The Tyrant’s Tomb Page 67

“Two against two!” I yelped, surprising even myself. “I’ll fight!”

That got another round of laughter from the emperors’ troops. Commodus said, “Even better!”

Frank looked horror-stricken, which wasn’t the sort of thank-you I’d been hoping for.

“Apollo, no,” he said. “I can handle this. Clear off!”

A few months ago, I would have been happy to let Frank take this hopeless fight on his own while I sat back, ate chilled grapes, and checked my messages. Not now, not after Jason Grace. I glanced at the poor maimed pegasi chained to the emperors’ chariot, and I decided I couldn’t live in a world where cruelty like that went unchallenged.

“Sorry, Frank,” I said. “You won’t face this alone.” I looked at Caligula. “Well, Baby Booties? Your colleague emperor has already agreed. Are you in, or do we terrify you too much?”

Caligula’s nostrils flared. “We have lived for thousands of years,” he said, as if explaining a simple fact to a slow student. “We are gods.”

“And I’m the son of Mars,” Frank countered, “praetor of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata. I’m not afraid to die. Are you?”

The emperors stayed silent for a count of five.

Finally, Caligula called over his shoulder, “Gregorix!”

One of the Germani jogged forward. With his massive height and weight, his shaggy hair and beard, and his thick hide armor, he looked like Frank in Kodiak bear form, only with an uglier face.

“Lord?” he grunted.

“The troops are to stay where they are,” Caligula ordered. “No interference while Commodus and I kill Praetor Zhang and his pet god. Understood?”

Gregorix studied me. I could imagine him silently wrestling with his ideas of honor. Single combat was good. Single combat against a wounded warrior and a zombie-infected weakling, however, was not much of a victory. The smart thing would be to slaughter all of us and march on into the camp. But a challenge had been issued. Challenges had to be accepted. But his job was to protect the emperors, and if this was some sort of trap…

I bet Gregorix was wishing he’d pursued that business degree his mom always wanted him to get. Being a barbarian bodyguard was mentally exhausting.

“Very well, my lord,” he said.

Frank faced his remaining troops. “Get out of here. Find Hazel. Defend the city from Tarquin.”

Hannibal trumpeted in protest.

“You too, buddy,” Frank said. “No elephants are going to die today.”

Hannibal huffed. The demigods obviously didn’t like it either, but they were Roman legionnaires, too well trained to disobey a direct order. They retreated into the tunnel with the elephant and the legion’s standard, leaving only Frank Zhang and me on Team Camp Jupiter.

While the emperors climbed down from their chariot, Frank turned to me and wrapped me in a sweaty, bloody embrace. I’d always figured him for a hugger, so this didn’t surprise me, until he whispered in my ear, “You’re interfering with my plan. When I say ‘Time’s up,’ I don’t care where you are or how the fight is going, I want you to run away from me as fast as you can. That’s an order.”

He clapped me on my back and let me go.

I wanted to protest, You’re not the boss of me! I hadn’t come here to run away on command. I could do that quite well on my own. I certainly wasn’t going to allow another friend to sacrifice himself for my sake.

On the other hand, I didn’t know Frank’s plan. I’d have to wait and see what he had in mind. Then I could decide what to do. Besides, if we stood any chance of winning a death match against Commodus and Caligula, it wouldn’t be on account of our superior strength and charming personalities. We needed some serious, industrial-strength cheating.

The emperors strode toward us across the scorched and buckled asphalt.

Up close, their armor was even more hideous. Caligula’s breastplate looked like it had been coated with glue, then rolled through the display cases at Tiffany & Co.

“Well.” He gave us a smile as bright and cold as his jewel collection. “Shall we?”

Commodus took off his gauntlets. His hands were huge and rough, callused as if he’d been punching brick walls in his spare time. It was hard to believe I had ever held those hands with affection.

“Caligula, you take Zhang,” he said. “I’ll take Apollo. I don’t need my eyesight to find him. I’ll just follow my ears. He’ll be the one whimpering.”

I hated that he knew me so well.

Frank drew his sword. Blood still oozed from his shoulder wounds. I wasn’t sure how he planned to remain standing, much less do battle. His other hand brushed the cloth pouch that held his piece of firewood.

“So we’re clear on the rules,” he said. “There aren’t any. We kill you, you die.”

Then he gestured at the emperors: Come and get it.

Not again. My heart.

How many syllables is

“Total hopelessness”?

EVEN IN MY WEAKENED condition, you’d think I would be able to stay out of reach of a blind opponent.

You’d be wrong.

Commodus was only ten yards away when I shot my next arrow at him. Somehow he dodged it, rushed in, and yanked the bow out of my hands. He broke the weapon over his knee.

“RUDE!” I yelled.

In retrospect, that was not the way I should have spent that millisecond. Commodus punched me square in the chest. I staggered backward and collapsed on my butt, my lungs on fire, my sternum throbbing. A hit like that should have killed me. I wondered if my godly strength had decided to make a cameo appearance. If so, I squandered the opportunity to strike back. I was too busy crawling away, crying in pain.

Commodus laughed, turning to his troops. “You see? He’s always the one whimpering!”

His followers cheered. Commodus wasted valuable time basking in their adulation. He couldn’t help being a showman. He also must’ve known I wasn’t going anywhere.

I glanced at Frank. He and Caligula circled each other, occasionally trading blows, testing each other’s defenses. With the arrowheads in his shoulder, Frank had no choice but to favor his left side. He moved stiffly, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the asphalt that reminded me—quite inappropriately—of a ballroom-dancing diagram Fred Astaire had once given me.

Caligula prowled around him, supremely confident. He wore the same self-satisfied smile he’d had when he impaled Jason Grace in the back. For weeks I’d had nightmares about that smile.

I shook myself out of my stupor. I was supposed to be doing something. Not dying. Yes. That was at the top of my to-do list.

I managed to get up. I fumbled for my sword, then remembered I didn’t have one. My only weapon now was my ukulele. Playing a song for an enemy who was hunting me by sound did not seem like the wisest move, but I grabbed the uke by the fret board.

Commodus must have heard the strings twang. He turned and drew his sword.

For a big man in blinged-out armor, he moved much too fast. Before I could even decide which Dean Martin number to play for him, he jabbed at me, nearly opening up my belly. The point of his blade sparked against the bronze body of the ukulele.

With both hands, he raised his sword overhead to cleave me in two.

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