By Nick Brown
“I hate riding,” said Lucius, grimacing as they approached the centurion’s office on foot.
“I expect horses hate you riding them,” said Marius, glancing up at the big North African. “All that weight. And your technique is horrible.”
“I don’t mind a couple of hours or so, but three days? It’s not natural for a soldier. And what are we doing out here, anyway?”
“I expect we’re about to find out.”
They halted outside the office, which—like the other buildings in the army outpost—was very basic in design and constructed of clay brick. The walls were at least made of rock; they had passed the local basalt quarry before their arrival that morning.
Marius nodded down at Lucius’s feet. “Sloppy, guard officer. Very sloppy.”
“Apologies, optio.” Lucius leaned over to tie his boot.
Marius knocked on the door, entering only when the centurion told him to.
Once inside, the pair stood, waiting while the officer finished writing something on a waxed tablet. He downed a little wine from a wooden mug before addressing them.
“Optio Terentius I know. And this is?”
“Guard Officer Corvinus,” answered Marius. He had met Centurion Sariolenus only once, at the legion headquarters in Antioch where Marius’s unit was based. The officer was an imposing character with a surprisingly large stomach, which he now rested his hands upon.
“Glad to have you here. All my troops are away to the south, dealing with the Persians. The job I have for you for is a bit of an odd one. Do you know what a qanat is?”
Though Lucius frowned, Marius knew the answer.
“Irrigation channel, sir.”
“Quite right. They’re all over the north of the province—work very much like an aqueduct but on a smaller scale. They get water to all the places we need it. And one section east of here is in great need of repair. We’ve got a hundred locals working over there—except they’re not working right now. There have been rumours of some beast or demon in the area.”
Sariolenus rolled his eyes. “Now two laborers have disappeared. The locals are refusing to work—they’ve gone back to their villages. The governor’s man even offered them a bonus, but you know how these Easterners are. Chances are, it’s bandits or some tribe, maybe even Persian irregulars trying to disrupt our water supply or tie up troops. In any case, I need you to investigate, Terentius. Sort this mess out. How many troops do you have with you?”
“That should do it.” Sariolenus leaned forward onto his desk. “There’s a local guide—Binator. He’ll take you out there.”
“He’s not concerned about this…demon?”
“Binator’s main concern is money. We pay him well—best guide in the province.”
“Oh, and don’t bother with mounts,” added Sariolenus. “Some of the old channels are covered in sand. Death trap for horses. We’ve had dozens of snapped legs already. What are you smiling at, guard officer?”
To his credit, Lucius wiped that smile of his face very quickly.
By sunset, Marius and his squad had covered ten miles. Upon first hearing of the Syrian desert he’d imagined miles of dunes, but since arriving in the province he’d seen the sand was dark and scattered with vegetation. The area where the laborers had disappeared was only another six miles, and Marius intended to cover those early in the morning. As the march had come straight after their lengthy ride, a couple of the soldiers complained, but some hard words from their optio shut them up. Though he often cut Lucius some slack (as a veteran and friend), Marius tended to employ both the carrot and the stick with the younger legionaries. One of the quarterly paydays was coming up, which gave him even more influence over them.
Lucius was proudly carrying a new shield he had purchased in Antioch. He was always interested in local weapons and had temporarily replaced his standard-issue circular wooden shield with a long, oval design. This one was reinforced with iron, and the front was painted bright blue.
Binator was a fine guide, and he found them a hollow within some low hills for their camp. He also set up a fire and helped the legionaries cook a meal of pork and bean stew. With two soldiers on sentry duty, Lucius doled out wine and the soldiers gambled with dice. Marius was content to rest his aching bones, though he did listen up when Binator revealed more about the strange events.
“I was called in when the second man went missing. He’d been checking a section of channel alone. Went out in the morning, never seen again. All we found was a patch of blood on the sand. A lot of blood.”
The younger legionaries exchanged nervous glances.
“Funny,” said Lucius with a sharp glance at Marius. “The centurion never mentioned that.”
They reached their destination in good time: an ancient, ruined temple from which the workers had cannibalized old stone for the qanat. According to Binator, the temple had been constructed by devotees of a long-forgotten religion and had sat unoccupied for centuries. Eroded buildings and sections of wall flanked its half-collapsed structure. Despite the ravages of time and the desert, a few columns were still standing, along with altars and shadowy tombs.
As they arrived, a couple of the legionaries remarked that a chill had come over them. Even the experienced Binator gripped the good-luck charm around his neck.
During the journey, the squad had seen several of the irrigation channels. They were lined with brick and cement, and many were indeed in disrepair. Even though it was early summer, water could be seen in most. Though he’d seen the great aqueducts of the empire, Marius was impressed by the scale of the irrigation system.
After a discussion with Lucius, he decided they would split into two teams and work their way out from the temple complex, searching for any evidence or trail that might be of use. They would leave their packs and heavier equipment behind in order to move quickly. Lucius, however, insisted on taking his new shield. Marius was to go east with two soldiers and Binator, while Lucius would head north with the remaining legionaries.
Not far from the edge of the ruins, Marius came across a stone circle perhaps ten feet across. Certain blocks and other pieces had been removed, revealing unusual carvings underneath. And in the middle of the circle was a small hole that seemed to go a long way down. Marius gazed at the carvings. There seemed to be no discernible images, just swirling patterns and shapes. After looking at them for a while, he began to feel giddy. Putting it down to the heat, he drank some water, then led his team off to the east.
The search was not helped by the light rain that began to fall in midafternoon. For two hours, nothing significant was found. Then, a mile or so east of the temple, a legionary named Bulla pulled a sandal out of the sand. Its leather base was covered in dried blood. Marius immediately sent another soldier, Ferus, to fetch Lucius’s group, and all nine of them continued east in a well-spaced line, searching the ground.
Though the rain eventually ceased, a strong wind arose, blowing straight at them. Soon there was sand in the air, and visibility worsened rapidly. Marius was debating what to do with Lucius when the wind grew even stronger.
“The haboob,” said Binator, shielding his face with his hand. “It means ‘blasting’ in your language.”
“I know,” said Marius. “A sandstorm.”
“And it looks like a bad one,” added the Syrian. I suggest we return to the temple.”
Marius knew he had to trust the local.
The group of nine marched; then they ran, the wind now blowing so hard that it was difficult to stay upright. Thankfully, they eventually found the track that led to back to the complex. When they were close, Binator led them off the road. Marius had been struck in his left eye by sand and was struggling to find his way.
“You all right?” yelled Lucius, gripping his arm as they ran.
“I’m fine. Just keep them together!”
Marius’s eye ached badly, and he could see nothing out of it. He did, however, keep the lean frame of Binator in view and now followed him around a wall of stone into a sheltered area. Seconds later, Ferus, Bulla, and Molacus arrived. Molacus dropped to his knees, exhausted. Then came Auctus, who was coughing badly. Marius took his canteen from his belt and washed his eye out. When his vision began to clear, he saw Binator and Lucius rush into the shelter, each assisting Umbrinus, the youngest of the legionaries.
The youthful soldier was apologizing profusely.
“This one almost fell into a channel,” explained Lucius.
“Did you hear it?” Auctus shook sand out of his hair.
“Hear what?” asked Marius.
“I don’t know. It didn’t sound…human.”
“Calm yourself, lad.” Lucius looked stern. “That’s your nerves talking.”
“The wind can play tricks,” said Binator.
“No,” replied Auctus quietly. “There’s something out there.”
“Nonsense!” snapped Lucius. “Hang on, where’s Durio?”
“Shall I go and look?” offered Binator.
“Not yet.” Marius began shouting Durio’s name, and soon the others joined in.
They kept at it for more than an hour, but the legionary did not appear.
Night fell, and the wind with it. Marius split his team in two again, and they searched the surrounding area for their fellow soldier. They found nothing and gathered once more in grave silence. He had the troops collect their gear, then led them into the main temple building. The roof had caved in long ago, but one end had enough space for them. Marius was certain it was the safest spot.
He ordered the soldiers to light a lamp and prepare a meal, but no one felt like eating. Binator simply stood in the doorway, staring out at the darkness, shaking his head. Molacus offered a prayer to Jupiter that his friend be returned to them safely.
Marius couldn’t stop thinking about the missing man. What if Durio was injured, still alive and alone?
“Thanks,” he said to Lucius.
“Volunteering yourself. You and I are going to keep looking for him.”
The big man hesitated only a moment. “Very well.” He grabbed his shield and threw his sword belt over his shoulder.
“Sir, you’re not seriously going out there?” stammered Umbrinus.
Marius ignored him. It was a clear night, and the moon provided enough light to see by. “The rest of you will stay here.”
He and Lucius put their helmets on.
The guard officer gestured to the doorway. “After you, sir.”
The contrast with the afternoon could not have been greater. The wind had died off completely; the ruins and the surrounding desert seemed gripped by an oppressive silence. Marius decided to head for the road, retrace their steps. The moonlight caught the pale stone of fallen columns and tombstones, and he found his eyes flitting in every direction.
“Not good,” said Lucius, adjusting his helmet strap. “Even if he got lost, he’d surely have found us by now.”
Reaching the road, Marius turned east. He had taken only a few steps when the shout went up.
The optio knew his troops well. Ferus was a brave soldier; he wouldn’t call out so desperately unless something was terribly wrong. Marius and Lucius were already on their way, weapons at the ready.
They were halfway back to the temple when Ferus went quiet. Then came a series of screams. Though every one chilled Marius to the core, he did not miss a step. As they neared the temple, he also heard a bestial roar that could not have been made by a human.
Lucius by his side, Marius approached the temple entrance. A figure lurched out, noisily spewing blood, then collapsed to the ground.
Then it came at them: a growling, four-legged horror that shot out of the temple and leaped at Marius. He ducked down and thrust his sword upward. Though sure he’d connected, he turned and watched the creature spin around to attack once more. Now he saw the mane and realized he was dealing with a lion. Marius had seen lions in the arena, and even in the darkness, he could see it was several hands longer and taller than most.
He was wondering where exactly Lucius had disappeared to when the guard officer materialized behind the beast, sword in one hand, new shield in the other. He sliced at the big cat’s tail, causing it to roar, then jump at him. Lucius deflected the attack with his shield but the impact sent him staggering away.
Marius darted forward and swung two-handed at the beast, catching its haunch. Smelling blood, he hoped it had come from the lion. No sooner had it spun around to face him than Lucius, recovered, struck once more.
Marius realized they had a winning strategy. But before they could press their two-sided attack, the lion sprang at Lucius. From the sound of the contact, Marius knew it had struck his shield. Then he heard his compatriot hit the ground. As he advanced, the beast shot away, clearly fearful of another blow to its rear.
“Lucius, you all right?”
“Cut me up a bit but…yes. Thought we had it then.”
The beast’s eyes flashed in the darkness as it reappeared and stalked toward them.
Marius had already concluded that the two-sided attack strategy was still correct. The location, however, could be bettered.
“Behind us—there are two fallen columns side by side. I’ll draw it in. You go—”
“Got it, chief.”
Snatching up Lucius’s shield, Marius advanced toward the lion and swung a couple of times to get its attention. Then he backed away, keeping it at bay with the shield. A powerful swipe of the beast’s paw almost knocked it from his hand, but he kept up his retreat, looking over his shoulder to ensure he was aiming for the pair of columns. Lucius had sensibly stayed clear, and the lion now seemed intent on making Marius its next victim.
He backed between the columns, a space no more than five feet wide. Here the shield was hard to use, so he dropped it and hacked at the lion. Hissing and growling, it seemed about to attack again when Lucius returned to the fray. His first blow evidently did a lot of damage, drawing a pained whimper from the beast. And now it was truly trapped.
The legionaries attacked simultaneously, both blades cutting into the lion’s flesh. As it shrieked and howled, Marius glimpsed the great white incisors within its mouth. But he and Lucius did not hesitate. They jabbed, sliced, and stabbed at the beast until it fell against one of the columns, then at last slid to the ground. Marius’s last stab was into its heart. The lion moved no more.
Hearing movement behind him, he turned.
“Auctus, sir. I crawled out through a gap in the rubble. Bulla’s still alive, too. The others are…”
“All right, lad. All right. It’s over.”
Bulla had been bitten badly on the leg but was able to walk. Auctus had been pawed across the chest but he, too, was in passable shape. All the others were dead. Marius and Lucius escorted the injured soldiers to a nearby tomb, where they spent the night. Lucius’s forearm had been sliced open by two of the creature’s claws. Once there was enough light, Marius cleaned and stitched their wounds.
Returning to the temple at dawn, they found a bloodbath. For a time, Marius just couldn’t do anything. He had not expected this mission to go so horribly wrong. Eventually, Lucius began dragging the bodies out, and Marius helped him. It was then that they realized there was no sign of Binator, dead or alive.
“Maybe he was injured and crawled off somewhere to die,” suggested Lucius.
Marius didn’t have the energy to consider yet another mystery.
“Or maybe he just ran off,” said Bulla. “He is an Easterner, after all.”
The four survivors had already begun digging graves when Lucius called Marius over.
“By the gods. Look at this thing.”
Other than noting its huge size, Marius hadn’t really examined the lion. Much of the corpse was covered with blood, but upon its face was a sight that took his breath away.
The beast had four eyes: two sets, one above the other. All four were glassy and still. Just as strange, in places it was covered with reptilian scales instead of fur.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” asked Marius.
“No,” replied Lucius. “Not in Africa. Not anywhere. Tell you one thing, though. When we’re done, I’m skinning that thing and taking the head for a trophy. When my enemies see that on my helmet, they’ll run in fear.”
“Some kind of aberration,” said Marius. “Maybe it was in pain. Maybe that’s why it killed.”
“Nah,” said Lucius. “Lions are like soldiers. Killing’s what they do.”
Marius looked up to see Auctus pointing at a figure approaching from the south. Poor Binator looked as exhausted as Marius felt. He was limping and his tunic was torn in several places.
“What happened to you?” asked Lucius.
Binator halted and took several deep breaths before replying. “I found a way out at the rear of the temple. Got clear and just kept running. Fell into a channel and stayed there all night.”
The guide walked over to the lion and gazed down at it. “At least you got one.”
“What do you mean?” asked Lucius.
“I found a second set of tracks.”