The dark prophecy, p.5
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.5
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  Josephine gazed into the distance, as if the building’s walls were as transparent as the Magic 8 Ball’s base. “We didn’t exactly plan it. We left in…what, 1986?”

  “Eighty-seven,” Emmie said. “We’ve been aging together ever since. Very happily.” She wiped away a tear, not looking terribly happy at the moment.

  Calypso flexed her recently broken hand. “I don’t know much about Lady Artemis, or her rules for followers—”

  “That’s fine,” Leo interrupted.

  Calypso glared at him. “But don’t they forswear the company of men? If you two fell in love—”

  “No,” I said bitterly. “All romance is off-limits. My sister is quite unreasonable in that regard. The mission of the Hunters is to live without romantic distractions of any kind.”

  Thinking about my sister and her anti-romantic ideas irritated me. How could two siblings be so different? But I was also irritated with Hemithea. She had not only given up being a Hunter; in doing so she had also given up the divinity I had granted her.

  Just like a human! We give you immortality and godly power, then you trade it in for love and a loft in downtown Indianapolis. The nerve!

  Emmie wouldn’t meet my eyes.

  She sighed wistfully. “We delighted in being Hunters, both of us. They were our family. But…” She shrugged.

  “We loved each other more,” Josephine supplied.

  I got the feeling they finished each other’s sentences a lot, their thoughts were in such comfortable harmony. That did not help my irritation levels.

  “You must have parted with Artemis on good terms,” I said. “She let you live.”

  Josephine nodded. “The Lady’s Hunters often stop here at the Waystation…though we have not seen Artemis herself in decades. Then, seven years ago, we were blessed with Georgina. She…she was brought to our door by Agamethus.”

  The orange ghost bowed.

  “He brought her from where?” I wondered.

  Emmie spread her hands. “We’ve never been able to get that information from him. It’s the one question the Magic 8 Ball never answers.”

  Leo must have been thinking deeply—a tuft of fire broke out at the top of his left ear. “Hold up. Agamethus isn’t your kid’s dad, is he? Also…you’re telling me I’m wearing the overalls of a seven-year-old girl, and they fit?”

  That got a broken laugh from Josephine. “I suppose they do. And no, Leo, Agamethus is not Georgina’s father. Our ghostly friend has been dead since ancient times. Like Apollo said, he was the brother of Trophonius, the spirit of the Oracle. Agamethus appeared here with baby Georgie. Then he led us to the Oracle. That was the first we knew of its existence.”

  “So you have its location,” I said.

  “Of course,” Emmie murmured. “For all the good it does us.”

  Too many questions crowded in my head. I wanted to divide myself into a dozen different manifestations so I could pursue every answer at once, but alas, mortals don’t split easily. “But the girl and the Oracle must be connected somehow.”

  Emmie closed her eyes. I could tell she was trying hard to suppress a sob. “We didn’t realize how closely they were connected. Not until Georgie was taken from us.”

  “The emperor,” I guessed.

  Josephine nodded.

  I hadn’t even met this second member of the Triumvirate yet, and I already hated him. I had lost Meg McCaffrey to Nero. I did not like the idea of another young girl being taken by another evil emperor.

  “In my vision,” I recalled, “I heard Nero call this emperor the New Hercules. Who is he? What did he do with Georgina?”

  Emmie rose unsteadily to her feet. “I—I need to do something productive with my hands. It’s the only way I’ve stayed sane the past two weeks. Why don’t you all help us make lunch? Then we’ll talk about the monster who controls our city.”

  I chopped those onions

  With my own ex-godly hands

  You’d better eat them

  BEING PRODUCTIVE.

  Ugh.

  It’s such a human concept. It implies you have limited time (LOL) and have to work hard to make something happen (double LOL). I mean, perhaps if you were laboring away for years writing an opera about the glories of Apollo, I could understand the appeal of being productive. But how can you get a sense of satisfaction and serenity from preparing food? That I did not understand.

  Even at Camp Half-Blood I wasn’t asked to make my own meals. True, the hot dogs were questionable, and I never found out what sort of bugs were in bug juice, but at least I’d been served by a cadre of beautiful nymphs.

  Now I was compelled to wash lettuce, dice tomatoes, and chop onions.

  “Where does this food come from?” I asked, blinking tears from my eyes.

  I’m no Demeter, but even I could tell this produce was fresh from the earth, probably because of the amount of dirt I had to wash off.

  The thought of Demeter made me think of Meg, which might’ve caused me to weep even if I hadn’t already been afflicted by onion fumes.

  Calypso dumped a basket of muddy carrots in front of me. “Emmie’s got a garden on the roof. Greenhouses. Year-round growing. You should see the herbs—basil, thyme, rosemary. It’s amazing.”

  Emmie smiled. “Thank you, dear. You definitely know your gardening.”

  I sighed. Now those two were bonding. Soon I would be stuck between Emmie and Calypso discussing kale-growing techniques and Leo and Josephine waxing poetic about carburetors. I couldn’t win.

  Speak of the daimon: Leo burst through the door next to the pantry, holding aloft a wheel of cheese like a victor’s laurel crown.

  “BEHOLD THE CHEDDAR!” he announced. “ALL HAIL THE CHEESE CONQUERORS!”

  Josephine, chuckling good-naturedly, lumbered in behind him with a metal pail. “The cows seemed to like Leo.”

  “Hey, abuelita,” Leo said. “All da cows love Leo.” He grinned at me. “And these cows are red, man. Like…bright red.”

  That definitely made me want to weep. Red cows were my favorite. For centuries I had a herd of sacred scarlet cattle before cow-collecting went out of fashion.

  Josephine must have seen the miserable look on my face.

  “We just use their milk,” she said hastily. “We don’t butcher them.”

  “I should hope not!” I cried. “Killing red cattle would be sacrilege!”

  Josephine didn’t look properly terrified by the idea. “Yeah, but mostly it’s because Emmie made me give up meat twenty years ago.”

  “It’s much better for you,” Emmie chided. “You’re not immortal anymore, and you need to take care of yourself.”

  “But cheeseburgers,” Jo muttered.

  Leo plunked the cheese wheel in front of me. “Cut me a wedge of this, my good man. Chop-chop!”

  I scowled at him. “Don’t test me, Valdez. When I am a god again, I will make a constellation out of you. I will call it the Small Exploding Latino.”

  “I like it!” He patted my shoulder, causing my knife to jiggle.

  Did no one fear the wrath of the gods anymore?

  While Emmie baked loaves of bread—which I must admit smelled incredible—I tossed a salad with carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and all manner of roof-grown plant material. Calypso used fresh lemons and cane sugar to make lemonade, while humming tracks from Beyoncé’s album of the same name. (During our travels west, I had taken it upon myself to catch Calypso up on the last three millennia of popular music.)

  Leo cut the cheese. (You can interpret that any way you want.) The cheddar wheel turned out to be bright red all the way through and quite tasty. Josephine made dessert, which she said was her specialty. Today this meant fresh berries and homemade sponge cake in sweet red cream, with a meringue topping lightly toasted with a welding torch.

  As for the ghost Agamethus, he hovered in one corner of the kitchen, holding his Magic 8 Ball dejectedly as if it were a third-place prize from a three-person competition.


  Finally, we sat down to lunch. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. It had been quite a while since breakfast, and Festus’s in-flight meal service left much to be desired.

  I shoveled my food in while Leo and Calypso told our hosts about our travels west. Between bites of fresh bread with bright red butter, I added commentary as needed, since of course I had the superior storytelling skills.

  We explained how my ancient foe Python had retaken the original site of Delphi, cutting off access to the most powerful Oracle. We explained how the Triumvirate had sabotaged all forms of communication used by demigods—Iris-messages, magical scrolls, ventriloquist puppets, even the arcane magic of e-mail. With the help of Python, the three evil emperors now intended to control or destroy all the Oracles from ancient times, thus putting the very future of the world in a stranglehold.

  “We freed the Grove of Dodona,” I summed up. “But that Oracle simply sent us here to secure the next source of prophecy: the Cave of Trophonius.”

  Calypso pointed to my quiver, which lay against the nearest sofa. “Apollo, show them your talking arrow.”

  Emmie’s eyes gleamed with the keen interest of an archer. “Talking arrow?”

  I shuddered. The arrow I had retrieved from the whispering trees of Dodona had so far done me little good. Only I could hear its voice, and whenever I asked its advice, it spouted nonsense in Elizabethan English, which infected my speech patterns and left me talking like a bad Shakespearean actor for hours. This amused Calypso to no end.

  “I will not show them my talking arrow,” I said. “I will, however, share the limerick.”

  “No!” said Calypso and Leo in unison. They dropped their forks and covered their ears.

  I recited:

  “There once was a god named Apollo

  Who plunged in a cave blue and hollow

  Upon a three-seater

  The bronze fire-eater

  Was forced death and madness to swallow.”

  Around the table, an uncomfortable silence fell.

  Josephine glowered. “Never before has any voice dared to utter a limerick in this house, Apollo.”

  “And let us hope no one will ever do so again,” I agreed. “But such was the prophecy of Dodona that brought us here.”

  Emmie’s expression tightened, removing any lingering doubts that this was the same Hemithea I had immortalized so many centuries ago. I recognized the intensity in her eyes—the same determination that had sent her over a cliff, trusting her fate to the gods.

  “ ‘A cave blue and hollow’…” she said. “That’s the Oracle of Trophonius, all right. It’s located in the Bluespring Caverns, about eighty miles south of town.”

  Leo grinned as he chewed, his mouth an avalanche of earth-toned food particles. “Easiest quest ever, then. We get Festus back, then we look up this place on Google Maps and fly down there.”

  “Doubtful,” Josephine said. “The emperor has the surrounding countryside heavily guarded. You couldn’t fly a dragon anywhere near Bluespring without getting shot out of the sky. Even if you could, the cave entrances are all way too small for a dragon to plunge into.”

  Leo pouted. “But the limerick—”

  “May be deceptive,” I said. “It is, after all, a limerick.”

  Calypso sat forward. She had wrapped a napkin around her formerly broken hand—perhaps because it still ached, perhaps because she was nervous. It reminded me of torch wadding—not a happy association after my last encounter with the mad emperor Nero.

  “What about the last line?” she asked. “Apollo will be forced death and madness to swallow.”

  Josephine stared at her empty plate. Emmie gave her hand a quick squeeze.

  “The Oracle of Trophonius is dangerous,” Emmie said. “Even when we had free access to it, before the emperor moved in, we would only consult the spirit in extreme emergencies.” She turned to me. “You must remember. You were the god of prophecy.”

  Despite the excellent lemonade, my throat felt parched. I didn’t like being reminded of what I used to be. I also didn’t like the gigantic holes in my memory, filled with nothing but vague dread.

  “I—I remember the cave was dangerous, yes,” I said. “I don’t recall why.”

  “You don’t recall.” Emmie’s voice took on a dangerous edge.

  “I normally concentrated on the godly side of things,” I said. “The quality of the sacrifices. What sort of incense the petitioners burned. How pleasing the hymns of praise were. I never asked what kind of trials the petitioners went through.”

  “You never asked.”

  I didn’t like Emmie echoing my words. I had a feeling she would make an even worse Greek chorus than Calypso.

  “I did some reading at Camp Half-Blood,” I said defensively. “There wasn’t much about Trophonius. Chiron couldn’t help, either. He’d completely forgotten about the Oracle. Supposedly, Trophonius’s prophecies were dark and scary. Sometimes they drove people insane. Perhaps his cave was a sort of haunted house? With, uh, dangling skeletons, priestesses jumping out and saying BOO?”

  Emmie’s sour expression told me that my guess was off the mark.

  “I also read something about petitioners drinking from two special springs,” I persisted. “I thought swallowing death and madness might be a symbolic reference to that. You know, poetic license.”

  “No,” Josephine muttered. “It’s not poetic license. That cave literally drove our daughter mad.”

  A cold draft swept across my neck, as if the Waystation itself had let out a forlorn sigh. I thought about the apocalypse I’d seen crayoned on the wall of the child’s now-abandoned bedroom.

  “What happened?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know—especially if it might be a portent of what I would soon face.

  Emmie tore a piece of bread crust. She let the pieces fall. “Once the emperor came to Indianapolis…this New Hercules…”

  Calypso started to ask a question, but Emmie raised a hand. “Please, dear, don’t ask me to name him. Not here. Not now. As I’m sure you know, many gods and monsters hear you when you speak their names. He is worse than most.”

  A pang of sympathy pulled at the corner of Calypso’s mouth. “Please, go on.”

  “At first,” Emmie said, “we didn’t understand what was happening. Our friends and companions began to disappear.” She gestured around her at the vast living area. “We used to have a dozen or so living here at any given time. Now…we’re all that’s left.”

  Josephine leaned back in her chair. In the light of the rose window, her hair gleamed the same steel gray as the wrenches in her coverall pockets. “The emperor was looking for us. He knew about the Waystation. He wanted to destroy us. But like I said, this isn’t an easy place to find unless we invite you in. So, instead, his forces waited until our people were outside. They took our friends a few at a time.”

  “Took them?” I asked. “As in alive?”

  “Oh, yeah.” Josephine’s grim tone made it sound as if death would’ve been preferable. “The emperor loves prisoners. He captured our guests, our griffins.”

  A berry slipped out of Leo’s fingers. “Griffins? Uh…Hazel and Frank told me about griffins. They fought some in Alaska. Said they were like rabid hyenas with wings.”

  Josephine smirked. “The small ones, the wild ones, can be, yeah. But we raise the best here. At least…we did. Our last mating pair disappeared about a month ago. Heloise and Abelard. We let them out to hunt—they have to do that to stay healthy. They never returned. For Georgina, that was the final insult.”

  A bad feeling began to nag at me. Something beyond the obvious we’re talking about creepy things that might get me killed. The griffin nests in the niches above us. A distant memory about my sister’s followers. A comment Nero had made in my vision: that the New Hercules was obsessed with destroying the House of Nets, as if that were another name for the Waystation…I felt like someone’s shadow was falling over the dining table, someone I should know, perha
ps someone I should be running away from.

  Calypso unwrapped the napkin from her hand. “Your daughter,” she asked. “What happened to her?”

  Neither Josephine nor Emmie responded. Agamethus bowed slightly, his bloody tunic glowing in various shades of nacho topping.

  “It’s obvious,” I said into the silence. “The girl went to the Cave of Trophonius.”

  Emmie looked past me to Agamethus, her eyes as sharp as arrow points. “Georgina got it into her head that the only way to save the Waystation and find the captives was to consult the Oracle. She’d always been drawn to the place. She didn’t fear it the way most people did. One night she slipped away. Agamethus helped her. We don’t know exactly how they got there—”

  The ghost shook his Magic 8 Ball. He tossed it to Emmie, who frowned at the answer on the bottom.

  “ ‘It was ordained,’” she read. “I don’t know what you mean, you old, dead fool, but she was just a child. Without the throne, you knew what would happen to her!”

  “The throne?” Calypso asked.

  Another memory bobbed to the surface of my eight-ball brain.

  “Oh, gods,” I said. “The throne.”

  Before I could say more, the entire hall shuddered. Plates and cups rattled on the dining table. Agamethus vanished in a flash of nacho orange. At the top of the barreled ceiling, the green and brown stained-glass panels darkened as if a cloud had blacked out the sun.

  Josephine rose. “Waystation, what’s happening on the roof?”

  As far as I could tell, the building didn’t respond. No bricks shot out of the wall. No doors banged open and shut in Morse code.

  Emmie set the Magic 8 Ball on the table. “The rest of you, stay here. Jo and I will check it out.”

  Calypso frowned. “But—”

  “That’s an order,” Emmie said. “I’m not losing any more guests.”

  “It can’t be Com—” Josephine stopped herself. “It can’t be him. Maybe Heloise and Abelard are back?”

  “Maybe.” Emmie didn’t sound convinced. “But just in case…”

  The two women moved quickly to a metal supply cabinet in the kitchen. Emmie grabbed her bow and quiver. Josephine pulled out an old-fashioned machine gun with a circular drum magazine between the two handles.

  Leo nearly choked on his dessert. “Is that a tommy gun?”

  Josephine patted the weapon affectionately. “This is Little Bertha. A reminder of my sordid past life. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. You all sit tight.”

  With that comforting advice, our heavily armed hosts marched off to check the roof.

  Lovebirds arguing

  Trouble in Elysium?

  I’ll just scrub these plates

  THE ORDER TO sit tight seemed clear enough to me.

  Leo and Calypso, however, decided that the least we could do was clean up the lunch dishes. (See my previous comment re: the dumbness of productivity.) I scrubbed. Calypso rinsed. Leo dried, which wasn’t even work for him, since all he had to do was heat his hands a little.

  “So,” Calypso said, “what’s this throne Emmie mentioned?”

  I scowled at my foamy stack of bread pans. “The Throne of Memory. It’s a chair carved by the goddess Mnemosyne herself.”

 
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