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The Last Sacrifice
By HANK HANEGRAAFF SIGMUND BROUWER
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2005 Hank Hanegraaff
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHORA OCTAVA
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.
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