It was disturbing how much this region of the peninsula was emptiness. The soil itself rejecting the notion of becoming scenery for mismanaged farms and ghost villages. The genius loci was a temperamental creature, unable to tolerate the human presence for more than a few months at a time.
He was in nomad territory.
Tabula Rasa was aware of the threat these people presented. Time and time again Rome and Samnites faced off against each other, the success of one’s lifestyle predicated upon the misery of the others. Plebeians and patricians were all too eager to accept the convenient lie that three generations of peace had changed the attitude of saddle and cattle folk towards their sedentary farmer “friends”. The neighboring allies that spend nights listening to galloping screamers could not forget the one absolute truth about the Samnites. Those that herd, war.
The Latin war machine would not protect Sextus anymore. If the Samnites caught him, there would be no opportunity for his message to be heard. His body would be quartered and violated, killed in exchange for two hundred and ninety-nine pieces of silver.
The Underworld was omnipresent, touching the mortal world in even the most remote sites. Feeling its call, he found a tomb hidden behind elms, a tiny brick house, made from precious squares carved from volcanic rock. Perfect place to spend the night.
Silence was not part of the nocturnal imperative, something inducing great distress to the animal life. Sextus barely caught any sleep, wondering if it would not have been better to descent to the Underworld and rest in that peculiar insecurity. He woke up next morning with an aching head and baggy eyes, stumbling without a clear aim, clumsily looking for the source of all the upheaval.
A trail of horse hooves. Many different sizes, left by beasts other than his own. Much more distressing were the lighter ones, left by an animal without the typical equestrian sandals. Caressing the grass around those, he found himself catching something shining and crimson. Pomegranate arilli.
Whistling for his mount, they trotted away from that night.
Another day of travel ensued, with no soul crossing his path either he ventured off or on trail. At least signs of camping did not fail to present themselves, stones scorched by flames, trampled grass and burnt animal bonus.
Setting camp of his own, Tabula Rasa gave himself permission to believe that there was nothing outside of the realm of normalcy going on. The fires in the horizon? Just camps, just like this one.
Sextus was not certain about what had roused him from his sleep, if it was the heatwave or the rain-less thunderclap. Taking vigil, he examined his surroundings. In a hill not that far away, a mare appeared so suddenly that it almost seemed to sprout from the ground. This was no mortal beast, for its head was impressively missing and stuck in its neck was an igneous iron rod.
So, this was going to be the day he died.
It was hard for Sextus to believe it to be so, when the morning had started so serene. Finding no trails, he risked braving alluring woods with the intent of restocking supplies. A pair of rabbits, a par of mushrooms and a filled water-skin later, he noticed the falcons.
This was a trap.
Tabula Rasa thought for a moment about turning back or staying where he was, but eyes in the sky would keep the Samnite up to date to the developments and the more time he gave them, the better prepared they would be. His death was absent from most pertinent worries, for that he had oblated long ago and was no longer something he owned. He found an empty trunk in which to hide the money and carved with his knife a bull and a crow, hoping that Lidia would find someone wiser to continue his mission. Crossing beyond the tree line, his thoughts wandered towards how much violence would he allow himself to offer as a final act of defiance.
In his hands, the spear was still bound.
A massacre awaited him.
Atop a wooden platform, an altar stood, headed by the great mother goddess Kerres and seven of their animal-touched children, incarnated in beautiful wooden effigies. Horses with saddles of wool and leather stood nearby, the Bruttii style of the harness betraying the affiliation of the nomadic herders. Vengeance, banditry or sacrifice, whatever drove their plans towards him would be a mystery for the ages.
None of the riders was left in a state that allowed answers.
An enormous figure clad in black armor stood over the corpses, its members entwined with lighting and fury. It stood and turned slowly, right hand describing a circle over the deformed helmet, hiding itself behind an impious bloody mockery of the crimson face of a triumphant general. The blood drops that dripped from his hands and from the bodies seemed to dance and jump in an aberrant manner, seemingly forming words, the dim strokes of Rex, Rex, Rex. Repeated over and over, until the word lost all meaning, being just something that dragged the surroundings towards its Triumph.
Sextus clenched his hands around the spear’s haft, dismounting and keeping a safe distance, slowly describing a circle. The very air seemed to shine with attractive distortion, making him doubt his quest. Why would he reject his military training, earning to be more than a simple soldier? If Lidia had not place for him as he was, others would. There is always merit in service, serving someone for servitude sake was its own reward.
The figure extended its hand, palm turned down. Sextus felt his knees weaken. This overwhelming presence and alien nature dispelled one of his erroneous assumptions. Just because one was touched by the Celestial, that did not meant they were virtuous beings nor that they tapped into commendable platonic forms. Planting his spear in the ground and drying the sweat falling down his brow, Tabula Rasa surrendered to the inevitable. There was no other way, he had to call down Infernal powers.
He could hear his own blood coursing through his veins, the chemical orgy of new cells as they divided eager to replace dying tissue, the entire chaotic chorus of being alive and the invisible but powerful divine spark that permeated all of his being. Something joined in, something primal and telluric, strange in how familiar it was, awakening something inside.
A neigh interrupted Sextus and his moment of discovery. The mare from last night entered the scene, carrying the bag of money in its mouth. Dropping the precious load at the feet of Tabula Rasa, stared him down in a way that left no space of ambiguity. As Sextus retreated, the mare charged towards Quintius Fulminator, burning iron aimed towards its chest. Grabbing the pieces of silver with a single hand, Sextus prepared to lose himself in the woods.
He did not dare to look back.
The coin for Kerres was not returned.