Nights of the Camarilla

320 A.D.: Meetings and Salutations
A stranger is encountered, favors are granted, and problems threatened

Now through the parting earth a figure rears
It’s body up, and limb by limb appears
By just degrees; ’till all the man arise,
And in his full proportion strikes the eyes.

At length he rais’d his head, and thus began
To vent his griefs, and tell the woods his pain.
“You trees,” says he, “and thou surrounding grove,
Who oft have seen both throes of death and love,
Tell me, if e’er within your shades did lye
One so tortur’d, so perplex’d as I?”

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses_

The coterie debates briefly whether to somehow “lose” the statue to avoid the no-doubt unfortunate consequences of bringing it back, but decide that this could have even worse results, particularly since Julia Sabina, who so far has not steered them wrong, advised they take the mission. And upsetting Corbullo seems like a bad idea.

As they travel home, a night spent in a fort along the road again yields the sign of the spear scratched into the dirt outside their protected sleeping place. The elderly soldier “guarding” their wagon is dozing, and when Gaius wakes and questions him, says he saw nothing. Tracking down the soldier from whom the old man took over the watch, Gaius learns only that a contingent of barbarian loyalists from the North had passed through, in transit to Rome from garrisons in southern Germania. While the sentry noticed nothing out of the ordinary, he points out that in the press and bustle, one man kneeling to adjust a sandal and quickly scratching out a symbol wouldn’t trigger any suspicion.

The next night, after a hard march to get home as quickly as possibler, the group decides to shelter at an inn listed on the tablet given them by Corbullo. Gaius is determined to find who has been tracking them, and leaving these mysterious, possibly threatening signs. He sets out to investigate and glimpses a tall barbarian who gives the sense of having a soldiers’ bearing. When confronted, the stranger sinks wordlessly into the earth. Unwilling to let this go and driven into an almost uncontrolled rage, Gaius spits blood on the ground, attempting to challenge his unseen stalker. Indeed, the challenge is apparently irresistible even from within the earth, and the barbarian bursts forth some distance hence. However, he is able to resist threats and entreaties (and accusations of cowardice) and, after a brief moment of connection where he seems to be willing Gaius to recognize him or give him some sign, he vanishes into woods, leaving only the promise, or perhaps threat, that they will meet again in Rome.

Gaius can’t shake the feeling that he has missed some important sign or clue, but dawn is fast approaching and he has no choice but to return to the temporary haven.

• • •

The group returns to Rome with no further event, and hand the statue off to Corbullo’s servant. He pays them well on Corbullo’s behalf, and asks that the group attend an audience with Corbullo so that he can express his thanks more fully. As they acquiesce, they notice Sabina’s favorite messenger hanging back in the shadows waiting his turn to speak with them. He does them the unexpected honor of revealing to them her private haven, and asks them to meet her there when the audience with Corbullo is over.

As would be expected, Corbullo is overjoyed that the statue has been delivered, and makes the offer of patronage to the group. Only Tiberius accepts, as might have been expected (Gaius already having Sabina’s patronage and Violia and Nocturna having set their sights on loftier targets). As a thank-you and a patronage gift, Carbullo grants Tiberius the Vesuvius and its surroundings as his hunting grounds. He also notes that there’s a little surprise gift waiting for him there. While Tiberius’s goal of a bout with Victrix is not actively granted, Corbullo hints that it may well be arranged in the not too distant future.

As the group turns to leave, he says, “Oh, just one more thing? A little favor for your patron?”. Tiberius is understandably wary, but the favor turns out to be the seemingly innocuous task of delivering a message to another of Corbullo’s patronage clients, Julius Cuncator, whose hunting grounds abut Tiberius’s new territory. The message is a small wax tablet, to be delivered to the Green Amphora, a drinking establishment Cuncator favors. Corbullo notes that if Cuncator isn’t present, it is acceptable to leave the tablet with the one trustworthy “employee” there, a ghoul who goes by the name Spurious Paetus.

• • •

The meeting with Sabina takes place in an outer room of her private quarters, a tastefully appointed chamber in a better part of the Necropolis, draped in silks and featuring simple furnishings and a modest shrine to Minerva. She greets them graciously and bids them tell her of their journey. When questioned, she admits that she had not known the exact nature of the item to be retrieved, and apologizes for not having inquired more deeply into what they might be getting into. In past, she tells them, such tests have merely been to see whether neonates would break protocols against feeding in safe havens, or embarrass themselves in some other way, tests she’d not worried about, knowing her charges to be of good character. It had not occurred to her that he would involve them in a scheme to embarrass Comitor. She apologizes for her part in this, and says she’ll do her best to ameliorate any affects to their social standing. She does advise Violia that it would be best to seek audience with Comitor as soon as possible, to do whatever damage control can be done. She assures Violia that Comitor knows Corbullo’s ways and won’t hold her personally responsible, though it may put a bit of a chill on their interactions for a while.

When told of what they learned about Eupraxis’s activities, she shakes her head in dismay, saying “Eupraxis enjoy tormenting mortals far too much, this doesn’t sound like it will end well.” Upon inquiry, she explains that in his mortal life Eupraxis was constantly tormented by Christians who for some unfathomable reason seem to hate pleasure of all kind, but particularly the perfectly normal pleasure that men find in each other. His revenge for the cruelty of their religion is to fool them into false beliefs and attempt to humiliate or even destroy them. Many years ago he convinced a cult that he was the second coming of Christ, and then ordered them to commit group suicide in order to gain salvation. At the time this was seen as a clever joke by Corbullo, and a just punishment by Flaviana, who also hates the Christians for her own reasonsm (and sired Eupraxis in admiration after seeing him fight back against Christians harassing him in the brothel district where he worked in his mortal life). However, the fact that he’s doing it again, and more secretively this time, is worrisome. It speaks to obsession more than showmanship, and obsessions often end badly.

She asks Gaius to stay after the others have left, to speak of her inquiries into his possible stalker. He fills her in on the strange encounters on the road. She in turn asks whether the barbarian name “Albertus” means anything to him? Of course, it’s a common name, but he can dredge up no deeper association, although again, as when he saw the barbarian in the woods, something tugs at his memory, making him feel he should remember more. She says the phrase “news from Lake Benacus” seems to have come up from her spies, and wonders whether it might mean anything to him. In addition, the same “Silbaric” is on spies’ lips as a barbarian to watch out for, but it’s not clear whether he has any association with this matter, although he is rumored to have dealings with the Lancea, and to haven somewhere on the very fringes of the Collegia. Perhaps worth investigating.

• • •

Violia, with no small trepidation, attends Comitor in her offices. Drusilla has clearly conjured up a reason to be there for this meeting, radiating malicious pleasure at Violia’s possible fall from grace. Comitor is measured in her displeasure, saying that she is of course disappointed, but understands that Corbullo bends many to his will without their knowledge of his intentions. “Still,” she goes on, “you can see why it might be difficult for me to make our association much closer at this time. I’ve not given up on you and your potential, but . . . I need time to think, to decide what course would be best. Perhaps it is time I consulted the gods to see what path would best serve.” Violia makes a gracious exit, noting that Drusilla is not quite as smug as she had been, which is hopefully a good sign for her future position.

As she exits the chambers, Eupraxis, approaches her, all charm and smiles as ever. He welcomes her back and, in the most gentle and politic of tones, reminds her of her pledge of support to the Cult. Now might be a good time, as he hears she’s come into a bit of coin for a job well done? He adds that he hopes to see her at her friend Nocturna’s upcoming ceremony at the Temple of Remus, and manages in subtle and heavily cloaked phrases to imply that the gods might well whisper into the ear of one of the Vaticinators at this ritual to favorable effect. Violia presses a few coins into his hand, without particularly high hopes for what she might be purchasing.

• • •

That same night Tiberius visits his new hunting grounds and haven, stopping off first to deliver Corbullo’s message. The Green Amphora is a mid-level drinking establishment—nothing fancy, but not a den of iniquity by any means. Located not far from the Flavian Ampitheater, it seems to be a place that middle-class citizens might mingle with those attending or even participating in the fights and spectacles. Cuncator is not present, but Spurius is working behind the bar. He seems to be a man in his mid 40s, hale and healthy to the initial glance, though a closer look betrays an odd texture and color of skin that to the practiced eye makes his ghouled nature clear. He takes the message somewhat obsequiously and promises to pass it along.

The Vesuvius’s madam, who goes by the working name Callipygia, is thrilled to have Tiberius as an official protector, as he has been a good customer and has a reputation with the girls for being generous, and inclined to help out if other patrons cause any trouble. She directs him to his “gift,” a barbarian girl he’s never seen before, who has been styled and even tattooed to look like Victrix’s twin—although thankfully a twin who has not spent years filled with hate and anger. Her name is Gallix, and they enjoy a dalliance in which he invests the vitae to perform acts of the flesh, and then drinks from her to revive himself, and begin the process of binding her to him. They agree to an arrangement in which he will support her in return for her exclusive attentions. He finishes by also binding Callipygia to himself as well.

• • •

The coterie meets up the next night to accompany Nocturna to her ceremony at the Temple of Remus. While she has performed a few small auguries under the guidance of lesser Vaticinators, this ceremony is designed to allow promising initiates, including herself, to be instructed and guided through more complex rituals and gain deeper knowledge of the Veneficia.

As they travel make their way through the streets of above-ground Rome, they are unexpectedly caught up in a street riot. As far as they can tell, the riot began with protests by lower classes angry that too many barbarians were being allowed to act “like they were proper Romans,” but, like any riot whether motivated by racism, religion, or defeat at the chariot races, it quickly becomes an excuse for the disaffected and drunk to vent their frustrations at will.

The group is cornered and, while not targeted directly for any reason, sustain a range of injuries as they attempt to battle their way to safety. At last, battered, bleeding, and disheveled they manage to force their way into a thankfully empty ground-level insula and slam the door. The problem of the riot is evaded, now they face only the challenge of making it to the Temple of Remus in time for the ceremonies.

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320 A.D.: A Little Errand
A walk to Mediolanum, perhaps with unseen company

“By a long painful journey faint, they chose!
Their weary limbs here secret to repose.
A hallow’d gloomy cave, with moss o’er-grown,
The temple join’d, of native pumice-stone,
Where antique images by priests were kept.
And wooden deities securely slept.
A heavier doom such black prophaneness draws,
Their taper figures turn to crooked paws.”
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

The coterie prepares to leave on their journey, each tending to business before they leave the following night.

Gaius visits his family’s home, to let Lucius know that he’ll be gone for a fortnight or so. The boy tells him that the as-yet unnamed hound has served him well, only once seeming likely to spring into any sort of protective action. The boy had once again tried some of the sword-fighting moves Gaius had taught him, pushing his advantage to the point that Decimus lost his composure, and began to fight back in earnest, like a foe rather than a tutor. The hound sensed the change in tone and bristled, ready to defend his master. At a word from Lucius, the dog subsided, his point made. Decimus had been scrupulously professional (if not outright terrified) ever since.

The boy brought up his manhood ceremony, to be held some months hence, and asked whether Gaius would be present. He also expressed concern that his father was not preparing him for manhood as he should, and Gaius gave his word that, should his brother-in-law not fulfill his duty, Gaius would take his place. He left the boy with the death mask he’d made of himself, telling him to present it to his mother. He holds somewhere in what used to be his heart the hope that placing the mask on the family’s altar will free his shade from this cursed half-life. And yet doing so would leave his nephew without his influence. He chooses not to think further on this just yet. It is, after all, in the hands of the gods.

• • •

Meanwhile, Violia slips into her family home, hoping to have a moment with her husband. However, he is not waiting in his usual spot but, instead, is asleep with his new wife. Uncharacteristically, Violia is consumed with jealousy, dark thoughts flickering through her mind. With a tangible effort, she slips away, leaving the couple unmolested, her mind still uneasy and troubled by the urge to win, though she’s not even sure what that would mean in this context. Probably somebody having their throat torn out.

• • •

Nocturna has offered to perform an augury for the trip, and Gaius approves, even flipping her a few coins to purchase the pigeon. Her ritual goes quite well for one performed by a novice, and she learns that not only will the journey likely be safe and the goal be achieved, but that “he who made this augury possible will be one step closer to an answer he seeks.” Gaius sneers at how conveniently positive that all sounds, but she is confident the gods speak true, if not always clearly.

• • •

Tiberius, meanwhile, visits his favorite brothel, the Vesuvius, the only place that brings him comfort in a troubled time. As has become his ritual, he spends the vitae necessary to bring on the Blush of Life, allowing him to flow blood through his veins and thus through his most vital of organs (as far as he’s concerned). Whichever of the girls he chooses, they might find him a bit cold and distant at times, but still warm and vigorous in all the right places, and unfailingly generous. His monstrous nature is never suspected—after all, a brothel is one place where only being seen after nightfall doesn’t seem odd at all.

• • •

The group sets off on its journey armed with a small purse of coins, a favorable augury, a tablet marked with safe havens, and an official seal from Corbullo bidding any who sees it to grant them safe passage. After an uneventful night’s journey, they approach a small temple to Hermes, marked as a safe place to stay. The mortal priest is clearly aware of what they are, and leads them to a back room of the temple that features stone altars that are at least something like beds. The room has no windows, and heavy bars on the door’s interior allow them to secure it.

When they awaken the next evening, Gaius has a strange sensation of having been visited, but can’t quite pinpoint what he’s sensing. Opening the door, he sees scratching in the dirt floor that looks like a long arrow. Perhaps a spear? He asks the priest who mentions “another of your kind,” and describes what sounds like a barbarian—if a Romanized one—in soldiers’ traveling clothes, but has no further information. The group worries that this means the Lancea are following them, though to what end they can hardly imagine. Perhaps it has something to do with Corbullo’s errand? Gaius, reflecting on their journey, comes to the rather peculiar conclusion that this is an immensely secure network of roads, and that the likelihood they’re being spied upon is virtually nil. He congratulates himself on his superior powers of observation.

They leave the temple and, mindful of the imprecation not to feed from anyone associated with the safe havens, the coterie find various unfortunate travelers to slake their thirsts upon, and continue on to Mediolanum.

• • •

After a few days’ travel, the group draws up to the walls of Mediolanum, uncomfortably close to dawn. The guards let them in, and they are shown in to meet with Julia Africana, the elderly, impeccably patrician Senex representative who administers the town (Gaius recognizes her as a sister of the great general Scipio Africanus, and renders the proper respect.)

Violia, as the highest born of the group, makes their introductions, and is well received. Julia Africana offers them lodging in an acceptable if slightly seedy part of town, and grants them local feeding grounds for the duration of their stay. The group hurries off to their temporary shelter before the sun arises.

• • •

Upon awakening, they go off to feed, relatively uneventfully. Violia makes an unexpected connection with a mortal from whom she feeds, a tall, blonde barbarian. Once fed, they make their way to the home of Quintus Marcus Scornutor, the merchant Corbullo has sent them to see about his “little trinket.”

Unexpectedly, Scornutor tries to turns them away, saying that “that part of my life is over now.” However, upon a successful application of Majesty he softens, agreeing to give them the item, provided they tell Corbullo he’s never dealing with him again. The warming effect of Majesty loosens his tongue as well as melting his resistance, and, as he leads them through his home and shop, he babbles to them, saying that he’s been seeking the right religion for his entire life, but nothing ever really spoke to him until now. That he’s seen the new messiah, in Rome, arisen so young and beautiful that he must be a messenger from God. Er, the gods, he corrects himself, nervously. Suspicious, Gaius asks, “Does he have curly hair and sapphire eyes, maybe late teens, early 20s?”. Ah, yes, Scornutor goes on. So you’ve seen him? Isn’t he lovely? And his wounds! The stigmata! So compelling!”

He also warns the coterie that monsters are afoot in Rome that, indeed, Corbullo might even be one of them. The coterie attempt to appear surprised and concerned.

Finally, they arrive at a corner of his shop’s basement, where he pulls off a covering to reveal a life-size bronze statue of a comically well-endowed satyr frolicking with a nymph, rendered in pornographic detail so explicit that even Tiberius—who has seen more whorehouse art than most—is impressed. Upon examination they realize, with a sinking feeling, that the nymph strongly resembles Comitor and that the satyr has Corbullo’s face—or the face of a much younger and less corpulent Corbullo, perhaps. Still, they’ve sworn to retrieve this atrocity, so they hire a cart, toss a blanket over it, and head back to Rome to face the music. Perhaps the pipes of Pan.

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320 A.D.: Blood and Circuses
A Night at the Races

“A mighty downfall steeps the evening stage,
And steady reins must curb the horses’ rage.
Titans themselves have feared to see me driven
Down headlong from the precipice of Heaven.
Now you, consider what impetuous force
Turns stars and planets to a different course.”
—Ovis, The Metamorphoses

Violia wakes in her haven, a tunnel leading between an obscure reach of the Necropolis and the cellar of her former home. She has a pleasant interaction with her husband, learning that he and Beatrix are doing well. He recommends she visit the girl more often, especially as at 10, she’s approaching an age where they should start negotiating for a good marriage in the next few years.

He lets her know that a ghoul servant had visited during the day asking her to attend Comitor upon awaking. As a member of the Senate he knows of Comitor’s reputation as a politically astute advisor, and is impressed that his “favorite ex wife” is moving in such exalted circles. The interaction ends with him imploring her to feed from him, as he’s becoming increasingly bound. She accedes and exits to the Necropolis.

• • •

For his part, Gaius awakes underground beneath the arena he’s been haunting and, sensing nothing currently shadowing him, emerges and makes his way to the Legio’s quarters in the Necropolis. Sabina’s slave is waiting for him, and asks him to attend Sabina’s cella at his earliest convenience. Similarly, when Tiberius awakes in the columbaria of the gladiators in the Collegia, another of Sabina’s slaves makes a similar request.

Gaius, still affected by the events of the prior night’s revels, goes out to feed and finds himself perhaps predictably less interested in rats than in human blood. He comes upon a caupona frequented by racing fans and, as an avid supporter of Green, amuses himself by feeding upon on a member of the Blues and leaving the mortal with the Bestial condition.

• • •

Meanwhile, Violia is somewhat disappointed to find that her appointment is with one of Comitor’s childer rather than the Domina herself, but is quickly assured that this is no reflection on her status with Comitor, merely that duty called, as it so often does for one of the foremost members of the Senex. He warmly invites Violia to the races the next night, and to view the spectacle from Comitor’s private box. She graciously accepts, and determines that Comitor supports Green (since Purple, her natural choice, no longer competes).

As she leaves the cella dedicated to Juno (in the form of Comitor, of course), she senses someone laying in wait, but manages to evade them by returning to the cella, engaging Comitor’s childe in further banter, and then exiting through a different door.

• • •

Sabina advises Tiberius that, while he failed to make a good impression at the party, he can make that up and impress Corbullo, and maybe even Victrix, by participating in the chariot races. She asks Gaius to attend as well, and to trust her that she’ll prevent Corbullo from tricking or humiliating him at the event. If he should be offered a task by Corbullo, she asks him to strongly consider accepting it. She also notes that she is working on the proper way to investigate who is following him, observing that the fact that the Camarilla has spies everywhere can be useful in many ways.

• • •

At the races, Tiberius is quick to volunteer as a charioteer, despite his total lack of experience, especially once he realizes that Victrix is competing. Meanwhile, Gaius realizes that one of the drivers for Blue is the same man he fed from, and left with the Bestial condition. He is able to use this to distract the driver once the race is underway, causing him to crash. Tiberius then manages an amazingly lucky throw of a dart to the other Blue horse’s head, blinding both eyes with a single shot.

After a thrilling race, Tiberius’s Red teammate wins, closely trailed by Victrix’s black chariot. Tiberius finishes dead last, but clearly a crowd favorite for the show he put on. One of Gaius’s fellow members of the Legio attempts to draw him into racial slurs against the Goths, but he rejoinders that he has fought against them, and fought alongside them, and they acquitted themselves bravely in both cases.

Violia is welcomed warmly into Comitor’s private viewing area by the Domina, but then taunted and tested by Drusilla. The two lash out at each other, resulting in a draw, which pleases neither.

After the races, Corbullo asks the group to run an errand for him “picking up a little trinket” in Mediolanum. None is particularly pleased with the errand, but all have been instructed that it’s wise to curry favor with the fat man, so they grudgingly agree.

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320 A. D." An Orgy at Caracalla's Baths

“Around, the Bacchae, and the satyrs throng;
While drunken followers lag slow along:
Still at thy near approach, applauses loud
Are heard, with fevered yellings of the crowd.
Timbrels, and boxen pipes, with mingled cries,
Swell up in sounds confus’d, and rend the skies.
Come, Bacchus, come propitious, all implore,
And act thy sacred orgies o’er and o’er.”
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

An evening hence, the coterie are to attend Comitor’s party—for pleasure or glory or duty, or some combination thereof.

On his way to meet up with Bassianus to do his guard shift, Gaius realizes he’s dangerously hungry, and should not attend the party without feeding. His vow to leave the citizens of Rome unmolested if at all possible means that he’s reduced to hunting rats, but they don’t do enough to slake his need. As he despairs, a massive dog approaches him. Using his ability to communicate with animals, Gaius lures him in and is about to drain him, when against the compulsion of hunger, inspiration strikes. He instead feeds the dog some of his essence, and commands it to follow him to the baths, and wait for him in the gardens. He hurries to meet Bassianus, not even glancing back to where the beast waits patiently, a look at reverent submission in its eyes.

Gaius is met with surprising encouragement from Bassianus, who told him he’d inquired about the neonate’s reputation, and been not unimpressed. Given a length of purple cloth to bind around his bicep showing his temporary allegiance to Comitor, Gaius sets himself to stands guard, trying to ignore his gnawing hunger, the low growling of the Beast.

• • •

Meanwhile the other three enter through the ceremonial gate, as directed by Sabina. Though all have attended the baths before, never for a party such as this. They are momentarily transfixed by the scene that unfolds before their eyes. Kindred dance and writhe dressed in fine silks, gold and jewels, or next to nothing. Acts of decadence and debauchery can be seen in every direction—two beautiful young Kindred loll in a fountain alternately drinking from each other. Clearly drugged mortals circulate in chains, offering their variously flavored blood as though it were delicate vintages. The baths run red with carelessly or artfully spilled vitae.

The crowd parts as a lithe figure strolls confidently towards them. At first it appears she’s adorned with rubies and diamonds, but they quickly realize that in fact she is completely naked, glistening with water droplets and beads of blood. Usually only slaves go completely unclad, but her bearing and the deference awarded her by others makes it clear she is a personage of great importance. Violia recognizes her as Domina Tertia Julia Comitor just as Comitor approaches her and holds out a graceful hand, clearly acknowledging Violia as the highest born of the group. The Davea makes a good impression and is assured that the earlier insult by Drusilla was “a silly mix-up.” Comitor turns to Tiberius next, only to be completely snubbed. Distracted by a glimpse of Victrix, he ignores the patrician entirely, in a completely boorish fashion.

Finally, to everyone’s surprise, the somewhat socially inept Nocturna makes an amazing first impression and is warmly welcome by Comitor. Noctura then goes off to attend to Cult leaders Flaviana and Eupraxis, who have just completed the Rites of the Mother required to bless this party and ensure it pleases the gods.

• • •

Meanwhile, Gaius’s guard shift is as uneventful as promised, until he realizes he’s being watched from across the room by a hideously corpulent yet oddly fey figure. Perfumed, oiled, painted with white lead and rouge and draped in the finest and most garish of silks, Macellarius Corbulo is unlike anything Gaius as ever seen. He wishes he could have left him unseen forever. Gaius turns his head, and when he turns back, a mere moment later, Corbullo is practically touching him, having apparently crossed the room with terrifying speed. Corbullo taunts him for his honor and reserve, driving him almost but not quite to the edge of frenzy.

Corbullo prances off, but not before saying, “I am going to make you have fun.” Shortly thereafter a mortal blood doll hired for the event from a local whorehouse taunts him, opening a vein and practically begging him to drink. His hunger tears at him but, through a massive act of will he resists until relieved of duty. The moment he has passed the purple band to the next guard, he grabs the girl and flings her into a nearby pool. Diving in after her, he enacts a lengthy and bloody scene in which he plays the part of ravening sea beast, to the delight of Corbullo and many others. Even Bassianus seems more amused than anything.

Meanwhile, Violia makes a modestly positive impression on Corbullo, Nocturna does her best to attend to Flaviana, and Tiberius fails to make any impression whatsoever on Victrix, but at least doesn’t further embarrass himself.

As the party draws to a close, Sabina draws Gaius aside and makes him a formal offer of patronage. He accepts, and asks of her that she assist him in determining who or what is shadowing him. She says she’ll do her best, and divulges to him that Corbullo is her sire, which he finds unnerving but, given his own unknown parentage, he is able to assure her that he can judge her on how she behaves, not where she comes from.

The night ends with Gaius paying a visit to his nephew and leaving the massive hound with him. He gives the dog the instruction, “Obey him,” and leaves, somewhat relieved that the boy is further protected, but no less concerned about what lies ahead.

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Imago Maior
Gaius makes preparations before leaving Rome

Darkness. Smoothness. Warmth.

The plaster’s heat increases slowly as it cures, but even here, in the cool dark of the cella of Minerva Medica, portals barred against other entrants, Gaius Marius Calidus has to struggle against the urge to tear the stuff from his face.

Even if he has no need for breath, he is still blind, deaf, cannot smell or taste, and the heat reminds him of fire—one of the few things that threatens to fill him with a nigh-unreasoning fear that he cannot ever seem to shake. Even small candle flames seem to tremble when he stands near one, as if wanting to reach out and touch him.

Perhaps the fires know we are dead, that our flesh belongs ultimately in the Underworld, that we should be cremated properly. Perhaps that is why Sol Invictus withers us so, too . . .

Without his senses, he can not hear or see or smell the presence of his fellow dead; he can only rely on that base instinct that tells him one of the propinqui are near—a tingling sensation in his scalp, the feeling of hairs at his nape standing on end, the sharpening of his teeth, a desire to flee from or face off against or pursue another of his . . . kindred.

Fortunately, none feel near tonight.

After an interminable time in smothering, hot darkness, another series of questing taps against the material smeared around his face results in a bony knocking sound instead of a squishy, clay-like give. With some careful effort, Gaius drags one thumbnail around the corona of his head, between flesh and plaster, and pulls the stuff free from his face. He gives the cast a cursory inspection—no major cracks or flaws this time—and sets it down, pouring water from a jar to rinse his hands and scrub the oil from his hair and eyebrows.

The centurion picks up the plaster mold again, tilting it this way and that. He raises one hand, traces the contours of his brow and cheekbones, and down to his jaw, repeats the action with the interior of the mold. Even in the dim light from a pair of tallow lamps in opposite corners of the cella, he can see his own face is perfectly molded in the plaster; cold, pale, immobile.

So very much like the thing itself.

He expected another to do this for him at some point—a family member, a fellow soldier, a priest—and the idea of casting his own mask almost seems amusing.

Gaius shakes his head to clear it, and turns to (carefully!) lift one of the lamps from its alcove, keeping it at arm’s length, before setting it below a tiny metal pot. As the heat licks up underneath the iron, the chunks of beeswax within begin to take up the heat, softening, slumping.

In front of the shrine to Minerva in the middle of the cella, his armor and other equipment waits, set before the statue of the goddess in her civic aspect, arrayed before her to show the seriousness of his task. The thought of leaving Rome, of heading on the march to Mediolanum, of leaving his family in uncertain care in his absence, of pursuing an errand for the monstrous Macellarius Corbulo—all of it makes him greatly uneasy, but he has no choice, having already decided to see this task through to its end.

That does not mean I cannot pay one more visit, though . . . and should I not return . . .

He bares his teeth in the dark at that thought. If he were not to come back, who should care for his nephew, his sister? Left to their own devices with an absent husband and father, and the few propinqui who know of their existence . . . who knows what the manes, hungry dead that they are, might do without him barring their path?

Gaius dips a stick into the pot, watching the molten wax drip from its end. Nodding to himself in satisfaction, he gingerly lifts the pot from its place over the lamp, and pours it slowly into the mold. Tilting the plaster to let the stuff coat its interior surfaces, before emptying the rest of the pot to fill it, he then sets it aside to cool and harden, then restores (carefully, again) the lamp to its niche.

He kneels before the shrine, gazing intently at the statue of Minerva, before bowing his head and offering a silent prayer, asking for her intercession, her guardianship, and that of the lares.

Guard them; guard their fortunes and lives. In return, I offer some of my own wealth . . .

Gaius carefully places a few of the silver siliquae, from his wager at the Circus Maximus, into the bowl at the feet of the goddess. Then, drawing his pugio, he makes one quick slash across his palm. The slow, sluggish flow of vitae is almost reluctant to leave him, before he squeezes his fist tightly, silently urging it to flow, to drip and spatter next to the coinage.

. . . and a bit of my own life in the bargain. ‘Do ut des.’

He remains a bit longer, waiting in the silence of the cella, before rising to gather his belongings, arming and armoring himself. Settling his helmet onto his head, he takes up the plaster mold, working with some care to remove the wax casting. The death mask of his own face, gazes up at him, molded in pale amber beeswax, features composed.

Calm. Stoic. Roman.

He gazes back at it for a long time, before wrapping both mask and mold in a bundle of cloth, and beginning his walk out of Necropolis.

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320 A.D.: Agonies and Ecstacies

A creature of a more exalted kind
Was wanting yet, and thus were we design’d:
Conscious of thought, of cold and noble breast,
For empire form’d, and fit to rule the rest.
—Ovid, the Metamorphoses

Acting on Julia Sabina’s advice, the coterie decides to attend rituals of both the mysterious (and rather distasteful to all) Sanctified Cult and those of the more mainstream and respectable Cult of Cybele. Sabina has let them know that the Cybeline rites may well be attended by leading citizens of the Necropolis whom it would benefit them to impress. The planned visit to the Sanctified “fish people” is more of a fact-finding mission. Gaius in particular is eager to investigate and find out something of use to the Senex, hopefully something damning.

Nocturna, as an aspirant to the Cybelines, is nervous about being seen anywhere near the Sanctified ceremony, and chooses to hang back as far as possible. It is known that Flaviana Galla, the leader of the Cybelines, is tolerant of most other religions, but actively reviles the Sanctifed. Gaius also chooses to remain as inconspicuous as possible, as the Legion is not far removed from the days of breaking up Sanctified meetings and bringing Final Death to its prophets when necessary. He’s pretty sure it might still be necessary, though of course he’s too dutiful a soldier to go against policy. But if he discovered something truly damning, policies are made to be changed.

The coterie makes their way down some deserted corridors in a shabby section of the Necropolis to a small, unadorned chamber. About a dozen Kindred kneel facing the altar, a stone slab pierced with a spear that points heavenward. Some figures seem to hang back in the shadows, observing. An old woman, one of those rare individuals embraced when already elderly, apparently, approaches the altar boldly, with a stance that’s at odds with her seemingly frail body. She begins dramatically, piercing her and on the blade, spilling a glittering drop of vitae. She delivers a brief sermon, claiming that Kindred are damned, but can serve God nonetheless by eschewing sin and spreading the Word. The sermon is kept short, a reminder of the days when illegal Sanctified ceremonies had to be quick and furtive.

Gaius casts his eye about the room and notices two individuals who stand out to his trained soldiers’ gaze. One is a sickly looking Nosferatu—somehow, despite the fact that Kindred do not ail, and do not sweat, he appears grayish, fevered. Under the hood of his almost aggressively plain and rough monkish robe, his eye sockets seem endlessly deep and black. This, Gaius realizes, is the Theban Thascius Hostilinus, called Pestilens for the way he plagues the Camarilla with his noxious beliefs. The other man . . . Gaius just can’t recall seeing him before, but something about him seems . . . important. He has the look of a barbarian, but a civilized one, as much as that’s ever possible. Who by all the gods is this character?

As the ceremony ends, the Missionary approaches the coterie and introduces herself as Marciana Longina Rhetrix. She encourages the coterie to attend Sanctifed ceremonies any time they like, in this chamber every Sabbath, and offers to bless anyone who wishes.

Violea essentially rolls her eyes internally and then, externally gracious as ever, offers herself up. While Rhetrix intones a brief prayer over her, Nocturna is able to use her occult skills to determine that the prayer is properly constructed, along the lines of an appeal to Janus, and may well have some occult effect. Gaius hopes that this is proof of untoward behaviour or even Theban sorcery, a capital offense, but Noctura is unable to discern any deleterious effect. Gaius senses Hostilens hovering close, perhaps eavesdropping, though the creature’s powerful command of Obfuscate makes it difficult to get a handle on him.

The group extricates itself as politely as possible, and hurry off to their various pursuits, agreeing to meet the next night, which happens to be the New Moon and hence one of the Cult of Cybele’s public ceremonies.

• • •

The Cybeline rite is held is a much more prestigious portion of the Necropolis, unusually close to the surface. The reason for this becomes clear as the coterie enter and note that mortals are mingling freely with Kindred in a large area lit by braziers that seem unnecessarily close, almost as though intentionally flirting with frenzy.

As a thrumming chant fills the room, mortals dressed in bright silks and carrying axes begin to weave in patterns, accelerating into a hypnotic dance. One slashes his own arm, drawing blood, and the dance intensifies. In a blaze of waist-length fire-red hair and whirling green silks, a stunningly handsome woman emerges from the shadows to join the dance, her lithe torso and corded muscles making the wielding of her massive axe a seeming extension of her form. This is Flaviana Galla, leader of the Cult as fervent believer in the spiritual power of self-mutilation. Her presence inspires the participants, mortal and Kindred alike, to increased acts of bloodshed.

Nocturna has joined the dance, as is her position, but the rest of the coterie, while feeling the dance’s power, decide to refrain from participation. Instead they circulate amongst the crowd, observing.

Violea chats with the beautiful and cynical Eupraxis, in a heavily coded conversation that ends with him obliquely promising a favorable augury in response for financial or other support of the Cult.

The evening ends uneventfully, except for those male mortals who have been moved by the Call to the Goddess to self-castrate. They are attended to by the priestesses, with supernatural medical care and great praise. Eupraxis quips that it’s a lot easier for Kindred to make this sacrifice, as they can always regenerate anything they end up missing too much. Though he implies that some choose not to, through an impressive act of will and devotion.

• • •

The coterie check in with Sabina before the party, and Gaius informs her of his disturbing observations at the Sanctified gathering. She agrees that this bears watching but that, for better or worse, the cult has not yet done anything that warrants official censure. She ruefully recalls having testified on behalf of Pestilens in front of the Senex once, hoping to help him see the error of his ways; she now realizes that he had no interest in reforming, and was merely taking advantage of her sense of civitas to avoid a judgment of Final Death. One of many that have been leveled against him.

Talk turns to plans for the party. Gaius has his duties to the Legion, but the other three are invited to enter with her through the Grand Entrance (a massive marble door that connects the Baths and the Necropolis, expertly disguised as a floorstone most of the time. She encourages them all to circulate widely and make friends, implying strongly that this will be an important opportunity for all. The group scatter to make their preparations, planning to meet up shortly. Sabina lets Violea know that her party-planning skills will be valuable to future events but that for this party, given that Drusilla’s attempt to press her into humiliating service has failed, her best strategy to demostrate her grace and social skills, and be ready to assist in greater capacity when called on.

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Custode ad Noctem
Pulvis et Umbra

Gaius steps backward into the shadows beyond the lamplight in his nephew’s room, watching the boy—almost a young man, now—befriending his new companion, before drifting back into sleep. The hound remains awake and alert for awhile longer, eyes gazing keenly into the dark, then settles its head on its paws. The molossus will be a friend and a guardian to Lucius, protecting him in times that his uncle is not close. And since the great hound now has a part of Gaius’ own vitae within him, his loyalty will be all the greater.

The propinquo spares a glance at the web of his thumb where earlier, he bit down, spilling his own cold blood and fed part of his own life (such as it is) to sustain the animal, and bind it to him. No marks from his own teeth mar the flesh; once again, the skin is cool and pale as marble. Only the scars from wounds in his mortal life are present.

I am dead, yet I move. This is not mortal flesh, though it bears the history of a life.

He slips through the house, pausing by the shrine and looking over the old icons and masks of his forebears on the shelf next to the statues of the household spirits.

And yet, my image is not here, either. Perhaps, in this state, I am halted between Terra and Tartarus.

The idea of finding his way to Elysium—or even to Asphodel—has never seemed so difficult. The more he works to protect his nephew, and secure his family’s future, the more he becomes entangled with others of the restless dead, the propinqui, and every step he takes, hoping to bring him closer to a good afterlife, seems to entangle him further into evil deeds.

Perhaps I should have kept a golden solidus under my tongue when I fought in Germania. At the very least, a silver siliqua.

Would Charon have allowed him to pay his own way?

Gaius turns from the lararium, wandering through the quiet house and pausing before his sister’s bedchambers. In her room, the lamplight has guttered out; only starlight and a sliver of the moon lighten the darkness, yet he still sees with preternaturally keen eyes the sleeping form of his elder sibling.

Fausta was a year older than him when they both lived. She is older still now; his age has halted ever since Germany, while she has continued to grow and mature. Nearly thirty years of age, and still beautiful, her features are calm and composed in her sleep, if slightly troubled.

He takes another step into the room, moving to examine her more closely. Her husband, Gnaeus Cuspius Lanatus (Gaius refuses to truly consider him Gnaeus Marius) is either away on his business, or asleep in his own chamber—either does not matter for now.

What troubles you, my sister?

As paterfamilias, Gaius the Elder consented to the marriage between Fausta and this other man, even if the proposal Gnaeus Lanatus put forth was unconventional. His father was able to retire to a small villa in the countryside with his mother, Marcia, and take care of grandfather Titus in his dotage. Fausta, Gnaeus, and Lucius now had the house.

It should have been mine.

The thought crosses Gaius’ mind with more regret than rancor. He does not envy his father’s decision, or his sister’s inheritance, but it is not the way things should have gone. He should have come back from the dark Germanic woods covered in glory, inherited his family’s holdings, and taken care of his sister as the man of the family, or seen her properly settled in her own domus, even if it were with Gnaeus.

He returns his attention to his sister as she makes a soft sound, moves a little in her sleep, face buried deeply in her pillow and blankets drawn up close about her. He takes another step closer, reaching to tug up another blanket to cover her.

. . . Blood blooming in the water of the calidarium like ink spilled from a pot, the whore thrashing in the water in throes of ecstasy and agony as his teeth gnash like the heads of the Hydra, the taste of vitae in his mouth, suffusing his being, feeding yet never fully sating the part of him that always hungers and hates . . .

Gaius pauses, backs away once more. He arises from the underworld every night, and yet, despite his nephew’s pleas, he has not yet shown himself his sister. Given tonight’s events at Caracalla, it is not perhaps a good idea. Yet perhaps he should, if only to give her hope, and reassure her that her son is not dreaming or mad. Perhaps a sign, a clue . . .

Why did you do this to me?

Gaius tilts his head, listening to the near-silent night winds soughing through the windows high up on the walls. The spirits of the venti give no clear answer, and as yet, he has not found the one who made him.

But I will find you. And I will have . . . questions.

View
A Boy and His Dog

Seated on the portico of the gladiatorial school’s yard, Lucius watches avidly as the lanista and his second, Decimus, put the arena warriors through their traces.

The motley assembly is made mostly of slaves: Gauls, Picts, Vandals, and other stranger people besides. Still, there is no shortage of Romans and a few Greeks amid them. But all of them have a few things in common: They are all incredibly well-made, skin of all shades glistening under sweat and oils, bodies protected in a mishmash of armors, shields, and weapons.

To his side, the big molossus that his uncle brought to him growls softly as one of the gladiators moves a little too close in his sparring with his partner, but subsides as Lucius pats the hound, combing fingers through his thick ruff.

“Easy, boy, easy,” Lucius says, and almost on cue the hound relaxes again, hackles softening. It lowers its head to its paws with a low chuffing sound, watching the fighters in the yard, and their instructors, with a calm, but wary gaze.

“Boy!” Decimus calls to him when there is a lull in the practice. “Bring water!”

Lucius springs to his feet, nodding to the old veteran and turning to pick up an amphora full of water, cold from its time in the cellar. As he makes his way through the lines, each of the gladiators give him their own appraising look. Some scoff, some bare blackened and broken teeth, some simply nod politely, others ignore him, even when he proffers the leather cup and pours water for each to drink.

He casts a glance across the yard, to where Decimus—his head wrapped in a woolen cap still, days after their spar—is talking in low tones with the school’s lanista, a freedman Goth by the name of Aedric. Decimus glances back at Lucius, gives him a calm, accepting nod. His call to bring water, even prefaced with ‘boy’, was nowhere near as condescending as it would have been in the past.

You fought well and with honor, and you outmaneuvered him, the shade of Gaius Calidus had said, giving him an appreciative bow of his head and the ghost of a smile. You did not mean to go so far, so you may make amends, and doing so will further show you are to be an honorable man.

Lucius’ heart swells with pride, even as he wonders about his apparition of an uncle. Will he rise from the underworld to visit his mother? Father was nonplussed but less concerned about the appearance of the molossus in the home than was his mother. A hound sent to him by someone from the underworld? To his mother, he was either making up stories after taking in a stray, or . . . the alternative seemed so worrisome to her, but she would not say how or why.

With the hound padding along just behind him, Lucius approaches Decimus and Aedric, and pours a cup of water for each of them in turn. The lanista and his second take the water with murmured thanks, still watching him and his new companion just slightly wary.

“Big dog.” Aedric’s Latin is heavily accented, clipped, but still clear enough to understand. “Where from?”

Lucius rests a hand on the molossus’ collar, patting his shoulders, and the great canine settles on his haunches obediently, watching the two trainers with unusually keen intelligence.

“My uncle,” Lucius tells him, looking up and up at the tall, swarthy, long-haired man, his skin bedecked in whorls and lines of black ink. He almost resembles the savages out of his uncle’s tales of the north, but certainly no mindless bloodthirsty barbarian.

Aedric gives a “hmph,” as he swallows the water, hands back the cup. “Decimus says, your uncle in underworld. How did he bring you dog?”

Lucius puzzles that over for a moment, then shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask him. He said it was a gift.”

Decimus and Aedric nod thoughtfully; the Goth shrugs, while Decimus gives the hound an appreciative glance, then one more speculative at Lucius.

“Well, have you a name for this big beast yet, b—er, Marius?” Decimus is, apparently, even more careful to watch his words this close to the great ruffed hound.

Lucius glances over at his companion, tilting his head thoughtfully. Though its fur is dusty and scruffy, with a few patches of mange (all of which are departing rapidly with the care he has lavished on the dog), the animal is nearly the size of a young pony. It acts with an almost human speed of wit. And ever since the night his uncle Gaius brought the molossus to his bedchambers, he has sensed . . . something about it, almost the way he can tell when his uncle is near.

And, strangely, now that he thinks of it, that same feeling has passed through him at other random times, when out on the streets at evening, escorted by the slaves in his house after visiting the local shrine to Minerva.

What does it mean . . .

“No,” he begins, looking back at the hound, who regards him patiently, awaiting his commands. He reaches out, scritches under the dog’s powerful jaws, and is rewarded by a few friendly laps to his hand by the dog’s great tongue.

Hercules? He’s wondered. Hm. Perhaps. The dog is quite a heroic looking creature.

Fidelis? The animal does seem incredibly faithful, and listens to almost anything he asks of it.

. . . Cerberus? He was, after all, brought to Lucius’ bedside by his uncle, who now resides in the underworld, and the dog is meant to protect him.

It’s not an easy choice.

“But I’ll think of something, soon, I hope.” He gives Decimus a hesitant smile, eyes flicking up to the woolen bandages over his scalp.

Decimus raises a hand to the bandages, gives Lucius a cursory nod, then returns to following the lanista around the yard.

Lucius watches him go, then pats his thigh and nods to the molossus.

“Come, big hound,” he calls to it in a calm, friendly tone. The dog watches the departing pair of teachers, and the gladiators as they line up, before deciding it is safe to turn away from them, and together, the two return to the shade of the portico.

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Ira Furor Brevis Est
Lucius wishes to prove himself, but at what cost?

Lucius Marius Valens shields his eyes as he peers up at the sun, shining brightly from a cloudless sky above. In the brilliant daylight, it seems almost like a dream, his uncle’s visit—and yet this feeling that has remained with him since last night, this strange temperament, has not departed.

“I’ll tell you of my first kill when I was a soldier in the north,” the shade of his uncle begins. "A tribe of the local savages ambushed our centuria on patrol—as was often their way . . ."

In the yard behind the family house, the rack of wooden swords is set up, along with a pair of shields, and Decimus Curius is already there, waiting, absently picking his teeth with one yellowed thumbnail. The old soldier glances up at the boy, gives him a cursory nod, spits in the dust and brushes his hands off.

“. . . I found myself face-to-face with this man, swarthy, stinking, in greasy furs and leathers, brandishing a great wicked club in two dirty fists . . .”

“Alright, boy,” Decimus says with a bored sigh as he takes up one of the shields, selecting a wooden sword from the middle of the rack. “Are you ready?”

Lucius’ hands clench into fists as he sizes up the older man. He’s lost each sparring match to Decimus in spite of the hours of practice, and the veteran has become increasingly scornful of his young charge’s failure. The itchy, impatient, angry feeling that has been with him since last night uncoils further at his condescending tone. The boy has barely been able to sleep; his dreams have been full of scenes of violence and blood. He’s barely been able to concentrate at his tutor’s lessons, his daydreams filled with his uncle’s words and stories.

“He was bigger than me, stronger,” Gaius continues, voice soft in the night, but intent. “I took some hard bruises, nearly broke my arm when I stove off his blows with the shield. But he was slower, left himself open after a big swing, and he couldn’t heft that club of his once I took his arm at the elbow.”

Lucius strides across the yard, adjusting his leather sparring tunic into place. His eyes narrow in belligerence just as much as they do to guard against the bright sunlight. He can feel his heart beginning to pound, as it has each time he has sparred before. This time, it feels different—not out of trepidation, but something else.

“I would not have won that fight, nor others before or after, had I not pushed myself, in body and spirit. I trained hard. I took wounds and scars.” The man raises one arm, cloak falling to one side to show the various marks in his pale flesh. “Pain was my teacher; anger my sword.”

Decimus props the shield at his side, rests one hand on its top edge, taps the flat of his wooden sword against his thigh impatiently as Lucius takes up his own shield and turns to eye the rack of wooden weapons.

Gaius Calidus leans forward in the chair at the foot of the bed. In the dimness, his form reflects lamplight like alabaster. "At your next lesson, take up the heaviest rudis you can find. The weight will challenge you, but you will strike harder and you will grow stronger, faster."

Lucius reaches up and lifts the largest of the wooden swords from the rack, and moves into a ready stance. Decimus’ raises an eyebrow and gives a soft snort, then shrugs and raises his own shield, swatting the flat of his own sword against it. Lucius grits his teeth, returns the gesture, then holds the sword up, pointed forward. His muscles tremble just a little with the effort, but he clutches it tightly, gaze fixed on his opponent.

“You must commit yourself when you fight.” His uncle’s eyes, the irises deep blue, bore into his, unblinking, the flickering lamplight reflecting in the black mirrors of his pupils. “Even in training, think of every regimen as a battle to be won.”

The pair circle each other warily over their shields, sandals raising little clouds of dust with each careful, scuffing footstep.

“What’re you waiting for, boy?” Decimus says tauntingly.

Lucius blood boils over and fire rushes through his limbs. With a snarl, he lunges forward, the sword initially slow to add its weight to the momentum, but catching up. Decimus sidesteps, takes the sword on the edge of his shield and bats it aside. Lucius stumbles at the parry and turns, his guard down, and Decimus delivers a stinging wallop to the boy’s hamstrings.

Lucius lets out a yelp at the sudden sharp pain, but does not yield. He turns back to his opponent, squaring up to face him, forcing himself to stand to even as his rear and thighs burn and throb.

“Go for the joints—wrists, knees, elbows.” As his uncle speaks, his eyes widen, pupils infinitely deep and dark, and as Lucius gazes into them, entranced by his words, he can sense something predatory and chthonic in their darkness.

Decimus and Lucius trade careful jabs at each other, then the older man tries for another strike. The boy catches the sword full on his own shield and lets it scrape by on its surface—then drops it to thud into the dust. Free of its weight, he moves just a little faster, enough to slip past Decimus’ guard.

With a yell, Lucius puts everything he can into the swing, and his instructor, already caught off-balance by the boy’s tactic, cannot parry in time. The rudis collides with the leather bracer on his wrist with a meaty thwack. Biting pain jolts up Decimus’ arm and hand, his fingers spasm open, and his own sword falls to the ground.

As Gaius speaks, his eyes remain fixed on his nephew’s, and at his exhortation, something merciless begins to take root in the boy. “Deny your enemy the ability to fight. Take every weapon they have from them.”

Decimus growls, and shakes his stinging arm and hand, a welt already beginning to form from the blow. He nods grimly at his student, and his mouth twists to one side in a truculent expression.

“Clever move, boy,” Decimus scoffs, “But I’m not disarmed or down yet!”

The older man takes a quick step forward, putting his weight into the move, and then swings out with his shield to slam into his young opponent in a stunning blow—but Lucius, smaller, faster, ducks and rolls under the attack. With another furious cry, he stabs upward, ramming the point of the wooden sword into Decimus’ arm just above the elbow. The blow bruises muscle and nerves, and his arm goes numb and limp, the heavy shield’s weight dragging it down.

Gaius Calidus raises one hand, eyes still fixed on his young nephew. “I took that barbarian’s limbs and weapon from him—” he swings his hand in a sideways chopping gesture. “—and then I took his head.”

Lucius’ eyes and mouth are both wide, rapt with attention at his uncle’s story, and while he is comfortably seated in his bed, he can almost imagine being in those cold woods in Germania, fighting off this barbarian himself.

The boy’s heart pounds, his heartbeat thudding in his ears like war drums, and his muscles burn with the ruthless fury that has filled his dreams, his morning, and this duel. He sidesteps Decimus and brings the rudis around in another hard swing, repaying the man’s first blow to his hamstrings in kind.

Decimus stumbles at the pain, goes to hands and knees, and scrambles for his own wooden sword. Lucius follows after, clouting the back of the man’s head, and even through the leather cap he wears, the blow sends a white lightning-bolt flash across his vision. Decimus rolls onto his back, weakly pulling his bruised shield-arm up to try to guard himself.

“Do as I did. Commit yourself, use every advantage, fight without mercy—for your enemy surely will do so as well,” Gaius tells him. “Do as I did, and you’ll deliver a mortal blow to them that much sooner.”

Lucius stands over his opponent, rudis in hand, silhouetted in the afternoon sunlight, breathing hard through clenched teeth with the exertion of the fight. He lowers his sword-arm, the tip of the heavy wooden sword pointed at his opponent, and as he gazes down at him, the fury dissipates from him. His pulse begins to slow and reason returns to his senses. Decimus Curius is no Gothic barbarian out for his blood, just a belligerent old veteran gone to seed.

“Fight hard and well,” the shade of his uncle urges him, as he draws away from the lamplight and into the darkness. “Do honor for your family’s name, my nephew, and you will make me proud.”

Lucius Marius Valens looks down at the man in the dust before him, squinting back, wary, dazed. The boy lets his arm drop, rudis hanging from his hand in a loose-fingered grip, and he walks toward the shadows of the portico.

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320 AD: A Meeting with Sabina

Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing:
Old Gods, from whom these miracles did spring,
Inspire my numbers with celestial heat;
’Till I my long laborious work compleat
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

It is the year 320, and in the Necropolis beneath Rome, four rather different neonates are beginning a night that will not go as any of them had imagined.

In a cubiculum not far from the prestigious Camarilla, Cincinnata Lucretia Alba, called Violeta, has been summoned to meet with the excruciatingly highborn Drusilla Gallia Messalina, regarding plans for a forthcoming party to be held at the Caracalla Baths by Rome’s leading socialite, Tertia Julia Comitor. In truth, Violeta is well-suited to assisting with such a party, as her high standing in life and her natural social skills make her an ideal hostess. However, it quickly becomes clear that Drusilla’s only interest is in humiliating a perceived rival. Vicious and self-centered even for a member of the Kindred, she is also of high enough status that Violeta has little choice but to swallow her rage and play along.

As Violeta gathers her wits (and contemplates revenge) after the brief but deeply unpleasant meeting, a slave approaches her, bearing the mark of Julia Sabina, a ranking member of the Senex. He relays his mistress’s request for a meeting later that evening, and receives a grudging assent.

• • •

Meanwhile, in the chambers of the Cult of Augurs, a recent returnee from the provinces, Livia Julia Nocturna, eagerly awaits an audience with Eupraxis, a devastatingly charming devotee whom she hopes can help her advance in the ranks of the Cult. Instead, she receives vague words of encouragement, and the dismaying sense that it could be years, even decades, before the role of junior priestess and the deeper mysteries of the Veneficia are within her reach.

Like the petulant teenager she resembles, she is sulking outside the sanctuary when Sabina’s slave approaches and requests her presence at a brief yet potentially rewarding meeting.

• • •

Far from all this, down one of the Necropolis’s dark tunnels, Tiberius Taurus is preparing for his evening’s constitutional. He follows a well-worn path to a concealed trap door, and exits into a stableyard aboveground, not far from the Coliseum where gladiatorial fights are held. Tonight, however, his destination is less prestigious—a small fighting arena where gladiators and others test their skills against specially selected slaves. As he approaches, he notices an odd sight—ravens, circling in the night air. He shrugs it off—he’s seen stranger things after all.

He is met by the ghoul who runs the facility—met with apologies and fear. It seems that all of the slaves purchased for the evening have been demolished within the first hour after sunrise, leaving only a small child and a sick old man who had been sent in error. His anger at this turn of events is quickly washed aside by admiration and lust, when he realizes that the entire contingent of slaves was dispatched single-handedly by Victrix, a barbarian warrior. He attempts to converse with her after her bout, but is brusquely brushed aside.
As he ponders his next move, Sabina’s slave approaches him and in turn obtains his commitment to a meeting, after assuring him that it would not be a lengthy, boring Senex debate.

• • •

In the Legio Mortuum’s barracks, Gaius Marius Calidus Lanceatus is returning from a relatively uneventful First Watch. While his fellow soldiers play at dice or plan less savory ways to unwind, his mind is occupied by plans to visit his mortal nephew, and concerns about the young man’s rearing and education. So occupied, in fact, that he makes the potentially grave error of jostling Centurian Helvidius Bassianus, called War-Crow, one of the most respected and feared members of the Legion. Initially offended, Bassianus is eventually impressed with Gaius’s composure and his patriotism, and recruits him to assist in keeping the peace at Comitor’s upcoming party.

Gathering himself together to visit the mortal world above, Gaius notices Sabina’s slave hovering nervously some distance from the entrance to the Legion’s common room. He leaves the room to speak with the slave and, while highly suspicious of Sabina’s intentions, and largely convinced this is some kind of trap, he allows himself to be convinced to meet once he is reminded of Sabina’s longstanding service to Rome and to the Senex.

• • •

In the hours until the meeting with Sabina, each of the four attends to personal matters. Nocturna returns to the Cult’s chambers to feed, while Violeta takes her sustenance at the Baths. Tiberius visits a brothel where the management is not only happy to provide him with a willing morsel, but asks if he would recommend the establishment to his compatriots in the ring.

Alone among the not-yet-formed group, Gaius visits the mortal world not for food but for stranger and harder to categorize reasons. As has become his wont, he slips into the bedchamber of his nephew, Lucius Marius Valens, waking him from slumber. He enquires as to Lucius’s studies and, while pleased to hear that he is excelling in Greek, is concerned that he is not equally proficient at sword-fighting, and offers him some suggestions for besting his tutor.

• • •

At the appointed hour, the four neonates meet outside the cubiculum that Sabina’s slave specified, and are welcomed into her presence.

She informs them that a few members of the Senex have become concerned that the Camarilla is becoming too rigid and hidebound. That Remus and Senex’s original idea to embrace only the “right sort of person” has led to a lack of fresh ideas and vitality, which could harm Kindred society in the long run. To that end, she has been authorized to observe and encourage young Kindred in whom she sees some spark, some potential to serve the greater good. She warns, “I am not your friend. I am the friend of Rome, and of the Camarilla. I will help you and guide you to the greater glory of Rome, not because of any personal attachment.”

Perhaps oddly, this reassures the neonates, as it seems much more logical and less suspicious than a member of the Kindred deciding to show kindness or affection for no personal gain.

The four ask her what she recommends they do in order to advance, and she recommends attending rituals that will introduce them to high-ranking members of the Camarilla, such as the Cult of the Mother’s New Moon ritual to be held in a few days. She also mentions that it might be useful to observe the rituals of the strange new God, as distasteful as his followers seem to be, to gain a greater insight into the workings of the Necropolis.

• • •

The newly formed coterie, still entirely unsure of each other and of this assignment, nonetheless agree that their fortunes could improve. Violeta seeks higher status, Nocturna wants entrée to the Cult’s mysteries, Gaius seeks ever to better serve Rome (and to protect his nephew), and Tiberius wonders if higher status might impress Victrix.

As the night draws to a close, plans are made to meet up the following Sunday to attend worship with the Sanctified.

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