The Lost Century
Chapter 3. Quiescus Interruptus
[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]
"Easy, Centurion, it ain't an attack. Yet. But there's somethin' strange goin' on. The sentries woke me cuz they didn't know what to think and after I watched and listened a bit I figured I needed to wake you up so you could check it out yourself and see what you think. I don’t like it. I don't know exactly what to make of it but I don't like it."
Flavius took a deep breath to clear his head. He needed to shake off those unpleasant dreams and make sense of what the Optio was saying. As he levered himself up, his exhausted body resisted with aches and pains from abused muscles, ligaments, joints, and old injuries. In addition, his fresh wounds spoke to him with sharp agony from a myriad of sites. Another breath, sharply inhaled through his nose and hissed out between his teeth into the frigid night air, helped him adjust to getting his worn body vertical.
"What is it, Rock?" he whispered, as he twisted left, then right, to loosen his back. His legs quivered and almost failed to hold him up. Jupiter!, this was no-contest the worst he'd ever felt in a long career of combat and death-dealing. Making it to the mouth of the cavern to see what was up might be more than he was capable of. He rubbed the nearly-frozen sleep glue from his eyes and tried to concentrate on what the Optio was telling him. Ignoring the clamors for attention from the various parts of his damaged body was an effort.
Rock's return whisper was quieter than one would have expected from so rough-looking a specimen but staying alive in the legions required more than just loud, frontal assaults every time. Sometimes a little stealth went a long way toward obtaining an objective without wasting men and Rock, for all his apparent hardness and lack of guile, was capable of being a very subtle fellow. Stupid, brutal men did not reach the rank of Optio; they died on the front lines. "Centurion, if I coulda figured it out, I wouldn'ta woke ya.
"The guys on watch had it quiet until this last pair. They saw movement down on the battlefield and heard noises. Movement and noises that don't seem like normal scavenger animals. Being dark like it is, they couldn't really see much so they watched a while and listened real careful like you ordered and they decided it wasn't animals or, at least, not regular animals. So they decided it was time to wake me up and find out what I thought about it.
"I watched for a while myself and that's when I decided to get you up to see for yourself. I'm sure it ain't animals. Not normal animals, anyway. It's more like people but it's so damned hard to make out any detail in this moonlight. They're kinda whispering to each other but they move real quiet and they ain't wearing clothes, or not much clothin', anyway. And, from what I can tell, they're as pale as the bodies down there on the field. And they ain't just strippin' them bodies for their gear. I think they're… um, feedin' on 'em. Or maybe butcherin' 'em. Or both. It's weird, sir, and I don't like it. You need to take a look and make a command decision. This shit's above my pay grade."
Flavius indicated his agreement with an inclination of his head and they ghosted their way toward the mouth of the cavern. As they neared the opening, Third Gus turned from his kneeling position on the right side of it and nodded to acknowledge their presence. Flavius could make out the subtle gesture because the Third was backlit by the moonlight coming from beyond the cavern's opening. Based on the Optio's cryptic remarks and the fact that both his NCOs were awake and watching the scene and worried about it, combined with the fact that they were willing to wake him, Flavius decided that this was something distinctly out of the ordinary. His NCOs were hard, experienced men, who were not loathe to take responsibility, even in difficult or complex situations. Something had them worried, maybe even scared, and if those men were worried, and maybe scared, then Flavius was smart enough to know that he should be, too.
He recognized the silhouettes of Ibby and Blue as the sentries on duty, standing to the left of the cavern mouth. They saluted silently and moved back into the cave to give the Centurion room to observe the area which had been their battlefield that day. Flavius knelt near Gus and stared out over the field, opening his senses to the night.
The sound was the first thing he perceived clearly. They were being quiet, all things considered, but they were definitely whispering to each other down there. The soft, sibilant susurrus flowed left and right and front and back, like lethargic waves easing their way up a sandy beach. The scavengers were without a doubt communicating with each other. But were they human?
The moonlight on the harsh topography and soft mounds of corpses created scenes which were alternately stark with sharp contrasts, and conversely, dim and soft with fuzzy contours and borders. The creatures' movements were indeterminate as to their species characteristics. They appeared man-like in general but they moved on all fours as often as they walked upright. Their motion also appeared swifter and more fluidly graceful than the kinds of humans Flavius was used to being around; but that was perhaps an effect of the dim moonlight or the fact that Flavius was usually with legionaries for whom elegant gracefulness was not a survival characteristic.
Flavius surveyed the scene and guessed that there were twenty or thirty of them down there, although it was difficult to be specific because of the faint illumination and the subtlety and speed of their movement. They had apparently started at the far end of the battlefield and were working their way toward the bluff where the legionaries stood watching. Flavius considered his options.
The last thirty yards or so of the land before the cave was bare ground. It was where his surviving group had formed that last turtle and no soldiers had fallen there. The corpse garden, whose opposite border began perhaps one hundred fifty yards farther down the canyon where the battle had begun that morning, ended at that space. Whether these were some unknown animals or a group of feral men, would they stop, in either case, at the last of the corpses and forego exploring the bluff which held Flavius' cavern? As Flavius considered the possibilities, Gus whispered to him.
"Just to the right of center, about fifty yards out, you can make out what they're doing. They're feeding on the corpses there. I couldn't tell for sure when they were farther away but you can see it there. Two of 'em look like they're butchering a body but those other two are definitely chewin' on that other body. Right there."
Flavius swung his attention to the area Gus described and tried to focus on what he was seeing. He used the old night trick of looking slightly to the side of where he wanted to see and he could tell Gus was correct but he was glad that the light was dim enough that he could only barely see enough to agree with his Third. He nodded in agreement with the decision he'd made even before Gus pointed out that demonic scene.
He turned to the legionaries waiting behind him, "Ibby, Blue, go to the weapon pile and bring back an armload each of heavy javelins. All heavy ones. I don't think this is a night for light javelins."
Blue had glanced in the direction his superiors were looking and hissed in horror and disgust at what he saw, the sound whistling between his missing teeth, a common phoneme in the "accent" of many legionaries due to the relative hardness of weapons and fragility of human teeth. Ibby elbowed him into silence and they stalked off to retrieve the javelins.
Rock asked quietly, "Should we wake the men?"
"No," came Flavius' ready reply. "Not yet. I want you here in front with me. Third, you and the two legionaries stand behind us with the weapons cache. If it turns into an attack, you'll wake the men and get them organized."
"Sir!" Gus responded quietly and moved back to allow Rock to take his place.
Rock moved up to kneel beside Flavius as Gus moved into position behind them. Out among the bodies, the activity of the scavengers continued. Flavius was unable to determine whether the beings were using knives or claws to butcher the corpses. It seem apparent that the ones eating the corpses were simply leaning in and biting away but they, too, may have been using knives to separate the meat into mouth-sized pieces. Flavius spoke his decision to Rock and Gus.
"We'll sit tight and celebrate quietly if the ignore or bypass us. If they come at us, the Optio and I will meet them with the heavy javelins, Third, you and the sentries will form a second line and pass us new javelins as needed. If it becomes a full-fledged attack, wake the rest of the men and prepare to make a stand. They're gonna have a lot of trouble coming at us up that bluff."
They went back to observing the scavengers and soon Ibby and Blue appeared with the required javelins. As they piled them at the sides of the entrance, Blue fumbled a bit and caused a muffled clatter from his load of javelins. The four scavengers that the legionaries had been observing nearest the cavern turned in their direction and froze.
"Sorry, sir!" Blue said at a normal volume, compounding his error, the whistling in his speech exacerbated by fear and cold.
Third's glare made him feel like the temperature had dropped another ten degrees. "If we live through this, you might be sorry you did, shitbird. You're on my list. "
There was a shrill scream from more than one scavenger throat which rent the soft, black fabric of the night. The legionaries had seen and heard a lot of men die and in the course of that experience they'd heard many, varied noises, some of which a civilian would have said could not come from a human throat. But the legionaries had heard them, chilling and horrible in their import. These screams were something else again. Something deeply vile and soul-wrenching. The four creatures near the cave began to streak toward the bluff as the rest stopped what they were doing and turned in their direction.
Similar insane screams echoed from other voices around the battlefield, each unique but all equally horrific. In the back of the cave, the sleeping legionaries startled awake.
Flavius settled into battle mode, "Gus, organize the men. Ibby and Blue, close up and be ready to assist the Optio and me." He glanced at Rock, who replied to his unspoken query, "Ready, sir." They each placed two javelins on the ground nearby to lie ready for future use and then each took one javelin in hand. It was a comfortable feeling. They were legionaries and this was one of their favorite weapons. They were as ready as they could be.
Gus strode to the middle of the cave to inform and prepare the remaining legionaries, as the night runners reached the base of the bluff. Even at that close range, Flavius couldn't make out any details of their features because of the low level of moonlight but he had seen that they were fast and smooth coming across the field. The rest of the creatures stayed where they were and most even went back to whatever tasks occupied them. The original chorus of responsive screams had stopped but there were still occasional, random outbursts from around the field. One of the four at the base of the bluff looked up and screamed, seemingly right at them, then began to climb.
The other three twitched and moved about almost spastically in random jerks and hops, in contrast to their smooth sprint toward the bluff, releasing occasional grunts and indecipherable noises while they watched the one who was climbing toward the legionaries. It, or he?, was climbing quickly and efficiently, making much better progress than any of the legionaries had made earlier that day during their own ascent. Flavius leaned out to keep track of its progress. Soon, very soon, this new menace would reveal the extent of its potential impact on the weary legionaries.
The creature climbing the bluff stopped some ten yards below the legionaries and stared up at them. It then looked down and squalled something at its fellow night haunts on the ground. After a moment of shuffling, jostling, and indecipherable noises, one of them faced the almost vertical wall and began climbing. The one on the bluff face angled to its left, clearly intending to be at the side of the cavern opening when it reached that level. The one below was climbing as swiftly as the first had and it angled to its right. The creatures, whatever they were, were clearly intelligent enough to flank their prey, rather than coming straight at it. Predators, then, and cunning ones, rather than simply scavengers.
Damn! Flavius thought. Having them be mere scavengers would have been a lot more convenient. Scavengers were one thing to face. Predators, pack predators upped the ante quite a bit. Once again, the legionaries were the game pieces in a gamble for their lives in a high-stakes game at what seemed to be a rigged table. The gods were rolling loaded dice against his eviscerated century, while they drank their nectar, nibbled their ambrosia, and seduced and cuckolded each other in their endless efforts to stave off an eternity of boredom. Bastards! Flavius added, unsure if he was directing that opprobrium at the attackers or at the gods.
The first pale night haunt on the bluff face slowed his ascent to allow the second to catch up. The intention was clearly to mount a simultaneous approach from both sides of the cavern mouth. Flavius turned to Rock and used hand signals to indicate the climbers' intent and his desired response to it. Two attackers. One on each side. You take the one on your side. I'll take the one on mine. Thrust, push, and release. Got it?
Rock nodded a distinct Yes! in response and stood up from where he'd been squatting, stepping forward to take up a combat-ready position. He placed his hands on his javelin in an attack grip, unconsciously giving himself the appearance of a recruiting poster embodiment of the perfect Roman legionary.
Given the climbers' exposed position on the bluff wall and their apparent lack of armor, it should be a simple matter to give a fatal thrust and push, ensuring the creatures' deaths with the addition of the fall from forty feet onto the rocky ground below, especially when impaled by the deadly Roman pilum, the "heavy javelin." Weighing in at approximately eight pounds, it was six feet long overall, the first two feet of which was composed of a pyramid-shaped iron head and thin neck which was attached by tang and binding to the remaining four feet of hardwood shaft. It was an exquisitely designed machine of war. The iron was forged to be hard enough to penetrate a shield, as well as armor and flesh, but soft enough that it would bend once it had penetrated. This design feature left the enemy holding those eight additional pounds, which dragged down on the arm which was trying to support the penetrated shield. An enemy so encumbered became easy meat for a second thrust by javelin or sword.
If the pilum penetrated armor and flesh rather than a shield, the effect was, perhaps, less kind and less cleanly deadly. Even if an enemy managed to remove it from his body before a secondary thrust could finish him quickly, the pyramidal design of the head prevented the wound from closing on its own and the victim soon bled out. In the demesne of Mars and Pluto, the pilum stood out as an elegant and superior work of deadly martial art.
Flavius was confident in his weapon and in his Optio standing at his right hand against the two climbers. No matter how tough they were, no matter how fast they were, in a few minutes they'd lie dead at the foot of the bluff. The question was, would the rest of them attack?
The legionaries all listened carefully to the approaching creatures' sounds as they scrabbled up the rocky face. Flavius, from his ready position standing slightly back from the cavern mouth, smelled them before he saw the one he was waiting for on his side. The noxious odors from the battlefield had been greatly reduced by the cold. They remained at a level which could mostly be ignored, but the effluvium from the attackers was something new and strong to Flavius' heightened, battle-ready senses. He inhaled and was starting to try to catalogue the components of the attackers' scent when he felt Rock's movement beside him.
Rock grunted as he made a short lunging step to thrust his pilum into the night haunt on his side. His aim was true and the point of his javelin entered the creature’s abdomen just below its ribcage. He felt the initial resistance as the javelin’s head penetrated the pale, dirt-encrusted abdominal muscles, then the randomly varied levels of resistance as it passed through a series of internal organs on its way through the climber's body, and finally the muscle and skin resistance as the point passed out its back. When the wood shaft hit the thing’s stomach skin with a thud, he added an extra push and released the javelin as the night stalker was thrust from the bluff face and plummeted into the dark, screaming like a lost soul.
The creature had not expected the swiftness and intensity of the attack by the man in the cavern and, as the javelin entered its body, it screamed in pain and frustration at a volume which dwarfed the screams it had released earlier in the night. A guttural grunt joined that scream as the thicker wooden shaft struck its midsection and pushed it away from its hold on the bluff face. It took a futile swing at its attacker then clawed for a fresh grip on the bluff but the force of the thrust was far too strong and, as it peeled from the rock face, its scream increased in volume in a final cry against its fate.
As Rock bent to grab another javelin from his pile, the climber on Flavius' side reached the level of the cavern. Seeing and hearing its companion's fate, it approached more cautiously and was, therefore, partly able to avoid Flavius' thrust. But not completely.
Flavius heard and felt the action on his flank but as an experienced veteran he was not distracted from his task. When the creature on his side appeared, he aimed and thrust for the sweet spot just below the sternum, but the gods-cursed thing was fast. It swayed back and turned so that instead of the javelin taking it in its midsection, Flavius' point penetrated low on its left side near the hipbone. Its initial scream of pain joined the dying echoes of the final scream from the one speared by Rock.
The night haunt tried to draw farther back and twist free but Flavius continued his thrust and that deadly pyramidal point tore a path through its side to emerge from its back just above and behind the iliac crest. Flavius struggled to keep from losing his javelin to the torque produced by the creature's twist but as the point emerged from its back, his javelin tore from his hands before he could use the impact of the shaft against the creature to push it from the bluff face. As the pilum came free of Flavius' hands, the length of the shaft flopped against the creature's abdomen then rebounded away into the space to the creature's left. The fresh pressure against the wound from a new direction wrested another scream from the night stalker, then, as gravity began to pull at the weight of the mass of the pilum's shaft, the creature screamed yet again as its insides were mauled by the head's movement in its guts.
Flavius bent to grab a new javelin as the wounded creature took a left-handed swipe at him, barely missing Flavius' head which was moving down toward the cavern floor and his weapon pile. The creature hung awkwardly from the bluff face, supported by its feet and a one-handed grip, pulled into a contorted position by the javelin shaft hanging from its left side, torquing its lower body left and away while the swing it had taken at Flavius twisted its upper body to the right and toward the bluff face.
In that suspend moment while Flavius reached for a new pilum and the creature strained to overcome the various forces working on its tortured body, Rock stepped toward Flavius and thrust with his freshly-obtained pilum. He caught the wounded thing in the throat and a horrid gurgling noise replaced the previous prolonged scream. Arterial blood spurted in a broad spray, painting Flavius' back because of his bent position and splattering the Optio's face and chest in increasing pulses as he pushed home his thrust. When the pilum's wooden shaft hit the thing in the throat, it lost its solo handgrip and as Rock leaned into a final push and released the shaft, the creature fell silently to the rocky ground below, joining its companion with an audible thud in the momentary silence following the end of the final scream of the first creature to fall.
Flavius stood with his new javelin and looked down on the scene below, waiting for the night haunts' next move. Rock picked up a new javelin and stood with Flavius, using the bottom edge of his cloak to wipe the recently fallen one's blood from his eyes and mouth.
The two remaining creatures at the foot of the bluff bent to examine their fallen comrades. They shook the bodies and then tugged harshly at the three javelin shafts, pulling them free and tossing them quickly away after only a brief grasp. The screamed as one, shrill ululations which were matched from various points around the field, then abruptly all the screaming stopped and silence blanketed the valley. The living night stalkers flopped the dead ones over their shoulders and started away from the bluff. Figures from around the field joined them and soon they had all disappeared into the dark distance.
Gus squatted to rest on his haunches. "This is some weird, fucked-up country," he said, confusion and disgust coloring every syllable. Flavius made eye contact with both his NCOs and offered a small shrug. He couldn't disagree with or improve on that sentiment.