Governor Saxa, of the great city of Carce, a fantasy analog of ancient Rome, is rusticating at his villa. When Saxa's son Varus accompanies Corylus on a visit to the household of his father, Crispus, a retired military commander, Saxa graciously joins the party with his young wife Hedia, daughter Alphena, and a large entourage of his servants, making it a major social triumph for Crispus. But on the way to the event, something goes amiss. Varus, who has been the conduit for supernatural visions before, experiences another: giant crystalline worms devouring the entire world.
Soon the major characters are each involved in supernatural events caused by a struggle between two powerful magicians, both mentored by the deceased poet and mage Vergil, one of whom wants to destroy the world and the other who wishes to stop him. But which is which? There is a complex web of human and supernatural deceit to be unraveled.
Monsters of the Earth, the new novel in David Drake's ongoing chronicles of Carce, The Books of the Elements, is a gripping and intricate work of fantasy.
About the Author
DAVID DRAKE, best known for his military SF, is the author or coauthor of over sixty books. Monsters of the Earth is the third book in his four-volume Books of the Elements series. He lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
Monsters of the Earth
By David Drake
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 David Drake
All rights reserved.
Gaius Alphenus Varus looked back over his shoulder. There were only a dozen servants ahead of him and his friend Corylus as they wound through the streets of Puteoli to the wharfs on the Bay itself. Behind, however, there must be a hundred people. More!
"We look like a religious procession," Varus muttered. He tugged the shoulder of his toga, a square of heavy wool with the broad purple stripe of a senatorial family, to settle it a little more comfortably.
Varus had no taste for pomp, but he was polite, so he couldn't treat this occasion as though he were merely a scholar who needed only a tunic and at most one servant to carry his satchel of writing and reference materials. That would be insulting to the friend of Corylus' father whom they were visiting — and to Varus' own father, Gaius Alphenus Saxa: senator and recent consul of the Republic of Carce.
Corylus chuckled. He said, "We look like a train of high officials going to consult the Sibyl, you mean? That's a good five miles from here, though, farther than I want to hike, wearing a toga on a day this warm."
He and Varus were the same age, seventeen, but Publius Cispius Corylus was taller by a hand's breadth and had a bright expression that made him look five years younger than his companion. Corylus had gotten his hair, reddish with touches of gold, from his mother.
He had been born on the Rhine frontier where his father had commanded a cohort. His mother, Coryla, was a local girl who had died giving birth. Soldiers couldn't marry while on active duty, but Cispius had acknowledged his son as legitimate.
"Saxa wouldn't be in the best shape after a five-mile hike," Varus said mildly, pitching his voice so that only his friend was likely to hear the words. "Let alone Hedia."
Hedia was Saxa's third wife and therefore by law the mother of Varus and his sixteen-year-old sister, Alphena. Hedia was twenty-three, beautiful, and sophisticated to the point of being, well, fast.
In most senses, one could scarcely imagine a less motherly woman than Hedia. In others — in all the ways that really mattered — well, she had faced demons for her stepchildren. What was even more remarkable was that the demons had been the losers.
Varus was a bookish youth who had almost no interests in common with his stepmother. He had nevertheless become glad of the relationship, and he was very glad that his father had a champion as ruthlessly determined as lovely Hedia.
"It's not something I need, either," Corylus said. "Especially not in a toga. I told Pulto —"
He nodded to his servant, who had been the elder Cispius' servant throughout his army career.
"— that he needn't bother wearing one unless he wanted to impress somebody."
Though Corylus kept a straight face, Varus knew the servant well enough to chuckle. He said, "How did Pulto respond to that?"
"He said that if he needed to impress somebody, he'd do it with a bloody sword," Corylus said, grinning again. "Like he'd done a couple hundred times before, he figured. I told him I hoped that wouldn't be necessary on a visit to an old friend like Marcus Veturius."
Pulto was a freeborn citizen of Carce, unlike the other servants and attendants accompanying the nobles and dignitaries present. That said, Pulto had spent his army career keeping Publius Cispius as comfortable and well fed as was possible in camp, and alive when they were in action.
Since Corylus' father believed in leading from the front, "a couple hundred" Germans and Sarmatians probably had met the point of Pulto's sword. Pulto had accumulated medals over the years, but his real honors were the scars puckering and crisscrossing his body.
An animal screamed in the near distance, meaning they were nearing the compound where Veturius stored the beasts he imported. From here he shipped them to amphitheaters — largely in Carce, but all over Italy.
Varus felt his lips tighten. His first thought had been that the cry had come from a human in pain, but it was too loud.
"An elephant, perhaps?" said Corylus, who must have been thinking the same thing.
"Loud even for that," Varus said. "Well, we'll know soon enough."
The spectators lining both sides of the street shouted, "Hail, Lord Saxa!" and similar things. Balbinus, the steward who ran Saxa's home here on the Bay of Puteoli, must have planned extremely well.
This district housed sellers of used clothing and cookware whose booths would normally fill the street. A detachment of husky servants had cleared them back before Saxa and his entourage had tried to pass through, but the squad leading the procession itself was flinging little baskets to the crowd.
The gifts — sweet rolls, candied fruit, or a few copper coins — changed the residents' mood from riotous to a party and led them to cheer instead of finding things of their own to hurl. Buildings in Puteoli didn't reach four or five stories as they did in Carce, but even so bricks thrown from a rooftop would be dangerous.
"Varus ...," Corylus said, his voice suddenly husky. "I, ah ... That is, my father feels greatly honored that former consul Saxa has accepted his invitation to visit the compound. I don't think Father cares greatly for himself, but it raises him in the eyes of his old friend Veturius. I, ah ... I thank you on behalf of my father, and on my own behalf, because you've so pleased a man whom I love."
"I accept your thanks," Varus said mildly. "I believe that's your father waiting in the gateway, isn't it? And I suppose that's Veturius in the toga beside him."
Corylus already knew that Varus hadn't encouraged Saxa to come with him to the animal compound, so there was no need to repeat the statement. Indeed, the whole expedition had grown of itself, the way a rolling pebble might trigger a landslide.
The importer Marcus Veturius had told his friend Publius Cispius that he had brought back a group of unfamiliar animals from deep into Africa. Cispius had suggested he send for his son, Corylus, a student in Carce, who was learned and might be able to identify the creatures.
Corylus had asked to bring along his friend and fellow student Gaius Varus, whom he said was even more learned. After a grimace of modesty, Varus could have agreed. Corylus was himself a real scholar as well as being a great deal more; but dispassionately, Varus knew that his own knowledge was exceptional.
All that would have been a matter of academic interest, literally: a pair of students visiting an importer's compound to view exotic animals. Everything changed because Saxa, Hedia, and Alphena were spending the month nearby at the family house on the Bay.
Saxa was not only a former consul — which was merely a post of honor since all real power was in the hands of the Emperor and of the bureaucrats who had the Emperor's ear — but also one of the richest men in the Senate. Anything Saxa did was done — had to be done — on a grand scale.
Saxa had no political ambition, which was the only reason he had survived under a notably suspicious emperor, but he did desperately want to be seen as wise. Unfortunately, although he loved knowledge and knew many things, Saxa's mind was as disorderly as a jackdaw's nest.
Varus, however, was a scholar. Despite his youth, he had gained the respect of some of the most learned men in Carce — including Pandareus of Athens, who taught him and Corylus. Instead of being envious, Saxa basked in his son's successes.
Saxa hadn't been a harsh father, but he had scarcely seemed to notice his children until recently. Now he was making an effort to be part of his son's life and so had asked to accompany Varus to view the strange animals.
Varus hadn't even considered asking his father to stay out of the way, but his presence had turned a scholarly visit into a major social undertaking. A younger senator named Quintus Macsturnas had bought the whole shipment of animals to be killed at a public spectacle in Carce to celebrate his election as aedile. When Macsturnas heard that Saxa planned to visit the compound, he had asked to accompany his senior and even wealthier colleague.
Varus smiled, though his lips scarcely moved. Courtesy aside, how could he — or his father — have denied Macsturnas permission to view the animals he himself had purchased?
Besides which, the even greater pomp was certain to please Cispius and his old friend. The aedile's attendants were added to those of Saxa and the separate establishments of Hedia, Alphena, and — because this was now a formal occasion — the ten servants accompanying Varus himself.
"I wonder ...," said Corylus, looking at the following procession and returning Varus' attention there also. "If there'll be sufficient room in the compound, what with Veturius just getting in a big shipment?"
He shrugged, then added, "I don't suppose it matters if the servants wait in the street, though."
Varus consciously smoothed away his slight frown, but he continued to look back. Corylus will stop me if I'm about to run into something.
A dozen servants walked directly behind the two youths. They were sturdy fellows who carried batons that would instantly become cudgels if there was a problem with local residents. Next were the two senators and their immediate family — in Saxa's case — and aides.
Varus faced front again. "The old man behind Macsturnas?" he said. "The barefoot old fellow. Do you recognize him, Publius?"
Corylus looked back and shrugged. "Can't say that I do," he said. "Is there something wrong with him?" He coughed and glanced sidelong at Varus. "That is, he seems pretty harmless to me."
"There's nothing wrong that I can see," Varus said, feeling embarrassed. Because he was speaking to Corylus, however, a friend with whom Varus had gone through things that neither of them could explain, he added, "I caught his eyes for a moment when I looked back. He either hates me, or he's a very angry man generally. And I don't recall ever having seen him before in my life."
"He may be the aedile's pet philosopher," Corylus said equably. "Though Macsturnas strikes me as too plump to worry much about ascetic philosophy. And the fellow doesn't have a beard."
"If he were the usual charlatan who blathers a Stoic mishmash to a wealthy meal ticket," Varus said, "he would have a beard as part of the costume. Which implies that whatever he is, he's real. And I agree that Macsturnas doesn't appear to be philosophically inclined, though we may be doing him an injustice."
Varus found comfort in his friend's comfortable acceptance of present reality. Corylus didn't worry about every danger that could occur, but he was clearly willing to deal with anything that did happen.
Corylus' father, Publius Cispius, had started as a common legionary and been promoted to the rank of knight when he retired after twenty-five years in service. Corylus also intended an army career, but his would begin as an officer: a tribune, an aide to the legate who commanded a legion as the Emperor's representative.
That was the formal situation. Informally, Corylus had been born and raised on the frontiers and he'd spent more time on the eastern bank of the Danube — with the scout section of his father's Batavian squadron — than most line soldiers did. Corylus didn't talk about that to Varus or to other students, but sometimes Varus listened while Pulto talked to Saxa's trainer, Lenatus, another old soldier.
There was a great deal Varus didn't understand about his friend's background, but he understood this: Corylus might be frightened, but fear would never stop him from doing his duty to the best of his ability.
He was, after all, a citizen of Carce. As am I.
"Eh?" said Corylus.
I must have spoken aloud. "I was thinking that we have duties as citizens of Carce," Varus said. "As well as our rights."
Corylus said, "That had occurred to me, yes."
Part of Varus' mind considered that a mild response for a soldier to make to a civilian who was talking about duty. His consciousness was slipping into another state, however, in which the Waking World flattened to shadow pictures like those on the walls of Plato's Cave of Ideal Forms.
Corylus had joked about them being a royal procession visiting the seeress whose temple was nearby at Cumae. Varus in his mind was climbing a rocky path to an old woman who stood on an outcrop above all things and all times.
She was the Sibyl, and during the past year she had spoken to him in these waking dreams.
* * *
Hedia saw Varus glance in her direction from beyond the squad of attendants. She smiled back, but almost in the instant she saw him stiffen as his eyes glazed.
Varus faced front again. He was walking on, his legs moving with the regularity of drops falling from a water clock. Hedia had seen the boy in this state before. Seeing him now drove a blade of ice through her heart.
Smiling with gracious interest, Hedia looked past Saxa and said to the aedile, "If I may ask, Lord Macsturnas — why did you decide to give a beast show in thanks for your election instead of a chariot race?"
In a matter touching her family, Hedia would do whatever was proper. Not that poor, dear Saxa was capable of thinking in such terms, but it was possible that one day he would need a favor from Macsturnas. If on that day the aedile remembered how charming Saxa's lovely wife had been — well, courtesy cost Hedia nothing.
Aedile was the lowest elective office, open to men of twenty-five; Macsturnas was no older than that and seemed younger. An aedile's main duties — even before the Emperor began to guide the deliberations of the Senate and therefore the lives of every man, woman, and child in the Republic — were to give entertainments to the populace.
"I thought it was more in keeping with my family's literary interests to offer the populace a mime when I was chosen consul," Saxa volunteered. "My son is quite a poet, did you know?"
Hedia had no more feeling for poetry than she did about the defense of the eastern frontier: both subjects bored her to tears. Varus had assured her, however, that his one public reading had proved to him that he had no poetic talent and that he should never attempt verse again.
Saxa, in trying to become part of the life of the son whom he had ignored for so long, was resurrecting an embarrassment. Well, that was easy to cover.
"Though of course we're great fans of chariot racing also," Hedia lied with bubbly innocence. "After all, some of the most illustrious men in the Republic are. We follow the White Stables in particular."
Hundreds of thousands of spectators filled the Great Circus for even an average card of chariot racing; it was by far the most popular sport in the Republic. Hedia didn't care about that, though charioteers tended to be more lithely muscular than most gladiators and thus of some interest.
The Emperor was a racing enthusiast. Hedia cared about that. And because the Emperor backed the Whites, Hedia would swear on any altar in Carce that her husband did also. She didn't have any particular belief in gods, but she felt that any deity worth worshiping would understand that the survival of the Alphenus family was more important than any number of false oaths.
"Well, you see ...," said Macsturnas, his tone becoming more oily and inflated with every syllable. "My family were nobles of Velitrum. Our house was ancient before the very founding of Carce."
He gestured with both hands, as though flicking rose water off his fingers as he washed between courses of a meal. A more prideful man than Saxa might have taken offense at the implied slight; and though Saxa's wife, also a noble of Carce, didn't let her smile slip, this bumptious fellow might one day regret his arrogance.
"To Etruscans of our rank," Macsturnas continued, "gladiatorial games are not a sport but a religious rite. I therefore expected to hire pairs of gladiators for my gift to the people. But then the agent I sent to Puteoli learned that Master Veturius was back from Africa with a number of unique animals. I ordered him to purchase the whole shipment and came down to look at them myself. My gift will be unprecedented!"
Excerpted from Monsters of the Earth by David Drake. Copyright © 2013 David Drake. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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