The dark prophecy, p.24
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.24

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  into this chamber, but they’re waiting for you on the other end. That’s the only way you can escape.”

  “Then we will.”

  “Doubtful,” said Trophonius. “Even if your young friend survives, the blemmyae are preparing explosives.”

  “WHAT?”

  “Oh, Commodus probably told them to use the explosives only as a last resort. He likes having me as his personal fortune-teller. He sends his men in here from time to time, pulls them out half-dead and insane, gets free glimpses of the future. What does he care? But he’d rather destroy this Oracle than allow you to escape alive.”

  I was too dumbfounded to respond.

  Trophonius let loose another harsh peal of laughter. “Don’t look so down, Apollo. On the bright side, it won’t matter if Meg dies here, because she’s going to die anyway! Look, she’s frothing at the mouth now. This is always the most interesting part.”

  Meg was indeed gurgling white foam. In my expert medical opinion, that was rarely a good sign.

  I took her face between my hands. “Meg, listen to me.” The darkness roiled around her, making my skin tingle. “I’m here. I’m Apollo, god of healing. You will not die on me.”

  Meg didn’t take orders well. I knew this. She twitched and foamed, coughing up random words like horse, crossword, cloven, roots. Also not a great sign, medically speaking.

  My singing had not worked. Stern language had not worked. There was only one other remedy I could think of—an ancient technique for drawing out poison and evil spirits. The practice was no longer endorsed by most medical associations, but I remembered the limerick from the Grove of Dodona, the line I had lost the most sleep over: Was forced death and madness to swallow.

  Here we were.

  I knelt over Meg’s face, as I used to do when I taught mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as part of first aid training at Camp Jupiter. (Those silly Roman demigods were always drowning.)

  “I’m sorry about this.” I pinched Meg’s nose and clamped my mouth over hers. A slimy, unpleasant sensation—much like what I imagined Poseidon experienced when he realized he was kissing the gorgon Medusa.

  I could not be deterred. Instead of exhaling, I inhaled, sucking the darkness from Meg’s lungs.

  Perhaps, at some point in your life, you’ve gotten water up your nose? Imagine that feeling, except with bee venom and acid instead of water. The pain almost made me black out, a noxious cloud of horror flooding through my sinuses, down my throat, and into my chest. I felt ghostly bees ricocheting through my respiratory system, trying to sting their way out.

  I held my breath, determined to keep as much of the darkness away from Meg for as long as I could. I would share this burden with her, even if it killed me.

  My mind slid sideways into Meg’s own memories.

  I was a frightened little girl, trembling on the steps of the library, staring down at the body of my murdered father.

  The rose he had given me was crushed and dead. Its petals were scattered across the wounds the Beast had made in his belly.

  The Beast had done this. I had no doubt. Nero had warned me again and again.

  Daddy had promised me the rose would never die. I would never have to worry about thorns. He said the flower was a gift from my mother, a lady I had never met.

  But the rose was dead. Daddy was dead. My life was nothing but thorns.

  Nero put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Meg.”

  His eyes were sad, but his voice was tinged with disappointment. This only proved what I already suspected. Daddy’s death was my fault. I should have been a better daughter. I should have trained harder, minded my manners, not objected when Nero told me to fight the larger children…or the animals I did not want to kill.

  I had upset the Beast.

  I sobbed, hating myself. Nero hugged me. I buried my face in his purple clothes, his sickly sweet cologne—not like flowers, but like old, desiccated potpourri in a nursing home. I wasn’t sure how I even knew that smell, but it brought back a half-remembered feeling of helplessness and terror. Nero was all I had. I didn’t get real flowers, a real father, a real mother. I wasn’t worthy of that. I had to cling to what I had.

  Then, our minds comingled, Meg and I plunged into primordial Chaos—the miasma from which the Fates wove the future, making destiny out of randomness.

  No one’s mind should be exposed to such power. Even as a god, I feared to go too near the boundaries of Chaos.

  It was the same sort of danger mortals risked when they asked to see a god’s true form—a burning, terrible pyre of pure possibility. Seeing such a thing could vaporize humans, turn them into salt or dust.

  I shielded Meg from the miasma as best I could, wrapping my mind around hers in a sort of embrace, but we both heard the piercing voices.

  Swift white horse, they whispered. The crossword speaker. Lands of scorching death.

  And more—lines spoken too fast, overlapping too much to make sense of. My eyes began to bake. The bees consumed my lungs. Still I held my breath. I saw a misty river in the distance—the Styx itself. The dark goddess beckoned me from the shore, inviting me to cross. I would be immortal again, if only in the way human souls were immortal after death. I could pass into the Fields of Punishment. Didn’t I deserve to be punished for my many crimes?

  Unfortunately, Meg felt the same way. Guilt weighed her down. She did not believe she deserved to survive.

  What saved us was a simultaneous thought:

  I cannot give up. Apollo/Meg needs me.

  I endured for another moment, then two. At last, I could stand it no more.

  I exhaled, expelling the poison of the prophecy. Gasping for fresh air, I collapsed next to Meg on the cold, wet stone. Slowly, the world returned to a solid state. The voices were gone. The cloud of ghostly bees had vanished.

  I rose to my elbows. I pressed my fingers against Meg’s neck. Her pulse pattered, thready and weak, but she was not dead.

  “Thank the Three Fates,” I murmured.

  For once, I actually meant it. If Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos had been in front of me right then, I would have kissed their warty noses.

  On his island, Trophonius sighed. “Oh, well. The girl might still be insane for the rest of her life. That’s some consolation.”

  I glared at my deceased son. “Some consolation?”

  “Yes.” He tilted his ethereal head, listening again. “You’d best hurry. You’ll have to carry the girl through the underwater tunnel, so I suppose you might both drown. Or the blemmyae might kill you at the other end. But if not, I want that favor.”

  I laughed. After my plunge into Chaos, it wasn’t a pretty sound. “You expect a favor? For attacking a defenseless girl?”

  “For giving you your prophecy,” Trophonius corrected. “It’s yours, assuming you can extract it from the girl on the Throne of Memory. Now my favor, as you promised: Destroy this cave.”

  I had to admit…I’d just come back from the miasma of pure prophecy, and I still didn’t see that request coming. “Say what, now?”

  “This location is too exposed,” said Trophonius. “Your allies at the Waystation will never be able to defend it from the Triumvirate. The emperors will just keep attacking. I do not wish to be used by Commodus anymore. Better that the Oracle is destroyed.”

  I wondered if Zeus would agree. I had been operating under the assumption that my father wanted me to restore all the ancient Oracles before I could regain my godhood. I wasn’t sure if destroying the Cavern of Trophonius would be an acceptable plan B. Then again, if Zeus wanted things done in a certain way, he should’ve given me instructions in writing. “But, Trophonius…what will happen to you?”

  Trophonius shrugged. “Perhaps my Oracle will reappear somewhere else in a few centuries—under better circumstances, in a more secure location. Maybe that will give you time to become a nicer father.”

  He was definitely making it easier to consider his request. “How do I destroy this place?”
<
br />   “I may have mentioned the blemmyae with explosives in the next cave? If they do not use them, you must.”

  “And Agamethus? Will he disappear as well?”

  Dim flashes of light erupted from within the spirit’s form—perhaps sadness?

  “Eventually,” said Trophonius. “Tell Agamethus…Tell him I love him, and I’m sorry this has been our fate. That’s more than I ever got from you.”

  His swirling column of darkness began to unspool.

  “Wait!” I yelled. “What about Georgina? Where did Agamethus find her? Is she my child?”

  The laughter of Trophonius echoed weakly through the cavern. “Ah, yes. Consider that mystery my last gift to you, Father. I hope it drives you insane!”

  Then he was gone.

  For a moment, I sat on the ledge, stunned and devastated. I didn’t feel physically hurt, but I realized it was possible to suffer a thousand bites in this snake pit, even if none of the vipers came near you. There were other kinds of poison.

  The cave rumbled, sending ripples across the lake. I didn’t know what that meant, but we could not stay here. I lifted Meg in my arms and waded into the water.

  Mind your p’s and q’s

  When you are arming bombs or—

  SPLAT—trample jelly

  I MAY HAVE MENTIONED: I am not the god of the sea.

  I have many fascinating abilities. In my divine state, I am good at nearly everything I attempt. But as Lester Papadopoulos, I was not the master of one-armed swimming underwater while encumbered, nor could I go without oxygen any longer than a normal mortal.

  I clawed my way through the passage, hugging Meg close, my lungs burning in outrage.

  First you fill us with dark prophetic bees! my lungs screamed at me. Now you force us to stay underwater! You are a horrible person!

  I could only hope Meg would survive the experience. Since she was still unconscious, I couldn’t very well warn her to hold her breath. The best I could do was make our journey as brief as possible.

  At least the current was in my favor. The water pushed me in the direction I wanted to go, but after six or seven seconds I was pretty sure we were going to die.

  My ears throbbed. I groped blindly for handholds on the slick rock walls. I was probably destroying my fingertips, but the cold rendered my nervous system useless. The only pain I felt was inside my chest and head.

  My mind began to play tricks on me as it sought more oxygen.

  You can breathe underwater! it said. Go ahead. It’ll be fine!

  I was about to inhale the river when I noticed a faint green glow above me. Air? Radiation? Limeade? Any of those sounded better than drowning in the dark. I kicked upward.

  I expected to be surrounded by enemies when I surfaced, so I tried to emerge with as little gasping and flailing as possible. I made sure Meg’s head was above water, then gave her a quick abdominal thrust to expel any fluid from her lungs. (That’s what friends are for.)

  Doing all this quietly was no easy task, but as soon as I took in our surroundings, I was glad to be such a ninja of soft gasping and flailing.

  This cave was not much larger than the one we had left. Electric lamps hung from the ceiling, casting green streaks of light across the water. Along the opposite side of the cave, a boat dock was lined with boxy aluminum barges—for touring the mortally accessible areas of the subterranean river, I assumed. On the dock, three blemmyae crouched over a large object that looked like two scuba tanks duct-taped together, the cracks stuffed with wads of putty and lots of wires.

  Had Leo Valdez made such a contraption, it could have been anything from a robotic butler to a jet pack. Given the blemmyae’s lack of creativity, I came to the depressing conclusion that they were arming a bomb.

  The only reasons they had not noticed and killed us already were 1) they were busy arguing, and 2) they were not looking in our direction. Blemmyae’s peripheral vision consists entirely of their own armpits, so they tend to focus straight ahead.

  One blemmyae was dressed in dark green slacks and an open green dress shirt—a park ranger’s outfit, perhaps? The second wore the blue uniform of an Indiana State Trooper. The third…Oh, dear. She wore a very familiar-looking flowery dress.

  “No, sirree!” the trooper yelled as politely as possible. “That is not where the red wire goes, thank you very much.”

  “You’re welcome,” said the ranger. “But I studied the diagram. It does go there, you see, because the blue wire has to go here. And if you’ll excuse me for saying so, you’re an idiot.”

  “You’re excused,” the trooper said amiably, “but only because you’re an idiot.”

  “Now, boys,” said the woman. Her voice was definitely that of Nanette, the woman who had welcomed us on our first day in Indianapolis. It seemed impossible that she should have regenerated from Tartarus so soon after being killed by Josephine’s crossbow turret, but I put this down to my usual wretched luck. “Let’s not argue. We can just call the customer-support line and—”

  Meg took this opportunity to gasp, much louder than I had. We had no place to hide except underwater, and I wasn’t in any shape to submerge again.

  Nanette spotted us. Her chest-face twisted in a smile, her heavy orange lipstick glistening like mud in the green light.

  “Well, lookee here! Visitors!”

  The ranger unsheathed a hunting knife. The trooper drew his gun. Even with his species’ bad depth perception, he wasn’t likely to miss us at such close range.

  Helpless in the water, holding a gasping, half-conscious Meg, I did the only thing I could think of. I yelled, “Don’t kill us!”

  Nanette chuckled. “Now, honey, why shouldn’t we kill you?”

  I glanced at the scuba-tank bomb. No doubt Leo Valdez would know exactly what to do in a situation like this, but the only advice I could think of was something Calypso had told me at the zoo: Half of magic is acting like it will work. The other half is picking a superstitious mark.

  “You should not kill me,” I announced, “because I know where the red wire goes!”

  The blemmyae muttered among themselves. They may have been immune to charm and music, but they shared mortals’ reluctance for either reading instructions or calling customer support. Their hesitation gave me a moment to slap Meg (gently on the cheek, simply to help her wake up).

  She spluttered and twitched, which was an improvement over being passed out cold. I scanned the cave for possible escape routes. To our right, the river wound through a low-ceilinged tunnel. I was not anxious to swim through these caves any longer. To our left, at the edge of the boat dock, a ramp with railings led upward. That would be the exit to the surface, I decided.

  Unfortunately, standing in our way were three superstrong humanoids with an explosive device.

  The blemmyae concluded their conference.

  Nanette faced me again. “Very well! Please tell us where the red wire goes. Then we will kill you as painlessly as possible, and we can all go home happy.”

  “A generous offer,” I said. “But I really need to show you. It’s too hard to explain from way over here. Permission to come ashore?”

  The trooper lowered his gun. A bushy mustache covered the width of his lowest rib. “Well, he asked permission. That was polite.”

  “Hmm.” Nanette stroked her chin, simultaneously scratching her belly. “Permission granted.”

  Joining three enemies on the dock was only marginally better than freezing in the river, but I was glad to get Meg out of the water.

  “Thank you,” I told the blemmyae after they hauled us up.

  “You’re welcome,” all three said in unison.

  “Just let me put my friend down….” I stumbled toward the ramp, wondering if I could make a break for it.

  “That’s far enough,” Nanette warned, “please and thank you.”

  There were no ancient Greek words for I hate you, scary clown-woman, but I muttered a close approximation under my breath. I propped Meg against the
wall. “Can you hear me?” I whispered.

  Her lips were the color of blueberries. Her teeth chattered. Her eyes rolled back in her head, showing the bloodshot whites of her eyes.

  “Meg, please,” I said. “I will distract the blemmyae, but you need to get out of here. Can you walk? Crawl? Anything?”

  “Hum-um-um.” Meg shivered and gasped. “Shumma-shumma.”

  This was no language that I knew, but I inferred that Meg would not be going anywhere on her own. I would have to do more than just distract the blemmyae.

  “All righty, then!” Nanette said. “Please show us what you know, so we can bring down this cave on top of you!”

  I forced a smile. “Of course. Now, let’s see….”

  I knelt next to the device. It was sadly uncomplicated. There were, in fact, only two wires and two receptors, both color-coded blue and red.

  I glanced up. “Ah. Quick question. I am aware that blemmyae are tone-deaf, but—”

  “That’s not true!” The ranger looked offended. “I don’t even know what that means!”

  The other two bowed emphatically—the blemmyae equivalent of nodding.

  “I enjoy all tones,” Nanette agreed.

  “Explosions,” the trooper said. “Gunshots. Car engines. All tones are good.”

  “I stand corrected,” I said. “But my question was…could it be possible that your species is also color-blind?”

  They looked dumbfounded. I examined Nanette’s makeup, dress, and shoes once again, and it became clear to me why so many blemmyae preferred to disguise themselves in mortal uniforms. Of course they were color-blind.

  For the record, I am not implying that color blindness or tone deafness indicate any lack of creativity or intelligence. Far from it! Some of my favorite creative people, from Mark Twain to Mister Rogers to William Butler Yeats, had these conditions.

  In blemmyae, however, sensory limitations and dull thinking seemed to be part of the same depressing package.

  “Forget it,” I said. “Let’s get started. Nanette, would you please pick up the red wire?”

  “Well, since you asked so nicely.” Nanette leaned in and picked the blue wire.

  “The other red wire,” I advised.

  “Of course. I knew that!”

  She took the red wire.

  “Now attach it to the red—to this receptor.” I pointed.

  Nanette did as I instructed.

  “There you are!” I said.

  Clearly still perplexed, the blemmyae stared at the device.

  The trooper said, “But there’s another wire.”

  “Yes,” I said patiently. “It goes to the second receptor. However”—I grabbed Nanette’s hand before she could blow us all up—“once you connect it, you will most likely activate the bomb. Do you see this small screen here? I am no Hephaestus, but I assume this is the timer. Do you happen to know what the default countdown is?”

  The trooper and ranger conferred in the guttural, monotone language of the blemmyae—which sounded like two busted power sanders speaking in Morse code. I glanced over at Meg, who was right where I’d left her, still shivering and muttering shumma-shumma under her breath.

  The ranger smiled in a self-satisfied way. “Well, sir. Since I’m the only one who read the diagram, I’ve decided I can safely give you the answer. The default time is five seconds.”

  “Ah.” A few phantom bees crawled up my throat. “So once you connect the wire, there will be virtually no time to exit the cave before the bomb goes off.”

  “Exactly!” Nanette beamed. “The emperor was very clear. If Apollo and the child make it out of the Oracle chamber, kill them and bring down the cavern in a mighty explosion!”

  The trooper frowned. “No, he said to kill them with the mighty explosion.”

 
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