The Centurion Cycle: Book Three ~ Angels Ascending

Chapter Fourteen: Angels Ascending ~ Chain of Command

As on every morning, Zophar made his way to the cupola atop the domed roof of the Federation Council building. There, he could see the entire walled city of Sol and the water surrounding it. The sun was just peaking over the horizon but already ships from the different Federation nations were swarming toward the mouth of the harbor. In the past two weeks the enemy had tried eight times to storm the harbor and each time his Centurions had been able to force a retreat but now, with half the catapults and arrow launchers destroyed and only a third of the boats left in the harbor, resources were becoming scarce. Still, with the trebuchets inside the city launching entire house walls ,with a range that could reach any ship crossing the lake, the Federation was not willing to send troop barges across until the city was under their control.

Field Marshal Lukas had wanted him to hold the city for three months, time enough for the thousands of Centurion youths in their last year of training at the dozen different Academy-like schools to reinforce his legions. So far, he had lasted only five weeks. If he had to make a guess, at the rate he was losing the means to fight, the battle for Sol would be over in another three.

The sky flared into fire as the sun rose over the horizon and the sound of loud thuds and explosions of the catapults and trebuchets could be heard as they sent their loads down upon the enemy fleet. At the same time, however, the enemy was returning fire and, with their limitless supply of dragon fire, the harbor was turning into an inferno. Even with their skin coated with burning fluid, however, Zophar could see his men manning the war machines.

"Shall we order the fleet to attack?" Aegis asked. These days he rarely left his General's side.

"What fleet we have left…" Zophar nodded.

At once, a blue flag was raised over the copula and the ships began to make their way out of the harbor.

"Sir, look," Aegis said, pointing at the row of barges now blocking the harbor exit.

"Fire boats! Order the swimmers to move them against the blockading fleet."

Aegis nodded while he wrote down the instructions. He then clipped the note to a rope cable that allowed the message to slide down to the harbor. From where they were, they could send messages to the gates, the harbor, and the garrisons.

Within minutes hundreds of Centurions dove into the harbor and began swimming rapidly toward the fire barges. Armed only with daggers and short swords, they were met by fully armored men. Still, the barges were soon cut loose and moved out of the path of Commander Cillis's flotilla. As the two fleets engaged it was impossible to determine what was happening, as the ships became lost in a cloud of smoke.

In the middle of the engagement, pillars of fire exploded among the boats as the dragon fire jars aboard the barges were lit. The fire spread from the lake wind and the ships began to pull away; with the attack repelled, the counting began. A tally mark was made on a clay board as each ship returned to its berth. After an hour four of the five war galleys were back and only one had a breach in its hull. A third of the arrow boats were gone, however, in addition to one of the trading barges that had been converted into a troop ship.

"Which of the war galleys is missing?" Zophar asked, after the smoke finally cleared, revealing only wreckage. Of all the ships he could afford to lose, a fully armed war galley was not one of them.

"It's Commander Cillis'," Aegis said without emotion."

"Damn!" Zophar cursed. He had not liked the way Cillis had challenged his leadership, but he had led the flotilla competently.

"I think we came out well…we certainly did more damage to the enemy than they did to us," Aegis said calmly.

"It is never good to lose an officer."

"Even one that was planning to betray you?" Aegis asked with raised eyebrows.

"We never had proof of that."

"I did. His leadership of the fleet had increased his popularity among the other Commanders. He was accusing you of hiding up here while sending others out to die."

"Is that how the other Commanders feel about me?"

"A few. Just be glad that Cillis is no longer an issue," Aegis said as he made his way toward the ladder.

Zophar sighed, and remained up on the roof trying to convince himself that what his lover had told him was true; that they were better off without Cillis' challenge to his command. Looking back down on the harbor, he saw Aegis's silver and blue armor, with the stripes of his rank on his billowing blue cloak. Zophar watched Aegis go to each of the swimmers and pat them on the back. It was Aegis's concern for his men that had attracted Zophar to him . Out of all the commanders, he would never question Aegis's loyalty.

For the rest of the day there were no further attacks. Zophar ordered another series of buildings torn down to be used as boulders for the war machines. He then visited the badly burned men who had manned the harbor wall. While most of them would heal, the scaring would leave many of them with slightly limited movement. That, though, was not as bad as the fact that most of the men had lost the tattoos on their backs, which was the same as losing their pride. Seeing that the issue of marks was the men's largest concern, even over their injuries, Zophar ordered the Famulus tattoo artists to re-etch the marks onto their skins.

By the time he had finished his inspection of the different units, it was time for the officer's meeting. There, Aegis handed out his plans for the remains of Cillis' men. Instead of assigning them a new commander, they were to join Commander Issa's men guarding the gate and bridge into the city. This left Aegis the senior officer in charge of the harbor with four other commanders under him.

His own men and four other units held the Federation Council Building and inner city where Zophar had set up his command. The east wall was still led by Commander Lorish and three units. Lorish did nothing to hide his hatred of both the general and his favorite commander. The west wall, under the command of Commander Kaada and three other commanders was the unknown group. They had voted for Zophar to lead them, but always remained silent during the officer's meeting. This left seven units in reserve, ready to reinforce any threatened part of the city or harbor. It was assumed that the next few days would be peaceful while the enemy licked their wounds. None of them knew that tonight was going to be one of the longest they had faced during the siege.

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