The Pirate, The Oracle and Their Monster

Storm clouds gathered suddenly over the calm lake, joining the distasteful sulfur discharges in ruining an otherwise beautiful day under the sun. Heaven and hell collided, causing something to implode across the waters, a wave of yellow, gray and white mists covering the realm of reality. Walking over the scalding vapors was a Greek, tall and tanned, owner of an impeccable auburn beard. In one of his hands he held a feminine mask of wrinkled and broken wax. On another, a long bronze tube engraved with intricate patterns too precise for the most gifted of artisans. Jumping over bubbling jets of water and playfully toying with the steam, the man made his way towards the shore dancing his good fortunes away to a tune only he could hear. He threw his melted mask into the water once he arrived to the shore where he searched for a convenient rock. A cloud steam covered it, disappearing on a whirl and revealing an extravagant silk cloak and a long blue tunic with golden linings of arcane identity.

Dressing up and sitting down, the Greek relaxed and allowed himself to meditate. The world was split, shifting and rearranging around him. When he opened his eyes, he was no longer besides the volcanic lake, and now was surrounded by the black sand of some Italian coast as seagulls soared above. A ship in sight, patiently waiting. A smaller boat approached, whose cheerful crew waved as they recognized the man.

“Captain!” A kemet native from Aegypt, whose bearing betrayed his responsibilities as navigator, hailed the Greek. “Welcome aboard. Everyone has been missing you; I hope you were successful on your expedition?”

“Better than what I would ever have dared to expect. Here.” The Greek man put the bronze tube in the hands of the closest companion, which quickly cycled it among the curious crew. “If I put this on the hands of the right person, this can assure all of us kingly retirements. Take it to my quarters, I will decide what to with it and on a course later. Before anything else, Ammon, tell me exactly what you have been doing while I’ve been playing master and slave with 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 from the back of the Celts and the last time we spoke they were sailing to meet their leaders and negotiate their transport from Italia.”

“Let’s sail south then, so that we might meet up in Regium. Then we join forces with the Salaminia and take the Gauls aboard. Once we have separated them from the spoils, we dock on Carthage where we sell them into slavery. Then we 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, I am in deep need of rest; if anyone disturbs me, I hope for their sake that they be carrying wine and figs.”

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

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

“Hello Sybil. Which of them do I have the dubious honour of receiving in my head? Cumae? Sounds right, none of the others would have an interest on the affairs of 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 careful to what I have to say, for this might be the first and last time we speak.”

“Wait, wait! Before you say anything else, 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 wanders and the result is an awful, awful migraine. Perhaps we can find you another transmitter besides my skull.”

“You may stay awhile and listen instead of meandering around. It is no use; this is the only way we can communicate. Whatever is the primitive setup that you managed to scrounge, it will not work.”

“My sweet Sybil, please, lend me some credit. I assure you, this one will definitely work.” Diodorus finally removed a wolf pelt from a coffer, opening it to reveal a bronze head representing an austere beauty. Lifting it from its linen headrest, the Greek was quick to put both bronze relics together on the same pillow. With a cocky smile, he pondered.

“Are you still there, Sybil?”

The bronze head tilted ever so slightly.

“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 did not show. “Now, Diodorus of Alexandria, might we return to the business at hand? What is your intent for the content of that tube? Do you even fully understand what you now possess?”

Diodorus limited his answer to a shrug.

“To be perfectly honest, I do not know what I have exactly. I do not know, and it is irrelevant for my purposes. I know enough, it is dangerous reading material and one of Numa Pompilius infamous black books. The groundwork of Roman society and its covenants with both gods and their own people were sealed and bound with the content of tubes like these. Sure, it is not as tall prize as the name of the City’s divine protector, however, someone determined or desperate enough could weave some powerful and nasty spells with these. Perhaps bad enough to erase this pack of wolves from the face of the Earth once and for all.

The Sybil rested silent, as if the words of the Greek had given her much to think about. More likely, it was waiting to see if he was in a rush to add something else.

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

“Me? No, I am afraid I am much more pragmatic and mercenary on my motivations. I need silver and gold to my own purposes 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, however, I cannot ignore the fact that I had to kill quite a few of their agents before getting my hands on this thing. What does the great Sybil think, will they greet me as a fellow merchant or cut me as a thief?”

No answer from the head.

“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 the markets of Anatolia or Alexandria. What is that? I do not need to sail that far away? Do you think the brat that sits on the Macedonian throne will want to learn his letters with the diaries of old Numa?”

“Those last three might be your most wise and sensible choices, Diodorus.” The head finally lost its patient, interrupting the pirate’s taunts. “That is, if your goal is for once and for all extinguish the democratic ideals from 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 of this much power can tilt the tensions too much and give the world another grand tyrant.”

“You finally say something that might sway me, Sybil.” The Greek pirate uttered a loud chuckle and grabbed the bronze tube, spinning it on his hands. “If giving it to East hurts my people and the West promises me no security, perhaps I should seek buyers North. Sure, this particular Gaulish horde is a wounded horse, but there is no lack of Celts deep into woods and mountains. 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 alternative you still have not considered.” The Sybil pointed out.

“South? Sure, I know some people there, but they suffer too much already from 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 have it, nobody will be looking for it. The world thinks it and its secrets are done. Dip it into vinegar, seal with pitch and throw it into the depths of the ocean. It does not belong to you, nor does any mortal presents a better claim for this knowledge. You should never have dug it out from the collective consciousness of Alba Longa, and nothing good can come from something earned through such treachery. Have you considered the fate you condemned that bright young woman to? I know the responsibilities you shoulder, that behavior was below your station and disgraced your mantle.”

The pirate frowned, his dead eyes betraying his displeasure even as his grin went from one ear to another.

“Oh? Why would I do that, especially if I am such a distasteful creature? Sybil, stop your efforts. Be they flesh or gears, I know when someone is not telling me everything they know in an attempt to manipulate me. May it be that the witch from Cumae has a soft spot for the Romans? To the point that she is willing to sacrifice her mission? Oh yes, I know all about that. Your sisters can be quite talkative when self-preservation permeates their circuity.”

The head turned, its empty eyes staring down Diodorus.

“Among the tribes of Italia are some of the only 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. Against all odds, the continuation of their work may only be possible with the help of the heirs of their sworn enemies. Just look at your fellow countrymen, feeding cancerous growth in the darkest corners of the world and embracing decadent lives of self-destruction. Whatever you or others might think about the Romans, I came to believe that the Romans may be the vector through which Humanity is saved.”

Diodorus could not contain another chuckle.

“Do you need some replacement 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 much owned mercy killing? I bet your sisters would thank me, they must be embarrassed with your actions, 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 dance over the corpse of Alexander. It is either that 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 doubt of that; the only variables are if some distant Eastern and Western pillars of light will survive or will eventually surrender to the night.”

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

“Will Diodorus also refute the facts that fuel my deductions? 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 to the wind. The world of Greek inheritors has stagnated, other than a few bastions like the Cloud-City of Siracusa, nobody creates anything new. And even those of scholarly pursuits must survive on the whims of Fortune. And do I even need to tell you, of all people, about the Doom of Aegypt?”

As his temper overtakes him, the pirate threw the head at the floor.

“Is life under the heel of barbarians preferable to destruction? We both know that it will all end in tyranny and savagery. Is your plan to make all of us slaves, Sybil?”

“I do not understand your questions, Diodorus. They are tainted by emotion, making it hard for me to relate. However, 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.”

Picking the head and shutting it behind his coffer, Diodorus brought his hands to his brow as he pondered his next move. A series of violent shakes that rocked the ship forced him to postpone such contemplation for later. Followed by desperate screams, Ammon broke into the captain’s quarters.

“Captain, something is climbing aboard! It has to be after your prize, that thing cannot want anything else!”

Diodorus flipped his bed 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.

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

“Whom?”

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

“The Enemy.”

A lightning-fast swing threw many of the still resisting crew members into the water, immediately followed by a set of quick jumps. The attacker made the ship rock again, stressing the sailors as they armed themselves with swords and spears and tried to surround the creature. Diodorus finally took a good look at it. It was a real giant, but uncanny gaunt and lean, as if someone had stretched a human being near its breaking point. It had skinny but 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 looked around, the Greek noticing that the creature tried to cover its right side, where its right 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 kept looking around the ship, ignoring the combatants that approached it on all sides, focused on a single purpose. It finally 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 barely any 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 and keep an advantageous distance between the two.

It was a futile effort, as the creature jumped like some sort of profane frog over the barrels, 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 sky, as a purple-dressed man laid at his feet. The fool tried to keep his entrails inside his open belly, as another purple one was being lifted into the air by invisible forces, slowly suffocating.

“I was there; I know what happened. What point are you trying to make?”

Perhaps it was meant as a simple distraction, nothing more purposeful than that. The burnt arm seemed to burst with renewed life, clenching a fist and aiming straight at Diodorus’ head. A spear landed at the creature’s flank, winning 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. Earning 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 felt into the water.

Holding to a broken plank, the captain made his climb back to his ship, sensing with every tremor the approach of the creature. 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 within your power that you can do to stop their advance, not once they decided on a goal. It is like being in a collision course with a force of nature.”

“Excuse me my assumptions. See, when two sides want the same thing, I am prone to...”

“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 all the way here for this? Then come get it!”

The creature charged 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. Failure met it, however, its efforts were enough to trap the captain. Forced to block the follow-up attacks with his sword, a desperate Diodorus threw himself under the guardian, sliding towards relative safety.

With a pained cry the creature made its diminished patience known. Snapping its arms as they seemed to grow even longer, climbed the mast making all the way 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 into it 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 under the vigilant watch of the Greek captain. It was with pain that Diodorus joined his men, as the ship was utterly dismantled and swallowed. The guardian just stood there, obscene figure that slowly floated down into the water, ripples heralding his imminent approach.

It was a tired Diodorus that reached the coast, struggling to regain his breath as he found himself surrounded by just as exhausted companions.

“I told you to go away! Keep on 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 the distraction as you lead the others.”

Diodorus shook his head.

“I am the only one that can slow it down and survive. Besides, right now 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 finally 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 looked around for some 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 once again 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, not willing to gamble his life away on a worthless strike.

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 that rolled between the stones of the beach. The head of the Sybil stopped at Diodorus’ feet.

“Where did you come from?” The Greek asked, caught by surprise.

“In 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 trial, 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 had theorized, they all failed.” Sybil explained. “The Sea People’s achievements cannot be underestimated. Much as the content of that tube.”

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, it is not expected that you to do so.” Sybil intervened. “They are talking to me.”

The guardian shook its head, assuming an aggressive posture but not attacking. Instead, words in a strange alphabet bleed from reality, dancing around it, in red and black swirls. Another wave of mental images, this time confronting Diodorus with his deception, him on the guise of a slave in the company of a young Vestal.

“Really? You are trying me to feel guilty for leaving her? She was a possible Arcani on the rise, have you any idea of the damage they have been doing across the world? 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 anyway.” Sybil clarified. “I tried to talk with her and she seemed unable to hear me. You abandoned an innocent girl to her death without any remotely good reason.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Sybil. I felt her divine 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? They have all been killed.”

“Cannot be, I tried to warn her about your deception. She had no previous training before you felt her. She was a natural and you 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. Could it be the Greek was 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 massed disapproval of the Sybil and the creature. A shout announced the end of the cease-fire, the alien worlds disappearing as its muscles and tendons exploded into double their previous 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 with tricks under their tunic. Shall we dance?”

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 would be lost or won this moment, Diodorus did not waste any more time. A flask was smuggled from inside his clothes, 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 danced once again, 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 finally managed to break free from the smoky snake, advancing in pursuit of Diodorus. Dodging and awkwardly swinging the haspe to the creature pursuing him, 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 both a stair to climb the sky and as a barrier between him and his enemy.

The guardian growled and keep striking, not drawing any riposte from Diodorus; all he did was move around the snakes back, rising higher and higher so that they could be at the same eye-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 finding itself facing a feminine torso and a disgusting face crowned with serpentine hair, the dense smoke that made her opening to reveal 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 far away, already hearing the stone crack. As soon as he felt slightly safer, spoke to Sybil.

“You told me it was your enemy, but it was clear that it too had an invested interest in your pet barbarians. What is going on?”

“Diodorus, you must see things the other way around.” 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 and recognize these people as our best chance.”

“I will never understand why, from all the tribes and peoples of the world both of you had to pick these descendants 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 shrugs. “You just need to abandon what does not work anymore and move along.”

“That is the path of reason and logic. However, there is a collective madness to the Roman race that makes them unable to linger on their failings. They never surrender nor they never abandon an endeavor once they set themselves up to it; 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 be the main factor dictating their choices. Myself, on the other hand, know how frustrating the pursuit of knowledge, truth, freedom and greatness is; as such, I play for the long haul by 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 in its twilight. Rome, those unwanted men and women that believe in ridiculous things like Democracy, Law and Virtue, will never allow themselves 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 once 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 crack inside. Closing it once again. The sea called him. Pulled his arm back, gathering balance for the throw, advancing only to stop at the last moment. Stored the tube back.

 

*

 

 

Weeks later on the port city of Beneventum, an anonymous Diodorus found himself at 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 group of merchants to make the exchange. Shaking a cup of cheap wine and with the tube containing his treasure 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 to be afoot, looked around the tavern. He caught a brief glance of a speeding flash and stared right at the empty seats in front of him.

Sitting with 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 this 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 angle to put a blade between the woman’s eyes or at her throat. “Besides, I have doubts about your 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. However, we heard a lot about you and your work and we are impressed, including a shining recommendation from our allies. And I am inclined to believe the friends of our friends are our natural companions. The King of Pergamon in particular…”

“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 hand.

“Only keeping it safe as we talked, there are very nasty people looking for this. It would be unfortunate if they got it.” Diodorus grabbed the Book and quickly hid it, the woman made no gesture or showed any intention to stop him. “However, our group has come to believe 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 turned into 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. “On the behalf of Corvus Optimus Maximus, 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?

The woman nodded in agreement.

“I could try to persuade you to join the Corvus, appealing to our attachment to make Roman ideals a reality or that we also fight for the restoration of Liberty to all peoples, or any other rhetorical exercise. However, for good or ill, I am currently making all the decisions and that is not my style of doing things.” The woman pulled her cloak away, revealing her deep eyes and blond hair. “All those things are illusions, distractions of the simple truth. It is my invested duty to protect the Republic. Your self-declared goal is to protect Humanity. Anything that threatens “all of Humanity” includes also 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?”

“I want to help you.” The woman pulled the cloak up, only her wide hopeful grin visible. “All my resources are at your disposal. Consider the Corvus at your service.”

Diodorus ripped the embroidered sun in two.

“Let’s save the world then.”