The dark prophecy, p.16
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.16
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  made me mortal and forced me to work as a slave for human kings. The most poetic description I can offer about that experience? It sucked.

  Even before that, my temple at Delphi had created a special way for slaves to gain their freedom. With the help of my priests, thousands bought their emancipation through a ritual called the trust sale, by which I, the god Apollo, became their new master and then set them free.

  Much later, one of my biggest grudges against the Romans was that they turned my holy island of Delos into the region’s biggest slave market. Can you believe the nerve? I sent an angry army led by Mithradates to correct that situation, slaughtering twenty thousand Romans in the process. But I mean, come on. They had it coming.

  Suffice to say: Commodus’s prison reminded me of everything I hated about the Good Old Days.

  Meg strode to the cell that held the two emaciated boys. With the point of her sword, she cut a circle in the glass and kicked it in. The dislodged section wobbled on the floor like a giant transparent coin.

  The boys tried to stand without success. Meg jumped into the cell to help them.

  “Yeah,” Leo muttered with approval. He pulled a hammer from his tool belt and marched to the cell of the captive Hunter. He gestured get back, then whacked the glass. The hammer bounced off, narrowly missing Leo’s nose on the rebound.

  The Hunter rolled her eyes.

  “Okay, Mr. Sheet of Glass.” Leo tossed aside the hammer. “You’re gonna be like that? It’s on!”

  His hands blazed white-hot. He pressed his fingers against the glass, which began to warp and bubble. Within seconds, he melted a ragged hole at face level.

  The silver-haired girl said, “Good. Step aside.”

  “Hold on, I’ll make you a bigger exit,” Leo promised.

  “No need.” The silver-haired girl backed up, launched herself through the hole, and gracefully somersaulted next to us, grabbing Leo’s discarded hammer as she stood.

  “More weapons,” the girl demanded. “I need more weapons.”

  Yes, I thought, definitely a Hunter of Artemis.

  Leo pulled out a selection of tools for the girl’s consideration. “Um, I got a screwdriver, a hacksaw, and…I think this is a cheese cutter.”

  The girl wrinkled her nose. “What are you, a tinkerer?”

  “That’s Lord Tinkerer to you.”

  The girl swiped the tools. “I’ll take them all.” She scowled at me. “What about your bow?”

  “You can’t have my bow,” I said. “I’m Apollo.”

  Her expression changed from shock to understanding to forced calm. I guessed the plight of Lester Papadopoulos was known among the Hunters.

  “Right,” the girl said. “The rest of the Hunters should be on their way. I was the nearest to Indianapolis. I decided to play advance scout. Obviously, that didn’t work out so well for me.”

  “In fact,” I said, “there was an incursion at the front gates a few minutes ago. I suspect your comrades have arrived.”

  Her eyes darkened. “We need to leave, then. Quickly.”

  Meg helped the emaciated boys from their cell. Up close, they looked even more pathetic and fragile, which made me angrier.

  “Prisoners should never be treated this way,” I growled.

  “Oh, they weren’t denied food,” the silver-haired girl said, admiration creeping into her voice. “They’ve been on a hunger strike. Courageous…for a couple of boys. I’m Hunter Kowalski, by the way.”

  I frowned. “A Hunter named Hunter?”

  “Yeah, I have heard that a million times. Let’s free the others.”

  I found no convenient switch box to lower the glass doors, but with Meg and Leo’s help, we began slowly liberating the captives. Most seemed to be human or demigod (it was difficult to tell which) but one was a dracaena. She looked human enough from the waist up, but where her legs should have been, twin snake tails undulated.

  “She’s friendly,” Hunter assured us. “We shared a cell last night until the guards separated us. Her name’s Sssssarah, with five s’s.”

  That was good enough for me. We let her out.

  The next cell held a lone young man who looked like a professional wrestler. He wore only a red-and-white loincloth with matching beads around his neck, but he did not seem underdressed. Just as gods are often depicted nude because they are perfect beings, this prisoner had no reason to hide his body. With his dark, glossy skin, his shaved head, and his muscular arms and chest, he looked like a teak warrior brought to life through the craft of Hephaestus. (I made a mental note to ask Hephaestus about such a project later.) His eyes, also teak brown, were piercing and angry—beautiful in the way only dangerous things can be. Tattooed on his right shoulder was a symbol I did not recognize, some sort of a double-bladed ax.

  Leo fired up his hands to melt the glass, but the dracaena Sssssarah hissed.

  “Not that one,” she warned. “Too dangerousssss.”

  Leo frowned. “Lady, we need dangerous friends.”

  “Yessss, but that one fought for money. He wassss employed by the emperor. He’sssss only here now because he did ssssomething to anger Commodussss.”

  I studied Tall, Dark & Handsome. (I know that’s a cliché, but he really was all three.) I didn’t intend to leave anyone behind, especially someone who wore a loincloth so well.

  “We’re going to free you,” I shouted through the glass, not sure how much he could hear. “Please don’t kill us. We are enemies of Commodus, the man who put you here.”

  TD&H’s expression did not change: part anger, part disdain, part indifference—the same way Zeus looked every morning before his coffee-infused nectar.

  “Leo,” I said. “Do it.”

  Valdez melted the glass. TD&H stepped out slowly and gracefully, as if he had all the time in the world.

  “Hello,” I said. “I’m the immortal god Apollo. Who might you be?”

  His voice rolled like thunder. “I am Jimmy.”

  “A noble name,” I decided, “worthy of kings.”

  “Apollo,” Meg called. “Get over here.”

  She was staring into the last cell. Of course it would be the last cell.

  Hunched in the corner, sitting on a familiar bronze suitcase, was a young girl in a lavender wool sweater and green jeans. On her lap sat a plate of prison slop, which she was using to finger-paint on the wall. Her tufts of brown hair looked like she’d cut them herself with gardening shears. She was large for her age—about Leo’s size—but her babyish face told me she couldn’t have been more than seven.

  “Georgina,” I said.

  Leo scowled. “Why is she sitting on Festus? Why would they put him in there with her?”

  I didn’t have an answer, but I motioned for Meg to cut through the glass wall.

  “Let me go first,” I said.

  I stepped through. “Georgie?”

  The girl’s eyes were like fractured prisms, swirling with unanchored thoughts and waking nightmares. I knew that look too well. Over the centuries I’d seen many mortal minds broken under the weight of prophecy.

  “Apollo.” She let out a burst of giggles as if her brain had developed a leak. “You and the dark. Some death, some death, some death.”

  Science can be fun

  Squirt those toxic chemicals

  Anywhere, really

  GEORGINA GRABBED MY WRIST, sending an unpleasant chill up my forearm. “Some death.”

  On the list of things that freaked me out, seven-year-old girls who giggled about death were right at the top, along with reptiles and talking weapons.

  I remembered the prophetic limerick that had brought us west—the warning that I would be forced death and madness to swallow. Clearly, Georgina had encountered such horrors in the Cave of Trophonius. I did not fancy following her example. For one thing, I had zero skill at painting with prison slop.

  “Yes,” I said agreeably. “We can talk more about death once we get you home. Emmie and Josephine sent me to get you.


  “Home.” Georgina spoke the word as if it were a difficult term from a foreign language.

  Leo got impatient. He climbed into the cell and trotted over. “Hey, Georgie. I’m Leo. That’s a nice suitcase. Can I see it?”

  Georgina tilted her head. “My clothes.”

  “Oh, uh…yeah.” Leo brushed the name tag on his borrowed coveralls. “Sorry about the sewage stains and the burning smell. I’ll get ’em cleaned.”

  “The burning hot,” Georgie said. “You. All of it.”

  “Right…” Leo smiled uncertainly. “Ladies often tell me I’m all the burning hot. But don’t worry. I won’t set you on fire or anything.”

  I offered Georgie my hand. “Here, child. We’ll take you home.”

  She was content to let me help her. As soon as she was on her feet, Leo rushed to the bronze suitcase and began fussing over it.

  “Oh, buddy, I’m so sorry,” he murmured. “I should never have left you. I’ll get you back to the Waystation for a good tune-up. Then you can have all the Tabasco sauce and motor oil you want.”

  The suitcase did not respond. Leo managed to activate its wheels and handle so he could lug it out of the cell.

  Georgina remained docile until she saw Meg. Then, suddenly, she had a burst of strength worthy of me.

  “No!” She yanked herself from my grip and plunged back into her cell. I tried to calm her, but she continued to howl and stare at Meg in horror. “NERO! NERO!”

  Meg did her famous turn-to-cement expression, shutting down all emotion, extinguishing all light from her eyes.

  Hunter Kowalski rushed in to help with Georgie. “Hey. Hey, hey, hey.” She stroked the girl’s ratty hair. “It’s okay. We’re friends.”

  “Nero!” Georgie shrieked again.

  Hunter frowned at Meg. “What’s she talking about?”

  Meg stared down at her high-tops. “I can leave.”

  “We’re all leaving,” I insisted. “Georgie, this is Meg. She escaped from Nero, that’s true. But she’s on our side.”

  I decided not to add, Except for that one time she betrayed me to her stepfather and almost got me killed. I didn’t want to complicate matters.

  In Hunter’s kind embrace, Georgie calmed down. Her wide eyes and trembling body reminded me of a terrified bird held in cupped hands. “You and death and fire.” Suddenly she giggled. “The chair! The chair, the chair.”

  “Ah, taters,” I cursed. “She’s right. We still need the chair.”

  Tall, Dark & Jimmy appeared on my left, a brooding presence not unlike a storm front. “What chair is this?”

  “A throne,” I said. “Magical. We need it to cure Georgie.”

  From the blank looks of the prisoners, I guessed I wasn’t making much sense. I also realized I couldn’t ask the entire group to go tromping through the palace in search of a piece of furniture, especially not the half-starved boys or the dracaena (who, not having feet, was incapable of tromping). Nor was Georgie likely to go anywhere with Meg—not without a great deal of shrieking.

  “We’ll have to split up,” I decided. “Leo, you know the way back to the sewer tunnel. Take our new friends with you. Hopefully the guards will still be distracted. Meg and I will find the chair.”

  Leo glanced at his beloved dragon suitcase, then at Meg and me, then at the prisoners. “Just you and Meg?”

  “Go,” Meg said, careful to avoid Georgie’s eyes. “We’ll be okay.”

  “What if the guards aren’t distracted?” Leo asked. “Or if we have to fight that snake thingie again?”

  Jimmy rumbled, “Snake thingie?”

  “I ressssent your choice of wordssss,” said Sssssarah.

  Leo sighed. “I don’t mean you. It’s a…well, you’ll see. Maybe you can talk to it and convince it to let us pass.” He sized up Jimmy. “Or if not, the monster’s probably about the right size for you to make a belt out of.”

  Sssssarah hissed in disapproval.

  Hunter Kowalski wrapped her arms protectively around Georgie. “We’ll get everyone to safety,” she promised. “Apollo, Meg, thank you. If you see the emperor, send him to Tartarus for me.”

  “Pleasure,” I said.

  In the hallway, alarms began to blare.

  Leo led our new friends back the way we’d come. Hunter held Georgina’s hand while Jimmy and Sssssarah propped up the hunger-strike boys.

  Once the group disappeared around the corner, Meg walked to her little patch of chia. She closed her eyes in concentration. Faster than you could say ch-ch-ch-chia, the sprouts went into overdrive, spreading across the corridor like a fast-motion sheet of green ice. Sprouts wove together from ceiling to floor, wall to wall, until the hallway was clogged with an impassable curtain of plants.

  “Impressive,” I said, though I was also thinking, Well, we won’t be exiting that way.

  Meg nodded. “It’ll slow down anybody chasing our friends. Come on. The chair is down here.”

  “How do you know?”

  Rather than answering, she dashed off. Since she was the one with all the cool powers, I decided to follow.

  Alarms continued to blare, the noise stabbing my eardrums like hot skewers. Red lights swept the corridors, turning Meg’s blades the color of blood.

  We poked our heads inside the COMMODUS STOLEN ART GALLERY, the COMMODUS IMPERIAL CAFÉ, and the COMMODUSCARE INFIRMARY. We saw no one and found no magical thrones.

  Finally, Meg stopped at a steel door. At least I assumed it was a door. It had no handle, lock, or visible hinges—it was just a featureless rectangle of metal set in the wall.

  “It’s in here,” she said.

  “How can you tell?”

  She gave me her nyah-nyah-nyah look—the kind of expression your mother used to warn you about: If you make that face, it’ll stick. (I’d always taken this threat seriously, since divine mothers are fully capable of making it happen.)

  “It’s like the trees, dummy.”

  I blinked. “You mean, how you led us to the Grove of Dodona?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You can sense the Throne of Mnemosyne…because it is made of magical wood?”

  “Dunno. I guess.”

  That seemed like a stretch, even for a powerful daughter of Demeter. I didn’t know how the Throne of Mnemosyne had been created. It certainly might have been carved from some special tree from a sacred forest. Gods loved that sort of thing. If so, Meg might have been able to sense the chair. I wondered if she could find me a magical dining table once I got back to Olympus. I really needed one with foldout leaves for accommodating the Nine Muses at Thanksgiving.

  Meg tried slicing the door the way she had with the glass walls in the prison. Her swords didn’t even scratch the metal. She tried wedging her blades into the door frame. No luck.

  She stepped back and frowned at me. “Open it.”

  “Me?” I felt sure she was picking on me because I was the only enslaved god she had. “I’m not Hermes! I’m not even Valdez!”

  “Try.”

  As if that were a simple request! I attempted all the obvious methods. I shoved the door. I kicked it. I attempted to get my fingertips under the edges and pry it open. I spread my arms and yelled the standard magic words: MELLON! SHAZAM! SESAME STREET! None of these worked. At last I tried my infallible ace in the hole. I sang “Love Is an Open Door” from the Frozen soundtrack. Even this failed.

  “Impossible!” I cried. “This door has no taste in music!”

  “Be more goddy,” Meg suggested.

  If I could be more goddy, I wanted to scream, I wouldn’t be here!

  I ran down the list of things I used to be the god of: archery, poetry, flirting, sunlight, music, medicine, prophecy, flirting. None of these would open a literal stainless steel door.

  Wait…

  I thought back to the last room we’d peeked in—the Commoduscare Infirmary. “Medical supplies.”

  Meg peered at me from behind her filmy cat-eye lenses. “You’re going to h
eal the door?”

  “Not exactly. Come with me.”

  In the infirmary, I riffled through supply cabinets, filling a small cardboard box with potentially useful items: medical tape, oral syringes, scalpels, ammonia, distilled water, baking soda. Then, finally…“Aha!” In triumph, I held up a bottle labeled H2SO4. “Oil of vitriol!”

  Meg edged away. “What is that?”

  “You’ll see.” I grabbed some safety equipment: gloves, mask, goggles—the sort of stuff I would not have bothered with as a god. “Let’s go, Chia Girl!”

  “It sounded better when Leo said it,” she complained, but she followed me out.

  Back at the steel door, I suited up. I readied two syringes: one with vitriol, one with water. “Meg, stand back.”

  “I…Okay.” She pinched her nose against the stench as I squirted oil of vitriol around the door. Vaporous tendrils curled from the seams. “What is that stuff?”

  “Back in medieval times,” I said, “we used oil of vitriol for its healing properties. No doubt that’s why Commodus had some in his infirmary. Today we call it sulfuric acid.”

  Meg flinched. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

  “Very.”

  “And you healed with it?”

  “It was the Middle Ages. We were crazy back then.”

  I held up the second syringe, the one filled with water. “Meg, what I’m about to do—never, ever try this on your own.” I felt a bit silly giving this advice to a girl who regularly fought monsters with golden swords, but I had promised Bill Nye the Science Guy I would always promote safe laboratory practices.

  “What’s going to happen?” she asked.

  I stepped back and squirted water into the door seams. Immediately the acid began to hiss and spit more aggressively than the Carthaginian Serpent. To speed the process along, I sang a song of heat and corrosion. I chose Frank Ocean, since his soulful power could burn its way through even the hardest substances.

  The door groaned and creaked. At last it fell inward, leaving a steaming wreath of mist around the frame.

  “Whoa,” Meg said, which was probably the highest compliment she’d ever given me.

  I pointed to the cardboard supply box near her feet. “Hand me that baking soda, would you?”

  I sprinkled powder liberally around the doorway to neutralize the acid. I couldn’t help smirking at my own ingenuity. I hoped Athena was watching, because WISDOM, BABY! And I did it with so much more style than Old Gray Eyes.

  I bowed to Meg with a flourish. “After you, Chia Girl.”

  “You actually did something good,” she noted.

  “You just had to step on my moment.”

  Inside, we found a twenty-foot-square storage area holding just one item. The Throne of Mnemosyne hardly deserved the name throne. It was a straight-backed chair of sanded white birch, devoid of decoration except for the carved silhouette of a mountain on the seat back. Ugh, Mnemosyne! Give me a proper
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