By Christian Holub
March 07, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images

It’s not easy being a kid, and it’s especially hard being a god trapped in the body of a kid.

Over the course of three books so far, Rick Riordan’s series The Trials of Apollo has found the titular Greek god transformed into a mortal boy named Lester Papadopoulos and tasked with relighting Oracles that have gone dark. This has not been a painless journey; by the end of the previous book, The Burning Maze, Apollo/Lester had lost his friend Jason Grace. Jason had first appeared in Heroes of Olympus, one of Riordan’s previous series about the children of Greek and Roman myth.

EW can exclusively reveal that the fourth book in the series is called The Tyrant’s Tomb; check out the cover below. As the book begins, Apollo/Lester and his companion Meg McCaffrey are set on returning Jason’s body to Camp Jupiter. On the way, they run into a pretty nasty undead monster.

The Tyrant’s Tomb is set to hit stores on Sept. 24. Read the first two chapters below.

Disney Press

Excerpt from The Tyrant’s Tomb by Rick Riordan

1.

There is no food here

Meg ate all the Swedish fish

Please get off my hearse

I believe in returning dead bodies.

It seems like a simple courtesy, doesn’t it? A warrior dies, you should do what you can to get their body back to their people for funerary rites. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I am over four thousand years old. But I find it rude not to properly dispose of corpses.

Achilles during the Trojan War, for instance. Total pig. He chariot-dragged the body of the Trojan champion Hector around the walls of the city for days. Finally I convinced Zeus to pressure the big bully into returning Hector’s body to his parents so he could have a decent burial. I mean, come on. Have a little respect for the people you slaughter.

Then there was Oliver Cromwell’s corpse. I wasn’t a fan of the man, but please. First, the English bury him with honors. Then they decide they hate him, so they dig him up and “execute” his body. Then his head falls off the pike where it’s been impaled for decades and gets passed around from collector to collector for almost three centuries like a disgusting souvenir snow globe. Finally, in 1960, I whispered in the ears of some influential people, Enough, already. I am the god Apollo, and I order you to bury that thing. You’re grossing me out.

When it came to Jason Grace, my fallen friend and half brother, I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. I would personally escort his coffin to Camp Jupiter and see him off with full honors.

That turned out to be a good call. What with the ghouls attacking us and everything.

Sunset turned San Francisco Bay into a cauldron of molten copper as our private plane landed at Oakland Airport. I say our private plane. The chartered trip was actually a parting gift from our friend Piper McLean and her movie star father. (Everyone should have at least one friend with a movie star parent.)

Waiting for us beside the runway was another surprise the McLeans must have arranged: a gleaming black hearse. Meg McCaffrey and I stretched our legs on the tarmac while the ground crew somberly removed Jason’s coffin from the Cessna’s storage bay. The polished mahogany box seemed to glow in the evening light. Its brass fixtures glinted red. I hated how beautiful it was. Death shouldn’t be beautiful.

The crew loaded it into the hearse, then transferred our luggage to the backseat. We didn’t have much: Meg’s back- pack and mine (courtesy of Marco’s Military Madness), my bow and quiver and ukulele, and a couple of sketchbooks and a poster-board diorama we’d inherited from Jason.

I signed some paperwork, accepted the flight crew’s condolences, then shook hands with a nice undertaker who handed me the keys to the hearse and walked away.

I stared at the keys, then at Meg McCaffrey, who was chewing the head off a Swedish fish. The plane had been stocked with half a dozen tins of the squishy red candy. Not anymore. Meg had single-handedly brought the Swedish sh ecosystem to the brink of collapse.

“I’m supposed to drive?” I wondered. “Is this a rental hearse?”

Meg shrugged. During our flight, she’d insisted on sprawling on the Cessna’s sofa, so her dark pageboy haircut was flattened against the side of her head. One rhinestone-studded point of her cat-eye glasses poked through her hair like a disco shark n.

The rest of her out t was equally disreputable: floppy red high-tops, threadbare yellow leggings, and the well-loved knee-length green frock she’d gotten from Percy Jackson’s mother. By well-loved, I mean the frock had been through so many battles, washed and mended so many times, it looked less like a piece of clothing and more like a deflated hot-air balloon. Around Meg’s waist was the pièce de résistance: her multi-pocketed gardening belt, because children of Demeter never leave home without one.

“I don’t have a driver’s license,” she said, as if I needed a reminder that my life was presently being controlled by a twelve-year-old. “I call shotgun.”

“Calling shotgun” didn’t seem appropriate for a hearse. Nevertheless, Meg skipped to the passenger’s side and climbed in. I got behind the wheel. Soon we were out of the airport and cruising north on I-880 in our rented black grief-mobile.

Ah, the Bay Area . . . I’d spent some happy times here. The vast misshapen geographic bowl was jam-packed with interesting people and places. I loved the green-and-golden hills, the fog-swept coastline, the glowing lacework of bridges and the crazy zigzag of neighborhoods shouldered up against one another like subway passengers at rush hour.

Back in the 1950s, I played with Dizzy Gillespie at Bop City in the Fillmore. During the Summer of Love, I hosted an impromptu jam session in Golden Gate Park with the Grateful Dead. (Lovely bunch of guys, but did they really need those fteen-minute-long solos?) In the 1980s, I hung out in Oakland with Stan Burrell—otherwise known as MC Hammer—as he pioneered pop rap. I can’t claim credit for Stan’s music, but I did advise him on his fashion choices. Those gold lamé parachute pants? My idea. You’re welcome, fashionistas.

Most of the Bay Area brought back good memories. But as I drove, I couldn’t help glancing to the northwest—toward Marin County and the dark peak of Mount Tamalpais. We gods knew the place as Mount Othrys, seat of the Titans. Even though our ancient enemies had been cast down, their palace destroyed, I could still feel the evil pull of the place—like a magnet trying to extract the iron from my now-mortal blood.

I did my best to shake the feeling. We had other problems to deal with. Besides, we were going to Camp Jupiter—friendly territory on this side of the bay. I had Meg for backup. I was driving a hearse. What could possibly go wrong?

The Nimitz Freeway snaked through the East Bay flatlands, past warehouses and docklands, strip malls and rows of dilapidated bungalows. To our right rose downtown Oakland, its small cluster of high-rises facing off against its cooler neighbor San Francisco across the Bay as if to proclaim We are Oakland! We exist, too!

Meg reclined in her seat, propped her red high-tops up on the dashboard, and cracked open her window.

“I like this place,” she decided.

“We just got here,” I said. “What is it you like? The abandoned warehouses? That sign for Bo’s Chicken ’N’ Waffles?”

“Nature.”

“Concrete counts as nature?”

“There’s trees, too. Plants flowering. Moisture in the air. The eucalyptus smells good. It’s not like . . .”

She didn’t need to finish her sentence. Our time in Southern California had been marked by scorching temperatures, extreme drought, and raging wild res—all thanks to the magical Burning Maze controlled by Caligula and his hate-crazed sorceress bestie, Medea. The Bay Area wasn’t experiencing any of those problems. Not at the moment, anyway.

We’d killed Medea. We’d extinguished the Burning Maze. We’d freed the Erythraean Sibyl and brought relief to the mortals and withering nature spirits of Southern California.

But Caligula was still very much alive. He and his co- emperors in the Triumvirate were still intent on controlling all means of prophecy, taking over the world, and writing the future in their own sadistic image. Right now, Caligula’s fleet of evil luxury yachts was making its way toward San Francisco to attack Camp Jupiter. I could only imagine what sort of hellish destruction the emperor would rain down on Oakland and Bo’s Chicken ’N’ Waffles.

Even if we somehow managed to defeat the Triumvirate, there was still that greatest Oracle, Delphi, under the control of my old nemesis Python. How I could defeat him in my present form as a sixteen-year-old weakling, I had no idea.

But, hey. Except for that, everything was fine. The eucalyptus smelled nice.

Traf c slowed at the I-580 interchange. Apparently, California drivers didn’t follow that custom of yielding to hearses out of respect. Perhaps they gured at least one of our passengers was already dead, so we weren’t in a hurry.

Meg toyed with her window controls, raising and lower- ing the glass. Reeee. Reeee. Reeee.

“You know how to get to Camp Jupiter?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“ ’Cause you said that about Camp Half-Blood.”

“We got there! Eventually.”

“Frozen and half-dead.”

“Look, the entrance to camp is right over there.” I waved vaguely at the Oakland Hills. “There’s a secret passage in the Caldecott Tunnel or something.”

“Or something?”

“Well, I haven’t actually ever driven to Camp Jupiter,” I admitted. “Usually I descend from the heavens in my glorious sun chariot. But I know the Caldecott Tunnel is the main entrance. There’s probably a sign. Perhaps a Demigods Only lane.”

Meg peered at me over the top of her glasses. “You’re the dumbest god ever.” She raised her window with a final Reeee. SHLOOMP!—a sound that reminded me uncomfortably of a guillotine blade.

We turned west onto Highway 24. The congestion eased as the hills loomed closer. The elevated lanes soared past neighborhoods of winding streets and tall conifers, white stucco houses clinging to the sides of grassy ravines.

A road sign promised CALDECOTT TUNNEL ENTRANCE, 2 MI. That should have comforted me. Soon, we’d pass through the borders of Camp Jupiter into a heavily guarded, magically camouflaged valley where an entire Roman legion could shield me from my worries, at least for a while.

Why, then, were the hairs on the back of my neck quivering like sea worms?

Something was wrong. It dawned on me that the uneas- iness I’d felt since we landed might not be the distant threat of Caligula, or the old Titan base on Mount Tamalpais, but something more immediate . . . something malevolent, and getting closer.

I glanced in the rearview mirror. Through the back window’s gauzy curtains, I saw nothing but traffic. But then, in the polished surface of Jason’s coffin lid, I caught the reflection of movement from a dark shape outside—as if a human-size object had just own past the side of the hearse.

“Oh. Meg?” I tried to keep my voice even. “Do you see anything unusual behind us?”

“Unusual like what?”

THUMP.

The hearse lurched as if we’d been hitched to a trailer full of scrap metal. Above my head, two foot-shaped impressions appeared in the upholstered ceiling.

“Something just landed on the roof,” Meg deduced.

“Thank you, Sherlock McCaffrey! Can you get it off?”

“Me? How?”

That was an annoyingly fair question. Meg could turn the rings on her middle fingers into wicked gold swords, but if she summoned them in close quarters, like the interior of the hearse, she a) wouldn’t have room to wield them, and b) might end up impaling me and/or herself.

CREAK. CREAK. The footprint impressions deepened as the thing adjusted its weight like a surfer on a board. It must have been immensely heavy to sink into the metal roof.

A whimper bubbled in my throat. My hands trembled on the steering wheel. I yearned for my bow and quiver in the backseat, but I couldn’t have used them. DWSPW, driving while shooting projectile weapons, is a big no-no, kids.

“Maybe you can open the window,” I said to Meg. “Lean out and tell it to go away.”

“Um, no.” (Gods, she was stubborn.) “What if you try to shake it off?”

Before I could explain that this was a terrible idea while traveling fifty miles an hour on a highway, I heard a sound like a pop-top aluminum can opening—the crisp pneumatic hiss of air through metal. A claw punctured the ceiling—a grimy white talon the size of a drill bit. Then another. And another. And another, until the upholstery was studded with ten pointy white spikes—just the right number for two very large hands.

“Meg?” I yelped. “Could you—?”

I don’t know how I might have finished that sentence. Protect me? Kill that thing? Check in the back to see if I have any spare undies?

I was rudely interrupted by the creature ripping open our roof like we were a birthday present.

Staring down at me through the ragged hole was a withered, ghoulish humanoid, its blue-black hide glistening like the skin of a house y, its eyes filmy white orbs, its bared teeth dripping saliva. Around its torso uttered a loincloth of greasy black feathers. The smell coming off it was more putrid than any dumpster—and believe me, I’d fallen into a few.

“FOOD!” it howled.

“Kill it!” I yelled at Meg.

“Swerve!” she countered.

One of the many annoying things about being incarcerated in my puny mortal body: I was Meg McCaffrey’s servant. I was bound to obey her direct commands. So when she yelled “swerve,” I yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. The hearse handled beautifully. It careened across three lanes of traffic, barreled straight through the guardrail, and plummeted into the canyon below.

2.

Dude, this isn’t cool

Dude just tried to eat my dude

That’s my dead dude, dude

I like flying cars. I prefer it when the car is actually capable of flight, however.

As the hearse achieved zero gravity, I had a few microseconds to appreciate the scenery below—a lovely little lake edged with eucalyptus trees and walking trails, a small beach on the far shore, where a cluster of evening picnickers relaxed on blankets.

Oh, good, some small part of my brain thought. Maybe we’ll at least land in the water.

Then we dropped—not toward the lake, but toward the trees.

A sound like Luciano Pavarotti’s high C in Don Giovanni issued from my throat. My hands glued themselves to the wheel.

As we plunged into the eucalypti, the ghoul disappeared from our roof—almost as if the tree branches had purposefully swatted him away. Other branches seemed to bend around the hearse, slowing our fall, dropping us from one leafy cough-drop-scented bough to another, until we hit the ground on all four wheels with a jarring thud. Too late to do any good, the airbags deployed, shoving my head against the backrest.

Yellow amoebas danced in my eyes. The taste of blood stung my throat. I clawed for the door handle, squeezed my way out between the airbag and the seat, and tumbled onto a bed of cool soft grass.

“Blergh,” I said.

I heard Meg retching somewhere nearby. At least that meant she was still alive. About ten feet to my left, water lapped at the shore of the lake. Directly above me, near the top of the largest eucalyptus tree, our ghoulish blueblack friend was snarling and writhing, trapped in a cage of branches.

I struggled to sit up. My nose throbbed. My sinuses felt like they were packed with menthol rub. “Meg?”

She staggered into view around the front of the hearse. Ring-shaped bruises were forming around her eyes—no doubt courtesy of the passenger-side airbag. Her glasses were intact but askew. “You suck at swerving.”

“Oh, my gods!” I protested. “You ordered me to—” My brain faltered. “Wait. How are we alive? Was that you who bent the tree branches?”

“Duh.” She flicked her hands, and her twin golden scimitars flashed into existence. Meg used them like ski poles to steady herself. “They won’t hold that monster much longer. Get ready.”

“What?” I yelped. “Wait. No. Not ready!”

I pulled myself to my feet with the driver’s-side door.

Across the lake, the picnickers had risen from their blankets. I suppose a hearse falling from the sky had gotten their attention. My vision was blurry, but something seemed odd about the group. . . . Was one of them wearing armor? Did another have goat legs?

Even if they were friendly, they were much too far away to help.

I limped to the hearse and yanked open the backseat door. Jason’s coffin appeared safe and secure in the rear bay. I grabbed my bow and quiver. My ukulele had vanished somewhere underneath the inflated airbags. I would have to do without it.

Above, the creature howled, thrashing in its branch cage.

Meg stumbled. Her forehead was beaded with sweat. Then the ghoul broke free and hurtled downward, landing only a few yards away. I hoped the creature’s legs might have broken on impact, but no such luck. It took a few steps, its feet punching wet craters in the grass, before it straightened and snarled, its pointy white teeth like tiny mirror-image picket fences.

“KILL AND EAT!” it screamed.

What a lovely singing voice. The ghoul could’ve fronted any number of Norwegian death metal groups.

“Wait!” My voice was shrill. “I—I know you.” I wagged my finger, as if that might crank-start my memory. Clutched in my other hand, my bow shook. The arrows rattled in my quiver. “H-hold on, it’ll come to me!”

The ghoul hesitated. I’ve always believed that most sentient creatures like to be recognized. Whether we are gods, people, or slavering ghouls in vulture-feather loincloths, we enjoy others knowing who we are, speaking our names, appreciating that we exist.

Of course, I was just trying to buy time. I hoped Meg would catch her breath, charge the creature, and slice it into putrid ghoul pappardelle. At the moment, though, it didn’t seem that she was capable of using her swords for anything but crutches. I supposed controlling gigantic trees could be tiring, but honestly, couldn’t she have waited to run out of steam until after she killed Vulture Diaper?

Wait. Vulture diaper . . . I took another look at the ghoul: its strange mottled blue-and-black hide, its milky eyes, its oversize mouth and tiny nostril slits. It smelled of rancid meat. It wore the feathers of a carrion eater . . .

“I do know you,” I realized. “You’re a eurynomos.”

I dare you to try saying you’re a eurynomos when your tongue is leaden, your body is shaking from terror, and you’ve just been punched in the face by a hearse’s airbag.

The ghoul’s lips curled. Silvery strands of saliva dripped from his chin. “YES! FOOD SAID MY NAME!”

“B-but you’re a corpse-eater!” I protested. “You’re supposed to be in the Underworld, working for Hades!”

The ghoul tilted its head as if trying to remember the words Underworld and Hades. It didn’t seem to like them as much as kill and eat.

“HADES GAVE ME OLD DEAD!” it shouted. “THE MASTER GIVES ME FRESH!”

“The master?”

“THE MASTER!”

I really wished Vulture Diaper wouldn’t scream. It didn’t have any visible ears, so perhaps it had poor volume control. Or maybe it just wanted to spray that gross saliva over as large a radius as possible.

“If you mean Caligula,” I ventured, “I’m sure he’s made you all sorts of promises, but I can tell you, Caligula is not—”

“HA! STUPID FOOD! CALIGULA IS NOT THE MASTER!”

“Not the master?”

“NOT THE MASTER!”

“MEG!” I shouted. Ugh. Now I was doing it.

“Yeah?” Meg wheezed. She looked fierce and warlike as she granny-walked toward me with her sword-crutches. “Gimme. Minute.”

It was clear she would not be taking the lead in this particular fight. If I let Vulture Diaper anywhere near her, it would kill her, and I found that idea 95 percent unacceptable.

“Well, eurynomos,” I said, “whoever your master is, you’re not killing and eating anyone today!”

I whipped an arrow from my quiver. I nocked it in my bow and took aim, as I had done literally millions of times before, but it wasn’t quite as impressive with my hands shaking and my knees wobbling.

Why do mortals tremble when they’re scared, anyway? It seems so counterproductive. If I had created humans, I would have given them steely determination and superhuman strength during moments of terror.

The ghoul hissed, spraying spit.

“SOON THE MASTER’S ARMIES WILL RISE AGAIN!” it bellowed. “WE WILL FINISH THE JOB! I WILL SHRED FOOD TO THE BONE, AND FOOD
WILL JOIN US!”

Food will join us? My stomach experienced a sudden loss of cabin pressure. I remembered why Hades loved these eurynomoi so much. The slightest cut from their claws caused a wasting disease in mortals. And when those mortals died, they rose again as what the Greeks called vrykolakas—or, in TV parlance, zombies.

That wasn’t the worst of it. If a eurynomos managed to devour the flesh from a corpse, right down to the bones, that skeleton would reanimate as the fiercest, toughest kind of undead warrior. Many of them served as Hades’s elite palace guards, which was a job I did not want to apply for.

“Meg?” I kept my arrow trained on the ghoul’s chest. “Back away. Do not let this thing scratch you.”

“But—”

“Please,” I begged. “For once, trust me.”

Vulture Diaper growled. “FOOD TALKS TOO MUCH! HUNGRY!”

It charged me.

I shot.

The arrow found its mark—the middle of the ghoul’s chest—but it bounced off like a rubber mallet against metal. The Celestial-bronze point must have hurt, at least. The ghoul yelped and stopped in its tracks, a steaming puckered wound on its sternum. But the monster was still very much alive. Perhaps if I managed twenty or thirty shots at that exact same spot, I could do some real damage.

With trembling hands, I nocked another arrow. “Th-that was just a warning!” I bluffed. “The next one will kill!”

Vulture Diaper made a gurgling noise deep in its throat. I hoped it was a delayed death rattle. Then I realized it was only laughing. “WANT ME TO EAT DIFFERENT FOOD FIRST? SAVE YOU FOR DESSERT?”

It uncurled its claws, gesturing toward the hearse.

I didn’t understand. I refused to understand. Did it want to eat the airbags? The upholstery?

Meg got it before I did. She screamed in rage.

The creature was an eater of the dead. We were driving

a hearse.

“NO!” Meg shouted. “Leave him alone!”

She lumbered forward, raising her swords, but she was in no shape to face the ghoul. I shouldered her aside, putting myself between her and the creature, and fired my arrows again and again.

They sparked off the creature’s blue-black hide, leaving steaming, annoyingly nonlethal wounds. Vulture Diaper staggered toward me, snarling in pain, its body twitching from the impact of each hit.

It was five feet away.

Two feet away, its claws splayed to shred my face.

Somewhere behind me, a female voice shouted, “HEY!”

The sound distracted Vulture Diaper just long enough for me to fall courageously on my butt. I scrambled away from the ghoul’s claws.

Vulture Diaper blinked, confused by its new audience. About ten feet away, a ragtag assortment of fauns and dryads, perhaps a dozen total, were all attempting to hide behind one gangly pink-haired young woman in Roman legionnaire armor.

The girl fumbled with some sort of projectile weapon. Oh, dear. A manubalista. A Roman heavy crossbow. Those things were awful. Slow. Powerful. Notoriously unreliable. The bolt was set. She cranked the handle, her hands shaking as badly as mine.

Meanwhile, to my left, Meg groaned in the grass, trying to get back on her feet. “You pushed me,” she complained, by which I’m sure she meant Thank you, Apollo, for saving my life.

The pink-haired girl raised her manubalista. With her long, wobbly legs, she reminded me of a baby giraffe. “G-get away from them,” she ordered the ghoul.

Vulture Diaper treated her to its trademarked hissing and spitting. “MORE FOOD! YOU WILL ALL JOIN THE KING’S DEAD!”

“Dude.” One of the fauns nervously scratched his belly under his PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF BERKELEY T-shirt. “That’s not cool.”
“Not cool,” several of his friends echoed.

“YOU CANNOT OPPOSE ME, ROMAN!” the ghoul snarled. “I HAVE ALREADY TASTED THE FLESH OF YOUR COMRADES! AT THE BLOOD MOON, YOU WILL JOIN THEM—”

THWUNK.

An Imperial gold crossbow bolt materialized in the center of Vulture Diaper’s chest. The ghoul’s milky eyes widened in surprise. The Roman legionnaire looked just as stunned.

“Dude, you hit it,” said one of the fauns, as if this offended his sensibilities.

The ghoul crumbled into dust and vulture feathers. The bolt clunked to the ground.

Meg limped to my side. “See? That’s how you’re supposed to kill it.”

“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled.

We faced our unlikely savior.

The pink-haired girl frowned at the pile of dust, her chin quivering as if she might cry. She muttered, “I hate those things.”

“Y-you’ve fought them before?” I asked.

She looked at me like this was an insultingly stupid question.

One of the fauns nudged her. “Lavinia, dude, ask who these guys are.”

“Um, right.” Lavinia cleared her throat. “Who are you?”

I struggled to my feet, trying to regain some composure. “I am Apollo. This is Meg. Thank you for saving us.”

Lavinia stared. “Apollo, as in—”

“It’s a long story. We’re transporting the body of our friend, Jason Grace, to Camp Jupiter for burial. Can you help us?”

Lavinia’s mouth hung open. “Jason Grace . . . is dead?”

Before I could answer, from somewhere across Highway 24 came a wail of rage and anguish.

“Um, hey,” said one of the fauns, “don’t those ghoul things usually hunt in pairs?”

Lavinia gulped. “Yeah. Let’s get you guys to camp. Then we can talk about”—she gestured uneasily at the hearse—“who is dead, and why.”

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