The dark prophecy, p.10
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.10
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  She made a series of hand gestures I recognized from ancient times—hexes and curses that no one had ever dared to make in my direction. I was tempted to slap her. Instead, I did as she asked: I gasped and collapsed.

  Through my half-lidded eyes, I watched Calypso turn on our enemies.

  “Now it is your turn, fools!” She began making the same rude gestures toward the Germani.

  The first one stopped. His face paled. He glanced at me lying on the ground, then turned and fled, barreling past his friend.

  The Germanus with the wounded foot hesitated. Judging from the hatred in his eyes, he wanted revenge for the missile weapon that had ruined his left boot.

  Calypso, undaunted, waved her arms and began to incant. Her tone made it sound as if she were raising the worst daimons from Tartarus, though her words, in ancient Phoenician, were actually a recipe for making pancakes.

  The wounded Germanus yelped and hobbled away, leaving a trail of smeared red prints behind him.

  Calypso offered me a hand and pulled me up. “Let’s move. I’ve only bought us a few seconds.”

  “How did you—Did your magic return?”

  “I wish,” she said. “I faked it. Half of magic is acting like it will work. The other half is picking a superstitious mark. They’ll be back. With reinforcements.”

  I’ll admit I was impressed. Her “hexing” had certainly unnerved me.

  I made a quick gesture to ward off evil, just in case Calypso was better than she realized. Then we ran together along the perimeter fence.

  At the next crossroads, Calypso said, “This way to the train.”

  “You’re sure?”

  She nodded. “I’m good at memorizing maps. Once, I made one of Ogygia; reproduced every square foot of that island. It was the only way I kept myself sane.”

  This sounded like a terrible way to keep oneself sane, but I let her lead the way. Behind us, more Germani were shouting, but they seemed to be heading toward the Skyline gates we’d just left. I allowed myself to hope that the train station might be clear.

  HA-HA-HA. It was not.

  On the tracks sat a miniature train—a bright green steam engine with a line of open passenger cars. Next to it on the station platform, under an ivy-covered canopy, Lityerses stood with his feet planted, his unsheathed sword resting over his shoulder like a hobo’s bindle. A battered leather cuirass was strapped over his Cornhuskers shirt. His dark curly hair hung in tendrils over his red bandana, making it look as if a large spider were crouched on his head, ready to spring.

  “Welcome.” The prefect’s smile might have seemed friendly, except for the crosshatching of scars on his face. He touched something on his ear—a Bluetooth device, perhaps. “They’re here at the station,” he announced. “Converge on me, but slow and calm. I’m fine. I want these two alive.”

  He shrugged at us apologetically. “My men can be overenthusiastic when it comes to killing. Especially after you’ve made them look like fools.”

  “It was our pleasure.” I doubt I pulled off the self-assured, swashbuckling tone I was going for. My voice cracked. Sweat beaded on my face. I held my bow sideways like an electric guitar, which was not proper shooting stance, and in my other hand, instead of an arrow that might have been useful, I held a package of frozen Tater Tots.

  It was probably just as well. In my dream, I’d seen how rapidly Lityerses could swing his sword. If I tried to fire on him, our heads would be rolling on the pavement before I drew back my bowstring.

  “You’re able to use a phone,” I noticed. “Or a walkie-talkie, or whatever that is. I hate it when the bad guys get to talk to each other and we can’t.”

  Lityerses’s laugh was like a file across metal. “Yes. The Triumvirate likes to have certain advantages.”

  “I don’t suppose you’d tell us how they manage it—blocking demigod communications?”

  “You won’t live long enough for that to matter. Now, drop your bow. As for your friend…” He sized up Calypso. “Keep your hands at your side. No sudden curses. I’d hate to chop off that pretty head of yours.”

  Calypso smiled sweetly. “I was just thinking the same thing about you. Drop your sword and I won’t destroy you.”

  She was a good actor. I made a mental note to recommend her to my Mount Olympus invitation-only summer camp, Method Acting with the Muses—if we got out of this alive.

  Lityerses chuckled. “That’s good. I like you. But in about sixty seconds, a dozen Germani are going to swarm this depot. They will not ask as politely as I did.” He took a step forward and swung his sword to his side.

  I tried to think of a brilliant plan. Unfortunately, the only thing that came to mind was weeping in terror. Then, above Lityerses, the ivy rustled on the canopy.

  The swordsman didn’t seem to notice. I wondered if orangutans were playing up there, or perhaps some Olympian gods had gathered for a picnic to watch me die. Or maybe…The thought was too much to wish for, but in the interest of buying time, I dropped my bow.

  “Apollo,” Calypso hissed. “What are you doing?”

  Lityerses answered for me. “He’s being smart. Now, where’s the third member of your little party?”

  I blinked. “It—it’s just the two of us.”

  Lityerses’s facial scars rippled, white lines on tan skin, like the ridges of a sand dune. “Come now. You flew into the city on a dragon. Three passengers. I very much want to see Leo Valdez again. We have unfinished business.”

  “You know Leo?” Despite the danger we were in, I felt a small sense of relief. Finally, some villain wanted to kill Leo more than he wanted to kill me. That was progress!

  Calypso didn’t seem so happy. She stepped toward the swordsman with her fists clenched. “What do you want with Leo?”

  Lityerses narrowed his eyes. “You’re not the same girl who was with him before. Her name was Piper. You wouldn’t happen to be Leo’s girlfriend?”

  Red blotches appeared on Calypso’s cheeks and neck.

  Lityerses brightened. “Oh, you are! That’s wonderful! I can use you to hurt him.”

  Calypso snarled. “You will not hurt him.”

  Above Lityerses, the canopy roof shook again, as if a thousand rats were scurrying through the rafters. The vines seemed to be growing, the foliage turning thicker and darker.

  “Calypso,” I said, “step back.”

  “Why should I?” she demanded. “This Cornhusker just threatened—”

  “Calypso!” I grabbed her wrist and yanked her from the shadow of the canopy just as it collapsed on top of Lityerses. The swordsman disappeared under hundreds of pounds of shingles, lumber, and ivy.

  I surveyed the mass of quivering vines. I saw no orangutans, no gods, no one who might have been responsible for the collapse.

  “She must be here,” I muttered.

  “Who?” Calypso stared at me with wide eyes. “What just happened?”

  I wanted to hope. I was afraid to hope. Whatever the case, we couldn’t stay. Lityerses was shouting and struggling under the wreckage, which meant he wasn’t dead. His Germani would be here any second.

  “Let’s get out of here.” I pointed to the green locomotive. “I’m driving.”

  Drivin’ the green train

  I’m all like, Choo-choo! Choo-choo!

  Can’t catch me!—Oh, poop!

  A SLOW-MOTION GETAWAY was not what I had in mind.

  We both jumped onto the conductor’s bench, which was barely wide enough for one, and jostled for space while punching pedals and turning random levers.

  “I told you, I’ll drive!” I yelled. “If I can drive the sun, I can drive this!”

  “This isn’t the sun!” Calypso elbowed me in the ribs. “It’s a model train.”

  I found the ignition switch. The train lurched into motion. (Calypso will claim she found the ignition switch. This is a blatant lie.) I pushed Calypso off the bench and onto the ground. Since the train was only going half a mile an hour, she simply stood up,
brushed off her skirt, and walked alongside me, glaring.

  “That’s top speed?” she demanded. “Push some more levers!”

  Behind us, from somewhere under the wreckage of the canopy, came a mighty “BLARG!” Ivy shivered as Lityerses tried to bust his way out.

  A half dozen Germani appeared at the far end of the platform. (Commodus was definitely buying his barbarians by the imperial family-size pack.) The bodyguards stared at the screaming mass of roof wreckage, then at us choo-chooing away. Rather than give chase, they began clearing the beams and vines to free their boss. Given the progress we were making, they probably assumed they’d have plenty of time to come after us.

  Calypso hopped onto the running board. She pointed to the controls. “Try the blue pedal.”

  “The blue pedal is never the right one!”

  She kicked it with her foot. We shot forward at three times our previous speed, which meant our enemies would now have to jog at a moderate pace to catch us.

  The track curved as we continued to accelerate, our wheels squealing against the outer rail. The station disappeared behind a line of trees. On our left, the terrain opened up, revealing the majestic butts of African elephants who were picking through a pile of hay. Their zookeeper frowned as we trundled past. “Hey!” he yelled. “Hey!”

  I waved. “Morning!”

  Then we were gone. The cars shook dangerously as we picked up steam. My teeth clattered. My bladder sloshed. Up ahead, almost hidden behind a screen of bamboo, a fork in the track was marked by a sign in Latin: BONUM EFFERCIO.

  “There!” I yelled. “The Good Stuff! We need to turn left!”

  Calypso squinted at the console. “How?”

  “There should be a switch,” I said. “Something that operates the turnout.”

  Then I saw it—not on our console, but ahead of us on the side of the tracks—an old-fashioned hand lever. There was no time to stop the train, no time to run ahead and turn the switch by hand.

  “Calypso, hold this!” I tossed her the Tots and unslung my bow. I nocked an arrow.

  Once, such a shot would’ve been child’s play for me. Now it was nearly impossible: shooting from a moving train, aiming for a point where the focused impact of an arrow would have the maximum chance of triggering the switch.

  I thought of my daughter Kayla back at Camp Half-Blood. I imagined her calm voice as she coached me through the frustrations of mortal archery. I remembered the other campers’ encouragement the day on the beach when I’d made a shot that brought down the Colossus of Nero.

  I fired. The arrow slammed into the lever and forced it backward. The point blades shifted. We lurched onto the spur line.

  “Down!” Calypso yelled.

  We crashed through bamboo and careened into a tunnel just wide enough for the train. Unfortunately, we were going much too fast. The choo-choo tilted sideways, throwing sparks off the wall. By the time we shot out the other side of the tunnel, we were completely off-balance.

  The train groaned and tilted—a sensation I knew well from those times the sun chariot had to veer to avoid a launching space shuttle or a Chinese celestial dragon. (Those things are annoying.)

  “Out!” I tackled Calypso—yes, again—and leaped from the right side of the train as the line of cars spilled to the left, toppling off the tracks with a sound like a bronze-clad army being crushed by a giant fist. (I may have crushed a few armies that way back in the old days.)

  The next thing I knew I was on all fours, my ear pressed against the ground as if listening for a herd of buffalo, though I had no idea why.

  “Apollo.” Calypso tugged at the sleeve of my coat. “Get up.”

  My throbbing head felt several times larger than usual, but I didn’t seem to have broken any bones. Calypso’s hair had come loose around her shoulders. Her silver parka was dusted with sand and bits of gravel. Otherwise she looked intact. Perhaps our formerly divine constitutions had saved us from damage. Either that or we were just lucky.

  We had crashed in the middle of a circular arena. The train lay curled sideways across the gravel like a dead caterpillar, a few feet shy of where the tracks ended. The perimeter was ringed with animal enclosures—Plexiglas walls framed in stone. Above that rose three tiers of stadium seating. Over the top of the amphitheater stretched a canopy of camouflage netting like I’d seen at the orangutan habitat—though here I suspected the netting was meant to keep winged monsters from flying away.

  Around the arena floor, chains with empty manacles were fastened to spikes in the ground. Near these stood racks of sinister-looking tools: cattle prods, noose poles, whips, harpoons.

  A cold lump formed in my throat. I would’ve thought I’d swallowed a griffin tater, except the packet was still miraculously intact in Calypso’s arms. “This is a training facility,” I said. “I’ve seen places like it before. These animals are being readied for the games.”

  “Readied?” Calypso scowled at the weapon racks. “How, exactly?”

  “They’re enraged,” I said. “Baited. Starved. Trained to kill anything that moves.”

  “Savagery.” Calypso turned to the nearest pen. “What have they done to those poor ostriches?”

  Through the Plexiglas, four of the birds stared at us, their heads jerking sideways in a series of fits. They were strange-looking animals to begin with, but these had been outfitted with rows of iron-studded collars along their necks, spiked war helmets in the Kaiser Wilhelm style, and razor wire wreathed like Christmas lights around their legs. The nearest bird snapped at me, revealing jagged steel teeth that had been fitted inside his beak.

  “The emperor’s combat ostriches.” I felt like a roof was collapsing inside my chest. The plight of these animals depressed me…but so did thinking about Commodus. The games he had engaged in as a young emperor were disagreeable to start with, and they had transformed into something much worse. “He used to enjoy using them for target practice. With a single arrow, he could decapitate a bird running at a full gallop. Once that wasn’t entertaining enough…” I gestured at the enhanced war birds.

  Calypso’s face turned jaundice yellow. “All these animals will be killed?”

  I was too dispirited to answer. I had flashbacks to the Flavian Amphitheater during Commodus’s rule—the glistening red sand of the stadium floor littered with the carcasses of thousands of exotic animals, all butchered for sport and spectacle.

  We moved to the next enclosure. A large red bull paced restlessly, his horns and hooves gleaming bronze.

  “That’s an Aethiopian Bull,” I said. “Their hides are impervious to all metal weapons—like the Nemean Lion, except, ah…much larger, and red.”

  Calypso drifted past several more cells—some Arabian winged serpents, a horse that I judged to be of the carnivorous, fire-breathing variety. (I once thought about using those for my sun chariot, but they were so high maintenance.)

  The sorceress froze at the next window. “Apollo, over here.”

  Behind the glass were two griffins.

  Emmie and Josephine had been correct. They were magnificent specimens.

  Over the centuries, with their natural habitats shrinking, wild griffins had become scrawny creatures, smaller and scrappier than in ancient times. (Much like the endangered three-eyed stoat or the giant gassy badger.) Few griffins had ever been large enough to support the weight of a human rider.

  The male and female in front of us, however, truly were the size of lions. Their light brown fur gleamed like copper chain mail. Their russet wings folded regally across their backs. Their aquiline heads bristled with gold and white plumage. In the old days, a Grecian king would have paid a trireme full of rubies for a breeding pair like this.

  Thankfully, I saw no sign that the animals had been abused. However, both were chained by their back legs. Griffins get very cantankerous when they’re imprisoned or restrained in any way. As soon as the male, Abelard, saw us, he snapped and squawked, flapping his wings. He dug his claws in the sand and strained
against his shackle, trying to reach us.

  The female backed into the shadows, making a low gurgling noise like the growl of a threatened dog. She swayed from side to side, her belly low to the ground as if…

  “Oh, no.” I feared my weak mortal heart would burst. “No wonder Britomartis wanted these two back so badly.”

  Calypso seemed entranced by the animals. With some difficulty, she refocused on me. “What do you mean?”

  “The female is with egg. She needs to nest immediately. If we don’t get her back to the Waystation…”

  Calypso’s expression turned as sharp and steely as ostrich teeth. “Will Heloise be able to fly out of here?”

  “I—I think so. My sister is more the expert on wild animals, but yes.”

  “Can a pregnant griffin carry a rider?”

  “We don’t have much choice except to try.” I pointed at the netting above the arena. “That’s the quickest way out, assuming we can unlock the griffins and remove the net. The problem is, Heloise and Abelard are not going to see us as friends. They’re chained. They’re caged. They’re expecting a baby. They’ll tear us apart if we get close.”

  Calypso crossed her arms. “What about music? Most animals like music.”

  I recalled the way I had used a song to mesmerize the myrmekes back at Camp Half-Blood. But I really didn’t feel like singing about all my failures again, especially not in front of my companion.

  I glanced back at the train tunnel. Still no sign of Lityerses or his men, but that didn’t make me feel better. They should have been here by now….

  “We need to hurry,” I said.

  The first problem was the easiest: the Plexiglas wall. I reasoned there must be a switch somewhere for lowering the partitions to release the various animals. I climbed into the spectator tiers with the help of a stepladder named Calypso, and found just such a control panel next to the arena’s only padded seat—clearly for the emperor himself when he wanted to check on his killer beasts in training.

  Each lever was conveniently labeled with masking tape and marker. One said GRIFFINS.

  I called down to Calypso, “Are you ready?”

  She stood directly in front of the griffin enclosure, hands out as if preparing to catch a projectile egg. “What would constitute ready in a situation like this?”

  I flipped the switch. With a heavy ka-chunk, the griffins’ Plexiglas screen dropped away, disappearing into a slot across the threshold.

  I rejoined Calypso, who was humming some sort of lullaby. The two griffins were not impressed. Heloise growled loudly, pressing herself against the back wall of the enclosure. Abelard pulled at his chain twice as hard, trying to reach us and bite off our faces.

  Calypso handed me the packet of Tots. She pointed with her chin into the enclosure.

  “You must be kidding,” I said. “If I get close enough to feed them, they’ll eat me.”

  She stopped her song. “Aren’t you the god of ranged weapons? Throw the Tots!”

  I raised my eyes toward the netted-off heavens—which, by the way, I considered a rude and completely unnecessary metaphor for my exile from Olympus. “Calypso, do you know nothing about these animals? To gain their trust, you must hand-feed them, putting your fingers inside the beak. This emphasizes that the food comes from you, as the mother bird.”

  “Huh.” Calypso bit her lower lip. “I see the problem. You would make a terrible mother bird.”

  Abelard lunged and squawked at me. Everyone was a critic.

  Calypso nodded as if she’d come to a decision. “It’s going to take both of us. We’ll sing a duet. You have a decent voice.”

  “I have a…” My mouth was paralyzed from shock. Telling me, the god of music, that I had a decent voice was like telling Shaquille O’Neal he played decent offense, or telling Annie Oakley she was a decent shot.

  Then again, I was not Apollo. I was Lester Papadopoulos. Back at camp, despairing of my puny mortal abilities, I had sworn an oath on the River Styx not to use archery or music until I was once again a god. I had promptly broken that oath by singing to the myrmekes—for a good cause, mind you. Ever since, I had lived in terror, wondering when and how the spirit of the Styx would punish me. Perhaps, instead of a grand moment of retribution, it would be a slow death by a thousand insults. How often could a music god hear that he had a decent voice before he crumbled into a self-loathing pile of dust?

  “Fine.” I sighed. “Which duet should we sing? ‘Islands in the Stream’?”

  “Don’t know it.”

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