Story featured in Contact 2. Blood&Steel
(2023, Screaming Banshee Press, ed. Chris McInally)
About the Book:
Featuring: Julian Michael Carver, David Rose, Alistr Hodge, Daniele Bonfanti, Chris McInally & more
Series: Book 2 of CONTACT! Military-Horror Anthology series, following 2021’s Contact!
Okay, it’s time to suit up and boot up, soldier! That’s right—again. Welcome back to the warzone…where your worst nightmares are about to come true.
Inside the second volume of our Contact! series, you’ll find eleven action-packed, blood-soaked, military horror stories from some of today’s best speculative fiction talent. These include international bestseller and Aurealis Award finalist, Alister Hodge, as well as Splatterpunk Award nominee, Daniele Bonfanti, and Scribe Award nominee, Julian Michael Carver, to name a few.
So, whether it be the glory days of ancient Athens, modern day Syria, or a distant planet far into the future—we have it all. Big bad beasties included as always!
Hoo-rah! Get some!
About the Story:
My story for this anthology, “Sacrificium,” is set in the Roman era on Lake Como, north of Italy. A troop of formidable Roman soldiers, led by Numidian centurion Aulus Domitius, is sent to investigate a remote fishing village. Disturbing rumors, people disappearing, an escapee with horrible scars and wounds ranting about eerie, unhealthy rituals… The Tribunus Laticlavius wants his missing servant back, a report, and possibly a punitive expedition. The secrets they uncover are darker than they anticipated, as horrors much more ancient than the Empire rise under a sky painted red by the blood moon.
Sacrificium, the first pages:
Cold cobalt snaking between mountains streaked in the last snow, bathed in an orange wave of light; the sun setting. Colors turn unreal over the forked lake, while a small rowboat crosses its deep, icy waters, five Roman legionaries in it.
The man on the bow—tawny skin and hazel eyes, high forehead, maybe in his thirties—is silent, and looks forward at the clump of houses on the rocky outcrop they are heading to. Only he wears greaves and his belt is ornated with pterygia like bronze feathers, just jingling in the evening breeze. A helmet with a transversal red crest rests by his feet, bobbing. A dark red cape covers his lupine frame.
The Centurion looks ahead, a wax tablet in his hands as he squints deep-set eyes accustomed to face the fierce desert sun of his native Numidia, a net of wrinkles betraying he actually must be a little over forty. He draws what he sees with a precise bronze stylus, while his four men talk about their investigation.
Investigation. Big word. Feels more like a punitive expedition…
Twelve hours ago
Marius Tuditanus, second in command of the legion, wears a purple-striped toga which hardly contains his protruding belly as he lies on his travertine triclinium, picking grapes from a nearby pink porcelain plate, a cup of red wine at the ready. He cannot be much more than twenty years old.
Painted walls in gaudy reds and azures tell the story of a slaughtered hydra.
The hazel-eyed centurion waits for Tuditanus’s attention as he stands smart, patient and impeccable. A couple of steps behind him, one of his four boat companions—the burly and balding one with coal-black eyes—taps his sandaled foot on the floor, which is heated warm (too warm) by the hypocaust stove-chamber below, the whole of it a masterful mosaic depicting a dance of nymphs and satyrs in diminutive, colored stones. And all those little stones have come here from many different, distant places in the expanse of the empire, just to make this floor beautiful.
“Welcome to my humble home,” Tuditanus raises his eyes, suddenly seeming to notice his guests and savoring somuch the word humble, “My dear Aulus Domitius, I hope you’re well.”
“Ave, Tribunus Laticlavius, if you are well, it is good. I am well.”
“Good, good.” Tuditanus nods. “And thank you for coming so quickly. I had the most disturbing news and needed a trusted friend.”
Aulus does not answer. He waits. His companion’s stifled snort reaches his ear from behind.
The young aristocrat continues, “But let me tell you what happened without further ado, so you’ll understand my worry.” Tuditanus makes a sign with his hands, and a handsome, curly-haired youth seems to materialize from behind a column, pouring wine into his cup, then vanishing again as though he were liquid as well. A scent of sandalwood is the only trace of the apparition. The high-ranking officer takes a sip, then squints his bulging eyes and starts telling, “Two of my servants, just youths, were sent to buy some cheese for me three days ago, to the village of Vareia, on the other shore of the lake. They went on foot, by the trail going around the coast. It’s a day’s hike, if you go at dawn you can be back by night. Vareia itself is a small fishing village, nothing interesting about it, really, except they trade with the shepherds of the valley above…so you can find this excellent cheese they call Taleggium, which I’ve become very fond of. You should try it, Aulus, it’s divine. Thing is, two were off, one came back, and half dead at that. The lad returned naked, bruised black, his wrists gouged by ropes…cuts, even. The poor thing didn’t say anything sensible. Blabbered. But what few words came out of his mouth—his swollen lips I should say…” he considers this as he tries to find a better position on his triclinium, picks up a grape and rolls it between index and thumb, then he nods, “What was I saying?”
“Swollen lips, Tribunus Laticlavius,” Aulus prompts him, soft-spoken. His companion, behind him, grumbles through gritted teeth something indecent about the spoiled brat’s own lips.
“Right, right. Didn’t sound healthy at all, whatever he said. Made me cringe. You know, something up there they’re doing, unclean rituals of backward gods. So, that’s why you’re here. Must be swift and off-the-books, you know. You lead, take your optio there of course,” he says, gesturing to Aulus’s companion. “And take three more men; pick them as you see fit. Go up there, see what happens, and make an example. Show this is Rome after all.”
Aulus nods, does not seem too excited about such an enterprise.
So, the Tribunus grins slightly, suddenly seeming much older—and now, despite his clear lack of military experience, he oozes senatorial know-how. “You know, since you’ve been transferred up from the heat of that oven you used to call home, your desert Lambaesis and its Legio Augusta, to my own force and milder climates, you’ve been stuck in the VIII Cohort a bit too long. We both know someday you could even make Primus Pilus. Though we also both know about…”
“Clear, Tribunus Laticlavius,” Aulus cuts him short with gentle firmness, “You can count on us.”