The Pirate, The Oracle and their Monster

Stormy clouds gathered over the calm lake. Alongside the distasteful sulfur discharges, they ruined an otherwise beautiful day. Heaven and hell collided, causing something to implode over the waters; a wave of yellow, gray and white mists covered the realm of sensible reality. A Greek walked over the scalding vapors, tall and tanned, owner of an impeccable auburn beard. He held in one of his a feminine mask of wrinkled and broken wax. On another, a long bronze tube engraved with intricate patterns - too precise for even the most gifted of contemporaneous artisans. Jumping over bubbling jets of water and playfully toying with the steam, the man made his way towards the shore; he danced in honour of his good fortunes, to a tune only he could hear. He threw his melted mask into the water and searched for a convenient rock. A cloud of steam dispersed, revealing an extravagant silk cloak and a long blue tunic with golden linings of arcane lineage.

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Dressing up and sitting down, the Greek relaxed and meditated. The world was split, shifting and rearranging. When he opened his eyes, he was no longer besides the volcanic lake, surrounded instead by the black sand of some Italian coast, seagulls soaring above him. A ship anchored nearby, its crew patiently waiting. A smaller boat approached, those aboard waving as they recognized the man.

“Captain!” A kemet man, whose bearing betrayed his responsibilities as navigator, greeted the Greek. “Welcome aboard. We have missed you; I hope you were successful?”

“Better than what I could expect. Here.” The Greek man put the bronze tube in the hands of the closest companion. It was eagerly exchanged between the curious crew. “If I put this on the hands of the right person, we can live the rest of our lives like kings. Take it to my quarters, I will decide on a course later. Before we proceed, Ammon, tell me exactly what happened while I was playing slave of the Latins. Where are our other ships?”

Xenophon was caught by a storm and went back to Regium for repairs; the Salaminia decided they could make some money with the Celts were last seen sailing to meet their leaders and negotiate an escape from Italia.”

“Let’s sail south, so that we might meet in Regium. Then we join forces with the Salaminia and take the Gauls aboard. Once we have separated them from their spoils, we dock on Carthage - where we sell them into slavery. We then return home to Alexandria and spend their ill-gotten treasure.” The cheers of the crew barely let the captain conclude. “I will retire for the day, for I am in deep need of rest; if anyone disturbs me, I hope - for their sake - that they are bringing wine and figs.”

The Greek crawled towards the captain’s quarters, straight to bed. As he laid there, his sleepy eyes searched the room for his prize, finally finding it over a soft pillow. He slowly narrowed his eyes, studying the shining trophy with his mind’s eye.

“How do you plan to use this relic, Diodorus?” A female voice with a metallic echo invaded his mind, its accent marked by an archaic dialect of Greek. “Nothing is sacred to your kind.”

“Hello, Sybil. Which of them do I have the dubious honor of receiving in my head? Is it Cumae? Sounds right, none of the others would care about Romans.”

“I see that you have met my sisters. Excellent. You must know then, that we do not lent ourselves to vague concerns and I would not waste my words addressing you personally if it was not extremely important. I expect you to listen carefully, for this might be the first and last time we speak.”

“Wait, wait! Before you continue, let me show you something.” Diodorus rose, pacing himself around the room while snapping his fingers, looking for something. “I do not like to communicate mentally, my mind tends to wanders and the result is an awful, awful migraine. Perhaps we can find you another receiver.”

“You may stay awhile and listen instead of meandering around. It is of no use. Whatever primitive setup you managed to scrounge, it will not work.”

“My sweet Sybil, please, give me some credit. I assure you, this one will work.” Diodorus removed a wolf pelt from a coffer, opening it to reveal a bronze head - stark bright representation of an austere beauty. Lifting it from its linen headrest, the Greek laid both bronze relics together on the same pillow. With a cocky smile, he asked: “Are you still there, Sybil?”

The bronze head tilted.

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“Perfect synchronization.” The metallic voice now echoed within the bronzed lips. If its owner was somehow distressed by the implications of the Greek’s possession of this artifact, it kept to itself. “Now, Diodorus of Alexandria, shall we return to the issue at hand? What is your intent for the content of that tube? Do you even understand what you came to possess?”

Diodorus limited his answer to a shrug.

“To be perfectly honest, I do not know what I have. Not exactly. I do not know, but that is irrelevant. I know, it is dangerous reading material; one of Numa Pompilius infamous black books. The groundwork for Roman society and its covenants with gods and their people, sealed and bound in tubes like these. Sure, it is not as valuable as the name of the City’s divine protector, however, someone determined or desperate enough could use this to weave some powerful and nasty spells. Perhaps even purge these wolves from the face of the Gaia.

The Sybil remained silent, as if the words of the Greek had given her much to think about. However, it was waiting to see if he had something else to add.

“Are you that person? Are you so desperate, so determined to see Rome fall, Diodorus?”

“Me? No, I am afraid I am much more pragmatic. I need silver and gold for my own needs and Romans have been very good at creating enemies. Who do you think will give me a better price? I was thinking about selling it to the Carthaginians, but I cannot ignore the fact that I had to kill quite a few of their agents to get my hands on this thing. What does the great Sybil think? Will they greet me as a fellow merchant or cut me down as a thief?”

No answer from the head.

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“I can always go to the Barcids, but we both know how they are. They will not pay for anything that they can take by force. Did I mention how good it is that Romans have so many enemies? I might even find someone in Italia or go East and peddle my goods on Anatolia or Alexandria. What is that? I do not need to sail that far away? Do you think the Macedonian brat wants to learn his letters with the diaries of old Numa?”

“Those last three might be your most wise and sensible choices, Diodorus.” The head interrupted the pirate’s taunts. “That is, if your goal is to extinguish once and for all the democratic ideals of the Hellenistic world. The feeble pockets of freedom of the Greek-speaking world only survive due to the uneasy balance of forces between the three hegemonies. Something with this much power can give the world another grand tyrant.”

“You finally say something that can sway me, Sybil.” The Greek pirate released a loud chuckle and grabbed the bronze tube, spinning it between his hands. “If giving it to East hurts my people and the West promises me no security, I should seek buyers North. Sure, this particular Gallic horde is a horse with a broken leg, but there is no lack of Celts. And I am a patient man; if the Celts are not interested, there is always the mysterious Germanic tribes of the dead ice country.”

“There is an option you still have not considered.” The Sybil pointed out.

“South? Sure, I know some people there, but they suffer already with the Punics. If the Romans were gone, their fortunes would take a turn for the worse. No, they would not profit from this.”

“You might just destroy it, Diodorus. Nobody knows you took it, nobody will be looking for it. The world thinks its secrets gone. Dip it into vinegar, seal with pitch and throw it into the depths of the ocean. It does not belong to you, nor any other mortal. You should never have dug it out from the collective consciousness of Alba Longa, and nothing good can come from something gained through such treachery. Have you considered the fate you condemned that bright young woman to? I know the responsibilities you shoulder; that behavior was beneath you and disgraced your mantle.”

The pirate frowned; his grin reached ear to ear but his dead eyes betrayed his displeasure.

“Oh? Why would I do that; the distasteful creature I apparently am? Sybil, stop. Be they flesh or metal, I know when someone is withholding knowledge in an order to manipulate others. Can it be that the witch from Cumae has a soft spot for the Romans? To the point that she is willing to sacrifice her goals? Oh yes, I know all about that. Your sisters can be quite talkative when self-preservation seizes their circuity.”

The head turned, its empty eyes staring down Diodorus.

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“Among the tribes of Italia there are children of Men that can preserve the ideals and knowledge of their predecessors. Your people failed, Diodorus, their ascension a flawed one that changed and twisted them - the sins of forebears are their burden. Against all odds, the continuation of their work may only be possible with the help of the heirs of their former enemies. Just look at your fellow countrymen: their leaders feed cancerous growth in the darkest corners of the world and embrace decadent lives. Whatever you or others might think about the Romans, I came to believe that they may be the vector through which Humanity is to be saved.”

Diodorus could not contain another chuckle.

“Do you need some new parts, Sybil? Something must have fried these last centuries; you are not making any sense. How about we negotiate a compromise? I go to Cumae with a big hammer and shatter you into a million tiny pieces, a nice mercy killing? I bet your sisters would thank me, they must be embarrassed with your actions. Imagine, the great Sybil of Cumae, siding with a barbarian people over the children of Hellas!”

“My calculations are flawless.” The Sybil stood her ground. “Rome will survive this conflict with the Gauls, and all those that will follow. Carthage will break, as will all the kings and queens that parade over the corpse of Alexander. Or they will fail to establish an unbroken line of civilization, giving way to another age of Ice and Darkness that will devour everything. I have no doubts. The only variables are if some distant Eastern and Western pillars of light will march through the night.”

“I refuse to accept that, Sybil.” Diodorus face darkened and he lost his smile. He then forced a mirthless one. “Even if only because the picture you paint is excessively dramatic.”

“Will Diodorus also refute the facts behind my conclusions? There are no alternatives among their rivals. If left for themselves, the Punics will soon return to old habits or turn to terrible masters; the Etruscans have long ago cast their identity and cultural unity in exchange of profit. The world of Greek inheritors has stagnated - besides a few bastions like the Cloud-City of Siracusa; nobody creates anything new and the wars of despots stop the exchange of learning. Even those that dedicate their lives to scholarly pursuits depend on the whims of Fortune. And do I even need to tell you, of all people, about the Doom of Aegypt?”

His temper flared, the pirate throwing the head to the floor.

“Is life under the heel of barbarians preferable to destruction? We both know that it will all end in tyranny and savagery - sooner or later. Is your plan to make all of us slaves, Sybil? That would be quite fitting, considering your original design.”

“I do not understand your questions, Diodorus. They are tainted by emotion, hard to me to relate. But I have to say, being surrounded by foolishness and ignorance is how I have existed for centuries. I have managed, I am sure your ego could handle it too. Teach them then, so that they might be guarded against pettiness and false paths.”

Picking the head and shutting it behind his coffer, Diodorus brought his hands to his brow; he pondered his next move. A series of violent shakes rocked the ship, forcing him to postpone such contemplations. Accompanied by desperate screams, Ammon broke into the captain’s quarters.

“Captain, something is climbing aboard! It has to be after your prize!”

Diodorus flipped his bed over and uncovered a curved sword - a long harpe. After hesitating for a moment, he took the bronze tube and hid it under his clothes.

The ship shook once more, throwing some of the less experienced sailors across the deck.

“It is coming.” The Sybil echoed inside the Greek pirate’s head.

“Who?”

A long arm appeared at starboard, followed by a long creeping leg. The movements were disturbingly agile, as the intruder limbs bent in ways impossible for human articulations, crawling like a massive gray humanoid spider.

“The Last Rebel.”

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A lightning-fast swing threw many of the still resisting crew members to the water, immediately followed by a set of quick jumps. The attacker rocked the ship once more, stressing the sailors as they armed themselves with swords and spears. Diodorus took a good look at it. It was a real giant, uncanny gaunt and lean, as if someone had stretched a human being near its breaking point. It had skinny, long limbs and a deformed skull. Its teeth were vicious and prominent, its beard a living mass of wriggling tentacles. Big dark eyes that looked like spheres of stolen night sky studied the ship. The Greek captain noticed that the creature was trying to cover its right side, its arm dangled - burnt and useless.

“Curses, it is the guardian of Alba Longa. How did it find me?” Diodorus groaned between clenched teeth.

The creature continued to search ship, ignoring the combatants that approached it on all sides; focused. It found Diodorus, shouting with unholy rage and charging towards him, pushing down a pile of barrels that stood in its way. The Greek wrapped himself around his cloak, dodging out of the way without effort, his feet never failing to follow the balance of the ship. Diodorus started picking up and throwing any ropes and cargo he stumbled on, creating obstacles for the guardian that could slow it down.

It was a futile effort, as the creature jumped over the barrels like some sort of profane frog, making timber creek and break, opening gaping holes across the deck. Diodorus swung his harpe, the curved blade slicing the muscles of its left leg as the Greek rolled out of the way.

Slowing down a bit and shifting the leg that supported its weight, the guardian still managed to keep the pressure on, forcing Diodorus to fight defensively, dodging and parrying, never managing to create an opening or having the opportunity to riposte.

The eyes of both fighters met for a brief moment, an image projected inside Diodorus’ mind. The Greek, one hand holding a bloody knife and another raised to the sk: a purple-dressed man laying at his feet. The fool tried to keep his entrails inside his belly, as another purple one was being lifted by invisible forces, suffocating.

“I was there; I know what happened. What about it?”

Perhaps it was meant as a simple distraction, no higher purpose. The burnt arm seemed to burst with renewed life, forming a fist and aiming straight at Diodorus’ head. A spear landed at the creature’s flank, gaining Diodorus enough time to escape. Running towards the mast, the Greek jumped on top of a box and used the impulse to climb halfway the risen wood. Gathering enough momentum, he jumped back, flying over the guardian and slashing its back and neck all the way down. The landing was difficult enough without the monster reacting in pain, spinning and kicking Diodorus with such violence that he fell into the water.

Holding to a broken plank, the captain climbed back to his ship, sensing the approach of the creature with every tremor. That kick was far from the only attack that struck the Greek; another mental assault confronted him with the stolen texts and the destruction the guardian sought to inflict upon them.

“Captain!” Ammon appeared at the right moment, getting a hold on Diodorus as he almost lost balance due to the mental intrusion. “It is unstoppable! What are your orders?”

“Any ideas how to deal with your little friend, Sybil?” Diodorus thought, knowing the oracle was still listening in.

“If it is a thing they are not, is our friend. There is nothing you can do to stop their advance, not once they decided on a goal. It is like facing a force of nature.”

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“Excuse me my assumptions. See, when...”

“Attention!”

Someone shouted a late warning, as the creature picked up one of the crew and threw the poor man against Diodorus, the captain ducking barely in time to avoid being hit; a brief moment later he heard the man hitting the water. Right, the guardian wants the relic? Diodorus took the bronze tube out and waved it in the direction of the guardian.

“This is what you want, is it not? You came here for this? Then come get it!”

The creature charged at him once again, Diodorus dancing so that he could face the guardian’s burnt flank; as they circled each other the creature made a move to grab and snatch the Greek. It failed, but its efforts trapped the captain. Forced to block the follow-up attacks with his sword, a desperate Diodorus threw himself under the guardian, sliding towards safety.

With a pained cry the creature made its diminished patience known. Snapping its arms as they seemed to grow even longer, it climbed the mast, making to the top with two lunges. Diodorus looked up, wondering what the guardian was going to do.

It jumped.

Lower jaw dislodging, leaving a gaping and expanding maw. The rest of the body seemed to dangle in disturbing angles, lifeless as the voracious maw sucked the mast, broken planks, light barrels and abandoned weapons.

Everything was being dragged into that toothy vortex.

“That is new.” The Sybil mechanic voice remarked.

“Out! Everyone dive out!” Diodorus shouted. “Abandon ship and swim as further away from me as you can. Abandon everything.”

The crew did not force the order to be repeated, jumping into the water. It was with pain that Diodorus joined his men, the ship being utterly dismantled and swallowed. The guardian just stood there, obscene figure floating towards the water, ripples heralding its imminent approach.

A tired Diodorus reached the coast, struggling to regain his breath, surrounded by exhausted companions.

“I told you to go away! Keep going, I will distract it as you make your escape. I have what the monster wants.”

“Give me the relic, captain.” Ammon begged. “I can be a distraction, you have to lead the others.”

Diodorus shook his head.

“I am the only one that can face it and survive. Besides, the men need their navigator more than their captain. Split in two groups, one goes north and other south, try to meet with the crews of the Xenophon and Salaminia.

“Captain…”

“Carthage. In three weeks.” The Greek turned to face the creature, as its mouth closed and it landed over the debris of what had once been the pride of his fleet. “Go!”

With the others safe and sound, Diodorus reached for higher ground and clung to his scythe-like sword. The guardian darted out of the water like some massive gray shark, never slowing down as it approached the pirate. Diodorus was ready to strike at it, eyes narrowing; it was then that he noticed how the cuts he had previously dealt had sealed themselves shut, some sort of thick black smoke keeping the skin together as flesh was restored to its pale dirty color. Diodorus flexed his legs, unwilling to gamble his life away.

The creature stopped half-way, opening its maw and seeming to suffocate with something caught in its throat. After much struggle, it managed to pass and spit something bronzed. The head of the Sybil rolled towards Diodorus’ feet.

“Where did you come from?” The Greek asked, surprised.

“The Underworld, believe it or not.” Sybil stated. “Diodorus, you do not want to be caught by it.”

“No kidding. I hate that place.” Diodorus clenched his teeth. The guardian had recovered from the tribulations, approaching slowly but determined. “How do I kill it?”

“It is impossible. They can only be sealed or delayed, never destroyed. Me and my sisters tried every method we could think off, they all failed.” Sybil explained. “The Sea People’s achievements cannot be underestimated. Just as the content of that tube.”

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The guardian stared at Diodorus, then at the bronze head possessed by Sybil, then back at Diodorus; its expression could only be read as absolute sadness. The Greek felt his mind once again assaulted, such shattering force that made his nose bleed. Islands covered in buildings of iron and stone, a sea filled with crystal spirals. A black sky and a massive volcanic explosion, entire cities obliterated in seconds; pestilence and war between people wearing strange armors and bizarre beasts.

“I… do not understand.” Diodorus babbled. It was an uncomfortable feeling.

“Do not feel bad, that is not expected from you.” Sybil intervened. “They are talking to me.”

The guardian shook its head, assuming an aggressive posture but refusing to attack. Instead, words in a strange alphabet bleed reality, dancing around it, red and black swirls. Another wave of mental images, this time confronting Diodorus with his deception: him on the guise of a slave accompanying a young Vestalis.

“Really? You are trying to make me feel guilty for leaving her? She was on her way to become an Arcani, have you any idea of the damage they have been doing across the world? But you do not care, do you?”

“Really? You are trying to make me feel guilty for leaving her? She was on her way to become an Arcani, have you any idea of the damage they have been doing across the world? But you do not care, do you?”

The creature did not reply to the taunts in any way. Or perhaps it did, sending an image of itself, shaking its head in disapproval.

“She was not an Arcani. Or another type of Triumphant.” Sybil clarified. “I tried to talk with her and she seemed unable to hear me. You abandoned an innocent girl to her death without anything resembling a reason.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Sybil. I felt her awakened spark.”

Silence from the head as if the intellect behind it was otherwise occupied.

“That is interesting. That means she has to be a member of the other group.” She finally added.

“Corvus? Impossible. They have been destroyed.”

“You are probably correct. But she had no previous training; nor she displayed any Triumph before you felt her. She was a natural spark and you had just witnessed her first time.”

Diodorus expression was of pure disbelief.

“Zeus, Poseidon and all the gods of Olympus. And I left her to die? Alone?”

The guardian bent its head ever so slightly, expression twisting into one of curiosity. Was the Greek feeling genuine remorse?

“She is worth a fortune! One natural, spontaneous Triumphant without any strings attached? Have you any idea about how rare they are?”

The Greek pirate could feel the disapproval of the the Sybil and the creature. A shout announced the end of the cease-fire, the alien words disappearing as its muscles and tendons exploded, doubling in size. A scarlet wave filled the emptiness of its pitch-black eyes. Diodorus raised his right hand, daring him to advance.

“You are not the only one hiding tricks under their tunic. Shall we dance?”

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The guardian advanced, a side strike making the Greek lose his wind. Trying to regain distance, Diodorus was caught unaware as the creature’s beard animated itself into dozen tentacles that grabbed his sword arm. Knowing that the fight could be lost or won in this moment, Diodorus did not waste any more time. A flask appeared, one which he broke in the face of the enemy; black mist covered both combatants. His movements hidden, Diodorus pulled a knife from his sandal and stabbed the creature multiple times, making it pay the price for proximity.

As the attacker recoiled in pain, Diodorus found himself free. Jumping back and tripping over the rocks, the Greek recovered his second wind and once again danced, this time half-covered by the black smoke. The mists seemed to grow thicker instead of dispersing, slowly describing the shape of a monstrous snake coiled around the guardian, squeezing him tighter and tighter, resisting its unbridled fury and refusing to stop the embrace.

The Greek quickly grabbed Sybil’s bronze head and sprinted as fast as he could. Behind him, the guardian had managed to break free from the smoky snake, advancing in pursuit of Diodorus. Dodging and awkwardly swinging the haspe, the captain gave a side glance to the vanishing smoke, once again giving it shape and purpose. The reformed snake quickly caught up with the fighters, circling as Diodorus used it as a stair to climb the sky and as a barrier between him and his enemy.

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The guardian growled and kept striking, not drawing any response from Diodorus; all he did was move around the snakes back, rising higher and higher so that they could be at the same level. Diodorus turned the blade of his scythe-sword upwards, reflecting something. A dark and twisted shape. With a smile, the pirate saw the creature turn around to face this new construct.

It was only part snake, this creation of Diodorus. The guardian found itself facing a feminine torso and a disgusting face crowned with serpentine hair, the dense smoke that made her opening, revealing two shining rubies that served as eyes. Eyes that met the guardian’s, as its pale skin turned grayer and grayer, its movements slowed down and its maw immortalized in a surprised gasp.

Diodorus dispersed the smoke and departed, already hearing the stone crack. As soon as he felt slightly safer, he spoke to Sybil.

“You told me it was not your friend, but it was clear that it too had an interest in your pet barbarians. What is going on?”

“Diodorus, you must see reason.” The mechanical voice corrected him. “Even when our beliefs are on opposing sides of the spectrum, we are both children of Mankind that wish to give their parents a proper future. We both recognize these people as our best chance. Why don’t you?”

“I will never understand why, from all the tribes and peoples of the world you had to pick a people of refugees and bandits. They are the afterbirth of the world.”

“You are a citizen of the world, an adventurer, someone that knows the odds of success and the inevitability of failure. You know that someone will eventually fail, and one of these days, it will be in a disastrous way.”

“Pains of the trade. And life.” Diodorus shruged. “You just need to abandon what does not work and move on.”

“That is the path of reason and logic. But there is a collective madness that affects the Roman race, that makes them unable to accept their failings. They never surrender nor they never abandon any endeavor they start. When they are broken, they use the fire of their passions to forge themselves back together as steel. My sisters might have put their hopes on Greeks, Kemet, and Persians, assuming that the culture and desire for understanding the cosmos should guide their choices. I, on the other hand, know how frustrating the pursuit of knowledge, truth, freedom and greatness can be. Therefore, I plan for the long haul, betting on a people that will never give up and will keep trying to improve their Fate. Persians and Kemet faded into the sands, the Hellenistic world is in its twilight. Rome, those unwanted men and women that believe in ridiculous things like Democracy, Law and Virtue, they will never accept that they live in a world where those do not exist.” A pause. “Diodorus, you can play a crucial role in the development and maturation of this unexpected people.”

“Spare me the propaganda, Sybil. I will sell the treasure of Numa at the best price I can get and then set sail away from these coasts. I will never again set foot in this savage peninsula.”

“I do not ask much from you. They already have all they need to thrive. They only need someone to teach them how to handle knowledge, that lets them expand their horizons and tap their full potential.”

Diodorus shook his head and opened the tube, raising it to his ear and listening to the electrical crackle within. The sea called him. Diodorus pulled his arm back, gathering balance for the throw, advancing only to stop at the last moment. He smuggled the tube away.

*

Weeks later, at the port city of Beneventum; an anonymous Diodorus found himself in a fetid tavern. Some group calling themselves the Sons of Dido wanted to buy the Book of Numa, no matter the price. All he had to do is to wait for a trio of merchants to make the exchange. Shaking a cup of cheap wine and with the tube containing his treasure laying on the top of his table, he waited.

Three clearly Punic men entered the establishment, their purple tunics covered by heavy wool cloaks. Diodorus turned to them and raised his glass as a greeting.

To his surprise, the merchants disappeared in a blink. Fearing treachery, Diodorus looked around the tavern. He caught a brief glance of a speeding flash and stared right at the empty seats in front of him.

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Sitting in front of him was a tall woman, half of her body hidden by a scarlet cloak whose brim was decorated with a pattern of stelae. She smiled as Diodorus noticed that his precious tube had disappeared.

“Are you my contact?” The Greek asked, unable to discern the ethnicity of the woman. She was definitely not of any Italian tribe and her slightly Asiatic features could indeed account for a Punic origin. Or even a Greek, an agent of one monarch or another. Discreetly, he reached for one of his daggers.

“In a way.” She replied in coarse Latin. “I represent another party interested on your deal, defenders of one of the regional powers and their allies. You might have heard of us, we are known as Corvus.”

“I am no friend of Rome, it is better if you just leave.” Diodorus replies, trying to find the best option: a blade between the woman’s eyes or at her throat. “Besides, I have doubts about your alleged identity. The Corvus have been exterminated to the last man.”

“But not to the last woman, it seems.” For a moment, her smile darkened. “I will not lie, we are not what we used to be. But we heard a lot about you and your work and we are impressed. I am inclined to believe we are natural companions. The King of Pergamon spoke highly of…”

“Just as I am no friend of Rome, I am no friend of any monarch, despot, tyrant or autocrat.” It was Diodorus’ dry answer. “You are wasting your time and mine. Return my propriety. Now.”

The tube appeared on the woman’s open palm.

“Only keeping it safe as we talk, there are very nasty people looking for this. It would be unfortunate if they got it.” Diodorus grabbed the Book and hid it, the woman showing no intention to stop him. “Furthermore, our group agrees that Hermes Trismegistus is the best person to keep the Books of Numa Pompilius safely hidden.”

Diodorus frowned.

“Now there is a name I was not expecting to hear this far from home.”

“Your efforts are not forgotten nor have them gone unnoticed, Magus.” The woman seemed to grow more cheerful as Diodorus expression betrayed his surprise. She deposited a bloody linen rag on top of the table, a disturbing symbol embroidered in yellow. An enormous shining sun, flooding everything with sunbeams that stretched and ended in greedy grabby hands. “I want to thank you for all you have to do protect Mankind over the years.”

“Aten…” Diodorus mumbled. “Is this recent? Is it back?

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The woman nodded in agreement.

“I could try to persuade you to join the Corvus, appeal to shared ideals or our continuous fight for restoration of Liberty to all peoples. For good or ill, I am currently calling the shots and that is not my style.” The woman pulled her cloak away, revealing her deep eyes and blond hair. “All those things are illusions, distractions of the simple truths. It is my duty to protect the Republic. Your self-declared goal is to protect Humanity. Anything that threatens “all of Humanity” also includes this “Public Thing” that I seek to defend. I am not here to buy or recruit you, Diodorus.”

“Hard to believe, considering what you know of me.” Diodorus replied with a cocky smile. “After all, you are fully aware about how good I am. What do you want from me then?”

“Nothing.” The woman pulled the cloak up, leaving only her wide hopeful grin visible. “All my meager resources are at your disposal. Consider the Corvus at your service.”

Diodorus ripped the embroidered sun in two.

“What are you waiting for? Let’s save the world.”