“A gas leak,” Leo guessed. “It’s almost always a gas leak.”
Calypso picked the shredded carrots out of her salad, which I took as a personal insult. “So we’re outnumbered ten to one? Twenty to one?”
“No sweat,” Leo said. “I’ll handle the first two hundred or so myself, then if I get tired—”
“Leo, stop.” Calypso gave Emmie an apologetic frown. “He jokes more when he’s nervous. He also jokes worse when he’s nervous.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Leo inserted carrot fangs in his mouth and snarled.
Meg almost choked on her stir-fry.
Thalia let out a long sigh. “Oh, yeah. This is going to be a fun battle. Emmie, how are you stocked for extra arrows? I’m going to need a full quiver just for shooting Leo.”
Emmie smiled. “We have plenty of weaponry. And thanks to Leo and Josephine, the Waystation’s defenses have never been stronger.”
“You’re welcome!” Leo spat out his fangs. “Also I should mention the giant bronze dragon in the corner—assuming I can finish his tune-up tonight. He’s still not at a hundred percent.”
Normally, I would’ve found that giant bronze dragon quite reassuring, even at 75 percent, but I did not like twenty-to-one odds. The bloodthirsty cries of the arena audience still rang in my ears.
“Calypso,” I said, “what about your magic? Has it returned?”
Her look of frustration was quite familiar. It was the same look I got whenever I thought of all the marvelous godly things I could no longer do.
“Only a few bursts,” she said. “This morning, I moved a coffee cup across the counter.”
“Yeah,” Leo said, “but you did that awesomely.”
Calypso swatted him. “Josephine says it’ll take time. Once we…” She hesitated. “Once we survive tomorrow.”
I got the feeling that wasn’t what she’d intended to say. Leo and Emmie exchanged a conspiratorial glance. I didn’t press the issue. At the moment, the only conspiracy I’d be interested in would be a clever plan to smuggle me back to Mount Olympus and reinstate me to godhood before breakfast tomorrow.
“We will make do,” I decided.
Meg slurped down the last of her stir-fry. Then she demonstrated her usual exquisite manners by belching and wiping her mouth with her forearm. “Not you and me, Lester. We won’t be here.”
My stomach started tossing its own little salad. “But—”
“Prophecy, dummy. First light, remember?”
“Yes, but if the Waystation is attacked…shouldn’t we be here to help?”
This was an odd question coming from me. When I was a god, I would have been delighted to leave the mortal heroes to fend for themselves. I would have made popcorn and watched the bloodbath from a distance on Mount Olympus, or simply caught the highlight reel later. But as Lester, I felt obliged to defend these people—my dear old Emmie, gruff Josephine, and not-so-little Georgina, who might or might not be my child. Thalia and the Hunters, Jimmy of the Lovely Loincloth, the proud griffin parents upstairs, the excellent elephant downstairs, even the dislikable Lityerses…I wanted to be here for them.
It may seem strange to you that I hadn’t already considered my conflicting obligation—to seek out the Cave of Trophonius at first light—and that this might prevent me from being at the Waystation. In my defense, gods can split their essence into many different manifestations at once. We don’t have a lot of experience with scheduling.
“Meg is right,” Emmie said. “Trophonius has summoned you. Getting your prophecy may be the only way to prevent the emperor’s prophecy from coming true.”
I was the god of prophecies, and even I was starting to hate prophecies. I glanced at the spirit of Agamethus, hovering by the ladder to the loft. I thought of the last message he had given me: We cannot remain. Did he mean the defenders of the Waystation? Or Meg and me? Or something else entirely? I felt so frustrated I wanted to grab his Magic 8 Ball and bounce it off his nonexistent head.
“Cheer up,” Thalia told me. “If Commodus comes at us with his full strength, the Oracle might be guarded with just a skeleton crew. It’ll be your best chance to get in.”
“Yeah,” Leo said. “Besides, maybe you’ll make it back in time to fight with us! Or, you know, we’ll all die, and it won’t matter.”
“That makes me feel much better,” I grumbled. “What problems could we possibly run into, just Meg and I?”
“Yep,” Meg agreed.
She did not sound the least bit worried. This seemed like a failure of imagination to me. I could envision all sorts of horrible fates that might befall two people wandering into the dangerous cavern of a terrifying, hostile spirit. I would rather fight a host of blemmyae on bulldozers. I would even consider peeling more carrots.
As I was cleaning up the dinner plates, Emmie caught my arm.
“Just tell me one thing,” she said. “Was it payback?”
I stared at her. “Was…what payback?”
“Georgina,” she murmured. “For me…you know, giving up your gift of immortality. Was she…” She pressed her lips into a tight line, as if she didn’t trust them to say any more.
I hadn’t known I could feel any worse, until I did. I really hate that about the mortal heart. It seems to have an infinite capacity for getting heavier.
“Dear Emmie,” I said. “I would never. Even on my worst days, when I’m destroying nations with plague arrows or putting together set lists for Kidz Bop compilations, I would never take revenge in such a way. I swear to you, I had no idea you were here, or that you had left the Hunters, or that Georgina existed, or…Actually, I just had no idea about anything. And I’m so sorry.”
To my relief, a faint smile flickered on her face. “That’s one thing I can believe, at least.”
“That I am sorry?”
“No,” she said. “That you had no idea about anything.”
“Ah…So, we’re good?”
She considered. “For now. But when Georgie recovers…we should talk further.”
I nodded, though I was thinking that my to-do list of unwelcome tasks was already quite full.
“Well, then.” I sighed. “I suppose I should get some rest, and perhaps start composing a new death haiku.”
Lester, slap yourself
Oh, for just one night without
Looking like a fool
I HAD NO LUCK WITH THE HAIKU.
I kept getting stuck on the first line, I don’t want to die, and couldn’t think of anything to add. I hate elaborating when the main idea is so perfectly clear.
The Hunters of Artemis bedded down in the griffin roosts after setting trip wires and motion-sensor alarms. They always did this whenever I camped with them, which I found silly. Sure, when I was a god, I used to flirt with them shamelessly, but I never went further than that. And as Lester? I had no wish to die with a thousand silver arrows in my chest. If nothing else, the Hunters should have trusted my self-interest.
Thalia, Emmie, and Josephine sat together at the kitchen table for a long while, conversing in hushed tones. I hoped they were discussing more Hunter secrets—some deadly weapons they could use against Commodus’s armies. Moon–ballistic missiles, perhaps. Or moon-napalm.