The dark prophecy, p.17
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.17
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  golden throne encrusted with ever-flaming rubies! Alas, not every deity knows how to flaunt it.

  Still, the chair’s simplicity made me nervous. I’ve found that many terrible and powerful items are quite underwhelming in appearance. Zeus’s lightning bolts? They don’t look menacing until my father throws them. The trident of Poseidon? Please. He never scrubs the seaweed and moss off that thing. And the wedding dress Helen of Troy wore to marry Menelaus? Oh, gods, it was so drab. I told her, “Girl, you have got to be kidding me. That neckline doesn’t work for you at all!” Then Helen put it on, and wow.

  “What’s the mountain design?” Meg stirred me from my reverie. “Olympus?”

  “Actually, no. I’m guessing that would be Mount Pierus, where the goddess Mnemosyne gave birth to the Nine Muses.”

  Meg scrunched up her face. “All nine of them at once? Sounds painful.”

  I’d never thought about that. Since Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory, with every detail of her eternal existence engraved on her brain, it did seem strange that she’d want a reminder of her labor and delivery experience carved on her throne.

  “Whatever the case,” I said, “we’ve tarried too long. Let’s get the chair out of here.”

  I used my roll of medical tape to make shoulder straps, turning the chair into a makeshift backpack. Who said Leo was the only handy person on our team?

  “Meg,” I said, “while I’m doing this, fill those syringes with ammonia.”

  “Why?”

  “Just for emergencies. Humor me.”

  Medical tape is wonderful stuff. Soon Meg and I both had bandoliers of ammonia syringes, and I had a chair on my back. The throne was a light piece of furniture, which was fortunate, since it was knocking around with my ukulele, my bow, and my quiver. I added a few scalpels to my bandolier, just for fun. Now all I needed was a bass drum and some juggling pins and I could be a one-man traveling show.

  I hesitated in the corridor. In one direction, the hallway extended about a hundred feet before angling left. The alarms had stopped blaring, but from around that corner came an echoing roar like ocean surf or a cheering crowd. Multicolored lights flashed across the walls. Just looking in that direction made me nervous.

  Our only other option would take us back to the Meg McCaffrey Memorial Wall of Chia.

  “Fastest exit,” I said. “We may have to retrace our steps.”

  Meg stood enthralled, her ear tilted toward the distant roar. “There’s…something down there. We need to check it out.”

  “Please, no,” I begged. “We’ve rescued the prisoners. We found Festus. We scored a lovely piece of furniture. That’s a full day’s work for any hero!”

  Meg straightened. “Something important,” she insisted.

  She summoned her swords and strode toward the strange lights in the distance.

  “I hate you,” I muttered.

  Then I shouldered my magical chair and jogged after her—around the corner and straight into a vast spotlighted arena.

  Big birds are evil

  They charge me with razor legs

  I die and it hurts

  I WAS NO STRANGER to stadium concerts.

  In ancient times, I played a dozen sold-out shows at the amphitheater in Ephesus. Frenzied young women threw their strophiae at me. Young men swooned and fainted. In 1965, I sang with the Beatles at Shea Stadium, though Paul would not agree to turn up my microphone. On the recordings, you can’t even hear my voice on “Everybody’s Tryin’ to Be My Baby.”

  However, none of my previous experiences prepared me for the emperor’s arena.

  Spotlights blinded me as we emerged from the corridor. The crowd cheered.

  As my eyes adjusted, I saw that we stood at the fifty-yard line of a professional football stadium. The field was arranged in an odd fashion. Around the circumference ran a three-lane racetrack. Pincushioning the artificial turf, a dozen iron posts anchored the chains of various beasts. At one post, six combat ostriches paced like dangerous merry-go-round animals. At another, three male lions snarled and blinked at the spotlights. At a third, a sad-looking elephant swayed, no doubt unhappy that she’d been outfitted in spiked chain mail and an oversize Colts football helmet.

  Reluctantly, I raised my eyes to the stands. In the sea of blue seats, the only occupied section was the end zone on the left, but the crowd was certainly enthusiastic. Germani banged their spears against their shields. The demigods of Commodus’s Imperial Household jeered and yelled insults (which I will not repeat) about my divine person. Cynocephali—the tribe of wolf-headed men—howled and tore at their Indianapolis Colts souvenir jerseys. Rows of blemmyae clapped politely, looking perplexed at the rude behavior of their peers. And of course, an entire section of the stands was filled with wild centaurs. Honestly, you can’t have a sporting event or bloodbath anywhere without them somehow getting wind of it. They blew their vuvuzelas, sounded air horns, and trampled all over one another, sloshing root beer from their double-cup drinking hats.

  In the center of the crowd gleamed the emperor’s box, bedecked in purple and gold banners that clashed horribly with the blue-and-steel Colts decor. Flanking the throne were a grim mix of Germani and mortal mercenaries with sniper rifles. What the mercenaries saw through the Mist, I couldn’t guess, but they must have been specially trained to work in magical environments. They stood emotionless and alert, their fingers resting across their triggers. I didn’t doubt that they would kill us at one word from Commodus, and we would be powerless to stop them.

  Commodus himself rose from his throne. He wore white-and-purple robes and a golden laurel crown, as one would expect of an emperor, but under the folds of his toga I caught a glimpse of a golden-brown racing suit. With his shaggy beard, Commodus looked more like a Gallic chieftain than a Roman, though no Gaul would have such perfect gleaming white teeth.

  “At last!” His commanding voice boomed through the stadium, amplified by giant speakers that hung above the field. “Welcome, Apollo!”

  The audience cheered and hooted. Lining the upper tiers, TV screens flashed digital fireworks and blazed the words WELCOME, APOLLO! High above, along the girders of the corrugated steel roof, bags of confetti burst, dumping a snowstorm of purple and gold that swirled around the championship banners.

  Oh, the irony! This was exactly the sort of welcome I’d been longing for. Now I just wanted to slink back into the corridor and disappear. But, of course, the doorway we’d come through had vanished, replaced with a cinder-block wall.

  I crouched as inconspicuously as possible and pressed the indentation on my iron manacle. No wings sprang from the shackle, so I guessed I’d found the right button for the emergency signal. With luck, it would alert Jo and Emmie to our plight and location, though I still wasn’t sure what they could do to help us. At least they’d know where to collect our bodies later.

  Meg seemed to be withdrawing into herself, rolling down her mental shutters against the onslaught of noise and attention. For a brief terrible moment, I wondered if she might have betrayed me once again—leading me right into the clutches of the Triumvirate.

  No. I refused to believe it. And yet…why had she insisted on coming this direction?

  Commodus waited for the roar of the crowd to subside. Combat ostriches strained at their tethers. Lions roared. The elephant shook her head as if trying to remove her ridiculous Colts helmet.

  “Meg,” I said, trying to control my panic. “Why did you…Why are we…?”

  Her expression was as mystified as the demigods at Camp Half-Blood who’d been drawn to the Grove of Dodona by its mysterious voices.

  “Something,” she murmured. “Something is here.”

  That was a horrifying understatement. Many things were here. Most of them wanted to kill us.

  The video screens flashed more fireworks, along with digital nonsense like DEFENSE! and MAKE SOME NOISE! and advertisements for energy drinks. My eyes felt as if they were bleeding.

  Commodus grinned
down at me. “I had to rush things, old friend! This is just the dress rehearsal, but since you’re here, I scrambled to put together a few surprises. We’ll restage the whole show tomorrow with a full audience, after I bulldoze the Waystation to the ground. Do try to stay alive today, but you’re welcome to suffer as much as you want. And Meg…” His tsk-tsk-tsk echoed through the stadium. “Your stepfather is so disappointed in you. You’re about to find out just how much.”

  Meg pointed one of her swords at the emperor’s box. I waited for her to issue some withering retort, like You’re stupid, but the sword seemed to be her entire message. This brought back an unsettling memory of Commodus himself in the Colosseum, tossing severed ostrich heads at the senators’ seats and pointing: You’re next. But Meg couldn’t have known about that…could she?

  Commodus’s smile wavered. He held up a page of notes. “So, anyway, the run of show! First, the citizens of Indianapolis are marched in at gunpoint and seated. I’ll say a few words, thank them for coming, and explain how their city is now named Commodianapolis.”

  The crowd howled and stomped. A lone air horn blasted.

  “Yes, yes.” Commodus waved away their enthusiasm. “Then I send an army of blemmyae into the city with champagne bottles to smash against all the buildings. My banners are unfurled along all the streets. Any bodies we retrieve from the Waystation are dangled on ropes from the girders up there”—he gestured at the peaked ceiling—“and then the fun starts!”

  He threw his notes in the air. “I can’t tell you how excited I am, Apollo! You understand, don’t you, this was all preordained? The spirit of Trophonius was very specific.”

  My throat made the sound of a vuvuzela. “You consulted the Dark Oracle?”

  I wasn’t sure my words would carry that far, but the emperor laughed. “Well, of course, dear heart! Not me personally. I have minions to do that sort of thing. But Trophonius was quite clear: once I destroy the Waystation and sacrifice your life in the games, only then can I rechristen this city and rule the Midwest forever as god-emperor!”

  Twin spotlights fixed on Commodus. He ripped off his toga, revealing a one-piece racing suit of Nemean Lion hide, the front and sleeves decorated with the decals of various corporate sponsors.

  The crowd oohed and ahhed as the emperor turned a circle, showing off his outfit.

  “You like?” he asked. “I’ve done a lot of research on my new hometown! My two fellow emperors call this place boring. But I will prove them wrong! I will stage the best Indy-Colt-500-Double-A Gladiatorial Championship ever!”

  Personally, I thought Commodus’s branding needed work, but the crowd went wild.

  Everything seemed to happen at once. Country music blared from the speakers: possibly Jason Aldean, though with the distortion and reverb, even my keen ears could not be sure. At the opposite side of the track, a wall opened. Three Formula One race cars—red, yellow, and blue, like a children’s toy set—rumbled onto the tarmac.

  Around the field, chains disconnected from the animals’ collars. In the stands, wild centaurs threw fruit and blew their vuvuzelas. From somewhere behind the emperor’s box, cannons fired, launching a dozen gladiators over the goalposts toward the field. Some landed with graceful rolls and came up ready to fight. Others hit the artificial turf like heavily-armored spit wads and didn’t move again.

  The race cars revved and sped around the track, forcing Meg and me onto the field to avoid getting run over. Gladiators and animals began a free-for-all, no-claws-barred destructo-match to the Nashville beat. And then, for no logical reason, a huge sack opened under the Jumbotron monitor, spilling hundreds of basketballs onto the fifty-yard line.

  Even by Commodus’s standards, the spectacle was crass and too much of everything, but I doubted I would live long enough to write a bad review. Adrenaline raced through my system like a 220-volt current. Meg yelled and charged the nearest ostrich. Since I had nothing better to do, I raced after her, the Throne of Mnemosyne and thirty pounds of other gear bouncing on my back.

  All six ostriches bore down on us. That may not sound as terrifying as the Carthaginian Serpent or a bronze colossus of moi, but ostriches can run at forty miles an hour. They charged with their metal teeth snapping, their spiked helmets swiping side to side, their barbed-wire legs trampling across the turf like an ugly pink forest of deadly Christmas trees.

  I nocked an arrow in my bow, but even if I could match Commodus’s skill, I doubted I could decapitate all six birds before they killed us. I wasn’t even sure Meg could defeat so many with her formidable blades.

  I silently composed a new death haiku right on the spot: Big birds are evil / They charge me with razor legs / I die and it hurts.

  In my defense, I did not have much time to edit.

  The only thing that saved us? Basketballs ex machina. Another bag must have opened above us, or perhaps a small batch of balls had gotten stuck in the netting. Twenty or thirty rained down around us, forcing the ostriches to dodge and veer. One less fortunate bird stepped on a ball and took a header, planting his sharpened beak in the turf. Two of his brethren stumbled over him, creating a dangerous pile-up of feathers, legs, and razor wire.

  “Come on!” Meg yelled to me. Rather than fighting the birds, she grabbed one’s neck and swung onto its back, somehow without dying. She charged away, swinging her blades at monsters and gladiators.

  Mildly impressive, but how was I supposed to follow her? Also, she’d just rendered useless my plan of hiding behind her. Such an inconsiderate girl.

  I shot my arrow at the nearest threat: a Cyclops charging me and waving his club. Where he’d come from, I had no idea, but I sent him back to Tartarus where he belonged.

  I dodged a fire-breathing horse, kicked a basketball into the gut of a gladiator, then sidestepped a lion who was lunging at a tasty-looking ostrich. (All of this, by the way, with a chair strapped to my back.)

  Meg aimed her deadly bird at the emperor’s box, slashing down anything that got in her way. I understood her plan: kill Commodus. I staggered after her as best I could, but my head throbbed from the pounding country music, the jeering of the crowd, and the whine of the Formula One engines gaining speed around the track.

  A pack of wolf-headed warriors loped toward me—too many, at too close range for my bow. I ripped off my bandolier of medical syringes and squirted ammonia in their lupine faces. They screamed, clawing their eyes, and began to crumble to dust. As any Mount Olympian custodian can tell you, ammonia is an excellent cleaning agent for monsters and other blemishes.

  I made my way toward the only island of calm on the field: the elephant.

  She did not seem interested in attacking anyone. Given her size and formidable chain-mail defenses, none of the other combatants seemed anxious to approach her. Or perhaps, seeing her Colts helmet, they simply didn’t want to mess with the home team.

  Something about her was so sad, so despondent, I felt drawn to her as a kindred spirit.

  I pulled out my combat ukulele and strummed an elephant-friendly song: Primus’s “Southbound Pachyderm.” The instrumental intro was haunting and sad—perfect for solo ukulele.

  “Great elephant,” I sang as I approached. “May I ride you?”

  Her wet brown eyes blinked at me. She huffed as if to say, Whatever, Apollo. They got me wearing this stupid helmet. I don’t even care anymore.

  A gladiator with a trident rudely interrupted my song. I smashed him in the face with my combat ukulele. Then I used the elephant’s foreleg to climb onto her back. I hadn’t practiced that technique since the storm god Indra took me on a late-night road trip in search of vindaloo, but I guess riding an elephant is one of those skills you never forget.

  I spotted Meg at the twenty-yard line, leaving groaning gladiators and piles of monster ash in her wake as she rode her ostrich toward the emperor.

  Commodus clapped with delight. “Well done, Meg! I’d love to fight you, but HOLD THAT THOUGHT!”

  The music abruptly shut off. Gl
adiators stopped in mid-combat. The race cars slowed to an idle. Even Meg’s ostrich paused and looked around as if wondering why it was suddenly so quiet.

  Over the speakers came a dramatic drumroll.

  “Meg McCaffrey!” Commodus boomed in his best game-show announcer voice. “We’ve got a special surprise for you—straight from New York, someone you know! Can you save him before he bursts into flames?”

  Spotlight beams crossed in midair at a point above the end zone, level with the top of the goalposts. That old post-vindaloo feeling came back to me, burning its way through my intestines. Now I understood what Meg had sensed earlier—that vague something that had drawn her into the stadium. Suspended from the rafters by a long chain, snarling and wriggling in a rope cocoon, was the emperor’s special surprise: Meg’s trusty sidekick, the karpos Peaches.

  I tip my hat to

  The excellent elephant

  Let’s be besties, ’kay?

  I NOCKED AN ARROW and fired at the chain.

  In most circumstances, my first instinct was to shoot. Usually this worked out. (Unless you count the time Hermes burst into my bathroom without knocking. And, yes, I always keep my bow handy when I’m on the toilet. Why would I not?)

  This time, my shot was ill-planned. Peaches struggled and swung so much, my arrow sailed past his chain and felled a random blemmyae in the stands.

  “Stop!” Meg shrieked at me. “You might hit Peaches!”

  The emperor laughed. “Yes, that would be a shame when he’s about to burn to death!”

  Commodus leaped from his box onto the racetrack. Meg raised her sword and prepared to charge, but mercenaries in the stands leveled their rifles. No matter that I was fifty yards away—the snipers had aim worthy of…well, me. A swarm of red targeting dots floated over my chest.

  “Now, now, Meg,” the emperor chided, pointing to me. “My game, my rules. Unless you want to lose two friends in the dress rehearsal.”

  Meg lifted one sword, then the other, weighing them like options. She was too far away for me to clearly see her expression, but I could sense her agony. How many times had I been caught in such a dilemma? Do I destroy the Trojans or the Greeks? Do I flirt with my sister’s Hunters and risk getting slapped, or do I flirt with Britomartis and risk getting blown up? These are the kinds of choices that define us.

  As Meg hesitated, a pit crew in togas rolled another Formula One car onto the track—a bright purple machine with a golden number 1 on the hood. Protruding from the roof was a wiry lance about twenty feet tall, topped with a wad of cloth.

  My first thought: Why did Commodus need such a big antenna? Then I looked again at the dangling karpos. In the spotlights, Peaches glistened as if he’d been slathered with grease. His feet, usually bare, were covered in rough sandpaper—like the striking surface of a matchbook.

  My gut twisted. The race car’s antenna wasn’t an antenna. It was a giant match, set at just the right height to ignite against Peaches’s feet.

  “Once I’m in the car,” Commodus announced, “my mercenaries will not interfere. Meg, you may try to stop me any way you please! My plan is to complete one circuit, light your friend on fire, then circle back around and hit you and Apollo with my car. I believe they call that a victory lap!”

  The crowd roared with approval. Commodus leaped into his car. His pit crew scattered, and the purple racer peeled out in a cloud of smoke.

  My blood turned to cold-pressed olive oil, pumping sluggishly through my heart. How long would it take for that race car to get around the track? Seconds, at most. I suspected Commodus’s windshield was arrow-proof. He wouldn’t leave me such an easy solution. I didn’t even have time for a decent ukulele riff.

  Meanwhile, Meg guided her ostrich under the swinging karpos. She stood on the bird’s back (no easy task) and reached as high as she could, but Peaches was much too far above her.

  “Turn into a fruit!” Meg shouted up at him. “Disappear!”

  “Peaches!” Peaches wailed, which probably meant: Don’t you think I would if I could? I guessed that the ropes were somehow magically restricting his shape-shifting, confining him to his present form, much as Zeus had shoehorned my awesome divinity into the miserable body of Lester Papadopoulos. For the first time, I felt a kinship with the diapered demon baby.

  Commodus was now halfway around the track. He could have gone faster, but he insisted on swerving and waving to the cameras. The other race cars pulled over to let him pass, making me wonder if they understood the concept of racing.

  Meg leaped from the ostrich’s back. She caught the goalpost’s crossbeam and began to climb, but I knew she wouldn’t have time to help the karpos.

  The purple car rounded the far end zone. If Commodus accelerated in the straightaway, it would all be over. If only I could block his path with something large and heavy.

  Oh, wait, thought my genius brain, I am sitting on an elephant.

  Engraved across the base of the massive Colts helmet was the name LIVIA. I assumed that was the elephant’s.

  I leaned forward. “Livia, my friend, do you feel like stomping an emperor?”

  She trumpeted—her first real show of enthusiasm. I knew elephants were intelligent, but her willingness to help surprised me. I got the feeling that Commodus had treated her terribly. Now she wanted to kill him. This, at least, we had in common.

  Livia charged toward the track, shouldering other animals aside, sweeping her trunk to smack gladiators out of our path.

  “Good elephant!” I cried. “Excellent elephant!”

  The Throne of Memory bounced precariously on my back. I spent all my arrows (except for the stupid talking one) shooting down combat ostriches, fire-breathing horses, Cyclopes, and cynocephali. Then I snatched up my combat ukulele and played the bugle call for CHARGE!

 
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