Chapter 1—Life on Mars
Aulus Minucius Plautus stretches the slaughterhouse of his body in his bedchamber. He looks at his shield, craning his neck to catch the reflection of the notches. Aulus counts each one with his fingertip. 49. 49. One more to go, then freedom. Then again, what is freedom when you’re stuck on Mars? The knock on the door jars Aulus from his daydreams of fresh neck in teeth.
“Who is it,” the sentence tumbling out of Aulus’s mouth like a hollow coffin.
“It’s your fiance, Laurinda Faucus.” Aulus presses the switch by the door. Laurinda, arm full of bridal catalogs, rushes past the sulking, freight truck frame of Aulus, unleashing the flock of four color paper cut dreams onto the dining room table. Aulus looks at the burning village on the table top. Is this my reward for surviving two-hundred seventy two years of mortal combat, batting back bad catering, mooching relatives for seven hours, only to have the stake of “Sweet Caroline” waved in my face like so much rancid cock?
“I think I finally found the perfect wedding dress. It’s a ball gown style in the shade of broken stained church glass, the veil shaped from hopelessness.” In the one-hundred thirteen years of their relationship, Aulus never had the heart to tell Laurinda the depth of her color blindness. Aulus yes dears himself into the arena of his mind. Who will the Hand of Fate choose tomorrow as my final opponent? Aulus yes dears himself into oblivion once Laurinda talks DJ’s, the firing squad of her bridesmaids.
Pontius Duchtius practices in the empty coliseum on the dark side of Mars, the gladius in his hand carving the air around him. Pontius’s sandals leave the choreography of death in the sand. He plants the blade into the ground. Preparation over experience, always, thinks Pontius as his right bicep and deltoid cool in the artificial gravity and wind. Pontius rubs the thirty two notches on his neck, reminding him of where he’s been and how far he’s come in his perpetual rise as the King of the Ring. For fifty years, he’s defended his title against the deadliest warriors from across the galaxy. Beneath his chest plate, he wears the scars of his last battle, a brawl against the Crimson Kraken and his infamous barbed tentacles.
“I have you now, Pontius. I will take your head, and your crown”, yelled the Crimson Kraken after wounding Pontius and knocking the blade out of his hand. With the last pint of blood left in Pontius’s body, he summoned the remains of his supernatural speed and slit Crimson’s throat with his fingernails. His blood sutured the slashes, leaving shallow, dried riverbeds. At night, Pontius’s palms swim on them, a constant reminder of the need to always be ready to kill. Pontius believes in more of the willingness to live than a willingness to die.
A wizened holographic face materializes in front of Pontius, “Sir, you have a call from Quintessa Garnerus. Will you take it?”
Quintessa Garnerus became a widow after Pontius killed her partner, Prospera “The Plague” Agrippa. On bended knee in Prospera’s spilled blood Pontius promised his now fiance to wait until their wedding night to claim the trophy of her virginity.
“I’ll accept it, AENEAS .” Quintessa’s face replaces AENEAS. Why did I agree to wait to conquer you? thinks Pontius, looking at the Elysium field of Quintessa’s mouth.
“We have dinner in an hour with the Governor. As the King of the Ring, you may be allowed to marry me before you earn your fiftieth kill if you handle this right.” The scars on Pontius’s chest ache upon hearing the words. I don’t know if I can keep doing this dies in Pontius’s throat.
“Yes, my darling, I remembered,” Pontius sighs. “I hope he isn’t serving 17th century virgin again. It took me four days to wash out the taste of ignorance, Catholicism from my palate.”
“My dear Pontius, you can tolerate the food if you want to taste me sooner than later.” Pontius bites his lower lip at the thought of savoring his beloved finally. Yet I don’t know if I can keep doing this haunts his chest.
“I will be ready.” Quintessa’s face disappears. Pontius picks his gladius from the sand, looks at himself, the trophies on his neck, before sheathing it, covering up his shadow dance of death on the sand. Leave no signs of you in the arena. The arena is bigger than all of us. Aulus’s words ring in Pontius’s ears as Pontius walks out of the arena.
Chapter 2—The Dinner Party
An entry from the journal of Pontius Duchtius, the 27th King of the Ring
The Governor served 17th century virgin again, like I knew he would. “I love the taste of blind faith”, said the Governor, tilting the 13-year-old girl’s neck like a wine glass into his mouth. Mine, a 15-year-old pious urchin, I barely stomached. I thought the Governor wasn’t looking when I spit the blood into my napkin.
“Do you not enjoy what I’ve provided to you? Do you…dishonor my hospitality?” I felt Quintessa’s nails dig into my kneecap.
“My lord, I meant no dishonor or offense.” I said. “I am…superstitious about what I eat. I understand the Hand of Fate chooses my next opponent tomorrow and I need to make sure I stick to the diet that has seen me through all of my victories: early 20th Century modernist writers.”
The Governor stroked his goatee in thought. “I can understand that, the need of rituals before a big occasion. Before each of my elections, I always drank from a mountain goat from the 1700s I procured from the Swiss Alps. The chill in the air, their blood, gave me the fortitude needed to make it through a long election night. I’ve held the Governor’s office for seven centuries because of this. I apologize, oh King, for being able your dietary needs.”
This was a relief. The Governor is known for violent hate of poor etiquette. He once staked a servant on the dark side of Mars, letting the planet’s rotation bring the sun to the offending servant, a death I would never wish upon any Roman vampire, regardless of how I felt.
The good news: the Governor agreed to let Quintessa and I be married after my next successful kill as long as I agreed to become the Governor’s personal bodyguard. “No one would dare raise a hand against me if the greatest King of the Ring of all defended my life,” the Governor quipped. I hope he’s right. I kill to survive, not for a greater cause, not to stack the bodies so God can see how I offend him, I kill so I am not killed. I hope my reputation will deter future assassins from taking the Governor’s life. Quintessa was pleased that I agreed to the Governor’s terms. Our wedding will take place one month after my next victory. I can wait one more month to finally claim my trophy I’ve waited a millennium to claim.
Chapter 3—Lo Those Who Defy The Hand of Fate
All stood in the town square, staring at the closed Hand of Fate. Aulus watches from a lounge chair on the balcony of his villa, Laurinda wrapping her arms around his waist, chin resting on his clavicle.
“Do you think this you will finally be chosen,” Laurinda whispers into his ear.
“I hope so. I am ready to hang up my armor, teach other gladiators how they too can survive against the galaxy’s most fiercest warriors so they too can know the joys of love and living.”
“That is good, my future husband. Once you no longer need to fight, you will have more time to plan our nuptials.” Aulus gulps like the village of Vesuvius is in the pit of his stomach.
“The Governor comes.”
The Governor walks out of the balcony of his palace, facing the town square choking with his undead constituents, the closed Hand of Fate. He raises his cane, demanding attention and silence.
“Greetings citizens of New Rome,” the Governor bellows, “It is time once again for the Hand of Fate to choose who will fight in the Coliseum. What two brave, noble gladiators will the Hand of Fate choose?” The Governor slams the tip of his cane down on the floor. “OH HAND OF FATE, WE ASK FOR YOUR GUIDANCE. CHOOSE THOSE WHO WILL HONOR NEW ROME WITH THEIR BLOOD. FOR THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO DIE, WE SHALL SALUTE YOU'”.
The Hand of Fate uncurled. On its index finger, the screen showed the face of Aulus.
I have been chosen. Now, who shall I face? thinks Aulus, the anticipation fluttering in his chest.
The screen on the pinky opens. The face of Pontius appears.
So Pontius is my final kill. How fitting. How fitting.
The palm opens, showing the weapon the gladiators must use and the conditions of the battle. The wooden gladius appears. The words “TO THE DEATH” appears in bright red.
This is how it ends. The student versus the master, seeing who will be fed first to the maw of splinters. I can’t remember the last time the Hand chose a bloodbath like this, not since…
Aulus remembers his seventh fight, against Aulus Salvius Purpurio, their wooden gladiuses clashing for seven hours.
“When I kill you, your name is mine,” Aulus, then Lucien, hissed between his teeth.
“Lucien, you are not worthy enough to take my name. Let this exchange be our last.” They raised their gladiuses above their heads then rushed, their supernatural speed making the two gladiators look like pale comets kicking up plagues of sand clouds. A minute later, the audience saw Lucien’s gladius in Aulus’s chest, Aulus’s gladius in Lucien’s stomach. Lucien stayed on his feet long enough to achieve victory before collapsing from the searing pain. Lucien chose Aulus’s name over the crown of King of the Ring. During the post fight interview, Aulus said “Surviving in the coliseum is the greatest victory that should be achieved.”
“Aulus? Aulus?,” Laurinda’s voice beckons Aulus back to the balcony, the roar of the town square at the Hand of Fate’s choice.
“THIS SHALL BE THE FIGHT WE WILL TALK ABOUT FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS. THE GREATEST KING OF THE RING AGAINST THE LONGEST SURVIVING GLADIATOR IN THE COLIESUM. WHO WILL BE VICTORIOUS?”. The Governor executes people to not being excited about his proclamations over who the Hand of Fate chooses, Aulus thinks. There is no need to fake it this time. We will put on a show for the people. We will honor the coliseum…
Chapter 4—Making Ends Meet
One-hundred thirty two years ago…
The Governor presses the tip of his cane in Aulus Minucius Plautus’s gaping stomach wound. “How dare you decline the King of the Ring crown,” the Governor seethes. “How dare you dishonor New Rome, the galaxy. Explain yourself.”
“My lord, the galaxy has enough…champions. I don’t…need…a title…to kill…in the name…of New Rome. I honor…you…and New Rome…with each…kill…each victory.”
The Governor pauses for a moment, stroking his goatee, then withdraws the cane from the wound like a sheath. “I will forgive you, Aulus, because you are such a good citizen and always think of the glory of New Rome. However, you must be punished. Bring him in.”
Two hooded figures bring in an unconscious, pale boy of 19 and throw him at The Governor’s feet.
“I just procured him from the Eastern Front around 1914. Aulus, your job is to make him a gladiator. If he survives his first fight, I will let you live. Do you understand?” Aulus nods his head. “Good. Guards, heal Aulus, then wake the boy. There is much work to be done.”
One-hundred thirty one years ago…
Pontius slits his wrist, the blood drizzling on his cock, hungry like a snow leopard. With his left index and middle finger, Pontius works some of the blood inside Aulus’s trembling opening.
“Pontius, I knew this was right from the moment I first laid eyes on your unconscious body. Show me how the student becomes the master.”
“Oh I shall school you, Aulus. I shall school you, indeed.” Pontius enters Aulus’s coliseum, joy dressed in the centurion grunts escaping from Aulus’s gritted teeth. “However, my master, I will not leave you the way you originally came.”
“Make my body remember your name, Pontius.” Pontius holds the back of Aulus’s neck and moves faster, the snow leopard feasting on Aulus’s ecstatic cries. Aulus seals the gaps between the tile in the shower room with his hollow seed.
Chapter 29—Machiavelli Sends His Regards
The Governor stands in front of the kneeling Aulus and Pontius. By New Rome law, the Governor is required to give the impending gladiators a pep talk, encouraging words for those who are about to die.
“I have a confession to make, my gallant warriors.” The Governor starts. “The Hand of Fate randomly selects those who enter the arena of mortal combat…most of the time. As Governor, I am given power to influence the Hand once every one hundred years. Do you remember the way you two celebrated Saturnalia one-hundred thirty years ago?”
Terror spread on Aulus and Pontius’s face.
“You don’t have to answer, my gladiators, because I do, I remember Pontius stabbing you, Aulus, with his lusty gladius and how you trembled like a bitch in heat. Do you not remember the Rice Act of 2201?”
Passed by the New Roman Senate, the Anne Rice Act of 2201 forbade all acts of homosexuality among vampires. This ensured all vampire bloodlines would not become narcissistic dandies.
“I did not have you executed then because, you, Aulus, honored New Rome with your victories and you, Pontius, were becoming quite the gladiator yourself, one that could eventually equal and rival the great Aulus Minucius Plautus. The day for justice has finally come for your mutual dishonor of New Rome, to all the vampire bloodlines. One of you will survive, yes, but the other will live in crippling pain for the rest of their lives, isn’t that right, Aulus?”
Aulus’s will and fortitude have held back the debilitating effects of wood poisoning, winning and surviving despite the splinters multiplying and creeping through his arteries. The termite exoskeleton injections only help so much.
“Don’t you see the master stroke in the timing of this battle, my gladiators? Aulus, if you win, you are free, but how comfortable, how bearable will life be after Pontius puts you to the test? And Pontius, if you win, you become my bodyguard, married to a woman you don’t want to be married to. What kind of freedom is that, what kind of life is that for you, Pontius? I know you love each other as more than brothers in arms and blood. Who is willing to kill love more to survive? Who is willing to die as the ultimate expression of love? Love is someone watching you die, after all.” The Governor’s cackle haunts the air.
“For Those Who Are About To Die, We Salute You, warriors. You will remember this day centuries later or while you breathe your last breath, how revenge is a dish best served…late.”
Chapter 41—The Long Goodbye
Seventeen hours into the battle, and the coliseum audience can’t take their eyes off of Aulus and Pontius. The clash of wooden gladiuses breaks the awed silence. The two gladiators leap away and catch their breath.
“You have improved, Pontius. I see being the King of the Ring has served you well in sharpening your battle skills.”
“Experience is the best teacher, Aulus. Experience and preparation. You taught me that. And so much more.”
“How well did you prepare for…this” Aulus disappears. Pontius, gladius bared, walks in a tight circle. He raises his sword above his head as Aulus reappears from above, blocking the surprise strike.
“I heard you coming a mile away, old man. You used that trick in your thirty-ninth kill. I told you, I prepare.” Aulus steps back then swings, the two gladiators in a clench.
“Pontius,” Aulus whispers, “I bet you didn’t prepare for this. I love you. I loved you when you had me during Saturnalia. I will always…love you.” Pontius steps back for a moment, gladius hanging from his right hand. “And that’s why I must do this.” Aulus slashes at Pontius. Pontius parries, but his gladius splinters. Aulus telekinetically throws the splinters at Pontius, pinning him to the coliseum wall by his shoulders and feet, the wood paralyzing his body. Aulus speeds over to the ragged portrait of Pontius.
“I’m glad…it was you, Aulus. I’m glad…we got to have this moment together…one more…time.”
Aulus shoves the gladius into Pontius’s heart. Freedom. Freedom at last. But what is freedom on Mars?