The day is hot. The hills are covered in flowers. A peasant’s hut sits beside the grain fields.
Romulus is Emperor of Rome.
Romulus is wandering. Romulus is haunted. But Romulus is not haunted today.
Today is a good day. Today there is beauty and there is magic and everything is wonderful except that he is hot.
Romulus is sweating.
It is the Italian summer.
“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” says Romulus. “Then my day would be complete!”
A creature bursts through the wall of the hut. It has three jackal heads and seven serpents growing from its back. Its legs are the legs of a wolf, and it has six of them. Its stinger is like a scorpion’s, but leathery and with a whip-like flexibility. It charges onto him like a storm, and he is flung backwards by its impact. His right arm tries to keep its snapping heads from his throat while his left hand fumbles for his sword. He is driven backwards into the hill, and rolls desperately to the side, and then his sword is up and the creature is gutted.
“You are a fool,” says Romulus, “to challenge thus the son of Mars.”
The creature bleeds. Brilliant red gouts onto the ground. “Oh, yeah,” it whispers, in a voice that is like the voice of men. Then it is dead.
Romulus cuts out its heart. He takes its heart to Rome. He cuts open a trench in the earth. He plants the heart in the earth. He grows a Granarium. This is where Rome will store its grain during the long winter months.
763 years before the common era, Mars impregnated Rhea Silvia.
Rhea Silvia birthed twin sons, Romulus and Remus. Mars claimed them, played with them for six hours, and then abandoned them on the banks of the Tiber.
2.8% of the infants exposed in this manner are suckled to maturity by a passing animal. The remaining 97.2% die.
Romulus and Remus were among the lucky few.
Romulus sleeps in Rome that night, among his concubines and his servants, but he does not rest.
In the morning he sets out again.
By the banks of the Tiber, Romulus sits down, and he weeps.
The nymph of the river sits beside him. She is a creature all of reeds and grass, and she is nourished by his tears. “Why do you cry?” she asks of him.
“You are beautiful,” says Romulus, “and I am sad. Must everything have reasons?”
“No,” says the nymph. And they sit there for a time.
“I would—I should—”
Then Romulus shakes his head. The nymph is sleeping, and she cannot hear what he might say.
“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” Romulus says. “I would share it with you this day.”
In the first days of Rome, these are words to call forth horrors.
The river boils. The river seethes. A great hand of mud and silt rises from it; and then its arm; and then its body. The creature is tall and apelike, and in its muddy mass Romulus can see the eyes of old drowned men.
It roars; and in that roar, Romulus hears, “Oh, yeah.”
“Peace,” Romulus says, and lowers the nymph’s head onto the grass so that she is not jostled as he rises.
The silt-ape pounds the ground with one fist. The earth shakes. Distant from them, the Roman coliseum cracks.
“Oh, yeah!” screams the ape, in its brutal rage. It lunges at Romulus. A wave of water, filth, and the stench of death precedes it on its charge. But the sword of Romulus is in his hand, and it casts aside the wave, and the spray touches him not, the spray touches not the nymph, and as the silt-ape lopes towards Romulus the beast meets for the first time the sting of mortal steel.
“I am Romulus,” says the man, “Emperor of Rome; son of a god; and I will take your head to form my city’s walls.”
The silt-ape hesitates. It is fond of its head. But silt-apes are vicious and belligerent, and so it does not cease. It casts forth a terrible wave and lopes towards the man again; and Romulus surfs that wave, riding backwards towards Rome with his shield and on it, and at the city limits Romulus’ blade lunges out and pierces the silt-ape’s brain; and the ape falls, and its blood is brilliant and blue, and Romulus cuts off its head, and he carries it into Rome.
“This shall be our city walls,” Romulus says. He digs a trench in the ground. He sows the head in the trench. He covers it in dirt. He builds City Walls. They rise, stern and rocky, to surround the city of his name.
Romulus and Remus grew strong. Romulus and Remus grew powerful. They loved one another as brothers do. They learned the arts of the sword and became great heroes.
It was a golden time.
Romulus’ chief concubine pleads with the Emperor. “Sleep with us tonight,” she says. She would very much like to give birth to his heir.
Romulus goes pale. He shakes his head. He pushes her away.
Romulus goes to a new-risen tower in the city walls. There on the barren stone he palely awaits the dawn.
At the darkest hour the shade of dead Remus stands at his side.
“This is a fine city wall,” Remus says.
Romulus does not respond.
“It will keep the city safe,” Remus says. “But it would be better if you upgraded it to a Spiked Wall.”
“I was thinking of working on Imperial Tactics next,” Romulus says.
“What if someone attacks?”
“I just . . . I don’t want . . . I don’t have to kill something for Imperial Tactics. I just have to steal the fruit of the tree of ruthlessness.”
Remus sits down beside Romulus. His spectral hand touches his brother’s back. It is cold and warm together as Remus tries to rub some of Romulus’ tension out.
“I do not wish to see the city lost,” Remus says. “Is all.”
There is something unstated between them.
“You’ve worked so hard,” Remus says.
“Spiked Walls,” Romulus agrees. He shrinks away from Remus.
“It doesn’t feel good?”
“I’ll let you rest,” says Remus, awkwardly.
Romulus is silent.
Remus ghosts away.
Romulus and Remus decided to build a city. They dreamed of it together, but to Romulus the dream was dearer.
They planned the streets. They planned the buildings. They desired an empire as their legacy.
What they built was Rome.
It is the next day.
Romulus staggers from the tower stiff and haggard.
There is a gentle rain to lift his spirits, and the smell of white flowers on the wind. Romulus walks through valleys and through hills. He sleeps at night and wakes refreshed at dawn. Finally he comes to a place of honeysuckle and stone, where milk leaks from the calcium walls in that ancient geological process most like a cow’s.
“Ah,” says Romulus. He drinks deep. Then he shakes the milk from his beard and stands tall, with chest thrust out, in the fashion of the ancient kings.
Romulus cries, his voice stentorian, “This milk—I am not satisfied! Ah! Ah! If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment!”
The walls of stone around him shudder and shake. There is a charnel stench that seems to Romulus to leak straight upwards from the gates of Hell. The calcium splits and crumbles as a drake buried in the wall spreads its wings. This is no living dragon but an ancient drake dead since the dawning of the world. The mouth that comes down towards Romulus is foul and toothless and Romulus is gagging too hard to draw his blade. Into darkness the corpse-drake swallows him.
“I am Romulus,” gasps out the Emperor of Rome, twisting and writhing in the corpse-drake’s narrow throat. “I shall not turn to oil in the belly of a beast!”
Romulus’ battle aura flares. Romulus is strong, because he has been drinking milk. He slams his arms to the sides and the beast bursts into ten thousand thousand flakes. Its blood is a viscid translucent orange. Its pieces flutter down onto the earth like a gentle snow. Romulus seizes in his hands, for lack of a dragon’s fang to sow, a bit of corpse-drake palate.
Romulus takes the palate back to Rome.
Romulus affixes the palate to the City Walls. The walls become Spiked Walls. A plaque on the walls reads, “These walls have been spiked with the fermented essence of a long-dead drake. They are exceptionally good at repelling enemies.”
“It is well,” says Romulus, exhausted.
Then Romulus leans his head against the stone and cries.
In the early days of Rome, Romulus and Remus quarreled. Only one could be Emperor. Only one could found a nation. Only one could have eternal glory and endless fame.
Romulus slew Remus. He sowed Remus in the earth and the Roman forum grew.
Thus it is that Romulus was emperor, and not Remus.
Thus it is that Romulus could name the city “Rome.”
Remus’ shade stands beside Romulus. The ghost has an diffident look to him.
“You are pushing yourself hard,” Remus says.
Romulus sits down.
“I remember when we were young,” Remus says, “and we would drink the milk of the she-wolf, and then you would chase me and I would chase you all through these hills, and for days and days we would run with the wind in our face, laughing, and never did you get so tired as this.”
Romulus swallows his words. He will not say them. He will not tell Remus how much harder it is, alone.
“It will be a grand city,” Remus says. He looks out across Rome. “It needs an Onyx Library, I think. That’ll show Alexandria what for.”
Romulus gasps out, “Forgive me.”
Remus looks blank.
Romulus shakes his head. Romulus gets to his feet. Romulus staggers out into the night.
“Great,” Romulus says. Romulus is sniffling. It’s not self-pity, it’s just that his nose is still congested from his tears. “Just great.”
Then Romulus laughs.
“All I need now is some artificial fruit refreshment. That’d make my night complete!”
There are screams in the night. There is the sound of wings. Romulus cannot see these noises’ source.
Then there is white in the darkness and Remus is there.
“What are you thinking?” Remus demands. “It’s night time.”
Remus looks around. “They are all around you,” Remus says, “not in this world but the next. Oh, brother, why have you risked yourself so?—but you must flee!”
“Brother? You cannot be away from Rome—”
The rake marks of claws appear down Romulus’ side. He did not feel the blow; he did not see the blow; he only sees and feels the pulsing of his blood. Romulus casts about him for his enemies.
“There,” cries Remus, pointing.
Romulus lunges, and his blade breaks through something’s heart, and the wine of a dead man’s libations bubbles up from the ground.
“There!” Remus shouts.
Romulus stabs. An ethereal white liquor, raspberry in flavor, drools now down his sword.
The blade of Romulus, who is a son of a god, spins and dances in the night; but then the horrors turn aside from him and retreat to a place he cannot go. Romulus watches, Romulus can do nothing but watch, as the hands of dead horrors drag his brother’s ghost away.
“Remus,” Romulus pleads.
“Be well,” Remus says, and the gibbering of the horrors and the light of Remus fade away, save for one last scream in the night:
For more on information on the invocation Romulus uses in this story, see Claire and KA