Vain augur, thou hast falsely prophesy’d;
Already love his flaming brand has tost;
Looking on two fair eyes, my sight I lost,
Thus, warn’d in vain, with stalking pace he strode,
And stamp’d the margin of the briny flood
With heavy steps; and weary, sought agen
The cool retirement of his gloomy den.
—Ovid, the Metamorphoses
Having narrowly escaped into an empty insula after fighitng off an angry mob rioting in the streets, the coterie take a moment to compose themselves , then exit via the apartment’s back door and hasten to the temple of Remus for the rituals.
While all of the group have been to the temple for simple auguries, or to observe holiday rituals, it is only due to Nocturna’s presence that they are admitted tonight. The occasion is twofold: First, high-ranking members of the Senex often prefer to have their auguries performed in private, on the chance that some sensitive or damaging news might be delivered. In addition, the Sacrorum Rex uses these private rituals as a chance to test out promising novices and determine their skill at communicating with the gods. Comitor has spoken highly of Nocturna to the leaders of the Cult of Augurs, and her influence is strong, so Nocturna is being awarded this opportunity.
As the group approaches, they see Eupraxis at the temple’s door, flanked by two members of the Legio in full armour, clearly on duty. He welcomes them warmly and waves Nocturna inside to get ready. He notes that the group is the last to arrive and offers to usher them in. As he does so, he mentions quietly to Violia that her gift was greatly appreciated by the gods, and that all should go well for her. She is puzzled by this as, to the best of her knowledge, the group is there simply to support Nocturna, but shrugs it off as Eupraxis being manipulative as ever, perhaps trying to rattle her or to inspire another bribe.
The ritual is being held in a cella usually closed off from the main temple, a smaller room ringed with statues of the gods including, in a place of honor, an ancient stone figure, its features worn away by time. Eupraxis whispers that this is Remus, the first Kindred in Rome, adding that legend says he is buried beneath the statue or, even, that he has gone into a torpor so deep that he turned to stone. Looking up, Gaius notices the ceiling is painted like a night sky and, drawing on his long-ago tutoring in the sciences, realizes it depicts the sky as it would have appeared over 1,000 years ago, on the night when the mortal Remus died and was reborn as the first of the Propinquii.
Closer to the front of the cella is a stone altar; at the back can be seen a sort of podium, extended out over a tile pattern in the floor.
As the small group in the cella settle down, Violia makes eye contact with Tertia Julia Comitor and is acknowledged with a chilly nod.
A tall, imposing figure emerges from the shadows. This is the venerable Marcus Aurelius, the Sacrorum Rex and most exalted member of the Cult of Augurs. He is flanked by Flaviana Galla and an Auditor none of the group remembers seeing before. A small man in the long, hooded cloak of the Augurs, he appears pale and sickly, with skin that resembles an old tallow candle. Eupraxis whispers that this is Marcus Auditor, a most unusual creature. An unassuming man in mortal life, he somehow angered a Nosferatu who decided to sire him out of spite and condemn him to a life toiling underground with the Vermes. He spent 50 years digging beneath the city, never complaining. One day, the gods spoke to him and told him it was time to journey upwards and join the Augurs, which he did easily as the gods had prepared his pathway. He has since proved both talented and honest. But not, Eupraxis adds, unrealistically so when it comes to the material needs of the Cult and, of course, the gods it serves.
At the altar, Auditor sacrifices a fowl and spills his own vitae to begin the ritual. Given the simple query, “How fare Rome and the Necropolis, today and tomorrow and tomorrow,” he confirms the Sacrorum Rex’s prophecy made 14 years before, that the Camarilla’s reign will last another 1,000 years. However, he adds, it is becoming clearer that both above and below the cities will be sorely tested by dissidents and unbelievers, followers of the fish and the lance.
He then raises his pale gaze to meet Comitor’s. “There are indications of a more . . . personal . . . message. Would you have me continue, Domina?” On her assent, he relates a somewhat cryptic message culminating, “The goblet is so tempting, the prize so delicious, he who should be wiser notes not the poison draught as he drinks deep. He eats not his children, not yet, but the punishment may be the same.” Violia notes that Eupraxis, sly as a cat, has slipped away from her side and is whispering to Comitor, who looks intrigued.
That augury completed, Nocturna emerges from the shadows and ascends to the podium. One of the tiles beneath swings aside to allow vapors to ascend and envelop her,curling smoke-like to the vaulted ceiling. Newcomers to the temple reflexively startle at the fear of fire, but quickly realize that the vapors come from so deep within the earth that the heat poses no danger.
Nocturna begins an almost rote recitation of the Camarilla’s grand future, the grandeur of the Roman eagle . . . then stops suddenly, a terrifed expression on her face. She looks into the cloud of vapor, and clearly sees something that horrifies her, though none of the rest of the group can make out anything unusual. She cries out, “The eagle soars, but now grasps in its talons its own child. Wings beating. Rage and betrayal devour paternal love. Beware the honeyed call of your ancestors . . .” and at that she falls to the ground. The group are more embarrassed for her than shaken, Gaius rolling his eyes at the excitability of the young. Violia volunteers to help her return safely to her haven to sleep it off.
• • •
Violia is called to meet with Comitor, who tells her that Eupraxis has helped her to understand the Auditor’s vision. She asks Violia whether she is brave, to which Violia replies, “I am a woman of Rome.” Comitor laughs, and says that also answers other questions she’d thought to ask: Are you a political creature, and are you practiced at the art of deception?
She proposes a small charade to Violia. Comitor will pretend great dissatisfaction with her role in the statue debacle, forcing Violia to consider seeking patronage elsewhere. Violia is to then ingratiate herself with Corbullo and assist him in putting on a truly magnificent party, with entertainments tailored to his monstrous sensibilities. Once she has made herself invaluable to him, at least in his own covetous mind, she will be able to choose whether to actually throw her lot in with Corbullo, or to take the risk of spurning him to petition for Comitor’s favor. Violia asks if she can have a pledge of patronage before beginning this dangerous game. Comitor denies her, but does give her word not to undermine Violia in any way. It is to be a fair test, and at the end Violia can decide to whom she offers her loyalty. Making Corbullo successful will not be held against her but, rather, be a sign that she has truly committed to the game.
• • •
Gaius, feeling remiss that he’s been kept from visiting his family for some nights, sets out to see them, stopping only to quickly feed. As luck would have it, night-time fights are being held at the Flavian Ampitheater, and he is able to ingratiate himself with a group of gambling drunks and drink from one of them.
Sufficiently sated, he is making his way through the surface streets of Rome when, with no warning, a mortal leaps from an alleyway and thrusts a torch directly in his face. He instinctively leaps away, and manages to avoid frenzy, though he remains enraged. By the time he composes himself the mortal is long gone, but he sense another presence close by, the same he felt outside the fort on the road to Mediolanum. Gaius confronts the disheveled barbarian Gangrel angrily; the other meets his attack, staring him in the eyes and saying only, “Lanceatus.” After some heated conversation, it transpires that this is his sire, Albertus, who turned him on the battlefields of the north.
Albertus had been a member of a shadow legion composed of Propinquii who had once been Roman soldiers, whether by birth or allegiance. They fought undetected alongside the mortal legion—against both mortal and supernatural enemies. When the Gangrel group’s pilus primus met final death, the unded soldiers were seasoned enough to realize that none of them were suited for command. The logical solution was to find a mortal who was suited, and turn him. Albertus selected Gaius as the most promising, but found he could not bring himself to murder such an admirable soldier and devoted Roman, even if that murder brought with it the gift of eternal life. He vacillated until a barbarian ambush took the decision from him. Mortally wounded, Gaius breathed his last as dawn was about to break. Albertus turned him as the sun was moments from rising, and he guided the newborn Gangrel safely beneath the earth. That was to be his only proper act as a sire. When Albertus emerged from the battlefield’s blood-soaked earth the next night, his plans were shattered. Gaius had vanished.
Stalking that battlefield in an attempt to solve this mystery, Albertus encountered a much greater and more terrifying one. Dark entities, creatures he had no name for, seemed to be feeding from and even inhabiting the bodies of the dead. Here and there, the recently dead rose up, clearly fueled by some inhuman engine. As they surveyed the battlefield’s burning wreckage, he saw their dead eyes flash yellow in the reflected firelight. Albertus realized that this might be what happened to Gaius and, if so, Rome itself could be in danger. He continued following his quarry, this time out of fear, not admiration. He attempted to get the neonate’s attention by scratching the sign of the lance, to see whether this boidy remembered his identity as Lanceatus. However, Gaius and his group read this as a threat from the Lancea. Finally, Albertus decided to test whether Giaiu’s eyes flashed yellow in the light, and in the terrifying torchlight, determined they did not.
Gaius is initially infurtiated by this, but Albertus locks eyes with him, saying firmly, “You were dead. I gave you a way to keep serving Rome. Do you really desire to lounge in the fields of Elysium when your city and your family remain in danger?”. Gaius accepts this and, in an odd reversal of roles, offers to assist the newly arrived Albertus gain status in the Necropolis, and to introduce him to Bassianus.
• • •
Meanwhile, Tiberius is also drawn to the Amitheater, to feed and to glory in the memory of past victories. To his amusement, he witnesses a gladiator being killed by a giraffe, that animal intended as a humorous opening act before the man’s real fight, against a massive bear. Tiberius seizes the opportunity to vault into the ring and fight the bear in the dead man’s stead. After no small battle, he does indeed slay the beast. Leaving it to be skinned and the meat sacrificed to Hercules, he makes his way to the Vesuvius, where Gallix has an odd story she’s been waiting to tell him. She was walking home earlier that week and was approached by a very strange and nervous man asking about her “services.” Tiberius asks her to describe the man, and recognizes him as Spurius Pateus, the bartender from the Green Amphora. Gallix assures Tiberius she had no interest in whatever Spurius was proposing, but went along essentially out of curiosity and for a free drink. The conversation went in circles that she found increasingly confusing—he wanted something, but didn’t want to say what it was, seemed to be hoping she’d make an offer. Finally, she got frustrated and stood to leave. He got heated, replied, “Oh, so you’ll sell your services to the Legion but not to my master.” Insulted at being called a camp follower, she slapped him and stormed out. Tiberius questions Callipygia, concerned that this means Cuncator is trying to steal his girls, but gets no satisfactory answer. He determines to investigate further in the nights to come.
• • •
Later, Violia meets with Carbullo to help plan the party he’ll be holding in about a month. He tells her of his idea to make a wine press that crushes living babies for their vitae, apparently hoping to horrify her. Calmly, she points out some design flaws in his plan and offers ways to both improve it and make it even more horrifying. Asked if she has any ideas for a spectacle, she reminds him that Tiberius is aching for a fight with Victrix. Why not give him what he wants, she proposes, but make it a spectacle for the ages with the man waxed and perfumed, his hair plaited with horsehair into a multitude of braids. He’d be dressed in scraps of leather and, of course, tattooed to match the barbarian gladiatrix. Corbullo is thrilled with this idea, and swears her to secrecy.
• • •
At the night’s end, Gaius is summoned to meet with Bassianus. The centurion tells him he’s heard news that Cuncator might be in some sort of trouble. The owner of the Green Amphora is a low-level member of the Senex, nobody anyone really notices or cares about, he adds, but it is of course the Legion’s duty to protect all citizens in good standing. In addition, there’s a whisper campaign that seems to implicate Gaius’s friends in the matter. He says he’s sure it’s nothing, but the honor of the Legion demands an inquiry. Gaius assures him that he and his group will look into it right away, and also takes the opportunity to tell Bassiunis about Albertus, and his desire to serve the Legion. They agree that, if the Gangrel barbarian can prove himself to be what he says he is, there will be a place for him.