The dark prophecy, p.12
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.12

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  and landed easily on the floor twenty feet below.

  Leo scowled. “I could have done that.”

  He turned to Meg. No doubt he recognized her from my many tales of woe. After all, young girls in stoplight-colored clothing and rhinestone cat-eye glasses were not common.

  “You’re Meg McCaffrey,” he decided.

  “Yep.”

  “Cool. I’m Leo. And, uh…” He pointed at me. “I understand you can, like, control this guy?”

  I cleared my throat. “We merely cooperate! I’m not controlled by anyone. Right, Meg?”

  “Slap yourself,” Meg commanded.

  I slapped myself.

  Leo grinned. “Oh, this is too good. I’m going to check on Calypso, but later we need to talk.” He slid down the ladder railings, leaving me with a deep sense of foreboding.

  The griffins settled into their nest, clucking contentedly to each other. I was no griffin midwife, but Heloise, thank the gods, seemed no worse for wear after her flight.

  I faced Meg. My cheek stung where I’d slapped myself. My pride had been trampled like Lityerses under a herd of combat ostriches. Nevertheless, I felt remarkably happy to see my young friend.

  “You rescued me.” Then I added two words that never come easily to a god: “Thank you.”

  Meg gripped her elbows. On her middle fingers, her gold rings glinted with the crescent symbol of her mother, Demeter. I had bandaged her cut thigh as best I could while we were in flight, but she still looked shaky on her feet.

  I thought she might cry again, but when she met my eyes, she wore her usual willful expression, as if she were about to call me Poop Face, or order me to play princess versus dragon with her. (I never got to be the princess.)

  “I didn’t do it for you,” she said.

  I tried to process that meaningless phrase. “Then why—”

  “That guy.” She waved her fingers over her face, indicating Lityerses’s scars. “He was bad.”

  “Well, I can’t argue with that.”

  “And the ones who drove me from New York.” She made her icky expression. “Marcus. Vortigern. They said things, what they would do in Indianapolis.” She shook her head. “Bad things.”

  I wondered if Meg knew that Marcus and Vortigern had been beheaded for letting her escape. I decided not to mention it. If Meg was really curious, she could check their Facebook status updates.

  Next to us, the griffins snuggled in for a well-deserved rest. They tucked their heads under their wings and purred, which would have been cute if they didn’t sound like chainsaws.

  “Meg…” I faltered.

  I felt as if a Plexiglas wall divided us, though I wasn’t sure whom it was protecting from whom. I wanted to say so many things to her, but I wasn’t sure how.

  I summoned my courage. “I am going to try.”

  Meg studied me warily. “Try what?”

  “To tell you…how I feel. To clear the air. Stop me if I say something wrong, but I think it’s obvious we still need each other.”

  She didn’t respond.

  “I don’t blame you for anything,” I continued. “The fact that you left me alone in the Grove of Dodona, that you lied about your stepfather—”

  “Stop.”

  I waited for her faithful servant Peaches the karpos to fall from the heavens and tear my scalp off. It didn’t happen.

  “What I mean,” I tried again, “is that I am sorry for everything you have been through. None of it was your fault. You should not blame yourself. That fiend Nero played with your emotions, twisted your thoughts—”

  “Stop.”

  “Perhaps I could put my feelings into a song.”

  “Stop.”

  “Or I could tell you a story about a similar thing that once happened to me.”

  “Stop.”

  “A short riff on my ukulele?”

  “Stop.” This time, though, I detected the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of Meg’s mouth.

  “Can we at least agree to work together?” I asked. “The emperor in this city is searching for us both. If we don’t stop him, he will do many more bad things.”

  Meg raised her left shoulder to her ear. “Okay.”

  A gentle crackling sound came from the griffin’s nest. Green shoots were sprouting from the dry hay, perhaps a sign of Meg’s improving mood.

  I remembered Cleander’s words in my nightmare: You should have realized how powerful she is becoming. Meg had somehow tracked me to the zoo. She’d caused ivy to grow until it collapsed a roof. She’d made bamboo plants swallow a squad of Germani. She’d even teleported away from her escorts in Dayton using a clump of dandelions. Few children of Demeter had ever had such abilities.

  Still, I was under no illusions that Meg and I could skip away from here arm in arm, our problems forgotten. Sooner or later, she would have to confront Nero again. Her loyalties would be tested, her fears played upon. I could not free her of her past, even with the best song or ukulele riff.

  Meg rubbed her nose. “Is there any food?”

  I hadn’t realized how tense I’d been until I relaxed. If Meg was thinking of food, we were back on the path to normalcy.

  “There is food.” I lowered my voice. “Mind you, it’s not as good as Sally Jackson’s seven-layer dip, but Emmie’s fresh-baked bread and homemade cheese are quite acceptable.”

  Behind me, a voice said drily, “So glad you approve.”

  I turned.

  At the top of the ladder, Emmie was glaring griffin claws at me. “Lady Britomartis is downstairs. She wants to talk to you.”

  The goddess did not say thank you. She did not shower me with praise, offer me a kiss, or even give me a free magic net.

  Britomartis simply waved to seats across the dinner table and said, “Sit.”

  She was dressed in a gauzy black dress over a fishnet bodysuit, a look that reminded me of Stevie Nicks, circa 1981. (We did a fabulous duet on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” I got zero credit on the album, though.) She propped her leather boots on the dining table as if she owned the place, which I guess she did, and twirled her auburn braid between her fingers.

  I checked my seat, then Meg’s, for any spring-activated explosive devices, but without Leo’s expert eye, I couldn’t be sure. My only hope: Britomartis looked distracted, perhaps too distracted for her usual fun and games. I sat. Happily, my gloutos did not explode.

  A simple meal had been laid out: more salad, bread, and cheese. I hadn’t realized it was lunchtime, but when I saw the food, my stomach growled. I reached for the loaf of bread. Emmie pulled it away and gave it to Meg.

  Emmie smiled sweetly. “Apollo, I wouldn’t want you to eat anything that’s only acceptable. There’s plenty of salad, though.”

  I stared miserably at the bowl of lettuce and cucumbers. Meg grabbed the entire bread loaf and ripped off a chunk, chewing it with gusto. Well…I say chewing. Meg stuffed so much into her mouth it was difficult to know if her teeth ever connected.

  Britomartis laced her fingers in front of her. Even that simple gesture looked like an elaborate snare. “Emmie,” she said, “how is the sorceress?”

  “Resting comfortably, my lady,” said Emmie. “Leo and Josephine are looking in on her—Ah, here they are now.”

  Josephine and Leo strode toward the dining table, Leo’s arms spread like the Rio de Janeiro Christ statue. “You can all relax!” he announced. “Calypso is okay!”

  The net goddess grunted as if disappointed.

  A thought struck me. I frowned at Britomartis. “The net over the arena. Nets are your department. You helped blast it away, didn’t you? Calypso couldn’t have done that magic by herself.”

  Britomartis smirked. “I may have jump-started her power a bit. She’ll be more useful to me if she can master her old abilities.”

  Leo dropped his arms. “But you could’ve killed her!”

  The goddess shrugged. “Probably not, but it’s hard to say. Tricky stuff, magic. You n
ever know when or how it’s going to come out.” She spoke with distaste, as if magic were some poorly controlled bodily function.

  Leo’s ears began to smoke. He stepped toward the goddess.

  Josephine grabbed his arm. “Let it go, bud. Between Emmie and me, we can take care of your girl.”

  Leo wagged a finger at Britomartis. “You’re lucky these ladies are such bosses. Jo here, she told me that with enough time and training she could probably help Calypso get her magic back all the way.”

  Josephine shifted, her wrenches clinking in the pockets of her coveralls. “Leo—”

  “Did you know she was a gangster?” He grinned at me. “Jo knew Al Capone! She had this secret identity and—”

  “Leo!”

  He flinched. “Which…isn’t my place to talk about. Oh, look, food.”

  He took a seat and began cutting the cheese.

  Britomartis pressed her hands against the table. “But enough about the sorceress. Apollo, I must admit you did moderately well retrieving my griffins.”

  “Moderately well?” I bit back a few nasty comments. I wondered if demigods ever felt the need to restrain themselves when facing ungrateful gods like this. No. Surely not. I was special and different. And I deserved better treatment.

  “So glad you approve,” I muttered.

  Britomartis’s smile was thin and cruel. I imagined nets wrapping around my feet, constricting the flow of blood in my ankles. “As promised, I will now reward you. I’ll give you information that will lead you directly to the palace of the emperor, where you’ll either make us proud…or be executed in some horrible but creative fashion.”

  My dear Commodus,

  Commode is named after you

  Hail, Toilet Caesar

  WHY DID PEOPLE keep ruining my meals?

  First they served me food. Then they explained how I was likely to die in the near future. I longed to be back on Mount Olympus, where I could worry about more interesting things, like hot trends in techno-pop, bumper-car poetry slams, and laying waste to naughty communities with my arrows of vengeance. One thing I’d learned from being mortal: contemplating death is much more fun when you’re contemplating someone else’s.

  Before Britomartis would give us our “reward,” she insisted on a briefing from Josephine and Emmie, who had spent all day, with Leo’s help, preparing the Waystation for a siege.

  “This guy’s good.” Josephine punched Leo’s arm affectionately. “The things he knows about Archimedes spheres…really impressive.”

  “Spheres?” Meg asked.

  “Yeah,” Leo said. “They’re these round things.”

  “Shut up.” Meg went back to inhaling carbohydrates.

  “We reset all the crossbow turrets,” Jo continued. “Primed the catapults. Closed all exits and put Waystation on twenty-four-hour-surveillance mode. If anyone tries to get in, we’ll know.”

  “They will try,” Britomartis promised. “It’s only a matter of time.”

  I raised my hand. “And, uh, Festus?”

  I hoped the wistfulness in my voice was not too obvious. I didn’t want the others to think I was ready to fly off on our bronze dragon and leave the Waystation to sort out its own problems. (Though I was ready to do exactly that.)

  Emmie shook her head. “I scouted the statehouse grounds late last night, and again this morning. Nothing. The blemmyae must have taken your bronze suitcase to the palace.”

  Leo clicked his tongue. “I bet Lityerses has it. When I get my hands on that crust-sucking Cornhusker—”

  “Which brings us to the point,” I said. “How does Leo—I mean, how do we find the palace?”

  Britomartis slid her feet off the table. She sat forward. “The main gates to the emperor’s palace are under the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.”

  Josephine grunted. “Should’ve known.”

  “Why?” I asked. “What is that?”

  Josephine rolled her eyes. “A huge decorated column thing in the middle of a plaza, a few blocks north of here. Just the kind of ostentatious, over-the-top edifice you’d expect the emperor to have for his entrance.”

  “It’s the biggest monument in the city,” Emmie added.

  I tried to contain my bitterness. Soldiers and sailors were all very well, but if your city’s biggest monument is not to Apollo, I’m sorry, you’re doing something wrong. “I suppose the palace is heavily guarded?”

  Britomartis laughed. “Even by my standards, the monument is a death trap. Machine gun turrets. Lasers. Monsters. Attempting the front door without an invitation would have dire consequences.”

  Meg swallowed a chunk of bread, somehow managing not to choke. “The emperor would let us in.”

  “Well, true,” Britomartis agreed. “He’d love for you and Apollo to knock on his front door and give yourselves up. But I only mention the main entrance because you should avoid it at all costs. If you want to get inside the palace without being apprehended and tortured to death, there’s another possibility.”

  Leo bit a cheese slice into the shape of a smile. He held it up to his mouth. “Leo is happy when he’s not being tortured to death.”

  Meg snorted. A gob of bread shot out of her right nostril, but she didn’t have the decency to look embarrassed. I could tell Leo and Meg were not going to be healthy influences on each other.

  “Then, to get inside,” said the goddess, “you must use the waterworks.”

  “The plumbing system,” I guessed. “In my vision of the emperor’s throne room, I saw open trenches of flowing water. You know how to access them?”

  Britomartis winked at me. “You’re not still afraid of water, I hope?”

  “I have never been afraid of water!” My voice came out shriller than I intended.

  “Hmm,” Britomartis mused. “Then why did the Greeks always pray to you for a safe landing whenever they were in dangerous waters?”

  “B-because my mother was stuck in a boat when she was trying to give birth to me and Artemis! I can appreciate wanting to be on solid ground!”

  “And those rumors you can’t swim? I remember at Triton’s pool party—”

  “I can totally swim! Just because I didn’t want to play Marco Polo with you in the deep end with contact mines—”

  “Hey, goddy people,” Meg interrupted. “The waterworks?”

  “Right!” For once I was relieved at Meg’s lack of patience. “Britomartis, how do we access the throne room?”

  Britomartis narrowed her eyes at Meg. “Goddy people?” She seemed to be pondering how McCaffrey would look wrapped in a lead-weighted hook net and dropped into the Mariana Trench. “Well, Miss McCaffrey, to access the emperor’s water system, you’ll need to search the city’s Canal Walk.”

  “What’s that?” Meg asked.

  Emmie patted her hand. “I can show you. It’s an old canal that runs through downtown. They refurbished the area, built a bunch of new apartments and restaurants and whatnot.”

  Leo popped his cheese smile into his mouth. “I love whatnot.”

  Britomartis smiled. “That’s fortunate, Leo Valdez. Because your skills will be required to find the entrance, disarm the traps, and whatnot.”

  “Hold up. Find the entrance? I thought you’d tell us where it was.”

  “I just did,” said the goddess. “Somewhere along the canal. Look for a grate. You’ll know it when you see it.”

  “Uh-huh. And it’ll be booby-trapped.”

  “Of course! But not nearly as much as the fortress’s main entrance. And Apollo will have to overcome his fear of water.”

  “I don’t have a fear—”

  “Shut up,” Meg told me, causing my vocal cords to solidify like cold cement. She pointed a carrot at Leo. “If we find the grate, can you get us in?”

  Leo’s expression made him look as serious and dangerous as it was possible for a small elfin demigod to look in a little girl’s coveralls (a clean pair, mind you, which he’d intentionally found and put on). “I’m a
son of Hephaestus, chica. I can problem-solve. This guy Lityerses tried to kill me and my friends once before. Now he’s threatened Calypso? Yeah, I’ll get us inside that palace. Then I’m going to find Lit and…”

  “Light him up?” I suggested, surprised but pleased to find I could speak again so soon after being told to shut up. “So he’s literally lit?”

  Leo frowned. “I wasn’t going to say that. Seemed too corny.”

  “When I say it,” I assured him, “it’s poetry.”

  “Well.” Britomartis rose, fishhooks and weights clinking in her dress. “When Apollo starts talking poetry, that’s my cue to leave.”

  “I wish I’d known that sooner,” I said.

  She blew me an air-kiss. “Your friend Calypso should remain here. Josephine, see if you can help her regain control over her magic. She’ll need it for the coming battle.”

  Josephine drummed her fingers on the table. “Been a long time since I’ve trained anyone in the ways of Hecate, but I’ll do my best.”

  “Emmie,” the goddess continued, “you watch after my griffins. Heloise could lay her egg at any moment.”

  Emmie’s scalp turned crimson along her silver hairline. “What about Georgina? You’ve given us a way into the emperor’s palace. Now you expect us to stay here rather than go free our girl?”

  Britomartis raised a hand in caution, as if to say, You’re very close to the Burmese tiger pit, my dear. “Trust Meg, Leo, and Apollo. This is their task: to find and free the captives, to retrieve the Throne of Mnemosyne—”

  “And get Festus,” Leo added.

  “And especially Georgina,” Jo added.

  “We can pick up some groceries, too,” Leo offered. “I noticed you’re low on hot sauce.”

  Britomartis chose not to destroy him, though from her expression I could tell she came close. “Tomorrow at first light, search for the entrance.”

  “Why not earlier?” Meg asked.

  The goddess smirked. “You’re fearless. I respect that. But you must be rested and prepared to meet the emperor’s forces. You need that leg wound tended to. I also suspect it’s been many nights since you’ve had a proper sleep. Besides, the incident at the zoo has the emperor’s security on high alert. Best to let the dust settle. If he catches you, Meg McCaffrey—”

  “I know.” She did not sound afraid. Her tone was that of a child who’d been reminded for the fifth time to clean her room. The only sign of Meg’s anxiety: in her hand, her last piece of bread had begun to sprout green tendrils of wheat.

  “In the meantime,” Britomartis said, “I will try to locate the Hunters of Artemis. They were in the area on a quest not long ago. Perhaps they are still close enough to come help defend this place.”

  A hysterical giggle escaped my mouth. The idea of twenty or thirty other competent archers at my side, even if they were sworn maidens with no sense of humor, made me feel much safer. “That would be good.”

  “But if not,” said the goddess, “you must be prepared to fight on your own.”

  “That would be typical.” I sighed.

  “And remember, the emperor’s naming ceremony is the day after tomorrow.”

 
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