"Double-time!" shouted the Quaestor. "Let's pick up the pace!"
Belisarius groaned inwardly. How long had they'd been marching? He couldn't recall. He could feel the splinters forming in his shins. Step. Step. Step. His vision blurred. He could see the man in front of him: the crimson cape, the steel armor, the spear, the shield. They jogged along some god-forsaken path. It had rained the day before, so the ground was damp and muddy and it smelled something horrid.
Focus. Breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Belisarius knew how to march. He knew the tricks of breathing through the nose, then out through the mouth, especially when the air was cold. He knew that a deep breath worked better than a short, stuttered breath; he knew how to phase out the pain; he knew how to carry on. He had to carry on--the Empire depended on him.
Or so he thought. He was really just another legionary--another shield in the wall, another sword in the fight, another body on the ground. He wasn't stupid. Stupid doesn't get a man through seven years of military service. He had seen long campaigns; he had defended tall walls; he had killed many men. A stupid man wouldn't have lasted as long as he did.
He was, however, a devout man. Even if he the Empire perceived him as nothing more than expendable asset, Belisarius knew he had a deeper purpose. A divine purpose. Something in his heart carried him through the tough times, the bloody times, the evil times. He held onto that feeling--that sense of duty--like a man would hold on to his last possession.
It really was his last possession because war required a lot from a man. It takes everything from him, and leaves him a hollow shell of his former self. The marching, the fighting, the killing, the dying--none of it was within his control. What a man could do, Belisarius believed, was control his spirit. No man could take that from him, no matter how hard they tried. And he held on to that hope with every fiber of his being.
In. Out. Breathe.
"Quintus, how much farther you think?" the man next to Belisarius asked, through a few heavy breaths. Quintus was Belisarius' middle name, and it had stuck as a nickname.
"Don't know--can't say," Belisarius replied. He adjusted the grip on his shield. He couldn't believe how heavy it had become as the march wore on.
"Can you see the Legatus?" the other soldier asked.
Belisarius squinted down the long line of soldiers. There, in the distance, he could see a man riding atop a white horse. A brilliant bear-skin cloak hung about a pair of mighty shoulders. The horizontal plume of his helmet burned like a bright crimson phoenix. The very embodiment of the empire seemed to be represented in this man's glorious figure. He was Gauis Arrian Livius--last living legatus of the northern legions. A man of renown, a man of strength, a man of power, he would turn the tide of this war.
Or so Belisarius believed. As he gazed at the man, he had to swallow hard to fight the lump in his throat. He tried to blink away the tears that formed in his eyes, but they simply rolled down his dirty, stubbled cheeks. He wasn't sure why he suddenly felt such an emotion about a man he didn't even know. The legatus never met him, and probably never would, but to Belisarius, that man represented hope.
And it was "hope" that the empire desperately needed. Times were dire. The realm of the emperor stood at the brink of destruction: the three alliances pressed them at every turn. Most recently, the Nords of Skyrim had overrun the northern reaches of Cyrodiil, laying waste to an entire legion and killing the legatus, leaving the survivors in disarray--and leaderless. So Gauis Arrian Livius was heading north, and Belisarius was going with him.
Their escort numbered only fifty. No more could be spared. They had been marching for days, and every man in the contingent knew the vital importance that their mission carried.
"Hold," yelled a voice up ahead. A sudden commotion broke out among the ranks as the soldiers came to a halt.
Why were they stopping? Was something wrong?
Belisarius squinted again. A massive pine tree blocked their path on the road. To one side of the rode, a steep face of rocky ground rose high above them. To the other side lurked a muddy bog--the same bog that Belisarius had been smelling for the past few hours.
The legatus whirled his horse around and began shouting orders.
"Get this tree out of the way!" Gauis yelled. "We need to---" The sudden whistle and snap of an arrow cut his words short and his throat open. Another arrow hissed through the air and found his eye. Belisarius watched in horror as the embodiment of the Empire's hope toppled from his horse, fell to the ground, and died in an unceremonious heap of stinking mud and gurgling blood.
"Aldmeri riders on the hill!" shouted a legionary.
"Nords charging from the front!" shouted another.
"Shield wall! Shield wall!" screamed the Quaestor. Belisarius charged forward, moving in cohesion with the other soldiers. Then, to his surprise, the scared horse of the dead legatus leapt right over his head. The hind hoof caught the soldier in the chin and sent him to the ground.
Trampled down into the stinking mud, Belisarius Quintus Varro's vision faded to the sound of clanging swords and screaming men.
Thus the blood and bones of good men's graves
Both seed the land where darkness reigns.
Both seed the land where darkness reigns.
Belisarius awoke with a shake. He lurched upward, prying himself from the sticky mud that seeped into every crevice of his armor. He blinked the dazed sleep from his eyes, trying to focus. The sky was dark.
By the divines---how long was I out!?
A sudden noise in the woods caused the soldier's neck hair to prickle. It was a low, guttural growl gurgling from a pair of piercing orange eyes. Another growl followed, a bit closer, and then a howl echoed in the distance.
With shaking arms, Belisarius pushed himself to his feet. Looking around, his eyes slowly adjusted to the pitch black of night. He could see the dead bodies of Nords, Elves, and Imperials scattered in the mud. Shattered swords lay broken in pieces, half buried in mud. It was clear that the fighting had lasted a long time--so long that the lingering combatants resorted to fighting with fist and teeth.
Belisarius shuddered at the thought. He reached for his sheathed sword, felt the square pommel of the hilt, and carefully extracted it. It made the noise metal makes when sliding out against its sharpening stone.
A growl again. This time, closer.
Watch the eyes.
Belisarius was ready. The wolf stalked close, yellow eyes glowing closer. When it pounced, the soldier gave a mighty thrust with his sword, driving it hard into the creature's abdomnen.
But Belisarius did not find flesh. Instead, the sword sunk past the exposed ribs of the creature, then disappeared inside of it--sealing the sword inside the ivory ribcage, like a captured prisoner.
It's not alive.
Belisarius fell backwards, landing hard on his back. The stinking mud sucked to his back like a gripping glue. With a desperate scream, he pressed the creature with all the might the man could muster, flinging it somewhere into the bog behind him.
It's not alive!
Staggering to his feet, the soldier felt his heart heaving itself into his throat. He ran wildly, then tripped on a root. He fell to the ground with a grunt, and promptly split his chin open on a jagged rock.
"Hnnrgnnhh!" he exclaimed in pain. The blow knocked the wind from his chest.
Another growl, close behind. Belisarius tried to scamper to his feet, but he was too late. The jaws clamped around his leather boot and tore into his ankle. A grotesque POP erupted from behind him as the teeth punctured the armor and pierced his skin.
The soldier gave another desperate scream, shaking and writhing--not only in agonizing physical pain, but mental torment. The very prospect of being eaten alive shook him to his core. Refusing such a fate, the soldier clawed vainly into the mud in front of him, trying desperately to pull himself away.
The creature dragged him backward, toward the woods---toward more howls.
Tears poured from the soldiers eyes as he was dragged. His arms flailed frantically, grabbing at brush, at weeds, at roots--anything. He finally took hold of something firm: the arm of a dead soldier.
A sword. A sword. Get. A. Sword.
Focusing, Belisarius strained as the creature yanked from behind. He could feel his ligaments stretching, his tendons tearing, his bones crunching. His muddy hands slipped all over the dead soldier, searching for the sword.
It wasn't until Belisarius found the hilt still attached to the soldier's belt that the realization registered: the soldier he was so desperately clinging to was the dead legatus.
Freeing the sword, the legionary pulled his leg forward as hard as he could, ripping his skin and flesh against the teeth of the animal. From his partially kneeling position, Belisarius raised the sword to the night sky.
"Arkay!" he bellowed. "Hear my prayer!"
The sword exploded in an pillar of brilliant light. Bright, orange flames licked the steel, swirling in voluminous plumes of fire and heat. The sudden display scared the wolf back--giving Belisarius enough time to stand to his feet.
He beheld the weapon in his hands, unbelieving. Whatever temporary reprieve the weapon bought him didn't last long.
The wolves returned--in force. But the mixture of adrenaline, awe, and renewed vigor gave the soldier enough strength to stand firm. There he stood in the dark, his flaming blade a solitary beacon of hope: facing and slashing every leaping, screeching creature of the night.
He swung until he could swing no more. Exhausted, Belisarius collapsed to the muddy ground. As the flickering flame faded, he plunged the blade into the blood-spattered earth--victorious.
He closed his eyes for what seemed like an eternity, then heard something in the distance: a laugh. A terrible, terrible laugh.
With a crack of thunder, the sky opened in a deluge of bone-chilling rain. The laugh faded, leaving Belisarius' broken body in the blood-drenched mud.
Shattered, exhausted, and utterly spent, the legionary tilted his head toward the oncoming storm and screamed hard and long. The cavernous night gave no reply.