You stagger through Rome, the streets lurching beneath your feet. You carry a half-empty wineskin which didn’t belong to you this morning. Legally it still doesn’t belong to you, but that’s only temporary. As soon as you have money you’ll go back and pay for it.
You’ve been drinking since the incident with the legionnaires. All night, and well into the morning. When the streets were cleared at daybreak you filled two cups with wine direct from the cask, not bothering to water it. You didn’t give a damn about the dirty looks you received, the scandalized whispers. It was just to make the wine last. You sipped them slowly.
How do you save a people who won’t be saved? People who are too fearful to fight for themselves? You know you could make this a better world if only you had some support. Yet not even the gods can be bothered to help you. They demand action constantly. “Give him the money he needs.” But the gods never give you any money, do they? They need you to find a way to make it, or borrow it, or steal it. All demands, no support.
Maybe your brother is right, and you should just accept your place in your father’s business. No one listens to you out here. The gods can’t be bothered to guide you to someone willing to stand beside you. Even behind you would be acceptable. As long as there was some solidarity. You can’t be the only one saying “No More!”
Maybe you’re looking in the wrong places. Maybe all the worthy men are already in the Legion, and only the dregs are left in the city. Maybe the legionnaires really do deserve to take what they want from the cowards that are left, as unwilling to fight for themselves as they are to fight for their city.
The pain in your stomach swells again. It died down a couple hours ago, but now it’s back. You’re famished, and there won’t be any feasting tables out until nightfall. You passed a grain dispensary recently. You find yourself unwilling to return to it. Even the thought of standing in that line, surrounded by hostages of failure, makes you sick with anger. The gods can’t even provide you with wheat gruel.
Fortunately Rome has stepped up to cover for them. Down the street the great curving walls of the Colosseum rise over the surrounding buildings. The emperor distributes free bread at the games. Maybe wine too? You’ll find out.
Stop being an asshole. The thought comes loaded with shame, but it doesn’t sound like the gods. You haven’t heard from them for hours. This thought sounds like Eydis, with her lightly rounded vowels. A vision of her accusing eyes cuts through the spinning in your head. You remember Benayah, chin up and chest out, though his arm was broken. Defying you when he thought you were going to take his silver. You think of Eydis, a slave willing to strike a Roman when she felt wronged.
No, it’s not that the masses won’t fight. It’s that they don’t see the need to fight. It’s easier to wait in futile hope.
You recall a story about a merchant who’d offended the Mad Emperor Caligula. As Caligula’s Praetorians dragged the merchant off to be strangled he called out that he could, given a year’s time, teach the emperor’s horse to speak. Intrigued, Caligula stayed the execution. He had the merchant chained up in the stables. The next day, when a slave saw the merchant tutoring the emperor’s horse, he asked him what in the world he was thinking. The merchant replied that a year is a long time, and much can happen in those months. He could be ransomed, or the emperor could have a change of heart. Perhaps he would find favor with a powerful man, or find a way to escape, or simply be forgotten. It was possible that within the year the emperor may die.
“Or who knows?” the merchant said. “After a year, maybe even the horse will talk.”
It had been told as a hopeful story, to inspire people to press on. Anything could happen in the next year, so don’t give up. Your miracle is waiting for you! It was a clever ruse, to keep the people in line, because it could be repeated endlessly. The core of the story was stasis. Don’t take risks. Don’t fight. If you can push through just one more year, maybe everything will change. Wait and hope. Then wait more. Wait forever.
How can you inspire a people like that? How can you convince a million people that nothing will ever change if they don’t act? That this stagnation is merely a slower death, and they must scream and rage against it and make the world better with their own blood and sweat and fury?
You squint up into the sky, but the gods remain silent. You can still feel their contempt. You’re no better than every other failure who didn’t fight last night. The blue expanse above is cut off by travertine as you pass under the tall arches of the Colosseum. You already hear the roar of the crowd, and the scream of some wounded animal.
You swig again from the wineskin. The shade is a relief, but the stale air inside stifles. You climb an internal staircase and re-emerge into the sun at the bottom of the third tier of seats. Your father’s wealth would rate you a place in the second tier, but you’re not dressed for the part today. Your mouth twists into a frown. You don’t think you’ll ever dress for that part again. Second tier is pretentious. Your brother belongs in the second tier. Your people are in the third.
You claim a few inches of free bench space near the top. The Colosseum is packed tight. You don’t think you’ve ever seen this many people here. Usually it doesn’t get really crowded until after noon, when the gladiator-on-gladiator fights begin. A lion roars thunder, but the crowd’s return roar lacks passion. They aren’t here for this. This is to pass the time. They’re waiting for something.
You accept bread from a Praetorian distributing loaves. In the arena below the lion hunt comes to an end. A lioness lies bleeding out in the patchwork faux jungle. Nearby her mate prowls between a set piece of green fabrics shaped into broad leaves and a potted palm tree. Two Bestiarii wielding long spears close on him. They draw out the ensuing sport, but even so it ends before you can finish your breakfast.
With dull eyes you watch the lions’ corpses being dragged away. You’ve never enjoyed the animal events. They don’t seem fair. Not just because the lions never had a chance. More because they never will have a chance. They’ll never understand what’s happening, or how to fight back. They’re forever at the mercy of powers that have crafted every detail of their situation to lead to a single, unavoidable fate, regardless of their actions.
The animals cannot see their fate. They play out their roles unaware of the greater narrative. And as much as you know your role–to end pain, to relieve suffering, to stop the hurting all around you–you cannot see your fate beyond the next day either. Sometimes not even beyond the next hour. The gods push you, but they leave you blind. When they jab you with their spiked prods over and over, and you can’t move or fight or do anything but scream, you can only trust it is for a greater purpose.
The crowd stirs in anticipation, as if collectively sitting up. Slaves well below you pull a large net across the top of the emptied arena, starting from the western gate. They fasten it to the lip of the parapet every couple yards, until all but the easternmost sliver of the fighting floor is covered. You’ve never heard of such bizarre precautions.
The western gate’s portcullis rises at the sounding of barbarian horns. Four costumed gladiators march from it, carrying an open palanquin between them. The furs of the northern barbarian tribes wrap their shoulders, war paint smears their faces and bare chests. A small old man sits within the palanquin, spectacularly attired. A cloak of rainbow feathers drapes his knobby form. Jewelry made of bones and jade loops over his neck and dangles from his wrists. A lion’s head serves as his crown, its mane tumbling down over his shoulders. White and black paint turn his face into a grinning skull mask. The old man is very clearly in pain, though he tries to hide it. You almost miss the chains binding him to his seat.
The muscled men cross the arena and set down the palanquin at the eastern end, just past the furthest extent of the overhead netting. Then they sprint for a nearby portal, which slams closed behind them. On the other side of the arena three new gladiators enter, these dressed and armed as Roman soldiers, though lacking the body armor. The old man draws a bone-handled knife, pulls the cloak back, and begins to cut slightly into his skin. The Colosseum grows still, collectively holding its breath.
A presence coalesces in the sky just over the Colosseum. It tickles at the edge of your vision, but when you look for it there is a nothing there but a memory of movement. The unnerving void circles the stands, descending toward the costumed old man. When it passes directly overhead your stomach cramps over a yawning emptiness. The hollowness of weeks of starvation, despite the bread you’ve just eaten. You nearly vomit it up, but the pain is fleeting. Before you can wonder what happened the unseen presence slips through the gap in the netting over the old man. As it lands it resolves into a form your eyes can comprehend, expanding into a thing of mass and volume.
It looks like a black bird plucked clean and fattened for the slaughter, swollen to the size of a bear. Its wings end in knobby claws, and are webbed to the body. Its eyeless face consists solely of a massive curved beak that distends into a bulging gullet. The beast’s dark skin looks stretched to its breaking point, barely containing the overspill of fat. Its belly sags onto the ground, engulfing the insectile legs beneath it.
A jolt of panic straightens your spine, catches your breath in your throat. It isn’t a Horror–it was not sculpted from the flesh of living men. And yet fear burrows into you. It reminds you of the monstrosities of Jerusalem. The head that is no more than a maw on a stalk, summoned only to consume. It is divorced from things that should be in this world.
Even before the monster settles, slaves pull the netting overhead the rest of the way, fully enclosing the arena. The seated old man flicks a single finger toward the three gladiators. Instantly the beast turns to them and breaks into a thundering charge.
The men tense, holding their spears ready and spreading into a wider formation. The monster bears down on the center man, then leaps into the air several dozen yards too early. It beats its wings, rising until its back rubs against the net, and you realize it is not merely the air that these wings are catching. Some magical force propels it upward. The gladiator below plants his spear and braces it with his heel. The monster tucks its wings and dives, a falling corpulent missile. The gladiator angles the spear at it, his other hand gripping his shield tight.
A second before impact the monster’s wings snap open and it banks sharply, slicing through the air in an arc too sharp for any natural creature. It slams into the gladiator to the left. The two of them smash into the ground and tumble in a mass of spinning limbs across the arena floor, dust billowing up around them, a lost spear cartwheeling away. They come to rest after fifteen yards, the monster on top. It smashes its beak down in rapid pecking attacks, the gladiator beneath barely deflecting with a corner of his shield.
The first of his companions is on the beast in seconds, sprinting, his full weight behind his spear. It plunges into the beast’s side, deep into the fat, until it strikes bone beneath. The monster’s cry is the rumbling sound of hunger pitched to reach the heavens. Blood like black syrup bursts from its taut skin, and your mouth waters like you haven’t eaten in days. You want that blood on your tongue. It calls like dark honey.
The beast hops from the prone gladiator, too spry for its bloated body. The spear stays lodged in its side, ripped from its attacker’s hands. The man on the ground begins to roll away, but the beast takes his head in its beak and jumps back in flittering hops. The man is dragged across the ground by the neck, screams muffled. One of his legs looks crushed. He drops his shield, and by the third bounce he’s pulled his sword from its scabbard and begins stabbing blindly up at the monster’s head. The point gouges a chip of keratin from the beak.
The second gladiator draws his sword, and the third is two paces behind and closing. The beast places one insectile claw on the chest of the gladiator it holds to pin him to the ground, and wrenches its head back and forth. The gladiator’s head rips from his body in a shower of blood. The monster cranes its head back and opens its gullet, swallowing the head whole. You gulp deeply, forcing down the half-chewed bread in your mouth. You didn’t even realize you had been eating. Your stomach sours, but you cram more into your mouth compulsively. You can’t seem to stop.
A spear pierces the beast’s neck and is quickly withdrawn. Black syrup spills from it and slides down the monster’s body, glazing its plump form. The beast lunges at its attacker, who dances back deftly and spears it again in the shoulder. Another great leap, this time the spear catches it in the gut, but the monster manages to grab the edge of the man’s shield with a clawed wing and yanks him forward. He drops the shield, too late. Before you can breathe he’s bowled over and the monster is on him, pinning his legs under its bulk, beak buried in his abdomen. He screams as his intestines are pulled up and forced down the creature’s throat with jerky bobbing motions.
The last gladiator is only feet away, having pursued the monster the whole way. He brings up his sword and chops down into the monster’s back. The monster shudders but doesn’t turn, lost in the grip of a feeding frenzy. It rips a liver free and swallows. The gladiator beneath still screams. You can’t believe he hasn’t lost consciousness yet.
The one behind the monster hacks repeatedly, black blood and chunks of fat flying. He reminds you of the legionnaire last night, chopping the roast pig in half. The smell of the monster reaches you now. It is the smell of rotting meat, glazed and grilled with spices. The starving essence of the monster spreads into the city along with that smell, infusing the air with that ache. You feel endless emptiness, and you’re out of bread now, and if you don’t get more bread you may lose your mind for hunger.
Several long moments this continues, the stadium silent, the only sounds that of the dying gladiator. And then finally it is over, the monster hewn apart, lying in a spread of human viscera. The surviving gladiator stands over the mess, chest heaving. Black blood splatters his face. He licks his lips. He raises a hand to his mouth, and laps at it. Then he’s down on his knees, tearing flesh from the monster’s corpse with his teeth.
Praetorians rush into the arena. You catch a glimpse of the emperor standing in his box, pointing at the monster’s body, demanding and angry. That might interest you more if you weren’t famished. Shouts shake the stands around you. Calls for more bread.
“More bread!” you cry, adding your voice to the crowd. The Praetorian below hurls loaves into the crowd with one hand, and stuffs his own face with the other. The basket is depleted in seconds, and the anger of the crowd erupts. All around the Colosseum you see the same scene repeated–starvation, demands, exhaustion. More guards rush up from the interior, baskets in hand. A hail of loaves soars into the stands. You grab one from the air. You’ve barely ripped a single massive bite from it when a boy snatches it from your hands.
The surge of animal rage that breaks over you nearly snaps your mind. That is YOUR food! You roar your fury and snatch the loaf back. The boy, maybe twelve years old, screams a small warcry and flails at your arm. You nearly belt him across the face, when a burst of memory stops you. A remembered young scream, a pool of blood. Your foot on a twitching boy’s back as you wrench. A gawky ox-hander, grasping at his mauled wrist as you spin. You’ve killed enough young boys for one lifetime. You grind your teeth, rip the loaf in two, and hand this boy half. You aren’t a barbarian. You are a Roman, and you’ll act like one.
Steel flashes nearby. A Praetorian draws his sword and menaces a knot of shouting men.
“Back, you animals!” he snarls, bread particles spraying from his mouth. “There’s plenty of bread, you’ll get yours!” He’s joined moments later by two more guards, one with a drawn sword, the other carrying a full basket. The glowering spectators fall back.
Your stomach swells as you stuff it with bread, but the hunger doesn’t end. It only wanes to a dull, bearable ache. You are not alone in this. Everywhere you look you see guts bloated round, but faces pinched in need. You sit down heavily. Your stomach groans, and nausea overtakes you. What is happening to you? Nearby, an old man vomits.
You don’t stay for the gladiator fights. You have to get out of this pit of flesh before you come sober. The seared-rot smell of the slaughtered monster pursues you, clinging to your hair and trailing from your nostrils. It rolls free of the Colosseum when you exit, billowing into the city in a gluttonous plague.
If you like this story, you can vote for it on topwebfiction once per week.
Read next week’s chapter today by becoming a patron on Patreon. Also get author’s notes and deleted content.
First line of next week’s chapter: A bite of pain tore my attention from my straining, gorged stomach.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: Back in 2016, my Vyakhee weren’t tied to the seven sins.
Word-count of chapter 17 deleted content: 80