Donnelan and Myrrin struggled to breathe. They huddled together in a vain attempt to ward off the suffocating waves of pressure that emanated from the legionaries around them. There didn't seem to be a single guard standing at their post, or official running messages, who didn't seem as though they were a high level powerhouse with the stats of a top level delver. The two young legionaries felt as small as mice clinging to a toothpick in an ocean storm as they trailed in their commander's wake, desperately struggling not to succumb. For his part, Titus didn't appear to notice their plight. After they were allowed entrance through the yawning gate of the Iron Mountain they hastily made their way inside to find the interior bedecked in breathtaking marble, the wide open halls lined with incredible, life-like statues of long passed legionaries. The commander's steps only lengthened as he moved from place to place, giving his name at each checkpoint they crossed and gradually penetrating deeper into the heart of the fortress.
It took hours and by the end, Myrrin's head was spinning. She couldn't say where they were, who'd they'd met, or even why they were there anymore. Every time they moved from one chamber into the next, the strength of the legionaries on guard seemed to leap to a new tier. The soldiers standing on guard next to her were resplendent in the most impressive Legion armour that she'd ever seen. Trimmed in gold, the living rock plates wreathed precious metals and alive with veins of fire mana that seeped heat into the air as it trickled through the stone. She wasn't even able to look the man in the eye, and when she snuck a glance at Donnelan next to her, she found he was sweating profusely and shaking in his seat.
For goodness sake, commander! Why did you have to bring us with you?!
Oblivious to her suffering, Titus was talking quietly with an armoured official outside a grand set of double doors. The doors themselves were elaborately carved and decorated, set into an archway that extended fifteen metres high. A full squad of ten legionaries stood guard in formation outside the door, their dominant auras unrestrained, flooding the room with their thirst for battle. After a few moments, the official stepped through the cavernous door, leaving Titus by himself. He gazed at the door in silence before he turned back to his two, cowering young legionaries. He clicked his tongue before walking over and clapping them on the shoulder.
"Come one now, young ones. You need to show a little more mettle than this. Don't embarrass our legion."
The two of them stopped trembling and looked up at him, eyes filled with a kindling resolve.
"Don't forget," he said, "it's going to be way worse on the other side of the door."
He gave both of them a squeeze on the shoulder with his sausage fingered hands before he turned to walk back to the door, never noticing the crumbling confidence he left behind.
"I don't want to be here anymore," Donnelan moaned under his breath. "I curse the day I ever got curious about the inside of the Iron Mountain."
"Y-you're g-going to meet the c-consul! A-aren't you excited?"
"You're stuttering. I'm sweating like I've spent a day doing drills in amour. This isn't looking good."
"I-if I pass out in f-front of the consul, will I b-be discharged?" Myrrin whispered, horrified.
"Of course not. The commander will just hate you forever."
When the official stepped back through the oversized doors, they both jumped in their seats and shut their mouths, staring straight ahead. Titus exchanged a few short words before he returned to them.
"We're up. Step quickly, we don't get much of her time."
So saying he brushed down the shoulders of their uniforms with his palms as if they were unruly children before grabbing each of them by the arms and straightening their posture.
"It's going to be tough in there, show me what you're made of."
He shot each of them a hard stare, his cold blue eyes piercing through the mountainous pressure that suffocated them and stiffened their spines.
"Yes, commander!" Myrrin shouted unthinkingly and saluted him, Donnelan following suit a moment later.
A deafening silence fell in the chamber as the officials, guards and fellow waiting functionaries turned to stare at the young legionaries. The two of them froze in embarrassment, but Titus actually smiled. That rare sight was enough to focus the two and they followed at his heels as they walked up to the intimidating guards and that oversized door.
A little of the steel had leaked out of the guards as the trio walked through their ranks, the stiff youngsters trailing behind their stoic commander. They made a conscious effort to lighten the strength of their aura as they allowed them to walk through. Once they were gone, the guards resumed their full bore assault on everyone outside the door. Defending the consul was their responsibility and they would perform that duty to the death.
The moment Titus stepped through the door he felt a frozen air pierce straight through him to his bones. He braced himself against and allowed his eyes to take in this new room. The office of the consul was surprisingly small, given the door. The room was roughly ten metres wide, lined by columns decorated with mana infused gold, the stone itself seemed to glow with a soft metallic light. The ceiling was high, vaulted at the top with every inch carved with depictions of legion glory. There was the battle of Deep Field, the defeat of Galatrix, the siege at Crumbling Rock, each a legendary battle from the Rending. At the end of the room, a slight, dark haired woman sat behind a deep red, crystal desk. Every inch of the walls and floor was exposed, stone or metal, without any softening furnishings at all. She refused to use them. The room felt cold and unyielding, rigid and formal, much like the legion.
And though no expression showed on her face, she radiated an air that let Titus know she was absolutely furious.
He stepped quickly through the door to allow his dual shields to step through, wide eyed as they stepped into the sparse office and he immediately felt the pressure on him ease. He allowed himself to unknot just a little as he stepped toward the desk, his boots clacking on the polished stone floor until he stood before his wife and offered her his salute.
"Commander Titus Faronicus!" He announced himself.
Donnelan and Myrrin hastened to offer their own salute.
Minerva shot Titus a brief glare before she stood to return their salute. Had the man gone soft? Bringing in these two to protect him from her wrath?!
"Welcome to the office of the consul, legionaries. Be at ease."
Almost unconsciously she appraised the two young soldiers in front of her. Lirian stock, young and only recently promoted, she judged. She watched as they strove to maintain their cool and decided that Titus had trained them well. As he usually did.
"What happened to Liria was a tragedy, and a failure of the Abyssal Legion. Would you not agree, Titus?"
Titus stifled a wince, the lack of title was a warning sign.
"It was," he agreed, not breaking his posture. "The legion garrison was barely able to maintain the bulwark during the wave. We were totally unable to prevent what occurred on the surface."
"I know," Minerva nodded, then sighed. "We wanted to divert reinforcements, but the wave put pressure on us everywhere. If I'd had double the reserves we still may not have been able to relieve Liria. Please, allow me to extend an apology to you, children of that kingdom and loyal soldiers of our legion."
Myrrin and Donnelan stiffened in place before they wordlessly saluted once more, unable to speak. The destruction of their homeland had cut deeply. Even though they had fought as hard as they could in the depths to defend it, it hadn't been enough.
She stood from behind her desk and walked around it to face her husband and his "shields". She was dressed in regulation legion leathers, with solid boots on her feet and her well-toned arms free, as if she expected to swing a weapon at any moment. Her short, cropped hair seemed to bristle as she glared anew at Titus, her eyes very reminiscent of her daughter's.
"Don't think that bringing these two is going to save you, Titus!"
With no warning, she blurred in place, appearing directly in front of the commander, her fist sank deep into his stomach.
"Where is Morrelia?! Do you think I wouldn't know she was here?!"
To his credit, Titus straightened instantly, no sign of pain showing on his face.
"She went straight to the Temple after she arrived, she hadn't changed her class yet."
"She couldn't drop by on the way?"
"That was up to her."
"You couldn't make her?"
"I chose not to."
Another brutal fist to the gut, this time sending the commander sliding back three metres, his boots screeching on the marble floor. He straightened once more, his face still placid.
"When you accepted a term as consul, raising the children was my responsibility. That's what we agreed."
Minerva stared hard at him before she nodded.
"That's true. Only a few more months and I'll be free of this blasted office."
She idly shook her wrist as she looked at her husband's stomach.
"Have you levelled up a few times?" she asked.
"Three times," he admitted.
"That makes sense. You've definitely toughened up."
"Lucky me," he said wryly.
His wife had always had a temper, much like his daughter. Being separated from her family had only sharpened it. Her guilt at not being with them when Romanus died fuelled much of her anger. Once she had accepted the post of consul, she was duty-bound to remain for the full, ten year term.
"I know why you're here. You want me to reform your legion and get you back out into the fight, and you want to take Morrelia with you. Am I right?"
Minerva leaned back against the hard crystal of her desk.
"We're being pressed everywhere, even now. Mana levels haven't fallen like they should after the wave and some outposts in the deep are reporting they might be on the rise again. Things aren't right out there Titus."
"All the more reason to have good legionaries in the field."
She looked at him steadily.
"It might be your lucky day. We had a report come in from the Empire of Stone. Ants. They appear to have made their nest somewhere beneath where Liria once stood."
Titus' eyes narrowed.
"I did report that an ant nest had been located."
"But there wasn't the capacity to deal with it right away. It was a problem we'd assumed we could put off for a time, perhaps the wave might have killed the colony off. Now it seems they're raiding locations more than a hundred kilometres away from where you found them. Your legion will be reformed and you'll get your new recruits. Head back to Liria and clean up this infestation, then return. We'll have need of you down here before long."
Titus nodded, his face serious. Ants were always a problem.
"Understood, Consul." He turned to leave.
"Not so fast," Minerva cut him off. "You two head outside. I need to have a private word with my husband. After all, Titus, it's been so long since we've spoken."
Titus felt a heat rise in his chest. This damned woman.