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Crypta Romana: Plot Twists

Publius's Story

Keeper's Note: There are two characters currently playing, both are running neck and neck at the moment and the only reason I choose Publius is that he started first. Both characters are at about the same place in the investigation.

The Nones of September in the twenty fifth year of the reign of Tarquin the Proud dawned cool but bright with the promise of a warm afternoon from the strong sunshine that poured down on great city. Market stalls bustled with activity and sellers of fresh vegetables, newly caught fish, live game and various cooked delights called out loudly to proclaim their wares, each boasting that his or her stall sold the best or offered the best bargains.

Making his way down the dirt paths on the slopes on the Aventine Hill from the cheap apartment building he shared with twenty or so other Romans of lesser means, Publius Sergius Sabinus reached the cobbled thoroughfare and looked around for his breakfast. His wallet was light with perhaps an Ace or two of bronze chunks knocking together, but he took pains to warn off the few pick pockets and cut purses who didn't know him and who eyed him up as a potential mark. A quick hiss and a drawn thumb across his windpipe was enough to send even the hardened thugs looking for easier prey. He knew from the reflecting pools the poor used for mirrors that he looked every bit as tough as he was, hard muscled and well armed.

Catching an apple that rolled off of one stand and spending an Ace at another for a flagon of hot mulled wine, he continued on through the market, keeping an eye open for trouble. At the moment he had no commissions, but he'd made an ingot or two of bronze in his day by catching a wanted thief who allowed himself to seen on the streets. And there were plenty of pretty stall owners' wives who looked back boldly enough when he caught their eye.

His ear caught the hushed excitement of new gossip and he paused at a meat pie vendor's counter to listen in as he made a show of choosing a venison or a pork pastry. He caught a reference to the Temple of Jupiter and the word "stolen", yet somehow it seemed impossible that anyone could have stolen the massive new temple that towered above the city on the Capitoline Hill. Indeed as he glanced up at it, he could see the great painted statute of Jupiter himself on the rooftop, driving his chariot into the sun-baked sky. The temple was newly complete this year, after ten years of construction. The augers, they said, were consulting the omens to pick an appropriate day to consecrate the building and open it fully to the public.

Not that it was closed now. The new temple stood on the site of several older shrines and a steady stream of supplicants made there way up the hill each day to pray to this god or that. And on high holy days, there was a crowd on the new steps, complete with their own impromptu market place. It did seem to his expereinced eye that there was a bit of a crowd up there today, as a matter of fact. Yet it was a market day and no religious festivals were scheduled.

Before he could learn more, however, a boy plucked at his sleeve. He turned quickly with his hand on his blade, but it was a youth he had met before, slave to the nobleman Lucius Junius Brutus, a high court official who occassionally employed Publius Sabinus on delicate errands that needed a stern hand to carry through.

"My master bids you attend him on the steps of the new temple," the boy said, nodding up the hill to where he had been looking only a moment before. "He asks that you come quickly and seemingly greet him by chance."

Before Publius can ask him any questions, the boy tosses a five Ace lump of bronze in the air and spins away into the crowd. The Finder catches the glittering lump of precious metal and tucks it away in his leather wallet.

The Temple of JupiterPublius started up the hill, looking for Brutus among the crowd gathered by the Temple. He had worked for the young nobleman once or twice before and knew him by sight. As he walks he remembers what he knows about the Temple (Own Kingdom [50%] Roll: 44 – In addition to the general story, he recalls that there was a big stink about one of the older temples on the Capitoline Hill that was destroyed to make way for the new structure. It was a temple to Janus, the two-faced god of gates, a god some say is even older than Jupiter. Many powerful nobles were involved, but the king overruled them.)

The steps up to the temple are steep and fold back on one another to reach the crest of the Capitoline Hill. Publius cannot help but notice the view from the top as he catches his breath. To the west he can see across the river to the farmland and vineyards that provide food and drink for the city. South and east the city spreads thickly, piled higgledy piggledy on itself to the walls and even seeps out through the various gates. To the north and far south, the roads that connect Rome with the rest of the world stretch arrow straight into the distance. It is a sight to swell the pride in his heart at being a Roman centurion.

Nearing the summit of the Capitoline Hill, Publius moved forward in an apparently aimless manner, approaching the clusters of men on the steps of the temple itself, he notices that they are very agitated and consist mostly of the patrician classes and many priests, who are angry and speaking in hushed but stern voices about a theft and the disgrace that will surely come to the high priest of Jupiter for the loss of the precious artifacts that have been stolen. In the thick of the various clusters is Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew to the absent king, doing his best to keep the mood from boiling over into rage. He moves quickly but not hastily from group to group, speaking quietly, touching men on the shoulder, smiling at them, reassuring them, calming their fears. He is a true leader of men, much more liked and respected than his uncle who is mostly feared.

Publius listened to snatches of conversation in the crowd, while trying to accidentally brush against Brutus and jostle him slightly as he passed.

"A thousand pardons, my lord," he apologized profusely, after having done so, "I meant no offence. I was merely carried along by the push of the crowd. There seem to be many people here for an ordinary day."

Brutus nods him silently towards the inner fane of the great temple. After a few minutes he follows him up the steps and joins him in the blessed shade under the great portico.

"Good of you to come so quickly," he says with a tight smile and a hurried grasp of the arm. "Let's go inside, shall we?"

He leads the way deeper into the shadowed interior of the building, not into the main temples dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, but towards the rear. Here a guard of several soldiers have been set on the door and no one else is allowed to pass.

"Publius Sergius Sabinus has my express permission to enter the inner temple," Brutus says to the sergeant in charge. "Make sure your other details are aware of who he is and his right to enter. Allow no one else to pass unless I am notified. Even the flamens and the augers must have my permission."

The sergeant raises his eyebrows as Brutus excludes the various priests from their own temple, but merely nods and replies, "Sir, yes sir!"

Once inside the light is much dimmer. Brutus leads Publius to a steep set of stairs descending to a lower level. Oil lamps burn in niches within the stair well, but it takes several moments as their eyes acclimatize themselves to the dimness for them to descend in safety.

"This lower level was built to house the many holy relics that are used on high holidays and for priestly duties and cannot be left on display for the public to see," the nobleman explains." It is guarded night and day by martial priests." He indicates three successive sentry posts on the way down as they continue to descend into the very hillside itself. The posts are vacant right now, and Brutus explains that the guards are being questioned. His tone leaves little doubt that the questioning is not taking the form of a casual conversation. "None of them have, as of yet, admitted that anyone unauthorized entered, yet there is no doubt that there has been a theft."

They reach the bottom of the steps at last and step into a subterranean complex of three rooms. The central room is the largest, the roof supported by pillars. A stone sarcophagus of some kind is in the middle of the room. Stone boxes of various sizes and decorations are in recessed corners of the room as well and there are statues to several gods that Publius does not recognize immediately in niches along the walls. One of the stone boxes towards the front of the room has had the top removed. It is broken, lying on the floor by the side of the box, as if it had been pushed aside and allowed to fall. The box is empty.

"This casket contained the Sibylline Books," says Brutus as if he fully expects Publius to know immediately what he is talking about. (Own Kingdom [50%] Roll: 11 – Publius remembers a story about the king buying a series of books from the Sibyl of Cumae about ten years ago. Originally there were nine scrolls, but the king refused to pay the high price she demanded. She burned three of the scrolls in front of the court and offered him the remaining six at the same price. He refused again. She burned three more and offered him the last three at the same price. This time the king paid the price, terrified that she would burn all of the books which were said to contain secrets of the gods and the key to the future of the city.)

"We are fairly certain they were stolen sometime during the last two days" Brutus continues. "Many times it might be weeks between someone coming down here, but there was a request from the king to consult the oracle three days ago and the augers spent a day down here casting their runes and seeking answers in these and other books that are stored down here. He waves his hand at other stone caskets that have not been disturbed.

"Quite by chance, one of the priests had left some tool or other down here and came back down to fetch it this morning; otherwise it might have been another week of more before the theft was discovered. We must be grateful for small mercies I suppose.

"As I said, the guards insist that no unauthorized persons came down here. According to them, no one has come down those steps other than the guards themselves between the group of priests three days ago and the poor devil who left his sickle behind today. All of them are being put to the question as we speak, even the young auger who forgot his silver blade, but to my mind that is a waste of time. This is why I want you to investigate on your own, quietly, discreetly. There is one hell of a row brewing up there and within a day or two the king himself will be back here demanding to know what has happened to his precious books.

"I don't believe in magic myself, even though the high priest of Jupiter himself assures me there is no other way into this room. I need you to make sure, and even if there isn't, I need you to find out who stole those dammed scrolls. This is a very political investigation, Master Publius. I've come to trust your judgment and your instincts over the years, but you may find yourself at loggerheads with some powerful men as you begin to pry. I cannot support you publicly, but I will give you whatever assistance you need. Keep in touch with me through the slave boy I sent to you this morning. He can be found in the marketplace at almost any time of the day or night. Do not trust him with information, but send him to me when you need to meet me, and I will arrange it.

"Now, I must return to the crowd outside before they start to attack one another with those stupid fancy daggers they all wear. Is there anything I can do to help your investigation right now?"

Despite cudgeling his brain, Publius cannot remember the names of any of the nobles involved in the protests against the new temple. He does know the name of the high priest of Jupiter. Gaius Lucretius Celsus is a powerful and influential man who has often been in opposition to the king. He has many enemies, particularly since his temple has been erected on the highest promontory in town

His question about the noise of the breaking stone lid brings a curious expression to the nobleman's face.

"I hadn't thought of that," he admits. "I will tell the questioners to ask about it."

"If I might, briefly, detain you my Lord," Publius replies. "You say I might earn the emnity of powerful men. Can you say who? Are they suspects in any way? I seem to recall that there was an older Temple on this site, and that there was some disagreement when the King ordered its consecration to Jupiter. Do you think this may be connected with that? A way of striking back?"

The young aristocrat considers the questions and answers in sequence:

"I should say that the most powerful man you might annoy would be the king. If you do not make good progress before he returns, indeed if the books are not returned before then and the thief punished, I would suggest that we are both liable for questioning ourselves. Beyond him is Gaius Lucretius of course. If the theft is traced back to his staff of priests, the king will hang him. Shall I go on?

"As to their culpability, I have no idea. That is why I have brought you in to investigate. And you are in, Master Publius. Make no mistake about it. None of my normal resources have any clue how to go about a subtle investigation. It is not fair to you, I know, but I need your help and that's that.

"There were a number of temples on the hillside that had to be cleared away. The only one that put up a bit of stink about it was the temple of Janus. They claimed that their god lived within the very hill itself and many of his followers put up a strenuous campaign against the new temple, including the king's son, my cousin, Sextus Traquinus. In the end, however, the king's will carried the day. I'm sure that created some anger, but it was all many years ago. It seems late in the day for revenge."

After considering the answer, and considering whether it is worth upsetting such powerful men, to gain the confidence of another, he grimaces slightly before continuing.

"As to magic, I have no knowledge. But if men were involved, I will do my utmost to seek them out, you may be sure. Er..." he hesitates once more, but cannot help continuing; "it may be unworthy of me to ask so bluntly, my Lord, but... before I take on a task, I always like to discuss my fee. It saves later argument and unpleasantness."

Brutus smiles at the bargaining in this holy place, but he is ready for it.

"You will, of course gain the gratitude of your lord the king, and my own small regard if you succeed. Surely that is reward enough?"

After a brief pause to let the slave taker squirm, he adds:

"But good service is worth paying for and we all have expenses." He takes a leather purse from his belt wallet. It chinks with the unusual sound of silver coins. "One hundred drachma will buy you a farm and a wife and slaves to make you wealthy for life," he says. "Here are twenty. Find the books within the day and I will pay you eighty more. For every day you delay, I will pay you twenty less. If you do not find the books by the time the king returns, you 'd best use this silver to book passage to another land where they have never heard of Rome."

With this dire warning, Brutus leaves Publius to his work.

The slave taker makes a careful circuit of the entire level, examining walls and floor, looking for disturbed dirt, cracks in masonry or little drafts that indicate the movement of air. He has heard tales that cunning men sometimes arrange for catches in statues and the like and will also try feeling in niches where his flame cannot run. He is careful and make sure that statues are solidly placed before trying to feel around them. In general he is also looking for anything out of the ordinary.

It takes him less than an hour to find what he is looking for, even in the very dim light of the oil lamps: Another entrance. Maybe. In a far corner, behind a statue of a grim looking god with two faces set into a narrow niche, his lamp flutters with air movement as he thrusts it into the hidden space. The light reveals that what looked like the shadow of the statue is actually a fissure in the rock. Sure enough, there are footprints in the crumbling soil accumulated in the base of the deep crack. Someone quite small passed through here not very long ago, he judges.

As he examines the narrow opening behind the statue, the slave taker realizes that while the entry way is hard to see, especially in the normally very dim light down here, it is very likely that some of the priests must have known about this entrance to the inner sanctum. The high priest may be unaware of it, but the builders must have known. Which means some people are not telling all they know. Of course the nobleman who assigned him this task may not be telling all he knows to Publius, either. His head begins to ache at this point as he considers the convoluted loops of logic that become involved as soon as people get involved!

Pushing a freshly lighted lamp in front of him, the slave taker squeezes past the statue with two faces. It is a tight fit for a large man. The statue actually moves a little as he forces himself through the opening and he wonders what might happen if he smashes a statue of one of the gods in the king's brand new temple.

Once past the niche and into the hidden fissure the way opens up quickly into a wider passage. Holding the lamp high he can see this tunnel has been worked to widen a natural opening. There are many cobwebs and rodents scuttle away from his light. The passage has been long deserted, but he can detect signs of passage in the not too distant past: Some of the webs are broken and he sees rat dropping that have been stepped on that are not yet bone dry. (Track [40%] - Roll 19)

Following along he thinks he is moving generally north, passing outside the walls of the city towards the steep outer slope of the Capitoline Hill.

The dim light of his lamp shows him a sudden drop in the level of the floor where part of the tunnel has collapsed. As he looks around he spots a flash of color. (Spot Hidden [80%] - Roll 54) A single sandal is jammed under a rock and there are marks of dried blood on the surrounding rough wall. His best guess here is that someone stumbled, got his sandal stuck under the rock in the darkness and tripped over, cutting himself on the protruding stones.

Proceeding with care past the collapsing section of tunnel, Publius finds the way widening out. There is faint daylight ahead of him as well, and he is soon standing in the back of a cave with an entrance that must be halfway up the steep hill and outside the city walls.

In the middle of the cave is a rough shrine, little more than a coarsely carved boulder with ancient symbols of power chiseled onto its surface. He has little eye for these details, however, as he realizes that the dark mass atop the rock is the remains of a body. Flies lift up and buzz angrily at his sudden appearance and his nostrils are assailed by the stench of putrefaction.

The body has been disemboweled on the alter and its entrails spill down the sides of the rock. There are signs that rats and perhaps dogs have been scavenging the offal. The death is recent, perhaps two days ago. As he looks, Publius realizes that the body is wearing only one sandal that matches the one he saw in the tunnel. Moving around to look at the man's face, he can see that it is fixed in a scream of horror. There is a gaping wound in his neck and some blood has pooled under his head, but not a lot. It looks as if someone very skillfully cut out his vocal chords so he would scream but make no sound.

As the salve taker looks more closely, he can see that the body seems to be that of a young man, in his twenties probably. He was well fed, perhaps a bit overweight, but quite small. His robes, what's left of them after they have been sliced off of him to expose his belly, look as if they may be priestly vestments. Comparing the sandal he took from the tunnel with the one still hanging from the body's foot, they are a perfect match except for a torn strap on the one he found earlier. They are well made, even expensive.

The body has a chain around his neck of gold, underneath the head is some kind of medallion, also gold, hung on the chain.

There may be marks from his fall in the narrow tunnel, but they have been covered by gouts of dried blood and a curtain of rotting entrails. (This is not a pleasant task at all!) Without rolling the body over (no reason he can't, I just want to establish if he is actually touching the body), he cannot see if the boy was bludgeoned before being killed. The wound in his neck seems to have been solely for the purposes of limiting the volume of screaming. He has been bound, still is bound, to the rock alter. Leather thongs at wrists and ankles show terrible tear marks in his flesh where he struggled -- he was very much alive when he was cut open, and probably lived for many minutes, even hours afterwards. It is most likely he died from loss of blood, but it would not have been a quick death. He has been cut open quite expertly -- in much the same way an auger might slice open a chicken or a pig to read its entrails. They are trained to not kill the animal until all the details of the reading can be studied.

Is there another way out of this chamber? Publius will look for that next. If there is he will follow it to see where it leads to.

There is daylight streaming into the cave from an entrance pretty much directly opposite the narrow tunnel he followed to get here. As he looks around there are at least two other dark tunnel mouths leading back into the hillside. The entrance from outside is on the north side of the cave. The tunnel he came through enters in the southern point. The other two entrances are both in the eastern wall of the cave.

Either way he intends to get out of this underground tunnel and into the fresh air, clutching whatever spoils he has managed to gain. His next move will be to tell the boy he has progress to report to Brutus, and perhaps a trip to the street of shoemakers to see if any recognise the workmanship of the sandal, and recall who they might have sold a pair to.

Let me know if you moved the body to get the golden medallion. The young man wears no other jewelery and carries no wallet.

The fastest way to fresh air is through the open mouth of the cave shrine, but that is away from where he came from.

Holding his breath against the stench and keeping his mouth closed lest any of the many swarming insects fly into it, Publius reaches forward almost delicately to move the young man's head, so he can see the design on the gold medallion. As soon as he touches the body, however, a sudden noise comes from from the tunnel entrance nearest the exit to the hillside. The scrabbling sounds and the clatter of small rocks give him a second's notice to turn and face the appirition of a looming figure surging towards him out of the darkness. Someone in rags with wild hair and staring eyes rushes towards him, waving his hands in the air an calling out:

"Iannus! Iannus! Iapyx Iannus!"

As the ragged figure rushes forwards more into the light, Publius can see that he is filthy and dressed in tatters. Even over the stench of corruption from the rotting body he can smell the man's feral body odor and the sour stink of cheap wine on his breath. A hermit of some kind, he thinks, a wine-soaked sot who lives in isolation and mumbles religious platitudes to himself because no one else will listen.

When he raises his weapon, the man shies away and cowers against the rock wall. He waves his hand vaguely at the shrine and the mutilated body.

"He'll be back. He can see in two directions at once. I saw him!"

This last is screeched out in a great wail of terror and the hermit casts himself on the ground where he thrashes around in a fit. He bangs his head on the rocky outcroppings and looks to be in danger of harming himself. Yet touching him will be a foul job.