"Many victories seem out of reach. But you march onward, step by step, wound after wound, until they are in your grasp." —Empress Caiatl
"Hail, warrior of the empire," Empress Caiatl said as she approached the bedside of a wounded Red Legion Centurion. The soldier had been gazing solemnly out a porthole when the sound of her voice startled him. He turned suddenly, then winced in pain. Caiatl saw darkened synthetic fabric enveloping his torso and the entirety of his right arm, which itself looked frail and withered. She knew immediately that this Cabal would see no more battles.
"My empress!" the warrior responded, clasping a fist to his chest with his unwrapped arm. Caiatl saluted in return.
The empress glanced at a monitor displaying the patient's data. "Val'ast, born of Val'tui." She looked out the porthole; the brilliance of Sol beamed back at her. "The empire has returned for you, Red Legionary, yet your heart seems heavy. Why do you languish?"
Val'ast looked away. "I am sorry, Empress."
"Do not be sorry, my brother," Caiatl said.
Val'ast sighed. "For years, every day has been about survival. Just trying to stay in the fight. But now…" He trailed off and grasped the sheets of his bed, a cheap fabric but still softer than anything he'd felt in years.
"When you war for so long, peace can become its own struggle," Caiatl said.
Val'ast let the fabric fall from his hand. "I thought I was Acrius reborn, claiming another sun for our kind." He gazed out the porthole. "But I failed."
Caiatl smiled. "I've always loved that tale." She pulled a stool over and sat. "Did you know that there used to be more to it?"
Val'ast shook his head.
"It's an older version, not as popular in modern times, but I was lucky enough to learn it as a child," the empress continued. "Before Acrius, three warriors sought to climb a great mountain and grasp the sun, but a terrible beast stood in their way.
"The first tried to outwit the beast and sneak through the shadows, but the beast smelled him still and ate the warrior in a single bite.
"The second tried to escape the beast, crafting a device to harness the wind and soar upward. But the fickle wind changed its mind and tossed her into the beast's maw.
"The third warrior challenged the beast head on, Severus in hand. She also fell to the beast's gnashing teeth, but not before her blade tasted blood."
Val'ast frowned. "They all failed?"
Caiatl considered the question. "The first two, certainly. They thought battle could be avoided. But the third warrior died with pride and honor."
Val'ast pondered for a moment. "Even in defeat, she left her mark on her foe."
Caiatl nodded. "And the next time one of her kin faced it, the beast would be one blow closer to death."
"Did more come?" Val'ast questioned.
"Of course!" Caiatl exclaimed. "They were Cabal, and the sun was theirs to claim. Over and over, their mightiest fell. But each time, another wound was struck, until the day came when a warrior landed the final blow. That warrior was Acrius."
Val'ast frowned. "Ever since I was a child, I saw Acrius as a hero…"
"He may have been," Caiatl replied as she clasped Val'ast's hand in hers. "But so was the warrior who struck first."
Val'ast's eyed glistened as he held her grip firmly. "Thank you, Empress."
Caiatl shook her head. "My brother, it is the empire who thanks you."