"This thing reeks worse than Pisky's socks", muttered KayEm, holding her nose as the stench of decomposition reached her sensitive nostrils.
"Worse !", muttered the pixy, leaning down and prodding the creature with a stick. "What the feck is this thing anyway ?"
They were grouped around a greyish coloured creature which somewhat resembled a large Great Dane, that is if you ingored the scaly skin and long
spikes ranged along its spinal column. The legs were long and muscular, ending in almost handlike appendages, each digit of which sported a wicked
Valerius shook his head. "Fook knows", he said, "its not normal anyway".
LadyCool was standing beside KayEm, her eyes fixed on the rotting corpse lying not three feet from her. "I seem to remember something like this",
she said, her face creased in concentration. Then she muttered an obsecenity and crossed her arms, "Sod it - I can't remember".
Helena's face was white as she regarded the animal with undisguised disgust. "Is this the one that attacked Claudia ?", she asked no-one in
particular. "It just seems smaller".
"That's the one", Caligula replied, "It looks a lot smaller lying here, but believe me, when it was slashing out at us with its claws, it seemed a
damn sight bigger".
Pisky crouched down and lifted its head. "Look at these fecking fangs !", he exclaimed, "Bigger than that hound of yours, LC". The teeth were
pencil thin and extremely sharp and at almost five inches long, they made Phoebe's own canines look pitifully inadequate.
The dog growled her annoyance and stalked away, rapidly followed by Pillywiggin.
"How did Augustus die ?"
Helena had tears in her eyes and her voice came as if from a long distance. Caligula turned and a look of pain crossed his face for a moment before he
controlled himself and replaced it with one of haughty superiority.
"Someone found fresh tracks", he explained, "Augustus and Actaeonis went out to see if they could find where its lair was. I tried to reason with
him, but he refused to be swayed. I told him that I would accompany them, but was ordered to wake the legion and wait for his return". Caligula
sighed then reached out and took hold of Helena's right hand. "When they hadn't returned after an hour I took a troop to look for them. We met
Actaeonis on the way back. He told us that they had come across the beast feasting on a dead sheep and Augustus had decided to attack it while it was
distracted. It didn't work and he was fatally injured. Actaeonis was badly gashed but managed to escape. When we reached the place Augustus was
killed, we saw ..."
Helena pulled away and, sobbing bitterly, rushed away.
Sadness crossed Caligula's face. "I would never have ..." Then he turned to the Praetorian beside him. "Burn that" he commanded, and strode away
in the same direction as Helena.
LadyCool, Sarah and Asala sat against the outside of the villa indulging in an amphora of wine. They were all somewhat relaxed and heading to early
inebriation when LadyCool leaped to her feet, staggered a little as the wine took affect, then headed towards where Pisky and KayEm were talking to a
serious looking man dressed in a red tunic and sporting a large bandage on his right arm..
"Eureka !!!", LadyCool shouted as she reached the group.
"Wrong language", grinned Pisky.
"Arse that, pixy-brain !", came the reply, "I know where I saw one of those things before"
"It doesn't exist" LadyCool explained, "Neither does 'De Vermis Mysteriis', despite what the producers of 'Hellboy' would like us to
"So where in fex name did you see it ?"
"ATS of course" LadyCool put her hands on her hips and grinned. "Actually, it was a link from an ATS thread"
"So what is it ?", KayEm asked, intrigued.
"El Chupacabra", LadyCool inclined her head and made a small bow.
For once the pixy didn't have a sarcastic reply to hand.
"You saw it", LadyCool explained as her three companions digested the information, "Especially those spikes on its back. Its an exact pic of the
one I saw on the net, and that
was supposed to be based on eyewitness accounts".
"But there's a problem with that", said KayEm, "Chupacabra are seen only in central America, although there have
been reports of them as
far as California".
"Well, they must be on holiday then", LadyCool replied with a smile, "Because that
is a chupacabra. Pity I couldn't see it before
was killed. That would have been cool".
"You may get the chance", the pixy replied, "Actaeonis here tells us that he's certain that the one being cremated by our friendly Praetorians
the one that attacked Claudia".
"And if you remember", interrupted KayEm, "Helena showed doubt when she
saw it, too".
LadyCool looked around to where smoke from the burning creature rose into the air. "Oh wow", she exclaimed, "So you mean there's another one
"At least one", said Actaeonis. "Possibly more". He would have elaborated but for the appearance of one of the Praetorians who strode pursefully
towards the group on a task for Caligula.
"Time to go", muttered Actaeonis, "Meet me after the evening meal. I'll tell you what I know". And with that, he rapidly walked away.
The Praetorian was tall and heavily tattoed with a pointed goatee and dark eyes. Saluting in the standard Roman manner, he turned towards Pisky; "The
'Emperor' invites you to a feast tonight" he said; "To celebrate the death of the beast". He stammered the words in a manner that implied that
they were part of a script. "He bids you to attend him at ... er ... "
"Duodecima hora", LadyCool finished for him. "Normally the hour before sunset". The Praetorian glared, then with a salute, strode away.
"Don't look so shocked" LadyCool explained in an exasperated voice, "I've been learning Latin. I was
training to be a barrister after
"And ended up as a highway robber"; Pisky grinned at the irony.
"Well, a girl's got to eat", she replied, "And the sooner the better. I'm starving".
"Serves you right for living on rabbit food", came the pixyish reply, "That's got to be bad for you".
"Being a vegetarian is perfectly natural", LadyCool explained, "Providing you can get the right balance in your diet. It's certainly better than
living on Cornish Pasties and cider".
The pixy disagreed. "Rather you than me", he replied.
"Then I guess I'll just have to educate you then", came the reply; At which point, much to the pixy's dismay, LadyCool began to extol the virtues
of living a vegetarian lifestyle.
Benjj and Pantha sat with Valerius in the roundhouse put at the disposal of the visitors. It was typical in its design, with a large doorway and a
living area seperated by wooden partitions. Following Caligula's instructions, tired looking ostlers had delivered their saddlebags and equipment
before returning to the stables to see to the horses.
The fire blazed merrily while the three occupants of the house sat around drinking wine and discussing recent events.
"This is a weird setup", Benjj remarked, taking a sip of his wine and looking across the fire to where the door stood open.
"It is that", came Valerius' reply, "I never trusted that Titus. Smarmy bastard".
"Titus ?" asked Pantha, reaching over and refilling her goblet.
"He calls himself Germanicus now, but he was Titus before he took over from Augustus".
"You mean the 'Emperor' ? " asked Benjj sacastically.
"Thats what he calls himself now, yes. He's always been a git anyway. Power crazed arsehole. When the production team was doling out names and jobs,
he wanted the top one. Fortunately for us, Augustus beat him to it. I wouldn't be surprised if one of his hired thugs bumped off the Legate so he
could take over".
"Where did they come from anyway ?", asked Pantha, "You said they are new".
"I managed to have a few words with Claudia", he replied. "She told me that a few days after we left, some unsavoury looking bastards came calling.
The Legate wanted them to push off but Titus suggested that they be allowed to join us. He reckoned that the more men there were to defend the
village, the better. Augustus told Titus that if he wanted them, he'd better get them trained or they'd be out on their ears".
Valerius picked up the amphora and poured himself a fresh goblet of wine before continuing;
"When Augustus died", he said, "Titus used them to con the rest of us that the village would be better served with him as leader and with his new
friends as some kind of defence force. Then, once he'd been accepted, he changed his name and title and made his thugs into the Praetorians".
"So they just turned up ?". This was from Benjj who found the whole thing suspect.
"Yes", Valerius replied, "Although I think Titus knew one of them from before".
"And they're mercenaries now ?", Pantha asked.
"Yes. Caligula paid them from his own coffers apparently. A couple hundred denarii for the gob#e who became their Centurion and a hundred each for
"So you still use money then ?"
'Yes. The producers wanted things to be as real to life as possible. They supplied a few crates of sestertii and denarii for common use, and the
Legate and Tribune managed the flow".
"Quite the little market place" commented Benjj whose earlier career had been in the area of finance.
Pantha was sceptical of such almost-dictatorial control, although she recognised that that was exactly how Ancient Rome functioned. "Does that mean
Caligula gets complete carte blanche with how the money is used ?"
"Yes". Valerius took a drink. "He's got a strongbox somewhere in the Villa that used to be guarded by a couple of our legionaries. Caligula
replaced them with his own men".
A shadow crossed the open door and Pisky entered, followed by LadyCool who was rattling on about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. KayEm entered
immediately afterwards, grinning as she watched the pixy being lectured.
"... so thats why eating a balanced vegetarian diet is the best way to a healthy mind and body", LadyCool said, completing her spiel before sitting
beside Pantha and pouring herself a goblet of wine.
"My body is quite well, thank you", responded Pisky, "and according to KayEm, my mind is a lost cause. So I may as well stick with what I know".
LadyCool sighed in despair and took a drink.
"What ho, fellow traveller !", said Valerius with a grin, waving his goblet and toasting the newcomers.
"The Emperor", said Pisky in his best Patrician tone, "Has commanded our presence at a feast he is giving to celebrate the vanquishing of the
"Whoopy fookin doo", said Valerius in an altogether unroman manner. LadyCool giggled.
"I doubt Helena will feel up to it", Pantha said, "She looked pretty upset earlier".
"You'd be too, if your childhood sweetheart had been ripped to bits by some demon from the nether pits", retorted Valerius.
"I ...", Pantha stuttered, "I didn't know".
"No, thats' not fair of me. Not many did
know. She told me on the way out to find you guys. She hadn't seen him for years, then he turned up
at the Village. They'd only been an item for a few days before he sent us out".
"Why in hell's name did he send her away then ?" KayEm looked dumbfounded. "I could never send Pisky hundreds of miles from me. And even then,
he'd ignore me anyway". Pisky grinned in confirmation.
Valerius sighed; "I reckon he knew something. If he was willing to send her away, that must mean things were pretty risky here. Don't quote me
though, I just think he'd found something out and he didn't want Helena involved".
"Something about Caligula ?"
"Doubt it. His mates didn't arrive until after we'd left. I think it was something about the beast". Valerius was about to elaborate when a high
pitched shriek echoed through the village.
"That's Helena !", KayEm exclaimed, leaping up and rushing out of the roundhouse.
With a curse, Pisky drew his Pictish sword and ran after his wife, followed by the rest of the group.
"You useless bastard !!!"
Helena was shrieking and sobbing, her voice having lost its cultured tones and reverting to pure primal rage. "Why didn't you stay. Why didn't you
"There was nothing I ...", muttered Actaeonis, but was immediately silenced by another burst of abuse from Helena. "You cowardly piece of # !!! ...
you fooking ran !!!
. You left him there to die
"He was already dead when I left", Actaeonis said sadly. "I would have died myself if I'd stayed. I couldn't do anything for him. he was
Helena slapped him hard in the face. Actaeonis closed his eyes and made no attempt to defend himself.
"You didnt ... even ... try", Helena dropped to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably and moaning in anguish. She felt a hand on her shoulder and
shrugged it off. Then KayEm was crouching before her, holding out a hand. Helena leaned towards her friend and cried deep painful tears onto KayEm's
Actaeonis stood for a while shaking in disbelief, then pain crossed his face and he hurried away, leaving KayEm to comfort the distraught woman. Pisky
appeared but was warned off by a glance from his wife. Understanding that KayEm needed space if she was to be of any use to Helena, the pixy returned
to the vacated roundhouse taking his companions with him.
A rumble of thunder could be heard from the West. Outside, rain lashed down, turning the ground of the village into a sea of mud. Inside the villa all
was warm and cozy, lit by small oil lamps and heated by iron braziers sprinkled with sweet smelling herbs. Couches had been laid out in a rectangular
shape, each with a small table to accompany it. Benches stood against the wall upon which ranged various foods, from bread and cheese to the typically
Roman stuffed olives. Roasted chicken and eel steamed in bowls, while large amphorae contained the best wine the village had to offer.
Caligula presided over the feast with his Centurion slouching beside him. The man glared around him, as if waiting for the slightest reason to make
trouble. Erisian caught his eye, then looked away as he leered at her and made a crude gesture.
LadyCool, Sarah and Asala, having partaken of wine earlier, were well on in the inebriation stakes. Sarah was ranting about her old bosses in New
York, cursing them to a life of toil under the all-seeing eye of the Corporations, while Asala leaned back, closed her eyes and went to sleep.
Caligula's voice cut through the murmer of conversation. "Where is our lovely Helena ?", he asked. He managed to make the question appear genuine.
Maybe it was.
"She was sleeping when I left her", KayEm replied. "If she wakes in time, maybe she'll come over. If not, I'll pop in and see her later".
Caligula nodded his thanks and turned to speak with his Centurion.
"So what do you think of all this ?", asked Benjj, leaning over to talk to the pixy. "Any point staying or should we just bugger off home ?"
"We're seeing this Actaeonis character later", Pisky explained, "He says he has something to tell us. Reckons the beast we saw today isn't the
one that attacked the woman".
"That's the one. Anyway, he asked us to meet him after the feast. The least we can do is hear him out". Benjj nodded.
The door opened and one of the dowdy servants ushered an ashen faced Helena Justina into the room. Caligula smiled and gestured her to sit beside him.
As she reached KayEm, she bent down and muttered her thanks, before continuing to where Caligula had made room for her.
"My dear", he said as Helena sat beside him, "I do hope you are feeling better. I heard of the little spat you had with Actaeonis".
"I'm fine" Helena replied quietly. "I just can't believe ..."
"That Augustus is gone". Caligula completed the sentence. "I know".
Helena looked up and was surprised to see tears in his eyes. "I never told you ..." he began, but his words were interrupted by the door slamming
open and a shocked looking legionary rushing through the room towards him.
"You need to see this !!!" he said breathlessly, "There's a body !"
Caligula leaped to his feet; "Show me !". Grabbing his cloak he strode along the length of the room, calling to his Centurion to follow. Pisky and
KayEm followed suite, rushing after the Emperor in case they could be of use.
Outside, the wind howled. Caligula's cloak flapped in the storm, making him look like a giant bat. Pisky muttered abuse as he pulled on his pixy hat,
while KayEm lifted the hood of her coat. The legionary grabbed a nearby pitch torch and led the way past the nearest roundhouses towards a smaller one
just below the Praetorian barracks.
Stopping at the door, he pushed it open and held the torch so that Caligula and the others could see. Boxes and caskets lined the sides of the
roundhouse which was obviously being kept as a storage building. Smoked fish hung from the rafters above the firehole, but it wasn't those that
caught the eye. In the centre of the room, lying on his back with his eyes open and staring into infinity was Actaeonis. A knife protruded from his
chest, the blood from the wound having pooled beside his body. Caligula closed his eyes and muttered a prayer to Jove while Pisky and KayEm entered
the room. The pixy took a deep breath and bent to examined the body while the legionary stood shivering just inside the door.
Muttering imprecations, Pisky took hold of the knife and pulled it out. With a sucking squelch, it came free. The pixy grimaced and picked up an old
sack with which he cleaned off most of the blood. Turning, he offered the grisly burden to Caligula who took it without a word and held it in the
light of the torch.
"Jupiter !!!". Caligula motioned Pisky and KayEm to see what he had discovered.
On the hilt of the knife was a small oval disk containing an insignia. It showed the figure of Pax holding out an olive branch. Below it was a
delicately carved series of letters.
KayEm closed her eyes. Pisky took a sharp indrawn breath. Caligula said what the others could not.
"H J F", he spoke in a sombre tone. "This is Helena Justina's knife".