Underworld, Part Two: The City of the Dead, by Chris Bone and Paul L. Mathews

 

Covered with a tarpaulin, the casket sat upon a cart. Wooden wheels grumbling and wobbling, the cart trundled along the ruts as it left the city along the Appian Way and through the conglomeration of tombs and mausoleums in which Rome interred her dead. The gibbous moon cast strange shadows on the road. Cypress trees whispered in the breeze and owls shrieked as they hunted for vermin. Stasius and Linus—taking the body of Sextus Paetus Turpio to his final resting place—led the cart’s two horses, their gaze shifting from tomb to tomb as they made way through the claustrophobic streets. Their compatriots, the veteran Egnatius and teenaged Cassian of the Aventine, walked beside the body of the dead dominus, heads bowed out of respect to their former master.

The horses whinnied and pulled up, eyes widening. A huge figure stood in the middle of the road, barring their progress. The moon reflected on the figure’s pale, gaping mask. Stasius and Linus glanced at one another, reaching for their weapons. They knew this man; everybody did. Everyone knew Faustus the Colossus…

…And everyone knew that Hell followed with him.

The mask spake. “Orcus demands payment from all those that voyage to his kingdom.”

“Then we pay in your blood, freak,” said Egnatius as he launched a javelin at the apparition. Faustus gave a deep and unsettling chuckle as he deftly sidestepping the missile.

Stasius and Linus drew their gladii, eyes fixed on Faustus. Unseen, a hunched, apelike figure dropped from the roof of an adjacent tomb to land beside them. Pulcher gave an idiotic cackle and embedded a pick deep into Linus’ head, the skull cracking audibly.

Cassian sweated and retched with terror, dropping his spear as he doubled over, vomiting. Egnatius, eyes narrow and teeth gritted, snatched up the discarded weapon as he shifted his focus on Pulcher. He raised the spear, focus fixed on the hunchback. Out of the shadows came Little Hades, drawing two vicious blades from his belt as he bore down on the pair. Egnatius turned to face him, but it was already too late for the vomiting Cassian, his flexing throat opened with a fluid stroke by Little Hades. So swift as to be a blur, Little Hades fell upon the snarling Egnatius. The pair—locked together as Egnatius dropped his spear and seized his assailant by the neck with both hands—rolled into the shadows beneath the cart. Moments later only Little Hades appeared, his pale face splashed with blood.

“Wait!” shouted Stasius. He dropped his gladius and raised his empty palms toward the approaching Faustus. “I surrender! Take the body! I don’t give a shi—”

Faustus swung his blade in both hands, bisecting Stasius neatly at the waist.

“Good work gentlemen,” said Little Hades as he knelt beside Cassian’s body and cleaned his knives on the youth’s tunic. “Not much room on the ferry this night I fear. Charon will be paid well.”

A rumble like thunder rolled from within Faustus’ mask as he laughed.

Little Hades stood and pulled back the tarpaulin on the cart, exposing the casket. Pulcher, meanwhile, dragged the steaming corpses to the cart. Moments later Faustus had lifted them onto the cart with ease, and there they lay. Cassian still twitched, and something like a lamenting whine escaped his bloodied lips as his wide, unblinking eyes gazed upon the moon.

Bloody cargo secured, Pulcher and Little Hades jumped up front and turned the horses around and back toward Rome. An advance payment to the guards on watch at the Porta Capena meant they would pass without trouble.

“Let us proceed to the good Doctor Thessalus,” said Faustus as he strode alongside the horses. “He will be most pleased with a haul of fresh meat for his studies.”

“Agreed,” said Little Hades. “He shall pay us well.”

“I do hope he appreciates my own skill at dissection,” said Faustus.

The trio laughed, with even Little Hades allowing himself this moment of mirth.

Faustus took off his mask and hung it from his belt. The moon shone down on his glistening face and pate, his horribly burnt and contoured skin a chiaroscuro of shadow and highlights.

Perhaps he should put the mask back on, thought Little Hades. There is, after all, no need to scare the good people of Rome.