Authors: Ahimsa Kerp
EMPIRE OF THE UNDEAD
Copyright 2014 by Ahimsa Kerp
Prologue: Allies of Hatred
Dacia: 88 CE, Spring
Thresu strode into the dusty barn, saddlebag carefully slung over his shoulder. He had let his horse run free. It was a good beast, and it deserved a chance to survive. The tall man stopped after a few steps and blinked, squinting into the darkness. Afternoon sunlight hazed through slats, lighting the rough wooden burls and knobs, but long shadows cast a dark pallor before his eyes. The smell of straw and dung filled his nostrils. The horses tied up here looked different from what he was used to, as they were smaller and shaggier. It was clear that he was no longer in Italy.
The others were there waiting for him, as he had hoped. Only two, but with them, silent and unseen, were tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Whole cultures no longer had a voice, but desired vengeance all the same. They were all here, in this obscure stable in this obscure land. The men rose from their seat and each nodded. One was tall and lean, with skin as black as a starless night. He smiled but rarely. The other man was equally tall. He was thick with muscle and fat, his skin was pale, his hair black, and his eyes green. He wore many rings and armbands of silver and gold. Thresu knew not their names, but he knew their cause.
"All civilizations must come to an end," Thresu said after they had exchanged greetings. As he said it, his stomach churned and he realized he was nervous. He almost laughed at the absurdity of that. To have come so far and balk now was just unthinkable.
"We have come a long way to this place," the black man said, "and my bones know a chill they never wanted to meet."
"Aye," the big man agreed. "Why here? We are half a world away from Rome.”
"Are you blind? This land is suffering from the blight that destroyed each of ours," Thresu said, taken aback. "The battle of Tapae was only the beginning of the end for the Dacians. Diurpaneus is a strong warrior, but he is no Vercingetorix, no Boudicca, no Hannibal, and certainly no Larth Tulumnes. They failed, and he too will fail."
"So your man said," the big black-haired man stated. The smell from the pig fat in his braids was dizzying. "And here we are. But it is a long way." His Latin was barbaric.
“If we start in Rome, the city will fall. If we start here, the city will fall. The difference? This way the Romans taste the fear that comes before death. It will come for them, a swarm of crawling hatred. The Romans will seek relief and all they will find is destruction. Thus, shall we have our revenge.”
"I like my revenge more personal," the black man said. "I want to thrust the dagger in myself."
Thresu smiled. "Of course. We three shall not be mindless. We three shall go to Rome straightaway. They may kill us, but the wave that follows us will drown the Empire forever."
The men nodded, mollified. Thresu reached into his saddlebag. "I have a vial for each of us." His companions stared in fascination at the small vials. The substance was amber-hued, and looked like liquid honey.
The black man shook his head in disbelief. "Such a small thing, to destroy an Empire," he said in a low voice.
"A small thing, indeed," Thresu replied. "But generations of my ancestors lived and died dreaming of this. The cost could have acquired an army big enough to crush the city. But death is far too easy. This is what they deserve. Our wave begins here, and it will grow and grow until it sweeps into Italy and washes the Romans away forever. With this small thing, we will bring the Roman Empire to its knees." It had been hard paying the price—he’d spent gold that his grandfather had inherited, gold earmarked for vengeance for two hundred years. He knew though that after today, he would have no need of gold, or of anything. The die was truly cast.
"And once on its knees, we will lop its head off!" The large white man said forcefully.
Thresu nodded agreement and handed each of them a vial. His heart was beating rapidly and sweat gathered in his armpits. If he didn't drink it soon, he realized, he might lose his nerve entirely. He could feel energy coursing through his body and he suppressed the urge to laugh.
He raised the vial into the dark air of the barn. "This is for my people and my culture, usurped by blood-thirsty upstarts. This is for the greatest city that ever existed, Veii, which is now but a shadow of a memory."
His arm remained firmly raised while the dark man likewise raised his vial. His long slender fingers curled around the small vessel, hiding it. "This is for my people, and my culture, who were wiped off the face of the Earth for daring to compete against Rome. This is for my city, Carthage, the jewel of Africa, and scion of the Phoenicians."
The burly man joined them. "This is for my people, the Brigantes. Our holy men slaughtered, our histories burned, our people betrayed and enslaved. With their roads and cities, the Romans bring only evil," he said.
"Let us unleash that evil and destruction back upon them," Thresu said. His voice sounded strange in his ears. He felt that he was somehow watching himself from afar. He wondered if maybe there was some other way, but it was too late, far too late.
The men drank simultaneously. Soon it came, the blackness that soothingly obliterated consciousness. Three bodies slumped into the soft straw as the sunset lit the stable in gold and crimson. A robin trilled soothingly from its nest in the roof.
It was such a peaceful beginning to the end of the world.
PART I: ALL ROADS
Iudaea: 73 CE, Summer
It was a scorching hot afternoon and there was trouble at the docks in Joppa. The Roman Legion X Fretensis was departing after long months in the desert, and departing quickly, with more than three thousand men, siege engines, auxiliaries, pack animals, whores, and prisoners. The legions were bound for places like Iberia, Gaul, Britannia, or Dacia. Some few were even heading to the Eternal City, to Rome herself.
Only two days before, with the army inland, the port town had been a half-empty wreck that had been twice burned, and the inhabitants fled or dead. Today, however, the forces of Rome were on the march and the city was a chaotic wreck. Each unit marched with banners proudly unfurled. There were dozens displaying ships, still more decorated with bulls, and some few dared capture Neptune’s attention with the visage of the Sea God.
Haphazard stalls had been set up in the ashes, amidst still smoldering ruins, to sell water, food, and wine. One sweaty, bearded man was beating the side of a marauding camel as it sipped from a broken wine amphora. The streets of Joppa had never been meant to accommodate so many, and the bay was equally stuffed with ships of all sizes.
For all the teeming humanity, the Roman army was nothing if not efficient, and they were well-practiced in dividing the spoils of war. Adult slaves were carried in cages, and those younger were chained together, or simply led onto already over-full ships. Piles of the plunder looted from the fortress of Masada were added, and then the centurions themselves began to board. Many slaves were sold outright to the slavers that accompanied every army, but the veteran men of Legion X Fretensis knew they could sell their slaves for much more once they reached Rhodes or Rome.
One skinny boy, too small for chains, was drowning in the sea of humanity. Jotham avoided the swaggering soldiers to the best of his ability, but there were too many and one stepped into him. A heavy metallic gauntlet smashed him in the side of the head. As light and pain blossomed, he stumbled blindly and collapsed onto the charred, splintered gangplank that led onto the ship. The heat sapped his strength. He could not find the strength to rise. His life, such as it had been, ended here.
A centurion stooped to grab him, but Jotham fought with unexpected strength, kicking while he clung to the ground. Before them, slaves and soldiers came to a stop. Shouted curses rose as more people found their routes blocked. Then, Larcius Lepidus himself, the legate of Legion X Fretensis and governor to the region, burst from the crowd. He shouted and the two soldiers dragged the boy onto the ship, each holding one of his tiny arms. Splinters and friction cut into Jotham’s flesh, but he did not cry out. He did not make a sound at all.
Behind him, the trouble was not over. Some older boys followed his example, and a group of them in chains threw themselves down. They were considerably more difficult to move, and before the legion could restore order, they were joined by adults—the men and women too old or weak to have been caged. The boy saw nothing of this, as he sat sightlessly on his ship in a cage of his own. Nor did he see Lepidus kill two of the protesters, stabbing them in the chest and the throat.
Larcius Lepidus was wiping his sword clean, as the ship with the boy eased its way through the crowded bay and into the Mare Nostrum.
Jotham sat quietly as the ship tossed on the noisy sea. They were never far from one of the hundreds of islands, and always the shrieking gulls followed them. The crashing of the waves was a new sound for Jotham, and it was overwhelming. Some soldiers fed them food scraps and laughed to watch the birds fight the slaves for stale crusts of bread. The ship was low in the water being weighed down with siege equipment, spoils of war, and too many people. The adult slaves were below deck, rowing in the dark, but the children were able to breathe the fresh salty air and feel the sun on their skin.
He was caged, to be sure, but the cage was big enough to hold many more people, and there were only eight other boys with him. He didn’t recognize any of them. The only boy he’d known had died the first night—one of the four skinny and scrawny skeletons for whom death had in the end, only been a technicality. A squat soldier had thrown their corpses over the side in the early dawn light. Rations on the ship, though consisting of stale bread and occasional left-over fish, were better than the boys had eaten for months, and those still living ate greedily, though most puked up their meals again later. None had their sea stomachs yet.
Jotham reached down and picked more splinters out of his leg. Some of them were too deep to grab and he bent down, snapping savagely with his teeth. The centurion who had dragged him onto to the ship saw his strange actions as he walked by.
"Those splinters are nasty. Though you deserve what you got--you nearly started a battle," he laughed. He was not old, but his face was scarred and his nose far too big. The beginnings of a red beard curled around his sunburned chin.
The boy said nothing.
"Well, despite that, you're a lucky boy. In fact, I’ll call you Felix. You're going to Rome, Felix, if you can survive this voyage."
"My name is not Felix," the boy replied softly, his voice cracking. It was the first time he had spoken for six days.
"Rome," the centurion continued. He eased closer to the boy, raising his voice to be heard over the gulls and the waves. "I've been there twice, you know. The first time, I was not much older than you. Someday, I'll bring my boy there too--"
He got no further. Snarling, the boy leaped at the soldier. Jotham scratched at his face through the bars of the cage. He screamed at the man, in passable Latin.
"My name isn't Felix. It's Jotham. And I don’t want to be here!” A nearby centurion chuckled.
"You've got a wild one there, Iullianus."
The man grabbed Jotham by his hair and pulled his head back. "Calm down, Felix. We could have let you starve in the desert. Is that what you want?" The man leaned low and spoke in a low, grave tone.
"No one will buy a wild child like you. If no one buys you, they will kill you at the market, or pimp you out to some lowlife buttfucking Greek. If you want to fight back, be silent and wait for your turn to strike. You think you're the first this has happened to?" He released his grip on Jotham and walked away.
Jotham looked at the other boys, embarrassed. None met his gaze. He stared out into the sea and tried his hardest to feel sad. His anger drained, and he felt nothing, save for an overwhelming numbness. He wondered why he didn't miss his family.
The war hadn't been going well. Even Jotham had figured that out, though to the end, when they lived on a handful of grain a day, his parents had insisted they would win. "Rome is evil. You can recognize evil from the very sight of it. Good will always prevail over evil," his father had repeated many times. You can recognize evil from the very sight of it, the boy thought again and again, treasuring the thought like a mantra. And good will always prevail over evil.
"And they don't have Elazar," his mother would often add.
Jotham had met Elazar ben Simon. His voice was too unctuous, too high, and full of whining. Jotham didn't like the way Elazar had looked at his mother. He had to stop thinking about what happened next, and instead, stared at the horizon, listlessly, until the red sun collapsed exhaustedly into the wet waves. He had never seen the sun look that color before, but it did not surprise him. The whole world was now red like blood.
The next afternoon, they landed on an island with a magnificent city. He thought it must be Rome, but soon learned it was a place called Rhodes. Jotham had heard the soldiers mention it, and they said that it was the biggest slave market in the world. It was a gruesome place where tens of thousands of slaves a day were sold. Jotham never knew the exact numbers, but many of the rowing slaves had died. They soldiers saw their profits dwindling, and they wanted to stock up on more before they reached the markets of Rome.
A few centurions left the ship, but they returned quickly. They had more slaves in chains with them. Most were adults that disappeared below decks, but one was a tall boy with very dark skin. He was thrown into the same cage as Jotham. The boy sat there, by the bars without looking at any of his cellmates. His body began to shake and a strange sound came from him.
He was crying. Jotham moved warily to the newcomer, ready to spring back if necessary. The boy's eyes were closed and Jotham looked at him more carefully. His skin was black and he was very tall, but he didn’t seem very old.
The boy’s eyes snapped open. He stopped crying. "What," he demanded. "What are you looking at?"
"Why are you here?" Jotham asked. "You weren't in the, the siege."
"What siege?" the dark-skinned boy asked.
Jotham could not hide his surprise. Was he being mocked? "The fortress of Masada. With walls as high as," Jotham paused, summoning an apt comparison. "Walls as high as the clouds. Built by Herod the Great, a long time ago."
"By whom?" the boy asked wearily. His eyes were closed. He clearly was not interested in the story, but Jotham found himself talking anyway. It felt good, somewhere deep inside, to speak of it to someone.
"You are stupid, if you don't know Herod. He built the great fortress but then the Romans came and took it away. Anyway, after I was born, but before I can remember, some people called the Sicarii killed the Romans who lived there."
The boy opened his eyes and smiled. Now he was beginning to get interested. "Killing the Romans is good," he said.
"You really don't know about this?" Jotham asked, fearing that he was being made fun of. The boy glared at him. Don't be stupid, his eyes said.
"Well, some of us came from Jerusalem and helped in the fight against the Romans. We were trying to get them to leave us alone." They’d in truth been among the very few to escape. The Romans were capturing and crucifying Jews by the hundred, every day.
"We have been trying that too," the boy beside him said. “They don’t listen.”
"Where are you from?" Jotham asked, interrupting his own tale. "My name is Jotham."
"I am Sefu. I live in the great desert, and with my father and two brothers we rode across it, bringing ore and salt to trade."
"Oh yes, I know of the great desert," said Jotham, who didn't, but wanted to impress this boy. "What happened?"
"What do you think? Centurions came, many of them. We fought them, but they killed my father and my elder brother. Toqe got away, I think, though men followed. Me, they wrapped in chains and put me in a boat. I got here three days ago and now I'm in another boat." His voice was matter-of-fact, dispassionate.
"The same thing, nearly, for me. The governor, Silva, came with his legion, and for a long time they couldn't get up, because the walls were so high," Jotham said.
"As high as the clouds," Sefu said.
"That’s right, but they had big machines that knocked holes in our walls. They built a big plank and came up. Knocked down our walls and took us prisoner. My mother and father, they died," Jotham ventured this information out tentatively, because saying it might make it more true. “I hate the Romans!” he said, too loudly. The Romans hadn’t actually killed his family, of course, but it had been their fault.
"How many did you kill?" the tall boy asked. His teeth were very white.
"Me? None. I am only eight." He had tried at the end, though. Children even younger than Jotham had grabbed knives or rocks. Many never intended to use them on anyone but themselves, but Jotham had attacked a centurion armed with only a stick.
"I am ten, and I killed three men. With my spear," Sefu said.
Jotham looked at the boy in awe, his eyes growing big. "You are a great warrior," he said at last.
A shout brought their attention to the sea. A pod of dolphins swam with them, splashing and playing in the sea. Jotham frowned, angry that mere animals could be happy and free, when both had been denied to him. Yet, he felt encouraged. Such freedom in the world, even if for dumb animals, made his own circumstances feel tolerable. Seeing the animals jumping in the ocean surf showed him a much needed balance, and he knew it was something he would never forget.
He was never able to remember how many days it took from Rhodes to their final destination. He slept a lot. He was sick a lot. The open sea was frightening, but it was welcome after so much time buried in the darkness. Sometimes, he talked with Sefu, but mostly they sat and stared at the endless horizon. Another boy in the cage died, and the Romans didn't bother taking him out, even though the sea was right there. Jotham feared getting too close to the body, but Sefu had scorned them. "Fear the living, not the dead," the boy had said. It made sense, but Jotham hadn't come any closer to the body. The dead boy had died with an obscene grin, and his eyes were open, blank, and staring. His father’s words echoed in his head. Was a dead body evil, he wondered?
Once he was sent down to the hold to bring up the day’s water for the children. He went slowly. The war machines scared him. Like huge wooden monsters, he’d seen them toss large stones almost two furlongs. Those boulders, along with massive arrows, had nearly destroyed the ramparts on their own, without any help from the Roman army. Elazar said they would have won, if it weren’t for those awful war machines. They were disassembled now, but he could sense their quiet menace. He filled up the cups quickly and hurried back to the safety of his cage.