The sprawling port city lay before Julius Caesar, watching his legions take their positions to defend narrow streets against an insurmountable foe. Ptolemy XIII had joined forces with Achillas and Arsinoe, bringing tens of thousands of soldiers to bear against the badly battered remains of Caesar’s own legions.
Not to mention the discord at home where senators conspired to stop power from falling into the hands of their true leader. None of this was of great import to the man that surveyed the movements of troops in the city. His personal guard awaited their commands while various Legates, Centurions and Optios formed ranks to hold the city.
“We only need until dawn!” Caesar announced, “allies come to our aid as we speak! We will hold!”
Caesar called his guards to him, a score of highly capable veterans that would die at his command. Who might do just that. “We must make our way to the Library, there is something there we need.” There was no questioning of the command from the troops, they would never question his command. He was their god.
Under a golden, ornate vambrace, Caesar wore a green ink tattoo that had been his for an eternity.
A lightning bolt.
Zeus fought for his very survival as a god. Osiris and Set had agreed to his terms, they would rule as one and consolidate their godly powers before some other pantheon aspired to climb beyond their place in the world. Maybe the Northmen would take up arms and seek to become the gods of the mortal world.
No, Zeus would not allow that. He would crush the Egyptian “god” Ptah, his consort Sekhmet. They marched their armies as Ptolemy and Arsinoe, respectively. They would die, respectively. He only needed to get into the Library. He motioned for his men to join him, marching down the gangplank to the Alexandrian streets. As they took off at a jog towards the expansive Library, the sounds of battle began at the city gates. Legionaries would hold to their last breathes for their general. For Julius Caesar.
Zeus would have his prize, and he would take it from Ptah and Sekhmet at the tip of a sword.
“By Jupiter, hold the line!” Centurion Agrippa roared over the sound of sword against shield, the Egyptians crashing on the shield wall of Alexandria’s gate. The Romans planted their feet and took the charge well, holding the line. Agrippa heaved a pilum over the line towards an Egyptian counterpart. It flew long and only just missed the Egyptian, striking a foot soldier in the chest and passing through to pin the unlucky soldier to the ground.
Agrippa was large for a legionary, over six feet tall and immensely strong. He was unmatched with the pilum. Some legionaries swore they had once seen him hurl a javelin through an armor plated Parthian cavalryman. They say it had pierced the man in his scale armor, driven through to the horse, and pinned both to dirt. Agrippa did not contest this legend. It was good for the morale of his men and they aspired to greater feats.
He also did not contest it because it was true.
His great height offered other concerns though. He ducked several arrows, cursing his family lineage for the very specific problem.
His helmet was scratched and dented, more so than most. It only further built his legend among the legions, the man who stood above the rest and still did not die. He was unkillable in their eyes, he was their hero.
The men loved Centurion Agrippa. A false name for a man that had been serving his own purpose for many years, working his way to where he was. Defending Alexandria for Julius Caesar from the Egyptians. His name was Atlas, son of the Titan Iapetus.
And he was there to kill Zeus, known to the Romans as Jupiter. The false god had joined the mortals to serve his own greed and desires. It was a rare chance and only slightly beyond impossible. Zeus had become beloved and was surrounded by soldiers that would give their lives without hesitation.
Atlas didn’t care about any of that. He had a chance. This was his only chance before Zeus and the Olympians became too powerful. Before sweeping alliances would make rebellion impossible, even deadly. He and his brother, Menoetius, could do this. They had to do this.
They had to kill Julius Caesar.
Zeus, comfortable in his masquerade as Julius Caesar, had his veteran legionaries with him. He trusted that his men would hold the gates for as long as he needed, just long enough to complete his task. They moved quickly through the streets, listening to the sound of battle in the distance.
“Once we have the scrolls we retreat to the docks, ships will arrive soon and Mithridates is marching to aid us. We’ll push them back from the sea and into the Nile.”
Caesar stopped and stared up a set of stairs to a column flanked doorway. There was a man silhouetted in the entryway, a man dressed in a simple robe and sternly looking down at Caesar.
“Wait here, no one comes in.”
The soldiers fanned out without question, forming a semi-circular defense of the stairs. Zeus walked the stairs alone to greet the librarian.
The man frowned at Zeus and waved a hand over the city.
“You have more pressing concerns than old writings, I would think.”
“Your uncle certainly seems set on creating concerns for me. Is it your uncle? Quite the family tree you have, I’ve never quite understood it. Step aside.”
Thoth did not move. He stared at Zeus blankly for a moment.
“You mock my family? You, that created a mockery of the Titans? They sleep with each other and eat their children? Horrifying, even for you. I can recall stories about you, so many…lovers. Does it hurt when you relieve yourself? I have a balm that soothes such…internal burns.”
Zeus’ face twisted into a snarl as he grabbed Thoth by the neck, driving the tip of a blade into the flesh of the god’s neck. It drew a tip of shining gold liquid, pulsing with white and golden light. Thoth’s face remained passive.
“Quick to rage, dear Caesar. My aunt and uncle will cut you into pieces, they do not like you very much. I don’t believe any of the gods like you very much. An upstart with a superiority complex. I believe that’s how they put it. The Norse are less polite, I believe there was mention of lightning being placed in…various places. That burn would be more severe than whatever you experience currently.”
“I don’t have time for this, tell me where the scrolls are, and I’ll cut your throat and feed your body to dogs. Show me where they are, and I’ll skip the dogs.”
“I couldn’t possibly know which scrolls you want. There are quite a number here.”
Zeus grabbed the back of Thoth’s neck and dragged him into the entryway, into the Library of Alexandria. They passed heavy wooden shelves packed with scrolls and writings, wooden desks strewn with even more. An enormous circular opening allowed the moonlight of Egypt to filter into the candlelit building, pillars raising a gold inlaid ceiling towards the sky as if to praise the gods of knowledge themselves. There were beautiful marble statues of the deities between the columns, Thoth included.
“I cannot allow you to take the scrolls.”
Zeus threw Thoth into a table, sending scrolls and writing implements to the ground. As well as a candle. Thoth struggled to his feet, folding his hands behind his back and waiting.
“You will give them to me or I will take a piece of you for every minute you delay me. I want the Vault and I will have it.”
Thoth’s face remained passive, as always.
“You will not have it. You believe yourself a god? You are a vulture, picking from bones that happened to fall in front of you. You have achieved nothing. You have created nothing. You are a greedy, petty child.”
“Nephew, give us the scrolls.”
Thoth closed his eyes and his shoulders sagged when he heard her voice. She sauntered into the Library, running a hand over the ends of scrolls as she did.
“There were rumours that you had taken his side. I didn’t believe them.” Thoth said, opening his eyes and for the first time his expression was emotional. He was hurt.
“Nephew, we are gods. They worship the Pharaoh when they should worship us!” Cleopatra smiled, a sultry look as she ran her hands over Zeus and wrapped her arms around his neck, hanging off his back and kissing his armored shoulder. Isis had betrayed her own kin and led Zeus here.
Thoth shook his head and Zeus saw his eyes glistening.
“You did this sister,” he said very quietly. That’s when Zeus noticed what was missing.
“No!” he lurched for Thoth, but it was too late. Dry scrolls caught fire quickly as the candle flame licked at their edges. The fire grew to a roaring tower and spread from shelf to shelf, consuming the gathered knowledge of centuries. Thoth stood stoic as the fire spread, Zeus and Isis retreated from the flames and cursed the Librarian. Thoth stood in the fire and opened his arms and shouted something at them, the flames eating at his robes and flesh.
They couldn’t hear what he said over the roaring fire.
As the flames consumed the building and smoke billowed into the sky, Thoth disappeared among the dancing flames. And he wept as it happened.
Isis joined Zeus in watching the building burn, a loss that could never be replaced. A wealth of knowledge was nothing more than ash and flames. Zeus could not have been bothered by that, he had only wanted the Vault. He had lived centuries already and knowledge was not something that interested him.
Isis pulled at his arm, trying to drag him away from the site. She was smarter than he was, she knew when to leave a lost cause.
“Ptah is coming, Sekhmet too. Tens of thousands of troops come with them.”
“Let them come.” Zeus ground his teeth, his jaw flexing as he watched the only information that could lead to the Vault burn to nothing. “Ares is coming, we just have to hold the city for a little while longer.”
The flames were spreading quickly, and he wasn’t paying enough attention. If he had been, he would have seen the flames leaping from the library to nearby buildings, across rooftops and down to the docks. Roman sailors began to shout warnings as the flames licked at their ships and the fleet began to burn. That’s when Zeus began to pay attention again, tearing himself from the loss of the key to the Vault.
“Excellent,” he said, watching the ships burn, “now we have no choice but to fight.”
Atlas grabbed a legionary by the back of his tunic and tore the man back from the line, shouting for a medicus. The physician and his assistants went off running with the man, clutching at a deep sword wound that had cost him his eye and would leave a gruesome scar.
If the legionary lived.
They were slowly retreating down a tightly packed street, shields locked and moving in step. Egyptian infantry threw themselves at the Romans, but still the line held, despite the mounting losses. Every man, Atlas included, was wounded. They wiped away sweat and blood, taking brief moments of rest between alternating on the line of shields. They had lost the outer gates and walls, now the retreat was precise and measured.
“Advancing in the opposite direction, right Centurion?” Optio Callus grinned, hurling a javelin over the shields. Atlas liked the man, capable soldier and a decent man. Even after the years he still hadn’t learned to not become connected to the men around him. He couldn’t help but like them. No matter how many of them he watched die.
Before Atlas could reply with his own joke, the Optio was off down the line with his scarred and beloved “beating stick” and shouting at the men to hold their positions. He pulled out the worst of the wounded and directed them to the rear, replenishing the line with the less grievously wounded. Their line was slowly buckling and couldn’t hold much longer.
“Legionaries, you do your General proud!”
Atlas froze for the barest of moments, hearing the voice he knew well. Zeus was moving among the troops to keep their spirits high, their beloved general had that affect. One of his personal guards carried a golden eagle aloft, inspiring the men to ever greater feats of bravery and filling them with determination. Atlas had no fear that Zeus would recognize him as the son of a Titan, he’d been carried away years ago as a babe. Artemis had been entirely against their plan, but he and Menoetius were not easily swayed from a decision.
With their beloved Caesar near, the line redoubled its efforts, pushing the Egyptians back in the street with roaring battle cries. Caesar’s own veterans joined the fray, filling gaps as legionaries were cut down. Men bled, men screamed, men died.
“Centurion Agrippa!” Zeus shouted, clapping a firm hand on Atlas’ shoulder. For a moment he dreamt of slashing open the Titan’s throat right there. His hand gripped the blade Artemis had given him, the blade drawing from the sheath almost on its own. He only stopped when he saw the Optio, Callus. All his men holding this battle line, they would likely die.
After all these years he still hadn’t learned.
The blade slid back into the sheath and Atlas let the feeling pass over him, instead offering the false god a smile and a nod. He joined his men, pushing the shield wall back in position with the renewed vigor of the men.
“They burned our ships, thinking we had need of them. The fools!” Caesar shouted, and laughter rippled through the men. Atlas saw hesitation though, through the constant bravado that Zeus carried with him. There was doubt. He doubted they would succeed.
Zeus was afraid.
Atlas could do this. It was almost time for Zeus to die.
At that moment the Egyptians began to retreat from the street and a sound rose above the battle. Atlas looked to Zeus and the doubt was gone, replaced by the true arrogance of a man who believes himself a god. Someone was blowing horns.
Their allies had arrived.