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.
I awoke to find my jaw feeling two sizes too big, and the back of my head—where I presumably fell upon meeting the giant's fist—had a knot that sent waves of white agony through my entire body.
At first I thought I was draped over the saddle of a horse. Only natural since whatever was carrying me was big as a horse and smelled like one too. I opened my eyes just a crack and found I was actually being carried by the largest man I'd ever seen outside a mirror drama in Detroit. He had to have been seven feet tall and about four feet wide. He carried my lanky, six-foot two-inch body as if I were coil of rope. If his muscled calves were any indication of the size of his arms, I doubted I'd have the strength to squirm out of his grasp. Through my cracked eyelids, I saw sandaled feet following him, but all I could tell was that they belonged to a man. I heard more footsteps behind him and in front of me, along with the jingling of metal costume jewelry; my addled brain estimated five men, including the giant. It was dark, and the fishy sewer stench of the Tiber River hung beneath the giant's eau de horse.
I mostly felt angry at myself rather than fearful. Angry that I stupidly told the kid that his controlling father hired me to find him. That I thought the kid would clap and say, "Gee, thanks, mister," and we'd all share a drink to freedom. Of course he didn't want to be found. Of course he'd fight to keep doing what he loved. Of course he wouldn't trust me to keep my mouth shut.
The question was, what were the little punk and his friends going to do with me?
I played possum on the giant's back while I assessed my cell magic stores. Fortunately they hadn't knocked my Wolverines ball cap off my head, which helps me focus my magic. I would certainly need that focus, because the obvious concussion from the knot on my head made my grip on magic tenuous at best. I could barely focus my half-open eyes on the ground without seeing star bursts or seeing two grounds. Casting spells in that condition was risky to say the least. My spells might do anything from simply fizzling to backfiring on me.
But there was no way I could physically overpower Horse Man and his four companions in my condition either. I'd been practicing with Vitulus a lot over the last year, learning rudimentary gladius thrusts and parries, along with some hand-to-hand fighting, but that was more for exercise than serious combat training. Magic was my strength.
And magic was what I'd have to rely on to get out of this mess. Because if I didn't do something in the next minute, I might end up just another floater in the Tiber with his throat cut.
The group stopped, and then Horse Man let me drop to the muddy ground. I tried not to wince from the excruciating pain in my head and jaw, as even the slightest movement made them both flare.
"So who's going to do it," said a young man's voice to my left. It sounded like Balbus, but then the entire troupe was made up of young men, and the concussion had made me loopy.
There was silence to Balbus's question.
"I ain't never killed a man before," said a nervous sounding kid to my right.
"Me neither," said another.
"Well you're all a bunch of old women," snarled Balbus.
"Then you do it!" said someone next to Balbus. "He's your problem, anyway. Why do we have to do your blood work?"
"Because I'm paying for this whole troupe, Argyros, that's why!"
"We could throw him in the river," said a deep voice above me, who must've been the giant. "Let the gods decide."
"And what if the gods let him live, fool?" said Balbus. "We have to kill him so there's no chance he'll talk. If I go back to my father's house, then this troupe will have no patron. You'll all be starving in a week. So who's going to do it?"
There was silence and the shuffling of feet. The group dynamics gave my concussion-addled brain an idea on how to get out of this mess.
Balbus heaved an aggravated sigh. "Fine," he said. "I have to do everything else around here…"
I heard a dagger come out of a sheath, and I saw him kneel down next to me through my slitted eyes. When he slowly brought the knife to my throat, I struck.
I'd been working on my spellcraft a lot lately, especially spells that enabled me to cast them without components or trigger words. Lares, my shop's house spirit, was a tremendous help with that. When she wasn't constantly professing her love for me with Greek poetry, she was happy to give me her ancient knowledge and any nuggets of arcanum she got from the nearby house spirits. Between Lares and my own experimentation, I'd gotten pretty proficient at casting a few spells that used to require time wasting rituals.
Like my freeze spell.
When Balbus's knife neared my neck, I grabbed his wrist, siphoned the magical energy coursing through my body's cells, and willed Balbus to stop. Balbus yelped in surprise and tried to pull back from me, but I held his wrist tight for the single moment it took for my cell magic to burst from my body and into his.
Balbus's arm went slack and he dropped the knife, but he didn't freeze. It appeared that my freeze spell had only put his arm to sleep. Damnation, my concussion warped the spell. My idea had been to make Balbus freeze and then hope that the rest of his troupe—who didn't seem comfortable at all with violence—would be so shocked and awed by my terrible powers that they let me slip away. I know, it wasn't the greatest plan, but to be fair I was suffering from a concussion.
Before I could come up with another spell to throw at Balbus, the kid recovered from his surprise and punched me in my already swollen jaw with his left fist. It wasn't a hard hit—I'd received harder from Vitulus during practice—but its location couldn't have been in a worse spot. I saw stars again from the pain. It stunned me enough so that Balbus's minions had time to get over their own shock and hold me down. The big guy put all his weight on my shoulders with his meaty hands, while the rest jumped on my legs.
Balbus scrambled to pick up his dagger with his left hand and then stood above me. He tried moving his right arm, but all he could get it to do was sway uselessly with his shoulder.
"What did you do to me?" he cried, glancing from his sleeping arm to me with wide eyes. He raised his dagger above me and snarled, "Well you're going to die screaming for that."
No spells came to my mind that I could use to stop Balbus. Even if they had, I doubted my stunned brain could've mustered the concentration to focus my cell magic to light a spark globe. All I could think of at that moment was that I'd survived time travel, daemon attacks, and the darkest magus to come around since the Dark Wars in my home timeline…and I was about to be done in by a rich kid actor with a stage prop dagger.
So much for being the "chosen one".
I figured the cold blast of wind that suddenly blew over my body was the feeling of imminent death. But then the screams around me dispelled that theory.
Balbus's dagger hand began to sizzle and smoke, along with the hooped rings in his ears and the bracelets along his wrists. He screamed in agony as the dagger in his hand glowed as white as metal freshly pulled from a smithy's hearth. He dropped the dagger, but his blackened hand continued to sizzle. He desperately tried pulling the metal jewelry off his body, which were also glowing and smoking wherever they touched his skin.
Then I was free as the actors holding me down let go. They, too, screamed and grasped at their own glowing white jewelry that was burning holes into their bodies.
This turn of events stunned me about as much as the actors, but I'd been in enough scrapes during my two and a half years in ancient Rome to know when to take advantage of lucky break. I jumped to my feet, trying to ignore the vertigo from my knotted head, and ran. It didn't matter in which direction, so long as it was away from the shrieking actors behind me.
But when I got a couple dozen paces away, I skidded to a stop. Rome during the reign of Augustus had no street lanterns or torches, which made it terribly treacherous to be out at night. Not only could you get lost in Rome's maze-like alleys, but you never knew when you'd run into cutthroats lurking in the dark. Or actors.
That's why the magical aura coming from an alley to my right caught my eye. Auras are only emitted by magi casting spells and can only be seen by other magi. The aura on this magus was the color of desert sand with undulating blue streamers. It was dark, and I couldn't make out the magus's physical features, but he was clearly directing the spell that was causing all sorts of hell to my would-be assassins.
Then magus noticed me noticing him. He ceased his spell, whipped around, and ran back up the alley in which he'd been hiding.
Damnation. So I wasn't the only practicing magus in ancient Rome.
Double damnation. That magus just saved my life.
For a brief, heart stopping moment, I thought that William Pingree Ford had somehow returned from the dead, but I just as quickly dismissed that idea. Every magus had a unique aura, and William's aura had been misty green with black and silver sparks. The sandy, blue streaming aura of this magus was definitely not William's.
I knew that other magi existed in the ancient world, but they were so rare that I'd only found one other during my two and a half years here. Magic wouldn't truly become a universal talent among humans until the Great Awakening three hundred years from now. Any magus who had the talent now would have wild talent; it would be unfocused and would usually end up killing the inexperienced magus more often than not.
Not like the magus who just saved my life. This magus was disciplined, knew how to focus, and could cast spells with accuracy.
And the cold blast I'd felt before the spell fired off was one of the markers of soul magic. I hadn't felt the wave of nausea that also accompanied it, but that could just mean that I was used to it after using soul magic in a desperate situation last year. Which only disturbed me more since I didn't want to get used to it.
Sad fact about soul magic: It's easy and powerful, but only Dark magi are crazy enough to use it because of its dangerous and corrupting nature. Whereas cell magi like me fueled our magic from the natural energy stored in our body's cells, Dark magi fueled their magic by either consuming their own souls or the souls of other people or animals. If they consumed their own souls, they would eventually lose all empathy, go mad, and kill themselves with their magic (and typically everyone around them). If they consumed the souls of other living beings, the guilt would ravage their minds and bodies to the point of madness.
I'd seen William Pingree Ford do the latter, and it was not pretty. It took a series of devastating wars in the early twentieth century to defeat the Dark magi and establish the atmospheric Aether, which made all soul magic fizzle.
So a Dark magus, whom I didn't know, just saved my life.
Or did he? Maybe his spell was meant for me as well as the murderous actors? It was only by Fortuna's grace that I wasn't wearing metal that night, or the spell would've had me howling with pain right along with the actors. How could he have known that? If I chased after him in my weakened condition, I'd likely have no way of defending against his magic. If I first didn't trip and crack my skull on Rome's dark streets, that is.
All of this flashed through my addled mind in seconds. I knew the wise course of action was to stagger back to my shop and heal myself. Instead, I chose to stagger after the mysterious Dark magus down a pitch-black alley.
It's a wonder I'd survived so long in Rome.
I turned my black Wolverines baseball cap around and took some fleece from my components belt. I waved the fleece over my head three times and murmured the bastardized Dutch incantation, "Stilte voor mij."
My cell magic rose like waves of summer heat from my skin and then ballooned outward. It was another one of my re-crafted spells, which had the affect of silencing everything within a ten-foot diameter sphere centered on me, yet I could still hear sounds from outside the sphere. At least the magus wouldn't hear me following him in the dark alley. I plunged into the darkness as fast as my pained body would allow.
Unfortunately the magus had stopped casting, so I could no longer find his aura amidst the darkness. All I could go on was the sound of running feet slowly getting farther away from me.
But then after running twenty paces, I saw the magus's aura flare about fifty paces ahead and then rise into the air. At first I thought he'd taken flight, but the aura only went up about ten feet before coming down again and disappearing. I was too far away to detect whether he'd used cell or soul magic, but it didn't really matter at that point.
This magus had skills.
I arrived at the point where the magus had leaped only to find the alley blocked by a seven-foot high gate with metal bars. It had a padlock on the door that I could barely see, but there was enough ambient starlight for me to focus a Rigney channeling on the lock. I focused my cell magic into my right index finger, touched the padlock, and it popped open. I opened the gate without a sound—which was in my silence sphere—and sped after the magus.
I rounded a corner to arrive at a stone dock at the Tiber's edge. Triremes and barges were lashed to the piers around me, and stacks of barrels and grain sacks lined the dock in front of silos and warehouses.
In the meager light coming from the opposite riverbank, I saw the magus skid to a stop at the dock's edge. His back was to me, but I could see that he was around five feet tall, had short black hair, wore a black tunica, and had a black scarf wrapped loosely around his neck and over his shoulders. I was about to yell out to him, but he dove off the dock, with a splash coming a moment later.
I rushed over to the edge and saw the waves rippling outward from his leap into the dark river water. It was a good ten feet down to the water from the dock. I waited for about a minute, looking for any sign of him surfacing, but he didn't come up. I scanned the docked boats nearby, thinking maybe he had come up silently near one of them, but I saw no movement, nor heard any splashing or gasps for air.
I glanced back to where the magus had dove in and noticed something floating among the ripples: his black scarf. I quickly searched the docks and found a long, hooked pole that sailors used to gather docking ropes leaning on a silo. I rushed over, took the pole, and then went back to the edge of the dock, where I used it to retrieve the soaked black scarf.
Still holding the scarf and pole, I scanned the waters around the dock one last time, searching for any sign of the magus or sounds of splashing. I saw and heard nothing.
This magus's simple existence implied that the history I knew was wrong—that disciplined magi did exist before the Great Awakening. Or it could mean that my arrival in ancient Rome, and my mucking around with my magic, had changed this timeline to enable disciplined magic use. The gods or the Fates or the Unknowable Will or whatever had decided last year that I had to live out the rest of my days in ancient Rome if humanity were to survive beyond the twenty-first century. I didn't know why it had to be me or what exactly I was supposed to do here, but I had a feeling that this magus was part of that answer.
I held up his dripping black scarf. I hoped he hadn't drowned trying to get away from me because I really wanted those answers.
Like I mentioned before, I tried to avoid Rome's labyrinthine alleys at night due to their complete lack of street lighting (and lurking cutthroats). If it was a moonless or cloudy night, you could find yourself stepping off the Capitoline's Tarpeian Rock when you meant to go home to the lower Suburba.
But wise ole me had planned for this possibility by setting finder beacons on my shop. All I had to do was reach out with a bit of my cell magic, and my feet would take me home.
The "reaching out with my cell magic" bit was the challenging part since my head screamed and vertigo threatened to knock me down at any moment. It took me an hour of stumbling and getting lost twice, despite my beacons, before I finally got to my garden level shop on the Aventine Hill.
The alley I lived on was about as gentrified middle-class as you could get in ancient Rome. On the right side of my shop lived a Canaanite scribe who wrote letters for the mostly illiterate Roman citizenry, and on the left was a lawyer who specialized in contracts and suing the bejesus out of anyone you aimed him at. It was late, so both shops were dark, as were the living quarters above them.
I descended the five, grooved concrete steps to my wooden door—I had engraved "NATTA MAGUS" on it just a few weeks ago—and opened the latch. I had plenty of enchantments on the door which made locks redundant; if anyone tried to enter while I was gone, they would simply find themselves walking in a different direction without remembering why they'd turned away.
I might have to update those enchantments now that another magus was running around Rome.
As soon as I opened the door, I was assaulted with the verbal equivalent of kisses and hugs.
"My honey fig, my sweet, I was so worried," cried a disembodied female voice. I glanced at the six-inch statue of a cherubic young woman that represented Lares, my shop's house spirit. It glowed with an ethereal white mist that only a magus could see. A small offering bowl sat in front of the statue with a bit of the Pompeian sweet wine she loved.
"I told you I might be late, Lares," I said.
My shop was dark despite Lares' glowing statue, so I lit the lamp in a small alcove on the left side of the door with a spark from my cell magicked finger. The oil-soaked wick brightened and then held a steady flame. I picked it up and brought it to the plank table a few paces from the door. Besides the table and Lares' shrine, the front portion of my shop was about ten feet long and six feet wide and pretty sparse. Secondhand curtains, which I'd bought off of Vitulus, separated the waiting room from my actual workshop/living quarters in the back. The curtains had gaudy geometric shapes stitched into them, but they were trendy by Roman standards and served to keep my working area private.
Before I moved in, this shop was once some kind of boutique, but my magical experiments and components were quickly masking the underlying flowery scents from the former occupants. I had hung an air freshener—an enchanted magical ring made of wood and feathers—above the door, which helped a little, but was far better at sucking in the street stench that tried to make its way into my shop. I probably had the best smelling home in Rome.
I sat down at the table in my waiting area and spread the still wet scarf across the pockmarked surface.
"Well it's been an eternity for me since I last beheld your presence, oh love of my lives," Lares said. "You forget how time does not flow for me as it does for you. I can watch the Republic rise and fall, and it would feel like the blink of one of your exquisite green eyes. But awaiting your return each time you leave feels—"
"Okay, Lares, I appreciate it. You missed me. Now I need to concentrate on this scarf for a minute."
I was a bit harsher with Lares than I'd meant to be, and I chalked it up to the painful lump on my head and my swollen jaw. Which apparently she did as well.
"My sweet, you are not your normal, kind self. Are you injured?" Her plump statue turned a fiery red with orange sparks leaping from it. "By all the gods, I will find this person who hurt you and make him suffer! Who was it? Where does he live?"
"Lares!" I said. But I took a deep breath, and then calmed myself before saying, "I appreciate your concern as always, but I really need to concentrate right now. There's another magus in Rome and this is his scarf. I need to find him."
She was quiet for several moments, and I cringed thinking that I may have hurt her feelings. The colors swirling around her statue switched from angry red to a metallic glow that felt like steely resolve to me.