This is the start of a story my co-author and I are writing. It’s something of a radical change, both trying horror and setting it mostly in modern Britain. Something, long buried, is about to awaken.
Londinium, Roman Britain 400 AD.
“Horatius,” Marcus said, “It’s in there.”
Horatius nodded, “Yes. Those druids, that mistletoe drink. It’s powerful stuff. Remind me never to accept anything eat or drink from them.”
Behind them slaves pounded the damp sandy mortar mix of the coffin into a solid box. A coffer to contain the thing, the unspeakable thing. Only the druid’s magic had contained it and that barely.
Horatius continued, “If it wakes, it’s trapped.”
Marcus laughed, nervous, “I pray Lord Mithras sees it that way.” Then he offered his hand to Horatius, in a gesture of trust, one devotee of Mithras to another.
Horatius politely shook hands; then he crossed himself. “Lord Isus willing.”
After giving him a sharp look, “You’re one of them, Christians, aren’t you?” Marcus pushed the slaves away, “It’s done.” He took a stylus and scraped words into the top of the coffer. In Latin, Pictish, and Greek, he warned everyone to leave the unspeakable thing inside; let it rot for all time in its concrete tomb. “That will do. The language of the empire will never die.”
“Are you sure Marcus?”
“Should we leave a man to watch?”
The slaves looked nervously at each other. The phrase ‘a man to watch’ meant one of them, buried alongside the concrete block to keep it company through the ages.
“No. It ate enough men.” Marcus paused; then shouted at the slaves, “Bury it. Bury it deep.”
Horatius said, “Wait.” Then he scribed a cross and a fish into the side of the block.
Marcus followed with the bull, reborn, the sign of Mithras.
A slave said, “Sire, may I?”
“Add the eye of Woden.”
Marcus, followed by Horatius, agreed. “We need all the God’s on our side.”
That slave, and then the others, scribed the holy seals of their faiths. They added symbols ranging from the falcon and eye of Horus to the horned man of Cernunnos to the block.
Horatius said, “It looks like a bloody temple.” Then he turned to the head slave. “Get this damned thing buried … before night falls.”
Roland’s mobile exploded into life. He stopped lecturing his class on Roman Britain, and with a modicum of embarrassment answered it. “Dr Stevens here.”
His class could only here one side of the conversation.
“Interesting, a large concrete altar. That is unusual, Mithradic, Christian and Pagan symbols on the same block.”
“Are you sure? It must be a fake. There are almost never Mithradic and Christian symbols together.”
“You are sure. Fragments of Latin inscriptions. I’ll catch the next train, after I finish class. I need to see this before you move it.”
“Yes, I’m certain I need to see it. Sorry.”
He shut off the phone, cleared his voice and said, “Field archelogy is never dull. That call was from the works in London, the new underground line … found something that could be Roman. Odd that, it was in an area that the Blitz pulverized so no one expected anything important. I’d have had John fill in for me if I’d known it was likely for anything to be there.”
He looked back at the board, and then commented, “I guess Goering’s chaps weren’t quite as thorough as they thought. Let’s see. Yes, I was describing the overlap we see between the Celtic and Roman roads in Calevia. It’s fascinating to see how the Romans integrated the existing village into their town.”
Then he brought up a picture showing the university’s ongoing work at the nearby Roman town of Calevia. “Right now these works are covered by tarps, but we’ll be resuming excavation in the summer. And we do use student interns, if you’re interested.”
Roland settled back in his seat on the 15:11 from Reading to Paddington, and pulled a sheaf of papers from his bag. He was working through them when a young boy committed the social solecism of asking what he was doing.
“Are those hieroglyphics?”
Roland studied the boy for a moment. He was about six, maybe seven. His son Thomas, if he weren’t at the bottom of some lake in Wales or rotting in the heather, would have been that age. He said, “Not quite, they’re Demotic, almost hieroglyphic, but…”
The boy’s mother started to apologize for her son.
“No, it’s fine. I like children. This is how people wrote. Something like cursive instead of printing.”
“I guess they don’t teach penmanship in school any longer.”
“What’s it say?”
“This is a religious book. A codex to the book of the dead. Invocations and prayers to the Gods.”
“Gods? They teach that there’s only one God at my mosque.”
“People didn’t always believe that. The prayer I’m working on is to Bastet, Goddess of cats, and healing. Would you like to hear it?”
The boy shrugged, “My families’ from Egypt.”
“I call upon thee, Bastet queen of my heart, to come and succour me, upon thee I call, o Bastet my queen.” Roland paused, the train carriage seemed lighter, somehow filled with the fragrance of flowers. “That’s as close as I can make it in English. They often wrote palindromes.”
“What’s a palindrome?”
“Now leave the poor man to his work.” The boy’s mother said, “Enough of your silly questions.”
“A palindrome runs the same backwards and forwards.”
Two and a half hours later, after the train ride to Paddington, a shunt along the circle line and a shuttle along the new unopened tracks, with his bright yellow vest – lined with reflective tape, and a yellow hardhat Roland met the works manager at the site.
“So Mr Shah, where’s this block?” The works manager insisted on the ‘Mr’ so Dr Stevens used it, rather than the informal first names he usually found worked better with people.
Mr Shah pointed the way. “You can see it’s right in the middle of the line. I’ve had the diggers expose as much as I can. As much as is safe, we think might be a UXB left nearby. From the war.”
“Is that why Carter’s here?” Roland waved at an army officer who was drinking a cup of coffee while he stood by the works office, a mobile shed constructed from a shipping container. He waved back.
“Of course. We scanned the area with a metal detector. There are so many bomb fragments and other bits of metal rubbish around here. Too many for my taste … and there’s something big near that bloody piece of concrete.”
“Best then if I take a look.” Roland and Mr Shah walked to the block.
After he inspected it, Roland said, “You’re right, definitely Roman mortar.”
“I told you,” Mr Shah replied, “I’ve seen enough of it in my time. Look at these.” He pointed to the inscriptions. “My son did a project on them, in school, for his a-levels.”
“And that is the Bull of Mithras. Odd to see it on the same block as a cross, a fish and Horus’s falcon.” Roland paused, “You said there was an inscription.”
“On top. Badly damaged. There must have been a near miss during the Blitz.”
Roland hoisted himself up to where he could see it. “Not an easy translation.” He studied the words, “Almost a curse, possibly a warning … explains all those religious symbols. They invoked every deity they could.”
After a few more moments, he pulled out his camera and took a few photographs. Then he slid down and carefully photographed the images on the front of the slab. He stepped back and photographed the whole thing after setting a meter stick in front of it for scale.
Mr Shah called his notice to the back of the block. “There’s a crack on this side.”
Roland hurried around, and clicked his tongue. “I see. Looks like it could break in two. Best if we can pull this out in one piece. Do you think it will work?”
Mr Shah laughed, “Easy-peasy. We’ll put a beam underneath on each side and hoist.”
Roland studied the crack; something about it attracted him, and focused his attention on it. He bent down and shown a light, using an app on his mobile, into it. Something looked back. A brief touch, a flicker of pain, of fear, and then … he shook his head. “Nothing. That can’t be.”
He looked again. There was nothing there. Roland straightened up. “Well then, I’ll leave you to it Mr Shah.”
“I hope so … you know there’s another translation for that inscription – do not disturb.”
“The line’s going through here one way or the other. Hoisting that block out of the way is better than shattering it with a pneumatic hammer.”
As Roland left the train, back home in Reading, he looked at his watch. It was later than he liked, and the busses had shifted to the hourly late schedule. He hailed a cab, “Do you know the Roebuck?”
“Near the uni?”
“Ta. Hop in.”
A few minutes and twenty pounds later, Roland stood in front of the Roebuck. He paused before entering the old pub; through the door in the brick. It had been his local when he had started as a junior faculty member at the university. It was still his local, after … after his wife and son had disappeared. They’d planned to move, even looked at houses that were nicer than the terraces, but events had intervened.
He pushed the door open and walked up to the bar.
“Nah, maybe curry for a change, and a pint.”
Roland laughed, the local brewery’s name seemed oddly appropriate. “Abbots ale if you have it.”
The barkeep drew him a pint, placed it on the bar, and then went to place his order in the kitchen.
Roland found a table, off in a corner by himself where he could watch the television. It was playing reruns of some murder mystery or another. A show that wasn’t entrancing enough to distract him from his thoughts. He took out his camera and studied the pictures.
“Odd all those religious symbols. It will make a good paper.” Then he started transcribing what he could make out of the inscription onto a sheet of paper. Fragments of Latin eroded by time and bomb damage. There were hints of Greek, and a run of Occam’s runes. It was the kind of puzzle he liked.
“Placere vinum. Falerian. Si quis est in vobis.”
He looked up, hardly expecting to hear archaic Northern Italian in this pub. There was a woman, a pale woman with long black hair, a strikingly attractive young pale woman with long black hair, and she was having difficulty making herself understood.
He said, to himself, “Must be a foreign student, just arrived,” and then returned to his work.
The bartender called to him, “Hey, Roland, you speak this language?”
“What’s she want?”
“She said, she’d like wine, Falerian if you have any.”
“Falerian? Never heard of it. We’ve got red, and … we’ve got white.”
“That Romanian plonk, Bulls’ blood. That’d be about right.”
The woman turned to study him. She smiled, her dark eyes and deep red lips a striking contrast from her pale skin.
Roland asked her in the same tongue, “Are you hungry?”
She laughed, a laugh that pierced to his core, then said, “Yes. Very hungry.” She kept staring at him.
“Let me order you something, I’m having the curry. It’s usually good.”
“Meat it is.” Roland looked at today’s menu – on the chalkboard, “Paul? A beef burger for the lady and a bottle of that Romanian plonk. Two glasses.”
“Rare or well done?”
Roland looked at the woman, “How do you want it cooked?”
She grinned and licked her lips. “Raw.”
Roland said to the bartender, “Make it two burgers for her, rare and go easy on the chips.” Then he patted the seat next to him, “Do you want to sit here?”
She continued to stare at him, which made him nervous, then glided to the chair next to him. Not the one he’d offered. She sniffed him. “Yes, you’re the one.”
“Yes.” She moved across the table from him, “This ‘beef burger’ of yours. It is meat?”
“Good.” She licked her lips. However, she also reached over and took his hand. “You’re nicer than I thought.”
Roland found himself getting lost in her dark, her deep dark eyes. “Good … Are you a student at Reading?”
“Oh. I thought you might be, speaking that Italian dialect.”
“No … I am a student. Is not this the language?”
“Sorry, no. You’re speaking an old Italian dialect, almost Latin.”
“And they speak?”
The woman broke eye contact and studied the ceiling in thought. She listened to the television, chattering away in the background, “It sounds somewhat like those barbarians, the northern barbarians.”
“There is some German in it, along with many other languages.”
She switched to something that sounded like German, and Roland replied, “German’s not my strong suit.”
The barkeep put the bottle on the counter. “Roland, lad. Here’s the plonk.” Roland started to stand but the woman reached over and touched him. The barkeep laughed, “I’ll bring it over. Time you met another girl.” In the background, his cook called out, “two burgers, one curry.”
The woman looked at her plate. “This isn’t meat.”
“Take the bread off.”
She still stared in confusion, and then tentatively picked up the patty.
“That’s not how you eat it.” Roland reached over with his knife and fork, cut a piece, and offered it to her. She put her mouth over the piece and pulled it off.
She swallowed, “Meat, it is meat.” Smiling at him, she picked up her fork, and her knife, and after some initial awkwardness, cut a piece of her burger. “For you.”
Roland accepted it; then he fished a piece of lamb from his curry. “Try this.”
She did; then drained her glass. “Spicy, but good.”
They continued until all the meat, both the small amount in the curry and the two almost raw beef burgers were finished. Roland offered her a chip. “It’s not meat, but man does not live by meat alone.”
“There’s wine … and fish as well.” Still, she tried it and pronounced it palatable.
In the process of eating, she slipped her feet from her shoes and ‘played footsie’ – tickling his legs with her feet. Eventually, when the meal was finished, she slipped onto the bench next to him and cuddled up. She chewed, gently, on his ear while encouraging him to place an arm around her shoulders, to pull her tightly against him. She was guiding his other hand to explore parts previously unknown when Paul, the barkeep shouted, “Here you two. Get a room.”
It sort of broke the mood, but only for the time being. Roland asked, “Do you have a place to stay.”
“With you.” She smiled at him. “Unless?” She pouted.
He smiled back at her.
As they rose, to walk the short distance to Roland’s terrace, the television changed. The news came on with an important bulletin of news. The camera showed the worksite where Roland had been that afternoon. “There’s been a bomb discovered from the war on the new underground line.”
Roland stared at the screen, while his companion urged him onward. The concrete block was hanging from the crane, suspended over the hole, and cracked into several pieces.
“Several workers were severely injured, and construction is halted while the bomb ….” It then went on to describe the area evacuated, but by then no one was listening. Least of all Roland and his new friend.
As they walked down Saint Peter’s street, arm in arm their paces matching, Roland asked her, “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Is it important?”
“I’d sort of like to know, especially um … if we’re going to do what I think, I’d like to do.”
“You haven’t told me yours, but I know it. Roland, Dr Stevens, of Reading University.”
“How do you know that? You haven’t been stalking me.”
She smiled, “In a way, yes, I came to find you. But no, I was not stalking you. Not the way you mean.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“We are bound to each other.”
Roland stopped and pulled his arm from her. “Bound?”
She laughed, a deep laugh, one that resonated and echoed from the houses that lined the street. “Didn’t you know? Two bodies, one flesh. We are one kind, kindred.”
Then she smiled, “You’re scared. Don’t be. I won’t bite. Not much anyway.”
“Still like to know your name.”
“I have many names, but … for you, for now, Diana will do.”