The screams of women and children echoed in the night as they ran for their lives through the puddles and narrow streets. They flooded past us into the dimly lit agora at the center of town. We stood our ground. Stands that once shelved aged wines and the finest silk lay in pieces strewn across the ground. We had stripped them to construct a small palisade there to shelter those unable to fight. We stood at the opening alongside a handful of the local militia as its only line of defense. Thunder boomed overhead. I could hear the vicious growls of the enemy as they approached us in the darkness. I grabbed the whistle around my neck and loosed its piercing shriek.
“Form up on me!”
My men moved into position in line with me at the gap in the wall. We lined up our tall red shields to plug the hole. There were only five of us left. Hopefully it would be enough to keep them from getting past. Behind us, the thin line of militia readied for battle. I could see the terror painted onto their faces. Most had never seen battle. It’s good we were here. Young children hastily ran down the line, distributing javelins and spears to them. I turned to Decimus, my second in command. His joyful face seemed out of place in the chaos that surrounded us.
“Hey Achaicus, if we die, I’m still going collect on those three denarii you owe me.” He joked, oblivious of the chaos around us.
“If we die, I’ll pay you back in Persian whores when we wake in Elysium.” I responded with a smile.
The wails of dying civilians grew louder. The enemy was close. I looked around at my men. Crassius and Marcus stood to my left. They were identical twins of large stature, they had been terrified by battle in the past but now they stood calm and collected. They had been calloused by our first encounter. Though their faces were void of expression, I could see a burning desire for revenge glimmering in their eyes.
Good, we’ll need that
Decimus and Quintus stood to my right. I had known Decimus for a long time and was honored to fight by his side. He possessed an indomitable spirit that had kept us sane this whole time. His confident grin assured me that there was a chance we might survive the night. Quintus was quite small for a Roman and extraordinarily meek in day to day life. But when backed in a corner, his energy and skill in battle were unmatched. Under his blood stained helmet he furrowed his brow and grit his teeth. He was ready for what was coming, and I trusted that he would fight with us to the death, should it come to that.
The screaming off in the distance suddenly and instantaneously ceased. Replaced by the curious patter of raindrops on steel. I unsheathed my sword and held it high above my head. The panicking civilians in the palisade went quiet. The militia raised their javelins, ready to hurl at my command. The only voice that could be heard was that of a lone infant crying among the refugees.
Moments later we could hear the unsettling mass of growls. A lone figure shambled into the light and stood still. His skin was grey. His open mouth, smothered with blood and overflowing with bubbling saliva. I recognized his mutilated face. I had killed him. The Greek breastplate he wore was punctured and stained with black blood. We had to be wary of his bite or embrace a frenzied existence after death. We had all seen it happen before. We called them the inferi. The dead.
A large group of corpses followed him into the light. A few wore the heavy steel armor of the Roman Army, they were crouched onto their hands from its weight and moved like four legged beasts. They barred their teeth and snarled furiously at us. It was disturbing to see our own transformed into such terrible creatures. If all went well, no more would be added to their ranks this night.
As the group continued to gather in front of us I sliced my sword forward through the air.
The militia unleashed a volley of javelins over our heads. Many struck home in the chests of the nonliving. They fell to the ground from the force of impact, only to rise moments later. Black blood pooled on the floor. Those impaled through the face went limp and collapsed. A sharp blow to the head seemed to be their only weakness.
The Greek soldier in front was impaled through the stomach, forcing him to stumble backwards. He paused for a moment before growling and sprinting straight for us, followed en mass by the horde. The Roman inferi resembled rabid wolves as they charged on all fours, mouths open with hunger and animalistic desire. We beat our swords against our shields in anticipation.
The militia hastily picked up the bronze spears at their feet and rushed behind us forming two tightly packed rows of men. The first row crouched and stuck their spears through the gaps between our shields. The second stood and pointed their spears out at head level. It would be moments before they were upon us. I gritted my teeth.
“Brace for impact!”
As the inferi crashed into our line it took all of our strength to keep from staggering backwards. The Greek soldier had been stopped by a spear through his heart just a couple feet in front of my face. I could smell his wretched breath as he inched closer. Scraping his flesh along the wooden shaft of the spear, nothing seemed to distract him from the desire to sink his decaying teeth into my throat. I thrust my sword under his chin. Straight into the brain. The supernatural glow left his eyes as he went limp. I twisted my sword arm around in the internal mush of his skull for good measure before pulling it out. The spear he had been impaled upon kept him standing upright. I looked around to asses our situation.
Decimus was frantically kicking at a Roman corpse trying to gnaw at his exposed ankles. I came to his aid with a sharp kick to the corpse’s side. It flipped over and lay at Decimus’s feet. He brought his shield down swifly. The head was severed with ease and black blood squirted in every direction. Decimus shot me an appreciative grin. I smiled back and turned my attention to the other men.
Quintus was shielded from the rest of the inferi by a limp corpse that had been stabbed through the forehead in the initial charge. He slashed furiously at the husk of a body in vain.
“Efutue!” He cursed. “It’s not fair Achaicus, this fellatrix is standing between me and the action!”
I nodded reassuringly. At least he was safe and holding the line. I looked to my left. Crassius and Marcus worked together like hunter and hound. Crassius kicked away the arms supporting a crawling Roman corpse. It quickly collapsed under the weight of its bulky steel armor. Without pause Marcus drove his sword home straight through the base of the neck. Three slain Roman inferi were piled at their feet.
I heard a loud snarl in front of me and turned my attention to my own share of the fight. A Roman corpse had attempted to crawl between the legs of suspended the Greek soldier and had gotten stuck just below the Greek’s groin. He snapped at me and I instinctively stabbed downward at the beast’s scalp. The blow merely glanced off his thick steel helmet. He moved his head wildly in an attempt to escape. I placed the bottom half of my shield under his chin and lifted his gaze upward. Once I could see the pure darkness in his eyes I stabbed again. This time the blade struck home between his eyes. His stare lost its urgency as black blood drained to the ground. I pulled my shield back to my body and he slunk to the blood stained floor under the Greek soldier.
We were starting to gain confidence that this night would end in victory until a deafening mass of growls gripped us with renewed fear. At least two full centuries of inferi stood at the edge of the light. Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires side by side. Decimus sliced a standing inferi across the chest as it charged toward him. It spun around and turned to its fellow undead, snarling for aid. They let out an unnervingly human cry and charged.
They smashed into us with the force of a rolling wave. I was knocked back into the militia behind me. They struggled to keep the inferi at bay, but their strength failed in a matter of seconds and the dead rushed into the palisade. Welcomed by a cacophony of screams from the old, the women and the children. They eagerly leapt over us at the opportunity for easy prey. I looked up at the Greek corpse I had killed. Black blood dripped down from his chin and spattered onto my forehead. The sound of Quintus’s voice snapped me out of my daze.
“Achaicus! If we don’t get out of here right now we’ll be inferi chow!” Quintus struggled to push aside the plump corpse pinning him to the ground. “Let’s go!”
We all wiggled around to free ourselves from the immobilizing weight of the corpses. Marcus easily shrugged off two large Roman bodies and frantically grasped my hand to lift me up. He nervously glanced over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. I thanked him and scanned our surroundings to find a route of escape. To our rear, the militia scrambled out from under piles of corpses and ran to protect their loved ones. The refugees were being consumed in an inferi feeding frenzy. Thick spatters of blood and severed limbs flew through the air.
Their desperate screams as they were ripped apart shook my skull to its core.
Some of the militiamen realized the futility in fighting and simply fled out along the main road through town. Crassius and Marcus stared eagerly at the road. I could tell that they wanted to follow the militia through the most direct route through the city. My instincts urged me to run with the herd, but I knew that more inferni could be lying in wait. Breaking off from the main road was a narrow alleyway wedged between two extravagant villas.
“That way!” I pointed my sword its direction.
We bolted to the alleyway, careful not to give any more notice to the slaughter behind us. For the sake of our sanity we absolved ourselves of any responsibility for what had happened to the refugees at the hands of the inferni. When I reached the narrow alleyway I did look back once for good measure. The inferni were still occupied in the palisade and the bloodcurdling screams were ever present in the night. I disappeared into the darkness of the alleyway and my men followed suit.
By the time the sun was just beginning to crest over the craggy hills of the Greek landscape we had put significant distance between us and the doomed city. I sat down on a patch of grass underneath a large oak at the top of a hill and gestured for my men to join me. This was the first time we had stopped moving since our retreat from the city. The morning dew gave the ground a cool, seductive comfort. After a few silent minutes had passed I stood and urged my men forward. We needed to keep moving.
“We’ll head that way” I gestured to the West. “We should make progress towards camp. They need to hear our report before they send out any more-”
“And then what?” Marcus stood to face me. “Regroup with the legion? We fought a few hundred inferni back there, now you ask us to face thousands?”
“We need cohesion and discipline. Five men cannot survive on their own and I’m willing to bet the legion needs as many men as it can muster.”
“Achaicus! The legion is gone! All we know is that wherever there are people there are inferni! I say we go North along the coast, find a ship, and leave this forsaken place!”
“We have a duty to aid the Republic! I will not doom fellow Romans, MY men, to die! Not if I have yet to lend my aid! We can still win this war Marcus!”
“I don’t give a damn about your Republic or your precious war! I’m not looking to die! I’m going North! Anyone who wants to live can join me.”
Crassius stood behind his brother. Quintus and Decimus stood behind me and cautiously placed their hands over the hilts of their swords. I stared at Marcus. He was taken aback by the anger in my response.
“Come with us. We’re going West!”
“Futete! Make me!” Marcus unsheathed his sword.
Everyone drew their weapons and raised their shields. The tension on the hill was amplified by a moment of silence.
“If you desert, I’m going to have to kill you.”
“You can try.”
Marcus threw a powerful swing at my head. I blocked the blow with my shield and thrust my blade at his chest with the intent to kill. Crassius parried my sword with his own and with a single kick, knocked me to the ground. Decimus and Quintus came to my aid. The distinct clamor of steel on steel echoed through the empty landscape. Quintus was a more than a match for Marcus, but Decimus struggled to fend off Crassius’s fury of blows. I scrambled to my feet. A stinging pain from my ribs was excruciating, but I managed to put it to the back of my mind. I held my shield high and charged Crassius. Decimus sensed my attack and sidestepped out of my way. Crassius’s face turned to shock as he instantly realized what was happening.
Just a moment too late my friend
I crashed into him, slamming him forcefully onto the ground. He gazed up at me with a dazed expression as I lifted the hilt of my sword and smashed it down onto his forehead. He flailed his arms against my armor. I did it over and over again, savagely beating the energy out of his large body. Blood poured off of his head and onto the dewy grass. Decimus watched in horror at the animal that had taken hold of me. His skull began to give way and the struggling ceased. Each successive blow resulted in a brittle snapping sound until my hilt had dug itself deep into his face. My attacks slowed as my rage began to fade. I looked down at my blood soaked hands. The pain returned to my ribcage. It felt good, like a twisted reward for a job well done.
Marcus, still fending off Quintus, was enraged by the death of his brother. His blows increased in frequency and strength. Quintus staggered back at every blocked attack. He soon found himself at the edge of a fairly steep portion of the hill. Decimus ran to Quintus’s aid. With both of them on the offensive, Marcus was quickly overwhelmed again. In an act of desperation, he cried out and slammed his body into Quintus. He screamed as he was thrown backward and down the steep edge of the hill. Decimus raised his sword to strike, but was dispatched by a swift kick from Marcus. He too was sent tumbling down the hill. Marcus breathed heavily and hit me with a smoldering glare.
“You killed my brother Achaicus.” He looked down at Quintus and Decimus. They were frantically climbing back up the hill. They would be here soon. “I’m going North. Don’t try to stop me. You kept one of us from leaving, I hope that pleases your damn Republic.”
I sat there, still on top of of Crassius’s lifeless body. I could see the burning rage in Marcus’s eyes. He spat at my feet and walked away. Quintus and Decimus finally made it to the top of the hill ready for a fight. Instead they found me standing, staring down at Crassius’s mutilated face. Was it worth it?
Decimus placed a firm hand on my shoulder.
“You know I’d follow you anywhere right?” The usual joyfulness in Decimus’s voice was replaced by a low, serious tone.
“I have trust in you Achaicus. You’ve kept us alive this long.” Quintus chimed in.
I flashed a weak smile at them. I pointed West with a blood soaked finger and began walking down the hill. Quintus and Decimus looked at each other with concern and then hurried to join me on the road back to camp.