Although they’d never say it to each other, the Romans could feel that things were going wrong. It wasn’t just the tightening of their flesh, like their armour was becoming part of them. The world had gone wrong before their bodies had.
All of them knew the story Rome told of Carthage. A dangerous city ruled by a tyrant, to be crushed by a leader who was wise before his time. It had stopped being true, if it ever had been at all. Something bigger than they knew was starting to happen here.
There were very quiet whispers that Scipio had gone insane. Why else would he have led them here, to the thickest wall of the city? They’d known he’d meant to attack where he wasn’t expected, but there was a good reason why they wouldn’t be expected here. No army could break through defences as well built as this.
No human army, was a thing they didn’t think.
“SOLDIERS!” roared Scipio, and that was odd as well. The men at the back of the ranks would laugh about it, how the leaders always had their speech from far away. They were meant to inspire everyone, but no one could ever hear them– they were the kind of thing you tolerated from a man who could put you to death.
That wasn’t true now, though: they could all hear their general very clearly. His voice bellowed over all of them in a way that no man’s should– even the very greatest of them, even those blessed by the Gods.
“YOU KNOW WHAT BRINGS OUR PEOPLE GLORY!” Scipio boomed. “IT IS NOT JUST THE STRENGTH WE BRING TO WAR! WE ARE A PEOPLE OF LAW AND STRUCTURE, WHO GIVE A NEW GRACE TO THE WORLD! WE ARE THE GREATEST MEN TO HAVE WALKED UPON THIS EARTH! WE ARE THE SUPERIOR BEINGS!”
He gestured to the city with hands that were no longer right, though the men at the back couldn’t see that. They were only staring at a distant blob in the darkness, hoping that his speech would soon be done.
“THIS CITY!” Scipio suddenly bellowed out of nowhere, “IS MORE THAN BRICKS AND MORTAR! IT IS A MOCKERY OF WHAT WE ARE! A LESSER CITY FULL OF LESSER MEN! WAITING TO POUNCE UPON US! TO STRANGLE US IF WE SLEEP! BUT WE WILL NOT SLEEP! WE DO NOT REST! WE ARE THE GLORY OF ROME, AND CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED!”
With a sound like a boiler blowing apart two lights emerged from Scipio’s helmet, blaring brighter than anything a Roman would ever have seen. The glare of them reflected off his eyes, which were now as hard and thick as unbreakable glass.
It was right for an army to be afraid of its leader. Yet the Romans at the back of the crowd sensed they were feeling the wrong kind of fear.
The ones at the front were cheering, though, and their cheers were transforming too. Some of them crackled with an electric hiss, others rasped like vocal cords coming undone. They were the cheers a person makes as they transform into something that would never cheer at all.
The soldiers couldn’t see how else their comrades had changed. One now had his sword fused right into his hand, another’s studded armour had hardened to a shell. But they could see that one man was rising up into the air, and that he no longer had any legs at all.
“WE CAME HERE WITH ONE PURPOSE,” Scipio bellowed, “AND TONIGHT IT WILL BE ACHIEVED! ROMANS CONQUER AND DESTROY! CARTHAGE MUST BE OBLITERATED! WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THAT?”
The army couldn’t see how the hovering man’s hand was becoming a plunger, how his other hand was warping into a gun. And they couldn’t see his awful grin, which was even more terrifying than those. But all of them could hear as he gave an electric roar–
“ANNIHILATE,” he screeched in a no-longer human voice.
A burst of light and sound came out of everywhere, like the Gods themselves were falling down. Many of the men gave into terror and scrambled to run away, but before they did the glare of the light was gone–
–and the wall was, too, the defences turned to smoke.
“ONWARDS!” bellowed Scipio, and the whole army cheered at that. They were very good at cheering, almost as good as at war. If you cheered hard and long enough, you might forget how scared you really were– and whatever terrors the cheers were now masking, they no longer had anything to do with Carthage.