Sitting there bathed in the glow of an elder science with Actius babbling excitedly away, I had time to pause and reflect. Such moments are rare in the life of a soldier and mine was no exception. For over twenty years I had marched in one campaign after another, quite frequently bathed in the blood of foes and friends alike. But never, until recently, had I been given any reason to doubt my ability to carry out my sworn duty as a soldier of Rome.
Now I had many questions to ask. Questions seemingly without simple answers. Who were the Eldethi really and what role had they played in shaping Earth’s destiny? Where did the seemingly human Terrans fit into all of this? The Valparta were one of the greatest mysteries of all. Where had they come from and what hand did they hold in this deadly card game? What myths were truly myths or forgotten history? A war had been/was being fought on a scale which boggled my mind, the stakes of which I had not even the dimmest of understanding.
Most of all, what was Actius hiding? He was keeping something from me and I had to find out what he was hiding. The thing in my head was of little or no help. I was discovering that all the knowledge in the world didn’t do any good if there was no basic foundation upon which to build. I knew what I knew but was having trouble grasping what I knew. So I sat in front of that cursed ethereal lamp/fire pit and tried to get things back into some semblance of order. Too much time had been wasted swinging at shadows in the dark. I did know one thing without understanding how I knew. Time was running out. For me, my men, Rome, this underworld, this world.
While all this was trampling through my skull I had been oblivious to everything around me. As I slowly returned to the world around me, I became aware of a not so subtle change. Silence. Actius wasn’t blathering anymore. My second in command was sitting across from me staring with an intensity I had come to know all too well.
“You alright General? You’re awful quiet over there.”
I looked at Actius, being careful to let my face betray nothing of what I was thinking. I hated doing that, especially to a man I had trusted for so many years.
“About . . . ?”
Thus came my turn to lie.
“A lot of things Actius. The damned mystery that brought us here is getting worse instead of better.”
Actius’ face had become just as unreadable as mine. I didn’t know whether he had caught on that I had caught on or that he was being sneaky on his part. I figured the latter. I let him try and draw me out.
“What did Merlyn have to say. You were up there at least half a day. We were getting ready to come and get you.”
All I could think of at that moment was ‘how thoughtful of you’. I was ashamed the moment those thoughts entered my head. These men had served with me for some time. Many of them for years as we fought side by side. Mistrust was beginning to eat away at my vitals. Whom could I really trust, and who was keeping deadly secrets? Actius continued.
“Learn anything of value up there? Like, how to get out of this growing mess we’re in?”
Here came the tough part. Would he know if I was lying? Only one way to find out.
“Nope. The guy talked nothing but gibberish. He showed me around his place, we gabbed, had dinner, got drunk. He offered me a bed for a couple of hours to sleep it off, and then that gold guy you saw me with brought me back here. Damn confusing!”
His next words rocked my world.
“Uh . . . boss? You came in alone. When we met you, nobody was with you. You were holding a map and looking the way you look when directions don’t add up. You said hi, issued a couple of orders, and stomped over here where we’ve been ever since.”
Huh!!! What the Hades . . . ??? Who was kidding whom here? I knew with unshakable certainty that I had arrived there with Lucifer as my guide. Also, I had, to my knowledge, issued no orders whatsoever. What game was Actius playing? Worse yet, what if some of my memories of the last day were faulty? What did I or didn’t I really know? If my own memories had become suspect, we all were in real trouble. No. I knew what I knew and I proceeded on the assumption that what had happened was reality.
Besides, I had inescapable proof of the reality of my own memories. Have those of you who might be reading this missive spotted it yet? Aw . . . c’mon! It’s right out there in front of you. No? Okay. I’ll tell you. I knew that what I had gone through was real be cause my language skills had improved by at least five hundred percent. My inner friend was responsible for that. All my life I had preferred, despite Big Brother’s attempts to the contrary, the language patterns of the common soldier. Speech was simpler and more honest that way. Senators and other crooked types spoke fancy. Not me. Now I was sounding like Quintus. It was with this sure knowledge of my own reality and rightness of things that I looked across at Actius and KNEW that my closest friend of many years was now a traitor. My blood began to boil, but I kept my rage in check and extended the hangman’s noose out farther.
“Well, glad to see things have settled in here. We need the rest. Time to rethink our strategy. I’m gonna go to bed and really sleep this time.”
My second in command looked and nodded. I could have sworn he was relieved to end the conversation. As I stood up and walked away toward my tent, I fancied I could feel Actius’ eyes boring a hole into the back of my head. Well, I thought to myself, I’ll deal with that bastard later. Time to hit the sack and clear my head. Wrong!