Chapter 5
Into the Hive

AZ 1455 - Winter
The Ruins of Saras, The Darklands

The Second Legion had refined the killing of Herakles to an art in the course of the grueling seventh-month campaign to purge the primary threat the Zephyrians faced from the west. Seven long months of wave after wave of those relentless vermin. Xenomachos' nose had long since gone numb from the stench of their stinking guts spilled out on the ground.
The worst of the fighting was a few weeks ago, as the Legion drew ever closer to the hive nestled in the ruins of Saras. Each wave that followed brought fewer and fewer Herakles. Of course, there were also fewer and fewer men of the Second Legion to face them, but the tide of battle was clearly in the Zephyrians' favor.
The last worker of the most recent wave was brought down, leaving the way open to the hive. Whatever forces the Herakles queen kept in reserve, it could not be much.
It took a couple hours to locate the seven entrances into the hive found throughout the city and half a day to seal six of them with rubble from the city ruins. Save for the spires, which were too high up to do anything about, that left only one way in and one way out.
Xenomachos looked at the open tunnel as the Legion was assembling behind him.
"So we're going in there, milord?" Sir Nicephoros asked.
"Yes, we are," Xenomachos replied. "Leave the horses and the artillery with the baggage. They will not avail us in those tunnels. Select about two hundred men to guard the rear. Fifty to guard each of the sealed entrances."
"Should we not send in scouting parties first?"
Sir Nicephoros' concern was well-founded, but Xenomachos did not want to give the Herakles any more time to regroup.
"Let us drive forward and finish this," he said.
"As you say, milord."
Xenomachos turned back to the men and told Sir Nicephoros, "Form them up. Eight by eight. Mind your intervals. I don't want to lose fifty men in a single charge."
"Yes, milord."
"And, Nicephoros..."
"Milord?"
"I'm leaving you in charge of the rear. If there's no word from us in two days' time, take whatever is left of the Legion and retreat back to Delphos."
"But, milord..."
Xenomachos took hold of Sir Nicephoros' shoulders and said, "I need you to do this. You are the man I trust most."
Reluctant at first, Sir Nicephoros replied, "Yes, milord. May God grant you victory."
"May He deliver us all."
Xenomachos released Sir Nicephoros and the young tribune saluted him before going about his tasks, calling on the centurions to form up the men. Once the men were in formation, Xenomachos held his lance aloft and shouted, "Second! Forward! To victory!"
"To victory!" the men shouted in reply.
Leading the charge, Xenomachos entered the tunnel. They were not met with any resistance right away, a sign that the Herakles' numbers were indeed sorely depleted. Still, they had no way of knowing how many remained or when they would launch their first attack.
It did not take long for the light of the sun to fail them. There were little materials to be found for making decent torches, but that was where the battlemages came in. Each unit of sixty-four men had one battlemage whose sole task was to light their way. Even with their magic, though, the tunnels were dark and unsettling.
After a few minutes of walking, the tunnel split three ways.
"What do we do, milord?" an Equestrian asked Xenomachos.
"We split up," Xenomachos replied. "We cannot afford to leave the enemy an open path to the rear. Divide our forces no more than a single eight-by-eight. Have the battlemages mark the paths we take."
"Yes, milord," the Equestrian replied.
It was a risk to be sure, but no less than ignoring other branches and leaving both themselves and the men left in the rear vulnerable to attack.
It did not take long for them to come across chambers with cells just large enough for a grown Herakles to fit inside. It was apparently their equivalent of a dormitory, but most of them were empty, a testament to how few of them remained.
As the Zephyrians continued deeper in, they entered a chamber with rows upon rows of holes in the wall a couple cubits in diameter, similar to the cells of the dormitories but much smaller. In these holes were fat grubs with eagerly twitching mouths awaiting the workers to feed them. For all those mouths to feed, there were only three workers to attend to them.
"It appears to be some kind of nursery, milord," one of the men said.
"Leave none," Xenomachos replied. "Even their young can be a threat."
First the men went to work taking down the workers tending to the grubs and then they began to kill off the grubs and the chrysalids in their cocoons. It was easy work compared to pitched battles they had to overcome on the road to Saras, but even with their numbers so depleted, the Herakles still had a few surprises left in them.
One of the men cried out as another stabbed him with his gladius.
"Have you gone mad!?" a nearby infantryman exclaimed.
The man attempted to stab another but was stopped short when someone drove a spear through his neck. Xenomachos approached the scene to investigate. It was true that there were men who succumbed to madness and turned on their comrades, but Xenomachos' gut told him there was something else to it.
"What could have come over him?" an infantryman wondered.
"Look!"
A thin insect about a foot long attempted to crawl out of the dead legionary's armor. The same spear that killed the legionary pinned the insect to the ground. With the spearman holding the insect in place, another man pulled away the dead legionary. His armor and tunic were removed, exposing the wounds where the insect attached itself to him.
A battlemage knelt down to examine the insect more closely.
"I have never seen this kind of Herakles before," he said. "But now that I think of it, I recall from the histories of Herakles that would take men, possess them. I thought it merely referred to the Herakles taking men as prey, but perhaps it was speaking of this breed."
A Herakles that could claim a man's body and overcome his will? It was a grim thought. Xenomachos looked around warily.
"Where there is one, there could be another."
No sooner had he said this than one of these small Herakles sprang at him. His reflexes did not fail him, though. He batted it aside with his lance and stabbed it the moment it struck the ground.
"Lord Xenomachos!"
Xenomachos waved away the men who rushed to him. Holding up the dead Herakles skewered on his lance, he raised his voice and said, "Be on your guard, men! Take a good look at this! It can seize your body like a possessing Cacodæmon. Watch yourself and watch the man to your right and to your left."
Now that they were alerted to this new threat, the men found and killed eight more without incident. Once the chamber was cleared, Xenomachos said, "We must warn the others of these, these possessors, but we cannot risk to divide our numbers further or send runners through these tunnels."
A battlemage stepped forward and said, "Milord, if I may..."
The battlemage held up his hands toward Xenomachos' lance and though confused at first, Xenomachos lowered the lance to allow the battlemage to pull off the dead possessor. He pulled an amulet out of his robes and inserted it into the lance wound. After a few minutes of chanting, the possessor's body twitched and came to life. Setting the possessor aright, the battlemage stretched out his rod and said, "Seek out my brothers and warn them of the threat you represent."
As the possessor skittered away, Xenomachos took hold of the battlemage's arm and demanded of him, "What have you done?"
"Fear not, milord," the battlemage replied. "The possessor is no less dead and poses no danger. It moves by the amulet's power alone. It is safer than sending any of our men."
Though he did not entirely trust the battlemage or his arts, Xenomachos released him, rallied the men and led them to continue their exploration of the hive.
Hours seemed to pass. It was difficult to keep track of the time underground. There were not many Herakles left, so at very least they were not suffering many losses of their own, but Xenomachos could not help but fear that all the remainder of the Herakles swarm was mustered together to make one final bloody push against them.
The tunnel opened up into a large chamber, much larger than ones they had encountered before. Scores of eggs were lined up in neat rows busily tended by dozens of workers and at the center was the Herakles queen. From the torso up, she was actually smaller than the average worker, but her bloated abdomen was at least twenty feet long and eight feet high.
"There she is," one of the men said. "There's the prize."
Less than twenty soldiers stood at the ready to defend the queen, but they were not to be underestimated.
"Stay focused, men," Xenomachos said. "First the soldiers, then the queen. Spread out! Twenty men to a soldier. Watch those workers. They may yet attack."
The soldiers held position around the queen and the workers moved to encircle the legionaries. They were being more cautious than usual, but these few were all that remained of their hive.
"Ignore the workers unless they move to attack," Xenomachos said. "Focus on the soldiers."
They were too few to withstand a concentrated attack from the soldiers and the workers together. Their only chance was to go on the offensive first By now, the Second Legion had perfected the art of killing Herakles. Common weapons could not pierce their armor, but ten strong men could hold one in place by thrusting their spears into the joints while others assailed them with hammers. For some reason, a sound hammer blow would cause their armor to buckle and sometimes they would simply collapse in on themselves. At very least, it would leave them vulnerable to any of the myriad ways the Legion had devised to kill them.
They moved in all at once. It was the only way, but so too did the workers close in on them in a single crushing wave. It was as pitched a fight as they had ever faced. Both sides were desperate. Both sides faced utter destruction if they failed.
Even in the chaos of the fighting, Xenomachos could see that they would be overwhelmed. He had to take a risk or all would be lost.
"To me! To me!" he shouted, waving his lance. "Kill the queen!"
Any men who break away from the crush of workers and soldier swarmed at the helpless queen. She arched up her body in an effort to defend herself, but her abdomen was not armored like the rest of her body. Swords were usually of little use in a fight with the Herakles, but several cavalrymen were able cut open her abdomen with their spathae and as her viscera spilled out, the queen could no longer hold herself up and collapsed onto the ground.
Xenomachos personally delivered the hammer blow that crushed the queen's head. Her body continued to struggle, but the Herakles that remained were immediately thrown into confusion, leaving them open to be quickly dispatched by the legionaries.
Watching the men finish off the last of the Herakles in the chamber, Xenomachos was taken by surprise when a cataphract near him thrust his lance past him into the queen's back, skewering a possessor. For a moment, Xenomachos thought the cataphract had been taken by a possessor himself.
As the cataphract drew out his lance, Xenomachos crouched down to inspect the dead possessor.
"It was attached to her," he said, mostly to himself.
"What does it mean, milord?" the cataphract asked.
Xenomachos shook his head.
"I don't know," he said. He then shouted to the men, "Second! The Herakles queen is dead, but we're not done yet! Spare nothing! Smash every egg, kill every grub! If any more Herakles plague us, they will not come from Saras!"
Wearied though they were, the men still had the vigor to roar in reply. The mission would soon be complete and the Second Legion could rejoin the others for the final push to bring them to victory.