The dark prophecy, p.6
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.6
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  Leo leered at me over the top of a steaming salad plate. “You forgot the Throne of Memory? Isn’t that a mortal sin or something?”

  “The only mortal sin,” I said, “would be failing to incinerate you as soon as I become a god again.”

  “You could try,” Leo said. “But then how would you learn those secret scales on the Valdezinator?”

  I accidentally sprayed myself in the face. “What secret scales?”

  “Both of you, stop,” Calypso ordered. “Apollo, why is this Throne of Memory important?”

  I wiped the water off my face. Talking about the Throne of Memory had jogged loose a few more pieces of information from my mind, but I didn’t like what I’d remembered.

  “Before a petitioner went into the Cave of Trophonius,” I said, “he or she was supposed to drink from two magical springs: Forgetfulness and Memory.”

  Leo picked up another plate. Steam curled from the porcelain. “Wouldn’t the two springs, like, cancel each other out?”

  I shook my head. “Assuming the experience didn’t kill you, it would prepare your mind for the Oracle. You would then descend into the cave and experience…untold horrors.”

  “Such as?” Calypso asked.

  “I just said they were untold. I do know that Trophonius would fill your mind with bits of nightmarish verse that, if assembled properly, became a prophecy. Once you stumbled out of the cave—assuming you lived and weren’t driven permanently insane—the priests would sit you down on the Throne of Memory. The verses would come spilling out of your mouth. A priest would write them down, and voilà! There’s your prophecy. With any luck, your mind would return to normal.”

  Leo whistled. “That is one messed-up Oracle. I like the singing trees better.”

  I suppressed a shudder. Leo hadn’t been with me in the Grove of Dodona. He didn’t appreciate just how terrible those clashing voices were. But he had a point. There was a reason few people remembered the Cave of Trophonius. It wasn’t a place that got rave write-ups in the yearly “Hot Oracles to Visit Now” articles.

  Calypso took a bread pan from me and began to wash it. She seemed to know what she was doing, though her hands were so lovely I couldn’t imagine she often did her own dishes. I would have to ask her which moisturizer she used.

  “What if the petitioner couldn’t use the throne?” she asked.

  Leo snickered. “Use the throne.”

  Calypso glared at him.

  “Sorry.” Leo tried to look serious, which for him was always a losing battle.

  “If the petitioner couldn’t use the throne,” I said, “there would be no way to extract the bits of verse from his or her mind. The petitioner would be stuck with those horrors from the cave—forever.”

  Calypso rinsed the pan. “Georgina…that poor child. What do you think happened to her?”

  I didn’t want to think about that. The possibilities made my skin crawl. “Somehow she must have made it into the cave. She survived the Oracle. She made it back here, but…not in good shape.” I recalled the frowny-faced knife-wielding stick figures on her bedroom wall. “My guess is that the emperor subsequently seized control of the Throne of Memory. Without that, Georgina would never be able to recover fully. Perhaps she left again and went looking for it…and was captured.”

  Leo muttered a curse in Spanish. “I keep thinking about my little bro Harley back at camp. If somebody tried to hurt him…” He shook his head. “Who is this emperor and how soon can we stomp him?”

  I scrubbed the last of the pans. At least this was one epic quest I had successfully completed. I stared at the bubbles fizzing on my hands.

  “I have a pretty good idea who the emperor is,” I admitted. “Josephine started to say his name. But Emmie is right—it’s best not to speak it aloud. The New Hercules…” I swallowed. In my stomach, salad and bread seemed to be holding a mud-wrestling contest. “He was not a nice person.”

  In fact, if I had the right emperor, this quest could be personally awkward. I hoped I was wrong. Perhaps I could stay at the Waystation and direct operations while Calypso and Leo did the actual fighting. That seemed only fair, since I’d had to scrub the dishes.

  Leo put away the dinner plates. His eyes scanned side to side as if reading invisible equations.

  “This project Josephine is working on,” he said. “She’s building some kind of tracking device. I didn’t ask, but…she must be trying to find Georgina.”

  “Of course.” Calypso’s voice took on a sharper edge. “Can you imagine losing your child?”

  Leo’s ears reddened. “Yeah. But I was thinking, if we can get back to Festus, I could run some numbers, maybe reprogram his Archimedes sphere—”

  Calypso threw in the towel, quite literally. It landed in the sink with a damp flop. “Leo, you can’t reduce everything to a program.”

  He blinked. “I’m not. I just—”

  “You’re trying to fix it,” Calypso said. “As if every problem is a machine. Jo and Emmie are in serious pain. Emmie told me they’re thinking about abandoning the Waystation, giving themselves up to the emperor if it’ll save their daughter. They don’t need gadgets or jokes or fixes. Try listening.”

  Leo held out his hands. For once, he didn’t seem to know what to do with them. “Look, babe—”

  “Don’t babe me,” she snapped. “Don’t—”

  “APOLLO?” Josephine’s voice boomed from the main hall. She didn’t sound panicked exactly, but definitely tense—somewhat like the atmosphere in the kitchen.

  I stepped away from the happy couple. Calypso’s outburst had taken me by surprise, but as I thought about it, I recalled half a dozen other spats between her and Leo as we had traveled west. I simply hadn’t thought much about them because…well, the fights weren’t about me. Also, compared to godly lovers’ quarrels, Leo and Calypso’s were nothing.

  I pointed over my shoulder. “I think I’ll just, uh…”

  I left the kitchen.

  In the middle of the main hall, Emmie and Josephine stood with their weapons at their sides. I couldn’t quite read their expressions—expectant, on edge, the way Zeus’s cupbearer Ganymede looked whenever he gave Zeus a new wine to try.

  “Apollo.” Emmie pointed over my head, where griffin nests lined the edge of the ceiling. “You have a visitor.”

  In order to see who Emmie was pointing at, I had to step forward onto the rug and turn around. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. As soon as I placed my foot on the rug, I thought, Wait, was this rug here before?

  Which was followed closely by the thought: Why does this rug look like a tightly woven net?

  Followed by: This is a net.

  Followed by: YIKES!

  The net enmeshed me and rocketed me into the air. I regained the power of flight. For a microsecond, I imagined I was being recalled to Olympus—ascending in glory to sit at the right hand of my father. (Well, three thrones down on Zeus’s right, anyway.)

  Then gravity took hold. I bounced like a yo-yo. One moment I was eye-level with Leo and Calypso, who were gaping at me from the kitchen entrance. The next moment I was even with the griffins’ nests, staring into the face of a goddess I knew all too well.

  You’re probably thinking: It was Artemis. This net trap was just a little sibling prank. Surely no loving sister would let her brother suffer so much for so long. She has finally come to rescue our hero, Apollo!

  No. It was not Artemis.

  The young woman sat on the molding ledge, playfully swinging her legs. I recognized her elaborately laced sandals, her dress made from layers of mesh in forest-colored camouflage. Her braided auburn hair made a ponytail so long it wrapped around her neck like a scarf or a noose. Her fierce dark eyes reminded me of a panther watching its prey from the shadows of the underbrush—a panther with a twisted sense of humor.

  A goddess, yes. But not the one I had hoped for.

  “You,” I snarled. It was difficult to sound menacing while bobbing up and down in a

  “Hello, Apollo.” Britomartis, the goddess of nets, smiled coyly. “I hear you’re human now. This is going to be fun.”

  Of course it’s a trap

  With her, it always is one

  Trappy McTrapface

  BRITOMARTIS JUMPED from the ledge and landed in a kneeling position, her skirts spread around her in a pool of netting.

  (She loves those dramatic entrances. She is such an anime-character wannabe.)

  The goddess rose. She pulled out her hunting knife. “Apollo, if you value your anatomy, hold still.”

  I had no time to protest that I couldn’t exactly hold still while suspended in a swaying net. She slashed her knife across my groin. The net broke and spilled me to the floor, thankfully with my anatomy intact.

  My landing was not graceful. Fortunately, Leo and Calypso rushed to my aid. They each took an arm and helped me up. I was reassured to see that despite their recent spat, they could still unite on important matters like my welfare.

  Leo reached into his tool belt, perhaps searching for a weapon. Instead he produced a tin of breath mints. I doubted that would do us much good.

  “Who is this lady?” he asked me.

  “Britomartis,” I said. “The Lady of Nets.”

  Leo looked dubious. “Does that include basketball and the Internet?”

  “Just hunting and fishing nets,” I said. “She is one of my sister’s minions.”

  “Minion?” Britomartis wrinkled her nose. “I am no minion.”

  Behind us, Josephine coughed. “Uh, sorry, Apollo. The Lady insisted on getting your attention this way.”

  The goddess’s face brightened. “Well, I had to see if he would step in my trap. And he did. As usual. Hemithea, Josephine…give us the room, please.”

  Our hosts glanced at each other, probably wondering which of them would have to clean up the bodies after Britomartis was through with us. Then they retreated through a doorway at the back of the hall.

  Calypso sized up the net goddess. “Britomartis, eh? Never heard of you. You must be minor.”

  Britomartis smiled thinly. “Oh, but I’ve heard of you, Calypso. Exiled to Ogygia after the Titan War. Waiting for whatever man might wash up on your shores to break your heart and leave you alone again. That must have gotten terribly old.” She turned to Leo. “This is your rescuer, eh? A bit short and scruffy for a knight in shining armor.”

  “Hey, lady.” Leo shook his tin of breath mints. “I’ve blown up way more powerful goddesses than you before.”

  “And he’s not my rescuer,” Calypso added.

  “Yeah!” Leo frowned. “Wait, I kind of was, actually.”

  “Nor is he a knight,” Calypso mused. “Although he is short and scruffy.”

  A puff of smoke rose from Leo’s collar. “Anyway”—he faced Britomartis—“where do you get off ordering Jo and Emmie around like this is your house?”

  I grabbed his breath mints before Britomartis could transform them into nitroglycerin. “Leo, I’m afraid this is her house.”

  The goddess gave me that coquettish smile I hated so much—the one that made me feel as if hot nectar were bubbling in my stomach. “Why, Apollo, you made a correct deduction! How did you manage it?”

  Whenever I was faced with Britomartis, I made myself just a bit taller than she. Alas, now I could not change my height at will. The best I could do was push up on the balls of my feet.

  “Nero called this place the House of Nets,” I said. “I should’ve realized the Waystation was your idea. Whenever my sister wanted to design some elaborate contraption—something twisted and dangerous—she always turned to you.”

  The goddess curtsied, swirling her net skirts. “You flatter me. Now come, my friends! Let’s sit and talk!”

  She gestured to the nearest cluster of sofas.

  Leo approached the furniture cautiously. For all his faults, he was not stupid. Calypso was about to sink into an armchair when Leo caught her wrist. “Hold up.”

  From his tool belt he pulled a folding yardstick. He extended it and poked the chair’s seat cushion. A bear trap snapped shut, ripping through stuffing and fabric like an upholstery sharknado.

  Calypso glared at Britomartis. “Are you kidding?”

  “Oops!” Britomartis said gleefully.

  Leo pointed to one of the sofas, though I could see nothing amiss. “There’s a trip wire along the back of those cushions, too. Does that…Does that trigger a Bouncing Betty?”

  Britomartis laughed. “You’re good! Yes, indeed. That is a modified pressure-activated S-mine.”

  “Lady, if that went off, it would bounce three feet in the air, explode, and kill all of us with shrapnel.”

  “Exactly!” Britomartis said with delight. “Leo Valdez, you’ll do nicely.”

  Leo glowered at her. He pulled some wire cutters from his belt, walked over to the sofa, and deactivated the mine.

  I took a breath for the first time in several seconds. “I think I’ll sit…over here.” I pointed to the opposite sofa. “Is that safe?”

  Leo grunted. “Yeah. Looks okay.”

  Once we were all comfortably settled in, with no one mangled or killed, Britomartis lounged across the formerly bear-trapped armchair and smiled. “Well, isn’t this nice?”

  “No,” the three of us chorused.

  Britomartis toyed with her braid, possibly looking for trip wires she might have forgotten about. “You asked me why I sent Jo and Emmie away. I love them dearly, but I don’t think they’d appreciate the quest I’m about to give you.”

  “Quest?” Calypso arched her eyebrows. “I’m pretty sure I’m an older divinity than you, Bouncing Betty. What right do you have to give me a quest?”

  Britomartis flashed that flirty smile. “Aren’t you cute. Hon, I was around when the ancient Greeks were living in caves. I started out as a Cretan goddess. When the rest of my pantheon died out, Artemis befriended me. I joined her Hunters and here I am, thousands of years later, still weaving my nets and setting my traps.”

  “Yes,” I grumbled. “Here you are.”

  The goddess spread her arms. Lead weights and fishing hooks dangled from her embroidered sleeves. “Dear Apollo, you really do make a darling Lester Papadopoulos. Come here.”

  “Don’t tease me,” I begged.

  “I’m not! Now that you’re a harmless mortal, I’ve decided to finally give you that kiss.”

  I knew she was lying. I knew that her dress would entangle me and hurt me. I recognized the malicious gleam in her rust-red eyes.

  She had led me astray so many times over the millennia.

  I flirted shamelessly with all my sister’s followers. But Britomartis was the only one who ever flirted back, even though she was just as much an avowed maiden as any Hunter. She delighted in tormenting me. And how many times had she pranked me by offering to set me up with other people? Gah! Artemis had never been known for her sense of humor, but her sidekick Britomartis more than made up for that. She was insufferable. Beautiful, but insufferable.

  I admit I was tempted. Weak mortal flesh! Even weaker than divine flesh!

  I shook my head. “You’re tricking me. I won’t do it.”

  She looked offended. “When have I ever tricked you?”

  “Thebes!” I cried. “You promised to meet me in the forest for a romantic picnic. Instead I was trampled by a giant wild boar!”

  “That was a misunderstanding.”

  “What about the Ingrid Bergman incident?”

  “Oh, she really did want to meet you. How was I to know someone had dug a Burmese tiger pit outside her trailer?”

  “And the date with Rock Hudson?”

  Britomartis shrugged. “Well, I never actually said he was waiting for you in the middle of that minefield. I just let you assume. You have to admit, though, the two of you would’ve made a cute couple.”

  I whimpered and pulled my curly mortal hair. Britomartis knew me too well. I was a fool for being in a cute couple.

/>   Leo looked back and forth between us as if he’d stumbled across a heated game of Greek fire toss. (It was big in Byzantium. Don’t ask.)

  “Rock Hudson,” he said. “In a minefield.”

  Britomartis beamed. “Apollo was so adorable, skipping through the daisies until he exploded.”

  “In case you’ve forgotten,” I muttered, “I am no longer immortal. So, please, no Burmese tiger pits.”

  “I wouldn’t dream of it!” said the goddess. “No, this quest isn’t designed to kill you. It might kill you, but it’s not designed to. I just want my griffins back.”

  Calypso frowned. “Your griffins?”

  “Yes,” the goddess said. “They are winged lion-eagle hybrids with—”

  “I know what a griffin is,” Calypso said. “I know Jo and Emmie breed them here. But why are they yours?”

  I coughed. “Calypso, griffins are the goddess’s sacred animals. She is their mother.”

  Britomartis rolled her eyes. “Only in a figurative sense. I don’t sit on their eggs and hatch them.”

  “You convinced me to do that once,” I recalled. “For a kiss I never got.”

  She laughed. “Yes, I’d forgotten about that! At any rate, the local emperor has captured my babies Heloise and Abelard. In fact, he’s been capturing mythical animals from all over the Midwest to use in his diabolic games. They must be freed.”

  Leo studied the disassembled land mine pieces in his lap. “The kid. Georgina. That’s why you don’t want Jo and Emmie here. You’re putting your griffins’ safety ahead of their daughter’s.”

  Britomartis shrugged. “Jo and Emmie’s priorities have been compromised. They would not be able to hear this, but the griffins must come first. I have my reasons. Being a goddess, my needs take precedence.”

  Calypso sniffed with disgust. “You’re as greedy and territorial as your babies.”

  “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” said the goddess. “I promised Artemis I would try to help you three, but don’t test my patience. You’d look wonderful as a northern crested newt.”

  A mixture of hope and sadness welled in my chest. Artemis, my loving sister, had not abandoned me after all. Zeus may have forbidden the other Olympians from helping me, but at least Artemis had sent her lieutenant Britomartis. Of course, Britomartis’s idea of “help” involved testing us with land mines and bear traps, but at this point I would take what I could get.

  “And if we find these griffins?” I asked.

  “Then I’ll tell you how to infiltrate the emperor’s lair,” Britomartis promised. “Being the goddess of traps, I know all about secret entrances!”

  I stared at her. “How is that a fair trade?”

  “Because, you adorable Lester, you need to infiltrate the palace to rescue Georgina and the other prisoners. Without them, the Waystation is doomed, and so are your chances of stopping the Triumvirate. Also, the palace is where you’ll find the Throne of Memory. If you can’t retrieve that, your trip to the Cave of Trophonius will kill you. You’ll never save the other Oracles. You’ll never get back to Mount Olympus.”

  I turned to Leo. “I’m new to this heroic-quest business. Shouldn’t there be a reward at the end? Not just more deadly quests?”

  “Nope,” Leo said. “This is pretty standard.”

  Oh, the injustice! A minor goddess forcing me, one of the twelve Olympians, to retrieve animals for her! I silently vowed that if I ever regained my godhood, I would never again send a poor mortal on a quest. Unless it was really important. And unless I was sure the mortal could handle it. And unless I was pressed for time…or I just really didn’t feel like doing it myself. I would be much kinder and more generous than this net goddess was being to me.

  “What would you have us do?” I asked Britomartis. “Wouldn’t these griffins be held at the emperor’s palace? Couldn’t we do some one-stop shopping?”