I recently received an email that Rogue Blades Entertainment, a small press publisher, was closing its doors. It is always a sad thing when you see a reputable small press close down. Before I go on with the post, I would like to say best of luck in future endeavors to the owner of the press, Jason Waltz.
Anyway, I have the rights back to a story I wrote for his Roar of the Crowd anthology. Roar of the Crowd was an anthology of short stories about deadly games in the ancient world, being a fan of history I had to try my hand when I heard the call for submissions.
The story is called Naumachia Magic, a title which I still don’t like very much. This story has such a specific theme that I don’t really know where to send it for publication, so I have decided publish it on the blog as some free fiction for your reading pleasure. If you don’t know what a Naumchia is don’t worry, we were required to write a nonfiction article explaining our chosen games which I have included at the beginning of the story.
If you are interested in other stories from the anthology, David J West will be releasing his story onto kindle soon. I highly recommend checking it out, I have been impressed with all of David’s writing that I have been lucky enough to read. Slight Warning: The story is a bit over 5000 words, slightly too long for comfortable online reading, but it was written for a print anthology. Without further ado here is Naumachia Magic. Feel free to post ideas for a better title in the comments.
Naumachia is the ancient Greek word meaning “naval combat,” but in ancient Rome the word referred to reenactments of naval combat. These games were rare and costly events, in which thousands would die, and it was considered one of the bloodiest Roman games. Emperors would hold the Naumchia in elaborate displays of their power and their wealth.
The first recorded Naumachia was hosted by Julius Caesar in the year 46 BC. Like most of these events, this one was held in a giant outdoor basin, where nearly 2000 combatants faced off. There are less than a dozen recorded Naumchias, but the presence of Naumchia basins and the bleachers around those basins indicate that they were held more often.
Of the recorded incidents, six took place in amphitheaters. These events were smaller and less costly; thus they were staged at more regular intervals. One of these smaller scale battles was held at the inauguration of the Colosseum in 80 AD. The Naumchia events held in the Colosseum were grand spectacles, despite their smaller size. Stage props were even used to simulate shipwrecks.
Other gladiatorial games would follow the Naumachia inside the Colosseum. Historians and archeologists are still puzzled as to how this was possible. The act of draining and filling the arena so quickly is a mystery. This mystery cannot be solved by looking at the architecture of the Colosseum because it was remodeled in the later days of the empire.
The Naumachia did not die with the fall of the Roman Empire. Throughout the history of western Europe, these events were staged by emperors and kings to demonstrate their power. The last recorded Naumachia was held in 1807 by Napoleon.
By Alva J. Roberts
The wooden deck beneath Gallus Loreius Fabianus’ feet creaked alarmingly, making Gallus wonder if the ship was going to fall apart. The flat-bottomed trireme was not made for the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean. It had been built to float for just one single day, and its builders had not been meticulous in its construction.
A noise like thunder shook the boat he was in and echoed through the Colosseum. He glanced up to the tiers of waiting spectators where fifty-thousand men and women stomped their feet, impatient for the spectacle to begin. The Naumachia was a rare event—a man might only see one in a single lifetime—and the crowd howled their excitement. When Gallus killed Quentious Silenus in a tavern brawl, he knew a death penalty awaited him. At the time, he had not realized his death would be nothing more than amusement to the mob. Now he snarled his ineffectual rage at the teaming mass of unwashed bodies. It felt demeaning to have his life reduced to nothing more than an afternoon’s entertainment.
His angry gaze swept across the burning sands of the Colosseum. Fourteen triremes sat side by side on the arena floor, each ship holding one hundred rowers and one hundred and thirty combatants. Gallus thought the whole thing foolish and a waste of money and wished they had just hanged him and got it over with.
The Naumachia was supposed to be a reenactment of naval warfare. How do we reenact a naval battle without any water? Even if they filled the arena with water, the ships were packed so close together that a man could jump from ship to ship.
Massive hunting horns sounded, the loud call echoing through the open air. Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus Caesar strode forward onto his upraised balcony. His opulent clothing was in sharp contrast to the strange woman walking beside him. She was head and shoulders taller than the emperor, and from her pale skin and blonde hair, Gallus knew she was from the North, the far North. But he could discern little else, her body buried beneath enough loose fabric to cover three women. A headdress of feathers and bone hid most of her head and face.
The Emperor raised his hand for silence and a death-like hush filled the air. A single man, slender and effeminate, walked forward to stand next to the emperor. The man wore a garish mix of the most expensive attire Gallus had ever seen, and as he walked, he unrolled a slim golden scroll. He paused, seeming to enjoy the power he held over the crowd.
Giant gates on the side of the arena opened, and black stagnant water poured across the sands. Gallus felt his vessel rise on the water and took a step to steady himself. Cheers rose, filling the air with a steady roar. The Naumchia was about to begin. But the tanks could only hold so much water, and after a few moments, the steady flow thinned to a trickle.
“Today, the Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus Caesar welcomes you to the inaugural games dedicated to this new wonder among men that shall henceforth be called the Colosseum! For your amusement, men will be tested with steel and claw. They shall face fires of Hell and the dark emptiness of the ocean's depths!” the slender man shouted.
Gallus nearly laughed out loud. The dark emptiness? The water covering the arena floor was barely three feet deep.
“To open the games, the Emperor Titus is happy to present the Naumachia. Today we shall cut through the veil of time, to the Battle of Mylae! Where our hollowed ancestors defeated the blood-thirsty Carthaginians!” As the man spoke, the woman next to the emperor raised her hands over her head. A glowing halo of power appeared above the heads of the spectators. Small tendrils of light began to drift toward the woman’s open and reaching hands, where they gathered into brightly colored balls of light between her claw-like, twirling fingers. Gallus’ heart skipped a beat as he watched.
Gallus looked at the men on the other triremes. They all looked as confused as he felt. He had heard of the Naumachia from his father. The gladiators were always dressed in the arms and armor of the nations they represented and fought until all the men on one side were dead. But all of the warriors Gallus could see were wearing thick leather armor made to resemble the legionnaire lorica segmenta armor of over-lapping steel plates. They all carried the same large shield and a gladius, the renowned short-bladed sword of the Roman army. Gallus recognized the weapon easily after his seven years serving in the 8th Augusta, just as he recognized the cool demeanor and stance of the men next to him.
He would bet money most, if not all, of his fellow gladiators had served in the Legions. But where is the enemy? Who is our enemy? None of the men wore the linothorax armor of an ancient Carthaginian, none carried the iron swords of Carthage.
“We who are about to die salute you!” the men on the other ships yelled. Gallus ignored them, distracted by something strange happening. A thick wall of mist was rising from the stagnant waters of the Colosseum and weaving about the ships. The rows of crowded seats seemed to pull away from the spectacle in the center of the giant theater. It was as if the stone of the arena moved outward until the only thing Gallus saw in any direction was water and mist. He could still hear the catcalls and the applause of the zealous audience, but they were no longer in sight. The last thing to fade was the witch herself. For a moment, it looked as if she flew high above the ocean, orbs of power pulsating in her hands, until she seemingly disappeared as well.
“What in the name of Jupiter is going on?” a man on Gallus’ ship shouted.
Gallus had no answer for either of them other than the biting fear worming its way up his spine. After just a few moments, the fog lifted. His eyes felt like they were going to pop out of his head as he took in his surroundings.
They were on the open sea.
Far to the south, the barest hint of land could be seen, and to east they could see ships. They were approaching fast, the oars rising and falling with a steady rhythm. Gallus counted twenty sails.
“The barbarian fleet approaches!” the slender man’s voice echoed across the empty ocean.
“Damn, we need to spread out, get the oars in the water!” Gallus yelled, trying to take command of the ship full of murderers and thieves.
The oars of the Roman trireme flailed through the air, the criminals manning them having had no training or direction. The Roman fleet slowly drifted apart, the current separating them more than the oars that were doing next to nothing. The Carthaginian fleet grew closer and closer, gaining speed. Gallus could see the light glinting off the heavy iron rams at the prows of their ships.
“Move! Damn you, move!” he shouted.
A Carthaginian ship slammed into one of the smaller Roman vessels with a horrendous crash. The iron ram shattered the wooden hull, sending shards of broken timber flying through the air. Arrows fell from the sky, burying their iron heads into the decks of the ships and the men who stood upon them. Deafening applause from the invisible spectators filled the air.
“Backward! Row backward, toward them. They are stuck together. We can use the corvus!” Gallus commanded, amazed when his orders were actually obeyed.
With two great strokes of their oars, the Roman's were within the weapon’s range. Gallus ran to the system of pulleys and yanked hard on the release. The corvus was another thing Gallus had thought foolish when the day began. In the tight confines of the arena, it had seemed useless, but now it might be the only thing capable of saving them. The thick iron hinges of the device screeched as the “boarding bridge” dropped down onto the deck of the enemy ship, the iron hooks at the end of the bridge smashing through the deck of the Carthaginian vessel, securing the Romans' entry onto it.
“Form a line! We must cross to the other ship! We fight for our lives!” Gallus shouted as an arrow whisked by him to sink into the soft wood of the rail.
Gallus drew his gladius as the men rushed to do as he commanded. The bridge was wide enough for five men to walk side by side, and the parapets on either side kept them from falling into the sea. Gallus ran to join one of the lines. He risked a glance at the other Roman vessels and saw three of the triremes already sinking. One of the Carthaginian vessels was in flames, but the rest seemed seaworthy. Gallus hoped the other gladiators knew how the corvus was used. They stood a chance in hand-to-hand combat, but in the open water they would die.
The corvus was one of the most deadly weapons ever created for oceanic warfare. Not because it could kill a foe from a distance, like a bow, or because it could sink a ship, like a heavy iron ram on the prow. The corvus was deadly because it let the Roman Legions onto their enemies’ ship, introducing the unstoppable juggernaut that was the Roman infantry to naval warfare.
The Romans fought in neat, orderly lines. Looking at the gladiators' tight formation, Gallus was sure the men were veterans. They fought like the well-oiled machine he remembered from Germania—methodic in their movements, moving inexorably forward, like an unstoppable tidal wave of steel and flesh. When the men in the front line grew tired, the men behind them would take their place. The Carthaginians howled their fury and slashed madly at the Romans, but the Romans fought with a cold, determined light in their eyes that seemed to unman their enemies.
The man in front of Gallus raised his arm, signaling Gallus to move forward. Then he stepped to the side in one swift deft movement. Gallus took a deep, steady breath and marched into the front ranks.
His shield locked into place in the wall; his short-bladed sword flashed out. The Linothorax armor of pressed linen did nothing to stop the sharpened steel blade from slicing deep into the man facing him. Hot, sticky blood rushed over Gallus’ hand as he wrenched the blade free. He thrust his left arm forward, using his shield to knock another Carthaginian to the ground. His sword darted down to slice through the man’s neck, more Carthaginian blood spraying upward like a fountain.
It was just as Gallus remembered; the heat of bodies pressed together, the horrible stench of blood and voided bowels. The sound of steel meeting iron and the screams of the dying formed the terrible music of war. He had spent long hours praying to Jupiter never to hear that ungentle symphony again. Once more he danced to the music of war and left death in his wake. But this was different, for added to the noise of combat he could still hear the roar of the crowd, the man-made thunder of the Coloseum ear-splittingly loud. The spectators shouted encouragement and bellowed their bloodlust, each casualty of the sickening battle increasing their fervor.
Gallus felt sick.
The Roman line moved relentlessly forward. The only breaks in their well-ordered ranks were caused by the bodies of the men they had killed. Gallus nearly took a blade through the heart when he tripped over a dead Carthaginian, the only thing saving him a lightning fast movement to the side and an upward thrust of his own sword. The man behind Gallus stepped forward, taking his spot, giving him time to regain his feet.
Gallus jogged to the back of the ranks, his breath coming in heaving gasps. Sweat rolled down his face and neck and his arms felt heavy, like they had lead weights attached to them. He was not the man he had been ten years ago, when he served in the 8th. Years of soft living had taken their toll. He was lucky to have survived his clumsiness.
For the Carthaginians, luck was running out. The Romans had almost cleared the deck of the enemy soldiers and they had slammed shut and barred the door to the galley, trapping the rowers below. Once they finished dealing with the warriors, they would fire the ship and let the rowers burn.
Across the water, Gallus could see that some of the other ships had followed their lead. Seven of the Roman triremes were fastened to Carthaginian ships by their corvus. Another of the Roman ships was trying to ram a Carthaginian vessel. The other five Roman vessels were sinking below the waves to visit Neptune’s halls. Ten of the enemy ships circled the Roman fleet, arrows and spears filling the air whenever they passed near.
A huge iron-tipped arrow slammed into the deck a few feet from Gallus. He snarled a curse, shouting a warning to the other Roman gladiators. “Ballista!”
No Carthaginian ship had ever carried the heavy crossbow-like artillery. Whoever they fought were not shades conjured from the past. Gallus was confused, unsure if their foes were real or imagined. The Romans were holding their own, despite their lack of naval combat experience. Hundreds of Carthaginians had fallen to the swords the corvus had allowed the gladiators to bring to bear. But the corvus served another purpose as well, as it stopped the Carthaginians from using their greatest weapon—the huge battering rams on the front of their ships. If the Carthaginians rammed a Roman vessel while it was attached to one of their ships by the corvus, both would sink. The Romans’ needed every advantage they could get.
“Fire the ship! Back to our trireme!” Gallus commanded as the last of the enemy soldiers fell.
The men rushed back across the boarding bridge to their own ship. A few of them grabbed torches and lit fires all along the deck of the ship. Gallus turned a deaf ear to the screams of the rowers as they realized their fate. The amphitheater's crowd roared their approval. Gallus tried to ignore them as well.
He was the last one back on board. As they raised the corvus, a fine mist filled the air, and for a moment, Gallus saw the Colosseum. The tiers of seats were a vague outline overlaying the harsh reality of the sea. The Emperor’s witch stood with raised hands, her fingers making strange gestures in the air. Gallus could see the shimmering lines of power flowing to the witch once more, the lines growing thicker as the crowd howled for more blood. The cheering, stomping, rabid horde seemed to fuel the witch’s power. The mist faded and the ocean returned. A Carthaginian vessel was headed straight at them.
“Prepare for impact!” Gallus shouted, dropping to the deck.
The ship slammed into them, hurtling their own ship backward. Pieces of the hull flew through the air, the shards raining down on Gallus’ head. Three men fell off of the trireme into the vast ocean, their screams drowned by the cheers of the watching mob.
“We’re taking on water!” someone shouted.
Gallus looked at the enemy ship. Carthaginian men with long poles were desperately trying to pry it loose of the Roman vessel. The iron ram had penetrated all the way through the poorly constructed hull of the gladiator ship and had gotten caught.
“If our ship is sinking, then we’ll take theirs!” Gallus yelled, dropping his shield and swinging his sword over his head for effect. He ran to the place where the ships were struck together. The Romans shrieked their approval and chased after him.
Gallus reached the edge of the deck and leapt forward, his body landing flat on top of the ram. He pulled himself to a crouching position, nearly losing his gladius, and growled a challenge at the Carthaginians.
Hundreds of blood-crazed warriors rushed at him. He stumbled across the slick metal of the ram to land on the deck of the enemy ship…then howled like a beast and rushed forward, meeting their fury with his own.
One of the men with the poles tried to hit him with it. Gallus blocked the clumsy blow and spun around, slicing his sword through the man’s neck.
More of the Romans made their way aboard. Most were cut down in seconds, but some began to form a line near the starboard rail. Gallus charged through the Carthaginians, his sword drinking in their blood like a starved child suddenly confronted with a feast. He thrust the blade deep into one man’s stomach, and then dived to the deck to avoid a deadly strike. He rolled to his feet, snatching up another gladius from a fallen gladiator as he rose.
Now Gallus thrust both blades forward, feeling the pressure as they sank into the meaty flesh of his enemies. Gallus yanked the blades free and swung them from each side, chopping the head off of another Carthaginian. Applause rumbled through the air as the crowd shouted its enthusiastic support.
Something slammed into Gallus’ side and pain raced through his body. He stumbled backward, nearly dropping his swords as he looked down. An arrow jutted from his side, blood already rolling down his leg. The feathered shaft seemed to look up at him, mocking his mortality. Gallus stared at the river of his blood, too stunned to move.
Another arrow slammed into the man next to Gallus, spurring him into motion. He could see the archers only a few dozen paces away. Gallus screamed an unintelligible battle cry and rushed forward. Gone was the cool detachment he had spent so many years training to attain. It was replaced with a bestial rage that threatened to overwhelm him and leave him as nothing more than a snarling half-mad animal. A Carthaginian sword left a deep bloody gash in his arm, but he did not feel it as he closed upon the bowmen.
At the sight of his angry visage, the archers dropped their bows and pulled free long daggers. Gallus ignored the weapons and sent his swords hacking through tender flesh. One by one, the bowmen fell before his unimaginable rage. He stabbed both of his blades through the heart of the last man, then glanced around, returning to his senses.
The remaining Roman’s were fighting a desperate defensive battle. A few men were fighting as he, in mad one-man crusades. A group of twenty had made it across the unsteady bridge provided by the ram and had formed a shield wall, only to be pinned down against the starboard railing. More soldiers were trying to come across, but they were being cut down before they could gain their feet. They needed to take the prow of the ship and hold a line across the deck. Then they could protect their comrades as they made the crossing.
Gallus hacked his way through the Carthaginians, the hilts of his swords growing slick with the blood of his enemies. The swarthy men moved out of his way, lifting their hands to the sky, making gestures to ward off evil, as if Gallus were a demon rather than a man. The thought brought a wicked smile to Gallus lips, though the expression never reached his eyes.
He made the most of his perceived transformation and continued to howl and snap his teeth, beating his chest with his fists, the swords still clenched tight within them. Fear cleared Gallus’ path, making it easier to move across the ship until he stood at the prow, his back to the ram and the Romans trying to cross the unsteady bridge.
“Face me and die! I’ll tear your souls from your bodies and send them to Pluto’s dark domain! Come if you wish to see your blood stain the deck! Come if you want to die!” Gallus shouted.
The Carthaginians grouped themselves around him. They held their swords far away from their bodies, as if they did not want their skin to touch his. Gallus slapped the tips of their swords with his own blade. He did not know how much longer they would believe his act. Are they truly stupid enough to believe I am some kind of demon?
A group of Romans were forming another line behind him to protect the makeshift bridge. The faction trapped near the starboard rail was cutting a path through the Carthaginians to their position. Soon the two groups would be one, and Gallus and his men just needed to hold on for a few moments longer.
The deck beneath Gallus' feet began to creak and moan. He felt the ship tip slightly as the prow of the vessel sank a little lower in the water. The Roman trireme was sinking and it was taking the Carthaginian ship with it. The Romans redoubled their efforts, leaping across the gap between the ships with fervor.
The Carthaginians chose that moment to stop doubting his mortality. “Hold your ground! Show these barbarian dogs what a Roman is made of!” Gallus shouted as he swung both of his swords toward the oncoming Carthaginians.
His blades danced through the air, lighter than a feather. One of the stubby swords slashed through the neck of an attacker, the other thrust deep into the stomach of another. He twisted the second blade free, watching as the man’s intestines spilled to the deck already stained red with blood.
The Romans behind him gave two sharp whistles, the signal to advance. Gallus darted to the side, slipping between them. The line moved at a slow and steady pace; the Roman machine of war had begun its unrelenting forward motion.
Gallus leaned against the rail of the ship, staring at the backs of the men. He thrust his swords into the wood of the deck, both of the blades standing upright and firm. The lines of the Roman infantry were in perfect order, the men spaced evenly apart. It was a sight Gallus had seen many times before but it was still awe inspiring. It was as if they had become a single deadly creature, one that would not suffer its enemies to live.
The deck in front of them rose higher into the air, the stern of the ship rising out of the water completely as the prow sank closer and closer to the lapping waves. Gallus reached down for one of the discarded long poles and began prying at the ram wedged firmly into their former ship. If they could not break the Carthaginian ship loose, they would be swimming rather than sailing. Gallus grunted with effort and felt the stream of blood flowing from his side turn into a gushing river, but the ship would not break loose.
The number of men fleeing the doomed ship had lessened, the few jumping over now rowers from below deck. When they made it across, they joined Gallus in his attempt to lever the ships apart. The Carthaginian vessel continued to tip, the waves splashing over its prow. Anything not fastened down began to slide toward Gallus’ tenuous position, the added weight of the barrels and crates pushing the prow of the vessel down even faster. The ship's ballista broke free of its moorings and slid across the deck to smash into the railing just a few feet from Gallus. Barrels of the ballista’s long, heavy bolts spilled across his feet.
With a crash, the sinking Roman ship broke loose. Gallus nearly fell as the Carthaginian vessel slapped down into the water and leveled out. He dropped his pole and let the ship’s railing support his weight. He heard the mob of the Colosseum shriek with raucous enthusiasm, the yells sounding sexual and primal in their excitement.
Gallus felt weak and exhausted, too tired to care about the screeching multitudes or their perverse ways. The desire to sprawl across the deck welled up inside of him, and his eyes grew so heavy he wanted to close them. He could not say if it was sleep calling or death, and he did not care.
“Commander!” someone shouted, lifting his weight across their shoulders to lay him down on the deck.
Commander? Who are they talking about?
“Be calm, commander! The ship is nearly ours. This is going to hurt.”
Blistering, all-consuming pain burst from his side through his entire body as the man yanked the arrow free. It took Gallus a moment to realize the pain-filled shriek echoing through the air was coming from his own mouth. The man who yanked the shaft free pressed a white cloth to his side, and Gallus’ eyes flickered shut, his mind stealing consciousness from him to avoid the pain.
A rough hand slapped him across the face. “Commander, you've lost too much blood! I can’t let you sleep!”
Gallus shook the stars from his eyes and reached down to his side, taking the cloth from the man’s hands and pressing down hard. He could feel the blood pulsing from his body in time to his heart beat. As a legionnaire, he had seen a lot of men die, and he knew this injury might be his death wound. But he would not die on his back. He could hear the shouts of victory as his men took the ship, and he would see it as well.
He staggered to his feet, just in time to see the fog rising off of the water. The mist rose up around the six remaining Roman vessels and the eight Carthaginian ships with equal speed, showing no favor to either side. For just a moment, the thunderous noise of the crowd grew silent, their frenzied cheers muffled. Are they growing bored? Are the deaths of so many men that meaningless? Once again, he saw the phantom of the arena overlaying his vision. It flickered in and out of reality, the near-silent onlookers not providing enough energy to power the magic.
As if sensing the apathy of the spectators, the gaudily dressed man strode forward and spoke. “People of Rome, in ages past, the Carthaginians were not the only dangers of the sea. The great god Neptune had many servants that roamed the seas. Creatures of unimaginable power that would attack our fleets and leave nothing behind. Would you like to see Neptune’s servants in battle?”
At those words, the crowd broke into cheers with a renewed vehemence, howling like maddened animals. The sound dwarfed any other they had made before. Energy visibly flowed from the crowd in a river of power that surrounded the witch. Her hands moved through the air with a panicked frenzy. What foul magic did she cast now? What creature did she summon?
Gallus received his answer a moment later when something rose from the nearby ocean waters. The waves from the rising entity pushed the ship aside. As the water sluiced off of it, dark, slimy flesh appeared.
The creature was massive, larger than the triremes. It had long tentacles that touched the heavens above, and a huge gaping mouth big enough to swallow a man whole. The crowd roared its approval as the monstrous thing surfaced. It was a nightmare made flesh, the mob's fevered bloodlust manifesting in physical form. Gallus felt the ungentle hands of terror taking a hold of him, threatening to unman him as he stood with his mouth hanging open, staring as the sea monster began to move.
The swipe of a single huge tentacle thrust one of the Carthaginian ships below the waves. Another of its long snake-like appendages wrapped itself around a Roman ship and lifted it into the air. The oak of the hull shattered like it was made of glass. Gallus watched men leaping off the ruined vessels, plunging into the cold, dark ocean.
Arrows filled the sky, but the projectiles only bounced off the creature’s slick hide. Men all around Gallus shouted in fear as they rushed about the deck of the ship, their instincts telling them to flee while their minds told them it was impossible. He did not run; his feet rooted him to the deck in terror. He saw every moment, every man the monster plucked from the sea and swallowed whole.
Gallus shook his head. I must do something. Men stumbled past him…and his eyes snapped to the ballista bolts rolling beneath their feet. He stooped and dragged one to the device. His bandage fell and fresh blood began to flow from his side. He ignored it as he cranked the huge spring tight and hoisted one of the three foot long arrows into the bow.
He took aim at the creature’s eye and pulled the trigger. The weapon fired with a loud thumping noise, but he did not watch the shaft’s flight. Instead, he began to crank the mechanism tight again. The unearthly howl reverberating through the air and the waves bouncing the ship from side to side told him his aim had been true. He ignored the monster’s thrashing and cranked the machine without looking up. The men around him shouted and the monster wailed; louder than all of it was the roar of the watching crowd.
Gallus stumbled as he bent to pick up another of the huge arrows. He caught himself on the ballista and finally looked up. The sea monster was flailing its tentacles aimlessly. Thick black blood poured from its now milky eye, but its movements were slowing. Did I do it? Have I killed the beast with a single shot? It seemed impossible, but there could be no other explanation as the creature sank below the waves.
The mists lifted from the water once more. This time the Colosseum seemed more substantial, as if in killing the beast Gallus had somehow weakened the magic that held them all in thrall. The Emperor was on his feet, pointing and shouting. Next to him, the witch clutched her head in both hands. Gallus had injured her by killing the beast.
He spun around as fast as he could, slamming the ballista shaft into the firing mechanism. He threw himself behind the machine and took aim as quickly as he dared. He squeezed the trigger and felt the thump of its firing.
This time, he watched the huge arrow’s flight. It flew straight and true, to pierce the witch’s heart. The woman was lifted into the air from the force of the strike, and she slamned into the wall beside the emperor.
The Colosseum sprang into reality, the ocean disappearing in an instant. The round-bottomed Carthaginian ship rolled to the side as it was deposited on the sands of the arena floor. Gallus jumped off, landing with a loud squelching noise in the muddy sand.
A stunned silence filled the arena. The only sound in Gallus' head was the hammering of his own heart.
“Victory!” the slender man shouted, breaking the silence. “Victory for Rome! Once more the might of the Empire has proven itself stronger than any beast or army!”
A flurry of screams and yells filled the air, a tumultuous racket louder than anything Gallus had ever heard before. Yet somehow the sound of his quivering heartbeat still dwarfed the cacophony of the exuberant throng. Gallus glanced across the arena to see four Roman triremes alongside their stolen Carthaginian ship. Over two-thousand men had died for the mob’s fickle amusement.
“Victory,” he whispered as the world around him grew dark.
The word tasted like ashes and dust.