Cataphracts

“Shields up, shields up” screamed a centurion from some somewhere down the line.

I raised my shield along with the other legionaries around me in the nick of time. A couple Parthian arrows collided with my shield. I think one got embedded deep in the wood. Drums sounded from somewhere. I couldn’t tell you what was happening, really. I was just a grunt, a foot soldier. I knew what was happening directly in front of me and, if experience was anything to go by, it was rather sucky.

About one metric fuck ton of horsemen charged at us. I didn’t take the bait, and no one around me did either. The Parthians had done this before. These weren’t the heavy cataphracts, or those mutated horse things they’d thrown at us before. Just light tribesmen, with fast horses and bows. Not to say the bow couldn’t kill anyone. Hell, I’d seen about twenty men go down with gruesome injuries to the throat and legs.

We began to close ranks, locking shields. The horse archers would pick off anyone who wasn’t covered. If we got complacent or too compacted, the heavy cavalry would charge and mow us down.

So far as I could tell, the only strategy we had was to survive. The artillery trains had been torched long ago, even the crazy techie contraptions that looked like a crossbow had sex with a gatling gun. I couldn’t tell where the general or even the legion’s eagle was. I’d have liked to have been close to them, though. One of the guys they had guarding the eagle had could throw honest to god lightning out of his hands. He was probably the only reason we hadn’t been totally routed yet.

More arrows struck our ranks; the horsemen turned, running parallel to our lines just out of spear’s throw. To our other side, away from the centurion, others started screaming. A mass of metal, horse, and angry dudes bore down on our flanks. Cataphracts.

You haven’t known fear until you’ve stared down a huge horse, and I mean a huge horse bred to be huge, completely covered in armor. And on this horse is a dude. This dude is equally covered in armor, except he’s holding this big ass, razor sharp lance, and…

***

Alright, so the techie told me to stop rambling. She also told me to recap what’s going on, in case any of the recordings get corrupted. She figures if we sprinkle enough of these reminders in, at least one of them is bound to be clear so you know what the hell is going on.

Anyways, I’m John Smith. That’s not my real name, but every time I say my real name this happens: My name is

Yeah. So me and a techie are holed up in some bunker thing, recording this for posterity before we transmit it up to an autonomous satellite thing for one of the colonies to pick up. It’s the year 2416. I think it’s actually close to New Year’s. I don’t know, I’ve only been here a week, and almost all this time I’ve been in this bunker.

Oh yeah, almost forgot. This part is important: I time travel every time I die. This story I was telling before being so rudely interrupted was maybe my fifth life out of I don’t even know how many. I can also conjure small objects out of thin air and am usually unknowable, which is why I’m surrounded by power dampeners.

The first life I told you about earlier was the one where I wound up in ancient Germany, witnessed an immortal psycho trigger, and then got stabbed. The other ones were far less exciting. Eaten in the upper Nile by a crocodile after a couple days, crushed by a falling tree before I had a chance to so much as blink, and so on and so on.

The current life I’m telling you about I found myself in Roman boot camp in Syria. I got the shit beat out of me along with a couple other new guys, they declared that training, then the legion marched off to the East because… I’m actually not sure why. I was just a foot soldier. It’s not like the general, some dude named something Crassus, I think, walked up to me and laid out everything. I just followed orders. Oh, and an important note, Parthians are basically Persians. So, yeah, not a terribly fun time. Deserts suck.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. I met a couple of good guys. For reasons that will soon become obvious, I’ll only describe a couple of them. Livius and Cyrillus were both vaguely able to remember me, people have a harder time forgetting me if I’m actively affecting them in some way.

And yeah, yeah, no crap names for them like Chamber Pot Man or something. I liked those guys. I know Cyrillus was from Antioch on the coast of Syria, the son of Greek immigrants if I remember correctly. Livius grew up in Rome. The city, not the empire. He never shut up about it. Apparently the weather, food, women, and drinks are all better then wherever we happened to be at the time. He was probably right though. Seriously, fuck the desert.

That’s over with. Man, this is great, being able to say all of this and have people remember. Back to the story!

***

The sun beat down on us, as it had all day. And fun fact, that armor we wore sealed in heat really, really well. Sealed in the juices, too. Ow, techie just punched me. Fine, sorry. Moving on.

I flinched as another arrow bounced off the top of my helmet.

“Shit!” I yelled. An inch lower and I’d have been dead. Again.

I’d seen the huge army we had. We had maybe seven legions worth of men, yet we just stood there and let them die. From my position a couple ranks back, admittedly not the best vantage point, I’d seen far less Parthians. Yet here we were, boxed in and surrounded, with a general too timid to do anything but cower.

We huddled behind our shields for god knows how long. Only a couple men actually fell to arrows, but we were completely unable to strike back at all. We only had swords, after all.

After an hour of this, I noticed the lack of arrows hitting shields. I chanced craning my neck.

“They’re running!” yelled someone from the front ranks, the words taken up by others.

Ragged cheering rang up from the ranks. For however bad a picture I’ve painted, we were still standing. We’d been hit for hours and hours without budging.

“Hold!” urged a centurion, cutting down the celebration.

I noticed something. No drums. No arrows or screaming. No horses. They’d all fled completely, not just regrouping.

“Not over yet,” I murmured to myself, no one would have been able to hear me over the din anyways.

I wasn’t the only one to have noticed. Other men around me looked around at the dusty plains. Shouting came from over the heads of the men to my left. A massive dust cloud, rising high into the sky, screamed towards us. That hadn’t been there a minute ago. The wind picked up, sending the banners flapping madly.

A couple of the men, natives to the area if their native tongues were any indication, began praying. I’d heard prayers before the fighting began, but this was something else. They’d dropped their swords, for one. If we weren’t so closely packed, they looked like they’d be running. They hadn’t flinched when the mutant horse things had come, they hadn’t flinched at arrows or cataphracts, but now they had all but given up. A couple were down on their knees.

“Whatever is in there, we will kill it,” shouted the centurion. The rest of his no doubt inspiring speech was lost as the howling wind picked up.

A horn sounded: the general and his retinue of remaining cavalry thundered to join the rest of us foot sloggers. From them shot a massive bolt of lightning as thick around as a man straight into the fast approaching dust cloud, doing absolutely nothing to stop it. If anything, the cloud accelerated. The wind picked up, its howls drowning out everything else. We braced.

Wind and sand plowed into the ranks to my left, sending fully armored men flying like ragdolls. I ducked my head behind my shield to keep the worst of the sand out of my eyes.

“Go, go!” screamed someone.

We charged into the storm. Not much else we could do. Another bolt of lightning preceded us, vanishing into the dust. Considering the size of the cloud, they might have had a person who could share his power among many other people. Or maybe a guy with a massive radius. There might have been another army in there for all we knew, ready to take advantage of the massive gaping hole in our lines.

I followed the man in front of me, keeping in line with Livius and Cyrillus to either side of me. A sound like a crack of thunder rang out in front of us. The lead men screamed in pain as a wall of air at about shin level hit the ranks.

Sand blasted us from all sides. Another column of wind shot straight through the ranks to my right. I staggered, better than being crushed by the sheer force of the air. Despite my best efforts, the sand and dirt caked up in my mouth. I couldn’t see past the man in front of me.

We didn’t find anyone in that sandstorm. Well, I didn’t. I guess anyone who did died. Me and the others around my blundered around. All semblance of coherence in the ranks was lost; all the officers gone or dead.

This had to be a group of Parthian supers. No one was that powerful.

***

Uh… shit, that’s not good. Security in the bunker we’re holed up in just told us there’s been a breach. There’s been a lot of rioting and looting since the asteroid made it past the net.

What? No, don’t turn it off.

Because… you’ll forget me. Everyone always forgets me. Please, just… leave it on.

Batteries? Tiny little thing like that can’t take up that much energy, right? We’ve only been at this for an hour. Fine, I’ll be here.

***

Do you want to continue with this right now? Sorry about before. You don’t have family out there in all that, do you?

Sorry. Forgot. Your world too. Oh, we left the recording thing on.

Just gonna roll with it? OK. Where were we? Oh right. Dead people.

***

One thing the Roman drill sergeants had drilled into our heads was “protect the eagle”. If all else fails, stand your ground around the eagle. What they never mentioned was what happened when the eagle left you and a bunch of wounded soldiers behind.

I was lucky. My eyes were shot from all the grit and I was dead tired from people trying to murder me all day, but all my bones were where they should be and I wasn’t bleeding out all over the sand.

I’d lost my sword after being knocked down by the wind. Sideswiped by it, really. When the sandstorm cleared, only me, Livius, and Cyrillus were still standing from our unit. The dead and dying lay all across the dusty field. In the distance, I saw retreating cavalry, bearing Roman colors.

In the other direction, I saw the glimmer of the cataphracts’ armor as they approached. And, much closer, I saw the lighter horsemen bearing down on us. Me and Livius exchanged glances. Cy had a broken arm, we were in no shape to run. That, and horses tend to be a lot faster than people.

A couple horsemen circled us, bows nocked and ready. Livius threw down his shield and spat.

Before you ask, “Why didn’t you just shoot them?” I couldn’t exactly do that and keep everyone alive. More than likely they would just kill us all if we put up a fight. Just because I resurrect or whatever doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to other people.

They herded us and the other survivors east, to their camp. They were probably going to sell us as slaves, I never found out. Glad I missed out on that.

A young man, maybe a few years my senior, stood alone at the edge of the camp. The Parthian soldiers escorting us skirted around him, heads low. This is going to sound crazy, but I almost recognized him.

***

I’ll skip a lot of the boring details. They had us march east until we reached a big river, the Euphrates, I think. A small contingent from the main keep us under constant guard. We weren’t all of the captives, they’d divided us into groups. Small groups of soon to be slaves are easier to manage than big ones, I guess.

Everyone, even the guards, thought we were heading towards the capital, and for a couple days we were, until the river turned south and we followed. Then the new word I picked up from the guards was Babylon.

Funny thing about language. In the US you can drive straight for three days and all anyone will speak is English. Do the same in, say, Europe, and you go through about half a dozen languages. So the guards didn’t really care what they said around us. That’s not to say they were loose lipped, but they weren’t exactly cautious either. Most of us didn’t speak whatever it is they spoke. I would translate for the other captives when the guards weren’t watching, but most of what they said was boring.

Sorry, got side tracked. Anyways, after weeks of walking, we camped near a massive brown stone. The stone looked rough, untouched by the ever present sun and sand. That scary looking guy from before, he stood in front of it with a frown. Just staring at a brown rock as everyone made camp around him.

After getting settled and ready to pass out for the night, I heard some guards talking.

“That stone wasn’t there before when we passed by last with Sandstorm.” My eyebrow raised at that.

“You’re an idiot,” replied the second guard.

“Seriously.”

“Massive stones don’t appear out of nowhere.”

“Sandstorm wants to check on it,” said the first guard.

That got a pause from the other. “For what?”

“I don’t know. I overheard the captain talking about it with him.”

The guards grew quiet as the aforementioned captain patrolled by. They kept quiet even after he left, leaving me to fall asleep in peace.

The next morning saw a larger than normal amount of hustle and bustle. Me, Cy, and Livius wound up on the outskirts of the mob of captives. A group of spear wielding soldiers approached.

“You three. Come here,” barked the lead one.

The other captives got restless. One of them yelled something. Then the guards heftd their weapons, as did the other soldiers around them. I noticed all of the Parthians held weapons. Not carried on the backs of their horses, held them in their hands. With no way out, we simply followed the guards to the stone.

They shoved us towards it. The Sandstorm guy looked on from atop his horse, arms folded. A few others, also on horseback, waited behind him. After a moment, the guards on foot motioned towards the rock, though they stood back a few feet.

The solid brown rock wall had a winged lion carved in the center. I shrugged to the others and pushed it. Something burned my hand. “Fuck,” I muttered, recoiling.

A blast of stale air hit us. A blast coming from the formerly solid wall. Tendrils of formerly solid stone began unweaving and retracting back into the darkness beyond. I honestly don’t know how else to describe it.

A moment later, we stood before a cave entrance, with no sign of the stone that had peeled away. After a shocked moment, I turned around to the Parthians behind me. Their faces looked as shocked as I felt. Except for Sandstorm, he simply kept frowning.

Once they recovered, he motioned to a guard and dismounted. The rest of the dudes on horses followed suit. The spear wielding guards pointed to us, then the inside of the cave.

I turned back to it. The thing had a majorly creepy vibe from it. A downward leading staircase was swallowed by the pitch darkness. One of the men, a guy in robes despite the heat, pulled a small wooden talisman. It ignited in his hands. He tossed it into the cave mouth, where it hovered.

“Go,” barked one of the guards.

With no other option, we walked in, proceeded by the ball of fire lighting the way. It quickly became apparent this was all man made. We went down the stairs and found a rectangular corridor devoid of anything save dust. We stopped at the occasional room, also barren. At some point, the Parthians behind us produced torches.

We continued on like this for maybe half an hour. A couple guards behind us had spears pointed at our backs, just in case we tried anything. We passed by two more empty rooms with carvings on them. The mage took one look and shook his head. Five steps later, Livius, Cyrillus, and the two guards behind me dropped.

Looking back, the rock walls didn’t look any different the whole way in. If it was a trap, it was really well concealed. That didn’t matter to me at the time, then I was crouched over Cy, trying to get him back up. The Parthians were shouting, I didn’t pay attention.

I felt for Cy’s pulse and felt nothing. Livius was the same. The two fallen guards weren’t moving either. I shot back to my feet, fists clenched.

“Stay,” ordered one of the guards. I froze as I heard the creak of a bow being drawn. Bow beats fists, after all.

“I felt something,” said the mage, shouldering his way to the front of the group.

He raised his hand, probably to do some magic nonsense. He dropped dead the moment he reached out far enough, the floating flames dying out at the same time.

I didn’t dare run off with the bow pointed at my back. Or that Sandstorm guy. He was right behind the mage, looking very irritated. If he could decimate a legion single handedly, I was a bug. They whispered among themselves, their voices too low for me to hear.

“You, come back,” said a guard. I took a few hesitant steps forward, certain at any point I’d spontaneously die. Nothing happened. I reached where they stood.

“Do you have a power? Not magic, a power?” Sandstorm asked, the first words I’d heard come out of his mouth.

Before someone could translate for him, I said in his language, “Yes. Tongues.” No need to tell them everything, after all.

Sandstorm called out to someone at the back of the small group. An older man with a torch stepped forward. He stepped over the body of the mage and walked past me.

“The bodies,” I said. The man looked at me and nodded. Together we hauled the fallen back to where the other could reach them.

Sandstorm nodded and joined us. To the other guards he said, “Get them out of here. You two, wait here. If we have not returned by tonight, leave and bury this place.” And with that, he looked at me with a stormy expression.

I took that as my cue to lead the way again. I didn’t want to, but likely death at the hand of some magic trap is better than certain death at the hands of a super. After another half hour of walking down the interminable stone hallway, not knowing whether I would be struck down by some curse or laser or whatever the fuck, someone broke the silence.

“How long does this go?” asked the old guy.

“Leads to the city proper. The arrogant bastard didn’t think he’d die. He left this place wide open,” said Sandstorm.

Yeah, we’re playing the pronoun game. Just so you know, I don’t really know who they were talking about. Anyways, back to them.

The older man gave a mirthless chuckle. “What are you looking for?”

“I’m not quite sure. I’ll know it when I see it. The entrance didn’t appear by accident.”

I stopped at a doorway, something having caught my eye.

“Whoa,” was all I could manage.

On a pedestal was a golden knife, glowing faintly in the torchlight. No matter where I looked in the room, my eyes were drawn to it. The blade looked a little longer than my hand, a simple triangular thing, ending in a sharp point.

Sandstorm shoved me out of the way and took a good, long look at the golden blade. He kept his distance from it, though. All I could think was, “Thank god this is over with.”

“That it?” asked the old guy from behind us.

“No.”

“Know what it is?”

“Maybe. He made it to kill,” replied Sandstorm.

“Kill what?”

“Anything.”

The old man let out a low whistle. “We could use that. Might be trapped, though.”

Sandstorm turned to me, and my stomach sank. “Pick it up,” he ordered.

I sighed. I’d seen a lot of death, and now I’d been press ganged into finding some vague thing owned by some vague guy. Now that we’d found a thing. And I would bet anything this thing would kill me.

“No, no more,” I said. “Not going to die for you fucks.” The old guy raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t get a choice,” said Sandstorm.

“Yeah I do.” I was fucking tired of waiting to die. I conjured up a pistol in my hands and opened fire on Sandstorm.

I put three bullets in his chest. He staggered back, the bullet wounds closing before my eyes. Then he crushed my head.

***

Yeah, that didn’t go so well. No idea where that healing thing came from. Joke’s on him, though, I can make that knife thing appear in my hand. Just… hang on. Turn off those dampeners for a moment. Just a second or two.

***

You see it? Oh, it’s still in my hand. Awesome. Thought the dampeners would take it away. Pretty cool, isn’t it? Made by some vague guy to kill anything, apparently. I’ve used it once or twice. I tried to kill the Aztec emperor with it, actually, that was a fun time. Oh, I haven’t told you that story then…

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