THERE ARE WORSE THINGS THAN HELL By Patrick Turner
June 25, 2012 Longer stories Tags: contest winner, Patrick Turner
“And in the second year it reached Byzantium in the midst of spring, where I happened to be staying at the time. And it came thusly. Many people saw demonic beings in human form of every kind, and as it happened, those who encountered them were struck, in this or that part of the body, by the man they had met; and were so seized by the disease. Now at first those who met these creatures tried to turn them aside by uttering the holiest of names and exorcising them in other ways as best one could, but they accomplished absolutely nothing, for even in sanctuaries, where most of them fled for refuge, they were dying constantly. But later on they were unwilling to even listen to their friends when they called them, and they shut themselves up in their rooms and pretended not to hear, although the doors were being beaten down, fearing that he who was calling was one of the living dead…” – Procopius’ Account of the Plague in Constantinople during the Reign of Justinian
May, 542 AD
His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Justinius Augustus I, known to history as Justinian, stood on a plain balcony attached to the upper most tower of the Imperial Palace and looked out upon the death of his city, Constantinople. The horizon was awash in the orange glow of massive fires that raged unchecked through the various districts of the city. They were backdropped by a blood red setting sun, made that way by the pillars of smoke rising from all over the city that reddened the sun’s waning rays. The acrid odor of burning wood, flesh, and God only knows what else assailed his nostrils. The odors were so overwhelming and toxic, that the Emperor had a scarf wrapped tightly around his nose and mouth to keep out the choking ash and awful death odors of his beloved city. He heard a scuffling behind him and turned his head to see Alexandros, the tribune of the Palace Guards on bended knee, his eyes cast to the Emperor’s feet.
“Sire”, came from Alexandros’ lips. He was encrusted in ash from head to foot. His imperial armor was stained with blood and grime and reeked of the rot of the grave. He was gasping for breath, having made the long climb from the main streets below to this highest vantage point of virtually all of Constantinople. The Emperor turned back to the scene of devastation laid out before him. He could see the massive crowds of the Nekros as they funneled through the narrow streets and back alleys of the richest neighborhoods of the city that sat at the foot of the massive Grand Palace structure. The sounds of battle paens, songs of war, could be heared echoing on the breeze. These songs were being sung by the men of his Imperial Body Guard as they rhythmically hacked and slashed their way through the massive pockets of Nekros that flowed like flocks of locusts outside the palace walls. He looked to his right and his beloved Hagia Sophia, the greatest architectural achievement in history, was in flames. Knots of wandering Nekros inhabited the streets and grounds of the structure. The battle for it had been grisly, and many of his own men were among those crowds, still clad in the armor they wore when taken down by the giant crowds when the makeshift barricades broke under the weight of thousands.
“What have you to report Alexandros?” the Emperor said. His voice muffled through the purple scarf wrapped around his face. Leaving only his eyes and hair exposed to the acrid air.
“The Provincial Generals have arrived to give their reports, Your Majesty. They await you in the throne room. It was a very near thing getting through the gates Sire, we lost quite a few men. The crowds of Nekros grow in size in the streets Lord, and it is becoming more difficult to move around safely, even for heavily armored troops.”, Alexandros said.
What news will they bring me today? Even as the Empire is being assaulted by the greatest disaster it has ever known throughout it’s history. They plot and scheme on ways to enrich and empower themselves. The Emperor turned to face his Tribune.
“Very well, tell them I am presently on my way.”
“Yes Lord.” and Alexandros dipped his head in deference and quickly hurried out through a curtained arch.
The situation grows worse by the day. My greatest General trapped in Italy by hordes of either barbarians or victims of this damnable pestilence. Half the population of my city dead or afflicted. The other half fled.The Senate nobility scattered in hiding or dead themselves. The richest districts of the City, indeed, the Empire, in flames or overrun by crowds of Nekros. Lord God, why have you brought this thing upon me? The Emperor asked in desperation within his mind as two armed bodyguards fell in behind him as he came through the archway and continued down a long corridor. The sound of their sandaled footsteps echoing through the massive, gilded hallways.
They passed outside into a large courtyard, marble fountains trickled amid carefuly pruned and trained bushes, grasses and flowers. The smell of flowers and fresh water here was almost enough to blot out the stench of the rotting corpse that once was Constantinople. Egypt, gone. The grain shipments the city relied upon for it’s very existence stopped. No word from Alexandria in almost 3 months. Syria returning to desert. Italy holding out but only because of the superior generalship of my favored knight, brave Belisarius.
The Emperor and his guards crossed the couryard to a wooden door and one of the guards hurried to open it for the Emperor. The door was opened and he passed through, the man who opened it quickly falling back into formation four steps behind the Emperor. They continued down another gilded hallway, intricate mosaics of battles long ago fought by Justinian’s Roman ancestors were on the floors. Greek Gods, and mighty Roman Titans festooned the walls. Loud voices and shouts echoed down the corridor, indicating they were drawing near the Imperial Throne Room. From within that room, decisions were made that affected the lives of millions.
His Majesty was announced and the room went silent as he glided through the curtained archway behind the dais and mounted it to his throne. The assembled Generals, each responsible for the defense of a portion of the Empire were gathered around in a semi-circle around the dais. Palace Guards formed an armored phalanx that kept a 10 pace distance from the first step of the Dais, keeping the crowds back from the Imperial Person.
He leaned back into his throne and nodded to a paige. The man barked out the first General’s name to give his report.
As I suspected, the Emperor thought as the dry reports were read off one by one by each General in turn, worse than yesterday. The provinces are rapdly being overrun by the pestilence. The crowds of Nekros are depopulating entire regions within weeks as people flee, or are consumed or join their ranks as one of them. Was it unstoppable? Jesus Christ, protect us in our time of need. The last report was given and the General retreated back into the knot of bodies that quietly waited for the Emperor to speak his divinely inspired will.
* * *
On the smoke, ash and blood encrusted streets of Constantinople, Centurion Theokletes fought like a man possessed of supernatural ability. His men were hard pressed, reduced by more than half as the Nekros horde pushed in on them. His men sang a rhythmic battle hymn as they worked together like a finely tuned machine to chop down the mass of Nerkos that continually pressed against the barricade walls the Legionaires had quickly thrown together to block the Middle Way. The broad boulevard that passed to the North of the Palace grounds itself and extended deep into the city. The large, broad and paved street was acting like a funnel. Bringing crowds of Nekros in such numbers that one could scarcely understand or even contemplate it.
Contemplate it is exactly what Centurion Theokletes attempted to do as he backed away from the pile of writhing and dismembered Nekros that quickly mounded up against the barricade on which he stood. He nodded to his signaler and the man made a long blow on his trumpet, echoing out over the battle line. Men, who were standing formed in a rank behind the primary battle line stepped forward as one, creating a phalanx of fresh men where before stood those exhausted. The tired troops of the first line fell back through the gaps as best they could and gathered at the bottom of the barriade for a moment of rest before the call to arms would sound and the process of attrition slaughter would begin again.
Water and wine carriers holding wineskins ran among the gasping and blood encrusted men, offering to slake thirst as much as possible. Some men were wounded by the Nekros and it was known among the men they didn’t have long to survive before the plague change took hold. Many of them, upon realization of a bite or a sufficient scratch to infect their bodies, had a close friend remove their heads for them after a quick prayer and a shout of “Long Live The Emperor and Rome!” The bodies were then carried away to massive funeral pyres just inside the Palace Grounds. The other wounded fought until they were too sick and exhausted to continue and then bravely dove into the crowd of Nekros, knowing that their bodies would be drawn and quartered and they wouldn’t turn on their comrades in arms.
The men were falling like flies. Theokletes reckoned less than 30 of his original century were remaining. 75% casualties in a day. Staggering losses. It was only a miracle from the Lord God himself that the men were managing to hold out despite relentless assaults upon the Imperial barricades. The last remaining defense before the Nekros were pressing against the gates of the Palace itself.
Theokletes’ Optio, his second in command, Aristos came and sat down next to him and peeled his gore encrusted helm from his head. His hair a sweat encrusted mass..
“Centurios, we are much reduced. We must ask permission from the Emperor to withdraw” the Optio pleaded.
“No retreat. His Majesty’s personal order. We are to hold until the last man is fed to the hordes.” Theokletes said plainly.
“With all due respect sir. We would be able to mount a defense at the Palace Gates.” Aristos replied.
A scarred sneer crossed Theokletes features and he cuffed his Optio hard with the back of his leather gloved hand. Red swelling raised on his Optio’s cheek from the blow.
“To..the..last..man.” the Centurion growled and the Optio nodded his assent.
“May God see fit to allow us to meet in Heaven, Theokletes” the Optio said quietly.
Theokletes nodded and then took a great swallow of wine that was offered from one of the wineskin carriers. A peasant woman in the rough woolen dress of a nun.
God has abandoned us old friend. Here is the final stand of the Iron Fist Century. Here almost three hundred years of battle glory will be laid to bloody rest, or perhaps unrest. Do you remember how strong we were just yesterday? 92 brave young lads. The best damn fighting unit in the history of the Empire surely. Now reduced to a handful of exhausted dead men who don’t have the sense to know it yet. His eyes met each of his men, their faces so black with soot and grime and gore that only the whites of their eyes were visible in the warm night. For a full decade he had been their Centurion, having clawed his way up through their ranks. They would follow him into Hell, and that was exactly where he had lead them.
As if to give proof to his feelings of divine abandonment a groaning and cracking noise began to issue forth from the wooden barricades. The press of Nekros against it, combined with the weight of hundreds, if not thousands of dispatched Nekros corpses, was becoming to great for the wooden wall to bear. There was an enormous rending sound within the barricade and the screams of the phalanx of men on top as the barricade rocked violently and then came crashing down. Live men and Nekros together collapsed into a massive pile while throwing up thick, choking plumes of dust and ash. The muffled screams of a dozen men, trapped within the writhing mass of Nekros flesh could be heard. The remaining ten men jumped to their feet as the flood of Nekros rushed at them. It took mere seconds for the men, standing individually rather than together in a phalanx, to be bowled over and swept away by a tide of ravenous Nekros. Theokletes was nearly caught up in the press himself but Aristos grabbed the Centurion by the shoulder plate of his armor and screamed into his ear.
“Centurios the barricade is lost, we must run!” the frightened Optio hollered and Theokeletes for the first time felt the raw primal panic of a pursued animal. His Fight response within moments became one of Flight. They began a headlong dash away from the horde as the front ranks stopped to feast on the dismembered yet still screaming remains of the Iron Fist Century.
* * *
“The Middle Way barricade has fallen your Majesty. The entire garrison was lost however they managed to trade their lives for enough time to reinforce the Palace Gates Sire. The Nekros will have a difficult time breaching the Gates.” Alexandros reported to the Emperor within the throne room. Messengers from all the barricades surrounding the massive Palace Grounds were coming and going, reporting news as it was gathered. All of it dire.
“Sire, we have a ship waiting to take you away across the Bosporus into Bithynia where you will be safe behind the Walls there.” Alexandros said. Justinian raised his head at the suggestion and a look of anger crossed his regal brow.
“You dare suggest I abandon my City and Throne to the rotting corpses of Peasants? I will not!” he screamed and pounded his fist on the arm of his bejeweled throne.
Alexandros lowered his shoulders and head slightly lower. “My apologies Lord. We simply thought it prudent to prepare for all eventualities. The Imperial Person must go on in the case the Palace is overrun,Your Highness.”
Justinian sat back in his chair and sighed. So close to my dream. Belisarius was so close to victory. With Narses victorious in Africa and Spain, and Belisarius nearly so in Italy, it was only a matter of time before the Empire was reconstituted under single rule for the first time in nearly a century. Now it was all for nought. The entire enterprise permanently destroyed by a curse so fit that only the Devil himself could have concocted it. I’ll go down in history as the last Roman Augustus and a failure at that.
* * *
Centurion Theokletes, accompanied by his Optio second, turned several corners to avoid the flowing horde behind them. The hungry cries of thousands behind them spurred them on past all limits of fatigue and exhaustion. With the Palace Gates closed and reinforced, there was no easy way back into the Palace. They were forced to flee into the dictrict of the nobility near the Palace Grounds and seek shelter amid the Nekros infested mansorial ruins of Constantinople’s Senate Nobility.
The moon had finally risen and the streets were deserted, having been drained of most Nekros to join the mass at the barricades. Theokletes and Aristos climbed a high wall and dropped into the courtyard of one of the larger mansions in the district. The water to the fountains had ceased to flow, which meant the aqueducts that fed the district were destroyed, perhaps by fire. No matter, there is still enough water in the bowls to at least quench our thirst. Lord God am I thirsty. The old, scarred Centurion thought to himself as he carefully surveyed the carefully manicured gardens.
“It looks deserted here Centurios. This will be a good place for a short rest I beleive.” Aristos opined and then staggered over to one of the large fountain basins and began splashing copius amounts of water onto his head and face. The splashing noise got the attention of a Nekros that had been staggering about in the shadows on the other side of the courtyard. It moaned pitifully and staggered out into the pale moonlight. Visible to Theokletes and Aristos. It was a woman, she was wearing a long woolen night gown. Her hair, once in fine locks, was a dishevled, tangled mass with large patches missing. Her sleeping gown was caked black in blood. The spill line of her life essence visible all the way down to her ankles. Theokletes felt a pang of regret for the woman the Nekros had once been and then stepped forward and lopped it’s head off. The cranium rolling into a bed of carefuly tended roses while her body collapsed in a heap to the ground.
“May God protect you madame, and forgive me.” Theokletes said sadly. Then he plunged his head into the fountain basin and drank deeply from the warm water.
“Centurios, perhaps if we can reach the shoreline we can find a ship or a boat to take us away to the Bythnian side. The walls will be protection enough I’d wager.” Aristos said as they sat against a portion of the stone wall that surrounded the Mansion compound of some anonymous Senator.
“How many leagues is it?” Theokletes replied.
Aristos shrugged “Perhaps three or four.”
As Theokletes sat pondering the distance, the sound of a large group of Nekros shuffling and scuffling through the dusty streets and moaning could be heard passing on the other side of the wall. The two men froze and instantly became quiet as the crowd was heard to pass by. It took several minutes for the parade of Nekros to go.
“Let take a look around the Villa first. These rich bastards have probably got a larder, lets see if we can find a meal before we move out.” the Centurion spoke.
* * *
A serving eunuch brought Justinian a bowl of dates. He munched on them absent mindedly. Turning the situation over in his mind again and again. The grain ships. That was where it started. It spread through the grain. Why was anyone’s guess. The first victims fell ill and died within a couple days and began attacking their own family. Pockets of rioting broke out which led to fires. The entire bureaucratic apparatus of the City and the Empire collapsed within weeks of the first sickness. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…
Justinian’s prayer was interupted by a messenger who came to the phalanx of guards and bended a knee.
“Sire, I am Mecritites. I am Optio of the Flaming Sword Century of your House Guard.. My Centurion is dead.” the man said.
“Speak plainly Centurion, what are the conditions in the streets below?” The Emperor replied, instantly promoting the brave man and then added “Bring this man some wine! Quickly!” then sat back into his throne. A serving Eunuch broke away and quickly disappeared. The Emperor leaned back in his throne and looked down on the exhausted, gasping and bloody man. “Continue Soldier..”
The new Centurion was brought a flagon of chilled wine, which he downed in a single massive draught. He then set the cup back on the serving tray and looked towards the dais, never lifting his eyes above the first step.
“Your Majesty, all but one of the street barricades has fallen. The Nekros are piling up against the palace gates. We are currently taking measures to fortify and seal off each wing of the Palace in order to provide fall back points for the remaining House Guards should the gates fail. We will sell our lives dearly against the Nekros, Sire.” the man stated.
“How many of my brave guards remain Centurion?” the Emperor asked.
The young man below hesitated and licked his lips.
“Out of twenty five hundred men, we are reduced to seven hundred and eighty two effectives, Sire” the Centurion whispered.
The crowd of Generals and Noblemen that had remained behind to administer the Imperial Estate and service the Emperor gasped as one in shock and horror. Shouts for God to have mercy on their souls echoed out of the crowd. Never had such casualties been inflicted on the Praetorian Guard. They were the toughest fighting unit in the world! The Emperor raised his hand to silence the tumultuous gathering.
“Your Majesty, the Palace is nearly lost. You must flee across the Bosporus to Bithynia! Please!” Alexandros said. The rest of the crowd agreed verbally. Imploring the Emperor to see reason. These cowards wish to save their own miserable skins. It is not their names that will go down in ignominy over the loss of an entire Empire. How did things come to this? .
“Gratitude my brave warrior, you may return to..” the Emperor started to say when the young Optio-turned-Centurion suddenly collapsed to the floor and began to shake violently. He vomited a spray of black bile all over the floor. Servants screamed and backed away as the seizure taken man continued to writhe on the floor.
Alexandros shouted out “Guards! Take that man’s head immediately!” and the reply was swift and efficient. The house guard closest to the writhing man stepped forward and swung his blade down, a gout of blood shot upward several feet, a massive pool spread out from the now still body.
“Take that away and clean up the mess!” the Emperor cried and in a moment there was a flurry of activity as two burly men ran foward and picked up the body and carried it swftly away to the Pyres. A Eunuch reached down, grabbed up the Soldier’s head by the hair. The head’s eyes were open and it was looking about, moving it’s mouth up and down hungrily. People closest to the scene recoiled aghast. The Eunuch tossed the head into a covered basket and placed the lid upon it to hide it from view then rushed out immediately behind. Other servants rushed forward and threw water onto the blood and vomit that had spread into a wide circle on the floor and began sopping at the mess with mops.
* * *
A head rolled into the gutter of the street as it’s former owner’s body collapsed in front of Centurion Theokletes. A Nekros, the body of a thin, emaciated old man latched on to his left arm and tried desperately to chew through the thick leather gauntlet the Centurion wore. Theokletes impaled his gladius through the side of the old man’s head. It released his arm and sank to the ground as he pulled his blood slaked blade free. He then turned as several more Nekros shuffled closer to him. He roared like an animal and stepped forward. His left hand contained a large, wickedly curved and thin bladed knife fully half the length of his gladius. Thus dually armed the old Centurion quickly dispatched the small knot of corpses that approached him. His Optio, having lost his own sword, wielded an iron sledge that he had picked up near a nobleman’s house that was being renovated. He swung the hammer down and a splat was heard as the heavy iron head crushed through the skull of a leprous skinned Nekros that was missing an eye.
“Keep moving Aristos! We cannot get pinned!” shouted Theokletes and they quickly continued running down the street in the general direction of the sea, praying that they would find some means to escape to the other side of the Bosporous. They came upon a huge, thick crowd of Nekros standing in the center of an intersection and came to a halt. Theokletes pointed down a side alley and Aristos and he quickly altered course and began moving at a swift walk down the alley attempting to be as quiet as possible. They came out of the alley and emerged into a burning block of apartment buildings. The smoke was choking and bits of hot ash fluttered on the wind. One of the buildings nearby collapsed into a burning pile of tinder, throwing up huge sparks high into the night sky.
Several Nekros, their blackened and burned bodies covered only by charred scraps of clothing advanced from across the street. Theokletes ran forward and beheaded one with his sword then punched his wicked knifepoint straight into the blistered forehead of another, the tip came tearing out the back of the Nekros skull. He withdrew the blade and the body slumped to the paved street. Aristos dispatched a couple of Nekros with his hammer, wielding it with two hands. The iron head impacted with a loud thwack! and a head crushed like a melon under the force.
Theokletes coughed raggedly and then the two of them tore strips of cloth from their cloaks and tied them around their faces to ward off the acrid and lung searing smoke and plunged down the street, burning buildings on both sides of them crashing to the ground as the flames consumed them. Entire blocks were burning with an intense heat and the men despite the protection of the cloth around thier faces were choked. Both men’s eyes teared up from the irritation and the heat assaulting them. They continued past flaming apartment blocks, the smoke blinding them. Every now and again, a Nekros would be encountered and it was quickly dispatched and the two men continued on.
Is this what Hell is like? Is this what I will see once my soul has been released? Theokletes thoguht as he looked at a knot of burning Nekros stumbling around blindly, their skin dripping from their bodies like hot wax down the side of a candle. No, there are worse things than Hell.
* * *
Hell could not be any worse. The Emperor thought as he stood on a the deck of a galleon as it rowed away from the shoreline. Above him, the palace loomed in the night. He could just make out the violent confrontation as his personal guard, twelve hand picked men locked in a shield wall, fought desperately on the beach to keep a large group of dozens of Nekros back from the docks as the last of the Imperial entourage boarded another ship bound to follow shortly.
The men fought desperately, knowing they were going to die. Sacrificng their lives to protect the Imperial family as it fled across the Bosporous to Bithynia. They sang a loud, rhythmic paen as they hacked at the knot of bodies that pressed against thier shields. The men, in time with the beat of the hymn, thrust their spears out, impaling Nekros heads. Then withdrawing 2 steps back slowly towards the docks. The crowd slowly advanced, the mass of snapping, grasping Nekros pressed against their shield wall. Centurion Theokletes and his Optio, Aristos, were present among them.
Having ran through the worst part of the burning blocks of apartment buildings they had made their way down along the outer wall to the beach. They hacked their way past a smaller crowd of Nekros that stood piled up against a small gate in the wall manned by a conternubium of Palace Guards. They identified themselves and were immediately let through.
“How did you make it across the city?” the astonished Guard asked as the men collapsed to the ground just inside the gate where it was immediately shut. Several Nekros already wandered up and began to collect against it. It wouldn’t hold long.
“No time for tales of miracles. This place is done for men. Come with me, we’re getting out of here.”
“Yes sir!” Stated the Guard and the half dozen men turned and ran from the gate, which was rattling loudly as more Nekros piled up against it.
They sprinted across the giant polo field that sat along the shoreline just above the small Imperial Docks that were built here for the Emperor’s personal water craft. Gathering crowds of Nekros were crossing the field at various points here and there. Too few and spread out to be any real threat at the moment, they were easily avoided by the crowd of men. They continued along when they looked above them and saw the Imperial entourage, several dozen people, come pouring out of a door in the palace on the hill above them and come winding down the stairs that led from the palace at the top of the hill on which it sat and the shoreline below.
Alexandros was in the lead. Killing the odd Nekros that was too close to the Imperial Person. A large crowd of Nekros came bursting out the same door the Imperial Entourage had just exited from, hot on the heels of the frightened group of senators, generals, governors and their wives, children and servants. A pair of guardsmen detached from the rear and turned to block the stairs for as long as possible to give the Entourage time to flee down the long winding steps to the beach below. Within moments they were screaming loudly in pain as their bodies were quickly chewed apart by the insatiable Nekros.
Theokletes and Aristos immediately ran across the polo field and met up with the crowd as it came off the stairs and headed for the beach. Alexandros saw them and pointed towards the crowds of Nekros that were now beginning to gather on the polo field and move with a purpose towards them.
“You! Centurion! Take the remaining guards in the Entourage and hold back the Nekros as long as you can. We must have time to spirit the Emperor to safety!”
“For the Emperor! For God! You men, follow me!” called out Theokletes and the remaining few guards separated from the refugees and joined Theokletes’ men as they turned and formed shoulder to shoulder. A shield was pressed into the hands of Theokletes and Aristos and they took their positions in the center of a thin line of men. All that stood between their divine Emperor and the snapping, groaning hordes of Nekros.
“Spears!” Theokletes called out. The crowd of Nekros, now grown into a solid wall continued to slowly advance towards the thin line of men. The Lord’s Prayer was on each man’s lips as the moaning Nekros began to pick up speed slightly as the mass in back pushed those forward with more intensity and purpose. They brandished their spears. The tips glinting in the light of the moon.
“Lock…Shields!” Theokletes bellowed. A metallic carrump! was heard as the men expertly locked their shields together to create an impenetreable iron wall for the Nekros to throw themselves on.
“May God have Mercy on our Souls and Long Live the Emperor!” Aristos cried out above the din. The Emperor, now safely aboard his ship, heard the cry above the groaning and moaning Nekros and and his blood chilled at the display of sheer bravery as the men on the beach braced for impact and their moment with Destiny.