Obsidius XVII – XXXI: The Vesuvian Magnus
Here is the transcript of these chapters:
XVII. Pliny did not disappoint. We met at the house of Pomponianus. He was very patient with Cybella who was in a state of high agitation. Syphax tended to her while I spoke with the esteemed naturalist in the garden. He said we were setting off for Vesuvius tomorrow where we were to gain audience with the Magnus. I have a strong feeling that one journey is about to end and another is to begin.
XVIII. Cybella did an admirable job of containing her trepidation as we approached Vesuvius. The mountain has always had a sinister history. It is frequently associated with not only Hercules, but a red, flaming serpent. At one time, it was associated with a tribe of enormous bandits and Hercules was credited with having eliminated them. In one tale I heard he followed the serpent into its lair and come upon a cauldron of fire. I suspect it is more likely that the caves were cleaned out by wealthy aristocrats who have settled in the area and do not want to be harassed by bandits.
XIX. We entered a cave in the mountain through a hidden and guarded entrance and were led through a series of tunnels which appeared to be have been decorated over the centuries. Finally, we found ourselves in a deep chamber lit by sputtering torches as odd winds and bursts of steam kept the air both warm and humid. It was as close to a feeling of the underworld as I have ever come.
XX. Without warning, the lights of the Vesuvian chamber were extinguished and we were in pitch darkness. The steamy mist seemed to coil around us like a serpent. Cybella went into a chant and then broke out into a stream of sounds, words and images which I am attempting to reassemble in my mind, but Moneta has deserted me on that subject. Only a few of them remain hanging in memory. Epiphany. A ball of light. Darsana. Ultimus. Then I felt her falling. Syphax reached out and caught her, easing her lithe form to the warm, moist floor. Out of instinct I drew my sword and awaited an attack from the darkness.
XXI. In time, the walls echoed with a voice. It was a deep, stentorian voice which resonated with all of the attributes of careful oratorical training. I could not see the Speaker in the dark, nor know for sure where it was coming from for the effect of the rotunda-like room was to mask the location of its source. “Gaius Tullius Obsidius. You possess a unique ability at finding the līmina. The Portals. You are to travel the world. Go beyond the boundaries of the Empire, beyond the boundaries of all that we know, from Portal to Portal, and report all that you find, all that you see, all that you know. You shall walk to the ends of the earth and beyond, and when there is nothing left to be discovered, you are to return.”
XXII. With that, there was a great crashing sound, and then there was silence, save for the curious rumbling which had agitated Cybella so greatly. Syphax looked at me. “If you accept this journey, we will never return home,” he said. I thought to ask him why, but then I understood, for the world has no end. But I shall carry out my duty. We were escorted from Vesuvius by blindfold and taken to a nearby town to provision and begin our journey.
XXIII. My arrow pointed north. Let me explain this concept of the Arrow. Once, while on a distant journey to the east, I do not know exactly where I was, I visited at a caravansary by geomancers with a strange device they called a sīnán. It was made with lodestone, suspended so that it could turn freely. They were using it for fortune telling, but I noticed that it always seemed to point in the same direction. When I spoke with the practitioner of this through an interpreter, he evaded my questions until it became clear that I am somewhat of an expert in rocks and minerals and had knowledge that would be of value to him.
XXIV. He told me that his device was also good for searching for rare gems and orienting their houses in some ancient mystical practice. My suspicion is that it was actually responding to magnetic forces and tested this supposition much to his joy, for he could use magnets in his divining. He confided to me that he did not see this as deception, as the introduction of magic helped to open otherwise closed minds.
XXV. It is my belief that the world itself has a magnetism, though I do not share this with others for fear that they would think me mad. And, of course, it is always good to hold back a little knowledge.
XXVI. I tell this only because it is a physical analogy for my innate sense of direction, my ability to find the līmina, what the Vesuvian Speaker called the Portals. But I have always imagined my gift as being similar to the suspended lodestone which always point to the strongest magnet. The Portals function like magnets. Some, growing in strength from time to time, attract me. As I left Vesuvius, my arrow pointed north.
XXVII. As Vesuvius was to pass from vision, we turned one last time. There seemed to be an ominous plume above it. Cybella spoke: “We search for the siblings Ancile and Aegis and the two are one… Ancile is one and 13 for there are 12 copies, each one possessing some properties of the original but none possessing all.” Syphax asked who Ancile and Aegis were and where we could find them. I answered that they were not persons, but shields. Aegis is the shield of Zeus (though there are other interpretations) and Ancile was the shield given to Rome by Mars. Syphax maintained that the Romans had stolen their gods from Libya. I responded that they were mostly stolen from the Greeks. He responded that the Greeks had stolen from the Libyans also. Cybella silenced us. She said that we were awaited in Rome. I asked her how she could know this. She said that she heard it from the Portals. Syphax gave a look of disdain as was his wont. To me, it would be a test of her powers. In that moment, I felt a slight shift in my arrow. My destination was still north, but it seemed that a stop had been added to my journey.
XXVIII. We stood at the Pantheon of Marcus Agrippa surrounded by the twelve gods of the Roman Pantheon. Syphax did not miss the opportunity to mention that there were 12 Gods of Egypt, another idea stolen from Africa. And he did not miss the fact that the earring on Venus had originally belonged to Cleopatra and had been mounted on the statue. “Barbarians!” He muttered under his breath.
XXIX. Indeed there were 13 gods in the vast circular chamber for Titus himself had entered. He came without guard or royal adornment. Very dangerous for someone of his stature, even one as beloved of his people as Titus to travel alone, but alone he was — or nearly alone. Cloaked figures which I could only assume were bodyguards stood in the shadows.
XXX. He nodded to Syphax, and asked whether I had made contact with the Oracle. I gestured to Cybella and informed him that she had indeed come with me. He seemed both taken aback and bemused. He said that he wanted no details of our mission but assured me it was of greatest importance and may the gods shield us on our journey. He gestured to the statues and indeed the roof which took the form of an aspis.
XXXI. Our visit was cut short when one of the bodyguards gestured to Titus and he turned away giving us his blessings and the ominous suggestion that we not allow ourselves to be followed from this place for powerful forces stood against Magnus. After eluding any potential pursuers in the maze of streets in the Imperial capital, we continued our journey north.