Celeres Part 4
The oxen protested at Sextus’ effusive return; he ignored the beasts, coming straight for the armored carriage’s door.
Bolted and locked.
Panting with pain and exhaustion, the knight had a shortage of patience. His left hand reached for his eyes, heeding the demands of a throbbing frontal lobe; his right hand made a fist and struck the heavy door. Once again, and then some more.
“Is is me, Cyberniskos. It is over.”
A clumsy slide and turn; Sextus made his way inside. Cyberniskos, worried about the blood dripping over his fineries and pillows; the barely constrained emotions of Tabula Rasa did little to appease him.
“Was it the Veietes?” Cyberniskos probed, his words hesitant.
Sextus affirmed with a nod, sitting down and covering his face with both hands.
“It was a true mob. They rushed us, overwhelmed by greed and the prize in sight; the guards stood their ground, only to be crushed and beaten - one by one.” The seeds of discord grew strong on toiled soil; it seemed the southern lands offered no shortage of rebels, desperate for a cause - or a few coins.
“What about the knights.” Cyberniskos asked, turning away from the guards’ fate. “What happened to them?”
Sextus’s fingers released a gap, large enough that he could stare-down the high priest with a single eye.
“They are safe. They were never in any real danger.” The enslaved patrician’s cold remark. “As you intended.”
Cyberniskos looked relieved.
“Them throwing everything at us is not without benefits: we can abandon pretenses.” The Tarentine aristocrat cloaked himself and reached for the door. “I will ride at the front and push the animals; we will be making good time, I can assure you of that.”
Sextus’ thoughts raced; so much that he wanted to do and say - most of it bad ideas. Somber and taciturn, he followed Cyberniskos and settled on riding alongside the carriage. The three knights joined them, their retreat over as they had confirmed no more Veietes were hiding in the fields.
Their steady pace started to take its toll; adrenaline abandoned Sextus, leaving behind exhaustion and dullness. He was painfully aware of every cut and bruise in his tested body; an angry side glance towards Cyberniskos told him the older man faced struggles of his own. His eyes kept closing and his head dropped ever so slightly, rousing at the creaking and complaining of the yolk, only to lean down again.
Tabula Rasa thought about the Tarentine guards. They did not know about the covenants between nations and gods, the intricate dances of the privileged or how easy it was to turn them against their best interests. And did they need to know to be worth of compassion, to be acknowledged as equals? No, that would be ridiculous; while understanding helps addressing the needs and solving the issues that create them, human needs are for the most part universal. The people of Taras are exploited, blindfolded and unable to resist to an aristocracy that does not care the least for their well-being; they are in no way lesser or least deserving of friendship than any of the other Italians Sextus had crossed paths with. Their needs were no less important - if anything, their circumstances made them even more pressing; while the aristocracy held all the dice, they could not deliver themselves.
The Tarentine guards died trying to escape poverty and exploitation: through bravery and mettle, that was how they believed they would improve the future of their families, communities, city-state and allies. Cyberniskos did not deserve a Celeres; but Cyberniskos did not deserve a common people such as those either.
Besides, Sextus was in need of a distraction.
“Do you remember the coin I showed you?” Sextus asked, riding closer to Cyberniskos’ seat.
“Hum, yes. The Celeres? You were about to tell me some story about it.”
“My master has entrusted me with three hundred of them - each of them honoring one of Romulus’ companions. His knights. They were formidable, veterans among veterans, a force without equal in the Etruria of the past. They made Rome safe and they brought order to its suffering allies.”
“Every city worth its salt has a sacred band tied to its founding.” Cyberniskos shrugged, unimpressed. “It is one of those things that is only proper to have.”
“The thing is, the birth of the Urbe demanded the death of the Celeres.”
The high priests blinked at that, confused.
“Oh? Like what, some heroic sacrifice in battle?”
“The Celeres were fast and brutal, an unparalleled force that imposed fear upon the land; the dream of any bandit or mercenary commander. They were a poor tool to create a new collective, to sew together the tattered pieces of the Roman tapestry; had the rulers of Romulus’ tradition kept the Celeres, their authority would not come from covenants or the cooperative will of the first settlements. Power would come from the Celeres and whoever was their master; however was so blessed by the Gods would be their tyrant. Every ally, a tributary. Every citizen, a slave. Every dread, a master. Disbanding the Celeres returned the power to Rome: it became a shared dream, the Urbe. Power and freedom can’t coexist in one’s heart; the moment we realized that was the first hour of the Roman People.”
Cyberniskos listened out of boredom and politeness. His eyes wandered towards the horizon; it was obvious Sextus’ words were not reaching him.
“It seems your master disagrees with this; they minted the coins and got the three hundred knights back together. Guess that when push comes to shove, power trumps freedom; reality trumps dreams.”
“I was tasked with returning Celeres to people across the peninsula. They gave so much to Rome; they are the modern knights of the Urbe, they are our galloping future. And yet, they get very little in return - specially during these last years. They are the fingers that define the hand, but we choose to clench them into a fist; by giving them back control over the Celeres, by acknowledging their accomplishments, we reinforce our dedication to be an open hand.” Sextus calculated the pace of his mount; he was able to look Cyberniskos right in the eyes. “I would say the Tarentine children of Poseidon have earned countless times the honor of riding with the Celeres; after we are done with this delivery, I will make sure these coins are handed to their most humble - but no higher.”
The high priest turned around, mouth agape. All pretenses of politeness and civility crumbled: Cyberniskos saw Sextus as what he was - and he would not hide his displeasure. No longer was Sextus an agent of privilege and status quo - someone to be charmed, reassured and debated; he was someone that challenged the systems that enabled Cyberniskos’ exploitative way of life.
Tabula Rasa could not even bother to be surprised.
Cyberniskos was, for only two answered his call.
“Where is your brother?” He asked. The knights looked at each other, acknowledging the disappearance.
“He was riding along the tree-line of a nearby grove, scouting for lodges and camps.” One of the knights suggested; the other kept an eye on Sextus.
“What are you waiting for, after him!” Cyberniskos shouted at the three men, hoping he had not revealed his hand too soon.
Sextus gave him a knowing glance but acceded; it was not time to turn on each other. Not yet.
The day was darkening fast; thick gray clouds cornered the twilight sun against the earth. The dark green of the grove already belonged to the night, light thinning and escaping in red and yellows beams, surrounding the lonely trees of the cutting clearings with an eerie nimbus. Fresh stumps escorted the road, inviting riders to venture closer to the woods. A trail of hooves confirmed the knight’s report: their companion had wandered in and had yet to come out.
“He must have noticed something in the woods and traveled further inside.” Sextus tried to calm them, hiding his own suspicious. “He probably returned to the road further ahead.”
The Tarentines frowned at his speculation; they dismounted and decided to approach on foot. Cursing under his breath, Sextus followed their example.
Twigs breaking, heavy stomps and the ruffling of leaves. Six eyes followed the noise, meeting a small figure; a child perhaps, a smaller woman was more likely.
“You there! We have questions!” One of the dismounted riders demanded.
She turned in place. Her long hair looked filthy and strange under the hues of the dying day; it was damp and muddy - and so were her baggy clothes. Silent was her answer, interrupted only by the occasional drip; Sextus raised a hand to his brow, feeling something wet. It had started to rain; the drops were modest but quickly gaining intensity.
“Oi! You there!” The rider insisted.
“The woods.” She muttered.
“What was that? Did you see someone like us in the woods? Is that it?”
“All that crawls from the sea comes into the woods to die.”
She smiled, her wide mouth stretching beyond what was comforting; her sharp pointy teeth yellower than the light. Her words, no, not her words, seemed to amuse her. Sextus felt another headache coming; for some reason he seemed to think the words came from someone else’s mouth. That could not be; the girl was alone. Nobody was here as well.
A knight drew a sword; Sextus grabbed his wrist, eyes inquiring what he intended to do. A nod and a glance; the girl held a broken horse hoof.
The child rushed forward, breaching the soil as she darted between knights; one of them grabbed her arm, regretting with painful recoil. Sextus stood his ground and was bull-rushed by the charging runt; he found air escaping his lungs, his body pushed through the mud. She was way heavier than her frame should allow and smelled of salt and rotten fish. The raindrops gave way to a full discharge; struggling and dazed, Sextus raised to see something expanding and serpentine accelerate towards the armored carriage.
“She is going for Cyberniskos! To me, brothers.” The Tarentine seized their panicked horses, galloping to save their master. Sextus wanted to shout a warning, tell them not to ignore her companion - nonsense words about nobody caught on his throat. Freeing his sandals from the mud, he followed the horseman on foot.
Too bad you need feet for that; something snapped through the air, whipping around Sextus’ legs and tripping him down. He swallowed wet leaves and dirt as he was pulled; his eyes closed as rocks scratched his face. Meeting a fallen trunk belly-on, Tabula Rasa clung to it for his life; there was a lot of screeching as the wood warped and bent, dreadful expectations sinking in - what would break first, him or the dead tree?
The assaulter relented with a metallic clank and the snapping sound of recoiling cables; heart and diaphragm competed in speeding cavalcade as Sextus turned on his back - unprepared but willing to face his attacker. A colossal shadow rose against the cope maintained by the tree line, the twilight colors eerily reflected across the rim of a shell. Rumbling earth and the crushed complaints of vegetation heralded an awesome wonder of war: a bronze effigy of a man, stretched and bulkened into an uncanny marriage of Etruscan forms and funerary crockery. Grey-green plates were laid one over the other, assembled into an impenetrable shell adorned by a beautiful bronze helmet decorated with flying blue and green thread; as Sextus’ gaze wandered bellow the shell, magnificence gave way to a chaotic apparatus. Chains and hooks dangled, curtaining a slimmer armored torso and bird-like legs, widening and spreading into cups and talons that supported its impressive size; The arms shared only cruel purpose: one, muscled and wielding a massive scythe-polearm of dual lethality; the other clanging spheres of metal, rotating over an axis of modular cylinders and tubes and assembled into a shifting appendage.
Something wet and limp fell to the ground; only as it was crushed did recognition hit Sextus: an arm of the missing knight.
Okay, that was it. Sextus stretched himself back up; he ran ahead of the metal giant, collecting his straw hat and spear.
Tabula Rasa stood his ground, reeling from the now familiar whipping. He circled around the bronze man, giving those dangerous hooks and blades a wide berth; trees were cleaved, slippery terrain was avoided, darkness encroached. Sextus panted as the tempo of their dance accelerated; the reach of his spear was at disadvantage, the clanging turns and twists of the enemy were as heavy as they were unpredictable. The strange legs were never caught off-balance or sank into the mud; the upper body rotated over its axis, always facing towards him.
No corners out of reach, no blind spots to flank.
He had to create his own opportunities.
Sextus moved away from the grove and back to the road; it was of little improvement - the rain had done quick work ruining it. But it had to be done; who knows what was happening with the Tarantines and he needed to draw the enemy out.
The giant exposed his secrets; Tabula Rasa could feel his subdued Spark rouse in recognition. A metallic eye composed of intricate bronze and iron, interlocked with overlaid lenses; contrasting with a wild bloodshot orb imprisoned by pulpy pink flesh. A scarred underbelly was exposed under the torso’s plates, a reminder of his mortality.
Before him stood Talos, the Bronze Man.
Sextus grinned as his pain dulled; he could work with this.
What if he was unable to riposte or control the battlefield? All Sextus needed to do was to stay between Talos and his prize; the spear darted between chains, seizing the moment and trying to catch the bronze titan off balance. Tabula Rasa discovered that Talos did not only have an impressive construction, he also possessed a mind tailored for combat; those simple baits and feints only worked because they had to go along with Sextus’ token resistance, as the wolf suffered the fleas.
Screams pierced the loud rain; only another sound rumbled above them - a terrifying drum solo, something wiggling and massive battering the upturned armored carriage. The weather did little to dilute the scent warning Sextus to the fate of the beasts and escort.
Talos’ eye met Tabula Rasa’s, the two men acknowledging the truth; even a better Triumphant than Sextus would have problems dealing with three monsters on his own.
To Dis Pater with that.
Tabula Rasa flexed his legs, arms stretched and spear planted. Talos charged in, calling his bluff; it was not a feint. Sextus stood his ground.
The inevitability of death resonated with the infernal Spark within; the currents of the Underworld cared little for the illusion of time. In a moment that stretched eternity, images and memories flooded Sextus mind. The lonely days spent looking at the death masks hanging the walls. The pots and amphorae dressed in his cavalry uniform, beaten and hanged, offered as sacrifice instead of him. His coming of age and the laughter of the bucolic divinity as she reciprocated his feelings. Offering his life to the Underworld in exchange of victory at Telamon. The gentle brush of fingers, the dead realization of whom he loved and was loved in return. As Talos loomed closer and closer, a memory consolidated, clearer than most.
The day before they confronted Quirinus. A sleepless night of insecurity and anxiety. Lidia’s words.
“Let not the lack of a powerful Spark dissuade you from accepting who you are, Sextus. Your closeness to Gods and to your core self is a strength rarer than any myth. We can don the mantle of heroes and be entrusted by covenants between people and their beliefs, but we are just that, children playing pretend; you are a hero and you are Closer to the Gods. Once your learn to accept that, you will realize that your humble Spark is quite bright against the darkness.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. That was it.
Sextus heard the clang before he realized his body had acted. His spear had met the tentacle-like arm of Talos sideways, metal and staff vibrating from the impact. Sextus’ eyes followed the dislocation of air, staring as the double bladed scythe spun and wove down towards his face.
Tabula Rasa exhaled. His periorbital skin protruded with bright freckles - tiny gems breaching through, drawing a mesmerizing pattern; his eyes shone between green jade and golden lure. Letting the power flow through him, he lifted his arm, fingers clenching around the air.
Shards of bronze flew in every direction. Sextus held what remained of the smoldering scythe; he was immediately struck by the disarmed but armored fist of Talos. He could not protest; he deserved that. The drumming stopped as the two Triumphants reeled; Sextus gave a side glance towards the massacre, dormant prey instincts awakening. A misshapen head broke through the rain, something slithering quietly.
Spinning his spear, Tabula Rasa was forced to take the offensive. Without his main weapon, Talos extended his plates, revealing just how many chains it was hiding underneath; Sextus did not hesitate, spearhead pointed at the scarred exposed torso. Hooks and small blades descended on him; biting his lip, Tabula Rasa suffered the blunt of the strikes while avoiding getting ensnared. Talos´ legs dropped at the last moment, putting all his weight on a bronze punch. Smilling, Sextus turned on the side, breaking his spear against the enemy’s arm and rolling with the blow; his Triumph shaped the mud, swallowing him and letting him dive under Talos - just as the giant sank. Reemerging behind Talos’ stretched and exposed legs, Sextus planted a half of the spear on each of his legs.
With Talos temporarily immobilized and stuck in the mud, Sextus ran towards the crushed carriage. He stopped near the clawed and bitten corpses of a knight and his mount; bowing in front of them, Sextus claimed a cavalry sword from cold fingers. He swung it wildly as he rose, spooked by something; he could have sworn to have seen a flurry of orange and purple fabric running in front of him. Disoriented at nobody, Sextus dismissed colorful phantoms; the other titan was done playing with food.
Some sort of eel-fish-human hybrid greeted him, lumpy proboscises breaking between spiny fins and rugged scales. She grinned with pointy transparent teeth and skin, vibrant with blood and guts.
Scylla, the Howling Current.
How much had she grown.
They exchanged blows, eager to test each other; where Talos had resourcefulness and experience, Scylla had power as brutal and bottomless as the sea. Sextus’ arm hurt from even glancing hits to her force-absorbing body; what was a human hand when compared to the crushing pressure of the abyss? Clever tricks did not work either. When Sextus put the yolk between him and Scylla, she crushed it with a swing of her tail; he took a gash to his leg and cut her eyelid, only for Scylla to splash around and cover herself in a layer of dark mud.
Dealing with an enemy seven weight-classes above him, Tabula Rasa found himself drawing more and more upon his Triumph. Only by swimming with the sea monster was he able to keep up with the mobility and evasion of Scylla; their Sparks did not fight each other, they did not try to impose incompatible realities. Such as they were, entranced and entwined, Sparks fed on each other’s Names. Scylla, delighted to be the monster; Tabula Rasa, playing the role of the inexperienced hero rising to the occasion. The girl was getting the better end of the deal; the rain upgraded to a catastrophic deluge, she grew longer and longer until all human features disappeared from her piscine head as it fused with her neck.
Sextus could throw more mud and sink deeper into despair.
They darted around each other, Scylla’s hunger increasing with her mass. She swelled with corpses, trees and roadblocks; she even consumed her prize, swallowing in one bite what remained of the armored carriage.
A low roar and cagey smirk, as a now humongous Scylla wrapped herself around Sextus. Once, twice; three loops and a toothy finish.
Descending on him.
Tabula Rasa tried to jump over the closing rings, which only made it easier for Scylla to hip check Sextus into submission. He landed poorly, his back muscles strained. Scylla’s eyes widened as she dove in for the kill, mouth agape. Sextus winked and waved.
Four pillars rose around Scylla; an earthen spike spiraled right into Scylla’s mouth. She could bite him, yes - at the cost of impaling her brain. Scylla hesitated just enough for Sextus to harden mud into a stony grasp, creating an escape where there had been only doom.
Finally, a chance to get his second wind. Sextus turned around; Talos and Scylla, still restrained - but not for long. The silver was gone, his support was gone, and there was still nobody to take care off.
Sextus’ empowered Sparkle shone bright and still. In a serene moment he was allowed clarity: he could see the gleaming of knives, the waving motions of a heavy dark orange cloak and the breeched leg tripping him down. His instincts told him to look down and find his footing, even as metal stroked his cheek with a bleeding caress. He infused all that was left of him into Tabula Rasa, allowing a shaking Sextus to look up. He was met by the angular features of a light-haired woman with an Adriatic sailor’s cap and a victorious trickster stare. She seemed to come in and out of focus, even as he refused to look away; her knives carved a path towards his throat and liver.
“Who are you?” The dying Triumphant supplicated.