The dark prophecy, p.11
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.11
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  “‘I Got You, Babe’?”

  “No.”

  “Dear gods, I’m sure we covered the 1970s in your pop culture lessons.”

  “What about that song Zeus used to sing?”

  I blinked. “Zeus…singing?” I found the concept mildly horrifying. My father thundered. He punished. He scolded. He glowered like a champion. But he did not sing.

  Calypso’s eyes got a little dreamy. “In the palace at Mount Othrys, when he was Kronos’s cupbearer, Zeus used to entertain the court with songs.”

  I shifted uncomfortably. “I…hadn’t been born yet.”

  I knew, of course, that Calypso was older than I, but I’d never really thought about what that meant. Back when the Titans ruled the cosmos, before the gods rebelled and Zeus became king, Calypso had no doubt been a carefree child, one of General Atlas’s brood, running around the palace harassing the aerial servants. Ye gods. Calypso was old enough to be my babysitter!

  “Surely you know the song.” Calypso began to sing.

  Electricity tingled at the base of my skull. I did know the song. An early memory surfaced of Zeus and Leto singing this melody when Zeus visited Artemis and me as children on Delos. My father and mother, destined to be forever apart because Zeus was a married god—they had happily sung this duet. Tears welled in my eyes. I took the lower part of the harmony.

  It was a song older than empires—about two lovers separated and longing to be together.

  Calypso edged toward the griffins. I followed behind her—not because I was scared to lead, mind you. Everyone knows that when advancing into danger, the soprano goes first. They are your infantry, while the altos and tenors are your cavalry, and the bass your artillery. I’ve tried to explain this to Ares a million times, but he has no clue about vocal arrangement.

  Abelard ceased yanking at his chain. He prowled and preened, making deep clucking sounds like a roosting chicken. Calypso’s voice was plaintive and full of melancholy. I realized that she empathized with these beasts—caged and chained, yearning for the open sky. Perhaps, I thought, just perhaps Calypso’s exile on Ogygia had been worse than my present predicament. At least I had friends to share my suffering. I felt guilty that I hadn’t voted to release her earlier from her island, but why would she forgive me if I apologized now? That was all Styx water under the gates of Erebos. There was no going back.

  Calypso put her hand on Abelard’s head. He could easily have snapped off her arm, but he crouched and turned into the caress like a cat. Calypso knelt, removed another hairpin, and began working on the griffin’s manacle.

  While she tinkered, I tried to keep Abelard’s eyes on me. I sang as decently as I could, channeling my sorrow and sympathy into the verses, hoping Abelard would understand that I was a fellow soul in pain.

  Calypso popped the lock. With a clank, the iron cuff fell from Abelard’s back leg. Calypso moved toward Heloise—a much trickier proposition, approaching an expecting mother. Heloise growled suspiciously but did not attack.

  We continued to sing, our voices in perfect pitch now, melding together the way the best harmonies do—creating something greater than the sum of two individual voices.

  Calypso freed Heloise. She stepped back and stood shoulder to shoulder with me as we finished the last line of the song: As long as gods shall live, so long shall I love you.

  The griffins stared at us. They seemed more intrigued now than angry.

  “Tots,” Calypso advised.

  I shook half the packet into her palms.

  I didn’t relish the idea of losing my arms. They were useful appendages. Nevertheless, I proffered a handful of golden Tater Tots to Abelard. He scuttled forward and sniffed. When he opened his beak, I reached inside and pressed the Tots on his warm tongue. Like a true gentleman, he waited until I removed my hand before swallowing down the snack.

  He ruffled his neck feathers, then turned to squawk at Heloise, Yeah, good eatin’. Come on over!

  Calypso fed her Tots to Heloise. The female griffin butted her head against the sorceress in a sign of obvious affection.

  For a moment, I felt relief. Elation. We had succeeded. Then behind us, someone clapped.

  Standing at the threshold, bloody and battered but still very much alive, was Lityerses, all by himself.

  “Well done,” said the swordsman. “You found a perfect place to die.”

  Son of a Midas

  You, sir, are a stupid-head

  Here, have an ostrich

  IN MY FOUR THOUSAND years of life, I had searched for many things—beautiful women, handsome men, the best composite bows, the perfect seaside palace, and a 1958 Gibson Flying V. But I had never searched for a perfect place to die.

  “Calypso?” I said weakly.

  “Yeah?”

  “If we die here, I’d just like to say you aren’t as bad as I originally thought.”

  “Thanks, but we’re not going to die. That would deprive me of killing you later.”

  Lityerses chuckled. “Oh, you two. Bantering like you have a future. It must be hard for former immortals to accept that death is real. Me, I’ve died. Let me tell you, it’s no fun.”

  I was tempted to sing to him the way I had with the griffins. Perhaps I could convince him I was a fellow sufferer. Something told me it wouldn’t work. And alas, I was all out of Tater Tots.

  “You’re the son of King Midas,” I said. “You came back to the mortal world when the Doors of Death were open?”

  I didn’t know much about that incident, but there’d been some massive Underworld jailbreak during the recent war with the giants. Hades had ranted nonstop about Gaea stealing all his dead people so they could work for her. Honestly, I couldn’t blame the Earth Mother. Good cheap labor is terribly difficult to find.

  The swordsman curled his lip. “We came through the Doors of Death, all right. Then my idiot father promptly got himself killed again, thanks to a run-in with Leo Valdez and his crew. I survived only because I was turned into a gold statue and covered with a rug.”

  Calypso backed toward the griffins. “That’s…quite a story.”

  “Doesn’t matter,” snarled the swordsman. “The Triumvirate offered me work. They recognized the worth of Lityerses, Reaper of Men!”

  “Impressive title,” I managed.

  He raised his sword. “I earned it, believe me. My friends call me Lit, but my enemies call me Death!”

  “I’ll call you Lit,” I decided. “Though you don’t strike me as very lit. You know, your father and I used to be great friends. Once, I even gave him ass’s ears.”

  As soon as I said that, I realized it was perhaps not the best proof of my friendship.

  Lit gave me a cruel smile. “Yes, I grew up hearing about that music contest you made my dad judge. Gave him donkey ears because he declared your opponent the winner? Heh. My father hated you so much for that, I was almost tempted to like you. But I don’t.” He sliced through the air in a practice swipe. “It’ll be a pleasure to kill you.”

  “Hold on!” I shrieked. “What about all that take them alive business?”

  Lit shrugged. “I changed my mind. First, that roof collapsed on me. Then my bodyguards got swallowed by a stand of bamboo. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”

  My pulse boomed like timpani in my ears. “No.”

  “Right.” He regarded Calypso. “I think I’ll keep you alive long enough to kill you in front of Valdez’s face. That’ll be fun. But this former god here…” Lit shrugged. “I’ll just have to tell the emperor he resisted arrest.”

  This was it. After four millennia of glory, I was going to die in a griffin enclosure in Indianapolis. I confess I hadn’t envisioned my death this way. I hadn’t envisioned it at all, but if I had to go, I wanted a lot more explosions and blazing spotlights, a host of beautiful weeping gods and goddesses crying No! Take us instead!, and a lot less animal poop.

  Surely Zeus would intercede. He couldn’t allow my punishment on earth to include actual dea
th! Or perhaps Artemis would slay Lit with an arrow of death. She could always tell Zeus it was a freak longbow malfunction. At the very least, I hoped the griffins would come to my aid, since I’d fed them and sung to them so sweetly.

  None of that happened. Abelard hissed at Lityerses, but the griffin seemed reluctant to attack. Perhaps Lityerses had used those sinister training implements on him and his mate.

  The swordsman rushed me with blinding speed. He swung his blade horizontally—right toward my neck. My last thought was how much the cosmos would miss me. The last thing I smelled was the scent of baked apples.

  Then, from somewhere above, a small humanoid form dropped between me and my attacker. With a clang and a burst of sparks, Lityerses’s blade stopped cold in the crook of a golden X—the crossed blades of Meg McCaffrey.

  I may have whimpered. I had never been so happy to see anyone in my life, and that includes Hyacinthus the time he wore that amazing tuxedo on our date night, so you know I mean it.

  Meg pushed with her blades and sent Lityerses stumbling backward. Her dark pageboy hair was festooned with twigs and blades of grass. She wore her usual red high-tops, her yellow leggings, and the green dress Sally Jackson had lent her the first day we met. I found this strangely heartwarming.

  Lityerses sneered at her, but he did not look particularly surprised. “I wondered if threatening this idiot god would smoke you out of hiding. You’ve signed your death warrant.”

  Meg uncrossed her blades. She retorted in her typical poetic fashion. “Nope.”

  Calypso glanced at me. She mouthed the question, THIS is Meg?

  This is Meg, I agreed, which encompassed a lot of explanation in a very short exchange.

  Lityerses stepped sideways to block the exit. He was limping slightly, probably from his incident with the canopy. “You dropped that ivy-covered roof on me,” he said. “You made the bamboo attack my men.”

  “Yep,” Meg said. “You’re stupid.”

  Lit hissed in annoyance. I understood this effect Meg had on people. Still, my heart was humming a perfect middle C of happiness. My young protector had returned! (Yes, yes, she was technically my master, but let’s not mince words.) She had seen the error of her ways. She had rebelled against Nero. Now she would stay by my side and help me retain my godhood. Cosmic order had been restored!

  Then she glanced back at me. Instead of beaming with joy, or hugging me, or apologizing, she said, “Get out of here.”

  The command jarred me to the bones. I stepped back as if pushed. I was filled with the sudden desire to flee. When we’d parted, Meg had told me I was released from her service. Now it was clear that our master-servant relationship could not be so easily broken. Zeus meant me to follow her commands until I died or became a god again. I wasn’t sure he cared which.

  “But, Meg,” I pleaded. “You just arrived. We must—”

  “Go,” she said. “Take the griffins and get out. I’ll hold off stupid-head.”

  Lit laughed. “I’ve heard you’re a decent sword fighter, McCaffrey, but no child can match the Reaper of Men.”

  He spun his blade like Pete Townshend windmilling his guitar (a move I taught Pete, though I never approved of the way he smashed his guitar into the speakers afterward—such a waste!).

  “Demeter is my mother, too,” Lit said. “Her children make the best swordsmen. We understand the need to reap. It’s just the flipside of sowing, isn’t it, little sister? Let’s see what you know about reaping lives!”

  He lunged. Meg countered his strike and drove him back. They circled each other, three swords whirling in a deadly dance like blender blades making an air smoothie.

  Meanwhile, I was compelled to walk toward the griffins as Meg had ordered. I tried to do it slowly. I was reluctant to take my eyes off the battle, as if merely by watching Meg, I was somehow lending her strength. Once, when I was a god, that would’ve been possible, but now, what good could a spectating Lester do?

  Calypso stood in front of Heloise, protecting the mother-to-be with her body.

  I made it to Calypso’s side. “You’re lighter than I,” I said. “You ride Heloise. Be careful of her gut. I’ll take Abelard.”

  “What about Meg?” Calypso demanded. “We can’t leave her.”

  Just yesterday, I had toyed with the idea of leaving Calypso behind to the blemmyae when she was wounded. I’d like to say that wasn’t a serious thought, but it had been, however briefly. Now Calypso refused to leave Meg, whom she barely knew. It was almost enough to make me question whether I was a good person. (I stress the word almost.)

  “You’re right, of course.” I glanced across the arena. In the opposite enclosure, the combat ostriches were peering through their Plexiglas, following the sword fight with professional interest. “We need to move this party.”

  I turned to address Abelard. “I apologize in advance. I’m terrible at riding griffins.”

  The griffin squawked as if to say, Do what you gotta do, man. He allowed me to climb aboard and tuck my legs behind the base of his wings.

  Calypso followed my example, carefully straddling Heloise’s spine.

  The griffins, impatient to be gone, bounded past the sword fight and into the arena. Lityerses lunged as I passed him. He would have taken off my right arm, but Meg blocked his strike with one sword and swept at Lit’s feet with the other, forcing him back again.

  “Take those griffins and you’ll only suffer more!” Lit warned. “All the emperor’s prisoners will die slowly, especially the little girl.”

  My hands shook with anger, but I managed to nock an arrow in my bow. “Meg,” I yelled, “come on!”

  “I told you to leave!” she complained. “You’re a bad slave.”

  On that, at least, we agreed.

  Lityerses advanced on Meg again, slashing and stabbing. I was no expert on swordplay, but as good as Meg was, I feared she was outmatched. Lityerses had more strength, speed, and reach. He was twice Meg’s size. He’d been practicing for countless more years. If Lityerses hadn’t recently been injured from having a roof dropped on him, I suspected this fight might have been over already.

  “Go on, Apollo!” Lit taunted. “Fire that arrow at me.”

  I had seen how fast he could move. No doubt he would pull an Athena and slash my arrow out of the sky before it hit him. So unfair! But shooting at him had never been my plan.

  I leaned toward Abelard’s head and said, “Fly!”

  The griffin launched himself into the air as if my added weight was nothing. He circled around the stadium tiers, screeching for his mate to join him.

  Heloise had more trouble. She lumbered halfway across the arena floor, flapping her wings and growling with discomfort before getting airborne. With Calypso clinging to her neck for dear life, Heloise began flying in a tight circle behind Abelard. There was nowhere for us to go—not with the net above us—but I had more immediate problems.

  Meg stumbled, barely managing to parry Lit’s strike. His next cut sliced across Meg’s thigh, ripping her legging. The yellow fabric quickly turned orange from the flow of blood.

  Lit grinned. “You’re good, little sister, but you’re getting tired. You don’t have the stamina to face me.”

  “Abelard,” I murmured, “we need to get the girl. Dive!”

  The griffin complied with a bit too much enthusiasm. I almost missed my shot. I let my arrow fly not at Lityerses, but at the control box next to the emperor’s seat, aiming for a lever I had noted earlier: the one that read OMNIA—everything.

  WHANG! The arrow hit its mark. With a series of satisfying ka-chunks, the Plexiglas shields dropped from all the enclosures.

  Lityerses was too busy to realize what had happened. Being dive-bombed by a griffin tends to focus one’s attention. Lit backed away, allowing Abelard to snatch Meg McCaffrey in his paws and soar upward again.

  Lit gaped at us in dismay. “Good trick, Apollo. But where will you go? You’re—”

  That’s when he was run over by a h
erd of armored ostriches. The swordsman disappeared under a tidal wave of feathers, razor wire, and warty pink legs.

  As Lityerses squawked like a goose, curling up to protect himself, the winged serpents, fire-breathing horses, and Aethiopian Bull came out to join the fun.

  “Meg!” I stretched out my arm. While precariously gripped in Abelard’s paws, she willed her swords to shrink back into golden rings. She caught my hand. Somehow I managed to pull her onto Abelard and seat her in front of me.

  The flying serpents fluttered toward Heloise, who squawked defiantly and beat her mighty wings, climbing toward the netting. Abelard followed.

  My heart hammered against my ribs. Surely we couldn’t bust through the net. It would be designed to withstand brute force, beaks, and claws. I imagined us hitting the barrier and getting bounced back to the arena floor as if on a reverse trampoline. It seemed an undignified way to die.

  A moment before we would have slammed into the net, Calypso thrust up her arms. She howled in rage and the net blasted upward, ripped from its moorings, and was tossed into the sky like a giant tissue in a gale-force wind.

  Free and unhurt, we soared out of the arena. I stared at Calypso in amazement. She seemed as surprised as I was. Then she slumped and listed sideways. Heloise compensated, shifting her pitch to keep the sorceress on board. Calypso, looking only semiconscious, clung weakly to the griffin’s fur.

  As our two noble steeds rose into the sky, I glanced down at the arena. The monsters were engaged in a vicious free-for-all, but I saw no sign of Lityerses.

  Meg twisted to face me, her mouth set in a ferocious scowl. “You were supposed to go!”

  Then she wrapped her arms around me and hugged me so tightly I felt new fracture lines developing on my ribs. Meg sobbed, her face buried in my shirt, her whole body shaking.

  As for me, I did not weep. No, I’m sure my eyes were quite dry. I did not bawl like a baby in the slightest. The most I will admit is this: with her tears moistening my shirt, her cat-eye glasses digging uncomfortably into my chest, her smell of baked apples, dirt, and sweat overwhelming my nostrils, I was quite content to be annoyed, once again, by Meg McCaffrey.

  To the Waystation

  Meg McCaffrey eats my bread

  I cry godly tears

  HELOISE AND ABELARD knew where to go. They circled the Waystation roof until a section of shingles slid open, allowing the griffins to spiral into the great hall.

  They landed on the ledge, side by side in their nest, as Josephine and Leo scrambled up the ladders to join us.

  Josephine threw her arms first around Heloise’s neck, then Abelard’s. “Oh, my sweethearts! You’re alive!”

  The griffins cooed and leaned against her in greeting.

  Josephine beamed at Meg McCaffrey. “Welcome! I’m Jo.”

  Meg blinked, apparently not used to such an enthusiastic greeting.

  Calypso half climbed, half tumbled from Heloise’s back. She would have toppled off the ledge if Leo hadn’t caught her.

  “Whoa, mamacita,” he said. “You okay?”

  She blinked sleepily. “I’m fine. Don’t fuss. And don’t call me—”

  She crumpled against Leo, who struggled to keep her upright.

  He glared at me. “What did you do to her?”

  “Not a thing!” I protested. “I believe Calypso managed some magic.”

  I explained what had happened at the zoo: our encounter with Lityerses, our escape, and how the arena’s netting had suddenly shot into the sky like a squid from a water cannon (one of Poseidon’s less successful prototype weapons).

  Meg added unhelpfully, “It was crazy.”

  “Lityerses,” Leo muttered. “I hate that guy. Is Cal going to be okay?”

  Josephine checked Calypso’s pulse, then pressed a hand against her forehead. Slumped against Leo’s shoulder, the sorceress snored like a razorback sow.

  “She’s blown a circuit,” Josephine announced.

  “Blown a circuit?” Leo yelped. “I don’t like blown circuits!”

  “Just an expression, bud,” said Josephine. “She’s overextended herself magically. We should get her to Emmie in the infirmary. Here.”

  Josephine scooped up Calypso. Ignoring the ladder, she jumped off the ledge
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