Marcus sat on the parapet bordering his balcony, his legs dangling outside into the darkness. Someone had broken the streetlight at the corner between his building and the main road, and the riverbank across from him was never illuminated. The breeze from the placid waters of the Tiber wasn’t enough to cool his mood, but the darkness suited him fine. Not even one day back home, and he already felt as if he had never left Rome. If he closed his eyes and tuned out all the noises from the modern city, he could see Aurelia walking down the cobblestoned street, her hair dyed deep red to please him. He had never stomached that color, but never told her.
The sound of a loud car horn followed by a swerve, the acrid stench of hastily hit brakes, and several swear words broke his concentration and he opened his eyes to the year two thousand fourteen, almost two thousand years too late to hear Aurelia’s melodious voice whispering his name at night. The altercation below had now progressed to the physical stage when men try to impress their companions waiting for them inside the cars. Marcus hated that humanity hadn’t progressed one single iota in such a large span of time.
He whistled, two fingers in his mouth as his father had taught him, and the two men—no more than boys—raised their faces toward him. “Get it over with and leave.” He didn’t move from where he was sitting, his hand caressing the growth on his jaw back and forth until it rested under his chin.
Two heads peeped out of the passengers’ windows of both cars at the same time, and Marcus heard young feminine voices calling the boys’ names. A minute later the two cars had left the scene. He had barely raised his voice to carry his words down to the two hotheads. It worked every time. His voice was a gift. He had been told countless times how, with a voice like his, he was destined to become a centurion.
“You have a commanding voice, but you never command me,” Aurelia had used to say to him, purred more than said, that brilliant light of hers shining only for him when she was in his arms. Fighting the sadness that usually accompanied those memories, Marcus decided a night out would be what he needed.
His phone vibrated in his jeans pocket as he walked past the Milvio Bridge, heading to the other bank of the Tiber for a drink or two. A look at the display confirmed his suspicion. Alexander had called him several times already and left a message Marcus hadn’t bothered listening to. He sighed and answered the call this time.
“Ave back to you, Marcus. When are you going to live in the current century?” Alexander sounded breathless as if running.
“I’m talking to you using a cell phone. Isn’t that modernized enough for you?” Marcus pinched the arch of his nose. “Besides, I knew it was you. You do still remember how to speak Latin, right?”
A grunt answered his question.
“What do you want?”
“Where are you?” Alexander shushed someone.
Marcus heard feminine voices giggling. His friend was engaged in physical activity, but it wasn’t running.
Marcus wondered why Alexander had called when he had better things to do than bother him. “At the north end of Milvio Bridge, heading to a bar. Why?” People hurried past Marcus, eager to reach the other side of the bridge, laughs and smiles and holding hands accompanying their passing. He slowed his pace to a halt, the familiar feeling of not belonging tugging at the edge of his thoughts.
“I’m not coming over.”
“But you’re practically in my courtyard. You can just call a cab—”
“I apologize, but I can’t even stand my own company tonight.”
“Well, I was going to throw you a party to welcome you back home, and I have company…” Several laughs could be heard before Alexander put his hand over the phone and whispered, “Would you be quiet for a moment?”
Marcus smiled. Alexander was a sharer. “I appreciate the thought, but I’ll pass.”
“Is there anything I can do to make you change your mind?”
“No, there isn’t.”
Disappointed words echoed from the other side of the call, and Alexander said loud enough for Marcus to hear, “No, I’m sorry, girls. He won’t be coming tonight,” in a lower tone, then, “Just give me a moment.” A door was opened and closed. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Next time.” Marcus stopped by the balustrade overlooking the river and leaned to rest his elbows on the marble surface. Only a few meters from there a whole world of entertainment awaited him, but he would have rather dived into the black waters and disappeared. “Bye—”
“Wait! I would have told you later after a good chalice of Brunello and maybe something else as well, but I have news for you.” Alexander’s voice was now the only sound coming through the speaker.
Marcus’s stomach clenched. “Did you find him?”
Alexander didn’t answer right away.
“Did you find him or not?”
Another long, wordless moment, then Alexander broke the silence. “I found the name of the vampire who was seen leaving your house the night Aurelia died. Listen, it could be a dead-end—”
“Who is he?” Marcus’s left hand grabbed the edge of the marble baluster, his knuckles as white as the cold material under them. Two thousand years of combing the seven seas, looking for the name of his wife’s murderer had finally borne the desired fruit. He should have felt exultant, but felt bereft instead.
“His name is Claudius and he is the sire of an entire nest.”
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know yet. My informant gave me the name only after I promised him I would grant him safety in case he needed it.” A knock on the door, and he answered they could serve dinner in five minutes.
Marcus’s blood had congealed around his heart, cold seeping through his body, spreading toward his limbs, and paralyzing him on the spot. “What’s the name of your informant?” Weariness regulating his actions, he released the hold on the marble and turned toward the city, forcing each movement to completion.
“I promised him he would be safe from us as well.”
“I won’t do him any harm. I promise.”
“I gave you my word.” He used his voice on Alexander, heard the loud sigh at the other end, and imagined his friend rolling eyes at him. “Even as a renegade, you know I’m a man of my word.”
“You’ve been playing the victim card too often lately. May I remind you it was you who gave the bird to the whole Immortal Council?”
“You may, but it doesn’t change the fact I was right.” Marcus’s temper rose inside of him, but he let out a long breath. Evoked by Alexander’s words, a distant memory played for him. Before voluntarily exiling himself from Rome, Marcus had been called to Castel Sant’Angelo, the Immortal Council headquarters. The year was fourteen ninety-two, the New World had been just discovered, and the paranormal society was trying to unify its ranks to survive. Renaissance was about to happen, but only humans had noticed. Paranormals were still living in the Dark Ages.
He wasn’t the only one in the big room, but somehow, he had the feeling the ten ancient immortals comprising the jury were talking only to him. “Immortals are required from now on to obey the appointed council’s new laws. There won’t be any form of personal revenge amongst immortals, were-shifters, vampires, faeries, elves, semi-gods, etc. All crimes will be prosecuted by an impartial tribunal. Open disregard to follow those rules will grant an individual the status of renegade. A renegade will have no status—”
Marcus had interrupted the session by explaining to them in great detail what they could do with their newly appointed laws. He had then sailed to the Americas and traveled the world ever since.
“Are you still there?” Alexander asked, bringing him back to the present.
He grunted his assent.
“How many times do I have to repeat the obvious? Under the Peace Pact’s laws, you cannot kill vampires without the Council’s approval.”
A long pause followed, but Marcus didn’t feel the need to fill the silence.
Alexander softly swore in Greek, then sighed. “I didn’t call you to fight.”
Marcus kept silent, but nodded. Since he had been shunned from his own species, Alexander had been the only one who had sided with him and plead Marcus’s case to the Council for his reinstatement.
“Anyway, my informant’s name is Virgil. But, Marcus, he contacted me earlier this afternoon asking to meet with him later tonight. He said he would be in need of a place to hide. That is why I’ve been trying to track you down.” A muffled voice cut Alexander at the end of the sentence and he yelled he was coming. He gave Marcus an address and the time of the appointment. “I’ll see you later.”
“Later.” Marcus was already running toward the Roman Forum—the informer had opted for a public place—the apathy he had felt a moment ago transformed into nervousness. He had three hours to spare, yet he feared he had no time. He could have driven to the Forum and chanced the parking-roulette around the historical center, but he needed the physical exertion to keep his dark thoughts at bay. Once or twice in the last two millennia, he had thought he had a lead on Aurelia’s killer, but nothing had come of it. Now, there was a testimony willing to talk. It couldn’t be a dead-end. The gods wouldn’t punish him further for his sins.
He followed the Tiber, his legs pumping through the humidity and heat of the late summer night. Amidst a chorus of “Get out of the way!” he merged into the bicycle track, and arrived at the Tiberina Island. There, he crossed the bridge to reach the Ghetto, then another breathless stretch toward Marcello Theater, and finally he saw the Vittoriano Mausoleum looming over Piazza Venezia. Rome was alive, celebrating a summer festival, and the square and nearby streets were crowded with pedestrians and cars fighting for the right of way. An orgy of sounds and colors met Marcus as he slowed his run. He was enveloped in the raw energy of the city, and any other time, he would have basked in it. During his voluntary exile from the eternal city, he had missed its magnetism, but now he wanted nothing more than to clear a path around it and find the man he was looking for.
Despite his desire, it took Marcus several minutes to navigate the square. Too many families with kids were strolling around, and he was conscious of his size and how people reacted to his presence. In his war days, being feared had equaled being respected by his soldiers, but the utility of it had expired long ago. Now, people squirming away from him was a reminder of how alone he was. A little boy peeked at him from over his father’s shoulder. Exasperated by the slow progress he had made, Marcus didn’t wait for the kid to start crying at the sight of the scar running over his left eye. He cut to the left and, without waiting for the light to become green for him, crossed the road, skirting the incoming traffic. The horns and swear words his action promptly elicited were drowned by a nearby open-air concert and the noises from the chanting crowd.
The Roman Forum was on his right. What was left of it was there, but Marcus had only to close his eyes to see it whole. The modern renditions of what the buildings might have looked like were accurate, but failed to depict the Forum’s true nature as the pulsating heart of Rome. He had met his friends there, discussed politics, and even planned some of his battles while strolling between the colonnades, seeking respite from the stiffness of his house. A scene played before his eyes—Aurelia in tears, breaking the precious pottery he had given her, plate by plate—reminding him how wretched his married life had been. He had decided not to remember the parts that pained him, but at the most inopportune times, they had a habit of haunting him. He swatted the memory away as he swatted the humidity clinging to his skin.
A metallic rail stood between Marcus and the Forum below. At first, he had questioned the informer’s decision to call a meeting at such a famous archeological site, but tonight, he could see why it could work. The place was so crowded nobody would have noticed a few people sneaking under the fence and entering the Forum. The Roman ruins were several meters below the street level from where he was standing, guaranteeing privacy from onlookers if he took care to remain in the shadows. Once down on the ancient road, the Forum continued toward the Coliseum, where anyone could safely exit the archeological site. The informer had chosen wisely.
Marcus looked right and left. Nobody looked back, and he raised the metallic mesh and slid under the fence. His shirt caught a broken chain from the mesh, and he heard the fabric rip, but didn’t slow down. Instead, once on the berm—the strip of eroded bricks barely large enough to contain the square heels of his boots—he prepared for the jump. He landed on his feet, knees slightly bent to absorb the impact. He kept to the wall, walking with his back to it to remain invisible. Everything was dimmed down there, the lights muted, even the sounds from the swelling crowd, that until a moment ago had surrounded Marcus, were dimmed. He welcomed the peace.
In the relative quiet, he could hear his heart thrumming against his chest and commanded it to slow down. On his right, several meters from where he was, he thought to have seen movement between two columns, but the space was partially hidden by a large portion of a collapsed wall. He squinted, then when he didn’t see anything, moved toward the columns, being careful to follow the shadows and not expose himself. A few minutes later, he crouched by the collapsed wall. Nobody was there, but a faint noise resonated to his left at the end of a paved road that once had led to the Rostra, the speakers’ platform decorated with prows of ships. Marcus followed the noise and was rewarded by the sight of heels rounding the corner.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered, “Virgil?” Hurried steps skated over the pebbles that covered what remained of the cobblestones paving the road. When the sounds moved away from him, Marcus swore under his breath. He took his cell phone from the rear pocket of his jeans and dialed Alexander’s mobile number.
As soon as Alexander took the call, Marcus hurried to say, in the lowest voice he could manage, “I don’t think your informant wants to talk to me.”
On the other side, the party was still in full swing, judging from the loud merrymaking almost covering Alexander’s words. “What did you do?”
“Nothing. I’ve just arrived. I think it’s better if you hurry up.” Marcus ended the call and crouched lower, attuning his ears to any sound betraying the informant’s whereabouts. For several seconds nothing moved, then one of the many stray cats roaming through the Forum angrily hissed and jumped off the top section of a leaning column, landing over the metal lid of a garbage can. A second cat joined the ruckus, and then a third. The felines weren’t fighting against each other; they were, in fact, retreating from the scene. Masked by the hissing before, soft cries and harsh words could now be heard. Marcus rounded the corner and hid behind a brick wall, then slowly leaned toward the edge until he could take a look at what was happening on the other side. Two men were holding a small body on the ground. A third man was restraining a fourth with manacles that sparkled of a silvery light.
The man being restrained was fighting the other, but didn’t seem to make any progress toward freeing himself. A moment later, he was on his knees. “Don’t hurt her. I’m the one responsible for this.”
“You know it doesn’t work that way.” The third man pushed the beggar on the ground as well.
“I’m so sorry, my love—”
The third man hit the beggar hard with a baton that also sparkled silver under the night sky. The small form on the ground cried softly, then moved, revealing a shaven head that belonged to a young woman.
One of the two men holding the woman forced her down again. The beggar screamed.
The man, his hands now around the girl’s neck, turned toward the beggar. “You should’ve known better than trying to turn her against nest’s rules, Virgil.”
Nest. Virgil. Vampires. Marcus ran into the melee without thinking. Those men couldn’t kill his informant. The vampires saw him at the last moment as Marcus was already grabbing the beggar’s arms to pull him away. He left the dazed vampire by a marble step, then turned to confront the one who had been at Virgil’s side. Marcus knew how to deal with vampires and went for his chest, but the man had anticipated his move and dropped to the ground before he could grab him. The other two vampires soon joined the fight, flanking him at both sides, with the third frontally hitting him. The odds weren’t in his favor, but it wasn’t Marcus’s first encounter with their race, and it wasn’t his first fight. He dropped as well, extended his leg, and kicked the one on his right side on his exposed ribs, and the one on his left in the groin. He spun and administered a series of roundhouse hits on all their vital parts, and finally leaned over and head-butted the third vampire.
Marcus’s cell phone rang in the middle of a punch he was delivering to the vampire’s jaw. The sound distracted him long enough for his enemy to move right and avoid the blow. As a result, he was punched under the chin instead. He didn’t see who had hit him, but the vamp had a strong upper jab and an equally strong lower jab. Marcus was thrown backward, kicks and punches raining over him. He hit a hard surface with the back of his head, and everything went black before his eyes.
“Who’s this fool? A friend of yours, Virgil?”
“I mean, I knew you were an idiot, but involving an immortal in nest quarrels? Seriously?”
“I don’t know who this man is.”
Air whooshed to Marcus’s right, the sick sound of a hard surface making contact with another resonated in the air, then the beggar, Virgil, cried, “I swear. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Do you think Claudius will think that it’s just a coincidence an immortal was strolling by tonight, here, of all places?”
Another sound slashed through the night, Virgil moaned, but never uttered a word.
“Let’s finish him.”
Marcus’s sight cleared and he saw the third vampire tying a silver cord around Virgil’s neck. The man pulled the loose ends of the cord with his gloved hands and Virgil’s eyes, nose, and mouth bleed a dark, viscous liquid. Marcus jumped on his feet and barreled through, dislodging the cord from the vampire’s hands. He grabbed the cord and in a swift movement, circled it around the attacker’s neck, and pulled until the silver went through first the skin, then the sinews, and finally the bones. One last pull and the vampire’s head fell from his body. Being a renegade had its perks. He wasn’t subjected to the Peace Pact’s laws that would have required him to incapacitate his attackers and forbade him to kill them. He stepped back and watched as the body exploded in a fine mist.
Meanwhile, Virgil, freed from the restraining silver, had managed to incapacitate the second vampire by pressing the manacles over his attacker’s eyes. Marcus made a lasso out of the silver cord and directed his attention to the remaining attacker. Swinging the lasso in a large arch, he caught the man at chest-height on the second try and pulled the trussed-up vampire closer to him. Then he let the cord rise to the man’s neck and closed it tight around it to decapitate him as well. Marcus was tired and his hands were covered in blood. It took longer this second time to get the job done. When he finally admired his handiwork on the ground, his upper body ached, and he barely moved out of the way when the corpse disintegrated.
“I need some help here.” Virgil was struggling to keep his hold on the last vampire.
The vampire was blind and in terrible pain, but he was resisting Virgil’s efforts to disable him. Marcus marched toward them and laid one booted foot over the vampire on the ground to keep him down while Virgil finished him. Without notice, the girl screamed. The sound, coming from something so small, was frightening. Virgil left his prey and ran to her side. Not impaired by the silver manacles, the vampire hit Marcus behind his right knee and toppled him over and away from him. The girl screamed again, this time louder. A blink of an eye later, the vampire was gone.
Marcus turned to Virgil. “You.” He walked the three steps dividing them and stopped to tower over the vampire cradling the girl on his lap. “You owe me a few answers.”
Despite the closeness, the vampire didn’t seem to notice Marcus’s presence. Then, he raised his head to look at him. “Promise me you’ll save her.”
Marcus fought the urge to laugh. “I don’t make promises to your race.”
“She’s innocent.” Virgil stroked the girl’s temple and shushed her as if she were a child.
Something primal awoke in him at the sight, but Marcus pushed it away. “Not my problem.”
“Please—” Virgil’s head dropped to his chest, his hair covering his face like a dark curtain.
Marcus crouched down, put a finger under the vampire’s chin, and pushed it up until their eyes met. “Tell me where Claudius lives.”
“You have to promise you’ll take care of her.” Virgil’s eyes were glassy, his words slurred.
“What’s wrong with you?” Marcus’s hands shot to the vampire’s chest where black blood oozed out from a wound. “Stay with me! You must tell me where Claudius is.” He tore Virgil’s shirt aside to reveal a silver dagger stuck to the hilt in his heart. “Don’t you dare die.” His fingers probed the edge of the wound, and the vampire barely moaned. Throwing caution to the wind, he dug inside to remove the dagger, but only cut himself on the blade. Screaming in pain and frustration, he redoubled his attempts, but couldn’t dislodge the weapon. In the distance, steps could be heard approaching.
“Marcus!” Alexander came running, only to stop before him. “What happened?”
Marcus looked down at the dying vampire in his arms and felt rage growing inside of him and threatening to explode. He pushed the man on the ground, stood on unsteady legs, and backed away from him several steps before looking at his friend. “Where were you?”
Alexander passed his hand over his jaw, then through his short, blond hair. “Looking for you.”
Virgil emitted a low, choked sound, and his chest heaved and expanded. Marcus and Alexander moved away at once, but weren’t distant enough when the vampire exploded, covering them in matter that soon transformed into ashes.
“It always stings.” Alexander dusted his face with the hem of his white shirt, leaving a dirty smear on the fabric. Several burnt marks dotted his skin.
Marcus didn’t bother trying to clean himself. Nothing less than a hot, long shower would do the trick anyway. The girl cried and he looked down at the corner where she was curled up and shaking.
“What is this?” Alexander was at her side before Marcus. He bent over the girl and gently pried her hands away from her face, then swore a long streak of profanities in Greek. “A vampling—”
Marcus pushed away Alexander and examined the girl for the telltale signs of a freshly turned vampire. “For Jupiter’s Jewels.”
Alexander followed Marcus. “Someone will come to claim her.” He made to turn and leave.
Marcus took him by the elbow. “They were going to kill her.”
“From what I understood, she was turned against the nest’s approval.”
Alexander took another step away from the scene, his face turned toward the exit by the Coliseum’s side. “We can’t be involved in the nest’s business.”
Marcus applied pressure on his hold. “She might know where Claudius lives.”
“It’s a terrible idea.”
“If we leave her here, she’ll die.” Marcus pointed at the girl who had curled up again and was trembling so hard, he couldn’t help walking back to her and laying a hand on her shoulder to calm her. The girl reacted to his touch by leaning into it.
Alexander shook his head. “No. It’s one thing to be looking for Aurelia’s murderer to bring him to justice. It’s another to get involved in the vampire’s politics.”
“She might be the only chance I’ll ever get to catch him.”
“You’ve waited two thousand years. There will be other leads.” Alexander raised his hands in the air and walked away.
Marcus left the girl to reach Alexander and stopped in front of him. “I can’t wait anymore.” He shrugged. “I won’t live like this a day longer.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Alexander placed both hands on Marcus’s shoulders and shook him hard. “You’ll catch this Claudius, and we’ll see him sentenced for his crime.”
“I never meant to bring him to justice.” Marcus sighed at his friend’s dismayed look. “Come on. You must have known my intentions when I had my status rescinded.”
Alexander removed his hands from his shoulders and took a step back. “You can’t go against the Council.”
“The Council doesn’t have to know. I intend to be discreet.” Marcus tilted his head toward the girl on his back. “You weren’t here.”
“What the heck…?” Alexander closed his eyes and sighed. “I can’t let her die anyway.”
“I’ll help her find a safe place somewhere.”
“If anyone saw me coming here, I arrived too late and missed you.”
“Which is not far from the truth.” Marcus waved him away.
Alexander pointed a finger at Marcus, gave him one last warning look, sighed again, then finally left, sprinting away.
“What am I going to do with you?” Marcus stared at the shaking form that resembled a lost stray. “You must collaborate, little thing.” He bent and slid his arms under her back to pick her up.
The girl didn’t resist; she barely seemed aware of what was happening around her, but cried when he lifted her. She weighed nothing in his arms, and from what he could see, her body was covered in bruises. The most prominent ones were around her neck, where the vampire had tried to strangle her, but her skin was marred all the way under her blouse. The long-sleeved garment was made of heavy cotton, almost as thick as the type used to make pants and was seasonally inappropriate. The sight of it made Marcus sweat, but he cradled her to his chest and started walking toward the exit, hoping nobody was wandering around.
He maintained a slow pace and traveled several meters of park before he was stopped in his tracks by soft murmuring nearby. The exit was just ahead of him. The sounds changed tone and became unmistakably intimate. With the corner of his eye, Marcus caught a head peeking out from behind a nearby ruin. A man in his twenties gave him the international sign to move away. Marcus nodded, a half-smile on his mouth, and complied with the request, leaving the Forum behind in a few steps. Out of the gate, he adjusted her body to give the impression he was carrying his girlfriend on his back, her head gently leaning on his shoulder. He wished she had long hair to cover her face from onlookers.
“Hope you’re a good actress, little thing.” With as much gentleness as he could muster, he angled her head with her mouth at his neck.
Once on the main street, he was soon swept away by the festive crowd. It was well past midnight, but Rome never slept. He maintained the slow, measured pace throughout the stroll back home, and once in a while leaned his head to the side and whispered small nonsenses. It took him several hours to reach his destination, but he didn’t have to stop again or seek lonely alleys to escape curiosity. He caught a few double takes, looking first at the girl and then at him. For the most part, the men winked at him and the women gave him unreadable looks, but nobody seemed alarmed.
The sun was rising when he opened the door to his home, a building he had bought for Aurelia as a one-story villa when he was courting her in imperial Rome. He wanted to impress her father, the freshly elected consul who thought a centurion wasn’t enough for his daughter, and worked with the architect to ensure their nuptial bedroom would face the riverbank. There, he had anchored the ship he had named after her so it could be seen from the house. Aurelia had squealed in delight at the sight of the large boat decorated with flowers. They had spent their first night together on the ship several months before the wedding.
Several centuries later, he had bought the house a second time as a four-story palazzo in the heart of a renaissance city. At that time, almost nothing of the original Roman villa remained, and yet on a wall, poorly hidden beneath a layer of decaying stucco, he found the carving he had made with the initials of his name and Aurelia’s intertwined. The image of his wife scraping out her initial with a ring he had given her was too much to bear, so he had run away. And, despite the fact he knew other memories would haunt him as soon as he stepped foot inside that house, he had bought it again just recently when Alexander had told him the vampire he had been looking for all his life might be in Rome.
He closed the door with his hip and slid the girl to his front. “Forgive me, Aurelia.” This girl was the first woman he had ever brought home.
To Be Continued…