December 26th, 211 AD
Enough was enough. Caesar Publius Septimius Geta Augustus strode determinedly down the grand hallway of the imperial palace. An assortment of his closest bodyguards accompanied him, their presence a constant reminder that he was not safe even within his own home.
Not safe. Never safe. He was the leader of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, and he wasn’t safe in his own home.
Co-leader, Geta reminded himself then. His power was shared with his older brother, though ‘shared’ was a poor term as well. A better word would have been ‘split’. Their power and authority was split, just like this palace. For the past year, ever since their father had died, Geta and Caracalla had split their authority, their power, even the palace itself. Caracalla dwelled in one half of the palace, while Geta dwelt in the other half. Any doorways that would have linked the two sides had been walled up or otherwise blocked.
And even that wasn’t enough. Despite their separation, Caracalla had still attempted to have Geta killed more than once over these past months. They both kept their bodyguards with them at all times, neither ate any food that hadn’t been tested for poison, and Geta wasn’t sure about his elder brother, but he for one had not had a full night’s sleep in longer than he could remember.
Their conflict wasn’t exactly new, of course. In the years leading up to their father’s death, Geta and Caracalla had often been nearly at each other’s throats. Caracalla was named Caesar by their father when he was only seven, and Geta was six. Geta himself was subsequently also named as Caesar three years later. In that same year, however, Carcalla had been granted the title of Augustus. At the age of ten, he had been allowed to run the empire alongside their father.
The siblings’ rivalry and bickering had only worsened as they grew up, with Caracalla being the more athletic and outgoing between them, while Geta was more devoted to his studies and to enjoying the finer things that their station afforded them. He sought always to impress their father with the breadth of his knowledge and understanding of the empire, even as Caracalla continuously allowed his temper and impulsiveness to get him into trouble.
With the death of their father, Geta had become Caracalla’s co-emperor, despite his older brother’s early attempts to ignore that fact.
The two brothers had tried to settle the situation by literally splitting the entire empire in half. Under their tense agreement, Caracalla would remain in Rome and rule the western half of the empire, while Geta would take his people east, to Alexandria, and rule that half.
But the deal was not to be. Their mother, Julia Domna, had used the authority and power that she still held to block it from happening. Geta still didn’t understand why his mother had refused to allow he and his brother to divide the empire that way, and all attempts to change her mind had been fruitless.
Thus, the tensions between the two brothers had continued to worsen by the day, even by the hour. It was a situation that could not continue. And it wouldn’t. Geta was tired. His men were tired. It was time for things to stop. And he knew that Caracalla felt the same way, or at least similarly. His brother had called for a meeting, a private meeting where they would attempt to do what neither their mother nor their now-late father had been able to make them do: reconcile.
Geta wasn’t that foolish, of course. His brother had been caught attempting to have him killed only days earlier. He’d increased his guards when the plot was uncovered, and Caracalla appeared to have backed off.
Then this invitation had come. An invitation to meet in their mother’s quarters, allowing her to act as intermediary, so that the two of them could finally work out their differences.
That was the only reason that Geta was entertaining the notion: the presence of their mother. Even Caracalla respected her. With Julia Domna present, there was a chance, however slight, that his brother would behave himself.
Outside of the entrance (from this side, at least) into his mother’s room, Geta nodded to the men. With a gesture, he ordered them to stay put. Then he raised a hand to knock.
She answered the door, ushering her son inside with a brief look to his bodyguards before shutting it. “You are prepared to make peace with your brother?”
He nodded once. “Our feud has carried on for too long, mother. If Caracalla will make a genuine peace, I will accept it.”
Her eyes studied him for a moment, as though judging his sincerity (which was insulting, considering the fact that Caracalla should have been the one to prove himself), before she nodded. Turning, Julia led him across her quarters, just as a knock came at the other door.
“That will be your brother,” the woman announced. “Wait here for a moment.” She patted his shoulder, striding that way to let the other man in.
But it was not Caracalla who slammed the door open then, even before Julia could reach it. No, it was several armed men. Geta’s brother had yet again proven himself untrustworthy, ambushing him in their mother’s own quarters.
Julia herself was knocked backward, head hitting a nearby wall before she slumped to the floor. Geta barely had time to see her fall before the centurions were almost on top of him. Their swords were already driving for his chest. There would clearly be no peace talks. Caracalla meant to end their rivalry in a far more permanent way.
But Geta was no weakling, even if he lacked his brother’s taste for open warfare. As the first of the centurions reached him, the man stepped forward. He sidestepped the thrusting blade, catching the soldier’s wrist and twisting it while catching hold of the man’s arm with his other hand. Spinning, he tore the sword from the centurion’s grip while hurling him bodily into the next man. A single, lightning-quick slash of his blade took both men’s heads from their shoulders in a spray of blood.
That left two more men. Both retreated back a step, surprised by their target’s quick action. Yet they were too slow. Geta leapt after them, throwing his liberated sword through the leg of the nearest. As the man collapsed, Geta caught his sword as it fell from his hand. He drove his knee into the slumping man’s face, knocking him onto his back with the sword still stuck through his leg.
The other man was turning to retreat when Geta drove the new sword into his back. He released the blade, letting the man fall while turning back just long enough to pull his own sword from its place at his belt. A simple swipe of the blade finished the man who had fallen with the sword in his knee.
Geta had just moved to check on his mother, when the sound of his brother’s voice reached him through the broken door. “–if you are correct, it hardly matters when–”
He couldn’t hear more, but if his brother was there… if his brother was there, then Geta was going to end this. He was going to end it now. Rising, he strode for the doorway, blade in hand.
At the doorway, he stopped, peeking through to make sure his brother was thoroughly distracted by whoever he was talking to.
That glimpse, that single peek, changed everything forever. Because as Geta peered around the corner of the doorway, he did indeed see his sibling there. But he also saw someone else, something else.
The man, if he could be called that, who stood next to Caracalla could never be mistaken as human. It was just under five feet in height, with some kind of black and dark blue bug-like exoskeleton, four legs spaced evenly apart to the front and back, and four arms on either side spread from its waist up to its shoulders. Its head resembled a fly, with enormous compound eyes, and similar mouth parts.
The sight was so shocking, that it brought Geta up short. As he stared, the fly… creature made a clicking noise before hissing the words, “You are making a mistake. This is–”
“Enough,” Caracalla interrupted, his voice harsh. “I have listened to your counsel for all these years, and yet nothing has changed. They are changing tonight. The feud with my brother will be over. I should never have listened to you.”
“Of course,” the fly-thing hissed, laying one of its many hands on the man’s arm while leaning up closer to his ear. “The final decision is yours, the men stand ready to follow your orders. But, Imperator, as I have tried to tell you for so long, your brother’s death presents a great… many…” He leaned in then, hissing his words into Caracalla’s mouth. With each word, the man’s usually scowling expression slackened, and he slumped a little bit more. Relaxing. The words from the fly creature were forcing him to relax, even causing him to sway just a little bit.
Magic. The foul, wretched creature was using some form of black magic to control his brother’s mind. And, from their words, he had been doing so for years. No wonder Caracalla had such a temper and was so… unpredictable. Any choice he made was undone by this filth.
Obviously, what happened here was that Caracalla had intended to make his peace with Geta. But this creature had discovered the truth and found a way to send the guards in to kill him first.
If his brother could be freed from this thing’s influence, then… then…
Geta thought no more. With a cry of rage and justice, he stormed into the corridor, rushing for the fly-creature.
Yet, before he could cross even half the distance between them, another body collided with his. There was someone else there, someone he had failed to see. As the body slammed into his, Geta was knocked sideways through the nearby glass window. The sword dropped from one of his hands, but his grasping, groping fingers managed to catch hold of his attacker. He felt… feathers?
Twisting in the air as they fell, Geta managed to get the man who had crashed into him underneath himself an instant before impact. Then they hit, and he felt a sudden, sharp and agonizing pain in his lower side.
Everything seemed to slow down then. A blink, and he saw the sword… the one that he had dropped. Somehow, it had ended up stuck against a rock with its blade facing upward. Geta and his attacker had landed on top of it, the blade piercing straight through the other figure’s chest before continuing on into Geta’s side.
Another blink, and he saw the man who had tackled him. Except… it wasn’t a man at all. The figure was just as not-human as the fly creature had been. This one, however, looked more like a bird, with wing-like arms and a beak. The feathers that he had felt covered the bird-man’s body. They had clearly been blue, though now most were stained with a mixture of the creature’s blood, and Geta’s.
Another blink, and he saw the bird-man’s eyes drift closed. Another, as he fell onto his back to look at the sky, and he saw his own brother standing there at the broken window, looking down at him.
One more blink, and he saw another figure, blurry and indistinct, limping toward him from the ground.
Then his eyes were shut, and remained that way for quite some time.
“I should go back now, and free my brother from the influence of that creature,” Geta announced several days later. He stood in a small clearing, scowling at the man who sat across the fire from him. “I appreciate you dragging me out of there when you did. You saved my life and you have my gratitude for that. But my brother is still under its power.”
“You would be killed immediately,” the other man retorted. “I did not save your life just for you to throw it away once more. You want to learn how to kill those beasts, how to use the gifts that the bird-creature’s blood granted you? Then have patience. Your brother’s mind has been lost to their whispers. He has already proclaimed you dead. If you show up again, he will have you executed for impersonating yourself.”
Turning, Geta glared through the darkness. Darkness. He only knew it was supposed to be dark through context. Ever since the blood of the bird-man had mixed with his own, he saw through all darkness as if it was as bright as day. He could see further as well, and make out minute details from vast distances. Often, he lost track of what was happening directly in front of him, because his attention would be drawn to something far away as if it was much closer.
Still, it was an improvement from the first day, which he had spent with a splitting headache, throwing up more than he thought was physically possible.
“How much longer?” Geta demanded, staring at the man who had saved him. “As you say, they have already falsified my death. They even convinced my own mother that she saw me die right there in front of her. The beasts have control of my palace. How long until we can kill the creatures whose whispers have taken my brother and my empire from me?”
“Not long,” his rescuer, his teacher, promised. “When you are ready, we will take your empire back.
“But not until then,” the man who called himself Radueriel finished.