The Dark Prophecy

Page 27

Around the arena floor, chains with empty manacles were fastened to spikes in the ground. Near these stood racks of sinister-looking tools: cattle prods, noose poles, whips, harpoons.

A cold lump formed in my throat. I would’ve thought I’d swallowed a griffin tater, except the packet was still miraculously intact in Calypso’s arms. “This is a training facility,” I said. “I’ve seen places like it before. These animals are being readied for the games.”

“Readied?” Calypso scowled at the weapon racks. “How, exactly?”

“They’re enraged,” I said. “Baited. Starved. Trained to kill anything that moves.”

“Savagery.” Calypso turned to the nearest pen. “What have they done to those poor ostriches?”

Through the Plexiglas, four of the birds stared at us, their heads jerking sideways in a series of fits. They were strange-looking animals to begin with, but these had been outfitted with rows of iron-studded collars along their necks, spiked war helmets in the Kaiser Wilhelm style, and razor wire wreathed like Christmas lights around their legs. The nearest bird snapped at me, revealing jagged steel teeth that had been fitted inside his beak.

“The emperor’s combat ostriches.” I felt like a roof was collapsing inside my chest. The plight of these animals depressed me…but so did thinking about Commodus. The games he had engaged in as a young emperor were disagreeable to start with, and they had transformed into something much worse. “He used to enjoy using them for target practice. With a single arrow, he could decapitate a bird running at a full gallop. Once that wasn’t entertaining enough…” I gestured at the enhanced war birds.

Calypso’s face turned jaundice yellow. “All these animals will be killed?”

I was too dispirited to answer. I had flashbacks to the Flavian Amphitheater during Commodus’s rule—the glistening red sand of the stadium floor littered with the carcasses of thousands of exotic animals, all butchered for sport and spectacle.

We moved to the next enclosure. A large red bull paced restlessly, his horns and hooves gleaming bronze.

“That’s an Aethiopian Bull,” I said. “Their hides are impervious to all metal weapons—like the Nemean Lion, except, ah…much larger, and red.”

Calypso drifted past several more cells—some Arabian winged serpents, a horse that I judged to be of the carnivorous, fire-breathing variety. (I once thought about using those for my sun chariot, but they were so high maintenance.)

The sorceress froze at the next window. “Apollo, over here.”

Behind the glass were two griffins.

Emmie and Josephine had been correct. They were magnificent specimens.

Over the centuries, with their natural habitats shrinking, wild griffins had become scrawny creatures, smaller and scrappier than in ancient times. (Much like the endangered three-eyed stoat or the giant gassy badger.) Few griffins had ever been large enough to support the weight of a human rider.

The male and female in front of us, however, truly were the size of lions. Their light brown fur gleamed like copper chain mail. Their russet wings folded regally across their backs. Their aquiline heads bristled with gold and white plumage. In the old days, a Grecian king would have paid a trireme full of rubies for a breeding pair like this.

Thankfully, I saw no sign that the animals had been abused. However, both were chained by their back legs. Griffins get very cantankerous when they’re imprisoned or restrained in any way. As soon as the male, Abelard, saw us, he snapped and squawked, flapping his wings. He dug his claws in the sand and strained against his shackle, trying to reach us.

The female backed into the shadows, making a low gurgling noise like the growl of a threatened dog. She swayed from side to side, her belly low to the ground as if…

“Oh, no.” I feared my weak mortal heart would burst. “No wonder Britomartis wanted these two back so badly.”

Calypso seemed entranced by the animals. With some difficulty, she refocused on me. “What do you mean?”

“The female is with egg. She needs to nest immediately. If we don’t get her back to the Waystation…”

Calypso’s expression turned as sharp and steely as ostrich teeth. “Will Heloise be able to fly out of here?”

“I—I think so. My sister is more the expert on wild animals, but yes.”

“Can a pregnant griffin carry a rider?”

“We don’t have much choice except to try.” I pointed at the netting above the arena. “That’s the quickest way out, assuming we can unlock the griffins and remove the net. The problem is, Heloise and Abelard are not going to see us as friends. They’re chained. They’re caged. They’re expecting a baby. They’ll tear us apart if we get close.”

Calypso crossed her arms. “What about music? Most animals like music.”

I recalled the way I had used a song to mesmerize the myrmekes back at Camp Half-Blood. But I really didn’t feel like singing about all my failures again, especially not in front of my companion.

I glanced back at the train tunnel. Still no sign of Lityerses or his men, but that didn’t make me feel better. They should have been here by now….

“We need to hurry,” I said.

The first problem was the easiest: the Plexiglas wall. I reasoned there must be a switch somewhere for lowering the partitions to release the various animals. I climbed into the spectator tiers with the help of a stepladder named Calypso, and found just such a control panel next to the arena’s only padded seat—clearly for the emperor himself when he wanted to check on his killer beasts in training.

Each lever was conveniently labeled with masking tape and marker. One said GRIFFINS.

I called down to Calypso, “Are you ready?”

She stood directly in front of the griffin enclosure, hands out as if preparing to catch a projectile egg. “What would constitute ready in a situation like this?”

I flipped the switch. With a heavy ka-chunk, the griffins’ Plexiglas screen dropped away, disappearing into a slot across the threshold.

I rejoined Calypso, who was humming some sort of lullaby. The two griffins were not impressed. Heloise growled loudly, pressing herself against the back wall of the enclosure. Abelard pulled at his chain twice as hard, trying to reach us and bite off our faces.

Calypso handed me the packet of Tots. She pointed with her chin into the enclosure.

“You must be kidding,” I said. “If I get close enough to feed them, they’ll eat me.”

She stopped her song. “Aren’t you the god of ranged weapons? Throw the Tots!”

I raised my eyes toward the netted-off heavens—which, by the way, I considered a rude and completely unnecessary metaphor for my exile from Olympus. “Calypso, do you know nothing about these animals? To gain their trust, you must hand-feed them, putting your fingers inside the beak. This emphasizes that the food comes from you, as the mother bird.”

“Huh.” Calypso bit her lower lip. “I see the problem. You would make a terrible mother bird.”

Abelard lunged and squawked at me. Everyone was a critic.

Calypso nodded as if she’d come to a decision. “It’s going to take both of us. We’ll sing a duet. You have a decent voice.”

“I have a…” My mouth was paralyzed from shock. Telling me, the god of music, that I had a decent voice was like telling Shaquille O’Neal he played decent offense, or telling Annie Oakley she was a decent shot.

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