Thalia stumbled backward. “You’re a demigod ? But you’re so—”
“Old?” the leucrota asked. The man, Halcyon Green, studied his liver-spotted hands, as if he couldn’t believe they were his. “Yes, I am.”
I understood Thalia’s surprise. We’d only met a few other demigods in our travels—some friendly, some not so much. But they’d all been kids like us. Our lives were so dangerous, Thalia and I figured it was unlikely any demigod could live to be an adult. Yet Halcyon Green was ancient, like sixty at least.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
Halcyon shrugged listlessly. The monster spoke for him: “I have lost count. Decades? Because my father is the god of oracles, I was born with the curse of seeing the future. Apollo warned me to keep quiet. He told me I should never share what I saw because it would anger the gods. But many years ago…I simply had to speak. I met a young girl who was destined to die in an accident. I saved her life by telling her the future.”
I tried to focus on the old man, but it was hard not to look at the monster’s mouth—those black lips, the slavering bone-plated jaws.
“I don’t get it…” I forced myself to meet Halcyon’s eyes. “You did something good. Why would that anger the gods?”
“They don’t like mortals meddling with fate,” the leucrota said. “My father cursed me. He forced me to wear these clothes, the skin of Python, who once guarded the Oracle of Delphi, as a reminder that I was not an oracle. He took away my voice and locked me in this mansion, my boyhood home. Then the gods set the leucrotae to guard me. Normally, leucrotae only mimic human speech, but these are linked to my thoughts. They speak for me. They keep me alive as bait, to lure other demigods. It was Apollo’s way of reminding me, forever, that my voice would only lead others to their doom.”
An angry coppery taste filled my mouth. I already knew the gods could be cruel. My deadbeat dad had ignored me for fourteen years. But Halcyon Green’s curse was just plain wrong. It was evil.
“You should fight back,” I said. “You didn’t deserve this. Break out. Kill the monsters. We’ll help you.”
“He’s right,” Thalia said. “That’s Luke, by the way. I’m Thalia. We’ve fought plenty of monsters. There has to be something we can do, Halcyon.”
“Call me Hal,” the leucrota said. The old man shook his head dejectedly. “But you don’t understand. You’re not the first to come here. I’m afraid all the demigods feel there’s hope when they first arrive. Sometimes I try to help them. It never works. The windows are guarded by deadly drapes—”
“I noticed,” Thalia muttered.
“—and the door is heavily enchanted. It will let you in, but not out.”
“We’ll see about that.” I turned and pressed my hand to the lock. I concentrated until sweat trickled down my neck, but nothing happened. My powers were useless.
“I told you,” the leucrota said bitterly. “None of us can leave. Fighting the monsters is hopeless. They can’t be hurt by any metal known to man or god.”
To prove his point, the old man brushed aside the edge of his snakeskin jacket, revealed a dagger on his belt. He unsheathed the wicked-looking Celestial bronze blade and approached the monster’s cell.
The leucrota snarled at him. Hal jabbed his knife between the bars, straight at the monster’s head. Normally, Celestial bronze would disintegrate a monster with one hit. The blade simply glanced off the leucrota’s snout, leaving no mark. The leucrota kicked its hooves at the bars, and Hal backed away.
“You see?” the monster spoke for Hal.
“So you just give up?” Thalia demanded. “You help the monsters lure us in and wait for them to kill us?”
Hal sheathed his dagger. “I’m so sorry, my dear, but I have little choice. I’m trapped here, too. If I don’t cooperate, the monsters let me starve. The monsters could have killed you the moment you entered the house, but they use me to lure you upstairs. They allow me your company for a while. It eases my loneliness. And then…well, the monsters like to eat at sundown. Today, that will be at 7:03.” He gestured to a digital clock on his desk, which read 10:34 AM. “After you are gone, I—I subsist on whatever rations you carried.” He glanced hungrily at my backpack, and a shiver went down my spine.
“You’re as bad as the monsters,” I said.
The old man winced. I didn’t care much if I hurt his feelings. In my backpack I had two Snickers bars, a ham sandwich, a canteen of water, and an empty bottle for nectar. I didn’t want to get killed for that.
“You’re right to hate me,” the leucrota said in Hal’s voice, “but I can’t save you. At sunset, those bars will rise. The monsters will drag you away and kill you. There is no escape.”
Inside the monster’s enclosure, a square panel on the back wall ground open. I hadn’t even noticed the panel before, but it must have led to another room. Two more leucrotae stalked into the cage. All three fixed their glowing red eyes on me, their bony mouth-plates snapping with anticipation.
I wondered how the monsters could eat with such strange mouths. As if to answer my question, a leucrota picked up an old piece of armor in its mouth. The Celestial bronze breastplate looked thick enough to stop a spear-thrust, but the leucrota clamped down with the force of a vise grip and bit a horseshoe-shaped hole in the metal.
“As you see,” said another leucrota in Hal’s voice, “the monsters are remarkably strong.”
My legs felt like soggy spaghetti. Thalia’s fingers dug into my arm.
“Send them away,” she pleaded. “Hal, can you make them leave?”
The old man frowned. The first monster said: “If I do that, we won’t be able to talk.”
The second monster picked up in the same voice: “Besides, any escape strategy you can think of, someone else has already tried.”
The third monster said: “There is no point in private talks.”
Thalia paced, as restless as the monsters. “Do they know what we’re saying? I mean, do they just speak, or do they understand the words?”
The first leucrota made a high-pitched whine. Then it imitated Thalia’s voice: “Do they understand the words?”
My stomach churned. The monster had mimicked Thalia perfectly. If I’d heard that voice in the dark, calling for help, I would’ve run straight toward it.
The second monster spoke for Hal: “The creatures are intelligent, the way dogs are intelligent. They comprehend emotions and a few simple phrases. They can lure their prey by crying things like ‘Help!’ But I’m not sure how much human speech they really understand. It doesn’t matter. You can’t fool them.”
“Send them away,” I said. “You have a computer. Type what you want to say. If we’re going to die at sunset, I don’t want those things staring at me all day.”
Hal hesitated. Then he turned to the monsters and stared at them in silence. After a few moments, the leucrotae snarled. They stalked out of the enclosure and the back panel closed behind them.
Hal looked at me. He spread his hands as if apologizing, or asking a question.
“Luke,” Thalia said anxiously, “do you have a plan?”
“Not yet,” I admitted. “But we’d better come up with one by sunset.”
It was an odd feeling, waiting to die. Normally when Thalia and I fought monsters, we had about two seconds to figure out a plan. The threat was immediate. We lived or died instantly. Now we had all day trapped in a room with nothing to do, knowing that at sunset those cage bars would rise and we’d be trampled to death and torn apart by monsters that couldn’t be killed with any weapon. Then Halcyon Green would eat my Snickers bars.
The suspense was almost worse than an attack.
Part of me was tempted to knock out the old man with my golf club and feed him to his drapes. Then at least he couldn’t help the monsters lure any more demigods to their deaths. But I couldn’t make myself do it. Hal was so frail and pathetic. Besides, his curse wasn’t his fault. He’d been trapped in this room for decades, forced to depend on monsters for his voice and his survival, forced to watch other demigods die, all because he’d saved a girl’s life. What kind of justice was that?
I was still angry with Hal for luring us here, but I could understand why he’d lost hope after so many years. If anybody deserved a golf club across the head, it was Apollo—and all the other deadbeat parent Olympian gods, for that matter.
We took inventory of Hal’s prison apartment. The bookshelves were stuffed with everything from ancient history to thriller novels.
You’re welcome to read anything, Hal typed on his computer. Just please not my diary. It’s personal.
He put his hand protectively on a battered green leather book next to his keyboard.
“No problem,” I said. I doubted any of the books would help us, and I couldn’t imagine Hal had anything interesting to write about in his diary, being stuck in this room most of his life.
He showed us the computer’s Internet browser. Great. We could order pizza and watch the monsters eat the delivery guy. Not very helpful. I suppose we could’ve e-mailed someone for help, except we didn’t have anyone to contact, and I’d never used e-mail. Thalia and I didn’t even carry phones. We’d found out the hard way that when demigods use technology, it attracts monsters like blood attracts sharks.
We moved on to the bathroom. It was pretty clean considering how long Hal had lived here. He had two spare sets of snakeskin clothes, apparently just hand-washed, hanging from the rod above the bathtub. His medicine cabinet was stocked with scavenged supplies—toiletries, medicines, toothbrushes, first-aid gear, ambrosia, and nectar. I tried not to think about where all this had come from as I searched but didn’t see anything that could defeat the leucrotae.
Thalia slammed a drawer shut in frustration. “I don’t understand! Why did Amaltheia bring me here? Did the other demigods come here because of the goat?”
Hal frowned. He motioned for us to follow him back to his computer. He hunched over the keyboard and typed: What goat?
I didn’t see any point in keeping it a secret. I told him how we’d followed Zeus’s glowing Pepsi-dispensing goat into Richmond, and how she had pointed us to this house.
Hal looked baffled. He typed: I’ve heard of Amaltheia, but don’t know why she would bring you here. The other demigods were attracted to the mansion because of the treasure. I assumed you were, too.
“Treasure?” Thalia asked.
Hal got up and showed us his walk-in closet. It was full of more supplies collected from unfortunate demigods—coats much too small for Hal, some old-fashioned wood-and-pitch torches, dented pieces of armor, and a few Celestial bronze swords that were bent and broken. Such a waste. I needed another sword.
Hal rearranged boxes of books, shoes, a few bars of gold, and a small basket full of diamonds that he didn’t seem interested in. He unearthed a two-foot-square metal floor safe and gestured at it like: Ta-da.