“I’m fine.” The guard couldn’t seem to decide between a friendly smile or an intimidating glower. His mouth spasmed, which made him look like he was doing an ab exercise. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be here.”
“Really?” Leo kept marching forward. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome. Now if you’ll please raise your hands.”
“Like this?” Leo ignited his hands and torched the blemmyae’s chest-face.
The guard stumbled, choking on flames, batting his huge eyelashes like burning palm fronds. He groped for the button on the microphone attached to his earpiece. “Post twelve,” he croaked. “I’ve got—”
Meg’s twin golden swords scissored across his midsection, reducing him to a pile of yellow dust with a partially melted earpiece.
A voice warbled from the tiny speaker. “Post twelve, please repeat.”
I grabbed the device. I had no desire to wear something that had been in a blemmyae’s armpit, but I held the speaker next to my ear and spoke into the mic. “False alarm. Everything is hunky-dorky. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said the voice in the speaker. “Daily passcode, please.”
“Why, certainly! It’s—”
I threw the microphone down and crushed it under my heel.
Meg stared at me. “Hunky-dorky?”
“It sounded like something a blemmyae would say.”
“That’s not even the right expression. It’s hunky-dory.”
“A girl who says goddy is correcting my language.”
“Guys,” Leo said. “Keep a lookout while I take care of this door. There’s gotta be something important in here.”
I kept watch while he went to work on the vault lock. Meg, not being good at following directions, strolled back the way we’d come. She crouched and began picking up the chia sprouts she’d dropped when summoning her swords.
“Meg,” I said.
“What are you doing?”
“I can see that, but…” I almost said, They’re only sprouts.
Then I remembered one time I’d said something similar to Demeter. The goddess had cursed me so that every piece of clothing I put on immediately sprouted and bloomed. Nothing is quite as uncomfortable as having your cotton underwear burst into actual bolls of cotton, complete with stems, spurs, and seeds right where your…Well, I think you get the idea.
Meg gathered the last of her sprouts. With one of her swords, she cracked the slate floor. She carefully planted the chia in the fissure, then wrung out her still-wet skirt to water them.
I watched, fascinated, as the small patch of green thickened and flourished, forcing new cracks in the slate. Who knew chia could be so robust?
“They wouldn’t last any longer in my hand.” Meg stood, her expression defiant. “Everything alive deserves a chance to grow.”
The mortal Lester part of me found this sentiment admirable. The Apollo part of me wasn’t so sure. Over the centuries, I’d met many living beings that hadn’t seemed worthy or even capable of growth. A few of those beings I’d killed myself….
Still, I suspected Meg was saying something about herself. She had endured a horrid childhood—the death of her father, then the abuse of Nero, who’d twisted her mind into seeing him both as her kindly stepfather and the terrible Beast. Despite that, Meg had survived. I imagined she could empathize with small green things that had surprisingly strong roots.
“Yes!” Leo said. The vault lock clicked. The door swung inward. Leo turned and grinned. “Who’s the best?”
“Me?” I asked, but my spirits quickly fell. “You didn’t mean me, did you?”
Leo ignored me and stepped into the room.
I followed. Immediately, an intense, unpleasant moment of déjà vu struck me. Inside, a circular chamber was lined with glass partitions like the emperor’s training facility at the zoo. But here, instead of animals, the cages held people.
I was so appalled I could hardly breathe.
In the nearest cell on my left, huddled in a corner, two painfully emaciated teenage boys glared at me. Their clothes were rags. Shadows filled the cavernous recesses of their clavicles and ribs.
In the next cell, a girl in gray camouflage paced like a jaguar. Her shoulder-length hair was stark white, though she looked no more than fifteen. Given her level of energy and outrage, I guessed she was a recent captive. She had no bow, but I pegged her as a Hunter of Artemis. When she saw me, she marched to the glass. She banged on it with her fists and shouted angrily, but her voice was too muffled for me to make out the words.
I counted six other cells, each one occupied. In the center of the room was a metal post with iron hooks and chains—the sort of place where one could fasten slaves for inspection before sale.
“Madre de los dioses,” Leo muttered.
I thought the Arrow of Dodona was trembling in my quiver. Then I realized it was just me, shaking with anger.
I have always despised slavery. Partly, this is because twice before Zeus made me mortal and forced me to work as a slave for human kings. The most poetic description I can offer about that experience? It sucked.
Even before that, my temple at Delphi had created a special way for slaves to gain their freedom. With the help of my priests, thousands bought their emancipation through a ritual called the trust sale, by which I, the god Apollo, became their new master and then set them free.
Much later, one of my biggest grudges against the Romans was that they turned my holy island of Delos into the region’s biggest slave market. Can you believe the nerve? I sent an angry army led by Mithradates to correct that situation, slaughtering twenty thousand Romans in the process. But I mean, come on. They had it coming.
Suffice to say: Commodus’s prison reminded me of everything I hated about the Good Old Days.
Meg strode to the cell that held the two emaciated boys. With the point of her sword, she cut a circle in the glass and kicked it in. The dislodged section wobbled on the floor like a giant transparent coin.
The boys tried to stand without success. Meg jumped into the cell to help them.
“Yeah,” Leo muttered with approval. He pulled a hammer from his tool belt and marched to the cell of the captive Hunter. He gestured get back, then whacked the glass. The hammer bounced off, narrowly missing Leo’s nose on the rebound.
The Hunter rolled her eyes.
“Okay, Mr. Sheet of Glass.” Leo tossed aside the hammer. “You’re gonna be like that? It’s on!”
His hands blazed white-hot. He pressed his fingers against the glass, which began to warp and bubble. Within seconds, he melted a ragged hole at face level.
The silver-haired girl said, “Good. Step aside.”
“Hold on, I’ll make you a bigger exit,” Leo promised.
“No need.” The silver-haired girl backed up, launched herself through the hole, and gracefully somersaulted next to us, grabbing Leo’s discarded hammer as she stood.
“More weapons,” the girl demanded. “I need more weapons.”
Yes, I thought, definitely a Hunter of Artemis.
Leo pulled out a selection of tools for the girl’s consideration. “Um, I got a screwdriver, a hacksaw, and…I think this is a cheese cutter.”