The dark prophecy, p.18
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.18
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  Livia barreled down the center lane, heading for the purple race car. Commodus veered straight toward us, his grinning face reflected on every video monitor around the stadium. He looked delighted by the prospect of a head-on collision.

  Me, not so much. Commodus was hard to kill. My elephant and I were not, nor was I sure how much protection Livia’s chain mail would give her. I’d been hoping we might force Commodus off the road, but I should’ve known he would never back down in a game of chicken. Without a helmet, his hair flapped wildly around him, making his golden laurels look like they were on fire.

  Without a helmet…

  I pulled a scalpel from my bandolier. Leaning forward, I sawed through the chin strap off Livia’s football helmet. It snapped easily. Thank the gods for cheap plastic merchandise!

  “Livia,” I said. “Throw it!”

  The excellent elephant understood.

  Still charging full speed ahead, she curled her trunk around her face guard and flung the helmet like a gentleman tipping his hat…if that hat were allowed to hurtle forward as a deadly projectile.

  Commodus swerved. The giant white helmet bounced off his windshield, but the real damage had been done. Purple One vaulted onto the field at an impossibly steep angle, canted sideways, and flipped three times, bowling over a herd of ostriches and a couple of unlucky gladiators.

  “OHHHHHHH!” The crowd rose to its feet. The music stopped. The remaining gladiators backed toward the edge of the field, eyeing the overturned imperial race car.

  Smoke poured from the chassis. The wheels spun, sloughing off shavings of tread.

  I wanted to believe the crowd’s silence was a hopeful pause. Perhaps, like me, their fondest wish was that Commodus would not emerge from the wreckage, that he had been reduced to an imperial smear on the artificial turf at the forty-two-yard line.

  Alas, a steaming figure crawled from the wreckage. Commodus’s beard smoldered. His face and hands were black with soot. He rose, his smile undimmed, and stretched as if he’d just had a good nap.

  “Nice one, Apollo!” He grabbed the chassis of the ruined race car and lifted it over his head. “But it will take more than this to kill me!”

  He tossed the car aside, flattening an unfortunate Cyclops.

  The audience cheered and stomped.

  The emperor called, “CLEAR THE FIELD!”

  Immediately dozens of animal handlers, medics, and ball retrievers rushed onto the turf. The surviving gladiators sulked away, as if realizing no fight to the death could compete with what Commodus had just done.

  As the emperor ordered his servants around, I glanced toward the end zone. Somehow, Meg had climbed all the way to the top of the goalpost. She leaped toward Peaches and caught his legs, causing a great deal of screeching and cursing from the karpos. For a moment, they swung together from the chain. Then Meg climbed her friend’s body, summoned her sword, and slashed the chain. They dropped twenty feet, landing on the track in a heap. Happily, Peaches acted as a cushion for Meg. Given the soft, squishy nature of peach fruit, I imagined Meg would be fine.

  “Well!” Commodus strode toward me. He limped slightly on his right ankle, but if it caused him any serious pain, he gave no sign. “That was a good rehearsal! Tomorrow, more deaths—including yours, of course. We’ll tweak the combat phase. Perhaps add a few more race cars and basketballs? And, Livia, you naughty old elephant!” He wagged his finger at my pachyderm mount. “That’s the sort of energy I was looking for! If you’d showed that much enthusiasm in our previous games, I wouldn’t have had to kill Claudius.”

  Livia stomped and trumpeted. I stroked the side of her head, trying to calm her, but I could feel her intense anguish.

  “Claudius was your mate,” I guessed. “Commodus killed him.”

  The emperor shrugged. “I did warn her: play my games or else. But elephants are so stubborn! They’re big and strong and used to getting their way—rather like gods. Still”—he winked at me—“it’s amazing what a little punishment can accomplish.”

  Livia stamped her feet. I knew she wanted to charge, but after seeing Commodus toss a race car, I suspected he would have little trouble hurting Livia.

  “We will get him,” I murmured to her. “Just wait.”

  “Yes, until tomorrow!” Commodus agreed. “You’ll get another chance to do your worst. But for now—ah, here come my guards to escort you to your cell!”

  A squadron of Germani hustled onto the field with Lityerses in the lead.

  Across his face, the Cornhusker had an ugly new bruise that looked suspiciously like an ostrich’s footprint. That pleased me. He was also bleeding from several new cuts on his arms, and his pant legs were slashed to ribbons. The rips looked like grazes from small-game arrowheads, as if the Hunters had been toying with their target, doing their best to eliminate his trousers. This pleased me even more. I wished I could add a new arrow wound to Lityerses’s collection—preferably one right in the middle of his sternum—but my quiver was empty except for the Arrow of Dodona. I’d had enough drama for one day without adding bad Shakespearean dialogue.

  Lityerses bowed awkwardly. “My lord.”

  Commodus and I spoke in unison. “Yes?”

  I thought I looked much more lordly sitting atop my chain-mail elephant, but Lityerses just sneered at me.

  “My lord, Commodus,” he clarified, “the invaders have been pushed back from the main gates.”

  “About time,” the emperor muttered.

  “They were Hunters of Artemis, sire.”

  “I see.” Commodus didn’t sound particularly concerned. “Did you kill them all?”

  “We…” Lit gulped. “No, my lord. They sniped at us from multiple positions and fell back, leading us into a series of traps. We only lost ten men, but—”

  “You lost ten.” Commodus examined his soot-stained fingernails. “And how many of these Hunters did you kill?”

  Lit edged away. His neck veins pulsed. “I—I am not sure. We found no bodies.”

  “So you cannot confirm any kills.” Commodus glanced at me. “What would you advise, Apollo? Should I take time to reflect? Should I consider the consequences? Should I perhaps tell my prefect, Lityerses, not to worry? He will be fine? He will ALWAYS HAVE MY BLESSINGS?”

  This last line he screamed, his voice echoing through the stadium. Even the wild centaurs in the stands fell quiet.

  “No,” Commodus decided, his tone once again calm. “Alaric, where are you?”

  One of the Germani stepped forward. “Sire?”

  “Take Apollo and Meg McCaffrey into custody. See that they get nice cells for the night. Put the Throne of Mnemosyne back into storage. Kill the elephant and the karpos. What else? Oh, yes.” From the boot of his racing suit, Commodus pulled a hunting knife. “Hold Lityerses’s arms for me while I cut his throat. It’s time for a new prefect.”

  Before Alaric could carry out these orders, the stadium’s roof exploded.

  Destroy me a roof

  Bring me wenches with winches

  We’re so out of here

  WELL, I SAY EXPLODED. More accurately, the roof crumpled inward, as roofs tend to do when a bronze dragon smashes into them. Girders bent. Rivets popped. Sheets of corrugated metal groaned and folded with a sound like colliding aircraft carriers.

  Festus plummeted through the gap, his wings unfolding to slow his descent. He seemed no worse for wear from his time in suitcase form, but judging from the way he blowtorched the audience in the stands, I guessed he was feeling a bit cranky.

  Wild centaurs stampeded, trampling the mortal mercenaries and Germani. The blemmyae clapped politely, perhaps thinking the dragon was part of the show, until a wave of flames reduced them to dust. Festus flew his own fiery victory lap around the track, torching race cars, as a dozen silvery ropes uncoiled from the roof, lowering the Hunters of Artemis into the arena like a clutter of spiders.

  (I’ve always found spiders fascinating creatures, despite what Athena thinks. If you a
sk me, she’s just jealous of their beautiful faces. BOOM!)

  More Hunters remained on the roofline with their bows drawn, laying down suppressing fire as their sisters lowered themselves to the field. As soon as the rappellers hit the turf, they drew bows, swords, and knives and leaped into battle.

  Alaric, along with most of the emperor’s Germani, charged to meet them.

  At the goalpost, Meg McCaffrey worked frantically to cut Peaches free from his ropes. Two Hunters dropped next to her. They had a hurried conversation with lots of pointing, something along the lines of: Hello, we are your friends. You’re going to die. Come with us.

  Clearly agitated, Meg glanced across the field in my direction.

  I yelled, “GO!”

  Meg allowed the Hunters to grab her and Peaches. Then the Hunters slapped some sort of mechanisms on the sides of their belts and shot back up their ropes as if the laws of gravity were mere recommendations.

  Motorized winches, I thought, a very nice accessory. If I live through this, I’m going to recommend that the Hunters of Artemis make T-shirts that read WENCHES WITH WINCHES. I’m sure they’ll love that idea.

  The closest group of Hunters charged in my direction, meeting the Germani in battle. One of the Hunters looked familiar, with choppy black hair and dazzling blue eyes. Instead of the usual gray camo of Artemis’s followers, she wore jeans and a black leather jacket that was held together with safety pins and had patches for the Ramones and Dead Kennedys. A silver tiara glinted on her forehead. On one arm, she brandished a shield imprinted with the gruesome visage of Medusa—not the original, I suspected, since that would’ve turned me to stone, but a good enough replica to make even the Germani cower and back away.

  The girl’s name came to me: Thalia Grace. Artemis’s lieutenant, the leader of the Hunters, had personally come to rescue me.

  “Save Apollo!” she yelled.

  My spirits soared.

  Yes, thank you! I wanted to yell. FINALLY someone has their priorities straight!

  I felt, for a moment, as if the world were back in its proper order.

  Commodus sighed in exasperation. “I did not schedule this for my games.” He looked around, apparently just realizing he had only two guards and Lityerses left to command. The rest were already in combat. “Lityerses, get out there!” he snapped. “Slow them down while I go change. I can’t fight in a racing outfit. This is ridiculous!”

  Lit’s eye twitched. “Sire…you were about to relieve me of duty. By killing me?”

  “Oh, right. Well, then go sacrifice yourself! Prove you’re more useful than that idiot father of yours! Honestly, Midas had the golden touch, and he still couldn’t do anything right. You’re no better!”

  The skin around Lityerses’s ostrich bruise reddened, as if the bird were still standing on his face. “Sire, with respect—”

  Commodus’s hand shot out like a rattlesnake, clamping around the swordsman’s throat.

  “Respect?” the emperor hissed. “You talk to me of respect?”

  Arrows sailed toward the emperor’s remaining guards. Both Germani fell with lovely new silver-feathered nose piercings.

  A third missile hurtled toward Commodus. The emperor yanked Lityerses into its path and the arrow point erupted from the front of Lit’s thigh.

  The swordsman screamed.

  Commodus dropped him in disgust. “Do I have to kill you myself? Really?” He raised his knife.

  Something inside me, no doubt a character flaw, made me feel pity for the wounded Cornhusker.

  “Livia,” I said.

  The elephant understood. She trunk-smacked Commodus upside the head, knocking him flat on the turf. Lityerses fumbled for the hilt of his sword. Finding it, he jabbed the point into the emperor’s exposed neck.

  Commodus howled, clamping his hand over the wound. Judging from the amount of blood, I deduced that the cut, sadly, had missed his jugular.

  Commodus’s eyes blazed. “Oh, Lityerses, you traitor. I will kill you slowly for that!”

  But it was not meant to be.

  The closest Germani, seeing their emperor bleeding on the ground, ran to his aid. Livia scooped up Lityerses and backed us away as the barbarians closed ranks around Commodus, forming a shield wall, their bristling polearms pointed at us. The Germani looked ready to counterattack, but before they could, a line of flames rained down between our two groups. Festus the dragon landed next to Livia. The Germani hastily retreated while Commodus screamed, “Put me down! I need to kill those people!”

  Atop Festus, Leo saluted me like a fellow fighter pilot. “What’s up, Lesteropoulos? Jo got your emergency signal. She sent us back right away.”

  Thalia Grace jogged over with two of her Hunters. “We need to evacuate. We’ll be overrun in a few minutes.” She pointed to the end zone, where the survivors from Festus’s fiery victory lap were starting to form ranks: a hundred assorted centaurs, cynocephali, and demigods from the Imperial Household.

  I glanced to the sidelines. Leading into the lowest tier of seats was a ramp—possibly wide enough for an elephant. “I’m not leaving Livia behind. Take Lityerses. And take the Throne of Memory.” I unslung the chair, thankful again for its light weight, and tossed it across to Leo. “That throne has to get back to Georgie. I’ll ride Livia out one of the mortal exits.”

  The elephant dumped Lityerses onto the turf. The Cornhusker groaned and pressed his hands around the arrow in his leg.

  Leo frowned. “Uh, Apollo—”

  “I will not leave this noble elephant behind to be tortured!” I insisted.

  “No, I get that.” Leo pointed at Lit. “But why would we take this fool? He tried to kill me in Omaha. He threatened Calypso at the zoo. Can’t I just let Festus stomp him?”

  “No!” I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly about it. Commodus betraying this swordsman made me almost as angry as Nero manipulating Meg, or…well, yes, Zeus abandoning me in the mortal world for the third time. “He needs healing. He’ll behave himself, won’t you, Lit?”

  Lityerses grimaced in pain, blood soaking through his tattered jeans, but he managed a slight nod.

  Leo sighed. “Whatever, man. Festus, we’re taking this bleeding idiot with us, okay? But if he gets uppity en route, feel free to chuck him against the side of a skyscraper.”

  Festus creaked in agreement.

  “I’ll go with Apollo.” Thalia Grace climbed up behind me on the elephant—which fulfilled a daydream I’d once had about the pretty Hunter, though I hadn’t imagined it happening quite this way. She nodded at one of her comrades. “Iphigenia, get the rest of the Hunters out of here. Go!”

  Leo grinned and slung the Throne of Memory across his back. “See y’all back home. And don’t forget to pick up some salsa!”

  Festus flapped his metallic wings. The dragon grabbed Lityerses and launched himself skyward. The Hunters activated their winches. They ascended as the first wave of angry spectators arrived on the field, throwing spears and vuvuzelas that fell clattering back to earth.

  When the Hunters were gone, the crowd turned their attention to us.

  “Livia,” I said. “How fast can you run?”

  The answer: fast enough to evade an armed mob, especially with Thalia Grace on her back, shooting arrows and brandishing her shield of terror at anyone who got too close.

  Livia seemed to know the corridors and ramps of the stadium. They’d been designed for large crowds, which made them equally convenient for elephants. We made a few turns around the souvenir kiosks, barreled through a service tunnel, and finally emerged on a loading dock on South Missouri Street.

  I’d forgotten how wonderful sunlight felt! Crisp fresh air on a late winter day! Granted, it wasn’t as exhilarating as driving the sun chariot, but it was a darn sight better than the snake-infested sewers of Commode Palace.

  Livia lumbered down Missouri Street. She turned into the first blind alley she saw, then stomped and shook. I was pretty sure I understood her message: Take off this st
upid chain mail.

  I translated for Thalia, who shouldered her bow. “I don’t blame her. Poor elephant. Women warriors should travel light.”

  Livia lifted her trunk as if to say thank you.

  We spent the next ten minutes de-armoring the elephant.

  Once we were done, Livia gave Thalia and me a group hug with her trunk.

  My adrenaline rush was fading, leaving me feeling like a deflated inner tube. I sank down with my back against the brick wall and shivered in my damp clothes.

  Thalia produced a canteen from her belt. Instead of offering it to me first, as would have been proper, she poured some liquid into her cupped hand and let Livia drink. The elephant slurped down five handfuls, not much for a big animal, but she blinked and grunted in a satisfied way. Thalia took a sip herself, then handed the canteen to me.

  “Thanks,” I mumbled. I drank, and my vision cleared immediately. I felt as if I’d just had six hours of sleep and a good hot meal.

  I stared in amazement at the battered canteen. “What is this? Not nectar…”

  “No,” Thalia agreed. “It’s moonwater.”

  I’d dealt with the Hunters of Artemis for millennia, but I had never heard of moonwater. I recalled Josephine’s story about bootlegging in the 1920s. “Do you mean moonshine? As in liquor?”

  Thalia laughed. “No. It’s not alcoholic, but it is magic. Lady Artemis never told you about this stuff, eh? It’s like an energy drink for Hunters. Men rarely ever get a taste.”

  I poured a tiny bit into my palm. The stuff looked like regular water, though perhaps more silver, as if it had been blended with a trace amount of liquid mercury.

  I considered taking another sip, then decided it might make my brain vibrate to the point of liquefying. I passed back the canteen. “Have you…Have you talked to my sister?”

  Thalia’s expression turned serious. “In a dream, a few weeks ago. Lady Artemis said that Zeus has forbidden her from seeing you. She’s not even supposed to give us orders to help you.”

  I had suspected as much, but having my fears confirmed would have overwhelmed me with despair if not for the moonwater. Its energy burst kept me humming right along over the deeper emotions, like wheels skimming across the top of loose sand.

  “You’re not supposed to help me,” I said. “And yet you’re here. Why?”

  Thalia gave me a coy smile that would have made Britomartis proud. “We were just in the area. Nobody ordered us to help. We’ve been searching for a particular monster for months now and…” She hesitated. “Well, that’s another story. The point is, we were passing through. We helped you the way we’d help any demigod in danger.”

  She didn’t mention anything about Britomartis finding the Hunters and urging them to come here. I decided to play her little game of let’s-pretend-that-never-happened.

  “Can I guess another reason?” I asked. “I think you decided to help me because you like me.”

  The corner of Thalia’s mouth twitched. “What makes you say that?”

  “Oh, come now. The first time we met, you said I was hot. Don’t think I didn’t hear that comment.”

  I was gratified to see her face turn red.

  “I was younger then,” she said. “I was a different person. I’d just spent several years as a pine tree. My vision and reasoning were impaired from sap damage.”

  “Ouch,” I complained. “That’s harsh.”

  Thalia punched my arm. “You need an occasional dose of humility. Artemis says so all the time.”

  “My sister is a sneaky, deceptive—”

  “Watch it,” Thalia warned. “I am her lieutenant.”

  I crossed my arms in a petulant, Meg sort of way. “Artemis never told me about moonwater. She never told me about the Waystation. It makes me wonder how many other secrets she’s hiding.”

  “Maybe a few.” Thalia’s tone was carefully nonchalant. “But you’ve gotten to see more this week than most non-Hunters ever do. You should feel lucky.”

  I stared down the alley, thinking of that first New York alley I’d fallen into as Lester Papadopoulos. So much had changed since then, yet I was no closer to being a god. In fact, the memory of being a god seemed more distant than ever. “Yes,” I grumbled. “Very lucky.”

  “Come on.” Thalia offered me a hand. “Commodus won’t wait long before he launches a reprisal. Let’s get our elephant friend back to the Waystation.”

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