All this killing is really starting to get to you.
You know it’s important. You know that the only way to stop violence is counter-violence. The Praetorians would kill anyone in their way if you didn’t stop them. A mugger will take your money if you don’t fight him. The lion devours the sheep, until the sheep face him with swords.
You fight for the weak. You fight under the direction of the gods themselves. You do good. And you’re good at it. While you fight your body sings with the exertion. Your heart pumps euphoria through your veins as you beat and crush and destroy those who would hurt you and your friends.
It’s the afterwards that’s the problem. It’s hard to remember the good you are doing when the screams of the dying grate at your ears. The image of a smiling child is overwhelmed by a street full of squirming, twitching men. Leaking viscera. Not yet corpses, but soon. One day the child will join them, or join you in creating them. There are no other paths.
You’re tired of feeling the rush of relief and triumph when your sword sinks deep, plunging into flesh. You’re tired of riding that rush, looking for the next pair of eyes, the next meat to cut down. How many more? You wish they’d just stop fighting already.
And you’re constantly sticky.
At least the worst of it is over. Most of the action now is looting and rioting. You stay at the perimeter, bringing men to bear on any scattered Praetorian forces with the bad judgment to stand before this tide. After the third such skirmish, you sheath your sword. You tell Largo to take the lead. You need a moment. You drop behind.
The squad moves on and you stand alone in the night’s alleys. The endless cavern of the sky stretches overhead–the deepest tunnel of them all. Inset with cold, white sparks. The empty hollow of doubt yawns deep inside of you, calling upward in sympathy to the sky.
“Have you forsaken me?” you ask aloud. Sometimes it helps to speak. Sometimes that gets through. You slide down into a crouch on your heels, your back against a wall. No blood covers this street. Or at least none you can see by the moonlight. The rioters and their torches have moved on.
Would you stop if we did?
You think of the old man with the stick-like arms. The legionaries that took Cornelius’s roast pig and pissed in the wine. The grain you spilled into the Tiber by the sack-full.
Then what does it matter?
“I’d like to know that I’m doing what’s right.”
We are not here to succor your conscience or give you license. Ask the hungry mouths of the Fields of Mars if what you did is right.
“So I’ve done wrong when I’ve gone against your will.”
We care for justice. Not your petty “right” or “wrong.”
“And I can buy justice with violence?”
What other currency would you use?
You bow your head against ebbing nausea. You rock forward, onto your knees, putting your shield aside. You set your hands onto the cobblestones and close your eyes. You want this to stop. But rarely do the gods engage you for so long. You have to appeal to them now, while you still can.
“It’s so hard to see the end, from here. I wish I could know that all this killing is worth it. The more people that die, the more it has to matter. I can’t just stop now, or it’ll all have been for nothing. But the longer I press forward, the more bodies I add to that total. How many until there is no outcome that could possibly be worth it?” You lean further, resting your forehead on the ground to cool it. “Can I stop then?”
You can stop when the pure are safe, and the wicked weep for redemption. Gods do not negotiate with iniquity, nor do they compromise with sin. Neither did you. Will you forsake us now?
Your breath comes slowly, pushing through a jungle of knots in your throat and chest. You clench your fists against the night.
“No. Not today.”
Look over there.
Your head twists left, your eyes open. A torch rolls into sight, down the incline of a street two blocks away. It comes to a stop, catching on a gutter. Five men follow, backing into sight with shields raised. Praetorians. At their fore an older man swings his sword. He wears elaborate armor. He stands with authority, his shoulders square, his chest proud. He looks familiar. You feel you should know him.
At his side, overshadowed by the older man, stands Titus. The group continues to back up, drawing an attacking group of Suburrans into the torchlight. As you watch, the Praetorians cut down three men. They lose one of their own in turn.
The Suburran irregulars press again, rushing the small band. Titus takes a step back, then drives his sword into the older man’s back. The two other Praetorians recoil in shock. Between the attacking Suburrans before them and Titus behind them, they are slaughtered in seconds.
You pivot to an upright position, still on your knees. Titus stands over the old Praetorian. He speaks final words you can’t make out, his tone gloating. He steps on the man’s back as he speaks. You hear a groan as Titus plants his foot over the wound and bears down. He grinds his heel for several long moments, then wedges the point of his sword between armor plates over the man’s heart and finishes him with a full-bodied thrust.
You rise to your feet as Titus strides away, wiping his sword. You don’t need the gods to tell you to follow him. You leave the bulky shield.
Titus moves quickly, without hesitating at any crossroads. You slink after him in the shadows. He glances over his shoulder several times, but never with any concern, and never when you’re exposed. He walks for a long time, sticking to the side-streets, cutting across several neighborhoods. In pursuit you quit the hills of Rome proper, leaving the sounds of rioting behind.
You find yourself at the outskirts of the city, among streets you don’t know. You wonder just how far Titus is going when he finally pushes into a large warehouse. Its narrow upper windows glow bright with firelight.
The door doesn’t close fully behind him. A sliver of warm light spills from within and draws a thin line across the street. You move quietly to the blind side of the opening and hold your ear close to the crack. The pungent smell of pitch from inside bites your nostrils.
“…plenty of time,” Titus says. “I had something important to take care of.” You hear the satisfaction in his voice.
“Not more important than this,” comes the reply. You start in surprise. You’d recognize that acid tone anywhere. What the hell is Eydis doing here? “The ritual has to be completed by midnight, and we’ve still got a lot to do. Start with the far sacks over there, we need to hurry.”
“Excuse me?” A dangerous edge to Titus’s voice. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“Look, we both have our orders. Let’s just get this done.”
“Oh, no, my dear. I do not think so. You are a slave. In a few days I will be the new Praetorian prefect. You do not give me orders. You don’t even raise your pretty little eyes to me. Not unless you want them cut out of your skull.”
Your heart jumps. Your hand goes to your sword. From their relative volumes, Titus must be closer to the door than Eydis. If you rush in you’ll be at his back, and you’ll have the advantage of surprise. You’ll kill him if you have to. The gods stir in your chest, feeling your agitation.
“I’m sorry,” you hear Eydis’s muted tone, and your fist clenches over the hilt. You can’t stand to think of her looking down right now. “I forgot my place. We’re falling behind here.”
“Mm. Close, but not quite there.” Titus’s tone teases, like a cat batting at its next meal. “Repeat after me: I’m a stupid slave-bitch, and I apologize to Titus the Merciful, who gave me this opportunity to save my worthless shit life.”
You can’t believe what you’re hearing. Titus was never anything less than perfectly mannered around Marcus. Even around you he was basically civil. No worse than any other soldier. You fight down a desire to peek through the door to see if it’s really him talking.
You realize it’s been silent for too long.
“You’ll say it if you want to keep your tongue.”
Eydis: “Marcus will be furious if this isn’t completed.”
Titus: “An inconvenience I’m willing to work around.”
You draw your sword, slowly, silently. You hold your breath, listening for sounds of movement.
Finally, Eydis: “I’m a stupid slave-bitch…”
Your heart sinks slowly, a drowning child in a well, as she repeats the phrase. Her words emerge as solid ice, cracking in the warm air within.
Now Titus. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood.”
The languid steps of leisurely pacing.
“I think you have this well in hand. My time is valuable, and I have a lot to do tonight. You certainly don’t need me lugging sacks around like a common laborer. Am I right?”
There is no reply.
“I’ll leave you to it then–”
You almost forgot where you were standing. You break for the edge of the warehouse as silently as you can. You aren’t around the corner yet when the door creaks open. You jump into the alley, your heart hammering.
There is a pause. The door creaks back. A second later, footfalls recede at a sedate pace. You think you hear the bastard whistling.
You breathe deeply, waiting. Titus doesn’t return. As your heart calms you fit the tip of your sword back into its sheath, then slowly slide it home.
How would you have stopped him if you didn’t have a weapon?
Was that your thought, or the gods’? It’s getting harder to tell.
You creep back to the door, the bright slit cut into the city’s night. You hold your ear to it, half-deafened by your own heartbeat. After listening in vain for minutes you risk widening that fissure and glancing within.
You see grain. Sacks of it, some spilling open. Hundreds of sacks. Thousands. There must be hundreds of tons of grain here. As much as was coming on the barges you scuttled. Enough to feed every mouth in the city for days. Right here, within the very city, while outside Romans slaughter each other over scraps.
The grain is not stored compactly. Slaves labor to distribute it in long, tall rows, atop crisscrossed cords of dry wood. Wooden scaffolds buttress the rows, leaving space in the aisles between for unfettered airflow. The aisles themselves are being filled with kindling and straw. The slaves swipe handfuls of grain as they work, secreting them on their person. You wonder what other incentives they’re subject to. Or if they’ll live out the night.
In the center of the warehouse a makeshift furnace of loose bricks burns bright, bringing the room to a sweltering temperature. The whole place stinks so strongly of pitch that your eyes water. Eydis circles the furnace, chanting scouring syllables, occasionally throwing in wet mixtures that sizzle and pop when they land. Jagged lines crawl over her body, scrawled in soot. They do not run as sweat drips from her.
You push in from the dark, stepping into the atrium of the sun.
“Eydis? What are you doing?”
Eydis completes a double-step series, throws a powder into the furnace, then turns to regard you. She tilts her head.
“I’m baking Rome’s largest loaf of bread. To bring us all together in brotherhood.”
The slaves stop, their eyes wide. Eydis motions at them to continue working.
“You’re going to burn it,” you say, barely believing your own words. “You’re going to burn all this grain.”
“Nope. Giant loaf. You’ll see.”
“I can’t let you do this.” You stay your hand, suppressing the instinct to draw your sword. It’s embarrassing how quickly that action became second nature again. It’s such a damned effective tool when the problem is right before you. “Benayah is dead now too,” you tell her. “He died so that his family could eat. Stop this, Eydis, or I will.”
“I’m getting so tired of people threatening me,” she says. “You should’ve seen Titus just a few minutes ago. Just like you.”
The sheer unfairness of her assertion strikes you like a hammer blow.
She is stalling. Stop her now. But you can’t just let that stand.
“That was nothing like this. I was outside the door. He’s vile, I would have killed him to protect you.”
“Oh goody, more violence. Don’t you ever get tired of it, Andreas?”
“Yes, dammit, I do. But sometimes it’s necessary, for the greater good.”
“How fortunate that your violence is always the necessary-for-good kind. Tell me, how many people are you willing to kill, to bide out this famine two more days?”
Your eyes sting fiercely as you glance around the room. “I count four slaves, plus you. Five people. This much grain could feed fifty people for their entire lives. I consider that a fair trade. I probably won’t even have to kill the slaves.” You draw your sword after all. “I can’t let you destroy all this. People need this grain.”
Eydis sighs. She picks up a cord of wood and throws it into the furnace behind her.
“People think they need this grain,” she says, “because they can’t see the true problem, or comprehend the true solution. There are a million of them hacking at the branches of evil. If you take this grain and give it to them, nothing will change. I’m using the grain to strike at the root of evil. To end it forever. Isn’t that worth a few missed meals?”
She is insane. Her magic itself is evil. Stop this madness.
“End what evil?” you ask. The sweat rolling off you has saturated your tunic.
“The rule of misery. The tyranny of violence over flesh.” Conviction strengthens her words, buoying them on a implacable current.
“That’s why we have laws,” you retort. “To bring equality to the weak. To ensure justice.”
“You’ve been killing hundreds in the streets because the laws are so just, then?”
“We’re changing the damn laws! What the hell are you doing?”
She lifts an eyebrow skeptically. “Could you change any laws without the mob’s violence? Would any law matter at all, if men with weapons weren’t willing to give force to it? The only thing that matters is having the ability to hurt. That is what power is. It doesn’t matter if you have every moral right in the world on your side. What good did Socrates’ knowledge of morality do him, when he angered those in power? Right and wrong are useless in the face of violence. Everything else flows from it.” Eydis lifts her hands and sweeps them outward in a grand gesture encompassing the full warehouse. “And I… I am ending that. Ending all violence.” Her eyes shine in the blazing firelight.
That isn’t possible. Not in this wretched world. Is it?
Do not hesitate. She will destroy all of this.
“Bullshit,” you say. “By destroying food?”
“By waking God.”
You feel a burn of disappointment. You’re familiar with the gods and their justice, too. “Just another appeal to power, then. So your god happens to be the biggest and baddest god. Big deal. Holy smiting is just as much violence as any other kind.” The slaves continue to stack sacks in concentric rings around the furnace, like none of this concerns them. You take a step towards Eydis. “The gods speak to me, too. You can defy them. You must defy them, or I will stop you. I don’t want to, but I’ve done far worse.”
Eydis doesn’t back away. “You’re confusing God with your petty godlings. The true God is not of the universe. He is not bound within it.” She takes a step towards you, towards the point of your blade, reaching out her hand. “He can usher in a world where right and wrong hold as much real, physical power as any fist or sword. Morality can be a natural force. A shield, a wall, a blow. Violence will be no more.”
She blathers because she has nothing else. You can end her ritual with a single sword-stroke. A god that can be stopped with one thrust of steel isn’t worth the time of day.
But that’s just confirming everything she’s said, isn’t it? Even the gods rely on violence.
If her god can change that…
“We are thoughts in the mind of God. Nothing is impossible with Him. He can remake the world. He can end death itself. Neither mourning, nor outcry, nor pain will be anymore. Isn’t that a world that’s worth a bit of grain?”
Yes. It would be. And you could finally lay down the sword without guilt.
Do not believe her lies!
“Then why doesn’t he?” You can hear the cracking plea in your own voice. You ask her what you’ve always wanted to ask the gods, but didn’t out of fear of the answer: “If He can do that, why do we live in this shit-sack world where anyone with a few inches of steel can destroy… everything?”
“Have you ever had a dream that felt so real, you didn’t realize you were dreaming? That is where God is right now. He dreams. We can wake Him. We’re almost there. And burning this grain is one of the last preparations.”
She takes another step toward you. There are no shadows, only heat and light. As she moves she seems to grow, filling the room. You step back, breath catching, and two steps later you’re somehow looking up at her. The world glows around a wood-fired sun.
“The end of injustice is only days away. Come, be free of your gods.”
You’re so tired of fighting and failing. Every day so many people die, so many scream in pain or low in misery. Everything you do amounts to nothing. Everything you do makes things worse.
Don’t you dare. Every child who dies, every old woman who flickers away for lack of bread will be on your head!
The entire world is broken, and all your efforts are powerless against it. Your charge to oppose evil is endless. If there exists a chance to end all suffering, to make everything right, aren’t you obligated to take it? What monster would refuse?
She glows like a god made flesh, lit from within. Towering above you, her hand stretches down for miles in offer of salvation. “Join me, and we’ll set all mankind free.”
Your sword tumbles from your hand. You bow your head to Eydis.
No! You sacrifice them for a fever dream!
Eydis reaches out, lifts your chin with one finger. A smile slowly spills across her face. Not a sarcastic smile, or a bitter one. A true, honest, warm smile.
The gods scream. Why not help her burn the grain then?? Why not set it alight yourself!?
And so you do.
You’ve stripped down to your undergarments. It was far too hot in the warehouse for your tunic. Now you stand in the dark of night, the air chill on your damp skin. You watch flames spew from the thin upper windows of the warehouse, an inverted fountain of joyous light. Thick, black smoke belches into the sky. The city’s air grows heavy. Grows pregnant with power. The whole world strains at the seams to contain it. Distends under its weight.
Eydis has gone, returning to her mentor. The street is abandoned. The gods are incoherent chaos within you. You are alone under the stars.
You raise your arms skyward and bask in firelit glory.
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First line of next week’s chapter: I woke at the bottom of an ocean of crushing atmosphere.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I was raised in an apocalyptic Christian sect.
Word-count of chapter 30 deleted content: 0