I didn’t recall who his mother was…the wife of King Erginus, perhaps? She had been quite a beauty. Trophonius’s lustrous dark hair reminded me of hers. But his muscular physique and handsome face—that strong chin, that perfect nose, those rosy lips—yes, Trophonius clearly got his knockout good looks from me.
His eyes gleamed with confidence as if to say, That’s right. I just crawled out of a tunnel, and I still look gorgeous.
From the hatch, the head of another young man emerged. He must have had broader shoulders, because he was having trouble squeezing through.
Trophonius laughed under his breath. “I told you not to eat so much, brother.”
Despite his struggle, the other man looked up and grinned. He didn’t resemble Trophonius at all. His hair was blond and curly, his face as guileless, goofy, and ugly as a friendly donkey’s.
I realized this was Agamethus—Trophonius’s half brother. He was no son of mine. The poor boy had the misfortune of being the actual offspring of King Erginus and his wife.
“I can’t believe it worked,” said Agamethus, wriggling his left arm free.
“Of course it worked,” said Trophonius. “We’re famous architects. We built the temple at Delphi. Why wouldn’t King Hyrieus trust us to build his treasury?”
“Complete with a secret thieves’ tunnel!”
“Well, he’ll never know about that,” Trophonius said. “The paranoid old fool will assume his servants stole all his treasure. Now hurry up, Wide Load.”
Agamethus was too busy laughing to free himself. He stretched out his arm. “Help me.”
Trophonius rolled his eyes. He slung his sack of treasure to the ground—and thereby sprang the trap.
I knew what would happen next. I remembered the tale now that I saw it unfolding, but it was still hard to watch. King Hyrieus was paranoid, all right. Days before, he had scoured the treasury for any possible weaknesses. Upon finding the tunnel, he said nothing to his servants, his building crew, or his architects. He didn’t move his treasure. He simply laid a deadly trap and waited to find out exactly who planned to rob him….
Trophonius set the bag of gold right on the trip wire, which only became active once a thief had exited the tunnel. The king intended to catch his betrayers red-handed.
In the nearest tree, a mechanical bow fired a screaming flare skyward, cutting an arc of red flame across the dark. Inside the tunnel, a support beam snapped, crushing Agamethus’s chest under a shower of stone.
Agamethus gasped, his free arm flailing. His eyes bulged as he coughed blood. Trophonius cried in horror. He ran to his brother’s side and tried to pull him free, but this only made Agamethus scream.
“Leave me,” said Agamethus.
“I won’t.” Tears streaked Trophonius’s face. “This is my fault. This was my idea! I’ll get help. I’ll—I’ll tell the guards—”
“They’ll only kill you, too,” Agamethus croaked. “Go. While you can. And brother, the king knows my face.” He gasped, his breath gurgling. “When he finds my body—”
“Don’t talk that way!”
“He’ll know you were with me,” Agamethus continued, his eyes now clear and calm with the certainty of death. “He’ll track you down. He’ll declare war on our father. Make sure my body can’t be identified.”
Agamethus clawed weakly at the knife hanging from his brother’s belt.
Trophonius wailed. He understood what his brother was asking. He heard the guards shouting in the distance. They would be here soon.
He raised his voice to the heavens. “Take me instead! Save him, Father, please!”
Trophonius’s father, Apollo, chose to ignore his prayer.
I gave you fame, Apollo was thinking. I let you design my temple at Delphi. Then you used your reputation and talents to become a thief. You brought this upon yourself.
In despair, Trophonius drew his knife. He kissed his brother’s forehead one last time, then laid the blade across Agamethus’s neck.
My dream changed.
I stood in a long subterranean chamber like an alternate image of the Waystation’s main hall. Overhead, a curved ceiling glittered with white subway tiles. Along either side of the room, where the rail pits would’ve been in a train depot, open canals of water flowed. Rows of television monitors lined the walls, flashing video clips of a bearded man with curly brown hair, perfect teeth, and brilliant blue eyes.
The videos reminded me of Times Square ads for a late-night talk show host. The man mugged for the camera, laughing, kissing the screen, pretending to be off-balance. In each shot, he wore a different outfit—an Italian business suit, a race-car driver’s uniform, hunting fatigues—each cut from the skin of a lion.
A title bounced around the screen in garish colors: THE NEW HERCULES!
Yes. That’s what he liked to call himself back in Roman times. He had that hero’s shockingly good physique, but he wasn’t the actual Hercules. I should know. I’d dealt with Hercules on many occasions. This emperor was more like someone’s idea of Hercules—an airbrushed, overly muscular caricature.
In the middle of the hall, flanked by bodyguards and attendants, was the man himself, lounging on a white granite throne. Not many emperors can look imperial wearing only lion-skin swim trunks, but Commodus managed. One of his legs was thrown casually over the throne’s armrest. His golden abs formed such a six-pack I imagined I could see the pop-top tabs. With an immensely bored expression, using only two fingers, he twirled a six-foot-long poleax that came very close to threatening his nearest advisor’s anatomy.
I wanted to whimper. Not just because I still found Commodus attractive after so many centuries, not just because we had a, er, complicated history, but also because he reminded me what I used to be like. Oh, to be able to look in the mirror and see perfection again, not a pudgy awkward boy with a bad complexion!
I forced myself to focus on the other people in the room. Kneeling before the emperor were two people I’d seen in my vision of Nero’s penthouse—Marcus the blinged-out jackal boy, and Vortigern the barbarian.
Marcus was trying to explain something to the emperor. He waved his hands desperately. “We tried! Sire, listen!”
The emperor did not seem inclined to listen. His uninterested gaze drifted across the throne room to various amusements: a rack of torture tools, a row of arcade games, a set of weights, and a freestanding target board plastered with…oh, dear, the face of Lester Papadopoulos, bristling with embedded throwing knives.
In the shadows at the back of the room, strange animals moved restlessly in cages. I saw no griffins, but there were other fabled beasts I hadn’t seen in centuries. Half a dozen winged Arabian serpents fluttered in an oversize canary cage. Inside a golden pen, a pair of bull-like creatures with huge horns snuffled at a feeding trough. European yales, perhaps? Goodness, those had been rare even back in ancient times.
Marcus kept yammering excuses until, on the emperor’s left, a portly man in a crimson business suit snapped, “ENOUGH!”
The advisor made a wide arc around the emperor’s spinning poleax. His face was so red and sweaty that, as a god of medicine, I wanted to warn him he was dangerously close to congestive heart failure. He advanced on the two supplicants.