, as an oarsman,” Cambses went on, “but you will be tied. You will arrive in Thetis a prisoner, and from there, let the magistrates decide your fate.”
There was not a murmur to be heard, no sound but the ceaseless, ever-present tumult of the sea. Finally, Xandr let out a horrible wail, like a barbarian chieftain leading men to battle, and with that he hefted Emmaxis to the shoulder, and hurled it at the ship. It sank beneath the Nostrum’sram, and the toothy skull became fixed, as part of the prow as any nail. The reaction so dumbfounded the onlookers—even Thelana and Emma—that they simply stood and stared.
“I agree to your terms,” Xandr said softly, “but by my sword, by Emmaxis, Blood-Spiller, I do curse the Mare Nostrum and its crew! Curse it that it never reach port!”