“Come on,” Gaius hissed, already running up the narrow backstreet. Marcus was at his heels, laughing and jumping up to tear at other effigies on doors they passed. As they reached the end of the block, Gaius heard a dull thump. Turning, he saw Marcus lying face down. A shocking thought came to mind. Had that slave actually attacked his friend?
He ran back. Gaius dropped into a crouch over Marcus, who squirmed feebly, making a gurgling, choking sound. Gaius recoiled as he withdrew his left hand from a sticky pool. He ripped his gaze from his fallen friend to his own wet fingers. They hovered over a puddle of blood, fed by a runnel from the opened flesh beneath Marcus’ chin. Stunned, Gaius stared at what could not be as a fell fog enveloped him. The sunlight was obscured as Rome changed into a muted, gray world.
At that moment, not only vision but all senses betrayed him. Gaius peered through the dim mist at dying Marcus, whose mouth moved but produced no sound. He lifted his own bloodied hand, fisted his fingernails against the gore, but felt nothing. The ever-present smells of cooking, of smoky lamp oil, of a thousand foul bits of street garbage were gone. The only sensory signpost left him was a sweet taste that appeared impossibly in his mouth – the flavor of ceremonial cakes set out for the dead.
Gaius jumped up. It would not do to be found here, his own sensible voice repeated urgently in his head. He latched onto that advice, trying not to look again at dead Marcus or the stolen cluster of effigies clutched loosely in the slaughtered boy’s fingers. He spun, aiming to flee, but was pushed back against the house as the slave bumped him, rushing by. The Egyptian’s eyes were wide with madness and he moaned as his fingers clawed the skin of his naked scalp. The stories Gaius had heard about the spirits who drove men mad, the maniae, suddenly rang true.
The fog thickened. He imagined he had little time to save himself. Gaius dropped to his knees, frantically untangling the woolen dolls and string from dead fingers. He rushed to the door of the House of Pavo and slapped the iron-braced wood seeking a nail, a protrusion, anything on which to hang the offerings and avoid the curse of the maniae. He clawed at the entry, marveling that his desperate pounding remained as silent as the grave.