A bold new historical fantasy of God and monsters, of Heroes and Soldiers. A story of the Roman Empire as never before.
The year is 34CE. Tiberius rules the empire, and the events of Teutoberg forest are long forgotten... by almost everyone. A small band of highly specialised soldiers, scholars and rogues, run by priestess Mater Populi of the Vestal order, goes on secret operations to find and kill monsters. There are only 145 of them, and they are the Legio Occultis - the most hidden legion, or what’s left of it. Twenty years ago they were the Seventeenth Legion, but after they were led into an ambush by Armenius the Traitor and decimated by barbarians the survivors came back to find that rather than being lauded by the empire they had brought shame on Rome. Nobody was willing to listen to their account of what actually happened – which was that the Barbarians were aided by a score of horrific monsters summoned by Armenius.
The 17th was officially disbanded, and it was only through the intervention of the Vestal Order that the remaining soldiers were spared execution for treason. The priestesses believed, and formed the Legio Occultis to hunt down enemies of Rome from other realms.
In the twenty years that passed, sightings of monsters grew gradually fewer. The Legio got good at what it did, and the empire slowly crushed all resistance.
But now, the diviners and the scryers are sensing that evil is marching again.
Rome is under threat.
Release date: September 12, 2023
Print pages: 400
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The Hidden Legion
Death had come to Aemilius, and it stood before him, and it stared him in the face.
And though he had spent a great deal of time thinking how he would face death, how he would carry the honour of his ancestors, how he would speak poetry and be remembered for his nobility, his fearlessness, and above all his Roman pride, all he could think of was—
Not like this.
They had been heading back from the village, like they’d done a hundred times before. Racing across the plain, up the hill, around the three big rocks. He had been about to shout at the boys to wait up, when Marius’s horse had reared and thrown him. Moments later the other three mounts had lost their minds as well, eyes bulging with terror, bucking and thrashing, screaming in protest.
Not like this.
Lucan had gotten off unharmed and tried to grab the reins, only to have his mare half twist her head off as she tried to bite him before bolting off the path, into the scrublands. Without the horses, they would not be home until sundown, and they’d get an earful for their troubles. After the initial shock, Vincius had complained, as he always did.
And then… the… thing had appeared.
It seemed to come out of nowhere. Lucius had been trying to convince them again that he’d been trained as a hunter and it was okay because he could track the horses, and his uncle wouldn’t be annoyed. And all the while as they argued as to what had caused it—wolves, big cats, snakes—none of them had thought to look up. Aemilius tried to remember his training, but the swordmaster had prepared him for shield walls and formations—for combat against human foes—and thought little of his talents. He had done his best, but always hoped that death would come to him nobly, like it had done to the men in his family before him.
Not like… this.
He couldn’t even rise to his knees. Everything was too much. The ridge of red rock was suddenly painful to look at. The sand was rough and warm under his palms, but despite the evening sun he was cold with sweat.
It had finished Marius off quickly, in a spray of blood and gurgled screams.
Lucan and Vinicius had put up more resistance, shouting for him to join, to come on, to fight. And he had watched them, watched the thing rise to head-height on powerful wings that beat the stink of it towards him, watched its talons shred their flesh, with a sinking weight in his stomach.
It looked so horribly effortless. One moment they were there, waving their swords, shouting and shrieking like you would to scare off any normal animal.
The next, Lucan was sinking to his knees clutching an arm reduced to strips of meat, hanging limply from his elbow. Stricken by his cousin’s fate,
Vinicius took his eyes off the creature for a moment and his face disappeared, sending him spinning to the ground with the force of the blow.
The… thing knew, too. It knew exactly when there was no threat anymore. It landed gently, almost tenderly, and turned. Slowly, painfully slowly, it turned to look at him, and having had only a side view thus far, Aemilius now saw the whole of the thing.
He wished he hadn’t.
It stood maybe four feet tall, on three-pronged talons dripping in the blood of his cousins. Powerful legs feathered in blue and grey carried the torso of a bird, out of which the pallid flesh of a child rose, like a careless sculptor had changed his mind midway through. Wings like a bird of prey’s extended wider than a man’s arms, ending in claws that looked like ragged human fingernails.
But the face was the worst of it.
It looked like someone had de-boned the skull of a young girl and stuck it on a ball of spite. The… thing grinned at him, and none of the muscles in its face moved right.
“…Harpy.” The words were out before he knew it, whispered to no-one. “You are a harpy. You’re… not real.”
The harpy hissed at him, and Aemilius felt the contents of his bladder running down his legs, and realised he was crying.
Not like this.
He was supposed to die in battle a general. Not slaughtered on a country road in Hispania by a monstrous apparition that only existed in tales to scare children.
He was supposed to reach his fiftieth year a hero, like in the stories. Not to die in his fifteenth, pissing himself.
He was supposed to be buried to the wails of mourning by family and followers. Not a bloody irritating… tin whistle?
The harpy screeched and rose from the ground in a flap of wings, shaking its head and squeezing its beady eyes shut, but the whistling persisted. Its eyes flew open again and Aemilius recoiled. Gone was the cold, smug superiority; they glowed with hate and fury, hotter than any furnace he’d ever seen.
And still, weaving in on the thin air, the tin whistle sounded.
“Look straight ahead,” a deep, calm voice said somewhere behind him, in learned but accented Latin. “And whatever you do, don’t move.”
Aemilius nodded, eyes wide open. He saw the harpy’s gaze waver, then turn to look to his left. To his side, an odd-looking woman was emerging from the scrub. She looked like someone had stuck a dead shrub on a dead tree, all wrong angles and long limbs and a serious face, with the unruliest head of hair he had ever seen. She held a tin whistle, swaying gently from side to side and hitting the wrong notes with almost surgical precision.
“Good,” said the voice behind him. “Look at the whistler. Try not to listen, if you can.” There was a hint of a smile in the voice.
The harpy hissed, spat and tried to fly towards the woman, but something seemed to be wrong with its wings. It thrashed harder, and whatever invisible chain was slowing it down seemed to shatter. A triumphant shriek—
And Aemilius saw the movement out of the corner of his eye just before he heard the heavy sound of wood on bone.
The harpy dropped like a stone.
Behind it stood a rotund, happy-looking man, holding a simple, studded cudgel the length and thickness of a butcher’s forearm. “Gods, but I love that sound,” he said, looking affectionately at the pool of blood forming at his feet. “Bird’s cooked.”
The tin whistle stopped. “It is the only music you make, barbarian.”
“Who are you calling barbarian, you upstart twig? I haven’t seen you eat anything that isn’t a root or an abomination. I should—”
“Be quiet, the both of you,” the voice behind Aemilius rumbled. “We need to get going. Taurio—get the bag.”
“Why do I always have to get the bag?” the fat man complained, pulling out a stubby knife from his belt. “I’m not the one who is going to be rooting around in its guts.”
“He might try to eat
them on the way,” the woman said.
“Prasta—horses,” said the voice. “Pick up the strays, if you can.”
The woman turned smartly and loped off, disappearing into a gap in the shrubs that Aemilius could not see. With both of the others occupied, he finally dared turn to look at the source of the voice.
Rising up out of a hiding place in the bushes was a house of a man, standing easily a head and a half taller than him and seeming utterly unruffled by the events just passed. Gilt robes, in a fashion Aemilius vaguely guessed might be North African, flowed around his broad shoulders in a vibrant crimson. Bald and dark-skinned, he had a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye.
“Who… are you?” he stammered.
“My name is Abrax,” the man said in his deep, accented voice, “and we are your friends. You are coming with us.”
“Where? What? Why?” Aemilius found that his voice was rising, and he could do nothing to stop it. “No! No. I can’t. They’re all dead. And there was a harpy. A harpy! I have to go home. The horses bolted! I have to find them. Father must know. He’ll—”
And that was all Aemilius said.
The man named Taurio caught him when he fell, dropping the cudgel as he did so. It swung from a loop in his belt.
“You didn’t have to hit him,” Abrax admonished, bending down to examine the fallen youth.
“Answer me this. Is he a Roman?”
“Yes,” Abrax sighed.
“Then he deserves a smack on the head.”
The woman named Prasta reappeared, holding the reins of five horses. One whinnied and another stamped when they scented the dead harpy, but none pulled on the reins. She took one look at the fallen boy at Taurio’s feet. “Oh, for the love of Maponus,” she snapped. “If you’ve cracked his skull—”
“I haven’t!” Taurio adjusted the heavy bag over his shoulder. “Unlike some, I know what I’m doing.”
“If he’s broken, she’ll roast you on a spit.”
“Oh, shut up. He’s fine.” Taurio prodded Aemilius with a toe, ignoring the fact that
the boy didn’t move.
“Again,” Abrax rumbled. “Both of you. The boy will live—or you should hope so, at least. If you have damaged him, Prasta is right. She will not be happy.” He bent down, picked up Aemilius’s fallen form easily and slung it over his shoulder. “Let’s get back to camp. The sun waits on no-one.”
Fading hoofbeats left behind three dead bodies and long shadows on a silent road.
Atop a hill plateau bordered by a semi-circle of boulders, looking down on a gentle slope running down to the Iberian plain, three horses grazed next to an unconcerned donkey, a stone’s throw from a plain-looking two-horse cart. In between large rocks, tucked away well out of sight from all but the most dedicated observers, two women were deep in conversation.
Rivkah leaned back against a flat slate, linking hands behind her head and stretching her legs. “…And I’m saying that’s nonsense.” She regarded the woman opposite her with barely disguised contempt.
Sitting cross-legged and straight-backed opposite her on the ground, Livia smiled and gently moved a lock of stray blonde hair from her eyes. “Say what you like. It’s just what I’ve heard.”
“I’ve heard the rumours too. And she looks a mean old bitch, I’ll give you that. But sixty? That’s a number.” The short woman paused and sat back up. “Although, saying that, your lot would know about assassinations.”
“What do you mean, my lot?” Livia replied coldly, giving Rivkah an icy stare.
It was Rivkah’s turn to smirk. “You know. The rich. The powerful. The wealthy. Our betters.” She rose gracefully and executed a mocking bow from the waist. “…Your Exalted and Most Noble Highness.”
“Oh, go shove a cactus up yourself,” Livia snapped. “You know exactly how much that annoys me.”
The wolfish grin on Rivkah’s face said as much as she stretched and limbered up, rolling her hips and her shoulders.
“Fine. If you don’t believe me—let’s ask Hanno, shall we?”
Rivkah swore in Hebrew. “He smells of mould.”
Sitting half a stone’s throw away, Hanno the Wise’s voice was almost too quiet to register. “I can hear you. With my ears,” he added, keeping his eyes trained on the contents of his tin cup.
“You were meant to hear me,” Rivkah said. “And you do smell.”
“I do,” Hanno replied. “But that is not the worst a man can do.” He lifted a slim, long-fingered hand and moved it in an intricate pattern over his tin cup.
Rivkah sneered, then grimaced. “Hey! Stop that. You’re doing it on purpose, and you know it gives me aches. No—I mean it. Stop it, or I’ll smash your face in with a stone.”
Hanno looked up, brown eyes looking almost too big in his diminutive head, and blinked. “I apologize, daughter of Abraham. The moon whispered to me.”
“Whatever, you freak. The Queen has a question.”
Livia scowled. “We were talking about Cassia.”
Immediately, Hanno’s face twisted in discomfort. “She is black water in a dark cave, that one.”
“We know that,” Rivkah said. “But Princess here said she’d killed sixty men, and I said that sounded high.”
“Thirty-seven that I know of—” Hanno said.
“—but the real number is probably quite a lot higher. Triple that, I’d say.”
Livia smiled graciously. “Thank you, Hanno.”
“How would you know about that anyway, pond frog?” Rivkah snapped.
“Don’t,” Rivkah interrupted. “force me to take your teeth out one by one with a very small
“She’s so violent,” Livia said, voice laced with mock concern. “Is that what”—she relished the words—“your lot is like?”
“It’s all this sitting! We’re not doing anything!” Rivkah squirmed, as if the words themselves were uncomfortable.
“We’re waiting,” a gruff voice rumbled from underneath a horseman’s helmet. “Favourite pastime of—”
“—the mighty Roman soldier,” Livia and Rivkah finished in unison.
“We hear your wisdom, O ancient one,” Rivkah continued, pacing and effortlessly leaping up onto a stone, pushing off and into a backflip, landing and spinning instantly to face the supine form of Quintus Aurelius, formerly Primus Pilus of the Fourth Legion, now lying with his head resting on his saddle and fully unimpressed.
“Go do a handstand if it calms you down.” At no point did Quintus move a muscle, not even to lift the brim of his helmet. “And Hanno is messing with you.”
“Hanno!” Livia said, with mock outrage.
“The old stump speaks the truth,” the small man said, grinning. “I am messing. I know nothing.”
Rivkah sneered. “Why’d you speak, then?”
“Because you also know nothing, and I thought we could be together in ignorance. It is good to share.”
“Well, you…” The dark-haired girl arched her back, stretching her arms out until she tipped over an invisible axis point and fell backwards, feet lifting effortlessly until she caught her weight on her hands, balanced in a perfect handstand. Smiling and breathing a little harder, she shifted her weight until she could slowly lift one hand. Like a puppet on a string that had just been cut, her body then folded in on itself as her feet hit the ground and she rose, cheeks flushed. “…are an idiot. But I’ll let you live.”
“You are kindness and light.” The small man smiled and turned his attention back to his tin cup. “They’re coming,” he said softly.
“How far?” Quintus still didn’t move.
“Five turns of the waterman’s wheel. Or a small drop of the moon’s tears, if that’s easier.”
“In all our years of travelling, my friend,” Quintus said, propping himself up on his elbows and adjusting his helmet, “I still don’t know what you’re saying half of the time.”
“But the other half is good, though,” Hanno said.
The soldier rose with the care of someone who had learned the hard way to conserve energy. “Half of the time,” he said, smirking. “No time to waste. Let’s get up and”—he grunted—“right.”
Rivkah, already seated on a saddled and snorting mare, raised an eyebrow. “Come on, old man. Every day I see you die a little more. Do you have any life left in you?”
Quintus thought about this. “Not sure,” he said, whistling once, sharply. A mahogany bay standing separate from the other horses pricked up its long ears, ceased its grazing and trotted over, nuzzling the Roman’s hand as he whispered soothing words in its ear and stroked her short mane.
The horse whinnied.
“Yes, yes. I know. But literally anywhere we go is better than here for that, and so we’ll be on our way.”
The mare nudged him gently.
“If I ever meet a woman who wonders whether it is a good idea to drag an old soldier to their bed, I’d tell them to go look at how you treat that horse,” Livia said as she saddled a chestnut mare.
“And what do you think they’d say?”
“I think they’d see you’re already taken,” she said.
“A soldier who doesn’t love his horse—”
“‘—is a dead soldier,’” the women finished.
“The stump may look finished and useless,” Hanno the Wise added as he stroked the muzzle of his donkey, “but he has strong roots and is hard to get rid of.”
“…thank you?” Quintus said, swinging into the saddle.
Hanno nodded gravely. “You’re welcome.”
“I see them,” Rivkah said. “They’re going easy.”
“I wish I had your eyesight,” Livia said.
“No, you do not,” Rivkah said. “I have to spend it looking at all of you.” She laughed
and pointed. Down on the plains, three riders had come into view, growing from tiny specks on the horizon to moving figures, closing in at a brisk walk.
“Heron!” Hanno exclaimed.
“I’ve been trying to figure out which animal being eaten by a ravenous hog your laugh sounds like. And it sounds like a heron being eaten by a ravenous hog.” The African clapped his hands in delight and smiled from ear to ear. “This is a truth, and it makes me happy.”
“You are so lucky my mother told me it was a bad thing to torture small animals,” Rivkah said.
The riders had reached the foot of the hill and the front-rider raised his arm in greeting. Quintus responded in turn.
Rivkah looked over at Hanno, who was suddenly grimacing and writhing. “Hey. What’s wrong with the frog?”
“Hanno…?” Livia said, concern in her voice. “What’s…?”
“Bad,” Hanno said through gritted teeth. “Sense it. Taste it. Bad, bad, bad.” He took a quick sip from his flask, swishing the water around his mouth.
Quintus nodded towards the riders, now visible. “They’ve got cargo.”
As the three moved closer, Rivkah’s horse tossed its head. Soon Livia’s mare followed suit, stamping at the ground. Hanno leaned forward, stroking the neck of his donkey. Quintus’s mount snorted once and twisted its neck as if to get a look at its rider, but held fast. The soldier muttered half-words as he sat, stock-still.
When the groups could see eye to eye, Abrax smiled, moving smoothly in the saddle
as his horse picked its way over rocks and the desiccated remains of plants. “We got him,” he said.
“Good,” Livia said.
“What’s in the bag, fat man?” Rivkah shouted.
“Your dinner,” Taurio replied cheerfully, patting the stained bag draped over the back of his horse. “Or your sister. Not sure which.” He thought for a moment. “Could be both.”
“Was it as we thought?” Quintus interrupted.
“It was,” Prasta replied.
“And your saddle-sack, Abrax?” Livia said, pointing to the unconscious youth slung over the big man’s pommel.
“He’s out,” Abrax replied.
“Taurio hit him too hard,” Prasta added over her shoulder, busying herself with the cart.
“Come on, man,” Rivkah said. “Every time.”
“Hey!” Taurio threw his hands up. “I cannot be held responsible for the consequences of the actions of the Roman Empire.” He grinned, until he saw the expression on the cavalryman’s face. “What’s the matter, old man?”
“Nothing,” Quintus said curtly. “We need to move. We’ve got work to do.” Grabbing the reins, he guided his horse down towards the lengthening shadows. Livia and Abrax shared a fleeting, quizzical look, then followed. Moments later all six were following him, heading down the hill, riding south.
Aemilius squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push away the thundering headache. He tried breathing and found that he was most likely alive. Moments later he regretted—deeply—having taken his first conscious breath through his nose.
The stench drove through his nostrils and felt like it would coat his brain. He gasped, and it forced itself into his mouth like a fist. The bile rose up in him and came out, despite his best efforts, in a cough and a splutter. After spitting and hacking, he became aware of voices.
“Did no-one plug the boy?” someone growled behind him.
“Thought he’d be out for a while longer,” someone else replied. “He’s got a thick skull.”
“You’ve got a thick skull. You hit him too hard.”
“Shut up, twiglet!”
“Both of you,” the first voice snapped. “Taurio—help him.”
Aemilius considered his options. His arms and legs felt weak, but he was not bound. Which was not to say that escape was practical; the way his head was
thumping, he was absolutely not sure he’d be able to stand up without falling over. He eased his left eye open just a crack—and found himself looking at the vague shape of a short man, lit by flickering torchlight.
Taurio’s eyes twinkled. “Good morning, sunshine,” he said in accented Latin. He looked up at the sky. “Good night, actually, but I thought that might be confusing. I bet your head hurts, hmm?”
Aemilius’s reply was a guttural attempt to push the contents of his stomach—and his stomach itself—up through his throat.
“Yup. The smell will do that to you. It’s mostly Quintus. Horse boys never wash.”
“Still smell better than a Gaul,” the first voice said somewhere in the dark.
Taurio smiled indulgently, rolling something between his fingers.
“Cow shit and horse shit is both shit.” A woman’s voice from further away. Loud. Another accent. “Just sort him out, will you? The sounds he’s making make me want to punch him in the throat.”
Aemilius took a deep breath and swallowed sour spittle, just as a warm, firm hand with thick fingers took hold of his jaw. “Hold still—” Taurio said, voice soothing… and waves of calm filled him. His stomach settled immediately, and he felt his mouth water. Thoughts of his nursemaid came to him, thoughts of safety and happiness. He opened both eyes, to take in the sight of Taurio looking at him, smiling. “It’s good stuff, no?” he said, with a grin.
Stunned into silence, Aemilius reached up and touched his nose. It felt… full. Stuffed. “Simple. Cloth, soaked with oil and some of my nice herbs. Your head doesn’t like bad smells, so why let them in? Now, if you’d allow me…” The short man gently put a bandage over his entire nose, then tied it firmly behind his head. Aemilius winced. “Sorry about that,” Taurio said earnestly. “I maybe hit you harder than I had to.”
“Or at all. You are an untamed forest-pig.” At the edge of the torchlight the lanky woman he remembered playing the tin whistle stood, a sneer of
disapproval on her face. She eyed him suspiciously. “I am Prasta.” Another accent.
“She says she is a famous singer and bard,” Taurio said. “I say she has the voice of a cat caught in a wagon wheel, and a selection of mysterious instruments that are all somehow worse.”
“Shut up, lardbucket,” Prasta shot back. “And do his ears, so he won’t have to listen to you.”
Taurio nodded seriously. “That is wise. So you are not due to say anything worth listening to again for… about seven months?” Grinning, he rummaged in a pouch on his belt and pulled out two thick cloth pads. “Lean forward—” He inched Aemilius towards him. “You are going to want these.” With quick, sure movements, he shoved the pads under the bandage, ...
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