This is a special story. It’s the darkest story I’ve written to date. I’ve been struggling to complete it for a while. Then Nikki, the organiser of UnDead Prom, contacted me about sponsoring the event, and I knew that this would be just perfect.
So here you have it. Felix’s darkest and most bizarre case, published – very appropriately – on Halloween.
And, since the it was commissioned by the UnDead Prom, I include here also the opening words of the faculty’s History professor (me again) to the students…
Guests of the UnDead Prom share that quintessential human interest with what lies behind the veil of life. It might not surprise them that humans throughout the ages have come up with a myriad of descriptions, explanations, and stories about what happens to those who cross the threshold — and those who might cross back.
For tonight’s lesson, we will study a witness’ account from a the times of ancient Rome.
First, a minor quibble. Roman mythology is not just Greek mythology with Latin names. Well before Greek influences took hold, Romans had their own beliefs — including beliefs about a plethora of chthonic deities. While some elements might seem familiar – such as the ferryman across the river Styx – the Romans had their own views about what happens to the souls of the dead.
In particular, tonight’s lesson will focus about the lemures, the malignant remnants of once living people, left to roam the world due to unfinished business, often involving harm to other living creatures. They were bound by certain rules, such as when and how they might cross between the worlds.
A deeper discussion will follow, but first let us read the eye-witness account of an encounter with such ancient spirits of the dead.
I should not have been out that night.
I knew better, or at least I should have.
There are three unlucky nights in the year. Three nights where the stone slabs over the mundus cerialis stood open. An ancient tradition, whose reasons were forgotten but its ritual strictly adhered to, dictated that the stone doors to this hemispherical pit located in a declivity near the temple of Ceres be opened on three nights — even though they represented the gates to the underworld.
A night with the doors to Dis wide open.
A night with — according to custom — the shades of the dead free to roam about.
A biting November wind was chilling me to the bones. I was limping home from a rather nasty assignment, involving some of society’s undesirables, an orphan, an enchanted signet ring, and several pig carcasses. I wasn’t planning for it to go that way or for that long, but it did — and now I had to make my way home across the deserted city. The cruelest master would not risk slaves out on this night. Even stray dogs slunk away to their hiding holes, and the sliver of moon hid behind grey clouds.
I made my way home as quickly as I could in my battered condition.
I took shortcuts.
I made a wrong turn.
I faced a blank wall at the end of an alley, and had to turn back. At the opening of the alley, silhouetted against the sky, was a half-translucent grey shape. It advanced upon me, and I retreated the few steps I could. It advanced further, closer, closer.
I started to mutter prayers to all the numina I could think of, promising offerings if I lived to see the morning.
It stopped three paces away from me.
It raised its grey arm.
It reached with its grey hand to its grey mouth, and pulled out the coin that tradition dictated should be used to pay the ferryman to Dis.
“Payment,” it croaked, and reached out its hand with the coin towards me.
I stared at it, dumbstruck. The night was clear of clouds, and the stars twinkled above us. I could make out the shape of the shade. It was that of a woman, young, well dressed, high class — or at least wrapped in a rich woman’s funeral shroud.
I found my voice at last. “To guide you back to the mundus?”
“No,” it croaked again. “Revenge.”
By noon, I had almost convinced myself it was a dream. Almost – because the coin was sitting on my table, the profile of a long dead consul showing his disdain at my vacillations.
I went over in my mind about the details. I tried to avoid exactly how it felt when the shade of the woman — Licinia — had imparted this information, and concentrated on the facts.
The time was about fifty years ago, well before I was born. Licinia was just married to a senator’s son, part of her father’s political alliances. According to her, the marriage was a short, brutal, hell. It ended when her husband strangled her one night, during what would have been referred to as rape were they not married.
She wanted me to bring him to justice.
A fifty-year-old case, with nothing but the say so of a dead woman’s shade.
And to complicate things, I knew the man.
Not personally, no. But I knew of him.
Just like everyone else in Egretia, I knew him.
He was a famed rhone, former consul, and current censor. Doesn’t get more famous than that.
After fifty years, there was no way I could find evidence to tie him to her murder.
Neither could I bring him to court for it, because as paterfamilias he was within his rights to treat her as he liked. Even kill her.
Which, apparently, he did.
But that coin, and that voice, and the memory of those haunting, luminous eyes in the grey face…
I had two options. I could try to bring him to formal justice — on Licinia’s behalf or any other charges that might get him exiled or executed — or I could exact a more direct revenge. Public humiliation in the courts would have been ideal, but I doubted my chances of successfully bearing suit against him.
I decided to get his measure first. ‘Start with the slaves; always start with the slaves’ was the advice I got from an old mentor. I found his domus, situated high up on the slopes of Vergu, and lurked about. There was plenty of traffic coming in and going out of the house. The hour was early afternoon. Slaves and freedmen were finishing their errands and returning, messengers were going back and forth, and even some respectable citizens and minor dignitaries — no doubts clients of the master — were still coming and going.
I was munching on a squid-on-a-stick bought from a nearby stall, considering whom should I approach first, when I saw a muscular man come out of a side gate, pushing ahead a wheelbarrow containing some old sheets. He was accompanied by a slender girl, a slave as well by her short tunic. They never spoke, never looked up, just trudged along, slinking on the side of the street.
I have no idea why, but I felt a chill as they passed me. I was drawn to follow them, and I did. We walked down the mountain, the slaves leading in silence, and me following behind. They reached the Porta Alta, the gate in the city walls on the road that leads up Vergu. A short distance later they took a small track that branched left and led down the hills and towards the Fulvius river. It has fallen into disuse over the years, the majority of human traffic going through the city streets. They quickened their pace, and though the path was broken their steps were lighter. I had the impression they were glad to be away from other humans.
I kept a respectable distance as we walked, though they seemed to care little. When we reached the flat grounds closer to the river, I was not surprised they were not interested in any of the small gardens, minor estates, and occasional trade post that lay outside the sacred perimeter of the city. They kept going, avoiding people, heading to the river. We reached the Pons Mors, an old wooden bridge, with a foreboding name to match its history. They crossed it and started to trek up the hill toward the sacred hill of Libitina, where the records of the dead and the graves of the poor were.
They made their way to the lye pits, where unclaimed corpses are discarded. I took out a writing wax tablet I keep to take notes, quickened my steps, and got to them just as they stopped next to an open pit.
“Excuse me!” I said and put my hand out. The girl recoiled as if I struck her, while the man pushing the cart froze completely.
I softened my tone. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just need to ask you a few questions.”
“Please, domine — my dominus instructed us to be quick about our task,” she answered without lifting her eyes.
“That’s all right, I just need a name and cause of death for our records,” I waved the wax tablet.
“She was called Victoria,” said the girl.
“Grand name for a slave.”
“Our dominus likes to name us after the gods.”
“And the cause of death?” I asked and flipped over the rags covering the body in the wheelbarrow.
And immediately wished I hadn’t. A short, curvy girl. Long, brown hair framing a face out of which brown eyes stared out unblinking, never to see again. The slave girl didn’t answer my question, but the scars were obvious. The poor girl had been whipped over the years, certainly, but that was not what finally killed her. On her fair skin I saw the same scars as I’ve seen before at military sieges, though these looked deliberate. She was slowly and repeatedly scalded by hot oil, the red burn scars snaking around her young body as someone flung the oil at her time after time. Her legs from the knees down looked like they have been boiled in the oil. I could not imagine the workings of a twisted mind that would do such a thing to a defenceless girl, though I would guess he was getting off by savagely attacking symbols for gods.
“And who shall I write as brought her here?” I asked after I covered the body back with the rags.
“He calls me Concordia. He said I am next,” she said without lifting her eyes, or showing any emotion.
It was almost a month later, when I had everything in place. On the start of the last nundinus of December, on the day and night we celebrate the mythic woman Acca Larentia for having nursed the three brothers who founded our city. This winter celebration is on the side of the ending year, and thus most offerings are for the dead.
I made her my own offering in advance, all as prescribed. I asked her a favour, to speak on my behalf with Dea Tacita, the mute one, goddess of the dead, for they share the same festival day. This matter concerned the Dea Tacita, for it was the shades of the dead girls that were denied their eternal rest, but I was not so rash as to apply directly to the mute one.
I had to organise things carefully. I had to coincide any ceremony I would carry out with general festivals, to hide behind the noise of public magia and escape notice of the Collegium Incantatorum. Understand, the times where everyone sacrifices for the gods, even when the magia is not properly directed and the public ceremonies are bordering more on superstition than on real incantation, still provide me enough background noise to mask any dark deeds.
On the celebration of the Larentalia the censor was invited to be present at the rites carried out just outside our walls, on the wide ledge where funerals are held. This was one of the progression of special events marking the end of the year. A necessary ceremony, to propitiate the numina, and ensure that a new year will start after the intercalaris, that countless period over the winter between December and the beginning of the new year on the first new moon of the spring solstice.
I was standing to the side of the sparse crowd of citizens, further up the slope and away from the city. The censor, resplendent in his white toga with wide purple stripes, the brass buckles on his crimson shoes flaring with the last rays of sunlight, was standing at the centre of the row of dignitaries as befitting his position, with a look of boredom and disdain that betrayed true feelings.
When the rites were over, I uttered a small incantation and spoke his name softly. The wind sighed, and carried it to his ears alone. He turned his head. Behind me, two girls — one dressed as Diana and the other as Fortuna — disappeared quickly behind a bend in the road. He stared at me for a moment, shook his head, and turned.
I signalled the girls, and spoke the incantation again. As he turned, the girls looked up, laughed, and ducked back behind the rock. I walked towards him, slowly, keeping my eyes locked on his, letting the crowd wend their way down the hill and leave us alone. He stayed, mesmerised, looking at me and the tantalising visions of girls in goddesses costumes peeking behind me, and dismissed his retinue with a wave. The men around us hurried down, before full darkness set in.
By the time I reached him, we were alone.
“I’ve heard you’re in the market for some slave girls. Particularly ones that know how to dress up and act like goddesses,” I said.
He stared at me for a moment, licked his lips, and said, “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“I have a young woman to sell. Well read, cultured, pretty. Her father was forced to sell the family into slavery to repay a gambling debt. Can recite Andronicus and Terentius. Likes to dress up as Diana the Huntress. Give her a bow, and she’ll look just like a temple statue.”
My sources and hunches were right, for I could see him waver. “I have her right here for you. You can check her out, sample her… recitation skills. It won’t take a moment.”
He followed me. We went just around the bend. “Just in here,” I pointed at a shallow recess. He just wasn’t expecting me to hit him on the side of the head with a leather pouch full of sand as I turned to show him the way.
I caught him as he collapsed.
I tied him down, with special leather tongs that have been inscribed with sigils marked by teeth.
I laid him neatly in the recess.
In the centre of a circle drawn in blood and bones.
We waited for the moon to rise.
He woke up.
The waning moon finally sailed past the peak of Vergu to light our little hollow on the western side.
I chanted the necessary prayer. I made the right sacrifices. I gave it direction and focus, beyond mere superstition, yet without the callous hubris of an incantator channeling the magia.
I stood back.
We didn’t have to wait long. Deeper shadows amidst the scree shifted, morphed, advanced. With halting movements, in bursts that seemed always to be at the periphery of my vision, shadowy figures drew closer.
Until finally they resolved themselves into human shapes, rising from the rocks to stand around us. Against their grey skin I could make out the luminous yellow eyes, the webbed hands, the sharpened teeth.
They looked at me unblinkingly. I spoke the last words of the prayer, promising the Dea Tacita that which was hers, and backed away.
Their eyes shifted from me to the gibbering censor in the centre of the circle.
And descended upon him.
Beyond the circle of writhing bodies, I saw the grey shape of Licinia, looking emotionless at her killer being killed.
I took out the coin from the fold of my toga, looked again at the face of a long dead consul. I balanced it on thumb and forefinger, and flicked it above the circle and over the grey lemures at Licinia.
She caught it deftly, placed it in her mouth, and began to fade away.
I could almost hear a faint ‘thank you’ over the sounds of ripping flesh and crunching bones.
I turned away, and made my way down the mountain, back into our city and its lights, towards the nearest cup of wine, hoping that Licinia would now find peace across the river Styx.
This story is dedicated to Victoria (you know who you are). Thanks for volunteering to being boiled in oil.
If you enjoyed this Felix short mystery, why not give Murder In Absentia a chance? For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment!