The Tyrant’s Tomb Page 65

I tried to ignore the sound of explosions in the distance. I spun the arrow until my gut wound felt like it was opening up. My hands became slick with popped blisters. The god of the sun struggling to make fire…The ironies would never cease.

Finally, I succeeded in creating the tiniest of flames. After some desperate cupping, puffing, and praying, the fire was lit.

I stood, trembling from exhaustion. Tyson kept dancing to his own internal music, flinging out his arms and spinning like a three-hundred-pound, heavily tattooed Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music remake Quentin Tarantino always wanted to do. (I convinced him it was a bad idea. You can thank me later.)

Ella began sprinkling her proprietary blend of oils, spices, and herbs into the pit. The smoke smelled like a Mediterranean summer feast. It filled me with a sense of peace—reminding me of happier times when we gods were adored by millions of worshippers. You never appreciate a simple pleasure like that until it is taken away.

The valley turned quiet, as if I’d stepped back into Harpocrates’s sphere of silence. Perhaps it was just a lull in the fighting, but I felt as if all of Camp Jupiter were holding its breath, waiting for me to complete the ritual. With trembling hands, I pulled the Sibyl’s glass jar from my backpack.

“What now?” I asked Ella.

“Tyson,” Ella said, waving him over, “that was good dancing. Now show Apollo your armpit.”

Tyson lumbered over, grinning and sweaty. He lifted his left arm much closer to my face than I would have liked. “See?”

“Oh, gods.” I recoiled. “Ella, why would you write the summoning ritual in his armpit?”

“That’s where it goes,” she said.

“It really tickled!” Tyson laughed.

“I—I will begin.” I tried to focus on the words and not the hairy armpit that they encircled. I tried not to breathe any more than necessary. I will say this, however: Tyson had excellent personal hygiene. Whenever I was forced to inhale, I did not pass out from his body odor, despite his exuberant sweaty dancing. The only smell I detected was a hint of peanut butter. Why? I did not want to know.

“O protector of Rome!” I read aloud. “O insert name here!”

“Uh,” Ella said, “that’s where you—”

“I will start again. O protector of Rome! O Diana, goddess of the hunt! Hear our plea and accept our offering!”

I do not remember all the lines. If I did, I would not record them here for just anyone to use. Summoning Diana with burnt offerings is the very definition of Do Not Try This at Home, Kids. Several times, I choked up. I was tempted to add personal bits, to let Diana know it wasn’t just anyone making a request. This was me! I was special! But I stuck to the armpit script. At the appropriate moment (insert sacrifice here), I dropped the Sibyl’s jelly jar into the fire. I was afraid it might just sit there heating up, but the glass shattered immediately, releasing a sigh of silver fumes. I hoped I hadn’t squandered the soundless god’s final breath.

I finished the incantation. Tyson mercifully lowered his arm. Ella stared at the fire, then at the sky, her nose twitching anxiously. “Apollo hesitated,” she said. “He didn’t read the third line right. He probably messed up. I hope he didn’t mess it up.”

“Your confidence is heartwarming,” I said.

But I shared her concern. I saw no signs of divine help in the night sky. The red full moon continued to leer at me, bathing the landscape in bloody light. No hunting horns trumpeted in the distance—just a fresh round of explosions from the Oakland Hills, and cries of battle from New Rome.

“You messed up,” Ella decided.

“Give it time!” I said. “Gods don’t always show up immediately. Once it took me ten years to answer some prayers from the city of Pompeii, and by the time I got there…Maybe that’s not a good example.”

Ella wrung her hands. “Tyson and Ella will wait here in case the goddess shows up. Apollo should go fight stuff.”

“Aww.” Tyson pouted. “But I wanna fight stuff!”

“Tyson will wait here with Ella,” Ella insisted. “Apollo, go fight.”

I scanned the valley. Several rooftops in New Rome were now on fire. Meg would be fighting in the streets, doing gods-knew-what with her weaponized unicorns. Hazel would be desperately shoring up the defenses as zombies and ghouls boiled up from the sewers, attacking civilians. They needed help, and it would take me less time to reach New Rome than to get to the Caldecott Tunnel.

But just thinking about joining the battle made my stomach flare with pain. I remembered how I’d collapsed in the tyrant’s tomb. I would be of little use against Tarquin. Being near him would just accelerate my promotion to Zombie of the Month.

I gazed at the Oakland Hills, their silhouettes lit by flickering explosions. The emperors must be battling Frank’s defenders at the Caldecott Tunnel by now. Without Arion or a Go-Glo bike, I wasn’t sure I could make it there in time to do any good, but it seemed like my least horrible option.

“Charge,” I said miserably.

I jogged off across the valley.

Such a deal for you

Two-for-one single combat

Kill us both for free!

THE MOST EMBARRASSING THING? As I wheezed and huffed up the hill, I found myself humming “Ride of the Valkyries.” Curse you, Richard Wagner. Curse you, Apocalypse Now.

By the time I reached the summit, I was dizzy and drenched in sweat. I took in the scene below and decided my presence would mean nothing. I was too late.

The hills were a scarred wasteland of trenches, shattered armor, and broken war machines. A hundred yards down Highway 24, the emperors’ troops had formed up in columns. Instead of thousands, there were now a few hundred: a combination of Germanus bodyguards, Khromandae, pandai, and other humanoid tribes. One small mercy: no myrmekes remained. Frank’s strategy of targeting the giant ants had apparently worked.

At the entrance to the Caldecott Tunnel, directly beneath me, waited the remnants of the Twelfth Legion. A dozen ragged demigods formed a shield wall across the inbound lanes. A young woman I didn’t recognize held the legion standard, which could only mean that Jacob had either been killed or gravely wounded. The overheated gold eagle smoked so badly I couldn’t make out its form. It wouldn’t be zapping any more enemies today.

Hannibal the elephant stood with the troops in his Kevlar armor, his trunk and legs bleeding from dozens of cuts. In front of the line towered an eight-foot-tall Kodiak bear—Frank Zhang, I assumed. Three arrows bristled in his shoulder, but his claws were out and ready for more battle.

My heart twisted. Perhaps, as a large bear, Frank could survive with a few arrows stuck in him. But what would happen when he tried to turn human again?

As for the other survivors…I simply couldn’t believe they were all that remained of three cohorts. Maybe the missing ones were wounded rather than dead. Perhaps I should’ve taken comfort in the possibility that, for every legionnaire who had fallen, hundreds of enemies had been destroyed. But they looked so tragic, so hopelessly outnumbered guarding the entrance to Camp Jupiter….

I lifted my gaze beyond the highway, out to the bay, and lost all hope. The emperors’ fleet was still in position—a string of floating white palaces ready to rain destruction upon us, then host a massive victory celebration.

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