The Lost Century
Chapter 4. What the Fuck Was That?
...and everything that follows...
[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]
I don't mean to be a tease, but I think I'm taking up a lot of bandwidth and just dumping more noise into the poor, clogged 'net and my quirky little blog by endlessly posting completed chapters as I finish them. Therefore, I've decided to stop doing that. Here's what I plan to do instead.
If you'd like to read this raw version of my NaNo novel, I'll send it out to interested parties as an email. So, if you wanna be on that list, drop me a line with two pieces of information:
1. Your e-mail address.
2. Tell me if ya wanna get each chapter as soon as it gets written, or if ya wanna get whatever material I've written as of December 1 (my official NaNo effort), or if ya wanna get the finished product (still a NaNo-quality, pre-rough-draft version), estimated completion maybe mid-January. Or any combination thereof, huh? I'm flexible.
My thanks to the folks who've commented on what I've produced so far. I appreciate your feedback on this literary lump of coal. If you can see the potential diamond hidden inside, you're more generous to me than I am to myself.
Publius Vergilius Maro (sometimes known as "Frank," but not for this effort)
Despite what I said above, here's Chapter 4. One of the NaNoWriMo gimmicks is "the travelling shovel of death." I added it to this chapter.
Chapter 4. What the Fuck Was That?
"What the fuck was that?"
The aggrieved tone and Tits' unmistakable accent and style erupted from among the legionaries who were standing in the middle of the chamber. Their view of the action had been limited to backlit slices of motion near the Optio and the Centurion, the clearest of which had been Rock's thrust to the second creature's neck as Flavius bent for a new pilum and the resultant spray of arterial blood, a glossy dark rope with variegated beads, shining dully against the night sky as they leapt free of the throat which had previously confined them. The grouped legionaries' aural apprehension, however, was as clear as that of those at the mouth of the cavern. They heard everything.
The preternatural ferocity of the screams which had echoed across the battlefield and rebounded from the rock walls of their cavern chamber made their neck hairs stand at attention, their goosebumps rise, and their blood run cold in their veins, trite stereotypes made manifest by the reality of a night attack by unknown creatures in a land more alien than any they'd ever served in. Those screams possessed an insane, feral quality none of them had heard before, even during their most horrid experiences in years of battles against a variety of enemies. More than one of the clustered legionaries heard the undertones of a soul in eternal agony in those primordial yowls. Tits' comment reflected a general feeling of disquiet among the men, which was amplified as Blue spoke from near the cavern mouth.
During his watch period with Ibby, Blue had been the first to see the shapes moving among the dead on the battlefield. He'd seen many types of scavengers on many battlefields, from those of his frozen home North of the Republic to those which haunted the sands and wastes of Asia Minor, and he knew instantly that these were different, despite his limited ability to observe detail. Their motions and activities were simply wrong, just generally unlike all other scavengers he'd seen. He and Ibby had discussed this in whispered phrases and sentence fragments as they watched the shapes harvesting their way through the corpse crop toward the bluff where the legionaries resided.
Ibby was resistant at first, but after watching the creatures progressing toward them, he agreed with Blue that they should wake the Third and spread the responsibility by kicking the decision uphill. In this man's army, just as it was, is, and will be true of all armies everywhere and everywhen, decision-making shit violated the usual military, and general life, rule that shit flows downhill and it began its uphill course. Third Gus watched for a while, then roused the Optio. Optio Rock listened to what the watchers and the Third had to say, watched for a while to make his own assessment, then went to wake the Centurion, completing the shit river's connection to its headwater. On this occasion, the eternal Uphill Shit River completed itself by emptying into this current, particular Shit Lake, which took the form of the two speared creatures hitting the ground and being carried off by their fellows, leaving the legionaries confused in their cavern, emotionally echoing Tits' thoughts, expressed in his exclamation.
Blue knew he was already on the Centurion's and the NCOs' shitlist for screwing up and probably causing the creatures to notice them and attack their position, but his mouth seemed to connect straight to his hindbrain, completely bypassing his self-preservation faculties. His disgust and horror were evident in his tone and no one noticed his toothless whistling timbre as he uttered, "Draugr! Aptgangr! Glamr's spawn! They're the blood-suckers who stalk by night. We are completely fucked!"
These legionaries had been together a long time and, from quiet evenings sharing stories around an endless string of campfires, the others knew that Blue was talking about horror stories of the blood-drinking, reanimated dead monsters which owned the nights of his frozen homeland.
Ibby felt compelled to support Blue because of their shared experience while observing the creatures. He, too, felt that the things they'd seen on the battlefield were not natural. "We Basque call them the children of Basa-Jaun in my mountains in Iberia. Blood drinkers and flesh eaters. They hide in the day and hunt at night. They're demons from the old time before the gods."
Gus was uneasy himself and the strong reaction from these pragmatic, realistic legionaries added to his disquiet; but this kind of talk was psychological death for a combat group and he knew he had to clamp down on it, even if he had some personal inclination to agree.
"Awrite, that's enough of that. You can stow that shit right now or I'll break my demon-possessed, blood-drinkin' foot off in your ass."
Rock, too, knew they had to get the men thinking about the practical, real-world aspect of the night's actions and the probable course of the next day. "You chickenshits gotta be kidding me. Did you or did you not see us spear and kill those climbers, just like any enemy or any animal we've ever faced before. Ya stick 'em, they die. Regular, normal stuff. Now, I can't say they're animals and I can't say they're men. It was too dark and the action was too fast. But what I can say is that they ain't no night-runnin', bloodsuckin', demon-ridden, undead corpses. Maybe they're some kinda local night monkey. Y'all have seen some of those different kinds of monkeys they bring up from down in Africa. Some of those things are even bigger than men. That's all this was – some tribe of primitive people, livin' like animals in this ass-end of creation, or some big, smart night monkeys. We stuck 'em and they died. Do ya get that? I don't think ya can do that to no supernatural undead demons."
Flavius held back, allowing his NCOs to control the situation. It looked like they were taking a good approach to quelling the terror rising in his somewhat superstitious troop.
"But, Optio," Pinhead said stubbornly, "when I was growin' up, my folks and the priests warned us about the lamiae and the empusae and the striges. And them things Blue and Ibby are talkin' about, they're just the same thing with a funny foreign name. And like where we was servin' before we started hikin' straight East, they talked about the Lilitu doin' all those same things, walkin' at night and drinkin' blood and stuff. That proves they're everywhere and they're as real as Jupiter and Mars and all them other gods, so it could be them we saw tonight. And I remember the priests tellin' me that there were two things all them demon bloodsuckers was afraid of, stuff that would hurt 'em, and that's iron and wood. And what's a pilum made of, huh? Iron and wood. It's got both things that can kill them demons. So, even if you did kill 'em, that kinda don't prove nothin' about them not being unnatural."
Murmurs of assent rose from the group and Miller spoke up, "My aunt was killed by one. Some other people in my village, too. They all went missing at night. The people thought it might be some kinda night demon so they got together and tracked it down. After a coupla days of searching, they found it sleeping in a cave one day. They stabbed it with iron and wood, just like Pinhead said, then they cut out its heart and burned it, then cut off its head and buried the head and body in separate places. It never killed anybody again. I think these things tonight might be like that. I don't like the way they screamed, Optio. I don't like it at all. It's unnatural. That's all I'm sayin'."
Flavius decided it was time for him to add his authority to the discussion and turn down the tension level.
"Men, I hear what you're saying and I don't want to tell you what to believe. But here's the thing. Tomorrow morning, those barbarians we fought today – Remember them? – will probably be back to kill us. They outnumber us by a huge margin and they'll succeed handily, if they're serious about it. I plan for us to take a lot of them with us but you know as well as I do that they'll have no trouble finishing us off. If that happens, we won't have to worry about another night and what might attack us in the dark. We'll be comfortably dead long before dark.
"Ah, but what if we somehow survive tomorrow? Then we do have to worry about what we'll face after dark, don't we? In that case, we're looking at two possibilities.
"One. If those things are just some kind of monkey or a tribe of primitive men, they'll die as easily as any other flesh-and-blood creature we've faced. Holed up in this cavern, we have a great tactical advantage. They have to come at us just a few at a time while hanging on a vertical cliff. We can kill them by the hundreds without breaking a sweat. Right?
"Two. If they're some supernatural scourge, like all of you seem to agree, then what do we do? Well, you also agree that they're susceptible to iron and wood, right? So tactically, we're in the same advantageous position. They have to come at us just a few at a time while hanging on a vertical cliff and our weapons are made of iron and wood. They'll die and fall, just like those two tonight did. Tactically, it doesn't matter what they are. If they attack us, they'll die.
"We're in a good position here. Grow some balls and quit whining like little girls afraid of the dark. You're legionaries. If something tries to kill you, you kill it back. It doesn't matter what it is. What is for when you're bullshitting around the campfire with a liberated amphora of good wine.
"Besides, if you've heard all those stories about all those kinds of night-haunts, I'll be you've also heard the stories of the secret legion whose sole job is to hunt and kill unnatural creatures. Why is Caesar's Legion X called the 'twin legion' but there's no record of another Legion X anywhere in the Republic? It could be that there is another such legion but it's a secret one: Legion X, Demon Hunters. I say, if those legionaries can kill demons fulltime, then we can kill one stinking tribe of demons from our stronghold here, because we're as good as any legion in this man's army. Aren't we?"
A decent "Yes, Centurion!" came from the group. It wasn't enthusiastic but neither was it completely dispirited. Under the circumstances, Flavius considered that a win, so he finished things up.
"We have a lot of stinky, day-hunting barbarians to kill tomorrow and the dawn isn't far away. Get some sleep now." Then, to Gus, "Third, set the watch."
With that, Flavius headed to his own bed to strip off the blood-soaked cloak he was wearing and exchange it for a warm, dry one. Blood-sucking night demons! How the fuck can people believe in that shit? He might have thought more about that but sleep overtook him.
Gus called Miller to sentry duty and told Ibby his watch was over and he was relieved. Ibby started for the sleeping area and Blue tried to quietly follow him.
"Oh, no, Blue, old son. You stand fast. Miller, we're gonna chat about your aunt in a while; but first Blue and me, we got a lot to talk about. Quite a lot, you blue-eyed demon. Oh, 'demon.' That reminds me…"
And Blue winced in the dark, hoping the Third couldn't see his expression.
As the legionaries who were not on duty returned to their beds to settle down for the remainder of the night, Rock stopped by his sleeping site, retrieved his shovel, and headed for the secondary cavern which contained their latrine space. When the Optio passed the area where the common legionaries were, Pinhead cocked his head and said, "Hey, Optio, why do you always take you own shovel to the latrine? I mean, ya know, there's always a common one there, but seein' you right now makes me remember that I ain't never seen you use the common one. You always use your own shovel, don'tcha? Why do ya do that?"
The Optio was not in a desperate hurry to get to the latrine and his immediate mood was calmly fatalistic, so instead of simply shutting Pinhead down, as he usually and typically would have done, he responded to him instead. Any other time and place and it wouldn't have happened, but Pinhead would never know how perfect his timing was in this instance.
"How many years have you served under me, Pinhead? And you're just noticing that? Bloody Mars!, you're a dumb shit and a poor excuse for a soldier."
Pinhead knew that the Optio's words were generic trooper talk but he also felt their sting against him, specifically. He was far from the best legionary in the century and he was painfully aware that he was about the tenth smartest guy in any group of eight. He offered a dispirited, "Sorry, Optio."
Rock hadn't meant to insult the boy or hurt his feelings. This time. He shook his head and decided to make up for it by sharing a story he'd never shared with anyone. Not that it was especially secret or anything and it wasn't like it was embarrassing or demeaning. It was just something he'd chosen not to share. It was a private story, kept in his personal storehouse of mental treasures. But they were destined to die together. Tomorrow, if not tonight. Or soon, if not tomorrow. So, Juno's luscious nethers!, why not tell the boy, and the other attentive pairs of ears perked up in the dark, a story which might amuse and calm them. For tonight at least. It had been one distinctly fucked-up day and they all deserved a break, even if it was only a little one.
"This is Vergil," he began, and he sensed the callous legionaries settling quietly into their bedrolls, like children nestling down in anticipation of being told a story by their father at bedtime. He'd had that passing thought on previous occasions over the years but, for the first time ever, tonight he truly felt paternal toward these men. He eased into a bedtime story appropriate for his professional killers.
"Ah've been a soldier for more'n a decade. This knife on my waist? I got that bad boy when I joined the legions. The sword at my hip? Had that nasty bastid jist as long, too. I rely on 'em and trust 'em completely. I know some guys who say they've kept count of their kills. Really? Me, I don't know how ya could do that and be accurate. I do know that this knife and this sword have a pretty damned high body count to their credit, no matter what the exact number might, or might not, be. But ol' Vergil," he continued, raising the shovel from the ground as if he were saluting an officer with a parade-quality javelin, "he's been with me since before I joined the legions and I trust my pal Vergil more than my knife, more than my sword, an' maybe even more than a fresh-from-the-depot pilum.
"When I was younger, I used to make a living shovellin' shit from the streets of Rome herself. Vergil had been with me a coupla years by then but I hadn't named him yet. One evenin' I was workin' kinda late, catchin' up on a crazy day. There'd been some kinda of feast or celebration, I forget now exactly what, and I was tryin' to get done and get home. Then along come these three young patrician studs... in their white tunics, ya know?... and they're drunk and they decide they're gonna fuck with the plebean guy, cuz if the dark tunic don't give me away, they fact that I'm shovellin' shit definitely does. So they start in with all the usual lame-ass shit drunk assholes have been slingin' since before the Egyptians built the pyramids. And I just ignore 'em, hopin' they'll get bored and go lookin' for somethin' more interestin' to do.
"But it goes the other way. Insteada gettin' bored, they start getting' mad. And mean.
"'Hey, you fucking shit shovelling nobody, you can't just ignore us. You and your girlfriend there,' one of them said in his snooty accent, pointing his chin at my shovel, 'better stand to attention and listen up or we're going to teach you a lesson about minding your betters.'
"The second rich prick chimed in with his two denarii, 'Yeah, boy,' cuz they were a coupla years older than me, 'You two look like you were made for each other. What's her name, huh? Aphrodite?' And, naturally, they all cracked up big time at how smart and funny and just-plain-better-than-me they were.
"It wasn't smart of me, so they were probably kinda right, and I knew better, but I was tired and they just pissed me off. I stopped scoopin' shit and turned to them, brandishin' my shovel, and said, 'This is Vergil and HE don't like you and he don't take shit from any three drunk assholes. Now ya better move on before ol' Vergil decides to teach you a lesson.' I hadn't thought it out beforehand and I don't know where that name came from, really, but it just sorta popped out and ol' Vergil kinda twisted in my hands like it was real and he really was kinda spoilin' to school those fellas about their manners.
"That third white-tunic dude, the one who'd been quite til then, reached into his tunic and came out with a fancy dagger. 'Now you've done it, boy. You've threatened my friends and me and we'll have to defend ourselves.' And I took a careful look in his eyes and saw that it woulda come to that, no matter what I did. He had a fever down in there, and maybe the wine stoked it some, but it was obvious that it always lived there, in his deepest soul. Some things might stoke it, or give him the excuse that it was being stoked, but it was him. Always had been, always would be. It was just the way he was born.
"His friends grinned and drew their own blades. They'd been lookin' for an opportunity and it turned out that opportunity's name was Titus Petronius Catullus, know to you boys as your friendly Optio. They seemed comfortable circlin' me, and it sure smelled like they had some experience at this game. But they were drunker than they thought. Or overconfident from their previous adventures pickin' on young, low-class guys. Or somethin'. Anyway, they were kinda clumsy and they weren't careful, and they were just kinda playin' around like they was cats and I was some gimpy little birdie, floppin' around on their ground, waitin' for them to finish their playtime and just put me out of my misery.
"So, while they was takin' their time tryin' to torment me, grinnin' and gigglin' and shufflin' and brandishin' their fancy daggers, I shoved the business end of ol' Vergil into Young Equestrian Badass Psycho's throat, just below his chin. All but took his fuckin' head off and the blood spray squirted sideways off the bottom of Vergil's blade, paintin' Junior Senator Two Denarii's tunic with lotsa red spots. I pushed and, just like tonight with that second wall crawler, Psycho Dude collapsed backward, limp as Pinhead's dick.
(There were some snickers in the dark and an offended Hey!)
"When Vergil's head came free from that one's neck, it stopped blockin' the blood flow and the spray exploded like a fuckin' volcano eruptin'. Two Denarii Toughguy went from bein' speckled with red to bein' drenched in it. He shuddered and goggled at Psycho's body fallin' to the street, then he bent over and started pukin' like he was preparin' for the next course at one of them rich people feasts where they gorge and puke and gorge and puke all nite long, 'cept he wasn't never gonna be doin' no gorgin' ever again.
"I skipped over him right then cuz he wasn't no immediate threat, what with all the attention he was payin' to empytin' his delicate tummy, and I swung Vergil sideways in a slice at the throat of the one who first started jawin' at me. That one had sobered up some, seein' me practically behead Badass Psycho, and he tried to duck. He was fast enough to make me miss his neck but ol' Vergil caught him upside the head and his duck turned into a collapse as he just kept goin' down. His grip relaxed and his dagger clanked on the street. He was fuzzy but not unconscious and he wobbled around, tryin' to sit up. He stopped doin' even that when I shoved ol' Vergil into his right kidney.
"Now, y'all are smart, tough legionaries, all trained and shit, so you know that a kidney strike will shock yer victim into silence and immobilize him; and after that, you can finish him quick with another strike or just let him bleed out. Killer's choice. Me, I didn't know that back then but I saw him go limp and quiet and that was good enough to let me return my attention to Two Denarii who was still worshippin' Bacchus, if ya know what I mean.
"Except for the moderate, clunky whang! sound as Vergil bounced off Number Three's skull, the gaggin' noises from Two Denarii's pukin' efforts was the loudest sound on the street. Tongueless Laruta!, that was probably part of why they chose this street and me, cuz of the quiet. Anyway, The Last Living Rich Prick is standin' there, all bent over in his red and white tunic, splashin' my recently-cleaned street with all the nasty shit he'd been eatin' and drinkin', so I got Vergil to make that nice, kinda hollow whang! sound again; and Two Denarii flops down into his puke puddle and I'm thinkin', whoa!, nobody's ever gonna get that tunic white again. Vergil figures the guy needs one more just to be sure, so we repeat the whang!. Then we turn and give Kidney Dude another whang!, just cuz it is a really interestin' sound and maybe he needs it. I can’t really even pretend Psycho Eyes could possibly use a whang!, so I take a deep breath and just stand there for a minute. It's over.
"Now my brain is happy, lookin' at those three lumps on the street, cuz they was for sure gonna cut me bad, at least, and probably they figured to kill me; so killin' them was righteous. It was self-defense, pure and simple. But my gut disagreed. I started shakin' and my head was poundin' and before I knew it, I was addin' to Two Denarii's lake of vomit. I donated a coupla times before my insides settled some.
"Yeah, yeah. Again, y'all are hardass legionaries and you know that that shit happens to everybody. Now, you know it. But you all had your first time and that was mine.
"But, like I said, my brain was still workin' ok and I knew I was pretty much fucked. Me gettin' out of killin' three swells was about as likely as me becoming a swell myself and having nymphs throwin' themselves at me. I decided I hadda just make it go away, like it never happened. So, I loaded those fellas and those beautiful, expensive daggers onto my shit cart, threw the cover over 'em and put Vergil on top of 'em so's he could help keep the cover on and so he could also enjoy riding on those guys who thought they were better than us.
"I knew where I needed to go and started pushing the cart that way. I wanted to keep those fancy daggers and sell 'em real bad but I knew that'd get me arrested for sure. Me with one dagger like that was a crucifixion waitin' to happen. Three of 'em? Shit! Forget it. The daggers got left in three different alleys in a hard part of town. If I remembered to make a small offering sacrifice to her, Laverna would take care of shiftin' the blame to folks other than me, if the bodies were ever discovered and identified. Might work that way even without the divine intervention. When I got where I was goin', I stripped them fellas and buried that stuff, although I did empty the purses first. Coins got no provenance, right?
"I dropped my three dance partners into the Cloaca Maxima. I knew they wouldn’t be lonely there. The chance of them bein' discovered was so small it was like a sure bet on a fixed race. Even in the odd circumstance where they did get dragged out of the Tiber or somethin', the chance of them bein' identified was, again, small enough to bet a lot of new-found denarii on. I headed back to my part of town and abandoned my shit cart along the way. Durin' the trip to the body dump site, I'd decided that me and Vergil would sign up for the legions the next day. We were tired of shovellin' shit and we'd discovered we were good at killin'. The legions seemed like a sensible choice.
"That was a long time ago and it's been mostly good times. I started out a common grunt, just like y'all, but after a while I got promoted to Third. Now, I'm the Optio. I like where I am. I'm happy in the legions. Vergil is, too, even though he ain't been promoted. From the day we signed up til now, he's just been Vergil, the Travelling Shovel of Death. But rank don't matter, nobody fucks with Vergil.
"Now, y'all get some sleep. There ain't much more night left and we got some killin' to do in the mornin'."