Hello, ladies, germs, and other lifeforms. Most of you probably don't know me, but I've rolled in off of the Civ4 Stories & Tales forum to make my first Civ AAR in a couple of years. The story you see taking shape before you is a sequel to my 2010–2012 opus, Wars of the Gods: Carthage, but foreknowledge of that story is not required. The conceit of that story was that there were a cosmic race of Immortals, whose number very occasionally took on the guise of civilizations' leaders across parallel timelines, leading them to ruin or greatness. The hero of the last story, Hannibal, seems to have been left off on the top of the world, with an empire ascendant and a domination victory all but ensured. But still, this story was incomplete for a long time. After a couple of years of sitting on an idea for how to resume it, I've decided at last to give it a start. I only have a few hours in Civilization VI compared to the thousands in Civ IV and even the comparatively greater few dozen I've put into Civ V, but I still love this game series. Even if I'm not much of an artisan in playing the save itself, and this story leans far more heavily on the narrative elements than the game itself, I intend to give it my best shot and provide Civ6 Stories & Let's Plays with a tale which will hopefully impress and delight new and old friends alike. Thanks for reading. Now on to the show. ------------------------------ TABLE OF CONTENTS ------------------------------ UPDATE 1: THE NEXUS | UPDATE 2: THE TRIAL | UPDATE 3: THE EXILE ALONE UPDATE 4: AN UNHAPPY GUEST | UPDATE 5: THOUGHTS OF TOMYRIS | UPDATE 6: THE CAGED BIRD ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- PROLOGUE He was an Immortal. He soared across countless light years in the blink of an eye and used his incredible power as he saw fit. He shaped worlds in his hands and saw the rising and falling of civilizations like the beading and evaporating of dew on a spring morning. And this is how he died. Qusqu – The World of Carthage – 1722 CE Dark tides lapped at the shore, clouds roiling overhead, the light of the midday sun parting around airy waves of black in occasional cracks of bright gray. Palms and laurels rattled and swayed, shaken by a strong wind from the north. Shielded by a long spit of land to the east, Qusqu, once the center of the proud Inca Empire, had been a crucial harborage on the western shore of the Great Sea for millennia. Now, only shattered and rotting hulks sat in the water, broken masts like jagged fingers reaching for the sky. A few still burned, the orange flames the sole color amidst the gray gloom. Into this field of wrecks and dead men came a lone sign of life – a small frigate cutting through the harbor, carrying Hannibal, Immortal ruler of the Phoenicians. He came into a foreign port, for once, as an ally, not a conqueror. The Emperor of the Phoenicians cut an imposing figure, unnaturally tall, brawny of build, and wild-haired. He stood half-hunched at one side of the deck, ashen crewmen keeping their distance. The Immortal had been the centerpiece of their civilization for thousands of years, and legends of his ire were well founded. A Carthaginian simply knew when to give the Emperor a wide berth. The workings of the frigate behind him were not at all on Hannibal's mind, however, for thoughts of this day and everything it entailed preoccupied him. His burning gaze remained fixed ahead, toward the mainland to the west, scarcely lingering upon each warship's cadaver as they drifted past. When Hannibal first chanced upon this world, nearly six thousand years ago, he’d come among the early Punic tribes and forged them into a continent-spanning empire. He had struggled to make them accept a nameless wanderer for their ruler, but had won their love in time. So too had he struggled to turn his empire into a towering exemplar of strength and unity, suspecting from the start that a sticky end like this one was somewhere in this world’s future. In the long term, he had even hoped to carry the Carthaginians to the stars and police this universe, giving it the peace and order it so sorely needed. But he had been too late, far too late to help the poor, damned souls who now made these sunken ships their watery graves, and too late to forestall this climactic feud before it could ever begin. It had started ten years before, whispers in the dark hideaways of the western continent, across the sea from the continent over which Carthage held its hegemony. By the time that the true scope of the danger was known, all the nations of the west but the Inca had already fallen. A desperate call came, and Hannibal, beholden to the future of this world, answered. When the mighty Phoenician fleet had arrived at the harbor mouth, a dozen miles south of here, what was left of the Inca navy had already been shattered and reduced to the burning pieces he saw around him now. All that stood now between the last bastion of peace and sanity on the western continent and certain annihilation was him – and, of course, his people. A hand on his elbow lifted him out of the stormy sulk into which he’d fallen. He turned his head to see Elisha. His closest confidante and sometime lover, the woman was slight, her dark hair pulled back in a braid. The closely guarded intelligence of her face and her bright eyes bespoke the shrewd diplomat which lurked beneath, no matter her unassuming frame. A look to his other side, and he saw Hiram. Cloak drawn tight, the man too was well-built, but not quite of Hannibal’s superhuman stature. Scruff adorned his strong jaw and his hair was messy, a russet brown. His eyes held a world-weary look as he locked gazes with his sovereign and nodded. Both of them, like many of his most dedicated followers, were lesser immortals, human beings bestowed with a shred of his ethereal essence and allowed to serve forever at his side. In his heart of hearts, he knew that he never could have gotten this far without them. Just for a moment, he felt that with companions such as these, the forces of darkness just might quail. "Your ire can do many things, great king, but it can’t turn back time," Elisha cautioned him gently. "Only my mistakes are to blame for this battle ever happening," Hannibal grumbled. "I’m allowed some regret." "A good military adviser would forewarn you that a general keeps his thoughts not on the battle behind, but the battle ahead," Hiram said. "Alas, you only have me." Hannibal sighed, accepting the logic, but not liking it. He started to pace up toward the forecastle, trailed closely by the pair of advisers, more distantly by bodyguards. "Well, then let’s have it. A battle for the fate of civilization is a once in a lifetime opportunity, even for an immortal. Let’s see to it that it’s a glorious one." His mood scarcely more buoyed than before, despite the bluster, it was hard to say whether Elisha or Hiram were fooled by Hannibal’s words. Just the same, neither had time to call him on it, for the horizon bloomed with light and fire, distant off the port bow. Far inland, a pot of hellfire loosed by the Inca had just been spilled in desperation to forestall the enemy advance. Distasteful stuff, hellfire – the alchemical concoction had a worrying propensity to burn as many friends as foes when used incautiously. This one was nearer than the last, a few miles away but still close enough to make small waves rock the frigate and its crew to shield their eyes against the glare. Time was drawing short. Hannibal signaled the fleet full sail, all speed ahead. Into the ruined harbor of Qusqu they soon arrived, the jetties scarcely cleared of rubble for the Phoenician warfleet by the time they pulled to port. Disembarkation was complicated, but mostly smooth thanks to the discipline of the Carthaginian battalions, who soon filled the harbor in tightly packed ranks. Among the Inca complement meeting him there, Hannibal found Nakapi, high priestess, and since the slaying of the Immortal Sapa Inka Atahaulpa, sole leader of what little remained. Her bearing was noble, her eyes dark and piercing as she locked gazes with the Immortal. "If you come expecting good news, Hannibal of Carthage, then you will be disappointed." "Hard, cold facts will do in the circumstances." "The lines cannot hold. The army of supayta – demons – replenishes itself from every dark corner of the earth. Unless we can break the back of their lines today and repel them, there will be no reprieve for our city and we will perish. I hope you’ve brought more than warships, emperor, for without a power as yet unseen, nothing can stop this tide." "The fate of our world hinges on this battle," Hannibal said, "so everything we have is at your disposal. Anything less would be suicide." Seeming to accept what he said, Nakapi shrugged. Wordlessly, she proffered out a crystalline orb, a seeing stone, which those trained in the magic arts – like Hannibal – found useful for reconnaissance. Taking the offering in hand, he closed his eyes and allowed it to carry his spirit upward, disembodied, gazing down onto the battlefield from above. He imagined that the ravening horde of monsters were men once, from all ends of the western continent, China, Russia, Egypt and beyond. The awful magic unleashed upon this planet had twisted them all, spreading like cancer across the landmass and swallowing everything in its path, changing it. On the plains west of the city, he could see them teeming as he scryed, overrunning isolated pockets of Inca troops, the pitch-colored monstrosities howling their hate for the world into the sky. Troubled, but satisfied with his surveillance, Hannibal blinked and reeled as his consciousness returned to his body again, handing the seeing stone away. "Hiram. Take Fourth and Seventh Legions and man the main gate of the city. Danel’s spellbreakers at the fore." Then, turning to the rest. "Commanders! Legions Two and Three, the south gate. Legions One, Five, and Six, the north. For Carthage!" With a resounding echo, the seven Phoenician legions called back their reply, and began to move out. His back turned to the makeshift command post his officers had begun to set up, Hannibal wondered over their fate, and not for the first time today, felt trepidation. ------------ The sharp report of rifle fire filled the air, a cacophonous symphony echoing from the north of the city to the south, and back again. Only louder was the ravening gnash of teeth and guttural growling that came from the horde of hellspawn laying siege to the city. Hiram had often found himself wondering about these creatures, since they first started to seep up into the world a decade before. Their skin was an inky, oily sheen of black, nary a trace of hair, nor feather, nor scale upon them. When asked, every man seemed to give a different account of what they looked like, recalling a childhood fear or a special phobia. Hiram could only guess that these shapeless horrors were born of the very fears of mankind, an awful punishment, or worse, a mockery for all that the human race had ever struggled for. For his own part, he supposed they reminded him of a nasty little dog he’d known in his tribe as a child. Rotten little bastard. By their very nature, the shapeless demons unsettled. So too, by their very nature, they killed. The Fourth and Seventh legions had formed a sturdy palisade of pointed stakes, ensconced behind sandbags and mud on the other side. Every so often, a rifle would peek through the slats of the barricade and crack, sending a bullet through another creature. The manner in which their bodies folded and warped around the oncoming projectiles like liquid disquieted Hiram, who nevertheless kept his head high and eyes forward. Military brass he might have been, but he wasn’t above fighting alongside his men. He never had been, ever since the days when he and a group of other spear-wielding scouts had crossed the desert for the glory of Carthage. He found himself nostalgic for those times, right about now. Nice and simple… Hiram’s own rifle was hot in his grip, one round after another firing uselessly into the lines of the beasts. Every volley seemed to inch them back, until they surged forward again like a tide, lashing at the fortifications the Carthaginians and their Inca allies had so hastily erected. Every time another soldier was yanked by the needle-like teeth of the beasts and dragged into the horde to be consumed, his comrades unable to do anything but watch. The monstrosities never overextended - they were patient, calculating, even. Hiram could detect it in the mean way they watched his men from across the few meters separating them, their toothy maws seemingly grinning. A cold gnarl of disgust formed in his stomach, as too did a hint of foreboding. They were waiting for something. Suddenly, the barricades rattled. Unseen by the frightened soldiers, the walls of Qusqu behind them did the same, stirred as the very earth shook. Down the hill upon the plains outside the city, the ground was yawning open, the horde of living nightmares yowling as one in a chorus of approval. From the abyss, something awful took shape. All shuddering flesh and pitch-black hide, the only hint of brightness from the towering monster were the glint of its savage teeth, each as tall as a tree. Looming over the battlefield like a storm cloud, the eyeless monster cast its shadow upon the soldiers, who stood petrified at the sight of everything they had ever feared. All around it, the lesser terrors – merely miniatures of this dread titan – seemed to burst with glee and encouragement. As this new monstrosity roared, the wave broke, and the enemy began to surge over the barricade. The Carthaginian soldiers folded. The most disciplined army in the world they may be, but no man was ever meant to come face-to-face with something like this. Every instinct demanded that they run, cut down in their retreat like animals. Only Hiram remained, the immortal spark burning in his heart keeping him firm. Drawing his saber, Hiram looked to his side and found there Danel, his fellow soldier and lesser immortal, here with him at the bitter end. The son of a farmer from Utica had come a long way in these past six millennia. One of a vanishingly small number of people born utterly resistant to magic, he had once been the bane of all spellweavers, but on these unearthly creatures, his special talent seemed of no use. Hiram could tell as much by the fear and resignation in the other’s eyes. Still, he also saw something there that was as hard as steel. If Hiram wouldn’t run, then Danel wouldn’t either. Together, they turned to face the colossus, swords raised in a futile challenge. There they stood firm, as the great beast’s arm came crashing down and their long lives ended at last. ------------ Hannibal doubled over, clutching his heart. The twin stabs quickly melted from agony into a feeling of unfathomable loss. Two pieces of himself had just died, and he felt he knew which. Breathing heavily, he looked up to find that a concerned Elisha had caught him. She didn’t remark on the pallor that had fallen over the Emperor’s face. She’d felt it too, however distantly, and could find no words to give to the subject. Hiram had long been like a brother to her, no matter how they butted heads in the early days of the empire. The thought of his dry, easy jokes and his broad smile being gone from the world was almost too much to contemplate, but there was no time for mourning. The situation was deteriorating fast. No sooner had the realization passed, than the streets were filled with shouting and screaming as the routing remnants of the Carthaginian legions came pouring past. Hannibal felt a vein throb in his neck, an uncommon fury overtaking him at the sight of the legions, his legions, running. "Stop! Stop, damn you! You will stand and fight!" None heeded his order. Those who paused at the words of Hannibal only did so long enough to be fallen upon by the wave of terrors close on their heels. The Immortal made ready, raw magical power surging around him as Elisha took up a fallen soldier’s gun and prepared for the worst. The shadow of death passed over the city, the gargantuan monster that had sent the legions into flight reaching over the walls, coming astride its battlements as if they weren’t there. Its head turned, fixing upon Hannibal with an intensity that made the air chill. For just a moment, his sword hand trembled. It had come for him. The realization appalled him, but somehow didn’t surprise him. It all made a terrible sort of sense that this avatar of fear had risen only to tear him down, the last Immortal still standing on this world. With speed impossible for its size, it surged forward. In the shapeless titan, Hannibal was reminded of a citadel floating above the clouds. Elisha, fearless as ever, just saw a big, black blob that needed to be killed. Aim not wavering, Elisha lifted the rifle. Her shots struck its face true, her hand pulling the lever by the trigger guard again and again. Hannibal joined in a moment after, reaching out to send a jolt of lightning from his fingertips and into its head. The impact of the bolt made the beast split in twain, before it crashed to the ground all around Hannibal and his companion, knocking them from their feet. It engulfed them in the tide of ichor that resulted, coalescing again with the pair trapped inside. Hannibal reached for Elisha, but heard only her voice lifting in alarm before it was swallowed entirely. A moment after she passed into the inky black, he felt that pang in his chest again as the beast destroyed her. Stuck motionless and numb for a moment in the bubbling evil that had trapped him, Hannibal’s desolation swiftly mounted into fury. Clenching his fists, he howled in rage, half of the beast’s mass disintegrating around him as the Immortal loosed all his power with a mighty explosion of energy. He sent spell after spell flying into what was left of it, and into the waiting mob of nearby hellspawn eagerly seeking a bite. They shrieked as they died, but there were always more to fill their place. Moments later, too, the leviathan that had just stolen everything away from him began to take shape once more. With suddenness that caught him without preparation, its shape collapsed upon him in a wave, surging up into the sky with the Immortal trapped again in its grasp. Then, with a single, mighty squeeze, it broke his body. His limbs hanging limp, Hannibal took a ragged breath, and then didn't take another. It had been a very, very long time indeed since he’d felt pain like this. Proper pain. Lasting pain. Staring up into the clouds with unfocused eyes, he supposed it was only right. Physically unable to fight, to move, to even breathe, he could only barely register that he had started to fall from the lofty height to which he’d been thrown as he contemplated everything that had brought him here. He thought of Hiram, the stalwart warrior who had followed him from the foundation of Carthage to the battlefield where he died. He thought of Danel, the simple farmer boy, whose growth into a living weapon he had fostered. He thought of Adribaal and every soldier or sailor who had come across the sea to Qusqu to perish. So too he thought of Philosir, even Philosir, who had betrayed him – but who, after all, had been steered to that destiny by Hannibal’s own hand. As his vision faded and he fell into the hungry sea of teeth waiting below, Hannibal thought that, sometimes, it was only right for an Immortal to die. He had made enough mistakes. The world of Carthage ended. He was an Immortal. He soared across countless light years in the blink of an eye and used his incredible power as he saw fit. He shaped worlds in his hands and saw the rising and falling of civilizations like the beading and evaporating of dew on a spring morning. And this is how he lived.