The dark prophecy, p.20
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.20

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  Leo raised his visor. “Absolutely. Though I’ve already done the whole dying thing, so I’d prefer to fight to someone else’s death. For instance, Commode Man’s—”

  “Leo,” Calypso warned.

  “Yeah, we’re in. They’ll never get past us.”

  Jimmy slipped to the front through a line of Hunters. Despite his size, he moved as gracefully as Agamethus, almost as if floating.

  “I owe you a debt.” He inclined his head to the Hunters, to Meg and me, to Josephine and Emmie. “You saved me from the madman’s prison. But I hear much talk about us and them. I am always wary when people speak this way, as if people can be so easily divided into friend and enemy. Most of us here do not even know each other.”

  The big man swept a hand across the crowd: Hunters, ex-Hunters, an ex-god, an ex-Titaness, demigods, a snake woman, a couple of griffins, a decapitated ghost. And downstairs, we had an elephant named Livia. Rarely had I seen a more motley collection of defenders.

  “Also, this one.” Jimmy pointed to Lityerses. Jimmy’s voice remained a sonorous rumble, but I fancied I could hear thunderclaps under the surface, ready to break loose. “Is he now a friend? Am I to fight side by side with my enslaver?”

  Hunter Kowalski brandished her screwdriver. “Not likely.”

  “Wait!” I yelped. “Lityerses can be useful.”

  Again, I wasn’t sure why I spoke up. It seemed counterproductive to my main goal, which was to always keep myself safe and popular. “Lityerses knows Commodus’s plans. He knows what sort of forces will attack us. And Lityerses’s life is at stake, just like ours are.”

  I explained how Commodus had ordered Lit’s death, and how Lityerses had stabbed his former master in the neck.

  “That doesssss not make me trussssst him,” Sssssarah hissed.

  The crowd grumbled in agreement. A few Hunters reached for their weapons.

  “Hold it!” Emmie climbed onto the dining table.

  Her long hair had come undone from its braid, strands of silver sweeping the sides of her face. Her hands were splotchy with bread dough. Over her camouflage combat clothes, she wore an apron with a picture of a hamburger and the slogan KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY BUNS.

  Still, the hard gleam in her eyes reminded me of that young princess of Naxos who had jumped off a cliff with her sister, trusting the gods—the princess who had decided she would rather die than live in fear of her drunken angry father. I had never considered that growing older, grayer, and thicker might make someone more beautiful. Yet that seemed to be the case for Emmie. Standing on the table, she was the room’s calm, steady center of gravity.

  “For those of you who don’t know me,” she began, “my name is Hemithea. Jo and I run the Waystation. We never turn away people who are in trouble, even former enemies.” She nodded to Lityerses. “We attract outcasts here—orphans and runaways, folks who’ve been abused, mistreated, or misled, folks who just don’t feel at home anywhere else.”

  She gestured to the barreled ceiling, where the stained glass fractured sunlight into green and gold geometry. “Britomartis, the Lady of Nets, helped build this place.”

  “A safety net for your friends,” I blurted, remembering what Josephine had told me. “But a trap for your enemies.”

  Now I was the center of attention. Once again, I didn’t like it. (I was really starting to worry about myself.) My face burned from the sudden flush of blood to my cheeks. “Sorry,” I told Emmie.

  She studied me as if wondering where to aim her next arrow. She had, apparently, not quite forgiven me for possibly being Georgina’s divine father, even though she’d had that news for at least five minutes. I supposed I could forgive her. Sometimes such a revelation can take an hour or more to process.

  At last, she nodded brusquely. “Apollo is right. Tomorrow we may be attacked, but our enemies are going to find out that the Waystation protects its own. Commodus won’t leave this net alive. Josephine and I will fight to defend this place and anyone who is under our roof. If you want to be part of our family, for a day or forever, you are welcome. All of you.” She looked directly at Lit.

  The Cornhusker’s face paled, his scars almost disappearing. He opened his mouth to say something but managed only a choking noise. He slid down against the wall and began to shudder, silently sobbing.

  Josephine crouched next to him. She gazed at the crowd as if asking, Anybody still got a problem with this guy?

  Next to me, Jimmy grunted. “I like these women,” he said. “They have ìgboyà.”

  I didn’t know what ìgboyà meant. I couldn’t even guess what language it was. But I liked the way Jimmy said it. I decided I would have to purchase some ìgboyà as soon as possible.

  “Well, then.” Emmie wiped her hands on her apron. “If anyone wants to leave, now’s the time to say so. I’ll make you a brown bag lunch to go.”

  No one replied.

  “Right,” Emmie said. “In that case, everyone gets an afternoon chore!”

  She made me peel carrots.

  Honestly, we were facing an imminent invasion, and I—the former god of music—was stuck in the kitchen prepping salad. I should have been strolling around with my ukulele, lifting everyone’s spirits with my songs and my shining charisma, not skinning root vegetables!

  On the bright side, the Hunters of Artemis had to clean the cow pens, so perhaps there was some justice in the cosmos.

  Once dinner was ready, the crowd scattered across the main hall to eat. Josephine sat with Lityerses in his corner, talking to him slowly and calmly, the way one might treat a pit bull rescued from a bad owner. Most of the Hunters sat in the griffin roosts, dangling their legs over the ledge as they surveyed the hall below. From their low voices and grave expressions, I imagined they were talking about how best to kill large numbers of enemies tomorrow.

  Hunter Kowalski volunteered to bunk in Georgina’s room for the night. The little girl had remained fast asleep since her experience on the Throne of Memory, but Hunter wanted to be there for her just in case she woke up. Emmie gratefully agreed, but not until after shooting me an accusatory look that said, I don’t see you volunteering to sit with your kid all night. Honestly, as if I was the first god who’d ever forgotten he sired a child who was then carried away by a decapitated ghost to be raised by two women in Indianapolis!

  The two half-starved demigods, brothers named Deacon and Stan, who I learned had been residents of the Waystation for over a year, now rested in the infirmary with IV drips of nectar. Sssssarah had taken a basket of eggs and slithered off to the sauna for the night. Jimmy ate with some of the other escapees on the sofas, which did not make me feel neglected at all.

  This left me at the dining table with Meg (what else is new?), Leo, Calypso, Emmie, and Thalia Grace.

  Emmie kept glancing across the room at Josephine and Lityerses. “Our new friend, Lityerses…” She sounded remarkably earnest when she said the word friend. “I talked with him during chore time. He helped me churn the ice cream. He told me quite a bit about the armies we’ll be facing tomorrow.”

  “There’s ice cream?” I asked. I had a natural ability to focus on the most important details when someone was talking.

  “Later,” Emmie promised, though her tone told me I might not be getting any. “It’s vanilla. We were going to add frozen peaches, but…” She looked at Meg. “We thought that might be in poor taste.”

  Meg was too busy shoveling tofu stir-fry into her mouth to respond.

  “At any rate,” Emmie continued, “Lityerses estimates a few dozen mortal mercenaries, about the same number of demigods from the Imperial Household, a few hundred assorted cynocephali and other monsters, plus the usual hordes of blemmyae disguised as local police, firefighters, and bulldozer operators.”

  “Oh, good,” said Thalia Grace. “The usual hordes.”

  Emmie shrugged. “Commodus means to raze Union Station. He’ll make it look to the mortals like an emergency evacuation.”

  “A gas leak
,” Leo guessed. “It’s almost always a gas leak.”

  Calypso picked the shredded carrots out of her salad, which I took as a personal insult. “So we’re outnumbered ten to one? Twenty to one?”

  “No sweat,” Leo said. “I’ll handle the first two hundred or so myself, then if I get tired—”

  “Leo, stop.” Calypso gave Emmie an apologetic frown. “He jokes more when he’s nervous. He also jokes worse when he’s nervous.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Leo inserted carrot fangs in his mouth and snarled.

  Meg almost choked on her stir-fry.

  Thalia let out a long sigh. “Oh, yeah. This is going to be a fun battle. Emmie, how are you stocked for extra arrows? I’m going to need a full quiver just for shooting Leo.”

  Emmie smiled. “We have plenty of weaponry. And thanks to Leo and Josephine, the Waystation’s defenses have never been stronger.”

  “You’re welcome!” Leo spat out his fangs. “Also I should mention the giant bronze dragon in the corner—assuming I can finish his tune-up tonight. He’s still not at a hundred percent.”

  Normally, I would’ve found that giant bronze dragon quite reassuring, even at 75 percent, but I did not like twenty-to-one odds. The bloodthirsty cries of the arena audience still rang in my ears.

  “Calypso,” I said, “what about your magic? Has it returned?”

  Her look of frustration was quite familiar. It was the same look I got whenever I thought of all the marvelous godly things I could no longer do.

  “Only a few bursts,” she said. “This morning, I moved a coffee cup across the counter.”

  “Yeah,” Leo said, “but you did that awesomely.”

  Calypso swatted him. “Josephine says it’ll take time. Once we…” She hesitated. “Once we survive tomorrow.”

  I got the feeling that wasn’t what she’d intended to say. Leo and Emmie exchanged a conspiratorial glance. I didn’t press the issue. At the moment, the only conspiracy I’d be interested in would be a clever plan to smuggle me back to Mount Olympus and reinstate me to godhood before breakfast tomorrow.

  “We will make do,” I decided.

  Meg slurped down the last of her stir-fry. Then she demonstrated her usual exquisite manners by belching and wiping her mouth with her forearm. “Not you and me, Lester. We won’t be here.”

  My stomach started tossing its own little salad. “But—”

  “Prophecy, dummy. First light, remember?”

  “Yes, but if the Waystation is attacked…shouldn’t we be here to help?”

  This was an odd question coming from me. When I was a god, I would have been delighted to leave the mortal heroes to fend for themselves. I would have made popcorn and watched the bloodbath from a distance on Mount Olympus, or simply caught the highlight reel later. But as Lester, I felt obliged to defend these people—my dear old Emmie, gruff Josephine, and not-so-little Georgina, who might or might not be my child. Thalia and the Hunters, Jimmy of the Lovely Loincloth, the proud griffin parents upstairs, the excellent elephant downstairs, even the dislikable Lityerses…I wanted to be here for them.

  It may seem strange to you that I hadn’t already considered my conflicting obligation—to seek out the Cave of Trophonius at first light—and that this might prevent me from being at the Waystation. In my defense, gods can split their essence into many different manifestations at once. We don’t have a lot of experience with scheduling.

  “Meg is right,” Emmie said. “Trophonius has summoned you. Getting your prophecy may be the only way to prevent the emperor’s prophecy from coming true.”

  I was the god of prophecies, and even I was starting to hate prophecies. I glanced at the spirit of Agamethus, hovering by the ladder to the loft. I thought of the last message he had given me: We cannot remain. Did he mean the defenders of the Waystation? Or Meg and me? Or something else entirely? I felt so frustrated I wanted to grab his Magic 8 Ball and bounce it off his nonexistent head.

  “Cheer up,” Thalia told me. “If Commodus comes at us with his full strength, the Oracle might be guarded with just a skeleton crew. It’ll be your best chance to get in.”

  “Yeah,” Leo said. “Besides, maybe you’ll make it back in time to fight with us! Or, you know, we’ll all die, and it won’t matter.”

  “That makes me feel much better,” I grumbled. “What problems could we possibly run into, just Meg and I?”

  “Yep,” Meg agreed.

  She did not sound the least bit worried. This seemed like a failure of imagination to me. I could envision all sorts of horrible fates that might befall two people wandering into the dangerous cavern of a terrifying, hostile spirit. I would rather fight a host of blemmyae on bulldozers. I would even consider peeling more carrots.

  As I was cleaning up the dinner plates, Emmie caught my arm.

  “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “Was it payback?”

  I stared at her. “Was…what payback?”

  “Georgina,” she murmured. “For me…you know, giving up your gift of immortality. Was she…” She pressed her lips into a tight line, as if she didn’t trust them to say any more.

  I hadn’t known I could feel any worse, until I did. I really hate that about the mortal heart. It seems to have an infinite capacity for getting heavier.

  “Dear Emmie,” I said. “I would never. Even on my worst days, when I’m destroying nations with plague arrows or putting together set lists for Kidz Bop compilations, I would never take revenge in such a way. I swear to you, I had no idea you were here, or that you had left the Hunters, or that Georgina existed, or…Actually, I just had no idea about anything. And I’m so sorry.”

  To my relief, a faint smile flickered on her face. “That’s one thing I can believe, at least.”

  “That I am sorry?”

  “No,” she said. “That you had no idea about anything.”

  “Ah…So, we’re good?”

  She considered. “For now. But when Georgie recovers…we should talk further.”

  I nodded, though I was thinking that my to-do list of unwelcome tasks was already quite full.

  “Well, then.” I sighed. “I suppose I should get some rest, and perhaps start composing a new death haiku.”

  Lester, slap yourself

  Oh, for just one night without

  Looking like a fool


  I kept getting stuck on the first line, I don’t want to die, and couldn’t think of anything to add. I hate elaborating when the main idea is so perfectly clear.

  The Hunters of Artemis bedded down in the griffin roosts after setting trip wires and motion-sensor alarms. They always did this whenever I camped with them, which I found silly. Sure, when I was a god, I used to flirt with them shamelessly, but I never went further than that. And as Lester? I had no wish to die with a thousand silver arrows in my chest. If nothing else, the Hunters should have trusted my self-interest.

  Thalia, Emmie, and Josephine sat together at the kitchen table for a long while, conversing in hushed tones. I hoped they were discussing more Hunter secrets—some deadly weapons they could use against Commodus’s armies. Moon–ballistic missiles, perhaps. Or moon-napalm.

  Meg hadn’t bothered finding a guest room. She’d crashed on the nearest couch and was snoring away.

  I stood nearby, not ready to go back to the room I shared with Leo Valdez. I watched the moon rise through the giant rose window above Josephine’s workstation.

  A voice at my shoulder said, “Not tired?”

  It was a good thing I was no longer god of the sun. If someone had startled me that badly in my chariot, I would’ve charged upward so fast that high noon would’ve happened at 6:00 A.M.

  Jimmy stood next to me, a dapper apparition in brown. The moonlight gleamed copper on his scalp. His necklace of red and white beads peeked from beneath the collar of his dress shirt.

  “Oh!” I said. “Um…Nah.” I leaned against the wall, hoping to look ca
sual, attractive, and suave. Unfortunately, I missed the wall.

  Jimmy was kind enough to pretend not to notice. “You should try to sleep,” he rumbled. “The challenge you face tomorrow…” Worry lines creased his forehead. “I cannot imagine.”

  Sleep seemed like an alien concept, especially now, with my heart chunk-chunk-chunking like a defective pedal boat. “Oh, I don’t sleep much. I used to be a god, you know.” I wondered if flexing my muscles would help prove this point. I decided it would not. “And you? Are you a demigod?”

  Jimmy grunted. “An interesting word. I would say I am e·lo·mìíràn—one of the others. I am also a graduate accounting student at Indiana University.”

  I had no idea what to do with that information. I could think of no topics of conversation that would make me look interesting to a graduate student of accounting. I also hadn’t realized how much older Jimmy was than me. I mean mortal Lester me, not god me. I was confused.

  “But Sssssarah said you worked for Commodus?” I recalled. “You’re a gladiator?”

  The edges of his mouth tugged downward. “Not a gladiator. I only fight on weekends for money. Mixed martial arts. Gidigbo and Dambe.”

  “I don’t know what those are.”

  He chuckled. “Most people don’t. They are Nigerian martial-art forms. The first, Gidigbo, is a wrestling style of my people, the Yoruba. The other is a Hausa sport, more violent, but I like it.”

  “I see,” I said, though in fact I didn’t.

  Even in ancient times, I had been woefully ignorant of anything below the Saharan Desert. We Olympians tended to stay in our own neighborhood around the Mediterranean, which was, I agree, terribly cliquish. “You fight for money?”

  “To pay my tuition,” Jimmy agreed. “I did not know what I was getting into with this emperor person.”

  “And yet you survived,” I noted. “You can see that the world is, uh, much stranger than most mortals realize. You, Jimmy, must have lots of ìgboyà.”

  His laughter was deep and rich. “Very good. My name is actually Olujime. For most Americans, Jimmy is easier.”

  I understood. I’d only been a mortal for a few months and I was getting very tired of spelling out Papadopoulos.

  “Well, Olujime,” I said, “I’m pleased to meet you. We are lucky to have such a defender.”

  “Mmm.” Olujime nodded gravely. “If we survive tomorrow, perhaps the Waystation can use an accountant. A piece of real estate so complex…there are many tax implications.”


  “I am joking,” he offered. “My girlfriend says I joke too much.”

  “Uh.” This time I sounded like I’d been kicked in the gut. “Your girlfriend. Yes. Will you excuse me?”

  I fled.

  Stupid Apollo. Of course Olujime had a girlfriend. I didn’t know who or what he was, or why fate had dragged him into our strange little world, but obviously someone so interesting would not be single. Besides, he was much too old for me, or young, depending on how you looked at it. I decided not to look at it at all.

  Exhausted but restless, I wandered the shifting corridors until I stumbled upon a small library. When I say library, I mean the old-fashioned kind without books, just scrolls stacked in cubbies. Ah, the smell of papyrus brought me back!

  I sat at the table in the center of the room and remembered the chats I used to have in Alexandria with the philosopher Hypatia. Now she was a smart melomakarona. I wished she were here now. I could’ve used her advice on how to survive the Cave of Trophonius.

  Alas, at present, my only advisor was stuck in the quiver on my back. Reluctantly, I pulled out the Arrow of Dodona and set it on the table.

  The shaft of the arrow rattled against the table. LONG HAST THOU KEPT ME QUIVERED. VERILY, THY LEVELS OF STUPID ASTOUND ME.

  “Have you ever wondered,” I asked, “why you have no friends?”


  I doubted that. More likely, when it had come time to choose a branch to carve into an arrow to send on a quest with me, the entire grove had unanimously elected this particularly annoying length of ash. Even sacred Oracles could only stand hearing forsooth and verily so many times.

  “Then tell me,” I said, “O, Wise Arrow, most dear to all manner of trees, how do we get to the Cave of Trophonius? And how do Meg and I survive?”

  The arrow’s fletching rippled. THOU SHALT TAKE A CAR.

  “That’s it?”

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