Still human; thanks for asking
Gods, I hate my life
WHEN OUR DRAGON declared war on Indiana, I knew it was going to be a bad day.
We’d been traveling west for six weeks, and Festus had never shown such hostility toward a state. New Jersey he ignored. Pennsylvania he seemed to enjoy, despite our battle with the Cyclopes of Pittsburgh. Ohio he tolerated, even after our encounter with Potina, the Roman goddess of childhood drinks, who pursued us in the form of a giant red pitcher emblazoned with a smiley face.
Yet for some reason, Festus decided he did not like Indiana. He landed on the cupola of the Indiana Statehouse, flapped his metallic wings, and blew a cone of fire that incinerated the state flag right off the flagpole.
“Whoa, buddy!” Leo Valdez pulled the dragon’s reins. “We’ve talked about this. No blowtorching public monuments!”
Behind him on the dragon’s spine, Calypso gripped Festus’s scales for balance. “Could we please get to the ground? Gently this time?”
For a formerly immortal sorceress who once controlled air spirits, Calypso was not a fan of flying. Cold wind blew her chestnut hair into my face, making me blink and spit.
That’s right, dear reader.
I, the most important passenger, the youth who had once been the glorious god Apollo, was forced to sit in the back of the dragon. Oh, the indignities I had suffered since Zeus stripped me of my divine powers! It wasn’t enough that I was now a sixteen-year-old mortal with the ghastly alias Lester Papadopoulos. It wasn’t enough that I had to toil upon the earth doing (ugh) heroic quests until I could find a way back into my father’s good graces, or that I had a case of acne which simply would not respond to over-the-counter zit medicine. Despite my New York State junior driver’s license, Leo Valdez didn’t trust me to operate his aerial bronze steed!
Festus’s claws scrabbled for a hold on the green copper dome, which was much too small for a dragon his size. I had a flashback to the time I installed a life-size statue of the muse Calliope on my sun chariot and the extra weight of the hood ornament made me nosedive into China and create the Gobi Desert.
Leo glanced back, his face streaked with soot. “Apollo, you sense anything?”
“Why is it my job to sense things? Just because I used to be a god of prophecy—”
“You’re the one who’s been having visions,” Calypso reminded me. “You said your friend Meg would be here.”
Just hearing Meg’s name gave me a twinge of pain. “That doesn’t mean I can pinpoint her location with my mind! Zeus has revoked my access to GPS!”
“GPS?” Calypso asked.
“Godly positioning systems.”
“That’s not a real thing!”
“Guys, cool it.” Leo patted the dragon’s neck. “Apollo, just try, will you? Does this look like the city you dreamed about or not?”
I scanned the horizon.
Indiana was flat country—highways crisscrossing scrubby brown plains, shadows of winter clouds floating above urban sprawl. Around us rose a meager cluster of downtown high-rises—stacks of stone and glass like layered wedges of black and white licorice. (Not the yummy kind of licorice, either; the nasty variety that sits for eons in your stepmother’s candy bowl on the coffee table. And, no, Hera, why would I be talking about you?)
After falling to earth in New York City, I found Indianapolis desolate and uninspiring, as if one proper New York neighborhood—Midtown, perhaps—had been stretched out to encompass the entire area of Manhattan, then relieved of two-thirds of its population and vigorously power-washed.
I could think of no reason why an evil triumvirate of ancient Roman emperors would take interest in such a location. Nor could I imagine why Meg McCaffrey would be sent here to capture me. Yet my visions had been clear. I had seen this skyline. I had heard my old enemy Nero give orders to Meg: Go west. Capture Apollo before he can find the next Oracle. If you cannot bring him to me alive, kill him.
The truly sad thing about this? Meg was one of my better friends. She also happened to be my demigod master, thanks to Zeus’s twisted sense of humor. As long as I remained mortal, Meg could order me to do anything, even kill myself….No. Better not to think of such possibilities.
I shifted in my metal seat. After so many weeks of travel, I was tired and saddle sore. I wanted to find a safe place to rest. This was not such a city. Something about the landscape below made me as restless as Festus.
Alas, I was sure this was where we were meant to be. Despite the danger, if I had a chance of seeing Meg McCaffrey again, of prying her away from her villainous stepfather’s grasp, I had to try.
“This is the spot,” I said. “Before this dome collapses under us, I suggest we get to the ground.”
Calypso grumbled in ancient Minoan, “I already said that.”
“Well, excuse me, sorceress!” I replied in the same language. “Perhaps if you had helpful visions, I’d listen to you more often!”
Calypso called me a few names that reminded me how colorful the Minoan language had been before it went extinct.
“Hey, you two,” Leo said. “No ancient dialects. Spanish or English, please. Or Machine.”
Festus creaked in agreement.
“It’s okay, boy,” Leo said. “I’m sure they didn’t mean to exclude us. Now let’s fly down to street level, huh?”
Festus’s ruby eyes glowed. His metal teeth spun like drill bits. I imagined him thinking, Illinois is sounding pretty good right about now.
But he flapped his wings and leaped from the dome. We hurtled downward, landing in front of the statehouse with enough force to crack the sidewalk. My eyeballs jiggled like water balloons.
Festus whipped his head from side to side, steam curling from his nostrils.
I saw no immediate threats. Cars drove leisurely down West Washington Street. Pedestrians strolled by: a middle-aged woman in a flowery dress, a heavyset policeman carrying a paper coffee cup labeled CAFÉ PATACHOU, a clean-cut man in a blue seersucker suit.
The man in blue waved politely as he passed. “Morning.”
“’Sup, dude,” Leo called.
Calypso tilted her head. “Why was he so friendly? Does he not see that we’re sitting atop a fifty-ton metal dragon?”
Leo grinned. “It’s the Mist, babe—messes with mortal eyes. Makes monsters look like stray dogs. Makes swords look like umbrellas. Makes me look even more handsome than usual!”
Calypso jabbed her thumbs into Leo’s kidneys.
“Ow!” he complained.
“I know what the Mist is, Leonidas—”
“Hey, I told you never to call me that.”
“—but the Mist must be very strong here if it can hide a monster of Festus’s size at such close range. Apollo, don’t you find that a little odd?”
I studied the passing pedestrians.
True, I had seen places where the Mist was particularly heavy. At Troy, the sky above the battlefield had been so thick with gods you couldn’t turn your chariot without running into another deity, yet the Trojans and Greeks saw only hints of our presence. At Three Mile Island in 1979, the mortals somehow failed to realize that their partial nuclear meltdown was caused by an epic chainsaw fight between Ares and Hephaestus. (As I recall, Hephaestus had insulted Ares’s bell-bottom jeans.)