“Pale daggers of moonlight pierce the remains of the Roman amphitheater, twisting their blades through ghostly flesh. They peel away the dark skin without mercy, baring broken archways, ruined pillars and tagged staircases, white as bone. Light tortures a corpse this city wants gone, the remains of a-”
“Damian. I didn’t ask for a narrator.”
“Come on, you used to love it.”
He still loves it, but will never admit it. He sighs, turning from Damian’s glowing soul to the amphitheater.
He doesn’t need a narrator to see the big shiny mess in front of them.
Thousands of souls haunt the building, filling his blind vision with floating specks of light. Candles in the dark. The amphitheater has its own faint ghost, more sound than light, a lingering vibration still dreaming of the shape it once held.
“What do your elf eyes see, Legolas?”
“This place is lit like a fucking Christmas tree.”
“Excellent. We proceed as usual: you warn me of enemies, I slay them.” The metallic chink of a sword being unsheathed. “Then I do something stupid, you scold me, I almost die but somehow don’t, you scold me again an-"
The world goes blank. Raw spiritual energy pours inside him in a torrent of light and screams. He staggers back. Under his blindfold, eyelids eyes snap shut in a helpless reflex. Seconds become eternity, a crystalline moment paralyzed in a shriek.
In his mind, he raises layers upon layers of smoked glass in front of blind eyes, dulling the edges of his spiritual vision. Overloaded neurons cry a sigh of relief. The overwhelming radiance gets dimmer, breaking again in individual shapes — a passerby, the ghost of the amphitheater, the shape of Damian in front of him.
Between Damian’s hands lays a sword-shaped soul. It’s screaming.
“Still swinging around that dreadful weapon?” he croaks, gasping for air. He’s can’t remember when he stopped breathing.
“Magical swords are difficult to replace.”
Claimh Solais has only grown more bitter in the past ten years; its voice has shattered into the cacophony of a creature too tired to cry, too enraged to ever stop. The language it speaks is impossible to decipher, but one doesn't need to understand the words to recognize its fury.
“Shall we go?” he asks, his voice a pitch too high. He always forgets Damian can’t hear his weapon.
“Just one second.”
Damian starts spinning his right hand over the one holding the sword. A familiar gesture. Easy for him to complete the picture, imagining a white strip being wrapped over the weapon’s hilt. In his mind the strip is white gauze, like the hand holding it, but in reality it is probably leather or an equally sturdy material. Something that will help Damian keep hold of the sword once it starts burning. He almost feels sorry for him.
Damian starts moving and he follows at a distance, tapping the floor with his cane as he walks. Each tap is a ripple in the surface of the world, circumcentrical waves revealing to him the true shape of his surroundings. Here, a broken column. There, a fallen archway. Vibrations echo back as grumbles and groans. The ghost of the building doesn’t like being contradicted.
“Still doing your bat trick?”
“Shh. Your sword is already distracting me enough.”
They pass through the entrance and reach a curve of tiered seats sculpted from stone. At the opposite side of the circle minuscule lights float, oblivious to their presence.
They walk downwards, using the seats as a staircase. Their steps echo in a different way here, sound waves reflected ad infinitum by the circular ruins. The amphitheatre makes notes of their steps, singing a lament of lost magnificence and splendor.
Where have the warriors gone? it asks, ghostly stones trembling. Where is the blood?
In the arena below them, he spots the pale afterimages of two gladiators circling each other. They exchange a hit, and the sound of metal hitting metal makes the ghost of the building vibrate like glass.
A crowd cheers. Claimh Solais gurgles in unison, its rage forgotten for a moment.
“How’s the place from your point of view, Dam?”
“Sad. Desolate. I don’t see anything strange.”
Which means the ghosts aren’t strong enough to hurt them on the material plane. Good. “Look out for stairs. Our god lives underground.”
Down, beneath soil and stone. Down, where some soul is waiting, simmering, at the margins of his perception. He wishes he could hurl Claimh Solais away. The sword’s screams muddle his perception, drowning the palest spirits in an ocean of static.
“Hold on, I found a hatch.”
Ancient hinges screech in protest as the slab of wood is raised. A whiff of cold air, dry straw and dust.
He taps his cane on the hatch’s border. Waves of sound flow inside the passage, pouring over a solid staircase, a chamber, distant hallways. Promising. “Damian, want me to lure a will-o-wisp??” he asks, “Must be dark down there.”
“Nah, I got an electric torch. Hold it for me, will ya?”
“An electric torch? In the 6th century? You’re ruining the atmosphere.” But he takes it anyway, frowning as he flicks on the switch. He lets Damian enter the hatch first, and follows him inside the belly of the amphitheater.
“I see metal in the dark,” Damian whispers as they descend. “Cages. This must be the place where gladiators were kept. And animals, I assume, since I see a skeletal lion glowing at the bottom of the stairs.” “Well, shit.” The lion circles the staircases, glowing bones coated in a memory of flesh. It can’t roar anymore, but its gleaming figure throbs with silent threat.
This is an echo that can make you bleed.
“Wait, you still talk to animals, right? Can you talk to it?” Damian asks with childish glee.
“Theoretically, yes. But what am I supposed to say to an undead lion?”
“That's dogs, Damian.”
Damian sighs, clutching Claimh Solais. The weapon growls. If swords could smile, it would be beaming.
A few steps left. He stops in the middle of the staircase, keeping the flashlight steady to light the room. Damian keeps going.
“But if you were to talk with an undead lion, would you roar at it, like, in lion-speak, or would you-”
“Just kill the fucking lion.”
He feels the sudden urge to whack Damian's smile off his face. He knows the little shit is smiling.
Damian jumps. He flies over the last steps of the staircase and lands on the lion’s back, sword pointed down. Metal hits ghostly flesh. The lion quivers and falls, bringing Damian down with it. The two glowing figures melt into one another, snarling, scratching, tearing apart, individual actions reduced to blurs.
He keeps the torchlight pointed at them, in silent wait.
He once witnessed his former lover being torched alive by a god. He saw him beaten, stoned, cut, electrified, punched, frozen, axed, shot. But he never saw him die. It’s not that Damian is particularly strong. He’s just the kind of being who is kept together by sheer force of spite.
But this was decades ago, when he and Damian were still something resembling a “we”. He watches the souls battling beneath him, and wonders if this older Damian is still as angry as the one in his memories.
One final scream. A flash of light. The lion slumps to the floor; Damian scrambles to his feet
Claimh Solais finally goes quiet.
“Damian, are you hurt?”
“A bit. Wanna lick my wounds?”
“Fuck off.” But he says this with a smile, despite himself. He walks down the remaining steps, muttering a banishment formula to disperse the lion’s remains. Flecks of healing energy dance between Damian’s fingers. The contours of his soul stop trembling.
“How’s your arm holding up?” he asks, but Damian turns to the nearest corridor.
He can feel the faint scent of burning flesh; imagines his hand all swollen and red beneath the layers of protective gloves.
Everything feels too quiet now, without Claimh Solais' white noise filling the space.
“Damian. How’s your arm?” he repeats.
Emptiness booms in his ears. He keeps walking, and starts counting. Long ago, he once spent a day measuring the pauses between their conversations. According to his scientific research, his former lover is physically incapable of keeping his mouth shut for more than seventy-two seconds.
“More empty cages,” Damian announces after a minute of silence. He’s not that hurt, then. ”Pale strands of wheat on the floor, and rusted weapons on racks against the walls. I don’t like this place, Tiresias. It reeks of misery.”
“I sense a faint trace of energy on the left. What do you see there?”
“Just a cage. Light, please.”
He moves the torchlight to illuminate the dungeon. For him the place is bright enough, the air filled with a faint luminescence. It pulses slowly, mimicking the breath of a sleeping cat.
“I see a… A sort of altar, I think,” Damian shuffles forward. “A block of wood decorated with feathers and scraps of cloth. The wood is covered in dark stains.”
“Shit.” “I concur.”
He had been expecting a pagan god; some old divinity who got pissed because the Romans decided to build an amphitheater over their temple. He had not expected a god born out of necessity, fed on dim laments and brittle dreams.
A god of lost battles.
“Tiresias. This one is gonna want blood, yeah?”
“I'm afraid so.” He comes forward, kneeling in front of the makeshift altar. “Let me do the talking. This won’t be an easy one.” “You never let me talk.” “Because the last time I let you handle negotiations, they ended with you slaying a god with a ballpoint pen. Frankly, I am surprised you’ve managed to survive for eight years without me.”
“Well, I persuaded you to join me in this quest. Either my skills have improved or you’ve become weak, demigod.”
Damian clenches the sword’s blade and lets it slide. Shiny drops fall onto the altar.
The world trembles. Heat exudes from the wooden slab — pleasant summer afternoon, sauna, volcano. Too late to scramble away. The universe explodes and he finds himself pressed against the metal cage, teeth gritted. He clenches his fists, squeezing his cane and the flashlight. Beside him, Damian laughs.
A ghastly figure emerges from the altar: a ragged mummy of a fighter, rusted pieces of armor covering a bandaged corpse. The only visible eye regards them with cold fury.
“Who dares wake me from my eternal slumber?”
He takes a step forward. Its voice is like hot coals, like hissing flames.
“My name is Tiresias, son of the shepherd Everes and the nymph Chariclo. The boy here...”
“Not a boy.”
“...Is Damian Cinder of London, who has no parents he wishes to remember. We are here to make you an offer, oh you who lay forgotten.”
He bows deeply. After a nudge, Damian bows as well. “We are here to ask if there's the possibility a god as striking as you could take two humble aspiring godlings in its service.”
A moment of silence.
“I am not sure I understand.”
“Your followers are dead. Your altar lays forgotten. But you still live, and we can help you rise again. All we ask is a fraction of your power.” He straightens his back. “We aspire to godhood, and we are looking for… An internship. Are you looking for apprentices?”
More silence. The god blinks, craning its head.
“Can we leave you our CVs, at least? In case you change idea?”
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