The Senate House imploded. Villas and gardens disappeared like crops under a tiller. The tide churned uphill towards the Garden of Bacchus – the last remnant of Reyna’s world.
You left them helpless, Reyna Ramírez-Arellano. A woman’s voice issued from the black terrain. Your camp will be destroyed. Your quest is a fool’s errand. My hunter comes for you.
Reyna tore herself from the garden railing. She ran to the fountain of Bacchus and gripped the rim of the basin, staring desperately into the water. She willed the nightmare to become a harmless reflection.
The basin broke in half, split by an arrow the size of a rake. Reyna stared in shock at the raven-feather fletching, the shaft painted red, yellow and black like a coral snake, the Stygian iron point embedded in her gut.
She looked up through a haze of pain. At the edge of the garden, a dark figure approached – the silhouette of a man whose eyes shone like miniature headlamps, blinding Reyna. She heard the scrape of iron against leather as he drew another arrow from his quiver.
Then her dream changed.
The garden and the hunter vanished, along with the arrow in Reyna’s stomach.
She found herself in an abandoned vineyard. Stretched out before her, acres of dead grapevines hung in rows on wooden lattices, like gnarled miniature skeletons. At the far end of the fields stood a cedar-shingled farmhouse with a wraparound porch. Beyond that, the land dropped off into the sea.
Reyna recognized this place: the Goldsmith Winery on the north shore of Long Island. Her scouting parties had secured it as a forward base for the legion’s assault on Camp Half-Blood.
She had ordered the bulk of the legion to remain in Manhattan until she told them otherwise, but obviously Octavian had disobeyed her.
The entire Twelfth Legion was camped in the northern-most field. They’d dug in with their usual military precision – ten-foot-deep trenches and spiked earthen walls around the perimeter, a watchtower on each corner armed with ballistae. Inside, tents were arranged in neat rows of white and red. The standards of all five cohorts curled in the wind.
The sight of the legion should have lifted Reyna’s spirits. It was a small force, barely two hundred demigods, but they were well trained and well organized. If Julius Caesar came back from the dead, he would’ve had no trouble recognizing Reyna’s troops as worthy soldiers of Rome.
But they had no business being so close to Camp Half-Blood. Octavian’s insubordination made Reyna clench her fists. He was intentionally provoking the Greeks, hoping for battle.
Her dream vision zoomed to the porch of the farmhouse, where Octavian sat in a gilded chair that looked suspiciously like a throne. Along with his senatorial purple-lined toga, his centurion badge and his augur’s knife, he had adopted a new honour: a white cloth mantle over his head, which marked him as Pontifex Maximus, high priest to the gods.
Reyna wanted to strangle him. No demigod in living memory had taken the title Pontifex Maximus. By doing so, Octavian was elevating himself almost to the level of emperor.
To his right, reports and maps were strewn across a low table. To his left, a marble altar was heaped with fruit and gold offerings, no doubt for the gods. But to Reyna it looked like an altar to Octavian himself.
At his side, the legion’s eagle bearer, Jacob, stood at attention, sweating in his lion-skin cloak as he held the staff with the golden eagle standard of the Twelfth.
Octavian was in the midst of an audience. At the base of the stairs knelt a boy in jeans and a rumpled hoodie. Octavian’s fellow centurion of the First Cohort, Mike Kahale, stood to one side with his arms crossed, glowering with obvious displeasure.
‘Well, now.’ Octavian scanned a piece of parchment. ‘I see here you are a legacy, a descendant of Orcus.’
The boy in the hoodie looked up, and Reyna caught her breath. Bryce Lawrence. She recognized his mop of brown hair, his broken nose, his cruel green eyes and smug, twisted smile.
‘Yes, my lord,’ Bryce said.
‘Oh, I’m not a lord.’ Octavian’s eyes crinkled. ‘Just a centurion, an augur and a humble priest doing his best to serve the gods. I understand you were dismissed from the legion for … ah, disciplinary problems.’
Reyna tried to shout, but she couldn’t make a sound. Octavian knew perfectly well why Bryce had been kicked out. Much like his godly forefather, Orcus, the underworld god of punishment, Bryce was completely remorseless. The little psychopath had survived his trials with Lupa just fine, but as soon as he arrived at Camp Jupiter he had proved to be untrainable. He had tried to set a cat on fire for fun. He had stabbed a horse and sent it stampeding through the Forum. He was even suspected of sabotaging a siege engine and getting his own centurion killed during the war games.
If Reyna had been able to prove it, Bryce’s punishment would’ve been death. But because the evidence was circumstantial, and because Bryce’s family was rich and powerful with lots of influence in New Rome, he’d got away with the lighter sentence of banishment.
‘Yes, Pontifex,’ Bryce said slowly. ‘But, if I may, those charges were unproven. I am a loyal Roman.’
Mike Kahale looked like he was doing his best not to throw up.
Octavian smiled. ‘I believe in second chances. You’ve responded to my call for recruits. You have the proper credentials and letters of recommendation. Do you pledge to follow my orders and serve the legion?’
‘Absolutely,’ said Bryce.
‘Then you are reinstated in probatio,’ Octavian said, ‘until you have proven yourself in combat.’
He gestured at Mike, who reached in his pouch and fished out a lead probatio tablet on a leather cord. He hung the cord around Bryce’s neck.
‘Report to the Fifth Cohort,’ Octavian said. ‘They could use some new blood, some fresh perspective. If your centurion Dakota has any problem with that, tell him to talk to me.’
Bryce smiled like he’d just been handed a sharp knife. ‘My pleasure.’
‘And, Bryce.’ Octavian’s face looked almost ghoulish under his white mantle – his eyes too piercing, his cheeks too gaunt, his lips too thin and colourless. ‘However much money, power and prestige the Lawrence family carries in the legion, remember that my family carries more. I am personally sponsoring you, as I am sponsoring all the other new recruits. Follow my orders, and you’ll advance quickly. Soon I may have a little job for you – a chance to prove your worth. But cross me and I will not be as lenient as Reyna. Do you understand?’
Bryce’s smile faded. He looked like he wanted to say something, but he changed his mind. He nodded.
‘Good,’ Octavian said. ‘Also, get a haircut. You look like one of those Graecus scum. Dismissed.’
After Bryce left, Mike Kahale shook his head. ‘That makes two dozen now.’
‘It’s good news, my friend,’ Octavian assured him. ‘We need the extra manpower.’
‘Murderers. Thieves. Traitors.’
‘Loyal demigods,’ Octavian said, ‘who owe their position to me.’
Mike scowled. Until Reyna had met him, she’d never understood why people called biceps guns, but Mike’s arms were as thick as bazooka barrels. He had broad features, a toasted-almond complexion, onyx hair and proud dark eyes, like the old Hawaiian kings. She wasn’t sure how a high-school linebacker from Hilo had wound up with Venus for a mom, but no one in the legion gave him any grief about that – not once they saw him crush rocks with his bare hands.
Reyna had always liked Mike Kahale. Unfortunately, Mike was very loyal to his sponsor. And his sponsor was Octavian.
The self-appointed pontifex rose and stretched. ‘Don’t worry, old friend. Our siege teams have the Greek camp surrounded. Our eagles have complete air superiority. The Greeks aren’t going anywhere until we’re ready to strike. In eleven days, all my forces will be in place. My little surprises will be prepared. On August first, the Feast of Spes, the Greek camp will fall.’
‘But Reyna said –’
been through this.’ Octavian slid his iron dagger from his belt and threw it at the table, where it impaled a map of Camp Half-Blood. ‘Reyna has forfeited her position. She went to the ancient lands, which is against the law.’
‘But the Earth Mother –’
‘– has been stirring because of the war between the Greek and Roman camps, yes? The gods are incapacitated, yes? And how do we solve that problem, Mike? We eliminate the division. We wipe out the Greeks. We return the gods to their proper manifestation as Roman. Once the gods are restored to their full power, Gaia will not dare rise. She will sink back into her slumber. We demigods will be strong and unified, as we were in the old days of the empire. Besides, the first day of August is most auspicious – the month named after my ancestor Augustus. And you know how he united the Romans?’
‘He seized power and became emperor,’ Mike rumbled.
Octavian waved aside the comment. ‘Nonsense. He saved Rome by becoming First Citizen. He wanted peace and prosperity, not power! Believe me, Mike, I intend to follow his example. I will save New Rome and, when I do, I will remember my friends.’
Mike shifted his considerable bulk. ‘You sound certain. Has your gift of prophecy –’
Octavian held up his hand in warning. He glanced at Jacob the eagle bearer, who was still standing at attention behind him. ‘Jacob, you’re dismissed. Why don’t you go polish the eagle or something?’
Jacob’s shoulders slumped in relief. ‘Yes, Augur. I mean Centurion! I mean Pontifex! I mean –’
Once Jacob had hobbled off, Octavian’s face clouded. ‘Mike, I told you not to speak of my, ah, problem. But to answer your question: no, there still seems to be some interference with Apollo’s usual gift to me.’ He glanced resentfully at a pile of mutilated stuffed animals heaped in the corner of the porch. ‘I can’t see the future. Perhaps that false Oracle at Camp Half-Blood is working some sort of witchcraft. But as I’ve told you before, in strictest confidence, Apollo spoke to me clearly last year at Camp Jupiter! He personally blessed my endeavours. He promised I would be remembered as the saviour of the Romans.’
Octavian spread his arms, revealing his harp tattoo, the symbol of his godly forefather. Seven slash marks indicated his years of service – more than any presiding officer, including Reyna.
‘Never fear, Mike. We will crush the Greeks. We will stop Gaia and her minions. Then we’ll take that harpy the Greeks have been harbouring – the one who memorized our Sibylline Books – and we’ll force her to give us the knowledge of our ancestors. Once that happens, I’m sure Apollo will restore my gift of prophecy. Camp Jupiter will be more powerful than ever. We will rule the future.’
Mike’s scowl didn’t lessen, but he raised his fist in salute. ‘You’re the boss.’
‘Yes, I am.’ Octavian pulled his dagger from the table. ‘Now, go check on those two dwarfs you captured. I want them properly terrified before I interrogate them again and dispatch them to Tartarus.’