The dark prophecy, p.25
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.25
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  “No, sirree,” said the ranger. “He said to use the mighty explosion only if we had to. We could kill these two if they appeared, but if they didn’t…” He scratched his shoulder hair. “I’m confused now. What was the bomb for?”

  I said a silent prayer of thanks that Commodus had sent blemmyae and not Germani to do this job. Of course, that probably meant the Germani were fighting my friends at the Waystation right now, but I could only handle one earth-shattering crisis at a time.

  “Friends,” I said. “Frenemies, blemmyae. My point is this: if you activate the bomb, the three of you will die, too. Are you prepared for that?”

  Nanette’s smile melted. “Oh. Hmm…”

  “I’ve got it!” The ranger wagged his finger at me enthusiastically. “Why don’t you connect the wire after the three of us leave?”

  “Don’t be silly,” said the trooper. “He won’t kill himself and the girl just because we ask him to.” He gave me a cautiously hopeful glance. “Will you?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Nanette chided. “The emperor told us to kill Apollo and the girl. Not to have them do it themselves.”

  The others mumbled agreement. Following orders to the letter was everything, of course.

  “I have an idea!” I said, when in fact I did not.

  I had been hoping to come up with some clever plan to overpower the blemmyae and get Meg out of there. So far, no clever plan had materialized. There was also the matter of my promise to Trophonius. I had sworn to destroy his Oracle. I preferred to do that without destroying myself.

  The blemmyae waited politely for me to continue. I tried to channel some of Calypso’s bravado. (Oh, gods, please never tell her I drew on her for inspiration.)

  “It’s true you have to kill us yourselves,” I began. “And I do understand! But I have a solution that will accomplish all your goals: a mighty explosion, destroying the Oracle, killing us, and getting out alive.”

  Nanette nodded. “That last one is a bonus, for sure.”

  “There’s an underwater tunnel just here….” I explained how Meg and I had swum through from Trophonius’s chamber. “To effectively destroy the Oracle room, you can’t set the bomb off here. Someone would have to swim with the device deep inside the tunnel, activate the timer, and swim back out. Now, I am not strong enough, but a blemmyae could do this easily.”

  The trooper frowned. “But five seconds…is that enough time?”

  “Ah,” I said, “but it’s a well-known fact that underwater, timers take twice as long, so you’d actually have ten seconds.”

  Nanette blinked. “Are you sure about that?”

  The ranger elbowed her. “He just said it was a well-known fact. Don’t be impolite!”

  The trooper scratched his mustache with the barrel of his gun, which was probably against department safety protocols. “I’m still not sure why we have to destroy the Oracle. Why can’t we just kill you two, say…with this gun…and leave the Oracle alone?”

  I sighed. “If only we could! But, my friend, it’s not safe. This girl and I got in and got out with our prophecy, didn’t we? That means other trespassers can, too. Surely that’s what the emperor meant about the mighty explosion. You don’t want to have to come back here with your bomb every time someone breaks in, do you?”

  The trooper looked horrified. “Goodness, no!”

  “And leaving the Oracle intact, in this place where mortals obviously have guided tours…well, that’s a safety hazard! Not closing off the Oracle’s cave would be very discourteous of us.”

  “Mmmm.” All three blemmyae nodded/bowed earnestly.

  “But,” Nanette said, “if you’re trying to trick us somehow…and I apologize for raising that possibility…”

  “No, no,” I said. “I fully understand. How about this: Go set the bomb. If you come back safely and the cave blows up on schedule, then you can do us the courtesy of killing us quickly and painlessly. If something goes wrong—”

  “Then we can rip your limbs off!” the trooper suggested.

  “And trample your bodies into jelly!” added the ranger. “That’s a marvelous idea. Thank you!”

  I tried to keep my queasiness under control. “You’re most welcome.”

  Nanette studied the bomb, perhaps sensing that something was still off about my plan. Thank the gods, she either didn’t see it or was too polite to mention her reservations.

  “Well,” she said at last, “in that case, I’ll be back!”

  She scooped up the tanks and leaped into the water, which gave me a few luxurious seconds to come up with a plan to avoid getting trampled into jelly. At last, things were looking up!

  Your favorite fruit?

  I hope you didn’t say grapes

  Or apples, or figs

  POOR NANETTE.

  I wonder what went through her mind when she realized that a five-second timer underwater still lasted exactly five seconds. As the device exploded, I imagine she bubbled out one last vile curse like, Oh, gosh darn it.

  I might have felt sorry for her had she not been planning to kill me.

  The cave shook. Chunks of wet stalactite dropped into the lake and whanged against the hulls of the barges. A burst of air erupted from the middle of the lake, upheaving the dock and filling the cavern with the scent of tangerine lipstick.

  The trooper and the ranger frowned at me. “You blew up Nanette. That was not polite.”

  “Hold on!” I yelped. “She’s probably still swimming back. It’s a long tunnel.”

  This bought me another three or four seconds, during which a clever escape plan still did not present itself. At the very least, I hoped Nanette’s death had not been in vain. I hoped the explosion had destroyed the Cave of the Oracle as Trophonius wished, but I could not be certain.

  Meg was still only half-conscious, muttering and shivering. I had to get her back to the Waystation and set her on the Throne of Memory quickly, but two blemmyae still stood in my way. My hands were too numb to be any good with a bow or a ukulele. I wished I had some other weapon—even a magical Brazilian handkerchief that I could wave in my enemies’ faces! Oh, if only a surge of divine strength would course through my body!

  At last the ranger sighed. “All right, Apollo. Would you prefer we stomp or dismember you first? It’s only right you get to choose.”

  “That’s very polite,” I agreed. Then I gasped. “Oh, my gods! Look over there!”

  You must forgive me. I realize that this method of distraction is the oldest trick in the book. In fact, it is a trick so old it predates papyrus scrolls and was first recorded on clay tablets in Mesopotamia. But the blemmyae fell for it.

  They were slow at “looking over there.” They could not glance. They could not turn their heads without turning their entire bodies, so they executed a full one-hundred-and-eighty-degree waddle.

  I had no follow-up trick in mind. I simply knew I had to save Meg and get out of there. Then an aftershock rattled the cavern, unbalancing the blemmyae, and I took advantage. I kicked the ranger into the lake. At precisely the same moment, a portion of the ceiling peeled loose and fell on top of said ranger like a hailstorm of major appliances. The ranger disappeared under churning foam.

  I could only stare in amazement. I was fairly sure I hadn’t caused the ceiling to crack and collapse. Blind luck? Or perhaps the spirit of Trophonius had granted me one last grudging favor for destroying his cave. Crushing someone under a rain of rocks did seem like the sort of favor he would grant.

  The trooper missed the whole thing. He turned back to me, a puzzled look on his chest-face. “I don’t see any…Wait. Where did my friend go?”

  “Hmm?” I asked. “What friend?”

  His impressive mustache twitched. “Eduardo. The ranger.”

  I feigned confusion. “A ranger? Here?”

  “Yes, he was just here.”

  “I’m sure I don’t know.”

  The cavern shuddered once again. Sadly, no more obliging chunks of ceiling brok
e free to crush my last enemy.

  “Well,” the trooper said, “maybe he had to leave. You’ll excuse me if I have to kill you by myself now. Orders.”

  “Oh, yes, but first…”

  The trooper was not to be deterred any longer. He grabbed my arm, crushing my ulna and radius together. I screamed. My knees buckled.

  “Let the girl go,” I whimpered through the pain. “Kill me and let her go.”

  I surprised myself. These were not the last words I had planned. In the event of my death, I’d been hoping to have time to compose a ballad of my glorious deeds—a very long ballad. Yet here I was, at the end of my life, pleading not for myself, but for Meg McCaffrey.

  I’d love to take credit for what happened next. I’d like to think my noble gesture of self-sacrifice proved my worthiness and summoned our saviors from the ethereal plane. More likely, though, they were already in the area, searching for Meg, and heard my scream of agony.

  With a bloodcurdling battle cry, three karpoi hurtled down the tunnel and flew at the trooper, landing on his face.

  The trooper staggered across the dock, the three peach spirits howling, clawing, and biting like a school of winged, fruit-flavored piranhas…which, in retrospect, I suppose does not make them sound very piranha-like.

  “Please get off!” the trooper wailed. “Please and thank you!”

  The karpoi were not concerned with good manners. After twenty more seconds of savage peachery, the trooper was reduced to a pile of monster ash, tattered fabric, and mustache whiskers.

  The middle karpos spit out something that might have once been the officer’s handgun. He flapped his leafy wings. I deduced that he was our usual friend, the one known as Peaches, because his eyes gleamed a little more viciously, and his diaper sagged a little more dangerously.

  I cradled my broken arm. “Thank you, Peaches! I don’t know how I can ever—”

  He ignored me and flew to Meg’s side. He wailed and stroked her hair.

  The other two karpoi studied me with a hungry gleam in their eyes.

  “Peaches?” I whimpered. “Could you tell them I’m a friend? Please?”

  Peaches howled inconsolably. He scraped dirt and rubble around Meg’s legs, the way one might plant a sapling.

  “Peaches!” I called again. “I can help her, but I need to get her back to the Waystation. The Throne of Memory—” Nausea made the world tilt and twist. My vision went green.

  Once I could focus again, I found Peaches and the other two karpoi standing in a line, all staring at me.

  “Peaches?” demanded Peaches.

  “Yes,” I groaned. “We need to get her to Indianapolis quickly. If you and your friends…Um, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Apollo.”

  Peaches pointed to his friend on the right. “Peaches.” Then to the baby demon on his left. “Peaches.”

  “I see.” I tried to think. Agony spiked up my arm into my jaw. “Now, listen, I—I have a car. A red Mercedes, nearby. If I can get to it, I can drive Meg to—to…”

  I looked down at my broken forearm. It was turning some beautiful shades of purple and orange, like an Aegean sunset. I realized I wasn’t going to be driving anywhere.

  My mind began sinking into a sea of pain under that lovely sunset.

  “Be with you in a minute,” I muttered.

  Then I passed out.

  Waystation damaged

  Commodus will pay for this

  And I don’t take cash

  I REMEMBER VERY LITTLE about the trip back.

  Somehow, Peaches and his two friends carried Meg and me out of the cave and to the Mercedes. More disturbingly, the three karpoi somehow drove us to Indianapolis while Meg sat muttering and shivering in the passenger seat and I lay groaning in the back.

  Don’t ask me how three karpoi combined forces to drive an automobile. I can’t tell you which of them used the wheel, the brake, or the gas pedal. It’s not the sort of behavior you expect from edible fruit.

  All I know is that by the time I regained more or less full consciousness, we had reached the city limits.

  My broken forearm was wrapped in leaves glued together with sap. I had no memory of how this came to pass, but the arm felt better—still sore, but not excruciating. I counted myself lucky the peach spirits had not tried to plant me and water me.

  I managed to sit upright just as the peach spirits curbed the Mercedes on Capital Avenue. Ahead of us, police cars blocked the road. Large red signs on sawhorses announced: GAS LEAK EMERGENCY. THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE!

  A gas leak. Leo Valdez had been right again. Assuming he was still alive, he’d be insufferable about this for weeks.

  A few blocks beyond the barricades, a column of black smoke rose from the approximate location of the Waystation. My heart fractured more painfully than my arm. I glanced at the Mercedes’s dashboard clock. We had been gone less than four hours. It felt like a lifetime—a godly lifetime.

  I scanned the sky. I saw no reassuring bronze dragon flying overhead, no helpful griffins defending their nest. If the Waystation had fallen…No, I had to think positive. I wouldn’t let my fears attract any more prophetic bee swarms today.

  “Peaches,” I said. “I need you—”

  I turned my gaze forward and nearly jumped through the car ceiling.

  Peaches and his two friends were staring at me, their chins in a line atop the driver’s seat back like See-No-Evil, Peel-No-Evil, and Eat-No-Evil.

  “Ah…yes. Hi,” I said. “Please, I need you to stay with Meg. Protect her at all costs.”

  Peaches Prime bared his razor-sharp teeth and snarled, “Peaches.”

  I took this as agreement.

  “I have to check on our friends at the Waystation,” I said. “If I don’t come back…” The words stuck in my throat. “…then you’ll have to search for the Throne of Memory. Getting Meg into that chair is the only way to heal her mind.”

  I stared at the three pairs of glowing green eyes. I couldn’t tell if the karpoi understood what I was saying, and I didn’t know how they could possibly follow my instructions. If the battle was over and the Throne of Memory had been taken or destroyed…No. That was bee-pollen thinking!

  “Just…take care of her,” I pleaded.

  I stepped out of the car and valiantly threw up on the sidewalk. Pink emojis danced across my eyes. I hobbled down the street, my arm covered in sap and leaves, my damp clothes smelling of bat guano and snake excrement. It was not my most glorious charge into battle.

  No one stopped me at the barricades. The officers on duty (regular mortals, I guessed) looked more interested in their smartphone screens than in the smoke rising behind them. Perhaps the Mist concealed the true situation. Perhaps they figured if a ragged street person wanted to stumble toward a gas-leak emergency, they weren’t going to stop him. Or perhaps they were engrossed in an epic Pokémon Go gym battle.

  A block inside the cordoned zone, I saw the first burning bulldozer. I suspected it had driven over a land mine specially modified by Leo Valdez, since along with being half-demolished and in flames it was also splattered with smiley-face stickers and gobs of whipped cream.

  I hobbled faster. I spotted more disabled bulldozers, scattered rubble, totaled cars, and piles of monster dust, but no bodies. That raised my spirits a little. Just around the corner from the Union Station roundabout, I heard clanging swords ahead—then a gunshot and something that sounded like thunder.

  I had never been so happy to hear a battle in progress. It meant not everyone was dead.

  I ran. My weary legs screamed in protest. Every time my shoes hit the pavement, a jarring pain shot up my forearm.

  I turned the corner and found myself in combat. Charging toward me with murder in his eyes was a demigod warrior—some teenage boy I’d never seen, wearing Roman-style armor over his street clothes. Fortunately, he’d already been badly beaten up. His eyes were almost swollen shut. His bronze chest plate was dented like a metal roof after a hail
storm. He could barely hold his sword. I wasn’t in much better shape, but I was running on anger and desperation. I managed to unsling my ukulele and slam the demigod in the face.

  He crumpled at my feet.

  I was feeling pretty proud of my heroic act until I looked up. In the middle of the roundabout, on top of the fountain and surrounded by Cyclopes, my favorite graduate accounting student, Olujime, stood like an ancient war god, swinging a bronze weapon that resembled a double-wide hockey stick. Each sweep sent crackling tendrils of electricity through his enemies. Every hit disintegrated a Cyclops.

  I liked Jimmy even more now. I’d never had much affection for Cyclopes. Still…something was strange about his use of lightning. I could always recognize the power of Zeus in action. I’d been zapped by his bolts often enough. Jimmy’s electricity was different—a more humid scent of ozone, a darker red hue to the flashes. I wished I could ask him about that, but he looked a little busy.

  Smaller fights raged here and there across the roundabout. The Waystation’s defenders appeared to have the upper hand. Hunter Kowalski leaped from foe to foe, shooting down blemmyae, wolf-headed warriors, and wild centaurs with ease. She had an uncanny ability to fire on the move, avoid counterstrikes, and target her victims’ kneecaps. As an archer, I was impressed. If I’d still had my godly powers, I would have blessed her with fabulous prizes like a magic quiver and possibly a signed copy of my greatest-hits anthology on classic vinyl.

  In the hotel drive-through, Sssssarah the dracaena sat propped against a mailbox, her snake-tail legs curled around her, her neck swollen to the size of a basketball. I ran to her aid, afraid she might be wounded. Then I realized the lump in her throat was in the shape of a Gallic war helmet. Her chest and belly were also quite bloated.

  She smiled at me lazily. “’Sssssup?”

  “Sssssarah,” I said, “did you swallow a Germanus whole?”

  “No.” She belched. The smell was definitely barbarian, with a hint of clove. “Well, perhapsssss.”

  “Where are the others?” I ducked as a silver arrow flew over my head, shattering the windshield of a nearby Subaru. “Where’s Commodus?”

  Sssssarah pointed toward the Waystation. “In there, I think. He killed a path into the building.”

  She didn’t sound too concerned about this, probably because she was sated and sleepy. The pillar of dark smoke I’d noticed earlier was pouring from a hole in the roof of the Waystation. Even more distressing, lying across the green shingles like an insect part stuck on flypaper was the detached bronze wing of a dragon.

  Rage boiled inside me. Whether the sun chariot or Festus or a school bus, no one messes with my ride.

  The main doors of the Union Station building had been blown wide open. I charged inside past piles of monster dust and bricks, burning pieces of furniture, and a centaur hanging upside down, kicking and whinnying in a net trap.

  In one stairwell, a wounded Hunter of Artemis groaned in pain as a comrade bound her bleeding leg. A few feet farther on, a demigod I didn’t recognize lay unmoving on the floor. I knelt next to him—a boy of about sixteen, my mortal age. I felt no pulse. I didn’t know whose side he had fought on, but that didn’t matter. Either way, his death was a terrible waste. I had begun to think that perhaps demigod lives were not as disposable as we gods liked to believe.

  I ran through more corridors, trusting the Waystation to send me in the right direction. I burst into the library where I’d sat last night. The scene within hit me like the explosion from one of Britomartis’s bouncing mines.

  Lying across the table was the body of a griffin. With a sob of horror, I rushed to her side. Heloise’s left wing was folded across her body like a shroud. Her head lay bent at an unnatural angle. The floor around her was piled with broken weapons, dented armor, and monster dust. She had died fighting off a host of enemies…but she had died.

  My eyes burned. I cradled her head, breathing in the clean smell of hay and molting feathers. “Oh, Heloise. You saved me. Why couldn’t I save you?”

  Where was her mate, Abelard? Was their egg safe? I wasn’t sure which thought was more terrible: the whole family of griffins dead, or the father and the griffin chick forced to live with the devastating loss of Heloise.

  I kissed her beak. Proper grieving would have to wait. Other friends might still be in need of help.

  With newfound energy, I bounded up a staircase two steps at a time.

  I stormed through a set of doors into the main hall.

 
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