His grandson stared at me with owl eyes; I winked at him.
Bandana asked, “You packing something under that poncho?”
I had a sleeve filled with vines. If I weren’t so impatient—could these guys be slower?—I might’ve laughed. “You could say that.”
As we passed more cells, injured men crawled toward the exits. Others desperately dragged the unconscious. From the stadium, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” pounded, seeming to mock these prisoners.
Behind us, those two Skins swept up the corridor, making good on their promise. Gunshots boomed in the echoing space; all the Shirts seemed to duck at once.
“. . . you got mud on your face. Big disgrace. . . .”
Another shot, and another. Those guards murdered the unconscious, the injured, the slow.
I shuffled along with the herd of prisoners until we emerged onto what had once been a football field. Now a pasture. With real grass.
I swept my astonished gaze around the interior of the coliseum. Crops covered the bleachers on three sides, pots filling the rows like terraced gardens. How??? I craned my head up, expecting to see priceless sunlamps, but I spied none. Maybe this settlement kept the lamps under lock and key, only bringing them out when needed.
I’d figure it out later. Once I went back in time, we could sic Jack’s Azey army on this place. They’d raid the crops, free any caged white hats, and relieve Sol of his sunlamps.
For now, I had a ready-made arsenal to use against my new adversary.
Along the sideline at midfield was a large stage, decorated with swaths of purple cloth. Purple banners with gold lettering—Latin words?—hung from posts.
The movie Gladiator called. Wants its props back.
What had to be a thousand shirtless men occupied seats in the stands flanking that stage. They were drinking and raising hell, singing along to the music. All of them were well-fed and muscular, their skin scarred but uncommonly tan. How many sunlamps did this faction control?
As we marched to the center of the field, the ground grew wet, then wetter still, until my boots squelched. I glanced down: I was ankle-deep . . . in blood.
From the opposite side of the arena, a parade of guards—some with crude weapons in hand—emerged in a line. Like the home team from its locker room.
I blinked in disbelief as they neared. They were . . . Bagmen. Hundreds of them.
They filed around the field, surrounding us. Yet they didn’t attack, just stood idly at the edges. Why were they not wailing, trying to bite us? Who—or what—was controlling them?
With a terrified yell, one prisoner turned and sprinted back toward the corridor. Two Bagmen took him down with more strength and speed than I’d ever seen in them.
The man screamed as they drank. Their slurping sounds put everyone on edge.
The stadium’s loudspeakers crackled, and the song transitioned into “Seven Nation Army.”
“ . . . A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back. . . .” My thoughts exactly.
As the music boomed, a platform ascended from below that stage. Little by little a man in his early twenties became visible, first his head—he had black hair, dark eyes, and a handsome face—and then the bronzed skin of his nearly bare chest. He was tall and built, wearing only a knee-length toga.
Two Baggers flanked him, a male on one side, a female on the other, both well-dressed in normal clothes.
A gasp hissed through my lips when an image flickered over him—an Arcana tableau: a child wrapped in a waving red pennant, surrounded by sunflowers and summer wheat. In the blue sky above, the sun had a face, and it was menacing.
Sol. Sun. I’d found the Sun Card. My lips curled. I’m gonna serve it to you. . . .
Sol raised a hand, and everyone fell silent, the music fading. “Welcome to Olympus! I am El Sol!” he bellowed. Spanish accent? “In a world of darkness, I bring you light!”
With his sun-kissed followers and crops a-growing, Sol must be able to emit sunlight. So how would that ability affect me? Charge me up or dry me into a husk? I racked my damaged mind to remember. I hadn’t heard this card’s call. Had he heard mine?
The men in the stands drummed their feet, chanting, “Victi vincimus.” Whatever.
They quieted when he yelled, “Hail the Glorious Illuminator! Next to me, all is shadow.”
The men chanted, “Next to him, all is shadow.”
“I am your god!”
Wow. Even Guthrie, the Hierophant Card, had considered himself only a shepherd guiding his flock. El Sol believed he was an actual deity. Considering his toga and his coliseum lair, I’d wager a Roman one. Were we to be his sacrifices?
I pinched the bridge of my nose, muttering, “Crazy-ass Arcana.” But could I really talk?
Once Tess and I returned from our trip back in time, maybe I’d just shatter into little Evie pieces.
For now, I would be opting out of the sacrificial part of tonight’s program. I had a mission. Sol stood between me and my three goals. Which meant he stood between me and Jack. Sol might as well be murdering him in front of my face.
My claws sharpened. I’d already linked with every plant in this stadium. Would I be strong enough to fight off so many Skins?
The Shirts could be just as dangerous. Word seemed to be spreading among them that I was a female.
Sol continued, “Only worthy gladiators will find a home amid the riches of Olympus! Prepare to battle for your place!”
I had to give it to him: he knew how to put on a show, a real entertainer. In my present mood, this performer was about to break a lot more than his leg.
The would-be gladiators all around grew antsy as they comprehended their plight—a fight for survival. How many died in each contest?