The dark prophecy, p.26
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.26

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  The scene was eerily calm. Smoke flooded out the gaping hole of the roof, billowing from the loft where a smoldering bulldozer chassis was, inexplicably, lodged nose-down. Heloise and Abelard’s nest appeared to be intact, but there were no signs of the male griffin or the egg. In Josephine’s workshop area, sprawled across the floor, lay the severed head and neck of Festus, his ruby eyes dark and lifeless. The rest of his body was nowhere to be seen.

  Sofas had been smashed and overturned. Kitchen appliances were riddled with bullet holes. The scope of damage was heartbreaking.

  But the most serious problem was the standoff around the dining table.

  On the side nearest me stood Josephine, Calypso, Lityerses, and Thalia Grace. Thalia had her bow drawn. Lit brandished his sword. Calypso raised her bare hands, martial arts–style, and Josephine hefted her submachine gun, Little Bertha.

  On the far side of the table stood Commodus himself, smiling brilliantly despite a bleeding diagonal cut across his face. Imperial gold armor gleamed over his purple tunic. He held his blade, a gold spatha, casually at his side.

  To either side of him stood a Germanus bodyguard. The barbarian on the right had his arm clamped around Emmie’s neck, his other hand pressing a pistol crossbow against Emmie’s head. Georgina stood with her mother, Emmie hugging the little girl tightly to her chest. Alas, the little girl seemed to have fully recovered her wits only to be faced with this fresh horror.

  To Commodus’s left, a second Germanus held Leo Valdez in a similar hostage stance.

  I clenched my fists. “Villainy! Commodus, let them go!”

  “Hello, Lester!” Commodus beamed. “You’re just in time for the fun!”

  During this standoff

  No flash photography, please

  Oops. My bad. Ha-ha

  THALIA’S FINGERS clenched her bowstring. A bead of sweat, silvery as moonwater, traced the side of her ear. “Say the word,” she told me, “and I will bore a hole between this moron emperor’s eyes.”

  A tempting offer, but I knew it was bravado. Thalia was just as terrified as I was of losing Leo and Emmie…and especially poor Georgie, who’d been through so much. I doubted any of our weapons could kill an immortal like Commodus, much less him and two guards. No matter how quickly we attacked, we would not be able to save our friends.

  Josephine shifted her grip on the submachine gun. Her coveralls were splattered with goo, dust, and blood. Her short silver hair glistened with perspiration.

  “It’s gonna be okay, baby,” she muttered. “Stay calm.” I wasn’t sure if she was talking to Emmie or Georgie or herself.

  Next to her, Calypso’s hands were frozen in midair as if she were standing in front of her loom, considering what to weave. Her eyes were fixed on Leo. She shook her head ever so slightly, perhaps telling him, Don’t be an idiot. (She told him that a lot.)

  Lityerses stood next to me. His leg wound had started to bleed again, soaking through the bandages. His hair and clothes were scorched as if he’d run through a gauntlet of flamethrowers, leaving his Cornhuskers shirt looking like the surface of a burnt marshmallow. Only the word CORN was still visible.

  Judging from the bloody edge of his sword, I guessed he was responsible for the ghastly new slash across Commodus’s face.

  “No good way to do this,” Lit muttered to me. “Somebody’s gonna die.”

  “No,” I said. “Thalia, lower your bow.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “Josephine, the gun, too. Please.”

  Commodus chuckled. “Yes, you all should listen to Lester! And Calypso, dear, if you try to summon one of those wind spirits again, I will kill your little friend here.”

  I glanced at the sorceress. “You summoned a spirit?”

  She nodded, distracted, shaken. “A small one.”

  “But the larger issue,” Leo called out, “is that I am not little. We are not going to make say hello to my little friend a thing.” He raised his palms, despite his captor tightening his hold around the demigod’s neck. “Besides, guys, it’s okay. I’ve got everything under control.”

  “Leo,” I said evenly, “a seven-foot-tall barbarian is holding a crossbow against the side of your head.”

  “Yeah, I know,” he said. “It’s all part of the plan!”

  On the word plan, he winked at me in an exaggerated way. Either Leo really did have a plan (unlikely, since in the weeks I’d known him he mostly relied on bluffs, jokes, and improvisation) or he was expecting me to have a plan. That was depressingly likely. As I may have mentioned, people often made that mistake. Just because I’m a god does not mean you should look to me for answers!

  Commodus lifted two fingers. “Albatrix, if the demigod speaks again, you have my permission to shoot him.”

  The barbarian grunted assent. Leo clamped his mouth shut. I could see in his eyes that even under pain of death, he was having trouble holding back a witty retort.

  “Now!” Commodus said. “As we were discussing before Lester got here, I require the Throne of Mnemosyne. Where is it?”

  Thank the gods….The throne was still hidden, which meant Meg could still use it to heal her mind. This knowledge steeled my resolve.

  “Are you telling me,” I asked, “that your great army surrounded this place, invaded, and couldn’t even find a chair? Is this all you have left—a couple of witless Germani and some hostages? What sort of emperor are you? Now, your father, Marcus Aurelius, there was an emperor.”

  His expression soured. His eyes darkened. I recalled a time in Commodus’s campaign tent when a servant carelessly spilled wine on my friend’s robes. Commodus had that same dark look in his eyes as he beat the boy almost to death with a lead goblet. Back then, as a god, I found the incident only mildly distasteful. Now I knew something about being on the receiving end of Commodus’s cruelty.

  “I’m not finished, Lester,” he snarled. “I’ll admit this cursed building was more trouble than I expected. I blame my former prefect Alaric. He was woefully unprepared. I had to kill him.”

  “Shocking,” muttered Lityerses.

  “But most of my forces are merely lost,” Commodus said. “They’ll be back.”

  “Lost?” I looked at Josephine. “Where did they go?”

  Her eyes stayed focused on Emmie and Georgie, but she seemed to take pride in answering. “From what the Waystation is telling me,” she said, “about half of his monstrous troops fell into a giant chute marked LAUNDRY. The rest ended up in the furnace room. Nobody ever comes back from the furnace room.”

  “No matter!” Commodus snapped.

  “And his mercenaries,” Josephine continued, “wound up at the Indiana Convention Center. Right now, they’re trying to navigate their way through the trade-show floor of the Home and Garden Expo.”

  “Soldiers are expendable!” Commodus shrieked. Blood dripped down his new facial wound, speckling his armor and robes. “Your friends here cannot be so easily replaced. Neither can the Throne of Memory. So let’s make a deal! I will take the throne. I will kill the girl and Lester, and raze this building to the ground. That’s what the prophecy said for me to do, and I never argue with Oracles! In exchange, the rest of you can go free. I don’t need you.”

  “Jo.” Emmie said her name like an order.

  Perhaps she meant: You cannot let him win. Or: You cannot let Georgina die. Whatever it was, in Emmie’s face I saw that same disregard for her own mortal life that she’d had as a young princess, flinging herself off the cliff. She didn’t mind death, as long as it was on her terms. The determined light in her eyes had not dimmed in three thousand years.

  Light…

  A shiver rolled down my back. I remembered something Marcus Aurelius used to tell his son, a quote that later became famous in his Meditations book: Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.

  Commodus hated that piece of advice. He found it suffocating, self
-righteous, impossible. What was proper? Commodus intended to live forever. He would drive away the darkness with the roar of crowds and the glitter of spectacle.

  But he generated no light.

  Not like the Waystation. Marcus Aurelius would have approved of this place. Emmie and Josephine lived properly with what time they had left, creating light for everyone who came here. No wonder Commodus hated them. No wonder he was so bent on destroying this threat to his power.

  And Apollo, above all, was the god of light.

  “Commodus.” I drew myself up to my full, not-very-impressive height. “This is the only deal. You will let your hostages go. You will leave here empty-handed and never return.”

  The emperor laughed. “That would sound more intimidating coming from a god, not a zitty adolescent.”

  His Germani were well-trained to stay impassive, but they betrayed scornful smirks. They didn’t fear me. Right now, that was fine.

  “I am still Apollo.” I spread my arms. “Last chance to leave of your own accord.”

  I detected a flicker of doubt in the emperor’s eyes. “What will you do—kill me? Unlike you, Lester, I am immortal. I cannot die.”

  “I don’t need to kill you.” I stepped forward to the edge of the dining table. “Look at me closely. Don’t you recognize my divine nature, old friend?”

  Commodus hissed. “I recognize the betrayer who strangled me in my bath. I recognize the so-called god who promised me blessings and then deserted me!” His voice frayed with pain, which he tried to conceal behind an arrogant sneer. “All I see is a flabby teenager with a bad complexion. You also need a haircut.”

  “My friends,” I told the others, “I want you to avert your eyes. I am about to reveal my true godly form.”

  Not being fools, Leo and Emmie shut their eyes tight. Emmie covered Georgina’s face with her hand. I hoped my friends on my side of the dining table would also listen. I had to believe that they trusted me, despite my failings, despite the way I looked.

  Commodus scoffed. “You’re damp and speckled with bat poop, Lester. You’re a pathetic child who has been dragged through the darkness. That darkness is still in your mind. I see the fear in your eyes. This is your true form, Apollo! You’re a fraud!”

  Apollo. He had called me by my name.

  I saw the terror he was trying to hide, and also his sense of awe. I remembered what Trophonius told me: Commodus would send servants into the caverns for answers, but he would never go himself. As much as he needed the Dark Oracle, he feared what it might show him, which of his deepest fears that bee swarm might feed on.

  I had survived a journey he would never dare take.

  “Behold,” I said.

  Commodus and his men could have looked away. They didn’t. In their pride and contempt, they accepted my challenge.

  My body superheated, every particle igniting in a chain reaction. Like the world’s most powerful flashbulb, I blasted the room with radiance. I became pure light.

  It lasted only a microsecond. Then the screaming began. The Germani reeled backward, their crossbows firing wildly. One bolt zipped past Leo’s head and embedded itself in a sofa. The other bolt shattered against the floor, splinters skittering across the tiles.

  Melodramatic to the end, Commodus pressed his palms against his eye sockets and screamed, “MY EYES!”

  My strength faded. I grabbed the table to keep from falling.

  “It’s safe,” I told my friends.

  Leo broke from his captor. He lunged toward Emmie and Georgina, and the three of them scrambled away as Commodus and his men, now quite blind, stumbled and howled, steam pouring from their eye sockets.

  Where the captors and hostages had stood, silhouettes were burned across the tile floor. The details on the brick walls now seemed in super–high definition. The nearest sofa covers, once dark red, were now pink. Commodus’s purple robes had been bleached a weak shade of mauve.

  I turned to my friends. Their clothes had also lightened by several shades. The fronts of their hair had been frosted with highlights, but they had all, wisely, kept their eyes shut.

  Thalia studied me in amazement. “What just happened? Why are you toasted?”

  I looked down. True enough, my skin was now the color of maple bark. My leaf-and-sap cast had burned away, leaving my arm fully healed. I thought I looked quite nice this way, though I hoped I could become a god again before I discovered what sort of horrible skin cancers I’d just given myself. Belatedly, I realized how much danger I’d been in. I had actually managed to reveal my true divine form. I had become pure light. Stupid Apollo! Amazing, wonderful, stupid Apollo! This mortal body was not meant for channeling such power. I was fortunate I hadn’t burned up instantly like an antique flashbulb.

  Commodus wailed. He grabbed the nearest thing he could find, which happened to be one of his Germani, and lifted the blind barbarian over his head. “I will destroy you all!”

  He threw his barbarian toward the sound of Thalia’s voice. Since we could all see, we scattered easily and avoided becoming bowling pins. The Germanus hit the opposite wall with such force, he broke into a starburst of yellow powder and left a beautiful abstract expressionist statement across the bricks.

  “I do not need eyes to kill you!” Commodus slashed upward with his sword, taking a chunk out of the dining table.

  “Commodus,” I warned, “you will leave this city and never return, or I will take more than your sight.”

  He charged toward me. I sidestepped. Thalia let loose an arrow, but Commodus was moving too fast. The missile hit the second Germanus, who grunted in surprise, fell to his knees, and crumbled to powder.

  Commodus tripped over a chair. He face-planted on the living room rug. Let me be clear: it’s never okay to take delight in the struggles of someone who can’t see, but in this rare instance, I couldn’t help myself. If anyone deserved to fall on his face, it was Emperor Commodus.

  “You will leave,” I told him again. “You will not return. Your reign in Indianapolis is over.”

  “It’s Commodianapolis!” He struggled to his feet. His armor sported some new skid marks. The slash across his face was not getting any prettier. A little figurine made of pipe cleaners—maybe something Georgina had made—clung to the emperor’s shaggy beard like a mountain climber.

  “You haven’t won anything, Apollo,” he growled. “You have no idea what’s being prepared for your friends in the east and the west! They will die. All of them!”

  Leo Valdez sighed. “All right, guys. This has been fun, but I’m gonna melt his face now, ’kay?”

  “Wait,” said Lityerses.

  The swordsman advanced on his former master. “Commodus, go while you still can.”

  “I made you, boy,” said the emperor. “I saved you from obscurity. I was a second father to you. I gave you purpose!”

  “A second father even worse than the first,” Lit said. “And I’ve found a new purpose.”

  Commodus charged, swinging his sword wildly.

  Lit parried. He stepped toward Josephine’s workshop. “Over here, New Hercules.”

  Commodus took the bait, rushing toward Lit’s voice.

  Lit ducked. He blade-slapped the emperor’s butt. “Wrong way, sire.”

  The emperor stumbled into Josephine’s welding station, then backed into a circular saw, which, fortunately for him, was not running at the time.

  Lityerses positioned himself at the base of the giant rose window. I realized his plan as he yelled, “Over here, Commode!”

  The emperor howled and charged. Lit stepped out of the way. Commodus barreled straight toward the window. He might have been able to stop himself, but at the last second, Calypso flicked her hands. A gust of wind carried Commodus forward. The New Hercules, the god-emperor of Rome, shattered the glass at the six o’clock mark and tumbled into the void.

  Shakespeare, don’t bring that

  Iambic pentameter

  Up in my face, yo

  WE GATHE
RED at the window and peered down. The emperor was nowhere to be seen. Some of our friends stood in the roundabout below, gazing up at us with confused expressions.

  “A little warning, perhaps?” Jimmy called.

  He had run out of enemies to electrocute. He and Hunter Kowalski now stood unscathed in the middle of a mosaic of fallen glass shards.

  “Where’s Commodus?” I asked.

  Hunter shrugged. “We didn’t see him.”

  “What do you mean?” I demanded. “He literally just flew out this window.”

  “No,” Leo corrected. “He Lityerses-ly flew out the window. Am I right? Those were some sweet moves, man.”

  Lit nodded. “Thanks.”

  The two bumped fists as if they hadn’t spent the last few days talking about how much they wanted to kill each other. They would have made fine Olympian gods.

  “Well,” Thalia said. Her new gray highlights from my solar blast looked quite fetching. “I guess we should do a sweep of the neighborhood. If Commodus is still out there…” She gazed down South Illinois Street. “Wait, is that Meg?”

  Rounding the corner were three karpoi, holding Meg McCaffrey aloft as if she were bodysurfing (or peach-surfing). I almost jumped out the window to get to her. Then I remembered I could not fly.

  “The Throne of Memory,” I told Emmie. “We need it now!”

  We met the karpoi in the building’s front foyer. One of the Peacheses had retrieved the Arrow of Dodona from under the Mercedes’s driver’s seat and now carried it in his teeth like a pirate’s accessory. He offered it to me. I wasn’t sure whether to thank him or curse him, but I slipped the arrow back into my quiver for safekeeping.

  Josephine and Leo rushed in from a side room, carrying between them my old backpack—the Throne of Memory. They placed it in the center of a still-smoldering Persian rug.

  The peach babies carefully lowered Meg into the seat.

  “Calypso,” I said. “Notepad?”

  “Got it!” She brandished her small legal tablet and pencil. I decided she would make an excellent high school student after all. She actually came to class prepared!

  I knelt next to Meg. Her skin was too blue, her breath too ragged. I placed my hands on the sides of her face and checked her eyes. Her pupils were pinpoints. Her consciousness seemed to be withdrawing, getting smaller and smaller.

  “Stay with me, Meg,” I pleaded. “You’re among friends now. You’re in the Throne of Mnemosyne. Speak your prophecy!”

  Meg lurched upright. Her hands gripped the sides of the chair as if a strong electric current had taken hold of her.

  We all backed away, forming a rough circle around her as dark smoke spewed from her mouth and encircled her legs.

  When she spoke, it was thankfully not in Trophonius’s voice—just a deep neutral monotone worthy of Delphi itself:

  The words that memory wrought are set to fire,

  Ere new moon rises o’er the Devil’s Mount.

  The changeling lord shall face a challenge dire,

  Till bodies fill the Tiber beyond count.

  “Oh, no,” I muttered. “No, no, no.”

  “What?” Leo demanded.

  I glanced at Calypso, who was scribbling furiously. “We’re going to need a bigger notepad.”

  “What do you mean?” Josephine asked. “Surely the prophecy’s done—”

  Meg gasped and continued:

  Yet southward must the sun now trace its course,

  Through mazes dark to lands of scorching death

 
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