This story is by Stephen Dehner and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The lions sensed the presence first. Half the pride had been killed during the morning bestiarri clash, but nearly a dozen remained inside their cage, ceaselessly pacing. Low growls rumbled through the subterranean caverns of the Colosseum, the final act of the hundred days of celebration of the grand opening of the Flavian Amphitheater about to begin. The underground complex smelled of blood, musk, urine, shit, sweat, and death.
Twelve gladiators waited in their own enclosure for the last event. One man sat by himself, brooding. He was the largest of the group, nearly six feet in height, with powerful forearms and the build of a wrestler.
Sabinus, a bestiarius, addressed him. “Carpophorus, it is said you killed a bear, a lion, and a leopard at the same time with your bare hands. You’ve fought every animal in the ring on your own, even the great elephant. What is this creature we are to face?”
Carpophorus laughed quietly. “I’ve only seen elephants crushing the heads of army deserters with their feet, not faced one alone in combat. And I’ve not killed lions with my bare hands, despite the rumors.” He looked at the men around him. “Whatever we are to fight today, I have not seen it.”
“I heard it was sent from the sky in a silver egg by the gods themselves,” Silvanus said. “It landed in Aegyptus and took an entire cohort to capture it.”
“A thousand soldiers to capture one animal? Impossible,” Eleuther, a murmillo snorted.
Zosimus, one of three Thracian fighters in the group, shook his head. “You’ve been drinking too much goat wine, my friend.” The men laughed.
“I’ve been told it eats the dead from the arena,” Sabinus added, quieting the group.
“Maybe we are going against each other,” Felicianus, a retiarius offered. “Six against six.”
Vitulus, a dimachaerus who fought with a scimitar in each hand, turned to Dio, the lone laquearius, a combatant who used a lasso, and said, “It looks like we’ll be paired together. I’m sorry I’m going to have to kill you, brother.”
“I’ll have your hands trussed behind your legs before you can blink and when you raise your finger for mercy, you’ll be sticking it up your ass.” The group laughed again.
The lions, nearly driven mad by what approached, now crashed against their cage, trying to get out. The roaring was deafening as they began fighting each other, going for the throat, the face; frightened attendants began killing the beasts, lancing them through the bars.
A flourish of trumpets blared from the amphitheater, followed by a roar from the crowd. The gladiators forgot about the lions. Fifty Praetorian guards marched up to their cage.
“It’s time,” the tribune stated.
The gladiators were escorted to a long table holding their armament. They selected swords, shields, helmets – whatever was required for their fighting style. When all twelve were outfitted, they entered a wooden elevator and were winched to the surface. Those with helmets held them under their arm, instructed to leave them off so the audience could identify them.
Even through the floor, the crowd noise reverberated. The trap door opened and sunlight flooded in, white sand pouring over the men, the stench of blood thick in the air. The cheers from the amphitheater washed over them as the gladiators squinted at the sun. Praetorian guards surrounded the floor of the arena, at least a hundred of them.
Many in the stands recognized the gladiators, with shouts of “Pertinax!” toward a veteran retiarius who had won eighteen of the twenty matches he participated in, or “Zosimus!” who was one of the greatest Thracian fighters to ever enter the ring. However, none were cheered more than Carpophorus, the bestiarius who was already a legend of the games.
The twelve gladiators had little time to marvel at the unfolding spectacle when the gates to the Porta Libitinensis were slowly opened, the arched exit where fallen gladiators were removed from the arena.
“They bring our adversary through the Gate of Death,” commented Callisthenes, a veteran murmillo.
“Perhaps we are to fight Pluto himself,” Vitulus said.
Two lines of slaves, slick with sweat, trudged through the sand pulling chains made of links almost four inches long and normally used to protect harbors from attacking ships. The chains were connected to a huge, wheeled box covered in white sheets that barely cleared the arch. More slaves – carrying chains, not pulling them – moved out to the side as they entered the Colosseum. When the box reached the center of the arena, the caravan stopped.
The crowd murmured in confusion, unsure what to expect. Cries of “Trojan horse!” began ringing out and bets were placed on whether it was a variation of that war device hidden under the cloth, loaded with gladiators to fight the twelve. Other guesses were voiced and more bets were wagered. When Titus Caesar Vespasianus rose to speak, the crowd quieted down. “Good citizens,” he began and then a screech emitted from behind the white sheets, silencing the emperor and the crowd.
The shrill cry was not the sound of an animal. It was a lament, evoking the despair of a sunken galley with all hands lost. The wail repeated, louder this time, rising above the walls and spreading over the city. The crowd was paralyzed into silence.
Titus thought about continuing his speech, thanking the gods and officially dedicating the amphitheater and the newly constructed Baths of Titus, but instead signaled the attendants to remove the sheets.
They pulled on knotted ropes and the cloth fluttered down, revealing what sat atop the four immense wheels. It was a cage, constructed of thick, iron bars, fifteen feet in height. The spectators recoiled at what was trapped behind the iron. It was big, larger than anything brought to Rome from all the corners of the empire.
The creature stared back with large, golden eyes. It reminded some of a mantis, with a triangular head and long arms ending in chitinous claws. The black carapace had no sheen and refracted the sun’s rays into colorful arcs across its surface. Dark, green fluid leaked from where the iron shackles chafed against the creature’s wrists and ankles. The thing leaned over as it climbed out of the cage, knees bending backward. Slaves played out the chains, the links clanking.
Without warning, Sabinus hurled his javelin at the monster. The spear pierced its side and the alien roared, revealing needle-like fangs. It jerked the chain on its right arm and the slaves went flying.
The monster knew who brought it here and it swung the chain toward the stands, hitting above the wall and cutting three senators in half; blood sprayed on the emperor and his guests. The crowd screamed, clambered over each other to get out of range, scrambled for the exits. The Praetorians hurled their javelins, striking the beast in over a dozen locations. The remaining audience members booed – unfair! Titus signaled the captain of the guards to stand down. The creature yanked against the other chain, smashing slaves into the iron bars. Now both arms were free.
“Get under it!” Carpophorus ordered.
The thing understood, snapping one of the chains and beheading two retiarii with their weighted nets and tridents before they moved.
Carpophorus led the charge, driving his spear into its mid-section. The monster bellowed with rage. The murmillones stabbed at its legs, trained to thrust their blades, not slice. It smashed one into the sand, kicked the other two into the wall. Vitulus swung his scimitars, cutting open its torso, drenching himself in green blood. He rolled out of the way before it could grab him, continuing his attack from the rear. The Thracians came at its left side, driving their swords up into it, before it swatted two of them across the arena, getting the third with its claws and tearing his arms off. The remaining gladiators circled, inflicting damage, the creature methodically wiping them out until only Carpophorus and Vitulus remained. The dimachaerus continued hacking at the monster’s legs, dodging its blows, coming in again. Carpophorus threw one lance, connecting high on its chest, before driving another into its side. The creature stumbled before coming alert again, catching Vitulus by the leg and crushing him.
The crowd felt the killing blow coming. Carpophorus moved in and out, spearing it again and again, until the thing collapsed and the audience roared. He picked up one of the swords and stood looking down at it.
The creature’s intelligent eyes watched him. A voice suddenly spoke inside the gladiator’s mind. Finish me, it said. Carpophorus paused before driving the blade into its skull.
The spectators erupted, their cheers shaking the stone blocks. Praetorians lifted Carpophorus up on a shield and Titus approved of this gesture. They triumphantly carried the bestiarus around the arena as couches were brought in to ferry the dead gladiators through the Libitinensis gate.