Chapter no 38 – The Fall of Apollo

Red Rising

The bear is huge—bigger than a horse, big as a wagon. White as a bloodless corpse. Eyes red and yellow. Razor black teeth long as my forearm. Nothing like the bears I’ve seen on the HC. A strip of red runs along its spine. Its paws are like fingers, eight on a hand. It’s unnatural. Made by the Carvers for sport. It’s been brought to these woods to kill, to kill me in particular. Sevro and I heard it roaring months back as we went to make peace with Diana. Now I feel its spittle.

I stand there stupid for a second. Then the bear roars again and lunges.

I roll, run. I sprint faster than I ever have in my life. I fly. But the bear is faster, if less agile; the woods shudder as it crashes through brush and trees.

I run beside a massive godTree and dive through bramble. There the ground creaks beneath my feet and I realize, as leaves and snow crumble under my feet, where I stand. I put the place between myself and the bear and wait for the bear to tear through the underbrush. It bursts clear and lunges for me. I jump back. Then it is gone, shrieking as it plummets through the trap floor onto a bed of wooden spikes. My joy would have been longer lived if I didn’t dance back and step into a second trap.

The earth flips. Well, I do. My leg snaps upward and I fly into the air on the end of a rope. I dangle for hours, too frightened to call to my army for fear of Proctor Apollo. My face tingles and itches from the blood rushing to my head. Then a familiar voice cuts the night.

“Well, well, well,” it sneers from below. “Looks like we’ve two pelts to skin.”

Sevro smirks when I tell him I’ve allied with Mustang. At camp, where Mustang was preparing search parties to send out for me, his reputation precedes him amongst the northerners. The Minervans fear him. Tactus and the other DeadHorses, on the other hand, are delighted.

“Why, if it isn’t my belly buddy!” Tactus drawls. “Why the limp, my friend?”

“Your mother rode me ragged,” Sevro grunts.

“Bah, you’d have to stand on your tiptoes to even kiss her chin.” “Wasn’t her chin I was trying to kiss.”

Tactus claps his hands together in laughter and draws Sevro in for an obnoxious hug. They are two very peculiar people. But I suppose snuggling in horse corpses gives a bond—makes twins of a morbid sort.

“Where were you?” Mustang asks me quietly to the side. “In a second,” I say.

Sevro has only one eye now. So he is the one-eyed demon the Apollonian emissary warned me about.

“I always wondered what sort of mad little fellows you Howlers were,” Mustang says.

“Little?” Sevro asks. “I—didn’t mean to offend.” He grins. “I am little.”

“Well, we of Minerva thought you were ghosts.” She pats his shoulder. “You’re not. And I’m not a real mustang, if you were wondering. No tail, you see? And no,” she interrupts Tactus. “I’ve never worn a saddle, since you were going to ask.”

He was.

“She’ll do,” Sevro mutters sideways to me.

“I like them,” Mustang says of the Howlers a few moments later. “Make me feel tall.”

“Perrrfect!” Tactus picks up the bloodback pelt with a grunt. “Looky look. They found something in Pax’s size.”

Before we join the group at the large fire that Pax stokes, Sevro pulls me aside and produces a blanket. Inside is my slingBlade.

“Kept it safe for you after finding it in the mud,” he says. “And I made it sharper; time for using a dull blade is over.”

“You’re a friend. I hope you know that.” I clap him on the shoulder. “Not a game friend. A real friend now, when we’re out of here. You know that, yes?”

“I’m not an idiot.” He blushes all the same.

I learn from him around the campfire that he and the Howlers, Thistle, Screwface, Clown, Weed, and Pebble—the dregs of my old House— stayed no longer than a day after I disappeared.

“Cassius said the Jackal took you,” Sevro says through a mouthful of weevily bread. “Delicious nuts.” He eats like he hasn’t seen food in weeks.

We sit fireside in the Greatwoods, bathed in the light of crackling logs. Mustang, Milia, Tactus, and Pax join us in leaning on a fallen tree in the snow. We’re all bundled like animals. I sit close with Mustang. Her leg is entwined with mine beneath the furs. The bloodback fur stinks and crackles over the fire. Fat drips into the flames. Pax will wear it when it dries.

Sevro sought the Jackal after Cassius fed him the lie. My small friend doesn’t get into details. He hates details. He just taps his empty eye socket and says, “The Jackal owes me.”

“You saw him then?” I ask.

“It was dark. I saw his knife. Didn’t even hear his voice. I had to jump off the mountain. It was a long fall back to the rest of the pack.” He says it so plainly. Yet I did notice his limp. “We couldn’t stay in the mountains. His men … everywhere.”

“But we took some of the mountains with us,” Thistle says. She pats the scalps on her waist with a motherly smile. Mustang shudders.

It’s been chaos in the South. Apollo, Venus, Mercury, and Pluto are all that’s left, but I hear Mercury has been reduced to a force of roving vagabonds. A pity. I was fond of their Proctor. He almost chose me in the Draft, would have if he could have. Wonder how things would have gone then.

“Sevro, with that leg, how fast can you run, say, two kilometers?” I ask.

The others are puzzled by the question, but Sevro just shrugs. “Doesn’t slow me. Minute and a half in this lowGrav.”

I make a note to tell him my idea later.

“We have more important things to discuss, Reaper.” Tactus smiles. “Now, I heard you were dangling upside down in the woods from this one here’s trap.” He pats little Thistle on her thigh; she smiles as he lets his hand linger. It’s the scalp collection that draws his affection. “You didn’t think you’d sneak out of telling the tale, did you?”

It’s not so funny a thing as he might suspect.

I finger my ring. Telling them would be signing their death warrants. Apollo and Jupiter listen to me now. I look at Mustang and feel hollow. I’ll risk losing her just to win their rigged game. If I were a good person, I would keep the ring on. I would hold my tongue. But there are plans to make, gods to undo. I take my ring off and set it on the snow. “Let us for one moment pretend we are not from different Houses,” I say. “Let’s all of us talk as friends, ringless.”

Without horses, without mobility, I have no advantage over my enemy in the surrounding lands. Another lesson to be learned. I make an advantage for myself, a new strategy. I make them fear me.

My tactics are ones of fragmentation. I split my army into six pieces of ten under myself, Pax, Mustang, Tactus, Milia, and, due to a surprising recommendation from Milia, Nyla. I would have given Sevro his own unit, but he and his Howlers will not leave my side again. They blame themselves for the scar on my belly.

My army sets into Apollo’s holdings like starving wolves. We do not assail their castle, but we raid their forts. We bring fire to their supply stores. We shoot arrows at their legs. We foul their water supplies and tell prisoners false news and let them escape. We murder their goats and pigs. We hack their riverboats with axes. We steal weapons. I do not allow prisoners to be taken except if they are students from Venus, Juno, or Bacchus enslaved by Apollo. All others we let escape. The fear and legend must spread. This my army understands better than anything else. They are dogmatic. They tell each other tales of me around the campfires. Pax is their ringleader; he thinks I am myth made man. Many of my soldiers begin carving my slingBlade into trees and walls. Tactus and Thistle carve sling-Blades into flesh. And the more industrious members of my army make standards of stained wolfpelts that we take

into battle on the end of spears.

I split the slaves of House Ceres and the other captured slaves from one another to integrate them into the various units. I know their allegiances are shifting. Bit by bit. They begin to refer to themselves not as Ceres or Minerva or Diana, but by their unit name. I place four Ceres soldiers, the smallest, with Sevro in the Howlers. I do not know if the bakers will make for elite warriors as Mars’s dregs did, but if anyone can carve off their baby fat, it’s Sevro.

Fear gnaws at Apollo for a week. Our ranks swell. Theirs diminish. Freed slaves tell us of the terror in the castle, the worry that I will appear from the shadows with my bloody wolfcloaks to burn and maim.

I do not fear House Apollo; they are lumbering fools who cannot adjust to my tactics. What I fear is the Proctors, and the Jackal. To me, they are one and the same. After Apollo’s failed attempt on my life, I fear they will be more direct. When will I wake with a razor in my spine? This is their game. At any time, I could die. I must destroy House Apollo now, get Proctor Apollo out of the game before it is too late.

My lieutenants and I sit around our fire in the woods to discuss the tactics of the next day. We are less than two miles from House Apollo’s castle, but they dare not attack us. We are in the deep woods. They huddle in fear of us. We also don’t attack them. I know Proctor Apollo would ruin even the cleverest of night assaults.

Before we can begin, Nyla asks about the Jackal. Sevro’s voice is quiet as he tells what he learned in the mountains. It grows louder as he realizes we are all listening.

“His castle is somewhere in the low mountains. Subterranean, not in the high peaks. Just near Vulcan. Vulcan got off to a prime start. Fastlike. They blitzed Pluto on the third day. Efficient turds. Pluto wasn’t ready. So the Jackal took control, had them retreat into their deep tunnels. Vulcan came howling in with advanced weapons from their forges. It was all going to be over. The Jackal would have been a slave from the first week on. So he collapsed the tunnel—no plan, no way out

—in order to preserve his chance to win the game. Killed ten of his own House, tons of highDrafts. MedBots couldn’t save anyone. Stranded forty of the rest in the dark caves. Plenty of water, no food. They were there for nearly a month before they dug their way out.” He smiles and I remember why Fitchner called him Goblin. “Guess what they ate?”

If a Jackal is caught in a trap, it will chew off its own leg. Who told me that?

The fire crackles between us. I would have expected Mustang to shift uncomfortably, but instead what I see from her is anger as the details are relayed. Pure anger. Her jaw flexes and her face loses a shade. I grip her hand beneath the blanket, but it does not grip back.

“How did you find all that out?” Pax rumbles.

Sevro taps one of his curved knives with a fingernail, allowing a soft ding into the night air. It echoes into the woods, bouncing off trees and returning to our ears like a lost phrase. Then I can hear nothing from the woods, nothing beyond the fire. My heart leaps into my throat and I catch Sevro’s eye. He’ll have to find Tactus.

A jamField envelopes us.

“Hello, children,” a voice says from the darkness. “Such a bright fire is dangerous at night. And you’re like little puppies, all snuggled together; no, don’t get up.” This voice is melodious. Frivolous. Eerie to hear after so many months of hardship. No one’s voice sounds like that. He strolls in lightly and plops down beside Pax. Apollo. This time he brought no bear, only a grand spear that drips purple sparks along its business end.

“Proctor Apollo, welcome,” I say. Sentinels perch above us in the trees, their arrows pointed at the Proctor. I wave the trap away and ask the Proctor why he is here, as if we’ve never met. His presence sends a very simple message: my friends are in danger.

“To tell you to return home, my dear nomads.” He opens up a flagon of wine and passes it around. No one drinks, except Sevro. He holds on to the flagon.

“Proctors aren’t supposed to interfere with things. It is in the rules,” Pax says in confusion. “By what right do you come here? This is dirty play.”

Mustang seconds his question.

The Aureate sighs, but before he can say anything, Sevro stands and belches. He begins walking off.

“Where are you going?” Apollo snaps. “Don’t walk away from me.” “Going to piss. Drank all your wine. Rather I piss here?” He cocks his

head and touches his small stomach. “Maybe shit, too.”

Apollo wrinkles his nose and looks back to us, dismissing Sevro. “Influencing is hardly dirty play, my giant friend,” he explains. “I

merely care for your well-being. I am here, after all, to guide you in your studies. It would be best for you all to return to the North, that is all. Better strategy, let’s say. Finish your battle there, consolidate your power, then expand out. It is the rules of war: Do not expose yourself when weak. Do not push your enemy to fight when you are inferior. You have no cavalry. No shelter. Meager weapons. You are not learning as you ought.”

His grin is welcoming. It slashes through his beautiful face like a crescent moon as he twirls the rings on his finger, waiting for our response.

“It is kind of you to consider our well-being,” Mustang replies in mocking highLingo. “I do say, very kind! Warms my bones. Paying special attention, no less, to the fact that you’re from another House. But tell me, does my Proctor know you are here? Does Mars’s?” She nods over to silent Milia. “Does Juno’s? Are you doing a naughtynaughty, good sir? If you’re not, then why the jamField? Or do others watch?”

Apollo’s eyes harden, though his smile remains.

“To be quite frank, your Proctors don’t know what you children are playing at. You had your chance, Virginia. You lost. Don’t allow yourself to be bitter. Darrow here beat you fair and sound. Or did your winter together blind you to the fact that there can only be one winning House, only one victorious Primus? Were all of you truly so blinded? This … boy can give you nothing.”

He looks around at each of them.

“I shall repeat, since you are a rusty lot: Darrow’s win will not mean you win. No one will offer you an apprenticeship, because they see him being the key to your success. You merely follow—like General Ney or Ajax Minor, and who remembers them? This Reaper does not even have his own standard. He is using you. That is all. He is embarrassing you and ruining your chances for careers beyond this First Year.”

“You’re quite annoying, all due respect, Proctor,” Nyla says without her usual kindness.

“And you’re still a slave.” Apollo points to her mark. “Fit for all sorts of abuse.”

“Only till I earn the right to wear one of those.” Nyla gestures to Mustang’s wolfcloak.

“Your loyalty is touching, but—”

Pax interrupts. “Would you let me whip you bloody, Apollo? Darrow did. Let me whip you, and I’ll obey like a Pink. Promise on the graves of my ancestors, those of Telemanus and the—”

“You’re nothing more than a bureaucratic Pixie,” Milia hisses. “Do us a favor and piss off.”

My lieutenants are loyal, though I shudder to think what Tactus or Sevro would have said had they been around the fire with us. I lean forward to stare down Apollo. Still, I must provoke him.

“Do us solid, eh? Take your advice, shove it up your ass, and piss off.”

Someone laughs in the air above us, a woman’s laugh. Other Proctors watch from inside the jamField. I see silhouettes in the smoke. How many watch? Jupiter? Venus, maybe, by the laugh? That would be perfect.

The fire flickers over Apollo’s face. He is angry.

“Here is the logic I know. The winter could get colder, children. When it gets cold outside, things die. Like wolves. Like bears. Like mustangs.”

I have a reply and it is perfectly longwinded.

“I wonder, Apollo, what happens if the Drafters find out that you are arranging to have the ArchGovernor’s son win? If you were, say, rigging the game like a bazaar crime lord.”

Apollo freezes. I continue.

“When you tried killing me in the woods with that stupid bear, you failed. Now you come here like the desperate fool you are to threaten my friends when they do not slaver at the idea of betraying me. Will you really kill us all? I know you can edit what you like from the footage the Drafters see. But however will you explain to all our Drafters how we all died?”

My lieutenants feign their shock. I go on.

“Say an Imperator of a fleet, say a Legate, say any of the Drafters of any of the other Houses, found out that the ArchGovernor was paying the Proctors to cheat, to eliminate the competition so that his son would win and their children would lose. Do you think there would be consequences for the Proctors being bribed? For the ArchGovernor? Do you think they might care that their children are dying in a rigged game? Or that you’re getting paid to ruin the meritocratic system? The best shall rise. Or is it the best connected?”

Apollo’s jaw tightens.

He looks up to the other Proctors. They wisely stay invisible. He must have drawn the short straw to come down here and be the face of their cheating. My lieutenants stay silent as he speaks.

“If they did find out, children, then there would be consequences for everyone,” Apollo threatens. “So feel free to guard your tongues while you have them.”

“Or what?” Mustang asks violently. “What do you think you’re going to do?”

“You of all people should know,” he says. I don’t understand his point, but this charade has run its course. I’ve counted the seconds since Sevro left. The Proctors have not. I turn to Mustang.

“How fast can Sevro run two kilometers?”

“A minute and a half, in this gravity, I do believe. Though he’s a little liar, so likely faster.”

“And how far is Apollo’s castle?”

“Oh, I’d say three kilometers, maybe a little more.” Apollo jumps to his feet, looking around for Sevro.

“Splendid,” I say. “Say, Mustang, do you know what I like most about jamFields?”

“That no sound can get out?” “No. That no sound can get in.”

Apollo disengages the jamField and we hear the howls. They come from the distance, two miles away. From ramparts. From Apollo’s castle. MedBots wail toward the cries, streaking across the distant sky.

“Venus! Were you not watching them? You stupid …” Apollo snarls at the empty air.

“The little one took off his ring,” an invisible woman cries. “They all took off their rings! I can’t see anything without their rings on, and not in a jamField!”

“But they’re all back on by now,” I say. “So pull up your datapad and tell me what you see.”

“You little …” Apollo’s hands clench. I flinch back. Mustang steps between us, as does Pax.

“Uh-oh,” Pax booms, thumping his huge axe against his chest. The armor beneath his wolfcloak thumps rhythmically. “Uh-oh!”

Snow flies as Apollo soars out of the woods, the other Proctors on his

heels. They will be too late. Edit all they like, interfere all they like, the battle for House Apollo has begun, and Sevro and Tactus have claimed the ramparts.

My lieutenants and I arrive at the battle in time to see Tactus climbing the highest tower, a knife in his teeth. There, standing on the edge of the hundred-meter parapet like some careless Greek champion, he pulls down his pants and pisses on the banner of House Apollo. He’s crawled through shit to earn that banner. The slaves we captured throughout the week told us of the castle’s weaknesses—large latrine holes—and so Tactus, Sevro, and the Howlers exploited them in dreadfully efficient time. House Apollo’s soldiers woke to demons covered in dung. Oh, how terribly my conquering soldiers smell as they open the gates for me. Inside, it’s a mass of chaos.

The castle is tall, white, ornate. Its plaza stands round and has six grand doorways that lead to six grand, spiraling towers. Sheep and cows crowd makeshift pens on the far side of the plaza. Apollo guards have retreated there. More of their allies stream from the tower doorways behind them. My men are outnumbered three to one. But mine are freemen, not slaves. They will fight better. Yet it is not numbers that threatens to turn the tide against my invading army. It’s the Apollo Primus, Novas. The Proctor gave him his own pulseWeapon. A spear that glimmers with purple sparks. Its tip touches one of the DeadHorses from Diana, and the girl flips ten feet backward, like a broken toy convulsing on the ground as its gears fall off their tracks.

I gather my forces near the gatehouse, just inside the plaza. Many are still in the towers like Tactus. I’ve got Pax, Milia, Nyla, Mustang, and thirty others at my back. The enemy Primus marshals his own forces. His weapon alone could ruin us.

“Mustang, ready with that standard?” I ask. I feel her hand on the small of my back, just beneath my breastplate. I wear no helm. My hair is bound by leather. My face is dark with soot. My right hand carries my slingBlade. The left, a shortened stunpike. Nyla carries the standard of Ceres.

“Pax, we’re the scythe. Girls, you’re the pickers.”

My men in the towers howl as they sprint and jump down from their perches to join the battle, streaming into the plaza from all angles. Their stained wolfcloaks reek. The cobblestones between my band and Apollo’s

lie thick with ankle-high drifts of snow. Proctors glint in the air above, waiting for the pulseSpear to make short work of my army.

“Take their Primus,” Mustang whispers in my ear. She points to the tall, hard boy and smacks my butt. “Claim him.”

“Twenty meters and stop, Pax.” He nods at my command.

“The Primus is mine!” I roar to my army and to theirs. “Novas, you gorywhore. You are mine. You piss-eating snail. You foul piece of shit.” As the tall, mad invader with the slingBlade screams at their Primus, Apollo’s forces shirk instinctively away. “Enslave the rest!” I howl.

Then Pax and I charge.

The rest stream after, trying to catch my heels. I let Pax overtake me. He’s screaming with his war axe and charging at Novas and his band of bodyguards—heavily armored boys and girls with crimson handprints on their helmets. They lead the charge of the enemy host, going straight at Pax, lowering their spears to stop his mad charge. These are the tall sort, the dashing killers who have long since grown too arrogant to understand they are in danger or to feel fear as they make plans to meet Pax in arms.

Then Pax stops.

And without breaking stride, I jump so his hand catches my foot; I push off and he launches me ten meters forward into the air. I’m howling the entire way, like a thing torn from bloodydamn nightmares, until I smash into the bodyguards. Three go down. A random spear catches my stomach and scrapes along my ribs, spinning me just as a trident pierces the air where my head had been. I gain my feet, swing horizontally, sweeping legs. I spin away from a thrust and hack down diagonally as I come from my spin, shattering someone tall at the collarbone. Another spear comes at me; I slap it to the side and run along its length, jumping to bury my knee into the face of an Apollo highDraft. He falls back, taking me with him, my knee stuck in his helmet’s visor. I slash madly as I go from the high vantage, stunning three other highDrafts with looping blows till I teeter down to the ground.

We hit the snow. The highDraft’s nose is broken and he’s unconscious, but my knee is numb and bloody from the impact as I jerk it out of his helmet. I roll away, expecting spears to fillet me. They don’t. I shattered the head of the Apollo army in one mad charge; Pax and my army sweep

in like an iron curtain till I’m left with Novas in the center of the chaos. He’s tall and strong. A sweeping arc from his spear shatters a Howler’s shield. He blasts Milia backwards and catches Pax in the arm with the spear, knocking him to the ground like a toy. I’m taller and stronger.

“Novas, you little girl!” I shout. “You sniveling Pink.” His eyes flash when he sees me coming.

The battle takes a collective breath as he wheels toward me like an elk turning on the leader of a wolfpack. We stalk toward one another. He lunges first. I dodge and spin along the length of the spear till I’m behind him. Then with one massive swing, like I’m hacking down a tree with my slingBlade, I break his leg and take his spear.

He moans like a child. I sit on his chest, smug with the satisfaction that I did not moan like this when my legs were broken and rewoven in Mickey’s carveshop. I make a show of yawning despite the chaos swirling around me.

Mustang takes the reins of battle.

Only one member of House Apollo escapes. A girl. A fast girl, but an unimportant member of their House. Somehow, she jumps from the highest tower and simply floats down to the ground with her House’s standard. Almost like magic. But I see the distortion around her. Proctor Apollo preserves his position in the game. The girl finds a horse and rides away from my horseless army. Pax hurls a spear at her from a distance. His aim is true and would have pinned the horse to the turf through the neck, but a freakish wind miraculously knocks the spear wide. In the end, it’s Mustang who takes a horse from the Apollo stables and chases the girl down with the Howlers Thistle and Pebble. She brings her back bent over her own horse’s neck, spanking her butt with the standard as they gallop back.

My army roars as Mustang trots into the conquered castle square. We’ve already freed the House Ceres slaves; they’ve earned their place in my army. I wave down at Mustang from my perch beside Sevro and Tactus on the high ramparts; our feet dangle carelessly over the edge. House Apollo has fallen in less than thirty minutes despite Apollo’s interference with the pulseSpear.

Proctor Apollo confers with Jupiter and Venus in the sky. They glitter in the dawn light as though nothing has happened. But I know he will have to leave the game; the standard and castle are taken. He cannot

hurt me any longer.

“You’re through!” I taunt Apollo. “Your House has fallen!” My army roars once more. I bask in the sound and the winter air as the sun peeks over the western lip of the Valles Marinerise. Most of those voices would be slaves. Instead, they follow willingly. Soon even those of House Apollo will follow me.

I laugh wildly; the fire of victory is hot in my veins. We have beaten one Proctor. But Jupiter can still hurt us. His House is unbent, unbroken far to the north. A quick rage overtakes me along with another, darker passion—one of arrogance, furious, mad arrogance. I grab the pulseSpear, cock my arm, and hurl the weapon as hard as I can at the gathered Proctors. My army watches this act of impudence. The three Proctors scatter after the pulseSpear goes through their shielding. They turn to look at me. Fire glitters in their eyes. But the passion in me was not quenched by a mere spear throw. I hate these scheming fools. I will ruin them.

“Jupiter! You are next. You are next, you piece of dog shit!”

Then Pax bellows my name. And then Tactus’s voice echoes it, then Nyla from a far tower. And soon a hundred voices chant it throughout the conquered castle—from the courtyard to the high parapets and towers. They beat their swords and spears and shields, and then they throw them at the Proctors. A hundred missiles thump harmlessly into pulseShields and many of my army must scatter so that they are not impaled by the falling weapons, but it is a sweet sight, a sweet sound of metal rain on cobbled stone. And again they take up my name. They chant and chant the name of the Reaper at the Proctors, because they know whom we now fight.

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