The Depths of Neptune - Cover

The Depths of Neptune

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 22


“How many this time?” the emperor asked, glaring down as the messenger bowed, his forehead nearly touching the cold marble floor.

“Eight, Your Magnificence. The ill-fated vessels were not far from shore when disaster struck. One desperate soul managed to cling to life, swimming ashore to deliver this dire news.”

“And the enemy?”

“Three ships, Great One. The survivor was disoriented, yet he spoke of massive vessels adorned with a dozen or more sails, looming like giants on the open sea. He claimed they dwarfed our own galleys, both in height and length, yet maintained a similar width.” The messenger trembled as he recounted the survivor’s tale.

A skeptical murmur rippled through the emperor’s advisors.

One, a portly man with a neatly trimmed beard, scoffed, “Such monstrosities could never stay afloat. Even the skilled northerners, with all of their knowledge of the sea, sail ships comparable in size to our galleys. If larger vessels were possible, those greedy merchants would have seized the opportunity long ago.”

The emperor’s gaze drifted to another figure, who stood halfway up the dais. “In previous encounters, have we seen anything like these behemoths?”

“No, Excellency,” the man replied, his voice firm. “The enemy has used traditional Scandi ships, albeit armed with the devastating smoke weapons we’ve heard tell of.”

The emperor’s brow furrowed. “And did this lone survivor report any sign of these fearsome smoke weapons?”

The messenger nodded, his voice shaking. “Indeed, your Excellence. He spoke of evenly spaced holes lining the sides of the ship, emitting plumes of smoke just before boulders tore through our vessels. He also described a metal ball, which exploded into fiery shards, felling men like ripe stalks of wheat.”

A note of disbelief entered the emperor’s voice. “Hallucinations, you say?”

“Frantic, your Excellency. He was utterly terrified and on the brink of death when he washed ashore. However, he remained certain about the smoke weapons and the fiery explosion. He even speaks of it in his sleep.”

The emperor’s eyes narrowed. “Why have you come here, then? Why not bring this man to me for questioning?”

The messenger swallowed hard. “The healers fear he is too weak to survive the journey, Your Magnificence. The commander decided it would be better to ensure his eventual report, or to allow someone to interview him, rather than risk his life in transit. He asked me to beg your forgiveness for his presumption.”

The emperor’s frown deepened as he considered the words, then turned to his spymaster. “Send your best agent to interview this man. We must learn all we can about these mysterious ships.” He then addressed the messenger once more. “Where did this disastrous battle occur?”

“Off the northern coast of Hispania, Your Magnificence, just east of the point where the coastline bends southward.”

The emperor’s face darkened as he turned to one of the gathered generals. “They draw ever nearer. Do they plan some sort of assault?”

The general’s eyes shifted uneasily, as if he were grappling with some unspoken burden. “They may well have designs on Hispania, Your Magnificence, for it was the final prize they lost before we banished them to their rocky island. They would surely need it as a stepping stone to our shores. Yet, even with their recent ... fortunate encounters, a full-scale invasion appears improbable. Their numbers, even with the combined might of their fellow barbarians, would fall short. It is more likely they seek to safeguard their maritime trade and thwart our own efforts at landing troops.”

“But is an invasion still within the realm of possibility?” The emperor’s voice trembled, betraying a hint of vulnerability.

The general hesitated, weighing his words carefully. “It is unlikely, but not impossible, Excellency.”

The emperor’s thoughts turned to the vast fleet they were amassing, and he couldn’t help but wonder. “Considering their formidable smoke weapons, would our invasion force stand a chance?”

The room fell silent as the men exchanged wary glances, each hesitant to voice the grim truth. But the emperor would not be denied. “Speak!” he commanded.

Reluctantly, the general complied. “No, Your Excellency. Their ships outmaneuver our galleys with ease, sinking them at will. The perilous voyage, coupled with the enemy’s superior firepower, would render any coastal assault a doomed endeavor.”

The emperor’s eyes narrowed, but he seemed to accept the general’s candor, at least for the moment. “And how many vessels do we believe they possess?”

“We cannot say for certain, but their numbers are limited. Only a fraction of our ships have ever encountered a Roman vessel, and these engagements were far from their island stronghold.”

“What of the Roman? We offered him sanctuary in exchange for intelligence. Where is he now?”

“He departed a few days ago to consult with one of his contacts,” the general replied cautiously.

“You allowed him to leave unescorted?” The emperor’s nostrils flared, his anger barely contained.

“No, Great One. Two of the Brothers accompanied him.”

“I see,” the emperor acknowledged with a curt nod.

The Brothers of Mot, a fanatical death cult, were instantly recognizable by their skeletal face paint and black attire. They revered the god of death and were among the first to proclaim Emperor Hanno as Mot’s earthly incarnation, a title passed down through generations to the present ruler. While the emperor’s divine status was widely accepted throughout the empire, the Brothers took their devotion to an extreme. They would not hesitate to kill in his name and viewed death in his service as the ultimate ascension. The Brothers’ unwavering loyalty made them the emperor’s most trusted spies, their presence a source of terror for all.

The emperor’s voice hardened. “And what, pray tell, is your grand strategy for dealing with these elusive ships? Surely you have something more inventive than merely sacrificing fleet after fleet?”

“Indeed, Your Excellency. They have proven themselves to be formidable adversaries, deftly remaining beyond our reach during each encounter. It appears they lack the manpower to withstand a boarding assault. Since we cannot outpace them, nor can we withstand their devastating smoke weapon, we must strip them of their ability to flee. We are devising a stratagem to lure them into a trap, where we shall encircle and board their vessels. With fortune on our side, we may even capture one or more of their ships and seize their advanced weaponry for further examination. If not, we shall consign them to the ocean’s depths.”

The emperor’s patience was wearing thin. “See to it that you succeed. I grow weary of your constant failures.”

“Yes, Excellency,” the general replied, bowing deeply before retreating from the dais, beckoning the messenger to follow.

Once they had safely departed the emperor’s throne room, the general turned to the messenger, his voice a hushed whisper. “Tell me everything you know about these enigmatic ships.”


“To what do I owe the greeting?” Ky asked as he descended the gangplank, his boots thumping on the wooden dock.

“Hortensius sent word that our first shipments of rifles were ready. I came up to make sure we got enough ammunition and gunpowder to get training started in earnest,” Velius said.

“Training’s going well then?”

“It is. We’ve finally mastered deploying from marching columns into firing lines while maintaining unit cohesion. I’m eager to put rifles in the men’s hands so they can grow accustomed to them before facing real combat. The demonstration Hortensius provided was enlightening, but there’s a world of difference between hearing cannons roar and feeling the blast of a rifle in your own hand. My only regret is that our training couldn’t be conducted closer, as I waste precious time traveling between here and the legions.”

Ky nodded in understanding. “The prisoner camps have claimed much of the surrounding land, and the city requires the remaining fields for crops. A wider expanse was necessary for maneuvering practice. But why the frequent trips?”

“I saw Bomilcar off a few weeks ago.”

“Ah, He got off alright then?”

“Yes, although it will be several days before he lands, given the circuitous route he’s taken. His arrival should go unnoticed. Do you think he’ll persuade the local tribes to ally with us?”

Ky shrugged. “It’s hard to say. Bomilcar knows them better than we do.”

“Is it safe?”

“Nothing is safe in a battle to the death against an empire vastly larger than ours. But Bomilcar is crafty and experienced; if anyone can survive, it’s him.”

“How did the hunting go?” Velius asked, indicating the ships.

“Quite well. We sank two small fleets, one of eight ships and another of ten. Valdar has done an exceptional job preparing his modest fleet. I can’t wait for the day when we have a formidable fleet capable of truly pressuring the Carthaginians. While establishing a foothold on the continent is vital, we’ll be overwhelmed unless we can disrupt their ability to quickly deploy forces and maintain control. Sending ships into the middle sea and forcing them to march around will be our first step in crippling them.”

Velius shared Ky’s enthusiasm. “I look forward to having those ships with us when we land. Their performance at Insula Manavia was impressive, and if they’ve improved as you say, they’ll ensure any landings and coastal supply bases have sufficient firepower to deter even the mightiest Carthaginian army.”

“True, they would. Unfortunately, I have bad news for you on that. You’ll receive the entire fleet, but they’ll remain only long enough to unload troops. Save for one ship, the rest will then depart.”

Velius sighed. “I knew I wouldn’t keep all of them, but I’d hoped for two or three. One ship can only cover a limited area while we construct fortifications. And if it must resupply, we’ll be left vulnerable during its journey to and fro.”

Ky empathized but stood firm. “We have little choice. The fleet must maintain pressure on the Carthaginians. Transporting men along the coast is still faster than overland travel. Your presence will strain their supply lines, and if you secure a passage to the middle sea, you’ll effectively cut off that region from the rest of their forces. We need our fleet on the water. However, we won’t leave you defenseless. Other ships will bring supplies, so your lone vessel won’t need to return for resupply.”

“I suppose that’s something.”

“Consider yourself fortunate. I’m moving the bulk of our forces across in galleys and what Scandi ships we can pay. The distance is short, but it’s going to take dozens of trips to get everyone across.”

Velius managed a weak smile. “I’ll try not to complain too much about my good fortune.”

“Good,” Ky said, clapping Velius on the back. “Are you returning to your command soon?”

“Yes, I leave tomorrow morning with the weapons for my legion.”

“Has Hortensius mentioned how many rifles you’ll have by the time you ship out?”

“Perhaps five thousand; insufficient for both legions. We’ll have to distribute them evenly, which limits the number of men we can field effectively. We’ve modified our deployment strategy to accommodate the remaining soldiers armed with shields and swords. I’ve only tested it with one cohort, but it shows promise.”

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