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The Oath-Breaker's Daemon
    by Rob Steiner

The Oath-Breaker's Daemon
Artwork by Scott Altmann

I had many challenges being the only real magus in downtown ancient Rome. One of the biggest was drawing the attention of powerful patricians. So when you're trying to get back to the twenty-first century like I am, you can't be too picky when it comes to jobs.

I was walking back to my flat on the Aventine Hill through the cramped, close, and crowded streets of 6 BC Rome carrying my dinner for the night: a circle of emmer bread, some dried pears, and a small wedge of cheese. When I got to the rickety wooden stairs to my second floor flat/office, I saw a man standing there waiting. I'd been stuck in ancient Rome for a year, so I was pretty good at identifying patricians. He was young, clean-shaven, with close-cropped black hair. While he didn't wear a toga, his tunica was white and unwrinkled, his sandals recently oiled, and a sheathed gladius hung from his leather belt.

He certainly wasn't an off-duty Legionnaire. Those boys never dressed that well. This guy was an officer or a patrician's lictor. And he was looking right at me.

My gut churned. I hated getting involved with patricians and their political games, especially when they tried to recruit me into their patronage. But patricians had the money to pay me, and I hadn't had a job in over a week. The urge to run gave way to my yearning for home, so I continued walking toward him.

"You are the one they call Natta the Magus, correct?" he asked in the accented Latin of the upper classes. He glanced at the baseball cap I was wearing, which stood out in this century, to say the least. Not only did it have the yellow-on-black colors of my favorite professional baseball club, the Detroit Wolverines, but it was also lined with copper threads and enchantments to keep nasty spirits out of my head.

"I am. And you are?" My Latin had improved over the last year, but sometimes my modern English accent made me sound like a German to Roman ears.

The man frowned slightly, probably because I did not address him with the customary dominus that patricians reserved for themselves.

"I am Vitulus. I represent . . ." He looked around at the crowds. "Can we speak somewhere private?"

"Sure, let's go to my office."

I led Vitulus up the rickety stairs to my second story flat. I tried to step quietly past the first doorway on the second floor, but the patrician's heavy feet made that impossible.

"Natta Magus!" came a woman's cry from inside. A small, dark-haired woman a few years older than me whipped open the flap of cloth on the door and said in mock scolding tones, "You know better than to sneak past my home without a salve."

I tried to hide my wince, and then turned around with a chagrined smile. "I didn't want to disturb you, domina Ben-Asher. Salve to you and your family."

She smiled brightly, then pulled her teenage daughter Esther from around the corner and gently pushed her toward me. Esther smiled shyly, lowered her eyes, and handed me a small yellow textile with the Detroit Wolverines "W" logo woven in black in the center.

"I made this for you, dominus Magus."

"Oh. Thank you, Esther. That was very thoughtful." I took the textile from her hands and held it up. "Excellent craftsmanship. You're very talented."

Esther blushed slightly while the Ben-Asher matriarch beamed at me. Before the domina demanded that I get down on one knee and propose, I said, "Forgive me, but I must speak with my client." I nodded to Vitulus, who frowned impatiently.

"Of course, of course! Come by later for dinner, we have plenty to share with you, Natta Magus." She gave me a knowing grin and then retreated into her flat.

Number two on the challenge list: Every other family in Rome trying to marry off their pre-teen daughters to me. Beyond the obvious ick-factor, it was my intention to leave this century as soon as I gathered the right spell components to get home. Marriage was just an oath that would magically tie me to this century more securely than iron chains in a prison.

I hurried to my own flat next to the Ben-Ashers and held open the cloth flap for Vitulus. My ball cap tingled with the implied invitation; if it hadn't, the wards I had placed on the doorframe would've made Vitulus suddenly forget why he had come here and he would've hurried off to more important duties elsewhere. I had accumulated some pretty rare spell components this year, so I couldn't be too cautious with security in a city where padlocks were a patrician luxury.

With my door and wards opened, Vitulus stepped into my flat with a barely contained curl of his lip. My 100-square-foot, one-room flat served as my place of business and my home. I had a warped table in the center of the room covered in parchments and spell components; my bed, a foot too short for me, sat in the corner to the right; my "kitchen" was in the left corner (and by "kitchen" I meant a clay water basin next to a charcoal brazier). I had to use the public lavatory downstairs, but at least the flat had hypocaust heating built into the walls. It was all lower-middle class by ancient Roman standards.

I motioned Vitulus to a stool in front of my table and then sat on the stool behind it. "This is about as private as it gets."

Vitulus frowned again, and said, "I represent Publius Salvius Aper."

"The new Praetorian Prefect? Wow. Why does he need me?"

"He has lost an item that is very important to him. I am told that you have . . . skills that may help Salvius Aper reacquire this item."

"I know some spells that might help."

Vitulus narrowed his eyes doubtfully. "Indeed." I could see the indecision warring on his face. He exhaled sharply through his nose, and said, "This information must be kept in the utmost secrecy. Can we count on your discretion?"

"Of course. I could be disbarred for breaking the attorney-client privilege."

Vitulus gave me an uncomprehending stare. I know it's juvenile, but saying things like that to people in 6 BC Rome, and watching their reactions, was one of the things that made my abandonment tolerable.

"Yes, I swear to Jupiter that I will keep this secret."

Vitulus nodded once. "As you've obviously heard, Imperator Augustus recently appointed Salvius Aper as Praetorian Prefect. As a congratulatory gift, the Imperator gave Aper a purple and gold breastplate and asked him to wear it during the inauguration ceremony tomorrow morning." Vitulus paused. "When Aper went to try on the breastplate this morning, it was missing."

"You sure he didn't leave it under his bed?"

Vitulus's ears reddened. You could only push patricians so far before they stick you with their gladius and claim self-defense. I was getting dangerously close to that line, so I quickly added, "Sorry. Did you ever touch the breastplate?"

Vitulus put a hand on his gladius. "Are you implying --?"

"No, no," I said, holding up my hands. "It will help me find the breastplate if you've touched it. And since you're here and not the Prefect, I assume the Prefect would rather not deal with me."

The young patrician stared at me a moment longer, then took his hand off the gladius. "Yes, I have touched it. And no, you will not meet the Prefect." Vitulus visibly calmed himself and said, "This is a very delicate matter. If Salvius Aper does not wear the breastplate tomorrow, it will be seen as a great insult to the Imperator, and a sign that the gods do not approve of Aper's selection. It would ruin him and his gens."

This was why I tried staying away from patrician jobs. When they started talking about insults and gods and ruined gens, it made them crazy. Crazy enough to start civil wars or begin pogroms that destroyed entire generations, with plebeians caught in the middle. Or an innocent magus trying to get back to his own time.

As if sensing my hesitation, Vitulus said, "You will be well-compensated for your services if you find the breastplate before dawn." He reached for the leather pouch tied to his belt and took out a small slab of silvery metal with gold flakes on it.

I felt my jaw drop open. Aurichalcum. I could feel its arcane hum as a small vibration in my teeth. Of all the components I needed, aurichalcum was the rarest. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

I struggled to keep my face impassive, but I don't think I did a good job. Vitulus grinned. "I understand this trinket is something for which you've been searching. Salvius Aper took this as a souvenir from Egypt when he marched with Augustus against Marcus Antonius."

Wow, this guy did his homework. He must've heard that I had asked about aurichalcum at every religious relic kiosk in the Forum and every temple across the Seven Hills. I'd been laughed out of each one of them. "Aurichalcum doesn't exist," they'd said. Or, more commonly, they'd try to sell me an obvious counterfeit.

My heart thumped as I stared at the aurichalcum. It was just a breastplate, I thought. It's not like he was asking me to assassinate anyone, or draw up a love potion, or curse a rival gens. And that aurichalcum could get me home today.

I looked back at Vitulus. "When do you want to start?"

He put the aurichalcum sliver back in his leather pouch and tied it to his belt.

"Now," he said.

While I'm competent in all forms of magic, finding things has always been my specialty. I had apprenticed under the great finder William Pingree Ford, who himself apprenticed under his great-grandfather Henry Ford the Watch-Maker. In other words, if I had access to someone who had touched the missing person, object, or animal, I could find said missing person, object, or animal in my sleep.

I held my hand out to Vitulus. "I need your permission to look for the breastplate in your mind."

"What?"

"This is how I find things. If you give me permission to look into your mind, take my hand."

Vitulus looked as if he'd rather face down a cohort of Persian Immortals than take my hand, but he slowly raised his right hand and put it in mine. "Do what you need to," he said.

"Don't worry," I said, "you won't feel a thing."

I turned my ball cap around so that the bill and logo were facing backward, concentrated my magic into my lungs, and then exhaled slowly at Vitulus. My breath reached out to Vitulus and was drawn into his lungs when he inhaled. With my eyes closed, I directed my breath to work its way from his lungs into his bloodstream and then up to his brain. Crossing the blood-brain barrier was tricky for novices, but I wasn't a novice. My breath molecules slipped through the barrier (thanks to his permission) and I was in his mind.

His thoughts and memories inundated my mind's eye, but I quickly shut off the deluge and focused on the breastplate. I found the memory and did a spiritual fist pump: Vitulus stood at Aper's side as he accepted the breastplate from Augustus. Aper thanked Augustus with a bow and then handed the breastplate to Vitulus. Vitulus not only carried it back to Aper's home, but he had also studied it, taking in every detail of its master-crafted etchings and purple and gold painting. It was a beautiful piece of art that I could imagine as the prized possession of a twenty-first century museum, sitting in a glass box illuminated by spark globes.

I withdrew from Vitulus's mind and back to my stool in ancient Rome. I turned the bill of my ball cap around so that the logo was facing Vitulus again. He stared at me with raised, questioning eyebrows, so I gave him a triumphant smile.

"Let's go get your breastplate," I said.

Once I had the breastplate's look and feel firmly set in my mind, it was simply a matter of walking to where it was hidden. I could do a finding based on one sense, but it was hard. This time I had two senses to work with -- sight and touch -- and I had never failed with two senses.

Vitulus and I set out immediately from my Aventine flat. He seemed doubtful that I knew where the breastplate was, but he followed me nonetheless. It was still a cultural shock for me to be surrounded by people who doubted the workings of magic. But, ironically, that made it easy for me to set up shop as a magus: most people saw me as a quirky foreigner at best, an insane foreigner at worst.

But the people I had helped knew differently.

I kept my focus on the breastplate and didn't speak to Vitulus as we walked south along the Via Ostiensis and down the Aventine. As any finder will tell you, I don't see the lost object's actual location in my mind; I simply follow my feet. My feet know where the object is, and I never really know the location until my feet stop.

Which was why I ignored Vitulus when he constantly asked me where the breastplate was.

"Seriously, I don't know," I finally said after he asked a third time. "But I will when I find it."

"That makes no sense at all," he grumbled. "In fact, nothing you say makes sense." But he continued to walk beside me through the Roman crowds.

"Magic is not meant to make sense. It's meant to be felt."

Vitulus glanced at me curiously, and not for the first time today. "Just where are you from, exactly? You look Roman but I cannot place your accent."

"I come from an alternate timeline over two thousand years in your future where magic is ubiquitous. I got stuck here because I was dumb enough to help a friend."

He gave me that "insane foreigner" look I knew so well.

"You asked," I said.

"Well. I don't care where you're from, so long as you find that breastplate before dawn." Vitulus looked up at the setting sun. "Night approaches. How much longer before we arrive?"

"You ask me one more time and I'll --"

My feet had stopped walking in front of an archway into a cemetery. Beyond the archway, old sarcophagi, mausoleums, and tombstones cast shadows in the setting sunlight.

Ah, crap. I hated Roman cemeteries. In my time, we had wards and enchantments that kept all the nasty things away that fed off the dissipating energies of the dead. However, those wards were beyond the Romans of this century, so this cemetery could be infested by a host of things I'd rather not encounter.

But my ticket home lay in there, so I really had no choice but to go and get it.

"This is it, I guess," I said.

"Finally," Vitulus said. He started toward the archway, but I put a hand on his forearm to stop him.

"Um, just so you know, I tend to . . . attract things because of my abilities."

"What kind of things?"

I shrugged. "Hard to say. Just keep your eyes open, okay?"

"Why would I shut my eyes?"

I shook my head. "Just an expression. Let's do this before the sun goes down."

I let my feet guide me through the arch. We passed ancient sarcophagi from Republican times -- though Imperator Augustus would argue Rome was still a Republic -- and mausoleums that held the remains of entire patrician families, some going back hundreds of years.

The sun had already set beyond the hills to the west, and the cemetery was cast in darkness beneath a red sky. My feet took me through the cemetery along a sandstone walkway. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw wisps of gray mist peeking at us from behind large tombstones. I sensed their curiosity and, more disturbingly, their hunger for my magic. I prayed my feet wouldn't take me off the sandstone path.

My feet stopped abruptly at an old tomb built into a hill at the very back of the cemetery. It had a brick walkway and walls carved into the hill that led to a heavy wood door beneath an ornate archway. "Aemilius'" was inscribed above the door.

"The tomb of the Aemilii," Vitulus said. "An ancient and wealthy gens. Is it here?" His hand rested on the hilt of his gladius, and his eyes darted from side to side. He looked as nervous as I felt. He couldn't see the hungry wisps, but he clearly sensed them.

"Yes," I said, "and it appears to be unlocked."

There was no lock on the door, and the fading light showed recent scratches and dents where a padlock should've been. We both stared at the door.

"Aren't you going in?" Vitulus asked quietly.

"I was waiting for you."

"You're the magus."

I sighed. "Fine."

I urged my feet toward the unlocked door. I stopped in front of it, ensured my ball cap was securely fastened to my head, and pushed the door open. It made that creaking noise all doors make in horror movies, which raised the hairs on my neck and arms. It was pitch black in the tomb, so I snapped my fingers. A little spark globe popped into existence and floated above us, illuminating the one-room tomb.

"Gods!" Vitulus cried, staring at the globe. "You're . . . you're a real magus?"

I looked at him. "Well, yeah. If you didn't think so, why did you come to me in the first place?"

"Because Salvius Aper is my patron and wished it so," he said, as if I'd just asked if water was wet. He looked from the light back to me. "What else can you do?"

"A lot of things," I said, "but right now I'd like to find that breastplate and get out of here. I don't know about you, but this place gives me the creeps." I felt more shadows and wisps gathering behind us. I hated feeling like a suckling pig on Saturnalia.

"The 'creeps'?"

"Scary, uneasy. Creeps."

Vitulus nodded, looking around. "Yes, I too have creeps."

The tomb was about twenty feet deep and ten feet wide, and smelled like how you'd expect a tomb to smell: moldy and decayed. Shrouded, desiccated bodies lay on stone alcoves built into the walls near the back of the tomb, with only their feet visible. Cremation was in style now, so the front of the tomb had shelves lined with ornately painted clay urns.

My feet walked me toward the back of the tomb and then stopped in front of an alcove where bony feet poked from out of the darkness. I directed the spark globe closer to the --

Shadows from inside the alcove came at me in smoky, finger-sized tendrils.

I recognized what was about to happen, and fell backward into Vitulus to get out of the way. An instant later, the corpse exploded into a cloud of shadow, bone, and dried flesh. An imprint daemon flew out of the alcove and landed on the brick floor with a wet slap. Imprint daemons can best be described as three-foot slugs with six spidery legs, sharp black teeth, and no eyes. It turned its shiny black head to me, snarled, and then gave me the most terrifying laugh I'd heard since I got stuck in Rome.

"Looking for something, finder?" the daemon cackled, its voice like bone scraping on the tomb's door. "Stand still so I can give it to you."

The daemon skittered toward me in blinding speed, its wide jaws exposing jagged black teeth. Vitulus stepped forward with his gladius, and before I could scream, "Wait," he sliced the daemon in two.

The mouth half of the daemon landed to the left, the back end to the right. The mouth end howled, "That hurt!"

The back half flopped around a moment, then a new head grew out of the gory stump. Once the head poked through the viscera of the former back end, it cried, "Yeah, that hurt!" The mouth half had grown another rear by now, and they both grinned at us with the same black, slimy teeth.

"Blessed Juno," Vitulus muttered in shock.

"You can't cut them in half, dumbass!" I pushed him behind me. "Let me take care of this."

It had been a long time since I'd had to fight an imprint daemon -- not since my apprenticeship, actually -- so I prayed I still remembered the motions and words to banish them. I touched the tips of my middle and ring fingers to my palms, brought both hands above my head, and drew an interlocking "S" in the air, all while uttering the spell's words in the bastardized Dutch I had learned from my mentor.

"Dit alles hier worden bewaakt in de tijd, en er in de eeuwigheid!"

Both daemons leaped at my head just as I finished the spell. The banishment struck one of the daemons. It howled its frustration as it shriveled up in mid-air and dissipated with a pop.

The second daemon, however, launched a wad of flaming spit at me from its mouth. The fire did not make it past my banishment shield, but one of the daemon's legs slapped me in the forehead, knocking off my ball cap, before it too was banished with a pop.

I stared in horror at my ball cap lying on the floor even as I reached up to my forehead to wipe away the daemon's slime from where it had touched me.

"The breastplate!" Vitulus cried. He rushed over to the alcove where the corpse had exploded and pulled the breastplate from beneath the body's remains. The plate's ornate etchings gleamed in my spark globe's white light.

"You did it, my friend!" he said, smiling triumphantly at the breastplate. "I speak for Salvius Aper when I say he will be forever in your debt." Then he glanced at me. "Why do you look as if we've been defeated?"

Thoughts and calculations and theories raced through my mind too fast for me to pin down, all resulting in one terrible realization.

"Up until now," I finally muttered, staring at my ball cap on the floor, "I had thought I was the only magus in Rome. But that's not true. Stealing the breastplate -- it was all a trap for me."

"You're not making sense, friend Natta. Who's this other magus?"

I wiped the rest of the slime off my forehead, then picked up my ball cap and set it back on my head. "The friend who abandoned me here. And now he knows how to get into my home. "

I try to compartmentalize thoughts about my "friend" as much as possible, because he's a sore subject with me, to say the least. If your best friend pleaded with you for help and then intentionally left you in ancient Rome, you'd be a little pissed, too. And as Vitulus and I ran back to my flat, my growing anger gave me the strength to run the whole two miles through Rome's torch-lit streets.

For the past year I had thought he went back home, but the imprint daemon proved otherwise. Only a fully trained magus from the twenty-first century could conjure one of those nasties; Roman priests barely understood the concept of daemons, let alone how to conjure one specifically designed to fool a finder like me. And not only had it fooled me, but it had touched me without my ball cap on, imprinting all my memories into its nasty slug brain. It now knew how to get into my warded home. Imprint daemons always came in pairs, and I didn't need a finding spell to find the second one.

I heard the first screams when we were a block from my flat. Then people were running toward me in a panic through the Aventine's narrow streets and alleys. Vitulus and I weaved through them, barely avoiding getting trampled. Only the torchlights from surrounding homes lit the streets, which made it easy to see the terrible orange glow above my building. My chest tightened and I picked up my pace even though my lungs were about to burst. Vitulus kept up with me, staying true to his cemetery promise of being in my debt.

I rounded the corner and was blasted with a wave of heat from my burning flat. The rickety wooden stairs had already collapsed in flames. A fire burned angrily through the building's first level and was consuming the second. Part of the second story structure above my one-room flat had already collapsed, and now the fire was spreading to the adjacent buildings. Citizens had already organized themselves into a water line, throwing bucket after bucket into the blaze. But it wasn't having much of an impact. The second daemon had used its fire spit in my home to devastating effect.

All my spell components, I thought numbly, staring at my smoking, flaming doorway. Everything I had gathered for over a year. All gone.

Screams jarred me out of my self-pity. They came from the second-floor room to the left of my flat. The Ben-Asher family was trapped. With the stairs already collapsed, there was no way for them to get down or for anyone else to go up.

I did an instant mental inventory of the spell components I had on me: a salt pouch, a vial of olive oil, and a dead caterpillar. Great for additional power to my finding spells, but worse than useless for putting out fires.

"Gods," Vitulus said beside me, "this fire will consume half of Rome. I must go warn the vigiles."

He was right. Most of Rome in this century was still made of wood and as flammable as a pile of dried kindling.

He was about to run off when I cried, "Wait! Give me the aurichalcum!"

"Why do you need --?"

"Just give it to me!"

He pulled the leather pouch containing the rare metal off his belt and handed it to me. I upended the pouch with shaking hands and the aurichalcum sliver fell into my right palm. Its magical hum vibrated my teeth. I had never used aurichalcum before, or wielded as much magic as I was about wield, so I prayed I wouldn't explode into dust in the process.

I turned my ball cap around on my head, clasped both hands on the aurichalcum, raised my hands over my head, and began the bastardized Dutch incantation.

"Vurige merk , stop je ritme; vurige merk, stop je zweet."

I closed my eyes, saying the words over and over, clearly envisioning the outcome I wanted. I felt the magical hum from the aurichalcum vibrate louder and harder, this time in my bones and organs. It wasn't a painful sensation, but it was really uncomfortable. My voice seemed to grow louder in my ears, turning into a cold, wet wind that whipped around me.

My eyes snapped open, and I directed that cold wind into the fire.

A snowy mist shot out of my clasped hands like a broken fire hydrant from modern times. The magical release was like nothing I'd ever felt: I was a god, able to command the elements to form whatever I wanted. I could create a mountain on this very spot if I chose, or force the Tiber to flow in the opposite direction. I could make a hurricane or cause an earthquake. It would be so easy.

The second imprint daemon leaped out of my second story flat door and flew directly toward me, fire spitting out of its mouth. But I flicked a tendril of cold in its direction. The little slug shrank and dissipated with a pop that I barely noticed.

Through my delusions of godhood, the sane part of my mind noticed the aurichalcum quickly growing smaller in my hands as its magical fuel was consumed. And as the aurichalcum grew smaller, so did my delusions. I realized that I had already put out the fire. Icicles now hung from the burned buildings, but heavy smoke still hung lazily in the air above them. I stopped sending the cold into the buildings just as I used up the last atom of aurichalcum.

I had time to notice Vitulus and all the people in the water line gaping at me before my legs gave out. I remember falling, but not hitting the ground.

When I woke up in an actual bed where my feet didn't hang over the edge, I thought for one glorious moment that I was back in twenty-first century Detroit and that my year in ancient Rome was all a dream.

But then my eyes cleared, and I knew I was still stuck in the past. The bed had four columns etched with those colorful geometric patterns the Romans seemed to love. The room was about the size of my flat, its walls covered with mosaics and tapestries. Light filtered in through the open doorway beyond the foot of my bed where I saw an atrium with plants and a fountain bathed in sunlight.

A male slave stood up from a chair to my right, surprising me. When he saw me start, he said, "You are safe, dominus. How do you feel?"

"Like I chased a barrel of posca with tequila," I croaked. I sat up slowly, waited for the vertigo to come over me and then fade. I brought my feet out of bed and onto the polished stone the floor.

"I will go get my master," the slave said, and then hurried out the door before I could ask who his master was.

It didn't take long to find out. A well-muscled man in his forties strode in wearing the purple and gold breastplate that I'd found. Over the breastplate, he wore a traditional white toga. Soldiers traditionally did not wear armor within Rome's borders, but as with most things these days, Imperator Augustus was instituting new traditions.

Behind Salvius Aper came Vitulus, a grin spreading on his lips when he saw me.

Aper gently put one large hand on my shoulder. "You should rest, Natta Magus. I'm told your efforts have weakened you terribly."

"How long have I been here?" I asked. My throat felt scoured, and I had the curious taste of cinnamon on my tongue. I'd never felt so wiped out after a spell, even during my intern years.

"Since before dawn, when Vitulus brought you here after . . ." He paused, studying me as if I were a religious totem. "I must leave for my inauguration soon, but I wanted to be the first to thank you. I'm told I and all of Rome owe you a tremendous debt."

I looked at him, the light from the open doorway making my eyes and head ache worse. "The people in my building. Did they . . . ?"

Vitulus stepped forward. "Your neighbors had minor burns, but they will all live."

Aper patted my shoulder once. "Get some rest, Natta Magus. I would speak with you when I return." He strode out of the room and into the atrium, where he was joined by more men with togas and gladii strapped to their belts.

"He wants to be your patron," Vitulus said.

"Yeah, and I'm gonna have to decline."

Vitulus frowned. "Salvius Aper would be a generous patron. I've served him for three years and he has been very good to me and my family."

"Look, I mean no disrespect. I'm truly honored that Aper wants me as a client. But being a client means I need to take an oath to serve my patron. That would be an oath that I knew I could not keep. If I make any commitments in this century, they will magically bind me here and then I'll never get home."

"So . . . you do not want to be an oath-breaker?" He asked this as if it were the one thing he actually understood from my last sentence.

"Right. Where I come from, there are serious consequences for breaking oaths."

Vitulus nodded. "Very well. Aper will be disappointed, but he will understand that and, I dare say, admire your honesty." He cocked his head and then said, "Tell me. The aurichalcum was something you would've used to get back to your home, yes?"

I sighed. "Yeah. It was the big component I needed."

"Then why did you use it up? Nobody would've known you could've done something with it. Then you could have used it to return home."

I gave a mirthless chuckle. "Because I've screwed this timeline all to hell and back the moment I arrived, so I owe it the people here to make their lives a bit easier where I can. But above all, it would've violated the oath I took when I became a magus: I cannot harm people with my magic, or, through inaction, allow people to be harmed. It's what I swore when I became a magus. Asimov the Historian came up with the oath decades before I graduated --"

"I rarely understand your words, Natta Magus," Vitulus interrupted. "But I hear the honor in them and I see the honor in your eyes. I cannot break my own oaths, but I will help you get home in any way I can. What can I do?"

I understood how serious that statement was for a Roman and truly appreciated his promise. I still wasn't sure I wanted a patrician friend who could possibly embroil me in patrician games, but Vitulus had handled himself pretty well while facing things he once thought were impossible. I'd been flying solo for the past year, so it would be nice to have a friend again -- especially when it came to finding William Pingree Ford, the mentor, friend, and oath-breaker who lured me to ancient Rome and then abandoned me here.

Either William had returned home and then come back, or he had never left in the first place. He must've still seen me as a threat, which was why he had laid that trap for me so he could get through my flat's wards and destroy my spell components. I had to find him before his madness ended up taking this timeline into a darkened age through which it was never meant to suffer.

"First," I said, "we need to find that friend who betrayed me."

Vitulus nodded. "When do we start?"

"Now."

The End . . .

for now.

Look for the further adventures of Natta and Vitulus in the May issue of IGMS.

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i44&article=_001

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