Commodus lifted two fingers. “Albatrix, if the demigod speaks again, you have my permission to shoot him.”
The barbarian grunted assent. Leo clamped his mouth shut. I could see in his eyes that even under pain of death, he was having trouble holding back a witty retort.
“Now!” Commodus said. “As we were discussing before Lester got here, I require the Throne of Mnemosyne. Where is it?”
Thank the gods….The throne was still hidden, which meant Meg could still use it to heal her mind. This knowledge steeled my resolve.
“Are you telling me,” I asked, “that your great army surrounded this place, invaded, and couldn’t even find a chair? Is this all you have left—a couple of witless Germani and some hostages? What sort of emperor are you? Now, your father, Marcus Aurelius, there was an emperor.”
His expression soured. His eyes darkened. I recalled a time in Commodus’s campaign tent when a servant carelessly spilled wine on my friend’s robes. Commodus had that same dark look in his eyes as he beat the boy almost to death with a lead goblet. Back then, as a god, I found the incident only mildly distasteful. Now I knew something about being on the receiving end of Commodus’s cruelty.
“I’m not finished, Lester,” he snarled. “I’ll admit this cursed building was more trouble than I expected. I blame my former prefect Alaric. He was woefully unprepared. I had to kill him.”
“Shocking,” muttered Lityerses.
“But most of my forces are merely lost,” Commodus said. “They’ll be back.”
“Lost?” I looked at Josephine. “Where did they go?”
Her eyes stayed focused on Emmie and Georgie, but she seemed to take pride in answering. “From what the Waystation is telling me,” she said, “about half of his monstrous troops fell into a giant chute marked LAUNDRY. The rest ended up in the furnace room. Nobody ever comes back from the furnace room.”
“No matter!” Commodus snapped.
“And his mercenaries,” Josephine continued, “wound up at the Indiana Convention Center. Right now, they’re trying to navigate their way through the trade-show floor of the Home and Garden Expo.”
“Soldiers are expendable!” Commodus shrieked. Blood dripped down his new facial wound, speckling his armor and robes. “Your friends here cannot be so easily replaced. Neither can the Throne of Memory. So let’s make a deal! I will take the throne. I will kill the girl and Lester, and raze this building to the ground. That’s what the prophecy said for me to do, and I never argue with Oracles! In exchange, the rest of you can go free. I don’t need you.”
“Jo.” Emmie said her name like an order.
Perhaps she meant: You cannot let him win. Or: You cannot let Georgina die. Whatever it was, in Emmie’s face I saw that same disregard for her own mortal life that she’d had as a young princess, flinging herself off the cliff. She didn’t mind death, as long as it was on her terms. The determined light in her eyes had not dimmed in three thousand years.
A shiver rolled down my back. I remembered something Marcus Aurelius used to tell his son, a quote that later became famous in his Meditations book: Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.
Commodus hated that piece of advice. He found it suffocating, self-righteous, impossible. What was proper? Commodus intended to live forever. He would drive away the darkness with the roar of crowds and the glitter of spectacle.
But he generated no light.
Not like the Waystation. Marcus Aurelius would have approved of this place. Emmie and Josephine lived properly with what time they had left, creating light for everyone who came here. No wonder Commodus hated them. No wonder he was so bent on destroying this threat to his power.
And Apollo, above all, was the god of light.
“Commodus.” I drew myself up to my full, not-very-impressive height. “This is the only deal. You will let your hostages go. You will leave here empty-handed and never return.”
The emperor laughed. “That would sound more intimidating coming from a god, not a zitty adolescent.”
His Germani were well-trained to stay impassive, but they betrayed scornful smirks. They didn’t fear me. Right now, that was fine.
“I am still Apollo.” I spread my arms. “Last chance to leave of your own accord.”
I detected a flicker of doubt in the emperor’s eyes. “What will you do—kill me? Unlike you, Lester, I am immortal. I cannot die.”
“I don’t need to kill you.” I stepped forward to the edge of the dining table. “Look at me closely. Don’t you recognize my divine nature, old friend?”
Commodus hissed. “I recognize the betrayer who strangled me in my bath. I recognize the so-called god who promised me blessings and then deserted me!” His voice frayed with pain, which he tried to conceal behind an arrogant sneer. “All I see is a flabby teenager with a bad complexion. You also need a haircut.”
“My friends,” I told the others, “I want you to avert your eyes. I am about to reveal my true godly form.”
Not being fools, Leo and Emmie shut their eyes tight. Emmie covered Georgina’s face with her hand. I hoped my friends on my side of the dining table would also listen. I had to believe that they trusted me, despite my failings, despite the way I looked.
Commodus scoffed. “You’re damp and speckled with bat poop, Lester. You’re a pathetic child who has been dragged through the darkness. That darkness is still in your mind. I see the fear in your eyes. This is your true form, Apollo! You’re a fraud!”
Apollo. He had called me by my name.
I saw the terror he was trying to hide, and also his sense of awe. I remembered what Trophonius told me: Commodus would send servants into the caverns for answers, but he would never go himself. As much as he needed the Dark Oracle, he feared what it might show him, which of his deepest fears that bee swarm might feed on.
I had survived a journey he would never dare take.
“Behold,” I said.
Commodus and his men could have looked away. They didn’t. In their pride and contempt, they accepted my challenge.
My body superheated, every particle igniting in a chain reaction. Like the world’s most powerful flashbulb, I blasted the room with radiance. I became pure light.
It lasted only a microsecond. Then the screaming began. The Germani reeled backward, their crossbows firing wildly. One bolt zipped past Leo’s head and embedded itself in a sofa. The other bolt shattered against the floor, splinters skittering across the tiles.
Melodramatic to the end, Commodus pressed his palms against his eye sockets and screamed, “MY EYES!”
My strength faded. I grabbed the table to keep from falling.
“It’s safe,” I told my friends.
Leo broke from his captor. He lunged toward Emmie and Georgina, and the three of them scrambled away as Commodus and his men, now quite blind, stumbled and howled, steam pouring from their eye sockets.
Where the captors and hostages had stood, silhouettes were burned across the tile floor. The details on the brick walls now seemed in super–high definition. The nearest sofa covers, once dark red, were now pink. Commodus’s purple robes had been bleached a weak shade of mauve.