The dark prophecy, p.15
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.15
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  When Leo judged us sufficiently dry, he shut off his personal bonfire. “Hey, Apollo, that was nice work back there.”

  “Which part?” I said. “The drowning? The screaming?”

  “Nah, man—how you collapsed that brick wall. You should do that more often.”

  I plucked a teal plastic shard from my coat. “As an annoying demigod once told me, Gee, why didn’t I think of that? I’ve explained before—I can’t control those bursts of power. Somehow, in that moment, I found my godly voice. Brick mortar resonates at a certain frequency. It’s best manipulated by a baritone at one hundred twenty-five decibels—”

  “You saved me,” Meg interrupted. “I was going to die. Maybe that’s why you got your voice back.”

  I was reluctant to admit it, but she might have been right. The last time I’d experienced a burst of godly power, in the woods of Camp Half-Blood, my children Kayla and Austin had been in imminent danger of burning alive. Concern for others was a logical trigger for my powers. I was, after all, selfless, caring, and an all-around nice guy. Nevertheless, I found it irritating that my own well-being wasn’t sufficient to give me godly strength. My life was important too!

  “Well,” I said, “I’m glad you weren’t crushed to death, Meg. Anything broken?”

  She touched her rib cage. “Nah. I’m good.”

  Her stiff movement, her pale complexion, and the tightness around her eyes told me otherwise. She was in more pain than she would admit. However, until we got back to the Waystation infirmary, I couldn’t do much for her. Even if I’d had proper medical supplies, wrapping the ribs of a girl who’d almost been crushed to death might do more harm than good.

  Leo stared at the dark green water. He looked more pensive than usual, or perhaps it was just the fact that he wasn’t on fire anymore.

  “What are you thinking about?” I asked.

  He glanced over—no snappy comeback, no playful grin. “Just…Leo and Calypso’s Garage: Auto Repair and Mechanical Monsters.”

  “What?”

  “Something Cal and I used to joke about.”

  It didn’t sound like a very funny joke. Then again, mortal humor wasn’t always up to my godly standards. I recalled Calypso and Leo deep in conversation with Emmie yesterday as they walked through the great hall.

  “Something to do with what Emmie was telling you?” I ventured.

  He shrugged. “Stuff for the future. Nothing to worry about.”

  As a former god of prophecy, I’d always found the future a wonderful source of worry. But I decided not to press the issue. Right now, the only future goal that mattered was getting me back to Mount Olympus so the world could once again bask in my divine glory. I had to think of the greater good.

  “Well,” I said, “now that we’re warm and dry, I suppose it’s time to get in the water again.”

  “Fun,” Meg said. She jumped in first.

  Leo led the way, keeping one burning hand above the water for light. Every so often, small objects floated up from the pockets of his tool belt and drifted past me—Velcro tabs, Styrofoam peanuts, multicolored twist ties.

  Meg guarded our backs, her twin swords gleaming in the darkness. I appreciated her fighting skills, but I did wish we had some additional help. A demigod child of the sewer goddess Cloacina would have been welcome…which is the first time I’d ever had that depressing thought.

  I trudged along in the middle, trying to avoid flashbacks of my long-ago, unintended trip through a sewage-treatment facility in Biloxi, Mississippi. (That day would’ve been a total disaster, except that it ended with an impromptu jam session with Lead Belly.)

  The current became stronger, pushing against us. Up ahead, I detected the glow of electric lights, the sound of voices. Leo extinguished his hand fire. He turned to us and put his finger to his lips.

  After another twenty feet, we arrived at a second set of golden bars. Beyond that, the sewer opened into a much larger space where the water ran at a crosscurrent, some of it diverting into our tunnel. The force of the outflow made it difficult to stand.

  Leo pointed at the golden grate. “This runs on a clepsydra lock,” he said just loud enough to be heard. “I think I can open it quietly, but keep watch for me just in case…I don’t know…giant serpents.”

  “We have faith in you, Valdez.” I had no idea what a clepsydra lock was, but I’d learned from dealing with Hephaestus that it was best to show optimism and polite interest. Otherwise the tinkerer took offense and stopped making shiny toys for me to play with.

  Within moments, Leo had the grate open. No alarms sounded. No contact mines exploded in our faces.

  We emerged in the throne room I’d seen in my vision.

  Fortunately, we were neck-deep in one of the open channels of water that lined the sides of the chamber, so I doubted anyone could easily spot us. Along the wall behind us, videos of Commodus looped over and over on the giant television screens.

  We trudged toward the opposite side of the channel.

  If you have ever tried to walk while immersed in a swift stream, you know how difficult it is. Also, if you have tried it, then may I ask why? It was absolutely exhausting. With every step, I feared the current would sweep me off my feet and flush me into the bowels of Indianapolis. Somehow, though, we made it to the far side.

  I peeked over the edge of the channel and was immediately sorry I did.

  Commodus was right there. Thank the gods, we had crossed slightly behind his throne, so neither he nor his Germani guards saw me. My least favorite Cornhusker, Lityerses, knelt before the emperor, facing my direction, but his head was lowered. I ducked back below the edge before he could spot me. I gestured to my friends: Quiet. Yikes. We’re going to die. Or something to that effect. They seemed to get the message. Shivering miserably, I pressed against the wall and listened to the conversation going on just above us.

  “—part of the plan, sire,” Lityerses was saying. “We know where the Waystation is now.”

  Commodus grunted. “Yes, yes. Old Union Station. But Cleander searched that place several times before and found nothing.”

  “The Waystation is there,” Lityerses insisted. “The tracking devices I planted on the griffins worked perfectly. The place must be protected by some sort of magic, but it won’t stand up to a fleet of blemmyae bulldozers.”

  My heart climbed above water level, which put it somewhere between my ears. I dared not look at my friends. I had failed once again. I had unwittingly betrayed the location of our safe haven.

  Commodus sighed. “Fine. Yes. But I want Apollo captured and brought to me in chains! The naming ceremony is tomorrow. Our dress rehearsal is, like, right now. When can you have the Waystation destroyed?”

  Lityerses hesitated. “We need to scout the defenses. And gather our forces. Two days?”

  “TWO DAYS? I’m not asking you to cross the Alps! I want it to happen now!”

  “Tomorrow, then, at the latest, sire,” said Lityerses. “Definitely by tomorrow.”

  “Hmph. I’m beginning to wonder about you, son of Midas. If you don’t deliver—”

  An electronic alarm blared through the chamber. For a moment, I thought we’d been discovered. I may or may not have emptied my bladder in the channel. (Don’t tell Leo. He was downstream.)

  Then, from the other side of the room, a voice shouted in Latin, “Incursion at the front gates!”

  Lityerses growled. “I will deal with this, sire. Never fear. Guards, with me!”

  Heavy footsteps faded into the distance.

  I glanced at Meg and Leo, who were both giving me the same silent question: What the Hades?

  I had not ordered an incursion at the front gates. I hadn’t even activated the iron manacle on my ankle. I didn’t know who would be so foolish as to launch a frontal assault on this underground palace, but Britomartis had promised to look for the Hunters of Artemis. It occurred to me that this was the sort of diversionary tactic they might arrange if they were trying to distract Commo
dus’s security forces from our presence. Could we be so lucky? Probably not. More likely, some magazine-subscription salesman had rung the emperor’s doorbell and was about to get a very hostile reception.

  I risked another peek over the edge of the canal. Commodus was alone now with just one guard.

  Perhaps we could take him—three on two?

  Except that we were all about to pass out from hypothermia, Meg probably had some broken ribs, and my own powers were unpredictable at best. On the opposing team, we had a trained barbarian killer and a semi-divine emperor with a well-deserved reputation for superhuman strength. I decided to stay put.

  Commodus glanced at his bodyguard. “Alaric.”

  “Lord?”

  “I think your time is approaching. I grow impatient with my prefect. How long has Lityerses had this job?”

  “About a day, my lord.”

  “Seems like forever!” Commodus pounded his fist on his armrest. “As soon as he’s dealt with this incursion, I want you to kill him.”

  “Yes, lord.”

  “I want you to wipe out the Waystation tomorrow morning at the latest. Can you do that?”

  “Of course, lord.”

  “Good! We’ll have the naming ceremony immediately afterward in the colosseum.”

  “Stadium, my lord.”

  “Same difference! And the Cave of Prophecy? Is it secure?”

  My spine took a jolt of electricity so strong I wondered if Commodus kept electric eels in the channel.

  “I have followed your orders, sire,” Alaric said. “The beasts are in place. The entrance is well guarded. None shall gain access.”

  “Lovely!” Commodus jumped to his feet. “Now let’s go try on our racing outfits for the dress rehearsal, shall we? I can’t wait to remake this city in my own image!”

  I waited until the sound of their footsteps receded. I peeked over and saw no one in the room.

  “Now,” I said.

  We dragged ourselves out of the canal and stood dripping and shivering in front of the golden throne. I could still smell the scent of Commodus’s favorite body oil—a mix of cardamom and cinnamon.

  Meg paced for warmth, her swords glowing in her hands. “Tomorrow morning? We gotta warn Jo and Emmie.”

  “Yeah,” Leo agreed. “But we stick to the plan. First we find the captives. And that Throne of Whatever-It-Is—”

  “Memory,” I said.

  “Yeah, that. Then we get out of here and warn Jo and Emmie.”

  “It may not help,” I fretted. “I’ve seen how Commodus remakes a city. There will be chaos and spectacle, fire and wholesale slaughter, and lots and lots of pictures of Commodus everywhere. Add to that an army of blemmyae bulldozers—”

  “Apollo.” Leo made a fiery time-out sign. “We’re gonna use the Valdez method on this.”

  Meg frowned. “What’s the Valdez method?”

  “Don’t overthink it,” Leo said. “It’ll just make you depressed. In fact, try not to think at all.”

  Meg considered this, then seemed to realize she was thinking, then looked sheepish. “’Kay.”

  Leo grinned. “See? Easy! Now let’s go blow some stuff up.”

  So amaze! Such name!

  Sssssarah with five s’s is

  Still two syllablessssss

  AT FIRST, the Valdez method worked fine.

  We found nothing to blow up, but we also didn’t have to overthink anything. This was because we embraced the McCaffrey method as well, which involved chia seeds.

  Faced with a choice of which corridor to take from the throne room, Meg pulled a soggy package of seeds from her red high-top. (I did not ask why she kept seeds in her shoes.) She caused the chia to sprout in her cupped palm, and the tiny forest of green stalks pointed toward the left-hand corridor.

  “That way,” Meg announced.

  “Awesome superpower,” Leo said. “When we get out of here, I’ma hook you up with a mask and a cape. We’ll call you Chia Girl.”

  I hoped he was kidding. Meg, however, looked delighted.

  The chia sprouts led us down one corridor then another. For an underground lair in the Indianapolis sewer system, the palace was quite opulent. The floors were rough-hewn slate, the gray stone walls decorated with alternating tapestries and television monitors showing—you guessed it—videos of Commodus. Most of the mahogany doors were labeled with engraved bronze plates: COMMODUS SAUNA, COMMODUS GUEST ROOMS 1–6, COMMODUS EMPLOYEE CAFETERIA, and, yes, COMMODUS COMMODES.

  We saw no guards, no employees, no guests. The only person we encountered was a maid coming out of the COMMODUS IMPERIAL GUARD BARRACKS with a basket of dirty laundry.

  When she saw us, her eyes widened in terror. (Probably because we looked dirtier and damper than anything she’d pulled from the Germani’s hamper.) Before she could scream, I knelt before her and sang “You Don’t See Me” by Josie and the Pussycats. The maid’s eyes became misty and unfocused. She sniffled nostalgically, walked back into the barracks, and closed the door behind her.

  Leo nodded. “Nice one, Apollo.”

  “It wasn’t hard. That tune is wonderful for inducing short-term amnesia.”

  Meg sniffed. “Would’ve been kinder to hit her over the head.”

  “Oh, come now,” I protested. “You like my singing.”

  Her ears reddened. I remembered how young McCaffrey had cried when I poured out my heart and soul in the giant ants’ lair at Camp Half-Blood. I’d been rather proud of my performance, but I guess Meg did not feel like reliving it.

  She punched me in the gut. “Come on.”

  “Ow.”

  The chia seeds led us deeper into the emperor’s compound. Silence began to weigh on me. Imaginary insects crawled across my shoulder blades. Surely Commodus’s men had dealt with the front-door incursion by now. They would be returning to their normal posts, perhaps checking security monitors for other intruders.

  At last, we turned a corner and spotted a blemmyae keeping watch outside a metal vault door. The guard wore black dress pants and shiny black shoes, but he made no attempt to hide his chest-face. The hair across his shoulders/scalp was clipped in a military flattop. The wire of a security earpiece ran from beneath his armpit to his pants pocket. He did not appear to be armed, but that gave me no comfort. His meaty fists looked quite capable of crushing a pedal boat or a Lester Papadopoulos.

  Leo grumbled under his breath, “Not these guys again.” Then he forced a smile and strode toward the guard. “Hello! Lovely day! How are you?”

  The guard turned in surprise. I imagined that proper procedure would have been to alert his superiors to the intrusion, but he’d been asked a question. It would’ve been rude to ignore it.

  “I’m fine.” The guard couldn’t seem to decide between a friendly smile or an intimidating glower. His mouth spasmed, which made him look like he was doing an ab exercise. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be here.”

  “Really?” Leo kept marching forward. “Thank you!”

  “You’re welcome. Now if you’ll please raise your hands.”

  “Like this?” Leo ignited his hands and torched the blemmyae’s chest-face.

  The guard stumbled, choking on flames, batting his huge eyelashes like burning palm fronds. He groped for the button on the microphone attached to his earpiece. “Post twelve,” he croaked. “I’ve got—”

  Meg’s twin golden swords scissored across his midsection, reducing him to a pile of yellow dust with a partially melted earpiece.

  A voice warbled from the tiny speaker. “Post twelve, please repeat.”

  I grabbed the device. I had no desire to wear something that had been in a blemmyae’s armpit, but I held the speaker next to my ear and spoke into the mic. “False alarm. Everything is hunky-dorky. Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome,” said the voice in the speaker. “Daily passcode, please.”

  “Why, certainly! It’s—”

  I threw the microphone down and crushed it under my heel.
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  Meg stared at me. “Hunky-dorky?”

  “It sounded like something a blemmyae would say.”

  “That’s not even the right expression. It’s hunky-dory.”

  “A girl who says goddy is correcting my language.”

  “Guys,” Leo said. “Keep a lookout while I take care of this door. There’s gotta be something important in here.”

  I kept watch while he went to work on the vault lock. Meg, not being good at following directions, strolled back the way we’d come. She crouched and began picking up the chia sprouts she’d dropped when summoning her swords.

  “Meg,” I said.

  “Yeah?”

  “What are you doing?”

  “Chia.”

  “I can see that, but…” I almost said, They’re only sprouts.

  Then I remembered one time I’d said something similar to Demeter. The goddess had cursed me so that every piece of clothing I put on immediately sprouted and bloomed. Nothing is quite as uncomfortable as having your cotton underwear burst into actual bolls of cotton, complete with stems, spurs, and seeds right where your…Well, I think you get the idea.

  Meg gathered the last of her sprouts. With one of her swords, she cracked the slate floor. She carefully planted the chia in the fissure, then wrung out her still-wet skirt to water them.

  I watched, fascinated, as the small patch of green thickened and flourished, forcing new cracks in the slate. Who knew chia could be so robust?

  “They wouldn’t last any longer in my hand.” Meg stood, her expression defiant. “Everything alive deserves a chance to grow.”

  The mortal Lester part of me found this sentiment admirable. The Apollo part of me wasn’t so sure. Over the centuries, I’d met many living beings that hadn’t seemed worthy or even capable of growth. A few of those beings I’d killed myself….

  Still, I suspected Meg was saying something about herself. She had endured a horrid childhood—the death of her father, then the abuse of Nero, who’d twisted her mind into seeing him both as her kindly stepfather and the terrible Beast. Despite that, Meg had survived. I imagined she could empathize with small green things that had surprisingly strong roots.

  “Yes!” Leo said. The vault lock clicked. The door swung inward. Leo turned and grinned. “Who’s the best?”

  “Me?” I asked, but my spirits quickly fell. “You didn’t mean me, did you?”

  Leo ignored me and stepped into the room.

  I followed. Immediately, an intense, unpleasant moment of déjà vu struck me. Inside, a circular chamber was lined with glass partitions like the emperor’s training facility at the zoo. But here, instead of animals, the cages held people.

  I was so appalled I could hardly breathe.

  In the nearest cell on my left, huddled in a corner, two painfully emaciated teenage boys glared at me. Their clothes were rags. Shadows filled the cavernous recesses of their clavicles and ribs.

  In the next cell, a girl in gray camouflage paced like a jaguar. Her shoulder-length hair was stark white, though she looked no more than fifteen. Given her level of energy and outrage, I guessed she was a recent captive. She had no bow, but I pegged her as a Hunter of Artemis. When she saw me, she marched to the glass. She banged on it with her fists and shouted angrily, but her voice was too muffled for me to make out the words.

  I counted six other cells, each one occupied. In the center of the room was a metal post with iron hooks and chains—the sort of place where one could fasten slaves for inspection before sale.

  “Madre de los dioses,” Leo muttered.

  I thought the Arrow of Dodona was trembling in my quiver. Then I realized it was just me, shaking with anger.

  I have always despised slavery. Partly, this is because twice before Zeus
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