Read The Dark Prophecy Page 2

“We can’t manage him and Calypso! We’ll come back later. The blemmyae might just ignore him.”

“But if they figure out how to open him,” Leo fretted, “if they hurt him—”

“MARRRGGGGH!” Behind us, Nanette ripped off the shreds of her burning dress. From the waist down, shaggy blond fur covered her body, not unlike a satyr. Her eyebrows smoldered, but otherwise her face looked unhurt. She spat ashes from her mouth and glared in our direction. “That was not nice! GET THEM!”

The businessmen were almost on top of us, eliminating any hope that we could make it back to Festus without getting caught.

We chose the only heroic option available: we ran.

I hadn’t felt so encumbered since my three-legged death race with Meg McCaffrey back at Camp Half-Blood. Calypso tried to help, kicking along like a pogo stick between Leo and me, but whenever she jostled her broken foot or hand, she yelped and sagged against us.

“S-sorry, guys,” she muttered, her face beaded with sweat. “Guess I’m not meant to be a melee fighter.”

“Neither am I,” I admitted. “Perhaps Leo can hold them off while—”

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Leo grumbled. “I’m just a repair guy who can throw the occasional fireball. Our fighter is stuck back there in suitcase mode.”

“Hobble faster,” I suggested.

We reached the street alive only because the blemmyae moved so slowly. I suppose I would, too, if I were balancing a fake metal head on my, er, head, but even without their disguises, the blemmyae were not as swift as they were strong. Their terrible depth perception made them walk with exaggerated caution, as if the ground were a multilayered hologram. If only we could out-hobble them…

“Good morning!” A police officer appeared on our right, his firearm drawn. “Halt or I will shoot! Thank you!”

Leo pulled a stoppered glass bottle from his tool belt. He tossed it at the officer’s feet and green flames exploded around him. The officer dropped his gun. He began tearing off his burning uniform, revealing a chest-face with shaggy pectoral eyebrows and a belly beard in need of a shave.

“Phew,” Leo said. “I was hoping he was a blemmyae. That was my only vial of Greek fire, guys. And I can’t keep summoning fireballs unless I want to pass out, so—”

“We need to find cover,” said Calypso.

Sensible advice, but cover did not seem to be an Indiana concept. The streets were wide and straight, the landscape flat, the crowds sparse, the sight lines endless.

We turned onto South Capitol. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the mob of smiling fake-headed locals gaining on us. A construction worker stopped to rip the fender off a Ford pickup, then rejoined the parade, his new chrome club slung over his shoulder.

Meanwhile, the regular mortals—at least, those who did not seem interested in killing us at the moment—went about their business, making phone calls, waiting at traffic lights, sipping coffee in nearby cafés, completely ignoring us. At one corner, sitting on a milk crate, a heavily blanketed homeless man asked me for change. I resisted the urge to tell him that change was coming up fast behind us, carrying assorted weapons.

My heart pounded. My legs shook. I hated having a mortal body. I experienced so many bothersome things, like fear, cold, nausea, and the impulse to whimper Please don’t kill me! If only Calypso hadn’t broken her ankle we might have moved faster, but we couldn’t very well leave her behind. Not that I particularly liked Calypso, mind you, but I’d already convinced Leo to abandon his dragon. I didn’t want to push my luck.

“There!” said the sorceress. She pointed with her chin to what looked like a service alley behind a hotel.

I shuddered, remembering my first day in New York as Lester Papadopoulos. “What if it’s a dead end? The last time I found myself in a dead-end alley, things did not go well.”

“Let’s try,” Leo said. “We might be able to hide in there, or…I dunno.”

I dunno sounded like a sketchy plan B, but I had nothing better to offer.

Good news: the alley was not a dead end. I could clearly see an exit at the far end of the block. Bad news: the loading bays along the back of the hotel were locked, giving us nowhere to hide, and the opposite wall of the alley was lined with Dumpsters. Oh, Dumpsters! How I hated them!

Leo sighed. “I guess we could jump in—”

“No!” I snapped. “Never again!”

We struggled through the alley as fast as we could. I tried to calm my nerves by silently composing a sonnet about various ways a wrathful god could destroy Dumpsters. I became so engrossed I didn’t notice what was in front of us until Calypso gasped.

Leo halted. “What the—? Hijo.”

The apparition glowed with a faint ginger light. He wore a traditional chiton, sandals, and a sheathed sword, like a Greek warrior in the prime of life…except for the fact that he had been decapitated. Unlike the blemmyae, however, this person obviously had once been human. Ethereal blood trickled from his severed neck, splattering his luminous orange tunic.

“It’s a cheese-colored ghost,” Leo said.

The spirit raised one hand, beckoning us forward.

Not being born a mortal, I had no particular fear of the dead. You’ve seen one tormented soul, you’ve seen them all. But something about this ghost unsettled me. He stirred a distant memory, a feeling of guilt from thousands of years ago….

Behind us, the voices of the blemmyae grew louder. I heard them calling out “Morning!” and “Excuse me!” and “Lovely day!” to their fellow Indianans.

“What do we do?” Calypso asked.

“Follow the ghost,” I said.

“What?” Leo yelped.

“We follow the cheese-colored ghost. As you’re always saying: Vaya con queso.”

“That was a joke, ese.”

The orange spirit beckoned again, then floated toward the end of the alley.

Behind us, a man’s voice shouted, “There you are! Lovely weather, isn’t it?”

I turned in time to see a truck fender spiraling toward us.

“Down!” I tackled Calypso and Leo, provoking more screams of agony from the sorceress. The truck fender sailed over our heads and slammed into a Dumpster, sending up a festive explosion of garbage confetti.

We struggled to our feet. Calypso was shivering, no longer complaining about the pain. I was fairly sure she was going into shock.

Leo pulled a staple gun from his tool belt. “You guys go ahead. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

“What are you going to do?” I demanded. “Sort and collate them?”

“I’m going to throw things at them!” Leo snapped. “Unless you’ve got a better idea?”

“B-both of you stop,” Calypso stammered. “We d-don’t leave anyone behind. Now walk. Left, right, left, right.”

We emerged from the alley into a wide-open circular plaza. Oh, why couldn’t Indianans build a proper city with narrow, twisting streets, plenty of dark corners, and perhaps some conveniently placed bombproof bunkers?

In the middle of a ring-shaped drive stood a fountain surrounded by dormant flower beds. To the north rose the twin towers of another hotel. To the south loomed an older, grander building of redbrick and granite—perhaps a Victorian-era train station. On one side of the edifice, a clock tower soared roughly two hundred feet into the sky. Above the main entrance, under a marble archway, a colossal rose window gleamed in a frame of green copper, like a stained-glass version of the dartboard we used for our weekly game night on Mount Olympus.

That thought made me heartsick with nostalgia. I would’ve given anything to be back home for game night, even if it meant listening to Athena gloat about her Scrabble scores.

I scanned the plaza. Our ghostly guide seemed to have disappeared.

Why had he brought us here? Should we try the hotel? The train station?

Those questions became moot when the blemmyae surrounded us.

The mob burst out of the alley behind us. A police car swerved into the roundabout next to the train station. A bulldozer pulled into the hotel’s driveway, the operator waving and calling out cheerfully, “Hello! I’m going to bulldoze you!”

All exits from the plaza were quickly blocked.

A line of sweat freeze-dried against my neck. An annoying whine filled my ears, which I realized was my own subvocalized whimpering of Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me.

I won’t die here, I promised myself. I’m much too important to bite it in Indiana.

But my trembling legs and chattering teeth seemed to disagree.

“Who has an idea?” I asked my compatriots. “Please, any brilliant idea.”

Calypso looked like her most brilliant idea at the moment was trying not to throw up. Leo hefted his staple gun, which didn’t seem to frighten the blemmyae.

From the midst of the mob, our old friend Nanette emerged, her chest-face grinning. Her patent leather pumps clashed terribly with her blond leg fur. “Gosh darn it, dears, you’ve made me a bit miffed.”

She grabbed the nearest street sign and single-handedly ripped it out of the ground. “Now, please hold still, won’t you? I’m just going to smash your heads with this.”

My last performance

Some old lady drops the mic

And kills everyone

I WAS ABOUT TO INITIATE Defense Plan Omega—falling to my knees and begging for mercy—when Leo saved me from that embarrassment.

“Bulldozer,” he whispered.

“Is that a code word?” I asked.

“No. I’m going to sneak over to the bulldozer. You two distract the metalheads.”

He shifted Calypso’s weight to me.

“Are you crazy?” she hissed.

Leo shot her an urgent look, like Trust me! Distract them!

Then he took a careful step sideways.

“Oh!” Nanette beamed. “Are you volunteering to die first, short demigod? You did hit me with fire, so that makes sense.”

Whatever Leo had in mind, I imagined his plan would fail if he began arguing with Nanette about his height. (Leo was a bit sensitive about being called short.) Fortunately, I have a natural talent for focusing everyone’s attention on me.

“I volunteer for death!” I shouted.

The entire mob turned to look at me. I silently cursed my choice of words. I should have volunteered for something easier, like baking a pie or post-execution clean-up duty.

I often speak without the benefit of forethought. Usually it works out. Sometimes it leads to improvisational masterpieces, like the Renaissance or the Beat movement. I had to hope this would be one of those times.

“But first,” I said, “hear my plea, O, merciful blemmyae!”

The policeman whom Leo had torched lowered his gun. A few green embers of Greek fire still smoldered in his belly beard. “What do you mean, hear my plea?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s customary to hear the last words of a dying man…or god or demigod or…what would you consider yourself, Calypso? A Titan? A demi-Titan?”

Calypso cleared her throat with a noise that sounded suspiciously like idiot. “What Apollo is trying to say, O, merciful blemmyae, is that etiquette demands you grant us a few last words before you kill us. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be impolite.”

The blemmyae looked aghast. They lost their pleasant smiles and shook their mechanical heads. Nanette shuffled forward, her hands raised in a placating manner. “No, indeed! We are very polite.”

“Extremely polite,” the policeman agreed.

“Thank you,” said Nanette.

“You’re welcome,” said the policeman.

“Listen, then!” I cried. “Friends, frenemies, blemmyae…open your armpits and hear my sad tale!”

Leo shuffled back another step, his hands in the pockets of his tool belt. Another fifty-seven, fifty-eight steps, and he would arrive at the bulldozer. Fantastic.

“I am Apollo!” I began. “Formerly a god! I fell from Olympus, cast down by Zeus, unfairly blamed for starting a war with the giants!”

“I’m going to be sick,” Calypso muttered. “Let me sit down.”

“You’re breaking my rhythm.”

“You’re breaking my eardrums. Let me sit!”

I eased Calypso onto the fountain’s retaining wall.

Nanette raised her street sign. “Is that it? May I kill you now?”

“No, no!” I said. “I am just, ah, letting Calypso sit so…so she can act as my chorus. A good Greek performance always needs a chorus.”

Calypso’s hand looked like a crushed eggplant. Her ankle had swollen around the top of her sneaker. I didn’t see how she could stay conscious, much less act as a chorus, but she took a shaky breath and nodded. “Ready.”

“Lo!” I said. “I arrived at Camp Half-Blood as Lester Papadopoulos!”

“A pathetic mortal!” Calypso chorused. “Most worthless of teens!”

I glared at her, but I didn’t dare stop my performance again. “I overcame many challenges with my companion, Meg McCaffrey!”

“He means his master!” Calypso added. “A twelve-year-old girl! Behold her pathetic slave, Lester, most worthless of teens!”

The policeman huffed impatiently. “We know all this. The emperor told us.”

“Shh,” said Nanette. “Be polite.”

I put my hand over my heart. “We secured the Grove of Dodona, an ancient Oracle, and thwarted the plans of Nero! But alas, Meg McCaffrey fled from me. Her evil stepfather had poisoned her mind!”

“Poison!” Calypso cried. “Like the breath of Lester Papadopoulos, most worthless of teens!”

I resisted the urge to push Calypso into the flower bed.

Meanwhile, Leo was making his way toward the bulldozer under the guise of an interpretive dance routine, spinning and gasping and pantomiming my words. He looked like a hallucinating ballerina in boxer shorts, but the blemmyae politely got out of his way.

“Lo!” I shouted. “From the Oracle of Dodona we received a prophecy—a limerick most terrible!”

“Terrible!” Calypso chorused. “Like the skills of Lester, most worthless of teens.”

“Vary your adjectives,” I grumbled, then continued for my audience: “We traveled west in search of another Oracle, along the way fighting many fearsome foes! The Cyclopes we brought low!”

Leo jumped onto the running board of the bulldozer. He raised his staple gun dramatically, then stapled the bulldozer operator twice in the pectorals—right where his actual eyes would be. That could not have felt good—even for a tough species such as the blemmyae. The operator screamed and grabbed his chest. Leo kicked him out of the driver’s seat.

The police officer yelled, “Hey!”

“Wait!” I implored them. “Our friend is only giving you a dramatic interpretation of how we beat the Cyclopes. That’s totally allowed while telling a story!”

The crowd shifted uncertainly.

“These are very long last words,” Nanette complained. “When will I get to smash your head in?”

“Soon,” I promised. “Now, as I was saying…we traveled west!”

I hauled Calypso to her feet again with much whimpering on her part (and a little bit on mine).

“What are you doing?” she muttered.

“Work with me,” I said. “Lo, frenemies! Behold how we traveled!”

The two of us staggered toward the bulldozer. Leo’s hands flew over the controls. The engine roared to life.

“This isn’t a story!” the police officer protested. “They’re getting away!”

“No, not at all!” I pushed Calypso onto the bulldozer and climbed up after her. “You see, we traveled for many weeks like this….”

Leo started backing up. Beep. Beep. Beep. The bulldozer’s shovel began to rise.

“Imagine you are Camp Half-Blood,” I shouted to the crowd, “and we are traveling away from you.”

I realized my mistake. I had asked the blemmyae to imagine. They simply weren’t capable of that.

“Stop them!” The police officer raised his gun. His first shot ricocheted off the dozer’s metal scoop.

“Listen, my friends!” I implored. “Open your armpits!”

But we had exhausted their politeness. A trash can sailed over our heads. A businessman picked up a decorative stone urn from the corner of the fountain and tossed it in our direction, annihilating the hotel’s front window.

“Faster!” I told Leo.

“Trying, man,” he muttered. “This thing wasn’t built for speed.”

The blemmyae closed in.

“Look out!” Calypso yelled.

Leo swerved just in time to deflect a wrought-iron bench off our dozer blade. Unfortunately, that opened us up to a different attack. Nanette threw her street sign like a harpoon. The metal pole pierced the bulldozer’s chassis in a burst of steam and grease, and our getaway ride shuddered to a halt.

“Great,” Calypso said. “Now what?”

This would have been an excellent time for my godly strength to return. I could have waded into battle, tossing my enemies aside like rag dolls. Instead, my bones seemed to liquefy and pool in my shoes. My hands shook so badly I doubted I could unwrap my bow even if I tried. Oh, that my glorious life should end this way—crushed by polite headless people in the American Midwest!

Nanette leaped onto the hood of our bulldozer, giving me a ghastly view straight up her nostrils. Leo tried to blast her with flames, but this time Nanette was prepared. She opened her mouth and swallowed the fireball, showing no sign of distress except for a small burp.

“Don’t feel too bad, dears,” she told us. “You never would have gained access to the blue cave. The emperor has it too well guarded! A shame you have to die, though. The naming celebration is in three days, and you and the girl were supposed to be the main attractions in his slave procession!”

I was too terrified to fully process her words. The girl…Did she mean Meg? Otherwise I heard only blue—die—slave, which at the moment seemed an accurate summary of my existence.

I knew it was hopeless, but I slipped my bow from my shoulder and began to unwrap it. Suddenly an arrow sprouted between Nanette’s eyes. She went cross-eyed trying to see it, then tumbled backward and crumbled to dust.

I stared at my blanketed weapon. I was a fast archer, yes. But I was fairly sure I hadn’t fired that shot.

A shrill whistle caught my attention. In the middle of the plaza, standing atop the fountain, a woman crouched in faded jeans and a silvery winter coat. A white birch bow gleamed in her hand. On her back, a quiver bristled with arrows. My heart leaped, thinking that my sister Artemis had come to help me at last! But no…this woman was at least sixty years old, her gray hair tied back in a bun. Artemis would never appear in such a form.

For reasons she had never shared with me, Artemis had an aversion to looking any older than, say, twenty. I’d told her countless times that beauty was ageless. All the Olympian fashion magazines will tell you that four thousand is the new one thousand, but she simply wouldn’t listen.

The gray-haired woman shouted, “Hit the pavement!”

All around the plaza, manhole-size circles appeared in the asphalt. Each one scissored open like the iris of a camera and turrets sprang up—mechanical crossbows swiveling and sweeping red targeting lasers in every direction.

The blemmyae didn’t try to take cover. Perhaps they didn’t understand. Perhaps they were waiting for the gray-haired woman to say please.