Damian Deimos walked with purpose, head held high. Given his height, build, and being clad in little more than a green one-shouldered tunic held in place by a silver serpent-decorated brooch, his posture and the furrow of his sharp, heavy brow kept others out of his way – not to mention the scars on his strikingly handsome face and the tension in the sinews of his hands as he held a heavy sack slung over one shoulder. He looked like a perfectly chiseled and determined statue given life.
Since he didn’t want to walk right past the Legion barracks, Damian cleanly cut a corner into a narrow alley. He knew this city like the back of his hand, having grown up here essentially his entire life. Half in thought, he tugged at the tight golden torc around his neck, both ends shaped like snake heads. That had been a part of his life as long as he could remember, too. Even if wearing it mostly worked to betray his Nordling blood and draw too much attention… but sometimes he liked attention.
His destination wasn’t far now. For the past two nights, he’d gotten little sleep thanks to his newfound duty: taking care of his centurion, his captain – a man he also considered his best friend. And he didn’t have many friends. After refusing to follow some bad orders, Damian’s centurion had taken the fall for his entire squad of loyal legionaries. The city of Redfield’s most disagreeable prince took great offense and had him publicly humiliated, stripped naked and tied to a pole in the town square, whipped before everyone’s eyes. He was still there – and had been for days, without food, water, or anyone tending the open wounds on his back.
At least, no one except Damian. Every night, he came and helped his commander: something very much against orders. He couldn’t let himself get caught, or he’d end up on another pole right beside him. Unlike the centurion in question, Damian had no loyal soldier to take care of him. Being optio, or lieutenant, was a duty Damian took very seriously.
Unfortunately, Prince Aldrus Lysander had deep pockets… and a lot of unsavory characters in the city didn’t mind taking coin for dirty jobs.
A heavy blow struck Damian on the back of his skull, hard enough to knock him off-balance. He went down with a grunt, shaking his head in an effort to clear stars from his vision. Footsteps rushed in around him – he counted five sets of heavy boots.
Damian let his bag of supplies remain where it fell. He surged to his feet, spinning and facing his attackers. Several goons stalked toward him through the darkness, the nearest still clutching the cudgel he’d bashed into Damian’s head.
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way, boys,” said Damian, his copper eyes watching each of them. “I don’t think any of you really want to do this, right? I actually don’t, believe it or not. Kinda not really in the mood. Think you guys could come back tomorrow? Let me stretch beforehand, maybe?”
They said nothing.
Damian continued, showing his palms, “Think about it. Is Aldrus really gonna take care of you when I’ve broken all your legs? ‘Cause I know the man, and trust me, he’s never gonna help a bunch of toothless sewer-wine enthusiasts who couldn’t even spank one Legionary. That Legionary is me, by the way. I’m sure all you guys have families, friends – people who’d rather be seeing you tonight. Right? Think about them.”
Still they didn’t speak. This usually worked. Damian frowned, but he implored them no more. If they wanted a fight, he’d give them one. A sudden, unbidden, and unhinged desire for violence pumped adrenaline through his veins— a need to prove his strength. The nearest man closed in, swinging his club again, and Damian sprang into action.
He caught the club in one hand, surprising his attacker. Straightening to his full, towering height, Damian pulled the weapon from the man’s grip and tossed it over his shoulder, where it spun away into the darkness. But before he could wind up a punch, a pair of hands grabbed his right arm, tugging hard enough to get him off-balance. Another set of hands clamped down on his left. They struggled to restrain him, pulling him back a pace or two. Damian growled, lashing out with his long legs and landing a heavy blow in his first attacker’s chest, sending him flying.
Two more men arrived. One lunged, hitting Damian in the stomach and knocking the wind from his lungs. He wheezed, but his attackers didn’t relent. He punched again – and again, then brought his blows up to land a blow in his face, socking his jaw so hard Damian’s head snapped back on his neck. He tasted blood.
With a roar, he pulled one arm free, ripping around to grab the remaining man restraining him and yank him into a head-butt. Their skulls slammed together. The man went limp in his hands. Damian dropped him at the same instant he sent an elbow back into another attacker’s jaw. Wheeling, he threw a punch for another man’s face so hard he went down like a sack of bricks.
Metal slid in a sheath. Damian’s instincts kicked in more than ever. A blade glinted in the darkness – but Damian caught the man’s wrist, forcing the knife away from his face. His nostrils flared. Beating him up was one thing, drawing steel was another. Did they actually think they could kill him? These pathetic excuses for men?
Gnashing his teeth, Damian twisted the man’s arm – hard. A snap echoed through the alley, followed by a scream. Damian drove forward, flipping the man bodily and then grabbing one of his legs. He wrenched that under his arm, forcing it into such an unnatural position that the man’s knee let out a meaty crack, ear-splitting save for the flesh muffling it.
His other attackers hesitated. Damian dropped the screaming man’s useless leg, leaving him writhing in agony. The remaining two attackers drew back a pace. Damian feinted a step forward. They retreated two steps in return.
A wicked grin crossed Damian’s face. He laughed a strange chuckle deep in his chest, making his ribs hurt worse. A few might have been broken. Blood trickled from a corner of his mouth, but he only licked off a taste of it. He didn’t give up the fear he held over them yet, circling them, white teeth glistening in the night. The men gathered together like sheep watching a wolf.
He spared no one. Damian swept in, hitting one man across the face so hard he spun in place and collapsed. The second he grabbed around the neck in the crook of his elbow, holding on tight. He gripped his own wrist in his other hand for more leverage, squeezing hard. His victim struggled, arms flailing, but Damian didn’t let go. He waited patiently, feeling the man’s pulse and his struggle to breathe…
Finally, his resistance ended. His pulse slowed, but it wasn’t gone. Damian dropped him. Meanwhile, the man with the broken arm and leg moaned loudly and pathetically, squirming on the cobblestones. One of his boots scuffed on the ground while the other foot remained motionless.
“Please… please, if you have any mercy,” the man whimpered, “at least tell someone to come help me… t-to help us…”
Damian snatched up the sack he’d been carrying, throwing it over his shoulder again. “Nah, don’t think I will. Be glad I don’t chop you to bits and leave you for stray dogs. Although… maybe the stray dogs’ll find you anyway. Not like you aren’t an easy meal. Anyway, better hope one of your buddies wakes up ‘fore those dogs come along.” He flashed a smile. “Have a nice evening.”
“Damn— damn you, Nordling,” the man hissed. “Your kind shouldn’t even be in the Empire, much less our Legion… you’re not worthy of—”
Damian didn’t speak. The muscles of his jaw flexed in rage. He turned on his heel, marched back to his victim, and stomped him in the face. The man stopped moving. Only then did Damian return to his previous course. It took several more minutes of walking through the evening air and the still, dark streets for the fire in his blood to cool.
He’d have to apologize to Apollo for all this later. Again. Damian sighed. Hopefully he hadn’t killed that guy…
Rounding another corner, he saw his destination: a wooden pole in the middle of the open but empty agora. Bound to it by his wrists, a man rested on his chest upon the ground, head down. He was massive, bound in enormous muscles and taller than most men – especially most Achaeans – ever imagined a man could be, though that wasn’t easy to tell with him on the ground. From here, though he searched for his face, Damian saw only his short-cropped dark brown hair sticking up in-between his enormous arms that looked packed with boulders under his skin. He wore nothing on his bare, sun-tanned flesh.
“Hey, Captain,” Damian said as he neared, putting down the sack he carried. “Getting some shut-eye?”
His centurion, Captain Caiden Voros, stirred. Slowly, he looked up, cracking open his stormy blue eyes to regard his lieutenant. Damian tried on a hopeful smile. As usual, Caiden saw through him.
“What happened?” he asked, his voice like shifting stone. A lot of things about Caiden reminded Damian of rocks, but it seemed fitting.
“What d’you mean what happened?” Damian retorted innocently, digging into his sack and producing a simple blanket. He draped it over Caiden’s nude form, covering his rear end, back, and some of his legs. It wasn’t much, but anything helped against nothing at all.
“Does Aldrus still have people on the streets?”
“Oh, this?” Damian motioned to his bloodied and bruised face. “It’s nothing. I sent them packing. So hey, y’ever think about the irony of saying people ‘die from exposure?’ This’s really put it on my mind.”
Caiden huffed. “Very funny.”
Kneeling beside his head, Damian dug deeper into his supplies. Caiden didn’t even budge, his wrists bound together on the opposite side of the pole, keeping his hands over his head where he lay. But he watched Damian’s every movement, his stubbled jaw set firmly with tension. Even when Damian pulled out a piece of bread and started ripping it into bite-sized chunks, Caiden still looked grim.
“You look like hell,” said Caiden.
“Hilarious that you’re saying that to me considering you’re the one tied to a pole with your junk out for the world to see,” retorted Damian, sticking a piece of bread in Caiden’s mouth. “Your ass, too. Well, not right now, but that’s only ‘cause I’m here.”
He set to work without another word, periodically feeding Caiden bits of bread or apples and pieces of jerky interspersed with swallows of heqet – foreigners called it nutritious beer, though Damian knew it was a little more complicated than that – from the distant land of Kemhet. It was better than local ale or simple water to help Caiden keep his strength.
During all of this, Damian lifted the blanket over Caiden’s back enough to wash and tend the whip wounds there. He couldn’t do much dressing or he’d leave evidence of his visit, but he could at least clean them every night while they healed over on their own.
As usual, Caiden didn’t say much… not until Damian was finished.
“Caiden,” Damian said, “I’m gonna get you outta here.”
“No,” Caiden ordered instantly.
Damian’s nostrils flared again. “One of these nights you’re either gonna accept that offer or you’re gonna die. You realize that, right, Captain?”
“Aldrus isn’t gonna just let you down from here. He might never let you down. What then? You die like this, disgraced? You think I’m just gonna sit by somewhere and let that happen?”
Caiden didn’t speak for a moment longer. Finally, he said, “There’s no way I can repay you for what you’re doing.”
Damian fixed him with a long look, all levity still gone from his voice. “I’m not doing this for payment. Besides, you’d do the same for me.”
He huffed. “Yeah,” Caiden replied quietly. “I would.”
“I know. So, anyway… see you tomorrow night.”
Caiden nodded. Damian rose to his feet, taking the blanket and the bag with him. But as he left, Caiden lifted his head again.
“Damian,” he called.
Damian halted and looked back at his captain, nude and beaten, left to starve and die with no dignity— yet still Caiden Voros did have dignity, somehow. Damian admired him for that.
Caiden finished, “Don’t get caught. You’ll end up worse than me.”
A smile played on Damian’s lips. He replied, “I won’t.”