The Empire Strikes Back: Interlude—Heart of Doukas

“MINISTER OF SECURITY MISSING!”
Alexios read the newspaper over and over again and then glanced over at the Imperial Order on his table. The news stated that his father, the senator who had saved the empress and the Empire from the wrath of a pagan cult, had been abducted by unknown persons. He and the other senators knew better than the partial truth they were forced to tell the common people. His father was captured by the Cult itself.
The Imperial Order, the letter accompanied by a seal with the double-headed eagle insignia of the Imperial House Doukas, ordered him to find his father and hunt down those responsible “by any means necessary.”
This was going to be a long journey. The Cult was a formidable opponent to take on, having eluded the forces of the Empire for many years ever since their initial attack on the Senate and palace on 9 May 1854. They were good at bending the minds of the people to their will without the people themselves knowing it. Already people were asking about the explosions of several ships in the harbor that had killed several innocents and thirty soldiers. It wouldn’t be long before the protests began in the forums.
His wife Anna appeared in the hallway of their house, looking quite worried. “Is it true?” she asked. “Is the Empress really sending you off around the world to find your father?”
“Yes, my dear,” he said, “It is of grave importance.”
“You just came back from that slaughterhouse in Varna!” she responded. “I feared for your life when the rebels sacked the garrison and beheaded everybody inside!”
“I’ll be fine, my dear,” replied Alexios, “I always am.”
Anna didn’t even cry. “I hope you will come back.”
Alexios arrived at the docks of the Ukrainian frigate Yehven, where the other members of the Athenian Lancers had already gathered on the decks of the old warship. Next to it was the commerce raider Konstantinos, which had just arrived from the Canaries.
After greeting his men, he gave an order to exchange all of their uniforms with merchant clothes, as the Cult would be expecting an Imperial army to be marching after them. All rifles were to be hidden, and each man would carry pistols in their inconspicuous clothes.
The ships left the harbor, sailing out of Constantinople into the Mediterranean Sea. Alexios knew the Cult wouldn’t be hiding in Russian territory; despite the fact that the Ruthenians and the Imperials were bitter enemies, both had agreed to work together on the matter of the Cult, as they were both Eastern Orthodox nations.
Before his father had left, he had posited that there was a Cult stronghold somewhere in UTA or Kanata territory which was causing the constant wars with Mexihco. But with the destruction of the last Aztec enclave in Cherokee territory, Great Chief Lincoln and his generals had sent a letter to the Ministries of Security and Intelligence stating that there was a stronghold in one of the enclaves and that it had been destroyed by UTA forces. The Aztec emperor and the chief of Kanata also affirmed that any pockets of Cult control had also been destroyed.
So if not Russia or America, then where?
There were three options: England, Asia, or Africa.
The English had control of the rainforest known as the Amazon, where nobody who had gone in had come out. However, they made sure very well that nobody went in at all.
Asia was full of lawless states, ideal for cultists to escape from central governments. But after the recent diplomatic agreements with the Celestial Empire, the Empire could project its power deep into Asia. Poland-Lithuania owned parts of Southeast Asia, and Russia owned Siberia. A Cult stronghold had been found and destroyed in the Philippines, so they wouldn’t likely relocate to the mainland.
That left only Africa–the “Heart of Darkness,” as a Polish writer in London had wrote in a recent book. It was the last place on earth that was truly wild and savage, untouched by both the West and East. While the Empire had a few military and corporate bases along the coast, those were merely outposts in a hostile environment, and nobody, not even the major African kingdoms like Mali, Ethiopia, or Kongo knew what lay in the interior of Africa.
Alexios gave the order to sail for the Kongo River region, where the rainforests were the least well known to the Empire of all of the African forests. The Cult knew that the Empire would have a hard time sending an army into the heart of Africa.
Alexios knew that. He had selected from among the Lancers those who were best suited for jungle combat. Some had fought in the Yucatan, while others had lived in Guyana. Still others had participated in Senator Favero’s invasion of the Philippines and the destruction of the Cult stronghold there, and the rest had been part of military operations in Indonesia. They were all used to fighting proficiently in rough terrain, hot and humid climates, and against unconventional enemies.
He hoped that they would be enough to rescue his father.

Alexios awoke when the Yehven’s horn blared. The two ships were approaching the port city of Brazzaville, where the Empire had an outpost ready to assist them. A lead picked up by a contact in Morocco indicated potential Cult influence in the Kongo region.
He put on his disguise and was about to stand up when there was an explosion. There was shouting in the many languages of Europe and Africa. Footsteps were heard as sailors rushed across the deck.
The Konstantinos had apparently fired upon the Yehven, which was firing back. All attempts to signal the commerce raider were in vain when somebody began raising the heads of its crew on poles out the windows.
The guns fired again, tearing holes in the wooden hull of the Ukrainian frigate. The Ukrainians tried shooting back, but the frigate was old and weak, and its guns could not pierce the commerce raider’s hull.
Alexios felt the ship list heavily to port as the bombardment from the Cult-occupied Konstantinos continued. Then there was a great jolt as the commerce raider rammed into the side of the frigate.
Peering above deck, Alexios and his men watched as cultists streamed onto the Yehven’s deck, using scythes and barbed blades to mercilessly behead and dismember any sailors who stepped in their way.
“Sir, what do we do?” Ioannes asked.
“We can’t fight them,” said Alexios, “This is their territory. We jump the ship and head to shore. Blow up the frigate.”
“Yes, sir,” said Loukas, dropping some explosives in the gunpowder reserves and boiler room.
The Lancers took everything they needed and escaped the ship by jumping out some holes in the starboard side. A well placed bomb in the boiler room then detonated, killing the cultists and destroying both of the ships.
Alexios and his men washed up on the beach near Brazzaville. Nobody in the city had seen them yet, which was good, as he assumed that the Cult has also infiltrated the city. They had to get to the river without anyone noticing and then follow it upstream.
Luckily, he realized that a branch of the river was just nearby, along with a steamboat conveniently moored there…


Far up the Congo River, in terra incognita

The Athenian Lancers watched as the Kongo natives advanced on them from all directions, armed with crude spears and wearing little more than loincloths.
Alexios ordered his tired and exhausted men to retreat to the steamboat moored at the riverside, their (empty) pistols raised at the enemy. Ioannes and Loukas, both of whom had a rudimentary knowledge of native languages, desperately shouted at the natives to stop.
How did they fall into this trap? he wondered. Well, they made the journey upriver, following native accounts of a white “Lord Dooku” deep in the jungle somewhere. Eventually they found what appeared to be an old hut which was built on top of an elaborate prison-like structure. There were signs of a struggle but no bodies at all. Farther up the river they found the bodies of numerous Cultists, killed by gunshots or stab wounds. And then they came to a native village where Alexios was sure his father was staying. He was stupid enough to fall into the trap the native savages had sprung. Clever men, they were, despite their savagery, he thought.
There was a shout of a white man from the village, and the natives halted their advances. There was a Greek accent to that voice, Alexios realized.
Natives emerged from one of the buildings, carrying an old and frail white man on a stretcher towards them. It was his father, almost unrecognizable now. Somehow he had managed to escape the Cult and come here to the natives.
“Father!” he shouted.
Nikephoros didn’t respond. He was too weak to speak, having used up his energy on the shout. He was also very old now.
The natives set down the stretcher in front of the Lancers and pointed at the steamboat, intending them to leave quickly. Shouting some orders to his men, they carried Alexios’s father back to the ship, where Ioannes floored the throttle in reverse.
The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing them down towards the sea with twice the speed of their upward progress; and Nikephoros’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. Alexios was, so to speak, numbered with the dead. It wqs strange how he accepted this unforeseen partnership, that choice of nightmares forced upon him in the tenebrous land invaded by those mean and greedy phantoms.
Nikephoros discoursed. A voice! a voice! Alexios thought. It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame, the destruction of the Cult, revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My son, my station, my career, my ideas—those were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Nikephoros, the respected and noble senator, frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power, of his drive to destroy the Cult with his dying breath. And he had, somewhat; there was a Cult stronghold here in the Kongo, and Nikephoros had managed to escape before he could be sacrificed. He then returned at the head of a native army and destroyed the stronghold, forcing the Cult to flee even farther inland, where nobody, not even the natives of the Kongo, ever went. The interior was even more unknown to the Empire than the Kongo River region.
The days passed. They chugged down the river, past ruined settlements built by both natives and the Empire, past trading posts built by the Kongolese government, and other stuff. And Nikephoros’s condition got worse and worse.
He was an impenetrable darkness. Alexios looked at him as one peers down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines. But Alexios had not much time to give him, because he was helping the engine–driver Lancer to take to pieces the leaky cylinders, to straighten a bent connecting–rod, and in other such matters, for the steamboat had broken down.
One evening, Alexios was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.” The light was within a foot of his eyes.

The old and broken senator cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

“The horror! The horror!”

Alexios blew the candles out and left the cabin so that his father could had some peace. The pilgrims were dining in the mess–room, and he took his place opposite Loukas, who lifted his eyes to give Alexios a questioning glance, which he successfully ignored. Loukas leaned back, serene, with that peculiar smile of his sealing the unexpressed depths of his meanness. A continuous shower of small flies streamed upon the lamp, upon the cloth, upon the Lancers’ hands and faces. Suddenly Loukas’s native servant boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt:

“Mistah Dooku—he dead.”

All of the Lancers rushed out to see. There was a lamp in there—light—and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark. The voice was gone. What else had been there?

Nikephoros Doukas, the Bringer of Victory, the Duke, Doux of Thema Greece, Imperial Senator, was dead.

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