Short Story: General Pantheon

In a world where gods worshipped are flesh and blood, a Roman centurion leads a doomed campaign into Egypt at the behest of his insufferable master.

“Curse this dead land and the rats that value it!”

The embittered General Ferricus would have spat if not for the water shortage. Roman men had little business trekking across the harsh Egyptian deserts. The spite in his belly died at the low rumble he felt behind him.

“Hold your tongue, Ferricus. This land shall be conquered in our name like the rest.”

The general, almost out of reflex, all but leapt out of his chariot to kneel before his eight-foot-tall superior.

“A thousand pardons, Lord Jupiter! I simply meant-”

The god of thunder silenced the general with a dismissive wave of his hand. Ferricus’ faith in him and his brethren had always been found wanting compared to the grunts he commanded, but his skill as a commander was seen as an acceptable tradeoff. Even if some of the more fanatical of his soldiers spread rumours of him being a heretic, the respect he commanded within his own ranks ensured their poison never got far. Still, this did nothing to endear him to the gods, as faith was more than just their power; it was their lifeblood.

“The conquest of this harsh country shall serve as an example; both to our might and to that of your men.”

In truth, Ferricus had less-than-noble suspicions about the pantheon’s reason for sending the army to such thankless corners of the world. The difficulty Mars had been having with the Norse in the frozen wastes had proved an irritating setback, compounded by the resistance of the Celts further west, aided by forest-dwelling champions against Minerva’s forces. Even on the streets of Rome itself, there had been whispers of a singular god of infinite power, with anyone spreading word of him put to death to snuff out the faith like a candle. The general’s assumptions that Zeus intended to conquer a strangely valued wasteland in order to buffer the people’s faith in their leaders, and in turn, enable them to enact their will.

The heathen bands were swift to fall. With no divine power to protect them, they only served as an example to all who resisted. Some tribes had minor deities, but they were converted or culled almost as easily as the godless. Some had tried to be clever by imagining gods of infinite power, but those that lasted turned on their own followers, leaving those that created them begging for Roman aid. One idiot thought it was a good idea to have a god for every aspect of their existence, but with faith spread too thin, it was like a wave crashing on grains of sand.

Ferricus bowed his head before returning to his chariot.

“As you will, Lord Jupiter”

The god-king grumbled at the name. ‘Jupiter’ was a rechristening after the Roman legion had trampled the delicate people who called him ‘Zeus’. The return of his brother Hades, or ‘Pluto’ as he was now, pushed the nostalgic thoughts from his mind.

“Finally done with the cleanup, brother?” Jupiter allowed himself a small smirk at the shadowed face hidden behind an iron helmet.

“Only fulfilling my duties as they should be, my lord.”

Even with the power he held as a god, the lord of the underworld had never spent any campaign on the front line. In every campaign Ferricus had lead with him present, he trailed behind the armies until the dust had settled, then his role as a spiritual custodian came into play. Their countrymen who had fallen were no concern of his, as it was only the foreign souls that needed to be collected and guided back to his ferryman, Charon. But all things considered, he harboured no resentment over his position. If anything, the more seasoned veterans noticed a small hint of pride in his guiding role. The only true source is his foul temperament was his grandstanding brother, with almost as much disdain saved for his jealous and whining brother Neptune during the rare naval campaign.

Not interested in getting embroiled in a divine dispute, Ferricus steeled himself before driving his chariot’s horses forward, towards the front ranks. The desert sands all but destroyed the authority he felt riding his chariot, not at all the steady bump of the cobblestones in civilized land. He considered it best to forsake his vehicle, but was denied permission by Minerva before she left their party to return to Rome.

“Lieutenant. What news of the scouting party?”

The soldier relaxed after recognizing Ferricus’ voice. Unlike the lord of Olympus, the general wasn’t one to take out bad news on his own men.

“None, sir. The route to Alexandria is not far enough to have taken our riders this long, not to mention Lord Mercury.”

The general’s lips pressed together in worry. In past campaigns, even ones he had heard of second-hand back home, the loss of a god was unheard of when the pantheon fought on a united front. But with the empire’s forces stretched so thin across the world in this desperate bid for faith…

“Prepare to march. I will inform Lord Jupiter.”

~

It wasn’t far into the legion’s journey that the spirit of even the legion’s fanatics began to wane. The desert winds had churned the sands, leaving no trail for the army to track their lost scouts with. The optimists suspected that this meant that Mercury and his party had simply gotten lost, while the pessimists were quick to insist under their breaths that they were lost.

The first headwind the legion received in their three-hour trek across the sands was met with what ranged from tiredness to irritation from the troops, but only Pluto, even skulking from the back, could sense what ill omen hung in the desert air.

“Inevitable, it would seem…”

Those that heard the god of the dead opened their mouths to ask for clarity, only for the rattling of a chariot – something unheard of on soft desert sand – to grab their attention.

“Halt!” Ferricus barked the order, with one hand on the reigns and the other gripping the chariot’s body out of reflex to keep his footing.

With the army at a standstill, their general looked back to see what stuck out. His eyes caught the sole of a legionnaire’s sandal. Motioning to the nearest soldier to retrieve it, he eyed the footwear with suspicion. How could something so flimsy have almost unseated him?

More importantly, where was its wearer?

“Aah!”

The soldier’s touch recoiled from the sandal like a girl discovering a lurking rat. Angered at his own fear, the man plucked his discarded spear from its resting place in the desert sand to prod at the discovery. The legionnaire slipped the spearhead under the sand, against the strapped side of the sandal, and pulled, the fragile shaft of the spear straining with the surprising weight.

A tug at the right angle showed the sandal for all to see, along with a foot that seemed to have been torn from its owner.

A shudder shook through the ranks, only to be silenced by the judgemental eye of Jupiter.

“What happened here?”

“What could have done this?”

“Where is lord Mercury?”

“Enough!” Jupiter barked.

The frustrated king snapped his head to his elder brother. “Pluto, do your work. I will have my revenge for this insult!”

“Then we need not stop.” The hoarse voice echoed from within the darkened helmet. “There is nothing before us but the stench of death, no souls here to send back. Not even those of our conscripts.”

Jupiter fumed at Pluto’s explanation, not even trying to feign composure when he ordered Ferricus to continue forward. The fate of Mercury was uncertain, but his father showed little concern.

“Unacceptable!” The clouds’ non-reaction to Jupiter’s outrage only fuelling his tantrum. “We will seek out whoever leads these barbarians, and have Invidia herself put them to the sword!”

Ferricus grumbled at that thought. The goddess of vengeance had been so overworked as of late thanks to the regular bruising of the pantheon’s ego, that she had started to become sloppy in her executions. At least her cousin wasn’t yet prone to making as much of a mess.

Then, for the first time since they had set foot in the foreign land, the legion felt the world around them stir. Winds circled around the army, the resulting sandstorm blinding them from what was ahead, save for the unearthed remains of their shredded comrades.

A soldier at the edge of one of the far flanks cried out in surprise.

“I felt something by my foot! There’s something moving!”

Jupiter gave a disgusted snort, conjuring a bolt of lightning in his hand no larger than the soldiers’ spears.

“Face me, coward!”

The lord of the heavens threw his bolt into the sand, snapping his fist shut as the divine lightning passed through the shifting ground. Ferricus was reminded of a similar move being used against an enemy navy during a campaign in the Mediterranean, which resulted in not only the sinking of half the enemy fleet, but the frying of every fish present just to spite Neptune.

The soldiers felt the bump of an explosion beneath their feet, followed by nothing but the stillness of sand atop buried glass. The soldiers looked amongst each other, fear and worse, doubt, in their eyes.

Jupiter felt his power wane from his followers, seeing the king of the heavens losing a new shred of dignity with each outburst.

“What are you waiting for?” he glared at his army. “Forward, peons! Lest I make you envy Prometheus!”

The soldiers barely had time to be scared forward before a roaring column of sand erupted from under the forward flank, sending the armour, weapons and gore of the gods’ most loyal fanatics flying at their comrades. Those lucky enough to shield themselves from the deluge were greeted by a far worse horror once they peeked out from their manmade fortress. In the middle of a scattering of viscera and steel stood a massive beast, almost large enough to rest upon two of their greatest ships side-by-side. The monster’s snout was the same as those belonging to the crocodiles they had heard of from the failed campaign from the East, its mane and front that of a lion, with its hairless hind that of the deceptively passive hippos.

Jupiter glared at the ugly chimera, three groups of shivering legionnaires between him and it. Pluto observed the face-off with the same passive detachment he always showed. Ferricus, meanwhile, had been thrown from his chariot and did his best to maintain his dignity observing the major players, with his hand hovering inches from his likely useless sword. The general’s horses had fled off into the dunes, while the beast only seemed to show an appetite for the rest of the soldiers, its maw smeared with Roman blood.

“Hold steady, men!” Ferricus ordered his soldiers with a tone as firm and even as he could manage, only for Zeus’ battered ego to uproot the solid footing he was trying to set.

“What are you waiting for?! Skin this beast as tribute before I slay it myself!”

The sound of a woman’s dismissive laughter came from the sky, the beast standing up on its hind legs as it looked up along with its would-be food.

There was a black silhouette in front of the blazing sun, descending towards the army on ethereal wings. The woman’s features became more and more visible to Ferricus with each flap. She wore a white robe, not unlike the priests they had captured, only the closer she came, it was clear to him that it too was smattered with blood. The wings on which she descended were black, as if the smoke of ruin had taken the shape of a large leaf, and in her hands, she carried a totem and a staff. But most notable of all was the fact that her head was that of a lioness, with the braided hair of their women swept behind it.

Even upon her landing, the woman towered over all present, even the beast, which she proceeded to absently pet like a loyal dog. She looked among the survivors, seeing the fear in their eyes, only to turn to her pet.

“That should be enough for now…” Her voice was low and ran as smooth as fresh blood along a sword.

The beast purred before letting out a soul-shaking roar, it’s master showing an amused smile as it turned and left the terrified soldiers.

“You there,” she said, pointing to Ferricus. “Are you the one who leads these invaders?”

The general was at a loss. His expertise was in managing his troops to fight other men, not diplomacy with a being that seemed ready and willing to wipe them off the face of the earth. Even in his prior scrapes with rival gods, he and his fellow humans had been seen as little more than resources by the rival faction. Did this goddess respect him more than Jupiter?

He wasn’t sure whether to be proud or worried as to what that meant.

Ferricus opened his mouth to speak before he found Jupiter standing in front of him, now barely taller than the human general compared to the woman.

“I am Jupiter, Lord of Olympus! These conquerors march in the name of my tribute!”

Reaffirmation of their cause brought some faith back to the more fanatical soldiers, causing the god of the heavens to grow along with his boasts, now slightly taller than the woman’s departed pet.

“Now, return our scouts and I may allow you and your pet to flee with your lives.”

An amused purr boiled into low cackling, the giant woman’s lion head twisting in a way only the unluckiest of gladiators ever got to see.

“Ammit the Devourer is the pet of no one, save for the judge Anubis himself. She smelled the ignorance and tyranny they helped to sow and… well, she did what animals are one to do.” The lioness’ flat tongue ran along the front of her teeth before her horrifying smirk crumpled into an annoyed frown.

“However, that display rather upset Osiris, our king. The only reason any of you yet live is because he has demanded that I, Sekhmet, Mistress of Dread, Lady of Slaughter, offer you surrender.”

The soldiers looked at each other, then to their general, both unsure of what to do. Ferricus wondered what would become of them if they yielded. Would they be executed later as an example to other invaders? Would these people try to convert them to worship their gods, diminishing Rome’s power while adding to their own? Or would they simply be held for interrogation or ransom?

Unlikely, Ferricus thought. It seemed that Jupiter’s ambition would ensure he and his men would never see their homes again.

“Unacceptable!” Jupiter spat. “The Gods of Olympus do not submit! They trample savages underfoot!”

The bearded god leapt over the steel flanks between him and Sekhmet, brandishing a fistful of lightning.

Lightning that dissipated once Zeus found himself impaled on Sekhmet’s staff, now taking on the shape of a spear.

This is the chief god of the Roman Empire?” The goddess was almost amused enough to burst out laughing. “I thought he was one of the countrymen of that petulant brat, Alexander.”

Jupiter felt his power leave him with his lifeblood, exacerbated by the sight crushing his followers’ morale.

Hooking the loop of her totem, an ankh, in her free hand along her middle finger, Sekhmet pressed her hand against the dying Jupiter’s face. The foreign icon burned against the wounded god’s flesh, causing the once proud king to cry out in pain.

“And does this cur speak for any of you, men?” Sekhmet asked, breaking a viciously intimate stare with her prey to look over his shoulder.

The soldiers stood where they were, but none dared raise a spear against the mighty warrior goddess. With no eyes on him save for Sekhmet’s, Ferricus took his hand off his sword’s grip. If Jupiter’s will had led him to the grave, there was no way he would thank him for it.

“As I thought” she noted. The larger god’s fingers clamped down onto her victim, with Jupiter’s eyes bulging with a fear he had not felt since his titan father had swallowed him whole. The fear didn’t last long, however, as one flick of her wrist all but wrenched the god’s head from his shoulders.

Still dangling from the spear, Jupiter’s body went limp. The soldiers petrified in horror of their leader’s ignoble end or in awe of what they were certain had been impossible. His blood, as red as any normal man, continued to bleed down the spear, flowing onto Sekhmet’s hand and dripping onto the shaded sand. She removed her hand from Jupiter’s head, leaving it to go lax on a broken neck. Sekhmet raised her spear before swinging it behind her, sending the body of the once mighty god into Ammit’s waiting jaws.

The snapping, tearing, and crunching that ensued could not have been louder to the men.

As the grunts struggled to not break ranks and flee, Ferricus turned to Pluto, who’s shadowed gaze was unreadable as ever, even staring back at him.

“You there,” Sekhmet called to Pluto, immodestly trembling as her tongue lapped at her bloodied hand. “Not too keen to fill his sandals?”

“I have no interest in my own demise,” the lord of the dead’s voice casually boomed. “Least of all for my entitled prig of a younger brother.”

Sekhmet allowed herself a small laugh at that.

“Besides, Pluto continued “even if your Devourer has the power to extinguish souls, the will of our people shall restore him without even knowing of this defeat. Such is the true immortality of all gods who provide and feed off faith.”

“Is that so?” Sekhmet mused, her eyes meeting Ferricus. “Perhaps your people will create a leader wise enough to stay home.”

A small part of the general wished to agree with her, but his station allowed only a cough.

~

The trek to the Egyptian capital had largely been a quiet one. Ferricus, stripped of a mount, had to suffer the trip the same way as his troops, with Pluto and his entourage silently bringing up the rear. Across the stretch of desert, the soldiers didn’t even risk whispering to each other, lest the goddess who clearly didn’t have qualms with killing sic her Devourer on them for speaking out of turn.

Ferricus was curious about this pantheon. Any gods they had conquered previously had been flushed out by necessity but never captured, and he had never stayed long to ask their former believers about them.

Crushing every foreign god in front of them, the average Roman legionnaire had developed a sense of innate superiority. This, in turn, only made Jupiter’s breakdown, humiliation, and pitiful end all the more crushing for the fanatics. Ferricus, meanwhile, had been blessed with not having to put up with what he felt deep down was the biggest embarrassment to the empire’s people.

At regular intervals, ever since he was a child, Ferricus had wondered what a mighty nation like theirs would have need for the gods, let alone those of a people they had conquered. His father, at the time retired from his own time in the legion, had explained it easily. The Greeks were only conquered because their Gods had been squandered by a passive nation. But if another, more warlike people had taken Zeus and the others for themselves, their combined might would have destroyed Rome. To Ferricus’ father, it wasn’t a matter of gaining leaders or weapons, it was keeping them out of enemy hands. Boisterous tyrants like Zeus were given their banner and tolerated because the alternative could have seen them annihilated.

In his youthful naiveté, Ferricus had asked his father if the empire’s campaigns of expansion had made them the very thing they had feared. His father responded simply,

“We still live. That is all that matters.”

And so he was. Even now as a prisoner of a heathen war god, along with most of his men.

Being led into a seemingly abandoned town in what appeared to be the dead of night.

“Where is everyone?” Ferricus asked his captor. The first thing he had said to her.

Sekhmet raised her head from her thoughts to see the main street into the capitol completely deserted. Even at dusk, which it appeared to be, this should have been an impossibility.

Sniffing ahead, Ammit took off, down the street without warning, her jaw snapping like a thing possessed.

“Hold!” Sekhmet called out in vain, before irritatedly motioning for her prisoners to follow her, the clattering of their armour not helping her agitated mood.

The beast was found not long after, peering at an overturned bucket, with bloodied reeds strewn around it like makeshift brushes. Ferricus inspected the bucket, noticing that the handle was attached to a severed knot.

But what blood is this? He wondered. Where did it come from, wildstock?

“Your devourer… does she take beasts, or just men?”

Sekhmet’s brow rose at the question. “What do you mean, Roman?”

“She lead us to this, but not a body,” The likely former general explained. “If this blood is of a man, then why is there no body?”

A cackle of disgusted gagging interrupted the two, coming from a trio of soldiers who had wandered off by a well.

“General! The stench is…” One began before breaking into a coughing fit.

“The well’s rope! It’s been cut! Bastards must have been dumping corpses into there to drain them for whatever heathen-!”

Sekhmet scoffed before batting the second soldier into the wall of the adjacent home. She marched over to the well, illuminating the dark pit with the edge of her staff lit with magic. What she saw was red, and only red. Not a floating corpse, nor a shred of tissue. It was as if the essence of life itself had turned to the essence of death.

“Hmm…”

Pluto’s echoing hum, the closest to words he had said since their capture, drew the attention of all present, even Sekhmet, hoping that he may have some form of knowledge to illuminate this mystery. The helmeted god slowly strode to the well, still illuminated by Sekhmet’s magic.

Another hum.

“Ferricus, does this seem familiar to you?”

The general looked for himself, only to shake his head. “Nay, lord Pluto.”

Pluto grumbled.

“During my time in Erebus, the Hebrews put to death pass by me with dying curses. Elaborate threats of their supposedly nameless god raining down plagues upon their enemies: Darkened skies, blood in place of water…”

He looked down to the bucket and the bloodied reeds. “The death of all firstborn of a house not smeared with blood.”

Still looking down the well, almost hypnotized by the rich colour and the choking smell, Sekhmet tore herself away from the hole to address her divine prisoner.

“Then what does this mean? What are you saying?”

“It seems that our peoples share a common enemy… one that has invaded your realm from within.”

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