The dark prophecy, p.27
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.27

         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan
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  To find the master of the swift white horse

  And wrest from him the crossword speaker’s breath.

  It had been centuries since I’d heard a prophecy in this form, yet I knew it well. I wished I could stop this recitation and save Meg the agony, but there was nothing I could do.

  She shivered and exhaled the third stanza:

  To westward palace must the Lester go;

  Demeter’s daughter finds her ancient roots.

  The cloven guide alone the way does know,

  To walk the path in thine own enemy’s boots.

  Then, the culminating horror, she spewed forth a rhyming couplet:

  When three are known and Tiber reached alive,

  ’Tis only then Apollo starts to jive.

  The dark smoke dissipated. I rushed forward as Meg slumped into my arms. Her breathing was already more regular, her skin warmer. Thank the Fates. The prophecy had been exorcised.

  Leo was the first to speak. “What was that? Buy one prophecy, get three free? That was a lot of lines.”

  “It was a sonnet,” I said, still in disbelief. “May the gods help us; it was a Shakespearean sonnet.”

  I had thought the limerick of Dodona was bad. But a full Shakespearean sonnet, complete with ABAB rhyme scheme, ending couplet, and iambic pentameter? Such a horror could only have come from Trophonius’s cave.

  I recalled my many arguments with William Shakespeare.

  Bill, I said. No one will accept this poetry! Du-DUH, du-DUH, du-DUH, du-DUH, du-DUH. What sort of beat is that?

  I mean, in real life, no one talks like that!

  Hmm…actually the line I just wrote was in iambic pentameter. The stuff is infectious. Gah!

  Thalia shouldered her bow. “That was all one poem? But it had four different sections.”

  “Yes,” I said. “The sonnet conveys only the most elaborate prophecies, with multiple moving parts. None of them good, I fear.”

  Meg began to snore.

  “We will parse our doom later,” I said. “We should let Meg rest—”

  My body chose that moment to give out. I had asked too much of it. Now it rebelled. I crumpled sideways, Meg spilling over on top of me. Our friends rushed forward. I felt myself being gently lifted, wondering hazily if I was peach-surfing or if Zeus had recalled me to the heavens.

  Then I saw Josephine’s face looming over me like a Mount Rushmore president as she carried me through the corridor.

  “Infirmary for this one,” she said to someone next to her. “And then…pee-yoo. He definitely needs a bath.”

  A few hours of dreamless sleep, followed by a bubble bath.

  It was not Mount Olympus, my friends, but it was close.

  By late afternoon, I was freshly dressed in clothes that weren’t freezing and did not smell of cave excrement. My belly was full of honey and just-baked bread. I roamed the Waystation, helping out where I could. It was good to stay busy. It kept me from thinking too much about the lines of the Dark Prophecy.

  Meg rested comfortably in a guest room, guarded vigilantly by Peaches, Peaches, and Other Peaches.

  The Hunters of Artemis tended the wounded, who were so numerous the Waystation had to double the size of its infirmary. Outside, Livia the elephant helped with cleanup, moving broken vehicles and wreckage from the roundabout. Leo and Josie spent the afternoon collecting pieces of Festus the dragon, who had been torn apart bare-handed, they told me, by Commodus himself. Fortunately, Leo seemed to find this more of an annoyance than a tragedy.

  “Nah, man,” he said when I offered my condolences. “I can put him back together easy enough. I redesigned him so he’s like a Lego kit, built for quick assembly!”

  He went back to helping Josephine, who was using a crane to extract Festus’s left hind leg from the Union Station bell tower.

  Calypso, in a burst of aerial magic, summoned enough wind spirits to reassemble the glass shards of the rose window, then promptly collapsed from the effort.

  Sssssarah, Jimmy, and Thalia Grace swept the surrounding streets, looking for any sign of Commodus, but the emperor had simply disappeared. I thought of how I’d saved Hemithea and Parthenos when they jumped off that cliff long ago, dissolving them into light. Could a quasi-deity such as Commodus do something like that to himself? Whatever the case, I had a suspicion that we hadn’t seen the last of good old New Hercules.

  At sunset I was asked to join a small family memorial for Heloise the griffin. The entire population of the Waystation would have come to honor her sacrifice, but Emmie explained that a large crowd would upset Abelard even worse than he already was. While Hunter Kowalski sat on egg duty in the henhouse (where Heloise’s egg had been moved for safekeeping before the battle) I joined Emmie, Josephine, Georgie, and Calypso on the roof. Abelard, the grieving widower, watched in silence as Calypso and I—honorary relatives since our rescue mission to the zoo—laid the body of Heloise gently across a fallow bed of soil in the garden.

  After death, griffins become surprisingly light. Their bodies desiccate when their spirits pass on, leaving only fur, feathers, and hollow bones. We stepped back as Abelard prowled toward the body of his mate. He ruffled his wings, then gently buried his beak in Heloise’s neck plumage one last time. He threw back his head and let out a piercing cry—a call that said, I am here. Where are you?

  Then he launched himself into the sky and disappeared in the low gray clouds. Heloise’s body crumbled to dust.

  “We’ll plant catnip in this bed.” Emmie wiped a tear from her cheek. “Heloise loved catnip.”

  Calypso dried her eyes on her sleeve. “That sounds lovely. Where did Abelard go?”

  Josephine scanned the clouds. “He’ll be back. He needs time. It’ll be several more weeks before the egg hatches. We’ll keep watch over it for him.”

  The idea of father and egg, alone in the world, made me unspeakably sad, yet I knew they had the most loving extended family they could hope for here at the Waystation.

  During the brief ceremony, Georgina had been eyeing me warily, fiddling with something in her hands. A doll? I hadn’t really been paying attention. Now Josephine patted her daughter’s back.

  “It’s all right, baby,” Josephine assured her. “Go ahead.”

  Georgina shuffled toward me. She was wearing a clean set of coveralls, which looked much better on her than they did on Leo. Newly washed, her brown hair was fluffier, her face pinker.

  “My moms told me you might be my dad,” she murmured, not meeting my eyes.

  I gulped. Over the ages, I’d been through scenarios like this countless times, but as Lester Papadopoulos, I felt even more awkward than usual. “I—I might be, Georgina. I don’t know.”

  “’Kay.” She held up the thing she was holding—a figure made of pipe cleaners—and pressed it into my hands. “Made this for you. You can take it with you when you go away.”

  I examined the doll. It wasn’t much, a sort of gingerbread-man silhouette of wire and rainbow fuzz, with a few beard whiskers stuck in the joints….Wait. Oh, dear. This was the same little doll that had been smashed against Commodus’s face. I supposed it must have fallen out when he charged toward the window.

  “Thank you,” I said. “Georgina, if you ever need me, if you ever want to talk—”

  “No, I’m good.” She turned and ran back to Josephine’s arms.

  Josephine kissed the top of her head. “You did fine, baby.”

  They turned and headed for the stairs. Calypso smirked at me, then followed, leaving me alone with Emmie.

  For a few moments, we stood together in silence at the garden bed.

  Emmie pulled her old silver Hunter’s coat around her. “Heloise and Abelard were our first friends here, when we took over the Waystation.”

  “I’m so sorry.”

  Her gray hair glinted like steel in the sunset. Her wrinkles looked deeper, her face more worn and weary. How much longer would she live in this mortal life…another twenty years? The blink of an eye t
o an immortal. Yet I could no longer feel annoyed with her for giving up my gift of divinity. Artemis obviously had understood her choice. Artemis, who shunned all sorts of romantic love, saw that Emmie and Josephine deserved to grow old together. I had to accept that, too.

  “You’ve built something good here, Hemithea,” I said. “Commodus could not destroy it. You’ll restore what you’ve lost. I envy you.”

  She managed a faint smile. “I never thought I’d hear those words from you, Lord Apollo.”

  Lord Apollo. The title did not fit me. It felt like a hat I’d worn centuries ago…something large and impractical and top-heavy like those Elizabethan chapeaus Bill Shakespeare used to hide his bald pate.

  “What of the Dark Prophecy?” Emmie asked. “Do you know what it means?”

  I watched a stray griffin feather tumble across the dirt. “Some. Not all. Perhaps enough to make a plan.”

  Emmie nodded. “Then we’d best gather our friends. We can talk at dinner. Besides”—she punched my arm gently—“those carrots aren’t going to peel themselves.”

  Prophecies don’t mix

  With Tofurky and biscuits

  Just give me dessert

  MAY THE FATES consign all root vegetables to the depths of Tartarus.

  That is all I will say on the matter.

  By dinnertime, the main hall had been mostly put back together.

  Even Festus, amazingly, had been more or less reconstructed. He was now parked on the roof, enjoying a large tub of motor oil and Tabasco sauce. Leo looked pleased with his efforts, though he was still searching for a few last missing parts. He’d spent the afternoon walking around the Waystation, shouting, “If anyone sees a bronze spleen about yea big, please let me know!”

  The Hunters sat in groups around the hall, as was their habit, but they had integrated the newcomers we’d freed from Commodus’s cells. Fighting side by side had created bonds of friendship.

  Emmie presided at the head of the dining table. Georgina lay asleep in her lap, a stack of coloring books and markers in front of her. Thalia Grace sat at the other end, twirling her dagger on its point like a top. Josephine and Calypso were shoulder to shoulder, studying Calypso’s notes and discussing various interpretations of the prophetic lines.

  I sat next to Meg. What else is new? She seemed fully recovered, thanks to Emmie’s healing. (At my suggestion, Emmie had removed her enclosure of curative snakes from the infirmary while treating Meg. I feared if McCaffrey woke up and saw serpents, she might panic and turn them into chia pets.) Her three peach-spirit attendants had gone off, for now, to the extra-dimensional plane of fruit.

  My young friend’s appetite was even more voracious than usual. She shoveled in her Tofurky and dressing, her movements as furtive as if she’d gone back to being a half-feral alley child. I kept my hands well away from her.

  At last, Josephine and Calypso looked up from the yellow legal pad.

  “Okay.” Calypso let out a deep sigh. “We’ve interpreted some of these lines, but we need your help, Apollo. Maybe you could start by telling us what happened at the Cave of Trophonius.”

  I glanced at Meg. I was afraid if I recounted our horrible adventures, she might crawl under the table with her plate and snarl at us if we tried to get her out.

  She merely belched. “Don’t remember much. Go ahead.”

  I explained how I had collapsed the Cave of the Oracle at Trophonius’s request. Josephine and Emmie did not look pleased, but they didn’t yell or scream, either. Josephine’s submachine gun stayed safely in its gun cabinet in the kitchen. I could only hope my father, Zeus, would react as calmly when he learned I’d destroyed the Oracle.

  Emmie scanned the main hall. “Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen Agamethus since before the battle. Has anyone?”

  No one reported sighting a headless orange ghost.

  Emmie stroked her daughter’s hair. “I don’t mind the Oracle being destroyed, but I worry about Georgie. She’s always felt connected to that place. And Agamethus…she likes him a lot.”

  I looked at the sleeping girl. I tried, for the millionth time, to see some resemblance to godly me, but it would have been easier to believe she was related to Lester Papadopoulos.

  “The last thing I want,” I said, “is to cause more pain to Georgina. I think, though, the destruction of the cave was necessary. Not just for us. But for her. It may free her to move forward.”

  I remembered the dark crayon drawings on the girl’s wall, made in the throes of her prophetic lunacy. I hoped, perhaps, that by sending me away with that ugly pipe cleaner man, Georgie was attempting to send away her entire experience. With a few cans of pastel paint, Josephine and Emmie could now give her a fresh canvas of bedroom walls.

  Emmie and Josephine exchanged a look. They seemed to come to silent agreement.

  “All right, then,” Josephine said. “About the prophecy…”

  Calypso read the sonnet aloud. It sounded no more cheerful than it had before.

  Thalia spun her knife. “The first stanza mentions the new moon.”

  “Time limit,” Leo guessed. “Always a dang time limit.”

  “But the next new moon is in only five nights,” Thalia said.

  Trust a Hunter of Artemis to keep track of the phases of the moon.

  No one jumped up and down in glee. No one shouted, Hooray! Another catastrophe to stop in just five days!

  “Bodies filling up the Tiber.” Emmie hugged her daughter closer. “I assume the Tiber refers to the Little Tiber, the barrier of Camp Jupiter in California.”

  Leo frowned. “Yeah. The changeling lord…that’s gotta be my homeboy Frank Zhang. And the Devil’s Mount, that’s Mount Diablo, right near the camp. I hate Mount Diablo. I fought Enchiladas there once.”

  Josephine looked like she wanted to ask what he meant, then wisely decided not to. “So the demigods of New Rome are about to be attacked.”

  I shivered, partly because of the words of the prophecy, partly because of the Tofurky gravy dribbling down Meg’s chin. “I believe the first stanza is all of a piece. It mentions the words that memory wrought. Ella the harpy is at Camp Jupiter, using her photographic memory to reconstruct the lost books of the Cumaean Sybil.”

  Meg wiped her chin. “Huh?”

  “The details aren’t important right now.” I gestured for her to continue eating. “My guess is that the Triumvirate means to eliminate the threat by burning down the camp. The words that memory wrought are set to fire.”

  Calypso frowned. “Five days. How do we warn them in time? All our means of communication are down.”

  I found this irritating in the extreme. As a god, I could have snapped my fingers and instantly sent a message across the world using the winds, or dreams, or a manifestation of my glorious self. Now, we were crippled. The only gods who had shown me any sort of favor were Artemis and Britomartis, but I couldn’t expect them to do more—not without them incurring punishment as bad as what Zeus had done to me. I wouldn’t wish that even on Britomartis.

  As for mortal technology, it was useless to us. In our hands, phones malfunctioned and blew up (I mean, even more than they did for mortals). Computers melted down. I had considered pulling a random mortal off the street and saying, Hey, make a call for me. But who would they call? Another random person in California? How would the message get through to Camp Jupiter when most mortals couldn’t find Camp Jupiter? Besides, even attempting this would put innocent mortals at risk of monster attacks, death by lightning bolt, and exorbitant data-plan overage fees.

  I glanced at Thalia. “Can the Hunters cover that much ground?”

  “In five days?” She frowned. “If we broke all the speed limits, perhaps. If we suffered no attacks along the way—”

  “Which never happens,” Emmie said.

  Thalia laid her knife on the table. “The bigger problem is that the Hunters must continue their own quest. We have to find the Teumessian Fox.”

  I stared at her. I was tempted
to ask Meg to order me to slap myself, just to make sure I wasn’t stuck in a nightmare. “The Teumessian Fox? That’s the monster you’ve been hunting?”

  “Afraid so.”

  “But that’s impossible! Also horrible!”

  “Foxes are cute,” Meg offered. “What’s the problem?”

  I was tempted to explain how many cities the Teumessian Fox had leveled in ancient times, how it gorged on the blood of its victims and ripped apart armies of Greek warriors, but I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s Tofurky dinner.

  “The point is,” I said, “Thalia’s right. We cannot ask the Hunters to help us any more than they already have. They’ve got their own problem to solve.”

  “That’s copacetic,” Leo said. “You’ve done enough for us, T.”

  Thalia inclined her head. “All in a day’s work, Valdez. But you do owe me a bottle of the Texas hot sauce you were telling me about.”

  “That can be arranged,” Leo promised.

  Josephine crossed her arms. “Well and good, but we’re left with the same dilemma. How do we get a message to California in five days?”

  “Me,” Leo said.

  We all stared at him.

  “Leo,” Calypso said. “It took us six weeks just to get here from New York.”

  “Yeah, but with three passengers,” he said. “And…no offense, one of them was a former god who was attracting us all kinds of negative attention.”

  I could not argue with that. Most of the enemies who had attacked us on our journey had introduced themselves by screaming, There’s Apollo! Kill him!

  “I travel fast and light,” Leo said. “I’ve covered that much distance before by myself. I can do it.”

  Calypso did not look pleased. Her complexion turned just a shade lighter than her yellow legal pad.

  “Hey, mamacita, I’ll come back,” he promised. “I’ll just enroll late for the spring semester! You can help me catch up on my homework.”

  “I hate you,” she grumbled.

  Leo squeezed her hand. “Besides, it’ll be good to see Hazel and Frank again. And Reyna, too, though that girl still scares me.”

  I assumed Calypso was not too upset by this plan, since aerial spirits did not pick up Leo and hurl him through the rose window.

  Thalia Grace gestured to the notepad. “So we’ve got one stanza figured out. Yippee. What about the rest?”

  “I’m afraid,” I said, “the rest is about Meg and me.”

  “Yep,” Meg agreed. “Pass the biscuits?”

  Josephine handed her the basket, then watched in awe as Meg stuffed her mouth with one fluffy biscuit after another.

  “So the line about the sun going southward,” Josephine said. “That’s you, Apollo.”

  “Obviously,” I agreed. “The third emperor must be somewhere in the American Southwest, in a land of scorching death. We get there through mazes—”

  “The Labyrinth,” Meg said.

  I shuddered. Our last trip through the Labyrinth was still fresh in my mind—winding up in the caverns of Delphi, listening to my old enemy Python slithering and hissing right above our heads. I hoped this time, at least, Meg and I would not be bound together for a three-legged race.

  “Somewhere in the Southwest,” I continued, “we must find the crossword speaker. I believe that refers to the Erythraean Sybil, another ancient Oracle. I…I don’t remember much about her—”

  “Surprise,” Meg grumbled.

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