Underworld, Part One: The Sons of Orcus, by Chris Bone and Paul L. Mathews
Between the south end of the Viminal and west of the Esquiline there lay a valley. The rows of decaying insulae created canyons of dark shadow rife with crime and vice. This was the Subura, and it was not an area of the city for the unwary or fainthearted.
At the end of the street of booksellers and cobblers known as the Argiletum there lurked a courtyard, and that courtyard seemed unnaturally dark whatever the hour, whatever the season. At its centre stood a shrine to Orcus, Lord of the Underworld, and the darkness of the Stygian depths seemed to pour from its gaping mouth. A doorway into a condemned insula stood behind the shrine. A curtain of black hessian stirred in the evening breeze as it hung over that doorway.
Lucius of the Aventine stood in the stood in the courtyard, shivering. He drew his threadbare woollen cloak about his shoulders, but to no avail. There’s something unnatural about the cold here, he thought. It shouldn’t be so crisp at this time of year…
A monstrous hand drew back the hessian curtain, and something resembling a man squeezed its bulk through the doorframe. Once through, the beast stood at his full height and strode toward Lucius. A gladius, as long as a man is tall, rested across his shoulders, and he draped his thick arms over the blade in an almost nonchalant fashion. This creature reached Lucius in three strides and looked down upon the Aventine fighter, his face covered by a mask. Gaping of mouth and wide of eye, the mask was sculpted in the likeness of Orcus.
“Sal—” Lucius tried to speak, but his voice caught in his throat. He swallowed, wincing. His neck was still bruised and cut, a legacy of Brictus’ s garotte. “Salve, Faustus, son of the Underworld” he said with a querulous voice. “I seek your services.”
Pallid biceps the size of melons twitched as the giant hefted his gladius from his shoulders. Knotted hands resting upon the pommel, he rested his weight upon the sword as the blade bit into the ground. A profound bass rumbled from the mouth of the mask. “My dear and noble friend. Such a pleasure to see you in our humble precincts.”
Two more shadows detached themselves from the gloom and stood either side of the giant. One was a crooked figure with abnormally long arms; a gargoyle in human form. Lucius recognised this misshapen wretch as Pulcher, ‘the Gibbus’. He smiled inwardly at the irony of Pulcher’s nomen. The other man was hooded and wraithlike, his alabaster face fixed in a permanent sneer. His eyes glittered like jet.
“Salve, Lucius,” said this pale apparition. His tone was as flat as his skin was smooth. “Pray tell, what duty does your dominus require of us?”
“Salve Little Hades,” said Lucius. He breathed deeply and gathered himself before continuing. Of all the Sons of Orcus, this man scared him the most. The stories told of Little Hades, and of the unfortunates he had ushered to the Underworld... “A funeral cart will travel along the Appian Way tomorrow at the third hour after midnight,” continued Lucius. He paused and looked at Pulcher, distracted as the hunchback stared at him whilst scratching his head. Flakes of dry skin fell from his scalp and onto his dirty tunic. “It is deliv…” He paused, momentarily confused as he turned back to face Little Hades, only to find the man had vanished.
“Continue, Lucius of the Aventine.”
He jumped, surprised that the man was now behind him, stood so close as to whisper in Lucius’ ear. Oh Saturn, Lucius prayed silently, if you can hear me, deliver me from this dark place…”
“Well?” The stiletto of Little Hades’ voice gained an impatient edge. “We don’t have all night.”
“The funeral cart is delivering the casket of the recently deceased Sextus Paetus Turpio to his family mausoleum in the City of the Dead there is also a red cedarwood box within the casket my master seeks it—”
Faustus placed his mammoth hand over Lucius’ nose and mouth. “Slower,” he said. “Lest you forget to breath.”
Faustus took his hand from Lucius’ mouth, and the grateful ganger inhaled deeply before he began again. “The funeral cart will also carry a red cedarwood box within the casket. My master wants this box, and its contents, and will pay you handsomely for it.”
“We shall take half the payment now, dear Lucius,” said Little Hades. Lucius looked over his shoulder at the fighter, relieved to see he stood in the same spot.
“And you will surrender the rest upon completion,” said Faustus.
“Rest assured there shall be no witnesses to the deed.” Little Hades continued, either ignorant or indifferent to the fact Lucius was speaking. He smiled a practised and joyless smile as he spoke. “We shall meet again in the Silver Strigile the day afterward and enjoy a bottle of Falernian together.”
“Really?” The vibrato in his voice betrayed Lucius’ fear. The thought of spending any more time than necessary with these creatures almost made him piss himself.
“Of course not. I jest.” Little Hades gestured at Pulcher with a smile. “He’s barred from the Silver Strigile…”
Thank you, Saturn! thought Lucius, heaving a sigh of relief.
“…So instead we shall meet at the Pomegranate.”