The dark prophecy, p.7
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       The Dark Prophecy, p.7
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         Part #2 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  “Oh, no,” Britomartis said. “The really important animals, the rare and valuable ones…the emperor keeps those in a special facility with the proper resources to care for them. The Indianapolis Zoo.”

  I shuddered. I find zoos to be depressing places, full of sad caged animals, screaming children, and bad food.

  “The griffins will be well guarded,” I guessed.

  “Absolutely!” Britomartis sounded a bit too excited about the prospect. “So please try to release the griffins before you get injured or killed. Also, you must hurry—”

  “Here comes the time limit.” Leo looked at me knowingly. “There’s always a time limit.”

  “In three days,” Britomartis continued, “the emperor plans to use all the animals and prisoners in one massive celebration.”

  “A naming ceremony,” I recalled. “Nanette, the blemmyae who almost killed us, she mentioned something about that.”

  “Indeed.” Britomartis grimaced. “This emperor…he loves naming things after himself. At the ceremony, he plans to rechristen Indianapolis.”

  That in itself did not strike me as a tragedy. Indianapolis was a rather difficult name to love. However, if this emperor was who I thought he was, his idea of a celebration involved slaughtering people and animals by the thousands. He really was not the sort of person you wanted organizing your child’s birthday party.

  “The blemmyae mentioned something else,” I said. “The emperor wanted to sacrifice two special prisoners. Me and the girl.”

  Calypso clasped her hands like the jaws of the bear trap. “Georgina.”

  “Exactly!” Britomartis again sounded a bit too cheerful. “The girl is safe enough for now. Imprisoned and insane, yes, but alive. You concentrate on freeing my griffins. Go to the zoo at first light. The emperor’s guards will be ending their night shift then. They’ll be tired and inattentive.”

  I gazed at the land mine pieces in Leo’s hands. Death by explosion was starting to sound like a kinder fate than Britomartis’s quest.

  “At least I won’t be alone,” I muttered.

  “Actually,” said the goddess, “Leo Valdez must remain here.”

  Leo flinched. “Say what?”

  “You’ve proven yourself skilled with traps!” the goddess explained. “Emmie and Josephine need your help. The Waystation has defied discovery by the emperor so far, but that won’t last much longer. He can’t tolerate any opposition. He will find this sanctuary. And he means to destroy it. You, Leo Valdez, can help shore up the defenses.”


  “Cheer up!” Britomartis faced Calypso. “You can go with Apollo, my dear. Two former immortals on a quest for me! Yes, I like that idea a lot.”

  Calypso paled. “But…No. I don’t—”

  “She can’t,” I added.

  The sorceress nodded emphatically. “We don’t get along, so—”

  “It’s settled, then!” The goddess rose from her chair. “I’ll meet you back here when you have my griffins. Don’t fail me, mortals!” She clapped her hands with glee. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to say that!”

  She twirled and disappeared in a flash like a fishing lure, leaving nothing behind but a few treble hooks snagged in the carpet.

  Scrubbing toilets now

  At least there’s a great reward

  Leftover tofu

  AFTER BEAR TRAPS and pressure-activated explosives, I didn’t think the afternoon could get any worse. Of course, it did.

  Once we told Emmie and Josephine what had happened with Britomartis, our hosts sank into despair. They didn’t seem reassured that the griffin quest might lead to Georgina’s rescue, or that their little girl would remain alive until the spectacular kill-fest the emperor had planned in three days.

  Emmie and Jo were so resentful—not just of Britomartis but also of us—that they assigned us more chores. Oh, sure, they claimed that all guests had to help out. The Waystation was a communal living space, not a hotel, blah, blah, blah.

  I knew better. There was no way scrubbing toilets in the Waystation’s twenty-six known bathrooms was anything but a punishment.

  At least I didn’t have to change the hay in the griffins’ lofts. By the time Leo was done with that, he looked like the victim of mugging by scarecrow. As for Calypso, she got to plant mung beans all afternoon with Emmie. I ask you, how is that fair?

  By dinnertime, I was starving. I hoped for another fresh meal, preferably one prepared for me, but Josephine waved listlessly toward the kitchen. “I think there’s some leftover tofu enchiladas in the fridge. Agamethus will show you to your rooms.”

  She and Emmie left us to fend for ourselves.

  The glowing orange ghost escorted Calypso to her room first. Agamethus let it be known, via the Magic 8 Ball and lots of gesticulation, that girls and boys always slept in entirely different wings.

  I found this ridiculous, but like so many things about my sister and her Hunters, it was beyond logic.

  Calypso didn’t complain. Before leaving, she turned to us hesitantly and said, “See you in the morning,” as if this was a huge concession. As if by talking to Leo and me at all, she was going above and beyond the courtesy we deserved. Honestly, I didn’t see how anyone could act so haughty after an afternoon planting legumes.

  A few minutes later, armed with leftovers from the fridge, Leo and I followed Agamethus to our guest room.

  That’s right. We had to share, which I took as another sign of our hosts’ displeasure.

  Before leaving us, Agamethus tossed me his Magic 8 Ball.

  I frowned. “I didn’t ask you a question.”

  He pointed emphatically at the magic orb.

  I turned it over and read APOLLO MUST BRING HER HOME.

  I wished the ghost had a face so I might interpret it. “You already told me that.”

  I tossed the ball back to him, hoping for further explanation. Agamethus hovered expectantly, as if waiting for me to realize something. Then, shoulders slumped, he turned and floated away.

  I was in no mood for reheated tofu enchiladas. I gave mine to Leo, who sat cross-legged on his bed and inhaled his food. He still wore Georgina’s coveralls with a light frosting of hay. He seemed to have decided that being able to fit in a seven-year-old girl’s work clothes was a mark of honor.

  I lay back on my bed. I stared at the arched brickwork on the ceiling, wondering if and when it would collapse on my head. “I miss my cot at Camp Half-Blood.”

  “This place ain’t so bad,” Leo said. “When I was between foster homes, I slept under the Main Street Bridge in Houston for like a month.”

  I glanced over. He did look quite comfortable in his nest of hay and blankets.

  “You will change clothes before turning in?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “I’ll shower in the morning. If I get itchy in the middle of the night, I’ll just burst into flames.”

  “I’m not in the mood for joking. Not after Britomartis.”

  “Who’s joking? Don’t worry. I’m sure Jo has this place rigged with fire-suppression equipment.”

  The thought of waking up burning and covered in extinguisher foam did not appeal to me, but it would be about par for the course.

  Leo tapped his fork against his plate. “These tofu enchiladas are sabrosas. Gotta get the recipe from Josephine. My homegirl Piper would love them.”

  “How can you be so calm?” I demanded. “I am going on a dangerous quest tomorrow with your girlfriend!”

  Normally, telling a mortal man that I was going somewhere with his girlfriend would’ve been enough to break his heart.

  Leo concentrated on his tofu. “You guys will do fine.”

  “But Calypso has no powers! How will she help me?”

  “It ain’t about powers, ese. You watch. Calypso will still save your sorry butt tomorrow.”

  I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t want my sorry butt dependent on a former sorceress who had failed at street fighting and improvisational comedy, especially g
iven her recent mood.

  “And if she’s still angry in the morning?” I asked. “What’s going on between you two?”

  Leo’s fork hovered over his last enchilada. “It’s just…Six months we were traveling, trying to get to New York. Constant danger. Never staying in the same place longer than a night. Then another month and a half getting to Indianapolis.”

  I considered that. I tried to imagine suffering through four times as many trials as I’d already experienced. “I suppose that would put pressure on a new relationship.”

  Leo nodded glumly. “Calypso lived on her island for thousands of years, man. She’s all about gardening, weaving tapestries, making her surroundings beautiful. You can’t do any of that when you don’t have a home. Then there’s the fact that I—I took her away.”

  “You rescued her,” I said. “The gods were in no hurry to free her from her prison. She might have been on that island for a thousand more years.”

  Leo chewed his last bite. He swallowed as if the tofu had turned to clay (which, in my opinion, would not have been a dramatic change).

  “Sometimes she’s happy about it,” he said. “Other times, without her powers, without her immortality…it’s like…” He shook his head. “I was going to compare our relationship to a machine. She would hate that.”

  “I don’t mind machines.”

  He set his plate on the nightstand. “An engine is only built to handle so much stress, you know? Run it too fast for too long, it starts to overheat.”

  This I understood. Even my sun chariot got a bit tetchy when I drove it all day in Maserati form. “You need time for maintenance. You haven’t had a chance to find out who you are as a couple without all the danger and constant movement.”

  Leo smiled, though his eyes were devoid of their usual impish gleam. “Yeah. Except danger and constant movement—that’s pretty much my life. I don’t—I don’t know how to fix that. If it’s even fixable.”

  He picked a few pieces of straw off his borrowed coveralls. “Enough of that. Better sleep while you can, Sunny. I’m gonna crash.”

  “Don’t call me Sunny,” I complained.

  But it was too late. When Leo shuts down, he does so with the efficiency of a diesel generator. He flopped down sideways and immediately began to snore.

  I was not so lucky. I lay in bed for a long while, counting golden carnivorous sheep in my mind, until at last I drifted into uneasy sleep.

  Four beheaded dudes

  Are too much for one nightmare

  Why me? Sob. Sob. Sob.

  NATURALLY, I had terrible dreams.

  I found myself standing at the foot of a mighty fortress on a moonless night. Before me, rough-hewn walls soared hundreds of feet upward, flecks of feldspar glittering like stars.

  At first, I heard nothing but the whistling cries of owls in the woods behind me—a sound that always reminded me of nighttime in ancient Greece. Then, at the base of the stronghold, stone ground against stone. A small hatch appeared where none had been before. A young man crawled out, lugging a heavy sack behind him.

  “Come on!” he hissed to someone still in the tunnel.

  The man struggled to his feet, the contents of his sack clinking and clanking. Either he was taking out the recycling (unlikely) or he had just stolen a great deal of treasure.

  He turned in my direction, and a jolt of recognition made me want to scream like an owl.

  It was Trophonius. My son.

  You know that feeling when you suspect you might have fathered someone thousands of years ago, but you’re not really sure? Then you see that child as a grown man, and looking into his eyes, you know beyond a doubt that he is yours? Yes, I’m sure many of you can relate.

  I didn’t recall who his mother was…the wife of King Erginus, perhaps? She had been quite a beauty. Trophonius’s lustrous dark hair reminded me of hers. But his muscular physique and handsome face—that strong chin, that perfect nose, those rosy lips—yes, Trophonius clearly got his knockout good looks from me.

  His eyes gleamed with confidence as if to say, That’s right. I just crawled out of a tunnel, and I still look gorgeous.

  From the hatch, the head of another young man emerged. He must have had broader shoulders, because he was having trouble squeezing through.

  Trophonius laughed under his breath. “I told you not to eat so much, brother.”

  Despite his struggle, the other man looked up and grinned. He didn’t resemble Trophonius at all. His hair was blond and curly, his face as guileless, goofy, and ugly as a friendly donkey’s.

  I realized this was Agamethus—Trophonius’s half brother. He was no son of mine. The poor boy had the misfortune of being the actual offspring of King Erginus and his wife.

  “I can’t believe it worked,” said Agamethus, wriggling his left arm free.

  “Of course it worked,” said Trophonius. “We’re famous architects. We built the temple at Delphi. Why wouldn’t King Hyrieus trust us to build his treasury?”

  “Complete with a secret thieves’ tunnel!”

  “Well, he’ll never know about that,” Trophonius said. “The paranoid old fool will assume his servants stole all his treasure. Now hurry up, Wide Load.”

  Agamethus was too busy laughing to free himself. He stretched out his arm. “Help me.”

  Trophonius rolled his eyes. He slung his sack of treasure to the ground—and thereby sprang the trap.

  I knew what would happen next. I remembered the tale now that I saw it unfolding, but it was still hard to watch. King Hyrieus was paranoid, all right. Days before, he had scoured the treasury for any possible weaknesses. Upon finding the tunnel, he said nothing to his servants, his building crew, or his architects. He didn’t move his treasure. He simply laid a deadly trap and waited to find out exactly who planned to rob him….

  Trophonius set the bag of gold right on the trip wire, which only became active once a thief had exited the tunnel. The king intended to catch his betrayers red-handed.

  In the nearest tree, a mechanical bow fired a screaming flare skyward, cutting an arc of red flame across the dark. Inside the tunnel, a support beam snapped, crushing Agamethus’s chest under a shower of stone.

  Agamethus gasped, his free arm flailing. His eyes bulged as he coughed blood. Trophonius cried in horror. He ran to his brother’s side and tried to pull him free, but this only made Agamethus scream.

  “Leave me,” said Agamethus.

  “I won’t.” Tears streaked Trophonius’s face. “This is my fault. This was my idea! I’ll get help. I’ll—I’ll tell the guards—”

  “They’ll only kill you, too,” Agamethus croaked. “Go. While you can. And brother, the king knows my face.” He gasped, his breath gurgling. “When he finds my body—”

  “Don’t talk that way!”

  “He’ll know you were with me,” Agamethus continued, his eyes now clear and calm with the certainty of death. “He’ll track you down. He’ll declare war on our father. Make sure my body can’t be identified.”

  Agamethus clawed weakly at the knife hanging from his brother’s belt.

  Trophonius wailed. He understood what his brother was asking. He heard the guards shouting in the distance. They would be here soon.

  He raised his voice to the heavens. “Take me instead! Save him, Father, please!”

  Trophonius’s father, Apollo, chose to ignore his prayer.

  I gave you fame, Apollo was thinking. I let you design my temple at Delphi. Then you used your reputation and talents to become a thief. You brought this upon yourself.

  In despair, Trophonius drew his knife. He kissed his brother’s forehead one last time, then laid the blade across Agamethus’s neck.

  My dream changed.

  I stood in a long subterranean chamber like an alternate image of the Waystation’s main hall. Overhead, a curved ceiling glittered with white subway tiles. Along either side of the room, where the rail pits would’ve been in a train depot, open canals of water flowed. Rows of
television monitors lined the walls, flashing video clips of a bearded man with curly brown hair, perfect teeth, and brilliant blue eyes.

  The videos reminded me of Times Square ads for a late-night talk show host. The man mugged for the camera, laughing, kissing the screen, pretending to be off-balance. In each shot, he wore a different outfit—an Italian business suit, a race-car driver’s uniform, hunting fatigues—each cut from the skin of a lion.

  A title bounced around the screen in garish colors: THE NEW HERCULES!

  Yes. That’s what he liked to call himself back in Roman times. He had that hero’s shockingly good physique, but he wasn’t the actual Hercules. I should know. I’d dealt with Hercules on many occasions. This emperor was more like someone’s idea of Hercules—an airbrushed, overly muscular caricature.

  In the middle of the hall, flanked by bodyguards and attendants, was the man himself, lounging on a white granite throne. Not many emperors can look imperial wearing only lion-skin swim trunks, but Commodus managed. One of his legs was thrown casually over the throne’s armrest. His golden abs formed such a six-pack I imagined I could see the pop-top tabs. With an immensely bored expression, using only two fingers, he twirled a six-foot-long poleax that came very close to threatening his nearest advisor’s anatomy.

  I wanted to whimper. Not just because I still found Commodus attractive after so many centuries, not just because we had a, er, complicated history, but also because he reminded me what I used to be like. Oh, to be able to look in the mirror and see perfection again, not a pudgy awkward boy with a bad complexion!

  I forced myself to focus on the other people in the room. Kneeling before the emperor were two people I’d seen in my vision of Nero’s penthouse—Marcus the blinged-out jackal boy, and Vortigern the barbarian.

  Marcus was trying to explain something to the emperor. He waved his hands desperately. “We tried! Sire, listen!”

  The emperor did not seem inclined to listen. His uninterested gaze drifted across the throne room to various amusements: a rack of torture tools, a row of arcade games, a set of weights, and a freestanding target board plastered with…oh, dear, the face of Lester Papadopoulos, bristling with embedded throwing knives.

  In the shadows at the back of the room, strange animals moved restlessly in cages. I saw no griffins, but there were other fabled beasts I hadn’t seen in centuries. Half a dozen winged Arabian serpents fluttered in an oversize canary cage. Inside a golden pen, a pair of bull-like creatures with huge horns snuffled at a feeding trough. European yales, perhaps? Goodness, those had been rare even back in ancient times.

  Marcus kept yammering excuses until, on the emperor’s left, a portly man in a crimson business suit snapped, “ENOUGH!”

  The advisor made a wide arc around the emperor’s spinning poleax. His face was so red and sweaty that, as a god of medicine, I wanted to warn him he was dangerously close to congestive heart failure. He advanced on the two supplicants.

  “You are telling us,” he snarled, “that you lost her. Two strong, capable servants of the Triumvirate lost a little girl. How could that happen?”

  Marcus cupped his hands. “Lord Cleander, I don’t know! We stopped at a convenience store outside of Dayton. She went to the restroom and—and she disappeared.”

  Marcus glanced at his companion for support. Vortigern grunted.

  Cleander, the red-suited advisor, scowled. “Was there any sort of plant near this restroom?”

  Marcus blinked. “Plant?”

  “Yes, you fool. The growing kind.”

  “I…well, there was a clump of dandelions growing from a crack in the pavement by the door, but—”

  “What?” yelled Cleander. “You let a daughter of Demeter near a plant?”

  A daughter of Demeter. My heart felt like it had been launched upward in one
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