The trooper looked horrified. “Goodness, no!”
“And leaving the Oracle intact, in this place where mortals obviously have guided tours…well, that’s a safety hazard! Not closing off the Oracle’s cave would be very discourteous of us.”
“Mmmm.” All three blemmyae nodded/bowed earnestly.
“But,” Nanette said, “if you’re trying to trick us somehow…and I apologize for raising that possibility…”
“No, no,” I said. “I fully understand. How about this: Go set the bomb. If you come back safely and the cave blows up on schedule, then you can do us the courtesy of killing us quickly and painlessly. If something goes wrong—”
“Then we can rip your limbs off!” the trooper suggested.
“And trample your bodies into jelly!” added the ranger. “That’s a marvelous idea. Thank you!”
I tried to keep my queasiness under control. “You’re most welcome.”
Nanette studied the bomb, perhaps sensing that something was still off about my plan. Thank the gods, she either didn’t see it or was too polite to mention her reservations.
“Well,” she said at last, “in that case, I’ll be back!”
She scooped up the tanks and leaped into the water, which gave me a few luxurious seconds to come up with a plan to avoid getting trampled into jelly. At last, things were looking up!
Your favorite fruit?
I hope you didn’t say grapes
Or apples, or figs
I wonder what went through her mind when she realized that a five-second timer underwater still lasted exactly five seconds. As the device exploded, I imagine she bubbled out one last vile curse like, Oh, gosh darn it.
I might have felt sorry for her had she not been planning to kill me.
The cave shook. Chunks of wet stalactite dropped into the lake and whanged against the hulls of the barges. A burst of air erupted from the middle of the lake, upheaving the dock and filling the cavern with the scent of tangerine lipstick.
The trooper and the ranger frowned at me. “You blew up Nanette. That was not polite.”
“Hold on!” I yelped. “She’s probably still swimming back. It’s a long tunnel.”
This bought me another three or four seconds, during which a clever escape plan still did not present itself. At the very least, I hoped Nanette’s death had not been in vain. I hoped the explosion had destroyed the Cave of the Oracle as Trophonius wished, but I could not be certain.
Meg was still only half-conscious, muttering and shivering. I had to get her back to the Waystation and set her on the Throne of Memory quickly, but two blemmyae still stood in my way. My hands were too numb to be any good with a bow or a ukulele. I wished I had some other weapon—even a magical Brazilian handkerchief that I could wave in my enemies’ faces! Oh, if only a surge of divine strength would course through my body!
At last the ranger sighed. “All right, Apollo. Would you prefer we stomp or dismember you first? It’s only right you get to choose.”
“That’s very polite,” I agreed. Then I gasped. “Oh, my gods! Look over there!”
You must forgive me. I realize that this method of distraction is the oldest trick in the book. In fact, it is a trick so old it predates papyrus scrolls and was first recorded on clay tablets in Mesopotamia. But the blemmyae fell for it.
They were slow at “looking over there.” They could not glance. They could not turn their heads without turning their entire bodies, so they executed a full one-hundred-and-eighty-degree waddle.
I had no follow-up trick in mind. I simply knew I had to save Meg and get out of there. Then an aftershock rattled the cavern, unbalancing the blemmyae, and I took advantage. I kicked the ranger into the lake. At precisely the same moment, a portion of the ceiling peeled loose and fell on top of said ranger like a hailstorm of major appliances. The ranger disappeared under churning foam.
I could only stare in amazement. I was fairly sure I hadn’t caused the ceiling to crack and collapse. Blind luck? Or perhaps the spirit of Trophonius had granted me one last grudging favor for destroying his cave. Crushing someone under a rain of rocks did seem like the sort of favor he would grant.
The trooper missed the whole thing. He turned back to me, a puzzled look on his chest-face. “I don’t see any…Wait. Where did my friend go?”
“Hmm?” I asked. “What friend?”
His impressive mustache twitched. “Eduardo. The ranger.”
I feigned confusion. “A ranger? Here?”
“Yes, he was just here.”
“I’m sure I don’t know.”
The cavern shuddered once again. Sadly, no more obliging chunks of ceiling broke free to crush my last enemy.
“Well,” the trooper said, “maybe he had to leave. You’ll excuse me if I have to kill you by myself now. Orders.”
“Oh, yes, but first…”
The trooper was not to be deterred any longer. He grabbed my arm, crushing my ulna and radius together. I screamed. My knees buckled.
“Let the girl go,” I whimpered through the pain. “Kill me and let her go.”
I surprised myself. These were not the last words I had planned. In the event of my death, I’d been hoping to have time to compose a ballad of my glorious deeds—a very long ballad. Yet here I was, at the end of my life, pleading not for myself, but for Meg McCaffrey.
I’d love to take credit for what happened next. I’d like to think my noble gesture of self-sacrifice proved my worthiness and summoned our saviors from the ethereal plane. More likely, though, they were already in the area, searching for Meg, and heard my scream of agony.
With a bloodcurdling battle cry, three karpoi hurtled down the tunnel and flew at the trooper, landing on his face.
The trooper staggered across the dock, the three peach spirits howling, clawing, and biting like a school of winged, fruit-flavored piranhas…which, in retrospect, I suppose does not make them sound very piranha-like.
“Please get off!” the trooper wailed. “Please and thank you!”
The karpoi were not concerned with good manners. After twenty more seconds of savage peachery, the trooper was reduced to a pile of monster ash, tattered fabric, and mustache whiskers.
The middle karpos spit out something that might have once been the officer’s handgun. He flapped his leafy wings. I deduced that he was our usual friend, the one known as Peaches, because his eyes gleamed a little more viciously, and his diaper sagged a little more dangerously.
I cradled my broken arm. “Thank you, Peaches! I don’t know how I can ever—”
He ignored me and flew to Meg’s side. He wailed and stroked her hair.
The other two karpoi studied me with a hungry gleam in their eyes.
“Peaches?” I whimpered. “Could you tell them I’m a friend? Please?”
Peaches howled inconsolably. He scraped dirt and rubble around Meg’s legs, the way one might plant a sapling.
“Peaches!” I called again. “I can help her, but I need to get her back to the Waystation. The Throne of Memory—” Nausea made the world tilt and twist. My vision went green.
Once I could focus again, I found Peaches and the other two karpoi standing in a line, all staring at me.