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Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off: Theos Khthonios by Scott Oden

Theos Khthonios by Scott Oden

This is an excerpt provided by the author for the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off Competition (Lawyers in Hell (C) 2011 by Janet Morris)

Leonidas grasped an eight-foot long spear and thrust it aloft.

“Spartans!” he roared. All eyes turned toward him. “Lord Hades is our master, now! He has given us these dregs, these wretched Ataphoi, on which to whet our spears! They are not worthy of this honor, but Lord Hades’ will must be done! There is no Glory, here! There is no Glory in the killing of such miserable creatures! There is only Mercy! Come, my Spartans! Come, my ferocious Three Hundred! Show our enemy the Mercy of the Spear! All of this for you, Lord Hades and for Lakedaemon!” With little effort, he drove the blade of his spear through the slave’s body. Blood spattered the packed earth, hissing on naked rock. The omens were good.

“For Lord Hades! For Lakedaemon!” his men echoed. “And for Leonidas!”

“Advance!”

Pipers played a tune on their reed-flutes as the hoplites stepped off in unison, spears upright, their strides precise and unbroken. Polished greaves and shield-faces flashed in the infernal light. Three hundred throats chanted the paean, a hymn to Hades:

Theos Khthonios,

Pitiless in heart,

Dweller under the Earth

At stanza’s end, Leonidas bellowed a command: “Spears!” And with that the bristling hedge of iron dropped from vertical to horizontal, creating a threshing machine of slaughter.

Now fifty yards’ distant, the savage Ataphoi only increased their pace. They charged like a mindless mob, in knots and clusters that held no cohesion, moving as fast or as slow as their deformed limbs allowed. They did not spread out and try to envelop the Spartan line, but drove straight at their center, at the scarlet crest that marked Leonidas. Their archers drew and loosed with reckless abandon…and to no avail.

The heavy bronze armor of the Spartans shrugged off this barbed rain of arrows. The Three Hundred marched on, implacable.

Behind them came the battle squires and helots, joined by the folk of different nations allied against the Ataphoi. From their ranks came a barrage of javelins, arrows, and sling stones that scythed into the unarmored mass of the enemy.

Howls of rage turned to agony; blood spewed as riddled bodies flopped to the ground under the rain of Spartan missiles, where the heels of their fellow Ataphoi kicked and trampled them into the dust.

A dozen yards separated them, now. Leonidas saw a festering mass of creatures, the cast-offs and detritus of a thousand years of natural selection. The things barreling toward him could never have survived in the sunlit world of the living: they were denizens of nightmare, seething with jealousy and hate.

Ten yards. Eight. Six….

Leonidas braced his shield, its rim scraping that of Dienekes’ on his right. Aristandros was on his left. Knowing his brothers, his kinsmen, his friends stood in such close proximity filled Leonidas’ heart with joy. He sang the paean:

Theos Khthonios!

Five yards, now. Four….

He singled out his first target: a naked, spitting thing with a misshapen head, sword clutched like a stick of driftwood in its gnarled fist. No Glory, only Mercy. Leonidas lined up his spear with the wretch’s center of mass. A swift blow, through the spine…

Three yards. Two….

Seconds before impact, through the eye-slit of his Corinthian helmet, Leonidas watched the front ranks of Ataphoi convulse. Perhaps their dull brains felt the first tendrils of fear; perhaps the prospect of facing an unbroken wall of bronze suddenly daunted them. Whatever the reason, their steps faltered and their braying slacked off, replaced by a keening dirge of dread. But their close-packed ranks could not turn aside. Momentum drove them into the flesh-grinding teeth of the Spartan war machine.

They struck with the sound of a melon meeting an anvil, a wet crack that drowned out the screams and the song and echoed over the plateau of Caeadas. Leonidas’ spear licked out, taking his first victim high, in the throat. Blood gushed from the hideous wound as the thing toppled backward….

 Suddenly, Leonidas’ field of vision became a wall of writhing flesh, reeking of sulphur and feces and rich red gore. Sheer numbers pressed in upon him….

A sword bites low and deep, slipping between bronze and leather to skewer his hip. He stumbles. The enemy surges forward. A misshapen arm catches him off balance; a second sword shatters on the brow of his Corinthian helmet. “Theos Khthonios!” he bellows; faces loom over him—cruel-eyed Ataphoi with curled talons and blood-blasted fangs, lips peeled back in snarls of hate. They will pay dearly for this. Oh, yes! They will pay the butcher’s bill, a hecatomb of blood and flesh for every Spartan, Lord Hades! He falls to his knees, hears a deep voice whisper his name: “Leonidas.”

Time slows. He is at the Hot Gates, again. At hallowed Thermopylae. A tracery of clouds veil the face of the sun, creating bands of light and shadow across the stony face of Mount Kallidromos. He is not alone. A figure helps him arise. The Spartan sees a tall and perfectly formed being towering over him, his visage dark and brooding.

Lord Hades.

“Leonidas,” the Lord of the Underworld says, in a voice pitched to such sweet perfection that the dead king of Sparta must fight back tears. “You are mine, now, and you have served me well. Go, and serve me still: henceforth you are my champion, the Chosen of Hades! Remember your oath!”

Time’s flow resumes with a scream of rage.

Roaring, Leonidas surged upward. He flung creatures aside, bones snapping as his shield slammed into their faces, into their torsos. Though he bled from a wound in his hip, the dead king of Sparta was indomitable; his spear moved like a living thing, darting and biting. With each strike, another deformed shade lost its semblance of life. Blood slimed the stones, and steam rose from fresh pools of gore to wrap Leonidas in an infernal cloak.

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