The local people whispered stories about Sebastian. Since he always wore a heavy cape with his head hidden under its hood, they called him the Cloaked Man, and everyone avoided the foothills where he lived. If encountered on the road, even the bravest of men would steer a wide path around him. He was a soothsayer, a magician, a necromancer, or –– some claimed –– the son of the devil himself.
Legend depicted that thirty years ago he was conjured by an evil sorcerer who lived as a hermit in the ancient caves in the hills. Sebastian simply appeared one day and could be seen traveling the country roads with the old man. Even as a lad, his eyes were steady, never blinking, and wise beyond his years. He didn’t speak and never made any facial expression. Some said they could not see the boy even breathe.
He grew into a strikingly tall man and remained in the hills even after the old sorcerer died. He had long, pitch-colored hair and always wore it drawn up in a tail when he went to town to patronize The Dragon’s Breath Inn. He paid for his drinks and food with chunks of raw gold, never coins. Some say he had perfected the art of alchemy and made his own precious metals.
Women were drawn to him. Even the most chaste would let their eyes linger on Sebastian and find their faces flush with an unexplainable excitement when he passed by. The whores of the town encircled him like flies, and he never had to pay for their favors.
Now, five Roman soldiers stood outside the wall that encircled his dwelling in the foothills. A centurion pushed on the fence door. His name was Cicero, and he was ordered by Governor Avitar Fabius to apprehend Sebastian. Normally, such a duty would fall onto the shoulders of one of the commanders; it was far below the esteem of a centurion. However, a commander who was previously sent to retrieve Sebastian never returned. A week had passed, and Fabius impatiently ordered Cicero to “bring Sebastian to me and make amends for your faults in basic judgment.”
Cicero’s foible was in not keeping the governor informed of what Cicero thought to be the “inconsequential ramblings of a mad peasant”. Over the past few months, since the Romans had overtaken the Temple Fortress and claimed it as their own, Sebastian had sent several messages to Governor Fabius. They would arrive via messenger late at night, and the guard on watch would deliver them to Cicero. Cicero would glance at the notes with disdain and discard them. He never considered actually showing them to Fabius; the governor was far too consumed with important matters.
One evening however, Fabius found a message under his door. No one could tell how it got there, as if by magic it had suddenly appeared. The letter warned of a surprise barbarian attack.
Not only did the prophecy prove to be accurate, but the note inquired why Fabius had ignored the prior warnings. Fabius reprimanded Cicero for failing to keep him informed of any details that might put his command at risk and demanded that the Cloaked Man be apprehended for questioning.
A figure approached the centurion and his men from behind. Cicero spun around with his weapon drawn. “Who treads there?”
It was a diminutive man in dusty, brown rags. “I am Dereth. My humble home is just around the bend. I heard you marching on the road. I was hoping that you came with word about my son. He’s been missing almost four days.”
“He was probably rounded up as a slave,” Cicero answered.
“No, not him, he was young, too young. The soldiers...your men...came several months ago and spared our family as I am too small and my children too young.”
“We are here for Sebastian. What do you know of him?” one of the soldiers asked.
“He’s a devil; that’s what I know. He consorts with demons and necromancers. One came to visit him several weeks ago. She rode in a carriage at night with an entourage of black ghosts! I hid in the shadows and watched as...” Dereth leaned close to the soldiers and lowered his voice, “she rode right up to the gate and went inside! None dare to go in there. She must have been a witch! That was all I saw. I was afraid her magic would enchant me, and I ran back home.”
“And you should run away now,” Cicero warned. “We’re on official Roman business, and you’re an unwelcome intrusion.” The muscular centurion pressed his shoulder against the gate to assess its strength. He removed his helmet and revealed a round, bald head and a thick, scrunched brow. Nodding once at his men, they simultaneously thrust their bodies forward, crashing through the fragile wooden frame.
Behind the fence was an opening to a cave, illuminated by torches. A shadow loomed before the entrance. As their eyes adjusted, they could see a figure suspended in the air; a body, impaled on a wooden stake, jutted upward from the ground. Crows picked at the decaying flesh and darted to and fro.
“It’s the commander Fabius sent here,” declared one of the guards as he coughed.
With an uneasy step, the centurion led his men around the corpse and toward the cave.
Dereth ventured. “I’ll stand watch out here.”
One of the Romans pushed the fragile man. “Just get out of here, you piece of filth.” Dereth crumbled to the ground and then scurried away.
The men circled the entrance to the cave. A faint light from deep inside flickered shadows on the toadstool-covered walls.
Cicero led his troop inside. They were greeted by the aroma of cooking meat. The centurion motioned with a nod and ordered, “Follow me.”
They cautiously crept behind their leader down the corridor until two tunnels branched off. One was black and stark while the other glowed with the telltale signs of a burning fire deep within.
The centurion waved his sword toward the irradiated passageway. One man stepped forward and called out, “We’re here for you, Sebastian. Show yourself!”
There was no reply.
The centurion made eye contact with each of his men, grunted and nodded, and then they all careened down the corridor at once. The man in front tripped on a wire, though. He toppled and rolled head over feet through the tunnel. Everyone stopped short and watched with horror as a wooden spear sliced through the air from the ceiling. It impaled the man into the ground. He lay there, skewered, writhing, and crying. Like a child, he whimpered his last breath as blood seeped out his gaping mouth.
No one dared advance for fear of meeting the same fate. Cicero studied the floor and ceiling for signs of other booby traps. He saw none and ordered his men, “Go retrieve him.”
With trepidation, one brave soldier inched his way into the corridor, flipped over the body, and slipped it off the spear with a blood-gurgling slurp.
Intestines were hopelessly entangled on the lance. As the living men pulled on their dead friend, the mangled entrails left a goopy trail across the dusty floor. While they hastily cleaned up the mess, the dead man twitched, and his eyes popped open. He gasped for breath and reached a trembling hand toward Cicero.
The centurion mercifully wielded his sword and sliced into his subordinate’s chest. “Now he can rest.”
After regaining their composure, the men cautiously eased their way down the corridor. Tunnels branched off in various directions, and they soon realized they were in a complex labyrinth. Up ahead, firelight flickered, and they followed it like a beacon until they entered a cavernous room. In the center was a fire pit with a bubbling pot poised above it. The massive room was an archaic burial chamber. Within the walls were tomb-sized grottos; each held decayed remains.
On the far wall sat Sebastian on what appeared to be a throne made of human bones. Skeletal remains seemed to be crawling out of their crypts to form it. They melded together to shape the chair; femurs, skulls, and pelvic bones tangled in a macabre design. Above Sebastian’s head, on the backrest, was a skull encircled by rib bones. The halo-like medallion crested him like a crown.
He sat smiling. He wore a black robe, tied loosely at the waist. His bare chest was visible and glistening with an oily sheen. “Welcome, guests!”
Cicero felt a warm rush as he grasped the notion that the Cloaked Man was smiling pleasantly and holding out his arms in a friendly gesture. Bewildered by the amicable reaction, he recited his orders. “Avitar Fabius, the Governor of Touraine, commands your presence before him.”
The Cloaked Man did not react; he sat rock still and absorbed every word the centurion uttered. He allowed the room to fall silent. The guards that flanked their leader began to gaze at each other uneasily. One of the soldiers pushed out his chest with mock bravado, but didn’t muster the courage to speak.
Sebastian waited until the uneasy quiet made them all jittery and uncertain, and then he nonchalantly spoke. “Thank you for the invitation. I’ll gladly come with you. Give me a moment to gather my things.”
“Make it fast,” growled Cicero. “We have orders to take you to the Temple Fortress immediately.”
Sebastian gathered up a copper bowl and several candles from a nearby table as one of the soldiers asked, “Did you make that?”
“My throne? Yes, I did. Do you like it?”
The soldier grimaced and another shook his head with disdain.
Sebastian snarled, “You may find it gruesome for me to construct a chair out of those bones, but for me, I am just making due with the things that are around me. That is how I live my life. Everything that I have, I made with my own hands. I fashion my own weapons to kill the game I eat, spin my own wool to make my clothes...all by myself.”
The aroma of the simmering stew was intoxicating. Cicero absently retrieved a bowl and scooped himself a generous serving; all the while, he suspiciously kept an eye on the Cloaked Man.
“You shouldn’t eat that,” began Sebastian. “That is a special brew I made for myself…”
Cicero snapped, “I’ll take what I want. No murdering malefactor tells me what to do.”
“Murder? Who could I have murdered? Surely, you don’t mean the carcass that I have strung up in the courtyard? It was a trap he walked into –– same as your other man. You see, a local farmer and his annoying children have taken the notion of spying on me as of late. Unfortunately, one of your men walked into the trap I laid for them. And now he remains out there, as a warning to any other would-be thieves.
“I must say that his presence has kept away intruders for several days now...until your arrival that is. I am curious...does he not terrify you, even the slightest? Indeed, Rome does employ very valiant soldiers. Please, my brave men, sit, join me, and let us talk about this accusation of murder; for I surely have a right to know the details of my charge!”
One of the guards aside of the centurion snarled, “You have no rights and talking is not what we are here to do!”
“As you command. First, I must imbibe just a bit of the stew. Would you fetch me some?”
Cicero walked over to the pot that sat simmering in the pit and began to scoop out another serving. He fully intended to whip the bowl at Sebastian and scald him with the boiling liquid, but the spoon hit something big and thick. He poked in the pot. In the dim light, he caught a glimpse of something large and round just under the surface.
“My fine centurion, you don’t want to scoop too deeply; just a ladle of the broth will be enough for me,” Sebastian purred.
Cicero ignored Sebastian and retrieved a candle from the table for a better look in the pot. Submerged in the stew was a human skull. The flesh was partially boiled off, so that only the faint resemblance of a young boy’s face remained. He recoiled in shock, and the candle plunged to the floor.
Sebastian let out a hearty whoop.
The centurion erupted, “Murderous fiend!”
Sebastian appeared genuinely offended by the accusation. “Murderous? No I tell you! The boy was a pest, always creeping around here like a scavenging dog. I tried to put him to good use and had him deliver messages to the governor. But he kept failing at getting Fabius’ attention. I decided he would serve me better dead. You see, flesh and blood hold miraculous properties –– ”
The guards didn’t give Sebastian the chance to finish. They overtook him. He didn’t struggle as they carried him off to face his charges before Avitar Fabius, the Governor of Touraine.
A candle sits forgotten on the table — will it alert Sebastian that someone was in his room — or is still in his room? Esindra hides behind a tapestry, balanced at the cusp of a trap door that descends into a darkness she doesn’t understand.
They call Sebastian the Cloaked Man. He is a soothsayer, a magician, a necromancer, or, some claim, the son of the devil himself. On this night he prepares something for Esindra — something that will give her everything she urgently desires.
Will Esindra succumb to Sebastian? Will his play for power make him a hero among his people? Or will the Cloaked Man’s duplicity spawn doom for everyone?
This is a blood-filled tragedy. This is Sebastian’s Story.
Oubliette — A Forgotten Little Place copyright © 2016 by Vanta M. Black.
Website, art, cover, and jacket design copyright © 2016 by Black Château Enterprises.
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