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. Hereâ€™s the blurb:
Natta Magus is getting used to life in Augustan Rome. While it doesnâ€™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 Romeâ€™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.
SHADOW MAGUS is available on Amazon Kindle andÂ in 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 Romeâ€”
No? Oh this is a good one.
I was that time traveling magusâ€”stuck in Rome going on two years nowâ€”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 thatâ€¦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 Cleopatraâ€”both menâ€”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 meâ€”the only practicing magus in Romeâ€”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 sendsâ€¦”
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.
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