The Amazing and Fantastic Promethia
The site had not been chosen by accident.
The hills over which the city of Veii had once sprawled were saturated with tunnels, open wounds of the Roman conquest. Centuries have passed, the city never allowed to scar and heal.
Veii had once been the richest community of the Etruscan League, perhaps even of the entire peninsula. First among equals, masters of culture and finance, self-proclaimed Lords of Italia. Nobody expected the Gauls to vanquish the “civilized people”. Nobody expected the scum that lived in that slum called Rome to break free. Even after the city had been taken, everyone expected the Romans would just their filthy hills and let themselves be assimilated by the grandiose Etruscan culture.
Nobody expected the Citizens of Romulus and their stubborn determination, who gutted Veii and butchered it for all of worth, stone by stone scavenging its carcass, giving Rome a second foundation.
No longer the center of the world, why would the affluent and novelty-hungry elites bother rebuilding Veii? They moved to Rome and the Campanian countryside, taking away any chance the city would have to be reborn.
Nobody chooses to live in Veii. Only the most desperate and dejected poor linger; people that had a piece of silver to their name departed to more auspicious slums.
It is not to say that nothing grows in Veii. Sewers neglected for centuries, poisoned wells, ransacked buildings, feral dog packs and clogged aqueducts. One crop finds this soil fertile.
So it goes, the gathering came to pass. Hooded figures slowly made their way towards a large underground chamber, created not by intentional engineering but by the collapse of two major tunnels. Being this close to Rome made Veii the perfect hideout for those seeking to plant a knife in its vulpine underbelly. They had the venue; they had the audience.
A purple multitude they were, if one was feeling kind or colorblind. If you lived in Veii you would have to make do with the cheapest dyes, and some probably just soaked their rags in blood. Discussion was well and alive, arguments rolling along like barrels of pitch, looking for a metaphoric spark. All they needed was a good kick - and a juicy target.
The bulkiest of the hooded men, with some actual purple pigment, stood over the gathering. A greasy beard peeked out of his mask, a rebel refusing to be restrained. He tried to impose some order by punching the wall, causing dust and dirt to fall on the audience.
“How many times have we been over this? The Temple of Saturn is too hot, it is impossible to rob. Are you too dense to understand my problem with it? It is in the god-crammed Forum.” He shouted left and right, punctuating with additional punches.
“We have to keep trying!” Someone close to the front shouted back; the bearded one grabbed him by the tip of the hood and gave him a good shake.
“It is the third time this month. Everyone has the same brilliant idea; everyone thinks they will be the one that makes rich. ”The magistrates are distracted, they will never notice me." Or: “The Crows and Eagles are a thing of the past, I am stronger, faster and smarter than any decadent Roman. Everyone of worth is up North with the legions, I can allow myself to be careless, foolish and stupid.“ The sheer arrogance. Is anyone here just as blind? Step forward. If you want to be used for thunderbolt practice so badly, I can make your wish come true!”
“B-but Grand Veiente, we need money to free our brothers! The Carthaginians have severed ties after the Sicilian fiasco, it does not matter how much we dye our hoods.” A dissident voice uttered, receiving words and nods of agreement from those safe in the back rows. “We are forced to deal with pirates, and they know exactly how much we depend on them. They keep raising the prices; we need the Treasure that Roman greed begot. We have no other choice.
A long exasperated sigh.
“Get something in that thick head of yours.” The beard clenched his fists against each other. “Unless you can wield the power of Tinia or withstand a thunderous discharge, you are unready to even steal a latrine. Forget about the city of Rome. I pondered about this for a long time and came up with an alternative.”
The Grand Veiente threw a silver coin towards some of the rebellious murmurs in the back.
“What is this?” One of them asked, picking it up. “Seems like some Roman coin.”
“Wrong!” Shouted the Grand Veiente. “What matters is exactly how non-Roman the coin is! Romans do not make coins: Romans use coins. This and all the others are mined in the South and either Sicilia by Greeks. Since it all comes from the outside, we need to intercept the silver while it is on its way to Rome.”
“That has to be even more dangerous than stealing from the Temple of Saturn.” one of the women pointed out as she adjusted her hood. “Any shipment of specie will be heavily guarded, their route and schedule a well-kept secret. They will send only auxiliary forces whose loyalty is absolute; it will be hard to infiltrate or coerce them.”
This seemed to satisfy the beard.
“Finally, someone here is thinking straight. You are correct, this would be a futile attempt under normal circumstances. However, we have obtained a secret weapon.” The Grand Veiente signaled someone outside the chamber, some poor half-dead man, legs and arms exhibiting bandages - covering the burns and stinking ointments that feebly tried to save his life. “This brother of us seized a boon from the latest fiasco. During the failed assault, they stumbled upon some Vestalis nailing some announcements in front of the temple. Without any Lictor bodyguard, she became a valuable hostage.”
“Where is the Vestalis?” A rebel inquired. “We do not need to rob people anymore, we can demand a prisoner’s exchange!”
“A Triumphant rescued her before she could be smuggled out of the Temple, but they foolishly let our brother escape. You see, he had taken something from the priestess.”
The Grand Veiente revealed a signet ring bearing the sigil of bridge arching between rising flames.
“Only the ruling consuls can order the coinage of a new batch of coins. Just as any other official document issued by the Senate and the People of Rome, it has to be audited, authenticated and archived by the priestesses at the Temple of Vesta. The gods support our endeavors, and they have taken Gaius Atilius Regulus to the Underworld”. He offered them another glimpse of the signet. “With this ring, we can forge a letter from the dead consul, prepared and sent before his untimely death. In it he orders more coins to help with the war effort and establishes very strict delivery instructions and the identity of the escort. As you expect, they will be our own brothers.”
“Wow! That is quite impressive!” Another feminine voice interrupted him. Everyone turned around, looking for its owner. They found a tiny and plump woman, somehow unnoticed until now; she was wearing a nice hood and cloak, dyed with an intense and expensive pigment. “That actually could have worked! I must confess, here I was, dismissing all of you as a bunch of idiots. I should have known better than to underestimate other people. I apologize, I’m awful.”
“Reveal yourself!” The beard demanded. The woman obeyed, her visage disturbing everyone around her. The leader stepped back, horrified by the gentle wrinkled face of an elderly woman.
The tender smile turned into a malicious smirk, the intruder throwing the hood towards the Grand clearing a path. The terrorists were unable to do anything but express their surprise and horror.
“What are you doing here?”
“No, no, it cannot be you…”
“What are you even wearing?”
Each of them seemed to react as if they were seeing someone different - yet, always familiar, surrendering to chaos and failing to present an unified answer. Laughing at their lack of discipline, the intruder escaped the center of the chamber. She revealed herself in all her glory to the Grand Veiente, touching her noise with the index middle fingers as she winked.
Comparing their notes after the encounter, none of those present would remember the same woman. They all could agree on what she was wearing, a white and blue tunic - not long enough to protect the modesty of many of the women perceived. A lot of leg and leaving the arms revealed as it gently wrapped around her neck. The most curious element of her garb was her heavy, bulky scarf - a military focale of vivid dark red.
The paralyzed terrorists finally reacted, snapping back to the furious commands of their leader.
“It is a trick! She is one of them! TRIUMPHANT! Do not let her escape these tunnels!”
“Come here, boys.” The invader invited. “I will be very displeased if any of you gets away!”
She did not show any terror, nor did she try to evade the circle of attackers. All she did was lower her arms in a rapid arc; the sheer flow of power levitated her a few millimeters off the ground. The clothing of the closest terrorist ignited, as the exposed skin of another suffered - as if boiling hesitated. They would never have guessed that these were just the obvious collateral effects of her unleashing power. The woman once again raised her arms and lowered her head, eyes semi-closed and blinking furiously. A fragmented crown of light arched over her head and cyan touched her eyes. The very air dried, as if all the underground moisture had been sucked out of the tunnels.
Her arms descended as the woman twirled around herself.
An extremely precise heat wave flooded the tunnels, triggering the survival instincts of the terrorists. They ran away, trampling and stumbling. As their strength was sapped away, one by one they gave surrendered to unconsciousness.
Touching the ground, the woman shook her head, disappointed.
“This was quite anti-climatic.” She pouted, grabbing one of the hoods. She pinched it, the dye staining her fingers as the fabric ripped. “How embarrassing, I had to face such light-weights during my first fight.”
She shrugged. It had been a good test drive for her abilities. All she needed to do was recover the signet and this first outing would be a flawless success.
The Grand Veiente had fallen just like the others, the signet forsaken a meter away from him. As the woman moved to pick it up, she sensed movement behind her. She turned as fast as she could, only to find herself facing the bearded leader. A quick and brutal headbutt left her dizzy, but she tightened her grasp around the signet and refused to let go. All she felt was pain and the ferrous taste of blood. Her opponent lifted her with one hand, clenching her chin and pushing her against the wall. She struggled and kicked him, feeble attempts to free herself.
“Really? You must be the weakest Triumphant I parlor tricks.” The Grand Veiente snarled. “This is what I expected from a Roman. I do not even know if you are really a woman or not, but wearing that face is not going to save you. What is that you people say? Ah yes. Memento Mori.”
As the man delivered a devastating punch, the woman took a deep bite into the hand holding her, forcing a release. The fist struck the wall, debris and dirt covering both of them. Trying to recover her breath, she tried to gain some distance. The terrorist leader chuckled and grabbed the ends of her scarf, pushing with so much strength that her neck nearly snapped.
“You once had to be someone special to play the myths and receive a Triumph. I am surprised that someone would awaken a divine spark and still be so feeble.” The Grand Veiente insulted her. “It seems a poor receptacle ruins even the best grapes: your festering city could not ask for a more fitting champion.”
He forced the woman to turn. Her eyes rolling were the only hint for what was about to happen. A jet of flames - eloquently answering the insults - ignited his clothes, burning most of his torso. As the man struggled for his life, she put off the smoldering tips of her scarf. Finally free, she stood over the Grand Veiente.
“Go ahead, she-wolf. You have claimed your prize. Leave or kill me.”
The Triumphant landed her sandal against the bearded face of the terrorist, pinning its head against the floor. She proceeded to make her position clear.
“You know why you are nothing? I need you to understand.” She uttered with soft voice, refusing the path of loud fury.
“Because of you. You took everything from us!”
“No, you gave it away, you threw it away. We filled a void you created. And even if you replaced us, the same would happen - because you never learned. You are a little sad creature that believes that confuses restraint with weakness. You see us as tyrants but are unwilling to free yourself; you just want to replace us at the top. Change nothing else; The Grand Veinete still laughed.
“Oh, that is just precious. You think you have won.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“This is not your so-called republic, she-wolf. Do you think we need to sniff each other’s butts until we come to a consensus? I do not need or care for the opinion of these fools! I did not sit idle holding the signet, the letter was forged, the men picked and the plan has already been set in motion.”
Her eyes narrowed as she pressed her foot against his windpipe.
“This could have ended here.”
“What happened to restraint?” He groaned.
“From where I stand? It does not take much. Any meek girl could finish you off.”
“Go ahead. Show the sheepherders how hungry the wolves are.” The terrorist babbled on, unable to keep his eyes open. “Let them fear losing more sheep, let them gather for some good old-fashioned wolf-hunting.”
“I’m wasting my time with you...”
The woman turned and left, trying to make her way out of the tunnels. Of course, it had to be tunnels; nothing good happens underground.
Almost there. She could already see the light. Such a beautiful day waited for her above.
“You really need to be more aware of your surroundings.” A voice, chasing her, pointed out. The Triumphant faced another woman, sweating as she leaned against the tunnel walls.
“I recognize you! You were the one that had anything smart to say!”
“Forget about that.” The woman dragged herself closer, an inquisitive look in her face “Why do you look like me? And is that what I am supposed to look like? I’m not imagining things, right? That is supposed to be me.”
“Pretty clever, don’t you think?” The Triumphant gave a little shake and a wink. “I wanted to be an inspiration”.
“Right. That. Forget it, I followed you because I heard what you said.” The Triumphant’s face beamed with an almost childish eagerness, eyes sparkling in anticipation. “This is a different from the the Triumphants I am used to; that was not the brutality and oppression I came to expect from your side. When the Grand Veiente grab you, all I could feel was fear for you; the fact that you were a Roman did not weigh my mind. I cheered for you, even if he was not that different from my companions. I believe that there is another way to do this, that we are not supposed to spiral until savagery until one of us remains.
The Triumphant opened her arms as if to hug her, but the woman stepped back, hands raised.
“Do not get me wrong. I still despise your people; Veii is still a ruin - because of Rome. The Grand Veiente was right when he said we need to join together and put you down. I am not your client or you friend, I am someone that has decided that if we are to stand against Rome we have to offer something besides another tyrant.” She opened her arms wide, leaning in and exposing her neck. “Perhaps this was not what you sought to inspire, but it is what I concluded today; perhaps you should burn me here and now.”
Her own face, worn by another, frowned.
“What is your name?”
“Aritimesia.” She replied, defiant.
“You know something is not right with the world and you are trying to change it - in your own way. I am happy for you, Aritimesia. I wish Fortune travels with you.”
The Triumphant climbed back into the light, a deep feeling of dread twisting her stomach. She felt as if she was making a terrible mistake.
Back to the woman still shrouded by darkness.
“If he sent a letter, it had to have been to the Tarentum mint. You should start there.”
An exchange of nods, both taking different paths towards the future.