Upon hearing the roar of the beast, Maximus unsheathed his mighty blade. Around him, Rome — mighty Metropolis, Light of the World! — hummed with life. Yet Maximus was, as usual, consumed with thoughts of death.
He turned to his men, a dozen trained warriors skilled in the lethal arts, and gave the slightest of nods. Their leader, Thaddaeus, returned the signal, his eyes flinty and cold. Thaddaeus raised his right arm, thick as a chestnut branch, and visibly clenched his fist. The rest of the men halted, eyes front, awaiting orders. Even on such a quest as this, they showed fanatical discipline.
Thaddaeus, having thus demonstrated his command, returned Maximus’ nod: Lead on, General.
Satisfied, Maximus turned to consider the street. They were not far from the Forum Boarium and the Forum Holitorium; the cheering crowds inside the Coliseum were audible. Yet they had entered a narrow, dusty side street occupied by rabble. The clattering noise of the soldiers had sent the residents scurrying for safety, dragging their children inside. Maximus saw terror in the faces that peeked out of windows. He wanted to calm them, to say, help has arrived, but his status as a leader of men — one of the most feared in all of Rome — wouldn’t allow it.
Again he heard the beast emit its throaty roar. Squinting, he tried peering around the far corner by craning his neck. The creature was down there somewhere, quite possibly feeding.
Thaddaeus stood by his elbow. They were both magnificent examples of Roman physicality, armed and armored men whose battlefield experience had been carved into their eyes, cheekbones and biceps.
“Where is it, sir?” asked Thaddaeus, striking the proper tone of urgency and respect.
Maximus shook his head, sweating in the noontime heat. “I don’t know,” he replied, keeping his voice low, “but I believe it is just round that bend.”
Thaddaeus automatically assumed a crouching position. “My family lives in this neighborhood, sir. It would be my great honor to slay the beast.”
Maximus turned to him, astonished. “You mean, you alone want the honor? Don’t be foolish, Captain. It’s a man-eater!”
Thaddaeus drew his blade. “My mother lives down there,” he growled. “If I don’t protect her, who will?”
Maximus had to admit that Thaddaeus had a point. “We are all in this together,” he reminded. “We must advance as one.”
“Let me, sir!”
With that, Thaddaeus was gone, racing toward the bend in the clay-colored street. Maximus flashed with anger; this was highly unlike Thaddaeus. He glanced over his shoulder at the men, who were all ready to surge after their captain. The look on his face told them one thing: Don’t do it.
Maximus was again reminded of why he hated this kind of duty: men tended to lose their heads. Thaddaeus would never have behaved this rashly on the battlefield, yet here he would defend his family to his last breath. Still, Maximus understood the importance of Augustus’ call for a “neighborhood watch” program. This lion had escaped its handlers (who were drunken) and slashed its way through a crowd, biting the head off one guard and mauling a leper. Now it was loose here in Region XII. It was the job of Maximus and his cadre of professional killers to rid the neighborhood of danger, hence their presence on this trifling street.
Now Maximus heard the battle-cry of the possessed Thaddaeus, and the deep, belligerent answer of the man-eater. Maximus hesitated, anxious to assist his man, but cognizant of the need to show the proper respect. Thaddaeus had gone into battle alone, to prove a point and to protect his neighborhood. He had accepted death. Yet death was inevitable – one swipe of the monster’s claws, and Thaddaeus would never see his children again.
A shriek of agony arose.
Maximus leveled his sword-arm, face contorting into a savage snarl. “ONNN!” he cried, his leg muscles churning. He heard the upraised voices of the men behind him, united in vengeance. They would punish the beast for its treachery. Eating Christians in the Coliseum was one thing, but this was sheer arrogance.
En masse, the men rounded the curve and saw a scene of horror: the great lion, snapping its jaws on the remains of their beloved Thaddaeus, whose sword arm lay forlorn in the dust. The animal raised its large, heavy head, eyes full of bloodlust, looking directly at Maximus. Energy crackled between them, the mutual recognition of mortal enemies. The lion seemed to see in Maximus its own fate. Thus, it reared back, in an effort to defend itself. Maximus saw the massive, bloody claws, the fangs in which bits of Thaddaeus were lodged. And he wished briefly for a full-time police force that might have projectiles that could be fired into the body of such a beast, without so much up-close work.
As his men fanned out in a semi-circle, Maximus charged the snarling monster, a cry of unmitigated hate springing from his lips. He was not a large man, but his low center of gravity was a great assist in battle. Using his well-muscled legs, he sprang into the air, sword poised, confusing the big cat with his athleticism and speed. “KEEPING OUR STREETS SAFE FOR OUR KIDS!” he cried.
As the behemoth craned its thick neck to track his movement, Maximus came down on it, chopping its head clean off. The creature was dead before Maximus touched back down, blood gushing in a torrent that would stain the concrete forever. Maximus received fist-bumps from his crew, and life got back to normal, save for Thaddaeus.
Two thousand years later, the number of escaped, man-eating beasts in Rome had dropped to 0.00001 percent, the lowest number in any nation. Russia, however, saw the largest increase, at 0.00011.
— Statista Research Department