“I am looking for Benbacchus!”
The man who went by that name looked up from his cups and squinted into the sunlight streaming through the doorway from behind the messenger. He made a quick gesture. “Come in and close the door. You will set off many hangovers if you let more sunlight in.”
The messenger came through and let the curtain fall over the doorway. Once visible by the lamplight, Benbacchus recognized the elderly and well-dressed slave of Tullus his Roman business partner. “What is it?” he asked.
“Leta has lost the sight.”
“Are you sure!” He knocked one of his empties off the table, but it didn’t shatter on the soft earthen floor.
The slave gave a short shake of his head. “We are sure of nothing. Those two Jewish men she was following…”
“I told Tullus to keep her away from them!” Benbacchus picked up the cup. It was chipped at the edge. There was no way of knowing for sure if it had been chipped before it fell. It was still usable as far as the regulars were concerned.
The slave nodded. “I faithfully relayed your message, sir. I’m afraid my master saw the free advertising as too valuable to pass up.”
“I told him what they did to Elymas!”
The slave somehow nodded and shrugged at the same time.
Benbacchus spat on the dirt floor. Anger with a tinge of fear crawled through his gut as he began digging out his change purse. He’d better settle up his tab now. The money would be gone soon enough. “You don’t have to tell me what happened,” he grumbled. “I can guess. Jesus was right. Such men need to be driven off the face of the ground.”
He remembered vividly how he first became aware of the danger in his hero days…
The sharp rocks had scraped against Benbacchus’ face as he slid along the ground. He heard a scream behind him that was suddenly cut off. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed his club which had landed not too far away from where the demon had thrown him. He wheeled around. No matter how many horrors Benbacchus witnessed, he never got used to them. But his livelihood depended much on hiding his fear. He did not even shiver at what he saw.
The body of what was supposed to be Sceva’s eldest son ignored him. It had tossed him away like a piece of garbage and didn’t seem to care whether Benbacchus had survived or not. Instead, he was holding one of Sceva’s household men-at-arms by the neck, lifting him up in the air. He held his victim suspended by only one arm—breastplate, helmet, and all the rest of the guard’s gear dangling off him as if they only weighed as much as feathers. The arm was disproportionately large and long, bulging with muscles that Benbacchus knew the young man had never possessed before he had opened himself up to arcane forces.
“Sceva,” he said under his breath, “you should be thankful if we save your other seven sons from this one.” The guard had died trying grapple with that thing, following his boss’ orders to spare his son. Doing what needed had be done, Benbacchus knew, would earn him the gratitude David showed his troops after Absalom was defeated. But he would make Sceva see there was no alternative and pay him his fee. His first priority was surviving this monster, not making Sceva happy. If he triumphed here it would mean more business from others, even if Sceva refused to admit that his son had been beyond hope from the moment the spell went wrong.
They were in the enclosed courtyard of Sceva’s country villa outside of town. Or they were in the ruin of it. More columns were broken in half than were still standing after the demon’s overnight rampage.
Benbacchus circled around warily. It seemed not to notice, but reached up and ripped off an ear from the dead body it held, popped it into its mouth and began chewing. Two of his teeth had grown long enough that they were sticking out and cutting into his upper lip. Benbacchus came to where a sword lay on the floor next to another dead bodyguard. He dropped the club and picked it up. The heft felt good in his hand and he could see the blade had been sharpened recently. All good. No matter how powerful this demon was, it could still be cut apart.
It dropped the body, and turned to face him. One of the twin boils on his forehead was sprouting a tiny horn, like that of a young goat. Benbacchus raised his sword in front of him and drew a knife from a small sheath on his thigh.
“A fellow Hebrew?” Benbacchus had never seen an uglier smile.
“What?” He backed up a step.
“Oh come now,” growled the demon. “I admit that I’ve never had this much power in a body before. Whatever spell this boy was playing with, it was amazing. But surely no one from the mother country needs to fear a brother.”
Benbacchus opened his mouth and then closed it. His years of blood and toil fighting monsters and men did not give him any idea how to interpret what was happening. The point of his sword was shaking. He steadied his hand.
A bear chuckling could not have sounded any more disturbing. “Are you surprised, Hebrew? You shouldn’t be. You have the look of one who was born in the Land. Haven’t you noticed how few of us there are out in the world? Granted, Ephesus has enough of your kind to make us a nice oasis and there are always a few racing astride the bitch at Delphi. But we have a much more comfortable nest down south. This is really a hardship assignment. If you could help me return, I would be grateful.”
“Help you…” Benbacchus did not know what to think.
More bear-throated chuckling. Then it casually reached down and grabbed the corpse by an ankle. This time it uses both impossibly large arms because it is trying to twist off an entire leg. If Benbacchus didn’t do something now, he was going to have to talk to it while it chowed on a human drumstick before his eyes.
Time to act. Benbacchus rushed.
The monster straightened up in time to be speared to the hilt just above the breastbone. It reached for him and the mercenary stabbed it through the wrist with the knife in his other hand. Then it twitched faster than Benbacchus could see and he was flying through the air again before scraping along the pavement.
The fighter winced from the pain of a bruised torso as he scrambled again to his feet. No weapons anywhere around. But the demon was not coming after him. It had dropped down on one knee, blood shooting out front and back. Even with the sword through its neck it was able to speak. “Thank you, brother. I may get waylaid again by some other dabbler, but hopefully I’ll get back home. Find it swept and put in order. I have legions of comrades there.”
His horn, the one that had grown farther, fell out of his head. The volume of the blood was noticeably decreasing. Perhaps to compensate for the fact that he only survived the encounter because the demon let him win, Benbacchus had to get in a last word. “If you want to go back to that hellhole, be my guest.”
The declining demon grinned at that. “But if you don’t go back soon, Benbacchus, you will miss your last chance to aid your friend.”
“The son of the father. He will be crucified on Passover.”
Then he ripped the sword out and died. The corpse was a mere youth again. His dead arms were proportionate and natural.
Benbacchus was not able to leave town for several days. He got Sceva to concede that he had done the best possible job. At least, his second-oldest son gave him a generous contribution and publicly praised his name. Benbacchus didn’t bother to tell anyone he had only lived by leave of the monster.
As soon as he had his gold and silver he headed south. Passover would be all too soon. As much as he hated to go back to Palestine, Benbacchus couldn’t refuse help to a an old comrade-in-arms. He had struck with the sword many times, in his earlier days, with Jesus by his side, his blade bathed red like his own.
He couldn’t let them crucify him without trying to help.
END OF PART ONE
Part two is in rough draft form. I’ll email it to anyone who is interested. Just let me know in the comments.