The dark prophecy, p.4
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.4
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  Over the past few weeks, during our travels west, these waking visions had been happening with alarming frequency. Perhaps they were the result of my faulty human neurons trying to process godly memories. Perhaps Zeus was punishing me with vivid flashbacks of my most spectacular failures. Or perhaps my time as a mortal was simply driving me crazy.

  Whatever the case, I barely managed to reach the nearest couch before collapsing.

  I was dimly aware of Leo and Josephine standing at the welding station, Josephine in her welder’s gear and Leo in his boxer shorts, chatting about whatever project Josephine was working on. They didn’t seem to notice my distress.

  Then the memories swallowed me.

  I found myself hovering above the ancient Mediterranean. Sparkling blue water stretched to the horizon. A warm, salty wind buoyed me up. Directly below, the white cliffs of Naxos rose from the surf like the baleen ridge of a whale’s mouth.

  From a town about three hundred yards inland, two teenage girls ran for their lives—making their way toward the edge of the cliff with an armed mob close behind them. The girls’ white dresses billowed, and their long dark hair whipped in the wind. Despite their bare feet, the rocky terrain did not slow them down. Bronzed and lithe, they were clearly used to racing outdoors, but they were running toward a dead end.

  At the head of the mob, a portly man in red robes screamed and waved the handle of a broken ceramic jar. A gold crown glinted on his brow. Streaks of wine had crusted in his gray beard.

  His name came to me: Staphylus, king of Naxos. A demigod son of Dionysus, Staphylus had inherited all of his father’s worst traits and none of his party-dude chill. Now in a drunken rage, he was yelling something about his daughters breaking his finest amphora of wine, and so, naturally, they had to die.

  “I’ll kill you both!” he screamed. “I will tear you apart!”

  I mean…if the girls had broken a Stradivarius violin or gold-plated harmonica, I might have understood his rage. But a jar of wine?

  The girls ran on, crying to the gods for help.

  Normally, this sort of thing would not have been my problem. People cried to the gods for help all the time. They almost never offered anything interesting in return. I probably would have just hovered over the scene, thinking Oh, dear, what a shame. Ouch. That must have hurt! and then gone about my normal business.

  This particular day, however, I was not flying over Naxos merely by chance. I was on my way to see the drop-dead gorgeous Rhoeo—the king’s eldest daughter—with whom I happened to be in love.

  Neither of the girls below was Rhoeo. I recognized them as her younger sisters Parthenos and Hemithea. Nevertheless, I doubted Rhoeo would appreciate it if I failed to help her sisters on my way to our big date. Hey, babe. I just saw your sisters get chased off a cliff and plummet to their deaths. You want to catch a movie or something?

  But if I helped her sisters, against the wishes of their homicidal father and in front of a crowd of witnesses—that would require divine intervention. There would be forms to fill out, and the Three Fates would demand everything in triplicate.

  While I was deliberating, Parthenos and Hemithea charged toward the precipice. They must have realized they had nowhere to go, but they didn’t even slow down.

  “Help us, Apollo!” Hemithea cried. “Our fate rests with you!”

  Then, holding hands, the two sisters leaped into the void.

  Such a show of faith—it took my breath away!

  I couldn’t very well let them go SPLAT after they’d entrusted me with their lives. Now Hermes? Sure, he might have let them die. He would’ve found that hilarious. Hermes is a twisted little scamp. But Apollo? No. I had to honor such courage and panache!

  Parthenos and Hemithea never hit the surface of the water. I stretched out my hands and zapped the girls with a mighty zap—imparting some of my own divine life force into them. Oh, how you should envy those girls! Shimmering and disappearing with a golden flash, filled with tingly warmth and newfound power, they floated upward in a cloud of Tinker Bell–quality glitter.

  It is no small thing to make someone a god. The general rule is that power trickles down, so any god can theoretically make a new god of lesser power than him or herself. But this requires sacrificing some of one’s own divinity, a small amount of what makes you you—so gods don’t grant such a favor often. When we do, we usually create only the most minor of gods, as I did with Parthenos and Hemithea: just the basic immortality package with few bells and whistles. (Although I threw in the extended warranty, because I’m a nice guy.)

  Beaming with gratitude, Parthenos and Hemithea flew up to meet me.

  “Thank you, Lord Apollo!” Parthenos said. “Did Artemis send you?”

  My smile faltered. “Artemis?”

  “She must have!” Hemithea said. “As we fell, I prayed, ‘Help us, Artemis!’”

  “No,” I said. “You cried out, ‘Help us, Apollo!’”

  The girls looked at each other.

  “Er…no, my lord,” said Hemithea.

  I was sure she had said my name. In retrospect, however, I wondered if I had been assuming rather than listening. The three of us stared at one another. That moment when you turn two girls immortal and then find out they didn’t call on you to do so…Awkward.

  “Well, it doesn’t matter!” Hemithea said cheerfully. “We owe you a great debt, and now we are free to follow our hearts’ desires!”

  I was hoping she would say To serve Apollo for all eternity and bring him a warm lemon-scented towel before every meal!

  Instead, Parthenos said, “Yes, we will join the Hunters of Artemis! Thank you, Apollo!”

  They used their new powers to vaporize, leaving me alone with an angry mob of Naxoans screaming and shaking their fists at the sea.

  The worst thing? The girls’ sister Rhoeo broke up with me like a week later.

  Over the centuries, I saw Hemithea and Parthenos from time to time in Artemis’s retinue. Mostly we avoided each other. Making them minor gods was one of those benevolent mistakes I didn’t want to write any songs about.

  My vision changed, shifting as subtly as the light through the Waystation’s rose window.

  I found myself in a vast apartment of gold and white marble. Beyond the glass walls and the wraparound terrace, afternoon shadows flooded the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan.

  I had been here before. No matter where my visions took me, I always seemed to end up back in this nightmarish scene.

  Reclining on a gilded chaise lounge, the emperor Nero looked horrifically resplendent in a purple suit, a blue pastel shirt, and pointy alligator-leather shoes. On his sizable paunch he balanced a plate of strawberries, popping them one at a time into his mouth with his little finger raised to show off the hundred-karat diamond on his pinky ring.

  “Meg…” He shook his head sadly. “Dear Meg. You should be more excited! This is your chance for redemption, my dear. You won’t disappoint me, will you?”

  His voice was soft and gentle, like a heavy snowfall—the sort that builds up and brings down power lines, collapses roofs, kills entire families.

  Standing before the emperor, Meg McCaffrey looked like a wilting plant. Her dark pageboy hair hung listlessly around her face. She slumped in her green T-shirt dress, her knees bent in her yellow leggings, one red high-top kicking listlessly at the marble floor. Her face was lowered, but I could see that her cat-eye glasses had been broken since our last encounter. Scotch tape covered the rhinestone tips at either joint.

  Under the weight of Nero’s gaze, she seemed so small and vulnerable. I wanted to rush to her side. I wanted to smash that plate of strawberries into Nero’s chinless, neck-bearded excuse for a face. Alas, I could only watch, knowing that this scene had already happened. I had seen it unfold several times in my visions over the last few weeks.

  Meg didn’t speak, but Nero nodded as if she’d answered his question.

  “Go west,” he told her. “Capture Apollo before he can fin
d the next Oracle. If you cannot bring him to me alive, kill him.”

  He crooked his diamond-weighted pinky finger. From the line of imperial bodyguards behind him, one stepped forward. Like all Germani, the man was enormous. His muscular arms bulged against his leather cuirass. His brown hair grew wild and long. His rugged face would have been scary even without the serpent tattoo that coiled around his neck and up his right cheek.

  “This is Vortigern,” said Nero. “He will keep you…safe.”

  The emperor tasted the word safe as if it had many possible meanings, none of them good. “You will also travel with another member of the Imperial Household just in case, ah, difficulties arise.”

  Nero curled his pinky again. From the shadows near the stairs appeared a teenage boy who looked very much like the sort of boy who enjoyed appearing from shadows. His dark hair hung over his eyes. He wore baggy black pants, a black muscle shirt (despite his lack of muscles), and enough gold jewelry around his neck to make him a proper festival idol. At his belt hung three sheathed daggers, two on the right and one on the left. The predatory gleam in his eyes made me suspect those blades were not just for show.

  In all, the boy reminded me somewhat of Nico di Angelo, the son of Hades, if Nico were slightly older, more vicious, and had been raised by jackals.

  “Ah, good, Marcus,” Nero said. “Show Meg your destination, will you?”

  Marcus smiled thinly. He held up his palm, and a glowing image appeared above his fingertips: a bird’s-eye view of a city I now recognized as Indianapolis.

  Nero popped another strawberry in his mouth. He chewed it slowly, letting the juice dribble down his weak chin. I decided that if I ever returned to Camp Half-Blood, I would have to convince Chiron to change their cash crop to blueberries.

  “Meg, my dear,” Nero said, “I want you to succeed. Please don’t fail. If the Beast becomes cross with you again…” He shrugged helplessly. His voice ached with sincerity and concern. “I just don’t know how I could protect you. Find Apollo. Subject him to your will. I know you can do this. And, my dear, do be careful in the court of our friend the New Hercules. He is not as much a gentleman as I. Don’t get caught up in his obsession with destroying the House of Nets. That’s a mere sideshow. Succeed quickly and come back to me.” Nero spread his arms. “Then we can be one happy family again.”

  The boy Marcus opened his mouth, perhaps to make a snide comment, but when he spoke it was Leo Valdez’s voice, shattering the vision. “Apollo!”

  I gasped. I was back in the Waystation, sprawled across the couch. Standing over me, frowning with concern, were our hosts, Josephine and Emmie, along with Leo and Calypso.

  “I—I had a dream.” I pointed weakly at Emmie. “And you were there. And…the rest of you, not so much, but—”

  “A dream?” Leo shook his head. He was now dressed in a pair of grimy overalls. “Man, your eyes were wide open. You were lying there all twitching and stuff. I’ve seen you have some visions before, but not like that.”

  I realized my arms were shaking. I grabbed my right hand with my left, but that only made it worse. “I—I heard some new details, or things I didn’t remember from before. About Meg. And the emperors. And—”

  Josephine patted my head as if I were a cocker spaniel. “You sure you’re okay there, Sunny? You don’t look so hot.”

  There was a time when I would have deep-fried anyone who called me Sunny. After I took over the reins of the sun chariot from the old Titan god Helios, Ares had called me Sunny for centuries. It was one of the few jokes he understood (at least one of the few clean jokes).

  “I’m fine,” I snapped. “Wh-what’s going on? Calypso, you’re already healed?”

  “You’ve been out for hours, actually.” She raised her recently broken hand, which now looked as good as new, and wriggled her fingers. “But yes. Emmie is a healer to rival Apollo.”

  “You had to say that,” I grumbled. “You mean I’ve been lying here for hours and nobody noticed?”

  Leo shrugged. “We were kinda busy talking shop. We probably wouldn’t have noticed you as soon as we did except, uh, somebody here wants to talk to you.”

  “Mmm,” Calypso agreed, a worried look in her eyes. “He’s been very insistent about it.”

  She pointed toward the rose window.

  At first, I thought I was seeing orange spots. Then I realized an apparition was floating toward me. Our friend Agamethus, the headless ghost, had returned.

  Oh, Magic 8 Ball

  Epic fail at prophecies

  Leo’s ear’s on fire

  THE GHOST DRIFTED toward us. His mood was difficult to discern, since he had no face, but he seemed agitated. He pointed at me, then made a series of hand gestures I didn’t understand—shaking his fists, lacing his fingers, cupping one hand as if holding a sphere. He stopped on the opposite side of the coffee table.

  “’Sup, Cheese?” Leo asked.

  Josephine snorted. “Cheese?”

  “Yeah, he’s orange,” Leo said. “Why is that? Also, why is he headless?”

  “Leo,” Calypso chided. “Don’t be rude.”

  “Hey, it’s a fair question.”

  Emmie studied the ghost’s hand gestures. “I’ve never seen him this worked up. He glows orange because…Well, actually I have no idea. As for why he is headless—”

  “His brother cut off his head,” I supplied. The memory surfaced from the dark stew of my mortal brain, though I did not recall the details. “Agamethus was the brother of Trophonius, the spirit of the Dark Oracle. He…” There was something else, something that filled me with guilt, but I couldn’t remember.

  The others stared at me.

  “His brother did what?” Calypso asked.

  “How did you know that?” Emmie demanded.

  I had no answer. I was not sure myself where the information had come from. But the ghost pointed at me as if to say, This dude knows what’s up, or possibly, more disturbingly, It’s your fault. Then he again made the gesture of holding a sphere.

  “He wants the Magic 8 Ball,” Josephine interpreted. “I’ll be right back.”

  She jogged over to her workshop.

  “The Magic 8 Ball?” Leo grinned at Emmie. The name tag on his borrowed overalls read GEORGIE. “She’s kidding, right?”

  “She’s dead serious,” Emmie said. “Er…so to speak. We might as well sit.”

  Calypso and Emmie took the armchairs. Leo hopped onto the couch next to me, bouncing up and down with such enthusiasm I had an annoying pang of nostalgia for Meg McCaffrey. As we waited for Josephine, I tried to dredge my memory for more specifics about this ghost Agamethus. Why would his brother Trophonius have decapitated him, and why did I feel so guilty about it? But I had no success—just a vague sense of unease, and the feeling that despite his lack of eyes, Agamethus was glaring at me.

  Finally, Josie trotted back over. In one hand, she gripped a black plastic sphere the size of a honeydew melon. On one side, painted in the middle of a white circle, was the number 8.

  “I love those things!” Leo said. “Haven’t seen one in years.”

  I scowled at the sphere, wondering if it was some sort of bomb. That would explain Leo’s excitement. “What does it do?”

  “Are you kidding?” asked Leo. “It’s a Magic 8 Ball, man. You ask it questions about the future.”

  “Impossible,” I said. “I am the god of prophecy. I know every form of divination, and I have never heard of a Magic 8 Ball.”

  Calypso leaned forward. “I’m not familiar with this form of sorcery, either. How does it work?”

  Josephine beamed. “Well, it’s supposed to be just a toy. You shake it, turn it over, and an answer floats up in this little plastic window on the bottom. I made some modifications. Sometimes the Magic 8 Ball picks up on Agamethus’s thoughts and conveys them in writing.”

  “Sometimes?” Leo asked.

  Josephine shrugged. “Like, thirty percent of the time. Best I could manage.”

>   I still had no idea what she was talking about. The Magic 8 Ball struck me as a very shady form of divination—more like a Hermes game of chance than an Oracle worthy of me.

  “Wouldn’t it be faster if Agamethus simply wrote down what he wanted to say?” I asked.

  Emmie shot me a warning look. “Agamethus is illiterate. He’s a little sensitive about that.”

  The ghost turned toward me. His aura darkened to the color of a blood orange.

  “Ah…” I said. “And those hand gestures he was making?”

  “It’s no form of sign language that we can figure out,” Jo said. “We’ve been trying for seven years, ever since Agamethus joined us. The Magic 8 Ball’s the best form of communication we’ve got. Here, buddy.”

  She tossed him the magical sphere. Since Agamethus was ethereal, I expected the ball to sail right through him and shatter on the floor. Instead, Agamethus caught it easily.

  “Okay!” Josephine said. “So, Agamethus, what do you want to tell us?”

  The ghost shook the Magic 8 Ball vigorously and then threw it to me. I was not prepared for the sphere to be full of liquid, which, as any water-bottle-flipper can tell you, makes an object much more difficult to control. It hit my chest and dropped into my lap. I barely caught it before it wobbled off the couch.

  “Master of dexterity,” Calypso muttered. “Turn it over. Weren’t you listening?”

  “Oh, be quiet.” I wished Calypso could only communicate 30 percent of the time. I rotated the ball bottom-up.

  As Josephine had described, a layer of clear plastic was set in the base of the sphere, providing a window to the liquid inside. A large white multisided die floated into view. (I knew this thing smacked of Hermes’s wretched gambling games!) One side of it pressed against the window, revealing a sentence written in block letters.

  “‘Apollo must bring her home,’” I read aloud.

  I looked up. Emmie’s and Josephine’s faces had become twin masks of shock. Calypso and Leo exchanged a wary glance.

  Leo started to say, “Uh, what—?”

  Simultaneously, Emmie and Josephine unleashed a torrent of questions: “Is she alive? Is she safe? Where is she? Tell me!”

  Emmie shot to her feet. She began to pace, sobbing in great dry heaves, while Josephine advanced on me, her fists clenched, her gaze as sharp as the pointed flame of her welding torch.

  “I don’t know!” I tossed Josephine the ball as if it were a hot baklava. “Don’t kill me!”

  She caught the Magic 8 Ball, then seemed to check herself. She took a heavy breath. “Sorry, Apollo. Sorry. I…” She turned to Agamethus. “Here. Answer us. Tell us.”

  She threw him the ball.

  Agamethus seemed to regard the magical sphere with his nonexistent eyes. His shoulders slumped as if he did not relish his job. He shook the ball once again and tossed it back to me.

  “Why me?” I protested.

  “Read it!” Emmie snapped.

  I turned it over. A new message appeared out of the liquid.

  “‘Reply hazy,’” I read aloud. “‘Try again later.’”

  Emmie wailed in despair. She sank into her seat and buried her face in her hands. Josephine rushed to her side.

  Leo frowned at the ghost. “Yo, Cheese, just shake it again, man.”

  “It’s no use,” Josephine said. “When the Magic 8 Ball says try again later, that’s exactly what it means. We’ll have to wait.”

  She sat on the arm of Emmie’s chair and cradled Emmie’s head against her. “It’s all right,” Josie murmured. “We’ll find her. We’ll get her back.”

  Hesitantly, Calypso stretched out her palm, as if she weren’t sure how to help. “I’m so sorry. Who—who is missing?”

  With a quivering lip, Josephine pointed to Leo.

  Leo blinked. “Uh, I’m still here—”

  “Not you,” Josephine said. “The name tag. Those overalls—they were hers.”

  Leo patted the stitched name on his chest. “Georgie?”

  Emmie nodded, her eyes puffy and red. “Georgina. Our adopted daughter.”

  I was glad I was sitting down. Suddenly, so many things made sense that they overwhelmed me like another vision: the two aging Hunters who were not Hunters, the child’s empty bedroom, the crayon drawings done by a little girl. Josephine had mentioned that Agamethus arrived in their lives approximately seven years ago.

  “You two left the Hunters,” I said. “For each other.”

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