You’ve left the Colosseum. You step from its broken shadows, crossing into sunlight. The streets around you lie abandoned. Perhaps distant sounds of chaos and suffering fill the air, but if so they are lost among the general clamor in your head. The gods try to catch your attention, but they are a cacophony. In disarray, they cannot compete with the sight before you.
You move from the cobblestones of the street to the grass of an impossible pasture suddenly in the heart of Rome. This plot had been occupied by the neighboring Ludus Matutinus. Now the Ludus is gone. Not destroyed… it’s as if it never was. You take up position at the lip of a gully that has taken the place of the stables. You wait.
These grounds look as if they aren’t aware a city surrounds them. Tall, wet grasses hide snakes and hares. A fig tree at least a century old spreads over the site of the missing barracks. Its roots are rudely cut off along one side, where paved street runs unbroken. A large shadow perches in its boughs.
The shadow shifts over time, and not only due to the movement of the sun.
One end of the gully opens into a tunnel. At last labored grunts emanate from it, drawing steadily closer with wet, sucking footsteps. Joah emerges backwards, hunched, dragging something heavy. Eydis. The feathers of her costume drag through the mud.
“How is she?” you call.
Joah startles, dumping Eydis without delicacy. That’s almost a confirmation of your worries in itself. Her form plops into the muck as Joah scrambles back, looking up at you with wide eyes.
“What is this?” he asks. “Where’s the Ludus?”
Like you would know.
You drop into the trench and crouch by Eydis. She’s cold as the ground, and unbreathing.
For a moment all the voices in your head still at once.
It didn’t have to be this way.
But it did. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She couldn’t accept this world.
The moment passes. The din returns, warring within you, jerking your emotions in a dozen disparate directions. You are so unutterably sick of all the gods of the world. You want to vomit up your soul at the very thought of them.
You peer up at Joah. Your face must terrify him, he backs away spitting excuses.
“I won’t hurt you,” you say, rising to your feet. “I’ll never lay hands on anyone again. That’s behind me.” A swell of protests disrupts your thoughts. You grit your teeth and push them back. “Where were you taking her?” you ask.
Joah regards you warily. “I don’t know,” he says. “Just out of there. I couldn’t leave her to bloat. She deserves… something better than that.”
You nod. You scoop up the body and carry it from the trench. Joah pulls back, giving you as much space as possible. He follows several steps back, rising from the gully after you. His breath catches when he sees what’s become of the Ludus grounds. He simply stops, gaping at the island of wilderness carved out of the city, as you trudge on.
You set Eydis down beneath the fig tree, regarding her waxy countenance. You can’t understand this world anymore. Maybe you never really did. Your gaze drops to her ridiculous attire. The petty spite of the costume stiffens your shoulders. Was it really necessary? Is this what you were fighting for all this time?
Joah recovers from his surprise and comes to join you under the fig tree. “What are you going to do?” he asks.
You bend to tug sodden feathers free from Eydis’s bracers. They’re a fucking insult.
“I thought about that,” you answer as you work, “waiting for you to emerge from the Ludus tunnel. It would depend on whether Eydis survived.” Joah flinches back a step, but you ignore him. “I thought that perhaps with the right knowledge and magic, we could leave God’s mind. Flee His dream.” You toss aside two feathers, take hold of two more. It’s odd, but with every feather you discard the voices of the gods dull just a bit. “Maybe we still can. I think some of her people are left, hiding in the cold north. They might have some ideas.” Two more feathers. You feel like you’ve swallowed a stone and it’s lodged in your throat. “But even if there is a way, what’s the point? Men would still be men. Mankind would be just as awful outside God’s mind as within it.”
You look up to the shadow in the tree as it watches Eydis’s form. God still has an interest in her. Maybe God can be useful for something, for once. You motion, and the shadow breaks free from the boughs and alights at your side. Joah jumps back with a yelp. An eyeless creature squats before you. Its outsides are black and twisted. It turns a sharp beak to you and waits.
“I’m taking her far from here,” you say, “and I’m not coming back. I am a man of peace now, and there can be no peace among humankind. This is not my world anymore.” Two more feathers. “I renounce all of it.”
You feel Joah staring at you, but you don’t look up.
“You’ll die out there, alone in the wilderness,” he says.
“Then I’ll die.”
You pull the last feather free, the voices dimming further, then gather Eydis’s body into your arms again. When you do so the gods still almost completely. They’re reduced to a scratching whisper, or a far distant brook. Easily ignored.
You mount the beast awkwardly, pulling Eydis close to your chest. Joah says nothing else. The monster squawks and leaps into the sky. The last you see of Rome is Joah staring up at you solemnly, rapidly shrinking with distance. You close your eyes before you turn your head to face forward, so you won’t see anything else of that ruined, hateful city.
The last of the gods’ voices stay behind with Rome. As you pass from the world of men there is finally silence within your mind.
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First line of next week’s chapter: For the first time in a seven-day eternity I could breathe without gagging.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I’ve always had a lot of trouble with endings.
Word-count of chapter 43 deleted content: 174