The End is Here!

Natta MagusNo, not the end of handshaking. It’s the end of the Journals of Natta Magus! Been a long time coming, but NATTA MAGUS, the fourth and final book in the series, is now published.

Natta has seen and done a lot in ancient Rome after he got stuck there, but nothing has prepared him for the decision he must face in this last book.

Here’s the blurb:

Natta Magus has a chance to do the one thing he’s wanted since he got stuck in ancient Rome: Go back home to 21st century Detroit.

But there’s a catch. He must do one last job for Octavian Caesar Augustus. The same tyrant a-hole who had him kidnapped from Carthage where he was celebrating with his friends and new girlfriend, Helva Ptolemy. A rogue Roman agent is accumulating magical weapons from the 21st century to overthrow Augustus and start a new Roman civil war. Augustus wants Natta to guide a team of Praetorians into modern Detroit and bring the traitor back to Rome for justice.

If Natta refuses, he never gets the chance to go home, and Rome descends into a brutal civil war fought with 21st century magics. If he accepts, he can go home…but he’ll never again see the people in Rome he’s come to love.

In the final chapter of the Journals of Natta Magus series, Natta must decide where he truly belongs.

NATTA MAGUS is available on Kindle and all major ebook retailers for $4.99, and in trade paperback for $12.99.

Get it on Kindle | Get it on EPUB | Get the trade paperback

Download All Four Books in One

Now that the series is ended, you can get all four volumes (CITIZEN MAGUS, SHADOW MAGUS, WOUNDED MAGUS, and NATTA MAGUS) in one ebook for $9.99 on Amazon Kindle and all major ebook retailers.

Get it on Kindle | Get it on EPUB

WOUNDED MAGUS is here!

Well met!

No question that life was hard in ancient Rome. Especially for Natta Magus, that time-traveling wizard from an alternate 21st century where magic is real.

In the all new WOUNDED MAGUS, book three in the Journals of Natta Magus series, Natta graduates from saving Rome to saving the world.

Here’s the blurb:

Natta Magus watched Helva, the granddaughter of Cleopatra, literally leap into hell to save him and Augustan Rome from annihilation.

The least he could do was bust her out. His twenty-first century honor would accept nothing less.

So along with Cana, a slave-turned-magi apprentice, and Paetus, his self-appointed chronicler, Natta sets off for Alexandria, Egypt, where he hopes to find a way into the Egyptian underworld to rescue Helva.

But his ship is attacked and sunk along the North African coast, bringing him face-to-face with a former adversary who has somehow gone from every day, first-century human to magical demigod. And not only that, the adversary wants Natta’s help in bringing about a magical apocalypse that will change the world and the history he knows.

Natta has to fight his way through pirates, daemonic hordes, and his own dark temptations to not only stop the apocalypse, but save Helva from the Torture Goddess herself.

Just another day for him in the Roman Empire.

WOUNDED MAGUS is available on Amazon Kindle for $4.99, and in trade paperback for $12.99.

Need to get caught up? Read CITIZEN MAGUS and SHADOW MAGUS, the first two books in the Journals of Natta Magus.

Check out the first chapter of WOUNDED MAGUS below.

And remember: Semper ubi sub ubi!

 

WOUNDED MAGUS:
Chapter One

I awoke to darkness and the sounds of lapping water. The smells of moldy wood, old sweat, fish, and the sea all mingled into a miasma every bit as potent as Rome’s. After a disorienting moment, I remembered where I was: on a sea galley crossing the Mediterranean to Carthage.

The darkness wasn’t absolute. Cana had set a dim spark globe above us before we had gone to sleep. We were in the captain’s “cabin,” which was about the size of my apartment’s closet back home in twenty-first century Detroit. Cana lay on the cot, and there was barely enough room for Paetus and me to lie curled up on the floor next to her. It was my letters of credit from Caesar Augustus himself that had earned Cana, Paetus, and I the best sleeping spot in the galley.

But none of that had awoken me. It was the muffled cries of alarm from above us, followed by thumps of bodies falling to the deck. If there had been rousing bouts of laughter, I would’ve chalked it up to drunken sailors and gone back to sleep. But it was the ensuing silence that kept me awake.

Our galley was under attack.

Out of all the travel methods in the ancient Roman world, boat travel always seemed the most dangerous to me.

No, Natta Magus, you’re from the future, Paetus and Cana had said, for once in agreement on something. It is the best way to get to Egypt. It would take weeks to travel the roads through Anatolia and Palestine. You’re too used to your aero-planes and horseless trollies, Natta Magus. Trust us, Natta Magus, this way is best.

The four-day crossing from Sicily to North Africa was a nightmare. We encountered monstrous swells that almost toppled our galley and made me yack up the meager porridge they served onboard. The hull leaked in six different spots, which required slaves armed with buckets to monitor them round the clock. And then there was the whole day without a breath of wind to move our sails. It made me wonder what it would be like to die of thirst on a salty sea. And this was only the first half of our journey. Once we reached Carthage, we’d board another galley that would hug the North African coast and take us straight to Alexandria.

All part of a normal voyage, the Carthaginian captain explained. Nothing to worry about.

I’m not an “I told you so” kind of guy. When I realized the ship was under attack, I simply nudged Cana on her cot. My apprentice’s brown eyes shot open.

“Don’t panic, leerling,” I whispered, calling her the Dutch word for apprentice. “We’re under attack.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but Paetus shot up into a sitting position next to me. “Attack? Are you—?”

Both Cana and I shushed him at the same time. The whites of his eyes were almost as bright as the spark globe above us.

A man screamed on the deck, and we all jumped. Heavy feet creaked and bent the floorboards above our heads. We stared at the ceiling in silence. Then came a thump and the sounds of many feet rushing across the deck.

“We should help,” Cana said, still watching the ceiling.

“Are you mad?” Paetus hissed. “It’s probably pirates. They’re monsters. I’ve heard horrid tales. They’ll slice us open from neck to groin and let the gulls feast on our innards!”

Cana rolled her eyes and whispered, “Piracy has been extinct for decades. You read far too many fantastical tales.” Her tone was impatient as it always was with Paetus, but her Latin’s Gallic accent was far more pronounced. It meant she was scared.

Paetus’s wan face turned pink with anger. “Just because Pompey Maximus destroyed them doesn’t mean he made them ‘extinct’. They could still lurk in every cove and—”

“Paetus,” I said. I kept my voice low, calm, and firm like a leader should. “Whoever they are, Cana’s right. We either do something now or wait for them to find us.”

Paetus groaned.

“I have practiced slapen,” Cana said. “I can get at least four.”

More likely one, I thought. Cana had a habit of overestimating her strength. But what she lacked in strength—at the moment—she more than made up for in confidence and shear stubbornness to learn. She’d grown more in the last two months that I’d known her than I had in all four years of secondary academy in Detroit. I never believed that magi of her strength could naturally develop so early before the Great Awakening. She’d surpass my strength in the next few years.

If we made it through the next five minutes.

“Only if they’re kind enough to bunch up for you,” I said to her, “and if none of the crew are among them to dissipate the spell. If so, go for it. If not, we need another plan.”

A shout came from above in a language that certainly wasn’t Latin. It sounded similar to the Carthaginian captain’s words when he gave orders to his crew and slaves. The freedmen rowers just outside the cabin’s thin curtain murmured nervously in their rowing bays.

“Paetus,” I said, “do you understand what they’re saying up top?”

Paetus knew about a dozen languages, Carthaginian Punic being among them. He looked sick with fear, but he cocked his head and listened. His shoulders slumped and he looked even sicker, if that was possible.

“They just killed the captain,” he whispered. “The pirate leader told his men to search the rest of the boat.”

My throat seized up and my bowels cramped. I wasn’t surprised by my physical reaction to danger. I’d been in many life-and-death scrapes during my three years in Augustan Rome, versus zero in my twenty-first century life. I’ve fought vampire-like monsters called strix, a sewer basilisk that almost killed Augustus himself, ghosts, daemons, and, most recently, the magically conjured avatar of the Roman revenge goddess Invidia. You’d think I’d laugh off a few mundane pirates.

But this was how I always felt before a fight, from a brawl with drunken Roman plebs to an arena-destroying battle with a deity. And somehow I’d survived all those. I had a destiny, supposedly, and it wasn’t to die here.

“Cana,” I said, my voice level, “grab all your spell components. We may not be coming back here. Paetus, take only the scrolls and bags you need. Leave your trunk.”

Cana was already cinching her leather components pouch before I’d finished my order.

Paetus gave a shaky sigh and then gathered the scrolls on which he’d been writing before we went to sleep and stuffed them into his shoulder bag. He eyed his trunk, filled with even more scrolls, books, and clay tablets, and sighed again.

I made sure my trusty old Wolverines baseball cap was firmly set on my head, secured my own components vest, and fastened my gladius belt around my waist. I also slung my watertight leather bag, which contained Augustus’s letters of credit, over my shoulders. I sealed the scroll tubes with these journals you’re reading and the cherubic statue of my dearly departed house spirit Lares. I left behind my other sacks with a change of clothes.

I glanced at the wrists of both Cana and Paetus. They both wore the enchanted leather bracelets that I’d given them. I reached out with my cell magic and could feel my feet wanting to walk toward them. As long as they wore those, I could find them if we got separated.

“Think you can swing a blussen?” I asked Cana.

“Yes but how will we see?”

“Use cell magic to filter your eyes to heat. You’ll see them, but they won’t see you.”

She nodded, then gave me a worried look. “What are you going to do? Are you going to use—?”

“No,” I said firmly.

“I can stop you if you lose control. I know the words—”

“I said no!”

Things weren’t that desperate for me to give up a bit of my soul. Yet.

A girl’s scream came from the cabin across the hull from us, and then a young man’s angry shouts. There were two Carthaginian girls in that cabin, one eleven and one sixteen, traveling with their brother who wasn’t much older than them. The brother was yelling something in Punic. The other girl was screaming now, and the harsh laughter of the pirates finally got me moving.

“Put out the spark globe and cast the blussen!” I hissed to Cana.

I turned my Wolverines baseball cap around so that the bill faced backwards and flung the curtain aside.

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SHADOW MAGUS published!

shadow_magus_20160613_ebook_smWell met!

Natta Magus, that time-traveling wizard from an alternate 21st century where magic is real, is back for an all new adventure in SHADOW MAGUS. Here’s the blurb:

Natta Magus is getting used to life in Augustan Rome. While it doesn’t have twenty-first century perks like baseball or coffee, at least his unique magical skills can help his Aventine Hill friends.

But the Roman government has noticed his talents, and they call on him when a religious artifact from Rome’s ancient past is stolen. Natta discovers the thief is a magus as powerful as him, which should be impossible in this era. Unlike him, the magus wants Rome to die screaming.

Play ball.

SHADOW MAGUS is available on Amazon Kindle and in trade paperback.

Kindle | Trade Paperback

I’ve included the first chapter below. Happy reading!

SHADOW MAGUS: Chapter One

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A time traveling magus from twenty-first century Detroit walks into a bar in ancient Rome—

No? Oh this is a good one.

I was that time traveling magus—stuck in Rome going on two years now—walking into the seediest tavern along the Tiber riverfront during the reign of Caesar Augustus looking for the scion of an equestrian family whose paterfamilias claimed the teenage boy had been “bewitched” into joining an acting troupe. And just so you know, prostitutes in Roman society were looked upon with one tick more respect than actors.

Told you it was a good one.

Like most Roman taverns, it was in the garden level of a rickety tenement that was ancient when the Republic was founded. I walked down five worn, brick steps, left the blue skies and bright sunshine of a fine Roman afternoon and entered the open doorway into the dark tavern.

The stench hit me first: spilled wine, stale posca, and human body odor. Pretty much what you’d expect from a Roman tavern. And it was so dark I might as well have been walking into the underworld. When my eyes adjusted, I saw long tables with benches, each holding a couple of lit candle stubs. Two large men almost my height sat at one table across from each other, their heads in their arms on the tables with wooden cups next to them. I couldn’t tell if they were sleeping, passed out, or dead. Three plebeians sat at a table to my right taking turns rolling dice from a tin cup, alternating between cheers and groans depending on the rolls.

One of the sleeping men suddenly belched and then threw up on the stone floor next to him. I grimaced and looked away. That guy was still alive.

“Oy!” came a voice to my left. A man with large forearms shuffled out of a room in the back carrying two huge clay jugs with sloshing liquid and set them down behind a stone counter. I figured him to be the owner, since he wore a solid black tunica, and not the drab gray of a slave. He glowered at the nauseous drunk. “I told you to use the bucket at your feet next time, you cac stain!”

The drunk grumbled something and then went back to sleep.

The owner was about to say something else, but then noticed me standing in the doorway. He gave my black Wolverines baseball cap a long look, and then said, “Fancy a drink, dominus?”

I was about to ask for my runaway actor when I heard a burst of laughter come from a hallway in the back. The opening was covered by a thick red curtain, and sunlight peeked around the edges. The finder spell that I’d cast back at my shop to locate the actor wannabe made my feet want to walk toward the curtained doorway.

“Actually,” I said, “I’m here to see the show.”

“Two denarii, dominus.”

I fetched two coins from the money pouch on my spell components belt and put them on the counter as I walked past the owner toward the curtained door. I pulled the heavy curtain aside and headed down a short corridor toward a sunlit courtyard at the end. I passed one room on the right that was filled with jugs and sacks. Another room on the left must’ve been the owner’s residence: a woman sat in a chair next to a bed breastfeeding her infant child. She gave me a tired glare, and I felt my ears heat up. I quickly averted my eyes toward the courtyard.

The courtyard was about forty feet square with tenement balconies on all four sides of the three-story wood buildings. A small stage was set up at the far end where maybe a dozen plebeian citizens sat on stools laughing raucously at a bawdy comedy act that…well, let’s just say that the Romans can’t get enough of large, fake penises being used to humiliate their enemies. In this particular demonstration of quality drama, an actor playing a young Octavian was using his large penis to smack around Marc Antony and his Egyptian lover, Cleopatra, who had apparently persuaded Antony to do himself up with Eastern eye liner and clownish makeup. The actors playing Antony and Cleopatra—both men—ran around the stage trying to flee Octavian’s raging manhood.

Apparently not even the thirty years since Antony’s defeat at Actium was enough to diminish the humor from that bit.

My finder spell told me that “Cleopatra” was Septimius Naevius Balbus, the equestrian kid that I was looking for.

I sat on a stool in the back to watch the comedy unfold. Once Octavian finally stabbed Antony with his, um, weapon, the show took an even stranger turn. Octavian strode off the stage, proud of his victory, while Cleopatra wept over Antony’s body. A troupe of musicians stationed behind the stage began a haunting tune with their horns and lyres. Then “she” began an equally haunting, yet beautiful dirge that literally gave me chills. The kid’s voice went up and down in the tradition of ancient music that I’d become used to over the last two and a half years. I’m no musical genius, but to my untrained ears, he seemed to hit every note. The kid had talent and obviously loved what he did.

Which made me wonder about ratting him out to his father.

I admired many things about ancient Rome. My Praetorian friend, Gaius Aurelius Vitulus, was one. He was the epitome of ancient Rome’s virtues: honor, bravery, and a righteous sense of justice. He didn’t hesitate to protect the innocent, but if you crossed him, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill you dead. Vitulus’s wife, Claudia, was another. She knew my weird history, knew the danger I occasionally put Vitulus in during the “delicate” cases for which the Praetorians called on me—the only practicing magus in Rome—for help. Yet she never hesitated in opening her family’s resources to me if I needed help. Even with a newborn son, she found time to send baskets of food to my shop on the Aventine Hill whenever she’d hear that business was slow for me.

But there were many things about ancient Rome that made me cringe. As a man of the twenty-first century, slavery, of course, was at the top of the list. A close second was the almost religious preoccupation with social status that was practically written into every Roman law. I grew up in Detroit, a city in the mid-western American Union, where even the poorest people had a decent shot at being successful if they worked hard and persevered. In Rome, it was also possible to rise up the ranks, though freedmen and citizens usually did it by “marrying up” to the next social rung, or distinguishing themselves in the legions, or becoming talented orators in the Forum (this, of course, only applied to the guys; the gals could only pray to Juno that daddy married them off to one of the above).

One of the things that annoyed me about the social system here, though, was that once your family did scratch and crawl its way to the top of the ladder, it was the height of scandal if anyone in the family wanted to descend a few rungs. Like the kid Balbus singing his heart out on stage. Balbus’s father, the senior Septimius Naevius, had hired me to find Balbus and report back on the kid’s location. I assumed so that the Naevius goons could drag the kid back home kicking and screaming and force him to be a good future paterfamilias. I took the job because, well, business had been slow lately, and while I appreciated Claudia’s gift baskets, I was tired of feeling like one of her clientela. Vitulus and Claudia were my Roman family, not my patrons, and I wanted to keep it that way.

But this case was bringing back memories of when I struggled to tell my parents that I wanted to study the Finder arcanum, not Energy like they had. It certainly wasn’t the dire situation Balbus was in, but I had an inkling as to how he felt. My parents had just assumed that I shared their passion for developing magical batteries, routing magic via the Aether to power homes in Detroit, or just tinkering with magic-powered devices to make them more efficient. They were surprised when I told them that wasn’t my thing, and I had seen the disappointment in their eyes. But they understood that my passions just didn’t match theirs, so they went on to support my endeavors.

I couldn’t imagine living in a place where my parents could’ve forced me to study Energy rather than Finder.

So once again, my conscience wanted to overrule my stomach.

I hadn’t realized how transfixed the rest of the audience was with Balbus until he finished singing. The small crowd erupted in appreciative applause. The rest of the troupe joined Balbus on stage, all of them smiling as they bowed. I waited until the troupe had exited to the small, curtained backstage before getting up and making my way toward them.

I found the actors joined by the three hidden musicians. All six performers held a cup of wine in their hands and were drinking to a well performed show. They seemed filled with post-performance energy, laughing and joking about different parts. They still wore the garish makeup, and metal costume jewelry dangled from their ears, around their necks, and on their wrists.

When they finally noticed me standing there, I nodded to Balbus and said, “You’re a good singer. I haven’t heard a performance like that in years.”

“My thanks, citizen,” Balbus said, nodding back to me with a grin. “You can show your appreciation by telling your friends about us. We play here every evening just before sundown.”

“Your father hired me to find you,” I said.

Balbus froze, the grin on his face turning into a rictus and his eyes widening. His friends also stared at me with the same shocked expression.

“Look, I just wanted to let you know before your father sends…”

Balbus’s eyes flickered to something behind me. He gave a quick nod.

I turned in time to see a fist the size of Mount Vesuvius heading toward my face before all went black.

###

Continue reading on Kindle or in Trade Paperback.

SHADOW MAGUS: The Kindle Scout campaign

shadow_magus_20160613_ebook_smLast October I ran a Kindle Scout campaign for CITIZEN MAGUS, the first book in my Journals of Natta Magus series. While Kindle Press didn’t select the book for publication, I got a lot of great feedback and encouraging words from folks who nominated it. With that in mind, I’m running a campaign for book two in the series, SHADOW MAGUS.

The campaign works like this: Readers can nominate my book for a publishing deal with Kindle Press. If Kindle Press picks up my book, your nomination will earn you a free copy once they publish it. The more nominations I get, the better my chances for a deal and a free ebook for you.

Nominating is easy, quick, and a great way to support new authors (check out the other campaigns on the Scout site, too). Please see my campaign page for more details and an excerpt from the book.

Thanks in advance for your support!

From the book description:

Natta Magus is getting used to life in Augustan Rome. While it doesn’t have twenty-first century perks like baseball or coffee, at least his unique magical skills can help his Aventine Hill friends. But the Roman government has noticed his talents, and they call on him when a religious artifact from Rome’s ancient past is stolen. Natta discovers the thief is a magus as powerful as him, which should be impossible in this era. Unlike him, the magus wants Rome to die screaming. Play ball.

CITIZEN MAGUS released!

citizen_magus_final_20150920_1000hI’m excited to announce the release of my new fantasy novel, CITIZEN MAGUS, the first book in a new series about a wizard from an alternate 21st century who gets stuck in ancient Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

The blurb:

Remington Blakes, a magus from a 21st century where magic powers the world, has a big problem.

His former mentor, William Ford, stranded him in ancient Rome without a memory as to how or why. Well a guy has to eat, so he’s forced to eke out a living as a magus-for-hire among Rome’s plebeians. He calls himself “Natta Magus” since his real name sounds too Germanic to the discriminating Romans.

So when Natta learns that Ford has conjured daemons to kidnap a senator’s young daughter, he jumps at the chance to track Ford down. Natta chases him to Rome’s Germanic frontier to not only rescue the child, but learn the terrible secret behind why he left Natta in Rome.

CITIZEN MAGUS is available on Amazon Kindle and all major ebook retailers for $2.99, and in trade paperback for $13.99.

Kindle | Trade Paperback

I’ve included the first chapter of CITIZEN MAGUS below.  I hope you have as much fun reading the book as I did writing it!

CITIZEN MAGUS: Chapter One

My name is Remington Blakes, but people in 6 B.C. Rome call me Natta Magus.

Why?

For starters, I am a fully trained, licensed, and insured magus from twenty-first century Detroit in the American Union.  Second, I needed to feed myself somehow after I got stranded in ancient Rome, so I set up my own magus shop on the Aventine Hill.  What Roman would hire Remington when they could hire (cue epic echo) Natta Magus.  It means something like “artisanal wizard” in Latin, so I guess you could call it a marketing decision.

But there were times like now, running through Rome’s crowded streets on my way to stop a magical murder, that I wondered if there were safer ways to earn money.  Like joining the legions.

Gaius Aurelius Vitulus, my Praetorian friend—perhaps my only friend in Rome—stopped ahead and gave me an impatient frown.  I once saw him make a corrupt quaestor spill his guts with just that frown.  He was a few inches shorter than my six-foot two-inch frame, but he had the intimidating build of a twenty-something man who spent the last ten years in the legions.  When I caught up to him, he said, “The sun is setting, and we’re still a mile from the temple.”

“I’m going as fast as I can,” I growled.  “These damned sandals are killing me.”  Eighteen months in Rome and I still longed for the rubber-soled sneakers I wore back home.

“Your dawdling will kill Celsus Maximus,” Vitulus grunted, and began weaving his way again through the crowds and labyrinthine Roman alleys.

Vitulus was dressed like any other citizen of the equestrian social rank—a white woolen tunica with two narrow, vertical red stripes down the sides—but his bearing and the well-used, pearl-handled gladius on his belt made the crowds part for him.  The gladius was a gift from his father upon his ascension to manhood on his fourteenth birthday.  I once asked Vitulus why he didn’t brush the stains off the pearl handle, and he said that the stains remind him the gladius was a tool and not a bauble.  I tried not to think of how many men he’d killed with it during his days in the legions.

I’d known Vitulus for about a year, and all I can tell you is that by contemporary Roman standards, he’s a huge Boy Scout.  He values honor above all other virtues, always keeps his promises, will fight to protect the innocent, but won’t hesitate to kill his enemies.  A year ago I had helped Vitulus and his boss, Praetorian Prefect Salvius Aper, with a “delicate matter” involving supernatural forces.  They’d come to me ever since with more “delicate matters” that gods-fearing Romans didn’t want to believe in.

Take the case of Celsus Maximus, the famous gladiator whose murder we were racing to prevent.  Now I abhor slavery like anyone from my time, so when Vitulus came to me for help in finding Celsus, I turned him down.  I had hoped that Celsus had escaped the bloody gladiatorial games that Romans loved.  But then Vitulus told me that a clay tablet had been left in Celsus’s empty quarters.  It said that Celsus would be killed unless “Remington Blakes, the one you call Natta Magus,” shows up alone at the Temple of Sterquilinus outside the Porta Ostiensis by sundown.  It warned of dire consequences if I brought anybody with me.

Well that piqued my interest.  Only two people in ancient Rome knew my real name.  Vitulus was one.  The other was the all around bastard who abandoned me in ancient Rome in the first place, my former friend and mentor from the twenty-first century, William Pingree Ford.  He’d been using his magus powers in Rome over the last eighteen months to try and change history, and I’d done my best to clean up his messes.  But he always stayed a few moves ahead of me.  I had to catch him, so I could not only stop him but make him send me home.

Was it a trap?  Maybe.  He’d passive aggressively tried to kill me last year by sicking daemons on me, though I think that was more to distract me from his real plot to kill Caesar Augustus.  I stopped him, but that’s another story.

No, this was the best lead I’d had on him in months, and I couldn’t ignore it.

Which is what worried me.

“I don’t understand how Celsus could be captured,” Vitulus said as I came even with him again.  “He’s a cunning warrior.”

I dodged a flock of sheep heading to the Forum and blinked the sweat out of my eyes.  My Detroit Wolverines baseball cap, which helped me focus my magic, was soaked in sweat from my jog through Rome’s stifling and close streets.

“Magic beats might every time, my friend,” I said.  “If William is behind this, then Celsus may not have had a chance.  We need to—”

I stubbed my open toe on a stray rock and unleashed a string of modern curses.  Vitulus eyed me with amusement.

“Is that how you curse in ‘Anglish’?” he asked.

“English,” I said, limping next to him.  “Latin curses don’t feel as good.”  And I hope I’m not here long enough for them to do so.  “As I was saying, we need to figure out why William would kidnap Celsus of all people and use him to lure me to this temple.”

“If your former mentor wants to kill someone famous,” Vitulus said, barely breathing hard, “he couldn’t have found anyone more famous than Princeps Augustus himself.  Celsus has over a hundred kills in the arena in just the last year alone.  He rarely ever gets wounded, and he’s refused the wooden sword of freedom four times.  He’s the most remarkable gladiator in over a generation.”

Listening to Vitulus rattle off Celsus’s kills reminded me how I’d rattle off the stats of my favorite Wolverine ball players.  It was kind of disgusting and once again illustrated the huge cultural gulf between my friend and I.

“Yeah, well, a good sword arm is no match against a well-formed sleeper spell,” I said.

We rounded the corner and almost ran into a wedding party.  The bride’s father, dressed in a brilliant white toga, led the procession.  Female slaves marched behind him and in front of the bride, throwing multi-colored flower petals at her feet.  A deep-yellow veil covered her head, and she wore a white robe bound at the waist with a woolen belt.  Her attendants and family marched behind her, likely on their way to the groom’s house and the next stage of their ceremony.

These processions were common in Roman streets, and my heart cracked a little each time I saw one.  I had missed my own wedding in the twenty-first century two months ago.  I’m trying, Brianna, I thought.  All my will and focus is bent on getting home to you.  I missed her so much that I saw her reflection in every pool of water I passed.  Her long brown hair always pulled back in a pony-tail; her circular, wire-framed spectacles perched on the end of her nose; sparkling green eyes; mischievous grin; the goose flesh on her soft skin when I touched—

Focus, I had to focus.  Daydreaming about Brianna had almost killed me during my recent jobs with Vitulus.

We passed the procession and stepped onto the brick-layered Via Ostiensis, where I felt like I could breathe again.  For an empire renowned for its efficient roads and imperial administration, the Mother City was a maze of meandering, claustrophobic alleys and haphazardly built wood and brick tenements.  Even native Romans got lost if they tried navigating the unlit streets at night.

“Have you given more thought to my invitation?” Vitulus asked as we continued jogging.

I winced, expecting this after passing the wedding.  “Still thinking about it.”

“What’s there to think about?  It’s my wedding.  I’m meeting Claudia’s family tomorrow to negotiate guests, so I want to add your name to that list.  I don’t know about your Detroit, but here in Rome it’s considered an insult to refuse a wedding invitation, especially from a friend.”

Oh, it’s insulting in my time, too, I thought.  But how could I explain to him that passing a stranger’s wedding procession made me want to sit in my shop all day writing sad poetry and sighing.  Watching a friend get married would be a figurative gladius shoved into my heart.

“I know, and you deserve an answer,” I said.  I licked my lips.  “I have to decline.  You know I can’t make any oaths that would tie me to this century or it’ll be all the more difficult for me to get back home.  Accepting a wedding invitation is an implied oath that I will be at a certain place at a certain time.  What happens if I discover a way to get home tomorrow?”

Vitulus gave an exasperated laugh.  “Then I’ll release you from your ‘oath’!”

“Yes, but what if you’re not around to do that?  I can’t take that chance.  I’m sorry.”

Vitulus continued jogging in silence, his teeth clenched.

Accepting a wedding invitation wasn’t considered an Oath with a capital “O” in any magus class I’d ever passed.  Only strong Oaths, like marriage vows might keep me here longer than I wanted.  I’d even turned down Salvius Aper’s clientela offer, essentially giving me a full-time job in the Praetorian Guard, because I’d have to swear oaths to serve him that might conflict with my Oaths.  Swearing an Oath is like putting a tattoo on your soul.  It’s there for life.  Sure there are ways to remove it without fulfilling it, but they hurt like hell.  So if you even think you might not follow through with an Oath, it was best not to swear it in the first place.  If I went back to the twenty-first century without fulfilling it, my aura would be forever tarnished, and then good luck finding a job or making another friend again.

So even I knew my excuse was lame.

We exited the Porta Ostiensis on the south side of Rome and jogged another half-mile before stopping.  Vitulus pointed to a hilltop with a small circular building on top.  It was a few hundred yards away and surrounded by plowed grain fields.  The building had a red-tiled roof and square windows that ran along the entire circumference.  It looked more like a tool shed than a temple.

“The Temple of Sterquilinus,” he said, “the god of fertilization.  Most people go to the Temple of Ceres these days, so it’s fallen into disrepair.”

“So he’s the god of manure?”

Vitulus shrugged, and then said, “I still think it’s foolish for you to go alone.”

“Probably,” I said.  I mentally checked the enchantments that held my ball cap to my head and my components belt around my waist were set.  The familiar tingle in my hairline and my hips said they were.  “But the letter said he’d kill Celsus if I didn’t come alone.  And William couldn’t have chosen a better spot to ensure my loneliness.”

Vitulus’s hand tightened on the pearl hilt of his sheathed gladius as he studied the temple.  “If you think this is a trap, then why are you going?  Why risk your life for a gladiator you’ve never met?”

“Because this is the best lead I’ve had on William in months.”  I put a hand on his shoulder, and he turned his eyes back to me.  “And I want to go home.”

He nodded reluctantly.

“Besides,” I said, “William has had plenty of chances to kill me over the last year and a half.  If he wanted me dead, I’d be dead.  He wants something else from me.”

“Then may Fortuna walk with you,” Vitulus said.

I nodded to him, turned my black Wolverines ball cap around so the bill was pointed backwards, and started toward the temple.  This prepared my body to cast a spell at a moment’s notice.

The Temple of Sterquilinus may have been forgotten, but the manure he represented sure wasn’t.  It was planting season, so the stench and crunch of desiccated dung beneath my sandaled feet made my nervous walk toward the temple all the more unpleasant.  When I arrived at the base of the temple hill, I noticed the walking path that I could’ve taken from the Via Ostiensis to the temple door.

“Son of a…” I muttered, and then kicked the manure and dirt off my sandals and bare feet.  Only a bath later would get them clean.  William would just have to deal with my smells.

I walked to the top of the hill, glancing to the west as I did so.  A sliver of orange sun still shone above the hilly horizon.  I had made it here before sundown.  I hoped I wasn’t too late for Celsus.

The entry into the temple had no door and was dark.  Nothing like an abandoned, spooky temple to raise the hairs on your neck.  My Wolverines baseball cap would block my presence from any lurking spirits that might try to feed on my magic, so I wasn’t worried about them.  It was the living that concerned me, and William in particular.  What I said earlier about my belief that he didn’t bring me here to kill me was well reasoned…until my lizard brain threw spark grenades at that logic.

Maybe he’s tired of you stopping his plots and wants to kill you now in the middle of a manure-sown field.  Maybe he’s finally lost what’s left of his mind.  He admitted in our last meeting months ago that he wanted to erase the knowledge of magic from twenty-first century humanity.  In my future, magic was ubiquitous and powered the world; erasing it would plunge the world into a dark age that I couldn’t imagine.  For someone who wanted to do that, murdering a former student wasn’t too far-fetched.

Well I wouldn’t get any answers by standing outside soaking up manure reek.  I marched through the open entry and into the dark temple.

The meager light from the windows and a second open entry across from me helped me see a dozen wood benches surrounding a stone altar in the middle.  A large man with a shaved head wearing a brown tunica stood before the altar with his back to me.  That was not William, unless he’d grown three inches and put on fifty pounds since I last saw him.

“Celsus Maximus?” I asked, my eyes scanning the rest of the empty room.

A throaty chuckle came from the large man.  I shifted my eyes to him and every cell in my body seemed to ice over.  There was something terribly wrong with him.

“That is not my name,” the man said in a Germanic accent.  “The Romans gave me that name when they enslaved me.”

He turned around.  I first noticed the small body he held in his massive arms.  It was a dark-haired girl, no more than thirteen.  Her face looked serene, but the left side of her neck was a jagged mess of dark red flesh, muscle, and exposed white bone.  A second girl lay near the man’s feet.  She was younger than the first and her eyes were closed, but I saw no wounds and she was still breathing.

My eyes fled from the two girls to the man’s face.  His entire mouth and chin were bright red, and his teeth were impossibly large, gray, and jagged.

“My name is Octric,” he said, “and I no longer kill for the pleasure of a Roman mob.”  Blood oozed from between his teeth when he grinned.  “Now I kill for my own pleasure.”

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MUSES OF TERRA now available!

MUSES OF TERRA, the second book in my Codex Antonius series, is now available in ebook and paperback! Here’s the synopsis:

MOT_20140905_02_300hMarcus Antonius Cordus thought he’d left his past behind when he escaped Terra six years ago. Namely, being Consular Heir of the disintegrating Roman Republic and sole carrier of the sentient alien Muse virus that once ruled the Republic. All he wants is to explore the universe with his mercenary friends and stay far away from Roman politics.

But the Muse strain infecting him has different plans. Cordus begins to see ghosts from the past and hear voices when no one is near. He fears the Muses are attacking his mind and that his immunity is slipping. If he loses control he will become a slave to Muse plans to dominate humanity, just like his Antonii ancestors. Or worse: banishment from the mercenary family who loved him when no one else would.

So when a new Muse strain invades Roman space—one even feared by the strain infecting Cordus—he is forced to choose between the freedom he’s always wanted and stopping the apocalypse that he was born to prevent.

uc_20131209_300hAnd for a limited time the ebook version of book one, MUSES OF ROMA, is now $0.99 for the Kindle and Kindle apps!

I hope you have as much fun reading these books as I did writing them!

Book Review: Chained by Fear by Jim Melvin

Chained by Fear, book two in Jim Melvin’s Death Wizard Chronicles, begins the story of Laylah, the beautiful sister of the evil sorcerer Invictus.  Invictus has imprisoned Laylah in a magical tower, hoping that she’ll one day become his queen and rule the world of Triken with him.

Laylah, however, happens to be the sane one in the family.  She’s repulsed at the thought of marrying her own brother, let alone spending her life with a depraved lunatic with god-like powers.  She’s locked away for seventy years—her demon blood gives her long life—before finally escaping with the help of Invictus’s former allies.

While on the run, she meets Torg the Death-Knower, a powerful wizard in his own right.  We last saw Torg in Forged in Death, after he had escaped Invictus’s vile prison and made some roguish friends.  When Laylah and Torg meet, sparks fly.  Literally.  They are drawn to each other in a supernatural passion that neither can explain.  They only know that their fates are entwined and that they will live or die together.

But Invictus has something to say about this.  He unleashes his hideous minions to retrieve Laylah and finally destroy the Death-Knower, the one being in all of Triken that can oppose him.

When you pick up a Jim Melvin novel, you know you’re in for two things:

(1) Melvin excels at world-building.  Triken’s cultures, magic, and monsters all resonate with real-world mythologies.  But Melvin adds unique twists that make them at once familiar and alien.

(2) Melvin’s Death Wizard Chronicles are adult fantasy.  Make no mistake, this series if far more G.R.R. Martin than J.R.R. Tolkien due to its sexual content and violence.  However, I did not think the sex and violence were gratuitous, and I thought it helped illustrate either the depravity or kindness of the characters.

Chained by Fear resolves a minor quibble I had with Forged in Death.  Torg was too powerful in book one, and nothing could hurt him unless he allowed it.  It’s the challenge that Superman’s writers have dealt with for decades: how do you make readers worry about a character who can’t be hurt?

Melvin solved this by giving Torg cherished friends.  He may not die if he fails, but his friends surely will, and in gruesome ways.  Torg’s adventures were far more harrowing this time around, and gave him the chance to demonstrate his honor and strength while he protected the people he loves.  Melvin nicely sets up a character in Torg who is the polar opposite of the wicked Invictus.

And the fact they love the same woman will make their inevitable battle viciously personal.  I’m looking forward to it.

Highly recommended.

Chained by Fear, and the Death Wizard Chronicles, are available on Amazon.

[Note:  Cross-posted at The New Podler Review of Books.]

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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