The Wolf of Rome
Act 1: The Last Republican
Part 1: Fever Dreaming
Rick Landon had no idea when the fever began, but his creative mind had a favorite theory. His tongue had not recovered from a particularly foul cup of coffee from a diner with the hygienic standards of a New Jersey dumpster. Day and night merged into a bland collage of navy blue skies and celestial motion. He paid little respect to the sun, moon, and stars, for he knew that stopping meant certain death.
Stopping too long would earn him an eternal rest in an unmarked ditch beside the road. The Volkswagen clunker he had purchased with his last savings rattled and clanked as he aimed it north, each mile feeling like it could be his last. As he eyed the fuel gage drop like a concrete shoe, he wondered if he'd have been better off investing in something with better gas mileage. As much as he'd prefer to shop online, he was savvy enough to recognize how little he truly knew about cyber-security. His distinctive set of wheels already lit him up like a Christmas tree for every town he drove through.
He could not recognize himself as the mangy creature in the rearview mirror. The only garment he particularly cared for was the hooded brown leather bomber jacket that stubbornly clung to him, much like the stain-soaked undershirt beneath it. His favorite blue jeans had lost all color, much like his ghoulishly pallor skin. His light brown hair had grown long and his unshaven face continued to sprout facial hair, perhaps soon enough to give him a full Jesus beard. His face grew narrow as his once-wide eyes turned the color of bruises. The handle of an antique pistol protruded from his backpack under the seat, something he hoped no cop would ever find.
Rick half-considered flooring it through at least a dozen speed traps, and then confessing to whatever self-incriminating charges he could come up with. At least jail would have beds, walls, and meals that didn't have to be cooked on a hobo stove. It was the realization that a prison would leave him much more isolated and exposed to whatever was behind him that kept him below the speed limit as he crossed state lines. He was sure the Feds were watching him as they did with the entire populace, but deemed him completely beneath any interest. Given what he had seen, he was unsure whether to be relieved or insulted.
As he followed the highway to its end, it gradually constricted from four opposing lanes to a pathetic asphalt capillary through the forest. The monotony was a welcome change from endless farms and grasslands, but Rick recalled the pain that struck him. Every fiber of his being momentarily seared with an agony that pulled his heavy eyelids shut and clenched his jaws tight. He pulled off the road onto a small opening in the forest, and pulled the key from the ignition. Triple-checking the locks on each door, he retreated to a threadbare sleeping bag on the floor behind the driver's seat. For a while, he could do naught but shiver, thrash, and roll within his rolling fortress, as if wrestling an invisible opponent. As much needed sleep took him, he prayed that no cops or unwanted guests would stumble upon his vulnerable state.
Dreamless sleep eluded Rick Landon, for fate had other designs for his fear-addled nerves. For a moment, he wondered if he had reawakened into the world of agonizing pain. As he felt limbs move and eyes opening, but took a moment to realize they were not his own. Alien sensations directed his body until he realized he was not in the back of his van.
The crashing of surf upon the beach told him he was not in Ohio anymore. His hands pushed him off the ground as he stood up to investigate his surroundings. A pure, pristine beach extended around him, blemished by only one unsightly human artifact. It was a wooden ship of some type, obviously run aground rather recently. Shattered jugs and pottery littered the area around it, covering the area with broken pottery shards. There was a white square sail on the single mast, and the rows of oars laying partially covered in mud and sand.
He took a step forward, and realized his body was not his own. His forearms were a tanned olive tone, and he stared down an aquiline nose from a slightly shorter stance than he was used to. Muscular legs shuffled forward as his tunic ruffled against the ocean breeze. The unfamiliar weight of metal armor reminded Rick this was neither his body nor his actions. The muscular, bronzed body of the soldier was a remarkable distance from his broken, famish frame.
While obviously stronger and well-drilled, all-too familiar aches kept the soldier moving at a cripple's gait. As he moved towards the shipwreck, the man knelt before a body of someone that was obviously familiar. The man's face was unrecognizable, raked by some titanic claw. His neck and torso were completely caked in freshly dried blood. A short sword and heavy shield rested at his side, drawn but unable to stop whatever had slain him. Rick noted the soldier exhale in a moment of slight hesitation before grabbing the weapon. The soldier's fear vanished as he pulled the weapon closer and stabbed through the air, displaying a familiarity that even disease could not slow.
It took his own feverish brain a moment to recognize the design of the blade, a Roman gladius. His befuddlement only grew as an unseen man spoke in a tongue he had never heard before, but instinctually understood.
"I'm afraid you were the only survivor," came a voice from the deck of the ship. "You mortally wounded me, although your men paid a heavy burden."
Rick thought he recognized some syllables in the language, immediately thinking of Spanish or Italian. While he had never had formally studied Latin, he was at least superficially familiar with its syntax and sound. He saw the soldier clamber onto the deck of the ship, slowly but steadily climbing up as his body faltered. The stench of sun-baked rotting flesh and buzzing of flies greeted his unnamed Roman as he pulled himself over the side. He raised the gladius above his head, preparing to use the weapon. The remains of at least a dozen men were strewn about like ragdolls, all freshly slain. The charnel aboard did not deter the advance of the Roman, who relentlessly closed in on the only man to draw breath.
The sole survivor aboard the vessel was a swarthy man with curly hair and a hirsute beard, a bloodied and pathetic form barely able to prop himself up against the mast. The Roman advanced towards the man Rick somehow identified knew as the Numidian, and readied his blade for the final blow.
"You'll be the first one on these shores." The Numidian turned his brown, weary eyes towards the Roman. "Will you be the hunter or the hunted?"
"I care not," the soldier said in a low, growling tone. "In Underworld, tell them Titus Lentulus Romulus sent you."
"But not before I sent your friends-"
The Numidian never finished his statement, since Titus thrust his blade into the sailor's belly. As the wounded man slumped over for the last time, Rick felt a smile march across Titus' face. He wiped the blood from his blade onto the sailor's ripped robes, and sheathed his weapon. While every joint ached and creaked, Titus managed to pull himself back onto the beach. Looking to the east, he knew that his superiors would be awaiting his report.
It was then that Rick awoke in a cold sweat on the floor of his van. A beam of sunlight filtered into the ancient vehicle's tinted windows, and he immediately knew it was time to go. While his head ached and joints protested every movement, he managed to dump himself in the driver's seat. Excitement coursed through his body as he felt a freshness he had not recalled for days. With fever dreams still fresh on his mind, he brought the engine rumbling to life.
The van lurched forwards from its hiding place, and onto the asphalt capillary leading to towards his destination. Rick noticed a sign indicating his destination was far closer than he thought. As he charted a course for his hometown, he could not help but reflexively check his rearview mirror every few minutes. Despite thinking he saw headlights far behind him, the desolate road was totally devoid of other traffic. As the surroundings grew familiar, Rick was almost tempted to stop the van and celebrate. It was no small irony that something worse drove him back to the place he once yearned to escape. His survival instinct compelled him to drive on, for he would be on home turf soon.