The dark prophecy, p.8
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.8

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  of Britomartis’s nets. At first I had wondered if these men were talking about Georgina, but they meant Meg McCaffrey. She had given her escorts the slip.

  Marcus gaped like a fish. “Sir, it—it was a just a weed!”

  “Which is all she needed to teleport away!” screamed Cleander. “You should have realized how powerful she is becoming. Gods only know where she is now!”

  “Actually,” said the emperor, sending a flash freeze through the room, “I’m a god. And I have no idea.”

  He stopped twirling his poleax. He scanned the throne room until his gaze fixed on a blemmyae servant arranging cakes and canapés on a tea cart. She was not in disguise—her chest-face was in full view, though below her belly-chin she wore a maid’s black skirt with a white lace apron.

  The emperor took aim. He casually chucked his poleax across the room, the blade burying itself between the maid’s eyes. She staggered, managed to say, “Good shot, my lord,” then crumbled to dust.

  The advisors and bodyguards clapped politely.

  Commodus waved away their praise. “I’m bored with these two.” He gestured at Marcus and Vortigern. “They failed, yes?”

  Cleander bowed. “Yes, my lord. Thanks to them, the daughter of Demeter is on the loose. If she reaches Indianapolis, she could cause us no end of trouble.”

  The emperor smiled. “Ah, but Cleander, you failed too, did you not?”

  The red-suited man gulped. “Sire, I—I assure you—”

  “It was your idea to allow Nero to send these idiots. You thought they’d be helpful in capturing Apollo. Now the girl has betrayed us. And Apollo is somewhere in my city, and you haven’t apprehended him yet.”

  “Sire, the meddlesome women of the Waystation—”

  “That’s right!” the emperor said. “You haven’t found them yet, either. And don’t get me started on all your failures concerning the naming ceremony.”

  “B-but, sire! We will have thousands of animals for you to slaughter! Hundreds of captives—”

  “BORING! I told you, I want something creative. Are you my praetorian prefect or not, Cleander?”

  “Y-yes, sire.”

  “And so you’re responsible for any failures.”

  “But—”

  “And you’re boring me,” Commodus added, “which is punishable by death.” He glanced to either side of the throne. “Who’s next in the chain of command? Speak up.”

  A young man stepped forward. Not a Germanus bodyguard, but definitely a fighter. His hand rested easily on the pommel of a sword. His face was a patchwork of scars. His clothes were casual—just jeans, a red-and-white T-shirt that read CORNHUSKERS, and a red bandana tied across his curly dark hair—but he held himself with the easy confidence of a practiced killer.

  “I am next, sire.”

  Commodus inclined his head. “Do it, then.”

  Cleander shrieked, “No!”

  The Cornhusker moved with blinding speed. His sword flashed. In three fluid slices, three people fell dead, their heads severed from their bodies. On the bright side, Cleander no longer had to worry about congestive heart failure. Neither did Marcus nor Vortigern.

  The emperor clapped with delight. “Oh, nice! That was very entertaining, Lityerses!”

  “Thank you, sire.” The Cornhusker flicked the blood from his blade.

  “You are almost as skilled with the sword as I am!” the emperor said. “Have I ever told you how I decapitated a rhinoceros?”

  “Yes, my lord, most impressive.” Lityerses’s voice was as bland as oatmeal. “Your permission to clear away these bodies?”

  “Of course,” the emperor said. “Now—you’re Midas’s boy, aren’t you?”

  Lityerses’s face seemed to develop a few new scars when he scowled. “Yes, sire.”

  “But you can’t do the golden-touch thing?”

  “No, sire.”

  “Pity. You do kill people well, though. That’s good. Your first orders: Find Meg McCaffrey. And Apollo. Bring them to me, alive if possible, and…hmm. There was something else.”

  “The naming ceremony, sire?”

  “Yes!” The emperor grinned. “Yes, yes. I have some wonderful ideas to spice up the games, but since Apollo and the girl are running around loose, we should move forward our plan for the griffins. Go to the zoo right away. Bring the animals here for safekeeping. Manage all that for me, and I won’t kill you. Fair?”

  Lityerses’s neck muscles tensed. “Of course, sire.”

  As the new praetorian prefect barked orders to the guards, telling them to drag away the decapitated bodies, someone spoke my name.

  “Apollo. Wake up.”

  My eyes fluttered open. Calypso stood over me. The room was dark. Nearby, Leo was still snoring away in his bed.

  “It’s almost first light,” said the sorceress. “We need to get going.”

  I tried to blink away the remnants of my dreams. Agamethus’s Magic 8 Ball seemed to float to the surface of my mind. Apollo must bring her home.

  I wondered if the ghost had meant Georgina, or another girl whom I very much wanted to find.

  Calypso shook my shoulder. “Come on! You wake up very slowly for a sun god.”

  “W-what? Where?”

  “The zoo,” she said. “Unless you want to wait around here for morning chores.”

  I sing of taters!

  Chili, sweet potato, blue!

  Why? Ask my arrow

  CALYPSO KNEW how to motivate me.

  The thought of scrubbing toilets again was more terrifying than my dreams.

  We walked the dark streets in the cold early morning, keeping an eye out for polite mobs of killer blemmyae, but no one bothered us. Along the way, I explained my nightmares to Calypso.

  I spelled out the name C-O-M-M-O-D-U-S, in case saying it aloud might attract the god-emperor’s attention. Calypso had never heard of him. Of course, she’d been stuck on her island for the last few millennia. I doubted she would recognize the names of many people who hadn’t washed up on her shores. She barely knew who Hercules was. I found that refreshing. Hercules was such an attention hog.

  “You know this emperor personally?” she asked.

  I convinced myself I wasn’t blushing. The wind was just stinging my face. “We met when he was younger. We had a surprising amount in common. Once he became emperor…” I sighed. “You know how it is. He got too much power and fame at a tender age. It messed with his head. Like Justin, Britney, Lindsay, Amanda, Amadeus—”

  “I don’t know any of those people.”

  “We need to spend more time on your pop culture lessons.”

  “No, please.” Calypso struggled with the zipper of her coat.

  Today she was wearing an assortment of borrowed clothing she must have picked out in total darkness: a battered silver parka, probably from Emmie’s Hunters of Artemis days; a blue INDY 500 T-shirt; an ankle-length brown skirt over black leggings; and bright purple-and-green workout shoes. Meg McCaffrey would have approved of her fashion sense.

  “What about the sword-wielding Cornhusker?” Calypso asked.

  “Lityerses, son of King Midas. I don’t know much about him, or why he is serving the emperor. We can only hope to get in and out of the zoo before he shows up. I don’t relish the idea of meeting him in combat.”

  Calypso flexed her fingers, perhaps remembering what happened the last time she punched someone. “At least your friend Meg escaped her escorts,” she noted. “That’s good news.”

  “Perhaps.” I wanted to believe Meg was rebelling against Nero. That she had finally seen the truth about her monstrous stepfather and would now rush to my side, ready to aid me in my quests and stop giving me vexing orders.

  Unfortunately, I knew firsthand how hard it was to extricate oneself from an unhealthy relationship. Nero’s hooks were buried deep in the girl’s psyche. The idea of Meg on the run without a destination, terrified, pursued by the minions of two different emperors…that did not reassure me. I hope
d she at least had her friend Peaches the grain spirit to rely on, but I had seen no sign of him in my visions.

  “And Trophonius?” asked Calypso. “Do you often forget when someone is your child?”

  “You wouldn’t understand.”

  “We’re looking for a dangerous Oracle that drives people insane. The spirit of this Oracle happens to be your son, who just might hold a grudge against you because you didn’t answer his prayers, thus forcing him to cut off his own brother’s head. Those facts would have been good to know.”

  “I’ve had a lot on my mind! It’s a very small mortal mind.”

  “At least we agree on the size of your brain.”

  “Oh, stick a brick in it,” I muttered. “I was hoping for advice on how to proceed. You’re useless.”

  “My advice is to stop being such a gloutos.”

  The word meant buttocks, except that in ancient Greek it had a much ruder connotation. I tried to think of a withering reply, but the ancient Greek phrase for I know you are, but what am I? eluded me.

  Calypso ruffled the fletching in my quiver. “If you want advice, why not ask your arrow? Perhaps he knows how to rescue griffins.”

  “Humph.” I did not like Calypso’s advice for seeking advice. I didn’t see what a Shakespearean-talking arrow could contribute to our present quest. Then again, I had nothing to lose except my temper. If the arrow annoyed me too much, I could always fire him into some monster’s gloutos.

  I pulled out the Arrow of Dodona. Immediately, his sonorous voice spoke in my mind, the shaft resonating with each word.

  LO, it said. THE MORTAL DOTH FINALLY SHOW SENSE.

  “I’ve missed you, too,” I said.

  “It’s talking?” Calypso asked.

  “Unfortunately, yes. O, Arrow of Dodona, I have a question for you.”

  HITTEST ME WITH THY BEST SHOT.

  I explained about my visions. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, talking to an arrow as we strolled along West Maryland Street. Outside the Indiana Convention Center, I tripped and nearly impaled myself through the eye, but Calypso didn’t even bother to laugh. During our travels together she’d seen me humiliate myself in much more spectacular ways.

  Talking proved a slower way of bringing a projectile up to speed than by simply launching it from a bow, but at last I succeeded.

  FIE. The arrow shuddered in my hand. THOU HAST GIVEN ME NOT A QUESTION BUT A STORY.

  I wondered if it was testing me—gauging just how far it could push me before I snapped it in two. I might have done so long ago except I feared I would then have two fragments of a talking arrow, which would give me bad advice in harmony.

  “Very well,” I said. “How can we find the griffins? Where is Meg McCaffrey? How can we defeat the local emperor, free his prisoners, and take back control of the Oracle of Trophonius?”

  NOW HAST THOU ASKED TOO MANY QUESTIONS, the arrow intoned. MY WISDOM DOTH NOT SPEW FORTH ANSWERS AS IF ’TWERE GOOGLE.

  Yes, the arrow was definitely tempting me to snap it.

  “Let’s start simply, then,” I said. “How do we free the griffins?”

  GOEST THOU TO THE ZOO.

  “We’re already doing that.”

  FINDEST THOU THE GRIFFINS’ ENCLOSURE.

  “Yes, but where? And don’t tell me at the zoo. Where exactly in the Indianapolis Zoo are the griffins being kept?”

  SEEKEST THOU THE CHOO-CHOO.

  “The choo-choo.”

  IST THERE AN ECHO IN HERE?

  “Fine! We look for a choo—a train. Once we locate the griffins, how do we free them?”

  LO, THOU SHALT GAIN THE BEASTS’ TRUST WITH TATER TOTS.

  “Tater Tots?”

  I waited for clarification, or even just another snarky comment. The arrow remained silent. With a snort of disgust, I returned it to my quiver.

  “You know,” Calypso said, “hearing only one side of that conversation was very confusing.”

  “’Twas not much better hearing both sides,” I assured her. “Something about a train. And children made of potatoes.”

  “Tater Tots are food. Leo—” Her voice caught on his name. “Leo likes them.”

  My vast experience with women told me that Calypso was either feeling remorseful about her argument with Leo yesterday or she got emotional on the subject of Tater Tots. I wasn’t inclined to find out which.

  “Whatever ist the case, I knowest not—” I spat the Shakespearean English off my tongue. “I don’t know what the arrow’s advice means. Perhaps when we get to the zoo, it will make sense.”

  “Because that happens so often when we arrive in new places,” Calypso said. “Suddenly everything makes sense.”

  “You have a point.” I sighed. “But much like the point on my talking arrow, it does us no good. Shall we continue?”

  We used the Washington Street Bridge to cross the White River, which was not at all white. It flowed wide, sluggish, and brown between cement retaining walls, the water breaking around islands of scrubby bushes like acne patches (with which I was now all too familiar). It reminded me strangely of the Tiber in Rome—another underwhelming, long-neglected river.

  Yet world-altering history had been made along the banks of the Tiber. I shuddered to think what plans Commodus had for this city. And if the White River fed the canals I’d glimpsed in his throne room, his lair might be close. Which meant that his new prefect, Lityerses, might already be at the zoo. I decided to walk faster.

  The Indianapolis Zoo was tucked away in a park just off West Washington. We crossed an empty parking lot, heading toward the turquoise marquee of the main entrance. A banner out front read WILDLY CUTE! For a moment I thought perhaps the zoo staff had heard I was coming and decided to welcome me. Then I realized the banner was just an advertisement for koala bears. As if koalas needed advertising.

  Calypso frowned at the shuttered ticket booths. “Nobody here. The place is locked up tight.”

  “That was the idea,” I reminded her. “The fewer mortals around, the better.”

  “But how do we get in?”

  “If only someone could control wind spirits and carry us over the fence.”

  “If only some god could teleport us,” she countered. “Or snap his fingers and bring the griffins to us.”

  I folded my arms. “I’m beginning to remember why we exiled you on that island for three thousand years.”

  “Three thousand five hundred and sixty-eight. It would have been longer if you’d had your way.”

  I hadn’t meant to start this argument again, but Calypso made it so easy. “You were on a tropical island with pristine beaches, aerial servants, and a lavishly appointed cave.”

  “Which made Ogygia not a prison?”

  I was tempted to blast her with godly power, except…well, I didn’t have any. “You don’t miss your island, then?”

  She blinked as if I’d thrown sand in her face. “I—no. That’s not the point. I was kept in exile. I had no one—”

  “Oh, please. You want to know what real exile feels like? This is my third time as a mortal. Stripped of my powers. Stripped of immortality. I can die, Calypso.”

  “Me too,” she snapped.

  “Yes, but you chose to go with Leo. You gave up your immortality for love! You’re as bad as Hemithea!”

  I hadn’t realized how much anger was behind that last shot until I let it fly. My voice resounded across the parking lot. Somewhere in the zoo, a rudely awakened tropical bird squawked in protest.

  Calypso’s expression hardened. “Right.”

  “I only meant—”

  “Save it.” She gazed down the perimeter of the fence. “Shall we find a place to climb over?”

  I tried to formulate a gallant apology that would also completely vindicate my position, but I decided to let the matter drop. My shout might have woken up more than the toucans. We needed to hurry.

  We found a breaching point where the fence was slightly lower. Even in a skirt, Calypso proved the more a
gile climber. She made it over the top with no problem, while I snagged my shoe on barbed wire and found myself hanging upside down. It was complete luck that I did not fall into the tiger habitat.

  “Shut up,” I told Calypso when she pulled me free.

  “I didn’t say anything!”

  The tiger glared at us from the other side of his enclosure glass as if to say, Why are you bothering me if you haven’t brought me breakfast?

  I’d always found tigers to be sensible creatures.

  Calypso and I crept through the zoo, keeping a lookout for mortals or imperial guards. Except for a zookeeper hosing down the lemur display, we saw no one.

  We stopped in an area that seemed to be the park’s main crossroads. To our left stood a carousel. To our right, orangutans lounged in the trees of a large netted compound. Strategically placed around the plaza were several gift shops and cafés, all closed. Signs pointed toward various attractions: OCEAN, PLAINS, JUNGLE, FLIGHTS OF FANCY.

  “‘Flights of fancy,’” I said. “Surely they would file griffins under fanciful flights.”

  Calypso scanned our surroundings. She had unnerving eyes—dark brown and intensely focused, not unlike Artemis’s gaze when she took aim at a target. I suppose on Ogygia Calypso had had many years of practice staring at the horizon, waiting for someone or something interesting to appear.

  “Your arrow mentioned a train,” she said. “There’s a sign for a train ride.”

  “Yes, but my arrow also said something about Tater Tots. I think it’s getting a bit warped.”

  Calypso pointed. “There.”

  At the nearest outdoor café, next to a shuttered serving window, a lunch menu was posted on the wall. I scanned the selections.

  “Four different kinds of Tater Tots?” I felt overwhelmed by culinary confusion. “Why would anyone need so many? Chili. Sweet potato. Blue? How can a Tot be—?” I froze.

  For a nanosecond, I wasn’t sure what had startled me. Then I realized my keen ears had picked up on a sound in the distance—a man’s voice.

  “What is it?” Calypso asked.

  “Shh.” I listened more intently.

  I hoped I might have been mistaken. Perhaps I’d simply heard some exotic bird with a gravelly croak, or the zookeeper cursing as he hosed out lemur poop. But no. Even in my diminished mortal state, my hearing was exceptional.

  The voice spoke again, familiar and much closer. “You three, that way. You two, with me.”

  I touched Calypso’s jacket sleeve. “It’s Lityerses, the Cornhusker.”

  The sorceress muttered another Minoan curse, naming a part of Zeus’s body that I did not want to think about. “We need to hide.”

  Unfortunately, Lityerses was approaching from the way we’d come. Judging from the sound of his voice, we had only seconds before he’d arrive. The crossroads
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