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Authors: Michael R. Hicks

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BOOK: Vulcan's Fury: The Dark Lands
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“It was the Ghost,” Valeria told him, her tongue acting on its own before she thought better of it. “He must have taken it.” Too late did she realize she had spoken loud enough for Sergius to hear.

“The Ghost,” he spat. “The gods-be-damned Ghost? Are you trying to tell me that a mere criminal, a poacher, followed us all the way here without being noticed, then stole the eagle from our midst? Are my men and I such incompetents in your eyes that we would allow such a thing to happen?” He stalked in her direction, and Marcus took half a step forward, interposing himself between her and the general, his body tense. Septimus suddenly appeared on her other side, hand on the handle of his sword, and she could feel the warm, moist breath of Hercules on the back of her head as he let out a low growl. Turning her head, she saw that Paulus and Pelonius were behind her, next to Hercules, guarding her back. The men Sergius had been berating a moment before glared at her, and the soldiers manning the shield wall turned to look, their faces angry. “You may be the daughter of the Emperor,” Sergius snapped, “but I will not suffer such insult!”

Before Sergius could say more, a golden glint in the forest beyond the head of the column caught her eye. It was sunlight reflecting from something shiny, something golden, visible through the trees beyond the shield wall.

“The eagle!” She pointed, but as the others turned to look, the eagle vanished.
 

“What game do you play, child?” Sergius growled.
 

“I’m not, general!” she said. “I just saw it, through the trees. It was right there!”

“Princess,” Marcus said quietly. “I think we should just leave the general in peace.”

She felt Paulus take her arm, but angrily shrugged off his hand. “I know what I saw.” Turning around, she stalked back to Hercules, then with a practiced move stepped up from the elbow of his mid-leg and swung herself over his back.
 

“Princess,” Marcus called, “no, don’t!”

Ignoring him, Valeria took hold of the hexatiger’s fur in her hands and squeezed her legs together. Pelonius had trained the big cat since he was a cub to respond to some physical and verbal cues, much like a horse. This signal meant “go,” and the beast showed no hesitation.
 

Sergius and his men dove to the ground as the hexatiger took two long strides toward them before bounding over the shield wall and into the forest, quickly disappearing into the vegetation.


Horses!
” Marcus bellowed to the other men of Valeria’s guard who were farther down the column while Septimus let loose a stream of venomous curses.

Suddenly, Paulus pointed in the direction Valeria had gone. “Do you see that?”

Marcus and the others went still as statues as their eyes were dazzled by the glint of gold. “By the gods,” Marcus said, “the girl was right.”

***

Valeria held on tight as Hercules wended his way through the forest with fluid grace. Branches snapped at her face and arms, and she lowered herself down until she was prone against the hexatiger’s back, her face buried in his fur. Marcus’s shouts and the sounds of the legion preparing to move out faded behind her as Hercules moved deeper into the trees.
 

“Hercules, stop,” she said, and her mount did as she commanded. She slapped some leaves out of her way as she sat up to take a look around. She was no longer on the trail of the creatures that had destroyed Camaracum, for that had bent off to the north where the legion had camped for the night. Peering through the greenery, she again caught sight of the eagle, about the same distance away as when she had first seen it. The Ghost, for she was positive it must be him, must be able to move incredibly fast.

“Princess!” Marcus called from somewhere behind her, and she heard the sound of horses blundering through the dense greenery. “Come back!”

“I’m here!” She shouted. “And I see the eagle! Follow the sound of my voice!”
 

As soon as she caught sight of her pursuing guards, she turned back toward the eagle. It bobbed up and down, then disappeared again.
 

Giving Hercules a gentle squeeze with her legs, the big cat took off. She didn’t need to correct his direction, as he seemed to know exactly where she wanted him to go. With unerring precision, he made his way toward where she had seen the eagle.
 

As if stepping through a verdant wall, she emerged into a semicircular clearing with a small stream running through it.
 

The eagle was nowhere to be seen.

Frowning, she moved forward to the far side of the clearing, looking eagerly into the trees for any sign of the eagle. Behind her, Marcus and the others emerged, accompanied by General Sergius and followed by the men of his legion, who were moving at double time, or as close to it as they could manage through the virgin woods.

“Princess…” Marcus growled, expressions of anger and relief fighting a pitched battle across his face.

“Where is it?” Sergius demanded. “Where is the eagle?”

“I followed it here,” she told him, “but I don’t see it now.” She locked gazes with him. “You do believe me?”

He stared at her, his mouth puckering as if he’d swallowed a lemon whole. “Yes,” he said at last. “I caught a glimpse of it myself after you had taken off after it. But where did it go?” Turning to Centurion Cantius, he said, “Get the men moved forward as quickly as possible, then spread out to search. It
must
be here!”

“You won’t find it that way,” Valeria told him, which earned another pained look from Marcus. “With all due respect, general,” she hastily added.

“And why is that?” Sergius grated.

“Because
he
still has it. He obviously wants us to follow him, but we won’t get the eagle back unless he lets us have it.”

At that, Sergius laughed. “I have half a legion of soldiers! What chance does he have?”

“Your soldiers will never catch him,” she said. “He moves through the jungle, through the forest, faster than Hercules. Even on horseback, you couldn’t catch him.”

“But why has he led us here?” Marcus asked in an uneasy voice.
 

“To trap us, no doubt,” Septimus said in a sour voice. “Look at this place and tell me it’s not perfect for an ambush. A whole army could be around us and we wouldn’t know it until they started loosing arrows and throwing spears.”

“Where we were last night would have been far better for an ambush,” Marcus countered. “Regardless, we’re only facing one man, a thief.”

Sergius grunted. “I would’ve rather faced an army.”

Hercules stiffened and snapped his head around, facing the direction from which they’d come. His ears stood erect and his nose twitched.

“What is it, boy?” Valeria asked.

“He’s just spooked by the rest of the soldiers moving up,” Marcus reassured her.
 

Valeria shook her head. “I don’t think so…”

The hexatiger went stock still for a moment, then Valeria felt the hackles rising on his back. He opened his mouth and let out a warning roar.
 

Wrestling his horse, who wanted nothing but to bolt away from the giant predator, alongside Hercules, Paulus grabbed Valeria’s arm. “Don’t even think about arguing,” he said as he helped her into the saddle to sit behind him.

“What’s gotten into that beast?” Sergius snapped. The general’s men were more than a little afraid as they quickly moved away from the big cat.

“Do you hear that?” Paulus whispered to Valeria.

“Hear what?” All she could hear was the sound of soldiers moving around.

“Listen!” Paulus said. When no one seemed to notice, he shouted. “
Listen!

The soldiers paused, and quiet descended on the clearing.

Except it wasn’t truly quiet. From the direction from which they’d come rose a sound that made gooseflesh rise on Valeria’s arms. It was like a howling wind, but no wind Valeria had ever heard had sounded quite like this. Whatever it was, it was rapidly coming closer, growing louder.

“Oh, no,” Pelonius whispered. Valeria could swear that his dark skin paled.

“What is it?” Sergius demanded. He and everyone else was staring at the scribe.

Pelonius turned to him, his expression grim. “Monkeys,” he breathed. “Monkeys and baboons…and whatever is chasing them, heading right for us.”

Before anyone could say more, a loud whistle caught their attention.
 

Not twenty feet from where Valeria and the others were gathered bobbed the golden eagle above a dense stand of ferns. Then it disappeared.
 

“Men of the Imperial Guard,” Marcus roared, “on me!” To Valeria, he said, “Let’s hope your Ghost has honorable intentions. Come on.”

With Marcus and Septimus in the lead, the other men of Valeria’s guard fell into place around her and Paulus before crashing into the vegetation, with Sergius and the men of his legion following close behind.
 

They had gone a few hundred paces when they emerged into a meadow of waist high grass that would have been large enough to hold five legions, with room to spare.
 

In the center stood the golden eagle atop the pole of the standard, but there was no sign of the mysterious Ghost.

“Thank the gods,” Marcus breathed. “To the eagle!” He led the others at a gallop through the grass. As they reigned up short of the eagle, the legion’s standard bearer galloped by and snatched it from the ground. Wheeling his horse about, he held it high, and every man in the legion, from Sergius to the lowliest soldier, gave up a lusty cheer.

But the cheer was drowned out by the howls and shrieks from the forest, which were answered by ear-splitting roars from Hercules.

Marcus turned to Pelonius. “Can the horses outrun them?”

“Only until we reach the far tree line,” the scribe answered, shaking his head. “Then they’ll have us, and in close quarters.”

“Bugger that,” Septimus said.

“Agreed,” Marcus said. To his men, he ordered, “Dismount!” His horse reared just after he’d left the saddle. Its eyes were wide with fright, and the last thing they needed was terrified horses trampling anyone. “Turn the horses loose!” He let go the reins and shooed the horse away. Not needing any prompting, it fled at a run toward the far side of the meadow, followed by the others. “Square formation!”
 

The fifty men of Valeria’s guard quickly moved to form themselves into a compact square to one side of Hercules.

“I’m not leaving him out there!” Valeria told Marcus, pointing at Hercules, who was still venting his rage at the coming onslaught.

“We can’t shield him!” Marcus protested, taking hold of her arm. “He’ll have to fend for himself!”

“No!” She broke away from him and ran to Hercules, crouching between his front legs. “Shield yourselves, then!” she shouted to Marcus.

“Jupiter, give me strength,” the centurion hissed. To the others, he ordered, “Square formation…around Hercules!” The men hurried to obey. Marcus pulled Paulus aside as he ran past. “You’re not in the formation. I want you to stay glued to her side, no matter what happens. Do you understand?”

Paulus looked like he was about to protest, but instead simply said, “Yes, centurion.”

“Don’t disappoint me.”
 

“This should be interesting,” Septimus quipped, eyeing the men as they formed a square around the hulking hexatiger. “I hope that beast doesn’t decide to go tearing off after something, or he’ll take half of us with him.”

“He won’t,” Marcus said, hoping the gods heard him. He watched as the men of the legion straggled from the trees into the meadow. Those who had made it out already were standing around in what could only be described as a disorganized mob, bereft of leadership or orders. “Gods, they’re not going to make it.”
 

To Septimus, Marcus said, “You’re in charge.” Then, moving out of the tight square around the princess and her precious hexatiger, Marcus ran to where Sergius, Cantius, and the other officers of the legion, all still on horseback, waited uncertainly around the precious eagle. “General, sir,” Marcus said with as much respect as he could muster, “get your men moving faster or they’re done for.”

“And what would you have me do?” Sergius answered in an unsteady voice. “I ordered them to double time. It’s not my fault they don’t obey.”

Giving up on Sergius, Marcus pointed an accusing finger at Cantius. “Centurion, get your men into formation! Now!”

Then he turned away in disgust, knowing he could do nothing more for the legion’s leadership, and moved toward the men still pouring from the tree line. He took some small satisfaction as he heard Cantius barking orders at the men behind him. To those still struggling from the trees, Marcus took a deep breath and bellowed, “Men of
Invictus!
Move your asses, damn you!
Move!

He threatened and encouraged them, not leaving until the last soldier was out of the forest. By then, the approaching storm of living creatures was a deafening cacophony of shrieks, howls, and roars, punctuated by the snapping and crackling of branches and smaller trees. In all his years, in all the battles he’d fought, great and small, he had never heard anything half so terrifying.

He sprinted back across the field and through the defense lines the men had formed at Cantius’s orders, the soldiers turning their shields aside to let him pass. His lungs heaving, he finally reached his own men and the princess. Their small defensive square was at the rear of the legion, so whatever reached them would have to come through the other soldiers first.
 

His men opened their shield wall and he moved toward the center, close to the princess. The trees were shaking now along a front as wide as the entire meadow, dwarfing the legion’s defensive lines, and Hercules let out another roar. Marcus felt a hand reach for his, and looked down to see Valeria staring up at him with terrified eyes from beneath the big cat, who was crouching protectively over her. Forcing a smile, Marcus said, “You’re the one who wanted an adventure, remember.” He regretted his words instantly as her eyes filled with tears.
 

BOOK: Vulcan's Fury: The Dark Lands
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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