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The Cloaca Maxima
    by Rob Steiner

The Cloaca Maxima
Artwork by Scott Altmann

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 grinned back.

"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 Detroit.

"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 vigile."

"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 fashion."

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 Magus."

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 again."

"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 darkness.

"Vitulus," I said, "we need to get out of here. Now, please."

"What's wrong?"

"You know all those angry nasties that I told you live in cemeteries? The sewer ones are even worse."

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."

"How's business?"

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, Remington."

"Where's Tiberius?"

"He's safe."

"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, William.

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 somewhere."

"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 hoped.

"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 sound.

"The creature?" Vitulus whispered. He had drawn his gladius and stared with clenched teeth up ahead.

"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 body.

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 brick.

"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 under --"

"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 house guards."

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 commended, centurion."

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."

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