The dark prophecy, p.22
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.22

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  I stifled a scream. I grabbed Meg’s wrist and pulled her back into the cover of the hackberries.

  Normally, that might have provoked a bite from her, but I was willing to risk it. It was a little too early in the morning to watch my young friend get killed.

  “Stay very still,” I whispered. “Those are yales.”

  She blinked one eye, then the other, as if my warning was slowly making its way from her left brain to her right. “Yales? Isn’t that a university?”

  “Yes,” I murmured. “And one of Yale University’s symbols is the yale, but that’s not important. These monsters…” I swallowed down the aluminum taste of fear. “The Romans knew them as centicores. They are absolutely deadly. They’re also attracted to sudden movements and loud noises. So shh.”

  In fact, even as a god, I had never been this close to yales before. They were fierce, proud animals, highly territorial and aggressive. I remembered catching a glimpse of them in my vision of Commodus’s throne room, but the beasts were so rare I’d half convinced myself they were some other manner of monster. Also, I could not imagine that even Commodus would be crazy enough to keep yales in such proximity to humans.

  They looked more like giant yaks than cows. Shaggy brown fur with yellow spots covered their bodies, while the fur on their heads was solid yellow. Horselike manes trailed down their necks. Their fluffy tails were as long as my arm, and their large amber eyes…Oh, dear. The way I’m describing them, they sound almost cute. Let me assure you, they were not.

  The yales’ most prominent features were their horns—two glistening white spears of ridged bone, absurdly long for the creature’s head. I had seen those horns in action before. Eons ago, during Dionysus’s eastern campaign, the wine god had unleashed a herd of yales into the ranks of an Indian army five thousand strong. I remembered the screams of those warriors.

  “What do we do?” Meg whispered. “Kill them? They’re kind of pretty.”

  “The Spartan warriors were kind of pretty, too, until they skewered you. No, we can’t kill yales.”

  “Okay, good.” A long pause, then Meg’s natural rebellious streak kicked in. “Why not? Is their fur invulnerable to my swords? I hate that.”

  “No, Meg, I don’t think so. The reason we can’t kill these creatures is that yales are on the endangered-monster list.”

  “You’re making that up.”

  “Why would I make up such a thing?” I had to remind myself to keep my voice down. “Artemis is very careful about monitoring the situation. When monsters start to fade from mortals’ collective memory, they regenerate less and less often from Tartarus. We have to let them breed and repopulate!”

  Meg looked dubious. “Uh-huh.”

  “Oh, come on. Surely you heard about that proposed temple of Poseidon in Sicily? It had to be relocated simply because the land was found to be the nesting area of a red-bellied hydra.”

  Meg’s blank stare suggested she hadn’t heard about that, even though it had been headline news just a few thousand years ago.

  “At any rate,” I persisted, “yales are much rarer than red-bellied hydras. I don’t know where Commodus found these, but if we killed them, all the gods would curse us, starting with my sister.”

  Meg gazed again at the shaggy animals grazing peacefully in the meadow. “Aren’t you already cursed by the River Styx or whatever?”

  “That’s not the point.”

  “Then what do we do?”

  The wind shifted. Suddenly, I remembered another detail about yales. They had an excellent sense of smell.

  The pair simultaneously lifted their heads and turned their lovely amber eyes in our direction. The bull yale bellowed—a sound like a foghorn gargling mouthwash. Then both monsters charged.

  I remembered more interesting facts about yales. (Had I not been about to die, I could have narrated a documentary.) For such large animals, their speed was impressive.

  And those horns! As yales attacked, their horns swiveled like insect antennae—or, perhaps more accurately, the lances of medieval knights, who had been so fond of putting these creatures on their heraldic shields. The horns also spun, their sharp ridges corkscrewing, all the better to pierce our bodies.

  I wished I could take a video of these majestic animals. I would’ve gotten millions of likes on GodTube! But if you have ever been charged by two woolly spotted yaks dual-wielding lances on their heads, you understand that camera work in such circumstances is difficult.

  Meg tackled me, pushing me out of the yales’ path as they rushed through the hackberries. The bull’s left horn grazed my calf, slicing through my jeans. (My jeans were having a bad day.)

  “Trees!” Meg yelled.

  She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the nearest stand of oaks. Fortunately, the yales were not as fast turning as they were charging. They galloped in a wide arc as Meg and I took cover.

  “They’re not so pretty now,” Meg noted. “You sure we can’t kill them?”

  “No!” I ran through my limited repertoire of skills. I could sing and play the ukulele, but yales were notoriously tone-deaf. My bow and arrow would do me no good. I could try to simply wound the animals, but with my luck, I’d end up accidentally killing them. I was fresh out of ammonia syringes, brick walls, elephants, and bursts of godly strength. That left only my natural charisma, which I didn’t think the yales would appreciate.

  The animals slowed as they approached. Probably, they were confused about how to kill us through the trees. Yales were aggressive, but they weren’t hunters. They didn’t use fancy maneuvers to corner and defeat prey. If somebody got in their territory, they just charged. The trespassers died or fled. Problem solved. They weren’t accustomed to intruders who played keep-away.

  We edged around the oaks, doing our best to stay opposite the beasts.

  “Nice yales,” I sang. “Excellent yales.”

  The yales did not seem impressed.

  As we shifted perspective, I spotted something about thirty yards beyond the animals: a cluster of washing-machine-size boulders in the tall grass. Nothing terribly dramatic, but my keen ears picked up the sound of trickling water.

  I pointed out the rocks to Meg. “The cave entrance must be there.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “So do we run for it and jump in?”

  “No!” I yelped. “There should be two streams. We have to stop and drink from them. Then the cave itself…I doubt it will be an easy descent. We’ll need time to find a safe way down. If we just jump in, we might die.”

  “These harvards aren’t going to give us time.”

  “Yales,” I corrected.

  “Same difference,” she said, totally stealing my line. “How much do you think those things weigh?”

  “A lot.”

  She seemed to run that through her mental calculator. “Okay. Get ready.”

  “For what?”

  “No spoilers.”

  “I hate you.”

  Meg thrust out her hands. All around the yales, the grass went into overdrive, braiding itself into thick green ropes that wrapped around the beasts’ legs. The creatures thrashed and bellowed like gargling foghorns, but the grass continued to grow, climbing across their flanks, entangling their massive bodies.

  “Go,” Meg said.

  I ran.

  Thirty yards had never seemed so far.

  Halfway to the rocks, I glanced back. Meg was stumbling, her face glistening with sweat. It must have been taking all her strength to keep the yales entangled. The beasts strained and spun their horns, slashing at the grass, pulling against the sod with all their might.

  I reached the pile of rocks.

  As I’d suspected, from side-by-side fissures in the face of one boulder, twin springs gurgled, as if Poseidon had come by and cracked the stone with his trident: I want hot water here, and cold water here. One spring bubbled diluted white, the color of nonfat milk. The other was as black as squid ink. They ran together in a mossy streak before splattering aga
inst the muddy ground.

  Beyond the springs, a crevasse zigzagged between the largest boulders—a ten-foot-wide wound in the earth, leaving no doubt as to the presence of the cavern system below. At the lip of the chasm, a coil of rope was tied to an iron piton.

  Meg staggered toward me. “Hurry,” she gasped. “Jump in.”

  Behind her, the yales were slowly ripping through their grassy bonds.

  “We have to drink,” I told her. “Mnemosyne, the Spring of Memory, is black. Lethe, the Spring of Forgetfulness, is white. If we drink both at the same time, they should counteract each other and prepare our minds—”

  “Don’t care.” Meg’s face was now as white as the waters of Lethe. “You go.”

  “But you have to come with me! The Oracle said so! Besides, you won’t be in any shape to defend yourself.”

  “Fine,” she groaned. “Drink!”

  I cupped one hand in the water of Mnemosyne, the other hand in the water of Lethe. I gulped them down simultaneously. They had no taste—just intense, numbing cold, the sort that hurts so badly you don’t feel the pain until much later.

  My brain began to swivel and corkscrew like a yale horn. My feet felt like helium balloons. Meg struggled with the rope, trying to wrap it around my waist. For some reason, I found this hysterical.

  “Your turn,” I giggled. “Drinkie, drinkie!”

  Meg scowled. “And lose my wits? Nuh-uh.”

  “Silly willy! If you don’t prepare yourself for the Oracle—”

  In the meadow, the yales ripped themselves free, peeling off several square yards of turf from the ground.

  “No time!” Meg lunged forward, tackling me around the waist. Like the good friend she was, she sent me tumbling over the ledge and into the black void below.

  Feeling groovy, I’m

  Drowning, freezing, snake surfing

  Life is good, Batman!

  MEG AND I PLUMMETED through the dark, our rope unspooling as we bounced off one rock then another, my clothing and skin getting brutally scraped away.

  I did the natural thing. I screamed, “WHEEEEEE!”

  The rope snapped taut, giving me the Heimlich maneuver so violently I almost coughed up my appendix. Meg grunted with surprise and lost her grip on me. She fell deeper into the darkness. A heartbeat later, a splash echoed from below.

  I laughed, dangling in the void. “That was fun! Again!”

  The knot unraveled at my waist, and I plunged into frigid water.

  My delirious state probably saved me from drowning immediately. I felt no need to struggle, thrash, or gasp for breath. I floated down, vaguely amused by my predicament. The sips I had taken from Lethe and Mnemosyne battled in my mind. I couldn’t remember my own name, which I found extremely funny, but I could recall with perfect clarity the yellow flecks in Python’s serpentine eyes as he sank his fangs into my immortal biceps millennia ago.

  Beneath the dark water, I shouldn’t have been able to see anything. Nevertheless, images floated in and out of my vision. Perhaps this was the effect of my eyeballs freezing.

  I saw my father, Zeus, sitting in a patio chair by an infinity pool at the edge of a terrace. Beyond the pool, an azure sea stretched to the horizon. The scene would have been more fitting for Poseidon, but I knew this place: my mother’s condo in Florida. (Yes, I had one of those immortal moms who retired to Florida; what can you do?)

  Leto knelt at Zeus’s side, her hands clasped in prayer. Her bronze arms glowed against her white sundress. Her long golden hair zigzagged down her back in an elaborate ladder weave.

  “Please, my lord!” she implored. “He is your son. He has learned his lesson!”

  “Not yet,” Zeus rumbled. “Oh, no. His real test is yet to come.”

  I laughed and waved. “Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!”

  Since I was underwater and most likely hallucinating, my words should not have been audible. Nevertheless, Zeus glanced over and scowled.

  The scene evaporated. I found myself facing a different immortal.

  Floating before me was a dark goddess, her ebony hair wafting in the cold current, her dress billowing around her like volcanic smoke. Her face was delicate and sublime, her lipstick, eye shadow, and mascara all expertly done in shades of midnight. Her eyes gleamed with absolute hatred.

  I found her presence delightful. “Hi, Styx!”

  Her obsidian eyes narrowed. “You. Oath-breaker. Do not think I have forgotten.”

  “But I have!” I said. “Who am I again?”

  In that moment, I was absolutely serious. I knew this was Styx, goddess of the Underworld’s most important river. I knew she was the most powerful of all water nymphs, eldest daughter of the sea Titan, Oceanus. I knew she hated me, which wasn’t surprising, since she was also the goddess of hatred.

  But I had no idea who I was or what I’d done to earn her animosity.

  “Did you know I’m drowning right now?” This was so hilarious I started to giggle a stream of bubbles.

  “I will have my due,” Styx snarled. “You will PAY for your broken promises.”

  “Okay!” I agreed. “How much?”

  She hissed in annoyance. “I can’t even do this with you right now. Return to your foolish quest!”

  The goddess vanished. Someone grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, yanked me out of the water, and dumped me on a hard stone surface.

  My rescuer was a young girl of about twelve. Water dripped from her tattered green sheath dress. Bloody scratches covered her arms. Her jeans and red high-tops were shellacked with mud.

  Most alarmingly, the rhinestones in the corners of her cat-eye glasses were not just glinting. They emitted their own pale light. I realized those small constellations hovering next to her eyes were the only reason I could see the girl at all.

  “I feel like I know you,” I croaked. “I want to say Peg. Or Megan?”

  She frowned, looking almost as dangerous as the goddess Styx. “You’re not kidding, are you?”

  “Nope!” I gave her a cheerful smile, despite the fact that I was soaked and shivering. It occurred to me that I was probably going into hypothermic shock. I remembered all the symptoms of that: shivering, dizziness, confusion, rapid heart rate, nausea, fatigue…Wow, I was batting a thousand!

  Now if only I could remember my name. It occurred to me that I had two of them. Was one of them Lester? Oh, dear. How awful! The other was something that began with an A.

  Alfred? Hmm. No. That would make this young girl Batman, and that didn’t feel right.

  “My name is Meg,” she offered.

  “Yes! Yes, of course. Thanks. And I’m—”

  “An idiot.”

  “Hmm. No….Oh! That’s a joke.”

  “Not really. But your name is Apollo.”

  “Right! And we’re here for the Oracle of Trophonius.”

  She tilted her head, sending her left eyeglass frame constellation into a higher astrological house. “You can’t remember our names, but you remember that?”

  “Strange, isn’t it?” I struggled to sit up. My fingers had turned blue, which probably wasn’t a good sign. “I remember the steps for petitioning the Oracle! First, we drink from the Springs of Lethe and Mnemosyne. I did that already, didn’t I? That’s why I feel so odd.”

  “Yeah.” Meg wrung the water out of her skirt. “We need to keep moving or we’ll freeze to death.”

  “Okay!” I accepted her help getting me to my feet. “After drinking from the springs, we descend into a cave. Oh! We’re here! Then we go farther into the depths. Hmm. That way!”

  In fact, there was only one way.

  Fifty feet above us, a tiny slash of daylight glowed from the crevice we’d fallen through. The rope dangled well out of reach. We would not be exiting the same way we entered. To our left rose a sheer face of rock. About halfway up the wall, a waterfall gushed from a fissure, spilling into the pool at our feet. To our right, the water formed a dark river and flowed out through a narrow tunnel. The ledge we were stan
ding on wound alongside the river, just wide enough to walk on, assuming we didn’t slip, fall in, and drown.

  “Well, then!” I led the way, following the stream.

  As the tunnel turned, the rock sill narrowed. The ceiling lowered until I was almost crawling. Behind me, Meg breathed in shivering puffs, her exhales so loud they echoed over the babble of the river.

  I found it difficult to walk and form rational thoughts at the same time. It was like playing syncopated rhythms on a drum set. My sticks needed to move in a completely different pattern than my feet on the bass and top hat pedals. One small mistake and my edgy jazz beat would turn into a leaden polka.

  I stopped and turned to Meg. “Honey cakes?”

  In the glowing rhinestone light of her glasses, her expression was difficult to read. “I hope you’re not calling me that.”

  “No, we need honey cakes. Did you bring them or did I?” I patted my soaking wet pockets. I felt nothing but a set of car keys and a wallet. I had a quiver, a bow, and a ukulele on my back—Oh, a ukulele! Wonderful!—but I didn’t think I would have stored pastries in a stringed instrument.

  Meg frowned. “You never said anything about honey cakes.”

  “But I just remembered! We need them for the snakes!”

  “Snakes.” Meg developed a facial tic that I did not think was related to hypothermia. “Why would there be snakes?”

  “Good question! I just know we’re supposed to have honey cakes to appease them. So…we forgot the cakes?”

  “You never said anything about cakes!”

  “Well, that’s a shame. Anything we can substitute? Oreos, perhaps?”

  Meg shook her head. “No Oreos.”

  “Hmm. Okay. I guess we’ll improvise.”

  She glanced apprehensively down the tunnel. “You show me how to improvise with snakes. I’ll follow.”

  This sounded like a splendid idea. I strolled merrily onward, except where the tunnel’s ceiling was too low. In those places, I squatted merrily onward.

  Despite slipping into the river a few times, whacking my head on a few stalactites, and choking on the acrid smell of bat guano, I felt no distress. My legs seemed to float. My brain wobbled around in my skull, constantly rebalancing like a gyroscope.

  Things I could remember: I’d had a vision of Leto. She’d been trying to convince Zeus to forgive me. That was so sweet! I’d also had a vision of the goddess Styx. She’d been angry—hilarious! And for some reason, I could remember every note Stevie Ray Vaughan played on “Texas Flood.” What a great song!

  Things I could not remember: Didn’t I have a twin sister? Was her name…Lesterina? Alfreda? Neither of those sounded right. Also, why was Zeus mad at me? Also, why was Styx mad at me? Also, who was this girl behind me with the glowing rhinestone glasses, and why didn’t she have any honey cakes?

  My thoughts may have been muddled, but my senses were as sharp as ever. From the tunnel ahead of us, wafts of warmer air brushed against my face. The sounds of the river dissipated, the echoes growing deeper and softer, as if the water were spreading out into a larger cavern. A new smell assaulted my nostrils—a scent drier and sourer than bat guano. Ah, yes…reptilian skin and excrement.

  I halted. “I know why!”

  I grinned at Peggy—Megan—no, Meg.

  She scowled. “You know why what?”

  “Why snakes!” I said. “You asked me why we would find snakes, didn’t you? Or was that someone else? Snakes are symbolic! They represent prophetic wisdom from deep in the earth, just as birds symbolize prophetic wisdom from the heavens.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “So snakes are attracted to Oracles! Especially ones in caves!”

  “Like that big snake monster we heard in the Labyrinth, Python?”

  I found this reference vaguely unsettling. I was pretty sure I’d known who
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