“Eydis, I thought you should know… Cornelius is dead.”
You speak over the muffled howls of agitated beasts in the near distance. Eydis pauses in her work, the knife’s edge coming to rest against the large, conical horn of some exotic creature. The horn had been inexpertly hacked from whatever animal had borne it, its base still ringed with chunks of desiccated flesh. She’s been shaving brittle strips of it into a bowl. You found her in the Ludus kitchen after having left Titus and Sextus to discuss logistics. You can’t focus on logistics right now. A mad gale of thoughts and plans and worries howls in your head. It’s been slowly gaining tempo for hours.
Eydis peers up at you in distaste. “Well shucks. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
Of the dozens of anticipated reactions that had been tumbling in your mind, none had come close to this disregard. Her home was being carved apart, and all she could do was sneer? What the fuck was wrong with her?
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You said Cornelius was kind! That he helps people! That–”
“That he very rarely rapes me.” Abruptly she stands, scooping up the bowl of shavings, the horn and the knife, and turns from you. “You try being raped only rarely, then thanking your rapist for the food and shelter he gives you. Live it long enough so that it feels normal, so that you’re grateful for it, because at least you have a home. Then have someone open your eyes, and remind you of what home really is. See if something doesn’t snap in you, too.”
She strides out the door, and you follow after. The sound of animal anxiety grows, mingled with something else as well, something nearly human. The gods stir within you, warning you away, but you can’t just leave it at that.
“Cornelius was good,” you protest. “He cared for his people. He died with his guts spilling out, for them. For you as much as anyone else. He deserves better. He–”
“He was very good, for a Roman. He got what all Romans deserve, and it’s a pity more of them don’t die screaming.”
“I’m a Roman.”
She leaves the main Ludus compound and crosses the exercise yard to the stables. It’s too dark out for a night with a full moon. You barely notice, fuming at her heels. Your mind spins with objections, and you snatch one from the whirlwind.
“What would you have preferred? To be left to die of exposure in the north? To be slaughtered on the spot? At least as a slave you get to live.”
“Oh, thank you so much for that.”
“Well what the hell do you expect from the world? How much better of a life can a slave have?” You follow her into the stables and the hair on the back of your neck rises. Something in here is wrong. The whirlwind within you withers to a sporadically gusting flurry.
“I’ve seen what can be. The revered elder showed me. What I expect now is a world where life doesn’t devour itself. Where the strong don’t eat the weak.”
Hah, now you have her. “Then you’re in the wrong place. That’s what we’re doing in the Suburra right now. Standing up for the weak. Fighting off the predators.”
“What?” It’s the strangest retort you’ve ever heard. You pass yowling animals and every step comes harder than the last. The gusts of words within you peter out to a sluggish breeze, leaving you with only the bared foundations of truth. It is still truth though. “How else do you stop violence? That’s what defending the weak means. Fighting for them, because they can’t fight for themselves.”
“Yes. This world, it’s all one big gladiator’s pit. The final arbiter is always violence. It’s madness.”
“But…” You’re at a loss for words. “As long as people can be hurt by others… by anything at all…” Not just people either. “Anything that can feel pain, or be damaged… has to be able to defend itself, somehow. That’s what it means to exist.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
You turn a corner and feel yourself gripped by an undertow that pulls at your will rather than your body. It is made of jagged, tearing syllables, ripped from a throat that must have once been human. The syllables crawl inside you, pull from the inside of your skin. Their source lies down the corridor, behind a warped door. Their current eddies, swirls, then reverses course, pushing you away. Eydis doesn’t seem to notice. She walks down the corridor as if nothing touches her. You struggle after, straining to focus.
“But how?” Incomprehensible alien words push into your mind, competing with your own thoughts. It’s hard to pick out the ones that belong to you. “As long as two things can, can touch, can affect each other, it can’t be helped. How do, do you change… that?”
“I don’t know. But a sane God would. Now leave me alone.”
She opens a door–the door–and enters. The gods make themselves known now, filling you with dread, warning you not to enter. This is important enough that they’ve broken their silence. You disregard them and step through.
A stunted, hairless man, tattooed with crawling lines, sprawls in the center of the room. He gurgles the eldritch blasphemies that assault you. You can tell he’s in pain, partially crippled, by the way he writhes. His left hand holds a thin horse-hair brush. He dips it in the crook of his right arm, which wells with blood. It’s fed from an oozing wormhole burrowing into his bicep. He paints crawling lines on the floor. He paints the seams of the world. The world is only these lines, only they are real, the rest is inferred, dreamed into existence by you.
The thing that looks like a stunted man lifts its gaze to you. It stills its tongue. You should have listened to the gods.
Words come from the small man now–unknown to you, but natural words, of human origin. Eydis replies to him in the same language. The man pushes himself up into a sitting position, dumping his well of blood down his arm and over the floor. He speaks further, gesturing with the brush. Eydis’s face contorts into outrage, and she glares at you.
“You? You too?!” She sets down the bowl of shavings and stalks over to you. Her hand comes up, twisted into a claw, reaches for your eyes. You wait. You can’t believe, after all her talk of violence, you can’t believe she would attack now.
Her fingers come to rest against the side of your face. They are stiff, and tremble slightly. “Why you?” she asks, so softly, words that wouldn’t disturb petals. “What makes you so fucking special?”
Can she sense the presence of the gods inside you? You were so sure she heard them too, but she didn’t say anything before. Whatever the old man said must have convinced her. Now the two of you can work together in righteous purpose. Your heart quickens, but your voice sticks, remembering her question. You can’t tell her why the gods speak to you. You can never tell anyone that. You left that in Jerusalem.
Her eyes travel down your body, resting at your hand.
“Can I change your bandage?” she asks, bizarrely, breathing it like a seduction. Unease trickles down your scalp like the greasy remnants of murdered friends.
You draw your wounded hand back silently, hiding it behind you, but you don’t pull away. Eydis sighs and looks back up into your eyes.
“Three of you,” she says, leaning close, her breath mingling with your own. “All men. All killers, I bet.” She searches your eyes, like she’s rooting around in your mind. Her hand moves into your hair, fingers wrap behind your head. The man utters further foreign words.
It’s only another two inches, and her lips touch your own. Her tongue flicks out, tasting you, like a reptile. There is nothing sexual about it, only a probing. Still you lean in, your heart pounding. It could be the way of her people, a barbarian insanity–
Her teeth pull at your lower lip, insistent. Then harder, biting. Then it’s more than just pain, it is piercing and blood, as her teeth cut into the soft flesh, and the taste of copper fills your mouth. You yank back violently, shoving her away.
“What the FUCK?”
The trance is broken, you can breathe again. Eydis turns from you in disdain, spitting your blood into her hand.
“I told you to leave me alone,” she growls. She does something with the bowl, hiding it with her body. “You should have listened.”
“You’re crazy. You’re fucking crazy.” The old man, the ancient thing, leers up at you from the floor. You suppress an urge to kick him across the room. A low tide of evil words still pulls at your ankles, drawing you out of the room. You don’t fight it this time. You don’t need this crap. You have your own troubles. There are people out there, in the sane world, who need you. You can still help them.
“Don’t say I didn’t try,” you mutter, as you leave.
The moon shines brighter away from the Ludus. Under its light you descend into the Suburra. Already it shows battle-wear. Everywhere you go the streets are ruined, cobblestones pried up to be used as ammunition. Carpets of broken roof tiles and pottery mark skirmish sites. You don’t see many bodies, though. Perhaps the locals cleared them out after the fighting passed. Or perhaps the earth itself devoured them. You never know.
You brought your companions–Titus, and four silent men carrying chests of weaponry–into the Suburra through a series of narrowing alleyways. You have no doubts that Praetorians trying the same route would have been cut to ribbons. You feel penetrating eyes on you the whole way, peering, judging, calculating, from every window and rooftop. You have to remind yourself every few steps that you’re in friendly territory, and still every stray shadow jumps out at you.
Within minutes you come to the first make-shift blockade, an intersection choked with heaps of splintered debris.
“Anyone here?” you shout, holding up open hands.
“Andreas?” a familiar voice queries from your right. You spin to face it as a shadow unfolds from the crevices of a tangled rubble pile. It stops unfolding once it’s man-sized, and steps forward into moonlight. You find yourself across from Benayah. “You’re back!”
“Told you I would be.” You grin at him. “I have news, and allies, and supplies. Take us to Sura, quickly.”
Benayah leads you down more fortified alleys, before emerging into a street bustling with activity. You count a number of men in stolen Praetorian armor, darkened with soot to show their allegiance to the Suburra. Children rush underfoot, presumably running messages between lookouts. Titus hums in interest.
“We gave ‘em hell,” Benayah says, the grit of hard pride in his voice. “They kept trying to lure us out, get us in the streets where they could face us in formation. We scattered before them, water slipping through their fingers.” As he speaks you hear murmurs and occasional gasps, as people recognize you. Some of them turn from their tasks and scurry after you. You don’t know why. What compels people to draw close like that? Is it something about the gods inside you? Can they feel them? But this never happened before last night’s raid on the Quirinal grain stores. Your mind gnaws at the problem, continuing to spit out guesses against your will as you strain to listen to Benayah.
“When they pursued us into alleys or tenements,” he continues, “when they spread themselves thin, we hit them from behind, from above. Cripple a few, then leave them chasing our ghosts. That drew them further into the warrens, got them further from their friends. You were right, they bled by the buckets. At dusk they withdrew to lick their wounds.”
He’s lost your attention. Or at least, you’ve stopped listening to his words–his movements captivate you. There’s something off about him, something that’s been bothering you since the tenement. He gestures, and finally you see what.
“Your arm,” you say. “What happened to it?” Benayah’s been using his right arm casually, without a sling, without even cradling it. You’d never know it’s broken.
A cold smile graces Benayah’s face. “We’re almost there. Come see for yourself.”
He crosses the street to what was once a great manor. The building is crumbling now, but it was clearly the house of a great man in its prime, before the leaders of Rome abandoned the Suburra to the destitute and the criminals. Benayah pushes open the great double-doors.
The expansive atrium inside is now a common room, converted long ago, graffiti covering its walls in years of overlapping layers. Its central pool has been filled in and tiled over. Recently the room’s been repurposed again. Dozens of injured men and women sprawl across couches and cots, clutching bandaged wounds.
At the far end of the room two women kneel on the floor, several paces apart. You recognize their garb immediately and your breath catches in your throat. They rest their right hands on moaning Suburran fighters. To their left they grip terrified men, bound, gagged, and held down by guards. Steadily the wounds on the Suburran fighters knit themselves closed. Their whimpering dies away into sighs of relief. Corresponding wounds split open the bound men, spilling their blood across pre-laid rags. One of them screams through his gag in renewed agony. The other gasps his final breath as you watch, this latest insult to his mutilated carcass finally pushing him into death.
Guards drag the seeping body to a side room, dribbling crimson all the way, then dump it on a pile of shredded corpses four feet high. They disappear into an adjoining room and emerge moments later with a new bound man held between them. He weeps around his gag and jerks desperately. The men pay no notice, forcing him toward the waiting healer. She sits silently, eyes glassy and face carved of stone. Then she grips his arm with her left hand and the man bawls like a child.
Sura stands at the nearby hearth, watching over the process with shrewd eyes. He speaks with half a dozen rough-looking men, and a couple grim women. You catch his gaze and he nods at you.
“Andreas,” he greets as you approach. “Good of you to join us. Everyone, this is Andreas, the remaining half of our Triumvirate.”
“What have you done?” you ask. “How did you get Vestal Handmaidens to join you?”
One of the grim women barks a laugh.
“They aren’t here voluntarily,” Sura says. “When the Praetorians were overextended and confused we struck at their staging grounds. Show them we have teeth too, ya know? The few guards left behind broke quickly. We found these two little treasures and snatched them right up.”
“And the fodder? Who…?”
“Calm yourself. They’re Praetorian wounded.” Sura claps your back. “You were right, executing them off-hand was dumb. We’ve made much better use of them.” He frowns. “We didn’t have enough, though. Gods those bastards fight well. Fortunately, the Suburra has a few citizens of means.” Sura motions at one of the group, a bear of a man with a bristling black beard. “They’ve pledged their slaves in support of the good fight. I think we just went through the first one, actually.”
“We’re hoping for compensation when this is all over,” grumbles the man. “Even these sorry sons-of-bitches aren’t that cheap.”
“You want that hand patched up?” Sura asks. You shake your head mutely. You think you’re going to be sick. Eydis’s hate gnaws at your guts. Her bite-wound throbs in your lip. Within you, the gods raise a clamor, shouting their fury.
You were happy enough to be healed when it was Jews dying for you, one of them notes, but she’s quickly drowned out by the overall rising tumult.
Titus steps forward, forcing himself into the conversation. “The Praetorian prefect can’t let this stand,” Titus warns. “Healers are too important. The Senate can take his head for losing even one. Decimus will send the entire Praetorian host into the heart of the Suburra and kill everything that moves, until he gets these Vestals back.”
“And who are you?” Sura asks.
“Titus,” you mumble. “A friend. He works for Marcus Verus.”
“I also command the first cohort of the German Legion,” he adds. Immediately half a dozen blades are drawn and pointed at Titus. Not yours though. You’re unarmed, too slow. You realize that his confession doesn’t even register as surprising. You feel numb.
Sura didn’t draw his weapon either. “Interesting. You’re obviously not here to infiltrate or assassinate. What are you doing?”
Titus flashes his winning smile, like he’s spent the entire day waiting to be asked this. He cracks his knuckles, relishing the moment.
“Tomorrow morning, Decimus expects to charge his army of loyal soldiers into a disorganized mob.” Titus’s eyes glitter with joyful malice. “I’m here to help you absolutely ruin his day.”
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First line of next week’s chapter: I tossed in bed all night, my skin crawling with every breath.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: Yes, the first section here is my giant raised middle finger to everyone who ever told me anything about there being a benevolent god.
Word-count of chapter 24 deleted content: 497