The dark prophecy, p.14
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.14

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  to a second indentation on the manacle. “This activates the homing beacon. It’ll tell me where you are, and you’d better believe we’ll send reinforcements.”

  I didn’t know how Josephine would accomplish that. They didn’t have much of a cavalry. I also did not want to wear a tracking device on general principle. It went against the very nature of being Apollo. I should always be the most obvious, most brilliant source of light in the world. If you had to search for me, something was wrong.

  Then again, Josephine was giving me that look my mother, Leto, always pulled when she was afraid I’d forgotten to write her a new song for Mother’s Day. (It’s kind of a tradition. And yes, I am a wonderful son, thanks.)

  “Very well.” I fastened the shackle around my ankle. It fit snugly, but at least that way I could hide it under the hem of my jeans.

  “Thank you.” Jo pressed her forehead against mine. “Don’t die.” Then she turned and marched purposefully back to her workshop, no doubt anxious to create more restraining devices for me.

  Half an hour later, I discovered something important: one should never wear an iron manacle while operating a pedal boat.

  Our mode of transportation was Leo’s idea. When we arrived at the banks of the canal, he discovered a boat-rental dock that was shut down for the season. He decided to liberate a teal plastic pedal boat, and insisted we call him the Dread Pirate Valdez. (Meg loved this. I refused.)

  “This is the best way to spot that secret-entrance grate thing,” he assured us as we pedaled along. “At water level, we can’t miss it. Plus, we’re traveling in style!”

  We had very different ideas of traveling in style.

  Leo and I sat in the front, operating the pedals. Under the iron manacle, my ankle felt like it was being slowly chewed off by a Doberman pinscher. My calves burned. I did not understand why mortals would pay money for this experience. If the boat were pulled by hippocampi, perhaps, but physical labor? Ugh.

  Meanwhile, Meg faced the reverse direction in the backseat. She claimed she was “scouting our six” for the secret entrance to the sewers, but it looked an awful lot like she was relaxing.

  “So what’s with you and the emperor?” Leo asked me, his feet pedaling merrily along as if the exertion didn’t bother him at all.

  I wiped my brow. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “C’mon, man. At dinner, when Meg started shouting about commodes? You ran straight to the bathroom and spewed.”

  “I did not spew. It was more like heaving.”

  “Ever since, you’ve been awfully quiet.”

  He had a point. Being quiet was another un-Apollo-like trait. Usually I had so many interesting things to say and delightful songs to sing. I realized I should tell my companions about the emperor. They deserved to know what we were pedaling into. But forming the words was difficult.

  “Commodus blames me for his death,” I said.

  “Why?” Meg asked.

  “Probably because I killed him.”

  “Ah.” Leo nodded sagely. “That would do it.”

  I managed to tell them the story. It wasn’t easy. As I stared ahead of us, I imagined the body of Commodus floating just below the surface of the canal, ready to rise from the icy green depths and accuse me of treachery. You. Blessed. Me.

  When I was done with the story, Leo and Meg remained silent. Neither of them screamed Murderer! Neither of them looked me in the eye, either.

  “That’s rough, man,” Leo said at last. “But it sounds like Emperor Toilet needed to go.”

  Meg made a sound like a cat’s sneeze. “It’s Commodus. He’s handsome, by the way.”

  I glanced back. “You’ve met him?”

  Meg shrugged. At some point since yesterday, a rhinestone had fallen out of her glasses’ frames, like a star winked out of existence. It bothered me that I’d noticed such a small detail.

  “Once,” she said. “In New York. He visited my stepfather.”

  “Nero,” I urged. “Call him Nero.”

  “Yeah.” Red blotches appeared on her cheeks. “Commodus was handsome.”

  I rolled my eyes. “He’s also vainglorious, puffed up, egotistical—”

  “So he’s like your competition, then?” Leo asked.

  “Oh, shut up.”

  For a while, the only sound on the canal was the chugging of our pedal boat. It echoed off the ten-foot-high embankments and up the sides of brick warehouses that were in the process of conversion to condominiums and restaurants. The buildings’ dark windows stared down at us, making me feel both claustrophobic and exposed.

  “One thing I don’t get,” Leo said. “Why Commodus? I mean, if this Triumvirate is the three biggest and baddest emperors, the Roman supervillain dream team…Nero makes sense. But Commode Man? Why not some eviler, more famous guy, like Murderous Maximus or Attila the Hun?”

  “Attila the Hun was not a Roman emperor,” I said. “As for Murderous Maximus…well, that’s actually a good name, but not a real emperor. As for why Commodus is part of the Triumvirate—”

  “They think he’s weak,” Meg said.

  She kept her gaze on our wake, as if she saw her own assortment of faces below the surface.

  “You know this how?” I asked.

  “My step—Nero told me. Him and the third one, the emperor in the west, they wanted Commodus between them.”

  “The third emperor,” I said. “You know who he is?”

  Meg frowned. “I only saw him once. Nero never used his name. He just called him my kinsman. I think even Nero is afraid of him.”

  “Fantastic,” I muttered. Any emperor who scared Nero was not someone I wanted to meet.

  “So Nero and the dude in the west,” Leo said, “they want Commodus to be a buffer between them. Monkey in the middle.”

  Meg rubbed her nose. “Yeah. Nero told me….He said Commodus was like his Peaches. A vicious pet. But controllable.”

  Her voice wavered on the name of her karpos companion.

  I was afraid Meg might order me to slap myself or jump in the canal, but I asked, “Where is Peaches?”

  She stuck out her lower lip. “The Beast—”

  “Nero,” I corrected gently.

  “Nero took him. He said—he said I didn’t deserve a pet until I behaved.”

  Anger made me pedal faster, made me almost welcome the chafing pain on my ankle. I didn’t know how Nero had managed to imprison the grain spirit, but I understood why he’d done it. Nero wanted Meg to depend entirely on him. She wasn’t allowed to have her own possessions, her own friends. Everything in her life had to be tainted with Nero’s poison.

  If he got his hands on me, no doubt he would use me the same way. Whatever horrible tortures he had planned for Lester Papadopoulos, they wouldn’t be as bad as the way he tortured Meg. He would make her feel responsible for my pain and death.

  “We’ll get Peaches back,” I promised her.

  “Yeah, chica,” Leo agreed. “The Dread Pirate Valdez never abandons a crew member. Don’t you worry about—”

  “Guys.” Meg’s voice took on a sharp edge. “What’s that?”

  She pointed to starboard. A line of chevrons rippled on the green water—like an arrow had been shot horizontally across the surface.

  “Did you see what it was?” Leo asked.

  Meg nodded. “A—a fin, maybe? Do canals have fish?”

  I didn’t know the answer, but I didn’t like the size of those ripples. My throat felt as if it were sprouting fresh wheat shoots.

  Leo pointed off the bow. “There.”

  Right in front of us, about half an inch below the surface, green scales undulated, then submerged.

  “That’s not a fish,” I said, hating myself for being so perceptive. “I think that’s another part of the same creature.”

  “As over there?” Meg pointed again to starboard. The two disturbances had happened at least forty feet apart. “That would mean something bigger than the boat.”

  Leo
scanned the water. “Apollo, any idea what that thing is?”

  “Only a hunch,” I said. “Let’s hope I’m wrong. Pedal faster. We have to find that grate.”

  Get me a legion

  And about six tons of rocks

  Need to kill a snake

  I DO NOT LIKE SERPENTS.

  Ever since my famous battle with Python, I’ve had a phobia of scaly reptilian creatures. (Especially if you include my stepmother, Hera. BOOM!) I could barely tolerate the snakes on Hermes’s caduceus, George and Martha. They were friendly enough, but they constantly pestered me to write a song for them about the joy of eating rats—a joy I did not share.

  I told myself the creature in the Central Canal wasn’t an aquatic serpent. The water was much too cold. The canal didn’t offer enough tasty fish to eat.

  On the other hand, I knew Commodus. He loved to collect exotic monsters. I could think of one particular river serpent he would love—one that might easily sustain itself by eating tasty pedal-boaters….

  Bad Apollo! I told myself. Stay focused on your mission!

  We chugged along for another fifty feet or so, long enough for me to wonder if the threat had been imaginary. Perhaps the monster had been nothing more than an abandoned pet alligator. Did they have those in the Midwest? Very polite ones, perhaps?

  Leo nudged me. “Look over there.”

  On the far embankment wall, peeking above the waterline, was the brick archway of an old sewer main, the entrance blocked by golden bars.

  “How many sewers have you seen with gold grates on them?” Leo asked. “Betcha that one leads right to the emperor’s palace.”

  I frowned. “That was much too easy.”

  “Hey.” Meg poked me in the back of the neck. “Remember what Percy told us? Never say stuff like We made it or That was easy. You’ll jinx us!”

  “My entire existence is a jinx.”

  “Pedal faster.”

  Since that was a direct order from Meg, I had no choice. My legs already felt like they were turning into sacks of hot coals, but I picked up the pace. Leo steered our teal plastic pirate ship toward the sewer entrance.

  We were ten feet away when we triggered the First Law of Percy Jackson. Our jinx rose from the water in the form of a glistening arc of serpentine flesh.

  I may have screamed. Leo shouted a completely unhelpful warning: “Look out!”

  The boat tilted sideways. More arcs of serpent flesh breached around us—undulating hills of green and brown ridged with serrated dorsal fins. Meg’s twin blades flashed into existence. She tried to stand, but the pedal boat capsized, plunging us into a cold green explosion of bubbles and thrashing limbs.

  My only consolation: the canal was not deep. My feet found the bottom and I was able to stand, gasping and shivering, the water up to my shoulders. Nearby, a three-foot-diameter coil of serpent flesh encircled our pedal boat and squeezed. The hull imploded, shattering teal plastic with a sound like firecrackers. One shard stung my face, narrowly missing my left eye.

  Leo popped to the surface, his chin barely at water level. He waded toward the sewer grate, climbing over a hill of serpent flesh that got in his way. Meg, bless her heroic heart, slashed away at the monster’s coils, but her blades just skidded off its slimy hide.

  Then the creature’s head rose from the canal, and I lost all hope that we would be home in time for tofu enchilada night.

  The monster’s triangular forehead was wide enough to provide parking for a compact car. Its eyes glowed as orange as Agamethus’s ghost. When it opened its vast red maw, I remembered another reason I hate serpents. Their breath smells worse than Hephaestus’s work shirts.

  The creature snapped at Meg. Despite being neck-deep in water, she somehow sidestepped and thrust her left-handed blade straight into the serpent’s eye.

  The monster threw its head back and hissed. The canal boiled with snake flesh. I was swept off my feet and submerged once more.

  When I came to the surface, Meg McCaffrey stood at my side, her chest heaving as she gasped for air, her glasses crooked and filmed with canal water. The serpent’s head flailed from side to side as if trying to shake the blindness out of its wounded eye. Its jaw smacked against the nearest condominium building, shattering windows and webbing the brick wall with cracks. A banner along the roofline said LEASING SOON! I hoped that meant the building was empty.

  Leo made it to the grate. He traced his fingers along the golden bars, perhaps looking for buttons or switches or traps. Meg and I were now thirty feet away from him, which seemed a great distance over the vast serpentine terrain.

  “Hurry!” I called to him.

  “Gee, thanks!” he yelled back. “I didn’t think of that.”

  The canal churned as the serpent drew in its coils. Its head rose two stories above us. Its right eye had gone dark, but its glowing left iris and its hideous maw reminded me of those pumpkin things mortals make for Halloween—jack-o’-lanterns? A silly tradition. I always preferred running around in goatskins at Februalia. Much more dignified.

  Meg stabbed at the creature’s underbelly. Her golden blade only sparked against it.

  “What is this thing?” she demanded.

  “The Carthaginian Serpent,” I said. “One of the most fearsome beasts ever to face Roman troops. In Africa, it almost drowned an entire legion under Marcus Atilius Regulus—”

  “Don’t care.” Meg and the serpent eyed each other warily—as if a giant monster and a twelve-year-old girl were well-matched opponents. “How do I kill it?”

  My mind raced. I didn’t do well in panic situations, which meant most of the situations I had been in recently. “I—I think the legion finally crushed it with thousands of rocks.”

  “I don’t have a legion,” Meg said. “Or thousands of rocks.”

  The serpent hissed, spraying venom across the canal. I unslung my bow, but I ran into that pesky maintenance issue again. A wet bowstring and arrows were problematic, especially if I planned to hit a target as small as the serpent’s other eye. Then there were the physics of firing a bow while shoulder-deep in water.

  “Leo?” I called.

  “Almost!” He banged a wrench against the grate. “Keep it distracted!”

  I gulped. “Meg, perhaps if you could stab its other eye, or its mouth.”

  “While you do what, hide?”

  I really hated how this young girl could get inside my brain. “Of course not! I’ll just be, um—”

  The serpent struck. Meg and I dove in opposite directions. The creature’s head caused a tsunami between us, somersaulting me through the water. I swallowed a few gallons of the canal and came up spluttering, then gagged in horror when I saw Meg encircled in the snake’s tail. The serpent lifted her out of the water, bringing her level with its remaining eye. Meg slashed wildly, but the monster kept her out of striking distance. It regarded her as if thinking, What is this stoplight-colored thing?

  Then it began to squeeze.

  Leo yelled, “I got it!”

  Clang. The grate’s golden bars swung inward.

  Leo turned, grinning in pride, then saw Meg’s predicament.

  “Nuh-uh!” He raised his hand above the water and tried to summon fire. All he managed was a puff of steam. He threw a wrench that bounced harmlessly off the snake’s side.

  Meg yelped. The snake’s tail constricted around her waist, turning her face tomato red. She hammered her swords uselessly against the monster’s hide.

  I stood paralyzed, unable to help, unable to think.

  I knew the strength of such a serpent. I remembered being wrapped in Python’s coils, my divine ribs cracking, my godly ichor being squeezed into my head and threatening to spurt out my ears.

  “Meg!” I shouted. “Hold on!”

  She glared down at me, her eyes bulging, her tongue swollen, as if thinking, Like I have a choice?

  The serpent ignored me, no doubt too interested in watching Meg implode like the pedal boat. Behind the snake’s head rose
the damaged brick wall of a condominium. The sewer entrance stood just to the right of that.

  I remembered the tale of the Roman legion that had once fought this thing by showering it with stones. If only that brick wall were part of the Waystation, and I could command it….

  The idea seized me like a coil of the monster.

  “Leo!” I yelled. “Get in the tunnel!”

  “But—”

  “Do it!”

  Something began to swell inside my chest. I hoped it was power and not my breakfast.

  I filled my lungs and bellowed in the baritone voice I usually reserved for Italian operas: “BEGONE, SNAKE! I AM APOLLO!”

  The frequency was perfect.

  The wall of the warehouse trembled and cracked. A three-story-tall curtain of bricks peeled away and collapsed onto the serpent’s back, pushing its head underwater. Its coiled tail loosened. Meg dropped into the canal.

  Ignoring the rain of bricks, I waded forward (quite bravely, I thought) and pulled Meg to the surface.

  “Guys, hurry!” Leo yelled. “The grate’s closing again!”

  I dragged Meg toward the sewer (because that’s what friends are for) as Leo did his best to wedge the grate open with a tire iron.

  Thank goodness for scrawny mortal bodies! We squeezed through just as the bars locked into place behind us.

  Outside, the serpent surged upward from its baptism of bricks. It hissed and banged its half-blind head against the grate, but we did not linger to chat. We forged on, into the darkness of the emperor’s waterworks.

  I wax poetic

  On the beauty of sewers

  Real short poem. Done

  WADING SHOULDER-DEEP through freezing sewer water, I felt nostalgic for the Indianapolis Zoo. Oh, for the simple pleasures of hiding from murderous Germani, crashing miniature trains, and serenading angry griffins!

  Gradually, the sound of the serpent banging on the grate faded behind us. We walked for so long, I feared we’d die of hypothermia before reaching our goal. Then I spotted a raised alcove built into the side of the tunnel—an old service platform, maybe. We climbed out of the frigid green muck for a break. Meg and I huddled together while Leo attempted to light himself on fire.

  On his third try, his skin sputtered and hissed, finally bursting into flames.

  “Gather round, children.” His grin looked diabolical with orange fire washing across his face. “Nothing like a blazing-hot Leo to warm you up!”

  I tried to call him an idiot, but my jaw was shivering so badly, all that came out was, “Id—id—id—id—id—”

  Soon our little alcove was infused with the smell of reheated Meg and Apollo—baked apples, mildew, body odor, and just a hint of awesomeness. (I’ll let you guess which scent was my contribution.) My fingers turned from blue back to pink. I could feel my legs well enough again to be bothered by the chafing from the iron shackle. I was even able to speak without stuttering like Josephine’s tommy gun.

 
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