The dark prophecy, p.3
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.3
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  I, however, didn’t need to be an archery god to know what would happen next. I tackled my friends for the second time that day. (Which, in retrospect, I have to admit felt a wee bit satisfying.) We tumbled off the bulldozer as the crossbows fired in a flurry of sharp hisses.

  When I dared to raise my head, nothing was left of the blemmyae but piles of dust and clothing.

  The gray-haired woman jumped from the top of the fountain. Given her age, I was afraid she might break her ankles, but she landed gracefully and strolled toward us, her bow at her side.

  Wrinkles were etched across her face. The skin under her chin had begun to sag. Liver spots dotted the backs of her hands. Nevertheless, she held herself with the regal confidence of a woman who had nothing left to prove to anyone. Her eyes flashed like moonlight on water. Something about those eyes was very familiar to me.

  She studied me for a count of five, then shook her head in amazement. “So it’s true. You’re Apollo.”

  Her tone was not the general Oh, wow, Apollo! sort of attitude I was used to. She said my name as if she knew me personally.

  “H-have we met?”

  “You don’t remember me,” she said. “No, I don’t suppose you would. Call me Emmie. And the ghost you saw—that was Agamethus. He led you to our doorstep.”

  The name Agamethus definitely sounded familiar, but as usual, I couldn’t place it. My human brain just kept giving that annoying memory full message, asking me to delete a few centuries of experiences before I could continue.

  Emmie glanced at Leo. “Why are you in your underwear?”

  Leo sighed. “Been a long morning, abuela, but thanks for the assist. Those crossbow turrets are the bomb-diggity.”

  “Thank you….I think.”

  “Yeah, so maybe you could help us with Cal here?” Leo continued. “She’s not doing so well.”

  Emmie crouched next to Calypso, whose complexion had turned the color of cement. The sorceress’s eyes were shut, her breathing ragged.

  “She’s badly hurt.” Emmie frowned as she studied Calypso’s face. “You said her name was Cal?”

  “Calypso,” Leo said.

  “Ah.” Emmie’s worry lines deepened. “That explains it. She looks so much like Zoë.”

  A knife twisted inside me. “Zoë Nightshade?”

  In her feverish state, Calypso muttered something I couldn’t make out…perhaps the name Nightshade.

  For centuries, Zoë had been Artemis’s lieutenant, the leader of her Hunters. She’d died in battle just a few years ago. I didn’t know if Calypso and Zoë had ever met, but they were half sisters—both daughters of the Titan Atlas. I’d never considered how much they looked alike.

  I regarded Emmie. “If you knew Zoë, then you must be one of my sister’s Hunters. But you can’t be. You’re…”

  I stopped myself before I could say old and dying. Hunters neither aged nor died, unless they were killed in combat. This woman was quite obviously mortal. I could sense her fading life energy…so depressingly like mine; not at all like an immortal being’s. It’s hard to explain how I could tell, but it was perfectly clear to me—like hearing the difference between a perfect fifth and a diminished fifth.

  In the distance, emergency sirens wailed. I realized we were having this conversation in the middle of a small disaster zone. Mortals, or more blemmyae, would soon be arriving.

  Emmie snapped her fingers. All around the plaza, the crossbow turrets retracted. The portals closed as if they’d never existed.

  “We need to get off the street,” Emmie said. “Come, I’ll take you into the Waystation.”

  No building should be

  A secret from Apollo

  Or drop bricks on him

  WE DIDN’T HAVE TO GO FAR.

  Carrying Calypso between us, Leo and I followed Emmie to the big ornate building at the plaza’s south end. As I suspected, it was a railroad depot at some point. Carved in granite under the rose window were the words UNION STATION.

  Emmie ignored the main entrance. She veered right and stopped in front of a wall. She ran her finger between the bricks, tracing the shape of a doorway. Mortar cracked and dissolved. A newly cut door swung inward, revealing a narrow chute like a chimney with metal rungs leading up.

  “Nice trick,” Leo said, “but Calypso’s not exactly in wall-climbing condition.”

  Emmie knit her brow. “You’re right.” She faced the doorway. “Waystation, can we have a ramp, please?”

  The metal rungs vanished. With a soft rumble, the chute’s interior wall slanted backward, the bricks rearranging themselves into a gentle upward slope.

  “Whoa,” said Leo. “Did you just talk to the building?”

  A smile tugged at the corner of Emmie’s mouth. “The Waystation is more than a building.”

  Suddenly, I did not fancy the look of that ramp. “This is a living structure? Like the Labyrinth? And you expect us to go inside?”

  Emmie’s glance was definitely the look of a Hunter. Only my sister’s followers would dare to give me such a malodorous stink-eye. “The Waystation is no work of Daedalus, Lord Apollo. It’s perfectly safe…as long as you remain our guests.”

  Her tone suggested that my welcome was probationary. Behind us, the emergency sirens grew louder. Calypso inhaled raggedly. I decided we didn’t have much choice. We followed Emmie into the building.

  Lighting appeared along the walls—warm yellow candles flickering in bronze sconces. About twenty feet up the ramp, a door opened on our left. Inside, I glimpsed an infirmary that would’ve made my son Asclepius jealous: A fully stocked supply cabinet with medicine, surgical tools, and potion ingredients; a hospital bed with built-in monitors, GCI interface, and levitating bariatric slings. Racks of healing herbs dried against the wall next to the portable MRI machine. And in the back corner, a glassed-in habitat seethed with poisonous snakes.

  “Oh, my,” I said. “Your med bay is cutting-edge.”

  “Yes,” Emmie agreed. “And Waystation is telling me I should treat your friend immediately.”

  Leo poked his head into the infirmary. “You mean this room just appeared here?”

  “No,” Emmie said. “Well, yes. It’s always here, but…it’s easier to find when we need it.”

  Leo nodded thoughtfully. “You think the Waystation could organize my sock drawer?”

  A brick fell from the ceiling and clunked at Leo’s feet.

  “That’s a no,” Emmie interpreted. “Now, if I can have your friend, please.”

  “Uh…” Leo pointed to the glass habitat. “You got snakes in there. Just saying.”

  “I’ll take good care of Calypso,” Emmie promised.

  She took Calypso from us, lifting the sorceress in her arms with no apparent difficulty. “You two go ahead. You’ll find Jo at the top of the ramp.”

  “Jo?” I asked.

  “You can’t miss her,” Emmie replied. “She’ll explain the Waystation better than I could.”

  She carried the sorceress into the infirmary. The door shut behind her.

  Leo frowned at me. “Snakes?”

  “Oh, yes,” I assured him. “There’s a reason a snake on a rod symbolizes medicine. Venom was one of the earliest cures.”

  “Huh.” Leo glanced at his feet. “You think I can keep this brick, at least?”

  The corridor rumbled.

  “I would leave it there,” I suggested.

  “Yeah, think I’ll leave it there.”

  After a few more feet, another door opened on our right.

  Inside, sunlight filtered through pink lace curtains onto the hardwood floor of a child’s room. A cozy bed was piled with fluffy comforters, pillows, and stuffed animals. The eggshell-colored walls had been used as a canvas for crayon art—stick-figure people, trees, houses, frolicking animals that might have been dogs or horses or llamas. On the left-hand wall, opposite the bed, a crayon sun smiled down on a field of happy crayon flowers. In the center, a stick-figure girl stood between two larger
parental stick figures—all three of them holding hands.

  The wall art reminded me of Rachel Elizabeth Dare’s cavern of prophecy at Camp Half-Blood. My Delphic Oracle had delighted in painting her cave with things she’d seen in her visions…before her oracular power ceased to work, that is. (Totally not my fault. You can blame that overgrown rat snake, Python.)

  Most of the drawings in this bedroom seemed typical for a child of about seven or eight. But in the farthest corner of the back wall, the young artist had decided to inflict a nightmarish plague upon her crayon world. A scribbly black storm was brewing. Frowning stick figures threatened the llamas with triangular knives. Dark curlicues blotted out a primary-colored rainbow. Scratched over the field of green grass was a huge inky sphere like a black pond…or the entrance of a cave.

  Leo stepped back. “I dunno, man. Don’t think we should go in.”

  I wondered why the Waystation had decided to show us this room. Who lived here? Or more accurately…who had lived here? Despite the cheerful pink curtains and the pile of stuffed animals on the carefully made bed, the bedroom felt abandoned, preserved like a museum exhibit.

  “Let’s keep going,” I agreed.

  Finally, at the top of the ramp, we emerged into a cathedral-like hall. Overhead curved a barreled ceiling of wood carvings, with glowing stained-glass panels in the center creating green and gold geometric designs. At the far end of the room, the rose window I’d seen outside cast dartboard-line shadows across the painted cement floor. To our left and right, there were raised walkways with wrought-iron railings, and elegant Victorian lampposts lined the walls. Behind the railings, rows of doorways led into other rooms. Half a dozen ladders stretched up to the ornate molding at the base of the ceiling, where the ledges were stuffed with hay-like roosts for very large chickens. The whole place had a faint animal scent…though it reminded me more of a dog kennel than a henhouse.

  In one corner of the main room gleamed a chef’s kitchen big enough to host several celebrity cook-offs at once. Sets of sofas and comfy chairs were clustered here and there. At the center of the hall stood a massive dining table of rough-hewn redwood with seating for twenty.

  Under the rose window, the contents of several different workshops seemed to have been disgorged at random: table saws, drills, lathes, kilns, forges, anvils, 3-D printers, sewing machines, cauldrons, and several other industrial appliances I couldn’t name. (Don’t judge me. I’m not Hephaestus.)

  Hunched over a welding station, throwing sparks from her torch as she worked on a sheet of metal, was a muscular woman in a metal visor, leather apron, and gloves.

  I’m not sure how she noticed us. Perhaps the Waystation chucked a brick at her back to get her attention. Whatever the case, she looked in our direction, shut off her torch, then lifted her visor.

  “I’ll be hexed!” She barked out a laugh. “Is that Apollo?”

  She tugged off her safety gear and lumbered over. Like Emmie, the woman was in her sixties, but whereas Emmie had the physique of a former gymnast, this woman was built for brawling. Her broad shoulders and dark, well-sculpted arms stretched against the confines of a faded pink polo shirt. Wrenches and screwdrivers sagged from the pockets of her denim overalls. Against the umber skin of her scalp, her buzz-cut gray hair shimmered like frost.

  She thrust out her hand. “You probably don’t remember me, Lord Apollo. I’m Jo. Or Josie. Or Josephine. Whichever.”

  With each version of her name, she squeezed my hand tighter. I would not have challenged her to an arm-wrestling contest (though with her meaty fingers I doubt she could play guitar as well as I do, so ha). Her square-jawed face would’ve been quite intimidating except for her cheerful, twinkling eyes. Her mouth twitched as if she were exerting a great effort not to bust out laughing.

  “Yes,” I squeaked, extracting my hand. “I mean, no. I’m afraid I don’t remember. May I introduce Leo?”

  “Leo!” She crushed his hand with enthusiasm. “I’m Jo.”

  All these people whose names ended in o—Jo, Leo, Calypso, Apollo—suddenly made me feel like my brand was being diluted. I thanked the gods we were not in Ohio and our dragon was not named Festo.

  “I think I’ll call you Josephine,” I decided. “It’s a lovely name.”

  Josephine shrugged. “Fine by me. Where’s your friend Calypso?”

  “Wait,” Leo said. “How’d you know about Calypso?”

  Josephine tapped her left temple. “Waystation tells me stuff.”

  “Oooh.” Leo’s eyes widened. “That’s cool.”

  I wasn’t so sure. Normally, when someone said that a building was talking to them, I got away from them as quickly as possible. Sadly, I believed Josephine. I also had the feeling we would be needing her hospitality.

  “Calypso’s in the infirmary,” I offered. “Broke her hand. And foot.”

  “Ah.” The sparkle dimmed in Josephine’s eyes. “Yeah, you met the neighbors.”

  “You mean the blemmyae.” I imagined the neighbors stopping by to borrow a socket wrench, or take an order for Girl Scout cookies, or murder someone. “Do you often have problems with them?”

  “Didn’t use to.” Josephine sighed. “By themselves, blemmyae are pretty harmless, as long as you’re polite to them. They don’t have enough imagination to organize an assault. But since last year—”

  “Let me guess,” I said. “Indianapolis has a new emperor?”

  A ripple of anger washed across Josephine’s face, giving me a glimpse of what it would be like to get on her bad side. (Hint: It involved pain.)

  “Best we don’t talk about the emperor until Emmie and your friend join us,” she said. “Without Emmie around to keep me calm…I get worked up.”

  I nodded. Not getting Josephine worked up sounded like an excellent plan. “But we’re safe here?”

  Leo held out his palm as if checking for brick raindrops. “That was my question too. I mean…we kind of led an angry mob to your doorstep.”

  Josephine waved aside our concern. “Don’t worry. The emperor’s forces have been searching for us for months. The Waystation isn’t easy to find unless we invite you in.”

  “Huh.” Leo tapped the floor with his foot. “So, did you design this place? ’Cause it’s pretty awesome.”

  Josephine chuckled. “I wish. A demigod architect with way more talent than me did that. Built the Waystation back in the 1880s, early days of the transcontinental railroad. It was meant as a refuge for demigods, satyrs, Hunters—pretty much anyone who needed one here in the middle of the country. Emmie and I are just lucky enough to be the present caretakers.”

  “I’ve never even heard of this place,” I said grumpily.

  “We…ah, keep a low profile. Lady Artemis’s orders. Need-to-know basis.”

  As a god, I was the very definition of need-to-know, but it was typical of Artemis to keep something like this to herself. She was such a doomsday prepper, always hiding things from the other gods, like stashes of supplies, emergency bunkers, and small nation-states. “I assume this place isn’t a train station anymore. What do mortals think it is?”

  Josephine grinned. “Waystation, transparent floor, please.”

  Beneath our feet, the stained cement disappeared. I leaped back as if standing on a hot skillet, but the floor was not actually gone. It had simply turned see-through. Around us, the rugs, furniture, and workshop equipment seemed to hover two stories over the actual ground floor of the hall, where twenty or thirty banquet tables had been set up for some sort of event.

  “Our living space occupies the top of the grand hall,” Josephine said. “That area below us was once the main concourse for the station. Now the mortals rent it out for weddings and parties and whatnot. If they look up—”

  “Adaptive camouflage,” Leo guessed. “They see an image of the ceiling, but they don’t see you. Nice!”

  Josephine nodded, obviously pleased. “Most of the time, it’s quiet around here, though it gets noisy on weekends. If I have t
o hear ‘Thinking Out Loud’ from one more wedding cover band, I may have to drop an anvil.”

  She pointed to the floor, which immediately turned back to opaque cement. “Now if you guys don’t mind, I need to finish a section of a project I’m working on. Don’t want the metal plates to cool without proper welding. After that—”

  “You’re a child of Hephaestus, aren’t you?” Leo said.

  “Hecate, actually.”

  Leo blinked. “No way! But that sweet workshop area you got—”

  “Magical construction is my specialty,” said Josephine. “My dad, my mortal dad, was a mechanic.”

  “Nice!” Leo said. “My mom was a mechanic! Hey, if I could use your machine tools, I left this dragon at the statehouse and—”

  “Ahem,” I interrupted. As much as I wanted Festus back, I did not think a nearly indestructible, impossible-to-open suitcase was in any immediate danger. I was also afraid that if Leo and Josephine started chatting, they would soon be bonding over the wonders of serrated flange bolts and I would die of boredom. “Josephine, you were about to say after that…?”

  “Right,” Josephine agreed. “Give me a few minutes. Then I can show you to some guest rooms and, uh, maybe get Leo here some clothing. These days, we’ve got plenty of vacancies, unfortunately.”

  I wondered why that was unfortunate. Then I remembered the little girl’s empty room we’d passed. Something told me it might be best not to ask about that.

  “We appreciate your help,” I told Josephine. “But I still don’t understand. You say Artemis knows about this place. You and Emmie are—or were—Hunters?”

  Josephine’s neck muscles tightened against the collar of her pink polo. “We were.”

  I frowned. I’d always thought of my sister’s followers as a sort of all-maiden mafia. Once you were in, you never left—unless you left in a lovely silver coffin. “But—”

  “Long story,” Josephine cut me off. “I probably should let Hemithea tell it.”

  “Hemithea?” The name hit me like one of the Waystation’s bricks. My face felt as if it were slipping down to the center of my chest, blemmyae-style. Suddenly I realized why Emmie had looked familiar. No wonder I’d felt such a sense of unease. “Emmie. Short for Hemithea. The Hemithea?”

  Josephine glanced from side to side. “You really didn’t know?” She jabbed a finger over her shoulder. “So…I’m gonna get back to that welding now. There’s food and drinks in the kitchen. Make yourselves at home.”

  She beat a hasty retreat back to her workshop.

  “Dang,” Leo muttered. “She’s awesome.”

  “Humph.”

  Leo arched his eyebrows. “Were you and Hemithea an item back in the day or something? When you heard her name, you looked like somebody kicked you in the crotch.”

  “Leo Valdez, in four thousand years, no one has ever dared to kick me in the crotch. If you mean I looked slightly shocked, that’s because I knew Hemithea when she was a young princess in ancient Greece. We were never an item. However, I’m the one who made her immortal.”

  Leo’s eyes drifted toward the workshop, where Josephine had begun to weld again. “I thought all Hunters became immortal once they took the pledge to Artemis.”

  “You misunderstand,” I said. “I made Hemithea immortal before she became a Hunter. In fact, I turned her into a god.”

  Tell you a story?

  Or I could just, like, pass out

  And twitch on the couch

  THIS WAS LEO’S CUE to sit at my feet and listen, enraptured, as I told him the story.

  Instead, he waved vaguely toward the workshop. “Yeah, okay. I’m gonna check out the forges.”

  He left me by myself.

  Demigods today. I blame social media for their short attention spans. When you can’t even take the time to listen to a god hold forth, that’s just sad.

  Unfortunately, the story insisted on being remembered. Voices, faces, and emotions from three thousand years ago flooded my mind, taking control of my senses with such force that I almost crumpled.

 
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