Gaius stood at the edge of the chasm for a breathless moment, speechless and scarcely able to think straight. He took long, slow breaths, and resisted the urge to rest his palms on his knees.
Stand tall in victory, lest your glory be diminished.
This was the first thought to pierce the haze of his fatigue, and Gaius kept himself upright, even grinning at the grizzly thing’s fall. But as his moment’s triumph faded, and his eyes darted around the room, he remembered that they were trapped, and his face darkened.
He turned to Marcus, who stood with his toes skirting the ledge, looking down to follow the stricken anomaly’s descent. Gaius joined him, watching the distant black lump fade into the obscurity below, and for a while neither spoke. It was Marcus who broke the silence.
“I believe, Centurion, that we are doomed. Eternal prisoners without bonds.” He spat over the edge. “I cannot think how we will ever escape this place.”
Gaius sighed. Marcus went on.
“Yet I am well pleased by our work here. I enjoyed the blows shared with these ridiculous robed corpses, and even more did I enjoy watching you cut down the oozing apparition they worshipped. I know not what or who it was, or what purpose it served other than to corrupt. But I know that it bore great significance to these dead men, and to our enemies on the surface. We have conducted matters well here below the earth.”
“So it is, Marcus,” said Gaius as he, too, spit over the edge. “We have done well, though I regret that you must meet your end in idleness down here.”
“Not idleness,” Scoffed the legionary, “but restfulness after a full day’s fighting. And at least,” he went on, eying Gaius’ filthy frame, covered in black gall, blood, and completely bare as the Barbarians had left him, “at least I will not meet my end looking like a boy who’s been playing in the mud.”
Both men burst out laughing, and Gaius loudest of all, having been reminded of his ridiculous state. They threw their heads back, eyes squeezed shut in their mirth. But when they finally opened them and saw the ceiling above, their laughter stopped.
The strange, pale light that filled the room was fading near the ceiling. The tangle of roots overhead was losing definition and sinking into darkness. From the ceiling downwards, a shadow was spreading, and as he saw this Gaius realized that the fear of the hanging thing’s fall was still in him, still felt by the shape’s ever living consciousness, and he knew that it must still be falling.
Bringing the light down with it.
“Willing as I am to die, even in restful starvation, I do not relish doing so in darkness.”
“Nor I, Marcus, but there is nothing to be done. I think that dark shape was the source of the light in here. Or perhaps it simply took all the darkness into itself, for I would hardly call this light.”
Indeed, as the shared fear that ate at Gaius faded, fell further away, the darkness descended from the ceiling, matching pace. Soon only blackness lay above, impenetrable and sagging, and all around them was twilight.
The two men stood unmoving—for what could they do?—as the dark descended about their heads, and then their waists, consuming them as water might. Soon there was nothing before Gaius’ eyes but blackness.
He heard Marcus’ heavy breathing, and imagined the uncertainty that must have gripped the Legionary then. But on top of that, now without visual distraction and with only his thoughts left to him, Gaius felt the plummeting spirit’s fear more keenly than ever even as it receded.
There was terrible anticipation of a violent impact, hatred of the small, clinging thing that had put an end to the brooding aeons of its existence, and frantic fear of that end. It had known life through time unmeasured, and now that life had run out.
The fear grew. Gaius shuddered and fought against it, but to no avail. Sweat sprang out all over him and chilled him in the cool subterranean air.
“Centurion?” he heard Marcus take a step in the dark, sandals scraping on the stone. Gaius willed himself to answer but found he could not form words.
“Gaius?” Concern carried on a voice no longer measured and stern.
But Gaius barely heard the pleading address, and was fully lost in the panic of the black thing’s final moments, for it knew now that the end of its fall was nigh.
Rushing air roared in Gaius’ ears and wind blasted his face, and he forgot altogether that he still stood safely outside of the pit. For a time, he was the falling entity, and he shared in the vividness of its demise.
He felt the bottom of the abyss coming up from below by a change in the air, or something subtler. He saw mist whipping past now, illuminated even at incalculable depth. He closed his eyes against the vision, but the creature whose sight he shared did not, and he saw white billows and tendrils hurtling by behind his eyelids. He could not escape the anticipation of his doom.
In the final moments before impact, if that was indeed what waited at the end of the fall, Gaius perceived something else. Something hopeful, or gratifying, at least.
Destruction and oblivion might wait at the bottom of the pit, but not an end—not a true, irreversible end. For an instant, and he smiled to think it, engrossed in the doomed thing’s consciousness, Gaius knew that he—it—had left something behind. It would remain in the world in a new vessel.
And then the stream of consciousness ended. There was a short sensation of unravelling. He did not burst on the floor of the pit, nor was there any kind of impact. He simply came apart, felt his body turn to ribbons and air, and then he was fully returned to the cave with Marcus.
He sat on the ground while Marcus shook him violently by the shoulders. At first, he could not move, and his head flopped absurdly on a limp neck. He was still blind to his surroundings–that was no reverie—but he could picture the distress that Marcus’ face must show in his immodest display of worry.
Gaius guessed where that face must be, and struck out with an open hand.
“Soldier!” He connected with a crack, the shaking ceased, and he sat up. “Compose yourself! I am myself again.”
Silence answered him first, and then Marcus.
“It is well that you are back. The noises you made, centurion, and your limp form, worried me.”
Gaius guessed from the sound of Marcus’ voice that the legionary was still low to the ground, squatting most likely, and it occurred to him that he was fortunate to have real friends among the ranks of his underlings.
“Indeed, Marcus, I witnessed frightening things, and saw the fallen spirit’s destruction through its own eyes—or whatever semblance of them it has. It is now truly undone, so it seems, although—”
A roar sounded from the depths, and from the ceiling, and from the walls. The very air shook and Gaius felt the ground shift beneath him. He heard a low ripping sound, and realized that it must be the opening of fissures in the rock all about them.
The earth on all sides crumbled and cried out in its agony. Stones cascaded from the ceiling, striking Gaius all over, and he curled into a fetal ball beneath their onslaught, for there was nothing else to be done.
Elsewhere, he heard and felt larger pieces of the ceiling crashing against the walls and ledge. By the violence of the sounds, he was certain that they must be carving out whole sections of the meager ledge that encircled the room.
He shouted Marcus’ name. He shouted for him to make for cover and shield his head.
As if he would stand inert otherwise, Gaius thought in self-derision.
Whether his words came out at all Gaius knew not, so loud was the roar and crash about him. Even if they did, he doubted that they would reach Marcus through the din.
And then, closer than all the others, he felt a colossal impact shake the ledge right next to his feet, and his body left the ground with the force of it. He came down hard and sprawled out on the slab, which by then was tilting crazily under the onslaught of falling stone.
Even though he knew he was trapped, doomed to waste away in the bowels of the earth, Gaius could not suppress his body’s need to protect itself, to scramble and vie against a more imminent end.
He kept his eyes open, searching the blackness for anything whereby he might orient himself. He willed them to adjust. Indeed, they would have adjusted by then, were he in the dark of the night, and not lost in the evil subterranean darkness of that forgotten place.
Then all at once a beam of light broke through from above, and Gaius squeezed his eyes shut in pained surprise.
First it was a sliver, then a thin ray, and then two rays, and then it was a pillar that descended from the jagged edges of an opening in the ceiling and washed the place in real light. Gaius’ eyes burned, his flesh warmed, and his surroundings were vivid.
All was silent.
He sat up, and as he did the heap of debris that had piled up around him shifted and tumbled away. He did not wait to catch his breath, nor did he check himself for injury. He stood up.
What a cursed racket. What a cursed bright light. What a cursed busy day, for day it must be, judging by those blinding rays.
He stared at the ceiling for moment and wondered if it really was sunlight that pierced the darkness, and, if so, how deep underground they really were.
Sunlight or not, I like it better than what came before it.
Here and there, pebbles and falls of dust broke away from the ceiling, but the collapse seemed to have stopped for the time being. Gaius stood on one of the only remaining sections of ledge, a jagged shard jutting from a battered and bare wall.
But it no longer thrust out over a bottomless pit. Indeed, the danger of falling to his death was no more. For at the centre of the room, directly over where the platform and chair had been, there climbed a heap of rubble.
Its base was at the same height as the shattered ledge, and it seemed as if the pit that had yawned below him had been filled to the brim, though how this was, he could not say.
The ceiling had receded as debris had fallen away from it. The walls, too, gaped in places where huge sections of rock had disintegrated, and their crafted perfection was a memory. But nowhere near enough had broken away to completely fill the chasm.
Impossible. Vulcan himself could melt the Alps and pour them into that cursed pit, and still it would scarce be half filled.
Gaius put the thought out of mind and scanned the changed room. From where he stood, it was clear that he could walk the circumference of the rubble heap, whose peak appeared to reach the new opening on the ceiling.
He did not know whether the heaped rocks would hold their structure—whether or not they would give way and he would be swallowed up, or his leg crushed between shifting boulders. He did not know, but neither did he care just then.
He had heard no sound from Marcus, and guessed the legionary was either crushed to death or silenced by injury. Gaius meant to be sure of his friend’s fate, if he could, before climbing to the light, and he set out hopping between the peaks of fallen stone.
His feet were strong and calloused, and his bare soles did not break on the jagged debris beneath them, but Gaius grimaced at the way the rocks dug in with every skip and hop.
Apart from the discomfort, the going was easy enough, and Gaius marvelled at the symmetry with which the rubble had heaped itself, for he was able to navigate circumference of the caved-in room with little difficulty. When he finally did come upon Marcus, Gaius found that the legionary was not dead.
He lay face down among the rocks, limbs splayed at odd, but natural, angles. At first it appeared that his head was crushed beneath a rock as big as man’s trunk, but when Gaius knelt down to inspect the body he saw that that rock had been kept from killing his comrade by twin stones on either side of his head.
They held the boulder suspended a finger’s breadth above Marcus, and Gaius was pleased and amazed by their luck, alive and bathed in light from above, while doomed only moments before to die in darkness.
He felt breath moving his subordinate’s diaphragm, and the prone figure gasped weakly when Gaius rolled away the stone and freed him. But he did not awaken.
Sufficient has been your labour for now. Enjoy your repose.
Ignoring the pain that wracked already overtaxed muscles, Gaius stooped down and lifted Marcus over his shoulder, grunting and shrugging him into position. The man’s dead weight felt like that of two men twice his size, and Gaius gasped under the burden, and glowered up at the mountain of rubble whose summit he must reach.
Its sides sloped at shallow angles near the bottom, but by its peak the caved-in heap of broken earth and rock offered a sheer climb. However high it really was, to Gaius it appeared a true mountain whose uppermost heights would be lost in cloud were it not below ground.
He started upwards, standing at first, and taking the initial easy slope in broad strides. He went quickly, gaining speed while he could in hopes that the momentum would serve him as the gradient increased. He huffed and sweated, and his knees came higher as the going grew steeper, and his back ached and shoulders bunched and cramped beneath the inert Marcus’ weight.
The pain was biting at first, and the exertion spread a grimace across Gaius’ face. Soon, however, pain turned to numb heat, and he wondered as he neared the top, having yet to look down, whether his limbs would last.
Force of will be damned. All the strain in the world will not help if my legs and back cease to work!
The light source above him was near now, as far away as two men were tall, but the face of the rock pile was nearly vertical, and he had to release Marcus with one hand to steady himself against it as he sought for purchase with trembling legs and feet bereft of sensation. The unconscious body that lay across his shoulders slipped, and he stopped.
“Jove’s bolt burn your ass, Marcus, stay STILL!”
He screamed up at the light and shrugged madly, levering Marcus between his shoulder and the ragged rocks before him in an attempt to right the limp legionary.
He felt the mad frustration of being slowed at the height of his physical exertion, and continued to growl and curse as he found new footholds and carried on, infuriated by the loss of momentum.
Only a few more steps.
He rebuked himself inwardly for his emotional outburst, and pressed on. He brought his foot up to a gap between two rocks at waist level. He shook with the strain, but knew that he was but one final push away from his aim.
Gaius breathed deeply and clamped down on Marcus. His diaphragm swelled against his raised thigh. He was drenched in perspiration, hovering between numbness and agony in all his extremities, and he knew not if the strength he needed would be there when he called upon it.
He reached up with his free hand and took hold of a jutting slab. He exhaled and took a final breath, flanks billowing, and he growled as he heaved with his bent leg and pulled with his outstretched hand.
The pain was colossal. It felt as if the blood would burst from his swollen fingers and toes, but as he bellowed out his effort, he saw the wall of rubble fall away before him. With a final push and pull, he entered the opening in the ceiling, and carried himself and Marcus into the light.
Read Part 8 Here!