Aventine Avenger (II)

I awoke surrounded by darkness. For a moment, I thought to be at Bassus’ house, with it still being night-time and nobody daring to bring me a light. Feeling the floor, I notice how cold and prominent the stone was. Continuing with my blind exploration, I ended up realizing how irregular, rough and foreign to human artifice my surroundings were. Some sort of tunnel. Narrowed eyes, I caught a glimpse of a pale light. The illumination source was revealed to me 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. Finally noticing my presence, immediately regained a more composed bearing and greeted me.

Salve, my good man.” Despise her gentle tone, the corners of her eyes and mouths betrayed clear 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 arrival here? That would be terribly embarrassing, for it was another one I summoned, it is another one I await. If I am the one somehow responsible for your troubles, please, let me compensate you in some way.

I reached for the lights, finally realizing how cold I was and how much I wanted for heat. The youth kept her head high, deceptively calm and waiting for an answer.

“No, my lady, I do not think you might be 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 I discovered that one of them put me in this position.”

The smile she presented me was sad and knowing.

“I understand.” She followed my stare, unconsciously focused on the fruit that she was so reluctantly eating. The youth offered me half of the pomegranate. Apparently, I was not just freezing, but utterly famished. “However, sharing a light meal with you would bring me some peace of mind.”

I did not hesitate, accepting and devouring the offer. My stomach still craved sustenance and the small flames did little to appease me; after having rushed to fill the empty void within me, I accepted that I needed something else besides ways to douse my hunger or cold.

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

The youth agreed with a nod.

“The voices might have been silenced, but is an imposed silence that brings nobody peace. 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 possible.”

“Nobody ventures here? Not even that person for whom you wait? Maybe they can assist me.”

“Perhaps.”

The situation was improving, however, I was not willing to sit and wait, no matter how welcoming the company was.

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

“Somewhere and nowhere, even 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 for lack of one willing to listen to their woes, or august celestial authorities that only answer to patrician lamentations.”

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

Why did I say that? I never fully understood what, but something that I felt pulled me such subjects and conclusions. Maybe this is what they call a religious experience. Stepping back, I asked the youth a new question.

“Are you 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, however, I can guarantee you something: I do not consider myself offended.”

I looked 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 me that she also believed that. “I will throw my dice. Vale.”

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

Cryptic nonsense.

I continued through the cold corridors. I still do not know exactly what moved between shadows and never had any intention of finding out. Whatever was able to click like that and release such laments was too mad, degenerate and violent to give me something besides a horrible death. Even if I was quite confident that I was either death 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 find myself someplace that deeply wanted to be Rome. Once again, I reached strange conclusions, ignoring reason, limiting myself to feel my surroundings as a simulacrum of 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 neighbourhood of marble instead of brick, pale and sterile instead of the colourful energy that filled the centre of the Roman world.

I felt an irresistible pull, finding 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, while 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, walked into what passed as Aventine here. Even in the sterile Underworld, the place remained cluttered, claustrophobic and fetid. Dealing with paths and buildings were increasingly familiar, I noticed details that I missed when I was dealing with the wider roads and better-built habitations: 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, without doubt, but one Rome suspended between a dream and a morbid necropolis.

My shop was exactly where I expected to find it, much more real and intense than the neighbouring ones. 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 between barber and client. I was back home. Without waiting even one more instant, I tried to enter and return to that which I had abandoned. I found myself unable to do so. Something was keeping me stuck 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.

I looked around, confused. Shades surrounded me, with quite unfriendly looks. They had expressions quite similar to my Aventine friends, the casual air of someone that was used to let fists instead of Latin do the talking. Waving discreetly towards them, I once again focused in crossing the threshold. Taking a deep breath of tepid air, finally took notice of the black mists that clung to me, wearing me 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 along with me. But how could I explain it to them? I tried to grab the mists and snare the shades, they 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 a Considia; living or dead, the peoples of the Aventine are 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 left alone, 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 to them.

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

The lemurs felt over me, dragging me in a black and grey torrent. Climbing all the way up to the Forum, thousands of spectres, centuries of silenced Romans waiting on me. 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 and definitely not Roman. Somehow the spectres had produced a chair – the seat used by a Tribune. Apprehensive stares felt over me, the intent quite clear: the committee had gathered and in the absence of other candidates I had been elected for the position. It was my time to accept: I either became a Tribune of Shades and Lemurs or face the consequences.

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 barely contained displeasure. It made perfect sense. Why would a Shadow Senate be any happy with the existence of an Infernal Tribune? The living Tribunes are no more loved by magistrates and senators, why would the representatives of the common dead expect different treatment?

Unlike of the real Rome, I was not sure that my Tribune office made me sacrosanct; fortunately, dead plebeians are just as good reading the situation and dragged me towards the limits of the city.

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

All except one.

The walls of the Shadow Rome started to sweat mists, these 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 halting after a few steps. Refusing to move, paralysed by spectral emissions. Closing my eyes, thought about Camilla as fingers closed around me.

 

*

 

I took a deep breath, the smell of maritime breeze and wet soil striking me before any other sensation; flashes and the sound of rain hitting the ground following suit. From a pool of my own blood, across haunted tunnels and now in a harbour in the middle of a storm. I did not recognize the place and I could hardly see one foot in front of my nose; darkness, shadows and waters distorting 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 impositions of lighting or my will. I blinked violently, confirming that this was not a trick of my mind. The voices in my head were definitely real enough to worry me, for they clearly verbalized thoughts other than mine, born from the collective conscience of the manifest shades.

Not only that, they also came from behind me.

I turned around, confused. Apparently, I had brought a little of the Underworld with me, pulling alongside living shadows the company of two daemons. One was a bizarre figure, dragon, eagle or woman; the other was a proud winged woman, carrying a whip and a cruel venom-dripping dagger.

“My sweet Adrasteia, look at this.” The eagle-dragon woman was delighted, whistling inside by mind. “The great avenger dreads our presence.”

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

“A client worth its salt.” I growled between clenched teeth, filled with natural disgust.

“We could not wish for anything better.” Poendia declared and Adrasteia agreed with a soft nod. “A client without anything over their shoulders does 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. This relationship can only work if both sides fulfil their duties.”

I stared at both of them, incredulous. What had happened to my chaotic but simple life?

“Let it be done.” Adastreia made her whip snap with thunderous intensity. “With a personal touch.”

The figures disappeared as fast as they had appeared, 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, 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, fuelled by renewed hope. Finally, I would have some answers, accompanied by a side dish of 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 instead forming tentacles that pulled me around. I focused my mind at controlling them, my body leaning over as I was transported, slithering like the most bizarre of the snakes over the muddy roads.

Titus Annius did not travel lightly; sad as a pig in the rain, even drenched he inspected in person as the slaves unloaded his belonging – or to be precise, the possessions that he had stolen from the peoples of Rome. My initial instict was to jump on top of him and punch his mouth until he told me the truth about Camilla; the spectres in the shadows 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 somehow the ectoplasm covering my face allowed me to breath.

Looking around I was able to make out the distorted figures against the occasional thunderous flash, 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 and believed to be close to one of the slaves; trusting my appraisal, I pulled the tentacle back.

A poor slave was dragged to the water, falling and struggling in panic. What he was carrying, a heavy trunk, started to slide and threatened to follow up in a wet dive. Shouts and orders, everyone dropping everything in order to try saving 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 all to me. Clenching my fingers and making a fist, I pulled my arm back and I buried by hand in his belly. It was satisfying, but I needed much more, unleashing all my frustration on Annius, stopping only when he felt to the ground unable to breath. The members of his escort had rescued the trunk and had started to react. 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.

Was on the roof of the temple to an unknown divinity that I released him. There was no man in Titus Annius, only a ball of shame and fat, crying and whimpering, his expensive clothing stained with his own excrement. I reached my face with one hand while pinning him with the other, revealing to him my visage. He dared to look me in the eyes, timidly regretting, 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 never my idea. I want people to contract debt and be able to pay the rising interest! 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 killed the only coward of the conspiracy that was willing to speak instead of dying with dignity and protect the interests of his companions and superiors. Precisely at the moment that he confirmed that, indeed, there was a conspiracy. Not only unfounded rumours or paranoia. Someone sought to destroy the Aventine.

I tried to keep the spectres restrained, for they had already caused too much damage. The adrenaline and the bloodlust made them extremely stubborn, making them reject my will, digging a hole in the dome, another in front of the sacrificial altar and finally one in the naked basement on the sacred depths.

I was dragged to the Underworld, a voice echoed in my head.

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

 

*

 

The stench made it clear to me that I had returned to Rome – the true and bare Rome. The shades had travelled inside 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 one longing for home. It is 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 changed that. They still were Roman citizens, with memories and bonds to the Urbe.

They remained anchored in me, wandering as I explored on my own.

It was night, however, I knew these alleys like the calluses on my hands, and I was able to confirm that we had returned to the Aventine. I searched for a light-source, guided by traces of smoke and the smell of burnt oil. I found myself on a clearing covered by debris, created by the demolition of various houses. Someone had covered the few standing walls with grafitti and, at much sacrifice and expense, spread oil lamps, assuring that light was cast upon various plates of lead and stone.

Filled with grammar errors, the plates represented the feelings of the peoples of Aventine, gathered 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 greedy profit, the confusion of losing everything that was dear and familiar, the fear of inviting divine retribution, pestilence, famine and death.

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.

Those that do not have anything offer offered everything they had, clamouring for the assistance of the infernal gods. An extended list of names was spread across curse plates, scum that had escaped mortal justice and kept gnawing at the human spirit.

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

All these curses. All these offerings. For whom?

No help was coming from the Underworld.

Unless I was to be that help.

I called back the shades and lemurs, compressing them so hard against me that they moulded themselves into 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 wills assimilated the information contained within them, becoming one with the curses, every word reforged into an armour bearing promises of censure and vengeance.

Titus Annius was only the beginning.

What was the next name on the list?