3:00 pm EST, February 14, 2020

Exclusive: Rick Riordan’s ‘Tower of Nero’ cover, chapters 1 and 2 mark the beginning of the end for Apollo

The cover for Rick Riordan’s The Trials of Apollo: The Tower of Nero is finally here, along with the first two chapters of this final installation in the beloved series.

The Tower of Nero will bring about the conclusion to the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles series, and Hypable has the exclusive cover reveal as well as the first two chapters! But be warned: The Trials of Apollo book 5 doesn’t come out until September 29, 2020. So, while the content below may whet your appetite, it may also make your cravings that much harder to bear.

While it is sad to think this is the final book in the final series about some of our favorite demigods, don’t despair too much. We also conducted an interview with author Rick Riordan on his future projects and that Disney-led reboot he’s trying to get off the ground.

And now, the exclusive ‘Tower of Nero’ cover reveal

tower of nero cover

The cover is at once terrifying and ephemeral. The soft palette of blues and purples is juxtaposed with the dynamic action and sharp fans of the snake. Apollo may have his bow and arrow in hand, but the serpent is just as ready to strike.

John Rocco beautifully illustrates this battle between the god-turned-human Apollo (also known as Lester Papadopoulos) and his arch-nemesis Python. As always, he seems to capture the very crux of the story into a single image to display on the cover.

Apollo may have to face his fears in Tower of Nero, but he certainly won’t be alone. Check out the synopsis at the bottom of the page (plus that interview!) to find out what exactly we can expect in book 5.

‘Tower of Nero’ chapters 1 and 2

As if that weren’t enough, Hypable is pleased to reveal the first two chapters from Tower of Nero, which you can read below. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Two-headed snake dude
Jamming up my quiet ride
Also, Meg’s shoes stink

When traveling through Washington, DC, one expects to see a few snakes in human clothing. Still, I was concerned when a two-headed boa constrictor boarded our train at Union Station.

The creature had threaded himself through a blue silk business suit, looping his body into the sleeves and trouser legs to approximate human limbs. Two heads protruded from the collar of his dress shirt like twin periscopes. He moved with remarkable grace for what was basically an oversize balloon animal, taking a seat at the opposite end of the coach, facing our direction.

The other passengers ignored him. No doubt the Mist warped their perceptions, making them see just another commuter. The snake made no threatening moves. He didn’t even glance at us. For all I knew, he was simply a working-stiff monster on his way home.

And yet I could not assume . . .

I whispered to Meg, “I don’t want to alarm you—”

“Shh,” she said.

Meg took the quiet-car rules seriously. Since we’d boarded, most of the noise in the coach had consisted of Meg hushing me every time I spoke, sneezed, or cleared my throat.

“But there’s a monster,” I persisted.

She looked up from her complimentary Amtrak magazine, raising an eyebrow above her rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses: Where?

I chin-pointed toward the creature. As our train pulled away from the station, his left head stared absently out the window. His right head flicked its forked tongue into a bottle of water held in the loop that passed for his hand.

“It’s an amphisbaena,” I whispered, then added helpfully, “a snake with a head at each end.”

Meg frowned, then shrugged, which I took to mean: Looks peaceful enough. Then she went back to reading.

I suppressed the urge to argue. Mostly because I didn’t want to be shushed again.

I couldn’t blame Meg for wanting a quiet ride. In the past week, we had battled our way through a pack of wild centaurs in Kansas, faced an angry famine spirit at the World’s Largest Fork in Springfield, Missouri (I did not get a selfie), and outrun a pair of blue Kentucky drakons that chased us several times around Churchill Downs. After all that, a two-headed snake in a suit was perhaps not cause for alarm. Certainly, he wasn’t bothering us at the moment.

I tried to relax.

Meg buried her face in her magazine, enraptured by an article on urban gardening. My young companion had grown taller in the months that I’d known her, but she was still compact enough to prop her red high-tops comfortably on the seatback in front of her. Comfortable for her, I mean, not for me or the other passengers. Meg hadn’t changed her shoes since our run around the racetrack, and they looked and smelled like the back end of a horse.

At least she had traded her tattered green dress for Dollar General jeans and a green vnicornes imperant! T-shirt she’d bought at the Camp Jupiter gift shop. With her pageboy haircut beginning to grow out and an angry red zit erupting on her chin, she no longer looked like a kindergartner. She looked almost her age: a sixth grader entering the circle of hell known as puberty.

I had not shared this observation with Meg. For one thing, I had my own acne to worry about. For another thing, as my master, Meg could literally order me to jump out the window and I would be forced to obey.

The train rolled through the suburbs of Washington. The late-afternoon sun flickered between the buildings like the lamp of an old movie projector. It was a wonderful time of day, when a sun god should be wrapping up his work, heading back to the old stables to park his chariot, then kicking back at his palace with a goblet of nectar, a few dozen adoring nymphs, and a new season of The Real Goddesses of Olympus to binge-watch.

Not for me, though. I got a creaking seat on an Amtrak train and hours to binge-watch Meg’s stinky shoes.

At the opposite end of the car, the amphisbaena still made no threatening moves . . . unless one considered drinking water from a nonreusable bottle an act of aggression.

Why, then, were my neck hairs tingling?

I couldn’t regulate my breathing. I felt trapped in my window seat.

Perhaps I was just nervous about what awaited us in New York. After six months in this miserable mortal body, I was approaching my endgame.

Meg and I had blundered our way across the United States and back again. We’d freed ancient oracles, defeated legions of monsters, and suffered the untold horrors of the American transportation system. Finally, after many tragedies, we had triumphed over two of the Triumvirate’s evil emperors, Commodus and Caligula, at Camp Jupiter.

But the worst was yet to come.

We were heading back to where our troubles began—Manhattan, the base of Nero Claudius Caesar, Meg’s abusive stepfather and my least favorite fiddle-player. Even if we somehow managed to defeat him, a still more powerful threat lurked in the background: my archnemesis, Python, who had taken up residence at my sacred oracle of Delphi as if it were some cut-rate Airbnb.

In the next few days, either I would defeat these enemies and become the god Apollo again (assuming my father Zeus allowed it) or I would die trying. One way or the other, my time as Lester Papadopoulos was coming to an end.

Perhaps it wasn’t a mystery why I felt so agitated. . . .

I tried to focus on the beautiful sunset. I tried not to obsess about my impossible to-do list or the two-headed snake in row sixteen.

I made it all the way to Philadelphia without having a nervous breakdown. But as we pulled out of Thirtieth Street Station, two things became clear to me: 1) the amphisbaena wasn’t leaving the train, which meant he probably wasn’t a daily commuter, and 2) my danger radar was pinging more strongly than ever.

I felt stalked. I had the same ants-in-the-pores feeling I used to get when playing hide-and-seek with Artemis and her Hunters in the woods, just before they jumped from the brush and riddled me with arrows. That was back when my sister and I were younger deities and could still enjoy such simple amusements.

I risked a look at the amphisbaena and nearly jumped out of my jeans. The creature was staring at me now, his four yellow eyes unblinking and . . . were they beginning to glow? Oh, no, no, no. Glowing eyes are never good.

“I need to get out,” I told Meg.

“Shhh.”

“But that creature. I want to check on it. His eyes are glowing!”

Meg squinted at Mr. Snake. “No, they’re not. They’re gleaming. Besides, he’s just sitting there.”

“He’s sitting there suspiciously!”

The passenger behind us whispered, “Shhh!”

Meg raised her eyebrows at me: Told you so.

I pointed at the aisle and pouted at Meg.

She rolled her eyes, untangled herself from the hammock-like position she’d taken up, and let me out. “Don’t start a fight,” she ordered.

Great. Now I would have to wait for the monster to attack before I could defend myself.

I stood in the aisle, waiting for the blood to return to my numb legs. Whoever invented the human circulation system had done a lousy job.

The amphisbaena hadn’t moved. His eyes were still fixed on me. He appeared to be in some sort of trance. Maybe he was building up his energy for a massive attack. Did amphisbaenae do that?

I scoured my memory for facts about the creature but came up with very little. The Roman writer Pliny claimed that wearing a live baby amphisbaena around your neck could assure you a safe pregnancy. (Not helpful.) Wearing its skin could make you attractive to potential partners. (Hmm. No, also not helpful.) Its heads could spit poison. Aha! That must be it. The monster was powering up for a dual-mouthed poison vomit hose-down of the train car!

What to do . . . ?

Despite my occasional bursts of godly power and skill, I couldn’t count on one when I needed it. Most of the time, I was still a pitiful seventeen-year-old boy.

I could retrieve my bow and quiver from the overhead luggage compartment. Being armed would be nice. Then again, that would telegraph my hostile intentions. Meg would probably scold me for overreacting. (I’m sorry, Meg, but those eyes were glowing, not gleaming.)

If only I kept a smaller weapon, perhaps a dagger, concealed in my shirt. Why wasn’t I the god of daggers?

I decided to stroll down the aisle as if I were simply on my way to the restroom. If the amphisbaena attacked, I would scream. Hopefully Meg would put down her magazine long enough to come rescue me. At least I would have forced the inevitable confrontation. If the snake didn’t make a move, well, perhaps he really was harmless. Then I would go to the restroom, because I actually needed to.

I stumbled on my tingly legs, which didn’t help my “look casual” approach. I considered whistling a carefree tune, then remembered the whole quiet-car thing.

Four rows from the monster. My heart hammered. Those eyes were definitely glowing, definitely fixed on me. The monster sat unnaturally motionless, even for a reptile.

Two rows away. My trembling jaw and sweaty face made it hard to appear nonchalant. The amphisbaena’s suit looked expensive and well-tailored. Probably, being a giant snake, he couldn’t wear clothes right off the rack. His glistening brown-and-yellow diamond-pattern skin did not seem like the sort of thing one might wear to look more attractive on a dating app, unless one dated boa constrictors.

When the amphisbaena made his move, I thought I was prepared.

I was wrong. The creature lunged with incredible speed, lassoing my wrist with the loop of his false left arm. I was too surprised even to yelp. If he’d meant to kill me, I would have died.

Instead, he simply tightened his grip, stopping me in my tracks, clinging to me as if he were drowning.

He spoke in a low double hiss that resonated in my bone marrow:

“The son of Hades, cavern-runners’ friend,
Must show the secret way unto the throne.
On Nero’s own your lives do now depend.”

As abruptly as he’d grabbed me, he let me go. Muscles undulated along the length of his body as if he was coming to a slow boil. He sat up straight, elongating his necks until he was almost noses-to-nose with me. The glow faded from his eyes.

“What am I do—?” His left head looked at his right head. “How?”

His right head seemed equally mystified. It looked at me. “Who are—? Wait, did I miss the Baltimore stop? My wife is going to kill me!”

I was too shocked to speak.

Those lines he’d spoken . . . I recognized the poetic meter. This amphisbaena had delivered a prophetic message. It dawned on me that this monster might in fact be a regular commuter who’d been possessed, hijacked by the whims of Fate because . . . Of course. He was a snake. Since ancient times, snakes had channeled the wisdom of the earth, because they lived underground. A giant serpent would be especially susceptible to oracular voices.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I apologize to him for his inconvenience? Should I give him a tip? And if he wasn’t the threat that had set off my danger radar, what was?

I was saved from an awkward conversation, and the amphisbaena was saved from his wife killing him, when two crossbow bolts flew across the coach and killed him instead, pinning the poor snake’s necks against the back wall.

I shrieked. Several nearby passengers shushed me.

The amphisbaena disintegrated into yellow dust, leaving nothing behind but a well-tailored suit.

I raised my hands slowly and turned as if pivoting on a land mine. I half-expected another crossbow bolt to pierce my chest. There was no way I could dodge an attack from someone with such accuracy. The best I could do was appear nonthreatening. I was good at that.

At the opposite end of the coach stood two hulking figures. One was a Germanus, judging from his beard and straggly beaded hair, his hide armor, and his Imperial gold greaves and breastplate. I did not recognize him, but I’d met too many of his kind recently. I had no doubt who he worked for. Nero’s people had found us.

Meg was still seated, holding her magical twin golden sica blades, but the Germanus had the edge of his broadsword against her neck, encouraging her to stay put.

His companion was the crossbow-shooter. She was even taller and heavier, wearing an Amtrak conductor’s uniform that fooled no one—except, apparently, all the mortals on the train, who didn’t give the newcomers a second look. Under her conductor’s hat, the shooter’s scalp was shaved on the sides, leaving a lustrous brown mane down the middle that curled over her shoulder in a braided rope. Her short-sleeve shirt stretched so tight against her muscular shoulders I thought her epaulettes and name tag would pop off. Her arms were covered with interlocking circular tattoos, and around her neck was a thick golden ring—a torque.

I hadn’t seen one of those in ages. This woman was a Gaul! The realization made my stomach frost over. In the old days of the Roman Republic, Gauls were feared even more than the Germani.

She had already reloaded her double crossbow and was pointing it at my head. Hanging from her belt was a variety of other weapons: a gladius, a club, and a dagger. Oh, sure, she got a dagger.

Keeping her eyes on me, she jerked her chin toward her shoulder, the universal sign for C’mere or I’ll shoot you.

I calculated my odds of charging down the aisle and tackling our enemies before they killed Meg and me. Zero. My odds of cowering in fear behind a chair while Meg took care of both of them? Slightly better, but still not great.

I made my way down the aisle, my knees wobbling. The mortal passengers frowned as I passed. As near as I could figure, they thought my shriek had been a disturbance unworthy of the quiet car, and the conductor was now calling me out. The fact that the conductor wielded a crossbow and had just killed a two-headed serpentine commuter did not seem to register with them.

I reached my row and glanced at Meg, partly to make sure she was all right, partly because I was curious why she hadn’t attacked. Just holding a sword to Meg’s throat was normally not enough to discourage her.

She was staring in shock at the Gaul. “Luguselwa?”

The woman nodded curtly, which told me two horrifying things: First, Meg knew her. Second, Luguselwa was her name. As she regarded Meg, the fierceness in the Gaul’s eyes dialed back a few notches, from I am going to kill everyone now to I am going to kill everyone soon.

“Yes, sapling,” said the Gaul. “Now put away your weapons before Gunther is obliged to chop off your head.”

Chapter 2

Pastries for dinner?
Your fave Lester could never.
Got to pee. Later.

The sword-wielder looked delighted. “Chop off head?”

His name, Gunther, was printed on an Amtrak name tag he wore over his armor—his only concession to being in disguise.

“Not yet.” Luguselwa kept her eyes on us. “As you can see, Gunther loves decapitating people, so let’s play nice. Come along—”

“Lu,” Meg said. “Why?”

When it came to expressing hurt, Meg’s voice was a fine-tuned instrument. I’d heard her mourn the deaths of our friends. I’d heard her describe her father’s murder. I’d heard her rage against her foster father, Nero, who had killed her dad and twisted her mind with years of emotional abuse.

But when addressing Luguselwa, Meg’s voice played in an entirely different key. She sounded as if her best friend had just dismembered her favorite doll for no reason and without warning. She sounded hurt, confused, incredulous—as if, in a life full of indignities, this was one indignity she never could have anticipated.

Lu’s jaw muscles tightened. Veins bulged on her shaved scalp. I couldn’t tell if she was angry, feeling guilty, or showing us her warm-and fuzzy-side.

“Do you remember what I taught you about duty, sapling?”

Meg gulped back a sob.

“Do you?” Lu said, her voice sharper.

“Yes,” Meg whispered.

“Then get your things and come along.” Lu pushed Gunther’s sword away from Meg’s neck.

The big man grumbled “Hrmph,” which I assumed was Germanic for I never get to have any fun.

Looking bewildered, Meg rose and opened the overhead compartment. I couldn’t understand why she was going along so passively with Luguselwa’s orders. We’d fought against worse odds. Who was this Gaul?

“That’s it?” I whispered as Meg passed me my backpack. “We’re giving up?”

“Lester,” Meg muttered, “just do what I say.”

I shouldered my pack, my bow and quiver. Meg fastened her gardening belt around her waist. Lu and Gunther did not look concerned that I was now armed with arrows and Meg with an ample supply of heirloom vegetable seeds. As we got our gear in order, the mortal passengers gave us annoyed looks, but no one shushed us, probably because they did not want to anger the two large conductors escorting us out.

“This way.” Lu pointed with her crossbow to the exit behind her. “The others are waiting.”

The others?

I did not want to meet any more Gauls or Gunthers, but Meg followed Lu meekly through the Plexiglas double doors. I went next, Gunther breathing down my neck behind me, probably contemplating how easy it would be to separate my head from my body.

A gangway connected our car to the next: a loud, lurching hallway with automatic double doors on either end, a closet-size restroom in one corner, and exterior doors to port and starboard. I considered throwing myself out one of these exits and hoping for the best, but I feared “the best” would mean dying on impact with the ground. It was pitch-black outside. Judging from the rumble of the corrugated steel panels beneath my feet, I guessed the train was going well over a hundred miles an hour.

Through the far set of Plexiglas doors, I spied the café car: a grim concession counter, a row of booths, and a half dozen large men milling around—more Germani. Nothing good was going to happened in there. If Meg and I were going to make a break for it, this was our chance.

Before I could make any sort of desperate move, Luguselwa stopped abruptly just before the café car doors. She turned to face us.

“Gunther,” she snapped, “check the bathroom for infiltrators.”

This seemed to confuse Gunther as much as it did me, either because he didn’t see the point, or he had no idea what an infiltrator was.

I wondered why Luguselwa was acting so paranoid. Did she worry we had a legion of demigods stashed in the restroom, waiting to spring out and rescue us? Or perhaps like me she’d once surprised a Cyclops on the porcelain throne and no longer trusted public toilets.

After a brief stare-down, Gunther muttered “Hrmph” and did as he was told.

As soon as he poked his head in the loo, Lu (the other Lu, not loo) fixed us with an intent stare. “When we go through the tunnel to New York,” she said, “you will both ask to use the toilet.”

I’d taken a lot of silly commands before, mostly from Meg, but this was a new low.

“Actually, I need to go now,” I said.

“Hold it,” she said.

I glanced at Meg to see if this made any sense to her, but she was staring morosely at the floor.

Gunther emerged from potty patrol. “Nobody.”

Poor guy. If you had to check a train’s toilet for infiltrators, the least you could hope for was a few infiltrators to kill.

“Right, then,” said Lu. “Come on.”

She herded us into the café car. Six Germani turned and stared at us, their meaty fists full of Danishes and cups of coffee. Barbarians! Who else would eat breakfast pastries at night? The warriors were dressed like Gunther in hide and gold armor, cleverly disguised behind Amtrak name tags. One of the men, Aedelbeort (the #1 most popular Germanic baby boy’s name for 162 BCE), barked a question at Lu in a language I didn’t recognize. Lu responded in the same tongue. Her answer seemed to satisfy the warriors, who went back to their coffee and Danishes. Gunther joined them, grumbling about how hard it was to find good enemies to decapitate.

“Sit there,” Lu told us, pointing to a window booth.

Meg slid in glumly. I settled in across from her, propping my longbow, quiver, and backpack next to me. Lu stood within earshot, just in case we tried to discuss an escape plan. She needn’t have worried. Meg still wouldn’t meet my eyes.

I wondered again who Luguselwa was, and what she meant to Meg. Not once in our months of travel had Meg mentioned her. This fact disturbed me. Rather than indicating that Lu was unimportant, it made me suspect she was very important indeed.

And why a Gaul? Gauls had been unusual in Nero’s Rome. By the time he became emperor, most of them had been conquered and forcibly “civilized.” Those who still wore tattoos and torques and lived according to the old ways had been pushed to the fringes of Brittany or forced over to the British Isles. The name Luguselwa . . . My Gaulish had never been very good, but I thought it meant beloved of the god Lugus. I shuddered. Those Celtic deities were a strange, fierce bunch.

My thoughts were too unhinged to solve the puzzle of Lu. I kept thinking back to the poor amphisbaena she’d killed—a harmless monster commuter who would never make it home to his wife, all because a prophecy had made him its pawn.

His message had left me shaken—a verse in terza rima, like the one we’d received at Camp Jupiter:

O son of Zeus the final challenge face
The tow’r of Nero two alone ascend
Dislodge the beast that hast usurped thy place.

Yes, I had memorized the cursed thing.

Now we had our second set of instructions, clearly linked to the previous set, because the first and third lines rhymed with ascend. Stupid Dante and his stupid idea for a never-ending poem structure:

The son of Hades, cavern-runners’ friend,
Must show the secret way unto the throne.
On Nero’s own your lives do now depend.

I’d recently met a son of Hades: Nico di Angelo. He was probably still at Camp Half-Blood on Long Island. If he had some secret way to Nero’s throne, he’d never get the chance to show us unless we escaped this train. How Nico might be a “cavern-runners’ friend,” I had no idea.

The last line of the new verse was just cruel. We were presently surrounded by “Nero’s own,” so of course our lives depended on them. I wanted to believe there was more to that line, something positive . . . maybe tied to the fact that Lu had ordered us to go to the bathroom when we entered the tunnel to New York. But given Lu’s hostile expression, and the presence of her seven heavily caffeinated and sugar-fueled Germanus friends, I didn’t feel optimistic.

I squirmed in my seat. Oh, why had I thought about the bathroom? I really needed to go now.

Outside, the illuminated billboards of New Jersey zipped by: ads for auto dealerships where you could buy an impractical race car; injury lawyers you could employ to blame the other drivers once you crashed that race car; casinos where you could gamble away the money you won from the injury lawsuits. The great circle of life.

The station-stop for Newark Airport came and went. Gods help me, I was so desperate I considered making a break for it. In Newark.

Meg stayed put, so I did, too.

The tunnel to New York would be coming up soon. Perhaps, instead of asking to use the restroom, we could spring into action against our captors. . . .

Lu seemed to read my thoughts. “It’s a good thing you surrendered. Nero has three other teams like mine on this train alone. Every passage—every train, bus, and flight into Manhattan has been covered. Nero’s got the Oracle of Delphi on his side, remember. He knew you were coming tonight. You were never going to get into the city without being caught.”

Way to crush my hopes, Luguselwa. Telling me that Nero had his ally Python peering into the future for him, using my sacred Oracle against me . . . Harsh.

Meg, however, suddenly perked up, as if something Lu said gave her hope. “So how is it you’re the one who found us, Lu? Just luck?”

Lu’s tattoos rippled as she flexed her arms, the swirling Celtic circles making me seasick.

“I know you, sapling,” she said. “I know how to track you. There is no luck.”

I could think of several gods of luck who would disagree with that statement, but I didn’t argue. Being a captive had dampened my desire for small talk.

Lu turned to her companions. “As soon as we get to Penn Station, we deliver our captives to the escort team. I want no mistakes. No one kills the girl or the god unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Is it necessary now?” Gunther asked.

“No,” Lu said. “The princeps has plans for them. He wants them alive.”

The princeps. My mouth tasted bitterer than the bitterest Amtrak coffee. Being marched through Nero’s front door was not how I’d planned to confront him.

One moment we were rumbling across a wasteland of New Jersey warehouses and dockyards. The next, we plunged into darkness, entering the tunnel that would take us under the Hudson River. On the intercom, a garbled announcement informed us that our next stop would be Penn Station.

“I need to pee,” Meg announced.

I stared at her, dumbfounded. Was she really going to follow Lu’s strange instructions? The Gaul had captured us and killed an innocent two-headed snake. Why would Meg trust her?

Meg pressed her heel hard on the top of my foot.

“Yes,” I squeaked. “I also need to pee.” For me, at least, this was painfully true.

“Hold it,” Gunther grumbled.

“I really need to pee.” Meg bounced up and down.

Lu heaved a sigh. Her exasperation did not sound faked. “Fine.” She turned to her squad. “I’ll take them. The rest of you stay here and prepare to disembark.”

None of the Germani objected. They’d probably heard enough of Gunther’s complaints about potty patrol. They began shoving last-minute Danishes into their mouths and gathering up their equipment as Meg and I extracted ourselves from our booth.

“Your gear,” Lu reminded me.

I blinked. Right. Who went to the bathroom without their bow and quiver? That would be stupid. I grabbed my things.

Lu herded us back into the gangway. As soon as the double doors closed behind her, she murmured, “Now.”

Meg bolted for the quiet car.

“Hey!” Lu shoved me out of way, pausing long to mutter, “Block the door. Decouple the coaches,” then raced after Meg.

Do what now?

Two scimitars flashed into existence in Lu’s hands. Wait—she had Meg’s swords? No. Just before the end of the gangway, Meg turned to face her, summoning her own blades, and the two women fought like demons. They were both dimachaeri, the rarest form of gladiator? That must mean—I didn’t have time to think about what that meant.

Behind me, the Germani were shouting and scrambling. They would be through the doors any second.

I didn’t understand exactly what was happening, but it occurred to my stupid slow mortal brain that perhaps, just perhaps, Lu was trying to help us. If I didn’t block the doors like she’d asked, we would be overrun by seven angry, sticky-fingered barbarians.

I slammed my foot against the base of the double doors. There were no handles. I had to press my palms against the panels and push them together to keep them shut.

Gunther tackled the doors at full speed, the impact nearly dislocating my jaw. The other Germani piled in behind him. My only advantages were the narrow space they were in, which made it difficult for them to combine their strength, and the Germani’s own lack of sense. Instead of working together to pry the doors apart, they simply pushed and shoved against one another, using Gunther’s face as a battering ram.

Behind me, Lu and Meg jabbed and slashed, their blades furiously clanging against one another.

“Good, sapling,” Lu said under her breath. “You remember your training.” Then louder, for the sake of our audience: “I’ll kill you, foolish girl!”

I imagined how this must look to the Germani on the other side of the Plexiglas: their comrade Lu, trapped in combat with an escaped prisoner, while I attempted to hold them back. My hands were going numb. My arm and chest muscles ached. I glanced around desperately for an emergency door lock, but there was only an emergency open button. What good was that?

The train roared on through the tunnel. I estimated we had only minutes before we pulled in to Penn Station, where Nero’s “escort team” would be waiting. I did not wish to be escorted.

Decouple the coaches, Lu had told me.

How was I supposed to do that, especially while holding the gangway doors shut? I was no train engineer! Choo-choos were more Hephaestus’s thing.

I looked over my shoulder, scanning the gangway. Shockingly, there was no clearly labeled switch that would allow a passenger to decouple the train. What was wrong with Amtrak?

There! On the floor, a series of hinged metal flaps overlapped, creating a safe surface for passengers to walk across when the train twisted and turned. One of those flaps had been kicked open, perhaps by Lu, exposing the coupling underneath.

Even if I could reach it from where I stood, which I couldn’t, I doubted I would have the strength and dexterity to stick my arm down there, cut the cables, and pry open the clamp. The gap between the floor panels was too narrow, the coupling too far down. Just to hit it from here, I would have to be the world’s greatest archer!

Oh. Wait . . .

Against my chest, the doors were bowing under the weight of seven barbarians. An ax blade jutted through the rubber lining next to my ear. Turning around so I could shoot my bow would be madness.

Yes, I thought hysterically. Let’s do that.

I bought myself a moment by pulling out an arrow and jabbing through in the gap between the doors. Gunther howled. The pressure eased as the clump of Germani readjusted. I flipped around so my back was to the Plexiglas, one heel wedged against the base of the doors. I fumbled with my bow and managed to nock an arrow.

My new bow was a god-level weapon from the vaults of Camp Jupiter. My archery skills had improved dramatically over the last six months. Still, this was a terrible idea. It was impossible to shoot properly with one’s back against a hard surface. I simply couldn’t draw the bowstring back far enough.

Nevertheless, I fired. The arrow disappeared into the gap in the floor, completely missing the coupling.

“Penn Station in just a minute,” said a voice on the PA system. “Doors will open on the left.”

“Running out of time!” Lu shouted. She slashed at Meg’s head. Meg jabbed low, nearly impaling the Gaul’s thigh.

I shot another arrow. This time, the point sparked against the clasp, but the train cars remained stubbornly connected.

The Germani pounded against the doors. A Plexiglas panel popped out of its frame. A fist reached through and grabbed my shirt.

With a desperate shriek, I lurched away from the doors and shot one last time at a full draw. The arrow sliced through the cables and slammed into the clasp. With a shudder and a groan, the coupling broke.

Germani poured into the gangway as I leaped across the widening gap between the coaches. I almost skewered myself on Meg and Lu’s scimitars, but I somehow managed to regain my footing.

I turned as the rest of the train shot into the darkness at seventy miles an hour, seven Germani staring at us in disbelief and yelling insults I will not repeat.

For another fifty feet, our decoupled section of the train rolled forward of its own momentum, then slowed to a stop. Meg and Lu lowered their weapons. A brave passenger from the quiet car dared to stick her head out and ask what was going on.

I shushed her.

Lu glared at me. “Took you long enough, Lester. Now let’s move before my men come back. You two just went from capture alive to proof of death is acceptable.”

About ‘The Trials of Apollo: The Tower of Nero’

tower of nero apollo python

At last, the breathtaking, action-packed finale of the #1 bestselling Trials of Apollo series is here! Will the Greek god Apollo, cast down to earth in the pathetic mortal form of a teenager named Lester Papadopoulos, finally regain his place on Mount Olympus?

Lester’s demigod friends at Camp Jupiter just helped him survive attacks from bloodthirsty ghouls, an evil Roman king and his army of the undead, and the lethal emperors Caligula and Commodus. Now the former god and his demigod master Meg must follow a prophecy uncovered by Ella the harpy.

Lester’s final challenge will be at the Tower of Nero, back in New York. Will Meg have a last showdown with her father? Will this helpless form of Apollo have to face his arch nemesis, Python? Who will be on hand at Camp Half-Blood to assist? These questions and more will be answered in this book that all demigods are eagerly awaiting.

‘Tower of Nero’ hits store shelves on September 29, 2020

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