Sneak Peek: The Gates of Hell by Michael Livingston

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The Gates of Hell by Michael LivingstonAlexandria has fallen, and with it the great kingdom of Egypt. Cleopatra is dead. Her children are paraded through the streets in chains wrought of their mother’s golden treasures, and within a year all but one of them will be dead. Only her young daughter, Cleopatra Selene, survives to continue her quest for vengeance against Rome and its emperor, Augustus Caesar.

To show his strength, Augustus Caesar will go to war against the Cantabrians in northern Spain, and it isn’t long before he calls on Juba of Numidia, his adopted half-brother and the man whom Selene has been made to marry — but whom she has grown to love. The young couple journey to the Cantabrian frontier, where they learn that Caesar wants Juba so he can use the Trident of Poseidon to destroy his enemies. Perfidy and treachery abound. Juba’s love of Selene will cost him dearly in the epic fight, and the choices made may change the very fabric of the known world.

The Gates of Hell—available November 15th—is the follow up to Michael Livingston’s amazing Shards of Heaven, a historical fantasy that reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle. Please enjoy this excerpt.

PROLOGUE

THE DARK OF THE MOON

ROME, 27 BCE

On the January night that the Republic finally came to an end, thirteen-year-old Cleopatra Selene fell asleep waiting for the emperor’s son.

• • •

Not for the first time she dreamed she was ten again, sitting on the cold stone bench of a Roman prison cell, her head against Alexander Helios’ shoulder as she pretended to sleep. The yellow light of an Italian dawn was just beginning to stream in through a barred window high on the outside wall, taunting them with unreachable warmth.

Helios shifted his shoulder beneath the weight of her head. “Wake up, Selene,” her twin whispered.

Selene didn’t move her head. “I am awake.”

“Did you sleep?”

She let the air out of her lungs, then yawned it back in again and regretted the instinct: the air was thick with the sickly humid reek of mold and mildew and human despair. She coughed and gagged.

“Me neither,” he said.

Through the window came the voices of the gathered crowds: jubilant cries of celebration at the festivities of the Roman Triumph, mixed with angry shouts for the death of the traitorous Egyptian royalty whom Octavian had brought back from Alexandria: the children of Antony and Cleopatra.

Selene felt their hatred run like cold fingers up her spine. Before she could shiver she lifted her head from her brother’s shoulder and stood, rubbing at her numb arms. The roiling mass of emotion outside had been building for more than two days, but today it would come to a final climax. Today was the end.

“Do you really think Caesarion is dead?” Helios asked.

Selene instinctively started to reassure him, to say that no, of course he was still alive, but she knew he would recognize the lie. “Maybe. Probably.” It was the truth, painful though it was to admit. Juba, the Numidian prince she had promised to marry in order to save the life of her old friend Lucius Vorenus, had told her that Caesarion was dead, that he’d been killed in Juba’s struggle to find the Ark of the Covenant and use it against their common enemy, Octavian. She believed the Numidian, of course—he had no reason to lie— but even so she could hardly imagine that their older half-brother— tall, handsome, strong Caesarion, so much the image of his father, Julius— could be dead. It just didn’t seem possible.

Helios, so slight, so sickly compared to Caesarion, coughed loudly, painfully, and Selene felt a pang of sorrow rise in her gut that she had to fight to keep at bay.

“Caesarion’s not here, anyway,” she said when he had control of himself again. “Octavian would march him, too, if he was alive. He wants to make a display of us all.”

She didn’t mention their younger brother, Philadelphus, but she didn’t have to. The child, even sicker than Helios when they last saw him, was never far from their thoughts. Was he dead, too?

“Maybe Caesarion’s alive, though,” Helios said. “Octavian could be lying about it because he’s scared. He’s using us to keep Caesarion from doing what he wants to do. Maybe that’s another reason why Octavian hasn’t…killed us yet. Like how he wanted to use us against Mother.”

Mother. Her brother’s voice cracked at the word, and then Selene’s dream spun wildly, sweeping her out of the cell, rushing her back through even more distant memories, back to the moment she stood before the vivid and all-too-real image of her mother’s agony-contorted face, staring at the world through dry, sightless eyes. The corpses of two loyal maidservants were slumped on the floor beside the throne, themselves twisted by the bite of the asp that Selene had managed to smuggle into the guarded chamber to fulfill her mother’s desire for death. The reed-woven basket of ripe-to-bursting fruits was overturned in front of them, and there was an apple in Cleopatra’s venom-clawed hand, squeezed to broken mash. The scepter of Egyptian authority was broken into two pieces at her feet, nothing more than the wooden stick that it was beneath the luminescent jewels and the fine gold casing.

Octavian was there, too. He’d made the children come to the chamber before anything was touched, before anything was moved, so that they could see with their own eyes what he’d taken from them, as if Cleopatra’s suicide was his victory, not hers.

Even the asp was there for the children to see, coiled in a corner where it had been trapped. Selene, for a moment, had wanted to run to the black thing, to grip its head and plunge its glistening mouth into the soft flesh of her own neck, to let it drink its fill of blood even as she drank of its terrible venom, but the desire for revenge had steeled her against such a surrender. As they watched, Octavian took from among his guard a spear. Then, with slow steps that echoed in that stony place, he walked to the corner and drove the sharpened point into the writhing, hissing creature.

• • •

Cleopatra Selene— daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, once heir to the great Ptolemaic empire of Egypt, now adopted daughter to the very man who’d brought her family to such ruin— awoke from her nightmares, gasping and reaching for the dead: her mother, her father, her brothers.

She found, instead, another young man, a year older than herself, who recoiled from her clutching fingers. As he shrank back, the flickering lamp- shadows around the bed swallowed his gentle features, but it took only a glance for Selene to recognize Tiberius, the boy she’d fallen asleep waiting for this night, the stepson to the man who, she reminded herself, was no longer to be called Octavian. Among every thing else that had happened this day, the man who had all but officially ended the Republic— who’d already been accorded the title of Emperor Caesar, son of God— had been declared by the Senate “Augustus”: the Illustrious One.

Augustus Caesar. Much though the thought of her adopted father made her ill, Selene had to admit that the name had a certain ring to it. Not unlike the name of Augustus’ adoptive father— Caesarion’s blood father, she couldn’t help noting to herself— Julius Caesar. The Romans had made Julius into a god. Would they do the same for Augustus?

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Tiberius said, stirring Selene back out of her dark thoughts. “You looked like you were having another bad dream.”

Another. Selene concentrated on breathing deep, allowing her heartbeat to slow. In the two and a half years since her world had ended, hardly a night had passed without a dream of the horrors. Walking with the basket to see Mother. Staring into those unblinking eyes. Trembling in that Roman prison. The smiths coming to their cell with their gritty, blackened hands to fasten the golden fetters to their wrists and ankles, to their necks— collars and chains of their mother’s Egyptian gold melted down and made into the very signs of the subjugation of her children, her kingdom.

Selene rubbed at her wrists as if she could feel the weight of the metal on her skin even now. “It’s fine,” she said. “Just a dream. I must’ve fallen asleep waiting.”

Tiberius smiled in the shadows. “That’s all right. I was just glad you were, um, dressed.”

Though she was, as always, uncertain if there was some romantic interest behind his comment, Selene took it as mocking play and she rolled her eyes. After all, they both knew they were promised for others. Tiberius was arranged to be married to Agrippa’s eight- year- old daughter, Vipsania. And rumors were already swirling that Selene would be married to Juba the Numidian sooner rather than later. “I’m dressed enough,” she said, slipping out of bed and lacing up her best sandals. Then she stood and shrugged her shoulders as if to unencumber herself of the memory of her dead mother and the promises for revenge that she kept hidden even from Tiberius. “No one saw you, did they?”

Tiberius gave her a look of mock anger. “No. Of course not,” he said, trying to sound exasperated. “So why’d you want to sneak out to night, anyway? I think the whole city is drunk or passed out.” He yawned. “I could use more sleep myself.”

The festivities to celebrate Augustus Caesar and his acclamation by the Senate had, indeed, overtaken Rome. This night more than any other, the city would be quiet and still, and the usual fun of their nocturnal walks would be taken away. Selene looked over to the curtains that were pulled shut across the balcony. The rich cloth rocked to the moving air outside as if pushed by the touch of unseen hands.

“You’ll see,” she said. Tiberius was wearing a good traveling outfit that would keep him warm but still enable him to move easily: a necessity for climbing down from her balcony, among other things. She had already donned something similar, but she went over to her chest and quickly rifl ed through it to produce the shoulder bag she’d managed to make from the soft and gentle cloth of one of her old Egyptian dresses. Royal linen.

“What’s that for?” Tiberius asked.

“A Shard,” Selene whispered, feeling the small but heavy stone statue inside the bag and thinking how maybe after tonight she’d have no more nightmares. Maybe after to night she’d dream of Caesar in golden chains, Caesar in sackcloth, Caesar begging her for mercy. It would take time to master the Shard, but she was certain she could be patient. Once she’d learned that killing Octavian wouldn’t be enough to sate her thirst for vengeance, after all— once she’d learned, as Juba had before her, that true vengeance meant destroying Rome itself— she’d lived among his family in his house, never once making an attempt on his life. Yes, she could be patient. Even with the Shard, she could bide her time. Find it, take it, master it. Then strike.

“What did you say?” Tiberius asked. Selene turned back to look at her friend, smiling at possibilities he could never understand, possibilities he would surely think treasonous, even if he had his own reasons to hate Octavian. First things first, though: she had to get it. And if she was going to slip inside the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the keepers of Rome’s eternal fire and its most sacred relics, she was going to need his help. “I told you,” she said, lifting the bag with its hidden statue to her shoulder. “You’ll see.”

• • •

From Augustus’ house on the crest of Palatine Hill they moved through the quiet, darkened streets, shadow to shadow, ever downward toward the ancient Forum. Tiberius was quiet, as he so often was, and Selene was glad for it. Her mind was on the Shard.

She still found it difficult to believe that one of the Shards of Heaven had been here, in Rome, all this time. How often had she walked past the House of the Vestals, past the ever-burning fire of their temple, not realizing that a piece of her vengeance was so close for the taking? Staggered at the thought of it, she’d had to ask Vergilius to repeat himself at a dinner with old Varro two months earlier, when he’d made an offhand comment that he was planning to mention the Palladium in the poem he was writing in honor of the man who’d restored the glory of Rome, the man soon to be Augustus. Yes, Vergilius had assured her. That Palladium. The statue of the goddess Pallas Athena that had such mysterious power that its presence alone had kept the Greeks at bay during their decades-long siege of Troy. Stolen from the city by Ulysses, the Palladium, the poet said, had eventually been brought to Rome by Aeneas— the Trojan exile and legendary founder of Rome who was the hero of Vergilius’ poem in progress— and the artifact now rested under the protection of the Vestals.

Conversation at the dinner had gone on as if the foreign-born girl had never interrupted, but to Selene it was as if the gods of old— gods she had become certain did not exist— had inexplicably handed her the key to her vengeance. Sitting in the Great Library of Alexandria so many years earlier— before the fall of their city, when her brothers were still alive, when she still thought herself, in the tradition of the pharaohs, a goddess on the earth— she’d listened to Caesarion, their tutor Didymus, and a now- dead Jew discuss the Shards of Heaven.

The Shards of Heaven. It was hard for her to imagine a time when she had never heard of the fragments of divine power that had been cast out across Creation when the angels— there’d been a time she’d not heard of them, either— tried to open a gate to the highest heaven by giving up the greatest gift of God, the gift He’d given of himself: their souls. Caesarion had died in the struggle over the Jewish Ark of the Covenant, one of the most powerful of the Shards. Her husband- to-be, Juba, had held two more: the Aegis of Zeus and the Trident of Poseidon— the latter now kept under the personal control of Augustus. And here, now, was the fourth and final Shard she’d learned about on that distant morning in the Great Library. The Palladium.

Her mother had defined herself by men: first by Julius Caesar, then, after his death, by Selene’s father, Mark Antony. Looking back, Selene could see how Cleopatra had never really had control of her own destiny.

“Not me,” Selene whispered to herself as she turned off the paved path, skirting through a shoulder- breadth alley between stone buildings. With the Shard, she’d have power her dead mother could never have imagined. With the Shard, she could be her husband’s equal. And if he joined his power to hers— if they gathered the Shards once more— their shared power would reshape the world. Destroy their Roman enemies. Achieve vengeance for them both. Juba had been meant to rule Numidia before Rome seized it, after all, before he, too, had been left an orphan in the house of his family’s conquerors.

The alley emptied out into the sacred grove that spread across the base of the Palatine Hill, its darkness thick and deep, impervious to the slight sliver of moon in the sky. Selene forged onward until she felt the stands of growth closing in all around her. When she stopped, Tiberius stumbled into her back.

“What are you stopping for?” he asked, voice quiet in the hushed wood. He moved around through the grassy, winter-dried underbrush between the trees to stand beside her. “And why are we going this way? Thought you wanted to go down to the Forum.”

Selene looked around and saw nothing but silent trees in front of her and the black expanses marking walls behind. The air was chilled, but not unbearably so, and it smelled of earth and dried leaves. It was as good a place as any to tell him what he had to know. “Not to the Forum in particular, no,” Selene said, crouching down to the ground and keeping her voice at a conspiratorial hush. Tiberius crouched down, too: close, but not too close.

“So? Where?”

“The Vestals.”

Even in the shadows of the wood she saw his eyes widen, and he seemed to lean back from her slightly. “Vestals?”

“That’s right,” she said, trying to keep her tone even, as if she wasn’t talking about potential treason. “I want to get into the Temple of the Vestals.”

Tiberius blinked. She imagined him trying to decide if she was joking. “Why?”

For weeks she’d rehearsed this exchange in her mind, knowing she couldn’t get what she wanted without his help but knowing, too, that there was no way he would help her. So now, when the moment came, the words flowed easily enough. “You remember the Triumph, don’t you? Octavian’s Triumph after Alexandria?” Of course he did. She remembered him, after all. She remembered how he rode in his stepfather’s chariot, waving happily at the adulating crowds, looking down at the suffering, burlap- clad children of Cleopatra as if they were slaves, not high-born royalty once worshipped as gods. Though they’d never spoken of that day, Selene had always felt his fear that she might remember him from it. She’d felt his guilt and held fast to it, preserving the favor that it would provide even if she didn’t know what that favor might be. When Vergilius revealed the Palladium’s presence in Rome, she’d known the time for using Tiberius’ decent humanity against him had come. “You do remember, don’t you?”

Her adopted brother seemed to sigh back into even deeper shadows, his shoulders rising or his face falling, she couldn’t tell which. “Yes.”

“Octavian— Augustus— took something from me that day.”

“Your kingdom,” Tiberius whispered, the words hardly audible.

“Yes. My home. My pride. My hope. My family.” She let that last phrase sink in for a moment, knowing how Augustus had taken Tiberius’ own father from him when he’d forced Livia to divorce because he lusted after her. “But that’s not it, Tiberius. He took something else away, too.” Selene shifted her crouch, bringing her shoulder bag around so that she could grip the statue inside. She held it up, though she didn’t expose it.

“What’s that?”

“A statue,” Selene said, focusing her eyes on it to help steady her nerves through the lie. “They sell them down in the market and I bought one. It’s of Horus.”

“Horus?”

“An Egyptian god, son of Isis and Osiris. My older brother, Caesarion, was thought to be the living Horus.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Tiberius said. His voice sounded deeply hurt. The guilt all coming back, Selene imagined.

“This statue is a replica of one that Augustus gave to the Vestals. It’s a statue he took from my home. It belonged to Caesarion, and I want it back. More than anything in the world.”

“You want to steal it?”

Selene imagined him picturing the high cliff of the Tarpeian Rock at the other end of the Forum, the promontory from which traitors to Rome were thrown, headfirst, onto the stones below, where they were torn apart by the crowds whether the fall killed them or not. “He stole it,” she said, her voice both stern and hurt. “It’s rightfully mine.” She let a few tears fall, hoping that they would catch the scant moonlight on her cheeks. “It’s all that’s left.”

Tiberius was silent for a long time. A slight breeze rustled the trees around them, making the tiniest of singing sounds in the branches. Selene took a hand from the still- covered statue to wipe her cheeks. What ever he said next, she hoped it wasn’t that he wanted to see it.

“So you want me to help you get into the…gods…the Vestal Temple so you can take back the statue and…what? Replace it with that one?”

“I…I guess so. No one would ever know,” Selene said, letting her words start to spill out as she fell into the role of the thoughtless girl. It always made men feel more comfortable, more in control. “Roman sculptors have told me that they need only see a thing once to reproduce it perfectly. The Horus statue has often been on display. And it was real simple. I remember it exactly, and no one would be able to tell the difference between the real thing and this fake one. No one but me.”

Tiberius let out his breath. “This could kill us both,” he said. “It’s sacrilege.”

“I’m not going to put out the sacred fire,” Selene said. “And I’m not asking you to sleep with one of the Virgins. And no one will know, anyway.”

“But if someone—”

“No one will find out. Even if they did, I’d tell them you didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I don’t know, Selene.”

The pleading tone in his voice was all Selene needed to hear to know that she’d won, that he’d do it, and she had to fight back a sigh of relief. She’d been prepared, after all, to offer him much more than guilt in return for his compliance, the sort of thing her mother, she was sure, would have tried first. But then, Selene wasn’t her mother. She was better than that. “It’ll be easy,” she said, using her gentlest voice. “I’ve got a plan.”

• • •

From the far corner of the House of the Vestals, near the abomination of an arch that Augustus had built to celebrate his triumph over her parents, Selene looked eastward down the Forum, past the round, column-encircled Vestal Temple with the telltale plume of gray smoke rising slowly from its crown, to where Tiberius was approaching through plazas filled more with litter than with people. Where mingling crowds and noise would typically reign, she saw only a handful of citizens shuffling along the paths or talking in small groups. From their shuffling steps or their overloud talk, it appeared that most of them were drunk on the free libations of the night, just as she’d hoped. And not one of them was taking any notice of Tiberius, who was moving slowly but steadily— building up his nerves, she thought— now passing between the stretching length of the House of the Vestals and the Regia, where the high priest of Rome was supposed to live. The latter was empty now, Selene knew, because Lepidus has been exiled by Octavian years earlier— allowed to keep the title, but not the power. A rare act of mercy. Selene wondered if he, too, desired the emperor dead.

She could see only the back of the temple, but she could hear the movement of only a single Virgin within, muttering arcane prayers and fussing with the sacred fire that marked their goddess’s protection over the city. Selene allowed herself a smile, confident that the five other Virgins, like the rest of the city, were fast asleep after the long day of rousing celebrations. And unless she was wrong, the Virgin left the task of tending the fire this night would be the youngest of them, the one Tiberius would know.

“Urbinia?” Tiberius called, his voice just loud enough to be heard in the temple. Not so loud, she hoped, that it would wake any Virgins sleeping in their nearby house. “Is that you?”

There was new movement inside, and Selene rushed quickly from her hiding place to stand in one of the little alcoves between the temple’s rear columns. Though the stone walls were thick, she could hear the individual footsteps inside. “Tiberius?” It was a young girl’s voice: both hopeful and uncertain. Urbinia.

Selene didn’t take the time to smile now, though she felt the lightness in her heart of fortune’s grace. She moved as quickly as she dared around the southern side of the temple, in the shadows between it and the long House of the Vestals. “

You’re honored to tend the fire this night,” Tiberius said from the front of the temple. Coming around the side, Selene could see him again, standing five or six paces from the foot of the steps. He looked strikingly natural and confident. He was a better liar than she’d ever given him credit for.

“Every one else was, um, celebrating,” Urbinia said.

Sneaking closer column by column, Selene could see that the young girl— was she nine now?— was standing in the temple doorway. The backlight of the fire inside danced on the drapes of her linen mantle. There were red and white ribbons beneath her gossamer headdress.

“Well, come down here so I can see you,” Tiberius said.

Urbinia took a single step down, smiling—it was no secret she’d held childish feelings for her older cousin before she was chosen to become a servant of Vesta— and then she froze and started to look back toward the fire. Selene slipped behind a column foundation only a few paces away and concentrated on slowing her own heartbeat, keeping her breathing smooth and even. “I don’t think I’m supposed to,” the girl said. “The fire—”

“Looks strong enough for a minute or two, Urbinia.”

After a few seconds, Selene heard the little girl give a brief giggle before she began skipping down the steps. Selene took one last breath and then hurried out of the shadows and up the stone staircase like a cat, padding on the balls of her feet. The light of the fire ahead was blinding after so long a time in the darkness, but she kept her watering eyes to the ground, watching each step fall, until she was inside the doorway and could duck out of sight.

“What?” she heard Urbinia ask. “Is something— ?”

“Oh, nothing,” Tiberius said hurriedly. “I was . . . I was just thinking what a wonder it is that you get to tend to that fire. My favorite cousin, a Vestal Virgin. But here, let me look at you, all grown up.”

Selene let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, then concentrated on letting her eyes adjust to the inside of the temple. The sacred fire of Vesta dominated its single chamber, blazing in a large brass bowl set atop the blunted, fat pillar of a carved stone base at the rear center of the room. The polished marble floor around it reflected back both the light of the fire and the darkness of the thin, climbing column of smoke that forever rose toward the hole at the apex of the domed roof. Around the thick stone walls were inscriptions of dates and names, reliefs of gods and men, and a waist-high circle of marble-wrought cabinetry of extraordinarily beautiful red and black tones, flecked with a gold that matched tiny plaques over its low doors. Inside, she knew, were the most important documents in the Republic. It was here that Julius Caesar had supposedly placed the will that adopted Octavian as his son and heir, cutting out Caesarion, his natural child with Cleopatra. It was here that her father, Mark Antony, had eventually placed his own will, granting every thing he had to his children by Cleopatra and expressing his traitorous wish to be buried with her in Alexandria rather than in Rome. The war that had taken away Selene’s family and her home had begun when Octavian had forced the Virgins to hand the will over, an act of terrible sacrilege that was somehow forgiven in the face of the greater betrayal that it exposed. For a moment Selene felt the urge to open all the doors, to turn over the sacred fi re and burn it all to cinders and ash, but it would be a small victory. Not the true vengeance she sought.

Atop the cabinets were some of the greatest trea sures of Rome: golden ea gles, skulls, consecrated stones, and— she saw it on the other side of the room as her eyes adjusted at last— the Palladium, standing beside the statue of Horus that had been so precious to her family.

Glancing outside and seeing that Urbinia’s attentions were still thoroughly engaged by Tiberius, Selene padded over to stand before the statues, lifting from her shoulder bag the replica she’d purchased two weeks earlier. The object in her hands was not, as she’d told Tiberius, a replica of the delicately crafted statue of Horus beside her. It was, instead, a roughly cone-shaped lump of rock the deep red-brown color of clay, but with the foggy transparency of quartz. In and around it were laced lines of a darker black that gave it the vague external appearance, she thought, of wet wood. No taller than her forearm, the rock was misshapen by rounded protrusions that— seen through the eyes of imagination— could make the stone seem as if it were the statue of a strong woman, the details of her limbs and the drape of her gown somehow melted away. Where the statue’s eyes and mouth should have been the black veins were bolder, creating the appearance of a face. Holding it up next to the real Palladium, Selene could see that it was, indeed, a nearly perfect match. The Roman sculptors were right to boast.

Saying an instinctive prayer to a goddess she didn’t believe in, Selene snatched up the Palladium and put it into her bag, placing the replica in its place. She felt a wash of extra heat in the moment it was done, even beyond the roiling warmth of the fire behind her. Nerves, she thought. Must hurry.

As Selene turned to head back toward the doorway, she heard Tiberius’ voice, too loudly asking a question. And Urbinia, very close beyond the doorway, replying to him. “I’ll just check on it.”

Selene spun away, looking but knowing that there was no way out of the temple but the way she’d come in, and that there was no place to hide. Hoping that Urbinia would just glance at the fi re, Selene dove behind the round stone base of the sacred flame just as the Virgin appeared in the doorway.

“But, Urbinia!” Tiberius called.

“You can’t be on the steps,” the girl said, sounding strangely authoritative for her age.

“Oh, I know…I—”

“Just wait. It’s time for more wood.”

Crouching behind the short stone pillar opposite the door, feeling the heat of the fire above her radiating into her skin and singeing the hairs on her flesh, Selene didn’t have to turn to know that the small stash of wood was against the wall behind her. All was lost.

“Can’t it wait?”

“It’ll be only a second.”

Feeling tears rising in her eyes, wanting to scream at the injustice of it all, Selene closed her eyes and pulled the Palladium from her bag and embraced it, holding her last hope to her chest. It felt warm there. Comforting.

She heard the footsteps of the girl moving through the doorway. Coming closer.

No! she screamed in her mind, squeezing the Palladium into her body as if she could hide it there, deep down inside her. No, no, no—

Power suddenly shot into her hands, a fire coiling up her arms like a fast-moving snake and lancing into the core of her chest. Selene gasped, falling backward into the small woodpile, her eyes snapping open. Beyond the smoke of the sacred fire she saw the foggy shape of Urbinia, paralyzed at the realization that someone was inside the temple. Between them Selene expected to see her arms engulfed in flame, a trail tracing out from the Vestal fire to her body like a flickering, hungry tongue. Instead, she saw the Palladium, its ghostly face turned toward her, eyes and mouth somehow an even darker black. And within its depths, vis i ble now as an almost pulsing heart, was a blacker- than- black stone within the stone.

The Shard, she thought with sudden realization. Yes.

The tide of the fire coursing into her body pulled back for a moment, and time seemed to slow around her. Selene closed her eyes and let the tendrils of night pull down inside her like buckets diving for the bottom of a well. She felt the coils of power gather up within herself, deep down in a core of her being that she’d never known. Then, when she could take no more, when she thought that if they grabbed anything more there’d be nothing of her left, she released them back out with a sickening, exhilarating, frightening belly surge of energy.

The air in the Temple of the Vestals unfroze, rushing forward in a roiling storm of smoke and burning embers drawn up from the sacred fire. The force of it threw Selene backward into the woodpile again, and she could hear nothing but a wail of wind like the roar of a vengeful god. Then, a heartbeat later, the throaty storm was moving away and she could hear, in its place, Urbinia’s screams.

Selene was dazed from striking the back of her head on the woodpile, her thoughts scattered, churning from fire to flight, from Urbinia’s screams to the Shard of Heaven whose power she’d somehow tapped.

Move, she reminded herself, as if she stood outside her body. People will come. Get up. Get away. Go.

The Temple of the Vestals was filled with a fog of dust and ash and smoke, vexed to spinning in slow puffs of cloud flashingly lit by the agitated but still-burning fire. Selene rolled over with a cough and saw through tear- filled eyes the statue that she must have let go when the wind burst out from…her? She had done it, hadn’t she?

Pulling the now lifeless rock to herself she slipped it into her shoulder bag as quickly as she could, then stood, crouching, feeling a pain in the back of her head and an exhaustion down to the very marrow of her bones.

No, she thought as she started to move. An exhaustion down to the core of her soul.

The air was clearing before her as she stumbled out of the temple and saw the wave of wind still rushing eastward through the Forum, a moving wall of dirt and debris. How long, she wondered, before it lost its energy?

Closer, at the foot of the stone steps, she saw Tiberius kneeling beside a crumpled Urbinia. The girl’s screams of horror had turned to the half-wails of pain from the ashes in her eyes. Tiberius looked up at Selene, his own eyes trembling with shock and fear and something that looked like grief. There were shouts from around the Forum. Sounds of people moving. His mouth moved in a silent whisper: Go.

Selene thought about going down to him, about trying to see if there was anything she could do to help Urbinia, to assure him that every thing was okay, that he’d not betrayed Rome, that there was no Vesta, that there were no gods to be angry…but then the shouts were getting closer and she merely nodded her head and ran as fast as her tired legs could take her, back for the wood and the darkness and her dreams of vengeance.

Copyright © 2016 by Michael Livingston

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