The black-clad figure slipped between trees and bushes under the darkness of night. The moon was hidden behind a sky filled with menacing clouds. Rabbits and field mice scattered from the hurrying figure, but not until he was close upon them. His stealth and speed were the attributes that won him this mission; not to mention the history he had with his contact.
He floated over the fields and woods of the Italian countryside on his trek to Rome. He followed the Via Flaminia, the main road north out of Rome, at a distance to further hide his tracks. He crouched behind a large tree as he heard distant sounds he could not identify. Holding his breath as the wisps of his last breath dissolved into the cold night air, his eyes darted for any sign of movement. The night, an enemy itself, stabbed at his face and eyes. Searching for anyone following him, friendly or not, he tried to remain as still as the tree protecting him. This was a dangerous mission and he could not afford to be caught. He needed to pass on his information.
They have found him, he thought again to himself. It doesn’t make sense. Why now?
He watched closely as the greenery waved to him in the wind. In the moonlight he saw the mausoleums lining the Via Flaminia, blue and cold, immovable in the wind. Rome was a city that believed the dead should not be buried within its walls. So, every main street out of the city was lined with mausoleums housing those who were respected. His path to life was shrouded in death.
Seeing nothing to alarm him and hearing the only the biting wind of the night, he ventured on toward the great city looming on the horizon. He tightened his cloak against the cold, spring air and continued at a brisk pace. The sooner he could deliver his message the sooner he could return home.
How do we know this information is even correct, he raged to himself. Senefann is taking too great a risk. And where is this information coming from? A spy, perhaps? Certainly a traitor of some kind. Traitors, by definition, cannot be trusted.
He remembered telling Senefann, his tribal superior, “It is foolish to get involved in the plans and practices of the Gershenah.” For centuries he and his people had hidden themselves from the Gershenah’s intent to dominate mankind. What makes this one man special enough to risk interference, he wondered.
“It has always been our charge to aid mankind”, Senefann had said plainly. “Whether we help them survive against the Gershenah or themselves, the task remains.”
“We have been isolated for so long, why do we need to get involved now? Why do I need to get involved? Let him resist the Gershenah on his own as fate dictates.” He was very animated in his pleas to stay out of the fight. Had they learned nothing from the last fight, the Great Civil War?
After all, we helped create those that call themselves Gershenah, he remembered soberly. It is my fault as much as anyone’s.
Rome began to loom larger and fiercer, nestled on its seven hills. In the early morning hours before dawn, drovers were herding their livestock toward the city for the market day. Dodging prying eyes became more difficult and time consuming. Once inside the city gates, it would become easier to move around unnoticed. The task would then become harder. Where was his contact hiding these days?
He paused as a wagon carrying vegetables passed close by. Remaining unseen, he headed for the gate. His strategy for stealth changed as he mingled with merchants waiting to enter the city to sell their wares. He only hoped there were no Gershenah agents hiding among the merchants.
Normal and casual, he reminded himself as he tried to blend in. It serves nothing to be captured now.
The sun broke the night and the light brought increased activity around the city. He slowed his pace and improvised a limp for good measure. As long as he could make it to the gate without speaking or being spoken to, he greatly increased his chances of success. Who knows how many Gershenah are watching for this kind of interference? Are they even still watching? We have been silent for centuries. Do they still see us as a threat to their new way of life?
Thinking about the Gershenah was something he had not done for several hundred years, and for the last six days he had thought of little else. Those renegade immortals that spurned the teachings and commands of their creator ventured into human society to conquer and control. The end of the Great Civil War that forever split the immortal world replayed in his mind over and again. The Gershenah left behind the crumbled and broken Fenkheti, the immortals that lost the war. They were an immortal community ripped in two. Brothers, fathers, mothers and sisters torn apart as ideologies differed concerning their controversial creator.
I should have been banished along with the rest of the fighters he thought.
The Fenkheti that were military leaders in the war against their brothers were banished. They were condemned to fight the Gershenah alone without the assistance or acknowledgement of those they represented, those they protected.
The gate drew near and the market day bustle was heavy. Good, he thought. His limp ensured that passersby would give him a wide berth and keep to themselves. A limp was a non-specific symptom that sent a simple message: steer clear.
As the guards looking over the wagons and herds entering the city spotted him, he could feel their penetrating eyes on him. They stood several meters in front of the gate, the Porta Fontinalis, which was the closest gate to the Forum in the Servian Wall. Armed guards were forbidden to enter the pomerium, the sacred area around the city of Rome that was protected by the divine spirit Roma. There must be real upheaval in the city for this demonstration of might.
Are these real guards or hidden Gershenah? He wrapped his hand tightly on the hilt of the sword he had stashed under his cloak.
“Hold!” the larger of the soldiers said. He stopped immediately, head lowered, not raising his alert gaze higher than the armored legs of the soldier who approached him. He could hear the creaking of the cheek pieces in the hinge on the monteforino helmet. Only legionaries wore helmets like these.
“Out of the way, old man”, the legionary grunted and shoved the messenger aside, heading for another man behind him. Letting his held breath escape slowly, he moved on slowly towards the city, limp still in place. He stumbled as he walked past the younger guard, who reflexively took a small step backwards. He smiled to himself and shuffled through the gate and into the city.
Now, where can I find that old fool?
The sunlight pulled the shadows back from their lengthy trail as the day progressed. He carefully made his way through the busy Forum. This was the market day, which happened every nine days. It seemed as if every Roman needed to purchase something that day. With the sun higher in the sky, the grime and detritus of the city streets were much more evident. The islands of weeds that sprang up in the cobbled cracks of the streets brought some refreshing color to the monotonous hues of the dirt and straw littering the ground. The glorious days of the city, the triumph of engineering, lay forgotten and lost on the people who lived here.
He moved outside the Forum and searched through the streets looking for any sign of his contact. His route took him through several temples, government buildings and apartment courtyards in the heart of the city. This is going to take longer than I thought, he said to himself in resignation.
The shadows stretched to the other side of the city. Twilight was coming and he was no closer to finding his man than when he started. The flow of people; slaves and freedmen, nobles and plebs, had not diminished. At this time of the day, most of that traffic was heading towards the brothels and taverns. It would be difficult to search the brothels for his man, if he even indulged such trivialities. It was better to look in the wine establishments first.
He searched one tavern after another and found little in the way of evidence. He received several glances of appraisal, presumably from thieves, and quickly fled the scene. No wonder these backward people need our help, he thought as he remembered the instructions to all the immortals before the Great Civil War; help the humans, be an aid to them, save them from themselves. Oh yes, how they needed it.
It was hard to believe these people had the power to destroy the harmony of his peaceful village. Thousands of immortals were born and raised, living contentedly, away from the world of men and their problems. The creator taught them to be wise and thoughtful, always offering to assist mankind in their time of need. It was these teachings that eventually destroyed the fabric of their community. The Gershenah felt that with the superior power and knowledge the immortals possessed, a life of quiet assistance to a weaker race was ludicrous. This was why the war started - between those who wanted to follow the teachings of the creator and those who did not. After the Gershenah claimed victory, they set out on their own. The beaten Fenkheti banished those warriors who lost them the war, and became a nomadic tribe. The Fenkheti leadership council did not care that they were essentially disobeying the creator in the same way as the Gershenah. Fenkheti desired peace and to be left alone, Gershenah wanted to dominate and rule mankind. Only mankind was watching out for its own interests.
He entered the last tavern in the Subura, the slum area of the city. It was no different from the many he had already explored. The light was dim, the women were scandalously dressed and the tables served as gambling centers. The wine flowed and the men were collectively drunk and merry. Their moods made his seem graver. The bar was filled to capacity with filthy bodies and loud clamorous carousing. Prostitutes wandered the mob looking for work. Servers moved tirelessly through the throng selling wine and stealing sips where they could.
As he stood in the doorway looking in, he saw his contact. The man he assumed was his goal was face-down on a table, hand clenching a wine cup. He was sharing the table with a rowdy dice game. Several men were around him, laughing and pointing.
“Go on, he won’t feel a thing”, one of the men slurred as he pushed another toward the unconscious drunkard. The man he pushed was thin and gangly, hardly worth the clothes he wore. He stank of stale and fresh wine mixed with the odor of the unwashed.
The gangly man stumbled through the crowd. From the doorway, the messenger watched as he slowly slid his hand into the pouch of the unconscious man on the table. The thief retrieved a few coins and raised them up in triumph, to the great delight of his cheering audience.
The messenger took a step toward the thief who again plunged his hand into the pouch of his mark. This time however, the thin arm jerked violently as the unconscious man became quickly animated and took hold of the robber with both hands. In one swift motion, he bent the thief over, arm wrapped around his back, and threw him into the group of bystanders to their utmost entertainment. Many fell but a few remained standing on shaken legs. This was not very amusing, but at least the messenger had identified his man. And he was recognized as well.
He stepped over to the table and stood facing the now awake and lively looking thug. The two men faced each other, ignored by everyone in the room. The look of importance on his face was evident to the drunk. The malice the look returned was penetrating and he was momentarily speechless. The rabble in the room increased their din and clamor as the two men surveyed each other.
The drunkard was young and well built. His muscles could be seen stacked beneath his dirty tunic. He was bronze in color and his short, tight, curly hair was matted, standing up in unnatural places, presumably from passing out on the table. His eyes were a piercing grey, reminiscent of the goddess Minerva. Romans thought anyone with grey eyes was bestowed with wisdom from the great goddess. The messenger knew this to be absolutely true.
“Salve, General”, he began before his jaw was violently knocked to his right as the drunkard swung and hit true. The impact sent him to the soiled floor. Picking himself up to the fascinated silence of the room, he locked gazes with his attacker, his contact. Without breaking his stare, he wiped the blood from his split lip. The crowd roared suddenly as one organism in its bloodlust, encouraging the fighters to continue dueling.
“Good to see you again, too”, he whispered before he threw a punch back at the general. The drunkard stumbled back, barely escaping the thrust of the punch. As he continued forward after failing to land his attack, the drunkard again swung his stone fist. He staggered, dazed after the second strike. With one hand on his shoulder, the other on the right side of his head, the drunkard used the continued forward motion to swing him into the back wall, sending him to the floor in a crumpled mess. The drunkard lost his balance and collapsed onto a table of burly drinkers. They jumped to their feet and threw punches back toward the violator.
The messenger shook his head to regain composure and focus, and looked back to see that the general had started another fight. He saw his opportunity to tackle the man and talk some sense into him before either of them hurt anyone. He leaped towards his target.
The general stepped to the side and he landed squarely in the middle of a table occupied by much larger men. In the ensuing melée benches were thrown and cups of wine bounced off the walls. Oil lamps were broken on the floor, with little fires springing up here and there. It was then that the proprietor began throwing people out of the tavern.
The fight spilled into the dark streets of the city. The general grabbed the messenger and dragged him away from the fracas. He stumbled and the general propped him up and half-carried him down the street and into an even darker alley.
“Come on, old friend”, the general said and heaved him against the wall. Once he was able to stand on his own, the general slapped him to bring him around.
“Ka’Tewet. Wake up”.
He slowly opened his eyes again and focused on the general once more. “I think you could have found a better way of getting some privacy, Friend.”
“And miss the chance to bloody an old warrior, even one as treacherous as you?” the drunkard stated without the slightest hint of intoxication.
“General”, he began.
“Don’t call me that. Those days are long gone.”
Ka’Tewet nodded, understanding that the days were indeed long gone, centuries gone. “What are you calling yourself these days?”
“Priscus. Nestor Priscus.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means you had better tell me what you’re doing here”, Priscus said.
Licking his swollen lip again, he breathed in a rhythmic, controlled fashion to alleviate his rising anger. “The Gershenah have found him”, he said.
“Found him”, Priscus began and stopped. He stepped away from his old friend and stared at the street’s opposite wall for several moments.
Ka’Tewet thought he knew what his general of old was thinking. If they’ve found the heir, then they have found her, the general’s reason for living…
“As far as I know, they have only located him, the heir, and no one else. And they haven’t taken possession”, he ventured. “How they hunted him down, we don’t know, but they still seem intent on having the prophecy in their fold.”
“It never was a prophecy, just a supposition from an old man. Sedjet wasn’t always the best at reading deeper than the surface”, Priscus stated.
“Still calling himself that is he?”
“Neser Sedjet, the scourge of the human world, self-appointed god of the Gershenah. Surprised?” Priscus asked with a smile.
Neser Sedjet had given himself this name after he claimed victory in the Great Civil War that forever changed the isolated village of immortals many centuries before. The name itself, in the language of the early immortals, translates The Burning Flame. The arrogance of Sedjet was only matched by his skill in keeping his men in line, by whatever means necessary, usually violent.
“I assume the Shebikem will pursue the heir and deliver him to Senefann for protection”, he said.
The Shebikem were those war leaders banished by the Fenkheti, the elite few the Fenkheti tapped to defend them against Sedjet and his Gershenah army. When those Shebikem warriors lost the war, the Fenkheti leadership council banished them as punishment for their loss. Meanwhile, the thousands of surviving immortals left behind after the departure of the Gershenah coined the title Fenkheti for themselves.
“If the Fenkheti want the heir, then you apprehend him. If the Shebikem find him, we’ll use him to bring that wicked Lifeblood down. Who is the heir and where do I find him?”
From the very beginning of their existence, the immortals had called themselves Lifebloods. They weren’t men or women. They were a creation that was greater and capable of so much more than mere mortals. No one remembered where the term came from or who started it, but all eventually accepted the label and made it their own. Every immortal, Fenkheti and Gershenah alike, proudly wore the badge of Lifeblood.
“Priscus, we need to know what this is all about. There must be more to this than just having the heir in his possession. We need to know what is so special about him.”
“Special? If Sedjet wants him, he has something that Sedjet needs. That makes him bait”, Priscus said smiling. “When Sedjet finds the heir, he’ll find me with him.”
“Good. Then you can ask him what this is all about”, he said. Priscus looked at him and clapped him on the shoulder. Reassured, he told Priscus where to find the heir, the last born immortal, in the city of Rome.
“So it begins again”, Priscus breathed.
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Genre – Urban Fantasy
Rating – PG13
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