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Jibreel's Curse

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Jibreel’s Curse

By James Mullins

First Kindle Edition October 12th 2016

©2016 James Mullins

Editors: Lee Jenkins and Doug Cree

Published in association with Longinus Industries

All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, without written permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously

Jibreel looked down the path ahead of him. He held his hand against his forehead and squinted his eyes to try and protect them from the glare of the intense Arabian sun shining upon the land. The horizon shimmered with a mirage of water ahead. “Can’t be much further now,” he thought. The journey through the barren lands and over the mountain pass that day had gone without incident. The slow clop, clop, clop, of his camel’s hooves and the faint whisper of wind were the only sounds that could be heard as he rode.

Jibreel continued riding for a time. Finally he stopped and took a deep breath. The fragrance of flowers filled his nostrils. He paused, relishing the smell of the blooming flowers. He had been traveling all day from Mecca towards his family’s tents. The rains around Mount Hira had been plentiful that year so he led his family to the base of that great mountain. Where they raised their tents and allowed their herds of goats and sheep to partake in the grasses.

Jibreel had taken some goat’s cheese and sheep’s wool to Mecca to trade for the spices his wife Sabella loved to use in her cooking. Jibreel closed his eyes and thought about Sabella the way she smelled, her soft raven black hair, and that way she looked at me sends my heart racing in anticipation of pleasures to come. “Bismillah, I am such a lucky man to be blessed with such a wife,” he said out loud.

The smell of blooming flowers washed over him a second time and he took a deep breath. At last he could see the source, a small oasis at the base of the mountain pass he had been traversing most of the day. The surrounding hills had formed a natural bowl where the runoff from the meager winter rains had gathered to form a pool of water. Surrounding the pool was a small grove of palm trees, flowers, and soft grass. His camel, eager to have a drink, increased its pace towards the pool.

Reaching the center of the oasis Jibreel made a, “Kee, Kee, Kee,” sound with his mouth. The camel snorted at the delay but dutifully kneeled to the ground to allow Jibreel to dismount. He threw his left leg over the saddle and slid off the back of the camel. He turned, walked up to the pool and, drank from it using his hands. The camel snorted again in displeasure at being forced to wait while Jibreel drank from the pool. “Now, now, Qamar, you’ll get your chance,” Jibreel said smiling up at him.

Jibreel stepped to the side and allowed Qamar to drink from the pool. He reached down and scratched his camel just behind the ears. The camel stopped drinking and moaned in pleasure. “See, much better now, eh?” Jibreel told Qamar. He took a leather strap that was fastened to his saddle and hobbled Qamar. He then took a few dates from a saddle bag and ate them as the sun set behind the mountains to his immediate west. His hunger satisfied, Jibreel set to work on Qamar. First, he removed the saddle and set it on the ground. He then brushed Qamar’s fur where the saddle had rested. Finished caring for his camel, he laid down on the soft grasses and was fast asleep within minutes.

Jibreel felt something wet and gritty being dragged across his cheek. Without opening an eye he swatted at the source of the irritation and tried to go back to sleep. He once again began to slip back into the gentle embrace of slumber when he felt the wetness again, “Qamar, cease this at once.” Qamar ignored Jibreel’s protest and licked him on the cheek again, “All right, all right!” Jibreel muttered in disgust. He opened his eyes to the sight of Qamar looking at him. The edge of his snout mere inches away from his face. Qamar’s tongue shot out and licked Jibreel from the bottom of his chin to his forehead, “Ugh, enough!”

The sun was just breaking the horizon to the east. Jibreel stood and stretched the stiffness from his body. “Not getting any younger,” he thought to himself. He then rummaged through one of the saddle bags. Grabbing a handful of grain he turned towards Qamar. “Is this what you seek?” he asked Qamar. Qamar, smelling the grain, turned and poked Jibreel’s closed hand with his snout. Smiling Jibreel opened his hand and Qamar eagerly ate the grain from his palm.

Jibreel took two dates from his saddle bag. He then searched through another for a bottle. Finding it, he withdrew it from the bag and smiled. “Honey,” he said out loud. He carefully removed the cork stopper with his teeth and put a few drops on the dates. He placed his feet in the pool and sat at the water’s edge and ate his breakfast. As he chewed on the dates contentedly he watched the reds and purples cast across the sky by the rising sun. The orb was a dull orange. “Bismillah be praised. Such beauty,” he said out loud.

Jibreel stood and slipped off his robes and keffiyeh. He placed the garments at the water’s edge and lowered himself into the pool. He floated for a time relaxing and then washed the dirt of the road from his skin. Satisfied he emerged from the pool and put on his robes and head scarf. The robes, made from Egyptian cotton, were white in color and covered his entire body from ankle to neck. The keffiyeh wrapped around his head, helped to protect it from the harsh rays of the sun. Both garments worked in concert to keep him cool, at least as cool as one could be in the open deserts of Arabia.

Jibreel filled his water skin next. He then placed the saddle back on Qamar’s back and fastened the single strap tightly to his belly. Qamar snorted in protest at the extra weight. He then placed his water skin on the saddle and removed the hobbling strap from Qamar’s legs. He fastened the strap to the saddle and then said, “Kee, Kee, Kee.” Qamar obediently lowered himself to the ground. Jibreel climbed into the saddle and then said, “Kaa, Kaa, Kaa.”

Qamar stood. Jibreel then slapped Qamar gently in the neck with the leather strap. Qamar started walking. Jibreel used Qamar’s harness to guide the beast towards the rising sun. They rode for an hour and then turned to the south. Off in the distance Jibreel saw the peak of Mount Hira. The pair slowly made their way towards the mountain. As he rode, Jibreel daydreamed about Sabella and the softness of her skin.

Jibreel’s daydreaming was interrupted by a sudden crash of thunder. Startled by the noise Qamar reared up and nearly threw Jibreel. Jibreel grabbed the harness and said, “Easy girl, shhhh it’s ok.” He then looked up and saw a ball of fire streaking towards him. “Bismillah preserve us!” he yelled. The fireball flew past the pair and continued on impacting the ground with a loud boom several miles to the east. “An offering from the Gods, or perhaps a God has fallen to earth?” he thought. “Come Qamar let us investigate.” Jibreel turned Qamar towards the impact site.

As the pair rode towards the site of the impact, black smoke rose into the air indicating the final resting place of whatever or whoever it was. Jibreel’s mind was filled with thoughts of what it could be, “A Djinn come to grant me my every wish?” The thought excited him. He slapped Qamar’s sides with the leather strap urging the beast to move faster.

After about an hour of riding the pair arrived at the site, “Kee, Kee, Kee,” Jibreel said. Qamar dutifully knelt down to allow Jibreel to dismount. Jibreel walked up to the source of the black smoke. A large swath had been cut into the sand by the object. Resting at the end of the furrow cut by the fallen object was a black rock. Parts of the rock glowed with a greenish tinge.

Jibreel approached the rock and looked at it closely. The greenish glow slowly faded over several minutes to leave only the black color. It wasn’t just a normal black rock. The rock seemed to suck the very light out of the air surrounding it. Jibreel tried to pick up the rock but instead he cried out in pain, “Aiyeeah.” As the finger that had touched the stone were burned.

Jibreel took a step back and sucked on his burnt finger, “How can I pick this thing up,” he thought. The only response he got was a rumbling from his stomach. He went back to Qamar and pulled out a couple of dates along with his water skin. He took a sip and swished the water around his mouth moistening it. He then sat down in Qamar’s shadow and ate his lunch. As he ate an idea occurred to him, “The thing is black perhaps that is why it is so hot?”

Jibreel pulled a blanket from the back of his saddle. He then laid it over the black stone. The trench and hole in which it sat enabled him to cover it up without the blanket actually touching the black stone. He gathered up some nearby rocks and set them on the edges of the blanket to prevent it from blowing away. “I wonder how long it will take the black stone to cool?” He said out loud. Looking at Qamar he chuckled lightly, “I must have a pox of the mind if I expect an answer from you, Qamar.”

Jibreel sat down on the ground, leaned up against Qamar, and looked around at the countryside. Like much of Arabia it was a barren land of reddish tinged sand and stone as far as the eye could see. The occasional breeze gave little relief from the stifling heat of the intense Arabian Sun. Any skin felt like it was burning when exposed to that merciless orb during the heat of the day. Lacking anything else to do while he waited for the black stone to cool, Jibreel dozed. His dreams were interrupted by nightmares.

After a few hours he awoke screaming, “What was I dreaming about that frightened me so?” He asked himself. He sat for several minutes trying to bring the images back into his mind. Several times he thought he was on the verge of bringing the horrific images forth from deep in his mind but each time they seemed to slip away just as he was about to grab hold of them. One word kept entering his mind as he tried, hunger.

Jibreel stood, looked down at Qamar and said, “I wonder if our new arrival can be touched yet?” He walked over to the blanket which had become covered in a light coating of sand and picked it up. He shook the sand from it, folded it, and placed it back on the rear of his saddle. He returned to the stone and observed it for a time. “The green glow is gone,” he thought. Gingerly he extended his sandaled foot towards it and touched the black stone with the bottom of his sandal. He jerked the sandal back and inspected the bottom. “Looks ok,” he thought.

Jibreel then stepped down into the trench carved by the stone as it had landed. He knelt down on his knees in front of the black stone and extended his right hand. He held his hand a few millimeters from the surface of the stone. “I don’t feel any heat,” he thought. He then extended his pinky finger out and touched the stone. It was now cool to the touch. “Whew,” he said out loud. Qamar responded to the sound of his voice with a grunt.

Jibreel picked up the stone and examined it. On one side it was as smooth as glass. On the other sides the surface was sharp and jagged. As Jibreel ran his hand over the stone it cut him on his index finger. The cut oozed a single drop of blood onto the stone. When the blood touched the surface of the stone it was instantly absorbed. The stone flashed a bright white light. The light seemed to have physical form and knocked Jibreel to the ground. As Jibreel fell to the ground he hit his head on a rock. His vision was filled with gray and black spots. He tried to sit up but the world wobbled. The black spots filled his vision becoming a blanket of darkness.

Jibreel awoke, his head throbbed and the pressure on his temple made it seem as if his brains would explode from his head at any moment. Pushing down the urge to vomit he opened his eyes, it was dark. Panicked he looked around for Qamar. Qamar was still on the ground asleep and snoring loudly. “Praise be to Bismillah, Qamar is still here,” he said out loud. Jibreel looked around on the ground to see where he had dropped the black stone but couldn’t find it, “Where did it go?” He asked himself out loud. The only response he got was a rumbling in his stomach. He took out a few dates and ate them. He washed the simple meal down with some warm water from his water skin. A cool gust hit him and he shivered.

Jibreel nudged Qamar’s sleeping form with his foot, “Wake up, Qamar, we must be off.” Qamar groaned at Jibreel in displeasure. Jibreel climbed into the saddle and said, “Kaa, Kaa, Kaa.” Qamar stood. Jibreel could see Mount Hira by the moonlight, so he headed in that direction. “I really shouldn’t travel at night, but by now Sabella must be sick with worry,” he thought to himself as he rode.

Jibreel rode for several hours, eventually falling asleep in the saddle as Qamar slowly plodded towards Mount Hira. He dreamed of a voracious appetite. A hunger that couldn’t be satisfied no matter what he did. He consumed every ounce of food in the camp. Sabella did everything she could to sate his hunger. Everything…

Finally an idea entered his mind from a dark recess that he had never dared to open up before, “Sabella would taste so good,” he thought. Jibreel grabbed her and bit into the soft tissues of her neck. He relished in the taste of her flesh and life blood as it touched his tongue while he fed. Jibreel awoke screaming, “No!” he shouted. The scream startled Qamar and the camel cried out in protest at the sudden outburst.

“Bismillah be praised it was just a nightmare,” Jibreel realized as the fogginess of sleep disappeared from his thoughts. As he rode he broke out into a cold sweat. Over time he became dizzy and nauseous. His thoughts kept drifting back to his nightmare. “How good it tasted to feed on Sabella’s soft flesh,” he thought. “Gods! What am I thinking?” he said out loud. His only response was the sound of Qamar’s hooves as they plodded along and the faint sound of the pre-dawn wind.

The sun crested the eastern horizon. The light revealed a group of tents at the base of Mount Hira. “Not long now,” thought Jibreel. His vision had filled with white and gray spots and he swayed in the saddle. He looked down at his hand. The skin had taken on a blueish gray pallor. “I look like someone who is dead,” he thought. He lost sight of the tents as he rode into a depression.

Emerging from the other side Jibreel saw that the tents belonged to his family. His head swam and the white and gray spots had turned to gray and black spots in his vision. He could hear his pulse thundering in his ears as the blood rushed faster and faster through his veins. He took hold of the leather strap tied to his saddle and smacked Qamar hard with it. Qamar let out a cry of protest but sped up his pace.

Jibreel could see gray forms coming towards him. He couldn’t see who they were because of the spots in his eyes. The forms spoke to him as they approached but he couldn’t make out the sounds, “My head feels like someone has kicked it all night and this hunger, Bismillah, please take this hunger away.” Then he caught the smell. “Its Sabella my love,” he thought. Mustering his last reserves of strength from deep within Jibreel opened his mouth and croaked, “Sabella.” The last of his strength exhausted he toppled from the saddle. Strong arms caught him and the smell of Sabella filled his mind.

The nightmares pursued him. Try as he might, Jibreel couldn’t escape them as he was filled with such ravenous hunger, “Oh Bismillah end this torment.” He dreamed of drowning, “I never imagined there was this much water in the world.” As he choked on the water filling his lungs he clawed his way back to the surface. Breaking the surface, he spat out the water and coughed. As he did so the water turned to blood and the hunger came crashing down upon him once more.

Jibreel’s vision faded from the ocean of blood. He awoke, in his tent, lying in a pool of his own sweat. His strength seemed to have returned. He sat up, “The sickness seems to have disappeared. Thank Bismillah for delivering me from that awful affliction.” He looked around, within reach was a plate of dates, goat cheese, and a cup of wine. He picked up the cup in his right hand and drank greedily, “That’s the best tasting wine I have ever had.” Next he took a date and ate it.

The hunger returned. Jibreel stuffed the rest of the dates and the goat cheese into his mouth. He then saw a plate with some meat upon it. Grabbing it he shoveled the meat into his mouth and swallowed without chewing. The hunger intensified, “Oh my innards hunger so.” Desperate, he stood and walked over to the opening and pushed his way through the flaps. The sun blinded him and he stumbled for a moment. He felt a small figure grab hold of his leg. He looked down and saw his little girl Jesenia.

Jibreel squatted down and Jesenia leapt into his arms. He hugged her and said, “My sweet little girl.” As he hugged her he kissed her gently on the forehead. “Her skin smells so good. I am so hungry,” he thought. His mouth watered at the smell of his child. The hunger like a vise squeezed every other sensation out of his mind until there was nothing else in his world. No memories of those he loved, or anything else. Just the hunger. The succulent smell of young flesh tormented him and he couldn’t stand it any longer; he bit down into his little girl’s neck. She screamed in horror, “Daddy, why are you hurting me?”

Jibreel didn’t even hear the scream. He could only feel the sweet taste of her flesh. For a moment his hunger was satisfied but then it came back. Then he felt a horrible pain in his chest. He looked down and saw the tip of a sword sticking out of it. For a moment he was relieved, “Thank the gods I can do no more harm to my family.” The moment was fleeting and the hunger returned. He pulled himself free of the sword and turned on the attacker. It was his son Tarek. Jibreel fought the hunger and for a brief moment he was victorious, “Tarek, run!”

Tarek ignored Jibreel and stood there stunned for a few moments. Jibreel once again lost control and lunged at Tarek, who again, swung the sword at him. As the sword struck Jibreel’s left side he reached and pulled Tarek to him. Then he feasted. As he sat atop Tarek and fed the hunger flickered and died. Satisfied, he stood. An unholy scream erupted from the edge of camp. He turned to see what was causing the noise. It was Sabella. She had returned from a nearby spring with a jug of water atop her head. She looked at her husband with horror in her eyes.

Sabella didn’t know what to make of this. She saw the bodies of her two children and Jibreel covered in blood. He had grievous wounds but lived still. She called out to him, “Jibreel?” Jibreel wasn’t inside his own body anymore. He was floating above the thing that he had become. He tried to warn Sabella, “For the love of Bismillah, run!” She didn’t heed his warning.

The thing that was formerly Jibreel let out a hiss and charged at Sabella. She threw the water jug at him and screamed, “Jibreel, what has come over you? For Bismillah’s sake fight the demon that has taken hold of you!” The water jug struck Jibreel’s body and smashed. It didn’t even slow him down. Jibreel’s consciousness just floated helplessly as he watched the thing reach Sabella. It grabbed her and bit down on her shoulder.

“NO!” Jibreel screamed as he awoke.

Sabella was looking down at him, “My love, are you ok? You were having some kind of horrible nightmare.”

“Thank Bismillah it was just another horrible dream,” he thought. Words began tumbling out of his mouth. He made no sense.

Sabella held a finger to his lips, “Shhh its ok, you’re safe now.”

Suddenly the hunger crashed into his mind, “Oh the smell of her flesh, like ambrosia.” He thought. Jibreel opened his mouth and felt her finger with his tongue.

Sabella giggled, “I see that you are quite better now love.” Sabella screamed as Jibreel bit off the finger, “Jibreel!” She screamed. Sabella fell back and kicked with her legs pushing herself away from him. She grabbed a plate and struck Jibreel over the head. The bronze plate clanged and Jibreel’s head swam. For a moment the hunger abated.

“Sabella, my love, you must kill me. I don’t know how long I can keep this horrible thing within me in check. Kill me!”

“I cannot,” Sabella replied. She looked around for a weapon to subdue Jibreel. She saw his sword lying on the floor near the entrance to the tent. She unsheathed the blade and approached Jibreel cautiously.

“Yes, Sabella, strike me down. Save yourself and our children.” Sabella turned the sword so that the flat of the blade pointed downwards and then she struck Jibreel in the head with it. For a moment the hunger abated and was replaced by pain, “Sabella, forgive me.” Jibreel begged. Then the blackness took him. Sabella ripped a strip of cloth from her dress and staunched the flow of blood from her missing finger.

Sabella emerged from the tent just as Tarek arrived. He had been tending to their flock of sheep as they fed on the vegetation nearby. This year had been uncommonly wet around Mount Hira and the countryside was dotted with speckles of green amongst the sea of reddish tans that dominated the Arabian countryside. Tarek gasped for breath as he looked down at his mother’s hand, “Mother, what happened?”

Sabella replied, “Some foul demon has bewitched your father. I know not how but he is not himself. His sleep is filled with nightmares and he is losing control of himself.” Sabella held up her right hand and removed the cloth for a moment.

Tarek gasped in horror at the sight of her missing index finger, “Father did that?”

Sabella slumped to the ground and started crying, “Yes, I know not how to expel the demon that has overcome him. He goes from being your father to a hunger crazed beast without warning. When he was in control he told me to kill him. I’m so frightened, Tarek. What are we to do?” Tarek knelt down and held his mother in an embrace. She cried into his chest for a time.

The sobs subsiding Sabella told Tarek, “We must do something before he wakes back up.”

Tarek looked around their camp, it consisted of three tents surrounding a fire pit, where they cooked their meals. His eyes settled on Jibreel’s saddle. Tarek walked over to it and grabbed the leather hobbling strap. “I have an idea,” he said.

Walking into the tent, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim interior for several seconds. Jibreel moaned at the bright light from outside. Acting quickly, Tarek used the sword to cut the leather strap in half. He then tied his father’s hands behind his back. Tarek then used the second half to tie his father’s legs together and turned to Sabella, “The cave in the mountain with the spring we draw our water from. We can put him there for now. It will keep him alive and out of the sun until we figure out what to do with him.”

Sabella nodded, “Good thinking, my son.” Tarek then hefted the form of his father and carried him outside. He placed him across Qamar’s back. Tarek lead Qamar up the side of Mount Hira to the cave. He removed Jibreel and carried him to the back of the cave and laid him on the cavern floor. Tarek then returned to the camp.

Jibreel’s dreams tormented him for the rest of the day as he lay unconscious. The dreams were filled with unending hunger and death. Jibreel floated above the grisly scenes as they unfolded. He watched himself kill and consume his family countless times. The rising sun shined into the back of the cave and he awoke. He looked up and saw Sabella standing over him. She held a piece of meat in her hands.

“Sabella,” Jibreel croaked.

The sadness in her face changed into a smile, “Jibreel, are you better now? Has the demon left you?”

The wave of hunger washed over Jibreel once again. He looked up and saw a meal standing over him. He tried to grab the meal but his arms and legs didn’t work. He cried out in frustration. “The meal is so close,” he thought. The meal held up a piece of meat.

“Is this what you want?” The meal asked him. He tried to form the word yes but couldn’t. Finally he just nodded. The meal tossed a small piece of food at him. He opened his mouth and caught it. For a moment the hunger subsided and he recognized his wife. “Sabella,” he said for a second time. The moment of lucidness was fleeting and the hunger overwhelmed his senses again.

The meal sighed. Jibreel’s teeth kept clicking as he opened and closed his mouth rapidly. Click, click, click, and click. The meal tossed another succulent morsel into his mouth. He swallowed without chewing, “Sabella I’m…” His voice trailed off as the hunger pushed everything out of his thoughts again.

The meal leaned over him and looked into his eyes. Jibreel pulled on his restraints trying to get at her. He could hear the blood flowing in her soft and succulent neck. The meal dropped the rest of the meat into his open mouth. He chewed a few times and then swallowed, “Sabella, I love you.”

“I love you too,” Sabella replied with tears coming to her eyes.

Then Jibreel was gone again. Sabella took a step back, fell to her knees, and wept. She returned every day with some meat to feed him and gain a few precious seconds with the man she loved. Finally the vegetation was exhausted by the herd. The family had to move on or risk losing their herds to starvation. Tarek sitting atop Qamar used a hammer and chisel to write a name above the cave entrance. Tap, tap, tap, the sound of the chisel striking the stone rang out. Satisfied Tarek stepped back, dismounted, and looked up at his work. It read, Jibreel.

Without the daily meals the creature that Jibreel had become fell into a deep sleep. Seasons went buy, then years, and finally decades. He slept, no longer dreaming, his mind completely gone. Finally, many years in the future a hapless traveler was driven into the cave by a sand storm. Jibreel’s senses detected the presence of a meal and began to rouse, “Hello.” A voice said near the cave entrance, “Is there anyone there?” The voice asked.

Jibreel strained at the leather strap binding him. He leaned forward and bit it with his teeth and let out a growl. The leather strap, dry rotted after many years of existence, broke and he was released. He rose and shuffled awkwardly towards the sound of the meal. His limbs were very stiff. The meal, outlined by the light of the cave entrance, was looking at him but he was shrouded in darkness and couldn’t be seen. Suddenly the meal cried out and collapsed. “This was his chance,” the limited intelligence that was once Jibreel thought. He lunged at the meal and sank his teeth into its shoulder.

“What are you doing?” The man asked. The meal shuffled backwards, stood, and left the cave. Jibreel tried to grab the meal but his leaden limbs were too slow. The meal disappeared into the swirling mass of blowing sand. Jibreel, cried out in frustration, continued lurching slowly, following him out into the storm…

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Prologue

Mount Hira 610 Arabia

Mohammed sighed contentedly as he looked up at the many hued masterpiece in front of him. The sun had just crested the horizon and was shining upon Mount Hira. The normal tans were transformed into oranges, reds, and purples. Mohammed said to himself, “I am truly blessed to behold such beauty.” He reached down and scooped up a handful of the sand at the base of the mountain. The grains felt cool to the touch and he opened his fist just a bit to let the grains fall back to the earth. He observed grains, “Straight down good no wind. Today’s climb should be easy.” Mohammed began his ascent. The stones, not yet heated by the sun, were cool and pleasant to touch.

Mohammed climbed for a time. Tired, he paused and looked up. The peak towered above him still but had grown much closer. Looking down he felt that it was about the same distance to the bottom of the mountain. A faint bit of wind tickled the hairs on the back of his neck. Curious he turned around. He gasped at what he saw. Despite his swarthy complexion his face noticeably paled. In the distance from the ground to the heavens was a brown wall. As he observed the wall it slowly filled out the horizon to his left and right, “Curses, I must find some shelter before that abomination arrives and flays the skin from my bones.” He continued his ascent for a time and then turned again to observe the storm, “I have maybe thirty minutes to find shelter” he thought to himself.

Mohammed looked around. He recognized where he was and increased the pace of his ascent, “I must make for the cave,” he thought to himself. As he clambered up the cliff face, a gust of wind pushed him into the cliff. His forehead struck the cliff face causing little white dots to cloud his vision. Despite this he was able to hang on. He turned to observe the storm. It was nearly upon him.

He continued to scramble up the mountain side toward the cave, but he had run out of time. The wind howled into his ears and seemed to both push him into the cliff and pull him at the same time. Each grain of sand that found its way to his skin caused an almost fleeting moment of pain. Together the totality of the grains hitting his skin was agony. Mohammed thought to himself, “Feels as if a thousand bees are stinging me all at once! I must get to the cave soon or there will be nothing left of me but my bleached bones.”

Mohammed looked around trying to get his bearings. Satisfied, he scrambled up until he reached a plateau. He smiled when he saw the shadowed maw of the cave entrance mere feet in front of him. He slowly picked his way over the shifting rocks toward the cave. A sudden gust of wind picked up and flung him to the left of the cave and then slammed him into the ground. He saw the white spots again and felt dizzy.

Mohammed shook his head and cleared the spots from his vision. He then stood and began stumbling through the storm in the direction he thought the cave was. As he walked slowly, he stumbled on a rock and fell to his knees. The pain of the jagged stones biting into his knees registered in his mind but he ignored it. Struggling against the wind he managed to stand up again but he had lost his way.

As Mohammed pondered which direction to head the howling of the storm increased in intensity. “I know not which way to go,” he thought to himself. Picking a direction at random, he started walking again. As he walked, it was a struggle just to remain upright. He struggled against the wind as buffeted his body and tried to push him off the mountain. He lost his balance and his feet slipped out from under him. His body struck the ground and he began to slide toward the edge.

The wind shifted direction and began pushing him away from the edge, “Thank God.” The wind is a fickle ally at best and swirled in a dust devil which pushed him toward the edge once again. Mohammed thrashed around, desperately trying to find anything to stop his descent. Through the swirling sand he spotted a large rock with a good hand hold on the edge of a cliff just before the gaping oblivion of open air. Straining with all his might he reached out to grab it as he went by. His fingers touched it and clamped down, trying to get a grip on the smooth stone. His fingers slipped off the stone and over the edge he went. He was falling!

Almost instantly Mohammed’s body crashed into flat ground. He landed on his left leg. The impact sent shooting pain up his leg. The water skin he had slung over his shoulder exploded under his weight and the sudden impact. The parched earth swallowed the precious liquid in the blink of an eye.

Mohammed panicked, “Hurt, and without water,” he thought groggily. Recovering his senses, he looked up at the opening of a cave. He thought to himself, “I know every nook and cranny of this mountain but I have never seen this cave before.” His left leg chose that moment to remind him of the extent of his injury. A shooting pain caused him to gasp out loud. For several moments there was nothing in his world but the pain. Settling down to a throb he felt like he could make his way into the cave.

Mohammed began crawling toward the opening but paused when he noticed a faint scrawl above the entrance. The Arabic letters formed a name. The name had faded over time and was very difficult to read. He studied the name trying to make out the individual letters. Squinting he was able to finally make it out through the swirling sands. The first letter looked like a J. He was unable to read the next two letters. The fourth letter looked like an R. The next two letters appeared to be Es, and the final letter looked like an L. Mohammed thought to himself for a moment. He recognized that sequence of letters. The two unreadable characters must be an I and a B. “Jibreel,” Mohammed said out loud. Thanks to the sand storm his throat was parched and it came out as a croak.

Mohammed entered the cave and rested for a moment. He let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The throbbing in his leg was painful but seemed to be subsiding. The cave was pitch black, but as his eyes adjusted he was able to make out a very faint outline. He heard the sound of water bubbling at the back of the cave. Relieved, Mohammed gave a silent prayer of thanks and crawled toward the sound. As the bubbling became louder, he heard some gravel shift. “Hello?” He paused. “Is there anyone there?” After several moments waiting for a response he heard a low moan, or was it a growl? It sounded faintly human, but it could have also been an animal. “I won’t hurt you.”

Again sound came forth, but this time it was distinctly louder and closer! Mohammed could hear what sounded like shuffling steps moving toward him. He tried to stand up, but his left foot slipped out from under him. The throbbing in his leg turned into shooting pain! He fell to the cave floor and was stunned. Teeth tore into his shoulder and pulled away a piece of his flesh, “What are you doing?” He screamed. Full of adrenaline and with the aid of the cave wall he was finally able to stand up. He limped outside into the raging sand storm.

Not caring at all about the storm, Mohammed limped as fast as he could from the cave. Finally, after he felt that he had put a safe distance between himself and whatever creature bit him in the cave, he looked down at his shoulder. It was bleeding freely but he could make out the outlines of tooth marks in his skin. A human mouthful worth of his shoulder flesh was missing. Mohammed suddenly felt faint, stumbled, and fell to his knees. His body felt like it was on fire. A few seconds later his whole body turned numb, and the edges of his vision darkened. Desperate, he tried to stand up again but he no longer had control of his own body. He began to feel an overwhelming burning hunger in the pit of his stomach. At this same moment his vision failed and there was nothing but darkness…

Approximately twenty-five years later…

Chapter 1

November 9^th^ 635, Armenia Province, Byzantium

Athos took a deep breath and tried to remain perfectly still. He was crouched in some underbrush he had piled up to conceal his position on top of a small cliff overlooking a deer path. The leaves of the forest canopy were a breathtaking, colorful masterpiece. Athos really loved this time of year. The beauty of the forest took one’s breath away. The deer path wound its way between two cliffs and made a perfect spot to cast a spear down upon anything below him. Hemmed in by the two cliffs an animal could only go forwards or backwards to escape.

Athos made eye contact with his brother. Kristophor had climbed up a birch on the opposite cliff and was concealed by the golden canopy. He was laying with his chest upon a large branch and his legs straddled the branch for stability. In his hands he held a bow. He had stuck three arrows into the branch in front of him. This would enable him to fire off four shots in quick succession. Kristophor returned Athos’ intense gaze with a nervous smile. At ten years of age this was the first time he had been allowed to join Athos on a hunt.

There had really been no choice. Lazar, their father and Athos’ usual hunting partner, had fallen ill. With their stomachs protesting from a lack of food, Athos was forced to bring Kristophor. It was folly to hunt alone in these mountains. There were all sorts of threats that two people could deal with much easier than one, such as wolf packs and bears.

Scratching a living out of the side of a mountain was difficult at best, but the harvest this year had been particularly bad yielding barely enough grain to plant seeds in the coming spring. That meant that they had to hunt for their meals in the mountain forests that towered over their farm. A deer kill could supply enough food to feed the family for a month. Athos and Kristophor’s mother, Anna, and younger sister, Elizabeth, waited with their father back at the farm for the result of their hunt.

At 17 years of age Athos had a very lean and muscled body. His gray eyes showed with a keen intelligence, but just as often betrayed a lack of confidence. He wore a threadbare and weather stained pair of trousers and a simple tunic. For warmth he wore a deer skin his mother had fashioned as a coat for him. Kristophor was similarly dressed. His piercing blue eyes contrasted sharply with the dull browns of their clothing.

A slight breeze blew causing the branches of the trees to creak. Leaves fell to the ground around Athos further concealing him. Movement to his left jerked him from his thoughts. The movement was slight and was picked up by his left eye’s peripheral vision. The movement came from down the path. Athos very slowly turned his head to peer at the spot. Minutes ticked by and Athos cursed himself for allowing his thoughts to take over dulling his senses.

After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was maybe five minutes, a shape appeared on the section of path Athos could see. It was a huge buck! The antlers of the immense deer must have had eight points. The well-muscled body weighed 15 stone, possibly more! This deer would feed the family for a nearly two months after they smoked most of it.

Athos made eye contact with Kristophor and held up one finger. One finger meant deer on the path. Kristophor nodded in response and slowly looked to his right. A little gasp left his mouth as he saw the deer for the first time. The deer froze at the noise and began looking about for the source. The buck pointed his nose up in the air at a seventy degree angle and sniffed several times. Athos held his breath praying the buck wouldn’t detect them. A gentle breeze touched the left side of his face. “Thank God,” he thought, “They were down wind.” Satisfied the buck walked slowly up the path. Athos tried to breathe slowly, but his nervousness made his breath come out in rasps. His warm breath caused little puffs of steam to emerge from his mouth.

The buck slowly approached the spot on the path below Athos. “Come on,” Athos thought. His body tensed with anticipation of his attack. His heart quickened in response and adrenaline flooded his body. The buck took the last few steps forward until he was directly below Athos. Athos leapt up his spear held in his right hand. The buck saw Athos move and froze. Athos pulled back and cast the spear at the buck’s neck. In that moment the buck leapt forward racing down the path! The spear struck the buck on the right hind quarter sinking in. Blood burst from the wound but the buck didn’t stop! Athos was going to lose his spear!

Dull thuds began to erupt as arrow after arrow struck the buck’s neck! Three arrows pierced the left side of the buck’s neck lodging in it. A fourth arrow hit it on top of its mid back. The buck kept running for about half a minute and then toppled snout first into the hard ground. Athos and Kristophor ran for the buck. Its labored breath caused puffs of steam to emerge from its mouth. It had come to rest on its right side. Wisps of steam puffed from the buck’s life blood as it oozed from the multiple wounds in its body. As the buck lay dying a cascade of golden leaves rained down upon it. The awareness in the buck’s eyes faded away.

Athos swept Kristophor up into his arms and exclaimed, “Amazing shooting little brother!” Kristophor smiled at the praise, but he was visibly shaking. “Be at ease little brother, I was the same way when I got my first kill. You get so excited you actually shake.”

Kristophor looked up at Athos, “Thanks Athos.”

“No one will hear of this back at the farm, only of your amazing shooting skills.”

Athos set about the work of getting the corpse of the buck ready to travel. He took the opportunity to instruct Kristophor. As he worked Athos gave Kristophor a general overview of what he was doing. “First you have to open it up from just under the rib cage to the lower belly near the tail. Once you do that you have to take out all of the guts inside. Leave those behind. It will keep the wolves off of you, as you carry your kill back to the farm.” Athos continued taking time to instruct Kristophor as the sun got lower and lower on the horizon, finally completing the task just as the bottom of the sun touched the western horizon.

Athos attempted to heft the buck onto his shoulders. Athos exclaimed, “Whew! This fellow is so big I can barely lift him.” Athos tried to take a few steps, but very quickly stumbled to his knees under the immense weight of the buck. Kristophor grabbed his left arm as he fell stopping Athos from falling further.

“This is too heavy for you to carry brother. How do we get him home Athos?”

Athos, with a perturbed look on his face replied, “We will have to build a sled and drag him back to the farm.”

Athos looked around for the materials he needed. He spotted a couple of branches on a nearby tree that would work, “Kristophor see if you can find a tree with a vine growing on it while I work on breaking three of these branches off. Hurry, we don’t have much daylight left.”

“Ok,” Kristophor immediately started looking through the forest to find a tree with a vine on it.

Athos walked over to a tree he had spotted. There were two branches about seven feet off the ground and a third out of reach. He jumped up, grabbed the lower branch and pulled himself up onto it. Once he had his entire body on the branch he stood and grabbed the first branch he needed. It was about three inches around. He pulled back and forth on it like he was rowing a boat until he heard it starting to crack. With more care he placed his left hand on a different branch for balance and continued pulling on the branch with his right arm. He was rewarded with a loud crack and the branch came off of the tree. He then lowered himself until he was hanging from the branch that he had been standing on, and began pulling on it as hard as he could. As he built up momentum the branch began to crack under his weight and effort. After about two minutes the branch made a loud snapping noise and Athos fell two feet to the ground, easily landing on his feet with perfect balance. Athos repeated the process for the third branch. His efforts were soon rewarded and it too snapped off the tree.

He looked around for his little brother, “Kristophor?” The sun had sunk below the western horizon and it was very quickly growing dark. Off in the distance a wolf howled. “We need to get this done and moving,” thought Athos. Athos called out again a little louder this time, “Kristophor?” From behind him came a loud scream that turned his blood to ice, “What horrible manor of creature is behind me?” Athos leapt three feet forward ripping the hunting knife he used on the buck out of his belt. He frantically looked around for his spear, but couldn’t see it in the dim light! The next thing he heard was giggling.

“You should have seen the look on your face big brother!”

Athos smiled in response, his cheeks turning red with embarrassment. “You got me good little brother. Did you find a tree with vines growing on it like I asked you to do?”

Kristophor turned around and pointed behind him, “The tree is about eighty paces in that direction. Just like you asked me to find, it had a vine growing on it.”

“Thanks little brother.” Athos replied and set off in the direction his little brother had indicated. He looked around once again, spotted the spear and picked it up, “I heard a wolf a little while ago, but it sounded like it was a ways off. There was no reply to its howl, so I think it may be the only one in the area. Stay here and guard the buck.”

Athos took little care in his movements, wanting to get to the tree with the vines as quickly as possible. It was becoming difficult to see and Athos almost missed the tree entirely. He thought to himself when he saw it, “Good job, little brother.” The tree Kristophor had found was perfect. Several vines curled their way up the trunk. Athos pulled out his hunting knife from his belt and set to work. He needed three sections of vines to tie the three branches together into a triangle. Then he would be able to drag the buck through the mountainous forest.

Athos’ work was interrupted by a loud snarl, followed quickly by a pained yelp. Kristophor yelled, “Athos wolves have come to eat the buck!” Athos slipped the hunting knife back into his belt and broke into a run back towards Kristophor. As he ran heedlessly through the forest branches snagged at his clothing and scratched his face. He heard more snarling, and another anguished yelp. This one almost immediately fell silent. Athos charged back onto the path his spear at the ready. What he saw horrified him. Kristophor and the corpse of the buck where surrounded by at least ten wolves! One wolf had an arrow through its neck and laid on its side whimpering softly. Another had an arrow protruding through its left eye, the wolf’s other eye stared up at the sky lifeless.

Just then two wolves launched themselves towards Kristophor at the same time! Kristophor saw the one to his right. He turned and shot an arrow right into its gaping maw! Kristophor did not see the other wolf leaping at his back. Athos heaved back and cast his spear at the wolf. The spear struck the wolf in the side changing its trajectory to flying just behind Kristophor. The spear sank deep into the wolf’s flank. Eight more wolves remained. Two now aware of Athos turned to face him. The other six closed in on Kristophor.

Athos thought frantically for a solution to save Kristophor. “There was nothing else he could do!” He thought. “Kristophor climb the tree behind you.” Kristophor dropped his bow and leaped onto the tree, but not nearly high enough. A wolf lunged at his unprotected back and knocked him off the tree! Athos lunged forward trying to get to Kristophor, but the two wolves facing him blocked the way. The wolf on his right snarled and leaped at him. The maw opened in anticipation of sinking into the soft meat of his throat! Athos ducked under the wolf and his right hand hit the ground. His fingers clutched around a rock. Picking it up he turned just in time to see the other wolf on his left side leap for his throat! He brought the rock down onto the wolf’s head just as it crashed into his chest! Athos swept the wolf off of him and jumped to his feet. What he saw made his blood run cold. Kristophor had failed to get back up. His throat had been ripped open and his lifeblood pumped into the forest floor.

The remaining wolves were dragging the corpse of the buck away from Athos and Kristophor’s dying form. Athos took three steps forward and yanked his spear out of the dying wolf. The wolf yelped loudly and then its last breath rattled through its throat. He felt the presence of an uninjured wolf behind him. He turned and saw the wolf sailing through the air. He brought the spear up and the wolf’s momentum carried it onto the spear. Blood spurted from the wound in the wolf’s chest and covered Athos. He let the weight of the wolf drop the spear to the ground. Placing his foot on the wolf he yanked his spear out. The stunned wolf had just stood up and shook its head to clear its vision. Athos turned and cast the spear at the wolf. The spear sank deep into its side and it cried out in pain.

Athos laid Kristophor on his back and held his hand. Athos’ eyes filled with tears and he couldn’t contain the emotions welling up inside him, “I’m so sorry little brother.”

Kristophor coughed and then tried to smile, “I killed a buck today Athos.”

“Yes you did! I’m so proud of you.” He kissed Kristophor on the forehead. As he pulled back from the kiss the light faded from Kristophor’s eyes.

Athos screamed in rage. He scooped up Kristophor’s bow, and gently removed the quiver from his back. He yanked his spear out of the dying wolf’s side. The wolf yelped in response, and blood leaked more freely from the hole left by the spear. Athos ran down the path in the direction the wolves had dragged the buck out of site. On his back he had slung Kristophor’s quiver, in his left hand the bow, and in his right hand the spear dripping with wolf blood.

Athos charged after the wolves as they retreated slowly with the corpse of the buck. Athos’ mind was overwhelmed by the emotions swirling around inside him. Just like when cold air meets hot air and a thunderstorm formed. His grief met his rage and the resulting storm inside his mind exploded into being and tore at the very fabric of his sanity. He paused for a moment took a deep breath and used the will power in his mind to put down the grief. This left the rage. It took him only a minute to catch up to the wolves as they slowly drug their prize toward safety.

The wolves became aware of Athos’ presence staring at them and they dropped their prize and snarled at Athos. Athos filled with rage screamed back at them. He sounded like a crazed wild animal! The lead wolf, less frightened by this crazed apparition in front of them than the rest of the pack, moved to attack him. She was a huge bitch. She bared her teeth at Athos and snarled. Athos grabbed an arrow from Kristophor’s quiver that he had slung on his back. He nocked the arrow against the string of the bow and pulled back with all his strength. He took aim at the charging bitch’s right eye. It was as if time itself came to a stop and there was only the bow, the arrow, and the yellowish gleam of the eye as the moonlight reflected off of it. He released the arrow and an instant later it slammed into the eye destroying it. The wolf collapsed in a heap as its momentum came to a halt.

The death of their pack mate spurred the surviving pack members into a charge! Athos pulled another arrow from the quiver and fired on the five remaining wolves. He once again targeted the lead animal. As he released the arrow he knew immediately that it would not fly true. The arrow went high. It nicked the top of the wolf’s head as it went by and slammed into the back of the wolf. The wolf yelped in pain, but continued to advance.

Athos pulled another arrow from the quiver. The wolves were in a dead run and only twenty feet from him now. Their eyes glowed in the pale moonlight of the clear autumn evening. He nocked the arrow and pulled back on the bow string. Once again he targeted the lead wolf’s left eye. He released the arrow and cursed his bad aim. The arrow missed wide right this time. The arrow missing its intended target and continued to fly along the path it had been fired. To the right of the lead wolf and a little behind was another wolf running toward Athos. The arrow pierced that wolf’s nose and continued on into the brain. The stricken animal never felt the impact as its brain immediately shut down. The momentum of this wolf took it a few steps before it pitched forward and collapsed. The dead had briefly walked the earth…

Athos again pulled an arrow from the quiver. The lead wolf, with the arrow stuck in the middle of its back bouncing as it charged Athos, was a mere ten feet away. Athos nocked another arrow and aimed for the gaping maw. The animal’s glistening white teeth shown clearly in the moonlight against its gray fur. The mouth of the wolf salivated as it anticipated biting into the soft flesh of Athos’ throat. Athos loosed the arrow and it leapt from the bow. The arrow covered the distance to that gaping maw in the merest instant and sailed into the open maw! The arrow buried itself in the back of the wolf’s throat and with a yelp that pierced through the thin mountain air the lead wolf went tumbling end over end twice before it came to a halt and lay still.

Athos dropped the bow and picked up his spear. He had dropped it at his feet when the wolves charged. The three remaining wolves closed in a line abreast of each other. As one they leapt at Athos. He turned the spear horizontally and grasped it with both hands like it was a quarter staff. His timing would have to be perfect for this to work. As one the wolves crashed into his up held spear. As they did so he pushed the spear up. Two of the wolves went sailing by him.

The third wolf bit down on the spear and landed on Athos’ chest as his back struck the ground. He grabbed his hunting knife from his belt. At the same time the wolf released its grip on the spear and lunged for Athos’ face! Athos smelled the fetid breath of the wolf mere inches from his face. The gaping maw closed in on the soft flesh of his face. A fraction of a moment before the sharp teeth could sink into the soft flesh, he brought the hunting knife up through the bottom of the wolf’s jaw forcing it shut. Blood poured over him from the wound.

Athos sensing the wolves behind him recovering, he pushed the body and spear off and rolled to his right. As soon as he was on his stomach he stopped and began to rise. A wolf landed in the spot where he had just had been, prompting him to look up. What he saw made his blood run cold once again. In mid leap the last wolf was two feet from landing on top of him! The gaping maw opened in anticipation of the juicy treat at the downward end of its arc through the air. Without a thought Athos grabbed an arrow from the quiver and brought it over his shoulder. In one fluid motion he jammed the arrow into the right eye of the wolf as the wolf’s open maw reached for his neck! The now dead wolf crashed into him and once again knocked him over.

Athos pushed the corpse off of him, but it was too late. Sharp teeth sank into the flesh of his right arm. The arm exploded in agony! He brought his left fist down onto the wolf’s head. The blow turned his hand numb, but the wolf didn’t seem to notice! In a panic he patted around with his left hand feeling for something, anything to get the wolf off! His hand found the thin shaft of an arrow he had buried in the other wolf. He yanked it out and brought it down into the wolf’s back. The unexpected pain caused the wolf to release his forearm! Blood ran freely from the puncture wounds in his right arm, but there was no time to worry about that. He rolled away and jumped to his feet. The wolf took a step back as Athos towered over it. He kicked the wolf as hard as he could with his left foot. The wolf snarled in rage, but the impact pushed it back a foot.

While the wolf took a few steps back to get enough room to leap at him. Athos reached down and grabbed the spear. The wolf leapt at him. Athos brought the spear up just in time and the wolf crashed into the shaft and bounced off. The wolf landed on its side stunned for a moment and then stood up. Athos took a step forward and brought the spear down in front of him. The spear pierced the wolf’s back pinning it to the ground! The wolf yelped in agony and twitched as its life blood ran out onto the hard earth.

Athos sat down on the ground and took a deep breath. He looked up into the sky and spoke, “Rest easy now little brother. One day we will be reunited in God’s Kingdom. Until that day keep a seat warm for me.” Athos let out a sigh and began trembling. He closed his eyes and let the blackness take him.

Chapter 2

August 1^st^ 636 Damascus, Syria Province, Byzantium

The sweat on Athos’ brow dripped into his eyes. For what seemed liked the thousandth time that day he wiped it from his forehead. He looked up at the merciless orb above. The skin on his face felt like it was coming to a boil. Like the other members of the 5th Parthica there was no escaping their tormentor, the Sun, on this August day.

“Why do we have to drill every day in this heat?” Athos asked.

Constan laughed at him, “Lad, you will understand one day.”

Athos shook his head in disagreement, he tried to adjust the shield attached to his back but it was no use, “I’d like to understand today. I’ve asked around and the officers have never made us march in August with all of this gear on.”

Constan chuckled at Athos’ ignorance but he too was feeling the effects of the march. He

smiled back at Athos. The scar on the left side of his face gave him a somewhat goofy appearance. Especially with the eye patch, “Think of the bright side. We aren’t marching up the

side of a mountain with this gear on.”

Athos shot back, “Let me guess you and the rest of the veterans won the war with Persia by

marching up hill both ways.”

Constan removed his helmet and ran his fingers through his thick salt and pepper colored hair and replied, “Aye it sure seemed like it! Those clever bastards built their fortresses on top of mountains. I swear it was nigh on impossible getting to those infernal places much less breaching the walls.”

Athos pointed at his chain mail, his Spatha, and the axe strapped to his back, “Let me guess everyone was wearing all this gear plus an eighty-pound pack.”

Constan replied, “No, we also had to carry a spear as well. Is there a point to this whining or you just trying to get me to kill you so you don=t have to sweat anymore?”

Athos replied with silence and thought to himself, “Surely that heat couldn’t have been worse than today. I feel like my skin is literally boiling off my bones.”

The silence was interrupted by Baltazar, Athos’ best friend, “Come on Athos ease up a little on the old man. You’re still smarting from getting your arse handed to you in shield and sword practice earlier today.”

Athos snorted and replied, “Spinning more tales Baltazar? Everyone here knows you spent

most of the drill on your back looking up at me!” Constan and a few others laughed at the jibe.

Baltazar frowning replied, “Yeah, but at least I didn’t drop my shield on my foot in the middle of shield wall practice!”

Athos grimaced at the memory. His foot throbbed in sympathy just thinking about it, “I’m not sure why we even practice that outdated formation.”

Constan replied, “You young pups aren’t getting any smarter. You’ll appreciate the lesson

when some Persian is trying to put an arrow into your arse!”

Athos nodded in understanding, “Testudo is one of the few Latin terms I’ve ever heard. I

Don’t know much about history though. I’ve heard our unit is named after a real person. Do you

know much about the original Ironman? People have said that he was a tremendous warrior and that is why we are named for him.”

Constan’s face broke into a grin, he loved telling stories, “Aye, he was born into the Empire long ago. In his day the Empire stretched from the Pillars of Hercules to the Tigris River in Mesopotamia.”

“I can’t imagine a day where barbarians were a far off problem,” Athos replied.

“Indeed, back in those times outside of the frontier area, barbarians were mainly stories of hairy savages parents told to frighten their children. Not like today where the damned Goths

occupy our sacred capital in Rome.” Constan spat on the ground to emphasize his displeasure at the current state of affairs in the world.

Athos asked, “How did the Ironman become so famous that Emperor Heraclius named the 5th Parthica after him?”

Constan replied, “You see it happened like this. Many centuries ago the 5th Parthica was

charged with guarding a bridge across the mighty Tigris River in Mesopotamia.”

Athos interjected, “Which bridge?”

Constan, annoyed, replied, “How the hell am I supposed to know which bridge exactly? That’s not part of the story, lad.”

They completed their march around the walls of Damascus. Nikas shouted, “Right face!” The lead men of the 2nd Kentarchia of which both Athos and Constan were a part, turned right and began marching down the Roman road to Palmyra. The road very quickly led them away from the lush green lands surrounding the Barada River into the open desert.

After each Kentarches finished commanding the right turn onto the Palmyra road. Constan continued his story, “A conflict long ago broke out between the Roman Empire and the Parthians.”

Athos jumped in again, “Who were the Parthians?”

Constan’s face turned red, “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that it is extremely rude to interrupt your elders when they are trying to weave a good yarn?”

Athos answered innocently, “No.”

Constan sighed, “It was a rhetorical question. Apparently they don’t make them too smart in Aremenia, eh? The Parthians were the predecessors of those dastardly Persian bastards that cost us so much blood during the war. “

This time Athos actually managed to remain silent so Constan continued the story, “The treacherous Parthians were responsible for the complete destruction of the legion known as the 5th Parthica. They were butchered to a man by those sons of whores. Legend has it that the final legionnaire standing was a man of pure iron. This Ironman, stood in the middle of the bridge over the Tigris and held the entire Parthian army off for twenty minutes. It was an amazing feet. Where ever the enemy swung a sword he was not there to receive their blows and his sword drank deeply of Parthian blood.”

Athos interrupted again, “He had a gladius, right? Shorter than the Spathas we use now.”

Constan smiled at Athos’ knowledge, “Indeed, the gladius was a 22 inch blade used for thrusting attacks. Our Spathas are 39 inches in length and are used primarily for cutting attacks.”

Constan cleared his throat and continued the story, “The Parthian commander tired of watching his men get butchered, so he came forward and offered the man of iron a deal.” Constan paused, pondered for a moment, and then added in his personal opinion, “The Parthians were slippery treacherous bastards so this was a risk for the Ironman but it offered him a chance to survive the day.”

Constan paused and took a swig of water from his canteen and continued the story,

“The Parthian commander told him that if he could defeat in single combat every man sent forth onto the bridge until the sun touched the western horizon the commander would take his army and go back to Parthia in peace. The Ironman accepted the challenge.”

Baltazar who had also been listening jumped in at this point, “Fighting all day like that is impossible. Doesn’t sound like he had much choice though.”

Constan shook his head in dismay and replied to Baltazar, “’Tis not impossible Baltazar. I’ve done it ‘meself. Why do you think we make you spend so much time swinging your Spatha at the wooden posts?”

Baltazar replied, “To get better at swinging our Spathas?”

Constan answered, “Aye, that’s part of it. Swinging your weapon at the post builds strength in your arm. If you do it enough you’ll be able to swing your Spatha in battle for an entire day.”

Athos said, “Never mind the Spathas, let’s get back to the story.”

Constan chuckled, “First you interrupt me every time I draw breath and now ye want to hear more? Very well. The Ironman was in quite a pickle. You see the sun had just begun its long decent from its zenith. Fortunately the Ironman was up to the challenge. One by one the best champions that the Parthian host had to offer came forth to fight the Ironman and one by one their blood washed over the stones of that bridge.”

Constan paused and took another swig of water from his canteen, “Occasionally a Parthian got lucky and scored a hit on the Ironman. Despite many bleeding wounds his strength never flagged and he fought on. Finally, when the buzzing of flies swirling over his fallen enemies nearly drowned out the sound of swords ringing in battle, the sun touched the western horizon. The Ironman still stood alone on that bridge in front of the vast Parthian host. The Parthian commander, whose name has been lost to time, honored his word. Unusual for those treacherous bastards. The Parthian commander saluted the victorious Ironman and went home in peace just as he had promised.”

“So, what happened to the Ironman?” Athos asked.

Constan replied, “No one knows exactly. We are not even sure how the story got told. The Ironman was never seen again after that day. It is said that a day will come that seems hopeless. A day in which the Empire will face an unimaginable challenge. When all seems lost and beyond hope, the Ironman will return to us.”

Athos nodded, “Until that day, the Empire needs warriors like us.”

Baltazar added, “Strong warriors that are trained to overcome the Persians or whatever other challenge faces us.”

Constan smiled and put his hand on Athos and Baltazar’s shoulder, “You know I was convinced that the both of you were just plain stupid. Everyone once in a while you surprise me. Keep surprising me like you did today and we may yet have hope.”

Athos replied, “Thanks. I think…”

Constan winked at Athos and said, “With the right training it’s amazing what a Roman soldier can accomplish. Even a dim lot from Armenia such as yourselves!”

Athos pointed to the shield on the soldier’s back in front of him, “What do these colors on our shields represent?”

Constan replied, “The colors on our shield are in honor of the Ironman. Blue, in honor of the vast skies above him as he fought. Red, in representation of the blood of his vanquished foes. Gray, in reflection of the iron that filled his heart and yellow in honor of the Sun as it made its way across the sky to the horizon.”

Baltazar asked, “You were in the war with Persia, right?”

Constan answered, “Aye, the war with Persian didn’t start well at all. After we bled the ground red all the way from Mesopotamia to the gates of Constantinople we turned the tables on those Persian bastards. Luckily, after Emperor Heraclius finally pulled his head from his arse, and figured out what the hell he was doing, he led us on an offensive that carried the army to the gates of Ctesiphon. It was glorious!”

Baltazar jumped in, “You were at the sacking of Ctesiphon?”

Athos added, “The Ctesiphon that even when us Romans were at the height of our power and controlled all lands from the western sea to the deserts of Persia that we couldn’t take?”

Constan beamed, “Aye, that’s the one. God had heard our prayers. With his strength we were able to beat back the pagan hordes and wrest control of Ctesiphon from those Persian bastards and their false God Ahura Mazda.” Constan emphasized the name Ahura Mazda by spitting on ground.

Their banter was interrupted when Nikas powerful voice bellowed, “Halt and form the testudo you louts!”

As if they were of one body the men of the 2nd Kentarchia broke their column of six marching formation and flowed together into a square. The men in the front of the square held their shields out in front of them. The men on the right side held their shields in their right hands, and the men on the left side held their shields with the left hand. Those in the middle held

their shields aloft, and the men in the rear row turned around and held their shields facing back the way they had come. Together the shields formed a continuous wall. Like the turtle in its shell they were well protected.

About ten minutes into the simulated arrow attack, Athos’ mind began slipping to another place. He lost himself in thought wondering how great it must have been to be there at the end of that long road. He remembered stories told by veterans sitting around the fires on cool nights in Armenia. As he did so, his left arm tiring from holding his shield aloft for so long, began to throb. Not thinking he lowered it.

Baltazar slapped him on the helm, “Come back to us Athos! You don’t want Nikas to see you daydreaming. He is just looking for an excuse to bust your balls, and shove a spear up your arse!”

“Thanks Baltazar,” replied Athos. Athos raised his shield into his assigned spot for the shield wall formation. “I need to be more careful,” he thought. He could remember Constan’s first lesson about the shield wall, ‘The testudo formation was the classic Roman tortoise of centuries past. The idea was to form a wall and use spears to keep enemy infantry and cavalry at bay. The formation was also effective versus slingers and gave a good deal of protection from enemy archers.’

Nikas yelled, “Column of sixes!”

This once again jolted Athos into the present. Athos let his shield down and rubbed his shaking arm trying to get the blood flowing again. As he did this, he ran to his spot in the column of six formation. Athos and Baltazar, quickly found their places in the growing line of the 5th Parthica.

Constan had taught the friends this lesson as well. Athos remembered sitting around a camp fire on his second night with the 5th Parthica. They sipped on wine as Constan explained, ‘A column of six was a formation used to travel. We have been trained to go quickly from battle formation, to column of six and back again. Get used to it lads. Your days will consist of drills,

and practice. Such is the life of a soldier of the Empire. This will ensure that you are ready for the day when the Persians come again, and that you are worthy of being an Ironman!’

Nikas, shook his head clearly disgusted and yelled, “You ladies make me sick! I think the sun has addled the brains of the lot of you! Since you did such a piss poor job of focusing on our formation drills, I think you need some time to clear your minds. Care to join me on a nice stroll around the desert? It will give you a chance to clear those busy minds of yours and I personally find the afternoon August sun to be quite invigorating.”

Athos and Baltazar groaned along with the rest of the 2nd Kentarchia of the 5th Parthica. Athos watched in dismay as the men of the other Kentarchias began marching back toward Damascus and their barracks. Their steps seemingly lighter knowing that their suffering would soon be over.

Baltazar glared at Athos. The look made it clear to Athos that Baltazar held him personally responsible for this extra stroll around the desert. Leaving the road Nikas marched them out into the open desert Southeast of Damascus. The desert here was not like the tall dunes, and shifting sands of the Sahara, but more of a hard rocky parched surface. The landscape consisted of gently rolling hills. Gravel was strewn about as if God with his giant hand had spread it like seeds in a garden. Large brownish boulders dotted the landscape and if the wind kicked up out of the south dust storms were common.

During their trek into the open desert, they ran across the Sassanid Persian Ambassador. Athos had heard that the man’s name was Nafar. At a distance of about thirty feet from Nafar a squad of soldiers sat on their horses watching over him. They wore conical helmets with a nose guard and a white tassel on the top. Their armor consisted of a breast plate of overlapping scales that covered them to about mid-thigh. They each held a lance in their left hand, and had a sword sheathed on their left side. Slung over their backs were both a bow and a quiver of arrows. Each of them had a perfectly groomed jet black beard. When they flashed a smile to the passing 2nd Kentarchia the contrast of their white teeth against their dark brown skin was striking.

Nafar was sitting atop a large brown rock performing what appeared to be a religious ceremony. His arms upraised toward the sky he chanted the same prayer over and over. The sweat poured from his forehead and he looked up toward the sun. Although they could not understand the nature of the prayer, it seemed to be a plea. The name Ahura Mazda could be heard clearly as it was said at the beginning of each sentence.

Athos and Baltazar quickly performed the sign of the cross to ward off evil spirits that may be about as a result of Nafar’s foul pagan ritual. Constan chuckled at their reaction and said, “The Persians practice a religion called Zoroastrianism. They believe in one god, Ahura Mazda, whose name means wise light. Praying to Ahura Mazda in bright sunlight was very common as it was thought that the sun was his embodiment.”

Athos pondered for a moment, “So let me get this straight. We both believe in one God?”

“Aye lad we do, Ahura Mazda is more akin to the Roman God Sol Invictus than our Lord.”

Both Christians, Athos and Baltazar again made the sign of the cross at the mention of Ahura Mazda and Sol Invictus. Christians had been a part of the Empire the last six hundred years, but only when Emperor Constantine adopted it as his own religion in the 4th Century did it begin to become common. By the 7th Century the Empire was a fully Christian Empire. Athos and Baltazar followed the Church that was established at Nicene in the early 4th Century. The Church had one head, the Pope in Rome, and five Arch-Bishops.

The sounds of Nafar’s prayers faded away as they continued their march. The sweat began to pour off of Athos’ brow as the sun reached its zenith. Finally Nikas called a halt, “Take a break for a few minutes ladies and then we will head back to the barracks for some cleaning. I don’t know why you louts have to tear the place up every night. If I didn’t know any better I would think I am in charge of pigs!” The men of the 2nd Kentarchia groaned, which made Nikas smile all the more.

Constan made it known to Athos and Baltazar that he found their sloppiness during formation drilling to be responsible for the extra march, “You girls are buying the first round tonight.”

Baltazar groaned and told Constan, “It should be Athos.”

“You’re his shield mate Baltazar. You should have his back no matter what dumb mistakes he makes,” Constan said. Baltazar glared at Constan, but nodded his agreement.

Athos added, “You just want to waste your coin on Liana.”

Constan looked at Baltazar and asked, “Liana? Ye have had time to court?” Constan snorted in disgust and added, “Clearly I’ve been too soft on ye. How did you meet this girl?” Nikas who had apparently been eves dropping chuckled at the question.

Baltazar blushed a deep shade of red that was still very apparent despite his well-tanned features began his tale, “It happened by chance one evening. I was sitting on the lip of the fountain nearest the fort when Liana appeared with her jugs.” All of the men within earshot laughed heartily at this. Baltazar was confused over the reaction and then said, “Not those kinds of jugs, she had jugs to fetch water from the fountain.”

Baltazar paused for a moment to regain his composure and continued the story, “She had the most piercing raven black eyes and hair I had ever seen. She had many imperfections though. Her eye brows were too thick and seemed to join together. Her upper teeth jutted out slightly further than her bottom teeth.”

Constan commented, “She doesn’t sound very attractive.”

Baltazar replied, AI can’t explain it those features and the strange awkwardness she moved

with were captivating to me. I agree most would see her as unattractive but to me she was an angel bestowed upon the earth from heaven itself.”

Damon another member of Constan’s Kontoubernion said, “More like a devil that cast a spell on your eyes.” This elicited another laugh out of the men.

Constan said, “Well get on with it lad. What happened next?”

Baltazar resumed his tale, “I figured out that Liana would come to that fountain every evening at dusk. I made sure that I was there to see her when I could. She always seemed to be so tied up in her affairs that she never minded the other people in that fountain square, including me.”

Constan said, “Well so far you’re putting me to sleep lad, I hope this story gets better.”

Baltazar closed his eyes, laughed, and continued, “One evening I was sitting on the fountain. I had my eyes closed and I was imagining that the water hitting my back was from a water fall back home when the moment finally came. Unfortunately my lucky break was nothing like what I had imagined it would be. A bird chose that moment to crap. Now that bird had the entire square to crap on but it chose my right eye the little bastard!”

This brought laughter from all the men listening in on the story as they marched. After the laughter tapered off, Baltazar continued his tale, “When the bird crap hit me I squawked in surprise, lost my balance and fell backwards into the fountain. I immediately jumped up, far too quick to wash off that damned bird crap. As a result it ran down the right side of my face. I didn’t care however; Liana was looking right at me! In that moment it was as if the pearly gates of heaven had opened up and shone down on me for the first time. Liana’s smile traveled straight into my heart. I was in love.”

Constan said, “How can ye be in bloody love when you haven’t even spoken with her yet?”

Baltazar answered, “I don’t know, I just knew in my heart that I was.”

Constan muttered, “That’s daft.”

Athos said, “Now who’s interrupting?”

Constan responded, “Fair enough lad. Continue Baltazar.”

Baltazar said, “She then took a step forward and pushed me. I fell backwards into the water. After she finished giggling at my plight she offered me a hand to help me up. I figured turnabout was fair play so I took it and yanked hard! As I hoped she tripped over the edge of the fountain and fell in! Not to be outdone she hooked her leg behind mine and swept me off my feet! I landed in the water right beside her. Laughing, she leaned her head towards mine.”

Before Baltazar could continue Constan said, “Finally we’re getting’ somewhere.”

Baltazar continued the story, “Our eyes locked and I leaned forward towards her. That was when she squirted me right in the face with a mouth full of water.” Everyone within ear shot groaned in sympathy and then started laughing.

Athos asked, “So then what happened?”

“We just started laughing and splashing each other with water. The rest of the people in the

square thought we were nuts, except for Nikas. He just shook his head, smiled and kept walking.

After several minutes of splashing each other, we finally got out of the fountain. Both of us were soaked. At that point, Liana spoke to me and introduced herself. Over the following weeks we met at the fountain every day at around the same time and talked.”

Constan interrupted again, “Clearly I was being too soft on ye, if you could have the energy to go cavorting with the young lass every day.”

Baltazar replied, “Oh no, you did a fine job of running me ragged every day old man. I was just so excited to see her, when the time came the fatigue just washed away.”

Damon said, “Oh man, he’s got it bad.”

Constan said, “Aye.”

“Then one evening she told me, ‘I never thought I would find myself falling in love with a

soldier but you are different. Somehow you managed to let me in through a crack in that hard soldier exterior of yours.’ I told her that she had a way of melting through my defenses.”

Nikas said, “Well played.”

Indignant, Baltazar said, “Who isn’t listening to the story?” With that statement the entire 2nd Kentarchia burst into laughter.

Huffing and puffing like men that did not know where their next breath would come from, the men of the 2nd Kentarchia arrived back at their barracks. It was a simple structure within the confines of the 5th Parthica’s fort. Athos looked around at the fort. He remembered back to his first lesson about the fort from Constan, “The fort is a giant square. Inside the units are housed in the standard marching camp layout. Each night when on the move we will build a marching fort for protection. This tradition dates all the way back to the time of the Republic. The idea being that a Roman army cannot be surprised and destroyed while they sleep, because every night they would sleep safely within their marching fort. In order to keep everything as standardized as possible the barracks are laid out in the exact order that the 5th Parthica deploys inside a marching fort.”

Constan paused for effect and then swept his arms wide to indicate the fort, “This extra practice will help us to deploy quickly into our completed marching fort. It also gives us practice at assembling as quickly as possible from the same spot every day. This extra bit of efficiency could be key in saving our lives one day.”

Constan paused again, produced a flask, took a pull from it, and continued, “A Kentarchia consists of one hundred men, who are housed in ten white washed rectangular buildings. The ten men that sleep in each building form the basic building block of the Kentarchia, the Kontoubernion.”

He took another pull from his flask. Athos and Baltazar gave Constan a disapproving look. “Don’t look so shocked, lads. A man needs to constantly lubricate his pipes to keep them in good working order,” Constan chuckled at his own joke.

Athos’ mind snapped back from its recollections into reality just in time. Nikas brought them to a halt. Athos, Baltazar, and Constan stood at attention sweating profusely from the intensity of the sun and their recent efforts in the desert.

Nikas paced back and forth in front of the men. “You girls look pretty beat from our little stroll in the desert!” yelled Nikas. “Apparently I have been far too soft on you. I don’t understand how a little extra exercise could wear you out so much,” Nikas said frowning, “What am I going to do with you sluggards?” He paused for effect and snapped his fingers, “I know! How about tomorrow we just skip all the drilling and just start with a twenty-mile stroll through the desert?” Nikas said grinning. The men of the 2nd Kentarchia groaned.

“What, you don’t like my idea?” Nikas responded with an expression of shock on his face. The shocked looked quickly turned to a grin and he said, “Ok I hear ya, men. Since you gents don’t like the idea how about we make it twenty-five!”

Constan stepped forward from the formation and said, “Permission to speak, sir?”

“Granted,” said Nikas.

“Sir, I think that is an excellent idea. These young pups don’t know what it was like to have to march thirty miles and fight a battle against a huge Persian host. They simply don’t know how easy they have it. I think your idea of a twenty-five mile march through the desert is an excellent idea,” Constan said.

Nikas grinned, “See men, if you had the proper amount of seasoning you would see how

benevolent I actually am, dismissed!” The men let out a sigh of relief and went into their barracks.

 

Chapter 3

August 1^st^, 636 Arabia Province, Byzantium

Border post

Nasir squinted as he looked down the road. He was trying to identify a group that was approaching the border post he was in charge of. In front of him was a rutted road of dirt leading into the heart of Arabia. The winding rock strewn path was surrounded by cliffs on both sides and represented the only known way through the Sarat Mountains into the Empire in this region. The border post behind him consisted of a wall across the mountain pass that stood about six feet high. The wall, crumbling in places, looked like it had been built back in the time of Emperor Trajan 500 years ago. A parapet about three feet high, also made from crumbling stone, allowed the soldiers to stand behind the wall and look down on whoever was on the other side. Built into the wall was wooden door that had seen many decades of use. The sun had faded the door to an almost white color.

Behind the wall on the Roman side was the beginning of the Roman Road that stretched from the Arabian border to the port city of Aquaba. To the right of the road was a crumbling building front built into the cliff face where Nasir and his garrison of nine soldiers spent most of their time when they were not on duty. As Nasir watched, the group make steady progress toward him he thought to himself, “Probably another caravan of goat herders looking to trade skins and cheese for Roman tools, or maybe they bring some herbs and spices. Nasir’s face broke into a smile at that thought, “If that’s the case I’m going to need a bribe to let them into the Empire.”

Nasir barked a command at his nine men who were all engaged in a game of dice on the ground behind the wall, “Look alive you sluggards companies coming.”

The men stood up and helped each other put on their leather armor. The leather was cracked and faded from too much time in the Arabian Sun. Once they were finished with their armor they picked up their spear and old style square shield. The shields were a hap hazard mix of shields from various units dating back to roughly the 4th Century. Without a word they took their positions on the wall trying to look intimidating.

Nasir walked inside the gate, shut it, and barred it against the approaching caravan. He stepped up into his position just to the left of the gate and remarked, “Odd, caravans usually do not have so many people with them.”

Piran, one of Nasir’s men remarked, “Maybe they bring slaves for the market?” This statement elicited several lust filled noises from the other men.

Nasir replied, “Aye, that would be good, I could use a good hump right now.”

As the caravan drew near, Nasir noticed that many of the people kept glancing back over their shoulders with a nervous look, “I wonder what’s got them so frightened?” Nasir asked to no one in particular.

Another of Nasir’s men, Shidfar, answered, “Perhaps they are worried about someone catching up to them?”

Nasir pondered this answer for a moment as he did so the lead camel and people walking around it drew near enough to read their facial expressions and said, “Look at their facial expressions the lot of them look like they’ve seen a ghost, perhaps something even worse? I’ve never seen so many terrified faces in one place before.”

As they approached the wall Nasir cleared his throat and then said in a loud, deep, and commanding voice, “Halt, What business do you have in the Empire?”

An older man in his mid-fifties walked to the front of the group. The keffiyeh wrapped around his head was composed of red and white squares. His flowing white robes where of an expensive cut of Egyptian cotton, “Greetings soldiers of the Empire my name is Waqi and I speak for this group.” He gestured with both of his arms to indicate the people standing behind him. The group consisted of several camels whose backs appeared to hold all of the worldly possessions of the people. Many of the keffiyehs worn by the men were of different colors and patterns indicating that they were not of the same tribe. The colorful keffiyehs stood in stark contrast to their flowing white robes. The ladies, wives and daughters of well to do families, wore dresses made of Egyptian cotton that were dyed festive colors. The less fortunate ladies wore cheaper fabrics, such as homespun or wool. These were either an undyed dull gray color, or varying shades of tan.

Nasir responded, “Well met, Waqi. I ask you again. What business do you have in the Empire?”

Waqi’s shoulders slumped a little and he replied, “A horrible plague of demons has struck our homeland. We request asylum within the Empire.”

Nasir frowned, “Entry into the Empire is not free. What do you have in payment?”

Waqi replied, “Alas, due to the haste of our escape we were unable to bring our coin.”

Nasir pointed at the goats, “Yet you had time to bring your livestock with you?”

Waqi sighed audibly, “Unlike the coin, they had legs that enabled them to depart with us in haste. I offer you two goats for admission into the Empire. Fine animals from the herd of a chieftan.”

Nasir paused and looked at every member of the group. His eyes fell on a very attractive female. She had raven black hair and her dress, simple homespun, was of a light grayish color. When their eyes met she had the faintest upward curve of her lips, “Was she smiling at me?” Nasir wondered to himself. Her simple dress, lose fitting dress failed to disguise the ample curves underneath it, “I must have her.” Nasir thought.

Nasir said, “The Empire has plenty of goats. What need do we have for more? We are simple soldiers alone, and in need of warm companionship; however our rations are simply fare so it would be nice indeed to supplement them with goat flesh as well. Five of the beasts should be sufficient.” Nasir then pointed at the woman, “And that woman as my slave.”

Waqi gasped in shock at this steep price, “We are simple folk and must start over with nothing more than the clothing on our backs and what we carry with us.” He then turned and pointed at the woman, “Maarika, is like a daughter to me. As such I cannot in good conscience sell her to gain our admission. I respect the soldiers of the Empire who labor so hard to keep its borders secure. Such hard work must indeed build quite a hunger. I offer you three goats for admission into the Empire.”

Nasir thought to himself, “The old bastard probably has designs on bedding her himself.” He then said, “I appreciate your generous offer; however service is a lonely affair. We require companionship so that we may remain sharp and focus on our duties of protecting those within our borders. In the spirt of friendship and the hopes that your people can quickly become productive members of the Empire I require but two goats and the girl.” Pausing for a moment he added, “This is my final offer. Refuse it and you can turn around and face whatever you are running from.”

Waqi defeated looked glum, “You drive a hard bargain but I see that further argument is pointless. Very well I accept.”

Nasir, now smiling, replied, “Excellent, bring forth the goats and Maarika and we shall open our gates to you.”

Maarika’s face went white and she sank to her knees. Waqi walked over to her and talked with her for a minute. Nasir could not hear the words being exchanged between the two. Maarika finally nodded, got to her feet, and walked to the gate. Waqi then picked out two goats and led them up to the gate. He handed the lead for each goat to Maarika and backed away.

Waqi said, “Here is your price. Please open your gates to us.”

Nasir directed his men, “Unbar and open the gate. See that the goats and the woman are secured. Then let them through.”

The men did as Nasir bid and the group marched through the gate. They continued on without another word. Once the last of them were through the men closed and barred the gate. Nasir turned and watched as Waqi’s group slowly made their way up the road toward Aquaba. When they disappeared he turned and looked at Maarika. She stared back at him defiantly.

Nasir walked up to her and sniffed, “You stink.” He gestured at the building, “Follow me I’ll show you where you can bathe.”

Maarika’s defiant glare softened and she said, “A bath? With actual water?”

Nasir smiled at the question, “Aye, from the look of you it’s been a long time since your last one.”

Maarika replied, “A bath with water is an unaffordable luxury amongst my people. It is true what they say about you Romans, rich beyond imagination.”

Nasir chuckled, “So it would seem.”

He led her inside the structure. The first room had nine cots in it belonging to Nasir’s men. Underneath each cot was the worldly possessions of the cot’s owner. The next chamber held Nasir’s bed, a chest, and a desk with a chair. The sound of bubbling water could be faintly heard coming from the chamber beyond. Nasir lit a lantern and then led Maarika into the next chamber. The next chamber was a natural cavern. In the center of it was a small pool of water. At the far side of the pool, water seemed to bubble up from a crack and flow into the natural bowl of the pool. The pool then emptied into a small crevice that flowed off into the darkness in a downhill direction.

Nasir gestured at the pool, “You can wash in the pool and clean your dress too.”

Without waiting for a response Nasir turned and left the room. He gently shut the wooden door behind him and walked out of the building.

Nasir headed back outside and located the cook, “Oshnar, slaughter one of the goats for tonight’s dinner. I want to show our new guest a good time.”

Oshnar said, “Yes boss.” The other men let out lustful sounding laughter.

Tajvar in a teasing tone said, “You know she is our slave. You do not have to court her.”

Nasir smiled and said, “True, but it’s much more satisfying to plow a soft field that willing yields to your plow head than a field that is hardened and rocky.”

All of the men within earshot laughed at this. Nashir headed back inside and went to his room. The door to the spring room and the rest of the cavern was still closed, “Good I hope she takes a good long time to get all of that grime off of her. I hate filthiness.” he thought to himself. He approached his bed and pulled up the mattress. The mattress was a well-worn cotton sack filled with hay. He rummaged through his possession for a few moments and located what he was looking for, a bottle of wine. He blew the dust off of the bottle and set it by the closed door to the spring room.

Nasir then laid down on his bed and shut his eyes. Falling asleep he was awoken when Maarika opened the door. As she made her way across the dim room with the lantern that Nasir had lent to her the sounds of her wet feet made slapping noises on the stone floor. She did not notice Nasir lying in the bed and was startled when he spoke.

“Much better.”

Nasir stood up and walked over to her. He took the lantern from her hand and held it up as he walked around her and inspected, “You no longer smell like goats and camels.” he said smiling.

Maarika smiled back at him and said, “Thank you lord for the wondrous treat. That is more water than I have ever seen in my life. Is it common in the Empire to bathe in this way?”

Nashir replied, “Yes, in the larger cities we have entire buildings dedicated to holding water to clean yourself. These buildings are called bath houses. Some of the larger pools hold a hundred times the water that my little pool holds.”

Maarika gasped at Nashir in shock, “I cannot even imagine what so much water would look like.”

Nasir looked down into deep black eyes and smiled, “Care to join me for dinner?” He held out his arm to her as he finished the question.

Maarika smiled again, “Yes! I haven’t eaten in days. Not since…” Her voice trailed off as she thought about the horrors that befell her tribe.

Nasir stopped turned and look down at her, “Its ok, you are safe here.” He then wrapped his arms around her as she sobbed into his shoulder.

Nasir held her until he felt her calm, “Come let’s eat.” Maarika smiled and they walked out of the building. As soon as they stepped outside the amazing smell of goat meat sizzling on a spit hit them. Both Nasir and Maarika’s mouths started watering at the smell.

Nasir said, “Hang on a minute I’ll be right back.”

Nasir went back to his room, grabbed the bottle of wine, and two goblets and headed back outside. He held the bottle up and said, “Can’t have a fine meal without something nice to drink.”

The two walked over to the fire pit. Oshnar greeted the pair with a smile. He was missing several of his teeth. Nasir led Maarika over to the cliff face on the other side of the fire pit. There was a large stone that jutted out of the cliff. Nasir sat down on the rock and pointed to the other half. Maarika got the hint and sat down beside them.

Oshnar brought over two plates. Each plate had some vegetables that had been grown in the post’s garden. On top of the bed of vegetables was several choice pieces of goat meat.

Maarika squealed in delight, “I have never had such a feast before. I’m almost glad that bastard Waqi sold me into slavery. He was probably angry I refused to lay with him.”

Oshnar look at Nadir and winked, “Don’t forget about your wine boss.”

Nasir thumped himself on the head with his hand, “Of course.”

Nasir took out the two goblets. He placed one in Maarika’s hand and set the other on the rock where he had just been sitting. He took out the bottle, removed the cork, and filled each of their goblets.

“To new possibilities.” They tapped the two goblets together and took a sip.

Maarika’s face lit up, “This is amazingly good!”

Nasir smiled and replied, “I’m glad you like it. It’s from a region of the Empire called Cappadocia. The wines from that region are unusually sweet and flavorful.”

The two of them ate and enjoyed their meal. Maarika spoke of her time growing up in Arabia with her tribe and Nasir talked about growing up in Arabia province and the circumstances that led him to join the army. They were of the same people but two very different worlds. As the evening progressed Maarika rested her head on Nasir’s shoulder and he put his arm around her. Finally, Maarika stood grasped Nasir’s hand and led him toward his room.

When they arrived in the room Nasir closed and barred the door so that they would not be disturbed. He then retrieved another bottle of wine. They toasted their new found friendship fell into the bed in each other’s arms and made their connection much deeper. Nasir awoke in the middle of the night to screams and dull thumping on the door. He thought about telling them to go away but the alcohol prevented his tongue from properly working. Giving up he let the darkness take him.

Nasir awoke to the sound of Maarika splashing in the water of the spring pool. She had left the door open between the two chambers. He got up and walked into the spring room. Maarika was floating in the pool with a smile on her face.

“Good morning,” said Nasir.

Maarika looked up at him and smiled, “Good morning. Do you think I’ll ever get used to this much water?”

“Wait until you see the sea.” said Nasir.

“What’s a sea? I’ve never heard the word before,” asked Maarika.

“The sea is a giant body of water. It’s as large as the open desert in Arabia.” replied Nasir.

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

Maarika rose from the pool. Nasir’s gaze took in her body. She glanced down, smiled at him and said, “Looks like you’re hungry for more than food.” As she finished speaking, she winked at him and started giggling.

Nasir stepped into the pool with her, held her close and said, “Indeed.”

As they kissed they heard a dull thump on the door, “What’s that?” Maarika asked.

“Probably one of my men wondering if you’ve murdered me in my sleep. I usually rise a lot earlier than this.”

“Well, you’re not quite used to getting so much exercise after the sun sets I think.”

Nasir smiled put his hand on the side of Maarika’s face and kissed her. The door thumped again a little louder this time.

Nasir yelled, “Go away, I’m fine!”

Whoever was on the other side of that door began banging on it. The mood broken Nasir yelled, “What the hell is your problem? Go away!”

This didn’t seemed to help and the thumping continued. Sighing in disgust Nasir went into his sleeping chamber and put his uniform on, “This had better be really damn important. I told you to go away.”

Nasir pulled up the bar on the door and the door immediately was flung open. Startled he fell backwards onto the stone floor. In an instant a horrible apparition leaped onto him. The thing’s teeth kept biting repeatedly as it pushed toward Nasir’s throat. Soldier’s instinct instantly took over and Nasir applied all of his strength to stop the thing from biting him. He tried to fling it off of him but it had vise like grip on his shoulders.

Maarika, still nude, ran into the room and screamed at the site of the creature on top of Nasir. It appeared to be one of Nasir’s men but something was horribly wrong with the man. It looked like one of those things that had destroyed her tribe. She looked around the room desperate for a weapon to use against the thing and help Nasir. Her eyes fell on the wine bottle from last night, laying discarded on the floor. She grabbed it and smashed it down onto the creature’s head. The wine bottle broke in half and pieces of glass rained down on Nasir’s face. The thing seemed to pay it no mind and continued trying to bite Nasir.

Maarika, noticing that the broken bottle, still in her hand, had a jagged edge, plunged it into the top of the thing’s head. Without a sound it went limp and stopped trying to bite Nasir.

“Thanks. What the hell happened to Shidfar? Is this one of the demons you spoke about?”

Maarika answered the question sobbing, “Yes.”

Nasir muttered, “Bloody hell! I wonder if this has happened to all my men?” He shut the door and barred it again, “Help me with my armor.”

Maarika nodded dully and helped Nasir buckle on his armor. Like everything else at the outpost the armor was a very old. It was a suit of legionnaire banded mail that dated back at least a couple of centuries. Though old, it had been well maintained. The leather and many of the buckles had been replaced over the years and there was not a spot of rust on the entire suit.

Nasir inspected the suit. Satisfied he buckled his Spatha to his waste and grabbed his shield. He handed his dagger to Maarika and said, “Stay in here.”

Nasir unbarred the door and stepped into the barracks room. What he saw horrified him. Blood was splashed all over the walls. In the middle of the floor was a pile of bones that used to be a person. Bits and pieces of flesh were still attached to the bones but they had been mostly picked clean. Flies buzzed around the room and it reeked of death. The door outside had been closed and barred as well, “How did that creature get into this room?” he thought to himself.

Steeling himself for another attack Nasir lifted the bar and leapt back with his Spatha drawn. After about sixty seconds, convinced that there was no immediate danger, he approached the door again. He put his ear up against it and listened. He heard nothing but the faint whisper of the wind. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He then stood to the side of the door and opened it.

The door opened with a creaking noise. Nasir raised his Spatha above his head waiting to strike anything that came through the doorway. Nothing did. Finally he cautiously peered around the edge of the door frame. The horrors he saw made him vomit. This attracted the attention of another one of those things. Hearing the noise of Nasir vomiting it charged towards the doorway. It was Oshnar, transformed into the same hideous thing that Shidfar had become.

As the creature charged into the doorway Nasir brought his Spatha down onto the thing’s neck using an overhead stroke. The sharp edge of the Spatha cleaved into the creature at the base of the neck and didn’t stop until it exited at the opposite thigh. The two halves of whatever it was fell to the ground with a dull splat noise.

The part of Shidfar that had the head attached to it reached for Nasir’s leg with its one arm. Grabbing his shin, it tried to pull itself closer. Disgusted Nasir plunged his Spatha into the top of Shidfar’s head. Shidfar stopped moving.

“What the holy hell happened to you Shidfar? How did you survive being cleaved in two?” Nasir said.

Maarika, hearing Nasir’s voice, opened the door, saw the mess, and screamed. Nasir ran to her and shushed her, “Please, there may be more of those things out there. They seem to be attracted to sound.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” Maarika couldn’t complete her sentence.

Nasir took her into his arms and whispered, “Its ok, you’re safe.”

He led her back into his sleeping chamber and said, “Stay here. I still need to see what happened outside.” She nodded dully in response.

Nasir once again walked out into the barracks chamber. This time he walked directly across the room, stepped over Shidfar’s corpse and went outside. As he stepped outside he held his shield up in a defensive position and drew his Spatha. The outpost had become a house of horrors. The bones of the rest of his men were scattered around. Blood was everywhere.

Nasir muttered, “What in God’s name?” He walked around the compound. The gate was still in place baring access to the Roman side of the wall. He stepped up onto the palisade and peered out into the pass. Nothing but stone cliffs, the rutted dirt road, and the gentle warm wind blowing up it from the heart of Arabia was on the other side of the wall.

Finding nothing still alive he went back to where Maarika was hiding. “Everyone’s dead,” Nasir said.

Maarika gave Nasir a hug and said, “What do we do?”

Nasir replied, “I must warn my Kentarches about these things.”

There was nothing left in the larder except the flour they used for their daily bread ration. All of the food that had been prepared, was gone. Maarika got a fire going in the outpost’s oven and baked some bread for their journey. While she did this Nasir gathered up what water skins he could find amongst the possessions of his dead men and filled them using the spring. Provisioned for their journey they set out to warn the Empire about this new evil.

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Jibreel's Curse

Jibreel, 6th Century Arabian nomad, family man, and trader. His unremarkable life would have passed completely un-noticed by the world except for this, his final chapter. Drawn to a gift from the heavens Jibreel's life will take a turn that endangers everything he has ever loved and ultimately the world itself. Created at the request of readers just like you this is the story of how Jibreel's life led to events that would threaten the world in the novel Scourge of Byzantium. Also included is the first three chapters of Book 1 in the Byzantium infected series, Scourge of Byzantium. The third chapter is a new chapter not featured in the original edition of Scourge of Byzantium. It is the first episode in a series of short stories I will be writing called the Nasir and Maarika chronicles. Nasir and Maarika are of one people but two worlds. One grew up inside Byzantium's Arabia Province, the other the open desert of Arabia. They will meet on the eve tragedy that will forever change both of their lives.

  • ISBN: 9781370179794
  • Author: James Mullins
  • Published: 2016-10-15 18:05:10
  • Words: 19579
Jibreel's Curse Jibreel's Curse