Suspecting now the worst, they said,
If not mistaken, our lot are much betray’d.
With fury this precipitates their flight:
Eastward under shadows of the night
Toward Sol Invictus, and his cursed light.
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses
On what will be the last night the coterie spends in Rome, Violia and Gaius awake at the Marii compound, pleased to find that the servitors have, as instructed, packed a series of traveling carts, to form a caravan easily capable of the difficult overland journey to Byzantium. The household gods are packed, cuttings of the Tree carefully preserved, the torpid Julii safely ensconsed, and more mundane essentials crated for what may prove to be almost a year’s journey.
From the cellar where Gallix’s body has lain in something not quite resembling state, an ungodly set of screams and crashing noises are heard. Gaius moves quickly to quiet and sooth the revenant and, in an almost instinctual action, brings her to Agata for succor. Agata feeds her vitae and wraps her in her arms, murmuring reassurances in her native Gothic.
Elsewhere in the city, Tiberius awakes and finds himself, after a brief but strenuous inner battle with Hostilinus to be . . . himself again. He is momentarily confused to be havened beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the realm of the Lance, but has vague, dreamlike memories of the prior night, as thorugh a glass darkly. He thinks wait, did I really . . .? And doesn’t need to look far to see that, in fact, he had rendered Rhetrix into torpor. His taste for diablerie not yet quenched, he makes quick work of her soul before making his way to rendezvous at the home of the Marii.
He is met by Gaius, and immediately senses on him the taint of amaranth. He expresses surprise that the oh so honorable Lanceatus would sink to such a level. And, with Victrix screaming a war cry somewhere deep in his mind, Gaius runs Tiberius through with a spear, avowing vehemently, “I am not like you! I only did what was necessary.” The others intervene, reminding the two that everyone is needed for this journey, and such clashes help no one but the Striges. Victrix’s spirit is not pleased at this cowardice, as what is left of her sees it. Nor is the glimmering shade of the Cat.
• • •
The members of the coterie decide to bid farewell to the heart of the city that birthed them, embraced them, and now sends them on their way. Gaius checks the temple of Minerva one last time, and to his surprise finds a message sealed with the mark of the Sacrora Rex, the position currently held by Nocturna. It bears the mark of an official augury, and reads:
Not every veil conceals
Not every threat looks out from yellow eyes
Should I not join you
Avenge me not
Save by your survival
Seven and seven and seven
The sum can only equal doom
Shaken, they continue on to the nearest gate to the Necropolis, moving towards the Temple. As feared, the temple itself is empty, desecrated. The room that had held the statue of Remus seems to have come in for some particular measure of wrath from whoever or whatever did these acts. The statue itself is . . . destroyed? Missing? It hardly seems to matter.
Fearing the worst, they decide, with what would be heavy hearts were those organs still in play, to pay one last visit to the Baths of Caracalla, a solemn farewell to the former glory of Rome and the Camarilla. And then, if they cannot reunite with Nocturna, to move East, knowing that she has a sire in Byzantium and thus will have a strong pull to that city as well, traveling the same roads.
Passing through the upper levels of the Necropolis, they find themselves skirting an alarming amount of ash that represents the remains of their fellow Propinquii. Perhaps more alarming is that Mio is able to determine that not all of this devastation was caused by the Striges. Others have been hunting the undead, mortals trespassing in these once forbidden realms.
Unexpectedly, they sense another of their kind, weakened from loss or vitae, nearing torpor. Scrabbling through fallen rocks in a caved-in tunnel, the group unearths a Legio soldier. Gaius recognizes him as Thascius Marcellus, a good soldier of the Gangrel clan who had not thrown in his lot with Bassianus and the Lance. They assume that Marcellus will welcome the chance to join them, but in fact once he is restored to his former state he avers that he plans to stay in Rome, to fight the Lance and work with the tiny resistance movement that intends to restore the Camarilla. Gaius manages to talk him out of this, saying that Rome can be carried with us, that by preserving the memory of what was, the future can be better assured.
Marcellus takes some convincing but, once he agrees to accompany the group, he hesitates a moment, clearly concerned at revealing some misdeed to a superior officer. Gaius reassures him, saying that these are nights for extreme actions, the old rules do not always apply. (And manages to ignore Tiberius’s snort, a reminder that he has broken his own code of honor most conclusively.) Thinking it over, Marcellus then shrugs, and leads the group into a hidden chamber, where he had secreted weapons, gold, and armor for his planned rebellion. Now, he says, they are for the Camarilla in exile, and shouldering a fine shield bearing the emblem of Mars, he gestures to the others to take what they will.
• • •
At last, the group reaches the Baths. As would be expected, the once luxurious grounds are littered with trash, a feral dog rends at something unspeakable. Within the walls, the water is murky, a bloated body floats in one of the pools. There are human bodies stacked haphazardly, rats scurrying around. And, inevitably, at least one pile of ash. Mio kneels to examine it, sifting the remains through her fingers, then stands, even more sober-faced than usual, to speak two words. “It’s her.” Their eyes are drawn upwards to the wall, where a strange symbol is daubed in blood. Gaius realizes from his time in the library that this is both the mark of the Cainites, and also resembles the strange numbering system used in Persia, in which it would represent the number VII.
Casting their minds back to the message from Nocturna, the realization dawns that her message was an augury foretelling her death, perhaps at the hands of Vitericus’s mad followers, or perhaps by whomever has left the number VII at the sites of other murders. Either way, it’s time to leave.
Gaius’s sense of civitas will not allow him to leave all of these bodies like this, in a state that will bar them from the fields of Elysium. Mio, more pragmatic, notes that their shades might then decide to hound the group, angry at this treatment. So, they soak the bodies in oil and make haste to run as Gaius lights torch and flings it, igniting a cleansing funeral pyre.
• • •
And with that, the hour of departure has arrived. Like Orpheus leaving Hades, they resolve to move only forwards, despite the overwhelming urge. The road to Byzantium lies ahead.