Tuesday, October 30, 2018

THE DRINKER OF LIFE - A New Horror Story for Halloween

    Horror knows no age, no era.  We can read one of Stephen King's modern masterpieces and get the same frisson we get as we follow Sherlock Holmes, tracing the footsteps of a gigantic hound near Baskerville Hall in the nineteenth century, or reading one of H.P. Lovecraft's weird tales of the quaint Massachusetts town of Innsmouth a hundred years ago.  So why should ancient Rome be any different?  Join the soldiers of Titus' legions as they wake something in the desert that would have been better left asleep . .  .


                               THE DRINKER OF LIFE

                                           A Short Story by

                                             Lewis B. Smith



          “Jupiter’s codpiece!  I hate this place!” said Marcus Lentulus.

          “Really?  I didn’t know.  You only tell us that six times a day, every day since we got here!” said the Centurion Lucius Meridius.

          “Well, I wouldn’t want you to forget, would I, Lucius?” the legionary shot back.  The two men were old comrades, veterans of Vespasian’s legions, posted in Judea now that the Jewish War had finally drawn to an end.  The siege of Masada had reached its bloody climax a few weeks before, and in the distance a wisp of smoke on the horizon rose from the ruined palace atop the plateau that overlooked the Salt Sea.  Now the column of legionaries they led was marching westward, up the long sloping hills that led from the salt desert to the ancient city of Beer Sheba.

          “Think Titus will take us back to Rome to march in his Dad’s triumph?” Lentulus asked.

          “We couldn’t get that lucky!” said Meridius.  “Two full legions are staying here on garrison duty – at least, that’s what Decius Spinther told me.”

          “Two legions!  Edepol!” swore Lentulus. “Why two? There aren’t two legions’ worth of Jewish men left here that are old enough to hold a sword!”

          “After seven years of war, the Emperor is taking no chances of things flaming up again once our backs are turned,” the Centurion replied.  “Besides, even if most of Judea is a burned-out desert of ruined villages and starving Jews, it’s still a major trade route.  Caravans from Egypt and Araby, Syria and Byzantium, they all come through here.  With so much of the local population dead or defenseless, this place is going to be a haven for bandits and sicarii and whatever Zealots we didn’t crucify or sell into slavery.  It’ll take a few years to settle things down, and then it’s home to Rome for me!  Our bounty from the conquest will be ready and waiting, and us two old soldiers can buy ourselves farms next to each other, marry fat Sicilian girls, and breed up young soldiers for the next war!”

          “Farmers, eh?” said Lentulus.  “Not my cup of grog, to be honest.  I thought of buying a nice tavern in Rome, a place for old legionaries like us to drink and gamble and pinch the serving maids!  Plenty of denarii to be made in that sort of business, and one thing I’ll say for Rome – it may be smelly, corrupt, and dirty, but it is never boring!”

          “Actually, that sounds better than a farm, now that you mention it,” the Centurion said.  “But first we have to survive this gods-forsaken outpost for the next few months, or years, or however long it takes old Vespasian to decide this place is pacified enough for us to return home.”

          The column of fifty legionaries that was marching behind the two men halted as Meridius reined in his horse.  Overlooking the road, on top of a stony hill, stood a sandstone fort about a hundred and fifty feet on each side.  Two legionaries came walking briskly down from its wooden gates and saluted the veteran soldiers.

          “Glad to see you boys,” said Antonius Balbus, the older of the two.  “This place was rather big and empty with just the six of us in it.  Welcome to Fort Scorpio, soldiers!”

          “Did you get the place ready, as commanded?” Meridius asked.

          “Yes, sir!” the legionary replied.  “The bunkhouse is swept out, cleaned, and the beds prepared.  The commandant’s quarters are on the second floor, in the northwest corner.  There is a good deep well; the water tastes a little chalky but it’s plenty drinkable.  We have forty day’s provisions laid by in the larder, and fodder for a dozen horses, enough to last a month or so.  There’s decent pasture a day’s ride to the west at the edge of the desert, and a few farmers who will sell us grain and hay.  No marketplace this side of Beer Sheba, though.”

          “Well done, then.  Legionaries, fall out!  Stow your gear and be ready to muster for orders in an hour!” he barked.

          Weary from their march, the Roman soldiers willingly complied.

          “Fort Scorpio?  Really?” asked Marcus Lentulus after the men had dispersed.

          “Place is crawling with them at night,” the old legionary said.  “Big black ones with a nasty, painful sting.  You’ll need to tell the men to shake out their bedclothes and check their boots in the morning.”

          “Ugh!” said Centurion Meridius.  “I’d rather deal with Skenite bandits than those horrible things.”  Like most Romans, he detested any creature with more than four legs, and the ones that bit or stung he especially loathed.

          “They’re bad here, and no mistake,” said Balbus.  “To be honest, I hate this place, and not just because of the creepy-crawlies.”

          “Really?” asked Lentulus. “What’s going on, Antony?  You seem off somehow.”

          “This fort is old,” the Legionary said.  “An old woman in Beer Sheba told me it was built by the Babylonians about four hundred years ago . . . but she also said they could never keep soldiers there.  Same with the Ptolemies, when they took over.  They would post soldiers at the fort, and the men would desert or mutiny after a while – the ones who were still alive.”

          “What does that mean?” Lucius Meridius asked sharply.  “Is there some danger here?”

          “She seemed to think so, sir,” the legionary replied.  “But she wouldn’t say what it was when I pressed her.  We’ve been here a week, and I will tell you the truth when I say this place gives me the creeps.  I swear a couple of times, walking the walls at night, I have heard voices coming out of the desert.  Once it was a little child, crying; another time it was a woman calling out in a soft, pleading voice. But the one that really got me was two nights ago, when I heard, plain as day, a baby laughing.  The moon was full and there was nothing but empty desert as far as I could see – but that infernal giggling seemed to be right in front of the wall!”

          “Sounds like the solitude is getting to you,” snorted Lentulus.

          “Well, there was also the thing we found in the barracks,” said Balbus.

          “What did you find?” the Centurion demanded.

          “We carried it out and hid it in a gully across the road,” Balbus said.  “No need to startle the men.  It’s better if I show you – follow me.”

          The three Romans crossed the packed down rock and gravel causeway that cut across the desert, snaking its way up the long slope towards Beer Sheba, and Balba led them into a narrow wadi that cut into the face of the hillside. 

          “The young legionary who found it was positively rattled,” he said.  “I can hardly blame him!  Felix Secundus and I carried it over here and covered it. I wanted you to see it.”

          Around a sharp bend in the gulch was a rough sheet of canvas, weighed down with boulders. Balbus rolled the rocks free and lifted the cloth.

          It was the desiccated, mummified corpse of a man, dressed in the plain robes of a Jewish peasant.  He was kneeling, hands extended in front of his face, palms open, head tilted up.  The flesh had shrunk and stretched tight across the bone, but the face retained some of its expressiveness.  The attitude was one of longing and terror combined; as if desire and fear had waged war in the man’s countenance at the very moment of death.

          “He looks as if he has been dead for centuries,” said Lentulus.

          “You’d think, wouldn’t you?” said Balbus.  “But I searched his bag and found this.” He handed the commander a letter.

          Meridius looked at the scroll – the language as koine Greek, the universal trade language of the Mediterranean rim.  The handwriting was rough and scrawling, obviously done in a hurry.

          Nicolas,” it read.  “Masada has fallen; your message could not be delivered.  I watched from a distance as the Romans pushed the siege tower up the mighty ramp they had constructed and breached the walls.  There was a furious fire, and rumor has it that when they entered the fort the next day, all our brethren had killed themselves rather than submit to slavery.  I do not know if this is true; but I do know the fortress has fallen and our brothers are either dead or enslaved.”

          Balba looked at the old legionary skeptically.

          “Masada fell three weeks ago,” he said.  “There is no way that this man has been dead so short a time! He doesn’t even stink!”

          “I know,” Balbus said.  “But why would someone plant such a note on an ancient mummy?”

          “Some Zealot plot to frighten us off of the fort, if you ask me,” Lentulus said, spitting on the ground next to the withered body.

          “Cover him back up,” said Meridius.  “I will think about this.”

          The rest of the afternoon was spent getting the garrison in order, posting patrol and watch schedules, and running the men through training exercises.  But that evening, after everyone else went to their rough bunks, Meridius lay down in his slightly more comfortable bed in the commander’s quarters and thought about the strange dilemma.  How could a man who had been dead less than a month look like a thousand-year-old Egyptian mummy?  Lucius Meridius was no stranger to death in all its forms, but he had never encountered a disease or a predator that could suck all the vital fluids from a human body and leave it as a lifeless husk. 

          Unable to sleep, he rose from his couch and threw open the window.  Like all deserts, the Negev was much cooler at night; a gentle breeze from the South was most welcome.  He stood, staring across the moonlit desert for some time.  Finally, he gave a long, hearty yawn and turned back to his bed.  But before he could reach it he heard a sound – a sound so incongruous that it drove him back to the window, staring out into the night to find its source.  But the desert was as empty as it had been before, nothing in sight looked like it could have been the source of the unmistakable sound of a woman, sighing in passion.

          The next day, nothing untoward happened.  Meridius had ordered a patrol to sweep the road in both directions each day, looking for bandits, rebels, and anyone else who might be up to no good.  Four horsemen rode to Beer Sheba, and four more back to the Roman camp near En Gedi and its springs of clear flowing water. He sent men to sweep the desert around the fort in a radius of a few miles, looking for any sign of rebel activity, and set men to patrol the walls of the fort as well as conduct perimeter sweeps outside the walls twice by day and twice by night. Frankly, he thought the precautions largely unnecessary, but they kept his men occupied as well as making it harder for any malign forces that might be out there to catch Rome’s enforcers napping.  He did think once or twice about the strange mummy that Balbus had found in the fort, but found the riddle insoluble, so he tucked it away in the back of his mind for later consideration.  Eventually retired to his quarters two hours after dark, worn out from the day’s work, and faded into a dreamless sleep.

          Later that night, two legionaries, Quintus Cornelius and Decimus Brutus, were assigned to do a perimeter sweep.  It was a simple enough task – they would leave the fort through the gate and spread out, about a hundred yards apart, and make a slow circuit around, and then report back. Each bore a horn they could sound in the event of trouble, but no one really expected any difficulty.  The moon was still nearly full and very bright – clouds were few and far between in the Negev this time of year – so it would be a foolish time for any marauders to try and stage a raid.

          But after the half hour it took for them to make the wide circle in the moonlight, Cornelius came back, and Brutus did not.  After hallooing and calling the lost soldier for an hour with no result, the duty legionary woke up Centurion Meridius.

          The commandant was not pleased at the turn of events, but the moon was setting in the west by then, and he saw no point in sending his men out in the dark.  He doubled the watch on the walls and told the men to return to their bunks till morning.  His sleep ruined, he stood on the ancient stone ramparts and peered out into the desert, wondering where his legionary was.

The next morning, as soon as it was light, he led a dozen men to go in search of Decimus Brutus.  Quintus Cornelius pointed them to the last place he had seen his comrade, and sure enough, the tracks of the missing soldier’s hobnailed boots were still visible.

          Meridius had tracked Jewish rebels across miles of desert terrain on many occasions, so he ordered the men to hang back as he followed the footprints on their circuit of the fort.  For several hundred yards they stayed in a fairly straight line, in a broad circle around the fort, just as the legionary had been ordered.  But due south of the fort, the footprints turned to face out in the desert, and then took off in a new direction.  Meridius followed quickly, keeping his eyes on the ground.  Near an outcropping of boulders he saw the legionary’s torch lying on the sand, and the footprints suddenly became deeper, but the heels were no longer touching.

          “He dropped his torch and ran towards those rocks,” said Meridius, drawing his blade.  “Close in on me and be ready for anything!”

          As the Romans crept towards the pile of boulders, the centurion saw something red flutter from behind the edge of one of them.  He stepped to the side a couple of paces to bring the object into view. It was a legionary’s scarlet cape, stirring in the breeze.

          “Decimus Brutus, is that you?  Are you well?” he called. 

          There was no answer.

          Meridius abandoned caution and strode forward, rounding the corner of the outcrop, and then letting out a gasp of shock.

          The missing legionary stood there, but he was no longer alive.  Decimus Brutus was stooped over, his hands reaching down in front of him as if cupping something precious.  But those hands were now blackened claws, all trace of flesh gone, merely skin stretched taut over bones.  The legionary’s face was likewise mummified, his mouth open, his drawn features frozen in a rictus of desire and terror.

          “Jupiter Optimus Maximus, defend us!” gasped one of the soldiers.

          “Cover him!” snapped Meridius. “Quickly!”

          Two legionaries wrapped the desiccated corpse in its own cloak, and when the ghastly claws that had been Brutus’ hands stuck out of the enfolding fabric, the Centurion tried to push them down out of sight.  With a dry snapping sound, one of the soldier’s arms snapped in half, and a dry black powder poured from the bones.  A faint but foul odor wafted up from the essential salts that had been a sturdy Roman youth just hours before.

          “Listen to me, all of you!” Meridius said.  “This is a lonely outpost and we would all rather be somewhere else.  But if the story of how Brutus died gets about, the men will panic and there will be problems.  Problems make me unhappy, and when I am unhappy, bad things happen to the men under my command – extra watches, removal of liberties, and even floggings.  So we are going to carry Brutus Decimus back to the fort and cremate him quickly and quietly.  He was killed by an arrow to the chest from a bandit who lured him from his patrol route.  Are we clear, men?”

          The soldiers nodded vigorously – they were afraid of whatever had done this to Brutus, but they were more afraid of the grizzled veteran who had once killed a Zealot in close combat by biting his throat open while the man was grappling for his dagger!  Still, Meridius knew it was only a matter of time before word spread.  Soldiers were no different than fishwives when it came to gossip. He needed to get to the bottom of this, and fast!

          Surprisingly, though, his cover story was accepted by the men – or at least, they seemed to believe it.  After it was done, he summoned Balbus and Lentulus to his quarters.  As soon as the door was shut, Balbus looked directly into the centurion’s eyes and spoke.

          “Was he just like the Jew we found?” he asked.

          Meridius nodded.  “Pretty much.  Sucked dry of everything that made him a man and left as light as a feather and dry as an Egyptian mummy!”

          The legionary shuddered.  “I know you want to keep it from the men, sir, but there is something out there.  Something that feeds on our kind, and not a wild beast either.  Am I right?”

          “I think so.  You told me there was an old woman in the market place who knew the history of this place.  Could you find her again?” Meridius asked.

          “I can,” replied Balbus.  “She runs a stall just inside the gates at Beer Sheba, selling herbs and such. Her name is Sarai; she is something of a local fixture.”

          “Then we three are going to ride to Beer Sheba this morning and find her,” said Meridius.  “I want to know all that she knows, whatever it takes to get it out of her!  Not a word to the garrison, either.”

          The three of them emerged, and Meridius called the senior legionary out from the work detail he was supervising.  Smoke still rose from the pyre that had consumed what was left of Brutus’ body with disturbing quickness.

          “Titus Marius,” he said.  “I have to ride to Beer Sheba with Balbus and Lentulus – I have orders from Legate Titus that must be carried there.  We should be back before dark, or else early tomorrow morning.  I am leaving you in command.  Be sure Brutus’ ashes are gathered and placed in an urn and keep the men inside the walls of the fortress until I get back.  No perimeter sweeps, and absolutely no one out alone after dark.  There are Zealot rebels out there; we don’t know how many and how well armed.  But we won’t be offering them any easy targets.  Are we clear?”

          “Aye, sir!  Hail Caesar!” the Legionary saluted.

          “Let’s ride, men,” said Meridius, and the three men descended to the stables and took mounts.  Within a few minutes they were headed for the Western horizon, the fort a rapidly shrinking square of stone blocks behind them.  It was some twenty-five miles from Fort Scorpion to the ancient market city of Beer Sheba, and they covered the distance in three hours, conversation kept at a minimum the whole time.

          There was a Roman garrison at Beer Sheba, two full centuries of legionaries posted there to keep the peace and guard the trade route that led up from Egypt towards the once-splendid Jewish capitol of Jerusalem.  Their commander was a senior centurion named Julius Valerius, an old comrade of Meridius from their days on the German frontier a decade before the Jewish revolt broke out.  The three riders encountered one of his patrols a few miles outside of town and were escorted to the city gates.

          “Lucius Meridius, you old war-dog!” said Valerius when he emerged from the stone fortress just inside the city gate.  “I thought you had been left in the desert to police the scorpions and adders! Did you get bored with it already?”

          “I can honestly say I have not yet been bored,” Meridius said drily.  “I need a word with you – in private!”

          Valerius’ jocular expression faded; he gave a curt nod and beckoned the centurion to follow him.

          “Wait here for a moment, while I explain our situation,” Meridius told his companions.

          Inside the Spartan chambers that served as Julius Valerius’ office and bunkroom, the two centurions faced each other.

          “What’s wrong?” the Roman asked his old comrade.  “I haven’t seen you this grim since the raid on the Cheruscii when your brother stopped a German arrow.”

          “Something ate one of my men last night,” said Meridius. “I don’t even know if ‘ate’ is the right word.  It sucked him dry, turned a young healthy legionary into a mummified husk in a matter of moments.  It left no footprints, no sign.  But I suspect that it may lure men out with strange noises, sounds that will drive a man to go after it.”

          “That old fort has some odd stories around it,” said Valerius. “It’s perfectly situated to guard the old road – or to menace it.  Yet it has stood empty for decades.  Even the Zealot bandits gave the place a wide berth.  But. . . what do you mean by noises?”

          Meridius described the strange sounds that Balbus had talked about, and the woman’s voice he himself had heard outside his window the night before.

          “Balbus told me there is an old woman in the market place who might know more,” he said.  “I’d like to speak to her.”

          “Old Sarai,” Valerius said.  “She’s a cagey old bird.  Half the locals think she is in direct contact with their god, the other half think she is a witch!  Well, I will tell you this – if you try to be forceful with her, she will clam up straightaway.  But if you buy her some wine, she may loosen up and tell you something useful.  She does love the fruit of the vine!”

          “Thanks for the advice,” Meridius said.  “I need to get to the bottom of this as quickly as I can.

          He conferred briefly with Balbus and Lentulus and told them to go find some food while he went to the marketplace alone – although not before filling two wineskins with some of the legionaries’ strong, cheap vintage.  He made sure to water down the wine he would keep for himself.

          The bazaar at Beer Sheba was less crowded than usual – so many of the Jews had been carried off to Rome’s slave markets following the great revolt, and many others lay dead.  But Beer Sheba had never been an exclusively Jewish city.  Skenites, Egyptians, and wandering Greek traders had all done business and pleasure there for centuries, so it was not nearly as depopulated as the more heavily Jewish areas to the north. Meridius saw a dilapidated shop near the corner, with a colorful but tattered awning providing some shade for the ancient, sharp-eyed crone who sat on a three-legged stool between two tables full of jars and bundles of crushed herbs.

          “Good afternoon, madam,” he said easily.

          “Well, well, what brings a Roman centurion to my stall on such a fine day?” the crone asked him.

          “I am Lucius Meridius, the new commander of the old desert fort along the Ascent of Scorpions,” he said.  “They say you have an herbal remedy for everything.”

          “Some ills have no cure,” she said, eyeing him suspiciously.  “Others do.  What ails you?”

          “I’m not sick,” he said, “but the scorpions are a real problem.  Three of my men have been bitten already and are in great pain.  Do you have a remedy for scorpion stings, or better yet, some herbal mixture that will repel the creatures?”

          Her face lightened, and she pulled out a bundle of dried leaves from a large jar on the shelf behind her.

          “Crush these up in a mixture of honey and water;” she said.  “They will draw out the venom and reduce the swelling.  Then look for some of these dark berries -” she took a small jar and shook some brownish berries out of it into her hand.  “They grow on the shrubs along the side of the road.  Boil them into a paste and rub it along the thresholds of your doors.  Scorpions cannot abide the smell and will not cross a door that is protected by this mix.”

          “Splendid!” said Meridius - and meant it.  He’d killed two scorpions in his quarters before going to bed the previous night.  “May I offer you some fresh wine?”

          The old woman’s eyes lit up, and she smacked her lips greedily.

          “I’ll take it gladly,” she said, “but the herbs and berries will still cost you a drachma!”

          “Take two,” Meridius said.  “And I may join you for a drink, if you will.”

          “Now why would a strapping young fellow like you want to share a drink with a withered old thing like me?” she asked.

          He laughed and leaned against the doorway of her shop.

          “Because it’s hot and I’m thirsty,” he said.  “Besides, you remind me a bit of my great-aunt Lucia back in Rome.  I bet you have seen a lot – and know a lot!”

          “Ninety years have passed since I came screaming into this world, and I’ve seen a few things in my day,” she said.  “I’ve seen them all come and go – old Herod, who called himself ‘the Great’ but was just a bloody butcher, Herod Antipas, who thought he could be loyal to God and Rome at the same time, Pontius Pilate, who crucified the Galilean that refused to stay dead – I was here when they were, and I am here now that they are gone.”

          “I’ll wager you have some stories,” he said.  “Why did you give me such a wry look when I told you where I was posted?”

          “The Scorpion Fort is a dark place,” she said, taking a long pull from her wineskin.  “It is not safe for men to dwell there.”

          “The scorpions are not that bad,” he said.  “More an annoyance than anything!”

          “Ha!  You think old Sarai a fool!” she said.  “I know you didn’t ride twenty-five miles across the desert to buy a few herbs.  Your Roman doctors are fools, but they aren’t that ignorant.  You know there is something amiss there and want to know what it is.”

          “I was coming into town anyway, to see my old friend Valerius,” he protested.  “But I heard you were a master of herb-lore, so I thought I would see if you could help with the problem.”

          She drank again and gave him a glare.

          “I’ve known men my whole life!” she snapped.  “I was married to a rabbi for thirty years.  I know when a man is lying.  How many of your soldiers have been consumed already?”

          “Fine,” he sighed.  “We’ve lost one.  Whatever it was, it took one of my men last night. Sucked the life right out of him and left a withered mummy where a young man had been a few hours before.”

          “Did it come to him as a child or a woman?” she asked.

          “What do you mean?” he replied.

          “It lures men in with the sounds it makes,” she said.  “To those who are fathers, it cries like a lost child.  To those who are randy, it sounds as an eager lover.  It senses what men desire and lures them to their doom by mimicking what they want most to hear.”

          “What is it?” asked Meridius. 

          “No one rightly knows,” she said.  “There are tales, but who can say if they are true?”

          “Tell me all you know,” the centurion demanded.

          “And why should I?” she said.  “Your people invaded my land, humiliated our rulers, fleeced our peasants with your taxes, insulted our God with your graven images and then burned His Temple!  Then, finally, you crucified my grandson when he joined the rebellion.  So why should I aid you at all, Roman?”

          Meridius paused.  He knew that if he did not say the right thing now, she might well stop speaking altogether.  Perhaps he could loosen her tongue, but frankly torturing an old woman was not an idea he relished.  He took a pull of his own wine, swallowed hard, and spoke as honestly as he could.

          “So many have already died,” he said.  “I’m tired of death and tired of killing.  These legionaries of mine – they are boys, for the most part.  Seventeen, eighteen years old. Most of them have mothers at home who worry about them. The lad who was killed just turned twenty; everything he might have been was taken from him by something that wasn’t even human.  The deaths of my whole garrison won’t bring your grandson back, Sarai, but if you help us, another grandmother somewhere will get hers returned to her alive and well.”

          She glared at Meridius and emptied her own wineskin.

          “Some words cannot be spoken with a clear head, in a public marketplace,” she said.  “Take me to the tavern yonder and get me a flagon of decent wine, not this swill.  I will tell you what I know, but I do not know how much help it will be.”

          She turned from him and retreated into the shop, shouting for her help.

          “Boy!” she cried, and a lad of about fourteen or so came running down the rickety wooden staircase.

          “Yes, grandmama?” he said, scowling when he saw the Roman.

          “This centurion is going to get me drunk,” she replied.  “You mind the shop, and don’t undercharge anyone!”

          “Yes, grandmama!” he said, and she slapped him lightly on the side of the head with a wry smile.  He darted forward and kissed her wrinkled cheek, then very softly returned her blow.  She chuckled and turned to follow Meridius.

          “Last of my brood,” she said.  “His mother and father were killed by Zealot fanatics, and his brothers were either killed or enslaved by you Romans.  The people of this land haven’t stood much of a chance for the last two centuries, you know. First the Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans.  Can you believe there was a time when ten kingdoms paid tribute to Jerusalem?”

          “Nations rise and fall,” said Meridius.  “It is ever the way of things. Now, let me get you that wine.”

          They entered the tavern and he chose a quiet seat near the corner with a small table between them.  It was late afternoon, and the place was mostly empty.  He plunked down a drachma and bought a flagon of wine, some dried dates, and a roasted leg of lamb.  The latter was for himself; the smell of cooking food reminded him he had not eaten since before dawn.

          Sarai greedily gulped down a mug of the wine and munched a fig in contentment as he dug into the lamb.  She watched him for a moment, and then extended a hand.  He cut off a portion of the haunch with his knife and handed it to her; she ate it quickly, then poured another cup.

          After a few moments, he paused and looked at her.  Her face was slightly flushed, but her black eyes were focused sharply on his.

          “So will you now tell me what you know of this thing that lurks in the desert?” he said.

          “The Greeks called it the Lingosa – the Hungering One,” she said.  “Among my people we name it Shatiyan Sh'l Hachayim – the Drinker of Life.”

          “But what is it?” Meridius persisted.

          “Do you know the history of my people and our God?” she said.

          “A little,” he replied.  “Before the rebellion, I kept company with a Jewish girl for a while.  She used to tell me some of the stories from your Torah.”

          “Do you know of Adam and Eve – the first of all mankind?” Sarai asked him.

          “Created from clay, placed in a garden, talking serpent – I remember the story,” said Meridius. “What does it have to do with a nameless evil entity that drains people of life?”

          “My husband the rabbi passed on a tale that he heard in his infancy from his great-grandfather, who was the Grand Rabbi at Alexandria nearly two centuries ago,” she said. “He read it in a scroll of ancient wisdom that was brought from Jerusalem to Babylon when the first Temple fell, and then brought back by the Greeks when they destroyed the Persian Empire.  According to this tale, back in the days before the Great Flood, one of Eve’s granddaughters was walking by the River Euphrates when she saw a beautiful young man swimming in the river.  There were only fifty men on the earth at that time, and she was already betrothed to her first cousin.  But this was a man she had never seen before, and he was so fair in face and form that she was drawn to him immediately.  He lay with her there on the bank of the river, and she kindled with his child.  But after he was done with her, he transformed into a monstrous serpent and dove into the river.  She came to term within weeks, far quicker than any mortal woman ever could, and that which was within her was so greedy for life that her body crumbled into dust as she delivered it.  It latched onto the midwife, also, but Eve, who was present, bound it with a cord woven from her own hair and brought it before Adam.  Even in his fallen state, he was the mightiest of mankind, for he had looked upon the face of El Shaddai before the fall.  The creature was already inhuman, for it was the spawn of Shaitan the Accuser.  Adam cursed it, condemning it to live only in the harshest of deserts, unable to ever seduce a woman or have children of its own.  It fled from his presence and took up its abode in the deserts near the Salt Sea, and there it has dwelt ever since, immortal and eternally hungry, feasting upon the essential blood and bile that make up the bodies of mortal men, leaving dried husks in its wake. They say its hunger waxes even greater in times of great suffering.”

          “So this creature has existed since the dawn of time, then.  Is there any way to stop it?” Meridius asked.

          “As the war has ended, its appetite may lessen,” she said.  “But as a spawn of an immortal, I do not think it can be killed, only perhaps wounded.”

          “How?” he demanded.

          “That I do not know,” she said, “although the story among my people is that Shatiyan Sh'l Hachayim does not like fire.  Hence he dwells in a dry and treeless region.”

          Meridius stood, bowed, and dropped two golden sesterces in the old woman’s lap.

          “Thank you for your time and for your wisdom, Sarai.  This may mean little to you, but nothing would make me happier than for me and all my men to be allowed to return to Rome and leave this land – and your people – in peace,” he told her. “In the meantime, I am in your debt.”

          “Thank you, Centurion,” she said, deftly pocketing the coins. “I do not know if my words will do you and your men any good, but you have shown me courtesy and respect.  May the blessings of El Shaddai guard you and your men.”

          When Meridius stepped outside, he noticed a brownish tint to the air.  He quickly walked back to the Roman barracks and climbed to the top of the guard tower, looking south and east towards the desert.  A massive brown cloud of dust was bearing down on the city, and he could hear the groans and cries below as men and women cleared the streets in advance of the approaching dust storm.

          “Looks like you’ll be enjoying our hospitality for the night, Lucius Meridius,” said Valerius, who had ascended the tower behind him.

          “Not what I had planned on,” the Centurion said, “but no horse will carry me into the teeth of this dust storm.”

          “Was the old woman any help?” his friend asked.

          “Well, she was informative, at any rate,” said Meridius.  “How helpful she was remains to be seen.”

          “A game of dice, then?” Julius Valerius asked him.

          “Might as well,” said Meridius.  “It’s been so long you might have actually earned back the denarii I won off of you last time!”

          “I seem to have different memories of that match,” Valerius replied with a laugh.

          Twenty-five miles away, the fort’s gates were barred, and the men were settling into the barracks for the evening.  The dust storm had darkened the skies early, and the air was thick and heavy with particulate. The old hands among them were dampening their spare cloaks and putting them under the doors and windowsills to stop as much dust from getting in as they could.

          Demos Aristus, an older legionary of Greek heritage, was the groom for the dozen or so horses the legionaries had brought with them.  He was anxious to get back to the barracks, so he could continue the letter he had started writing earlier that day to his wife, but the horses needed to be fed and watered before he could settle in for the evening. At least, he reflected, he had not drawn sentry duty that night.  He pitied the poor sods who would be walking the walls of the fort in this mess.

          The horses were restive but settled down a bit once he had their nose bags filled.  The stalls furthest from the door of the paddock were empty, since the centurion had taken three horses on his gallop to Beer Sheba.  Demos had his doubts about Meridius’ sudden absence, and the whole fort was abuzz with rumors about the death of Decimus Brutus.  So far, the men who had retrieved the body were not saying anything beyond the official story of bandits and arrows, but most of the legionaries were skeptical.

          He had finished feeding and brushing the last of the horses when a sudden sound from one of the empty stalls made him jump.  It was faint but unmistakable – the laughter of a small child, a boy from the sound of it.  What would a child be doing in a fort in the middle of nowhere?

          Tata? Are you here?” the voice spoke this time, and Demos could not believe his ears – it was the voice of his son, Demetrius!  The child had been two when Demos shipped out from Rome and would be nigh on four now.

          “My child, how in Jupiter’s name did you get here?” he asked.

          “I’m lost, tata,” the voice cried.  “The horses scared me.  Come get me, tata!”

          The sound of that plaintive cry overwhelmed Demos’ doubts. 

“I’m coming, my lad!” he said, and ran to the back of the stable.  He heard a rustling sound in the back of the last stall, where the shadows were deepest.  “Demetrius, tata is here!”

He couldn’t clearly make out the short, shrouded figure huddled in the corner, but he was so full of joy that he reached his arms out to it anyway.  Only when the reality of the visage before him assailed his eyes did he try to pull back, but it was too late.  Something red and pulsating with slime shot down his throat, and the last thought that flickered through his brain before it was reduced to powder was that his boy was probably still in Rome.

          His comrades came looking for him an hour later, and found a grey, withered thing standing there by the empty stall, its arms till extended, its face frozen in a dried rictus of joy and agony.  It had been so thoroughly drained of all fluid that the body broke in half when they tried to move it, and then collapsed into a pile of dust and brittle bone.

          The secret was out.

          Meridius, Lentulus, and Balbus spent an uncomfortable night in Beer Sheba, the blowing dust making them cough and sneeze all night long, no matter how hard they tried to seal off their barracks room.  The storm blew itself out an hour before dawn, and gulping down a cup of watered wine each, they were through the gates and heading for the fort at a steady gallop as the day dawned in the east.  It was downhill almost the entire way, as the land sank into the deep basin that held the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.  The ride back was an hour shorter than the ride to town had been the previous day.

          Almost as soon as the fort came into view in the distance, Meridius sensed something wrong.  There was a wispy column of smoke rising from the main plaza, and there were not as many men on the walls as there should have been.

          As the riders drew nearer, the gates to the fort swung open, and the men came pouring out – no ranks, no discipline, just a roiling clump of humanity.  Something had panicked them, and these tough, seasoned legionaries had become a frightened mob.  Several of them came running towards Meridius as he neared the fort, like lost children seeing their father in the distance.

          “What in Jupiter’s name is this?” Meridius bellowed as he reined in his horse. “Are you soldiers or common rabble?  FALL IN!!!”

          The familiar sound of the centurion’s voice broke the spell, and the legionaries quickly formed ranks, embarrassed by their panic.  Lucius Meridius surveyed them for a moment, then spotted Titus Marius in the front rank, looking grim.

          “Report, legionary!” he said.  “What happened?”

          “Yes, sir!” snapped Marius, stepping forward.  “Legionary Demos went to feed the horses last night and didn’t come back.  Three of us went to look for him, and what we found -” he swallowed hard, and continued. “Sir, what we found was no longer human.  Something had sucked the life out of him, every drop of fluid, until nothing was left but a brittle sack of dust and bones.  He was gone less than an hour, sir!  And then we began hearing strange things outside the walls of the fort – some men said they heard their wives calling for them, others said the voices were those of children.  Some said that they heard whores calling them to come and bed them.  All of us stayed in the courtyard until dawn, when the voices faded away.  I cremated what was left of Demos – none of us could stand to look at him, and he was crumbling to dust anyway.”

          “I intended to be back before nightfall,” said Meridius.  “The dust storm delayed us.  But I will not leave you again.  Let’s return to the fort and discuss what to do next. Fall out!”

          The men relaxed and headed for the gates.  Interesting, thought Meridius, how they trusted him to find a solution.  He only hoped that he could figure something out before nightfall.  Fire, the Jewish hag had said.  But how to lure the creature close enough to use flames against him? He thought furiously.

          “All right, men,” he said once the legionaries were safely inside the fortress. “Gather round, don’t worry about formation.  I tried to keep this matter a secret from you until I could find out more about what we are facing, and that was a mistake on my part.  I did find out a few things while I was in Beer Sheba; I’m just sorry I was unable to get back before sunset.”

          “What was it?” Titus Marius said.  “All of us have seen death and dying, sir.  We’re comfortable with killing, or even the thought of being killed.  But what on earth could do that to a man?”

          “For lack of a better term, a demon,” said Meridius.  “According to the locals, it has lurked here in this desert for as long as anyone can remember.  None of them know what it looks like, exactly – I don’t think any of its victims have lived to describe it.”

          “Does it have a name?” asked one of the youngest legionaries, Marcus Scipio.

          “I can’t pronounce Hebrew very well,” Meridius said.  “But the old woman I talked to told me its name translated to the ‘Drinker of Life.’  That will do as well as any other.”

          “So how do we kill it?” Titus Marius asked.

          “I am not sure we can,” said Meridius.  “This creature or spirit or whatever it is seems to be immortal.  But I think perhaps we can hurt it, drive it away.”

          “How?” several legionaries asked at once.

          “It seems to prowl mostly outside the fort, looking for those who stray,” said the centurion.  “Last night when I ordered you all to stay inside the walls, it came in, waiting for someone to leave the group.  It seems to prey on single victims.  The old Jewish woman told me there is a legend among her people that it does not like fire.  Of course, how do we get it close enough to something it fears so we can take advantage of its weakness?  That is the question, and I think I may have an answer.”

          Fifty pairs of eyes were fixed on him, and Meridius swallowed hard.

          “Tonight, the entire garrison will man the walls,” he said.  “Each of you will be armed with a bow and arrows, and each of you will have a firepot between his feet.  When we hear the creature’s voices calling outside the wall, I will go out.  Alone.  I will slowly circle the fort, staying within a few yards of the walls.  I will go towards its voice, but not too far.  Never out of easy bowshot.  I will try and make it come to me.  And when it does -”

          “Fire arrows!” said Marius.  “We’ll send flaming darts at it from a dozen directions!”

          “Exactly,” said Meridius. “We will light him up like a Saturnalia bonfire!”

          “Isn’t that dangerous, though?” asked Marcus Lentulus.  “An awful risk, if you ask me!”

          “That’s why I am going, not you,” said Meridius.  “I led you men to this place and keeping you alive is my responsibility.  Two of you have already died, and that is two too many.  If anyone else is going to perish, it will be me.  Lentulus, if that should happen, you will take over as centurion.  I want you to lead the men out of this place, and retreat to En Gedi.  Tell the tribune, Junius Gallio, what has happened. Am I clear?”

          His old friend nodded, looking so glum that Meridius laughed.

          “A hundred Germans couldn’t kill me, ten thousand Jews couldn’t kill me, not even a cobra could kill me!” he said.  “I’m not going to let some stupid desert demon send me to Alysium!”

          “That demon would take one taste of you and spit you back out,” Marcus replied, and the men laughed out loud. 

The mood of panic and desperation was replaced by determination as they began digging through their arsenal, pulling out all the bows and arrows they had brought with them.  Meridius watched them in satisfaction for a while, and then climbed up to the commandant’s quarters and sat down at his desk.  He took out a quill and parchment and began writing a letter to Tribune Gallio, explaining what had happened since he arrived at the fort the day before.  By the time he was done he had covered three feet of papyrus with his neat, crisp Latin. He cut the papyrus, rolled it into a scroll, and dribbled some wax on it as a seal. 

He stood and stretched, then reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a handful of the dried dates he had purchased in Beer Sheba, along with some salted, dried fish, carefully wrapped in leaves to keep it from spoiling.  He munched his food, wondering how things were going to play out when the sun set. 

Late in the afternoon, he came down into the courtyard.  Several of the soldiers were rolling dice; others were leaning against the wall and napping after their sleepless night.  He let them rest and joined in one of the games for a while as the shadows lengthened.  As the sun touched the horizon, he mounted the walls and looked out at the desert.  It was calm, placid, giving no hint of the undead thing that hid somewhere amid the rocks and the sand.  But it was out there nonetheless – waiting, watching, biding its time.  He wondered how intelligent it was, and if it could understand the speech of men.  He hoped not!

Finally, he stepped down as the twilight gathered.  The men were congregated in the open plaza, buckets of red glowing coals at the ready.  Each legionary had wrapped the tips of their arrows in strips of linen and set the soaking in lamp oil; a quick plunge into the coals would set each arrowhead ablaze.

“One man every fifteen feet or so, all the way around the wall,” he said.  “Keep your arrows loosely nocked once I am outside the wall, but don’t fire until you actually see something. And one more thing -” he paused for effect – “Any man that hits me with an arrow will have to have a surgeon extract my boot from his arse!”

The men guffawed, and Meridius ordered them to take their positions. Once they were all in place, he joined them, slowly circling the walls.

“Do you think it will come?” one of the legionaries asked him.

“It seems to be very hungry,” he replied.  “I think it will.”

About an hour after full darkness, Meridius heard a sound outside the walls – the plaintive wailing of a child in distress.  When no one stirred, a few moments later a woman’s throaty laugh sounded.  Both came from the south side of the fort, away from the gate.

“I’m going out,” he told the men.  “I’ll try to draw it to me.  Aim true!”

Moments later, he slipped the bar on the fortress gate and stepped into the darkness.  He bore no torch, determined to do nothing to stop the creature from coming for him.  He turned to his right and began his first circuit of the fortress, whistling to show a confidence he did not feel.  Despite the heat still radiating up from the sand, the air felt chill to him – although how much of that was temperature and how much was fear, he could not say.

As he rounded the southwest corner of the fort, he heard something off in the darkness – a soft rustling in the sand.  The moon was rising in the east, but all he saw was a faint cloud of dust hovering about two dozen paces off.  He stared at it a moment, and the cloud hung there instead of dispersing.  Finally, he turned his back on it and started forward, whistling again.

“Lucius!” a voice whispered behind him.  A voice that he knew quite well, even though he had not heard it for a decade. He whirled to face it but saw nothing.

“Crispus?” he said.  His brother had died fighting barbarians on the German frontier, died despite Meridius’ best efforts to save him.

“Help me, brother, I am wounded!” the voice cried, cracking with pain.  Those were the last words Meridius had ever heard his brother say, and despite his awareness of the source, he found his eyes welling with tears.

“I can’t see you, brother,” he said.

“I’m just ahead of you,” the voice said.  “Not far.  Come and help me before the barbarians come back!  I have lost a lot of blood.”

“Come towards me, Crispus!” he said, and half meant it.  “I will meet you halfway, but I cannot see.  Please come closer!”

There.  About twenty feet in front of him, something swirled in the air, a foot or two above the ground.  He saw a legionary’s cloak, stained with blood.  From it, a hand was extended, reaching for him.  He knew it was not his brother; he knew Crispus had been cremated and sent back to Rome.  All these things his mind told him, but his heart told him differently.  He began to stagger towards the drifting shadow.

“Crispus, brother, I am coming!” he said.

He was close now – the legionary’s cloak was blowing in the wind, covering the face of its wearer, but the bloodstained hand was still extended towards him, trembling slightly.  He held out his own hand to grasp it, and suddenly the cloak was thrown back.

The thing that floated before him was not and had never been human.  Its eyes were black as midnight, focused on him with a palpable greed.  Its face was grey and wrinkled, seamed with the passage of centuries. Two pointed ears rose straight and tall above its head, and its twisted form was seemingly half corporeal and half black mist.  The very human hands that reached out to him seemed strangely incongruous on such a monstrous, unearthly form.  But then its mouth opened, and Meridius began to scream.   A scarlet serpentlike tendril emerged, with a gaping hole at its end, a hole lined with thousands of tiny teeth. It shot towards his own mouth, ready to plunge down his throat and drain him till he was as dry as the desert around him.

Then all at once, six fire arrows sliced through the night air, penetrating the beast’s body from multiple angles.  One transfixed that dreadful tentacle with its greedy maw only a few inches from his mouth; another plunged into one of the greedy black eyes.  The creature shrieked and gibbered as the flames wrapped around it, consuming the parts of it that were truly flesh.  Screaming, the Drinker of Life shed its corporeal bits as it assumed the form of a black dust cloud and fled back across the desert, leaving burning bits of flesh in its wake.  Meridius swayed on his feet for a moment, and then slowly collapsed.

He woke up in his bunk the next morning, his mind still reeling from the nightmares that monstrosity had inflicted on him.  Marcus Lentulus sat beside his cot, patiently waiting.  Seeing the centurion’s eyes open, he punched his old friend on the shoulder.

“All well, mate?” he said.

“I think so. Are the men all right?” he replied, reaching for his wineskin.

“Much better now,” he said.  “And deeply in your debt.  Several of them got a glimpse of the thing before it fled, and they are shaken.  But at the same time, they think it is dead now.  What do you think?”

“I think it has fled to whatever dark place it came from to lick its wounds and heal itself,” said Meridius.  “But I do not think we destroyed it.”

“As long as it doesn’t emerge while we are here, I will take that!” said Lentulus.

“So will I,” replied Lucius Meridius.

And it did not.

The centurion lived to be an old man, retiring to a farm near Neapolis and living well into his eighties.  He never saw or heard any sight of the Drinker of Life again, but to his dying day the sounds of a child’s laughter at night would make him flinch in fear.