The dark prophecy, p.19
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.19

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  Belching stinky smoke

  What gene pool did you come from?

  Wait. What? (Insert scream)

  AS IT TURNED OUT, getting an elephant into the Waystation was not as hard as I’d imagined.

  I’d had visions of trying to cram Livia up a ladder chute, or renting a helicopter to drop her through the roof hatch into the griffin nests. But as soon as we arrived at the side of the building, bricks rumbled and rearranged themselves, creating a wide archway and a gentle downward ramp.

  Livia tromped inside without hesitation. At the bottom of the corridor, we found a perfect elephant stable with high ceilings, ample stacks of hay, slatted windows to let in the sunlight, a stream wending through the middle of the room, and a big-screen television turned to Hephaestus-TV’s Elephant Channel, showing The Real Elephants of the African Veld. (I did not know Hephaestus-TV had such a channel. It must have been included in the premium bundle, which I didn’t subscribe to.) Best of all, there was not a gladiator or a set of elephant armor in sight.

  Livia huffed in approval.

  “I’m glad you like it, my friend.” I dismounted, followed by Thalia. “Now enjoy yourself while we go find our hosts.”

  Livia waded into the stream and rolled onto her side, giving herself a trunk shower. She looked so content I was tempted to join her, but I had less pleasant matters to attend to.

  “Come on,” Thalia said. “I know the way.”

  I didn’t see how. The Waystation shifted and changed so much, it shouldn’t have been possible for anyone to learn their way around. But true to her word, Thalia led me up several flights of stairs, through a gymnasium I’d never seen, and back to the main hall, where a crowd had gathered.

  Josephine and Emmie knelt by the sofa where Georgina lay shaking, crying, and giggling. Emmie tried to get the little girl to drink some water. Jo dabbed Georgie’s face with a washcloth. Next to them stood the Throne of Mnemosyne, but I couldn’t tell whether they had tried to use it yet. Certainly, Georgie appeared no better.

  Over at Josephine’s workstation, Leo was inside Festus’s chest cavity, using a welding torch. The dragon had curled up as tightly as possible, but he still took up a third of the room. The side of his rib cage was propped open like the hood of a Mack truck. Leo’s legs stuck out, sparks showering the floor around him. Festus didn’t seem concerned by this invasive surgery. Deep in his throat, he made a low, clattering purr.

  Calypso looked fully recovered from yesterday’s jaunt to the zoo. She dashed around the room, bringing food, drink, and medical supplies to the rescued prisoners. Some of the folks we’d freed made themselves right at home, helping themselves to the pantry, rummaging through cabinets with such familiarity I suspected they’d been longtime residents at the Waystation before being captured.

  The two emaciated boys sat at the dining table, trying to pace themselves as they chewed pieces of fresh bread. Hunter Kowalski, the silver-haired girl, stood in a tight circle with the other Hunters of Artemis as they muttered together and cast suspicious glances at Lityerses. The Cornhusker sat in a recliner in the corner, facing the wall, his wounded leg now properly bandaged.

  Sssssarah the dracaena had discovered the kitchen. She stood at the counter, holding a basket of fresh henhouse eggs, swallowing each whole, one after the other.

  Tall, Dark & Jimmy was up in the griffin roost, making friends with Heloise and Abelard. The griffins allowed him to scratch under their beaks—a sign of great trust, especially since they were guarding an egg in their nest (and no doubt worried that Sssssarah might see it). Sadly, Jimmy had put on clothes. He now wore a caramel-brown business suit with an open-collared dress shirt. I didn’t know where he’d found such a nice outfit to fit his massive frame. Perhaps the Waystation supplied clothing as easily as it supplied elephant habitats.

  The rest of the freed prisoners milled around, nibbling on bread and cheese, staring in awe at the stained-glass ceiling and occasionally flinching at loud noises, which was completely normal for those suffering from Post-Commodus Stress Disorder. Headless Agamethus floated among the newcomers, offering them his Magic 8 Ball, which I suppose was his idea of schmoozing.

  Meg McCaffrey had changed into a different green dress and jeans, which completely threw off her usual stoplight color scheme. She walked over to me, punched me in the arm, then stood next to me as if we were waiting for a bus.

  “Why did you hit me?” I asked.

  “Saying hello.”

  “Ah…Meg, this is Thalia Grace.”

  I wondered if Meg would hit her hello as well, but Meg simply reached across and shook Thalia’s hand. “Hi.”

  Thalia smiled. “A pleasure, Meg. I’ve heard you’re quite a swordswoman.”

  Meg squinted through her grimy glasses. “Where’d you hear that?”

  “Lady Artemis has been watching you. She keeps an eye on all promising young women warriors.”

  “Oh, no,” I said. “You can tell my beloved sister to back off. Meg is my demigod companion.”

  “Master,” Meg corrected.

  “Same difference.”

  Thalia laughed. “Well, if you two will excuse me, I’d better go check on my Hunters before they kill Lityerses.” The lieutenant marched off.

  “Speaking of that…” Meg pointed toward the wounded son of Midas. “Why’d you bring him here?”

  The Cornhusker hadn’t moved. He stared at the wall, facing away from the crowd as if intentionally inviting a knife in the back. Even from across the room, waves of hopelessness and defeat seemed to radiate from him.

  “You said it yourself,” I told Meg. “Everything living deserves a chance to grow.”

  “Hmph. Chia seeds don’t work for evil emperors. They don’t try to kill your friends.”

  I realized Peaches was nowhere to be seen. “Is your karpos all right?”

  “He’s okay. Went away for a while…” She waved vaguely at the air, indicating that magical land where peach spirits go when they are not devouring their enemies or screaming PEACHES! “You actually trust Lit?”

  Meg’s tone was harsh, but her lower lip trembled. She lifted her chin as if preparing for a punch—the same way Lityerses had looked when the emperor betrayed him, the same way the goddess Demeter had looked, ages ago, standing in front of Zeus’s throne, her voice full of pain and disbelief: Will you actually let Hades get away with kidnapping my daughter Persephone?

  Meg was asking if we could trust Lityerses. But her real question was much larger: Could she trust anyone? Was there anyone in the world—family, friend, or Lester—who would ever truly have her back?

  “Dear Meg,” I said. “I can’t be sure about Lityerses. But I think we must try. We only fail when we stop trying.”

  She studied a callus on her index finger. “Even after somebody tries to kill us?”

  I shrugged. “If I gave up on everyone who has tried to kill me, I would have no allies left on the Olympian Council.”

  She pouted. “Families are dumb.”

  “On that,” I said, “we can fully agree.”

  Josephine glanced over and saw me. “He’s here!”

  She hustled over, grabbed my wrist, and hauled me toward the couch. “We’ve been waiting! What took you so long? We have to use the chair!”

  I bit back a retort.

  It might have been nice to hear, Thank you, Apollo, for freeing all these prisoners! Thank you for returning our daughter! She could at least have decorated the main hall with a few APOLLO IS THE GREATEST banners, or offered to remove the uncomfortable iron manacle on my ankle.

  “You didn’t have to wait for me,” I complained.

  “Yes, we did,” Josephine said. “Every time we tried to put Georgie in the throne, she flailed around and shrieked your name.”

  Georgie’s head lolled toward me. “Apollo! Death, death, death.”

  I winced. “I really wish she’d stop making that connection.”

  Emmie and Josephine lifted her gently and set her on th
e Throne of Mnemosyne. This time, Georgie did not resist.

  Curious Hunters and freed prisoners gathered around, though I noticed Meg stayed in the back of the room, well away from Georgina.

  “The notepad on the counter!” Emmie pointed toward the kitchen. “Someone grab it, please!”

  Calypso did the honors. She hurried back with a small yellow legal pad and a pen.

  Georgina swayed. Suddenly all her muscles seemed to melt. She would have slumped out of the chair if her parents hadn’t held her.

  Then she sat bolt upright. She gasped. Her eyes flew open, her pupils as wide as quarters. Black smoke belched from her mouth. The rancid smell, like boiling roof tar and rotten eggs, forced everyone back except for the dracaena, Sssssarah, who sniffed the air hungrily.

  Georgina tilted her head. Smoke curled through the choppy brown tufts of her hair as if she were an automaton, or a blemmyae with a malfunctioning fake noggin.

  “Father!” Her voice pierced my heart—so sharp and painful, I thought my bandolier of scalpels had turned inward. It was the same voice, the same cry I had heard thousands of years ago, when Trophonius had prayed in agony, pleading for me to save Agamethus from the collapsed thieves’ tunnel.

  Georgina’s mouth contorted into a cruel smile. “So have you finally heard my prayer?”

  Her voice was still that of Trophonius. Everyone in the room looked at me. Even Agamethus, who had no eyes, seemed to fix me with a withering glare.

  Emmie tried to touch Georgina’s shoulder. She recoiled as if the little girl’s skin were molten hot. “Apollo, what is this?” she demanded. “This isn’t prophecy. This has never happened before—”

  “You sent this little sister of mine to do your errands?” Georgina tapped her own chest, her eyes wide and dark, still focused on me. “You’re no better than the emperor.”

  I felt as if a chain-mail elephant were standing on my chest. This little sister? If he meant that literally, then…

  “Trophonius.” I could barely speak. “I—I didn’t send Georgina. She isn’t my—”

  “Tomorrow morning,” Trophonius said. “The cave will only be accessible at first light. Your prophecy will unfold—or the emperor’s. Either way, there will be no hiding in your little haven. Come in person. Bring the girl, your master. You will both enter my sacred cavern.”

  A horrible laugh escaped Georgina’s mouth. “Perhaps both of you will survive. Or will you suffer the same fate as my brother and I? I wonder, Father, to whom will you pray?”

  With one final belch of blackness, Georgina toppled sideways. Josephine scooped her up before she could hit the floor.

  Emmie rushed to help. Together they placed Georgie gently on the couch again, tucking her in with blankets and pillows.

  Calypso turned to me. The empty notepad dangled from her hand. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” she said, “but that was no prophecy. That was a message to you.”

  The collective gaze of the crowd made my face itch. It was the same feeling I used to have when an entire Greek village looked to the heavens and called my name, pleading for rain, and I was too embarrassed to explain that rain was actually Zeus’s department. The best I could offer them was a catchy new song.

  “You’re right,” I said, though it pained me to agree with the sorceress. “Trophonius did not give the girl a prophecy. He gave her a—a recorded greeting.”

  Emmie stepped toward me, her fists clenched. “Will she be healed? When a prophecy’s expelled on the Throne of Memory, the supplicant usually returns to normal within a few days. Will Georgie—” Her voice broke. “Will she come back to us?”

  I wanted to say yes. Back in the old days, the recovery rate for supplicants of Trophonius had been around 75 percent. And that was when the petitioners were properly prepared by the priests, the rituals all done correctly, and the prophecy interpreted on the throne immediately after visiting the cave of terrors. Georgina had sought out the cave on her own with little or no preparation. She’d been trapped with that madness and darkness for weeks.

  “I—I don’t know,” I admitted. “We can hope—”

  “We can hope?” Emmie demanded.

  Josephine took her hand. “Georgie will get better. Have faith. That’s better than hope.”

  But her eyes stayed on me a little too long—accusing, questioning. I prayed she would not fetch her submachine gun.

  “Ahem,” Leo said. His face was lost in the shadow of his raised welding visor, his grin fading in and out of sight à la the Cheshire Cat. “Uh…the thing about little sister? If Georgie is Trophonius’s sister, does that mean…?” He pointed at me.

  Never before had I wished I were a blemmyae. Now, I wanted to hide my face inside my shirt. I wanted to pull off my head and throw it across the room. “I don’t know!”

  “It would explain a lot,” Calypso ventured. “Why Georgina felt so attuned to the Oracle, why she was able to survive the experience. If you…I mean…not Lester, but Apollo is her parent—”

  “She has parents.” Josephine put her arm around Emmie’s waist. “We’re standing right here.”

  Calypso raised her hands in apology. “Of course. I just meant—”

  “Seven years,” Emmie interrupted, stroking her daughter’s forehead. “Seven years we’ve raised her. It never mattered where she came from, or who her biological parents might have been. When Agamethus brought her…we checked the news. We checked the police reports. We sent Iris-messages to all our contacts. No one had reported a missing baby girl like her. Her birth parents either didn’t want her, or couldn’t raise her….” She glared at me. “Or maybe they didn’t even know she existed.”

  I tried to remember. Honestly, I did. But if the god Apollo had enjoyed a brief romance with some Midwesterner eight years ago, I had no recollection of it. I was reminded of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had also come to my attention when he was seven years old. Everyone said, Oh, surely he is the son of Apollo! The other gods looked at me for confirmation, and I wanted so badly to say, Yes, that boy’s genius was all me! But I simply could not remember ever having met Wolfgang’s mother. Or, for that matter, his father.

  “Georgina has excellent parents,” I said. “Whether she is a child of—of Apollo…I’m sorry, I can’t say for sure.”

  “You can’t say,” Josephine echoed flatly.

  “B-but I do think she will heal. Her mind is strong. She risked her life and her sanity to bring us that message. The best we can do now is follow the Oracle’s instructions.”

  Josephine and Emmie exchanged looks that said, He’s a scoundrel, but we have too much going on right now. We’ll kill him later.

  Meg McCaffrey crossed her arms. Even she seemed to sense the wisdom of changing the subject. “So we go at first light?”

  Josephine focused on her with difficulty, as if wondering where Meg had suddenly appeared from. (I had this thought often.) “Yes, hon. That’s the only time you can enter the Cavern of Prophecy.”

  I sighed inwardly. First it had been the zoo at first light. Then the Canal Walk at first light. Now the caverns. I really wished dangerous quests could start at a more reasonable time, like perhaps three in the afternoon.

  An uneasy silence settled over the room. Georgina breathed raggedly in her sleep. Up in the roost, the griffins ruffled their feathers. Jimmy cracked his knuckles pensively.

  Finally, Thalia Grace stepped forward. “What about the rest of the message: ‘Your prophecy will unfold—or the emperor’s. No hiding in your little haven’?”

  “I’m not sure,” I admitted.

  Leo raised his arms. “All hail the god of prophecy!”

  “Oh, shut up,” I grumbled. “I don’t have enough information yet. If we survive the caverns—”

  “I can interpret those lines,” Lityerses said from his chair in the corner.

  The son of Midas turned to face the crowd, his cheeks a patchwork of scars and bruises, his eyes empty and desolate. “Thanks to the tracking devices I put on your gr
iffins, Commodus knows where you are. He’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning. And he’ll wipe this place off the map.”

  Carrot-peeling god

  Tofu stir-fry is good, but

  Needs more ìgboyà

  LITYERSES HAD A TALENT for making friends.

  Half the crowd surged forward to kill him. The other half shouted that they, too, wanted to kill him and the first half should get out of their way.

  “You villain!” Hunter Kowalski yanked Lityerses from his chair and shoved him against the wall. She pressed a borrowed screwdriver against his throat.

  “Ssssstand assssside!” Sssssarah yelled. “I will ssssswallow him whole!”

  “I should’ve thrown him against the side of the building,” Leo growled.

  “STOP!” Josephine waded through the mob. Not surprisingly, folks moved aside. She pulled Hunter Kowalski off her prey, then glared at Lityerses as if he were a chariot with a busted axle. “You put trackers on our griffins?”

  Lit rubbed his neck. “Yes. And the plan worked.”

  “You’re sure Commodus knows our location?”

  Normally, I avoided attracting the attention of an angry mob, but I felt compelled to speak.

  “He’s telling the truth,” I said. “We heard Lityerses talking to Commodus in the throne room. Leo was supposed to tell you about that.”

  “Me?” Leo protested. “Hey, things were chaotic! I thought you—” His welding visor fell shut, making the rest of his sentence unintelligible.

  Lityerses spread his arms, which were so scarred they looked like testing logs for hacksaw blades. “Kill me if you want. It’ll make no difference. Commodus will level this place and everyone in it.”

  Thalia Grace drew her hunting knife. Instead of gutting the swordsman, she drove the blade into the nearest coffee table. “The Hunters of Artemis won’t allow that. We’ve fought too many impossible battles. We’ve lost too many of our sisters, but we’ve never backed down. Last summer, in the Battle of Old San Juan…” She hesitated.

  It was difficult to imagine Thalia at the edge of tears, but she seemed to be struggling to maintain her punk rock facade. I remembered something Artemis had told me when we were in exile together on Delos…how her Hunters and the Amazons had fought the giant Orion in Puerto Rico. An Amazon base had been destroyed. Many had died—Hunters who, if not cut down in battle, might have continued to live for millennia. As Lester Papadopoulos, I found that idea freshly horrifying.

  “We will not lose the Waystation too,” Thalia continued. “We’ll stand with Josephine and Emmie. We kicked Commodus’s podex today. We’ll do it again tomorrow.”

  The Hunters cheered. I may have cheered also. I always love it when courageous heroes volunteer to fight battles I don’t want to fight.

  Lityerses shook his head. “What you saw today was only a fraction of Commodus’s full strength. He’s got…vast resources.”

  Josephine grunted. “Our friends gave him a bloody nose today, at least. Maybe he won’t attack tomorrow. He’ll need time to regroup.”

  Lit let out a broken laugh. “You don’t know Commodus like I do. You just made him mad. He won’t wait. He never waits. First thing tomorrow, he’ll strike hard. He’ll kill us all.”

  I wanted to disagree. I wanted to think that the emperor would drag his feet, then decide to leave us alone because we’d been so entertaining at the dress rehearsal, then possibly send us a box of chocolates by way of apology.

  But I did know Commodus. I remembered the Flavian Amphitheater floor littered with corpses. I remembered the execution lists. I remembered him snarling at me, his lips flecked with blood: You sound like my father. I’m done thinking about consequences!

  “Lityerses is right,” I said. “Commodus received a prophecy from the Dark Oracle. He needs to destroy this place and kill me before he can have his naming ceremony tomorrow afternoon. Which means he’ll strike in the morning. He’s not a fan of waiting for what he wants.”

  “We could ssssslither away,” suggested Sssssarah. “Move. Hide. Live to fight another day.”

  At the back of the crowd, the ghost Agamethus pointed empathically to the dracaena, obviously agreeing with her idea. You have to wonder about your chances in combat when even your dead friends are worried about dying.

  Josephine shook her head. “I’m not slithering anywhere. This is our home.”

  Calypso nodded. “And if Emmie and Jo are staying put, so are we. They saved our lives. We’ll fight to the death for them. Right, Leo?”

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