The First Book of the Dead, by Kevin Hoffman
“Magister Titus, we may have a small problem,” said the little man in the simple gray robe and sandals. He carried a pile of books under one arm. Titus appreciated books as much as the next soldier, but to the people in this library, knowledge and science were more religion than anything else.
“Caesar is on his ship in the harbor and intends to tour the Mouseion this day. The Philologoi assured me there would be no problems,” Titus said, struggling to maintain his patience. He had dropped less sweat in preparation for month-long campaigns than he had getting this library prepared for Caesar’s visit.
He clenched the hilt of his Gladius, a Pompeii-style one made by a friend back home, a home he might not see again for years. He had learned to squeeze his sword hilt to suppress the urge to punch irritating little busybodies and administrators.
The little man looked scared, opening his mouth to speak twice and both times deciding against it.
“Out with it, I don’t have all day. If this is a security matter you will tell me now,” Titus demanded, longing for the days when he didn’t have to deal with people like this and instead spent his time on the battlefield.
“Well, some of the Philologoi found a previously untranslated copy of the Book of the Dead in the archives,” the little man’s fear disappeared and a light filled his eyes and face as he talked about his deity, knowledge. “This was an original and we think the spells were actually written in blood of some kind. The binding was magnificent.”
“Skip to the part where this is relevant to me,” Titus said through gritted teeth, his knuckles white as he squeezed his hilt.
“Oh, yes, of course, sorry,” he stammered, “they started translating it. One of them read it aloud while the others transcribed it in different languages. That’s when it started.”
“What? Out with it you annoying little bookworm. I have things of real import to deal with,” Titus snarled.
“Bodies from the nearby mausoleum, they,” the little man paused again and Titus lost his patience.
He grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him so he could look him in the eye, “They what?”
“They came alive and broke through crypt walls and made their way here, into the library,” the man sputtered. Titus heard water dripping, looked down and saw that the little bookworm had pissed himself.
“Dead bodies came alive and broke through the clay walls?” Titus said, dropping the man, who crumpled into a heap on the floor, sobbing and clutching his books like a child’s safety blanket.
Titus turned down the corridor toward the common room, the area with all of the viewing tables with massive shelf-lined hallways spreading out from the center like spokes on a wheel.
“Don’t go down there, they’re in that room,” sobbed the librarian.
Titus ignored the whimpering man, drew his Gladius and continued down the hallway until he stepped out of the dim torchlight and into the brightly lit common room. What he saw there was worse than the carnage of any battlefield he had ever survived, and he had been through some terrible ones.
Hunched on all fours like rabid animals on the tabletops, terrible semi-human creatures with decaying flesh, exposed bone and torn burial robes feasted on the fresh corpses of librarians and scholars alike, thick pools of blood gathering beneath the tables and all over the ornate marble floor.
“By the gods,” Titus gasped in shock, almost losing the grip on his sword.
“The gods had nothing to do with this abomination, unless this was Pluto’s doing,” came a voice from the hallway behind him. Titus turned to see his second in command, Agrippo, and five of his best legionnaires, each sharing the same shocked look.
“Those things, they’re eating the Philologoi,” Titus said.
“Over there, look,” Agrippo said, pointing. One of the formerly dead library members was struggling to stand up amid a slippery pool of his own blood. His neck and arms had been chewed to the bone and there was a fist-sized hole in his gut.
“They are rising from the dead,” Titus whispered as a few of the creatures looked up from their fresh kills, inspecting the new arrivals as though they were nothing more than prey.
“Can they be killed…again?” asked one of the legionnaires.
“Only one way to find out,” Titus said and charged into the common room.
He only partially heard the other men charge into the room behind him. Titus reached the first table, a long finely carved piece that, underneath all the blood and torn flesh, contained a dozen rare maps.
The creature looked up from his kill and snarled, a blackish ooze dripping from between gaps in his bottom teeth, only some of the undead thing’s original flesh remaining.
It was no wonder the little bookworm had lost control of his bladder.
Titus bit back his first instinct, to run as fast as he could and get out of this terrible place, and swung his sword. It cut clean through the thing’s neck, sending the head bouncing across the marble floor, its body flopping around like a headless chicken until finally dropping.
Encouraged by how easy the first creature went down, Titus leapt the table and ran for the next one. Two rotting corpse-things feasting on scholarly flesh looked up just in time to see Titus ram his blade through both of their chests, skewering them like a kebab.
When he pulled the blade free and started for the next table, he stopped. The creatures behind him hadn’t dropped to the floor. He turned just as they reached out for him, grabbing his neck.
Titus grabbed one arm, ripping it clean out of its owner’s shoulder. Using that same arm, he slammed it over and over into the creatures’ heads until they relented and let go of his throat.
Once free, he chopped their heads off.
“Sever their heads,” he shouted, “anything less isn’t good enough.”
“Don’t let them bite you,” shouted Agrippo from across the room, fending off a pair of creatures with his sword and a massive kite shield.
Titus, Agrippo, and the other soldiers waded into the carnage from one end of the common room to the other, slashing their way through the undead, cutting off the heads of their victims to make sure they would stay dead.
Resting his hands on his knees, Titus took a deep breath and surveyed the carnage, making sure that nothing moved.
“Bring me the bookworm,” Titus said, leaning against a bloodstained shelf.
A moment later, the little librarian was escorted into the room in the arms of two soldiers. They dropped him on his knees, still weeping, in the center of the room on one of the few remaining spots of clean floor.
“What sort of black magic calls the dead back and turns them into… into, whatever these things were?” Titus asked, still not sure he could believe what he had just survived. Up until that moment, he had little use for superstition, tales of dark magic, or religion at all for that matter.
Now he wasn’t sure what to believe about any of it.
“It must have been one of the spells from the Book of the Dead.”
“Is there a spell to undo this? Are there more of these things coming?”
The librarian shrugged. He had no idea, and the people who read the original spell were likely among the headless victims nearby.
“Can you read the book?”
“All right then, you will come with us to the book and you will fix this.”
Titus signaled for his men to follow, two of them taking up the rear with the librarian. They had only gotten to the far end of the room when they heard it.
At first it sounded like a stampede of horses, echoing in the small space of the hallways connected to the common room, but the noise grew louder and higher pitched until the beating hooves sounded like feet stomping.
A high-pitched wail sounded their arrival.
Like ants streaming from their hills, the undead poured out of the hallways and into the room.
Titus and the others backed up toward the way they came as the undead slowed, again eyeing them more like a meal than a foe.
“Agrippo, run to Caesar’s ship and have him set the docks ablaze. No matter what else you do, this place must be razed. Destroy the library entrance.”
“What about you, sir?”
“If we get out in time, we get out. If not, these dark things must not be allowed to leave the library.”
“Sir, I won’t leave you here.”
“Agrippo if you don’t get out of here now and we lose this fight, nothing will be able to stop them once they get outside. They will wash over Cleopatra’s empire like a plague. Now run!”
Titus took Agrippo’s shield and watched him run down the hallway. He had to buy him enough time to get to Caesar’s ship to start the attack on the library.
Gods willing, he would live long enough.
Backing into the hallway with the little librarian in tow, Titus took up the first position, his shield nearly covering the entire opening.
The creatures had waited long enough. Like a pack of hungry wolves, they howled then charged Titus’ group, their bent and broken limbs barely slowing them down, some even dropping to all fours and loping forward on stumps.
“Stand fast!” Titus shouted, dropping to one knee to give his men room to attack over him in the narrow hallway.
The surge of dead hit them full force, the creatures mindlessly bouncing off of Titus’ shield, hurling their bodies at the soldiers. As each got close enough to a blade, their head came off clean.
But there were just too many of them.
Slowly, they retreated further and further back into the hallway as the horde pressed in on them. The pile of corpses was so high it was hard to tell the difference between the bodies they had killed and the ones they hadn’t.
The deafening echoes of the creatures’ shrieks and gurgling roars filled the hallway and the men with terror. Titus had spent his entire life fighting his nation’s enemies, but nothing had prepared him for this.
Before he could react, the creatures swarmed over his shield and swallowed it up within the floor-to-ceiling pile of squirming rot advancing toward them. Just as he managed to stand up to retreat, the pile overwhelmed him.
Dead flesh and bone surrounded him and pressed in on him from all directions. He gasped for air, sucking in only the smell of decay. The enemies’ teeth were just inches from his face, the only thing saving him that they were pressed so tightly into the tunnel they couldn’t move to strike.
Neither could he.
Claustrophobia took hold and Titus could feel his sanity slipping away. He couldn’t see any of his men. Standing there, smothered in crawling death, his sword pressed against his leg with no room to maneuver, Titus prepared himself for death.
Just before he closed his eyes to succumb to his fate, he pictured the beautiful city outside, pictured it being overrun by living corpses eating women and children alike and turning them into even more foul creatures.
He couldn’t let that happen.
Titus let out a primal roar, his muscles pushing as hard as they had ever pushed. Finally, just before he thought his arms might break, he heard bones crack and the sea of bodies gave way, freeing his arm.
Swinging in short, narrow arcs, Titus sliced through the pile and stepped back, letting the bodies spill further into the hallway.
“I can’t get a clean strike,” shouted one of the soldiers pressed up next to him.
“Thankfully neither can they,” Titus replied. “We need to open this up. Fall back!”
Titus and the others backpedalled down the hallway, making short slashes and stabs at the undead as they went. It felt more like swatting at gnats than a battle.
Once at the end of the hallway at an intersection, they spread out and waited for the enemy to stream out of the opening where Titus’ group could take full, measured swings at their necks.
Just as Titus thought they were regaining the advantage and pushing back the horde, a loud whistle accompanied by the deep sound of rushing wind came from beyond the hallway and the common room.
“What was that?” asked one of the soldiers.
Titus said nothing, still hacking and slashing at the attackers. A moment later a wave of heat blasted through the corridor and hit them head-on.
“Caesar started the attack, the library is burning!”
“Run for the exit!” Titus shouted, ushering his men out first and then charging after.
They ran as fast as they could, staying just ahead of the horde, dodging wall sconces and skidding around corners, charging through the insufferable maze of books and scrolls and experiment labs.
Titus risked a glance over his shoulder only to see a raging fireball consuming the horde from behind. In just moments it would be upon them too and they would all die a fiery death.
Finally, after a seemingly endless set of turns and corners, the library entrance appeared before them, the blue-gray afternoon light spilling onto the stone floor.
Titus pumped his legs and arms as fast as he could, dropping his sword to sprint even faster. Somehow the bookworm overtook him, the awkward little man able to run without the burden of boots or armor.
Fear could make people do amazing things.
As they grew closer to the entrance, Titus could see a group of soldiers at the ready, each leaning back, holding taught a rope tethered overhead.
Titus could feel the searing heat of the flames behind him, the roar of the fire swallowing the air as loud as the call of a dragon, stifling the piercing screams of the burning undead.
Just as he crossed the threshold, he leapt between two of the rope-bearing soldiers, crashing into a stack of barrels on the dock. The flames erupted out of the library’s mouth and the soldiers let go of the ropes, dropping an avalanche of boulders over the entrance.
Titus struggled to his feet and watched as the soldiers beheaded the few undead still moving among the rubble.
“Make sure you burn them all to ash,” he said.
As thankful as he was to still be alive and not some half-dead rotting corpse, Titus couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness at the loss of his favorite sword.
Agrippo stepped out of the group of soldiers and saluted his commander, “And you thought Museion security would be boring.”
Kevin Hoffman is a Fantasy and SF author who has been writing for as long as he can remember. He pays the bills while writing by creating software, and has managed to work writing into that career as well, writing and contributing to over 16 computer programming books. While a fantasy author, he loves a good zombie story and has one published in an anthology, Dead Worlds 5. He is currently working on an epic YA fantasy novel and can be found blogging at http://www.kshmusings.com, Tweeting at @kshmusings, and Reading on Goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/96017.Kevin_Hoffman.