Legions Of Fire – Snippet 30

He turned his hands up as if to show that they were empty, then said, “And lest you ask, I didn’t remember a single one of the astrological alignments when I awakened — only that they had been convincing.”

“Have you come far?” the old woman asked. Her voice was as thin and dry as the rustling wing cases of cicadas.

“Mistress,” Varus said. “I’m in the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest. I haven’t travelled at all.”

She laughed like silver chimes in place of the cracked tittering he had expected. “Do you think so, Gaius Varus?” she said, reaching out with her right hand. “Come with me and we’ll see what you say then.”

Varus took the woman’s hand in his left. Her skin was like thin vellum, and the bones within were as fine as a bat’s. In the vault of the temple his body stood silently, touching the ancient stone box and gripping the ivory head beneath his toga.

“My wife Claudia is an estimable woman,” Priscus said, “but she’s more superstitious than a kitchen maid just up from the country with her love potions and beauty creams. This is the sort of thing I’d expect to hear from her.”

No one spoke. Priscus sighed and went on, “And I suppose if Claudia does describe that sort of dream to me in the future, I’d better listen to her. Since I believe you, my friend.”

The commissioner’s voice trailed off, and the four figures in the vault faded into grayness. Varus and the old woman stood where they were, but fog rolled like a torrent beneath them. Low, blue-gray hills on the horizon swept toward them. From the top of one boiled the fog which covered the world beneath.

“That’s Vesuvius,” Varus said. Who was the woman? Her fingers rested as lightly on his as a perching butterfly. “We visited Baiae when I was a child, my sister and I and our nurses.”

He’d seen his father in Baiae one afternoon. He’d seen Saxa only rarely until he’d started secondary schooling when he was twelve.

“I remember Vesuvius, the smoke coming up all day,” he said. “Just like that.”

“Smoke, you say?” said the old woman. “Watch, Gaius Varus!”

The top of the cone lifted off with a shuddering roar. Fireballs shot skyward, and a phalanx of lava gushed in all directions. The liquid rock was as orange as flame, but a sulfurous yellow haze hung over it.

“Watch!” the old woman repeated in her terrible voice.

Lava splashed and spread like water from a downspout. It reached an olive grove. The trunks of individual trees shattered as the rock lapped them. Severed branches fell onto the surface of the flow and were carried along by it. They blazed and dissolved until only black outlines remained, distorting slowly as the rock spread onward.

“Who are you?” Varus said. Though he shouted, no human voice could have been heard over the volcano’s constant crashing thunder.

A flock of sheep grazed on the middle slope of the cone. They blatted at the oncoming lava; then, individually and in pairs, they turned and began trotting downhill. The shepherd and his two dogs stared in wonder for a further moment, then followed the sheep.

“Who?” Varus repeated.

The woman laughed. The cowl covered her face almost completely, but he saw the gleam of her eyes. “Who I am isn’t important,” she said. “I’m too old to be important. You’re the only thing that’s important, Gaius Varus, because you’re the only one who can stop this.”

The shepherd and his flock reached the edge of a knob, then froze in horror: bubbling lava had circled the knob to either side, racing ahead of man and sheep and closing to trap them. The shepherd threw up his hands. His dogs yapped and made short rushes but the glare of the rock drove them back each time.

“How do I stop it?” Varus shouted. “No one can stop it!”

The lava surged forward to cover the knob. The animals in its path, sheep and dogs and man, gouted steam an instant before their dried remnants burned in a bone-devouring fire.

“Only you, Varus!” the old woman cried. “And if not you, then no one!”

They had risen to a great height. The world was a globe, and fire was engulfing it. Varus saw the figures of squat demons with bodies of flame climbing from the pit of Vesuvius. They marched outward shoulder to shoulder, igniting animals and trees and the very soil itself into black ash which the blazing rock then covered.

Varus pointed to the fire demons. He was shouting, but he couldn’t understand his own words.

“You or no one!” said the old woman, and Varus awakened. His friend Corylus was shaking him back to his senses.

* * *

Corylus felt uncomfortable. The air in the vault was still, but the lamp flames twisting at the corner of his eyes made it seem that the gryphon heads were moving. He clasped his hands behind his back to keep from twitching toward a spear or a sword hilt.

“I don’t see that this brings us any closer to being able to examine the Books, though,” Priscus said. “I already trusted you, and your dream visit from an Egyptian isn’t going to help sway the Senate. I –”

“And then a great river of blazing fire will flow outward,” someone shrieked. The voice was that of an ancient woman, but it came from Varus’ lips.

He stood with one hand spread on the stone casket and other gripping the object he’d brought from where it hung on a thong beneath his toga. Corylus saw the wink of age-yellowed ivory within the cylinder of his friend’s fingers.

“It will devour every place, land and great ocean and gleaming sea,” cried the voice. “Lakes and rivers and springs, the implacable Underworld and the heavenly vault — all will be consumed!”

Varus’ stern, set expression reminded Corylus of a statue of a young Stoic facing execution. His eyes blazed, and his throat swelled with the power of the voice that issued from it. Corylus hadn’t seen him take a breath since he started his declamation.

Pandareus watched intently; Priscus stood transfixed, his face pale and without expression. Temple servants ringed the opening of the vault, staring down in a mixture of terror and confusion.

“All the souls of men will gnash their teeth, burning in a river,” cried Varus’ lips. “The world is brimstone and a rush of fire and a blazing plain, and ashes will cover all!”

Varus was swaying. Corylus made an instant decision — he didn’t know what was happening, so he went to his friend. He took Varus by the left wrist and the right shoulder, shifting him back from the casket and the light.

“Varus!” he said. “Wake up!”

Varus slumped. His body had been rigid; now if Corylus hadn’t had his arms around him, he would have fallen to the floor of fitted stone blocks. His flesh was icy despite the warmth of the vault.

“Lord Priscus!” called Balaton from the nave of the temple. “Should we come down?”

Corylus glanced up, caught the servant’s eyes, and dipped his chin in negation. They didn’t need more people down here at the moment.

Priscus took a deep breath. “Pandareus, you sly devil!” he said. “How did he do that? How did you do that?”

“Not me, old friend,” said Pandareus. His smile was slight, but despite the pressure of events it was real. “And I don’t know precisely what Lord Varus did either. But I thought that if I brought him near the Books, perhaps something would happen.”

Varus straightened. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely to Corylus. He squeezed his hand before they stepped apart. Probably they both were a little embarrassed; Corylus certainly was.

They faced the older men. “Sirs,” Varus said. “I dreamed the way I did during my reading, but it wasn’t the same this time. I saw Vesuvius erupting.”

He lowered his eyes and whispered, “It was terrible. Everything burned. People burned.”

“So we gathered from what you recited to us, boy,” Priscus said. He shook his head in wonder. “Do you remember that?”

“No sir,” Varus said. “I didn’t know what I was saying during the reading, either. What they tell me, what Corylus and Master Pandareus tell me I was saying.”

“Sir?” said Corylus, holding the commissioner’s eyes. He was angry at being kept in the dark, because that was what it amounted to. Though he tried to control it, his tone was marginally stiffer than he should have been using while speaking to a venerable and exceptionally learned senator. “Please? What is there about what Varus said that made you ask Master Pandareus how he did it?”

Priscus glanced at Pandareus, but before the teacher could respond he turned to the youths again. He gave them a crooked smile.