Aventine Avenger

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I awoke in darkness. For a moment, I believed I was at Bassus’ house, deep into the night. Feeling the floor, I notice how cold and uneven the stone was. Continuing my blind exploration, I realized how irregular, rough and foreign my surroundings were. Some sort of tunnel? Narrowed eyes caught glimpse of pale light. Its source turned out to be a circle of lamps surrounding a willowy woman. Between teenage and maturity, she wore and moved in a gracious manner, pushing her fantastic hair aside while biting a pomegranate, obviously bored. Noticing my presence, she regained a more composed bearing, greeting me.

"Salve, good man.” Despise her gentle tone, the corners of her eyes betrayed her disappointment. “I beg your pardon, for I do not know what to tell you. It is, perhaps, possible that I might be the one responsible for your sudden arrival? That would be terribly embarrassing, you see; it was another one I summoned, it is another one I await for. If I am the one behind your troubles, please, let me compensate you in some manner.”

I reached for the lights, realizing how cold I was and how much I yearned for heat. The youth kept her head high, deceptively calm as she waited for an answer.

“No, my lady, I do not think you are in any way responsible.” I muttered, rubbing my hands against each other. “I have made so many bad decisions these last few days that I would not be surprised if one of them had put me in this position.”

The smile she shared was sad and knowing.

“I understand.” She followed my stare, unconsciously focused on the fruit that she so reluctantly ate. The youth offered me half of the pomegranate. I was famished. “But sharing a light meal with you would bring me some peace of mind.”

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I did not hesitate and devoured the offer. My stomach still craved sustenance and the small flames did little to appease me; after having rushed to fill the void, I accepted that I needed more.

“I need to return home.” I declared in a single breath. “I should not be here.”

The youth agreed with a nod.

“The voices might have been silenced, but is an imposed one that brings nopeace. It has been way too long ever since a mortal ventured forth; nobody can help you find the way back.” A tense pause. “I do not even know if such feat is still possible.”

“Nobody ventures here? Not even the one you wait for? Maybe they can assist me.”

“Perhaps.”

The situation was improving, but I was not willing to sit and wait - no matter how polite the company was.

“Where will I end up if I follow that tunnel?”

“Somewhere and nowhere but as my heart tells me that you will find yourself in a familiar place. Two sources of help you might encounter: furious telluric voices driven to madness - willing to listen to their woes; and august celestial authorities that only answer to patrician lamentations.”

“Obviously.” This sounded all terribly familiar to me. “After all, only a patrician might address the gods without causing offense.”

Why did I say that? Maybe this was what they call a religious experience. Stepping back, I asked the youth a new question.

“Are you exactly? Some sort of goddess?”

She smiled.

“Am I?” A mocking shine in her eyes. “I do not know how I might answer to such question; but that can by itself be am answer for I am no Man or Beast. But I can assure you something: I do not consider myself offended.”

I stared back at the tunnel. It seemed to call for me.

“I feel like I do not have much choice in the matter.” Her silence confirmed that she shared that belief. “I will throw my dice. Vale.”

“Vale, Marcus Considius. Remember that in order to return home, you must return home. There is no lack of distractions below; keep yourself loyal to your purpose whatever happens.”

Cryptic nonsense.

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I continued through the cold corridors. I still do not know what moved between shadows and never had any intention of finding out. Whatever was able to click like that and released such laments was too mad, degenerate and violent. Even if I was quite confident that I was either dead or at the very least in a coma, my instincts screamed that I should act with caution; this sort of tunnel could not exist anywhere close of Rome; someone would have already clogged it with filth.

Speaking of Rome, I found myself someplace that deeply wanted to be Rome. However, this was a Rome that I could never call home. The hills rose too high, the river-bed was too wide, the moon shone too bright. What was supposed to be the Palatine was covered by temples and the Forum did not have a single shop; a neighborhood of marble instead of brick, pale and sterile, lacking any of the colorful energy that permeated the center of the Roman world.

I felt an irresistible pull. I found myself in the middle of streets simultaneously empty and crowded.

I needed to concentrate, finally managing to distinguish translucent figures around me, performing pantomimes of daily life, pushing each other in a race to no place at all. I was between shades and lemurs, and at the same time it was like I never had left the Urbe.

Deciding to follow the advice of the strange woman, I tried to find my way back home; crossing into parallel streets, I walked into what passed as Aventine here. Even in the sterile Underworld the place remained cluttered, claustrophobic and fetid. Dealing with paths and buildings that were increasingly familiar, I noticed details that I had previously missed: instead of bricks, tombstones were used; human bones have ground and used as mortar; the graffiti and curses scrawled on the walls were painted with - still dripping - blood. This is still one Rome, but one Rome suspended between dreams and a morbid necropolis to its own ruin.

My shop was exactly where I expected to find it, much more real and intense than its surroundings. I leaned my face against the wall. I could hear laughing and Camilla, the sharpening of iron scissors and the innocent conversation about urban banalities. I was back home. I tried to enter and return to that which I had abandoned. I found myself unable to do so. Something was keeping me, holding me at the threshold. No matter how much I tried, I could not cross it. It was like I had an anchor wrapped around by waist.

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I looked around, confused. Shades surrounded me. They had expressions quite similar to my Aventine friends, the casual air of someone that was used to let fists do the talking. Waving discreetly towards them, I focused in crossing the threshold. Taking a deep breath of tepid air, I took notice of the black mists that clung to me, woven like a toga of living shadows. I could cross over – after all, I did not belong to this world, - however, it was another matter for the lemurs and they could not ride alongside. But how could I explain it to them? I tried to grab the mists and snare the shades; slithering between by fingers, as slippery as eels and much more determined. I could see on them faces twisted by anguish and pain, begging for my favour.

As time went by, more and more shadows surrounded me, similar expressions on their non-faces. I hesitate. I was of the gens Considia; living or dead, the peoples of the Aventine were my people. I remembered the youth and how friendly and courteous she was in rejecting me; she expected a patrician. I had found no elites on my wanderings, even with that shining creature waiting for them. If she was forced to wait what hope these lemurs had? As if any arrogant patrician would dignify themselves to visit the entrails of Rome or the Aventine. These despairing spectres screamed in silence, anxious to speak again.

Only a plebeian could return their voice.

“All is well.” I rose my hands in an attempt to appease the shades. “You need a representative? I accept. You will not be forgotten.”

The lemurs fell over me, dragging me in a grey deluge. Climbing all the way up to the Forum, thousands of spectres, centuries of silenced Romans waited. The shades dropped me over a black slab – a gigantic replica of the Lapis Niger. Ancestral and savage spirits emerged from the slab, so old that they barely looked human. Somehow the spectres had produced a chair – the seat used by a Tribune. Apprehensive stares fell on me, the intent quite clear: the committee had gathered. The absence of other candidates meant I had been elected. It was my time to accept: I would either become a Tribune of Shades and Lemurs or face oblivion.

I sat on the chair.

Powerful lemurs emerged from the Curia - the shades of Senators. Their leader was a spectral consul with triumphant crown that shone with the light of an invisible Sun, escorted by a monstrous and giant crow with ruby eyes.

I knew patrician disapproval when I saw it, with the Senators and Consul almost exploding with displeasure. It made perfect sense. Why would a Shadow Senate be happy with the existence of an Infernal Tribune? The living Tribunes are not loved by magistrates and senators, why would the representatives of the common dead expect different treatment?

Unlike those of the real Rome, I was uncertain if my Tribune office made me sacrosanct; fortunately, dead plebeians were good at reading the situation and dragged me towards the limits of the city.

“No, take me back to my shop.” I begged, ignored. Crossing the threshold of Rome and sending me for a strange exile, the lemurs abandoned me to my new duties.

The walls of the Shadow Rome were seized by mist, slowly materializing in the shape of a gargantuan warrior-king, crowned with tall stag horns and dressed in wolf pelts. The mega lemur studied me for a long moment and extended its enormous hands, trying to grab me. I ran, despair guiding my escape. My body refused to move, paralyzed by spectral emissions. Closing my eyes, I thought about Camilla as fingers closed around me.

*

I took a deep breath, the smell of maritime breeze and wet soil flooding my senses; flashes and the sound of rain hitting the ground followed. From a pool of my own blood, across haunted tunnels and a patrician. I had found no elites on my wanderings, even with that shining creature waiting for them. If she was forced to wait what hope these lemurs had? As if any arrogant patrician would dignify themselves to visit the entrails of Rome or the Aventine. These despairing specters screamed in silence, anxious to speak again.

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Only a plebeian could return their voice.

“All is well.” I rose my hands in an attempt to appease the shades. “You need a representative? I accept. You will not be forgotten.”

The lemurs fell over me, dragging me in a grey deluge. Climbing all the way up to the Forum, thousands of specters, centuries of silenced Romans waited. The shades dropped me over a black slab – a gigantic replica of the Lapis Niger. Ancestral and savage spirits emerged from the slab, so old that they barely looked human. Somehow the specters had produced a chair – the seat used by a Tribune. Apprehensive stares fell on me, the intent quite clear: the committee had gathered. The absence of other candidates meant I had been elected. It was my time to accept: I would either become a Tribune of Shades and Lemurs or face oblivion.

I sat on the chair.

Powerful lemurs emerged from the Curia - the shades of Senators. Their leader was a spectral consul with triumphant crown that shone with the light of an invisible Sun, escorted by a monstrous and giant crow with ruby eyes.

I knew patrician disapproval when I saw it, with the Senators and Consul almost exploding with displeasure. It made perfect sense. Why would a Shadow Senate be happy with the existence of an Infernal Tribune? The living Tribunes are not loved by magistrates and senators, why would the representatives of the common dead expect different treatment?

Unlike those of the real Rome, I was uncertain if my Tribune office made me sacrosanct; fortunately, dead plebeians were good at reading the situation and dragged me towards the limits of the city.

“No, take me back to my shop.” I begged, ignored. Crossing the threshold of Rome and sending me for a strange exile, the lemurs abandoned me to my new duties.

The walls of the Shadow Rome were seized by mist, slowly materializing in the shape of a gargantuan warrior-king, crowned with tall stag horns and dressed in wolf pelts. The mega lemur studied me for a long moment and extended its enormous hands, trying to grab me. I ran, despair guiding my escape. My body refused to move, paralysed by spectral emissions. Closing my eyes, I thought about Camilla as fingers closed around me.

*

I took a deep breath, the smell of maritime breeze and wet soil flooding my senses; flashes and the sound of rain hitting the ground followed. From a pool of my own blood, across haunted tunnels and now in a storm-weathered harbor. I did not recognize the place and I could hardly see one foot in front of my nose; darkness, shadows and waters distorted my sight.

Wait. Shadows, in this murk?

I rose my hand so I could touch my nose, noticing that my arms and face were covered by living shadows that moved on their own, ignoring the constraints of lighting or my will. I blinked violently, confirming this was not a trick of my mind. The voices in my head were real enough to worry me, for they clearly verbalized thoughts beyond mine - things that could only have been born from the collective conscience of the manifesting shades.

Not all voices where in my head. Some came from behind me. I turned around, confused. I had brought a little of the Underworld with me, living shadows and two daemons. One was a bizarre figure, dragon, eagle and woman; the other was a proud winged being, carrying a whip and a cruel venom-dripping dagger.

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“My sweet Adrasteia, look at this.” The eagle-dragon woman was delighted, whistling inside by mind. “The great avenger is afraid of us.”

“You must be mistaken, dear Poenia.” The austere divinity corrected her companion. “What client would be afraid of their patron?”

“Any client worth its salt.” I growled between clenched teeth, filled with natural disgust. “Any relationship requires attention and care.”

“We could not wish for anything else.” Poendia declared and Adrasteia agreed with a soft nod. “A client without anything over their shoulders would not serve our purposes. No, no, no, what are we even talking about now? We are here as patrons, demanding services from our client and invoking the oath and offers expected from our part. There is no more to it. This relationship can only work if both sides fulfil their duties.”

I stared at both of them, incredulous. Godlings, ghosts and now spirits. What had happened to my chaotic and yet simple life?

“Let it be done.” Adastreia made her whip snap with thunderous intensity. “I think you will find your first task personally satisfying.”

The figures disappeared, leaving me alone with serious doubts about my sanity. I felt the shades turning my neck, confronting me with something that was happening on the port.

Amidst the strangeness of a foreign mob. I recognized a familiar and Roman face; the puffy and disgusting visage of Tinnus Annius disembarked from one of the ships, followed by an escort of gladiators and ruffians.

My heartbeat rose, fueled by renewed hope. Finally, I would have some answers - served alongside delicious vengeance.

I was not even fully conscious about the way I was moving, so subtle and determined, almost as if I hovered over the floor. My legs were not moving on their own, the living shadows forming instead tentacles that pulled me around. I focused my mind, controlling them, my body leaning over as I was transported, slithering over the muddy roads like the most bizarre snake.

Titus Annius did not travel lightly; sad as a pig in the rain, he insisted in observing as the slaves unloaded his belonging – or to be precise, the possessions that he had stolen from the people of Rome. My initial instinct was to jump on top of him and punch his mouth until he told me the truth about Camilla; the spectres had other ideas, turning my head towards the water. Covering me in a protective sphere, the shades took me to the sea. I started to sway my arms in panic, trying to swim back to the surface and avoid drowning; the Underworld spectres opposed my efforts, drawing me deeper and deeper - towards the hull of the ship. It was with great relief that I verified that the ectoplasm covering my face somehow allowed me to breath.

Looking around I was able to make out the distorted figures, still busy unloading. I focused all my willpower in sculpting the shadows, intertwining them in a long and strong thread, extending it towards the surface. Clumsy and blind, I felt around through a foreign and incorporeal appendix. Bit by bit I advanced, believing to be close to one of the slaves. I pulled.

A poor slave was dragged to the water, falling and struggling in panic. What he was carrying - a particularly heavy trunk - threatened to dive into the sea. Shouts and orders followed, everyone dropping everything to save the treasures of the usurer.

I broke the waterline like a starving predator, shaking the ship and jumping over slaves and gladiators. Titus was isolated, with only two bodyguards by his side. I was surprised by how much the spectres longed for violence, the shades evading and trying to disarm combatants, leaving the little piggy to me. Clenching my fingers and making a fist, I pulled my arm back and I buried my hand into his belly. It was satisfying, but I needed much more, unleashing all my frustration on Annius, stopping only when he fell to the ground, unable to breath. The members of his escort had rescued the trunk. Feeling that I needed some privacy, I wrapped the usurer in shades and brought him with me as I climbed the top of houses and depots.

It was on the roof of a temple to an unknown divinity that I released him. There was no man left in Titus Annius, only a ball of shame and fat; crying and whimpering, his expensive clothes stained with his own excrement. While pinning him with one hand, I revealed myself to him. He dared to look me in the eyes, he regretted immediately, shaking as if he had just seen a ghost.

“Where is my wife? Where is Camilla?”

The pupils of his eyes dilated.

“The barber? How...” He bumbled, finally bowing before me. “I swear to Minerva and Quintius that this was not my idea. I want people to contract debt and keep paying the rising interest rates! They made me do it, they wanted the proprieties and did not care the least about the money. Everyone that could inspire other plebeians to rise up had to be eliminated. Please, I ask you, spare me and I will tell you everything I know!”

“Where. Is. My. Wife.”

Titus Annius opened his mouth but uttered no sound. Something emerged from the back of his head; something translucent, grey and scarlet. No.

No. No.

A spear born from the shades had killed Titus Annius. I had killed the coward willing to speak instead of dying with dignity and protect the interests of his companions and superiors. Just after he confirmed that there was an actual conspiracy. Not only unfounded rumours or paranoia: Someone sought to destroy the Aventine.

I tried to keep the spectres restrained - they had already caused too much damage. The adrenaline and bloodlust made them extremely stubborn, and they rejected my will. They dug through the dome, the front of the sacrificial altar and the naked basement on the sacred depths.

I was dragged to the Underworld, two voices echoing in my head.

“We have fulfilled our part of the deal. Now it is your turn to prove the worth of your word, Tribune.”

*

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The stench made it clear to me that I had returned to Rome – the true and bare Rome. The shades had traveled with me, but they did not remain in my company for long. They dispersed, eager to explore the Rome of the livings; I was not the only that longed for home. It was difficult to think of my infernal taskmasters as individuals with worries, personalities and needs, even as it was increasingly apparent that their deaths had not erased their Humanity. They still were Roman citizens, with memories and bonds to the Urbe.

It was dark, but I knew these alleys like the calluses on my hands. I found myself in a clearing covered by debris, created by the demolition of various houses. Someone had covered the few standing walls with graffiti and - at much sacrifice and expense - oil lamps, assuring that light enshrined plates of lead and stone.

Filled with grammatical errors, the plates represented the feelings of the peoples of Aventine, congealed in physical form. The rage against the patricians and Senates that allowed these catastrophes to happen, the powerless cycle of answering violence with violence, the treason of civil society in name of greed, the confusion of losing everything that was dear and familiar, the fear of inviting divine retribution, pestilence, famine and death through impious behavior.

Sulking is not part of Roman nature; those plates invoked curses, justice and retribution, promising terrible fates to criminals and the reclamation of Rome from the hands of those that tried to divide it. They were bleeding, they were hurting. But they had not been broken.

Those that did not have anything left begged the assistance of the infernal gods. An extended list of cursed names, scum that had escaped mortal justice and eroded human spirit.

I recalled the desperate spirits of Lemuria, specters that were in positions just as gloomy or even worse than the torments endured by their descendent; lost souls so limited in their options that, -from all plebeians in Rome- had picked me to be their Tribune, their voice.

All these curses. All these offerings.

No help was coming from the Underworld.

Unless I was to become that help.

I called back the shades and lemurs, compressing them so hard against me that they became a living uniform of whispers and darkness. I raised my right hand, the lead plates bending and twisting, attracting the attention of my spectral allies. A legion of minds assimilated the information contained within them, becoming one with the curses, every word reforged into promises of censure and vengeance.

Titus Annius had been only the beginning.

What was the next name on the list?