Night Thieves

They came deep in the night, silently, thieves of the dark. There were twenty of them, scaling the brick walls of the insulae apartment blocks and opening the wooden shutters with the skill of a master locksmith. Their targets had been picked carefully beforehand. And by the time the first child had screamed, it was too late. All the adults would ever see were fleeting shadows disappearing back into the emptiness that light had abandoned.

Pontus' Watch

Centurion Pontus Maxamilli Canni awoke to pounding on his apartment door. The edges of his tiny room were barely visible thanks to the flickering light that danced between the door-frame cracks. He grumbled as he grabbed a tunic, pulling it over his head sloppily. Any complaints he might have had due to lack of sleep disappeared the moment he saw the face of the man that greeted him when he opened the door.

“Monsters took them,” Optio Lucius Agrippa Faustus said flatly. He was a stout, square man, Lucius. With a thick jaw and short, thinning blonde hair combed forward yet failing to cover his sun-tanned forehead, he was the epitome of an empire legionnaire. Pontus raised an eyebrow at him.

“Monsters took whom?”

“Children. Eighteen of them from across the city.” Lucius paused. “Including my daughter.”
Pontus frowned.

“You called them ‘monsters’.” Pontus stomped down the stairwell that led to the armory. “I thought my second-in-command was a man of logic. Calling anything ‘monster’ is out of character.”

“Because I know of nothing else to call … it.”

The armory opened before the two men revealed the rest of the watch there, suiting up in lorica segmentata and sheathing spathas. Lucius pushed past Pontus to retrieve his signal drum.

“I need more information than that, Lucius,” Pontus snapped as his own hand reached for his grapevine staff. “We need to know what we are dealing with. ‘Monsters’ is not good enough.”

“They were Skull Wurms, sir.” U'nuwi Sergius said from the far end of the room. With his ebony skin, he had almost disappeared into the back of the room.

U'nuwi was a local tribesman from deeper in the continent’s interior. He seemed almost incongruous when surrounded by his compatriot’s fairer, olive skin. But he was a soldier and citizen of the Empire all the same. And unlike the other men that surrounded him, he had earned it the hard way.

“Skull Wurms?” Pontus asked.

U'nuwi nodded.

“They are a plague. Function somewhat like ants. Live in big colony hives underground. Destroy crops, raid animal pens, tear up whole forests for their nests. And they steal young ones to turn them into their own. If we do not hurry, those children will be lost to us.” He grabbed a hasta spear that barely edged out his own tall, lanky height. “Though I did not think there were any hives so far north,” he muttered.

“How do you know this?” Pontus marched over to U'nuwi.

U'nuwi looked down at his commander, his brow furrowed, lips taut.

“One night, long ago, they took my brother, U’nubi. We could not find their nest. But U’nubi came back to us several weeks later. The Shaman of our village told my parents to kill him, that he was no longer my brother. But they could not. So we were exiled from the village and came to the north. Of age, U’nubi and I joined the legion together.”

He paused, holding his breath for a moment, his eyes shut.

“We were out on patrol with or unit near the Great River. U’nubi looked at me and said ‘you should have killed me’. That night, he changed. Became one of them. The transformation turned him mad. He killed everyone in the unit except me, eating their heads, then disappeared into the bush.”

“Why didn’t you kill him? Why didn’t he kill you?”

U'nuwi glanced away.

“Because, his eyes. He was my brother. And I, his.”

Pontus ran his right hand though his brown, curly locks.

“When did this all happen?”

“10 years ago,” U'nuwi replied.

“Alright,” Pontus boomed. “We are to follow U'nuwi’s lead. Every unit, make sure you have your drum with you. No monster will take the children of the Empire on our watch!”

“Yes, SIR!” The thud of all his men stomping the floor as they snapped to attention resonated throughout.