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.