The monster threw its head back and hissed. The canal boiled with snake flesh. I was swept off my feet and submerged once more.
When I came to the surface, Meg McCaffrey stood at my side, her chest heaving as she gasped for air, her glasses crooked and filmed with canal water. The serpent’s head flailed from side to side as if trying to shake the blindness out of its wounded eye. Its jaw smacked against the nearest condominium building, shattering windows and webbing the brick wall with cracks. A banner along the roofline said LEASING SOON! I hoped that meant the building was empty.
Leo made it to the grate. He traced his fingers along the golden bars, perhaps looking for buttons or switches or traps. Meg and I were now thirty feet away from him, which seemed a great distance over the vast serpentine terrain.
“Hurry!” I called to him.
“Gee, thanks!” he yelled back. “I didn’t think of that.”
The canal churned as the serpent drew in its coils. Its head rose two stories above us. Its right eye had gone dark, but its glowing left iris and its hideous maw reminded me of those pumpkin things mortals make for Halloween—jack-o’-lanterns? A silly tradition. I always preferred running around in goatskins at Februalia. Much more dignified.
Meg stabbed at the creature’s underbelly. Her golden blade only sparked against it.
“What is this thing?” she demanded.
“The Carthaginian Serpent,” I said. “One of the most fearsome beasts ever to face Roman troops. In Africa, it almost drowned an entire legion under Marcus Atilius Regulus—”
“Don’t care.” Meg and the serpent eyed each other warily—as if a giant monster and a twelve-year-old girl were well-matched opponents. “How do I kill it?”
My mind raced. I didn’t do well in panic situations, which meant most of the situations I had been in recently. “I—I think the legion finally crushed it with thousands of rocks.”
“I don’t have a legion,” Meg said. “Or thousands of rocks.”
The serpent hissed, spraying venom across the canal. I unslung my bow, but I ran into that pesky maintenance issue again. A wet bowstring and arrows were problematic, especially if I planned to hit a target as small as the serpent’s other eye. Then there were the physics of firing a bow while shoulder-deep in water.
“Leo?” I called.
“Almost!” He banged a wrench against the grate. “Keep it distracted!”
I gulped. “Meg, perhaps if you could stab its other eye, or its mouth.”
“While you do what, hide?”
I really hated how this young girl could get inside my brain. “Of course not! I’ll just be, um—”
The serpent struck. Meg and I dove in opposite directions. The creature’s head caused a tsunami between us, somersaulting me through the water. I swallowed a few gallons of the canal and came up spluttering, then gagged in horror when I saw Meg encircled in the snake’s tail. The serpent lifted her out of the water, bringing her level with its remaining eye. Meg slashed wildly, but the monster kept her out of striking distance. It regarded her as if thinking, What is this stoplight-colored thing?
Then it began to squeeze.
Leo yelled, “I got it!”
Clang. The grate’s golden bars swung inward.
Leo turned, grinning in pride, then saw Meg’s predicament.
“Nuh-uh!” He raised his hand above the water and tried to summon fire. All he managed was a puff of steam. He threw a wrench that bounced harmlessly off the snake’s side.
Meg yelped. The snake’s tail constricted around her waist, turning her face tomato red. She hammered her swords uselessly against the monster’s hide.
I stood paralyzed, unable to help, unable to think.
I knew the strength of such a serpent. I remembered being wrapped in Python’s coils, my divine ribs cracking, my godly ichor being squeezed into my head and threatening to spurt out my ears.
“Meg!” I shouted. “Hold on!”
She glared down at me, her eyes bulging, her tongue swollen, as if thinking, Like I have a choice?
The serpent ignored me, no doubt too interested in watching Meg implode like the pedal boat. Behind the snake’s head rose the damaged brick wall of a condominium. The sewer entrance stood just to the right of that.
I remembered the tale of the Roman legion that had once fought this thing by showering it with stones. If only that brick wall were part of the Waystation, and I could command it….
The idea seized me like a coil of the monster.
“Leo!” I yelled. “Get in the tunnel!”
Something began to swell inside my chest. I hoped it was power and not my breakfast.
I filled my lungs and bellowed in the baritone voice I usually reserved for Italian operas: “BEGONE, SNAKE! I AM APOLLO!”
The frequency was perfect.
The wall of the warehouse trembled and cracked. A three-story-tall curtain of bricks peeled away and collapsed onto the serpent’s back, pushing its head underwater. Its coiled tail loosened. Meg dropped into the canal.
Ignoring the rain of bricks, I waded forward (quite bravely, I thought) and pulled Meg to the surface.
“Guys, hurry!” Leo yelled. “The grate’s closing again!”
I dragged Meg toward the sewer (because that’s what friends are for) as Leo did his best to wedge the grate open with a tire iron.
Thank goodness for scrawny mortal bodies! We squeezed through just as the bars locked into place behind us.
Outside, the serpent surged upward from its baptism of bricks. It hissed and banged its half-blind head against the grate, but we did not linger to chat. We forged on, into the darkness of the emperor’s waterworks.
I wax poetic
On the beauty of sewers
Real short poem. Done
WADING SHOULDER-DEEP through freezing sewer water, I felt nostalgic for the Indianapolis Zoo. Oh, for the simple pleasures of hiding from murderous Germani, crashing miniature trains, and serenading angry griffins!
Gradually, the sound of the serpent banging on the grate faded behind us. We walked for so long, I feared we’d die of hypothermia before reaching our goal. Then I spotted a raised alcove built into the side of the tunnel—an old service platform, maybe. We climbed out of the frigid green muck for a break. Meg and I huddled together while Leo attempted to light himself on fire.
On his third try, his skin sputtered and hissed, finally bursting into flames.
“Gather round, children.” His grin looked diabolical with orange fire washing across his face. “Nothing like a blazing-hot Leo to warm you up!”
I tried to call him an idiot, but my jaw was shivering so badly, all that came out was, “Id—id—id—id—id—”
Soon our little alcove was infused with the smell of reheated Meg and Apollo—baked apples, mildew, body odor, and just a hint of awesomeness. (I’ll let you guess which scent was my contribution.) My fingers turned from blue back to pink. I could feel my legs well enough again to be bothered by the chafing from the iron shackle. I was even able to speak without stuttering like Josephine’s tommy gun.
When Leo judged us sufficiently dry, he shut off his personal bonfire. “Hey, Apollo, that was nice work back there.”