Normally, Gaius Lucius Sulla was not a superstitious man but he had a duty to protect his family. Still half asleep, he had risen at midnight to walk barefoot around the house to perform ceremonies that would pacify the Lemures. This was a night when the vengeful specters of the restless dead returned to the upper world to terrify the living. Those not afforded proper burial, funeral rites or affectionate cult by their relatives haunted any house at random, formless and malevolent.
“I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine.” He scattered a handful of black beans over his shoulder without looking around, repeated the incantation for as many times as the ritual demanded. “Be gone you specters of the house!”
On cue, the rest of the household clashed their bronze pots and shouted “Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!” nine times. He could see Lucia shouting along with the rest, too young to understand that they were not just making a loud noise to have fun. His little daughter banged on a polished bronze dish with a long handled spoon, standing side by side with one of the kitchen slave’s brood.
Gaius Lucius Sulla allowed his mind to wander for a brief moment. Ghosts were supposed to like beans, although why they needed to eat when they no longer had a solid body, mouth or stomach was debatable. How his Greek tutor had beaten him when he asked that instead of laboring over dull exercises.
On days when the villa basked in the summer heat and even the flies were too hot to buzz, the wax writing tablets began to melt. The old man seemed to have ice water instead of blood and continued the lesson. Twenty years later, the problem remained.
Lemuralia was still a time of dread and too many unanswered questions.
One last incantation and the thing would be done for another year.
“I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine. Be gone you specters of the house!”
As he washed his hands in ice cold spring water, all he wanted to do was go back to bed. He turned around, hairs on the back of his neck already beginning to rise, warned by the stricken look on his wife’s pale face.
Little Lucia held out her palm to show him what she held, as the spirits of the unquiet dead swarmed all around her for they had been invited in. Too long, they had hovered around the margins of a world that was no longer theirs; darker shadow-forms keeping company with citizens of Rome. Some had waited for many thousands of years, uncomfortable memories of a darker time when the Great Old Ones ruled alone.
She had picked up the offering and that gave them power. The strongest shade won the battle, a precious gateway back to the land of the living but it was not a ghost of his fathers or any departed ancestor named or unknown. Not even an opportunistic stranger who just happened to be passing through. It had never even been human.
Too late, Julia snatched her daughter in loving arms, as if that would be enough, but she was already lost to them; consumed by a thing of utter darkness that possessed a body too new to this world to resist.
© R.S. Payne
R. S. Pyne is a Welsh writer and science journalist. Credits include: Albedo One, Aurora Wolf, Bards & Sages Quarterly, Christmas is Dead Again, Crimson Highway, Fifth Di, Hungur, Lacuna – Journal of Historical Fiction, Macabre Cadaver, Neo-opsis, Orphan Leaf Review, Silver Blade, SMG Horror Magazine, Tainted Anthology of Terror and Supernatural and others.