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Zombies of Byzantium, (c) 2013 by Sean Munger
Published February 2013 by Samhain Horror
Taking place in Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire) in 717 A.D., Zombies of Byzantium is the story of Stephen Diabetenos, a young monk who specializes in painting icons. Sent to a neighboring monastery to replace a dead painter, Stephen and his friend Theophilus happen upon a small country village that has been hideously ravaged by the undead. After a pitched battle with the ghouls at a local inn, Stephen and Theophilus decide they must hurry to Constantinople, the capital, to warn Emperor Leo III about the outbreak of undead flesh-eaters and appeal to him to send a Byzantine legion to destroy them. Unfortunately Leo has other things on his mind–such as the impending siege of Constantinople by the Saracens, the Byzantines’ mortal enemies. When Leo decides he can kill two birds with one stone by using the ghouls as a weapon against the Saracens, all hell breaks loose–with very bloody results!
Where to Get It
I’ll skip over the details of my last weeks at Chenolakkos. I finished the icon, it was delivered to the fat old rich man in Nicaea, I packed up my stuff and Theophilus made ready to accompany me on the road to Constantinople. We left on a warm morning in mid-June. Our path would take us down out of the mountains, past Nicaea and northward toward Kios, where (I hoped) we could catch a boat to Constantinople. We traveled light. I brought only a small leather shoulder bag containing my paints and a Bible. Theophilus brought an extra cassock and one blanket. We had no food other than a few scraps of bread. Between us we had only a few gold solidi in a leather drawstring purse that Theophilus insisted on carrying. It would probably be a four-day journey to Kios and who knew how long after that. We’d be depending on the Christian kindness of strangers and innkeepers to sustain us along the way.
Theophilus was a perfectly humorless man. Dressed winter or summer in a long thick black cloak and hood, he had long snow-white hair and a scraggly beard reaching down to his chest. In the six years I’d been at Chenolakkos, I’d heard the old guy say three words, and “Amen” was two of them. Even that morning as we set off from the monastery he said nothing. At the start of the old cobbled road leading down from the hills we paused, looking up at the blocky building with its bell tower and single gnarled turret, and I remarked, “You’ll probably be back, Theophilus, but I doubt I’ll see the place ever again. Makes you think, you know?”
He looked back at the monastery, but then turned his head, planted his walking stick (which was a foot taller than he was) and moved past me toward the road. Theophilus didn’t strike me as the sentimental type, and surely he’d return after dropping me off at Constantinople, but I doubt he’d been outside the walls of the monastery in years and you’d think he’d have something to say about it. When he remained impassively silent, I realized that I was going to have to entertain myself on this trip.
The day grew stifling hot. It’s a weird thing to be roasting to death in a woolen cowl on a rocky sun-drenched road and to see the desolate snows of the mountain off in the distance at the same time. There weren’t even many trees along the route so there was no shelter from the beating sun. There were no other travelers going our direction or the opposite on the road, which was a little strange, considering the profusion of monasteries in the area and the many monks and pilgrims who made the rounds among them. I did my best to get Theophilus to talk. “So, when was the last time you were in Constantinople?” was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders that suggested he was damned if he knew. “Anything in particular you want to do there?” met with a one-word answer, “Pray.”
I shook my head. “Real life of the party, aren’t you, Theophilus?”
Despite the heat and the taciturn company, I was excited. I’d never seen the capital before. Being a monk, it probably wasn’t realistic to expect I’d get a chance to take in a show or even a chariot race at the Hippodrome, but I thought a nice bath and a tour of St. Sofia weren’t out of the question—that was, if Rhetorios of St. Stoudios didn’t chain me to a desk in the icon studio the moment I set foot in the monastery.
In the late afternoon we spotted a faint smudge on the horizon. After another turn or three on the stone road, we saw it was a plume of smoke. Theophilus stopped, planted his stick and shaded his eyes with his hand. “Village,” he said.
“Ah, good.” I wiped sweat off my forehead with the sleeve of my robe. “Maybe we can get some fresh water there. I’m parched.”
“Strange,” Theophilus remarked. “So many chimney smokes for such a hot day.”
“Hopefully that means they’re cooking up a feast for us.”
As we drew closer, it became obvious from the amount of smoke and its black color that these were no chimney fires. A couple of miles away Theophilus paused again. “I think something’s wrong,” he said. You had to know something unusual was up; Theophilus had said more words to me today already than he probably had to anyone in the last ten years at the monastery.
“Do you think it could be a raid?” I said. “By the Saracens, maybe?”
Theophilus shook his head. “If the Saracen army was in these parts, we would have heard. There would have been a mass exodus.” He planted his stick for another pace and continued walking.
The village nestled in a little valley near a small stream. The fields surrounding it were strangely deserted; there were no farmers or workmen in sight. From a ridge above the town we could see a cluster of shabby peasants’ houses and a larger building that looked like a storehouse or granary of some kind. That building wasn’t on fire, which told me this wasn’t a raid because Saracens or other brigands seeking loot would have cleaned it out and burned it behind them the first thing. Several of the houses were aflame, however. We could see no activity in the town itself. I looked at Theophilus. “Should we go down there?”
“Do we have a choice?” he replied. “There may be people in need of help.”
“It could be dangerous. We have no idea how this happened. If it was bandits or outlaws, they might still be down there waiting to pick off anyone who comes to investigate.”
His cold gray eyes stared at me with an almost sarcastic look. “You are the young one, and I’m old,” he said, “and yet you’re the one shrinking from danger?” He shook his head. Starting down the road, he muttered, “The youth of Byzantium is not as hardy as it once was.”
Down in the valley, closer to the smoldering village, the mystery deepened. The deserted fields were filled with ripening crops. We passed a plow abandoned in a field of rye. The horse who had pulled it grazed lazily some distance away. That was telling. Anyone who had come to sack this village would surely have taken the horses, oxen and any donkeys with them to carry off their loot, and they probably would have burned the crops too. Then we started to see bodies. Theophilus noticed them before I did. He suddenly stopped, crossed himself and murmured a little prayer. Peering through the smoke of one of the nearby farmhouses, reduced to a cluster of charred timbers, I could see three human figures lying motionless in the dust. Buzzards were already circling. A mangy dog with bloody whiskers barked at our approach. Theophilus paused, and then ran (as best he could on his thin wobbly legs) toward the victims. As he neared them, he suddenly recoiled. “Dear God, preserve us!” he gasped.
Two women and a man were lying on the ground before us. Their clothes—the plain rough garb of country peasants—were covered in blood. The man’s arm had been torn brutally from its socket, the arm itself missing. The corpses looked as if they had been feasted upon by ravenous wolves. One woman’s stomach was torn open, her guts oozing into the dust, already attracting flies. I could see what looked like teeth marks in the neck of the other woman. I’ve seen death before, but I’d never seen anything like this. I backed away from the corpses, crossing myself. The stench of death in the village was like the breath of the Devil himself.
“Who could have done such a thing?” said Theophilus.
“Somebody with some very serious issues,” I replied. I looked ahead through the village at the smoldering houses. “Come on, let’s see if there’s anyone left alive.”
In our search, we found several more corpses. They, like the three at the entrance to the village, were also violently torn. One, heartbreakingly, was a little girl. “Could it have been wolves or some other wild beast?” I asked Theophilus.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “The horses and oxen haven’t been touched. Only the people.”
“But why? Who would want to attack this village? Doesn’t look like these people would have anything of value. If it wasn’t raiders—”
Theophilus silenced me with a wave of his hand. He looked off to his left, hearing something. I heard it too. Above the crackle of burning wood there was a low moaning sound, the lowing of indeterminate voices. With his walking stick, Theophilus motioned toward the church at the end of the dusty village street. It had been set on fire, its thatch roof already burned away. The thick packed-mud walls were charred and scorched. The strange moaning seemed to be coming from there.
Hesitantly we approached. There were many bloody footprints in the dust before the doors of the church, and carnage, including a severed human hand. We paused perhaps fifteen feet from the doors. They were partially burned, but I could see, charred and blackened, the links of a great chain that had been drawn across the portal.
“Dear Lord!” I gasped. “They herded the villagers inside the church and set fire to it!” I sprang toward the doors, but Theophilus held me back with an outstretched hand.
“No,” he cautioned. “Don’t touch it. The fire is too hot.”
We then saw the most curious—and the most horrible—of the sights upon which we’d laid eyes that day. The church had been burning for a while and a section of its exterior wall had collapsed. Through an aperture in the ruined wall a shambling figure emerged. It was impossible to tell whether it was a man or woman, for all the clothes had long since been burned off its frame. Indeed the person’s skin itself was on fire. The figure, stumbling over the wreckage of the wall and lurching awkwardly toward us, was but one vast human-shaped torch. The figure did not scream in pain nor thrash about in utter panic as one would expect if he (or she) were engulfed in flame from head to toe. Instead it emitted a low mindless moan, very much like the other strange sounds emanating from inside the church. Shocked, horrified, Theophilus and I both sprang backwards. The flaming figure did not move quickly. It shambled, as if unsure of its steps. Flailing its arms, one of them, burnt through at the shoulder, crumbled into chunks of flaming flesh, but the figure did not stop. It continued its approach toward us.
Theophilus and I glanced at each other. His eyes, wide and staring, must have looked like mine. “Run!” we both cried, and bolted for the road that led down out of the village.
The old man was not very quick. After only a few steps he stumbled. He managed to catch himself with the walking stick before we went down, but the flaming ghoul was able to gain on him. I ran back to Theophilus. Shifting the leather bag containing my paints to the other shoulder, I knelt down. “Get up on my back,” I demanded. He did so as best he could, and I began to run. With Theophilus on my back, I was slower than I would have been otherwise, but together we were still faster than the torch pursuing us. Every half-minute or so I paused to look over my shoulder. The incendiary specter continued to pursue us, but it had not increased its pace. It was as dumb and unyielding as it was terrifying.
“What is it?” I whispered to Theophilus, watching the flaming ghoul stumble on the stones of the road across which we’d just come.
“The Devil,” the old man said. “We must run!”