“My wrongs, perhaps, now urge me to pursue
Some desp’rate deed, by which the world shall view
How far revenge, and woman’s rage can rise
When weltring in her blood the harlot dies.”
Ovid, The Metamorphoses
The coterie approaches the Suburra for their regular evening rendezvous at the Green Amphora, only to find a most distressing scene. Outside the Vesuvius, a massive bonfire burns in the square, and the air is filled with strangely scented smoke. They see Castilla, one of the most popular of Cal’s girls, standing before the crowd, flinging item after item into the flames. Pots of white lead makeup, sticks of kohl, jars of scented oil, fine silk gowns. As she burns them, she chants out a list of names. The crowd hoots and cheers at the display—with the occasional man suddenly looking abashed, perhaps at hearing his name spoken.
In fact, all of the girls, save for Cal and Gallix, are gathered, dressed in rough sack-cloth, their hair cropped brutally short, their skin smeared with ashes. And yet, they are singing hymns of praise, their faces transfixed with joy.
Gaius orders some onlookers to fetch water and quench the fire, drawing on his authority as a centurion and, even more so, by asking if they are really so stupid as to wish the fire to spread and burn the city—again. At the fire’s edge, with the girls, stand a small, scruffy looking man in monk’s robes, and a tall, eerie woman, pale as a ghost, her short hair framing her face like a halo. She has an unearthly air about her, but does not appear to be of the Propinquii. Only one other member of the undead is in the crowd, a barbarian in traveling clothes, unknown to the coterie.
The monk, Ursulus, begin to preach. He tells of how he had been cloistered in a monastery in Thebes, and took it upon himself to wander for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert to test his faith. In that time he became lost, and fell into a ravine far from any road or settlement. His leg broken, he surrendered his will to God, and prayed while awaiting his inevitable death. But then, out of nowhere, a vision appeared to him, a saintly woman who healed his injuries and led him to safety. Her name is Thais, and together they have traveled far and wide, ministering to the sinful and the godless, and especially the kind of sinful woman Thais had been before finding God.
Ursulus asks if there is anyone in the crowd who would be healed, and a small boy is pushed forwards, limping badly. Thais lays her hands upon him and murmurs something, whereupon he leaps up and scampers off through the crowd. Others press in, but Ursulus informs them that God performs only one miracle a day through her, but that all can return tomorrow to hear a sermon and seek God’s favor. The coterie is highly suspicious of this showmanship and, while they can’t get though the crowd quickly enough to follow the boy, Tiberius sends Roundheadicus to shadow him and report back.
The group confronts the interlopers, Tiberius having to be restrained from savaging them there and then, as they’ve not only shuttered his source of income but bewitched his girls and endangered his neighborhood. Thais speaks only in cryptic, nonsensical phrases, which Gaius (by virtue, as it were, of his intense scholarship these days) recognizes as being entirely from the Christian scriptures. Thais seems to know or sense that the group are not human, but her words are so vague as to be inconclusive.
It seems that at least she and Ursulus believe (or claim to believe) that she is the same Thais referenced in the tale behind Gagliauda’s amulet—the prostitute walled up in a nunnery to rot in her own filth for years, who asked only to remain, and died two weeks after being forcibly freed from her cell. Is this “Saint of Whores” the same woman? If so, is she Kindred, a revenant, or some new supernatural being the group has never seen? Or is she some poor, deluded madwoman who’s being used by this street preacher? Gaius shows her the amulet, and gets only more scripture for his pains.
The situation is not improved by the fact that the girls clearly welcome these changes, and in fact are filtering back into the Vesuvius, but not allowing anyone to follow them. The group considers a brute force attack, but the Gangrel stranger presents a measured alternative. He tells them he’s new in town, having come to Rome to seek his fortune. He’s managed to convince a traveling companion to throw in with the girls, claiming to have been inspired to join their penance. She’s now inside the Vesuvius, and will get the lay of the land and, the following night, let him in. The group is welcome to join him. They ask him why he’s so interested and he tells them that he just came upon this scene and decided to seize the moment, that clearly something bizarre, even unprecedented of is happening here, and he wants to be part of it. After all, this is why he came to Rome—for new adventures. The group can tell there’s something not quite right with this foreigner, but his plan allows them to avoid a public bloodbath, so they agree to meet up the next night.
• • •
In the intervening hours, Crispus unexpectedly shows up in Rome to speak with Gaius. He reports that the Emperor Constantius is setting up a temporary headquarters in Mediolanum, and more interestingly, sending Julian to lead a campaign in Gaul. Julian, the only remaining survivor of the Slaughter of the Princes is now 25 and, while still a bookish sort who prefers philosophy to war, he’s also nominally the heir to the empire after Constantius. The Emperor has officially named him as Cesar, as a sign of his favor. There is some speculation this “favor” is intended to lead to Julian being killed in Gaul, far from the increasingly paranoid and fearful Emperor. Crispus sees potential in the lad, and proposes he accompany the army to Gaul, and help Julian become a warrior in deed as well as title. He is helped in this by the fact that Julian secretly rejects Christianity in favor of the traditional Roman gods, so an offer of counsel from a dead ancestor is not likely to alarm him overmuch.
Across town, Roundheadicus leads Tiberius to the home of the child who Thais supposedly healed. To his great surprise, he learns that the boy had been born with a withered leg, and had been resigned to life as a cripple. Now, he is whole. It seems from what the family has heard that the “saint” can perform one healing a day, and is said to have other strange powers as well. Tiberius was certain he would leave the scene with proof of fakery and lies. Now, he doesn’t know what to believe.
• • •
The next night, the group meets up with Vitericus, the barbarian Gangrel, and makes their way to the Vesuvius. As they approach, they see Ursulus and Thais being harangued by a clearly important (or at least self-important) church official. They note that the two travelers are clad in rags (Ursulus’s tattered robe is road-worn and filthy. Thais, while equally ragged, somehow seems to radiate cleanliness and purity.) The prelate, by comparison, is wearing immaculate robes and wears an ostentatious gold ring of office. The group hangs back, trying to eavesdrop. All they can really catch is something about witchcraft, and threats of violence from the prelate.
Gaius, as is his way, loses his patience and confronts the prelate, leaving the man with an irresistible compulsion to carouse, gamble, whore, and drink until he loses consciousness. After the prelate’s departure, he briefly confronts Ursulus and Thais, bringing out the amulet found on the body of Gagliauda, the monstrous Kindred prostitute who had corrupted Flavius Gaudens’ daughter. Left with only more questions, he watches as the duo slip away into the Suburra.
As promised, Vitericus’s associate, Camilla, lets the group in to the Vesuvius, and into a horrific scene. The fine furnishing and art have been destroyed or thrown out the windows, and the girls are engaging in mortification of the flesh of a much less pleasant sort than might have been seen a mere week before. Some kneel on the bare floors praying, grinding their knees into the wood until they bleed. Others have bound their wrists into a praying position, so tightly that the flesh is bruised and torn. They draw crosses in their foreheads with hot coals. And yet, all of them are singing, joyous, lost in rapture.
Asked what his plan was, Vitericus suggests they test the newly converted nuns’ faith by cutting one out from the herd and draining her to death in secret. In the morning, when a mysteriously exsanguinated body shows up, all sorts of interesting results might ensue. The girls might find deeper faith, or they might be burned as witches. Either way, what fun!
Tiberius tells the newcomer in no uncertain terms that this is unacceptable, and orders him to leave immediately. Vitericus shrugs, implying there will be other opportunities to play with mortals and their faith. The group lets him go, but with the uneasy sense that there’s something not at all good going on here.
Tiberius begins to bring the girls around using his supernatural powers, and finds that they are strangely more resistant than usual. Things are going less smoothly than expected, but the group is slowly gaining ground. Then, not only do Thais and Ursulus return, but so does Athanasius the prelate, along with a small force of Legionaries. Athanasius looks much the worse for wear, and Gaius realizes that it’s entirely possible that in the hours that have passed the man might have—as ordered—committed a night’s worth of debauchery, passed out in an alleyway somewhere, and thus rid himself of the compulsion, if not its unseemly aftereffects.
It transpires that Athanasius wants to have all of the women burnt as witches, and has obtained an Imperial writ. It seems that Constantius’s paranoia extends to witchcraft, and he takes a “better safe than sorry” approach to executions. There is much argument and debate and, in the end, Tiberius gains pardon for his girls by convincing the soldiers that the poor things were the victims of sorcery performed by these religious charlatans.
Thais, however, is not so lucky. She is dragged to the square where the bonfire has been re-lit. She does not scream in pain or cry for help, but Gaius, still puzzled by this mystery, halts the soldiers’ preparations to burn her alive. After a brief attempt to interact with her, he offers a merciful dispatch by opening her throat with his dagger. She dies with a beatific smile, quoting scripture to her last breath as her body topples into the flames. Her body is not consumed by the flames, and as everyone reacts to this strange event, Ursulus hurls himself into the fire, finding that he is not so incorruptible as Thais—though he is just as quickly put down by Gaius as he writhes and shrieks in the flames. Once the fire is extinguished, Thais’ body still appears to be oddly unburned. Nocturna attempts to gain some insight from laying her hands upon the inviolate flesh, but the remains crumble into fine white ash at the merest touch, then evaporate in a cloud of white light.
A stillness falls over the coterie, as well as the Roman soldiers, the now subdued and confused girls of the Vesuvius, and the usual nighttime street crowd, as everyone tries to make sense of what just happened. In this moment of calm, Vitericus strides purposefully up to the prelate. In a flash a bared claws, he rips the man’s throat out without hesitation. Gaius pursues him down a side street, until the barbarian sinks into the earth beneath the cobblestones. Gaius binds him with vitae but, after standing vigil for some time, reluctantly cedes this round to the infuriating stranger.
Somewhere in the night, a black cat hisses disapproval.