My vision changed, shifting as subtly as the light through the Waystation’s rose window.
I found myself in a vast apartment of gold and white marble. Beyond the glass walls and the wraparound terrace, afternoon shadows flooded the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan.
I had been here before. No matter where my visions took me, I always seemed to end up back in this nightmarish scene.
Reclining on a gilded chaise lounge, the emperor Nero looked horrifically resplendent in a purple suit, a blue pastel shirt, and pointy alligator-leather shoes. On his sizable paunch he balanced a plate of strawberries, popping them one at a time into his mouth with his little finger raised to show off the hundred-karat diamond on his pinky ring.
“Meg…” He shook his head sadly. “Dear Meg. You should be more excited! This is your chance for redemption, my dear. You won’t disappoint me, will you?”
His voice was soft and gentle, like a heavy snowfall—the sort that builds up and brings down power lines, collapses roofs, kills entire families.
Standing before the emperor, Meg McCaffrey looked like a wilting plant. Her dark pageboy hair hung listlessly around her face. She slumped in her green T-shirt dress, her knees bent in her yellow leggings, one red high-top kicking listlessly at the marble floor. Her face was lowered, but I could see that her cat-eye glasses had been broken since our last encounter. Scotch tape covered the rhinestone tips at either joint.
Under the weight of Nero’s gaze, she seemed so small and vulnerable. I wanted to rush to her side. I wanted to smash that plate of strawberries into Nero’s chinless, neck-bearded excuse for a face. Alas, I could only watch, knowing that this scene had already happened. I had seen it unfold several times in my visions over the last few weeks.
Meg didn’t speak, but Nero nodded as if she’d answered his question.
“Go west,” he told her. “Capture Apollo before he can find the next Oracle. If you cannot bring him to me alive, kill him.”
He crooked his diamond-weighted pinky finger. From the line of imperial bodyguards behind him, one stepped forward. Like all Germani, the man was enormous. His muscular arms bulged against his leather cuirass. His brown hair grew wild and long. His rugged face would have been scary even without the serpent tattoo that coiled around his neck and up his right cheek.
“This is Vortigern,” said Nero. “He will keep you…safe.”
The emperor tasted the word safe as if it had many possible meanings, none of them good. “You will also travel with another member of the Imperial Household just in case, ah, difficulties arise.”
Nero curled his pinky again. From the shadows near the stairs appeared a teenage boy who looked very much like the sort of boy who enjoyed appearing from shadows. His dark hair hung over his eyes. He wore baggy black pants, a black muscle shirt (despite his lack of muscles), and enough gold jewelry around his neck to make him a proper festival idol. At his belt hung three sheathed daggers, two on the right and one on the left. The predatory gleam in his eyes made me suspect those blades were not just for show.
In all, the boy reminded me somewhat of Nico di Angelo, the son of Hades, if Nico were slightly older, more vicious, and had been raised by jackals.
“Ah, good, Marcus,” Nero said. “Show Meg your destination, will you?”
Marcus smiled thinly. He held up his palm, and a glowing image appeared above his fingertips: a bird’s-eye view of a city I now recognized as Indianapolis.
Nero popped another strawberry in his mouth. He chewed it slowly, letting the juice dribble down his weak chin. I decided that if I ever returned to Camp Half-Blood, I would have to convince Chiron to change their cash crop to blueberries.
“Meg, my dear,” Nero said, “I want you to succeed. Please don’t fail. If the Beast becomes cross with you again…” He shrugged helplessly. His voice ached with sincerity and concern. “I just don’t know how I could protect you. Find Apollo. Subject him to your will. I know you can do this. And, my dear, do be careful in the court of our friend the New Hercules. He is not as much a gentleman as I. Don’t get caught up in his obsession with destroying the House of Nets. That’s a mere sideshow. Succeed quickly and come back to me.” Nero spread his arms. “Then we can be one happy family again.”
The boy Marcus opened his mouth, perhaps to make a snide comment, but when he spoke it was Leo Valdez’s voice, shattering the vision. “Apollo!”
I gasped. I was back in the Waystation, sprawled across the couch. Standing over me, frowning with concern, were our hosts, Josephine and Emmie, along with Leo and Calypso.
“I—I had a dream.” I pointed weakly at Emmie. “And you were there. And…the rest of you, not so much, but—”
“A dream?” Leo shook his head. He was now dressed in a pair of grimy overalls. “Man, your eyes were wide open. You were lying there all twitching and stuff. I’ve seen you have some visions before, but not like that.”
I realized my arms were shaking. I grabbed my right hand with my left, but that only made it worse. “I—I heard some new details, or things I didn’t remember from before. About Meg. And the emperors. And—”
Josephine patted my head as if I were a cocker spaniel. “You sure you’re okay there, Sunny? You don’t look so hot.”
There was a time when I would have deep-fried anyone who called me Sunny. After I took over the reins of the sun chariot from the old Titan god Helios, Ares had called me Sunny for centuries. It was one of the few jokes he understood (at least one of the few clean jokes).
“I’m fine,” I snapped. “Wh-what’s going on? Calypso, you’re already healed?”
“You’ve been out for hours, actually.” She raised her recently broken hand, which now looked as good as new, and wriggled her fingers. “But yes. Emmie is a healer to rival Apollo.”
“You had to say that,” I grumbled. “You mean I’ve been lying here for hours and nobody noticed?”
Leo shrugged. “We were kinda busy talking shop. We probably wouldn’t have noticed you as soon as we did except, uh, somebody here wants to talk to you.”
“Mmm,” Calypso agreed, a worried look in her eyes. “He’s been very insistent about it.”
She pointed toward the rose window.
At first, I thought I was seeing orange spots. Then I realized an apparition was floating toward me. Our friend Agamethus, the headless ghost, had returned.
Oh, Magic 8 Ball
Epic fail at prophecies
Leo’s ear’s on fire
THE GHOST DRIFTED toward us. His mood was difficult to discern, since he had no face, but he seemed agitated. He pointed at me, then made a series of hand gestures I didn’t understand—shaking his fists, lacing his fingers, cupping one hand as if holding a sphere. He stopped on the opposite side of the coffee table.
“’Sup, Cheese?” Leo asked.
Josephine snorted. “Cheese?”
“Yeah, he’s orange,” Leo said. “Why is that? Also, why is he headless?”
“Leo,” Calypso chided. “Don’t be rude.”
“Hey, it’s a fair question.”
Emmie studied the ghost’s hand gestures. “I’ve never seen him this worked up. He glows orange because…Well, actually I have no idea. As for why he is headless—”