My heart plummeted to my sandals.
“Titus…” My throat tightened, strangling my words. “This isn’t what I was expecting… ”
The Ludus Matutinus trained and housed the Bestiarii gladiators, as well as the animals they slaughtered. In its stables, I gazed down at a wretched human form chained in a dusty cart. A stunted thing, barely four feet tall, with knobby joints and not a single hair upon him. His wrinkled skin was scrawled with tattooed lines, cutting him into odd segments. He was the furthest thing from a horned, six-legged bear I could imagine.
“You promised me a horned, six-legged bear,” I protested. I could see Titus’s face grow dark, and fear crawled up my spine. If I could make him laugh… “He’s ugly enough, but Gracus was really excited about that horn thing —”
Titus’s open hand struck below my temple. The pain wasn’t as bad as the humiliation, the knowledge that he could do what he wanted with me.
“You forget your place, Marad.” He spit out my foreign name. “There weren’t any giant bears. This barbarian wizard will do.”
He would not do. Gracus had charged me with procuring beasts for the games. All damn year I’d been waiting for that bear. The legion had returned with plenty of regular, boring animals, but the horned bear was to be the centerpiece. I’d promised Gracus a monster battle.
“I can’t pay for this,” I said, avoiding Titus’s eyes. Looking lower. He was clean-shaven, as befitted his station, and my own salt-and-pepper beard felt all the more damning in contrast. He stepped forward purposefully, one hand resting on his sword’s pommel, the other pressing flat against my chest. He pushed, following as I retreated, until I was up against the stable wall. His breath assaulted me, inches away.
“You’ll pay full price,” he rumbled.
“Guards!” My voice broke, the bastards were standing right there. They marched over but didn’t lift a hand to restrain him. It didn’t matter that Gracus paid them to protect me. In the weighing of Roman Centurion versus Jewish Slave, there was no contest.
Titus grinned and ran his hand down my chest, to my belt, and slipped his fingers into my money pouch. I turned my face aside, praying my bladder would hold. He fished out several denarii.
“I’ll be back for the rest.”
A moment later he was gone, and I was sliding to the floor, trembling. The so-called wizard in the cart wheezed out laughter. I glared at him. His mocking eyes met mine, a glimmer of madness flashing behind them.
“Go ahead and laugh,” I muttered. “You’ll be dead soon enough.”
I gave the diminutive barbarian to Balthar to put into one of his dwarf fights. I regretted it by the next morning. With his flattened head and hunched form, the savage looked more like a poor Scythian monkey than a human. He couldn’t be blamed for his insult any more than an animal could.
The festivities were midway through their first day. The morning’s beast shows were over, but I stayed at the Colosseum, waiting for the noon spectacle. I had a duty to watch the barbarian die, the way I watched each of my animals die. Someone should witness their passing, and mourn it. Someone should counterweigh those cheers.
When the tattooed form of the savage was thrust onto the arena floor, it was with two dozen other dwarves, all armed with tiny stilettos. Opposite them stood two gladiators, one armed with a spear and shield, the other with a massive battle-axe. It was to be a slaughter then.
“I am sorry,” I whispered toward the old barbarian. He couldn’t hear me, of course; this was for my benefit. I spoke these 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.”
As the savage stumbled out from the overhang of the Colosseum’s walls and saw the open sky above him, his mouth curled up into a shit-eating grin. As the dwarves charged forward, he fell back, fingers tearing at his leathery skin. My eyes darted to the melee. The first gladiator stepped directly into the oncoming tide of dwarves, swinging his battle-axe 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.
Darkness flickered at the edge of my vision. A shadow 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 descended to the savage’s side, and as it touched the sand, it finally resolved into a discrete thing with surfaces and heft.
Its body was that of an ox-sized crow, but bare of any feathers. Black skin stuck tightly to jutting bones. A jagged beak took up the entire face, its upper mandible curving down from the top of the skull. The wings consisted of long arms webbed to the body in the manner of bats. Cricket-like legs folded beneath it.
The Colosseum grew still. Even the gladiators gaped at this intruder. With a shout of glee, the barbarian wizard hopped on the monster’s back, throwing his arms around its neck. It leapt upward with a beating of its wings, a deafening squawk piercing the sky.
Bellowing a challenge, the first gladiator sprang forward and hurled his battle-axe 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 wound, and the perfume of rotting corpses filled the air.
The monster was immediately back on its feet. It pounced, clawed wings flashing, and crashed into the unarmed warrior before he could react. He toppled backward, and sinking its talons into his stomach, it kicked out, disemboweling him. A roar of delight from the crowd. The second gladiator was already charging.
His spear skewered it, plunging between neck and shoulder, into the body. He withdrew the weapon as the monster reared up, screaming. A lunging thrust and the spear pierced up under its beak, into what would be the brain in any normal animal. Black oil rolled down the shaft, dropped in gooey clumps to the sand. The thing shuddered, then collapsed to the Colosseum floor.
The stadium erupted in cheers. I grabbed the nearest guard.
“Get that wizard!” I hissed. “Get him out of there right now. He mustn’t be harmed!”
Nearby I saw the Emperor stand, then point down at the monster’s corpse. A demanding motion. It was being retrieved for him. Its nightmarish essence seeped into the city’s air. I doubted he would be satisfied with only one such performance — my life depended on how fast I could get that wizard to the healers.
A decade earlier. Back in my home village, before the failed uprising, before I’d left my sick faith. Dozens of men around me, jostling, shouting. A stone gripped in my hand. A hole in the center of the crowd, twenty yards across, empty but for a single weeping man. We churned around him like a boiling sea, hurling abuse, hurling hatred. Stones lay about him.
Ehud. I had slept with him years ago. I had loved him for a while. I should have known he would be found out. A stone flew from the crowd and tore his ear open. It bled black.
He looked up, snot running down his face, eyes swollen. I knew he couldn’t see me through his tears, but his gaze seemed to catch mine. My chest constricted. It was too hot, too tight. Rabbi Tzuriel caught the look. He looked at me, then back at Ehud. Glanced at the rock held unthrown in my hand. Something troubled his eyes.
I stepped forward and flung my stone at Ehud. It caught him in the mouth, split his lip. Dark syrup poured from the gash, and now Ehud’s tears came clouded and oily. The sweet smell of decomposing bodies filled the air, his cries broke into crow-like squawks. I bent down, grabbed more stones, hurled them one after another, blindly.
And I was sitting up, in my quarters in Gracus’s estate, gasping for air. The sky outside was still dark. I threw aside my soaked sheets, leaned over, and vomited on the floor.
Somehow the dream was even worse, twisted like this — Ehud’s execution melding into the monster’s slaying. The sweet stink clung in my nostrils. I squeezed my eyes tight and let the sickness flow through me.
“The Emperor demands another monster,” I told the wizard that afternoon. It had taken me all day to find another barbarian slave who could speak his language. She worked as a scribe and had been educated by Roman teachers, yet she sat by his cot in reverence. His hip had been shattered in the fall.
Even with his face taut with pain, his lips still curled in contempt.
“He says you don’t have the stomach to gather the components he needs for the summoning,” the girl translated.
A wry grin broke over her face. “The Reverend Elder is new to slavery,” she said. “He doesn’t realize how quickly the Romans warp us into mirrors of themselves.”
I did not appreciate being included in her sentiment.
I visited Aurelius that evening, at the Temple of Somnus. As Gracus’s Dispensator I received a small personal stipend, and if I was frugal I could visit Aurelius twice a month. Therefore I was very frugal.
It seemed the whole damn city was in the temple, everyone there pale and harried. By the time Aurelius was ready for me, I’d seen enough people pass through to fill half the Colosseum.
“Is it a holy day?” I asked him. Aurelius shook his head, his blonde curls bouncing lightly.
“Just a lot of supplicants today. Nightmares flooded the city last night.” He smiled at me and took my hand. “Don’t worry about it. How are you?”
I drew him close, ran my other hand through his hair.
It didn’t last, though. The evening was marred by the lingering, cloying stench of the monster. After I finally spent myself inside Aurelius, I left sick with disgust. The entire city stank of that pitch blood.
I tossed in bed all night, my skin crawling with every breath. When the sky lightened, it came as a relief — I could give up on sleep and distract myself with work. I left for the apothecaria to buy the wizard’s components.
The air outside was thick; I had to push my way through it. The sun filtered down heavily, dulled to diffuse amber. Those on the streets shambled along, exhausted. The eyes I met were tired, half-lidded pools. Everyone labored to breathe the sticky atmosphere.
I pulled myself from one alchemist to the next, listing the vile components without apology. Everyone turned me away with revulsion. One man cursed me as he chased me out. As the shadows bled toward the horizon, I finally received a calculating look from a dark man with wet coals for eyes. He named a ridiculous sum, his lips barely moving. I accepted.
I had barely left the apothecary when a strained voice yelled my name.
I turned, saw a slave of the Ludus barreling down the street. He waved for me desperately.
“Marad! Wait!” He almost collapsed at my feet, panting, but forced his words out regardless. “The animals. They’re loose. All. All of them.”
I left him in the dirt, running as fast as I could back to the Ludus, bowling past shouting pedestrians. Gasping minutes later, I rounded a final corner, and saw the crushed masonry where elephants had careened into a building. Carts lay strewn about in splinters. The screams of the injured choked the streets, and in the mouth of a nearby alley a tiger gnawed on a bloody arm. Oh God. This meant my death.
Could I risk going back for the coins I’d accumulated? It was a stupid thought. Of course not. I should have planned ahead, should have hidden something outside the city. Now I’d have to flee with only what I had on me. But if I could evade capture, then survive until I made my way to another city, I could have a life again. I’d heard there were places in the Empire where a literate, numerate slave would be accepted without questions.
I would never see Aurelius again. That hurt like a dagger. But it beat torture and execution. I turned to flee.
A hand clapped down on my shoulder. Titus’s rough, sneering voice. “Leaving so soon, Marad?” My heart stopped.
I sat up in my bed, gulping the air, heart pounding in my chest. Wet sheets tumbled to the floor. The sun had cleared the horizon, and filtered through a dull sky into diffuse amber. The air was thick, sluicing reluctantly down my throat. I groaned as I flopped back onto my cot. None of it had happened. I still had my life. I waited until my trembling subsided before getting to my feet.
The wizard began his ritual that night, chanting hateful, buzzing words that filled the Ludus into the early hours. His translator assisted him, burning incense, slathering him with wine and blood. My heart beat unnaturally fast in their presence, my skull itched behind my eyeballs. I didn’t ask what the stillborn was for.
They paused to rest several times, and on the third such occasion I broke my silent vigil. “How much longer?” I demanded, spurring a guttural exchange between the two slaves.
“Four days, maybe five,” the girl translated. “He’ll have to be taken to the Colosseum for the final casting, on the last day.”
Days? I had expected hours. That incessant chanting still echoed in my mind.
“Why so long?” I asked.
“God’s mind encompasses all things.” She answered me directly, without referring my question to the wizard. “We must work hard to get His attention.”
“This is your religion?”
She regarded me silently for a long time before answering.
“These are the broken shards of my religion. This is what remained after the Romans ground it against reality.”
Rumor from Jerusalem claimed that my former faith was splintering as well, but I wouldn’t miss it. I left them to their work.
The days kept growing heavier, the sky more oppressive. Its blue dome sank down onto the Earth, squeezing us beneath its weight. A faint scent of rancid honey coated every breath. In the Colosseum the cheers were forced; plaintive cries of defiance against a wilting world.
I slogged through the afternoon miasma, on my way to Somnus’s Temple. It had only been four days since the wizard had nearly escaped on his flying monster, but I had lived through ten. Six of them ended abruptly, in terror and disaster, and I found myself back in my bed, the day undone. It was a grinding existence. I wondered if I would receive some shock at the end of this day, and have to live it over from the beginning.
“Aurelius,” I greeted him, once I was at the temple. I couldn’t recall the trek through the sweltering streets. “You’re a priest of Somnus. How can I tell if I’m awake, or just in a vivid dream?”
“If you have to ask, you must be dreaming,” Aurelius assured me. “You’re dreaming right now.”
That wasn’t the answer I had expected, and doubt crawled over my skin. I needed some proof. “How can I tell? How would I know, if you weren’t here to tell me?”
“Marad, all of existence is a dream. Dreams are the only things of substance. Wakefulness is the illusion.”
Of course. What had I expected from an adept of the god of sleep? I bit back disappointment.
“Ah. Well, thank you.” I paused. “Aurelius, how long has it been since I last came to see you?”
Aurelius raised one eyebrow, so alluring in pose he looked like he’d been carved from stone. A spark of desire flared, the faintest stirring in my groin, in rebellion against the constant smothering gloam. “I don’t keep track,” he replied, “but probably too long.”
That’s actually not what I had meant, but if I could escape into him for an hour, I was more than willing.
Later, lying in each other’s arms, discussing our past lovers, I felt Aurelius suddenly tense. He pulled away and locked his gaze to mine. His eyes were wide with fear.
“Marad, no. Stop. You’re waking up.”
“What are you talking about?” I looked around the dim cell, confused. Nothing had changed.
“Oh gods. I told you you’re dreaming. The world is in your mind. When you wake it’ll cease to exist. I’ll die. Please. I don’t want to die.” His voice trembled. I took his shaking hands in my own and noticed he was less substantial somehow. Less there. Panic ran down my spine.
“How? Tell me what to do!”
“I don’t know. Try, hard. Sleep as long as you can. You’re killing us all.”
“Aurelius? Am I supposed to never wake up? Never see the real world again? I’ll die. I’ll starve.”
“Then you never should have dreamed me to life in the first place! Don’t go, oh gods, please!” He was blubbering now. He curled his head down into my chest, terror contorting his body. The world grew thin, everything began to fade. “I don’t want to die!”
I held him tight as he disintegrated, horror gripping me. What could I do? I couldn’t sleep forever. I had no choice.
“I am sorry,” I whispered into his hair, now pale platinum. “You must die so that I may live. Please know I wish this world was different.”
My eyes snapped open. The night was cold, the stars unimaginably distant through my room’s slit window, and I was alone. I shivered under my blanket.
As the sun rose, I hurried to the Temple of Somnus. A porter bumped into a solider as I walked, and the large legionnaire lashed out, smashing the man to the ground. Nearby, haggles over prices turned into shouting matches, voices rising to scream obscenities. The entire city teetered, dipping in and out of violent outbursts. Every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick.
At the temple I received glares of hatred when I asked if Aurelius was in. Of course he was in, where would he go? Was he safe? Everyone was safe; was I implying the temple couldn’t care for its own? All right, but could someone make sure he existed? What kind of fucking fool question was that?
Finally someone was sent to check. Yes, Aurelius was fine, he did actually exist, and could I kindly fuck off? I turned away, lightheaded. Good, everything was good. I even caught a distant glimpse of him as I left. It had been another dream.
This was the final day of the festival. Today at noon, the wizard would summon his monster. The arena would be roofed with netting, and the fight should last no less than half an hour. Every luminary of the Empire would be there.
Back in my writing room, I looked over the day’s schedule, noting which animals were to die, calculating how much replacements would cost. The final day was always the most extravagant.
The sound of heavy footsteps behind me. I turned to face them, but a hand on my shoulder shoved me away, pushed me against the desk. I felt a thick body press into me from behind.
“I’ve come for the rest of my payment,” Titus growled. My entire body tightened. His stench made it hard to breathe. “The wizard is a hit. I hope you’ve been keeping my cut safe for me.”
My fingers grew cold. He wouldn’t care that I didn’t get any extra money for a popular fight, and no matter what I offered him, I was sure it wouldn’t be enough. “I can’t,” I croaked. “Gracus only gives me so much. If I give you more —”
Titus’s hand shifted to grab my throat. He kept me pinned against the desk with his hips. I felt a firmness rising from his crotch.
“Did you just tell me ‘no’?” he whispered, his lips brushing my ear.
His word against mine, a citizen versus a slave. Keeping as still as possible, I grasped for the money pouch at my belt, overturned it on the desktop.
“Take what you want.” My voice came high and strained.
“Like you could stop me.” He held me down across the desk, pushed my face into the wood. He pulled up my tunic. I squeezed my eyes shut and grabbed the edge of the desk. Not today, not again. I heard him spit.
I gasped at the first thrust, then bit down on the pain. More than anything, I didn’t want to cry out. It would draw the guards, and I couldn’t take the burning shame of them watching from the door as Titus used my body. Couldn’t take their fucking pity on top of everything else. A whimper slipped from my lips with the next thrust, and I wanted to stab my lungs to silence them. It would be over soon.
I found I was squeezing the handle of my thin desk knife. It was small, but sharp enough to repair worn quill nibs with the slightest touch. I gripped it until my knuckles turned white, and as another small cry forced its way from my mouth, I heard in it an echo of the monster’s scream. The stench of decay filled my nostrils again, gagging me. I convulsed, and when Titus yanked my hair, I lifted my shoulder and swung my fist back, flailing desperately behind me. Warmth spurted over my hand, so welcome on my freezing flesh. I heard a choke, Titus came free of me, his pressure pulling away. I looked back.
A face caught between shock and confusion. A puncture in his neck drained his life down his chest in a bright red river. He stared at me, mouth moving but no words coming out. A staggering step back, and then he crashed to the floor. He lay still in widening crimson.
This had to be a dream.
Above the Colosseum, 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, the beast leapt back into the air.
I had drawn the curtains of the writing room, then chained and locked the door. Changed my clothes, taken every coin in the building as I left. I would run tonight, if I hadn’t woken up, if this was real. I would be missed too soon if I left before the grand finale. I fingered the desk knife under my belt. It was my favorite possession now.
The wizard’s translator stood beside me in the tunnel mouth, watching her elder’s masterpiece perform. Thick ink dripped from the monster’s wounds as it soared through the air. 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 spread over me. The lines 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 air over the symbol trembled. The thin shell of substantiality that gave weight to our world cracked. From within the hidden depths between things, a force of pure Prima Materia reached out. Tendrils of formless void spilled from the confines of the sigil, caressed the walls of the arena, and all they touched dissolved into nothing. A far section crumbled into a landslide of broken masonry and broken bodies.
The Colosseum erupted into bedlam. The free men and women of the Empire routed for the exits, trampling the weak underfoot. I stood, watching. It felt like looking into Titus’s eyes as he died, the same leap of joy in my chest. This well-deserved decimation would hide my disappearance when I fled tonight. I smiled as the screaming crowd rioted.
Except the antithetical force flowing from the sigil looked to be overflowing the bounds of three-dimensionality itself. It billowed out, an infinite hunger that would swallow everything and continue outward still. This was no beast. This was universal annihilation. Fear gripped my guts.
“The sleeper awakens,” murmured the barbarian girl beside me.
“When… when does it stop?” I stammered.
“Soon. Our reality ends when God awakes and shakes off this dream, chases the nightmare of this world from His mind.”
A jolt of realization. Finally comprehension, and suddenly I couldn’t feel anything but claws of panic piercing my body. I had done this. I dashed into the tunnels, sprinting for the chamber beneath the arena’s center, directly below the heart of the sigil. The wizard’s final summoning room.
The halls leading to the room were a charnel house of dismembered corpses and loose viscera. I couldn’t imagine what force had done this. I grabbed a spear from the body of a guard that looked to have been turned inside out, and bolted past a splintered door.
The wizard inside hung in the air, suspended by nothing. His skin had split along every line that had been tattooed onto him, turning him into a patchwork of flesh. I didn’t hesitate, simply charged and thrust my spear straight through his chest. It burst from his back, and he sagged to the floor. The ground shook as another section of the Colosseum collapsed somewhere above us. Screams continued unabated.
“You’re too late,” called the young voice behind me. I turned to see the barbarian translator slowly approaching. “It is time for God to rejoin His world. The real world.”
I felt the terror of the Aurelius from my dream, the one who didn’t want to be extinguished. Everything was ending.
“Why?” I demanded. I looked back to the wizard sprawled on the ground, spear jutting from his chest. “This world has existed for eons. We could have eons more if you let him sleep!”
“This world is broken,” she replied. “The root of all interaction is violence. The only law is the use of force. You try to hide it under a veneer of justifications and proclamations, but even civilization is just the most powerful deciding what violence to inflict.”
She stood beside me now as I looked down at the wizard. There was something about the lines of split skin on his body that warped my vision. I followed one with my eyes and it ran concave, but when I looked at it in whole it presented as convex.
“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. May the next dream be less of a horror.”
The red lines in the dead barbarian’s skin came together to create an eldritch scrawl, and I realized they mirrored the sigil above us. They pulsed with a malevolent beat. I pulled my knife from my belt and crouched over the wizard.
“Fuck your theology,” I spoke. “I want to live.” I pierced the wizard’s skin where two lines met and slashed upward, deforming the sigil. Something in the substance surrounding us shivered.
The barbarian translator tackled me, smashing me to the ground. Pain spiked through my rectum as I landed. An elbow dug into my eye, fingers clawed at my hand gripping the knife. I heaved my legs up wildly.
It was just enough to throw her off balance, and the elbow slipped from my face. I surged upright, or tried to — the crown of my head connected with something hard and I felt a crunch as the girl’s nose broke and spurted blood into my eyes. I yanked my head back, my skull blossomed in agony as it cracked against the stone floor. We were both worthless in combat, but her fingers had come loose when her nose had broken, and I at least had some idea what to do with sharpened metal. I jabbed wildly into her side, over and over, frantic and blind. Somewhere after the eighth puncture she slid from me. I rolled over, wiped blood from my eyes, lunged back to the wizard’s body. I slashed wildly at the red sigil etched into his flesh, breaking that blasphemous sign. The light in the room bent bizarrely, the darkness wavering. Slowly the solidity of the world began to return. The ground ceased its shaking.
To my left the girl hacked wet coughs.
“Only delayed… ” she gasped. “God cannot sleep forever. Why prolong this hateful… hateful… ”
I pulled away from the wizard’s flayed corpse, put my back to a wall, and slipped the knife back into my belt with shaking hands.
“We will find a way. With the right knowledge and magic, we can leave His mind.” My words rang hollow in my ears.
She gurgled. I watched the young girl I’d murdered twitch, and bitterness twisted my face into a grimace. She wasn’t wrong. The final arbiter was violence. How else could a physical world work? But I didn’t want to die. I crawled to her side, took her hand, and I did the only thing I could do.
“I am sorry,” I recited. “You had to 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.”