40. Andreas, Joah, Marcus Verus
You read quickly, voraciously, deadened to the world. There is nothing but you, and this room, and the pages you hold. The yellings of the gods have taken on a terrified screaming tone, but you’re done with them.
You read of a young man marching off to war at the behest of an admired patriarch. The boy wants to do what is right. He wants to make the world a better place. He is told this is the best way to do it. You create an entire world in your mind. You live the life of that young man, or at least the small part of it captured here. You relive that part again and again.
After so many days without sleep, this reading has become meditative. Trancelike. Sometimes a line strikes you. You’re compelled to reread it continuously. Sometimes it’s just one word. Even its physical geometry becomes sublime–angles and swoops enrapturing you for minutes at a time.
You read of a foreign land, full of strangers who fear and despise the young man and his companions. They kill with ambushes and dark magics, for years. The nightmare culminates in an orgy of bloodshed where the young man is shattered by a monstrosity commanded by those he trusted. He is with the gods now. His shade returns to Rome to haunt those who loved him.
These latter details came from the additional pages you plundered from Marcus’s catalog. You paw through them again. There is a repugnance within them that you’ve been denying for hours. The young man’s story was too beautiful. His intentions so naively noble, his friend Titus so perfectly villainous and easy to hate. You didn’t want to leave it.
You could have stayed lost in that story forever, but the weight of denied revelation keeps dragging you back to this life. What you suspect is really happening infuriates you. Sickens you. If the gods were still coherent they would demand action. You don’t need their direction to know you have to do something.
All Rome’s suffering is Marcus Verus’s doing.
He’s the root of all the turmoil and the worst of the famine. All this death, all this destruction. None of it had to happen. It’s all laid out in the records you hold.
And he’s been using you to do it. You were vital. You were the sword wielded for another’s purposes. Again.
There’s laughter in your head, laughter from one of the gods. This is what you get for going against them. Ha ha, stupid mortal.
You’ll show them. Somehow.
You read on, head bent, hatred rising. And the crazy thing is, I can see you reading.
Something Deep snapped when my spear pierced the wizard. The spearhead burst from his back, and he sagged to the floor, and the barriers separating us in God’s thoughts thinned into transparency. You can see me too, can’t you? You can feel my gasping breath, the flashes of terror shooting through my veins. Yet you don’t react. You stay seated, continuing to read. Am I just another voice in your head, lost in the background chaos?
The ground rocks as another section of the Colosseum collapses, the sound muffled from above me. You can feel it as well, where you sit. Screams continue unabated. I don’t know if they come from my vicinity or yours, all of Rome is in havoc. I do know they aren’t just in your head, but you’re too wrapped up in yourself to notice.
“You’re too late,” calls a young sing-song voice behind me. You stiffen in recognition of it. Oh, so now you’re interested? Your eyes don’t leave the text before you, though. You can’t stop. If you stop, you’ll have to face yourself.
Your sickness and rage grows with every word you read.
I turn to see Eydis stepping into the cell. Her eyes flicker to the corpse of the stunted old wizard, still eerily sinking to the floor. For an instant rage and hot pain flash over her face. Then the emotions retreat, settling back into a soft surrender in melancholic eyes.
“Why?” I demand. “I understand Rome, but not the entire world!”
“There is no difference between Rome and the world. All is violence.” A flicker of a sad smile. “God has to wake eventually, anyway.”
“Why now? This world has existed for eons. We could have eons more if you just let Him sleep!”
“This world is broken,” she replies. “All of it. The only law is the use of force. Every comfort and laugh is bought with the pain of others. Every meal is born of the flesh or the toil of the vulnerable. This world must end, and the sooner the better.”
Eydis leans against the wall. She looks up, tilting her head fully back as if she’s staring into an endless blue sky rather than a wood ceiling barely a foot overhead.
“Are you there, God?” she asks. “I brought them all here. The three men in all the world that You care for. Let it be finished. It’s time, now.”
Three? There’s you. There’s me. And… oh.
That’s where the screams are coming from. Marcus, still trapped in the Imperial Box, fighting madly for his life. His glorious Colosseum crumbles around him. His subjects shriek for a savior, but there is no one to save them. The mountain of nothingness in the arena, the Unmaker, bulges into the sky. Broad cords of void arc from it, twisting playfully through Rome. They unwind all matter they touch.
Marcus balances on quaking stone, stance wide. One hand clutches bloodied robes to his chest wound. The other swings a sword relentlessly, striking past the Praetorians shielding him. Bodies roll underfoot with every lurch of the earth. The knot of murder before him is incomprehensible madness. Combatants crash into each other, blades flailing, robes flying. Men crowd in from the edges, scrambling over the Box’s low walls to hack apart meat.
Marcus’s arm burns with the strain of sustained killing. It’s been a long time since he’s fought like this, sword against sword, trading everything he has for a few more moments of life. He hasn’t lost the knack. His clenched teeth beam between parted lips–a rictus smile carved into his face. He soars on the exultation of steel.
The barriers separating me from Marcus are stronger than those between me and you. He is more distant. I wonder if it’s the heat of your hatred pushing him away. It churns within you, a fiery blossoming tumor.
“Why us?” I ask. It’s just despair and dumb shock now. A thoughtfulness steals over Eydis’s face though, and she answers sincerely.
“I’ve wondered that myself. Does it say something about God that He dreams this sort of world? I think God is entertained by struggle. He likes to watch people fight, and squirm, and rend their garments in despair. The three of you must have been very entertaining lately.”
Marcus narrowly avoids taking a spear to the throat. Through clenched teeth he hisses annoyance at us. “Her god overly enjoys conversation at inopportune times, and it’s a pain in the ass.”
You scowl at that. If Marcus wants more bloodshed, you can stalk over there and give him a bloody fucking ending right now.
Marcus is too busy fending off lunging blades to reply. He risks a glance to track the progress of incoming Praetorian Guardsmen, shoving through jammed bodies. You turn another page, fueling the hatred in your heart. You choke on the full extent of Marcus’s sins. At the callousness of them. A tendril of nothing whips past Marcus, unmaking one side of the Imperial Box and a dozen clashing men. The canopy overhead flutters down into the melee.
I try to draw energy from your rage, to fight back the glacial terror creeping through my veins. Is this what it’s like for you, having all those gods in your head? It’s damned distracting. Every time I’m getting somewhere, my attention is wrenched away against my will. I pace the small room, looking for ritual artifacts to smash or monstrous symbols to disrupt. There is nothing. There has to be a way to stop this. Eydis followed me here. She’s worried I’ll find something. For a mad moment I want to peel away the walls.
Eydis watches me with gentle sorrow. “Do you think you would know it, if you were dreaming?” she asks. “Wouldn’t you want to be woken, if your dream was this awful? Or would you invite this sort of misery into your mind?”
I look back to the wizard sprawled on the ground, spear jutting from his chest. For an instant he blurs in my vision, and I realize that I no longer know his name. I’ve been using it for days, ever since Eydis gave it to me. Now in my memories he’s just “the barbarian wizard,” like he was only ever a thing.
The chill spreads to my extremities. If I were to touch the wizard, would there be anything beyond the surfaces I can see? Or is he a flat image, projected on our world like a shadow on a wall?
I stoop, yanking at the spear skewering him in desperation, seeking to haul it free. His body jerks and spasms. I can’t free the weapon. The wound squelches at my abuse, but barely bleeds. The ground lurches and great cracks shoot through the walls around me with a splitting thunderclap.
I abandon the spear, pulling my penknife instead. I brandish it two-handed at Eydis, stepping toward her cautiously.
“Stop this,” I order, voice wavering. It comes out as a feeble plea. Marcus snorts. “Stop it, or I’ll kill you! I’ve killed before!”
Eydis offers me a sad smile. “Of course you have. God wouldn’t care about you otherwise. But it’s too late. Nothing can stop this.” Eydis lowers herself to the Colosseum’s stone foundations. She runs her hands through the fallen dirt sensuously, feeling touch for the last time. “God is shaking this nightmare from His mind,” she intones with reverence. “It is time for Him to rejoin His world. The real world. May His next dream be less of a horror.”
The whole world rocks around us. In the Imperial Box every man reels, stumbling. A traitorous soldier is flung forward over a hunched Praetorian. The Praetorian heaves up, pitching the traitor backward, out of the box, into the arena. He doesn’t have time to yell or flail, an extrusion of oblivion undoes the space he falls through and he is nothing.
Marcus tastes a flicker of envy. He can no longer do those sorts of things. His body is too old and brittle for certain beautiful feats. He strikes out and cleaves a jaw open with a solid rising blow. Well, he still has his moments. He will rejoice in the deeds of his youngers. Today they are all brothers. His world grows lighter, brighter, and begins to spin just a bit.
You look up from the inked pages in fury. This is bullshit. He’s going to get away with it, isn’t he? He can’t. You won’t let him. You stand from the desk and turn behind you. The Verus family sword rests in a place of honor, displayed proudly in the center of the wall. You have no idea how long it’s been in the family; it must be centuries.
“Four centuries,” Marcus admonishes. “Don’t you dare touch it.” A Praetorian at his side shoots him a worried glance.
You lift it from its mounting and test the edge. It’s been kept sharp. Good.
“This ends here,” you hiss, setting a candle atop the stack of letters before you stalk from the room. Soon they will be ash. Marcus roars his fury, raging against the mass of men standing in his way, preventing him from rushing home to save the last physical remnants of his son. There are too many. There is nothing he can do. In this one battle you have won.
Another tremor strikes as you stride through the Verus atrium. The family altar wobbles dangerously, scattering incense. Death masks fall from the walls, shattering across the floor. A heavy bust by the altar tips over, tumbles, and bursts apart on the tiles.
The water in the family pool sloshes fitfully. It’s nearly invisible. You can only see hints of it where sunlight glints haphazardly off choppy surfaces. Otherwise it’s entirely translucent–you can see to the sides and bottom of the pool as if it wasn’t there. It doesn’t even refract the light.
Existence thins everywhere. Within my cell I see colors wash out of my surroundings. The wood walls around me wane in substance. Weight is bleeding from the world. Even the air grows brittle.
I feel the terror of the Aurelius from my dream, the one who didn’t want to be extinguished. Everything is ending, and it’s too soon. There was so much more. So much that was just beginning.
“Shut up and do something, then,” Marcus says, as the Praetorian beside him is finally brought down with a spear through the eye. Marcus leaps on the attacker, hacking apart the exposed elbow joint. The fighters on both sides are growing few. The sucking pain in his chest has dulled to a distant ache. His whole body grows light. Short, dizzy breaths buoy him over a trembling world. He notes that the sky overhead has lost its blue hue. It’s dried to the color of parchment, crossed with inky rivulets.
The Colosseum has largely emptied, aside from the moaning remnants crunched over stairs and stones. The people have fled from its annihilating core in a roaring tide. On the street, you drive against them, shoulder first. You make slow progress, planting your feet against buckling cobblestones, pushing against the human current. You hold the Verus sword behind you, point down. You will not turn it against your fellow man. You do not know how real they might be.
You cling to the hope that they don’t really exist. If these people aren’t real you didn’t really do anything evil when you killed them in Jerusalem, when you killed them here in Rome, by blade and by starvation. But you can’t be sure. So even if these are dream-people, just fleeting thoughts in the mind of God, you will not harm them. You’re terrified that maybe even dream-people matter, if You care about them.
Somewhere upriver a portion of the world is unmade. The landscape shifts, splintering the Tiber. Blustering liquid surges into the city. The crowd shrieks alarm as waters rush through the heart of Rome, but they’re mostly cries of surprise–ankle deep water foams over the shattered street in an endless torrent.
Over the heads of the onrushing masses, against the veined parchment sky, you spot the great walls of the Colosseum. The looming structure steadily crumbles. Twisted fingers of non-being fall like lightning around it, eating nearby buildings and people and the knowledge that they ever were. You press forward, unafraid. God has an interest in you. He’ll keep the tendrils from erasing you until you no longer entertain Him. You’ve got one last show for Him yet.
I tear at my hair with a clenching hand. I won’t accept this. I look from the insane girl kneeling prostrate, to the twisted corpse she reveres. It looks peaceful, curled over the spear, but it’s hard to look at. Literally so–it’s physically hard to gaze upon. There is something about the lines of split skin on the body that warps my vision. I follow one with my eyes and it runs concave, but when I step back to look at it in whole it presents as convex.
“Marcus, look behind you, at the arena floor!” I urge.
Marcus spits blood from his mouth. The blow he took cracked a tooth, but it was worth it. The final enemy soldier shudders as Marcus, lightheaded, pulls his blade from his body.
Marcus will not be looking at any howling rent in space right now. He has his own problems. There is no one left alive by his side. Across from him only Paullus still stands, atop the fallen bodies of his men, a wet dagger in each hand. Blood dribbles from the fringes of his robes in crimson strings.
“You just had to do this the hard way,” Paullus snarls.
You snort. Of course God would arrange for the two great adversaries to square off at the end. They are playthings. Life has no other purpose. You bull through the human flood.
Furtive motion catches Marcus’s eye. Below him, a glassy-eyed Pius pulls himself from a pile of bodies. He pushes to his knees.
“Is it over yet?” he asks, hair sticking out crazily. The ground quakes in answer.
Marcus brings his sword up and back, then hacks deep into Pius’s neck with a single swift chop. The man plummets back to the floor, choking, clutching at the gaping wound. It pumps his life out in seconds.
“You won’t get your precious emperor back either way,” Marcus says.
Paullus hesitates. Perhaps he’s thinking of Marcus’s years of combat experience, and weighing it against his lack of training.
Marcus stands firm, panting deeply. He doesn’t consider himself old, but Paullus is much younger. Marcus’s crippled ankle is unsupported. His arm burns with searing exertion. Worst of all, he’s lost too much blood. It’s hard to focus on Paullus, and the world keeps drifting askew in his vision.
He holds his sword silently, staring Paullus down. “Come and die,” he says, putting all his effort into clearly intoning the words.
Dammit, this doesn’t do me any good. I peer at that eye-scraping pattern of fissured skin.
“Look…” Eydis mutters, groping the floor, speaking to herself. You realize she’s been repeating something to herself for a while now, a chant or mantra. “All things are made new. The former things have passed away!”
I see it. The red lines in the dead wizard’s flesh come together to create an eldritch scrawl. They are a perfect mirror of the sigil above us. They pulse with a malevolent beat that’s been driving my attention away.
I grip my penknife tight and crouch over the wizard. I am not a plaything. I matter. To erase everything is to deny that mankind’s pain had any worth. All of that suffering, across all history, would have been for nothing. It can’t be for nothing. To end it here would be monstrous.
“Fuck your theology,” I say. “We matter just as much as your god does.” I pierce the wizard’s skin where two lines meet and slash upward, deforming the sigil. “We deserve to live too.” Something in the substance surrounding us shivers. The world shudders in sympathy.
A furious mass launches itself into my side. Eydis, lunging with a lunatic’s full-bodied force. She tackles me, smashing me to the ground. Pain spikes through my rectum as I land hard on my ass.
Her elbow digs into my eye, throwing her weight on it to keep my head pinned sideways against the ground. A knee drives up under my ribs, she’s scrabbling for my wrist. I twist but she’s too fast, her fingers claw at my hand gripping the knife.
I grunt, heaving my legs up wildly. It’s just enough to throw her off balance. Her knee slips from my chest, her elbow slips from my face.
I surge upright, or try to–the crown of my head connects with something hard. I feel a crunch as Eydis’s nose breaks and spurts blood into my eyes. I yank my head back and my skull blossoms in agony when it cracks against the stone floor. For a black moment all I am is pain.
Behind Marcus great walls of travertine give way, crashing to the ground, and Paullus makes his decision. The man roars, leaping at Marcus with daggers outstretched.
You finally break from the fleeing crowd and sprint, splashing, headlong for the Colosseum. You vault up the first set of stairs you find, which is the entirely wrong direction! I’m down! You don’t care. You’re not coming for me.
Before I can think Eydis has closed her fist around something solid and brings it smashing into the side of my head. Stars explode in my vision, and I try to worm free but she’s straddled me tightly.
I flail a fist into where I think her face is, connecting with a jumble of bone shards. She yelps in pain, clumsily thunking the heavy thing into my skull again, but the fingers she has over my knife-hand have come loose. With a snarling yank I break her grip.
I may not be a solider, but even I have some idea of what to do with sharpened metal. I jab wildly into her side, over and over, frantic and blind. Sharp shrieks fill the room. At some distant point after the eighth puncture her weight slides from me. I roll over, wipe blood from my eyes, and lunge back to the wizard’s carcass.
I slash desperately at the red sigil etched into his flesh, breaking the blasphemous sign. My little penknife dulls, tearing skin rather than slicing, drawing gouges across that body. The light in the room bends bizarrely, the darkness itself wavering.
I carve without restraint, defiling and desecrating. Slowly the world grows in weight.
The first blushes of solidity return.
The ground ceased its shaking.
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First line of next week’s chapter: I focused only on small patches of skin so I wouldn’t have to see the full ruin I made of the emaciated body below me.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: The crazy thing is, this wasn’t in the original plan.
Word-count of chapter 40 deleted content: 422