The Dark Prophecy

Page 45

In the center of the crowd gleamed the emperor’s box, bedecked in purple and gold banners that clashed horribly with the blue-and-steel Colts decor. Flanking the throne were a grim mix of Germani and mortal mercenaries with sniper rifles. What the mercenaries saw through the Mist, I couldn’t guess, but they must have been specially trained to work in magical environments. They stood emotionless and alert, their fingers resting across their triggers. I didn’t doubt that they would kill us at one word from Commodus, and we would be powerless to stop them.

Commodus himself rose from his throne. He wore white-and-purple robes and a golden laurel crown, as one would expect of an emperor, but under the folds of his toga I caught a glimpse of a golden-brown racing suit. With his shaggy beard, Commodus looked more like a Gallic chieftain than a Roman, though no Gaul would have such perfect gleaming white teeth.

“At last!” His commanding voice boomed through the stadium, amplified by giant speakers that hung above the field. “Welcome, Apollo!”

The audience cheered and hooted. Lining the upper tiers, TV screens flashed digital fireworks and blazed the words WELCOME, APOLLO! High above, along the girders of the corrugated steel roof, bags of confetti burst, dumping a snowstorm of purple and gold that swirled around the championship banners.

Oh, the irony! This was exactly the sort of welcome I’d been longing for. Now I just wanted to slink back into the corridor and disappear. But, of course, the doorway we’d come through had vanished, replaced with a cinder-block wall.

I crouched as inconspicuously as possible and pressed the indentation on my iron manacle. No wings sprang from the shackle, so I guessed I’d found the right button for the emergency signal. With luck, it would alert Jo and Emmie to our plight and location, though I still wasn’t sure what they could do to help us. At least they’d know where to collect our bodies later.

Meg seemed to be withdrawing into herself, rolling down her mental shutters against the onslaught of noise and attention. For a brief terrible moment, I wondered if she might have betrayed me once again—leading me right into the clutches of the Triumvirate.

No. I refused to believe it. And yet…why had she insisted on coming this direction?

Commodus waited for the roar of the crowd to subside. Combat ostriches strained at their tethers. Lions roared. The elephant shook her head as if trying to remove her ridiculous Colts helmet.

“Meg,” I said, trying to control my panic. “Why did you…Why are we…?”

Her expression was as mystified as the demigods at Camp Half-Blood who’d been drawn to the Grove of Dodona by its mysterious voices.

“Something,” she murmured. “Something is here.”

That was a horrifying understatement. Many things were here. Most of them wanted to kill us.

The video screens flashed more fireworks, along with digital nonsense like DEFENSE! and MAKE SOME NOISE! and advertisements for energy drinks. My eyes felt as if they were bleeding.

Commodus grinned down at me. “I had to rush things, old friend! This is just the dress rehearsal, but since you’re here, I scrambled to put together a few surprises. We’ll restage the whole show tomorrow with a full audience, after I bulldoze the Waystation to the ground. Do try to stay alive today, but you’re welcome to suffer as much as you want. And Meg…” His tsk-tsk-tsk echoed through the stadium. “Your stepfather is so disappointed in you. You’re about to find out just how much.”

Meg pointed one of her swords at the emperor’s box. I waited for her to issue some withering retort, like You’re stupid, but the sword seemed to be her entire message. This brought back an unsettling memory of Commodus himself in the Colosseum, tossing severed ostrich heads at the senators’ seats and pointing: You’re next. But Meg couldn’t have known about that…could she?

Commodus’s smile wavered. He held up a page of notes. “So, anyway, the run of show! First, the citizens of Indianapolis are marched in at gunpoint and seated. I’ll say a few words, thank them for coming, and explain how their city is now named Commodianapolis.”

The crowd howled and stomped. A lone air horn blasted.

“Yes, yes.” Commodus waved away their enthusiasm. “Then I send an army of blemmyae into the city with champagne bottles to smash against all the buildings. My banners are unfurled along all the streets. Any bodies we retrieve from the Waystation are dangled on ropes from the girders up there”—he gestured at the peaked ceiling—“and then the fun starts!”

He threw his notes in the air. “I can’t tell you how excited I am, Apollo! You understand, don’t you, this was all preordained? The spirit of Trophonius was very specific.”

My throat made the sound of a vuvuzela. “You consulted the Dark Oracle?”

I wasn’t sure my words would carry that far, but the emperor laughed. “Well, of course, dear heart! Not me personally. I have minions to do that sort of thing. But Trophonius was quite clear: once I destroy the Waystation and sacrifice your life in the games, only then can I rechristen this city and rule the Midwest forever as god-emperor!”

Twin spotlights fixed on Commodus. He ripped off his toga, revealing a one-piece racing suit of Nemean Lion hide, the front and sleeves decorated with the decals of various corporate sponsors.

The crowd oohed and ahhed as the emperor turned a circle, showing off his outfit.

“You like?” he asked. “I’ve done a lot of research on my new hometown! My two fellow emperors call this place boring. But I will prove them wrong! I will stage the best Indy-Colt-500-Double-A Gladiatorial Championship ever!”

Personally, I thought Commodus’s branding needed work, but the crowd went wild.

Everything seemed to happen at once. Country music blared from the speakers: possibly Jason Aldean, though with the distortion and reverb, even my keen ears could not be sure. At the opposite side of the track, a wall opened. Three Formula One race cars—red, yellow, and blue, like a children’s toy set—rumbled onto the tarmac.

Around the field, chains disconnected from the animals’ collars. In the stands, wild centaurs threw fruit and blew their vuvuzelas. From somewhere behind the emperor’s box, cannons fired, launching a dozen gladiators over the goalposts toward the field. Some landed with graceful rolls and came up ready to fight. Others hit the artificial turf like heavily-armored spit wads and didn’t move again.

The race cars revved and sped around the track, forcing Meg and me onto the field to avoid getting run over. Gladiators and animals began a free-for-all, no-claws-barred destructo-match to the Nashville beat. And then, for no logical reason, a huge sack opened under the Jumbotron monitor, spilling hundreds of basketballs onto the fifty-yard line.

Even by Commodus’s standards, the spectacle was crass and too much of everything, but I doubted I would live long enough to write a bad review. Adrenaline raced through my system like a 220-volt current. Meg yelled and charged the nearest ostrich. Since I had nothing better to do, I raced after her, the Throne of Mnemosyne and thirty pounds of other gear bouncing on my back.

All six ostriches bore down on us. That may not sound as terrifying as the Carthaginian Serpent or a bronze colossus of moi, but ostriches can run at forty miles an hour. They charged with their metal teeth snapping, their spiked helmets swiping side to side, their barbed-wire legs trampling across the turf like an ugly pink forest of deadly Christmas trees.

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