“Georgina has excellent parents,” I said. “Whether she is a child of—of Apollo…I’m sorry, I can’t say for sure.”
“You can’t say,” Josephine echoed flatly.
“B-but I do think she will heal. Her mind is strong. She risked her life and her sanity to bring us that message. The best we can do now is follow the Oracle’s instructions.”
Josephine and Emmie exchanged looks that said, He’s a scoundrel, but we have too much going on right now. We’ll kill him later.
Meg McCaffrey crossed her arms. Even she seemed to sense the wisdom of changing the subject. “So we go at first light?”
Josephine focused on her with difficulty, as if wondering where Meg had suddenly appeared from. (I had this thought often.) “Yes, hon. That’s the only time you can enter the Cavern of Prophecy.”
I sighed inwardly. First it had been the zoo at first light. Then the Canal Walk at first light. Now the caverns. I really wished dangerous quests could start at a more reasonable time, like perhaps three in the afternoon.
An uneasy silence settled over the room. Georgina breathed raggedly in her sleep. Up in the roost, the griffins ruffled their feathers. Jimmy cracked his knuckles pensively.
Finally, Thalia Grace stepped forward. “What about the rest of the message: ‘Your prophecy will unfold—or the emperor’s. No hiding in your little haven’?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
Leo raised his arms. “All hail the god of prophecy!”
“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled. “I don’t have enough information yet. If we survive the caverns—”
“I can interpret those lines,” Lityerses said from his chair in the corner.
The son of Midas turned to face the crowd, his cheeks a patchwork of scars and bruises, his eyes empty and desolate. “Thanks to the tracking devices I put on your griffins, Commodus knows where you are. He’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning. And he’ll wipe this place off the map.”
Tofu stir-fry is good, but
Needs more ìgboyà
LITYERSES HAD A TALENT for making friends.
Half the crowd surged forward to kill him. The other half shouted that they, too, wanted to kill him and the first half should get out of their way.
“You villain!” Hunter Kowalski yanked Lityerses from his chair and shoved him against the wall. She pressed a borrowed screwdriver against his throat.
“Ssssstand assssside!” Sssssarah yelled. “I will ssssswallow him whole!”
“I should’ve thrown him against the side of the building,” Leo growled.
“STOP!” Josephine waded through the mob. Not surprisingly, folks moved aside. She pulled Hunter Kowalski off her prey, then glared at Lityerses as if he were a chariot with a busted axle. “You put trackers on our griffins?”
Lit rubbed his neck. “Yes. And the plan worked.”
“You’re sure Commodus knows our location?”
Normally, I avoided attracting the attention of an angry mob, but I felt compelled to speak.
“He’s telling the truth,” I said. “We heard Lityerses talking to Commodus in the throne room. Leo was supposed to tell you about that.”
“Me?” Leo protested. “Hey, things were chaotic! I thought you—” His welding visor fell shut, making the rest of his sentence unintelligible.
Lityerses spread his arms, which were so scarred they looked like testing logs for hacksaw blades. “Kill me if you want. It’ll make no difference. Commodus will level this place and everyone in it.”
Thalia Grace drew her hunting knife. Instead of gutting the swordsman, she drove the blade into the nearest coffee table. “The Hunters of Artemis won’t allow that. We’ve fought too many impossible battles. We’ve lost too many of our sisters, but we’ve never backed down. Last summer, in the Battle of Old San Juan…” She hesitated.
It was difficult to imagine Thalia at the edge of tears, but she seemed to be struggling to maintain her punk rock facade. I remembered something Artemis had told me when we were in exile together on Delos…how her Hunters and the Amazons had fought the giant Orion in Puerto Rico. An Amazon base had been destroyed. Many had died—Hunters who, if not cut down in battle, might have continued to live for millennia. As Lester Papadopoulos, I found that idea freshly horrifying.
“We will not lose the Waystation too,” Thalia continued. “We’ll stand with Josephine and Emmie. We kicked Commodus’s podex today. We’ll do it again tomorrow.”
The Hunters cheered. I may have cheered also. I always love it when courageous heroes volunteer to fight battles I don’t want to fight.
Lityerses shook his head. “What you saw today was only a fraction of Commodus’s full strength. He’s got…vast resources.”
Josephine grunted. “Our friends gave him a bloody nose today, at least. Maybe he won’t attack tomorrow. He’ll need time to regroup.”
Lit let out a broken laugh. “You don’t know Commodus like I do. You just made him mad. He won’t wait. He never waits. First thing tomorrow, he’ll strike hard. He’ll kill us all.”
I wanted to disagree. I wanted to think that the emperor would drag his feet, then decide to leave us alone because we’d been so entertaining at the dress rehearsal, then possibly send us a box of chocolates by way of apology.
But I did know Commodus. I remembered the Flavian Amphitheater floor littered with corpses. I remembered the execution lists. I remembered him snarling at me, his lips flecked with blood: You sound like my father. I’m done thinking about consequences!
“Lityerses is right,” I said. “Commodus received a prophecy from the Dark Oracle. He needs to destroy this place and kill me before he can have his naming ceremony tomorrow afternoon. Which means he’ll strike in the morning. He’s not a fan of waiting for what he wants.”
“We could ssssslither away,” suggested Sssssarah. “Move. Hide. Live to fight another day.”
At the back of the crowd, the ghost Agamethus pointed empathically to the dracaena, obviously agreeing with her idea. You have to wonder about your chances in combat when even your dead friends are worried about dying.
Josephine shook her head. “I’m not slithering anywhere. This is our home.”
Calypso nodded. “And if Emmie and Jo are staying put, so are we. They saved our lives. We’ll fight to the death for them. Right, Leo?”
Leo raised his visor. “Absolutely. Though I’ve already done the whole dying thing, so I’d prefer to fight to someone else’s death. For instance, Commode Man’s—”
“Leo,” Calypso warned.
“Yeah, we’re in. They’ll never get past us.”
Jimmy slipped to the front through a line of Hunters. Despite his size, he moved as gracefully as Agamethus, almost as if floating.
“I owe you a debt.” He inclined his head to the Hunters, to Meg and me, to Josephine and Emmie. “You saved me from the madman’s prison. But I hear much talk about us and them. I am always wary when people speak this way, as if people can be so easily divided into friend and enemy. Most of us here do not even know each other.”