I nocked an arrow in my bow, but even if I could match Commodus’s skill, I doubted I could decapitate all six birds before they killed us. I wasn’t even sure Meg could defeat so many with her formidable blades.
I silently composed a new death haiku right on the spot: Big birds are evil / They charge me with razor legs / I die and it hurts.
In my defense, I did not have much time to edit.
The only thing that saved us? Basketballs ex machina. Another bag must have opened above us, or perhaps a small batch of balls had gotten stuck in the netting. Twenty or thirty rained down around us, forcing the ostriches to dodge and veer. One less fortunate bird stepped on a ball and took a header, planting his sharpened beak in the turf. Two of his brethren stumbled over him, creating a dangerous pile-up of feathers, legs, and razor wire.
“Come on!” Meg yelled to me. Rather than fighting the birds, she grabbed one’s neck and swung onto its back, somehow without dying. She charged away, swinging her blades at monsters and gladiators.
Mildly impressive, but how was I supposed to follow her? Also, she’d just rendered useless my plan of hiding behind her. Such an inconsiderate girl.
I shot my arrow at the nearest threat: a Cyclops charging me and waving his club. Where he’d come from, I had no idea, but I sent him back to Tartarus where he belonged.
I dodged a fire-breathing horse, kicked a basketball into the gut of a gladiator, then sidestepped a lion who was lunging at a tasty-looking ostrich. (All of this, by the way, with a chair strapped to my back.)
Meg aimed her deadly bird at the emperor’s box, slashing down anything that got in her way. I understood her plan: kill Commodus. I staggered after her as best I could, but my head throbbed from the pounding country music, the jeering of the crowd, and the whine of the Formula One engines gaining speed around the track.
A pack of wolf-headed warriors loped toward me—too many, at too close range for my bow. I ripped off my bandolier of medical syringes and squirted ammonia in their lupine faces. They screamed, clawing their eyes, and began to crumble to dust. As any Mount Olympian custodian can tell you, ammonia is an excellent cleaning agent for monsters and other blemishes.
I made my way toward the only island of calm on the field: the elephant.
She did not seem interested in attacking anyone. Given her size and formidable chain-mail defenses, none of the other combatants seemed anxious to approach her. Or perhaps, seeing her Colts helmet, they simply didn’t want to mess with the home team.
Something about her was so sad, so despondent, I felt drawn to her as a kindred spirit.
I pulled out my combat ukulele and strummed an elephant-friendly song: Primus’s “Southbound Pachyderm.” The instrumental intro was haunting and sad—perfect for solo ukulele.
“Great elephant,” I sang as I approached. “May I ride you?”
Her wet brown eyes blinked at me. She huffed as if to say, Whatever, Apollo. They got me wearing this stupid helmet. I don’t even care anymore.
A gladiator with a trident rudely interrupted my song. I smashed him in the face with my combat ukulele. Then I used the elephant’s foreleg to climb onto her back. I hadn’t practiced that technique since the storm god Indra took me on a late-night road trip in search of vindaloo, but I guess riding an elephant is one of those skills you never forget.
I spotted Meg at the twenty-yard line, leaving groaning gladiators and piles of monster ash in her wake as she rode her ostrich toward the emperor.
Commodus clapped with delight. “Well done, Meg! I’d love to fight you, but HOLD THAT THOUGHT!”
The music abruptly shut off. Gladiators stopped in mid-combat. The race cars slowed to an idle. Even Meg’s ostrich paused and looked around as if wondering why it was suddenly so quiet.
Over the speakers came a dramatic drumroll.
“Meg McCaffrey!” Commodus boomed in his best game-show announcer voice. “We’ve got a special surprise for you—straight from New York, someone you know! Can you save him before he bursts into flames?”
Spotlight beams crossed in midair at a point above the end zone, level with the top of the goalposts. That old post-vindaloo feeling came back to me, burning its way through my intestines. Now I understood what Meg had sensed earlier—that vague something that had drawn her into the stadium. Suspended from the rafters by a long chain, snarling and wriggling in a rope cocoon, was the emperor’s special surprise: Meg’s trusty sidekick, the karpos Peaches.
I tip my hat to
The excellent elephant
Let’s be besties, ’kay?
I NOCKED AN ARROW and fired at the chain.
In most circumstances, my first instinct was to shoot. Usually this worked out. (Unless you count the time Hermes burst into my bathroom without knocking. And, yes, I always keep my bow handy when I’m on the toilet. Why would I not?)
This time, my shot was ill-planned. Peaches struggled and swung so much, my arrow sailed past his chain and felled a random blemmyae in the stands.
“Stop!” Meg shrieked at me. “You might hit Peaches!”
The emperor laughed. “Yes, that would be a shame when he’s about to burn to death!”
Commodus leaped from his box onto the racetrack. Meg raised her sword and prepared to charge, but mercenaries in the stands leveled their rifles. No matter that I was fifty yards away—the snipers had aim worthy of…well, me. A swarm of red targeting dots floated over my chest.
“Now, now, Meg,” the emperor chided, pointing to me. “My game, my rules. Unless you want to lose two friends in the dress rehearsal.”
Meg lifted one sword, then the other, weighing them like options. She was too far away for me to clearly see her expression, but I could sense her agony. How many times had I been caught in such a dilemma? Do I destroy the Trojans or the Greeks? Do I flirt with my sister’s Hunters and risk getting slapped, or do I flirt with Britomartis and risk getting blown up? These are the kinds of choices that define us.
As Meg hesitated, a pit crew in togas rolled another Formula One car onto the track—a bright purple machine with a golden number 1 on the hood. Protruding from the roof was a wiry lance about twenty feet tall, topped with a wad of cloth.
My first thought: Why did Commodus need such a big antenna? Then I looked again at the dangling karpos. In the spotlights, Peaches glistened as if he’d been slathered with grease. His feet, usually bare, were covered in rough sandpaper—like the striking surface of a matchbook.
My gut twisted. The race car’s antenna wasn’t an antenna. It was a giant match, set at just the right height to ignite against Peaches’s feet.
“Once I’m in the car,” Commodus announced, “my mercenaries will not interfere. Meg, you may try to stop me any way you please! My plan is to complete one circuit, light your friend on fire, then circle back around and hit you and Apollo with my car. I believe they call that a victory lap!”
The crowd roared with approval. Commodus leaped into his car. His pit crew scattered, and the purple racer peeled out in a cloud of smoke.
My blood turned to cold-pressed olive oil, pumping sluggishly through my heart. How long would it take for that race car to get around the track? Seconds, at most. I suspected Commodus’s windshield was arrow-proof. He wouldn’t leave me such an easy solution. I didn’t even have time for a decent ukulele riff.