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Helius, Nero’s most trusted adviser, anticipates the death of his sworn enemy, the legendary warrior Gallus Sergius Vitas, scheduled to die a gruesome death in the arena. However, the badly beaten man who appears in the amphitheater is not who he seems. Rescued by a stranger and given a mysterious scroll, Vitas is told he must decipher this letter to find the answers he needs—a letter that Helius is also determined to decipher and to keep hidden from Nero. As Nero’s reign of terror grows, so does his circle of ...
Helius, Nero’s most trusted adviser, anticipates the death of his sworn enemy, the legendary warrior Gallus Sergius Vitas, scheduled to die a gruesome death in the arena. However, the badly beaten man who appears in the amphitheater is not who he seems. Rescued by a stranger and given a mysterious scroll, Vitas is told he must decipher this letter to find the answers he needs—a letter that Helius is also determined to decipher and to keep hidden from Nero. As Nero’s reign of terror grows, so does his circle of enemies. Tyndale House Publishers
THE EARLY AFTERNOON sunshine blazed down on a large pen out of the sight of amphitheater spectators. The bestiarius began covering the eyes of the hobbled bull elephant he had selected to kill Gallus Sergius Vitas.
Perched on its neck, the beast master hummed as he did his work, patting the hide of the massive animal, trying to settle and soothe it. In his mind, he saw clearly how it would happen. He would remove the blinds only after he strapped Vitas to a tusk and led the beast to the center of the sand. Then, while two bears fought the elephant, another condemned man would be forced to dart between the elephant's legs to release the chains that kept it hobbled. After the bears had killed the condemned man, and after the elephant had killed the bears with Vitas still on its tusk, it would finally redirect its rage to shake and scrape Vitas loose, then stomp him into a red smear. The process would, with luck, entertain the crowd for half an hour.
It was routine, actually, except that the man who was to die today once had Nero's ear. So the bestiarius knew it needed to be done properly.
From below, a voice interrupted his thoughts: "Nero wants Vitas so close he can taste his blood."
The bestiarius, a small, dirty man with no teeth, secured the blinders and patted the animal's head before looking down to answer. At the side of the elephant, he saw the former slave most citizens in Rome recognized. Helius, Nero's most trusted adviser.
In his late twenties, Helius was a beautiful man, with smooth, almost bronze skin. His hair was luxuriously curly, his eyes a strange yellow, giving him a feral look that was rumored to hold great attraction for Nero. Helius wore a toga edged with purple, and his fingers and wrists and neck were layered with jewelry of gold and rubies.
"Did you hear me?" Helius said, impatient. He sniffed the air cautiously and wrinkled his nose at the smell of the elephant.
The bestiarius would have answered any other man with derogative curses. "No man alive," the bestiarius finally said, "can direct or predict the movements of a raging elephant."
"Nor can any man dead," Helius told him. "Make sure Nero is not disappointed."
The bestiarius cautioned himself that this was Helius, who had almost as much power over the lives and deaths of Nero's subjects as Nero himself. "I'll have two women chained in the sand below the emperor's place in the stands," he said after a few moments' thought. Once the bull was in a rage, he knew it would attack everything in sight, including those women. It would rear on hind legs and stomp with the full force of its weight, something that would surely excite Nero. The bestiarius would also strap Vitas on so tightly that the elephant would not be able to shake him loose too soon. That would bring Vitas in close enough to the emperor. "He will get the blood he wants."
"Ensure that the women are Christians and see it's done properly," Helius snapped. "You don't want me back here again."
* * *
Nearby, but in a world removed from blue skies and fresh air, Gordio and Catus, the two soldiers assigned the task of finding and escorting Vitas, had already entered the labyrinth of prison cells below the stands of the amphitheater.
While both were large, Catus was the larger of the two. In the flickering light of the torch, they gave the appearance of brothers, each with dark, cropped hair, each with a wide face marked by battle scars. They were old for soldiers, sharing a common bond back to the days when they were both recruited from neighboring farms north of Rome, sharing survived battles in Britannia and Gaul and all the years of monotony between them.
As they traveled through the dark corridors by torchlight, the rumbling of the spectators above sounded like growls of distant thunder. Each soldier had drenched his face and shoulders with inexpensive perfume to mask the odor; each knew from experience that no other smell on earth matched the stench of fear exuded by hundreds of prisoners.
The torch Gordio carried was a beacon to all the prisoners, a flame serving notice that yet another among them would be plucked away for a horrible fate outside on the sunbaked sand. Halfway to the cell that held Vitas, a woman thrust her arms between iron bars in a useless effort to grasp at Gordio and Catus.
"Kill me!" the woman sobbed at them, her hands flailing. "I beg you!"
Neither of the soldiers broke stride.
"Have mercy!" she wailed at their broad backs. "Give me a sword or a knife. I'll do it myself!"
Behind them, the woman's pleading blended with the yells and groans and swearing of all the other men and women in the dozens of crowded, dank cells along their route. To Gordio and Catus, the men and women they were sent to retrieve for death were less than animals, troublesome debris, criminals deserving of their sentences.
"My fate is tied to yours," Catus growled to Gordio. "I want you to say it again. We are in this together."
"Yes, my friend," Gordio said. "We are in this together. How can you doubt me after all the years we have shared?"
The answer was unnecessary, for if ever there was a time for one to doubt the other, this was it. Nothing during their years as soldiers serving the empire had prepared them for what they had resolved to do next.
* * *
The chosen seat of the man who had been born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus placed him so close to the sand of the arena that on occasion blood would splatter his toga, spots of bright red soaking in and fading against the purple as they dried.
On this morning, slaves shaded and fanned him as he anticipated the death of Gallus Sergius Vitas. A ferocious hangover diminished some of his anticipation, and despite the efforts of the slaves, the heat irritated him. But not enough to drive him away before the death of Vitas.
He waited with a degree of impatience and swallowed constantly, trying to work moisture into his mouth. His thin blond hair failed to cover the beads of sweat on his scalp. He'd once been handsome, but closing on his thirtieth birthday, his face was already swollen from years of decadent wine and food, showing a chin that had doubled and was on the verge of trebling. His eyes were the most telling of the horrors he had inflicted on others during the previous decade—they had a dulled mania and an emptiness that bordered on eerie. Few dared to look fully into those eyes, and most shivered under their attention. For this was the man now known and worshiped by his subjects as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
Nero did not sit alone in the spectators' box. To his right sat the boy Sporus, whose knee he touched casually; to his left, Helius, who had returned from the animal pens.
"How much longer until Vitas?" Nero said.
"Soon," Helius said. A pause. Nero's head throbbed as he concentrated on listening. Helius then spoke quietly. "Have you told Sporus about your intentions?"
Nero shifted, turning to face Helius fully. "You seem anxious for him to know."
"The arrangements were your request," Helius said. "What you want done is what you want done. But the doctors say it must be done soon, that any day now he will reach puberty."
Nero frowned. "It seems you take pleasure in the procedure. Why should it matter to you when Sporus learns of it?"
"I'm only thinking of him," Helius said, looking down in deference. "Perhaps it would be best to give the boy time to prepare himself."
Nero turned away and, to disapproving murmurs from the crowd, kissed Sporus. He pulled back and stroked the boy's hair for a few moments, then leaned over and spoke again to Helius.
"Prepare himself?" Nero asked. "Are you suggesting Sporus won't be delighted to honor me in such a manner? that there will be anything of more magnitude in his life than my love for him?"
"He lives for you," Helius said. Another deferent look downward. "As does every subject in the empire."
"Of course they live for me," Nero said, feeling his irritation lessened by the obsequious reminder of his power. He allowed a smile, thinking again of Vitas suffering on the tusk of an elephant. "Unless I want them to die."
* * *
"Gallus Sergius Vitas," the soldier with the torch said to the prisoner. The soldier spoke quietly, compassionately, respectfully.
The prisoner knew his moment was upon him. He hoped that all his preparations for death would be enough.
He had been deliberate in thinking it through. During the long night of waiting, this grim contemplation had prevented him from wondering about the pain of his final moments, from wondering about the method of execution that Nero had chosen for him. Meticulous planning helped him maintain an illusion of control in a situation where all power had been taken from him. And most importantly, focusing on how he would face death dispelled the doubts that pressed at the edge of his consciousness like snakes trying to push beneath a locked door, insidious questions about the faith he'd staked his life upon and whether that faith would lead him to the eternity he believed was beyond.
"If this is my time," the prisoner replied, his voice barely more than a croak, "let me prepare myself."
Without waiting for an answer, he moved against the wall and squatted to void his body wastes in the darkness. This was the first thing he'd decided was necessary. Aside from whatever bravery he could find as he faced the beasts in the amphitheater, no other dignity would remain when his naked body became an offering of entertainment to be shredded for the delighted scrutiny of a crowd of thousands; at the very least he did not want his body to betray his fear.
When he finished, sadness crushed him so badly he could barely breathe. The moment had arrived, and the emotion he had expected was far greater than he believed possible for a man to bear. Not fear but sadness. Sadness not for his death but that he would never see his wife or children again. It took all of his focus to push that sadness aside. It was not time to allow it to fill him. Not yet.
"I am ready," the prisoner said. He moved closer to the torch, its light hardly more than a blur to him.
Clanking told him the soldiers were opening the cell door.
The blur of the torchlight grew brighter, and he heard both soldiers gasp.
"His face," one said.
The day before he had been beaten so badly that his eyes were puffed shut to the point that he could barely see. His bruised face felt like an overripe fruit about to burst.
"Jupiter!" the other said.
The prisoner gave a weak wave and repeated himself. "I am ready."
"We are not," the second one said.
They stepped into the cell.
Had Nero given orders for him to be beaten further? the prisoner wondered. He took a deep breath and offered no resistance as he waited for the first blow.
"His face," the first again. "That will make it difficult for him."
"No. It will help. All he has to do is reach the streets. His face will make it impossible to guess his identity once he has escaped."
"Escape?" the prisoner said. Thirst made his throat dry, and he found it difficult to speak without a croak. "I . . . I don't understand."
"Nero has gone too far," the first said, his voice soft but firm. "All of Rome knows you are here. And the injustice behind it."
"The arena is where criminals die," the second said. "Not military heroes."
"We were not under your command in Britannia," the first soldier continued. "But your reputation is enough for us. You do not deserve this fate."
The prisoner felt something pressed into his hand. The handle of a sword?
"When the first line broke in the final battle against the Iceni," the second said, "any other commander would have served politics first. Thrown away the lives of soldiers by sending them to defend immediately, without support. You risked your reputation because you refused to have them slaughtered. They owe you their lives. I, too, owe you. My brother was among them."
"Some of them found a way for us to be here to repay you on their behalf," the first said. "You are a man soldiers would follow if ever you decided ..."
The second spoke when the first faltered. "The complaints about Nero grow every day. If a general stood up to him and sought the support of the legions ..."
"I am not that man," the prisoner said.
"No one will doubt that the legendary Gallus Sergius Vitas overpowered us," the first soldier answered. "Strike us hard. Make certain we are injured badly enough to be believed."
"I have my duty." The prisoner thought of his wife. How his death would spare her. "Take me to the arena."
"To die for the emperor who inflicted such an injustice upon you as this?" the first said. "Take my tunic. Leave here as a guard. When you are free, you can begin action against Nero. Or throw your support behind another general."
"You must live," the second urged. "His reign must end."
"I have my duty," the prisoner repeated. He lifted the sword. "Keep this."
"At the least then," the first soldier said, pushing the sword back at the prisoner, "spare yourself the horror and fall on this here. Or give us the honor of assisting you. We will end your life quickly and claim you attacked us."
"No," the prisoner said. He felt his legs grow weak. The sorrow again threatened to overwhelm him as images flashed into his mind. Of his younger boy as a toddler, rushing toward him to be comforted after stumbling on the bricks of the courtyard floor and scraping his knees. Of quiet summer evenings, intertwining his fingers with his wife's, sharing dreams with her beneath the starlight. Of comforting his daughter one morning as she knelt on grass still wet with dew and wept over the death of a tiny bird found among the flowers.
The prisoner used all his resolve to force these images from his head. Not yet, he told himself. There would be a time for the memories. Soon enough. But not yet.
"Take me to the arena," the prisoner said firmly. "I have my duty and you have yours."
* * *
"I also need two women," the bestiarius snapped at Catus and Gordio. "Go back and get them from the cells of Christians. And send someone to help me strap this man to the tusk."
Neither soldier moved. The prisoner was behind them, head bowed, wrists shackled.
"Another thing." The bestiarius shook his head. "The women? Cut out their tongues. I'm tired of the hymns these cursed Christians sing as they die."
Still Catus and Gordio did not respond.
"Well?" the bestiarius demanded. Here he had near total authority. His skills with animals were seen as magical and very necessary to the success of the entertainment. "I need the women immediately. Nero waits."
Catus spoke. "You cannot strap such a man as Vitas to the elephant."
"You tell me what I cannot do?" Still angry at how he'd been humbled by Helius, the bestiarius vented his frustration on the soldiers. "Don't forget. You are expendable. I am not."
"This man fought for Rome," Catus said, pointing at the prisoner. "He helped defeat the Iceni. Led the triumph through the gates of the city. He deserves to die a soldier's death. Give him combat against gladiators."
The bestiarius spat, unswayed by the soldier's passion. "I follow the orders of Nero. If you choose otherwise, expect to be strapped to the other tusk."
"The crowd will know," Gordio said. "He's a hero. They will not tolerate it, no matter what Nero wants."
The bestiarius stepped between them and clutched the prisoner's hair, lifting his head and exposing his swollen, bruised face to the sun. "After a beating like this? No one will recognize him." He dropped the prisoner's head and yelled at the soldiers with surprising force for such a small man. "Now go! Get the women! And don't forget to cut out their tongues."
* * *
With the soldiers gone, the prisoner stood near the elephant, drawing deep, hard breaths.
So this was how he would die.
He drew the deep breaths to calm himself. This, too, he had calculated for this moment. He'd anticipated the renewed fear. But after his time in the stench of the cells, he'd guessed the fresh outdoor air would be as joyful to his body as clear, cold water.
The calm he had hoped for did not arrive. This was beyond his power.
"Christos," he whispered. "Dear Christos. Let my death honor you."
He lost himself in silent worship. Then suddenly his body seemed to come truly alive with every heave of his lungs, every sense totally engaged. The portion of the sky he could see beneath his swollen eyelids had never seemed so blue; sounds had never seemed so clear. A fly landed on his arm; he thrilled with the sensation of the tiny movements across his skin. The nearby elephant swished its tail, a sound that seemed as loud as a shout.
"Thank you, Christos," he breathed. Yes! He was still alive; he wanted to drink in every sensation.
Excerpted from The Last Sacrifice by HANK HANEGRAAFF SIGMUND BROUWER Copyright © 2005 by Hank Hanegraaff. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted August 30, 2012
Giving a summary of this novel is difficult. None of the plot threads begun in the first novel were developed enough in the second to give the feeling of a story, a continuation of a story, or anything other than a long, drawn out coda. Almost all of the characters end this novel where they started. Vitas, the gladiator, still has no idea what he thinks or where his wife is. His brother is still doing the slave-hunter thing, tracking down John and his brother. Sophia, Vitas' wife, still thinks her husband is dead and is on the run. John, the apostle, spends most of his time below decks on a ship. Nero is still a psychopathic sociopath (or is that a sociopathic psychopath?). Maglorious is still searching for his children in Jerusalem, which is still on the brink of war. In short: The bad guys are still bad, and the good guys are still around - though they aren't doing much.
Nothing significant enough happens to justify the nearly four-hundred pages this book consists of.
Regardless of that, I waded past all the Roman, Greek, and Jewish names, muddled my way through the authors' usage of the Roman days of the week, the Jewish monthly calendar, and the Latin hours of the day, and found myself at the end of this novel with nothing but a bad taste in my mouth.
I don't enjoy gore or bloodlust. Everyone and everything is fair game for violence and torture in this novel: pregnant women, children, animals, the handicapped, you name it. Scene after scene with disembowelments, mutilations, murders, and then the descriptions of the corpses left behind. The majority of these scenes have nothing to do with plot or character development. Of the presumably justifiable scenes, many were unnecessarily disturbing. Early in the novel, a scene depicting how Nero had a young boy castrated so that Nero could marry the boy while another boy was drowned in the garden pond made me ill. Reading about how parents are threatened by receiving an ear cut off the head of their recently kidnapped children, how can a scene like that do anything other than encourage me to put this novel down? I hung in there to the end and have nothing to show for it thanks to weak plot development. If this book were filmed, it would receive an R rating, and maybe an X rating as well if you included the scenes between the prostitutes and the various Romans. If the authors wanted to convince me the ancient Roman empire was steeped in evil, then they've done that with aplomb. However, if they had tempered their zeal, it would have made for a much more enjoyable novel. Sharp contrast makes for a good point, not excess; I don't need to be clubbed over the head with peril for me to understand that the characters are in danger.
The reasoning for the whole series is included in the Afterword. The authors support an interpretation of The Book of Revelation which states that all the events described therein occurred within one-hundred years of Christ's death, rather than still to happen in the future. If this book was supposed to convince me of the validity of this interpretation, then it failed utterly.
I don't recommend this series, or the individual novels. There was so much blood in these pages, all I am left with is the hope that the actual roman empire wasn't as bad as Brouwer and Hanegraaff have described it to be.
Posted August 19, 2012
The is the second book to the The Last Disciple which I didn't like. I
didn't like this one any better. It's still the horrible details of
Rome. I also thought that by the end of this book we'd have closure of
Vitas and Sophia. But we don't. They plan to drag it out for one more book.
Posted August 14, 2012
Helius, Nero's right hand man holds onto a lot of hate for Vitas, and has conspired to have him sent to the arena. We begin 'The Last Sacrifice' with "Vitas" being in the arena (but it's not him! someone has taken his place), and the real Vitas is smuggled onto a ship with John. Later, Helius discovers the switch and is desperate to have Vitas found and killed before Nero discovers his failure. He also figures out that Sophia, who was invited to suicide by Nero, has actually faked her demise and escaped as well. More plotting. Nero's madness increases. Vitas' brother Damian continues to follow the clues to find his brother. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the rebellion increases and we catch up with Valeria, Quintus, and Maglorious again. Annas the Younger is as evil as ever and is making moves to regain his position as high priest. John & Vitas arrive in Patmos and the plot thickens.
This book was so complicated to me. I had a hard time keeping all the plotlines straight. Some obscure storylines from the first book appear - and sometimes for a few pages only - in this one. I know this won't be a popular opinion -and maybe I was just mentally tired- but trying to keep up with it all, and keeping straight who was plotting against who was exhausting. I can't say it wasn't interesting, just challenging. I felt like this book was a transition to get us to the final book in this series.
Posted August 6, 2012
Like The Last Disciple, The Last Sacrifice is a suspenseful read that spurs readers toward a bolder faith. It continues to offer insight into a more preterist interpretation of Revelation (although the authors are careful to note in the Afterword that they do not hold to a "hyper-preterist" view). It is easier to follow than the first book in the series because most of the characters (there are many!) have already been introduced. I recommend this book because it is well-written and engaging while providing insight into early Christianity and fuel for a stronger faith. However, be warned that it is not intended to be read as a stand-alone novel. It will really only make sense after reading the first book (The Last Disciple), and plenty of questions are left hanging for the third book (The Last Temple). Also, this book continues the horrific descriptions of life under Nero's regime and is potentially even darker than the first. I found that when I woke up in the night after reading parts of this book, I had trouble putting aside some of the images from what I had read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 21, 2012
The Last Sacrifice sees the return of Gallus Sergius Vitas, who had been sentenced to death by Emperor Nero and his most trusted adviser, Helius. While Nero waits in the arena stadium to watch a man he believes to be Vitas die at the hands of a gladiator, little does he know that Vitas has already been spirited away out of Rome after having been tossed onto a ship along with the Apostle John. Along with his freedom, Vitas has been given a scroll written in Hebrew and filled with symbolism he has been told to unravel to find the answers he's seeking. The scroll contains portions of the letter of Revelation, a letter that Helius is also seeking to understand, for it portends the death of Emperor Nero, information Helius will seek to keep from Nero at any cost. When Helius realizes that Vitas is still alive, he sets into motion a plot to kill Vitas in order to protect the power that Nero has shared with him, a power that he and Nero are bent on using to wipe out every last Christian in the empire.
I greatly enjoyed this follow-up to the story begun in The Last Disciple. Hanegraaf and Brouwer make a dynamic writing team, and the scenes crackle with action and tension and suspense. The book is written at an unstoppable pace, making it difficult to step away from it for any length of time. I love being able to watch Vitas on his journey, from moments of hopelessness to growing ever nearer to choosing to follow the Christos whose name seems to follow him no matter where he is. Some of the scenes involving Nero are so realistically written that I felt utter revulsion at reading about an Emperor who was so entirely twisted and perverted, especially the scene where he has a boy castrated and then seeks to marry him. How bizarre that the Roman world embraced this as normal! The scenes set in Jerusalem are very powerful ones, and serve as a cautionary tale of how far off course it is possible for God's seemingly devoted followers to go. Men of power, such as the temple priests, were seen serving God with devotion and yet easily willing to kill anyone in their way, in order to defend their position of power. Likewise, the scenes set in Rome, where men and woman did as they pleased, satisfying any desires of the flesh without any regard for how it impacted others, made me contemplate how very similar our own culture is today.
The Last Sacrifice is a very worthy follow up to the first book in the series, and serves to advance the story of Vitas and his wife, as well as the story of the survivors in Jersulam, while leaving me craving the conclusion to this powerful series. I award this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. I'm certainly glad that the wait is almost over for book 3, The Last Temple, which I will be reviewing in August 2012.
Book has been provided by the publisher, Tyndale, for the purposes of this unbiased review.
Posted June 12, 2012
Helius, Nero’s most trusted adviser, anticipates the death of his sworn enemy, the legendary warrior Gallus Sergius Vitas, scheduled to die a gruesome death in the arena. However, the badly beaten man who appears in the amphitheater is not who he seems. Rescued by a stranger and given a mysterious scroll, Vitas is told he must decipher this letter to find the answers he needs—a letter that Helius is also determined to decipher and to keep hidden from Nero. As Nero’s reign of terror grows, so does his circle of enemies.
The Last Sacrifice was an excellent sequel to the Last Disciple. This novel finds Vitas waiting to die, as well as reveals the devastation that awaits Jews and Christians alike as Nero becomes more and more insane. The plot line of this novel picks up right where the first novel left off and continues at a quick and exciting pace. The plot is filled with mysterious characters, unexpected betrayals, and unforeseen twists. It ends with a cliff hanger that leaves the reader on the edge of their seat for the next book (out on August 1st, 2012). The tone of the novel varies as the book alternates between the perspectives of different characters.
The characters continued to be developed even more from the first novel, and some additional characters were added as well. These new characters and some of the old ones revealed new strengths and weaknesses and allegiances. Vitas and his wife continued in their growth as characters and as new Christians. It was neat to see their developing relationships with God and with other characters as a result.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Last Sacrifice. I would highly recommend this novel, but only after reading the Last Disciple.