The Cloaca Maxima
by Rob Steiner
My new friend Vitulus poked through my spell components on the shelves of my workshop in 6
BC Rome. "How are you at locating fantasy animals, Natta Magus?" he asked.
"Depends on if it's a real fantasy animal," I said. "And don't touch that unless you want your
testicles to shrivel up."
Vitulus's hand hovered over the dried starfish leg he was about to pick up. He withdrew it
instead to the hilt of the gladius strapped to his leather belt. The starfish wouldn't have done
that, but it could have it imprinted itself with his aura by accident. And then I'd be out one
expensive starfish leg.
I grabbed the leg and put it in my spell component purse on my belt. He scowled at me, and I
"Are you asking," I said, "or is Prefect Salvius Aper?"
"Officially, the Praetorian Prefect has numerous duties and no time to chase children's stories,"
Vitulus said. He sat down at the stool on the other side of my worktable and got that
uncomfortable look he always had when discussing magical topics. "Unofficially . . . would be
most grateful for your expertise in another delicate matter."
"Delicate matter" sounded like sesterces clinking in my coin purse. A fire had wiped out all my
spell components and old workshop two months ago when I helped Salvius Aper with another
"delicate" matter. While I had turned down Aper's offer of patronage -- couldn't have an oath
tying me to this century -- he had still come to me with "delicate" jobs that had helped me rent a
new workshop and replenish some of my components. But I still had a long way to go before I
had everything I needed for the spell that would get me back home to twenty-first century
"What fantasy animal does your boss want me to find?" I asked.
"We don't know its name, but we know it lives in the sewers and can kill a man just by looking
at him. Do you know of such a beast?"
"In my timeline there are a number of 'fantasy' creatures that could live in a sewer or kill with a
glance. We need to narrow it down. Any witnesses?"
"A flamen of Neptune named Stolo. He says he and his fellow flamen, Paetus, were sitting in the
latrines when the head of the beast poked out of the latrine hole between them. Stolo said the
creature looked like a large, scaly rooster. It hissed at Paetus, and then he fell to the floor dead.
The beast then dropped back down the latrine hole. Stolo ran off screaming for the nearest
"And you believe Stolo?"
Ancient Romans were terribly superstitious; they saw monsters and ill omens in almost every
corner. Most of the time they were wrong. I mean they even thought they could tell the future by
studying animal entrails. I knew I shouldn't judge them too harshly, however, since the
ubiquitous magic of my twenty-first century came about through centuries of trial and error,
some of it actually beginning in Rome during their Awakening three hundred years from now.
Vitulus shrugged at my question. "That's where you come in, my friend. If you can look into his
mind, perhaps you can see the truth. If this creature does exist, we can then find it and kill it."
"Well I'm happy to take your money," I said, "but my magus ethics require me to tell you that I
think one man's story, even if he is a flamen, does not --"
"There have been six more deaths, all in latrines and all relatively healthy individuals with no
wounds." Vitulus's eyes hardened. "Three days ago, a Praetorian was killed in the same
I considered my professional ethics assuaged.
I had an idea of what kind of creature I was dealing with. If I was right, it was something that
could only be conjured by a twenty-first century magus. Which meant I'd have my first lead on
finding William Pingree Ford, the mentor, oath-breaker, and former friend who had abandoned
me in ancient Rome.
I put on my enchanted Detroit Wolverines baseball cap -- black with a yellow "W" logo -- and
said, "Let's go talk to your witness."
Vitulus and I arrived at the Basilica Neptuni after a circuitous walk through Rome's crowds and
tangled streets. My new workshop was on the Aventine Hill, so Vitulus and I had to walk north
past the Circus Maximus -- where the crowds inside roared over some sort of races -- and past
the Capitoline Hill, where the marble columns of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus cast a
shadow over the Basilica on the Campus Martius below. I'd been stuck in Rome for sixteen
months and I still got lost almost every time I left my workshop.
We entered the columned Basilica and found Stolo at the altar. His back was to us as he lit the
braziers that illuminated the imposing marble statue of Neptune in the center of the altar. He
jumped when he heard us and whipped around, his eyes wide. He exhaled sharply. He wore an
off-white toga with purple stripes, and looked about as old as me -- early thirties, but with a
black beard and curly black hair.
"I'm sorry we startled you," Vitulus said. "I brought the man I told you about. This is Natta
Stolo gave my baseball cap a horrified look.
And then sprinted off in the other direction.
I exchanged a confused glance with Vitulus. "Maybe he's a Cubs fan?" I said.
Vitulus chased after the flamen. "Stolo, where are you going?" he yelled.
I followed them both because I wasn't going to get paid standing there.
It's not easy running in flat, treadless Roman sandals, especially coming from a world where I'm
used to rubber-soled sneakers, but I managed to keep up with my Praetorian friend. Stolo's flight
took us on a tour of the Basilica Neptuni's main altar chamber surrounded by tall columns, and
then into smaller rooms filled with sacrificial components, and then through the flamen barracks
and their main kitchen, until we finally ended up in the Basilica's bath chamber. We arrived just
in time to see Stolo's dark curly head drop down through a drainage grate in the center of the
empty bathing basin.
"Stolo!" Vitulus cried, but the flamen ignored him.
We stopped at the rectangular hole where the grate had been. The drain hole was dark, but we
could hear Stolo's frightened grunts and shuffling feet below.
Vitulus took off his toga -- how he was able run with it, I have no idea -- and then stepped onto
the ladder rungs that led down into the sewer. I stood over the opening, smelling the dank
mustiness and underlying rot rising from the open grate . . . along with the restless spirits that
haunted a place where centuries of dead bodies were dumped and/or hidden.
"Hey, Vitulus," I said, "if he doesn't want to talk to us, maybe we should just let --"
"He knows something about the murder of a Praetorian," Vitulus growled as he continued to
descend. "He will speak to me if I have to pull out his fingernails."
Ah, damn. Vitulus had watched my back on several occasions since we first met, so I couldn't
very well let him go down there alone. I made sure my ball cap was securely fastened to my
head, tried to ignore my claustrophobia, and descended after my friend.
The sewer ledge that I landed on was every bit as nasty as I had feared. The brick ledge was
about two feet wide, with the sewer water to the left and a brick wall to the right. It was wet,
slimy from mold, and smelled like the crap of an entire city. This was the Cloaca Maxima, the
storm drain and sewage system that helped Rome avoid drowning in floodwaters and its own
cac, as they say around here.
Thankfully I could not sense any angry spirits nearby wanting to feast on my magical aura. That
would change, however, the longer we stayed. My ball cap would shield my presence for a
while, but not forever.
"Can you make one of your spark globes?" Vitulus asked, peering into the darkness ahead.
I snapped my fingers and a small globe of white, arcane light floated in the air above us. I
directed it toward the shuffling sounds I heard up ahead.
"Stolo!" Vitulus yelled again. "Why are you running?"
"You did say you were going to pull out his fingernails," I whispered.
Vitulus ignored me and pushed forward as fast as he could on the slippery ledge.
There was a scream from up ahead, then a splash, and then silence. We hurried forward and
stopped when the spark globe illuminated Stolo standing chest deep in the mucky sewer water.
He had his right hand on his forehead, where blood streamed down his face.
Vitulus stood with his fists on his hips above Stolo. "We're trying to help you, fool!"
Stolo looked up at Vitulus, dazed. He blinked several times, and then began to weep.
"I'm sorry," he said through his sobs. "He told me he'd kill me and my family if I talked to you
"Who told you that?"
"Tiberius," Stolo cried.
Vitulus just stared at him. "Augustus's son? Why?"
"I don't know! And he especially didn't want me talking to him." Stolo pointed at me.
But I was only partially listening, because my ball cap had started tingling. And that was never a
good thing in a place like the Cloaca Maxima. The spark globe was limiting my vision to just its
area of illumination, but I could sense the anger and hunger of the spirits gathering in the
"Vitulus," I said, "we need to get out of here. Now, please."
"You know all those angry nasties that I told you live in cemeteries? The sewer ones are even
I felt a rush of magical energy surge toward us. Stolo screamed and was pulled under the water.
Vitulus reached into the water, grabbed Stolo's hand, and pulled him up. The flamen gagged and
screamed all at the same time. When I reached for Stolo's other hand, I noticed something
attached to his leg. It looked like the beak of a monstrous rooster. The stench from its breath
rose above the sewage: rotten meat with a curious mix of cinnamon.
"Don't look at it!" I yelled.
Vitulus averted his eyes from the water. He had been on several "delicate" jobs with me, so he
knew that if I told him not to do something, he had better not do it.
Stolo was not as well trained. He turned his head reflexively to see what had grabbed his leg. A
magical blast vibrated my teeth, and then Stolo turned limp as a doll. I immediately let go, and
then pulled Vitulus's arm.
"He's gone, let's go!"
Vitulus hesitated, but let go of Stolo's dead hand, and followed me and my spark globe back to
the ladder. The creature seemed satisfied to feast on Stolo, but the sewer spirits had found me
and seemed to be calling all their buddies to the banquet that was my aura. The spark globe had
all but eliminated my night vision, but I heard their whispers approaching from ahead and
behind. I felt their hunger like a gazelle must feel the lion's hot breath. Their howls filled my
mind, distracting me from the spell I needed.
I pushed Vitulus ahead of me. As he scrambled up the ladder, I reached into my component
purse and pulled out a salt bag. I climbed the ladder with one hand, while uttering the
bastardized Dutch incantation:
"Dit alles hier worden bewaakt in de tijd, en er in de eeuwigheid!"
As soon as I leaped up into the bath chamber from the ladder, I dumped the salt bag into the
drainage hole. The salt crystals glowed in multiple colors as they floated down into the sewer,
like the cantrips I had cast during my intern days. The dust covered the sewer hole like a solid
door, and then dissipated as the invisible shield locked into place. The howls of the hungry
spirits abruptly stopped.
I put my hands on my knees and took several deep breaths. "If you ever go into the sewers
again," I growled to Vitulus, "it'll be by yourself."
I looked at him, but he was standing at military attention and staring at the door behind me. I
turned and saw Tiberius surrounded by four lictors, each holding a gladius. I'd seen Tiberius on
occasion during my rare visits to the Circus Maximus, when he would watch the races with his
father, Augustus, from their private box seats. But Tiberius was even more imposing up close: as
tall as me, but far more muscled due to a lifetime in the Legions. His head was covered in curly
black hair, and a tuft of black hair peaked from the low neck of his tunica beneath his white toga.
But the magical aura surrounding him betrayed his true identity.
"Hello, William," I said.
"Hello, Remington," my mentor replied, calling me by my real name. He spoke in mild, soft
tones, which were meant to put you at ease. It had always worked on me when he was my
mentor, making me relax and not over-think my magic. He was using the same tone now, which
only made me want to rip out his throat. "Nice to see you again."
"I wish I could say the same."
I struggled to keep my voice as calm as his. "Great. Considering you burned down my last
workshop, not to mention almost all of Rome."
His lips twitched in a proud smile. "Then it's a good thing you were there. I taught you well,
"You conjured the basilisk," I said. "Why?"
He gave me the smile of a patient teacher. "For the same reasons I gave you when we last spoke.
Magic was not meant for human beings. It all began here, so it will all end here. What better tool
than a magical monster to commit an assassination and turn the Romans against magic?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Vitulus stiffen as he looked from "Tiberius" to me. He
must've now realized that the man standing in front of us was not the real Princeps' son, though I
couldn't imagine how confused he felt. I only prayed he was ready to follow my next move like
he had been in the sewer.
"I'll explain in a moment, but first things first." He turned to his four men. "Remove that man's
hat and bring it to me."
The four men approached Vitulus and I. All four had the rheumy eyes and slackened mouths of
the enthralled, which sickened me worse than the sewer had. More crimes to add to your ledger,
As much as I pitied them, they would kill me nonetheless if William wished it. And they
certainly could not take my cap.
"Vitulus!" I yelled, and then leaped through the open hole back into the sewer.
I landed with a splash in the awful water, barely avoiding Vitulus when he landed beside me a
moment later. I scrambled out of the water and onto the ledge, slipping once, before I found
purchase on the slimy brick. I paused only to ensure Vitulus had made it out. He gave me a nod
as he climbed onto the ledge, and then we both ran as fast as we could in the opposite direction
from which we had encountered the basilisk. I spared a glance up at the four lictors looking
down at us before Vitulus and I rounded a bend in the sewer. I did not hear them pursue us, and I
doubted they would. William had probably wanted us to escape down here -- he figured the
basilisk and the hungry spirits would finish us off.
That's three times you've passive-aggressively tried to kill me, William, I thought. One of these
days I will return the favor.
We were in pitch darkness, so I had no choice but to conjure a spark globe. The globe might
enable someone to follow us, but we'd be in even worse trouble sightlessly tripping through
tunnels haunted by angry spirits and a basilisk. At least I still had my cap; it wasn't tingling --
yet -- so I wasn't in immediate danger of being eaten alive by sewer ghosts.
"In the name of all the gods," Vitulus asked in a harsh whisper, "what happened back there?"
"That wasn't Tiberius," I said through heavy breaths, "that was the bastard who abandoned me
here, William Pingree Ford."
"Why did he look like Tiberius?"
"A spell. Pretty complicated one, too."
"Did he kill Tiberius?"
"No. He needs Tiberius's living blood to make it work. Probably has Tiberius locked away
"To what end?"
I was still figuring that out when it suddenly came to me. I stopped in the darkness, and Vitulus
bumped into me.
"He wants to assassinate Augustus," I said, as the ideas clicked into place. "He conjured the
basilisk, so he can call it. But to direct it, he needs to be looking at it. As Tiberius, he could get
close to Augustus and . . ."
Damn. In my timeline, Augustus makes a seemingly minor discovery regarding magic two years
from now. It's virtually forgotten for three hundred years, but it puts Rome on track to far more
major discoveries during their Awakening. You know the old saying that when a butterfly flaps
its wings in China, it causes a tornado in North Atlantium? Well stopping Augustus's "butterfly"
discovery might accomplish William's goal -- a humanity without magic.
"We have to kill that basilisk before William can use it," I said.
"Indeed, but how can we kill it if we can't even look at it to strike it?"
I opened my spell component purse. The contents were wet from my plunge into the pungent
sewer water, but I had wisely placed my main ingredients in little stoppered vials that I had had
custom made. And the starfish leg was still in my purse. It was wet, but not unusable. At least I
"I have an idea. But I first need to find the monster."
Finding spells are my specialty, and I had more than enough senses of the basilisk -- sight and
smell -- to find it. I recalled my memories of the creature, allowed the senses of it to grow in my
mind -- the sharp beak of its nightmarish rooster head, the rot and cinnamon stench of its breath
-- until I could actually feel it. I aimed those sensations at my feet, and then opened my eyes.
My feet began walking along the ledge in the direction we were already heading. The finding
spell in my feet would lead us to the basilisk.
And then my ball cap tingled briefly, letting me know that I was being hunted. Not yet, I prayed.
Just a while longer. And then all the spirits in the Cloaca Maxima can come to the feast.
Without my finding spell, Vitulus and I would've died of old age in the labyrinthine Cloaca
Maxima. We passed beneath numerous latrines -- some in use -- bath basins, and storm drains.
My feet kept walking past it all, and Vitulus asked several times if I knew a spell that could
relieve the stench we were walking through. I could have, but I knew I'd soon need all my
magical energies and components for more important things.
Like curing our cholera after this was over.
The basilisk was moving fast, likely being called to William's location. The sewer spirits still
followed me, but were more tentative this time. They remembered the shield spell I had used
earlier, which probably made them both fear me and salivate over my power.
A terrible grinding and then a crash echoed through the Cloaca Maxima. Vitulus and I stopped.
I sent my spark globe up ahead, but it did not illuminate anything that might have caused that
"The creature?" Vitulus whispered. He had drawn his gladius and stared with clenched teeth up
"Yeah," I said. "Got to be. Remember what I said about --"
"I know. Don't look at it, let you fight it. Quite honestly I wonder what I'm even doing here."
"Legitimacy. Do you think they'll believe me when we tell them what happened?"
"And you think I will make this story any more believable?" Vitulus snorted. "Nonetheless,
your optimism always encourages me, my friend."
I let my feet take me forward, urging them to go faster now that we were close. We rounded a
corner and found a large metal grate poking out of the sewage. The tunnel narrowed next to it.
The grate had obviously been ripped out of the wall.
And then an unnatural shriek from up ahead made the all the hair on my body stand straight up.
Beneath that shriek I heard a man's voice crying out in surprise.
Aw, cac, here we go. Vitulus and I ran past the wrecked grating and into the narrow tunnel.
I stopped cold when I saw the basilisk. It was hanging from the ceiling, its serpentine neck
poking through a latrine hole above. It was about the length of a full-grown man from head to
tail. The large claws on each of its six legs dug into the sewer's brick walls, supporting its scaly
I pushed my feet forward so that I was only a few paces from the monster's writhing, thrashing
tail. I reached into my spell pouch, took out the wet starfish leg, and gripped it tightly. I tried not
to dwell on my plan's stupidity, and then took off my ball cap.
The spirits of the Cloaca Maxima saw this as the dinner bell and attacked me. In my twenty-first
century, every human being is naturally warded against this kind of assault, so if you're from my
timeline and are reading my journals, you won't truly understand what it feels like to have your
soul devoured piece by piece. It was not painful in the physical sense, but it was like every good
memory and feeling I had ever had was being gouged out of me. I was only left with anger,
hatred, and, worst of all, suicidal despair.
The howls of the spirits deafened me, their grayish wisps stabbed at me like spears. And through
all this, I struggled to remember and voice the words of the spell that would save me:
"Van Earth and Fire, Air and Sea --"
Except I couldn't get all the words out with the damned shades eating my magic. Every time I'd
feel my magic rise, a gray wisp would scream by and take a bite out it.
"Van Earth and Fire, Air and Sea, Ik deze spreuk --"
The basilisk shrieked again, and beneath that I heard more men yelling from up above.
"Natta, what's wrong?" Vitulus asked beside me. He couldn't see the spirits feasting on me, but
he could certainly see my reaction to them.
I ignored him and concentrated on my magic. But the despair was overwhelming: I would never
get home; I would die forgotten in ancient Rome; my family and friends in twenty-first century
Detroit would never even care to search for me; I would be the cause of humanity's untold
suffering in the future.
I was fading fast. If I didn't get this spell out now, I never would. I gathered as much breath in
my lungs as I could and then I screamed out the words:
"Van Earth and Fire, Air and Sea, Ik deze spreuk vast te stellen, dan stelt u deze gratis!"
A copy of my aura popped into existence within the starfish leg. Without thinking, I flung it at
the basilisk's body only five paces away. The wet starfish leg stuck to the creature's scaly hide
and held fast.
For a terrible moment, I didn't think the spell had worked. I was so depleted and delirious that I
just didn't care anymore. I wanted to slip beneath the sewer waters and end it all.
But the starfish arm did what it was supposed to do: it fed on the basilisk's natural magic and
exploded with an even brighter copy of my aura. The monster's aura suddenly became a ten-course banquet compared to my aura's floor crumbs. The angry gray wisps charged into the
basilisk, biting and devouring the magic that powered the creature. It screamed in agony and fell
back down into the sewer water. I averted my eyes lest a stray glance from it killed me. I heard
it splash around in the water, trying to shake the spirits off. They held fast and seemed to gather
even stronger. The basilisk disappeared into a cloud of stabbing gray mist, its cries and shrieks
actually turning pitiful.
As the ghosts ripped into the basilisk, I tried to reach for my ball cap, but collapsed to the ledge.
Vitulus held me and kept me from falling into the water.
"Easy, Natta Magus," he said. "Let me get that."
He put my cap on my head. My suicidal thoughts evaporated, but I still felt the despair and
emptiness the spirits had left. With my last shred of will, I threw the rest of my salt in the air
above me, uttered the words, and felt the spiritual ward snap into place. It would block my aura
from the spirits once they were done with the basilisk. After that, I just lay my head on the damp
"Who's down there?" came a voice from the latrine hole above us.
"Gaius Aurelius Vitulus and Natta Magus," Vitulus called back. "I'm a Praetorian centurion
"Vitulus? It's Cotta. What are you doing down there?"
Vitulus grinned, and then turned to me. "Cotta's an ally of mine. He's one of the Augustus's
I just nodded. I didn't even have the will to speak words.
Vitulus called back up, "Cotta, where are we?"
"In the Princeps' latrine," he said with a disbelieving snort. "Is that creature still down there?"
I glanced at where the basilisk had fallen, but there was no sign of it. My finding spell also told
me that the creature no longer existed. "It's dead," I murmured.
"My friend killed it," Vitulus told Cotta. "Is the Princeps --?"
"I am here," came a soft-spoken patrician voice. "Your bravery and loyalty to me are to be
I was still so depressed and weak that I didn't even bother to look up to see if Augustus himself
was peeking through his own latrine.
"Thank you, sire," Vitulus said hurriedly. "We were just performing our duty to the state, sire."
"And the state thanks you," Augustus said.
I heard murmuring above, and then Cotta's voice came back. "We're going to find a map so you
can walk out. It'll probably be quicker than waiting for us to widen the marble hole on this
latrine for you to climb out."
When Cotta left, I said, "Have to find Tiberius."
"I know, my friend," Vitulus said, "but I couldn't explain all that from the bottom of a latrine.
Once we get out --"
"Could be too late," I said. I struggled to muster the sense of duty I had to my oaths as a magus,
to save lives that could be taken by magic. But at that moment it was a struggle just to muster
any thoughts that didn't involve slitting my own throat.
"I share your concerns more than you know," Vitulus said, "but it is a delicate thing to bring
accusations against a member of the Princeps' family. You know and I know what your friend
William is, but we must be able to prove it in a court of law."
I nodded, too weak to protest further. I consoled myself with the fact that I had tried to warn
Vitulus that Augustus was still not safe. I only prayed I that had done enough.
I slipped into the steaming, scented bath water with a groan of pleasure. It had been days since
my last bath; add to that a few hours in the Cloaca Maxima, and you can imagine what a relief it
was to feel clean again. This was the most luxurious bath I'd taken since I arrived in ancient
Rome, a gift from Augustus for saving his life. At that moment, a bath for a life was a fair
exchange in my book.
I kept my ball cap on even in the bath water. I had taken it off briefly, but then quickly put it
back on: Thoughts of slipping my head under the water or opening my veins had assaulted me.
Only time and allowing myself life's simple pleasures -- like scented baths -- would heal what
the sewer ghosts had taken from me.
I had just shut my eyes to meditate when I heard footsteps enter the bathing room. Augustus had
rented the entire chamber -- which could accommodate two dozen -- for the whole afternoon,
so I was a little annoyed by the interruption. But when I saw Vitulus stride in, I sat up. He still
looked filthy from his adventure through the Cloaca Maxima, having foregone a bath until he had
spoken with Salvius Aper about the day's events.
"Is Tiberius --?" I started.
Vitulus nodded. "He's alive. We found him in his villa, bound and gagged and quite shaken.
Your friend William's spells did something to his mind, made him . . ." Vitulus paused
uncomfortably. "He will need time to recover. He's leaving for Rhodes tonight and will
convalesce there, out of the public eye."
I nodded. Copying spells not only required the living blood of the person being copied, but their
side affects to the person's soul were similar to what I was experiencing. Someone like me with
innate magical talent would recover in a few days. It might take Tiberius years.
"And what of William?" I asked.
Vitulus had taken off his sandals, tunica, and gladius belt, and had slipped into the bath water
with a sigh even as the question had escaped my lips.
"No sign," he said, slipping down so the water was up to his chin. "He was with the Princeps
just before the creature attacked, but he got away during the battle."
Damn. I had expected that, but damn. Copying spells were really hard and required specific
components to do correctly, never mind the fact that you need to keep your "copy" subdued so
that you could take his or her blood every three hours. I'd ask Vitulus to ask Salvius Aper to
watch the various kiosks and shops where I knew the components to be sold. Perhaps we'd find
William that way. Probably not, though.
But above all, I needed to find out why William wanted to erase our timeline. He didn't tell me
when he betrayed me a year ago, and our meeting this morning sure didn't clear things up. I
could not imagine a twenty-first century that had no knowledge of magic. We had our fair share
of problems and had made lots of mistakes along the way, but a humanity without magic seemed
like a dark and brutish existence to me. And I feared that the longer William and I stayed in 6
BC Rome, the more likely that would be humanity's future.
That was a quest, however, that could wait another hour until after my bath.
"Tell Salvius Aper that my rates will double next time for sewer jobs," I said. "I hate ending my
day smeared in cac."
Vitulus chuckled, his eyes closed. "Then you're in the wrong vocation, my friend."