I thought I looked much more lordly sitting atop my chain-mail elephant, but Lityerses just sneered at me.
“My lord, Commodus,” he clarified, “the invaders have been pushed back from the main gates.”
“About time,” the emperor muttered.
“They were Hunters of Artemis, sire.”
“I see.” Commodus didn’t sound particularly concerned. “Did you kill them all?”
“We…” Lit gulped. “No, my lord. They sniped at us from multiple positions and fell back, leading us into a series of traps. We only lost ten men, but—”
“You lost ten.” Commodus examined his soot-stained fingernails. “And how many of these Hunters did you kill?”
Lit edged away. His neck veins pulsed. “I—I am not sure. We found no bodies.”
“So you cannot confirm any kills.” Commodus glanced at me. “What would you advise, Apollo? Should I take time to reflect? Should I consider the consequences? Should I perhaps tell my prefect, Lityerses, not to worry? He will be fine? He will ALWAYS HAVE MY BLESSINGS?”
This last line he screamed, his voice echoing through the stadium. Even the wild centaurs in the stands fell quiet.
“No,” Commodus decided, his tone once again calm. “Alaric, where are you?”
One of the Germani stepped forward. “Sire?”
“Take Apollo and Meg McCaffrey into custody. See that they get nice cells for the night. Put the Throne of Mnemosyne back into storage. Kill the elephant and the karpos. What else? Oh, yes.” From the boot of his racing suit, Commodus pulled a hunting knife. “Hold Lityerses’s arms for me while I cut his throat. It’s time for a new prefect.”
Before Alaric could carry out these orders, the stadium’s roof exploded.
Destroy me a roof
Bring me wenches with winches
We’re so out of here
WELL, I SAY EXPLODED. More accurately, the roof crumpled inward, as roofs tend to do when a bronze dragon smashes into them. Girders bent. Rivets popped. Sheets of corrugated metal groaned and folded with a sound like colliding aircraft carriers.
Festus plummeted through the gap, his wings unfolding to slow his descent. He seemed no worse for wear from his time in suitcase form, but judging from the way he blowtorched the audience in the stands, I guessed he was feeling a bit cranky.
Wild centaurs stampeded, trampling the mortal mercenaries and Germani. The blemmyae clapped politely, perhaps thinking the dragon was part of the show, until a wave of flames reduced them to dust. Festus flew his own fiery victory lap around the track, torching race cars, as a dozen silvery ropes uncoiled from the roof, lowering the Hunters of Artemis into the arena like a clutter of spiders.
(I’ve always found spiders fascinating creatures, despite what Athena thinks. If you ask me, she’s just jealous of their beautiful faces. BOOM!)
More Hunters remained on the roofline with their bows drawn, laying down suppressing fire as their sisters lowered themselves to the field. As soon as the rappellers hit the turf, they drew bows, swords, and knives and leaped into battle.
Alaric, along with most of the emperor’s Germani, charged to meet them.
At the goalpost, Meg McCaffrey worked frantically to cut Peaches free from his ropes. Two Hunters dropped next to her. They had a hurried conversation with lots of pointing, something along the lines of: Hello, we are your friends. You’re going to die. Come with us.
Clearly agitated, Meg glanced across the field in my direction.
I yelled, “GO!”
Meg allowed the Hunters to grab her and Peaches. Then the Hunters slapped some sort of mechanisms on the sides of their belts and shot back up their ropes as if the laws of gravity were mere recommendations.
Motorized winches, I thought, a very nice accessory. If I live through this, I’m going to recommend that the Hunters of Artemis make T-shirts that read WENCHES WITH WINCHES. I’m sure they’ll love that idea.
The closest group of Hunters charged in my direction, meeting the Germani in battle. One of the Hunters looked familiar, with choppy black hair and dazzling blue eyes. Instead of the usual gray camo of Artemis’s followers, she wore jeans and a black leather jacket that was held together with safety pins and had patches for the Ramones and Dead Kennedys. A silver tiara glinted on her forehead. On one arm, she brandished a shield imprinted with the gruesome visage of Medusa—not the original, I suspected, since that would’ve turned me to stone, but a good enough replica to make even the Germani cower and back away.
The girl’s name came to me: Thalia Grace. Artemis’s lieutenant, the leader of the Hunters, had personally come to rescue me.
“Save Apollo!” she yelled.
My spirits soared.
Yes, thank you! I wanted to yell. FINALLY someone has their priorities straight!
I felt, for a moment, as if the world were back in its proper order.
Commodus sighed in exasperation. “I did not schedule this for my games.” He looked around, apparently just realizing he had only two guards and Lityerses left to command. The rest were already in combat. “Lityerses, get out there!” he snapped. “Slow them down while I go change. I can’t fight in a racing outfit. This is ridiculous!”
Lit’s eye twitched. “Sire…you were about to relieve me of duty. By killing me?”
“Oh, right. Well, then go sacrifice yourself! Prove you’re more useful than that idiot father of yours! Honestly, Midas had the golden touch, and he still couldn’t do anything right. You’re no better!”
The skin around Lityerses’s ostrich bruise reddened, as if the bird were still standing on his face. “Sire, with respect—”
Commodus’s hand shot out like a rattlesnake, clamping around the swordsman’s throat.
“Respect?” the emperor hissed. “You talk to me of respect?”
Arrows sailed toward the emperor’s remaining guards. Both Germani fell with lovely new silver-feathered nose piercings.
A third missile hurtled toward Commodus. The emperor yanked Lityerses into its path and the arrow point erupted from the front of Lit’s thigh.
The swordsman screamed.
Commodus dropped him in disgust. “Do I have to kill you myself? Really?” He raised his knife.
Something inside me, no doubt a character flaw, made me feel pity for the wounded Cornhusker.
“Livia,” I said.
The elephant understood. She trunk-smacked Commodus upside the head, knocking him flat on the turf. Lityerses fumbled for the hilt of his sword. Finding it, he jabbed the point into the emperor’s exposed neck.
Commodus howled, clamping his hand over the wound. Judging from the amount of blood, I deduced that the cut, sadly, had missed his jugular.
Commodus’s eyes blazed. “Oh, Lityerses, you traitor. I will kill you slowly for that!”
But it was not meant to be.
The closest Germani, seeing their emperor bleeding on the ground, ran to his aid. Livia scooped up Lityerses and backed us away as the barbarians closed ranks around Commodus, forming a shield wall, their bristling polearms pointed at us. The Germani looked ready to counterattack, but before they could, a line of flames rained down between our two groups. Festus the dragon landed next to Livia. The Germani hastily retreated while Commodus screamed, “Put me down! I need to kill those people!”