I sent Cloelie to him then crawled into my bed to sleep. I didn’t have to see Decentius again until nightfall, and the village was only an hour’s walk.
Before I could fall asleep, I heard that incessant giggling out in the corridor. Cloelie had returned. I stood at the door, listening. Some of the other slaves gave me looks, but they returned to their beds at my glares. I opened the door a crack so I could see what she was giggling about this time.
There was Cloelie and her two friends standing outside the women’s quarters. Obviously the other women slaves found the giggling as annoying as I did so they had stayed in the hall. As when I’d first come across them, Cloelie was pale and sickly looking, and her friends were fawning over her.
“Yes,” Cloelie was saying regally, “he requested me specifically. Already. I heard the old Signore didn’t do that for years.” I could see the corner of her smirk and the looks of awe on her friends’ faces.
“Do you think he’d…raise you?” one of the friends asked.
Cloelie waved a hand. “Oh, you never know. Someone had better, soon, that’s all I know.” She huffed, then took one of her friend’s arms and they all headed into the women’s quarters.
So it seemed my master had the power to raise a slave. I wondered if that is what had been done to him; he certainly wasn’t born to power. I returned to my bed to go to sleep. Perhaps this ‘Neo’ would have some answers.
I awoke when the sun was nearing its height. There were at least a dozen other slaves and servants eating breakfast. Apparently this schedule was not unusual here. I spooned my porridge from the bowl and sat alone to eat. As I looked around the room I noticed that most of the slaves and servants were near my age. The women were a little younger. There were no children, and only one older man.
After taking the remains of my breakfast to be cleaned, I headed out for Noto. The walk was long and hot, and I had nothing to drink. My sandals and feet were covered with dust by the time I saw the village. Approaching it I saw several fields of grain. There were no clear borders, so how was I ever to determine which was the largest field? Not a problem.
I walked directly to the nearest field. It was full of slaves threshing. I knew at once who was the padrone. Head slightly bowed, I walked up to him. I shuffled my feet and looked down, around, and anywhere but at him. “What do you want?” he asked soon enough.
“They sent me to find Neo,” I peered up at him. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and pointed. I nodded and walked onwards.
Each field I came to I performed the same routine, and was pointed onwards, until the fourth when the padrone simply called out, “NEO!” A scruffy brown haired man turned, and the padrone pointed right at him. I nodded my thanks to the padrone and walked over to Neo.
Neo had wrinkles in the corners of his eyes and dark circles under them. He may have been fit once but now he was wan and looked hunted.
“What?” he asked when I stood in front of him.
I looked him in the eyes and he flinched. “A friend sent me to find you.”
He grunted. “I have no friends. Only demons.” I believed him.
Unfazed, I replied, “Nonetheless, I have been sent.”
“Fine,” he shrugged, “I’m working. Come back later.” He turned back to his threshing.
“Perhaps if I assisted you?” I said. I looked around. There was a pile of scythes at the padrone’s feet. Neo shrugged. I went over to the pile and picked up a scythe.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the padrone glared. “You don’t work here.”
“Sir, if I may? I shall assist Neo so that you do not lose any productivity due to my conversation with him.” The padrone grunted and shook his head.
“Fine, just don’t kill yourself.” He grinned at this remark, and pointed me towards a gap to Neo’s left. I took my place in line and began to swing the scythe. The grain fell before me.
The padrone kept me there until day’s end, which meant the sun was starting down. I had to get Neo somewhere and keep him there, then walk all the way back to the villa and get Decentius. I was not amused.
I swung my scythe over my shoulder and fell in step beside Neo. “I’m thirsty,” I said as we dropped our scythes into the pile.
“Fine,” he replied, “let’s get a drink.” Neo strode out of the field along a well-beaten path into the village of Noto. Enroute we passed an empty home. Neo flinched and doubled his pace as we drew near. He passed through the collection of houses and huts that was Noto with ease, and led me directly to a taverna. He pushed through the door and did not stop until he reached a table at the far back corner. “Good enough for you?” he asked, plopping into a chair.
I nodded and sat across from him. The chairs and table were worn and stained and smelled of alcohol. A man came over and plunked a drink in front of us both. Neo lifted his and drained it immediately. “Another,” he said handing the empty mug to the barman, who just nodded. My task had just become easier. I took a slow sip. Neo turned to look at me. “So, why are you looking for me?”
Not as dumb as he appeared. “As I said, a friend sent me.”
“Yes,” he grunted, “and as I said, I have no friends. Not anymore.” The barman returned and plunked two drinks in front of Neo. Neo picked up a mug from the table and stared into it. I waited. The more maudlin he was, the faster he’d get drunk and I could fetch Decentius. “I suppose you know why.” I shook my head, not even needing to lie.
“Well, I suppose it started about ten years ago,” Neo said, swirling his drink then downing half the mug. “My best friend, Demetrius, and I met this girl, woman really, Letha. Eros, she was beautiful. And kind. And sweet. And everything a man could want.” He paused to stare into his mug again, obviously seeing this ‘Letha’ in its depths. “And he won.”
Neo finished his drink, slammed it onto the table and put his face in his hands. “She told me I was too frivolous. And Demetri never was. So he won.” He lifted his head to look at me; his eyes pits edged with smile lines. I looked back at him then took a drink. Staring into his drink, he continued. “They got married and were deliriously happy. I was happy for them, at first, happy my friend had found someone. Then they started trying to have a family. And it didn’t take. And it didn’t take. They prayed at all the temples, did all the rituals, and it didn’t take. Years they spent, and money they couldn’t afford. Then finally she came to me.” He drained the second mug, thudded it on the table, and stared at me defiantly. “I did it for her. For him. For both of them, so they’d be happy. Except she died.” He stared at his empty mug until the barman noticed and came to replace the two empty ones with full ones. Then Neo downed half of one.
“She died, but the baby lived. Zoie. My daughter. Demetri’s daughter. All I got to be was ‘Uncle Neo’. But he had a piece of Letha and he went on. We went on together. And I thought it was going to be all right. Then he figured it out.” Another half a mug down. “That must have been it. He went berserk that morning, that whole day really. And the way he looked at me as he carried off Zoie’s body. As though I were a dead man.” He snorted. “I suppose the only reason I’m not is that he killed himself first. I guess. I found where he had buried Zoie, right with her mother. I saw the blood on the ground. Something must have taken the body.” He closed his eyes, and his voice dropped. “Or eaten it. Anyways,” he said returning to his story, “that’s it. I betrayed my friend, lost the woman I loved, my daughter, and him. I have no friends, only demons in my dreams. Unless I drown them.” He drank the second mug, looked at me as though he was going to ask something, and fell forward across the table.
I poked Neo in the side, once gently and then again with more force. He didn’t get up, he didn’t move or say anything. I finished my drink; in the time he’d had six I hadn’t even finished one, then walked over to find the barman. He saw me coming.
“You a friend of old Neo’s, then?” he asked, cleaning a mug one handed with a worn rag.
“Not exactly,” I replied, “but I work for one. I need to fetch him here but it will take awhile. Quite awhile.”
The barman nodded and put the mug on the wooden bartop. “Well, Neo’ll be out for a bit, then up to eat and drink some more. He don’t usually go home till the moon’s high.” I could see out the doorway and the sun hadn’t finished setting.
“Good,” I said. “I will return with my master before the moon is high.” I leaned forward. “Be certain Neo does not leave. My master does not like to be disappointed.” The barman snorted, unconcerned. “I will let him know who is responsible. You may benefit…or not.” I held his eyes to be certain he understood. He nodded. I turned and left for my trek back to the villa.
I trudged for an hour, and by the time I reached the villa the sun had completely set. Assuming Decentius would wake at the same time as the previous night, I hurried into the villa and made my way quickly to his rooms. I opened the door quietly and saw his head beginning to rise as I shut it.
I kept my eyes down as Decentius rose, but peered at him. He did not yawn or stretch on rising, but swung out of bed in one movement. I moved to the guardaroba to obtain a fresh tunic and held it out toward the bed. He took the tunic from me but did not put it on. I looked carefully at him to see what was wanted.
“Better,” he said. “You are useless to me, Antonius, if you will never look up. You will not see the important things on the floor.” With that he flipped his tunic over his head. “Now,” he continued, staring at me, “what have you discovered about Neo?”
I kept my eyes on his face, though I lowered them slightly to look at his chin, not his eyes. “Neo is awaiting us in a taverna in Noto. He is drunk and passed out. The barman assured me he does not leave the taverna before the moon is at its height.” I decided to keep ‘Demetri’ for myself.
“Anything else?” Decentius asked. I shook my head. He grunted and shook his head as well. “Then I suppose we had best go.” I moved swiftly to the foot of Decentius’ bed to obtain his sandals. As I handed them over, he smiled slightly. “Efficient.” I nodded. “Come.” He held out a hand to me. I stared at it, and then at Decentius. His smile had grown. “This will be much faster,” he said and grabbed my forearm.
Then he turned to shadow and surrounded me. We were as tall as he was, then we shrank and stretched, moving as shadow under the door and out through the hallway. No one noticed as our shadow moved past. I got a quick glance up several women’s dresses before we passed outside the villa and sped towards Noto. I wondered if Decentius had demonstrated this power to any of the other slaves. I would have to learn it.
I saw the taverna approaching and tried to speak but could only breathe shadow. He knew somehow and spit me out. Though it was fully dark now, I tracked that shadow as I made my way inside to Neo. It stayed at my side.
Neo was at the same table. He was awake now, and slowly sipping at his mug while staring at nothing. I returned to the seat I had vacated not two hours ago. “Back so soon?” Neo said without even glancing at me. “So where’s this supposed ‘friend’ of mine?” Neo put down his mug and looked at me. The shadow was right beside Neo’s chair, yet I couldn’t explain that to him.
Then the shadow grew and shaped itself into an upright oblong just the size of Decentius. It disappeared, leaving him standing a step from Neo. Neo bolted backward, his chair scraping ruts in the dirt floor, his mug spilling. “Demetri!” he blurted. Demetri? I wondered.
Decentius turned and met my eyes. “Stay,” he said. “Neo,” he turned, smiling, and laid a hand on Neo’s arm, “come we need to talk, in private.” White as bone Neo rose and followed Decentius out of the taverna.
I waited a twenty count after the door had closed behind them then went to follow. I turned towards the door, but when I made to rise from my chair I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t lift me. I wanted to go after Decentius, Demetri, whatever his name really was. I needed to know this thing; it might give me blackmail I could use to my advantage. But it seemed my legs would rather obey Decentius’ command to ‘Stay’ than my own desires. I lifted Neo’s overturned mug. A mouthful of wine remained, and I swallowed it at once. I struggled to stand again. “Barman!” I yelled, “Come here!”
The barman came swiftly, dodging tables and chairs, his face anxious. “What is it, then?”
“Help me up,” I said. He eyed me suspiciously and sniffed my breath.
“Just help me up, man, and never mind why,” I growled. He shrugged and offered me his hand. “Not like that, you idiot! Pull me up! Take me to the door.” The barman put his arms under mine and lifted me from my chair. I tried to lift my feet, but they still would not move. Shaking his head, the barman dragged me towards the door.
One step, two, three, then four. On the fourth step I pushed with my own legs. On the fifth, I was walking. I shook off the barman and continued out the door. How much of a headstart had Decentius gotten? Would I be able to find him in time to learn who ‘Demetri’ was?
The moon was high overhead and shadows fell from the buildings around me. I marched right into an alley between the backs of stores. No. I stopped and turned around. That deserted house Neo had gone past on his way from the field. The one that made him flinch. I was betting it had something to do with ‘Demetri’.
I ran towards that house, slowing only when I saw its moonlit outline. I strode carefully towards it, and tried to stay in the shadows.
Neo was on his knees before Decentius. I could hear the sound of his sobs through the quiet air. Decentius was standing over him, his back to me. He seemed to be listening.
“I’m sorry, Demetri,” Neo sighed, “I don’t know what else to say.” His face shone with wetness as he looked up at Decentius, but he wasn’t begging. “I know I’m dead. Just…say you’ll forgive me. Someday.” Decentius bent over him, whispering something in his ear that made Neo close his eyes. And then Neo gasped. And then he screamed.
Decentius continued whispering. I smiled at the screams, wondering what their cause was. What was Decentius saying that would cause such terror? He was taking his time. I supposed he was describing in great detail how he would enact justice on Neo.
Then he dropped Neo to the ground, and turned. His mouth was dark and bloody. He hadn’t been whispering at all. He had bitten Neo until he bled to death. My smile grew. He lofted Neo over his shoulder and strode away. I ran to keep up.
My legs were beginning to tire when Decentius finally dropped Neo on some dirt that looked as though it had been dug up not long ago. Then Decentius knelt and put his hands on Neo’s shoulders. “Now you are together in death. Addio mia ama. I shall not be coming to Hades to be with you.” I stepped back into what shadow there was as he rose.
It didn’t matter. He turned directly to me. “And you,” he was at my side in one stride, “you have seen far too much. But you are efficient.” His grin mirrored mine when Neo had screamed. “I will have to bind you.” His right hand brushed across his left forearm, then instantly grabbed my neck. I pushed against his grip. This time my legs worked, but still I could not get free and all Decentius did was grin. I swung my arms at his. He didn’t even flinch. He just held my head and placed his left forearm against my mouth. It was bloody and oozing. He pressed my face harder, my nose covered by his arm. I opened my mouth to breathe and tasted blood. But this blood tasted different. It was less salty than normal blood, and much richer. My nose was now free, but I was curious. I let the blood flow into my mouth. It was rich like good wine, and hearty like stew. I could feel power in each mouthful I gulped. Then he pulled his arm away.
“Enough. You are bound. You will learn the rest in time. Now, we will return to the villa.” Decentius stepped forward into the shadow and disappeared, leaving me to walk. I felt power surge through me as took my first step. I began to run, faster than I had before. My legs were no longer tired. I was full of energy and power. Binding be damned, I wanted more.
The moment I heared the door shut, and Antonius’ ragged breath, I knew he had found Neo. Though Neo was rarely difficult to find.
It is amusing to watch Antonius learn his new place, and where exactly he is. I enjoyed the expression on his face as he watched me dissolve into shadow. It was so relaxing, the shadow. Antonius' heart pounded as I engulfed him, dragging him along to Noto as swiftly as a shadow moves.
His struggles to speak would have been amusing if he hadn’t been attempting to breathe bits of my shadow, so I released him. Then followed as he marched towards the taverna. It was old and worn, like everything in Noto, and squeezed in the square between a butcher shop and a fabric stall.
I could see Antonius trying to track my shadow with his eyes. He was better than most of the old Signore’s slaves. Better than any I’d encountered, save the maggiordomo who has years of practice.
I would have frozen when I saw Neo, but shadows do not freeze. My friend and betrayer was a walking dead man, not of the body, but the soul. His eyes, the gateways to his soul, were empty black pits. He was no more the man he had been than I was. I gathered my shadows together and emerged.
“Demetri!” Neo screamed, knocking back his chair and spilling his drink. He gazed up at me in terror.
I turned to Antonius, not wanting his intrusion into this personal matter. “Stay,” I commanded, staring into his mind so that he was forced to obey. “Neo,” I turned with a small smile, “come, we need to talk in private.” I pulled him to his feet then turned to leave. I could hear his plodding footsteps following behind me.
I slipped outside the door and moved to the side, grabbing Neo as he stepped through. Neo didn’t scream, only grunted in submission. With a simple relaxation, I was shadow once more and Neo was along for the ride. He was subdued, and didn’t bother to struggle like Antonius. He really did not seem himself. I began to be suspicious.
We slid through the shadows to the old house. I had left it alone these past months, but it seemed a fitting place to reconnect with my old friend. A place where so much had happened, for both of us.
I released Neo, who crumpled to heap in the dirt outside my old home. I gathered my shadows and stood before him. “Why?” I said.
Neo knelt before me, the shadows in his eyes familiar. “I…I…” he spluttered, and pleaded with his hands, my new self defeating his attempts to speak. “Who are you? What… Demetri? Are you real? Or…have you come back for me from Hades?”
I stared into the pits of his eyes with ferocity. My hands quivered with restraint. “WHY?” I bellowed. Neo collapsed onto the ground; his breathing grated on my ears. I calmed myself, outwardly. “Neo, it is me. I want to know why. You know what happens then.” I wanted to lift him from the ground, to have him stand beside me like my old friend, but I knew if I touched him I would kill him.
Neo sighed and sat up in the dirt. “You deserve to know, but it’s not what you think. I didn’t want to hurt you, or her. I loved you both!” His eyes were wet as he looked up at me. I ached for him, but I needed to know. “She couldn’t have your child, Demetri, she didn’t know why. You know how you tried, and prayed, and…one day she asked me for help.” His hands reached out for me, to touch the hem of my tunic, my leg, anything. I stepped away. I needed to know. “And I gave it. I was weak. I loved her. I loved you. I told myself you’d never know. I told myself it was for you. I told myself….” His eyes were fixed on mine, pleading for understanding, while his hands twisted in agony. “And then Zoie came and you were so happy, I knew I could never tell you. But you figured it out. How…how did you figure it out?”
I answered his plea. “The eyes.” Neo inhaled sharply then nodded.
“They weren’t blue, they were green like mine. But why did you…what did you…what happened?” Neo peered into my face. Traces of tears lent light to his pale face.
I closed my eyes against the memories. “I did not react well to the revelation. It was an accident. I would never…hurt…a child.” The words tore my throat. I closed my eyes tighter but still the image of Zoie’s head lying at the foot of her rock would not leave. It never left me. “But I did. Thanks to you.” I had forgotten in my grief that the cause lay at my feet. “Is that all?”
Neo looked up at me. “I’m sorry, Demetri,” Neo said, “I don’t know what else to say.” I could see the knowledge of what was next written on his face. He had accepted it. “I know I’m dead. Just…say you’ll forgive me. Someday.”
I leaned over Neo and whispered, “I forgive you.” Then I bit him. His screams sounded around me. I could taste him as I drank his blood, and wondered if Letha had tasted the same thing. Sunshine and honey, vibrance and passion, and sorrow. Would the sorrow have been there, then? Still, as I took the life from my old friend and betrayer, I wondered if it were really necessary.
His blood gone, his life gone, I lifted Neo over my shoulder and strode to the grave; the only grave that mattered. I could hear Antonius running behind me; I would deal with him after. As I lay Neo down I could feel the earth I had dug up. It was soft and fresh and full of life. I wished, again, that I had died here. I sat back on and looked at Neo resting. Here he was with Letha and Zoie. The family of blood together in death. I had no family in life, and did not look to find one in unlife. Immortality might stretch before me, but my heart would lie here.
I leaned forward and lay my hands on Neo’s shoulders. “Now you are together in death. Addio mia ama. I shall not be coming to Hades to be with you.” I stood, and turned to deal with Antonius.
He had attempted to hide in the shadows; foolish. Had he not being paying attention? Shadows were mine to command. He could never hide from me there. “And you,” I moved to Antonius, grinning, “you have seen far too much. But you are efficient. I will have to bind you.” I slashed my left forearm with the long nail of my right hand, and grabbed Antonius by the neck. He struggled pitifully against me, but I brought his lips to my arm. Still he fought, such anger, but it was inevitable; in his search for breath, he drank. One drink was all it took for the blood to bind a servanti, and I let him have several. “Enough. You are bound. You will learn the rest in time. Now, we will return to the villa.” I turned, and relaxed into shadow, knowing that he would follow. The binding would force him too, though I suspected he was arrogant enough to think he could use it against me.
My shadow skimmed through the moonlight. I returned to my rooms with time to purge the night’s events before Antonius arrived.