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Magnus was a strong and devoted soldier. His love for The Empire surpassed all things, including his life itself. He was a centurion, and had been offered higher positions but refused them all, choosing the mud, and the fight more than the horse, and the distance, and the wall of guards enjoyed by the Legatus.
Despite his courage and devotion, Magnus had only one friend. That was Caspius, the optio of the Centurion led by Magnus. Magnus believed with all his heart that Caspius would gladly lay down his life beside his own for the expansion of civilization throughout the world of the Barbarians.
While stationed in the country of the Nornigoths, Magnus was called to the tent of his commanding officer, Legatus Titus Claudius Capernaeus.
As Magnus entered the tent, he saw the Legatus seated at his desk with a vessel of wine in one hand and a writing stylus in the other. Titus was typical of men whose service was to the throne more than to the people. All that mattered to the Legatus was the next station to which he might rise.
"You called for me, Legatus?" Magnus said, as he saluted.
"Yes. Sit down." The Legatus motioned to the chair opposite himself.
Magnus sat down.
"Wine?" The Legatus offered.
"I take only small sips while in duty, Sir" Magnus replied.
The Legatus gave an amused grunt and then threw his head back to chug the last of his drink.
"I need you to hunt a bear," said the Legatus.
"A bear?" Replied Magnus.
"The Chieftan of the Nornigoths has requested our help in hunting down a creature that has been killing his people," said the Legatus, "under terms of his surrender, our legion is to protect the Nornigoths."
"Treaty or no," said Magnus, "we have never cared if a few barbarians are mauled by a bear."
"This is rumored to be an exceptionally ferocious bear," said the Legatus. "It's one the Consul himself would love to see displayed in his palace."
"So you want me take my century to hunt a bear for political play?" Magnus said, being disgusted with the thought.
"No," said the Legatus. "You are to select a contubernium, eight men, no more."
The Legatus conveyed to the Centurion the logistics of his mission, including a map to the village where he was to meet his guide Haduswinth.
Magnus called together the men under his command. From them he chose the eight who would hunt with him.
The first was Orpheus, who was from a patrician family of moderate wealth. Though never fleeing from battle, Orpheus was always nervous. Magnus hoped the hunt would toughen him up.
The second was Septimus, known for his foul temper.
Ambulus was the third and when Magnus called his name, the troops shouted with disapproval. Ambulus was an immune, a medicus, and for that he wasn't well liked by the fighting men.
Four others from the ranks were selected also, and the eighth was Caspius but he was not among the men.
"Where is Caspius?" Magnus shouted.
Two men of the legion were sent to retrieve the wayward optio, and when he was brought to Magnus, he reeked of strong drink.
"So, we're going bear hunting," said Caspius with a slur in his words.
"We leave at dawn," said Magnus, "and if we had not been friends for years I would have you flogged."
The next morning, Magnus and his eight men traveled to meet with their Nornigoth guide. When they reached the village they were flummoxed at the apparent timidness of the people. The Nornigoths were a conquered people, but they were known for being a proud people. These villagers seemed to be in obvious fear.
"I am looking for a tracker named Haduswinth," said Magnus.
No one replied, but nearly everyone of the villagers lowered their head, afraid to look the Centurion in the eye.
"I'm going to ask again," said Magnus. "Does anyone here know Haduswinth?"
One woman raised her head slowly and pointed to a small hut. Magnus pushed open the door to find a heavy, bearded man sitting on bear hides.
"Haduswinth?" Magnus asked.
The bearded man nodded.
"I am Magnus."
"I know who you are," the bearded man replied. "I was promised you would hunt the demon."
"I don't know about demons," said Magnus. "I'm here to hunt a bear."
"There's no bear," said Haduswinth. "But I can help you hunt the demon."
"How do we hunt this so-called demon?" asked Magnus.
"We have bait," said Haduswinth. "Bring him in," he shouted.
Two more men of the village entered the hut, dragging a third man who was struggling, weeping, and begging for his life.
"This man was found in adultery," said Haduswinth. "His sentence would be to hang, but he will be more useful tied down by the river whence the demon finds its meals by night."
Magnus ordered his men to tie the condemned man to a cross in the location shown to him by Haduswinth. Magnus was skeptical of the plan. He was also skeptical of the story. Magnus was sent to hunt a bear, and it was a bear not a demon he expected to find.
It was just after midnight when Magnus sat down by a small fire next to Caspius.
"What happened to you, my friend?" said Magnus. "You were always a good soldier, but for weeks now you've been wandering off, only to be found in pubs and brothels. You know I wouldn't tolerate that behavior from anyone else under my command."
"You're too serious," said Caspius. "Yes. I have my vices, but I'm a loyal servant of The Empire. I'm a soldier who will die for the cause of civilization. I will do better."
"Let us hope so," said Magnus.
Caspius stood up.
"My wine runs through me," said Caspius, as he walked away.
Magnus sat by the fire, trying to visualize the unusual bear they were waiting for. Soon, he gave way to sleep. However, his sleep was broken with the sounds of screams coming from the direction of the river.
The soldiers quickly grabbed their spears and ran toward the river where the barbarian had been used to bait the beast.
When they arrived, the man was no longer tied to a cross, but was on his back upon the ground. His chest was open with a clean incision. His genetalia had been removed, also with clean cuts. He had no teeth marks, or scratches.
"By the gods!" Orpheus exclaimed. "I've never seen a bear do that to a man.
"This was no bear, idiot!" shouted Septimus.
Ambulus knelt to examine the body.
"This was no animal at all," said Ambulus. "This could only have been done with a well sharpened blade by a skilled physician."
Haduswinth moved past the soldiers and knelt across from Ambulus on the other side of the corpse. He turned the body over so that his posterior could be seen. A substance was oozing from the victim's rectum.
"Is that puss?" asked Ambulus. "Did this man have some sort of infection?"
Haduswinth wasn't a physician, but he was an experienced tracker and only knew one thing to do.
Placing two fingers in the wounded orifice,
Haduswinth pulled out some of the substance and tasted it, then quickly spit upon the ground.
"That's not any kind of rot," said Haduswinth.
Haduswinth held his fingers toward Ambulus who also tasted the substance. Then his face turned to an expression of shock.
"This man was defiled before he was murdered," said Ambulus.
The men looked at each other in horror. Orpheus began to weep.
"Let me go home, Centurion. I pray you let me go home," Orpheus said, as he dropped to his knees.
"No one leaves until we kill this bastard!" said Magnus. "We know now that we seek a man and not a beast."
The men returned to camp to find Caspius lying drunk on the ground, singing of gladiators and heroes of old.
"Get up fool!" shouted Magnus, but Caspius remained where he was, only lifting his head briefly to laugh at his commander.
"Everyone grab what gear you need," said Magnus. "We are hunting a man tonight."
Caspius sat up.
"I can still fight," he said.
"You will not be coming with us drunkard," said Magnus. "If you are here when we return, I will impale you."
Magnus gathered the men together. Haduswinth led the way, stopping to examine the ground or to feel of the trees. They tracked the killer until noon, when they found a strange looking sod shelter.
"If I'm not mistaken lad," said Haduswinth, "your killer is in there."
Magnus signaled for his men to wait for him while he approached the shelter. He pounded on the door a few times and shouted but no one answered. Drawing his gladiolus, Magnus kicked in the door and found the shelter empty. Then he heard screams once more and turned to find his men all dead with arrows in their backs.
"I'm am of the Nauthroids!" said a deep, and chilling voice.
Magnus turned around and found himself face to face with a grey skinned creature, with the body of a man and glowing red eyes. The bone structure of his face gave him the appearance of chiseled stone. His cheekbones were like blades. He was hairless and muscular with one small hole where his nose should be.
Magnus drew his sword and slashed at the creature, but it was too quick. Before he could strike again, the creature had moved behind him and kicked him in the back, knocking him to the ground.
Magnus rolled over on his back, just in time to see the creature raise a large axe.
"You would have been fun to torture for a while, human," said the creature. "But now I must end this."
Magnus closed his eyes and prayed that Janus would lead him gently to the underworld, but then he heard the axe drop beside his head. Opening his eyes, he saw a sword protruding from the chest of the monster. The monster then fell also, revealing Caspius behind him.
Magnus and Caspius nodded to each other. Then Magnus stood over the creature.
"What are you?" said Magnus.
The dying creature struggled to speak.
"I come from a distant star," the creature said. "When my ship crashed here, I killed for food. Then I found that I enjoyed the screams of humans. My heart raced with ecstasy when they begged for their lives. I would have been happy to remain here forever and kill all of you."
Caspius handed Magnus a spear and he ran the creature through, killing it. Together the men burned the creature's body.
"Thank you, my brother, for saving my life," said Magnus.
Caspius nodded and then stabbed Magnus with his gladius. As Magnus fell, he saw Caspius changing. His skin grew a pale grey and his eyes turned red.
"I am of the Nauthroids!" said Caspius. "Your world will never know we were here."