The dark prophecy, p.21
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.21
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  FORTY-TWO MINUTES.

  I narrowed my eyes. “Are you somehow…checking Google Maps?”

  A long pause. OF COURSE NOT. FIE UPON YOU. AS FOR HOW THOU SHALT SURVIVE, ASK ME THIS ANON, WHEN THOU REACHEST THY DESTINATION.

  “Meaning you need time to research the Cave of Trophonius on Wikipedia?”

  I SHALL SAY NO MORE TO YOU, BASE VILLAIN! THOU ART NOT WORTHY OF MY SAGE ADVICE!

  “I’m not worthy?” I picked up the arrow and shook it. “You’re no help at all, you useless piece of—!”

  “Apollo?” Calypso stood in the doorway.

  Next to her, Leo grinned. “We didn’t realize you were arguing with your arrow. Should we come back later?”

  I sighed. “No, come in.”

  The two of them sat across from me. Calypso laced her fingers on the table like a teacher at a parent conference.

  Leo did his best to impersonate someone capable of being serious. “So, uh, listen, Apollo—”

  “I know,” I said miserably.

  He blinked as if I’d thrown welding sparks in his eyes. “You do?”

  “Assuming we live through tomorrow,” I said, “you two intend to remain at the Waystation.”

  They both stared at the table. A little more weeping and pulling of hair might have been nice, some heartfelt sobs of Please forgive us! But I guessed that was more apology than Lester Papadopoulos deserved.

  “How did you know?” Calypso asked.

  “The serious conversations with our hosts?” I said. “The furtive glances?”

  “Hey, man,” Leo said. “I’m not furtive. I’ve got zero furtivity.”

  I turned to Calypso. “Josephine has a wonderful workshop for Leo. And she can teach you to regain your magic. Emmie has gardens worthy of your old home, Ogygia.”

  “My old prison,” Calypso corrected, though her voice carried no anger.

  Leo fidgeted. “It’s just…Josephine reminds me so much of my mom. She needs help around here. The Waystation may be a living building, but it’s almost as high-maintenance as Festus.”

  Calypso nodded. “We’ve been traveling so much, Apollo, in constant danger for months. It’s not just the magic and the gardens that appeal to me. Emmie says we could live like normal young people in this city. Even go to the local high school.”

  If not for the seriousness in her eyes, I might have laughed. “You—a former immortal even older than I—you want to go to high school?”

  “Hey, man,” Leo said. “Neither of us has ever had a chance of a normal life.”

  “We would like to see,” Calypso continued, “what we would be like together, and separately, in the mortal world. Taking things more slowly. Dating. Boyfriend. Girlfriend. Perhaps…hanging out with friends.”

  She spoke these words as if they were infused with an exotic spice—a taste she wished to savor.

  “The thing is, Lester Man,” Leo said, “we promised to help you. We’re worried about leaving you on your own.”

  Their eyes were so full of concern—concern for me—that I had to swallow back a lump in my throat. Six weeks we had been traveling together. Most of that time, I had fervently wished I could be anywhere else, with anyone else. But with the exception of my sister, had I ever shared so many experiences with anyone? I realized, gods help me, that I was going to miss these two.

  “I understand.” I had to force the words out. “Josephine and Emmie are good people. They can offer you a home. And I won’t be alone. I have Meg now. I don’t intend to lose her again.”

  Leo nodded. “Yeah, Meg’s a fireball. Takes one to know one.”

  “Besides,” Calypso said, “we won’t…what’s the expression…skip off the radar completely.”

  “Drop,” I suggested. “Though skipping sounds more fun.”

  “Yeah,” Leo said. “We’ve still got a lot of demigodly stuff to do. At some point, I gotta reconnect with my other peeps: Jason, Piper, Hazel, Frank. Lotta people out there still want to punch me.”

  “And we have to survive tomorrow,” Calypso added.

  “Right, babe. Good call.” Leo tapped the table in front of me. “Point is, ese, we’re not going to abandon you. If you need us, holler. We’ll be there.”

  I blinked back tears. I was not sad. I was not overwhelmed by their friendship. No, it had just been a very long day and my nerves were frayed.

  “I appreciate it,” I said. “You are both good friends.”

  Calypso wiped her eyes. No doubt she was just tired as well. “Let’s not get carried away. You are still hugely annoying.”

  “And you are still a pain in the gloutos, Calypso.”

  “Okay, then.” She smirked. “Now we all really should get some rest. Busy morning ahead.”

  “Ugh.” I clawed at my hair. “I don’t suppose you could summon a wind spirit for me? I have to drive to the Cave of Trophonius tomorrow, and I have neither a chariot nor a car.”

  “A car?” Leo grinned evilly. “Oh, I can hook you up with one of those!”

  Start with a C chord

  Not all the keys, Meg. C does

  Not stand for Chaos

  AT 5:00 A.M. the next morning, in the roundabout outside the Waystation, Meg and I found Leo standing in front of a gleaming red Mercedes XLS. I did not ask him how he had procured the vehicle. He did not volunteer the information. He did say that we should return it within twenty-four hours (assuming we lived that long) and try not to get pulled over by the police.

  The bad news: just outside the city limits, I got pulled over by the police.

  Oh, the miserable luck! The officer stopped us for no good reason that I could see. At first I feared he might be a blemmyae, but he was not nearly polite enough.

  He frowned at my license. “This is a junior driver’s license from New York, kid. What are you doing driving a car like this? Where are your parents, and where’re you taking this little girl?”

  I was tempted to explain that I was a four-thousand-year-old deity with plenty of experience driving the sun, my parents were in the celestial realm, and the little girl was my demigod master.

  “She is my—”

  “Little sister,” Meg chimed in. “He’s taking me to piano lessons.”

  “Uh, yes,” I agreed.

  “And we’re late!” Meg waggled her fingers in a way that did not at all resemble playing the piano. “Because my brother is stooo-pid.”

  The officer frowned. “Wait here.”

  He walked to his patrol car, perhaps to run my license through his computer or to call for SWAT backup.

  “Your brother?” I asked Meg. “Piano lessons?”

  “The stupid part was true.”

  The officer came back with a confused look on his face. “Sorry.” He handed me my license. “My mistake. Drive safely.”

  And that was that.

  I wondered what had changed the officer’s mind. Perhaps, when Zeus created my license, he had put some sort of spell on the ID that allowed me to pass simple scrutiny such as highway stops. No doubt Zeus had heard that driving while mortal could be dangerous.

  We continued on, though the incident left me shaken. On Highway 37, I glanced at every car heading the opposite direction, wondering which were driven by blemmyae, demigods, or mercenaries commuting in to work at Commode Palace, anxious to destroy my friends in time for the naming ceremony.

  In the east, the sky lightened from onyx to charcoal. Along the roadside, sodium vapor streetlamps tinted the landscape Agamethus orange—fences and pastures, stands of trees, dry gullies. Occasionally we spotted a gas station or a Starbucks oasis. Every few miles, we passed billboards declaring GOLD: BEST PRICES! with a smiling man who looked suspiciously like King Midas in a cheap suit.

  I wondered how Lityerses was doing back at the Waystation. When we’d left, the whole place had been abuzz—everyone pitching in to fix armor, sharpen weapons, and ready traps. Lityerses had stood at Josephine’s side, offering advice about Commodus and his various troops, but he’d
seemed only half-present, like a man with a terminal disease, explaining to other patients how best they could prolong the inevitable.

  Strangely, I trusted him. I believed he would not betray Josephine and Emmie, little Georgina, and the rest of the ragtag impromptu family I cared about. Lit’s commitment seemed genuine. He now hated Commodus more than any of us.

  Then again, six weeks ago, I never would have suspected Meg McCaffrey of working for Nero….

  I glanced over at my small master. She slumped in her seat, her red high-tops on the dashboard above the glove compartment. This scrunched-up position didn’t look comfortable to me. It struck me as the sort of habit a child learns, then is reluctant to abandon when they grow too big.

  She wriggled her fingers over her knees, still playing air piano.

  “You might try putting a few rests in your composition,” I told her. “Just for variety.”

  “I want lessons.”

  I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. “Piano lessons? Now?”

  “Not now, dummy. But sometime. Can you teach me?”

  What a horrifying idea! I wanted to think I was far enough along in my career as a music god not to give piano lessons to beginners. Then again, I noticed that Meg had asked me, not ordered me. I detected something tentative and hopeful in her voice, a fresh green chia shoot emerging. I was reminded of Leo and Calypso last night in the library, talking wistfully of the normal life they might build in Indiana. Strange, how often humans dream about the future. We immortals don’t bother. For us, dreaming of the future is like staring at the hour hand of a clock.

  “Very well,” I said. “Assuming we survive this morning’s adventures.”

  “Deal.” Meg banged out a final chord that Beethoven would have loved. Then, from her backpack of supplies, she produced a baggie of carrots (peeled by me, thank you very much) and began munching them loudly while knocking the tips of her shoes together.

  Because Meg.

  “We should talk strategy,” I suggested. “When we get to the caverns, we’ll need to find the secret entrance. I doubt it will be as obvious as the regular mortal entrance.”

  “Mm-kay.”

  “Once you’ve dispatched whatever guards we find—”

  “Once we have dispatched them,” she corrected.

  “Same difference. We’ll need to look for two nearby streams. We’ll have to drink from both of them before—”

  “Don’t tell me.” Meg held up a carrot like a baton. “No spoilers.”

  “Spoilers? This information might save our lives!”

  “I don’t like spoilers,” she insisted. “I want to be surprised.”

  “But—”

  “No.”

  I clenched the wheel. It took great effort not to punch the gas and send us hurtling toward the horizon. I wanted to talk about the Cave of Trophonius…not just to enlighten Meg, but to see if I myself had the details straight.

  I’d stayed up most of the night in the Waystation library. I’d read scrolls, sifted through my imperfect memories, even tried to wrangle more answers from the Arrow of Dodona and Agamethus’s Magic 8 Ball. I’d had limited success, but what I’d managed to piece together just made me more nervous.

  I liked to talk when I was nervous.

  Meg, however, seemed unconcerned by the task ahead of us. She acted as annoying and carefree as she had the first day I’d encountered her in that Manhattan alley.

  Was she just putting on a brave act? I didn’t think so. I was constantly amazed at how resilient mortals could be in the face of catastrophe. Even the most traumatized, ill-treated, shell-shocked humans could carry on as if things were completely normal. Meals were still prepared. Work was still done. Piano lessons were commenced and carrot sticks munched.

  For miles, we rode in silence. I couldn’t even play any decent tunes, because the Mercedes did not have satellite radio. Curse Leo Valdez and his free luxury vehicles!

  The only FM station I could find featured something called the Morning Zoo. After my experience with Calypso and the griffins, I was in no mood for zoos.

  We passed through small towns with run-down motels, secondhand clothing shops, feed stores, and various vehicles for sale on the side of the road. The countryside was flat and monotonous—a landscape that would not have been out of place in the ancient Peloponnese except for the telephone poles and billboards. Well, and the road itself. Greeks were never very good at building roads. That’s probably because Hermes was their god of travel. Hermes was always more interested in fascinating, dangerous journeys than he was in quick and easy interstates.

  Finally, two hours after leaving Indianapolis, dawn started to break, and I started to panic.

  “I’m lost,” I admitted.

  “Knew it,” Meg said.

  “It’s not my fault! I followed those signs for God’s Place!”

  Meg squinted at me. “The Christian Bible store we passed? Why’d you do that?”

  “Well, honestly! The locals need to be more specific about which gods they’re advertising!”

  Meg belched into her fist. “Pull over and ask the arrow. I’m getting carsick.”

  I did not want to ask the arrow. But I also did not want Meg throwing up her carrots all over the leather upholstery. I pulled to the side of the road and dug my prophetic missile weapon from my quiver.

  “O, Wise Arrow,” I said. “We’re lost.”

  I KNEWST THAT WHEN I MET YOU.

  Such a thin shaft the arrow had. How easy it would be to break! I restrained myself. If I destroyed the Grove of Dodona’s gift, I worried that its patron, my hippie grandmother, Rhea, might curse me to smell like patchouli for all time.

  “What I mean,” I said, “is that we need to find the entrance to the Cave of Trophonius. Quickly. Can you direct us there?”

  The arrow vibrated, perhaps testing for local Wi-Fi connections. Given our remote location, I feared he might start channeling the Morning Zoo.

  THE MORTAL ENTRANCE LIES ONE LEAGUE EAST, he intoned. NEAR A PORTABLE SHED WITH A ROOF OF BLUE.

  For a moment, I was too surprised to speak. “That…was actually helpful.”

  BUT THOU CANST NOT USE THE MORTAL ENTRANCE, he added. ’TIS GUARDED TOO WELL, AND ’TWOULD BE DEATH.

  “Ah. Less helpful.”

  “What’s he saying?” Meg asked.

  I gestured for her to be patient. (Why, I don’t know. It was a hopeless wish.) “Great Arrow, I don’t suppose you know how we should get into the cave?”

  GOEST THOU DOWN THIS ROAD TO THE WEST. THOU SHALT SEEST A ROADSIDE STAND WHICH SELLETH FRESH EGGS.

  “Yes?”

  THIS ROADSIDE STAND IS NOT IMPORTANT. KEEP DRIVING.

  “Apollo?” Meg poked me in the ribs. “What’s he saying?”

  “Something about fresh eggs.”

  This answer seemed to satisfy her. At least she stopped poking me.

  GOEST THOU FARTHER, the arrow advised. TAKEST THE THIRD LEFT. WHEN THOU SEEST THE ROAD SIGN OF THE EMPEROR, THOU SHALT KNOW ’TIS TIME TO STOP.

  “What road sign of the emperor?”

  THOU SHALT KNOWEST IT WHEN THOU SEEST IT. STOPPEST THERE, JUMPEST THOU THE FENCE, AND PROCEED INLAND TO THE PLACE OF TWO STREAMS.

  Cold fingers played an arpeggio down my vertebrae. The place of two streams—that, at least, made sense to me. I wished it did not.

  “And then?” I asked.

  THEN THOU MAYST DRINK AND JUMP INTO THE CHASM OF HORRORS. BUT TO DO SO, THOU MUST FACE THE GUARDIANS THAT CANNOT BE KILLED.

  “Fantastic,” I said. “I don’t supposeth—I don’t suppose your Wikipedia article has more information about these unkillable guardians?”

  THOU DOST JAPE LIKE A JAPING JAPER. BUT NAY. MY PROPHETIC POWERS SEE THIS NOT. AND ONE MORE THING.

  “Yes?”

  LEAVEST ME IN THE MERCEDES. I WISH NOT TO PLUNGE INTO DEATH AND DARKNESS.

  I slid the arrow under the driver’s seat. Then I reported the entire conversation to Meg.


  She frowned. “Unkillable guardians? What does that mean?”

  “At this point, Meg, your guess is as good as mine. Let’s go find a chasm of horrors to jump into, shall we?”

  Pretty fuzzy cow

  So cute, so warm and vicious!

  Squee! Can I kill him?

  THE EMPEROR’S road sign was easy enough to spot:

  ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY

  NEXT FIVE MILES SPONSORED BY:

  TRIUMVIRATE HOLDINGS

  Commodus and his colleagues may have been power-hungry murderers bent on world domination, but at least they cared about cleaning up litter.

  Along the roadside ran a barbed-wire fence. Beyond this lay more nondescript countryside—a few stands of trees and shrubs, but mostly rolling meadows. In the predawn light, dew exhaled a blanket of vapor over the grass. In the distance, behind a clump of hackberry bushes, two large animals stood grazing. I couldn’t make out their exact forms. They looked like cows. I doubted they were cows. I spotted no other guardians, killable or otherwise, which did not reassure me in the slightest.

  “Well,” I told Meg. “Shall we?”

  We shouldered our supplies and left the Mercedes.

  Meg removed her jacket and laid it across the barbed wire. Despite the arrow’s instructions to jumpest, we only managed a wobbly giant steppeth. I held down the top wire for Meg, then she failed to do the same for me. This left me with some awkward rips in the seat of my jeans.

  We sneaked across the field in the direction of the two grazing beasts.

  I was sweating an unreasonable amount. The cold morning air condensed on my skin, making me feel as if I were bathing in a cold soup—Apollo gazpacho. (Hmm, that sounded rather good. I will have to trademark it once I become a god again.)

  We crouched behind the hackberries, only twenty or thirty feet from the animals. Dawn tinged the horizon with red.

  I didn’t know how short our time window would be to enter the cavern. When the spirit of Trophonius said “first light,” did he mean nautical twilight? Dawn? The moment when the sun chariot’s headlights were first visible, or when the chariot was high enough in the sky that you could actually read my bumper stickers? Whatever the case, we had to hurry.

  Meg adjusted her glasses. She started to edge sideways for an unobstructed view around the bushes when one of the creatures lifted its head just enough for me to glimpse its horns.

 
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