The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror, Vol 10, No 1 (2007)

VILLA LOCUSTA

© 2007 Gemma Files
All rights reserved.

PROLOGUE

"When any Roman town was founded, it seems to have been standard practice to dig a trench, called the mundus, and throw offerings into it in order to invite the gods to watch over the place and its inhabitants. The trench was then covered with a stone. This mundus apparently evolved into some sort of subterranean chamber dedicated in particular to underworld spirits. Three times a year (in August, October and November) the stone covering was raised so that, it is claimed, the spirits of the dead had access to the world of the living, or as Cumont and Frazier put it, the 'door of hell was opened.'"

— R.C. Finucane, Appearances of the Dead:
A Cultural History of Ghosts

Herculanaeum, August 24, A.D. 79 — the ninth day before the Calends of September.

When Marcilla wakes, at last, it's with Gnaius Vespis shaking her, hard enough to bruise. "Barbarian," he says. "Time to go, little wild girl; good enough time as any, anyhow. Now or never, like."

She turns over, groaning, to scrub thick sleep from her eyes. Outside, there's still the same steady patter of tiny black stones falling down through the clouds around Vesuvius' crest, like some angry god's spittle. Last she remembers, Dromio and the few remaining house-boys were going up top to scrape Villa Locusta's roof clean, so it wouldn't collapse under this strange deluge's mounting weight; the yard itself was already carpeted thick and ankle-deep with them, grating beneath her sandals as Marcilla ran to the bath-house with her skirt looped up over her head, trying vainly to shield herself against harm from above. And now she reaches up to feel her scalp, only to find it still sticky in places from where the harder stones made her head bleed — while Gnaius watches, fair champing at the bit with impatience, like the half-mad war-stallion he still is.

"Is Chryse fit to travel, then?" Marcilla asks, voice hoarse with dust and heat.

"I'll carry her, she's not. Come on, barbarian — herself's still down below, praying more ruin on us all. We've one chance only, this, and don't think I'll stay much longer to convince you."

Again, the off-hand insult; great fool never has managed to learn even this meaningless name her captors forced on her, years before, in Rome's own main slave-market. Yet Marcilla can't fault him for it, somehow. He means well enough, in his clumsy way ... like when he finally figured out how he'd got Chryse with a child neither of them could afford to keep, yet chose to stay by her nevertheless, instead of running off with the rest of Locusta's household.

She yawns, jaw cracking; levers herself upright in the too-bright darkness, groping under her pallet for a rough bundle of clothes, bread, a broken bronze knife hoarded from the kitchen while the head cook wasn't paying attention. Thinking at the same time, though never (of course) saying right out loud:

I had a son once too, Gnaius, ever hear tell of that? Oh, yes. 'Till a man like you stamped on his sweet little skull while it was still soft, because he'd've been too much trouble to keep alive all the way back to Rome, not to mention too unsalable at the other end. Not a sufficiently justifiable ... investment.

Because that's what happens to babies bred from slaves, whether their fathers be cashed-out Legionnaires turned bodyguards or brave young Icenii warriors so eager to die for their cause they don't even stop to think over what might happen to their wives — or children — afterward. When they fight the Empire's victorious hordes first-hand, and lose.

And why does Gnaius even want her along on this (no doubt) doomed venture? In case Chryse comes to time before they're well away, out in the woods or fields, with no surgeon handy? If they're caught, they'll all be killed; that's a foregone conclusion: Gnaius for stealing the Lady Locusta's property, Marcilla and Chryse for "stealing" themselves, as an example to the others. Which is fairly funny, come to think, considering just how few of those others seem to've hung around since the cloud first went up, and are thus likely to benefit from such a paradoxical lesson....

But at least it'll finally be out of her own hands, then. A sure and certain end, no matter how long they make it last before the climax; beyond her control, like so much else. And then the long sleep, forever — through Elysium's dark gate and back to her own country, one way or another.

Where I come from, things were different, Marcilla tries devoutly to make herself believe, as ever. Though really, it's been so long since she was last there that she finds it hard to recall exactly how, or even why.

Herculanaeum is no Rome, for all its pretensions. Yet Rome lies heavy on her still, like her first rapist (and him not even Roman, or at least not so directly). It crushes out her every breath. She barely has enough strength to force herself through each day without turning the stolen kitchen knife on her own throat, her belly, the soft, scarred interior of her thigh, where a vein far too large and full of blood to staunch waits to be tapped, its very pulse like a rebuke. Hammering, with each fresh beat: Why are you alive yet, traitor, and so many others not — so many more deserving, braver, better? How do you dare live on at all?

But it takes so much effort to fight back, and so little not to; this is the one, the only real truth of her current condition. That simple. That dreadful.

So: "Let's us bloody go, then," is all Marcilla says, finally. To which Gnaius looses a great gust of held breath, and grins his usual broke-toothed grin: Good barbarian! That's the spirit, wild girl!

"Praise be to all Gods, you've seen sense. Thought I was going to have to throw you both over my shoulders and march away whistling, like Hercules Jupiter-get himself with his Amazon bitches."

"Wouldn't've got too far at that rate, would you? Not with your bad leg."

He claps her on the shoulders, fake-hearty. "Oh, never you mind that, little Pict. I'm surprising in a tight squeeze, me, often as not — just ask Chryse."

"Pass, thanks."

And out they set, together.

***

When Marcilla first came to the Lady Locusta's service, a year or so ago, this domus was already more than halfway as it is now: Sombre, denuded, empty as city streets on Lemuria feast-day, when ghosts are said to possess the upper- as well as the underearth. Its halls filled with sadly pastoral murals, its rooms with dust and abandoned toys — and Dromio was quick enough to tell her the why of it, for all she hadn't actually bothered to ask; she'd learned long before that curiosity is seldom a well-rewarded quality, in slaves.

"It was her son, see. The young master. Struck down by a cart on the fifth cardo, just north of the Suburban Thermae." He paused here, for effect. "And him only eight name-days old."

Longer than my boy lived, and far happier, I've no doubt, Marcilla thought. But: "Sad," she said, aloud. As she knew they expected.

"She wouldn't even let his pyre be laid," the head cook put in, here. "Just ordered him taken down to the mundus, and never brought him back up yet."

Gnaius, from the corner, oiling his leather armor: "Well, might be he lives still, down there. Crippled, like. That might happen."

Dromio shook his head. "I saw him brought home, held him up while she washed his face. He ... could not have survived."

The cook again, portentously: "They'll come to stop her, you'll see — his father's kin won't have it. Such blasphemy can't go unpunished forever."

And yet ... it did. Still does.

Didn't take long for the plain truth to out in day-to-day conversation, either, no matter how many happy euphemisms Dromio might've originally tried to cloak it in. Widowed and childless as she is, plagued with debts on every hand, the Lady Locusta keeps her otherwise patrician head above water through a multitude of strange ventures, most having to do with the black arts: necromancy, love potions, poisoning for hire; drawing horoscopes and casting the future, in defiance of all local temple strictures. For how can her servants think any different, really, seeing she's down in her family's private mundus at all hours, calling on infernal powers to work her clients' will?

Many times in the night's small hours, when no one else lies sleepless, Marcilla has pressed her ear to that cold stone lid. Beneath, her mistress's usually soft voice rises and falls in horrid ecstasy, worshipping at the ancestor-shrine those long-dead first Locustii crafted from a fissure sprung agape in the too-active Vesuvian earth — a steaming gash kept open ever since specifically so those of her gens can use it to practice their personal brand of witchcraft. Marcilla has listened, heart in throat, while the lady scratches curses on sheets of soft lead and throws them into the smoking crack itself, surrounded by the tombs of her mothers and fathers, whose inhabitants presumably lie ready either to carry the message further below, or simply do the job themselves.

Locusta, usually so polite and kind, if a trifle absent — each word or move deliberate, never a hair left out of place. Her downcast eyes the same dull blue washed with faintest rose as a river's current made sluggish by sheer proximity, by merest implication, when it flows downstream from some ford choked by fresh corpses.

Since then, Marcilla is careful to keep her own eyes down whenever the Lady of the house walks by, avoiding that empty gaze if she possibly can. But she can never quite make herself forget the last and latest thing her eavesdropping told her, that secret she will never tell Gnaius, Chryse or any of the others, not even if they think to ask: That she has heard another voice answer Locusta back, here and there, amongst the wailing. A lisping boy's voice, small and cold and still, which answers only when asked directly —

Are they here yet? The others?

Yes.

Will it be soon?

Yes.

What must I do?

Only wait. Pray. And...

(be ready)

That awful voice, and then Locusta's again, stone-muffled in deep darkness. Declaiming string after string of strange titles, pseudonyms Marcilla neither knows, nor wants to: You of the whispers. You, Empty One. You who sew things, each to each. You who wear us as robes. You, Render from Above. You who seed without regard. You, who harvest everything. Seasonless ones, timeless ones, faceless ones, nameless ones...

Let it all come down, now. Let it come to an end, and quickly. Quickly!

Let this world be remade at last, or destroyed utterly.

***

She keeps herself to herself, Marcilla, at the best of times — but these are not that, and haven't been for quite some while. It began back when the month first turned, with a series of small signs: Springs and wells turned salt, dried up, a constant stench of sulphur on the summer air; little tremors shaking the rim of the Bay, hills and gorges alike convulsed by Triton Earth-shaker's wrath, splitting open here and there like a dying man's lips under the strain.

After which came the rumours, flocking in on every hand like psychopomp birds, equally impossible to discount as to prove — black wonders and obscene miracles enacted across the whole of Herculanaeum, without apparent cause or cure. Fresh plagues breeding necklaces of buboes that burst open, mouth-like, to whisper poison in their sufferers' ears. Fearsome dust devils blowing back and forth through the empty streets, scooping stragglers up into that misery-colored sky and dropping them again days later, half-eaten. Cicadas singing dirges in the trees before dawn, their voices almost understandable. A luminous vapour leaking in over the water each sunset, dissipating wherever it reaches the shore....

Or that day two weeks past, when Dromio sent Chryse to market for the last time, only to see her come home late beyond hope of excuse, empty-handed, fix-eyed and panting. Claiming: "Market was gone."

"What are you talking about, you stupid slut?"

"I couldn't find the old road, I swear it on Juno's breasts, though I looked everywhere — just some other, wide and well-laid, like it'd been there for years. But ... I didn't take it."

"Why not?"

"... it looked ... wrong."

So that night they made do with food from the store-house, and Chryse was beaten — not over-hard, for her child's sake, though Marcilla saw Gnaius bite his lip at every stroke. Just like she heard Dromio and the head cook whispering about it, afterward: Dromio reckoning the villa's accounts on his wax tablet, cook shelling peas, neither looking at the other directly. Firelight painted both their faces as red-tinged Tragedy masks, impossible to read aside from whatever their voices let slip.

"End of the world, that's what they're saying over at Piso's Retreat. What d'you think, Dromio?"

"I think the world's always ending, or so someone always claims. That Jewish preacher in Rome, twenty years ago — Petros, his name was; said the exact same, and all he got for it was crucified. Head-downwards, by his own request."

"Suppose you're right."

"Yes, well — Jews always prophesy calamity, and lo and behold, calamity usually comes. It makes the cheat all the better: Any omen might mean any one of ten thousand disasters, and your god decides which it was." A pause. "But all the same, this man was no ranting lunatic took with heatstroke visions; seemed sane as you or I, or saner. Didn't speak of the world's end as tragedy, only salvation — the return of his savior, that false Jew-king Pilate did for."

"Must not've done his duty too well; he had to return for a second go at it."

"You know he didn't. The legions smashed the Jews' high temple for good and all, nine years gone."

"So things never improved, one way or the other?"

"Not for them."

To which the cook shrugged, tipping the last of her husks together into her drawn-up apron. And said, rising —

"Doesn't sound like much of a god to me, then ... hardly one worth dying for, anyhow."

Thus confirming something Marcilla's always suspected about her captors, especially given their habit of routinely deifying dead emperors, whether or not said rulers were mainly loved or feared during their lifetimes: That when all is said and done, lares and penates aside, the only thing Romans really worship is themselves. Which certainly makes some sense, considering the way they tend to treat everyone else they come across.

Since then, there've been no more market expeditions — Locusta's servants stay inside, bide their time, arrange their days to coincide with her own strange schedule: Eat, sleep, pray. Watch the world darken, not least with the slow appearance of men they don't know at the very edges of her fields, eddying here and there like phantoms. They don't come much closer, don't seem to see the villa somehow, not even when they stare at it directly: A testament to Locusta's power, perhaps, or to the power she serves. But they don't go away, either.

And then, yesterday — finally — the worst thing yet. A cloud arching up over Vesuvius like some funeral pine, spreading its branches to blot out the sun...

Whatever the Lady Locusta's drawn down upon this city, and no matter her reasoning for doing so, Marcilla knows she's already lingered far too long in its path to get away clean. But she's not ready to watch Gnaius Vespis and his Chryse die as well, not just yet; not when they want so badly, the both of them, to live — with each other. For each other.

And then there's the child, who has no say in any of this, at all. Surely someone should think to speak for it, while —

(if)

— there's still time.

***

They find Chryse upstairs, at last — still asleep, hands pressed tight to her distended belly, and no amount of Gnaius' whispering or caresses seems like to wake her. Finally, he gives in and does his fabled demigod act after all — hoists her up high and drapes her across himself like a senator's toga, limping more than ever under the strain, so they can creep back down and out through the peristyle interiora, Locusta's hidden garden, through which they might yet hope to reach the posticum, the bath-house, the road and trees beyond.

***

By the water-clock in the atrium, night has already eked past into morning and beyond, not that anyone left awake would be able to tell the difference. The cloud around Vesuvius' summit has blocked out the sky, turning it a lowering, vivid grey so dark it seems almost purple. Sometimes the clouds part far enough to admit a brownish-yellow shaft or two of the sort of light that comes during an eclipse, even as juddering sheets of lightning continually spit and tangle above the torrent of ash and pumice, in flashes so bright they seem to cut Heaven wide open.

***

The rest of Villa Locusta is darker and even more silent than before, eating their footsteps like a sacred grove. Marcilla runs her hand along the wall as they go, tracing the painted river; on better days, this ribbon of bright, meandering blue "flows" so clear you might almost think you see fish flicker beneath its surface, poised to jump. Now it's opaque, shadowed by dense and overhanging green foliage, behind which — if you pause incautiously long enough to study it too closely — a series of almost-familiar faces sometimes seem to peer out at you, baring their tiny phantom teeth.

As they clear the peristyle's entrance, Chryse stirs, gives a rattling sigh. Asks, in a thin little voice: "...Gnaius?"

"That's me, lovely — Marcilla, too. We're here to get you free of all this, the both of us, tonight."

Her drooping head turns, eyes still shut, white lids blind in the cloud's erratic light. "'Cilla ... it's dark yet? Must be morning, by now...."

"Long past, Chryse; go back to sleep now, will you? Baby must need it, I'm sure."

But Chryse's pleasant face sours at that, her brows wrinkling; she tries once more to wrench her lashes up past half-mast, only to flop a fresh tangle of sweat-slicked hair back over them instead. And:

"...'s not..." she says, at last. "...I mean, I think, 's not..."

...what? Gnaius' baby? Hers? Or, perhaps, not even —

(a baby?)

Then, to Gnaius: "I had that ... dream ... again..."

She doesn't need to explain which one, of course: The dream of the Empty Eye, the Open Gash, a hole opened up to the world's heart and deeper, with a blazing light at its bottom. The dream that stops people sleeping.

"We've all of us had that dream, Chryse," Marcilla says, shortly.

Gnaius, obscurely insulted: "I haven't."

But Marcilla just elbows him in the ribs, not stopping. "Go faster, fool," she orders. "And quieter."

That he understands, at least; you can always get Gnaius to do what you want, Marcilla's observed, so long as you make yourself sound like his drill sergeant. Gnaius hoists Chryse higher and moves, fast and quiet both. Soon enough, they leave the skewed light and thick air of the peristyle for a brief jaunt through the oddly honest gloom of the bath-house, calidarium, tepidarium and frigidarium alike all empty but for dust. And then the courtyard, as empty as the peristyle but wider, its cobbles sifted over with ash and slippery with fallen sky-rock. Marcilla lets something that might be hope stir to tentative life as she spots the doors, standing open to reveal the road beyond —

— which is, of course, exactly when Dromio moves out into that same doorway, Gnaius' spare gladius gleaming in his hand.

A moment's shocked silence, indignantly broken by Gnaius: "That's mine!"

Dromio tilts the blade to catch the horrid, bloated light. A half-dug shallow trench by his feet reveals what he and the others have been doing all this time, and while there may be no Legion's SPQR brand on his shoulder, the lethal competence of his stance is unmistakable. "No, Gnaius Vespis," the slavemaster corrects him. "This is the villa's — like her, or her. Or you, come to that."

"Step within my reach, old man, and make that claim again."

Marcilla takes a step back, automatically, at the snarl in Gnaius' voice; Chryse barely looks up, hugging Gnaius closer, which undercuts the challenge's immediacy somewhat. But Dromio merely shakes his head, as though he'd expected as much.

"Where was it you three thought to go, exactly?" he asks, almost sadly. "There's nothing past here but Gods-wrath and Chryse's wrong-looking road, children; believe me, I've already checked."

"We'll take our chances."

Another head-shake, sadder still. "Can't let you, I'm afraid. You must know as much."

Gnaius gives a strange sort of full-body shrug, a great cat poising to spring, and shifts Chryse so his arm's around her waist, freeing his sword-hand. "Come on, then," he says, and raises the blade so its shadow crosses Dromio's from above, the way Vesuvius' does them all.

But: "Enough," a third voice puts in from where the garden wall runs to darkness, kitty-corner to the bath-house door. And the Lady Locusta herself issues forth, unhurriedly — earrings chiming cool on this dust-laced wind, long train of her summer-weight dress trailing forgotten over the ashy grass, the turned-up earth. To her right, Marcilla sees a shallow, new-dug trench running from where the mundus-lid stands slightly open, for once; a shovel stained with new dirt leans against one edge, no doubt abandoned by Dromio, who must have been the last to use it.

"More runaways, Mistress," Dromio informs her, unnecessarily. "Gnaius and his whore, the Pictish girl..."

"So I see."

"Cowards, all of 'em, to leave you like this. Should cut these ones down here and now, for the insult to your family name alone —"

"Don't be ridiculous, Dromio." Locusta is close enough to lay her hand on his blade now, urging it gently downward. "I hope you trust me capable of disciplining my own slaves, should I feel they merit it ... but unnatural times call for unnatural measures, so you need not bloody your blade tonight. Gnaius, Chryse and Marcilla are all entirely free to go; you too, if you wish it." Then adds, turning to Marcilla: "Though if you, in particular, were to stay and help me one last time, I would be very grateful."

They make a pretty group for just a moment, posed together against the looming sky: Dromio gaping, Gnaius uncertain how to react, Chryse barely able to stand. While Marcilla, similarly caught by surprise, finds herself abruptly looking straight into the lady's particolored eyes, unable to fall back on her normal policy of self-protective dumb insolence. Thinking: She has charmed me, surely. I must fight it, her, must break free, before...

But she finds she does not know before what, no matter how she strives to grasp the concept. Is unable even to form the question, let alone answer it.

"Will you help me, Marcilla?" Locusta asks once more, softer still, and sweeter. "It is such a small thing I ask for, you see — but I cannot do it by myself."

Marcilla shivers, for all that the cloud-bound garden grows increasingly, oppressively hot. Thinking, yet again: But why not? And more importantly...why me? In, as you say —

(particular)

Though there is this, it suddenly occurs to her — Locusta was a mother too, once. Locusta has shared her grief, that indigestible stone which sits always in the pit of Marcilla's stomach, changing everything she tastes to dirt. That strange power of hers again, perhaps ... the power to make even her slaves feel sorry enough for her to jeopardize their own safety and freedom to help her. Or, yet more simply —

Where would I have gone, after all, anyhow? Marcilla catches herself wondering. This —

(she)

— is all I have left.

"Tell me what you need, Domina," Marcilla answers, finally. And is mildly surprised to see Locusta's weird gaze sadden slightly, as she does: Had you hoped for more of a fight, my Lady? Should've asked Gnaius instead, if that was what you wanted.

But Locusta says nothing to confirm this nor disprove it. Only inquires, as Marcilla could never have expected her to —

"Does this world please you, Marcilla? Do you love it?"

What?

And here it is, in one cold flash: Every bad thing that's ever happened to her sent flooding back at once like a sharp stick thrust between her legs, into the very softest part of her, the secretest wound. Thrust in deep, beyond its hilt, and twisted.

Marcilla swallows, hard. "No, Domina," she husks. "I beg your pardon; no."

"No, no, never apologize — you are right, not to. This world is a cruel place; it always has been, from the very beginning." Here Locusta pauses, allowing a tone that Marcilla has never heard before to enter her otherwise murmur-calm voice — not upset, not urgent, so much as definite. "But it will all change, Marcilla, I promise you. It will change."

Can this be sympathy? It smells a bit like it, or like Marcilla remembers it smelling; perhaps she is simply fooling herself, one more time in a long string of times. Yet it feels good nonetheless, Locusta's stainless fingers resting against her cheek, cupping her jaw. This unlooked-for feeling of ... support.

"You are kind, Domina," she hears herself say, voice cracking. "You do not have to be. I thank you for it."

But: "Oh no, Marcilla. Thank you."

And then — a movement, so fast Marcilla can barely register it before she hears Dromio gasp and Gnaius curse: A slim flash of polished bronze against her neck (knife? hair-pin?), followed by searing pain. Marcilla falls forward, hands at her throat, powerless to stem the flood. She sees her own blood gush into the trench, drunk by the thirsty mud, and it hurts so badly, so badly...

... until suddenly, with a snap, she's outside herself, separated and apart. Locusta with her red hands, Dromio vomiting to one side, Gnaius hugging Chryse's face to his chest — she still knows them, yes, but none of it means anything more or less to her than anything else: The cloud above, the wind in the trees, those same black-clad men slipping in across the fields again, making their way toward the apparently now-visible villa. Or that endless road that, Marcilla realizes, spirals out around peristyle, bath-house and mundus alike — smooth like blown glass, black like night-water, overhung at intervals with poplar-high iron trees whose single, double or triple clusters of fruit give off an eerily unblinking glow: Scarlet, green, yellow, white.

And beyond that, even more marvels: Great buildings looming wherever Marcilla looks, mountain-high, ten thousand phantom temples to ten thousand unknown gods. And light at almost every window, spilling forth in unbroken waves, pure and dreadful, implacable as the impending moment of death.

With only slightly more interest than she would have shown in anything else, Marcilla watches a coil of something ooze its way from the displaced mundus-cover to her discarded flesh, before thrusting itself — wormlike, with a subtle clockwise screwing motion — inside. Watches as the corpse straightens stiffly, humping up from the ground like a worm, its throat still gaping open. Sees it crouch again to lap its own blood from the shallow groove in front of it, smearing its —

(her)

— lips with dust and gore.

The black-clad men are very close now, moving crab-like, shadows on top of shadows. With such a far more significant show to witness at close range, however, Marcilla cannot count herself too surprised if no one inside Locusta's garden notices their approach.

Locusta, voice even higher, that note of certainty more pronounced: "Speak, I constrain you. Is it now? Has it come? Is this it?"

The body looks up, wipes its mouth with the clumsy back of one hand, only making things worse. And from Marcilla's flapping second mouth, a cold, pale voice drops words like lumps of rotting flesh:

"Too ... late."

Locusta's hand goes to her mouth. Her eyes shine, wide and wet. "You lie."

"No. Too ... late." It straightens again, seeming somehow taller — looming over her, almost, while its own shadow spills out around both their feet in a lapping flood.

"Who tells you so? My master —"

"Ah, but there are others of his kind too, are there not? Seven, to be exact."

So tall and growing still, its face shimmering with darkness, eaten away from within; Locusta gives a stark cry at the sight, falls to her knees, buries her face heedlessly in her polluted palms and smears them back and forth, back and forth. Lets her well-coiffed hair rush down to straggle in the blood-mud, without regard for the result.

With bleak glee: "Did you really think none of us would also come when you called, little lady?"

For: Ah yes, Marcilla thinks. THOSE others.

You who sew things, each to each. You who wear us as robes ... seasonless, timeless, faceless, nameless....

Perhaps the world does end tonight, after all — in one way, or another.

And: "Bugger all this," Gnaius says, hoisting Chryse once more, so he can run the faster. But before he's so much as taken a single step, the black watchers are already on him. They bring him down, and her, as Dromio just stands there, frozen. While the ghost-clad thing that was Marcilla simply laughs and grows on, unstoppable, and Locusta sobs over the wreckage of her grandest plans.

Time to go, Marcilla reckons. Yet finds herself hovering on, still somehow obscurely sorry for her former mistress, almost wanting to touch her, to offer comfort.

Beside the lady, a new spectre rises — smaller, wavering, yet just as uncomfortable. The half-crushed figure of Locusta's son has exited the mundus unnoticed, on unsteady tiptoes. His grave little face is a bloodless parody of hers, aside from the eyes: like purple butterflies set sidelong, opening and closing their spotted wings as lashes, pupils golden in the gathering storm.

"I failed you, master," Locusta weeps, burying her face against his tiny feet. "It goes on and on, the same as ever. I failed."

"You could not help it," he says, and touches her ruined hair, gently.

The Marcilla-thing shakes itself, impatiently. It sends its shadow out further yet, summoning its acolytes from their work; to a one, they leave Marcilla's former friends where they've fallen and gather close, surrounding Locusta and her lich-baby alike. Their teeth gleam, reflecting lightning.

But you and she ARE done, nevertheless, it says, no longer bothering to speak at all. The door is closing. This stops here.

"Oh, yes," the little boy agrees. "It does."

And his gentle touch on Locusta's shaking shoulder wakes a last thunderclap that rips the night asunder, as a wall of boiling mud vomited up from Gaea's guts rushes down out of the dark. Walls shatter, stones flying; slate tiles burst in the heat; bodies curl fetally and parboil into shells, black mirror of the wombs in which they once dreamed. The lid slams down over the mundus-pit, its foulness and its secrets locked away once and for all as molten earth drowns and buries it.

The pyroclastic flow rips through Hercules' city, scouring all in its path away forever.

***

After, Marcilla feels herself peel away up into the exploding sky. Sees Locusta engulfed below her, along with what's left of Dromio, Gnaius, poor Chryse and her child, if child there even was.

She briefly finds time to hope, absently, that someone — her real son, perhaps? — will care enough to show Locusta which way to go, so she doesn't wander eternally. Her intentions were better than might be expected, especially from a Roman.

First the flow, the flaming gases, followed then by mud, by rock, by time. The city will be seeded over and forgotten, found again by chance, unearthed once more, visited, studied. The Villa Locusta will become only one of many necropoli, each equally important. Each equally misunderstood.

She knows this, somehow, just as she somehow knows her own sad tale to have been only one of many near-apocalyptic stories — all of them different, all of them the exact same. Except, on occasion, for some minor difference in the way they reach their appointed end.

Herself, however, Marcilla is free, of all of it. Of everything: Pain, past, world, time, name. Too free even to appreciate her own freedom.

Simple and plain, free and clear; here, then not. And then, at long last, very gratefully indeed —

— gone.

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