Bobby stood among the veils of cobwebs in the gloom of his basement, peering into a glowing crucible which stood in the centre of a rickety wooden table in front of him. The embers within the crucible flickered and squirmed, glowing crimson and already the heat from them was overpowering.
He had decided, back there at the museum yesterday, what he needed to do. Information on the curse was infuriatingly scant; the preserve, it seemed, of cranks and conspiracy theorists. Most respectable historians and students of the Roman era passed it off as nonsense, a bit of spice added to the Posthumus legend over the centuries - as if the man wasn't objectionable enough without it.
A tiny spark popped from the crucible, and Bobby felt the heat against his skin as it caught in his beard. Swearing quietly under his breath, he patted it out and grimaced against the faint odour of singed hair that assaulted his nose.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a crumpled handkerchief, and allowed it to fall open into the palm of his hand, revealing the fragments of rock and dust that it contained. Fragments painstakingly chipped from the cursed statue with Bobby's very own pen-knife.
He knew that what he was about to do was serious shit. He'd only ever done it a couple of times before, and even then, only to summon the spirit of some insignificant nobody; this time he was messing with the spirit of a mighty Roman Emperor; and not one of the more friendly ones, either. He wouldn't have been too proud to admit to anyone that right at that moment he was about as nervous as he had ever been in his life.
Clearing his throat, he licked his dry lips as he began to recite the incantation, sprinkling some of the stone fragments into the burning crucible as he spoke.
At first, he thought he was doing something wrong. Glancing uneasily around the darkness, he could see that nothing of any note seemed to be happening. He was on the verge of giving up, when he began to see a faint blur of imperial purple materialising against the back wall.
As the flickering, transparent image continued to form, ebbing and flowing like spring tide, Bobby could see the same profoundly ugly man whose bulbous, saggy jowls and thin-lipped sneer had been depicted in the bust that had drawn him away from the boys that first night back in the museum. The figure wore heavy, lavish robes, but they were threadbare and shabby, the frayed hems pooling on the floor around it.
Bobby stared at the spirit, fascinated. It looked drawn and weary; although grossly fat, it somehow also managed to look gaunt and somewhat tortured. The posture was slumped and broken, with a drooping head that spoke of surrender and intense suffering. It wasn't what Bobby had been expecting at all.
"I'm guessin' you're Gaius Posthumus," Bobby broke the silence, licking his dry lips and willing his voice not to falter as he stared at the wavering image drifting in and out of opacity like oil on water.
"That is who I am;" the figure responded, without looking up at Bobby, in a strange combination of archaic latin and broken English, enough of each for Bobby to be able to understand what was being said. The voice floated across the room, reedy and thin and distinctly unimpressive.
"Good," Bobby announced, dispensing with any initial sympathy he might have felt; "you an' me are gonna talk; that is I'm gonna talk and you're gonna give me some answers. I don't care no shit for the fact you were an emperor. You ain't nothing but a flicker of spiritual energy now, an' I can snuff you out easy as spit."
The spirit's head drooped even lower, managing nothing more than a cursory nod on the way down.
"I wanna know all about your 'curse'," Bobby folded his arms across his chest defiantly, deciding that bluntness was the way to go; "and I mean 'everything'."
There was a long pause before the figure spoke in a voice barely above a whisper; "it was not a curse - not at first."
Bobby gestured impatiently to the spirit to continue.
"I loved the games," it began, a faint smile spreading across it's thin, froglike mouth as it thought back to those halcyon days; "the thrill of forcing those men to fight like beasts for my entertainment; the power of holding their life in my hands was compelling; intoxicating."
Pausing as it regarded Bobby's silent contempt, the emporer's spirit continued. "The people of Rome loved me for entertaining them, pandering to them; they cried my name, baying for more games and more blood, and I delivered eagerly."
Bobby's scowl had 'you sick sonofabitch' written all over it.
"My love of the games became such that I eventually drained the funds of Rome dry. My army went without food, anarchy descended, and I was forced to tax the populace more and more just to feed my people and my obsession. Not only that, I drained the streets of Rome of men to feed the mob's appetite for blood and death.
The spirit fingered the threadbare hem of its robes; "I was the Emperor of Mighty Roman Empire and I was destitute."
"Go on," growled Bobby.
"At this time, I knew my senate, my advisors and the imperial family had lost trust in me," the spirit mumbled grimly, tugging the ragged mouldering robe around a corpulent shoulder; "they began to see their own positions and prosperity being jeopardised by my excesses. I began to fear for my life and, more importantly, for my immortal life."
"Emperors of Rome were always deified after death," snorted Bobby; "why should you have worried?"
The figure nodded miserably; "the noble Augustus, the mighty Claudius … so many of my predecessors were welcomed into the pantheon of the gods. But for that to take place, the emperor's elevation had to be enabled by the agreement of his successor who would commune with the gods to ensure his acceptance."
"I knew that would not be my destiny," the spirit moaned; "I was despised by those who had power over my immortal soul, so I took matters into my own hands, and made a pact with the priests of Mars. To guarantee my entry into the halls of the gods, I would stage history's greatest fight between the two mightiest warriors I could find and dedicate it to the great War God."
"From that point, my obsession became darker, more dangerous. I secretly oversaw the role of Lanista at my own training camp so that I could be closer to the games, control the training and gauge the standard of the fighters."
"I fashioned the 'collecting stones', and the word of my Lord Mars was written into them with the blood of a sacrificed bull to help me find more and more people whilst no longer pillaging the empire for fighters."
"I lost any last trace of humanity I ever had as my life descended into a nightmarish hell of taking whoever the collecting stones found in increasingly futile attempts to achieve my promise. I worked without pity or remorse; their lives slipped through my hands like water, and I never even gave them a second thought as my desire to please my great warrior God increased."
"But I failed," he groaned; "my end came abruptly and I had not delivered on my promise."
"And thus I find myself here. For centuries my spirit has existed in torment; abandoned and punished by my Lord Mars, exhausted, broken, cold and lonely, doomed to oversee the eternal search for the fighter who will deliver my pledge and open the gates of eternity, where I may take my seat beside the great Warrior God and find the peace and acceptance I crave."
A long silence fell as the spirit sunk into quiet reflection, it seemed to break just a little more with every word it uttered.
"As time has gone on, and my collecting stones have been lost and destroyed, my opportunities to succeed have dwindled, and so I have had to employ the remaining stone to gather more combatants."
The spirit sighed deeply.
"If my last stone is lost, my Lord Mars' disappointment will be severe and I will face his wrath for all eternity."
Bobby stood, arms folded defensively and glared at the spirit.
"Well boo-frickin'-hoo;" he goaded; "You and your sick, bloated ego have been responsible for slaughtering countless guys throughout the ages, and you expect me to feel sorry for you because you're a bit pissed and lonely?"
The spirit's sunken, watery eyes continued to stare at the ground.
"You're a vile, bloodthirsty sonofabitch;" Bobby snapped; "your damn stone took my two boys, and now you're gonna tell me how I can get them back here safe and well."
The crestfallen spirit shook it's head slowly.
"There is no way back," it replied blankly; "except to provide what I need. That will be the wage of triumph."
Bobby considered the spirit's words, thinking long and hard, and felt his chest tighten as a terrible thought occurred to him. He looked up to see the spirit of Emperor Gaius Posthumus flicker and drift as the embers within the crucible began to cool.
Setting his jaw, Bobby pulled himself to his full height, wiping sweaty palms on his jeans; "right, time's wastin'," he announced with a confidence he didn't feel; "and I'm done listenin' to your whinin'."
The spirit's outline was fading with every word he spoke, he knew that if he was going to help the boys, it was now or never. "You make me sick, and nothing, I mean nothing, would give me more pleasure than to douse this fire and send you back into whatever cold, dark nowhere Mars has had you rotting in all this time for the rest of eternity," Bobby stated angrily; "but I'm not; I'm going to help you. God help me, I'm going to help you because in doing so I'll help the boys."
The spirit's translucent form nodded feebly.
"I need you to get a message to them. A message that I'm going to write now. You're going to let them see this message without letting your asshole still-alive self know. Am I making myself understood?"
Another nod from the barely-visible form.
Bobby turned away from the spirit and picked up a piece of paper and a ballpoint. He leaned over the dusty tabletop and began to write furiously.
"place your message into the flames," a barely audible voice whispered behind him.
"I warn you," Bobby growled; "If I don't get those boys back safely - and soon, I'll summon you again and trust me, what I'll do to you will make anything freakin' Mars can manage seem like a summer picnic."
Folding the paper, he dropped it into the crucible and stood watching forlornly as it crumpled into crimson ash.
The morning had dawned warm and humid and Dean's sore, sleep-hazed eyes flickered open to long shadows creeping across the small cell that he, Sam and Eric had been forced to call home for the last few days.
He slowly rolled over on the limp sack of straw that served as a mattress and groaned as his battered ribs protested the movement. Since their impressive performance in the training yard, the brothers had been pitted relentlessly against adversaries of every shape, size and ability and they were bruised and bloody, broken in both mind and body, and utterly, utterly exhausted.
As his eyes gradually drifted into focus, Dean noticed a scrap of paper folded beneath the edge of his mattress. It was blackened and creased, and he could smell the faint odour of smoke around it.
Glancing at Sam, sprawled uncomfortably across another thin straw sack, he unfolded the paper, fumbling with stiff fingers, and his breathing hitched sharply as he read the first word.
I know what happened to you, and now I also know, for sure, there is only one way back for you. You have got to provide this sonofabitch with his fight to end all fights. This is your only ticket back.
Only the two fighters who provide this will be able to return to their time, whether alive or dead. This means for both of you to get back, you will have to fight each other.
You're gonna have to make it a good one boys, real good.
But, please, not TOO Good.
Dean stared across at his fitfully sleeping brother and crushed the piece of paper into his fist.
He felt sick.