27. Joah

The extent that my real day followed the course of my dream was surreal. The unwilling vendors, the dusty crone. Every step a retread of what I’d already lived. I waited, coiled like a spring, after visiting the second butcher. Waited to see Erik’s flushed face, to hear those shouted words. I loitered for half an hour, standing on an empty street, heart pounding.

He never came. I crept back to the Ludus, and found everything in order. My animals bayed safely in their cages, awaiting their turn to die. The dizzying feeling of time repeating faded away. I didn’t know what would happen next anymore. I’d returned to the real world.

The real world pressed me into transferring animals to the Colosseum’s subterranean staging areas. I harried the friendlier ones as we carted them under the street, jabbing them through iron bars.

“Kill them,” I whispered to my beasts, when the Romans weren’t around. “Kill them all.” I prayed that my dream had been a prophecy. It had to be. It had to mean more than nothing at all. Today there would be some measure of vengeance.

One after another, sometimes in threes or fours, my animals were dragged onto the arena floor and paraded before the foaming crowd. See the might of the glorious Emperor! See how he sits and drinks wine far from danger, as confused animals cower in chains and cages. See them hauled out onto the sand. Hear their screams as they are pierced and cut, watch as they snarl and swipe and keen. Are you not awed by his power? Do you not revel in his glory?

The prize bull crashed to the ground, his front legs finally buckling before him after his long fight. He struggled to stand, blood weeping from two dozen wounds, as gladiators fell on him with hacking blades. Not one of them had been gored. Not one had been flung into the sky.

“I am sorry,” I whispered from my sunken alcove. “You must die so that I may live.” I whispered it for each animal that fell that morning. “I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life.”

The words stuck in my throat today. They’d grown barbs, catching in the back of my maw. I had to wrench them out. Were they even true? My dream had driven doubt into me, delivered it with a sick surgeon’s ax. Couldn’t I release these animals? Why not free them all, this very night? I could run, to Athens or Alexandria or a dozen other cities. Sure, nothing would change, ultimately. The Colosseum would never be stopped or sated. But at least I wouldn’t be a part of it anymore. That’s all I could ask. Wasn’t that worth the risk?

“Know I wish this world was different,” I whispered, at the end of each lonely sacrament. That, at least, was true. For all the good that wishing did. My mouth twisted around the sour words.

I lingered to see what monster the barbarian wizard would birth today. He never came. When approaching chains rattled behind me I turned to see not the hairless leering gnome, but his young translator. Eydis. She’d been forced into costume as well. Not the thick feathered robes and antlered mask that Romans associated with a barbarian shaman, though. Instead, a leather thong cinched her waist, holding the upper two corners of a pelt triangle that fell to mid-thigh. Her ass remained bare for the crowd. Leather straps barely contained her breasts, and strategically placed “war paint” accented her curves. Her only substantial coverings were the bracers on her forearms, draped thickly with long, colorful plumage.

She didn’t look at me as she approached the portcullis, flanked by two sneering guards. No one followed in her wake.

“Where’s the wizard?” I demanded, over rising fear. If the Emperor didn’t get his monster, I’d be blamed. I ran the Ludus. I was the most convenient scapegoat.

“He can’t interrupt the ritual. Don’t worry, I got this.”

“You ‘got this’? Are you crazy? What, now you can do magic too?”

She shrugged, peering out at the killing floor as slaves dragged netting over its top. “The revered elder has made me his apprentice. We have a link now, I can channel some of his power.”

“If this doesn’t work and you get me killed, I will come back and take you with me,” I said. “I swear I’ll find a way.”

The guards removed her chains, pressing themselves against her as they did so. She flicked me a glance, and underneath her contempt I saw a glimmer of mockery.

“Good. You almost sound like you’ve found a spine.” Eydis ducked under the rising portcullis when it lifted to waist height.

I’d assumed she would use the long plumage of her bracers to cover herself. Instead she whirled into the stadium in a blaze of color, arms outstretched, trilling like a bird. Accompanying drums joined in a beat behind, taken off-guard by the sudden entrance. She spun across the arena floor, alternately leaping and crouching in a bizarre barbarian spectacle. A ritual blade flashed into her grip. She slashed it across one palm, and then the other, without missing a step. As she spiraled, droplets of blood flew from her raised hands in sporadic arcs. In response, a trio of gladiators entered the arena from the far side.

She was putting on this show for the Romans. It couldn’t be necessary for the ritual. The wizard summoned his monsters despite the near-immobility of a broken hip. She moved exuberantly, dancing in the joy of a secret knowledge. In the greatest monument of Roman subjugation, clad in a mockery of her people and her body, she laughed at them.

Something sharp sliced through the air, and embedded itself near her. Not a visible something… a cutting plane that could only be sensed by the way it carved reality into two parts. The space on one side of it somehow severed from the space on the other. Again this happened–an invisible shearing surface as tall as a horse emerged from nothing and slammed into place at the same spot by the spinning girl, now cutting at a different angle. Then several more times, chiseling a volume out of reality. Something sharp and angled came into existence. As Eydis’s blood dripped into the sand it gained substance, took on mass and visibility.

As before, the monster took the form of a massive featherless crow, but this time armored in black, barbed chitin. Spikes burst from the carapace without symmetry or reason. Impaling spines jutted from the shoulders, scything blades ran along the forelimbs. Even the beak was nastier–significantly heavier and serrated along the edges.

It didn’t wait for even an instant. It exploded from beside Eydis before it had fully materialized, screaming hate. A deafening shriek, containing all the rage and pain of every animal slowly butchered on that ground. The monster’s single massive leap smashed it against the nearest gladiator, crushing him against the arena’s walls. He’d brought his sword up somehow, it jutted from the seam between two chitinous plates. The monster didn’t notice. It tore with frenzied energy at his flesh, sending shredded meat flying.

The remaining gladiators charged in as Eydis faded back into the shadows. A trident glanced off the beast’s carapace from one side, a battle-axe cracked a plate on the other. Literally ripping itself from its current victim, the beast fell upon its more successful attacker with unnatural speed. A clawed hand caught his elbow, yanked savagely down. His arm nearly tore free, his body slammed to the ground behind it, and the monster fell on him with the same raging abandon. It screamed as it worked, horror and fury and loathing.

My breath came hot, my jaw clenched tight. The monstrosity thrashed, finally doing all the work my animals never could. It made them pay, in howling agony. Made the Romans feel the smallest part of what they’d inflicted so callously, simply because they could. The strong did as they wished, and the rest survived as they could. For this brief moment, they felt what it was like to be at the mercy of someone stronger. Someone who hated them.

I didn’t smile. The joy that burned just beneath my heart wasn’t the type that lent itself to smiling. It simply raged with the fire of the sun, clear and pure. I gripped the portcullis, every muscle tight. Additional gladiators rushed onto the floor, sent in to even the odds against this fevered abomination. Yes, let them come. Let them all be torn to pieces. I shook the bars before me, I howled my rage as the monster screamed its fury. It and Me, one voice. After this, rip apart the net overhead, rip into spectator flesh. I brimmed with searing need. Give me the Colosseum steps, turned into babbling bloody waterfalls.

More gladiators fell beneath those reaping claws. More were sent in after. Steel stuck from the monster in a dozen places. Red human gore spread across its carapace. Black monster muck oozed from its wounds. The fluids mingled, fell to the sand in clumps of blended jelly and tar. The mixture reeked of biting spices and stinging garlic. It sank into the churning sand.

Uproar in the stands caught my eyes. The crowd had turned ugly, breaking into brawls in a dozen places. Every time the monster roared the crowd roared with it, hatred swelling. Bloodlust overspilled, found its way into shoves and blows against pressing neighbors, turning into a scuffle and then a melee. Praetorians waded into the crowd, happy to break heads and impose the Emperor’s order. They swung with too much ferocity, and more than once they bared swords.

Down in the killing pit the monster bellowed and lashed. A heavy blade caught its left elbow, severing the forearm. The stump swung heedless, pumping foul blood. The monster didn’t notice, or didn’t care. A two-handed maul crushed its beak, leaving it a jagged-crowned orifice. It never slowed. I cheered it silently, even as the stink of its innards stung my eyes.

When at last it died it didn’t wind down, it simply collapsed. One moment it lashed about with claw and spiked carapace, and the next it lunged forward a final time, impaling a gladiator on a shoulder spine. It fell sprawled across mangled bodies, twitched once, then lay still.

Black-clotted viscera spilled from jagged gashes. The stench of this monster didn’t bloom into the air, as had happened with its predecessor’s corpses. Its pungent fluids seeped deeply into the arena’s flooring. I could imagine that sticky tar rolling down the walls of the warren beneath the Colosseum. Fetid tar dripping deep in black rivulets. The corruption flowing into Rome’s foundations.

The chaos in the stands continued unabated. I trembled with wrath. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough, after all they’d done. The Romans embraced violence like a lover. They exploited it, and reveled in it. They deserved so much worse.

Eydis banged on the porticullis, then slipped under as it raised. The Colosseum shook with crowing revelry behind her. She eyed me, taking in my trembling form. The hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.

“Remember this feeling,” she said, waiting for her chains to be reattached. “It’s the only truth you’ll find in this nightmare world.”

My stomach clenched, filling my mouth with sick. This feeling. It was what the Romans felt, wasn’t it? I tore my eyes from the shredded bodies to regard her. “What are you doing?” I asked, still seething. For one glorious moment, she had given me a taste of retribution. I hated that I’d never have it again. “All you’ve done is given them what they wanted. They’ll sing of these games for years. Nothing has changed! They always win. They always will.”

“Yes, I know.” But a vengeful lilt charged her voice. Her eyes shone with determination. “And if not them, then someone else who can overpower them. Always it comes down to who can hurt others the best.”

I swallowed thickly, and steadied myself with a hand against the stone wall. The inferno in my chest guttered, but the burn in her eyes grew by the second. The guards yanked at her wrists as they brought out the manacles, their blood raised by the monstrous spectacle. They thrust her against the wall, leering as they shackled her. She bore it with ferocious pride.

“So why kill yourself fighting?” I demanded. Injustice throbbed within me, an old wound I’d lived with for so long I’d forgotten it was there until she’d torn it open again. “What’s the point? Why can’t you just accept that this is the way of life, and learn to deal with it like a normal fucking person?”

“Because, Joah,” it was the first time she’d used my name. I didn’t realize she’d remembered it. “I’ve seen the face of God, and I cannot un-see it.” Her gaze lingered on me, before the guards shoved her to prod her back into the tunnels.

“Don’t worry,” she spoke as she passed, “soon, you will too. Soon you’ll understand. Everything.”


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First line of next week’s chapter: A Praetorian body falls from the sky and breaks on the cobblestones beside you.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: When one is small, and the world is vast and broken, it seems like there’s nothing one can do to change anything.
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