Titus hated dressing up. But the Golgari High Blades were notorious sticklers for protocol and tradition, so his hands were tied. He’d be damned if he’d put on his full dress uniform though, absolutely no chance. The jumped up pile of rocks would have to be satisfied with him giving his armour a solid polish. So it was that in the final hours of the bridge relay being assembled, Titus took off his elaborate Legion Runic Armour, sat in front of the command tent and attended to the buckles, plates and stone whilst directing his Legion.
His hands worked the leather straps, polished the buckles and cleaned the stone almost automatically, not really having to look at what he was doing, his eyes instead roving over the camp. There wasn’t a single Legionary with five years of experience who couldn’t clean their armour in their sleep, and Titus had far more than that.
When the job was done, he put the suit back on, almost feeling a sense of relief when the final plate snapped into place, sealing him in.
“Feeling more comfortable commander?” Alberton asked from his seat nearby.
Titus shrugged his shoulders, feeling the heavy suit fall into place on his frame.
“It doesn’t feel right being in the field without being armoured up,” Titus said.
He performed a few rapid checks with hands, pulling on a plate here, shoving with his palms there, testing the joints and straps. The Loremaster frowned.
“Be careful of the mana …” he began.
“I know,” Titus cut him off and continued his meticulous checks.
Alberton was silent for a moment before he continued quietly.
“I worry sometimes, old friend. Just be careful.”
Titus didn’t look up from his inspection and after a long moment Alberton sighed and rose from his seat, checking every strap and seal on the back of the suit.
“Flawless as always commander,” he said, slapping him on the pauldron with one wrinkled hand.
“Are you going to suit up?”
The Loremaster snorted.
“What for? My Skills are in research and documents, not swords and sorcery.”
Titus turned and looked his friend in the eye.
“Put it on,” he ordered, “something isn’t quite right on this mission and I don’t want to lose anyone. In fact, pass the order, I want all personnel to be battle ready at all times. No exceptions.”
Without pausing to listen to the Loremaster’s spluttering protestations, Titus turned and strode toward the communications tent. As he walked he managed to loosen his jaw and tamp down his anger. It wasn’t Alberton’s fault. The mana was rising and the armour drank it in, pouring it into his infused body. He made a mental note to have the medics do regular checks on every member of the Legion, including himself.
The effect of mana on the human body had many implications. Mana sickness was just the most common of these. Once adapted to a certain level of mana, withdrawal became the next concern, wasting away just like a monster would. What the old Legionary worried about was something only high level individuals had to be wary of: addiction.
Titus brushed through the opening of the stiff canvas tent to find Braxis fussing over a core as it was lowered into the array.
“Careful, careful! That thing cracks and it’s six months pay for a louse like you!”
“This would be a lot easier if you’d stop shouting at me.”
“Shut up and work!”
The youngster, Donnelan, rolled his eyes as he placed the precious core into its housing. The moment it clicked into place, the entire array hummed to life, accompanied by an inward whoosh of mana as the core began to drain it.
“Is it ready?” Titus rumbled from the entrance.
“Ah, Commander. Just in time, it’s ready to roll. Give it a second to charge and I’ll engage the Bridge. Shouldn’t take long.”
Titus nodded and strode around the tent to stand in front of the device. This was far from the first time he’d used a Bridge Relay. As he waited for the mage to finish his work, the younger Legionary watching attentively over his shoulder, Titus thought about the current campaign. The more he thought, the higher his temper flared until he forced it down again.
Hiding information? From the Legion? The Legionem Abyssi were not to be lied to, something the Empire of Stone appeared to have forgotten.
“I’m through, commander,” Braxis’ voice sounded distant and eyes seemed to be open but saw nothing. Titus knew he was reaching through the array with his mind, seeking out the connection to the Golgari camp. “You’re speaking now.”
So saying, Braxis turned his blank eyes onto his commander and Titus felt his mind reach out to his own. Relaxing his will, he allowed himself to be carried out of his own body. There was a feeling of being dragged, and a rush of distance, then he stood before the High Blade Balta, surrounded by swirling darkness and mist.
Eyes cold, the Golgari drew his blade, lay it across his palms and bowed over it.
“Before the living stone I greet you, Titus of the Legion.”
Titus returned the gesture with a Legionary salute, crashing his right fist into his chest plate, right over his heart.
“The Abyssal Legion sends its greetings, High Blade,” Titus said.
The barest minimum of decorum addressed, the two men settled on their heels and weighed each other. Titus was familiar with the Golgari, they were a martial people, numerous within the Legion, he knew exactly what he was looking at.
As if sensing the tinge of contempt from his opposite’s expression, the High Blade Balta sneered as he addressed his ally.
“You have come calling so soon, commander. Has the Legion run into difficulty already? Are the insects too difficult and you must request my help?”
Titus didn’t answer immediately, he just stared, hard, at the Golgari. To his credit, Balta appeared unruffled, his demeanour condescending and superior.
“The Legionem Abyssi does not appreciate when information is withheld.”
That got a raised eyebrow.
“You accuse the Empire of Stone of withholding knowledge from you? This is a bold claim you make, commander. By your honour, I trust you have proof,” his voice sharpened by the end.
The word honour from the mouth of this snake curdled Titus’ gut, but he kept his face smooth, even as he allowed a little heat to enter his eyes.
“If I decide that your Empire has misled us, then I will petition the Consul for a punitive expedition to be dispatched immediately,” Titus spoke evenly, “perhaps after we put a few cities to the torch your people will remember how to treat their allies.”
“You would dare?!”
“It wouldn’t be my first time.”
The two leaders glared at each other, hands twitching as they longed to grasp weapons that didn’t truly exist here in this mind space. After a long, tense moment, Titus crossed his arms and settled back on his heels.
“However, I don’t believe it was the Empire that provided false information to us.”
He didn’t bother clarifying his accusation. If he spoke aloud his suspicions of the High Blade, Balta would be honour bound to defend himself. Better to let those words hang in the air, unspoken.
“Your Legion has forgotten their place, it would seem. You were requested to join this expedition to support the Empire in crushing this infestation. Instead you arrive here with threats and accusations.”
“We encountered an abomination.”
The reaction was immediate. Rage flared in the eyes of the High Blade, only to quickly cool to simmering anger.
“You didn’t tell us there was an abomination. One being here changes the nature of the conflict significantly.”
“Where?!” Balta raged.
Titus didn’t answer. He simply stood and stared at his opposite. After a moment the Golgari calmed himself.
“That creature has insulted my family, injured my kin and brought shame to my house. I will destroy that filth with my own hands, slowly. Where did you find it?” He demanded.
Titus sighed internally. Petty feuds and grudges. It was always like this with the Golgari. They were as stubborn and hard headed as their own skin.
“I need to make something clear to you at the beginning of this cooperation,” Titus spoke slowly, “you have a personal stake in this expedition, I understand that now, but I want to make something very clear.”
He leaned forward.
“I don’t care.”
“The Legion has come here, at your request, to exterminate this nest before it gets out of control. With or without your help, that is exactly what we are going to do. If you get in my way, I’ll cut you down myself.”
Titus spoke flatly, without emotion, as if he were discussing the weather. It wasn’t an opinion, it was simply fact.
“Now tell me everything that you should have told me before, or I’ll go hunt your precious quarry myself, kill it with mercy and dignity, then bury it with honour. It’s right outside my camp, after all.”
The High Blade’s eyes glittered with malice.