The dark prophecy, p.23
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.23

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  Python was a few minutes ago. Now I was blanking. I flashed on the name Monty Python. Was that correct? I didn’t think the monster and I had ever been on a first-name basis.

  “Well, yes, I suppose it’s like that,” I said. “Anyway, the snakes should be right up ahead! That’s why we need honey cakes. You have some, you said?”

  “No, I—”

  “Excellent!” I forged on.

  As I’d suspected, the tunnel widened into a large chamber. A lake covered the entire area, perhaps sixty feet in diameter, except for a small island of rock in the center. Above us, the domed ceiling bristled with stalactites like black chandeliers. Covering the island and the surface of the water was a writhing sheet of serpents, like spaghetti left too long in boiling water. Water moccasins. Lovely creatures. Thousands of them.

  “Ta-da!” I exclaimed.

  Meg did not seem to share my enthusiasm. She edged back into the tunnel. “Apollo…you’d need a zillion honey cakes for that many snakes.”

  “Oh, but you see, we need to get to that little island in the center. That’s where we’ll receive our prophecy.”

  “But if we go into that water, won’t the snakes kill us?”

  “Probably!” I grinned. “Let’s find out!”

  I jumped into the lake.

  Meg takes a solo

  Scares away her audience

  Good job, McCaffrey

  “APOLLO, SING!” MEG YELLED.

  No words could have stopped me more effectively. I loved being asked to sing!

  I was halfway across the lake, up to my waist in reptilian noodle soup, but I turned and looked back at the girl standing at the mouth of the tunnel. I must have agitated the snakes in my wake. They swished back and forth, their cute little heads gliding just above the surface, their white mouths open. (Oh, I get it! That’s why they were called cottonmouths!)

  Many of the snakes swarmed toward Meg, nosing around her shoes as if deciding whether to join her on the ledge. Meg tiptoed from foot to foot as if she wasn’t crazy about this idea.

  “Did you say sing?” I asked.

  “Yes!” Her voice squeaked. “Charm the snakes! Make them go away!”

  I didn’t understand what she meant. When I sang, my audiences always came closer. Who was this girl Meg, anyway? She had apparently confused me with Saint Patrick. (Nice guy, by the way; terrible singing voice. The legends don’t normally mention that he drove the snakes out of Ireland with his hideous version of “Te Deum.”)

  “Sing that song you did in the ants’ nest!” she pleaded.

  The Ants’ Nest? I remembered singing with the Rat Pack and A Flock of Seagulls, but the Ants’ Nest? I didn’t recall ever being part of such a group.

  However, it did occur to me why Megan/Peg/Meg might be nervous. Water moccasins are poisonous. Much like yales, they can be aggressive when their territory is invaded. But Meg stood at the mouth of the tunnel, not really in the snakes’ territory. Why was she nervous?

  I looked down. Hundreds of vipers swirled around me, displaying their cute little mouths with their sharp little fangs. They moved sluggishly in the frigid water, or perhaps they were just awestruck to be in my presence—cheerful, charismatic, charming old Whatever-my-name-was!—but they did seem to be hissing a lot.

  “Oh!” I laughed as the realization struck me. “You’re worried about me! I’m about to die!”

  I had a vague impulse to do something. Run? Dance? What was it Meg had suggested?

  Before I could decide, Meg began to sing.

  Her voice was weak and off-key, but I recognized the melody. I was pretty sure I had composed it.

  Whenever someone bursts into song in public, there is a moment of hesitation. Passersby stop to listen, trying to discern what they are hearing and why a random person in their midst has decided to serenade them. As Meg’s uneven voice echoed through the cavern, the snakes sensed the vibrations. More thumb-size viper heads popped to the surface. More white mouths opened, as if they were trying to taste the song. Around my waist, the swirling storm of water moccasins lost its cohesion as the snakes turned their attention to Meg.

  She sang of loss and regret. Yes…I vaguely recalled singing this song. I’d been walking through the tunnels of a myrmekes’ nest, pouring out my sadness, baring my heart as I searched for Meg. In the song, I had taken responsibility for the deaths of my greatest loves, Daphne and Hyacinthus. Their names came back to me as sharp as broken window shards.

  Meg repeated my performance, but with different words. She was making up her own verses. As the vipers gathered at her feet, her voice grew stronger, more self-assured. She was still off-key, but she sang with heartbreaking conviction—her song every bit as sad and genuine as mine had been.

  “It’s my fault,” she sang. “Your blood on my hands. The crushed rose I couldn’t save.”

  I was stunned she had such poetry in her. Clearly, the snakes were too. They bobbed around her feet in a thick mass, just like the crowd at the Pink Floyd floating concert in Venice in 1989—which, for some reason, I remembered perfectly.

  A bit late, I realized it was a miracle I had not yet been bitten to death by water moccasins. What was I doing in the middle of this lake? Only Meg’s music was keeping me alive—her discordant voice somehow beautiful and enchanting, holding the attention of thousands of rapt vipers.

  Like them, I wanted to stay where I was and listen. But a sense of unease was building up inside me. This cave…the Oracle of Trophonius. Something told me this cave was not the right place to bare one’s soul.

  “Meg,” I whispered. “Stop.”

  She apparently couldn’t hear me.

  The entire cavern seemed fixated on her voice now. The rock walls glistened. Shadows swayed as if dancing. The glittering stalactites strained toward Meg like compass needles.

  She sang of betraying me, of returning to Nero’s household, of succumbing to her fear of the Beast….

  “No,” I said, a little louder. “No, Meg!”

  Too late. The cavern’s magic caught her song, magnifying her voice a hundredfold. The chamber filled with the sound of pure pain. The lake boiled as panicked serpents submerged and fled, pushing past my legs in a strong riptide.

  Perhaps they escaped down some hidden waterway. Perhaps they dissolved. All I knew: the little rock island in the center of the cave was suddenly empty, and I was the only living thing left in the lake.

  Still Meg sang. Her voice now sounded forced out of her—as if some giant invisible fist were squeezing her like a squeaky toy. Lights and shadows flickered over the cavern walls, forming ghostly images to illustrate her lyrics.

  In one scene, a middle-aged man crouched down and smiled as if looking at a child. He had dark curly hair like mine (I mean Lester’s), a broad freckled nose, and soft, kind eyes. He held out a single red rose.

  “From your mother,” he whispered, a chorus to Meg’s song. “This rose will never fade, sweetheart. You will never have to worry about thorns.”

  The pudgy hand of a child appeared in the vision, reaching for the flower. I suspected this was one of Meg’s earliest memories—something just on the edge of consciousness. She took the rose, and the petals unfolded into brilliant full bloom. The stem curled lovingly around Meg’s wrist. She squealed with delight.

  A different vision: the emperor Nero in his purple three-piece suit, kneeling to look Meg in the eye. He smiled in a way that might have been mistaken for kindly if you didn’t know Nero. His double chin puffed out under his helmet-strap beard. His bejeweled rings glittered on his fat fingers.

  “You’ll be a good girl, won’t you?” He gripped Meg’s shoulder a little too tightly. “Your daddy had to go away. Perhaps if you’re good, you’ll see him again. Won’t that be nice?”

  The younger version of Meg nodded. I sensed, somehow, that she was about five years old. I imagined her thoughts and emotions curling up inside her, forming a thick protective shell.

  Another scene flickered into
view. Just outside the New York Public Library in Midtown, a man’s corpse sprawled on the white marble steps. One hand was splayed on his gut, which was a gruesome battleground of red trenches—perhaps slashes from a knife, or the claws of a large predator.

  Police milled around, taking notes, snapping photos, holding the crowd behind a line of yellow tape. They parted, however, to let two people in—Nero, in a different purple suit but the same ghastly beard and jewelry, and Meg, now maybe six, horrified, pale, reluctant. She saw the body and began to whimper. She tried to turn away, but Nero planted a heavy hand on her shoulder to keep her in place.

  “I want you to see this.” His voice dripped with false sympathy. “I am so sorry, my dear. The Beast…” He sighed as if this tragic scene was unavoidable. “I need you to be more diligent in your studies, do you understand? Whatever the swords-master says, you must do. It would break my heart if something else happened, something even worse than this. Look. Remember.”

  Tears pooled in Meg’s eyes. She edged forward. Clutched in her dead father’s other hand was the stem of a rose. The crushed petals were strewn across his stomach, almost invisible against the blood. She wailed, “Daddy! Help me!” The police paid her no attention. The crowd acted as if she didn’t exist. Only Nero was there for her.

  At last she turned to him, buried her face in his suit vest, and sobbed uncontrollably.

  Shadows flickered more rapidly across the cavern walls. Meg’s song began to reverberate, breaking into random waves of noise. The lake churned around me. On the small rock island, darkness gathered, swirling upward like a waterspout, forming the shape of a man.

  “Meg, stop singing!” I yelled.

  With one final sob, she crumpled to her knees, her face streaked with tears. She fell to her side, groaning, her voice like crumpling sandpaper. The rhinestones in her glasses still glowed, but with a faint bluish tint, as if all the warmth had been drained from them.

  I wanted more than anything to rush to Meg’s side. The sips of Memory and Forgetfulness had mostly burned out of my system. I knew Meg McCaffrey. I wanted to comfort her. But I also knew that the danger to her had not passed.

  I faced the island. The apparition was only vaguely humanoid, composed of shadows and fractals of light. Afterimages from Meg’s lyrics flashed and faded in his body. He radiated fear even more strongly than Thalia’s Aegis shield—waves of terror that threatened to rip my self-control from its moorings.

  “Trophonius!” I yelled. “Leave her alone!”

  His form came into clearer focus: his lustrous dark hair, his proud face. Around him swarmed a host of phantom bees, his sacred creatures, small smudges of darkness.

  “Apollo.” His voice resonated deep and harsh, just as it had sounded when expelled from Georgina on the Throne of Memory. “I’ve waited a long time, Father.”

  “Please, my son.” I clasped my hands. “Meg is not your petitioner. I am!”

  Trophonius regarded young McCaffrey, now curled up and shivering on the stone ledge. “If she is not my petitioner, why did she summon me with her song of grief? She has many unanswered questions. I could answer them, for the price of her sanity.”

  “No! She was—She was trying to protect me.” I choked on the words. “She is my friend. She did not drink from the springs. I did. I am the supplicant to your holy Oracle. Take me instead!”

  Trophonius’s laughter was a horrible sound…worthy of a spirit who dwelled in the darkness with thousands of poisonous snakes.

  “Take me instead,” he repeated. “The very prayer I made when my brother Agamethus was caught in a tunnel, his chest crushed, his life fading. Did you listen to me then, Father?”

  My mouth turned dry. “Don’t punish the girl for what I did.”

  Trophonius’s ghostly bees swarmed in a wider cloud, buzzing angrily past my face.

  “Do you know how long I wandered the mortal world after killing my brother, Apollo?” asked the ghost. “After cutting off his head, my hands still covered in his blood, I staggered through the wilderness for weeks, months. I pleaded to the earth to swallow me up and end my misery. I got half my wish.”

  He gestured around him. “I dwell in darkness now because I am your son. I see the future because I am your son. All my pain and madness…Why should I not share it with those who seek my help? Does your help ever come without a price?”

  My legs gave out. I plunged to my knees, the frigid water up to my chin. “Please, Trophonius. I am mortal now. Take your price from me, not her!”

  “The girl has already volunteered! She opened her deepest fears and regrets to me.”

  “No! No, she didn’t drink of the two springs. Her mind is not prepared. She will die!”

  Images flickered through Trophonius’s dark form like flashes of lightning: Meg encased in goo in the ants’ lair; Meg standing between me and Lityerses, his sword stopped cold by her crossed golden blades; Meg hugging me fiercely as we flew our griffin from the Indianapolis Zoo.

  “She is precious to you,” said the Oracle. “Would you give your life in exchange for hers?”

  I had trouble processing that question. Give up my life? At any point in my four thousand years of existence, my answer would’ve been an emphatic No! Are you crazy? One should never give up one’s life. One’s life is important! The whole point of my quests in the mortal world, finding and securing all these ancient Oracles, was to regain immortality so I wouldn’t have to ponder such awful questions!

  And yet…I thought of Emmie and Josephine renouncing immortality for each other. I thought of Calypso giving up her home, her powers, and eternal life for a chance to roam the world, experience love, and possibly enjoy the wonders of high school in Indiana.

  “Yes,” I found myself saying. “Yes, I would die to save Meg McCaffrey.”

  Trophonius laughed—a wet, angry sound like the churning of vipers in water. “Very good! Then promise me that you’ll grant me a wish. Whatever I ask, you will do.”

  “Y-your wish?” I wasn’t a god anymore. Trophonius knew that. Even if I could grant wishes, I seemed to recall a very recent conversation with the goddess Styx about the dangers of making oaths I couldn’t keep.

  But what choice did I have?

  “Yes,” I said. “I swear. Whatever you ask. Then we have an agreement? You will take me instead of the girl?”

  “Oh, I didn’t promise anything in return!” The spirit turned as black as oil smoke. “I just wanted to exact that promise from you. The girl’s fate is already decided.”

  He stretched out his arms, expelling millions of dark ghostly bees.

  Meg screamed in terror as the swarm engulfed her.

  Man, I hate my son

  A real arrogant jerkwad

  Nothing like his dad

  I DID NOT KNOW I could move so fast. Not as Lester Papadopoulos, anyway.

  I bounded across the lake until I reached Meg’s side. I tried desperately to shoo away the bees, but the wisps of darkness swarmed her, flying into her mouth, nose, and ears—even into her tear ducts. As a god of medicine, I would have found that fascinating if I hadn’t been so repulsed.

  “Trophonius, stop it!” I pleaded.

  “This is not my doing,” said the spirit. “Your friend opened her mind to the Dark Oracle. She asked questions. Now she is receiving the answers.”

  “She asked no questions!”

  “Oh, but she did. Mostly about you, Father. What will happen to you? Where must you go? How can she help you? These worries are foremost in her mind. Such misplaced loyalty…”

  Meg began to thrash. I turned her onto her side, as one should do for someone after having a seizure. I wracked my brain. What else? Remove sharp objects from her environment….All the snakes were gone, good. Not much I could do about the bees. Her skin was cold, but I had nothing warm and dry to cover her with. Her usual scent—that faint, inexplicable smell of apples—had turned dank as mildew. The rhinestones in her glasses were completely dark, the lenses white with condens
ation.

  “Meg,” I said. “Stay with me. Concentrate on my voice.”

  She muttered incoherently. With a twinge of panic, I realized that if she gave me a direct order in her delirious state, even something as simple as Leave me alone or Go away, I would be compelled to obey. I had to find a way to anchor her mind, to shield her from the worst of the dark visions. That was difficult when my own mind was still a little fuzzy and not completely trustworthy.

  I muttered some healing chants—old curative tunes I hadn’t used in centuries. Before antibiotics, before aspirin, before even sterile bandages, we had songs. I was the god of both music and healing for good reason. One should never underestimate the healing power of music.

  Meg’s breathing steadied, but the shadowy swarm still enveloped her, attracted to her fears and doubts like…well, like bees to pollen.

  “Ahem,” Trophonius said. “So about this favor you promised—”

  “Shut up!” I snapped.

  In her fever, Meg murmured, “Shut up.”

  I chose to take this as an echo, not an order, aimed at Trophonius rather than me. Thankfully, my vocal cords agreed.

  I sang to Meg about her mother, Demeter—the goddess who could heal the entire earth after drought, fire, or flood. I sang of Demeter’s mercy and kindness—the way she had made the prince Triptolemus into a god because of his good deeds; the way she had nursed the baby boy Demophon for three nights, attempting to make him immortal; the way she had blessed the cereal makers of modern times, flooding the world with a bounty of Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, and Count Chocula. Truly, she was a goddess of infinite benevolence.

  “You know she loves you,” I promised, cradling Meg’s head in my lap. “She loves all her children. Look at how much she cherished Persephone even though that girl…Well, she makes your table manners look positively refined! Er, no offense.”

  I realized I wasn’t even singing anymore. I was rambling, trying to drive off Meg’s fears with a friendly voice.

  “Once,” I continued, “Demeter married this minor harvest god, Karmanor? You’ve probably never heard of him. No one had. He was this local deity in Crete. Rude, backward, poorly dressed. But, oh, they loved each other. They had this son…ugliest boy you ever saw. Had no redeeming qualities. He looked like a pig. Everyone said so. He even had a horrible name: Eubouleus. Sounds like Ebola, I know. But Demeter turned everyone’s criticisms around. She made Eubouleus the god of swineherds! I only say this because…Well, you never know, Meg. Demeter has plans for you, I’m sure. You can’t die on me, you see. You have too much to look forward to. Demeter might make you the minor goddess of cute little piglets!”

  I couldn’t tell if she was hearing me. Her eyes shifted under closed lids as if she’d entered REM sleep. She wasn’t twitching and thrashing quite as much. Or was that my imagination? I was shaking from cold and fear so much myself, it was hard to be sure.

  Trophonius made a sound like a steam valve opening. “She’s just fallen into a deeper trance. That’s not necessarily a good sign. She could still die.”

  I kept my back to him. “Meg, don’t listen to Trophonius. He’s all about fear and pain. He’s just trying to make us lose hope.”

  “Hope,” said the spirit. “Interesting word. I had hope once—that my father might act like a father. I got over it after a few centuries of being dead.”

  “Don’t blame me for you robbing the king’s treasury!” I snarled. “You are here because you messed up.”

  “I prayed to you!”

  “Well, perhaps you didn’t pray for the right thing at the right time!” I yelled. “Pray for wisdom before you do something stupid! Don’t pray for me to bail you out after you follow your worst instincts!”

  The bees swirled around me and buzzed angrily, but they did me no harm. I refused to offer them any fear to feed on. All that mattered now was staying positive, staying anchored for Meg’s sake.

  “I’m here.” I brushed the wet hair from her forehead. “You are not alone.”

  She whimpered in her trance. “The rose died.”

  I felt as if a water moccasin had wriggled into my chest and was biting my heart, one artery at a time. “Meg, a flower is only part of the plant. Flowers grow back. You have deep roots. You have strong stems. You have…Your face is green.” I turned to Trophonius in alarm. “Why is her face green?”

  “Interesting.” He sounded anything but interested. “Perhaps she’s dying.”

  He tilted his head as if listening to something in the distance. “Ah. They’re here, waiting for you.”

  “What? Who?”

  “The emperor’s servants. Blemmyae.” Trophonius gestured to the far side of the lake. “An underwater tunnel just there…it leads into the rest of the cavern system, the part known to mortals. The blemmyae have learned better than to come
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