A Trial of Water, Part 2
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“Anybody have any idea what this automaton is on about?” Jackboot asked.

“It’s the last part of the clue,” Farsight deduced. “The path is laid hidden in Achelous’ test...”

“Achelous...” Sam repeated.

Sam’s mind recalled a sermon from a priestess of Zeus back during one of his Saturday temple visits. There had been one about Hercules — which were always Sam’s favorite tales — and how he battled Achelous for the hand of Deianira.

“In this battle,” the priestess began, “Hercules cut off one of Achelous’s horns and it became the first cornucopia... and Achelous has never forgiven him for this affront or the fact that Hercules had stolen his bride from him... Remember, the gods have long memories and they never forget a slight.”

Sam’s gaze drifted back to the horned man’s head. “He’s missing a horn... I think this is actually a statue of the freshwater god.”

“An automaton, I think,” Jackboot corrected. “He is moving and all...”

“So...” Thunder stepped past Sam once again. “We just need to pass your test?”

“A trial of wit and nerve,” the Achelous automaton replied in its robotic tone.

“Two tests then,” Jackboot guessed. “Which one do we do first?”

“Um, maybe we can do ‘wit’ part first?” Sam wondered aloud.

He hoped they could as a trial of nerve sounded more like a physical confrontation, and he’d love to avoid that if possible. Olympus knows he’s had enough head trauma in this past month to last a person’s lifetime.

In answer to his request, the automaton of the freshwater god raised up three bronze fingers. Then, in a rhyming tone that seemed unnatural for its robotic voice, the automaton said, “I contain cities, but no dwellings. I possess mountains, but no trees. I have water, but no fish... What am I?”

Hearing these weird phrases made Sam’s face light up with sudden delight, although the same couldn’t be said of his friends.

“Bloody hell, it’s a riddle,” Jackboot sighed. “I’m not very good at riddles...”

“Logic and reason not your kind of thing?” Farsight teased.

Jackboot frowned. “You have a go at it then, Ms. Science-knows-best...”

“I...” It was Farsight’s turn to frown. Then she too sighed. “I’m not very good with riddles either...”

“Couldn’t you just check for probabilities and find us a right answer from across the multiverse?” Thunder asked.

“I would, but,” Farsight’s face crunched up in bewilderment. “I can’t seem to activate my power... I haven’t been able to since we walked into this place.”

“So... if something nasty were to come our way, say a certain musclebound serial killer...” Jackboot folded his arms over his chest, “...you wouldn’t be able to tell us?”

“My spidey-sense is on the fritz,” she confirmed. “We’re blind at the moment...”

“Which means we have a time limit,” Thunder’s own brow furrowed. “Sam, what do you—”

It was only then that she noticed how Sam was looking up at the automaton with a curious expression alight on his face. She didn’t know this, no one did, but Sam loved riddles, and it was because his dad loved riddles too. Although his mom claimed this was all because of his dad’s love for a certain fantasy novel featuring little men who played riddles in the dark.

“Your dad’s a hobbit at heart,” his mom would often tease.

Before the incident that ruined his childhood, Sam would end nearly every night wrapping his little brain around a riddle his dad would give him.

“The sphinx wasn’t the only monster out there who issued riddles to heroes, and there are places in the world one can’t enter without solving a riddle first,” his dad stated proudly. “Future heroes like you should start with riddles and puzzles early so you’ll never get stumped when the time comes.”

Ironically enough, the time had come and now was the hour for Sam to show off his riddle-solving skills.

“Contain cities... but no dwellings...” Sam repeated. Mountains but no trees... water but no fish...”

Just in case you’re wondering, I’m not helping you out here, kid, Chiron interrupted Sam’s ruminations. This is the path you chose, so it’s on you to figure out yourself...

“I know,” Sam whispered.

Not that I don’t know the answer... Chiron chuckled nervously. I just don’t want to mollycoddle you.

“Okay,” Sam said while rolling his eyes at his unseen master.

Personally, I would have just gone with the nerve route and gotten it over with—

“Shush,” Sam hissed. And then he frowned. “Aw, man... you helped after all...”

Hearing the master’s words inside his head lit a light bulb in Sam’s brain. A single word was all it took for Sam to connect the dots of the riddle’s strange phrases.

“A thing that contains cities but no dwellings, a mountain but no trees, and water without fish... I’d wager this thing also has ‘paths’ or ‘routes’ in it?” Sam wondered aloud.

“Like the world, you mean?” Thunder asked.

“No, not exactly the world,” Sam grinned. “Just a map...”

And with that answer, the automaton’s angry face grew less cold. He curled one of his fingers so that two remained.

“You’re kidding me...?” Farsight’s eyes turned from Sam to the automaton and then back to Sam. “You actually guessed the right answer?”

“I get it now... A map would have all these details in it,” Jackboot realized. “Well done, mate.”

They exchanged high-fives while Farsight looked on in irritation. It appeared she didn’t like it when she was the one who didn’t have all the answers.

“My first two letters speak of man, yet my first three letters also speak of woman,” the Achelous automaton began his next riddle. “And since my first four letters represent courage, then I must be the bravest of women.”

This is a harder riddle than the first, Sam thought, because it gets me thinking about gender and how man and woman are different, but the answer is clearly connected to woman, but then why mention man at all?

The seconds ticked by while Sam thought about it, but then Farsight spoke up and asked, “Well, Mr. Riddler, have you figured it out yet?”

“You’re a very salty kid, aren’t you?” Jackboot commented.

The pair began to argue again, forcing Sam to turn their way so he could shush them. However, when his gaze fell on Farsight, another light bulb lit up in his brain.

“You look like you’ve figured something out, Sam,” Thunder guessed.

Sam’s gaze drifted over to her, and he realized that the answer to this particular riddle was already staring him in the face.

He faced the automaton and said, “Heroine... that’s the answer.”

It almost seemed like the Achelous’ automaton was trying hard not to smile when it lowered another finger.

“How in Thoth’s name did you figure that out?” Jackboot asked.

“It was simple wordplay... the first two letters are he, which stands for man, while the first three letters are her, which stands for woman,” Sam explained. “Four letters stand for courage—”

“—which we can infer stands for a hero... That means the bravest woman would be a heroine,” Farsight realized. “For Hera’s sake, how can something so simple be so annoyingly elusive?”

“That’s what riddles are,” Sam chuckled. “They mess with you if you let them.”

“But how are you so good at it?” Thunder asked with a curious face.

She’d never shown him that before, a curiosity about him that wasn’t related to heroics, and this made his cheeks turn the color of apples.

“My family likes riddles,” Sam whispered so that only Thunder could hear him.

“You’ve never spoken about them before,” she said.

“I...” Sam scratched his head. “It’s hard to talk about...”

Sam knew that she was aware of his past, and so there was no need to say anything else. Still, there was a sadness in his voice that prompted Thunder to bump her shoulder against his.

“You have a new family right here,” she whispered and then nodded playfully toward the two bickering fools behind them. “They’re an acquired taste though...”

Although he didn’t get teary-eyed or anything sappy like that — for fear of either Farsight or Chiron making fun of him for it — Thunder’s heartfelt words meant more to Sam than she could imagine.

You’ve found some good partners there, kid, Chiron added. Let’s hope none of you go the way of the first Argonauts... or the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth... Hades’ balls, they were a tragic bunch...

“Not helping...” Sam sighed.

Finally, the Achelous automaton unveiled its final riddle. “I have walked on four legs at the coming of dawn... I walk with two legs when the sun is high in the sky... And I shall walk with three legs when the sun falls... What am I?”

Although it was a variation of a riddle he’d heard before, Sam still recognized it instantly. After all, there was no riddle more famous than the one the Sphinx had given Oedipus.

“Man,” Sam stated. “A baby walks on four legs, an adult on two, and an old man might need a cane... so the answer is man.”

The Achelous automaton finally showed off shiny bronze teeth as it gave Sam the creepiest smile he’d ever seen. Then, without warning, it slammed its bronze palm down on the stone floor right where Sam had been standing only a second ago. Luckily, Thunder had used her lightning-quick reflexes to pull him out of harm’s way.

“You have passed the first half of the trial...” the Achelous automaton announced. “Now it is time for the second half. Succeed, and you will prove worthy of the secret I keep.”

A cracking sound caused everyone to look up.

“Oh, gods,” Thunder gasped.

“Styx,” Sam agreed.

Cracks had appeared in the dome above them. Three cracks evenly spaced out streaked across the glass dome-like spider limbs. Soon enough, they broke like so many shards of glass, and water began to pour down below.

And in a voice deep and hollow, the Achelous automaton said, “Let the trial of nerve begin...”



Heya True Believers!

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