MUSES OF ROMA – Prologue and Chapter 1

Now that MUSES OF ROMA (book one of my new sci-fi/alt-history series on the Roman Empire) is released into the wild, I’m free to post the Prologue and Chapter One here. If you like what you see, please check out the purchase info at the bottom of this post.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Prologue

Third year of the reign of Imperator Octavian Caesar Augustus

Marcus Antonius sat atop his horse outside Roma watching the smoke rise into the twilight sky above the Forum and the docks along the Tiber.  Musket fire echoed throughout the city; fire engulfed the Senate House and the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.  His new senses brought him the screams of citizens as his legions entered the city.  The equestrian villas on the Aventine Hill lay in blackened ruins, pillaged by his men for every valuable they contained—artwork, gold, jewels, slaves.

The gods gave him the ability to take it all in, to sear it into his memory.  To be sure, he knew he was allowing a blasphemy on the Eternal City.  But that was the old order.  Antonius would bring a new order, and he would rebuild Roma.

A rider charged out the Porta Capena less than a half-mile away, swerving around the crush of refugees exiting the gate.  When he reached Antonius, he pulled in his reigns and reported to General Lucius at Antonius’s side.

“We have him, sir,” the rider said, breathless.  “We captured him in his residence.  He offered no resistance.”

Lucius sighed, then looked to Antonius with a smile.  “It’s over, my lord.”

“Very good,” Antonius said, staring at Roma.  “I want to enter my city now.  I want to see Octavian.”

Lucius hesitated.  “My lord, we may have Octavian, but the city is far from secure.  Octavian’s men may still hide in pockets throughout Roma.  We could have him brought out.”

“Lucius, old friend,” Antonius said, “you forget who I am now.”  He turned to Lucius.  “The gods have made me their Vessel.  They have great plans for me and for Roma.  They will not allow any harm to come to me.”

Lucius nodded slowly.  “Of course, my lord.”

Antonius spurred his horse forward before Lucius could order his men to follow.  The mounted protective cohort rushed up to Antonius and surrounded him, each with one hand on his reins and the other on the stock of his musket holstered on the side of his horse.

Refugees flooded the Via Appia on the city’s southeast corner.  Some pulled carts while most carried nothing but their children and a sack thrown over their shoulders.  Women, children, and the elderly—the younger men had mounted a futile defense of Roma’s walls during the attack—gave him hollow stares, each one too exhausted to cry out to him.  Such a crowd suggested Antonius’s surprise attack had worked better than even he imagined.

Not my plans, he thought humbly.  This is the work of the gods.

While Antonius’s cohort eyed the refugees, Antonius looked on them with pity.  He could not explain to them now why they should stay, that they should watch him make Roma greater than any king or dictator could.

Especially that whelp Octavian.  Excuse me, he thought, they call him Augustus now.  He glanced at the rubble of the great Roman walls blasted to gravel by his cannons.  I wonder how august they think their tyrant is now?

The gods whispered to him, calmed his thoughts, and told him to focus on the tasks ahead.  The citizens who fled today would return once they saw the first fruits of his plans, how he rebuilt the city with methods and materials with which the brilliant architects of Roma or Greece never dreamed.  He would build monuments to shame the Great Pyramids of Egypt.  The gods would show him how to create indestructible roads and magical carts able to run by themselves.  And one day, when humanity was worthy, machines that flew faster than an eagle would take Romans to the firmament above, where they could bow before the gods themselves.

These were the plans the gods showed him every day since they blessed him in that crumbling Egyptian temple ten years ago.

Antonius and his cohort passed through the Porta Capena.  The refugees still poured from the city, most too shocked to give him more than a glance.  The further Antonius rode into Roma, however, the fewer refugees he saw.  The areas nearer the gates were packed with plebian tenements that Antonius’s legions looted first.  Bodies lay crumpled on the ground, some shot, but most run through with the gladius Antonius’s men still insisted on carrying.  Antonius smiled at his men’s preference for traditional tools over a superior weapon like the musket.   They even insisted on wearing their armor, though the enemy had barely touched them since they started using the cannons and muskets.

On his left, the merchant class shops and tenements on the Aventine Hill were quiet.  But on his right, the Caelian Hill was awash in screams, musket fire, and the crackle of burning buildings.  Many of the city’s richest patricians had villas on the Caelian.  Antonius felt no mercy for the patrician nobles who lived there, for most had denounced him in the Forum and Senate, questioning his “moral character” for living in Alexandria with Cleopatra.  Culling Roma’s patrician class would be a bloody task, but a necessity for Antonius to establish his new order.  By the time Antonius’s men were through with them, the Caelian would look on the Suburba’s slums with envy.

Six city defenders burst from an alley in front of Antonius.  Three held swords, and all bore wounds and blood on their tunics, limbs, and faces.  They stared at Antonius and his cohort, stunned to see him.  Antonius’s cohort was prepared.  They raised their muskets as one and fired at the six men.  Two defender heads exploded.  Two more defenders took shots to the chests and fell to the cobblestones, while the other two escaped harm.  With nothing left to lose, the two men screamed defiance and jumped toward Antonius.

Having fired their single shots, the cohort dropped their muskets to reach for their swords.  But they would not intercept the enraged men before they reached Antonius.  Antonius pulled his sword, ready to meet the two defenders, his heart quickening.  He would finally join the battle.  The gods could not hold him back now.

Shots rang out from the alley, and the two defenders fell before they could reach Antonius.  Seven of Antonius’s men emerged from the alley, looked at the fallen defenders, then up at him.

Antonius glared at the squad’s centurion.  “Well done, Servius Minicius.”

Antonius knew every man’s name in his legions.  He met them all during the year-long march to Roma.  His memory was another ability that made his men believe Antonius himself was a god.

Minicius stepped forward and bowed his head.  “Thank you, sir.  Sorry they surprised you, sir.”

Antonius frowned a moment longer, then sighed and re-sheathed his sword.  “Not your fault.  Although you did deny me the chance to bloody my sword.  Haven’t had to pull it since Actium.  Damned shame.”

Minicius grinned.  “My apologies, sir.”

“Carry on.”  Antonius spurred his horse forward.  “I expect you to clear the city of this sort by nightfall tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” Minicius called out.

As Antonius advanced further into the city, the scent of blood and smoke increased.  He passed the Circus Maximus on his left; its large walls were pockmarked with musket shots.  Antonius marveled at the marble columns and arches Octavian had recently installed along the walls of the huge rectangular racetrack.  It had been years since Antonius last rode through Roma, and the new construction on the Circus was inspiring.

But the Circus was no more than a cheap bauble compared to what the gods had planned for Roma.

Several companies of Greek draftees formed battle lines outside the Circus, their muskets on their shoulders.  When the Roman commander saw Antonius, he rushed over and saluted.  “My lord, we weren’t expecting you so—”

“What is happening here, Leget Durmius?  I assume there are no chariot races today?”

“Hah, no, my lord.  We got some defenders holed up in there.  They barricaded the entrances, but they won’t hold once we storm them.  We’re about to start if you want to watch, my lord.”

“I have pressing matters with the city’s former rulers,” Antonius said.  “I have every confidence you will accomplish your task, Leget.”

Durmius saluted again as Antonius rode on.

Octavian lived in a modest two-story villa on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus.  New walls surrounded the home.  Antonius chuckled when he noticed a partially constructed corridor connecting the villa to the Circus Maximus.  The great Augustus is too much like a god to walk among the citizens of Roma, eh?  Antonius could not wait to show Octavian what real gods could do.

When Antonius approached Octavian’s open gates, he spurred his horse into a trot and charged into the courtyard, surprising the centurions and soldiers who stood about inside.  He stepped down from his saddle, and a centurion—Numerius Albius—ran over and saluted.

“My lord, we weren’t expecting—”

“I know.  Is he here?”

“Yes, my lord.  He’s in the atrium with his wife and daughter.  Some Senators and the Pontifex Maximus are with them.”

“Good,” Antonius said, striding past the centurion.

He entered the house through the remains of the double wooden doors, which had been shot up and then battered with a ram.  In the entryway, several wax busts of Octavian’s ancestors stared at Antonius.  He stopped at the last bust, Gaius Julius Caesar remarkably well rendered.  It was the Caesar that Antonius remembered in Gaul, when he had watched the Gallic king Vercingetorix throw down his axe in surrender at Caesar’s feet.   Forty-nine years old, yet youthful, full of confidence and ready to conquer Roma.

Things didn’t turn out like you expected, did they, you old dog?  It could have been you in my place.  Fortunate for me the gods and your “friend” Brutus felt otherwise.

Antonius made his way through the entryway and into the villa’s atrium.  Six soldiers stood nearby, and they snapped to attention when Antonius entered the room.  Antonius ignored them, focused instead on the seven figures huddled on benches in front of the impluvium pool at the atrium’s center.  Ruddy sunlight fell through the open atrium, illuminating the figures with a bloody tint.  Antonius had no trouble recognizing them.

Octavian stood up, his purple toga arranged precisely.  Octavian’s wife Livia and his fifteen-year-old daughter Julia sat behind him.  Three of Octavian’s most loyal Senators sat on either side of him.  The Pontifex Maximus sat on a bench by himself, his black robes torn.  The Pontifex whirled around and stared at Antonius with panicked eyes.  A large bruise had spread across his mostly bald head, and his long gray beard hung in strings.

Antonius turned his gaze back to Octavian.  The boy—Antonius would always consider Octavian a boy despite his forty-one years—stared at Antonius with the same arrogance he had the whole time they shared power as Triumvirs four years ago.  Antonius glanced at the painted walls.

“I love the frescoes,” Antonius said.  “Perhaps I will make this house my own.”  He strolled past the walls, hands behind his back.  He stopped before a painting of Gaius Julius Caesar standing at the right hand of Jupiter.  “I hear they call you Augustus now, ‘son of a god.’”

“It is true,” Octavian said, voice steady.  “The Senate declared Caesar divine.  Caesar adopted me as his son, therefore I am also divine.”

“‘Divine.’” Antonius grunted.  “You know nothing of the divine.”

“I suppose you do.  How else could you create these wondrous weapons?  Wooden sticks that spit fire, smoke, and metal.  Iron tubes that destroy stone walls.  What did your Egyptian whore’s priests teach you?”

Antonius smiled.  “They did not teach me anything.  They showed me a temple where I found…well, it’s a long story.  Suffice it to say the gods have blessed me with knowledge you cannot imagine.  These weapons, they are only the beginning.  I will remake Roma.  Conquering the known world is nothing.  I will conquer lands no Roman has ever seen.  I will bring Roma’s light to every barbarian that toils and dies in meaningless darkness.”

Octavian laughed.  “Come now, Marcus, this is me.  The Marcus Antonius I knew was happiest carousing in the whorehouses and drinking with his soldiers until he passed out.  That man was no philosopher.  He was no ruler.  Now here you are claiming the divine legacy of Caesar?  You will never be a Caesar.  We both know it.”

Antonius rushed forward, grabbed Octavian’s throat, and slammed him against a wood pillar.  The boy’s eyes bulged at the move’s speed and violence.

“You’re right,” Antonius whispered into Octavian’s ear, “I will never be a Caesar.  I will be so much more.”

Antonius clenched his fist, crushing Octavian’s throat and the vertebrae in his neck.  He let Octavian fall to the floor.  Roma’s former ruler gasped for air, face as purple as his toga.  Then his struggles stopped and he stared with lifeless eyes up at the red sky through the open atrium.

Livia and Julia cried out and went to Octavian, wailing over his body.  Antonius ignored them and then motioned to the centurion nearby.

“Your squad can have the women for your entertainment,” Antonius said, “but only after you do a few things first.”

When he told the centurion his task, the three Senators sobbed in outrage and fear.  The centurion nodded grimly, gave Livia and Julia an appraising glance, then told his men to take the Senators outside.

Antonius turned to the Pontifex Maximus.  The portly old man stared at Antonius with wide eyes and a gray face.  Antonius put his hands on the quivering Pontifex’s head and drew him close.  “I am willing to overlook your support for Octavian.  You were in a delicate position.  You had no choice but to give his illegitimate rule the gods’ blessing—”

“You’re right, my lord,” the man cried.  “I had no choice.  He would have killed my family if I had not gone along with—”

Antonius gave the man’s head a gentle squeeze.  He gasped, and his lips quivered.

“Do not interrupt me again.”

The Pontifex nodded.  Antonius smelled urine pooling around the man’s feet.

“Now then.  You had no choice but to give Octavian’s illegitimacy your blessing.  You could not have known it was wrong because the gods have never talked to you.”

The Pontifex stared at him.  “I am the Pontifex Maxi—”

“I know what you are.  I know you think you heard the gods and could decipher their will by inspecting dog entrails.  But you never really did, did you?”

The Pontifex’s mouth opened and closed.

“It’s all right,” Antonius said soothingly.  He watched two flamens dressed as Egyptian priests enter the room.  One held a bronze bowl and the other a large bronze knife.

He looked back to the Pontifex.  “Soon you will hear the true gods.”

***

Antonius stood on the balcony on the second floor of Octavian’s house, the racing fields of the Circus Maximus spread before him.  Over three hundred crosses lined the field in neat rows, each holding the body of a Senator, patrician, or state official who had vocally opposed him.  Antonius’s spies in Roma had spent years keeping track of those who spread vicious lies about him.  Those people now hung on crosses below and screamed for the mercy of a single spear thrust to the heart.  He would not give them such mercy.  The crows would take them first.

The Pontifex Maximus stood beside him, regarding the Circus in the morning light.   Antonius looked at the man, noticed the gods had remade him.  The sniveling coward he’d been three days ago was gone.  The Pontifex looked on the Circus with the eyes of someone who knew why Antonius had ordered this.

The Pontifex turned to Antonius.  “Brother,” he said, “this world is ours.”

Antonius smiled.  “Why stop at this world?”

1,000 years later

Chapter One

Marcia Licinius Ocella pulled the boy through the teeming Forum Romanum.  She squeezed through the crowds and merchants as she scanned those same crowds for the men chasing them.

She ducked beneath a red and gold banner hanging from a street lamp.  It proclaimed the coming millennial celebrations for the Antonii Ascension.  In a month, Roma would be filled with dignitaries and citizens from Terra and every other Republic world.  Even kings, consuls, and princes from many Lost Worlds and the Zhonguo Sphere would attend.

All to celebrate a lie.

“You are hurting my arm,” the boy said.

Ocella stopped and looked at him.  She’d been squeezing him tight enough to leave red marks on his bare forearm.  She eased her grip but did not let go.

“Sorry.  You have to keep up with me.”  Ocella scanned the crowds behind them again.

“I am trying,” he said, moving closer to her side.

The boy wore a common sleeveless shirt.  Though the day was hot and humid, he wore the shirt’s cowl over his head, a trend among plebian children.  Ocella was glad Roman fashion allowed for a way to hide the boy’s face.

“How much further?” he asked.

“It’s on the Aventine.  A ways yet.”

“How far is the Aventine?”

“We’re in the Forum, it’s just—”

She glanced down at him.  He had spent his life in a single house on a single hill, so he would not know the streets and landmarks most normal Romans knew from birth.  She would have to be patient with him.  The boy was not a normal Roman.

“We’ll be there soon,” she finished.

Her Umbra training made her hyper-aware of how to spot a tail, but the Forum crowds strained even her skills.  Plainclothes agents needed minimal competence to hide among this human crush.  She gave up on mentally recording every face, and concentrated on just getting through the Forum without losing the boy.  They would never make it out if she kept running into merchant stalls or tripping over garbage on the ground.

Once they emerged from the Forum, they had to contend with crossing the Appian Highway.  Ground carts zipped by at dangerous speeds on the city’s main north-south highway, and there were no crosswalks or pedestrian bridges nearby.  Ocella glanced up the street, saw a bus idling a dozen paces away.

When she turned to the boy, a glint caught her eye.  Two lictors approached from behind, their silver helmets shining in the setting sun.

“Come on.”  She grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him toward the bus.  She tried to act as if she was late for the bus rather than fleeing the lictors.  She didn’t know if the lictors were walking their beat or looking for her.  She didn’t want to take the chance.

Ocella pushed the boy on to the bus, deposited her sesterces in the coin box, and moved the boy to the back.  They sat in an empty seat, and she glanced outside at the lictors.  They continued to walk past the bus, locked in conversation.

They may not want to scare us, she thought.  They’ve already commed in a report and a Praetorian squad is waiting at the next stop—

She took a deep breath.  Her heart had been racing for the last hour.  She had to calm down.  Remember your training, she thought.  Panic kills.

“Is it much farther, nanny?” the boy asked.  “I’m hungry.”  He had the expression of any twelve-year-old boy running errands with his caretaker.  Bored and hungry.

He raised an eyebrow, and she almost laughed.  She was the experienced Umbra Ancile, yet he did a better job maintaining their cover than her nervous actions thus far.  Nearby passengers read paper copies of the Daily Acts or stared out the windows.  The bus was not as crowded as the Forum, but anyone could be a Praetorian.  She had to play the part: an ethnically Indian nanny slave taking her Roman dominar’s child on an outing.

“Not far, Lucius,” she said with an affectionate smile.  “I’m sure your Uncle Titus will have a large dinner ready for us when we get there.”

“You think he’ll have that garum from Pompeii he always talks about?  I want to try it.”

“He said he would.  Your Uncle Titus doesn’t make idle promises.”

They bantered for the ten minutes it took to reach their stop on the Aventine.  Partly to throw off eavesdroppers, but mostly to calm their own nerves.  While the boy’s speech tended to slip into a noble accent at times, he impressed Ocella with his knowledge of plebeian slang.

On the Aventine Hill, they exited the bus and walked through a run-down neighborhood.   All apartment tenements and homes on the Aventine were no more than four stories.  The Collegia Pontificis forbade any Roman building to rise above the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline.  Trash heaped in alleys and alcoves.  Obscene graffiti on the walls depicted the local aediles and quaestors having sex with various farm animals.  No graffiti showed Senators, the Collegia Pontificis, or the Consular family.  No one would dare.

Ocella found the house on a quiet street in the Aventine’s southeast corner.  She tapped on the door politely with her foot, waited a few seconds, then tapped again.

“Maybe he is not home,” the boy said.

“He’s here.  He better be…”

She raised her knuckles to rap on the door, but then it opened.  The grizzled face of Numerius Aurelius Scaurus peered at her from the entry’s shadows.

“You weren’t followed?”

“Doubtful.”

He sighed, then noticed the boy standing behind her.  His eyes widened.

“Blessed Juno, you got him out.  Get in before someone sees you.  Hurry!”

Ocella and the boy entered the house.  Scaurus slammed the door and barred it.  He punched in a code on the pad beside the door, and it emitted a chirp as more locks slid into place.

Like most Roman patricians, Scaurus displayed wax busts on the shelves next to the door.  Ocella was surprised to see only two: Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero.  As far as Ocella knew, Scaurus was related to neither man.

“I have no notable ancestors,” Scaurus said, standing next to Ocella.  “So I choose to display dead Romans I admire.  The Julii, though social outcasts these days, have long been friends of my family.”  Scaurus stared at her meaningfully.  “Caesar reminds me of Roma’s excess.  Cicero reminds me to laugh.”

Ocella wondered at such a strange statement.  Before she could comment, Scaurus asked,  “How did you do it?”

Ocella opened her mouth, but he cut her off.  “Wait, we need to get rid of your Umbra implant.”

“How?”

“Gifts from more friends of the family.  Come with me.”

Light from the setting sun shone through the skylight above the atrium garden in the house’s center.  Small trees and plants cast shadows on the frescoes and paintings on the walls.  The shadows seemed to grasp at Ocella with clawed fingers.

Scaurus took them through the kitchen, where a single house slave prepared dinner.  The dark-haired young man ignored them.  Ocella was somewhat startled that the slave was a real human and not a golem.  Most Romans used golems these days since they were cheap to maintain.  She didn’t think Scaurus was wealthy enough to own a human slave.

One more thing you never knew about Scaurus, she thought.  Are you surprised?

The boy stared at the olives and breads sitting on the counter, and the lamprey strips sizzling on the grill-stove.  Ocella’s own stomach rumbled as she realized she had not eaten in almost twelve hours.

Scaurus opened the pantry and waved his hand before the light pad.  A warm glow from the ceiling lit the shelves filled with dry foods.  He reached behind some pickled herring jars, his whole arm extended.

“This house has been in my family for almost two hundred years,” he said while reaching to the back wall.  “My Saturnist ancestors recognized the need to accommodate guests such as yourselves.”

Ocella heard a click, then stone moving against stone as the shelved wall pushed back four feet.  There was little room to squeeze through the opening, but Scaurus managed it and motioned them to follow.

“Cleon,” Scaurus called, “shut the pantry behind us?”

“Yes, master,” the slave said from the kitchen.

Ocella and the boy entered the space behind the pantry.  They stood at the top of a staircase descending into darkness.  Scaurus waved his hand before a light pad, and small globe lights on the ceiling revealed the stairs and the landing at the bottom.  Scaurus hurried down.

The boy looked up at Ocella, and she said, “It’s all right.  He’s going to help us.”

The boy was still uncertain, but turned and followed the retired Praetorian Guardsman down to the cellar.  The pantry door scraped shut behind them.  Ocella flinched.

At the bottom, Scaurus turned on more lights.  Ocella blinked at the suddenly illuminated room.  It matched the dimensions of the house above.  Four rows of bookshelves stood to her right, each filled with old-fashioned scrolls and bound books.  To her left, sat a desk with a tabulari projecting a holographic spinning Terra above the keyboard.  At the room’s far end, four single-sized beds, a dining area with couches, and a visum globe in the center.

“If you have to hide,” Scaurus said, “there’s no use hiding like barbarians.”

Ocella glanced back up the stairs.  “Is that the only way out?”

“Of course not.  Wouldn’t do to have a safe house without an escape hatch.”

“Where is it?”

“I’ll tell you after the procedure.”

Ocella nodded. “How did you get a Liberti tabulari?”

“It wasn’t easy,” Scaurus said.  He went to the tabulari desk and searched through the drawers.  “Even the former Praefectus of the Praetorian Guard has trouble getting the, er, finer things from our friends on Libertus.  The embargo on Liberti items hasn’t removed them from Roman homes.  Just made them more expensive.”

“Are these from the Ascension?” the boy asked, studying the scrolls on the shelves.

“Yes, sire,” Scaurus said.  “Birth records for everyone in the Antonii family after the Ascension.  Your lineage.”

The boy looked at him.  “They would kill you if they found these.”

Scaurus grunted.  “Better than crucifixion.  Now you know why my ancestors built that pantry door.”

Scaurus found what he wanted in the drawers.  He unraveled a hairnet with small clear beads, similar to what fashionable Roman women wore over their long braided hair.

“The Praetorians will dissect your former associates down to the atom,” Scaurus said, walking to Ocella.  “Once they figure out how the implants work, they will detect the signals.  When that happens…”

“They will find me,” Ocella said.  “And him.”  She watched the boy search the scrolls and books.  Now and then his mouth formed a wondrous ‘O’ when he found something interesting.  “I can’t hide him forever.”

“Bah!  I thought you Umbra Ancilia were invincible, immortal, or whatever the superstitions say you are.  You haven’t left Terra yet and you’re already despairing.  If you were still a Praetorian I’d clap you in the ears right now for such talk.  Now let me put this on you.”

Ocella asked, “You sure it’s safe?  The Umbra implant works with my higher brain functions.  I can’t protect Cordus if I’m brain dead.”

Scaurus put the net over Ocella’s head, adjusting it so it fit over her scalp and ears.  “Well, granted, it’s never been used this way.  We’ve only used it on retired Umbra Ancilia whose implants were already deactivated.  But it should work on your live implant…in theory.”

“What?”

“How could we test it?  One, a live Ancile would never submit to it.  Two, there’s never been anyone like Cordus in human history who could use it this way.”  Scaurus gazed at the boy.  “A new age for humanity begins with him, a new hope for—”

“I know, Scaurus, but like I said, I can’t protect him if I’m brain dead.”

“If you don’t neutralize this implant, you’ll be dead anyway.”

Once again, no choices.  Only the single, dark path filled with anguished screams.

“Let’s get this over with.”

Scaurus nodded.  “Sire, a moment please.”

Cordus put down the book he’d been studying and walked over.

“Ocella, sit in this chair.  Sire, if you would stand in front of Ocella.”

Once Scaurus positioned them correctly, he said, “Do you know what you need to do, sire?”

Cordus shook his head.  “I have never done this before.”

“I know.  But have the “gods” done it?”

Cordus’s eyes went blank.  He stared past Ocella as if looking through the walls and at the horizon.  He blinked, then nodded.

“They have ideas on how to disable it.”  He frowned.  “They need to test some things first.  It may hurt a bit.”

Ocella swallowed.  “Go ahead, Cordus.  I trust you.”

He smiled weakly, then his gaze turned blank again.

Ocella’s scalp tickled as the device activated whatever energy Cordus’s “gods” used.  Someone whispered in her right ear.  She half turned, but Scaurus stood on her left.  The whispers grew louder, though not in a language she understood.

Cordus’s brow furrowed, and he blinked again.

“That was not the right path,” he said.  “They need to try another.”

Ocella inhaled and nodded.  Cordus stared at her head with that blank gaze.

White light exploded before her eyes.  She gasped and heaved backward in the chair.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Scaurus said as he grabbed her arms.

“I can’t see anything,” Ocella yelled.

“I think I have it,” Cordus said.

The light exploded into millions of flashing images—her past sins and sins she had yet to commit.

Ocella screamed.

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