Vulcan's Wrath

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: The Imaginarium


The wrath of Vulcan will soon be upon Salvus and his people. But hope is not lost. When Salvus receives a letter informing him about the impending doom, he has a choice to make: leave his people to
die as he escapes with his children, or stay and die along with them.



This is a standalone continuation of a collaboration effort between myself and JackCrawford. Other writings within this multiverse include:



Time Chaser: https://www.booksie.com/543114-time-chaser



Time Chaser: Jim Wrath: https://www.booksie.com/549682-time-chaser-jim-wrath



Washed Away: https://www.booksie.com/543179-washed-away

Submitted: May 10, 2018

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Submitted: May 09, 2018

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The marketplace was bustling with activity under the mid-morning sun. Merchants announced their wares in booming voices while citizens did their best to haggle for the best prices. Salvus weaved his way through the crowds, dragging his handcart behind him. Already he had a small crate of fish and a bag of raw wool. He paused briefly to look inside his satchel; three coins lay at the bottom, one denarius and two sestertii. Not exactly a fortune, but enough to complete his shopping. 

“Move it along!” came a harsh voice from behind him. He jumped and rushed on, trying to avoid some children chasing each other through the forum. 

Salvus’ eyes roved over the marketplace, searching for what he needed. Finally, he spotted the stand set up beneath the temple of Apollo and made toward it. 

“I need emmer,” Salvus said. The stand displayed large loaves of flat bread and fragrant pastries, all of which were much too expensive for Salvus. The best he could do was get the emmer to make the bread himself. 

The merchant pulled a large sack of emmer flour from under the stand. “That'll be a denarius,” he said. 

“A denarius? That's an entire day’s pay,” Salvus said. “I'll give you a sestertius for it, and that's being generous.”

The merchant was shaking his head. “Sorry, no way I can sell it for that cheap.” He started to lower the flour behind the stand again. 

“Okay, two sestertii.”

The merchant stared at him for a moment, deliberating. “Three. That's as low as I'll go.”

“Three? That's hardly less than a denarius.” 

He lowered the sack out of sight again. Salvus hesitated for a moment. He needed that flour. There was nothing else to it. “Okay, three,” he said in a low voice. 

The merchant smiled and placed the sack back onto the stand as Salvus took out his single denarius and handed it to him. The man dropped the coin into a money box and pulled out one sestertius to hand back to Salvus. 

“Thank you for your business,” the merchant said. Salvus grunted as he lifted the flour sack onto his cart. 

Half of his remaining money, gone for one bag of emmer flour. But at least now he could feed his children. 

The walk back to his home took several minutes, made more strenuous with the added weight of his laden cart. He lived near the eastern outskirts of the city while the forum lay in the west. Still, he didn't mind the walk; there was plenty to see along the way. The amphitheatre rose above the surrounding structures in the far east corner of the city, and to the northwest, in the near distance, the great mountain could be seen. The sun was shining brightly above, making it an overall fine day for a walk to the city forum. Even if he had received a bad deal for his emmer. 

Salvus was nearing his home when a sudden rumbling caused him to freeze. It lasted only a moment, but it unnerved him. The ground shook and he felt a vibration run through his body like a bolt of Jupiter's Thunder. When it had stopped, Salvus remained still for several moments. Surely this could not be a kind omen. He had known Terra Mater to shake like this before, as if in anger or pain. That was 17 years ago, when he had been no better than a boy, and it had caused great destruction to the city. They were only barely starting to recover, Salvus didn't think they'd be able to withstand another such event. 

But he did not have time to dwell on these thoughts. He must return home with the supplies. 

“Filius, Cassia,” he called out as he entered his modest house. “I’ve returned from the forum.” 

Moments later he heard the slapping of bare feet upon the stone floor, rushing toward him from the direction of the small inner courtyard. Around a corner came a boy of 13 and a small girl who was just 7. 

“Papa,” the girl cried, hugging Salvus. 

“Cassia,” he said. He released his grip on the hand cart to hug his daughter. “Did you behave yourself for Filius.” 

She smiled and nodded. He looked up at Filius, who was looking through the contents of the cart. 

“Did you get anything good?” he asked. 

Salvus laughed. “Well, it'll keep you from starving at least. I'd call that good.”

Filius frowned. Clearly he was expecting some sort of treat like his grandfather used to bring him before passing into the Underworld. Unfortunately, Salvus could barely afford the bare essentials on the money he got as a farm worker, let alone extra treats for his children. 

“I'm sorry son, that's the way it is. This is the fate the gods have dealt us.” He clapped Filius on the shoulder. “Now take this stuff off the cart so I can take it back outside.”

Filius sighed but grabbed hold of the sack of flour and removed it from the cart. The sack landed on the floor with a soft thud. But something was wrong, the noise did not sound like flour being dropped. Salvus knelt beside the sack and pounded lightly on it near the base with his fist. It felt much more solid than flour. With a sinking feeling, Salvus opened the sack. 

There was certainly flour in the sack, though not the greatest quality. Something was still wrong, however. Taking a knife from his belt, Salvus made a small slit near the bottom of the sack. 

Sand? A small trickle of coarse sand was flowing from the sack. Over half of the sack’s contents was nothing more than useless sand. He had wasted his money on a scam. 

“What's this?” 

Salvus turned toward his son, who was holding a small, wooden box. “Where did you get that?” he said. 

“It was in the cart. I assume you bought it in the forum.” He attempted to pry the box open, but to no avail. “It feels strange, and it—won't—open.” Filius grunted and gave up the effort. “So, what is this?”

Salvus stood up from beside the flour sack and stepped around the cart. “I don't know,” he said. “I didn't buy anything like that. Someone must have put it in my cart, or dropped it there. It was very crowded today.”

“Maybe someone just got annoyed trying to open it and threw it in your cart in frustration,” Filius said. He tried once more to pry the lid off, and was again disappointed. 

“Let me see it,” Salvus said. Filius shrugged and handed the box to his father. 

As soon as the box touched his skin, Salvus knew that this was not a simple wooden box. In fact, it didn't even feel like wood at all, but more like a highly polished stone, cool and smooth. The box did not seem cold and lifeless, though; there was an energy about it that seemed to shoot into his arms and throughout his body. Emblazoned on the lid of the box, as if burned onto it's surface, was a stylized flame that almost seemed to dance. 

As Salvus marveled at the box, he heard a soft click. With care, as if worried that some beast would leap out from the box, Salvus lifted the lid. It opened with ease, revealing its meager contents of a single sheet of papyrus. 

“How'd you do that?” Filius cried. 

“What's inside,” said Cassia. Her eyes were twinkling with curiosity and excitement. She had always been a fan of surprises. Salvus doubted, however, that this surprise was a good one. The signs seemed to indicate this was not a positive portent. 

“It looks to be a letter,” he said. He removed the papyrus from the box. It was smooth and without blemish. Surely no man could create something so perfect. 

“What does it say?” Filius said. 

Salvus peered at the flawless writing on the page:

Salvus,

You and your children are not safe. Something is coming that will destroy everything you know. Before this time tomorrow, Vulcan’s Wrath will rain down upon this city, fire brought forth out of the great mountain, Vesuvius. 

At this Salvus laughed aloud. Surely this letter had been written in jest. Fire did not suddenly spring from the Earth. He had known fire to strike from the sky, but never from the ground. He continued to read:

I know how this must sound to you, but believe me, this is not a clever ruse. I'm sure that already you have felt the effects of Mount Vesuvius preparing to erupt: tremors, for instance. If you do not take action, and soon, you and your children will become victims of this calamity. I can provide you with an escape. Travel to the coast, where I and a ship await you. If nothing else, even if you don't believe that destruction is imminent, I can provide a better life for you. If you decide to come with me, you will no longer have to survive on the wages of a farm hand, saving up for half a bag of flour. Make for the coast, and prosperity shall be yours. I will be waiting. 

-Wrath

Salvus lowered the letter. He was no longer laughing. There was a lot to absorb from this short letter. First of all, he had indeed felt a tremor in the Earth only moments ago. Then there was everything this Wrath person knew about him. He knew Salvus was a struggling farm hand. He must know that Salvus’ wife had already departed, because the letter said you and your children, not you and your family. 

He glanced back down at the letter. His eyes landed on the words saving up for half a bag of flour. He looked down at the sack on the ground, still leaking sand from the hole in the bottom. How did Wrath know about that, Salvus had only just learned about it himself? Perhaps this man was some sort of seer, a prophet of Apollo. Could he be right about the impending doom?

“What's the matter, Papa?” 

Salvus looked down at his daughter, staring wide-eyed up at him. The innocent, curious look in her eyes decided him. He could never let anything happen to her, or Filius. Even if the destruction of Pompeii was not to come, the prospect of a better life for his children, as promised by this Wrath, was enough to galvanize him into action.

“Start packing,” he said. “We are going to the coast.”

 

The sun had already risen halfway up the sky by the time they neared the coast. Despite their limited possessions, packing up the cart had taken nearly the rest of the day, made all the more difficult by his children's reluctance. He had tried to explain that they were leaving in order to live a better life (leaving out the macabre prospect of Pompeii's destruction), but they still struggled to understand why they had to leave. By the time everything was ready to go, the sun was setting. So they spent one last night in their home.  

Before they departed, Salvus had made a trip to the forum. Even in the early morning, the area was crowded with people. Going from person to person, stall to stall, Salvus attempted to convince people to leave the city. Perhaps it was the doubt in his own voice or just the ridiculousness of the notion, but nobody, not one person, believed that Vulcan was going to cast fire upon them from Mount Vesuvius. Had he been more convinced himself, he might have tried harder. 

The walk to the coast, even while pulling a laden cart, was relatively short. Even with the detour Salvus had made to the forum, they reached the water’s edge well before midday. 

“Now what?” Filius said. The beach appeared to be deserted, and no sound could be heard but the lapping of the tide against the sand. 

“I guess we wait,” Salvus said. He kept his voice light, but a gnawing doubt was creeping up inside him. Had he been tricked? Was this a cruel prank?

“I was worried you wouldn't show.” 

Salvus spun around. Standing stock-still, several feet away, was a man with close-cut hair and a stern face. He was wearing a toga, but it seemed a bit too pristine, not a crease out of place. Regardless, such dress was far too lavish for being on the beach. 

“You certainly cut it short, didn't you.” His Latin was flawless, although perhaps a bit over-pronounced. 

“You're Wrath?” Salvus said. 

The man nodded. “Indeed.” 

There was a moment of silence in which Wrath simply stood there, hands behind his back. Then Salvus said, “Would you like to explain what all of this is about?” 

A small smile touched Wrath’s lips. “Of course,” he said. “After we have departed.”

Salvus shook his head. “You expect me to take your word for it that Vulcan will destroy Pompeii and that you are going to give me a better life? No, you can explain right now.”

Wrath sighed and looked down at his wrist. He was wearing a strange bracelet with a large, round pendant. “Unfortunately we do not have the time for that. But how about this—” He stepped forward, reaching into his toga. “I will give you some assurance that I can give what was promised. A down payment, if you will.” From within his toga he retrieved a small satchel and handed it to Salvus. 

“What's this?” he said. He opened the satchel and peered inside. Within lay a mound of aurei, golden coins worth 25 denarii each. For several moments Salvus gawped at the money. He didn't need to count it to know that this was more money than he'd ever had at one time.  

“And there's more, enough to make you and your children comfortable for the rest of your lives. But we really must be going.”

“But, why—?”

“I will explain as we are sailing away. Now let's go.”

 

Salvus had never been on a boat before. He was a farmer, he preferred to keep his feet on sturdy ground. As he watched the land drift away from them, he couldn't help feeling uneasy. 

“You made the right decision,” Wrath said. 

“I'm not sure I did. I took my children away from their home to sail with a stranger for lands unknown.”

“You left a life of poverty in order to give your children a better life. In fact, you've just given them a life to live, instead of an early, brutal death.”

“I don't even know if I believe you,” Salvus said. “But you said you'd explain, so go ahead.”

“I will, but first ...” He looked down at his bracelet again, and now Salvus could see that the pendant had moving parts, tiny arms which moved, defining a circle. 

“But first wha—”

Boom!

An enormous explosion rent the air with ear-splitting intensity. The sound cut through Salvus, vibrating his chest and pounding against his ears. In the near distance, fire and ash were spewing out of Mount Vesuvius, sending debris in all directions. The dark gray cloud of ash spread with the speed of Apollo's Chariot, turning day into blackest night. Already the ash was beginning to rain down upon the land, coating it and any who dwelt upon it in a soft yet suffocating blanket. The darkness was even spreading out toward their ship, already far from land. Ash was falling on them like choking snowflakes, though not nearly as dense as on land. 

Salvus could do nothing but stare at the destruction before him. He looked down at the satchel of gold still clutched within his hand. What had he done? He had abandoned his people, left them all to die, so he could live like a king. If he had known, really known, what was to happen, he would have tried harder to get everyone out, pleaded with them, dragged them out one by one if he had to. And if they refused to come, he would have stayed, died along with his people instead of escape to a life of guilt. 

“What happened, Papa?”

Salvus turned away from the scene before him to find Cassia, eyes waterlogged, standing there with Filius. As he looked into their faces, a realization came to him: Even if he had known what was truly coming, he would have made the exact same decision in a heartbeat. For them. 

“Cassia,” he said, “I want you and your brother to go into the cabin until I come and get you, okay?”

“But—” 

“Do not argue with me, Filius.” 

There was so much force and authority in his voice that Filius nodded and, grabbing his sister's hand, walked across the deck and into the cabin without a word. 

“Now,” Salvus said, and turned toward Wrath. “Speak.”

“Very well,” he said. “Where to begin?”

“How about how you knew what was going to happen? Are you a prophet or something?”

Wrath smiled. “No, I have no supernatural ability to see the future. Although I have been there, or more accurately, then.”

Salvus frowned. “Now you are speaking in riddles.”

“Then allow me to explain,” he said. “I have the ability to traverse time, step from one period in history to another.”

“You walk through time?” Salvus said. 

“Well, that is a gross oversimplification, but essential that is correct. I will often send messages or objects to a point in time in order to influence or change certain events, just as I sent you that letter that brought you here. Although sometimes I have to take a more involved role in events.” 

Salvus shook his head. This was all very confusing to him, and it wasn't helped by the ash that continued to fall onto his former home. “So you knew about Pompeii's destruction because to you it was already in the past?” 

“In part. Although, there is a more direct explanation for my knowledge.”

“And that would be?”

Wrath hesitated a moment. He appeared to be deliberating whether or not to tell Salvus. Finally he said, “I am the cause of this.”

There was a long moment of silence as Salvus struggled to understand what Wrath had said. Surely he had misheard him. “What?”

Wrath cleared his throat. “I seeded Mount Vesuvius so that it would erupt. The potential to be volcanic was there, and it has in fact erupted in the past. I just helped it along so that it would erupt this time, at this point in history. I'm the reason for this.” He gestured behind him. 

Salvus stared at the calm face of the mass murderer before him and took a step back. What kind of a man could do something like this?

“You have no reason to fear me,” he said. “I saved you, remember?”

“Why?” Salvus croaked. His throat was dry. “Why would you do something like this?” Suddenly, all the pain, all the anger and guilt and grief that he was feeling, were directed toward Wrath. He had never before seen true evil, but he knew that evil is what stood before him now. There was no other explanation for his actions. 

“Please,” Wrath said in the same calm voice, “reserve your judgment of me until you have heard me out.” He waited until Salvus gave a curt nod before continuing. “I am not, as you likely presume me to be, an uncaring madman in search of chaos. I am simply a man who is trying to make this world a better place.”

“And how—?”

“I was just about to get to that,” Wrath said, and Salvus fell silent. “You may not believe it, but endings are just as important as beginnings. People must die so that others can be born. Governments must fall so that others may rise. Cities must come to ruin so that others may prosper.”

“How does the destruction of Pompeii benefit the world?”

Wrath sighed. “The people of Pompeii, if left unchecked, would have become conquerers. Their regime would have spread to every corner of the Earth, changing the course of human history. It may seem cruel, but destroying Pompeii, killing thousands of people, has just saved billions more.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “I tried to avoid this, believe me, I tried. I thought maybe an earthquake would be enough to nudge the people of Pompeii away from their dark destiny, perhaps humble them a bit. But, after 17 years as you judge time, their path is unchanged.”

“But what gives you the right to make the final judgement, to make the decision to destroy my people?” Salvus said. 

“Can you think of any other who is as uniquely qualified and equipped as me to do so?”

“This type of thing is for the gods to decide upon.”

“And yet they did nothing,” Wrath said in a low voice. “Had I not acted, every calculation I made indicted that destruction—not only physical destruction, but cultural destruction—would have taken place on a much grander scale than what you see here. It was not an easy decision, but one that I had to make nonetheless.”

Salvus was nearly shaking with pent-up fury and grief. He wanted nothing more than to strike out at this man playing a god. But he didn't. If he could cause fire to burst forth from a mountain, what else was he capable of? At the very least he wanted to walk away from Wrath, forget all about him and move on with his life, no matter what nightmares he would now have. But he had to know one more thing before he tried to put all of this behind him. 

“So then why did you save me?” 

The question hung in the air for a moment, lingering among the ash. He didn't think that Wrath was the sentimental type, saving them out of the goodness of his heart. 

“Because you are important,” he said. “Or rather, your bloodline is important. I can't go into detail, but one of your descendents will be very instrumental in shaping the future. You and your children had to survive.”

So that was it. By some fluke of fate, one of his children's children's children would be important. That was the reason he and his children were alive. There was nothing special about him except his blood. 

“Well, I suppose I should be fortunate that the gods looked kindly upon me,” he said. He turned around and trudged toward the cabin door through which his children had entered. 

 

The door slammed behind Salvus. Wrath was left alone on the ship’s deck. He supposed he should have expected the reaction of the Roman. After all, he had just destroyed the man's home. Still, he would have enjoyed a bit of appreciation. It had taken a lot of effort to ensure that Salvus would accept his invitation. Admittedly, putting a flour sack which was half full of sand onto his cart had been a bit below the belt, but it was vital that he and his children escape the destruction. They could be mad at him, he decided. As long as they were alive. 

He turned back toward the land, where Vesuvius continued to vomit up volcanic ash and molten earth. His chest constricted as he imagined the many people who were currently being buried alive, or who were suffocating from the noxious gas. So many innocent lives lost. He would have liked to save all of the innocents. But that was impossible. 

Salvus may feel grief about his lost people, and maybe even survivor's guilt. But that was nothing to what Jim Wrath must now shoulder. All of these people’s deaths were on him, and he would have to bear that burden forever. But such was the price of saving the world.


© Copyright 2018 J. R. Merrick. All rights reserved.

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