It didn’t take me long to regret having consigned the old barbarian to the ranks of the damned. As I made my final rounds among the animals to be killed today, I saw the old savage’s likeness in some aspect of every one of my beasts. The inchoate vocalizations, the strange, roving eyes. With his flattened head and hunched form, he looked more like a monkey than a human. They were innocent, in a state prior to morality. It was cruel of me to have delivered him to the Ludus Magnus. He couldn’t be blamed for his actions any more than an animal could.
If I’d had the time, perhaps I would have gone to retrieve him. But there was no happy fate for him to be found in Rome. He would die soon, whether as an overworked slave or a victim for the Colosseum’s dwarf fights. And I had my charges to prepare for their fights.
By the stable doors, opened wide to admit the early sunlight, I came to Sarra’s cage. The proud tigress regarded me with hungry eyes. I had hope for her. She was a fine creature and in her prime. She could make the gladiators bleed. Maybe she would be one of the few to sink her teeth into a Bestiarii’s arm. Maybe she would tear open a chest with those long claws and soak the sands with Roman blood.
I approached her with small steps, my hands held low. She glowered silently, but even when I came within reach she never swiped at me. I’d reared her for too long. She’d come into my care two years ago, a lanky adolescent, starved and sparsely coated. I had to feed her milk by hand for weeks before she could eat solid food. As her fur came back it grew in thick and bushy, turning her into an overlarge and absurdly soft porcupine. I exercised her daily, putting food at the top of tall poles, running her around the arena’s circumference. I taught her to leap on command, back and forth between raised platforms until she decided she was done with my antics and ignored any further imploring.
She’d grown into a magnificent beast, in the power and beauty of her youth. She didn’t even growl as I stepped up to her cage. My chest fluttered painfully as I slowly reached between the bars and placed a hand on her paw. She looked at me inquisitively and I saw I had failed her absolutely. My hand should have been ripped from my body, my forearm snapped in her jaws. She hadn’t been fed in days, and still she merely blinked at me.
I glanced about, catching sight of Zia watching me from the doorway leading to the gladiator’s barracks. The motherly kitchen slave quickly averted her eyes. She disapproved of what I was about to do, but we’d long ago reached an unspoken understanding. She didn’t complain anymore. After a second she closed the door to give me a figleaf of privacy with Sarra.
I spoke my litany of apology to the tigress, words she couldn’t understand, but words I needed to say. Then I backed away, took up a goad with both hands, and thrust it through the bars. Pricked into her flesh. I struck her relentlessly as she sprung and snarled. I jabbed her shoulders, her flanks, her face, it didn’t matter; anything to hurt her. Only when she screamed a roar that rocked the Ludus and lunged against the bars separating us did I stop. She must fear and hate all men if she was to survive this day. Despise them so deeply that she’d rather maul me than save her own young.
I continued to jab, to help her learn.
I stood within one of the many portals opening onto the arena floor, an iron portcullis inches before me. The passage at my rear sloped down into the underground warren beneath the Colosseum. Sounds of groaning machinery and snarling beasts rose from below. It was a hot, tight place, barely lit and stinking of terror.
Approaching celebratory trumpets and drums slowly overwhelmed the din underfoot. They swelled with each heartbeat. Closer, step by step.
Thundering notes poured from the mouth of the great western entrance, then broke over the Colosseum in an unleashed torrent as musicians entered the arena, blaring praises to the empire. They marched along the curving wall, followed closely by standard bearers holding the banners of Rome’s great legions, interspersed with priests carrying jeweled icons of the gods. The line continued unbroken as the trumpeters reached the furthest curve of the arena and followed the arc back. When the last note blared the step-perfect performance came to a halt having ringed the entire arena with displays of Rome’s wealth and power.
A silence descended, was held, and then the trumpets blasted again to declare the emperor’s arrival. Sixteen Praetorian guardsmen rose from the steps flanking the Imperial Box, across from me and up above the arena, as priests sang a paean to the emperor. A moment later Emperor Pius came into view, ascending the stairs to the rising cheers of seventy thousand Roman citizens. The emperor’s guests followed behind him, presumably his favored senators and priests, as well as the emperor’s attendant Vestal Virgin, the highest order of healer. From an emperor’s coronation to his death, he would never be more than a shout away from a Vestal Virgin. Sixteen more Praetorians brought up the rear.
The emperor motioned expansively in a calling gesture. Another line of Praetorians, these carrying great baskets of bread, filed up from the stairway. They made their way along the first-level promenade ringing the lower stands. The last three Praetorian entered the Imperial Box, set their baskets before the emperor, and knelt as the music came to its crescendo.
“Citizens of Rome!” the emperor shouted, his voice amplified by the masterful acoustics of the amphitheater. “Behold the grandeur I bring to you! Behold the bounty of bread and entertainment! Partake of my generosity, and give praise to our gods and our forefathers! Eat, and be merry, for Rome is eternal!” He took a loaf of bread from the bushel before him, turned around, and pitched it into the stands rising behind him.
On cue, the Praetorians carrying bread began throwing loaves into the crowd. In the higher tiers more soldiers laden with bread emerged from stairwells and began similar aerial distribution. The crowd surged and thousands of throats opened collectively in a ragged yell that was half cheer and half desperation. The emperor’s criers had promised enough bread for everyone, but men couldn’t eat promises. Not until a loaf was in one’s hands, not until one’s belly was full, could anyone be sure they would eat today. It took a long time for the mood of the crowd to swing ponderously from expectant despair and fury, to wary hope, to surprised satisfaction.
The relief even touched me. For his great festival, the emperor had found grain somewhere. It would be easy enough for me to get my hands on some bread when no one was looking. My gratitude gagged me, but it wouldn’t go away.
Loaves still arced into crowds, the supply not even half depleted, when the slaughter of my animals began.
I didn’t have to stay. I didn’t have to watch. I had procured the beasts, nursed them back to health, and prepared them for the show. My job was done, and the rest was in the hands of the stage manager and his many assistants and slaves. But I stayed. I always stayed. I had a duty to see my animals die. Someone should witness their passing and mourn it. Someone should counterweigh all those cheers.
The portcullis before me raised to admit three men straining to haul Sarra’s abused remains from the arena floor. The tigress had been the final beast fight today. She’d never had much chance–rarely are the Bestiarii injured. The games aren’t intended to be fair, only to be believably dangerous. Sarra hadn’t lasted long, hadn’t maimed anyone, hadn’t even drawn blood. No Roman screamed as she screamed. The sand of the arena stuck to one half-open eye as her head dragged across the ground.
A brief intermission followed, for the distribution of wine and more bread. It marked the midpoint of the first day of festivities. Normally I would leave now; I had no desire to watch gladiators stick each other. But today I stayed, waiting for the noon spectacle that would kick off the true fights. I’d been told my barbarian “wizard” would be involved. I had a duty to watch the old barbarian die, the way I watched each of my animals die. His death was my fault too.
When the Colosseum’s jailors finally thrust my stunted savage onto the arena floor it was with two dozen other dwarves. They burst shrieking from a nearby portal, whips and hot irons at their backs driving them out onto the sand. Each one clutched a tiny stiletto. On the opposite side of the arena a gate opened to reveal two tall figures. The gladiators stepped into the sunlight, wearing nothing more than loincloths, their bulging muscles glistening with oil. The crowd “oohed” and applauded. The first gladiator hoisted a spear and shield high to his audience. The other brandished a massive battleaxe. It was to be a slaughter, then.
“I am sorry,” I whispered toward the old barbarian. He couldn’t hear me, of course. My words were only for my own benefit. I spoke the same words to every animal I sent to its death. “You must die so that I may live. I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life. But know I wish this world was different.”
The savage stumbled out from the shadow of the arena’s wall and took in the open sky above him wide-eyed. Then his mouth curled into a shit-eating grin. As the dwarves charged forward he fell back, dragging his stiletto’s point across his leathery skin.
The first gladiator stepped directly into the oncoming rush of dwarves, swinging his battleaxe double-handed. It sheared the head from the first small man, cleaved through the torso of a second, before embedding itself halfway through the ribcage of a third. The gladiator roared as he jerked the axe loose, splitting the small body like a log as it came free. To his right his companion’s spear darted out like a snake’s tongue, impaling two dwarves through their bellies, then yanking back just as quickly. The two half-men toppled, one of them grabbing at something red and ropey that slipped from his body as he fell.
Darkness flickered at the edge of my vision. A haze swooped through the air, movement where there should be none. I strained to look at it, but there was nothing to focus on. An inexplicable presence circled over the stands of the Colosseum, and wherever its shadow should have fallen, the people started as if stung. It descended to the savage’s side, the old man bleeding from multiple self-inflicted cuts. Upon touching the sand it finally resolved into a discrete thing with surfaces and heft.
Its body was that of a black ox-sized crow, but bare of any feathers. A jagged beak took up the entire face, its upper mandible curving down from the top of the skull, starting above even where the eyes should be. The wings consisted of long arms webbed to the body in the manner of bats. Cricket-like legs folded insectile beneath it. The legs were emaciated, black skin stuck tightly to jutting bones. The rest of its body was absurdly overdeveloped. Thick cords of muscle twisted underneath the skin without sense. They bound it like rope, restricting it rather than propelling it. It had the look of a thing made to be dominated, tied down by its own architecture. It radiated eldritch eroticism, every movement sinuously hampered. I felt my face flush hot, and my breath came heavy from my tightened chest. Sickness at this forced arousal clenched my guts.
The Colosseum fell silent. Never before had a summoning been witnessed inside Rome. A monster in the arena should have been a massively publicized spectacle, not a surprise event. Even the gladiators drew up short and gaped. My heartbeat pounded like a drum in my ears. I had my monster. The whole stadium held its breath, chests swelling with lust.
With a shout of glee, the barbarian wizard hopped on this monster’s back and threw his arms around its neck. As it leapt into the air I felt my heart fracture, torn by desire.
“NO!” bellowed the first gladiator, mirroring my lips, his voice ragged with betrayed fury. He sprang forward and hurled his battleaxe overhand. It spun over the mass of dwarves and crushed one monstrous wing at the shoulder-joint. The beast screamed and spiraled to the ground. The impact threw the wizard from its back. Thick black liquid spilled from the beast’s wound and a sweet stench filled the air. A perfume of rotting corpses, hideously alluring. I filled my lungs greedily, unable to resist.
The monster leapt back to its feet immediately. It pounced, clawed wings flashing. The gladiator rushed to meet it, arms outstretched, visibly aroused under his loincloth. His throat erupted into a red geyser under those claws. He fell back convulsing in some combination of agony and ecstasy as the monster landed on him. It sunk its rear talons into his stomach and disemboweled him. A roar of delight from the crowd.
The second gladiator had leapt forward when his partner fell and never paused. His spear skewered the beast, plunging between neck and shoulder, into the body. He withdrew the weapon as the monster reared up, screaming. An upward thrust and the spear pierced under its beak, into what would be the brain in any normal animal, cutting its cry short. Black oil rolled down the spear’s shaft, dropped in gooey clumps to the sand. The thing shuddered, then collapsed to the Colosseum floor.
The stadium erupted into cheers. The remaining gladiator stood rigid over the dark body, also noticeably aroused, but saved by his self-preservation instinct. My lust didn’t abate as the thing bled out. Debased sexual desire emanated from that twisted corpse, suffusing the air itself. I scanned the stands. Flushed faces, wide eyes, heaving breasts. At least I wasn’t alone. This magical perversion gripped everyone.
“Get that wizard!” I hissed to the nearest guard. I motioned at the small moaning form on the arena floor, body contorted in pain. “Get him out of there, now. Gently! He mustn’t be harmed any further.”
The monster’s nightmarish essence seeped into the air. The Colosseum seethed with unsated lust. Across the arena I saw the emperor stand, then point down at its corpse. A demanding motion. It was being retrieved for him. I wanted it too. I hungered to touch that luring grotesquery, to be engulfed in it and to possess it.
The emperor would not be satisfied with only one. No man could be. If another monster wasn’t produced, someone would burn. My life depended on how fast I could get that wizard to the healers.
I stood in a small vestibule within the House of the Vestals, standing behind a crouched elderly woman. The barbarian wizard lay semiconscious on a cot that took up most of the room, his breath shallow and his skin pallid. Broken words slipped from his muttering lips, their strange syllables scraping across my ears. Dark dread swelled within me, my mind impregnated by his muted rasps. I cast repeated glances at the curtain drawn across the doorway, expecting it to billow inward at any moment to reveal an embodiment of pollution.
The healer at my feet worked unperturbed. She moved her hands slowly over the wizard’s body, pressing firmly here, probing there. She reminded me of Zia in her grim efficiency. Trudging through this world and all its shit because she was too stubborn to just give up. Zia hadn’t complained as she’d grown gaunt over the last few months, while the animals ate regular meals. We all knew where we stood in our master’s budgetary concerns.
I gave the healer as much space as physically possible in those tight quarters. She was not a Vestal Virgin herself, or I wouldn’t have been here. Nothing as profane as a slave could be allowed so near one of the hallowed Virgins. But she had enough skill to be accepted as a Handmaiden in the temple of Rome’s healers, and I wouldn’t be put to death if I accidentally touched her, which were the two things I most wanted in any healer I dealt with.
After too long a time the Handmaiden rose and turned to me. The disfiguring effects of decades of healings exaggerated her age. Hairline scars formed webs across her body, the legacies of mended gashes. Her joints had twisted and her flesh discolored from lifted plagues. I could only imagine the state of her internal viscera.
“He is old, with many recent injuries. The most severe is his hip. It is shattered.”
Shit. An injury like that would cripple someone for life. I would have to find an old cheap slave near the end of their life and transfer the wound into them. I hoped I could get a Roman. They weren’t as common as imported captives, but certain crimes could be punished with slavery. A Roman would deserve the agony of a shattered hip.
“It will cost you,” the old Handmaiden continued. “With an injury like this, even the tiny fraction that stays with a healer during the transfer will be a significant wound. I will suffer.”
My heart clenched when she named the price. It outstripped all the money I had access to. Sextus would pay it for a monster-summoner, but not lightly. Not without significant oversight. He would demand to see the ledgers. In a matter of days he’d find the many liberties I took with his funds. Over the months of famine, they came to a significant sum. He’d flog me, strip me of rank, and sell me into the mines. If he didn’t just feed me to my own lions.
The Handmaiden must have seen my sickened expression. An amused grin flitted across her face, but she said nothing.
“I can’t afford that,” I told her. “I can’t afford half that. Isn’t there something else you can do to keep him alive?”
The Handmaiden shook her head. “The hip must be fixed, or he’ll die. Anything less just delays the inevitable. It would only be a matter of time.”
This gave me pause. “How much time?” I asked.
“If you brought me a healthy vessel I could patch and fortify him enough to give him a week or two of life. Maybe as long as a month, if he’s very lucky. The vessel wouldn’t even die of it.”
A glimmer of hope flashed. “He’d be awake, and able to reason?”
“Within the limits of his pain tolerance. He won’t be able to walk. Or to move very much at all, for that matter.”
I didn’t need him to walk. I needed him to summon monsters, and I only needed him to do it for the next six days. After that he could die however he wanted.
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First line of next week’s chapter: You don’t really wake up, because you were never really asleep.
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