Nights of the Camarilla

Ad Conjunge Duos Familias
Calidus and Violia Negotiate over Future Prospects

In a shaded corner of the caupona, Gaius Marius Calidus sits at a table with his back to a wall. Overhead, dim light flickers sullenly, as smoke from a guttering oil lantern drifts out of a narrow high window. Dressed in tunica, boots, cingulum, and heroes’ cuirass, he cuts an imposing figure—as does the richly-dressed woman seated across from him at the same table, attired in silks in shades of purple, and silver and gold jewelry set with amethysts.

Despite their slightly out-of-place appearance in such a rough establishment, no one has dared to accost them, aside from the proprietor, who served them each a large clay cup of overly-watered wine and then beat a hasty retreat. Amid the roughspun tunics, beaten sandals, and weathered features of the rest of the patrons in the caupona, these two stand out in an unnatural manner, especially with their quiet, intent conversation, pitched so low that no one can hear them.

Gaius toys with the rim of the wine cup, raising it to his lips and giving it a cursory sniff. Almost gone to vinegar; no wonder the barman had to water it so much. He barely wets his lips with the drink—it barely holds any meaning to him as one of the dead, beyond a prop to hide among the living—before setting it down again and speaking cautiously.

Domina, you spoke recently of a . . . relative,” he begins. “One who nears her womanhood, and marrying age along with it. Have you given much thought to whom or how she will be married when the time comes?”

Cincinnata Lucretia Alba, so-called Violia, gives him a tiny, fleeting smile, absently swirling her own cup of wine in her hand.

“Not as such, yet, no. But I do know that she will need a good husband, one who will take proper care of her with the right amount of dignity and finances. Of course,” Violia’s smile widens a hair, as her eyes narrow, “I suppose you asked me to meet with you because you might just know someone?”

He returns her gaze steadily, seeing something challenging rising in her eyes, but does not look away.

“In truth, I do,” he tells her.

Violia’s brows raise in interest. “A son?”

Gaius frowns, shakes his head briskly. “I was unmarried. I had no issue before I was sent north. But . . . my sibling bore a child—my nephew, Lucius of the Marii. He is growing swiftly, and though he is not quite a man, he is eager to be a good servant to Rome.”

Violia favors Gaius with a skeptical look. “What of his father? Is your . . . sister widowed? Does your nephew not have a patreus? After all . . . the man of the family should be seeing to his upbringing, should he not?”

Gaius turns his gaze to one side. Despite his stoic upbringing, it is plain for Violia to see the distaste in his expression.

“There is . . .” he begins, “. . . some complication. His father is less than fulfilling in his parental duties. So it may fall to me—even if I’m the avunculus, I still would rather see them well taken care of.”

“Ohhh,” Violia says, dipping a fingertip into her wine and making a show of savoring it. “So, not just your nephew, then. You are hoping I will play matchmaker for you nephew and sister?”

Gaius shakes his head again, lips pursed tightly. “Not unless you had some very strong prospects for a good woman of Rome, no. I may settle the matter myself. But my nephew will soon pass the Liberalia, and it would not be . . . proper . . . to see him unmarried in time, whether he should choose politics, or soldiery.”

Violia shifts in her seat, leaning more casually as she runs a finger around the rim of her cup.

“Agreed,” she says, “It wouldn’t do for either of our relations to be in an improper state. But, what can be offered in this proposal—if it is indeed such?”

Gaius looks around the room warily, even turning his head to gaze up at the window behind him, before continuing.

“My sister and my nephew both are of the Marii.” His expression twists in distaste more openly this time, before he continues. “My brother-in-law, Gnaeus Marius—” he spits the name out in open displeasure— “was of the Cuspii, a family barely known. He provided a sizeable dowry for the name, and so my relations kept their family name, and enjoy a modest sum of wealth. Lucius would be able to provide well for a wife, and with the proper education, I feel he would do well either in the Forum or the Legion.”

“Mmm,” the Domina nods in thought. “A good name, and a good dowry, and good prospects.”

“Of course, if you might find this arrangement to your liking,” Gaius proceeds cautiously, “if you still have a husband, he would also need to give his blessing . . .”

Violia gives a little smirk and an amused sound in response.

“You leave that to me,” she says with a slowly widening smile. “If this proposal is of use to both of us . . . he will certainly agree.”

“My thanks, Domina,” Gaius bows his head politely as he rises.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Violia replies as she pushes her clay cup across the table and stands, adjusting her stolla. “I haven’t yet made up my mind.”

“I’d expect nothing less; it’s an important decision to make.”

Violia gives him a modest nod as she settles the mantle around her head and shoulders, turning to leave the caupona with Gaius following in proper guard fashion to a noble lady.

“And you never know,” she offers as they depart into the night, “Perhaps something can be done to help your dear sister find someone more . . . appropriate . . .”

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320 A.D. Parties to the Crime

“Now through ecstatic crowds young Bacchus rode
Whilst howling matrons celebrate the God
All ranks and sexes to his Orgies go
To mingle in the pomps, while blood doth flow.”
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

When Tiberius awakes, Spurius is waiting for him, and tells him that Calipygia asks for his help, and suggests that he bring his powerful friends. A body has been found that might be her sister’s, and she wants their help investigating. Spurius clearly does not want to come along, fearing some supernatural doings, but his bond to Tiberius means that he reluctantly offers to. Luckily for him, Tiberius merely gets a description of the girl (tall, strongly built, always wears an amulet of Diana), and agrees to investigate after meeting with the group.

When the coterie reach the dock along the Tiber where fishermen have dredged up the body, everyone who witnessed the body being found have gone for the night, but the body is there, and does appear to be the sister’s. It’s hard to tell much, as she’s been in the water some days, but the body looks oddly mangled, as though it had been tortured, bones broken. Nocturna attempts to use her occult powers to determine what happened.

When she is performing her divination, the others detect an odd smell. At first, it just smells like rich, powerful Vitae, almost like a fine vintage wine. But to Violia’s nose there’s something . . . wrong. It smells corrupt in some way. It’s like nothing they’ve ever encountered before, but it’s unnerving.

Nocturna shakes herself from her reverie, says she can’t really read much, clearly Amelia met with a violent death, but augury is hardly needed for that. She has a sense that whatever did this did it for fun more than to obtain information or other “normal” reasons for torture. She tells them she’s going to try to discern more, and closes her eyes again, laying her hands on the body.

The others sense something stirring in the air, some force at work, and Tiberius’s ghoul cat seems terribly distressed. When Tiberius queries him, the cat is thinking “Have to run, have to go, being called. Can’t go, master is here. Must go, can’t go.” Tiberius scoops him up, which seems to calm the beast. The coterie scan around for clues, and see a figure far down an alleyway, tattered cloak whipping around in the wind. And suddenly a flood of vermin come pouring down the street, like a black wave. Mainly rats but also feral cats, insects, mice. They sweep over everything, devouring any food in their path. The group realizes that Amelia’s body is being consumed and try to save it, but it’s too late, Gaius manages only to grab the amulet.

Once the wave has passed, there is no sign of the figure who, they assume, called it forth. They take the amulet to Flaviana at the temple, but she’s unable to discern much, though she gets a sense of something about wings beating. She asks if she can keep the amulet, as the Rex Sacrorum, the most powerful of the Augurs, may be able to tell more. Tiberius had hoped to return it to Calipygia, but agrees that further information is desirable.

The group then goes to the Vesuvius, where they deliver the sad but not unexpected news to the proprietress. They then ask if they can speak with Mio, the Egyptian girl. The conversation is much less interesting than they expected—she appears to have a perfectly normal, if sad, story of being sold into prostitution at a young age by a poverty-stricken family. Through thrift and the kindness of a sympathetic client, she was able to buy herself out of slavery by the age of 17 or so (she’s understandably a little unclear on her age), and came to the Vesuvius because she’d heard it was a house that treats its girls well. Her main goal is to make enough money to go home.

The group debates raising the money to send her home, but then Violia offers her the opportunity to work at the new establishment she’s planning, doing a job that involves entertaining, but not in a sexual or degrading way. Mio is clearly surprised and suspicious that anyone would do her such a favor, but agrees, admitting that while she has longed to go home, in reality she left so long ago and when she was so young, that the reality awaiting her might not be any better than her current situation.

• • •

Later that night, Gaius checks the altar of Minerva for a message from his sister, and finds a request for him to come. When he does, she asks him further how he can help, and what she might become as a result. He answers that he can help and protect both her and Lucius and, if she wishes, help her obtain a respectable divorce and a more suitable husband. She asks again if he is of the Lemurae and he tells her he is unsure, but that this seems to be likely. She has more questions about unlife and semi-unlife, and he has fewer answers than he would like. She says she’ll need to think more, but that his support is greatly appreciated, and that it becomes more and more clear that he will need to take on Lucius’s education in preparation for the festival of Liberalia.

• • •

Violia meets with Corbulo regarding the upcoming party to finalize plans. She suggests that if possible Lachryma be served, and he agrees that would be delightful, and tells her to contact Eupraxis, as the young man is good at finding the strangest and most exotic things. They speak of a few other plans, and then he tells a long and threatening story about a client of his who betrayed him and how he had her destroyed. She carefully responds that she’s sure he will be happy with the party’s results, without promising anything further.

Eupraxis is able to obtain a small amount of the Lachryma, which Violia deems a success as it can be reserved for the true elites of the party.

The party begins well, with Nocturna, Eupraxis, and Gaius (who was pressed into service) performing the Call to Dionysus with success, ensuring the party will please the gods and the Propinquii alike. Comitor attends and as one would expect is perfectly gracious, paying the statue no attention. As everyone socializes, a Martyr of the Lancea bursts in, calling everyone degenerate beasts and threatening them all. Corbulo finds it hilarious, and tries to incite the guests to make more of a spectacle of him. Gaius’s Beast strains at the leash, intimidating the interloper into leaving.

And, at last, it is time for the big event of the party. Tiberius and Victrix spar, and all are impressed and surprised (Tiberius included) that he holds his own quite well, inflicting no small amount of damage. However, in the end, she reverts to Gangrel form and sends him into torpor with her claws, finishing by daintily removing his insulting garment with one disdainful flick of her claws. He is roused by Corbulo, further increasing his blood bond to his patron.

As the party winds down, we learn that the Lancea Martyr was beaten into torpor, no one knows by whom. The Legio hand him over to representatives of the church, and don’t see much point in investigating. Gaius has a conversation with Julia Sabina in which he asks her about yellow eyed entities. She gives the party line that they’re an old folk tale, but given her trust in his instincts, agrees to make some discreet inquiries.

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320 A.D. Ashes to Ashes to Dust

They ponder’d the mysterious words again
For some new sense; and long they sought in vain
At length he clear’d his cloudy brow
And said, the dark Aenigma will allow
We look fearful to the augury
And doubt the Gods; and yet resolve to try.
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

As the night begins, Callipygia asks Tiberius for help—her sister, Amelia, has gone missing, and she’s worried. A big, strapping girl, Amelia served both Venus and Mars, acting the whore when needed, and the body guard otherwise. Or, for the right client, both. Cal doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of information except that Amelia knows Rome but lives in the north, travels to the city a few times of year for business and pleasure, and to see her family.

“This time she was different,” Cal says. “She seemed ashamed of what she was here to do, acted standoffish, wouldn’t meet my eye. Usually, she’d look you right in the face, tell you who she wanted to fuck, or fight, or both. This time, she just looked at the floor, wouldn’t really talk about anything, not even family.” She was carrying a fine sword, and talked of meeting a possible client, though Cal was unsure what services were on offer. Something she didn’t want to talk about.

Tiberius isn’t sure what he can do, but offers to ask around. He finishes the conversation asking about Mio, the Egyptian girl. Cal doesn’t know much—she was a slave, bought her freedom, and came to work at the Vesuvius. Not the most friendly of the girls, but keeps to herself and doesn’t cause trouble. Why? He’s not sure, just gets a weird sense from her. Asks Cal to keep an eye on her, let him know if anything unusual happens.

• • •

Meanwhile, when Violia awakes, she sees the sign beneath her haven door alerting her that her husband wishes to speak with her. They speak of family matters, including his wish to employ a tutor to make Beatrix as marriageable as possible. He then speaks of the Egyptians who seek his support in the Senate. It’s a bit confusing—for a new religion, the Christians seem to sprout a new heresy every week, and it’s hard to keep score. This current one seems to center on whether a bishop can embrace any holy man he wishes to become a church father, or if the process must be approved by the state. The forces of order and hierarchy fear that this populist notion, prevalent in Egypt, might become the law of Rome, and want his support should it come to a vote. They have made veiled promises of great wealth and influence if things go their way, but Violia counsels caution. Finally, he gives her an invitation that was delivered during the day, summoning her to Comitor’s presence.

When she arrives at the designated place, it’s a private, intimate party, a few high-born patrician women feasting on artfully drugged mortals and languidly discussing literature and philosophy. Comitor is too much the politician to register surprise, but it’s clear Violia was not invited. Things fall into place when it’s revealed that one of the attendees is Drusilla, who mocks Violia for trying to reach above her station, implying that she crassly tried to crash the party. In the standoff that ensues, Violia handily faces down the much more powerful Kindred, sending her virtually running from the room. Comitor apologizes, saying that Drusilla’s antics are getting a bit tedious, and offers Violia a spot at the party and the mortal feast of her choosing.

• • •

Gaius visits the temple of Minerva, looking for a message from his sister. There is none, but he does get word from Albertus that he is hoping to talk, and to be introduced to Bassianus. The older Gangrel is eager to serve the Legion, and suggests that he could be a valuable asset in the Collegia. As a barbarian and a seemingly unaligned newcomer, he hears much talk of heresy, of treason, of armed rebellion. While most is nothing more than idle talk, his soldiers’ sense is that some of these murmurings might be more of a threat than anyone currently realizes. Bassianus agrees that this is a valuable role, and asks Gaius to help Albertus remain undercover yet protected.

• • •

Later that night, the coterie meets up to continue their investigation of Cuncator’s mysterious destruction. In an alleyway, they are set upon by a group of four mortals, apparently vampire hunters. After winning a heated street fight, they interrogate the group’s leader, Gervasus. It transpires that the men were part of a cult devoted to Vulcan, based in a small town near Mediolanum. Gervasus, visiting Rome, had seen Cuncator and recognized him as a man he’d known 30 years prior—not aged a day. Taking this to mean that he was a demon, they set out to vanquish him, to bring greater glory to their cult, and prove that the older, more violent ways were better. Under interrogation it appears that, in fact, these cultists did not destroy Cuncator, if only because someone else got there first, but Gervasus seems to be telling the truth when he says he doesn’t know who that was or how it happened.

The coterie return to the Temple of Remus, bringing Cuncator’s ashes, in hopes of gaining more clarity. Flaviana herself performs the augury, confirming that these are Cuncator’s remains, and that she senses no connection between his destruction and the group. She says that she’ll be happy to testify to this if need be. When asked to delve deeper into Cuncator’s fate, she is unable to glean much beyond a sense of beating wings.

Gaius asks her if she knows anything of yellow-eyed creatures, and she tells them that there are old myths and fairy tales of creatures who can possess the bodies of both mortals and Propinquii, but these are stories told to frighten the gullible or to explain otherwise unknowable mysteries. Some even say that these creatures were the disembodied voices that came to Remus as he lay dying, and offered him eternal life in return for his soul. Gaius says he’s heard stories that make him wonder whether these creatures are real after all, and she is polite but dismissive.

As the night ends, the group agree to meet the next night upon awakening to see if there are any further leads to be followed or if this death is to be another of these unknowable tales.

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320 A.D. Following in Death's Footsteps

The morning came, the night, and slumbers past
But still the furious pangs of hunger last
But tho’ the land, air, seas, provisions grant
Starves at full tables, and complains of want
As rivers pour’d from ev’ry distant shore,
The sea insatiate drinks, and thirsts for more
Or as the fire, which all materials burns,
And wasted forests into ashes turns,
Grows more voracious, as the more it preys
Recruits dilate the flame, and spread the blaze.

—Ovid, the Metamorphoses

The coterie set out to determine what happened to Junius Cuncator, a low-level member of the Senex who is apparently not particularly missed by anyone (even his nominal patron, Corbullo). However, his disappearance is unusual and worth investigating and, perhaps more alarmingly, someone seems to have started a whisper campaign implicating the coterie. This may be because Tiberius had suspected Cuncator, or perhaps just his ghoul, Spurius, of trying to steal his girls and undermine his business.

The investigation starts at the Vesuvius, where Callipygia has little or no information on Cuncator, but does affirm that he hadn’t been causing trouble or trying to steal business as far as she knows. Tiberius catches a glimpse of a tiny Egyptian girl with long, black hair and deep black eyes who seems to be watching him from the shadows, but who slips away when he turns to look. Cal says that’s Mio, a new girl. She was captured as a small child by Romans and brought back as a pleasure slave. She’s now bought her freedom and continues the only job she’s ever known. She’s popular with the customers, but Cal gets an odd feeling from her. Maybe just anger at how she came into this life, who knows? Also, she seemingly hates cats.

A fight over dice breaks out and Tiberius is forced to step in a enforcer, keeping the peace but angering one of the customers, a blowhard named Gervasus.

• • •

A visit to the Green Amphora reveals the ghoul, Spurius, to be in terrible condition. He looks to have aged 20 years in a week. From questioning him, it becomes clear he is unaware what he is, and thought his miraculous youth and health were magic only Cuncator could perform. Tiberius gives him vitae, healing him and binding him as his new ghoul, but keeps the mystery, telling him that his family, too, knows the same ancient magic. Spurius tell the group that Cuncator had seemed afraid for his safety, had asked him to contact “the tall barbarian woman with the tattoos” and try to hire her. It becomes clear to the group that Cuncator had been overly cagey in his paranoia, and Spurius completely misunderstood, trying to hire Gallix for unknown (to him) purposes rather than finding Victrix and trying to hire her as a bodyguard, which seems to be what Cuncator intended. It sounds like his last days were wracked with paranoia and strange behavior.

They ask Spurius if he knew of Cuncator’s haven, and he says his master was always very cagey about his exact address, but spoke often of “going to church” or “going to visit St. Peter,” which seemed a little odd since he also appeared to worship cats, implying he perhaps followed some of the older Egyptian gods. Tiberius tells Spurius that he’ll take responsibility for him, and for the inn, until such time as Cuncator is found. Spurius confides that he feels that his master is dead, almost as though he himself experienced the death with him, but it was so traumatic that he can’t really recall anything else, except that the feeling washed over him about a week ago. With that, the group agrees to meet up the following night, after pursuing their various personal needs, to continue the investigation.

• • •

The next night, Gaius is finally able to visit his family and speak with his sister, Fausta. She thanks him for the death mask, which now sits on the family’s altar, noting wryly that her husband Gnassus doesn’t seem to have noticed it. He doesn’t notice much, she adds, perhaps a bit sadly. She does not seem afraid of Gaius, but demands of him, “What are you? Are you of the Lares, Manes, or Lemurae?”. He admits that he is not sure, but affirms his commitment to protecting the family, whatever he may be.

She asks if he will stand up for Lucius at his Liberalia if Gnassus proves unwilling or unable, and he says that he will, and adds that he may have ways of bringing Fausta and Lucius greater supernatural protection. She says she’ll need to think on this, and will no doubt have further questions. He tells her that any time she needs to speak to him, leave a message at a certain temple to Minerva, and he will come by the next night if he possibly can.

• • •

Meanwhile, Violia meets with her husband, who seeks her counsel. He has been approached by some shadowy figures who want him to support their cause in the Senate, and hint at incredible rewards if he does so successfully. They are battling an Egyptian heresy that’s gaining popularity with the Christians of Rome, and which is likely to come before the Senate for debate now that Constantine has declared Christianity the official state religion (loosely followed though that is). It’s hinted that if he helps them prevail over these heretics, great wealth could be his, and perhaps even a chance at the prefecture of Egypt itself.

He’s a little unclear on the heresy, as points of Christian dispute seem so ridiculous, but essentially it comes down to whether any bishop in good standing can embrace another holy man into the hierarchy of the church, or whether all new bishops must be approved by the church elders. Violia counsels him that this entire thing seems suspect, implying in not too veiled language that he’s hardly prefect material, but he clearly remains intrigued by the opportunity.

• • •

After Second Watch, the group meets to search for Cuncator’s haven. The clues lead them to a lightly used part of the Necropolis near St. Peter’s Basilica. A bit of investigation takes them down some wrong turns, including into an active but empty gathering place of the Lancea. Finally, they spot a large ginger cat meowing plaintively outside a door set into the tunnel’s wall. Using Animalism, Gaius learns from the cat that it misses the treats that are supposed to be dispensed here. The food-giver is missing, why is the food-giver not here?

They open the door into a small but well kept-up haven consisting of a sleeping shelf, a chest of clothing, a shelf of scrolls, and a slightly cluttered desk. There is no sign here of any struggle, certainly not of Final Death. It does, however, look as though Cuncator had a visitor and, from the size of the footprint, a female.

On the desk are some scrolls that seem to deal with violent human cults and the worship of dark gods by mortals. There’s a clay augury tablet that reads, “They swarm in darkness, turning our past against our present.” According to marking on it, Nocturna verifies that it’s a valid augury, given by Marcus Auditor, the Nosferatu, a little over a week ago. The only other thing of interest on the table is a wax tablet partly erased but that seems to read “Below . . . Danci— Saty—“. Tiberius is pretty sure he remembers that as one of the more raucous inns in the red-light district near Vesuvius.

The cat weaves around them, clearly looking for attention, and Tiberius decides to ghoul it and bring it with him back to Vesuvius.

• • •

The next night Nocturna arranges for the group to attend the auguries, to further investigate. The Nosferatu Auditor confirms that, indeed, he performed the augury on the tablet, but doesn’t have much information beyond that Cuncator was afraid he was being followed, hounded by some malevolent group. He mentioned seeking a bodyguard, and Auditor told him to look to his own behaviors rather than seeking outside help. He shakes his head, and says he wishes Cuncator had listened, but says he fears he may have met with doom due to his own bad decision-making.

Flaviana mentions that she’s heard whispers that the group is involved in some way. She says that of course she doesn’t believe that, but asks whether they might wish an augury to help clarify matters. They agree, and upon payment of a few coins, Flaviana herself does the reading, which is:

“A single arrow races through the whistling air. It is years in coming, and will fly for some years yet. When it strikes, a multitude of arrows will follow, falling like rain, bringing the enemies of the Camarilla to destruction amidst chaos and ruin. Each has this target. You must stand strong and hold your shield over those you value.”

At this last, she looks deeply at each group member, as though willing them to consider what they value. They ask for no interpretation, and she offers none.

• • •

The Dancing Satyr is an inn apparently frequented by men who enjoy the company of other men for drinking, dancing, and, it would appear from the private rooms in the back, other forms of camaraderie. Gaius gets a bowl of watered wine and mills about, using Majesty to blend in with the patrons, who are watching silk-clad youths dancing on the bar, and making ribald jokes. Tiberius takes a patron to the back to feed, but fails to notice anything interesting besides the expected hijinks.

Meanwhile, Gaius learns that someone who was probably Cuncator had been seen at the capuna a week or so ago with one, maybe two women. Probably nobody would have remembered him except that it’s not common to see females in the place. At least, they’re pretty sure they were female. Some of these lads do a pretty good job of dressing the part a soldier notes, nodding at one of the painted and perfumed house boys.

Tiberius says there’s nothing worth investigating in the back of the bar, but Gaius isn’t satisfied, so he asks the girls to come investigate with him. They follow—Violia looking at the scene with haughty disdain, Nocturna with unladylike curiosity. In fact, upon closer investigation, they find a hidden doorway at the very back of the row of cubicula, which leads down into the Necropolis, to a small chamber.

Opening the door, they are met with a horrific scene. Mortal blood and even bits of rotting flesh are splattered about, and in the center of the room, a pile of ash. A small pendant of a cat lies to the side, its cord apparently cut with a very sharp blade, and there’s a slash in the wall that looks like a missed weapon stoke. The dust on the floor is hard to read, but it looks like Cuncator might have been dragged in here by one person, followed by someone who then backed out. Those prints are the clearest, and seem to be female. It would seem that this person did not kill him, but nor did she stick around to help him. Violia and Nocturna measure the footprint against their own, and it seems to come from a taller woman.

Everyone agrees that questioning the mysterious Egyptian girl, Mio, would be a good idea. And Gaius shakes his head and says, with a sense of growing dread, “And I guess I’m going to have to talk to Victrix.”

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320 A.D. News from Near and Far

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.

View
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.

View
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.

View
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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