“Sssssarah,” I said, “did you swallow a Germanus whole?”
“No.” She belched. The smell was definitely barbarian, with a hint of clove. “Well, perhapsssss.”
“Where are the others?” I ducked as a silver arrow flew over my head, shattering the windshield of a nearby Subaru. “Where’s Commodus?”
Sssssarah pointed toward the Waystation. “In there, I think. He killed a path into the building.”
She didn’t sound too concerned about this, probably because she was sated and sleepy. The pillar of dark smoke I’d noticed earlier was pouring from a hole in the roof of the Waystation. Even more distressing, lying across the green shingles like an insect part stuck on flypaper was the detached bronze wing of a dragon.
Rage boiled inside me. Whether the sun chariot or Festus or a school bus, no one messes with my ride.
The main doors of the Union Station building had been blown wide open. I charged inside past piles of monster dust and bricks, burning pieces of furniture, and a centaur hanging upside down, kicking and whinnying in a net trap.
In one stairwell, a wounded Hunter of Artemis groaned in pain as a comrade bound her bleeding leg. A few feet farther on, a demigod I didn’t recognize lay unmoving on the floor. I knelt next to him—a boy of about sixteen, my mortal age. I felt no pulse. I didn’t know whose side he had fought on, but that didn’t matter. Either way, his death was a terrible waste. I had begun to think that perhaps demigod lives were not as disposable as we gods liked to believe.
I ran through more corridors, trusting the Waystation to send me in the right direction. I burst into the library where I’d sat last night. The scene within hit me like the explosion from one of Britomartis’s bouncing mines.
Lying across the table was the body of a griffin. With a sob of horror, I rushed to her side. Heloise’s left wing was folded across her body like a shroud. Her head lay bent at an unnatural angle. The floor around her was piled with broken weapons, dented armor, and monster dust. She had died fighting off a host of enemies…but she had died.
My eyes burned. I cradled her head, breathing in the clean smell of hay and molting feathers. “Oh, Heloise. You saved me. Why couldn’t I save you?”
Where was her mate, Abelard? Was their egg safe? I wasn’t sure which thought was more terrible: the whole family of griffins dead, or the father and the griffin chick forced to live with the devastating loss of Heloise.
I kissed her beak. Proper grieving would have to wait. Other friends might still be in need of help.
With newfound energy, I bounded up a staircase two steps at a time.
I stormed through a set of doors into the main hall.
The scene was eerily calm. Smoke flooded out the gaping hole of the roof, billowing from the loft where a smoldering bulldozer chassis was, inexplicably, lodged nose-down. Heloise and Abelard’s nest appeared to be intact, but there were no signs of the male griffin or the egg. In Josephine’s workshop area, sprawled across the floor, lay the severed head and neck of Festus, his ruby eyes dark and lifeless. The rest of his body was nowhere to be seen.
Sofas had been smashed and overturned. Kitchen appliances were riddled with bullet holes. The scope of damage was heartbreaking.
But the most serious problem was the standoff around the dining table.
On the side nearest me stood Josephine, Calypso, Lityerses, and Thalia Grace. Thalia had her bow drawn. Lit brandished his sword. Calypso raised her bare hands, martial arts–style, and Josephine hefted her submachine gun, Little Bertha.
On the far side of the table stood Commodus himself, smiling brilliantly despite a bleeding diagonal cut across his face. Imperial gold armor gleamed over his purple tunic. He held his blade, a gold spatha, casually at his side.
To either side of him stood a Germanus bodyguard. The barbarian on the right had his arm clamped around Emmie’s neck, his other hand pressing a pistol crossbow against Emmie’s head. Georgina stood with her mother, Emmie hugging the little girl tightly to her chest. Alas, the little girl seemed to have fully recovered her wits only to be faced with this fresh horror.
To Commodus’s left, a second Germanus held Leo Valdez in a similar hostage stance.
I clenched my fists. “Villainy! Commodus, let them go!”
“Hello, Lester!” Commodus beamed. “You’re just in time for the fun!”
During this standoff
No flash photography, please
Oops. My bad. Ha-ha
THALIA’S FINGERS clenched her bowstring. A bead of sweat, silvery as moonwater, traced the side of her ear. “Say the word,” she told me, “and I will bore a hole between this moron emperor’s eyes.”
A tempting offer, but I knew it was bravado. Thalia was just as terrified as I was of losing Leo and Emmie…and especially poor Georgie, who’d been through so much. I doubted any of our weapons could kill an immortal like Commodus, much less him and two guards. No matter how quickly we attacked, we would not be able to save our friends.
Josephine shifted her grip on the submachine gun. Her coveralls were splattered with goo, dust, and blood. Her short silver hair glistened with perspiration.
“It’s gonna be okay, baby,” she muttered. “Stay calm.” I wasn’t sure if she was talking to Emmie or Georgie or herself.
Next to her, Calypso’s hands were frozen in midair as if she were standing in front of her loom, considering what to weave. Her eyes were fixed on Leo. She shook her head ever so slightly, perhaps telling him, Don’t be an idiot. (She told him that a lot.)
Lityerses stood next to me. His leg wound had started to bleed again, soaking through the bandages. His hair and clothes were scorched as if he’d run through a gauntlet of flamethrowers, leaving his Cornhuskers shirt looking like the surface of a burnt marshmallow. Only the word CORN was still visible.
Judging from the bloody edge of his sword, I guessed he was responsible for the ghastly new slash across Commodus’s face.
“No good way to do this,” Lit muttered to me. “Somebody’s gonna die.”
“No,” I said. “Thalia, lower your bow.”
“Josephine, the gun, too. Please.”
Commodus chuckled. “Yes, you all should listen to Lester! And Calypso, dear, if you try to summon one of those wind spirits again, I will kill your little friend here.”
I glanced at the sorceress. “You summoned a spirit?”
She nodded, distracted, shaken. “A small one.”
“But the larger issue,” Leo called out, “is that I am not little. We are not going to make say hello to my little friend a thing.” He raised his palms, despite his captor tightening his hold around the demigod’s neck. “Besides, guys, it’s okay. I’ve got everything under control.”
“Leo,” I said evenly, “a seven-foot-tall barbarian is holding a crossbow against the side of your head.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “It’s all part of the plan!”
On the word plan, he winked at me in an exaggerated way. Either Leo really did have a plan (unlikely, since in the weeks I’d known him he mostly relied on bluffs, jokes, and improvisation) or he was expecting me to have a plan. That was depressingly likely. As I may have mentioned, people often made that mistake. Just because I’m a god does not mean you should look to me for answers!