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Spoiler Alert (Spoiler Alert #1)
Author: Olivia Dade


BETWEEN TAKES, MARCUS DID HIS BEST NOT TO ACKNOWLEDGE the obvious: this was a stupid-ass way to die.

Still, at the director’s call of action, he let out a guttural howl and rode amid the chaos of warfare once more, adrenaline metallic on his tongue as he galloped through choking smoke-machine clouds. Bellowing stunt performers on horseback whizzed past while his own horse jolted rhythmically between his thighs. Mud—or some foul combination of mud and horseshit, from the smell of it—splattered against his cheek. The special rig raced ahead of him, the camera on the SUV’s rushing arm capturing all his determination and desperation.

He didn’t love this season’s script, true. But he loved this. The physicality of it all. The way their show’s big budget bought those enormous smoke machines, wired the spider camera tracking overhead, hired those stunt actors, and paid for his training on horseback. That money reserved acres and acres of Spanish coastline for the sole purpose of the series’s final, climactic battle, and it allowed them to rehearse and film for weeks and weeks and endless, miserable weeks to get just the right shots.

And it was miserable. Often. But because their behind-the-scenes crew of almost a thousand consummate professionals had set the scene so thoroughly, so convincingly, he didn’t have to pretend quite so hard, didn’t have to fight to lose himself in the moment. The hazy, chaotic landscape around him helped him drop into character, even as the literal and metaphorical choreography of a successful show and this particular scene came to his hand like a well-trained hound.

There was no cut when Dido—Carah, his talented colleague of more than seven years now, ever since pre-production for the series began—appeared through the fog at exactly the place they’d rehearsed, sword aimed directly at him. The showrunners had specified long, continuous takes whenever possible for this battle sequence.

“I have come for my revenge, Aeneas the Betrayer!” Dido shouted, her voice raw and cracked with rage. Real-life exhaustion too, he imagined.

At a safe distance, he brought the horse to a standstill and swung down. Strode up to her, knocked aside her sword in one swift motion, and gripped her shoulders.

“I have come for you, my beloved.” He cupped her face with one dirty hand. “As soon as I heard you lived once more. Not even the return of the dead from Tartarus could stop me. I care nothing for anyone or anything else. Let the world burn. I want you, you alone, and I would defy the gods to have you.”

If those lines in the script contradicted seasons’ worth of character development, not to mention the books that had inspired the series, he wouldn’t dwell on that. Not now.

For a moment, Carah softened against his touch. Leaned into his palm.

By this point in the long filming day, she stank. So did he. So did everyone else. So did the entire horseshit-strewn field. Mud had burrowed into places he didn’t care to consider. Portraying misery and perseverance against all odds wasn’t much of a stretch.

Dido shoved him away.

“You are a demigod,” she reminded him with a sneer. “Married to another, and an adulterer besides. You lay with my sister, and she fell on her sword in disgrace at such a betrayal upon word of my return from Hades. I can only hope she too rises today and takes her own revenge.”

Shame, so easy for him to muster, bowed his head. “I thought you lost forever. Lavinia may be my wife in name, but she has no hold on my heart. And Anna—” His brow furrowed, a plea for understanding despite his seeming betrayals. “She was a tarnished mirror of you. Nothing more.”

The thought appeared unbidden. Unapologetic Lavinia Stan is going to fucking detonate when she sees this scene.

“You’ve betrayed mortals, and now you betray the gods as well. Pius Aeneas indeed.” With a swift, crouching swipe, Dido reclaimed her sword. “I’ll have my own revenge first. All others will have to settle for your torment in the afterlife.”

Her grip was sure and steady on the weapon, and she brandished it easily. Despite a heavy bronze handle, the sword’s blade was blunt, lightweight aluminum for the safety of everyone involved, exactly like his. Still, the impact of metal against metal rang out as they began the dance they’d been learning for weeks now.

His movements flowed without much thought, the product of endless planning and repetition. The fight coordinator and choreographer had carefully planned each motion to emphasize the one-sidedness of the battle: Dido was trying to hurt him, but he was attempting to disarm her and avoid wounding her in the process.

After driving him back with a sudden, violent surge, she rasped, “No man will defeat me!”

More horses galloping past. Partially obscured by the smoke, escapees from the underworld bit and kicked and swung and aimed discarded weapons at their mortal and immortal foes, who were attempting to drive them back to Tartarus. Groans and death and shouts surrounded his own fight.

Precise footwork, back toward Dido. Precise. Precise. Block her wild swing.

“That may be true.” He offered a smile, sharp and predatory. “But as you just reminded us both: I’m more than a man.”

A clumsy callback to the famous lines in both the second Gods of the Gates book and the second season of the series, when Dido had murmured in his arms that no man could seduce her. I’m more than a man, he’d returned, and then they’d paused filming to incorporate Carah’s body double for the rest of the scene.

More swings of the sword. Some connecting, most not. And then the fatal moment came: He fended off her last, impassioned attack, inadvertently shoving her onto the green-tipped rubber sword of one of his own men.

The VFX department would fix the sword and blood later. The audience would see a fatal wound where only muddy silk existed now.

Tears. Final, whispered words.

As he knelt in the field, she died in his arms.

When she was gone, he took one last, wet-eyed look at the battle all around him. Saw that the forces of Tartarus were losing, and his men no longer had need of him. Then he gently laid her on the ground beside his own sword, a cherished gift from Dido from their time in Carthage, strode into the chaos, and allowed himself to be fatally stabbed by one of the dead.

“In the Elysian fields, I’ll see you once more, my beloved,” he murmured with his final breath.

For that extended stretch of time, Marcus was gone. Only Aeneas, disoriented and desolate and dying and hopeful, existed.

“Cut!” the director called, the order echoed by other crew members. “I think we got everything we needed this time. That’s a wrap for this scene!”

As the director and production manager turned away to discuss something, Marcus surfaced, blinking back to himself. His head floated above his shoulders, buoyant and uncluttered, as it sometimes did after he’d truly slipped his own skin and lost himself in a character.

Bliss, in its own way. For so long, the sensation he’d lived and labored for day by day.

It wasn’t enough. Not anymore.

Carah recovered more quickly than he did. Levering herself up out of the mud and to her feet, she heaved a heartfelt sigh.

“Thank fucking Christ.” She held out her hand to him. “If I wanted mud in my ass crack, I’d pay for one of those full-body detox treatments, and that motherfucker would smell like tea tree or lavender, not horseshit.”

He laughed and allowed her to steady him as he stood. His leather armor seemed to weigh as much as Rumpelstiltskin, the Friesian the horse master was now leading away. “If it’s any consolation, you have a healthy, just-been-stabbed glow.”

“A goddamn shame they did all the close-ups in earlier takes, then.” After sniffing her armpit, she wrinkled her nose and gave a resigned shrug. “Shit, I need a shower pronto. At least we’re done for the day.”

Carah generally didn’t require much response. He simply nodded.

“Just one more scene for me,” she continued. “Back at the studio, later this week. My sword-training montage. How about you?”

He sounded out the words in his head, checking for falsity.

Somehow, they were true. “No. This is it. They filmed my immortality scene before the Battle for the Living.”

This scene would be his own last memory of filming Gods of the Gates, but for the television audience, Aeneas’s ascension to full-god status would be their final glimpse of the character. Ambrosia and nectar and a healthy swallow from the river Lethe, rather than blood and filth and despair.

After said swallow, Aeneas would forget Dido and Lavinia both. Poor Anna too.

And after the final season aired, fans were going to slaughter R.J. and Ron—the series’s head writers, executive producers, and showrunners—online and at cons. For a multitude of reasons, since the abrupt reversal of Aeneas’s character arc was only one of many storytelling failures in the last episodes. Marcus couldn’t even estimate the number of pointed, aggrieved fix-it fics that would appear after the finale.

Hundreds, definitely. Maybe thousands.

He’d be writing at least one or two of them as Book! AeneasWouldNever, with Unapologetic Lavinia Stan’s help.

Squinting through the residual smoke, he eyed the swords on the ground. Bits of torn costume. A plastic water bottle hopefully hidden from the camera’s view, behind a dummy dressed as a dead member of Aeneas’s fleet.

Should he take something from the set as a memento? Did he even want to? And what on this filthy field could both encompass more than seven years working on the show and smell acceptable enough for display in his home?

Nothing. Nothing.

So after a final, heartfelt hug for Carah, he headed empty-handed toward his trailer. Only to be stopped by a palm clapped on his shoulder before he’d gone a dozen steps.

“Hold on, Marcus,” an all-too-familiar voice ordered.

When Marcus turned around, Ron beckoned several cameras closer—they were rolling again, somehow—and called back Carah and all the nearby crew.

Shit. In his exhaustion, Marcus had forgotten this little ceremony. In theory, a tribute to each main series actor at the end of their last day on set. In reality, a behind-the-scenes extra to tempt their audience to buy physical copies of the show or at least pay more to stream the special content.

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