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Mother of Ghosts

Mother of Ghosts

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Mother of Ghosts

209 pages
3 hours
Apr 1, 2016


Gaius Mercurius is a typical young man in the most important city of its time, Rome. Like many others coming of age, he dreads the choices placed before him. Family expectations weigh heavily upon Gaius and his friends as life marches them toward adult responsibilities. When Gaius has one foot into the dull world of manhood, a terrifying murder activates a supernatural force which insidiously intrudes upon his life. To save himself, Gaius must delve into family mysteries while zealously protecting his own secrets. Everything he trusts must be left behind to escape the darkness.

Apr 1, 2016

About the author

Wynn Mercere writes fantasy, horror, and historical fiction. Past work in the gaming and comics industries under other pen names includes titles in the Catalyst TM Citybook, Traps, and Maps series. She has scripted radio and television commercials, short documentaries, several indie comics and is a voice actor in the comedy podcast, "The Fakist.".

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Mother of Ghosts - Wynn Mercere

Mother Of Ghosts

By Wynn Mercere

Copyright 2016 Wynn Mercere

Distributed by Smashwords

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental other than instances of historical facts.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form, other than quoting paragraphs for review purposes.

This book is available in print at most online retailers.


Special Thanks To:

Raven Press (Scottsdale, AZ)

William Kerr

Robert Kassebaum

Harry Seidler

Technical Advice:

Steve Crompton

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Marcus

Chapter 2 – Metella

Chapter 3 – Argus

Chapter 4 – Prima

Chapter 5 – Mania

Bonus Preview – City of the Gods: Ambassador

About the Author


Gaius Mercurius could already hear the neighborhood’s merchants pulling out their carts, even though the rise of the sun was hours yet away. Each seller would vie for the best spot in the forum, hoping to be open for business when the priests rolled away the ceremonial stone to begin the day’s festival. Gaius, in one of those baseless and fleeting depressions peculiar to younger men of privilege, decided that if he were a ghost, he wouldn’t bother to float up from the pit. What was there to see in Rome anyway?

To believe his father, the lifeblood of the city was the dry rattle of politics. These squabbles between men were sometimes punctuated by a dagger in the back. His tutor tried to make such murders the stuff of history, but Gaius failed to grasp how being deceased advanced anyone’s stature. That’s why the holiday seemed so silly to him. It was one of a stretch of days that paid homage to the dead – who, from what he could tell, weren’t the least bit impressed by the cakes and effigies so carefully created for their enjoyment. Yet most in the city were happy to spend their time hanging decorations, performing odd ceremonies, and showing off their respect for the ancient past in the hope that the spirits would treat them benevolently. Unlike them, Gaius knew where the true pleasures of the celebrations lay.

In those afternoon hours before respectable families closed their doors to visitors, he would meet his friends in the secluded streets. Sometimes his company would taunt the spirits, other times share their own fears. There would be ample opportunities for stolen embraces to lend both spiritual and physical comforts in the face of Roman mortality. He needed that diversion as much the ghosts needed the rites of the holiday.

Gaius didn’t like to think about what lay ahead. In a year or two, he and his friends would reach a man’s full age and set off toward their separate endings in the service of Rome. It was wrong, he sulked, that only the ghosts were assured of any constancy in their existence. He fell back into sleep, the warm, living faces of his friends consuming his dreams. He had no use for nightmares about the future.

When he did finally drag himself from his bed, he told his mother he was going to visit his friend Lucius Pavo. He felt close to Lucius, and hoped to become closer still to his older sister Claudia. He’d even considered taking her a poem he’d composed, but decided it was best to wait until he was sure his attentions were welcome. As he left the house, his mother called after him to give her regards to Lucius’ mother a courtesy which Gaius promptly forgot as he hurried out. His thoughts were focused on the other person he hadn’t told her he planned to meet on the way to Lucius’ house: Marcus Sergius.

Marcus was one of those young men that good families had little use for. There was nothing particularly wrong with him, he was just common, and consequently of little social value. Yet Marcus was very good at making friends and possessed a resourceful mischief that made him a hard person to ignore. Gaius had spent a fair amount of that year allowing Marcus to lead him into one episode of veniality after another. However, Marcus was growing too attached, too bold. Gaius knew it was best to break off their contact. Perhaps this time he’d find the courage to do so. He hadn’t yet mustered the nerve.

Marcus was lounging in front of the old Temple of Vesta when Gaius arrived in the forum. His curly dark hair was slick with oils from a recent barbering and his skin was finally beginning to lose the deep tan it had acquired the previous summer. By comparison, Gaius knew he looked almost pale and his less impressive brown hair was the bane of his own barber’s efforts to style it.

Gaius, Marcus called out, spotting him immediately and falling into step along side. Where away?

To Lucius Pavo’s, Gaius said, purposely not stopping or looking at him lest someone think he was encouraging the rogue. And what makes you think you’re invited?

You came to me, didn’t you? Which makes me wonder what use you have for Lucius Pavo. Marcus smirked at him.

I want to see his sister, Gaius announced, hoping to deflect any lewd hopes Marcus was entertaining. Which leaves Lucius to you.

Marcus halted. Gaius smiled to himself, never missing a step as he turned the corner onto the street where the Pavii lived. He had discovered a talent for surprising others with his remarks and enjoyed the confusion he was able to cause. Marcus found his footing quickly, though, and was soon back at his side.

I suppose. It is a festival day. Anything could happen, Marcus said.

They arrived at the House of Pavo. The gate was drawn across the vestibulum. Gaius peeked through the bars into the atrium but saw no one about.

Venus mocks you, Marcus judged, pointing at the floor mosaic of the goddess just inside the gate. No high-born girls of loose morals for you.

Are you an oracle now? Gaius asked, moving toward the other side of the residence. The Pavii often entertained in their peristylium, so a check of the back entrance was in order.

I predict disaster, he mused. You don’t know what you’re getting into chasing after sisters.

They turned another corner and came to a door. Usually a slave was stationed at the entry. No one was there. The portal was shut tight and there was no response to Gaius’ knocks.

A dead end, Marcus pronounced. So. I found a new tavern where –

I’m going to wait. Gaius settled on the stool by the door, leaving Marcus standing uncomfortably before him. Eventually, he slouched against the wall and reached into the wide leather belt that cinched his tunic to his waist.

Have I shown you my new knife? Marcus withdrew a small dagger with an ivory handle etched with elephants. The afternoon sun glinted off the small polished blade. Gaius took the tool, genuinely admiring it. He wondered where Marcus had acquired something so fine. Handing it back, he silently speculated on who might have bestowed such an expensive gift, and who would be publicly embarrassed when Marcus flashed it around at the wrong time.

Marcus was an attractive young man. Gaius couldn’t remember whether he was a year younger or a year older than himself. Marcus had the kind of delicate face that would likely remain fresh well into his later years. Gaius worried at times about his own features, whether his cheeks would sag into limp bags like his father’s had.

Simmering jealousy of Marcus’ fortune in inheriting good looks made Gaius abruptly wish he would go away.

Don’t you want to see the festival? Gaius hinted. If he was lucky, Marcus would grow bored and wander off.

And leave you alone to face the spirits of the dead? What kind of a friend would I be? Marcus said, putting the knife back into his belt and looking up toward the ceremonial decoration on the Pavo’s door. I’m just the man to keep ghosts at bay.

Marcus reached up and tore the offering garland off the door. The dolls represented human sacrifices, provided so that hungry ghosts would feed on them rather than the souls of the living. The nail that had secured the bundle of dolls, one figure for each member of the Pavo family, flew into the gutter. Gaius wasn’t superstitious enough to be concerned about the ghosts’ next meal, but he was righteous enough to resent the vandalism.

Put it back, Gaius said. He stood up as Marcus spun the bundle of effigies, whirling the small figures in a violent orbit.

The house of Claudius Pavo is doomed, Marcus intoned. Ghosts take them all! The little dolls were a blur of tangled heads and limbs. Gaius took a step closer to Marcus and unsuccessfully grabbed for the garland.

Stop it.

Are you afraid the ghosts will come? Marcus teased.

Someone will, Gaius said, annoyed by his antics. You’re making enough noise. Marcus just grinned, flipping the effigies over and over, hoping to provoke him into physical contact.

Gaius turned away to see if Marcus’ bad behavior had been observed. Up the street, a slave from the house of Gabinius had indeed heard them and was leaning out of their doorway to see what they were up to. He was Egyptian, judging from his shorn head and the heavy, almost feminine wooden wristlet that dangled from his arm. The hand at the end of that arm held a short club. If he wasn’t busy trying to mitigate the spectacle of Marcus committing a sacrilege, Gaius would have ordered the slave to take his spying, foreign nose back inside.

Instead, he grabbed Marcus by the shoulder to move him around the corner and out of the vigilant Egyptian’s line of sight. As he did, a head separated from one of the little bodies as it swung by. The ball of wool struck Gaius in the face. He flinched, cursing, as the fabric sphere slid down his body. An icy sting flared on his cheek, lingering even after he repeatedly scrubbed his fingers against the impacted skin.

Bunching the cloth at the shoulder of Marcus’ tunic into his fist, Gaius succeeded in yanking him around the back side of the Pavo’s block. Marcus started laughing, grabbing Gaius and wrestling him against the wall.

I knew today would end with your pulling me into an alley, Marcus flirted. Gaius shoved him back.

Didn’t you see? The Gabinii are at home.

Marcus shrugged. It meant nothing to him. Gaius sidestepped and put some distance between them.

Our families are connected. Gaius imagined what his father would do to him for offending such a prominent business partner. His dread was not allowed to flower. From the other side of the housing block, the Egyptian slave suddenly started to shout in his own strange tongue. If he kept it up, he would surely draw the attention of the city watchmen.

Come on, Gaius hissed, already running up the narrow street. Marcus was at his heels, laughing and tearing at other effigies on the doors they passed. As they reached the end of the block, Gaius heard a dull thump. Turning, he saw Marcus lying face down. A shocking thought came to mind. Had that slave actually attacked his friend?

He ran back. Gaius dropped into a crouch over Marcus, who squirmed feebly, making a gurgling, choking sound. Gaius recoiled as he withdrew his left hand from a sticky pool. He ripped his gaze from his fallen friend to his own wet fingers. They hovered over a puddle of blood, fed by a runnel from the opened flesh beneath Marcus’ chin.

Stunned, Gaius stared at what could not be. Marcus lay dying from a cut throat, yet no murderer could be seen. As Gaius hovered in shock over his body, a fell fog enveloped him. The sunlight was obscured as Rome changed into a muted, gray world.

At that moment, not only vision but all senses betrayed him. Gaius peered through the dim mist at Marcus, whose mouth moved but produced no sound. He lifted his own bloodied hand, fisted his fingernails against the gore, but felt nothing. The ever-present smells of cooking, of smoky lamp oil, of a thousand foul bits of street garbage were gone. The only sensory signpost left him was a sweet taste that appeared impossibly in his mouth – the flavor of festival cakes set out for the dead.

Gaius jumped up. You can’t be found here, his own sensible voice repeated urgently in his head. He latched onto that advice, trying not to look again at now dead Marcus or the stolen cluster of effigies clutched loosely in slaughtered fingers. He spun, aiming to flee, but was pushed back against the house as the slave bumped him, rushing by. The Egyptian’s eyes were wide with madness and he moaned as his fingers clawed the skin of his naked scalp. The stories Gaius had heard about the spirits who drove men mad, the maniae, suddenly rang true. The fog thickened. According to the myths, he had little time to save himself.

Gaius dropped to his knees, frantically untangling the woolen dolls and string from Marcus’ lifeless grip. He rushed to the door of the House of Pavo and slapped the iron-braced wood for a nail, a protrusion, anything on which to hang the offerings and thwart the curse of the maniae. He clawed at the entry, marveling that his desperate pounding remained as silent as the grave. Thwarted, he threw the dolls on the threshold in frustration. Then he remembered that Marcus had a knife.

He returned to the body, rolled it onto its back, and fished under the belt where Marcus had tucked the dagger. His friend’s dead eyes confronted him, as if to acknowledge the intimate fumbling. There – he had it – and Gaius pushed up and away from the corpse. He took a deep breath and spun back toward the door. That air rushed out soundlessly as something took form before him in the smoky ether. He instinctively threw his hands up to protect his head as the thing loomed. The knife flew from his grip.

As he raised his arms, Gaius was vaguely aware that something dropped from a fold in his cloak and landed at his feet. As terrified as he was, he could easily believe his heart had leapt out of his chest. Gaius prayed to all his family gods, peppering his pleas with every protective phrase and lucky watchword he could remember.

While cocked down in this submissive cringe, he noticed a bright, white orb by his toes. Better to focus on that, he thought, than meet this horror. Frozen, he stared at the ball, realizing it was the piece of the offering doll that had struck him in the face. It must have lodged in the folds of his cloak and fallen when he raised his arms. The little head actually had a face. Its two tiny eyes and crooked smile taunted him. Let my last act be to grind the thing beneath my shoe, he vowed. Before he could, pale, long fingers grabbed his ankle.

Gaius strained against hold of the spirit. Part of it was visible now. Glowing tendrils snaked in the air, forming semi-recognizable body shapes. Faces with incomplete features coalesced and dissolved inside the fog, like vegetables roiling in a pot of soup. The only well-defined parts of the creature were two hands, solid as marble and veined delicately blue. One squeezed Gaius’ leg in a stony grip as the other pawed across the paving stones.

His struggle seemed eternal. Gaius pulled with all his strength, but he could not escape the phantom’s hold. At length, anger and humiliation replaced his terror. The thing surely could have killed him quickly, as it had Marcus, if that were its intent. Instead, it seemed content to keep him dancing a one-legged jig in the middle of the street.

Let me go!

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