Within the arena, the winged monster shrieked and swooped. I watched from the tunnel entrance. I hadn’t woken up yet. I kept expecting to wake up. A gladiator’s throat erupted into a red geyser, dreamlike, and the beast leapt back into the pregnant air.
I had dropped a levee of rags between Titus’s leaking body and the doorway, then chained and locked the writing room. Lailan was dead by the time I reached him. I’d changed my clothes in a daze, padding my undergarments even though my bleeding had basically stopped. I took a silver coin between my fingers and gazed at it. Turned it slowly in a shaft of sunlight. I’d murdered a Roman citizen. Even two days back, I would have taken every coin in the building and run. But now…
I was free of Titus. I could finally lift my head over a receding tide and gasp free air. If this was really real, tonight I would ask Zia and Erik to help me dispose of the body. If I hadn’t woken up by then.
Butterflies filled my stomach at the thought of their faces. Would they really stand by me? Perhaps I would have to run after all. Maybe I should go to the temple of Somnus right now and say goodbye to Aurelius. Take in the golden peace of that sanctuary one final time. Now that the monster fight had begun, perhaps I wouldn’t be missed.
The black beast screamed as a spear pierced it. The impossible scent of rotting honey sugared the air. I had thought the air already saturated–this addition spilled into it unevenly. The monster took human flesh with it as it rebounded from a gladiator. I barely noticed as Eydis slipped panting under the portcullis and took up station behind me in the tunnel mouth.
We watched wordlessly as her masterpiece performed. Thick ink flowed from the monster’s wounds as it soared through the air. There was far too much of it, it fell in continuous, thin streams of liquid night. And… it wasn’t falling right. It slanted and curved about, sliding on surfaces unseen and immaterial. It fell into disquieting patterns, forming orderly lines on the sand. Unease prickled my skin.
At the edge of my vision a commotion arose in the Imperial Box, but my eyes didn’t stray from the scene before me. The monster crisscrossed the arena, extracting human lives–its body a brush, its claws a chisel. The lines it bled shifted at the edges of my sight, but when I looked to them they hadn’t changed. Slowly a black sigil came into existence, carving away the world it was engraved upon. At each vertex lay a dead gladiator, blood spilling into the sigil’s center.
The thin shell of substantiality that gave weight to our world cracked. The dam of reality broke and the overwhelming charge of energy that permeated the air plunged into that abyss. It pulled at me like a wind, without stirring my clothing.
I grabbed at my belt, clutching the desk knife tucked under it, like a talisman. It was my favorite possession now. It held the fear back one step.
Reality buckled at the heart of the sigil. From within the hidden depths between things a force of pure Prima Materia reached out. Nothingness bloomed in the center of the Colosseum, consuming the infalling preternatural power that had been suffocating Rome. When the expanding mass of negation crested into the netting overhead the net simply ceased to exist. The winged beast rose spiraling into the sky, crowing its freedom. I could breathe deeply again, a crushing pressure suddenly lifted. Wondering gasps lifted as one from the Colosseum stands.
The rent in the world widened. Tendrils of formless void spilled from the confines of the sigil, licking the arena floor and caressing its walls. All they touched dissolved into nothing. Sand and wood and stone became no more. A far section of the Colosseum buckled, then crumbled into a landslide of jagged masonry and snapping bodies.
The sea of human faces plunged from placidity into foaming chaos in seconds. Waves of bodies surged into the stairs and promenades, choking them in churning swells. The men and women of the empire routed for the exits, trampling the weak in the crush. I stood, mesmerized. I saw forms fall, stumbling on stairs. I watched them broken underfoot. It felt like looking into Titus’s eyes as he died, the same leap of joy in my chest. Finally, some measure of retribution. I smiled as the screaming crowd rioted.
An offshoot of void branched out, bringing another section of stands to crashing rubble, lancing deeper still. I couldn’t see how far into the city it extended. The un-mass swelled, bloating into a rising hill. The floor rumbled beneath my feet.
“The sleeper awakens,” murmured the barbarian girl beside me, her eyes locked onto the breach. My breath caught as it grew to fill my vision. The antithetical force calving from the sigil looked to be overflowing the bounds of three-dimensionality itself. It billowed out, becoming more ravenous as it consumed. I shied away, fear now clawing its way up the back of my legs, worming its way into my guts.
“When… when does it stop?” I stammered. A growing dread of chill realization trickled over my body.
“Soon. Our reality ends when God wakes and chases this dream from His mind.”
Finally the bite of icy comprehension. This was more than abomination. This was universal annihilation. My insides seized with panic. I rounded on her, gaping, mouth working at words that wouldn’t come.
“What’s wrong?” the barbarian asked in a teasing tone. “Isn’t this everything you wanted?”
“Not… not the whole world,” I said. “Not everything. Eydis, you don’t have to do this. You can stop it.”
“No. This is better.” Excitement in her voice. Rejoicing in her eyes. This had been the goal all along.
I had to do something. I had caused this. I could stop them. I dashed into the sloping tunnels, headlong into the dark, the girl’s laughter trailing behind me. I sprinted for the chamber beneath the arena’s center, below the heart of the sigil. The wizard’s final summoning room.
The floor trembled as I raced to the sepulchral lower level, the entire warren shaking around me. Dirt fell in choking downpours. I stumbled down winding stairs, my eyes not adjusted yet. I careened around the first corner, slamming headlong into a man sprinting the other way. Sweat burst from him on impact, like dust from a beaten rug.
“Fucking run!” he yelled, shoving me against the wall to scrabble by. Two companions ran at his heels, blood slicked their hands and chests. They bowled past me as another shudder rocked the earth. Great crashes boomed from further in, followed by the shriek of twisting metal.
I ducked into the passage, straining to make out detail in the dust-shot gloom. Nearly every sconce hung lifeless, smothered, leaving only a few sporadic flickering glows in the haze. I stumbled forward, pawing at the walls for support across the lurching ground. A rope nearby snapped and launched a pulley down the hall past me at chest-level.
My hands touched slickness across iron. To my right a cell lay wrenched apart, metal bars erratically contorted. Its walls and ceiling dripped with gore. A surviving candle revealed ragged objects piled within. Chunks of humans, torn up haphazardly as if they were dolls. They didn’t leak, all their blood had been wrung out and spread to coat the interior of that room.
I spat out the bile that surged into my mouth and ran on. No more looking to the sides.
I paused at a T-junction. Frantic shouts echoed from the left, desperate pleas for rescue amid rising shrieks of terror. Something massive lumbered in that direction, accompanied by a squishing-dragging noise that opened my throat.
I clenched my jaw against the cries, fleeing the other way. I veered through passages leading to the ritual room, the halls turned to slaughterhouses of dismembered corpses and loose viscera. I couldn’t imagine what force or thing had done this.
An explosive clamor behind me–a lift disintegrated and hundreds of pounds of counterweights fell. They smashed to the ground in billowing, grimy clouds, shaking the walls. Splinters flew. I broke into an uneven sprint, scrambling over broken ground, almost there now. I grabbed a spear from the body of a guard, a body that looked to have been turned inside out, and bolted past the shattered remains of a door.
I burst into a small, simple room of wooden walls. The naked wizard hung in the air, arms spread, suspended on nothing. His skin had split along every line tattooed onto him, turning him into a patchwork of flesh. I didn’t hesitate or slow, simply charged and thrust my spear straight through his chest.
The world heaved.
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First line of next week’s chapter: -redacted-
First line of this week’s author’s notes: There’s about 18,000 words in my “deleted scenes” file, ranging from removed single lines to an entire deleted chapter.
Word-count of chapter 39 deleted content: 53