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The Eternal Army

M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at mkhutchins.com.

I'm always the first pulled from the blessed Elysian Fields, leaving behind the peace and comfort of the afterlife to wear a mortal body again. Well, the semblance of one, pulled from whatever dust or rocks are handy. My own body rotted away millennia ago.
I could smell a hint of fresh air from somewhere up above, but the sheer, close walls of the ravine blocked out the sky.
"Who has summoned the Eternal Army?" I asked.
A young woman stirred and sat up. She rubbed the side of her cracked skull. "Ah, hell. I'm hallucinating."
"Hell is actually a bit further in," I replied. "Though you are dead."
She wore a shirt of plaid, a pattern the northern barbarians are fond of, and rather short pants. Her boots seem admirably sturdy, though strange on a young lady. She checked her pulse. "Damn."
"Noble necromancers such as yourself are not damned. Now," I prompted, "What need has the Eternal City of its ever-faithful army?"
"I didn't mean to summon an army."
Didn't mean to? Was that even possible? "Did you not raise the funds beforehand?"
"A coin for each soldier. So me and my men can pay Charon and return to Elysium when our battle is won."
She laughed bitterly. No, she could not pay us our wages. "Who are you?"
"Marcus Curtius."
She peered at me. "Am I supposed to know that name?"
How could she not know the stories of her own people? "Centuries ago, a chasm opened in the Roman forum. The oracle declared it could only be mended by tossing in the most precious thing in Rome. Many offered gold and fine cloth, but I dressed in my armor and asserted that the most precious thing in Rome was, and would always be, the heart and courage of a true Roman. Then, with my faithful horse, I jumped into the gulf."
"So you were both suicidal and suffered from delusions of grandeur," she mumbled, shuffling up to her feet. Her limbs were scratched, but in much better shape than the side of her skull.
I frowned at her. "With the power of my noble death, I was able to summon an army from Elysium to defend Rome. In later centuries, others followed my example--jumping into a chasm and sacrificing themselves to raise an undead army. I have fought the Goths, the Mongols, and rebels from the Americas."
The ground around us stirred, making her jump. A few of my bravest soldiers began forming bodies.
"Now, is Rome in danger?" I pressed. If there was no threat, I needed to find a coin, quickly run across the River Styx, and warn the rest not to follow.
"Danger? Rome is dead. Nuclear fallout is a bitch."
She hadn't met Cerberus. "Show me the city. Now."
The young woman nodded. Together, we climbed to the top of the ravine. "There's all that's left of Rome."
In the miles upon miles of burning rubble, I counted no more than two dozen buildings still standing. The sight wrapped my soul with terror. But the flattened plain beyond that, as smooth as glass, right where the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill should have been--that left me numb.
"There's no enemy to fight." Her shoulders sagged. "I'm... I'm sorry for disrupting your peace or whatever. I was on a supply run."
"Supply run?"
"Running into the city. Trying to find medical supplies. For the survivors. I knew the radiation would kill me one day, and that with the rough terrain, I might not make it at all... but I had to try, you know?"
I did know. I'd ridden my favorite horse off a cliff, not because I knew it would help, but because, as a Roman, I could do no less. This woman, despite her barbarous clothing, had the heart of a warrior.
Apparently, such a heart and a long, fatal plunge into a chasm made the necromancer--not intent or knowledge.
The ground below rumbled with my men assembling themselves. I did not rush to warn them away. Instead, I pulled myself over the top of the ravine. "Where are these supplies?"
"In a hospital two kilometers south of here. One of the few still standing. But I don't know what the radiation will do to you. To the undead."
"I don't know either." And I didn't know how or when we'd find the coins to send my men back to Elysium. "But we will not rest until the survivors are well and our city rebuilt. Let us sacrifice a horse to engender the pleasure of the gods on our efforts."
The young necromancer had no horse. Instead, we found a goodly number of Ferraris. She knew how to slit their jugulars, and my men and I set them aflame. It was rather more spectacular than burning equine fat.
Not a man of my army complained about our uncertain fate. Ten thousand voices strong, we roared "Senatus Populus que Romanus!"
With that, we began our work once more, for the glory of Rome.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Author Comments

A Codex Writer's Group prompt led me to reading on Wikipedia about the raising of a US colonial regiment. I latched onto the word "raising" and thought about the other ways that words is used. I'd also recently finished reading Emily Beesly's Stories From the History of Rome. This story naturally followed.

- M.K. Hutchins
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