She jiggled the handle, but it seemed to be locked. I was hoping she’d decide to give up. Instead she looked at me expectantly. “Can you do your thing?”
I gritted my teeth. “I hate doing my thing.”
Even though I’ve never met my dad and don’t really want to, I share some of his talents. Along with being messenger of the gods, Hermes is the god of merchants—which explains why I’m good with money—and travelers, which explains why the divine jerk left my mom and never came back. He’s also the god of thieves. He’s stolen things like—oh, Apollo’s cattle, women, good ideas, wallets, my mom’s sanity, and my chance at a decent life.
Sorry, did that sound bitter?
Anyway, because of my dad’s godly thieving, I’ve got some abilities I don’t like to advertise.
I placed my hand on the door’s dead bolt. I concentrated, sensing the internal pins that controlled the latch. With a click, the bolt slid back. The lock on the handle was even easier. I tapped it, turned it, and the door swung open.
“That is so cool,” Thalia murmured, though she’d seen me do it a dozen times.
The doorway exuded a sour evil smell, like the breath of a dying man. Thalia marched through anyway. I didn’t have much choice except to follow.
Inside was an old-fashioned ballroom. High above, a chandelier glowed with trinkets of Celestial bronze—arrowheads, bits of armor, and broken sword hilts—all casting a sickly yellow sheen over the room. Two hallways led off to the left and right. A staircase wrapped around the back wall. Heavy drapes blocked the windows.
The place might’ve been impressive once, but now it was trashed. The checkerboard marble floor was smeared with mud and crusty dried stuff that I hoped was just ketchup. In one corner, a sofa had been disemboweled. Several mahogany chairs had been busted to kindling. At the base of the stairs sat a heap of cans, rags, and bones—human-sized bones.
Thalia pulled her weapon from her belt. The metal cylinder looked like a Mace canister, but when she flicked it, it expanded until she was holding a full-sized spear with a Celestial bronze point. I grabbed my golf club, which wasn’t nearly as cool.
I started to say, “Maybe this isn’t such a good—”
The door slammed shut behind us.
I lunged at the handle and pulled. No luck. I pressed my hand on the lock and willed it to open. This time nothing happened.
“Some kind of magic,” I said. “We’re trapped.”
Thalia ran to the nearest window. She tried to part the drapes, but the heavy black fabric wrapped around her hands.
“Luke!” she screamed.
The curtains liquefied into sheets of oily sludge like giant black tongues. They oozed up her arms and covered her spear. It felt like my heart was trying to climb my throat, but I charged at the drapes and whacked them with my golf club.
The ooze shuddered and reverted to fabric long enough for me to pull Thalia free. Her spear clattered on the floor.
I dragged her away as the curtains returned to ooze and tried to catch her. The sheets of sludge lashed at the air. Fortunately, they seemed anchored to the curtain rods. After a few more failed attempts to reach us, the ooze settled down and changed back to drapes.
Thalia shivered in my arms. Her spear lay nearby, smoking as if it had been dipped in acid.
She raised her hands. They were steaming and blistered. Her face paled like she was going into shock.
“Hold on!” I lowered her to the ground and fumbled through my backpack. “Hold on, Thalia. I’ve got it.”
Finally I found my bottle of nectar. The drink of the gods could heal wounds, but the bottle was almost empty. I poured the rest over Thalia’s hands. The steam dissipated. The blisters faded.
“You’re going to be fine,” I said. “Just rest.”
“We—we can’t…” Her voice was shaky, but she managed to stand. She glanced at the drapes with a mixture of fear and nausea. “If all the windows are like that, and the door is locked—”
“We’ll find another way out,” I promised.
This didn’t seem like the time to remind her that we wouldn’t have been here if not for the stupid goat.
I considered our options: a staircase going up, or two dark hallways. I squinted down the hall to the left. I could make out a pair of small red lights glowing near the floor. Maybe night-lights?
Then the lights moved. They bobbed up and down, growing brighter and closer. A growl made my hair stand on end.
Thalia made a strangled sound. “Um, Luke…”
She pointed to the other hallway. Another pair of glowing red eyes glared at us from the shadows. From both hallways came a strange hollow clack, clack, clack, like someone playing bone castanets.
“The stairs are looking pretty good,” I said.
As if in reply, a man’s voice called from somewhere above us: “Yes, this way.”
The voice was heavy with sadness, as if he were giving directions to a funeral.
“Who are you?” I shouted.
“Hurry,” the voice called down, but he didn’t sound excited about it.
To my right, the same voice echoed, “Hurry.” Clack, clack, clack.
I did a double take. The voice seemed to have come from the thing in the hallway—the thing with the glowing red eyes. But how could one voice come from two different places?
Then the same voice called out from the hallway on the left: “Hurry.” Clack, clack, clack.
Now I’ve faced some scary stuff before—fire-breathing dogs, pit scorpions, dragons—not to mention a set of oily black man-eating draperies. But something about those voices echoing all around me, those glowing eyes advancing from either direction, and the weird clacking noises made me feel like a deer surrounded by wolves. Every muscle in my body tensed. My instincts said, Run.
I grabbed Thalia’s hand and bolted for the stairs.
“If it’s another trap—”
I bounded up the stairs, dragging Thalia with me. I knew she was right. We might be running straight to our deaths, but I also knew we had to get away from those things downstairs.
I was afraid to look back, but I could hear the creatures closing—snarling like wildcats, pounding across the marble floor with a sound like horse’s hooves. What in Hades were they?
At the top of the stairs, we plunged down another hallway. Dimly flickering wall sconces made the doors along either side seem to dance. I jumped over a pile of bones, accidentally kicking a human skull.
Somewhere ahead of us, the man’s voice called, “This way!” He sounded more urgent than before. “Last door on the left! Hurry!”
Behind us, the creatures echoed his words: “Left! Hurry!”
Maybe the creatures were just mimicking like parrots. Or maybe the voice in front of us belonged to a monster too. Still, something about the man’s tone felt real. He sounded alone and miserable, like a hostage.
“We have to help him,” Thalia announced, as if reading my thoughts.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
We charged ahead. The corridor became more dilapidated—wallpaper peeling away like tree bark, light sconces smashed to pieces. The carpet was ripped to shreds and littered with bones. Light seeped from underneath the last door on the left.
Behind us, the pounding of hooves got louder.
We reached the door and I launched myself against it, but it opened on its own. Thalia and I spilled inside, face-planting on the carpet.
The door slammed shut.
Outside, the creatures growled in frustration and scraped against the walls.
“Hello,” said the man’s voice, much closer now. “I’m very sorry.”
My head was spinning. I thought I’d heard him off to my left, but when I looked up, he was standing right in front of us.
He wore snakeskin boots and a mottled green-and-brown suit that might’ve been made from the same material. He was tall and gaunt, with spiky gray hair almost as wild as Thalia’s. He looked like a very old, sickly, fashionably dressed Einstein.
His shoulders slumped. His sad green eyes were underscored with bags. He might’ve been handsome once, but the skin of his face hung loose as if he’d been partially deflated.
His room was arranged like a studio apartment. Unlike the rest of the house, it was in fairly good shape. Against the far wall was a twin bed, a desk with a computer, and a window covered with dark drapes like the ones downstairs. Along the right wall stood a bookcase, a small kitchenette, and two doorways—one leading into a bathroom, the other into a large closet.
Thalia said, “Um, Luke…”
She pointed to our left.
My heart almost burst out of my rib cage.
The left side of the room had a row of iron bars like a prison cell. Inside was the scariest zoo exhibit I’d ever seen. A gravel floor was littered with bones and pieces of armor, and prowling back and forth was a monster with a lion’s body and rust-red fur. Instead of paws it had hooves like a horse, and its tail lashed around like a bullwhip. Its head was a mixture of horse and wolf—with pointed ears, an elongated snout, and black lips that looked disturbingly human.
The monster snarled. For a second I thought it was wearing one of those mouth guards that boxers use. Instead of teeth, it had two solid horseshoe-shaped plates of bone. When it snapped its mouth, the bone plates made the jarring clack, clack, clack I’d heard downstairs.
The monster fixed its glowing red eyes on me. Saliva dripped from its weird bony ridges. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. I could still hear the other creatures—at least two of them—growling out in the hallway.
Thalia helped me to my feet. I gripped her hand and faced the old man.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What’s that thing in the cage?”
The old man grimaced. His expression was so full of misery I thought he might cry. He opened his mouth, but when he spoke, the words didn’t come from him.
Like some horrific ventriloquist act, the monster spoke for him, in the voice of an old man: “I am Halcyon Green. I’m terribly sorry, but you are in the cage. You’ve been lured here to die.”
We’d left Thalia’s spear downstairs, so we had just one weapon—my golf club. I brandished it at the old man, but he made no threatening moves. He looked so pitiful and depressed I couldn’t bring myself to smack him.
“Y-you’d better explain,” I stammered. “Why—how—what…?”
As you can tell, I’m good with words.
Behind the bars, the monster clacked its bone-plated jaws.
“I understand your confusion,” it said in the old man’s voice. Its sympathetic tone didn’t match the homicidal glow in its eyes.
“The creature you see here is a leucrota. It has a talent for imitating human voices. That is how it lures its prey.”
I looked back and forth from the man to the monster. “But…the voice is yours? I mean, the dude in the snakeskin suit—I’m hearing what he wants to say?”
“That is correct.” The leucrota sighed heavily. “I am, as you say, the dude in the snakeskin suit. Such is my curse. My name is Halcyon Green, son of Apollo.”