by Jim Stutz
We ran through the streets then, ecstatic, reckless, conquerors. The city was ours.
Around us, the tale was told. Facades of red marble crumbling to dust, gilded spires brought low, vines that threatened to pull down even the strongest of structures. The tide of time had been our spearhead, and in truth, there was little left for us to do other than enjoy the spoils won for us by the skirmisher Entropy.
There was more than the hundred of us could ever carry away, even had we a dozen ox-drawn carts. We took silver ornaments from household shrines, burned libraries to warm ourselves at night, and partook of wine aged by solitude, vintages so rare that they had never seen light. We made ourselves kings, raced through the plazas, had our way with a people, a nation.
And at the center of the city was the fountain of bones. It was three-tiered, made of the finest porphyry. Once it had been the centerpiece of this place, and it dwarfed even some of the richer homes. Its waters had long since run dry, and in their place were bones of every sort; ribcages and pelvic bones at the bottom, arms and legs in the middle and skulls at very top. We regarded it as our greatest prize, fancying that those who once lived here had slain themselves and heaped their dead in such a callous fashion, rather than face us.
Victory has a habit of making victory, fueled by shortsightedness and greed. In our abandon, we had never thought to ask who fought on our side in our private little war, and what cost this mercenary would ask when the battle was over.
But when the coughing started, followed by the bleeding, followed by the dying, we knew. And like any good group of soldiers knows, we knew that a mercenary will turn for better coin, and so would this one, this disease taking its pay in our blood and bodies. And we knew the fountain of bones then, for what it was, a monument to a greater force than ours, to an enemy more implacable, a captain more grim and relentless.
Even now, as I draw my last breath, I hear the tramp of feet, and wonder who next will win a battle in which no one fights, and everyone dies.
Jim Stutz lives in Arlington, Virginia. By day, he’s a government contractor; by night, he’s trying to break into the speculative fiction market.