The dark prophecy, p.9
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.9

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  offered any number of escape routes, but all of them would be within Lityerses’s line of sight.

  Only one place was close enough to offer cover.

  “When in doubt,” Calypso said, “Tater Tots.”

  She grabbed my hand and pulled me around the back of the café.

  Fast-food restaurant

  My life goal is realized

  Any fries with that?

  WHEN I WAS A GOD, I would’ve been pleased to have a beautiful woman pull me behind a building. But as Lester with Calypso, I was more likely to get killed than kissed.

  We crouched next to a stack of milk crates by the kitchen entrance. The area smelled of cooking grease, pigeon droppings, and chlorine from the nearby children’s splash park. Calypso rattled the locked door, then glared at me.

  “Help!” she hissed.

  “What am I supposed to do?”

  “Well, now would be a good time to have a burst of godly strength!”

  I should never have told her and Leo about that. Once, when facing Nero at Camp Half-Blood, my superhuman power had briefly returned, allowing me to overcome the emperor’s Germani. I’d thrown one of them into the sky where, for all I knew, he was still in low earth orbit. But that moment had quickly passed. My strength hadn’t returned since.

  Regardless, Leo and Calypso seemed to think I could summon godly bursts of awesomeness anytime I wanted, just because I was a former god. I found that unfair.

  I gave the door a try. I yanked the handle and almost pulled my fingers out of their sockets.

  “Ow,” I muttered. “Mortals have gotten good at making doors. Now, back in the Bronze Age—”

  Calypso shushed me.

  Our enemies’ voices were getting closer. I couldn’t hear Lityerses, but two other men were conversing in a guttural language that sounded like ancient Gallic. I doubted they were zookeepers.

  Calypso frantically pulled a bobby pin from her hair. Aha, so her lovely coiffed locks did not stay in place by magic! She pointed at me, then pointed around the corner. I thought she was telling me to flee and save myself. That would have been a sensible suggestion. Then I realized she was asking me to keep watch.

  I didn’t know what good that would do, but I peered over the rampart of milk crates and waited for Germani to come and kill us. I could hear them at the front of the café, rattling the shutter over the order window, then conversing briefly with lots of grunts and grumbling. Knowing the emperor’s bodyguards, they were probably saying something like Kill? Kill. Bash heads? Bash heads.

  I wondered why Lityerses had split his people into two groups. Surely they already knew where the griffins were being kept. Why, then, were they searching the park? Unless, of course, they were searching for intruders, specifically us….

  Calypso snapped her hairpin in two. She inserted the metal pieces in the door lock and began to wriggle them, her eyes closed as if she were in deep concentration.

  Ridiculous, I thought. That only works in movies and Homeric epics!

  Click. The door swung inward. Calypso waved me inside. She yanked the pin shards out of the lock, then followed me across the threshold, gently closing the door behind us. She turned the dead bolt just before someone outside shook the handle.

  A gruff voice muttered in Gallic, probably something like No luck. Bash heads elsewhere.

  Footsteps receded.

  I finally remembered to breathe.

  I faced Calypso. “How did you pick the lock?”

  She stared at the broken hairpin in her hand. “I—I thought about weaving.”

  “Weaving?”

  “I can still weave. I spent thousands of years practicing at the loom. I thought maybe—I don’t know—manipulating pins in a lock wouldn’t be too different than weaving thread in a loom.”

  The two things sounded very different to me, but I couldn’t argue with the results.

  “So it wasn’t magic, then?” I tried to contain my disappointment. Having a few wind spirits at our command would have been very helpful.

  “No,” she said. “You’ll know when I get my magic back, because you’ll find yourself being tossed across Indianapolis.”

  “That’s something to look forward to.”

  I scanned the dark interior of the snack bar. Against the back wall were the basics: a sink, a deep fryer, a stove top, two microwaves. Under the counter sat two horizontal freezers.

  How did I know the basics of a fast-food kitchen, you ask? I had discovered the singer Pink while she was working at McDonalds. I found Queen Latifah at Burger King. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in such places. You can’t discount any site where you might find talent.

  I checked the first freezer. Inside, wreathed in cold mist, were carefully labeled boxes of ready-to-cook meals, but nothing that read TATER TOTS.

  The second freezer was locked.

  “Calypso,” I said, “could you weave this open?”

  “Who’s useless now, eh?”

  In the interest of getting my way, I decided not to answer. I stepped back as Calypso worked her non-magical skills. She popped this lock even faster than the first.

  “Well done.” I lifted the freezer lid. “Ah.”

  Hundreds of packages were wrapped in white butcher paper, each labeled in black marker.

  Calypso squinted at the descriptions. “Carnivorous horse mix? Combat ostrich cubes? And…griffin taters.” She turned to me with a horrified look. “Surely they’re not grinding animals into food?”

  I remembered a long-ago banquet with the spiteful King Tantalus, who had served the gods a stew made from his own son. With humans, anything was possible. But in this case, I didn’t think the café was putting mythical wildlife on the menu.

  “These items are under lock and key,” I said. “I’m guessing they’ve been set aside as treats for the zoo’s rarest animals. That’s a mix of food for a carnivorous horse, not a mixture of carnivorous horse.”

  Calypso looked only slightly less nauseated. “What in the world is a combat ostrich?”

  The question triggered an old memory. I was overwhelmed by a vision as powerful as the stench of an unwashed lemur cage.

  I found myself lounging on a couch in the campaign tent of my friend Commodus. He was in the midst of a military campaign with his father, Marcus Aurelius, but nothing about the tent suggested the harsh life of the Roman legion. Overhead, a white silk canopy billowed in the gentle breeze. In one corner, a musician sat discreetly serenading us with his lyre. Under our feet spread the finest rugs from the eastern provinces—each one as expensive as an entire villa in Rome. Between our two couches, a table was spread with an afternoon snack of roast boar, pheasant, salmon, and fruit spilling from a solid gold cornucopia.

  I was amusing myself by throwing grapes at Commodus’s mouth. Of course, I never missed unless I wanted to, but it was fun to watch the fruit bounce off Commodus’s nose.

  “You are terrible,” he teased me.

  And you are perfect, I thought, but I merely smiled.

  He was eighteen. In mortal form, I appeared to be a youth of the same age, but even with my godly enhancements I could hardly have been more handsome than the princeps. Despite his easy life, being born into the purple of the Imperial Household, Commodus was the very model of athletic perfection—his body lithe and muscular, his golden hair in ringlets around his Olympian face. His physical strength was already renowned, drawing comparisons to the legendary hero Hercules.

  I threw another grape. He caught it in his hand and studied the little orb. “Oh, Apollo…” He knew my real identity, yes. We had been friends, more than friends, for almost a month at that point. “I get so weary of these campaigns. My father has been at war virtually his entire reign!”

  “Such a hard life for you.” I gestured at the opulence around us.

  “Yes, but it’s ridiculous. Tromping around Danubian forests, stamping out barbarian tribes that are really no threat to Rome. What’s the point of being emperor if you’re ne
ver in the capital having fun?”

  I nibbled on a piece of boar meat. “Why not talk to your father? Ask for a furlough?”

  Commodus snorted. “You know what he’ll do—give me another lecture on duty and morality. He is so virtuous, so perfect, so esteemed.”

  He put those words in air circles (since air quotes had not yet been invented). I could certainly sympathize with his feelings. Marcus Aurelius was the sternest, most powerful father in the world aside from my own father, Zeus. Both loved to lecture. Both loved to remind their offspring how lucky they were, how privileged, how far short they fell of their fathers’ expectations. And of course, both had gorgeous, talented, tragically underappreciated sons.

  Commodus squished his grape and watched the juice trickle down his fingers. “My father made me his junior co-emperor when I was fifteen, Apollo. It’s stifling. All duty, all the time. Then he married me off to that horrid girl Bruttia Crispina. Who names their child Bruttia?”

  I didn’t mean to laugh at the expense of his distant wife…but part of me was pleased when he talked badly about her. I wanted all his attention for myself.

  “Well, someday you’ll be the sole emperor,” I said. “Then you can make the rules.”

  “I’ll make peace with the barbarians,” he said immediately. “Then we’ll go home and celebrate with games. The best games, all the time. I’ll gather the most exotic animals in the world. I’ll fight them personally in the Colosseum—tigers, elephants, ostriches.”

  I laughed at that. “Ostriches? Have you ever even seen an ostrich?”

  “Oh, yes.” He got a wistful look in his eyes. “Amazing creatures. If you trained them to fight, perhaps designed some sort of armor for them, they would be incredible.”

  “You’re a handsome idiot.” I threw another grape, which bounced off his forehead.

  A brief flash of anger washed over his face. I knew my sweet Commodus could have an ugly temper. He was a little too fond of slaughter. But what did I care? I was a god. I could speak to him in ways no one else dared.

  The tent flap opened. A centurion stepped inside and saluted crisply, but his face was stricken, gleaming with sweat. “Princeps…” His voice quavered. “It’s your father. He…he is…”

  He never spoke the word dead, but it seemed to float into the tent all around us, sapping the heat from the air. The lyre player stopped on a major seventh chord.

  Commodus looked at me, panic in his eyes.

  “Go,” I said, as calmly as I could, forcing down my misgivings. “You will always have my blessings. You will do fine.”

  But I already suspected what would happen: the young man I knew and loved was about to be consumed by the emperor he would become.

  He rose and kissed me one last time. His breath smelled of grapes. Then he left the tent—walking, as the Romans would say, into the mouth of the wolf.

  “Apollo.” Calypso nudged my arm.

  “Don’t go!” I pleaded. Then my past life burned away.

  The sorceress was frowning at me. “What do you mean don’t go? Did you have another vision?”

  I scanned the dark kitchen of the snack bar. “I—I’m fine. What’s going on?”

  Calypso pointed to the freezer. “Look at the prices.”

  I swallowed down the bitter taste of grapes and boar meat. In the freezer, on the corner of each white butcher-paper package, a price was written in pencil. By far the most expensive: griffin taters, $15,000 per serving.

  “I’m not good at modern currency,” I admitted, “but isn’t that a bit pricey for a meal?”

  “I was going to ask you the same thing,” Calypso said. “I know the S symbol with the line through it means American dollars, but the amount…?” She shrugged.

  I found it unfair that I was adventuring with someone as clueless as I was. A modern demigod could have easily told us, and they also would have had useful twenty-first-century skills. Leo Valdez could repair machines. Percy Jackson could drive a car. I would even have settled for Meg McCaffrey and her garbage-bag-throwing prowess, though I knew what Meg would say about our present predicament: You guys are dumb.

  I pulled out a packet of griffin taters and unwrapped one corner. Inside, small frozen cubes of shredded potato gleamed with a golden metallic coating.

  “Are Tater Tots usually sprayed with precious metal?” I asked.

  Calypso picked one up. “I don’t think so. But griffins like gold. My father told me that ages ago.”

  I shuddered. I recalled her father, General Atlas, unleashing a flock of griffins on me during the Titans’ first war with the gods. Having your chariot swarmed by eagle-headed lions is not something you easily forget.

  “So we take these taters to feed the griffins,” I guessed. “With luck, this will help us win their trust.” I pulled the Arrow of Dodona from my quiver. “Is that what you had in mind, Most Frustrating of Arrows?”

  The arrow vibrated. VERILY, THOU ART DENSER THAN A COMBAT OSTRICH CUBE.

  “What did he say?” Calypso asked.

  “He said yes.”

  From the counter, Calypso grabbed a paper menu with a map of the zoo on it. She pointed to an orange loop circling the PLAINS area. “Here.”

  The loop was labeled TRAIN RIDE, the least creative name I could imagine. At the bottom, in a map key, was a more detailed explanation: TRAIN RIDE! A LOOK AT THE ZOO BEHIND THE ZOO!

  “Well,” I said, “at least they advertise the fact that they have a secret zoo behind the zoo. That was nice of them.”

  “I think it’s time to ride the choo-choo,” Calypso agreed.

  From the front of the café came a crashing sound, like a Germanus had tripped over a trash can.

  “Stop that!” barked Lityerses. “You, stay here and keep watch. If they show, capture them—don’t kill them. You, come with me. We need those griffins.”

  I counted silently to five, then whispered to Calypso, “Are they gone?”

  “Let me use my super vision to look through this wall and check,” she said. “Oh, wait.”

  “You are a terrible person.”

  She pointed to the map. “If Lityerses left one guard at the crossroads, it will be difficult to get out of here and reach the train without him seeing us.”

  “Well,” I said, “I suppose we could go back to the Waystation and tell Britomartis that we tried.”

  Calypso threw a frozen golden Tater Tot at me. “When you were a god, if some heroes had returned empty-handed from a quest and told you Oh, sorry, Apollo. We tried, would you be understanding?”

  “Certainly not! I would incinerate them! I would…Oh. I see your point.” I wrung my hands. “Then what do we do? I don’t feel like being incinerated. It hurts.”

  “Perhaps there’s a way.” Calypso traced her finger across the map to a section labeled MEERKAT, REPTILE & SNAKE, which sounded like the worst law firm ever.

  “I have an idea,” she said. “Bring your Tots and follow me.”

  Yeah, we got the skills

  Fake hexes and shooting feet

  Teach you ’bout pancakes

  I DID NOT WISH to follow Calypso, with or without my Tots.

  Sadly, my only other option was to hide in the café until the emperor’s men found me or the café manager arrived and impressed me into service as a short-order cook.

  Calypso led the way, darting from hiding place to hiding place like the urban ninja she was. I spotted the lone Germanus on sentry duty, about fifty feet across the plaza, but he was busy studying the carousel. He pointed his polearm warily at the painted horses as if they might be carnivorous.

  We made it to the far side of the crossroads without attracting his attention, but I was still nervous. For all we knew, Lityerses might have multiple groups sweeping the park. On a telephone pole near the souvenir shop, a security camera stared down at us. If the Triumvirate was as powerful as Nero claimed, they could easily control surveillance inside the Indianapolis Zoo. Perhaps that was why Lityerses was searching for us.
He already knew we were here.

  I thought about shooting the camera with an arrow, but it was probably too late. Cameras loved me. No doubt my face was all over the security office monitors.

  Calypso’s plan was to circumvent the orangutans and cut through the reptile display, skirting the park perimeter until we reached the train depot. Instead, as we passed the entrance to the ape habitat, voices of an approaching Germanus patrol startled us. We dove into the orangutan center for cover.

  All right…I got startled and dove for cover. Calypso hissed, “No, you idiot!” then followed me inside. Together we crouched behind a retaining wall as two Germani strolled past, chatting casually about head-bashing techniques.

  I glanced to my right and stifled a yelp. On the other side of a glass wall, a large orangutan was staring at me, his amber eyes curious. He made some hand gestures—sign language? Agamethus might have known. Judging from the great ape’s expression, he was not terribly delighted to see me. Alas, among the great apes, only humans are capable of proper awe for the gods. On the plus side for orangutans, they have amazing orange fur that no human could possibly rival.

  Calypso nudged my leg. “We need to keep moving.”

  We scurried deeper into the display room. Our simian movements must have amused the orangutan. He made a deep barking noise.

  “Shut up!” I stage-whispered back at him.

  At the far exit, we huddled behind a curtain of camouflage netting. I cradled my taters and tried to steady my breathing.

  Next to me, Calypso hummed under her breath—a nervous habit of hers. I wished she would stop. Whenever she hummed a tune I knew, I had the urge to sing harmony very loudly, which would have given away our position.

  At last, I whispered, “I think the coast is clear.”

  I stepped out and smacked straight into another Germanus. Honestly, how many barbarians did Commodus have? Was he buying them in bulk?

  For a moment, all three of us were too surprised to speak or move. Then the barbarian made a rumbling sound in his chest as if about to shout for backup.

  “Hold these!” I thrust my package of griffin food into his arms.

  Reflexively, he took them. After all, a man giving up his Tots is a gesture of surrender in many cultures. He frowned at the package as I stepped back, slung my bow off my shoulder, fired, and planted an arrow in his left foot.

  He howled, dropping the Tater Tots package. I scooped it up and ran, Calypso close behind me.

  “Nicely done,” she offered.

  “Except for the fact that he probably alerted—Veer left!”

  Another Germanus came barreling out of the reptile area. We scrambled around him and ran toward a sign that said SKYLINE.

  In the distance loomed an aerial tram—wires strung from tower to tower above the treetops, a single green gondola hanging about fifty feet in the air. I wondered if we could use the ride to reach the secret zoo area, or at least gain a height advantage, but the gondola house entrance was fenced off and padlocked.

  Before I could ask Calypso to work her hairpin hocus-pocus, the Germani cornered us. The one from the reptile area advanced, his polearm leveled at our chests. The one from the orangutan house came snarling and limping behind, my arrow still sticking out of his bloody leather boot.

  I nocked another arrow, but there was no way I could bring them both down before they killed us. I’d seen Germani take six or seven arrows to the heart and still keep fighting.

  Calypso muttered, “Apollo, when I curse you, pretend to faint.”

  “What?”

  She wheeled on me and shouted, “You have failed me for the last time, slave!”

 
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