I used the Malice now to call to the Mistress. I spoke the words aloud, but almost under my breath. It was enough. She would hear me.
"I'm here, Atroxia," I said, using her human name, not the title given to her by Diana. "If you want the Malice, come and get it."
I heard nothing in return, only a shift in the breeze that told me she had heard. And that she was coming.
My heart pounded, and I brushed my sweaty palms against my tunic. The Malice was still tied tightly around my forearm, nearly overwhelming me with its power. If it had not been for the bulla giving me its extra strength, I never could've contained all the magic inside me.
I wanted to send some sort of message to Radulf as well, to tell him to hold on for just a few minutes longer. But I didn't dare. Above all, the Mistress could not know this was a rescue attempt and certainly could not know Crispus and Aurelia were so near to Diana's temple. She had to believe this was only about fighting me.
But did she believe that? Where was she?
I closed my eyes again to call her, hoping to come up with a taunt that brought her here even faster. What would it take? Perhaps if I told her she was the ugliest dragon I'd ever seen. Or that her fire breath smelled of sardines.
The taunt wasn't necessary. Nor had it been a good idea for me to even think about her fire breath.
I felt its heat before I opened my eyes. And when I did, I saw a huge swath of the hillside suddenly light up with smoke and flame, igniting the Mistress's path toward the lake. I stumbled back, shielding my face from the heat, and saw the dragon swoop through the flames it had created. The smell was not of sardines. It was death, and I was the target.
"Thief!" the dragon roared. "You stole my Malice!"
"It belongs to Mars, not to you!" I shouted back, as if it was somehow better to have stolen from a god.
The dragon was at least five times my height and had a bloodred hide that might've been beautiful if it were not so terrifying. Its claws were long and sharp enough to pierce metal. White horns protruded from its serpent head, and its yellow eyes burned brighter just before it breathed out fire. Whole armies could fall within minutes to a creature such as this.
The dragon flew in a full circle around me, creating so much wind with its great wings that it sucked the air from my lungs. I stretched out a hand to stop it, then clutched my chest instead. My heart was still beating -- always a good sign -- but breathing was not a function of magic. It was a sign of life.
"How dare you wear that amulet?" the dragon said. "Who are you? No one!"
I tried to answer, though the words I had in mind were hardly clever enough to convince the Mistress I was anyone worth fearing. But without being able to draw in a breath, I couldn't even mouth the first word. Instead, I stumbled to my knees.
And the Mistress laughed. Her deep-throated snort was merciless, a way of assuring herself that I was exactly what she thought. A nobody.
"This will be too easy," she said. "I will pull the Malice off your limp arm before you even scratch me."
I doubted it would be much of a scratch -- dragon hide was stronger than metal. But I refused to fall this easily, not when I had access to so much magic. And not after she said my arm was limp. It wasn't.
So on my knees, I reached out the arm bearing the Malice. Summoning its strength, I made a fist and pounded it onto the ground. It shook the earth, creating a sound almost like thunder. The air above it settled like falling stones. Losing its lift, the dragon came down too, landing hard on one wing. The ground shook again when the dragon fell, enough that I would've lost my balance if I'd not already been on my knees.
I took a few deep breaths before standing again. The dragon's large eyes were closed, but I was not naive enough to think it was doing anything other than collecting its strength. I had to move quickly.
I shot great balls of magic toward its belly, hoping to find one spot soft enough to do some damage. The dragon reacted as if it felt the hits, though with the Malice, I had expected them to do worse than what I saw.
I came closer, throwing the magic in harder bursts. The sound of their collision against the dragon's chest echoed through the hills like rolling thunder, but I still doubted they were doing much harm. I was showing an ability to bruise a creature that could crush me. Hardly a comforting thought.
With my next step, the dragon suddenly rolled, grabbing me within its claws and slamming me on the ground. While I was still in her clutches, she got onto all fours, letting the whole of her weight press down upon me. I shouldn't have complained about how hard breathing was before; this was much worse.
"Why did you call for Atroxia, that useless, weak vestalis?" the dragon asked. "Diana has made me more than a human. I am a creature of magic, more powerful than ever before."
Why was she more powerful than before? My eyes narrowed. I knew the way Radulf had increased his power, and it was cruel. Were those her ways too?
She answered my unspoken question. "It was a simple thing to strip your grandfather of everything he had." Wisps of black smoke filtered between her teeth, and a guttural laugh filled my ears. "Well, it was simple for me. Harder for him."
She had taken Radulf's magic for herself? All of it?
When Radulf had taken my magic in the arena, it had nearly killed me. It would have killed me if he had truly taken everything. Was my grandfather still alive?
And if she had his magic, then she had powers greater than what I had faced when we fought outside the temple ten days ago. That explained why she could repel the balls of magic I'd sent at her chest.
Keeping her weight pressed down upon my body, the Mistress squeezed tightly. I heard the bones of my ribs crack and sent everything I could from the Divine Star to heal them before she pinched me in half. I was certain she could, if she wanted.
As the Divine Star flowed within me, it carried the Malice's magic with it. I was stronger than this.
I widened my arms, forcing the dragon's claws apart, then shot a spear of magic up through her leg. She yelped and released me entirely. I scrambled to my feet, ready to run forward and ... well, I don't know ... maybe, punch the dragon the way I had fought other workers when defending myself back at the mines. Did people ever punch dragons? I doubted it.
But she drew back and sent a breath of fire at me, hot enough to cook my flesh where I stood. I raised my hands, creating a shield between us. I felt the heat, but not the burn, and I continued pressing my way forward. The trees around me had already lit on fire. I had to be careful. When I was closer to the dragon, I repelled the fire entirely, sending it toward its maker. The Mistress reeled backward, partially blackened from her own flames.
I started running toward the lake so that if she tried that trick again, she'd find nothing around me to burn.
Well, nothing except me. She breathed out fire again, and this time it lit across my back. I immediately fell into the water, dousing the flames and hopefully saving enough of my tunic to prevent any embarrassment later.
By the time the fire was out, the dragon had pounced again, standing over me in the water and trapping me between its legs and tail. I leapt to my feet.
"That's your only trick -- fire?" I yelled. "I expected more from the woman who murdered Julius Caesar!"
"I did not kill him!" she roared. "Marcus Brutus was his assassin, not me. I did not deserve that punishment from the empire!"
"You are a traitor," I continued. "You betrayed the vestalis oath, and you betrayed your own people. If Diana made you into a dragon, that is no blessing. She truly did curse you, just as you deserve!"
The Mistress raised a front claw and struck my whole body, knocking me sideways into the water. The scratches went deep into my flesh, piercing my neck, ribs, and thigh. Blood pooled into the water around me. I lay there, as still as the Mistress had lain before. Above me, she snorted, trying to figure out how much damage her swipe had caused.
The answer was: plenty. But I wouldn't let the Divine Star heal me this time. Not yet
. Instead, I gathered every bit of magic I could into the core of my body.
When she lowered her head to check on me, I reached up and grabbed her neck, then yanked downward, pulling both of us into the waters of Lake Nemi.
This was a deep lake. Deep enough for Emperor Caligula to float a temple and palace, and, I assumed, for the ships to carry him there from shore. Also deep enough for a boy and a dragon to battle underwater.
The Malice breathed for me and gave me strength to pull the Mistress far beneath the surface. She snorted, either searching for air, or a way to revive her fire breath, but neither of those would happen. Her neck flailed about, trying to propel me off her. When that didn't work, she tried grabbing me again with her claws, but she was floundering around so much just trying to avoid sinking any farther that I had the advantage.
Well, I sort of had the advantage. I knew I'd eventually need air too. But I also had a plan. Because I knew where to find air this far underwater, and I was pulling the dragon in that direction.
The Mistress began rolling her body in the water, hoping that would force me to let go. I kicked at her throat, which made her stop for a moment, but also increased her rage. Even with the Malice, I was having trouble keeping hold of her neck, and especially having trouble forcing the dragon in the direction I was trying to swim. We weren't too far away. We couldn't be.
Then I saw the opening I wanted. It would be a tight squeeze to get the dragon inside that tunnel. On the other hand, it would be a tight squeeze for the dragon to escape the tunnel too.
It wasn't the Mistress whose cry entered my head. That was Atroxia, the cursed vestalis within the dragon. The human. She understood where we were going, and the tension in her voice betrayed the terror she felt.
The Mistress rolled again, and this time I was shaken loose from her neck. She swerved around as if to make for the surface, but I was not about to fight her on land again. So I grabbed the dragon's tail and used the Malice's strength to continue toward the tunnel. We were headed to the place where it had all begun for me.
To Caesar's cave, where I had found the bulla. Where Caela had given me the Divine Star. Where I had first gotten magic.
And the closer I came to the cave, the more my magic strengthened. Enough that against the dragon's will and with all her resistance, I was still pulling her forward.
I put my feet down on the wet tunnel floor, then gave a hard yank to tow the dragon behind me. It was nearly out of air and had lost most of its fight. Thanks to the Malice, I had not.
"Do not bury me again," Atroxia cried into my head. "I beg you not to take me here."
I remembered my fear when I first realized I was trapped inside Caesar's cave, lost in a darkness so black that I couldn't see my hand in front of my own eyes. Even for all my past crimes, I had never deserved to be here, but Atroxia did. I wasn't sure how she had helped in Caesar's assassination, but it must have been bad enough that Rome passed a sentence of death upon her. It made no difference whether her sentence was carried out in a tomb on Senator Valerius's property or here in Caesar's cave. Either way, she would get the punishment she deserved.
The tunnel took us uphill, most of which I spent in dragging the Mistress as she fought to resist me. Even with the Malice, it was exhausting work. Once we came to the stale air from Caesar's cave, I felt stronger, but worried she would too. Would she try to fight me in this dark, enclosed place? Maybe not. I felt the tremor of her heavy body collapsing onto the ground and heard her harsh panting. Hopefully, she had given up. The sooner she accepted her fate, the better.
I dropped the dragon's tail inside the cave, then found someplace a little farther on where I could heal myself from the wounds along the side of my body. From the clinking of metal below me, I was sure that I was resting on a large pile of gold coins. The first time I had seen them, I'd believed that a few gold coins could have bought my freedom, which I still wanted more than anything.
Now I doubted there was enough gold in this cave to buy me even an hour of freedom. The only way I would ever truly be free was to leave the empire behind and leave my magic with it. Or at least make the empire believe that's what I'd done.
"Nicolas Calva, are you still here? Please speak, and tell me I'm not alone again."
The voice that spoke was not the deep voice of the dragon. It was a woman's voice, young and fearful. But it did not come inside my head. Somewhere in the absolute darkness of this cave, the dragon had returned to her human form. Atroxia was speaking to me.
I didn't move, didn't want Atroxia to have any chance of finding me. In some ways, I feared the human vestalis more than the dragon.
I understood the Mistress. I had felt her rage, her absolute loyalty to Diana, and her sole desire to take the Malice away from me. It was easy to fight what I understood.
But Atroxia was different. The only other vestalis I'd met was the older woman who saved me and Aurelia in Caesar's temple, who showed me how to find the Jupiter Stone and who told me that there were things I had to learn from the Mistress. From Atroxia. Considering how our battle had gone so far, I had serious doubts about that.
"Nicolas?" Atroxia asked again. "Please answer me. I'm afraid."
Coins clinked beneath her feet as she walked. I couldn't tell how far away she was, but probably not as far as I would've liked. Yet the slightest move would give away my position, so I remained just as frozen as before.
Finally, she stopped walking, or at least, everything went silent in the room. "Will you at least tell me where we are? I don't like the air." After another moment of silence, she added, "Caesar's ghost roams this place. I can feel him here."
Cautiously, I sat up, though my hand was on the bulla and I was ready to defend myself if necessary.
"His death was so long ago, and yet he still cannot rest," I said. "Why not? What was your crime?"
I waited for the sound of her footsteps coming toward me, but there was nothing. After a moment, she said, "My crime was to fall in love with Marcus Brutus. It is forbidden for vestals to fall in love."
Marcus Brutus had descended from Diana. The man he killed, Caesar, had come from the goddess Venus. I'd been told of Diana's jealousy because Caesar was the favored of the demigods. After all, if Brutus was the lesser heir, did that make Diana a lesser goddess? Perhaps Marcus Brutus was also jealous of Caesar. Jealous enough to want him dead.
Atroxia drew in a sharp breath, as if holding back tears. "The vestals also protect many of the treasures of Rome. One of them was a hunting knife that had once belonged to the gods. It belonged to --"
"Diana," I finished. "The vestals had her knife, and Brutus wanted it."
"I don't think he ever loved me in return," Atroxia said. "He only made me believe that so he could persuade me to get the knife for him."
"Sixty senators attacked Caesar on the day he was killed," I said. "Any one of them could have dealt him the fatal blow."
A sob erupted from her before she caught it in her throat. "He was stabbed by those senators twenty-three times. As a demigod, he could have survived them all. The wound that finally killed him came from Diana's blade, held by Brutus. Stolen from the vestals ... by me."
Silence fell between us yet again. This time, I couldn't quite believe everything I was hearing. What she had done was wrong, no doubt. Very wrong. But Radulf had told me that Brutus and the other senators involved in Caesar's assassination were allowed to safely leave the city. Atroxia was not granted that privilege.
"For that they buried you alive?"
She was crying again. "Please do not leave me here in this cave. Not where I must face Caesar's ghost. Not where I am condemned yet again."
"Diana cursed you, Atroxia. You are more than a vestal. You are the Mistress."
Coins clinked beneath her feet. She was moving again. But so was I, as quietly as possible.
"She had to curse me, to save my life. And in return, I must do as she wishes. Diana is right to be angry, Nicolas. You should understand that better than anyone."
"What has Rome ever done for you? They enslaved you -- oh, yes, I know more than you think. They have betrayed you and even sought to kill you to get your power for themselves. They have never valued you, just as the gods have never valued Diana, even after all she has done. No, it was always Venus they loved. They gave Caesar honors and left Brutus to make his own way in the world."
I became aware we were no longer talking about me -- if we ever were. No, this was about the feud between Brutus and Caesar. Between Diana and Venus.
"I want nothing from Rome but my freedom," I said. "I will protect the empire only until I can leave this place behind."
"And all the Mistress wants is to bring the empire down," Atroxia said. "To leave them in ruins the way they left me in ruins. She will rebuild a new empire, dedicated solely to Diana." There was a new sound in the room. It was metal, but this time a slicing sound, not a clinking one. I didn't recognize it.
"Your anger is poisoning you," I said. "That's your true curse. Until you let go of that anger, you will always be the Mistress. And I will have to leave you trapped in here."
An arm wrapped around my throat and pulled me to the ground. Atroxia had grabbed me from behind, and now something sharp went to my neck. Some sort of blade. That was the slicing sound I had heard -- Atroxia picking it up from somewhere in the room.
"The Malice must be used to serve Diana. So you will either swear to serve her, or I will take the Malice from you as a gift to the goddess. With it, she will defeat the gods and take her proper place amongst them."
I could have used the Malice to easily stop her, but I didn't yet know its magic. Would I use too much and collapse this cave room? Even if I survived it, whatever magic I unleashed might also provide a means for her escape, and I could not risk that. So instead, I contained my magic and struggled against the sharp edge. It wasn't enough. I knew exactly where it cut.