The Dark Prophecy

Page 2

Still, I did not think heavy Mist was the problem here. Something about these locals bothered me. Their faces were too placid. Their dazed smiles reminded me of ancient Athenians just before the Dionysus Festival—everyone in a good mood, distracted, thinking about the drunken riots and debauchery to come.

“We should get out of the public eye,” I suggested. “Perhaps—”

Festus stumbled, shaking like a wet dog. From inside his chest came a noise like a loose bicycle chain.

“Aw, not again,” Leo said. “Everybody off!”

Calypso and I quickly dismounted.

Leo ran in front of Festus and held out his arms in a classic dragon-wrangler’s stance. “Hey, buddy, it’s fine! I’m just going to switch you off for a while, okay? A little downtime to—”

Festus projectile-vomited a column of flames that engulfed Leo. Fortunately, Valdez was fireproof. His clothes were not. From what Leo had told me, he could generally prevent his outfits from burning up simply by concentrating. If he were caught by surprise, however, it didn’t always work.

When the flames dissipated, Leo stood before us wearing nothing but his asbestos boxer shorts, his magical tool belt, and a pair of smoking, partially melted sneakers.

“Dang it!” he complained. “Festus, it’s cold out here!”

The dragon stumbled. Leo lunged and flipped the lever behind the dragon’s left foreleg. Festus began to collapse. His wings, limbs, neck, and tail contracted into his body, his bronze plates overlapping and folding inward. In a matter of seconds, our robotic friend had been reduced to a large bronze suitcase.

That should have been physically impossible, of course, but like any decent god, demigod, or engineer, Leo Valdez refused to be stopped by the laws of physics.

He scowled at his new piece of luggage. “Man…I thought I fixed his gyro-capacitor. Guess we’re stuck here until I can find a machine shop.”

Calypso grimaced. Her pink ski jacket glistened with condensation from our flight through the clouds. “And if we find such a shop, how long will it take to repair Festus?”

Leo shrugged. “Twelve hours? Fifteen?” He pushed a button on the side of the suitcase. A handle popped up. “Also, if we see a men’s clothing store, that might be good.”

I imagined walking into a T.J. Maxx, Leo in boxer shorts and melted sneakers, rolling a bronze suitcase behind him. I did not relish the idea.

Then, from the direction of the sidewalk, a voice called, “Hello!”

The woman in the flowery dress had returned. At least she looked like the same woman. Either that or lots of ladies in Indianapolis wore purple-and-yellow honeysuckle-pattern dresses and had 1950s bouffant hairstyles.

She smiled vacantly. “Beautiful morning!”

It was in fact a miserable morning—cold and cloudy with a smell of impending snow—but I felt it would be rude to ignore her completely.

I gave her a little parade wave—the sort of gesture I used to give my worshippers when they came to grovel at my altar. To me, the message was clear enough: I see you, puny mortal; now run along. The gods are talking.

The woman did not take the hint. She strolled forward and planted herself in front of us. She wasn’t particularly large, but something about her proportions seemed off. Her shoulders were too wide for her head. Her chest and belly protruded in a lumpy mass, as if she’d stuffed a sack of mangos down the front of her dress. With her spindly arms and legs, she reminded me of some sort of giant beetle. If she ever tipped over, I doubted she could easily get back up.

“Oh, my!” She gripped her purse with both hands. “Aren’t you children cute!”

Her lipstick and eye shadow were both a violent shade of purple. I wondered if she was getting enough oxygen to her brain.

“Madam,” I said, “we are not children.” I could have added that I was over four thousand years old, and Calypso was even older, but I decided not to get into that. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a suitcase to repair and my friend is in dire need of a pair of pants.”

I tried to step around her. She blocked my path.

“You can’t go yet, dear! We haven’t welcomed you to Indiana!” From her purse, she drew a smartphone. The screen glowed as if a call were already in progress.

“It’s him, all right,” she said into the phone. “Everybody, come on over. Apollo is here!”

My lungs shriveled in my chest.

In the old days, I would have expected to be recognized as soon as I arrived in a town. Of course the locals would rush to welcome me. They would sing and dance and throw flowers. They would immediately begin constructing a new temple.

But as Lester Papadopoulos, I did not warrant such treatment. I looked nothing like my former glorious self. The idea that the Indianans might recognize me despite my tangled hair, acne, and flab was both insulting and terrifying. What if they erected a statue of me in my present form—a giant golden Lester in the center of their city? The other gods would never let me hear the end of it!

“Madam,” I said, “I’m afraid you have mistaken me—”

“Don’t be modest!” The woman tossed her phone and purse aside. She grabbed my forearm with the strength of a weightlifter. “Our master will be delighted to have you in custody. And please call me Nanette.”

Calypso charged. Either she wished to defend me (unlikely), or she was not a fan of the name Nanette. She punched the woman in the face.

This by itself did not surprise me. Having lost her immortal powers, Calypso was in the process of trying to master other skills. So far, she’d failed at swords, polearms, shurikens, whips, and improvisational comedy. (I sympathized with her frustration.) Today, she’d decided to try fisticuffs.

What surprised me was the loud CRACK her fist made against Nanette’s face—the sound of finger bones breaking.

“Ow!” Calypso stumbled away, clutching her hand.

Nanette’s head slid backward. She released me to try to grab her own face, but it was too late. Her head toppled off her shoulders. It clanged against the pavement and rolled sideways, the eyes still blinking, the purple lips twitching. Its base was smooth stainless steel. Attached to it were ragged strips of duct tape stuck with hair and bobby pins.

“Holy Hephaestus!” Leo ran to Calypso’s side. “Lady, you broke my girlfriend’s hand with your face. What are you, an automaton?”

“No, dear,” said decapitated Nanette. Her muffled voice didn’t come from the stainless-steel head on the sidewalk. It emanated from somewhere inside her dress. Just above her collar, where her neck used to be, an outcropping of fine blond hair was tangled with bobby pins. “And I must say, hitting me wasn’t very polite.”

Belatedly, I realized the metal head had been a disguise. Just as satyrs covered their hooves with human shoes, this creature passed for mortal by pretending to have a human face. Its voice came from its gut area, which meant…

My knees trembled.

“A blemmyae,” I said.

Nanette chuckled. Her bulging midsection writhed under the honeysuckle cloth. She ripped open her blouse—something a polite Midwesterner would never think of doing—and revealed her true face.

Where a woman’s brassiere would have been, two enormous bulging eyes blinked at me. From her sternum protruded a large shiny nose. Across her abdomen curled a hideous mouth—glistening orange lips, teeth like a spread of blank white playing cards.

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