Bobby huffed out a nervous breath as he strode along the street, tapping his umbrella along the ground in time with his steps. The stiff unstretched leather of his smart, chocolate-brown shoes, worn only once at a wedding he had attended in 1984 creaked and pinched murderously with every step, affording him a painful reminder of why he had only worn the darn things once since 1984.
As he rounded the corner toward the museum, looking forward to finding some answers, and just as importantly, a chair, he got his first inkling that something wasn't right.
In front of the museum a listless figure in ill-fitting overalls balanced atop a tower of scaffolding. He was busy taking down the exhibition signs.
Resisting the urge to break into a run, and in all likelihood crippling himself for life, Bob Chanteur, dapper Gentleman-about-town who didn't look at all like a man whose feet were being tortured in a vice, strolled casually across the road, and looked up at the workman.
"Say buddy, what time is the exhibition opening today?" He called up to the bored-looking man as he tugged at the signs on the wall above his head.
"Sorry, pal, you're outta luck," the man replied without making eye-contact; "exhibition closed yesterday, police ordered it closed."
"Huh?" Bobby fought to hold back his disappointment; "damnit, an' I made a special trip in. Is this all about those guys who disappeared?"
"The workman's shoulders shrugged under his outsized overalls. "Yeah guess so; guess you made your trip for nuthin'."
Bobby sighed as he watched the last 'Rome's Unknown Tyrant' banner slip down the wall onto the waiting scaffolding, leaving nothing but an expanse of bare brick to match the blank space in Bobby's mind.
"Where the hell did he go from here?"
"You don't ..."
The voice, barely more than a hoarse whisper, had come from a shadowy alcove in the corner of the cell. Sam had briefly glanced across to it when they had first been pushed into the dark, dusty hole, and dismissed what he saw there as a pile of discarded rags lying on the sandy floor.
"Who's there," he asked cautiously.
The pile of rags groaned and shuffled into a crooked sitting position, leaning weakly against the wall and even through the heavy shadows, both brothers immediately recognised the figure as the small wiry man who had been so viciously beaten by the guard those few hours ago. They both noticed how he made no move to emerge from the shadows into the lighter areas of the cell.
This was clearly a very frightened man.
They suddenly forgot about their own discomfort; the dirt and sweat coating their bodies, the raw welts around their wrists from the straps which bound them on their journey, the bruises they had sustained during their wild fight upon arrival, their numb asses and aching backs from sitting on a hard stone floor against a stone wall for these past hours. Compared to that poor, brutalised guy, their own discomforts were petty.
Squinting through the gloom at the forlorn figure, Dean's eyebrows took a slow march upwards as he noticed something he didn't expect to see given where - and when - they were; under the mottled expanse of bruising and dirt which coated the man's arms was a clearly visible 'Red Sox' tattoo.
"Red Sox?" Dean commented quietly so as not to spook the man, "pretty sure they weren't playin' in whatever-the-crap-this-is-BC."
"AD actually; about 150 AD," came the whispered response, following up with a throat clearing cough; "darn sand gets everywhere".
"Are you one of the guys who went missing at the Maple museum?" Sam asked, trying to shuffle on his aching, sand-caked ass across the floor toward the man, forgetting that his ankles were hobbled to Dean's. Dean grunted irritably, sighing as he was forced to shuffle butt-first across the floor after Sam. The guy was right; that freakin' sand did get evrywhere.
"Yeah," the man murmured through swollen, bloodied lips; "my name's Eric. I'm – I was - the curator of the exhibition."
"I'm Sam, this is my brother, Dean," Sam explained by way of a friendly introduction, tugging down his ill-fitting drab tunic which seemed to be riding up shorter with every movement he made. Dean directed a brief nod toward the shadowy figure.
"Where are the other guys?" Sam asked, "the two nightwatchmen and the cleaning contractor?"
Their companion shrugged, wincing as the movement pulled on abused muscles which were in no fit condition to move. "We're in a Gladiator training camp," he replied, "where d'y think they are?"
The brothers looked toward each other, pausing in thought for a moment before Dean spoke up; "dead?" he asked hesitantly, his voice lowering to barely a whisper.
"Yeah," came the response, voice audibly cracking; "all three of them, saw them carried back in from the arena one by one, carved up so bad, y'couldn't tell who was who."
Eric's head dipped further into shadow and he stared at the ground. "I hadn't ever seen a fresh dead body before," he murmured; "I'm a historian. I've seen dozens of bodies that have been dead for centuries, but somehow, seein' a guy you were talkin' to the previous night, wheeled back past you stretched out on a cart with his head lyin' between his ankles kinda affects you differently."
"Dude," Dean snapped urgently, his increasing concern momentarily masking his sympathy as a horrible thought struck him; "have you seen another guy here? Older than us; he'd be about sixty, stocky … with a beard."
Eric shook his head, stifling another cough; "nah, no-one like that round here."
"Thank god," the brothers breathed matching sighs of relief; it was the first scrap of positive news they'd had all day.
"So what the hell happened to us?" Dean asked.
"Apparently, we have been victims of the fabled curse of Emperor Gaius Posthumus," Eric replied bitterly.
Two pairs of widely enquiring eyes regarded him.
"Don't tell me," he continued; "you woke up in a meadow beside a stream in the middle of nowhere feeling like crap?"
Sam nodded, "uh, yeah, that's about right".
"Well, I woke up in a stream beside a freakin' meadow," snorted Dean, "but yeah, the feelin' like crap bit works."
"Well, that meadow was part of the Emperor's estate. It's a place where he apparently spent many happy times and where his remains are buried," Eric explained; "not that there was much to bury once the tigers had finished with him."
"Oh, peachy," mumbled Dean.
"The legend says," Eric began, his confidence visibly building while sharing his expertise between his new friends, "that the Emperor's one aim in life was to stage 'the fight to end all fights' in honour of Mars, his patron God, the Roman God of War. He wanted a bout worthy of a deity that would go down in history; one that historians like me would still be talking about after thousands of years. It would be a fight that would forever be linked with his name, and earn him the favour of his God."
"He had Rome's finest stonemasons make a whole bunch of statues and carvings which were placed around the city. They all depicted violent and brutal scenes from gladiatorial fights, and into all of them, it was said that he had a powerful charm woven by the high priest of the temple of Mars to enable his spirit to linger through the ages and continue to gather men to fight for him until Mars received his worthy tribute.
The brothers stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief.
"It would seem we all get brought back here to this training camp at the time of the emperor's reign. He wants his glory as much as Mars wants his tribute." Eric huffed a bitter laugh; "we are the 'ex longe' - 'those from afar'; the people of Rome think we came from far flung places around the empire - they have no goddamn idea how 'afar' we're from."
"Do you believe all that crap?" Dean asked, incredulous.
"It's a legend. I'm a historian. I only deal in facts," came the blunt reply; "so, if you'd have asked me a week ago, I'd have told you it's only a legend, old Roman fairy stories that have developed into something more over time. Spirits and war gods and magic spells? Load of mumbo-jumbo, I don't … didn't ... believe any of it." He shrugged; "but then, here we are; what am I supposed to believe now?"
"Good point," Sam nodded thoughtfully.
"What about the other disappearances?" Dean asked curiously.
Eric's bruised shoulders gave a shrug. "When the statues were first made and placed around the city, the disappearances were only of random guys off the streets of Rome; low born, anonymous men that no-one would miss," he explained; "then as the empire began to fall, the pickings got slimmer, the city got sacked time and time again and over the centuries most of the statues were destroyed until only one remained."
"That big bas-relief at the exhibition," Sam confirmed, glancing sideways as Dean mouthed 'what the friggin' hell is a bas-relief?' under his breath.
"It lay ignored, buried under rubble for centuries until it was eventually excavated a few years ago, and since then it has travelled around the world, in various museums and various exhibitions, always accompanied by these stories of random guys disappearing.
The three men fell silent and looked up as a guard walked past their door, peering into the cell. He squinted in curious ignorance as Dean offered him a single finger along with a contemptuous frown.
"So," Sam kneaded his forehead wearily; "if these guys have been disappearing, how could the authorities not believe the curse was true?"
Eric burrowed back against the wall and nervously dropped his voice knowing that the guard was still around, "the powers that be were convinced it was pranksters just using the curse as an excuse to cause trouble, troublemakers and criminals using it as a cover to abduct people, or vanish themselves; oh, everyone had lots of perfectly logical explanations for it; well, far more logical explanations than stories about ghosts and gods, anyway.
In the end, over the last few years, the exhibition stopped including anything about the curse in the hope that it would gradually stop these disappearances as people forgot all about it."
"Yeah, good call;" Dean huffed sourly, "worked like a charm."
A tense silence settled briefly between the three men.
"Okay, so let's forget for a moment that we've been shot back in time by some psycho haunted lump of rock to fight for some dead douchewad and his inflated ego," Dean grunted dismissively, "How do we get outta here?"
"You forget 'when' you are," Eric replied matter-of-factly; "he's not dead yet, he's very much alive and kicking and looking forward to seeing us fight."
"Great," Dean muttered under his breath; "that rules out burning the bones then."
"You said we couldn't get back," Sam prompted, looking at the hunched, hollow-eyed man beside them; "how do you know?"
Eric sighed deeply; "well I don't know, but we can't go back to our lives the way we came, so I don't see how any of us can get back," he replied; "but whatever, I guess I know where all this ends for me. I'm trying not to think about it, it just makes me want to puke."
Sam's face softened in sympathy. "Hey buddy, we'll all stick together, look after each other."
"I appreciate the thought," the response came quietly and shakily, "but you can't help me when I'm standing out there in the arena in front of some massive gorilla with a sword that weighs more than me."
The brothers exchanged glances.
"I'm not a fighter," Eric shrugged in defeated resignation; "I've never hurt another living soul in my life. I'm a vegetarian, I weigh just about one hundred twenty, I read my books, I organise my museum exhibitions, I watch the Red Sox whenever I get the chance, I ride my bike when the weather's fair and I run half marathons for the local hospice; that's as brutal as my life gets."
He looked up out of the shadows at the brothers, and for the first time they saw the tears in his eyes; "and I'm shit scared man; oh God, so freakin' scared."
"Okay," Dean spoke up firmly, "we're all gonna get a grip here; you're our expert on this stuff, we need your brain. We're all gonna get out of this, you're going back to your museum and we're going back to our – uh – lives, y'hear me?"
The lie came easy. With Eric's knowledge and their brawn, Dean was sure they could find a way out.
They had to believe there was a way.