At a speed that could almost warp reality, Celer’s hooves flung mud from the road into the dark night beyond Parthicus’s vision. He could feel his gladius hilt catch against his chestplate’s ribs. It hurt, but they would be there soon. Parthicus ignored the pain and kept on. He looked over his shoulder for Mark’s car, and saw the Rolls-Royce’s headlights right next to his horse. Parthicus’s eyebrows shot up and he laughed. With all the mud, he wondered how the car could keep up with Celer. That accursed vehicle always surprised him, even in Eastern Europe’s spring thaw.
After another hundred feet, he leapt from his horse and checked the stallion’s legs. Despite the conditions, Celer seemed fine. Parthicus straightened up and turned to face Mark’s car as the businessman exited. They nodded to each other. Mark’s expensive charcoal suit looked almost invisible in the night.
From behind a tactical smile with perfect hair support, Mark asked, “Think we should go into the good doctor now, Quintus?” He slapped Parthicus on the shoulder.
“To you, it is Parthicus, remember?” he wanted no intimacy with this armchair commander. “And yes, we should go in. We have a job to do. Things are not going to get any better in the village.”
Mark’s smile faded, “Fine then. Let’s get this over with.”
They turned to the house, a small Tudor affair with stained-glass windows that flickered firelight within out into the night. Its largest feature, a tall Renaissance tower with a metal sphere at its conical top, shot lightning into the sky at random.
“This will be…interesting,” Parthicus grumbled as he turned and marched to the door.
Unaware of how his muscled frame would scare his subjects, Doctor Marvelous opened their cage. The fluffy white mice scurried to all points dark. Without a glance away from his target, he picked up the eyedropper and went right for the cage water tank. He added three drops, then his eyes darted to a flask of red liquid over a nearby flame. It started to boil, and he reached over to turn down the fire.
Just a little too far, the reach made him stumble and lose the eyedropper into the cage. It broke and spilled. Doctor Marvelous winced. One of the mice ran out to lap up the liquid. Doctor Marvelous stepped back from the accident and watched. Within seconds, the white mouse swelled, turned black and then grew to three times its prior size. Its red eyes began to glow and pulsate.
Doctor Marvelous pulled out a handheld tape recorder, “April Seventeenth, twenty-two hundred hours, fifteen minutes. Accident recreated perfectly with same result. Now I can backtrack and determine which conditions can be changed and preserve the-”
He clicked the tape recorder off when he heard the knock on his door. The doctor huffed, “And what the hell could that be, at this hour?” he glared back at the overgrown mouse, “We’ll finish this later, you. Try and stay huge this time.”
He turned away from the table and clanked across the diamond-plate floor, then down the spiral stairs to his laboratory’s main level. The house felt much larger on the inside, despite its dark colors.
At the tower’s bottom level, Doctor Marvelous turned to the door and looked through its stained glass porthole. His glasses could see right through it. Two, both human. One in heavy armor and out of breath, from the sag in his posture and the infrared signature. The other, somewhat taller, looked more composed. The doctor smiled, then opened the door.
“Well hello, my friends! You must be the new exchanges.”
The armored fellow, a Roman of some kind, shouldered past him with a gruff, “Yes.”
The taller man extended a hand and exposed a beautiful cufflink, “Mark White, CEO, Ramesses Partners.”
They shook hands, “Doctor Marvelous. Please, do come in.”
The doctor turned to the Roman and then saluted. Not all cultures required an invitation to enter a home, and Doctor Marvelous did not want to make a scene.
The centurion snapped to attention and returned the salute, “Quintus Valerius Barbatus Parthicus, good doctor.”
They clasped wrists in the Roman fashion, one hand over a bracer and the other on a labcoat sleeve. The doctor always found that kind of handshake a little more exciting, as if it shared more.
“Shall we go to my library, gentlemen?” They followed the doctor out of the tower and into the next room, where a fireplace licked light onto mahogany bookcases.
The doctor gestured at two green leather chairs opposite the fire, then walked over to the fireplace and pulled his brandy snifter from the mantle. He sipped a smoky, purple liquid from within.
“So, gentlemen, it’s an odd time to come over for introductions.” He took another sip.
“Actually, Doctor, that’s not why we’re here.” Mark spoke from his chair.
“Hmm?” Doctor Marvelous set the snifter back on the mantle.
Parthicus picked up the conversation, “Something’s happened, Doctor.”
Doctor Marvelous’s eyebrows raised. “What do you mean?”
Mark grinned the smile that sold a thousand yachts, “I mean there’s a man in the middle of the square who claims he’s Sabaoth, the first god of the Romanians. The whole village is there now, deep in worship. Except us, of course. They’re planning a sacrifice. A human sacrifice.” The doctor watched Mark shudder.
The doctor rubbed his hands together, “Oh, that’s exciting! Troubling, but exciting. Looks like what we’re here for.”
Mark scrunched his face, “But what is it? I understand it’s not real, but these aren’t the usual night monsters or-”
“Sounds like a cultureshifter,” Doctor Marvelous interrupted, “and it’s not like the rest of the things you trained for.”
Parthicus nodded, “Yes. I’ve heard something about them. They’re feared in my barracks.” He stopped, then added, “By others.”
Mark’s eyes went wide, “I don’t know what they are. What are they?”
Doctor Marvelous wanted nothing more than to tell Mark the answer to that question, and the words leapt from his mouth, “The creatures that we are trained to fight are nodes in the sociological ether, made by design or by accident. This is something different. This is a culture-shifter. Maybe it was a person, once.”
“What do you mean, ‘once?’” Mark’s voice betrayed a slight shake.
“I mean that at the top of my tower, there is a rat that I have twice now turned into a genetic mutant that I once faced in Darkest Africa. All I had to do was combine distilled sociological ether, random chance, and my own fears to reproduce that terrible creature on a smaller scale,” the doctor’s eyes went wide and the fire flickered off of them as he leaned closer to his audience, “What if I took the distillation myself? What would I become?”
Parthicus’s stony face flinched, “The fears of those around you.”
At once the doctor’s smile blossomed out of his wide-eyed fear, “Excellent! But fear is too simple. This creature can feed off of all our emotions. It can be more than fear. Much more.” His eyes gleamed from more than just the fire as he brought his voice up in an explorer’s triumph, “Someone who ingested this distillation could be whatever his target felt strongest about. He could change between his audience’s core beliefs. He would become a cultureshifter!”
Mark chuckled, to shift the weight he exerted on their conversation, “Really, doctor? I get why the vampires and werewolves come out of the woods, it’s this mess, you know, with the culture ley lines. But shapeshifting? That’s just-”
Doctor Marvelous snapped, “It’s the same, Mr. White. The vampires were once forest creatures. So were the harpies and the naiads and the stregas. They tripped down the sociological equivalent of a black hole. But what if you learned to harness the power of that hole? It’s not absurd. I can show you, upstairs. I have the data.”
“I’ll take your word for it, Doc. You’re the expert, and we can’t waste time arguing,” Mark grinned.
Parthicus injected his voice’s gravel, “I do not mean to have a one track mind, but I am a soldier. So I have to ask, how do we kill it? It has enthralled the whole town, and they will soon be killing their children for it.”
The question hung in the air for a moment as they both looked at Doctor Marvelous. Instead, he beckoned them to answer.
Mark’s eyebrows shot up with a sharp dose of eureka, “Confusion, that’s how. It can be Sabaoth to them because they all want that. They love it. But Sabaoth doesn’t scare or inspire us. He’s not real to us. So the cultureshifter can’t use him to kill us, he’ll need to find something that will grab all three of us by our deepest emotions.”
Doctor Marvelous beamed and clapped his hands, “You both have sharper minds than my last associates. I’m enjoying this mission to Romania more already. Even despite this horrible monster. Do you think it can be three things at once, Mark? In this case, I don’t actually know the answer.” He needed experience with the creature to know, which Mark could share.
Mark looked at the ceiling while he considered. “I think,” he began, “I think that we know it can’t be even two things at once. Parthicus and I both saw it in the square, and it stayed Sabaoth, not Jupiter or Jesus.”
Parthicus scraped into the conversation once more, “Perhaps it tries to pick the one thing it knows will affect the most people. With so many townspeople around, it had to stay as Sabaoth because two unarmed enemies are a small concern. It knew we would be fools to attack.”
Doctor Marvelous nodded, “Smart, soldier.” He stopped for a moment, and gazed into the fire. It licked up towards the top of the fireplace, which inspired his next words, “The three of us together, and this time armed, could be enough of a threat. I have weapons in this house that could lay waste to that whole village. For research purposes, of course. But if it felt threatened, it might respond by changing its nature for us. With three of us, it will be just like the forest monsters. No one thing will scare us all. That is why guardians are always so different.”
The doctor stood up, then continued, as if someone said something to him, “Yes. Let’s go to my armory. We’ll get every kind of weapon we can carry, and we’ll save the villagers from this Svengali.”
Doctor Marvelous tapped against the smooth touchscreen in the Rolls Royce as he slid through the radio stations. Aside from Ella Fitzgerald’s concert in Berlin, all the music made him prickle. He wanted to like it, really.
These thoughts screeched to a halt when he felt his stomach lurch towards the car door as Mark made a sharp turn and slammed on the brakes.
Through the headlights, he could see Celer rear with Parthicus on his back. Torrents of mud flew up at the horse and rider as the car skidded. Addled with the sudden turn, the doctor’s head spun. “What…why?” He could not manage more of a question.
Mark shook his head, “We came up on the town faster than I expected. We can’t drive all the way in. The road’s out.”
More collected, Doctor Marvelous nodded, “Yes. And this way, the creature will be more surprised by our arrival. It’s best to walk from here,” he paused while he unclipped his seatbelt, “Arm your weapons.”
Together they listened to their beam guns hum to life and flipped the safeties off on their pistols. Their other weapons needed no attention; swords and grenades are always armed. Doctor Marvelous took a deep breath, part of the ancient Tibetan ritual he used before any battle, and opened the car door. On the other side of it he found Parthicus, flecked with mud. The mad gleam in the Roman’s eyes echoed the glint on his drawn sword from the headlights. Doctor Marvelous felt something leap within him at this sight, like the awe of a new discovery, a sort of jump into the confident hope that they could beat this creature.
He glanced back at Mark. They slammed their car doors.
“Ready?” Doctor Marvelous asked them both. Now he felt a shaky fear that fought the hope within. He tightened his grip on the gun.
“It’s my job to be,” Parthicus hissed. Mark only nodded.
They marched for the town, a hundred yards away. Doctor Marvelous could see the torchlight at the town center. Unusual in this day and age. No doubt part of the benedictions to Sabaoth. He imagined what the fire’s warmth would feel like on his face.
He soon found out. As they approached the town square, he heard a voice boom, “THERE ARE THOSE WHO COME TO DESTROY ME. GO TO YOUR HOMES AND REMAIN THERE. I WILL DEAL WITH THEM MYSELF. WE WILL ROAST THEIR CORPSES TOMORROW FOR MY GLORY.”
A hair ahead of Doctor Marvelous, Mark shuddered and said, “Yeesh, that doesn’t sound fun. But why’s it sending the townsfolk away?”
Likewise, the doctor felt a little queasy at the thought of his body roasted on an open fire. He gulped, then answered, “Too many people to please with cultural icons. It’s easier to fight just the three of us without the whole town to enthrall.” The last words saw them around a corner and into view of the square. Their weapons already drawn, they came face to face with the creature.
A silky voice came from behind its black veil, a purr that tickled their ears like the aural equivalent of rich chocolate, “So exquisite to feel your presence, my friends.”
It shrugged and the black veil fell away. Wearing far too little armor to call it protective, a female statue in living flesh stood before them with all its proportions ready to entice or murder. Whichever the situation would call for. All the fire in Doctor Marvleous’s belly turned to a stone of cold, greasy fear when he processed her face.
Princess Minerva. The only woman who ever made him step off the path. The goddess who Parthicus swore his life for. The sexualized embodiment of the human industry that created Mark White. The shifter had found a common thread. It chilled the Doctor through his bones.
She smiled her little pointed smile. The look in her eyes acknowledged their mouse-tails, caught in her cat’s-claw. “Surprised, boys? You know what I am. I have to be creative.” She slid a finger past her lips and bit the tip while she eyed them with histrionic anxiety, “We…we don’t have to fight, you know.”
From the corner of his lips, Mark hissed at the doctor, “She seems harmless…actually, better than harmless.” His mouth hung open.
Parthicus fell to his knees before the goddess.
Doctor Marvelous tried to tighten his grip on the gun, but then she outstretched her arm and beckoned him closer. It looked so slender in the torchlight. The doctor stepped forward, with words back to Mark, “Let me handle her.”
Even when he came within a foot, the creature did not attack. She left her arms outstretched and Doctor Marvelous felt a new sort of butterfly within himself. Princess Minerva…he thought her dead for so long. He tried to remember that this creature only looked like her, but he saw the same fire in its eyes. The ether could make her real. As long as she stayed Minerva, the village’s children would be safe….
Six inches away, she closed her arms around him and almost melted against his taller body. His hands clenched, but around her sides, not his weapons. He needed her closer. A fire he long thought quenched burned within him. Minerva. His Minerva. And now not even her Emperor of a father could keep her from him. He felt her breath, her warmth. He felt her lips with his. And then in one instant, he felt her dagger in his side. She jiggled it.
Doctor Marvelous fell away as pain shattered the illusion. He dropped to his knees in suffering, not reverence, just as Parthicus jumped to his feet in shock.
“Fooled you twice, doctor. Once when I was alive, now twice as this creature. You never learn.” She threw her head back and laughed.
The Doctor keeled backward. The wound might not kill him. His head rolled backward, and he could see Mark draw his pistol and fire several bullets. Doctor Marvelous heard them ricochet off of Minerva’s shield. Her Aegis!
“Run! Regroup!” he clenched every muscle in his shredded midsection to screech the words.
He felt himself leave the ground, then noticed Parthicus’s arm wrapped around his torso. Doctor Marvelous smiled. They listened to him. They ran. He faded.
Minerva’s sultry voice carried over the low wall where Mark followed Parthicus with the doc’s body, “Leaving so soon?”
Mark’s breath heaved while he leaned his back against the wall. In front of him, Parthicus tended to Doctor Marvelous. The deepest parts of Mark still did not believe what happened. He did not want to process the idea that their leader could be dispatched like that.
Parthicus turned back him, “She missed the kidney. If we get him treatment soon, he might live.” The soldier’s stony look made it seem like that information was all Mark should care about.
“That’s good. What about us, Parthicus? She’s still back there.”
At this the centurion shook his head, “We may need to fall back. I do not know how to fight this creature. But it is not Minerva.”
The last words made him pause and think. Not…Minerva…Mark played with the idea in his thoughts, then said, “Wait, Parthicus, what she did made you stop believing, right?”
The soldier’s curt nod confirmed it.
If Mark had a pipe to puff on while he digested that, he would have. He still heard Minerva’s voice taunt them from the square. Her behavior made Parthicus stop believing…
“I’ve got it!” Mark almost leapt up with the thought, but he remembered that she would see him, “She can find a common thread between the three of us, but she can’t play the part for all of us at the same time. She can’t keep it straight, and so when we go back there, she’ll have to change.”
A little curl came to Parthicus’s lips.
Mark grinned, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile before.”
“You still have not,” the centurion widened his smirk, “But I like your thinking, Mark.”
“Good. I’d guess that we’re too different for it to become something new that would make sense to both of us. If we go back out there, we might have a fighting chance.” Not willing to let his confidence fade, Mark drew his beam gun and leapt right over the wall before he could have second thoughts. He knew Parthicus would follow.
Parthicus vaulted over the wall with Mark’s plan fresh in his mind. They could not lose to this creature if it could not convince them.
“I WILL NOT BE CONVINCED!” he yelled in midair, and then came to a firm landing in the sticky mud.
In the torchlight once more, he saw Minerva’s form. The cloak that she discarded before hung around her shoulders again. She turned to them.
Parthicus felt something like sympathy for her. She looked so weak, now. So old. He could see wrinkles and lines on her face. Minerva took her hand up to her hair, and brushed it through. The long, auburn locks came free. A wig!
Underneath, he saw an old man’s bright white hair. The cloak fell, and underneath, this time, lay purple and black armor.
Parthicus gasped. “Praetorian uniform.”
Next to him, beam gun drawn, Mark said, “I know who this is, this is–”
“Marcus Aurelius,” the Emperor interrupted, “The great management philosopher and general. Go ahead, ask me anything.” His sandpaper voice did not just command respect, it marshaled it by the battalion and rewarded it with stock options.
Parthicus watched Mark’s jaw flap in the wind a little, and felt his own words catch in his throat. Marcus Aurelius commanded one of the few Imperial eras that Parthicus respected. Parthicus whispered the Emperor’s victories under his breath, “Armenia…Antioch…Syria…”
The Emperor smiled golden benevolence, “Yes, I did those things, Parthicus. They called me by your name for it. I remember the soldiers’ chant…’Parthicus Maximus’…”
Parthicus whispered again, “You are the Imperator. You can call me Quintus.”
The cultureshifter extended his hand to Parthicus, with its jeweled rings and the Imperial signets, “Come, take my hand, Parthicus, and I will tell you of the campaign in Armenia. You too, Mark. I’ll teach you how I commanded so many so well.”
Parthicus saw the outstretched hand and struggled to stop himself from going to it. This old man died thousands of years before. He knew it. Yet his heart beat for the battles he could win for Marcus Aurelius. His mouth watered with bloodlust.
The centurion felt something snap in his gut as he stepped forward to take the Emperor’s hand. With their eyes locked, Parthicus could still see something of the murderous Minerva behind Aurelius’s eyes. It gave him just enough courage to swerve before this game of chicken with the cultureshifter went too far.
Parthicus drew his sword like a bolt of steel lightning and yelled, “If you want to teach me battle, teach me the hard way.” He tightened his stance and the Emperor drew.
Aurelius brought a blow down above Parthicus’s head, but with their short swords, the centurion found it easy to block. He kicked out at the Emperor, who jumped back just far enough, then lunged forward once more to throw Parthicus off balance. The centurion sidestepped, but tripped backwards over a torch. His sword squished into the mud.
In two steps, the cultureshifter brought its Imperial blade to Parthicus’s throat, “Now you see I’m the real thing, Parthicus. It’s too bad you’ll have to give up your life for that.”
From behind them, Mark said, “Hah! The real Aurelius wouldn’t be so busy gloating that he’d forget to watch his back.” With a loud crack, Mark’s bullet traveled through the false Emperor’s head. The creature did not even get a chance to spin around on him. Blood spattered onto Parthicus’s armor. He lay there and shook from their sudden victory and the death of his facsimile hero.
Mark walked up, his business suit torn and muddy, his face a wicked orange with resolve and torchlight. No salesman grin desecrated that look of command. His lips parted, “Well done, Parthicus. Now come on, we have to see to the doctor.”