“What?” Leo demanded.
I glanced at Calypso, who was scribbling furiously. “We’re going to need a bigger notepad.”
“What do you mean?” Josephine asked. “Surely the prophecy’s done—”
Meg gasped and continued:
Yet southward must the sun now trace its course,
Through mazes dark to lands of scorching death
To find the master of the swift white horse
And wrest from him the crossword speaker’s breath.
It had been centuries since I’d heard a prophecy in this form, yet I knew it well. I wished I could stop this recitation and save Meg the agony, but there was nothing I could do.
She shivered and exhaled the third stanza:
To westward palace must the Lester go;
Demeter’s daughter finds her ancient roots.
The cloven guide alone the way does know,
To walk the path in thine own enemy’s boots.
Then, the culminating horror, she spewed forth a rhyming couplet:
When three are known and Tiber reached alive,
’Tis only then Apollo starts to jive.
The dark smoke dissipated. I rushed forward as Meg slumped into my arms. Her breathing was already more regular, her skin warmer. Thank the Fates. The prophecy had been exorcised.
Leo was the first to speak. “What was that? Buy one prophecy, get three free? That was a lot of lines.”
“It was a sonnet,” I said, still in disbelief. “May the gods help us; it was a Shakespearean sonnet.”
I had thought the limerick of Dodona was bad. But a full Shakespearean sonnet, complete with ABAB rhyme scheme, ending couplet, and iambic pentameter? Such a horror could only have come from Trophonius’s cave.
I recalled my many arguments with William Shakespeare.
Bill, I said. No one will accept this poetry! Du-DUH, du-DUH, du-DUH, du-DUH, du-DUH. What sort of beat is that?
I mean, in real life, no one talks like that!
Hmm…actually the line I just wrote was in iambic pentameter. The stuff is infectious. Gah!
Thalia shouldered her bow. “That was all one poem? But it had four different sections.”
“Yes,” I said. “The sonnet conveys only the most elaborate prophecies, with multiple moving parts. None of them good, I fear.”
Meg began to snore.
“We will parse our doom later,” I said. “We should let Meg rest—”
My body chose that moment to give out. I had asked too much of it. Now it rebelled. I crumpled sideways, Meg spilling over on top of me. Our friends rushed forward. I felt myself being gently lifted, wondering hazily if I was peach-surfing or if Zeus had recalled me to the heavens.
Then I saw Josephine’s face looming over me like a Mount Rushmore president as she carried me through the corridor.
“Infirmary for this one,” she said to someone next to her. “And then…pee-yoo. He definitely needs a bath.”
A few hours of dreamless sleep, followed by a bubble bath.
It was not Mount Olympus, my friends, but it was close.
By late afternoon, I was freshly dressed in clothes that weren’t freezing and did not smell of cave excrement. My belly was full of honey and just-baked bread. I roamed the Waystation, helping out where I could. It was good to stay busy. It kept me from thinking too much about the lines of the Dark Prophecy.
Meg rested comfortably in a guest room, guarded vigilantly by Peaches, Peaches, and Other Peaches.
The Hunters of Artemis tended the wounded, who were so numerous the Waystation had to double the size of its infirmary. Outside, Livia the elephant helped with cleanup, moving broken vehicles and wreckage from the roundabout. Leo and Josie spent the afternoon collecting pieces of Festus the dragon, who had been torn apart bare-handed, they told me, by Commodus himself. Fortunately, Leo seemed to find this more of an annoyance than a tragedy.
“Nah, man,” he said when I offered my condolences. “I can put him back together easy enough. I redesigned him so he’s like a Lego kit, built for quick assembly!”
He went back to helping Josephine, who was using a crane to extract Festus’s left hind leg from the Union Station bell tower.
Calypso, in a burst of aerial magic, summoned enough wind spirits to reassemble the glass shards of the rose window, then promptly collapsed from the effort.
Sssssarah, Jimmy, and Thalia Grace swept the surrounding streets, looking for any sign of Commodus, but the emperor had simply disappeared. I thought of how I’d saved Hemithea and Parthenos when they jumped off that cliff long ago, dissolving them into light. Could a quasi-deity such as Commodus do something like that to himself? Whatever the case, I had a suspicion that we hadn’t seen the last of good old New Hercules.
At sunset I was asked to join a small family memorial for Heloise the griffin. The entire population of the Waystation would have come to honor her sacrifice, but Emmie explained that a large crowd would upset Abelard even worse than he already was. While Hunter Kowalski sat on egg duty in the henhouse (where Heloise’s egg had been moved for safekeeping before the battle) I joined Emmie, Josephine, Georgie, and Calypso on the roof. Abelard, the grieving widower, watched in silence as Calypso and I—honorary relatives since our rescue mission to the zoo—laid the body of Heloise gently across a fallow bed of soil in the garden.
After death, griffins become surprisingly light. Their bodies desiccate when their spirits pass on, leaving only fur, feathers, and hollow bones. We stepped back as Abelard prowled toward the body of his mate. He ruffled his wings, then gently buried his beak in Heloise’s neck plumage one last time. He threw back his head and let out a piercing cry—a call that said, I am here. Where are you?
Then he launched himself into the sky and disappeared in the low gray clouds. Heloise’s body crumbled to dust.
“We’ll plant catnip in this bed.” Emmie wiped a tear from her cheek. “Heloise loved catnip.”
Calypso dried her eyes on her sleeve. “That sounds lovely. Where did Abelard go?”
Josephine scanned the clouds. “He’ll be back. He needs time. It’ll be several more weeks before the egg hatches. We’ll keep watch over it for him.”
The idea of father and egg, alone in the world, made me unspeakably sad, yet I knew they had the most loving extended family they could hope for here at the Waystation.
During the brief ceremony, Georgina had been eyeing me warily, fiddling with something in her hands. A doll? I hadn’t really been paying attention. Now Josephine patted her daughter’s back.
“It’s all right, baby,” Josephine assured her. “Go ahead.”
Georgina shuffled toward me. She was wearing a clean set of coveralls, which looked much better on her than they did on Leo. Newly washed, her brown hair was fluffier, her face pinker.
“My moms told me you might be my dad,” she murmured, not meeting my eyes.
I gulped. Over the ages, I’d been through scenarios like this countless times, but as Lester Papadopoulos, I felt even more awkward than usual. “I—I might be, Georgina. I don’t know.”
“’Kay.” She held up the thing she was holding—a figure made of pipe cleaners—and pressed it into my hands. “Made this for you. You can take it with you when you go away.”