42. Marcus Verus
Marcus swung his sword in a downward chop, reckless and overbalanced, like a peasant. Paullus rolled aside across the carpet of bodies and sprung back to his feet, as Marcus stumbled after on his crunching ankle.
Three times now Paullus should have been dead. Marcus couldn’t land the decisive blow. Blood loss made him clumsy, and his strikes too slow. His hand cramped shut over a thousand-pound sword. He wielded it more like a club than a cutting instrument.
Paullus lunged at Marcus. Marcus batted the blade away but didn’t have the energy to pursue again when Paullus jumped back. His counter-stroke sliced through empty air.
Paullus came right back, hacking away, and Marcus retreated step after step. Every one of those inarticulate blows presented Marcus an opportunity to turn Paullus’s blade and slip in after it, sliding his weapon home. Yet every time Marcus barely managed to lift his sword, barely kept Paullus from opening him up. He kept losing ground to keep his life.
The stone parapet bumped his upper thigh from behind, stopping him short. Paullus sneered a grin. Marcus prepared for the final strike.
“Out of my way, god-puppet!” a voice roared from behind Paullus. The man spun around, then realized his mistake, and began to turn back. Too late. Marcus had lurched forward the instant Paullus moved, hoisting the sword two handed. He plunged the blade into Paullus’s back, years in the field guiding his point without pause or thought. Just to the left of the spine, just between the fourth and fifth ribs, only barely scraping bone as it drove into the chest.
Paullus screamed, shoulders wrenching back. A spasm, he tried to step forward, but the foot he came down on didn’t hold his weight. He crumpled to the floor in a heap, the sword pulling free as he fell. Gushing heart-blood matted his robe to his back.
Andreas stood past Paullus’s collapsed form, the gleaming Verus family sword clenched in one hand. Every line of his body trembled fury.
Loathing rolled over Marcus in waves. It washed through his aching, burning muscles. It left the taste of the ash of Quintus’s burning letters in his mouth. He swayed on his feet, tightened his grip on the sword.
“You did this!” Andreas shouted. Not very specific, but Marcus knew what he meant.
Marcus inhaled shakily. He’d barely held off Paullus. Fighting Andreas would be suicide. He dropped his sword to the floor.
“Yes, I did,” Marcus answered, in controlled tones. Calming tones. He would kill Andreas, but not today. “And for very good reason. Didn’t you see? Rome was on the very precipice of destruction. The foundations of our way of life were–”
“Fuck you! Shut your mouth, you…” Andreas’s words faltered. His eyes darted around the Imperial Box, then came to rest on Marcus again. “…monster,” he breathed.
“Every man here died fighting for what they believed in. Either–”
“Shut the fuck up. You think you can talk your way out of this? If I hear one more word from you I’ll shove this sword right through your neck.”
Marcus nodded, and sat back on the parapet. Exhaustion turned his body to lead, but he wasn’t ready to die yet. His eyes roved over his surroundings, searching for some way to extricate himself from this. He sat at a forward corner of the Imperial Box, stands rising to his right, the arena empty below to his left. The wound in the world, the mountain of nothing, had faded away soon after his connection with Joah and Andreas broke.
Behind Andreas, the sky’s last vibrations died away as it fully returned to its familiar blue hue. Andreas’s neck strained under a clenching jaw. He glared down at Paullus’s corpse before him, as if challenging it to rise again.
“I should just kill you right now and be done with it,” Andreas said, still gazing toward the corpse. “You, and everyone like you. You deserve it so much.”
Andreas’s face contorted, first in bug-eyed surprise, then into outrage. “Shut up!” he shouted, clenching fists. He didn’t look up. “Yes, deserve! Nothing is different!” He crouched down to Paullus’s body and picked at the man’s robes. “Can you imagine how much better the world would be, without people like you in it? How much misery could be averted if garbage like you was just carved out and discarded? You’d never trouble anyone again.”
Marcus stirred slightly, to shift his center over his good leg. In an eyeblink Andreas snapped to his feet, sword trained on Marcus’s chest. “Don’t move,” he growled.
Marcus spread his hands to show they were empty. Andreas stood taut, unbudging.
“But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” the younger man asked. “It’s so easy. The point so sharp. Just a bit of pressure, slide it between your ribs, and so many problems are solved. It shouldn’t be so easy, so useful, to end a life.”
Marcus opened his mouth to reply but the grim narrowing of Andreas’s eyes stopped him. Marcus struggled to keep his gaze focused, finding it starting to blur.
“And that’s why it becomes the default tool, isn’t it?” Andreas continued. “It’s too effective. Too easy. Just kill every male in Jerusalem, and all your problems are solved. Slaughter the barbarians, enslave their children. Murder your rivals. Solved, solved, solved. Why stop? Can you tell me that? Why should I stop now?”
“Am I allowed to speak, then?” Marcus asked. He wasn’t sure it would matter. He didn’t think Andreas could understand reason in this state.
Andreas considered him for a long moment. He half-lowered his sword, and took a deep breath. “No. You’ve said enough.”
Marcus glanced down into the arena. He could probably pitch into it before Andreas could stab him. If he didn’t land badly he could still flee into the tunnels. Maybe Andreas wouldn’t pursue. Maybe he’d survive for another hour. It was a mad idea, but madness was all he had left.
“There is no reason to stop,” Andreas stated. Iron banded his voice. “Not now. Not ever. The killing will go on endlessly.” Marcus prepared to tumble. “But I’m drawing my line. If there’s no reason to stop, I’ll stop without reason. I am fucking done with all of this.”
Andreas flipped the sword into an underhand grip. With a full-bodied downward crunch he plunged the sword through Paullus’s body, like a man would drive a standard into the ground. Marcus winced involuntarily, knowing the sword tip was ruined against the marble floor. Andreas straightened, leaving the weapon standing on its own in the corpse.
“Have your sword back. I don’t need it anymore.”
He turned and walked from the scene of carnage.
Marcus exhaled, his breath escaping in a vibrato waver. He tried to take his feet, barely catching himself when his knees gave out. Damnation. He was so weak. There was no one left, no one here to help him. Under his own power he still had to make it from the Colosseum, maybe all the way to the House of the Vestals, before he passed out and bled to a silent, ignominious death.
He pushed off the parapet and tried again. The world tilted, and his legs folded immediately, spilling him onto the bloodstained floor. He bent forward and squeezed his eyes tight over hot frustration. He was so close. It couldn’t end now. Not like this.
He dragged one arm forward, then the other, crawling over bodies. The Colosseum began to spin in earnest. Marcus paused to clear his head, sucking air deep into his lungs. For an instant he thought he heard a voice, thin but familiar.
There it was again. Marcus looked around, but couldn’t see over the Imperial Box walls from his position.
“Marcus?” It sounded like an echo down a long tunnel.
He levered himself up onto a parapet. In a darkening world, Marcus spotted his wife holding her skirts up halfway to her knees, stepping over the bodies and rubble of the stands.
She caught sight of him, and the panic on her face crossed into deathly worry. She broke into a run, calling his name.
Marcus smiled in a daze as he slipped back to the floor. The image of her, floating pristine among the destruction, was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life.
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First line of next week’s chapter: You’ve left the Colosseum.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I was raised as a pacifist.
Word-count of chapter 42 deleted content: 73